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.”


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.”

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