I woke up stretched out in the morning haze, the beat of my wife’s heart that I’d fallen asleep to no longer soft beneath my ear. An unwelcome change.
I peeled myself out of bed and approached the stairs, realizing how much Iris would like my appearance when I heard her in the kitchen halfway down. Well.
She observed the scarred, shirtless man in the doorframe for about half a second before it began.
“Hey there, handsome.” She said. “You look like crap.”
“And I appreciate your delicate sensibility.” I slurred.
She held out a mug as I dragged toward the counter, pushing it away before stretching toward cupboard above it and removing a bottle of whiskey. I threw it back hard.
“Easy, tiger.” She said.
“Rough night.” I responded.
“Clearly.” She said, wiping a dried bloodstain from the side of my face with a rag before showing its surface to me.
I looked at it for a moment as I wiped my mouth. “Probably not mine.” I said. “Could be, but probably not.”
“Fourteen.” I said. “Six girls got their freedom back.”
She closed her eyes and sighed before her hands made their ways gently around my sides. “You did good.” She said. “They owe you their lives.”
“I didn’t do it for that.”
“You did it for them.” She said. “That’s why you’re a hero.”
“The others wouldn’t be inclined to agree.” I said. “…I’d seen one of them before… I hurt him.”
“Pointed my kneepad, stuck it straight up into his back. Broke his spine.” I said. “Beat him with a pipe until somebody talked.”
“Did you get what you need?”
I said nothing.
“…Did you get what you need?” She reiterated.
“Then that’s all.” She said. She clutched at the back of my shoulders, brushing her warm hands gently over my skin as she spoke softly. “When we led the line on Berlin, you told me that Edmund Burke said the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The things we did that day were hard, but no one else was willing to stand up. Not like you.
“The things that are right aren’t usually easy, or even very good on the surface, but sometimes good men have to do bad things so the bad guys don’t win.
“I know you question yourself. I know how it feels to be unsure. But I also know what good looks like, and it’s not always glamorous. It’s tough people doing tough things. People unwilling to do nothing. Who can do what’s right, even if it’s not good.
“You’re not a monster, Azrael. You’re doing what’s right.”
“I’m trying.” I said. “But we’ll see.”
“What’s your next move?” She asked.
“The man who killed Damien Marcus.” I said. “I’ve seen him before. Next step is to find him.”
“Him?” She asked.
“The assassin. Not Jewel, but there’s something I don’t like about it. A man like Damien Marcus doesn’t just get killed like that.” I said.
“What makes you say that?” She asked.
“Nothing I found searching his office indicated anyone in their line of work had him in their debts. Marcus knew how to run a business, if you can stomach calling it that.” I said.
“The people who killed him did it deliberately, and this assassin is the bridge that could lead me to the people who extorted Lily Hudson.” I paused. “…Amour.”
“If you say so.” She said. “Where to next?”
“I’ve seen him in the market center, Bastion Mall, a plaza a couple streets south of my mom’s flower shop.” I said. “I can track him down there.”
“If you’re sure.” She said. “Where’s all this go?”
“What do you mean?”
“After you find him, where does this go?” She asked. “How far do you take this?”
“…I don’t know.” I said. “Depends on what happens with it, but… The people who have been doing all this. Amour. I’m going to stop her. She’s going to pay for everything she’s done to this city… This family.”
“Is that it?” She asked.
“I can deal with the things she did to me.” I said. “But she’s destroying good people. Lily Hudson, Jackson Garmana, Dylan West, Arthur Nezumi. Even they weren’t enough. She went after David Fadi. My friend. She damn near killed Carolynn, and then she had the stones to come after you.
“And I will not, I will not let anyone on God’s green earth or any other forsaken shithole hurt the Valentines and walk away.
“This is my family. My city. These are my people.” I said. “And I will swear that vow spitting curses in blood until the day I die fighting, making sure that she never takes another damn inch of this sky from me.”
“And she won’t.” Iris said. “We won’t let her.”
We kissed and exchanged a brief goodbye as I left for the stakeout location.
“Does he worry you?”
Iris turned to the voice in the doorway, a young brunette woman with a stylish bob haircut and glistering purple eyes.
She sighed and turned her eyes toward the floor as she took in Carolynn’s question. “In some ways, yes.” She said. “Especially when it gets personal.”
“Are you going to do anything about it?”
“…Not yet.” She said. “It’s not what he needs from me right now.
“He’s not usually like this.” Carolynn said.
“No.” Iris agreed. “But… A long time ago, Azrael went looking for something. I don’t really know what. But what he found was something he didn’t want to see. Something that made a difference.
“I love Azrael in more ways than I can count, but I can’t just make him lose that impression. And everything that’s happened lately… It only reminds him of what he saw all those years ago.”
“What was it?” Carolynn asked.
“I don’t know…” Iris said. “But I have an idea. After all the propaganda, all the corrupt ideology, all the years-long hero stories of great men dying for something greater…
“I think he saw what people really look like.”
The crowds shuffled through the street in the early afternoon, moving around the circular plaza central in the intersection. Four streets spread out from the plaza, one story below the upper sidewalk level. An open-air center of privately-owned shops in the middle of the day wasn’t the place I’d expected to find an assassin, but I knew I’d seen him here at the same time every day a few times before. I pulled the collar of a red flannel shirt high around my neck, tucking into the inside of my jacket’s collar and pulling up the sleeves.
People continued walking through the square, unfamiliar men and women passing by the shop without second thought as I sought out my target.
A man in a baseball hat came into the plaza from the street across from me, entering across from the coffee shop and searching the square with his gaze as he turned down the other street away from me.
I got up from the table outside the restaurant and began to follow from a distance, making my way around the center and moving down the street behind him. I followed him for about half a block before ascending a staircase to the upper level, following him further down the street from the sidewalk above the lower street. He rounded another corner as I followed from above, watching him as he shot his eyes around the people passing by.
I continued to follow him down the street, periodically snapping pictures of his face as I went without being noticed.
He turned the third corner when I noticed he was approaching the same square where I’d started following him.
He’d circled the block.
I followed him down one more street before returning to the lower level.
Time to have my words.
He moved down the street before passing the façade of a bar that hadn’t opened yet before the door flew open and the darkness dragged him inside.
Above him stood a shade beneath a hood, snarling as it dragged him over the bar, sending him crashing into the wall before pinning him against it.
“Who hired you to kill Damien Marcus?”
I stared intently into his face, sharp jaws steeled against the terror before him.
I tipped him over my shoulder and slammed him against the floor by his clavicle. “Who do you work for?!”
I punched him across the face. “Answer me!”
He rolled out from under me as he shot up and squared himself.
“Every time with you assholes.”
I swung in a broad circle with both hands, tearing through the air in a fury of punches and kicks as I pushed him back into the corner.
He pushed back after me, sweeping low with his feet before shooting in off the wall to bring me to the floor. We traded strikes, spinning around the floor with every rapid, wild motion. His legs blocked my kicks as I spun over my shoulders across the floor. I slammed the side of my fist against his chest before turning my legs around his shoulder to bar his arm. He slid aside before turning over and slamming his opposite fist into my abdomen. He turned over yet again to bring his weight down on my jaw as I shifted to the side, redirecting his arm and wrapping my legs around his back before turning the fight over. I beat into his face with one strike after another, knocking his jaw loose before he managed to push me off. We traded more blows on the floor before we returned to our feet.
He led first, kicking wide arcs with his fists compressed against his chest. I locked a block on either side of my head to shrug off the hits before grabbing a leg and kicking out his opposite knee, forcing him into a half split before bringing a knee up into his jaw. I twisted his arm as I observed the injury, noticing a white surface beneath the wound.
I twisted around to kick his jaw in with my left knee, knocking him to the side as I spun around to grab a barstool. I slammed it against his cheekbone, smashing the wooden stool as his head collided with the wall.
He looked up at me with a split running up the center of his face, splintered plastic and electrics appearing behind the seam.
“Oh son of a –”
It fired upwards from the corner, throwing over its shoulder toward my head as it sprung back up. I rolled it over my shoulder, throwing it across the floor and turning to bring it back down. I sat on the floor and watched it sprint out the door.
I followed, running down the snowy street in pursuit. It pushed a woman aside as he ran straight down the street, knocking her down as it passed. I grabbed her arm and her shoulder as I helped her back to her feet and tore down the street. I couldn’t let it get away.
It ran up the staircase in the middle of the street as I gave chase, flipping around the rail at the landing as I jumped up the stairs. I grabbed its leg, tripping it up on the second flight. It rolled onto its back and kicked at my shoulders to knock me off before rolling back over and continuing up the stairs. I followed to the upper level, tearing down the sidewalk behind it and vaulting past the people it had pushed out of the way. I didn’t have the time to help them. I had to catch the robot.
I vaulted over the curve at the base of a bridge going over one side of the intersection, grabbing the base of its legs and forcing it to the ground. We traded a few strikes at the top of the bridge before he slammed me against the railing at the side of the catwalk, striking at my shoulders as I blocked the hits from the sides. I gripped its arms. This one was gonna hurt.
I curved to the side, hurling it over the side of the railing. Its head cracked against the pavement as my elbow came down on top of it, but the machine didn’t miss a beat. It rebounded after we stood up, flying down the street in the same direction.
I pushed forward after him, running across the intersection following it.
It vaulted into the air as it reached the next street, grasping at the bottom of the bridge and scrambling up to the surface. I followed suit, climbing onto the bridge and following it down the sidewalk. It turned into a nearby alley, vaulting off the wall as it rounded the corner and shot up the fire escape. I knelt in the street as it approached the edge of the roof above before I shot upwards, three stories in one bound. I vaulted over the railing, shooting up the fire escape in pursuit.
I caught it at the edge the roof, tackling it into the gravel and sliding along the roof. We scrambled through the stone, trading sloppy strikes as we fumbled around in the gravel. He turned around, catching himself on all fours with his legs extended as he shot forward and struck my chest. I lost my footing and fell off the edge.
The open dumpster filled the alley with a deafening clang as my upper spinal column collided with it.
I clattered against the pavement folding over myself as I tumbled down from the edge of the dumpster. My vision faded into a broad, fuzzy shade of grey as I sat in the street, heaving continually, desperately struggling to pull in my breath.
Occipital bruise, upper spinal fracture, bruised sacrum, diaphragm spasm, maybe a cracked scapula.
I gasped in a breath and shifted my weight on my side. Definitely a cracked scapula.
Even through the grey haze of my vision as I felt the pressure build up in my head, screaming at my synapses through the tinnitus, I couldn’t help but think of how lucky I was. The cranial cavity pressure and occipital damage would mean it would be minutes before I could stand up safely, but it was a miracle I was even conscious.
I couldn’t stay here. People would be looking. I had to get away.
It took all the strength I had to even get my feet back on the ground, much less stand back up. Good god almighty, that hurt.
I stumbled up against the wall, dragging along it and limping down to the end of the alley. I shot my hand around the wall, searching for the rear door of the apartment building up top. The inside of my skull burned as I struggled to overcome the grey blur that had failed my eyes. My hands found the doorknob, twisting it open and stumbling into the apartment hallway. I needed a plan.
I patted around my pockets and found a pair of sunglasses in my jacket, placing them on my face and straightening my posture, stomaching the pain.
A woman exited an apartment a few doors down.
“Excuse me.” I said.
“Yeah?” She turned.
“Do you have a few minutes to give me a hand?” I said. “I can’t seem to find my cane and I’m a little late with my girlfriend, could you help me get to the flower shop on second?”
“Of course.” She said. “Right here.”
I extended my arm toward her as she took it with her elbow, leading me down the hallway to the front door. “Thank you so much.” I said. “I really appreciate it.”
“Absolutely.” She said. “This city could use a few more people willing to help others.”
“Well the Bastion Mall is the right place to be.” I said. “Nicest people in the world in a city full of criminals.”
“You’ve got that right.” She said. “I love this place.”
“Bastion’s a great city, but I know what it’s like when people look the other way when they see somebody who needs a hand. A few too many people like that here.” I said. “Could use a few more like you.”
She laughed. “You know, it’s kind of bad form to be hitting on me when I’m walking you to a date.”
I forced what I hoped wasn’t an obviously fake laugh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She smiled. “But you’re right. This city could use… something.”
“Well we’re all doing our best.” I said. “What about that guy from all those rumors on the south end?”
“The hooded guy?” She said. “I’ve heard similar stuff coming out of Pyropolis, but nobody knows if he’s even real.”
“And if he is?”
“Then he’s at least good at scaring the bad out of people.” She said. “But I’d like to hear a little more about him trying to encourage the good.”
“…Maybe.” I said.
“Maybe it’d be better if he’d just show us he’s real.” She said. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe you’re right.” I said. “I guess we’ll just have to see.” I smiled. “Or hear, in my case.”
She laughed. “I was trying not to make the joke myself.”
I felt a small trickle of blood run down the back of my neck.
I shifted my shoulders to raise my collar so she wouldn’t see, aggravating my cracked shoulder blade.
She helped me through the flower shop door. I looked toward the back counter, where I assumed the woman I was looking for would be.
“Hey Rose.” I said. “I was hoping to surprise Ava on our date this afternoon. Think you could help me?”
My mother took my arm, buying into the con. “No problem.”
She dismissed the woman who led me to the shop.
“Thank you for all your help.” I said. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“I hope so.” She said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“…Azrael.” I said.
“Jenny.” She replied.
“Well it was nice to meet you, Jenny.”
“You too, Azrael.”
My mom helped me to the couch. “What’d you get into this time?”
“Fell off a roof.” I said.
“You want me to call Iris?” She asked.
“Ava.” I replied. “She’ll be here sooner, and I’m not sure how much longer I can stay conscious.”
“Don’t you dare pass out on my couch.” She said. “I thought you moving out meant you weren’t going to do that anymore.”
“Iris isn’t usually too happy about it either.” I said. “But I’ll do my best.”
“Keep talking.” She said. “Don’t stop until she gets here.”
“About the only time I’ve ever heard that from you.” I said.
“I guess you didn’t get hit hard enough to lose your sarcasm.” She said.
“You don’t sound terribly glad about it.”
“Blessing and a curse.” She laughed.
She sat there talking until I heard the door open.
“God, why can’t it ever just be social?” Ava asked.
“Hasn’t been a great time for social calls lately.” I said.
“Clearly.” She replied. “How bad is it?”
“Worst is the back of my head.” I said. “Vision’s getting a little better, but it’s not great.”
I felt Raziel’s hands touch the back of my skull, warming my skin and clearing all the pressure and tension from my head. The colors began to come back into my sight as a woman’s face came into view, gentle age lines beneath beautiful silver eyes and slightly greying brown hair.
“Iris always told me I look like you.”
“That’s because you do.” She said. “You’ve got my eyes.”
“But you didn’t get whatever this is from me.”
“Well I sure as hell didn’t get it from him.” I said.
“What’s happening?” She said.
“…The war.” I said. “Worse than it’s ever been.”
Raziel pushed her hands into my spine, moving them up and down my back.
“Amour.” I said. “She’s taken too much from me.”
“Is that the reason you’re looking for her?” She asked.
“…I don’t know.” I said. “…It’s gotten hard to tell where the line is.”
My mom looked up at Raziel. “You wanna handle this one?”
“I guess.” Raziel said. “…You have to be careful, Azrael.”
“I know.” I said. “But I can’t let her steal any more from me.”
My mom looked me in the eyes.
“She destroyed the lives of so many good people. She attacked my friend David, she hurt my daughter, and she hurt my wife.” I said. “I can let a lot slide, but… Both of you know what it’s like with Iris.”
“I know how much you love her, Azrael.” My mother said.
“I really don’t think you do.” I said.
“Well I know she loves you just the same way.” Ava said.
“Which is why this entire thing gets in my head.” I said. “Amour stands to threaten everything Iris and I have spent our lives on. I can’t let her take this city from me.”
“I only want to make sure you have what you need to not go off the deep end trying to stop her.” My mom said.
“I need you. Both of you. Ava, Iris… Everyone.” I said.
Raziel helped me to sit up and I turned toward her.
“What?” She asked.
“You’ve seen it, Raz.” I said. “I know you have.”
She looked down. “I have.”
“Then you know what I need.” I said. “The war is coming. Soon. And I need every sword I can get to keep it from bringing this city down.”
“Then you’ll have mine.” Raziel said.
“…I know you question yourself, Azrael.” Rose said. “But you’re doing the right thing, even though it’s not simple. And I know you worry about Iris, but she’s as strong as any of us.”
“That’s not my worry.” I said. “Everything that’s happened… The fight is worse than ever.
“I know I need to stop Amour, but lately I can’t tell what it’s for.”
“Iris is a good person.” I said. “Better than me. That means when she does the right thing, she does it because it’s good.
“Amour has hurt the people I love. She’s destroyed innocent people. She threatens my entire city, my way of life.” I said. “It’s more than wanting to stop her, I want to hurt her. I want to make her regret everything she’s ever done to me. To Bastion.
“I want to make her suffer.”
My mother stifled a laugh. “You’ve always been so good at that.”
“At lying to yourself.” She said. “Azrael, I understand what it’s like to look at yourself and see the bad, but it’s clear to me that you can at least see clearly looking outward. You don’t look at this city and see criminals you want to stop, you see good people you want to save. Innocent people who need a hero. People like Jenny.”
“What do you know about her?”
“I know you told her your real name.” She said. “You wanted her to know someday. You want to be the inspiration she needs.”
“When you were born, I saw it.” She said. “I looked into the face of my son and I knew you were something special, and that was more than just me being your mom. You grew up with a void. The same one I had. You needed someone who could inspire you to stop hating your difference and do something good with them. You needed a hero.
“We’re all the same that way. Especially Iris. She looks at you and sees that hero. Same with Raziel, same with me.
“So be the hero you needed.”
“…I don’t know if I can.”
Raziel smiled. “That only makes one of us.” She said. “You can still do the right thing, Azrael. You just have to believe you can.”
I thought on it for a few moments.
“In every war I’ve ever fought, history decided who was right.” I said before turning to Raziel. “So?”
She smiled. “I think it’s already decided.”
“Well.” I said. “Let’s start a war.”
Copyright ©Josiah Delnay 2016.