A minus 11 Days
I reached the industrial district almost an hour later, completely out of breath and drenched in sweat.
While I was very – even exceptionally – fit and trained regularly in a variety of sports, long distance running among them, I’d managed to spend myself running without pacing myself. I just couldn’t focus enough to do that. Usually, when I ran, once my body got used to the motions I’d just relax and go into my zone, just… running.
Not this time. I felt like there was a maelstrom of emotions inside me, held back by a knot in my belly that it pressed against and tore at. Most of it was rage, I was sure.
Nonetheless, I arrived. Our gated community was pretty much on the opposite side of the city, or at least it felt like it. It had been built in its spot deliberately, far away from the districts frequented by metahumans. And let’s face it, it was pretty much a law that low-level heroes and villains would throw down in abandoned factories and warehouses.
There were plenty of those in Esperanza, and nowhere more than in the old industrial district. Heavy industry had almost entirely fled the cities due to the Environmental Protection Act (also known as the GreenGreen Act, named after the superhero group that had been its most fervent supporter) of nineteen-eighty-two and now tended to cluster in isolated so-called industrial conclaves, far apart from cities and other protected sites.
Which left more than enough abandoned warehouses and factories behind in the cities, since it wasn’t worth the money to disassemble them or knock them down and build new things in their place. Esperanza had been rebuild almost entirely from the grounds up, after Desolation-in-Light wiped out Los Angeles, but there were a few parts of the old city left, surrounded by the new one. Most people called them ‘the Shades’ (as a contrast to the Brights in New Lennston) and they were the places the scum of the city gathered in.
The old factory I had run to – I’d remembered the address from when a policewoman had told us what had happened – didn’t stand out from the surrounding buildings at all. It was big, it was run-down, it was made of brownish-red bricks with tall, stained black chimneys. I had no idea what had once been produced within, as there was no identifying sign left, save for the street name and number written on a small, rusted metal signpost.
The idea that my sister had died in such a stereotypical place almost made me cry, but I was angry enough to let any tears evaporate before they even left my tear ducts. Taking a deep breath and drawing my wholly inadequate hoodie closer around my body – West Coast or no, November was not the best time to run around in only your underwear, a hoodie and sweatpants. Especially if you were drenched in sweat from stupidly running like a madwoman – I walked through the open gate. It looked like someone had broken it down – probably the police when they’d stormed in to see what was going on.
Despite the late hour, the factory was, well, not well-lit but it was bright enough to see. The back half of the ceiling had collapsed at some point – I couldn’t tell if it was recent or not – and moonlight was flooding in, thanks to the cloudless sky and the current full moon.
There was still some police tape left at the scene, bright yellow that stood out sharply against the black, brown and grey of the factory. No police in sight, though, and why should there be – sure, they hadn’t caught the murderer, but it’d just been a supervillain girl who died. No one important.
I shook my head. No, that wasn’t fair. It probably had nothing to do with the police not wanting to help. She’d died almost a week ago, and whatever clues had been left here were most probably already filed away.
Past the police tape, the front half of the factory still stood, covered in dust and old grime, but apart from that, it looked like it could still light up and start working… though I still had no idea what it was meant to produce.
Gee, talk about avoiding the issue. Get your ass in gear, idiot!
Kicking myself in the ass, I looked through the place… and then I froze.
The chalk outline was still there. As were a lot of dark stains on the floor, many small ones and one really big ones…
Mesmerized, I stepped closer, until I was just a hair’s breadth away from having my shoes on the big stain.
Whoever had died here had bled. A lot.
What a way to go.
Then, I suddenly heard heavy steps behind me, and a gruff voice said: “Hey, miss, you’re not supposed to be here!”
Spinning around, my hand went for my baton – but then I stopped when I recognized the uniform the man was wearing.
In the movies, there’s usually only two kinds of fat cops. The dirty (in more ways than one), donut-and-burger eating asshole or the jolly good-natured veteran who takes it easy and likes all kinds of good food in large quantities (and donuts). You can usually tell them apart by how clean their uniform is, and by just how grossly overweight they are.
This guy… looked like a little bit of both. He was quite a bit taller than me, had at least three hundred pounds more on his body than I did and his uniform was straining quite a bit around his body – his fat was spread relatively evenly across his body, except for his impressive belly. He had very short black hair, barely visible beneath his policeman’s cap, rather attractive black eyes and heavy jowls.
He came to a stop near me, squinting to see me despite the twilight. The way I was standing, the full moon was falling on me from behind, hiding my face in the shade. Not that he’d recognize me, anyway.
“Miss, this is a dangerous part of town, especially for a young lady!” he said, his voice in stark contrast to his appearance. This guy made Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry sound like Micky Mouse on helium. Not to mention that the words did not fit the stereotype. “Miss?” he asked again, when I stayed silent.
I relaxed, letting my arms hang down by my sides loosely. “I’m sorry, officer. I just… wanted to see.”
He relaxed almost imperceptibly once he could see both of my hands. “See what, Miss? This ain’t a place for sight seeing. Nothing good happened here.”
“I know I…” I looked down. I’d taken a step back and was now standing on top of the biggest stain. “I… she died here…”
I looked around my feet. I was standing right where Linda had died. I was standing right where Linda died.
“My… my sister,” I chocked, suddenly unable to breath. “My sister died here… oh God, my sister died here.” I felt tears leak from my eyes as his expression turned from concerned to horrified and pitying.
Not that I cared. “Linda died here.” I tried to breath, but it came in too short. Not enough, I was feeling so dizzy. So I took another. And another, quicker one. Again. And again.
The factory began to spin, the policeman merging with the surroundings in my vision as I stumbled around, unable to keep my footing on the wobbling ground. She died here. She died here and I wasn’t with her!
* * *
I have no recollection of the five or ten minutes that followed my breakdown. I don’t know if I passed out or just repressed them, or whatever. All I know is that, some time later, I was leaning against the hood of a police car, eating an expensive donut with extra thick chocolate frosting, and drinking a cup of steaming hot chocolate.
The donut I get, but where the hell did he get hot chocolate from?
The policeman had the doors of the car open and the cabin light turned on. He was on the other side of the car, keeping it between us. Giving me some sense of privacy, after the utterly humiliating way I’d lost it in front of him. He was on his second donut, with a cup of steaming hot coffee on the side.
After a few more minutes of chewing and drinking, I said, “Thank you for the meal. And… thank you,” without turning around to face him.
“Not much of a meal, Miss Afolayan,” he said in that badass movie-cop voice. I was sure that people who heard him before they saw him imagined some kind of Dirty Harry slash Arnold Schwarzenegger guy.
Of course, what was more interesting was that he knew my name, and even pronounced it right. “H-how do you know who I am?” I asked, still not turning around.
He chuckled sadly. “You said your sister died here. One Linda Afolayan, alias Twitch, member and supposed leader of the StreetBadgers, a superpowered teenage villain team. More of a youth gang, really. Until a week ago, that is.”
I tensed up – I’d never actually heard of Linda’s supervillain name. I didn’t even know what kind of powers she’d had, or who her team had been.
“Do you… do you know more?” I asked, finally turning around to look at him across the hood of his car. I could see his nametag from here. Officer Widard.
I thought I’d heard that name before, somewhere. Maybe he has famous relatives?
He gave me an unbearably sad and compassionate look. “Miss, there’s other problems here. Namely the fact that a minor is out at night, in one of the worst parts of the town. And visiting the scene of a crime, no less.”
“I’m sixteen,” I replied, weakly. As if that meant anything. He ignored it.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to take you home, now. Please get into the car, Miss,” he said. He was saying ‘Please’ but there was no doubt he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I was pretty sure that, if I ran away, he wouldn’t be able to keep up. There was no way he’d shoot me, and by the time he got into the car, I could have run down the street so he’d have to turn it first, or into an alley too narrow to drive into.
But… if I stayed with him, I might just get some information out of him. I really had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know who the StreetBadgers were, or who their members were, or where they could be found.
“Alright,” I said and got into the car. “My name’s Theresa Afolayan, by the way. Please call me Terry.”
He got in once I’d closed the door. His seat had been pushed back as far as possible for him to fit – even disregarding his girth, the guy was about six foot nine tall. “Name’s Tom Widard. A pleasure to meet you, Terry. Now, let’s get you home.”
* * *
He drove away from the old factory my other half had died in. I stayed quiet, for a minute or so, before speaking up.
“Sir, you seem to know a little about… about my sister’s case. No one’s told me anything, so I wanted to ask…”
Without taking his eyes off the street, the officer replied, “Normally, I’d say it’s up to your parents, Terry. But… I guess you deserve to know some. On one condition.”
Please don’t say… “What condition, Sir?”
“You’ll promise you won’t go off do something stupid like what you just did again. This part of the city really ain’t safe, at all.”
I thought it over, looking for loopholes in that promise. “Alright. I promise I won’t repeat those actions, no matter what you tell me,” I replied.
He didn’t seem to pick up on the loophole I’d built into it, or maybe he knew he wouldn’t get anything better out of me.
“Your sister was a member of a rather notorious youth gang. Call themselves the StreetBadgers. Mostly vandalism, graffiti, petty theft and some low-grade fights with other low-powered youth gangs. They all avoid the heroes cause they don’t stand a chance – maybe one in ten of them has anything more than a single Exemplar power, and almost none have any meaningful training,” he explained calmly, stating the facts the same way he’d probably do it if he was briefing a new partner. He sounded positively intimidating.
“Why have I never heard of them?” I asked. “I mean… any of them?”
He shrugged. “They’re really no more a problem than any other youth gang, Miss. Sure, their powers can be one hell of a headache, but even the most outlandish among them can be dealt with by us street cops, if we don’t go in blind – and most of them are low-level bricks, those are not hard to handle for even normal police officers – and they really pale to the real supervillains, so they don’t get much coverage.”
“What about the Badgers’ members? And could one of them have killed Linda?” If they’re that little of a problem, I should be able to pick them off one by one.
He sighed, as if he could read my thoughts. “Don’t even think it, Terry. The StreetBadgers are one of the more competent gangs out there.” But he still continued, laying them out for me: “Four members are left, now that your poor sister is gone. Fulcrum, a low-grade manipulator who can redirect the movement of any single object within his sight; LagForward – name’s supposedly written as one word, with the ‘F’ capitalized, an above-average brick for an Exemplar Tier meta, with the downside that he can assess his strength and speed only in momentary bursts,” he paused, drinking from a cup of coffee. “Foxfire, kind of their mascot. Low-level physique, and she creates this really annoying melon-sized ball of stroboscoping light, throwing it around and tasering anyone she hits. Finally, Razzle, he can create a cloud of sparkling fireworks and all, concealing and misdirecting. Can make it so it doesn’t block her or her friend’s vision.”
He stopped talking to let me digest that, finally driving out of the Shades and into Esperanza proper. The streets finally turned brighter.
So, there were four subjects. But… “You didn’t answer my question. Do you think any one of them is the murderer?” I clenched my fists.
“Nah,” he shook his head, not even thinking about it. “They’re brats, but these gangs are tight, and the StreetBadgers are known for loyalty. Besides, your sister… she was killed with a military-grade rapid-fire shotgun, using modified shells meant for fighting metahumans. No way those kids could have gotten their hands on it, half of them are younger than you are.”
I nodded. “My sister… what do you know about… about her? As a supervillain?” I asked, half afraid of the answer.
It took him some time to answer as we got closer to my home. Then he said, “Her name was Twitch. She was the second most recent recruit of the group, after Razzle. Suspected low-grade physique, but judging from you, that was misapplied. Some kind of danger sense and/or limited precognition. They really started rising up once she joined them, winning fight after fight, always evading us poor cops.”
“Could she fly?” I blurted out. We’d always dreamed of flying.
He threw me a curious glance as he waited for the next green light. “No. Pure Brainpowers, far as we can tell. Of course, it’s not like we know everything…”
I leaned back in my seat, pulling my arms close around myself. Couldn’t she at least get that one thing?
“Why would anyone want to kill her?” I whispered, only half to him. “Do you have any suspects?” I asked, louder.
“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, looking honestly so. “This whole thing… it makes no sense. Whoever killed your sister had professional gear. But what reason would a professional have to kill a teenage gang member?” He ran the fingers of one hand through his messy dark hair (he’d taken his cap off earlier).
“Maybe she found something out she shouldn’t know?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine any real reason, either.
“Maybe.” He fell silent.
“Where do they usually h-” I started asking, hoping I’d get some more information, but he threw me a glance that shut me up.
“No. I won’t tell you where you can find them. I’ll get you home, and hand you over to your parents. You know, the legal, right thing to do. I’m sure they’re worried sick.”
I didn’t answer. I barely knew him, but I could tell he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t budge. The fact that he was more than three times my weight didn’t make it better.
* * *
A minute or so later, the officer was cursing under his breath. There’d been a traffic accident, a truck had apparently spun out of control and was now lying across the street, blocking it entirely. He had to take a way around, but Esperanza, though far better planned than most cities, had a lot of construction and reconstruction, as well as maintenance going on right now, despite the winter weather.
We drove for a few minutes, constantly re-diverted by construction sites and, in one case, a battle between the Six Sentries and some villains I didn’t recognize.
He took a shortcut through the nearby Shades, and that’s when I saw a large piece of graffiti writing, saying ‘StreetBadgers’ in white-black-white lettering.
Take this chance, dummy.
I decided on a course of action. It was a dickmove, especially considering how nice Officer Widard had been, but well… family comes first.
“S-sir?” I asked, trying to sound as unsteady as I could. I’d been silent for a while, just looking out the window, and it wasn’t a stretch to play the role I had in mind.
“Yes, Terry?” he asked, never taking his eyes off the street. Good, he might have noticed something.
“I… ugh, I think that… that donut isn’t agreeing with me… I think I’m gonna throw up,” I said, speaking like I was ill, putting a hand over my mouth. Making a suspicious break in the sentence, to make it look like I was blaming my state on the donut and meaning something else.
Like my sister’s death.
“Wait, I’ll pull to the side. Can you hold it in for a moment?”
“I’ll try…” Gotta love nice people. I held my stomach, curling up on the seat.
He pulled over to the side of the street and got out, circling the car to unlock the door on my side and help me out (he was smart enough not to unlock it first and give me an easy escape).
I let him help me out of the car and stumbled with him in toe away from the car to a trash can, bending over.
“I’m really sorry, Sir,” I apologized, meaning it. Before he could react, I lashed out with my foot, kicking him in the balls.
As he keeled over – and I felt like vomiting for real now, what in God’s name am I thinking? – I bolted, running into an alley that would take me roughly towards the street I saw the graffiti art.
I doubt he’ll be that nice to random teenagers in trouble again.
* * *
I found the graffity again. It had been expertly painted on the front of an old restaurant building. Striped like a badger. How imaginative. Did Linda really hang out with people who do art like this?
It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t look like something really original.
You’re stalling again.
Not that I had any idea how to proceed.
Get off the main street, dummy. The officer might remember this and come to look for you.
I walked around the corner of the building – and finally realized why they called these parts of the city the Shades. I’d read about them, seen reports, but…
Esperanza had been built atop the ruins of Los Angeles. Literally in some cases – a lot of the city was standing on gigantic concrete pillars, or raised parts of the earth that had been moved by Desolation-in-Light. Many of the old parts were constantly in the shadow because of that.
Right now, I was in an alley that would have been jet-black if not for a single, flickering lightbulb over a side entrance.
That graffiti was territorial marking. So their hideout should be close.
I pulled my hood over my head, and went down the alley, looking around for further signs of the StreetBadgers.
* * *
After about half an hour, I knew one thing for sure. I should have brought a torch.
And a map. And a compass. Because I was utterly, completely lost. I could barely see the sky from where I was standing, and it was really miserably cold here.
Shivering, I walked pretty much blindly through the place, until a nearby trashcan tipped over and something flew at me.
I’ll deny it if anyone ever asks, but I shrieked like a little girl when a dark, red-eyed shade bounced at me – and then a pretty big cat with reddish-brown eyes and a jet-black coat of fur smacked into my chest, making me fall back onto my butt.
I looked down at it, feeling slightly silly. But only slightly, because beeing jumped by red-eyed black things in dark alleys was a common element of horror stories nowadays, even more than ever before.
“Hello kittie. Whatever is a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”
It really was a pretty cat. He – I just assumed it was a tomcat – was big, weighted about twelve pounds by my estimation and had a long tail and a fluffy, long coat. His eyes were really more brown than red, but still. Damn.
I stroked his fur – it was quite clean and fluffy, and he purred like a starting jet, only softer. “Do you belong to someone, you big cutie?” Checking him over, I found no markings whatsoever.
The tomcat (I checked) flicked his tail and jumped off my lap, turning around then looking back at me. Expectantly.
Wait, is that cat telling me to follow it?
Well, my life was weird enough as it was, anyway. And I had no idea where to go, anyway.
And maybe he belonged to the StreetBadgers. Coincidences happen, right?
I followed him, trying to stick close so as not to lose him in the darkness.
* * *
The cat took me to an old, abandoned parking garage. The large building had seen way better days, and looked rather uninteresting, not to mention uninviting.
But when I followed the tomcat, we passed by a pillar that a stylized badger had been sprayed on. Ohhh. Good kittie.
I followed him, now more carefully. One hand beneath my hoodie, at the baton I’d tucked into the back of my pants.
The tomcat led me to some stairs… and a few trash cans beside them. He jumped onto one and starting looking for food.
Oh. That’s what you wanted.
Still, way useful. I snuck past the cat up the stairs. They were at the center of the parking garage and obviously very old… but there was barely any dust around.
I snuck up the stairs to the next level. Nothing to be seen. Nor on the next one.
Then I heard voices on the third level.
Holding my breath, I snuck to the doorless opening, hiding on one side to glance inside.
There was actually some moonlight here, if barely. There were a lot of crates and other shapes lying around, or piled up. I couldn’t make them all out in the current lighting.
There were also four figures standing in a circle, arguing about something in some Asian language. I had no idea which one it was, though it might have been Japanese (Linda had been way into anime).
I waited as they argued. And somehow, somewhere, my rage from earlier came up again.
These people had taken Linda away. She’d hung out with them, instead of me. Told them of her problems, instead of me. Fought with them, instead of me.
Linda died, and they didn’t save her.
I pulled my baton out and snapped it open. It clicked.
Dammit. The conversation stopped, and the figures – I could just barely make out two boys, a girl and a third, shorter one – turned to look at me. They didn’t call out. They didn’t wait. They started moving immediately. Flickering lights began to form around the shortest one, showing me a boy in his early teens, wearing skater clothes and a magician’s mask. Then the cloud expanded, obscuring my vision of the group. Except for one really buff, tall chinese boy, wearing jeans and a thick vest, as well as army boots. He stomped in my direction.
I could also make out a melon-sized sphere in the cloud of fireworks that was rapidly switching colours.
I don’t know why exactly I did it, later. Was I really that angry? That unstable? I should have put my baton away and talked to them. They ought to recognize me. And even if Linda had never told them about me, I did look a lot like her. I should have talked.
Instead I pulled my hood down and attacked them.
Not my smartest move.
The Chinese boy – probably LagForward – gave a start when I charged him, but he blocked my strike with a lazy motion.
I pulled my knee up to hit him in the balls, but he just blurred to the side, going super-fast for just a split-second.
The sphere that had been thrown out of the cloud of fireworks missed him by a split-second before hitting me in the gut. Last thing I saw was yellow, then all black.