Jackson stared down at the pink slip of paper on the table, sighing deeply as he reached to the floor for the bottle of malt liquor in which he’d been attempting to drown his sorrows. After lifting it to his lips, he rubbed his grisly hands on his dark, freckled face and into his graying peppered black hair. Nothing had really been the same since Julia left six months ago, and the depression of last week’s layoff had brought back the loneliness and despair in spades. He struggled to remember the good times he had, recalling the things he felt even in the midst of a failing relationship and the few trusted friends he had at his crushing job at the steel company. He folded his hands together and felt the nag of his slowly insetting arthritis as he once again gazed at the letter on the table, the few warm memories he had fleeting as his harsh reality sank in. He looked back on all the people who’d betrayed him. Julia, the woman who’d left him alone, the union representative who swore to him that he’d be able to keep his job, the branch president who ceaselessly praised the integrity of the company, each of them now a shadowed aggressor who’d forced him into the desolate hole of the low-end apartment in which he sat. He questioned whether or not everything he’d done up to that point had been worth it, the rage against those who turned on him swelling into a fervent fury with every passing second.
In a noise like an urgent whisper, something ripped through the window on the wall opposite him, and in an instant the darkness took him.
Cold water flew into my face and I ran it through my hair as I gazed up into the grey-eyed man in the mirror. He toweled off his face and looked up with a smile, canines glinting through his winning grin. He brushed his brown hair to his right and off his forehead before throwing me a wink and turning away as I walked into the master bedroom. I rubbed the edge of my collarbones and unzipped the short-sleeve plated compression armor and walked to the mirror sitting atop the dresser as I sat down on the foot of the bed and wondering if I always looked this glamorous after a gang fight. I looked up into the mirror and beheld a sight that stood to counter the very thought. Standing up slowly in the mirror was a man with an open-front shirt, his worn muscles marred by a series of varying scars and discolored marks where he hadn’t yet healed. I couldn’t help but let my feelings catch up with me seeing myself like that. War-torn. Damaged. A survivor.
A beautiful woman in a distressed white shirt appeared behind the man in the mirror and laid her hand on his shoulder, wrapping her arms around him. She gazed up at the mirror through deep purple eyes. “Hey there, handsome.” She smiled.
I placed a hand on the side of her head and took in the calming aroma of her lavender-scented hair. “Hey you.” I said.
She placed her hands on my chest. “Much as I understand admiring your muscles,” She said “Were you going to stand there staring at yourself all night?” She asked, playing with her hair as I turned to face her. “Or were you eventually going to kiss me?”
“Just try and stop me.” I smiled, leaning in and biting softly on her lip.
She ran her hands across my sides beneath the open shirt, her fingers gracing gently over the remnants of each hard-earned contusion. “I can fix these up for you, you know.”
“I’m a little attached.” I said. “Gives me some character, don’t you think?” She looked up at me with a raised eyebrow. “God, not that look.” I smiled. “You know I can’t handle that look.”
“Well” She said. “I guess I can stand to let them fade by themselves.” She stepped back as she undid a button at the top of her shirt. “They make you look sexy.”
“Oh do they?” I smiled. “Then maybe you could take a closer look at them.”
She giggled as she touched my chest again, a playful lasciviousness in her voice. “I’ll see what I can do…” She kissed me again, slower and softer this time. She sat down on the foot of the bed and pushed the edge of her shirt over her shoulder. I grabbed her hips and pushed her forward as I kissed her, tipping us both over onto the silver sheets. She ran her hands across my sides as I went for the next button on her shirt, and almost as if on cue, a cell phone sitting on the bedside table rang.
“Just ignore it.” She whispered as I kissed down her neck.
The phone called again from the nightstand. “Call from: Lockhart, Ava.”
I hesitated to open my eyes. “If it’s Raz it’s probably important.” I sighed.
“Ugh.” She groaned. “Fine.” She crawled up to the head of the bed, answering the phone.
“Raziel?” She asked, readjusting her shirt. I heard Raziel’s voice on the other end, and Iris told me to turn on the news. I stood up and flipped on the TV, calling forth an image of an onsite field reporter detailing a bank robbery from only a few moments ago. Iris passed me the phone.
“Az.” I answered.
“Are you seeing this thing about the robbery?” Raziel asked.
“Yeah.” I replied.
“I’m getting a bad feeling about it.” She said. “I know you probably only just got home, but you might want to head down there and make sure everything is okay.”
“You’re sure? I’m kinda in the middle of something.”
“If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t have called.” She said.
“If you say so.” I sighed, zipping my compression armor up to my collarbones. “I’ll let you know if I get anything.” I grabbed my jacket from the desk by the window and threw it on, hastily pulling an appropriate disguise from the dresser.
Iris threw me a disappointed and longing gaze, her face pleading as if to ask me not to leave. “Sorry, beautiful.” I said, walking around the bed and kissing her goodbye. “Duty calls.”
Iris pushed into the pillow against the headboard and crossed her arms. “Stupid duty.”
I stood perched on the edge of neighboring roof, skirting the edge of the night’s darkness. In the street below me, there stood a series of officers, drinking coffee by the bucket and scurrying around the scene in and outside of the bank in a nervous hurry. A few of them stood around one of the police cars blocking the street, staring wordlessly into the bank in confusion. Something was definitely up. I stared through the window at the top of the bank’s front wall, trying to figure out what I could from looking. There didn’t appear to be a detective in the bank at that point.
Maybe they could use one.
I stepped from the alley with exceeding determination as I straightened the lapels of my gray blazer, my projected confidence creating a radial field of shy officers around me. An awkward-looking young man in an ill-fitting suit stood in the bank with a notepad in his hand. I stood in front of him before he took notice of me. “You CSI?” I asked.
He looked up and stumbled over his words. “Yes sir.”
I held up my badge. The mere glimpse of a gold shield was good enough for most people. “Detective Chase Murdock.” I said. “Whatta we got?”
“Not a lot.” He said. “No traces of any DNA evidence or anything yet.”
“What about security?” I asked pointedly. “Anything on approach?”
“No security footage, and it doesn’t look like there’s any witnesses.” He stuttered. “They’re probably trying to reach the manager.”
“And the approach?”
“Well, that’s really not my field, sir. I was hoping you’d get some ideas before the Captain gets here. I don’t think he’ll be too happy with what we have so far.” He said.
“You’re probably right.” I said. “Let’s figure this out.”
I looked around the lobby. The front entry vestibule had been strategically opened, doors taken off their hinges and window panels laid neatly to the sides to produce a large opening in the front of the building. Each camera from around the entrance had been cleanly unscrewed from its mount, detached wire endings hanging from the posts. I couldn’t help but think it odd.
What kind of crew takes down the cameras without damaging the wiring or mounting at all?
The vault (or more accurately, what was left of it) was an even stranger sight to see. The young CSI agent even seemed taken aback by the sight, even after his inspection would have required him to have already seen the room. The vault door had been stripped down to every individual part, all now neatly organized in the corner of the room. The walls of the room inside had been stripped of every safety deposit box, each of them stacked around the room and containing the individually separated tumblers and lock components of their security seals.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. “What the hell?” I asked. “How…?” I was at a loss for words. The CSI shrugged, infinitely more confused than I was. I gave him my thanks for his help and made an excuse to leave the scene after I pulled next to nothing from the rest of the scene’s examination. As I walked into the night, I felt oddly haunted by everything I’d seen.
Whatever did this, I had too difficult a time believing it was human. The best mechanics in the world couldn’t pull off a job like this in such a short time.
I couldn’t help but assume the worst. This had to be supernatural.
I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed in myself. Even after being at the scene, I found no leads at all to go on. I sat down at the table in the kitchen, swirling a glass in my hand and staring at the armor-plated jacket lying in front of me on the red tablecloth. What was I supposed to do? Heaven only knew what whoever robbed the bank could do next.
A tired voice called from the doorway. “You know you’re not supposed to drink when you’re upset.”
I looked up and beheld the splendor of my wife leaning against the white arch in a short black nightie. “I have to be sober and miserable?” I said “That’s a merciless life you’ve damned me to, gorgeous.” She laughed as I stepped forward, leaning against the frame across from her. “It’s only orange juice.”
She leaned into my shoulder and closed her dark eyes. “Did you find anything?” She asked.
I wrapped my arms around the small of her back. “Nothing I like.” I sighed. “No tangible evidence, no leads for further investigation, and the scene is one of the stranger things I’ve seen.”
“That’s not good, coming from you.” She slurred, rubbing her dark eyes. “What makes it so weird?”
“Everything on the scene was disassembled perfectly, but it was all done before the police arrived.” I said. “There’s no way a regular human did this.”
“Oh man.” She said. “What are you gonna do?”
“Much as I hate to say it,” I said “I think we’ll have to wait for their next move.”
She looked up and smiled at me. “Hopefully that one won’t interrupt us.”
“Here’s hoping.” I said, picking up my hooded leather jacket from the table and put it around her shoulders. I picked her up in my arms and kissed her forehead as I carried her into the foyer and up the rightmost staircase. “What say we call Ava and ruin all her fun?” I asked in jest.
“No…” She moaned, struggling to keep her eyes open. “Somebody deserves to get some sleep tonight.”
“I think you should try for a little more yourself.” I said. “And I’d certainly be up for it.”
“You know the sun’s going to be up in like… What time even is it?” She asked, exasperatedly throwing her eyes around the bedroom.
I set her down on the bed and threw a red sheet over her as she nestled into the gray pillow. “Who cares?” I said, throwing my jacket on the desk. “Carolynn can get the girls to school, and I don’t have any appointments.”
“I have somebody in the afternoon, and it’d be great if you’d be there.” She said.
“Sure thing.” I replied, stripping the remainder of my armor and throwing it lazily around the room. “Maybe we can come up with a good way to get back at your sister, right baby?” I joked.
I took a closer look at her as I crawled into the bed. Surely enough, she was sleeping like a rock. I planted my lips on the side of her head before putting an arm around and pulling the sheets up.
“Sweet dreams, beautiful.” I whispered.
I close my eyes tight as I threw back another cup of coffee, scanning furiously through the reports on the computer monitor before me.
“God, are you at it already?” Iris asked as she stepped through the double French doors of the office.
“Gotta take what I can get.” I said. “I have some informants with their eyes open, and I’m looking through police reports to find anything unusual. Besides, it’s not that early.”
She walked toward the desk, brushing aside her damp hair and wafting the lavender aroma through the room. She kissed me.
“Have you even had anything to eat yet?”
“Not yet.” I said.
“Alright.” She said, grabbing my arm and pulling me up from the desk chair. “Come on. Break time. I’ll make you some breakfast.”
“Fine, lunch.” She corrected, pulling me through the doors and onto the landing above the foyer. “Point is to get you out of that office.”
“Whatever you say, sweetheart.” I said.
I leaned against the kitchen counter as she cracked a few eggs in a pan. “So did you find any leads to track this evening,” she asked “or do I get you to myself tonight?”
I sighed and hung my head. “You really don’t make this any easier for me.” I joked. “But no, on both counts.” I pulled two glasses from the cupboard and filled them with the orange juice from the fridge. “Unfortunately, a friend of one of my informants got a threatening phone call, and I owe the guy a favor, so my plans for the evening include sitting on a roof waiting for someone who might not even show up at his friend’s hotel room.”
“Seriously?” She asked. “Why didn’t they just call the cops?”
“Well,” I said “the woman doesn’t exactly have the best – rapport – with Bastion’s finest.”
Iris’s face voiced her disapproval to a T. “I see. It’s nice to have a job that really commands a level of difficulty for you.” She smiled in sarcasm.
“Well, it’s not in the best neighborhood and I’ll have somebody watching the door on the line, so I can probably poke around the block and see what kinda trouble I can get into.” I said. “Some parts of this city where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a gangster waiting to be hospitalized.”
“You know, that’s a pretty morbid expression.” She said.
“True, but I did see one of those gangsters doing something not unlike that a few weeks ago.” I said, placing the pieces of toast I’d made on plates the table.
She cringed as she turned from the stove and plated the eggs at the kitchen table. “That’s horrible.
I pulled out her chair. “I’ve seen worse.”
I sat down and bit into the freshly made eggs. “Man,” I said “you are just too good at this.”
“I do my best.” She smiled. “So are we ever going to get any time to ourselves?”
“Here’s hoping.” I said. “There’s just been so much going on since the Hangman showed up.”
“I just worry about you is all.” She said, taking my hand across the table. “About our family. This whole vigilante thing, it’s not like anything we’ve ever done before. I see you come home all the time with a whole new set of scars, and I know it’s just going to happen again.”
I wiped my mouth and stood up. “Come here.” I said “Let me show you something.”
I escorted her by my side into the foyer, where I indicated the large, arched red door at the front of the room, and the circular metal circle above it. It was a circle surrounded by eight symbols, the center containing a design like a yin and yang, with our seals in place of the white and black circles. Surrounding it were eight angelic seals, a small rectangular plaque beneath it inscribed with the angelic written text.
I put my arm over her shoulders as she leaned into me, and I pointed to the plaque. “What does that say?” I asked her.
“Blood is thicker.” She read.
“Do you know why I wrote it there?” I asked, however rhetorically. “Because the five of us: you, me, Carolynn, Roxie, and Gloria. We’re all Valentines, and regardless of anything that might happen, that isn’t going to change. I’ve been through a lot of tough stuff, but we’ve made it through together, because nothing can separate this family. When we’re together, nothing can get between us.” I squeezed her shoulder. “And we’re together on this, right?”
“Of course we are.” She said.
“Then you have nothing to worry about.” I insisted. “We’ll get out of this okay, as long as we’re together.”
“I promise.” I said.
She stepped in front of me. “If you say so.” She said, her lips meeting mine. “Now come on, you dork, your eggs are getting cold.” She said as she made her way back into the kitchen.
I stood in the center of the empty foyer. “Dork?”
I sat atop an HVAC vent on the roof across from the hotel room window of the woman I was guarding. It had only been about two hours, and so far there had been no activity. Because of this, I had been flipping the bank robbery case over and over in my head time and time again, succeeding only in aggravating myself more over the fact that I couldn’t make any sense of it.
I’d never seen anything like it.
My train of thought when interrupted when my burner phone began to vibrate as my contact called me. “Sam.” I answered.
“Hey, man.” He said. “Another guy just went into the building.”
“On it. Did he look suspicious?” I asked.
“Not really. Some older dude.”
“I’ll keep an eye out.” I said, ending the call and returning the phone to my pocket. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly to focus my senses, extending them to feel the moving spirits of the people in the hotel complex and locating the man my informant talked about. I stood still as he took the elevator up to the level just beneath the top floor. He made his way toward the room on the corner, and I accordingly stood and prepared to strike. Surely enough, he stopped in front of her door.
The door opened almost by itself, and a man in a denim jacket with greying black hair stepped through, calling into the dark hotel room for Julia. She shot out of bed and up against the wall by the window, calling out in terror.
“Hello, Julia.” he said. “It’s been too long.”
I propelled myself from the roof and shot across the street, hanging on the window sill outside the room. In a singular fluid motion, I punched through the window and shot a grappling hook at the man, the claw at the end latching onto his chest. I pulled the cable as hard as I could, dragging him through the broken window and into the midnight air. I pulled him into my hand and flew him into a wall at the other side of the street, standing above him on the street and waiting to see if he’d get up.
I haven’t met too many humans who could walk off a hit like that one.
He stood. I could hardly believe it. I put up my fists. “You won’t lay a hand on her.”
He smiled and spoke in a thick, grainy voice, booming in the evening silence. “I won’t have to use my hands to stop you.” He taunted. A red wave shot over his eyes as they began to glow crimson, and the hood of the car parked next to him flew at me like a bullet. Out of surprise, I didn’t have the time I needed to react, and I found myself rolling across the street as the hood flew past me. That one hurt.
I returned to my feet to see the vehicle wrenching itself apart, each individual piece floating into the air as the car stripped itself down to its smallest components.
It appeared as though I found my culprit from the bank robbery.
The car’s components shuffled through the air and reassembled themselves into a brand new machine, two of the wheels spinning rapidly, only about an inch between the rapidly revolving tires, like an enormous pitching machine. I rolled out of the way just as the barrage began, a series of nuts and bolts being fired from the apparatus as the tires gave them a deadly momentum, firing like a machine gun. I rolled into a standing position as a sword flew from my vambrace, slashing a tire in the core mechanism of the machine. The force of its decompression blew the contraption apart, throwing the man back. A second sword flew from my wrist as he rallied, forming a makeshift shield with various exterior panels of the vehicle and using them to block the weapon. He began to run down the street when I grabbed his heel with a grappling hook, tripping him before he could enter a second car nearby. His powers wrenched the car door from its frame and threw it towards me, my dodge allowing him the leeway he needed to remove the claw and get into the vehicle, the engine roaring to life with his thought before he began to speed away.
I gave chase in the air, soaring above the vehicle as it sped through the streets. I fired a cable through the air, clamping onto the roof of the car and bearing down on it with all the force I could summon, drawing a scythe into my hand to punch through the roof panel. I had to get him out of the car to finish the fight.
I stuck the handle of the weapon through the top of the steering wheel, turning it and drawing the blade to gain a hold on the wheel between the blade and the pommel before attaching a cable to the circular sigil at the hilt and taking to the air. I flew away from the vehicle and braced myself as the cable went taught, ripping the wheel from the steering column. The driver lost control of the vehicle, slamming on the brakes as the car fishtailed into the side of a building. The driver fled through the hole he’d made in the wall.
”Time to finish this.” I said to myself, following him cautiously into the building.
The dark hallway led to a square spiral staircase running up to the top floor, the cavity in the space between the ascending walkway occupied by an elevator. I moved carefully through the hallway, checking each doorway to ensure each lock was still intact. His only way to go was up.
I followed up the stairs, keeping a watchful eye for any sign of the man who’d just fled from me. I walked up to the landing of the fourth floor, when a mysterious bloodstain on the wall met my gaze. I must’ve injured him when the car crashed. I followed it down the hall, discovering a series of matching ones on one wall, as if he used a bloodied hand to support himself against it.
A steel cable flew around my legs and jerked backwards, knocking me onto my chest and dragging me backwards toward the elevator shaft. I shot both my grappling hooks into the walls of the hallway as the shaft pulled me closer into its iron maw. The grate in front of the shaft opened and closed several times in rapid succession, like the feral snarl of a monster mere moments before the kill. Two more cables with heavy, rounded endings flew past my shoulders, doubling back and catching my neck. I was pulled to the elevator door, grasping at the cable and struggling to prevent it from suffocating me. From an open door near the end of the hallway there stepped a man with blood-stained greying hair, clutching at his side and bleeding from a contusion on the bridge of his nose and a sinister head injury. He stared at me with a fury burning in his bloody face, animally gasping in labor through his clenched teeth. He threw a hand forward as his eyes lit glowing red, and the cable around my neck began to pull with greater force, the grate door behind me bending behind the force as my hands strained to prevent it from decapitating me. I couldn’t keep this up.
I threw my hand forward in desperation and a sword flew at the man in the hallway, narrowly missing him as he moved to one side. He waved his hand and the elevator doors behind me disintegrate into a series of metal beams, collapsing with me into the elevator shaft as the cables pulled me down like a beast in the water.
I crashed into the bottom of the shaft, the metal rods clattering down the shaft. I slipped the cable from around my neck and tried as best I could to hold up against the barrage of metal beams, and when the rain of shrapnel had ended, I struggled to stand.
My ears split with the sound of elevator propelling down the shaft with all the fury and noise of a freight train.