Hero’s Life

Volume 2 of the Citizen Trilogy

Book Cover: Hero's Life
Part of the The Citizen series:
Editions:Kindle: $ 4.99
Pages: 215
Paperback: $ 11.99
ISBN: 979-8644099634
Size: 6.00 x 9.00 in
Pages: 213
ePub
Pages: 215

Settled into a routine, the Citizen finds himself getting bored with every-day criminal activity. But when things start to get hard in his non-superhero life, Heroes Inc. offers him an expanded opportunity, showing him there’s more to the job than muggers and thieves.

Published:
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
Genres:
Excerpt:

1

There’s something tremendously satisfying about punching a rapist in the face. The delicate crunch of cartilage, the almost slow motion spray of blood droplets from the flattening nose, the scrunching up of the visible bits of his face around my fist. Well, those are all just bonuses, I guess. It’s more about ending the trauma he’d been starting to inflict and bringing just a little bit of it to where it belongs.

Not satisfied by the amount of trauma I’ve gifted him with so far, I open my hand and slip it around the back of his neck, pulling hard to bring his body down to meet the knee I’m bringing up. Air sprays out of his lungs, taking a little more nose blood with it, and I realize I’ve got some anger issues to work out. The knee to the stomach becomes a knee to the ribs and I think something gives a little, but doesn’t break. Knee dropping, I crack him between the shoulders with an elbow and let him drop.

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As he falls, I wonder if maybe I should have let him do his pants up before I kicked his ass so well, but I think the embarrassment is a nice bonus.

His victim, a maybe thirty-year-old woman with frizzy black hair – at least it looked black in light amp mode – still sat where he’d knocked her to the ground, already short skirt pushed up, one sleeve almost torn off her blouse, shoe missing on the opposite side. Knowing in a dark alley I might be barely less scary than the threat I’d just removed, knowing that the helmet made me sound like Darth Vader with a head cold, I hold out a hand. “Let’s get you some help.”

She looks at the hand for a long moment before her eyes move back up to the helmet. I’ve looked at myself in the mirror with it on so many times, it seems normal to me, part of my every day, just another facet of who I am. But in spite of a handful of overused photos and some shaky cell phone video, I know it doesn’t look normal to everyone else. Or anyone else.

Her eyes flick to her assailant when he groans. Mine don’t, but for a moment I think about just how many sets of assault charges I might have built up over the last two years.

When she looks back, it’s past the helmet and over my shoulder. I have just enough time to start remembering a cliché about overconfidence before the crowbar comes down on the crook of my neck. The kick to my spine comes before my new playmate even pulls the weapon back.

That beautiful kinetic mesh suit, the obvious reason for my overconfidence and I know it, takes everything the crowbar offers with a bit of stiffening and crinkling. The kick, on the other hand, is much more a shove, and I stumble forward to drop to one knee beside the victim. As I push up, my vision sweeps across her face, but not so quickly I don’t realize the fear has come back.

“You should have stayed down!”

As I turn, he’s already swinging again, even before I’m fully back on my feet, not showing any surprise that I don’t have a broken shoulder. But his eyebrows, dark and bushy, fly up when I raise a forearm to stop the blow. They try to go up higher as I turn the block into a grab, wrapping my hand around the steel and pulling him forward into the path of my approaching fist. He crumples a lot easier than his friend did. “You should have stayed home.”

Standing over the two collapsed forms, I wonder why the second offender hadn’t felt as good taking down as the first. He was supposed to be the lookout, clearly, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if there was a plan to share the victim, and while that thought makes me angry, I’m not any more satisfied than I was.

Because it was too easy?

And that thought really offends me, enough that when goon number two groans I almost kick him, but aside from not being in character for the Citizen, I’m not that kind of guy. I just wish I am in the moment, just a little bit.

Which doesn’t make me any happier with myself.

Thankfully, the woman can’t see my face or hear anything different in my voice as I offer her a hand up for the second time. “Have you called 911 yet?”

She shakes her head, licks her lips, clears her throat. “No, I… I couldn’t get to my phone in time. Then I wasn’t thinking about it. And you…I…” Finally, she sees my hand. It takes long seconds before she can make the decision to let me help her up. “Thank you.”

A quick glance around doesn’t turn up the missing shoe and I don’t want to take the time for a physical search. The purse is an easy find, though, phone still inside, and the call is surprisingly easy for her to make. Once she has an operator on the line, words spill from her mouth, rushing by almost too fast to follow. I help with address and intersection, keeping an eye on the would-be rapists, using my last two sticky balls to make sure they don’t go anywhere even if they do wake up.

When the black and white skids around the corner at the end of the block, she’s still talking to the operator and it’s time for me to fade into the shadows. When I pull out the baton, it’s still hard to just walk by the two prone figures without giving each an extra lump, but I manage. Yeah, ethics, I’ve got ’em, even when it’s hard, I guess.

From the third story rooftop, I watch as the officers wake them up and read them their rights. I almost feel bad about the goop, but I hate carrying rope unless I have to. The company is pretty stingy with the sticky balls, though. Probably expensive. But they’re too useful, so we use them. Or I do, at least. I’d use more if they’d hand them out. I wonder if they would have considered them as standard equipment if the little exploding balls hadn’t been so key to dealing with Skraven and Sylvain.

Five minutes and ten rooftops later, I stop to rest and think. I haven’t read a comic book in forever, but my heroic life doesn’t match up against them very well. I’ve always thought I was playing superhero and I keep telling myself it’s fun. Whatever had changed tonight, even if it was just some tipping point, I wasn’t sure I could do this for much longer. There are no supervillains or aliens or monsters for me to fight, just thugs and scum, and those are slowly twisting my outlook on the job and my life.

Thugs and scum.

Versus my almost indestructible suit that keeps me intact against all comers. Not exactly a fair fight. Not exactly a challenge, ever. And I hate myself for wanting that challenge. I should just be able to go out and do good. Why was that getting so hard?

 

2

Is it your on-call weekend coming up?

 

Sheena’s texts, always grammatically correct, always fully punctuated, almost always catch me by surprise. She’s irregular at it because she’s so busy with work, putting more weird hours in than if she worked in IT Support. Plus, those sporadic texts might stretch a conversation across days or cover a dozen things in minutes. And I never know when that’s going to change.

But her texts are always precise, always direct. More subtle communication is reserved for in person interactions and those only happen a couple of times a month at best, phone calls are a little more frequent and we’ve tried videochat here and there, but it’s weird. Distance is hard, but it keeps things intense when we’re together.

And I mostly try to bring my texting up to her standards, which other people in my contacts list would be surprised to learn, lazy IT guy that I am.

 

No. Next weekend. Why?

 

My texts tend to be a little shorter than the books Sheena sometimes sends. I wonder if she dictates. My fingers couldn’t possibly tap the screen that fast, and the amount of interference I’d get from autocorrect wouldn’t help.

No instant reply, so I go back to polishing my resume. Whatever anyone might think in the break room, my company’s numbers had been steadily worse for three quarters in a row. It shouldn’t take a genius to see the staff cuts coming, and it doesn’t, but everyone seems to believe their job is essential to the continued operation of the company at any level.

I’m in IT. No company can run without an IT group anymore, but that doesn’t mean my particular place in it is safe. The computer and networking skills I have are well-duplicated in the team. In a pinch, the company could probably find a product manager or two in one of the closer stores to cover most of those same skills and the company would never miss me.

So, I’m completely replaceable, along with the rest of the team, whether any of them even want to think it or not.

And pretty much anyone who can look objectively at their job and their skill sets should be able to come to the same conclusion. I have to wonder why that kind of blindness is part of human nature, or seems to be.

It takes me half an hour to be satisfied with the four-point summary of my current job, but I don’t hold any illusions that I’m done. Thankfully, the world is pretty much past paper resumes, because I’ll want to make keyword adjustments to the standard model for every job I apply for.

Having that thought means I really do intend to start looking.

And that’s just a little scary.

 

I suddenly have the weekend off and thought I might come see you. If you were on call, I’d have second thoughts.

 

Or maybe the same text would have been a deliberate misdirection. I might come home from an idiot service call to find her asleep in my bed. My phone vibrated almost in the same moment paranoia made me tap the save shortcut again.

 

Or different thoughts.

 

Bizarre how it felt like she could read my mind at a distance sometimes. If I’m that transparent, I don’t see how it’s possible for me to have lived two different lives for two years even at a distance. Even though I only see Sheena every few weeks, how do I manage to keep any secrets from her? There are some things you have to be transparent about in a relationship. Almost everything, really, secret double lives as a superhero notwithstanding. Secrets really aren’t good, nor is keeping things quiet, nor outright lies.

Thinks the man with a super suit in his closet.

 

I do have a family dinner on Saturday night. Mom and Dad are in town. My sister and maybe her kids are meeting them to help with the drive to their place.

 

Which was weird, my parents going to spend a week with my sister instead of the other way around. I wonder again if there’s something someone isn’t telling me or if Steve just can’t get away.

And after I send that text, I stare at it for a long time before adding another, only three words long. That one, I press send on before I can let myself change my mind.

 

Want to come?

 

I keep staring at my phone. It’s probably ten minutes before I set it down, not knowing if I’d just run into a relationship barrier or if it was just Sheena’s irregular texting working against my fragile ego.

It’s easy to picture her staring at her phone, reading the text over and over again, but my mental image won’t settle between shocked amazement and questioning my sanity. Considering what I do with my spare time, the second option would be entirely fair.

Which brings me back to lying to my girlfriend.

It was probably a very good thing for me that Sheena and I shared a long-distance relationship. If we lived in the same city, I don’t think we would have lasted more than a few weeks. I would have to lie to her far too much.

And I already feel guilty about that.

It would be an easy rabbit hole to go down, listing all the things I’d have to lie about to be in a not-long-distance relationship, a thought that brings me up short of that rabbit hole and sends me down another, almost scarier one. Am I seeing Sheena because she’s long distance? Because she’s safe?

I cringe at that thought, because I’m pretty sure there’s far more potential to the relationship than just a wild weekend every few weeks, but you can’t un-think something. And I know I want there to be more even if I haven’t managed to tell Sheena that. I’m kind of assuming she knows, I guess.

My phone vibrates, face down beside the keyboard. I want to turn it over to see the message, I think, but I wait long enough that it vibrates again, reminding me I have a text I haven’t read yet.

Eventually I have to look.

 

Are you sure?

 

Such a simple question. And considering I’m the one who brought the subject up, there’s really only one ultimate answer I can give no matter how I want to phrase it. I wish I’d had my mental revelation just a few seconds sooner, but would it really have mattered?

And would that be fair to her, anyway? This is my problem, not hers, and we have had a pretty good relationship so far. In fact, distance notwithstanding, it’s been pretty awesome when we’re together, pretty communication-filled when we’re not, and I miss her when she’s not around. What the hell is my problem, anyway?

I lift the phone, conscious of the size of the step I was about to take with two words. But the response had to come quickly. No hesitation, no fear.

 

Of course.

 

Her answer comes back faster than anything else in the conversation so far. I can see her holding the phone, seeing my text, but the occasional telepathy doesn’t go both ways. I can’t get far enough inside her head to have any idea what she might be feeling about it. Maybe she’ll tell me sometime when we’re together.

 

Okay then. I’ll be in town by ten on Friday.

 

Okay then. Ten on Friday. Time enough to hide the suit.

 

3

“The quarterly numbers are not good.” Henri raises the cup of steaming black liquid, hotter than could be consumed by any mere mortal, to his lips and takes a quiet sip.

Kelly pokes the bicep of his opposite arm to avoid spilling the dangerous substance. “The numbers won’t be released until next week. How do you know they’re not good?”

“I have my sources.” He tilts his head far enough to look down his nose at us poor, uninformed slobs.

Rolling my eyes, I bite into my chocolate-filled donut while Kelly answers the question neither of us ask. “Francois works in Audit. Shouldn’t he keep his mouth shut even if no one else understands French but you?”

Another sip. “Francois barely drops hints, breadcrumbs at best, until taken in tandem with other sources. And that’s all I’ll say on the matter, except to report that the numbers are not good.”

I swallow. “Which, historically, is not good for any IT department in a company whose business is something other than computers. And even then…” I smile. “Not that I’m trying to worry anyone, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while, dusting off the resume.” The next bite removes another quarter of the donut, and I tilt it to make sure I don’t lose any barely-chocolate filling.

Staring at me, Kelly opens her mouth then shuts it again while I chew. Eventually, she finds her voice. “How do you do that?”

Frowning, I swallow again. “Do what?” I take another bite.

“Consume hundreds of calories worth of sugar and carbs every day and not get fat.”

I shrug. “Good clean living, I suppose. Lots of rest and exercise. Mostly good eating habits otherwise.” Lying to my friends. “Donuts are my one vice.” I pop the last of the pastry into my mouth and smile before I start chewing.

“Clean living. In IT. Right.” Her head shakes twice. “But I’m not going to get anywhere with that. You’ve updated your resume, though. When?”

“Night before last. Tonight, I’m going to start bookmarking job sites.” Or keep doing it, really. No harm in just a little exaggeration. “I just have to decide if I want to wait for the axe to fall or not.”

“You were going to tell us you’re leaving at some point.” I don’t know if it’s the accent or the often-oblivious personality, but Henri is damned good at sarcasm when he wants to be.

I smile to try softening the words. “Of course, just not yet.” I hold up a hand. “I was honestly waiting to see just how bad the numbers are. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about and I updated my resume for nothing. Then it wouldn’t matter. And it may still not. I may not be leaving. I just want to be prepared.”

He tries a smile of his own. It looks a little awkward to me. “An up to date resume is always a good idea, just in case. Secrets are not so good. Kelly worries.” She elbows him, but still carefully so he doesn’t spill any of his coffee.

“Sorry.” I smile again. “It honestly wasn’t intended as a secret. Just me being prepared in case I have to make a decision quickly. I’m actually pretty happy with where I am and what I’m doing, and with the people around me. I don’t want to look for a new job, I’m just recognizing I might have to.”

“Which is fine.” Henri doesn’t blink at the scowl Kelly gives him, staying focused on me, though he has to have peripheral vision. “It’s worth saying that we’re rather fond of you. I probably consider you my best friend.”

Kelly elbows him again, less carefully since the coffee is actually sitting on the table now. “What did we say about saying what we actually mean?”

Henri sighs. “Perhaps the word ‘probably’ wasn’t needed in my last statement.”

It’s not worth stifling the grin. “I’m fond of you, too, Henri. Of both of you.” I wink at Kelly. “In a subtle attempt to change the subject, are you guys ready?”

She actually giggles. “Maybe not the best time for a vacation, but since things have been in the works for months, we’re hardly going to change the date now. We’re still set.” She raises an eyebrow. “You’re still coming?”

“I’ve already paid for the tux.”

“And your mystery girl?”

My turn to sigh. “She’s not a mystery girl.” Which I’m very getting tired of explaining, but Kelly hasn’t gotten tired of teasing yet. “She just lives in another city. And yes, she is coming. Everything is already worked out, thank you very much.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“I suppose you’ll have to.” I deliberately look back to her fiancé. “Your brother is being awfully secretive with the plans for your bachelor party, Henri. Has he told you anything more than he’s told me?”

Henri takes another mouthful of coffee. “Only if you don’t know the date and time.” He shrugs. “I do know that he’s promised to honour Kelly’s feelings about gentleman’s clubs and their more mobile representatives.”

“Meaning there aren’t to be any unless he clears the location or performer with me.” She tries to look innocent for a moment, but fails under our combined gaze. “What? I don’t have any issues with there being a sex trade, whatever its shape, but not all businesses are created equal. If Justin isn’t willing to have me make sure there’s no exploitation involved, that’s not my problem.” She turns her gaze on Henri. “You guys can go see all the strippers you want, but they better be getting the primary benefit from whatever money changes hands, and that really should be all I need to say.”

Henri smiles and it’s not the usual there-and-gone variety he’s famous for. “I think Justin would be too embarrassed to have his future sister-in-law involved in the planning.”

With a shrug, I finish my chocolate milk. “I can see that, but I’m on Kelly’s side with this one. Never really been comfortable at a bachelor party in a strip club.” Kelly snorts. “Okay, maybe when I was young and dumb.” I shrug. “Younger and dumber.” I nod at the digital clock behind the counter and they both turn to look. “Unfortunately, I’m no longer young and dumb enough not to be able to tell time. We have just enough left to cross the street and get back upstairs before we’re supposed to be working again, and I have yet another system security patch to verify the integrity of before pushing it out to every computer in the company.”

Henri’s face scrunches up. “Will I need to reboot my computer? I’m in the middle of several things.”

“Aren’t you always?” Kelly swallows the last of her coffee.

I grin at her but shake my head as I answer Henri’s question. “Not until you come in tomorrow, but the update will cost you a minute or two when you log in. Or five. If everything works.” Always best to hedge your bets with a security patch.

“I suppose I can live with that.”

He’ll have to. Standing up, it occurs to me that there are a lot of things in my life falling to that same category of things, stuff I can’t choose whether or not I can accept, just how I react to. Balancing that are choices I’ve made that do affect things, sometimes in a very, very large way.

Maybe I’m getting a little too introspective. But I figure that’s not a big deal, at least not yet, not until it distracts me at the wrong moment, which might be the best reason to try to curb the habit now.

4

Police surround the park, red and blue flashing lights throwing an almost purple haze over the semi-manicured grass and trees. Yellow tape stretches everywhere and an officer every dozen paces or so keeps the few small bits of crowd at bay. I’m willing to bet the two sides of the park I can’t see look more or less the same. They have it buttoned up fairly tight for people on the ground. And anyone who isn’t limited to the ground is still going to be seen trying to get in or out.

And somewhere inside that little park is a new and different kind of challenge for me, circus tiger who mauled his trainer a couple of hours ago, scared dozens or hundreds of people as it ran to find a hiding place, and slunk into the darkest spot it came up with in the tiny nature preserve. By reports, it’s been shot at three times, maybe four, by scared or excited people thrilled by the opportunity of big game hunting in the middle of a major city, people who probably shouldn’t own guns in the first place. Like most people.

Bullets and guns aside, that circus tiger still found its way here, to a little scrap of pseudo-natural environment in the middle of miles of stone and metal and noise that probably assaulted its senses with every step. How comfortable could it be with just a little grass and few well-trimmed trees? Any port in a storm, wasn’t that the cliché? Not so much comfortable is just a little less uncomfortable and the best it could come up with.

Did it know that little scrap of land was surrounded by humans with guns? Did it understand how many of them would react to a sighting with bullets? Was this just the only possible escape from a miserable life in the circus? Tiger suicide? And was this the kind of thing I should even be interfering with?

That last one is easier to answer, at least. Fewer bullets fired is always a good thing in my mind.

And as long as it didn’t take me too long to get to the other side of the park where a four-story building backed onto a thick patch of shrubbery and small trees, I might actually stand a chance of doing something in that direction if I were lucky enough and quick enough to escape notice.

It takes twenty minutes and about four blocks of careful maneuvering to get to that roof, at which point I realize there’s a great deal of empty wall and plenty of windows between the top of the building and the top of the tallest of those little trees. And that means there’s nothing I can do to improve my chances of getting there unseen. Considering how long I’ve spent getting to this point, I’ve probably already pushed things too far to get there much ahead of anyone.

But the police are, so far, just working to keep people back and out of the park. They’re not entering the park themselves, not yet, though I’m sure there are plenty of observers and some of them will see me drop down. Will my appearance precipitate action? Or will they keep waiting for a wildlife response team and ignore me?

I step off the roof and hook the baton head on the edge as gravity pulls me down. It’s weird, but I’ve learned to enjoy that stomach lurch at the beginning of the descent. A lot of practice, I suppose, trusting my wellbeing to a thin wire wound inside a metal stick, although I’m sure I would be fine just jumping off, depending on how I landed. The suit is that good. Better.

But there would also be some recovery time built into that kind of adventure, and it was the nature of the heroing business for absolutely everything to be time-critical. Might be an experiment for another day.

Four stories, five really since I’m starting from the roof, is pretty close to the end of its reach, though. I’ve never tried six, thinking about how ridiculous I’d look dangling above the ground with no wire left to spool out. Even a superhero should have some dignity, I think.

Now in the park, I have to narrow down where the tiger is and figure out how to immobilize it. My regular drop off of a whole three sticky balls was yesterday, so I’ve still got the full complement, but those need a solid surface. If it’s sitting in grass under the trees, that won’t work, at least not very well. And a tiger isn’t blessed, if that’s the right word, with human intelligence. If I lure it onto pavement and manage to stick it in place, I have no idea if it will stop struggling or just keep trying instead and wind up injuring itself or if I’d just make it an easy target for the closest gun.

I’m suddenly at a loss trying to figure out what made me think this was a good idea. I know very little about cats and nothing at all about tigers beyond them being big cats. Somewhere along the line, I seem to have become the guy who thinks he can handle absolutely everything. Maybe I need to re-evaluate, but if this goes well, I bet I won’t, and I’ll eventually find myself in some even more ridiculous situation down the line. Maybe an elephant will get loose next time or there will be a herd of horses stampeding through the city centre.

But I’m here now.

So, if I were a tiger, stranded in a tiny little patch of green in the middle of a crowded city, where would I hide? It maybe isn’t the best idea to think about how my childhood cats behaved when they were frightened of something, but it’s all I’ve got. So, as a frightened cat, surrounded by fear and danger on all sides, I want somewhere quiet, somewhere sheltered enough that no one could sneak up on me, and probably somewhere as dark as I can get.

I don’t come up with a lot of potential places. Most of the little bits of greenery didn’t offer enough cover on their own, even if they made a consistent blocked view from outside in one direction or another. The trees are too trimmed and the shrubs are too small and the flower beds are just flower beds. Maybe the playground has some opportunities, a thought that has uncomfortable undertones. Something that can hide a tiger could hide a person just as easily, and for worse reasons.

Walking in a crouch to hopefully minimize my visibility to the police, I get close to the playground as quickly as I can, finding out just how good my instincts are when I catch sight of an orange and black snout sticking out of a semi-circular red plastic tube underneath a twisting, yellow slide.

Moving back, I see one end is sealed with heavy black plastic and shiny bolts. Sheltered, secure, and with no chance of another predator sneaking up behind it. Careful steps take me in a wide circle so that by the time I enter its vision, I’m hopefully not close enough to be considered a threat.

The deep, echoing growl, almost enough to vibrate its hiding spot, tells me otherwise.

I back off a few steps and ask the helmet for physical details. The first group of facts seems like it’s pulled directly from the circus ad: female Bengal Tiger, six years old, 540 pounds, named Sasha. After that, I get estimates of pulse and respiration rates as well as a parts-per-million number on blood in the air, which the helmet obviously smells but I wouldn’t if I took it off.

“So, it’s wounded.”

“Correct.” The response startles me a little. I don’t use the voice interface very often and usually have to turn it on first. I must have forgotten to turn it off last time. Either way, I know better than to ask for details, instead starting to manipulate the optics until I can zoom in on a dark patch on her right shoulder that I think, even with the shadow, is oozing. She hasn’t just been shot at during her attempt at freedom, she’s been shot.

I’m disappointed by my city, my culture, my society. Whose first impulse, seeing a tiger walking down the street, is to whip out a gun and shoot at it? I don’t want to think about how many people might have shared that impulse. I’m angry enough already.

And I’m still not any closer to figuring out how to deal with it.

So, I do what any hero with a near-indestructible suit would do when presented with a dangerous, wounded animal in front of him and half a police force behind him: I crouch down and stare at it. At her. After a moment, I take the helmet off and tuck it under one arm. If I feel the need to say anything, and I probably will sooner or later, she probably won’t respond to the robot-with-a-head-cold voice.

She growls again as I drop a set of finger tips to the ground for balance. Hearing with my helmet off is a bit different than through the filter and, for probably the hundredth time at least, I have a fleeting thought about what I’m gaining or losing with the device. But it is only fleeting, because a tiger growl isn’t like a house cat’s. A tiger’s growl you can feel down into your soles and the lizard brain understands very well that here is a creature who can eat you.

Not that I think she would, given the chance. Reports used the word mauled when talking about what she did to her handler during her escape, describing gouges across the man’s side and leg and a broken arm, but Sasha didn’t slow down to even take a bite, much less anything more sinister. She just struck a blow for her freedom and got as far away as she could as fast as she could.

“It’s okay, girl.” Well, that sounds stupid and from the narrowing eyes, she thinks so, too. “I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope we can figure it out without any more gunshots.”

No response from the tiger, not that I really expected one, but sometimes talking out loud helps me figure things out. Sometimes it just gets me into trouble.

“The solution is for you to take your vigilante ass out of the line of fire and let the police deal with this.”

I stand up slowly, thinking if I hadn’t have taken the helmet off, I might have had some warning. Without moving to put it back on, or stepping out of the way, I turn around to find myself between a wounded tiger and four police officers better armed and armoured than most of the soldiers sent to Iraq, weapons raised but not targeting me or Sasha.

“As a matter of fact, that should always be your solution.”

It’s weird to find myself short on words. I can usually come up with something at least slightly clever if I need to, either in the real world or dealing with assorted bad guys, but this is different. You make allowances for adrenaline, although I think I’ve already decided it’s a personality thing here. Still, I can’t beat someone up just because he’s an asshole. Especially a cop.

And I think I’ve got a decent reputation of playing nice with the authorities. I’d rather not spoil it just because someone is over aggressive doing his job. “Sorry, I was just hoping to keep her contained until the zoo response team gets here with tranqs.”

“There won’t be a zoo response team.”

“You’re just going to shoot her?” I completely fail to keep the surprise out of my voice. Now I wish I had the helmet on to record.

“As soon as you get out of the way. I’d hate to be accused of endangering a civilian, even a vigilante.”

I’m trying hard to figure out if I even have any cards to play. It’s not like I can tranquilize her. If I back up too much, she’ll probably jump me, and they’ll shoot her to protect or save me even though I don’t need it. And there’s no way I can take up enough space to block all four AR-15s they can bring to bear. I just don’t see any options, so I have to try playing for time until I do. “Are you carrying anything non-lethal?”

“It attacked a trainer and a customer at the circus. This was never going to go any other way.” He almost sounds sorry, but that gets lost as the weapons move higher and officers start to spread out. “Please step aside. I won’t ask again.” There’s no way I can block all four shots.

I have to try.

But when the shot comes it’s not from any of them. A single report echoes from the surrounding buildings, probably instantly identifiable by the helmet if I’d been wearing it. Probably, it will still be able to tell me later if I ask. Snipers never occurred to me, and I don’t see where the shot came from, don’t feel its passing, don’t hear its impact.

I don’t have to. I know what happened even before the arrogant lead cop raises a finger to his ear and nods. “Visual confirmation. We’ll make a physical check in a moment.” After I’ve left, or at least gotten out of the way.

Powerless. Helpless.

Why am I doing this again?

I don’t acknowledge the lowering of weapons as I turn away, plopping the helmet on my head and letting it register the pool of blood without imaging exactly how the tiger died. I start walking.

“It had to be this way.” Same voice, same cop. Maybe not an asshole. Maybe just a guy doing his job under some stress. Maybe I’m that way too, because I don’t think it had to be.

COLLAPSE

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