Part Eight: New York City, Downtown
The graveyard shifts are always the worst.
Danny leans against the counter, rubs his eyes, and looks longingly at the cigarettes arranged on the rack behind him. Just a quick smoke out back, and he’ll be able to make through till sunrise. He glances balefully at the security camera, always watching, and suppresses a curse.
It knows. It always knows, and he can’t afford to get written up again.
It’s like they pay people to watch the cameras just to make sure I don’t duck out the back. Jesus, imagine if your job was just to watch store cams all day.
He rubs his eyes again and considers getting another cup of coffee. His stomach gurgles in protest, and he sets the notion aside. He’s not that desperate. Not yet.
The door jingles. Danny looks up to see a man with spiky, dark hair standing the doorway, back turned to him. A worn trenchcoat, ripped in multiple places, hangs over his lanky frame.
“It’ll just be a second,” the man says, waving to someone outside. Then he turns, and Danny tries not to stare. Then he gives up, and just stares.
The man looks young, but hard young, like a guy who spends most of his time sleeping in a ditch. His face is mottled with black and purple bruising, and he limps slightly as he moves into the store, eyes locking on the cigarette display.
The eyes shift to Danny, just for a second, taking in his expression.
“You should see the other guy.” The man’s voice is clear, at least—clear and steady, so probably not drunk or high. Probably.
“Yeah?” Danny keeps gaping. The bruising appears to go down the man’s neck, but his t-shirt and trenchcoat cover everything else. He limps, though, very slightly, as he makes his way to the counter. “What does the other guy look like.”
“Not a scratch on him.” The man delivers the line absolutely deadpan, with startling frankness. He turns slightly, examining the coffee machine. “Yeah, I got my ass kicked. Two packs of Reds. Hard packs. And a large coffee. And a QuickWin ticket.”
The man stumps off to the coffee maker and reaches for a large styrofoam cup.
“Just one?” Danny suppresses a surge of longing as he grabs the cigarettes from the top shelf and puts on the counter next to the cash register. “People usually buy at least five.”
“Just one,” the man says. He begins filling the cup with coffee. “This stuff smells terrible.”
“It tastes worse,” Danny says. “You’d do better just eating the cup.”
The man laughs at that. He brings the cup back, now full of piping hot sludge, and sets it down next to the cigarettes. Danny suppresses a grimace as his stomach gurgles in response to the smell.
“Maybe you should just call it a morning,” Danny suggests, staring at the coffee with distaste. “I can’t think of anything worth staying up for if I had to drink that.”
“No rest for the wicked,” the man says, flashing a quick grin. “I gotta see a guy about a thing.”
Danny snorts. He places a single QuickWin ticket on top of the cigarettes and starts ringing him up. “From the look of you, I figured you’d already done that.”
“That… was a different thing.”
Danny glances up at him quizzically. To his annoyance, he sees the man has already started rubbing off the silver ink from the QuickWin ticket with a quarter. He turns his attention back to the cash register and finishes ringing everything up. By the time he finishes, the man is holding up the ticket with a satisfied smirk.
“Take it out of this,” he says.
Danny squints at the ticket. “Twenty-five bucks. Nice.”
The man holds out the ticket.
“I’m not really supposed to do it that way,” Danny says. He glances up at the security camera. “Screw it.”
He takes the ticket and starts making change.
The man waits patiently as Danny counts everything out, shoves his cigarettes into a trenchcoat pocket, then toasts Danny with his coffee.
“Hope your morning gets better,” Danny says.
The laugh that comes out of the strange bruised man is tinged with bitterness. “I doubt that very much.”
With that, he toasts again, takes a sip of coffee, and gags.
“Maybe I will eat the cup,” he mutters, then limps out of the store.
* * *
David Bernard stands outside with Special Agent Alan Grant, watching CB interact with the store clerk through the big storefront windows.
“He stopped for cigarettes?” Grant asks. He jams his fists into his trenchcoat—it’s a much nicer one than CB’s, black and made of heavier material.
“And coffee,” David observes. He shivers slightly. It’s not summer any more, and he’s no longer on a tropical island. He’s definitely not dressed for the season. Somewhere in the back of his head, Allard murmurs a spell that might work against the cold.
“And a lottery ticket,” Grant adds. He’s less annoyed, more amused at this point. “Jesus, it looks like he actually won something. What’s his power again?”
“Beats me,” David says. “He was a little before my time.”
“Mine too, but we all had to read the PRODIGY case files. The best we have on him is ‘makes weird shit happen.’”
The door jingles and CB stomps out. He hands the coffee over to Grant. “Hold this for a second.”
Grant stares at the coffee, nonplussed. He sniffs at it, makes a terrible face, and holds it a little further away from his body. “What’d you do, scrape the bottom of the pot for flavor?”
“The guy tried to convince me not to buy it,” CB says. He pulls an unopened pack of cigarettes from his pocket and starts fumbling with the plastic wrapping. “Come on, let’s get going.”
He sets off on foot, not really paying attention to where he’s going. David notes, however, that he is headed in the right direction.
“Why are we walking?” David asks. “We have faster ways of getting there.”
“So they won’t notice us,” CB says.
Grant frowns. “I think we gotta assume if Haruspex is everything we think it is, it’ll be child’s play for them to link into all the surveillance cams the police have set up around the city.”
“We should definitely assume that,” CB says. The plastic wrapping falls to the parking lot, gets picked up by the wind, and blows away. He pulls out a cigarette, sticks it in his mouth, and fishes around in a pocket for his lighter.
“So I don’t think we can assume we’ll evade notice,” Grant continues. “Going on foot would make more sense in the middle of the day, but at night we kinda stick out.”
CB stops walking for a second, pulls out his lighter, and lights up. He takes a draw on his cigarette. The cherry glows bright red. He closes his eyes, and for a moment David feels as if the world is whirling around him. A moment later, he feels it stop spinning, as if were snapping into place.
“It’ll be fine,” CB says, and starts walking again.
Grant shoots David a look, shrugs, and hurries to catch up with CB, handing off the coffee and wiping his hand on his coat. David falls in behind them.
“So where’s this other guy, Grant?” CB asks.
Grant points. “We’re about two blocks that way.”
We. David has only seen Grant do his multiples act a few times, and he gets prickly—well, more prickly than usual—when asked questions about it. He feels Allard stir uneasily as his gaze shifts between Grant and CB.
Two of them, Allard murmurs.
They’re metahumans, David replies silently.Just like everyone else.
No, Allard replies. They are not.
David waits for Allard to explain, but it offers nothing more.
Well, at least you aren’t screaming for me to murder them. It’s progress.
Allard’s laughter rolls through his mind, but it’s nervous laughter.
“You still with us, Doc?”
David looks up to see CB and Grant staring at him, CB with caution, Grant with an expression of amused impatience.
“Sorry,” David says. “Private conversation.”
CB’s gaze flickers to David’s left shoulder—the place where, earlier in the evening, the large shadowy form of a predator bird was perched. David gives him a small, confirming nod.
“Well,” CB says, “let’s try talking and walking. I want to meet the new guy.”
“There’s a whole crew,” Grant offers. “But at the moment it’s just him and his sister.”
“Sister?” CB asks.
“She’s pretty awesome,” Grant says enthusiastically. “She doesn’t like me much.”
“You’re an acquired taste, Grant.” CB smirks as he pulls on his cigarette again.
Grant laughs. “I get that a lot. People, they get intimidated by my overpowering charisma.”
Two blocks down they find a bus stop sitting in front of an old playground. It’s an older playground, still obviously used but falling into disrepair. The bus stop bench is covered in graffiti. Standing in front of the bench are three figures, one white, two Black. The white man is Alan Grant. The realization makes Allard stir uneasily for a moment, but the feeling subsides quickly as David takes in the other two.
The Black man is very tall and very thin, dressed in a well-tailored suit with a white starched shirt, gray silk tie, and a black trenchcoat that looks almost exactly like the kind Grant favors. Long, thin Locs are pulled back into a medium-length ponytail. Everything about the man radiates tension—he stands completely straight and still, his face a mask of rigidly enforced neutrality and control. The lamplight gleams against his dark skin, skin pulled so tight against his face that he looks almost cadaverous in the darkness.
The Black woman is only slightly shorter than the man, making her at least an inch or two taller than David. Wearing black tactical pants, combat boots, and a white sports top, she looks much more like someone preparing to go to a fight. She also, David notes, sports a trenchcoat, but a decidedly more ragged one—closer to CB’s than to Grant’s.
“Gentlemen,” Grant says—their Grant, not the one at the far end of of the bench—may I introduce to you Brother Judgment and Sister Sentinel. The leaders of the Bastions.
“Curtis,” David says, nodding in greeting. “Lisa.”
Curtis’ eyes widen, startled. Lisa breaks out into a grin.
“Holy shit,” she says. “It’s motherfucking Sky Commando, First Edition!”
Ignoring CB and Alan—both of them—she walks over to David and gives him a friendly tap on the shoulder. It hurts, as always, and he staggers back a step.
“You know them?” Grant asks, incredulous.
“Of course I know them,” David says. “I was Sky Commando for four years.”
He says it without bitterness, now. It seems only yesterday he thought that would be impossible.
“Might have been nice to know you had a pre-existing relationship with them,” Grant says. “I could’ve saved all my charm for something else.”
Curtis’ mouth presses into a thin, straight line.
“I didn’t know you were gonna be on this,” she says. “The other Sky Commando, sure—she’s all right, by the way, Curtis likes her but won’t admit it—but not the original!”
David grins sheepishly. “Not the original any more. I, ah, go by Doctor Enigma now.”
Lisa stares at him blankly, then breaks out into uproarious laughter.
“Because it’s better than ‘Doctor Weird, Warlock Supreme.’”
“Hey!” Alan Grant shakes his head in mock outrage. “Doctor Weird is a fantastic name, and some day you will regret not taking it.”
“Does that mean you’re going in with us?” Curtis turns to CB, frowning. “Look, I know I’m not calling the shots, but I like this guy, and I don’t want to see him get killed. He was hot shit in his armor, but out of it he’s just a normal. No offense David.”
“None taken,” David says.
“He’s not normal any more,” CB says. “He’s the magic guy.”
Both Curtis and Lisa study David more closely.
“He telling the truth?” Curtis asks.
David nods. “Long story. Magic island.”
Curtis and Lisa exchange glances.
“Well,” Lisa says, “you’ve already seen some weird shit, right?”
Curtis nods. “Yeah. He seems normal, though.”
He turns to face CB, and sticks out his hand. “You’re Curveball?”
CB juggles his coffee into his left hand, and shakes Curtis’ hand. “That’s me.”
Curtis smiles slightly. “Read about you when I was a kid.”
“Ouch,” CB says.
Curtis snorts. “The Fed here filled us in, and I’ve got my team ready to go, but how exactly are we getting in to start the show? We kind of stick out.”
“I figured we’d go in through the front,” CB says. “Glad to have you on board.” With that, CB continues walking down the street.
Curtis stares after him, then turns to David. “He for real?”
David shrugs. “I haven’t really seen him in action. Heard some interesting stories, though.”
Curtis nods, and as if on cue they all start following CB. Lisa and Curtis fall into step beside David, Lisa to his right and Curtis to his left, making him feel uncharacteristically small.
David looks from Curtis, to Lisa, to Grant, then to CB. He sighs.
“Guess I need to start wearing trenchcoats.”