CB leans against the boardwalk rail, looking at the old Hyatt building tenement he used to call home. A few days ago it was. Then someone from his past showed up, and everyone died. That’s the word on the street: no survivors.
The cops have the whole building under wraps—literally under wraps, covered in some kind of industrial-grade cellophane or saran wrap. Police tape encircles the entire building. The only way in is through an isolation tent set up in front of the hole Red Shift put through the lobby wall.
CB pushes himself off the rail and heads toward the building. There aren’t too many people around—it’s still mid-morning, and the Boardwalk is mostly nocturnal. The four cops on the scene are huddled off to one side of the airlock tent, sitting on the hood of a police car, drinking coffee and looking bored.
“Oi!” CB calls out to the cops, waving in their direction. They turn to him, startled, and gape as he ducks under the police tape, walking toward the tent. Two cops hastily set their coffee on the hood of the car and move to intercept, hands resting on their holsters.
“You can’t be here.” The first cop to reach him is youngish, lean, clean-shaven with close-cropped dark hair and sharp eyes. “This is closed off for your protection.”
CB nods. “Tell Hoydt I’ll be in 313.”
The cop draws his gun about an inch out of his holster. “I said this place is closed.” He sounds a little too eager for CB’s liking.
CB stops and turns to face him. The cop slows to a halt, watching him warily. The second cop, a heavier man with a thick mustache that would have fit right in if only they were living in the 1970s, stops three paces behind the first. His hand is on his holster, but he hasn’t drawn his weapon. The two officers back at the squad car aren’t doing much of anything, other than looking on curiously.
CB ignores the second and focuses his gaze on the first. “I hope that gun is actually a cellphone, and you’re planning to use it to call Lieutenant Larry Hoydt of the Farraday City Police Department, to let him know that his 10:30 appointment has arrived. Because if you’re planning to shoot me, I promise you two things will happen: first, I’ll get really pissed off. And second, you’re going to shoot a guy that Lieutenant Larry Hoydt of the Farraday City Police Department really wants to talk to right now. Are you a Lieutenant, officer?”
The cop looks CB up and down and his face twists into a half sneer. “What’s your business with the Lieutenant? Mud wrestling?”
CB looks down at his clothes. He’s still covered in mud from chasing down Bruiser. He looks back at the cop.
“You,” he says, “are hilarious. I’m going inside. Make sure you tell Hoydt I’m here. If you don’t know his number, here’s his card.”
CB throws a business card at the cop’s feet, winks, then turns to face the tent. Something goes pop.
“I said stop!” The cop snarls and tries to draw his weapon, then curses as the hammer of his automatic catches on a fold in his uniform, then curses again—with significantly more alarm—when the gun twists out of his hand and falls to the ground. The gun doesn’t fire, but the magazine ejects from the bottom with unusual force, scooting a few feet across the pavement.
“Try not to get yourself killed, officer,” CB says, unzipping the front flap of the tent and stepping inside.
“Damn it!” The cop is fuming. “Come on! We have to go in after him.”
“Put your gun back together, Dean-o,” the second cop says. “And calm down. I think he’s legit.”
“Him?” Incredulity drips from the first cop’s voice. “Did you see him? He looks like he’s slept in a sewer all night.”
“Look at the card,” the second cop says. “It’s legit. Read the front.”
CB unzips the back of the tent and steps through. As he does, he hears first the cop reading the card aloud.
“It says ‘do not ever call me at this number or I will skin you alive.’ And he underlined ‘ever’ three times.”
“Yeah,” the second cop says. “That’s definitely Hoydt’s.”
“What do we do?” The first cop, deprived of his chance to shoot someone in an official capacity, is beginning to sound petulant.
“You’ve got his card,” the second cop says, laughing. “Guess you better call him.”
The power’s out, of course. CB fishes the mag-lite out of his trench coat pocket, turns it on, and makes his way up to the third floor. The place looks empty, and unusually clean: forensics must have confiscated all the trash. There aren’t any chalk outlines—CB isn’t sure they use chalk outlines any more—but there are numbered cards placed down in every spot CB remembers seeing a body.
There’s no sound. No music, no fighting, no partying, no sounds of addicts getting sick through paper-thin walls. CB hadn’t thought well of most of his neighbors, but their absence is…
Undeserved. Their absence is undeserved.
He makes his way to his apartment. The door is open. People have obviously rummaged through his stuff—but he’d already taken the important things with him.
Damn, they took the records. Of course they took the records. Bastards.
The room is brighter than the hall—sunlight still filters in through the film they wrapped around the building, and the windows let in enough light to justify turning off the mag-lite. CB throws himself onto the love seat, fishes out the new pack of cigarettes he bought on the way here, and unwraps the plastic. He tosses the wrappings on the floor—no point in being tidy now—and starts packing.
Tap, tap, tap. The sounds echo in the hall beyond. Tap, tap, tap. They sound louder than they should. Tap, tap, tap. How many times had he done this in the past and never heard it, because of all the noise coming from everywhere else? There’s not even the background noise of fans.
He takes out a cigarette, lights up, and waits for Hoydt. He finishes three before the Lieutenant arrives.
Lieutenant Larry Hoydt announces his arrival by slamming the stairwell door open with considerable force, shouting “GOD DAMN IT CB!” then stomping down the hall with all the strength he can muster. The echo of his footsteps rattle the walls. CB sees the beam of a flashlight swivel across the hall, first right, then left, then right, then left. Finally Hoydt rounds the corner and the flashlight shines directly into CB’s face.
CB squints, turns his head, and raises his left hand to block the light. “Jesus, Larry.”
Hoydt steps into the room, his small, thin frame seeming to expand with the force of his own will. The Lieutenant isn’t physically imposing, but he has a presence that can reduce much larger men to quivering lumps of jelly.
“’Jesus Larry?’” Larry’s voice is thin and sharp, just like the rest of him. “Since when are we on a first name basis, you pompous little shit?”
“Pompous?” CB feels his back stiffen.
The Lieutenant pauses for a moment, then turns off his flashlight. “Ah, Jesus.” He sinks into the old armchair, shaking his head. “Jesus. Pompous is the word that gets you. Jesus.”
CB snorts. “You alone?”
The Lieutenant shrugs. “Far as I can tell. Hard to say. Especially with the way you decided to grab my attention. Christ. ‘Lieutenant, I’m sorry to bother you, but some muddy vagrant just bulled his way past us and gave us your card.’ What the fuck, CB? What part of ‘we don’t want my superiors to know we’re talking’ don’t you get? And what the hell happened to you? You taking up mud wrestling, or something?”
“What is with the mud wrestling?” CB asks. “Is it a cop thing? I didn’t think I could call you direct, and we needed to meet somewhere nobody wanted to be. The plague hotel seemed like a good place.”
“Yeah, it’s great,” Hoydt says. “Because what I really want is to catch whatever the fuck killed these poor bastards.”
“A metahuman killed these poor bastards,” CB said. “And he’s not here right now.”
“A metahuman?” Hoydt shakes his head dismissively. “No metahumans in Farraday City.”
“At the moment there are at least five,” CB says. “Including yours truly.”
Larry frowns. “That’s bad. Who?”
“Pretty bad,” CB agrees. “One guy spreads disease everywhere he goes. The other guy killed Liberty.”
Larry’s eyes widen. The effect is magnified through the thick coke-bottle lenses on his glasses, making him look almost like a cartoon. “That’s only two.”
“The only two anyone needs to know about right now,” CB says. “You already know about me.”
“Officially you’re not a metahuman,” the Lieutenant says. “Officially you’re just a sidekick wannabe who manages to be a royal pain in the ass. Don’t thank me, but it kept you alive the last few years.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not going to hold up much longer.”
A look of vague alarm skitters across Hoydt’s face. “CB, this ain’t the kind of city that plays nice with hero types. Or metahuman types. And when you put both together…”
“Don’t care,” CB says. “What I do care about is where you stand.”
“Where I stand?” Hoydt’s laugh is short and ugly. “What does that have to do with you?”
“Larry, I like you,” CB says. “I do. But sooner or later you have to decide if you’re clean, or if you’re dirty. I gotta know where you stand.”
“Oh,” Hoydt says. “You ‘gotta know.’ I see. Well let me clear it up for you right now…”
Hoydt leans forward, into the light. If CB didn’t know better, he’d think the guy was a file clerk. Everything about him looks rumpled and shabby, his arms and legs are spindly, and he looks like he’d be blown over by a moderate breeze—a physique better-suited to pushing paper than anything he actually does. But he carries himself with the conviction and certainty of an Olympic athlete, and the eyes behind his coke-bottle glasses are anything but weak.
“I will do anything—whatever it takes—to un-fuck this city, CB. If I gotta be a dirty cop, I’ll be a dirty cop. If I gotta be clean, I’ll be clean. If the city needs a hero, I’ll be a hero, and if it needs a monster then by God I’ll be the stuff of nightmares. And don’t you for one second think the question is whether you can trust me. The question, you stupid, mewling little shit, is whether you’ll be smart enough to be around long enough to do any good. I gotta say, right now I have my doubts.”
The Lieutenant leans back in the chair, drumming the fingers of his right hand on one arm, bi-di-dip, bi-di-dip, bi-di-dip, bi-di-dip.
“OK,” CB says. He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a folded-up piece of paper. He holds it out to the Lieutenant.
Hoydt looks at the paper. His fingers stop drumming. “What’s this?”
“I was tracking down the people who did all this,” CB says, gesturing to the building. “Found one of the locals they were using as suppliers. He didn’t work with ‘em directly, but he figured out who he was working for. He was able to name a number of the middlemen. They’re cops.”
Hoydt shrugs. “Corrupt police in this city? What are the odds.”
“Yeah.” CB gestures with the paper. “I got names.”
Hoydt hesitates, then reaches out to take the paper. He opens it, frowns, then turns on his flashlight so he can read the text. “Ah, Christ. Some of these guys are on the task force. Well no wonder we keep losing evidence. OK, this is useful. I can use this.”
“Good,” CB says. “We on the same page now?”
Hoydt thinks it over, then nods once. “Next time you want to meet, arrange it through Jerry. Your buddy at the Swordfish. That’ll make less noise than this fiasco.”
“Fine,” CB says. “One last thing. What’s the deal with this city, Larry? What’s really going on?”
Hoydt takes a deep breath and exhales in a big, shuddering sigh. “Can’t tell you.”
“Oh, come on, Larry, this is—”
“No,” Hoydt says. He stands, smooths out his jacket. “Pay attention to what I’m saying. I. Can’t. Tell you.”
He waits a minute for that to sink in, then turns. “Don’t get dead, CB.”
With that he turns on his flashlight and stomps back down the hall.
CB finishes his cigarette, and leaves the way he came in. He ignores the cops when he exits the tent; the cops ignore him. He walks down the boardwalk for a bit, trying to organize his thoughts—trying to work out what Larry meant when he said he couldn’t tell him anything. A puzzle for another day, he decides. The important thing is that he can probably trust Larry if it comes down to it. At that, CB finally makes his way back to the bunker…
… where he finds Jenny sucker-punching Red Shift while she yells something about ‘Miss Liberty.’
“So… hey. What are we talking about?” CB isn’t sure he wants to know, but he feels compelled to ask.
Jenny turns, looks CB up and down. “What the hell happened to you?”