The city looked vastly different in the broad light of day, a bright and shimmering testament to civilization. Warren took in the scent of the previous night’s rainfall, soaking in the clean feeling of the air around him as he strode down the street. Spiral City’s citizenry milled about on the broad sidewalks, hundreds of people walking to their various places of employment. Keeping his head tilted slightly down, eyes roving to keep situational awareness, Warren walked among them, just another civilian in the work-a-day world.
They have no clue, he thought, abstaining from making eye contact, however briefly, with anyone. How many of them have I personally scarred for life? How many have to pay outrageous insurance prices because of the work I took part in? Warren seldom thought along this line, but given the outburst of one of his fellow group members the night before, he found himself trapped in this mode of thinking. The people of Spiral City had been terrorized on and off for nearly eight years by The Zapper and his forces. How much of that trauma, he wondered, was he personally responsible for?
“Oof,” someone grunted as Warren collided with him walking in the opposite direction. Warren shook his head a little and looked down at a middle-aged man in a dark blue Dickies jacket and jeans, his graying hair little more than a fringe ringing the sides and back of his head, a befuddled grin on his face. “Sorry about that, bud. Wasn’t watching where I was going,” the man said, gesturing with the phone in his hand.
“Not a problem,” Warren replied, one hand raised in a dismissal. He stepped to his right and continued on, giving the stranger not another thought, stuffing his hands in his pockets. As muscular and athletic as he was, Warren had trained long and hard under the tutelage of some of the Zapper’s other henchmen to learn how to pick pockets, and it had taken an enormous effort not to practice this trade when the balding man had bumped into him.
Keeping his hands in his own coat pockets helped reduce the temptation to do this exact thing to others he brushed against on his way to work. Pausing at an intersection, standing to one side of a cluster of folks in formal business attire, Warren observed the traffic crossing before him. It would have been the simplest thing in the world to move around to the back of that group, pressing his way through them once the light changed and make of show of being in a hurry, slipping wallets and watches from their persons to his own pockets. If anyone caught him out, his sheer physical prowess could make any confrontation short and sweet as well.
Unless one of them’s carrying, he thought, eyeballing the cluster of civilians. Spiral City’s gun ownership had steadily climbed over the years of the Zapper’s operations, skyrocketing in the months since his capture. Talking heads on the radio and local television stations posited consistently that everyday people still didn’t feel safe, even with the region’s most prolific supervillain locked away. Plenty of folks calling in to talk to these media personalities made the point that not everyone in the Zapper’s forces had been captured, and they would be damned if they were going to be caught off-guard if they should decide to return to villainous activities.
The light changed, and the cluster broke apart, making their way across the street. Warren remained a couple of steps back from them, head bent down until he made the opposite sidewalk. As he looked up again, he spotted his own place of employ, stepping over a divider of grass into the sprawling parking lot of the Northrun Mall.
At seven in the morning, only a small handful of vehicles dotted the lot. Warren recognized immediately the black minivan belonging to Jacob Turner, the head of the mall’s security. Warren grumbled under his breath, wondering what sort of nonsense tasks Turner was going to have him step into first thing in the morning. As his immediate supervisor, Turner wasn’t supposed to have access to information regarding Warren’s career working with the Zapper; unfortunately, Miranda Clip, the mall’s Supervisor of Operations, had felt it essential that her head of security know what sort of man was going to be working under him.
Warren stepped up onto the wide concrete circle fronting the many doors on the mall’s west entrance, straying over toward a single solid metal door marked ‘Employees Only’, beside which stood a glinting metallic keypad. He unzipped his jacket and pulled the plastic-covered keycard and ID forward, passing it over a scanner on the front of the device. It beeped, flipping a red light on top to green, and a metallic ‘cha-THACK’ sounded from the solid door. He pulled it open to reveal the employee entrance corridor, and swept himself inside.
A rancid aroma immediately greeted him when the door shut behind him, the sight of two wheel-based Rigid brand garbage cans standing silent sentinel nearby. Day old fried foods from the food court filled both to nearly capacity, along with a variety of other detritus collected from around the mall. Warren sniffled and passed by them, down toward the main security office.
Before making it there, he stepped through a push door into the men’s locker room, making his way toward the far end where his own equipment was stored. He dialed in his combination and opened the door, staring for a long moment at a news magazine cover that had been taped to the back of the inside. The picture showed the Zapper in a blazing orange jumpsuit, his wrists and ankles joined by lengths of chain and manacles. In bold white print along the top and bottom borders was the kitchse headline, ‘SHOCKING DEVELOPMENT; THE ZAPPER, CAUGHT!’.
“Thought it might be a nice trip down memory lane,” said a gruff, life long smoker’s voice from his right. Warren turned his head to see Turner standing at the end of the locker row, arms folded over his man bosoms, leering at him like the cat that caught the canary. Turner looked at his wristwatch, a cheap little Casio with a Velcro band. “Kind of early for you, ain’t it? Or are all of you lackey-types the early bird gets the word types?”
“I’ve covering Ruiz’s shift, then doing my own,” Warren said, taking off his jacket and hanging it up inside on the hook. He grabbed the utility belt off the bottom of the locker and strapped it around his waist, popping the bottle of medication from his jacket pocket into one of the lower cargo ones on his black uniform pants.
“I didn’t authorize that,” Turner groused. “That’s gonna put you close to forty.”
“Yeah, well, I need the money, and this was supposed to be a full-time job to begin with,” Warren replied, clapping the locker door shut harder than he’d intended to. “Radios charged?”
“In the office,” Turner said. “And hey, I got no problem with you covering Ruiz’s shift, but we’ve got plenty enough guys on for the afternoon, so consider this your standard for today.” Turner slouched away, his usual smug self, leaving Warren to remain by his locker, simmering, hands balled into tight fists. Just once, he thought, I’d like to beat that man bloody. Warren took a deep, steadying breath, walked over to the drinking fountain, and popped two of his pills after taking a drink.
He looked at the bottle for a moment before pocketing it again. Anquil, .25mg. It wasn’t exactly what he’d been hoping for in terms of finding a lasting solution to bring his volatility to an even level, but Roger had recommended it when he took Warren on as a sponsor. “You’re going to want to hit people,” Roger had warned early on. “All of the time. This stuff won’t make that urge go away entirely, but it’ll make it a lot less frequent and easier to ignore when it comes around.”
Warren had done his due diligence before taking any of Roger’s medication, discovering that it was well-known as an antipsychotic, often prescribed for people with hyperactive sexual tendencies and behaviors. As Roger had described it, the urge to hench or behave in a hunching fashion was similar to any other addiction. A person could start with medication and therapy, then ween themselves off of the pills over the course of time, as he had done.
Warren grunted to himself and headed back out of the locker room, down to the security office. A couple of other patrolmen were in the small chamber, going over the roster and assignments for the shift and clipping on the earpieces for their walkies. Warren snagged one of the last fully charged units and attached an earpiece, stringing it up and into his left ear. He clicked on the mic as he pinned it to his lapel. “Mic check, one two,” he said. A couple of the other guards gave him a silent thumb’s up, and Turner cleared his throat to garner their attention.
“All right, fellahs, mall opens in about half an hour. Nothing too big going on early on, but the Barnes and Noble has some local author coming in at about eleven o’clock to hock her newest cookbook. Lady’s kind of a stickler for appearances, and a touch paranoid, wants one of our people to keep a standing presence in the bookstore for the duration of her little event, which runs from eleven to one. We got any volunteers?” Some feet shuffled and arms crossed, but nobody seemed keen on the notion. Warren looked around at his colleagues, hitched a sigh, and put the fingers up on his right hand. “Excellent, Voss’ll handle the kitchen lady. Now,” Turner said, pulling up a laminated sheet from the small desk tucked into the corner of the office, covered mostly in monitors. “The guys at Discovery Gifts have got a work order in for their second camera, and maintenance is going to be down there to do the install at around nine-thirty, so we’ll have that back on the bird’s eye, and none too soon. Store’s had a string of nickel-and-dime walkouts, and today might bring the same kind of problem until that camera gets put in. Jenkins, I want you to swing by the store every half hour or so until that camera goes in, capiche?”
“Understood, sir,” replied Jenkins, a slightly overzealous young man working his first job out of high school. Warren wanted to like the kid, having identified wth his mindset a little when he first got the job. Nineteen years old, athletically structured, Jenkins likely had been pretty good at most things he attempted in life. Perhaps he wasn’t a top-level jock, but surely could have been in the top ten percent, performance-wise.
Which is precisely where I used to be, Warren thought. Always in the top tier, but never on top of the mountain.
Jenkins had proven himself a fairly smart kid, too, often bringing up obscure facts and research articles he’d spent his free time browsing through, letting anyone and everyone know that he was fascinated by all things intellectually challenging. The kid had a mind that wanted to be tested and expanded.
And this was, Warren admitted, precisely why he could no longer stand the kid; Jenkins reminded Warren of himself in his earlier days, when he’d first gone to North Dakota State. Life still had a myriad opportunities for him, and unlike Warren, Jenkins would likely follow a legitimate path forward. He’s going to live the kind of life I should have, he thought. The one could have, if I hadn’t been so full of myself.
A few minutes later, Turner set his security officers loose to start checking through the mall before opening. Warren stalked alone through the north end of the mall’s first floor, double-checking that the gates were secure on all of the stores that didn’t open right away with the mall’s general opening hours. Nothing seemed immediately out of place, with the exception of some movement inside the FYE store at the very northern tip of the level. Formerly a JCPenny’s, the pop culture entertainment store had just signed a lease on the space, and Warren idly waved to the handful of new employees who were already setting to work getting the place set up ahead of its grand opening on the upcoming weekend.
As he passed by a couple of benches for public seating near the FYE, Warren ran a lone, thick finger along their backs, grunting at the thick layer of dust he’d dragged it through. He keyed his radio briefly. “Voss to dispatch,” he said. His earpiece double-clicked, telling him that Turner was still in the office and was acknowledging that he had the supervisor’s attention. “Could you tell housekeeping to dust down these benches and potted areas on the first floor north end? Must be weeks’ worth of dust here.”
“I’ll let Jenny know,” Turner responded over the radio. He double-clicked again, shorthand for ending the dialogue, and Warren continued on his preliminary walk. In the quiet minutes before the main doors opened and the Church of the Eternal Dollar welcomed its flock, ever eager to fork over their hard-earned dollars in exchange for googaws that were unnecessary to everyday living, he enjoyed the peaceful, expectant quality of the air within the structure’s confines. He likened it to the hours waiting in one of the transport bays of the Zapper’s headquarters, all of the troops’ gear assembled and at the ready, their orders memorized, mission parameters set in their minds.
It was the only electricity that didn’t belong to him, Warren thought, craning his head upward to look up the escalators as they whirred into motion a dozen yards away. That power, that atmosphere, it was ours, and ours alone. We didn’t have powers, or magical amulets or space-aged technology. We just had our training, our skills. We could have done so much with just that.
“I could have,” he muttered to himself with a sigh, continuing on his initial walkthrough.
“It’s just such a relief to have someone keeping an eye on me here,” said Nancy Teagan, playing with a single curly lock of hair at the corner of her brow. She was not what Warren had been expecting from a cookbook author, certainly not when the food pictured on the cover appeared to be the kind of homestyle flare that reminded one of down south cooking that women like Paula Deen had become famous for. He’d been expecting a plump, middle-aged mother figure; instead, he found himself greeting a 20-something stick figure with platinum blonde hair who looked like she would be more at home on a runway than in a kitchen. “I just worry that somebody’s going to try to take advantage of me, since I’m so small.”
Warren nodded, trying not to stare. Teagan was a classically attractive woman, likely used to be ogled at, but there was a subtle quality about her that made him want to beg off of this volunteer assignment. She’s vapid, he thought after a minute as she prattled on about how much she’d preferred her time out on the west coast on her book tour. She has that Valley Girl vibe going on, and it makes me want to scream.
He waited politely for a minute or two, letting her blather wash over him until she seemed to run out of steam, before clearing his throat. “Miss Teagan, I’m going to go ahead and do a quick walk-through of the store before your event, make sure nothing’s funny.”
“Oh,” she said, apparently non-plussed. “Of course, by all means, Mr. Voss.” Warren gave her a polite smile and nod, then vanished into the aisles and rows of books, making a show of peering at everything carefully. He had no intention of spending any more time with the woman unoccupied than he had to, and if he took his time inspecting the bookstore, he could ensure that he had only a couple of minutes with her before she had to take a seat at her table and turn her attention to prospective buyers.
He found nothing out of sorts, of course, other than a handful of books that looked out of place. He took out his cell phone and snapped a photo of them, then approached the store’s manager, Ron. “Hey Ron,” he said, greeting the manager briefly before flipping his phone screen around toward him. “Found these over in the sci-fi/fantasy section. You recognize them?”
Ron leaned over the circular help desk in the center of the store and squinted at the screen, holding out his hand for it. “I’m not sure,” he mumbled, setting the phone down and tapping away on a computer keyboard nearby. He clicked a few times on his mouse, and shook his head. “Yeah, no, those don’t belong here. Let me see this again,” he said quietly, looking closely at the screen and shaking his head. “Tsk. I know this guy, though,” he said, handing Warren the phone back. “He’s a local indie writer, tried to arrange a book signing here a few times. He’s forever asking us to give him a spot on our shelves.”
“So why not let him in if he’s local,” Warren asked.
“Because I’ve read his work, and it’s garbage,” Ron replied with a smirk. “He isn’t one of those few folks who’s talented enough to make a real go of it on his own if he decided to. What’s worse, he uses sock accounts and dupes online to leave positive feedback for his own trashy books. He’s the worst kind of hack.” Warren made a ‘hmm’ sound low in his throat, went back to the sci-fi/fantasy section, and scooped up the offending materials, bringing them back to Ron for his judgement. “You could do me a huge favor right now if you took those in the back stock room and put them in the overstock boxes.” Warren happily strolled toward the back of the store and made his way to the stockroom, staring around at the various displays and boxes filled with books, CDs, and role-playing miniatures that occasionally sold to the hardcore nerds of the area.
The overstock boxes were easy enough to locate, back by a fire exit and clearly marked with a cardboard sign overhead. He dumped the indie books into the first one he could spot that had space left in it, turning around and putting his hands on his hips, taking in a deep breath. The subtle aroma of books in their hundreds eased his senses more effectively than any medication could, though he suspected that the pills swallowed a few hours earlier were lending a heavy helping hand as well.
Just give it another minute, he told himself. One more minute, and you’ll be able to go out there and hang back, just keep an eye out for the usual Looney Tunes types. Warren had known the sort to look for before even taking this job; he’d worked with plenty of them in the Zapper’s outfit.
By the time he made his way back to the front of the store, Teagan was seated at her little table, and she was jabbering with another young woman who had a copy of her cookbook in hand. Secure in his ability to hang back, Warren took up a standing post in front of a nearby end cap displaying several clearance manga titles, scanned the shopping public, and let his mind wander as his eyes roved for signs of trouble.
It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it was his.
“I’m just saying, it’s complete bullshit,” Terry said, shaking his head as he hung up his gear belt a few lockers down from Warren. “I need to keep my schedule flexible, make sure I can keep both jobs, you know? But then I’ve never got a full day off, so I can never get Cindy for more than a couple of hours. She’s five years old, man. This kind of shit, she’s going to grow up thinking I don’t care about making time for her.”
“Not necessarily,” Warren replied, pulling on his denim jacket and carefully lining up the zipper tongue. “You’ve got to work both jobs to afford your place and your bills, and provide for her. Didn’t you say your support order is kind of high?”
“Six hundred dollars a month,” Terry replied with a weighted sigh. “It wasn’t much back when I was still with Brinkman Co, but as soon as they shuttered, I couldn’t find another outfit that’d take me on as a full-time journeyman. Local plumbers’ union won’t bump me up the wait list, either, so I can’t count on that.”
“What about asking the court for an adjustment order,” Warren offered, closing his locker and snapping the dial lock closed. Terry snorted derisively.
“You’re fucking kidding me, right? Let me tell you, big guy, the only way they’d do that is if I demonstrate financial hardship or crisis. In other words, I’d have to wait until I’m on the brink of losing everything before they’d even consider giving me a little mercy.”
“Any chance Laura might be willing to ask on your behalf? She’s got to know how rough this is on you and Cindy.”
“Man, that woman doesn’t give two shits how bad it gets for me,” Terry snapped, slamming his own locker shut. Hands on his hips, he looked down, breathed out through his clenched teeth. “But Cindy? Yeah, she might think about it for Cindy. Laura’s a grade-A cunt, Warren, but she’s a good mom. I could never fault her for that.” Terry reached up and patted Warren on the shoulder briefly. “Good talkin’, man. See you tomorrow.”
Warren waited a minute for Terry to leave, then pulled out his cell phone and headed to one of several news sites he browsed daily, heading to a tab he’d kept bookmarked for several weeks. The United States Senate had introduced a bill nearly a month earlier that had raised a red flag for him, brought directly to his email inbox thanks to Google Alerts.
No movement today, he thought, turning phone off and heading out of the locker room, making his way toward the employee entrance and exit. The midday sun streamed down bright and warm as he stepped out onto the concrete circle fronting the mall, the stink of freshly poured tar heavy in the air. Warren peered around the lot, spotting a heavy construction truck near the west end of the lot that had its rounded drum angled up to pour fresh material to patch the area.
Warren picked his way through the busy afternoon streets toward his father’s house, keeping his hands once more tucked in his pockets, his eyes down toward the sidewalk. Perhaps three blocks from home, he heard faint shouting coming from behind him, and a quick look over his shoulder showed a grungy young man in a leather jacket, gray knit cap and tattered jeans pelting through the throngs of people behind him. About fifteen yards behind and losing ground came a middle-aged Cuban-American man, his thick gray hair flying around his head as he chased after, a baseball bat in hand, hollering in Spanish and pointing at the fleeing youth.
I should just leave it alone, Warren thought momentarily, his body already having come to a halt, pivoting around toward the likely thief. This is none of my business. I have nothing to gain by getting involved. The kid could have a gun for all I know. Yet despite this run of internal monologue, Warren’s body seemed to move of its own volition into position, people nearby sensing or seeing and hearing the situation around them and acting accordingly; in Spiral City, folks had become acclimated to moving swiftly out of harm’s way.
Warren Voss, however, had years of training and service to a supervillain running his own instincts. With a narrowed eye on the prize, he took one step toward the oncoming thug, planted his heel, pivoted his hips, and whipped his booted right foot in an upward swinging arc. The impact of his foot into the thief’s face was tremendous, a single violent moment that pummeled the area with a suddenness usually reserved for far more devastating events, like a car crash or a gunshot.
The kid crumbled, blood streaming down his face from a nose broken on contact with the big man’s boot. The shopkeeper caught up, panting heavily, hands on his knees as he hunched over and muttered in his native tongue. Warren looked down at the thief, who groaned as he pulled both hands up over his broken face, rocking slightly back and forth. The former henchman could feel the intense stares of nearby onlookers, heard the snaps and clicks of cell phone cameras working their digital magic to immortalize this moment.
He didn’t even wait for the shopkeeper to thank him or explain what had happened. Instead, Warren did what he’d always done after a successful task; he booked like hell was on his heels, escaping the attention of nearby onlookers and pedestrians. He didn’t need the attention of the authorities; that would bring the HAC down on him yet again.
And he wanted to avoid those people at all costs.
Warren stopped himself a good fifty yards up the street from his father’s house, letting out a low grumble at the sight of the dark green El Camino parked at the curb a few spots down from his father’s Volvo. Roger had been his sponsor long enough for him to recognize the vehicle, and its presence at his home put him ill at ease. Roger had pointed out to him on numerous occasions that associating with former henching colleagues wasn’t against the rules of the program, but that it was highly discouraged. If this were so, then why was he showing up at the Voss family home?
Well, technically, we never worked together, he thought as he slowly approached the half-breed vehicle, hunching down to try and peer through the back windshield. He didn’t see Roger’s shape in the driver’s seat, and nobody was in the passenger’s side either, leading him to wonder if perhaps Roger had already made himself comfortable inside the house.
Roger Malik had been a top-tier henchman for Cyclonus, an enhanced human with the power to control elemental energies, with wind and storms being his primary forces of choice. Roger had been the right-hand man to the right-hand man, effectively serving as the Number Two in Cyclonus’s operations. Had he continued serving the supervillain faithfully, Roger would likely have spent the remainder of his years locked in some deep, dark prison cell upon the villain’s defeat and capture at the hands of the Hero Action Committee. However, he had in fact turned whistleblower and informant against his employer, effectively receiving a pardon from the HAC in exchange for his testimony and participation in Henchman’s Anonymous.
If that had been the whole of Roger’s story, Warren would likely have never agreed to be sponsored by him. He would have felt cheated in comparison, as if Roger had been rewarded for his disloyalty. But as it turned out, the federal government had neglected to inform him of a few things when he signed the documents they required to put the deal into motion. Roger discovered first that he would not be eligible for military enlistment. This information came to him when he attempted to sign up with the United States Army just four days after his deal was inked, and the recruiter informed him that his government profile had been ‘blue-flagged’.
A brief bit of research and thirty dollars spent on a service that allowed him to look up his own government profile for twenty-four hours explained to Roger what precisely being ‘blue-flagged’ entailed. He would never be allowed to join any branch of the Department of Defense. He would never be able to receive training or commission to any federal law enforcement agency. Likewise, he was barred from gaining training or employment with the Federal Department of Corrections, the New York and California State Departments of Corrections, and the Border Patrol in any and all capacities.
In short, most avenues down which his particular skill set could maneuver him had been demolished.
Warren walked past the El Camino and bounded up the steps to the porch of his father’s house, stepping through the front door to hear muffled voices coming from the kitchen. He recognized instantly the low, gravely vocal tones of his father’s speech, and after a moment standing in the entryway, made out Roger’s as well. Hope it’s been a nice chat, he mused darkly. Warren peeled off his jacket and hung it up, heading down the hallway toward his father and his sponsor.
Sam Voss and Roger Malik sat across from each other at the round kitchen table opposite the fridge and sink, against the lefthand wall as Warren stepped through the open entryway, a couple of open beers at their elbows, playing cards in hand. His father’s back was to him, shoulders hunched as they always were when he had a good hand, with Roger looking up and meeting Warren’s stare as the bigger man quietly stepped past the threshold.
“Hey there, Warren,” Roger said, lifting his can in a salut. “Grab a seat. Your dad and I were just talking a little hockey.”
“Commiserating, really,” said Samuel with a grunt. “There’s no goddamn way we make the playoffs, not this year. Endelman can’t protect the goal worth a shit, and Hoffman isn’t worth a third of the money they’re paying him.”
“Endelman’s a kid,” Roger replied. “He’ll grow into the job. That’s what you get when you take on a rookie and have to throw him in the net right off the bat.”
“Rog, a word if I may,” Warren asked, tipping his head toward the archway to the living room. Roger nodded, pushing away from the table and following the bigger man into the living room, then up the stairs and down the hall toward Warren’s bedroom. Roger eased the door shut and sighed.
“I’m sorry to ambush you here at home, but I needed to talk to you about an opportunity,” Roger began. Warren took off his uniform shirt and tossed it on the bed, taking a plain black tee out of his dresser and pulling it on over his head.
“What kind of opportunity we talking about here,” Warren asked. Kicking off his boots and pants. He took a pair of faded blue jeans out of his bottom drawer and pulled them on, relacing his boots a moment later and sitting on the edge of his bed. “If it’s a job, I’m listening. I’d take just about anything to get out of that fucking mall.”
“It’s not a job, Warren. Trust me, I wish I had something to line up for you, but I’d probably take it myself if I could. As it is, construction’s a pretty secure job around this city.”
“That’s an understatement,” Warren said. “Especially now that this Burnout guy’s started acting up. You know anything about him?”
“All I’ve heard is that he’s the genuine article, powered human. He doesn’t have a gang, though, he’s one of those solo types. That’s good news for us, though, means he won’t be going after guys and gals who’re vulnerable. But he’s not what I’m here about, bud.”
“Then what, Roger? What could possess you to show up at my father’s house, man?” Roger smiled at him and pulled a pamphlet out of his back pocket, offering it to Warren, who flipped it open. At first glance, it appeared to be a court order of some kind. “What is this?”
“It’s an order from a federal judge, allowing you access to speak to one Jacob Lesinski. It’s not an option that all of us get, and I think you need to take it.”
“Who’s Jacob Lesinski,” Warren asked, setting the pamphlet on the bed beside him.
“It’s the Zapper’s real name,” Roger said. “It’s time to move up, War, and complete Step 5. Visit Lesinski, and tell him you can’t work for him again if he ever gets out.”