Eric didn’t know what to do. Charity was busy grief counseling her friends, and he wished with all his heart he could help; but he was about as useful as an umbrella on a buffalo. He spent several minutes in the infirmary, determined to outlast the uncomfortable feeling of being useless. He wanted at least to be there for Charity. She was going through grief of her own. When she’d lost her business in the hallway, he’d wished with all his might he could ease her pain, but that was impossible. And now it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was just in the way.
He never felt more like an outsider. This was a crazy world he’d been thrust into, and he didn’t belong here. These weren’t his people, and he couldn’t understand their pain. Sure, he could intellectualize it, and God knew he’d felt the pain of losing a brother, but he could sense that this was different. This was so much more.
“We’ll figure this out,” he said lamely. Brilliant, Eric. Just friggin’ brilliant. “I’ll go to the crime scene, see what I can find out. I’ll let you know what happened as soon as I do.”
Charity cast him a grateful look, and he smiled. He wasn’t going to tell her that he offered just to get the hell out of here.
A little while later, he landed at the scene, clad in his suit. Drake was there in his vigilante uniform. The ‘Mister X’ disguise always seemed so absurd to him. A dark figure who stalked the streets and brought the pain to anyone who didn’t meet his code of justice? How original. Yet he couldn’t deny its effectiveness, and how damn good the man was.
“Shot came from hotel, two blocks that way.” In this disguise, X spoke with a voice modulator, and used short, curt sentences. “Checked the place. Clean. Professional hit.”
Eric absorbed the information and nodded. That was hardly a surprise. If you were going to send someone to kill the Paragon of Alliance City, you weren’t going to send a tripped-out street kid. His attention was far more focused on the sidewalk in front of him. It was roped off with crime scene tape, surrounded by a small crowd of civilian gawkers and reporters. Local police milled around, making sure the bystanders kept to their place.
The sidewalk was covered in blood. It spread in a puddle that seemed to go on forever, stained indelibly on the concrete. Like an eerie reflection, the puddle seemed mirrored against the shattered pane of glass in the coffee shop window. Dried blood drooled from a frothy spray down the little glass that was still intact. A splash pattern danced around the gray-bricked edges of the wall.
Eric pushed down a wave of nausea. “Find the bullet yet?”
To answer him, shattered pieces of metal floated in front of his eyes. “Broke up on impact. Possible forensic countermeasure. Or to do maximum damage possible.”
Eric couldn’t keep the image of the exploding bullet out of his head. The metal shattering into thousands of pieces, splattering blood, bone, and brain matter against the brick and mortar. The nausea hit him again.
“Vorg. Microscopic scan.”
Eric nodded. He maybe should have been annoyed that Drake was ordering him around, but he was far too stunned. With a few mental commands, his heads-up display focused on the floating metal and zoomed in. “Identifying,” the A.I.’s voice said. “Scan complete. Eric…it looks like me.”
Eric wasn’t entirely in the mood for his suit’s existential crisis. “Just because it’s small bits of metal—“
“Eric, listen. It’s more than a bullet. It’s a bullet-sized machine. The composition of metals is different, but the machine’s purpose and programming is the same.”
The nausea returned, but for a different reason this time. “To kill the Gifted.”
“Eric,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
Eric shook his head. It wasn’t her fault. Her purpose for existence was a burden she bore all the time. With a perfect memory it wasn’t something she could forget. “Drake, I know how they did it. The bullet was more than a projectile; it was a programmed missile, with the capabilities of emitting the same frequencies as my suit used to be able to do. This bullet was meant for him.”
Drake’s cowled head nodded. “I thought as much.” He paced away, and Eric felt that useless feeling again. What could he do to help them? They were his friends, after a fashion. He needed to do something. But how could he? He wasn’t part of their group, not really. No matter how much Charity tried to pretend he was.
Suddenly, Drake spun on his heel and gripped Eric on the shoulder. He leaned in and dropped the voice modulator. “I need you to take point on this investigation. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the sun of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest. I’ll be around if you need my expertise, but it must be you that puts the cretin behind bars.”
Eric’s jaw dropped so hard it banged against the inside of his suit. “I—but…this is your focus, you’re the one who’s the most capable, I can’t—I’m not trained in this…”
“You nearly uncovered the existence of the Delta Division. While drunk. You are capable of this. I need you to do this.”
Eric could scarcely believe it. He knew damn well what the request cost Drake. The man was a control freak, perpetually convinced that he was the only one capable of the things he was good at. That he would ask him…well, Eric was flattered.
And terrified. What if he couldn’t do it? He was a businessman, not a detective. There was a huge difference between following a money trial and solving a crime.
“We can do it.”
Well, if my suit thinks I can, then what am I worried about? he thought sarcastically. Yet, the truth of the matter was, Drake thought he could do it. Drake wouldn’t ask him if he didn’t trust his capabilities. He trusted him.
He stuck out his hand. “Count on it.” He said it with a confidence he didn’t feel. “We’ll get your guy. You have my word.”
* * * *
Mitch took the ferry from Delta Headquarters to the mainland and melted into the city streets. A few people called after him—mostly obscene names that came from the anti-metahuman protesters lining the shores overlooking HQ. That would bother him, usually. Here his people were, trying to save their sorry asses, and they had the balls to denounce them as ‘dangerous’, ‘morally irresponsible’, and his personal favorite, ‘genetically deviant’.
They weren’t a loud minority, not really. No one took them seriously. They had about two or three hundred people that were dedicated enough to sit along the shores, and most of them were there for the excuse to smoke weed for a common cause. On days with bad weather, that number dwindled to about fifty people that actually hated metas enough to sit through driving rain and blustery winds. No one was there during the winter.
The websites were always active, however. Every now and then, some hack who thought he was the next revolutionary would get a hold of some bandwidth; like moths to a flame, unintelligent twits would gather with their thoughts and opinions, as if they really mattered. Mitch had read one of their scathing commentaries once. “This is not a popular opinion,” it began, “but a necessary one. In light of human history, those painted wrong by their own time are often the most wise.” It just got worse from there, saying something about how the presence of metas took away their right to free speech. The Internet exacerbated stupidity.
Mitch had showed it to Charity, and she’d gotten annoyed all right—at the use of ‘most wise’ instead of ‘wisest’.
It should bother him more tonight, he reflected, as he aimlessly put one foot ahead of the other along a filthy alleyway. One of the people they so adamantly protested was dead for no discernible reason. Was this a victory for them? Were they happy a man’s life was extinguished, just because he dared to call himself a hero? But tonight, he just didn’t care. If they were going to spiral into self-destruction, he wasn’t going to stop them.
And so he walked. He didn’t have a particular destination in mind. He just wanted to be alone for a moment, to let his brain sort out this knot of confusion. Why? His mind grappled with the question. Stryker was a good, kind man. He made Mitch believe good men existed, that maybe, he could be one someday. He was an icon to the people, a beacon of hope. What purpose could there possibly be in snuffing out that light?
Without noticing, Mitch arrived at the scene of the assassination. Vorg was already here, as well as Mister X. If either of them noticed him, they didn’t give a sign. He was fairly certain X knew, though. Nothing happened without that man knowing about it.
Mitch didn’t need to be here. His view wasn’t great. He was some distance away, on the other side of rubberneckers and curious onlookers. Stryker’s body was gone. There was no reason to stand around on ceremony, but Mitch stayed anyway, part of the crowd of people who didn’t want to look away, that stared as the CSIs combed the scene. He understood in a way. Leaving meant they had to figure out how they were going to get on with their lives.
“Hey, you’re from Delta,” someone said, a businessman in a long tan trench coat. “Inferno, right?”
“What was he like?” This was from a twenty-something poser with pretentious thick-rimmed glasses, a pretentious goatee, and pretentiously wavy hair. “Linus Macklby. I’ll be running this story on my blog tonight. How is the Delta Division handling the loss of the Paragon of Alliance City?” He stood ready to record Mitch’s comment on his phone.
For a moment, Mitch considered setting fire to the man’s phone and telling him to mind his own goddamn business, but he changed his mind. Blogs were often a more reliable source of news anyway. Professional newspapers and news channels were sponsored and slanted to one view or another. Independent bloggers were free of that—though that often meant free to be utterly and viciously wrong.
“I don’t think anyone’s free to make a statement to that yet,” Mitch responded. “Individually, I don’t think anyone knows how they’re handling it yet. Stryker was a good man. We will all be hurting from this loss for a very long time.”
He declined to answer anything else, and took his leave. There was nothing else for him here.
He wandered along Blink and Stryker’s usual patrol route. There was someone walking the beat, Mitch was sure of it, because Sam wouldn’t let the streets be abandoned just because a hero was shot to death. Who she found to replace the duo, he had no idea, and didn’t care. If he ran into them, he’d stay out of the way. He didn’t know why he felt the need to finish the route. Symbolic, maybe. A compulsive need to finish what the fallen hero had started, even if it was something as simple as a patrol route.
When one went looking for trouble, it wasn’t very far away. Mitch heard a man scream in the distance, and he jogged quickly toward the sound. By the time he got there, three thugs had the man pinned against a brick wall with a switchblade to his throat. One of them was going through the poor man’s wallet. “P-please! Just let me go! Th-that’s all I’ve got, please, I won’t tell anyone, just don’t kill me!”
The thugs didn’t notice Mitch’s approach. He snuck through the shadows until he was almost on top of them, and then whistled through his teeth to get their attention. They turned and stared, and Mitch grinned as flames spread from the tips of his fingers along the edges of his coat and encircled him like an aura.
“Shit! Capes!” They scattered, but not before the alley was surrounded by a wall of flame. Trapped, the three thugs huddled back together. One of them pointed a gun. “Back off, you freak, or I’ll fill you full of holes!”
Mitch just laughed. “You’ll try.” He flicked his fingers, and the gun exploded, covering the man’s hands and arms with shrapnel.
That got their attention. Another one tried the reasoning approach. “Look, man, we’ll cut you in, all right? We can make a deal.”
Mitch ignored the speaker and walked up to the one who held the wallet. He snatched it from the terrified thug’s grip, minding his fire so it didn’t touch the faux leather. “Money.” He waved his fingers expectantly until the thug handed it over. Neatly, and ever so slowly, he tucked the money back into the wallet and handed it to the victim. “Anything missing?”
“N-no, Sir.” Mitch’s lips twisted in a smile at that. The man was several years his senior, and no one ever called him ‘sir’ like that.
“Good. Tonight might be one of those nights where you follow your gut and take a cab. The streets aren’t safe.”
The man nodded and took off like a shot through the opening in the flame that Mitch provided for him.
Mitch turned to the three would-be assailants. “I knew we should have stuck to our regular turf.” The thought wasn’t his. It came from one of the muggers.
“You shitstains are a bit off your beaten path, aren’t you?”
The three exchanged a look at Mitch’s words. “H-he said we could—that we’d be safe!”
Mitch chuckled. “’Safe,’ huh? Ironic choice of words.”
“We were told whatshisface…Stryker was dead. That—”
The man screamed as Mitch grabbed his collar. Flames licked at the thug’s face. “So now that he’s no longer with us, you figure you can just start terrorizing the people he protected? You couldn’t take one night off, one miserable night out of respect for the dead? No, of course not. A king is dead, long live the king.” He tossed the man to the concrete. The guy didn’t get up, but writhed in pain from the second degree burns on his face and neck.
“D-don’t kill me, please…” Begging seemed to be this guy’s style, permanently stuck in bargaining mode. The deal he’d tried to make left a bad taste in Mitch’s mouth.
Mitch laughed. “Funny. I think that’s exactly what your pal with the money said.” He took a step toward the man, who tripped and landed inches away from the fire wall. With a gasp, he rolled away onto his hands and knees. Mitch slammed his boot into the man’s nose and grinned at the soft crack. His target went flying into the fire. Mitch scooped him up by the belt and dragged him out. Flames licked at the hapless man’s clothing until Mitch put them out. He’d survive.
“I’m not going to kill you; in fact I want you alive. I want you to tell everyone that you deal with that these streets will never be ‘safe’ for your kind to terrorize. When one hero falls, another will rise to take his place. And you had better hope to whatever god you still believe in that that hero isn’t me.”
He dismissed the flames and left them there.