Available September 1, 2015 Cover by Luke Spooner
The following is an advance look at the next Cobalt City book, a grim look into the underworld of the city from which no one returns unchanged. Cobalt City: Ties that Bind will be available exclusively for the Kindle on September 1st, 2015.
If you keep your ear to the street like I do, you tend to hear things. For instance, I heard about group of hero nerds who created a complicated ranking system of all known capes, whether they’re heroes or villains or those like me who sort of fall in-between. They evolved this into online message boards and, believe it or not, a sort of fantasy league. I clean up on my office fantasy basketball pool but this was a kind of alchemy beyond even me. My activity on the fringes of the Cobalt City cape and cowl proved to be little to no help. But even if I wasn’t going to win any tournaments, I found their system of defining the relative “weight class” of given super powered individuals fascinating.
I was stunned to see that even I was ranked on their boards. I thought I was being discreet. Or at least as discreet as a vigilante in a rooster mask could be in this town. Apparently I wasn’t discreet enough because there I was, sixth from the bottom. To be fair, in addition to being new I hadn’t displayed any powers, just a pair of tonfa fighting batons, toe-spurs on my boots, and compact glider wings built into my costume. It made sense that I’d be feather weight. Bantam weight, if you will. The only capes ranked lower were ones I tended to think of as jokes or tourists who were going to get themselves killed in spandex. Snowflake, the panda who flew the plane for the Protectorate ranked above me.
I’ll admit, I was kind of hurt by that at first. But I had to be honest with myself. Knockabout could stop an army, locking them in place with the gravity of a dying sun. Mister Grey was a terrifying, immortal cloud of crematorium ash in human form. I could beat on a fool with my sticks. The rankings hurt, but not as much as having my spine ripped out.
I joined the cape fantasy league and was slowly figuring out the system. I made a point not to draft myself as I felt that would be unethical, especially after the corruption scandal that hit the Cobalt City Blue Blazers last season. In addition to keeping me occupied with another fantasy league, I used it as a guide to make informed decisions. When I pulled on the stylized rooster mask, I made it a habit not to pick fights outside of my weight class.
I don’t know what kind of medical plans other Cobalt City heroes might have, but I was stuck on the police department’s plan. If I showed up at my HMO with a proton blast wound, questions were going to be asked. The more questions I could avoid, the happier I’d be.
Bad enough I had a dead dad with a criminal record. Bad enough that I was woman, and barely met the department’s height guidelines at 5’ 7”. Bad enough I didn’t play well with others and hadn’t been assigned a partner since Olson transferred to vice in January. If word leaked that I put on a mask to do things as Bantam that I couldn’t do as a cop, I’d be out of a job.
I learned to embrace anonymity. You hear of people like Tree Frog or Midnight Thunder or even Gato Loco because the press loves the glamor of people in costumes stopping other people in costumes from committing crime. I vowed to keep it simple to keep under the radar. No capes. If they had a costume or powers or a name like “Dr. Destruction” or “The Reaver,” they were someone else’s problem.
I didn’t need press to feel I was making a difference. I didn’t need to climb the ranks in the fantasy league. There was still plenty of crime in Cobalt City committed by ordinary people making very bad decisions. No, it wasn’t glamorous. But even without costumes or powers, they were real monsters. They didn’t bother to wear masks because their victims were their own family, their neighbors. So I was able to work in the shadows because acknowledging me meant admitting that a person don’t need a death ray and an iron mask to be evil. No one wants to read that over their morning coffee.
When I heard that there was someone with a gun spotted entering an old hotel around the corner from me, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check. Give me a guy with a gun over some psycho with telepathic wolves any day of the week. He was relatively easy to spot, too. It was hot as balls out, and this joker was wearing a trench coat.
In retrospect, that should have been a red flag.
I didn’t recognize the fucker until he pulled on his mask at which point it was too late. He was distinctive with the mask: a black full-head affair with a giant blue circle over the face. A contract killer, new to the Cobalt City scene, he signed his two kills as “Regret.” The report said he carried two custom guns that fired a wide variety of specialized ammunition, which he proved to be true by whipping them out in the hotel lobby.
As the two midnight black hand-cannons appear from under his trench coat, I scanned for his potential targets. Despite my rooster mask, he hadn’t seemed to really notice me yet, and trained killer or not, he telegraphed his targets like a goddamned amateur. Two people stepping out of the fancy hotel bar across the lobby, a man and woman in their fifties, both white, both distinctly middle-class—not the kinds of people one usually pictured as the targets for a paid assassin. What could they have possibly done except maybe let the front lawn get a bit out of control? But in my years in Cobalt City, I’d seen people killed for less. And here I was, the only person between a contract killer and his paycheck.
There was no time to think, not even to second-guess myself. I launched a flying kick straight into Regret’s back. The impact was enough to knock him over, and the toe-spur in my boot sliced through the back of his coat. He tumbled across the worn gold-flecked maroon of the lobby carpet and came up in a crouch facing me, no worse for wear. It gave me the first good look at what he was wearing under the coat.
Kevlar body armor. Shit. That’s bad news.
I had my tonfa out, the length of each club down my forearms, ready to block. But two guns beats two sticks, especially with fifteen feet between us. I told myself that at least I bought the intended targets some time, but both of them had frozen up next to this potted plant, a big bastard with wide, deep green leaves that looked more at home in a jungle than a hotel lobby in New England. So much for hoping the rabbits would run.
“I don’t know who you are,” Regret said, “But you’ll bleed like the rest.”
Several years on the force and even more growing up in my dad’s shadow taught me the sound of a guy putting on a fake tough-guy voice. Despite the Kevlar, mask, guns, and stated occupation on his theoretical business card, this guy was not the world-class bad-ass he liked to project himself to be. That said, he was still a confirmed killer with specialized gun, body armor, and the drop on me.
He was out of my weight class. No doubt about it. FantasyCape.com would probably have given me long odds on dropping him. 45 to 1 was my guess. He opened up on me with one of his guns, and I had the good sense to recognize he wasn’t just waving them around as a threat. I flipped backwards and the shot passed inches below me as I got the hell out of the way. I came down on the other side of a leather sofa that looked as solid as a mid-sized sedan which had taken the bullet meant for me. The shot had dented the leather but not punctured it. Sandbag rounds. Non-lethal.
I doubted someone put him on retainer to tenderize this couple, so he might have balked at the idea of killing a cape. I might not be high profile, or any profile, but that kind of thing puts a target on a person’s back. There were far worse rounds he could have unloaded in my direction. His last kill had burned up from the inside out. While that target had been a sleazy banker connected to a billion dollar fraud scheme, immolation was still a hell of a way to go. At least he was going easy on me so far. I didn’t care much for his condescension, though it may have been the only thing keeping me alive at that particular juncture.
Regret must have figured me out of the fight and turned back towards his targets. I hurled one of the heavy sofa cushions at his arms with every ounce of strength I had. It might have been out of spite at being dismissed so readily, but it was enough to throw off his aim. The huge bronze-finished planter holding the jungle plant paid the ultimate sacrifice and showered the two screaming targets with dirt and ceramic dust. That was enough to get them moving, and both husband and wife, or I’m guessing husband and wife, dodged back into the hotel bar. If there was no back exit, they just boxed themselves in, but it was still better than standing in plain sight with thumbs up their respective rectums.
It still put me no closer to stopping Regret. I could close the distance, but the likelihood of getting shot at least once was phenomenally high. I crunched the numbers in my head, a skill that would have made me a great insurance actuary had I not dreamed for something different. It was automatic, an learned response to pick out this assassin’s weak points. He had his weaknesses. Everyone did. Despite the body armor on his torso and probably lighter weight armor in plating on arms and legs, his joints were still relatively unprotected. His mask looked lightly armored, flexible like ballistic weave, so it would stop penetration from a bullet and prevent slicing, but he would still be vulnerable to a blunt force trauma which I could provide in spades. But seeing a weakness and being able to exploit it were two very different beasts. For me to press my advantage, I had to get within striking distance or fling my weapons at him which was one hell of a gamble. With no practical cover between me the chances of losing my weapon or catching a bullet were high.
He must have seen my considering making a stupid decision and fired off two more shots in my direction to dissuade me. The first hit the sofa and froze it solid. The second filled my area with a choking smoke that forced me to pull back even further, behind a pillar on my left.
That’s when she showed up.
I had seen Velvet in the news for a while now, first attached to Starcom innovator Jaccob Stevens as something of a troubleshooter, and then as a member of the local superhero collective, the Protectorate. She was hot-headed. A scrapper.
As weight classes went, Regret was in for some rough learning.
He managed to squeeze off two shots at her, both of which hit her cloak and fell useless to the ground. Then she was on him, the fingers of her left hand curled in his armored chest piece like it was nothing. She lifted him off the ground and slapped him unconscious.
Slapped. Open palm. From where I stood, it sounded like the world’s largest belly flop and he was out like a light.
I swear on my father’s name, she looked disappointed.
Still holding the limp body of the hitman, she turned to face me. I saw her weighing the costume: rooster mask, brown bodysuit with wide stripes up the side in a deep russet. If she saw the toe spurs, she didn’t react. Most heroes didn’t wear blades. Too much risk of killing someone, which most heroes were careful about. But I wasn’t most heroes.
“Who are you?”
It would have made me happier if she had dropped Regret, but I suppose it was safer to hold onto him until the police arrived. “They call me Bantam.”
“Who calls you that?”
It was a legit question. I worked solo and struck fast, so it wasn’t like I had any serious press outside of the fantasy leagues. No one had called me much of anything out loud, let alone Bantam. I had been careful. But that had been my father’s name when he wore the same costume and it seemed every person on the damn planet had a camera on their phone now. One more thing to blame Jaccob Stevens and Starcom for, I guess. “People.”
It was enough of an answer for her and she nodded her head towards the captive. “Guess that explains the chicken mask. And what’s his name?”
I didn’t feel it was worth correcting her on the difference between rosters and chickens. “The papers call him Regret.”
She laughed, a lighter sound than I would have expected from someone with her presence, her visible strength. “Regret? Oh, that’s got to suck for him. Did he lose a bet?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” I said. “While you’re at it, you might want to ask who hired him.”
I imagine her eyebrows shot up beneath her mask though I couldn’t see it. Her entire demeanor shifted. “He’s a contract hitter?”
“Yes. No idea who hired him, but his intended targets are the couple in their fifties currently hiding out in the bar, likely reeking of their own urine. I’d really like to know why they were targets.”
Velvet looked in the direction of the bar, at Regret, back to me in quick succession. “And why should I trust you?”
“Because I held your playmate there off long enough for you to get here and stop him,” I said. I heard the approach of sirens. This part of town, they were likely from my precinct, too. I couldn’t linger. “Roof of St. Joan at midnight. I’ll share what I know.”
I got half of a nod from her. It was enough. And it was still a few hours away. Plenty of time for me to do some digging. I bolted for the stairs and took them two at a time until I hit the rooftop, somewhat winded. I wasn’t cut out for this. I knew it. Hell, Velvet probably knew it as well.
But I needed to know. It was going to drive me crazy if I didn’t. I took a few seconds on the rooftop to catch my breath before plunging off the north side of the building.
Arms out to my side, the glider fins caught the air, sent me soaring on a thermal updraft. I rode it all the way to my downtown apartment, sighting on the yellow rug hung over the railings as an easy marker.
I opened up the small plastic tool box on my tiny patio and rooted through the plastic baggies of incense until I found the pack of cigarettes I had buried there. I only allowed myself one a day, and damn if I hadn’t earned it today. Mask on the table next to me, I opened the sliding glass door to let my apartment cool off a bit while I sat at the little bistro table in the dark and smoked.
Violence was a funny thing. In the heat of the moment, anyone could be a target. But premeditated violence was something different. Give it enough forethought to hire someone to do the killing—that was something ugly and cold. It was impersonal, wanting someone dead but not needing the release of doing the act yourself, in fact cultivating that distance from the target.
In my experience, there were three kinds of people who went that route: someone who didn’t want to get caught, someone who wasn’t capable of doing the act themselves, or someone who simply believed the other person just flat out needed to die.
It made me wonder which we were dealing with.