Krystie from two cubes down is in the break room when I enter, gabbling excitedly with some front office secretary I vaguely recognize. Her hair is pulled up into a complex bun that reminds me of an EZ Boy recliner—a chair-do. "I never thought of him as a murderer," the secretary says.
"Well, CNN says they totally have pictures," Krystie answers as I pull a dollar bill out of my pocket and do a shoeshine on the corner of the vending machine to flatten it. "And I can believe it. These superheroes think they can get away with anything, just 'cause they're better than us."
"Superheroes" gets my attention. "Who killed whom?" I ask.
Krystie huffs, as if it's such a bother to have to explain this again. "Digger killed some foreign dignitary yesterday in L.A."
"Huh." I turn to put my dollar in the slot.
"What's that mean?"
My dollar spits back out. "Digger didn't kill anybody," I say as I reinsert it.
"The news says he did," Krystie asserts as my dollar slips back out again.
"The news is . . . Never mind." I give the dollar another shine and stick it in again.
"The news is what?"
The machine sticks its tongue out at me a third time. I stick the dollar in my pocket and dig for coins. "The news is nothing. Never mind. You're right."
Krystie goes back to talking with her friend. I want to tell them that there's no way Digger did what they're saying, not because he's some icon of virtue, but because he's too lazy. I mean, it's not a lot of work to kill someone, but it stirs up a lot of crap that Digger just doesn't have the patience to put up with. But then they'd want to know how I know, and I'd either have to lie and look like I'm talking out my ass, or else tell them the truth, which would lead into this whole thing, and really, I just want some Ho Hos and a Coke. I've got barely enough change for the Ho Hos. Hope the Coke machine gives my bills some love.
"Pyrogena's involved in it, too. They're supposed to be having some kind of affair."
I chew my tongue. Pyrogena has avoided even being in the same room with Digger for over ten years. Hell, one time, she refused to have lunch with me because she said I smelled like him. I drop my coins in the machine and hit F-6. The corkscrew thing turns, but the corner of the HoHo package gets pinched in it, and it won't drop.
It's going to be a long day, I can tell.
Then, BOOM! The building shakes and my Ho Hos drop, which would be good, except for, you know, the explosion or whatever.
Yep, long day.
"Holy crap, what was that?" Krystie asks, as if any of us would know. I don't say anything, though, because I'm already on my way out the door. I leave the Ho Hos in the machine, for now. They're safer there.
As I step into the hall, the door leading into the printing plant bursts open and somebody yells, "Call 911!" I run toward the plant door as my knee grumbles in complaint. Ever since I tore my ACL a few years ago, my knee has developed its own language, an elaborate code of twinges and twangs and sharp, shooting pains that let me know when it's unhappy with how I'm treating it, which is usually.
Three things could cause an explosion like that: a bomb, a high-velocity impact like a plane crash or a meteorite, or a super. With experience, you can pretty much tell which is which, just by the sound. This sounded like a super.
I cough as I enter the plant. Something has punched a hole in the far wall, and the air is swimming with dust from all the paper and cardboard that gets cut up in here. We manufacture forms, paperwork for use in doctors' offices and insurance companies and body shops, those multiple carbon monstrosities with 8,000 little checkboxes. We even do forms for the IRS, which has led some of my friends to say I've switched to the dark side.
I sprint toward the hole, hear a voice crying out in pain as I circumnavigate a big printing press. I don't know what I'm planning to do, exactly. I've gotten out of shape since I gave up the hero biz, and I never was exactly super. But as little as I can do, it's probably more than anyone else here; I've at least got experience on my side. I just hope he doesn't have flame powers, whoever he is, because with all the paper dust in here, the whole place would go up in an instant.
I come out on the other side of the press and see them: two petite Asian girls, in matching skin-tight outfits of black and green. Their slender builds and close-cropped hair almost make them look like young boys. Their faces and outfits are mirror-images of each other, the colors on the outfits flipped left-right, like Frank Gorshin and the other guy in that old Star Trek episode.
I recognize them. They're called Hidari and Migi, super-strong Japanese twins. But they're supposed to be good guys. Why are they busting up a printing plant?
One of the girls has Ed Driscoll, the print-shop foreman, on the ground in what looks like a really painful wrist-lock. "Where is it?" the girl asks.
"Upstairs," Ed groans.
"What the hell are you doing? Stop that!" I say. The girl lets go of Ed as she and her sister turn to face me.
"Who are you?" asks the sister on the right.
"I'm Ron. I work in Customer Service," I say as Ed scrambles for the hole in the wall. "Look, I don't know what you think is going on here, but you've made a mistake."
"Take us upstairs," the girl says.
"No," I say. "You're in the wrong place. There are no bad guys here. I should know, I used to be a hero myself."
"Which one?" asks the other sister, stepping closer to me.
"It doesn't matter which one," I say. "What matters is, you need to go. This is just a printing company."
"So you say," says the first one. "Take us upstairs and we'll decide that for ourselves."
And before I can answer, the one close to me makes a grab for my arm. She's quick, but I shift my weight and twist out of her grip before she can lock my wrist. She's strong, but not super-strong like I expected. Maybe I'm confusing these girls with another pair of Japanese super-sisters. If that's true, though, then where did the hole in the wall come from?
She punches for my face, I block, and then we replay a scene out of Shaolin vs. Ninja, wherein I demonstrate the superiority of Wing Chun Sticky Hands over whatever variation of Shotokan it is she's using. She stumbles back, decides to forego hand techniques for a roundhouse kick at my head. I dodge back, throw in a couple of back handsprings and a round-off just to show her who she's dealing with. Her eyes narrow as she looks at me more closely, and my knee says, "Hey!"
Not out loud, of course. In knee-language.
"Migi!" yells the other one, which would make her Hidari. "Stop wasting . . ."
We all turn toward the sound, and there's Gene, the security guard, with his gun drawn. "The police are on their way, so everyone just . . ."
"This is so lame," Hidari says, and then Migi does this leap-step, sort of a grande jeté, but effortless, like she hardly moved at all, and then she's just there, by her sister's side. I'm still processing exactly what she did when the sisters clasp hands. The air hums with power, and they change.
They stand straighter, their muscles tauten, and veins begin to pulse on their necks and foreheads. And then the really freaky thing happens: their free hands, Migi's right and Hidari's left, swell and grow. It looks like somebody grafted the hand and forearm of an NFL lineman onto the body of a second grader, tapering up from the elbow.
I sprint toward the girls as Gene curses behind me, and I hear his weapon fire. There's a meaty thud as the bullet hits flesh, but no blood. A second later, I hear the soft metallic clatter of the bullet falling to the ground.
Migi reaches out with that massive hand of hers and slaps at the huge spool of paper feeding into the nearest press. The roll weighs 400 pounds full, and there's at least three-quarters left of it. Her one-handed slap rips the spool off its moorings and sends it rumbling toward Gene, unrolling like a white carpet as it goes.
My first instinct is to help him, but he's a professional. He should know better than to let himself get squashed by 300 pounds of paper, while I'm the only one here with a chance to do anything about these girls.
Hidari sees me coming, aims a left-handed punch at me. I dodge back, squinting as the wind from that powerful swing stirs up more dust, stinging my eyes and tickling my nose. I turn to see if Gene's all right, see him bring his pistol down to fire again. Before I can warn him against it, Migi shoves at the printing press, busts the bolts pinning the thing to the floor. It hits Gene and sends him flying.
Meanwhile, Hidari starts to advance on me, thinking I'll keep retreating. So I leap forward, toward her and her sister. I fling my body against their linked hands like a ten-year-old playing Red Rover. Their hands part and I stumble through. I figured that would be their weak point.
I spin around—my knee's cursing like a sailor now—and see that their hands and feet are back to their normal proportions. Before I can press my advantage, the girls do a little pas de deux, sidestepping so that Hidari is once more to my right and Migi to my left. Their hands steal toward each other again, but I lunge forward, grabbing their hands with mine as I step between them. My only hope is to keep them separated.
"Would you please stop?" I say. I'd like to end this without punching any teenage girls, if I can. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
Hidari tries to break my grip, fails, then huffs and says, "We're tracking the Chessmaster."
I've heard of him, although we've never met. He's one of the heavy players, a master villain, a super-genius who's always thinking ten moves ahead of his opponent. Haven't heard much out of him lately, though.
"Well, he's not here," I say. "You've made a mistake."
"No mistake," Migi says. "One of his robots hit a National Guard armory a couple of days ago, trying to steal a shipment of Advanced Infantry Weapon upgrades. We beat it down, and it self-destructed. But we managed to salvage a couple of parts, which were manufactured by a company called Castle Tool and Die."
"Castle Tool and Die is a subsidiary of Knight Industrial," Hidari says. "A controlling interest of which is owned by . . ."
"Bishop Business Services," I finish her sentence. I haven't seen any sign of Gene. Either he's hurt, or he got smart and sneaked out while I had their attention. "So you're here looking for documentation linking us to 'Queen-Something?'"
Hidari nods. "The records are upstairs. Should be, if they're not shredding them already."
"You couldn't just Google all the businesses with 'King' in the name and leapfrog all this?"
"We prefer direct evidence," Hidari says.
"And breaking stuff," Migi adds.
"Well, you're not breaking anything else," I say. "Look, let me help you out. Give me your phone number, I'll snoop around and call you tonight if I find anything."
"Give you my number?" Migi looks down at my hand gripping hers, then at my face. "Are you hitting on me?"
"Oh, for God's . . . Newbies make me so tired. Number one, I'm married, and number two, go away! People work here, and I don't want any more of them to get hurt."
Hidari looks as if she's considering it. "And we're supposed to just trust you? Because you used to be a hero?"
"I told you, it doesn't mat-"
"What, are you embarrassed or something?" Migi asks. "Because you lost your powers?"
"I didn't . . ."
"That's nothing to be embarrassed about," Hidari says. "It could happen to any of us."
"And nobody does the secret identity thing anymore," Migi goes on. "That's just silly."
"So there's no reason not to tell us," Hidari says.
"Unless you were somebody totally lame," Migi continues, "like AcroCop or . . ."
She stops, looking more closely at my face. "Oh my God," she says. And then her sister makes a sound like Danny Thomas doing a spit take.
And then they're both laughing.
"You were AcroCop?" Migi says.
"With the blue spandex?" Hidari says. "And the . . . and the . . ."
"The tumbling?" her sister finishes and collapses into giggles again.
This is why I don't tell people. Sure, the name was weak, and the costume looked pretty stupid, but hell, it was fifteen years ago. We all looked stupid. Digger had fringe on his boots, for God's sake.
You never hear anybody give him guff over it, though. Because he's super.
Me? I missed going to the Olympics by that much. I hold master's rank in six different martial arts. In any other company, that'd earn me a little respect. But standing next to them?
You try being the only normal human in a group that includes an indestructible fighting machine, a human battery, a woman who can fly faster than sound, and the freaking daughter of Thor. See how long it takes before people laugh at you.
As their giggles die down, I hear distant sirens. "So do we have a deal? I help you and you go away?"
"AcroCop," Migi mumbles.
"No," Hidari says. "No deal."
She brings her knee up into my midsection, and I can't block because they're pulling my arms in opposite directions. Migi kicks at my good knee; I lose my grip on her as I twist to avoid being crippled. And then Hidari spins into this Aikido throw, and I have to hyperextend my back to land on my feet, letting go of her in the process.
Their hands clasp, and Hidari's suddenly-huge fist shoots out at me. I spring back, but Hidari swings Migi forward like she's snapping a whip, and a swollen foot hits me right in the chest. I fly back, smash through the double-doors leading into the business offices, crash through a couple of cubes in a flurry of family photos and Post-it notes, spin up, bounce off the ceiling, and there's the wall . . .
"Hey, buddy, you all right?"
My eyes focus, and Gene the security guard is hovering over me. I hurt all over, but that's nothing new.
"Don't get up," Gene says. He doesn't look too good himself. He clutches a bloody gash on his right arm, and his face is pale. "You might have a serious injury. You shouldn't move till the paramedics can look at you."
"Don't worry," I groan as I struggle to my feet. "Nothing's broken. I've broken enough bones in my time to know what that feels like."
I slump against the cinderblock wall as I reach my feet. Dizzy.
"Easy," Gene says.
The cube farm is devastated. Pieces of cube dividers lie crumpled on the floor or lean drunkenly against one another. Papers are scattered everywhere. A fluorescent light fixture hangs half out of the ceiling, its lone functioning bulb flickering and buzzing. And everything is dusted with bits of shattered ceiling tile.
"How long was I . . ."
"Just a few seconds," Gene says. "They're still looking for the stairs. Everyone else evacuated outside, so they don't have anybody to show them where they are."
I nod. The building's old and not very well-designed. The stairwell's not marked, hiding in the emergency exit off the break room. They'll probably find the service elevator first. I take an experimental step. My knee is singing opera now, but it still feels stable. I take a deep breath; my side throbs. My left wrist hurts, and I can't make a tight fist with that hand. So, limp and breathe shallow, punch with my right if I have to: sounds like a plan.
"You going after them?" Gene asks.
I shouldn't. These girls were out of my league ten years and twenty pounds ago. But it pisses me off when heroes bust in and do whatever they want just because nobody can stand up to them. Plus, it's really hard for me to quit. Lizzie says it's 'cause I have a pathological fear of losing, but that's not true. I've lost plenty in my time. It's giving up that I can't seem to learn. "Yeah."
"Take this," he says. He unsnaps a small holster at his back, hands me what looks like a toy pistol, black plastic with yellow bumblebee stripes and a square barrel. "It's a taser. Shock might slow 'em down. Fifteen foot range. You've only got one shot, so make it count."
"Thanks," I say, slipping the taser into the waistband of my pants. I hide it with the tail of my shirt.
The sirens are getting closer. "Hold the cops outside if you can," I tell Gene. "Tell them I'm a hostage if you have to. If they come in and start shooting, this'll turn from a mess into a disaster."
"Okay," he says as I limp away. I've only gotten a few steps when he says, "Hey."
I turn around.
"I just want you to know, I, uh . . ." His eyes flick away from me, embarrassed, as if he's about to confess a secret crush. "I was always on your side. AcroCop, I mean. It wasn't easy, what you were trying to do, and some of us understood that. Not everyone thought you were the lamest guy in the world."
"I just want to know, though, why couldn't you just accept that you were one of us? Why try so hard to be one of them, when you couldn't?"
Great. I'm not lame, just a race traitor. But there's no accusation in his eyes, only honest bewilderment. "I run faster when I'm trying to catch up," I say, and then I turn and walk away. Time to finish it.
I limp past the break room, approaching the corridor to the elevator. I hear them arguing.
"Let's just go up the elevator, dammit."
"You know as well as I do, elevators are death traps."
"But there aren't any stairs. Maybe we should just do like that guy said, leave and come back tonight or something."
"No, there's no turning back now. The other places could be shredding documents as we speak. We have to keep going, as fast as we can, or there won't be any evidence to find."
I turn the corner and say, "Hey." The two girls turn and drop into ready crouches. "Stairs are in here," I say.
"Why should we believe you?" Hidari asks.
"Because the cops are outside, which means this has the potential to turn really ugly really fast. The sooner you get what you want, the sooner you'll leave without hurting anybody else."
Hidari nods. Migi looks hurt. "You make us sound like bad guys."
I turn and limp back into the break room to the big steel door marked EXIT. I hear the girls' footsteps behind me as I enter the stairwell.
"We're not, you know," Migi says as we walk up the stairs, her voice echoing off cinderblock and steel. "Bad guys."
"We've just been after Chessmaster for a long time," Hidari says. "It's frustrating."
"Everybody gets frustrated," I say, and we're at the second-floor landing.
"Wait," Hidari says. "This is how it'll work. You open the door. Migi, keep an eye on him while I make sure things are clear."
I hold the door open while Hidari steals through, ninja-silent. I look at Migi. Migi looks at me.
"What?" she says. I don't say anything, just keep looking. "You're hitting on me again, aren't you?"
"I'm not hitting on you."
"You've got one of those twin fetishes, haven't you?" she asks.
She rolls her eyes, which gives me my opening. I plant my foot against her chest, shove her down the stairs. She takes the fall gracefully, but unlike say, Pyrogena, she can't just turn gravity off when it suits her, which gives me some time. I draw the taser and slip through the door. It closes behind me as Hidari turns at her sister's cry.
"What are you . . ."
I fire the taser. There's a burst of confetti, then Hidari stiffens as the 'trodes hit her. She's not so bulletproof without her sister around. She jitters and collapses. One down.
The stairwell door slams open and Migi charges through. Her eyes widen as she spots her sister on the ground. "Hidari!" She turns on me. "You son-of-a-bitch! You're supposed to be one of us! Why are you helping them?"
"I'm not helping them," I say. "And I'm not one of you. I belong with those people outside, normal people, only I don't really fit with them either. I'm just caught in the middle. You look at this company, you see a criminal front, but when I look at it, I see the place where I've worked hard to make an honest living for six years. You want to go after Chessmaster? Fine. I'll help, if you want. But not here! This is my house, and you're not going to bust it up any more!"
She charges forward, fists flying. I fall back, using more chi sao to keep her off-balance. Her eyes flick to something behind me, and I realize she's backing me toward her sister. Not sure why; Hidari's out cold. But if Migi wants it, it's definitely contraindicated.
I don't like punching women, especially women half my size, but she's not giving me a choice. I go on the offensive, launch a flurry of punches, none of which connect. She's crazy fast, and my aching ribs are slowing me down. She senses my weakness there, concentrates on body blows that send wracking pain throughout my body. It hurts to breathe. I've got to end this fast.
I drop my guard to protect my ribs, giving her a clear target. She takes the bait. I can see the triumph in her eyes as she throws a palm heel strike at my unprotected head. I take the shot across the jaw, use the momentum to throw a spinning back fist at her face, which she blocks.
Leaving her body open to the back kick I threw at the same time. My heel spears into her solar plexus, and she stumbles back a few steps.
The solar plexus knockout doesn't get much respect. It's really hard to pull off, for one thing; it takes perfect execution and timing. In professional fights, maybe one in 100 knockouts comes by the gutshot, maybe. It's boring compared to a flashy right hook to the jaw, and so rare that if you've never seen one up close, you might laugh at the very idea. Boring, rare, and laughable, but it gets the job done. Just like me.
Migi's breath comes out in a pained, wheezing groan. It sounds amazingly like that noise R2-D2 made when the Jawas shot him in that desert canyon. She hugs herself, falls to her knees.
And then she folds over slowly, her forehead finally resting on the floor as if she's praying. She's out. It's over.
I stumble to the side, lean against the wall, panting, my arms clutching my aching ribs. The pain in my knee makes my eyes water; the opera has been replaced with gangsta rap, the kind you can feel throbbing in your chest even from a car half a mile away with the windows rolled up. I taste blood in my mouth from that last shot of hers, but spitting would probably be bad form. I need to get the girls out of here before the cops come in, but it's going to take a second before I can get my body to move again.
"That was very entertaining," says a voice from behind me.
I lurch away from the wall and turn around. Down the hall, I see a tall figure in gleaming black armor. Crenellations surround the top of his head, reminding me of both a crown and a castle tower. Horse heads decorate his shoulders. In one hand, he holds a scepter topped with an orb-and-cross.
"Who are you?" he asks.
"I'm Ron, from Customer Service," I say. "What are you doing here?"
He presses a stud on the scepter, and his armor folds away, collapses into an attache case as the scepter shrinks to become the handle. What's left is a gray-haired man with a bit of a paunch, wearing a very expensive, very wrinkled suit. "I own the company," he says. "I was here to meet with your boss, Erich. I must say, I'm impressed with how you took down those two."
"Erich built a good company. It's a shame to close it down."
"Close it down? Why?"
"It's obvious, isn't it?" He gestures at the girls on the floor. "If they tracked me here, others will, too. I have to cut off the entire chain of businesses leading to me, fire all the people, destroy all the records."
Crap. Even though I won the fight, it still won't save the company. Not to mention the fact that I really have been working for a criminal empire for six years. This sucks. I limp toward Migi's body, slumped on the floor.
"Don't worry," he says. "You'll still have a job. I like your style, and I'll need experienced people in my new printing company when we launch our new product."
I look down at Migi and silently pray that my knee will forgive me for what I'm about to do to it. "What new product?"
"The reason I was meeting with your boss. He was showing me the smart paper you boys have developed. Forms embedded with tiny nano-transmitters that can send us any information that's written on them."
Down the hall, Hidari moans weakly. The stun from the taser is wearing off. I squat down to pick Migi up.
"What are you doing?" Chessmaster asks.
"Cleaning up the mess," I say as I stand up. My knee doesn't give out on me, but it does inform me that it plans to file a formal grievance. I'm going to be laid up for a while. "Cops'll be coming in any minute, and you don't want them just lying here in the hall, do you?"
He smiles. "No. No, I don't. Put them in the conference room for now. I'll dispense with them later. You know, you have potential. I could use a man like you, if you wouldn't mind the raise. These new forms will have incredible possibilities: credit applications, tax forms. We could perform identity theft and money laundering on an enormous scale. Completely unprecedented. A great opportunity for a man who wants to be somebody."
The problem with guys who think too many moves ahead, sometimes they forget to notice what's happening right in front of them. For instance, he doesn't notice that I picked up Migi first, nor that the path to the conference room takes me right past Hidari until I stop moving.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
I bend and set Migi down next to her sister without a word.
"Are you stupid? Don't let them touch," Chessmaster says as I flip Migi's left hand over to touch Hidari's right. "Separate them! Do what I tell you, damn it! You work for me!"
I straighten up as the air hums with power. Hidari and Migi gasp and stir beside me as the connection rouses them.
"I'm on a break," I say as Chessmaster curses and hits the stud on his briefcase that activates his armor once again.
I step through the steel door into the stairwell, listening to the sounds as Hidari and Migi charge at their enemy. I hear muffled shouts, the sound of energy blasts, and every now and then, the walls shake with a powerful impact. I step out into the break room. Lizzie's going to be pissed when she finds out I've been fighting, and even more so when I tell her I have to look for a new job. But right now, I just want my Ho Hos. I limp over to the snack machine to retrieve them.
Somebody took them. You can't trust anybody in this company. I dig in my pocket for more change, hissing at the pain in my ribs, but all I have left are bills. I slip a dollar into the slot as the ceiling shudders and dust sifts down onto my head. It slips back out.
This is just one of those days.