By R. Daniel Lester
“Manpower has tits,” said The Dusk.
Speed Demon popped the top on a fresh can of Bud Light. “I know,” he said, treading carefully. Once you got The Dusk started, particularly on this sensitive topic, it wasn’t easy to get him to stop.
“Pretty big ones too.”
“I mean, here we are trying to look like a group of professional superhero crimefighters and he has these giant boobs that jiggle when he runs.”
“I know, Robert.”
“Shit, sorry, man. I mean, The Dusk.”
“How many times, Speed Demon? No drone names here. I’m not that guy now, get it?” The Dusk said this, as he had many times before, from the comfort of his molded, personalized black rubber costume, complete with mask and cowl. A little Batman, a little Daredevil, with a few personal flourishes to make the design unique. Set him back a few grand but it’d been worth it.
“I get it. I get it.” Speed Demon killed the rest of his beer, belched, then threw the empty can against the wall where it ricocheted on the floor, into the Bud Light graveyard they’d started an hour ago, minus The Dusk of course, who didn’t like to drink until after their weekly Friday night patrol.
Present, were The Dusk, Speed Demon, Sun God, Electroman and Lady Carnage. Missing, was Manpower. And together, they were The Chosen Few.
The Dusk sighed. “So what are you sayin’, it doesn’t bother you?”
“We have this conversation every week, man. That’s what I’m saying.”
“How can it not bother you?”
“I’m a grown man in a Lucha Libre wrestling mask and a red spandex suit who calls himself ‘Speed Demon’.”
“Well, that doesn’t give me a lot of high ground, you know?”
“But at least you look the part, dude. And you’re pretty fast for a regular guy. Superman never had tits in any of the comic books I read.”
“It’s like, uh, creative license, right?”
“Tits? I don’t think so. Lady Carnage, how about you? You’re with me on this, right?”
Lady Carnage, who was across the room practicing eye-gouge technique on a self-defense doll, stopped, gave the thumbs up (though she really didn’t hear what they were talking about) and then moved onto groin kicks.
The Dusk grinned. Lady Carnage was a woman of action. She, unlike the others, meant business. And her costume was almost as bad-ass as his: black-and-red leather motorcycle suit with boots and a custom-designed mirrored helmet that made her look like the third member of Daft Punk. “See?” he said to Speed Demon. “So maybe we should pitch in and get the guy that Bowflex we talked about.”
Sun God, dressed like the fury of 1000 suns–which was, in this case, a bright yellow ensemble consisting of a Gore-Tex rain suit, boxing shoes, goggles and rubber dishwashing gloves–finished his game of Karate Champ, batted the joystick in frustration and said, “Not that again.”
“Is it ‘cause you feel sorry for him?” said The Dusk. “Since he just lost his job with the city?”
“Oh, ‘cause his kid’s, like, extra retarded?”
“Um, no, and we don’t really use that term anymore, Rob–The Dusk.”
The Dusk’s “evil eye” was one of his best weapons and he threw it at Sun God before smirking and saying, “What, ‘extra’?” and then everybody kind of relaxed, at least as much as you could around a guy like Robert Ray. “Where is Manpower, anyway?” The Dusk took attendance every meeting on an Excel spreadsheet with anal little tick marks in colour-coded boxes. “He hasn’t been here the last few weeks.”
Electroman tilted his hockey goalie mask up, so he could take a sip of beer. Combine the mask (that he found at a second-hand sporting goods store) with the blue spray paint and the overalls and work boots from his own closet and the get-up had only cost him 50 bucks. Any more and his wife, who was always on him about something–mortgage, bills, his Miley Cyrus “obsession”–would’ve killed him. “Gee, maybe it’s because you keep talking about his man tits.”
The Dusk was confused. “But not to his face.”
Electroman didn’t know what to say. No one did. But it was The Dusk’s garage and his classic collection of vintage 1980s arcade game units and his beer and his beer fridge and his van with the tinted windows and his idea to put a superhero team together to fight crime and injustice in the first place, so most times the others just let it go.
The Dusk stood. “Okay, let’s get this started. The first order of business is an entry from the suggestion box recommending that once a month we hand out sandwiches to the homeless on patrol night.”
Silence. A cricket chirped. A pin dropped.
“Like ‘homeless’ homeless?” asked Speed Demon.
“Yeah,” said Electroman, “don’t they bite sometimes? I’ve heard they bite.”
“Well,” said The Dusk, “let’s vote.”
Only Lady Carnage raised her hand.
The Dusk made a mark on his meeting agenda. “Okay, that’s settled. Next, I’d like to bring up The Janitor situation.”
Sun God put a dent in the side of his empty beer can and crushed it with his foot. “Who you’re still convinced is stealing office equipment?”
“Well, those label makers didn’t walk themselves out the door. And paper, pens, binders, you name it. It’s like a free-for-all over there.”
“I thought we discussed this.”
“No, you discussed it, and I disagreed. This is exactly the kind of crime we need to stamp out. He finishes up at my office in half an hour, so we can follow him and maybe he’ll lead us to his fence.”
“Do you have any actual evidence this guy is a thief?” asked Electroman.
“Well, I don’t know that he’s not, let’s put it that way? Plus, I was leaving work late the other day and saw him pull out a huge wad of cash from his pocket.”
“So is this about office supplies or the janitor’s bank roll?” asked Sun God. “Which could be bullshit. There’re guys who’ll just wrap a hundred around a bunch of fives.”
The Dusk stood up and put his hands on his hips, all hero-in-a-comic-book-panel-like, which he made sure to do at least once every meeting. “This, my friends, is about justice.”
The Chosen Few followed the janitor home from the office where The Dusk lived his ho-hum, 9-5 drone life, keeping two or three cars distance between their van and the beat-up 1984 El Camino.
“Pretty convenient,” said Sun God from his shotgun seat, “our suspect having a broken taillight.”
The Dusk smirked. “Yeah, lucky.”
“Dude,” said Speed Demon.
“What? Fate shines down upon those of virtue.”
Sun God groaned. Speed Demon made retching sounds.
“Yeah, Robert,” said Electroman, “that’s kinda low.”
“Okay,” said The Dusk, pulling the van over on the side of the road. He shut the engine off, turning to face the others like an impatient father on a road trip with noisy kids. “I’m getting tired of all this drone name shit. Do I ever make that mistake? No, I respect the sanctity of what we’re doing here. I wish I didn’t even know your drone names. Like Lady Carnage here.”
Lady Carnage nodded at The Dusk.
“I don’t know her name out there and I don’t care. In this van, at HQ, when we’re out on the streets keeping the citizens safe, she’s Lady Carnage, she’s fucking phenomenal with a pair of nunchuks, and that’s all I need to know.”
Humbled, or at least too tired to argue, the others said nothing, as usual, and The Dusk started his van again and weaved into traffic.
Sun God coughed. “Your little speech there cost us your suspect.”
The Dusk took a quick right. “Oh, I know where he lives anyway.”
The janitor’s house was a rundown rancher in a shitty part of town. They parked the van down the block and watched the house, waiting to see if anyone else showed up.
Electroman picked a book up off the floor. “’The Collected Stories of Grace Paley’? You read books?”
“Nah,” said The Dusk, “someone left it in here. I assumed it was one of you, yankin’ my chain.”
Lady Carnage made a sound, somewhere between a sigh and a moan.
“Did you want to say anything?” asked Speed Demon.
She shook her head.
Finally, bored of waiting, The Chosen Few approached the janitor’s house on foot, taking the narrow path beside the chain link fence that marked the property line. The curtains on a side window were completely open and provided a great view into the living room. There were candles lit. There was a red shawl draped over a lamp in the corner. There was an open bottle of wine and two glasses. There was the janitor on his knees, buck naked and sweaty, really giving it to a rubber sex doll from behind.
The Chosen Few crowded around the window, stunned. It was like watching a whale repeatedly beach itself.
“Jesus,” said Speed Demon, who couldn’t take his eyes off the spectacle. In fact, he was the only one who didn’t turn around when a window in the adjacent house slid up and a torso poked out.
“Excuse me?” said the janitor’s neighbour, a shirtless man in his mid-40s.
“Yes, hello,” said The Dusk.
“Is it Halloween already?”
“No, it’s not Halloween, Sir.”
“Because you’re all in masks and shit.”
The Dusk looked down at himself in mock surprise. “What, really?”
“So what are you doing?”
“We’re The Chosen Few and we’re on patrol, Sir. Keeping the streets safe.”
“Sure, whatever gets your rocks off. But can you do it somewhere else? You’re blocking the view.”
“The view?” asked Sun God.
“It’s Friday night.”
“So he knows you watch?”
“And he does this every week?”
“Shit, I pay good money for it.”
Sun God elbowed The Dusk. “See, there’s your roll of bills. He’s got big dick cash. The world loves a freak show.”
The Dusk kicked the side of the house. “Dammit, I thought ‘The Janitor’ was going to be our first villain.”
As, in the living room, the star of the show was preparing for an athletic, flashy, if not fairly cliché, money shot.
“Jesus,” said Speed Demon.
Back in the van, they rode in silence, except for Speed Demon. He felt gut punched, his world turned upside down. “How does he stand upright?” he asked, shaking his head. “A horse should be so lucky. I mean he wasn’t even that tall or anything. How big were his feet? Did anyone get a good look?”
“It’s a crime,” said The Dusk.
“Exactly,” said Speed Demon.
“No, that. Look.” The Dusk pointed down the block, where a mugger had pushed an old lady to the ground in front of a convenience store. He wrestled her purse away and took off running.
“Holy shit, what now?” asked Sun God.
Electroman felt for his cell. “I’ll call the cops.”
“Bullshit,” said The Dusk, flooring the gas in pursuit. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
“The Dusk’s right,” said Speed Demon, both sure and unsure of this at the same time. Then, it clicked. He knew what he had to do. He said, “Slide open the van door.”
Lady Carnage obliged. Cold, night air rushed in. The mugger, still running, looked over at them like, “What the shit?”
“You don’t have to do this,” said Electroman. “Remember, it’s the motion of the ocean not the size of the ship.” The remark went unanswered.
The Dusk caught Speed Demon’s eye in the rearview. “Seriously?”
Speed Demon shrugged. “Nut up or shut up.”
“Bro, you’re my hero.”
They bumped fists. And Speed Demon leapt.
The costumed crimefighters got a lot of strange looks as they waited in emergency that night. In response, The Dusk threw some serious shade back. For him it was simple: when one of your own went down in the line of duty, it wasn’t the time for community building. Close ranks and regroup.
“Anyone know when we can see him?” asked Electroman.
“It’s gonna be a while,” said Sun God. “I talked to the nurse. She said he’s still in surgery.”
“I didn’t know a human leg could look like that. All bent and twisted. Damn.”
“His screams are still echoing in my ears.”
“And he didn’t even get close to the mugger. Missed by a mile.”
“A very long mile.”
The Dusk blamed himself. “I knew we should have trained on how to tackle perps from a moving vehicle,” he said. “But Speed Demon will heal. He may never run the same way again, but he can retcon himself another origin story. In the meantime, we’ll pick up the slack. Maybe put another ad online, look for a few new members to shake things up.”
Sun God and Electroman exchanged looks.
“Well…” said Electroman. “We were talking and…”
“It’s just a little real now.”
“Too real,” said Sun God. “Like seeing Speed Demon’s shinbone poking out just made it hit home, Robert.” “Hey.”
“No, let me finish. I’m Walter, your real estate agent, Benjamin here is your insurance broker and that guy currently getting his tibia tucked back underneath his skin is Douglas, a web developer you met at the gym. Now, I appreciate everything you’ve done and how you brought us together. For me, I really needed a distraction when the housing bubble burst and my business tanked. Like designing the costume, figuring out a name and a backstory and indulging childhood fantasies of being a superhero while relaxing on a Friday night with a few beers and other like-minded individuals. But following janitors and spying on them as they molest sex dolls in the privacy of their own home? Apprehending muggers? And ending up in the hospital? No thanks.”
Electroman nodded in agreement.
The Dusk shook his head in disagreement.
“So that’s why we wanted to say–”
“–we are officially retiring–”
“–from The Chosen Few.”
Each of The Dusk’s “no”s had gotten louder and louder, the last one more an agonized shout, until, dejected, distraught, he buried his head in his hands, emitting a low whimpering sound.
He couldn’t believe it. Tragedy. The third costumed, crimefighting group he’d started and lost in the last year. Three times unlucky. He even had Walter, aka Sun God, aka a black guy, this time. All the other groups were lily white and completely nerdified. Sure, maybe the one guy had been half-Asian but a black dude was a serious win. The media loved multi-ethnicity. And when their secret identities were inevitably revealed after all the prevented crimes and the news reports and the appearances on Ellen, it would play perfectly into book deals, film scripts and licensing agreements–aka, the jackpot. But not anymore. Mental visions of what could’ve been danced around and gave him the finger.
Ten minutes later, The Dusk lifted his head. “Are they really gone?”
Lady Carnage nodded and put her hand on The Dusk’s shoulder, shuddering slightly from the contact.
“Those ungrateful assholes. I pluck them from obscurity and this is how they repay me–chickening out after one exposed bone? Plus, what the fuck is an ‘Electroman?’ Born from pure electricity? That doesn’t even make sense.” The Dusk turned, locking eyes with Lady Carnage. “But you won’t leave, will you?”
Lady Carnage found it tough to breathe. Lady Carnage shook her head.
“I think that would break me. Because you’re special. Not only are you a chick, but you’re the only one who ever joined one of my groups anonymously, from the recruitment ads. You’re a true believer, aren’t you?”
Lady Carnage didn’t know what to say. Mostly, she didn’t talk much because she didn’t want The Dusk to recognize her voice yet, since they worked in the same office together and had had at least three meaningful conversations in the last year alone. (Really, there was no risk of him recognizing her voice because he had no memory of any conversations, meaningful or otherwise, with “what’s-her-name in billing,” as he knew Faith Darwin, aka Lady Carnage.) She dreamed of the day she’d remove the helmet, revealing her identity, and The Dusk would take her in his arms and then they’d read Grace Paley short stories to each other and make love in a pile of barn hay because they’d just brought down a ring of horse thieves. There, in the hospital lounge, she flushed deep red just thinking about it. Though part of it was guilt. The whole night was sort-of her fault, considering she’d been stealing office supplies for months now and selling them online to supplement the cost of the motorcycle lessons, martial arts classes and custom-designed outfit.
The Dusk put his hand on Lady Carnage’s hand. “I also have something else to ask of you. I need you to never reveal yourself to me. And I’ll do the same. I’ll be The Dusk and you’ll be Lady Carnage and that’s it. Can you do that for me?” The Dusk asked, seeing only his face in the reflection from her helmet.
Lady Carnage’s stomach dropped. It was happening again. This curse to crush from afar. To pine. To yearn. To watch from the bleachers, anonymous and lovesick, as the quarterbacks kissed the cheerleaders. Her palms went damp. Her heart rate spiked. Her forehead popped sweat. She could either:
(a) punch The Dusk in the testicles and then rain down precise, powerful nunchuk blows upon his face, shattering teeth and breaking those precious cheekbones into a thousand bloody pieces
(b) wipe the salty, wet tear from The Dusk’s cheek.
After careful consideration, Lady Carnage chose the latter. For now.
R. Daniel Lester reads, writes and lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada, aka Terminal City. He’s been filling blank pages with words for 14 years and has the battle scars and rejection letters to prove it. In 2009, under his own imprint, Dirt Starling Press, he released 3 books, including the novel, Die, Famous!, which he thinks you should buy because you will love it. Most recently, his writing has been seen online in Geist magazine, Shotgun Honey, Bareknuckles Pulp, The Flash Fiction Offensive and The Big Adios. You can find his work here: http://rdaniellester.com