It was muggy out. J's hair, short and ill behaved even under optimal circumstances, stuck up in tufts like corn stubble all over her head. The humidity made her skin feel greasy and unwashed. Nine p.m. or not, the heat was stamping its feet and having a good pout before giving up. San Antonio summers were always at their worst just before the fall.
J scrubbed her fingers through her hair, doing little to coax it into good behavior. She had rolled the car windows down less than a mile out of the car lot, after the air conditioning had made a horrible squawking noise and let out a whiff of smoke that smelled like burning chemicals. If the tangle of wires wrapped together under the dash to keep it running crapped out on her, J's next option was prayer. And the lot wanted to sell it to some poor single mother at twice Blue Book and with twenty-three percent interest. See, she was the good guy here. Anyone could see it.
J drummed her fingers against the steering wheel in rhythm to the song playing in her head, not daring to turn on the radio with the windows down. She checked the time on her watch, drummed a little more. The liquor store across the street, the kind whose proprietors never hesitated to let you know that they specialized in wine and fine spirits, thank you, for connoisseurs and not just your workaday drunks, still had its lights on. A cream-colored Lexus was the only vehicle in the lot. J checked her watch again. 9:04 p.m. The presumable owner of the Lexus, a white woman wearing a suit the same color as her car, took her purchases to the register.
"Naughty, naughty," J murmured to herself. By Texas law, the store was forbidden to sell alcohol past nine in the evening. Not that J had really expected the letter of the law to be adhered to in a neighborhood so conspicuously filled with both money and bullshit, but, much like discovering that the car was a piece of crap, it salved her conscience. She hunched down lower in her seat and continued watching.
The woman left the store and walked towards her car. As soon as she left the lot, the neon sign that had probably caused fits with the zoning committee went dark. J grinned and exited her own ride, drifting back into the shadows in order to shove a long brunette wig over her hair and pull a pair of black leather gloves from her pocket. She detested the things--as hot as it was, sliding them over her hands sounded like rolling on a condom--but it was time to go to work.
J took advantage of a broken streetlight in order to slip across the road and into the alley behind the liquor store, counting herself lucky for it. She could already hear the angry letters being written to the city council.
Pretty façade out front or not, in the back the alley was just like any other in the city. The alley cats might have been a little fatter, courtesy of a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant a few blocks down, but the differences ended there. The liquor store's back door was heavy steel with no handle on the outside. A camera above the door solemnly monitored the alley and four parking spaces marked out by hand with spray paint for employees. Altogether, it was a long way from the immaculate front lot and storefront, but the single car was still an Audi. J's last-minute misgivings fled her, just like always.
J sank onto her heels outside of the camera's visual range and considered. The owner of the joint wouldn't take more than twenty minutes to balance the register and then secure the cash in a safe under the counter or, likelier, back in the office. The detailed paperwork and cleaning would wait until morning, since he wouldn't be allowed to open for business until 10 a.m. Luckily for J, she didn't see this taking more than five, even if she stopped to peruse the bottles on the way out.
The wig made her nearly unrecognizable, but J still cast the camera a wary eye before she stepped into its line of sight. After a moment to steel herself, she dragged a trashcan under the plastic eye and climbed up before pulling off one of her gloves with her teeth. The crevices between her fingers were already sweaty. The humidity, J told herself. She didn't get nervous.
Just as the tips of J's fingers were brushing against the plastic, one of the fusion-fattened cats broke from behind the dumpster at a sprint. It collided into the trashcan, hissed at J like the crash was her fault, and then tore out of the alley while J flailed for support--with her ungloved hand. J caught herself on the camera, barely managing to turn it down towards her scuffed boots before it got a good look at her face.
J stood very still, hardly daring to breathe, and glared in the direction of the disappearing cat. It was lucky that she was an animal lover. She glared at the camera next, the neck of which now had her fingerprints smeared all over it. Oh, sure, a fire or two was pretty much a given, but now she did it because she had to.
J closed her eyes and concentrated. The tips of her fingers and the back of her neck became hot and prickly, almost like the last warning before puking. The discomfort lasted no more than a moment before the heat became warmth, comfort, snuggling on the couch with Gran when she was small or the first time that a boy touched her just so. Felt right.
J waited until the fire became a delicious whiskey-burn and then turned it loose, straight out of her hands and into the camera. The rubber coating on the wires dripped like butter down to the asphalt with a godawful reek. Sparks flashed white-blue for a second at most; J ducked her head and kept her focus on the flame. Plastic didn't burn easy. J had to stay right on top of it, muttering curse words under her breath. Before she had screwed up and rubbed her prints all over everything, the plan had been to simply cut the wires. Now she had to cover her tracks in a more flamboyant way and hope she didn't draw the eyes of those suits that Ophelia had buddied up with.
J didn't let up until the security camera turned into a sizzling, stinking fireball that dripped congealing plastic onto the pavement. Breathing a happy sigh, she jumped from the trashcan back to the ground, hardly throwing up so much as a puff of dust even in her heavy boots. Oh, yeah. I should have an action figure. J straightened and slunk up to the back door. Strong deadbolt lock and no handle on the outside, as J had thought. She might have been able to wedge something between frame and door and pry her way in before anyone inside had time to react—J had never been one to come up with an elaborate, lacy plan just so that she could give a good monologue—if she hadn't had to go so big with the camera. The lardass cat might have been such a regular klutz that commotions in the alley were common, but J would be carrying the stink of burning plastic in her hair for the next week. Worse, her leisurely window had been cut down to four minutes, the amount of time it took the cops to respond to a 911 call in San Antonio's richer neighborhoods.
J swore some more, since it seemed like the night for it, and settled down into a catcher's pose in front of the door, holding her hand out for the curve ball. Her palm began to glow. She couldn't say the same about the rest of her body, but her hands never burned.
J waited until she had a fiery orb the size of a golf ball floating in front of her palm and then pressed it against the reinforced panel where the lock would be on the other side. She concentrated harder, and the fire burned until J counted her bones through the back of her hand. The alley started to smell like melting paint. The heat warped the door with a faint popping sound. J grinned and pulled her glove back on with a little flourish as it swung towards her. She stepped through.
And straight into the barrel of a shotgun. "Get your hands in the air," the holder of the gun ordered her, already shaking so badly that the barrel jerked. Twitchy fingers around guns rarely ended well. Unless you're Bonnie, anyway. But that would probably give the man a heart attack, and J would feel at least a little bad about that.
"In. The. Air!" the man repeated when J sighed and stared at him. He was in his forties, his midsection just starting to slide south into an indulgent softness. An expensive-looking sweater lacking only a nice tweed jacket with leather elbow patches tamed most of the gut, anyway, and he likewise masked the start of a receding hairline by pulling his graying locks back into a small ponytail at the nape of his neck. Gold-rimmed glasses caught the light and reflected it back. J had only brought up college once, and the guidance counselor's startled laugh had left her scowling for days, but he still fit the stereotype of every lecherous English professor ever.
J sighed again and half-heartedly raised her hands up to the level of her shoulders. She wouldn't mind giving the guy a good scorching for pulling a weapon on her, but the odds of her getting her glove off before being shot were slim. At least the crappy lighting made it hard for the man to get a good look at her face.
"Don't hold the gun that way," J said finally. The man had the butt of the shotgun braced against his clavicle, he was going to wind up with a bruise like a mother if he fired on her.
The man blinked at her a few times, as if trying to figure out the trick. "I've already called the police," he said to J. "Go out into the front and—"
"Wait for them around all of those nice, thick bottles waiting to be used as weapons?" J inquired sweetly. More blinking. She almost felt bad for ruining his big moment. "And all of that glass and spilled liquor if the cops start shooting? There goes your bottom line."
"The office, then," the man said after a long moment of calculating his lost profits. By biting at the inside of her mouth hard, J managed not to smile. She pivoted and followed the yellow glow of a desktop lamp. The gleam of glass bottles marked her path, probably worth more money than she saw in a year. J kept her hands up at the insouciant angle and trusted the shopkeeper not to realize how many different ways she could take the gun away from him as she stepped over the office threshold. A large wooden desk dominated most of the space, a leather-upholstered chair behind it and two in front, and, oh, would you look at that? A small safe sitting in the corner, its door still ajar. Two vinyl zip-sacks sat inside, the kind that banks gave out to businesses in order to streamline their deposits.
J hesitated at the sight of the safe until she felt the cold touch of the shotgun's barrel between her shoulder blades and remembered that she had a job to do. Well, she had been getting bored, anyway. J spun to the side and reached for the gun. The shop owner jerked back on the trigger out of instinct, sending a blast of heat racing by J's face. The echoing boom that followed nearly deafened her. Christ, he still nearly took half of my goddamned face off! Fear made J rougher than she might have been otherwise; she seized the shotgun from the man's hands, flipped it around, and slammed the butt into his stomach as hard as she could. While he doubled over and heaved, J put one gloved hand against the edge of the desk and kicked the nearest chair with both feet. The great leather monstrosity scooted across the floor and pinned the shop owner against the wall. He started to push it away from himself immediately, only to freeze when J held up the shotgun and shook her head in warning.
"Really?" J asked. "Do you have any idea how close you came to ventilating my face with this stupid thing?"
"You're on my property," the man wheezed. Either he was a total baby, or J had hit him harder than she had realized. The man glared at her with as much defiance as he could muster while pinned in place with one of his own chairs. Anger shifted into plain surprise when J bent the gun in half, removed the unspent shell, and hurled it back out into the shadows.
"Just because you're legally allowed to act like a cowboy even though you're grown man doesn't make you any less ridiculous than if you dug out your old hat and stick horse." Surprise became belligerence. J growled and kicked the chair again as the man tried to shove it away and come at her again. She kept him pinned there with one leg and balanced on the other while she reached for the safe. Her arms were about six inches too short to get what she wanted without losing control of two hundred pounds of agitated yuppie. Worse, J heard sirens.
"What are you going to do now?" the shopkeeper asked her with a faint sneer. Even though J would be better off shooting him on her way out so that he couldn't give her description to the cops, he still threw attitude at her. Rich people, or even people who hung out with rich people. J was never going to understand them.
"You're lucky that I'm one of the good guys," J said loftily over her shoulder, flipping the shotgun around so that she held it by the barrel. She was careful to keep the muzzle angled towards the ceiling and used the butt as an extension of her arm to pull a deposit bag towards herself. Only the one, though. Kind soul that J was, she didn't feel any need to get greedy. For example, she pulled the wire-bound ledger along purely by mistake. Same with the way that it flopped open for J to read at will.
"Do you know how long you're going to be in jail?" the shop owner asked her. He had his hands in the air even though J hadn't told him to raise them, and his voice trembled. Poor bastard was near tears. J felt bad about what she was doing for about half a second until she glanced down at the open ledger--notice everything and be prepared to use anything, the motto that had saved her hide more than once over the past ten years or so. Her resolved hardened. "You have breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon--"
"You hit me first," J protested before she could stop herself. It's a robbery, not a playground, angel-face.
"Because you broke into my store!" the shopkeeper nearly screamed. He was probably more embarrassed than scared by now, but he was still getting alarmingly red about the face. "I have the right to defend myself, I pay my taxes—"
"Actually, you don't," J interrupted him. She pointed to the ledger on the floor. "You're cooking your books, Giles. Uncle Sam ain't getting nothing from you but a sob story." Bits of the man's hair flopped loose from his ponytail and around his face, and the eyes watered furiously behind his gold-rimmed glasses. "But who cares, right, so long as your roads are still the ones who get fixed. Might want to think about how detailed a description the cops really need," J said, tucking the ledger into her jacket. She grinned, waggled her fingers, and darted for the door. And maybe she reached out and snagged a scotch that cost more than her boots on the way out, but what of it? Working made a girl thirsty.
Red and blue lights painted J's face as she reached the alley, and she swore explosively. There was a dark sedan parked across the street, a portable police light twirling on the hood, and a heavily-built man walking in circles around her getaway car. J recognized the figure before she remembered that her fingerprints were all over the car. She hadn't been able to stand it in the heat, and she had been planning on wiping the car down before she took it back to the lot. Another burst of cursing. At this rate, Ophelia had better watch out if she wanted to keep her Most Prolific Potty Mouth Award.
Her juvenile record had been sealed when she hit eighteen, she would just have to worry about the rest of it later. J turned towards the other end of the alley…and walked right into the barrel of a gun. Damn it, she had to get her peripheral vision checked.
"Get on the pavement and lace your hands behind your head," the cop told her evenly. He was young, and a muscle jerked without rhythm in his cheek.
J whipped around and pointed her hand towards the Audi, the tips of her fingers smoking even through the leather. Good thing Gran was dead, or she would have torn a strip right off of J; one of the lessons that she had tried hardest to instill into J had been respect for the law. Wasn't her fault that J wasn't fertile ground.
The cop jerked, the gun fired, and J saw none of it. Five jets of fire shot from her fingers, cut the air into ribbons. The heat spread back through J's body, better than sex, drugs, or any of those other naughty vices that made the preachers get red in the face. She threw back her head and laughed as the flames wrapped around the car and made the paint bubble with a sound like popcorn popping. The car leapt off the ground as its gas tank exploded, landing on four tires that abruptly burst as the air inside of them super-heated with seconds. The shopkeeper rushed out and started hurling curses at her, stopping only to spare few for NPR and MSNBC while he was at it.
"Goody," J muttered under her breath. "As long as I didn't misjudge you." J ran for the fence at the back of the alley, leapt, and snagged handholds near the top while the cop was still deciding what to shoo at. J started running as soon as her boots hit the ground and made it three full blocks before she noticed the smoke coming off of her wig. "Damn it!" Getting the reek of plastic out of clothing sucked like nothing else. J left it on for now and loped towards more hospital territory for people with her particular philosophy, rich people having a tendency to videotape their stuff so that others couldn't steal it and all. Why, J could not entirely fathom, since going out and buying new stuff in order to replace stolen stuff was an excellent way of letting the world know how rich they were, and J had yet to meet a one of them who didn't love that.
Sirens wailed a few blocks down. J tensed until she realized they were heading in the other direction.
Feeling a little safer, J slowed to a walk and shoved the deposit bag down the front of her leather jacket. She tucked the bottle of scotch under her arm so that she could work her ruined glove off with her teeth. The flames had come right through the tips, leaving her with a ragged ruin better suited to a Dickens novel. J stuck the remains into the pocket of her jacket rather than leaving even more evidence behind after her cock-up with the car. Supposedly sealed or not, she would still put in a call to Marcus or Ophelia tomorrow to make sure that her youthful indiscretions didn't get her into very adult trouble.
J sighed and rolled her eyes up towards the sky. San Antonio wasn't as bad as a lot of cities when it came to pollution. She could still see the stars. "Sometimes," J addressed them, "I don't know why I even bother to do the right thing."
Thirty minutes later, she broke up a mugging in progress by clocking the thug over the head with her scotch. The bottle didn't break. "I've racked up some good karma," J told a startled woman in a waitress uniform, grinning.
She had a hell of a racket going on just outside her apartment. Not exactly new ground, as J had been serenaded by the sounds of people breaking up, making up, and making do through the thin walls more times than she cared to remember. It seemed like a bigger fight this time, though. Or maybe her throbbing head was making things worse. J stayed very still on her bed, weighing her options. If she moved too quickly, she was liable to puke. On the other hand, she might get lucky and make it out into the hallway to puke on the shouters. After several minutes of silent debate, J tried to sit up and fell back among the sheets. Robin Hood would be ashamed of you. The second try went better. J made it all the way up and swung her feet over the side of the bed and onto the ancient shag carpeting.
"Never again," J muttered. She thought for a moment. "Or I'll stick to bitch beer, I don’t care who makes fun of me." She had the nagging feeling that she was missing something, and the raised voices from the hallway didn't help her remember. J wondered if she could take a hot shower while keeping her fingers in her ears. The hot water heater had been broken more often than it had been running for the past month or so, but that wasn't a big deal. J could boil water with her electricity shut off if she wanted to.
J rose from the bed and stood very still until the room stopped rocking back and forth. So far, so good. Maybe she had been hasty about that whole wine cooler thing.
Once she had managed to stay upright for ninety seconds without a Technicolor yawn following, J realized that hunger outweighed the nausea and headed for the kitchen. Coffee. And then toast with butter, and then eggs. Once she had taken the edge off with her own cooking, she would head for the nearest diner and clean them out, too. Flashing flame like she had the night before put every quick-fix diet pinned up in a supermodel's make-up mirror look like bingeing on chocolate cake. Luckily for her, she was nice and flush right now and--J abruptly remembered what she had forgotten.
"Oh, fuck," she blurted. She slapped herself in the forehead before remembering her hangover, tilted sideways, and nearly barked her shoulder on the doorframe. J turned back towards the bedroom and lowered her hand just far enough to peek through her fingers. Her cheap, chipped Hollywood frame took up so much space that she had to walk across the mattress if she wanted to get something out of the closet. The little space left over belonged to a chest of drawers. Two or more wigs usually occupied the top, only one of which was quality enough to command an actual wig stand, along with varying amounts of spare change, half-used tubes of lipstick that she may or may not have paid for depending on her mood and the brand, and whatever bills were the closest to ending in shut-offs and evictions that month. Right now, the casual chaos had been joined by a mostly empty bottle of extremely good scotch. J had slept through her world history classes in high school, but she thought that she might have figured out why Scotland had been so damned hard to conquer for so long.
J scrambled over the mattress and snatched up her cell phone, half-buried under a vibrant auburn wig that she kept for those days when she wanted to be a redhead, and hurriedly dialed a number. It rang three, four, five times without answer. J started to do an impatient jig on top of her mattress.
A young woman's voice finally answered, "Hello?" The speaker was muffled, as if half her face was still buried in a pillow.
"Bonnie!" J exclaimed. "Bonnie. Bonners. Bon-Bon. Did I call you last night?"
"No," Bonnie answered after spending entirely too much time thinking about it. J swore. "Who'd you drunk-dial?"
"You know what happens when you assume, Bon-Bon," J said.
"You get stuck with stupid nicknames. By the way, stop calling me stupid nicknames. Who'd you drunk-dial?"
"Just wait until you're twenty-one and it's your turn," J shot back. "I need a favor."
"Do you need it right now?" J heard a rustling in the background on Bonnie's end of the line, as if Bonnie was sitting up and rubbing at her face. J glanced at the clock on her bedside table. It was nearly noon by San Antonio time, translating to ten on the West Coast. Marcus and Ophelia kept Bonnie on too tight a leash for her to be sleeping off a good party. "Marcus had me patrolling until almost sunrise." Ah. That made a bit more sense. Bonnie might be of age, but she was still a novice when it came to crime-fighting and ass-kicking, and Marcus had more or less taken her under his wing. He was a hard enough taskmaster to make J grateful that Evelyn had been the one to show her the ropes, and that was even taking into account that Evelyn had gone mustache-twirling crazy by the end.
"I need it so right now that I wish I had a time machine," J said. She turned her back towards the sunlight and made a solemn promise to use some of the money that she had stolen the night before to make some curtains. Or buy some curtains. Or steal some curtains. So long as the windows wound up covered before she had to kill the sun. "I should have called last night, but I--" J glanced at the scotch and hummed.
Reluctantly awake or not, Bonnie was still clever enough to put the pieces together. "But you got lit up."
"I'm not living rent-free in someone's mansion, gotta do something to make these four walls more interesting." Before Bonnie could hang up on her and go back to sleep, J added, "Help me, Bonnie Wan-Kenobi, you're my only hope." She knew that she had won when Bonnie stifled a giggle.
"Fine," she said. "When Marcus finds out, I can tell him that I'm practicing my research skills."
"Actually, let's keep this one on the down-low from Marcus and Ophelia," J said. Silence rang back at her. "Okay, fine, just don't actively point them my way." J gave Bonnie an abbreviated version of the previous night's events, downplaying the theft and focusing instead on what a tax-evading douche the shop owner had been and how much certain neighborhoods in San Antonio would suffer if J spent the next five years rotting away in a jail cell rather than protecting them. Bonnie might be a chaos-loving girl after J's own heart when push came to shove, but she also nearly worshipped Ophelia, and J didn't think that Ophelia even ran yellow lights. She ignored Bonnie's muffled snort of laughter when J gave her real name and concluded with, "If you can find a way to get my fingerprints out of the system before they manage to get a hit on the car, I'll be your best friend forever."
Bonnie made a non-committal noise. "How much trouble will I get in for doing this?"
"Legally, or with Marcus?" J pressed on without waiting for an answer. "If he's been teaching you, then you're too good to get caught, and Marcus likes initiative." If J were a better person with a little less of a hangover, Marcus would have been her first stop. He knew how to find the shortest distance between Point A and Point B as well as J and didn't mind bypassing the law. On the other hand, it was too early for the look that he would have given her right through the phone line.
"Give me a few hours," Bonnie said. "Try not to hit up any gas stations between now and then."
"Bon-bon, I'm going to throw you the most ridiculous twenty-first birthday party you've ever seen," J said. A very special silence echoed back at her, specific to a certain young lady's middle finger going up, and J laughed even though it hurt her head. She hung up and only then realized that the squabbling from the hallway hadn't stopped. J snagged her one good wig from its stand and ducked into the bathroom long enough to make sure it was straight. The strands were blonde, but a buttery gold instead of J's platinum that hung in docile waves down to her shoulders rather than sticking up all over her head like the fluff on a half-grown chick. J's jaw was too strong and square for her to really be called beautiful, especially given how often she clenched her teeth and jutted out her chin, but her eyes were large and blue, and she had drunkenly bounced quarters off her own abs more than once just to see if she could. Running back and forth across the city on a nightly basis to deal with muggers, drug-dealers, and the occasional car-jacker (that one had involved riding the hood of the car for a good ten blocks before the chucklehead had decided that surrender was the better part of valor and hit the damn brakes, great for developing upper-body strength) was a lot more efficient than yoga. Didn't cost a dime in gym memberships, either.
The wig turned her into a completely different person from the brunette who had robbed a liquor store the night before and the spiky-haired blonde who ran around in very little clothing on every other night. With it in place, J crossed her living room for the door. The furniture was the very finest that thrift shops and bartering amongst her neighbors could buy, and most of it had seen its fashionable hey-day right as the swinging seventies had been winding down to make way for shoulder pads and cellular phones the size of bricks. Gran hadn't bothered with expensive furniture, and J had needed to sell even the pieces that were just all right in order to pay for the funeral. She had been lucky to keep the family photographs. Probably for the best. Nice stuff would have made the mustard-yellow shag carpet feel lonely.
J nearly made it out the door before she realized that she wasn't wearing pants. Repeating the wine cooler promise under her breath, she dug up a pair of jeans from behind the couch along with her outfit from the robbery. J hurled the latter in the general direction of the hamper without checking to see if she got close. The deposit bag from the night before also stuck out from under the couch, and J shoved it out of sight with her foot as she hopped into her jeans.
Most of the tenants in her building milled around in the smoke-stained hallway when J emerged, even the people who worked nights and should have still been asleep. J's neighborhood was predominantly Latino, and the only other blonde head belonged to a twenty-something named Anthony who worked the graveyard shift at the Valero station three blocks over. He still wore his uniform and puffed a cigarette from between trembling fingers while old acne scars stood out against his pale face. J didn't like the glitter in his eyes.
J edged around a pubescent girl holding the hand of a young boy with Kool-Aid stains circling his mouth. A stout older woman with black hair just starting to thread through with silver wearing black polyester slacks and a loose purple top embroidered with flowers along its collar did her best to quell the chatter, without much luck. Lucia Espinoza had lived in the building since well before J's time, and even the property owner stepped lightly around her when she had a complaint.
"What's going on?" J asked her.
Lucia turned her eyes to J's face, then her bare feet, before bouncing them back up their starting place. J knew good and well what kind of hot mess she must look, but Lucia's expression didn't change. J still felt dressed-down.
"Look at your door," Lucia said. She turned towards Anthony. "Put that thing out, there are people barefoot here. Do you want a baby to step on your cinders?" Anthony stared at her for a long moment and then very deliberately put his cigarette out against the wall. He dropped the butt to the floor, where it smoldered for a few more seconds before finally going out. "No respect at all," Lucia muttered.
J returned to her door and found an obnoxiously yellow sheet of paper taped there. None of the other doors had one, though J did notice a few being carried about by hand; looked like she was the last one to the party. She read a handful of lines, felt her eyes widen, and then ripped the flier down so hard that the tape took flecks of the ancient varnish down from the wood along with it. "Is this for real?" she demanded of Lucia.
One corner of Lucia's mouth crooked upwards, a sarcastic, sardonic expression that didn't fit against her neatly set curls and grandmother's body. "As real as you and me, niña," she said coldly. Lucia turned back towards Anthony, who by now had pulled a cheap plastic lighter from his pocket and had his hands curved around the cherry-tomato glow of another cigarette. "I told you, there are children in this hallway, put that damned thing out!"
"Or you'll what?" Anthony drawled. He hooked a thumb into the front pocket of his jeans, hitching his hips forward and slouching his shoulders downwards in the aggressive stance that J had seen over and over again on petty thugs and low-level drug dealers. If Anthony realized how ridiculous he looked taking the stance against a woman three times his age, it didn't show. "'Cause according to that flier, you only got ninety more days to run this joint, you--" It wasn't something to call a lady. Lucia's eyes widened and then narrowed.
J leapt forward and grabbed Anthony hard by the elbow. "Inside your apartment now," she growled at him.
Anthony jerked away from her, or tried to. When J didn't make down so easily, he tried to turn the cocky hips and macho twist of the lips her way. J narrowed her eyes.
The fresh cigarette flared against Anthony's palm. He yelped and dropped the cinder to the carpet, where the cherry smoldered until J stepped on it. She leaned in close.
"That could have been a kid's face," J said in a level voice. Anthony sneered at her, making a scar near his lip twitch. God, J hoped that was nothing but an acne scar, not that he struck her as the type that knocked the ladies down with lust all that often. The name of the game in this building was machismo, not "recovering meth-addict." "Why don't you go back inside your apartment and take a shower, work on washing out your mouth. And then maybe you should start looking for a new place to live sooner rather than later." Anthony curled his lip at her, clearly hating the idea of backing down to a woman in front of so many people. J leaned in a little closer. Maybe he would think that the sudden heat flowing from her fingers into his skin was in his own head, maybe he wouldn't. Life stopped being fun unless you lived dangerously every once in a while.
Anthony shook J off and stomped back into his apartment. J saw him touching at his burned palm just before the door slammed shut behind him. She stared at the varnished wood for several seconds with her hands clenched into fists at her sides and blood whistling through her ears.
"Well done," Lucia said as J turned back towards her, her expression unreadable. Something in Lucia's tone warned J that she wasn't being complimented. The end of the cigarette still glowed sullenly on the floor.
"I have poor impulse control," J said. Lucia's lips twitched. J gestured with the flier, the one which said in bland, business-like language that the building had been sold to the Horizon Development Group and that they all had ninety days to get out. "Is this real? Can we fight it?"
"It's as real as this building," Lucia said. "And can we fight it? Sure. There are procedures to follow. That takes money, though, for filing fees at least and for attorneys if any of us actually want to get anywhere. You know anyone who's sitting on a pot of gold?"
J thought of the deposit bag still shoved underneath the sofa in her apartment. She also thought of Ophelia and Marcus in Los Angeles, and of Mindy in Austin and almost desperate to make things right again after the showdown with Evelyn. Marcus and Ophelia would want explanations before they started writing checks. Mindy wouldn't, but J dismissed the thought without letting it so much as get off the ground. She wasn't the manipulative type and didn't intend to start now.
"No," J said finally. "I guess I don't." She looked down at the yellow sheet of paper in her hand again and pretended not to notice Lucia's speculative stare. Lucia turned away, towards the adolescent girl and her brother with the juice-stained mouth, Angelica and Tomas. Their mother was a nurse, their father an electrician. Affording another place wouldn't be the problem for them. Their grandfather had lived in the neighborhood his entire life, though, and refused to move even as his health failed and he needed family nearby. Crazy, maybe, but J still understood. Hadn't her own grandmother been dead for nearly ten years, and hadn't J signed a lease for the exact same apartment without even bothering to look around first?
J sighed and crumpled the flier in her fist. Before she realized what she was doing, the paper was turning brittle and brown, and a thin wisp of smoke curled towards the ceiling. J bit back an obscenity and counted to ten. By the time she had finished, the flier had cooled without anyone seeing. Good.
J unfolded the paper against her door in order to study it further, waiting for the urge to turn it to kindling to fade. The name of the building's new owners, Horizon Development Group, rang a faint bell in the back of J's mind. If she recalled correctly, they were building quite the reputation throughout San Antonio for buying up old buildings, gutting or demolishing them, and then putting up structures that just looked old for affluent artists or up-and-coming yuppies. Sometimes their deals stunk, and a few wannabe Woodwards and Bernsteins tried to get to the bottom of it every now and again, but they never got far. As for J, her territory was more along the lines of muggings, drug deals, and the occasional gas station hold-up on the east side of the city where cops would take half an hour to get there if they showed up at all.
Better to broaden her horizons now rather than waiting for the rut. J folded the flier up neatly and tucked it into the pocket of her jeans before slipping down the crowded hallway. Lucia stood in front of the door to her apartment with her arms folded over her chest, and the building's residents formed a horseshoe shape around her. As she wasn't in the mood for a round of "Kumbayah", J sidled on through without stopping to listen.
Hugo, the building's owner, manager, and handyman (when the tenants complained enough to get him out from behind his desk) wasn't known for a policy of easy and friendly communication. With that in mind, it didn't come as a great surprise when J found the office door shut and locked. She rocked back with her hands on her hips, then poked her head out the glass double doors of the main entrance. A battered Ford sat parked in the nearest spot, cheerfully leaking oil across the asphalt. J almost had to give Hugo credit; she would have predicted him fleeing the scene as soon as he had the last flier taped up.
Or maybe she had given him too much credit. J plopped herself onto the Ford's hood and waited. Less than five minutes later, Hugo hurried around the side of the building with a toolbox in his hand. He was a big man who was only going to get bigger now that middle age was pushing up on him, and nature had not blessed him with the charm to pull it off. Hugo wore a sports tee shirt and cargo shorts, and the noontime heat had drawn dark circles of sweat under his arms and around his collar, a smaller spot against his navel. His forehead was glistening and his cheeks were flushed, but he still paled when he saw J.
"Howdy," J chirped. She hadn't bothered to grab shoes before coming outside, and the plastic bumper burned against the undersides of her toes. She wiggled them and gave Hugo a wide grin. "Heard you did a little business."
"One-oh-seven," Hugo said to her. J turned eighteen less than a week before Gran's death. She couldn't remember Hugo or his father before him ever referring to her by name. "You're two weeks late on your rent."
"Got the money in my apartment right now," J answered cheerily. Hugo would have to stand in the hall, since she hadn't had a chance to transfer the cash out of the telltale deposit bag yet, but there was no reason for him to know that. "You want to come back with me and get it, or are you worried about your welcome?"
Hugo's meaty lips twisted for a moment, but he let the retort go with an unfortunately bovine snort. He stomped over to his vehicle, unlocked one of the rear doors, and hurled his toolbox inside. J turned her head to follow his movement when he didn't come back right away and found him staring across the street instead, at another complex every bit as run-down as his own. Three construction workers stood in front, erecting a sign with brisk efficiency in spite of the heat. Watch for new developments from Horizon Developments!, it proclaimed in bright green letters against a background of orange. Beneath a picture of cheerful new homes and condominiums: Rejuvenating San Antonio for twenty-five years! J hadn't even noticed the building going up for sale. A battered pick-up rolled by, blaring Tejano music from its open windows while four day laborers sat in the back, stone-faced. As the truck disappeared down the street, J realized that she could hear construction sounds from a long way off if she listened closely. How long had this been happening, while she had been sleeping away her days and fighting away her nights?
Hugo finally turned back. Rather than defiant or smug, his expression had become a bit dazed, as if he had forgotten why he was there. Hugo stumbled, and J hopped down from the hood to catch his arm before he fell. She let go as soon as he was steady again and resisted the urge to wipe her hand off against her jeans. J was sure that Hugo had had a shower in the past day or so. Betting odds, anyway.
"Look--" Hugo stopped and frowned at her. Only the slimmest of colored rings remained around his dilated pupils. J had known him for most of his life, and he wasn't the drug-snorting type, or else she would think he was high.
Staying away from drugs didn't stop him from giving her body a lingering up and down as she stepped back. "It's done, all right? I'm giving everyone ninety days--"
"Because you have no other choice," J interrupted.
Hugo's cheeks darkened farther. "I don't have to give month-to-month tenants shit, y'all don't have leases. Don't make me out to be a bad guy in this, okay? I always dealt you square." He stared at her body again, doing everything short of licking his lips and popping his eyes out of their sockets for a good-old cartoon "Ahooga!" "But, hey, you know, I can appreciate the real hard spot that I'm putting y'all into with the way rent's going up all over the city, so I could help you go through the classifieds if you wanted. My mom always makes a big Sunday supper--"
J pivoted on her heel and headed back towards the building. "Next time I'm letting you eat pavement," she called over her shoulder.
Hugo's tone stopped being wheedling or nice as he yelled back, "I want my rent, or your white-trash ass can find a new place now instead of in three months!"
"Come on in and I'll give it to you. I'm not stupid enough to slide cash under your door and hope you get better at math." J paused with one hand on the door, holding the glass open so that Hugo could see all of the angry faces inside, and flashed her sweetest smile as he scuffed his feet and grumbled. A luxury vehicle with the windows down rolled slowly down the street, taking its sweet-ass time in a part of town where rich people hit the gas like they were going down the Autobahn if they had the back luck to find themselves lost here in the first place, as if the residents were going to run out of the buildings like ants from a hive to steal their hubcaps. A man drove while a woman with the wax-like countenance of an ongoing relationship with Senor Botox stared out the window. She made eye contact with J for only a second before giving a sniff that J could feel from where she stood and turning away.
"I need to get parts for the water heater, or else I would," Hugo said. He yelped as a handful of leaves scattered across the pitiful lawn, pulled down from the trees by the inevitable late summer drought, abruptly burst into flames. J jumped and grabbed for one hand with the other, but her fingertips were cool. Hugo rushed to the side of the building for the hose, cursed when it leaked more water than it sprayed, and barely managed to wet the grass down before it got its legs under it.
"Stub out your goddamned cigarettes!" Hugo yelled towards the lobby. Someone within must have made an impolite gesture, because he made one right back before jumping into his car and taking off on a squeal of rubber. J returned to the artificial cool of the hallway, her hands still clasped together like those of a silent movie actress. Her pulse pounded in her ears.
That fire didn't belong to me, she thought. Did it? She hadn't lost control of her abilities since before throwing away her last training bra, but anything was possible. Got to stop drinking. Got to start eating right, getting lots of sleep, and opening up a 401K like a respectable citizen. She snickered.
J heard her landline ringing as she unlocked her door. The list of people with that number was short (though admittedly larger than the group which had her cell number), and J couldn't think of a one whose voice she wanted to hear. She batted the phone down from the wall and then treated the person on the other end of the line to a flurry of cursing as she tried to catch the receiver, missed, and had to bend down to pick it up from the floor.
"Charming," Ophelia said dryly as soon as J grunted something that approximated a hello. "Why don't you have a machine? It rang at least ten times."
"Answering machines cost money, Ophelia-dear," J snapped with unnecessary anger. Her head felt empty and her stomach too full, and she wasn't sure how much of it was about her hangover and how much about the fire that she may or may not have started out there. She whipped the wig off of her head and threw it in the general direction of the couch. J hadn't done a good job of hiding the deposit bag earlier; the corner still stuck out for anyone to see if they barged in without knocking.
"Don't try to rich-girl me, you wouldn't have a landline at all if you weren't diverting calls," Ophelia answered. "And you have the money for two accounts after the stunt you pulled last night, anyway."
Not really, not once she got caught up on her back rent and all of the other back bills that needed paying. "Tell Bonnie I'm going to whup her ass for ratting me out so fast," J groused.
A long silence echoed. "Why would Bonnie be in a position to rat you out?" Ophelia asked at last.
Damn it. Bonnie's twenty-first birthday party got bigger by the second. "Girl talk. I bleach my hair, Ophelia, it's my big, dark secret. What was I allegedly up to last night?"
Ophelia's ability to dice up a pause never failed to make J envious. J felt this one being put back in the fridge for later. She didn't envy Bonnie. "Knocking over a rather high-end liquor store?" Ophelia asked finally. "You thought I would assume you were joking when you let that slip, didn't you?"
J had nearly forgotten that she had run her mouth off to Ophelia on that score when she had been in Los Angeles a couple of months before. They had been in the middle of being hunted for their powers like trophy animals, leave it to Ophelia to remember and check out the story on the off change that J wasn't spinning bullshit. "Ophelia, I never, ever assume that you're joking," J said solemnly.
"You're lucky that Evelyn's old contacts forwarded it to me rather than busting you themselves, you were somewhat less than subtle."
Sweat still prickled along J's temples from the wig, but without warning she felt cold all over. "You're keeping up with them? You're listening to them?"
Ophelia sounded testy upon answering, and maybe a little nervous. She sounded testy a lot, granted, but the uncertainty drew J up. "I'm not going to throw out every single thing that Evelyn was working on just because she screwed us over."
Why the hell not?" J yelped. She raised her middle finger at the wall as her neighbor thumped the plaster irritably. J did lower her voice in the interest of not blowing everyone's secret identities on a fit of pique, though. "Since the first thing she thought about when she woke up in the morning was how to fuck us over." Ophelia made a noise as if she wanted to argue or maybe object to the cussing, but J rolled forward without giving her time to answer. "Jesus Christ, Ophelia, don't land us all in labeled test tubes just because you're still duking it out with your old mentor."
Ophelia gasped as if J had reached through the phone and slapped her. "I called you as a courtesy," she said. "You get into any more trouble with the law, I'm not bailing you out of it. That's one arena where I'm nothing like Evelyn." She hung up without giving J a chance to apologize.
J put the phone back into its cradle rather than throwing it against the wall like she wanted to. She marched over to the freezer and stuck her head inside next, letting the cool air soothe her overheated temples. J stayed that way even when her cell phone went off less than fifteen minutes later. Bonnie had to vent her spleen into the voicemail instead.
J routinely kept stolen cash underneath her couch, threw her wigs across any free surface, and one time found a half-empty bottle of tequila nestled among her irregularly-used cleaning supplies for reasons that she still could not recall. She never mistreated her costume, though. She had bounced in and out of foster care more than once before her mom had finally made up her mind and got gone so that Gran could step up, long enough to know that keepsakes could be pried away without warning at any time. She was lucky that she had been eighteen by the time that Gran had died, so that she had at least been able to put her foot down and save the few personal effects that hadn't been worth any money.
No, J fought tooth and nail to stay in the apartment and even let Hugo's slimy father, years since carted away to a nursing home after a massive stroke, ogle her for one reason. Alzheimer's was already taking Gran's mind away a little piece at a time when J moved in. Gran knew what scum Hugo's father was; her greatest fear was that he would clear the apartment out before J could come back and get anything. She had waited until J was finished making up her new bed on the couch and then took her into the bedroom, showed her the closet. Behind the rows of flowered dresses straight out of The Wizard of Oz and pantsuits from Sear's clearance there was a square of plaster about two feet high that could be removed from the back wall, exposing the dark space between the drywall.
"This is where you put your keepsakes," she told J, smoothing her hand over J's hair. J's keepsakes hadn't at that point included much more than one-half of a plastic "Best Friends" necklace from a girl that she would never see again and a lucky bottle cap that Mom had given her off the top of a beer during some promotion. Gran boasted a box full of pictures and almost five grand in cash. J dutifully put her treasures in the box with snapshots of people long-since dead or unrecognizable with age, and she never stole so much as a dollar of the money. When Gran died, Hugo's father let himself in and found his way to the money, somehow, while J was still signing forms at the hospital. He never realized how lucky he was that J didn't break his teeth in or set his car on fire. Since Hugo himself wasn't as bright as his old man even if he did the same skin-crawling instincts, J turned the hidey-hole into the perfect place to hide her costume, a few zip drives, and anything else that she wanted to keep out of sight on the rare occasions that maintenance came into the apartment. Somewhere off where spirits dwelled, she liked to imagine Gran getting a kick out of it.
J picked at the clingy fabric of her bodysuit as it stuck to her, trying to encourage a breeze. She wore head to toe white, skintight and clinging to her curves, hinting at all kinds of sex even most of her skin stayed covered. She wore no wig tonight, and her blonde hair stuck up in spikes across her head. Not the most inconspicuous of get-ups, though it was still damned different from what she looked like when she was trying to blend in. No matter how much she wanted to pretend that her ass was just that mesmerizing and awesome, she knew the real reason no one had figured out who she was yet. They were all too busy looking at her costume to look at her face, and this even before one took into account how reluctant cops and reporters were to come into her neighborhoods.
Tonight, though, she broadened her horizons. J balanced on the edge of the Horizon Building's roof for the barest of seconds before she pulled herself over the edge and detached the magnetic clips that she had attached to the soles of her boots, tucking them away against her shins in case she should need them to get down. A trip line extending from the next roof over served as both access point and exit strategy. J stopped herself from turning into an ugly splat on the side of the building via the magnets on her boots. It beat tangling with guards on the ground level. As J pulled herself over the edge, though, she didn't think she needed to bother. The roof was empty, its only noises the hum of the air conditioner and the wind as it whipped between the buildings and nearly singing. The wind wicked away J's light coating of sweat almost immediately.
J paused for a few seconds to admire the city lights from this vantage point before heading for the access door. She stepped lightly and kept an eye out for the slightest movement, very aware of how visible she was dressed head to toe in white. Back during her novice days, the color had convinced people in her neighborhood that she was one of the good guys. Only a moron would break into a house looking like an athletic snowman. Now she told herself that it made her look high-class. She didn't get to feel that way very often.
No guards patrolled the roof. The access door didn't even have a keypad, just a basic metal lock of the kind that could be picked manually. J nearly pouted. Marcus liked to pass along new gadgets to her for testing, and his latest was a computer no larger than a deck of cards supposedly capable of hacking any interface she wanted to plug it into. It made an odd humming noise against her skin when she slipped it back down into her boot and got out the lock picks instead. J took a moment to hope that Marcus hadn't meant actual human nerve networks when he had said "any computer", because that sounded like the kind of thing that led to cancer or at least unsightly burns. This gig didn't provide health insurance, after all.
"He would tell me it was my own fault," J whispered, voice pitched so low that she could barely hear herself over the wind. "Or scowl at me. Man's got a scowl on him, I will give him that." She got to work. It didn't take more than a minute before the door swung open with a solemnity mostly reserved for horror films. J tilted her head to the side and listened. Not for an alarm, as most of the modern ones made no noise, but for the thundering of guards' boots coming up the stairs towards her. Nothing. J slipped into the shadows and down to the office floors.
Three floors down from the roof, the carpet became thick and soft enough to muffle all sound and turned red. It looked like a wide river of clotted blood. J picked her way carefully, keeping an eye out for security cameras. The higher the offices, the bigger the wig, the darker their potential secrets. J's mouth twisted: the definite secrets. Her eroding neighborhood could not be attributable to human greed, no way. Mostly attributable, maybe. Cold, hard cash made people do awful things, always had and always would. Didn't mean that the Horizon deal didn't stink. The last time a prickle ran up J's neck this hard, the tale of woe ended with her locked in a cell wearing a prison smock and throwing fire at a metal door.
Recessed lighting in the hallways cast shadows down onto the carpet and turned it even eerier, made J cock her head to the side to listen for screams from the clotted river. The paintings on the walls were probably worth more than Hugo's car, and the tasteful sculptures at the end of each hallway probably wouldn't look like humans unless J took a hit or two of acid. She nudged at one, waited for alarms to sound, and then moved on. While the statues might have "expensive" written all over them, they were much too heavy for her to tuck one under her arm and casually stroll back out again when it was time to leave.
It took J over ten minutes to find the CEO's office, long enough to make her skin prickle. Maybe Ophelia was right; maybe it was smart to actually plan once in a while. Then again, J thought as she crouched down in front of the door of one Adam Browne, a WASP name if J had ever heard one, if she left now she would be letting Marcus down. Unlike the roof, Browne's door had an electronic keypad. J hummed a little tune as she hooked up a few wires and then sank back onto her haunches while the computer did its work. The air conditioning blew hard; J felt a bit chilled through her thin gloves. A puff of artificially cold air struck her as the door swung open to reveal the darkened office beyond.
"That's what it feels like when you sell your soul," J whispered. She still darted towards the computer, not even glancing at the large number of curios that would fit so neatly into a pocket or down the front of her bodysuit. Framed pictures covered the desk and walls; with a slight start, J realized that Browne had been driving the luxury car earlier. Several of the pictures also featured the woman, their warms slung about each other's waists. Expensive plastic surgery or not, the woman was still much younger. If Browne wasn't in a picture with her, then he was accepting a certificate or plaque. He had been awarded commendations several times for his charitable work. Of course he had.
Marcus's fun little doodad made short work of the computer's security system. J made a note to thank him as soon as she figured out how to let him know that she was using it to commit crimes rather than stop them. That was, if it didn't have a GPS in it already. Marcus was totally the type to LoJack her.
Within minutes, the computer's security cracked open as easily as an egg into a hot skillet, letting J search Browne's files at will. Her adventures in vigilantism tended to involve stopping lower-tech crimes than this, but the working knowledge that she had picked up along the way didn't go to waste. A green light on the side of the toy beeped in steady rhythm as J downloaded everything she could find, meaning to go over it in depth when she had more time. J couldn't make head nor tail of the financial documents, save that she wasn't used to see that many zeroes; next up was a series of scanned contracts. J flipped through several of them and nearly went back to the accounting files until she happened to glance down at the signatures and pause. Her penmanship didn't win any awards, but at least she wasn't that bad. More than half of the names weren't even legible. And would you look at that, it went even further: every last one of the signatures was illegible in exactly the same way. They were identical.
J broke into a grin broad enough to hurt her face. While Marcus's gadget continued to work, J scratched a little deeper and discovered that the signature irregularity existed only on the contracts concerning J's building and the surrounding blocks. Odd, but not worth puzzling over now. New reports of banks and real estate developers pulling shady crap against people they knew didn't have the money or the legal clout to fight back hit the news every day, why should she be surprised that a big, thriving enterprise like Horizon had to employ more than one crook? Though it was strange that Hugo corroborated the story. He was a lecherous, money-grubbing weasel, but he had grown up in the building same as J. He hadn't been acting like himself that morning in more ways than one.
"Son of a bitch." J straightened and stared ahead, mouth falling open, as she replayed his odd behavior in her mind. The last time someone she thought she knew went all antisocial and vaguely homicidal at her, a shape-shifting mercenary named Jane had been imitating Ophelia's form. Not only that, but Jane darted off before being brought to justice. So Hugo had still been ogling J as if she was the last piece of chicken at a picnic, but that didn't mean anything. Maybe Horizon had given her a number she couldn’t resist, and maybe Jane swung to the Sapphic side. Ophelia and Naomi didn't shout their relationship to anyone who didn't know them well.
"Congratulations, girl," J whispered to herself. She disconnected Marcus's device and tucked it back down into her boot. "You officially get to nip any and all lectures headed your way right in the bud." Another turbo-charged human in the vicinity being naughty absolved J of any creative rule-breaking on the road to putting the pieces together.
J crept back into the hallway and shut the office door behind her, listening to it beep as the lock reengaged. She flexed her hands and felt sweat accumulating in the crevices between her fingers. The fabric making up her "official" uniform was a lot lighter than what she wore when she was creatively misbehaving, but that didn't make it any less sticky. A prickle started along her hairline and at the base of her neck, too. The temperature in the hallway had gone up, though J didn't hear the air conditioning shut off. She spun.
A whirling vortex of flame flew towards her. A roar followed on its heels as the conflagration sucked all of the air from the hallway in order to feed itself. J threw herself down onto her belly without thinking. The fire crackled through the air above her spine, singing the tips of her hair and threatening to burn her clothing from her back. J flipped onto her back and thrust her hand upward, into the flames. Her lightweight white gloves turned to ash in an instant. J's skin, though, registered nothing more than the slight burn of pressing her hand against a sun-warmed window. The fire trembled and wrapped itself in a twining snake down the length of her forearm. J ordered it back up to the palm of her hand, drew it into herself, and felt her body lighting up from within. She hurled the flames back like the champion softball pitcher she might have been, if only she hadn't been smoking (in at least three different ways) behind the bleachers. A tall figure dressed all in black leaped down an adjoining hallway half a second before J's pillar of light and heat hit the T-junction and then split in two, traveling several yards in both directions before petering out. The paint would never be the same. Nor would the expensive-looking bronze statue that had stood against the wall, which was now even more abstract than before as metal dripped slowly down its base and cooled into eerie fingers. Smoke alarms screamed from every direction.
"The hell?" J blurted. She leapt back to her feet and felt her shoulders. Her costume had been designed to withstand certain heat-related occupational hazards if J's temper should get the better of her aim, but all that she had left from the uppermost curve of her ass all the way up to her shoulder blades was bare skin. One good tug, and J would be flashing the security team whenever they managed to get their overpaid asses up here to investigate the problem. Meanwhile, her new friend was getting away. "I don't think so, jackass, I hate it when dates bail on me."
J hurtled down the hallway at a dead sprint. She seized control of her temper enough to slow as she approached the corner, and good thing for it, too. Another jet of flame whipped out, this one aiming low to catch her if she tried to throw herself onto her belly again. Fool her once, shame on them, but fool her twice… J jumped up and to the side, snatching the frame of one of the overpriced paintings to help her climb the wall and stay there. The fire immediately angled up to compensate. J caught a glimpse of the person controlling it before he darted around the corner again. A man.
J jumped down from the wall and wrenched the painting along with her. She whipped it in front of her body to serve as a shield. A pane of glass stood in front of the painting itself, as any office park with enough money to hang obnoxious modern art off of every available wall damned sure wasn't going to ruin their investment by letting just anyone rub their grubby prints into the canvas. The glass diverted the fire into an arcing pair of wings that cut the air to either side of J's face and made the ends of her hair smoke. The metal frame began to glow, and dribbles of melted glass dropped to the carpet. They sizzled where they landed, cooling into esoteric patterns. One more reason to be glad that her hands, at least, were mostly fireproof.
J couldn't breathe in the smoky, increasingly superheated air. She concentrated, drew the fire about her body in a glowing pillar, and hurled it back. By aiming low, J caught her new friend at shin level. He yelped as he hit the carpet, but didn't scream the way he would have if J had done anything more than singe the hair off of his legs and bruise his pride. Either her buddy had similar defenses to her own, or they shared a tailor.
"Are we going to play catch all night or what?" J yelled. She hurled the painting to the side. The glass, cooling so quickly once the fire was gone that it became brittle, shattered upon impact into a thousand pieces and hung in the air, glittering, for a second before falling down into the bloody-red carpet like falling stars. J hoped evil empires at least paid their janitorial staff enough to clean up super-powered messes. She sucked the fire back down into herself until it was a yellow-orange orb no larger than a softball floating above the palm of her hand and a thrilling warmth radiating from her core. "I'm pretty sure I'm not going to run out of balls."
The man who had singed her outfit into something straight out of Girls Gone Wild pushed himself to his feet so that J could, at long last, get a good look at his face. He was olive-skinned, no great shock considering that more than half the people in San Antonio were Hispanic, with lean, chiseled features and dark hair that fell down over his eyes. His grin was easy for someone who had just been knocked onto his face and nearly set on fire. J rocked up a little more carefully onto the balls of her feet before she could think about it.
"No," the man said. J doubted that he was any older than herself. She wondered why she hadn't seen him around before. "You definitely aren't lacking those, are you?" With another cocky smile, this one deep enough to reveal a peekaboo dimple on the left side of his mouth, he thrust his hands forward. The fireball hovering over J's hand exploded into a phoenix with a wingspan large enough to lick the paint on either side of the hallway and throw sparks down into the rich, thick carpet. Show off, J thought, impressed in spite of herself.
The bird sank its talons down into the carpet before reverting back into a wall of pure flame, licking and panting for her. J hurled herself backwards, breaking her fall with one hand and holding the other out in front of her like a catcher getting ready for the pitch. At her command, the fire stopped in midair and hovered over her body as a bubble that didn't come quite close enough to burn. She could still feel it pushing down, seeking out her flesh. Controlling flame stopped being a challenge when J was still a teenager making candles dance in time to Gran's radio. The fire couldn't choose a master between the two of them, J realized. She took a deep breath and struggled not to cough, concentrated hard. The flames reaching for the carpet and walls skittered back like spiders exposed to sudden light.
J balled her hands together as if she were crumpling up a newspaper and threw them in the direction of the man. He anticipated the gesture and dove beneath the flames, lunging towards her rather than away. He straddled her before J could leap back to her feet, knees braced to either side of her abdomen. J made a fist. The man grabbed her by both wrists and pinned her down to the smoking carpet, casting a nervous glance behind him. The flames shot up to the ceiling and hovered there, turning a slow circle that looked like an eye.
"Uh-uh, don't do anything that either of us will regret," he said.
J watched the ceiling. The fire didn't obey because she was just that good; already it reached out for the ceiling tile, rich food. Half-yelling to make herself heard above the wail of the fire alarms, J said, "I like to be on top."
"I gathered that, actually--" J bucked her hips to throw the man off of her and brought her knee up hard and fast in a move she hadn't learned from Evelyn. The man let go of her wrists and grabbed for her waist instead; J didn’t know if it was an "ow, my balls" reflex or copping a feel. She kneed at him again. The man rolled to the side and left her without the satisfaction of a direct hit. Her hands free, J gestured for the flames at the ceiling to come down and give him a kiss.
The stairwell door slammed open at the end of the hallway and revealed a security guard, young and fit rather than a gone-to-seed rental cop. He said a word they didn't teach in sensitivity courses and reached for the gun at his hip.
J's fellow phoenix, still half-sprawled on the carpet next to her as if they were a pair of lovers, flashed her a dangerous grin. "Watch this," he said, and hurled a stream of fire straight at the guard. The glowing snake bounced from wall to wall like a pinball, moving much too fast for the guard to dodge. J leapt to her feet and felt her new friend grabbing for her leg. She kicked out viciously and yelled "Get down!" J seized control of the fire inches before it would have caught the guard in the face and directed it towards the ceiling, where it exploded in a haze of sparks that flew in too many directions for J to possibly control them all. The river of blood became a river of fire.
J hurled herself into the stairwell, pushing the guard ahead of her without looking back to see what her lecherous new friend was doing. She and the guard rolled down several steps together before she caught herself against the wall, grunting as the edge of a stair dug into her back. Flames shot through the open doorway a second later.
"Who the hell are you?" J yelled, calling the flames to her and wrapping them like a snake around her hand. "I swear to God, if you're working with that prick back there--"
"I'm not!" the security guard yelled. A red line marked his cheek from colliding with the edge of a stair, already darkening into a bruise. Must have a head injury, too--
J saw the guard's empty holster first, then the weapon itself resting on one of the steps that they had just rolled down, directly in the path of the fire that she had no time to call back. J ducked and grabbed for the guard's collar to drag him to safety behind her as bullets exploded and ricocheted off of the railing and stairs. She had really wanted to exit the building via her roof cable, but it didn't look as if that was in the cards.
Even J was winded by the time they reached the ground floor and safety, and the security guard barely kept his feet. She heard sprinklers going off on the floors above, one by one. Consequence of the smoke, or was the son of a bitch deliberately setting them off so she couldn't come after him again? That was just mean, was what it was. Though J would never admit it, she wished she had come up with the idea first.
A few yards away from freedom, the guard grabbed J's arm. "What the hell are you?" he asked her.
J pulled free from his grasp, being careful not to touch anything without her gloves. There were a lot of theories, put out by everyone from the Mayo Clinic to the John Birch society, but most folks were still arguing about whether people like her existed in the first place. If the guard's face was anything to go by, they had another believer.
"The tabloids have come up with stupid names every now and again," J said, deliberately mishearing him. "But none of them have ever stuck. I'm the chick who saved your life." She heard sirens. Damn it, there had better be all kinds of goodies on Marcus's computer to make up for the trouble she was putting herself through. "Try to remember that when you're giving your statement, okay?"
The guard still stared at her as if he had never seen anything like her before and doubted his eyes. "How did you do it?" he asked, and pointed towards the stairs as if J couldn't figure out his meaning on her own. "The fire?"
"Flash grenades," J answered promptly. "And little teeny Molotov cocktails. Pocket-sized. Make sure the cops are staking out the airports, don't want those puppies getting on an airplane." J kicked the door at the base of the stairs open, saw red and blue lights flashing, and jerked back, accidentally-on-purpose elbowing the guard in the midsection. He doubled over. As soon as his attention was directed elsewhere, J sent a jet out into the lobby, aiming high. Gunshots echoed as the cops already on the scene fired at her pillar of flame. Ophelia gives this whole law-and-order dance way too much credit.
The guard grabbed for her arm. J laughed, wild and delighted, and hurled him into the lobby just as the sprinklers went off, turning her pretty pillar into nothing more than smoke and steam. "Hold your fire!" a chorus of voices yelled. The steam gave her half an idea, but J didn't want to risk getting herself or the guard shot trying out a maybe.
"It's what you get for being a people person," J gasped. "Everyone wants to dance with you." She whirled back the way she had come and hauled ass back up the stairs. She slammed into the first door that she saw, elbows-first even now to avoid leaving fingerprints, and burst onto the second floor. The sprinklers rained down onto the carpet and her, too, sending flumes of steam rising up from her shoulders. J bashed her way into one of the offices, hopped onto the desk, and kicked the heavy leather chair behind it with all her might. It crashed through the glass window. J sailed after it before the shards had finished falling.
Two stories was a big fall to other people, not to her. J grunted and rolled, taking most of the impact across her shoulders. Nothing damaged except her pride. Oh, and maybe a little bit of her dignity, as the last shreds of her costume came apart behind her neck and would have turned her into the full Mardi Gras if she hadn't grabbed for them. All of the shouts and shots still came from the front of the building. A few seconds later, J understood why.
"There's two of them!" an officer yelled. J looked up automatically. A figure clad in black hopped from window to window on Horizon's uppermost floor. At this distance he was no larger than a toy. He had to be holding onto the frames with magic, since he had no harness that J could see.
Or magnets. J ducked to check her boots and discovered that her grips were gone. Worse, so was Marcus's computer. J swore and ran before the cops realized she had left the building and cornered her for some unpleasant questions. She still glared upwards as she went, thinking, You and me are going to have a sit-down, sugar-pie, count on it.