ONE MONTH AGO
Even in the absence of a rope Waylon Dervish sensed the noose growing tighter. It continued to draw for the better part of a year. They raided his warehouses and grilled his accountants. Each time the detectives came back it was with a finer comb. Sooner or later they would join the dots, and that would be it.
The same lawyers who told him to deny everything were losing faith. There were whispers about plea bargains, though they wouldn’t say it to his face. Jail time, they said, was inevitable. Fifteen years at least, with no opportunity for parole, and no time off for good behavior. He’d be senile the next he walked free.
Booze helped. He kept a bottle of Irish whiskey stashed in the bottom drawer for the occasion. After his secretary went home there were no eyes to judge. Both outside and within, he became numb. Raging thoughts that rolled like tumbleweeds settled in the corners. For as long as he slumped in the leather chair he was at peace.
Waylon stared with dry, crusted eyes from the third story window to the warehouse floor. Things could have been different. In another life he was smart enough to say no in the face of a large dollar sign. Even if it meant losing his business he could have had his freedom, and a whole other kind of reputation. Then again, many of the rewards had been worth the risk.
It was around midnight when a warm draft blew through the office. He should have recognized it, but he was too far gone. The drink and the mindless jewel game on his phone sapped his attention.
The wind spoke. “You look like hell.”
He swung toward his brother and kicked one foot on the corner of the desk. No matter how many years dragged by he was still the same, cast in red and wearing a devil’s grin. Waylon carried as many wrinkles and grey hairs as his accumulated sins, if there was even such a thing.
“You’re one to talk,” he said.
Skin the color of blood muted any resemblance between the brothers. Roland was once an ordinary human, though neither could remember when. The only thing connecting them was sentiment. Even that only earned Waylon’s partial attention.
“What do you want?”
“To help you,” his brother said.
Waylon flared his nostrils like a bull. “I don’t need your kind of help, Roland.”
“You mean the help of a super-villain?”
“Call it what you want. Your being here attracts attention. Family or no, you’re trouble I can’t afford.”
He ignored the sound of paper smacking the desk, and downed another glass. One more shot to steel his nerve.
Waylon turned to the front page of the newspaper and the headline scrawled across it. POLICE FACE ADEPT IN DOCKLAND SIEGE. It was hardly news to him. It was his property torn apart. With it the cops had a fresh new excuse to go digging through his business.
“You think I don’t know what’s going on in my backyard?”
“This needs taking care of,” Roland said.
“Dr. Vortex, or whatever he wants to call himself, is no concern of mine,” he said.
“Not him.” Roland unfurled the paper, and planted a finger on the girl in the photo. She was clad from head to toe in bright colors, shining like the sun. “This one.”
She didn’t seem like much. She was a kid with some flashy effects. The camera liked her, but that didn’t do much for Waylon. He measured another glass.
“This Vortex character has his own priorities,” Roland said. “‘Glimmer Girl’ is another story. She’s one of those adepts with a child-like moral compass. She wants to use her powers ‘for good’, whatever that’s supposed to mean.”
“So she’s got a head for civic duty. Good for her.”
“Until that duty points her to tomorrow’s headline; Waylon Dervish – smuggler, tax fraud, arms dealer-”
“Enough!” The impact of his fist rattled the desk. “You want to play comic book heroes, that’s fine by me. That’s no reason to drag my name into any of it. I’ve got my own problems.”
Roland shrugged and leaned against the desk. With one gentle movement of the office chair he brought his brother around to meet him. “I’m not looking to start a war, Waylon, but you need to take precautions.”
“You’re paranoid,” Waylon said, “like that cult of yours.”
“The Society of Sin is ahead of the curve, brother. If only you lusted for more than money-”
“I have power.”
“And more than that,” Roland said. “Freedom from inhibition! From obligation! Throw yourself to the waves of chaos, cauterize your doubt, and you would be like a god!” It was the same pitch he’d made for years, ever since he became an adept. At first it was a recruiting tool, but now it was as if he believed it.
The elder sibling scratched his beard. “You think she’s going to come sniffing at my door?”
“I’m certain of it,” Roland said. “Let me take a look at your security. I’ll be discreet.”
Waylon slumped in his seat. All his bluster melted away. What was the point in resisting? Roland always got his way ever since they were boys. This would be no different.
Then, accepting silent consent, Roland left as he’d entered. A warm draft ran under his brother’s notice, and Roland was gone.
* * * *
Sirens tore down the main stretch of the Milestone City business district. Hot on their heels followed a streak of sun in human form. Lawyers made a living chasing ambulances, so it made sense that I should chase police cars.
This was the new normal after Dr. Vortex; flying around, doing my bit, looking for trouble. People would stop and gasp with a sense of wonder. I spent more time in a mask than out of it.
Another pair of cruisers tore around the corner. They roared down the lane the traffic cleared for them. Anything that needed three cars was a big deal. The cruisers split formation. One turned north on 49th toward Uptown. Another turned south. The third continued along Grand Avenue toward First Metro Bank.
I chose the first car at random, and remained glued to its path for the next four blocks. It slowed for red lights and hugged every turn. Did they know where they were going? I swore they were going in circles.
This, I decided, was why Milestone needed me. Every time I took to the sky was only at greater speed. I studied maps, roads, landmarks, and could reach any destination before a squad car. All I needed was the inside scoop.
The car slowed into a lot by a gas station, and killed the siren. I watched as the two officers, a man and a woman, climbed out and looked to the sky. They nodded, shrugged, and sauntered to the coffee shop across the street.
What. The. Actual. Hell.
I dropped to the ground with fists balled at my sides. A handful of bystanders reeled at the sight. I smiled and waved. They didn’t do anything wrong. My beef was with the blue squad pondering their order.
The bell rang. I stepped inside. Circulated air cooled my skin. Neither cop turned until I cleared my throat.
“So, uh, where’s the emergency?”
Both of them stood at the same height. The younger only appeared mature on account of his dense Mediterranean stubble. His partner carried the aura of somebody’s mom. She was the kind of woman who handled worse from her kids than anything the street could throw at her.
I planted my feet. “Hey. What’s the deal, guys?”
The younger man’s name badge read ‘Ramos’. He smiled like a groupie. “Oh, hey! You’re Glimmer Girl, right? Wow, this is awesome! Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee? Or a donut. You seem like a bear claw kind of girl. Am I right?”
His partner wasn’t in the mood. Neither was I. I felt for the kid behind the counter. She was stuck watching a minor celebrity adept clash with her best customers.
“So, sirens and speeding past red lights for this?”
Ramos flustered. His partner, whose badge read ‘McKinley’, cemented her grimace. “No offense, kid, but we don’t need you in our faces. Go rescue some kittens or something.”
“Funny, but I thought we were in the same business. We help people, right? Maybe I don’t get a paycheck, but that’s our job.”
“We appreciate your civic duty,” she said, “but leave it to the professionals.”
Then it clicked into place. Three cars, with the split route. I was being screened. Maybe I should have been flattered. Instead I stormed out the door and exploded into the sky. Someone had answers, and nothing would stop me getting them.
* * * *
Number One Police Plaza sat among the city’s crown jewels. It was a symbol of dedication toward peace and justice. The last three city administrations made their cornerstone. How well they did depended on who you asked.
The large, mirrored complex owned an entire block intersecting five major roads. Anyone might have mistaken it for a luxury fort with parking, automated check-ins, and more. It was the kind of place where you’d come to pay a parking ticket and never have to look at another human being.
I came down like a comet, stopping short of the marble tiling in the foyer. I refracted through the glass doors, set down, and strolled toward the main desk.
A security guard flexed by the boom gates. Sat front and center was a secretary with wispy blonde hair. Her expression danced between awe and frustration. Her palms pressed the counter while she asked through gritted teeth, “may I help you, Miss?”
I stood with chin up and shoulders back. Each word rounded my lips. “Yes. Would you tell the commissioner that I’d like a word with him. Thank you.”
It took all the secretary’s will to contain laughter. Crap. I said something stupid. Things didn’t work like they did in comic books. The security guard stifled a smile.
“The commissioner doesn’t work from here,” she said, “but if there’s something else I can help you with-”
“I want to talk to someone in charge.”
The secretary smiled. “In charge of…”
I redoubled my stance, and placed hands on hips. “My name is Glimmer Girl. I serve this city, and want to help this department. Now, who do I speak with to make that happen?”
Her smile tightened. She turned back to her screen. “Let me make a few calls,” she said. “I’m sure someone will be down to see you shortly.”
My dignity dragged as I took a chair. I hoped for a short wait. My fingers twitched for something to occupy them. My cell was with my civvies, which meant no killing time. A few rounds of Candy Pop Crusade would have been perfect.
Meanwhile the world kept turning, leaving Tanya to deal with Kaira’s part of it. She’d forgive me, eventually.
* * * *
Most of the Summer passed in no time at all. High school was a bad dream, and a haze started to lift from the adult world. Sure, Tanya was a freshman again, but this time was different. There would be no parents to hassle her, no rolls to check her attendance. If she wanted to get ahead it would be through discipline.
Still a month before beginning of semester and class was all on her mind. Carrying one box after another from the beetle to the dorm she steeled herself for the grind ahead. All those hours hunched over a desk by the window, over four years and more, stood between her and a psychology degree. It would be worth it, she told herself. The bulk of her student student loan demanded it.
On the third floor, halfway down the hall and left of the fire escape, was a room. Theirs had a solid core door with bubbles under the paint. It wasn’t much – a stretch of carpet and a bathroom to the side, but the price couldn’t be beat. Besides, it was co-ed. It was also the only way a cisgender and transgender girl could live together on campus.
Tanya set the third lot of boxes down and absorbed the space. The afternoon sun cast toward the far end, away from the entrance. That, she decided, was her part of the room. Kaira would have to endure the full force of morning in her place.
Piece by piece the room took her personality. She laid out stones on the windowsill, and tacked an old Michael Jackson poster on the door. All it needed was Kaira there to give it balance.
It wasn’t until four or so that Tanya had company. Instead of her roommate Liz and Alan Cade appeared in the doorway with suitcases in hand. They peered inside, greeted her, and began to idle.
“I thought Kaira was meeting us,” Liz said.
That was the plan, of course, that her best friend would be there to help shape their new home. They were so excited to get their room keys that they could hardly wait to move. Then one went missing, and Tanya was stuck doing the hard part. She should have expected this given Kaira’s double life.
“Need a hand?” she said, and followed the Cades to their minivan. A load of heavy lifting sat waiting in the back seat.
* * * *
I looked like an idiot, parked in the foyer trying to ignore the passersby. Whatever dignity I had left slipped with the each tick of the clock. I could still run, even if it meant leaving my dignity.
The secretary offered a pained smile. Forget her. I gripped the chair and endured the seconds. Someone knew I was there. It was an endurance test, and I wasn’t about to give in.
Twilight cast orange through the main door. A sensible looking man with an old time haircut replaced the woman behind the desk. Another twenty minutes passed and all he had to offer was the same smile, the same platitudes. “Someone will be with you shortly,” ad infinitum.
Gods, I needed to pee.
The gate opened, and from it emerged a figure that seemed part man, part tree. His short salt and pepper hair curled around his temple, while his mustache sat across his lip like an iron bar. A shirt and tie fit him like shackles, and would shred the moment he flexed. He bore down without blinking.
“What are you still doing here?” he said.
Like a small, woodland creature I faced up and thought back to one of those old ‘power-pose’ tutorials from the internet. “I’m here to help,” I said.
His facial hair twitched. “Help who?”
“Help you,” I said. “Look, you know who I am. You know what I can do. I can help keep this city safe. All you have to do is steer me in the right direction.”
His thick, brown flesh wrinkled like bark around his eyes. Where his expression fell short his folded arms spoke volumes.
“Let’s change perspective here,” he said. “Imagine you’re in my shoes. You’re a police captain. In walks a teenage girl – a girl with incredible adept powers, granted – but still a teenage girl. A girl who, last I checked, still has some questions to answer.”
With one look I was an inch tall. “You mean the thing with Dr. Vortex?”
“Dr. Vortex won’t be a problem anymore.”
“You’re certain of that?” he said.
“Last I saw he was floating into space.”
“As in ‘outer’ space,” he said.
I nodded. “You won’t see him again.” Or at least I hoped.
“All we have is your word,” he said, “and even then, you’re still just a kid. How old are you, anyway? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
I stopped myself; secret identity and all that.
His voice rumbled with a tiredness longer than the day. “Go home. Hang out with your friends. Share cat pictures on the internet, or whatever it is millennials do. Leave the hard work to those qualified.” He continued to glare, which was all the punctuation his point needed.
I was out of my depth. Dr. Vortex did near killed me. I survived by a fluke. Did I have what it took to be a hero?
* * * *
Waylon Dervish marched down the courthouse steps. Cameras flashed in his face, and as they did he remembered the words of his Pop. “All you need to get ahead in this world are the right words. You find them and you can make a crackpot a genius, a liar into a lawyer. You can make anything out’a anyone.” Or, as his legal team argued, a gun smuggler into a ‘second amendment enthusiast.’
For too long he writhed under the watch of the law. They chased him with metaphorical shackles, through the streets and into his dreams. Well no more. Those chains had reached their limit, and Waylon was free to roam.
There was a cost. He received a hefty fine for the weapons in his collection. Some were of illegal make or modification. Those, a jury decided, were the property of a private collector. Nothing beyond that was untoward. For that he landed probation, found his name on a few watch lists, and not much else.
He smiled as he pressed through the flashes. Not only was he an advocate of personal freedoms, but a job creator, an essential part of the community. The words emblazoned transcripts quoted by every news source to the coast.
Of all the questions flying past only one caught his attention. “Mr. Dervish! What are your thoughts on today’s outcome?”
“Justice is done,” he said. “God bless the United States of America.”
A black luxury car waited for him on the street. The driver held the door. Waylon climbed inside and shielded himself with a hand. Even behind aviator glasses he winced with every flash It wasn’t until the vehicle was in motion that he exhaled.
“Don’t relax yet,” Roland said.
It had been years since the accident, and still Waylon jumped at his appearance. Each was another step closer to a heart attack.
“Are you insane! If anyone sees us together-”
“Nobody sees me,” Roland said, “unless I want to be seen.”
The car rounded the block. The crowd vanished behind the buildings.
“Is there a reason you’re here, or are you trying to rile my hackles?”
Roland scrolled through his cell phone. “You want my advice, there’s no better time to cash your chips and run. Find yourself a beach somewhere, a new mistress-”
“I’ve got too much work here. Of course I’ll have to scale things back, keep my head low, recruit some trusted people. But I have a handle on things, Roland. Now, if you’re done stoking my paranoia…”
“You could always join me and become something greater-”
“You know my answer,” he said. “Please, leave me be.”
The crimson faced adept pursed his lips. Younger brothers needed protecting, not vice versa. How ironic.
“Watch this space,” Roland said, and vanished into a plume of smoke.
His trademark smell of perfume and spice wafted in the back seat. It served as a reminder of his presence, and of the vague warnings offered from the world of adepts. Waylon didn’t worry himself. So long as he kept low and out of notice it would be smooth sailing.
To be continued…