“Make me what?” the kid asked.
“Rich,” Harri said.
She glanced down at her assistant, who sat open-mouthed and stared back at Harri. “I’ll call you later, Patty. Come on.” She gestured at El Pájaro. “Let’s get out of here.” She stomped away from the mayor.
Once they were away from Samuels, and the police didn’t follow them. El Pájaro grabbed Harri’s arm, gently but with a firm grasp. “Where are we going?”
“My car. We need to get out of here. Fast.”
He slipped his arm around her waist. “Okay. Hang on.”
“Not like that,” she hissed. “You’re in enough trouble as it is.”
“So are you,” he said. “The guy who started the fire is still out there as well as the one who tried to strangle you.”
“Another reason I want to go. But I’m more concerned about you dodging the feds. And the news ghouls, so we need to leave quietly. Lose the mask.”
Harri grabbed his arm and pulled him behind a fire truck, narrowly avoiding Ted Meadowfield and a cameraperson from Action 12 News!
The jerk only descended from the anchor chair for big splashy stories that didn’t require actual journalistic skill to report. City hall being destroyed yet again, in “an epic battle between good and evil” as Ted would call it, was a ratings goldmine, and he wouldn’t miss it for anything.
“It makes you conspicuous as hell,” Harri hissed as he let her drag him into the narrow alley behind the truck. “We need to blend in.” She released him.
With a sigh, he pushed back his hood and stripped off the mask. “Better?”
“Um . . .” For a moment Harri could only stare. She knew he’d be a looker, but . . . damn. Thick black hair, tawny skin, high cheekbones, a strong chin and nose—all good, but it was his eyes that elevated him from ridiculously handsome to achingly beautiful. They were large, almond shaped, and that curious tawny hazel she had noted before, almost golden. “Yeah, but I’m not sure it makes you any less conspicuous. Pull your hood back up.”
“Where’s your car?”
“Parking garage. Next door.”
He shook his head. “Not a chance. There’s cops everywhere. The whole complex is locked down.”
“How do you know that?”
He pointed upward with his thumb. “Got an aerial view.”
“Let me think.” The adrenaline rush was starting to wear off, and all she could think about was how badly she wanted a shower, a stiff drink, and some ibuprofen. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“No. Your real name.” When he hesitated, she gave him the most sympathetic look she could muster. “I’ve already seen your face, and if I’m going to represent you, I need to know your secret identity.”
The internal struggle still played on his face.
“I’m your lawyer. You’re my client. I’m ethically obligated to keep your secrets.” She laid a hand on his bicep. His incredibly solid bicep.
“I don’t have money for a lawyer,” he said, a panicked look on his beautiful face.
“Kid, you saved my life. Twice. I’ll waive the fee for now. What’s your name?”
He considered this for a moment, then said, “Reyes.”
“Reyes García,” he finished reluctantly. “Rey is what I usually go by. Only my mom—” His voice choked slightly. “—only she called me Reyes.”
Harri nodded, deciding to wait until another time to ask about his mother, but she suspected Mom hadn’t been in the picture for a long time. She patted his very solid bicep and smiled. “Thank you, Rey.”
He smiled back, his teeth dazzling and perfect.
Harri heard a loud growl. Then another. Both seemed to come from the kid. “Is that your stomach?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking embarrassed. Her estimate of his situation only made her angrier at Samuels’s treatment of him.
“Where do you live? Near here?”
He nodded. “In the old hotel next door to the Canyon Building.”
“That whole block is condemned.”
Rey shrugged. “I’m not the only one there.” His stomach growled again.
Tattered clothes, no family, squatting in an abandoned building—Harri was getting a picture, and it was breaking her heart. “Okay. We swing by your place, you pick up your stuff, we get you something to eat, and then we come back for my car. If we still can’t get to it, once the sun goes down, you fly us to my house. No more condemned hotels. You’re staying in my guest room for now.”
“I don’t need any help.” His tone was defensive, but under it Harri could hear the need. And loneliness. “I can’t pay you back for any of this.”
“Yeah, sweetie, you do need help. I think you’ve needed it for awhile. And I owe you for my life. Twice. There’s no comparison.” She peeked around the corner of the building. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the police change their mind and decide to follow the mayor’s order to arrest you.”
“But I didn’t—”
“I know you didn’t do anything wrong,” she muttered. “And we’re going to keep it that way.”
Trying to look casual, they slipped back into the crowd. In their torn, dirty, and acid-burned clothing, they fit right in to the parade of fleeing downtown workers. Harri patted her handbag, thankful for her coffee craving. At least she still had her wallet and keys. And her parking garage ID. With City Hall a smoking ruin—again—it would take that idiot Quentin Samuels at least a couple of days to process her termination.
A few blocks past the chaos, as they crossed River Street, Rey took her hand and said, “Stick close. It’s not a great neighborhood.”
“No kidding,” Harri said.
He led her through blocks that became more decrepit as they walked. The area on the eastern fringe of the central business district next to the river was slated for redevelopment if city leaders could ever agree on what they wanted it to be. While the politicians and planners battled, a few developers, including Quentin Samuels’ brother Reginald, quietly bought up everything they could.
A few businesses hung on, a few property owners tried to keep up appearances, a few shabby apartment buildings still housed the working poor, but a cloud of decay and inevitable gentrification hung over the narrow streets. Many of the condemned properties like the Canyon Building, former headquarters of Canyon Industries, had historic significance. Much lip service was paid to preservation as the neglected buildings continued to fall apart. The developers claimed they were diligently boarding up windows and removing squatters, but what they were really doing was waiting for an untended campfire or dropped cigarette to do their site clearing for them.
The entire block where the Canyon Building sat was boarded up and surrounded by chain link fencing covered in ominous signage about trespassers being prosecuted. But the street people knew as long as they stayed clear of the occasional city inspector, nobody cared if they stayed there.
Harri hated to admit it, but she agreed with the condemnation order. The Canyon block was an eyesore. “I don’t know why you super guys can’t fight in this neighborhood instead of always smashing up the high rent area.”
Rey smiled, but it was a sad smile. “Because nobody but Jatz’om Kuh cares about this place. At least, not the way it is now. Nobody wants to come here. Not even the villains.”
“Jatz’om Kuh. You know, the Ghost Owl?”
“Yeah, him I’ve heard of. But I’ve never heard the other name.”
Ray shrugged. “A king from Mayan folklore. His name translates as something like ‘owl who strikes’. Some of the older folks in the neighborhood call him that.”
“You ever seen him?” Harri couldn’t help being intrigued. The myth of the Ghost Owl was what a super should be—assisting those who couldn’t get justice any other way.
“Once,” Rey said. “When I was little. I told him I could help him. He smiled and said ‘maybe someday, kid, but not now’.”
“And then what? He vanished?”
“No.” Rey grinned at his memory. “He opened a man hole cover and said ‘Lesson One—always know your exits. Lesson Two—never let anyone see you use them’. And then he dropped into the sewer.”
Harri laughed. “I thought he was supposed to be able to dematerialize at will.”
Rey shook his head, still smiling. “No, he looked pretty solid. Hasn’t been around as much lately, though. And the rest of the supers never cross River Street if they can help it.”
“Yeah,” Harri sighed. “Until this area finally gentries, and then I’ll have to find money to help rebuild it every time some super villain has a hissy fit.”
“Uh . . . no, you won’t. You quit, remember?”
“Shit. I did, didn’t I?”
Rey nodded. “But in case you change your mind, they fired you first.”
Harri glared at him. “Well, aren’t you just a little ray of sunshine?”
His smile grew sadder. “That’s what my mom used to call me.”
Before Harri could pull her foot out of her mouth, he pointed at a hole in the fence. “Here. We go in here and then down the alley and a quick flight up.”
Harri had assumed he meant stairs, but he meant the other kind of flight. He grabbed her by the waist and zoomed up to the fourth floor before she could object.
“That’s a handy little shortcut,” she said as she peered around the gloomy space. “Warn me next time, okay?”
“Sorry. There’s no other way in. The staircase collapsed. It’s why I picked it. So nobody can steal my stuff.”
“People steal from you? Seriously? I assumed you had super-strength along with the flight abilities.” Especially the way he’d been hauling her around all day.
He shrugged again. “Yeah, but addicts steal from everybody and they’re way more scared of withdrawal than they are of me. It wouldn’t be right for me to pound them. Life’s already doing a pretty good job beating them up. They don’t need me piling on. This is the better way. Hang on, let me get the lights on.” He fumbled with something, she heard a whining sound like a swarm of bees, and then a soft white light filled the small space.
“What was that noise?”
“It’s an emergency lamp. It’s got a wind up thing to charge it if the regular batteries run down. I can’t afford batteries, but I can wind it a lot faster than most people.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Harri looked around the room. She had expected it to be a mess, but it looked like an army barrack. Or a monk’s cell. A narrow iron bed, neatly made, including hospital corners, sat against one wall. A plastic laundry basket sat next to it holding a small pile of clean but tattered clothing, carefully folded. There was a small desk and a plastic chair. The floor was clean, thanks to the broom hanging in the corner
But all this was merely a backdrop to the books. Rey had built a bookshelf with bricks and boards that covered an entire wall. Several hundred worn books, paperback and hardback, sat on the shelves.
He saw Harri staring at the books. “I’ll need to come back for my collection. I can fly those out at night.” He paused a moment. “If it’s okay to bring them with me.”
“Of course, it is,” Harri said. “Where did you get them all?”
“Around. You’d be amazed what people throw out. And the library sale is always good. The final day, they practically give books away. And the librarians all know me so they hold back the novels they think I’ll like.”
“They know you?” A superhero who collected books and hung out with librarians? Most of them just liked to hit things and get their pictures taken.
“I used to spend a lot of time there. When I was younger. I didn’t have anywhere else to go during the day. It was kind of home and school at the same time. The librarians used to bring me sandwiches and stuff.” His stomach growled again. “Sorry.”
“Not a problem. Get what you need, and then let’s go eat.” She couldn’t tear her attention away from his collection. It had a little bit of everything, and a quarter of the volumes were in Spanish. Classics like Dickens, Cervantes, and Homer. Religious texts. Sci-fi. Mysteries. Hell, he even had the latest Nora Roberts.
He pulled off the acid-burned hoodie and t-shirt. “I need to change. These clothes are trashed.”
Harri glanced at him, then tried not to gasp at the sight of his chest, bare except for a small stone pendant hanging on a leather cord. She whirled around to give him some privacy. He’s perfect. He’s the most perfect, beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Wait until Aisha sees him.
Thinking about Aisha—instead of about how much she wanted to peek behind her and see if Rey’s bottom half looked as good as the top—gave her something to talk about. “I have a friend who does entertainment and intellectual property law. Her firm represents supers. With merchandise licensing deals, publishing contracts, that sort of thing. There’s a lot of money to be made if you’re registered and working in the system.”
“Uh . . . that’s gonna be a problem,” he said. “I don’t have a birth certificate. Which means I can’t prove my immigration status or get a driver’s license or do anything. I can’t even get a job. I’d work if I could.”
“And saving lives isn’t working?” she asked.
“Not if you don’t register with the government.” He paused a moment. “If you don’t register, then you’re just a vigilante.”
Harri felt her stomach drop. She’d been quoted saying that exact thing on the evening news and in the paper. “You know who I am?”
“Sure. Everyone does. You’re the lady who sues superheroes.”
“And you still rescued me?”
Rey laughed out loud. It was the first time Harri had heard him laugh. Even his laugh is beautiful.
“You never sued me. That’s one advantage of being poor. You can turn around now.”
Harri turned, relieved that he was clothed again. She wouldn’t have been able to take her eyes off his chest if he hadn’t covered it.
“Seriously though,” he said. “I would have rescued you even if you had sued me.”
A shocked expression covered his face. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Harri laughed. “Rey, honey, you are too good to be true. Most supers around here would have cheered when I hit the pavement.”
His expression transformed from shock to anger faster than he flew. “I’m not like those guys.”
“No kidding,” Harri said. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”
* * *
Rey packed a small duffel bag with his remaining clothing and a couple of books before he took Harri to a little Mexican place down the street. At least, she assumed it was Mexican until she scanned the menu. The restaurant featured food from throughout Central America. This place served the real stuff, not the molten cheese-covered platters and watered down Tex-Mex that Americans generally thought of as south-of-the-border food.
It wasn’t quite dinnertime and the place was empty. When they walked in, the older woman behind the counter smiled at him and started chattering away in Spanish, gesturing for him to sit. Rey was clearly a regular. A couple of younger, dark-haired women peered out of the kitchen and started giggling when they saw him.
“What’s good?” Harri asked.
The young waitress who’d brought them water and chips stared longingly at Rey. She looked about sixteen and obviously had a big crush on him.
“All of it,” Rey said. “Marta’s the best cook in town. I usually just let her pick.”
“Sounds good.” Harri scanned the menu for alcohol. “They got a liquor license?”
Rey shook his head. “Can’t afford it and don’t want it. This way they keep the drunks out.”
“It can wait.” Harri looked up at the waitress. “Load us up. I’m buying.”
The girl still stared at Rey, oblivious to Harri.
He smiled at the waitress, a gentle big-brotherly smile. “Anna, tell Marta to send out some plates. Whatever she wants.”
The girl giggled, nodded, and scurried back to the kitchen.
“She likes you.” Harri said. “A lot.”
Rey shook his head, as his face flushed. “No. Anna’s just a friend.”
Harri smiled. Beautiful, well-read, and bashful? Aisha would go nuts for this guy. Nabbing him as a client might finally get her that partnership. Maybe the old farts who ran her firm would finally be convinced Aisha deserved to be more than a token minority hire.
Before Harri had time to comment, the food began arriving. Plate after plate of the freshest, most wonderful Latin American cuisine Harri had ever eaten—ceviche, followed by thick pupusas stuffed with cheese and meat and vegetables, with the main course consisting of a perfectly roasted chicken, fried plantains, and rice and black beans.
Harri managed a few small platefuls before she was full. But Rey? The kid could eat, that was for sure. Whenever she saw him hesitate about eating a more expensive dish, like the ceviche, she reminded him she was paying and urged him on. After packing away enough food to last Harri a week, he sat back with a groan. “I kind of got carried away there. It’s so good. Usually I put the brakes on so I don’t bankrupt Marta, but you wouldn’t let me.”
“Marta lets you eat for free?”
“She claims she doesn’t, but I know she’d give me way more if I asked. I pay her when I can. The rest of the time I wash dishes, do odd jobs. She likes having me around. Keeps the thieves away, she says.”
The dinner crowd was starting to file in. All the women ogled Rey, while the men stared, obviously not happy having to compete with him for attention. It was time to leave. Harri forced several bills on Marta despite her protests. In a high-end cafe in the nicer end of downtown that meal would have cost at least twice what Harri paid, and she left a decent tip for their love-struck waitress.
Despite Harri’s crappy day, the excellent meal and good company made for a pleasant walk. By the time they were within a couple of blocks of city hall, it was dark enough for Rey to do a quick reconnaissance flight. He was shaking his head as he landed. “Cops everywhere and the garage is blocked. Nobody’s getting their car out of there tonight.”
Harri’s shoulders sagged. She’d wanted to get her Honda before Samuels realized it was still in the employee section of the city garage. She didn’t put it past the asshole to have her vehicle towed. “Then we fly. Let’s get a little further away from all the action before we take off.”
After ten minutes of walking, she gave Rey directions, and they flew the rest of the way. For the additional five minutes it took to get home, Harri clung to Rey, her eyes shut, willing herself not to vomit her wonderful dinner all over him.
They landed in the park across the street from the town home complex she lived in, acutely aware, in a way she hadn’t been that morning, how much nicer it was than downtown. We work down there and debate its future, but none of us actually live there. What’s that say about our commitment to this city?
She didn’t have time to wonder any further. Rey pulled her behind a tree and pointed toward her tiny front porch, which was shrouded in shadow. She hadn’t bothered turning on the porch light since she was usually home well before sunset this time of year.
“Somebody’s there,” he whispered.
“You can see someone? I can’t see anything.”
“Enhanced eye sight,” he whispered. “I’ve got great night vision.”
“Can you see who it is?” She tried to push her fear back down. Not here and not now. Please let me get a glass of wine and a shower before anybody else tries to kill me.
“Stay here.” He crept toward the house, staying in the shadows. After a moment, Harri couldn’t see him at all.
She heard a feminine yelp of fear, then Rey’s voice. “It’s okay, Harri. You got another house guest.”
Harri jogged across the pavement, each step reminding her of the burns on her legs. On the porch, Patty sat in the single wicker chair, munching on a fast food burger from the streetlight’s reflection on the waxy paper in her lap.
“I lost my keys in the fire and I can’t get into my apartment.” she said. “Can I stay here tonight?”
“Of course you can,” Harri said, crouching next to her. “Did you have the ER doctor check out your burns?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the worst part.” Patty sounded as if she were on the verge of crying. “I got fired. Quentin fired me after you stomped off. He said I helped you and Professor Venom burn down City Hall.”
“He can’t do that!” Harri shook with the force of her rage. Her keys slipped from her nerveless fingers and landed with a clatter on the porch. “You’re a civil servant. There’re procedures.”
“He did it anyway.” Patty focused on her burger. “And Aisha said to call her when you get a chance.”
“Aisha?” Harri snatched her keys off the concrete, the wound on her calf protesting as she stretched the damaged skin. “When did you talk to her?”
“After you left, I realized I’d lost my purse in the fire.” Patty shrugged. “Not that I could have gotten my car out of the garage with the lockdown. I tried to call you first, but I kept getting your voice-mail, so I called Aisha, but she hadn’t heard from you either. She offered to pay for a hotel, but I figured you’d be home soon.”
“What about your car keys?”
A sad laugh burbled out of Patty. “My spares are sitting in the apartment I can’t get into. All I need is a night on a couch until I can get my new apartment keys from my landlady tomorrow morning. Aisha and I only know each other through you, so I understand why she didn’t want me at her place. And I didn’t feel right about her paying for a hotel room.”
Harri snorted. “Trust me, the hotel offer is Aisha being kind. Her parents are in town for the week. You don’t want to be at her place right now.”
With the city hall disaster all over the news, Aisha must have been frantic. Harri fished her phone out of its side pocket on her purse. She’d been so focused on Rey, she completely forgot to call. Yep, three missed calls on her crappy burner phone that she hadn’t heard ring. The phone rang only about half the time and had a tone quality similar to shouting from the bottom of a well. But she wasn’t wasting money on another smart phone after losing the last one to a purse snatcher.
“Wait a minute,” Harri said. “If you don’t have your purse, how’d you call anybody?” She jabbed a finger at the Burger Chateau atrocity Patty nibbled on. “And how’d you buy that?”
Patty swallowed her bite. “Well, um…” Embarrassment vibrated in her voice. “Please don’t be mad until you hear his side of the story.”
Patty turned toward the evergreen hedges that separated Harri’s entrance from her neighbor’s. “Arthur, it’s okay to come out.”
No. Harri groaned. It couldn’t be.
The acne-scarred face with its accompanying huge nose poked around the end of the needle-sharp leaves. Professor Venom himself, hiding in her hedge and wearing a sheepish look. Arthur Drallhickey waved lamely at her. “Hey, Ms. Winters.”