Shortcircuit V1 C22

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Over the next few days, the police went through Blackburn like a fine-toothed comb. Patrol cars, helicopters and even drones were omnipresent, and citizens were advised to report any strange sights. Wherever Ryan had gone to ground to avoid such intense scrutiny must have been well hidden.

 

With the police occupied with finding the so-called Blackout killer, Wilbur found it to be a perfect time to continue honing his skills by mopping up petty crimes. His first patrol following his fight with Ryan was fairly uneventful – just shooing off a drunk couple smacking each other in public. How did those New York City heroes find crime to fight in a safer town?

 

Wilbur decided to patrol the Cauldron again – there were worse parts of Blackburn, such as Woodlawn, but even he wasn’t foolish enough to go there without a buddy or ten. Besides, he was establishing a good rapport with the neighborhood. Getting the civilians used to a strange masked man walking about paid off in situations like, for instance, a couple of shady looking dudes fighting outside a nightclub.

 

“Mr. Circuit!” An older gentleman caught up to him, pointing across the street. “One of those guys was brandishing a knife. Think he might have had some kinda drug on him too.”

 

Wilbur put his hand up. “You stay right here sir.” Checking for traffic, he sprinted across the street. Both men took one look at him and bolted, but not before the man with the knife threw a small baggie down an open manhole. He couldn’t say he wasn’t disappointed they dispersed so easily, but at least no one got hurt. Glancing around the small crowd that had gathered, he asked “Did anyone record that?”

 

A college-aged girl raised her phone. “I did!”

 

“Awesome.” He probably needed to livestream all his patrols from then on. “And I assume 911’s been called?”

 

One of the bouncers stepped forward. “Yeah, we called them when we saw that dude threaten the other with a knife. Decided it was best not to jump in. I guess you scared them pretty good, huh?”

 

Wilbur suppressed a haughty laugh. “It was nothing.” He took a look down the manhole. About five feet down he saw the baggie, glimmering pink. What kind of street drug was pink? He snapped a picture with his phone before signalling to the young woman. “Can you stick around for a few minutes? The cops are gonna want your video.”

 

“Only if you let me take a selfie with you!”

 

“Fiiiiiine. But I get to make a funny face.”

 

She sidled up to him and stuck her phone out. “How are you gonna do that with your mask on?”

 

He pressed the small button on the side just before the flash. This time it made a smiley face.

 

“Oh! I guess like that.”

 

It took almost thirty minutes for an officer to arrive. He surveyed the crowd, staring at Wilbur for a little longer, before asking “So what exactly happened here?”

 

“Had a little scrap out in the parking lot,” the bouncer said. “We called 911 when we saw one of ‘em draw a knife. Shortcircuit showed up at just the right time and ran them off, but the guy threw the drugs he was carrying down that manhole.”

 

The officer nodded. “Do you have surveillance cameras pointed that direction?”

 

Wilbur spoke up then. “That won’t be necessary. Miss…”

 

“Christina.”

 

“Christina here got the incident on video.”

 

“Great.” The officer handed his business card to the woman. “If you could email me that video file, that’d be great.”

 

“What about the drugs?” Wilbur asked.

 

“Um…” He went over and glanced down the manhole. Wilbur made sure to shine the light from his phone onto it. “Yeah, I can see it alright, but I’d need to seize that as evidence to make a hundred percent sure it’s not Pepto-Bismol.”

 

Wilbur sized up the bouncer. Guy definitely looked strong and sturdy. “Hey, can you grab a buddy real quick?”

 

“Yeah, sure. What for?”

 

“I need someone to hold my feet when I go down there.”

 

“Uh.” The bouncer half-laughed. “Are you sure?”

 

Wilbur shrugged. “It’s not that far.” He turned to the cop. “That okay with you officer?”

 

“Shit, saves me a nasty trip. By all means.”

 

The bouncer returned a moment later with a co-worker. He shook their hands, now feeling even smaller. “Alright gentlemen, let’s do this.”

 

“Man this is so cool, never thought I’d actually meet one of you guys,” the second bouncer said. They helped him work the manhole cover off before grabbing his shoes.

 

What was left of the crowd gathered around as Wilbur got into a push-up like position over the hole. Taking a deep breath, he began to work his way down. It was a narrow fit, but he was just skinny enough to wiggle his way down. “Can I uh, get some light officer?” He had to fight back the urge to wretch – the smell seemed to go right through his helmet. The cop obliged, and he found the baggie resting in a puddle of dark yellow-green. He snatched it and immediately called to be pulled back up. The first few steps were disorienting at first due to the blood rushing back to his body, but eventually he found the officer and handed the baggie over.

 

“Yay, there you go. I’m gonna need a shower, again.”

 

“Great job, appreciate the help.” He whistled as he rolled the baggie around his palm. “Yep, that’s Pink alright.”

 

“Well, we knew that.”

 

“That’s the name of the drug, son.”

 

“Oh. Never heard of it.”

 

“It’s pretty new, popular party drug with the young crowd. Got a pretty good idea who’s been making it, but unfortunately a patrolman like me can’t do much…”

 

Wilbur exhaled through his nose, shaking his head. “Well at least we can nail that guy. Thanks for the assist Officer…”

 

“Prescott.” They shook hands.

 

“I’m sure we’ll see each other again fairly soon. Be sure to tell me how the case goes.”

 

“You betcha.”

 

Once everyone had dispersed, Wilbur made his way further down the alley before giving Nisa a call. She had left to God-knew-where after his fight with Ryan, but did answer his phone call.

 

“Hey.” It was more of a wary question than a statement.

 

“Hey. I just chased one of your dealers away from a club. If you’re really pulling a heel-face, can you tell me where I can find the rest of them?”

 

“Jesus Christ.” He could hear the phone settling into her neck. “Look, I can help you take the stuff off the street, but can you not involve cops? Most of these guys are just trying to survive out here.”

 

Wilbur rolled his eyes. Those poor oppressed criminals. “Whatever. I just want this crap gone.”

 

“Alright, I’ll email you a list of all my distributors and their known haunts. I’ve told them all I’m no longer in business, but some of them may continue peddling backstock until it runs out. Please keep violence to a minimum, okay?”

 

“I’ll try.” He could hear her begin to type, but she didn’t hang up. Awkward. “Sooooo. Whatever happened with Jessica?”

 

“She’s crashing with her mom for now. That whole experience must have really rattled her. Hasn’t spoken to me in days.”

 

“I can imagine. And Jeff?”

 

“Currently fighting the brass for his job. Ryan threatened to kill cops though, so I think he’ll be fine in the end – after an extended suspension.”

 

“That’s good, he seems like an honest man.”

 

And that’s all they exchanged for a while, until Nisa muttered something under her breath.

 

“Huh?”

 

“He’s at it again. ‘Breaking news: shots reported at the water mains, several suspects confirmed dead’. Guy’s a fucking lunatic.”

 

And just when he was considering calling it a night. “Got an address?”

 

“Are you kidding me?! You are not rushing in there head first.”

 

“Actually, yeah, I kinda am. I’ll figure it out sooner or later.”

 

“Oh my God.” She let out a long exhale through her nose. “I just texted it to you. If you die, I swear to God I’ll-”

 

“Awesome, thanks, bye!” He hung up, took a look at the address, and ran off.

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C21

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A change of clothes made Wilbur look better, but he didn’t feel any better. He trudged back to the headquarters building, backpack in hand, and the receptionist didn’t bother making a remark. He found Nisa in his penthouse still awake, fretting over her phone.

 

“Jesus, there you are! I was getting, what with this Blackout guy-”

 

“He got away.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

Wilbur chucked his backpack into the corner. “He got away. I tried to corner him after Jeff left and I couldn’t get through that armor of his.” He half shrugged. “I guess that part’s good.”

 

Nisa held her phone with two hands. “So I guess you heard what Jessica got herself into…”

 

“Oh yeah. Armed robbery, real stupid. Should’ve stuck to something a little more low-key, like drug smuggling.” He had to throw his hands up at her reaction. “What, did you think I wouldn’t find out? Christ, I probably should have sooner, but what do I know, I’m just a bumbling rich idiot.”

 

“The fuck was I supposed to say?! ‘Hi, nice to meet you, I sell drugs’?”

 

He shrugged. “Or you could not sell drugs?”

 

She tossed her phone onto the counter. “Real easy for you to say. My birthright wasn’t a giant tower and millions of dollars. Skinnyman taught me nothing but pain so I all had was my gift. Excuse me for being born the way I was.”

 

“That’s a load of crap. Your gift could have gotten you anywhere. Remember that job I offered you?”

 

“Yeah, I do! You wanna know why I was trying to get ahold of Jessica before all this? I wanted to tell her I was getting out of the game.”

 

Wilbur snorted. “Convenient timing. Not before you used me to take out your rivals, right?”

 

Nisa paused. “It was mutually beneficial at the time.”

 

“You know what’s good for me huh? Like everybody else? A crock of shit, this all is…”

 

“Jesus, you’re judgemental. What would you have done in my shoes?”

 

“Maybe be honest?! God forbid I feel used. You want me to just sit here and take it?”

 

Nisa shook her head, taking a long time to reply. “I’m getting out. You can verify that with Jeff.”

 

Wilbur’s phone rang. He examined the text from Fritz before tossing his soggy clothes into the washing machine. “I have one last thing I need to do tonight. Stay, go, I really don’t give a shit.”

 

Nisa slumped into a chair, saying nothing as he headed to his bedroom, got changed into a spare costume, and headed out.

 

***

 

The streets of the Devil’s Handbasket were dead. Only the essential traffic was out, which even for midnight was unusual for Blackburn. Braun’s Construction, though, was packed with cars. The cartel must have called an immediate meeting.

 

Wilbur made his way to the back of the building. All the heavy vehicles had been parked, and several guards had been posted. He didn’t bother peering any further in case he entered their line of sight. Instead he fiddled with his phone, clipped it onto his belt and walked straight through the front doors.

 

Two guards were waiting, and they immediately jumped from their chairs and drew their weapons. Their movements were jumpy and twitchy, and the short one seemed out of breath.

 

“<Mother of God!>”

 

“Don’t move a fucking inch! What do you want?!”

 

Wilbur glanced at his handgun, uncontrollably cocking a brow. The last few weeks had squashed what little fear of firearms he’d had. “Really? Don’t bother. I need to speak to your boss.”

 

“Yeah? And why shouldn’t we gun you down right now?”

 

“Well one, that’s murder. Two, we’re in a pretty public place. Three, I’m live streaming this encounter just to be safe. Say hi, buddy!”

 

“Hi!” Fritz’s voice came through heavily garbled, and all the cartel goons could see is what was being recorded. They glanced at each other.

 

“<I’ll get the boss.>”

 

The short thug returned a minute later with a leather-faced, rough looking older man, and plenty of other goons. Wilbur felt like saying ‘good thing you don’t have a taste for poker’, but bit his tongue.

 

“What do you want, Circuit?”

 

“You’re well aware that we have a serial killer on the loose, right? A serial killer who’s targeting criminals?”

 

“Your point?”

 

“He’s gotten his hands on a dossier outlining every major gang in the city. Get out while you still can.”

 

The cartel boss snorted. “Do you know how much money I’m making? I’m just a cog in a much larger machine son, and there are a lot of hands who need a buck passed.”

 

“You won’t make a cent if you’re dead. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about you. I just can’t have any civilians caught in the crossfire if he comes here next.”

 

The boss bodily pushed him out the door, and several other men shoved him onto the ground.

 

“We’ll keep that in mind. But show your face around here again, and we’ll cut your guts out and hang you by your intestines.”

 

“Nice meeting you too!” he called out before the door slammed. Dusting himself off, he picked up his phone. “Think they’ll listen?”

 

“Probably. But something tells me they’re not on top of Ryan’s shitlist.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Think about it. If you wanted to take out the worst of the worst, why not take out Phantasm, or Frostbite?”

 

“Well Phantasm is untouchable, and Frostbite is a vicious son of a bitch. But I guess we’ll see.”

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C20

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Wilbur stared forward rigidly as police officers and CSI technicians poured in and out of Bruno’s. Almost a dozen mafioso had been attacked with an explosive device and gunned down at the scene, along with two unknown masked figures and a third who had been strangled in a car. Nothing had yet been confirmed, but Wilbur caught a particular word lingering in the air – Blackout. The cops had given Ryan a serial killer name.

 

He checked his phone. Nisa had been unable to contact Jessica. Fritz was worried he might have been one of the victims – Wilbur assured him he wasn’t. Jeff wanted him to call immediately, so he did.

 

“Hey, Jeff, are you inside Bruno’s?”

 

“No, no, I wish.” He sighed and chuckled. “I’m uh. In a bit of a bind here.”

 

That raised Wilbur’s hackles – Jeff actually sounded distressed. “What’s up?”

 

“Mr. Blackout has sent me some blackmail. I work in Major Cases, see, so I keep tabs on all the major gangs and criminal syndicates who operate in the city limits. Ryan wants a dossier with this information or Jessica dies. He sees any cops at our meeting spot? She dies. If the info turns out to be false? Cops die.”

 

Wilbur jogged into a secluded alley. “Hold up. Jessica? Jessica Napier?”

 

“That’s the one.”

 

“What the hell?”

 

“Are you aware that three of the victims were in the process of robbing the joint?”

 

“Yeah I overheard.”

 

“She was the fourth robber.”

 

Wilbur took the phone away from his mouth. You’ve gotta be kidding. So that explains why Nisa can’t get in touch… Putting it back he asked “So what are you planning on doing?”

 

“I’m going to have to give it to him. We’ll try to minimize the bloodshed later, but I’m not putting my co-workers in his crosshairs. I just can’t do that. Can you come and watch my back – out of sight – in case he gets squirrely?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I can do that. Just text me the address and when you’re going in.”

 

***

 

The view of Lake Erie from the Port of Blackburn was more beautiful than it had any right to be. Faint celestial lights glistened on waters that stretched past the horizon. Waves gently lapped against docks that were littered with heavy machinery. Watching the area during the day was like watching the heart of Blackburn beat. Surveying it at night was an exercise of hoping for a better tomorrow.

 

Of course a villain had to just spoil the mood.

 

Wilbur had been keeping watch over a far, unused dock for nearly an hour. Ryan, armor and all, was waiting beside his van where Jessica was presumably still inside, and hopefully still alive. Fortunately, Ryan hadn’t noticed him peering down from a flight of stairs.

 

His phone began to buzz. It was Jeff, of course.

 

“I’m pulling in now. Hopefully this all goes over smoothly.”

 

The mental image of Jeff and Jessica’s brains dripping into the lake popped into Wilbur’s mind. He shook it out. “Yeah. I’m not far if you need me.”

 

A minute later Jeff’s Corvette pulled up and the detective got out, carrying a handful of manila folders. Ryan whipped out his gun and Wilbur jumped. A tense moment later and Ryan waved him over with his free hand. Wilbur exhaled. After perusing the contents to his liking, Ryan opened the van’s backdoor, revealing Jessica bound with extension cords. He took a step back and let Jeff pull out a knife and cut her loose. Her expression was distant and blank. When that was done, Ryan waved them off with his gun. Jeff drove off as Ryan stayed behind in his van.

 

Slowly, Wilbur relaxed his grip on the railing. That could have been the end of that, but Wilbur had him right there. He had no intention of calling the police and putting them in harm’s way. If he was really a hero, now was the time he could take him out before anyone else got hurt.

 

Wilbur made his way down to the van, staying out of the mirror’s line of sight before rushing up to the driver’s side door. He took a breath before throwing it open. Ryan jerked in surprise but recovered quickly, tossing the dossier aside and reaching for his sidearm. Wilbur directed the barrel away and wrested control of the gun before hurling it into the lake. Infuriated, Ryan slammed his boot into his gut, causing Wilbur to stumble back. Then he hopped out of the van.

 

“You stupid prick – can’t you mind your own business?!”

 

“Not when your business involves murder!” Wilbur wheezed.

 

“Murder,” Ryan scoffed. “Murder would imply those insects I squashed were people. You took a good look at what Skinnyman was doing in his labs, didn’t you?”

 

Wilbur straightened himself out. “I did.”

 

“Then why the fuck are you here?!”

 

“Maybe Skinnyman’s man deserved to die, but that’s not your call to make.”

 

“It became my call to make when they murdered my sister! What would you have done if you’d gotten your hands on the man who killed your parents?”

 

Wilbur refused to ask himself that. “What about Jessica? Does she deserve to be executed for robbery?”

 

“Robbery? Try that and peddling Mouse’s poison to every corner of the city, and God knows what else she’s done for her mother.”

 

“I – what?” Wilbur jolted. “Poison?”

 

Ryan laughed. “You don’t even know who you’re defending, do you? If you had actually climbed down from your ivory tower, you’d know who Mouse was. Just go home, rich boy, this is beyond you.”

 

Having heard enough, Wilbur threw out his hand, electricity snaking forward. Ryan braced himself against the van, but didn’t seize up upon impact. “Huh,” he said with a laugh. “Guess the insulation really works.”

 

Wilbur lept to close the distance, whipping a kick into Ryan’s head. Ryan grunted in pain before throwing the door open. Wilbur bounced around to throw a few jabs, but stopped but when he noticed the glint of a knife. Swinging swiftly, Ryan forced him back. He had to wait until his opponent went for a stab before grabbing his wrist. A glancing slash grazed his leg, cutting through the material just enough to slice his flesh. Nonetheless he ignored the pain, palming the weapon away. Ryan rolled onto his back and kicked into his shin. Wilbur jumped back and took his fighting stance.

 

“Get up, take your beating like a man!”

 

Letting out a scream of frustration, Ryan got up and took his own stance. It was more of a boxing position, hands balled into fists, but he moved surprisingly quick for such a heavily armored man. Wilbur was more used to slapping away probing strikes and kicks, so when Ryan unleashed a flurry of punches he got socked right in the chin. Even with his helmet he could really feel it – Ryan’s gloves must have packed a wallop. Wilbur countered with his own quick jab. It probably hurt his hand more than Ryan, but it gave him an opening to launch a piston kick to the lower ribs.

 

That too didn’t seem to phase the raging man, who spewed a string of expletives as he wrestled Wilbur, leg sticking out, to the ground. Ryan straddled him before pounding his helmet. He didn’t want to know what his head would have looked like without it. He grabbed ahold of Ryan’s collar before pressing a button on the side of his glove, unleashing an electrical charge. Once again, it was no sell. He did his best to roll directly onto Ryan’s ankle, which caused him to buckle. Throwing him off, he hopped back and resumed his stance once more.

 

“Did Higgins call you here?” Ryan asked, backpedaling and fiddling with his vest.

 

“Who?”

 

Laughing, Ryan shook his head. “You need to stop treating people like they’re idiots, boss man. I read the news. I know your little alter ego rescued Detective Higgins a few weeks back. Enough time to establish a rapport.”

 

Shit, he got him there. “I never got his name,” he settled on. “What does it matter?”

 

“You’re actually down here, working with him to bag me, instead of tracking down Skinnyman and finishing him off.” He scoffed. “Is this all this is to you? A glory hunt? Are you getting your kicks, man? You haven’t changed a bit.”

 

“Skinnyman wasn’t the one who shot up a restaurant.”

 

“Will you cut the sanctimonious bullshit?! You don’t have the stones to step on the maggots feeding on this city’s corpse. It’s not pretty, doesn’t put your name up in lights.”

 

Wilbur balled his fist before jabbing a finger at Ryan. “Then why don’t you go find Skinnyman and kill him?! Why does it have to be me?”

 

Ryan let out a long exhale. “I can’t – don’t know who he is. And sooner or later, the cops will put me down. I’m fine with that. But before I go, I’m taking as many of these rat bastards as I can with me.” He retrieved a grenade from his vest and pulled the pin. “And anyone who gets in my way.”

 

Wilbur began sprinting down the pier, but when he realized Ryan had tossed the grenade ahead of him, he dove into the lake. The early spring waters went right through his heavy clothes, chilling him to the bone. The grenade exploded at a harmless distance, but he could do nothing but watch as Ryan drove off with the dossier, planning God-only-knew.

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C19

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The longer the ride to Bruno’s drew out, the heavier the gun in Jessica’s hand felt. Drug running was something she was used to, and larceny, but armed robbery? Something inside of her was screaming about how off it was. She tried smoking to calm her nerves, but all it did was stink up the car and piss Kevin off. He must have seen her hand trembling, because when they parked near the end of the alley he snatched her cigarette and flung it out the window.

 

“Hey,” he snapped. “You with this shit or not?”

 

“Hmph.” She took a breath and triple checked her pistol’s ammo. “Let’s just get this over with.”

 

Carl turned back from the passenger’s seat, unrecognizable behind his dog mask. “Keep your cool, keep your distance from these shitbags, and keep your mouths shut as much as possible. We’ll be out in no time.” He gave the driver a nod and the group piled out, entering the restaurant through a side entrance.

 

Two guards were stationed in the dimly lit pantry, one of whom was searching for food and the other staring forward near the entrance to the dining hall. Kevin ran up and began to pistol whip the searching guard while Carl and Jessica aimed their weapons at the other.

 

“You, weapon on the ground, slide it over!” Carl called out.

 

Unperturbed the guard pulled a pistol from his jacket and held it at his side for a moment.

 

“Drop it now!”

 

Snorting, the guard did as he was told before kicking it across the ground. “You’re dead kid. You don’t know it yet, but you’re dead.”

 

“You keep running your mouth and you’ll be too.” Carl dropped the magazine to the floor and ejected the chambered round. “Now move!”

 

The robbers pushed the other guard into the dining room, where nearly a dozen mobsters were gathered around a makeshift poker table. The mobsters were of mixed ethnicity, some of them Italian but most not. She wasn’t immediately shot dead by them, so Carl’s info was sound. The robbers fanned out, weapons at the ready.

 

“I’m going to make this real simple. We’re out of here in five minutes. This cash ain’t worth your life.”

 

The mobsters’ reactions varied from amused chuckles to deadly glares, but none of them made a move as Jessica yanked a burlap sack from her jacket and began to pile the cash inside. Carl’s info was off here: she estimated that she bagged over fifty thousand after she was half done. Of course, the Vitellis possessed most of the winnings. Several times the money slipped from her shaking hands and hit the floor.

 

“This your first time sweetheart?” one of the Italians said with a chuckle. She got up and pushed the barrel of her gun into his forehead.

 

“Shut the fuck up you greasy wop,” she hissed. He raised an eyebrow and smirked.

 

“Greasy?”

 

“Keep moving, we’re on the clock here!” Carl barked.

 

She continued to pile in the cash until the mobsters’ eyes flickered back towards the pantry. An armored black appendage tossed a small object into the room. A pang of terror gripped her heart as she realized it was a grenade. She hurled herself behind the bar just before it went off. The thick wood protected her from the blastwave and most of the shrapnel. However, the noise and the shock still rattled her badly, and a twisted ankle and piece of steel protruding from her thigh dissuaded her from getting up.

 

Holy shit… Holy shit… She leaned back against the bar and watched the armored man step into the room, submachine gun at the ready. Ryan Wallace, she remembered – the man who butchered Skinnyman’s goons. All she could do was say a quick prayer as he approached the remaining, groaning mobsters.

 

She could hear Carl wheezing over his pain. “No, wait, w-”

 

Ryan riddled him with bullets. The sound felt like a jackhammer drilling into her skull – she had to stop herself from screaming. She closed her eyes and plugged her ears as he finished off the others. The panicked cries of the mobsters made her shiver.

 

An eternity later there was a break in the gunfire. She knew what she had to do. Please God, don’t let me go out like this. Fighting through the pain, she climbed to her feet. He noticed her out of the corner of his eye as he reloaded.

 

“You got cat-like reflexes, I’ll give you that,” he muttered. Sprinting forward with as much speed as she could muster, she palmed the submachine gun out of his hand before attempting a flurry of knee strikes. It felt like hitting a wall. He managed to get a grip on her and shoved her backwards, her wallet flying from her jacket. He pulled out his sidearm and trained it on her before kneeling down for the wallet.

 

“Eat shit!” She lurched forward, grabbing ahold of his grip hand trying to work the gun away. She almost was finished when his gloved fist slammed into the side of her skull. The pain caught up to her. Drooping pathetically, she could do nothing but shriek in pain as Ryan hit her again, and again, and again. Soon all resistance left her and she collapsed onto the floor. Curiosity must have gotten the better of Ryan, because he tore her mask off to get a look at her face.

 

“Huh.” He crossed one arm across his chest and laughed lightly. “You know, I think I recognize that face for some reason…”

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C18

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“Gah! Fuck you! You’re going to burn in hell for that!”

 

Wilbur cackled mischievously as he shrunk the field with lightning. He had just come back from a board meeting – for some inexplicable reason, they had become infatuated with Fritz’s toaster – and decided to pass the next few hours with Mario Kart. He crushed the CPU on the way to second place, but Nisa still ended up crossing the finish line first.

 

“Hey, I just took Waluigi out for you, you could be a little grateful,” Wilbur remarked before making a tsk tsk noise.

 

“Yeah, you’re still an asswipe.” She was trying not to laugh.

 

“Such colorful language! This must be where Jessica gets it from.”

 

“She’s a grown woman, she’s responsible for herself.”

 

Wilbur was so focused on launching from the start line perfectly that when someone knocked on his penthouse door, he leapt from the seat. “Jesus!”

 

Nisa herself jumped a little at that.

 

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I don’t like loud noises.”

 

She let her eyes flicker over to the door, so Wilbur hurried over and answered. Fritz was there with a very large box. He didn’t bother asking permission to come in, nudging Wilbur aside and placing it by the window.

 

“Hi Willie! Here’s your stupid bulletproof clothes. There’s five sets in there, so they should last you a good while. Do your best not to get blood on them.” He straightened out and wiped his hands off. “Where’s my raise?”

 

“Put your hand out.” Fritz did so, and Wilbur slapped his hand. Fritz punched his shoulder. “You’re fired.”

 

“Woohoo, severance pay!” Fritz noticed Nisa sitting on the couch and gave her a wave. “Hi Nisa! Are you getting this one to behave?”

 

“I don’t think there’s a big enough carrot in the world to do that,” she called out.

 

“So.” Fritz wiped his eyebrows. “When are you going out next?”

 

“Uh.” Truth be told, he’d almost forgotten about the task he’d been given Fritz the past several days. “I – don’t know. Honestly… Wasn’t sure if I was going to.”

 

Fritz looked both deflated and relieved. “So you mean I did all that for nothing?”

 

“I’ll pay you a commission, honest! It’s just. The whole Skinnyman debacle is not what I was expecting.”

 

“Well I don’t know what you were expecting,” Fritz mumbled.

 

Mouse got up off the couch and approached them. “Hey. You’re not blaming yourself for Ryan, are you?”

 

“What?” Wilbur shook his head. “No. He would have shot them up anyways as soon as he found his sister.”

 

“Good. Those sick bastards deserved what they got anyways.”

 

Maybe. But Wilbur didn’t feel it was anyone but a juror’s right to decide that. “Let’s just hope he’s skipped town and that’s the end of that.”

 

Fritz shook his head. “If anyone should be blaming themself, it’s me. How did I not see the signs? I knew he was on edge, but going full Rambo? The cops rightfully put my ass through the wringer.”

 

“The whole hero thing is a mess,” Wilbur said, taking one of the seats at his kitchen island. “I don’t know. Maybe you were right. Maybe I haven’t been the same since mom and dad died. I should have just stayed at the benefit and taken my lumps.”

 

“And you should have called me while in Europe.” Fritz looked like he was trying to smile, but the sudden bleak mood put an end to that.

 

Nisa wasn’t having any of it. “Oh come on! You kept Jessica from getting beaten by the mob. You saved Jeff and everyone else in that warehouse. You kneecapped the Vitellis. Were able to get those test subjects from the factory put out of their misery. Shortcircuit has only been in the city for what, two weeks, and he’s already made a difference. If you want to give him up, you need to make that choice on your own, but don’t feel pressured by not having done enough, because that’s a crock of shit.”

 

Wilbur glanced over at Fritz, certainly expecting him to say something. Instead he just shrugged. “Don’t look at me, I just work here.”

 

“I guess it did feel pretty good to rescue those people.” He leaned back in the seat. “Jeff said something about registering a hero team with the city. I can’t do this alone, not long term. But maybe, if I set a proper example, more will follow.” A period of silence followed, and Wilbur between his friends, tapping his thighs. “Yep. You guys are Shortcircuit’s support. Isn’t this great?”

 

Fritz began to pilfer through the fridge. “Yay. Woohoo. I need a drink.”

 

“I just want to see you happy, Wilbur.” Nisa paused to think. “You really wanna cripple the Italians?”

 

“Hey, that’s racist.” Wilbur got out of his seat. “Kidding. What’s up?”

 

“The Cortez Cartel operates out of Braun Construction out in the Devil’s Handbasket. Word is they mix drug bags with concrete powder and such and deliver them from there. Sure, the Mexicans can take the loss of one operation, but the Vitelli branch of the Mafia is on its last legs. They may well decide it’s too costly to do business in Blackburn anymore.”

 

“Sounds good to me.” He pulled a knife from a kitchen drawer and began cutting up Fritz’s box. “I like my head on my shoulders, so I’ll hang back and gather evidence for BPD or the DEA or whoever. Jeff told me to be a good boy after all.”

 

Nisa nodded. “Good luck and stay safe.”

 

“I second that!” Fritz called out. “Ugh, so much beer in here. Tasteless…”

 

“I’ve got to call Jessica,” Nisa continued. “Then,” she gestured towards the TV. “I’m gonna keep breaking your heart.”

 

***

 

When Wilbur headed out that night, he was feeling a rush of confidence. The first outings of his budding hero career had been rough, sure, but Nisa was right. He had helped a lot of people already, and without losing life or limb. If he kept his nose clean and kept getting criminals off the street, he’d bring the hero scene to Blackburn in no time.

 

The Devil’s Handbasket had in past times a reputation as a blue-collar Irish neighborhood. It still was, in part, but the neighborhood had seen a large influx of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the late 90s and early 2000s, along with other groups in smaller numbers. Just like the Irish, a law-abiding majority brought with them a seedier underbelly.

 

No seedy underbelly of any stripe seemed to be out in the open, though. Just groups of friends, drifters and old ladies with their dogs. Even they seemed to be out in less force than usual.

 

“Hey Mr. Circuit!” A man was standing further along the sidewalk with his cell phone out. “Can I take a quick pic with ya?”

 

“Well, I’m actually on a secret mission right now, but I can make your day real quick.”

 

“Sweet!” He slide into the selfie’s frame and threw an arm around Wilbur. “Quick, strike a pose.”

 

Wilbur froze up. What was he supposed to do! He’d only been doing this a few weeks, he didn’t have a signature move. The photograph caught him pinching his chin in thought.

 

“Alright, contemplative. My kids are gonna love this.”

 

“Hey, are you from around here? This neighborhood I mean,” Wilbur asked.

 

“Yeah, why?”

 

“Do you know where Braun Construction is exactly?”

 

“Um.” The man turned and pointed down the street. “Keep going down until you get to the insection, make a left down Palmer Street, it’ll should be on that street, can’t remember if it’s left or right.”

 

Wilbur nodded. “Works.” He gave a salute. “Thanks, citizen.”

 

Braun Construction had a pleasant looking office space facing the street. As Wilbur trailed the fence around to the rear, however, it became apparent the facade was flimsy. A group of men were speaking frantically in Spanish. They hadn’t seen him, but something was bothering them nonetheless.

 

“<-shore up defenses->”

 

“<-do you think he’s still out?>

 

“<-not scared of that motherfucker->

 

Were they talking about him? All he’d done was walk down the street! Nonetheless, he wasn’t going to ask them. The area was flat and open, with only some wooden stacks and trucks to hide behind. Any direct confrontation would likely end with him becoming swiss cheese. Using a truck on the opposite side of the fence as cover, he began to film the group. They were gathered around a delivery van, pairs of them emptying large white bags. Just one audible mention of drugs and he’d give the cops probable cause for a search warrant. Even the Italians weren’t this sloppy.

 

A siren went flying by, an occurrence so common in Blackburn it didn’t even register until a second, then a third, then a fourth and fifth. Now starting to feel uneasy, Wilbur checked the news. He read the top headline and nearly dropped his phone.

 

“You gotta be shitting me…”

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C17

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Damn Skinnyman. She hoped he was rotting in hell.

 

Jessica kept the news playing on her phone, listening to the reporter describe the carnage at the steel mill. Skinnyman had lost almost a dozen men, but they didn’t believe any of the bodies were him. That would have been a damn shame. She was still sorting through the mess his men had left that morning.

 

It was pretty emblematic of her life, she had to admit. Jumping from one mess to another. Things were supposed to have been different after she fell out with her mother. But maybe it was just in the blood. She and Mouse were Skinnyman’s spawn, after all. Not in a literal sense, but Mouse had been taken from her parents shortly after birth and raised by him, and he had cloned her from her mother. They were both freaks, and Jessica hated him for it.

 

How am I going to pay for all this? They destroyed the television, much of the kitchen appliances, and taken most of the stored cash. She gasped. Even most of their CDs had been smashed. All this, and the debts she still owned to the Vitellis? They were going to have to go into overdrive selling drugs, and the last thing she wanted was to lose Jeff’s protection and go back to jail.

 

After everything had been sorted into what was intact or salvageable, and what was beyond saving, she began tossing the latter into trash bags. The piles were pretty evenly sized. She had almost finished with that when the news footage cut out and was replaced with Soundgarden. On the caller ID was Carl, one of the dealers they distributed to.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Hey Jessica, I heard what happened with Skinnyman. Are you strapping for cash?”

 

“Uh, yeah, why?”

 

“A little birdy told me the Vitellis are hosting a high stakes poker game at Bruno’s. Shortcircuit hit them pretty hard so they need to recoup some cash. Other crime families are invited, so that means no guns outside of a guard or two.”

 

Jessica nodded along. “Uh huh. Alright. What kinda pot we lookin’ at?”

 

“Probably fifty, sixty Gs.”

 

“Hmph. And the split?”

 

“Four ways.”

 

“Sounds good to me. Text me a meet location and time.”

 

Jessica hung up. It would serve those oily fucks right. She went over to the dresser, making sure the gun underneath was still there, before going back to sorting.

 

***

 

“I’m sorry – what?”

 

Ryan sighed, throwing another bundle of bills onto the counter. “I said I want your whole stock of C4. All of it, every last block.”

 

The shopkeep looked incredulous, inspecting the bills carefully. When he seemed satisfied the bills were legitimate and Ryan was serious – he absolutely was, he’d cleaned out all of his savings before his BOLO poster went viral – he went into the back room. A minute later he placed two boxes on the counter.

 

“This is all I’ve got. It’s incredibly difficult to get this stuff you know.” Ryan whipped out a switchblade. “Hey, what are you-”

 

Ryan stuck a finger out before slicing open the tape seal. He checked the contents of the box. Yeah, that was really C4 alright. He slid the cash towards the shopkeep, nodding. “Just needed to be sure you weren’t trying to pull a fast one. This is Olympic City after all.”

 

“No, no, I wouldn’t do that to you, man.” He hurriedly pocketed the cash before looking behind him at the next customer. “Can I help you sir?”

 

“Not done yet,” Ryan announced. “I’ll also take all your five-point-seven twenty-eight.”

 

The shopkeep did his best to sneak a peek into Ryan’s coat, probably to see if he was packing his P90, before slinking into the back room again. Of course he wasn’t. Just his backup Python.

 

“This is a lot of stuff,” the shopkeep muttered before plopping down two more boxes. “What do you intend on doing with it?”

 

Ryan shrugged, peeling off more cash from the bundle. “Just some target practice.” He held the rest of his cash up. “That van out there for sale?”

 

The shopkeep stared hungrily at the money. “It is now!”

 

Nodding, Ryan halved the bundle. “One last thing. Info.”

 

“Alright. You must be strapping for cash now. I heard through the grapevine the Vitellis are too. They’re hosting a major poker game at Bruno’s, in Little Italy. Next Tuesday at 8PM. There’ll be some big names there? Maybe you could alleviate them of their heavy wallets…”

 

“I like the way you think.” Ryan dropped the rest of his money, and just like that, parted with the last vestiges of his old life.

 

Ryan took the keys and began to unload all the gear into the back of the van. It came with fake plates, which was good. In addition to the ammo and C4, he’d bought a few other types of explosives, and enough canned food to last for two weeks. Once he was all set to roll, he began walking towards the driver’s seat before stopping in his tracks. In the row over, the passenger’s seat of the car was filled with DVDs. Child pornographic DVDs.

 

The owner of car returned a few minutes later, grumbling something under his breath about the store owner. He noticed Ryan standing there, trying his hardest not to scowl. “Can I help you?”

 

“I’ll take those off your hands.”

 

“Heh. My man.” The creep slunk around the trunk to meet him. “Sure you’re not a cop?”

 

“No. No, I’m not.” Ryan yanked the door open before grabbing the man by his hair.

 

“Hey, what the fu-”

 

Ryan put his hand on the window and pushed with all his might. A nasty knot forming on the side of his hug, the creep began to curse and struggle. Ryan grabbed the door handle and slammed again, and again, and again. Blood began to pour from a gash on the man’s head, which only angered Ryan and made him slam harder. Eventually his head caved in slightly and the man stopped struggling, so Ryan let him slump to the ground before pushing the DVDs to the ground and stomping them to pieces.

 

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Shortcircuit V1 C16

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Wilbur exhaled when he found the USB on the floor of Creative Sciences. He didn’t want to imagine the fallout of one of his employees getting their hands on it. He had no intention of going through the data – he’d leave that for the authorities. That plan only made him feel slightly less sick, however, given how many of the SWAT officers lost their lunch at the chemical factory.

 

Heading back up to his penthouse, he dropped the USB onto his desk and took a long, long shower. The hot water did wonders for his aching muscles, so he tried to relax. But each time he closed his eyes, he could see those bulbous masses of flesh lying on stretchers. This was not what he envisioned when he went out that first night, looking for a quick thrill.

 

His phone buzzed on the sink. He’d almost forgotten his meeting with Adam, head of Scholz Chemicals. Rushing out the shower, he got dressed, texted Nisa where to meet him when he was finished, and headed down to his car.

 

The meeting took a good two hours, the two of them discussing quarter reports, financial plans and other such things that would bore most people. He had to force himself to focus. He’d been so lost in his thoughts earlier he’d forgotten to actually call Jeff and schedule a pick-up. But as long as he got that USB safe into his hands, Skinnyman’s reign of terror would finally be over, wouldn’t it?

 

After those two hours had flown by, Wilbur made his way to the front entrance. Nisa was leaning against the wall, frowning, looking down at her phone.

 

“Something wrong?” he asked.

 

She sighed. “Jessica’s going through my apartment. It’s going to take weeks to replace everything.” She tucked her phone into her jacket. “Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine.”

 

Well, he couldn’t do that, but he wouldn’t say anything.

 

“So how’d you get here? Public transportation or…?”

 

“Eck, God, no. Tried that, got tired of drunkards and people who can’t keep their hands to themselves. No.” She pulled out a Ford Mustang key and pointed it at a white 2019 model in the lot.

 

“Huh. Not bad.” He wasn’t a fan of muscle cars himself – too brash and noisy for his taste – but he could appreciate a good one nonetheless.

 

Wilbur’s little detour to the abandoned chemical factory got noticing how much architecture had progressed in the past half century. The layout of the new factory was much more linear, the floors flat and sleek with windows overlooking the refinery floor. He gestured downward, where massive pumps and vats were processing the base elements. It made him feel positively tiny.

 

“So this is where the magic happens. Acetylene, ethylene, metalloids – we manufacture specific solutions, sometimes for our own use but mostly to sell them to other companies and research labs. We also distill water by the hundreds of thousands of gallons.”

 

Nisa’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree’s. “I’ve seen stuff like this on documentaries, but it really hits you when you see it in person.”

 

“You watch documentaries about chemistry? Pfft, nerd.” She shot him a look. He laughed. “So what got you into this stuff anyways? Your powers steer you here?”

 

She shrugged. “I guess you could say that. When it’s all you know how to do, you learn to like it.”

 

“Yeah, I know that feeling.” He led her through a small corridor to the laboratory area. They didn’t advance too far as to not disrupt the legion of white coats and their work. “This is where we research new compounds for commercial use.” An old thought jumped back into his mind. “I know I was joking when I mentioned it, but can you really create non-newtonian fluids-” he snapped his fingers. “Like that?”

 

“I’m pretty sure you were hammered, but yes, I can.” She put up a finger and closed her mouth. Half a minute later she spat out a knuckle-sized chunk of shiny, deep yellow metal. Gold, he realized, and he was pretty sure it was twenty-four karats at that.

 

“Hot damn, I was just joking, hammered, whatever.”

 

“The more complex the compound, the longer it takes me. Same thing for molar mass for pure elements.” She handed him the gold. “Not that you need much pure gold to get by.”

 

He looked at the nugget, then to her, then back to the nugget, then to her again. “I don’t know what kinda freelance work you’re doing, but it can’t pay better than here. Have you ever thought about working for us?”

 

Nisa looked quite surprised. “Work for a big corporation? I – no, can’t say the thought’s ever crossed my mind.”

 

“You can create all sorts of things in a fraction of the time it would take us normal folks. We could have put Ryan’s armor into production by now if we had you on board, cutting a chunk out R&D time. Could you at least consider it?”

 

For some reason, Nisa looked a little uncomfortable at the notion. “Hmm… I suppose I will.” They ventured back out into the hallway, where she stopped in front of the window again. “It seems like a lot of responsibility Wilbur. Your grandfather built all this up from nothing, but it’s what he wanted. You were born into this. Did you even have a choice?”

 

He scratched the side of his face. “No, I guess not. I was an only child. My aunts and uncles either work in layman’s positions, or want nothing to do with the company. When mom and dad… when there was an opening at the top, someone had to step in.”

 

Nisa turned to him. “You said you’re twenty-seven right? You had to have been twenty-two at the time then.”

 

“Yeah, I guess I was a little young. But I was born and raised in it.”

 

The lines of her face softened. “Are you happy with it?”

 

He let out a long sigh through his nose. “I don’t know.” He wished he could say yes, or even no, because at least then he could walk away from it all. But he wasn’t sure what made him happy. Not the kind of superficial happiness you got from getting wasted with your friends, or a quick adrenaline high that eventually faded, but an existential happiness where you were secure in what you were. That had kept evading him.

 

Skrillex played faintly from his phone. Jeff was calling.

 

“Hey Jeff, can it wait? I’m with-”

 

“It absolutely cannot. I’m sorry, but I need you down here. There’s been an – incident.”

 

The image of himself in an orange jumpsuit and cuffs flashed into his mind. “Am I in trouble?”

 

“No. Well, I don’t think so.”

 

God, couldn’t he just spit it out? “Alright, alright, send me the address. I’ll be there shortly.”

 

“10-4.”

 

He shook his head. “Sorry Nisa, I have to go.”

 

“Was that the Jeff?”

 

“Eeyup.”

 

She nodded. “Then I guess I won’t hold you up any longer. Good luck.”

 

The text message came through a moment later. The address listed was that of the steel mill. That couldn’t have been any good.

 

***

 

Finding even a moderately safe parking place was a pain in the ass, but eventually Wilbur found one, fairly close to the police lines. The steel mill had been sealed off, with what felt like half the force patrolling. Jeff, in plainclothes, was waiting for him outside the tape. Looking past him, Wilbur could see a swarm of ambulances and over a dozen body bags. Good thing he stopped for a change of clothes.

 

“I guess you’re not on desk duty any more?” Wilbur asked, hesitantly approaching.

 

“Yeah, I’ll be cleared pretty damn soon after this.” Jeff looked back at the ambulances and shook his head.

 

“What the hell happened?”

 

“Witnesses reported gunfire coming from the steel mill a few hours ago. Seen fleeing the scene was a man in black head-to-toe armor. After securing the scene, responding officers found ten of Skinnyman’s men dead. Does any of this sound familiar to you, Wilbur?”

 

Wilbur gulped. “Higgins, I swear, I know what it sounds like, but it I wasn’t me. Ask everyone at the chemical plant, I have an alibi!”

 

“I believe that. But I also believe you know our killer.” He gestured towards the ambulances. “One of the bodies we recovered from the mill looked to have burned. That doesn’t fit the MO of our killer, who was using a firearm. Dental records IDed her as Lisa Wallace.”

 

“Wallace…” Wilbur repeated. Everything clicked. “Oh. Oh, Christ. Ryan Wallace.” Wilbur had to steady himself against a police car. “Oh God… Jeff, I was here this morning. I had raided the lab and gotten a USB full of data. When I went down to Creative Sciences, I think. I think I must have dropped it where Ryan could have found it. That would explain how he knew where to go…” He put a hand to his face. “Oh, fuck…”

 

“What we have is enough to bring Ryan in for questioning. If it really was him, he won’t be able to hide it for long. From there I’ll be able to get a search warrant without the info you just told me. But Wilbur, you’re really going to need to to register with the city soon. You can tell the superhero liaison officer your real identity so we can stop playing these games. You’re lucky we can pin a motive on Ryan.”

 

Wilbur nodded. “Okay… And as for means, how did you figure Ryan could have access to the armor?”

 

“Your engineers reported several prototype suits missing. Fritz must have known it wasn’t you this time.”

 

“Yeah, I have him working on making me new gear.” Bless that little bastard.

 

Jeff nodded. “I’ll talk to the chief about establishing a connection between your hero team and the department when you’re ready.”

 

“Team? It’s just me, and I wouldn’t say I’m doing the best job of being a hero.”

 

Jeff shook his head. “Go look at other cities, Wilbur. It always starts with one. And you made a mistake, sure, but you didn’t kill anyone. Ryan did that. He would have done so as soon as he found Lisa, so think of it as you almost preventing this rather than causing it. You can do better from here.”

 

Wilbur got off the car, feeling somewhat better. “That was – oddly motivational coming from you, hard-boiled.”

 

Jeff shrugged. “It’s my job to keep you on the straight and narrow after all.”

 

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