Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 1

Just a reminder that this is an unedited chapter from an upcoming work in progress.

Harri Winters skimmed over the letter in her hand. “Give me a break. Professor Venom. Seriously?” She tossed the letter into her inbox. “The guy is a joke.” And the last thing she needed today.

“He’s not dangerous?” Patty, Harri’s assistant, plopped into the chair in front of Harri’s desk. “Is he a wannabe?”

“He’s a wannabe wannabe.” Harri shook her head. “He’s not dangerous. He’s just annoying.”

“What’s he want?” Patty settled back into her chair with groan. “Sorry. My feet are killing me.”

“If you need to go on maternity leave early—”

Patty shook her head. “Nah. It’s just been a busy day.” She rubbed her belly and smiled. “Not long now.”

Harri smiled back. Patty was a good kid and a great assistant, but Harri dreaded six weeks with a temp trying to take Patty’s place. Too many cases and not enough help.

“So, what’s the deal with this Professor Venom guy?” Patty said. Her blond curls bobbed in the direction of the inbox. “He says he’s going to melt city hall and everybody will die—”

“Unless we give him a couple million dollars. Yeah, yeah. Don’t start running yet.” Harri spun her desk chair and dug into the file cabinet behind her. “Hang on a sec. I have a picture. You gotta see this guy. He’s a total loser.” She pulled out the “Professor Venom” folder and spun around to face Patty again.

“Wow, you usually show at least some grudging respect for supervillains.” Patty leaned forward with a small frown and straightened the name plate on Harri’s desk. “He didn’t call you Harriet at some point, did he?”

“Uh-uh,” Harri said. “He doesn’t have the balls. And I don’t respect the villains. I respect their assets. The forfeiture on Doctor Malevolent’s evil lair gave us enough money to rebuild the Commerce Avenue light rail station and replace twenty smashed police cars. Say what you want about his motives, but the guy owned some nice stuff. Try getting that kind of bank from a superhero. Cheap bastards.” She opened the folder and handed it to Patty. “Professor Venom.”

Patty looked at the picture and giggled. “Arthur…Doohickey? No wonder he calls himself Professor Venom. He’s so skinny. And that nose is…unfortunate.”

“Drallhickey,” Harri said. “Lots of desire for elaborate mayhem, but no actual ability. Biggest thing he’s managed to do is melt the paint off a couple of benches in City Hall Park. Which were scheduled for repainting anyway. He saved the public works guys from an afternoon of sanding and scraping. They want the city to give him a vendor contract so they can buy his acid formula.”

Patty flipped through the pages. “I don’t see his superhero nemesis in the file.”

“He doesn’t have one.” Harri rolled her eyes.

Patty laughed and handed back the folder. “Oh, that’s just sad.”

Harri nodded. “It’s all kinds of sad. Nobody takes him seriously. Poor shmuck. He doesn’t have the skills to be a regular criminal, let alone a supervillain.” She stretched her arms over her head and yawned. “I think I need some coffee. I’m buying. You want some hot chocolate?”

“Ooh, yes. Thank you. With extra whipped cream.” Patty pulled herself to her feet. “God, this kid’s like a bowling ball sitting on my bladder. They say I’ve got another month to go, but I already feel like I’m carrying a toddler around in here.”

“Hey, you wanted to experience motherhood,” Harri said, and immediately regretted it. She wasn’t sure Patty had wanted to experience motherhood. At least not yet. Patty Ames was twenty-three and all alone. She had no family Harri knew of, and the baby’s father was long gone. Harri had tried to convince Patty the sperm donor needed to step up—at least financially. But Patty shook her head, her eyes shiny with tears, and said that he was gone, he wasn’t coming back, and she didn’t want to talk about it.

Harri yawned again and realized she needed more than coffee to stay awake. She decided to take a walk around the park first. She didn’t have anything on her calendar for the afternoon because she’d planned to be in a deposition all day with Seismic Shift, beloved local hero and—in Harri’s mind at least—menace to society. But his attorney called at the last minute and said Shift had an emergency and they’d have to reschedule.

Seismic Shift had the ability to create pinpoint earthquakes. But not pinpoint enough to keep from making a mess, Harri often grumbled to anyone willing to listen. The last one had taken out the Lake County Retirement Home. Yes, he did stop bad guys, but he also made a ton of money off endorsements and licensing deals and those ridiculous comic books. If he was so damn civic-minded, why did she have to fight him all the time to get him to pick up some of the tab?

She’d spent a solid week reviewing the thousands of pages of financial and tax documents Shift’s attorney had dumped on her in response to her discovery request. With the deposition now put off for another week, she wondered if she should go back through the pile to see if she’d missed something, but why bother. Federal law gave registered supers broad latitude to protect their secret identities. Without knowing who he really was, she couldn’t get near most of his assets. Harri knew he had to be making more money than he claimed, but she had no way to prove it. She liked the villains more because it was a lot easier to pry money out of them. The feds didn’t care about maintaining villains’ secret identities.

Harri couldn’t figure out why people thought Seismic Shift was so damn wonderful. It’s not like he was the Ghost Owl. Even Harri respected the Ghost Owl despite her utter contempt for supers. The Ghost Owl was surgical, tidy even, and did minimal damage to public property. And he actually helped people. Regular people. The city’s street criminals might not fear the police, but they were terrified of the Ghost Owl.

He was so mysterious he bordered on urban legend. He was like the Bigfoot of superheroes. Lots of sightings, lots of stories, but only a few blurry photos. He’d never been spotted in daylight, and cameras and sound equipment were rumored to malfunction in his presence. He could vanish into thin air, people said. Allegedly, he could see beyond this world into the next, and he attacked in utter silence.

Unlike most supers, the Ghost Owl hadn’t turned his nocturnal activities into performance art. No endorsement deals, no merchandise, no comic books. Hell, he wasn’t even registered. And although she paid lip service to the need for hero registration, she had to admit she respected him more for refusing to color within the lines.

But Shift? Not only was he a media whore, he was a complete phony. Yeah, he technically had a super power, but the rest was all marketing. She knew for a fact from his financial records the shock of thick blond hair that stuck out above his cowl was fake. Not to mention, he was starting to get a gut. Not quite the sleek, chiseled demigod his publicist made him out to be. He looked about fifteen years younger and twenty pounds lighter in the comic books. Harri kicked off her pumps—early meeting with the mayor, otherwise it would have been loafers—and laced up her sneakers. She pulled her dark shoulder length hair into a ponytail, checked her teeth for lettuce in the small mirror she kept in her handbag, and frowned at the gray hairs along her hairline—there was a new one every day it seemed.

Both her best friends Aisha and Jeremy had tried to set Harri up with the colorist Aisha used at Jeremy’s salon. But she couldn’t afford that kind of money, not on a city salary. There were a few times when she envied Aisha’s position at one of the top firms in the state, but Grandma Harri had drummed public service and standing up for the little guy into her head from the moment she could walk. Besides, she would have ended up like Aisha with all her money going to her ex in the divorce settlement.

And she sure as hell wasn’t taking charity from Jeremy.

With a sigh, Harri dropped the mirror into her bag and slung the strap across her body. The city’s superhero infestation hadn’t done a thing to deter the city’s purse snatcher community. Hell, one of the assholes had nearly strangled when he grabbed her bag in the grocery store parking lot last month.

“I’m going to do a lap or two around the park before I go to the coffee shop,” she called to Patty as she walked out the office.

“Forward your phone,” Patty called over her shoulder.

“Forwarding my phone.” Harri pivoted, marched back into her office, and punched in Patty’s extension on her desk set. Once outside of City Hall, the bright spring sunshine lifted her mood a bit. The park contained its usual assortment of transients, drug addicts, and the mentally ill, but they generally left her alone. Harri was petite, but managed to convey a sense of height. Her ex-husband used to describe her as five feet of rage topped by two inches of woman.

It wasn’t rage. It was . . . Harri didn’t know what it was. Righteous anger, she supposed. She hated bullies. She hated injustice. And in her experience, superheroes were bullies with commercial endorsements. People needed something to believe in. Instead, they got merchandise to buy.

She passed the playground. Two women held their babies while their older children played in the sandbox. It was exactly the domestic scene Eddie had described during their last fight. The one before he moved out and served her with the divorce papers.

Harri snorted and walked faster, annoyed at the thought of her ex. Stupid Eddie, with his new perky young wife and squalling baby and another kid on the way. He’d wanted a domestic family scene she had ultimately been unwilling to give him. She had nothing against babies in general, but did they have to be so stinky? And so loud?

Harri told herself that she simply wasn’t cut out for motherhood. An essential mommy-ness had been left out of her character and she was being sensible by acknowledging it. But…but…

“Stupid hormones,” she grumbled out loud.

Crazy Bob approached with a hopeful smile. “Miz Winters, how are you this fine day?”

Harri sighed. Crazy Bob was as sad as they came. When he stayed on his meds, he could function. Barely. That he had to do so living on a park bench, while schmucks like Seismic Shift lived like kings, broke her heart. Breathing through her mouth to reduce the smell, Harri said, “I’m fine, Bob. How are you?” She dug in her purse for some money. “When did you eat last?”

“Yesterday, Miz Winters. Yesterday.”

“Bob, you could eat every day if you went to the shelter.” At least until they closed it. The stated plan was to relocate it, but Harri knew better. The mayor had plans for the shelter site in East Downtown, and somehow, a new shelter would never appear. And everybody would be so bamboozled by the super show, they’d never notice the bait and switch. The mechanics of local government were dull enough without having to compete with a grandiose parade of heroes and villains creating crisis after crisis.

“Can’t,” he muttered. “Too many crazy people there.”

She couldn’t argue that point and handed Bob a couple of bills. Enough for a fast food burger and a cup of coffee. From experience she knew if she gave any of the homeless more they’d forego the food and buy a six-pack instead. She wished she could do more, but what Bob really needed, she couldn’t give him.

He thanked her and went on his way.

Harri continued, her stroll turning into a march. So many things were wrong in the city, things on a human scale that could be fixed with money and political will, but there was no money for people like Crazy Bob. He wasn’t super enough.

She stomped across the street into the coffee shop and got a large hot chocolate for Patty and a plain coffee for herself. She couldn’t walk past Crazy Bob and his lost companions with a cup of coffee that cost her as much as the meal she’d bought him.

Back at city hall, she gave Patty the hot chocolate, and headed into her office. Harri took a sip of her coffee and set the cup on her desk. Before she had time to sit down or even take her bag off her shoulder, somebody out in the hallway screamed. She took two steps toward the door before an enormous wall of hot air pushed her backwards against her desk. Stunned, she saw a masked figure in black step into the doorway.

“I warned you,” it said, in a gruff male voice. “Now, I’ll take my revenge for you ignoring me.” Something green dripped from a tube connected to his outfit. The substance hit the restored wood of the doorframe and sizzled. “Who are you?”

“Professor Venom,” the figure said.

That’s not Arthur. “Like hell you are,” Harri said. She should be afraid. This was a wannabe who meant business. “You’re way too big.”

More people screamed in the hallway and Harri became aware of an acrid smell. Smoke, but with a metallic, chemical undertone. The figure lifted its arm to throw something at her. She ducked, and a knife bounced off her file cabinet.

What the hell? Why would any supervillain start throwing knives in the middle of an acid attack? She crawled under her desk. Liquid splashed with a sizzle against her filing cabinet and the wall. “You’re done, bitch.” More splashing. Noxious fumes rose.

Whoever that was, he definitely was not Arthur Drallhickey. The real Professor Venom’s extortion letters were exceedingly polite.

Harri peered around the edge. From her vantage point near the floor, Harri could see the carpet in front of the desk bubbling before it burst into flames. A lake of chemical fire, too wide to jump, simmered between her and the office door. She heard something liquid drop onto the carpet with a sizzle and turned to look. The wall beside her was foaming and steaming. Whatever her attacker had sprayed, it appeared to be eating the plaster.

The steaming foam spread to the ceiling and a moment later something dripped onto her shoulder. It hissed on the fabric of her blouse, and pain seared her skin. The glass top would buy her a little time, but she had to get out of her office, and she wasn’t getting out through the door.

That left the window.

City Hall had been carefully restored, in meticulous historic detail, five years earlier, after a superhero with lightning powers had started a fire that gutted the interior of the building. It was that case where Harri began to develop a national reputation among municipal attorneys as an expert in filing supervillain forfeiture actions and winning superhero compensation lawsuits.

As part of the restoration, the building’s seventies-era sealed windows were replaced with historically-accurate oak double-hung sashes. Harri’s office was on the fifth floor. High enough to be terrifying, but low enough that she might survive, but with horrible life-ruining injuries. There was a narrow ledge she could crawl out on and from there maybe she could find an open window. She felt her stomach knot at the thought.

A drop of the stuff falling from the ceiling splashed against the edge of the desk and hit her hand with a sizzle. She yelped in pain and made her decision. Better a fall than being burnt to death. She rolled out from under the desk, sprinted to the nearest window, and threw open the sash. Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself through the window as more drops of acid splashed on her legs and melted her pantyhose.

Of all the days to wear the damn things. At least, she still had her athletic shoes on.

She glanced back, but the fake Professor Venom was gone. More acid dripped on her desk, setting her paperwork on fire. Including the Professor Venom extortion letter in her inbox.

She clung to the frame a moment, fighting off the dizziness. “Don’t look down, Harriet,” she said out loud. “Don’t you dare look down.”

Instead Harri looked up. A helicopter hovered overhead, a cameraman hanging out the door. He saw her and waved. She let go of the window frame long enough to flash her middle finger at him, then resumed her grip. “Gotta move, girl,” she told herself as a gust of hot air blew outward from her burning, dissolving office. “Can’t stay here.” Harri took a few more deep breaths, forced herself to let go of the window frame, and eased along the narrow ledge toward the next window, which opened into Patty’s cubicle. Before she got there, flames billowed from Patty’s window.

Feeling sick with fear, Harri scuttled backward. She was trying to turn around when the ledge, weakened by the acid, broke away from the building. Harri didn’t have time to scream before she was falling through the air. Eyes shut, she felt something hard hit her.

This is it. Funny, I thought it would hurt more.

Except she was still moving, but now she was going sideways. She felt arms around her, and she opened her eyes. A man was holding her. A man who was flying.

A super.

God, I hope I haven’t sued him.

A brightly colored spandex mask covered most of his face under a sweatshirt hood. She had time to register a rock hard chest and arms, and the smell of sweat, before he landed and set her gently on her feet on the grass of City Hall Park.

“Who else is in there?” he asked.

“My assistant,” Harri said. “Blond, really pregnant.”

He nodded and took off again. He flew, sleek as an arrow, into her open office window. A moment later, he soared out a different window with Patty in his arms. He dropped her off on the roof of police headquarters, across the street, and headed back into city hall. Harri watched him rescue five more people. “There you are, bitch,” she heard a familiar voice behind her. “Not getting away this time.”

She felt a cord drop around her throat, but got her fingers underneath it before her attacker could tighten the garrote. But she didn’t have the strength to push him off her.

The masked man flew toward her in a blur. The garrote loosened, and she heard a cry behind her. She turned and saw—

No, it couldn’t be. Crazy Bob sprawled on his back on top of a crushed car. Blood was gushing from his nose, and he was moaning.

“We need to go,” she heard the masked man say. Before she could answer, he’d scooped her up with one muscular arm and soared upwards. When they flew over police headquarters, she heard the people on the roof clapping and cheering.

I never got to drink my coffee. It was her last thought before she passed out.

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