No way. What the hell is Bedevil doing in Houston? She’s from… well, I’m not sure where she’s from, but she lived in New York when she side-kicked with Megajoule.
She side-kicked with him! And never mind what she’s doing in Houston, what was she doing last night?
“So, you’re adjusting well?” the interviewer asks. He’s one of those trendy guys, his whole wardrobe fashionable down to his socks. Trim, groomed, made up, probably on an upper to keep him peppy.
Bedevil’s flanked by Krater, leader of the Houston Heroes. He’s about 7’2, black, and built with the muscle mass of three body-builders. Beside him are the other three major heroes in the city, Tachikaze, Hasuji, and Danger Close. Tachikaze’s a young Asian American woman who looks like she’d kick anybody’s ass, anytime. Huntress’ eyes, hair tied in a neat ponytail. Hasuji is her mentor, so I’ve heard. He’s also Asian American (though if you asked me to pinpoint their exact origin, I couldn’t), older, less tense than his disciple. Danger Close looks like a Top Gun wannabe, down to the Aviator glasses and military crew cut. They all study Bedevil, in different ways. Hasuji looks like he’s appreciating a nice mug of coffee, Tachikaze looks like she wants to challenge Bedevil right there, and Danger Close is clearly taking her measurements.
Bedevil is lost for a second. She shakes her head, and says, “Uh, it’s hotter than I thought it would be.” She smiles. I can just make out the lines of a cut on her cheek, but her foundation’s doing a good job hiding it. Was that from last night?
“Apprehend any perps yet?” The interviewer smiles glibly.
“No.” Bedevil laughs. I guess that might technically not be a lie, considering she didn’t really apprehend anybody last night.
“How is it working with Krater?”
“Oh, Krater’s great!” Bedevil turns to Houston’s Hero and flashes a grin nothing like the grin she gave Megajoule from the Titan Tower clip. That grin is plastered on and faker than a bad boob job. “I’m looking forward to working with him, and of course the other Houston Heroes, too.” She leans over to look at the others.
Tachikaze is not faking the same friendliness, but Hasuji gives Bedevil a nod and a smile. Danger Close is still eying her like she’s a slab of meat.
“You were Megajoule’s sidekick, would you like to tell us a bit about that?” the interviewer asks.
“Hasuji’s awesome,” Bedevil says. “I’ve seen heavyweight speed a few times but he’s certainly the fastest. Tachikaze-”
“Uh,” the interviewer interrupts.
Bedevil stops. She looks at the interviewer and back at the other Houston Heroes. Her mouth hangs open, she closes her eyes for a half a second. “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?”
“Of course, what was working with Megajoule like?” the interviewer asks.
There’s a second, an instant, a passing shadow over her face. A movie plays in her eyes, one that only she sees. Like somebody throwing a switch, she regains her composure, and says, “Well, he was Megajoule, and-”
Doc turns the TV off. “That’s enough of that. Why do you care about-”
I’m running to my room, to my laptop. I shove my books off my desk. Bedevil in Houston. Bedevil with the Houston Heroes. Bedevil out at night, drunk as hell, kicking ass. I boot up my laptop. The piece of junk takes its sweet time getting things rolling. “Come on!” Flashfire and the others are already on the way to the pickup and I have to walk there!
The laptop starts and I open Bedevil’s personal page on OPI’s website. Sure enough, her last assignment update: Houston. The most recent assignment before that was two years ago, an op called Bella Villa. Maybe that’s why she’s in Houston. But, two years? That’s a long time in between assignments. I click on the link to Bella Villa.
Gotta hand the website designer credit, the page for this Bella Villa op looks like if someone turned a mausoleum into a website. I skim through the text: some sort of mission involving a lot of heroes, a lot of fish, and a lot of marines. They took on some cult in South America. There are pictures of young children being rescued from empty, bleak rooms, pictures of enemy soldiers taken into custody. There are videos at the bottom. I scroll through, hoping to find something on Bedevil.
I see her in a thumbnail. I click that video.
Bedevil’s looking down, scratching her wrist, deep in thought. She tries to speak twice and fails both times. She’s less made-up in this video than the interview on TV, but it’s tasteful this time. She’s got an earring on and her hair is neatly gathered in a ponytail. The makeup can’t hide her exhaustion.
“Take your time,” an off-screen interviewer says.
Bedevil shakes her head.“I- uh- they had us in special armor. Not our usual costumes, but like SWAT suits, I guess.” She looks away.
“Can you tell us about what you saw?”
Bedevil sets her jaw and looks at the person. She wants to tear into them, I can tell. There’s murder beneath that mascara. She relents and returns to her defeated posture. “There was… well, Templar, Nero, and the platoon cleared our way in. They did it pretty quiet until we got to the compound doors. That’s when the fighting really started. I was part of the group that went down through the basement… where we found the rooms… I can’t…” She stops, puts her hand to her nose. Tears well in her eyes. Her mascara starts to run.
The hair on my neck stands up. The mascara running. That was definitely her last night.
Bedevil sniffles and recovers. “There were these rooms, full of young girls. Some of them were bound, some of them weren’t. The ones that weren’t bound were brainwashed. They screamed at us in Spanish, clawed at us, told us that God would strike us down. We grabbed the ones we could. I got a girl that was a little older, unbound, hissing at me while I tried to help her. She tried to bash her head in on every wall and door we passed. She…” Bedevil stops, reaches down, and grabs a tissue. Her nose is red. “We were ambushed outside the basement. The girl got free of me… she grabbed a gun…” And then the Bedevil of the past breaks down into the ugliest cry I’ve ever seen.
The video ends.
Jesus. What do I even do with this information?
Well, for now, I hightail it to the pick-up. I run out of my room, past Doc.
“What’s going on?” Doc asks, leaning on the edge of the couch.
“Later, Doc! We’ll talk about it later!” I dash out into night-time Houston.
It’s a quiet night. They’re all quiet nights, lately. Most people stay indoors this late. You don’t see a lot of party goers or passersby, anymore. The city blames increasing gang violence and the vigilante problem. They don’t mention people’s paranoia about government surveillance when there’s a CCTV camera every four blocks, or the organized crime like drug runners and sex traffickers.
They feel the fear building but put the blame on the wrong things. The fear. Megajoule mentioned the fear. And that’s when the man off-screen cut him off. I wonder what he meant. Why was this building fear in the world important to him?
He said it could be fought. How?
Our usual pick-up point is off Alabama Street, near the University of Houston. I trot my way over to the run down strip centers and tiny houses painted god-awful colors. Flashfire’s white van idles by the bus-stop we use as our pick up for missions.
I knock on the van door. The dark window rolls down, and Flashfire peeks through the crack. “Get in, we’re going shopping.”
Remise is in the driver’s seat. She smiles at me.
Maisa’s in the back seat. “Hello!” She’s awful chipper.
“Hi there, kid.” I smile at her. “All set?”
She nods. Remise drives off, hopping onto 45 towards Galveston. “Maisa said it wasn’t on Buffalo Bayou, she could still see lots o’ sea, so that means it has to be on the bay. She also said ‘twas a huge, cement lot wi’ loads of shipping containers. That means one o’ th’ Port Authority Docks. There are two o’ those.”
“If they came in under Port Authority,” Flashfire says, “that means they greased the wheels a little, which might mean government connections. Only on the city level but that’s still something.”
“Maybe that’s why the fish have a do not pursue on him,” I say.
Flashfire runs a hand through his hair and sighs. “The more we dig, the more pooched this is.”
“No matter how pooched it gets, we keep digging until we find the bottom.” I look down at my watch. “Drone, you there?”
My watch lights up. “A-yup.”
“Good, don’t want you falling asleep on me like last night.”
Flashfire turns slowly to me. “What about last night?”
Remise glances back.
“Oh, that’s why my phone buzzed last night,” Drone says over the comm.
Crap. “Uh, yeah, I went out to see if I could find out anything more about those trucks but FIS was all over the place. I got caught up with some gang members.”
Flashfire looks back. “That story today! About the five guys that died!”
I can’t hide my guilt. “Sorry.”
“Dude!” Flashfire spins around, crosses his arms. He slumps in his seat like a toddler having a tantrum. “Not cool!”
I knew he’d be pissed. “They were after…” Should I tell them about Bedevil? Probably not. I don’t know how deep this whole thing goes, yet. “…this other vigilante girl. They were gonna kill her. I got in between them and it was either die in that complex or fight them off.”
Flashfire looks out the window.
“O’ come on, Flash, tha’s hardly fair ta’ him,” Remise says.
“We’re not supposed to kill,” Flashfire says. “You promised me. You promised the Heroic Underground would keep its hands clean.”
“I didn’t act on behalf of the Underground. No one but one Spanish lady even knows I was there, and she didn’t tell today when she had the chance. Besides, only like… two of those are directly my fault, and I would’ve died if I hadn’t fought to survive.”
“That’s not the point. If you go in with that mindset, you will kill on in our name.”
I want to say a hundred things to that. Megajoule said he had a no killing rule, too. But he didn’t fight in the trenches. I do.
It’s fine. It has to be. I had to survive.
I keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to spend the whole car ride arguing with him over something we won’t see eye to eye on.
“I got into some feeds from the other night,” Drone says. “From last week. The north port had a late night shipment of three crates, all of which were unloaded out of view of a camera. So I’d say that’s your most likely target.”
“North port,” Remise says. “Got it.”
Flashfire dials his phone. Someone squeals on the other end of the line. He waits for it to end, then says, “North port,” and hangs up.
“Who was that?” I ask.
Flashfire sighs. “So. You know how I used to run with 2nd Amendment?”
“Oh God,” Remise says.
“I called Saw Off to see if she had any leads on Pandahead, and it turns out, she does,” Flashfire says. “But she said she wouldn’t give it to me if I didn’t let her come on this mission. So.”
“So we’re digging around a port with your ex?” I ask.
“Please don’t tell Epione,” Flashfire says.
“Oh, I’m fucking telling her,” Drone says over his watch.
“It’s not like I want to see her, she’s literally insane! Murderous! Cruel! Evil!” No wonder he’s upset. “She cheated on me!”
“She did?” Remise asks.
“I mean, she made out with Mil-dot and said it didn’t count because Mil-dot’s a girl,” Flashfire says.
“It totally counts,” Remise says. “Cheatin’ is cheatin.”
Maisa is very confused by all this. I shrug and smile at her. Thank God the conversation shifted to Saw Off, otherwise Flashfire would be pouting at me all night.
Port of Houston is flat and dominated by warehouses, seafood restaurants, and yellow shacks with white roofs pretending to be coastal homes. Sad palm trees dot the streets. Maisa rolls her window down to smell the sea air. She wrinkles her nose in distaste: the salty smells are hidden beneath pungent oil and shit. I chuckle.
We park the car near the North Port and put our masks on. Flashfire cranks his CCTV scrambler.
“Who’s staying with Maisa?” I ask.
“She’s coming,” Remise says. “We need her t’ identify the exact dock. Flashfire will take her back when we figure ‘ut which dock it is.”
“Oh.” I look down at her. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe.”
We exit the car and head down the road towards the North Port entrance. There’s a giant gate in and a huge metal fence wrapping around the whole thing. A warehouse, a big, ominous block of metal, looms over hundreds and hundreds of shipping containers, all silent steel. Harsh lights buzz.
Remise wears a pretty plain outfit for vigilante work, kind of like me. Shwears a leather jacket, basic SWAT type leg padding, combat boots, and gloves. She wears a motorcycle helmet with holes cut in the ears so she can use her senses. There’s a protective mesh over the holes that Drone designed.
Flashfire’s in a fancier get-up: made to resemble Darth Vader from Star Wars, but maroon, so people don’t confuse him for the villain (I think?). His helmet is like a paint ball mask and gas mask mashed together into one.
Two people stand under a palm tree near the gate of the port. One’s a girl without a mask, grinning like a piranha, and the other’s a guy in a cowboy get-up and a red bandanna covering his face. The cowboy has two shiny revolvers strapped to his hip. The girl’s not carrying a weapon at all.
“Flashbang, baby, it’s so good to see you!” the girl, I’m gonna guess Saw Off, says. She bounds up to Flashfire and tries to jump him, but he throws a hand between them. She’s trying to kiss him, even with his arm pushing her back.
“It’s Flashfire, now,” Flashfire says. “Who’s this guy? Where’s Mil-Dot and Lugs?”
Saw Off’s wearing an outfit like those old turn of the century grunge kids. Camo jacket, black combat boots, cargo shorts. It’s very strange looking. “Oh, Flash, honey, I didn’t want you to find out like this. We had to replace you when you left. This is Vaquero.”
Vaquero salutes us and runs his fingers on the brim of his hat, like an asshole. “Pleasure to meetcha.”
“Ah, Remise,” Saw Off says, “You still swinging for the opposite team?”
Remise puts a hand on her sword. “Tha’s still none o’ your business.”
Saw Off glances at me and Maisa. “Who’s the masked dork and the brat?”
“I’m Gabe, and this is Maisa.”
“You two don’t look like much.” Saw Off brushes her shoulder off. “Well, let’s get this started. We both want to know what’s up with these docks, right?”
“Right,” Flashfire says. “We help you get in, you help us look around, and we trade info on Pandahead at the end.”
Saw Off grins. “Right, baby. Let’s rock.” She skips back towards the gate. “But the thing’s locked up tight. I bet it’s tripped, too.”
“Got it,” Drone says out of Flashfire’s watch. The gate slides open, and in we go. The shipping containers form alleys and paths for us to walk through, and we head through those to the docks. Saw Off skips and hums happily. I don’t get it, though. Flashfire made her sound like a witch. She’s annoying, sure, but malicious?
Maisa sidles up next to me. “This place. It’s bad. The warehouse.”
The warehouse looms over us. It’s giving me the creeps, too. Quiet, cold, like a tomb.
We make it to the docks. There’s a single boat moored by the warehouse, a medium sized clunker covered in rust. If this is the boat that brought Maisa all the way from Khanpur, I’m impressed it held it together that long.
Maisa shudders at the sight of it. “That’s… that’s the boat.”
“You’d think they woulda had the good sense to get out a town,” Saw Off says. “Doesn’t make sense they’d stay, yeah?”
Flashfire holds a hand out for us to stop.“Remise, is there anyone on board?”
Remise shakes her head. “Ah can’t hear any heartbeats.”
“Okay, let’s get on the boat. Maybe they left something behind,” Flashfire says.
“I can’t, I don’t want to go on,” Maisa says.
“Ah’ll stay here with you,” Remise says. She nods to Flashfire. “If ah hear any trouble comin’, ah’ll give you a holler.”
Flashfire leads the way in, Saw Off nipping at his heels. Vaquero and I hang back together. I don’t want to listen to Saw Off call Flashfire “baby” a billion times. “So, what’s your deal?” I ask Vaquero.
Vaquero chuckles. “I’m bulletproof.”
“Wow. That’s heavyweight, right?” Megajoule could stop bullets if he was really concentrating, but he said in his videos he had to focus his whole attention on them.
“It would be,” Vaquero says. “But I’m only bulletproof. Knives, fists, crowbars, hell, arrows, even; all of it can still hurt me. I’m only immune to projectiles above a certain speed. Roughly about five hundred feet a second, give or take.”
Hmm, so not quite heavyweight. Still, that’s nothing to scoff at.
“How about you?” Vaquero asks.
“I can turn heat into kinetic energy, and vice versa.”
“Not bad. Kinda like that Megajoule, or Nero.”
Nero. The second time I’ve heard that name today. But I didn’t check his page on OPI. Maybe I should have. “Yeah, but definitely not as strong.”
We board the ship. Flashfire looks at us. “We can cover more ground in groups of two.”
Saw Off snakes her hand around Flashfire’s arm. “Perfect.”
“No,” Flashfire says, pulling his arm free. “Vaquero, you come with me. Gabe, I’m giving you Saw Off.”
“What? Why?” Saw Off and I say in unison.
“Because, I’m in charge, this is my mission, and uh, your powers… are complimentary.” Flashfire stalks to the other side of the boat. “Come on, Vaquero!”
Vaquero salutes at Saw Off and me. “See ya soon.”
Saw Off glowers at me. “Come on, Gabe. Let’s go.” She pouts and heads towards the rear of the boat. I follow along.
“So… you’re in charge of 2nd Amendment?”
“What’s so unbelievable about that?” she asks, whirling around at me.
“I didn’t say it was unbelievable.” I don’t believe it, but I didn’t say that. “Sounds like you’re projecting.”
“Keep it up and I’ll project pellet into your face. I’m in charge because I’m in charge. I founded 2nd Amendment with Lugs and Mil-dot. And I’ll always be their leader. I don’t cut and run like some people around here.”
There’s a door leading inside the boat from the rear end of the deck, but it’s locked. I could maybe blow the hinges off, but that would make a lot of noise.
“Hang on, I can use my power,” Saw Off says. She sniffs, rolls up her sleeves, and tilts her head back.
“What is your power anyway-”
Saw Off rocks her head forward. Her nose lights up, there’s a loud gun blast, and shrapnel rockets out of her nostrils, shredding through the door latch.
So much for too noisy. “Oh.”
She wipes her nose. There’s black powder all over her lips. “Come on, Gabe, hun.” She takes me by the hand and leads me into the freshly opened door.
It’s dark down here, so I activate my goggles’ night vision. Saw Off and I switch places so I can lead us without tripping.
“So why did Flashfire leave 2nd Amendment?”
“He didn’t like my stance on taking prisoners,” Saw Off says.
“Ah. That sounds like him.”
“You of like mind, babe?”
I furrow my brow. “I don’t go out of my way to kill anyone.” Those guys in the apartment. The blood in the hallway. It doesn’t feel good.
“Not killing’s a half measure, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know.”
There’s a chamber at the bottom of the stairs. Large, cold, empty. Filthy ceramic tile covers every surface. Saw Off shivers. “Somebody just walked over my grave, babe.”
Blood stains on the floor. Shit stains. Piss stains. Chains riveted into random spots along the walls. “I think this is where they held them.”
“Damn,” Saw Off says. “It smells god awful. Like something died.”
“I think something might’ve. Someone.” Someone Maisa’s age or younger. I keep searching, holding Saw Off’s hand to guide her through the dark. There’s a small room off the side of the main chamber, some kind of kitchen thing with an open counter between the two. I hop over the counter and check inside. There’s not much, a spent bullet shell, and a card. I check the card.
It’s one of those digital passes, like the id cards used to get into colleges or businesses. The swipe and go kind. There’s no name on it, though. Just one word: Parlor.
“I think I’ve got something,” I say to Saw Off and to my watch. “Parlor.”
“Now that is something actionable, babe,” Saw Off says. “That’s not the first time I’ve heard the name thrown around with Pandahead’s.”
“Okay, come on up, I think that’s good,” Flashfire says.
I take another glance around this smaller room for more clues. There’s a disk shaped machine on the wall with a glowing red dot in the center. The light blinks at me. How’d I miss this thing, earlier? Maybe it’s some kind of wireless connector. “Hey Drone, you see this? What is it?”
My watch lights up. “Hmm, not sure, let me project to it.”
A minute passes.
“What’s goin’ on?” Saw Off asks.
My watch glows again. “Get the fuck out of there. Right now.”
“What?” My pulse shoots through the roof, and for all the heat I’m holding, I’m chilled to the bone. “What’s wrong?”
“That’s a motion sensor.”