I have been flaky with a side order of flakiness and flake sauce, and I cannot predict when this will end, though I will do my best to make it soon. Here is my apology: an interlude. I note that this short story was actually written a number of years before Wonder City really took off in my head, and was one of the origins for the Wonder City Stories. I trunked the story some years ago, but thought you might enjoy it, so I've dusted it off, tweaked it a bit, and now submit it for your entertainment.
This is not set in Wonder City itself, but in some other superhero city in the same universe. I usually envision the landscape of Wonder City's USA as being dotted with other artificially-named cities, much like the many cities with different superhero pissing rights in the DC universe.
Even though one of the characters here was the original inspiration for Ira, I see no reason that they can't co-exist in the same universe, especially since Ira has become a much different person. And I don't think it's much of a surprise to anyone that our main characters in WCS may not be superfans of the Oprah of the para world, and thus haven't mentioned her previously.
Next weekend, I will be at WisCon! If you are there and see me, please feel free to introduce yourself!One Ordinary Day, With Explosions
It was the day for the cattle call at the network offices, and I was dreading it. After I parked, I sat for a moment in my little clunker, checking things out. The line hadn't spilled out onto the sidewalk yet, so I stepped out of the car.
The sleek lines of a red sports convertible slid past and into the spot in front of me. When the first three-inch-high pump (with trademark lightning bolts down the heel cup) emerged and hit the pavement with a spark, I knew who it was.
"Hey, Lisa," I said. "Nice car. New, isn't it?"
She towered over me as she always had, even without the heels. "Hey, Ronnie," she said, her voice clear and brassy as a summer day. "Custom job, dontcha know. The colors this year are awful
. Oh, hell
," she added as she glimpsed the line through the doors.
"Yeah," I said with feeling.
"You poor thing," she said with abundant sincerity, patting me on the shoulder. "If it gets bad, love, come on up and see us, all right?" Then she exhaled and inhaled, flashing me her television smile. "Showtime!" she said brightly, then threw the doors open.
A ragged cheer went up when Lisa Lightning stalked into the hall, bellowing, "Well, kids, how's the day?"
Her show's opening line of the last decade brought a louder cheer and excited shouts of "We love you, Lisa!" The kids were mostly dressed in the "dark and gritty" costumes that I remembered being the rage when I was in my twenties. No bright chest targets, no sky-high headgear, no two-foot-tall collar points. Just simple dominos and spandex bodysuits.
As I followed along in Lisa's broad wake, I watched her with some amusement, but mostly with amazement. A smile here, an autograph there, a handshake over there, and a couple hundred self-important twenty-somethings melted into squealing fankids before the paranormal world's superstar.
The door of my rented office appeared through the bodies. I wedged myself past a ten-foot-tall girl with a ten-inch-tall boy on her shoulder and heard the little guy say, "Goddamit, this is taking too long! I've got to get to my shift at the drug store!" As I slid unnoticed into the blissful less-loudness of my office, I pondered paranormal cashiers and janitors.
By 4 pm, I was thinking vaguely about turning on Lisa's show at 4 pm, but my Calendar told me just then -- in George Takei's voice, of course -- "Ohhh, myyyyy, you seem to have an appointment
I waded out through the diminished line to meet my client at the door.
He was punctual, as usual, and was only a little shaky as he got out of the taxi. I noted the lack of costume today and wondered what was going on.
"Ronnie," he said, leaning on my arm heavily, "don't ever get old."
"I'm gettin' up there, y'know, Captain," I said cheerfully, guiding him up the ramp.
yet," he said. "You were the next
"That's so," I admitted. "Speaking of the next generation, Captain..."
When I opened the door, he paused, and he blinked at the kids who were sprawled all over. "This
is the next generation?" he said, a little louder than I'd have liked.
"Yeah, well, the network's casting for the 'Network Heroes' today," I said, trying to chivvy him down to my office.
"What sorta costumes these supposed t'be?" he asked, staring as we passed one group in black leather. "You gonna chafe somethin' awful in that," he said to them. "And you! Do you fly? You gonna strangle yourself on the first flagpole with those straps!"
"The outfits are for show, Captain," I said, managing to impel him through the office door. "They're trying to look good for TV."
"Look good? Look good?" he asked, shuffling to his favorite chair. "Back in the day, we looked like shit
, Ronnie, but we knew it was gonna get trashed by Baron Schadenfreude anyway, so it needed to be cheap to replace!"
It took me a while to calm the Captain down to where he could talk about his meds, his apartment building, and the kids who smoked cigarettes on the community center lawn. Turned out that his son had taken away all his old helmets and capes and utility belts, which was why he was wearing civvies. "I ain't so good with the needle anymore," he explained to me, displaying the length of blue fabric he'd stuffed in his pocket, the hem uneven and the stitching ragged, apparently intended to replace his missing cape. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do! I can't go around with nobody knowin' I'm Captain Six! You get forgotten, you got nothin'."
I didn't tell him that I'd seen at least three Captain Sixes that morning (in various different flavors of "dark and gritty," one with a scantily clad "Sixette" on his arm), and that he was anything but
forgotten. They just all wanted to pretend he was dead. People didn't want to remember that superheroes got old too.
I made notes and did my job. Thankfully, by the time he was done telling me about the rodent problem in the building ("Captain, you have to stop using your x-ray vision in the building--you're irradiating the other residents!"), the hallway was clear. When the taxi pulled out of sight, I sighed and turned back to the building, trying to rub the tiredness out of my eyes.
"Sir?" a tentative voice said.
I jumped--my danger sense hasn't worked properly in years--and looked around. A pretty, Rubenesque girl was there, wearing a trenchcoat over her crimson bikini. She was holding a small bouquet of bright red and yellow flowers. "Yeah?" I said.
"Could you... I mean, I saw you this morning with Ms. Lightning, and I was wondering if..."
I smiled as best I could. "Sure. Sure I can. How did it go?"
"Oh," she said, just a little wistful, "I didn't get in. But I didn't really expect to. It was just so nice of her to say something to us."
"These are very pretty," I said, taking the bouquet.
"I just wanted to thank her," she said, withdrawing, unable to look at me any more. "Um. Thank you." She took off then, trenchcoat flapping in the breeze, into the sunset-painted clouds.
The fifteenth floor was as active as the first floor was dead. I had to dodge energetic technicians and stressed-out PAs as I picked my way to Lisa's dressing room. I nodded to her security guard, who had been a junior member of our team back when, and she smiled. She knocked at the door, and Lisa said, "Come on in."
I stepped inside. "Oh, Ronnie! Kids gettin' to you?" Lisa asked from where she sat in front of the mirror, methodically stripping makeup from her face.
"Nah, they're all gone. One of 'em asked me to give you these," I said.
She spun around, half her face still made up for the camera, but the smile still there. "What a darling. Which one was it?"
"The red bikini girl," I said, relinquishing the flowers.
"Oh, she's a looker, that one," Lisa said, deftly locating a vase of just the right size for the bouquet. "Fill this with water, there's a dear. Didn't get in, though, did she?"
"Said she didn't expect to," I said, running water in the bar sink. "But she wanted to thank you for being so nice to them."
"Good kid," Lisa said, staring at herself in the mirror. "All of 'em are good kids, Ronnie." She plucked the other set of false eyelashes off and deposited them on her tabletop. "And they'll all end up flipping burgers somewhere."
"Well, all of 'em that don't become villains," I amended, setting the bouquet in the vase.
"Even the villains aren't usually so bad," she said, adding wistfully, "Remember Mantis?"
I hooted. "Do I ever! Remember when he and Ant-Rider were getting into it in the back of your Lightning Rod?"
Lisa exploded with laughter. "With the whole thing rocking in the middle of the street and me screaming, 'If you're gonna do it, at least shrink back down so we don't hafta see it!'"
"Atlas never could figure out why we all acted funny whenever we fought the Doom Brigade," I recalled through giggles. "Or why we couldn't capture Mantis."
"'You're so good at what you do, Andy!'" she said in an imitation of our former leader. "'You catch Lightning Bug and the Microgirls and Mini Morse just like that! Why not Mantis?'"
"Couldn't exactly tell the big guy that Mantis had a much nicer ass than Lightning Bug," I said. "They only kept it quiet because they usually did shrink out of sight. Your very visible fling with Calamity Jane wasn't destined for greatness."
"Neither was the one with Patchwork," she admitted.
"I thought that was mostly because you found out that all of him was pretty much detachable," I said.
"Auuuugggghhhh," she said, shuddering. "I'd almost
forgotten that, thank you very much." She threw her powderpuff at me.
"They've got a school now, you know that?" she said when she'd finished scraping the rest of the camera makeup off her face. "Andy and Mantis."
"I'd wondered if they'd gotten back together after Mantis finished his stint in prison."
"Oh, yeah," she said, rapidly applying her usual makeup. "It was all romantic, with Andy waiting at the door with flowers on release day." She paused, eyeing me in the mirror. "I heard that the Stormlords pulled a bank job over in the Heights."
"I thought they were out of commission?" I said, looking around the room.
"Apparently not," she said, turning toward me. "Heard anything from him?"
"Who?" I asked coolly.
She looked at the little bouquet and reached out to touch a red gerbera daisy. After a moment, she began, slowly, "I know things didn't go so well, Ronnie..."
I held up my hand. "Lisa, I know you mean well, but this really isn't a subject I want to revisit."
"Ronnie, it's been ten years!"
I shrugged. "Hell, Lisa, he's fifty-something and still pulling bad bank jobs!"
She picked up the vase and sniffed the flowers. "What other option does he have? What has he ever actually done to harm society any more than we have? We caused more destruction of property than I want to think about. And then..."
I said, "I know," quickly, to cut her off. There were so many things to regret, and I didn't want to hear them.
We were silent for a while.
"Y'know," she said, trying to recapture her earlier tone, "I just heard one of Atlas's kids is gay."
"Serves him right," I said with a half-assed grin. "Looking so very hot and being so very straight. How many kids does he have now?"
"After four wives?" she said. "I lost count."
"Only four?" I said. "Speaking of kids, I should go. I've got to call Captain Six's daughter and let her know that her brother took all the Captain's costumes away."
Lisa smiled at me, a little sadly. "When I hear things like that, I'm almost glad I never had kids."
"Me too." I straightened up and turned toward the door.
"Ronnie," she said, and almost said something else when I looked at her. Then she just shrugged and said, "Let's go for dinner sometime."
I smiled. "Okay."
The phone call went long, with the daughter talking police and restraining orders against her brother, and the son calling me in the middle of things to tell me that the Captain was flying around the apartment building in his skivvies. When I got there, he was yelling about stupid kids in leather straps and how he'd remind them that Captain Six hadn't even bothered with a cape in the old days and didn't need even his old union suit anymore, and oh, what a circus it all turned into. When I got home that night, I immediately collapsed into my favorite chair.
Freddie, the robot from our old headquarters, rattled out of the kitchen. "Welcome home, Master Leonus," his ancient voicebox creaked.
"Hi, Freddie," I said. "One of the usual, please."
"Certainly," he wheezed, and clunked his way back into the kitchen.
I sat there, eyes closed, wishing that the earth could have opened up and swallowed me about two hours earlier.
"Hey, Ronnie," a familiar voice said from behind me. Presumably from the formerly secret panel to my former secret lair in my present basement.
I cursed my malfunctioning danger sense and opened my eyes. "Did you tell Lisa you were going to look me up or something?"
"Me?" He sounded honestly startled. "Hell, no. She'd probably force me to be on her talk show or something. 'So, Black Dog, how did you really feel when the Adamant Kid used your skull as a piledriver back in '82?'"
"'Well, Lisa, it took years of chiropractors to fix it,'" I said. "It's just she mentioned you today."
"Nice to know you all still talk about me."
"Why're you here?"
"Well... I'd say it was just to see you, but the truth is that the job went sour and I'm hiding."
"So you pull a bank job and hide in my basement?"
"Anyone else would throw me out."
I stood up and turned to look at him. He was still as lean as he was when I last saw him, a lanky, hungry look that had looked gawky in his twenties, but turned languid and graceful as he got older. The lock of hair that always fell in his face was salt and pepper, and he'd cut the rest of his hair short. His eyes were still dark and intense and completely at odds with the way he presented himself to the world.
"That's my shirt!" I exclaimed, recognizing the flannel he was wearing. "And my jeans!"
He shrugged, looking a little sheepish. "My costume got totally shredded. We were up against Windfall, and you know what hell she is on outfits."
"She's still working? Wow. I haven't seen her since... hmmm... she and her wife got hitched, I think."
"Oh, good for her," he said, leaning on the doorjamb. "Always respected her for being out like that."
"You weren't exactly out yourself," I said, gesturing to the chair opposite mine.
"A lot you know," he said, dropping bonelessly into the seat. "The entire villain community knew me as 'Fag Dog'."
"Great. Nice folks you associate with, Tony," I said, falling into my own chair again.
"You know, there's all sorts of things I could say to that," he almost-but-not-quite snarled. "Like about your own
"Look, I've had a really long day and I don't really need this shit," I said, taking the glass of wine from Freddie. I waved the robot over to my guest. "What would you like?"
"Isn't that...?" he said, staring at the robot.
"Yeah, well, we were able to buy the HQ equipment cheap," I said, taking a long, slow drink.
"I was sorry to hear the team went bankrupt," he said, after asking Freddie for a glass of sparkling water with a lemon slice. "I was in Europe then, and I thought about writing you, but, well, I didn't."
"So," I said, looking up from my glass, "should I ask the question one always asks during reunions like this?"
"Whether I thought I could get away with it?" he asked. He still had a really nice smile, and the extra-pointy canines still charmed me.
"No," I said. "The question about whether you're single or not."
kind of reunion."
I let Freddie clank his way across the room to deliver the sparkling water before I said, "So, are you seeing someone?"
He smiled sadly and looked away. "I did, for a while. But right now? No." He smirked. "I noticed that only your stuff was in the closet."
"Did you check my medicine cabinet too?" I inquired in an offended tone of voice.
"Yep. Boring. Razor, shaving cream, bandaids, not even a bottle of cologne."
I sighed and finished my glass of wine. "Freddie, I'd like another!" I called toward the kitchen. "Nobody's much interested in washed-up spandex these days."
"Isn't anyone interested in social workers?" he asked, leaning forward in his chair.
"Nope. Social workers are definitely just as out of style as spandex."
We had another pause while Freddie dropped off another glass of wine for me. Then Tony said, "Well, call me old-fashioned, but I'm still into them both."
I laughed. He grinned. "You're a very bad dog, with very bad lines," I informed him.
"I always have been," he said. "And despite that, you liked me anyway."
I drank about half the glass and stared into the wine again. "You know, I could just call the cops on you."
"Yeah," he admitted. "But you could call 'em in the morning too."
I carefully set the glass on the table. "Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that I don't call the cops. Can you keep your pants on long enough for us to have some dinner? I'm starving." I stood up and stretched.
"I think I could manage that," he said, standing as well. "I'm not as young as I used to be either."
"Are you calling me old?"
"You're thinking with your stomach first. You're old."
"I've always thought with my stomach first."
He put his head to one side. "True," he admitted. "That's the big cat in you, I suppose."
I let out a little roar, not even enough to rattle the china, and beat my chest. "There, see? I've still got it."
"You've definitely got something
," he said, looking me up and down. "I think I like the grey at the temples."
I reached out and touched the ever-present forelock. "I can't believe you still have this."
"You'd prefer this crewcut you've got now?" he asked, running a hand over my hair.
I startled myself by pressing my head into his hand. He smiled, and I said, reluctantly, "Okay. I guess
I've missed you."
I thawed some chicken enchiladas and had another glass of wine. We ate like we were starving. Then things were starting to get warm and naked, and even maybe a little slippery...
When spotlights in the street clicked on, pouring hard blue-white light in every window, through every curtain.
Tony cursed. I used a pillow as a fig leaf and went to peer out the window.
"BLACK DOG, RELEASE THE HOSTAGE AND YOU WON'T BE HURT!"
We looked at each other, confused. "What hostage?" we both said.
At that point, I became aware of Freddie's old-fashioned high-pitched built-in modem shriek (he doesn't use it much these days because it drives me nuts) and said, head in hand and teeth gritted, "I'm going to take that robot apart with a sledgehammer."
Tony gave me a disbelieving look. "You didn't get it reprogrammed when you bought it?"
"Well I didn't think I'd be entertaining supervillains in my house!"
A different voice bellowed, without the benefit of a bullhorn but still deafening, "YOU WON'T TAKE BLACK DOG WITHOUT GOING THROUGH THE STORMLORDS!"
"Oh, shit," Tony said, turning pale.
I facepalmed. "You came to hide in my basement with your ill-gotten gains?"
"Worse," he said with a ghost of a smile.
"THE NETWORK HEROES WILL TAKE YOU DOWN!"
"You were double-crossing your supervillain team by hiding in my basement with your ill-gotten gains?" I asked disbelievingly.
"Heh," he said sheepishly.
There was an explosion outside, followed by shouts. I peeked out past the curtain again. "They just dropped a telephone pole on my neighbor's car," I said. "I hope he's got para insurance."
"Look, Ronnie, you gotta help me out here," he said, girding his loins with my sheet.
I turned a severe look on him. "Tony," I said, oh-so-calmly, "I gotta help out Captain Six when he's buzzing his neighbors' balconies in his boxers. I gotta help out Soozy Q when she gets thrown outta her house by her parents. I gotta help out Vin the Supergoth when he wants to go into rehab. You, I don't gotta help out."
He looked hurt. There was a rending sound outside.
I said, a little sadly, "Those were my arborvitae."
"Ronnie, I'm sorry about all this, really I am," he said contritely, pulling on my jeans and trying not to zip himself accidentally in his rush. "Please, for old time's sake?"
I thought about what I had expected to happen that night. I heard the roar of flames outside and knew that my roses were toast.
Then I sighed and threw my flannel shirt at his head. "Go back down in the basement. In the corner furthest to the right is the old secret escape tunnel, not the one you came in through. It comes up about six blocks from here, over near the convenience store."
He pulled the flannel on and kissed me. "You're a lifesaver. I'll come back when the heat's off and take you to dinner, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah," I said, pulling on my pajama pants and tightening the drawstring. "Get out of here before I throw the dog to the dogs."
He grinned. Damn, damn, damn me for being charmed. "You're just a big pussycat after all."
"Out!" I commanded, pointing to the basement door, but I was grinning too.
When he was gone, I caught up to Freddie in the kitchen and yanked his power core. When his little red LEDs went out, I walked to the front door and opened it. I stared at the chaos, and thought, I'm about to tell those damn kids to get the hell off my lawn. Captain, I am
getting old, and let me tell you why...
I dodged the divot of my front lawn that flew at my skull and forced my power on. It hurt like hell to change shape these days, but it was the best way to get their attention.
I roared, lion-headed, over the chaos, "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"
They all stopped dead in the middle of their fighting and stared at me.
Well, hey, I've still got it, apparently.
I glowered around, making sure I got the eyeglow going. "You show up in the middle of the night and start fighting. You've wrecked my garden and my neighbor's car, you've knocked out the power for ten blocks around, and you woke up the baby four houses down! I ask again, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
One of them shuffled. A couple more looked away. One particularly perky, shiny-faced idiot piped up, "We had a report that Black Dog was holding a hostage here!"
I gave him a glare. "Do I look like a hostage to you? Do I look like someone who could be taken hostage to you?"
Shiny-face looked at his boots. They all did. One scratched the back of her neck. I thought I recognized her from the casting call that morning -- the one with the straps, I think.
"If you have to fight it out with the supervillains, don't do it here!" I continued. "There's a park half a mile thataway. Go have your damn showdown there. Go on! Scram!"
The Stormlords had already taken the opportunity to slink away into the night. The Network Heroes looked around and, after they sheepishly lifted the telephone pole off the car and put out the fire in my garden, their support crew turned off the spotlights and the cameras and they drove (or flew) away.
My neighbors cheered. We all went back inside.
I reflected as I went back to my empty bed, reeking of burnt lawn, that shifting up to my Leonus shape was gonna make my face and shoulders ache all the next day, but it was worth it. And I had been thinking about taking out the arborvitae anyway. And I was willing to wager that they'd remember me for... a while, at least.
I grinned in the dark and thought about telling Lisa, "A funny thing happened to me on my way to bed..."
I was just drifting off when the doorbell rang. Cursing, I got up and stomped to the front door.
"What?" I demanded, half-lion again.
Shiny-face was standing there, trying not to look at the ruin of my lawn. He wasn't half-bad looking, really, when he wasn't trying to be officious. He shuffled a little, then fidgeted with his utility belt. "I, um..."
I folded my arms and looked patient. I sucked in my gut a little.
He pulled a card out of his belt and held it out to me in one gloved hand. I eyed him suspiciously for a moment, then took it.
"I... that has my cell phone number on it," he said, all in a rush. "Call me sometime and let me take you to dinner as an apology?" He smiled hopefully. I couldn't see his eyes under the eyeshielded mask, but he had a nice smile.
I looked at the card, then back at him. "I... ah... yeah, sure." I bit the "kid" off the end of the sentence.
"Great!" he said with such sincerity that I had to believe him. "I'll, um, talk to you then!" He turned and walked away down the sidewalk, waiting until he got to the end to leap dramatically into the air and zoom off. When he thought I couldn't see him any more, he did a little loop-de-loop. Ah, the joys of cat night-vision.
"Huh!" was all I could say to myself, standing there on my stoop, staring at the card.
What the hell, I thought. I'll give him a ring tomorrow. And off I went to bed, where I slept the sleep of the righteous homeowner, cranky ex-boyfriend, and hot older guy.