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.

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