“Look, I know it’s vigilante justice, but there’s a right way and a wrong way, you know? I can’t just go crack skulls because they might be selling drugs. I have to have more than that. If I don’t, then there’s too much of a chance of screwing up – of hurting someone because I don’t like their looks. There are words for that, and I don’t like those words at all. Nuh-uh. No thank you.”
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,’ who had been a former fourth tier super hero called Dynamo Girl before turning to crime after a combination of public apathy and mockery for her slender ‘sidekick physique,’ with her only regret that her last night as Dynamo Girl had been tainted when she kept the stolen money she’d recovered from a criminal. At Chapman’s prompting, Leather decided to go out for one more night as the hero Dynamo Girl, with Chapman riding along – but only after he agreed to wear an explosive collar to make sure he didn’t try and escape. Getting in what looked like a cheap subcompact but turned out to be a startlingly well equipped ‘Q-Car,’ Leather and Dynamo Girl hit the streets of Meridian City looking for crime.
Interviewing Leather (Revised)
There was a three ping tone. The speaker system, like everything else in Leather’s – Deej’s – Q-Tercel was way better than you’d ever expect, so it sounded less like a watch alarm and more like an airport announcement chime.
“That’s four hours,” Deej said, turning eastbound. “Take another two ibuprofin.” She half-smiled. “And points for not complaining. Sitting in a car all this time after an indoor curb stomping? That can’t be very fun.”
I popped two more caplets out of the bottle, then put it back in the glove compartment. It looked like any other glove compartment, with everything from old oil change receipts and multiple expired insurance cards to three dried up pens and a bottle opener. Deej had sounded a little smug when she’d explained it. “Everything’s details, Chapman. Everything. That’s the difference between a secret identity and sticking your head in the sand and pretending no one can see your butt sticking out.”
“I thought you didn’t care about secret identities any more,” I’d answered.
Deej laughed. “I don’t. But we’re undercover right now, right? And right now, for this moment, I’m Dynamo Girl. If nothing else, I don’t want anyone to figure out my usual night job. And if we’re going to patrol by car, we want to blend in. If a cop pulls us over and we need to pop out the registration, he won’t see anything weird sticking out of the glove compartment. It’s the same with the mask. I’m not just wearing the good ol’ blue mask out of sentimentality. The mask deflects scrutiny, and keeps people from associating me with some other masked person out there.”
“I don’t really get that,” I said. “I mean, it’s a different shape and color and all, but are people really that easy to fool?”
Deej giggled. “More than you’d think. Even if it were just the mask and the hair change and the different clothes, it’s easier than you’d think to misdirect people. It’s like I talked about before, with the wigs. People develop expectations and associations, and usually that’s enough. But…” She grinned for a moment, thinking. “A trained observer wouldn’t be fooled, and that’s probably what you’re thinking. But that’s actually another reason I’m using the old mask. It’s actually the only part of the original togs I am wearing. It’s got an extra kick behind it.”
“Yeah. See, there’s… well, different ways to make a mask more effective. Like magic or illusion. Stuff like that. They’re designed to help distract the viewer. Wearing the old mask? It’s better than even odds Darkhood himself wouldn’t put two and two together. Though… honestly, if I see any sign of Darkhood I’m going to go the other way. It’s safer.”
“It sounds it.” I paused. “So, you told me that you got your original suit at, like, dance supply stores? Stuff like that?”
“How’d you get a magic identity-hiding mask as part of that? I mean, do they sell them at Party City?”
Deej giggled again. “Not yet, but these days it wouldn’t surprise me.” She kept driving for a moment. “My mom,” she said, finally. “Mom worked with supers. Legal services. Stuff like that. When I underwent primary parahuman expression I needed to practice, and I couldn’t exactly do that in the den. She had an old one from a client, so I wore that. And then…”
Her voice trailed off. I waited a few moments before prompting her. “Then?”
She shook her head slightly. “Doesn’t matter. Like I said, my folks died a while back. Mom and I weren’t incredibly close to begin with. I mean, we were but we weren’t. I was kind of a Daddy’s girl. And we are so off topic.” She grinned. “Back to work.”
“Right.” I paused. “Does your other mask have that same identity mojo on it?”
“Masks,” she said, grinning again. “I have… seven, I want to say? A girl likes to stay fashionable. And no. No reason to spend the extra money on them since I’m not actually hiding anything with them. They’re just branding.” She paused. “A few of the wigs have the mojo, mind. And I have a couple pairs of sunglasses – stuff like that. It works both ways.”
That part of the conversation had been a couple of hours back. Now we’d just settled into the routine. Circling blocks, passing under the tall series of overpasses she’d told me about – up above the West Highlands were cleaner and richer. Down below, the Underlands weren’t nearly so swank. We’d been driving around, block by block, over about a six mile stretch. For hours.
“Hey, won’t someone notice your car?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” she asked, turning again.
There was a different three-tone chime. “Weather advisory,” the voice of the GPS said. It contrasted with the radio, which had been tuned to the police band but turned mostly down. The GPS screen showed the grid layout of the street and a whole lot more – it looked like a tactical display, really.
“We’ve been going up and down these same four or five streets half the night. Won’t someone notice?”
“You’d think.” She chuckled. “The paint job changes colors every so often, and you may have heard a few thunks here and there? That’s the body style shifting just a little bit.”
“Seriously? How much did this car cost?”
The weather chimes dinged again. “Weather advisory,” the GPS repeated. “Severe thunderstorm warning.”
“You know one of the really cool things about my night job?” Deej asked. “Having a lot of extra cash.” She grinned. “But let’s not talk about that, ‘kay?”
“Sure.” I glanced at the clock. Ten-eighteen. A week back, if you’d asked me what a ridealong with a superhero on patrol through the seedier side of Meridian City would be like, I don’t think ‘boring’ would have come to mind. Add in that the hero was actually a supervillain doing a night’s heroing as a lark, and I’d never believe a single minute would be dull. Confronted with the reality? I was beginning to wish I’d brought a book.
There were two higher pitched chimes, and the GPS screen showed two blue dots, a red dot, and a white dot moving along the elevated roadway above us. I raised my eyebrows. “What’re those?”
“The blue are police vehicles, the red’s a fire truck, and the white’s an ambulance,” Deej answered, absently. There was the sound of distant thunder, but she ignored it.
“How do you track all those?”
Deej smiled a bit more. “The vehicles are tagged on GPS for emergency dispatch. It’s supposed to be a closed system. As it turns out, it isn’t.” She turned back northbound. “That’s standard on the system. In the usual night job, that lets us route around them. Tonight, it’s another data point for what we’re doing.”
“Gotcha.” I chuckled. “What exactly are we doing? I mean, I figured by now…”
“I know, right? These criminals are being so rude, not committing crimes on our schedule.” She laughed again. “We’re watching for something I could be useful in. Simple holdups or car thefts or smash and grabs won’t work unless we’re close – close enough that I can get there in time to ID the bad guy and take him down. If it’ll take me ten minutes to get to a crime scene? I’m a pretty face in a mask with no one to punch.”
“Wow.” I shook my head. “Pretty frustrating, I’d imagine.”
She shrugged. “Depends on how you look at it. Most of these things are minor anyhow. A guy picking a pocket or snatching a purse don’t usually hurt their victim. If I’m there and I can help I do, but in the end it’s not a first priority. Gang violence, on the other hand? Or armed robbery. That’s where someone like me can really help.”
“But if you saw a simple mugging?”
“I’d stop it. I mean, duh. That’s what the lycra’s all about.”
I looked out the window, down a long street with yellowing streetlamps and neon signs. They had metal cages they pulled down over the shops in this neighborhood, and even the convenience stores looked like an armed encampment. People were leaning against buildings. Talking. Hanging out.
“Are those drug dealers?”
“Then… why aren’t you….”
Deej rolled her eyes. “Look, I know it’s vigilante justice, but there’s a right way and a wrong way, you know? I can’t just go crack skulls because they might be selling drugs. I have to have more than that. If I don’t, then there’s too much of a chance of screwing up – of hurting someone because I don’t like their looks. There are words for that, and I don’t like those words at all. Nuh-uh. No thank you.”
There was a light tone. “Weather advisory,” the voice of the GPS said again. “Severe Storm Warning.” I glanced at the screen. It had shifted to a weather map, showing clouds coming in in green and yellow and red, with “THUNDER STORMS” across the bottom and a barometric pressure reading.
“Do we call patrols on account of rain?” I asked.
“Shut up,” Deej murmured, looking down the block. We were stopped at a stop sign, but there was no one behind us, so she was waiting.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to—”
I blinked, then looked where she was looking. There weren’t very many people on the block – there were some storefronts with mesh cages in front of them, some neon signs and the like. But there was someone – a tall woman. She was in jeans and a flannel shirt with a white t-shirt underneath. Her hair was pulled back into a bun and I could see her makeup even from back where we were. She was clearly angry, striding down the road in high heel boots.
“A prostitute?” I asked.
Deej snorted. “In blue jeans and flannel? She’s a dancer.”
I looked back at her. “Um… so? That’s not against the law.”
She pointed down the block to our left, not taking her eyes off the girl. I looked where she was pointing. Six guys, wearing colors. Orange and red, whatever that meant. A gang? Something like one, anyway. They were walking the same way. Two of them were laughing.
“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked, my heart beginning to pound.
“Dancers get most of their money in tips and private dances,” Deej said. “That’s cash. They trade it in for twenties and fifties at the end of the night.” Deej leaned forward, keeping her eyes on the woman. “The girl’s angry. Dollars to doughnuts she got stood up for a ride home, so she’s walking. In this neighborhood you only deposit cash in person at a bank, so the guy emptying the machine or the teller receiving night deposits doesn’t skim and claim you miscounted, so she’s probably got a few hundred bucks on her if it was a good night.” She pursed her lips. “Maybe those guys are just heading to their local malt shop for fries and frappes, but maybe they think she’s a walking ATM.” She leaned forward a bit.
“What are you going to do?”
Deej’s fingers tightened on the wheel. “I’m going to wait and see what they do.”
I watched the girl walk. Then I looked at the pack following her. And I realized right then the difference between Leather’s job and Dynamo Girl’s job. Leather planned everything in advance. She tried to work everything out – all contingencies. She spent half the day freaking out and making her team repeat the plan back to her so they’d all be in sync. It was active. But after the planning, she went out and made things happen. She was in control of the situation the whole time.
Dynamo Girl didn’t have any of those luxuries. She didn’t know what the bad guys would do. She didn’t even know for sure who they were. Maybe these toughs were going home. Maybe they were vicious predators. Until they did something, she couldn’t act. All she could do was react.
The dancer turned the corner, going down a side street. Deej bit her lip, looking at the toughs–
The moment the dancer went out of their sight, the six began to run.
“Crap,” Deej snapped, pulling out. To my amazement, she turned right instead of left – the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?” I shouted as she opened up the throttle, shooting down the road and skidding through a red light, drifting into a left hand turn with a long skid that terrified me.
“Circling the block,” she snapped. “Got to meet them on the other side! Hang on and let the car stop itself!”
“Let the car what?”
But she was ignoring me. She had hit a switch and the car had gone into autopilot. Her seat had reclined back and she was curling up almost into a ball, that flexible body practically sliding down to the pedals.
“What are you doing?!” I shouted as the car swerved around two other cars, tires squealing on the pavement. Above us, the moon roof was sliding open, letting heavy raindrops start falling into the car.
“Going to work!” she shouted back with an almost savage glee. She rolled back up onto the seat and threw her dress into my lap. Her mask was on her face. Her legwarmers were on her calves. The stars and chevrons on her chest seemed to almost gleam in the low light, and she hooked her hands onto the moon roof’s edge, swung up, curling her body around and through the hole even as the car skidded to the side once more before barreling down the side street we’d seen the dancer head down from the other side.
Ahead of us, I saw the dancer. She’d just been shoved down by one of the gang members. They’d surrounded her. In the sudden flash of the car’s headlights I could see the almost animal like glee on their faces for a long second–
The car surged forward twenty feet – halfway to the gang – and then slammed on its own brakes. Dynamo Girl threw herself forward at that exact moment – clearly she had some sort of remote – giving her the momentum to let her fly forward, twisting in the air like the best gymnast on the planet and bowling into one of the toughs feet first. She rolled him over, curling her body into a ball underneath him before kicking off him into a backflip. Between her leg strength, her move, and all that momentum the gang banger flew a good fifteen feet through the air, limbs flailing even as Dynamo Girl hit the ground in a crouch.
Now, my instructions had been crystal clear. I was supposed to stay in the car and stay out of danger and out of Deej’s way. Naturally, the first thing I did was get out of the car.
Look. I’m not a superhero. Leather had made that abundantly clear, and having seen Dynamo Girl I knew she was right. But when she had been cutting me down to size, she compared me to Barbara Babcock – maybe the most famous reporter in America, as much for being ‘Paragon’s Girlfriend’ as for her journalism. And maybe she was trying to drill some perspective into my brain by saying that, but deep down…
Look, when Barbara Babcock went chasing after a scoop for the Crown City Chronicle she ran forward. She got in trouble. She made things happen. She went along. And yeah, that meant Paragon had to rescue her sometimes, but it also meant she got the story. She didn’t just watch from a safe distance.
If I was going to be Barbara Babcock, then by God I was going to be Barbara Babcock. If that meant a mad scientist tied me to a chair? Well, I hope I didn’t get rope burn. And if Dynamo Girl had to rescue me? No matter what she said back at the lair, that was in her job description, too.
Besides, otherwise I couldn’t hear what was going on.
“—the Hell are you?” one of the gangers shouted, swinging a chain that Dynamo Girl easily ducked under. He let the momentum swing the chain around his body for another pass. Dynamo Girl sprang up, leaping four feet over the chain as smoothly as a nine year old jumping double dutch.
“Such language,” she said, as she twisted in the air, swinging one long leg in a circle kick into the chain wielder’s shoulder, knocking him to the side. His foot hit the curb and he went down. “You know, there’s no chance you’re getting my phone number without a little more sophistication in your approach!” She giggled as she landed between two others, ducking below one’s clumsy swing and rolling into a handspring split, her legs driving into both of their stomachs. The pair doubled over and went down even as she rolled to her feet, arms akimbo. “Though you do know how to dance,” she said, laughing again.
“We know a lot more than that!” a fifth shouted, pulling a gun and firing four shots. The dancer shrieked.
Dynamo Girl twisted and whirled, looking for all the world like a ballerina on a stage instead of on a firing line. And even though the guy couldn’t have been five feet away, she dodged the shots like they’d practiced the move for weeks to make it look good. I was stunned – I knew she was fast, but this was fast. I saw chunks of brick crack off the wall behind her as the bullets hit, even as everything suddenly grew green outlines and got sharper and clearer – the glasses were doing their job.
Dynamo Girl landed in a three point stance and rolled forward, turning her roll into a handspring and hooking her legs around the gunman’s shoulders. She pulled her legs back, pulling the gunman off the ground and rolling him over her body, slamming him face first into the pavement and sliding on top of his twitching body. I swear to God she reclined there, crossing her legs and putting her hands behind her head as she looked at the sixth ganger. “Go ahead,” she said with a grin. “Show me what you’ve got.”
Meanwhile, the dancer had gotten to her feet. She was shaky, backing away, clearly terrified.
“Over here!” I shouted to the dancer. “Come on!”
The dancer’s head snapped around to face me, and she began to run towards me. Unfortunately, the sixth tough heard me too, whirling to face me and pulling a gun of his own–
Which meant he turned his back on Dynamo Girl. Not a great plan on his part, really. She swept his legs out from underneath him, laughing as she went. “Hey, you’re dancing with me, remember?”
I’m not sure what happened next in the fight, because the dancer had reached me. “Do you have a cell phone?” I shouted to her.
“A cell phone? Do you have a cell phone!”
“Y-yes! Yes I do!”
“Then call 911 and tell them you were just attacked! Get around behind the car – I’m pretty sure it’s bulletproof even if it doesn’t look—” I turned as I was talking.
There was no sign of the Q-Tercel. Instead, there was a sleek sportscar – like the love child of a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, in candy apple red with blue accents, and on the hood–
The stars and chevrons. Five point star, chevrons trailing to the right, just like on her chest.
The dancer jumped behind the car. I followed her – noticing that even the license plates had covered themselves with metal shutters. It had changed out of its secret identity just like Deej.
Dynamo Girl herself was facing down three of the thugs. Somewhere in there the guy with the chain and one of the two she’d taken down with the split-kick had joined up with the sixth guy and all three were trying to take her out. One had a two by four, chain boy had his chain, and the other had a knife.
Dynamo Girl was clearly playing with them – sliding to one side to avoid one attack while almost casually throwing back an arm that knocked a second thug back a good five feet. Dynamo Girl did a backwards somersault into a handspring, hitting the wall with bent legs and kicking off into a twisting somersault over their heads, landing in both time and position to push one guy into a second, the two stumbling into where the third was trying to get back to his feet.
Dynamo Girl clearly wasn’t in danger. It almost felt like she was taking her time – playing this whole thing out for style… making an impression.
And then it hit me. All the way back on the first day, Leather had told me all this was theater. And I realized she was right – this was theater, but I wasn’t the audience and neither was the dancer. Dynamo Girl was performing for the criminals. This wasn’t a fight – it was a street performance of a one woman play called Crime Gets You Beat Down By A Girl In Tights. With the dancer safe, Dynamo Girl was free to deliver her message to the crooks – that even trying to commit a crime would lead to the worst day of their lives.
And I have to say, it was working. The three toughs were angry and scared and frustrated all at once. They were getting sloppier – the guy with the two-by-four was swinging wildly, missing Dynamo Girl entirely but cracking knife guy across the face.
And Dynamo Girl was rubbing their noses in it, just like a dog who made a mess on the carpet.
Down the alley, one of the dogs hadn’t been spanked enough. It was the first guy she’d hit when she’d flown off the car. He’d made it back to his feet and proved he was at least a little smarter than his buddies – he was running away as fast as he could, tearing out of there like his life depended on it. Maybe he thought it did.
But he was still clutching the dancer’s purse as he ran.
“Dynamo Girl!” I shouted. “That guy’s getting away with the money!” Maybe Barbara Babcock would have had a better line, but for my first night I think I did just fine.
Dynamo Girl’s grin slipped. She ducked under the chain guy’s punch – he’d wrapped the chain around his hand now – and came up punching, taking the thug down with surgical precision. She spun-kick the guy with the board, bouncing him off the alley wall, and she dropped an elbow into the back of the knife guy for good measure.
Rain had begun to fall now. Big droplets, with thunder in the background. The runner was a good hundred feet away now. Dynamo Girl dove forward, leaping over garbage cans sitting outside an alley door. None of the others – not those last three or the two she’d put down before – were getting up now, meaning she could focus on that last schmuck.
I’d figured she’d run him down – it was clear she could outrun a car, much less a mugger – but she had other plans. She rolled to her feet with one of the trash can’s lids in her hand, doing a forward midair somersault and landing in a spin like an ice skater in full pirouette. She spun so fast she blurred, before she released the can lid with all the form of a discus thrower, body arched gracefully.
The trash can lid gleamed in the car’s headlights, flying down the street, the last ganger almost around the corner….
The can lid hit the ground just behind the thug’s feet, rebounding up and crashing into his legs! I realized that had been her plan – hitting him with a metal disc might have accidentally injured him. The bounce-up tripped him up instead, letting the remaining force take his legs out from under him. He slammed into the pavement hard, the purse sliding even as a police car pulled up on that side of the block, its lights flashing.
“Yes!” Dynamo Girl shouted, pumping her arm. “That’s how we do it Dynamo Girl style!”
“I… I don’t believe it,” the dancer said, half-whispering. “I’ve never seen anything like that!”
“Believe it,” Dynamo Girl laughed, cartwheeling back. “The police can take it from here, miss! You’re—”
A second police car pulled up on the other side. Dynamo Girl blinked. “Chapman!” she shouted. “We got to book!” She started running for me, the rain coming harder now.
I turned for the car, in time to see it settle back into a Toyota, locked tight, sliding itself to the side – a nice illegal park job. The dancer was facing the cops – I doubt either she or the police saw the car’s trick, so they’d probably just assume it’d been there the whole time.
That had surprised me – I’d assumed we were going to leave in it – but it didn’t surprise me as much as Dynamo Girl scooping me up with one arm and jumping a good fifteen feet high and hitting the wall, slinging me up over her shoulder in the process. She kicked off the wall – we were up three stories now and grabbed the ladder of a fire escape on the other side of the alley, hauling us up higher into the air.
”What are you doing!?” I shrieked. It wasn’t one of my better moments.
“Vigilante!” she shouted back, and I realized what she meant. Some heroes have police sanction, especially if they’re part of Justice Wing’s broader organization. With that sanction comes procedures, reports to file, and general working with the cops instead of running away from them. The heroes without that sanction were vigilantes. Depending on the city, the cops might turn a blind eye, but technically those heroes were breaking the law. Dynamo Girl couldn’t get the car past the blocked alley so she had disguised it, grabbed me, and went for the rooftops instead – jumping from one side of the alley to the next, swinging up and grabbing a bar on one fire escape landing and swinging up to the next, then flipping the two of us in midair so she could do the trick again – but doing it all one handed because she was still holding me with the other.
It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once, like being on the most insane and incredible roller coaster ever! But terrifying or not, I knew – I knew – she wouldn’t drop me. She couldn’t drop me. She knew exactly what she was doing, and she always would. And we hit the rooftop and she ran and ran and threw herself into a twenty foot leap onto the next roof, and then the roof after that, and then up a steep inclined rooftop, kicking off and twisting the two of us through the air as she howled with joy and screamed “GO GO DYNAMO!” at the top of her lungs before we landed on the next roof – fifteen stories in the air and at least ten blocks from the fight scene in what couldn’t have been a minute’s time!
The storm broke then, with sheets of water and rain and wind all around us, and she let me drop down but made sure I didn’t hit hard. And lying there on the roof I saw her throw her arms to the air and laugh with the purest joy I’ve ever seen, spinning like a schoolgirl with complete and total abandon.
The next morning the breakfast meeting started late. It was seven thirty in the morning and the henches were all there, but Leather hadn’t arrived just yet. I was buttering a bagel when Leather walked in and dropped a newspaper on the table in front of me. I looked up. Her hair was both wet, and jet black again, the front streaks bleached almost white in preparation for whatever color she would add to them. Her labriet piercing was back in, the skin an angry red – her fast healing meant it had largely sealed up by the time we got home, so she’d clearly re-pierced it herself that morning. The redness wouldn’t last long, I knew.
“Read,” she said, drumming her fingers on the open paper.
I looked down. It was an article on page three of the City section – the Police beat.
It was a brief story like all the other police business, describing how a local adult dancer named Tanya Marks had been accosted by six members of the Undercross South Boys street gang with the intent to rob her. Police had taken the six into custody, acknowledging the arrival of a new super hero called ‘the Dynamite Girl’ who had rescued Ms. Marks and was well on her way to subduing the gang members when the police arrived and took over. The Dynamite Girl had then fled the scene but was not currently being sought for questioning. There was speculation that the Dynamite Girl might be the partner of a more experienced hero. Vortex was still known to be on the West Coast, and Darkhood had not been available for comment.
I bit my lip, and looked up at Leather.
Leather closed the paper, and tapped it again.
I looked back down, this time at the front page.
“LEATHER STILL AT LARGE: ELECTRONICS HEIST NOW ESTIMATED AT SEVEN FIGURES IN VALUE.” Underneath it, Darkhood – apparently available for this interview – made it clear he would bring Leather in. Over twenty-four hours after Leather’s last appearance in the city, and she was still the headline. There was even two pictures – a file photo of Leather fighting the Silver Horseman, and a stat of Leather’s face, about to kiss the lens of the security camera from the jewelry heist on Monday.
Leather tapped the paper once more. I looked up at her.
“That’s why I’m a supervillain,” she said, and walked back out of the room.