Paul sat on the locker room bench with his helmet in his hands. He had bagged his costume to be laundered – Stillwater sweated far more on his bike than he did – but the bright red headgear remained.
On his good days, he felt pride looking at it. It was an emblem of the good he was doing, a symbol of long hours spent promoting community projects and encouraging others.
On his bad days, Paul acknowledged that he himself was little more than a symbol – an icon reminding citizens of their heroes. Other heroes, the ones that matter in a fight.
Today, Paul had been confronted with the deaths of two old friends at the hands of someone he had once confided his secrets to. A poser, a toxic hanger-on of supers. Powerless and disruptive. A man who had somehow gained powers after all, and was coming after those who had rejected him years before.
Even then, with him as the target, the team hadn’t thought to use him in the fight. Call in the ‘heavies,’ don’t rely on the mascots. Another hero in Velo’s costume was more valuable than Velo himself.
He was a joke. Full stop. But… maybe he didn’t have to be?
Paul stowed his personal bike in his garage and, thanks to the lateness of the hour, entered a house already given to slumber. He snuck in and kissed the twins, the baby, and his exhausted wife. He cheated just a little, stepping quickly and lightly enough to minimize the chance of waking them.
Retrieving the card from his wallet, he sat on the living room couch and stared at it for a long time. He remembered the man who had given it to him, surprised when he counted that three months had passed since then.
‘Improvement Solutions’ and a local number were printed in indigo ink against a thick cream stock. No logo, no tag line – just a company name and number. The man who had given it to him had a rumpled shirt, thinning brown hair, and an air of a community college professor. The two watched as a bartender separated a pair of patrons close to starting a brawl. Paul just stood there in his helmeted costume; it had not occurred to anyone to even ask for his help.
The other man had clapped him on the red and black shoulder of his Velo costume to get his attention. “If you’re a super, why didn’t you jump in there?”
Paul shrugged. “He has it under control.”
The man shook his head, glancing at the super out of the corner of his eye. “Pathetic.” He said it quiet enough that only Paul could hear.
Paul leaned in a bit as he responded, “Look, I’m not Lady Liberty or Aurochs. I don’t punch through walls. I can run or ride a bike pretty fast.”
“You’re wrong,” the man said, turning to meet his eyes. “That’s not all you can do. It’s as much as you choose to do.” He stood up and handed Paul the card. “If you decide you want to access the rest of your potential, to learn to be powerful… call us.”
Paul recalled the sounds of the sniper rounds on the crowded corner, felt the weight of Lamarck’s lifeless body as he cowardly ran away from the scene.
He pictured Peregrine flying forward, capturing Jason Meer and disabling him in moments – while Paul watched the video feed of it back at headquarters.
With newfound resolve, he took out his flip phone and dialed the number.
“Probably not as much trouble as you’re thinking,” Paris answered. She took another look around the empty parking lot, seldom in use since the DPD had started ramping up the drug busts over the summer. As Randy approached from down the street, she caught his eye but waved him back. He nodded and made his way across the lot and back out to the sidewalk, taking another solo patrol around the block. “It may not even end up on her record.”
Paris turned herself back around to the wooden fence marking one end of the lot. A quick break for a personal call was permitted on a night beat. She seldom took one, but her little brother’s earlier text had provoked an immediate desire to milk the information out of him.
“That’s what she said,” Hector replied, “but that seems like bad policy. If they want their people to follow their security protocols, shouldn’t they punish any breach severely? She stole and shared secure files. She looked into the augment program when she was ordered not to.”
Paris scoffed. “Are you wantin’ her to get in trouble?”
“Oh come on, obviously not.” She chuckled at his indignant tone. Hector wasn’t as easy to rile up as he used to be and she enjoyed the opportunity.
“So, here’s the reality of it, like it or not.” She allowed her voice to increase and carry just a bit to emphasize her next point. “She was right. However much her superiors might want to nail her to the floor, the long and short of it is that when you get the guy and solve the case, they overlook the sketchy steps you took to do it.”
“So as long as you always get the win, you’re untouchable.”
“Yeah.” Paris turned her head to eye an automobile sliding slowly along the road adjacent the lot. Even traffic was down to almost nothing at this time of night. “Just like coaches. Nobody has time to nitpick what you’re doing when it’s working. The losses are what get you the lectures and discipline.”
“I hope you’re right. Diane really came through for me on this case.”
Paris snickered. “There’s that ‘Diane’ again.”
“What? That’s her name.”
“That’s her first name. And you say it the same way you used to say ‘Karen’ in high school.”
Paris heard a sigh on the line as Hector audibly shrugged off her light teasing. “Anyway. Sergeant Waterford did a lot of the heavy lifting. I need to do what I can to make sure she doesn’t get in trouble for it.”
“What happens to the guy? Ambush, right?’
“He’s charged with three murders plus one attempt, plus the hostage thing. He gets life with no possibility of parole.”
“They don’t execute him even though he was using powers?”
“No, that’s pretty much just a US thing. That’s how they’re getting him to plead guilty, actually. DC wants to extradite for Lamarck and prosecute as a capital crime.”
“So he lives the rest of his life in Canadian prison rather than warming an electric chair in the District.”
“That’s right. Brunch tomorrow?”
“5 o’clock. Bring quiche.”
“You wish, sis. I’ll see you then.”
As soon as Paris hung up, she typed a text to Randy to let him know she was ready to rejoin him. The brightening of the fence slats across from her was the first sign she had that something was happening. The growl and the squeak of brakes were next as she spun around, the phone dropping from her hands.
She felt the vertigo of being pushed suddenly backwards and the cold sensation of something pressing against her stomach and pelvis in the front and all along her back. Paris stood up, cracking and ripping sounds accompanying her motion as fragments of wood fell around her.
The bumper, grill, and front of a large sedan were crumpled in a dented U, the same shape as her small frame. She had been hit head-on and thrown into the fence, a large section of which was demolished. As she got to her feet, a man stepped around the open driver door already pointing his pistol in her direction. He wore a dark blue jacket and cap over a black shirt and dark jeans. He took three steps closer, then three more, pointing the gun straight at her nose. It was almost touching before he pulled the trigger.
Her head jerked back just a couple of inches and she flinched slightly at the sound of the shots. The man – boy? – took a step back, the weapon visibly shaking, and Paris looked back at him, her face unmarred. She grabbed the gun from him; he hardly resisted.
“Freeze! Hands in the air!” came Sergeant Randall Backer’s shout from her left. His own weapon had a clear line of sight to the boy, whose gaze never left the woman in front of him as he laced his hands behind his head.
“You’re a super,” the boy said to her. He smiled. “A super cop. That’s illegal or some shit.” Randy approached slowly, arcing to the right to be behind the blue-jacketed youth. “Heh, Winnie will love this. Donnell the super cop. They can probably get me-”
The two shots rang out, louder and somehow cleaner than the others. One lodged in his neck, the other square between his shoulders, and Paris quickly stepped back into the fence rubble as he fell forward.
Paris looked to her partner in shock, but Randy was already holstering his piece. “Drop his weapon there next to him. You all right?” She took a fresh look at the pistol that she held in reverse along the body. She let it fall to the ground.
“Yeah, I guess he…” she swallowed hard.
Randy examined the massive circular dent in the front of the car as he pulled on evidence gloves. “That doesn’t track.” He looked around and spotted the nearby pole. “There we go.”
Paris’s mind was in some sort of energy saving mode. She reacted hardly at all as Randy started the car and drove it over to the metal pole, urging it forward with enough force to angle it away from the car although not enough to knock it over entirely. As he inspected its new position and nodded in satisfaction, Paris walked slowly over to him.
“Let’s get back to the cruiser and call this in,” he said. “Guy tried to run you down, hit the fence and then the pole, came out firing at you, I fired back and took him down.” He marched purposefully away from the scene and she hurried to keep up with him. “Any holes?”
She forced her brain to move back into professional mode and considered the question. “The car doesn’t fit that story; there won’t be any wood scratches in the dented portion like there should be. But… they won’t catch it.” She hadn’t remembered retrieving her phone but she had it. She sent a simple message to Hector: ‘Watch me from after we hung up. Talk tomorrow.’
Randy nodded. The police car was another half block away. The silence persisted as they approached and got into the cruiser. Randy called in the incident and waited until they were ordered to return for debriefing.
They were halfway back to the station before either of them spoke.
“When did you figure it out?” Paris surprised herself by being the one to speak first, although under the circumstances she was surely the one who had more questions.
“A couple of guys at the academy keep an eye out. We were put on notice when you joined the force.”
Randy nodded. “A few of us, keeping an eye on the few of you.”
That got a sharp look from her. “There are others?”
“A couple others, yeah. You’re not as clever as you think you are, y’know? Think you can fool a station full of cops.”
Struck by a sudden terrible thought, Paris asked, “My Dad?”
Randy’s expression didn’t change. “Can’t say who. You get sloppy if you think you can stop concealing it.” He tapped his fingers along the edge of the steering wheel. “The Chief is not in the know, and neither’s IA. You’re on your own there. Not sure why you thought giving case files to your hacker brother was a smart move, but you’re young.” Randy was pushing 50, a face that once might have born freckles now cracked with hard lines and dark streaks.
“So if internal affairs asks…”
Randy grimaced. “Didn’t hear nothing, didn’t see nothing. Come on, Donnell, what do you think this is all about?”
Paris drew a blank and stayed silent.
“You bleed blue, stupid kid. Nobody’s going to roll over on you. They won’t get a word of testimony. And if some human garbage comes after you like that boy did, we’ll do what we do.” He shrugged. “You have all of our backs, we have yours. You know how this works.”
“Yeah. I guess I do.” Paris was reeling from all of this. She had gotten through her head that that it was the rest of the department against her, but – deep down, she knew better.
Paris had never been involved in a coverup before, and if she had been told about this situation an hour ago, she would have been horrified. While she told herself she should be, the truth was that she couldn’t work up any moral indignation.
She had stared down the barrel of a gun while a man pulled the trigger. His intent was unambiguous cold-blooded murder. What Randy had done didn’t feel corrupt; it felt just.
She had made a few mistakes, she knew. And her own carelessness had put her and Randy in a dangerous situation. But she felt better about herself and her job than she had in a long time.
She concealed a smile as the two of them walked into the station.