Rebecca shivered as she lurched into the toilet once more. Sour vomit dribbled from her nose before she could open her mouth and expel what little she had eaten last night from her stomach. Her fingers curled under the cold porcelain. She put a hand out for Jessica to hold, but instead of her daughter’s warm palm she was touched by weightless air. That gave her all the motivation she needed to heave bile until there was only a trickle left on her lips.
She felt blindly for toilet paper, inadvertently knocking the roll to the floor, and yanked up some to dab her mouth with. Her puke was yellow-green. The doctors had been telling her to hydrate better. She, the Phantasm, the bane of criminals everywhere, needed to be told to drink water instead of whiskey. To stop drinking the pain away. No, to stop thinking she could drink the pain away. God, she was pathetic.
She tossed the paper into the water and flushed her night terror away. As she washed her hands she turned and squinted into her bedroom. It took a minute, but her eyes focused on the digital numbers of her bedside clock: four o’ six. She wasn’t going to get back to sleep much before seven so she wasn’t even going to try. Uttering a long sigh, she dried her hands and fumbled for the light switch.
Her room was idiosyncratically compact, but furnished like a queen’s quarters. A full bed with purple sheets lay against the wall, one pillow showing far more wear than the other. On her nightstand, beside the clock, was an expensive bottle of scotch being drunk sloppily from a table-glass. The scotch was the only item with visible use. Her 72 inch TV hadn’t been dusted in a month. The sliding glass doors leading to her waterside balcony had a bird dropping stain she really needed to clean. Lord knew the last time actually read any of her books.
She shuffled over to bed and plopped down, pouring half a glass as her mind began to wander. There was much to think about in the maelstrom of her mind, but in true maternal fashion, her daughter bubbled to the surface. Jessica had always been a spirited one, having not fallen far from the tree in that regard, and sure enough it had gotten her into some trouble in her youth. But the challenging, the fighting, the outright rebellion, that hadn’t happened until the teen years. Really, she should’ve seen it coming, but she never wanted to let go of that little girl who gave her the brightest smiles and saw her as a hero.
A hero. God, when’s the last time anyone called me that, she thought bitterly, guzzling the woody spirit to mask the vile taste in her throat. But she knew that she had lost the privilege of being called a hero a long time ago. She told herself that Scott deserved what was coming to him, but logically, she knew the action was morally gray at best. And if the public knew the dirty games she played to gun after crime bosses the world over, they’d burn her, cape and all, in effigy.
Not that any of that would have mattered if she could have just gotten through to Jessica. The one person in the world that understood her, her doppelgänger made from her own flesh, thought she had become a monster. She shivered, scratching at her itching skin. Why couldn’t her baby girl just understand? She did what she did so that Jessica and her children wouldn’t have to mug people just to survive. She wasn’t a monster.
“Hnh, fuck…” She supposed it was time to bite the bullet. Yanking the nightstand’s drawer out, she retrieved her phone and dialed her Field Commander.
“Huh, wh-what? What time is it,” the man murmured.
“Time for you to call the DARPA director, or, or whoever you need to call to get the ball rolling.”
“Oh.” She could make out his stirring. “I’ll get right on it ma’am.”
And that was that. Come hell and high water, she’d have to steel herself and finish what she started a long time ago. America would thank her for it, but would Jessica? Suppressing a whimper, she finished her scotch and fell onto the well-worn pillow.
“Forty four… forty five… forty six… forty seven…” Alex huffed out a deep breath as he bent his arms at the elbow, dribbles of sweat darkening the stone floor. Quinn had ordered him and Fritz to record exercise repetitions to make sure they were in top shape which, though tiring, sure as hell beat the lecturing.
Quinn had gone on in great length about the meaning of being a superhero and the rules and expectations that accompanied such a responsibility. Surprisingly, it turned out that vigilantism wasn’t technically illegal – thank God for citizen’s arrest – but there were a great many legal and ethical pitfalls a studious Maverick had to know. For instance, you’d get in a lot less for shooting a criminal with a tranquilizer dart than a bullet, which was what she was instructing Jessica about in the next room.
Alex didn’t need to be told twice to be a good boy. He didn’t bring it up at the time, because God knew Fritz never took anything seriously enough, but he couldn’t speak for his friend. Though, then again, it wasn’t Fritz who Quinn had trust issues with. Yes, Fritz stole a peek at her phone. Alex could yank Fritz’s leash if he acted up, but a mercenary clone with anger issues? A bit outside his sphere of experience.
After the lecture came the fun stuff: codenames and costumes. The little kid inside Alex rejoiced at that part. Who didn’t want to grow up and become a secret agent, fighting crime in a dashing outfit? Then came the mind blank. What exactly was he going to call himself? He didn’t have any captivating skills outside of a football playbook or kitchen, but even he wasn’t lame enough to call himself something like Midnight or Shadow Man. So, Fritz took to Google and came back with Onyx. Apparently Roman soldiers would carry black amulets engraved with Mars in the hopes of receiving the god of war’s bravery. Alex definitely needed a little bravery.
As for himself, Fritz ran with Prism. Something about reflecting light? The science bored him, so he stopped listening halfway through Fritz’s ramble. Quinn sent their names and abilities to some guy Scott used to know, promising that they’d get their costumes in a few days. Fritz gave a painstakingly detailed request. Alex told the man to surprise him.
“Ninty five, ninty six, ninty seveeeeen – ugh!” Alex collapsed to the floor, his right knee screaming at him for touching the cold floor. “Fritz. Please get off me.”
“Come on, don’t you want to be able to fight even while I’m on top of you?” Fritz asked.
“Yeah, aren’t you a little old for piggyback rides?”
“Aren’t you a little old to be a virgin? Letting me piggyback might be the closest you ever get!”
“I’m twenty-one, I’m not over the hill yet. I think. Besides, that’s about as many reps you’ve done.”
“But you still can’t fold yourself in half as well as I can.” Fritz shook his head and clicked his tongue. “For shame, Alex, what would your father think?”
“I think,” Alex wheezed, teleporting to his feet a couple yards away and letting Fritz’s butt hit the floor, “He’d be proud that I’m doing something in my off time besides watching the Longhorns, green in the face.”
Fritz grunted as he hit the ground, but hopped up just as quickly.
“I mean, if that’s what you have to tell yourself, don’t let me stop you.”
Alex frowned. He hated when Fritz did that. “Dude, I’m serious,” he said, jotting down ninety-seven push-ups in his notes. “He doesn’t say it, but you know how he’s been since I dropped out of school. I just want him to, you know. Be proud of me.”
“You do what you want, Alex,” Fritz said, putting his hands up in front of himself. “But I know that, for me, I had to stop worrying about making my parents happy before I started being happy myself.”
“My dad didn’t drag me to synagogue.”
“You’re Catholic, Alex. Consider yourself lucky.”
“Lucky,” Alex mimicked under his breath. “Yeah, right.”
“Guess it says a lot about our luck that we ended up here,” Fritz mused with a shrug. “We’ve been in some weird spots before, but this is really something else, isn’t it?”
“You’re telling me,” Alex said, getting on the floor and beginning his crunches. “Superheroes.” He paused. “You believe it? It feels like prank, and Quinn’s gonna say ‘gotcha’ at any moment.”
“Well, I know I’d do that, but I dunno about her. But hey, now that we’re here, we might as well make the best of it.”
Alex paused again. “You think we can do it?” he asked between breaths. “What do you think Rebecca’s up to, anyways?”
“How would I know? She could be looking to build a monument to herself for all the information we have. We need to be looking for more of that, come to think of it.”
“Well, maybe we can start with her.” Alex gestured towards the door with his head. “Jessica I mean. She knows her better than any of us.”
“You really think she’s gonna want to talk about her mom like that?” Fritz asked, squinting at Alex. “I mean, by all means, you can try.”
“Hey, she’s on our side, right? Right?” When Fritz raised an eyebrow, Alex sighed. “She kinda scares me too to be honest.”
“Aw, that always happens when you have your first crush.” Fritz slunk up behind Alex and bodily pushed him towards the door with his foot. “Come on, say hello, tell her she’s pretty, ask about her crazyass mom.” Alex got to his feet, whining the whole way, and walked into the next room.
The training room was wide and rectangular, stretching about forty yards, Alex estimated – quite impressive for an underground structure in Florida. Air conditioning machines whirred above, blasting air on several areas partitioned off by white painted lines. To his left, on the far end of the room, was an assortment of exercise equipment, as expensive looking as the ones he worked with in college. Along the side of the opposite wall was what appeared to be an arena, complete with a scoreboard, a bell and a rope barrier like boxing leagues would use. To his immediate left was a refreshments table, though nothing was placed on it at the moment. Finally, to his right was a firing range. Jessica was plugging away at her targets, with Quinn listening intently behind her. Oddly enough, neither were wearing headphones. Jessica’s tranq pistol only made a light twiping sound.
“Hey, uh, boss,” Alex said to Quinn. “Should we call you that, or…?”
Quinn turned from the targets. “Just Quinn is fine, Alex.”
“Right. I was almost done with my measurements until Fritz here-” he patted his friend on the shoulder, “-decided he had a few questions he wanted to ask Jay. Isn’t that right, Fritz?”
“Sure, Alex, sure,” Fritz said. “So, seeing as you’re related to who we’re going after, we were wondering if you could, I don’t know, tell us a little more about her. What makes her tick, what she might be planning, what we could do to stop it, that kind of stuff.”
Jessica unloaded her magazine, letting it hit the floor, and reloaded. She fiddled with her gun for a while before taking aim at a human gel dummy and firing a dart into its neck.
“You don’t trust me,” she said as-matter-of-factly.
Alex hesitated, looking at Fritz. He saw Quinn turn downrange, which told him she was going to let them handle this themselves. “That’s not what-”
“You don’t. Right Fritz?”
“Does it even matter?” Fritz asked, shrugging. “We’ve got so little to go off of, I don’t care where a lead comes from.”
She plugged a few more darts, grouped closely together, into the dummy’s chest. “I suppose it doesn’t in this situation. Mother might be, hmm, complicated, but if you’ve known her as long as I have then you’d know her actions aren’t adding up. She hates criminals. Despises them. She loathes them beyond any healthy limit.” Alex heard Quinn mumble something in agreement. “So giving them guns? It doesn’t make any sense. I’m not saying it isn’t her, because she tried to get me to help her while we were in jail, so I guess I’m saying she has to have more cards close to her chest. What they are, she didn’t tell me, but if I were her, I’d want them to wipe each other out and leave my hands clean, especially since her lobbying failed.”
“Give both sides rocks and push them into beating each other to death. Sounds plausible to me.” Fritz tilted his head at Jessica, blinking twice at her. “Sure seems like her complicatedness might have rubbed off on you.”
Alex shuffled on his feet. This was getting nowhere fast. Did Fritz always have to make things awkward with people?
“So,” Alex blurted out without thinking, “you said Rebecca was a good mother, for the most part. What was she like, away from the cape and the guns?”
Jessica paused, looking down at the empty magazine in her hands. Briefly she smiled, then sighed, letting it fall into the growing pile. “Either of you boys grow up near downtown?”
“Nope,” they said in unison.
“There’s a city park there, only a few blocks away from Cerberus headquarters. It’s named after the second American Spirit, Scott C. Pierce, and the city has always done a fairly good job of keeping it safe for residents and tourists. Mom would always take me there every Friday she was in America, letting me romp around and do what little kids do. It was one of the few times in a home-stationed week where she seemed genuinely happy, just being a mother and getting away from the all firefights and formations. But every time we went, she always stopped at the gates and frowned. As I got older, she started coming with me less and less. When I was eleven, I got too old to be playing with the little kids, but I still went in the hopes of spending some time with my mom. But, by then, she’d stopped going completely. I got fed up. I went home on a perfect July afternoon to find her passed out at her desk. I nudged her awake, and she began to cry and mumble incoherently. When she oriented herself enough, she told me she couldn’t walk through those gates anymore. I didn’t understand. What was wrong with Scott? Why wouldn’t she discuss her days as a Maverick? She was a superhero for fuck’s sake, I worshipped her. I kept pushing and eventually she snapped, hurled her glass at the floor, and stormed off when she realized what she’d done. We never talked about that incident again, but you can bet I stopped going to Scott C. Pierce Park.”
“Geez,” was all Alex could say to that. What else could he say? He didn’t expect her to sound so – human. Away from all the bluster, was she really just a scared and confused woman, doing what she thought was best? What was driving her to these insane plans? Quinn, for her part, didn’t look like she bought whatever the excuse was. “Sorry about that. And uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but you didn’t have a lot of friends either, did you?”
“Yeah, what told you that?”
“Lucky guess. Well, we can all become friends over our mommy and daddy issues, right Fritz?”
“There’s always room at the pity party!” Fritz chirped. ‘Don’t worry, Jay, it might seem bad now, but give it a few years.”
“Hmph. Didn’t like your parents very much?”
“Nope,” Fritz said, beaming all the while. “They were a couple of fuddy-duddy Jews and I’m glad we don’t talk anymore.”
“And you Alex, your mother left you at a young age, didn’t she?”
Alex jumped a little. “How did you-?”
“I dunno what that means, but yeah. My dad got very mad once and called her a bad word that I won’t repeat here, but I’m sure you can guess what it was.”
“I brought it up once and it’s the first and only time I heard Judd say ‘whore’,” Fritz chimed in.
Alex sighed. “Yes, thanks, Fritz.”
“You’re welcome! Someone has to say the naughty words for you, boy scout.”
“You kiss your mother with that mouth? Oh, right, oops,” Jessica said with feigned innocence.
“Hey, at least my mom isn’t the supervillain of this story.” Fritz elbowed Alex with a smile. “She likes you already, good job.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. Why was he always out of the loop? Were people speaking telepathically behind his back or something? “How do you know?”
“Inductive reasoning!” Fritz said, patting Alex on the shoulder.
“What does that even mean?!”
Once more, Fritz winked at Jessica. “I bet you can explain to him.”
Jessica cocked her pistol loudly. “You’re a tech geek, right Friedrich? Wanna see how this thing works?”
“Now now children, I’ve let you have your fun,” Quinn said, grinning ear to ear. “God, it’s nice to hear this place full of life again. Speaking of which – Fritz, read me off your physical numbers.”
Fritz gave an uncomfortable laugh and made to back off.
“Well, you know, I kind of stopped writing things down after the first couple sets, but I think I did pretty alright.”
“He’s full of shit,” Jessica said promptly. Quinn echoed Fritz’s laugh.
“His heartbeat gave it away. Get your ass in the next room son, I’ll be supervising you this time.”
All was quiet as an armored convoy of sleek black SUVs rolled through the streets of Downtown Blackburn. Everyone kept their eyes to themselves, exchanging no more than a few curious or fearful words over the chorus of crunching gravel. What was Cerberus doing here? Were they on patrol? Were they looking for someone? Who was in the crosshairs of the Phantasm now?
In the passenger’s seat of the central vehicle was Rebecca, disquietly spinning her Cerberus ID card in her fingers. Jones had set up the meeting with the mayor, the city council and the police chief, her final attempt to save Blackburn without chaotic bloodshed. She replayed her pitch to the council over and over again in her mind, but ever present were the snorts and the giggles of people who saw her as a joke.
She frowned as she ran her thumb over her plastic photograph. For the most part she looked excellent for a woman of forty-six, but her eyes had remained unchanged since her youth – icy, cold and betraying the inferno beneath ready to melt through at any moment. Had she gotten nowhere after all these years, privatizing peace?
No, best not to think those thoughts. If Quinn was right about one thing, it was that the battle was never ending. They would all understand sooner or later. All she needed was a little patience.
She watched the streets go by: Pinecrest, Gadsden, Tokacha. People came and went over the years, but the city’s character was the same as always: apathetic, cowardly and stupid. Always needing a strong hand to set them straight. It still needed her. She clipped her ID card back onto her lanyard.
“Jones, pull over to the curb there.”
The SUV parked in front of two small stores. Between them was an alleyway, the arteries of the underworld, where three hoodlums huddled in the shade. The one in the rear wiggled a blue inhaler in the air.
“Don’t shake it, you heard the boss. You’re only supposed to take it out if you need it,” grumbled one of his buddies. “You want her to drop the hammer like she did on Ralph?”
Waving a hand, the thug conjured a miniscule ball of blue fire in his free hand. “I just wanna test it, y’know? It’s almost like she made it for me. ‘Sides, we’re deep in the middle of her turf, you think we’ll actually need to use it? Just one hit, you can’t tell the difference…”
“Nick, I swear to God, if you take that hit, I’m gonna report the shit out of you,” snapped the last member, a pudgy woman with thick glasses and a newsboy hat. “Even if Francis doesn’t work up the balls, I will, and you know it.”
“You know, a goddamn narc is what you are, Heather,” Nick lamented, putting the inhaler away.
“You.” Nick turned to see Rebecca standing at the end of the alley, pointing at him. Her stance was relaxed, but she knew they could see the frigid intensity in her eyes. “Toss me the inhaler, now.”
The man put his hand in the pouch on his ammo vest as if he were going to comply, then gave Rebecca the finger. “Sorry, toots, fresh out of samples. I got something else I can put in your mouth though.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. Men. “I don’t have time for this,” she hissed, whisking out her handgun and plugging a round in Ralph and Heather’s legs. “I said give me the fucking inhaler before I put one between your eyes, kid.”
Flinching in shock, Nick leapt to his feet. “Jesus, what the hell is wrong with you?!”
“Dammit, Nick, just give it to her!” Heather screamed at him, clutching her leg as tears of pain streamed down her face. The man fumbled with his vest, tossing the device at Rebecca without even bothering to check if it was an accurate throw. He was too busy tending to his bleeding comrades. Rebecca caught it deftly, examining it without taking her aim off Nick. The clear plexiglass container held a thick blue fog inside which tumbled around within as if it were a liquid. Whatever the drug was, it was clearly made by a professional, nothing like the mass-produced garbage she’d seen in Mexico or Afghanistan.
“This drug, it’s from Mouse, isn’t it? What’s it do?”
“F-fuck, man, you shot ‘em! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“It makes anomalies stronger!” Heather supplied, punching Nick in the sternum.
“How much is on the streets already? Where’s it going? Why’d she wait until now to make a drug of this caliber?”
“You think Mouse tells us that crap? Right now it’s just a beta drug, she’s not sellin’ it to no one yet, but every anomaly in her employ has it. We don’t know why she made it, man. No one knows why she does half the shit she does. I guess she’s gearing up for something, fuck, I dunno!”
“Hmph.” Rebecca pocketed the inhaler then holstered her gun. “If I was you, I’d gear up for a move out of the city. Jones, call the cops. I had to do their job again…”
The lights in the main chamber of City Hall had been dimmed, so that you could scarcely see the high ceiling, save for the bright white lights that hung over the table in the middle of the room. At that long, ornate table sat the city council, quietly drilling one another on their list of demands and dabbing the sweat from their foreheads. On one end of the table sat Gilda, staring down at her folded hands. She was an older, short woman, with dark skin and a strong, stocky build. Her mass of dark hair was streaked with too much gray, tied back into a bushy ponytail. Her eyes were grim. She was dead silent, but her thoughts were racing. The chair on the other end of the table sat empty, waiting to receive Mayor Montana. Gilda’s eyes drifted up when the mayor came storming into the room, fidgeting with his tie, flanked by his assistant.
“Sir, the Russian and Chinese immigrants might be willing to brave this city for the real estate values, but investors are running scared. Our corporate tax base is falling apart. When the crime rate has hardly changed in sixty years, people start to think Blackburn is a lost cause.”
“Bah!” The mayor waved his hand as he ambled towards the table. “I’ve been hearing doomsday predictions about this town for as long as I’ve been alive, son. Economies change with the times. New Orleans has gotten by on tourism, so as long as we keep up the city’s image, folks will spend their money here. Besides, that’s what we’re here for, right? Olympic City is old news.” He snapped his fingers. “Fletcher! Tell my assistant here you’ve got things under control.”
“To the best of our limited ability, yes,” said Gilda, leaving out the ugly details.
The doors to the hall were thrown open with great force, and Gilda turned to see Rebecca looming in front of the entrance, the outside sun stretching her shadow across the floor. In silence she made her way to her designated seat and pulled it out, but remained standing, arms folded as she looked at the mayor.
“Sorry I’m late sir, there was just a little mess I had to clean up,” she announced, shooting a caustic look at Gilda from the corner of her eye. “I’ll make my point brief: Blackburn is out of control. We have gangsters roaming the alleys like wild dogs, drugs are seeping through every orifice, and you have street racers flying down our streets at a hundred miles an hour. It’s rotting, and I’ve learned over the years that picking off maggots isn’t going to save it. It needs radical treatment that so-called ‘superheroes’ can’t provide.” She gestured towards Gilda, who bit her tongue. “And neither can the police – at the moment. Mister Montana, I run the largest private security firm on the planet, and it’s headquartered just a few city blocks from here. My men are highly trained and equipped with the best gear this country manufacturers. It eats away at me that I can’t give back to this city like I used to. Contract Cerberus to operate the BPD and I guarantee you people like Mouse-” she retrieved the drug inhaler for all to see. “Won’t be a problem anymore.”
“You’re proposing we hinge the security of Blackburn on a business venture?” Gilda said, shooting Rebecca a very skeptical look. “I know we’re in dire straits, people, but can we really in good conscience put the security of our citizens in the hands of a private interest?”
The mayor huffed, drumming his fingers against the table. “Ms. Napier, I’m sure you realize how unorthodox-”
“Most of my men are former military, sir, or former cops. I’m a Desert Storm vet myself. We’re not talking about foreign troops here.”
The mayor furrowed his brows. “How unorthodox this would appear to the public. I’m sure your men are well trained, but so are the Navy SEALs and you don’t see them patrolling American suburbs.”
“This city is unorthodox,” Rebecca countered, grinding her teeth between sentences. “Dire straits doesn’t even begin to describe it. This city is toxic to anyone except those too poor to leave or too rich to care. The middle class is shrinking, sir, and they won’t come back until they feel safe again.”
“To put our citizens at the mercy of a mercenary group would not just be unorthodox, it would also be unethical,” Gilda said, hardly believing her ears. “I can’t deny that Blackburn has a very serious crime problem, but frankly, I’m not convinced you’re interested in getting Cerberus involved for any reason other than personal gain.”
“This city’s well being is my personal gain. What would be unethical is you rejecting the silver bullet I’m offering. How would the people of Blackburn feel if, God forbid, there was another gang war, they lost their sons and daughters and found out you could’ve stopped it?”
“Napier, you know exactly what I meant by ‘personal gain,’ so don’t even try it.”
Rebecca slammed a fist on the table. A few of the newer council members jumped. “Don’t you dare lecture me, Fletcher!”
“Ms. Napier, that is enough,” boomed the mayor. “I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say I’m thankful for your long service to this city, but your proposal will be voted on without any further outbursts.” He pointed at both Rebecca and Gilda. “Ladies, please leave.”
The council members turned to one another and began to whisper. As Gilda got up from her seat, she noticed Rebecca’s fingers twitch before the mercenary left the way she came.
Gilda passed the time in an adjacent hallway, shooting texts Quinn’s way rapid fire. Even blind and forced to listen to them audibly, Quinn was responding with what Gilda swore was becoming a certifiable novel. Her sister was terrified of the council accepting Rebecca’s offer, and, now that she was alone with herself, Gilda had to admit the idea frightened her too. She technically wouldn’t lose her job if they did, but with that maniac arming, training and preaching to her officers, it would be tantamount to termination. And if her mind had slipped as much as she was suspecting it had, perhaps not just of her job.
No, no, she wasn’t supposed to be doing this to herself. Remember what the doctor said about your blood pressure, Gilda… Sighing, she glanced at her phone again.
<Sis: they voted yet? she wig out on them?>
Gilda snorted as she tapped away.
<Unfortunately, not enough to cancel the vote. There’s no way they’d actually listen to her. Right?>
<Sis: oh god cut it out youre going to send me into cardiac arrest. im changing the subject. the kids are suprisingly receptive, even the little napier. relatively speaking. i dont trust her, but i dont dont trust her, ya know? cant quite put my fingr on it but going with my gut on this one.>
<Please, just don’t get shot, okay?>
<Sis: yeah, no promises>
Gilda hesitated before deciding to poke the elephant in the room.
<So… How are you holding up? I know it must be rough going back after you know what.>
<Sis: it hurts, but i keep telling myself its what scott would want. i hope hed be proud.>
<He would. They’re calling me back in, I’ll text you shortly.>
Gilda shuffled back into the meeting room, holding her breath. Rebecca stood like a stone at the end of the table, refusing to look anywhere in Gilda’s direction. The council members turned to the mayor, who stroked his chin for a few seconds.
“Ms. Napier, after careful consideration, the city council has rejected your offer by a vote of six to three.”
“We appreciate your concern for the safety of Blackburn, but having a PMC operate our police force is bad optics that we can’t afford with the current state of the economy. This meeting is dismissed.”
Rebecca deflated like a balloon. Her back drooped and her arms sunk several inches closer to the ground. All that fire, all that anger vanished like the expression on her face. Gilda braced herself for an outburst, but nothing ever came. Instead, Rebecca uttered a quick apology for the inconvenience and left quietly.
Quinn heard Gilda coming before she reached the door of her apartment. She’d recognized her footsteps three floors down, and now she could hear her just outside. But she waited for her to do their special knock, just in case – twice slow, three times fast. She opened the door and ushered her in, quickly closing the door behind her. She smelled like the grit and sweat of a hard day’s work – harder than usual, by her estimation – and whatever was left of her deodorant. “Hey, curly top,” said Quinn. “What’s the scoop? How was work?”
“Work was… something. I got a scoop for you, that’s for sure.”
Gilda helped herself to one of the two stools by the island in Quinn’s kitchen. Gilda was her only visitor, so her apartment had accommodations just enough for the two of them.
Quinn poured two mugs of coffee and sat down beside her. “No kidding? I heard a couple of Cerberus agents got caught stealing intel. Talk of the town. Got anything to do with that?”
“Oh, yeah. That isn’t the half of it, though.”
“There was a girl there, too, right? She’s been a little thorn in our ass for a while. We get calls about her all the time, don’t really know who she’s affiliated with. But we think she was trying to help those two escape. She took out three merc vehicles before we caught her. And she must have been on something, right, because she was crazy strong. We stick her in jail, and the next thing we know, she’s beating up inmates left and right. It took the whole damn cell block to subdue her. They have her in protective custody, but they really don’t know what to do with her.”
Quinn nodded along to her sister’s story, but her head was somewhere else – at least partially. “No kidding. That’s, uh… that’s something else,” she said, running her finger along the rim of her coffee mug. “Uh, Gil, weird question, but this perp… she didn’t happen to have red hair, did she?”
The question caught Gilda off guard, just like Quinn knew it would – in part because Quinn was blind, so she didn’t know what “red” was, in a practical sense, but also because the question wasn’t at all out of left field, and she had to wonder how she hadn’t seen it herself. “Oh. Yeah, she did. Should’ve thought of that.”
Quinn just nodded in agreement. There was a pregnant pause. “So, uh, Gilda, you don’t think we could – y’know…”
“Go and see her?”
“I mean, sure, but… why? Even if she is who you think she is, what are you gonna do about it?”
“I don’t know. I’d just like to see her.”
“Yeah, uh-huh, sure.”
“Really really. Well, I can pull some strings, Quinn, but don’t you do anything stupid, alright?”
Quinn laughed. “Yeah, sure. Thanks, Gil.”
Gilda finished her coffee. Quinn left half a mug go cold in their absence.
“She’s the third cell down, right here -” said Gilda, starting to lead her down a dank stone hallway lined with cells. All around her, Quinn could hear inmates going about their day – spitting, cussing, snoring, hollering, and one was crying, she thought.
Quinn touched Gilda’s shoulder before she could go any farther. “Hey, thanks for getting me this far, Chief, but, uh…”
“You wanna talk to her alone, huh?”
“Well, alright, then, I guess I’ll go be chopped liver somewhere else.” They shared a laugh, and Gilda turned and left for the lobby.
Quinn felt along the bars of the cells, fingers brushing calloused, dirty fingers, but the inmates didn’t try anything. She was the police chief’s sister, after all. She stopped at the third cell and clicked her tongue through the bars of the cell. She could make out the figure of a young woman sitting stark still on the bottom bunk, watching her with – apprehension? Hostility? She couldn’t tell. Faces were hard to make out. But she could hear her breathing, shifting, and already, she seemed too familiar in a way that pained her. “Hey, there,” she said. “You sound awfully familiar, Jane Doe. Do you know who I am?”
“No.” The woman seemed to be doing something with her head – tilting it? She had to admit, she was a strange specimen. Her eyes were entirely white and sightless, not clouded like cataracts, but pure, milky white. She was tall and dark-skinned, and she looked well-muscled for fifty, with curly hair buzzed close to her head. “Should I?”
“No. No, you don’t know me. I just thought your mother might have told you about me. But then, that’s a touchy subject…” she said, running a finger up and down a prison bar. “You are hers, aren’t you? I’d know that voice anywhere. That’s her voice.”
The woman stirred from her bunk, approaching the cell door slowly. “Yeah? Whose?”
She listened hard. A few of the inmates were whispering about them. She lowered her voice. “Rebecca’s. Right?” She clicked her tongue, and the details of the daughter’s face came into focus. “You’re a spitting image, as far as I can tell, and your voice – she sounded just like you when she was your age.”
The girl jerked back. “Shhhhhh! For the love of God, be quiet! How do you know if you’re blind? Just – just who the hell are you?”
A swell of whispers flooded Quinn’s senses. “I’m Quinn Fletcher. She was my pupil before she created Cerberus.”
The silence was taut. Rebecca’s daughter let go of the bars, and Quinn could make out her features contorting.
“Hmph. So I see,” she said, her voice nowhere near as strong as she probably thought it did. “So you’re that pathetic excuse for a ‘hero’ that let this city down. That let me down. Look where your childish nonsense has gotten all of us. Get out of here.”
The smile fell from Quinn’s face. Her hands twitched and turned into fists, her nails digging into her palms. But she let go. “You know less than you think you know, Jessica. I’ll see myself out. But I’d like to take you with me.”
The woman returned to her bunk. When she heard Quinn’s offer, she snorted, then turned to the wall.
“Why? Can’t I just be left alone for once?”
“Well, call me presumptuous, but it sounds you think you could do better. And hey, I don’t think you’re wrong. But if you wanna put your money where your mouth is, you’re going to have to leave this cell.”
Rebecca’s daughter rolled onto her back. “So let me get this straight. You were fed a bunch of idealist claptrap from Scott and when you tried to emulate him with my mother, you failed because things aren’t so black and white and the root of evil goes deeper than neurotic freaks running around in silly costumes. Now you see how the existential crisis has broken my mother and think you can make up for it by doing better with me. Is that right?”
Quinn felt a pang in her heart at the mention of Scott’s name. “I don’t need to prove anything, girl, to myself or you. I may have failed to accomplish what Scott trained me to do, but he never told me why I would serve as a Maverick. I decided that for myself. I did it because I believed in this city, and I’m proud of that. You got something to be proud of? What’ve you been doing for the last twenty years or so? Would you do it differently if I gave you a chance?”
She could’ve sworn that it was the girl’s heart that now skipped a beat. “Staring at jail walls,” She muttered. “That’s what my life’s been. I never asked for any of this, and you’re damn right I’d do it all over again if I could, but…”
She groaned, and with a grunt, sat facing the door. “I’m sorry. I was just made this way, I guess. Mother turns people into pessimists.”
“No joke,” replied Quinn. “I’m worried for Blackburn. Many of the cops are in her pocket – not Gilda, of course, but she can’t take her on her own. Now, I don’t have the Mavericks anymore. They’re long gone. But I have what they left behind. I can show you,” she said, her words heavy with implication. “And you can make up your own mind.”
“I see what they left behind in the mirror everyday,” The woman retorted. “And you should be worried. You don’t know the real reason I’m in here, do you?” Quinn shook her head. “Two Cerberus operatives got their fingers into mom’s private server. She’s been delivering arms to the major crime bosses. Military grade firepower. Lady, whoever you are, if you want any chance at stopping whatever he’s got planned, get me out of here yesterday… And the soldiers too. They’re in the men’s wing, I believe their names were Alex and Fritz.” The woman paused, tapping the wood with what looked like a bemused expression. “I’m sure you’ll know Alex when you see him. Guy’s a dweeb…”
“I’ll see if I can’t post bail. Any enemy of Cerberus is a friend of mine,” said Quinn, picking herself up to leave. “And thanks for the poetry hon, but just so you know, by ‘what they left behind,’ I mean a giant bunker with lots of weapons.”
“So who is Gilda anyway? And what’s this bunker about? What’s in it exactly? Who left it? Why’d you invite us? What does any of this have to do with Cerberus?”
“You ask a lot of questions. Gilda’s my sister. But you probably know her as Chief Fletcher. This bunker used to belong to the Mavericks before – y’know. They all passed away. Except for me, of course. It’s got a lot of stuff in it – useful to those who know how to use it, but I was the only one left who did, and I was powerless on my own, so I sealed it all away. Cerberus is a long story. Oh, and I brought you and Alex because Jessica told me to.”
“Oh.” Fritz turned to Jessica, his brow furrowing. “Why would you want us around?”
“To make sure you’re not a triple agent,” she said, watching the forsaken industrial center of Olympic City come into view over the horizon of the Crane Bridge. They had passed through the sleek streets of Midtown to get here, away from the prying eyes of citizens and nosy tourists. If one wanted to get away with less-than-legal activities in Blackburn, this was the best district to do it in. “And please, keep your eyes on the road. I’d rather not end up at the bottom of the river with those who’ve pissed off Mouse.”
“You know, I think that’s sassy young lady speak for ‘I need some new friends’,” Alex remarked. “Am I right, Jay?”
“Sure, let’s go with that.”
“Alex, that’s not how you flirt,” Fritz groaned. “I mean, jeez, what kinda generic pet name is that?”
“Tch, shut up.” Alex kicked the back of Fritz’s seat. “Ignore this guy, his mind never leaves the gutter. He thinks it’s acceptable to try for home base on the first date.”
“Hey, it works three times out of five!” Fritz bit back. “You have all the advantages in the looks department. Chicks hate short dudes and love a good tan, and I still get more of them than you.”
“Yeah? Did you get the number of any cute cops while they were hauling us around jail?”
“Hey, that Jeff guy didn’t look half bad,” Fritz said, batting his eyelashes at nothing in particular. “Maybe he’d bat for you, might be more your speed.”
“Everyone’s horny and bisexual in your world,” Alex muttered.
“So, Jessica,” Fritz said, veering off the topic at hand. “You never answered my question last time: who the hell are you anyway? What were you doing picking us up in that fancy ride?”
“Oh, geez.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I wasn’t lying when I said it’s complicated, okay? You know Rebecca Napier, right?”
“Ah, so you are her daughter,” Fritz said. “Wasn’t she, like, an old superhero or something back in the day? I mean, I know she’s the CEO of Cerberus now.”
“Yeah. Yeah. And you know how she switched jobs? She went nuts and killed the other Mavericks when they found out about her nasty doings and tried bringing her in.” Quinn twitched in her seat, and she paused for a moment, apprehensive. “She betrayed everything she stood for in the name of ‘the greater good’. She grew tired of seeing the same people cycle in and out of jail, thought she could clean up the world by handling things a little more… permanently. Judging by how she operates on foreign soil, if it were up to her, she’d turn Blackburn into her own personal police state.”
“Jeez, sounds like she’s uptight. So is that why you left?” Fritz asked.
“No, I left because she taught me how to use a gun when I was six.”
“Huh,” was all Fritz could say to that. “Yeah, I can see why you might take issue with her.”
“Oh my God, six?” Alex shook his head. “And something tells me it wasn’t about responsible gun ownership.”
“Yeah, what clued you in, the supervillain lair, the evil scheme or all the extra legal murders? No, she raised me from birth to be a soldier, to continue her legacy once she got too old.”
Shocked flickered across Alex’s face before he continued. “That’s terrible! Didn’t your father ever step in?”
Jessica snorted, leaning on the car door and resting her head on one finger. “What father?”
Alex blinked. “I – beg your pardon?”
“Well, you guys have made several comments that I look exactly like her. I imagine that I would, given that I’m her clone. I was created by the same insane doctor who created Mouse. As soon as I could hold a gun my mother was drilling everything into my head: weaponry, CQC, stealth, tracking, survivor skills, the whole nine yards. When we didn’t have body armor on she tried to be a good mother, she really did, but, she’s so myopic, so zeroed in. And sometimes, so wasted…”
“She didn’t even give you a father?” Alex seemed to shoot a dirty look across the city. “I’m sorry, I know that sucks.”
Logically, she shouldn’t have been surprised at basic sympathy, but she was. Unsure how to handle it, she muttered a quick “Thanks”.
Quinn took a pained breath, like there was something sharp in her lungs. “Yeah,” she remarked. “That sounds like Rebecca. I think we’re here, Fritz, stop the car.”
“What? There’re hardly even any buildings around.”
“McCamey Road, right?”
Fritz glanced at the nearest road sign. “Yeah.”
“This is it. Pull over.”
Fritz did as she asked and veered to the shoulder. Quinn climbed out without assistance, and Jessica followed suit. The group hopped over the ditch and started into the edge of a forest. Quinn was clicking her tongue rapidly, feeling her way along boulders, big trees, and pieces of ruin. Echolocation. That explains it. A few times Quinn stumbled, but she picked herself up and carried on, and it happened less and less often the further they went. After about ten minutes of walking, they reached the base of a big hill, and Quinn stopped. She ran her hand up and down a particular tree. Her tongue stopped clicking. She felt her way over to a short cliff face and reached into a cleft between two rocks. It looked shallow, but to Jessica’s surprise, she kept reaching further until she was up to her shoulder in it. She grabbed onto something and pulled hard.
A much larger boulder began to move, grinding across the forest floor just enough to reveal a metal door with a keypad. Quinn felt it with her fingers, then began to punch in a long code. There was the metallic sound of a lock disengaging. “It’s down here,” she said, pushing open the door and starting down a long flight of stairs that smelled of dust and abandon.
The room at the bottom was so pitch black, Jessica could only see a few feet in front of her, but Quinn ventured into the darkness without hesitation. She couldn’t see her, but she could hear her laughing. “Isn’t this place great?” Quinn said, her voice echoing three times over in what must have been a massive room. Everyone was silent. “Oh.”
She clapped twice. Unseen lights flickered, then lit up the bunker.
It was massive, a great, high-ceilinged box of stone with banners the size of banquet tablecloths hanging from the ceiling. A long meeting table sat in the middle of the room. A few of the chairs were staggered and out of place, exactly where the late Mavericks had left them when they’d left in a hurry and never came back. Several passageways branched off the main chamber. There was a big TV screen on the wall behind the head of the table, and to the right was a wall of brass plaques engraved with the names of every Maverick that had ever been, starting with the first American Spirit, all the way down to the seven shiniest and newest plaques, whose years of death were all 1997 – all except the newest one. The space where Quinn’s year of death should have been was still blank.
“There we are,” said Quinn, running her hand along the table. “So. Isn’t it great?”
Great? Very, but perhaps not in the way that Quinn had meant. Jessica walked slowly towards the plaques, tracing her fingers over the names of the fallen. Jose Santiago, aka Golden Thunder. Gary Jackson, aka Crash. Anastasia Tokarev, aka Plague. Scott Pierce, aka American Spirit II. She slouched under the weight of it all.
“Mother… she gave up all these people for Cerberus? All these friends?”
She followed the names through the decades, all the way back to Kyle Pierce, who died young in 1945. Eighty years of history led to a door nearby. It took a hard shove to open, and she was greeted with a particularly musty odor. A series of locked crates ran along the walls, each under an acrylic glass display case. Inside, looking like they hadn’t aged a day, were the old costumes of the deceased Mavericks, immortalized in a gallery of Blackburn’s colorful past. The shadow of the Phantasm loomed at room’s end: a deep purple polyester bodysuit with pieces of sleek black body armor sewn on. Combat boots, knee pads, shoulder pads, goggles, a double-layered balaclava with a ‘mouth’ made of purple holes, and a tattered, hooded cape.
“Well, at least she used to have style…”
“She did,” came a voice from behind. Quinn had appeared in the room while Jessica wasn’t looking. She made her way over to a door at the far end of that long, long room. “It was practical, too. I was proud of her design choices.” She opened the door to what appeared to be a custodial closet full of used-up Windex bottles. Two big, long crates stood up against the wall, looming over a smaller one. Quinn took a hammer from the wall and began to pry away the nails from the small crate.
“I was the last person in this bunker. Stopped back one last time after the ambush to put my friends in the hall of fame where they belonged. I couldn’t bring myself to put my suit under glass. Hadn’t earned my spot. So I stuck it in here.” The last nail came loose, and she pried the lid off. Inside was a folded mass of brown material. She grabbed it by the shoulders and held it up. It was the suit of Chiroptera, Jessica recalled, a little dusty and creased in a few places, but no worse for wear than the last time Quinn had been seen in public under that name. It was a simple suit, compared to the others, of some brown, skintight material, with hard pads upholstered in leather and bits of metal and machinery near the joints that enhanced her strength and guided her in flight.
“I guess I’m glad I did. The wings are in the boxes, but those are a bitch to assemble. I always had to do it in the main hall, there’s so much stuff… Her suit’s yours, if you want it.”
But Jessica had already found the buttons beneath the display, and the glass retreated into the ceiling. She rolled the Phantasm mask between her fingers, felt its breathing fabric melt into her skin. Thoughtlessly she slipped it onto her face and let the old thing speak to her. No, it wasn’t a mask. It peeled back the layers of her ego, laying bare the wriggling black shadows of her id. The little angels and demons whispered ancient things, speaking to her soul. Looking through its lenses was like looking at the world for the first time, wiped clean of any pretenses.
The weight was too much. Jessica clawed it off her head, letting it fall to the ground in a heap.
“Look, th-there’s no way I can be a Maverick,” she said breathlessly. “I’m no hero. I’m- I’m fucked in the head, Quinn. You have no idea.”
Quinn just glanced at the pile of fabric on the ground, then to her, face in turmoil. “I’m sure you are.” She came over and crouched to pick up Phantasm’s mask. She felt the fabric in her hands, ran her fingers through the holes. “But believe me, Jessica, I know what a Maverick looks like, and I wouldn’t have brought you here if I didn’t think you could handle it.” She offered her the mask. “The cape can come later. We can start here, if you’re ready.”
Jessica held the mask in her fist. She didn’t have much of a choice, did she? Whatever her mother was planning, she wouldn’t stop. Not until she lined the streets with the piked heads of everyone she deemed a criminal. The cops wouldn’t stop her, the government wouldn’t stop her, the people of Blackburn didn’t even know to stop her. It was up to her. Her against an army.
Great, Jessica Napier, year of death, 2017.
“Alright,” she said softly. “You win.”
Quinn smiled. “I always do.”
The recruits gathered in the main hall, sat down at the long meeting table. The chair at the head of the table was bigger, with a high back and leather pads. It was made for the leader of the Mavericks. Quinn wondered if she should sit there. She wouldn’t have dared way back in the day, when she was a new recruit, still getting left behind on more dangerous missions, all alone in the bunker where no one would ever know if she decided to try out Scott’s chair. No one had ever even told her that she wasn’t allowed to sit there, but she decided not to anyway.
Was she the leader of the Mavericks now? She didn’t know. But she was still half convinced that if she sat in Scott’s chair, she’d be struck by lightning, so she stood beside it as she addressed the new recruits.
“I hope you’re all honored to be here. The Mavericks have been serving the city of Blackburn for over eighty years now. As a superhero organization, we are presumed defunct following the loss of our entire team, save for myself. But I am not the Mavericks’ future. You are. So if you would, tell me why you’re here.”
“I’m here because I thought there’d be free food,” Fritz called out. “We were lied to!”
“Ha ha,” Alex snapped back, rolling his eyes. “The last thing you need is more free food. The reason we’re here is that there’s a crazy lady out there who hates criminals but is giving them guns for some reason and the cops can’t do anything about it so you brought us here instead.” Alex looked around the table, frowning. “Three stupid kids. I don’t mean to be rude, but uh, what do you honestly expect us to do?”
“I started out as a stupid kid. Most of us did.” Quinn said. “But you’re more than capable of making your own decisions. I can give you all of the equipment and training you need to become fully fledged superheroes. But first, you need to decide for yourself whether you’re willing to put your lives on the line. That’s all I expect of you for now.”
“Well, I’ve already embarrassed myself and spilled my guts on the floor, so I really have no choice here,” Jessica chimed in, leaning back in her seat. Alex glanced briefly at her, fingers tapping the table rhymically.
“Uh, I mean, I guess? I, um, it’s just – I’m just a guy. She’s a super soldier raised by mercenaries and you were trained by Uncle Sam himself. Anomaly or no, I couldn’t even finish college because of a football injury. I dunno if I’m the guy you’re looking for Quinn.”
“Are you nuts?” Fritz piped up again. “Don’t listen to this idiot, he’s got all the gall he needs to fight this crap. Absolutely no sense of self-preservation, determined as hell, too pure for his own good. I know I’d trust him to save a city.”
“Gall is exactly what you’re looking for. If it took book smarts to be a Maverick, we’d be much fewer and further between. Do you have any idea how expensive books in braille are? So long as you’re brave enough to say yes, I can make a superhero out of you – no second rate vigilante, either, so put the thought out of your mind.”
“Alright.” Alex took a deep breath, then nodded his head. “Alright, but I better get a knee brace. So, what’s the first drill coach? Or do we have to get a snazzy code name and spiffy costume first?”
“That can come later. First, there’s something I want you guys to know about your training before we begin. I’m not going to force you three into ill-fitting molds. That is to say, rather than starting from the ground up, we’ll be building on the fighting styles you’ve already begun to nurture,” she said. “So tell me, how do you guys go about fighting?”
“Uh.” Alex sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. “I just use my powers, really. I’m so big I can just plow people over with a shield. Or I’ll just wrap ‘em up.”
“Don’t get hit, that’s my philosophy,” Fritz said. “Unlike my brute of a friend here, I’m not running towards a wall of muscle. I’ll blind him first thing and go for the legs. Or maybe I’ll just skate around for a while and get him to run until he’s tired. I’m sure not gonna win a head-on fight.”
Jessica, who now had her shoes crossed on the table, raised an eyebrow when the others turned to her. “What? I already told you. Trust me, hand me some quiet boots and a silenced gun and I’ll take out a dozen men for you.”
Quinn stiffened abruptly. If she weren’t blind, she would have almost certainly made eye contact with Jessica. “Interesting. Before we go any further, I’d like you all to know that the Mavericks have a strict policy against the taking of lives. Are we understood?”
“No complaints here,” Alex said with a hint of relief.
Jessica paused for a few moments before asking “Hmph. Well big boy here has his powers, but how am I supposed to take on more than a few foes without a gun? Ask them nicely to stop?”
“You won’t. Not until you’ve learned to neutralize them without using lethal force. Which brings me to my next point. As superheroes, our first duty is to protect. It’s not our place to decide where justice needs serving. You all seem to understand the concept of being a superhero – we put on our masks and go by aliases to protect our identities, we protect the innocent in our city, we beat the bad guys, and we look good doing it. That’s the fun part. It comes at a price.”
“Price?” Fritz echoed. “I don’t usually like prices, but what kinda price?”
“We train hard, we know our place, and if need be, we die in the line of duty. I’d say it’s as simple as that, but it’s not. It’s a whole mess of tough decisions. How far would you go to protect an innocent civilian? Who’s worthy of being saved? What’s worth dying for? It’s okay if you’re not ready to make those kinds of choices yet. We’ll get there, but we had better get there fast. Time is short, and you’ll be out in active combat much sooner than I’d like. As for Blackburn,” Quinn said, turning to face the wall of names engraved in shining bronze. “This city’s in for a surprise.”
Shouting his list of contacts at the cops was getting them all nowhere fast, Fritz realized as they cruised along in the squad car. People just didn’t have any respect anymore. Fritz, though, would be caught dead giving up that easily.
“Okay, guys, maybe I won’t call the ADL, but you gotta hear me out,” he kept on, speaking a little too fast. “We found some serious shit on a private Cerberus server, stuff that could implicate them in gang affairs. You don’t really want to be arresting us when we’ve got vital proof, do you? Help a poor boy out.”
“You know the mercs picked your pocket, don’t you?” questioned the detective who had the megaphone, whittling away at a game of Tetris on his cell. Cardozo, he thought the nametag said.
“And why do you think they did that, huh? They wanted my pack of gum?”
“Listen kid, I believe you. I don’t like Cerberus any more than you do, bunch of slimy, sleazy, lying, corporate rent-a-cop bastards.”
Cardozo caught himself messing up his tower. With a laugh, he adjusted his collar. “Sorry. I take my job security pretty seriously. I’m a second-generation cubano – my mom moved to Blackburn when she was just a girl. My grandpa owned a deli in Camagüey, real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy by all accounts. Loved his family, went to church, I bet you see ‘em all around this city. Wouldn’t harm a fly. Had a rival though, Luis, big green-eyed monster. Well Luis had a lot of connections to the communists. When Castro and his thugs came into power, they ran the capitalists into the Gulf, or his prisons. Luis framed my grandfather as an American collaborator and an imperialist pig. Mind you, he had only a meat shop to his name! So the DGI hauled him off to one of Castro’s gulags.”
Fritz noticed Alex and Jessica looking like they had exited their skulls. Cardozo hurried himself along. “Look the point is, there’s a lot of people out there who want what’s not theirs, and they don’t care who they have to step on to get it. They have no respect for democracy, or the law. I mean, what’s the difference between that freak Rebecca lobbying government officials for special treatment and the communists? She should be in the ground with Castro.”
The longer Cardozo talked, the more Fritz’s own eyes glazed over. He understood the gist at least – the cop didn’t like Cerberus either and had some problems with them – but did he have to go on so long about it?
“Uh. That’s great and all, but does that mean you’ll help us or not?”
“What, just let you out?” Cardozo laughed. “No, son. But I can tell you to really use that lawyer of yours. With what’s going on at city hall, any controversy that can be lobbed Cerberus’ way will help.”
“What’s going on at city hall?” Fritz asked, leaning forward. “Rebecca been doing anything else lately?”
“You mean you don’t know?” Cardozo allowed air to escape between his teeth, grimacing slightly. “Rebecca’s lobbying the city to enter into a contract to run its policing operations. Turn BPD into a subsidiary of Cerberus.”
“What?!” Now stirred from her stupor, Jessica nearly had her face pressed against the glass. “There’s no way she could do that! How do you know this?”
Cardozo turned around slowly, looking Jessica up and down. “Hey, Jeff?”
“Yeah, Dallas?” Jeff said, not turning his eyes from the road.
“Are we both stupid and haven’t noticed that this kid looks just like the crazy lady we were just talking about?”
“Well, you do call me-” Jeff took a glance in the rearview mirror and did a double take. “Whoa, you’re right!”
Dallas jerked a thumb at her, turning back to Fritz. “Wanna tell us who your friend is?”
“Hey, she ain’t our friend, we just met her,” Fritz told them, shaking his head. “But you are right, she looks familiar.”
“You keep an eye on her, she’s weird.”
Jessica leaned back in her seat, pouting all the way.
“Anyways, I know that because I’m close to the Chief. Believe me, half the department would love for nothing more than the Chief Executive Asshole to take a pair of scissors and cut the red tape of due process. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but if I was, I’d think Ms. Illuminati was going to turn Blackburn into her own personal playground.”
“Jeez, sure as hell sounds like a conspiracy,” Fritz said. “The gal kinda strikes me as the world domination type.” He glanced over at the cop driving the car. Jeff had been the one to arrest him, but he hadn’t spoken much all the while.
“Say, who’s the strong, silent type over there? We haven’t been introduced.”
“My name’s Jeff!” he said, not taking his eyes off the road. “But officially it’s Detective Higgins.”
“I keep an eye on him because he’s weird,” Dallas remarked. “Poor bastard. Thinks he’s in a noir movie or something.”
“Hey, I love those old noirs!” Jeff cried. “I always wanted to be like Philip Marlowe, finding clues, interrogating suspects, winning the hearts of women along the way.”
“Oh God, not this one again…”
“Everyone in my neighborhood’s falling in with Zo Bwa Tet, and there I was, trying to solve who stole all the water filters right out of the back of the local convenience store. Nothing else taken, no sign of forced entry, but he left me some little clues, fingerprints on the counter, a spilled bottle of ketchup. I felt just like Jeff Bailey!”
“Right right right, another time buddy. Look, the station is just up ahead. I’ll go ahead and call for backup.”
Dallas took the cruiser’s radio, directing Jeff around the back with his finger. “All units this is Cardozo, we’re going to need a few extra hands with these suspects. The males are both anomalies, prep a holding cell.”
“Psh, ‘anomalies’,” Fritz scoffed under his breath. “What am I, a birth defect?”
Dallas shrugged. “Probably.”
Jeff parked the cruiser in the back garage slowly. Four extra officers, in the BPD’s distinctive green and khaki uniforms, stood at both doors. The ones on the left had their hands on their hips, shaking their heads as Jeff revealed a sulking Jessica.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t our little Jane Doe,” said Officer Brewer. “What’d she do this time, Higgins?”
“Got involved with these two,” Jeff said, gesturing to Alex and Fritz. “Stole something from Cerberus and started a car chase.”
The two officers exchanged a brief look of shock. “Kid, you need help,” said Brewer, taking her out by one arm as Jeff held the other.
“Go fuck yourself…”
“What was that?”
The trio were processed quietly, searched, fingerprinted and photographed with what seemed like the eyes of the entire station on them. Some expressed shock or even dismay at the urban camouflage uniforms of Fritz and Alex – others jeered. As for Jessica, Fritz could overhear that there was ‘still nothing’ on her – no alias, no DNA match, no record of her existence prior to her first arrest. Not that anyone really seemed to care. Alex and Fritz were uncuffed, but not before being outfitted with anomaly inhibiting collars. He was a techie, so had to wonder; how exactly did those things work anyways?
A dozen officers placed Alex and Fritz into their cell, probably ready to crack their skulls at faintest sign of disobedience. But Alex just hobbled inside like a kicked puppy, muttering only his ‘yes sirs’ and ‘okay officers’. Fritz slumped down on the the bench with a heavy sigh. Well, at least he didn’t have to move for a while. He just had to sit in this nice, cool cell. Great.
“So. You think I should’ve cracked that server now?” He asked.
“Hey, it was your idea!” Alex protested. He pressed his hands against the transparent material of the cell, watching the desk sergeant gossip about them from across the room. “All this because you couldn’t wait to go home and rub one out. I hate you.”
“Aw, I love you too, old buddy,” Fritz teased. “Why you didn’t let us have that one-nighter I’ll never understand. Guess we might never have it now, with Cerberus after us.”
“You don’t think they’ll uh, disappear us, do you?” Alex slid his hands down the wall. “Nevermind, don’t answer that.”
“Maybe. I mean, they were about ready to gun us down in the street. Before that girl came around.” Fritz pursed his lips as he pondered. “Hey, didn’t the boss have a daughter who ran off a few years back?”
“She did.” Alex pulled himself off the glass, plopping down next to Fritz with a sigh. “You think that was her? I mean, she did have Rebecca’s uh, charming attitude.”
“Sure had the hair,” Fritz said. “But who knows? We probably won’t be seeing her again anyway.”
An officer tapped on the glass, gesturing to an old-fashioned phone in the corner. “Call for you on line one, Malone.” Uh oh, someone’s grounded.
Alex pulled the phone to his ear and spoke in a low voice: “Hello? … Dad? Oh geez…” Alex raked a hand through his hair, leaning back against the wall to stare at the ceiling. “Look, um, it’s a really long story. But you’ve gotta believe me, it’s bad. But if I tell you, that’ll put you in danger too. It’s really bad… Look, listen dad, it’s going to be okay, really. Fritz has a really good lawyer, I’m sure when they hide the evidence they won’t like, throw the book at us or anything.” He huffed out a breath, then made himself smile. “So can I at least come back to working at the Cachaca when I get out? … Thanks dad. I’ll uh, I’ll do my best. Bye.”
The trio weren’t held at the police station for long. Cerberus’ lawyers filed charges within the hour, and by the next day they were transferred to the Blackburn County Jail.
The psychoanalyst who met her at intake probed Jessica with all the inane questions: was she a substance abuser, had she any suicidal thoughts, was she mad that she had tried to do one decent thing and the world shoved her to the ground and kicked her teeth in.
Yes doctor, I’ve been a very bad girl, throw away the key and forget about me.
The jumpsuit fit the same, blended her in with the common criminals as the deputies marched her into genpop. But with the way she carried herself, crestfallen but unbowed, she knew that they knew that she wasn’t one of them.
The inmates tracked her with wary eyes, a few whispering to their companions. They grouped together around tables and against walls, some by neighborhood of origin, some by ethnicity, some ad hoc. She ignored them all and took a seat at the furthest table in the rear, arms folded and eyes straight at the television. Somehow Cerberus had kept her little incident off the airwaves, and instead the news channel was running a story on a new wave of immigrants leading the latest real estate boom. Cute.
It wasn’t long before she caught several women approaching her from another table.
“What are you looking at?”
“You tell me, frosty,” the leader spat back, sizing her up. She wasn’t much herself, possessing a moderate layer of muscle but hardly over five feet. “Thinking you’re so special, got a table all to yourself. You’re the bitch who works for Mouse, aren’t you?”
“At this point, you can probably make that past tense,” she grumbled.
“Yeah? Well we know what you did to Carlos.” Three other women began circling the table. “He was my cousin.”
“Hmph. That must’ve sucked. And that was actually Mouse, but listen lady, I’m having a really bad week,” she announced, suddenly popping to her feet. The women flinched. “Unless you want to end up with him, I advise you leave me the fuck alone.”
The cousin laughed, cracking her neck as she approached. “The guards don’t circle around for another five minutes. You girls think we can work her over in two?”
Jessica grabbed the collar of the nearest inmate and slammed her skull against the steel table. The other two pulled her back by her arms, flinging her into the nearest seat. She pushed them back with her feet, then waited for the cousin to charge. With a shoulder she knocked her assailant into the second table, then threw her into her friend. The third inmate placed her into a headlock, crushing her windpipe. Jessica threw elbow after elbow, trying to regain her footing, but the larger woman wouldn’t budge. Finally she worked a thumb to her eye socket, and that got her released with haste.
She waited until the cousin charged again, and with the reflexes of a cat, kicked herself off the wall, over her, and onto the inmate behind her, pounding her head into the floor with a flurry of punches.
Whump, whump, whump.
Jessica was snarling, adrenaline pumping through her veins, blood drumming in her ears, but all she cared about was making this bitch hurt. Every blow only made her more angry that she couldn’t pound some respect out of that empty skull. But she didn’t lose focus enough to not hear the large inmate approaching, and when she heard her come up just behind her, she tossed her hapless victim into her arms like a ragdoll. The woman scarcely had time to catch her comrade before receiving a haymaker to the nose.
The cousin took a few steps towards the wall. “Don’t just stand there you morons, get her!”
A dozen inmates peeled off from the crowd, rushing Jessica and knocking her to the ground. Over and over they kicked, sneering as she rolled into a fetal position. Her anger – God, it hurt – continued to control her, but now only manifested as involuntary twitches and inaudible hisses.
“Step away, get on the ground!”
Rubber bullets pounded the ceiling, and the inmates flung themselves to the floor. Deputies scuttled around prone bodies and threw Jessica’s attackers to the ground, frogmarching them back to their cells, leaving her to crawl her way to safety.
By some miracle, Jessica managed to sleep the next few hours away in her new protective custody cell. Instead of sheep, she counted the deputies circling her cell block, and she was lucky enough not to dream about them kicking her face in.
She found herself wondering if a deputy informing her of a visitor too was a dream.
“Who is it?” She inquired as she hauled out of the cell block, ignoring the threats and Spanish curses in the air.
“Rebecca Napier.” That woke Jessica up. “Apparently she used to be some kinda superhero or something? You’ve got an uncanny family resemblance going on kid.”
The battered woman took her seat in the conference room without another word, idling the time away with her thumbs. It wasn’t long until the CEO of Cerberus took a seat across from her, and her throat began to close. She was indistinguishable from Jessica in all but age, height and Cerberus fatigues. The younger woman put a hand up to the glass.
“Jessica, my poor baby.” The hard lines of Rebecca’s face softened considerably. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Momma, I want to go home.” Jessica allowed herself to savor her mother’s brief joy. Why was it always so brief? “But you came here from work. Came here from that goddamn fortress. What will it take for you to stop? My corpse?”
Rebecca pursed her lips, blinking away the moisture in her eyes. “My love, in a few weeks, it’ll be all over. You won’t have to do – whatever it is you’ve been doing. I’ll hand you this city on a silver platter.”
“I don’t want that!” Jessica cried, voice cracking. “Why can’t you understand? I don’t want to be a tyrant.”
Rebecca sighed heavily. “Then what do you want?”
“I don’t…” Jessica pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. “I don’t know. Can’t we just leave this godforsaken hellhole?”
“I can’t walk away from this,” Rebecca said sadly. “Not even if I wanted to. Soon, fire and brimstone will burn this city white and clean, and I will sweep the ashes of these degenerates into the ocean. I will do what Scott never could, and America will thank me for it. I will finally bring law and order to Blackburn, Jessica. Come back to me and we can protect this city, together.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing!” Jessica stared at her mother in revulsion, unable to formulate another complaint. Why? How could she have fallen so far? How could she have allowed herself to become this person? Rebecca merely shook her head.
“I’m sorry my love. You’ll understand when the time comes.”
“No, wait!” Jessica pressed herself against the barrier, shouting as her mother left the room. “What are you going to do?! What the hell are you going to do?!”
Forty thousand feet above the swamplands of Southwest Florida, a private jet flanked by two fighter aircraft cruised towards Blackburn. A weathered woman sat alone in the back of the commercial plane, dirty and torn gray combat fatigues covering her worn flak jacket. Ice clinked against glass as she absentmindedly spun her half-drunk whiskey in one hand while nestling a cell phone against her ear with the other.
“Yes ma’am, the albino, Sonrisa and the Russian have acquired the guns. The second shipment has been processed on your personal database and is ready for transportation as soon as you give the order.”
“Good.” Rebecca took a long sip from her glass, savoring the sweet fire in her throat. “I’m going to give the mayor a few more days to become more accommodating. If he continues to dance to the tune of that foolish woman, then I expect you to be prepared, Commander.”
“I’ll have the troops ready when you are ma’am.” The Field Commander hung up the phone and returned to his work, leaving Rebecca with her thoughts. She turned to the window, taking in the bird’s eye view of the approaching metropolis. Towering, crystalline skyscrapers overlooked the blue-green waters of Blackburn Bay. Parallel beaches ran along Vicio Island and mainland Blackburn, packed full of tourists from all over the world. Thousands bustled in and out of businesses, clubs, casinos and ports. Prolific greenery blessed the city as far as the eye could see until it reached the suburbs and into Watkins County. What a beautiful place it should be, she mused with a frown.
As the plane approached a private airport not far from the bay’s waterside, the fighter jets screeched to a halt on the tarmac, pulling into a hangar on the far side. Rebecca’s aircraft rolled to a smooth stop in the center.
“Ms. Napier, you have a visitor,” announced the pilot, flicking switches and pressing buttons on the control panel. One of them dropped the airstairs. “Congressman Suarez.”
Rebecca ducked out of the plane, spotting her guest standing by her personal SUV, briefcase in hand. The founder of Cerberus Security Corporation offered her hand, but did not smile.
“Enrique, it’s been a while. I’m sure you must be as busy as I am. What brings you to my foxhole?”
The congressman seemed to hesitate before returning the gesture. “You know me, Rebecca, it’s only polite to actually talk to your donors.”
Rebecca opened the door of her vehicle and gestured Suarez inside.
“Perhaps you should consider donating back to Cerberus?” she began, following the man inside. She signaled for her driver to head to town. “The value of our stocks has hit an all-time high, and believe me, they’re only going to rise.”
Suarez snickered, but his smile only lasted for a brief second before thinning out. With a deep breath he folded his glasses and stuck them in his breast pocket.
“Unfortunately, Rebecca, I didn’t come to discuss the stock market.”
“As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, it’s my responsibility to audit federal agencies in the interest of the taxpayer.” He paused. “Including those that make use of the DoD’s black budget. Ms. Napier, I’d like you to take a look at this spreadsheet.”
Suarez retrieved a document headlined Project Jupiter and handed it to her. Rebecca’s regarded it coolly, the corners of her mouth turning down slightly. She flipped through the pages, breathing growing slightly louder every time she did.
“DARPA is up to some very nasty things. Moisture seeding, ocean heating, alteration of wind and sea currents. Ms. Napier, if what I’ve uncovered is correct, it seems we have deep state operatives and their benefactors developing a weather weapon. Benefactors including…”
He handed Rebecca another spreadsheet. This time, the Cerberus CEO’s name was the top donor.
“You. Rebecca, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to testify before Congress.”
The corners of her mouth twitched, her lips now forming a deep scowl. She felt her pupils vibrate with anger, not looking at anything until they settled on the papers. In one swift motion she tore them all in two.
“What are you-?!”
Rebecca threw the scraps to the wind. The congressman watched as they tumbled across the pavement, heading to the deep cool waters of the gulf.
“Councillor, I have been planning this project very meticulously. You might say it’s my life’s work.” The congressman began to fidget with his seatbelt clip. Rebecca slammed his neck against the window, snarling. “Look at me! My life’s! Work! I crawled from the gutter to get here, councillor, and I am not going to let some thankless bureaucrat spit all over it!”
The vehicle filled with noise. Suarez attempted feebly to kick out the bulletproof windows as Rebecca held his neck in a vice grip, hissing as she pushed flesh and sinew into bone. Even squeaks and groans were denied life, and, in a minute, eyes reddened and fingers curled, so was the congressman. The mercenary let go with shaking fingers, slumping against her seat.
“Selfish, thankless bastards, all of them…” She wiped the sweat from her forehead before fumbling for a bottle of whiskey in the car seat pouch. “Oh dear, it seems the poor man has suffered a heart attack. Jones, I’m sure you can get us to the hospital on time, can’t you?”
“ – was pronounced dead at the scene. Cerberus Security CEO Rebecca Napier did everything to resuscitate the congressman, but the sudden onset of cardiac arrest claimed his life in just a few minutes, BPD officers told reporters. Suarez was one of Florida’s longest serving representatives, known for his support of the military and -”
A short, blond man in combat fatigues sat behind the restaurant’s bar, taking a sip of his caipirinha and shaking his head at the sound of the news. He reached up to wipe at his mouth with a wiry arm. Sharp, green eyes were glued on the television hanging on the wall, but his leg twitched like he wanted to be moving around. Harsh Floridian sun filtered in, shedding light on the colorful, Brazilian-flavored décor riddling the walls. It wasn’t an amazing spot, as far as Fritz was concerned, but the Cachaça Cafe was leaps and bounds better than many other Blackburn restaurants and bars. The food was edible and the drinks didn’t taste like paint thinner.
“More dead people, who’d’a thought?” Fritz said, rolling his eyes. “You think things have ever not been shit?”
“Yeah, back when the American Spirits were still around,” replied a tall, lightly tanned man from behind the bar. He packed far more muscle than his counterpart, perhaps weighing twice as much, but his soft chocolate eyes and hair belied his strength. Even in body armor, Alex finds himself cleaning glasses for his old man, Fritz reflected with a smirk. What a cub.
“Hey, at least the boss tried to save the guy, right?” Alex continued.
“Didn’t work, did it?” Fritz asked, resting his chin in his palm. “Maybe she shoulda just let the guy die, reserved her energy and done something better with it than save politicians.”
Alex frowned. “And also before people started having that attitude. Besides, you shouldn’t be drinking before we get back to work, Fritz.”
“You’re such a killjoy. It’s not like anyone’s gonna notice, stuff reeks like lime.”
“Uh huh.” Alex set a dried mug down on the counter before turning to the back. “Ola, pai, we’re heading out now. Give Fritz the tab.”
“He better pay in full this time!” Judd called from the kitchen.
“Of course, making the Jew pay for everything,” Fritz said, standing up and giving Alex a half-grin.
The walk back to HQ was a short one. Just ten minutes hiding under the palm trees, though it might have been shorter had Alex, the spoilsport, not dragged Fritz away from ogling the local women. Marble steps led up to series of glass entrances, armed mercenaries posted by each door. The duo flashed their ID cards and, with a nod, the guards waved them inside.
“So, how’s your formal cyber warfare training going?” Alex asked as they made their way up to Fritz’s office on the third floor. Though both of them possessed anomalous abilities – the politically correct term for superpowers – Rebecca only seemed to value Fritz as more than a glorified grunt. Not that Alex ever complained to him about the occasional stare-at-the-wall hallway posting; every day he wasn’t patrolling the African savannah or small towns in Mexico, it was one less worried phone call from his father.
“Not as good as my informal training. Think I learned more cracking an image board than I have from these corporate tools. But it sure pays a lot better here.” Fritz laughed to himself as he opened his door. “And to think they were gonna press charges.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re very scared of the neckbeard army.” Alex’s voice faded as took his post next to the armory door, which was, conveniently, adjacent to Fritz’s. “You still dating that French guy?”
“God, no,” Fritz gagged, booting up his work PC. “He talked the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk, if you know what I’m saying.”
Once he passed his log-in screen, Fritz reopened the web browser and restored his previous session. In other words, the cyber security online seminar he was in the middle of. Yawn. He moved the window to the side.
“How ‘bout you?” he continued, glancing away from the monitor. “Anything new for your love life? Or is it still a lack thereof?”
“Nothing,” Alex replied with a shrug. “Turns out it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a cool job that has you getting a shot at – chicks can sense when you’re a dweeb at heart.”
“I like that word. Sums up everything about you all at once.” Fritz opened up the file explorer as he spoke, idly poking around in public folders that the less technologically literate employees had created. “How ‘bout your sister, how’s she doing? Or, your dad, for that matter.”
“She’s in seventh grade and hasn’t fallen into a gang, so she can’t be doing that bad,” Alex replied. “As for my dad, well, tourist season is coming up. He’ll be making good money – except when the Brazilians don’t tip.”
“Brazilians, am I right? Just the worst,” Fritz quipped.
Nothing interesting in the public folders today. He moved on to the network tab, checking over the available wi-fi networks. An unfamiliar connection popped up, just a jumble of text and letters. Kinda odd, but it wasn’t the first time it had happened. He clicked to connect.
As soon as he connected, a command prompt popped up for a split second. He narrowed his eyes and opened his own command prompt and, with a few keystrokes, retrieved the network’s credentials. Instead of anything coherent, however, a string of what was definitely encrypted data came through. Then another. Then another.
It didn’t look all that complicated. Standard software encryption, probably from Tortoise Defense Tech, if modified a little. With another few taps at his keyboard, Fritz started up a decryption algorithm.
“People need to stop leaving their stuff open,” Fritz said, just loud enough so Alex could hear. “I swear, everyday, I find porn on someone’s cloud. Some people just can’t control themselves.”
“Yeah, you’re one to talk,” Alex mumbled. Then, after a pause, snapped “Hey wait a minute, why are you burgling people’s porn stashes? Get back to work.”
“This is my work,” Fritz wheedled, putting on a lilting tone. “If I’m gonna do cyber security, I need to know all the cracks in the system, and, believe me, there’s a lot.”
It took a good few minutes for the algorithm to finish, but it dumped a few files on Fritz’s desktop when it did. The largest was titled Phoenix.pdf, which he double clicked. He leaned back in his chair as it loaded. The more it loaded, though, the more he sat up, his expression turning from a squint to a wide-eyed stare. He paused the seminar and minimized it, whipping his head around.
“Alex,” he said, controlling his voice. “Can you come in here? I need some – help. Close the door.”
“Me?” Alex glanced down the hall to make sure none of his superiors were present, then shut Fritz’s door behind him, scratching his head. “You know I can’t run my anti-virus without calling you up, right?”
“This- well, this ain’t no anti-virus.” Fritz waved him over to the computer, sweating more and more with every passing second. “Read this. I- I need to be sure I’m not seeing things.”
A spreadsheet stretched across the screen, detailing what looked to be a weapons deal of some kind. The chart gave information on a ‘special purposes’ shipment of 2,000 guns, 400 combat knives, and 100 grenades. At the very bottom, a note had been left about the anonymous donation being accepted by ‘the syndicates’. A Cerberus logo was stamped at the top left of the page. Fritz turned to Alex, teeth gritted.
“Oh dear…” Alex chewed on his lower lip. They had never seen anything like that quantity, let alone to bonafide supervillains. After a few moments, Alex asked “Fritz, where did you find this?”
“I opened up a network, decrypted the data it gave me, and this came up!” Fritz was desperately trying to keep his voice down, despite his panic. “Maybe it’s a set-up, a ruse from some company competition.”
“Fritz, what competition?”
By now, Alex had begun to pace. He balled his fists impotently, a tic that told Fritz he was fighting with himself. Eventually, the boy scout won out. “Fritz, download this. We have to show this to someone.”
“Download it?!” Fritz cried. “They probably already know we have it! What if they decide to use one of those grenades on us?!”
“Then you can sue!”
Fritz opened his mouth to rant, but his words were snuffed in his throat as the intercom crackled to life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it appears we’ve had a security breach regarding confidential company materials.” The Commander’s words appeared to weigh Alex’s face down, twisting his eyes and mouth into an expression of abject terror. “And it appears to have come from one of our own. All operatives on the third floor are to detain Friedrich Kravitz immediately.”
“Fritz, download that file now!” Alex shouted, tossing a USB drive from his desk onto the keyboard. “I’ll hold the door!”
Fritz’s heart was beating out his chest, but he did as he was told. He shoved the thumb stick into the keyboard port and dragged the file right into it. It copied fast; thank God no one had thought to bloat the file. He ejected the drive and shoved it into his pocket. “Okay, okay,” he muttered to himself as he glanced around, doing everything he could to think clearly.
Alex concentrated on the door, keeping it upright with a wall of solidified shadow as several soldiers pounded their fists against it. “We know you’re in there Fritz, come out with your hands up or we’ll kick this door down and drag you out!”
“Shit, shit, I can’t hold ‘em forever man!”
Fritz ran through every object in the room, every fixture, the filing cabinets, the desk, the rug, the dirty old window – the window!
“Alex, smash through that window and jump!” he ordered.
“You want me to kill myself?!”
“There’s no time, just trust me!”
“It’s my job, he says. I need your help, he says. Trust me, he says. I hate you, Fritz!”
Alex took a deep breath and, with an accompanying gesture, tore the door from its hinges, sending wood, splinter and shade into the soldiers. As they scrambled for their guns he charged the window shoulder first, yelping as he met the air.
Fritz ran after him, grabbing some waves of light as he went and rapidly weaving them together. As he reached the window, he projected them beneath Alex. It was an abrupt stop, but he had survived harder falls when he landed on the light. Just as he heard security barking from behind him, he hopped out as well. He projected steps in front of himself as he made a break for the ground.
“Come on!” he shouted as he passed Alex. “We’ve got places to be!”
Fritz was about a story from the ground when he saw the shadows near the HQ’s steps begin to churn, dark matter swirling upwards. An impossibly black figure of a man emerged before the shadows retreated to their natural place. Alex’s dark matter shell dissipated into nothing.
“Got anywhere in mind?!” he shouted, sirens beginning to wail from a parking garage behind them.
“Run,” Fritz said. “Run very fast.”
The sound of cars revving their engines, people bantering loudly, bottles of alcohol clinking; all the little ambient noises that went along with a race were like meditative chimes to Mouse. She had two great passions, after all: drugs and racing. Getting to indulge the latter while high on the former just made things that much sweeter.
“Hey, man, it’s cool of you to organize a meet so soon. We’re makin’ a killing in business alluva sudden. What’s the occasion?” Mouse didn’t respond at first, busy wiping at the hood of her unholy monster of a muscle car with a rag. It was her pride and joy, a completely custom matte black, twelve cylinder behemoth she’d affectionately nicknamed ‘Abaddon’. The vehicle was almost completely engine, all wheel drive, seven speed manual with a massive clutch, and produced nearly a thousand horsepower at the tires. Mouse couldn’t even use normal gasoline to fuel it, instead manufacturing her own fuel, which was closer to nitroglycerin than ethanol. Suffice it to say, she rarely raced other people anymore. They were too scared to try.
“You writing a book?” she finally quipped, giggling to herself. “It’s never too soon to do more business, Mr. Vincenzo. I didn’t think the others would show up, but these idiots never seem to learn. Do me a favor, see if you can ‘do some work’ on the competition’s cars for us? Not that I doubt my driver, but the less chances for something to go wrong, the better.” Mouse wiped her hands off on an oily rag, tucking it into a pocket. “That, and I may have had a spat with my driver. It’s a show of good faith and an apology of sorts.”
Adjusting the collar of his leather jacket, Vincenzo smirked. The Oil Barons, Blackburn’s finest hot-rodder gang, were one of the few groups that got a pass from her. Their mechanics were experts, and having a wealth of parts for her to look at brought them into her good graces years ago. Plus, she found the whole ‘greaser’ motif very quaint and charming. “I dig, Ms. Verion. I’ll see what we can do. No promises, you know how Bernouli is, but after that Russian nosebleed dipped out of paying his bill, I think he’ll look the other way.”
The man walked away, leaving Mouse to her thoughts until a massive hand dropped onto her shoulder. “That was not very nice, malyshka.”
“What wasn’t very nice, pridurok?” Mouse asked, sighing heavily as she shook Grigori’s hand off her shoulder.
“You killed the good doctor’s best man.” She was quiet, staring at him for a moment before bursting into raucous laughter. Grigori quirked a brow at her, put off by the unusual behavior.
The albino wiped tears of mirth from her eyes, shaking her head. “Ya znal, chto ty glup, no ya ne znal, chto ty takoy glupyy. Do you have any proof of this or…? You’re always going on and on about the might of Russian intelligence, but I’ve yet to see any.”
“He was alive before he raced your little toy, and now he is mysteriously gone. Who else would risk Sonrisa’s wrath but nemnogo razdrazhayushchaya sobaka like you?” Mouse scoffed at him, though when he shoved her backwards with one meaty finger, she instantly had a hand at her hip in warning.
“Rules be damned, you touch me again, I put you in the dirt!” Grigori understood then what he was dealing with. He’d never really met Mouse when she was high, and he clearly didn’t like it. He backed up a couple steps, arms crossed. “Until you have damning proof, take your wild accusations elsewhere. I’ve got a drag race to win.”
Four cars lined up along the end of Emerald Street, intersection cordoned off by three lines of spectators. Jessica’s Lancer was flanked by the Supra and Challenger from before, and on the end was another of Grigori’s grunts in a BMW M3.
Jessica shifted into drive, engine screaming as she tapped the pedal. Grigori’s men were staring holes in her helmet, but she wasn’t paying attention to them. Her eyes were on LaDarius. The race director walked between the Lancer and the Challenger, holding up five fingers. Four. Three. Two.
LaDarius jumped back, heat from the Challenger’s engine singeing his suit. Jessica caught the driver exiting his vehicle, screaming every profanity at his failed machine, then wincing as intense heat was blown onto him by the other racers. That your way of apologizing, Nisa?
Jessica let the chassis guide her, feeling it vacillating ever so slightly around her. The engine’s pitch climbed to a steady whine, and at its apex she shifted into second gear. She was trailing just behind the M3. She tracked it briefly, watching the sedan hug the side of the road. A wonderful piece of German design. Too bad its driver wasn’t designed so well.
A chorus of sirens sounded from the west. No, there shouldn’t have been cops. Jessica slammed the breaks, letting the M3 pull ahead, ready to turn around and flee.
Several patrol vehicles plowed into the inattentive BMW, sending it flying into a lamppost. Glass and sparks rained everywhere, drivers strained to undo their seatbelts. Drivers wearing the patch of a triple-headed hound.
“No, no, no, no, no! Not them!”
Against her better judgement, Jessica sent her Lancer after the rest of the mercenaries, leaving a very confused Supra driver to cruise to victory.
Incoming Call: Mouse, said the HUD. She blindly fumbled for the accept button. “Jessica, you have two seconds to explain what the fuck you’re doing before I come after your ass!”
“You know, I’m not sure yet, Nisa. I’m about to find out.”
“… If you fuck up that car, I am going to be very upset with you. Do I have to follow you?”
“No.” Jessica slammed a fist on her dashboard, cutting out the feed. Four Cerberus patrol cars were tearing up the roads, chasing… something. Her eyes trained on the lead vehicle, taking wide corner turns at nearly every intersection. About ten meters ahead of it was some sort of light show zig zagging down the the street. Glowing beams seemed to bend and weave under the form of a man, allowing him to swap from skating to jogging across it. If Blackburn were anywhere but Florida, she might have thought he was gliding across ice. Another man looked to be phasing in and out of the light.
As the pursuers made another turn, Jessica barreled her Lancer into the nearest car’s left taillight, propelling it into the driver’s side door of another. She rode the curb for a moment to get around the wreck. Yet another turn saw a pursuer attempt a sort of reverse PIT maneuver with the rear of his car. Jessica let him overcompensate, then shoved the car by the bumper into an empty building lobby.
A blistering rod of light materialized in the path of the final car. It swerved off the road with a screech, the smell of burned rubber fuming into the air. It was only a brick wall that finally stopped the car’s forward motion.
The man who had been sliding around on his light hopped back to the ground then, breathing hard, followed by his buddy. Jessica stopped the Lancer a few feet in front of them, and then stuck her head out the window. She flinched when she saw that they were wearing Cerberus uniforms themselves, and fought the urge to smear them across the road.
“Hey dumbasses, don’t just stare at me, get in!”
With a shrug, Alex did as he was told. Fritz scrambled not to get left behind.
“Would you like to tell me why Cerberus is tearing the city apart to catch its own agents?” Jessica demanded, following the roads to the highway.
“Well, see, that’s kind of a long story,” Fritz started. “We, uh, we might have found some incriminating information. By accident. It wasn’t me.”
“Screw you, man!” Alex shouted. He jerked a thumb at his partner. “This guy is a professional liar. He was digging on the boss’ network. For fun!”
“For fun? What the hell is wrong with you? Ugh, never mind. What’d you find?”
“Emphasis on professional,” Fritz added, wagging a finger. “Long story short, Cerberus is dealing in wa-ay more weapons than anyone has any right to. Guns, knives, ‘nades, and, you know, where there’s smoke there’s fire so we got out of that burning building.”
“Guns, knives…” Jessica muttered to herself. “Oh no…” Why did it have to be her? “Leftovers from the War on Terror, right? M4’s and M67’s? I’ve seen them in the Lodge. Why?”
“Well, how should I know?” Fritz asked. “I just got the transaction document, it doesn’t say any hows or whys.”
Jessica drove in silence for some time, slowing her speed to civilian levels. Alex rapped his fingers against the window, and she saw his face twitch once or twice. Either he was far too nervous, or the other man wasn’t nervous enough.
“So uh, how about you lady?” Alex asked. “You really don’t like Cerberus, do ya?”
“It’s…” Jessica huffed. “It’s complicated.”
“So let’s start simple then.” Alex straightened and turned to the rearview mirror, offering a friendly expression that was far less urbane than he likely intended. “What’s your name?”
“Jessica, nice name. Are you a white girl? It’s the voice. Not that, you know, there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that there’s not a lot of white chicks living the thug life. Nothing wrong with white chicks.”
Jessica tilted her head slightly. Alex recoiled at Fritz’s snicker.
“My name’s Alex,” he continued quickly. “This is Fritz. Say hi Fritz.”
“Hi, Fritz,” Fritz repeated, shaking his head. “So where are we heading anyway?”
“You tell me,” Jessica said as the Kennedy Bridge came into sight. “You’ve got a plan, don’t you?”
“Uh, no, not really. I wasn’t exactly planning on stumbling across sensitive information and nearly getting assassinated.”
If only that were the worst news. As the Lancer approached the midway point of the bridge, she noticed a line of Cerberus vehicles had blocked off the road, spike strips in front of them and armed mercenaries behind. The sports car screeched to a halt, turning halfway around before being met with a half dozen BPD cruisers.
“Freeze!” Shouted a plain-clothed detective with a megaphone. “Let me see those hands!”
“Shit, shit!” Jessica pounded the steering wheel in frustration, accidently blaring the car horn. Defeated, she saw a second detective begin approaching the passenger’s side door, ten uniformed officers backing him up.
“I know my rights!” Fritz shouted, refusing to move even as the door opened. The detective reached in and wrestled him out, cuffing him in the process. Fritz whined at that manhandling.
“What are you, some kind of Nazi?!” he asked. “I have my lawyer on speed-dial, I’m warning you!”
“I didn’t know you were a Nazi, Jeff,” The detective with the megaphone said with a laugh. “Jamaican Nazis. Almost as believable as your threats.”
The raven-haired officer leaned into the car.
“Do you mind making less of a fuss, buddy?”
“Officer, you don’t understand!” Alex pleaded, exiting with his hands on his head.
“Well let’s come to a mutual understanding then.” The detective twirled cuffs in his hands before making the arrest. “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you in a court of law,” he said with a hum.