Wannabe Heroes

 

By Xoronewithnature ©

 

Chapter 1

 

I hate it when I’m right. Too many sirens were going off, too many police cars were racing through the streets. And I knew something like this would happen. I’d had a feeling all day. Maybe they should call me Cassandra.

I saw the gap, it looked about four lanes wide, and wondered if I should try and find another way across. But then again, I’d already fallen behind the cop cars. The sirens disappeared for a second and instead all I could see was the back of a billboard. I had about a second to decide whether or not to try and jump it.

Screw it.

I leapt right at the edge of the building. Perfect form on this one, a real superman look. I got to look down about nine stories, and wonder what anybody down there would be thinking if they looked up right now.

“Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s…”

A wannabe hero. The thought brought a smile to my face, mostly because everyone down below was probably watching the police cars tear through the street, sirens blazing. Maybe in Metropolis people would look up, but not in the real world.

But, then again in the real world twenty year old girls don’t leap from building top to building top. Life’s funny that way.

I realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that I was going to make it. That was some good news at least. It was my new personal best. Not that the fall would kill me, but it would really, really hurt. I tucked my body in, let the force of my jump pull me over to land rolling on the other building. Dust sprayed up around me, and for a second I was lost. I looked up the street for the police cars and saw nothing. But I still heard them.

I turned around. I saw them just as they ducked under the highway. I guess I zigged when I should’ve zagged. They were heading south, and I was on the northeast corner of the intersection. The jump was still nice though, even if it put me on the wrong side of the street.

However, the jump also meant that I’d got an even longer jump – six lanes, plus an extra wide median. And the sirens were almost out of range. I resigned myself to doing it the hard way.

The first trick to teleportation is this: imagine the whole world moving around you. You’re not moving, the world is. The second trick to teleportation is to actually be able to do it.

I took a deep breath. I held it. I closed my eyes. There was the familiar lurch of motion, like being flung by a catapult. But there’s a certain stillness to it that’s hard to explain. It’s like you’re tightly bound from head to foot, and then flung by a catapult.

I opened my eyes. I was on the far building. I had quite a run ahead of me. I took a second to pull myself together. Jumping ninety feet is exhilarating. Teleporting is just draining.

I couldn’t afford to rest. So I took off with long strides over the rooftops. I ran through a rooftop garden, just as the owner was emerging from his door. I touched down in his garden for one step before I was over his head. Barely over his head. I looked back and he was cringing, his dropped watering can beside him. Oops.

I had to make one more teleportation to avoid a particularly tall building. This time just to the other side of the street, and I could tell I was near where the police cars had stopped. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this was going to be bad.

My heart sank as I got nearer. It was a nice part of town, near Wall Street. It was a bank robbery, I was sure of it. Two more buildings, and I was at top speed, taking them in three or four strides each.

Even though, I was racing toward god-knows-what I couldn’t help but think of the guy back at the rooftop. He looked like Brian.

For a second I felt a knot in my stomach, afraid that he might have recognized me. Then I remembered that like any good hero, I wear a mask.

 

***

 

It was my grandmother’s. I don’t remember much about her, I was so young and she didn’t speak any English. I knew a little Japanese when I was younger, but even then it wasn’t much. My mom never showed any real interest in teaching me. She wanted to forget about anything before New York and my father. That’s why I got named Jessie. It sounded so American.

When my grandma died all we got was a UPS man at our door. There was a note in the box. In curt Japanese letters it read “Mother is dead.” There were no phone calls, no more visits. It seems my mother burned most of the bridges with her family. When grandma died, that was it. My Japanese roots were severed except for two things: my looks, and the contents of the UPS box.

It was a geisha mask. I still remember the look that my mother had when she took it out of the box. Or the look she had later, when it sat on the kitchen table. Her eyes were red from tears, but she couldn’t take them away from the mask. She eyed it as if it were something dangerous. Every inch of her looked like she was ready to throw it out the nearest window. But she didn’t. Instead she just stared at it, like she was afraid to look away.

I do think the only reason she didn’t throw it away was because it was mine. On the back my grandmother had, with great care, written my name. To a large extent everything I know about my grandmother comes from the way she wrote my name. It was crisp and clean – surprising considering how old she was. It was painted with the same brush my grandmother used for her elegant Japanese calligraphy. And it was misspelled – J-E-S-E. Grandmother never really got the hang of English.

My mother gave it to me that evening.

“Hide it,” she said “and don’t ever let me see it.”

We never spoke about grandmother or Japan again.

 

***

 

I remember I used to think how odd it looked. I was sixteen at the time, and knew what a geisha was supposed to be. This looked different. The lips were full and red and the skin was pale and white, but the eyes. They weren’t the kind of eyes you would expect to see on a geisha mask. They weren’t enticing or innocent – they were dangerous.

I would sit in my room and remember grandma, the little old Japanese lady. Her small eyes. Her grey hair, pulled back with a tight piece of fabric. Those strange Japanese robes. Her hands, surprisingly strong and confident. Her smile – the deceptively senile smile that she always wore, even when she and Mom argued.

I could never really get a feel for the gist of their arguments, just that the words “family” and “honor” came up way to much – a combination that made me feel guilty for being half American.

I knew the mask was special the first time I put it on. There was no way to attach it, no strings, no nothing. It was just a shaped and painted piece of wood. I slid it over my face. It fit too perfectly. It felt like it was wearing me. I let my hands slide away and the mask stayed put, as if it were my own face. I went to my mirror.

I had to admit it was beautiful. My unruly black hair, pulled into a high pony tail contrasted with the pale white of the mask. My hair that stuck out from its pony tail confinement at weird angles looked, for once, right. I couldn’t help but think how I looked like a model, my hair carefully styled into a disheveled mess.

It was the eyes, now my eyes, that caught me off guard. They looked stunningly beautiful. The thought, that the mask made me look, dare I say, gorgeous, made me smile.

And the mask smiled as well.

And I screamed.

By the time my mother burst in the mask was under my bed, back in the box I hid it in.

I didn’t put the mask again for a long while.

 

***

 

I finally came up to where the police cars were gathered – Chase Manhattan. A bank robbery. I hate it when I’m right.

The cops were having trouble getting close to the bank. The first reason was the most obvious. It looked like there had been a massive accident, cars were piled up outside of the bank. It would have looked like an accident, that is, if there weren’t two sets of cars each blocking off one side of the street. In between the two blockades was a large armored car, driven up on the curve at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the bank.

The second reason was that there were intense bursts of fully automatic fire being sprayed from the front of the building. The police knew they were outgunned and had the good sense to keep their heads down.

The news helicopters had already started to circle.

I recognized the robbers. Another knot in my stomach. They looked like robots, like something out of a cheesy sci-fi movie. But they weren’t. They were battle suits, the highest of high tech, evidently paid for through jobs such as these.

I remembered when I first started to have delusions of being a hero I fought a guy in a suit like this. Some small time thug had found himself in possession of the suit and had started using it to push himself up in the criminal underworld ranks.

He was clumsy and stupid. He didn’t know how to use the suit and still almost killed me. I got lucky, he must have hit the auto-eject. One minute he was hitting me with law rockets, the next he was in the air. The fall broke his neck. He never was able to tell anyone where he got the suit.

I thought about keeping it. One never knows when such a thing will become useful. Besides, I was studying mechanical engineering, and the suit looked like neat fodder for an undergraduate project. “Super strong materials and their uses in crime,” or something like that. A girl needs her toys.

However, I also didn’t want to make enemies with whoever made the suit. I wasn’t ready.

As it was, the suit had gone from the police lock-up later that week. I never did get the full story on that. However, it looked like that story was back to haunt me.

Only now it was more than one. And this time they looked trained and disciplined. But on the other hand, I was getting better at this crime fighting thing myself.

I tried not dwell on it.

The firing stopped. A voice came over a loud speaker.

“Clear the airspace or we start taking down helicopters.”

I looked up. At this point several helicopters had made the scene. Looked like people were already missing their regularly scheduled programming. Every news service in the city had a chopper hovering above the mayhem.

I could see, even from this height, the nervous wave that went through the police. At the far edge of the swarm of cop cars I made out a pale blue Oldsmobile with a siren on top. I closed my eyes, tried to imagine what the interior looked like. The stained leather interior. The chain link grill that separated the backseat from the front. The gruff and slightly overweight detective who was probably in the driver’s seat.

“Holy shit.”

I opened my eyes. I was in the back seat. He seemed to be a little shaken.

“Holy crap, you scared the shit out of me.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. His hands were still shaking. “You can’t do that to me. Soon, I won’t have any shit left.” He laughed nervously at his own joke. He didn’t turn to look at me, just watched me in the rear view mirror.

I just smiled, a small twitch at the edge of my lips. I was now in full role playing mode. I was the confident and mysterious superhero. He was my guy on the force. My commissioner Gordon. Well, my detective Gordon.

He was trying to light a cigarette. His hands were still shaking too much. I closed my eyes again. I was in the passenger’s seat. He jumped again, not as much this time, but did drop his cigarette lighter.

I picked it up and lit it. He just looked at it, unsure of what to do, both hands up as if I was pointing a gun at him. Finally, he brought his cigarette forward and lit it. I flipped his lighter closed and placed it on the dash. He took a long drag from his cigarette, watching me from the corners of his eyes.

I tried to look calm. I sat with my legs crossed, hands in lap. I was just sitting in a car, like any other day. A shot cracked in the air over our heads.

“I thought you gave up smoking.” I wanted to kick myself. I was trying to act like a superhero, and here I was making small talk.

He looked at his cigarette, a little surprised. He smiled.

“Don’t you know, I’m just your stereotypical detective. I quit yesterday.” He pushed the butt into the ash tray.

There was a short pause as he rolled down his window and blew smoke outside. Over the burst of chatter from the police radio, I heard more gunfire.

“I bet you want to know who they are.” He wasn’t looking at me, he was looking out his window.

I just stayed silent. No more amateur small talk for me. Think superhero, Jessie, think superhero.

“The short answer is I don’t know. The longer answer is: I think that somebody does. The suit you gave me, the one you took off that small timer, well, it got requisitioned.” He exaggerated every syllable – “req-ui-si-tioned.”

“It was some sort of formal intra-agency bullshit I’d never heard of before. I never got the straight of it, but some Washington guy flashed his badge in the chief’s office and by the end of the day my evidence was gone.

“Not that we had many leads. I showed it to the techies in the basement, and they couldn’t figure the damn thing out. They said they’d never seen anything so tough.”

I remembered the impact of my fist on the metal. The impact of the metal on me.

“They wanted to try shooting at it on the range, but even I knew that was probably mishandling evidence. They were pretty damn sure the thing would come through undamaged though. I’ve told our officers to keep their heads down and try and not get shot. Hopefully they’re listening, because I don’t think they’re going to be hurting those suits with anything smaller than a small tactical nuke.

“I’ve heard they call themselves ‘The Soldiers.’ Guess that sounds better than ‘The Robbers’ or ‘The Thieves.’ Sounds almost romantic the way they say it.”

He turned to face me.

“I’m almost positive that I can’t talk you out of fighting, but you should be careful. You don’t have to…”

I was already back on the roof. The one thing I couldn’t stand hearing was his concern for me. It broke my heart to see him worried about me. He was supposed to be foul-mouthed, unshaven, and surly, yet he was soft when it came to me being in danger. It was the one thing I couldn’t stand about putting my life on the line – the thought that somebody would miss me. Even without Detective East’s concern I was scared. I guess that’s why I went out of my way to scare him. Thinking about the way he jumped made me smile. That cheered me enough that I was ready to fight.

It was a good thing I was ready.

I saw someone on the roof of the bank with a shoulder fired rocket. It was one of the soldiers. I looked up and saw a lone helicopter. It was circling high, but still hadn’t pulled off. It was a news chopper, and I had a sinking suspicion who it was. Every major city has its reporter who’s trying to make it big. New York has more than it’s fair share. After all, if you can make it here, well, yeah.

Then there was Luis LlaĖo, investigative reporter at large. He was kind of like Walter Cronkite and Geraldo Rivera in one package – informative and exploitive.

The soldier on the roof took aim at the helicopter. I tensed up, froze. A loud shot rang out. It sounded as if it came from the building beneath me. The man on the roof stumbled as if something had struck him. A police sniper must have seen him. The helicopter obviously hadn’t. There was another shot and the soldier stumbled again, but his armored suit was to strong, even for the sniper rifle. It was a losing battle. The soldier recovered too quickly, aimed and fired.

I didn’t even have time to think. Luckily my body had a plan. There was the familiar lurch and I was in the helicopter.

“As you can see, the scene on the ground is sheer pandemonium.” He pronounced each word precisely, articulately, with just a hint of his Latin accent.

“The police are… Who are you?” There was no panic in his voice, his rhythm didn’t even change, the same careful tone. You have to admire that kind of professionalism.

There were three others in the tiny helicopter, camera man, pilot and Luis. I grabbed the pilots jacket and the camera man’s collar. Then I looked at Luis. The rocket was on its way. Three men and two arms. I panicked. I kicked him. He was standing in front of the open door of the chopper, connected to the ceiling by a safety cord. The force of the blow sent him out the door and snapped the cable.

“I think I broke his rib…” I sheepishly admitted to the cameraman. I teleported. I took the cameraman and pilot with me. I was on the roof, the two men were on the ground beside me, confused. I looked back over my shoulder. The helicopter exploded.

Blink.

I was in open air. Luis was screaming, struggling. I tried not to look down. I tried to grab onto one of his flailing limbs, but fear made him uncooperative. He lashed out with his foot, hit me in the face. It caught me off guard. It didn’t hurt but did manage to send us spinning away from each other.

I tried to reorient myself, tried to stop spinning. He was still flailing. His coat and limbs were flapping wildly. And he was still moving away from me. I managed to slow my spin, and angle myself towards him. I floated closer towards him.

Then I looked down.

The street was sickeningly close.

I was close to Luis again. My arm darted out and tried to grab at him. I missed. I started to spin again. As I came around from the spin, I tried again. I felt something in my hand.

Blink.

I was on the rooftop. Luis was on his knees, I had his jacket sleeve in my hand. His face was white, and his mouth was a wide silent ‘O.’ He looked up and me and tried to say something, or at least his bottom lip moved. Quivered perhaps.

His expression changed to puzzlement. He looked me up and down. His eyes widened and he looked at me accusingly.

“You pushed me out of my helicopter.”

Then Luis LlaĖo passed out.

I looked up. The pilot and the cameraman were standing, watching me wearily, keeping a careful distance from me. I couldn’t help but notice the pilot’s headgear still on his head, plug dangling at his side.

“Help him down, would you.” I gestured to Luis. They nodded dumbly. I walked toward the edge of the building overlooking the front of the bank.

“Did our helicopter just explode?” It was the cameraman. I didn’t turn around. A smile crept over me face. Remember, think superhero, Jessie.

“Yes.”

There was a pause. I stood on the edge of the building.

“Are we dead?”

My smile grew.

“No.”

I leapt off the side of the building.

I couldn’t help but think, “At least I made my exit look good.”

I was aiming for the armored truck. Soldiers were throwing duffel bags into the back. Some were taking potshots at cop cars. All were on the far side of the car. I saw my spot. It was by the near side front wheel.

I concentrated, and I felt the ground under my feet.

I was crouched beside a large tire. The armored car looked bigger now that I was right beside it. My strategy was simple – take away their escape route. That meant destroying the car. It would at least be easier than dealing with any gun-wielding, armor-plated militants. Seeing the car up close I wasn’t so sure it was going to be as easy as I hoped. It was stronger than expected. Then again, so am I.

I carefully raised myself onto the step at the base of the driver’s side door. I looked into the side mirror and saw a driver. It looked like he was gesturing to somebody.

I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. Strategy one: take out vehicle. Strategy two: take on these guys one at a time. Don’t let them gang up on me. I know I can take one. I remembered what the missiles felt like, the heat washing over me, the force driving me to the ground. I stopped thinking.

I stood up and punched both arms through the window. It shattered. The driver tried to pull away. I grabbed for a handhold where his helmet met broad metal shoulders. I got one. I pulled but the window was too small, only his head came through. Instead the whole door buckled at the impact and the car rocked violently. I yanked once more and the door ripped free with a metallic screech. I grabbed the edge of the door, and swung. He struggled but his head was still stuck through the tiny window opening. I threw him as hard as I could. He sailed toward the bank entrance, and hit one of the heavy columns that lined the front. It cracked, and he spun off it violently. I heard glass shattering as he went through the front windows.

The shooting stopped.

Well, Jessie, you have their attention.

The response was deafening. The car shook violently as bullets ricocheted off it. Another lull in the firing. I looked up. Some of the soldiers seemed to have run off, but others were approaching, large fully automatic rifles in their hands.

I looked around. I was on the curb, in front of me were a long line of parking meters. Behind me I heard soldiers starting to run toward the car. I grabbed the nearest parking meter. The cement cracked at the base, and then crumbled away as the meter pulled free. I stepped around the corner of the truck and swung it at the startled charging soldier. The impact jarred me and leveled the soldier. The meter burst into a fine mist of quarters. I dove back behind the truck as two soldiers opened fire.

It occurred to me then that destroying parking meters was probably a crime of some sort. Destruction of public property or something like that. Funny what you think about when fighting for your life.

Their shooting took out the tires. The whole truck tilted wildly as it sunk down to the rims. I was happy – they were doing my job for me. I saw the leg of the soldier I had hit with the parking meter. It looked as if he was beginning to get up. I needed to buy myself a little more time to disable the engine. I sneaked a look around the corner. I saw a soldier, his rifle trained on my position. He saw me too. A burst of automatic fire tore into the side of the car. The soldier on the ground was dazed, looking for his gun. I couldn’t see it, and didn’t feel like poking my head out to look. Instead I grabbed the soldier’s leg and dragged him behind the car with me. He struggled weakly. I now had myself a shield.

I pulled him to his feet and carried him out from behind the corner of the car. The soldier opened fire on me again. The impact against the armor plating nearly pushed me over. It felt like trying to hold back a train.

Click.

The shooting stopped. I snuck a peek over my shield’s shoulder. The soldier was reloading. My shield was starting to struggle a little too hard. The impact must have woken him up. I put my foot in the mid of his back and kicked forward.

My aim was better than I thought. He flew forward and caught the reloading soldier in the chest. The two landed hard on the front steps of Chase Manhattan.

I was by the huge back doors of the truck. Black duffel bags were piled up inside, and one lay torn on the sidewalk. The wind carried away the front page of the New York Times. I looked but didn’t really believe it. The duffels were filled with newspaper.

I couldn’t dwell on it. One of the soldiers must have gone around the far side of the truck in order to ambush me. It worked.

The bullets caught me in the chest and barreled me backward to my knees. I was on all fours and tried to stand when the next burst hit. I was on the ground. It was getting harder to breathe.

He underestimated me. He gave me a second's reprieve. The world shifted and I was behind him. He didn’t hesitate. It was if he knew I was there. His elbow caught me in the stomach, knocked the wind out of me. I was gasping for breath when the butt of his rifle caught me in the chin. My head snapped back. I saw sky. He threw down the rifle. The force had sheared it in half. I didn’t see the next punch. I just saw his weight shift, a blurring at the edge of my vision. The impact. The ground.

I tried to shift away, teleport to safety. A kick to the stomach kept me where I was. Then I heard the strangest thing. Somebody was booing. Lots of people were booing. The cops.

I almost felt like laughing.

I coughed up blood.

I’m a superhero. Lets give them something to cheer about.

I rolled with the next kick, used it to get to my knees.

My vision was a narrow tunnel. All I could see was the shift of his weight. The blurring at the edge of my vision. I snapped my head back, the punch missed, I brought my hands up in a double fist where I hoped his chin would be.

The impact hurt. It hurt a lot. I just hoped it hurt him more.

He staggered backward a step. I pivoted, used the force to power my kick. He hit the truck. Then he went through it. The back left door spun off its hinges, and duffel bags spilled out. Newspaper flew across the street. That’s when I saw the bomb.

I didn’t recognize it at first. It was a mess of wires and steel drums. I guess it clicked when the soldier skittered to his feet and ran toward the bank. This was a decoy. They were getting out another way. The thought “I am going to die” kept getting in the way of my reasoning.

I needed to disable the bomb. I wasn’t thinking, but I knew. It was not only going to kill me, it was going to kill everyone in the area. That’s what it was supposed to do. I tried to force open the other door, but it ripped away in my hand. I was not thinking clearly.

The barrels. I knew I needed to get rid of them. I climbed into the back past the duffels. The bomb was silent and menacing.

I would have preferred a red L.C.D. timer.

Four barrels were wired to a clear Plexiglas box. Inside were circuitry and white clay. A little red light glowed on top. It’s booby trapped. Somewhere my conscious mind was screaming at me.

I remembered the jump. How it felt. The new record. Exhilarating. Soaring, like Superman.

Screw it.

I grabbed the Plexiglas box and jumped as far as I could. The wires snapped almost instantly. Heat. I thought about the first time I fought the soldier suits. The missiles. I remembered it was like being at the center of the sun.

Like now.

I had wondered why none of the soldiers had fired any at me near the truck. It was almost funny now. They weren’t fighting me very hard because they were just planning on blowing the whole thing up.

It was getting very dark. Black was swirling all around me.

It occurred to me that perhaps this explosion was meant for me. It did seem like a little bit of overkill to deal with New York’s finest. Well if it was meant for me, I’d humored them.

The darkness overcame me, swallowed me.

And all I could think about was rooftop gardens.

 

***

 

“I brought you some water.”

I opened my eyes. Between Brian and me sat a glass of water. He was standing as far away as the cramped little garden allowed him to. He still looked uncomfortable being that close.

I pulled myself up. The world did a lazy spin. I decided I might want to sit back down.

He just watched as I took the glass.

“You were on the news.” There was a strange flatness to his voice.

“I figured.” I tried not to feel to giddy. It was easier than I thought. I hurt too much. “They haven’t done anything bigger than page three before this.” I wanted to kick myself. I was sounding a little to eager.

“Following your own rise to stardom? Sounds a little narcissistic.” His smile looked forced.

I didn’t have a good superhero response. He seemed uncomfortable with the silence. I was just trying not to say anything else stupid.

“People on the news were trying to figure out whether you were alive or not. They had a bomb squad guy saying that the police on the scene were only alive because the bomb malfunctioned. When they asked about you he just did the ‘no comment’ thing everybody else has been doing.”

“Malfunctioned?” I guess there wasn’t anyway they could know.

“He didn’t get too specific. Luis LlaĖo was calling you a reckless vigilante. He said you almost killed everyone on the scene with your little stunt.”

“Little stunt?” I had been reduced to repeating him with a dazed expression on my face.

“I don’t know what he thinks would have happened anyways. It’s not like that wasn’t going to go off or something.”

I didn’t mean to cry. I didn’t mean to be here. I didn’t even know Brian. He was just a face at school. I didn’t know his last name.

“Are you okay?” The flatness was gone. He sounded like he was talking to a human being.

I pulled my knees to my eyes. I was thinking too much. All the not-thinking had caught up to me. I was thinking about school. About faceless metal soldiers. I was thinking petty thoughts. About Luis LlaĖo, about the nameless man from the bomb squad.

I felt a timid hand on my knee.

My body tensed at his touch.

“I’m sorry I called you narcissistic.”

A little laugh despite my tears. His apology just sounded so earnest. I didn’t know how else to react.

“I just tend to believe the worst about famous people. I think its resentment, or jealousy, or something. I want to believe that at least I’m a better person.”

I looked at him over my knees, and for the first time, I really looked at Brian’s face. He was worried, I could see that in his eyes, at the corners. There was something very serious at the point between his brows, and right at the corners of his lips. He wiped a tear from my mask. I don’t think I moved, I don’t think I even breathed. He didn’t seem to even notice it was a mask, he seemed too focused on me.

I stood up.

He did too, surprised.

I turned and jumped to the next building. I didn’t mean to look back. I didn’t mean to look at Brian’s face. He just watched me go. He didn’t say anything. He just looked betrayed.


 

Chapter 2

 

The interior of J.R.'s was bright and gaudy, an ill-conceived attempt to mix a Manhattan bar with a Dallas rerun.

"I was hoping you would come." Lana was holding a nearly empty beer bottle. It didn't look like her first. She seemed overly chipper, her speech a little faster than normal.

"This is Jessie, everyone." She turned toward the table that she was standing in front of. There were six people, people I barely knew. I thought I knew one or two names.

"She goes to school with me; we're sharing an apartment. She's going to be an engineer, very smart. She's always studying; I hardly see her at night. So everyone this is a rare treat to see Jessie without her nose in a book."

She had put her arm around my back and was steering me towards an empty chair. As she did, she whispered, or tried to whisper in my ear.

"Did you bring school stuff, here?" She sounded scandalized, pointing at the small black duffel that I was holding. I nodded. That sounded more reasonable than superhero stuff. She made a dismissive gesture with her hand.

"Well, at least you look good." I hadn't even had a chance to dress up. My hair was still tied up from jumping around the city, and I had slipped on some dark green bulky cargo pants over my costume. All I had done was change into a dark tank top. I looked into a nearby mirror. It was lucky I had a forgiving physique.

Lana had once said I could have been a swimsuit model if only I had a pair of double D's. Other than that, the superhero game kept me in pretty good shape. The image in the mirror had the surprisingly wide shoulders and shapely arms of an athlete, as well as the nice stomach. I actually cut a pretty imposing figure. I stood a few inches shy of six feet, despite my Japanese ancestry. In that department I took after my father, or so I was told.

Lana sat me down and went off to order another round. The conversation had stopped and Lana's friends were looking at me.

"Hi." It was the only thing I could think to say.

"So you're Lana's roommate?" I recognized him; his name was Sam. He was leaning back in his chair, dressed in a sharp black suit.

"Yes."

He seemed to be waiting for me to say something more. When it became clear that I couldn't think of what else to say he tried again.

"So you're an engineer?"

"Yes."

My brain was struggling to make the transition between monosyllabic superhero banter to normal conversation. Sam was still waiting.

"Mechanical." Sam just stared at me blankly.

"I'm studying to be a mechanical engineer." It was a minor victory.

“That’s great.” His response was dry, patronizing. He turned quickly back to the rest of the table. I felt out of my social depth, which at the moment appeared to be second grade.

Lana returned breathless, waiter in tow. She seemed to stumble into the edge of the table, her tipsy rapidly approaching drunk. It was three in the afternoon.

“Have you seen the news? They’ve got more footage of the bridge thing.”

I winced. “The bridge thing” had not gone well. All in all, it had been a crappy morning.

The waiter put his tray on the table and turned up the volume of a nearby set.

It was footage from a helicopter circling over the pandemonium. It was the same M.O. as before, cars pushed aside and formed into a crude barrier. Blue and red lights rimmed the aerial shot, police cars and boats. However, the camera was focused on the school bus in the center. This time they had taken hostages.

“This kidnapping, we’ve learned, was in retaliation for the reckless vigilantism displayed at the Chase Manhattan bombing”

I didn’t have to hear the slight South American accent to know who it was. Just wait until the next time you need saving LlaĖo. The television showed a still of me “attacking” Luis LlaĖo’s cameraman in his helicopter. It was, needless to say, unflattering.

“Is he implying the kidnapping or the bombing was her fault?” The waiter was passing out the drinks.

“I think both.” I was too stunned to say more.

“Why don’t you just give us our drinks,” Sam’s smile was not pleasant.

“Sam!” Lana laughed a little too loudly “It’s alright he goes to school with us. Don’t you, Brian?”

I tried to disappear. I hadn’t even recognized him.

“Oh, another NYU student, well we’re sure to be fast friends.” Sam’s disingenuous smile bore into Brian. Brian shut up, and collected his tray. He left quickly.

The others were watching the TV.

“Why does she dress like that, all black with those ribbons hanging off her, it looks so… so… goth.” It was a girl I met before, Casey. I had been going for ninja chic. Like she could do better with some black workout clothes, athletic tape, and some red and white fabric? It’s not like I know how to make a costume.

Sam chuckled and put his arm around Casey's shoulders.

“It looks pretty good to me.” Lana said, “What do you think Brian?”

Brian had just come back to the table to give Lana her tab.

“Um…” he glanced at the TV. “Um… I think she—”

“Yes, Brian, please grace us with your opinions.” Sam was still smiling. The girl that he was holding laughed.

Brian just stared at him for a second, sullen, and turned to leave.

“No, really what do you think?” I think I was the most surprised when I said it.

His gaze snapped toward me, probing for insincerity. I’m not sure what he saw instead, I didn’t even know what I was feeling, but his face softened.

“I thought she looked good, um… like a superhero.”

“A superhero!” Sam laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Lana laughed too, though I’m not sure, in her state, what she was laughing at. Brian just stood there, eyes blazing at Sam.

“To be fair, the whole ‘bridge thing’ is pretty amazing.” It was one of Lana’s other friends, a broad shouldered guy with short curly hair, and the beginnings of a beer gut. I thought his name was Tim, or was it Jim? “I could really see you splice ‘Boff’ or ‘Wam’ into it.”

Sam looked appalled. “Superheroes! This is the real world! I mean, even fake superheroes don’t live in New York, they live in Gotham or Metropolis, they live in fake New Yorks!”

“Daredevil protects Hell Kitchen.” I couldn’t help myself.

“And Spider-Man’s a New Yorker.” It was another of Lana’s friends.

Sam looked annoyed. I guess he thought the absurdity of his argument would end it.

“She punched out a bus.” I think his name was Tim.

“She dove out of the way.” Sam sounded exasperated that this conversation was even occurring.

I wanted to chime in, but I had said too much already. I was annoyed that they were getting it wrong, that the news reports hadn’t had better footage. It was clear that I dove out of the way and then ripped the front tire off the bus as I rolled by.

Lana gesticulated excitedly, “Oh, I love this part! It’s like something out of a Clint Eastwood movie.”

The TV camera panned from the bus to the edge of the cars. It zoomed in to the point where the steady cam could no longer cope. The little figure in black, white and red looked so tiny on the shaky shot. She stood motionless and then began to make the long walk toward the bus.

One soldier waited in the middle of the bridge.

Lana turned excitedly toward the table, “I wonder what they said?” It was the same question a TV ‘expert’ was discussing. I didn’t have to wonder.

 

***

 

He loomed over me in his powered armor.

The early morning wind whipped passed me, made the long red cord I wore around my neck snap and pull in the wind. I took all the courage I could muster to break the silence.

“I’m here now, let the children go.” It was the most heroic thing I could think to say.

His voice was hollow and metallic, with only a deeply buried hint of humanity.

“So the little Geisha talks.”

I’d hated that nickname from the first moment their demands made the airwaves.

 “It took me a long time to understand how you could,” he stopped seeming to search for the proper term “travel like you did.”

“What?”

He ignored my interruption. “But now that I know its possible it should only be a matter of time before I can harness your unique gift.”

“What does my teleportation have to do with those kids?”

“Everything.”

I didn’t understand how he got the jump on me, I was usually more careful. I didn’t even see that he was armed. I tried to grab the gun he raised. He fired into my stomach. An arc of electricity deposited me onto sticky melted asphalt a good thirty feet away. My body was locked into a rigid fetal position. My vision swam as he approached me. He knelt his cold metal mask inches from my face. I could feel a discharge of hot air from the grill on the front of his mask, like a car's radiator.

 

***

 

“Why does the screen go all fuzzy like that?” Lana brought me back to the present. “One minute they're face to face and the next she’s on the ground.” The picture on the TV screen showed what Lana had described. Two figures tiny in the camera’s eye, then a picture that looked like unpaid pay-per-view. When the picture reappeared it was green, then purple and finally snapped back to grainy color. One figure on the ground, a soldier above her.

“Because he knocks her to the ground.” Maybe it was Jim, and not Tim.

“I’m not asking why she’s on the ground; I’m asking why the camera goes all strange.” Lana snapped.

“It did that in the other TV footage too.” Sam mused almost inaudibly.

“I use to do some A/V stuff in high school; equipment goes on the fritz all the time.” He didn’t seem to hear Sam, and his name I decided was definitely Jim.

Sam seemed too deep in thought to reply.

 

***

 

Other soldiers were gathering around. I felt myself being hauled up from behind. The only thing I could hear was the sound like static between radio stations. The world was full of colored blobs that refused to come into focus. It was as if my brain were in the long process of rebooting. It took me a moment to realize that the commander was still talking.

"...can't be created or destroyed, but moved..."

I blinked but the world still looked small, distorted and distant. It was like I was staring through a fish eye lens.

"...like a wave, energy passing through the neighborhood of matter..."

We were walking towards a bus that looked toy-sized, and maybe ten miles away. The commander's metallic mask filled my vision.

"...all those atoms keep changing, but you remain a little geisha. Have you ever wondered about that? Why don't you end up a radioactive cloud of carbon?"

I couldn't really concentrate on what he was saying, so I didn't answer. Instead I just head butted him. Suddenly, I was face down on the concrete, the weight of two armored suits on top of me. A big metal fist impacted my back, just above my kidneys. I closed my eyes, tried to ignore the pain. I envisioned the spot high up on the bridges support towers from which I'd been watching. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be there, feel the bricks under my feet, and the cold morning wind in my hair. I tried to teleport.

Nothing.

I was hauled up again. A thin crack split the middle of the commander's opaque visor. He threw his head back, but all I heard was distorted laughter, drained of any mirth. He turned and started toward the bus again. I was prodded to follow by my escort's gun. At least the lecturing had stopped.

I could see a soldier wedged into the driver’s seat. The weight of his suit had caused the seat to come unbolted from the floor. Balanced on its remaining two bolts the chair tenuously supported him, but leaned backward dangerously, threatening to dump him back into the seats behind him. The "driver" pulled on a lever and the door swung open. The commander turned sideways so his suit's wide shoulders could fit through the doorway. I was shoved in next.

Their faces were pathetically small. They looked over the backs of their seats, and down the aisle. They disappeared as the commander squeezed down the center aisle. He kept going to the emergency exit at the back where he could see the cops behind the makeshift barricade.

The whole bus shook as the two other soldiers followed me in. One grabbed my wrists and pulled them behind my back. I tried to struggle, but little children were everywhere and I couldn't turn around in the narrow confines of the central aisle. It felt like weights were being strapped to my arms. It only took a second and then I was released. My hands seem to be encased in a solid hunk of iron behind me.

"Now we talk some more, and you don't interrupt," the commander said, still looking away from me out the back of the bus.

"Are we really talking if all I can do is listen?" Unable to push it back up, I blew a strand of hair away from my face.

His shoulders shook gently, as if we were laughing under the suit. No sound escaped. "A fine rhetorical distinction." He turned to face me with his featureless mask. "Alright, I talk, you listen."

The children were elementary age. All look terrified and uncertain, but the one closest to me, a little boy in a red sweater was staring at me wide eyed.

"When you want to move from here to there what do you do in your mind?"

His circumlocution was confusing. I tried to remember where I'd heard someone speak like that. "What do I think?"

"Yes, what do you do in your mind?"

It came to me suddenly. It was the way someone who is still learning English speaks. "I think about where I want to go, what it would feel like to be there, and then..."

"And then you go," He seemed to be nodding along. Despite the distortion that the heavy mask caused in his voice I seemed to hear a hint of smug satisfaction. "And no nothing else?"

I just stared into the flat featureless panel that covered his face, and at the thin crack that ran vertically along it. "And no nothing else," I said finally.

The red sweater boy looked up. I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He noticed my sidelong glance.

"Are you here to save us?" He whispered it a little too loudly.

"Yes." The commander and I stared at each other, each of us having spoken in unison. I tried to see past the leaded glass.

The commander started again. "Normally, the little Geisha fights for this." He whipped something from one of the hidden compartments in his suit. There was no way to shy away from it in the cramped corners. It slapped against my face and fell to the floor. It was a thick roll of hundreds.

"She fights to protect the life of her good friend Benjamin, to make sure that no harm comes to him." He turned to the little boy got down on one knee so their faces were about at the same level. "Do you know what a Geisha is?"

The boy had scooted back and now his back was pressed up against the window, as far away as he could get from the metal monster. His face was white, drained of blood. His head shook. It was hard to tell if it was fear or a 'no.'

The commander took it to mean the second.

"Do you know what a prostitute is?" The little boy didn't know how to react. The faceless metal mask never turned away from him. Finally he nodded his head ever so slightly.

"What is it?"

The little boy’s voice trembled with fear.

"A woman who sells herself for money," he said hesitantly, as if he were quoting something from memory.

The commander still didn't move, just kept his terrible featureless face turned toward the boy.

"Do you know what that means?"

The boy was trembling, he shook his head violently.

The commander stood up suddenly and the boy jumped. "Good, little ones are not supposed to be burdened with such heavy knowledge."

He turned toward me. Behind my mask I felt my face flush with anger. He was looking past me.

"Release the kids. We have her now."

The driver opened the door. The children still sat terrified.

"Go." The commander whispered softly.

They didn't move.

"RUN!" His voice was amplified by the suit, filling the bus. They had to crawl over and under the seats to get out as the four of us in the aisle made it impassable.

I saw out the back as they ran behind the waiting Plexiglas shields of SWAT team. They disappeared behind the wall of cars, gas masks and Kevlar.

I could still feel the two guards behind me, and even thought I could feel the cold eyes of the driver on my back, but my attention was focused on the commander.

"It is good to see that the little Geisha is more than just a Chase temple prostitute."

"Unlike you..." I was going to say who hides behind kidnapped children but his backhand cut me short. It caught me in the cheek and only the side of the bus stopped my flight. I pulled myself away from the twisted pieces of metal that were former bus seats. With my hands pinned behind my back it wasn't easy. I contented myself to being propped up by the wreckage.

The commander was conferring quietly with one of the guards. "...we'll hold off the cops, you take this back to base."

He was handing over a small gun - the weird super tazer he'd shot me with. Despite his clunky suit it was clear he was handling it very gingerly, which of course made it clear what I had to do next.

My leg shot up and took it right out of his hands. The next few seconds seemed to stretch out. The commander couldn't seem to decide whether to look at me or the gun. It hit the ceiling with a satisfying crunch. The accompanying explosion was fantastically bright. My vision slowly returned from overload. Where four soldiers had been, three remained. The soldier the commander had ordered home was gone.

The three remaining soldiers turned toward me.

"What have you done?"

I shrugged my shoulders. Like I knew.

"Thwarted a diabolical plan?"

"No, just slowed it down." The commander flicked his wrist, and like some mechanical magician, made another little ray gun appear in his hand. I threw my elbow back into the wall, and suddenly I was standing again. I let the same momentum push me forward and bring my foot right into his chest. I felt the resistance as my foot lifted him off the ground. The back of the bus seemed to peel away as he flew out the back.

Yet somehow he got his shot off.

I didn't see the bolt, just its afterglow in the air. Every nerve was on fire, like I'd been hit on my funny bone, but all over. The path of the bolt went right beside me to the soldier who'd been running at me from behind. I would have done nothing had he not at that very second grabbed my shoulder.

We flew together, pausing only briefly at the windshield.

I landed, bounced and found myself alone among thousands of shards of glass. I was on my back, staring at the sky. I rolled over quickly squatting on all fours.

“Ah, crap.”

 

***

 

 “Now you’ll see what I mean about punching out the bus.” Tim was taunting Sam.

Sam just looked at him seemingly bored by everything. “I’m not as impressed by this prepubescent nonsense as you are.”

Sam’s retreat into erudition didn’t dampen Tim’s enthusiasm. He stood up as the bus threatened to run over the tiny figure. The tiny figure moved suddenly to the left and Tim pantomimed a huge right-handed haymaker at the screen.

“Bam, right in the front grill.”

Lana giggled at Tim’s imitation. The bus made a wicked turn, and its back end fishtailed into two of the advancing soldiers. The little black figure threw the wheel at a third. Even from the high reaches of the helicopter the resulting impact looked fierce.

“Damn, did you see her level that guy.” Tim was still up and brought his fist into his left palm with a loud ‘smack.’ “Man, she just pancaked him, a real de-cleater.”

“I guess I should’ve known the guy with no neck would consider this a football game.”

Sam’s snide remark couldn’t wipe the smile off Tim’s face. He turned and sat down as the figure on TV made a running dive off the edge of the bridge. As he did he slapped his hand down on to the table.

“Tell me that isn’t a superhero, please somebody tell me that wasn’t a superhero in action.”

 

***

 

I ran until there was no more bridge. The river spread out under me and the height took my breath away. There was no noise, just my heartbeat. The river was gaining speed as it rushed towards me, rising up to snatch me out of the air. I could hear distant roaring. I thought "This is the last thing a suicide sees. Brown choppy waves, and the sunlight glinting off their crests." I couldn't breath. I thought I would be able to anticipate the impact, but the river was coming too fast.

Reality shattered.

There was only blackness. There was no up. There was no air. I couldn't move, I tried to open my eyes but I didn't know if I had succeeded. In the unearthly stillness, I felt bubbles race over my skin. It felt like I was disintegrating. I was numb.

And then the numbness left and pain rushed in to fill the void.

My head broke the surface and I returned to the dull yellows and browns of New York. My hair was plastered to my face and the smell of the Hudson filled my nostrils, its acrid taste burned my throat. I was in need of several hot long showers, and it would probably be best to use a stiff brush.

Something bobbed up to the surface a couple feet in front of me. My mask. I suddenly felt naked. I'd never seen the bridge from below; it was an abstract arrangement of wires and girders against the sky. The distance the fall had put between me and the soldiers had a calming effect.

My arms felt like lead as I pulled myself through the water toward my mask. The current kept it just out of reach. With every awkward stroke water spilled into my mouth. I would spit it out, but the aftertaste remained. I tried to remember the last time I'd been in water deeper than my waist. Some long forgotten summer camp? The 'Y'? Nothing came to me.

To my left the surface of the water broke into dozens of little impacts, like there was a sudden downpour of rain. I hardly heard the gunfire but could see the muzzle flashes from the bridge's railing. The scattered impact of the bullets swept over me. I dove down into the brown water. I saw the bubbly trails left by the bullets' rapid deceleration. I saw a deformed shell sink lazily to the river bottom as I pulled myself deeper into the murk.

I surfaced farther away from the bridge. Looking up I saw no more shooting, in fact no evidence of the soldiers at all. I made a slow turn. All I could see from my vantage point was brown waves. At the crest of one I saw white. My mask floated placidly toward the shore and by the time I reached it I was standing on gravel waist deep in the water. I slid it on my face. I didn't know what terrified me more; the prospect that the media had gotten a shot of my exposed face, or that it might have seen that I was a terrible swimmer.

The river bank rose sharply to the level of the street. I collapsed on the stone strewn shore, and tried to catch my breath. The water lapped at my heels. About halfway up the embankment a chain link fence ran between the street and where I was. There were signs hung at regular intervals along the fence. I didn't have to see the fronts to know what they said: "No Fishing, No Swimming."

Even though I didn't have the energy, I closed my eyes, tried to envision myself on the fire escape outside my window. Nothing. I tried to remember what it felt like to teleport. I couldn't.

I stared at the razor wire coiled atop the fence. I got up and poured all my remaining strength into leaping the fence. I did, but my costume regretted it. I needed to get back to the anonymity of the rooftops, and away from the traffic at ground level. I reached the top of the embankment. The crowd of onlookers fell quiet as I came into view. They were lined up against police barricades and even the officers manning them turned to stare. I didn't have to turn around to realize that behind me was a picture perfect view of the bridge.

A camera flashed. I suddenly felt like King Kong.

I ran toward the nearest alley. My legs felt like lead, but they still moved me in the right direction. I leapt, caught the second story of the fire escape. Behind me the crowd had come alive. I could hear them surging across the street, yelling while the police futilely tried to restore order. I was faster, and was already scrambling up to the roof when they reached the mouth of the alley I had ducked into.

I reached the edge of the roof. They gathered under me, the fire escape out of their reach. I stood on the edge of the building high above them. For a brief moment I was the superhero I'd always dreamed of, standing tall against the open sky. Then I was gone.

 

***

 

My window had a "New York view:" twelve stories of sheer brick. That suited me just fine. It provided nice privacy for moments like this. I opened the window and slid into the room. As I stepped in I heard the squish, squish of my soaked shoes. Yuck.

The place was leased in Lana's name and she told me we were splitting the rent half and half. My share was $450. I was never so naive as to believe that. While I hating being Lana's charity case it saved me the grief of actually living in a $450 a month apartment in New York.

It was a large apartment, at least by New York standards, and I had a private bathroom attached to my bedroom. I stepped into it and looked in the mirror. My suit looked patchable but bullet impacts and razor wire were determined to make my early endeavors as a seamstress miserable. I rolled up my sleeve.

It was sore and reddened from the impact with the river. Normally, that redness would be the precursor to a mighty bruise, but it seemed that superheroes played by different rules. I imagined in several hours it would be feeling fine.

I tested it gingerly with my finger.

"OW!"

Well, probably not fine, but bearable.

I looked at my mask face, looked at the eyes set into the living wood. I was searching. It was as if I looked long and hard enough I could see behind those eyes and into... into what, exactly? I didn't know.

The pain, the soreness, and the weariness threatened to overwhelm me. I looked at the little digital clock I kept in the bathroom. The LCD display informed me I had a half hour to make it to school.

 

***

 

“It isn’t a superhero; it’s a bunch of super powered children whose games kill innocent people.” Sam seemed really angry.

“You’re jealous.” Tim smirked.

“What?” Sam hadn’t seen that coming.

“Not only is she on TV, she’s prettier than you too. What have you done – top billing at community theater?”

“It was Equus,” Lana supplied helpfully.

Tim and Sam ignored her; they were too busy doing their guy thing.

“Anyways,” she continued, turning to me, “I have to go to the bathroom. Jessie, could you come with me?”

A minute later I was holding back her hair.

“I think I drank too much.”

“What makes you say that?” I found myself absently braiding her hair.

She spit into the water. “Ok, I’m done flush it.”

“Oh,” she held her head as she tried to stand, “I wasn’t going to drink, until he brought that woman with him. I am such an idiot.”

“Who?”

It was the wrong question to ask. She just kind of sank her head into my shoulder. She mumbled something into it.

“What?”

She lifted her head. “Go away. I’m busy swearing off drinking.”

She continued before I even had a chance to move.

“Did you see her trying to imitate his snideness? It was so pathetic. He doesn’t want snide he wants nice, but she’s too busy trying to… she thinks he wants…” She trailed off before for a second. “Mirror.”

“He wants mirror?”

Lana gave me her most disdainful don’t-be-stupid-look. She rolled her head so she was looking at the bathroom mirror above the sinks.

“Right, sorry.” I let her steady herself on the edge of the stall. I walked her over to the mirror.

She squinted at herself. She laid her glasses to the side and pushed her palms into her eyes. “I look like a wreck.”

Even now that was patently untrue.

“Do I look like I was crying?”

She turned, showed me a wavering, fragile smile.

“No.”

She wheeled in disgust and pushed her palms back over her eyes.

“You are an absolutely terrible liar.”

“Lana, you look good.”

“What do you think of Brian?”

“Um… nothing.”

“See – I told you, you are a terrible liar.” She pulled out a makeup kit and traced under her eyes with her pinky.

Ok, that was just creepy.

“What about now?”

Her glasses were back on and she looked as perky as ever.

“You look like you didn’t just throw up.”

“Thanks.”

She just stood there posing for me. I kept waiting for her to move.

“Are we going back out now?”

She deflated, her head hung down and her short dark hair fell forward.

“I need to go home, get away from boys. Take me home Jess.”

“Are you okay?”

“I hate that question.”

“Sorry.”

“Yeah, just get me out of here without having to deal with her anymore and I’ll be fine.”

I opened the door for her. ‘Her’ was standing right there. Casey had her head cocked sideways and a big empty grin on her face.

“Lana, are you okay?”

I had felt less danger standing between the barrels of the bomb.

Lana smiled. “Just my Avian Flu acting up, Casey.”

She brushed past a confused looking Casey and back toward the table.

“Avian flu?”

“She’s part Chinese,” I said as I walked past. I tried to make it sound like an explanation.

She followed us to the table where Sam and Jim were now standing. Sam was holding his arm up in the air. His suit jacket was over the back of his chair now, and his tie swung back and forth as he looked from the one other raised hand to Jim. He saw us coming.

“You’re with me right?” He pointed right at us with his other arm.

“Oh, Sam, I’m always with you, honey,” Casey said raising her hand.

Lana looked like she might need to go back to the bathroom.

“What about you two?”

Lana didn’t say anything just stared off at another corner of the bar, lips pouted. Sam seemed confused by her reaction and his finger moved to me.

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Superhero or not?” Jim explained. “We’re all tied up 3-3. Lex Luthor here is trying to rally support for his position.”

“I’m afraid I missed the debate.”

Sam threw his hands in the air. “Unbelievable. NYU boy! What do you think?”

Brian just continued cleaning off the table next to us, ignoring Sam’s question.

“Oh, come on, you wouldn’t shut up before.”

Brian turned to Sam and it looked like he was going to say something. Instead he stopped and just smiled ruefully up at the ceiling, shaking his head.

“Brian, right? I’m Jim. Don’t worry about Sam; he’s just got this weird thing for horses.”

“It was just a play, you moron.” Sam seemed exasperated.

Jim came up and offered his hand to Brian. Brian shook.

“So, Brian. Does she only look like a superhero, or is she one?” Jim asked.

Brian stopped and looked at the bar TV. It was a still of me at the bank robbery.

Please say superhero, Brian, please.

“I don’t know,” he said shaking his head. “I honestly, just don’t know.”


Chapter 3

 

It was one of the first tricks I learned. Take a quarter and break it in half (this step is harder if you don’t happen to be super strong). Throw one half away and close your eyes. With some practice you should be able to locate the other half just by concentrating.  One quick teleport later, you’ll be right there.

I don’t know how it works, or even for that matter how I thought to try it. I have a theory mind you. I think Marx was right. Money takes on a life of its own in society – even a mere quarter represents the hopes and dreams of society. Tear it in half and you’ve ruptured those economic dream shared by millions, maybe billions of people. There’s a force there, a power, which I’m not sure I can explain. You can feel it when you hold onto your half. It doesn’t work with dollar bills (I’ve tried); they just don’t have the solidness that a coin does – ask anyone who didn’t check their pockets before putting them in the wash.

Maybe it would work with a hundred. I just haven’t had the heart to try.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it? So does the prospect of a twenty-year-old girl taking on heavily armed super soldiers.

It’s one of the most helpful tricks I’ve learned. You see, teleportation has its limits. I call them the “Nightcrawler barriers.” You have to be able to see the place you’re going, or at least see it so clearly in your mind’s eye that you can make it real around you. If you can’t, you can’t go. It’s like trying to move through a wall; something blocks your progress, unless of course there happens to be the other half of a quarter to tell you exactly where you’re going.

Detective East just stared at the half quarter in his hand. It’s an awful lot to take in at one time I suppose.

“I wasted twenty five cents why?”

Maybe too much.

“Look I can’t just march into the evidence locker.”

“Damn right you can’t.” He just kept staring grumpily at the quarter. The toothpick he was chewing was being ground to splinters.

“But if you go I can follow.”

“Whatever you say.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“Trust me.”

“I have a daughter you know. She’s your age too. I wouldn’t let her into the evidence locker.”

“How do you even know how old I am?”

He just shrugged and dropped the half-quarter in his pocket.

“Because I have a daughter your age. You’re too young, too stupid; to understand the risks you’re taking.”

“Stop looking so guilty.”

He pulled his shoulders out of their slouch. He still looked as if he had plutonium smuggled away in his jacket pocket.

“Yeah, its just… Look, I’ve never done something illegal before. If someone finds out…”

He didn’t finish. He looked down the alley to the front of the police station.

“You have a daughter?”

He sighed.

“Alright, I’m going.”

He turned to leave.

“East, how many of them are on my side? If someone did find out?” I couldn’t stop myself; I had to know.

The detective face wrinkled up and he seemed to be trying to read his forehead.

“I’d say it’s about 55 to 45 in your favor. Most of them saw how you jumped in against the Soldiers when we were out gunned at the bank, but some of them can’t shake the feeling that the bridge thing was just like gang warfare, escalation.”

He spit out his toothpick in front of him, and absentmindedly ground it into the pavement with his toe, just like the cigarette it wasn’t

“They’re all ‘blue’ in there. They’re all family, you…”

And I’m not, I finished his sentence in my head.

“They see that you’re trying to help, but everyone in there wanted to be cop, sacrificed to be a cop. They don’t just accept people taking the law in to their own hands easily.”

“So its like Luis LlaĖo says – vigilante.”

He heard the disappointment that I tried to hide.

“Aw, hell, this is like explaining to my four year old that Santa’s fake all over again. No, listen, it’s 55 to 45 in your favor. I’m going to go now.”

“Why do you help me?”

He answered slowly.

“You approached me.”

“That doesn’t mean you had to help me.”

He rubbed his neck, and took a long look at the police station. He seemed embarrassed.

“I’ll tell you what. If I don’t get sent to jail for this, I’ll think about telling you.”

“You told your daughter about Santa at age four?”

“Shut up.”

 

***

 

He said to give him 45 minutes to mill around before meeting him in the evidence locker. It was night and he wanted to look like he was working late, in case anyone asked.

I was on a nearby building when I realized how familiar this area looked. Or would look if I were tearing across the rooftops toward a bank robbery.

They were closely set apartment buildings and I was able to pick my way towards a closed office building. I walked the narrow ledge that circled the building, shadowed by my reflection in the windows of dark offices. I had gone halfway around before I saw it. It was another building of apartments, but this one had a small garden on top.

I took the scenic route, short leaps across alleys and narrow streets. Soon I was standing just outside the glow cast by the lights of the rooftop garden, invisible to the young man tending the plants. Cloaked by the darkness I watched as he pulled back a pane on a little greenhouse and watered the roses inside.

I was perched on a little retaining wall above the scene. I waited until he was turned and quietly let one leg drop over the edge. I caught myself in a crouch. I had been even quieter than I had hoped for. I stood up, waited.

He turned. The watering can clattered to the floor.

"I don't believe you."

I made some stupid sounding noise - something like the cross between "huh" and "what."

"Do you know why you're here?"

I didn't have an answer for that, I didn't even know what I would have said if he hadn't spoken. Instead I just said "Yes."

"What am I supposed to say to you?" He held his head in his hands, thinking or out of frustration. He looked back up at me, and then his eyes fell back toward the ground. "Good job, they don't understand you, no really, everyone believes you are great, super even? Just go... go get a blog like a normal person."

"They could track the IP."

He stared at me queerly, like I had just said something very dumb. It isn't dumb, I thought, trying to not sound overly defensive even in the confines of my head, I can't afford the risk.

"They could." God, I sounded like I was eight.

He laughed. He threw his head back and barked laughter up at the sky. Tears were streaming down his face before he could bring himself to stop.

When he did I was gone.

 

***

 

"This isn't the evidence locker." My astute powers of observations told me that it was in fact a stairwell.

"Situations changed. No need to root around for clues. Have you ever read Darwin?"

"Um... no." Not the question I had expected East to ask.

"I have, terrific stuff, especially about the finches. You've heard about the finches? Darwin's finches?" He looked at me over his toothpick. "Right?"

He didn't continue until I'd answered.

"Well at least they still teach something in school," it didn't sound like praise. "Do you remember what Darwin saw in those finches?"

"Evolution?"

He gave me a flat unamused look. "You have restored my hope in the American educational system. The correct answer is beaks. You know what beaks are." He turned to look at me again. "Right?"

I didn't answer him this time.

He let the silence stretch out for an uncomfortably long time. "He saw four genera - that's the plural of genus before you ask - and saw they all had different beaks. Do you know why?"

"Evolution?" It was going to be the right answer one of these times.

It was a strange to watch a man who seemed to struggle with basic English lecture me. "They adapted to eat different foods, learned to because their survival depended on it." He pointed to his head. "The same reason humans learn -- to survive."

He sat there, his meaty finger pointed at his equally meaty head.

"Notice I'm pointing at my head, and not yours. I'm pointing at my head, because Darwin's theory of evolution seems not to apply to you. You make a boneheaded decision and evolution would seem to dictate your demise. But no, you blunder in and survive, faulty reasoning intact, ready to be employed in a new generation of bad decisions." He spread his large hands expressively. "Behold the cycle of dumbass. Now I seem to recall saying -- trap. Did I not say to you 'Its a trap.'"

There was no really good way to respond, but there was no getting him to drop it until I answered.

"Yes."

"And I said it was a trap because they said 'hostage exchange' and you can't really take some one hostage who can just disappear whenever the fancy takes hold -- so trap. Behold the power of evolution at work." He handed me a folder. "Another example of evolution in action."

I opened it up. Inside were autopsy photos of a young Hispanic man.

"Angelo here, or Angel, as his homies called him, is the only man we've known to have worn one of these suits." He turned and started down the stairs toward double doors. When it was clear I wasn't following he turned again. "You coming? What's wrong with you?"

I had dropped the folder. I was trying to suppress my gag reflex. I felt his hand on my back, almost gingerly.

"This is one of those dead body things, isn't it?"

I managed to nod.

"God, I forget you are barely a kid." He said it to himself under his breath, his words not meant for me. Super hearing, I guess. He picked up the folder and swept up the spilled contents with one expert motion. When I could stand up straight he looked me over. "You ready?"

I nodded again.

"Ok," he turned and started back toward the double doors. "Do you recognize him?"

I was able to draw to mind the image of his dead face on the autopsy table without gagging. "Yeah that was the guy." I stopped, and when I did East did too, one hand on the door. "I thought his name was John Doe."

"Was, until five minutes ago. One of his compatriots gave us the name."

"What!?"

He took his hand off the door. "Remember Darwin's finches?" As he said it he mimed little wings by tucking his fist into his armpits and flapping his elbows. "Well, things have just gotten very dangerous, and we can't just blunder on, we've got to be smart, and not just charge fist first into the fray. You do that and that bitch evolution is going to kill off cops. You think you can stop with 'hulk smash' for all of ten seconds?"

I ignored his dig. "You caught this guy?  Did you pull him over, search his car and find a super suit in the trunk?"

East laughed. "Naw, guy turned himself in."

He pushed open the doors. Every head turned toward me as I walked in behind East. There were at least three dozen cops, most heavily armed and decked out in full combat gear. I instantly froze. I felt my stomach contract in fear. What happened to our whole stealth plan?

East was unfazed. A tall black man with salt and pepper hair turned toward him as we walked up. "That was quick, detective."

"I just jogged up to the roof and flipped on the bat signal, Chief, easy as that." East's face had a wide smile usually worn by used car salesmen.

It was clear from the Chief's narrowed eyes that he didn't believe East. Never the less, he let it rest. "Suspect's all yours. Miss, if you could come with me." We filed into an interrogation room, where even more police waited. Seated at the table was a Hispanic man. He looked like a gang banger. He was wearing a white tank top, with tattoos that seemed to flow up and down his well muscled arms and neck. When the door opened he bolted upright, terrified. He was holding onto something so tightly that his knuckles were white. A little chain dangled out from his fist. When he saw me he slumped back into his chair and seemed to finally let out the breath he had been holding.

"Walter, I held up my part of the deal." East said.

"How do I know that's not just a chick in a mask?" Fear made Walter's voice unsteady. He turned toward me. "Sorry, chica."

East looked genuinely hurt.  "You would impugn my honesty?" He ran a hand back through his hair. "Besides, I think you're too smart to be taken in by cheap tricks like that."

"Uh-huh," Walter seemed skeptical of East's appeasement strategy, but not wholly unswayed.

"But, Walter, that's three smart things you've done," East held up three fingers and began ticking them off, "One, you turned yourself in. Two, you agreed to testify in exchange for leniency. Three, you asked for an assurance of safety, and…" he gestured at me, "here she is."

Walter was gnawing on the end of his finger nervously. He was eyeing me warily. "Yeah, well I'm getting less and less confident about this whole arrangement."

"Walter." East seemed to say it almost sweetly. "You gotta have faith."

Walter opened his fist and stared down at the rosary he'd been holding.

I still didn't know what my role was in all this, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to me, so I just stood still and stayed quiet.

Walter wrapped his fingers back around the rosary. "Alright, I'm ready."

The Chief had been a statue in a navy suit beside me. Suddenly he stepped forward and barked a quick command. The well-armed policemen in the room streamed out. East put a hand on my shoulder. The room was empty aside from the Chief, East, Walter and me. The Chief pulled a jacket off the wall. He threw it to Walter.

"SWAT and our riot teams will be moving with the decoy convoy in five." He informed us, giving East a look I couldn't quiet read. East just nodded. I felt like a whole other conversation had just occurred in that quick exchange, but was left clueless as to its meaning.

"What do we do?" I couldn't keep my mouth shut any longer.

The Chief just moved his eyes until they rested on me, but it was East who answered. He fished some keys out of his pocket. "We take the olds."

The Chief walked ahead, with Walter, while East and I trailed behind at a distance where I could finally talk to him.

"You say no more 'hulk smash' and then you hire me out as a bodyguard?"

"Play to your strengths, right?" I had to laugh, he didn't. "I'm not kidding, though; I'm not getting killed because you can't resist a fist fight. You don't fight unless you can win, and I think we've both seen that those suits can make even Walter here one tough son of a bitch to beat."

"Who is he?"

East rubbed his chin, "You won't believe me," he paused, shook his head as if he didn't believe himself either, "but the kid is clean. No record, church, mission trips, good family, father's a chiropractor. Spearheaded a fund raiser to help orphans in Brazilian slums."

"What about Angel?"

East snorted. "Angel wasn't. He was a low level dope dealer and had an outstanding warrant for almost killing his ex with a beer bottle. Never been booked though, so his prints weren't in our system, though they did match some found on a gun used in a drug related shooting last year."

"Charming."

We went through some double doors and stepped out into the parking garage.

Something just wasn't adding up in my head. "I don't get it, East, what's the connection? How do Walter and Angel end up working together?"

East just shrugged. The chief and Walter were waiting by the car. East unlocked the back door and helped the handcuffed Walter in. I got in the passenger's seat. I looked back at the man behind the grill, tried to imagine him in church. It was easy. His head was bowed and was slowly going through his "Hail Marys."

East got into the drivers seat and we drove off. It was nearly ten and traffic was as light as it could get in New York.

East turned and pushed a key through the grill.

"Uncuff yourself."

Walter quietly complied.

East was looking at Walter in the rear view mirror. "If anything goes wrong you run, and if the catch you, for God's sake don't try to fight them."

Walter nodded mutely.

The city lights were still bright, even at night. Big bright neon lights periodically flooded the cab. We drove until the city lights faded. Soon we were left with the periodic illumination of dingy yellow highway street lamps.

Walter was the first to break the silence. He leaned forward, almost touching his cheek to the grating that bisected the car.

"Chica?"

"She prefers Geisha," East said.

I gave East a poisonous glance, but didn't argue. It was futile, the newspapers and anchors had already reached a consensus.

"Geisha, you for real?"

"Yeah." I replied laconically, not really wanting to have a conversation with a super villain.

He sat back and for the first time during the whole ride smiled.

"You hit me with a parking meter."

East interrupted. "Wow, you two are already old friends then."

"And a bus tire,” Walter actually winked at me as he said it.

I turned in the seat tried to take stock of the man in the backseat. "Why did you do it?"

Walter's eyes dropped. "You wouldn't understand."

"Try me."

"You haven't met him."

"The commander?"

Walter nodded but still didn't make eye contact.

I thought back to the bridge. "We've talked."

He looked at me, something surprisingly fierce behind his eyes. "No you haven't. Not in person, I mean, he has this way of making you see the world, you know, see it like he does. When he talks all your thoughts, they just don't stick in your head, I don't know... when he talks to you the only thing that sticks in your mind are his words."

"So he made you do it?"

Walter bared his teeth out of frustration. "I enlisted so that I could help. I raised two thousands dollars once, to help these kids I had missioned to in Brazil. It took six months. He comes up to me and says, 'What if you could raise two hundred thousand dollars for those kids, what would you do?'"

"What did you think he was, some kind of Robin Hood?"

"Well, doesn't matter, the guy is a fucking hypocrite. Playing with the lives of those kids, it ain't right."

"But robbing banks - that's just hunky-dory?"

"You people only use money for two things, bombs and gasoline. Don't you ever dream of a better world?"

He was angry, so I didn't argue. Just turned toward the window and looked at the passing scenery.

Walter's anger wore off and he actually looked contrite. "I'm sorry, his words, not mine. They get in your head and you just hear yourself repeating them."

We rode in silence. The suburbs had given way to fields and trees.

Walter started up again. "Look, I, I just want to let you know I'm not a bad guy, as soon as it was safe I turned myself in. I asked them to find you. You know why?"

"Why?" It was an itch I had to scratch.

"The commander, I don't know his real name, unless it's 'Sir,' he talks about these women all the time - Las Aves. You heard about them?"

I hadn't.

"There are these women, kind of a Brazilian slum folk tale. They help the poor. The protect them, the only people who will. There are stories about a crooked Brazilian paramilitary commander. A rancher hired him to clear some farmers off some lands. The guy took some guns and some guys, but, he never did the job. The villagers swore some women -- las aves -- came and protected them. Three of them. Imagine that – three women against an army.”

Given the past couple days, it wasn’t that hard.

"I don't know if its true, but Sir, he seemed to believe, said if we could pull off the jobs he arranged, we could be heroes like them. On the bridge I knew we weren't heroes. I saw you come to the rescue like that - knowing it had be a trap -"

I felt rather than saw East's look. Stupid finches.

"-but still you came anyways. I knew then you could help me, and nobody else could. I was just trying to do right by the world; surely you of all people understand that."

East wasn't saying a word, but he was clearly watching Walter. The highway had gotten dark, street lights and cars were getting rarer. Finally he spoke.

"Walter, could you turn your palms up?"

Walter looked at East as if he was crazy. Annoyed at the interruption, he turned his palms up.

"Take off your jacket." There was intensity in East's voice that made me examine Walter closer. He shrugged off the jacket the Chief had given him. I saw it right away in the darkness. East pulled the car on to the shoulder and slammed on the brake.

"What?" Walter asked. East and I were both staring at the little glowing red spot beneath the skin of his arm.

"What is that?" I asked East, but he was already out the driver's door.

The back door flew open and East dragged Walter onto the highway. I could barely see in the pale moonlight the evil curve of the knife in East’s hand.

I got out of the car, but couldn't see either of them; they were on the ground on the other side of the car. I could however, hear Walter scream. I ran. East had pinned down Walter's torso with his knee and was working the knife into the underside of Walter's forearm. I grabbed the back of East's shirt, lifted him off Walter with one arm, threw him on to the car's hood.

The big man bounced and the knife skittered into the grass at the highway's edge.

"What the hell are you doing?"

East didn't even look at me, just down at the bloody glowing piece of flesh in his hand.

Walter was whimpering, cradling his arm, clearly in shock.

"You alright?"

Walter looked at me and then back at his bloody forearm. "I don't know."

"East, what the hell is going on?"

East finally answered. "It's a GPS chip."

I knew where to look before I ever saw him. One second the highway stretched empty out in front of the car. The next there was a soldier.

East ran past me toward Walter. Walter turned and ran, but he had just started to turn when East tackled him. The big man’s momentum took them both over the raised highway median. I saw but did not understand, until of course the soldier's rocket made contact with the engine block.

When I could finally open my eyes I saw I was at least thirty feet down the road.

My head rang. I saw East shooting at the advancing soldier, emptying the clip into the super dense armor. I couldn't hear the gunfire, I couldn't really hear anything. Walter was ducked down behind the barrier, behind East. He was looking right at me, yelling something. Trying to run. The soldier caught up to him grabbed him from behind and turned back toward East. East had reloaded, but couldn't shoot through the human shield.

I pushed myself to my feet.

The soldier slung Walter over one shoulder and grabbed East. Then I was alone on the highway, the spot where the three of them had been, empty. The car lit up the night, red flames licking out under the dense plume of smoke. Something glittered in the flickering light.

It was Walter's rosary.


 

 

Chapter 4

 

East was in the waiting room, a fat pack of Cubans tucked under his arm.  He was standing, despite the abundance of chairs, too nervous to sit. 

In those days the Chief's hair was still black and they had still been friends.  The Chief sat so still it seemed at any moment a pigeon would settle on his shoulder.

East had gotten the shakes, wanted to take a drag on one of those cigars right then and there, but a big fat black nurse behind the reception desk never took her eyes off him.

East paced.  He would walk down the length of the hallway, until he was at the water fountain outside the restroom.  Then he would turn, walk past the Chief and turn again when he reached the edge of the reception desk.  The nurse’s head swiveled as he did, like she was watching the world's slowest tennis match.

He was down at the restrooms again.  He turned and the Chief was standing, hat off.  It was Mary.  East knew then he was dreaming, because his wife looked younger, wearing the dress he had first seen her in, a floral print summer dress.  In reality she had been wearing stained scrubs from a recent autopsy.

He opened the box for her as he walked up.

"Congratulations, Honey, it's a girl."

 

***

 

A stream of cold water woke Detective East.  He tried to back away from the downpour, but his hands were tied behind the back of the chair.  Instead his chair tipped back until his head bounced off hard porcelain.  The pain did the rest of the job of waking him up.  He was blindfolded, but could see the floor, a dirty brown tile with a rusty drain, like a public shower fallen into disuse.

Somebody pushed his chair upright.  He was back under the water.  The downpour died down suddenly into just a steady drip, drip, drip.  He heard shoes across the damp tile.  Another showerhead started to spray water and Walter noisily came awake.

East wasn't sure if he was still dreaming, a strange haze of unreality seemed to fog his brain.

"I must say, Walter, that I am disappointed."  The voice was silky smooth and heavily accented.  Hispanic, maybe?  East strained to listen despite his throbbing head.

"Sir?"  Walter's voice shook with fear and uncertainty.

"No, not anymore.  You deserted."  There was a trace of sadness in the Commander's voice.

"I'm sorry.  I got scared, the kids...  I was weak...” Walter sounded practically penitential.  He sniffed back tears.

For a long time that was the only sound, and East had the clear mental image of the Commander watching Walter's breakdown.  Eventually the Commander's sigh broke the silence.

"You've caused me a lot of trouble, Walter."

"I know...” Walter replied weakly.

"I'm going to have to think about what to do with you."

With that those footsteps came over toward East.

"You have the right to remain silent."

The Commander laughed.

East plowed on, undeterred.  "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning.  If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense."  It came out in one long breath.

"Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?  With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?" Despite the blindfold, he faced where the footsteps suggested the Commander was.

The Commander's reply sounded less amused.  "Yes detective, I would like to talk to you."

"Am I to take that to mean you understand the rights I have...”

East had no way of anticipating the blow.  The force made his head snap left.  East could taste the copper taste of blood.

"Don't talk to Sir that way!"  It was a new voice, and it was angry.

"Please, Sergeant, detective East and I just want to talk."

The new voice replied tersely and East heard footsteps, and then a big metal door slamming shut.

"I'll take that as a yes."  East said, working his jaw to try and lessen the sting.

"Detective, how is our mutual friend."

"I'm afraid I don't know who you are talking about."

"You know who she is, tall, dark, super strong."

"Not ringing a bell - could you be more specific."

"What do you think this attitude will get you?"

"Hit?"

The Commander laughed again.  "I'm afraid some of my people are more..." he paused, "more excitable than others.  But the Geisha, she seems to have recovered from our little encounter."

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"She can disappear from one place, and -- poof -- reappear somewhere else."

"She is a girl of many talents."

"Hmm..." the Commander seemed to ponder this and East could hear his footsteps recede and then slowly make their way back.  "Very interesting, this news."

"Seems to me just about any moron can learn that trick these days."

"Very funny detective,” The Commander didn't seem very amused.  "Maybe I should just leave you in here a little longer.  It seems we are not quite ready to yet discuss greater truths."

East could hear him walk away again.

"Yeah, well bring your lawyer next time!"

This time the footsteps didn't return, instead the lights turned off and the metal door opened and closed.  East waited.  In the dark all he could hear was Walter's ragged breathing and the steady drip of water.

 

***

 

East stood up and walked to the door.  In the dark it was haloed in light; illumination leaked through the gaps around the edges.  He pushed it open.  He was in a hospital room.  A thin woman, barely more than a girl was cradling a baby in her arms.  Her straggly blonde hair was slicked down with sweat, and her spindly arms held the bundle of blankets right under her chin.  She still looked drained from the birth.

East was dreaming again.

Mary waited at her bedside and when East walked over to her, she slid his hand into his.

The new mother looked up and saw him, and East could see the streaks the tears had left against her face.

"She's so pretty.  How can she be so beautiful?"

East hadn't known what to say - still didn't.  Mary knew not to say anything and just put a hand on the new mother's shoulder.  This brought fresh tears.

"You'll take care of her for me?"

In his dream state East could see himself nod dumbly in reply.  Mary gently squeezed the mother's shoulder reassuringly.

"Just don't tell her about me.  And don't tell her about... her father."

The hospital scene seemed to rip away violently.  East watched as it faded out to the horizon, until it was just a pinpoint of light in a sea of black.  East groggily realized it wasn't just darkness -- it was a shadow, and not only that, a man's shadow.  East turned but already knew who was behind him.

The man's eye's burned red and the sledgehammer he swung was aimed right at East's temple.

 

***

 

East's head snapped back as he woke.  The blindfold was still there, and his wrists were rubbed raw against the rope that bound him.  It was still dark, but he could see the grungy floor, brown against black.

"Walter?"

His voice sounded distant, as if he was only hearing its echo off the tiles.

"Detective?"

"Why-- " Do I keep dreaming?  Detective East stopped.  "Why do I keep falling asleep?"

"I think the Commander drugged you.  Makes you relive the past, right?"

"Close enough."

"The Commander calls it veridad."

"Why would he drug me?"

"Don't know, maybe he just wants to hear you talk in your sleep."

"Was I?"

"Yeah.  I didn't take you for a religious man."

"What?"

"You kept talking about Mary."

East snorted, a kind of aborted laugh.  "My ex-wife."

"Oh."

East was sweating, despite his damp clothes.  His head felt like it was on fire.  His arm too.

Walter continued talking, a kind of detached running commentary.  "I think he drugged me too.  He leaves you in the dark, because he says, it helps the process.  That always scared me.  Sometimes he talked like he was some sort of revolutionary -- a Che Guevara. That I could handle; but then he would get all psycho-analysizer, and he just sounded like some sort of creepy, Dr. Moreau.  Know what I mean?"

East shook his head slowly.  Finally the more conscious parts of his brain remembered their blindfolds.  "Walter, I can't understand a word you’re saying.  You kinda sound loopy."

"I think he definitely drugged me."  Walter concluded.

"What now?"

"We sit in the dark."

East waited a second for Walter to elaborate.

"Ok, I'm already doing that, Walter."

Walter laughed, and East heard a dispiriting insane edge in it.

"Walter?  You've got to keep it together for me."

"Yeah, well, he wouldn't hurt us, he's a hero."

"The Commander?"

"Well, he thinks he's one anyways.  Heroes don't hurt people, especially tied up drugged people."  Walter started giggling again.

East took stock of himself.  He hurt like hell, but he didn't feel giddy.  Whatever the soldiers had done to Walter, they'd done something different.  Although, how would I know? 

"Walter?"

The only reply was quiet giggling and mumbling.

"Walter!"

"Que?"

"What are they going to do now?"

"Well the Commander, he'll come and talk to you, and with veridad in your veins you'll tell him whatever he wants.  His voice will kind of pour into your head, and fill up all the nooks and crannies.  You'll probably start to believe his words, maybe even volunteer yourself..."

East stopped listening, Walter rambled on, but his point seemed clear.  Some sort of interrogation, or psychological manipulation. 

East's back was strapped to something, and he was laying head lower than his ankles.  Another voice began to drone on, interweaving with Walter's.  He recognized the voice, could picture the man's face.  It was his drill sergeant.

Veridad must have been doing his job, because suddenly East was reliving all too clearly the uglier days at Ranger school.  He had hated torture resistance training at the time, but now those lessons were beginning to seem particularly relevant.  In fact, East was starting to feel slightly more charitable emotions towards his old sadistic drill sergeant.  In his drug induced daydreams the water boarding was being done in a gentle, almost loving way.

East could feel water running up his nose and down his throat.  His whole body reacted to the sensation of drowning, but he was strapped down too tight for it to make any difference. 

"Name and rank, soldier!"

He gasped to get the words out between gulps of water.  It was always the same reply.

"Sir, screw you, sir!"

"Good man, private."  The drill sergeant said, patted him on the forehead, and poured another bucket of water.

He closed his eyes, but behind the blindfold it made no difference.  He could feel water worming its way down his throat, fighting to get into his lungs.

The shock brought him back to the present.

"Walter!"

"Yeah?"  Walter had obviously stopped talking, but East had no idea how long it had been.

"Walter?  Have you seen him do this before?  The whole brainwashing, conditioning thing?"

"Yeah, works like a charm, he takes some street thug and sits them down, and a couple hours later, they're full of piss and vinegar for the cause.  Of course it sort of wears off after a while..."

"Like with Angel?"

"Sir was especially careful after Angel, had all the street guys reconditioned every other week after that."

"And you?"

"I helped."  East couldn't tell if Walter was giggling or crying.  "God have mercy, I helped.  I believed."

"And could he be trying to recondition you now?"

Walter suddenly became very silent.  When he spoke again he sounded almost cheerful.  "I hadn't thought of that, they'd slaughter the fattened calf for the return of the prodigal son..."

East felt a strange wave of emotions.  The last he recognized quite clearly.  It was anger.  He wasn't going to allow the one break in the case to slip happily back into the shadows.  "Walter! Shut the hell up!  That isn't going to happen."

Walter wasn't hearing him.  He was singing tunelessly.  "I'm going home...  I'm going home..."

East pulled and twisted his wrists in the ropes.  His raw skin burned, as it slid against the rope that held him.  East bit his lip and pulled, and finally his wrists popped free of their restraints.  He tore off the blindfold and looked around.  Walter was tied up about ten feet away, similarly bound.  In the dark he could only make out dim shapes, but to East they looked to be in the shower room of some abandoned jail.  He saw his trench coat hanging over one of the rust covered showerheads.  In the dark, he could only feel around in the pockets.  Where was his goddamn gun?

Walter had stopped singing, and despite the darkness and the blindfold was staring right at East.  "Detective, would you like to re-enlist with me?"

East stifled a curse and checked another pocket, he felt leather.  Then he felt a rush of elation as he felt cool metal.  Damn!  It was only his badge.

Great now they’ll probably surrender.

East had just started to dig into another pocket when he heard the big metal door swing open.  From the trench coat he pulled out something small and sharp, but then was reduced to using his arms to shield his eyes from the blinding light.

A broad muscular figure was silhouetted against the doorway.

"East, what did I tell you?  The Commander is here to take us home."

"Guess again."  East recognized the voice; it was 'Sergeant,' the soldier that had hit him earlier.  He tried to get a clearer view but the light made his head feel like it was going to explode.

There was panic in Walter's voice.  "Where's the Commander?"

"Away," was the Sergeant's laconic reply.

"Oh."  Walter spoke in a strangely detached emotionless voice.  "Never mind, East, I think they're just going to beat us to death instead."

It was then that Sergeant finally seemed to notice East. 

"What the hell?"  The Sergeant looked at him sideways, as if unable to grasp the meaning of East standing next to his trench coat, instead of being tied to a chair.  He didn't stay stumped long.

East tried to anticipate the charge, but his drug-addled mind wouldn't respond.  The Sergeant's shoulder caught him just below the chin.  He felt himself sprawl the small object that he had retrieved from his jacket pocket sent flying from the force of the blow.

The Sergeant grabbed his leg and started pulling.  East clawed at the floor, but the damp smooth tile offered no handholds.  Something shone in the light, and East grabbed at it.  His fingers recognized it; it was the thing from his pocket.  It was important.  East tried to fight through the haze in his mind.  His gun?  No, he decided, more important than that.

He was pulled through the metal doorway and out into a ring of soldiers.  They looked huge in their mechanical suits.  Under him, East could feel warm dirt, above he could see sky.  The Sergeant’s ugly face came in to view.  He was Hispanic, like Angel, and had a crooked nose, and a nasty grin.  The soldiers behind him, in their suits, were faceless.

"An army versus one man?"  East forced himself to laugh.  "It's not fair if you don't take off the suits."

The Sergeant laughed, an evil sound.  "Us against you?  I don't think it’s going to be fair anyways."

East, managed to push himself up to his knees, "Are you a coward?"

The Sergeant stiffened.

"I may be outnumbered, but a man on his feet fighting, there's at least honor in that.  Men against men, fist against fist.  Me and Walter against you."  He pushed himself up to one knee, despite the groans of his body.  Somewhere in the darkness behind him he heard Walter's shouted protest.  "It'll be almost like the Iliad, like Achilles and the Trojans.  It'll be heroic."

The Sergeant's face twisted at the final word.  He straightened and an altogether alien expression came over his face.  "He's right, this would be the way the Commander wanted it."

It may have just been the drugs, but East was surprised by how quickly the suits came off.  Soon there was a pile of armor, and a ring of men surround East.  Somebody pushed Walter into the circle.

East did his best to grab Walter as he stumbled forward.  However, Walter was more drugged than East expected and he fell forward into a heap.  Everybody looked down at where Walter lay.  Everyone that is, except for East, who used the momentary distraction to push a big meaty fist into the Sergeant's nose.

Arms dragged East to the ground.  He felt himself smirk as the Sergeant sat caressing his newly broken nose.  He poked his nose gingerly, and grimaced in pain.  "Damn, not again," he touched it gingerly, and looked down in disgust at the little drops of blood at the end of his fingers.  He stood and towered over the pinned East, "you are going to pay for that."

"Sorry, hombre."  East said trying to squirm free from the bodies that held him down.  "It looks like I messed up your face, it’s hideous."

The Sergeant brought the heel of his boot down into East's stomach.  East gasped for breath but the blow had knocked the wind out of him.

Wiping away the steady trickle of blood from his nose, the Sergeant's eyes scanned over to East's tightly closed fist.  His eyes narrowed suspiciously.  "What are you hiding there, a shiv?"  He put his foot down on East's forearm.  Once he had pinned it down, he leaned closer to investigate.  "What happened to all that fist versus fist, man versus man shit?"

The Sergeant pressed his foot down on East's forearm.  East struggled to keep his fist closed, but the increasing pressure finally forced it open.  East couldn't see, but could hear the small metallic clang as his fingers spasmed open.

"What the hell?"

The Sergeant leaned down and scooped up what East had been clutching.  He held it up where all the other soldiers could see it.

East couldn't help but start to laugh hysterically.

In his hands the Sergeant held half a quarter.

Now would be a good time,  East thought.

There was a surprised gasp, and one of the soldiers seemed to rise up into the air, and then sail across the room.  In his place was a tall girl dressed in black.

"Hi ya fellas," Geisha said.

 


 

 

Chapter 5

 

24 hours earlier...

I watched the car burn for a long time. It was now smoldering wreckage, giving off heat but almost no light, just a dull red glow. Walter's rosary dangled from my fingers.

I was in the woods just off the road, my suit's black all but invisible against the even darker trees behind me. The traffic that passed crawled by slowly, but if anyone in those cars saw me, they gave no sign.

I just kept watching until finally I heard the wailing of fire trucks.

I closed my eyes and felt the familiar bending of space around me. When I opened them I was on the ledge just above Brian's rooftop garden.

He wasn't there. I waited, but I didn't know what I would say to him. I closed my eyes again. When I opened them this time, I was perched atop the Quick Burger sign, but far from being empty, the parking lot was filled with cars.

I had no place left to go but home.

I slid the apartment window open and stepped into my bedroom. I tore off my mask and threw it into a corner. It landed on a pile of dirty clothes.

I sat down on the edge of the bed, head in my hands.

I looked at the clock. Lana wouldn't be back tonight until late, and even that was uncertain. It was Friday and I might not see her again until Sunday.

I pulled the red red cord wrapped around my neck and my form fitting black shirt off. Underneath I wore a black tank top. I pulled on some my trusty over sized pair of cargo pants on over the bottom of my suit. The transformation was complete. I was a civilian again.

I walked out into the living room, and had no sooner closed my bedroom door behind me when I heard a knock at the door.

The chain caught as I opened the door. I peeked out.

"Lana, thank God your home." It was Sam. For once he didn't look immaculate. The tie he always wore was undone, and his hair was disheveled. He quickly realized his mistake. "I'm sorry, Jesse, I was looking for Lana." He mumbled. "Can I come in?"

I didn't feel like talking to Sam, but I needed the company, and he looked like he did as well. Beggars can't be choosers. I unlatched the door and opened it for him.

He walked past me and collapsed down on the couch. He didn't look up but just asked, "Does Lana have anything to drink here?" When I didn't answer right away, Sam made an annoyed little tsk with his mouth. "I'm good for it, I'll pay her back."

The cabinet above the refrigerator was full of liquor. Sam twisted to watch me over the back of the couch. "Bring the wine in the back, I gave it to her ages ago, I should have known it would just go to waste."

I hooked two glasses on the way out of the kitchen and set the bottle and the two glasses on the table in front of Sam.

"I'm not the only one who had a rough night?" Sam said as he watched me sit down across from him.

Oh, are you responsible for the kidnap and probable death of two people, too? Instead I just asked mildly, "What's wrong?"

He poured himself a cup and then one for me. "Don't you people have normal wine glasses?" he frowned as he looked at the glass. He just shrugged and took a sip. "Casey and I broke up." He paused and looked down into his glass, still filled with dark red liquid. "No, that's not right. Casey broke up with me."

I took a drink from the glass Sam had poured me. The liquid in side was heavy and burned with the taste of alcohol. I knew the alcohol would have no effect on me, but I really didn't have know what to do after losing to a group of super villains. I was just mimicking the coping strategies of others. Sam and Lana in particular. What great teachers, I though wryly.

"I'm sorry." I didn't know what else to say. Breaking up seemed so pedantic. Whatever place inside that would normally have sympathized with Sam, I couldn't find it.

You selfish, arrogant bastard. I felt instantly ashamed, and bowed my head.

"I'm sorry." I tried again.

Sam stared at me, obviously thrown off by my double apology. "Thanks."

"Lana never did like Casey." I said searching for something to say.

Sam smiled. "Yeah, I know." He leaned back in the couch, a bemused smile and his face. "Maybe next time I'll listen." He stared down into the wine glass again. "This isn't actually half bad." He took another sip. "Casey didn't like Lana either. I think she saw her as competition."

I laughed nervously.

"Yeah, I think its funny, too. I mean Lana is like my little sister. Did you know she used to come up with my Dad and me to our summer house? She was like, five and I was six. We practically grew up together. Like I could date her." He waved a dismissive hand at me.

I hadn't known that. I had wondered how Sam could be so blind to Lana's advances. "I guess I was the first guy Lana kissed. I'm sure that didn't help Casey feel comfortable around her." "What?"

"I shouldn't probably tell you this, but when she was thirteen, we snuck out to a little covered bridge that was about a mile away from the summer house. We practiced kissing each other. Can you imagine?" This was all revelation to me. "You can tease her about that the next time she gives you shit about studying too much."

I laughed. "So you remember that?" "Of course," I noticed his glass was empty again, but he quickly remedied that. "I think I was struck dumb when I saw you walk into J.R.'s. I was sure Lana would have said something about your looks."

I smiled. "Was I that ugly?" I teased him, but my mouth felt dry and I was sure it wasn't the wine.

Sam guffawed. "No! I mean, she said you were good looking but she never mentioned you were..." Sam stopped in mid sentence and looked down at the glass in his hand. He looked surprised to see how full it was. He put it down on the table a good distance away from him.

"I need to go to the bathroom," he said sheepishly. He looked around, and then at me.

"Um, my room." I answered too quickly. He stood up, but I got up quicker and ran through my door, closing it behind me.

"I guess, ladies first," Sam said from the living room. "No, I just need to clean up in here." I called. I kicked more clothes on top of the mask and the uniform. I looked around the room for anything else suspicious. Sam opened the door behind me.

"Looks alright to me." He said looking around. He pointed to the closed bathroom door. "In here?"

I just nodded. He gave me a thumbs up and stepped in.

When he stepped back out a minute later I tried to usher him into the living room, but instead Sam just looked over at my night table.

"Are those comic books?"

I felt my cheeks burn a little bit hot. He stepped around me and over to the stack of comics that were next to my bed.

"Batman," he read, and then with his finger, slid it out of the way so he could read the next one down. "Superman," and then the next. "Spider-man."

He looked back at me. "I would have never guessed."

Yeah, well I don't exactly advertise.

He looked back down at the stack in front of him. "Good taste though, no X-men?"

"I don't like the team ones," I answered before I could tell myself to shut up.

"Why not?" he asked as he sat down and started flipping through one on top.

I really didn't know how to answer that tactfully, luckily the question was already forgotten. "I haven't read one in years. My uncle used to have a whole basement full, I'd go over and read all day." He had been smiling at the memory, but suddenly frowned. "My dad didn't like it." He put the book back down.

Sam shook his head and walked toward the door. As he did he glanced at the map of New York spread out across my desk. I quickly stepped between him and it, and he walked back out into the living room.

He sat back down and looked at the glass of wine he had put down before, as if contemplating it.

"You know I have a theory about the Soldiers too."

"What?" I tried to sound innocent but I'm sure my eyes were about three sizes too big.

Sam gave me an bemused smile. "The map."

"What map?" I knew I had taken the innocence routine too far.

"The one with all the little X's, each marking a spot where the Soldiers have hit. Big circles around the bank and bridge? That map?"

I just bit my lip to stop from saying anything. Sam seemed to be waiting for me to reply.

"You actually didn't seem that interested at J.R.'s, but the comic books, the map. Maybe I was all wrong about you." He looked at me through narrower eyes, and for a second a grip of paranoia took hold. Could he know? I quickly banished that thought. "

Yeah, I've got to admit it kind of..."

"...scary?" Sam finished when I hesitated.

Not exactly.

"How about exciting?" I ventured.

"Oh no, not you too?" Sam laughed, but it didn't seem scornful. "I've been trying to convince people that this is crazy. I guess its a lost cause. How soon until the action figures come out?"

"No one really knows who owns the rights to the likeness." I winced again at my inability to shut up.

Sam raised an eyebrow. "I doubt any one's stepping forward to claim it... are they? At least not when they might get sued by God knows who." He smiled at me. "You maybe should come over to pre-law with me. You ask the right questions."

"Yeah but then I might grow up to be a lawyer."

Sam laughed, and I noticed, watching him start to relax on the couch, that aside from being an stuck-up know-it-all, he was actually pretty good looking. Oh dear. I looked down at the now empty glass in my hand. At least I didn't think alcohol affected me.

"There are worse things, you could grow up to be a senator."

He laughed and I did too, maybe even giggled, but I'm not sure I would admit that. Sam did more than laugh, he was wiping away tears from his eyes.

"Speaking of which," he managed to say, "take one of these." He tossed me a little button from his pocket, the safety pin kind. On the front was an American flag and the words Sam Sutton '08. I turned it over in my hand a couple times, confused.

"You running for student government?"

Sam burst out laughing again. When he finally stopped I'm sure my face couldn't have been more red. Sam noticed and despite his slight intoxication seemed to puzzle through the facts surprisingly quickly. He coughed to cover the trail end of his laughter.

"I didn't realize... I mean, I guess I knew you had the same name..." I stammered.

Sam just stood up offered me his hand.

"Nice to meet you Ms..." "

Nakamori."

"Really?" Sam looked at me in surprise.

"I took my mother's maiden name..." I answered.

"Well Ms. Nakamori, I'm Sam Sutton, Jr. son of Sam Sutton senator of the great state of New York."

"Pleasure."

Sam sat down and smiled, almost content. "I'm sorry," he said, "I just don't really think to introduce myself. It's been a long time since I've met someone who didn't know me first."

"I hope it's refreshing." I still felt embarrassed, but almost comfortable. Almost.

"So what's your interest in the Soldiers?"

OK, maybe not very comfortable at all.

I shrugged.

"Curiosity," I lied.

The way Sam watched me I felt the same sense of paranoia as earlier. He couldn't know.

"So here's my theory: stop me if you've heard it.

"All these appearances, all those little red X's on your map follow a sewer main that cuts across the subway lines."

"Really?"

"Yep, I looked at the most recent underground survey done last month. I think they're using the tunnels to move around, maybe even the rails themselves to power the suits. The civic engineers have been noticing strange power disruptions and broken walls underneath the city. My guess is that's not a coincidence."

"Have you told the police?"

Sam shook his head, "I'm sure they've thought of this before, who knows how many guys working on this?"

Two major case squads. I answered in my head.

"But..." But East didn't say anything about that. Thankfully this time I managed to shut myself up in time. "...you should call in anyways. They've set up a special tips line."

Sam just shrugged and shook his head, and I felt the sudden urge to slap him.

"How many people do you think look at those surveys?"

Sam seemed a little surprised by the sudden iron in my voice. "Um... me and the city engineers. I only looked at it because my Father says I need to know everything about the city if I'm going to get elected to the city council."

"What?"

Sam shrugged defensively. "What can I say. He's fitting me up to follow in his shoes."

"Alright, never mind. How are they getting in?"

"Don't know, could be anywhere." Sam stood up. "Why are you so interested in it anyways?"

Because two people's lives could be at stake.

"Curiosity."

"Yeah, so you said." He ran a hand through his hair and then over his face. "Look I'm sorry to disturb you..." Don't leave. My throat tightened up. I couldn't be alone, not now.

"...I've actually got to get up early tomorrow, and I don't think the drinking Lana's wine was probably the best thing to do."

"You could stay here."

Sam looked at me with slightly wide eyes, clearly confused. I'm sure I would have been giving myself the same look.

"In Lana's room I mean," I added quickly. "She won't be back tonight, I'm betting and even if she is..." She probably wouldn't mind you in her bed. I stopped talking.

"Thanks, but I'm not sure I would feel right with taking her room." He sat down back down on the couch.

"She won't mind," I tried to sound dismissive. Trust me. "Besides, there's always my room..."

I felt the heat rise in my cheeks again.

"I could sleep on the couch, I mean."

"Thanks," Sam said again.

I quickly walked toward the kitchen. "Would you like anything to eat?" Stupid, stupid girl.

I turned around, and he was right behind me. "Sure," he answered. "What do you have?"

"Um... I have no idea." I answered truthfully, "I actually eat out most nights."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I'm kind of a hamburger girl." I giggled again. Was I drunk? Weren't there more important things to do? A more rational part of my brain was trying to get my attention. Hello? Paging Wonder Woman, don't you have a detective to rescue?

"Do you know a place?"

***

"Quick Burger?" Sam read the sign. "Not exactly the most creative of names, is it?"

"No," I admitted. "Well, at least we found it." Sam, said pulling his jacket closer to him to shelter himself from the gathering evening's cold. "...eventually."

I frowned. To be fair, I'd never come to Quick Burger's by surface streets.

"So do they have good burgers."

"Passable," I shrugged, "I just like the place."

"Why?"

Sam's question was perfectly reasonable but I felt my mind shutting down.

"Umm..."

"You like this restaurant, but not because of the food. The ambiance?" Sam gestured at the rather garish colors. It was the very definition of a hole in the wall.

"The owner is the Vietnamese immigrant, he's really nice, kind of cute in a grandfather type way."

"And how do you know him?"

Well, I saved his life during a robbery. "Um... he just talks a lot to customers. Ask him about his award."

Sam took the bait and the conversation was steered toward something not bordering on my secret identity. "What award?"

"An entrepreneurial award signed by Guilliani. Part of some initiative to promote minority owned small businesses in the city."

Sam made a face. "Why would anyone be happy to get something signed by Him."

"Careful," I advised, "you'll make more friends saying his mother is ugly than saying anything bad about Mr. Kung's award."

"Yeah, well I've always wanted to be fast friends with the guy who flips my burgers."

I just rolled my eyes and walked into the restaurant.

It was loud and smelled greasy. It was also crowded, except for a few tables around the two corner booths. In the far corner booth were a group of young and thuggish looking black males. The biggest, and loudest was a man I recognized, not only by his reputation, but by the tattoo on his well-muscled shoulder. There was a spade on printed on his shoulder, and under that the letter "K." The king of spades.

In the other booth, located right next to the door, was a homeless man nursing a small clear water cup. He was young but looked old, but guessing his true age would have been next to impossible. His dreadlocked hair was filthy and his beard thrust wildly from his jawline. He wore what seemed like twenty sets of dog tags.

He looked right up at me as Sam and I walked in.

He talked in a monotonic and constant drone. "...demon with the white face, got to slice her up, the sword will tell me what to do..."

Sam, tossed a quarter onto the table without stopping. It rolled along the linoleum top and landed on the floor. With painfully slow movement the mangy looking man bent down and retrieved it. He didn't stop talking the whole time.

"...that damn white faced demon... she'll be the death of us yet... I'll show her..."

That sent a shiver down my spine. As he returned to his seated position, and even as I walked to the counter I could feel his eyes on the back of my `neck. It made my hair stand up on end.

Mr. Kung was at the front counter and greeted us loudly. "Welcome to Quick Burger, don't let the dirty man bother you miss, what you want?" His face was leathered with fine wrinkles running across his face from the corner of his eyes. He smiled a lot and his thin wispy white hair was a mess.

"I've heard you are an award winning restaurant," Sam said with only a hint of sarcastic amusement in his voice.

Mr. Kung's eyes brightened and I could see the story about his award about to bubble forth from his lips, but Sam cut him off.

"I'll take the eat in special." He pointed at me. "And you?"

"I'll take the same, Mr. Kung, thank you very much."

"Why don't you find us a place to sit," Sam suggested.

My choices were sitting next to the homeless guy and or the king of spades fellow gang bangers. In my mind it wasn't even a choice.

King was seated at the end of the booth in the narrow aisle. His chair leaned back against a support column as he relaxed, casually blocking anyone from getting past him to the empty table past him. However, as I walked up he saw me, stood up, and smiled, letting me past. His teeth shone bright silver because of his grill, and he stood at least six inches taller than I was, and almost twice as wide.

"Evening," he said.

Sam got a less pleasant reaction as he tried to get past a second later.

"Good crowd," he whispered. Just loud enough for me to hear, still as he said it he cast a surreptitious glimpse to the King of Spades right behind him.

I shrugged but inwardly I smiled. Don't worry Sam, I'll protect you from the scary gang member. "It's that kind of neighborhood. Besides, the King's men don't cause trouble. Kind of the opposite really, I saw him personally throw out two drunk guys who wanted to see who between them was the better boxer."

"Wow, I'm glad you told me that after we got here." Sam squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.

Watching him, I realized I was smiling.

"What?" Sam asked suspiciously. "Is something funny?"

I felt my cheeks flush and murmured, "I think our food is ready." Indeed it was, Mr. Kung had just laid out two trays.

"I'll say this, he's fast." Sam frowned as he looked back and realized that King was once again leaning back in his chair arms crossed across his wide

chest, completely obstructing passage. Unable or unwilling to walk back to the counter the way he'd come, Sam picked his way across the entire restaurant. He looped around again carrying two trays, and laid one down in front of me.

"They were out of Chateau '47," Sam said, "so I just got you Coke."

"I'll manage."

When I bit down into my burger I realized just how hungry I was. I hadn't eaten since before... I tried not to think about the days previous events, actually.

Sam watched me wolf down my burger, and by the time I was done he had just unfinished wrapping his.

"Hungry?" Sam asked.

I felt myself blushing again. Sam looked down at his burger.

"You know, on our first date I took Casey to a steak house." He paused.

"Sounds delicious," I said, just to fill the emptiness.

"She's a vegetarian." "

Ouch."

Sam shrugged. "Now Lana was a girl who could appreciate a good steak. Can grill a mean one too. I should know, my father taught her."

"I like steak." I didn't really know why I said that.

"I would never have guessed." Sam gestured at the empty wrapper I was wadding up.

"I don't cook, though."

"What do you do?"

Fight crime. "Uh... just school, boring stuff. I'm kind of a boring person."

"Lana said you were modest."

Let’s not talk about Lana. "So what do you do?"

"Aside from study surveys of the sewage system?"

"Aside from that."

"I don't know, I guess I work on the re-election campaign, school, of course." Sam put his chin on his fist. "I guess I'm pretty boring as well. How did you meet Lana?"

I tried not to scowl. "My mom was the one who found the apartment for her."

"And then?"

"Well, they talked and Lana mentioned she needed a roommate and my mom mentioned that I was going to attend NYU." I shrugged. "It just worked out."

"What does your dad do?"

I bit my lip. "I don't really know, I've never actually met him."

Sam ran a hand through his hair. "Damn it, I should know better than to ask a question like that. I'm sorry." He laughed ruefully. "I guess I'm still a little tipsy."

I shrugged but didn't say anything.

"So you and Lana are kind of like a regular odd couple."

I had the sudden urge to never again hear the name Lana. "Where do you live?"

Sam smiled, suddenly looking sheepish. "With my parents, actually."

"Like in the west wing of their mansion?" I laughed.

"Actually the top floor of their penthouse." He said it with a straight face, but the corners of his lips curled upward, the slightest ghost of a smile. "I dress well, and carry a surprising amount of cash. Can't imagine why I'm uncomfortable in this neighborhood."

I laughed, and it felt good. For a fleeting second I felt at ease. Then I remembered everything that had happened that day.

Sam picked a fry up and bit it in half. To his credit he didn't flinch - much. "What's wrong?" He asked noticing the sudden change in my demeanor.

I didn't even know where to begin. "I had a pretty crappy day too."

"Hmm," Sam went quiet, clearly he was thinking about getting dumped.

"I shouldn't have brought it up, I think I'd just like to get back to hanging out."

"I think that sounds good." Sam said, popping the other half of his french fry into his mouth.

 

***

 

We were walking back through the streets and I felt... Well, I didn't know how I felt. I still felt queezy everytime I thinked about East or Walter, but at the same time I felt light on my feet.

I was almost disappointed when we arrived back at my apartment building. Sam looked up at the facade.

"So this is it," he said, his hands in his pockets.

"Yep."

"Would you like me to walk you up?"

I felt a strange nervousness. "I think... yeah, sure."

We rode the elevator in an akward silence. At the twelth floor the doors slid open and we stepped out into the hall. Sam waited as I fumbled for my keys.

"Well, Jesse," Sam looked at a loss for words, "it was good seeing you."

"So you aren't staying?" I wanted to hide my face. What in the world was I saying!

Sam shook his head, smiling but looking kind of sad. "No, I think I better get back."

He lingered in the hallway.

Lana has a crush on him, probably for years. Still despite that thought, instead of opening the door to my apartment I moved closer to Sam. He doesn't even realize it.

I looked at Sam. Despite his causticness there was something surprisingly charming about him. He was handsome, and apparently wealthy.

I'm a superhero. At the very least, don't I deserve this?

Our lips touched tentatively.

 

***

 

Something was ringing.

I woke up, and memories of the previous day rushing at me. I looked up and saw that the sun was shining. Thank God, yesterday finally ended. I reached for my alarm clock, to turn it off, but as I looked at it I saw it wasn't set. The ringing I heard wasn't my alarm clock, I realized, wasn't really a sound at all, but more like a vibration that I could feel in my bones, even my teeth.

It was coming from a pile of clothes beside me bed.

I fished out the half quarter and stared at it.

Suddenly I knew what it meant, and I had a vision as clear as if I were standing there. A ring of soldiers surrounding Walter and Detective East.

I heard his voice like one of my own thoughts. Now would be a good time.


 

 

Chapter 6

 

I was walking to class, instead of running, or in my moments of weakness teleporting. It was a good change of pace.

I'd given myself the day off, with the Soldiers off the street I figured New York could handle itself. Heck, maybe I could get through a class without falling asleep due to an untreated concussion.

I walked past a paper dispenser. Then I doubled back and looked closer. The headline read: "Hero cop ends Soldiers' crime spree." Below was a black and white picture of a befuddled looking Dectective East. At least he had the common courtesy to look embarrassed by the preening circle of reporters around him.

I could only see the top of the article, but reading that I saw no mention of the Geisha. I looked at the by-line and saw the name Luis Llano, so I looked instead for the phrase "dangerous masked vigilante," but that wasn't there either.

Why don't you ask him how he subdued them all by himself, or where their leader is? I realized that I was grinding my teeth.

I pushed myself away from the machine and continued on my way to school. Suddenly the day didn't seem as cheery as it had a minute ago, the sun as bright, or the sky as blue.

I arrived at the edge of campus, and felt my spirits lift as I saw Sam. He was standing with his back to me, looking, as always, too dressed up for his surroundings. I was about to say something, when he turned and faced me. In doing so the women he had been talking to came into view.

It was like the North Pole had suddenly taken up residence in my chest.

She was tall with dark hair and bronze skin, with high cheekbones and all-in-all painfully beautiful. Ice queen pretty, a more bitter part of me observed. She was dressed smartly, like Sam, all black tailored suit, but the neck line was irritatingly low cut, and the skirt showed off too much legs on too high heels.

"Hi, Jesse," Sam smiled when he saw me, but I had a feeling my own smile looked forced. He seemed to notice where my attention was centered.

"This is Reina," Sam said, clearly interpreting my body language as yes, please introduce me to this woman.

"Pleasure," I said trying to keep my tone neutral.

She for her part just nodded, a slight inclination of her head. "Are you a student here?" Her voice was smooth and exotic with a rich accent.

"Yes." I answered, leaving an awkward silence. Reina for her part seemed completely and totally uninterested in filling it.

"Reina is in the states to clerk at my Father's old firm."

"I see," I said. It seems I couldn't stand around with out hearing all about her.

Sam's lips curved into his little half-smile. "Though I suspect there's some ulterior motive to her internship."

Reina didn't even smile, "My boyfriend."

Who clearly was not Sam. I smiled suddenly I liked her better. Her looks were magnetic, making her effortlessly likable. "Does he go to NYU?"

I don't know if she noticed the shift in my tone, but she responded with almost a full sentence. "No, he works here, in one of the research labs."

"Currently Gabriel is trying to get money from the Suttons," Sam said running his hand through his hair. It was a gesture I was beginning to realize associated with the general discomfort he had about his family's wealth. "I think Reina is his secret weapon."

Reina laughed, but it seemed more polite than mirthful.

Sam shrugged and looked at me sheepishly. I didn't think it was funny either, but I assumed for different reasons than Reina.

"Right," Sam said as he looked at me. He cleared his throat. "Do you want to come to lunch with us? I'm going to hear their pitch. It could actually be interesting."

"Um... I have class."

Sam looked back at Reina briefly and then took a quick step over away from her. He slipped his hands into mine. When he spoke it was hushed, intimate.

"Come on. Ditch class for me. I hate making these kind of decisions alone."

His touch had caught me off guard, and so to had his sudden confidement. I didn't know where my voice had gone. I was sure he was going to laugh as I moved my lips silently.

"I'll make it worth your while. Steak on the Suttons." He smiled and looked at me.

"Sure..."

It was a rude interruption when Reina spoke. "He's here."

I turned to see a dark haired young man approach. Reina didn't respond as he stopped beside her, but her eyes never left his face. Clearly this was Gabriel. His hair was short and curled, and his eyes intense.

"Mr. Sutton," his accent was the same as Reina's, but thicker, less musical but still exotic and strangely hypnotic. He seemed to be less comfortable with English than his girlfriend. Gabriel extended his hand, but looked around confused. "I thought you father would be here."

Sam accepted his handshake. "I'm afraid, I'm it. Dad believes in delegating."

Gabriel didn't say anything but his face spoke volumes. His dark eyebrows knit together and behind his eyes an angry flame seemed to smolder.

Sam didn't seem to notice it, or if he did diplomatically ignored it. "Here's our ride now."

I didn't know what to expect, but the limo that pulled up surprised me. Sam pulled open one of the doors and behind the dark tinted glass I saw a rich interior. I suddenly felt underdressed. Sam coaxed me inside with a slight move of his head and a reassuring look.

Inside two sets of seats faced each other. Sam shut the door as he settled in next to me.

"Steak alright with you two?" he asked as he sat down.

Gabriel gave a non-committal wave of his hand. He was still clearly annoyed but unwilling to show it. Instead he turned his attention toward me.

"Do I know you?"

I was at a loss. I imagined I was doing my best deer in headlights impression.

Reina leaned over. I could see her red glossy lips move, but couldn't hear the words she whispered into Gabriel's ear. He nodded and smiled.

"What department do you study?"

I took a second to parse his mish-mashed sentence. "Mechanical engineering."

He smiled looking genuinely happy for the first time since I had seen him. "That's where I know you from. You were at a research symposium. You asked questions about the Soldiers. I remember now." He pointed at me with an impish smile on his face.

Sam was watching me from the corner of his eyes. I was slightly uncomfortable with the attention.

"I think I remember you," I said trying to recall the day. "You do research on ceramic metal composites."

"Yes, I do." He seemed to be studying me. His stare had an almost physical intensity.

"I remember I asked you if you thought that's what the Soldier's suits were made of."

"Good memory you have," Gabriel said. He just continued to look at me.

"Maybe you should tell Mr. Sutton about your proposal." Reina interjected coolly.

Gabriel nodded. "That is good." His eyes lingered on me, and then he turned to Sam.

His speech sounded well rehearsed. Accessible technology, third world countries, responsible engineering.

"Back in Buenos Aieres, families cannot get water because they can't afford to fix a pump. A pump, Mr. Sutton, costs $15. We can make it, show them how to use, empower them."

I found myself nodding and I saw that Sam was too. I shook my head and realized that we were sitting in the restaurant. I looked down and was dimly surprised to see an uneaten T-bone on the plate in front of me.

I tried to focus on it, but something kept tugging my attention away. Something dark and enticing, a voice.

"You can find the manpower anywhere. Think about it. How many youths in our city squander their lives in chop-shops. Those same skills could give an African community electricity, a Brazilian family clean water."

I found myself nodding again in rhythm to Gabriel's words. Somewhere in the distance my food was growing even colder.

"All they need is some direction, some guidance. Give them direction, take them off the streets and give them a purpose. You could be saving lives here and abroad. Mr. Sutton, the choice is yours."

Sam didn't respond at first. He was still nodding and then realized that Gabriel was no longer talking. He looked around, as if waking. He blinked as

if he too was surprised to find himself in a restaurant, untouched food on his plate. He discreetly looked at his watch and his eyes widened as he saw the time.

"That was a very... convincing," Sam said, licking his lips nervously. Gabriel smiled and I felt myself smiling too. There was something in that smile I didn't like though, something I feared was mirrored in my own. I shook my head, as if to clear it.

"Do you mind if me and my associate had some words in private."

Gabriel and Reina gave me a surprised and withering look. They seemed to have forgotten my existence.

When Sam didn't move, Reina calmly stood, smoothed our her skirt and put a hand on Gabriel's shoulder. Gabriel, for his part, look annoyed. Finally, reluctantly, he too stood up and muttered some words in a language that I was pretty sure wasn't English.

Sam watched them walk toward a seating area by the front door. When they disappeared around the corner he turned to me. "How is your food?"

"Untouched." I said, looking around the restaurant. It was dimly lit with exposed beams that ran across the ceiling made of dark handsome wood. It looked expensive and upscale, but all I knew about it I was gathering from my current observations. "Where are we?"

Sam didn't seem to understand the question. "The restaurant."

"Yes, but..." I tried to explain my disorientation. "Do you remember sitting down, ordering, anything?"

Sam lips pulled together tightly. "We're here aren't we?" He seemed defensive.

"But do you remember it?"

"We listened to the pitch the whole way here." Sam said, not quiet answering my question. I wanted to hit him.

"Do you remember anything else than what he said to us," I paused. "In fact, do you remember what the pitch was about?"

"Honestly, I try not to listen in these situations." Sam said. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.

I wanted to protest. Everything felt wrong. I could come up with no better word. However, Sam was saying something.

"Father lets me represent him when there's not a chance in hell that they’re going to get funding."

I sucked in a breath. I felt sad, like I'd lost a small piece of myself. Why am I feeling this way? Did I really care this much about adequate water supplies for third world countries?

"It sucks though," Sam said, clearly experiencing something similar. "Gabriel actually makes a pretty good case."

He put a hand on his chest as if he were hurting. "Man, I'm hungry." He looked down at the plate of food in front of him. He looked as if he had seen it for the first time. "This looks good."

"You don't remember ordering do you?" I said.

"Of course I ordered it, foods here isn't it?" The sudden urge to smack him returned. "I better give him the Sutton's regrets." Sam ran a finger through his hair. "Good speech, though; sorry my Father missed it."

He slowly got to his feet. I watched him make the walk to the wall behind which Gabriel had disappeared. Gabriel appeared from around the corner.

I couldn't hear the words, but could see that Sam was having trouble saying them.

Gabriel's face bespoke disbelief and shock. And anger. Very clear on the anger. Reina appeared beside him her placid exterior unruffled except for a slight tension that seemed to run the length of her body. She put a calming hand on his shoulder.

Sam was still talking. Gabriel stood straight his hands clenched in fists at the ends of unbent arms. He seemed to be shaking visibly.

Sam stopped talking, and Gabriel gave a curt shake of his head as if that was the only movement he could trust himself to make.

Sam said something else and got the same response. Suddenly Gabriel slapped Sam. I nearly flipped the table as I bolted up.

Sam just looked surprised. Not angry, or even upset, just vaguely surprised. He didn't say anything else but just turned and walked toward me. The restaurant, which had been buzzing with a dozen conversations was suddenly very quiet.

Sam came back to the table sat beside me and didn't look back. "I think they aren't going to get a ride back with us." He said strangely placid. "I can see why he raises so much money," Sam said, fishing out an ice cube from his water glass and wrapping it in his napkin before placing it against his lip. "Who wants to say no to him?" He smiled a little ironic smile as he bit into a forkful of potatoes. "Though I doubt he would have treated Melinda Gates this way."

Reina was trying to calm Gabriel. Sam was politely busying himself cleaning his face, looking the other way, seemingly unconcerned. I, however, couldn't help but stare. Too many discordant alarms were going off in my head.

Across the now silent restaurant I could just hear snippets of their conversation, mostly in what I assumed to be Portuguese. Finally I heard Gabriel speak some bitter English words.

"I knew they would never fund us. These people only use money for two things, bombs and gasoline. They never dream of a better world."

All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

Well, crap.

 

***

 

I was waiting on the top of the parking garage. It was empty save for one car.

Below, the NYU campus spread out, most of its windows dark. Above me the moon was bright, but in my costume I could wait unseen.

I heard approaching footsteps, clack-clack-clack on cement. It was Reina's high heels.

This is so stupid. Just go to Detective East. Tell him you found the commander. I tried to convince myself this had nothing to do with a certain article by a certain reporter I had read this morning. I remained unconvinced.

Besides, confronting the villain, that's practically the first duty of superheroes. Ah, rationalization at its finest.

She got to the car and the lights flashed and the car beeped as it unlocked. I almost jumped out of my skin at the sudden noise. Reina went to open the passenger door. She stopped. I stopped breathing. Her back was to me. She turned her head slowly, as if to look out over the edge of the cement barrier to the campus some five stories below. I could see the edge of her dark eyes sparkle as they caught the night lights.

She just stared out at the horizon for a good minute. In that time I slowly started breathing again. I didn't have any reason to be nervous. If anyone should be nervous it should be Gabriel. Let's see how he fares without his Soldier's suit.

Finally Reina opened the passenger door. She grabbed something off the seat and turned curtly on her heel and walked straight toward me.

I froze.

She turned when she reached the end of the car and disappeared from my line of sight back the way she had come. The sound of her heels echoed off the cement surfaces and out into the night sky.

I let out the breath I didn't realize I was holding.

Her footsteps faded into silence and I leaned back in the shadows. Gabriel's car sat empty in front of me and all I had to do was wait.

Not long, though. I heard new footsteps approaching and this time I saw Gabriel approach the back of the car. The lights flashed again and he pulled open the trunk. He spun and I turned toward me with the same gun he'd used on the bridge.

"I know you there!"

He fired. I wasn't there anymore. The electricity arced across the parking garage and where I had been there left a black smoldering streak. I reformed in the air next to him and swatted the gun out of his hand.

He snatched his hand back as the steel gave way. The useless shards struck the concrete barrier at the side of the garage. "Mierda!" He looked at me and laughed, a bitter hard edged laugh. "I had to try," he said with a shrug, "but now I get on the ground."

I watched confused as he got down on his knees beside his car. He looked unhappy that his slacks were having to touch the grimy concrete.

Whump. I went sailing over the edge of the parking garage and landed crumpled on the roof of a nearby building.

I flailed around trying desperately to remember how to stand, my body didn't seem to remember how. Finally I was able to reorient myself. I looked up back toward the parking garage. Reina was standing on the concrete barrier, standing out against the night sky. In her arms was a flagpole torn from its mounting. She tossed it up readjusted her grip so it was over her shoulder. She threw it.

I rolled. The concrete where I had been laying split open as the flagpole sank deep into it.

She jumped across the gap between us. Even then she looked elegant, regal almost. She seemed to hang effortlessly in the air between the garage and the rooftop. She landed and pulled the flagpole out of the ground and faced me. I couldn't help but notice she had kicked off her heels and stood before me barefoot. It was odd, to say the least.

"Let me guess... Las Aves?" I asked circling outside her steel enhanced range.

"Ah... so I need not introduce myself? Little girl, I do not want to have to break you in half." She didn't really seem all that concerned, just informing me.

"What is Gabriel doing?" It was a cheap trick. It almost worked. Her eyes flicked up to the parking garage. Gabriel and his car were hidden behind a gray featureless slab. My fist was about to make contact when she turned. She almost casually slapped me with the steel.

I didn't stop until I made contact with a air exchanger. It enveloped me like a suffocating metal shroud. There was a terrible crashing sound and Reina's makeshift club tore through the steel above me and drove me further into the wrecked steel.

She swung again, this time a low sweeping horizontal motion. The good thing was I was free, the bad news was it hurt like hell. I rolled as I hit the unrelenting concrete and tried to get my bearings. Reina was right on top of me. This time it was a big overhand swing. I was on hands and knees. The first blow drove me flat into the rooftop, mask pressed against its rough surface. The second sent cracks and splinters radiating out across the surface below me.

I decided I didn't want to be hit anymore. When her third swing came I swung my fists up to meet it. There was an earsplitting clang and the rod shot out of her hands into the black night sky. Reina watched as it disappeared, lost against the featureless black sky. I put a fist into her face. Her head snapped to the side and she took a stunned step back.

Damn. I tried to keep myself from showing just how much it hurt. I just shook my hand, trying to air it out down low by my side, hopefully out of sight.

"That was..." Reina tentalively touched her split lip with her tongue. It was almost experimental. Blood slowly welled from the crack in her otherwise pristine lip, "...unpleasent."

Well, I didn't exactly mean for it to tickle. I swung again. Her arm flicked out and I found my own immobilized in her grip. I tried to pull back, but her hand maintained its vise-like hold on my forearm. Panic begin to rise from my stomach. I'm not the strongest girl in this fight.

I put a foot in her stomach, not so much to stun her as much just to add leverage in order to pull away. It did neither. I pushed back against her stomach and the strangest thing happened. I was flung backward, but with Reina's hold on me there was nowhere to go. Instead I flipped in the air and landed, bewildered, back on my feet. Reina hand was still on my arm. However, she had let my panicked struggles wrench her arm so that she had no remaining leverage to hold me still. I knew an opportunity when I saw one.

I grabbed her wrist and pivoted my feet. She was pulled off the ground. Shocked, her hand flew open. I wasn't about to let her go. Yet. I waited until I had got enough momentum out of my turn before I did. There was a satisfying crunch as it was now's Reina's turn to split a concrete wall. Her body dug a deep ugly gash into the wall before she fell back to the floor below. Debris rained down on her, large chunks of cement pulling free from the now exposed rebar.

That felt good.

Reina rose, dust and pebbles falling free from her like a flowing train. She swept her hair back from her face. "I think I'll enjoy making you beg for mercy."

It should of been corny. Who says that kind of thing? Instead it was terrifying.

She charged at me. Her fist came forward, clamped tight with rage. It looked girlish, I could even see her brightly painted red nails, but I had the feeling behind it was the kind of force that could turn bones to powder. I couldn't help but think of Detective East. Surely I never looked like this. This was "Hulk smash!" if anything ever was. I was always to scared to be that angry. Like now, actually.

I grabbed the front of her suit with both hands as I ducked under the wild swing. Her fist continued on digging deep into the rooftop. I pulled her down but used her momentum so that when we landed I was on top straddling her waist and her arm was akwardly pulled straight, her hand still buried deep in the cement with her wrist bent back at an akward angle.

I hit her as hard and as fast as I could, back and forth against her face. I just let all the emotions flow out of me. I hit her because of my anger, my frustration, but mostly because of my fear. I was afraid that when I stopped she would hit back. Turned out she didn't wait. With a wrenching sound she pulled her hand free and with it sent me sprawling across the rooftop. Looking up I was able to see the moon, full and silent above me.

I kicked my feet out and swung the rest of my body up with that momentum, so that I was standing again. Reina was less quick in getting up. She put a hand on her knee and pushed herself up. I was pleased to see that finally she was looked even a little rumpled. Her hair was a mess and her black blouse and skirt were dusted grey with powdered concrete.

In her eyes I saw the real change. She was eyeing me warily, and with more than a little trepidation. The insight hit me like an almost physical blow. She's never been challenged, never been hurt. This was the first time she'd traded a blow with someone who could take it and walk, or at least stumble groggily away. She's scared, too.

Blink.

I reformed in the air behind her and landed a cheap blow across the back of her skull. She stumbled forward and swung a viscous back hand where I had been. Instead I materialized in front of her and threw all I could into a kick that caught her just below the chin. Turns out that kickboxing credit I was taking: useful.

She stumbled backward into the wall with the Reina-sized dent in it. I tried to catch my breath without revealing just how out of breath I was. Teleportation just takes it out of me. She backed up and felt the exposed steel mesh behind her. Her fingers curled around the inch thick steel. I just kind of watched dumbfounded as she actually strained. There was a rumbling and the whole concrete barrier behind Reina, about eight feet high, ripped free. And in the next second it came at me.

I should have probably guarded myself, or just teleported away. Anything but let the flying building side flatten me. I looked up groggily. Reina was breathing hard, her arms shaking from anger and exertion. She was actually smiling, a wild almost insane smile. A smile that also looked relieved. When she saw me prop myself up on my elbows though, she took a step back and her face grew dark. It was an effort of will to pull myself to bend my legs and then another major feet to get to a single knee.

Reina was scared. She had no right to be, but she was. She took another step back toward the exposed edge of the building. She looked up, straight up ahead of her. I did too, not knowing what to expect. A UFO wouldn't have surprised me at this point. It was almost like I could feel a wind blowing against my face, and with that Reina's toes left the cement. She hovered there for a second before she turned with a gravity defying effortless spin and started to rise quicker and quicker into the sky.

I just watched. Watched as she started to fly away leaving a trail of grey dust against the night sky.

"Crap."

Blink.

Turned out my aim was pretty good. There was a giddy moment of freefall, but my target came quickly into view, a woman flying below me. The wind whipped past my ears and I couldn't hear anything. I tried not to think about falling from a bridge.

We hit. I grabbed the back of Reina's suit jacked as I did and we began to spin wildly, the city below us turning into a streaking pattern of lights.

"You crazy bitch!" Reina yelled out, her accent slurring the words almost beyond recognition.

We lurched forward, the acceleration taking the breath out of me. Between the spin and the speed I couldn't tell which way was down. Instead I felt like I was being dragged through a psychodelic vision of blurred shooting advertisements. For a brief moment I saw a red streak tear past me that looked like as if it could have been a Coca-Cola sign.

I lost my grip, or more precisely the fabric I was holding on to gave way. I grabbed on to the first thing I could. Turned out that was Reina's bare ankle. Somehow, impossibly, we started to spin even worse.

Reina tried to kick me off her leg but the centripetal force had left me hanging off her at a crazy angle. She looked back at me and shook her leg wildly. Her eyes were blazing. I was instead looking beyond the her whipping hair, to where I could finally make sense of the images my eyes were processing.

It was the ground. And we were heading straight toward it.

Blink.

I was standing on earth, a sensation I couldn't ever believe would feel so good.

Bang! A wall of dirt and debris rose up and flew toward me. The impact slapped me down and once again I was looking at the sky. The moon hung placidly in the sky. I had no desire to do anything but stare at it.

Finally I sat up. My body groaned in protest, but I ignored it. I was seated in a scrap yard surrounded by row after row of discarded cars. Except in front of me. In front of me was a crater. I edged down into it, past twisted unrecognizable pieces of metal. At the center was a body.

Reina's chest moved slowly up and down. Her face looked strangely at peace, although blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. She was sprawled unconscious at my feet.

I looked around. Somewhere in the distance I heard a dog barking wildly and an engine revving to life. Industrial lights on generators all around me started to hum to life, the thin coil of metal in the center of each bulb glowing red.

I looked down at Reina.

What in the world do I do now?


 

Chapter 7

 

 

The fight had started at dinner (steak, again) but had taken a two hour thirteen minute time out during the movie.

"She's an attention hog. Jessie, I'm honestly surprised you can't see through this media crap." Sam was wearing a silver tie tonight with a black suit (again). I was starting to learn to differentiate them based on their cut alone.

"That's because there's nothing to see through." It was this argument, again.

"How do you know? How does anyone know? Everyone sees her on TV and attributes all these wonderfully altruistic motives to her." He was getting animated now, using broad strokes of his arms to make his points. It was the kind of thing I was sure worked well on stage, or maybe even at a campaign speech. Personally I was tired of his over dramatized gesticulations.

I had been on the news. Of course I had been on the news. It was the trial of the century. Sam would joke that, of course, because this century isn't even a decade old. Just wait until some old football player stabs his wife.

Sam was still not done. "People see Tom Hanks on the big screen and think, 'Gee, what a nice guy.' But what do they know about him? They just assume because they see his movies they know him. Its the same thing with this... girl." He refused to use her superhero name. As much as it galled me when I heard 'Geisha' the emotions couldn't compare to the feelings that Sam managed to produce in me when he said girl. He infused the word with such disdain.

"She's not some actress, Sam. She's not in a movie. That's a real person, in real life..."

"Soaking up the spotlight."

I couldn't help but grit my teeth. "Not everyone does things for some twisted need to be accepted by their father."

Sam blinked and looked vaguely surprised. I recognized the expression. I had seen the exact same one when Gabriel had slapped him back at the restaurant. I opened my mouth to apologize. No words came. I couldn't bring them up to the surface.

Sam smiled a rueful smile. "At least I don't pretend. At least I don't hide who I am. At least I don't suffer from delusions that I'm some sort of superhero." I couldn't tell if it was an attack on me, or the Geisha. I guess it didn't really matter. "She does it for the fame, to be on TV, to let the whole world know: 'Look I'm doing something good.' It is a pathetic need for acceptance, you’re right, Jessie. Or maybe it's just narcissism."

"It's called projection, Sam."

"I'm projecting?" Sam looked up at the sky. "No, Jessie, everyone else who's living vicariously through this girl. You know what a normal person would do in her situation? They'd be normal."

"A normal person can't lift a car, Sam."

"They'd pretend!" Sam's voice echoed across the parking lot. It was his stage voice, and it was an impressively loud. Other movie goers were staring at us. Sam thrust his keys into the car door and pulled it open. "It's unlocked," he informed me.

I got in. Sam shifted the car out of park.

"I'm just saying that a normal person would not think to put on tights and jump across rooftops, no matter how much they could bench press."

"You do all these charity things. You've got the money, obviously you feel an obligation to use it… I don't know… to do something good?"

"First, my family has the money." Sam replied, he ran a hand through his hair. "Second, they do it because a day doesn't go by that somebody doesn't ask us them for some sort of handout."

"So Geisha should just wait around until somebody asks for help?"

"I'd think it would be a good start. If that girl really wants to help with the whole law and order thing, she can become a police officer. No one would stop her - well except for her own history of being a violent vigilante."

I hate Luis Llano. His new opinion column had just been picked up by another local rag. He seemed determined to make a career out of writing about me. Sam loved him, and loved to quote him.

"So it’s stupid for the public to think well of Geisha, because they don't really know her, but you do?"

"That's different."

"How? How is that different? Instead of ascribing 'wonderfully altruistic motives' to her, you seem to think she some sort of demented freak. That's the only difference I see."

"Yeah, I forgot I'm talking to her press secretary or something."

"No, I'm just sick and tired of you pretending you know her better than anyone else, that you alone can see through her, I don't know, elaborate ruse. Maybe it really is just that's she trying to do the right thing."

"Oh, very funny, Jessie. I'm not allowed to pretend I understand her but you can? That's fair."

I shut up. There was really no good way to respond to that. I mean there was - I did feel uniquely qualified to comment on Geisha's motives, but what could I say to Sam?

"Every time she's on TV this happens," Sam sighed.

"You don't have to keep bringing her up."

"I don't bring her up, I just can't get away from her. She's like the new Britney Spears."

"That's hardly the same thing."

"You say that now, but just you wait, for some unfathomable reason they root for her now, but just wait for it, they'll be screaming for blood soon enough," Sam looked at me, "Trust me, when it comes to the press the Suttons have first hand knowledge."

I was still mad, but Sam at least seemed to have calmed down. He even hazarded a hand on my knee. I didn't respond, but I didn't push him away, either.

"I don't understand why you get so worked up about it," he said.

"I get worked up!" I was dumbfounded. "You…"

There weren't words to describe it. I settled for "...agghhhhh."


***

 

I got back to my apartment exhausted, emotionally at least. The TV was on, but it didn't look like anyone was home. It was WNYW news. Someone was talking about the Geisha. I turned up the volume, my own personally spiteful little stab at Sam who was probably having to endure the same kind of reports as he drove home.

It was typical coverage, just an update on the most recent sightings, other things like that. It was strange what made the news - Geisha stops attempted mugging see the exclusive camera phone footage only on FOX -- and what didn't. Apparently no one had made the connection between the strange crater in a scrap heap and me. Didn't much matter to me, it actually served my purposes pretty well.

I thought back.


***

 

Reina woke up suddenly, springing up to a seated position. She looked around and seemed a little surprised to find herself on top of a building downtown.

I had made sure to pick a vantage point far, far away. Somewhere I could sit back and gauge her reaction safely through a pair of binoculars.

She looked down at herself. Taped to her stomach was a piece of paper. She pulled it off violently, as if it burned her. I had written in large bold sharpie letters: "Ask me about Las Aves."

Her hair whipped back and forth as she looked around the empty rooftop. I could tell she was yelling something, but I wasn't to inclined to go and find out what it was. Finally she calmed down and noticed the writing on the back.

Her eyes widened as she read, and she bared her teeth in frustration. When she had apparently read enough she crushed the piece of paper into a ball and stuck it into her blouse pocket. She turned around again, searching for something on the lonely rooftop. She was yelling again.

When there was no reaction her shoulders slumped and she rubbed her palm into her forehead. She seemed to be talking now, but I couldn't tell if it was just to herself or not.

She pulled out the crumpled piece of paper and unfolded it. She sat down against the lip of the building and read it again. And then again. She only occasionally looked up to see if anyone had shown up.

I couldn't read it from where I was, but I didn't need to. I knew what it said:

I know your secret now. How many people do you think would like to know it, too?

If what Gabriel says about you is true, I can think of a handful of paramilitary commanders.
Gabriel's going to prison. You can't help him, so help yourself instead -- and your family.

I'll be watching.

I had to admit I felt a certain amount of guilt as she sat there, alone, hands over her face. What choice do I have? I had to admit I felt a certain amount of pleasure, too. I beat you. That joy also made me feel guilty.

Finally Reina stood and walked over to the edge of the building. She stepped up onto the edge and with some quick flips of the wrist reduced my little blackmail note to a handful of confetti. She turned her palm down and let the wind turn it into anonymous litter.

She then looked up and floated up, hovering for a moment before she drifted away, soon lost somewhere in the New York Night sky.

Now to deal with Gabriel.


***

 

I watched as the cop cars boxed him in. Detective East himself moved toward the driver's side door, his weapon drawn. They had finally caught up to him outside his apartment building.

The driver's door popped open and Gabriel tried to run, but East caught him with a forearm behind the head and doubled him over so his face was smashed up against the hood. The hollow metallic sound that accompanied it made me wince.

I was watching from above, perched above a billboard, the bright lights below me making it almost impossible to see me. I could see, and hear, the scene just fine though.

"I think I've already read you your rights once, haven't I Gabriel?" East quipped as he holstered his gun and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. "Maybe they didn't stick though, so I'll try again."

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in the court of law, although to be honest we might not hear you, I've got my men wearing earplugs. I hear you can be really persuasive sometimes."

"You have the right to..."

"Reina!" Gabriel yelled. I looked to the apartment building’s front stoop. She was standing there, barefoot, arms crossed against her chest.

"Reina!" Gabriel yelled again. East turned to look at the woman behind him. She was still beautiful, even if she looked very, very dirty. East's eyes narrowed. My whole body tensed as I began to imagine myself standing next to her.

She didn't move though, just stood a haunted look on her face.

"Reina! Ayude me!" Gabriel wasn't yelling anymore. He seemed to be pleading.

She began to take a step forward. East swung Gabriel up, now handcuffed, so that he was between Reina and himself. East looked confused but very nervous. He shuffled his feet further apart, as if preparing to be charged

Reina stopped. She pulled her back up straight and closed her eyes. She shook her head. She seemed to be shaking with exertion.

"Reina, ayude me." Something changed about Gabriel's voice. It was authoritative, and strong, no longer begging, but commanding. Reina clenched her eyes shut. She seemed to be pulled forward by Gabriel's words, but she stood still. It seemed to take a mighty effort to keep her feet rooted on the ground.

Gabriel watched her, and when it became clear she wasn't moving he collapsed. East caught him, but it seemed like the life had gone out of him. He nodded dumbly as East recited the rest of the Miranda rights, but made no further effort to resist as East guided him into the back of a patrol car.

East looked back up to where Reina was standing eyes still closed and fist clenched, and then back to Gabriel who looked like the living dead.

"What the hell was that about?" East asked no one in particular.


***

 

Sam tugged off his coat as he walked toward his office. The law firm was closed, but the TV in the lobby was still on. He was about to shut if off when he saw her face. That unmistakable pure white face.

"I hate that girl," he vented. "I swear she's going to be the one responsible for my break up..."

Sam jumped at the sudden noise behind him. One of the couches he had thought was empty had, in fact, been occupied. Sam looked to see who it was.

Sam vaguely recognized her as an intern, but couldn't remember her name.

"I'm sorry." He mumbled, "It's just..." How could he even explain?

"I'm sorry," she said, head bowed. "I was working late and..." She didn't make eye contact with Sam.

Sam recognized her. "Reina?" He said his voice hushed, afraid he might wake up any other hidden sleeping interns.

She nodded, but kept her eyes averted, although they did briefly flick toward the television. Sam remembered Reina, a tall confident woman. They had met somewhere before. This, although clearly Reina, was not the woman he remembered. She seemed timid, almost mousy, hiding behind her glasses.

"Yes." She answered. Her arms were behind her as if she was waiting to be punished.

"Sorry, to wake you." Sam said finally."I needed to get back to work, anyways,” she mumbled.

"Alright, don't forget to go home occasionally."

She smiled but it seemed like a mechanical nicety. Her attention was clearly not on Sam but on the TV behind him. He turned and watched.

It was shaky hand held footage, a confusing wild shot that finally focused on a white faced woman dressed in black save for a bright red cord wrapped around her neck. That image froze on the screen. They regarded it in silence.

"You know," Sam said, "I think I really do hate that girl."

Reina, straightened up, pulled off her glasses slowly. She seemed to actually transform before Sam's eyes, one second a forgettable intern, the next a dark haired amazon. "What a coincidence," She looked at Sam, as if seeing him for the first time. "Do you want to get breakfast?"

 

THE END