CHAMPIONS OF FLOWERBUD
VOLUME TWO: LEARNING CURVE
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: "STREETS ON FIRE"
Victory had been torn from their grasp and the girls raced forward with a renewed sense of urgency as the shame of failure stoked the fires that burned inside them. They had survived their encounter with Brodik, and in the face of how skilled a fighter Brodik had turned out to be, each of the girls was secretly happy to have just survived the fight to begin with.
With the Reapers on the loose, they had a familiar and, hopefully, easier match for them than they had in the mercenary who had trounced them in front of thousands and left with whatever it was he had come to steal. Mary's mind reeled, trying to piece the puzzle together without many pieces. A mystery would stew in her head for days, weeks, even years until she found the answer she was looking for. She would read a book on occasion that would be so poorly written she would give up halfway through. Weeks later, she would find herself up at two in the morning, pouring through the junky book so that she could at least know how the book ended.
God, the fight had been a disaster: beaten, broken, their quarry escaped, nearly arrested save for the crowd that cheered for them. She needed a good target to take out this frustration on and the Reapers were a good target.
Karen had made it one block away from the Convention Center when she came to a halt. The other girls came up behind her and stopped as well. Karen's fingers snapped as she tried to make the gears in her head click just the way she wanted them to.
"Karen, what is it?" Mary asked. "Every second we waste is a chance for the Reapers to hurt someone."
Karen spun around. "We're going to stop the Reapers, okay? Don't doubt that. But…there's something else we need to do.
"Have a few beers on the way?" Ann quipped.
Elli cleared her throat, "Ahem. Well, whatever we decide to do, perhaps we should hurry up and do it. Oh, for the love of…look at this!" Elli sighed, seeing a black scrape on her thigh, which she tried to doctor by smearing antibiotic hand gel over it, muttering something about staph infections.
Karen grinned, "Then why kick their ass and let word of mouth get around when we can let some loudmouth with a camera get the word out for us?"
Ann, Elli, and Popuri seemed confused, but a slow grin crept onto Mary's face. "I know exactly what you mean! Go get him!"
Without another word, Karen leapt back in the direction of the convention center.
Luke raced as hard as he could down the street, leaping barriers, cars, obstructions. He was used to outrunning gang members, robbers, and sometimes cops with his full pack on. He had a full video compliment of footage of the attack on Hamilton Labs and the Sirens fight with them, not to mention their argument afterwards.
They were real. Real!
He wasn't crazy and he hadn't just been chasing phantoms and ghost reports for a month. All the signs of their activity had pointed them in that direction and now he had the proof that would put him on the map once and for all.
He hit a stretch of straight sidewalk and aimed for the ladder across the street, but as soon as he stepped into the street, a flash of blue suddenly dropped in front of him. He stopped straight in front Karen, who caught him in her arms and immediately leapt into the sky.
"GAAAAH!" Luke cried out and felt himself rising, landing, falling in rapid succession, all the while he could see nothing except for sky and the cityscape rising and falling in his vision. He was too dumbstruck for rational thought. Within moments, he was unceremoniously dumped onto a roof, where he promptly held his stomach and head, fighting back the wave of nausea that threatened to overtake him.
"Well, well, well. If it isn't the Jewish Jackhammer himself."
Luke swallowed and looked up, seeing five sets of mask-clad eyes staring down at him. His eyes traveled from one girl to the other, mentally telling himself this might not be real. They were just phantoms for the longest time, ghosts he was chasing and only finding the signs of their passing in the form of badly focused security footage or second-hand witnesses. Even then, people craved online to know what he knew, when he knew it, and how he knew it. He had never felt such a calling, nor found himself embodying such internal conviction. And in the blink of an eye, they had reappeared.
And now they had scooped him up off the street and were standing right in front of him. They didn't look like ghosts,, but like soldiers who had crawled through a battlefield. Their once-pristine costumes were marred with dirt, scrapes, and minor fraying at the seams. Popuri's sewing hand was strong, because their suits were holding up to an extraordinary amount of abuse. Only Ann's seemed to be worse for wear, with several spots on them marred by large scrapes and bullet-marks where gunship cannon fire had bounced off her skin, but still damaged her suit.
Popuri held out her hand to him and he accepted. She hoisted him up without the slightest bit of effort and he spun around, seeing himself surrounded. Luke lifted his hand slowly, moving a finger towards Elli until he pushed it into her shoulder.
Mary stepped forward, "You're probably wondering why we snatched you up off the street."
"You…you're not gonna trash my camera are you?" Luke asked, his head whipping from girl to girl, "That is, I don't know, I mean I guess…what? I don't really understand what's going on."
Luke closed his eyes and smacked his temples with his palm. "Get it together, Luke. You can do this. ahem. Listen, let me start from the beginning, I'm Luke Goldberg-"
"We know who you are." Karen said, "You're not dreaming. We are real. And we know what it is you do. That's why I picked you up. We need your help."
Luke swallowed. This was entirely too surreal. "Right, uh…ma'am?"
"That's Rocket Girl!" Popuri said in a sweet, sing-song voice. Karen flashed a blood curdling look at her, but the pink-haired amazon was not easily intimidated and shrugged her writhing look off with ease.
"And you're Miss Mighty." Luke said with a smile. "You're real! You're all real! Oh, sweet heavens, this is such a relief, I mean, you have no idea how hard it is to try and find people who saw what you did back on Siren Day a month ago. So many eye witnesses saw you, what you did, and what you can do. I knew you girls were superheroes! Look, I got your exploits against those helicopters on my camera, I figure with a little editing I can make you girls look like gold, I mean that big brute did kick your asses a little and your post-fight breakdown and facing down that cop wasn't exactly the best coverage, but I'm totally sympathetic to your girls and…I…uuh."
Luke wavered on his feet and fell back into Ann's arms, who sighed and smacked him on his face.
"Whu? Sorry, I got light-headed." He shook his cobwebs clear and pulled out his phone. "
"Shut up!" Karen cried, "Jeez, what do you drink in the morning? Jet fuel?"
"Luke." Mary said in a much more conversational tone, turning Luke towards her, "We've watched what you've done for this past month and we're not unhappy with your work."
Luke's eyebrows shot up. "Really? You're not?"
"It's actually helping us." Elli said, matter-of-factly, "We're not just here to dress in tights and stop a few robberies. It'll take a little more time than we have to explain, but we need your help now."
Luke swallowed hard, "You. Need my help?"
Karen pulled herself up to her full height and came within an inch taller than Luke, "Your website has the most hits out of any website dedicated to our appearance. I don't really agree with the name you gave us, but whatever. We'll work on it later. Right now, we made a splash. It'll be all over the internet soon if it isn't already and you had better have something definitive since you're the so-called expert on us."
Luke took a deep breath and nodded, "Right. Got it. I got some good stuff already, I'll do what I can to make it look great."
"That's not what we're talking about." Mary said, "What we're trying to say is that we're going to stop the Reapers reign of destruction and you are coming with us."
Luke's eyes popped open and he wordlessly looked at all of them, one at a time. "I am?"
The midst of Uptown was all businesses and commercial buildings. And banks. Lots of banks. In which there was lots of money. That was the extent to which Butcher and Pitbull understood banks. Both of them were from the underbelly of the Industrial Slums, having grown up in the worst of the ghettos. They had been rival members of street gangs early in their youth. Butcher, a young black man with a penchant for violence, had been taken in by the 56th Street Groves. Pitbull had been a member of the Latino crime syndicates. When they discovered that there was more profit in joining forces in Marauder's Reaper gang, they cast off their old families in the manner most befitting them: by helping the Reapers execute the rest of the gangs in a warehouse massacre.
But before all that, there were the banks. And Butcher and Pitbull had been robbing them for decades.
Of all the Marauders, they understood the mindset of the bank robbery most of all and within minutes of leaving the Snake Pitt, they had their target in mind: A bank in Uptown. Didn't matter which one, as they were all ill-guarded.
Like a pair of shocktroopers, they immediately set upon the tellers, rounding the customers and employees onto the floor or in the back. Their guns trained on them, waiting for an excuse to be pulled. They wore no masks-. Why bother? Everybody knew the Reapers. They took pride in their crimes and considered this city to be theirs. They wanted their faces known. They took their time, having ensured no silent alarm was tripped, though word was getting out via phone calls that something fishy was going down in the Second Regional Bank of Metro in Uptown.
"Hey, Butch, we got cops." Pitbull said from his vantage point in the entrance to the bank. With a gleeful laugh, he whipped out his shotgun, kicked open the glass door, and fired a careless shot at the officers who were approaching the entrance with their hands on their service weapons. The cops ducked down and immediately sought cover, each one going a different direction, sending out calls for back-up over their radios.
"How many?" Pitbull asked.
"Two, right now. More on the way for sure." Butcher said, flinging the duffel bag full of money over his shoulder
"Then let's get the fuck outta here." Pitbull said. The two of them swung their duffel bags full of cash over their shoulders and turned towards the exits. They kicked the doors out, firing their shotgun and an uzi into the street and making the police stay under cover as the two Reapers strolled out into open, brazenly flaunting their disregard for anyone's safety but their own.
On the roof above, Mary glanced down at the bank robbery in progress. Two Reapers and civilians in danger.
"What do we do?" Ann asked. "We all rush in and overpower them?"
"No!" Mary said, "This time we do this my way, got it? This requires a strategy."
Karen propped her hands on her hips. "No bullshit, I promise. What do you want us to do?"
"First: Rocket Girl, you take Luke down to street level."
"What?!" Luke cried, "You're gonna drop me in the middle of that?"
Elli put her hand on Luke's shoulder and said, "Don't worry if you get hurt. I'm a nurse."
Ann leaned in to Luke's other ear and said, "Yeah, if you get shot, she'll stick a thermometer in your butt. She's good at that."
Luke looked at the two of them and couldn't decide if Ann was joking or not, "I find neither of those options at all comforting."
"Think of yourself as a war time cameraman." Mary suggested, "Can't get what you want without a little risk. Come on, Luke, you've been chasing after us for weeks. If you don't want to, I won't ask you, but-"
"No, no!" Luke waved his hands and lifted his camera, "Just…gimmie a second to get my shit together."
"Time for that later!" Ann said, grapping him by the waist and hurling them both off the roof into an alleyway as Ann screamed, "Time to rock out with yer cock out!" as Luke screamed all the way to the street."
The girls turned back to the scene of the bank robbery. "What now?" Popuri asked.
Mary turned to Elli, "Feeling up for a fight?"
Elli rinsed her hands in sanitizing gel, "I owe those bastards a few more licks."
A beat cop who ran to join the two cops who were under fire crouched by a bus stop, right next to a blue-haired young man aiming a camera directly at the robbery in progress. Well, he figured, at least the news wouldn't be boring tonight.
Butcher laughed as he saw cameras pointed his way. The good part about being a Reaper meant Butcher wasn't just another minority committing a crime, he was a most wanted criminal with a mug shot that spoke to people "IF YOU SEE THIS MAN, RUN THE OTHER WAY!"
That was when Elli strolled into the carnage.
Butcher and Pitbull were in-between the two cops hiding behind concrete barriers when she strolled right in front of them. No one had seen where she came from, just that suddenly their path was blocked by a short-haired brunette in a green, legless suit and mask. She stood with her hands on her hips and when the two Reapers spotted her, they paused and their mouths dropped. The costume threw them off at first, but Butcher recognized her first. And why wouldn't he? She had smashed his feet when she'd turned to steel in his hands.
"It's her!" Butcher said. "It's HER! The girl from last month!"
Thinking that perhaps they could have an upper hand this time around, they swung their guns around and began wildly firing, but Elli propped up her arms and froze into a gleaming statue of chrome steel. The bullets zinged off of her flawless metal skin and she stayed frozen until their guns began clicking empty. She unfroze and stared at them with a superior smile that left them with dropped jaws and a momentary disadvantage.
It was a dull, strange blackness she went to when she froze. She saw nothing, but sensed everything around her. She saw only blackness, but hear highly muffled and distant sounds. It was like holding your head underwater with your eyes closed. The outside world seemed indistinct and rushed back all at once whenever she chose to let out her breath or unfreeze. She knew they were empty, at least for the moment.
Karen suddenly dropped in behind them and grabbed two fistfuls of their collars and leapt into the sky. She soared a good thirty feet into the air, arcing towards the street with two screaming Reapers in her hands. When they landed, they landed on top of the cop car in front of the bank with their faces planted in the hood and Karen's boots planted on their backs. She hopped off and turned to the two cops-both just as stunned as the Reapers themselves-and tossed them a two fingered salute.
The beat cop and Luke both approached Karen and Elli, who stood victorious over both the Reapers. Karen gave the beat cop a sly grin, "They're all yours, officer."
"What...the...hell?" He said slowly, trying to make sense of the two costumed girls. "What the hell is going on here?"
Karen flashed him a daring, toothy smile and said, "What's going on is we're crashing the Reapers party and cleaning up this town."
The cop took in the sight of the two unconscious Reapers and blinked hard, "Uh…thanks, I think."
Karen winked at him, not realizing until later how futile the gesture was since she was wearing a mask, and then grabbed Elli's hand and they leapt away together over the buildings. Luke said not a word as he stopped recording and immediately ran off into an alleyway.
In the Commercial Sector, a section of the city that was more industrial park, storefronts, and the Metro Heights mall than anything else, Rider and Deadhand were holed up in the middle of the street, behind a pick-up truck, firing automatic weaponry into the three patrol cars where three cops and a wounded paramedic were pinned down. Rider and Deadhand had an arsenal of weaponry at their disposal stashed on their bikes, which was customary for the Reapers. A pipe bomb detonated in a tanker truck in the middle of the intersection behind them kept any incoming police from flanking their position.
One of the cops looked up as bullets struck and sparked off the edge of his car and he saw a pink and blue blur flash overhead. The bullets stopped firing for a split second as the cops, the paramedic clutching her leg looked at one another.
They heard the sounds of crashing, grunts, and screeching metal, but not willing to risk death to see what was happening. After a moment of silence, they all looked at one another, wondering if one of them should peek when suddenly Rider and Deadhand's battered forms came careening over the top of the car and crashing onto the road at their feet.
The cops stared, gaping, and then stood up to find the five girls in costume standing on the other side of the car, hands on hips, strong and imposing, not a scratch on them. Karen flashed her pretty grin, "They shouldn't be bothering you anymore, officers."
The stunned silence and gaping mouths seemed a normal reaction to them, so the girls took the chance and scattered, lifting into the air or dashing for the nearby alleyways. One cop called out, "Hey!" but couldn't form any other words or coherent thoughts. The four of them took the two Reapers into custody.
"The hell was that?" The paramedic asked, "Did I really just see five girls in swimsuits put two Reapers out for the count?"
"You must have, because I saw the same thing." A cop replied. He looked to the side and saw a flash of blue as Luke dashed into an alleyway with his camera in hand.
Wolf and Sarge buzzed in and out of traffic on their motorcycles. Wolf, the wiry muscled black youth with an angular grin lived for this. Having once been an aspiring cage fighter, he found a better home in the Reapers, shaking down people and business. Sarge, aptly named for his rank when he was a former Marine, which he had tattooed into his forehead right below his reddish crew cut, was an expert in weapons and had a deep-seated loathing for the police, which they were currently evading.
Behind them, two police cars were in hot pursuit. Laughing, the two Reapers led them in and out of the heavy traffic through the Industrial Slums. They weaved in front of and behind cars, firing with wild abandon at anything that passed them close enough. They fired shots into tires of cars they passed, trying to create chaos between them and the police, though all they had to do was hit the underground roads and flee into the small service tunnels where the cops couldn't go.
Not content to merely shoot the police, they would fire potshots into crowds and toss Molotov cocktails as they roared through the streets, leaving a trail of blood and fire in their wake.
Wolf looked forward after firing a shotgun shell at the trailing police cruiser and found a teenager with wild pink hair standing before him in a red superhero costume. He didn't have a chance to react as he passed and Popuri's fist clenched and Wolf ran directly into it. He was out cold as he spun in mid-air and was caught by a leaping Karen. She dumped him unceremoniously onto the pavement.
"You're not going to hurt anyone else." Popuri said, scowling down at the unconscious Reaper. What kind of monster would do this to other people?
Sarge was befuddled. One moment Wolf was next to him, then a flash of pink and red, and suddenly the bike next to him was empty and roaring off on its own to crash and explode into a concrete barrier. He looked up to see Elli standing ahead of him, running in her green suit. He sneered, gunning his bike to maximum speed as he prepared to run her down.
Right as he was upon her, Elli froze. Sarge's bike crashed and exploded into her, sending a fireball into the sky that vomited a screaming Reaper onto the pavement. Sarge tumbled around on the ground and came to a rest in the middle of the road.
Mary and Ann leapt down from a balcony and looked down on Sarge. Ann used her boot to roll him over. He looked up at them weakly, groaning in pain as blood seeped from his scrapes. He muttered a curse at them and reached for his pistol nearby.
Elli, Karen, and Popuri approached Mary and Ann as they stood over Sarge.
"Not so tough without your bike and your guns, are you?" Ann asked, her foot pushing the gun out of reach. Ann reached down and plucked it up. In a swift, casual motion, she aimed the gun at his head. Sarge's eyes widened in fear and the other four girls gasped.
"Ann, what're you doing?" Elli cried.
"Put that thing down before you kill someone!" Karen snapped.
Ann sneered at she looked at Sarge, "And why not? After all, he's tried to kill us! Who knows how many he's killed or raped and maimed. These guys are monsters, aren't they? Wouldn't we be doing the city a favor if they just weren't here anymore? Who would blame us? Who would care? Doesn't a bullet cost less than a trial?"
A moment of silence passed between the five of them, pregnant and full of tension. None of them could argue that Ann was entirely wrong, but neither did they have the stomach for what Ann was suggesting. At no point did any of them consider that killing their adversary was an option in front of them. And nothing-nothing!-shocked them more than to see their rough-and-tumble barmaid entertaining the thought.
"She…she has a point." Karen admitted, looking at all of them, "These guys tried to kill us, rape us. What if we didn't have our powers? Those two would have been dead by now." She pointed to Ann and Elli.
Mary lifted her hand to Ann, but didn't touch her, "Ann…listen to me very carefully. We're superheroes. Superheroes do not kill! You hear me? We do not kill people!"
Luke ran up next to them, slamming his camera down as he tried not to catch Ann holding a gun on Sarge. "The hell did I miss?" He asked.
Mary turned to Luke, her eyes pleading, "Luke, please, tell her I'm right. Superheroes don't kill."
"Superheroes don't kill." Luke said immediately, almost as though it were a mantra. "Superheroes don't ever kill."
"Maybe you don't." Ann said, "But maybe I do." She ripped her mask off, her eyes full of tears that began pouring down when she freed them and her lip quivering in a fury they ahd never seen cross her face before. None of them had ever seen Ann this way. She was always so strong and sure of herself, always with a little joke to quip. She never cried. She never cried!
None of the girls stepped forward, so stunned were they to see their friend like this. But Luke cleared his throat and said, "You kill him now, like this, after he's already down and defeated and you'll be no better than he is. You aren't saving a life right now, you're getting revenge."
"He tried to fucking rape me!" Ann cried, distressed beyond rationality, "You think this motherfucker deserves to live?"
"He'll get what's coming to him." Luke said, "But if you kill him, you're making yourself judge, jury, and executioner. The people here, as shitty as they are, won't see you as a hero. They'll see you as a vigilante who thinks she holds someone's right to live on her whim. They won't trust you. No one will believe you're any better than them."
Mary finally gathered her wits and joined in, saying, "We are better than them, Ann. We're here to set the example of a hero and heroes don't kill. Ann…this isn't you. Look at him, he's beaten. The cops will take him away and he'll get justice. If you kill him, you'll damage our mission beyond repair and we will never be able to have the chance to do this right again."
Popuri stepped up then, "This isn't the Calamity Ann we know and love, is it? Would Calamity Ann kill someone? Would she?' She beseeched of the others.
"No." Karen replied, "Calamity Ann would sling us a mug of beer and tell us to grow a pair!"
"She'd tell us to get over it and get even and get laid." Elli said awkwardly, not entirely sure of how to imitate Ann's tom-boyishness.
"And she wouldn't shed tears over a Reaper." Mary said, "So why doesn't Calamity Ann come back to her friends and we can let the cops haul this jackass away?"
Ann's hand quivered, shaking as she stared down the sights of the gun, seeing Sarge's pleading eyes staring right back at her. Her finger tensed, but she lowered the gun and let it fall from her grasp. Her and Sarge shared an angry look at one another.
Sarge croaked, "One day, girl…I'll…I'll make you sorry…you didn't do it."
Anger flared in Ann's eyes. She reared back and lanced her stretching arm out hard, blasting Sarge in the head with a punch so hard that when she drew it back, his head was resting in a small crater in the pavement, lines of cracks shooting outward like a spidery halo. Sarge stared empty-eyed up at the sky as blood ran down his busted face.
"Asshole." Ann said. She looked up at her friends, all of whom looked equal parts worried and anxious. She wiped her eyes and said, "Sorry."
"Let's get out of here." Karen said, "We've got more Reapers to deal with. Ann, do you want to sit the rest of the day out or go back home?"
"Hell no." Ann said, "I'm not done with these guys. Not by a long shot." She turned and found Luke holding out her mask to her.
Luke gave her a sympathetic smile, "Superheroes don't take their masks off in public, either. Might wanna protect that secret identity."
Ann gave him a sideways smirk, "Right. Secret identity. Sure." She looked him in the eyes, "You don't have the slightest idea who I am, do you?"
Luke shook his head, "No, but unless you want your real face plastered on the news so people can find out who you are, I suggest you do it."
"No one knows who we are, though." Ann objected.
"But they could find out." Luke said, "And if they find out, your enemies could come for your family and friends. You'd be putting them in danger."
Ann chuckled, sniffing once, "Maybe you should be the superhero. You seem to know what you're doing, Luke."
Luke looked over his shoulder, "Yeah, maybe we could have this heart-to-heart in another location? Cause the cops are strolling over." He reached up and pressed Ann's mask to her face, making her smile at him.
By the time the police had arrived at Sarge's fallen form, the girls and Luke were gone.
Kong and Brick, two of the less intelligent but no less ruthless members, had a specific target in mind.
Kong, a former member of an anarchist punk rock band with a fetish for robbery had known Brick ever since the older Reaper had taken him in as a foster child-much to the regret of child services.
Brick was a bit of a newshound, watching 24 hour news channels, scrolling through websites, and using his Facebook page as a newsfeed. And lucky for them, the local news had reported a stockholders meeting at the Bluebell Hotel in the middle of the Corporate Sector, where the true big-wigs of the city held court, so to speak. Speaking before a gathering of a hundred or so well-to-do business men and women during a luncheon in the Bluebell's grand ballroom was Mayor Gill Hamilton himself, the youngest mayor in Metropolitan Height's history, but certainly not its least qualified. And since Hamilton Industries owned a vast majority of business, retail, and industry in the city, he was their largest stockholder.
With an arsenal that rivaled a third world nation, Kong and Brick charged into the hotel, dispatched the security with nothing more than a hard glance, and kicked in the door to the ballroom, where Mayor Gill was standing at the podium in the center of the room, surrounded on all sides by long tables with businessmen and women. They all jumped up and gasped, crying out loud until Kong fired a shotgun into the air and yelled "SHUT THE FUCK UP AND SIT DOWN!"
Gill narrowed his eyes. This was an unexpected nuisance, but nothing he couldn't handle. The Reapers frequently had interactions with him that were criminal in nature. It helped keep tongues from wagging about his association with them or why they would often "escape" from captivity or why the police were impotent when it came to their violence. Getting robbed by them was an occasionally necessary thing: why would his own thugs rob him? Of course, they knew him and wouldn't dare touch his shit. He'd get it back from Marauder the next time they met.
Still, it was also a good chance to appear strong. He kept his cool and stood up before Kong and Brick as they snatched his wallet, gold pocketwatch, and cufflinks. Inwardly, Gill smiled. This gaggle of donors would fund him when he promised an increase in police security for events such as these. Funds that would go into his pocket. He had the elections wrapped up anyway, since his company made the voting machines. No matter how bad things would get, he would always be mayor.
It was when they were prying the jeweled necklace from a state senator's wife that things went to shit for them. Kong grabbed it with his big paw, but she clutched it with her hands, crying, "No, please! It belonged to my mother!"
"Was she a dumb cow, too?" Kong said, strong-arming the necklace off her neck and shoving the woman on the ground.
Suddenly, the skylight above-seated directly over the vacant ballroom floor-crashed inwards. Everyone's heads craned upwards and watched as the glass and metal came crashing down along with a blue-clothed girl with long legs.
Kong and Brick dove aside as the glass and Karen crashed down onto the floor, landing with a loud 'THUMP' against the carpeted floor. She took to her feet immediately and was off on a running start. She grabbed a silver tray off a table, dumping champagne glasses on the floor as she swung the tray over Brick's head as he rose to his knees. His head snapped back and his body landed on the cushy carpet, but his eyes rolled aimlessly around as he sank into unconsciousness.
Kong was getting to his feet, scrambling for his shotgun, but Karen beat him to it and kicked it away. He looked up at the girl in the blue superhero costume, standing with hands on hips, daring him silently for him to bring it. Around them, the people watched in shock and awe.
Kong brought himself to his feet, towering over Karen, though she betrayed no fear as he looked down at her-easily twice her size and three times her weight. He growled and wrapped a chain around his knuckles, smashing his fists together. "Come on, you little bitch. BRING IT!"
Karen brought it.
Recalling her bout with Brodik, she took a short dash at him, leaped up, planted her feet on his chest and pushed.
The force of her legs shoved Kong backwards as though he were fired out of a cannon. He soared across the ballroom, smashed through the massive twin doors, and bounced off the marble columns in the hotel foyer. Kong came to rest on the floor, surrounded by pulverized marble and a pool of blood trickling from his shattered nose.
Karen stood up and looked back, seeing the bewildered faces in the crowd stunned beyond words, but as the dust settled and the threat was over, the crowd erupted into a thunderous roar of cheers and applause. Karen blushed, smiling, suddenly in the midst of the most adoration she had ever received. Very suddenly, Karen understood just what made Popuri grin when she had won her wrestling match.
She cast a glance back at the podium, where the mayor stood and she was struck silly for a moment. The immaculately dressed young man had a handsome face that turned her guts something fierce. She paused, if only for a moment, to catch his eyes and a small smile that felt like a finger flicking something in her chest. He gave her a short nod, one that she returned, grinned, and took two steps backwards before leaping into the skylight she had fallen from. Gasps and shocked declarations followed her as she back-flipped back onto the roof and landed on her feet near the girls.
Down on floor level, Luke snuck out of the ballroom from the corner where he had hid himself-a trick he was quite adept with.
Popuri and Ann cheered her and rushed her with high-fives and back-slapping.
"That was amazing, Rocket Girl!" Ann cried, "You solo'd that attack all by yourself! Two Reapers to one Siren."
"That was freakin' deakin' sweet!" Popuri declared, "You kick-ass almost as good as I do."
Karen smiled her toothy grin, never one to turn down adoration-even if it was from dear friends. "Well, since I was left all on my own out there, I had to carry the lion's share of the fighting. Next time, you ladies need to get the lead outta your tits."
Nearby, Elli gave Mary a small nudge with her elbow. "That was pretty impressive. What do you think?"
Mary crossed her arms begrudgingly, "Impressive or not, it was reckless to go at it alone."
Elli snickered under her breath, "Mary, you are so jealous right now."
Mary blushed and muttered, "Shut up. Tell Karen to go get Luke from downstairs. There's more work to do."
The scene outside the 5th District Police Station was one of total chaos. From a vantage point in the middle of the street, with cars on all sides of him, Marauder was laying an assault on the front of the station that more resembled the beach landing at Normandy than a city street. After jacking a couple of sturdy SUVs in the middle of the street and forming a closed barricade with them, Marauder had fired an honest-to-God rocket launcher into the front of the station and sent to police force into a frenzy of chaos and confusion during the aftermath.
Now he was exchanging fire with cops on all sides, though his cover was good enough to keep him shielded. Though it seemed he was trapped, he had an escape plan well in hand. A couple of well tossed smoke bombs on all sides of him would keep them from seeing him go through the manhole cover at his feet.
"Marauder, toss out your weapons and surrender!" A voice on a bull horn cried.
"Toss out my weapons?" Marauder laughed, 'Sure! How's this?" He pulled the pin on a grenade and lobbed it over his shoulder. A pair of voices cried out, followed by an explosion. Marauder cackled in delight. Pissing off the police was a delight!
A fury of intense gunfire rained down on his position from all directions. He grabbed the smoke bombs by his feet. It was almost time to get the hell out of here. The job was done and he would be collecting a sweet paycheck from his pal Brodik when this was over.
Abruptly, the gunfire all stopped at once.
An intense, awkward silence followed and Marauder was immediately ill at ease with it. No cries or orders being fired out, no exclamations or screams. Just a hushed tone that seemed to contradict the carnage he was inflicting on the city. He assumed there was an advance about to take place. He grabbed an assault rifle and peered out to find a target.
A short girl with long, raven-black hair in a black-and-white costume stood in the middle of the road, hands on hips, standing between Marauder and the police who were behind their own cover. Marauder's eyes snapped wide open. He recognized that little bitch! She was one of the girls who had trashed the Snake Pitt last month.
Marauder was not stupid. The boss wanted this girl, but he knew he couldn't solo against her, not with whatever powers she had at her disposal. He need the rest of the Reapers and now.
He dialed Wolf…no answer.
He called Pitbull…no answer.
He called Kong…and heard Kong's cell phone ring behind him.
Marauder spun around and peered out behind the SUV, seeing Karen standing there, holding Kong's cell phone in her hand. She said nothing, but sneered as she let it fall from her hands to the pavement. Marauder cursed and turned to a different direction, but found Elli staring back from across the road, blocking his view from that route. He turned to the last direction free for him-the police station-and saw Ann cracking her knuckles.
Marauder fired off several rounds at Ann, but the bullets bounced off her nigh-indestructible skin. He whipped around and fired another salvo at Elli, but she froze into a steel statue and the bullets reflected off her harmlessly. She unfroze and gave him a defiant glare in return. Marauder spun and emptied his clip at Karen. Or, rather, the spot where Karen would have been. As soon as he had a bead on her, she leapt into the sky and Marauder's bullets hit empty pavement.
He tossed down his empty weapon and grabbed his final trump card: the last RPG he had left. He swung it around, determined to take out the little bitch who had stood him down at the Snake Pitt. A squeeze of the trigger and the projectile shot towards her.
She acted quickly, more quickly than he thought she could. She only had to raise her hand and the RPG stopped in place. She swung her arm around and the RPG went sailing into the sky, where it detonated harmlessly away from the populace. Marauder cursed fiercely. Nothing left but to escape.
He back up to peel off the manhole cover, but suddenly a gloved fist smashed its way through the pavement, followed y a second fist erupting at his feet. The hands snatched an unbreakable hold on his ankles and-as the pavement caved in around him-pulled Marauder under the street as his howl of terror echoed in the ears of the witnessing police.
For a moment, all was quiet. Then, Popuri burst through the pavement near a police barricade with Marauder's unconscious form slung over her shoulder. As the other girl approached her, she tossed Marauder at several cautiously approaching police officers. One of them looked down and swore when he saw the Reaper.
"Do you girls know what you've done? Marauder is the boss Reaper!"
An elder officer noted, "He's been busted before. No way he'll stay behind bars for long. Always manages to bust out or end up mysteriously vanishing from his cell."
Mary and Elli shared a concerned look, but Karen stepped forward and said, "If the asshole gets back out, we'll keep putting him back in until he learns to stay where he belongs. In the meantime, let us know if there's anything else we can do for you." Without waiting to see if the cops actually did need anything, The girls took off. Ann slung her arms up and carried Mary and Poprui to the nearest roof and Karen launched herself with Elli in her arms.
When the girls landed on the roof, Ann went to the edge of pull up Luke from his hiding spot. Karen flipped her hair aside and said to Mary, "That was actually kind of fun. Kicking ass on a regular basis might actually be a hoot."
Mary gave Karen a friendly push, "See how easy is it when we scope out the situation and form a plan first?"
"Hear, hear." Popuri agree, "We took those Reapers down in no time at all. I vote we use Mary's strategies before every fight." Elli giggled at Popuri's exuberance.
Karen sighed, but admitted, "I have to admit your "plans" really gave us the edge against them. Second fight and the Reapers still had no clue about how to handle us. Maybe you're not as iron headed as I thought."
That one moment of agreement sent a blossom of fire spreading through Mary's chest. She was so used to Karen's bickering, she almost didn't know what to do or say. But, as with most things she set her mind to, when people listened they found out she was usually right.
Ann then returned with Luke in tow. He gave them a big grin and a thumbs up. "I got it all! Now what?"
"We did our part." Mary said, "Now its your turn to do something heroic."
General Lynette watched as a sole gunship returned and landed in the hanger. She knew something had gone wrong. One does not simply misplace a military gunship worth ten million dollars. Before the gunship had even secured its landing, Brodick had leapt from his perch and was on the hanger floor, running for Lynette.
His stoic face made it difficult to read his emotions, but he seemed a bit more scowl-y than normal when she stared up at his face. "So then…I take it not all went as planned." She said.
"I have the A.C.E." He said, "But the price has gone up."
Lynette's eye flared in anger, "We had a deal, Brodik!"
"Our deal did not include girls in costumes attacking me with meta-human powers." Brodik snapped back, "I lost two gunships to their meddling, though they hardly presented a challenge."
Lynette was then more surprised than angry. "Them? The girls with powers? You encountered them? " She stroked her chin with her robotic hand, "This does change things. Come with me and give myself and Dr. Jin a briefing on everything you saw concerning these girls and I will double the price we agreed on."
"Triple." Brodik snarled, "Or I destroy the A.C.E."
"Fine." Lynette growled, only willing to part with that much money for one reason, "Anything to learn more about those girls."
For once, Brodik gave a small smile that seemed unnatural on his face. "Oh, you will learn plenty. I only hope you know how to use that information."
"If information was power, Dr. Jin would sit on a throne above the world." Lynette said.
Chase heard Luke's feet hit the roof outside and sighed. He puffed on the half-finished cigar-a slim, store bought brand he favored with a strong mint aroma to it-and leaned back in his chair. He had been reinforcing their servers, preparing them for the heavy traffic load they would encounter whenever Luke posted whatever it was he got. His messages and phone call had been incoherent, but he was certain he had something.
Chase didn't share the enthusiasm Luke did. Luke was breathless and ecstatic whenever he found a third cousin to someone who had seen the girls, so he wasn't going to get bent out of shape for Luke's ranting. The door opened behind him and then shut. Chase sighed and spun around, "I sure hope this is worth abandoning the parlor for…"
Chase trailed off as he saw Luke standing there framed by five girls in costumes. His stogie fell out of his mouth without a word. Luke stepped forward through the throng of their bachelor's apartment mess. Aside from the computer towers and the control room-esque triple-monitor setup dominating one wall of their apartment, the rest was typical of two men who didn't have regular female companions over: The kitchen was a mess of dirty dishes and broken dreams, the couch and floor covered in old laundry and faded pillows, while the coffee table was overwhelmed with gaming and tech magazines, old pizza boxes, soda cans, an ashtray, and a pvc anime figurine of a busty girl in a schoolgirl outfit bending over at the waist.
"Well…this is lovely." Karen muttered.
"Cleaner than Ann's room." Elli said, wiping her finger over a nearby counter with her finger, noting the level of grime that came up with it. She immediately squirted gel into her hands.
"She's right, it is cleaner than my room." Ann noted.
The girls stepped forward behind Luke. Chase stood up and immediately flicked his stogie out through a nearby window. He narrowed his eyes, looking from girl to girl and then looked back to Luke. "Okay…I give up. How did you convince five cosplaying comic-con models to come back here with you? Wait, no, don't tell me!" Chase sighed, holding his hand up and pinching the bridge of his nose with the other, "Tell me you did not spend your tip and rent money to convince them to come up and party, please tell me you didn't do that."
Mary walked up to Chase, who was an inch taller than Luke and held out her hand. "He didn't pay us and we're not here to party. We also didn't know Luke had a partner."
"Well, yeah." Luke said as he slung his backpack down began digging his camera out, "I'm an awesome, extreme vlogger, but Chase is totally my tech guy. He's got the smarts that matter, even if his hair is pink."
"My hair is not pink!" he protested, "It's strawberry blonde that's heavier on the strawberry than the blonde. Her hair is pink." He pointed to Popuri.
Poppy patted her hair, "Really, it's magenta, but why be picky?"
"So, okay, you're not cosplaying hookers he bought with our rent money." Chase said, straightening his apron in a fidget, "So who are you?"
"It's them, Chase, my man! The Sirens! This is them!" Luke said, jumping up and down on his tip-toes with a massive grin on his face.
Chase's eyes lifted in surprise, but clouded with uncertainty. "For reals?"
"For really reals."
Chase crossed his arms. "Prove it."
Mary put her fingers to her forehead and reached out and grabbed an unopened green soda can. Chase watched as it floated across the room and landed into Mary's hands. Mary tossed it to Elli, who absorbed the metal and her arm changed to the color of green aluminum. She tossed it up in the air and Ann's arm stretched out six feet to catch the same can and toss it to Popuri, who crushed it in her fist and sent soda spraying all over the place.
Chase's mouth dropped, but he found his composure quickly. "Okay…so you're the real deal. My intellectual curiosity can't help but wonder why you're here."
"An intellectual man usually wouldn't question having five scantily clad girls in his apartment." Mary chuckled.
Chase opened his mouth, but closed it a second later, "Point taken. But still, what's going on? As much fun as this conversation is, I'm not believing that you girls are here because Luke is such a fun guy to be around."
"Let me do the intros, first of all." Luke said, putting his arm around Chase, "This is my total bro, Chase McConner! We run the pizza parlor below. We do some deliveries, a dinner rush to help pay the bills. I'm vlogging most of the time and he writes nerd shit for a nerd rag."
Chase cleared his throat, "What he means is that I write an Op-Ed for a technology magazine: Technozoid. There's a few copies on the table if you want to browse them."
"Didn't come here to read your resume." Karen said, looking for a place to sit.
"Hang on." Luke said. He grabbed an armload of dirty laundry and pillows on the couch and hurled them into another room, then swept his arm across the coffee table, sending all the junk and trash flying into the corner of the room. He used his bandana as a cloth whip to fling the crumbs and food particles onto the floor and then presented the couch as if he had found an antique and was dying to have someone try it.
Karen, Ann, and Popuri sat on the couch, which sank in the middle when Poppy sat down. Ann and Karen sat on the arm rests. Elli wouldn't go near the health hazard at all.
"For reals, though." Luke said, "Chase is, like, total genius, so that's why he's my computer guy. Check out those degrees, if you want, but if there's tech stuff you need, he's your man."
Mary eyed a small stack of picture frames in the corner where Luke had gestured and then turned her attention back to Chase, who shrugged, "Yeah, I can type stuff pretty well. So what do you girls want? Gonna give Luke an exclusive interview?"
Mary smiled, "That's not an entirely bad idea. Right now we want to make sure Luke gets the footage from our fight today on the computer as quickly as possible. But we need to edit some…unsavory stuff out of the footage. It's been a mixed bag of good, bad, and downright ugly events today."
Chase nodded calmly, "Sounds like a lot of work. Step into my office." He took four steps across the apartment and sat in his computer chair, offering a second one to Mary. "Now, let's get all this out in the open: are you girls really superheroes like Luke says?"
Mary nodded, "That's exactly what we are."
"What are your names?" Chase asked.
"We're still working on them." Mary admitted.
"Are you?" Luke asked, "Cause I thought I heard you pretty clearly when you were fighting in front of that cop."
Mary looked at Luke, confused. "What do you mean? Those names that she calls us? " She jerked her thumb at Karen, "She calls us names all the time, it's practically the only way you know she likes you."
Karen muttered something at Mary while make a face at her.
Luke pointed to the girls and said, when he pointed to Karen, "Rocket Girl-"
At Ann, "-Calamity Ann-"
At Popuri, "-Miss Mighty, we already knew-"
At Elli, "-Atom Girl-"
Then she pointed to Mary, "-And I remember her very clearly calling you Captain Ironmind."
The girls all looked at one another. Luke looked back and forth between their silent stares and asked, "What? No good?"
"They sound fine to me." Chase said.
"You're taking this awfully well." Luke commented to Chase, "For someone who just found out the real life superheroes are sitting on his disgusting couch."
"It's your couch, too, dickbreath." Chase said, then paused when he remembered Mary was sitting next to him, "Er, sorry. We're guys. We have potty mouth from time-to-time. And I don't get bent out of shape over things, unlike Luke, who flies off his rocker like a kid with ADD when his Ritalin wears off. Look, are those your names? Because if you want my help putting your faces on the internet and making viral stars out of you, you're going to need to make sure that's what you want to be called?"
"I figured you girls had the superhero thing down before you stepped outside in those costumes." Luke said, "Very nice, by the way. Slammin' good suits. Whoever made them is awesome."
"That'd be me! Thank you." Popuri said sweetly, looking over at Elli, "See? I told you I was awesome."
"It was hard enough to get the very concept in our heads." Mary admitted, "Miss Mighty, thankfully, is a very talented seamstress and she helped us look the part, but I must admit we hadn't given too much thought to our names."
"Names are important if you are going to be in the public eye." Popuri said, "The more exciting your name, the better it sounds when announced and the easier it is for people to remember you." Or, that's what Kai told me when I wrestled with him. I like those names."
Ann rolled the name on her tongue, saying it over and over silently as her head tilted to the side, "Well, it has a catchy ring to it. Calamity Ann. I do so love trashing Reapers, so why not?"
"Isn't that the name we gave you because you were such a klutz when you hit puberty?" Karen asked.
Ann nodded, "Yeah, but I'm not saying it was wrong. I was pretty klutzy. Might as well take a name I hate and turn it into something positive. Calamity Ann it is."
Chase, Luke, and Mary looked to Elli, who was busy rubbing her hand washing gel into her hands. She sighed and said, "I hate to admit this, but even though I'm committed to this superhero endeavor with the rest of you girls, I really don't…uh, I don't care what my name is. It's okay, I guess, since it matches the atom symbol on my chest, so just call me Atom Girl and I'll live with it."
Mary smiled, "Captain Ironmind has a very unique and strong resonance about it. I must admit I was leaning towards something like Mastermind or Perceptor. What do you two think?" She looked to Luke and Chase.
Luke gave a thumbs down, "Nah. Those sound like villain names."
Chase nodded in agreement, "Yeah, Ironmind sounds strong and sure. It sounds good with the title of Captain in front of it. So, does that make you the leader?"
"Aheerrrm!" Karen cleared her throat loudly, "That position is still in flux, but go with it for now if it makes her happy."
Chase turned back to Mary, "I like it, Cap. It suits you." The way he said it, the way he looked at her, almost sent a shiver up Mary's spine and she had to suppress a fierce blush that threatened to cross her face. "Er, what about you Rocket Girl?"
"I am NOT Rocket Girl!" Karen protested, crossing her arms, "That is the stupidest name in the world and the only reason I allowed any of you to call me that today is to keep you from blurting out my real name in the presence of other people. Pick something else!"
The room grew uncomfortably quiet, but Luke stood up and walked over to Karen. He pointed his finger at her, "Listen, I can tell you think this superhero gig is a little on the goofy side. But hear me out, okay? People remember iconic! When you girls put your faces out there, you are totally gonna be icons! And when that happens, you want them to remember you."
Luke continued, "Now, I used to call you Leapfrog, which is pretty stupid, but I came up with it because we had nothing else to go on. But your name fits. When you jump, you take off like a rocket! And you were witnessed doing the most heroic thing of anyone else during Siren Day last month. You saved that kid. Right now, you're the face that people associate with the Sirens, because they saw you doing the heroic thing to do. I think you embody the name Rocket Girl and I'd be totally stoked to know that an awesome chick like you was watching over me. That name is tens kinds of awesome and you? You are totally awesome!"
Karen bit her lip ever so slightly. Here her weakness for other people's adoration caved in her reluctance and seeing how adamant Luke was to see her happy with her name, she couldn't help but feel her heart melt a little. He was annoyingly obnoxious and a little too full of himself, but at least he was honest with her.
Karen sighed a long groan. "Fine! I'll be Rocket Girl."
"Yes!" Ann cried, giving Popuri playful slap on the arm, "I told you! Pay up!"
Popuri grumbled and dug a wad of ten dollar bills out of her sleeve and let Ann snatch it from her grip.
Karen stood up, looking Luke in the eyes and said, "One condition: I get to name our team."
Luke paused, his hand going to his collar reflexively, "Er…why? What's wrong with Sirens?"
"Do I look like a water nympho trying to woo men?" Karen asked.
"You are wearing a little too much lipstick today." Ann snorted.
Karen held up her finger, "I told that cop earlier that this is our city and we are it's champions. We're not here for fame or fortune or glory and that needs to be front and center of everything about us. That's why we're here: to make sure you broadcast to the rest of the world that our intentions are as pure as the wind-driven snow. We can't come across as shallow or vain, nor that we aren't fully prepared for this. Our name has to make sense. The city's rotten heart is a cancer on the land, Luke, and we aim to cure that cancer and bring Hope back into people's lives. And we can't do it if our name is the Sirens."
Karen said firmly, "We are the Champions of Metro Heights. And don't you forget it."
To Be Continued…
Author's note: If you read this before, I want to admit that the original version of this chapter didn't live up to my standards and it showed. As one of my reviewers pointed out, it lacked a lot and the reason for that is because I rushed the last chapter with the idea of finally getting it out of the way before writer's block set in. I yanked it and re-wrote key scenes and added some improvisations that add to the narrative. I really feel better about this chapter now, especially because it brought on the key scene with Ann and her willingness to kill someone. I hadn't thought of that before and looking back, it's a crucial lesson to be learned, but what else does it entail? Methinks something more is going on with Ann than meets the eye.
I would like to point out an inconsistent error I made last chapter. One of the Reapers said that "The Reapers have always been twelve." Well, no, that's not true. I meant to write that the Reapers have always had ten members, not twelve. Right now there are nine. Sorry for this mistake. See you on the flip side! Enjoy!