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Chapter XXXVII

 

 

            The light mounted in the top of the display case shone like a single spotlight on a stage.  Caught in the light’s radiance was the man who would be Paladin.  The faceless mannequin wore the suit with more pride and respect than Wally ever did.  Inside the glass case stood a hero. 

            Wally caught Julian’s reflection in the life size display.  He stood in the foyer at the  top of the  three short steps that went down into the living room. 

 

            “It’s over, isn’t it?” Wally questioned.  He took a sip from the bottle of whiskey he held in his hand. 

            “The book deal?  Yeah, it’s gone.  They’ve also halted the reprint of League.” 

            “Dammit!”  Wally spat.  He brought the bottle up to his lips and caught his reflection in the glass case.  He threw the open bottle across the room.  It smashed against the wall, knocking down the framed print that declared: “I’m in the League, Now a #1 Bestseller!” 

            “Did you know?  Did you know?!” 

            Julian shuffled a bit.  He stayed in the foyer, never stepping in the room.  “There were rumors.” 

            “Rumors?!” 

            “I had heard things.  Things that conflicted with your account.  I’d heard the 911 call.  Look, Walden… At the time, you weren’t ready to hear those things.  You weren’t in the right mindset.  I thought as time went on, you’d start to come to grips with the truth.  Instead, you retreated further into your fantasy world of that night.  I decided to let it ago.  I mean, after a decade, if no one’s brought it up then they’re probably not going to.” 

            “Well, you were wrong!  Someone did bring it up!  They humiliated me!”  Wally wheeled over to Julian.  “This is all your fault!” 

            “My fault?  My fault, for trying to protect you?  No, buddy boy, this is your fault.  You were the one who did all this.  This is your life.  You created this.  They didn’t humiliate you.  You humiliated yourself.” 

            Wally slunk back into his chair.  As he had done previously, he tried to blame someone else.  He wanted to wrap himself in the warm blanket of his fantasy and hide from the cold chill of the real world and all its truths. 

            “What now?”

            “You still don’t get it do you, kid?  There is no ‘what now’.  It’s over.  All of it.  I’ve been watching over you for over twenty years.  This incident… I can’t go down with you.  Not this time.” 

            Julian walked back into the dark that he had come from.  For a moment his silhouette could be seen standing in the frame of the open door. 

            “For what it’s worth…” 

            And he was gone. 

 

            Wally sat shrouded in the despair of darkness that beckoned to him like a siren’s song.  It call for him to retreat into its cold embrace and stay with it until death. 

            Wally wheeled over to the broken picture that fell from the wall.  He looked at the bestseller print in the broken frame.  He thought about ripping the lie from the busted frame and tearing it to shreds, but changed his mind.  He grabbed the bottom of the frame and lifted it from the ground.  Shattered glass, held only by the anti-glare coating, dangled like icicles looking for an excuse to fall and maim. 

            Wally hung the picture back on the wall as best he could.  Like the hero frozen in glass on the opposite side of the room, the picture would serve as a reminder.  It was the lie that he would now build his truth from.  It had taken him years to confront his fear, and now he had, he felt even more scared than before.  But, this fear was good.  It was a fear of the unknown, and it had been too long since he’d felt it. 

 

            “And the door closed.  End chapter one.” Wally said to darkness, declining its offer of isolation and emotionless oblivion. 

            “Chapter two, the search for Walden Patterson.” 

 

*****

 

 

            The room wasn’t exactly as the two had left it.  Diamond Dog expected to find the lights on and curtains open; housekeeping always did this, and turned off the TV if it was left on.  What he didn’t expect were the five SWAT officers positioned around the door, and a semi-automatic weapon inches away from his face.   The only one not brandishing a gun, outside of him and Blue was the detective that stood several feet behind the tactical officers. 

            “What the hell?’ Diamond Dog blurted.  His first instinct was to armor up his body, but the black hole of the gun barrel pointed at his head made him think twice.  His ability wasn’t faster than a fired bullet.  His second instinct was to protect Blue by directing her to get behind him; which he did. 

            The detective slowly moved forward, walking around the SWAT members, making sure he didn’t move in their line of sight.  He stopped a few feet away from the young man, gun still holstered, his badge clipped to the left breast pocket of his suit jacket. 

            “I’m Detective Hudson of the Argo City PD.” 

            “What are you doing in our room?  What do you want with us?”  DD demanded from clean cut but slightly overweight detective. 

            “From you, nothing.”  The detective nodded to the officer to DD’s left.  The man slung his weapon, grabbed the younger man by the arm and threw him against the wall.  Before he knew it, DD felt the cold clamp of steel around his wrists.  He felt a pinch as the right cuff clenched tight on his arm.  The officer held him there against the wall, his weapon back in his hands and once again aimed at the teen’s head. 

            His face smashed against the wall, Diamond Dog could see the panic in Blue’s eyes.  The police took full advantage of the confusion that came with their surprise appearance.  They secured Electric Blue and handcuffed her in less time than it taken for them to subdue DD. 

            He could see her strain and tried to use her abilities, but nothing happened.  DD presumed that they were using neutralizing cuffs.  It made sense, considering who they were.  The pinch he felt when the cuffs were snapped shut came from a tiny needle that took a DNA sample of the arrestee.  The sample was used to creature a modulating frequency that prevented the device from being jammed or overwhelmed by someone with the ability to talk to machines, or control electricity. 

            Having never expected to find himself wearing a pair—another thing he didn’t expect when he opened the room door—he silently cursed DR. 253 for ever making them. 

           

            “Hey!  What’s going on?  What do you want?  We haven’t done anything!”  Celia strained and wriggled in the officer’s grasp. 

            “Celia Cordalis.  You are under arrest for the murder of Stephen Mitchell, also known as Black Sunshine.”  

            “What?!” Celia cried out. 

            “You admitted in a taped confession that you murdered him after killing your friend.” The detective said flatly. 

            “He was trying to kill us!” DD exclaimed.  “He and the other Hell Spawns were going to kill us!  We had no choice!” 

            “Not for me to decide.  You’ll have a chance to prove your innocence in a court of law.”  The detective ignored any further protests from Diamond Dog and turned his attention to Celia. 

            “Celia Cordalis, you have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” 

            “Yes.  No.” Celia responded. 

            “Ma’am, do you or do you not understand the rights as I have read them to you?” 

            “Yes, I understand, but I don’t know why you’re doing this.  Celia tried to plead with the officers in the room.  “We didn’t have a choice.  They tried to kill us, just like they tried to do to the people in Yesterday Town.  We stopped them.  I know you saw that!” 

            Tears of fear and confusion streamed from Celia’s eyes. 

            The detective looked away and pushed past her and out the door.  “Murder is still illegal in this country.  I don’t care who you are.” 

            Detective Hudson continued down the hall to the service elevator.  He called back to the tactical officers.  “Bring ‘em both.” 

 

*****

            Scarlett sat on the top step of the eighth floor stairwell.  Walter knew when he didn’t find her in her office that she’d be there.  It was her pouting spot.  Whenever things didn’t go her way, Scarlett came there to pout and wallow in her defeat.  It was much better than before.  Years earlier she would go to the top floor of the stairwell and scream obscenities at the top of her lungs.  The cringe worthy words and expressions would echo all the way down to the ground floor.  It took an executive complaint and a follow up reminder to get her to stop – the complaint only made her mad and sent her to her screaming spot, triggering the reminder. 

            Walter knew what had sent her there, and despite himself, he felt sorry for her.  Yes, she was a conniving over preened brat, but that didn’t stop him from liking her.  He could see in her the desire to affect change in what she did, but it was hidden behind layers of the material wants from the public, and the media’s demands to feed pop news to the piranha hungry short attention spans of the masses.  

            Scarlett wanted to make a difference.  She wanted to be like the reporters and journalists she grew up reading, watching – respecting.  Unfortunately, their time was gone.  Celebrity marriages, infidelities, and divorces won Pulitzers now.  No sex, no death, no story.  Real news didn’t pay the bills any more.  Fame and fortune didn’t come with telling the stories of real life. 

 

            “It’s gone, Gibby.  All gone.”  Scarlett said, finally acknowledging the cameraman’s presence.  “I had it all in my hands, and he… He stole it from me.” 

            Walter had given her fair warning before Van’s telecast.  Not that there was anything she could have done about it.  Van’s return was calculated and expertly executed.  Nothing could have stood in his way.  He unraveled the tapestry of what the world knew about heroes and adversaries.  It was no longer black and white.  The waters were now murky, and people started questioning who they could trust. 

            That was how it started, removing the blanket of trust that the people coward under.  The next step was questioning those we entrusted to protect us.  It wouldn’t be long before heroes were being treated like criminals. 

            Once things had escalated to that degree, it would take a great tragedy to force them to return to normal.  The kind of tragedy that scars everyone. 

 

            “What are you going to do?”  Walter asked.  He shut the door behind her and walked down a few steps so he could talk to her face to face. 

            “What am I gonna do?  What can I do?” Scarlett whined.  “Where do I go from here?  I was riding my star to the top.  Now… Now, I don’t know.  You can’t restart the ride when it stops halfway up.” 

            Scarlett dabbed a tissue around her eyes at tears she refused to let escape. 

            “You tried to warn me, Gibby.  You showed me that article.  I wouldn’t listen.”   

            “Look, Red.  I’m not here to say I told you so.  And I’m not here to stroke your ego and tell you to get back on the horse or some other inspirational BS.  I’m here to tell you to do your job.” 

            “What job?  I’ll be lucky if Hersch doesn’t put me on the local eateries segment.”  Scarlett put on her best fake smile, the one she practiced every morning before work, and on bad blind dates.  Her eyes perked up and looked early morning bright.  Anyone who didn’t know her would think she was genuinely excited.    

            “Today we’re talking to Mr. Johnson the owner and head cook of Johnsons Fried and Tried, the best fried baloney sandwich shop in all of Future City.  Now, before we started rolling, you were telling me that not only are fried baloney sandwiches low in fat and high in nutrition, but they have a long history dating back to before the civil war.  Is that right Mr. Johnson?”    Scarlett turned to her left, pretending to look at the camera, and nodded like a bobble head doll. 

            “Cut the crap, Red!  This was a setback, nothing more.  You still have a job to do.  You know that Herschfeld isn’t going to move you.  Get over yourself.  You brought them the Yesterday Town story, and the secret love child of Colonel Courageous all in one week.  Your face and name are imprinted on the minds of people around the globe.” 

            Walter reached in his pocket, fished out a piece of paper, and handed it to Scarlett.  “Here.” 

            Scarlett took the slightly crumpled paper and examined it.  “What’s this?”   

            “My RSVP for your pity party.  Sorry, I can’t make it.  I’ve got work to do.” 

            Scarlett crumpled the piece of paper and dropped it over the edge of the stair rail. 

            “Ah!” Walter yelped, but it was too late.  He watched as the paper fell down the empty space between the rails. 

            The reporter’s eyebrows raised.  “Was that important?”   

            “Yeah.” Walter sighed.  The color seemed to drain from his face.  “Jasmine finally gave me her phone number.” 

            “The girl from the coffee place in the lobby?” 

            “Yeah.” 

            “Her real number this time?” 

            “Yeah.  I called it right there in front of her.”   

            “Sorry.” 

            “Oh well.  She probably wouldn’t have gone out with me even if I did call.”  Walter tore his eyes away from the square spiral of handrails and back to Scarlett.  “Ok, so now you owe me.” 

            “Say what?!” Scarlett blurted.  “How do I owe you?  You shouldn’t have given it to me in the first place.” 

            “You’re right, you don’t owe me.  You owe them.”  Walter’s voice was firm and blunt.  His words moved through the air as if they had legs of steel; driving deep into the mind that heard them. 

            “And before you say ‘who’, you know ‘who’.“ 

            “The kids?” Scarlett questioned.  “Come on, Gibby, they were just a story.  It’s not that I don’t care about them, but – I mean – I’m not Mother Theresa.” 

            “No, you’re not, and I would never confuse you with her.”  Walter’s words stung.  He wasn’t trying to insult her, just speak the truth – a venomous cobra that strikes with good intentions, but always leaves its victim hurt or dead.

            “I know that helping those kids wasn’t intentional.  It was a side effect of getting the story, but you did help them.  And despite what you say, you felt good about it.  Sure, you had to give them something to get the story, but you didn’t have to put them up in an expensive hotel.  You certainly didn’t have to keep the other kids a secret and help sneak them out of Abysmal’s place.  The story would’ve been even more sensational if you had revealed the full cast of characters, but you didn’t.  You helped them, and you liked it.” 

            “Is there a point to all this?” Scarlett looked away from Walter.  Her eyes dropped to her feet, and she studied the pattern on her heels.  She didn’t want to admit that he was right.  She didn’t want to stop chasing the bright lights of fame.  If she admitted that she cared, even to herself, then all of that would disappear.  She would stop chasing bombshells, and start sacrificing top stories for the greater good. 

            “Yeah, there’s a point.  The point is, those kids still need help, and you can help them.  And who knows, there might even be a story in it for you.” 

            “What do you mean ‘need me’?  They don’t need me.” 

            Walter pulled out his phone again, and Scarlett cursed under her breath.  That damn troublesome phone.  He pulled up the police scanner app and tuned in. 

 

            *Tact team fourteen to base.  We’re bringing the suspects down now.*

            *Roger, Tee Tee fourteen.  Are the suspects collared?*

            *Affirmative, base.  Under direction of lead.  Detective Hudson is in charge.* 

            *Roger, Tee Tee fourteen.  Remember to check in once secured in transpo.* 

 

            “What the hell is this?” said Scarlett, snatching the phone from Walter’s hand. 

            “It’s why I came looking for you.  Hudson is arresting Celia for murder.  It’s the ripple effect from Van’s telecast.  Those closest get it first and hardest.” 

            Scarlett was in shock.  Her hand squeezed the phone as if she could squeeze their freedom from it.  “This isn’t right.  They can’t do this!” 

            “They are.  But, what do you care?  You already got what you wanted from them.  They aren’t your problem anymore.” 

            “The hell with you, Gibby!” Scarlett drew her arm back, preparing to launch the phone into the stone wall with all her might. 

            “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Walter stopped her before she threw the opening pitch of the stairwell world series.  He carefully pried the phone from her boney manicured fingers. 

            “This is wrong.  We have to stop them.” 

            “I had Marlon get the van ready.  It’s waiting out front.” 

            “Damn you, Gibby.” Scarlett said as she opened the stairwell door and rushed to the elevator.    She hopped in the first set of open doors, and repeatedly mashed on the ground floor button as if she were typing Morse code. 

            Walter slid the phone in his pocket as he watched the elevator’s LED numbers countdown to “G”. 

 

            “Was that really Jasmine’s number?”  Scarlett asked. 

            “Nah.”  Walter answered with a sly smile. 

            “What was it?” 

            “A note from Herschfeld for you to do a report on Johnson’s Fried and Tried sandwich shop.  Did you know fried baloney sandwiches are both low in fat and high in nutrition?” 

            “I heard that somewhere.”  Scarlett smiled back. 

 

*****

 

            Detective Hudson paraded the teen heroes through the lobby of the hotel.  Their hands cuffed behind their backs, and officers with their weapons drawn flanking them.  Heads turned and chatter commenced as if on cue.  The people pointed and gasped in fake horror, as if they had disliked them all along. 

            Diamond Dog lifted his head high as they escorted him out the front door.  He refused to accept his guilt in Black Sunshine’s death.  Detective Hudson wanted to degrade him and make him feel ashamed.  He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. 

 

            “Hold ‘em here.” The detective said.  “Parker, bring the van around.” 

            BOOM!  

            The sound was deafening and close.  Too close.  The ground shook, making the teen heroes and the police stumble.  The hotel windows flexed and shattered, showering all those nearby with miniature reflective razors.  Detective Hudson’s head whipped around, desperately searching for the source of the explosion. 

 

            BOOM!

            BOOM! 

            The follow up explosions pinpointed the location of the noise to the group’s left.  Their hearts pounded in their chest, making it hard for any of them to draw a breath.  Cars soared through the air and in their direction. 

            Diamond Dog dove at Celia, tackling her to the ground.  The airborne car clipped the corbel on the corner of the third floor and careened into the street.  The unmistakable sound of crushed automobile metal filled the air.  The sound was accompanied by the squelch of rubber tires grinding against asphalt.  Panicked screams completed the symphony of terror. 

            DD struggled to get up on his knees, his hands cuffed behind him.  He arched his back, trying to shield Blue as the sidewalk became a stampede of Future City residents running for their lives from the unseen, but undoubtedly deadly threat. 

            “You okay?” DD asked the fallen girl.  Celia tried to sit up, having even more difficulty than Diamond Dog with the throngs of people bumping into her.  She looked down at what she could see of her right arm.  Tiny pieces of glass covered her exposed bicep and forearm, some of them breaking the skin and drawing blood. 

            DD followed her gaze.  “You trying to steal my act?”

            Blue forced a smirk. 

 

            BOOM!

            The respite was brief as sporadic gunfire changed the symphony’s song from terror to chaos. 

 

            “What is it?” Blue asked.  Her heart was pounding just as hard as those of the people around her. 

            DD had the advantage on her.  Being on his knees put him a foot taller than her, sitting on her butt. 

            “I can’t tell.  It’s big, whatever it is.”  Diamond Dog brought one knee up, planting his foot firmly on the ground.  With his arms behind his back, it looked like he was being knighted.  “Here.  Use me to try and stand.  Hurry!  We’ve got to get off this ground.”  

            Blue used DD’s body for support and scrambled to her feet.  The rushing crowd had subsided, but there were still enough people on the sidewalk knocking into them to take longer than either wanted.  Once she was on her feet, she extended the courtesy to DD.  The two looked around, searching desperately for the cause.   

            To their right, Detective Hudson sought cover behind a police car while belting our commands to the tactical team. 

            “Franklin! Peters!  We need to get the heavy weapons from the van!  I want you two to lay down cover fire for Moncrete and Witterstack!” 

            The men moved into position, firing into the dust and smoke at the unknown force that moved towards them.  The other two officers moved on cue, racing for the tactical van as soon as the gunfire started. 

            DD strained to see through the smoke at whatever was making its way to them.  It didn’t appear to be in any hurry or have any fear of the police assault rifles.  Destruction seemed to be its main focus.  Destruction and death. 

 

            It took awhile before Diamond Dog could discern the difference between the cries of sheer panic, and those of certain death.  With the explosions, gunfire, random screams, and car crashes rebounding off each other it was easy to lose that sound in the cacophony, but once he heard it, it cut through everything else each time.  The scream was shrill and desperate, with an undertone of dread that drilled into the soul of the listener, and always ended abruptly. 

 

            Electric Blue was watching the police officers while DD stared into the advancing wall of smoke and dust.  She was the one to witness the police officer, Franklin, as his head exploded.  The young girl jumped and stumbled backwards.  It was sudden and brutal.  A football size chuck of concrete came from behind the tactical officer, whose attention was focused in the opposite direction.  The broken blacktop plowed through the skin and bone as easily as the air it split it traveled to him. 

            Blue screamed as sprinkles of blood and grey matter decorated the side of her face.  She unconsciously moved backwards, stopping only after her back became flush with the outside wall of the hotel. 

            Diamond Dog heard her scream and realized she had moved away from his side.  His head snapped back to her, and then to the object of her frightened gaze.  Diagonal from his current position came a creature unlike anything he had ever seen or could imagine.  The initial sight of the monster made him gag, and he could taste the acrid bile building in the back of his throat. 

            Lumbering toward them was a mucus green monstrosity that was easily two feet taller than DD.  Thick ropy veins wrapped themselves around the outside of its arms.  Its shoulders were thick and hunched forward.  The duffel bag sized hunch on its back pulsated, seeming to grow larger with each step it took.  The creature’s lower jaw jutted out further than the upper mandible, with teeth that curved back to meet its upper cousins for a sinister grin. 

            It gave the inanimate objects in its path backhand swats, sending them flying behind it.  Compact cars spun like tops as they twirled away like glass and steel ballerinas. 

            Officer Moncrete tried to withdraw as he saw the creature moving at him.  The tactical van was a lost cause now, lying on its side half a block away.  Moncrete laid down fire on the monster as he quickly moved backwards to a more secure position.  The creature moved faster.  Its elongated arm snaked out with a speed that belied its size.  The creature’s hand, with claw tipped fingers, covered Moncrete’s head completely as it grabbed him and yanked him into the air.  The monster crumpled the police officer in his hands like an unwanted piece of paper.  Blood rained from his hands as the human was squeezed like a piece of fruit, and the tactical officer was reduced to the size of a medicine ball. 

 

            It was then that it dawned on Diamond Dog – there were two of them.  The one he had been watching was just beginning to emerge from the clouds of smoke at the end of the street.  The other one had come from behind them.  They converged on the two powered teens and the underwhelmed cops. 

            DD yelled at the detective.  “Get these cuffs off of us!” 

            Detective Hudson stared blankly at the young man.  His police training and combat sense washed away in a stream of fear.  His lips made inaudible sounds, barely parting as he begged and prayed to live. 

 

            “Dammit, Hudson!” DD roared.  “Get these cuffs off of us, now!”     

 

 

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