The Gathering Storm, Part 6

Posted: December 9, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
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Sometimes, Cole wondered if his affinity for the wee hours had more to do with his obsession to become a crime-fighter than did any actual desire for meting out justice—after all, so much of the action with superpowers and thwarting criminals and supervillains seemed to happen after sundown. And he’d always loved the night.

Ironic, though, that for so much of his life he’d enjoyed the night for the serenity it offered, and now he wanted to find the action in the darkness. The night and the small hours of morning had been his shield—his private and protected time. The night was a place where he could avoid those who caused him such stress, from the fellow students he’d known since Kindergarten who had turned into his quiet tormentors by fourth grade for reasons he still didn’t understand, to his parents Samantha and George Alderman who both taught at the private school that had been the source of so much of his anguish.

So much of his teen and early 20s life spent sleeping as much as he could during the day—and that certainly became easier during college—and doing most of his schoolwork and deep thinking until just an hour or two before dawn.

At first his parents tried to dissuade him from that and convince him to spent the daylight and early evening hours with them or with the peers who should have been his friends but weren’t. They stopped trying that about the time his powers began to manifest themselves—early in high school. Then, suddenly, his nighttime-oriented life was a blessing to them, so that they would have fewer awkward moments trying to figure out how to relate to a transhuman son.

By a trick of his genes, Cole Alderman had managed to alienate his parents in addition to his classmates, and he still wasn’t certain if that was a blessing or a curse that they had withdrawn from him.

College had been easier in terms of finding friends. A campus of thousands, rather than a high school with less than 300 students, offered far more chances to locate like-minded people. By then, he was also so much more adept at hiding the transhuman powers that had made him a complete pariah once a few schoolmates in high school caught on and the rumors and gossip started to fly.

He still hated the fact he had been blamed—though nothing had ever been officially pinned on him—for Hannah’s injuries the night of the Sadie Hawkins Dance—and he regretted the scars that Isaac bore from the Homecoming Dance. The irony was that the attack on Hannah was what made Cole a complete outcast in high school, and he’d had nothing whatsoever to do with her being hurt. Whereas he had been entirely responsible for Isaac’s injuries and no one ever even leveled an accusation at him about that.

Now he stood alone in the darkness, just barely inside the dim oval of illumination from an aging streetlight, having earned a biomedical engineering degree from the New Judah campus of the University of Connecticut almost a year earlier and still not having found enough interest in traditional daytime work hours to put it to use at anyone’s company.

This was the twelfth night in a row he had stood in this spot, in a seedy but not overtly dangerous part of town. He’d been told by people in the know that sometimes, it only took a night or two of waiting, and sometimes it took a few dozen. So he’d made sure to be here every night, from midnight to 3 a.m., without fail. He didn’t want to miss his chance.

The Guardian Corps were very careful. They didn’t want villains or authorities knowing where they were based, so one could only petition them indirectly. They made random sweeps at various official waiting spots in the city. If they saw you at one of those places, they knew you were probably interested in putting on a mask and a costume and trouncing some bad guys. They would take you in, and at least give you a little training; give you a shot.

Teach you some of the ins and outs.

The alternative was to just go out, get a costume and start trying to kick some ass alone. Most people who did that ended up hospitalized or dead pretty fast, though, Cole figured.

Even if he was about to take his night life to a dangerous new level, there was no reason to take chances learning things the hardest way. Better to come up through an established system. Learn in the minor leagues before trying out for the majors.

He ticked off the final minutes and then ticked off some more, and when it was a quarter-past-three, he gave up, and went home on heavy legs, dejection like a shroud over him. He’d gone home feeling that way for 12 days now, and each time the feeling got worse.

This time, though, someone was waiting for him outside when he got to the apartment he shared with three roommates. This time, Cole didn’t go inside his apartment to sleep. Instead, he let himself be led to an unknown place by a costumed stranger to embark on a questionable vocation.

At least the hours are good, Cole thought.

* * *

A scream—a woman. A shout—a man.

In response to the sounds, Mad Dash made a hairpin turn while running at around 40 miles per hour, and headed toward the alley that was the source of both.

He almost knocked over a woman with a torn shirt who was fleeing from the gloom of that alley, and came to a stop a few paces away from another woman inside it, this one in a costume colored like antique ivory—the design of a skull sketched half-realistically and half-abstractly over the face of the mask—and her left hand clad in a glittering and razor-sharp gauntlet with three fingers and a thumb that Mad Dash assumed corresponded to the four deep gashes in the belly of the man slowly writhing at her feet.

A great deal of the man’s blood was on the ground, along with a few pieces of what Mad Dash could only assume were from his small and large intestines. The hero presumed that the man would probably be screaming if not for the fact his windpipe seemed to have been slashed as well.

The costumed woman was simply looking at Mad Dash; she was tense and primed, but not attacking him.

“So, um, did he deserve it?” Mad Dash asked sincerely. “I’m guessing he was the yeller and the woman was the screamer? Wow!” he said, as he looked again at the dying man. “You were kinda sloppy-rough there, don’t you think? Really made a mess of the alley. This is really gonna put the garbage men off their lunch tomorrow”

“Did he deserve it?” the woman asked Mad Dash incredulously, repeating the hero’s words back to him in an almost mocking tone.

“I don’t know. I was asking you. Hey, you’re Ladykiller, aren’t you? Your claw is a lot shinier than I always thought it would be. So, uh, I just gotta ask again…was this like justifiable force? I need to know whether I need to fight you and stuff now.”

“You saw the woman running from the alley. Do you think this guy had this coming?”

“Could be. Was he cheating on you with that woman or something?”

“What?! Are you for real?” Ladykiller sputtered in a dumbfounded tone.

Mad Dash tilted his head and his eyes turned upward as if in deep thought. “I don’t know,” he said as if coming to some sort of mix of epiphany and self-contemplation. “Maybe I’m not real. I mean, I could be a figment of your imagination. But how would I know?”

Ladykiller paused, bewildered. “No,” she finally said when she realized he wasn’t teasing her. “No, no, no. I meant: Are you serious?”

“I try to be, but it never seems to take,” Mad Dash said as if admitting to something deep and shameful. “I just don’t seem to be good at it.”

“Let me try this one more time: You don’t seriously think I just gutted this man as part of a lover’s spat, do you?”

“Well, you’ve got a lot of negativity around you over the idea that you were in a relationship with him, so I’m kind of leaning toward the thought maybe he wasn’t your boyfriend,” Mad Dash responded.

“No shit, Sherlock. He was trying to rape that woman who ran off.”

“Oh. Well, I guess that answers my earlier question about whether he deserved it,” he said, then paused and frowned, jutting out his lower lip. “I’m wondering if disembowelment might be an overreaction though.”

“You barge in here, confuse the hell out of me, and now you’re going to criticize my approach to dealing with forcible rape?”

Mad Dash put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “No, nah, nada. Those in glass igloos shouldn’t punt bricks and all that. I’ve got a skeleton or two in my pantry. Say, you want to get a bite to eat?”

“What?!”

“Eat. Chow. Munch. Nosh. I’ve been running a lot tonight. Need to get some carbs in me like nobody’s tomorrow. I know the perfect place. C’mon,” he said, and darted off in a blur. A few seconds later, he dashed back to her side. “Oh, sorry, guess I should slow down for you,” he said apologetically, and then began to walk out of the alley. When he realized she wasn’t following, he turned back and added: “I’lllll paaaaay. The last crook I pounded had a really fat wallet.”

Ladykiller shook her head quickly as if trying to shake cobwebs off it, then paused and shook her head again, far more slowly. Mad Dash smiled crookedly in an expression that seemed like earnestness-gone-wild, and she threw up her own hands in a gesture of surrender that echoed his earlier one. “Oh, what the hell. OK. I’ll eat with you. But this isn’t a date, in case you have any ideas—and I pick up the tip.”

* * *

Tooth Fairy crouched in the tree, hidden by the night as she looked through one of the windows of the house. The man inside, moving through the kitchen with a cup of black coffee in one hand and a cup of hot chocolate in the other.

Another window, and the sight of a cat sauntering across the carpet.

When did he get a cat? she wondered, then pondered what it might taste like.

Yet another window, and the sight of a nearly four-year-old girl with rosy pink cheeks, accepting the gift of barely steaming cocoa and then returning her gaze to some insipid show with smiling, singing characters who passed along advice on how to work together, play nice and be a good citizen.

Weaklings.

I wonder how Dora the Explorer tastes? Or Barney the Dinosaur. Or Arthur and Buster and all their friends at Lakewood Elementary?

Tooth Fairy took one last look at the little girl sipping hot chocolate that was probably in truth only lukewarm, and the woman licked her lips.

Another time, perhaps. Another time.

And then Tooth Fairy was racing across the grass, toward the woods, silken wings on her back flapping and giving the illusion that they were carrying her across the lawn as much as her feet were.

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