Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Summer Shorts Sampler

I'm not in this promotion, but a couple of writers I know are. Lots of good stories, but I highly recommend Joseph Bradshire's "Fire Flower" and Stuart J. Whitmore's "Wolf Block".

Even better? All the stories in The Summer Shorts Sampler are FREE!

So load up your phone, tablet or e-reader before that Fourth of July roadtrip. This is a great way to try some new-to-you authors!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I'm Still Here

It's been simultaneously busy and boring since I got out of the hospital.

Bills are starting to roll in just from the initial scans and biopsies from April and the first half of May. Despite having insurance, we're talking several thousand dollars worth of items with deductibles or stuff the asshole insurance company is flat-out refusing to pay for.

For example, United Health Care is trying to say any ultrasound or MRI is an "experimental" procedure. Mind you, lobular carcinoma is notorious for not showing up on x-rays.

So it's a matter for writing letters to challenge the UHC's bullshit. And calling various providers to set up payment plans.

Before anyone makes a comment about why we don't have savings, let me point something out--we did. We'd been saving for a down payment on a house. That's gone now, swallowed in the miasma of cancer treatment costs.

In the meantime, my typing was down to nil, thanks to my Jackson-Pratt drain. When the surgeon takes such a large swath of tissue, like in a mastectomy, fluid collects under the sown-up incision, especially blood and lymph fluids. My drain was a couple of inches beneath my left armpit. Unfortunately, there's no rhyme or reason for how long a person might need to keep the drain in. As my surgeon said, there's no correlation between age, gender, size, or type of surgery.

No worries, right? I could sit in my recliner with my laptop, right?

However, when I tried typing on my wip the second week after my surgery, my left arm would rub against the drain. Think of the type of rubbing of a new shoe that causes a blister on your foot. Within three days, the pain was unbearable. I had to stop. I even tried typing with just my right hand, but I'd get so immersed in the story, I'd start typing with both hands until the pain made me halt.

So I left my laptop on the desk, propped up my left arm, and watched too much TV.

The drainage petered down to where the surgeon felt comfortable pulling the drain on Monday. Yay! Freedom! I could write again without pain. And I did peck out a couple of pages Monday night.

However, my appointment with a oncologist here in town is next Monday, roughly four weeks from my surgery. I'm also looking to get a second opinion from an oncologist in Detroit. I don't know what's going to happen next. Radiation? Chemo? A combo of both? Neither?

Basically, I need to write (type) as much as I can over the next few days before the next step. But to be perfectly blunt, I'm reconsidering reconstruction after all the bullshit with the drains.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Tumors, Tubes, and Superheroes

I have breast cancer.

Four words I really never thought I'd say.

The last two months since my annual mammogram have been a whirlwind of tests and doctor visits and raw rage. I had a plan mapped out for releasing eight books this year, and I'm so fucking furious my writing/publishing plan has been blown to hell. However, this isn't the first time cancer has upended my life, though it is the first time I'm on the receiving side.

Jo, one of my writing friends, helped me put together an alternate plan. I keep writing as best I can through the surgeries and treatments, and I don't worry about the production side of things, like editing and formatting until I get through treatment. I don't have to worry about the covers because the lovely Elaina Lee of For the Muse Design already completed them last year, which I'm forever thankful for.

As I write this, it's been ten days since my first surgery, the mastectomy of my left breast. I have Stage II-B lobular invasive carcinoma. While it is the second most common breast cancer, it only affects 10-30% (depending on which literature you read) of diagnosed patients. The five-year survival rate is over 90%, which means I have a damn good prognosis.

When I rolled into the operating room last week, I thought I'd hit acceptance mode. But as I sit here in my recliner, minor irritation is transforming back to rage. My incision site has hit super-itch mode, and my arm rubs against the Jackson-Pratt drain sticking out my side a couple of inches below my very smelly pit.

Which is that way because I can't shave or use antiperspirant right now, and I really can't stand the smell myself, much less want to go out into public. And yes, I am showering.

What does this all mean? When are the books actually coming out?

I'm looking at another four weeks of healing time from the mastectomy. Then comes the radiation and/or chemo. I'm not sure which treatment or combo is likely because the tumor turned out to be larger than what the surgeon and radiologist estimated from the MRIs, the only decent pictures they could get. I haven't talked to the oncologist yet. Worse case scenario is twelve weeks of follow-up treatment, assuming I have no complications from the treatment itself.

There will be another four to six weeks of recovery from the radiation/chemo before the first reconstructive surgery. Four to six weeks of recovery from the first stage before the second reconstructive surgery.

And that takes us roughly to February of 2019 before my life returns to a relatively normal position.

I can hear y'all thinking, "Wait a minute! We have to wait nine months for a new book?"

I don't know if that will be the case. The timeline may be shorter. It may be longer. Despite the mental and emotional bullshit of the last two months, I wrote 42,000 words. I finished the first draft of Hero De Facto, and I'm roughly halfway through Hero Ad Hoc, the first two books of my superhero series. The real question is how much can I get done before chemo brain sets in because that's the real danger to my writing productivity. I can't promise any specific release dates because I can't guarantee what will happen next.

And as they wheeled me into surgery last week, my husband whispered, "You'd better live. You need to finish A Matter of Death."

See? Y'all aren't the only ones ticked with me for leaving A Modicum of Truth on a cliffhanger.

Friday, May 25, 2018

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Murphy Is the One True God

Dear Readers,

I'm so very disappointed to say that any new releases scheduled for 2018 will be delayed indefinitely. My body has run into a brand-new issue that necessitates a bunch of diagnostic clinic and assorted doctor visits.

What does this mean for the current books-in-progress exactly? I will continue to write in between various scans, the taking of bits of flesh and blood for assorted tests, and talking to medical personnel. However, my mind is not in a place to concentrate on the finer details of publishing, such as editing and marketing.

Once we know the extent of the issue and we have a treatment plan in place, I'll let you all know the revised release schedule.

In the meantime, blogging may also become sporadic for the reasons above.

Thank you for your patience.

Love,
Suzan

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 8

A loud, harsh buzzing ruined the best dream Aisha had in a long time. It had been about Rey and had just reached the X-rated part. He’s a client. Don’t go there.

She groped for her phone and hit the answer button. “What?”

“Is this Aisha Franklin?” a gruff male voice said.

She glanced at the screen. Unknown number. “Yes. Who is this?”

“You need to get to the jail before the seven a.m. shift change. If you have some official muscle, bring it. She’s okay for now, but she won’t be if you don’t get to her first. Don’t let them know you know anything.”

She rolled upright, her heart hammering and cold sweat on her skin. “Who the hell is this?”

“The guy who was supposed to kill her.” He hung up.

Aisha, now wide awake, reached for the light switch. It was after three-thirty and she definitely wasn’t getting back to sleep after that phone call. Official muscle? She had Rey, but the caller had definitely said official. His insinuation was it shouldn’t be somebody affiliated with the Canyon Pointe PD.

That left one person. And Harri was going to be even less happy about this.

She had an email with his new number. She found it and punched in the number, praying he’d answer.

“Lewis,” a deep voice said after the third ring.

“Eddie? It’s Aisha.”

“Aisha? What the hell? What time is it?”

“Almost four. Harri’s in trouble.”

He sighed. “What did she do now? And why isn’t she calling me?” He sighed again. “Okay, stupid question. She wouldn’t call me for help if she was on fire. It’s been two freakin’ years since the divorce and she still hasn’t spoken to me.”

“She’s in big trouble, Eddie, and I need your help, or I wouldn’t be calling.”

“That thing with City Hall?”

“Yeah,” Aisha said. “They’ve arrested her on suspicion of supervilliany. She’s in jail.”

“What? In jail? What the hell happened?”

“It’s a set up. Shut up and listen. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Aisha filled him in. Eddie had been a city cop, a detective, but had left in the aftermath of the divorce for a job with the FBI. He had been recently transferred to the local FBI office, something Aisha wasn’t sure Harri knew yet. And even with a murder attempt and a conspiracy to frame her, Harri wasn’t going to be happy to see him.

All business now, Eddie told her to get to the jail as soon as she could and he’d meet her there. If they couldn’t get her bail, Eddie would call in some favors and get her transferred to federal protective custody.

Aisha made a second call to Harri’s house. Thankfully, the three waywards had listened to her and stayed there for the night. She told Rey what was going on and that the three of them needed to stay put for now.

Trying to quash her fear, Aisha stumbled to the bathroom to get presentable. Get your head in the game and get to work, she told her reflection. You’ve got a new job, remember?

But could she save her first client?

* * *

“What’s he doing here?” Harri hissed when her ex-husband strode into the courtroom. The embarrassment couldn’t get any worse. She still wore her jail jumpsuit and handcuffs as she sat with Aisha on a bench, waiting for the judge.

“What did I tell you?” Eddie said as he approached. He rolled his eyes. “Nice to see you too, Harri. Don’t take this wrong but orange really isn’t your color.”

“Bite me.” She turned to Aisha. “My…uh, visitor called you?”

Aisha nodded. “Which is why I called Eddie.” She shot a glance at the officer who escorted Harri from the jail, and she lowered her voice. “We can’t trust the locals. At least not until we know what’s going on.”

“And you expect me to trust him?” Harri glared at Eddie.

“This isn’t about your marriage. You’re in deep shit, girl, and I need every shoveler I can get.”

Eddie snorted back a laugh, then glared at the jail officer escorting Harri. The woman had the sense to blanch and not make a smart-assed comment about her prisoner.

“Where’s Rey?” Harri asked. “And Patty? Is she okay?”

“Rey’s babysitting the kids at your place.”

Harri nodded, relieved. Nobody would get near Patty if Rey was there.

Judge Inunza’s secretary came out and escorted them into the judge’s chambers. Inunza was sipping coffee and looking over a stack of paperwork. Cal sat in one of the chairs in front of the judge’s desk, accompanied by the district attorney himself.

Mike Michaels was a much better politician than a lawyer. He’d once been a gifted prosecutor, had made his name on the notorious Canyon family murders even though he’d lost, but he hadn’t been in a courtroom in fifteen years. Now, he spent most of his time lunching with political supporters and sneaking out to play golf.

Harri almost felt sympathy for Cal having to work for the jerk. Almost. Cal wasn’t a bad guy, but Harri’s loyalty was all to Aisha, and she hated Cal on principle even if Aisha didn’t.

She glanced at Eddie. Solid, plain, broken-nosed Eddie who’d wanted nothing more than three kids and a secure pension. Harri would never admit this to anyone in a hundred million years, but she hadn’t spoken to him since the divorce more to avoid feeling her own guilt over how things had ended than any residual anger over his leaving her for Sarah.

Harri understood why he’d left even though she pretended she didn’t. Eddie hadn’t changed. He was the guy he’d always been. Stable. Husband and dad material. And Harri had once wanted to be a mom. Or least she thought she had, in a vague someday sort of way.

But she kept finding excuses and finally her biological clock started ticking too loudly to ignore. Eddie gave her an ultimatum—now or never. She chose never. He chose Sarah. She liked to claim that he’d traded her in for a younger model, but she knew in her heart that wasn’t true. He’d chosen the life he’d always wanted over the life she’d hoped he’d drift into.Inunza looked up from the paperwork and smiled at her, his dark eyes twinkling.

Harri felt the tense icy knot in her gut begin to melt.

“Hey, Harri,” Inunza said. “I haven’t seen you in my courtroom in a while. Never expected to see you in this role.”

“Neither did I, Your Honor,” Harri said. “How’s Carol?”

“Good. Panicking over Paul’s college applications, but that’s to be expected. Mike,” the judge continued, without missing a beat. “This case is a flaming load of bullshit, and we both know it. You got nothing. I’m releasing her. Without any bail and with an apology. And if you bring me one more case with such a blatant lack of evidentiary support, I’ll file a complaint with the Bar. I’m not Burgess. I’m not part of your campaign staff. And make sure to pass that same message on to that weasel Quentin when you see him.”

“But—”

Inunza pointed his index finger at the DA. “Not one more word, Mike. Not one.”

“I‘ll go over your head.”

Inunza looked at Mike over his reading glasses, his dark eyes unreadable. “Really? Best of luck with that. The folks over at the court of appeals don’t like this political crap of yours any better than I do. And if you disobey me again, I’ll hold you in contempt.”

The judge turned to Aisha. “Ms. Franklin, if they continue to bother your client, come see me, and I’ll make sure the district attorney becomes well acquainted with the full range of my particular set of superpowers.” He nodded at Eddie. “Agent Lewis. Why are the feds are taking an interest?”

“Only to ensure the civil rights and safety of Ms. Winters. We’ve been made aware of certain…irregularities in how this case has been processed.”

What little blood remained in Mike Michaels’ face drained away. His skin looked like slightly moldy cottage cheese.

“Do tell,” Inunza said. “Which irregularities, of course, would be highlighted in public court documents should the district attorney not release Ms. Winters immediately.”

“But Ms. Winters will need to be taken back to the jail for exit processing. It will take at least two hours—” The DA protested.

Inunza cut him off with a look. “No, Mike, it will not. The officer will uncuff her right now, Ms. Franklin and Mr. Johnson will go fetch her belongings, and you, Ms. Winters, Agent Lewis of the FBI, and I will wait here for them to return.”

The judge smiled at Harri again. “No offense, kiddo, but you got jail stink and so will your clothes.”

“Yes, your Honor, I’m well aware. Nothing a hot shower and dry cleaning won’t fix.”

“I’m sure the district attorney would be happy to pay for the dry cleaning.” Inunza raised an eyebrow as he glanced at Michaels.

The DA merely nodded. He had enough sense to know he’d lost this round. Harri wondered if he had known about the murder plot. Michaels was a slimy character, but murder? She couldn’t imagine either him or Quentin Samuels actually capable of plotting to kill her. Someone else had to be pulling their strings.

Who the hell had she pissed off enough they wanted her dead?

* * *

While Harri showered off the jail stink in her own bathroom, Aisha admired Arthur’s handiwork. The supervillain wannabe had been busy since Harri’s arrest.

“I hacked into the city servers. They’ve got everything on the cloud.” Arthur shook his head. “Least secure place on the planet. I copied everything with hers or Patty’s name on it. I also checked her personal laptop and found same malware that was on mine. It’s on Patty’s phone and home computer, too. Somebody’s been watching all of us for a while.”

Aisha frowned. “How did you find the spyware?”

“Patty complained how slow Ms. Winters’s laptop was when she was downloading her legal forms yesterday.” Arthur shook his head. “After I did some basic clean-up, it was still dragging, so I did some digging.”

“Did you clean out the spyware?” Aisha asked.

Arthur shook his head. “I had a different idea. If I scrape her laptop, they’ll know we’re on to them. If she doesn’t mind buying another computer, I can make sure it stays clean and we can use the dirty one to try to…I don’t know…set up the bad guys. Feed them what we want them to know.”

Aisha smiled. “Now that’s some supervillian plotting. Except using your powers for good.”

Arthur smiled so wide Aisha worried the top of his head might fall off. She was really starting to like him, in spite of herself. If he had clearer skin, a better haircut, maybe put some weight on him, and Patty might like him even more.

No one could miss his shy, admiring looks at Harri’s assistant when he thought no one was looking. Maybe Aisha could finagle Jeremy’s help.

Harri walked into the dining room in a t-shirt and jeans, rubbing her hair with a towel. “I’m fried. But at least now I can stand my own smell. We need to be thinking about office space.”

“I know. Neither of our places is big enough to set up even a temporary office.” Aisha shivered at Arthur’s revelation. “And we need a secure place to meet clients, but that’s expensive as hell.”

Harri threw the towel over her shoulder. “I’m open to suggestions.”

Patty and Rey’s arrival with lunch saved Aisha from dealing with the money issue, even if it was only temporary reprieve. “Oh, my god. I love Marta’s place,” Patty exclaimed as she pulled out aluminum food containers from the bags they brought in. She elbowed Rey. “Tell them what your friend said.”

He glanced at Aisha and blushed before he turned to Harri. “We ran into Miguel, who watches the Lechuza Building for the owner. He said they’d be willing to offer you office space cheap.” He cleared his throat. “That’s assuming you ladies are interested.”

Aisha watched Harri. “I think it’s time we have the talk.”

“Let’s take our lunches out to the patio.” Harri sauntered over to the refrigerator and pulled out a couple of bottles of water.

“You don’t have to leave on our account,” Arthur protested.

“It’s not personal, sweetie,” Patty said. Arthur’s cheeks turned red at her endearment. “The attorneys need to talk strategy without the clients freaking out. It’s part of their superpower of seeming to know all the answers.” She grinned at Harri and Aisha.

Harri raised one hand to her forehead while still holding the water bottle. “Egads, Aisha! Our secretary has innocently revealed our secrets to the evil supervillain.”

“Cut it out,” Aisha said, trying not to laugh. “You’re going to scare off our only clients.”

She grabbed hers and Harri’s lunches, utensils and napkins, not to mention her pad and pen, before following Harri out to her mini-patio. Harri pushed the sliding glass door shut and joined Aisha at the little table.

They stared at each other for a long moment.

“Well, you know my trust fund went over the cliff with Dad and Laura and the big bag of coke,” Harri said. “At least most of it.”

Aisha wrote “Assets” and “Liabilities” on the top of the page.

Harri groaned. “You would head right for the bottom line.”

Aisha tried to look sympathetic. “I know how much you hate talking about money. I know it makes you anxious. But we need to be honest with each other, face reality, and talk numbers.”

Harri blew out a deep breath and jabbed at her enchilada. “If I had any money, I wouldn’t have had to live with you and your parents.”

“Would you have preferred foster care?” Aisha tapped her pen against the legal pad. “Besides, the judge wouldn’t have declared you an emancipated minor if you didn’t have some money.”

Harri shook her head. “After college and law school, all I had left of the Winters’ fortune was the family discount at Winters’ flagship store downtown and a lifetime membership at Whitechapel Country Club, which I never use because I hate the snobs there.”

She waved her fork. “I own the house and my car free and clear. And my student loans are almost paid off. Only about twenty grand to go.”

Aisha raised an eyebrow. “Only? What happened to the education account Grandma Harri set up?”

Harri nodded. “Think about it. Books and expenses for undergrad and law school, not to mention room and board.”

“But you and I both worked—”

“Not to rub it in your face, but you got a discount because your dad was a professor.”

“Sorry.” Aisha grimaced. “That must have been a pile of money. Too bad you couldn’t have applied to be a Winters scholar.”

“No shit. I doubt Grandma ever thought her own granddaughter would be a low-come female, but I was automatically disqualified from participating under the terms of the endowment. No family members. And that stupid endowment is part of the reason why people think I’m still rich. The University is always bugging me for money. ‘You already got it,’ I tell them. ‘It’s called tuition.’ Bastards.”

Aisha raised her hands. “Sorry. I forgot what a sore topic it was.” She paused a moment. “You got any cash?”

Harri shrugged. “Some. I’ve got about $25,000 in an emergency cash fund Dad and Laura didn’t know about because only I have the safe deposit key. And there’s my 401(k). Other than that, no.”

Aisha shook her head. “We aren’t raiding our retirement accounts. Either one of us. No way.”

Harri sank down in her chair, looking relieved. “I’m sorry I’m so weird about money. I just…I don’t want to ever feel that powerless again. Like I did when I was a kid. Never again.”

Aisha reached over and squeezed her hand. “Girl, I know. I was there when Mom and Dad rescued you from that social worker. I’m sorry you had to go through all that. If I’d known—”

“You were a kid just like I was. And it’s not like I told you. I didn’t tell anybody how bad it was.” She watched the squirrels playing by the pin oak trees for a moment before her attention return to Aisha. “What about you?”

She looked away, embarrassed as hell. It wasn’t until this moment she realized she expected Harri to front the bulk of their new venture. “You don’t want to know.”

“Hey, I showed you mine. Now, you show me yours. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of money. You worked for a big law firm.”

“As an associate.”

Harri snorted. “Making more than me I bet.”

Aisha shook her head and blinked to clear her blurry eyesight.

“Please tell me you have some money.”

Harri’s panicked expression added more guilt to the pile. Aisha cleared her throat. “I have a 401(k) like you. And my Beemer is free and clear. The condo…” She trailed off and refused to meet Harri’s eye.

“What about it? You have a mortgage, right?”

“Two,” she whispered. “I’m already upside down on my condo from the divorce, but now that I quit—” She took a shuddering breath. “Cal was still working his way up in the DA’s office, and we never saved anything because he wanted to pay off his student loans as soon as we could. Actually, he wanted me to pay them off, since I didn’t have any, and I was working for Dewey and making more money, and I…I didn’t contest the divorce. I just signed what he gave me. I had to cash out his share of the condo, it was at the top of the market, and I thought I’d dig myself out when the partnership came through.” She buried her face in her hands and in a muffled voice said, “I’m an idiot. I know. I know.”

“You’re not an idiot. Don’t call yourself that. Cal’s a shithead. So help me, I’m gonna kick his ass next time I see him.”

The fierceness in Harri’s voice made Aisha look up and giggle despite her tears. “You sound like my dad. My mom still thinks Cal was the best thing that ever happened to me and I squandered it.”

“Squandered it? He dumped you.” Harri jabbed her fork in her remaining enchilada. “Because you couldn’t have a baby.” “Eddie left you for the same reason,” Aisha said.

Harri’s cheeks turned bright pink. “Not exactly.” She chopped the enchilada into tiny bits. “Eddie asked me to make a decision, and I said I wasn’t ready to be a mom. He didn’t start sleeping with his teenage assistant while I was in emergency uterine surgery because I nearly bled to death from an ectopic pregnancy.”

“Mina was twenty-two.”

“Close enough,” Harri muttered.

“You told me Eddie left you for Sarah.”

“I lied, all right. He barely knew Sarah when I told him I didn’t want a baby. He didn’t leave me for her. He left me for himself. So he could have the family he always wanted.”

Aisha sat back in her chair and stared at Harri. “Why are you only now telling me this?”

“Because I thought you’d—I was throwing away something you’d had taken from you and you were so sad I didn’t want to . . . I didn’t think you’d understand.” Harri poked at the pits of enchilada, not meeting Aisha’s gaze. “Besides what business do I have being anybody’s mother anyway?”

After everything the two of them had been through together, she never dreamed Harri would hide something as big as this. “God,” Aisha finally said. “This really is like a marriage. Maybe we need couples therapy.”

Harri started laughing. “Where did that come from? Girl, I love you, but not that way. Can’t we just be friends?”

Aisha threw a crumpled napkin at her and laughed too. “No, dummy. I mean we need to be totally honest with each other. We need to be able to talk about money and the future and what we’re trying to do here.”

Harri stirred the mess she’d made of her enchilada. “And I’m the idiot who threw away a good thing with a great guy because of my hang-ups about my rotten childhood.”

Aisha tapped her pen against her pad to draw Harri out of her maudlin thoughts. “Unfortunately, you’re the financially solvent idiot. I can’t really bring anything to the table.”

Harri snorted. “Besides, you know, the actual expertise we need to do the job. And the industry contacts. You are aware that the super industry hates me, right?”

“Hate is a strong word.”

“How about despise? Detest? Abhor?”

Aisha sighed. “Fine. You aren’t popular with the heroes and villains. But the villains don’t like anybody, and the heroes’ creditors actually like you a lot. Nobody dared to sue supers until you went after them.”

“Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Harri chortled. “My evil plan has been achieved. The cheap bastards now have to pay their bills like the rest of us.”

Aisha leaned her head against the palm of her hand. “We really need to work on that attitude of yours. Not everyone is as laid back as Rey or willing to jump at your command like Arthur.”

“Yeah, yeah. So where are we?”

“Not broke, but not well-capitalized.” Aisha looked up from her legal pad. “Any chance you’d be willing to mortgage your townhouse?”

Harri leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and stared at her little two-story place. “Let’s save that as a last resort.”

Aisha frowned. “We already know we can’t afford downtown rent.”

Harri shrugged. “Want to go look at Rey’s friend’s place?”

“Not really.” Aisha shuddered. “It’s not the best part of town.”“We may not have any other options right now,” Harri pointed out.“All right.” Aisha held her hands up in surrender. “We’ll look.” She hesitated for a second. “There’s something else we need to discuss.”

“You mean the target on my back,” Harri said softly.

“Yeah. Arthur found spyware on your computer and Patty’s phone.”

“I…heard that part of your conversation with him,” Harri admitted.

“I’m beginning to think the mugging at the grocery store last month wasn’t a random purse snatching. And—” Aisha watched her best friend, judging her reaction. “I asked Eddie to do some checking. Quietly.”

Harri swore under her breath.

Aisha waited for her to come to the right conclusion, but a knock on the glass interrupted Harri’s fit. Aisha waved for Arthur to come out, but he only pushed the sliding door back far enough to poke his head through.

“Ms. Franklin, would you mind if I take a look at your phone?”

A chill ran through her. “Yeah, go head, Arthur.” She rattled off her password.

Once he closed the door, Harri said, “Why would they be watching you?”

Aisha cocked her head. “Really?”

“Never mind.” Harri scrubbed her eyes. “I’m blaming it on sleep deprivation.”

They gathered their trash and went back inside. From the grim looks on the three people sitting around Aisha’s phone on the dining room table, the news wasn’t good.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said as she crossed to the sink to rinse her containers.

“The good news, if you can call it that—” Patty scowled. “Your phone was hijacked while you were driving to the city jail yesterday afternoon.”

“In other words, after I was arrested,” Harri growled.

Aisha stared at her best friend. Worry prickled her skin. “In other words, someone at Dewey & Cheatham is in league with whoever’s trying to kill you.”

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.”