The man in front of Levi lowered his palm to the flame, then lower still. Less than an inch from the candle wick, flame lapping at his flesh. Slowly, as if it were the most impressive thing in the world, the man extinguished the flame with his palm.
“Alright,” the man said, grabbing for his matches. “I’ll light it again and do the other hand. It doesn’t hurt at all.”
Levi pinned the matchbook to the table with a finger. “That’s not necessary.”
“You’re right. I already did that. This is more impressive.”
He reached down, retrieved a milk bottle quarter-full of a translucent brown liquid, and immediately doused his left hand. The fluid splattered on Levi’s desk and file folders, ran down the man’s arm. The room instantly filled with a heady reek.
Levi stood. “Don’t you dare light that in here,” he said, all sense of patience gone.
The man looked at his hand, then at the enclosed space they were in.
The room was maybe fifteen feet square, low ceilings. Probably built in the 50’s, if the brittle wallpaper had anything to say about it. The Chupa’s took this place two years ago, and though Levi didn’t notice it at the time, everything about this place felt flammable, now that this idiot was toying with fire.
Omar entered, remote control already in his hand. Shaved head, he wore jeans and a white wife-beater. He dropped onto the couch to Levi’s left, turned on the flatscreen, some show about blacksmithing. A second later an audible sniff. He turned and looked over the back of the couch.
“The balls is that smell?”
“Gasoline,” Levi replied.
“More like ass-oline,” Omar said, then turned back to the television.
That comment past, Levi turned back to the business at hand. “What was your name, again?”
“Ash.” The man drew out the ‘sh’ sound, even tilted his chin upward slightly.
Levi waited. Waited some more, so that “Ash” knew just how unimpressed he was. The man had clearly practiced his name in the mirror hundreds of times.
“Ash is the bullshit name you came up with. If I was writing your name on a paycheck, what name would that be?”
The man paused, crestfallen. “Andy.” Not a second later he perked up, added, “Paycheck. So you’re hiring me?”
“Slow down, Andy. The boss is…engaged at the moment. He makes all the decisions on hiring.”
Levi stepped around his desk, to the wet bar nearby. He pulled some paper towels, handed them to Andy to dry his hand, but mostly he was buying time. “Fire doesn’t hurt you. But can you make your own fire?”
“Well, with matches—”
“What if I poured molten metal into your hand. Or ironed your hand?”
Andy balked. “None of those sound pleasant, but I think I’d be fine.”
“But you’re not sure.”
The Chupacabras were the smallest of the big six in Bastion City proper. They didn’t have the resources to squander, so they had to be choosy about which Powered they hired. The Eights and East-in-West would bankroll anyone who seemed remotely useful, but even they were dealing with second-stringers at best. Anyone with truly spectacular powers was a hero or villain in their own right. And with some of these second-stringers, you had to get creative with their potential.
“Dammit, I wish Berto was here. He’d have an idea.”
“Berto?” Andy asked. “Is that the boss?”
“No, he’s just some kid we hired. Orphan, started as a runner, loves to read. Smart as a whip. I mean, he’s not a kid anymore, he’s what, twenty-four?”
On the couch, Omar shrugged and raised his arms in an I-don’t-give-a-shit gesture.
Levi furrowed his brow. “As Berto would say, ‘I digress.’ Look, Andy. You’re Powered. For that reason alone the Chupacabras are interested. But I’ve got to say, I don’t know what the fuck we’d use you for. We try to make a habit of not being on fire.
Omar’s phone chimed, La Cucaracha.
“Dammit, Omar. What’d I tell you about that fucking song. You’re a walking stereotype.”
Omar stood, smiling. “If it pisses you off, that’s good enough for me.” He pulled his phone from his pocked, read the text. His smile disappeared.
“What is it?”
Omar flipped the channel to the local news, threw the controller to the other end of the couch.
A woman, blonde. Scarf around her neck, earmuffs, holding a mic with mittened hands. A thin layer of snow coated the trash cans and sidewalk behind her.
“—Yes, Reggie. The driver of the armored truck was just taken to the hospital, but he said there was a deafening explosion, the truck filled with smoke.”
The camera panned dramatically, revealing two rent metal doors on the back of an armored car, one hanging from a single hinge.
“He saw two people enter the back of the truck and make off with a large sum of money.”
From off screen, a mechanical flapping. The reporter shielded her eyes, her hair blown to the side. She put two fingers to an earmuff.
“I’m getting…yes, our Eye-in-the-sky is on scene. Let’s switch over to our chopper.”
The camera angle changed. It was an overhead view, like from an old 16-bit video game. A black sedan, probably doing 90, judging by the speed it weaved between headlights on the freeway. It was pursued by two police cars, easily keeping pace.
“Shit, this looks bad,” Omar said.
“Yeah it’s bad,” Levi said. “No way Mac and Kevin get out of this.”
“Who’s driving?” Omar asked. “If it’s Mac, they’ve got a chance.”
“Mac and Kevin are getting arrested. Start calling the attorneys.”
“Maybe if they can get into a populated area?” Andy suggested. “Or a neighborhood. It’s getting dark, he can find a house to hide—look, see! They’re pulling off the freeway.”
Levi squinted. “What street is that, Archibald?”
“Yeah,” Omar said, leaning over the back of the couch. “Told ya. Mac’s got this!” He pointed at Andy. “I like this guy.”
Levi didn’t even have time to disagree. As soon as the sedan blew through the red at the end of the exit, one of the police cars PIT from the right. The sedan spun out, caught air when its left side—the car was now facing the opposite direction—struck the curb, and stopped abruptly in a hedge, snow exploding around the car.
Police were on the car in an instant, guns drawn on the driver. It opened slowly, a disoriented woman stumbling out. Barely five feet tall, hair bound down in what she called her ‘viking braids,’ there was no question who was at the wheel.
“Dammit!” Omar shouted at the screen. “They’ve got Mac. And they’re coming around—Kevin is making a run for it!”
It was just a blink, but Levi missed it. Kevin had somehow gotten out of the passenger door and blown past two officers. He leaped a gate, dodged someone’s angry dog, hurdled a low fence. A handful of officers were close behind, but the dusk lighting was making it difficult to make anyone out.
“He’s got this!” Andy shouted.
“Yeah, he’s home free!” Omar agreed.
“He’s just going to make the officers angry—it’s too late. Listen.”
The news choppers were small and fast, great for getting around. Their propellers made an almost comical noise. What Levi heard in the background was the heavy thup-thup-thup of a larger chopper, even over the noise of the station’s own helicopter.
“Ann, we’re being asked to step aside and make room for the police helicopter. We’re going to provide what coverage we can. But what we can tell you now is that we think they’re going to deploy the Midnight Sun.”
On cue, the scene below was lit by a floodlight. It searched the ground—two of the officers below gestured ahead of them—and it locked onto Kevin. Kevin darted left, right, feigned like he was jumping one fence and doubled-back to instead cross the adjoining fence. But no matter what he did, the floodlight stayed fixed on him.
Omar stood, pointed at the floodlight. “What the fuck is that bullshit?”
All the failed dodging had cost Kevin his lead. The two lead officers tackled him when he slipped clearing a tall fence.
The image of the Kevin being cuffed shrunk to a corner of the screen, the rest of the screen overtaken by Reggie Wallace in the newsroom.
“Thank you, Ann and Jeff. You may remember our feature on the BPD upgrading their equipment some months back, particularly the hardware on their helicopter fleet. Particularly, the infra-red, smart-focusing cameras, nicknamed the Midnight Sun.” They cut to an infra-red image, rainbow-hued people against a black background. “At 1.1 million dollars each, they were only able to equip two of their choppers with these cameras, but this is the ideal scenario this camera was designed for—”
Omar shut off the television.
“That’s it,” Levi said. “No one gets away from the Midnight Sun.”
“So we gotta commit all our crimes in the daytime?”
“That doesn’t matter. The camera picks up on your heat signature, locks on to it. The floodlight won’t be useful during the day, but you’ll never shake that camera. Then they just radio to the officers on the ground.”
La Cucaracha played again on Omar’s phone.
“It’s the boss.” Omar answered.
“He ready for pick up? Oh, and…” Levi pointed his thumb toward Andy.
“They’re keeping him. They’re not letting him out. Um…yeah, he’s right here.” Omar handed the phone to Levi.
Levi listened. “Concerns? What concerns?”
The rest of their conversation was only a few sentences, but he didn’t like what he heard. The phone hung up.
“What’s up?” Omar asked.
“Berto. He’s turned informant.”
Quiet. The last rays of sunlight creating a halo around the snow-crested house across the street. His neighbor’s oak, just past the sidewalk, was bare.
Quiet. Too much quiet. It was six o’clock. No one was pulling into their driveways. It was too cold to be out walking dogs.
“Berto, stop daydreaming. Here.” Berto’s wife, Oriana, offered a kitchen drawer containing five knives. She was dark-haired, small, even compared to him, and she struggled with the weight of the drawer. “It’s the last of them.”
Berto looked down, drew the chef’s knife across the whetstone in his left. He tested it, bringing his thumb laterally across the blade without putting pressure. Sharp, he felt the drag, like increased friction, the blade attempting to bite his flesh. Not as sharp as he’d like, but he was out of time. He grabbed the handle firmly and thrust the tip of the blade into the wall, next to the window. Another eleven blades were lodged there; together the twelve made a grid, four high and three wide.
“What were you thinking, Berto?”
Berto took the last of the knives, tossed aside the serrated ones. “That’s just it. I wasn’t.”
Next Episode: January 20, 2018