Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tarnished Age

by Stephen Heuser



Photo by Zvezdan Reljic




I rolled into Hank's driveway just after dark, gravel still hot from the day crunching under the tires. The newspaper, ignored during the hustle and bustle of the day, almost tripped me as I stepped out. The front page was screaming about Major Fusion's murder trial (SUPERHERO FALLS FROM GRACE). I sighed as I kicked the paper down the driveway; hopefully today would be the end of it.



The smell of barbeque wafted across the suburbs, and I heard raucous laughter echoing from the backyard. Smiling, I kicked off my boots as I approached the back gate. A black figure charged out from the darkness, kicking up sticks and dirt.



"Hey, whoa! Down kiddo!"



The huge Doberman leapt up on his hind legs to plant wet doggy-kisses all over my face. He also tried to stick his nose in the six-pack of beer I had, chewing at the caps. Tail still wagging furiously as I pushed him off me, JT barked excitedly as I moved closer towards the gate.



"JT, who's there? Is that Melody?"



JT's owner, Hank, lumbered out front with a drink in hand. A smile split his huge beard in two as he saw me -- it grew even larger as he saw his favorite brand in my hands. The broad-shouldered giant pulled his dog away before lifting me in a titanic hug.



"Ah kr shka, you made it!"



"I might not make it," I wheezed. The big man dropped me with an apologetic smile and shrug.



"I'm sorry, but it's been so long since you visited an old man." He mimed tears and a broken heart as we walked to the back gate. "I almost forgot what you looked like."



I rolled my eyes at the ruskie; it'd been a few years since we'd last worked together, but the way his eyes flicked up and down my outfit made me doubt he ever forgot me.



JT exploded through the back gate and almost knocked over a cooler of beer and soda, leaving surprised laughter and shouts in his wake as he dove into the pool. Angie, Hank's Valkyrie wife, grabbed his collar as he stumbled out. She cursed emphatically in German as the dog shook himself dry all over her as she tied him to the porch.



"Stupid flea -- Verdammt Hank, would you keep your dog on the leash?"



"Yes, our dog when he curls up next to her, but my dog when he breaks the rules," Hank whispered. "Aw, but he just wanted to meet our new guest!" he shouted after seeing Angie cock her ear at us.



"Melody, you finally dragged yourself away from your office!" The giantess gave me an awkward hug while trying not to get her apron splatters all over me. "Look at you; you're working so hard, you're all skin and bones."



"Good to see you again," I said, hugging her back and trying to not get dragged to the grill. "But I'm not that hungry, really."



"You don't like cook-outs?" she asked, astonished.



"Angie, I'm a vegetarian."



"Since when?"



"It was my New Year's resolution," I said, nibbling at a veggie platter (tantalizingly close to the pulled pork).



"Bah; those don't count," she stated as she handed me a plate loaded with food. "Come on, the rest of the gang's over by the pool."

"Is Greg here yet?"



"No, he said he's going to be late. Something about a last-minute errand."



"Knowing him he'll roll up with a pile of strippers in half an hour and a bottle of vodka."



We were greeted by a round of cheers by the crew surrounding a table piled with beer bottles. Even with all our past arguments and differences, I smiled warmly at my old friends; at this point we were more of a surrogate family for one another than anything else.



"Good to see you again, Mel," Alexei said, his moustache twitching with a sly grin. "Very good," the Latino purred.



"Alexei?"



"Yes, my sweet?"



"Your hand."



"What about it?"



"Please -- oh, for -" I grabbed the hand merrily groping my ass and bent his thumb back.



"I see you've still got your moves," Max rumbled. The stocky young black man smirked, adjusting owl-frame glasses and raising his beer in toast. "Rumor had it you got soft once you started attending the PTA meetings."



"Who ever said that never had to deal with twins," I remarked.



"Impressive. Please let go." Alexei grimaced as he tried to twist himself to relieve the strain on his hand.



"Will you behave?"



"Ow, ow, yes, ow, ow -" He yanked his finger back as I let go, nursing it against his drink.



"You were more fun before the marriage," he pouted.



"I'm not sure your girlfriend would approve of your wandering hand," Max said as he opened another beer.



"Oh-ho!" I laughed as Alexei blushed. "The man who loved a girl in every state is tied down?"



"She defended him a month ago in court," Hank said he joined us.



"What did you do now?" I laughed.



"It was just a misunder -"



"He was porkin' some lady he picked up at the history museum. The eighth grade tour group was most surprised," Hank said, a vulpine smile peaking around his beer.



"The teachers were so ungrateful," Alexei said with a shrug. "As a concerned citizen, I merely helped educate the students on the beauty of our bodies."



"And what did the judge say?" I said, smirking.



"Two hundred hours community service, plus probation."



"Damn," I said, impressed. "You get her a thank-you gift?"



"Only a date with the most handsome man in the city."



"That's generous of you; who is he?"



"Jealousy is an ugly color for you, mi amor," he said, one elegant eyebrow flicking dismissively at me. "You had your chance, but decided to go with a lesser man."



"He can handle his sword way better," I breathed with a sultry grin. The boys snickered softly as the swashbuckler's lips pursed. Angie elbowed him before he could come back with something worse.



"So what is your beloved working on now?" Angie asked him, shooting me a warning glance.



"Triciaher latest case isn't for tonight." He looked grim -- a startling change from his usual flamboyance.



"She's defense for the Major Fusion case," Max said quietly, oblivious to his friend's glare. "Quite impressive too; she's actually managed to make a case for not guilty."



"On what possible grounds?" Angie said, exasperated. "The man killed almost a dozen people!"



"Well," I began, accepting a veggie burger from Hank. "They did have it coming."



"Why, because they were crooks?"



"'Crook' is such a mundane term, Angie," Max said as he dug another beer out of the icebox. "Everyone knows the Major didn't swoop down to flash-fry idiots holding up a grocery store, or selling a bit of weed on the corner."



"No, he killed a bunch of 'super-villains', leaving all of their followers to fight over territory," Hank stated firmly. "Nature abhors a vacuum; murder will skyrocket over the next few weeks, and when the dust settles, someone even worse will be on top."



"Not until he's put away," I said around some chips. "The past week a drunken sorority chick could cut through every back street and dark alley without even a whistle."



"Perhaps you are not aging as gracefully as you thought," Alexei said, turning to hide his obnoxious I-just-got-you smile.



"Not everyone has money for the stockpiles of touch-up creams and hair dye you have," I said sweetly.



"It's a temporary fix," Angie broke in, before we could start back up. "Like Hank said -- someone worse will just take their place, and then what? Do you really think every villain deserves to die?"



"Not all," said Max. "They're plenty out there who just mug people, or rob banks, or are fine with whatever piece of land they carve out for themselves. The problem is the crazies, like Iron Claw, or Dr. Stitch -- murderers, psychopaths."



"There're places designed for their particular derangements," Angie said. She'd put down her beer and was cracking her knuckles behind her back, trying to hold back her temper.



"Are you high? The Crimson Stone threw a bus into the river, killed seventeen people. They sent him to a nuthouse, and he escaped two weeks later." Alexei slid next to Max and gently pulled on his shirt. Angie had a wicked right, and no one wanted Max's teeth scattered across the lawn.



"He killed eight more. Eight!" Max shouted as he tried to pull away from his friend. "For God's sake, he killed your son! Or do you even care?"



His breath exploded out of him as Angie's fist doubled him over. Hank and Alexei stepped in between the two as I knelt beside Max.



"You miserable prick." The furious blonde shook as she tried not to push forward to beat him even more. "Every day. Every day I come home and I know my boy is dead. I'm reminded when I set the table for dinner, when I go to bed without reading him a story, when I wake up and the school bus just dives past. I'm reminded every time I go by his room and hear the fucking silence."



A piece of the table spun off into the bushes as she drove her fist through the edge. Hank gently held her arm, trying to calm her, but I could see the fury in his eyes too.



"I'm sorry," Max gasped from the ground. "I'm so sorry Angie, II "



"How is Patricia?" Alexei asked him quietly.



"The doctors aren't optimistic," he said, leaning on me to stand. "Regular anti-venom doesn't seem to work against whatever Pit Viper uses." His thumb rubbed at his wedding ring as he tried to breathe normally again.



"That doesn't give you the right," Hank rumbled ominously.



"No, it didn't. I'm sorry."



"There have to be rules," Hank continued. "If capes just go around killing people without a trial, without jury, how're they any better than some super-powered hit-man working for the mob? Or any of the psychos in jail?"



"Insanity isn't contagious, my friend," Alexei said apologetically. "People do not become butchers simply because they come into contact with evil men."



"So they should just die and that's it?"



"The schizophrenics with pyrokenisis, the damaged people with powers? No." Troubled dark eyes met steel gray ones as Alexei swallowed nervously. "But we're not talking about the treatable or misguided; there have always been monsters with human faces, even more so once people began to manifest powers. The biggest problem is they like being monsters, being feared. Seeing bodies in the streets and fire consuming the city is a game to them at best. At worst, they truly believe their horrors are somehow necessary, and because of that they will never stop."



"Due process-"



"Can be accomplished by telepaths," I interrupted. Hank and Angie, two of my closest friends, looked betrayed. Hank's mouth opened slightly, almost pleadingly mouthing his disbelief. "Telepaths, psychics, empaths, sorcerers, witches, cyborgs, and dozens of others who are walking crime labs can do the job just as well, if not better." I shrugged sadly at their looks. "It's not impossible for capes to do it right."



"The government will turn nasty very quickly," Hank countered.



"Who cares?" I laughed. "You really think Major Fusion is in that courthouse every day because they caught him fair and square?" I said between giggles. "The government no doubt has some hidden counter-cape plans, but so what? No one in power will green-light a project to take out capes when they're picking off the psychos. In public, maybe, but when it's time to actually draft a budget for power armor and super-soldiers the pen will always be out of ink."



"You've always hated killing," Alexei breathed, astonished. "You won't even play Call of Duty."



"Alexei, I have kids," I said simply. "I have a husband. I'd like to feel they're safe, even if I can't see them."



The party was pretty much over then. Hank and Angie held hands while Alexei and Max pretended to still be interested in food and sports. Even JT seemed sad, something I never expected from such an annoyingly happy animal.



Thankfully Greg showed up not too much later, or we might've stayed awkward and depressed all night. Still in his work suit, he strode officiously into the backyard. Eerily quiet, JT had to alert us with a deep snarl that he'd arrived.



"You finally made it," Hank said with false cheer, and gently dragged JT out to his dog house. "Problems at work?"



"Nothing out of the ordinary. I just had to find a friend to bring along." He smiled with barely repressed anticipation. "He's making himself comfortable downstairs in the rec room."



Hank paled while the rest of us exchanged uneasy glances. Alexei forced a smile and made quick work of the trash, almost tossing the food away as well.



"Well, dinner may be done, but I suppose there's always room for dessert," he said, shooting a wink at me. I knew him well enough to see through it; under the silly smile he was as twisted up as the rest of us.



Angie let everyone in, giving everyone, with the exception of Greg, a tight smile. We trudged past old photos, memories of happier times far gone -- Hank and Angie's son at his first Christmas, their wedding, assorted parties and vacations. My feet almost stopped at an old newspaper clipping: all of us stood side by side in our suits, great beaming smiles lighting up the photo. A group of semi-powered bank robbers were tied up in front of us, sulking -- our first triumph. We felt like we would change the world.



No one said anything as we descended into the basement. Between the sounds of our boot steps I heard muffled groaning and panicked breathing. I could almost smell the fear.



Five people were restrained by various means, a disturbing contrast to the various odds and ends about the room. Iron Claw (a mutant with metal pincers and exoskeleton) was chained to the floor.



Smiling Jack (a gaunt young psychotic in tattered clothes) had been beaten so badly he couldn't open his eyes, let alone escape.



The Crimson Stone, all ten hulking feet of him, was strapped to a pool table with various I.V. bags of paralyzing agents coursing into him; he'd been stripped as well, his barbarian-esque furs and skins piled in a corner.



Pit Viper was just tied up, being a plain human. Naked, given his habit of hiding poison darts everywhere (seriously: everywhere). The wiry Russian would've looked fine, compared to the others, if someone hadn't broken his knees.



A young man was the last of our "guests". Impeccably dressed in a business suit and boyishly handsome, Lucien Krieger stared at me from the sofa; iron circles surrounded him with powerful wards set into the ground as well. It seemed strange to see him without his tats glowing with magic.



I stood there for a minute before pulling off my mask.



"Are we really going to do this?" Hank whispered.



"We have no choice," Greg stated. He strode forward, his cape swirling about his red and blue suit, and began to monologue about the greater good and what is necessary, so on and so forth.



I tuned him out. The others seemed to be more unnerved by his speech than anything else. Alexei was rubbing the hilt of his saber anxiously, the unidentified metal glowing softly; Max fiddled with his ring while Hank and Angie simply stood there, hand in hand.



It was strange to be here and hesitate. I'd thought of killing Krieger for years, and he certainly deserved it; his body count was a couple hundred at least, and I doubted it'd ever slow down. I suppose what really bothered me was that it didn't bother me; for all the times I'd stood for justice and what was right, for upholding the law, I felt nothing knowing I would kill this man.



Greg was still talking. The way the sweat poured off him it looked like he was trying to convince himself just as much as the others. He was screaming now, about all their crimes, and the villains who were conscious enough began to sweat as well. All except Krieger -- he smiled, enjoying this, heroes at the breaking point.



Hank's old Louisville slugger crunched against Krieger's skull, sending bone and brains across the floor.



I kept hitting him (though he was dead after the first few hits) until there was only mangled flesh and bloody clothes.



Sweat poured down my face. I felt angry. Determined. Flashes of Krieger's victims swam into my eyes with each swing. Every kid flayed and hung on hooks for artwork, every twisted creation I put down, the people they once were begging for release.



I looked at the others. The villains were scared out of their minds to see me standing there, blood splattered across my suit. So were my friends.



Alexei -- my old partner -- turned and drove his blade through Iron Claw's belly, the strange metal blade cutting through his shell and spilling his entrails over the floor. The swordsman nodded at me and swallowed thickly.



Max was almost as brutal as I'd been, but he took his time. Pit Viper was alive for a good five minutes while being worked over with a crowbar, spitting and hissing as the blows rained down. When the crowbar clanged to the ground, there was little more than a smear on the concrete.



Crimson Stone's death was quiet, almost peaceful. Hank and Angie simply turned up the I.V. drops until he was dead -- he barely twitched. The two wept quietly in each other's arms after.



Greg was the last, finally caving in Smiling Jack's chest in one blow -- after yet another speech, of course.



"I think we're ready," I said after a few minutes, looking at the bodies.



"What about the cops?" Max asked.



"They can't fix the problem. And they can't stop us." I tossed the bat away as I picked up and re-fastened my mask. "Greg, are there others? How many?"



"All of us," he said, a hysterical smile tugging at his lips.



"All?"



The house shuddered as something exploded outside. The sounds of dozens of people roaring past -- by foot, car, or in the air -- echoed down to us.



He nodded solemnly. "We tried playing by the rules. We're tired now."



"All right," I said, looking at the others. Wordlessly we ascended the stairs. I looked at the photo of us again as we passed by; so much for the brave and the bold.



Alexei's hand found mine as we left the house, and I squeezed it in friendship. I shot him a smile as Greg flew off to join the others, Angie and Hank following him on motorcycle.



"Time to go be heroes."Tarnished Age is STEPHEN HEUSER's first published short story in addition to Strange Tenants, a novel at Amazon.com. Though a baker by trade, when not at work, he walks through worlds lost to the histories to bring you legends that the universe has forgotten.



ZVEZDAN RELJIC is a photographer, graphic designer and publisher at .
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