Chapter the Second; In Which Our Hero Seeks Assistance and Explains Superhero Sociology
“Comes at a cost?” Janine asked, pausing in what she was doing. Specifically, she was holding my head in her lap and braiding my hair. No, I don’t know why she was doing it. I’ve learned not to question it on top of putting away any hope of actually being able to cut my long, girlie man hair. Hey, if a beautiful woman likes your girlie man hair, you keep that hair, or else you’re an even bigger girlie man. “You’re exaggerating, aren’t you?”
“Hey, thirty bucks in a great cost with my income.” I defended. “Not to mention leapfrogging all over town trying to keep a pizza warm.”
“You had to deliver pizza for information?” She gave me a confused look and went back to molesting my hair.
“Well, a pizza. The best pizza in the city – probably the world. Mama Cecily’s King Kong special.”
“The one you and Slush are always talking about? The one that’s basically a meat and cheese casserole?”
Slush is my best friend since middle school. Other friends may come and go, but our exploits are legendary. He’s also the MAN when it comes to finding the best, greasiest food. “That’d be the one.” I agreed, “It’s a glorious marriage of New York style and Chicago deep-dish with more kinds of meat than there are actual animals.”
“And why were you delivering this thing? To threaten an informant’s arteries?”
“Because Nermal only works for food.” I replied.
“Who’s Nermal?” Janine asked.
“Well, that brings us back to my story.”
Mama Cecily’s is all the way up town and its eponymous owner is a very strict old bird and is not about to let even a protector of the city cut in line. I call this fair in my case because I’m based in Brooklyn and for the most part leave Manhattan to the prelates that live there.
The place was packed as usual and it took me an hour of very careful leaping with the pizza box securely adhered to my right hand with my gauntlet to get to Queens where Nermal makes his home.
It’s a nice neighborhood too, lots of statues and fountains, a playground down the street and a low enough crime rate that the balconies don’t need to be built like palisades. I landed on an adjacent roof to see if Nermal’s balcony door was open and saw that I wasn’t his only visitor. Millie was out on the balcony, drinking from a teacup.
The prelates of New York don’t generally interact with one another anymore than trading information or general small talk when we see one another in passing. By and large, most of us are just plain unaware of each other. But we all know Millie.
Millie the street surgeon, Everymom, Grandma Streetwise, The Medic – every prelate you run into that’s been around for any appreciable time has his or her own name for Millie because she only goes by Millie. Unlike other heroes, you won’t see her pulling people out of fires or stopping a city bus with her bare hands and shoes with really good treads.
No, Millie is usually seen at playgrounds, tending to ‘owies’ and ‘boo-boos’ with kind words, bactine and bandages with cartoon characters on them. When not there, she just seems to turn up in emergency situations where people need medical attention and the ambulance won’t make it in time. Her medical bag is rumored to be bottomless and I can vouch, having personally seen her pull a dermal bonding gun out of it to repair a nasty gash a guy I saved from a mugger took to his chest. News reports tell of her performing everything from defribulations to emergency appendectomies.
More than one of NYC’s finest (both cops and prelates) owe their continued well being to Millie suddenly coming to their aide. Some think she works with Sister Sacred. Some think she is Sister Sacred. None of us are dumb enough to broach the subject.
For a living legend though, she doesn’t look like one. She looks like the picture they’d use in the dictionary under the heading ‘mom’. She’s short, has a round, dark face, and straight, salt and pepper hair that curls in at the ends and makes her head look kind of like a mushroom.
“Evening, Millie.” I said, dropping down to land on the railing beside her. To her credit, she didn’t start at a man falling from the sky holding a pizza. Like I said, she’s good. “Is Nermal in, or are you just stealing his tea?”
“Good evenin’, ‘coat.” She smiled pleasantly. “He’s here. He’s looking something up for me.”
“I never would have thought I’d see the day you’d need Nermal for anything.” I said, stepping off the railing. “What’d you bring him?”
“I made him peanut butter cookies.” Millie said, sipping her tea. This is why I’m a fan of her prelate name being ‘Everymom’.
I looked through the glass door from the balcony and into the living room. Nermal may be a pudgy, shrinking violet of a man, but he had good taste. He’s got the couch I’ve always wanted. “So,” I said, taking my covetous eye off his couch (one of those semicircular deals with fold down arms for each section and foot rests) “Do you mind me asking what you need Nermal’s expertise for? We’re not in for a super-plague or anything, are we?”
Millie shook her head. “No, it’s just something strange I ran into today breaking up a fight between two little boys.”
“Do tell.” I said, taking a seat on one of Nermal’s patio chairs.
“I’ve never seen kids fight like that.” She said. Her voice was haunted. “If I hadn’t stepped in, they might have really hurt each other. One got a really nasty cut on his forehead and when I too his bandanna off to look at it—“
Bandanna? My brain caught on to the word instantly. Bandanna; as in scarf, as in scarf hiding weird circuitry. “He didn’t know why he was doing it.” I said before Millie could.
Millie gave me an odd look. “Yes… how did you know?”
I pulled the scarf out of my pocket. “I don’t suppose you found crap like this in that bandanna, did you?” She gave me a worried look that told me all I needed to know. “I pulled this off a kid that snatched a lady’s purse earlier.” I related, “And when I did, he suddenly had no idea what was going on.”
She moved to touch it, but kept her hand hovering just a few inches away, as if she was afraid it would affect her just by touch. “That’s exactly it.” She said, “the circuitry is why I thought that Nermal should get a look at it.”
“Good call.” I replied.
A door opened somewhere in the apartment and I could hear someone coming down the hall. Nermal appeared in the living room, a partially devoured cookie in one hand, a notebook computer cradled in the other. He’s a portly, Hispanic man of medium height. Since the last time I’d visited, he’d had his head shaved, though the scraggly beard he didn’t seem to manage growing out was still in place. For a computer geek who, as far as I can tell never leaves his house, he’s incredibly clean and well groomed. “Millie, I…” he trailed off when he saw me. “Whitecoat.” He said in a tone that was all business.
Nermal and I aren’t friends. We respect each other professionally, but certain… events… keep us on the edge of being at one another’s throats. Back when I got started, he was the one on the PrelatesNYC internet forums that dubbed me ‘Whitecoat’ after my wardrobe. When I first met him, by way of a helpful hint from another Brooklyn native, Stunner, he told me proudly how he’d saddled me with this stupid name. So, in my usual mature and calm manner, I responded in kind by giving him his very own nickname. So he made me Whitecoat and I made Adrian Saca into Nermal.
“Hiya, Nermal.” I said, flourishing the pizza. “Brought you a pizza.”
He nodded, unconsciously licking his lips. “I’m actually right in the middle of something with Millie right now, so you can leave that here and—“
“Actually,” Millie broke in before we could really lock horns, “As it turns out, the Whitecoat is here to ask about the same thing I am.”
Nermal didn’t look surprised, which in turn did make me look surprised. “He’s not alone, I’m afraid.” He said with a frown. Turning the notebook around so were could see the screen; he showed us what he was talking about. “Earlier today, Barn Owl took down a construction worker who went ballistic with a plasma lance. Guy put two of his best friends in the hospital.”
“That happens.” I interrupted, having read the article he was displaying. It was mostly the man’s bio, which had nothing about a history of mental illness or violent crime. “How’s it linked to these kids?”
Nermal decided wisely not to call me on my rudeness. We could have been at it all night. “I was getting to that. Barn Owl broke the guy’s watch in the scuffle. Turns out it’s not your average street knockoff.”
“It’s chipped.” I concluded.
“Just like the bandanna Millie bought me.”
“And this one.” I said, holding up the scarf I’d taken off the kid.
“Can you figure out where they’re coming from?” Millie asked, looking worried.
“That’s going to be a chore.” Nermal admitted. I could tell that was painful for him, he loves being the answer guy. “The bandannas are rip-offs you can find on any street corner in the city. I can back track and find the suppliers, both for that and the watch, but the chipping may be done post manufacture. That means we may be looking for a dealer.”
“This is like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Millie intoned unhappily.
I was even more unhappy. Many of those street vendors were Tong men. I’m not friend to the Tongs and the thought of them playing with tech that could drive a sane man berserk sent a shiver down my spine. “Or a stack of needles.” I said to avoid the silence.
“Exactly.” Nermal said, “So that leaves the chips themselves. All microchip designs are as unique as fingerprints, so in theory, I should be able to track down the manufacturer that way. Problem is that there’s not central database of the damn things. It’ll take days to root it out.”
I set my jaw. “In that time, those things could spark off a riot. Isn’t there anything more that you can do? That we can do?”
“Hey, I’m going to do my best.” Nermal replied. “It’s not like I want the city to go up in smoke.”
“Didn’t say you did.” I said, even if we weren’t on friendly terms didn’t mean I was going to accuse him of half assign. I took a deep breath and thought in the silence of the other two. “Okay, here’s my idea. Nermal, you get to work. Millie, you personally know more other prelates than I do. Is there any way you can get on the horn and tell everyone to be on the look out for these things? And I mean everyone, even weekenders.”
Weekenders is superhero talk for those of us who, while choosing to use their powers/gadgetry/two hour kung-fu lesson for the Good of All Mankind (or a least their neighborhood), nonetheless refuse to sacrifice even a little bit of their professional and personal lives for the cause. Much like hobbyist bikers who ride on Sundays and hit the annual rally, weekenders fight crime whenever the hell they feel like it. They aren’t well respected by hardcore prelates like Stunner or Barn Owl, but I can’t bring myself to disrespect their decisions.
Millie nodded. “I can get the word out. But what are you going to do?”
“I know where a lot of that knock off crap comes ashore. I think I’ll go down to Pier Fifty and see if I get a nibble.”
“Pier Fifty?” Millie parroted. “That’s Tong territory. You think they have something to do with this?”
“God, I hope not.” I replied, heading for the balcony. That was absolute truth; the last time the Tong got their hands on advanced technology, they came within a hand’s span of turning half of Manhattan Island into grey goo. “Keep me in the loop the usual way.” I said. “And let’s hope we get to the bottom of this soon.”
Janine had stopped playing with my hair; she was so wrapped up in my story. “So did you find anything at the pier?” She pressed me for details.
“Not a thing connected to the chips.” I frowned. “That’s why I’m so stressed, I’ve been waiting on pin and needles to go back to Nermal’s and ask him if he’s had any news.” Reluctantly, I sat up and put my back up on the sofa. “Tonight’s the night though; Nermal sent up my flag, so he’s got something for me.”
“Your flag?” Janine asked, still miffed at not getting to hear about my rousing adventures in beating up knock-off goods smugglers.
“Ancient Super secret.” I grinned playfully, but remained tight lipped.
She wrinkled her nose and threw a pillow at me. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
“Impossible to defeat, impossible to escape… impossible to resist?” I waggled my eyebrows.
She broke into a fit of laughter before leaning over to kiss me on the nose. “We’ll see about that. Go on and see what this Nermal guy has for you. And if you’re not on the clock tonight…”
I craned my neck and kissed her on the lips, lingering a while because I knew it was very unlikely I’d be able to take her up on her offer. “Love you.” I smiled.
“That means you’ll be on the clock.” She rolled her eyes. “Well, go get ‘em, sweetie.”
“I’ll hit one guy extra hard just for you.” I promised, getting up and heading for the door. I didn’t know just how long this night was going to be.
To Be Continued…