Kathleen Aurelia braced herself again and lifted. Wincing at the pain of her cuts and bruises, she pushed off the last piece of debris, the broken door of a cargo container. She’d been lucky enough to land mostly on some old, soft insulation, but being thrown into the pile of crates with superstrength had hurt badly and torn open her old wound. She tried to stand and nearly blacked out again from the pain.
Instead, she sprawled on her back and listened to water dripping somewhere in the abandoned building’s depths. She tried to make sense of it all.
It was Lenny all the time, she thought. She remembered the burn his COP Suit’s energy fist had inflicted on Castilucci’s jaw. She’d seen a burn just like that before, on Detective Aragon’s body. Lenny, she decided, had been clever. Energy fists were designed to enhance the power of a COP Suit’s punch. Grabbing an opponent with one was a slow, painful way to inflict a wound, let alone kill. No one would have expected Lenny to use it on Aragon that way—no one had. And even if it had occurred to someone, the murder had taken place in a building full of Pyrebrands, a gang well-known for burning its enemies cruelly. If she hadn’t brought him face-to-face with Castilucci, she might never had discovered his guilt.
On the other hand, she reflected, if she had never brought him face-to-face with Castilucci, the old gangster’s jaw wouldn’t be broken, he wouldn’t be falsely imprisoned for someone else’s crime, and his life wouldn’t be in danger.
It was all her fault. She had to make it right, even if she was wanted for questioning herself. She staggered to her feet. All her limbs seemed to work. Wincing again, she headed for the warehouse door. It wasn’t far to Preszewski Center.
Castilucci’s vision cleared slowly. He pulled himself to a sitting position, and agony tore through his broken jaw. He remembered just in time not to scream or wince at the pain. He could feel something wrapped tightly around his head and face—he guessed the cop, Alvarez, had had his jaw wired shut.
So I can’t talk, even if I wanted to, he thought. So I can’t finger this clown for what he did to me. Or to Aurelia. He wanted to frown but couldn’t and settled for exhaling slowly. He realized that Aurelia, the only person who’d believe he hadn’t murdered that Detective Aragon, was probably dead.
He tried to sit up again, but he discovered he’d been handcuffed to the cot by both wrists. Someone had taken off his jacket, shirt, and tie, leaving him in his undershirt. Despite the pain, he felt fuzzy and disconnected.
He looked around more carefully, using only his eyes. He lay on a cot in the corner of a large, windowless room. Cement blocks made up the walls, and fluorescent lights shone down. As far as he could see in all directions, the rest of the room was full of metal shelves reaching almost to the high ceiling, all of them piled high with the bizarre junk of a thousand attics. Everything from cardboard boxes and old purses to weapons ranging from rayguns to jeweled swords rested on the shelves. Metal boxes covered with old-fashioned knobs, dials, and lights sat beside bottles filled with swirling, glowing mists. Leatherbound books, mechanical servos, and even a doll-sized, deactivated robot sat in a heap.
“Interesting, huh?” Alvarez had strolled around the end of a shelf while Castilucci was distracted. The cop gestured with a grin, like a cheerful tour guide. “This is the old superpowered evidence room. Anything from an old, cold case with powers-freakiness ends up down here.” Alvarez glanced at the shelves, and a frown crossed his face.
Castilucci pulled against his cuffs, rattling them against the cot.
“Don’t bother trying to make noise,” Alvarez said. “No one knows you’re down here, and if they did, they’d probably just try to kill you.” He smiled, and for the first time, Castilucci caught hint of malice in that sunny grin. “You’re a cop-killer. Well, to them, anyway. Worse, you’re a hero-killer.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue. “That was cold, what you did to Topaz.”
Slowly, slowly, to avoid jostling his jaw, Castilucci shook his head.
“Oh, they’ll believe it,” Alvarez said. “First, you bought off Topaz and had him kill Detective Aragon, on orders from your pal Father Omerta, to cover up the Black Rose’s deal with the Pyrebrands. Then the Black Rose had him snatched before he could rat you all out, and you went rogue and killed him to save your own hide.”
Alvarez brightened up again. “Oh, hey, I almost forgot! I brought you something!” He pulled out a syringe, uncapped it, and tested it. “More painkillers! Hope you don’t hate needles as much as I do.” He stabbed it into Castilucci’s bare arm. “Can’t have you thrashing around in here. You might hurt yourself.”
His voice dropped. “If it was up to me, I would’ve killed you, y’know. The only reason I have you stashed here is so I can kill you in Little Venice and dump your body in a canal. Then it’ll all get chalked up to a Black Rose agent who got out of line and paid the price. The fight between the Department and the underworld goes on, and the blame stays on the Black Rose and Topaz, where it belongs.”
He stood and glared. “It’ll be nice to see someone who deserves it suffer for a change.”
Castilucci blinked at him and shrugged. With one finger, he traced three letters in the air. W-H-Y.
“Because I hate you,” Alvarez said.
Kathleen approached Preszewski Center’s main entrance. She would’ve preferred a side entrance. By now, everyone in the Department must’ve known she’d been seen at the Opal Room, associating with Castilucci. For all she knew, they suspected her of murdering Detective Aragon. But she’d lost her badge, ID, and everything else when Castilucci hid her with the Five Dragons, so the immense main doorway, with its screening points for the public, metal detectors, and layers of security was it.
It was just her luck that one of the uniforms staffing the entrance, a rookie named Chris Adams, knew her. “Aurelia!” he cried. “Alvarez said you were dead!” Adams pulled her over onto one of the chipped, wooden benches where visitors waited to speak to desk sergeants.
Adams blinked, taking in her cuts and bruises and generally bedraggled appearance. “Are you sure you’re not dead?” He waved to one of the sergeants at the intake desk, who picked up a phone and spoke rapidly into it.
She shook her head, which only made it hurt more. “I’m alive, Adams,” she said. “Wait … Lenny was here?”
“He hauled in some Black Rose capo with a broken jaw. Said he’d confessed to the murder of Detective Aragon!”
Thoughts stumbled over each other in Kathleen’s head. “He’s not the … Lenny killed them, Chris.”
“Killed who?” asked Adams. He took her arm like she was a senior citizen he was helping cross a street. “Maybe you’d better sit down—“
“There’s no time!” she said, pushing the pain and exhaustion aside.
Martin Roth, hobbling on crutches and left leg in a cast, lurched into the vestibule. “I’ll take it from here, officer,” he said sternly in his nasal voice. Adams nodded and stepped back to his post, casting a concerned look at the pair over his shoulder.
“You have a lot to explain, Aurelia,” Roth said. “Informants are saying you were hiding out with the Five Dragons and with that Castilucci from the Black Rose. And now that twerp Alvarez bursts in and says Castilucci killed you.”
“It’s not him,” she said. “Lenny’s the killer. The energy fist … it all makes sense.”
Roth rolled his eyes. “Stop trying to play detective, Kathleen,” he said. “Look at you. Come to the infirmary with me.” He nodded for another uniformed officer to join them. The officer took Kathleen’s arm and half-lifted her up.
Kathleen frowned. To an untrained observer, it would look like the officer was helping her, but she recognized a suspect hold when she felt one. Roth was having her placed under observation, maybe under arrest.
“Martin,” she said as they shepherded her toward an elevator, “you’ve gotta believe me …”
“You ruined my life,” said Lenny, almost shouting.
Castilucci blinked with what he hoped looked like curiosity. The longer he could keep this joker talking, the longer he would live.
Alvarez took a deep breath and steadied himself. “My dad was a cop, too, back in the ‘80’s,” he said, all trace of banter gone from his voice. “A detective. He was a ‘hero’ of Operation Anvil. You remember Operation Anvil, right? I’m sure you do, old man. I still hear about it all the time, about how saintly D.A. Amir”—he practically spat the name— “mobilized the entire TCPD and dozens of heroes to crush organized crime in Titan City once and for all.
“What were you doing back then, old man?” He frowned. “You and Orlando Rossi were probably out kicking puppies and stealing candy from orphans. Well, my dad was on the front lines. Operation Anvil didn’t go all our way, no-how.
“He and his partner got assigned to shut down one of your Black Rose joints. There were so many raids going on that there weren’t enough cops to cover them all, so it was just the two of them. They told my dad that he’d have heroes as backup, clown named Dark Stabber or Blood Strike or something stupid like that. The heroes crashed in through a skylight before my dad was ready.” Alvarez glared at Castilucci like he’d been one of the men there himself. “So your boys were ready for them. They killed them all.”
Alvarez sat down on the cot, like a mother comforting a sick child. “I knew from then on I wanted to be a cop. One of the real heroes. To take down people like you. To make the Black Rose pay. But right after the Hurricane, the TCPD started working with those incompetent, arrogant, glory-hound heroes.” His voice rose. “Like nothing had happened! Like they deserved it! Costumed morons who got lucky with powers and got people killed! Like they were better than us!”
Roth pretended to ignore her all the way to the Preszewski Center infirmary. But by the time they passed through its swinging doors, he was gazing at her intently.
The uniformed officer lowered her to a cheap-looking chair against one wall, near a bank of fancy-looking medical equipment. “I’ll take it from here,” Roth said quietly. When the officer had gone, he said, “You really expect me to believe all that?”
Kathleen stared at him. Roth was an irritating, pompous jerk sometimes. But he was a decent cop. “Yes,” she said, “I do. You may not like me, but you know me. You know I wouldn’t lie about this. Listen, Martin. Lenny brought Castilucci in … did he take him to holding?”
“He should have brought him here,” said Roth slowly. “His jaw was broken.”
“Do … do you see him?” Kathleen asked.
They both looked around, he carefully and she theatrically. The infirmary was empty.
“He’s hidden him someplace,” Kathleen said. “He’ll keep him hidden for a while, then, when he’s got his story straight and the right evidence planted, kill him. He could be dead now.”
Roth nodded slowly. “Then spread some story around about how Castilucci was killed while trying to escape.” He sighed. “We have to find him first.”
Kathleen looked at his crutches. “Martin, you’re healing from a broken leg, and I had … half a warehouse fall on me.”
Roth rummaged in a cabinet near the medical equipment. He withdrew a container of luminous, green liquid. “Drink this,” he said. “It’s some kind of EdenTech medicine. It won’t heal all your injuries, but it’ll keep you together and on your feet a little longer.”
She drank it down. It tasted like aluminum foil. But in moments, her head cleared, and her cuts and bruises stopped throbbing. She pulled herself to a sitting position, then to her feet, and she didn’t pass out.
“I’m going to call for a search of the building for Alvarez and Castilucci,” Roth said.
Kathleen nodded. “I’ll get started. No time to lose.” She was out the door before Roth had hobbled three steps.
Kathleen hurried—the EdenTech serum, whatever was in it, had given her the strength to hurry—to the nearest freight elevator and taken it all the way down.
She thought it over as she rode. Lenny would want to go somewhere he’d know but most other people wouldn’t. Somewhere quiet. It had to be the sub-basement where they stored the COP Suits.
She stepped out the door, into the fluorescent-lit hallway. She passed the door marked “Flying Squad 1950” and headed to the main shop floor. But as she approached the double doors, she spotted an open door on her right. From inside, she heard indistinct words, shouting. Lenny’s voice.
She checked her pistol, still holstered on her hip, and slipped in her last magazine. Not that it would do much against a COP Suit. She needed an edge.
She turned around, looking back the way she’d come. She caught sight of something and smiled as a very foolish, very audacious idea popped into her head.
Castilucci flinched at the fury in Alvarez’s voice. Drugged and injured as he was, the cop could easily kill him if he cut loose.
“But I found a way to get my own back,” Alvarez said, leaning in so close Castilucci could smell his breath. “I made a connection. Someone with real power.”
R-B-L-E-S-T, Castilucci spelled.
Alvarez nodded. “You’re way too smart,” he said. “Arbalest is just another costumed thug, but my connection got him to take care of the men who killed my dad. Funny, huh? The assassin was the one who finally gave me justice.”
A new, familiar voice echoed through the huge room. “And what did you give him, Lenny?” asked Aurelia.
Castilucci sighed in relief. He looked around, in front of the nearby shelves, but he couldn’t see her.
“Aurelia!” Alvarez called. “Jeez. How many lives do you have?” He stepped away, out of Castilucci’s view, between two sets of shelves. Moments later, he heard a soft humming.
He remembered that sound. It was some gadget built into Alvarez’s COP Suit.
The evidence room was a maze of shelves. Kathleen couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in any direction.
“What did you do for Arbalest, Lenny?” Kathleen shouted again. She knew she had to keep him talking, or she’d never find him in the vast, cluttered room.
“Nothing,” said Lenny’s voice. “Nothing that mattered. Just passed on some tips. A few names of punks dealing Chaser, a few Black Rose small fry.”
Straight ahead and to the right, Kathleen thought. She moved forward, borrowed gun up and ready to fire. “You gave him targets!” she shouted.
“They were scum!” Lenny shouted back. “Who cares if the villains kill each other?”
Kathleen heard the thud of heavy footsteps. Lenny had put his suit on. “Detective Aragon did, didn’t he?”
“He found out about my tips, and he came to me and gave me some pious speech about how we’re ‘better than that!’ I’ve worked around the Black Rose long enough to know that honor’s just a pretty word for a code of silence!” His voice sounded close now, just beyond the shelves to her right. She heard the soft hum of his COP Suit’s cooling systems.
She tensed and prepared to spring.
“He got in the way,” said Lenny softly. “Just like you!” The shelf came toppling down, spilling ironbound chests, steel boxes, and weapons ranging from battle axes to death rays onto the concrete floor. It smashed down with a loud crash and a cloud of dust.
Beams from the COP Suit’s lights knifed through the thick dust. “Where are you, Aurelia?” muttered Lenny.
“Here,” she said. She hovered twenty feet off the ground, high above the shelving, the old Flying Squad flight belt buzzing around her waist. Before Lenny could even begin to turn in the ponderous suit, she unloaded five shots into a network of pipes and coils on its back. A cloud of white vapor hissed out from a crack in one of them.
Lenny called her a vile name and swung his suit’s Gatling arm to bear on her. “Shoulda aimed for a vital system!” he sneered.
With a painful wrench of her back muscles, Kathleen pushed away, the flight belt sending her jetting across the room. Lenny tracked her with a burst of gunfire. Bullets clanged and ricocheted against old super-gadgets. He clipped a lacquered vase, and it exploded in a ball of howling, blue-green flame.
The belt crackled and sparked ominously. With a sputtering noise, it shut down entirely, dropping Kathleen ten feet to the cement. She landed in a roll and tore off the rapidly overheating belt. She looked around frantically for a weapon.
A red sparkle caught her eye. Its label, yellow and peeling, read, INVEST. 71-00384—DR ZUBENELGENUBI MAGUS FIRE-GEM—VOLATILE! EXTREM. DANGEROUS! She grabbed it and a golden gun-thing marked PROF. DREAD HEAT RAY. She slipped around the end of a row of shelves and called, “Give up, Lenny! Roth knows everything! He’ll bring the entire Department down on you!”
“I don’t care!” Lenny screamed. He unleashed another long burst of shots. The thudding feet of his COP Suit echoed closer and closer. It sounded as if he was running.
Kathleen smiled. Her plan was working.
As the footsteps drew close enough to shake the floor, Kathleen flung Dr. Zubenelgenbui’s fire-gem out into the floor. She heard it shatter, then a rush of flame. Light washed over her.
Wreathed in fire, the COP Suit stepped around the corner. “Stupid! Even magical fire won’t burn through this armor!” Lenny cried. Behind the faceplate, he grinned as sweat poured from his forehead.
Kathleen blasted him point-blank with the heat ray. A beam of red light shot from the gun with a low, angry hum. She pressed the trigger until the beam flickered and died. As Lenny brought his gun-arm to bear, she dashed away, around another set of shelves. She crouched against a pile of old-style Scorpion armor.
“I—told you,” Lenny shouted, “you—you can’t hurt me through—this suit!” The COP Suit’s energy fist burst through the heap of armor a few feet from her head. The rest of the COP Suit followed as she fled.
With a wordless scream, Lenny hurled a chunk of armor at her. She yelped and collapsed as it struck her injured leg. “Where you—you—you gonna run now?” he screamed. He slammed the fist down, shattering the cement of the floor and leaving a crater. He advanced relentlessly, face dripping with sweat and eyes glaring, as Kathleen dragged herself backward.
Desperately, she fired her last few shots right at his faceplate. They didn’t even scratch it.
“Now—“ Lenny took a deep breath—“now you die. Now …” He raised his energy fist to strike again. Overbalanced, he stumbled backward. “Now you …” His eyes rolled back in his head. The COP Suit crashed forward on its face inches from her feet.
“I did hit a vital system, you traitor,” she gasped. “The cooling system.” With all the exertion and the heat of the weapons she’d used against him, Lenny had only been able to operate the suit for a few minutes before passing out from heat exhaustion.
“Castilucci?” she shouted.
A rattle answered her. Painfully, she heaved herself to her feet. She followed the noise until she found him, cuffed in place and jaw bandaged and wired tight. “You all right?” she asked.
He cocked an eyebrow, as if to say, What do you think?
She took a deep breath and winced. “I hate to say this, Mr. Castilucci, but … thank you. You played fair when Lenny didn’t. I’ll … I’ll make sure the Department and the D.A. know that you weren’t behind the murders of Aragon and Topaz.”
Castilucci closed his eyes and nodded. He left his eyes shut. His chest began to fall and rise in the even breathing of sleep.
“Good idea,” Kathleen said, pain and exhaustion finally overwhelming her. She sank to the floor.
Roth and the other officers found her slumped beside the cot, unconscious.
Six weeks later.
Castilucci, dressed in a sports shirt and shorts, sprawled on a lawn chair on the balcony. He gazed lazily through a set of sunglasses at a turquoise bay, palm trees, and frolicking tourists.
He grabbed his drink, holding it tight to keep the condensation from letting it slip out of his hand. He sipped from the straw, enjoying the alcoholic fruit-salad taste.
Only a few more weeks of eating through straws, he thought. I’ll almost miss it.
It had been nice of Orlando to send him down here while he recuperated and things quieted down. But he was beginning to miss Titan City—the adrenalin, the back-alley action, even the costumes. It was home, and soon, he knew he’d be returning there.
Castilucci heard the door of his hotel room open. He tensed, ready to fling the heavy glass at a potential enemy. But, to his astonishment, Orlando, dressed in a bleached linen suit, stepped outside and sat in the chair beside him.
“Hello, Frank,” he said.
Castilucci just looked at him. He couldn’t talk yet, something Orlando danged well knew.
“I thought I should come down personally,” he went on. “Come down personally and apologize.”
Castilucci raised an eyebrow. Father Omerta did a lot of things, but apologizing was not usually one of them.
“That whole thing with that Detective and Topaz and Tarot and Arbalest, it got out of hand. I never meant to get you hurt, pal. You know that, right?”
Sure, you never meant to hurt me, Castilucci thought. You only sicced our soldiers, the entire TCPD, and a black-mask killer on me by accident. Much as he still loved Orlando, he knew that he would never trust him again.
“The cops have backed off, now that they know it was one of theirs,” Father Omerta said. “We’re not safe—we’re never safe—but we can catch our breath. And Arbalest’s contract on you is cancelled. Gotta admire the guy. He’s a professional.” Orlando sighed. “Your old job’s waiting for back in Titan whenever you’re ready. I was wondering, though …”
“Thing is,” the other man said, “you showed intelligence, loyalty, and guts in a pretty freaky, powers-heavy situation. I was wondering … would you be interested in being a … well, kind of a contact man? La Rosa Nera needs superpowered contacts. You could be our link with the latest generation of black masks. You’re smart enough to give ‘em enough rope and smart enough to know when to jerk the leash, too.”
Orlando patted his shoulder. Proprietary, like a man patting a dog. Castilucci forced himself not to flinch or glare. “Think about it,” Father Omerta said as he rose.
“Oh, one last thing,” said Orlando. “Frank, when you were wandering around on your own out there, did you ever hear the word ‘antithesis?’”
Even in the tropic heat, Castilucci’s blood ran cold for a moment. He had, more than once. Yet he remembered what had happened every time he’d heard that word.
He shook his head firmly. He gazed carefully at his boss, watching for a reaction.
Father Omerta simply stood silent for a second or two. “Eh, could be nothing,” he said with a shrug. He walked back inside.
Castilucci wondered. He spent the next half hour doing something he rarely did: thinking quietly.
He was through being any man’s dog. And the underworld was clearly an even more dangerous place than he’d thought. But the more he considered about Orlando’s proposal, about helping out the up-and-comers, the better he liked it. He’d more than proven that he could show these new, powered kids a trick or two.
For the first time in weeks, he smiled.
“I can’t believe we let Castilucci go,” said Chief Gherrenfur, his hackles bristling.
It had been the District Attorney’s choice, but Kathleen’s word had carried considerable weight. “This time, it wasn’t his fault, Chief,” she said, leaning back in the chair facing his desk. “He helped us clean our own house. Besides, Roth and his Detective Bureau boys will keep an eye on him. If Castilucci blinks, we’ll have him.”
“Hmm,” said the Chief, a sound reminiscent of a hungry wolf growling. “I ‘spose so. We live by rules, by right and wrong. That’s what separates us from the underworld.”
Most of us, anyway, Kathleen thought, thinking of Lenny. “I can’t believe it was Lenny,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Aurelia,” the Chief said. “I know he was a friend. But I’m glad we caught him. If we hadn’t, it could have set things back decades. We’d be fighting with the heroes again, distrust everywhere.”
Kathleen eased back in the chair. Most of her injuries had healed, and she’d be back on the job soon, but everything still hurt sometimes. “I think that’s what Lenny wanted, sir. From what Castilucci told us, he had a grudge against the Black Rose, sure, but he really seemed to hate heroes as well. I think this whole thing with trying to pin the murder on Topaz was partly an attempt to make heroes look bad, to take us back to the Dark Age.”
“That’s what I called you in here to talk about, actually,” said the Chief. “I’d like you to be SWAT’s liaison with the hero community.”
“Me? Why me?”
“Well, to be frank, I don’t always trust them,” the Chief said. “My respect has to be earned. But you’re willing to trust, willing to take a risk. Sometimes, that’s what we need, especially when dealing with those costumed types.”
“You’re saying my naivete is a virtue, Chief?”
Chief Gherrenfur threw back his head and gave a bark. His red tongue rolled out. Kathleen realized that he was laughing. “Kathleen Aurelia, naïve? Hah!” He took a deep breath to steady himself. “You’ll be great, Aurelia. You can start as soon as you’re ready to go back to work. Injuries are almost healed, right?”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
The Chief waved his hand to dismiss her. As she stood to go, she caught sight of the phone Lenny had been speaking on weeks earlier, right before everything had gone crazy. She wondered, now, if he’d been talking with some kind of underworld contact. She remembered what he’d said.
“Chief,” she said, slowly turning back, “both Lenny and one of the Unforgiven holding Topaz said something about an ‘antithesis.’”
“It’s a word, like any other,” he said. But his ears pricked with interest.
“I’ve learned that words matter,” Kathleen said.
“You think there’s a new player in town?” the Chief said.
“I think we’d better keep our ears open, sir.”
“We always do, Aurelia,” he said. “We always do.”
Lenny Alvarez sat silently, cuffed in place in the back of the transport van. He was on his way from a cell in the Hardlock to his plea hearing. Another chance for the public to jeer at him.
He frowned. He’d been promised that this wouldn’t happen, that he knew too much to be jailed. At the time, he’d thought that meant he’d be killed on his first day inside, but that hadn’t happened yet.
The van jerked to a sudden stop, wrenching his shoulders. “Hey!” he shouted toward the small, closed slot separating him from the van’s driver. “How about some safe driving out there!”
A deep rumble echoed outside. Light flared around the edge of the slot. Lenny heard screaming.
He swallowed hard.
With a grinding of metal, two huge, dark-armored hands tore through the doors set into the back of the van. The hands ripped the doors away, and bright light poured in.
Lenny inched away, wishing he still had access to a giant mecha-suit.
The armored figure leaned inside. “Well, well,” it said, “we meet again, Sergeant Alvarez. Or, should I say, ‘Ex-sergeant Alvarez.’”
“Agent Tower,” Lenny said. “Did N—were the Tarot hired to kill me?”
Agent Tower reached inside and snapped the chain binding his cuffs to the floor. “Oh, no,” he said. “I’m told you’re much more valuable alive. Some guy in a black cloak hired us to break you out, no questions asked. Said you’d know him. He’s willing to pay a lot to get you out of here and delivered to a safehouse in Aurora, Alvarez. I’m told there’s still work for you.”
Lenny nodded and smiled sourly. “Antithesis,” he whispered.
TCPD, underworld, heroes, villains … they wouldn’t know what hit them.
Written by Jack 'O'Lantern' Snyder