Even on his day off, Race O’Halloran had the last word. The morning show footage was plastered over my news feed, in which a cheery blond host shone her teeth for the camera. Opposite her was the gray haired man with sunken jowls.
“For those of you who’ve been following the news, you’re probably aware of an incident last night in which two Eastbridge police officers were injured during a confrontation between Glimmer Girl and an unidentified hoodlum. Joining me now for his take is author and syndicated media commentator, Race O’Halloran. Race, thank you for being here.”
He nodded to her. “A pleasure.”
“You’re on the record as being critical Glimmer Girl, particularly since her coming out as transgender. Has last night’s incident reshaped your perception?”
As much as he reigned it back, there was no mistaking the sick glee in his eyes. “If anything it’s cemented my belief that she should be retired. Let’s be clear; two highly trained law enforcement professionals intercepted a dangerous superhuman criminal, and were subsequently attacked by this so-called ‘hero.’ Not only were they unable to do their jobs, but they sustained injuries that will keep them on the bench for weeks! Now I ask you, where is the justice?”
“Since her debut over two years ago Glimmer Girl has been widely regarded as an ally to the city, and was even deputized by law enforcement officials. What do you believe might have prompted this sudden turn?”
“Well, you need only look to the radical left, of which the transgender ‘community’ is a part,” he said. “They’re vocally anti-family, anti-police, anti-military. There’s a perverse sexual agenda being forced through our schools, in which children are being force-fed a socialist model that tells them they can just ‘ignore’ what God put between their legs.”
I threw my phone at the laundry basket, and crashed into the sheets. None of it was helping my hangover, which hit harder than any villain before it, like my brain had been wrung out from the inside. My lips were numb, and my mouth tasted like glue; no way was I ready for the outside world.
Even with the shades drawn Tanya wore sunglasses, and knelt by the side table with two glasses of thick, red liquid. She groaned as she pushed one to my bedside and told me plainly to drink.
“No more,” I whined.
She grunted. “Take it. Tomato juice gives you vitamins. Vodka takes the edge off.”
I rolled into the sheets with the turning of my stomach. “We already took off the edges, and because of that I beat up some cops.”
“You’ve got to admit, KC, that was very punk rock of you.”
If by ‘punk rock’ she meant ‘drunk and out of control’ then she was right. We’d had the night of our lives, but at a cost; not just a hangover, but Glimmer Girl’s standing with the city.
“Tell me last night was a bad dream,” I said.
Tanya chewed her words as she inhaled. “I could, but I’d be lying.”
“You don’t sound all that sympathetic.”
She sighed, and inched closer to my bedside, leaning her head on a discarded pillow. “I wasn’t there, but enough people were. Those two cops started shooting in a crowd. Someone would have been hurt if you didn’t stop them.”
“Was it really the right thing to do?”
Tanya didn’t hesitate to answer. “Yes.”
My stomach churned like the beginning of a tsunami. Everything was so heavy. “I just think that… maybe if I wasn’t drinking I might have done something different.”
“It happened the way it happened,” she sighed. Tanya lifted the glass from the counter and held it so the aroma wafted into the entrance of the blanket cave. Gods, it smelled rank. “Drink up. You’re going to need it.”
She was right. I lifted myself tenderly, propped myself on my elbow, and downed the mixture in a heavy chug. Hangover or not, I had to make things right.
* * * *
Day and night had lost their meaning to Judith, as had the desire for sleep. When had she last slept; a week, more? Perhaps, she wondered, that was the reason she was so giddy. Yet no matter how many times she closed her eyes to still herself, nerves twitched and shot static along her skin.
She paced the room which, apart from the layers of newspaper and boards on the windows was a world apart to the street outside. The floor was swept with ornate rugs laid across the cement, polished wooden tables in the corners, and a sofa more plush that it had any right to be. On the other side of the room was a ceiling rod with a velvet curtain, and under no circumstances was Judith to cross it.
Her benefactors had allowed her to stay, if not to sleep then to watch the plasma screen in the waiting area. They’d even been so kind as to offer her the remote. It was a consolation, she supposed; at the very least she could glean the goings on through ‘The Entertainment Network.’ Perhaps they’d even mention her name.
Judy grinned and shot upright.
A woman with a silicone face beamed next to a headshot of the actor. “Hollywood remains in shock in the light of Judith Kramer’s mysterious disappearance. The star’s return in the upcoming romantic comedy ‘Growing Old Disgracefully’ would have marked a triumphant twenty year comeback after battling a degenerative nerve disease.”
“So nice that you care,” she giggled, though she didn’t mean to.
The screen flashed to her co-star; Hugh, or Colin, or Clancy, or whatever his name was, frowning like a sad bulldog. “Wherever Judith is we wish her all the best. We hope she comes back soon so she can get the support she needs. If you can hear me, Jude, we love you. We all do.”
Her rigid fists tightened. ‘Love,’ he said; what a joke! She was ‘loved’ before, but forgotten all the same. Oh, the foul irony, and the sick way it tasted under her tongue. She’d spit in his face if she could.
A hand drew open the curtain between rooms, revealing the tall, statuesque outline of the man simply known as ‘Slater.’ To think, it was only months before when he appeared by Judith’s bed with a briefcase and the promise of new life. Though his offer had lost much of its sheen he continued to intimidate her with the thin-lipped smile that concealed his intent.
He removed his latex gloves with a pair of snaps. “And how is my number one patient today?” His tone was flat, like the owner of a haunted mausoleum.
“I don’t like this,” Judy hummed. “Sure, the strength and the bouncing are pretty fantastic, but I don’t want to rob banks. I want to get back to my old life. That’s what I pay you for, isn’t it?”
“In time,” Slater said.
He sat beside the woman who was still in her ‘clown’ outfit, and raised her sleeve. The muscle was impressive for a woman who’d been bed bound; they were also the most developed they had ever had been in Judith’s life.
“You know I can find some other way to get you your money,” Judy lied. “If people found out what I was doing…”
“Of course you understand the risks of telling people about us,” Slater said.
Judith closed her eyes and inhaled. “I know, and I never would. It’s just, I have a reputation to protect, you know? Bank robbers with superpowers don’t get cast in movies; they don’t score network contracts. I’m just saying, there are other ways to get your funding.”
He continued his examination without a word, measuring her reflexes, listening to her heartbeat, recording her blood pressure, and more. Nothing about him appeared fazed by her words.
Once Slater was done, he stood. “It’s no longer about the money,” he said.
“Then what is it?”
His lips curled, and sharp dimples collapsed under pointed cheekbones. “A business you’re very much acquainted with, I imagine. We’re selling a product, and you’ve been our most successful prototype.”
She jumped to her feet, fuming. “You used me!”
“Just as you’ve been using us,” Slater said.
“No, I’m a customer! I’ve been paying for a service.”
Slater took the bright material of her costume in his fingers and ran it along his touch. “And this is the cost of doing business with us,” he explained. “You’ll continue to play the role of petty supervillain, show our client base what you can do, or you can go back to your bed and sit in the dark for the rest of your life.”
Her fists trembled. It would have been nothing to run them through his head, and pop it like a balloon. The only thing stopping her was the promise of a living hell.
Judy slipped an involuntary giggle. “You motherf-”
“We’ll do our best to protect your reputation,” Slater said. “Just remember your place. You belong to us now.”
She seethed as he left the room, and pulled the curtain closed on his way. No matter how she tried she could not imagine a worse scenario. It seemed funny that Judith was just as trapped in the present as she was in the care home.
“You know that Glimmer kid saw my face,” she called. “You better have some kind of fix for that!”
The only response was silence, save for the dulled commentary of the television.
* * * *
Number One Police Plaza; a monument so important it claimed a block to itself. Standing at seventeen stories tall, and rounding a statue of Atlas in the square below, the block building curved along the points of a dozen streets, and stood like a silver fortress. Every window shone like a mirror under the midday sun, and concealed the inner workings of the law machine.
Fingers pointed as I made my orbit and counted up to the twelfth floor, the base for Captain Ortega and the city’s Super-Crimes Division. There a dedicated team made contingencies for the next extraordinary disaster, like what they might do if Glimmer Girl and the cops stopped being friends. I hoped I’d never have to find out.
My hard light body phased through the glass and into the office, where Captain Ortega was standing in wait. He summoned me with a finger, and furrowed the angry weasel sitting under his nose.
I walked a long walk, making sure to avoid eye contact with the jury of cops along the path. They’d probably made up their minds; that I was a vigilante, and ungrateful for the courtesy they’d extended me thus far.
Ortega closed his door behind me, and turned down the shades.
“Sit,” he ordered.
“Listen, I can explain-”
“Sit,” he ordered again, with the full weight of his authority behind it. I did as instructed, while he marched behind and loomed. “I’m going to give you one chance,” he said, “and by God, if I find out you’re lying to me-”
“I’d never do that,” I blurted.
“Then tell me what happened.”
I closed my eyes and stilled my breath. Gods, what was I going to say? So much of the night was a blur. “I was in the area when a someone in a clown costume jumped from the rooftops. She ripped an ATM from a wall, and pummeled it open with her bare hands.”
“She; you’re sure our suspect is a woman?” Ortega pressed.
I nodded. “Yeah. I saw her face. It was Judy Kramer.”
“The missing sitcom actress,” he said. He couldn’t believe it either. “We’ll get back to that. Finish your story.”
“By the time I circled back around the cops had shown up, and had their guns trained on her,” I said. “There was a lot of people, and they opened fire. I… I panicked, so I knocked them down. I didn’t want anybody getting hurt, that’s all.”
Captain Ortega circled my chair, folded his arms, and leaned against his desk. He bore down the way only a man of hard experience could, and huffed. “You were just looking out for bystanders,” he said.
“Are you over twenty-one?”
I fumbled for words. Nothing came out.
“Because I don’t pick you for twenty-one,” the captain continued, “and downstairs are two officers willing to testify that you were drunk when you moved on them.”
They knew. There was no excusing it. My mouth hung open, but was silent.
Ortega sighed. “It’s not a pretty picture, is it? Underage girl with super powers, attacking police while under the influence. Losing your deputy status would only be the start.”
“I… I wasn’t-”
“Don’t,” he said, “lie to me. Stupid kids do what stupid kids do, but you have a responsibility; not just to yourself, or the city, but people like you fighting for good standing in the community.”
I paused. “You mean... the transgender community?” Saying the word aloud was like gliding along sandpaper. It was my first time saying it while in costume.
“Among other things,” he said. Ortega eased his shoulders and bit his lip. “It’s like this, Glimmer Girl. Those men will sit on their testimony if you give a formal apology to them, and the department.”
“They opened fire in a crowded street! And you want me to apologize?”
“Politics is politics,” he said, “and maybe they were in the wrong. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But if you want to survive this, and keep doing what you’re doing, you need to keep your head down, and recognize when someone’s going out on a limb for you. You understand?”
I couldn’t stop shaking. There had been a lot of close calls in the past, but nothing like this. What was I supposed to do? All I had to go on was Captain Ortega’s guidance, and he’d been a reliable ally in the past.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you need me to do?”
* * * *
For Tanya it was supposed to be a day of rest. She didn’t save the world; she just saved the one who did - among others. Aside from Kaira and herself there were two other hangovers she was worried about, both of which she could monitor from bed.
Trix messaged back right away. ‘Can someone tell me where the world stops? I’d like to get off now,’ she said. There was an equal need for hair of the dog and fried food, but for the moment Tanya decided she’d live.
Ashley, however, didn’t answer.
No matter how many times she texted, Tanya received nothing back; not even a ‘read’ alert. Maybe, she thought, Ashley was still asleep, but as afternoon crept along that seemed less than likely. She was in bad shape when they went home, even worse than Kaira; she wasn’t used to the front lines of crime fighting.
An hour passed before Tanya pried herself from the sheets, and threw on whatever layers were in arms reach. Even though the weather was warm cold shivers ran with every step, along with the swirling of her brain as it bashed the side of her skull.
She sent a message to say “I’m coming over,” before starting the trek across campus.
Elevators, stairs, and a labyrinth of pathways made what would have been an ordinary journey into an Odyssey, coupled with the oppressive rays of the sun beating on her senses. She lost her balance a number of times, along with her lunch, but she pressed on, determined in her duty to her friend.
Finally, she arrived at the other girl’s room, and rapped her knuckle against the door.
“Ashley, it’s Tanya. Are you awake?” She pressed her ear to listen, and heard… something; sobbing, maybe scratching. Worry sharpened her senses, and her tone. “Hey, you weren’t answering your messages. I’ve left a lot of them, and I was worried. Are you in there?”
At first there was silence, but then she heard a croak. “Go away…”
Tanya exhaled and dropped her shoulders. “Yeah, fat chance of that happening,” she almost laughed; mental illness was never reasonable, and she knew it. “Listen, I’m really worried about you, okay? Come on and let me in, and I can make sure that-”
“I said go away!”
Suddenly, the door flew from the frame, and Tanya was struck by a solid panel. It flung her from the ground, and into the wall on the other side of the corridor. One moment she was seeing stars, and the next pain flashed across her shoulders before she tumbled to the ground. Tanya’s senses were swimming; half-numb with alarms going off in several directions.
She looked up to see the door intact, still fixed to the inside of friend’s room. Was she hallucinating? If so it had been the most painful, and vivid, hallucination of her life. When it opened Ashley stood frozen in shock, still wearing the polka-dot dress from the night before, with tears running down her face, and her hair a frazzled mess.
“I-I-I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll call you later, I promise, but you have to go! Please trust me.” She then slammed the door, leaving her friend to writhe on the ground.
Tanya took her time getting back to her feet, making sure to do all the first aid checks she’d learned for Glimmer Girl’s sake. When she was finally upright she stopped by the door again, and gave pause. Her friend had said to trust her; mentally ill or not, she had a duty to listen.
The journey back to her dorm was as arduous as it had been the first time. Tanya swore then and there she would never drink tequila again.
* * * *
Slater died a million times that day, though only in her imagination. Though it would be a cinch for Judy to snap him like a toothpick, he would still have the last laugh, along with the treatment that turned invalids into acrobats, and more.
She sat like cargo in the back of the van, ready to be dropped at the moment of arrival. Her new costume, ‘gifted’ by her benefactor, was even more garish than the last, with green and red puffs on either shoulder, and diagonal checkers running down to her comically large bloomers. Even the gloves were oversized, as though a personal slight against her.
“This is the lowest point of my career; even worse than that guest spot on ‘What About Larry’, and that was about a talking dog!” she barked the driver. “Even ‘Celebrity Pyramid‘ wasn’t this bad!”
Judy giggled in spite of herself, unable to tame the veritable spiders in her veins. The treatment was still taking effect, sewing her muscles tighter while adding density to her bones. Every nerve was aflame, but she did not burn; all she knew was the winding adrenaline waiting to spring.
The van stopped, the door opened, and Judy pulled down the mask. Bells jingled as she skipped up the steps toward the twin doors leading into the concrete structure, as though her character had taken a life of its own. With a wooden pop-rifle in one glove, and a large, velvet sack in the other, she kicked the twin doors open and stomped into the centre of the room, where a group of large, semi-clad men were doing stretches.. Before they could make a move she pumped the stick in her fist.
The room froze, and a dozen athletes turned to the clown. Some dropped to the ground by instinct, while others threw their hands over their heads.
Deep under the mask Judy sighed. How did she let it get this far? The only thing that pressed her was her memory of the care home; the hours of boredom, of despair, and loneliness. Anything was better than going back to that place. She inhaled, giggled, and silently promised herself, never again.
The clown cleared her throat, and called in a nasal tone, “gentlemen, you’ve been invited, one and all, to this, the pilot episode of the Punching Judy Show!” She beamed, twirled, threw an arm around the nearest man, and gave him a nudge. “Attendance is mandatory upon pain of torture!”
Every player turned hostage stood frozen.
“What, no laughs? Nothing?” Judy pressed. She smiled at the guy. “Was it the explosion? It was the ‘torture’ bit, wasn’t it? Yeah, I bet it was that.” She pushed him against the lockers, and dragged her sack onto a nearby bench.
Their eyes turned, as though to catch her gaze would be their death. Somewhere in the room there was weeping.
Judy sat cross legged, and leaned back. “Listen, nobody’s going to get hurt. Or, nobody who does what they’re told at any rate. All I need is for you to come up here, one at a time, and take a present.” She laughed, and opened her sack. “See? Gifts! You probably expected a regular old hostage situation or something, but you get to take something home... besides psychological trauma, that is.”
Those who wouldn’t stand to collect their packages Judith visited personally, planting a box with a bow beside them. Some were large, some were small; all promised to be interesting.
Knocking the drink cooler down and making a throne of the table, the clown groaned under her mask. Was this plan of Slater’s really worth the hype she was giving? Such a thing should have been below a comedienne of her calibre if it weren’t ‘the solution to all (her) problems’ - his words.
She jumped to her feet, and watched their nervous frowns. “Ready for the show to start?” she grinned, “because this next bit is a doozy!”
* * * *
It was no time at all before a press conference was called, and just in time for the afternoon news cycle. Ortega had me stood in a hall, and gave the order not to move until he was back with a statement.
I closed my eyes and focused on breathing. All the world was a flurry of activity, and every sound a nail driving into my skull. Despite that I leaned upright against the wall, determined to portray the capable and thousand percent sober hero that I was.
There were gawkers; some fans, and some not. Word had gotten out that Glimmer Girl was in the building, which after the ‘assault’ of two officers may not have been a good thing. I opened my eyes to glean their collective expression, and taste the bitterness from across the hall.
Cops; more than anything else they cared about each other, for good or… not so good.
It wasn’t long before a wheelchair came trundling around the corner, carrying a man in full police uniform and a neck brace, being pushed by someone in a grey suit. Behind them was another uniformed figure; this one with a bandage across his nose and his arm in a sling. They dragged themselves down the hall like soldiers, heavy with experience, fresh from some great horror. Then I caught their gaze, and realized.
“You have got to be kidding me!”
The man in the chair bore his teeth like a dog, and sneered. “Recognize your handiwork, huh?”
“Don’t engage her,” said the man in grey. He was probably their lawyer, or a union representative, maybe both. His stoic aura chilled from head to toe, and had a firm enough hold to keep his clients leashed.
My thoughts flashed back to the night before. I was drunk, but I remembered in vivid detail; Judy, the cops, and even the parts I didn’t want to remember, like Ashley curled in a ball of terror. I remembered holding back, using force enough to knock the wind out of them. I’d been careful.
They lingered by one of the cubicles, and every so often stole a glance. Their every move was exaggerated, paired with expressions so hammy they could feed the whole family. Who did they think they were kidding?
All eyes across the floor seemed to dance between us. If they didn’t hate me before, they did after that.
When Captain Ortega returned with sheet in hand I was less than an inch tall. Luckily, his attention was with the two ‘victims’ and their representative as they laughed with their cohorts. His moustache twitched, and an unblinking stare seared over the desks.
“Rest assured, I had nothing to do with this,” he said.
I folded my arms and turned toward him; my only refuge on an island of judgement. “Do we call them out?” I asked.
Captain Ortega inhaled. “No.” He started immediately down the hall, and without a word I knew to follow.
My stomach turned. So much for the house that justice built.
The Captain carved a path through the building, leaving room enough to move through the parted humanity. When finally he stopped it was at the threshold of a briefing room, upon which a sign read ‘AUTHORISED PRESS PERSONNEL ONLY.’ He offered the printed sheet, and glared from behind his moustache barricade.
“Read this,” he said. “Don’t go off script.”
He ushered me inside and onto a raised platform, with a podium front and centre, stage lights above, and a series of flags along the wall. In the seats below were a throng of reporters, eager from the moment we stepped into the room. Their photographers knelt in the aisles to steal shots before we’d even begun.
The ‘wounded’ officers rolled in moments after, and made no effort to hide their contempt. It was like some kind of bad comedy where nobody could recognize the punchline. How had it come to this?
Ortega took to the podium, and adjusted the microphone. “Good afternoon.” His presence seemed to settle the reporters, and prompted them to sit.
“In the early hours of this morning, a yet to be identified vandal, dressed in clown regalia and demonstrating superhuman levels of strength and agility, struck a series of automated tellers across the city. During the final incident, at approximately 1:12am, officers were able to confront the vandal, and were assisted by Glimmer Girl. Both officers and Glimmer Girl were injured in the resulting incident, and the vandal evaded arrest.”
It sounded so matter of fact, but there was nothing formal about the waves of hate emanating from the other side of the stage. They had to know that it was an accident, and that I was only there to help. I stood with my hands in my lap, like a convict waiting for the gallows.
Captain Ortega continued. “As you’re aware, Glimmer Girl is an anonymous citizen with superhuman ability, and an official deputy of the Milestone Super-Crimes Division. I’d like to take a moment to remind the press that the personal identities of deputized citizens are protected under the Federal Hero Recognition Act of 1967.”
I half smirked at the irony. If only Simon had known.
“For the last two years she has established an exemplary record of volunteer service to this city. Glimmer Girl will now read a statement, clarifying her role in this morning’s events. There will be no questions.”
He stepped from the podium, and to my side. Captain Ortega remained as steel and resolute as he ever was, but there was something else, too. I’d always been on probation, and then there was that handful of words. Did he mean what he said?
I stepped to the podium, and under the scrutiny of dozens of press. My tongue scraped against the roof of my mouth like sandpaper. Then I remembered the printout in hand.
“Um, good afternoon,” I said. Like the Captain instructed I followed at the sheet, and read aloud, trying to make the words my own. “In my role as deputy, there are times when things don’t go according to plan. Last night, as I executed my duty to the city, there was an unfortunate altercation in which two officers, Damien Fox and Cameron Flynn, were injured. These two men, fine officers in their own right, were injured as the result of a one time blunder, and to them I am sorry.”
My jaw wound tight. I didn’t have to look to know they were smirking.
The statement went on: “I ask the wider Milestone City Police Department for their understanding and forgiveness, and look forward to working together for a long time to come.”
If there was one thing that could make the hangover worse it was the lack of consequence. Two reckless men with guns got to keep their standing, in exchange for mine. All I had to do was fall on my sword, right? I looked to the Captain. He was still behind me, but he didn’t smile, even more than usual.
From the wings an aide stepped onto the platform, and whispered in Ortega’s ear. It was enough to throw my concentration, along with the reporters suddenly scrambling for their phones.
The Captain grabbed me by the shoulder, and leaned into the microphone. “I’m sorry, everyone. We’ll have to conclude this at a later date.”
Nobody was listening, and I was lost.
Ortega dragged me back to the offices, and growled as he marched. “She’s back.”
I ignored the cops whose grandstanding was cut short, and put on my game face. No matter the fallout, I was still needed.
* * * *
Convention would have called it the perfect day. The sun was high and the clouds were sparse, lighting up the open football arena for the crowd of ten thousand clad in blue and white. On any other Saturday they would have been cheering for the Milestone City Kings, playing their home turf on the path to playoffs.
Instead the arena was silent as whole families sat fixed, with their collective eyes glued to the stadium monitor. There, projected to massive proportions, was the muscle-bound harlequin, sprawled on a bench behind a group of hogtied men in team jerseys.
“Are you paying attention now?” Judy hummed. “Are you watching closely? Trust me, you’re not going to want to miss a moment of this.”
She feigned a yawn, leaned back, and pressed her boot to the back of one of the strapping men, all the while cradling the stick of exploding death in her palms. The hostage pulled away, and she giggled, pressing her weapon against him.
“I tell you, nobody gets to nationals when they’re an armless, legless corpse,” she mused. “That’s not a threat. That’s just a statement of fact. Ever see a cadaver win MVP? Not in this lifetime! Ha! Lifetime…”
There were gasps, sobs, and boos from all sides. Loudest of all were the children, most of whom couldn’t understand more than this woman was ugly and bad.
“Don’t you just love the drama of sport?” Judy giggled. Her voice boomed over the crowd; her glee chilling their bones. “I know it’s not what you signed up for, but hey, a show’s a show, right?”
She leaned to the camera. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Probably. Maybe. Kinda. All you have to do is sit in your seats, and wait for the guest star to arrive… and then we’ll play it by ear. Glimmer Girl! Where are you?”
Explosions rocked the corners of the arena, much to Judy’s amusement. The air was as thick with fear as it was with smoke, only prompting her smile to grow.
To be continued...
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