Gavin took another sip of decaf chai latte. He used to consider decaf an offense against the laws of Man and God, but God knew he didn’t need any more caffeine on the job. Even if he had the schedule down pat and could duck off to the bathroom without risk of missing one of the arrivals. It just made him more jittery than he wanted to be.
He glanced at the station clock. 8:55. His relief should be arriving any minute. Good thing. He still had homework to finish tonight, since he’d had lacrosse after school, before reporting in here at 5. And he’d been trying to finish up the latest Arlo Griffin book (romance! blood! apocalypse!) between trains, rather than dig into his school work.
The homework still needed doing. That had been his agreement with Mom and Dad before he took the job, that he’d keep up his grades. He got way above minimum wage for this gig, plus community service credits at school, but that wouldn’t mean anything to Schumer if his bio lab write-up wasn’t done.
Shit. He’d told Anniqua he’d stop by on the way home; that wasn’t going to help the homework any, but he’d been planning on asking her to prom and he wanted to do it while not at school, and he wasn’t sure when else he’d have a chance.
The PA system softly chimed, though loud enough to hear over the music. Gavin got up, leaving his root beer at the cafe table. His backpack was stashed inside the Deja Brew – the manager there knew him (of course) and watched after his stuff. One last round, and he’d be outta here.
He headed over to the exit turnstiles and waited. He didn’t expect any hits – it had been a really slow week so far, though last week he’d had three come in, a personal record. Two had been together, a mother and daughter – the latter had been kind of cute, but they’d gotten back on the train and head out, which was what Gavin was supposed to want but – well, she’d been cute. Though he was still going to take Anniqua to prom.
A moderate flood of humanity splashed out of the opening train doors and headed for the exit turnstiles, some of them chattering freely, some of them weary and tired from their travels, almost all of them carrying and/or pushing some sort of luggage. The Airport Express ran from, well, the airport, straight through to Grand Central Station, every twenty minutes. People could rent cars at the airport, of course, or Uber it to their destination, but for most of the population coming into town, the train – coupled with Halcyon’s prize-winning mass transit system – meant that it was cheaper and easier to do what all these arrivals had just done.
Which served Gavin’s employers just fine. They weren’t after perfection – just effect.
He leaned against a tall concrete pillar under the modernistic overhang covering the train platforms, and let his eyes glide over the arrivals. The music from his phone was moderately loud, as usual, but he knew the tone would be audible, and he wanted to see if he could spot –
There. Perfect. Tall, taller than Gavin. And gangly, with a prominent nose, strong jaw, hair slicked back, late 20s / early 30s, odd about the eyes …. The man’s gait was slightly off, as though recovering from an injury – or as if the bones or the muscles weren’t quite normal (or were an illusory cover for something else). Gavin left the pillar and made an intercept course to the gent, who had a long, dark trenchcoat and was pulling a bright red hard-sided suitcase.
A gong rang in his ears from the little box Bluetoothed to his phone. Ha! Spotted him first. He pulled out his earbuds.
“Excuse me, sir? Sir?”
It took a couple of tries to get the man’s attention, as he was looking around at the downtown (impressive, yes, though the natives pretended to be blase). He seemed preoocupied with his own thoughts. Finally, though, he heard Gavin, gave a twitchy turn to see the teenager approaching him, glanced about to see if anyone else was doing likewise, then straightened up in full hauteur.
“Yes? You wished to speak to me?”
Gavin stopped at the prescribed distance. “Welcome to Halcyon City,” he recited. “On behalf of a group of concerned citizens of our city, we would like you to return to the airport and leave.”
The man blinked. “What?”
“We realize that Halcyon City,” Gavin continued with the standard speech, “is highly attractive to metahumans, either those wishing to become heroes, or, in many case, those seeking a less legal lifestyle.”
The man was staring, his head cocked in an odd fashion.
“If you are seeking to become a hero, you should know that the city currently has a surplus of crime-fighters, world-savers, and night-shrouded seekers of justice. If you are simply looking for opportunities to use your metahuman powers for exotic employment, there is currently a glut on the market. In either case I have a brochure I can provide you of a number of major metropolitan areas within direct flight from Halcyon, or else within 8 hours rental car or rail travel, where your talents would be more appreciated.”
Gavin liked to think that he was able to predict how these conversations would go. In this case, he suspected that this newcomer fit neither of those categories.
The man drew himself up, deeply offended. “And if I am neither of those categories?”
Gavin knew this speech without having to reference the laminated card pack in his pocket. “If you are a metahuman who harbors criminal, violent, or otherwise socially condemned intent for your stay in Halcyon, the group I represent wishes you to know that, as noted previously, this city has a surplus of metahumans whose goal it will be to stop you, and whose track record is really quite good. As the battles from such encounters often cause considerable property damage, you are requested to try another locale.”
He added, “Although for ethical reasons I cannot provide you with the brochure I just mentioned, I can tell you that there are a number of metropolitan areas within easy traveling distance that might be considered ‘easier pickings’ for various purposes.” Gavin glanced around on that line – it was one he had been instructed not to make public, duh, but the platform had already cleared out except for him and this new arrival.
“Who are you?” the man asked, an eyebrow raised, confusion on his somehow-not-quite-normal face.
“I represent an organization of prominent private citizens,” Gavin said, switching to Response #12 – he’d always been good at memorization, and, as someone who managed to juggle both speech club and sports, he was confident that his delivery was above normal. “They feel that, for the good of Halcyon, efforts should be undertaken to reduce the influx of metahumans – particularly super-villains – into the city.”
The man looked at him for a moment, then his eyes widened in a dramatic fashion, his nostrils flared, his brow furrowed, and he half raised his arms to either side of him. “And if the – if I should decline their invitation?” Black flame began to flicker about his hands. “If, in fact, I should choose to, as they say, ‘shoot the messenger’?”
Gavin felt that weird tightening in his balls and tingling on his skin that meant terror-danger-doom, but he also didn’t panic, because he felt the warm throb on his chest that meant everything was going just as it should.
He slipped into Response #25. “I am required to inform you that I have in my possession a magical charm that will instantaneously teleport me away in case of attack, and simultaneously convince the local police that a major crime incident is occurring here.” Gavin glances pointedly up at the security cameras distributed about the train platform. “It probably would not end well.”
(This was the aspect of the whole gig that Gavin was most nervous about. The hiring agent had proven the point – at least about the teleportation – by stepping in front of a bus. The charm only worked at Grand Central Station, but it had worked perfectly. Gavin had been nervous nonetheless, until a particularly unreasonable geokinetic had attacked without a chance for him to finish Response #25, and he’d found himself at a Panera across town, where the evening manager had presented him with a comped meal, by pre-arrangement.)
The man eyed him skeptically for a few moments, then relaxed slightly. “And if I choose to simply vanish into the city, to prepare in the shadows for when I shall strike? Or do you have your ‘super-heroes’ standing in the eaves to attack me?”
Response 14: “No, this effort is neither official nor affiliated with any local superhero or team. If you have committed no crime and are not wanted by law enforcement, we have no legal grounds for stopping you.” Which branched to Response #26: “But we can make it worth your while.”
The super-villain (presumed) raised and turned his head, looking down at Gavin at an angle. It seemed terribly, terribly melodramatic, but Gavin had almost gotten used to it (he’d discovered that laughing at people didn’t actually defuse the tension). “What do you mean?” the man demanded.
“If you provide me with a mobile number, I am authorized to provide you with a payment of $20,000,” Gavin said.
“Twenty thousand …” The main trails off. “Oh. Of course. You get my cell phone number, you track me down --”
“No pursuit or retribution will be pursued if you accept the payment and leave town.”
A long pause. “And what’s to stop me from coming back tomorrow?”
Gavin escalated to Response #48. “If you do not return to Halcyon City for a year, a payment of $20,000 will be made to the same mobile on the first of each month.”
His eyes widened, but the man managed to get out, “And if the – if I want more?”
“The amount is not negotiable. And if you return to Halcyon again within that time, both law enforcement and the local metahuman heroes will be notified of your presence, with possible allegations as to a terrible terrorist act you are planning to pursue.”
“The Night Raven is not a terrorist!” Black flame flickered about his head now, too.
Gavin smiled inwardly. Made you say your name, creep. “I’m sure you’ll have the opportunity to discuss the matter with AEGIS after you are defeated by the HHL, or the Menagerie, or Hyena, or one of the other super-heroes around the city.” Gavin shook his head, a touch he’d added to the script. “It’s really not a in your best interests.”
The man suddenly raised his arms, and black flames whipped about him like wings. Gavin’s face felt like it had been hit by both a blast of winter and the heat of a fire, something that made no sense but was absolutely true. He stood his ground, trusting the charm. If he could bring this home, it was a not-insubstantial bonus into a North Carolina 529 savings account, and there was college next fall.
The man stood there for several long moments, looking absolutely menacing … then slowly lowered his arms. His shoulders slumped slightly. There was something sad about his face, a “road not taken” sense of loss. “818-179-4783,” he said.
Gavin nodded politely, and tried not to fist-pump. He pulled out his phone, pulled up the app, entered the phone number, and clicked on the Send icon. “Done.”
The man – Night Raven – looked up at the multi-colored towers of Halcyon City. “It’s – well, it is beautiful.”
Gavin nodded. “Yeah. We want to keep it that way.”
Night Raven nodded as well, slowly, then turned and headed back to the train.
Gavin watched until, after picking up a ticket from the kiosk, the man reboarded. Then he let out a sigh of relief, followed by a large grin. He walked back to the Deja Brew, and saw Delia was there to switch off. “Wow, got a hit?”
“Yeah, but he was just a dreamer. No real plans, just ‘Come to Halcyon City, become a big name in super-villainy.’”
Delia shook her head, popped her skateboard up with her left foot, grabbed it in mid-air with her left hand. “Well, hope it’s a quiet night shift. I got homework.”
“Good luck,” Gavin told her, handing over the the little box in his pocket, the charm from around his neck. Then he grabbed his backpack from behind the counter, waved to the night manager, and headed toward the bus stop. Homework to do. But after Anniqua. First things first.
author: *** Dave H.