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Avenger Assembled

Bing-Bong, Bing-Bong (IC)

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Spring 2018

A Saturday evening

 

Anna appeared in Jette's office, sitting in the office chair directly in front of the latter's desk. She was smirking, her legs crossed demurely before her, and wearing an orange tracksuit like someone who'd gone jogging in a Bedlam winter.

 

"Hey, Rocket Shorts! Remember me?" 

 

There was only one person who had ever called Jette Rocket Shorts, even though she'd heard almost nothing of that worthy since she'd gone to jail - three years _after_ Jette herself had gone behind bars. Anna Cline was a good twenty-five years her senior, closer to her late partner's age than her own, but the smile lines were thin enough and the blonde hair real enough that it was clear she didn't look her age; if anything, she looked Jette's age or a few years younger. 

 

 

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Caroline Cruz…was not sober. Saturday evening? Yes, Mr. Daniels had dropped in for a visit. But she wasn’t entirely drunk. No, that was reserved for actual night, and it was still evening. She had her feet up on the corner of desk, leaning back in her battered office chair. She…didn’t react fast, just eyeballing…@#$%, was that Clock Queen? Caroline hated, really hated, that nickname. It was fun when she was 16, less fun after her 18th birthday. And now, god. She kept her voice level. “I’d give you a nasty look, but you’ve already got one. Orange isn’t your color.” She debated having one more shot, just to deal with Anna Cline’s personality, and decided against it. Maybe jail had improved it. “I’d say it’s nice to see you, but I’d be lying. What do you want, Caballera de Melaza?” She wasn’t fluent in Spanish, but growing up she’d picked up bits and pieces. Caballera de Melaza was one of that half dozen or so she’d throw at Anna back in the day. The corner of Caroline's mouth twitched. Molasses Knight. Still funny.

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"Oh honey, you say the sweetest things," said Anna, pulling a file from her sleeve and beginning to whittle at her nails. "Some people I know would say I belong in orange. Imagine that!" She grinned, then said, more seriously, "Anyway, I'm here on a matter'a business. You've been in this town what, fifteen years now? You gotta know some things." She glanced up at Caroline. "I was born here but this town's gone a long way without me. I'm lookin' to get an ear on the street. I can pay you for it - honest dollars, too." The truth was she had no idea what kind of person Caroline Cruz was, Anna reflected. The fact that neither the Human Rocket nor his protege had turned to crime, real crime, once they'd gotten out of the slammer wasn't anything she'd understood at all. She'd gone straight because her boy and her grandbabies needed a grandmother who wasn't on the wrong side of the law. What was Caroline's story?

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“Sure, I know a few things. Most cops are dirty. Public transportation system sucks. The schools are somehow worse. Ah, and one wrong word to the wrong person means you end up floating face down in the river.” Caroline pulled Mr. Daniels up from where he was on the floor, and had herself a sip. She put the mostly empty bottle back where it had been. “Still, it’s your money. Standard disclaimer. I find out what I find out. Whether you like it or not has nothing to do with you paying my fee. And there’s things I won’t do for you. I’m not a thief or a hired thug, and quite frankly I’m not risking my life or business for you. Lastly, I reserve the right to quit the job if I see fit, without refunding your money. End of disclaimer.” She put her feet on the floor and squared up to her desk. She found a pen and a small notebook. “Now, what do you need?” Her tone of voice hadn’t altered one iota, but body language was another story. There was a marked difference between “personal time” Caroline and “business time” Caroline. Now that she was facing Anna, the older woman could see the weariness (not of body, but of spirit) that haunted the former sidekick.

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"I got enemies in this town. Mafia, bikers, that goddamned woman-beater Stabbo - but the big one is the man in charge. Not the Dons, either." Anna fixed her gaze on Caroline, wondering how long it would take the detective to put two-and-two together, especially given her inebriated state. Images of her father, her uncle, and the bottles in their hands, flashed quickly through her mind. "I'm workin' against the Hammer a'Justice. He's a stone killer who's put more people in the ground than any of the hitters in Bedlam and he's gonna keep doing it until he drops dead or until somebody takes him down. If you take the gig, you'll be doin' some a' the legwork I can't." 

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Caroline…blinked. It was as if you could see the gears turning in her mind. It wasn’t like they were turning slowly, either. “You never do anything by half, do you?” She was frankly a little astonished. However…Caroline Cruz had changed a lot in 40 years. But she wasn’t a coward then and wasn’t now either. “I have a few contacts here and there. I can find him. But like I said, I’m not a hired thug. You want him taken out, this town has plenty of hitmen.” She met Anna’s eyes directly. She remembered the Clock Queen hadn’t been a killer, by she had associated with quite a few. Caroline flipped through her notebook. “That said, not every cop and ADA in this town is bought. Everyone who’s anyone knows The Hammer is dirty as hell.” Yes, she was thoroughly buzzed, but intelligence shone out of her eyes. “There’s options, is what I’m saying. Three of them. One, you want him dead. In which case, get out of my office. Two, you want him in jail. I can help with that, but it’s going to take a while, be very hard, and likely get us both killed trying. Three, you want him to leave you alone. I’m sure he gets up to something that the crime families wouldn’t approve of, so blackmail ought to do it.” She looked up from the notebook. “Or did you have something else in mind?”

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"Killin's out. You kill a supahero, you make him a martyr for every do-gooder in town." Anna knew this to be true from the example of her friends, her own most common antagonist the Centurion having died saving the Earth. "In this town, all that gives you is cops gunnin' down little Mexican girls." She crossed her legs, reaching down to pull the one leg up and over the other. "And if I wanted him to leave me alone, I got ways a'makin' that happen too." But then calling in the Crime League, the _real_ Crime League, would mean she'd owe favors again, and be back in a life that she'd promised her son she'd never come near again. "I want the guy exposed and in jail. Not in the super-jail, either, but in the place where bastards like him get shanked in the goddamned toilet." She gave Caroline a straight-on look and said, "Yer damn right it won't be easy. This ain't no Freedom." 

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Caroline shrugged. “Dangerous way it is. I’ll start talking to a few people I know tomorrow.” She named the dollar amount of her fee. It was neither outrageously high nor any particular bargain. “Plus expenses, of course. I don’t keep written records of the specifics, but to quote an old wrestler…everyone’s got a price. One thing. I work by myself. I have a few carefully cultivated relationships with professionally paranoid people. Also, there’s the ones who are just gun happy assholes.” She pulled open the top desk drawer and pulled out a small index card. She handed it to Anna. “My phone number. Call me in a few days. We’ll meet someplace discreet and I’ll update you. Bring my fee or we’re done right then. Anything else? Or can I get back to my Saturday night?”

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Geez, she's gonna turn her liver into a cow patty if she keeps that up. Anna considered quickly how well Caroline was likely to take advice about her drinking from a former enemy, then considered quickly doing it anyway just to see the look on her face, then discarded that notion too. "Thanks, Rocket Shorts, yer all right," she said seriously. "We took on some big ones back in our day. We'll get this guy." They had technically been taking on entirely different people, but there was no reason to dwell on that now. "So, uh, you know a good place to eat around here?" she found herself asking. "I know yer on the clock and all." 

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Anna’s question elicited a wry smile from Caroline, the first sign of emotion from the former sidekick in the whole conversation. “You asking me out, Anna Cline?” She let out a small chuckle. “I know a few places, yeah. There’s the pizza and subs place around the corner. Cute Salvadoran girl owns it. Rescued her and a few other kids from human traffickers, not long after I got in town. Her folks said my money was no good there anymore. Suited me, as the food was good. Haven’t had pizza that good since I was a kid. Then, a little less than a year ago, she was having her high school graduation dinner with the folks. The one trafficker I’d missed crashed it. With his .45 Magnum. Between medical bills and funeral expenses, her painstakingly saved college fund disappeared. Food’s still good, so I go sometimes. She still won’t charge me, so I vet her employees for her instead.”

 

Before Anna could finish processing that, Caroline shook her head. “Nah, she’s pretty busy on Saturdays. You’d have to wait at least a half hour to order, if not longer.” She didn’t seem to be aware how much she was sharing. Her eyes weren’t as focused as they were a few moments ago, and there was a slight slurring to her words. “There’s the Chinese place a few blocks from here. Mother and son working there. Used to be a father and a beautiful daughter, too. But then a cop decided he wanted the daughter, and then didn’t want her to talk about it. The father hired me to find out who he was. I did, and with enough evidence to put the cop away for life. But this is Bedlam, so he got off and the father was found floating in the river one night. I only go after hours, when the mother’s asleep. She likes to throw boiling oil at my head these days. The son’s okay, though. Gives me a discount. I make sure anyone trying to pick on them regrets their life choices.” She shook her head again. “No, they’ve gone to San Francisco this weekend. Visiting relatives.” She pondered for a few moments. “Mostly I go down the block to Josie’s, anyway. It’s a bar, but the short order cook is god-tier and they don’t mind if you sleep in one of the booths instead at home.” She stood up, deciding. “Yeah, let’s go to Josie’s. Let me put my jacket on.” It hung from the back of her chair, so putting it on was the work of moments. “Something bothering you, Cabellera de Melaza? Let’s go get a burger fresh from the Heavenly Gates.” She paused. “Wait…I said all of that out loud, didn’t I?. Damn. Look, it’s just Bedlam. After fifteen years I’m used to it and I expect it. People suck. It’s not news.” She offered that wry smile again. “Also, I’m not nearly drunk enough to leave a known thief in my office slash home by herself.”

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Anna spat out Caroline's beer, the one that had been in the minifridge under her desk. "Ah, jeez! Listen, I don't know what you heard about that, but that ain't my usual thing," she said, pointing with great emphasis at Caroline. She colored, realized Caroline had meant something else, then was on her feet between one heartbeat and the next. "I mean, uh, yeah, Josie's sounds good. I'll meet you there." And with that, she was gone, vanishing without sight or sound of where she'd gone. That had been one of Clock Queen's more frustrating tricks; and it was one thing she could still do. Easily enough. 

 

 

On a nearby rooftop, in a position well out of sight from Caroline's office window, Wadjet was already storing her rifle when Anna Cline arrived.

 

"You girls gonna be friends now?" she asked, her voice muffled by her hood as she turned to greet her...well, to greet Anna. 

 

"Yeah, it went okay," said Anna, running her fingers through her hair. "You heard all'a that anyway. I asked her out to dinner."

 

Wadjet laughed. "Are you gonna try and hook up with every-" Anna flushed bright red at that, which made her protege laugh even louder. 

 

"Yeah, well, it ain't no pupusa place we're going to, but I thought you might like eatin' somewhere that's ain't the rooftop or our place," said Anna, crossing her arms irritably. She needed to invest in a thicker jogging suit, dammit. 

 

"I'll meet you down there." 

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Josie’s was, well, a neighborhood bar. Didn’t look special on the outside, didn’t look special on the inside. Wood paneling. Pool table. Booths. A few wooden tables and chairs. Sports on the TV above the bar. Wooden barstools. The bar itself, obviously. Caroline walked in like she was coming home. A few of the regulars acknowledged her with a wave or mumbled greeting. “Josie, get me a shot and brew. Then have Manuel get his ass on the grill. I’m having company tonight.”

 

Josie was the bartender. She was heavyset and in her late 40s. She did not so much as twitch. “You gonna throw someone else around my place? Furniture is expensive.”

 

Caroline took a barstool. “He knows the meaning of the word ‘no’ now, doesn’t he?” She locked eyes with Josie.

 

The bartender sighed. “You’re lucky insurance paid. Coming right up.” She turned and yelled intno the kitchen behind the bar. “Manuel! Burger time! And tell Shelly to get her mouth off you and her ass out here!”

 

Caroline smirked. “You’re one in a million, Josie.” Josie just gave her a look and plopped a shot glass and a beer bottle on the bar.

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Anna entered the establishment with the ease of someone familiar with such places in, striding in with confidence and a ready smile. Her companion wasn't someone Caroline recognized - a dark-skinned Latina of college age in a Packets jacket, her dyed-red hair cut boyishly short and hidden beneath a ballcap. The latter moved slowly, and kept a watchful eye on Anna and Caroline both before taking her seat on Anna's right flank, not incidentally putting herself in as clear a position as possible to see the bar mirror. "Caroline, this is Hope. She's my associate," said Anna. "Hope, this is Caroline - she and I go way back...and Caroline, honey, you ain't grown yourself a new liver since I knew you, did you?" It had been blurted out but was no less meaningful for that. "That's gonna kill ya." 

 

"Just gimmie a pop," said Hope, putting money down on the counter and ignoring the conversation between the two women. 

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Caroline did not throw back the shot in a show of defiance. That would have been something someone who didn’t care did. And she did care, a little, so she didn’t touch it at all. “You’re not my mother, Anna.” She sighed, a little resigned. “I know I have a problem. I keep it to outside business hours.” She smiled a tiny sad little smile. “Besides, I can either drink or go full mad scientist out to show them all. You’ve met the type.” She popped the top off of the beer and took a sip. “And while the latter sounds like a lot of fun, it never ends well for anyone involved; least of all the mad scientist.” She looked away, so Anna couldn’t see her eyes. Her free hand, clenched into a fist, put the lie to the calm in her inebriated voice. There was a part of her that was still intensely angry. It was ready to burn the world to the ground and to hell with the consequences to anyone else. She wasn’t lying, not entirely. The liquor helped it sleep. But more importantly, it soothed the pain behind it and dulled the sharp intellect that hated Bedlam’s (and to a lesser extent the entire world’s) insistence on doing things the stupid, greedy, wasteful way. But like hell she’d tell Anna Cline that.

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"That'll get you killed around here, sweetie." Anna took a club soda, which she swirled contemplatively with her straw. "You know I was born here? Back in the old days - well you know, things ain't changed that much. Town usedta be full of Italians and Polacks eatin' dirt. Now the Italians and Polacks are the ones servin' it up for the next generation." 

 

"Irishmen too," commented Hope, who didn't look like that was her real name, and who gave the entirety of the bar a long, hard stare before she drank her own drink. 

 

"Yeah. Yeah," said Anna quietly, a look of intense anger burning behind her eyes for a moment. Quickly, she changed the subject. "The old days. When you were out - why didn't you -" she made a little gesture somewhere in the direction of Freedom City. "You know. Get 'em." 

 

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Caroline turned back, cynical amusement on her face. “You don’t know when I got out, do you?” Her laugh was bitterness defined in a single wordless sound. “It was ’93. I lent a hand when a bunch of Omegadrones decided to pay a visit to Blackstone. I was there, so…why not? Centurion stopped by on his way in town to fight their boss. Nice guy. Statue doesn’t do him justice, but you’d know that.” Her voice wobbled. A quarter century later, and it was still terrifying. “Paperwork came through later. All that good behavior, and a sudden lack of room to house me.” Another bitter laugh. “So, anyone who was left to ‘get’ after fifteen years? Gone. And you know how hard it is for an ex-con to get a job, especially when you have to get permission from Uncle Sam to do anything you’re actually good at.” She took a big swallow of beer. The shot remained untouched. “But enough about me. Why are you here looking after some kid? No offense, Hope, but you’re not even half my age.” The burgers and fries arrived. One plate for each of the three. “From what I remember, you should be retired on your own private island laughing about how you’ve outlived all your archenemies or something. What happened to slow you of all people down? I didn’t think even prison could do that.” She took a bite of the burger and her mood instantly brightened. “Jesus. I thank you again for Manny the short order cook.”

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"You forget I was in stir when the 'drones hit, honey?" asked Anna, heat in her voice. "Ran fast enough that it was next Thursday when I stopped. I did my full five nickels - came out just in time to meet my grandbaby. They don't let you keep the money if ya get caught stealin' it." She sipped her drink contemplatively. "Happy to race ya back to yer place after this if you think I'm slow." On the other side of the speedster, Hope's eyes distinctly widened as she carefully bit down into her hamburger.

 

The latter made a point of chewing and swallowing before speaking. "A third. I'm a third your age." 

 

"Well, that's diplomacy for you," said Anna, rolling her eyes at her protege. "I ain't no sellout or goody-two-shoes. I took enough from the likes a'them that I ain't ever gonna be on that team. But somebody's gotta do something about this place." 

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Caroline laughed, and there wasn’t a drop of bitterness in it. “Oh, Anna. I have bad news. That’s what half the heroes say. Somebody’s got to do something about insert your favorite synonym for evil or injustice.” She sighed theatrically. “You’re almost as broke as I am, then? Damn. I was hoping to squeeze you on expenses. Now I gotta be ethical. Tch.” She took a bite of her burger, chewed, and washed it down with a swallow of beer. “I don’t think you’re slow. Slower, maybe, but not slow. Well…” The former sidekick smirked wickedly. “Slow in the head, maybe. How many times did the Centurion or whoever outwit you, again?” She let out another laugh. “I’m just messing with you. You were always fun to tease.” She sighed for real. Thinking about the old days led to thinking about how they ended. She munched on fries while eyeing her filled shot glass. “Seriously, try the burger. Manny is heaven sent.”

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"That's how you see it, huh?" Anna stirred her glass with her straw, then said, "Givin' a damn about your community doesn't mean you're a superhero. Back in the day, we stuck together and took care of our own - didn't make us any do-gooder puttin on airs." She was slow to go after the burger, but was certainly cleaning up the fries.

 

"Didn't you say you had a friend who once tried to freeze the Earth from the Moon?" interjected Esperanza skeptically, who didn't show Anna's hesitation about digging into the burger. 


"Didn't happen though, did it?" said Anna, spreading her arms as if that explained everything. Now that Caroline thought about it, she remembered hearing about the time Madame Zero had built a Moon base with plans to freeze the Earth solid before being defeated by the Freedom League. "You can't worry so much about how things used to be, honey!"

 

"You're the one who told me not to romanticize how things used to be, old woman!" 

 

"Ah, I guess I did, didn't I?" said Anna with a wave and a smile. "Kids these days, am I right?" 

 

"

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