* * *
The decrepit church coughed dust under Joaquin’s heavy footsteps. He ran a lazy hand over still standing pews, nose itching at the pervading piss scent, one too recent to ignore among the natural smell of destruction and abandonment. The graffiti demoralizing the walls preached a different kind of psalm to him, a cruelly written reminder that it was still and would always be a dog eat dog world, only now supers and defects were barking equally loud at each other. The painted cross on the opposite wall couldn’t substitute the one that had been stolen but it was a symbol nonetheless, red and full of sharp edges. Joaquin stared at it for the longest time imagining blood dripping from its base into a chalice, a Holy Grail that would touch the lips of the worthy, of the true rulers of this world. A loud bang to his left made his brow furrow, the mirage dissipating before his eyes angrily turned to slits. He cocked his head scolding Kid’s balancing act on an overturned chair.
The boy with the shadow of a blonde goatee on his thin, white face did as he was told, picking up the chair and placing it on its wobbly legs before sitting down. Cosma was studying the only stained glass intact by the flight of rocks by Xavier, and Nightwave was picking scattered leaflets off the ground. His boot kicked needles far under the pews, a disgust etched on his face.
“I used to come here on Sundays for my sister some years back. She sang in the choir.”
“Rough neighborhood?” Cosma quirked an eyebrow.
“The niners got the habit of drive-by shootings every other week. The pastor had some dealings with them putas and when he couldn’t pay, he ran for the border. Church never sent another pastor.”
Cosma whistled running slender fingers across her exposed throat, simulating a sliced gesture to Kid who smirked.
“Where’s the cop?” Quake asked.
Joaquin flinched at that honorific and at the motionless figure of the former guard, unamused by the locale. Betty looked half harmless to them so the snigger in their voices at the mention of her he couldn’t change, but her stance and the sharp glint in her eyes spoke much of her former life. She still didn’t want to admit she was a fugitive in a way after disappearing from her post at the SPD. Regardless of that she still acted the dutiful officer trying to nail in the no-harm-policy into their brand of vigilantism. Some bastards just had to be hurt; it wasn’t philosophy, it was street rules. Joaquin was dutiful too in that way. “She’ll be here.”
“Will you tell her?” Cosma probed, now standing close to Joaquin leaning over his shoulder matching his stance when he’d stared at the cross.
“What do you think? We need her.”
The woman clicked her tongue, disapproval dripping like poison at the sharpness of his voice. Joaquin smirked, half-amused how the shy teacher-type had turned wild daredevil mistress. Cosma was at ease with her power that she was frightened of months ago. He suspected she was enjoying the power play. The mischief twinkling in her greenish eyes was welcome though in their line of business.
Joaquin searched his pocket and produced a crumpled piece of paper he’d kept for too long. He traced his fingertips on the jagged edges when he heard the swing of the double doors accompanied by the whine of ancient hinges. The four reduced their chatter to murmurs at the sight of Betty.
“What’s going on? You sounded urgent over the phone.” She showed him the burner in her hand.
“Nothin’ to worry your pretty little head over.”
“Then why call? Is it because you went after the woman from the diner? Did you…”
Joaquin nodded cutting her short. “Taken care off.”
“You mean dead.”
Not a question, a statement. He shook his head. “Taken care off.”
He could see her flinch at the conformation. “Taken care of” in her head meant killed. She was tiptoeing around the truth. Some days she ignored it, others – she fumed over it. Her morals, the cop ones, were rooted deep within her and watching someone choke to death under Cosma’s instruction was a no-no for her. Though one too many times she stilled her hand and let the judgment fall. She was torn apart. She finally nodded choosing to believe the woman had been dropped off to the police. The local cops took in both supers and defects. Normals, Betty called them. Joaquin knew it the other way round all thanks to Anne. Regardless, the jail cells in the county were full, detention centers packed. The defects got to go home or do some time; the supers disappeared. It was the mystery that kept Joaquin awake at night. It was the anger and frustration that streamed from that uncertainty that fueled his rage and made him push the streets night after night. The night never revealed that secret to him. It slipped through his fingers like smoke.
Despite Betty’s protestations they had to keep chasing that smoke. Joaquin looked at her thin frame, dark circles under her eyes. She too had ghosted near the precinct on a few occasions and Joaquin recognized that expression on her face – staring from afar, wanting to be on the side of the good guys, doing things by the book. But the date and year were wrong, right and wrong were grey areas now. Joaquin just had to convince her that they were gravitating toward the right choices, the hero aspect.
Betty seemed to finally find her words. “The river area is blocked, there are Nightprowlers everywhere. It looks like they’re expanding the perimeter.”
“They’ll come knocking on our door soon,” Nightwave rubbed his chin.
“We’ll move again, that’s not the issue. Figurin’ out where they take people, that’s the problem. We’re no closer to finding that shit out.” Joaquin bit his lower lip and chewed. He faced them, the cross at his back hung like a red dagger above his head.
“Maybe if we reach out to Massey…” Betty started.
He cut her off, voice raised, “Nah, nah, nah. I ain’t doin’ that. We do this on our own.”
She shook her head at his stubbornness, but really, it was pride. They were doing a good job on their own. The Movement of Tomorrow people needed protection. They weren’t fighters; they held peace banners and reached out for solidarity.
“Then why am I here? Why an abandoned church?”
“Fuck you, that’s why,” quipped Quake.
Joaquin looked at his people. They braced themselves for the retaliation about to be unleashed by Betty. “We’re freeing Miles Jensen.”
With a cunning smile on his face, Joaquin opened the folded piece of paper revealing a map of the city scribbled in red with time stamps and dates.
Betty barked a hoarse laugh, her eyes wide. “Have you gone fucking insane?”
Joaquin continued undisturbed. “Tomorrow Jensen is going to be executed. Tonight they’ll move him. We’ll ambush the convoy right around here,” he tapped the map. The transfer was from the highly secure Besdas Facility to the state prison where the execution would commence. The designated path of the convoy was kept mostly to wide, open roads; a clear space in a trafficless area in the dead of night as the time stamp showed. But they were moving on the edge of town shadowed by the looming silhouettes of factories and chimneys belonging to the industrial zone, a place quiet, empty, intimate at night. That gave them advantage. “There’s pleny’ of room for Quake to bust ‘em open and the Kid will get a good look from there to pinpoint a weak point in the armored vehicle. The guards will be easy, Nightwave and Cosma will blind them and that leaves me and you to extract Miles.”
“And in breaking out a man thought of as the biggest murderer of our time you’ll just give a new bone to chew to all those people afraid of you! You’ll put a bigger bull’s-eye on your head than you already have. It’ll draw Globe’s attention. What’s the point?”
“Miles is our friend,” Cosma interjected.
“We owe it to him,” Kid added.
“I’ve lost friends too and we’re about to lose more if we focus on suicide missions like this.”
Joaquin waved his hand. “It’s decided. We’re getting’ Miles out cause’ he’s innocent. We finally gots the chance to do that. And he might have information bout’ Globe and his plan. He might know where they take all the supers. I mean he’s heard and seen plenty’ while hauled up, right?”
Betty’s face reddened. “Yeah, in that tight, white-walled, sound proof, windowless prison of his, he’s heard plenty, sure!”
“It’s worth the risk,” Quake shrugged. “We don’t have much else to go with. You’ve seen how many times we scout the streets for intel. No one’s talking and either they don’t know or they’re too afraid to talk. There are informants among us that leak to the Nightprowlers for a safe sleep at night. We’re barely holding it as it is.”
“All the more reason to stop this! If we just get together with the group smuggling supers out of the city we might have a chance to save the people that are still out there.”
Betty pinched the bridge of her nose. Joaquin could see her fighting with her own ideals. His nerves were tight, teeth barred as if to bark.
“Globe won’t be expectin’ this. He’s put trust into Miles and the fact that he’ll take the needle tomorrow. Imagine what’ll happen to his plans when Miles disappears.”
Betty looked resigned. It was curiosity, Joaquin thought.
“How exactly do you know about his transfer,” she asked.
Quake chuckled in return. “I got a friend whose cousin started working as a guard in Besdas where they’re holding Miles. He got to bragging left and right how he was tasked with bitchslapping the child murderer super day and night and my friend, well he has a loose tongue after a few drinks.”
Betty cocked her head. “And he just told you the exact time and place? Out of the kindness?”
Quake frowned, tongue darting to lick his lips. “No. We beat it out of the guard. Very cooperative fellow.”
“Can we have the room?” Betty asked.
Joaquin nodded. When they were alone Betty dropped her voice to a whisper tightening the space around them, speaking as if in confession. “Your face will be out there, Joaquin. After this stunt it’ll blow out of proportion.”
“All they have is a half-ass drawing that doesn’t look anything like me. I can be any one of them motherfuckers out there.” Their biggest concern had been their faces, but Xavier had taken care of that and on most cases he created shimmering shadows to overlay their features. Their voices were the solidifying thing when it came down to putting the fear into people’s souls. The bandanas and ski masks were too outlandish, too gang related and they weren’t rookies anymore.
“Massey put his trust in me that I’ll keep you safe. And I’m aiding you with this vigilante thing. It needs to stop. We’re not winning any wars this way.”
“I don’t need no babysitter. I got my own crew and the streets are ours.” Joaquin shrugged. “Besides we’re helpin’ people.”
Betty thrust her hands in her pockets and exhaled. “I’m not denying that. But we can’t tackle this on our own. More people are disappearing off the streets every week. Globe is an octopus with too many tentacles and we can’t keep hoping that by lopping one off the others aren’t staying busy. We’re outnumbered.”
Joaquin grimaced, the metaphor lost to him. He let out a heavy sigh. “After this one thing we’ll talk again. Maybe I’ll listen.”
“Look if you do this, if we do this you know there’ll be Nightprowlers assisting that convoy. I’m pretty sure that piece of paper doesn’t tell you how many. One shot from that gun of theirs, you know what’ll happen.”
Joaquin pouted. “I can’t get hurt.”
Betty inclined her head toward the door of the church. “But they can. Think this over.”
With that she started to leave him. He called after her, “Yo wait up! Where are you going? This shit is goin’ down tonight!”
Her response came with the swing of the doors, her silhouette sneaking out after her. “To clear my head.”