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Authors: Paul Tobin

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BOOK: Prepare to Die!
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Anyway, none of this is important. What’s important is that I’d done a damn dumb thing the night before, not only making the bet, but, when drunk as a porn star in a girls’ locker room, I’d mentioned the color of Adele Layton’s eyes.

So, of course, Tom had to drive the Lincoln straight past her house, honking his horn, circling the block, and eventually she came walking out with a puzzled look on her face, carrying a doll that she’d been mending for her youngest cousin, sewing eyes back into place, but I hadn’t known about that at the time, had only known that she was carrying a doll, looking like a child, looking puzzled. Tom parked the Lincoln along the curb. I wondered if that meant the drive was officially over. If so, I could bolt. Of course it was a little late for that.

“Tom?” Adele said, looking in at him. I was hoping the handjob was over and he was zipped up. It was hard to tell how Tom would approach any situation. He has always had a differing sense of propriety.

“Hey, Adele,” he said. “I got my brother up on the roof. He’s in his underwear.”

“I did note that,” she told him. She looked up to me and said, “Hi, Steve.”

Tom said, “Last night he got drunk and started talking about your eyes. Jesus, you should have heard the poetry. It was plain horrible. I was thinking of punching him unconscious.”

“Is that so?” she said. She was looking to me. I was about four inches tall. Shrinking fast.

“I think he wants to get into your pants,” Tom said. Adele gave a small jump. I was three inches tall.

“Say that again?” Adele said, frowning to my brother.

He said, “I. Think. Steve. Wants. To. Get.” Each word was nearly a shout. I had to get in there and put an end to it.

I said, “I only said I wanted to go out with her. I like her! I don’t need handjobs all the damn time like you do!”

Judy, unseen from below, said, “It’s not all the damn time! I’m not a whore! It’s like… maybe twice a day!”

Tom said, “Maybe I should keep quiet? Is this one of those times when I should keep quiet? Hey… Steve?” He knocked on the roof of the car. I could feel it in my chest, where my heart couldn’t decide between two hundred beats a minute, or none at all. I felt about two inches tall. Dwarfed by my underwear.

“Hey, Steve,” Tom said. “Let me know if I should be quiet now.”

“You should be quiet, now,” Adele told him, then she should looked up to me, met my eyes, and said, “No handjobs, and you’ll have to dress a bit more formal, but, yeah… we can go out.” She didn’t say another word, just walked back into the house, carrying that doll, looking back over her shoulder, smiling, a little.

Tom started up the Lincoln and pulled away from the curb.

I felt about nine feet tall.

 

***

 

Adele and I had our first date on the day that Warp was revealed to the world. I was picking her up from her house, having borrowed the Lincoln. I was too young to drive, and Greenway was so small that everyone knew that. It was also, however, so small that everyone let it go. The town was small enough to consider everyone as family. It’s bigger now, of course, with the tourism, and the SRD Base.

I was wearing blue jeans and a hand-printed shirt that said
Anvil
on it, that being not the later supervillain (who Paladin sent to prison for life) but instead the name of the band that Tom had tried to start, a band that was abandoned on the fifth practice, when he and the drummer had gotten into a fight, rolling around in our garage, breaking Mom’s car window, and with Jake Everett (the drummer) ending up with a drumstick almost (by Tom’s reckoning) three inches up his ass.

When Adele came down the stairs and met me at the door, she was wearing a dress. A green one. Unlike with my shirt, I didn’t know that dress’s history. She’d worn it only once before, to my memory, and I had a good memory (even then) and a better memory for anything related to Adele.

Once I had her in the car (her dad had made me promise to drive slow, and to think of his grimacing face when considering what to do during the date) I asked what she wanted to do, where she wanted to go.

“You’re the boy,” she said. “You’re supposed to take charge in situations like this.”

“I am?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that sucks, because it’s a thirty-minute drive to Bolton.” Bolton was the nearest town of any size, the only chance of seeing a movie, or just hanging out together at the mall. Dates in Greenway consisted of driving around together, or walking around together, or sitting together at the park, or going to the gravel pit and pawing over each other, and I didn’t think we were ready for that last one. I know I wasn’t. Besides, I wanted something special. It was our first date. I’d even thought about buying flowers. I chickened out, because Tom had told me that it was old-fashioned, and stupid, and that girls just need to be looked into the eyes and told the truth. I wasn’t ready for that, either.

“We don’t have to go to Bolton,” Adele said. “Maybe the park? Do you like the park?” I immediately thought of those names on the rafters of the log cabin, and just as immediately thought of writing her name down on the list, and while I felt mad at myself for the mere thought, I was boiling with an inner debate on the pros and cons.

“I like the park,” I said. I tried not to put any meaning in that.

“Can we have a picnic? You’re not a picnic-hater, are you?”

“Picnics are fun. Look, I’m not good at small talk. All I want to do is be with you. We can do whatever else you want.” I looked straight into her eyes when I spoke, remembering what Tom had told me, but I wasn’t likewise remembering to tell the truth; I was just doing it.

“Me too. Let’s get a picnic lunch, and you can tell me why you’ve been looking at me so much, lately.”

“Okay.” I wondered if there was a statute of limitations on telling the truth. I hoped so.

We stopped in at the Mighty Convenient convenience store. Tom wasn’t working. It was Jake Everett behind the counter. Adele and I stood in the snack aisle while I whispered the story about band practice, and Adele felt sad for Jake, rather than laughing at him, which wasn’t something I’d considered. We microwaved two chicken sandwiches and grabbed some chips, some caramel crab cakes (homemade by Grace Shanahan, and fresh from her kitchen just down the block) and a couple of bottled waters. I paid for everything (it was clear that I was supposed to) and Jake didn’t give me any change, knowing I couldn’t look like a cheapskate while on a date.

We were almost out the door when the news flash came on the televisions. We stopped. The Mighty Convenient store had a small café attached. There was no kitchen… just cold sandwiches and a few places to sit. Some coffee. Cake. And two televisions. It wasn’t much at all, but it was still one of Greenway’s most popular hangouts. Mostly for the older crowd.

“Jesus Christ!” the newsman said. It was Frank O’Neill… the Channel Five “
On the Spot
” reporter. He was (and is) a calm man, but he was then flustered, listening to an earplug, watching the beginnings of a video in his monitors. Adele and I moved closer to the televisions, wondering what was going on. Usually the news flashes were about crashes on the highway, or robberies, or grain silo explosions. O’Neill always read about such events in a concerned, but calm voice. This time, he was sweating. He messed up his toupee when he rubbed his forehead, and he didn’t readjust it afterwards.

“Jesus Christ!” he repeated, and then, “Is this for real?”

A voice, coming from somewhere off camera, yelled out for him to introduce the clip. The entire broadcast was ragged, off-kilter, unprofessional. Frank kept watching the clip in the monitor. He scratched at his chest, breathing deeply.

He said, “Breaking news from Iowa, where, where… a
superhuman
has come forward. His name is Warp. And he moves at a pace… far beyond you and I. Far beyond. Jesus Christ.”

Adele and I took one of the small tables. We opened our food. We sat next to each other so that we could both face the television. She had a warmth about her. I made a decision that I truly did want to take her to the quarry. I did want to write her name on the log cabin list. Hell… I wanted to marry her. Her eyes, the way she was looking up at the television, I was able to just watch her, see her when she was unprotected, defenses down. It’s a crime that evolution has spent a million years making a woman so wonderful to see, and that society has separately evolved in such a way that we’re not supposed to look. No wonder men are angry all the time.

So we watched a show, Adele and I. Except that while I myself was watching the slope of her nose, the sharp angle near the tip, she was watching Warp being timed on a hundred-yard dash. The record, at the time, was a bit over nine and one half seconds. Warp ran the distance, timed by lasers, in .007 seconds. A James Bond number. Seven thousandths of a second. Most people couldn’t blink in that time.

Adele watched footage of Warp running across water. I watched the way her fingers worked at the edges of her caramel crab cake, crumbling off small chunks, sometimes eating them, sometimes absently dropping them to the floor, forgotten. Her fingers were long and smooth and I wondered if she masturbated. It was more important to me, then, than that first broadcast with Warp. I was well aware that, on the television, the world was changing. Frankly, it didn’t matter much. The world always changes.

“He’s so… so fucking fast!” Adele said. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me, or at me, or just talking to herself. It was unimportant. I was just watching her lips. Warp was on the television, giving an interview, wearing a mask from which steam was rising. He was talking about heroism. He was talking about the common man. He was talking about endorsement deals. He was flickering in and out of view, racing here and there, and at one point he was gone for maybe two or three full seconds, long enough for the reporter from Iowa, an achingly attractive blonde almost half as beautiful as Adele, to wonder where he had gone.

He reappeared as if he’d warped into existence only a second after her eyes had begun to narrow. He was holding a slice of deep-dish pizza. His favorite, he said… a slice that he’d just grabbed from a restaurant in Chicago, hundreds of miles away. The blonde reporter started to hyperventilate. People were gathering around us in the Mighty Convenient café, not talking, eyes on the television, just murmuring, almost religious, in fact completely religious, making calls, standing up, sitting down, even passing out.

Warp was the first of the superhumans.

Adele was in a green dress that, up close, was nearly transparent, through which I could almost see her skin beneath.

These two facts were of equal importance.

 

***

 

I suppose this is as good a place as any to talk about my first meeting with Warp. By the time I met him I wasn’t sixteen years old anymore… I was in my early twenties. And I wasn’t Steve Clarke, either. At least not right then. I was Reaver, and Laser Beast was violently drunk at a strip club called Sassy’s, which had one stage running during the day, two stages running most evenings, and three stages at night on the weekends. The girls would strip entirely naked. The management, thankfully, did not encourage plastic breasts. I’d been there once. Twice. They’d served a California chicken wrap that I’d enjoyed, and there had been boobs, and I like them too. Sassy’s is in Portland, Oregon, where I’d been living at the time.

The police had been called. One officer, a hostage negotiator, had ventured inside. He hadn’t returned. A laser had pierced the door he went through, shortly after he’d gone inside. I stood next to Lieutenant Cooke, being briefed by him and a civilian, a young woman who gave her name as Onyx and who was wearing bikini bottoms, a pair of knee-high boots, and a police jacket. Nothing else. I tried not to look at her sexually. She didn’t return the favor.

“Laser Beast?” I said.

Onyx said, “He came in and started drinking. We didn’t know it was him at first. He was just another creepy guy.”

“You get many creepy guys?” Lieutenant Cooke asked her. She just looked at him.

“What happened?” I asked her. “No. Fuck that. I don’t care. What’s happening right now? What’s the situation?”

Onyx said, “He has Berlin and Persephone dancing for him. Won’t let them quit. I think he might have killed Larry, our bouncer. He wasn’t moving. I got out the back way. I hope my leaving didn’t make him mad at… you know.”

“Berlin and Persephone,” I said. “What’s the interior layout?” She gave me a description, one that I already knew, but I couldn’t explain that without mentioning I’d visited the strip club, and giving away any hints to your secret identity is a slippery slope. Look what happened to Kid Crater.

“I can’t let you go in there!” Lieutenant Cooke shouted while I walked across the four lanes of the street, all of which had been blocked off. There were sirens going, cop cars everywhere, SWAT-type vehicles, fire engines, snipers in place, barricades, choppers overhead, even a goddamn jet. I felt like it must feel to be a quarterback walking onto the field for the Superbowl.

“You’re not going to stop me,” I said over my shoulder to Cooke, because I knew he was just doing his job, saying what needed to be said. He wanted me in there worse than anything on Earth, but since at the time I had no lawful standing, he had to say the words. Legally… he’d tried to stop me.

I opened the door.

In front of me, I could hear the ending strains of the Rolling Stones singing “
Some Girls
,” mixed with the beginnings of “
Sister Morphine
.” Behind me, I could hear Lieutenant Cooke still telling me not to go in, and also to be careful once I was inside, and to save his hostage negotiator, if possible. I could also hear Onyx calling out that she was single, or at least, as she said, reasonably single.

Inside, it was dark. The lights (as they had been on my previous visits) were down very low. My eyes took some time to adjust, but I kept moving, not wanting to stand still, trying to avoid being an easy target, so I bumped into a table, accidentally knocked over a chair, and then I rounded the corner and there were the two girls, Berlin and Persephone, on stage, dancing, rubbing up against each other, scared out of their wonderful stripper minds, swirling around the dance pole. Laser Beast was sat up against the stage and there were empty whiskey bottles scattered around, some of them smashed, some of them sliced into pieces by lasers, all of them empty. The bartender (meaning the owner, Steph) was behind the bar, holding a towel to the stomach of a man in a police uniform. The hostage negotiator, I supposed. There was a large man on the floor near the stage. Bearded. Muttonchops. Tattoos. Big muscles gone slack. A laser burn through his chest. I assumed it was Larry, the bouncer. Onyx had been right; he was dead. I looked back to Laser Beast, and the girls.

BOOK: Prepare to Die!
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