JUSTICE LEAGUE

46

Rookie
 

“Violet? Violet?” Xiao. She was nearby. But where was nearby?

“You gave us quite a scare, Victoria.” Another voice, older, male.

“Violet. Not Victoria,” Violet murmured, opening her eyes. It was very bright in the room. Violet realized she must have been taken to the hospital. Her memory of the last few hours was fuzzy in her mind. She shifted in the bed, and found there was a dull throbbing in her shoulder.

“Of course, Violet,” the second voice said. It was a doctor, probably about forty years old. Beside him stood Ari, and the man that Violet had run into. On the other side of the bed were two cops. The one closet to Violet was a woman with blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. The man was slightly older than her, with dark hair and a mustache.

“Good, she’s awake!” the man exclaimed. He was younger than the doctor, probably only twenty-five or six. “You tell them!” he nodded towards the police officers. “You tell them it was an accident.”

“Please, Mr. Carson, Victoria is injured,” the doctor said.

“No,” Violet mumbled. “It’s okay. It was an accident.”

“He was aiming for Godzilla,” Ari said. The female cop leaned over to whisper something to her partner. He grunted and nodded his head.

Oh no. The Monster. Violet had caused that. It was probably all over the news. What would that do to JL? KJOS and the like were already calling them Satan-worshippers and necromancers because of her return-and now this?

“We will be back later this evening to speak with Miss Grahm,” the first officer said. Her partner was silent, and the two left the room without another word. The young man followed them.

“I’ll leave you two, but she needs to rest,” the doctor said, also moving to exit. Violet waited till he was gone before she spoke.

“What happened?” she asked Ari. “How many people were injured? Where's Neo-Llama?"

“Thirteen injuries, two are serious-that’s including you-but no one was killed,” she said. “The bullet missed anything important, but Dr. Clooney says you should stay in the hospital for a few days, at least. And Fred, Jr., is outside. They wouldn't let him in the building.” She said the last sentence with a slight sigh.

Violet snorted. “At least the drugs mean no nightmares,” she murmured.

“What?”

“I can’t stay here.” Ari raised one eyebrow.

“You’ve gone nuts, Violet, you really have.”

“No!" she blurted. Catching herself, Violet covered her mouth with her hand. She softened her voice and continued, "I'm fine."

Ari rolled her eyes. “Go to bed. I’ll call the Hall.”

***

Scarlett picked up the phone as it rang from the kitchen. "Hello?"

"Scarlett! Hey. We're in the hospital. Do you think you could come pick us up before the paparazzi find out we're here?"

"You and who?"

"Violet. We...there was a really bad scene in Chinatown."

"I'm on my way."

***

Cornered in the hallway, Jo looked at his grandmother. "You didn't have dreadlocks at Eve's wedding, Granny."

"And you were still a Mormon," she pointed out.

"No. I was already sneaking out to coffee shops at night."

"Pretending to be a Mormon, then. You always were my favorite grandchild."

Jo smiled.

"And the dreadlocks are just a temporary wig. To perpetuate the California freak myth. You know I'm not that granola."

"Granny, granola...it's not a huge leap." He flashed the grin again.

"Sofie, dammit, Joseph."

"Jo."

"Your name is Joseph. And why aren't you wearing the shirt I sent you? Why are you shirtless?"

"I sent you that picture with me wearing the shirt."

"I got the picture, but did you just wear it for that and throw it away?"

"Maybe."

"There are naked children in Africa who'd appreciate a decent t-shirt. Hell, there's a naked kid in this building, why didn't you give him the shirt?"

Jo sighed, resting his head against Barbara Ann. It just wasn't worth the argument. He still wondered how his parents, misguided as they were, stood up to her. One of the few things he still admired about them.

Sofie looked him in the eye. "Look, Joseph, I didn't come to berate you about not wearing a shirt. The City obviously doesn't have public nudity ordinances, so go naked as a jay bird if you want. I don't care."

Jo broke her gaze, turning to the left. The laundry chute was to the left. He could hear rumbling sounds coming from the laundry room in the basement.

"Joseph," she said, stepping in front of where he was staring, forcing him to look at her. "You need to come back home. Wendy and your father don't listen to me; I'm just another senile environmentalist to them."

"They're not going to listen to me. We don't have the Good Vibrations thing going on anymore."

"You're their son."

"Their gay son. Who is no longer a Mormon. "

Sofie stared at Jo. "Gay?" she said with a raised eyebrow. "What about that gir--"

"Gay."

"As in..."

"Capital H-O-M--"

"Oh."

In spite of himself, Jo smiled again. "Exactly."

"Do they know?"

"It doesn't matter. The day I left they washed their hands of me. You know that."

"True." Sofie looked down the hallway as someone walked by. She still hadn't met that X-Raytor kid. Or the one that made those Oreos. She wanted to talk with that girl--she had a couple of dessert recipes to swap with her. "You could still try."

"No."

"You haven't been to Orlandon in ages, though. They could have changed."

"Like you?"

"Hell no!" Sofie said with a laugh, dreadlocks bouncing.

"If Papa could see you now."

"He'd have another fatal heart attack."

"And so the mystery of his death is solved. It was dreadlocks all along."

"He never was a fan of dreadlocks. But I think they're quite the fashion statement. The fake ones, at least; the real thing is just too gross."

"Dude. I couldn't do dreadlocks."

"Wimp. Are you sure you won't come?" Jo's grandmother asked.

"Not coming."

"I'm leaving without you then."

"How much longer will you be around?"

"Until I get thrown out, and then I'm going for my last ditch effort with your parents."

"Good luck."

"You'd be smarter not wishing me luck. If they won't see reason, I'm splitting my estate between you and Elisha."

"I meant about getting thrown out. Put on a costume, tell them you're street smart, and you're a card-carrying member until you get killed off. They could call you LOL. For Little Old Lady."

"And that's how you got in?"

"Nope. Some of us actually have superpowers."

"Didn't know my grandson was such a pompous ass," she said. "Good to see you inherited one of my better qualities." She winked and headed for the nearest set of stairs, in search of the few Justice Leaguers she hadn't pissed off or at least confused yet.

***

“So, what can you do?” Pinzz asked.

Julian was standing in the Hall of Justice’s backyard, and the entire Justice League stood in a semi-circle around him. It was so surreal-he had passed the Hall of Justice dozens of times, whenever his high school, Alexandria, had a game at Hugo Danner High’s field, a little ways into Geauga County. From the bus window, he could always see the large marble building, majestic against the green forests and lawn. It was like something directly out of that mountain of the Greek gods, whatever it was called. Olympo? Something like that. Didn’t matter.

His bitch of an aunt lived in Geauga County, too. The bitch of an aunt who he was supposed to be living with now. Not like she cared that he hadn’t been home for days.

“Hello?” Pinzz said.

Julian came out of his daze. “Huh?”

“What-can-you-do?” Pinzz asked again. The other night, when X-Raytor had first brought him to the Hall, she’d come downstairs wearing an oversized t-shirt and sweat pants. The t-shirt was wrinkled and hung down to about her knees. The shirt’s neck had hung down, and he could see her right collarbone. Her blond hair had been matted and messy. Now she was in her suit, her blue, form fitting suit, which covered her like a second skin. For whatever reason, her hair had become auburn, and very straight.

“Well, um, I’ve got this thing,” Julian said. “This thing where… well, I focus. And when I focus I can-I can sort of feel this…” he searched for the right word. “This… ball, like this energy ball right above my diaphragm. And then if I-“

“Could you show us?” It was one of the other girls, this one around his age, with long black hair. She looked like an extra from The Matrix, wearing a black trench coat, sunglasses, and black everything else. She’d probably look pretty hot with two Uzis. Yeah, he could see that. Netic, that was her name.

He was pretty sure he had all of their names down by now, which was good since he hadn’t really hung out with anyone aside from X-Raytor. Everyone else seemed to be too busy with other stuff.

“Yeah, sure,” Julian said. “Uh, you might want to back up.”

The Justice Leaguers backed up, and Julian took a deep breath.

“Okay, I focus…” he said. He closed his eyes, and focused on the area just above his diaphragm. A moment later, he felt a familiar, trembling ball, about the size of a tennis ball, form.

“I focus…” he said.

He felt the ball, and started to squeeze. It fought back, but he had complete control, and squeezed harder. The ball shrunk slightly, and a smile leapt to his face. He squeezed again, and now he could feel an equally familiar tingling below his waist. He could have squeezed it and squeezed the ball until it was the size of a dime, but he only wanted to make it slightly smaller. He held it for a moment, and then let go.

Julian exploded. Or, more accurately, an explosion erupted from him, a booming shockwave that knocked all of the Justice Leaguers back a few steps. The ground where Julian was standing suddenly had a swallow bowl punched into it.

“Okay…” Twisk said, after a few seconds. “What was that?”

“Well, uh,” Julian said. “It’s, like, I’ve got something inside me, and then I squeeze it a little or a lot, and then-well, then it explodes.” He thought for a moment, and then smiled. “Like- like I’m a bomb, or something.”

“You can generate shockwaves,” Drew said.

“Uh, yeah, guess so,” Julian said.

“You said it’s like-what did you say, a ball?” Drew said. “So, I guess the shockwave comes out in a spherical shape. So, like, say, if you were inside a cube or something, you’d be able to blow all six walls away. And you said you can control the size?”

“Yeah,” Julian said. “And the strength, too, depending on how hard I squeeze it.”

“How many times have you done this before, exactly?” Drew asked. She was in her scientist mode now, eyes narrow and shrewd.

“Just, uh, just a few times,” Julian said. “Um, I actually, uh, used it a few times I baseball games.”

Silence.

“See, uh, with a strong enough blast, I can sort of pop myself into the air a little. I used it to break my fall once, too, when I fell off the bleachers,” Julian said. “And, like, there’s been a few fly balls that were over my head, and I-I really need a baseball scholarship to get into college, so…”

He paused, and then laughed. “Of course, I guess I won’t be going to college now…”

***

“… explosion, which killed six people at a bar on the waterfront. As of this time, no autopsy report has been released, nor has any definite statement been made as to the weaponry used in the attack, possible motives, or suspects. The only response from the police department was this statement made earlier today…”

The screen faded to a tall man with dark hair and pronounced sideburns. He was wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie. The words “DETECTIVE DAVID PRICE” and “HOMICIDE 55th” appeared beneath him.

“We cannot release any additional information as of this time,” he said. “But we are asking for anyone who saw anything on the night of the explosion which might help the investigation to please come forward.”

X-Raytor grimaced. He’d stayed inside while the others went out back to see Julian display his powers. And, besides, he wanted to try out the League’s new flat screen TV. He’d initially felt guilty about buying it, especially after paying Fred Seppanen his settlement two weeks ago. It had been a tense, brief meeting in the city courthouse that had consisted of X-Raytor and Rosma being glared at a lot as they forked over the money and eventually left. But after Scarlett had suggested that they replace the broken one with his TV, he relented. He was considering laying mines around his TV and TiVo.

Besides, he’d seen Julian’s powers already. Julian had shown him on their way back to the Hall (which had totally not helped with the low profile that X-Raytor was trying to keep, especially since the blast blew out the windows of a Dunkin’ Donuts), though it was also possible that he’d gotten a demonstration of Julian’s powers down at the docks.

An explosion with no fire. Julian floating in the water. Even X-Raytor wasn’t deluded enough to not put that together.

But that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Even if Julian had done it, it didn’t mean he was a bad kid. When X-Raytor first developed his powers he’d mutated his family, almost a dozen girls at school, and one other idiot-and created (at last count) exactly three super villains, even if he only had ever faced two. And who knew about the rest? Maybe they were dead. Some of them were alive-he’d gathered that from the M.O.R.P.H.Z. agents, but all of them? He doubted it.

So, really, who was he to judge if Julian had accidentally blown up? He didn’t find Julian being outside a bar that suspicious either-X-Raytor had, himself, snuck out to a dockland bar once as a teenager. Of course, he’d been trying to get a free show at the strip bar with his newfound x-ray vision, but that was a different story. Besides, Julian seemed to be a pretty good kid. At least, he had better be, because if he wasn’t…

If he wasn’t, then X-Raytor would catch all the flak for taking him from the crime scene. Pinzz had already ripped him a new one about it the night he brought Julian home, and if things weren’t the way they were now, she’d probably have made him turn Julian in. But she hadn’t, and now Julian was here to stay, and he was, like so many things, X-Raytor’s responsibility.

“In other news, renowned Chicago crime fighter Silver Falcon publicly supported the Justice League during a press conference this afternoon, and caused a stir when he announced his desire to form a group similar to the Justice League.”

The screen changed again, this time to a man wearing a sharp silver mask vaguely shaped like the head of a bird of prey, with a sharp iron beak, black armor with silver trim, and a black cape. He was standing on the steps of Chicago’s city hall.

“I think that the Justice League has done an excellent job in the City,” the Silver Falcon said. “Their concentrated efforts have yielded major victories in the war on crime, and especially super crime. I hope that, by June of this year, to have gathered a similar crime fighting force to protect Chicago, the state of Illinois, and the surrounding area.”

X-Raytor stretched, and wondered why he was supposed to care. He didn’t have a problem with the Silver Falcon or anything-there were lots of small-name super heroes like him all over the US. Small-name being the operative phrase there-none of them really did much. You never heard about the battling Nlaarg fleets, for example. Of course, maybe that was because they didn’t get any news coverage. For example, X-Raytor thought he remembered hearing, a year or so ago, that Firehop had started a solo career in Sacramento. But he’d heard exactly squat about that afterwards. He’d only ever heard of the Silver Falcon three or four times before.

“… wealthy foreign businessman was found dead by his associates this morning. The man died from an apparently suicidal gunshot wound to the head. And in a Marble Gardens’ Borders, six were injured in a fight between fans of the two rival bestsellers The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and Man and the Super Man: A Discourse on Super Hero Psychology by Dr. John Lansky, PhD…”

X-Raytor’s grip tightened on the armrests. Don’t worry about it, he told himself. The bastard will get his soon enough. He’d listened to Raven’s tape, and it had been an experience, to say the least.

I always knew he was nuts! I mean, what sort of sane person ties you to a chair and makes you watch Richard Simmons porn?! What sort of person does that?! Oh, and he used to say that I was whiny and irresponsible and melodramatic and I had a crush on Oreo Avenger! What a nut!!

“Hey, X-Raytor!”

X-Raytor looked over his shoulder to see Claire, who was grinning widely.

“Oh, uh, hey… Claire…”

“Hey!”

He glanced down at her hands-no action figures, no photos, no copies of his June 2001 appearance on the cover of Fourteen. Which meant that the only possible thing that she could have for him to sign would be herself. Which, oddly enough, would be legal, but Oreo would probably rip his arms off.

“Um… why aren’t you watching Julian?”

“I saw him through the window,” Claire said dismissively. “He actually sorta cracked my window. So, what are you doing?”

“Um, watching the news?”

“Okay,” she said. “… Anything good?”

“Not particularly…”

“Oh, okay.”

She sat down in one of the La-Z-Boys, and looked at him, hands folded in her lap.

“Oh, fine,” X-Raytor said. “Go ahead.”

“Thanks! Okay, so, you know that EconoCleaner commercial you were in-that was really you, right?”

“That was really me.”

“Okay, so, were you really shooting the lasers or was that just special effects?”

“Well, uh, both,” X-Raytor said. Originally I just did it on my own, but I accidentally sort of burned down one of the sets, and they figured it would just be cheaper to sort of CGI-tweak some news footage.”

“That’s awesome!”

“I guess?”

“And that time you were fighting the Green Penguin-that second time? Did you seriously jump off the bridge?”

“Yep.”

“That’s amazing!” She said. “And you can’t fly or anything, but you jumped down after-what’s her name?”

“Cara.”

“Cara!” Claire snapped her fingers. “Fi. Right.”

There’s was a brief silence.

“Anything else?” X-Raytor asked.

“Okay, well, there is one thing,” Claire said. “I hope you don’t mind me asking this, but, um… did my sister really turn you into a girl?”

Silence.

“Uh…”

“I mean, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to!” Claire said, putting her hands up placatingly. “I was just curious…”

Another long silence, and then. “Yeah.”

Claire blinked.

“Once!” X-Raytor said. “And I didn’t enjoy it! At all! Not even a little! Really!”

Claire’s face went bright red. “I am so sorry…”

“No, no, I deserved it,” X-Raytor said. “Your sister never force feeds me an Oreo unless I really deserve it. Well, except for that one time. I mean, my hand slipped! Honest! She totally overreacted.”

Claire’s flush started to fade, and she raised an eyebrow.

“No, really.” X-Raytor said. “Really!”

“X-y!” Pinzz said, walking in through the kitchen.

“Yeah?” X-Raytor said, glad to change the subject.

“Let’s go. You’re taking the new boy out dayhawking.”

“Well, see, I was going to-“

“No.” Pinzz said. “You weren’t. You brought him here, you show him the ropes.”

“Fine, fine,” X-Raytor said, standing up. He glanced over at Claire. “Want to come?”

“Er, no,” she said, putting out her hands. “I’m not a super hero.”

“Right, right, sorry,” X-Raytor said.

“If you need a third, take Violet,” Pinzz said. “She’s sort of rusty.”

X-Raytor frowned slightly. He was hanging out with Violet more now, and things were almost like old times. But, still, there was the unavoidable fact that Violet had died and then come back. To say that he was freaked out beyond all rational thought would be an understatement.

“Okay, sure,” X-Raytor said. “Where’s Julian?”

“Right here.” Julian appeared in the doorway next to Pinzz. He looked at her, only half turning his head, and then took a few awkward steps to the side. Pinzz didn’t seem to take any notice.

“What’s up?” He asked. The few days he’d spent at the Hall had been good for him-when X-Raytor had first met him, Julian had been wet and pale and looking like he was suffering the world’s worst hangover. Now his black hair, which hung over his forehead in bangs, had been washed and combed. The bags under his eyes had all but disappeared, and he was actually smiling. That said, X-Raytor found his smile somewhat obnoxious-it was both too eager and too cocky. But that was just a little thing.

“We’re going dayhawking,” X-Raytor said.

“Is that code?” Julian asked. “That mean we’re on patrol?”

“That means that we are on patrol,” X-Raytor said, stretching.

“Sweet!” Julian said. “Just like in the CIA or something! Y’know, Black Ops! Special Forces!”

“Er, yeah,” X-Raytor said.

“Like on Alias.”

“Yeah.” Out of the corner of his eye, X-Raytor saw Claire grimace, like she was thinking “Oh boy…”

Julian looked from X-Raytor to Pinzz, and when he saw that she was picking at her nails and not paying attention, he sunk a little.

“So, should I go put my costume on?” Julian asked.

“You have a costume?”

“I made it last weekend,” he said. “So…”

“Uh, yeah, okay,” X-Raytor said.

As he headed upstairs, the news continued, unnoticed.

“… officials deny allegations that the two recent deaths in the Pentagon occurred during a security breach. The word from Washington is that national security is better than it has ever been post-9/11, though the Terror Alert still remains at Orange…”

***

In the room that he shared with Right Wing Man, Julian quickly slipped into a gray jumpsuit with black trim. Snapping the plastic buckles together, he attached metal plates to his shoulders, over his chest, and a triangular one over his groin. He put on a pair of heavy, stylized gray gloves, and all that remained was the helmet. It sat on the bed, steel and conical, like a bullet, with a red-tinted glass plate over the front. When he placed it over his head, the glass plate covered his face down to his chin, the color of the glass distorting his face. A few moments later, he stood at the bottom of the main staircase.

“Snooch to the nooch, motherf***ers.” He said, and struck a pose.

This was met with a distinct silence. Finally, X-Raytor said, “Cool helmet. You make it?”

“F*** yeah!” Julian said. “What’s-her-name let me use her workshop.”

“Drew,” Violet said, who had joined them at the stairs. Scarlett had brought her home from the hospital and she was now fully recovered. Physically, at least.

“Yeah, her,” Julian said, not looking at Violet. “We gonna go?”

“One thing,” X-Raytor said. “You need a name. I mean, a super hero name. We can’t keep calling you ‘Julian.’”

“Well, I was thinking about this,” Julian said. “And I think the best one would be… Warhead.”

X-Raytor and Violet exchanged glances.

“That might not be the best one to go with,” Violet said.

“Why not?” Julian asked, eyes narrowed.

“Well, see, it’s not exactly…” she looked at X-Raytor.

He sighed. “It’s-you know how we’re getting a lot of bad publicity now…”

“Oh, come on!!”

“It sucks, I know, but-“

“Come on!!”

“Listen,” X-Raytor said, feeling slightly annoyed. “Things are bad enough as it is. I’m not asking you to pull a horse out of your bellybutton here, just pick a more PC name.”

“You guys are such pussies…” Julian mumbled.

“Hey, if I could make things better, I would,” X-Raytor said. “Now, come on, just pick a new name.”

“Dude, this is bull!”

“Come on, we need to go,” Violet said. “Just pick something quick, you can change it later.”

An uncomfortable silence. Julian folded his arms over his chest.

“How about Quake?”

“That’s a stupid name,” Julian said, still not looking at her.

“For today,” X-Raytor said. “For today, just be Quake. Okay? Cool?”

Another long pause, and then Julian said, “Fine.”

“Good,” Violet said. “Let’s go!”

***

“Mr. Chavez.”

Hank Chavez, who had been, until a few days ago, the bartender and proprietor of the Cargo Hold, looked up from his hospital bed. Two people had just walked into his room. The one who had spoken, a short black woman with shoulder length hair, walking all the way into the room while the other, a tall white man with dark hair and sideburns, closed the door behind them.

“I’m Detective Sarah Tyler, this is Detective David Price,” she said, and they presented their badges. “We’re with homicide. We’d like to ask you a few questions about the night your bar was destroyed, if you’re feeling up to it.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Hank said, sitting up. “I’m pretty much over the thing now. Just a little achy.”

“Good to hear,” Detective Price said. He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and sort of hunkered down. “Mr. Chavez, what can you tell us about the other night?”

Hank shrugged. “Just like a regular night, nothin’ special. There were some rowdies, but you always get your share of those. Until it happened, I’d say it was a pretty normal night.”

“No offense,” Detective Tyler said. “But you don’t seem very broken up about the whole thing.”

“I’m not a very emotional person, ma’am,” Hank said. “And I’m feeling sorta… I don’t know, blocked.”

“You might just still be in shock,” she said.

“Do you remember what happened right before the explosion?” Detective Price asked.

“Nothin’ outtada ordinary,” he said. “It was just a little after Big Rick left…”

“ ‘Big Rick,’” Detective Tyler said. “That would be Rick Degen.”

“Yeah,” Hank said, hanging his head. “That would be him.”

“You remember it was specifically after he left?” Detective Price asked.

“Yeah.”

“You’re sure.”

“Absolutely,” Hank said. “Big Rick is the life of the party. When he leaves, everyone knows it.”

“Did Mr. Degen say anything odd that night, or before that?” Detective Price asked. “Was he worried about anything?”

“Not that I could tell,” Hank said. “Seemed like he did every night.”

Price looked over at Tyler, who raised an eyebrow. The body of Rick Degen had been found in the water, bones smashed, organs liquefied. The autopsy had been a nightmare, apparently, but they’d gotten an ID from some of the Cargo Hold’s survivors. As of yet, they weren’t sure if he had been entering the bar or leaving it-the testimonies of the frightened, drunk survivors were blurred and contradictory.

But now they had a lead. Maybe whatever had happened that night had something to do directly with Rick Degen.

“Okay, Mr. Chavez, if you could just describe your relationship with Mr. Degen…”

***

“Okay, so here’s what we know so far,” Sarah Tyler said, sitting on her desk and crossing her legs. “Out of the fifteen people in the Cargo Hold that night, we’ve got six people dead, three still recovering, and six who are, more or less, fine. The other five who’ve woken up agreed with Chavez on the explosion happening a little after Rick Degen left.”

“Degen was apparently a regular,” Price said, flipping through his notes. “He’s also got an employment record that’s longer than the island. He’s held jobs all over the Northeast, never for more than a few months. In fact, his last actual solid job was in 1996. Most recently he was a truck driver, but he got fired from that last summer. Did you check up on his family?”

“Yeah,” Tyler said. “No living family, except for a half-sister, Gina Candotti, who lives in Jefferson City, Missouri. I talked to her over the phone, and she said she didn’t talk to him much. Occasionally he’d come over and borrow money from her. I believe the word she used was ‘bum.’”

“Degen was the closest to the explosion when it happened,” Price said. “Which means either he just had s***-bad luck or he has something to do with all of this.”

“From what I can tell, he didn’t have any underworld ties,” Tyler said. “This probably wasn’t a hit. At least, not a hit like that. If he was the target, it’s probably a bit more personal.” She sighed, and rubbed her forehead. “An explosion with no fire. How does that happen?”

“Same way that people start flying and turning invisible,” Price said.

“As much as I hate to indulge you and your little conspiracy theories,” Tyler said, putting her notes down. “I really can’t think of how this couldn’t be super powers-related. But who-out of the people we know, at least-has the power to do this?”

Price started pacing. Super power-related cases really got his blood pumping, Sarah Tyler had learned that early on.

“There was that OMEGA guy; he was telekinetic,” Price said. “But he’s dead, and we’re absolutely sure of that. A lot of them can blow stuff up, but not directly, and it would always involve flames.”

“How about Studmuffin?” Tyler asked. “He can create energy blasts or something, right?”

“Yeah,” Price said. “But every time I’ve seen him do it, there’s been fire.” He thought for a moment. “Then again, he was hanging out with the Tri-Leaders recently, right? We should keep him on the list.”

“I doubt this has anything to do with the Tri-Leaders,” Tyler said. “It’s not their style. Of course, I guess they don’t really have a style since they’ve never actually killed anyone, but you’d think it would be more…”

“Insane.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe it’s someone new,” Price said. “Super maniacs have been popping up like f***ing weeds since the Justice League got started anyway.”

“This doesn’t seem like a debut crime, though,” Tyler said. “I mean, usually these guys do something big and public so that they can get their names out."

“Idiots,” Price said. “Isn’t the Justice League supposed to stop these guys?”

“You’d think.”

“It’s a waste of tax money, really,” Price said. “We’ve got homeless people all over the place, crappy public schools, and the entire southern section of the city is a criminal dung heap, and we can’t put any money towards that because some costumed freaks need matching La-Z-Boys.”

“Hey, come on, that Scarlett girl saved my niece once,” Tyler said.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be solving this case to begin with,” Price said. “I mean, I know it’s not an original theory or anything but I believe that these super ‘heroes’ really just encourage super criminals. It’s like an evolutionary thing-self-preservation. Everyone’s trying to one up each other. I mean, seriously, think about it-America isn’t the only nation with super people, so how come we haven’t run into any super terrorists since 9/11?” He waited for Tyler to respond.

Tyler, who had heard the speech before, sighed and said, “Why is that, Dave?”

“Because we don’t have any super patriots to piss them off. You get some sort of Captain America or whatever, and mark my words-next thing you know there’ll be a guy with a turban and lightning bolts coming out of his hands attacking the White House. If we had super soldiers, everyone else would have them soon too. It’s like the f***ing atomic bomb-did that end war? Hell no. It just started a fifty year long game of one upmanship that’s probably going to end in the f***ing apocalypse. It’s the same thing here: you make the crime fighters tougher, the criminals become tougher. We aren’t winning the war on crime by bringing in super heroes, we’re just raising the stakes.”

“But the thing is,” Tyler said. “They are here, and we do have super crime, and right now we have to solve this case. Maybe afterwards we can save the world, but right now we need to find out why these people died, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“Fine, fine,” Price said. “I’ll stop complaining now, honest. Back to business.”

“You should be dating that Margo girl,” Tyler said. “You two would have a lot to talk about.”

“Christ she’s annoying!” Price said. “I respect what she’s saying and all, but damn! And what do you think is with that orange ha-“

Price was cut off as the phone rang.

***

Bob Sprague, Division Leader of the Deliverymen (of which there was, currently, only one division anyway, but that’s another subject) was having a spectacularly bad day.

First, he’d discovered this morning that there was nothing but crumbs in the last box of Count Chocula. Then he’d found that his favorite vintage Burger King Return of the Jedi glass was in the dish washer, which someone hadn’t run the night before, so he had to drink his orange juice from a boring old glass glass. And, of course, there was the soul crushing reminder that his division of the Deliverymen (again, the only division still in operation) had been reduced to exactly five (not counting himself) of the original hundred.

And now, just to make an already bad day even worse, it looked like he was going to die.

The man who was pointing the automatic rifle at his face was one of a threesome. To the gunman’s right was an enormous, muscular man in a black muscle shirt, with stringy hair and slight stubble. There was a metal pendant hung around his neck on a chain: the word “GOAT.”

Between them was a short man, with white hair under a maroon snowcap, and a pointed white beard; he looked distinctly like a lawn gnome. His eyes were small, shrewd and blue, and his nose was shaped like a squash. He had what appeared to be a pair of gardening spades stuck in his belt. Around his neck was a strange necklace, which was made up of several long, thing off-white pieces, which Bob Sprague found somewhat familiar.

The gunman himself was tall (though not as tall as the muscled man), his head cleanly shaved. He had a black goatee, and was dressed entirely in black leather.

“Mr. Sprague,” the short man who looked like a garden gnome said. “Do you know who we are?”

Bob Sprague shook his head. The bald man’s rifle moved slightly, staying trained on the center of his face.

“Can you believe that?” The short man asked the bald man. “He doesn’t know us.”

“Unbelievable.” The bald man said.

“You’d think we’d be pretty famous by now, with all the stuff we’ve done,” the short man said. He leaned in closer to Bob and sneered. “All the people we’ve messed up for being reeeeeeaally stupid.”

“It’s a pretty long list,” the bald man said.

“Pretty long indeed,” the short man said.

“Well, it’s not that long,” the muscled man said. “I mean, we did just get put together as a group last week, and so far all we’ve done was that thing with Fat Tony and flipping over that fish market in South Si-“

The short man and the bald man glared at him.

“Sorry…” the muscled man said, and shut up.

“Either way,” the short man said, exasperated. “Even if we haven’t messed up too many people as a group, we’ve all messed up one hell of a lot of people on our own. You see this?” He hooked a finger through his strange necklace. Bob nodded.

“These,” the short man said. “Are finger bones. Human finger bones, if you were wondering. A little hobby of mine. You know what happened to Mac McCairn, right?”

Bob nodded again.

“Yeah, that was me,” the short man said. He twisted the necklace around and tapped one of the finger bones. “That’s him right there. And that’s just one. And my buddies here? They were at the Oscars.”

Bob gasped. “You guys were in Lord of the Rings?!”

“No.” The short man said. “Not those Oscars. The 2003 Oscars.”

Silence.

“Where we AMBUSHED THE JUSTICE LEAGUE?!”

“Right! Right! Sorry!” Bob said.

The short man sighed. “You know, this just screws up my whole introduction. I had this whole thing planned out, you know? This really pisses me off.”

Bob cringed.

“But, anyway, since you seem to be much more of a brainless piece of crap than I originally thought, I’ll tell you who we are:

“My muscular friend here goes by the name of Goat. The guy pointing a gun in your face is Sixtus. And I am ‘Tricky Vic’ Hoenikker. Together, we are… the Encouragers!!”

He struck a pose. Bob just stared.

“We didn’t come up with the name, believe me,” Vic said.

“Um, okay,” Bob said.

“Anyway, now that you know who we are-finally-I have another question: do you know why we’re here?”

Bob gulped. “I guess it’s because… um… because we haven’t been working for Mr. Powers?”

“Give that man the canned ham!” Vic said. “Yes, exactly. Mr. Powers was so kind as to get you, and five of your most skillful compatriots, out of prison, after that whole Hunter mess, in exchange for your services and unconditional loyalty. And what do you do?”

Vic made the slightest of motions with his head. Sixtus struck Bob swiftly across the face with the barrel of his rifle. Bob stumbled and only barely stopped himself from falling.

“You go and work for someone else!!” Vic yelled. “Now, that wasn’t very smart was it? Was it?!”

Sixtus jabbed the rifle into Bob’s gut, and this time he did drop, onto his knees.

“You stupid piece of s***,” Vic said, walking up to him so that they were face to face. “Did you think we weren’t going to find out? Huh? You are so f***ing lucky we didn’t just cap your ass on the streets!”

He smacked Bob, and then grabbed his chin, forcing him to look into his eyes.

“Now tell me, you worthless little motherf***er, tell me who you’ve been working for, or I swear to God I will tear your skull out through your eye sockets.”

“All right! All right!” Bob said. “We-we needed some extra money, so we took some jobs from this company to-“

“What company?” Vic snapped.

“I-it’s a Japanese industrial firm,” Bob said. “Su- Susano Corp.”

“Susano Corp,” Vic repeated. His brow furrowed. “What, you guys working for the Yak now?”

“I don’t- no, no, I’m pretty sure they’re legit,” Bob said. “They’re offices are in the Dreiberg Building. They have building contracts here a-and in New York-“

“If they’re legit,” Vic said. “Then why would they hire you guys?”

Bob blinked. This had not occurred to him. “Um, well, they just had us transport some stuff. I- I don’t know what, they never let us know…”

“You f***er,” Vic snarled. “You stupid f***er. Do you realize how much of a pain in the ass the Yakuza has been for our bosses? Do you have any idea of exactly how f***ed you are?”

“I- I- I didn’t know, I swear, I didn’t-“

“Bob,” Vic said, stepping back. He pulled a cigar out of his pants pocket, followed by a pine green lighter. “Mind if I smoke?”

Bob shook his head, eyes wide.

“Anyway, Bob,” Vic said, putting the cigar between his teeth, and flicking open the lighter. “Do you know why we’re so pissed off about this? Do you know why what you did was such a huge f***ing mistake?”

“I-“

Sixtus struck him across the face with his rifle, and Bob shut up.

“It’s because of a little thing called organized crime.” Vic finally lit the cigar. Its tip glowed yellow and red in the dark room. “You know what the key word there is, Bob? ‘Organized.’ Organized crime. You see, crime is, when you look at society as a whole, a pretty destructive force. Drugs, theft, murder-these things usually don’t clean up the neighborhood, you know? But when you have all of this relatively bad stuff brought together under one group, one organization, all of that harmful stuff is focused and contained, and turned into something constructive and profitable. There’s certainly benefits to any crime, but if you’ve just got a hundred gangs running around, then the benefits are spread too thin. And that just causes all kinds of crap. I mean, just look at LA. Gang fights, drug wars, all sorts of crap. And that’s why just having one crime syndicate here is not just the best thing for our bosses, but for the City itself. Know what I’m talking about?”

Bob nodded.

“Good,” Vic said. He removed the cigar, dropped it, and crushed it under his heel. “Then you understand why we have to waste you.”

Bob’s eyes went wide. Vic grinned.

“What? You think our bosses were just going to let you go? You swore loyalty, man. You swore loyalty to Mr. Goob, and therefore you swore loyalty to Mr. Powers, and Mr. Powers does not like being screwed. I don’t know how your old bosses did things (but they were obviously idiots since Teatime’s in jail and Hunter’s got squirrels nesting in him), but that ain’t the way they go down here. Where are your friends?”

“O-on a job,” Bob said.

“Hm. Too bad,” Vic said. “I guess we’ll just have to get them when they come home, huh? Well, it was nice talking to you, Bob. Sixtus?”

Sixtus sighted down the barrel of his rifle, aiming directly between Bob’s eyes. His finger tightened-

Bob threw himself down at the last second, and the rifle thundered overhead. A round punched into the concrete wall at the back of the room.

“F***er!!” Vic roared. Sixtus lashed out with a foot and caught Bob in the ribs, just as he got on all fours. Bob landed on his back and looked up into the deep, metal maw of the rifle.

“Well, that was stupid,” Vic said. “Wish I could say I was surprised.”

Bob squeezed his eyes shut…

“Stop right there, evil doers!”

The Encouragers whirled around to see a figure standing in the doorway of the warehouse, dressed in a bulky suit with a conical, red-visored helmet. He stood with his legs spread, his fists on his hips.

X-Raytor’s head popped around the door, next to Julian. “I was going to say something witty, but, uh, that works.”

“What is this?” Vic demanded.

“Justice League.” Sixtus said, keeping his gun trained on Bob Sprague.

“I know that, but why are they here?”

“Maybe he tipped them off,” Goat said, glaring down at Bob.

“Actually, we heard the gun shots,” Violet said, stepping in behind X-Raytor and Julian. “Very subtle, that.”

“Hey, wait a second,” X-Raytor said. “I know you guys! You were at the Oscars!”

Violet’s face went blank.

X-Raytor looked at Goat. “I remember you especially. Um… didn’t I shoot off part of your knee or something?”

“Yeah,” Goat said, glaring. “You did.” He reached down and rapped the side of his left leg with a ring-adorned fist. There was a soft tink-tink-tink.

“Oh,” X-Raytor said. “So, uh, does that go off in metal detectors or…”

“Shouldn’t you guys be, um, in jail?” Violet asked.

“You’d think so,” Sixtus said.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Julian said. “Put your weapons down and put your hands up or we will be forced to open up a can… of justice!”

Silence. Bob Sprague sat up to stare.

“Who the hell are you?” Vic asked.

“I’m Wa- Quake,” Julian said.

“WaQuake?” Goat said.

“Quake,” Julian said. “Just Quake.”

“But you said…”

“And I know who you guys are, too,” Julian said. “Sixtus, Goat, and ‘Tricky Vic’-the Encouragers. I read about you losers on the web.”

“Hey, don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, kid!” Vic said. “You know what, never mind. Get ‘em!”

Sixtus whipped his rifle up and fired. The three Justice Leaguers dived out of the way as bullets tore through the doorway. X-Raytor fired a thin pair of lasers and the rifle flew from Sixtus’ hand. X-Raytor dropped to the floor a second before Goat’s ham-sized fist smashed his head into the wall.

Violet rolled, got up, and turned to face Tricky Vic. He had pulled the two gardening spades from his belt, and now the glowed and hummed with an aura of purple energy.

“Energy spades?” Violet demanded. “Is that the best you could come up with?”

Vic didn’t reply, but slashed at her head with both spades. Violet drew back, and the air crackled in front of her face.

Julian kicked the rifle across the room as Sixtus reached for it. Sixtus turned, growling, and slammed his fist into Julian’s chest. Julian stumbled backwards, gasping, and then returned with a punch of his own. Sixtus’s head snapped to the side, and he fell to the floor. For a moment, Julian thought he had knocked him out. And then he saw Sixtus’ hand digging into his black leather trench coat.

“Oh no you don’t, baldy!” Julian said, and pounced on Sixtus.

X-Raytor dodged another crippling punch from Goat, and fired a pair of lasers at the giant man. It should have been enough to at least stun him. But Goat caught the beams on his lower arm, flexed it once, and then grinned. No effect.

“Uh… that’s not supposed to happen…” X-Raytor said.

He punched Goat hard in the stomach, but his fist bounced off harmlessly.

“Uh…”

Then X-Raytor remembered the lesson he’d learned from every movie he’d ever seen.

“Well, big, seemingly invincible guy,” X-Raytor said. “How do you like… this!”

He raised his foot, and brought it crashing down on Goat’s toes.

Goat stared down at him.

X-Raytor looked back up at him.

Goat’s enormous right arm shot out and his hand grasped X-Raytor around the neck. He lifted him bodily into the air, and tightened his mammoth grip.

“Man, this is mercy,” Goat said, shaking his head.

Vic slashed at Violet again, cut through air. He backed up, and then charged the super heroine, spades held out in front of him. Violet sidestepped, and Vic stumbled past her. When he turned around, there wasn’t just one Violet anymore.

“Hey!!” Vic said. “Not fair!”

Half a dozen Violets looked back at him smugly. “So,” they said, simultaneously. “Wanna guess which one of us is real? You get one chance.”

Vic frowned. “Well, let me think here…”

He flicked his wrist and one of the spades left his hand. All but one of the Violets disappeared, and the remaining one dropped to the floor, the energy spade lodged in her shoulder.

“Ha, I love guessing games,” Vic said. He wrenched the spade from Violet’s shoulder and she grunted in pain. He sneered. “Stay dead this time, okay?”

Sixtus beat away Julian’s hand, and the next thing the young super hero knew, he was looking down the barrel of a pistol. Sixtus smiled, and pulled the trigger.

Julian sprawled on his back, and for a moment he was sure he was dead. But then he opened his eyes, and the world around him was covered in cracks like a spider web. His visor hadn’t shattered all the way-he could just make out the bullet, still lodged in the glass.

Holy s***, he thought. His shock melted suddenly to anger. He felt a tiny ball of titillating, electric energy appear above his diaphragm. Immediately his heart began to beat faster, and he felt another, more subtle tingling, below his waist. He squeezed the ball, harder, harder…

He sat up, and it was Sixtus’ turn to be surprised.

“Bad idea,” Julian growled.

The few windows left in the warehouse exploded outwards. The concrete walls and floor cracked, and the few pieces of furniture spread around the room were tossed violently into the walls.

Goat was smashed into a wall, and dropped X-Raytor about ten seconds before his asphyxiated.

Vic was laid flat, his energy spades flying from his hands.

Bob Sprague kind of rolled over (but quite forcefully, it should be mentioned).

And Sixtus was thrown into the air, and slammed into the far wall, bones cracking as he went. He landed in a heap on the floor.

“That,” Julian said, standing up. “Is what you get. F***er.”

Violet stood up shakily, and stared at Julian. He didn’t look directly at her, but beamed. Across the room, X-Raytor stood up, rubbing his head.

“I am going to have a headache for a week,” he muttered. He looked down at the unconscious Goat. “Uh, yeah! And don’t you forget it!”

“Thanks, Quake,” Violet said. “Looks like you’re going to be good at this super hero thing.”

“Yeah, awesome job, kid,” X-Raytor said. “Now let’s get these jokers to the cops and go home. I really feel like passing out for the rest of the day…”

***

“Now, I just gotta tell you,” the man said. “I didn’t the actual explosion or anything. But I saw something else that might help. I don’t know.”

“That’s fine,” David Price said. “Just tell us what you know.”

The man sighed. “Okay, so, I was going to the Cargo Hold, and I was walking down the pier when I see these two guys outside the door. And as I get closer, the one guy, the guy with his back to me, starts yelling at the other guy. Well, I decided not to get in the middle of that, and I walked away. A few minutes later, I heard the explosion.”

“The one man,” Sarah Tyler said. “The one who was yelling. Can you describe him at all?”

“Uh, vaguely,” the man said. “He wasn’t facing me, and he was only sort of in the light, but I’m pretty sure he was white, and he definitely had sort of longish black hair. Not that tall, but not short either. He was wearing a hooded sweater, I think.”

Price and Tyler exchanged a look, and with it, a silent message: This is the guy we need to find.