Chapter the Fifth; In Which The Title is Non-descriptive.
Stunner won the next hand on a full house; threes and eights. The bet wasn’t nearly enough for her to break even after a night of betting the limit and having more tells than a campfire story.
At least she was gracious about it. Go figure; she could spend the good end of an hour complaining or chastising us about every little aspect of heroism, but she loses money without a cross word.
Improv raked in all the cards and pushed the cards over to Urban, but she raised her hands and scooted away from the table. “Sorry, guys, but I think that’s it for me for tonight.”
I almost teased her about quitting while she was ahead. After all, she and Improv were the night’s big winners. But before I could, Improv grunted in agreement. “Yeah. Time to go.”
“And here I was going to try and raise the staked now they you’re all tired and lied with alcohol.” Owl, ever the good host laughed and got up, headed for the bar. As he did, he stretched, working out the kinks from sitting so long. “So. Same time next week?”
Urban was the first to nod. “And maybe we can invite the Sandwich Man this time.”
“Why not?” said Owl. “I’ve got a standing invitation out there for Sister Sacred.”
I collected and recounted my three dollar profit as if it was a three thousand. “Somehow, I don’t picture her taking you up on the one; drinking, gambling… maybe smoking if some of you can figure it out through a mask…” I snickered. “And if you keep up the charm, Owl, who knows how many other sins might be flying around here.”
Both Stunner and Urban glared at me. Hit the pin behind the one I was aiming for. Go Whitecoat. No wonder this teasing stuff works so well for me with the bad guys.
Owl didn’t try to deny or obfuscate. He just chuckled a little and waved me off. “You never know. Maybe she’s not the Super-nun we keep envisioning. Plenty of holy rollers drink and smoke. And based on some big families I know, some of them are even known to have sex.”
“Not with guys in bird masks.” Urban said offhand. “That’s a pretty specific fetish.”
“Charming guys in bird masks.” Owl corrected with faux petulance. “’coat said so.”
“Whitecoat thinks he’s charming.” Stunner pointed out. No humor or gentle poking in her tone. It was just stating a simple fact.
“Ouch.” said Owl.
I ignored her. It’s not as if I’d be trying to impress the kind of person that would be a good little super-soldier for the mayor even if I was on the market. “Need help cleaning up?” I asked Owl.
“Nah, I’ve got it.” He never accepted anyone’s offer to help clean up, even if it would have given him time alone with Stunner or Urban. Still, it was only polite to ask.
“Taking off then.” I announced and pointed up to the skylight. “Roof.” As was tradition, we each left through a different way to make sure none of the others tried to follow. Paranoid as all hell, but that’s how it goes.
The poker game helped break down some of those walls, but it’s a societal thing: even before there were heroes, western culture drilled it into your head: if you’re a crime kicking vigilante, you need a secret identity or you enemies will use your family against you. We all grew up with it, so we all respected that.
Even Stunner, whose name is a matter of public record since she’s on the mayor’s payroll, never took off her mask for us. And out of respect for the craft (thought maybe not the person), we didn’t go out of our way to look it up.
“West.” Improv rumbled, referring to the west entrance.
“Loading dock.” Added Urban.
Stunner sighed. She always took the front and resented having to announce it every time. Also resented was the fact that she had to park the dumbass car of hers in an alley five blocks from the warehouse. What would the point of our secret poker place be if that billboard tribute to Stunner’s ego was parked out front?
I didn’t wait for her to actually say it. One jump took me up to the beam keeping the platform the game took place on suspended. The next took me into the rafters and a third took me outside.
Once outside, I checked the time on my HUD. Only ten. Only briefly did I entertain the idea of finding a few dealers to put the fear of god in. After all, Janine was out of town on a class assignment and I had made up some excuse I couldn’t even remember to my friends for why I couldn’t hang out.
But it’d be stupid to fight crime because you’re bored. Deciding that my videogames were being seriously neglected anyway, I turned toward home. We all went home.
It was almost academic fact to its citizens that the City of New York was, in many ways, a living thing. It breathed, it growled, it had shifting moods and it never for an instant slept. It also grew. That wasn’t much of a secret to anyone who ever looked at an old map, or knew that the boroughs used to be cities in their own right.
It sprawled out into its former suburbs and with each new innovation in construction technology, it found new ways to grow; there were towers in the harbor now, and offices beneath the level of the subways. Where once the Empire State Building was a titan, now it stood tall only be head and shoulders.
And yet in some places, even in Manhattan, where building heights were still capped at twenty stories. Here, the wealthy still had rooftop playgrounds instead of wind stations or solar collectors.
Barn Owl swooped down toward one; one of the less ostentatious ones, sporting only a pool, a patio, and A row of frosted glass pyramids that served as skylights for the floor below.
He wasn’t known for fighting crime in Manhattan, and in that neighborhood, the crimes going on were the jurisdiction of the SEC and IRS more than there were any prelate anyway. But he circled in lazily with practiced ease as one of the pyramids split down the center with each half sliding sideways.
Without hesitation, he glided over it and hovered into a gradual decent. Into the comparatively warmed air within.
Inside was a private gym complete with boxing ring and gymnastics equipment. As he lowered himself in from the ceiling, a circular compartment in the floor of the ring irised open to allow a concave metal dais to rise from below.
The dais itself disgorged a number of robotic arms, which flexed and curled around Owl as he came in for a gentle landing. The moment his feet were on the ground, the arms set to work undoing the harness that kept his wings on and removing his mask and the helmet beneath.
While he stood there, arms out stretched, and allowed the machine to continue on with removing the taloned gauntlets on his arms, the double doors opposite him in the room opened to admit an older, slightly balding man in a smart suit.
He was carrying a tray bearing a glass of water, a steaming mug, and square, covered dish while at the same time being careful to avoid stepping on (or in) the clear gelatinous pot-bellied pig that dashed underfoot.
By the time the peculiar porker reached him, Owl was free of the machines, the Barn Owl costume securely in the grasp of the machines needed to quickly don and doff it. He slipped under the ropes and out of the ring to kneel and let the pig run into his arms.
“Hey Buddy.” He said with a huge grin. Lavishing attention on a curiously warm and happy ball of goo was a normal and welcome part of his day. “Have you been good for Uncle James?” He shot an amused look to the man with the tray.
“Bryce has been a porcine angel, sir.” James Brigham, his butler, said, a smile tugging at his serious features. “And might I ask how the ‘grand experiment’ progressed tonight, Mr. Bao?”
Li Bao-Kong, known in the heroic community as Barn Owl shook his head. “I think that it’s been enough of a success that we don’t have to call it ‘the grand experiment’ anymore, James. I was right; as untrusting and skittish as people who follow this line of work are, given time and incentives, we can get along… even become friends.”
He let Bryce go and watched his pet snuffle around the edge of the ring. Wherever the jelly pig went, the floor was cleaner for his passing. Satisfied, her turned his attention to the tray, which James set on a training bench for him. There was a row of soda crackers beside his nightly assortment of medication and vitamins.
The pills went down with the water and a moment later, Li was starting in on the chicken broth in the mug.
James waited until he was sure his employer was getting at least some nourishment before encouraging him to say more. “Well that is very good news, sir.”
“I know, isn’t it?” Li said happily. Tonight, everyone really opened up; we shared war stories, had some laughs. The beer you taught me to brew, by the way, big hit.”
A prideful look came to James’s eyes. “Only more than happy to share my hobby with you, sir.”
Li’s mood was elevated all the more by getting a positive reaction from an older man. “No really, I meant a lot James. I know I say it a lot, but I mean it when I say that you were always more of a father to me than my real dad. Brewing beer is a lot more fun than teaching me to fish anyway.”
James’s back straightened. That was the only indication of a reaction from him, but a powerful one. The subject quickly changed. “Are you considering expanding the game then, sir?”
“Hmm… I don’t think so. Poker isn’t really a large group activity and besides that, I think there’s still tension. Especially with Stunner. They don’t accept her as one of our own. I was hoping to fix that tonight, but a lot of the openness and story swapping came from the others wanting to tell her off.”
“I suppose that as long as Mayor Raymond remains in office and hostile to vigilantes, this might always be the case.” James ventured. “Perhaps it The Stunner performed some heroics outside of her professional duties.”
Li shook his head, in the midst of crumbling crackers into his mug of broth. “Raymond would fire her in a second and probably arrest her on top of that. On top of that, her tech belongs to the city. No city funds, no Stunner.”
“You’ll have to find another way to get the others to like her… or maybe you should let this one go as a lost cause.”
“I’m don’t believe in lost causes.” said Li. “You taught me that. And that’s what the Barn Owl is all about. Or at least what I want him to be about. I don’t want to be stuck being a band-aid on the petty crime problem forever.”
James nodded and changed the subject again. “Was the Urban Amazon there again tonight?”
Li couldn’t hide his blush. “Yeah. You know, it’s not right to have a crush on someone if you’ve never seen their face. But she’s just so…” He cut off and glared at the almost-certainly-not-a-chuckle that came from James. “Shut up.” He said lightly.
“As you don’t believe in lost causes, I’m rather interested in seeing what you would do to pursue this, sir.”
With a sigh, Li sank down on the bench beside the tray. “Right. Superhuman Psychology 101: Don’t tell anyone who you are in real life, especially not your significant other. No matter how smart and capable of, they’ll worry and that’ll lead them to eventually make a mistake that puts them in harm’s way.
“I wonder how that works when you’re both hurling yourselves into harm’s way in the first place? How do you even get approach someone about looking under the mask? There’s not etiquette for that.”
James cleared his throat, breaking Li out of his revere. He looked at his butler askance and the older man didn’t hesitate to offer his advise. “It’s not much, sir. Only that it occurs to me that you’ve already managed to cultivate friendships with secret identities and masks between you.”
Li goggled at him. “You can’t possibly be suggesting what I’m pretty sure you’re suggesting.”
“Indeed I am, sir. Faces, names, professions; they’re only trappings that surround the real person. Maybe I’m old fashioned, or out of practice, but I don’t see how now knowing those things can inhibit romance if you’re honest in other ways. Especially seeing that she will understand where you’re coming from when it comes to living a shadow life.”
To some part of Li’s mind, the idea had merit. Plus, the idea of Barn Owl dating the Urban Amazon in costume did have a certain kind of novelty to it. If only it wouldn’t make him sound insane suggesting it to her.
“Lets… talk about something else.” He said, getting up and whistling for Bryce to come to him. The bizarre little pig waddled over and rubbed his shoulder against Li’s calves as he headed for the door. “Have any more clues come in about what Whelk is building?”
James left the tray, intending to come back for it later, and followed after. “Not a word, sir. None of your allies in the scientific circles have had anymore material go missing, and Tanya Crane has failed to find any further anomalies in Directed Analytics’ accounting.”
“Then we still have a half empty puzzle on our hands.” Li said unhappily. “I was hoping someone would at least know where Whelk is building this thing, or a time table. Something. The brains and guts say powered armor, but the raw materials he’s pulled in… I can’t make hide or hair of it: half of the components are for an orbital shot launch mechanism. The other… What? A particle accelerator?”
“We will figure it out in time.” James assured him.
“I hope so. I don’t trust Kyle Whelk as far as Urban or Whitecoat could throw him, and that’s not just because he tried to ruin my family.”
To Be Continued…