“I don’t want to have to rescue you, Chapman. I’m not going out there to rescue you or perform for you. I’m going out to fight crime. And believe it or not? That’s not easy and that’s not safe. Not for me, not for innocent bystanders, not for idiot reporters, and not even for the criminals I’ll be taking down. And if you go waltzing around playing out your Truncheon fantasies, you might get hurt. You might get killed. Or? You might get me hurt or killed. And more likely than either of those? You might get some innocent bystander hurt or killed.”
She stepped back, her eyes still intense as lasers as they burned into mine. “Get this in your head, Chapman. We’re. Not. Getting. Anyone. Killed.”
In the alternate universe coded ⎇001JW, super heroes and villains have been around for decades and tensions are rising between parahumans and their unpowered prosahuman cousins. This is Justice Wing In Nadir.
Music journalist Todd Chapman had an assignment to interview the third-tier super villain ‘Leather.’ Chapman learned that before she’d turned to crime, Leather had been a fourth-tier super hero named Dynamo Girl, but had quit after a combination of apathy for her deeds and jokes over her slender build – or ‘sidekick physique’ as it was insultingly known. Learning her only regret was that on her last night as Dynamo Girl she’d given up and kept the stolen money she was trying to recover, Chapman asked why that had to be her last night as the hero? Deciding Chapman was right, Leather decided to spend one last night as Dynamo Girl. When he expressed a desire to see Dynamo Girl in action, Leather asked Chapman if he was willing to risk his life to get that wish.
Interviewing Leather (Revised)
About an hour after the photo shoot I was sitting at the breakfast table. Marco and Leather were sitting on the other side. Marco hadn’t changed out of his ‘hench’ clothes – even the leather jacket. Leather, on the other hand, was wearing a tan microfiber bathrobe. Her hair was wrapped in an old brown stained t-shirt. Hair dye, from the look of it. Despite her clothes, the whole thing felt way less casual than breakfast.
“Right,” Leather said. “We call this the collar.” She set down what was indeed a leather collar in front of me. It had a silver disk set on the front, which concealed the latch. The latch itself had two holes in a recessed notch on the opposite side. There was a special key – really a plastic tab with two wires sticking out of it. Later I’d find out that key had some kind of integrated circuit inside it.
Without that circuit and its embedded code… well, Leather explained it better than I could. “The whole thing’s chock full of electronics. There’s a transmitter in the lock and wiring circling the whole thing. When it’s locked, the wires go live. They act like an antenna for the transmitter, too. Without this specific key inserted into it? The thing won’t unlock.” She grinned, a bit smugly. “This cost way more than you’d expect.”
“Okay…” I said. I looked it over. It was the same red leather with black accents as Leather’s own suits. It was also ringed with small silver buttons. Like a spiked collar, but these weren’t spiked. It certainly looked like a Leather-special supervillain gadget or accessory. I”And you want me to wear this?”
Leather snickered. “I don’t care either way, honestly. You can choose to wear it. If you decide not to, that’s fine with me.” Her smile grew a bit more wicked. “But you only get to ride along with Dynamo Girl if you put it on first.”
“That’s it? I put on this collar, and you let me come with you?”
I considered. It seemed way too easy. “So… this has… what, a tracker in it?” After the last night’s beating I was all too aware that I was more ‘prisoner’ than ‘guest.’ I didn’t think that was about to change.
Marco snorted, shaking his head.
Leather, on the other hand, took the question seriously. “Well, sort of. I mean… technically yes. It’s got a tracker in it, though I don’t think that’s really its key feature.”
I frowned. “What am I missing?”
Leather smiled a bit more. “Marco? Show the gentleman what he’s missing.”
Marco’s face split into a broad grin and he picked up the collar. He carefully unscrewed one of the silver accents and slid it off. Holding it in his other hand, he turned it over and showed it to me. There was a slightly glossy pink putty packed inside the thing. “You see this?”
“That’s an explosive. The cap helps shape and reflect it inward. It’s not strong enough to blow a safe or a door, but you don’t want to know what it’ll do to your neck.”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t worry!” Leather sounded all too cheerful. “So long as you stay near me, the bomb won’t go off! Or, if you can’t stay near me for some reason, you can stay near my car and the bomb still won’t go off! If for some reason you get separated from both me and my car, tell Marco and he’ll help you!”
“I thought Marco wasn’t coming,” I said.
“I’m not,” Marco said. “But there’s also a transmitter in that thing. I’ll hear everything you say.” He laughed. “It’s impressive stuff – even works if you go into a tunnel. Hey Boss, where’d you get this thing again?”
“The Armory,” Leather said. “I want to say this is one of Leo Lucas’s designs? I mean, it’s way outdated by his standards but for a third-tier like me? Gotta say – pretty swank.” She turned and faced me again, her grin positively shit-eating, now. “So, let’s say we get separated, and you’re not close to the car. Tell Marco and he’ll make sure you don’t die a grisly death!”
“But – but wait a second. If I can ask Marco to keep the bomb from going off, why put a bomb on me in the first place?”
“Oh, silly rabbit,” Leather said, shaking her head. “You missed the most important part. Marco will hear everything you say!”
“So if you call the cops? I’ll hear it,” Marco said. “If you ask for help or tell someone about the bomb collar? I’ll hear it. If you say anything to step out of line? I’ll hear it.”
“And before you start thinking about elaborate charades or writing down some kind of cry for help? Marco’s also trained to listen for certain sounds or crowd reactions. And if I didn’t make it clear before? Marco can detonate the bomb just as easily as he can disarm the bomb.”
“It’s better than that,” Marco said, grinning. “If you don’t get my help, you’ll be in deep. If someone tries to cut the strap, it’ll sever something you don’t want severed and the bomb will go off before they even finish cutting.”
“Oh, and remember how I yelled at Marco over breaking my hostage, last night?” Leather giggled. “Marco has my full permission to set that thing off if he even suspects you’re being a bad boy.” She toyed with the key. “And since this has to be plugged in before we can unlock the thing—”
“Without the key it’ll go off,” I answered. “It seems like a lot of these scenarios end with my head being blown off.”
“Not blown all the way off,” Marco said. “There’s only so much explosive goo in this thing. It’ll just tear the soft tissue out.”
“Oh, and rip apart the windpipe,” Leather threw in.
“Well, maybe. It depends on how it sits.”
“Oh, it does not! That much blow-jelly? That’ll take out his windpipe.”
Marco rolled his eyes. “Fine. We can agree that his spine’ll be fine, right?”
“Wait wait wait,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re going to put a bomb around my neck, put Marco – a guy who beat me into pudding last night – on a trigger, and I’m supposed to keep quiet about it?”
Leather laughed. “Of course not.”
I breathed out. “Okay,” I said. “Because that’s what it sounded like.”
“You’re going to put a bomb around your neck,” Leather said with a grin. “You’re going to put it on, knowing that Marco, the man who beat you into pudding last night, is sitting on the trigger, and you’re going to choose to be quiet about it.”
I stared. “And if I refuse?”
Marco chuckled. “Then you spend the night here. And honestly? I’d go with that. Me and the boys are gonna break out that new game console.”
“I thought you fenced all those prerelease consoles.”
“We kept one out. C’mon man, we’re only human. Besides, every villain needs her trophies, right Boss?”
“Hey! You are not playing that without me!”
Marco shrugged. “You don’t have to go play at cowl.” he said.
“It’s not playing.” Leather rolled her eyes. “Fine. You sleazes can play with it. But don’t you screw it up! And don’t go online!”
“Hey, give us some credit! We’re not stupid,”
“This from the man who broke procedure, ignored my orders, and ruined my fucking bedspread last night? Your credit rating’s shot, Mister!”
I looked at the collar while they play-argued. I felt a little sick to my stomach just looking at the. It was like staring at suicide-as-fashion-accessory, and if I wanted to kill myself there were way easier ways.
And why would I wear the stupid thing in the first place? I wasn’t here by choice. I was a prisoner, and even on the night Leather was going to go play super hero she was still a villain and they were literally joking around about murdering me. Hadn’t I more than done enough for this stupid story?
“You told me you wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe. Well, remember. Hunter S. Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels. These guys went out and they did, Chapman. Do you really, really want to be on hand for the return of Dynamo Girl? To get that story, even if no one ever gives a shit?”
My story – maybe the biggest part of it – was going out on the town. And I could either watch it and document it, or I could just listen to Leather’s version of that story, slanted to meet her needs and desires, and to Hell with actually knowing the truth.
And that’s when it sunk in. When it really sunk in. From the very first day I went on an assignment for Amplifier I’d met with everything from rock legends, flash in the pan pop icons, and ridiculous nobody celebutantes, sat on their couches, listened to their meaningless, self-serving anecdotes, and written it up like it was news. Any time I so much as questioned their version of events I was slapped down – by them, by their handlers, by their PR firms or managers, or by Kyle fucking Elias – and told to just write their version of events like it was God’s honest truth. Let the fact checkers or the important journalists follow up after the fact if necessary, and it was never God damned necessary.
I realized I’d been rubbing the bridge of my nose, looking down and tuning out their banter. Rubbing my nose was stupid, of course. My nose hurt. My face hurt. Every part of my body hurt, ibuprofen or no. I’d been thrashed to Hell and back less than fifteen hours before.
But I’d kept asking questions. And it’d turned into… into something more than me sitting on a couch listening to Colton Pike or Tracy Tay spinning yarns about that crazy time they did a show strung out on Chivas and cocaine. Something much more. And today?
“You get down to it, you passed the only real test.”
“You’re still doing your job.”
“Chapman?” Leather said again, a little more sharply. “Are you listening to me?”
I snuffled. “Sorry,” I said. “I think the ibuprofen’s wearing off. Anyway. Do I put the collar on now or just before we go out?”
Leather and Marco both just looked at me for a long moment, before Marco shook his head again, grinning. “Man, you are crazy.”
As it worked out, the preparations were a lot simpler than most nights. After she’d finished dying her hair – it ended up kind of a chestnut brown and she’d straightened it before putting it up – Leather put most of her time into research. She was studying maps of the city, newspaper articles – that kind of thing.
I was sitting in one of the other chairs in her study.”So what’s the plan?” I asked.
“We patrol,” she said. “I’m figuring out a good route right now.”
“Oh yeah.” She grinned. “That was actually one of the fun parts of doing the superhero shuffle. Planning your routes through the city, I mean. You wanted to make sure it was an area you could cover, and you wanted it to cross through high crime areas. At the same time, if you did it right the city could be really pretty.”
“This was Meridian City?”
Leather shook her head. “Nah. I never even visited Meridian City until I took this lair. That’s why I’m trying to soak things up. We’re not going to have a really good route tonight. Those take time to develop. But we should be able to find some trouble down in the Underlands.”
Leather nodded. “Yeah, you know the West Highlands neighborhood? Upscale. Has marketplaces, theaters, banks and stuff, all up on hillsides?”
“Well, you have a lot of elevated bridges and onramps up to it. And people live along the bottom of them too. Stretches into low income neighborhoods, and then out to more industrial areas.” She half-smiles. “Tourists above, townies below. You know how it goes.”
No, I really didn’t.
It was the same, all afternoon long, straight into the evening. What got me was how… mellow things were. The henches pretty much had the night off, of course, so they were just hanging around. That seemed strange to me – normally, there was discussion and rediscussion going on. Contingencies discussed. What-ifs for everything from ‘the police show up too soon’ to ‘Vortex, Paragon, and the Nightwatch happen to be having coffee across the street.’
Not this time. One of the bagmen spent his time doodling in a sketchbook. Marco worked on the Leathermobile. The Steve spent most of his time in his office – all the henches had offices, thanks to the old lighthouse station having spare rooms – and the rest watching television.
And then there was Leather herself.
I’ve told you how nuts she gets before a job – all frenetic bouncing around, going over the plan over and over again and quizzing her henches to boot, at least up to the prayer. Like with the henches, there was always a sense of ritual to it all. Performance prep. I’d seen singers and actors do the same kinds of stuff time and again. If you wanted good luck before a show, you have to follow the ritual. That was Leather before a heist.
But not tonight.
Oh, she was clearly excited. She bounced around from the upstairs down to the bottom level (including dropping two stories into a crouch that made me wince when I saw it but which she barely noticed. Always showing off, even now.) But she wasn’t nervous. She wasn’t trying to plan out every detail. She wasn’t freaking. She was just excited.
And me? Well, that was simple. I was scared shitless.
Look, up until that moment I’d interviewed and profiled musicians. Yeah, sometimes the music world gets violent, but no matter how much the media – or the PR – played it up, it was rare. I sure as Hell never cruised the streets with someone looking for a fight. This time? Leather – or Dynamo Girl – was cruising for a fight.
“So what am I doing on this trip?” I asked.
Leather shrugged. She was in exercise gear now – a white tank top and blue stretch pants – practicing katas. She claimed it helped center her – get her limber for the night’s fun. I believed her, but for the record I’d never seen her do any of that before a heist. “Does your camera work well at night?”
“With the flash.”
“Leave it at home, then.” She grinned. “A camera flash might distract some criminal lowlife. That means he might notice you. And if he notices you, he might shoot you. I’m not doing this to get you killed.”
“So what is my role? Am I your sidekick?”
Leather stopped mid-squat, and stared at me.
I should mention – all afternoon Leather had been kind of flickering between ‘Leather’ as I’d come to know her and that bubbly, cheerful ‘Dynamo Girl’ side to her personality. The closer we got to her patrol, the more ‘Dynamo Girl’ she’d become – and her newly dyed chestnut hair only reinforced all that. But right then? Staring at me and absorbing my question? That was pure Leather, and the laugh that followed just undescored it. It was the kind of laugh that cut a guy down to size, and by guy I mean me, just in case it wasn’t clear. “Sidekick? Don’t flatter yourself, Chapman!” She chuckled again, fluidly standing back up. “You’ve got no powers, you’ve got no training. You’ve got nothing but an annoying habit of asking questions when any sane person would shut up.”
My face felt hot. “Darkhood doesn’t have powers,” I said. I knew it sounded lame even as I said it.
“Gosh, you’re right,” she said, affecting shock and putting a hand to the side of her face. “I mean, Darkhood can neuter a fly at two hundred yards with his eyes closed with a single bow-shot, but he doesn’t have any powers, does he? He’s just like you!”
“Point taken,” I said, flushed and looking away.
“No no, let’s make sure we both understand. Maybe I misjudged you! You got some hidden talent you haven’t mentioned? Huh, Chapman? Some ancient combat technique you forgot to bust out back when the henches were pounding you into hamburger?”
I looked down at the floor. I was still beet red, and feeling… angry? Frustrated? I don’t know. But something. It actually took me a moment to realize she wasn’t saying anything. No, more to the point – she was waiting for me to answer her question. “Not really,” I muttered.
“Oh. Okay. Glad we’re on the same page.” She moved up close – I was actually still looking down, so between that and her speed it almost was like she teleported right in front of me, her fingertip touching my chin and lifting it so our eyes met. “Don’t you get it,” she said, her voice a bit softer and maybe even a bit kinder. “You’re not Paragon or the Nightwatch, Chapman. You’re not a sidekick like one of the old Cudgels, either. You’re Barbara Babcock. You’re the reporter hanging around the hero, looking for a scoop and getting into trouble and maybe even needing the hero to rescue you.”
She leaned forward, our noses almost touching. Her eyes almost burned into mine. “But I don’t want to have to rescue you, Chapman. I’m not going out there to rescue you or perform for you. I’m going out to fight crime. And believe it or not? That’s not easy and that’s not safe. Not for me, not for innocent bystanders, not for idiot reporters, and not even for the criminals I’ll be taking down. And if you go waltzing around playing out your Truncheon fantasies, you might get hurt. You might get killed. Or? You might get me hurt or killed. And more likely than either of those? You might get some innocent bystander hurt or killed.”
She stepped back, her eyes still intense as lasers as they burned into mine. “Get this in your head, Chapman. We’re. Not. Getting. Anyone. Killed. Right?”
“Right,” I said softly. But despite my saying that? I was thinking about the collar I’d be wearing. The bomb I’d be strapping around my throat just to have the chance to do a ride-along. The bomb whose sole purpose was to in fact kill me if I so much as stepped out of line.
Was she really unable to see the difference? Could she really be Dynamo Girl enough to be that vehement about protecting everyone from innocents to criminals and yet Leather enough to casually threaten my life and keep me as a hostage?
But of course I didn’t say that out loud.
“Good,” Leather said. And then she grinned, relaxing and stretching her arms over her head. “You should probably just wait in the car anyway. Watch the fun from there. Oh man, you’re going to love this car.”
“You’re not taking the Leathermobile?”
Leather snorted. “Of course we’re not taking the Leathermobile. It’s all wrong for this type of work and besides, the cops have it on tape. Nah, I got something special for tonight.” She stepped back and started back into warmups. “You’ll see.”
‘Tonight’ was about ten after eight. I was hanging in the rec room where the henches were setting up the new game console – it was right next to one of the doors into the vehicle bay, after all. Leather – or Dynamo Girl, I suppose, though she wasn’t masked up – walked in with considerably less than her usual slinky style. She was wearing a red dress with an overcoat over it. She had on pumps, but her legs were a reddish pale – I realized they were the tights she wore with her Dynamo Girl togs, which meant they were on under her civilian clothes. Which… now that I thought about it… was exactly what you’d expect from a super hero.
She looked like a fresh faced nineteen year old, all perky and cheerful. There were no signs of her piercings – not even the holes – and her tattoos had clearly been covered. “Ready, Chapman?” she asked, brightly. Grinning ear to ear, even.
I took a deep breath. The collar was sitting on the end table next to me. The brown haired bagman had provided me with a pair of jeans that were a bit heavier than normal. Lined, he’d said – more resistant to normal wear and tear. He’d also given me a black turtleneck and a brown leather trenchcoat, and that was a bit heavy too. It looked perfectly normal, if maybe more GQ than biker gang. Marco had added to that with a pair of wraparound sunglasses, then flipped off the light while I was wearing them. I’d been surprised to suddenly see everything ‘brighten’ back up into blue and green outlines. “Darksight glasses,” he said. “If it’s bright enough, you can see through them like you weren’t even wearing them, though they cut down the glare. If it gets dark enough, they automatically kick in. You need to plug them in between uses. There’s no targeting or camera or augmented reality shit in them, but they’re decent basic hench-wear.”
They were also kind of like a mask, of course, but he didn’t say that.
“Chapman?” she asked again. “You good to go?”
“Yeah,” I said. I picked up the collar. I very carefully slid it around my neck and fed it into the silver disk. Marco leaned over and plugged the key into the slot. I could see the key fob light up out of the corner of my eye, and I felt a tingle all around my neck for just a moment, and with a ‘thunk’ it was locked in place. There was a small receiver sitting on the same end table and I saw it start blinking until Marco leaned over and pressed a button. Obviously the collar was broadcasting and obviously Marco was receiving. “All set, here.”
“Good,” she said. “Roll up your turtleneck and come on.”
I got up out of the chair and rolled the turtleneck up, covering the deadly explosive I’d willingly just strapped to my own neck.
She nodded in approval and headed for the door to the vehicle bay, and I followed along behind her, stepping through—
—and came to a sudden stop, staring.
Like she’d said, she avoided the Leathermobile. Instead, she was unlocking a dark blue late model Toyota Tercel. Like, a completely normal looking subcompact car. It probably got great gas milage and had absolutely nothing else going for it.
She looked back over her shoulder. “What?”
“Nothing,” I said, walking in. “It… it’s just….”
“Yeah?” She grinned. God help me, that grin looked adorable. I realized that she wasn’t wearing lipstick. Or any makeup, as near as I could tell.
“This is… I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be weird but you were so excited to show off your car. I mean… this is… this isn’t better than my Hyundai!”
“Are you kidding?” she asked, giggling. “This is way better than your Hyundai. For one thing? My car still has an engine, a hood, and a windshield. Get in!” She slid into the driver’s seat.
I shook my head, walking up to the car and climbing in the passenger’s seat. “I’m just saying—”
I stopped talking. The interior was comfortable. It still looked very much ‘mid-range subcompact car,’ but… there was something off. Something about the controls didn’t look right. They were a little too shiny, and there were too many switches. I couldn’t put my finger on it just then, but…”
She giggled again, then affected a surprisingly good Yoda impression. “Always with you what cannot be done in a car,” she said. “Judge me by my car’s make and model, Young Skywalker?”
“This… is this some kind of… I dunno, supercar?”
“Something like that,” she said. She slipped a hand under the dashboard. I heard a click, and the metal garage door began opening.
I glanced back behind us. I saw Marco standing in the door. His expression was unreadable.
I looked forward then, just in time for the car to pull out. I realized I couldn’t hear any engine noise or feel any vibration. The lights came on and we rode down to the road, swinging towards Meridian City and into the night.
That road was gravel, just for the record, but I couldn’t feel any bumpiness. “It’s… smooth,” I said.
“It’s been rebuilt from the inside out,” she said, shifting gears. “I’m keeping it down right now, but we could easily do one-sixty if we had to. Zero to sixty in four point two seconds, brakes on a dime. Five hundred twenty three horses, torque up to five-twenty-four. That’s when it’s in Go mode. It’s geared down right now, running mostly off the electric motor.”
“Yeah. I love this thing. It’s a Q-car.”
She grinned. “It comes from Q-Ship. Old naval term. See, back in the War days, there would be U-Boat attacks on civilian ships. Raids, to disrupt shipping and hamper the war effort. So the Allies would mock up a ship to look civilian, but when things got rough it would pop out cannons and start shooting.” She ran a hand along the wheel, the other hand holding it steady. “This car looks normal, but in a pinch you’d be surprised what it can do.”
“You use this in your… night job?” It somehow seemed wrong to bring up crime right now.
Her grin softened a touch, but didn’t go away. “Not really,” she said. “It’s pretty silly. I spend a lot of money on this car. Make it better, make it cooler. But it’s not really in style for my usual line of work. Besides, I have a driver and a couple of associates. This would be a bit cramped.”
“So why do you do it?”
She shrugged. “Same reason some guy with an SUV, a pickup and a compact car buys a broken down muscle car and restores it. It’s fun.” She shifted, the car speeding up – even in its ‘Q-car’ mode it had solid acceleration. “My dad loved this kind of thing. It’s weird. He was so cerebral, most of the time. Real academic. But get him in a garage with a half-trashed Jaguar and he’d spend months making that thing purr. After we’d ditched– well, doesn’t matter. When I was like ten or eleven? I’d sit in there all weekend, handing him tools, listening to him explain fuel injection…” She grinned. “Ancient history. Anyway, it’s perfect for tonight. Hey, I’m gonna pull over at a convenience store – grab a soda. You want? I’m buying.”
I blinked. “A… soda?”
“I always get a soda when I patrol. Start the night off right.” She grinned, then paused. “Got. Got a soda.” She giggled. “I keep forgetting I haven’t done this for a while. Which is weird. It’s not like I ever drove on patrol before.”
“Why are you driving on patrol this time?”
“Because you can’t get to the top of a brownstone in three seconds and you can’t run forty-five miles an hour.” She winked. “Besides, I didn’t have this car back then.”
“…that would do it.”
“That’s honestly the one thing that… I dunno. I’m weirdly glad you’re here, but patrolling used to be as much about running the route as anything. You wouldn’t believe how high I can jump, and I learned parkour even before I hit primary parahuman expression. Pissed my mom off so much. But I’d bounce from building to building, jump rooftop to rooftop, swing on flagpoles – all that stuff. I could clear twelve city blocks in eight seconds flat. Oo! This’ll do!” She slid into a Cumberland Farms and put the car into park. “My treat. C’mon.”
“Hey,” I asked. “What do I call you? I assume the normal name’s off limits, and since you’re not wearing a mask….”
She paused, frowning.
I paused too. I wondered if I’d just made a mistake. She was pretty firm about being called ‘Leather,’ after all. This seemed like it could be a sore spot.
“Deej,” she said, really softly. “You call me Deej.”
“Yeah,” she said, full voice and more brightly. “Like the initials. ‘D.G.’ Only pushed together they become Deej. Or Deejy, but that just sounds like a sorority girl nickname, y’know?”
I half-smiled. “It does at that. All right, Deej.”
We went inside. It was a little weird. I’d been a prisoner for days, and I was still at least sore from the night before. And now here I was, dressed like something out of a Baxtermen video. Or maybe Corey Hart – I was literally wearing sunglasses at night, after all.
Sunglasses that covered my two black eyes. The black eyes I got after being stomped down less than a day before, and now I was standing in a convenience store like everything was perfectly normal.
Looking around, I realized that the bagman had been right. The glasses had adjusted – everything looked the way I expected. Even the colors all looked right. But glancing up at a security mirror I could see they were still completely black. I have no idea how they did that.
Deej headed to the back, half-skipping. Her movements were fluid and graceful again, I realized – but they weren’t ‘Leather’ graceful. Leather made a trip to the kitchen look like a seductive runway turn. Deej just looked fluid and happy, comfortable in her skin. I’d said that she looked almost like a teenager in the Dynamo Girl togs – dressed in a red dress she looked like she’d just gotten off work as a secretary or something… an adult secretary. One who knew she looked good and loved showing it. But not teasing – just reveling. If that makes sense. I’m not sure it does.
There was a bored looking cashier behind the counter. A couple of teenaged boys were hanging around the magazines. They were thumbing through a copy of Superbabes they clearly weren’t actually going to buy. I saw one nudge the other and start whispering. I realized they were talking about Deej, in that ‘trying to look cool and utterly failing’ way fourteen year olds had around pretty girls.
“Chapman!” she called across the store. “They actually have Diet A&W Cream Soda! Score! You want?”
“Sure!” I called back. I looked around, trying to decide if I wanted a Snickers bar.
The weirdness hit me, then. I was wearing a bomb, for Christ’s sake! I was wearing a bomb and hanging out with a sociopath playing dressup. I know, I know – it had been my idea – but right then that didn’t matter. I was wearing a bomb, hanging out with the woman who’d dangled me off a roof by the ankle a couple days before her three hired thugs worked me over like a punching bag and here I was vaguely considering buying a candy bar before we went back out so I could watch her assault people in the name of justice.
What the Hell was I doing?
“Hey Chapman? Need anything else?”
I looked up. She was at the cash register. I noticed the teenagers had moved about five feet further away, and were trying really hard not to stare at Deej’s legs. And by ‘trying’ I mean ‘failing.’
“Nah,” I said. “The soda’s fine. Thanks.”
She paid. I followed her out. We got back in the Q-Tercel.
“Those boys were scoping you out pretty hard,” I said as I buckled up.
“I know,” she said, grinning. “I saw them. Man. When I was their age…” She trailed off.
“All the boys were lining up?”
She snorted. “Not exactly. I never even kissed a boy until I was twenty years old. Isn’t that insane? Twenty years old.” She shook her head. “Anyway. Doesn’t matter. Any other questions before we hit the road?”
“Not really – well… why a diet soda? I’ve seen you eat – you clearly don’t need to count calories.”
That made her laugh. “Processed sugar’s terrible for you, Chapman. Have some respect for what goes into your body! Anyway.” She grinned, starting the car. Time to save the world.”