Who Deserves to Die?

Charlie didn’t think of himself as a bad guy. All the advice he ever received growing up boiled down to two things: family was the most important thing to any man and to do the work you were good at.

It wasn’t his fault that he had two little boys and a teenaged girl at home. They needed things; not just food and clothes, but four walls and a roof and lights so they could study and not end up like their old man, or worse, their mother. Not that he was bitter that Elaine left him for someone with more money and abandoned the kids to him. Not very at least.

And it wasn’t his fault that his own old man was in a home. That had been his brothers’ decisions and once again, guess who it fell to to make sure a man that never even tried to be there for him was comfortable and taken care of in his last years. Not that Charlie would ever abandon him; family was the most important thing, even if his brothers didn’t agree. He just wished his money would go to making his father better instead of keeping him alive. The wonders of modern medicine didn’t matter much when the doctors couldn’t agree on what was wrong.

So he needed money. A Lot of money.

He knew people who got their room and board by making themselves into walking advertisements and permanent test beds for product tests; both the kind that could leave a bad taste in your mouth, and the kind that could leave you with ‘mild’ side effects like constant itching and fluid in the lungs.

An honest living, even if it meant working for the kind of folks that would do that to people, but it paid just about enough for a single person to live on. It wasn’t the kind of work a family man with mounting medical bills could live on.

So it wasn’t his fault that he stole. After all, he was good at it. Some might say he was born to steal. At eighteen, he discovered he had could clench his hand just right and have a strobing sphere of light form there. It made him tired and hungry when he did it, but staring at it made other people confused and dizzy and when he pressed it to something electronic, it went crazy. Alarms scrambled, lights flickered, and most importantly, electronic locks disengaged.

That and a fence with a generous streak kept his family fed and his old man breathing.

In theory, that power was better than printing money, but Charlie was cautious. He took a few things here and there, enough for a week or two, maybe more if the rent was due, and never hit the same place twice. It kept him under the radar.

It was his buddy Martin that insisted on the jewelry store though. Charlie wouldn’t have picked it; too much security to put on the fritz and the jewels would be too hot for his regular fence to move. Martin had balked, promising that it would be an easy payday. He knew a guy that could move the rocks and so what if Charlie couldn’t take out the alarm. He could just strobe the cops and make a get away.

To hear him tell it, Martin was something unstoppable. At least by normal cops. And that’s all they had to worry about in Hartford. Powered vigilantes, heroes, were confined to the big cities where the big crime happened, he assured, New York, Mayfield, LA, Atlanta, Chicago; but not Hartford, Connecticut. It would be a waste of their talents, since Charlie was as ‘super’ as the local criminals got.

Which was why they were in the jewelry store now.

Charlie cringed as Martin simply smashed the front of a case with a crowbar before scooping the contents into a paper bag.

“I thought the plan was me doing the safe.” He whispered sharply.

“Then do the safe. I’ve got the cases covered.” Martin didn’t bother whispering. Why should he? They were invincible.

“This is stupid. You’re gonna get us both thrown in the klink, man.” Nevertheless, he headed around the counter, looking for the safe. He didn’t give up on grousing though. “Maybe that’s cool with you, thinkin’ it’ll give you cred or something. But I’ve got my kids to think about. I can’t get picked up.” A thought made him freeze even as he spied the safe. “And I wouldn’t go to no regular jail either. They’d send me to the Island, man.”

Martin scoffed. “Whatever. Don’t you listen to the news? A bunch of dudes broke out of that place like a week ago. With your powers? You’d be out in an hour.”

Charlie knelt and summoned a strobe-sphere to defeat the safe. “You are the dumbest motherfucker I’ve ever met, Martin. I’m not working with you ever again. There’s something wrong with you, I’m serious.” The safe clicked open, but that was drowned out by a terrible screeching from the front of the store. “What the hell is that?”

“Shit, I got no idea, but you gotta see this.” Martin was looking up front and wielding his crowbar like a club.

Turning to look through the smashed case, Charlie wished he wasn’t seeing what he was seeing: something was pulling at the metal shutter that covered the store’s front windows and door, tearing them apart. It only took a few seconds before something hit one of the windows, shattering them inward with enough force that Martin had to dodge flying glass.

“Martin…” Charlie said, voice suddenly hoarse. “Martin. Move.

But Martin was transfixed, both by panic and curiosity, as a third man stepped in through the ruined facade of the building.

He was dressed much like they were; all black clothes, snug fitting, and a black ski mask. He had a set of tinted ski goggles on over that though, and something that married a leather jacket and a poncho. It was a most unsettling garment, as if had no defined cut, looking as if something large had vomited a blob of leather onto his shoulders and chest. More worryingly, it rippled even though there was no wind.

Being more bravado than brains, Martin missed this and brandished his three feet of iron. “Who the fuck are you?”

The stranger was striding forward, but nothing telegraphed the blow. Something like a long, undulating flipper snapped out of the poncho-thing and cuffed Martin across the face. Only it didn’t sound like leather when it hit him, it sounded like hard plastic breaking a man’s jaw.

Martin turned a quarter circle in place and dropped to the ground moaning agonizingly.

“Someone who is tired of seeing shit like you victimize my community.” The newcomer was obviously trying to make his voice sound rough and gravely. It wasn’t necessary, he was scary enough without it. Another shape extruded from the poncho and wrapped around Martin’s neck, lifting him effortlessly.

The pressure on his jaw made Martin scream in spite of his rapidly swelling mouth. That wouldn’t last, the tentacle was cutting off his air.

Charlie stood up, careful to keep the counter and the register atop it between him and the other man. “Whoa. You got us, man. We give up.” He cast a worried glance toward Martin who was frantically trying to get some oxygen into his lungs. “Let my friend go.”

Faster than Charlie could follow, another tentacle formed out of the material on the man’s chest and slammed into the resister, sending it hard into Charlie’s center. He hit the wall and dropped to his hands and knees, coughing. There was stabbing pain in his chest. Probably a rib.

“No.” Was the answer. The tentacle wrapped Charlie’s chest, squeezing just enough to make the pain over his ribs ignite in white fire. “He’s going to be an example and you’re going to tell all the folks like you exactly what happens now if I catch them.”

Example? Charlie had seen enough movies to know what that meant. “Wha..” It hurt to draw the breath to talk. He used only the words necessary. “No jail?”

The man holding him laughed bitterly. And when he did, three orange eyes, half lidded and looking disturbingly like those of a young kitten’s, opened on his shoulder, followed by a toothy maw beneath them. An echo of his laugh issued from it.

“So you can break out? I don’t think so. I’ve seen what comes from putting your filth in jail. My brother died in the breakout on Braddock Island. So did a lot of his friends; people I knew.”

“Just… thief.” Charlie croaked. The pain was making him light headed. He couldn’t hear Martin gasping anymore. Panic took him and he clenched his hand, calling a strobe into it.

It only made his captor laugh more and tap the goggles. “I’ve done my homework on you. Everyone that kept their wits about them were wearing polarized glasses.” The tentacle squeezed harder and if Charlie’s rib hadn’t been broken before, it was now; and it had company.

“But thank you for proving my point. None of you need to keep living. You’ll keep getting out and keep escalating until more people die. More people I care about.” He scowled at himself. “I can’t believe I was going to let you live as a messenger.”

News of his pending execution gave Charlie an extra boost in his struggles. He forced air into his lungs and croaked. “My kids…”

“Will be better off without a criminal for a father. I only hope they didn’t inherit your powers.” The tentacle lifted Charlie off his feet and whipped around, dragging the helpless man through two previously unbroken cases, leaving him bleeding heavily in the second.

The vigilante watched as the other man’s lifeless body was dropped to the floor and the tentacle holding him retracting. “Very good, Lishuura. I’m so glad I found you; I don’t know what I would have done if I never found you. Someone needs to do this, and the ‘heroes’ are just another part of the problem.” He turned and left the way he came in.

The thing wrapped around him purred and the orange eyes closed up contentedly.

Still lying in the shattered case, feeling his body grow old and heavy, Charlie listened to him go. It hadn’t been his fault it ended like this. But suddenly, fault didn’t matter. His last thoughts were of his family. He hoped that somehow, they would be okay. Somehow, he didn’t think they would be.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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