An exclusive excerpt of Adam Christopher’s new, alternate-history New York noir, Empire State.
The Empire State is the other New York. A parallel-universe, Prohibition-era world of mooks and shamuses that is the twisted magic mirror to our bustling Big Apple, a place where sinister characters lurk around every corner while the great superheroes that once kept the streets safe have fallen into dysfunctional rivalries and feuds. Not that its colourful residents know anything about the real New York . . . until detective Rad Bradley makes a discovery that will change the lives of all its inhabitants.
Jerome gunned the accelerator, and turned sharp left. Rex slid on the bench seat, but grabbed the leather strap dangling over his door fast enough to stop him landing in the driver’s lap. Jerome whistled, knuckles white as they gripped the wheel. Rex looked over his shoulder. He sure as hell hoped Jerome knew where he was going.
“For cryin’ out loud!” Rex winced as his head met the roof of the car, the thin felt of his hat providing little protection as Jerome pushed two wheels over the curb to dodge oncoming traffic.
“Complain later, boss. Keep yer head down and hold on.” Jerome’s eyes didn’t leave the road. Rex frowned and hunkered down in the seat, gripping the top edge with both hands as he turned to look out the back. Two crates of green bottles rattled in the back seat under Rex’s nose as Jerome navigated the wet streets as fast as he dared.
Rex squinted, trying to see through the smattering of rain on the car’s tiny rear window, but the droplets of water seemed to pull the light of the city in, refracting it into a thousand glowing, multicoloured points. The car shuddered against the gutter as Jerome swerved around another obstacle, throwing up a huge steam-like spray of runoff, obscuring the view even more.
“What’s the deal?” Jerome asked.
Rex relaxed his grip and turned back around. Jerome was leaning over the wheel, his keen, experienced eyes picking out the path ahead in the downtown traffic. It was late, but New Yorkers had a well-known disregard for the time of day. Jerome was doing a fine job threading the boat-sized Studebaker through the maze of cars, but surely their luck was going to run out. Somehow they’d managed to avoid the police, but they’d be spotted sooner rather than later. Evading one pursuer was possible; add two, three, four cop cars and the odds shortened, and not in their favour.
“Looks clear,” said Rex. “Think we lost ’em. Nice driving.”
Jerome allowed one thin hand to unwrap from the steering wheel to tip an invisible hat. His face cracked into a grin so wide all Rex could see was a row of teeth stretching up from the driver’s chin to his ear.
“How about that, huh? People movin’ in, causin’ trouble. How’s an honest man supposed to make a living in this town, huh, Rex?”
Rex sighed. “Tell me about it.”
Jerome laughed and slapped the wheel. He began talking, but Rex tuned it out. His night was not going as planned and his partner’s jabber was the last thing he needed. Rex closed his eyes and rubbed their lids, watching the purple-orange shapes float for a while. Then something flared red across his vision.
Rex grabbed the wheel and pulled it hard right. The driver returned his attention to the road just in time to see the side of another car slide past, right across their path. Jerome spun the wheel in the opposite direction as Rex let go, negotiating the Studebaker around the rear of the vehicle mostly by good luck. Rex grabbed for the leather strap again as the car slid on its rear wheels.
There was a rat-a-tat-tat like a jazz drummer practicing a solo on a tin roof, and the rear windshield exploded, filling the car with the hot smell of cordite. Rex ducked instinctively behind the seat, and when he poked his head up to check the rear view again he saw the white car in hot pursuit, two men inside and one perched on the running board on the passenger side. The man raised his tommy gun just for a moment as the car bumped over a pothole, then brought it down again. Rex ducked as a second volley of slugs peppered the car, splitting the Studebaker’s front windshield right in front of him, turning the pane of glass into an opaque spider’s web. The car lurched as Jerome pumped the accelerator and brake in quick succession in the confusion. It was like suddenly driving into a blizzard.
Rex twisted awkwardly in the seat. “Yeah, I got it.” He lay almost flat on his back, and raised his right leg up over the dash. A few kicks and the crumbling windshield popped out, sliding over the hood with the sound of a tortured blackboard.
“Shit,” muttered Jerome as he bobbed his head down, squinting against the stiff, wet wind. They were in a four-lane street now, which was completely clear ahead in both directions. The white car took the opportunity and revved behind them, headlights sweeping through the cab of the Studebaker as they pulled out and around.
Rex jerked his head right, in time to see the prow of the other car begin to pull up alongside. The gunner, fortunately, was on the other side, but Rex could see his head and the tommy gun being held aloft as he shifted to get an aim over the white car’s roof.
“Lose ’em, Jerome!”
Jerome glanced right, then left, grin transformed into a grimace of concentration.
“I see it. Hold on.”
Jerome twisted the wheel and the car bucked left, the rear end swinging out and the left-side wheels lifting as the vehicle attempted a hairpin at high speed. The white car saw and pulled away, but too late, the rear of the Studebaker connecting with the driver’s door just as it jerked away. There was a crunch and the Studebaker bounced roughly but, as the airborne wheels made contact with the road again, traction was regained and Jerome floored it, sending them down the narrower side street with perfect aim.
“Ah, shit!” said Jerome again, this time raising an arm to protect his eyes. The car was flooded with blue and white light. Rex blinked away purple spots just in time to see the police cordon ahead, but it was too late. He reached for the wheel and pulled again, ignoring Jerome’s protest, but there was nowhere to go. There were police cars on either side of the street, and a temporary wooden barrier ahead. Rex’s rash action caused the automobile to skid around, turning it sideways but maintaining forward motion as Jerome slammed the brakes on. All around them, police and pedestrians alike scattered. There was shouting, a lot of it, then a crack as the wooden boom of the roadblock snapped against the passenger side. The impact was surprisingly solid, throwing Rex across the bench seat and finally tearing Jerome off the steering wheel.
The Studebaker was large and heavy, and the road was slick. The police barrier hadn’t stolen enough of their momentum. The last thing Rex saw before the car stuck on something and tumbled sideways onto its roof was fireworks over the squat, blunt shape of the half-completed Empire State Building a block ahead of them. He wondered what the occasion was as red, green and blue explosions lit the sky, silhouetting the construction cranes balanced high over the city. He wondered what the building would look like and how tall it would be when it was finished.
Two more thoughts crossed Rex’s mind before the car stopped and unconsciousness claimed him. Firstly, that he really needed a drink, and secondly, that his night had been going so well before McCabe showed up.
Rex tipped his hat, straightened his tie, and rubbed a thumb over the lapel of his double-breasted jacket. It was his way of showing that he was relaxed and comfortable, that Martin Jeremy’s last statement had made perfect sense and hadn’t thrown him in the slightest. Behind him he heard Jerome crack a knuckle. His junior partner was slightly less careful with hiding his thoughts.
This was how it worked. Rex was the businessman. Jerome was the muscle. Rex did the deals and listened to his customers. Jerome made the customers change their minds and accept Rex’s terms. Times were tough. The Depression wasn’t just biting into the pockets of ordinary New Yorkers, it was killing people. But in such trying times, Rex was doing just swell. Because in such trying times those ordinary New Yorkers drank, and drank, and drank. Hell, even the government was on Rex’s side, with Prohibition just a way of charging more and more for his product. The bootlegging business was booming and Rex was reaping the rewards. Jerome too. He bought the kid a flash new car, a Studebaker the size of a bus. That kept Jerome happy, but also made sense as a business investment. Not only could they haul liquor in the car’s capacious interior without tipping the police off, it was one of the fastest automobiles money could buy. Rex didn’t drive, but with Jerome at the wheel getaways were easy.
“Martin, Martin,” said Rex with a smile, placing a hand on the barkeep’s shoulder with just enough pressure to show the conversation had taken a very serious turn. “You gotta understand, buddy. Me and Jerome here are just trying to make a living. Understand?”
Martin Jeremy was thin and bald. Standing in the dead backstreet behind his speakeasy the streetlight shone off his pate, damp with a light evening drizzle and a healthy dash of cold sweat.
Rex licked his lips and watched the barkeep. Something was up, something more than he had let on. He squeezed the man’s shoulder a little harder. Martin flinched, but said nothing.
Huh. The usual form of quiet intimidation wasn’t working. And Rex hated the next part. Beating on an old man was not something he enjoyed at all. Which was why he got Jerome to do it.
“Rex, my friend, we have done some good business in the past,” said Martin at last. His voice wavered but with age, not fear. He proudly held his head up, thin jowls swinging under his chin as he spoke. Rex raised an eyebrow.
“I think you misunderstand, Mr Jeremy. Changing suppliers is not an option. My business supplies the whole of Midtown. Ain’t nobody else in this neighbourhood gonna sell you the goods. So, what’d’ya say we just shake on it and you pay me an extra hundred dollars now for, ah, renegotiation of terms, and we won’t mention it again.” Rex turned to his partner. “Jerome, unload the car.”
The teen nodded and headed off towards the side street where the Studebaker was parked.
When Rex turned back to the barkeep, he just caught the end of a smile on the man’s face that he didn’t much like at all. He frowned as the barkeep took a step backwards, and he made to take a step closer himself, maintaining the distance of intimidation and control, as he liked to think of it, but stopped short as three men peeled out from around the speakeasy’s loading door.
“Well now, that ain’t very nice,” said the first man. “These two niggers giving you trouble, Mr Jeremy?” He was tall and wide, not fat but built, like a football quarterback. His companions were a small, wiry teenager and another man who towered over both of them. The man who spoke raised an arm up to adjust a cufflink; a diamond the size of a pea glinted in the streetlight.
“McCabe, you sonovabitch,” whispered Rex. It was suddenly too hot and the air too thin. Rex gulped, but stayed still, hoping the poor light hid his fear.
McCabe. The sonovabitch. Head of a family business running liquor and a dozen other rackets. One of the most powerful of New York’s underworld. Richest too. Rex had done a few jobs for him, years ago, before branching out on his own. While McCabe had seemed happy to let him go, Rex knew that one day it would come back to bite him. You didn’t make friends in this business, only enemies.
McCabe sat at the centre of a web that spread far and wide over the five boroughs, but Rex had thought he was safe. Midtown and downtown Manhattan hadn’t interested McCabe much in the past, the gangster apparently happy to let other mobs control the city. Rex had always thought that was odd, given the concentration of speakeasies in the area and the rich pickings they represented. It had only to be a matter of time, he was sure, before McCabe made his move, but in the meantime there was moonshine to sell and barkeeps to squeeze. He’d forgotten about McCabe, but clearly McCabe hadn’t forgotten about Rex. The time had come to add Midtown to his empire, and two black guys pushing liquor was the obvious place to start.
“Oh, language please, Rex. Didn’t they teach you to speak nice down on the plantation?” McCabe laughed and his heavy sniggered; the teenager – the driver, thought Rex – was expressionless. He probably had no clue what McCabe was talking about, and he sure didn’t want to show it.
Rex held his hands up.
“McCabe, I apologise, I really do. So how about we have a drink and talk things over? I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”
McCabe smiled. Rex dropped his hands.
“I’m sure we can, Rex, I’m sure we can. And it starts with the disappearance of two amateurs causing trouble. How about that, huh?”
Rex ran his tongue along his bottom teeth. He tensed his calves, ready to make his move. Jerome hadn’t returned from the car, which either meant McCabe had more men around the side of the building or that he’d seen or sensed trouble and was waiting at the wheel. He hoped it was the latter.
“Not your style, McCabe. How about you just buy me out and I retire to somewhere nice in New Jersey, huh?”
McCabe laughed and the heavy sniggered again. Rex thought that perhaps the heavy understood as little as the driver and was just matching his employer’s mood because he was paid to. Behind the trio, Martin Jeremy slipped through the loading door and back into his speakeasy. Wise man, thought Rex. Trouble was brewing.
“Billy, fetch the car,” McCabe called over his shoulder. The teen nodded and turned, heading down the back street. McCabe smiled at Rex again, then looked up at his muscular companion.
“You wanna grab some dinner after, George?”
The heavy nodded and balled his fists. “Sounds nice, Mr McCabe. I feel like steak.”
McCabe clicked his fingers. “Oh, yeah, me too. We should head down to that grill on Fourth.”
The pair took a step forward.
“Aw, you guys are sweet,” said Rex, taking a step backwards. “When’s the big day?”
White light swept into the alley as a car turned in, engine purring as it coasted towards them in low gear.
“We’re taking a little ride, you and me, Rex,” said McCabe. He put his hands into the pockets of his jacket and nodded at George. “You can either get into the car, or George here can fold you up and put you in the trunk. That’s up to you.”
The car was nothing but two spotlights in the dark. As it slowed, McCabe moved to one side to allow more room, then reached out for the door.
The door swung out and back in one swift movement, connecting with the gangster with enough force to knock him off his feet. He hit the tarmac on his backside, but George was at his side in a second, helping him up.
He didn’t need the invitation. Rex was halfway to the car when Jerome called, the driver leaning over to open the passenger door. Rex dived in head-first, head landing practically on Jerome’s lap. Jerome put the car into gear and pushed the accelerator to the floor, Rex’s legs flapping out of the open door as they powered out of the street.
Rex woke up in the dark and rolled over into a large puddle. He jerked at the shock and knocked his forehead into the curb.
“Ah, Jesus…” Rex grabbed for his forehead with one hand and the curb with his other. He pulled himself up and held the free hand in front of him until it rested on a wet wall, his forehead following close behind. His head hurt, and he was dizzy. For a moment he didn’t know his name.
Shit. The car. He spun around, finally focussing on the commotion around him. Or rather, near him. He was in the lip of an alley, in the dark. The main street ahead was a flurry of activity. People were gathered, lots and lots of people. Tourists and locals sandwiched together behind a flimsy police barricade, the boys in blue desperately trying to hold a line. The car – the huge, expensive, fast Studebaker – was upside down in the middle of the street, smoke curling from the undercarriage. Jerome was lying awkwardly over the lip of the missing windshield, and wasn’t moving.
Rex’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and he patted himself down. But aside from a bump on the forehead, he felt fine. The car was angled slightly towards him, the one intact and functioning headlight spotting the wall next to him.
“Holy Mother of God…”
Rex kicked at something soft that tangled his feet. It was a stack of wet newspapers. He’d been thrown clear in the crash, through the missing windshield, into the mush of rotting paper. It was remarkable, miraculous. Rex didn’t believe in God, but he muttered a thank-you just in case.
Then he noticed something. The police and the crowd weren’t looking at the car, or the dead body of the nineteen-year-old under it. The wreck was a sideshow, a distraction even, from the main event that shone across the street in brilliant flashes of red and blue.
Over the half-finished shell of the Empire State Building, two superheroes were punching seven shades of shit out of each other, their tiny, doll-like bodies silhouetted against the maelstrom of energy that erupted around them with each connecting blow.
Rex staggered to the corner to get a look. It was mesmerising. Exactly what he needed. Dragging his eyes away, he checked the crowd over. Everyone, police included, were looking away. He snuck out, hugged the corner and quietly ducked under the police barrier, the replacement for the broken boom which had been pushed into the gutter opposite. Safe in the crowd, confident that McCabe had probably taken off as soon he saw the Studebaker flip right in front of the police, Rex looked back toward the Empire State Building.
There was a flash of green so bright the crowd gasped as one, followed a second later by a colossal sonic boom, so loud the crowd ducked. This was a heck of a fight between New York’s two superheroes. In Rex’s dazed state it pushed McCabe and Jerome and his shattered business clean out of his mind for a moment.
Two superheroes? Scratch that. One superhero, one supervillain. It was a great story, one that Rex – and everyone else in the city, if not the country – knew, a tale of friendship and betrayal so perfect the movie was just waiting to be made.
The Skyguard and the Science Pirate had been partners, friends since childhood. Brought up in the wrong part of town, they’d formed a dynamic duo even at school, watching each other’s backs as they fought their way through their teenage years. As adults, they became rocket-powered heroes, the protectors of New York. They fought crime, corruption, enemy agents and infiltrators. They fought fascists and lefties, the mob, petty criminals. Bootleggers and Prohibition breakers. They defended the Constitution of the United States of America with fairness and impartiality. The ultimate patriots, given the freedom of the city and state, publicly awarded by Coolidge just a couple of years before.
So the story went, anyway.
Rex had been lucky. By the time he’d left McCabe’s employ, the golden age of heroism had passed. The Skyguard and the Science Pirate stopped fighting crime and started fighting each other, effectively handing the city back to the overworked, underpaid, and highly corruptible NYPD.
Nobody knew what went wrong exactly, or when, or how, or why. The Science Pirate turned against his partner, and the two became bitterest of rivals. Gone was the crime-fighting, the crusade against the mobs and gangs: the dealers, smugglers, predators. Instead the Skyguard and the Science Pirate declared open war on each other, each dedicating all their efforts and resources to this new monomania. And while the Skyguard and the Science Pirate fought, the city suffered. The mob made inroads again, and corruption—both local and Federal—began to eat at the core of the Big Apple. The police were stretched to the limit. The FBI was called in as McCabe and McCabe’s ilk returned to the city and crime became organised once more, the city’s sworn protectors having abandoned their cause. Which was all good for Rex, of course. He kept his own little business empire just so, large enough to make a tasty profit, small enough to stay out of McCabe’s way. Until tonight, that is. Rex rubbed his head, wondering where his hat was and whether he could afford another car. Or, for that matter, another driver.
Nobody really knew exactly who was the hero and who the villain. Certainly the crowd in the street was almost evenly split as they oohed and aahed and cheered the terrible battle in the sky. This was spectacle, entertainment. Hell, people needed it these days, Rex knew that. Two superpowered, costumed crime fighters who could fly and shoot rays, slugging it out in the open air. It was quite a sight.
The Skyguard and the Science Pirate looked similar; even without knowing their history, you could tell they were, or had once been, a team. Visored helmets and long cloaks, each wearing the remarkable inventions of the Science Pirate which had enabled them to protect Manhattan from the air. He was the brains – as his chosen moniker reflected – and the Skyguard was the brawn, although in truth they were pretty evenly matched. But each acting alone, people weren’t sure. How could the Skyguard maintain his arsenal of amazing equipment that had been designed and built by the Science Pirate? And how could the Science Pirate counter his opponent’s battle plans and tactics?
The crowd chattered and a single thought entered Rex’s head. This was it, the final showdown, the ultimate battle which would finally decide who had the right to protect the citizens of New York, and who would be denounced as a traitor and a criminal, locked up forever and a day.
Rex silently cursed the tall man in front of him who had just shuffled into his line of vision, dragging his lady friend with him for a better look. Rex tried standing on tip-toe to get a better view, but it was no good. There was another flash and another bang and the couple moved. The man laughed, and smiled down at his lady friend. Rex scowled but the man wasn’t looking, which was probably a good thing.
Rex had a theory about the city’s two protectors. He knew, knew, the Skyguard was the patriot, and had been protecting the Science Pirate all the time they were together. He’d heard rumours, heard the talk about where the Science Pirate had come from, that in his past life the Feds had taken an interest and he’d been hauled in front of a Senate subcommittee for some reason or another. The Skyguard had taken him in as his ward, swearing to rehabilitate his misguided friend. In the Skyguard’s custody, the Science Pirate was untouchable.
But it hadn’t worked out. The Science Pirate had shown his true colours. What kind of hero calls himself a pirate, anyway? And why was he so happy to let the Skyguard take all the glory and make all the speeches and just stay in the background?
Rex needed a drink. His mouth was dry. Later. He’d watch the fight and wait until the crowd was clear. He felt OK, surrounded as he was, but who knew who was lurking on the side streets? If not McCabe, then maybe McCabe’s boyfriend. Rex sniggered, then ducked as another explosion, much louder this time, echoed around the city blocks.
Looking up, he saw the two crime fighters were heading towards the crowd, and at some speed. The crowd buckled and there were some shouts. A police officer, or perhaps a couple, tried to use loudhailers to calm people down, but nobody was listening. The Skyguard and the Science Pirate were only a hundred yards away now and just fifty in the air. Maybe one had thrown the other off the building. Whatever, they were here, and it was close. The crowd backed away, but only a little. Nobody wanted to miss this.
The Skyguard let loose a quick one-two, forcing his opponent back in the air several feet. He shot forward on his rocket boots and finished with a savage uppercut, sending the Science Pirate tumbling head over heels into the sky. The crowd cheered and the Skyguard paused, watching the trajectory of his opponent.
When the Science Pirate reached the apex of his climb, he recovered and turned himself back upright. Spinning around his centre of gravity, he stretched into a long shape, fists pointed down towards the Skyguard, and with cloak streaming behind, accelerated towards his target. The Skyguard drifted out of the way by a little, but was caught in the twin energy rays projected from the Pirate’s eyes. He screamed, his cry a weird, machine-like screeching from inside his helmet, as he convulsed in mid-air above the heads of the crowd. The Science Pirate collided with him, bending the Skyguard almost in two over his outstretched fists. The Science Pirate didn’t stop, and with the Skyguard wrapped over his arms, ploughed straight into the cleared street ahead of the police barriers. The explosion was frighteningly loud and sent hot tarmac, concrete and dirt raining down on the crowd. Some cheered and some screamed, and the gathered mass of bodies recoiled slightly again. The police line at the front tripped and collapsed in a couple of places as the crowd it was attempting to hold back suddenly retreated.
For a second there was silence. The initial pall of smoke cleared, revealing a huge crater carved deep into the Earth. The crowd regained its composure and edged forward a little, Rex carried with them, the group hushed with collective anticipation. Had the Science Pirate succeeded? Had both been pulverised by the impact? Both were protected by their armour, but they were only human. Weren’t they?
Taking the opportunity, the police line reorganised and began herding people away. Gaps appeared in the crowd as people were pushed and pulled around, and seeing his chance, Rex ducked under the linked arms of yet another couple, then pushed past two young boys up way past their bedtime. He tripped over another person walking backwards, and righting himself Rex found he was at the front line, chest being pushed by a policeman. The policeman looked him in the eye and shook his head, and Rex just nodded. The officer relaxed, happy Rex wasn’t going to try to get any closer.
The crater in the street was massive, like something from the moon. Smoke billowed from it in a great grey cloud, but there was no sign of the two combatants. Several police peered nervously into it, hands ready on their holstered guns.
Rex frowned. Was that it? The two forces had cancelled each other out, leaving… nothing?
Something moved in the smoke, and a half-dozen police guns were pulled out as one. Someone snapped on a flashlight and played the beam over the smoke, picking out a black form, elongating it into a wispy shadow. A cloaked figure, with tall, winged helmet.
The Skyguard! Rex felt his heart race. The Skyguard had triumphed. Ah, shit. If the Skyguard was the good guy, then his night had just got a whole lot worse. Rex wondered if this was a sign to leave New York altogether. Perhaps he hadn’t been joking about New Jersey.
The figure stepped out of the smoke, and held an arm up against the flashlight that now focussed on his face. Dirty and battered, he was an impressive figure on the ground. Tall and proud, the victor.
The figure’s arm dropped away, along with Rex’s thoughts of relocation. Out of the curtain of smoke, the long shadows of the Skyguard’s helmet and flanged gauntlets collapsed into the more austere, compact profile of the Science Pirate. The figure stopped in front of the crowd. Some clapped, and some cheered. Rex was suddenly unsure whether he’d got the good or the bad guys around the right way. The Science Pirate had won. Rex spat at the ground and the policeman in front of him raised an eyebrow.
Then people started shouting. There were cheers and jeers, and soon the cheers were outnumbered. Rex kept his mouth shut and his eyes open. The crowd seemed to think New York City was doomed. The Skyguard was down and now the Science Pirate had free rein. As the intensity of the crowd’s reaction increased, Rex realised that perhaps more people subscribed to his traitor theory than he had thought.
The Science Pirate stood and watched the crowd. He had supporters, but they were vastly outnumbered by those crowing for a retrial, that the fight had been staged, that the Pirate had cheated, that justice needed to be served. The Science Pirate raised a hand, not to silence anyone, but to acknowledge his supporters; but this only increased the ferocity of his detractors. A policeman, someone important with scrambled eggs on his hat and braiding on his shoulder, walked towards him with one hand out, shaking his head, the other resting on his gun.
Go on.Rex spat again. Finish it. It would be easier, after all. Either the Science Pirate was the hero, in which case things were going to get mighty tight in the city again, or he was the villain, which either meant pledging allegiance – and a percentage of the profits – or being run out of town. Or, depending on McCabe’s position in the new hierarchy, worse. McCabe would be furious that Rex was still alive, and if he had the ear of the new boss in town, well…
Rex smirked as the Science Pirate took a step backwards. The policeman stopped and said something, but Rex was too far away to hear. And then the Science Pirate did something remarkable.
She took her helmet off.
It was like a movie theatre. The crowd fell silent with a collective whoosh of inhaled air. A few seconds later came a couple of wolf whistles, and someone shouting something that everybody could hear, but nobody could make out. Then a rumble, low and quiet as, having recovered from the shock, people started talking to each other. The police kept the line, but most craned their necks around to see what was going on.
The Science Pirate was a woman. Her long brown hair unpiled from inside the helmet, and fell halfway down her back. Her face was flushed and slick with sweat, but at this distance Rex could see she was quite a looker.
A… girl? The Science Pirate was a girl. Well, thirty-something. Brunette. Attractive. Rex’s throat was tight. He still needed that drink, and his lips were still dry. He ran his tongue along them, but that was dry too.
The policeman was saying something and the woman in the costume said something back. The crowd’s baying obscured their conversation, but Rex wasn’t really trying to listen anyway. He ignored all as he stared at the unmasked rocketeer.
What was this? Did she have some kind of point to make, unmasking herself? Rex’s head was filled with a hundred questions. Were we supposed to know who she was? Were we supposed to feel sorry for her? Proud of her? Frightened of her? What, exactly? His face went hot with embarrassment that he’d been frightened of a goddamn woman, although he didn’t admit it, even to himself. He rubbed his aching head and the world spun a little. Keep it calm, keep it together. Concussion, was all. He’d had it before, several times, working with McCabe. Rex took a breath.
The policeman was shouting now and the Science Pirate was shouting back, but Rex wasn’t listening. He watched as the Science Pirate stamped and shouted and pointed at the crater, shaking off the cop’s hand as he made a grab for her arm. She stepped back, then took off vertically, the policeman staggering backwards to avoid the flame of her rocket boots. Holding her helmet under one arm, the Science Pirate disappeared over the city on a trail of glowing orange smoke.
Rex felt angry for a moment, then inspiration struck. The Science Pirate was a woman. Women were not an obstacle, never had been. Now he knew her weakness – her sex – then maybe he could take the upper hand. Maybe he could even usurp McCabe and his cronies, not only saving his own neck, but taking over the city completely. More importantly, there was an opening here to put a lean on City Hall. If he could capture the Science Pirate – no, remove her, dumping her body on the mayor’s desk, he’d be untouchable, top of the totem pole. Even McCabe would come crawling. He’d be the man who saved New York and put everyone – McCabe included – back in business.
It made perfect sense. The night was looking up.
Rex stood for a while as the crowd thinned and the police gathered around the crater in the middle of the street. He ran the idea over and over and over. It would work. It would be easy. He just needed to figure her out, watch her, trail her. The suit was a powerful weapon, but without it she looked like she’d be a tiny little girl. Easy.
The tall man and his lady walked by again but Rex ignored them. He was looking at the crater, with smoke rising and a ring of police gingerly keeping their distance.
He needed a drink. He needed several drinks, and then he’d see about the Science Pirate. Who would protect her now the Skyguard was gone? Nobody, was who.
Payday was a-comin’.
It was her. It was damn-well her. Rex ducked into a shop doorway, his fingertips pressing the ice-cold glass behind him as he leaned against the window. He couldn’t believe his luck.
With the fight over, a few of the crowd had loitered around the overturned Studebaker, and the police had finally turned their attention to moving it and Jerome out of the way. Rex skirted the scene carefully, checking the faces around him in case McCabe had sent some of his thugs in.
So far, so good. First step was a drink. Rex turned away as Jerome’s body was pulled from under the front of the car and jogged down the alley into which he’d been thrown in the crash. In the gutter ahead he saw his hat, damp but intact. He bent down and flipped it onto his head, and when he looked up, Rex saw her.
There, at the end, just turning a corner, was a woman with long brown hair. Rex came to a halt behind the pile of wet newspapers that had saved him, watching. Could it have been her? Surely not. Just a broad, taking a shortcut. Looking at her outfit, a working girl too.
Then she turned to look back down the alley, towards Rex. It was her. Cheeky bitch. She’d taken off, ditched the suit, and come back to watch the cleanup. She saw Rex, she must have, he was as large as life in the middle of the alley, but she just turned and disappeared around the corner. Rex flexed his fingers. This was a gift. No suit. Quiet back streets. Perfect.
He trailed her for a while, keeping his head down. He wasn’t good at following discreetly – there wasn’t much call for it in his particular line of work – and after an hour of hustling across downtown, it was obvious that the girl knew she was being followed and was trying to shake him off. A series of double-backs and dead-ends had led him a merry chase indeed. It was hard to get genuinely lost in Manhattan, or to get stuck in a cul-de-sac as there was always an alley or a passageway out.
But Rex’s luck held. The bitch had taken a wrong turn down a dead alley. Rex smiled and stuck to the damp wall. Perfect.
Although… Rex’s smirk vanished. Shit. What if she had been looking for a quiet, empty spot to fight? No. She wasn’t wearing the suit. Rex flexed his biceps under his trench coat. They were tight and he wasn’t a small man. And without her fancy rockets and suit of armour she was a tiny broad. A tiny broad in high heels and a red dress.
His smirk returned. Odd clothes to wear under the rocket armour. Rex laughed. Who knew what she got up to when off duty. Perhaps they were a set of working clothes. That wouldn’t surprise him.
Maybe she’d taken a knock to the head in the big fight and had concussion or some such, because coming back to the scene of the battle was a dumb move, lady, very dumb, especially after taking her helmet off in front of everyone. Now she was tottering around on those big heels, and she looked cold too, and frightened. But it was her. He’d taken a good, long look, imprinting her face in his memory. She was his meal ticket. He wasn’t going to lose her now.
Rex laughed. His head felt light. He peered down the alley, and saw she was still walking away, slower now. She seemed to be looking around, looking for a way out. This was it. He was about to “save” New York City, and after handing over the city’s most wanted he’d have the mayor and police chief right in his pocket. McCabe would come begging and his illicit empire would be able to expand, unimpeded. With freedom to eliminate the competition, within a few months he’d be in control of the whole goddamn city. He could buy a new car and a new driver.
He pinched the collar of his coat up, and pulled his hat back a little so the rim didn’t obscure his vision. She was trapped like a rat.
As he walked forward the clouds opened again, Mother Nature dumping her load on the already saturated city. He wondered how difficult it was going to be to kill a person with his bare hands. He’d shot people, of course, and in his younger days with McCabe he’d dealt out a variety of punishments with a selection of handheld weapons. But he was unarmed now. Jerome had insisted on being the triggerman and Rex had indulged him. He’d killed chickens and rabbits with nothing but his hands before, back on his uncle’s farm upstate. He’d been a teenager and it was easy, and now he was twice the size and the bitch was tiny – a thin, fragile girl. He balled his wet fists, feeling the solidity of his knuckles under his tight skin. This was going to be a piece of cake.
When the girl eventually stopped casing the alley and turned at the sound of Rex’s footsteps, she actually looked relieved. Her shoulders slumped, and her chest heaved as if she exhaled a heavy sigh, which Rex couldn’t hear past the steady patter of the rain. She took a few steps forwards and opened her arms out, like she was going to say something real important, and then stopped as she saw that Rex hadn’t slowed. She stood for a second, her arms still sticking out sideways, and then took a step backwards. Her mouth pulled down at the corners and her lower lip quivered as she spoke.
“Do you know the way back to Fifth and Soma? I’m not sure which way I’ve come. I just need to get home.”
Rex stopped, and held his arms straight against his sides. He tightened his fists, feeling the uneven trim of his nails dig into the fleshy pads at the base of each thumb. The rain skittered around the brim of his hat, and he could feel the liquid roll backwards as he tilted his head.
He hadn’t expected her to talk. He hadn’t planned on her making any noise at all, as a matter of fact. Her face was small and while her mouth was wide, the palm of one of his large hands would practically cover her entire face.
The girl took a half-step back again, getting both feet solidly underneath her. Her dress sure was damn short, and the heels were way too high. While it made her look taller and exaggerated the stretch of her legs, clutched together her knees were pushed forward like two ugly wrinkled grapefruit.
“Please, I just need to get home,” said the girl. She pushed her hair off her forehead with the heel of one hand, pulling the skin on her face tight as she did so. “Please, I have a headache, I just need to get home.”
Rex moved his head and the water in the brim of his hat finally reached bursting point and trickled over the edge and down in front of his face. He was taking too long. He had to quit thinking about it, and quit letting her gas on, and just do it, now, or it would be too late. It was like anything important. There was a moment, a brief alignment of the stars when the time was right; when that happened, if you were in the right place at the right time with the right idea, you could do anything. That’s what his uncle had always told him, up at the farm. Anybody can do anything. Don’t think, do. Rex hissed a breath out between clenched teeth and took a step forward.
The girl seemed to stagger backwards, now with both hands rubbing her forehead. When she looked up, her eyes seemed to spin a little. She looked like she was going to faint.
“Please, Fifth and Soma, which way is it?”
Rex clicked his tongue. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, lady. Ain’t never heard of no Soma Street. You really are lost.”
Dammit!This was part of it, now he was sure. She was a goddamn supervillain, and even without the stupid rocket suit, she was dangerous. She was playing him. The confusion, the conversation, it was all an act.
Don’t think, do.
Rex pushed off from the ground with the toes of his right foot, moving at something between a jog and a fast walk. He raised his fists, and swung back, and the girl dropped her hands. Before he could get a hand over her mouth like he wanted, she screamed.
Adam Christopher lives in the sunny North West of England in domestic bliss with his wife and cat in a house next to a canal, although he has yet to take up any fishing-related activities. Adam’s debut novel, Empire State, is due for release from Angry Robot in December, 2011. A second novel, Seven Wonders, a spandex-clad superhero adventure, follows later the same year. In 2010, as an editor, Adam won a Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand’s highest science fiction honour.