Say what you want about this whole invasion thing; I won’t argue with you. Say what you will, and I would add only this: it’s been great for business.
Stop – back up. Let me clarify. My business has always been good. The business of cracking the skulls of hyper-thyroid douchebags who think they’re above the law knows no recession, no economic downturn. This city is, and has always been, full of dumb pricks who strap on a pair of long underwear and a mask and try and get over. And me? I am, and will always be, there to slip on my own hood and crack their skulls when they try. That’s my business. And my business is always good.
Now. What I was trying to say? This whole alien invasion thing has been great for Mr. Zero’s business. The city at large knows Zero as Herman Zito, the famed restauranteur who has catered to the entire low country’s elite for as long as they can remember. Zeta. Zippo. Nein. Nada – One hot, trendy place after another. Nobody did as well for themselves in post-flood real estate speculation as Zero did, and now you can’t walk four blocks in any direction without passing another dining room full of those trademark green tablecloths. Everybody who’s anybody in this town eats at a Zito property – and if Zito made his bones way back when chumming around with the old days of organized crime? Eh, what’s the big deal. Just part of the charm, the flavor, of his establishments – the dashing rogue made good. Besides, that was the old days – Danny Silva and the Flannery Brothers and the CABL were ancient history now, washed away by a flood when God decided to destroy a world full of people who were against Him.
There are people who will tell you that the flood was a good thing for this place; the wicked and the evil cast out, replaced by a chance to do it the right way this time around. It’s true in a lot of ways; the city is nothing like it ever was – a post-industrial wasteland traded in for a gleaming city of tomorrow, Herman Zito and Danny Silva replaced by Dr. Mortis and Nowhere Man.
But it’s hard to think any of that matters now, not when you look overhead and see the massive warships of the Qraken invasion force. It now seems pretty clear that we’re living in the fulcrum of the invasion; what’s not clear is the why. Every battle goes a little worse for our side; more and more territory is lost each week. The fall of the city is starting to feel like a when, rather than an if. Think Paris in 1940. Vicksburg. Jericho. Looks like God wasted a lot of time and effort in laying waste here; he should have just waited a few more years and let the Qraken do it.
The United Nations certainly thinks so. Last week, they started food drops for the citizens that remain. Predictably, the supplies have yet to make it into the hands of the people that need them the most. Namely, the families in my neighborhood. If you think Somali warlords are the only criminals that see profit – money, power, otherwise – in extending the suffering of their neighbors, well, then, you just haven’t been paying attention to anything I’ve said.
And that’s what brought me here, to the rooftop of a small insurance company that closed up shop a few weeks ago when the owner finally wised up and got the hell outta town. But I could care less about that; I’m just here because it provides an excellent line of sight on the loading dock for Zito’s latest hot spot, Nada.
The first relief shipment disappeared a week ago; the second, three days after that. So I attached a tracer to the third, and watched as it went from airfield to UN warehouse to white unmarked panel truck to different panel truck, which parked itself on the curb while the driver locked the doors and went inside an 8th Street Thai massage parlor that is owned, if you dig deep enough into the paper trail, by Zito Properties.
Three minutes later, a different driver emerged, climbed in the cab, and made his way here, to the back door of Nada. According to the remote camera I placed here yesterday (identical to the one trained on the dock of every Zito restaurant in town – call it a hunch), it’s the only delivery they’ve gotten all day. The implication is clear, as far as I can tell: Mr. Zero is taking the food relief shipments meant for the neediest residents of this town – three more grocery stores have shut down in my neighborhood this week alone – and using it to feed the richest.
You would think the city would have cleared out as soon as we realized that we were the focus of the Qraken force, but it hasn’t. Among the rich and powerful, it’s been almost business as usual. And why not? The Arsenal and their kind have always been around to keep their best interests at heart. For Zero’s happy clientele, the invasion is just the latest in a long thread of the same, no different from the time The Unforgiven robbed their Savings and Loan or the time when Kuroikaze poisoned their water supply.
They’re all still here because they want to be. Unlike folks on my side of the tracks; the only ones left there are the ones who can’t leave. The ones who can’t just quit their jobs: the police officers, the firefighters, the nurses. The teachers, many of whom won’t leave until the last child is gone. They haven’t left, so neither can I. Not that I’ve ever even thought about it.
Up on the rooftop, I tap the goggles stitched into my cowl, accessing my magnification lenses to get a better look at the giant goons who just stepped out the back door of the restaurant for a smoke break. Hmmm. This might go deeper than just the food angle – Zero’s brought in some heavy hitters. I see Skull Krusher, Monkey Tom, Black Rhino. And you can rest assured that if Rhino’s around – yep, there she is. Trouble.
The four of them standing there outside the same door, the one between me and Zero. I had expected one, maybe two, goons; it’s been years since Zero’s lifted as much as a finger with intent. But four – the evening just got a lot more complicated.
Almost on cue, I hear a pair of boots landing softly behind me. I say “landing” because I am positioned against the ladder that provides the only access to the roof from below – therefore, the newcomer must have come from above.
That, and I recognize the sound of the footfall. I should; after all, I taught him everything he knows.
“Hey, Pops,” he says.
Like I said: complicated.
* * *
It’s the right thing to do, announce my presence like that. He already knows I’m here; I’m sure he heard me land. And it’s not like I’m trying to sneak up on him. I mean, I could if I wanted to. . . I think. Scratch that – maybe not. He’s pretty crafty, the old man.
I wonder sometimes how my life might have turned out different if the rocket that brought me to Earth as a child had crashed in, say, a cornfield in Iowa or Kansas rather than a dumpster in an alley in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. Would I have still grown into the same man I’ve become?
But there’s not much time for idle speculation these days. I wasn’t found by some kindly old widower who might’ve stepped out of a Rockwell painting (as I imagine her); instead, I was found here, by Godhammer, about two minutes before some crackheads happened across me and sold me into white slavery, or worse. He took me home and raised me as if I were his own, and for that I am eternally grateful. But still, a guy can’t help but wonder.
Of course, raising me as if I were his own meant molding me in his own crimefighting image. His apostle, he called me, only half-jokingly. My alien DNA gave me powers far beyond any Pops had ever dreamed of for himself; the miracle baby from beyond the stars, he called me.
“Hey, Kid,” he says. He still calls me Kid because he knows it bothers me. Worse yet, I know that he’s doing it on purpose, because it bothers me, and I still let it bother me. I haven’t been Kid Cosmo in ten years. I think his feelings are still hurt.
“Quite the murderer’s row down there,” I say, mostly to change the subject, motioning towards the array of supervillains enjoying a smoke break below. “Zero must be running a helluva dinner special.”
“Yeah, something like that,” he says, no longer able to hide his irritability. I smile a little under my mask.
“Stop smirking,” he says. “What are you doing here?”
I glance towards the northwest sky, which glows faintly, residue from this morning’s terrible battle. “We could really use you out there, Pops,” I say. “On the front line.”
“You don’t need me. You made that clear a long time ago.”
We have this same argument, one way or another, every time I visit. It’s been ten years, but sometimes you’d think I left yesterday. “No, I said we need you. Wildfire’s missing, Peregrine, too – it’s getting really bad out there.”
“My work is here.”
“Yeah, well, if things don’t start turning around out there, there won’t be any here left.”
Godhammer gives me his back, watching the scene in the alley below. “When I see a Qraken platoon on 8th Street, I’ll let you know.”
“You do that, Pops.” I shake my head; the man has always had a singular gift for making me wish I had never come home.
“So this is, what, some kind of shore leave?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Pops goes quiet a moment, watching below as Trouble grinds out her cigarette beneath a ridiculously long stiletto heel. She turns for the door, lingering long enough to give us both a nice clear view of the backless black leotard / fishnet ensemble that has been her trademark for as long as I’ve known her. She looks back over her shoulder coyly, then disappears inside. For a brief moment, I wonder if she saw me up here, the little performance meant for my eyes.
“You gonna try and see Jackie while you’re home?” Pops asks, snapping me out of long-ago memories.
“I did – this afternoon. My first stop.”
He nods. “Good. Bet she liked that.”
Pops may have taught me what it was to be a crimefighting machine, to be superhuman; but Jackie taught me what it was to be human. I think all three of our hearts shattered forever the day she walked out on him.
“How about you?” I ask. “You get over to see her much?”
He turns, unable to meet my eyes. “Not as much as I’d like. It’s hard to see her like that, you know?”
I do know. I was there this afternoon. “Yeah,” I say instead.
Black Rhino finishes off his cigarette, then follows Trouble back inside the restaurant. Two final puffs later, Monkey Tom does the same. Skull Krusher lingers a moment longer, watching as an F-22 screams across the sky at very low altitude, a Qraken starfighter in close pursuit.
“That’s gonna be tough, fighting your way through that door,” I say, once my ears have stopped ringing.
“We could try the front door,” I say.
“We?” Pops asks, a smile creeping across his lips.
I nod. “For old times’ sake.”
* * *
“Table for two, please.”
I’d know that voice anywhere – powerful, kind, intelligent, sonorous. Sexy.
My head whips around, almost independently of my brain. There he is – standing at the hostess stand. Of all the restaurants in the city… Cosmos is here.
No, he’s not wearing that famous golden mask, or the swirling, matching cape; he’s traded those in for a tan blazer, matching slacks, open-collared shirt, oxblood loafers. I can’t decide which suit I like better.
Of course, once I’ve seen a man naked – this man, especially, this golden god from beyond the stars – I like that suit best of all.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re booked solid,” the hostess says. “Through the rest of the weekend, in fact.”
I’m watching this all through the porthole in the swinging door that leads to the kitchen. I don’t think Cosmos has made me yet. Neither has that sawed-off runt of an old man that’s with him; I’m assuming by his aggressive, near-violent way of simply standing that that’s Godhammer.
Zero wanted the four of us here all night; he said he was expecting trouble. And since Trouble’s my first, middle, and only name… just seemed like the place to be on a Friday night.
I can feel one of the teenage busboys staring at my ass. I turn and give him an icy glare, withering his thoughts on the vine. “As if you’d even know what to do with it,” I sneer, the most fun I’ve had all day.
“Something interesting out there?” Black Rhino looms large behind me, dark helmet hanging at his side, one hand wrapped around the giant horn. Boys and their toys…
He leans down over my shoulder, looks out into the dining area. “Oh,” he says. “I see.”
Calvin’s never really been much of a jealous type, but still… “Honestly,” I say.
“Hey, is that… that’s Godhammer with him. They’re back together now?”
“And how would I know that, Calvin?” I ask, dialing the pheromones up a little, putting the guilty screws to him. Second most fun I’ve had all day.
“Would you mind letting Mr. Zito know we’d like a word with him? We only need a minute,” Casey – Cosmos – says to the hostess out in the lobby.
“I’m afraid Mr. Zito isn’t in tonight,” the hostess says, oblivious. “And even if he were – ”
“Look, sweetheart,” Godhammer growls, the sanctimonious asshole, shoving Casey to the side. “We need to see Zero, and we need to see him now.”
Calvin turns to me, lifts his heavy helmet up to slide it on. “Looks like go-time to me,” he says.
Outside the kitchen, the hostess looks terrified, Godhammer a frightening prick as usual, mask or no mask. “Zero?” she says. “I don’t think I underst – ”
“Now,” Godhammer says.
“Now,” Black Rhino says, bursting through the kitchen’s swinging double doors and out into the dining room, Skull Krusher and Monkey Tom right behind him.
The patrons scatter, screaming. I’m not sure this is what Zero’s paying us for, exactly – not like any of this will be good for his business. Of course, all the restaurants are just a front to wash all the money from all his other enterprises. Still, though – Zero’s got pride in his joints.
“There a problem, gentlemen?” Skull Krusher asks, his thick Teutonic accent barely audible over the dull roar of the fleeing diners.
Monkey Tom knuckles over to the cash register, smashes it open with a hairy paw, makes sure everyone in the place gets a good look at him doing it. That way, the big dust-up that’s about to follow will get reported as an attempted robbery, explaining our presence and preserving Zero’s cover as a respectable businessman; for a dumb ape, Tommy’s pretty smart sometimes.
“Look, Nazi, we can do this the easy way, or we can do it my way,” Godhammer says to Krusher. “Get Zero out here now.”
Black Rhino steps in, nose to nose with Cosmos. “Give me a reason,” Cosmos says.
“I’ve already got one,” Rhino says.
Boys, boys, boys. All this over little ol’ me?
* * *
Honey, it’s over. I’ve met somebody else. Seven deadly words you never think you’ll hear from your wife.
Honey, it’s over. Can I come home? Seven words you definitely never think you’ll hear from your wife once she’s gone. And even if you do hear them, how do you respond?
I’ll tell you how you respond, if your wife is Trouble: you say yes. You take her back, and you hate yourself for it.
Now you’re gonna tell me no, you wouldn’t take her back. She made her choice – she left. That’s it. Game over. But you would. And how would you even know what you’d say? You wouldn’t, not until she’s standing there, hat in hand, asking to come home – and how many men ever even get that chance?
And how many men ever get this chance: standing nose to nose with the man your wife left you for?
I know she’s watching, back in the kitchen, most likely beside herself with glee over this prospect. She’s probably dreamed about a moment like this her entire life. The woman’s bad news; I know that. But I can’t help myself.
I love Trouble.
So Cosmos is here. Mr. Zero said there was going to be trouble tonight; guess he was right. You’d think that with everything going on in the sky above us, the hero-types would have enough to keep busy without having to stick their beaks in the affairs of a second-rate mastermind like Zero. And he’s got Godhammer with him – now we’re talking a full-blown team-up.
Cosmos is definitely not here for Trouble; he was through with her as soon as he saw through her games to her true nature. Her little chemical romance powers had little effect on his alien brain. Once he sussed out that she was playing for the other team, he whipped out his moral code and sent her crawling back home. To me. Him bumping into her here is just coincidence.
So what, then? Zero’s always had a finger or two in quite a few questionable pies; any or all of them could have brought these two to his door. Zero said something was brewing; we said OK. He’s not paying us to ask questions. He’s paying us to make problems go away.
“You’re here about the supply pallets.”
Christ, Tommy, I think. He actually thinks Cosmos is here about a couple of stolen trucks of food? Cosmos is a borderline A-list hero; he doesn’t have time for that. Godhammer, maybe. He’s still local, an unhealthy obsession with everything that goes on in the neighborhood –
“Got it in one, Monkey Tom,” Cosmos says.
“Really?” I say.
Tom’s eyes narrow, his wide nostrils flaring. My shoulders tense – I’ve seen this before. “What is it with you people?” he says. “Look at me – I’m not a monkey. I’m an ape. Technically, so are you.”
“Actually, given my alien genetics…” Cosmos shrugs, always quick with the banter, a sharp contrast with his small, angry mentor. “I’m not even sure my planet had apes.”
“Oh, shut up,” Tom says, then punches Cosmos in the face.
* * *
I am nobody.
Been told that my whole life. Hear something enough times, you start to believe it. Believe it long enough, it becomes true.
The same song, everywhere I went.
The orphanage. Foster homes. The street.
So when I think about everything I’ve done, everything I have… I could give a shit about this invasion.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I don’t think it can work. This city’s been full of heroes since the Flood – definitely making my job harder – and they’re up there in full force, fighting back. But every day, things look just a little bleaker. Totally honest? I think we’re in big trouble.
But one of these Qraken or whatever the hell you call them will need a window table, and I’ll be the man to get that for him. Another one will develop a taste for blow, and I’ll get that for him, too. One of them decides he has a taste for young Russian girls? Little Asian boys? Maybe a literal taste? I can get that, too.
And when I get them what they need? When they need me? That’s when I’ll own them.
So I could give a shit about this invasion.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
And in the meantime, I’m going to make a little money.
As long as I can keep this prick Godhammer off my back.
Godhammer’s an old-timer; he was here before the flood, before the city’s rebirth. That arrogant prick’s been sticking his nose in my shit for what seems like forever. I figured most of the usual roadblocks will be busy in the skies overhead, trying to fight back against our new alien overlords. But I knew Godhammer wouldn’t be among them; he never leaves town. The guy barely ever leaves the neighborhood.
So I put a little team together. Black Rhino and Trouble, a couple of local hands. They’ve been mixing it up with Godhammer as long as I have – they understood what they were getting into. Skull Krusher – I don’t usually mix with Nazis, but this guy just likes to hurt people. And he does it for cheap. And Monkey Tom – but don’t call him that to his face. The mind of a top-level research scientist in the body of an 800 pound gorilla. Smarter than he looks, I’ll give him that.
That should have been enough to keep Godhammer at bay – but I never figured on Cosmos coming back to town. That was a gamechanger.
I’m watching on the security monitor in my office as Cosmos and Godhammer wipe the floor with the best money I could spend. Two on four, and the alien is barely breaking a sweat. Fascinating.
And then, in a flash, just like that, they’re off the screen and kicking in the door to my office.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” I ask Godhammer as they enter. “Ruining my Friday dinner crowd?” I don’t move, stay seated, hands held still under my desk. I don’t have anything down there, but they don’t know that – the split-second hesitation that their ignorance buys me will be my ticket out of here.
“And you,” I say to Cosmos. “I know you have something better to do.” A fiery explosion rocks the walls, as if to prove my point.
“You are willfully and deliberately stealing from those in this city who need that food the most,” Godhammer says. “All in the name of making a dollar.”
“Pathetic,” Cosmos says. “And it ends tonight.”
I give them a deep sigh, shake my head slowly. “The supply pallets? That’s what this is about?” I lean back in my chair, hands still under the desk. “You don’t think I’m serving that in my place, do you? Cans of beans and baby formula? C’mon.”
I give my left hand a slight wiggle, just a test. Godhammer gives a small, near-imperceptible flinch. I smile. “I’m stockpiling all that slop until the shit really hits the fan up there. That’s the only time it’ll have any real value.
“And what about you, anyway?” I say to Godhammer. “There have been blackouts all over town – how much juice are you pulling off the city grid to power your little secret lair?” He bristles a bit – I push it a bit. “You think your precious citizens should live in the dark so you can keep up this misguided war on crimes that nobody really gives a shit about?”
I’m on a roll. I decide to go a little further. “And these alien invaders – are they your people, Cosmos? What planet are you from, again?”
“Don’t even dignify this, son,” Godhammer says.
“I’m just saying what everybody’s thinking,” I say. “I know you don’t much look like them, but word on the street has shapeshifters among their forces.”
Cosmos doesn’t say anything. I think that one hit home – I’ve got it on pretty good authority that no one knows what planet he came from. He doesn’t even know himself. Hell, he could be Qraken.
“Shapeshifters?” Godhammer asks.
“Sure,” I say. “Maybe your boy’s a sleeper agent of some kind, just waiting for the code word to reveal his true nature.” I shrug. “He may not even know himself.”
I’m making this up as I go along, throwing darts, seeing what sticks. Just buying myself time as my escape route powers up. Ever been to one of those drive-through windows at the bank, with the little pneumatic tube that shoots your money from the bank out to your car? Well, I paid Fixit a lot of money the last time he was in town to install one of those tubes for me; the idea being a tube that would shoot me in my chair from here in my office all the way down to a little spider hole I set up years ago, deep within the miles and miles of salt mines that run beneath the city.
I say “idea being” because it’s never been tested. A trial run wasn’t exactly in the budget.
So we’ll see what happens.
Godhammer’s watching my hands, still under the desk, looking for me to draw the weapon that isn’t there.
“There’s nothing there, Pops,” Cosmos says, finally speaking. “Under the table – his hands are empty. So go ahead and hit him in the mouth any time you’d like.”
X-ray vision? Another power I’ve never seen for Cosmos – the mind boggles. He seems limitless.
Regardless. Fixit’s contraption – if this doesn’t work, I’ll kill him. It’s time to go.
Right… about… now.
* * *
Jackie finally had enough of me the night we celebrated what we estimated to be Casey’s sixteenth birthday. We had to cut the party short – I got a tip that Jackhammer and his crew were about to tunnel into the the Greater Fidelity Bank downtown, and Godhammer and Kid Cosmos sprang into action. We made short work of the gang, like always – Jackhammer was never much of a threat. And when we got home, just before dawn, there was a note taped on the fridge.
Just like that, she was gone.
The next morning, a low-end heel named Freakshow snatched Jackie and another woman out of line in a coffee shop. She never should have been there; the shop was in the lobby of the hotel where she had spent the night.
We found them seventeen hours later. The other woman was dead; Jackie was a catatonic mess.
I hit Freakshow in the face until he stopped breathing.
I’m not sorry for what I did; I’d do it again, if it happened again. But it’s impossible to measure what Casey lost that day; the least of which was his faith in me. He left home six months later. Then, the day after I found his note, the river banks overflowed, and we all lost so much more.
Now a savage alien invasion force sits in the sky overhead; at any moment they will fill our streets the same as the floodwaters did ten years ago. And when I’m being honest with myself, I know that we’ll be as helpless now as we were then.
Which is why I cannot allow the citizens of this city to prey on one another – physically, emotionally, financially. We’ve got enough problems already without turning on our neighbors.
That’s why I stay. I was born here. The flood didn’t drive me out; neither will this invasion.
I fully intend to die here.
Another explosion rocks the sky as Cosmos and I stare down Zero’s escape tunnel. Then another blast, this one much closer.
“Think this goes down into the salt mines?” he asks.
“That’s what I’m thinking,” I say. I make a sweeping gesture with my hand, waving towards the tunnel. “After you?”
Cosmos pauses, and in that split second, I know he’s leaving. Another explosion, this one with aftershocks that last a full eight seconds. The lights flicker in Zero’s office, then go out.
“Look,” I say, standing in the dark. “Something big’s going down up there. I think you’d better get back and find out – I’ll button things up here.”
Cosmos nods. “Nobody knows those mines like you, Pops.”
He’s right on that point. Zero’s not the only one who makes use of the miles and miles of subterranean caverns that run beneath our streets. If he’s hiding down there, it’s only a matter of time before I find him.
The lights sputter back on for a few seconds, then go dark again. Another explosion.
“Go, son,” I say.
He nods again, his square jaw set in granite. “Nice working with you, Godhammer,” he says. “Let’s do it again soon.”
Then, in a flash, he’s gone, punching a hole in the ceiling and roof as he powers up into the sky, and into the fray.
I watch him disappear into the night, which is now nearly glowing with fire and smoke and suffering. I think about Zero’s words: shapeshifters.
And I think about the two Qraken soldiers I caught snooping around down in the salt mines earlier in the week, armed with what appeared to be some sort of geological survey equipment. I think about the brawl that ensued, the ugly gash across my right shoulderblade that’s probably infected, and just how hard it was to kill those two bastards.
I think about how there wasn’t much left of one of them, but the other one was still pretty much intact when I strapped his corpse on a steel table for an autopsy in my lab down in the salt mines.
And I think about the DNA test that showed the Qraken as a 98% match for Casey. And the one from years ago that found him to be a 96% match for human.
And that’s where my thinking stops, because try as I might, I don’t know what to think about the implications of all that.
I want to talk to Jackie about it; she’d understand the dilemma, even if no one else would.
I want to talk to Casey about it, too. I just don’t know when, or how. But he has a right to know. He needs to know.
And once he knows, I don’t know what I’ll do about it. What I’ll have to do about it.
But that’s tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.
Tonight – tonight my city needs me.
So down the rabbit hole I go, looking for Zero.
Tomorrow be damned.
The wicked flee when no man pursueth. (Proverbs 28:1)