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.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 3

“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?”

“El Pájaro.”

“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.”

“Who’s 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.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 2

Shouts mixed with sirens, but the sounds echoed weirdly. Someone tugged at Harri’s clothing. Her skin and throat burned.

Harri tried to force her eyes open, but something covered her face. Panic flared. Someone was trying to choke her. She slapped at the offending material. Plastic and cloth. The guy pretending to be Professor Venom? Crazy Bob?.

“Calm down, honey. You’re safe.” A woman’s voice.

Harri fought harder. Someone was trying to kill her, and dammit, she was not going down quietly.

“Hold her.” The female voice again, but no one she recognized.

Hands grabbed her wrists, and she bucked against the restraint. Some two-bit supervillain wannabe was not going to—

“It’s all right. I have you. You’re safe.” The male voice crooned the words over and over.

Her panic melted when his mellow tone penetrated her foggy brain. The super who’d rescued her. “Patty? Is Patty okay?” Her own voice was rough, gravelly, and echoed slightly against plastic.

“She’s your assistant, right?” the super asked.

Harri nodded.

“Another paramedic is checking her and the baby.”

She sagged against his hold. God, please let Patty and the baby be okay.

“If you can behave yourself, I’ll take the gauze off your eyes. Give me any crap and it goes right back on,” the female voice warned.

Harri nodded again. When the weight lifted, she blinked. Her lids felt like sandpaper across her corneas. She was in an ambulance. An oxygen mask covered her mouth and nose.

The woman sitting next to her wore the navy uniform of Canyon Pointe’s paramedic squad. Her short, dark dreads were held back by the strap of her clear goggles. She waved a penlight in her glove-covered hand and frowned at Harri. “You gonna give me any more trouble while I examine you?”

“She won’t.” The super who had saved Harri’s life sat on the opposite side of the gurney.

She would have flipped him off if he didn’t have her pinned to the thin white sheet covering the even thinner pad. Instead, she shot him a dirty look. “Smart ass.”

He grinned back.

The paramedic grabbed Harri’s chin and turned her head back toward the flashlight. Harri winced as the brilliant whiteness forced her irises to contract and dilate. Spots danced in her vision by the time the woman was done.

“The good news is you didn’t get any acid in your eyes, but there’s irritation from the smoke. The ER will prescribe you something.” The paramedic’s nametag read “Jones” or “Jonas.” Between the spots and her watery eyes, Harri couldn’t tell.

“You can let her go,” Jones or Jonas announced.

The super’s warm grasp on Harri’s wrists disappeared. The human contact was more comforting amid the chaos than she wanted to admit.

Jones or Jonas frowned again. She traced a finger horizontally across Harri’s throat. “That isn’t a burn.” She shivered. The knife of the man claiming to be Professor Venom could have just as easily followed the same line and left her to bleed out in her office. Why throw it at her? He could have easily tackled her.

“Someone tried to strangle her while I helped the other victims of the fire,” the super volunteered.

Jones or Jonas’ frown was going to leave deep, permanent marks if she didn’t change her expression. She scribbled something on a clipboard. “You’re a lucky woman. You’ve got some superficial chemical burns and a little blistering, but nothing you can’t take care of at home. The ER docs will do a more thorough once over at the hospital to make sure there hasn’t been more damage to your throat than smoke inhalation.”

She stood abruptly. “I’ll grab an officer to get your statement.” The woman jumped out of the ambulance and disappeared into the people mulling outside.

“You shouldn’t have told her.” God, her voice sounded as bad as her eyes and skin felt.

The super genuinely appeared perplexed. “But that man in the park assaulted you.”

He couldn’t be that naïve, could he?

“Did you turn him over to the police?”

He shook his head. “After I dropped you off here, I went back to the park. He was gone, so I came here again to check on you.”

That didn’t make sense. From the damage to the car, Crazy Bob should have been in too much pain to get far. And why the hell had he attacked her? He had sounded more lucid than he ever did while on his meds. Maybe the alarms from the fire had set off a hallucination.

“Did everybody get out of City Hall?”

He nodded. “I only needed to rescue the people trapped on the fifth floor.”

He sounded terribly young. She took a closer look at him.

Acid holes covered his hoodie and jeans, yet the warm brown skin beneath appeared undamaged. The nasty smell of melted plastic accompanied his ruined shoes. She’d wager his feet were as uninjured as the rest of him. None of his clothing was new. In fact, it appeared to be second or third hand prior to the recent damage. Her gaze drifted back to his face. She recognized the design of the neon yellow and lime green spandex he wore as a mask. It was the same pattern as the outfits Aisha’s law firm had provided at the city’s annual bicycle event for charity last year. Her best friend had claimed it was a good way for both of them to meet men after their respective divorces. Harri had never quite forgiven Aisha for making her look like an unripe citrus fruit in front of the most prominent members of their profession.

The tight-fitting bicycle tops and pants would have looked damn good on her super from the lines of muscle that peeked through the tears of his clothing. Even with the mask, she could tell he was young. Too young. Twenty-two at the most, and she sincerely doubted that. She stared at his face.

“Who are you?” she finally asked. “Really?”

The sudden fear in his eyes cut her to the core. His irises were pale hazel, nearly gold. Beautiful eyes, but cautious. They were eyes that had seen too much suffering.

Harri’s normal irritation with superheroes evaporated at his vulnerability. “Are you legal?”

“Uh…” His tongue swiped across his top lip, and he glanced at the open doors of the ambulance bay. She recognized his behavior all too well. She’d seen it too many times in the runaways and foster kids she’d encountered when she’d interned with the city’s juvenile court judge one year while in law school. He was about to bolt.

“I won’t tell anybody.” Harri reached over and grasped his hand. “Are you registered? As a super?”

His entire body twitched.

“I want to help you,” she whispered hoarsely.

“No.” His words were even softer than hers. “No, I’m not registered.”

“Are you eighteen?”

“I don’t know for sure.” His fingers trembled in her hold. “I think I’m older than that.”

How could anyone not know his own age? She squeezed his fingers gently. “What about your family?”

He refused to meet her eyes, giving her only a sharp shake of his head.

Nothing intrigued Harri like an enigma, and this kid had puzzle written all over him. No birth certificate explained why he hadn’t registered with the federal government. If he had collared Crazy Bob, she could have cut him a deal. Especially since his first concern was the safety of the civilians.

“Do you want to be a registered superhero? I can help you with that.” She squeezed his fingers gently.

He shrugged, and his body tensed.

She needed to change the subject before he flew off in a panic. “When you were inside city hall, did you see a big guy dressed in black and wearing a mask wandering around?”

“Is he the guy the cops are saying did this? Professor Venom?”

Harri shook her head. “The guy who did this claimed he was Professor Venom, but he wasn’t. I know Venom. Did you see anybody matching my description?”

The super thought for a moment. “I saw a guy with a mask on in the alley behind City Hall when I was flying someone across to the police building. He was moving fast. I only got a glimpse, but he definitely wasn’t short and skinny. I was more worried about getting everyone out on the fifth floor.”

Harri felt a tickle in her throat that quickly developed into a coughing fit. She’d been right. This afternoon’s generic promise-of-destruction letter aside, the man who had attacked her couldn’t have possibly been Arthur Drallhickey. Too tall. Too muscular. Too effective. And Arthur wasn’t fast. An elderly woman with a walker had been the one to capture him after the park bench incident.

Arthur may have been totally incompetent as a super villain, but he was consistent. Which meant polite threatening letters and the occasional mishap with his acid powers. So why the hell would someone impersonate him to do this?

If it hadn’t been for this threadbare superhero sitting next to her, she would have died in today’s fiasco. Patty and her baby could have died, which only added to the sick feeling in her gut. Quite simply, she owed the kid. Twice. Four times if she counted Patty and the baby.

Harri’s coughing eased. She yanked off the oxygen mask. “I need to find my assistant first, then we need to get you out of here. Stick with me. No matter what.” He’d been seen by too many people, not to mention the news crew filming from their helicopter. She had to get him away from City Hall before the feds showed up. There’s no way in hell he could pay the fines for unlicensed superhero acts. If she was going to cut him a deal, she needed to be the one to bring him in.

“I don’t think you should be getting up, ma’am. The paramedic said you needed to see the ER doctors to check your throat.” But the super made no move to stop her as she climbed off the gurney.

“It’s Harri. Harri Winters.” She shook her index finger in front of his nose. “If you ever call me ma’am again, I’ll sue those jeans off your ass. Got me?”

“Yes, m—” White teeth shone against his tan skin. “Harri, I’m El Pájaro.”

“‘The Bird’?” She shook her head. “Kid, we have got to get you a better name.”

* * *

True to his words, El Pájaro stuck by Harri’s side as she searched among the emergency vehicles and evacuated staff for Patty.

A loud crash shook the street as the fifth story collapsed onto the fourth, sending up a gigantic plume of smoke, dust, and ash. The various fire squads continue to pump special oxygen-robbing foam onto the inferno from ladder trucks. Her nails dug into her palms. So much for the restoration work on the courthouse.

She didn’t know who she could sue on this one. Even if Arthur had been responsible, he didn’t have any money either. This was a first—a broke hero and a broke villain. That left FEMA and the state emergency fund, which meant sticking it to the taxpayers yet again.

They finally found Patty sitting on the curb a block away, another emergency tech tending her. Second-degree burns covered her right forearm.

Harri dropped to the concrete next to her assistant while El Pájaro stood guard over them. “Is the baby okay?”

Patty gave her a weak smile. “Yeah, she’s kicking up a storm right now.” She hissed as the tech prodded her damaged skin. “I’m fine too.

Thanks for asking.”

“She was very concerned about you,” El Pájaro interjected. “She fled her own treatment to search for you.”

“Oh, I’m well aware she uses her grumpy behavior to hide her marshmallow interior.” Patty beamed at him. “Thank you for saving us.”

“De nada.”

Patty leaned closer to Harri. “Did I hear the guy in your office right? Was that really Professor Venom?”

Harri snorted. “If it was, then I’m a Victoria’s Secret model.”

“There he is!”

Every muscle in Harri’s body tightened at the all-too-familiar shout. Shouting she was often on the receiving end of. “Shit,” she muttered.

Mayor Quentin Samuels bounded out of the crowd, two police officers at his heels. “Arrest him!” He jabbed the blade of his hand in the direction of El Pájaro.

Harri forced herself to her feet. “What are you blathering about?”

“Him!” Samuels always compensated for his lack of height by doubling the decibel-level of his voice. Another sharp hand motion in the direction of the kid. “Eye witnesses place him here when the fire started.”

“But I—” the kid started.

Harri held up her own hand to silence her super. He’d say something stupid and ruin his chances of getting registered properly.

“The perpetrator was in my office, and it wasn’t him.” Her smoke-damaged voice added a certain gravitas to her statement.

“Really?” Samuels crossed his arms. His smug expression set off warning claxons in her aching head. “So who started the fire?”

Dammit. If she said it was Professor Venom, Arthur would get charged for the arson. And even if he was annoying, he was also innocent this time. God only knew who else on the fifth floor had heard the imposter’s claim besides Patty, who was smart enough to keep her mouth shut now.

Harri matched Samuels’ stance. “I’m not sure. He was dressed in black with a mask. All I can tell you is he was a big guy with a deep voice. Will security be able to retrieve the camera footage?”

“Possibly,” one of the officers offered. He glanced over his shoulder. “They’re not using water, but that foam can still short out the DVRs if they’re hit directly.”

From the glare Samuels shot the officer, his assistance wasn’t appreciated. The mayor turned back to El Pájaro. “I want to see your hero license.”

Harri inserted herself between them. “He’s just a kid trying to help, and I already lectured him on the need to get a city license.” She wasn’t going to mention his lack of federal registration unless Quentin brought it up. “I’ve granted him immunity on the license violation in return for his assistance and cooperation.” She crossed her fingers behind her back and prayed the kid had taken her previous hint to stay quiet.

“You can’t do that!” Samuels spluttered.

“I can negotiate any settlement that will benefit the taxpayers.” She pointed at what was left of the City Hall. “We’ve got a hell of a mess. I want the asshole who did this to pay for it.”

“Maybe it should come out of your salary,” he sneered. “For not reporting the intruder. Or a legitimate threat. I already know you received one from Professor Venom in this morning’s mail.”

Samuels could be a sniveling weasel, but snooping through her office correspondence? “You’re reading my mail? That’s bullshit,” she said quietly. “And you know it.”

“Why didn’t you buzz security when Venom showed up in your office?”

Anger overran her fear and worry. “First, I don’t know who the guy was. I didn’t see his face. Second, I didn’t call security because my office was on fire, and I was busy trying not to die. Third, what exactly are you insinuating, Mayor Samuels?”

“You’re either incompetent or in league with Venom.”

Harri straightened her back and deliberately violated Samuels’ personal space, forcing him to step back. “If you knew about his attempted extortion, why didn’t you notify the police?”

Scarlet flooded his face as he spluttered for a full thirty seconds. He could look down at her, but only barely. He wasn’t much taller than she was. Finally, he shouted, “You’re fired, Winters!”

Harri ignored the fine spray that covered her face and stepped closer until she was nose-to-nose with the mayor. Something about her tight grin must have scared him because he leaned as far away as he could without actually moving his feet.

“Sorry, but I already quit.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Come on, El Pájaro. Let’s make you rich.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sacrificed Is ALIVE!

Sacrificed is officially out today!

Per usual, links will be updated as they go live.

(My usual Wednesday sample chapter will be posted tomorrow!)

Barnes & Noble
Google Play

Friday, March 9, 2018

Sacrificed Pre-Order Is Live!

Between taxes, reviewing the paperback of A Modicum of Truth, and illness, I'm a little late out of the gate.

However, Sacrificed, Book 8 of the Bloodlines series, is up for pre-order on Amazon!

What does that mean? It means if you order it now, it will show up on your Kindle or Kindle app on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

This is my first time trying the pre-order function on Amazon, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed things go smoothly after some of the glitches that occurred during A Modicum of Truth's e-book release last month.

If you prefer a different retailer, Sacrificed will be available on Smashwords and Google Play on the 14th. I'll try my best, but I can't guarantee when it will be available on iTunes or Kobo. Unfortunately, the e-book won't be available at Barnes & Noble until the print book is.

If the pre-order works well on Amazon, I'll try it on the other retailers where pre-orders are available.

Pre-order Sacrificed! Click Here Now!

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.