Chapter 1 – Dinner Party

The mottled pattern of sunlight through the trees shifted rapidly across the bare earth. I watched with cool detachment as the golden brown of the day gave way to the bruised blue of night, returning to day again in less than a minute. The shadows moved westward across the ground as the sun crossed the sky from west to east, an unnatural repentance of its habitual course.

I almost missed the blur of motion in the dead of night, but in the last light of the previous day the earth had shifted noticeably. Clearly I had just rewound past the night when the corpse was buried.

I moved the scene forward again at a less accelerated pace. Few details of the man were visible under the overcast night sky. Even less of him could be made out when his flashlight clicked to brilliant life, but soon the wet gleam of the garbage bag was visible, and the blade of his well-used shovel. That was confirmation enough.

I had no interest in watching the rest of the profane interment. The scene reversed again, scarcely faster than real time, as I focused on following the man in his uncanny reverse-trek to the road. Even through the dense trees his progress was surprisingly rapid, fueled no doubt by fear of discovery.

The road was several feet above the level of the forest ground, with a rounded but steep shoulder, and the pickup had been driven down that shoulder and far enough off the road to perhaps avoid some attention. Here I could see the man’s face – young, white, thin trimmed beard, eyes hard and determined, teeth gritted in distaste. As he reversed the process of pulling the bag out of the pickup, I memorized the license plate.

Following a vehicle in reverse is still something I find a great deal of difficulty with. When I am tracking someone forward, I can automatically ride with them in real time or faster, but I have to separately focus on both reversing the scene and moving it when tracking them backward. I had considered following the man as he left the scene instead, but I wanted to grab the girl’s name this session if possible.

After backing him up enough to determine the direction the truck had come from, I used my typical shortcut. Freezing the moment, I rose my vantage up above the road and rapidly moved to the closest intersection in his direction of travel. A more rapid stationary rewind until I spot my prey, determine his direction, and repeat the reverse trace.

Traffic was sparse this late at night and this far outside the city proper. Once the pickup was traced back from a more main street onto a tributary road, I stuck with it more directly, presuming I’d be arriving at a stop soon.

The siren blare of the alarm surprised me, almost causing me to lose the scene. I held onto it, though, and fumbled for the snooze button. I had forgotten I had set the cooking timer at all, but the lasagna would survive a few extra minutes in the oven while I wrapped things up.

A three-bedroom “starter home” in a nice neighborhood was admittedly not what I was expecting to be led back to, but it takes all kinds (of murderers). I noted the address and let myself open my eyes.

A quick IM to Paris: “license and address, no ID yet.” She didn’t respond right away, so I locked the box, grabbed my mobile off the charger, and headed upstairs.

My mom had always taught me that the key to a good lasagna is the noodles. We softened them in basil-infused water before layering them, still warm, with cool strata of dairy, meat, and sauce. A high oven temperature gave the right mix of a slightly crispy outer layer and properly gooey insides without overly rendering the sauce.

I slid the pan of garlic bread – already buttered, seasoned, and sliced – into the smaller toaster oven before flipping on the light in the “real” oven. The lasagna was already done, heading for overdone, so I delayed no further in pulling it out of the oven and onto the cooling rack.

Visitors are usually surprised when they see how well-equipped my kitchen is; it doesn’t match my classification as “bachelor living by himself.” I stick to the same basic comfort foods my mother made for us growing up, but I take personal pride in making them very well, often with my own twist.

I scurried over to my bedroom and ensuite to change shirts and run a thick pick through my hair. I’d need to head downtown for a buzz within a week or two as my hair had grown out long enough to be a nuisance. Other than the unruly hair, the short twenty-something black man that looked back at me from the bathroom mirror was satisfactory. A red collared shirt set off my brown skin and eyes, framing my quiet smile. I’m thin without being scrawny, and keep a casual wardrobe that says “polite and harmless.” It works for me.

The Kurtzwiles were across the street and about three houses down, just on the lip of the long cul-de-sac that we call home. Judy Kurtzwile, matron of Illiad Court, greeted me warmly at her door and directed me and my insulated casserole bag to the oversized kitchen of their split-level.

“Hector!” came the excited greeting from the youngest of the three women frantically buzzing about the kitchen. May, a college junior, came home most weekends for free meals and laundry service from her mother. Their house was directly across from mine. The lasagna pan and basket of bread were quickly and perfunctorily praised by the women before being swept into the food tornado as I was swept out.

More warm greetings followed as I made my way into the great room. I made it a point to come to these neighborly meals as often as I was invited – usually every two to three weeks – and the dozen people socializing in the room knew me well. I deduced that the guests of honor, whom I had not yet met, were still on their way.

I spent a couple of minutes exchanging pleasantries with neighbors before I heard a bellowing “Hector!” from the furniture circled around the television at the other end of the large room. With an internal eye roll and a surface mask of friendliness, I answered the summons.

Bill Kurtzwile held court in his plush leather seat. He was easily the largest man in the room, both in height and girth, a powerful white man with less than half a head of white hair and the hard vitality of a man half his age. He gestured with a bottle of beer to the three other men taking up the other seats in the half-sequestered area, each man facing the muted TV from which cable news had evidently triggered the conversation.

Bill Junior, the youngest of the four men, looked ready to resume pouncing on whatever point he had been in the middle of before I was spotted, clearly held back by the bare civility of needing to greet me first. The other two men had the relaxed look of enjoying casual political discussion in a social setting.

“Hector,” Junior began, “good to see you. I was just tellin’ Dad that he’s overreacting to this whole thing about Peregrine and the Washington Monument.” He gestured with his bottle at the TV, which showed footage of emergency responders crawling through the stone and steel rubble that had recently been the five-hundred-foot structure.

“The Fiendish Four were on their way to attack Congress in session, probably with thousands of civilian casualties. Peregrine stopped him. This was collateral damage, y’know?”

I knew only too well. Peregrine was one of the stronger costumed supers who worked in the DC area. Unsurprisingly, the seat of the federal government attracted a higher quantity and quality of heroes than here in Detroit.

Peregrine’s high flight speed, and ability to transfer momentum to his targets, made him a very visible asset for USST (United States Super Team). But he also had a very high rate of, as Junior put it, “collateral damage.” Including a number of incidents that the government had managed to keep out of the national press.

I shrugged, but before I could respond, Bill Senior jumped in: “Collateral damage my ass. We’re not talking about a parking garage here. This is a major American monument, and it will cost the taxpayer – that’s us, Jack – millions to rebuild. If the jackasses in Congress can ever straighten out the budget.”

He took a quick pull of his beer and continued. “The Team belongs overseas, Junior. Fighting threats to America like they’ve been doing for decades. Not here duking it out over our cities, putting Americans at risk. In my day, supers that operated here were rightfully treated as the vigilantes they were. Police powers for supers? We’ll have our own super dictators next like half the third world already does.”

The other two older men chimed their agreement while Junior turned to me for support. This was a microcosm of the national debate – an aging generation hostile to the newer Super Teams operating here, with less opposition in each younger demographic. Most considered it an argument that would resolve itself in the passage of time.

In truth, I shared a lot of Bill’s concerns, but it appeared my opinion wasn’t really being sought. The Bills could easily argue between them until dinner was served.

Fortunately, a round of greetings soon indicated that the guests of honor had arrived. The Morris family had moved into their home a week ago, and this dinner was our way of welcoming them to the neighborhood. Karl and Laila Morris had recently moved from LA with, I had been assured by a nosy neighbor, a “thoroughly adorable” little girl. The girl in question was wrapped around her mother’s head and shoulders as her father tried to coax her down.

Our little cul de sac was a pretty even mix of white and black households, but the Morrises were the first Asians to move in, and I could see everyone was bending over backward to make a good first impression. The newcomers’ clothes were a bit light for the weather, not surprising when Californians move to Michigan.

The little girl, Deborah, really was adorable, and was soon shyly smiling from behind her mother’s capri-clad legs. Laila was tall for an Asian woman, and had surprisingly prominent laugh lines for a young mom. Her grin was large and infectious, and she accepted handshakes and hugs with good grace.

When I got my chance to approach and greet them, it was Kurt who grabbed my hand first. “You must be Hector. John says you’re the guy to get our Internet turned on quickly?”

“Happy to,” I quipped, “I’m surprised you weren’t knocking on my door before now. I could never survive that long without Internet.”

Laila shook my hand and responded, “We’ve been getting our fix at work. And Deb is still young enough not to need it, right sweetie?”

She made some further joke about binge watching, but I missed it. When May asked, “Hector, are you all right?” I realized I had missed a whole line of conversation. I had stopped moving or tracking the conversation because I was still trying to process what I had heard. Not the content of the message, but the timbre of the voice combined with her face had caused a jolt of recognition I could not quickly recover from.

Laila Morris is a super.


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