I hate fighting people who actually know what they’re doing. Thief One must have some experience with kickboxing or something. She ducks my cross, slams a knee up under my ribs, push kicks me back, and follows it up with a roundhouse kick that nearly dislocates my jaw. I hit the ground. Spots of purple and yellow bruise my vision and I hear something metallic rattle toward me.
“Grenade! Get clear!”
Someone just threw a grenade and I’m lying on my back half fucking blind. I scramble up onto my elbows and see the little metal cylinder tumbling toward me. I start rolling. Once. Twice. Three ti—boom.
The first thing I feel is the pressure. It’s like being hit by God in the first salvo of a heavenly pillow fight and suddenly I can’t breathe. Next thing is the sound. I’ve had someone fire a semi-automatic handgun right next to my face, twice in rapid succession and this is still the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced. If I wasn’t so horribly discombobulated I’m sure I’d feel myself bleeding from the ears.
People are shouting but I can’t make out the words over my sudden ability to hear the torturous shriek of dog whistles. It’s like the worst superpower ever.
Why are people yelling? What—grenade. Shit. Gotta get up. There’s a heist that you’re sleeping through, idiot. Get up!
“Guh…if you…douche bags make me throw up inside my mask…there’s gonna be a reckoning…”
One of the thieves says something along the lines of “Wait, …still fucking talking…him the hell up.”
Okay, someone’s gonna come over here and do something unpleasant to you…you should do something about that…
I roll onto all fours and get a glimpse of someone walking towards me. I’m up on one knee by the time he gets to me and takes a big swing at my head. It is the end all be all of haymakers, he’s trying to take my head clean off with one shot. Thankfully, I kinda figured he’d try something like that. I throw my left arm up to keep his punch from cracking my skull and hit him in the groin with my right hand. Hard. He doubles up.
“Sorry, big fella. I'm really not proud of that, but this next bit you definitely deserve considering someone in your posse threw a goddamn grenade at me!” Uppercuts were a little overrepresented in 80s and 90s action movies. They're risk and slow. They leave you pretty exposed if you mess up, so you don't wanna throw one if you aren't sure it'll land. However, if you do land one, the fight tends to be over. I don't put everything I have into this one, but his feet still leave the ground when I hit him.
I bounce up to my feet, hoping I don’t look as wobbly as I feel, and get a bead on Lady Thief and Ringleader Thief. Ringleader Thief pulls another concussion grenade from his satchel and tosses it at my feet. Lady Thief keeps working on the door. The grenade hits the ground a foot in front of me and I suddenly wish I knew more about military ordinance. Like how long the fuse of this particular grenade is. Three seconds? Ten seconds? Doesn’t matter. The toss was so good the only thing I can think to do is kick the holy hell out of it and hope it doesn’t go off on impact.
My aim’s a bit off and the grenade explodes before it lands back in the guy’s lap, but it’s close enough to get a surprised shout out of him. I can’t tell if he was thrown or if he dove out of the way, but I can tell he’s not where he was before and he’s not entirely upright.
I know it’s harder to hit a moving target and all, but I still haven’t gotten used to how goofy it feels to run zig-zagging at someone. It doesn’t help that my brain spends the entire time screaming Serpentine! Serpentine! like a drunken lunatic. But considering these people are armed well enough to have grenades, I figure the awkwardness costs me little enough.
The zig-zagging slows me down a bit, but the guy wasn’t expecting his own grenade to come sailing back at him. He’s slower. I lace my fingers together and shuffle the last two steps to set myself up. I bring my hands around like I’m swinging a baseball bat, turning my hips and shoulders into it. I catch him somewhere above his ear and he crumples without any further fanfare.
And then the woman who so thoroughly beat my ass earlier shoots me in the chest. Sharp crack. Bright light. Bone-crushing impact.
I can’t feel part of my chest.
I hear footsteps.
You suck! You suck so freaking much! You suck on such a monumental scale your brain can’t even comprehend it!
If this were a movie this is the part where she would say something dramatic and then rack the slide of her already loaded gun, giving me time to do something graceful and impressive. But sadly, this is real life and art doesn’t always emulate life so she skips the first two steps and just aims her gun at my chest again. The Kevlar held, so I’m not dying, but I’m sure one of my ribs is fucked up which means this next part is going to hurt even if I can avoid getting shot again.
I roll onto my right shoulder and immediately kick at Miss Elektra-wannabe’s knee. She can’t dodge from this close, but she turns enough so that rather than breaking anything I just sort of shove her off-balance. This time the gunshot’s almost deafening and the muzzle flash leaves little sun spots in my vision, but at least she missed. Chips of concrete patter against my jacket. I start regaining feeling in my chest and it’s like a hundred angry protesters have started picketing all forms of movement and they aren’t too worried about the teachings of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Since I can’t send the police out with high-pressure hoses, I ignore them.
I wrap my legs around hers and twist as hard as I can. I look like I’m having a violent fit of some sort, but I’m all of 170 pounds of superhuman spastic and I’ve anchored myself to the Elektra-wannabe so she comes tumbling down. She gets her arms under herself in time to not break her face on the floor, but she loses the gun in the process. I roll on top of her and the fight’s over before it starts. Doesn’t matter how good she might be at fighting from the ground, it’s never a good idea to have to do so and it’s an even worse idea when you’re down face first.
I’ve got enough cable ties to keep anyone from getting too excited.
I call the Zach Mathis, the owner of this fine establishment, on the burner phone he gave me and let him know I’ll meet him in a few minutes. Next up is a letter to the police, explaining the neatly wrapped bundle of criminals I’ve left them followed by a call directing them to said bundle of joy. Good Samaritan that I am, I even remain anonymous. No glory necessary, folks. Really. The satisfaction of a job well done is more than enough reward for me.
I pick the bullet out of my jacket while I’m waiting for Mathis to show up. It hit one of the trauma plates and stuck there. I’ll have to replace that sometime soon; the bullet burrowed most of the way through the steel plating. But until then I’ll just swap it out with one of the plates covering my sides and hope I don’t get shot there anytime soon. Fingers crossed.
I shift my weight and the bullet clicks against the cheap flip phone in my pocket. The protesters’ have their picket signs wedged under one of my ribs and are jumping up and down on them trying to dislodge it. It hurts when I breathe, walk, talk, sit, stand, and shift my weight, and that plus how awkward it is to sit alone on a park bench waiting for someone while wearing a costume is really giving me a deep appreciation for this job.
I take the bullet out and roll it around in my hand. It’s smashed to hell where it hit the plate and the edges are a little sharp. Guess that means I can’t turn it into a douchy souvenir necklace. Eh. I’d really only have worn it once then left it to gather dust in some derelict corner of my room. This just cuts out that in-between step.
“Hey!” Mathis is doing that sort of whisper-shout that carries nearly as far as a scream in a quiet, empty park like this. He’s trotting toward me in the same blazer and jeans he was wearing when we first met and it looks like he slept in them at least one of the nights in between. “Hey, uh…shit. I don’t actually know your name.”
I let him get a bit closer before saying anything back.
“Yeah, I kinda wear the mask to keep that to myself. That and to scare little kids. Let’s just stick with the name the media pinned to my lapel. As much as it pains me to have it said in conversation.”
“I guess that’s fair. Sentinel. Not a bad one, as far as this costumed craziness goes.”
“Had to make nice with a reporter to keep from getting stuck with Kid Justice.”
Mathis smiles and rubs a knuckle over his nose. “Well, I guess it’s time to get down to brass tacks, huh?”
“I told you when you asked for my help that I’m not in this for the pay. This is a purely perks-only gig. Perks and glamour.”
“Lotta perks and glamour in the costumed heroing business?”
“Minor league celebrity is the shit, let me tell you.”
“Tough to sustain that kinda life style without a little money in your pocket.”
“Yeah, I’ve got a paper route for spending money.”
“Listen.” He’s starting to sound a bit exasperated. That’s happening a lot lately. I wonder if it’s something I’m doing. “You spent almost fifteen hours over the last three nights watching over my place. I wouldn’t stiff my night watchmen and they’re under strict orders to comply with any armed criminals.”
“I also got shot. Don’t forget that.”
“Oh Christ, kid, you’re killing me here. They shot you?”
I smile and poke my finger through the bullet hole while Mathis wrings his hands a bit more. “Kevlar and trauma plates. They keep my insides inside. Doesn’t keep my jacket from getting a bit mangled, but life’s full of little trade-offs.”
He practically lunges forward at that. “Your jacket. If you won’t take any money then you have to let me buy you a new jacket.”
I wriggle my finger around in the bullet hole for a second. Shit. I’m gonna feel like such a whore for this. “It’s not cheap. Jacket. Kevlar. Trauma plates. I had to pinch my pennies for months to afford this one.”
“Well, that’s one of the perks of running something of a successful business. I make better money than a paper boy.”
“Yeah, but do you get to ride around on a sweet ass bike and get chased by mean-spirited dogs?”
Mathis holds his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. You’ve got a one-liner for everything. But we really need to settle on this jacket thing. Please?”
The more I think about, the more I think it really might be my fault that people are always exasperated when I’m around.
“Finally found yourself a nice, rich benefactor to give you all the trinkets and baubles and shiny things your heart could desire and all you asked for is a new jacket? Shit, your jacket only got wrecked because of the job. That shouldn’t even factor into your payment, that’s part of the supplies, man.”
“I still feel bad that I let him buy me a new jacket at all.”
Boone shoves me a bit. “You are such a bitch.”
“It’s a nice fucking jacket. It’s got higher quality trauma plates than my last one, better cut-resistance, and it comes with inserts for cold weather and warm weather. The only thing he didn’t do was get it custom tailored. It must’ve cost him a fortune.”
“Found the one guy in town decent enough to pay his debts in-fucking-full, and you puss out.”
“Fuck you, I didn’t puss out. I didn’t want anything from him in the first place. That’s not why I do this shit.”
Boone snorts. “Tool.”
I take it back. Everything in the world is Boone’s fault. Even when he’s got nothing to do with anything, it’s always his fault.