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Authors: Paul Tobin

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BOOK: Prepare to Die!
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“Guess so. Didn’t really mean it that way. I don’t like poetry. It’s just… you make me think of different things.”

She looked at me for a long time. I could hear the murmur of surrounding people. Tom saying Judy’s name, low. Her giving a soft answering grunt. I was vaguely aware of the actors on the screen (I really do not have any recollection of that movie) and the sound of the humming projector behind us. I was watching Adele move some of her brunette hair away from her eyes. I was seeing how her skin looked in the movie theater, with the lights down so low. I was watching her eyes sparkle, reflecting light. I was watching how her lips were slightly curled up, how her nose turned up at the end, how her shoulders were rising as she wrestled with some decisions, how her breasts were pointed up, her nipples evident in the cool of the theater, how it seemed like every part of her was pushing up, and up.

“Tom was right,” she said after a bit. “Just… kiss her.”

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

I
rolled into Greenway at almost five in the afternoon. It was the first time I’d been home in nearly nine years. The town had undergone an enormous amount of changes. It didn’t look like a small town anymore; it looked like a small town with growth cancer. There were quite a few new buildings. Hundreds of them, in fact. Greenway had gone from a thousand residents to sixty thousand, and all in a decade. The main reason, of course, was the SRD base. As much as I wanted to see Adele right away, I knew that the base would have to be my first stop. And, honestly, I was fearing seeing Adele, so it was a convenient detour, one that was completely within reason, one that had nothing to do (I told myself) with being a man who was three times faster than normal, who was hundreds of times stronger, who could heal from almost any wound, who could steal men’s lives, a year at a time, with a punch, a man who had put on a costume and stood against the worst villains that the world had ever known, the only supervillains the world had ever known, the murderers of, in some cases, tens of thousands, creatures that could fly, bend steel, transmute their bodies, fire lasers, control the weather, cast magic spells and a hundred other bizarre talents, and I had stepped up to them, and I had stopped them, so it was ridiculous to think that I (Steve Clarke, the Reaver) could have the slightest trepidation of calling a woman on the phone, or knocking on her door, or walking along any street where she might, possibly, see me.

It wasn’t that at all.

It was just that SRD had undoubtedly been tracking my journey home… secretly following my progress along the drive. These people, they would get nervous if I didn’t check in.

The sign at the gate was obscured by a trio of armored, nearly identical, well-armed guards. Only when they were shifting around, preparing for my oncoming car, stepping out to block my progress, could I read the sign.

Superhuman Research & Development
.

And then… in even bigger letters.

No
trespassing
.

No
visitors
.

The gate was made of a blend of blurred glass and metal. I’d seen the type. The metal gave it the strength. The glass (it was far past ordinary glass) was designed to crumple and shatter, diverting any impact. There were probably only four people in the world who could have punched through that gate. There are quite a few who could have flown over it. I could have jumped it easily enough.

I rolled down my window as one of the guards tapped on the glass with the business end of an M240 machine gun, a weapon powerful enough to shoot through the entirety of my car, with ease, though not powerful enough to do any more than dent my skin. It didn’t make me nervous. It just made me annoyed. This was all about a power play. I’d grown to hate playing.

“Take that weapon away from me,” I said. “I already know you’re in a position of authority.”

“You are attempting to drive an unauthorized vehicle onto restricted premises,” he said, using the type of voice normally used when addressing opposing politicians or child murderers. It’s a voice I’ve heard countless times. It’s a voice used by men of personal bravado, of intense ego, who have spent their lives training to become the best that they can be (from a standpoint of being turned into a killing machine) and were then issued a weapon that could mow down a house, and also a certificate that says it’s okay to pull the trigger. And then they meet me, or one of my type, and the weapon and the training doesn’t mean shit to us. These men become nothing but a vast herd of self-aware dominoes, desperate to avoid being the first one to topple.

I said, “You had to have been expecting me. Open the gate.” Nobody moved.

“You know who I am,” I said. I didn’t try to make it threatening, but, then again, I’m the one who said it. That matters.

Another of the guards took position near the left front of my vehicle. His weapon was slightly lowered, ready to do a strafing run that would perforate my engine and my windshield and (normally) anyone behind the wheel. The third guard was talking on a headset, and a low siren was sounding in the distance. I couldn’t see anything of the buildings beyond. There were a series of fences and tree lines in place for security, and to block any sight lines. I could hear choppers warming up. By this time, Paladin would have charmed his way into the base and would have been eating croissants with the commander, discussing favorite brands of tea, talking about kids and school plays.

The guards were identical in lightweight armor that was probably designed by Checkmate, the mental wizard who had a short public career before he was carted away to monkey with technologies that most of us couldn’t conceive. He’d always worn full armor during his public appearances. Nobody had ever seen his face. It was rumored he was handsome. It was rumored he was hideous. It was rumored he was actually a woman. It was rumored that he had an IQ somewhere around five hundred. It was rumored that he was a virgin. It was rumored that he was provided with a harem. It was rumored he’d built a mechanical harem. It was rumored he did everything with science. It was rumored he did everything with magic. It was rumored that he was dead, too bored to live in a world of imbeciles. It was rumored that all of the rumors were true. Nobody could say. I’ve met him twice, at SRD. He’s still in the armor.

The guard’s armor had a shimmer to it. Probably a force field.

“You know who I am,” I repeated to the guard. His weapon twitched. He was caught between saluting and firing. The guard who was talking on his headset looked up sharply, listening to someone relaying orders, and he gave a whistle and the others stepped back and told me I could proceed. The gate was opening. The low-level alarm quit sounding. Security cameras were swiveling. By then, the choppers were in the air. Hovering above. Most choppers look like insects. These looked much the same, but more poisonous.

Instead of pulling ahead, instead of driving onto the base, I turned off the car and stepped out. This was met with confusion. I’d been told I could go ahead, but I wasn’t. I was screwing up their game plan.

Yes.

Yes I was.

I do not like it when people put guns in my face.

“Park that somewhere,” I told the man who had tapped on my window with his M240, and I tossed him my keys. “Don’t scratch it. It’s a rental.”

He held the keys in one hand, just held them out, unmoving, at the point where he’d caught them. He looked to the two others, but they looked away, making him bear the brunt of my asshole-ness all by his lonesome. I walked into the base with the choppers hovering above.

Along either side of the road, as I passed, a series of small gun emplacements perked up, tracking me, rising out of the lawn like yard-high toadstools. They smelled slightly of machine oil, but mostly I could smell nothing but grass. It had been recently mowed.

Occasionally, as I walked, a red dot would appear on my chest, my arms, my legs, and once or twice the light got in my eyes.

The trees were pretty. Well kept.

 

***

 

Commander Bryant said, “It’s changed since you were last here,” gesturing to the base, which looked like it had been recently buffed. Spotless. Everywhere. The silos. The holding buildings. The research labs. Everything had a gleam to it. It felt wrong to touch anything, like a single smear of human oil would scramble a hazmat team into action, or perhaps the entire base would simply be considered tarnished beyond all hope, and quickly abandoned.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s changed.” Commander Bryant had met me even before I reached the main compound, surprisingly coming down the road himself, alone, with no guards, not counting the choppers that were hovering above. The choppers themselves were almost ten thousand feet in the air, but I had no doubts that they were well within range of whatever they felt that they needed to do.

Bryant was younger than I would have imagined. Maybe only forty years. He had the lean type of body most often seen in rock guitarists who indulge in cocaine and pussy with equal ferocity. He had a heavy brow and a light suit, business casual, though with the same nearly transparent glow I’d seen around the guards’ armor. There was a slight stiffening of his left leg, making it scuff, not all the time, on the pavement as he approached. I wondered what the story there was. Lots of good stories, on that base.

He’d taken my hand and clasped it in both of his, like a preacher.

We’d discussed who I was.

He’d said, “Sorry about this, but I need to prove it,” and then he’d reached into his jacket and pulled out a Browning P-35 with a draw so smooth and fast that it would have been too late to do anything, assuming you were a person who didn’t move three times faster than most anybody else. As it was, I could have taken it from him, or dodged the shots (three of them, to my chest) without much effort, but it was easier to stand there and take it, to give him a frown, to watch his reaction to me having no real reaction, to keep quiet as he reloaded his clip, stashed it away, and then turned and started back up the road, beckoning me to follow.

“Did it even hurt?” he finally asked.

“I feel the kick. Like being tapped.”

“How long before it didn’t freak you out?”

“Nine years. So far.”

“What would you like to see while you’re here?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “It’s just that… I wanted you people to know I’m in town for a visit. Only just for a visit. Not to mess with anything.”

“What happened in your last fight with Eleventh Hour?” he asked. For this question, he stopped in front of me on the road. We were coming up on the base. A line of scientists and a couple of their caped successes had emerged from out of one metal silos to watch our arrival. A larger group of soldiers was instructing them that now wasn’t the time.

“I lost,” I told Bryant.

 

***

 

Before we move too far past it, I want to talk about my first kiss with Adele Layton. Once she’d given me the go-ahead, I didn’t wait. Even before she gave me that go-ahead, I could see it in her eyes. I leaned in closer and her lips were harder than I’d thought. A woman’s lips are so often described as soft and yielding, but hers had a force. The first kiss wasn’t much more than the two of us pressing against each other, her leaned over, me twisted in my theater seat, my neck cricked to the right, and she let out a sharp huff of breath into my mouth as we met, and again as we parted, explosions of breath that meant something important was happening, and of course I’d known how it was true, but I’d thought all the importance was from my side, and to feel the warm proof of how she was feeling the same way, that we were both in the role of the aggressor, to think of her thinking of me, not just reacting to me, but gauging me, being alive, no longer some transient creature that existed only in my range of sight, but a person who had wanted this moment, had spent time working this instant into reality, maybe talking with her sister while mending that doll she had carried, the two of them laughing about me on the roof of the Lincoln, with me hugging the car roof, splayed in my white underwear, and Adele wondering what I would be like to kiss, deciding she had to know.

“Oh,” I said. She’d kissed me into a realization.

We’d fallen in love.

The second kiss was stronger than the first. Her tongue was there to meet mine and there was another of her explosions of breath, and I was thinking of how glad I was that we hadn’t gotten any popcorn, that we hadn’t gotten any soda, no chocolates of any kind, because this way her lips didn’t taste of salt or butter, not of corn syrup or anything else excepting Adele Layton.

I kissed her for some thirty seconds. Expecting her to tell me to stop. Realizing she wouldn’t. Wondering if I would. Only finally interrupted by Tom’s laughter, sinking into me somehow, him at the tail end of his far less passionate embrace, and also interrupted by one other thing.

Adele’s back was pressed against her theater seat, her lips on mine. Our tongues were shameless. Glorious. Adele had her eyes closed. But mine were open. I wanted to see her.

But in seeing her, I also looked past her, to the seat behind, where Travis Gerber was eating his chocolate drops and staring into my face. He was looking disappointed. Looking like he thought I was doing a very wrong thing.

He didn’t understand how Adele and I were in love.

A man like Travis Gerber couldn’t know of such things.

Kissing Adele couldn’t possibly be wrong.

But of course, he was proved right in the end.

 

***

 

Let’s talk about Paladin.

Saying those four words feels strange. I can’t count how many times I’ve said just the opposite. Microphones surrounding me, reporters with notebooks, e-mails from students who needs quotes for a thesis, women in bars, the nightly news, congressional hearings, people on the streets, Presidential requests, all of them asking (and quite often demanding) for me to talk about Paladin. About how it began, and how it ended.

And I’ve always told them no.

But…

BOOK: Prepare to Die!
12.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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