The enormous freight elevator rattled as it descended into the depths of the TCPD’s Preszewski Center headquarters. A sudden bang echoed through the shaft. Lenny Alvarez flinched.
Kathleen Aurelia turned to him and smiled. “Jumpy, Lenny?”
Lenny grinned. “Me? Never.” The elevator clattered to a halt. “Ah, who’m I kidding? The shop down here gives me the creeps.” He pulled the door open and led the way down a wide, concrete hallway lit by dingy fluorescent bulbs.
Kathleen glanced around as they passed occasional steel doors marked with mysterious numbers. “Homey,” she commented.
“Yeah. I think they decorated this place in Early Institutional Grime.”
“Why does he hang out down here, then?”
“Because it’s where they keep the COP Suits,” Lenny said. He smiled ruefully. “Felix doesn’t relate so well to anything, well … alive, but he can lose hours fooling with armor.”
Kathleen had started the day excited for the first time since the day of the Tarot’s attack. She had been part of TCPD SWAT for months now, but today, she reached the next level. Today, she started Computer Operated Protective Suit training with the legendary Felix Wright, the original COP Suit pilot.
They passed a door marked “Flying Squad 1950.” Lenny jerked a thumb toward it. “I think they keep the old Flying Squad’s flight belts in there. They never could get ‘em to work right.”
“Topaz’s seemed to work fine,” she said, thinking aloud. “I wonder what the difference was.”
Lenny snorted. “Are you still hung up on that Topaz stuff? Man, I am sick of hearing about that freakin’ case.”
In a way, Kathleen couldn’t blame him. It filled newscasts for weeks and the halls of Preszewski Center for even longer. Martin Roth had grilled every person at the trial for hours, looking for some angle on the Tarot attack. So far, he had nothing to show for it but a lot of frustration and annoyed colleagues.
“Do you really think he hired Tarot to break him out?” she asked. “In the middle of his own trial? It seems so … I don’t know. Showy.”
“Yeah,” Lenny said, “I really do think that. ‘Showy’ is what heroes do. They make the mess, we clean it up, right?”
Before Kathleen had a chance to reply, they reached a set of large, swinging, steel doors at the end of the hall. Extreme Danger, read a plastic sign bolted to the left-hand door. Authorized Personnel Only. Do Not Enter. A small, paper sign taped to the door read, Do Not Tick Off Felix. Lenny ignored the signs and kicked the door open.
Kathleen caught her breath as they stepped into the corner of a large, dark room. It resembled a larger version of the motor pool garages she’d seen many times before, except that instead of cars, this one was full of COP Suits in various stages of repair. A couple of grizzled mechanics stood beneath one suit, raised on a hoist, arguing with a thin, awkward-looking man in a green polo shirt. More than his clothes looked out of place; he stood without the confidence and easy self-assurance of the cops and support personnel who made up SWAT. “Who’s the civilian?” she quietly asked Lenny.
“EdenTech consultant,” rasped a voice behind them. They turned to see a wiry, aged man in TCPD sweats with iron-gray hair, scarred knuckles, and a rag in his hands. “They came up with the armor cooling systems.” He narrowed his eyes at Kathleen. “Without their systems, we’d cook alive in there.”
Kathleen had seen her share of tough instructors in the military, and she refused to be intimidated. Instead, she simply cocked an eyebrow and said, “Sergeant Wright?”
“Call me ‘Felix,’” he said. “Everyone does.” Apparently, that little flare of informality exhausted his warmth. “You’re the new one, huh?”
“She’s good, Felix,” Lenny piped up. “She laughed the first time I said, ‘I have to go put on my cop suit—‘”
“Alvarez,” interrupted Felix in a voice like gears grinding, “don’t you have somewhere useful to be?”
To Kathleen’s astonishment, Lenny, irrepressible Lenny with the bad cop jokes, the guy who barely deferred even to Chief Gherrenfur, backed down. “Well, I have reports to … I’ll see you upstairs, Aurelia. Thank you, Felix.” He nodded respectfully and withdrew the way they’d come.
“You’re qualified, or you wouldn’t be here,” said Felix. “I’m gonna start you with the test Suit so you can get the feel of things. Don’t want you cutting loose with a full-auto burst or setting something on fire with an energy fist. C’mon.” Kathleen was beginning to gather that this was a long, elaborate speech by his standards.
She followed him to an unpainted Sergeant-Pilot’s suit stripped of its weapons and the faceplate that normally protected the pilot. Felix lifted the hatch, revealing a padded chamber inside. “Strap in,” he said. She climbed into the tiny compartment and strapped herself in place. She felt her hands and feet resting on control pads. It reminded her a little of walking on stilts as a child. Felix drew a series of electrical sensors from recesses in the pilot’s compartment and attached them to her temples, her arms, her upper back.
“Now,” said Felix, “don’t move until I tell you. Just turn on the ignition. Left-hand controls.” She found the button in an instant. With a tremendous whir of cooling fans and hum of engines, the suit came alive around her. She couldn’t contain a yelp as the sensors emitted faint bursts of feedback.
“Lift your right arm, slowly,” said Felix.
Kathleen raised her arm, and so did the COP Suit. She gasped at the sensation. Her arm felt heavier than usual, but nowhere near as massive as the suit’s metal and plastic limb.
Felix frowned. “Now, take a step forward.”
Kathleen lifted her right leg. The suit pitched forward and fell on its face with a clang. The seatbelts held Kathleen in place just a foot or two from the concrete floor, visible through the open faceplate.
Felix leaned over and glanced at her. “That happens to everyone. Not hurt? Good. Now, get up.”
Kathleen spent most of the rest of the day making the suit trip over its own feet, falling down, and struggling back up. And hearing Felix endlessly repeat, “Do it again.”
At last, he helped her out of the fuselage. Kathleen winced; her muscles ached as if she’d just run several miles carrying a heavy pack. “Thanks,” she said.
To her surprise, Felix said, “You did all right today.” He squinted at her speculatively, an expression she wouldn’t have expected on that hard, closed face a few hours earlier. “You’re ex-military. You’ve seen combat duty, too, haven’t you?” he asked softly.
Kathleen nodded slightly. It wasn’t a subject she felt comfortable discussing.
“Better I trust you with this stuff than Alvarez or that Martin Roth,” said Felix.
Martin Roth is trained on COP Suits? Kathleen thought. You think you know someone …
Aloud, she said, “What’s wrong with Lenny? Aside from the fact that he’s annoying, I mean.”
Felix grimaced. “That ain’t enough?” He sighed. “He’s not like his father was. My partner, from twenty years back. Last man I served in the field with.” He began polishing the test suit with a rag. “I still miss him,” he added softly.
Kathleen’s ears pricked with interest. Lenny rarely talked about his family.
Years ago, when she’d first joined the D.C. force, Kathleen had sat through a course in interviewing taught by an FBI agent. “Nothing makes people want to talk more than silence,” the agent had said. “Count to fifteen, and people will seek to fill it.”
Kathleen counted silently. Apparently, Felix had never learned about the fifteen second rule. At thirty, she gave up and opened her mouth to ask. Before she could, Felix said quietly, “We’ve all taken wounds in the past, and we all have our armor.” He polished in wider circles. “Alvarez has his stupid jokes, Roth has his ego, the Chief has his honor.”
And you have this place down here, where you never have to talk to anyone, she thought.
“Sometimes,” he said coldly, “the armor isn’t enough. Things break through.”
Before she could probe any more, the doors through which she’d entered hours earlier banged open. Martin Roth hurried in, tie askew and cheap, white shirt coming untucked. He carried a binder. Kathleen bit back a groan. “Aurelia!” he said in his nasal voice. “There you are. They said you were down here.”
“Then where else would I be, Roth?” she fired back. She reflected that maybe some of Felix’s bluntness had rubbed off on her already.
Felix turned his back to the detective wordlessly.
“Oh, shut up, Felix,” Roth muttered. “Aurelia, I need you to look at some more mugshots.”
“We’ve been through this,” she said. “I was fighting Captain Sun and Judgment. I was too busy to see whether Topaz activated a secret signal-gadget or … whatever.”
Roth waved off her comment. “This isn’t about that. I need you to go through these Black Rose mugshots.” He handed her the binder.
She groaned theatrically. “Martin, I’ve done that already, too. There’s nothing new here. Give it a—“ She glanced at the book’s spine, which read Black Rose/Suspected Ass’t’s, 1985-88. Intrigued despite herself, she flipped through the old photos of pugnacious-looking men in mid-‘80’s haircuts.
She stopped at a mugshot of a dark-haired man in his late twenties or early thirties. He wore a black shirt and a white tie, practically a uniform for some of the Black Rose’s old-school members. “This man,” she said. “I don’t know where I could’ve seen him. I was a kid in Arlington in the ‘80’s. But he looks familiar from somewhere.”
Roth smiled smugly. “Imagine him with thirty more years on him.”
She spotted it immediately, surprised she’d been so blind. “He was at the trial. I talked to him.”
“Yep,” said Roth. “It took me a minute to recognize him, too. I saw him sitting back there in the pews, smiling through the whole thing, right up until Tarot broke down the wall. Like he was in on it all.”
“Who is he?”
Roth pointed to the information beneath the man’s face. “Francis Xavier Castilucci. I looked through the old files, from right after Operation Anvil.”
Felix did not look up, but his polishing slowed to nothing.
“Homicide was looking at him for a possible murder of some ambitious idiot from the original Five Dragons, a guy who’d gone after Giovanni Rossi himself,” Roth explained excitedly. “The detective on the case thought Castilucci was Rossi’s bodyguard. They never managed to pin anything on him, though. The case just kinda petered out. I’m wondering if someone was paid off.”
Kathleen nodded. It made sense, given what the Commissioner had said about the Dark Age. “You think he’s still with the Black Rose,” she said. “I don’t know, Martin. Something’s off. This guy warned me when Judgment was about to take me apart.”
“But it makes sense,” said Roth. “Detective Aragon was trying to tie the Black Rose to the Pyrebrands, right? And Topaz offed Aragon. What if Castilucci’s the link, the Black Rose’s tail on Topaz?” He frowned. “Look, I know you’re not all on board with pinning this on Topaz, but it makes sense. We should at least question Castilucci.”
Reluctantly, Kathleen nodded. “Well, good luck, Martin,” she said, maybe a little more sourly than she’d intended. “You’re sure you’ll be okay without SWAT to bail you out on this one?”
“Funny,” said Roth. “It’ll be fine, Aurelia. I’m not even arresting the guy. Just questioning. He’s a professional crook. He’s used to it.” He smiled. “Castilucci’s just an old hood. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Felix grunted quietly. In anyone else, it might’ve been a laugh.
Written by - Jack 'O'lantern' Snyder
Discuss the update here: http://cityoftitans.com/forum/discuss-tales-tcpd-armor