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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1548420
by beetle
Rated: 18+ · Novel · Satire · #1548420
Who saves the superheroes?
”Super” (working title), Chapter 1:


Halfway between my bathroom and kitchenette, and I freeze.


There’s a bouquet of lushly red flowers on my coffee table. Their scent had been with me while I showered, and I’d wondered at it, thinking that for once, leaving the window cracked for so-called “fresh air” was a good idea. Now. . . .


The window is closed and I didn’t close it.


“Good eveneeng, Mademoiselle Casey.”


I start then kick myself. Of course I’d know that accent anywhere. That voice has dogged me, haunted me for the past six years like a poltergeist, from one end of sanity to the other. And who else would call me by that name, after all this time?


The Stranger, of course.


Stepping out of the shadows of the narrow kitchen entryway is a grey-clad specter that seems to glow in the soft lamplight. Always a dramatic entrance—but less dramatic than I thought it would be when he, or some other hero finally twigged to the connection between Alban and me.


Though with the way things’ve been going, lately, my money was on one of the Upstarts—like Cheshire Kat or Rakshasa—digging back deep enough through Alban’s dirt to find little old me, rather than any of the Coalition of Great Justice putting the puzzle pieces together. The Coalition tend to batter their way to Justice, these days. They don’t have time for things like “deductive reasoning” or “investigation”.


I smooth my damp curls, and straighten my bathrobe like it’s armor gone askew—any port in a storm, I suppose—and force a pleasant smile onto my face, wishing I still had my mask. Granted, my mask had been stupid, tacky, showy, and uncomfortable. Not to mention destroyed a long time ago. But I wish I had it. Not for the first time, either, though I’d never bothered to make another. I’ve had more than my share of Harkman’s Sanitorium’s hospitality for one lifetime.


“The Stranger,” I purr with as much whiskey and irony as I’m capable of. I feel like the mouse that roared, but all I want do is arm off the flop-sweat my face is suddenly covered in. I wish I was wearing something a little more imposing than a flannel bathrobe and flip-flops. “Long time no see. Shame it couldn’t be longer.”


“I can understan’ why you might feel that way. ‘Ow ‘ave you been?” he asks, stepping into the light, each step like a chess move: planned, deliberate. That’s what makes this one so damned dangerous. I mean, he’s probably not as smart as that egomaniac, Solid State (who’s really not as brilliant as he likes to think, never mind what the local rags claim).


The Stranger’s definitely not ridiculous-fast, like Blue Blazes and the Lightning Lad—or as strong as The Impossibly Strong Dude. And I’m pretty sure he’s not as impervious as Tartan Hombre, despite there being no reliable, corroborated stats on the extent of the Hombre’s powers. “I’m . . . surviving. And you?”


He quirks a tiny grin that’s more irony than mirth. “The same. More or less,” he adds softly, almost inaudibly, and I shiver. If my life were a novel, this would be considered foreshadowing, and I wonder if he has a foot in some other reality, (rather, one foot in this reality) like Necromancer, or The ReAnimator, or Propheteer. The Stranger is one of the few whose active powers—assuming he has any, besides a seemingly preternatural instinct for knowing where shit is about to go down, and the useful ability to think his way out of a good, old-fashioned Doomsday Scenario better than most—were mostly undocumented. Most people think that other than the average eX-Norm’s strength and relative invulnerability, he doesn’t have any.


Maybe that’s so. He’s definitely a thinker, one of the last of that rare breed of eX-Norm that puts brawn to the service of brain, and not the other way around.


Dark, melancholy eyes tick back to mine, and the grin acquires hints of bitterness.


As if, after everything, he’s got right to be bitter!


His grey-gloved hand drifts to one of the two infamous black utility belts he wears crisscrossed like a gunslinger, and I take a step back. Pointless, really. When The Stranger makes up his mind someone needs dealing with, they’re as good as dealt. Just ask La Estraga. (Oh, wait, you can’t. She’s been mind-wiped, and incarcerated in a titanium-glass prison with electromagnetic binds and spirit-wards . . . just in case Necromancer decides to break in for some well-deserved revenge.)


In recent years, The Stranger’s not been known for being soft on criminals of any kind. Which means that if he’s decided I was in collusion with Alban, the best I can hope for is that there’s nothing left of me for the cops to scrape up and haul off to Harkman. I’d rather die than go back there.


I take another step backwards, arms curving over my stomach, and he takes a matching step forward, still grinning that eerie grin. He nods at the flowers.


“I brought you a present, cherie.” His dry, normally static voice cracks into something strained, something human, and fear grips me, like I’ve never felt before. This voice, the voice of whoever The Stranger is when he’s not meting out “justice,” was probably the last voice a lot of recent would-be super-villains and wannabes heard before they wound up in a Harkman cell or Potter’s Field.


“A present?” My voice is shaking like the rest of me, and I take another step back, just knowing he doesn’t really mean the flowers. More likely, he means a sound beat-down.



The grin slips a bit, and this time The Stranger stays put. I’m not reassured, though. He’s been notoriously running off the rails of sanity since . . . Jesus, probably since the La Estraga incident, so . . . more than six years?


God. It’s beginning to sink in how thoroughly fucked I may be. “A, um. A real present, or a present like your friend, Blind Justice, gave Alban?”


The Stranger winces, as if I scored a hit of some kind. I can’t imagine that I have.


“I would nevair … I’m not ‘ere to ‘urt you. Not ‘ere to take you to ‘Arkman for your … relationship with the Green Knight. Not ‘ere for vengeance. Or zhustice, whatevair that is anymore,” he says, and that last part is more to himself than to me, in that too-calm-and-cracking voice. I almost move closer. Almost. I dunno, maybe I twitch toward him, or something. Whatever I do, it causes him to focus on me again with eyes like four a.m. peeking out of the grey, overcast sky of mask and fedora.


Before I can blink, he’s taken something out of one his belt-pouches and tossed it at me. “Theenk fast, petite!”


This is still a measure of how readily and stupidly I trust anything in a costume—in this particular costume—that instead of dodging it, I make a grab for it. Catch it.


It’s a strangely tinted beaker that seems to thrum and pulse with a life of its own. The seal is fancy: some alloy that’s probably patented by GodTech or one of its subsidiaries. Inside, is what appears to be a fingernail-sized shaving of some mineral.


“What is this?” Though I know what it is even as I ask. There’s really only one thing it would be. I look to The Stranger for confirmation and get another smile, more wry and tired, than disquieting.


“A one-way treep to ‘Arkman Sanitorium for the Creeminally Unsound for us both. Or per’aps a firing squad,” The Stranger says, and that voice is getting more and more human by the second. It’s too soft, and too high, almost no hints of the ice-cold vigilante in it. He really is cracking up. Badly. “If the Coalition don’ simply ‘ave us dispatched while we await trial.”


I look at the beaker again. If I unfocus my eyes just a bit, I can see a faint, spectral glow around the mineral inside. Around the meteor fragment.


There was a time I would’ve killed my own father for a gift-wrapped dose of eX. Not too long ago, there was a time I nearly killed that spivey little shitheels Acrobat for it. But my own wishy-washy attack of conscience had stayed my hand and got me caught. Got me tossed onto Harkman Island, where the criminally unsound (but non-eX) can fare much worse than they would in any prison gen-pop. . . .


Nearly swept out to sea by rage red enough to have pulverized damn thing if it were made of regular glass and if I weren’t made of regular human, I only barely refrain from throwing it at his head. “How could you?” I ask around the scream welling up in me. “After Harkman, and what your precious Coalition of Great Justice friends did to Alban, how could you? How dare you, you heartless fraud?”


Surprise doesn’t sit well on eX-Norms. They’re so used to having the inside dope and the upper hand, that genuine surprise makes them look just as human and silly as a Norm.


“But I thought . . . you wanted—”


“What? To be another miserable eXtra-Normal? To be a hero, still? To be like you?” The Stranger flinches and I back up till my legs hit my secondhand couch, and sit. Recline, like a queen holding audience. Whether or not The Stranger ends me, there’s nothing left here to fear, least of all this caricature of so-called justice. “Think again, bright eyes! If I’d had any idea how cruel and corrupt—how inhuman you all were, I would never have wanted to be anything like you to begin with.”


“Neither would any of us,” he says softly. He sounds confused, hurt. Lost. Human. All the things no eX-Norm should ever sound like. My heart wants to go out to him. It’s purely a holdover from the good old days, when heroes were always honorable—especially this one, and I’d wanted nothing more than to fight crime by his side. “Lately, I’ve been askeeng myself if maybe . . . I’ve done all the good I can. Maybe there’s notheeng left for me but empty vengeance.”


“That’s deep water you’re treading there, sunshine.” I stop myself short of wholeheartedly agreeing with him. If The Stranger had once stood for rigid, impartial justice, now . . . well, no one (even he, apparently) doesn’t know what he stands for these days. Nor what any of the intermediate generations of eX-Norms stand for, other than increasingly merciless vigilantism. Even against the dissenters in their own ranks—everyone knows Lion of Cathay’s little “accident” was about as accidental as the Piedmont Wharfs Massacre of ‘03.


“So, you’re having a mid-life crisis, and you think I—what? Could, or would help you do the job you’ve been butchering for the last six years?” For a moment, rage threatens to take me someplace I’d hoped I’d left behind in Harkman . . . then I slump, deflated, nauseas, and more drained than angry.


Hadn’t Alban told me that the average eX-Norms—heroes, especially—were just as uncertain about life, the universe, and everything as the average Norm? More so, because many of them had these eXtras, and the crushing drive to do something with them. To be somebody.


That somebody isn’t always stable. And that something can and usually does become any damn fool thing they think they can get away with.


“There seem,” he’d mused, staring up at the cloudy moonlight coming in through the window of my one room apartment. (I was still on probation from Harkman, and he had recently escaped. Any hero or cop seeing us here, like this . . .  would mean life in Harkman for us both. Well, another life sentence for Alban, who’d racked up nearly as many of those as Moleculizer, and Doctor Od.)


In the corner, near my closet, his shield whirred and beeped to itself. Its perimeter scans continued to show negative, as they always would. Alban was careful to keep his work separate from our time together. The shield was a much lesser evil than the heroes or even the cops getting the drop on us.


“There seem to be only two options for even the most talented and focused among us: Marvel or Menace. Avenging angel or ruthless profiteer. Preserver or Destroyer.”


“And which are you?” I’d asked seriously, walking my fingers through his silvering chest hair, lingering over a strong heartbeat. He’d looked at me and smiled, cool and aloof as usual . . . a little sad, a little bitter. His was the look of a man who had lots of reasons to be sad and bitter, who knew life wasn’t about to stop giving him more, but still found reasons to smile.


(I understood, then, that I was one of those reasons. It was the best moment of my life . . . even knowing what I know now.)


“Can’t you guess, my lovely friend?” Alban often slipped into mentor mode when we were together. I certainly hadn’t expected things to change just because we’d just finished swapping bodily fluids for the first time.


“I’d guess . . . you’re a little bit of both. And worlds more, besides.” It was the first thing to pop into my head, and so came spilling out of my mouth. But for once, it worked in my favor. His eyes got that tender, if melancholy look I’d come to see more and more often, as time went on, but when he kissed me, it was slow, and perfect. . . .



God, I’m such a fool.


“. . . maybe someone like you should be you out there. Maybe . . . I don’ know. I don’ want it to be just me out there. Fighteeng alone. Always in the dark, always alone,” The Stranger says, jarring me out of memory tar-trap. I look up at him . . . lost, broken . . . dead, but still going through the motions. Like all of us do.


He has the nerve to discover self-doubt, and possibly even the beginnings of a proto-conscience, far too late to do me any good. “You’ve got brass ones, you know that, Stranger? And this—” I hold up my hand—the hand with the beaker still thrumming in it—and rub my first finger and thumb together, smirking. The hero has been brought low, and I’m delivering the fuck you I’ve been waiting to give for six years. It’s a hollow victory, but I do my best to savor it. “This is what I think about your little pity-party, okay? So just take your angst, and shove it right up your—”


Suddenly, The Stranger is right here, and I’m being hauled out of the couch by both arms. His grip is like a velvet vise, and my feet are several inches off the ground. The beaker falls out of my nerveless, sweaty fingers, and even though I struggle . . . I’m not going anywhere.


“Thees ees no joking matter,” he says, all thunderclap voice and thundercloud eyes. He smells like the rainy night outside my window, like wet wool, like licorice. I’ve only been this close to him once before—not that I’d been able to notice many details, what with having just been slammed into a brick wall hard enough to nearly lose consciousness—but he’d smelled like sweat and blood, then. Like chemicals.


Like maybe he hadn’t bathed in the several days since the explosion in La Estraga’s lair… .


I want nothing more than to laugh in his face, but his eyes are too harried, too haunted. I’m too tired, too sad to get any enjoyment from someone else’s pain. “Put me down and get out. I don’t wanna be your fucking comic relief anymore.” And it’s true. Recently, life hasn’t left much room for anything that isn’t grieving, and keeping below the radar. Surviving. Deciding what to do about Alban’s unexpected legacy.


Right on cue, the oddly random nausea I’ve been getting for the past three weeks—usually in the evening, not the morning; in this, too, I’m bass-ackward—rolls over me like a spew-tsunami. I close my eyes, breathing heavily in and out, praying for control. Who knows what this psycho would do to me if I puked on him?


Suddenly, my feet touch the floor, and when The Stranger lets go of me, I fold onto the couch like crumpled origami, legs tucked under me. I want to curl into a ball and cry. I want to squinch my eyes shut, then open them and find him gone. I want Alban’s arms around me, and his voice in my ear . . . but I settle for wrapping my own arms around myself. Rocking doesn’t help the queasies, but I’m rocking anyway. “Please, just go. If you’re not gonna arrest me, or kill me, stop tormenting me and just go, okay?”


The couch creaks as The Stranger sits next to me. I look up warily, but he’s not looking at me. His hands are on his knees, and he’s looking out at the rainy night, his profile a grim, granite aquiline. “’Will you keep the Green Knight’s child?” he asks, and. . . .


Oh . . . God. Oh, fuck. Oh, God.


I squirm into the corner of my couch, nausea forgotten, suddenly cold and shivering. I’m afraid again, but not for myself. “How did you know?” And what are you going to do about it?


A jerky twitch, as if he’s uncomfortable. Miserable. “Your arms ‘ave been wrap aroun’ your stomach since you come out ‘ere. You . . . move deefferently—”


“You know how I move?” The shivers increase, and The Stranger looks at me. He smiles wanly, as if I’m some particularly perplexing logic puzzle.


“I know a lot of things about you.”


“Is that a threat?”


“Merely a fact, petite.” The smile widens, before disappearing entirely. “Look, I don’ know what the deefference in ‘ow you move signifies till I see you doing that.” He nods at me, and I realize I have my arms wrapped around my middle again. I almost stop, but—hell, now that the cat’s out of the bag, what’s the point? I feel like I can use all the comfort I can get, and this poor kid . . . barely two months into his existence, and he’s already a crutch for his loser parent.


“Fair enough. And to answer your question, yes, I’m keeping Alban’s child.” It’s a pointed reminder that whatever else he was to the world—anarchist, guerilla, terrorist, and yes, ruthless supervillain—the Green Knight was also a man, and though he didn’t know it, a father.


The Stranger looks briefly determined, as if gearing himself up for a particularly difficult discussion. Too late. “When ‘e try to destroy GodTech Plaza . . . did ‘e know you were there? Did ‘e know you were with child?”


Okay. It’s not the discussion I expect, and probably not one The Stranger wants to have. And he probably already knows the answer his questions, just as I do. Of course Alban knew I’d be in the GodTower, at ten a.m. on a Wednesday morning. It simply hadn’t mattered to him. I hadn’t mattered to him, at least not more than his ideology. Knowing I was pregnant—if he knew—would’ve changed fuck-all.


“He was an eX-Norm. Who knows what he knew, and when he knew it?” The night we conceived was the first time I’d seen Alban in eight months—the last time I saw him alive—and absence aside … it’d been intense. After he left, I’d tried unsuccessfully to banish the certainty that that night might be our last together whether or not he succeeded. We both knew he was planning something very, very big. “If he knew, he didn’t tell me. He also didn’t let me in on any of his . . . surprises. If he had, you can bet I’d have called out sick that day!”


I’m a little too strident and The Stranger winces. No stomach for gallows humor? There’s a shocker. “I didn’t want to know what he was doing. Not talking shop while we were together was an unspoken rule we both followed. The fact is, if I’d known what he was planning to do, even had an inkling . . . I woulda dropped a dime on him, and he knew it.”



“If I’d ever thought otherwise, I wouldn’t be ‘ere, now,” The Stranger looks up at me as he says this, charged and intent. There’s a quick glance at my stomach, which won’t show for couple months at least, then back up to my eyes. Something in the unforgiving lines of face and mask seem to soften, even as they grow more melancholy. “Are you . . . alright? Your ‘ealth, your financez—”


“Do you care?”


Flash of something in those changeable eyes that might be annoyance. “I am askeeng, am I not?”


I snort. “You never gave a damn about me before. Why start now?”


He opens his mouth to reply, then shuts it. Looks away, back out my window. “I don’t know,” he says flatly, and it feels like the least honest thing he’s said since he broke into my apartment. “Maybe I’m tryeeng to right past wrongs.”


“Now there’s a laugh and a half! You had your chance to guide and mentor me, Billy-Jack. Remember?” I can tell from the way his lips twist that he does. I wasn’t sure he would. Not as well as I remember it. Each hurtful, humiliating moment stands out as bright and fresh as if it’d happened yesterday. “If you didn’t care then, why would you care now?”



“I ‘ave no answers for you, Crims—”



“Not good enough.” I have to fight hard not to slug him, knowing full well I’d probably only break my hand. “And I’m not Crimson Casey anymore. Haven’t been since I got outta Harkman. I’m just another ex-con keeping my head down and trying to get along.”


The Stranger flinches again. Curious. And curiouser: the way he’s not meeting my eyes. Maybe he does feel guilty about the way things shook out. “Eet was my fault you were in there. I accept that—”


“Don’t flatter yourself, Giggles, you didn’t ‘turn me bad.’ I was unstable, and looking for bottom. For trouble, and for once I found what I was looking for.” Not surprisingly, I was as lame a villain as I was a sidekick. I got sucked into Mistress De’Ath’s gang, and there was no way I’d have gotten out alive if not for this hunk of contradictions on my couch. Having failed Mistress several times already, no doubt trying to kill her then favorite, Acrobat, was the final straw. Mistress wasn’t known for her swell retirement package, if you follow me. The bodies of her former flunkies had an uncanny way of turning up in odd places . . . in odd pieces.


In the hate-haze of the moments before The Stranger had body-checked me, I remember pummeling Acrobat till my fists were bruised, swollen and bloody—though not all of it was hers.


Acrobat’s formerly pretty face was practically hamburger, and I was a quick Coalition of Great Justice Tribunal away from a three year vacation in Harkman. . . .


Though there are times I almost believe otherwise, Harkman is probably at least one step better than dead. People come back from Harkman. Changed. Broken. Sometimes wrong. But they come back.


No one comes back from the dead. Not even in this day and age. Not for the ReAnimator’s lack of trying.


So I offer The Stranger a mock toast with an imaginary beer stein. “Either Mistress would’ve killed me, or one of the other eX-Norms in her gang would’ve played hacky-sack with my organs. You catching me was the best thing that could’ve happened to me, at that point.”


“At that point, yes. But eef not for the way I be’ave after we catch La Estraga … eef I’d cared then, neither of us would be where we are, now.”


And I’d never have gone to Harkman, and never have met Alban. I’d probably have got my stupid ass killed years ago, trying to fight the good fight. That’s assuming I didn’t become an eX-Norm. If I had I’d probably still have died or wound up in Harkman, anyway. “I’d be worse off than I am now. Some people aren’t meant to be more than Human.”


“That’s . . . a possibility. The powairs change you. Make you both more an’ less than you evair thought you could be,” The Stranger says heavily, and that kind of weary defeat in the voice of someone I’d loved and hated, idealized and demonized—the person who’d saved my life a handful of times that I know of, and was partly responsible for the death of my friend, my lover, my would-be murderer, and the father of my unborn child—is disturbing. But not as disturbing as the intensity of his voice as he leans closer, his eyes shining with what I hope aren’t tears. “I nevair meant for any of this to ‘appen to you, an’ I don’t know ‘ow to make things right. . . .”


My fear and anger have been dissolving, turning to something that’s almost pity. Pity for the broken avenging angel on my couch. “Don’t you get it? There is no making things right. This, here and now, is the best of all possible worlds for me, and even if it isn’t, it’s the only world I’ve got. Maybe that sucks. But that’s the way it is.”


I watch as he covers his face with gloved hands and don’t know what to do, how to feel. I can’t tell if he’s weeping—not sure I want to know. I reach out, and after a moment, let my hand settle slowly, lightly on his shoulder. Sometimes Extra-Normals, especially the heroes, have violent instinctive responses when touched unexpectedly.


But The Stranger’s response is neither the expected violent one, nor the sincerely-hoped-against sobbing one. He merely shudders, like an old jalopy, and groans.


It’s pathetic. The only thing more pathetic, is me sidling closer to put my arm around him. His cape is cool and damp . . . ridiculously soft. The way I used to imagine his hair—whatever color it was—felt underneath the scarf and fedora.


The infamous fedora that I’m now pushing off. He makes no move to stop me, but another deep shudder shakes him. He mutters something in French that sounds regretful and self-mocking: “Si je pouvais vous donner en retour de votre innocence, je le ferais. Je voudrais protégeret je vous aime jusqu'à mon dernier souffle.


I lay my hand on his head—the scarf is silk, sweat-dampened. He turns toward me fast—Extra-fast—and hugs me close, his face pressed against my hair. That rain-and-licorice smell engulfs me, and I’m forced backwards in time, to the worst moment of my life. . . .


The City’s chief crime fighter and symbol of justice—The Stranger’s dark, steely gaze pins his would-be sidekick as surely as his hands pin her arms. Crumbly bits of wet brick dig into the would-be’s handmade, violently crimson vinyl-and-spandex costume.


“For the last time, I don’ need a sidekick, nor do I want one!” The Stranger growls, gravel-voiced and angry. “
Go ‘ome, leetle girl. This city . . . she don’ need anothair powairrless van-girl like you, runneeng aroun’, cauzeeng as much trouble as you get eento!”


“But I—” Crimson Casey’s mewling is cut short by a wracking cough. In the week since the La Estraga incident, her (attempted) tracking of The Stranger has been stepped up to nightly, rain, sleet, or snow. Out of a silly conviction that if they worked together well enough to bring down La Estraga then maybe they’d work well together in other capers. Catch other super-villains, such as—


“The Non-Denominator!” Crimson Casey coughs out around pained breaths that taste of salty blood. This coughing will shortly become a life-threatening case of pneumonia. “He’s just escaped from Harkman, again! I—I thought that together we could—”


“There is no ‘we!’ Get that through your crazy leetle skull!” The Stranger’s thin lips curl in a formidable sneer. “There nevair weel be a ‘we.’ I work alone, an’ even if I deedn’t, I wouldn’t work with you. Leave me be, or I make you sorry!”


“But—but I helped you!” Crimson Casey whines incredulously, dangling from The Stranger’s negligent grip like a frightened, wet rodent. The finger-shaped bruises on her biceps will be weeks going away. “I was the one who discovered who La Estraga really was! I was the one that risked life and limb and job security to make sure the truth got into the right hands!”


The truth . . . that Miranda Baxter, heir to the Baxter Publishing Empire, and chief editor of The National Gazette was pure evil. That this close, personal friend of potentates and prime ministers, this head of the Sullivan Committee, and a dozen other major charities was as heartless as they come. That this figurative—and literal, it turns out—superwoman who always got what she aimed for, from Pulitzer prizes, to the hand of up-and-coming entrepreneuse Dominique Godineau . . . was a walking plague, intent on killing the world to rebuild it in her image.


This erstwhile employer of one Cassandra Reineke—part-time stringer for the Gazette’s Local Beat and contributor to the online Gazette’s Marvel-Beat blog—was sheer venom of the muckiest water.


“Stumble upon the truth, as I recall. Would ‘ave died when she realize you knew, eef I ‘adn’t saved your ass—something I’m beginneeng to deeply regret.” Cracking, contemptuous voice and a sneer of distaste—partially shadowed by wet fedora as The Stranger glances away for a moment. Then spiteful, glittering eyes once again pin Crimson Casey, who suddenly has the strong, but impossible sense that the city’s favorite eX-Norm is this close to committing murder. “You’re notheeng but trouble. Do the world a favor an’ get a day job.”


The Stranger lets Crimson Casey slide down the wall, to the wet ground like trash. He quite indifferently watches the struggle for breath, for words. For dignity . . . the doomed attempt to rescue a pathetic, stupid, homemade spandex costume in shiny, disco-ball red from mud and dead leaves and garbage.


He watches Crimson Casey fail epically at life for neither the first, nor the last time.


“Please, I just wanted to help you—that’s all I ever wanted!” the clueless, not-so-intrepid sidekick says brokenly, a sodden, protean puddle at the feet of her idol.


Yet was this not expected? Isn’t this how it always ends, eventually? In failure and humiliation?


Hasn’t life taught her that, above anything else?


Crimson Casey is wrapped around in a luxuriant sense of hopelessness, misery, and death-deep despair as she realizes the person she’s looked up to for years . . . wants her dead. This person who’s dedicated his life to preserving life would take hers, if he could.


After an eternity, The Stranger whirls around and strides out of the rain-swept alley, cape flapping and throwing shadows in the stark flashes between thunderings. . . .




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