Chapter the first; In Which Libations Lead to Boasting.
In the city of New York, I would assume there’s around four or five dozen folks who go out and, with the help of innate gifts, great skill, or a bit of weird science, try and make life in the Big Apple just a bit better under an assumed identity.
Writ large, the press calls us prelates; more and more often, the public just calls us heroes (whether they add ‘super’ or not depends largely on if they have a stick up their derriere.), and among ourselves? Well…
“Have you hear about the new weekender working the Bronx?” Asked Barn Owl as he passed me a bottle of beer. Like me and everyone else in the room, he was in full crime fighting gear; his golden bird mask with sharp, hooked beak that hid his face, a pair of wings constructed of whirring clockwork of some kind with ultra-lite ceramic feathers, and taloned gloves that same color of the mask. At night, it was bizarre and unnerving, In the full light in the room though, he looked… well, like a man in a bird mask.
Despite looking like a lost extra from a Las Vegas show, he seemed right at home tending bar for the rest of us. The whole business that found us all hanging out together atop what had once been an observation gantry in a long defunct chemical plant had all been his idea.
Once I had a beer in me, maybe had some cigar smoke sting my eyes, I wouldn’t even be able to tell that the bar, the card table, the couch, and all the chairs were actually suspended on rails high above long empty vats that formerly held god knows what.
“You talking about the Sandwich Man?” That was Urban Amazon, Formerly Urban Ranger, the recipient of the next beer coming out of the icebox. “Have you spoken to him? He’s a very interesting man.” Shorter than anyone else in the room, but with the descendant-born muscle that made that a non-issue, what little I could see of her eyes and complexion placed her heritage somewhere in the middle east, as did her very slight accent.
She casually flicked the cap off her beer with only her thumb (a trick I can’t seem to manage even with my gauntlets) and inserted a straw produced from one of her cargo pockets. Of all of us, her costume was the most practical; a pair of camouflage cargo pants, an olive drab tank under an open combat jacket replete with tactical webbing for her various gadgets. Her hair was tied back in a braid so tight that it was rigid, and she covered the lover half of her face with a close fitting, dark green bandanna, worn ninja-style instead of bandit-style like mine.
That restrictive mask was what made the straw necessary. While I could put the bottle under mine, hers didn’t leave her any suck room, so she drank, using the straw, through a hidden gap in the mask normally reserved for her rebreather.
None of us even batted an eyes at this. After all, we might be drinking together, playing some cards, but as anyone who either does what we do, or has touched a comic in the last century can tell you, there are a million and one reasons to keep your identity secret, even to other heroes. We are a cautious and secretive lot. And if one wants to intimidate us, one should become a nosy neighbor or a roommate with an unpredictable schedule.
“No, actually. How about you?” He asked while passing a bottle to the fourth member of our clandestine little league, a six-five wall of humanity topped with a red beard, open helm, and bulky night vision goggles.
That would be Improv, which goes without saying to anyone that sees what passes for his costume. It’s… I’m not entirely certain how to fully capture in words how both incredibly terrible and awe inspiring that thing is. Especially since he keeps adding to and upgrading it.
Imagine duct tape. Dozens upon dozens of rolls of the stuff, enough to completely wrap a large car a few times over. Got that in your head? Good. Now fold it until it becomes plates, as in armored plates, and lash those plates together with, you guessed it: more duct tape. Do this until you have a set of football pads and enough overlapping plates to march down two beefy arms, legs like young trees, and a belly I’m sure has seen one or two entire suckling pigs in its day.
He looks like the lead iron clad in the Budget Navy and that night, he looked even more so because he’d shed the heavy wool coat he normally wore over it.
A man who obviously shared more hobbies of mine than punching criminals, Improv barely looked up from drawing technical schematics in a pocket sized, leather bound notebook to accept the beer. His hand wrapped all the way around the bottle.
“Yeah,” He grunted. “Run into him while I was on a parts run for the hot rod.” A scary chunk of Improv’s conversation revolved around the car he was restoring this week or the next. What he did with them after restoring them was a mystery, because they never came up again once he was done.
“So what did he give you?” asked Urban Amazon. Drink in hand, she was headed over to the table where the fifth and final member of the group sat idly shuffling cards and listening to the conversation.
“Give me? What you mean?” Improv pulled the same trick in popping off the top as she had. I fiddled mournfully with the bottle opener in my hand.
Urban took a seat and leaned back in the chair. “The sandwich. What sandwich did he give you?”
“You took a sandwich?” Owl gave her a disapproving look; not quite a glare, but the sort of look you’d expect from a parent dealing with a child bringing home all D’s. “Urban, those are for the poor!”
“He gave it to me!” She defended. “I thought the same thing you did, but he said it’s not about class, it’s about community. He gives everyone sandwiches.”
It took all my tact not to burst out laughing. I don’t have a lot of tact though, so I ended up letting loose one huge guffaw. Ignoring the glare it got me from both parties at the table, I elaborated. “The guy is butter smooth, I’ll give him that. Come on, Urban, he was just trying to make good with a hot super.”
The second it left my mouth, I was sorry for it. It was something Urban was frequently troubled by, but her baggy costume, armored chest plate, and outright brutal fighting style had led to certain media outlets identifying Urban Ranger as a man. It was the reason she went by Amazon now, and why she kept that easily graspable braid.
Instead of getting mad and taking a shot at me though, she laughed. “He lucked out then; what he gave me ended up being my favorite sandwich; smoked turkey on toasted wheat. It was good too, just the way I like it; light mayo, plenty of pepper.”
“That’s actually his power.”
In spite of sincere efforts on the parts of myself and Urban (and possibly Improv, but who can tell?), we all had to look to the source of the voice on that one; mainly because it didn’t sound like she was joking.
To be clear, none of us particularly liked the Stunner for a number of reasons. First and foremost, she wasn’t a hero, at least not by our standards. She was actually a bounty hunter, usually in the employ of the mayor’s office. A mayor’s office headed by Sarah Raymond, a woman with no love for anyone with powers if she wasn’t holding their leash. But while Infinity, New York’s ‘official’ and sanctioned hero still managed to go out and protect people (if the danger was photogenic enough), Stunner just hunted down descendant or spark-jockey bail jumpers.
She was well aware that she wasn’t exactly welcome, but she didn’t particularly care. It was Barn Owl’s place (to the extent that an abandoned building belongs to anyone) and Barn Owl’s beer (literally; according to him, microbrewing was just one of many hobbies for him) and he invited who he wanted to invite. His schoolboy crush seemed to be a secret only to him.
Improv laughed at her, a sound like a large truck engine trying to turn over. “So you think givin’ people sandwiches is a power. No wonder you think them pop guns of yours makes you a prelate.”
As was often the case, the big man said what we’d all been thinking. Stunner’s main gimmick was a pair of modified air pistols that fired projectiles that were basically tasers. A pretty neat trick, but every police force in the country had rifles with longer range and better accuracy that did the same. The only improvement Stunner’s weapons had was being remotely adjustable via a knob on her belt.
That plus alleged mastery of capoeira had convinced her that she was the functional equal of people like Urban, who I’ve personally watched stop speeding car with nothing more than a braced stance and good quality shoe soles.
We don’t discriminate between powered and non-powered (case in point, Improv), but between that, her general attitude, and the embarrassing cat suit she wanders around in, We generally agreed that she made us look bad.
Speaking of her attitude, Improv’s jab at her had absolutely no effect on the coy grin she was flashing all of us. Why? Because she was now the center of attention and that was all she required out of life.
“No, it really is his power.” She insisted to a murmur of barely stifled scoffs. “He told me so, right after he gave me a prosciutto wrap.”
“I don’t buy it.” I said. By now, I’d finally got my bottle open and punctuated my statement with a long pull. Now, I’m not really a beer drinker, but Owl’s brew was damn good. So good that even though I was powerfully thirsty from wearing my damn heavy coat inside, I drank it slow.
Stunner pouted—actually pouted!–and put the deck in the middle of the table. “Fine. It was peanut butter and jelly with slivered bananas, happy?” She folded her arms under her breasts with a scowl.
Damn her eyes, I almost snorted all that good beer right out of my nose. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to swallow before I started laughing. And laugh I did; long and hard and with great boisterousness probably for a full minute. I wasn’t alone either; Urban, Improv, and for a short while, even Owl joined in.
It took a few minutes for me to catch my breath enough to talk. “Not what I wasn’t buying, but it’s good to know you aren’t as hoity-toity as you want people to think you are.” I moved on quickly to keep her from running her mouth at that. “No, I meant I don’t buy that making your favorite sandwich is a power a person can have.”
“Maybe not a psionic,” Stunner once again proved how far outside the loop she was in using the old term for descendants (little d). Of course, that would involve listening to me, who’d heard it directly from the Descendants (big D), and that just wasn’t for Stunner. “But that’s what the Sandwich Man thinks.”
Barn Owl came out from behind the bar with a bowl of peanuts and a beer of his own to place on the table while all this was going on. Refreshments and snacks taken care of, our host took up the aluminum case that was his poker case from under the table and started stacking up chips. “Twnety dollar buy-in?” He asked, ignoring the topic at hand.
Urban nodded to him, then sighed in Stunner’s general direction. Her curiosity was getting the best of her. “Alright, so how does he explain it?”
“Not very well.” Without cards to fiddle with, Stunner was reduced to toying with her hair. “He said he couldn’t explain everything behind what he does, but he said he wakes up some mornings just knowing what to make, and then he knows who to give them to when he sees them.”
“Precog?” asked Improv as he slapped his twenty down on the table. For some reason, he was asking me.
I shrugged. “I guess. A sandwich precog. I guess it’s like how some fliers can’t fly unless they’ve got their arms up in the air like on TV.”
Urban plucked a rolls of bills from a cargo pockets and peels off two tens to toss into the pot. “You two actually sound like you’re buying it.” She gave us each a hard look to let us know that we were dumb-asses. “That there is a man walking among us with the awesome ability to see the future. And that this man, this miraculously gifted person… cannot use this power except in regard to bread-based meals.”
Improv and I shared a snicker as I fished a tightly rolled twenty out of one of my gauntlets. Normally, it was emergency money; you never knew when you’d have to ‘borrow’ something from a street vendor, or bribe someone that still thought minimum wage was a lot of money.
“It’s that cool, cultured way you talk, you know that, Urban? When you say it, it sounds completely insane.” I chuckled. “Mad, actually. Mad sounds better in that accent.”
“Are you kidding? Everything sounds better in that accent.” said Owl in a fair impression of Urban’s patterns.
“Laugh all you want.” said Stunner, a Jersey girl by her accent if there ever was one. The attention had shifted away from her and there was no way she would let that stand. “But you know what I think? He’s backed by Sister Sacred.”
She punctuated this by tossing in a disposable cash card. The programmable ink indicated that it had twenty-two thirty-five left on it. We all scoffed at that one.
Owl started sliding each of us our chips. “Did he say that?”
“Then how do you figure?”
Stunner sniffed. When even Barn Owl couldn’t keep from questioning her theory, it didn’t say much for the theory. Flustered, she launched into her reasoning. “Well thing about it, guys! This guy wakes up once a week, makes an ice cream truck full of sandwiches; special order sandwiches, mind you, and spends the entire Saturday passing them out for free? Do you have any idea how much sandwich fixings cost?”
I couldn’t help but to laugh at her calling them ‘fixings’ like that. It was even more funny than ‘fixins’ by itself. Lucky for me, Improv filled in for me on snarky follow-ups while I was indisposed by my giggle-fit.
“That ain’t proof, darlin’.” He said. “Maybe he’s just rich, ever think of that? Wouldn’t be the first time, someone with too much money on his hands decided to do somethin’ good with it. Admit, I ain’t heard of a ‘somethin’ good’ this strange, but hell, none of us thought of it.”
The talk of a hero with a war chest caused a few sly glances in Owl’s direction. None of us ever brought it up, but after a little over a month of these weekly games, all of us were more than a little curious as to where he’d gotten the furniture for this poker pad.
He didn’t let on that he’d noticed though, instead picking up the deck and shuffling.
Stunner pouted and folded her arms again. “Say all you want, but it make sense to me. No one directly connected to the Sister seem free to talk about it. Plus, they’re never your typical prelates. Like Millie the Medic; she never fights anyone, but she’s probably patched up everyone here at one point. So why not the Sandwich man too?”
A sudden flash of insight seemed to hit her and I cringed to think of what was coming.
“Wait a minute! Healing people, feeding them…oh my God, doesn’t that remind you of anyone?”
A long rumble started in Improv’s throat that set us all on edge. Owl tried to derail the conversation with the game. “Five card draw.” He announced, starting to deal. “Nothing wild, nothing fancy, jacks or better to open.”
Though Improv did start taking up his cards as they were dealt, the start of the game did nothing to quell the slow boil that was going on. He let out a long breath through his nose and I could swear I saw steam. “I won’t stand for any blasphemy, Stunner.” He informed her.
“What?” asked Stunner with honest befuddlement in her eyes.
“You just suggested to a devout man of the Christian faith that Sister Sacred is attempting to build some sort of proxy for his Lord.” Urban said in a calm, mater of fact manner. Her poker face was world class. Improv grunted and nodded his thanks to her.
Barn Owl, done with dealing, squared the remaining cards and put them in the middle of the table. “I don’t think she meant it like that, big guy. Just that Sister Sacred might be putting together these people to do God’s will.”
The big man nodded and opened for fifty cents. “I suppose. Seems kinda strange thought, don’t ya think? Mixin’ what we do with holy work?”
“Doesn’t to me.” I frowned at my cards to keep from ogling the trio of deuces I’d been dealt. “With the notable exception of Infinity or Stunner, aren’t we all basically Good Samaritans?”
“Hey!” said and offended Stunner. “Now that’s enough. Just because I get paid—“
“And work for a twisted mayor’s office.” I added.
“I’ll have you know that Sarah Raymond loves this city.” She huffed.