Chapter the Sixth; In Which Other Home Lives Are Revealed.
Urban was changing from her costume into her work clothes on the roof of her building while casting a wary eye at the building across the street from her. It was several stories taller than hers, and with windows looking out from every room.
Some day that building would be bought up by someone, And once that happened, it was only a matter of time before some tenant there opened their shades and got an eyeful. She really needed somewhere else to change and to store her gear.
At that thought, she stowed her neatly folded costume in the carefully hollowed out corner of the roof and replaced the tile and tar paper that covered it. A quick scuff of her foot smoothed the gravel back over that, rendering the hiding place invisible.
It wasn’t the best hiding place, but with Melinda living with her full time now, the apartment was out of the question. Unless of course, she wanted to explain to her daughter why mommy had a trunk full of military surplus.
That was probably coming, but hopefully not anytime soon.
She took her time to stretch and release her dark, curly hair from the prison of Urban Amazon’s braid. There were a lot of things she could do with a styling bar, but In the end, her hair always wanted to be free to form a cloud of ringlets atop her head and down her back.
A moment was taken to check herself in the poor reflection in the metal of the carbon scrubber at the corner of the roof to make sure no traces of Urban were left on Constancia Jaguaribe.
Once she was satisfied that the graceful, swift crime-fighter was once more securely hidden beneath the frumpy, rock steady working mother, she slipped down the fire escape and down an alley so that she would be seen approaching from down the street.
Her neighborhood wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t a crime riddled hole either. She wished she could take credit, but it was mostly because it was deep inside Mara territory, but not where the South American bangers preferred to live and hang. As long as the businesses paid up, they were safe from the Maras and not of interest for the other criminal enterprises.
She loathed paying protection money that went to buy bigger and more dangerous guns, but there was a fringe benefit that even she could appreciate: No one came around spewing hate against Brazilians. At least Melinda wouldn’t have to put up with what Constancia had while the girl was too young to understand.
Still, the Maras were on her list. She had a five year plan; destroy the arms shipments to reduce collateral damage, then start in on their drug and bootleg electronics businesses. She was going to strangle organized crime in her city, one boat at a time.
It was accidental, but instead of the Maras, she seemed to be tipping the balance most against the Corbins. Their love of heavy arms was an addiction she was making hard for them to feed. Loose coalitions of lesser gangs were taking bites out of them with revenge strike that the Corbins could no longer retaliate against by destroying buildings.
Not the target she was aiming at, but she would take it.
The diner came into view, the bright, LCD panel with a few too many dead pixels, still proclaimed it ‘Hank and Deb’s’. Hank and Deb had passed away some twenty years before Constancia and her ex-husband bought the place from their sons.
The had argued about what to name it. He wanted something creative, she didn’t see the point; the place had a ready made clientele, being the only non-fast food place for blocks and blocks. Roger came up with a new name almost every week.
One of the last ideas had been less than creative, but all the more sweet: ‘Melinda’s’.
She never got a chance to approve. The DEA raid came not long after.
Eighty-two kilos of cocaine. In the walls of their baby’s room. Her baby’s room.
She’s spent a year in jail before that slime finally admitted that she had nothing to do with it. It took her two more years to get Melinda back from the foster system. Five before she and her sister came up with the money to buy the diner back.
And now, a decade and change after the arrest, things were… nice again. There hadn’t been anyone after Roger. She’d tried, but it never worked. But she was comfortable now. Happy. And more importantly, she was happy.
Constancia could see her through the glass doors as she approached them. Doing her homework at the far end of the counter. For some reason, she couldn’t do her homework in quiet and she didn’t like music all that much. The noise of the griddle and the customers seemed to do the trick though.
The old fashioned bell chimed as she opened the door. Where building codes and convenience behind the counter weren’t in play, the whole place was old fashioned; a menu with physical pictures and printed letters instead of a digital display, a granite and cherry wood counter, and wooden chairs instead of plastic.
Her sister, Eufemia, noticed her first, pausing while she served up a Reuben and fries to wave.
Constancia returned the wave and made her way over to Melinda. “Hi, Angel. How was school?” She surprised the girl with an arm around her shoulders and a kiss planted on the top of her head.
Melinda smiled and turned the shoulder squeeze into a full on hug. “Fine.” She said. It was a ‘nothing more objectionable than having to take classes’ kind of fine, the kind a kid gave once they learned they wouldn’t get much sympathy complaining that school was school.
Somewhere along the way, Constancia had learned to mine vast amounts of information out of the monosyllabic language kids develop starting in junior high. In fact, she’d learned to mimic it, much to Melinda’s occasional annoyance.
“Well that’s better than fine (‘I am angry, but don’t wish to discuss it with you because you are old’). I’m fine to.” She couldn’t help laughing at the sidelong glance she got for that.
Shedding her coat, she stepped around the counter and washed her hands in the sink. “So what homework do you have left?”
“Earth Science and English.” Melinda scowled at the worksheet displayed on her tablet. When she took that thing upstairs to the apartment above the diner where they lived, it increased the value of the place by half.
Expensive, but worth it in Constacia’s opinion. Well worth Urban Amazon going without flash-bangs and more breathable boots for a while. Melinda was good with numbers, very good and Constancia was betting the cost of the best tablet she could afford for her to take to school on good grades becoming scholarships in the future.
She leaned over to see exactly what the sheet was for. Sentence diagrams. There was the sympathy. “I know you don’t like those, but—“
“I’ve still got to do my best.” Melinda knew that by heart. The interesting thing for her mother though, was that this time, she wasn’t repeating it in a bored tone. Something was getting through and sticking.
And that made both lives worth living. Constancia raised her and gave her direction, and Urban worked to make a future she’d be proud to live in.
Only a handful of people even saw the hero known as Improv saunter out of a commuter pod in lower Manhattan and head down an alley. And no one made the connection when Bill Bundy emerged from an entirely different alley three blocks east just moments later.
The secret was a pair of carefully concealed steam tunnel entrances and what amounted to an oversized, motorized skateboard stored therein. Over the past few months, he’d learned the fine art of the quick change while riding atop the moving platform.
Improv’s armored coat, as well as his boots (with hidden lifts to make him taller), inflatable belly band (to make him look fatter), and false red beard were tucked away in a gym bag, beneath a sweat drenched sweatshirt and gym socks (cultivated in a plastic bag to deter thieves).
Bill was still a big man, wide at the shoulder and narrow at the hip, but he wasn’t as larger than life as he portrayed Improv. He even had a beard of his own, much shorter than the false one and brown instead of red. And it itched something fierce because of the spirit gum whenever he put the false one on.
Gym bag over one shoulder, hands thrust into his pockets, he made his way two more blocks to his apartment building. It was much nicer than he could normally expect to land, but for the fact that he was the handyman.
“Out late again, huh, Bill?” Vince, the doorman greeted him with a grin. “You have a stand tonight?”
“Just my poker game, Vince.” Bill nodded back to him. In his other spare time, Bill did stand-up. Vince loved the terminology of it because it sounded dirty.
“How’d you do?”
“Pretty much broke even like usual.” Bill shrugged. “It’s coming up on the end of your shift. Got any plans tonight?”
“Ordering a pizza, watchin’ the Knickerbockers game I recorded.” He shrugged.
Bill laughed and stepped into the building. “You’re a wild man Vince. Take it easy.”
“See ya tomorrow, Bill.”
As inane as the conversation was (and Vince, being a doorman, was a master of it), Bill felt relieved to be able to just talk and laugh again after hours of grunts and simple sentences. There was a spring in his step as he passed the elevators and entered his ground floor apartment.
Patty was the first thing he saw coming through the door, sitting in the living room, grading papers.
“Evening, sweetie.” He grinned, leaning down to collect his welcome home kiss before shucking his jacket to hang up in the hall closet.
“Hey.” Patty leaned her head back to smile at him, the position causing her reading glasses to slide up her forehead. She was a couple years older than him, but stunning in his eyes. Her hair was still up in the conservative style she wore to school, even though she’d changed into her Empire State University sweatshirt and loose pants. “How was poker?”
“Fun.” The gym bag went into the closet too. “But frustrating. Improv’s attitude was made more for freaking criminals out, not socializing, you know?”
“I told you that you should have gone boisterous with him.” She returned at least part of her attention to the stack of tenth grade essays in her lap.
“True, but I thought that’d just be too draining.” Bill wandered over to the kitchenette and started pulling out pots and pans. “It’s the opposite when hanging out with the others. I’m just getting tempted to bust out laughing when ‘Coat zings Stunner, or give Owl a big slap on the back for his beer—speaking of which, I smuggled a bottle out for you. It’s seriously good stuff.”
Patty smiled. “Aww, you were thinking of me.” Just as quickly though, she changed gears. “So why can’t you act differently with them? They’re not criminals.”
“Because I’ve been doing the man-grunt thing for weeks now. It’d seem weird.” Bill shrugged and went to rummage in the refrigerator.
“I think they’ll cut the man wearing duct tape and crushed cans as armor some slack for being weird.” said Patty, shaking her head. “Really, do you really think they’re like their heroic personas when they’re off duty?”
“You have a point there.” Bill agreed from inside the fridge. “Have you had dinner yet? I’m thinking of making some stir-fry, but it’d be a waste just cooking it for one.”
“Sounds good, hon. Just let me finish these papers and I’ll help with the chopping.”
It wasn’t fun being called Mayor Raymond’s dog. Stunner never let on to the others, but it didn’t just annoy her sometimes, it hurt.
Yes, she went after powered bail-jumpers and the criminals whose capture was the most politically advantageous to City Hall. Yes, she got paid for what others did for free. But did that make her less heroic?
Of course not. She had her own war stories, even if they never asked for them.
And maybe that wasn’t the point the others were trying to make either. It was no secret that the mayor hated spark jockeys and behind closed doors, she wasn’t a great deal nicer when it came to psionics. That her golden boy, Infinity was one didn’t enter into the picture because as far as Raymond was concerned, he knew his place; in her service.
It was that woman and that attitude that Stunner and Infinity and the other ‘licensed vigilantes’ were helping keep in power. And every year, Mayor Raymond eroded the rights of New York City’s non-normal citizens just a tiny bit more.
For what? The perks were pretty impressive. For her loyalty, Stunner had a ‘support station’ in the high class Liberty Towers complex. The place was so extravagant that there were elevators for cars so their owners wouldn’t have to ride one with the common man.
The support station was really just an apartment with charges and repair terminals for all of her equipment. Somehow, this made it not a gross misappropriation of tax dollars. Of course, it could be worse; Infinity had a penthouse suite that had been a gift from the city.
Stunner pondered all this as she entered the spacious apartment and plugged her stun guns into the terminals by the door.
There was no one else there, so she continued to disarm and undress into the appropriate receptacles until she was down to her sports bra and boyshorts. The temperature in the apartment was a constant ‘perfect’, so she wasn’t much bothered to put on a robe.
The last thing to come off, as she rummaged in the drawer of her end table for her private palmtop, was the wig. Stunner had to be a stunner, and the first thing that came into her head was ‘blonde’, so the wig was a must.
A wig was a must in general, actually. Beneath it, she had none of her own and hadn’t since she was fourteen, when it fell out. That could have been better, or worse, really. Testing had proven to her that the hair loss was her one and only symptom of protomorphism.
While protomorphs often had much more obvious, often hideous transformations, other descendants got actual powers at least. No, she was just bald and that was it. Breaking even in the genetic lottery.
When she’d first come up with the idea of becoming an electrical themed prelate, she’d run out and gotten blue lightening tattooed in an intricate pattern up there. It was illegal as hell, and hurt worse. Served her right that Mayor Raymond had insisted that bald was not sexy and that she needed a member of the team to ‘inspire’ the 18-30 male demographic.
No one else even knew abut the tattoo. Hell, hardly anyone knew her real name. Stunner’s ‘secret identity was Riley Paxton, a giggling layabout that made appearances at chic restaurants every few weeks to keep the tabloids happy.
Switching on her palmtop, she brought up her secret files. Newspaper columns. Under the name Lexxy Harriet Shaw.
Shaw was a reported for a news blog called The Apple’s Core, and a thorn in Mayor Raymond’s side. She had contacts inside that no one could ferret out and did at least as good a job hurting City Hall as Stunner was at helping it.
Tonight, Shaw would be blowing the lid off of an internal memo circulated to the mayor’s hired prelates. The tentative plan to enforce vigilante licensing laws implemented the previous year against the public’s wishes. The mayor’s office wanted to know if her loyal minions felt confident that they could capture and detain the prelates that resisted.
Even Infinity had balked at that, not because he thought it was wrong, but because there were five of them and some three hundred other prelates. That made Stunner’s opinion moot, but she had still responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to prove how on board with it she was.
The poker game next week might be the last time she was invited after she put that in the article. It surprised her how much that bothered her. Except for Owl, they didn’t really like her. But, it seemed that they had grown on her.
She could just not go along with the article, of course. No one would know. But if she did that, held back on something that just might finally get the wheels moving against Raymond out of selfishness… well she’d be exactly who they thought she was.
And in the end, even for all Stunner’s creature comforts and perks, she’d rather be remembered for what Lexxy Shaw did.
End Whitecoat and the Second Stringers.