Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 7

“Captain Justice?” Rey stared at Aisha from the passenger seat of her BMW as they headed for the downtown police station.

“Sorry.” Aisha glanced at him. “It was the first thing that popped into my head.”

“No worries. I kind of like it.” He cleared his throat. “But about Harri being my foster mom…”

Aisha sighed. “Sometimes a good bluff can get you out of tight situations. I wasn’t about to let those assholes have my notes about you.”

“So you lied to protect me?”

Damn, Harri was right. This guy really was too good to be true. “If it bothers you that much, I understand if you don’t want me representing you.”

“No. I—”

She glanced at him. He actually appeared grateful.

“I’m not upset. I’ve never had anyone put themselves on the line for me since my mother died. You and Harri have both done it, and you barely know me.”

His admission floored her. She’d always had Harri watching her back, then Jeremy when Harri had dragged him into her fold. She couldn’t imagine someone like Rey not having anyone.

Aisha swallowed the sentimentality threatening to overwhelm her. “When we get to police headquarters, let me do all the talking. You’re my new assistant. Comprende?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She shot him a glare. “What did I say about calling me ‘ma’am’?”

“A legal assistant wouldn’t call his boss by her first name, Ms. Franklin,” he said coolly.

Maybe representing Captain Justice would work out after all.

* * *

By the time Aisha arrived at Interrogation #1 with Rey at her heels, she wore her bitch scowl. She ignored the detective and strode over to Harri. “Did they hurt you?”

“No.”

“Miranda?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t worry, counselor,” the detective snapped. “Your client hasn’t said a thing.”

Aisha turned her attention to him. “I want to talk to the ADA assigned to this case.”

“I’m here,” came an all-too-familiar voice from behind her.

Shit. Her day just kept getting worse. She pivoted to face the doorway.

Calvin Johnson met her careful gaze. The gray sprinkled along his temples gave him a distinguished air. Otherwise, her ex-husband looked just as handsome as he had the day they met twenty years ago.

But the old feelings didn’t tug at her like they had any other time she’d run into him over the past two years. Now, she just felt tired.

His attention turned to the woman handcuffed to the table. “How’s it going, Harri?”

“Your accommodations are just fucking wonderful, Cal.” God help anyone Harri gave that nasty smile to.

He nodded before turning back to Aisha. “Let’s talk outside.”

“Rey, stay with Harri,” she said over her shoulder as she followed Cal into the hallway.

When the door clicked shut, she said, “You’ve got nothing, and we both know it. Why the charges?”

He ran a hand over his hair. “I’ve already had that argument with the DA. He says she’s withholding information about the real culprit, Professor Venom, which makes her, at the minimum, an accessory.”

Aisha crossed her arms. “Based on what evidence?”

He cocked his head. “You know, don’t you? You’re fishing.”

“You still need to provide any and all evidence to defense counsel.”

“Dammit, Aisha,” Cal muttered. “You’re an IP attorney, not a defense lawyer, and you’re in over your head. I can give you the names of some people who do defense work.”

“Are you refusing to cooperate with my request, Mr. Johnson?”

His exasperated sigh was her reward. “Two administration assistants at City Hall heard a masked man dressed in black announce himself as Professor Venom when he entered Harri’s office. Not only did she fail to provide that information to an officer at the scene, she fled.”

“All hearsay, and you know it. And she didn’t flee. She was traumatized by two attempts on her life.”

Cal rocked on his heels. “Two attempts? What are you talking about?”

“Look, I can talk her into cooperating if you tell me what the hell is going on.”

Cal learned closer and lowered his voice. “I don’t know what Harri did to piss off the mayor, but both he and the DA are gunning for her. My hands are tied.”

Politics. It always came back to politics. “What are they willing to do?”

Cal shrugged. “Conspiracy with the minimum sentence.”

Aisha felt her jaw drop. “That’s still a felony. She’ll lose her license.”

He shrugged again. “Sorry. Best I can do.”

“She’s got no priors, Cal.”

He simply stared at her through his wire rims. They weren’t giving him any room to maneuver, which was pretty damn odd.

“Fine.” Aisha clenched her jaw and stalked back into the interrogation room. She pointed at the detective. “Out.”

He left with a huff of his rancid garlic breath.

She repeated the deal to Harri.

“Fuck, no!” She rattled the handcuff. “You’ve got to get me out of here. Someone’s setting up both me and Professor Venom.”

Aisha planted her palms on the table. “We need help. Neither of us are defense attorneys. And someone’s trying very hard to get you out of the way. Too hard.”

Harri blinked. “What are you talking about? What else did Cal say?”

“It wasn’t just the assistant district attorney.” Rey entered the conversation. “Aisha’s boss said she was fired if she represented you.”

Harri stared at Aisha. “You’ll never get that partnership if you stay here.”

“I wasn’t getting it anyway.” Aisha chuckled and straightened. “I don’t have a dick, so I quit.” She sobered. “You need to consider giving the police a statement about Professor Venom.”

“I’m not throwing my client to the wolves to save my own skin,” Harri snapped.

Aisha held up both palms. “Didn’t think you would, but as your current counsel, I’ve got to present all your options. I’ll relay your rejection of their deal, and see about bail. If the DA doesn’t drop the bullshit, you’ll need someone who specializes in defense.”

She headed for the door, but with her hand on the knob, she looked back at Harri. “By the way, since I’m unemployed, is that offer to be your partner still open?”

* * *

Harri lay on the hard narrow cot and stared at the concrete ceiling. She supposed she should be grateful they hadn’t put her in the general population, but privacy didn’t improve the accommodations. She wasn’t getting any sleep tonight, she knew that much.

Aisha had made a heroic effort, but, according to Cal, the district attorney Mike Michaels intended to fight bail on the grounds Harri was a flight risk. A flight risk! She snorted and curled on her side trying to get more comfortable.

If only people knew how very little money she actually had. Grandma Harri had tried to leave her namesake the bulk of her estate, but Harri’s feckless father—or more accurately Harri’s grasping step-mother—had fought for control of the estate trust and won. While it was true Grandma had gotten a little eccentric toward the end, she hadn’t been mentally incompetent when she’d revised the will to make Harri her sole heir. Grandma had simply known how quickly her son and his new wife would piss through the money if they got it.

She hadn’t been wrong. Dad and Laura had taken their remaining assets with them when they drove the Porsche off a cliff with a big bag of coke in the glove box.

All that was left was the scholarship endowment up at the University and the nest egg in the safe deposit box. And Harri had sworn that she wouldn’t touch that hidden money unless it was absolutely necessary.

Like maybe right now.

Harri groaned and rolled over again. This cot was cruel and unusual punishment.

Fortunately, Aisha had managed to set up an in-chambers bail hearing with Judge Inunza first thing in the morning, and, considering how well Inunza liked Cal’s boss, Harri would be out in time for breakfast. They had no evidence against her. Nothing. At best they might get her on minor obstruction for not immediately ratting out Arthur, but it’s not like they had tried to formally question her before her arrest. She couldn’t be convicted for withholding evidence nobody had asked her to give.

Judge Burgess, Quentin Samuels’s golf buddy, had been the judge on the arrest warrant. Harri smiled. Inunza had spent his teenaged summers caddying at Whitechapel Country Club, in the not-so-old days when a brown kid named Pablo could aspire to carry the clubs but not actually swing them. He had zero patience with the local old boy golf network. He’d grant Harri low bail just to piss of Burgess and Quentin. And Mike Michaels who, Harri remembered, had gone to prep school with Burgess.

In a city this big, you’d think we wouldn’t all know each other.

Much to her surprise, she yawned deeply. Maybe she would get some sleep. It had been a busy day after all. Being strip searched and deloused had really taken it out of her.

At least I know I don’t have cooties. She burst into giggles at the thought, which quickly escalated into guffaws.

Her cell door buzzed. Why would someone come to get her after lights out? She sat upright, suddenly wide awake, her laughter gone.

A dark figure lunged inside her cell. In the dim light from the hallway, she had time to register paramilitary clothing and a black face mask.

Just like the asshole who’d set City Hall on fire.

In a fluid motion, the figure spun her and shoved her face-first on the cot.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” a hoarse male voice whispered in her ear.

Harri felt a large gloved hand grasp the back of her skull.

“Don’t move. My partner has to believe you’re comatose. I need your help,” the voice whispered. “Keep Patty safe. Please. And the baby.”

Holy crap! Was this guy the unknown sperm donor?

“I will,” Harri breathed back.

“Thank you,” he slid his fingers around her wrist as if checking her pulse. “I’m supposed to be giving you an aneurysm. Don’t move until you hear the cell door lock.”

“Security camera?” Harri whispered.

He grasped her skull again. “We took care of it. Nobody will check on you until the morning shift change. I’ll make sure your lawyer gets here before then.”

She felt his weight lift off her and, as instructed, didn’t move until she’d heard the lock click. She counted to a hundred to be safe before she carefully raised her head.

An aneurysm? The guy must be a super. Patty’s baby daddy was a super. And he was sent here to kill me.

Fear uncoiled from her belly and spread through her. She shook with the weight of it. Not just for herself, but for her assistant, too. She shook inside the jail cell she wouldn’t be in if some serious procedural corners hadn’t been cut. What the fuck have I gotten us into?

Harri curled up into a tight ball on the cot and waited for morning.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 6

Dear Readers:

Unfortunately, Hero De Facto will not be out on Friday, April 13th, as I'd originally planned. Some personal things hit the proverbial fan. No, I can't give you an exact date at this time, though I will be working on editing, etc., in an effort to release it by the end of the month.

As my Bloodlines character Tiffany Stephens would say, Murphy is the one true God. LOL

I'll continue posting chapters to keep you entertained in the meantime.

Thanks for your patience.
Suzan

===================================================

The intercom on Aisha’s phone set buzzed as she tried to concentrate on the licensing contract for a Seismic Shift hair product line. The interruption saved her from wondering if that was his real hair above his Lycra cowl. He wouldn’t be the first superhero to wear a hairpiece. She jabbed the button. “Yes?”

“Um, Ms. Franklin, your two o’clock is here.” The new receptionist’s voice shook.

“Thank you. I’ll be right there.” Aisha always tried to address people by their name, but she never bothered to learn the names of the young receptionists. If Stuart’s antics didn’t drive the support personnel out of the firm within two months, the office manager’s crap did. And this girl sounded so nervous already, she might be leave before the week was out.

And this was only her third day.

Curiosity over Harri’s super quickened Aisha’s steps, but she wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted her.

The man who towered over Harri could have stepped out of a magazine. Thick blue-black hair, conservatively cut but with enough on top to run your fingers through. His grey suit fit perfectly, leaving just enough to the imagination. Square jaw. Perfect nose. White, white teeth against caramel skin. This sure as hell wasn’t the barrio waif Harri had described on the phone last night.

It was his eyes that made Aisha stop breathing. They were a warm golden hazel, and they locked onto her with the intensity of a laser beam.

She became acutely aware of a pain in her chest, and she drew a giant lungful of air. Nearly every female in the firm, and a couple of males, stood in the reception area or peered around corridor corners, all staring open-mouthed at her potential client.

Just like she was.

“Hi. You must be El Pájaro.” Aisha held out her palm.

When he took it, an electric charge shot across her skin and down into her belly. She hadn’t responded like this to a man since before her divorce. We don’t sleep with clients. She chanted Harri’s words in her head. We don’t sleep with clients.

Even worse was the smirk on Harri’s face.

Belatedly, Aisha realized she still held El Pájaro’s hand and quickly dropped it. “Why don’t we go back to my office?”

El Pájaro gestured toward the hallway behind her. “After you, ma’am.”

Ma’am. She swallowed her wince and forced a smile. “This way.” At the rate she was hiding her real emotions today, she’d tear a facial muscle or crack a tooth.

Harri and her super followed Aisha to her office. Once they were seated, she closed the door, grabbed a clean legal pad, and dropped onto her office chair.

Pulling out her attorney objectivity took some effort, but if she seriously wanted that corner office, El Pájaro was definitely her ticket. She looked at Harri. “Jeremy?”

She shrugged. “We needed the best.”

Aisha nodded. Jeremy could pull off miracles and had since they were kids. She turned back to El Pájaro. “Harri tells me you’re not registered.”

He shook his head. “I don’t have the money for the fee. Much less the required insurance.”

Aisha looked at Harri, who also shook her head. “Haven’t had the chance to start the paperwork yet. Ted Meadowfield showed up on my doorstep first thing this morning.”

Grabbing a pen, Aisha started her to-do list. “Did he get any film of—” She turned back to the superhero/GQ model seated across her desk and tried to keep her composure. “Can I call you by something other than ‘The Sparrow’?”

“It’s ‘The Bird’,” Harri said.

“Only in Mexico,” Aisha shot back.

Harri obviously started to say something about Aisha’s semester in Spain, then realized they were in front of a client. She gave the slightest of nods to El Pájaro.

When he opened his mouth, Aisha held up a hand. “I don’t want to know your full name since you’re not technically my client yet.”

“Rey.” His sweet, sexy grin would be her undoing. “With an ‘e’.”

Aisha swallowed hard. “Okay, Rey, with an ‘e’. From what Harri told me, you don’t have regular employment either.”

“No, ma’am.”

She waved her pen at him. “It’s not ‘ma’am’. Call me ‘Aisha’.”

“Okay, Aisha.” His pearly whites flashed again.

Another one of his smiles and she’d have to change her panties. Her fingers clenched around her pen. Please, God, don’t let him be a telepath.

She cleared her throat. “Powers?”

“Flight, strength, speed. My senses are better than most people, but I don’t have x-ray vision or anything like that.”

“Indestructibility,” Harri added.

Aisha glanced up from her notes, and Rey’s cheeks were flushed. “Is that true?” she asked.

“Sort of.”

His expression as he turned toward Harri bordered on desperate. She laid her hand on his forearm. “You can trust Aisha. Just like you trust me.”

His gaze locked on the floor, and he tugged a leather thong with a tiny carved stone from beneath his shirt.

Aisha leaned over her desk to examine it. This close he smelled as good as he looked. She wondered for a moment what his skin would taste like if she kissed his neck and felt her face heat again. Sitting back, she said, “It looks like jade. Is it some sort of talisman?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. My mother said never to take it off, but the one time I did—”

Harri patted his shoulder. “If you’re in trouble, Rey, we need to know.”

His words came out in fits and pauses. “That flooding near the causeway a couple of years ago. I rescued some trapped people. I was so filthy, covered in mud, afterwards I . . . I snuck into the Whitechapel Country Club to shower. Someone had left a locker room window cracked open.” He grasped the amulet tightly in his fist. “I had this on a longer thong then, and accidentally pulled it off with my shirt.”

He blew out a harsh breath. “Something attacked me in there. A few minutes later. Something with claws. I’ve never met anyone as strong as me until that . . . thing. The claws sliced right through my skin. It’s the only time I’ve ever been hurt that I remember. I managed to get away from it, but only barely.” He shook his head as if to clear the memory. “I shortened the thong so I couldn’t take it off by accident again.” He tucked the stone back beneath his shirt and straightened his tie.

Guilt niggled at Aisha for forcing him to relive the obvious trauma, but she had to know what she was dealing with. In a soft voice, she asked, “Do you have any idea who it was? Was it some supervillain? Or a superhero who thought you were cutting in on his action?”

That disconcerting gaze of his bore into her. “It was more of a what than a who. I don’t think it was human. But I’ve kept the stone on, and I haven’t seen the creature or anything like it since that night.”

She’d been dealing with supers all her professional life, but an alleged non-human assailant hit the top of her freak-o-meter. That was comic book stuff. It didn’t happen in real life. Especially not by taking off a magic necklace. There had to be something about the stone. Or maybe a device inside it.

A glance at Harri revealed a frown on her best friend’s face. So it wasn’t just her.

“We need to keep that a secret,” Harri said. “No need to advertise that you’ve got your own flavor of kryptonite.”

Forcing yet another smile, Aisha tried to project reassurance. “No problem. For anything I line up that requires a photo, we’ll stipulate that the shirt stays on.” A pity because she really wanted an excuse to see him topless.

“Are you crazy?” Harri exclaimed. “His poster alone will break all of Farrah Fawcett’s sales records.”

Aisha tapped her pen on the legal pad. “What about a clause that if the necklace is visible, it has to be edited out in the final product?”

Harri frowned. “Then they’ll know it’s significant.”

Aisha shook her head. “Not if I tell them it’s a copyrighted image and they’ll have to pay a huge extra licensing fee if they leave it in. But discretion is huge in the side markets if you want to work with supers, and it’s all word of mouth recommendations. All it takes is one unauthorized leaked photo and you’re out. Plus, if we design his outfit properly it should only be an issue in shirtless photos.” She felt her face get even hotter.

Down, girl.

His eyes widened. “Does this mean you’ll help Harri represent me?”

Her genuine smile at his earnestness lifted her mood for the first time today. “I’m definitely leaning that way. Let’s get through the rest of my questions first.”

After another half hour, excitement of another kind tingled along Aisha’s nerves. Harri was right. This super was a literal gold mine. She’d never represented a super with this much potential. A rags-to-riches back story, a range of superpowers, intelligence, physical beauty—he had it all.

Aisha set down her pen and pad. “Now for the hard part. I’m all for cultural heritage. One set of my grandparents met on the Selma march. The other on the Freedom Rides. But I want to make you accessible to more than the Hispanic demographic. Which from a marketing perspective is not a bad place to be. Don’t get me wrong. With a few tweaks, you could have much broader appeal. We need to change your moniker to something a little more mainstream.”

She waited for the inevitable blow-up. And waited. And waited.

“What exactly did you have in mind?” he asked.

Good. He wasn’t going to fight her on this. At least not yet. Harry on the other hand . . . the stubborn scowl Aisha knew far too well appeared on her friend’s face.

“He doesn’t need to—” Harri began.

Aisha cut her off. “That’s something we need to brainstorm. We don’t need to make any decisions right now. How about the three of us meet for dinner?”

“We were going to cook for Harri. You’re more than welcome to join us.” Color flared in his cheeks as he turned to Harri. “If that’s all right.”

She grinned. “Yes, it’s fine.” She winked at Aisha. “What did I tell you?”

“No wine tonight. This is business.” Aisha waggled her index finger at Harri. “We also need to design a proper uniform for him.”

Harri frowned. “Something that will hold up. I don’t want him hit with an indecency charge because a flame thrower burned off his unitard like that poor schmuck a couple of years ago.” She bit her lip thinking. “You know . . . what’s-his-name—”

“Skyball,” Aisha said dryly. Thank goodness, he hadn’t been her client.

Harri snapped her fingers. “Exactly. Everyone called him Freeball after that. And that’s my point. In this business, one unplanned wardrobe malfunction and nobody takes you seriously anymore.”

Aisha shut down the image Harri’s words painted in her mind. She needed to get her libido under control if she was going to represent the man in front of her. “There’s a couple of specialists I can contact who’ve designed for Cobblestone. I’ll make some calls.”

Harri climbed to her feet. “Sounds like a plan.” She leaned closer. “And my offer still stands if you want to get out of this mausoleum. Think how much fun we’d have.”

Aisha chuckled. After her encounter with Stuart this morning, the idea was tempting as hell. But reeling in Rey would definitely change the minds of the partners about her contributions to the firm. Not to mention starting a new firm when she had all the debt Cal had helped her wrack up and then dropped on her during the divorce meant she needed a more stable source of income.

For now anyway.

She waggled her index finger at Harri. “I know how much trouble you’d get me into. My mom is right. You are a bad influence.”

Harri smiled. “Aw, Betty meant that as a compliment. Dinner’s at seven.” She looked at Rey for confirmation.

He nodded, then flashed Aisha one more beautiful smile and held out his hand. “Thank you so much, Aisha. I feel really good about this.”

She took his hand and again felt that electric spark. “So do I.” They gazed in each other’s eyes for a moment longer than socially acceptable and she saw his cheeks flush.

So she wasn’t the only one who felt the heat between them. Which would make resisting temptation even harder. Damn it. I finally get my golden ticket to partnership and it’s attached to the first guy I’ve wanted to sleep with since Cal left me. Wonderful.

As Aisha walked her guests to the reception area, sounds of arguing echoed down the hall. She rounded the corner to find two uniforms flanking a plainclothed officer who waved his badge in the face of Howard Dewey, the senior partner. The second the detective spotted Aisha, he pulled out his handcuffs. “You’re under arrest.”

No, not her.

Harri.

Aisha stepped between the detective and her best friend. “Wait just a minute. Where’s your warrant?” “What’s the charge?” Harri added.

The detective dug into the pocket of his cheap suit and flung the paperwork at Aisha. “Harriet Winters is wanted for domestic terrorism under the 1947 Supervillainy Act. Specifically, the arson at city hall yesterday.”

Aisha snagged the wadded form before it struck her. A quick skim sent a sinking feeling through her stomach. Harri shoved past her. “That’s a bunch of goddamn—”

Aisha pinched her arm. “Shut up, girl. Don’t say another word.”

Common sense must have landed in Harri’s brain because she clamped her jaw shut.

The detective stepped closer, and the smell of garlic and meat made Aisha’s eyes water. “Get out of my way before I arrest you for obstruction of justice.”

Aisha stood nose-to-nose with the officer despite his rank odor. “I better not see a mark on my client when I reach the station, or I’ll slap a police brutality suit on you so fast it’ll make your grandbabies’ heads spin.”

She turned to Harri as the metal snicked shut around her friend’s wrists. “Let me know if he doesn’t Mirandize you.” “Oh, believe me, I will.” From the evil look on Harri’s face, it was good thing she was cuffed. Otherwise, the cops wouldn’t know what hit them.

Rey started to follow Harri and the policemen, but Aisha grabbed his arm. “Stay with me. You can’t help her right now.” The expression on his face was a mix of fury and sorrow. “But she—”

The firm’s doors swung shut. Even with the initial excitement over, half the staff and attorneys remained in reception and stared at her and Rey. Aisha lowered her voice, too aware of their audience. “You can’t help her,” she repeated. “Let me do my job. Please. Trust me.” When the tension didn’t leave his body. “For her sake, do it my way.” His curt nod only reassured her a tiny bit.

“Franklin,” Dewey spat out. He was a big man, in his early sixties, and he tried to tower over her, but it didn’t work when she had on her stilettos. His balding head shone under the overhead inset lights. “Why are you representing a supervillain?”

Aisha struggled to maintain her composure, but she was as pissed as Rey. “Harri Winters isn’t a supervillain any more than I am.”

“I will not have this firm’s name sullied. We only represent heroes.” Dewey stared at her, his gaze cold and reptilian for a moment. He was friendly and warm when the situation required, but calculating and ruthless when it didn’t. Aisha steeled herself. She possessed a similar ability to quickly shift emotional gears, allowing her to navigate Howard’s moods more easily than her colleagues, but she never took their surface cordiality for granted.

Until Dewey poked the top of her sternum.

Howard Dewey actually poked her. With a terrible realization, she knew who had alerted the cops to Harri’s location. This wasn’t just Stuart’s bullshit, and the argument here in reception had been for show. She was never going to make partner, no matter how much money she brought in.

A decade’s worth of rage boiled to the surface of her psyche. “We represent people fighting the good fight. Isn’t that what you told me when I interviewed here?”

He must have realized he’d used the wrong tactic. A charming smile appeared on his face. “Why don’t you come to my office? We can discuss this unfortunate incident like civilized people.”

“There’s nothing to discuss. I need to get down to the police station and see about freeing my client.” She turned on her heel and headed toward her office for her purse and keys.

She only made it two steps before Dewey said, “Don’ make a decision you’ll regret, Aisha.”

Her rage turned to ice as she pivoted to face him again. “Harri Winters is a good person who’s being framed for Quentin Samuels’s political gain. I am going to represent her whether you approve or not.”

Dewey’s face turned a brilliant shade of crimson. “If you take her on, you’ll never make partner.”

A bitter laugh erupted from her throat. “You were never going to make me partner, and we both know it.”

“Maybe it’s because you don’t have the balls for this job,” he sneered.

“Thank god for that!” She swung her arm to indicate the entire office. “It means I’m not thinking with them. And I’m damn tired of licking yours.”

There was a collective gasp from their audience.

The snake Dewey truly was appeared in his eyes. “You’re fired, Franklin.”

“Don’t bother exerting yourself on the paperwork. I quit.”

She whirled and marched back to her office. A quick rip and the notes about Rey were shoved into her purse along with her reading glassing and her flashdrive with her ongoing cases. She circled her office. No pictures. No mementos. Nothing to show she had any life at all outside of this godforsaken law firm.

Returning to the reception area, Stuart and Travis stood in front of the doors. Both men had their arms crossed. “Hand over your purse, Aisha. We have to search you before you leave.” Stuart’s smarmy smile said how much he was enjoying this. Travis had the grace to look slightly disturbed. Dewey stood to the side and watched the proceedings. The bastard never did his own dirty work.

“You’re not touching, Ms. Franklin.” Rey’s smooth voice reassured her as much as his body heat against her back. “And who’s going to stop us?” Stuart taunted.

For the first time in years, her old self-confidence surged through her. “Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet our city’s newest superhero, Captain Justice.” She took a step closer to the two attorneys. “If I were you, I wouldn’t get between him and his falsely accused foster mom.”

Stuart paled, and Travis turned a sickly avocado.

“We-we-we still can’t let you leave with firm property.” Sweat beaded on Stuart balding pate.

“I don’t have any firm property. My computer’s on my desk. Have fun figuring out the password” When they didn’t move, she smiled. “You have until I count to three to get out of my way before Captain Justice moves you for me. One…” Both Stuart and Travis shot worried looks at Dewey.

“Two…”

The sound from Rey sounded suspiciously like a jaguar growling. “Thr—” Both attorneys bolted for the right hallway. Doors slamming echoed against the drywall.

With Rey at her back, Aisha strode out the doors of Dewey & Cheatham, feeling free for the first time in years.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 5

Harri stared at Ted for a moment, unable to move. Then she registered the camera that went with the spotlight. She held up her index finger. “One second, Mr. Meadowfield.” She slammed the door shut and leaned against it.

“Okay, the boys need to go out the back door.” She stared at Rey. “Don’t let them see you.”

Rey nodded.

“Can you guys create a diversion?”

Arthur’s eyes widened. “Are you asking me to use my powers for good?”

Oh, brother. “Yes, Arthur, I need you to create a diversion so Patty and I can get to your car. But nothing too property damaging, please.”

“Shouldn’t I go with them?” Patty asked.

Harri shook her head. “No. Quentin wants a media event. Let’s give him one.”

Patty smiled. Like a shark that smelled blood.

Harri waited until Arthur and Rey were out of sight, then took a deep breath and opened the front door again. “You were saying?”

Ted looked at the cameraman. “Bob, are we taping?”

Bob, pudgy and thirty-ish, nodded.

Ted stuck a microphone in Harri’s face. “Mayor Samuels has accused you and your assistant of being in league with Professor Venom in his plot to destroy City Hall. What do you have to say about that?”

“Mr. Meadowfield, you know I can’t comment. All media requests are handled by the city’s PR director.”

Ted shook his head. “Nice try, Harriet. You’re not a city employee anymore. My sources say you got fired.”

Not even trying to be professional and addressing her as “Ms. Winters.” And being called her given name only irritated her further. The jerk didn’t realize he was admitting Samuels was his source. This was too good to be true.

“I also cannot comment on personnel decisions of the city.”

“Fine.” Ted grinned, obviously thinking he had the upper hand. “If you won’t talk about Venom, then how about the new super who rescued you and several other city employees?”

No way in hell was she letting Ted get the scoop on Rey. Not only because she hated the newsman, but because he’d get the story wrong. Nella Lopez, his long-suffering producer, was nowhere in sight, which meant Ted was off his leash. “No comment. And I didn’t get fired. I quit.”

Ted’s grin turned downright oily. “Look, I already have the footage of this guy catching you in mid-air. Give me the exclusive.”

“Ted, you need to get off my porch. Now.”

“The mayor is already saying he thinks you’re behind the city hall attack. If you don’t want me to start saying the same thing—on air—you’ll give me an interview. I have a lot of power you know. If I tell everybody you’ve gone villain, you’re done for.”

“Are you blackmailing me, Ted? Seriously?”

Ted smirked. “I’m only repeating what the mayor is saying.”

Harri’s glare escalated into what Aisha called “the look of death.” She stepped forward. Ted stepped back and almost fell off the porch.

“Get this on film, Ted,” Harri growled. “I think you and Quentin might want to educate yourselves about the basics of defamation law before you throw around baseless accusations. And I’m pretty sure the jury in my lawsuit would have no trouble finding actual malice on your part considering you tried to shake me down on camera, dumbass. Or did you forget you’re rolling?”

Ted made a slashing motion, but Bob kept taping.

“Turn off the camera,” Ted squealed.

“Nella told me when you go free range like this I have to tape everything,” Bob said.

“You’re fired,” Ted said.

“No, I’m not,” Bob shot back. “Nella’s my supervisor. Not you.”

Realizing she had an open channel to Nella, Harri took another step toward Ted, forcing him to retreat down the steps. “Gee, Ted, maybe you should be reporting about Mayor Samuels’s failure to provide adequate security to city hall employees. Or about how he illegally fired my assistant. Who is devastated.”

On cue, Patty began to cry, in loud shuddering sobs.

“Who the hell is this?” Ted asked, his voice panicky, as he peered around Harri at Patty. “Nobody told me the girl was pregnant. Nobody told me there’d be crying.”

Bob caught Harri’s eye, gestured with his head toward Ted, and mouthed, “Sorry.”

Harri looked at the Channel 12 van parked behind the crew. Arthur crouched next to the van frantically gesturing. Draw it out.

“Ted,” Harri said. “This isn’t baseball. This is news. There’s always crying in news. It’s bad enough you tried to blackmail me for an interview. You sure you want to also be on camera intimidating a traumatized pregnant woman—” Patty wailed even louder. “—who’s just been illegally fired from her job, with unsubstantiated allegations that she’s a super villain? Seriously? How well do you think that’ll play with the advertisers? How will that look on your clip reel? Tom Brokaw would never have done that.”

Ted’s national news anchor aspirations were well known—and widely mocked.

“Kill the camera!” Ted, now completely out of his depth, turned on Bob and a very young woman, probably an intern, who was fiddling with the lights.

Harri glanced back at Arthur, who pointed at a sleek silver Corvette parked next to the van.

Harri nodded, trying not to laugh. Ted’s Corvette.

While Ted bickered with Bob and the intern, Rey picked up the Corvette and—careful not to damage anything—leaned it, like a domino, on the hood of the news van. It looked like Ted had tried to drive over the top of the bigger vehicle. Arthur pulled an ancient metal gas can out of the brush, but Rey shook his head. Harri could tell they were arguing. After a moment, Arthur nodded. Rey stuck his fingers in the corners of his mouth and whistled, then he and Arthur disappeared into the brush.

Rey’s whistle had the volume and stridency of a freight train. Ted spun around and saw his Corvette, perched on the hood of the news van. With a strangled cry, he dropped the microphone and ran toward his beloved sports car.

“Sorry,” the young intern said to Harri. “We had no idea he planned to ambush you. He’s such an asshole.”

Bob snorted, still taping but it was Ted’s antics at his car’s position. “What Meadowfield lacks in brains, he makes up for in hair and teeth. TMZ’s gonna love this. I’m not on the clock, and he’s too stupid to realize I’m not using the station’s camera. This footage is mine.”

“Were you the guy I flipped off yesterday?” Harri asked.

Bob looked over his shoulder, and his expression turned sheepish. “Yeah, sorry about that. I didn’t realize you were trying not to get killed.”

“Why were you guys even there?”

Bob shrugged. “Ted said he’d gotten a tip that something big was happening at City Hall.” He chuckled. “Nice bit with the car.”

“Did the new super do it?” the intern asked. “Is he as cute as the paramedic said?”

Harri smiled. “He’s cuter. And I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Bob sighed, finally lowering the camera. “I better go call a tow truck before Ted has a stroke.” “Are we good?” Harri asked.

“Yeah, we’re good. If you need any promotional video of your super, let me know.” He handed Harri a business card. “I freelance on the side.”

She nodded and tucked the business card in her purse.

Ted was sobbing into his phone when she and Patty turned the corner on their way to Arthur’s car.

* * *

At the knock on her office door, Aisha looked over her reading glasses to find Stuart Cheatham. There was only one reason for him to be standing in her doorway since he couldn’t see her ass or legs from that position. “Did you need something?”

Stuart oiled his way into her office and sat down. The grandson of Matthew Cheatham, founder of the firm, Stuart wasn’t even a lawyer after failing the bar five times. He had a position as the firm’s so-called development manager and a trust-fund. He used the latest management buzzwords and double speak, but under his $1,000 dollar suit beat the heart of a two-bit con man.

Aisha detested him and everything he stood for. Stuart had far more power than his position entitled him to, so she did her best to not let her feelings show, which had been particularly challenging during the latest partnership review.

“As you know, the partnership committee is committed to dynamic employee development,” he said with a smarmy smile on his face.

Aisha imagined throwing her stapler at his head. Imaginary Stuart grunted and collapsed sideways out of his chair. Real Stuart continued to leer at her. She clutched her pen more tightly and tucked her other hand under her thigh to reduce temptation.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what they say. What’s the word on my dynamic employee development?”

“Well, the partners take into account due consideration of all factors, which includes examining core competencies and drilling down to the best practices for our clients.” He continued to smile at her. Stuart was nowhere near as handsome and charming as he thought he was. She suspected that the “Stuart Stare,” as the support staff called it, was motivated by Stuart’s belief that his attention was a gift no lady could resist, a gift he graciously bestowed upon the female gender.

Her stapler was just a few inches away.

“Stuart,” she said, smiling back in a way that made her face hurt, “I can’t stand the suspense. What’s the word? Am I going to make partner finally?”

His smile disappeared, and he began to squirm in his chair. “These are always hard decisions, especially when it comes to management visibility—”

“You sonofabitch,” Aisha said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re screwing me over again, aren’t you?”

“Now Aisha, that attitude of yours doesn’t help.”

“And what attitude would that be, Stuart?” Aisha asked through gritted teeth.

“I don’t want to say entitled—”

“No,” Aisha said. “Go ahead. Say it. In what way do I act entitled?”

“Partnership is never a guarantee, you know. You have to put in the work.”

Aisha laid down her pen before she lunged over her desk and jammed it in his eye. “I have put in the work. Ten years of it, in fact. On an eight year partner track. In what way have I fallen short?”

“There was all that drama with your divorce,” he said, refusing to meet her eye.

“What drama?” “Well, crying all the time is hardly professional,” he said, his voice sullen.

“Crying all the time? I let a single tear slip in a meeting. That wasn’t with a client. One time. The day my husband served me with the papers.”

“I’m not here to do an employment review, Aisha.” He scowled at her. “And attacking me won’t help you. I’m doing you a favor, you know. So you aren’t surprised in the staff meeting tomorrow.” He stood up to leave.

Aisha took a deep breath. She had no hope of salvaging this if she pissed off Stuart. “I’m sorry,” she forced herself to say. “I just thought I had it this time.” She took another deep breath. “So who got the partnership?”

Stuart stared at his expensive shoes. “Uh . . . Travis. They gave it to Travis.”

“Travis?” Her heroic effort to keep it together exploded. “That smarmy little shit? He’s been here for only three years.” Stuart let out a dramatic sigh. “I knew you’d get like this. They said you’d be happy for him, but I knew you wouldn’t.”

“Why, Stuart? Why would I be happy to see my partnership go to a less qualified candidate?"

“Well, he’s . . . like you.”

Aisha started laughing, but there was no humor in it. “Are you kidding me? The black folk stick together—is that it? He didn’t get the partnership because he’s qualified. Or because he’s black. He got the partnership because his father is the plastic surgeon who keeps Dewey’s trophy wife looking good.” She left out the part about what an ass-kissing little schmuck Travis Beckham was. Not to mention the paralegals hated him because he expected them to do all his work.

“That is totally unfair, Aisha. Travis is a qualified, hard-working—”

Aisha shook her head, willing herself not to assault Stuart. “Well, at least I finally know what the partnership committee thinks of me.”

“You’re overreacting.” He smiled at her. “You know how much we value you around here.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess I do. I think I finally get it.” And it’s not like she didn’t have options. Maybe this El Pájaro guy could save her, too.

* * *

Harri had worried there might be some problems getting her definitely-not-new white Honda sedan out of the parking garage, but it all went fine. The cops were gone and the middle-aged security guard at the gate didn’t even glance their way when Harri flashed her ID badge at the card reader. As she’d suspected, the termination process was going to take a few days to work its way through what was left of city hall.

Which meant she probably still had remote access to her files and e-mail on the city government backup servers. Patti could copy everything when she and Arthur finished running errands and got back to the townhouse.

“Do you know anything about computers?” Harri glanced at Rey sitting in her passenger seat.

“No, but Arthur does.”

“Really?” Harry snorted. “I thought his specialty was chemistry.”

“Have you actually talked to him, Harri?”

Another glance showed Rey’s earnest expression. “No. Why?”

“He’s got three doctorates. Chemistry, mathematics, and computer science.”

“He has a beautiful mind. So what?” She flipped the left turn signal and pulled into the turn lane.

“You should give him a break. He’s not a bad guy. When we were talking after you and Patty went to bed, he admitted he’s more a fan, than anything else. He said Professor Venom was an ‘homage to super culture.’ I said ‘what culture?’” Rey laughed. “By the way, he’s more scared of you than me. I told him he should call you Harri, and he looked like he was going to pass out. He said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that. She’s too mean.’”

Even Harri had to laugh at that. “All right. I am—on a provisional basis, mind you—willing to give him a break. If he’s so smart, why didn’t some university or the government snag him for research?”

The left arrow light turned green. Harri headed west on Summer Drive. Renaming the street had been a little eff-you from the Canyon family to the Winters nearly a century ago.

“Some big company did, but his boss took credit for Arthur’s work. When he protested, his boss framed him for embezzlement. He hasn’t been able to get another job.”

Crap. That explained Arthur Drallhickey’s antisocial bent, and why he was so adamant about clearing his name. And if someone was trying to frame him again…

“Did he say how he knew his phone was bugged?”

Rey chuckled. “I may not have one, but even I know a modern phone is a mini-computer.” His laughter died. “Arthur said he found spyware on both his home computer and phone. Patty suggested his computer mojo might be the skill he can trade for his legal fees.”

“Good thinking. She’s a sharp kid.”

“Arthur’s already half in love with her, I think.” He paused a moment. “There’s no . . . father on the scene?”

Harri winced though Patty wasn’t in the car. Thank god, Arthur had taken Patty to her apartment to meet her landlady to get the locks changed and obtain new keys.

“She refuses to talk about him. Says he’s out of the picture and won’t be back.” Harri glanced at Rey before turning her eyes back to the street. He looked straight ahead, a million-mile stare on his beautiful face. “You aren’t attracted to her, are you?”

“Hmm? Sorry. No. She’s very sweet, but not my type. She…she reminds me of my mother.”

“She was on her own?”

He shrugged. “As far as I know. I don’t know a lot. When I’d ask, she’d say she’d tell me when I was old enough. But she died—” His voice tightened. “She died when I was little. All I have is this.” He pulled the pendant out of his shirt, the one Harri had noticed the day before.

At the next red light, Harri inspected the small stone carving. She couldn’t recognize the stone—a sort of mottled gray green—but it was intricately carved with some sort of abstract design that had been worn away around the edges and softened with time.

“Do you know anything about what this is?” she asked.

Rey shook his head. “Only that it’s old and my mom told me never to take it off.”

“And you never have?” “Only once,” he said, his

voice barely more than a whisper. “Never again.”

A horn honked behind them.

“Green light,” Rey said.

Harri waved at the guy behind her and stepped on the gas.

“Where to now?” Rey said.

Happy to let him change the subject, Harri said, “First a hair cut, then the suit.”

“I’ve never owned a suit. I have no idea what to get.”

“Neither do I,” Harri said. “But I know a guy.”

* * *

“Fine,” Jeremy said over the speaker. “Bring him in.” He sighed. “The place is empty. Nobody wants to come downtown. Typical post-super nonsense. Where are you?”

“Outside your salon. I figured I should call first.” Harri pulled the cell phone away from her ear in anticipation of the shouting. Rey tugged at her sleeve and pointed at the doorway.

“Why do I even bother with you?” Jeremy said as he opened the glass door. “I’m hanging up now.”

Harri stuck out her tongue and tucked the phone in her purse. “You love me. And not just because I’m letting you in on the ground floor of an amazing opportunity.”

Jeremy sucked in a breath and gave Rey the once over. “Good Lord, is this El Pájaro?”

“He needs a stylist.” Harri frowned as Jeremy’s question sunk into her brain. “How to do you know his name already?”

“My superpower is digging up dirt. I know everything about everybody.” Jeremy smiled and ran his fingers through his short blond hair. “Mother Nature’s done most of the work already.” He held out his hand. “I’m Jeremy. And I don’t need to know your real name. I know how careful you guys are about that.”

Rey took his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Thank you for saving Harri. I’m quite fond of her, despite her deplorable lapses in scheduling etiquette.”

“In addition to the haircut and shave, he needs a good suit. I’m taking him to meet Aisha, see if she’ll take him on as a client.”

Jeremy nodded. “When’s the meeting?”

“Two o’clock.”

Jeremy eyes widened. “El, honey, why don’t you go inside? Tell the kids you’re my new client and I’ll be right in.” Rey looked at Harri. At her nod, he entered into the salon.

Jeremy turned on Harri. “Two o’clock? Are you out of your mind? What—you want some kind of magic makeover montage? A little gay pixie dust to make him look great?” He glared at her. “I don’t appreciate being reduced to a stereotype, you know.”

Harri sighed. You’re ambushing Jeremy like Ted ambushed you. What did you expect?

“Honey, I’m not reducing you to a stereotype. You’re the best damn stylist in town, you’re one of my best friends, and I need your help. And you’ve seen him. This kid is a potential goldmine. He’s the real deal. And not just the super powers. He’s a good guy, in every way. But you know I can’t take him to the stuffed-shirt, old boy law firm in tattered clothes and that hair cut. Are you gonna help me help him?”

“Well, of course, I’ll help” Jeremy said. “But I’m not a miracle worker. We’ve got about four hours, and with that shoulder to hip ratio, he’ll need some tailoring to get a suit that fits properly. I’ll do what I can. You still get the family discount at Grandma Harri’s department store?”

Harri nodded.

“Good. Let me make some calls. I’ll get them to bring some stuff over. But before I go launch Hurricane Jeremy, how are you? Really?”

Harri shrugged. “I’m okay. Some burns. Lost my job. But on the bright side, I’ve got my first private practice client.”

“You’re so full of shit. I saw the news. You almost died.” He pulled her into a tight hug.

She bit back a squeal of pain when he accidentally brushed the burn on her shoulder.

Jeremy released her. “I’d lecture you about needing to process it, but I’d be wasting my breath. You’re as bad as Grandma Harri.” He gestured at the glass door. “After you, my dear. Time to do some magic.”

Harri sucked in a deep breath as she pulled on the door handle and a blast of the salon A/C hit her. She prayed she hadn’t oversold hers and her friends’ abilities to Rey of making him rich.

Because what little was left of her career was riding on him.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 4

Harri whirled to face Rey. “You knew he was there.”

He nodded. “Patty said she wanted to explain the situation to you. He’s definitely not either of the men who tried to kill you earlier, and he promised to behave himself.” From Rey’s tone, he’d already threatened to do something to Arthur if he tried anything, though Harri doubted the kid would follow through unless she or Patty were in mortal danger.

And Arthur Drallhickey hardly qualified as an irritant, much less mortal danger.

Pounding started between Harri’s eyes. “Why are you here, Arthur?”

“It’s not his fault, Harri,” Patty protested. “He found me crying after the mayor—” She gulped hard. “After Samuels fired me at the hospital. Arthur let me use his phone, then he drove me over here.”

“And bought you dinner?” Harri’s attention flicked between her secretary and the super-villain wannabe.

Arthur’s chin lifted. “Pregnant women need regular sustenance. And I wasn’t thrilled Ms. Ames’ misfortune was caused by someone claiming to be me.”

Harri glared at him. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

Arthur straightened his skinny frame. “Patty told me you are no longer employed by the city. Therefore, I wish to hire your services to clear my name. That’s why I was at the hospital. I was looking for you.”

If her day hadn’t been so crappy, she would have laughed in the guy’s face. Instead she rubbed the aching spot between her brows. “How do you expect me to clear your name? Did you forget about the two million dollar extortion letter you sent me? Nice piece of evidence for the district attorney, by the way.”

“That was, like, a year ago,” Arthur said, his voice rising an octave.

“No,” Harri said, “it was, like, today.”

Arthur shook his head, looking panicked. “I didn’t send you any letter. I’ve gone straight Like Judge Inunza ordered. You can ask my probation officer!”

Harri crossed her arms. “You really expect me to believe that?”

“Yes,” Arthur squeaked. “Ms. Winters, I didn’t have anything to do with this. I swear. You gotta help me.”

“No, Arthur,” Harri said. “No, I don’t. I don’t do criminal defense law, and I don’t work for free.”

“I have money,” Arthur said, in a small voice.

“Really?” Harri asked. “You got four figures for a retainer? You have any idea how much a criminal defense costs?”

Arthur stared at his sneakers. “No. I had a public defender.”

“You aren’t charging me,” Rey said.

Harri turned to glare at him. “That’s different. You save lives. He . . .” Her voice faltered. What had Professor Venom really done besides stripping old paint from some park benches?

“No, it’s not.” Rey insisted. He waved a hand at Arthur. “He needs your help more than I do. He’s looking at serious jail time. Maybe he could do a trade, like I do with Marta. Legal services for . . . I don’t know. There must be something he can do.”

Harri held her hands up in defeat. God, this kid was really too good to be true. Looks, smarts, superpowers, and a healthy sense of morality. So different from the arrogant jerks she normally dealt with.

She fished her house keys out of her purse. “I’m not debating this on my front porch. Everyone inside.” And hopefully, there’re still a couple of bottles of wine in the pantry.

Harri unlocked the front door and her strange little group trooped after her.

* * *

Aisha Franklin winced at a particularly atrocious snore from her father. He sprawled across her couch, ostensibly to watch the baseball game, but he hadn’t made it past the second inning. Mom had stomped off to bed shortly after dinner.

Whatever was going on between her parents was getting worse. The only saving grace of them sniping at each other was they were too distracted to nitpick her life.

She tried to concentrate on the novel she was reading. As much as she’d rather switch the channel to the local twenty-four-hour news, the minute she touched the remote Dad would wake up and chastise her for interrupting the game. Another loud snort and grumble from him would have impressed a grizzly.

Her attempted distraction wasn’t going to work. The last update on the internet news sites merely said the fire at city hall had been doused, and the alleged arson was under investigation. She’d feel so much better if Harri would call. At least, her secretary had confirmed she was okay.

Aisha powered off her tablet and headed for the kitchen. With Mom and Dad asleep, it should be safe to go out on the balcony and indulge in her vice.

She slipped through the sliding glass door. The night air still carried a hint of spring warmth. She slid open the compartment under the gardenia planter and pulled a cigarette from the pack. Harri would kill her if she knew, but sometimes, a woman had to make allowances when her parents were visiting for a week.

No sooner had Aisha taken her first puff when her phone vibrated in her pocket. Before she pulled out the device she knew it would be Harri. The woman was psychic.

Aisha thumbed the icon. “Hey! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Harri normally had a throaty, sexy voice that attracted the opposite sex until they did something to piss her off, but now, she sounded like she’d swallowed glass.

“Bullshit. Patty already told me what happened.”

There was a soft sigh. “Okay. I’m not fine.”

The cigarette smoldered between Aisha’s fingers as Harri relayed the details of the city hall disaster and her rescuer. “Oh, yeah, and to top off my shitty day, I got fired.”

“I heard. This new super really calls himself ‘The Sparrow’?”

“It translates as ‘The Bird’,” Harri shot back.

“To-ma-to, to-mah-to.”

“Bite me. Seriously, I want him to talk to you. He’s got a ton of marketing potential. Sweet kid, with an inspiring back story, and amazing powers. And he’s gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful.”

Aisha flicked the ashes from the tip of her smoke. “You said he’s not registered?”

“No, but I’ll take care of it. Girl, once you see him, you’ll understand. Money maker. I guarantee it. And you bringing in such a cash cow may be the tipping point you need with the partners.”

“Really? You’re going to combine ‘cow’ and ‘tipping’ in the same sentence?” Aisha took one last drag of her dying cigarette before she crushed the butt in the planter. For Harri to wax poetic about any super was unprecedented. What the hell—this new super couldn’t possibly make things worse for her at the firm.

But she wasn’t about to let her best friend off the hook for not calling right away to verify she was okay. “He’s apparently so gorgeous you forgot how to use your phone. It’s been a while since you’ve even noticed the opposite sex. You sure it’s only the couch he’s surfing?”

“Don’t go there. We’re twice his age.”

Aisha chuckled. “Nothing wrong with a little cougar power.”

“He’s a client,” Harri spat at her. “We don’t sleep with clients.”

Maybe she’d pushed a little too far. “Just teasing, girl.”

“Sorry. It’s been…a bad day.”

“That’s the understatement of the century.”

“Besides, he’s not sleeping on the couch. He’s sleeping on the futon in my office.”

Aisha perched on one of the cheap plastic chairs she bought last summer. Cal had offered to let her have the good redwood stuff during the divorce, but she hadn’t wanted any reminder of him in her new condo. “I get Patty sleeping in your guest bedroom, but why’s he on the futon? Your couch is way more comfortable than that damn futon.”

“Because I’m not letting a supervillain wannabe anywhere near my files.”

“Uh, Harri, I think you left something out.” Aisha reached for another cigarette.

There was a loud slurp at the other end of the line. “Professor Venom has hired me to clear him of the city hall arson. He says he had nothing to do with it.”

Aisha took a deep drag on her second cigarette. This whole situation just kept getting weirder. “The skinny guy with the Cyrano nose? Professor Paint Remover? What’s he doing at your house?”

“He refuses to go home. He claims his place has been bugged, and someone’s been watching him, but it’s not the police. Although now the police are watching his place, too, thanks to the asshole trying to frame him.”

“You’re not a criminal defense attorney,” Aisha reminded her. “He’s in deep shit.”

“No kidding. This is way over my head. He’d be better off with a public defender.”

“So send him home.”

Harri sighed. “I tried. But Patty and Rey were giving me these ‘can we keep him’ looks so I caved. Which is why I’m sitting on my back porch with that bottle of Bitch wine you gave me for my birthday.”

Aisha snickered. “Why, Harriet Winters, I do believe you’ve gone soft since your fortieth. Bringing home stray heroes and sheltering villains? You’ve always said supers are only as good as the cash in their pockets. Which neither of these guys have.”


“Yet,” Harri pointed out. “Don’t have it yet. But Rey’s got the potential to make piles of cash. For both of us.” Another pause. “You know, you could say screw it to Dewey & Cheatham and join me.”

Aisha stared at the park next to her building. Maybe her best friend had breathed in too much toxic gas during the fire. “In running your little superhero/supervillain bed and breakfast? I’ll pass for now.”

“Think about it.”

“Give me a sec.” Aisha clamped her lips around the filter of her cigarette and thumbed through her calendar. She pulled the smoke from her mouth and said, “The answer’s still no, but I’m open at two tomorrow afternoon. Bring your super by then. And don’t drink that whole bottle of wine by yourself tonight.”

Another loud slurp. “Too late. And don’t lecture me, Miss I-need-to-stop-smoking-again. You’ve had two while you were talking to me.”

“I hate you.”

Harri chuckled. “I hate you, too. See you tomorrow.

Aisha thumbed the icon. She hadn’t wanted to point it out to Harri, but the Action 12 News! helicopter had gotten a couple of good shots of her El Pájaro’s rescues. Not to mention Harri flipping off the camera team. While she loved her best friend dearly, Harri didn’t get how necessary good relations with the media were.

And defending a villain? Maybe Harri had been hit on the head by falling debris.

But yeah, this El Pájaro might be just the ticket she needed for that corner office.

* * *

When Harri’s rolled over the next morning to turn off the alarm, her body reminded her of yesterday’s trauma. Her muscles hurt even worse than the acid burns. From the stirring in the rest of the house, she needed to get a quick shower before going to work—

No job. It was a weird feeling. She’d been employed constantly since high school, but she couldn’t dwell on that. There were three people who needed her expertise, and she needed to organize things to help them.

The aroma of bacon enticed Harri as she strode toward the kitchen. When she entered, meat sizzled in her frying pan while Rey stood at the counter. She couldn’t call what he was doing to the eggs whisking because his hand moved faster than an industrial-strength electric mixer.

Patty sat at the antique maple breakfast table, her injured arm extended above the surface. Arthur was carefully wrapping the burn with clean, loose gauze.

“Morning, Harri!” Patty’s smile was the same bright greeting that started every morning at City Hall.

“Where’d you get the gauze?” Harri asked. “I used up everything I had last night. And the food—where’d the food come from?” She sure as hell didn’t have anything to cook in her refrigerator.

“Ms. Ames needs her dressing changed every twelve hours.” Arthur concentrated on securing the gauze with medical tape as he spoke. “And would you please explain to her that she needs to see her own doctor? Second degree burns are prone to infection. A serious infection while pregnant could be dangerous to both the mother and the baby.”

Harri took a deep breath, prayed for patience, and propped her hands on her hips. “That doesn’t explain where the medical supplies and food came from.”

Rey grabbed one of her hands and pressed a steaming cup of coffee into it. “Since Patty needed more bandages, Arthur and I picked up some groceries, too. You want toast with your eggs and bacon? Or would you prefer an English muffin?”

“Rey offered to cook while I tended to Ms. Ames’s arm,” Arthur added. “We thought it was the least we could do for your generosity, Ms. Winters.”

“Um, okay. Toast is good.” Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine a hero and a villain making her breakfast. She took a sip from her cup. Rich flavor tempered by a splash of milk coated her tongue. She stared at the men. “This is wonderful.”
“I hope you don’t mind my presumption, but Jamaican Blue Mountain is a personal favorite,” Arthur murmured.

“And Patty told us how you take it,” Rey said.

“Thank you, gentlemen.” Harri took another drink. “Mmmm.” She could have a caffeine orgasm from this cup alone, but other matters had to take precedence.

Arthur patted his patient’s hand. “There you go, Ms. Ames.”

Patty beamed at the supervillain wannabe. “How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Patty.”

Arthur blushed and busied himself with cleaning up the medical supplies and packaging.

Over Rey’s fluffy eggs, crisp bacon and toast with extra butter, Harri issued marching orders. “First of all, Arthur, you need to drive Patty and me down to the employee parking garage to retrieve our cars.”

Patty waved her fork. “Uh, fire. No keys, remember?”

“Crap. I forgot.” Harri turned back to Arthur. “Okay, then, drop Rey and me off at the garage, then take Patty back to her place. And makes sure she calls her doctor.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Patty stuck out her tongue at Harri.

Harri ignored her. “Rey, you and I are going shopping. You need a haircut and suit before we meet with Aisha this afternoon.”

“Why?” He looked bewildered.

She jabbed her knife in his direction. “Because we’re going to one of the biggest, most powerful law firms in the state. Image is everything with these assholes, and I want you to look the part of one of their clients.”

“But—”

She held up her index finger. “No, ‘buts’. You need to trust me on this.”

“Okay.” But he didn’t look convinced.

“After my doctor says I’m perfectly fine, what do you want me to do?” Patty’s raised eyebrow dared anyone at the table to argue with her.

Harri hesitated. She didn’t want to stamp on Patty’s pride by bringing up the father of her baby in front of Rey and Arthur. But dammit, the sperm donor should be shouldering his share of the responsibility, considering Patty had lost her job this close to her due date.

Instead she said, “Come back here. Use my desktop and pull the forms for superhero registration and licensing.”

“And the form for my grievance? I’m not letting Mayor Samuels get away with this.”

The ferocious look on Patty’s face made Harri glad she hadn’t brought up the baby daddy subject. “Yes. That, too. I didn’t want to add to your stress by bringing it up.”

“My stress is just fine,” Patty snapped. “It’s everyone treating me like a china doll that’s—” Her face crumpled. “I’m sorry, Harri. You were nice enough to put me up last night, and I get all bitchy—” She angrily swiped at a tear that escaped.

Harri laid a hand over Patty’s. “Don’t worry about it. If you’re half as sore as I am, it’s justifiable bitchiness.”

Arthur cleared his throat, his face growing pink. “Why don’t you let me drive you on your errands? You can make out a grocery list on the way, and I’ll help you make dinner here tonight.”

The supervillain soothing her secretary’s wounded ego? What was the world coming to? Life couldn’t get any more complicated right now.

Through the exchange Rey watched everyone between forkfuls of his breakfast, but didn’t offer any words of wisdom. He knew when to stay quiet, which would make her job a lot easier.

No one said much else as they finished their meal. They cleaned up, and gathered their things. Her three houseguests trailed behind Harri as she strode to the front door. She barely swung the door open only to be blinded by a white spotlight.

“Harriet Winters? Ted Meadowfield—Action 12 News! Care to comment on Mayor Samuels’ accusation you’ve turned to super-villainy and you’re in league with Professor Venom.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 3

“Make me what?” the kid asked.

“Rich,” Harri said.

She glanced down at her assistant, who sat open-mouthed and stared back at Harri. “I’ll call you later, Patty. Come on.” She gestured at El Pájaro. “Let’s get out of here.” She stomped away from the mayor. Once they were away from Samuels, and the police didn’t follow them. El Pájaro grabbed Harri’s arm, gently but with a firm grasp. “Where are we going?”

“My car. We need to get out of here. Fast.”

He slipped his arm around her waist. “Okay. Hang on.”

“Not like that,” she hissed. “You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

“So are you,” he said. “The guy who started the fire is still out there as well as the one who tried to strangle you.”

“Another reason I want to go. But I’m more concerned about you dodging the feds. And the news ghouls, so we need to leave quietly. Lose the mask.”

“But—”

Harri grabbed his arm and pulled him behind a fire truck, narrowly avoiding Ted Meadowfield and a cameraperson from Action 12 News!

The jerk only descended from the anchor chair for big splashy stories that didn’t require actual journalistic skill to report. City hall being destroyed yet again, in “an epic battle between good and evil” as Ted would call it, was a ratings goldmine, and he wouldn’t miss it for anything.

“It makes you conspicuous as hell,” Harri hissed as he let her drag him into the narrow alley behind the truck. “We need to blend in.” She released him.

With a sigh, he pushed back his hood and stripped off the mask. “Better?”

“Um . . .” For a moment Harri could only stare. She knew he’d be a looker, but . . . damn. Thick black hair, tawny skin, high cheekbones, a strong chin and nose—all good, but it was his eyes that elevated him from ridiculously handsome to achingly beautiful. They were large, almond shaped, and that curious tawny hazel she had noted before, almost golden. “Yeah, but I’m not sure it makes you any less conspicuous. Pull your hood back up.”

“Where’s your car?”

“Parking garage. Next door.”

He shook his head. “Not a chance. There’s cops everywhere. The whole complex is locked down.”

“How do you know that?”

He pointed upward with his thumb. “Got an aerial view.”

“Let me think.” The adrenaline rush was starting to wear off, and all she could think about was how badly she wanted a shower, a stiff drink, and some ibuprofen. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“El Pájaro.”

“No. Your real name.” When he hesitated, she gave him the most sympathetic look she could muster. “I’ve already seen your face, and if I’m going to represent you, I need to know your secret identity.”

The internal struggle still played on his face.

“I’m your lawyer. You’re my client. I’m ethically obligated to keep your secrets.” She laid a hand on his bicep. His incredibly solid bicep.

“I don’t have money for a lawyer,” he said, a panicked look on his beautiful face.

“Kid, you saved my life. Twice. I’ll waive the fee for now. What’s your name?”

He considered this for a moment, then said, “Reyes.”

“Reyes?”

“Reyes García,” he finished reluctantly. “Rey is what I usually go by. Only my mom—” His voice choked slightly. “—only she called me Reyes.”

Harri nodded, deciding to wait until another time to ask about his mother, but she suspected Mom hadn’t been in the picture for a long time. She patted his very solid bicep and smiled. “Thank you, Rey.”

He smiled back, his teeth dazzling and perfect.

Harri heard a loud growl. Then another. Both seemed to come from the kid. “Is that your stomach?” “Yeah,” he said, looking embarrassed. Her estimate of his situation only made her angrier at Samuels’s treatment of him.

“Where do you live? Near here?”

He nodded. “In the old hotel next door to the Canyon Building.”

“That whole block is condemned.”

Rey shrugged. “I’m not the only one there.” His stomach growled again.

Tattered clothes, no family, squatting in an abandoned building—Harri was getting a picture, and it was breaking her heart. “Okay. We swing by your place, you pick up your stuff, we get you something to eat, and then we come back for my car. If we still can’t get to it, once the sun goes down, you fly us to my house. No more condemned hotels. You’re staying in my guest room for now.”

“I don’t need any help.” His tone was defensive, but under it Harri could hear the need. And loneliness. “I can’t pay you back for any of this.”

“Yeah, sweetie, you do need help. I think you’ve needed it for awhile. And I owe you for my life. Twice. There’s no comparison.” She peeked around the corner of the building. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the police change their mind and decide to follow the mayor’s order to arrest you.”

“But I didn’t—”

“I know you didn’t do anything wrong,” she muttered. “And we’re going to keep it that way.”

Trying to look casual, they slipped back into the crowd. In their torn, dirty, and acid-burned clothing, they fit right in to the parade of fleeing downtown workers. Harri patted her handbag, thankful for her coffee craving. At least she still had her wallet and keys. And her parking garage ID. With City Hall a smoking ruin—again—it would take that idiot Quentin Samuels at least a couple of days to process her termination. A few blocks past the chaos, as they crossed River Street, Rey took her hand and said, “Stick close. It’s not a great neighborhood.”

“No kidding,” Harri said.

He led her through blocks that became more decrepit as they walked. The area on the eastern fringe of the central business district next to the river was slated for redevelopment if city leaders could ever agree on what they wanted it to be. While the politicians and planners battled, a few developers, including Quentin Samuels’ brother Reginald, quietly bought up everything they could.

A few businesses hung on, a few property owners tried to keep up appearances, a few shabby apartment buildings still housed the working poor, but a cloud of decay and inevitable gentrification hung over the narrow streets. Many of the condemned properties like the Canyon Building, former headquarters of Canyon Industries, had historic significance. Much lip service was paid to preservation as the neglected buildings continued to fall apart. The developers claimed they were diligently boarding up windows and removing squatters, but what they were really doing was waiting for an untended campfire or dropped cigarette to do their site clearing for them.

The entire block where the Canyon Building sat was boarded up and surrounded by chain link fencing covered in ominous signage about trespassers being prosecuted. But the street people knew as long as they stayed clear of the occasional city inspector, nobody cared if they stayed there.

Harri hated to admit it, but she agreed with the condemnation order. The Canyon block was an eyesore. “I don’t know why you super guys can’t fight in this neighborhood instead of always smashing up the high rent area.”

Rey smiled, but it was a sad smile. “Because nobody but Jatz’om Kuh cares about this place. At least, not the way it is now. Nobody wants to come here. Not even the villains.”

“Jatsom…who?”

“Jatz’om Kuh. You know, the Ghost Owl?”

“Yeah, him I’ve heard of. But I’ve never heard the other name.”

Ray shrugged. “A king from Mayan folklore. His name translates as something like ‘owl who strikes’. Some of the older folks in the neighborhood call him that.”

“You ever seen him?” Harri couldn’t help being intrigued. The myth of the Ghost Owl was what a super should be—assisting those who couldn’t get justice any other way.

“Once,” Rey said. “When I was little. I told him I could help him. He smiled and said ‘maybe someday, kid, but not now’.”

“And then what? He vanished?”

“No.” Rey grinned at his memory. “He opened a man hole cover and said ‘Lesson One—always know your exits. Lesson Two—never let anyone see you use them’. And then he dropped into the sewer.”

Harri laughed. “I thought he was supposed to be able to dematerialize at will.”

Rey shook his head, still smiling. “No, he looked pretty solid. Hasn’t been around as much lately, though. And the rest of the supers never cross River Street if they can help it.”

“Yeah,” Harri sighed. “Until this area finally gentries, and then I’ll have to find money to help rebuild it every time some super villain has a hissy fit.”

“Uh . . . no, you won’t. You quit, remember?”

“Shit. I did, didn’t I?”

Rey nodded. “But in case you change your mind, they fired you first.”

Harri glared at him. “Well, aren’t you just a little ray of sunshine?”

His smile grew sadder. “That’s what my mom used to call me.”

Before Harri could pull her foot out of her mouth, he pointed at a hole in the fence. “Here. We go in here and then down the alley and a quick flight up.”

Harri had assumed he meant stairs, but he meant the other kind of flight. He grabbed her by the waist and zoomed up to the fourth floor before she could object.

“That’s a handy little shortcut,” she said as she peered around the gloomy space. “Warn me next time, okay?”

“Sorry. There’s no other way in. The staircase collapsed. It’s why I picked it. So nobody can steal my stuff.”

“People steal from you? Seriously? I assumed you had super-strength along with the flight abilities.” Especially the way he’d been hauling her around all day.

He shrugged again. “Yeah, but addicts steal from everybody and they’re way more scared of withdrawal than they are of me. It wouldn’t be right for me to pound them. Life’s already doing a pretty good job beating them up. They don’t need me piling on. This is the better way. Hang on, let me get the lights on.” He fumbled with something, she heard a whining sound like a swarm of bees, and then a soft white light filled the small space.

“What was that noise?”

“It’s an emergency lamp. It’s got a wind up thing to charge it if the regular batteries run down. I can’t afford batteries, but I can wind it a lot faster than most people.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Harri looked around the room. She had expected it to be a mess, but it looked like an army barrack. Or a monk’s cell. A narrow iron bed, neatly made, including hospital corners, sat against one wall. A plastic laundry basket sat next to it holding a small pile of clean but tattered clothing, carefully folded. There was a small desk and a plastic chair. The floor was clean, thanks to the broom hanging in the corner

But all this was merely a backdrop to the books. Rey had built a bookshelf with bricks and boards that covered an entire wall. Several hundred worn books, paperback and hardback, sat on the shelves.

He saw Harri staring at the books. “I’ll need to come back for my collection. I can fly those out at night.” He paused a moment. “If it’s okay to bring them with me.”

“Of course, it is,” Harri said. “Where did you get them all?”

“Around. You’d be amazed what people throw out. And the library sale is always good. The final day, they practically give books away. And the librarians all know me so they hold back the novels they think I’ll like.”

“They know you?” A superhero who collected books and hung out with librarians? Most of them just liked to hit things and get their pictures taken.

“I used to spend a lot of time there. When I was younger. I didn’t have anywhere else to go during the day. It was kind of home and school at the same time. The librarians used to bring me sandwiches and stuff.” His stomach growled again. “Sorry.”

“Not a problem. Get what you need, and then let’s go eat.” She couldn’t tear her attention away from his collection. It had a little bit of everything, and a quarter of the volumes were in Spanish. Classics like Dickens, Cervantes, and Homer. Religious texts. Sci-fi. Mysteries. Hell, he even had the latest Nora Roberts. He pulled off the acid-burned hoodie and t-shirt. “I need to change. These clothes are trashed.”

Harri glanced at him, then tried not to gasp at the sight of his chest, bare except for a small stone pendant hanging on a leather cord. She whirled around to give him some privacy. He’s perfect. He’s the most perfect, beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Wait until Aisha sees him.

Thinking about Aisha—instead of about how much she wanted to peek behind her and see if Rey’s bottom half looked as good as the top—gave her something to talk about. “I have a friend who does entertainment and intellectual property law. Her firm represents supers. With merchandise licensing deals, publishing contracts, that sort of thing. There’s a lot of money to be made if you’re registered and working in the system.”

“Uh . . . that’s gonna be a problem,” he said. “I don’t have a birth certificate. Which means I can’t prove my immigration status or get a driver’s license or do anything. I can’t even get a job. I’d work if I could.”

“And saving lives isn’t working?” she asked.

“Not if you don’t register with the government.” He paused a moment. “If you don’t register, then you’re just a vigilante.”

Harri felt her stomach drop. She’d been quoted saying that exact thing on the evening news and in the paper. “You know who I am?”

“Sure. Everyone does. You’re the lady who sues superheroes.”

“And you still rescued me?”

Rey laughed out loud. It was the first time Harri had heard him laugh. Even his laugh is beautiful. “You never sued me. That’s one advantage of being poor. You can turn around now.”

Harri turned, relieved that he was clothed again. She wouldn’t have been able to take her eyes off his chest if he hadn’t covered it.

“Seriously though,” he said. “I would have rescued you even if you had sued me.”

“Why?”

A shocked expression covered his face. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Harri laughed. “Rey, honey, you are too good to be true. Most supers around here would have cheered when I hit the pavement.”

His expression transformed from shock to anger faster than he flew. “I’m not like those guys.”

“No kidding,” Harri said. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”

* * *

Rey packed a small duffel bag with his remaining clothing and a couple of books before he took Harri to a little Mexican place down the street. At least, she assumed it was Mexican until she scanned the menu. The restaurant featured food from throughout Central America. This place served the real stuff, not the molten cheese-covered platters and watered down Tex-Mex that Americans generally thought of as south-of-the-border food.

It wasn’t quite dinnertime and the place was empty. When they walked in, the older woman behind the counter smiled at him and started chattering away in Spanish, gesturing for him to sit. Rey was clearly a regular. A couple of younger, dark-haired women peered out of the kitchen and started giggling when they saw him. “What’s good?” Harri asked.

The young waitress who’d brought them water and chips stared longingly at Rey. She looked about sixteen and obviously had a big crush on him.

“All of it,” Rey said. “Marta’s the best cook in town. I usually just let her pick.”

“Sounds good.” Harri scanned the menu for alcohol. “They got a liquor license?”

Rey shook his head. “Can’t afford it and don’t want it. This way they keep the drunks out.”

“It can wait.” Harri looked up at the waitress. “Load us up. I’m buying.”

The girl still stared at Rey, oblivious to Harri.

He smiled at the waitress, a gentle big-brotherly smile. “Anna, tell Marta to send out some plates. Whatever she wants.”

The girl giggled, nodded, and scurried back to the kitchen.

“She likes you.” Harri said. “A lot.”

Rey shook his head, as his face flushed. “No. Anna’s just a friend.”

Harri smiled. Beautiful, well-read, and bashful? Aisha would go nuts for this guy. Nabbing him as a client might finally get her that partnership. Maybe the old farts who ran her firm would finally be convinced Aisha deserved to be more than a token minority hire.

Before Harri had time to comment, the food began arriving. Plate after plate of the freshest, most wonderful Latin American cuisine Harri had ever eaten—ceviche, followed by thick pupusas stuffed with cheese and meat and vegetables, with the main course consisting of a perfectly roasted chicken, fried plantains, and rice and black beans.

Harri managed a few small platefuls before she was full. But Rey? The kid could eat, that was for sure. Whenever she saw him hesitate about eating a more expensive dish, like the ceviche, she reminded him she was paying and urged him on. After packing away enough food to last Harri a week, he sat back with a groan. “I kind of got carried away there. It’s so good. Usually I put the brakes on so I don’t bankrupt Marta, but you wouldn’t let me.”

“Marta lets you eat for free?”

“She claims she doesn’t, but I know she’d give me way more if I asked. I pay her when I can. The rest of the time I wash dishes, do odd jobs. She likes having me around. Keeps the thieves away, she says.”

The dinner crowd was starting to file in. All the women ogled Rey, while the men stared, obviously not happy having to compete with him for attention. It was time to leave. Harri forced several bills on Marta despite her protests. In a high-end cafe in the nicer end of downtown that meal would have cost at least twice what Harri paid, and she left a decent tip for their love-struck waitress.

Despite Harri’s crappy day, the excellent meal and good company made for a pleasant walk. By the time they were within a couple of blocks of city hall, it was dark enough for Rey to do a quick reconnaissance flight. He was shaking his head as he landed. “Cops everywhere and the garage is blocked. Nobody’s getting their car out of there tonight.”

Harri’s shoulders sagged. She’d wanted to get her Honda before Samuels realized it was still in the employee section of the city garage. She didn’t put it past the asshole to have her vehicle towed. “Then we fly. Let’s get a little further away from all the action before we take off.”

After ten minutes of walking, she gave Rey directions, and they flew the rest of the way. For the additional five minutes it took to get home, Harri clung to Rey, her eyes shut, willing herself not to vomit her wonderful dinner all over him.

They landed in the park across the street from the town home complex she lived in, acutely aware, in a way she hadn’t been that morning, how much nicer it was than downtown. We work down there and debate its future, but none of us actually live there. What’s that say about our commitment to this city?

She didn’t have time to wonder any further. Rey pulled her behind a tree and pointed toward her tiny front porch, which was shrouded in shadow. She hadn’t bothered turning on the porch light since she was usually home well before sunset this time of year.

“Somebody’s there,” he whispered.

“You can see someone? I can’t see anything.”

“Enhanced eye sight,” he whispered. “I’ve got great night vision.”

“Can you see who it is?” She tried to push her fear back down. Not here and not now. Please let me get a glass of wine and a shower before anybody else tries to kill me.

“Stay here.” He crept toward the house, staying in the shadows. After a moment, Harri couldn’t see him at all. She heard a feminine yelp of fear, then Rey’s voice. “It’s okay, Harri. You got another house guest.”

Harri jogged across the pavement, each step reminding her of the burns on her legs. On the porch, Patty sat in the single wicker chair, munching on a fast food burger from the streetlight’s reflection on the waxy paper in her lap.

“I lost my keys in the fire and I can’t get into my apartment.” she said. “Can I stay here tonight?”

“Of course you can,” Harri said, crouching next to her. “Did you have the ER doctor check out your burns?”

“Yeah, but that’s not the worst part.” Patty sounded as if she were on the verge of crying. “I got fired. Quentin fired me after you stomped off. He said I helped you and Professor Venom burn down City Hall.”

“He can’t do that!” Harri shook with the force of her rage. Her keys slipped from her nerveless fingers and landed with a clatter on the porch. “You’re a civil servant. There’re procedures.”

“He did it anyway.” Patty focused on her burger. “And Aisha said to call her when you get a chance.”

“Aisha?” Harri snatched her keys off the concrete, the wound on her calf protesting as she stretched the damaged skin. “When did you talk to her?”

“After you left, I realized I’d lost my purse in the fire.” Patty shrugged. “Not that I could have gotten my car out of the garage with the lockdown. I tried to call you first, but I kept getting your voice-mail, so I called Aisha, but she hadn’t heard from you either. She offered to pay for a hotel, but I figured you’d be home soon.”

“What about your car keys?”

A sad laugh burbled out of Patty. “My spares are sitting in the apartment I can’t get into. All I need is a night on a couch until I can get my new apartment keys from my landlady tomorrow morning. Aisha and I only know each other through you, so I understand why she didn’t want me at her place. And I didn’t feel right about her paying for a hotel room.”

Harri snorted. “Trust me, the hotel offer is Aisha being kind. Her parents are in town for the week. You don’t want to be at her place right now.”

With the city hall disaster all over the news, Aisha must have been frantic. Harri fished her phone out of its side pocket on her purse. She’d been so focused on Rey, she completely forgot to call. Yep, three missed calls on her crappy burner phone that she hadn’t heard ring. The phone rang only about half the time and had a tone quality similar to shouting from the bottom of a well. But she wasn’t wasting money on another smart phone after losing the last one to a purse snatcher.

“Wait a minute,” Harri said. “If you don’t have your purse, how’d you call anybody?” She jabbed a finger at the Burger Chateau atrocity Patty nibbled on. “And how’d you buy that?”

Patty swallowed her bite. “Well, um…” Embarrassment vibrated in her voice. “Please don’t be mad until you hear his side of the story.”

“Who’s story?”

Patty turned toward the evergreen hedges that separated Harri’s entrance from her neighbor’s. “Arthur, it’s okay to come out.”

No. Harri groaned. It couldn’t be.

The acne-scarred face with its accompanying huge nose poked around the end of the needle-sharp leaves. Professor Venom himself, hiding in her hedge and wearing a sheepish look. Arthur Drallhickey waved lamely at her. “Hey, Ms. Winters.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 2

Shouts mixed with sirens, but the sounds echoed weirdly. Someone tugged at Harri’s clothing. Her skin and throat burned.

Harri tried to force her eyes open, but something covered her face. Panic flared. Someone was trying to choke her. She slapped at the offending material. Plastic and cloth. The guy pretending to be Professor Venom? Crazy Bob?.

“Calm down, honey. You’re safe.” A woman’s voice.

Harri fought harder. Someone was trying to kill her, and dammit, she was not going down quietly.

“Hold her.” The female voice again, but no one she recognized.

Hands grabbed her wrists, and she bucked against the restraint. Some two-bit supervillain wannabe was not going to—

“It’s all right. I have you. You’re safe.” The male voice crooned the words over and over.

Her panic melted when his mellow tone penetrated her foggy brain. The super who’d rescued her. “Patty? Is Patty okay?” Her own voice was rough, gravelly, and echoed slightly against plastic.

“She’s your assistant, right?” the super asked.

Harri nodded.

“Another paramedic is checking her and the baby.”

She sagged against his hold. God, please let Patty and the baby be okay.

“If you can behave yourself, I’ll take the gauze off your eyes. Give me any crap and it goes right back on,” the female voice warned.

Harri nodded again. When the weight lifted, she blinked. Her lids felt like sandpaper across her corneas. She was in an ambulance. An oxygen mask covered her mouth and nose.

The woman sitting next to her wore the navy uniform of Canyon Pointe’s paramedic squad. Her short, dark dreads were held back by the strap of her clear goggles. She waved a penlight in her glove-covered hand and frowned at Harri. “You gonna give me any more trouble while I examine you?”

“She won’t.” The super who had saved Harri’s life sat on the opposite side of the gurney.

She would have flipped him off if he didn’t have her pinned to the thin white sheet covering the even thinner pad. Instead, she shot him a dirty look. “Smart ass.”

He grinned back.

The paramedic grabbed Harri’s chin and turned her head back toward the flashlight. Harri winced as the brilliant whiteness forced her irises to contract and dilate. Spots danced in her vision by the time the woman was done.

“The good news is you didn’t get any acid in your eyes, but there’s irritation from the smoke. The ER will prescribe you something.” The paramedic’s nametag read “Jones” or “Jonas.” Between the spots and her watery eyes, Harri couldn’t tell.

“You can let her go,” Jones or Jonas announced.

The super’s warm grasp on Harri’s wrists disappeared. The human contact was more comforting amid the chaos than she wanted to admit.

Jones or Jonas frowned again. She traced a finger horizontally across Harri’s throat. “That isn’t a burn.” She shivered. The knife of the man claiming to be Professor Venom could have just as easily followed the same line and left her to bleed out in her office. Why throw it at her? He could have easily tackled her.

“Someone tried to strangle her while I helped the other victims of the fire,” the super volunteered.

Jones or Jonas’ frown was going to leave deep, permanent marks if she didn’t change her expression. She scribbled something on a clipboard. “You’re a lucky woman. You’ve got some superficial chemical burns and a little blistering, but nothing you can’t take care of at home. The ER docs will do a more thorough once over at the hospital to make sure there hasn’t been more damage to your throat than smoke inhalation.”

She stood abruptly. “I’ll grab an officer to get your statement.” The woman jumped out of the ambulance and disappeared into the people mulling outside.

“You shouldn’t have told her.” God, her voice sounded as bad as her eyes and skin felt.

The super genuinely appeared perplexed. “But that man in the park assaulted you.”

He couldn’t be that naïve, could he?

“Did you turn him over to the police?”

He shook his head. “After I dropped you off here, I went back to the park. He was gone, so I came here again to check on you.”

That didn’t make sense. From the damage to the car, Crazy Bob should have been in too much pain to get far. And why the hell had he attacked her? He had sounded more lucid than he ever did while on his meds. Maybe the alarms from the fire had set off a hallucination.

“Did everybody get out of City Hall?”

He nodded. “I only needed to rescue the people trapped on the fifth floor.”

He sounded terribly young. She took a closer look at him.

Acid holes covered his hoodie and jeans, yet the warm brown skin beneath appeared undamaged. The nasty smell of melted plastic accompanied his ruined shoes. She’d wager his feet were as uninjured as the rest of him. None of his clothing was new. In fact, it appeared to be second or third hand prior to the recent damage. Her gaze drifted back to his face. She recognized the design of the neon yellow and lime green spandex he wore as a mask. It was the same pattern as the outfits Aisha’s law firm had provided at the city’s annual bicycle event for charity last year. Her best friend had claimed it was a good way for both of them to meet men after their respective divorces. Harri had never quite forgiven Aisha for making her look like an unripe citrus fruit in front of the most prominent members of their profession.

The tight-fitting bicycle tops and pants would have looked damn good on her super from the lines of muscle that peeked through the tears of his clothing. Even with the mask, she could tell he was young. Too young. Twenty-two at the most, and she sincerely doubted that. She stared at his face.

“Who are you?” she finally asked. “Really?”

The sudden fear in his eyes cut her to the core. His irises were pale hazel, nearly gold. Beautiful eyes, but cautious. They were eyes that had seen too much suffering.

Harri’s normal irritation with superheroes evaporated at his vulnerability. “Are you legal?”

“Uh…” His tongue swiped across his top lip, and he glanced at the open doors of the ambulance bay. She recognized his behavior all too well. She’d seen it too many times in the runaways and foster kids she’d encountered when she’d interned with the city’s juvenile court judge one year while in law school. He was about to bolt.

“I won’t tell anybody.” Harri reached over and grasped his hand. “Are you registered? As a super?”

His entire body twitched.

“I want to help you,” she whispered hoarsely.

“No.” His words were even softer than hers. “No, I’m not registered.”

“Are you eighteen?”

“I don’t know for sure.” His fingers trembled in her hold. “I think I’m older than that.”

How could anyone not know his own age? She squeezed his fingers gently. “What about your family?”

He refused to meet her eyes, giving her only a sharp shake of his head.

Nothing intrigued Harri like an enigma, and this kid had puzzle written all over him. No birth certificate explained why he hadn’t registered with the federal government. If he had collared Crazy Bob, she could have cut him a deal. Especially since his first concern was the safety of the civilians.

“Do you want to be a registered superhero? I can help you with that.” She squeezed his fingers gently.

He shrugged, and his body tensed.

She needed to change the subject before he flew off in a panic. “When you were inside city hall, did you see a big guy dressed in black and wearing a mask wandering around?”

“Is he the guy the cops are saying did this? Professor Venom?”

Harri shook her head. “The guy who did this claimed he was Professor Venom, but he wasn’t. I know Venom. Did you see anybody matching my description?”

The super thought for a moment. “I saw a guy with a mask on in the alley behind City Hall when I was flying someone across to the police building. He was moving fast. I only got a glimpse, but he definitely wasn’t short and skinny. I was more worried about getting everyone out on the fifth floor.”

Harri felt a tickle in her throat that quickly developed into a coughing fit. She’d been right. This afternoon’s generic promise-of-destruction letter aside, the man who had attacked her couldn’t have possibly been Arthur Drallhickey. Too tall. Too muscular. Too effective. And Arthur wasn’t fast. An elderly woman with a walker had been the one to capture him after the park bench incident.

Arthur may have been totally incompetent as a super villain, but he was consistent. Which meant polite threatening letters and the occasional mishap with his acid powers. So why the hell would someone impersonate him to do this?

If it hadn’t been for this threadbare superhero sitting next to her, she would have died in today’s fiasco. Patty and her baby could have died, which only added to the sick feeling in her gut. Quite simply, she owed the kid. Twice. Four times if she counted Patty and the baby.

Harri’s coughing eased. She yanked off the oxygen mask. “I need to find my assistant first, then we need to get you out of here. Stick with me. No matter what.” He’d been seen by too many people, not to mention the news crew filming from their helicopter. She had to get him away from City Hall before the feds showed up. There’s no way in hell he could pay the fines for unlicensed superhero acts. If she was going to cut him a deal, she needed to be the one to bring him in.

“I don’t think you should be getting up, ma’am. The paramedic said you needed to see the ER doctors to check your throat.” But the super made no move to stop her as she climbed off the gurney.

“It’s Harri. Harri Winters.” She shook her index finger in front of his nose. “If you ever call me ma’am again, I’ll sue those jeans off your ass. Got me?”

“Yes, m—” White teeth shone against his tan skin. “Harri, I’m El Pájaro.”

“‘The Bird’?” She shook her head. “Kid, we have got to get you a better name.”

* * *

True to his words, El Pájaro stuck by Harri’s side as she searched among the emergency vehicles and evacuated staff for Patty.

A loud crash shook the street as the fifth story collapsed onto the fourth, sending up a gigantic plume of smoke, dust, and ash. The various fire squads continue to pump special oxygen-robbing foam onto the inferno from ladder trucks. Her nails dug into her palms. So much for the restoration work on the courthouse.

She didn’t know who she could sue on this one. Even if Arthur had been responsible, he didn’t have any money either. This was a first—a broke hero and a broke villain. That left FEMA and the state emergency fund, which meant sticking it to the taxpayers yet again.

They finally found Patty sitting on the curb a block away, another emergency tech tending her. Second-degree burns covered her right forearm.

Harri dropped to the concrete next to her assistant while El Pájaro stood guard over them. “Is the baby okay?”

Patty gave her a weak smile. “Yeah, she’s kicking up a storm right now.” She hissed as the tech prodded her damaged skin. “I’m fine too.

Thanks for asking.”

“She was very concerned about you,” El Pájaro interjected. “She fled her own treatment to search for you.”

“Oh, I’m well aware she uses her grumpy behavior to hide her marshmallow interior.” Patty beamed at him. “Thank you for saving us.”

“De nada.”

Patty leaned closer to Harri. “Did I hear the guy in your office right? Was that really Professor Venom?”

Harri snorted. “If it was, then I’m a Victoria’s Secret model.”

“There he is!”

Every muscle in Harri’s body tightened at the all-too-familiar shout. Shouting she was often on the receiving end of. “Shit,” she muttered.

Mayor Quentin Samuels bounded out of the crowd, two police officers at his heels. “Arrest him!” He jabbed the blade of his hand in the direction of El Pájaro.

Harri forced herself to her feet. “What are you blathering about?”

“Him!” Samuels always compensated for his lack of height by doubling the decibel-level of his voice. Another sharp hand motion in the direction of the kid. “Eye witnesses place him here when the fire started.”

“But I—” the kid started.

Harri held up her own hand to silence her super. He’d say something stupid and ruin his chances of getting registered properly.

“The perpetrator was in my office, and it wasn’t him.” Her smoke-damaged voice added a certain gravitas to her statement.

“Really?” Samuels crossed his arms. His smug expression set off warning claxons in her aching head. “So who started the fire?”

Dammit. If she said it was Professor Venom, Arthur would get charged for the arson. And even if he was annoying, he was also innocent this time. God only knew who else on the fifth floor had heard the imposter’s claim besides Patty, who was smart enough to keep her mouth shut now.

Harri matched Samuels’ stance. “I’m not sure. He was dressed in black with a mask. All I can tell you is he was a big guy with a deep voice. Will security be able to retrieve the camera footage?”

“Possibly,” one of the officers offered. He glanced over his shoulder. “They’re not using water, but that foam can still short out the DVRs if they’re hit directly.”

From the glare Samuels shot the officer, his assistance wasn’t appreciated. The mayor turned back to El Pájaro. “I want to see your hero license.”

Harri inserted herself between them. “He’s just a kid trying to help, and I already lectured him on the need to get a city license.” She wasn’t going to mention his lack of federal registration unless Quentin brought it up. “I’ve granted him immunity on the license violation in return for his assistance and cooperation.” She crossed her fingers behind her back and prayed the kid had taken her previous hint to stay quiet.

“You can’t do that!” Samuels spluttered.

“I can negotiate any settlement that will benefit the taxpayers.” She pointed at what was left of the City Hall. “We’ve got a hell of a mess. I want the asshole who did this to pay for it.”

“Maybe it should come out of your salary,” he sneered. “For not reporting the intruder. Or a legitimate threat. I already know you received one from Professor Venom in this morning’s mail.”

Samuels could be a sniveling weasel, but snooping through her office correspondence? “You’re reading my mail? That’s bullshit,” she said quietly. “And you know it.”

“Why didn’t you buzz security when Venom showed up in your office?”

Anger overran her fear and worry. “First, I don’t know who the guy was. I didn’t see his face. Second, I didn’t call security because my office was on fire, and I was busy trying not to die. Third, what exactly are you insinuating, Mayor Samuels?”

“You’re either incompetent or in league with Venom.”

Harri straightened her back and deliberately violated Samuels’ personal space, forcing him to step back. “If you knew about his attempted extortion, why didn’t you notify the police?”

Scarlet flooded his face as he spluttered for a full thirty seconds. He could look down at her, but only barely. He wasn’t much taller than she was. Finally, he shouted, “You’re fired, Winters!”

Harri ignored the fine spray that covered her face and stepped closer until she was nose-to-nose with the mayor. Something about her tight grin must have scared him because he leaned as far away as he could without actually moving his feet.

“Sorry, but I already quit.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Come on, El Pájaro. Let’s make you rich.”