The morning after she arrived in Houston, Bedevil stands on fake, dewed grass. She sips coffee and vodka in a pink sequin covered travel mug. Tim Prince waits at her side, tapping away at his tablet. He glances at her every few seconds, but she pays him no mind.
Bedevil studies the crater where Danger Close made his final pass at Home Run. Stone hands reach up from the ground, having sprouted around the place they clashed. A metallic smell lingers in the air, mixing with the damp earthy scent of rain.
“What color was Danger Close’s Affect?”
Tim taps at his tablet. Bedevil continues her study of the Spot, as she’s named it. They are bronze impressions, certainly. She finds ears hidden in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound and eyes in the field staring up at the sky. The hands and arms would be from a gold-souled, though.
“Copper, Ms. Dawson,” he answers.
Bedevil takes a slug of her coffee. Copper, which means that the gold impressions and the hands were left by another Affect. A third person, even though the footage doesn’t show that.
“How are your accommodations?” Tim asks.
“Fine.” She only slept in them for three hours. Not that she has time for this small talk. Her brain is tangled in the mystery. “The clubs nearby are quite nice.”
“You… went clubbing? Before your investigation?” Tim eyes her coffee with a hint of disdain, one she does her best to ignore. “And the coffee as well?”
“I thought about getting a head start on this, but I figured the Houston Heroes would want in on finding the man who murdered their teammate.” She sips her coffee, intent on not saying anything about it.
“They’re occupied.” Tim bows his head as if he were her butler. “Apologies, Ms. Dawson.”
Bedevil throws him a stink eye. “Ruby’s fine.”
Tim bows deeper. “Sorry, ma’am…”
“I get it. You’ve only ever known me as Bedevil, so that’s what you want to call me.” Bedevil rises from the crater. “But I promise I won’t snitch if you just call me Ruby.”
Tim thinks about it for a moment, holding his tablet close to his chest. “Right, Ms. Ruby.”
“Ms. Ruby I can work with,” Bedevil says. She gestures to the pitcher’s mound for Tim to see. “There’s a third person. There are three different Affect impressions here. The eyes and ears come from a bronze-soul, and the hands come from a gold-soul. If DC is copper, we’ll find mouths or stomachs somewhere.”
Tim nods. “I’ll update the file. Possible third suspect, gold-souled.”
She doesn’t like a third unknown. If it was just Home Run and Danger Close she would have a more clean case. “Have we had drones run ballistics?” Bedevil asks.
Bedevil grunts. “Why the hell not?”
“It was ordered that the deceased be removed before anything else was done, and then Foundation Central called and said no forward momentum could happen until you arrived.
“Apologies, Ms. Ruby,” he continues. Tim looks guilty, even though it was out of his control.
“Fine, we’ll run ballistics now,” Bedevil says. From her belt she pops out her personal drone. “Show me where they came from, Dotty.”
“Dotty?” Tim says, almost revealing a smirk across his face.
“Don’t judge,” Bedevil says.
Dotty unfolds its little silver wings and takes flight, hovering over the crater as it scans the impact point. Its sapphire eyes shutter as it operates.
One more thing to do while the Dotty does its work. “Show me where his body was,” Bedevil says.
Tim brings her to a spot in the grass where a heavyweight made a depression in the field. Bedevil picks at the bits of metal and plastic, the only remnants of DC’s power armor. Krater’s plea rings in her ears. All of the armor DC provided Houston with now gone for good.
“Did you lose any equipment from his death?” Bedevil asks Tim Prince. DC was an Affected engineer, she learned, not only creating his suit but equipment for many of the capes in Houston. Now that he’s gone, none of it works anymore.
“No, ma’am. I’m not on the front lines. I’d be very sore if whoever made my tablet passed away, though.”
“Is that Templar?” Bedevil asks.
Tim nods. “Houston Foundation got the Templar network a few years ago, just after Carnality.”
She sips her coffee again. Tim will die long before the Templar network fails. “Who lost armor from him?” she asks.
“Flashfire lost some armor, and Snow Owl had a few pieces of equipment.” Tim checks his tablet again. “Most of the capes in Houston lost something. Even some in Dallas and Austin.”
So much lost with one cape. Bedevil shakes her head.
A searing white light slices the sky in half before a thunderclap booms overhead. The blazing white fire strikes the ground near the impact crater. The light fades and Flashfire emerges from the spots in Bedevil’s vision. His eyes are dark, his expression grim, his hair dancing in the disturbed gusts. Painfully bright tongues of fire dance too, inches away from Flashfire’s skin.
“You don’t wear your uniform,” he remarks, approaching Bedevil. She notices he’s still in his. The silver star on his chest is almost entrancing.
“Not if I don’t need to wear it, no,” Bedevil replies. “I believe in doing my job.”
Flashfire leans over and smells her coffee. “You believe in drinking on it, too?”
Bedevil sighs and pulls the cup from him.
Flashfire grins. “Don’t worry, I won’t snitch. I’d heard you were a bit of a drinker, anyway. Just as long as you do the work.”
Bedevil turns away from him, back to the spot where Danger Close died. God damn it, why do I have a type, she thinks. “On that topic. How is the city doing since he died? You’ve minimized talking about Home Run, right?” The more they talk about him, the more mystique and power they’ll give him.
“Of course.” Flashfire looks pissed off. “I don’t want to talk about that cocksucker anyway. He doesn’t deserve his name in our mouths.”
Well, at least there was that. “It’s better if we play up Danger Close and his legacy. His armor and the people he protected. It’ll make you look better in the public eye.”
Flashfire grunts. “I don’t really want to talk about DC, either.” He’s deeply wounded. Bedevil can see it in his eyes. His face is home to smirks and jeers, not scowls. A light-hearted man saddled with darkness and mourning.
Unfortunately, she’s got to probe his wound. “Do you know why he’d turn his cameras off?”
Flashfire’s expression sours as he meets her gaze. “You already asked Krater about that.”
“Look, you were close with him. Would he have a reason I can buy that doesn’t come off like a cover up?”
Flashfire’s eyes glisten with silver light. “He’s a goddamn hero. I don’t care if it was a cover up. He had his reasons. I trusted him with my life and I trust him now that he’s dead.”
Bedevil sips at her coffee, unsure of what to say.
“Danger Close was one of our own. Whatever he did, it was right. And this Home Run and anyone else that wants to take a swing at us?” Flashfire snarls and turns away from her. “They’re all cocksuckers. And they’ll get put in the dirt where they belong.”
Great. Bedevil can sympathize with cape-gripping, but it isn’t exactly helpful in an investigation. “I didn’t mean to offend you.” Better to be diplomatic with the people she has to work with.
“Sure you didn’t,” Flashfire replies. “Just think about what I said.”
White fire explodes from his body, shrouding him in light. Bedevil covers her eyes, wincing as if she’d just stared at the sun. When she looks up, he’s gone again.
“That is offensively bright,” she says.
Tim Prince looks up from his tablet. “Yes, I’ve learned not to look at him too much. He produces a phosphorous-like charge from his skin. His fires burn hotter than most pyrokinetics I’ve seen.”
Good to know.
Dotty the drone returns to her and announces in a feminine, robotic voice, “Ballistics complete. Flight path displaying now.” Its sapphire eyes glow as a 3-D projection appears over the field. A red line curves away from the impact crater and bounces, changing direction without leaving a mark in the grass that Bedevil can see.
“What the fuck?” she whispers, still following the red line to its origin. It glides right over the remnant of a statue near the entrance of the park, and across the street to an abandoned chapel, through a big hole in the side of the building.
Bedevil stops at the first change in trajectory. Not a scratch on the ground; not even an indentation in the grass. The only evidence near this spot are shards of metal buried in the dirt. Bedevil picks at them and holds one up. Not the metal from Danger Close’s armor.
She follows the red line over to the statue, where she finds the metal is identical to the shards she found. What they’d taken for earlier damage was in fact caused by Home Run and Danger Close. More telling are the small fragments of stone in the grass. But still, no burn marks. “I suppose Danger Close’s jets could have gone off before they touched the ground,” she muses out loud. “But that would scorch the grass. There’s nothing.”
“If it is, I need to rethink his power.” Bedevil marches toward the church. She reaches out to her drone, which floats around her head to keep the projection going. “Dotty, search for evidence in the chapel.”
The red line disappears. Dotty zips into the church through one of the broken windows.
“What do you mean, rethink?” Tim asks.
“I thought he had an elemental power in the footage.” That one instant of heat and light, so powerful it puts even the blinding flames of Flashfire to shame. “Perhaps he draws strength from heat, but if he’s the one who changed their trajectory, it means he can fly. Maybe…” She can only think of one comparison. Megajoule. “Maybe he can charge and release energy somehow.” Few people had that power. Megajoule was the greatest, but he wasn’t the only one. “I’ll need to check records, see if a similar power comes up anywhere.”
Tim nods. “I’ll summon a car at once, Ms. Ruby.”
“Krater said they’ve never flagged him before.” Bedevil reaches the fence of the chapel, grips the chain links in her left hand, and takes a sip of her coffee. With her Affect she changes the metal of the fence into air and enters the church yard. “I wonder if he can sense drones.”
“How else could he have avoided them?” The footage Krater showed her in the warehouse leaps into her mind. “Dotty, come back to me.”
Dotty flutters out of the church. “I’ve discovered many pieces of evidence, Ms. Ruby.”
“Great. Just hover for a second, will you?” Bedevil looks at Tim. “Dotty is a fairly standard Templar drone. Notice something about her?”
Tim makes a funny face, but he does attempt to study the drone.
“She’s silent,” Bedevil says. “Drones are silent in flight. For Home Run to hear one…”
Tim catches on with a gasp. “He’d have to have Affected hearing.”
Bedevil snaps her fingers at Tim. “Right on, guy. Now come on, let’s see what Dotty found.”
The pair hike around the church to the front doors, finding them rotting and dangling from their hinges. Bedevil dissolves the doors into air, and they enter into the darkness.
Dotty’s sapphire eyes reveal another projection for Bedevil, highlighting hundreds and hundreds of spent bullet casings.
Bedevil stares at the bullet shells, the destroyed pews, and the layers of disturbed ash from a fire long since past. Everything is covered in a fine ash—everything except the bullet shells. “Well, fuck.”
She’s so intensely focused on the bullets that the sudden crash behind her makes her yelp bloody murder. She whirls around, ready for a fight, but finds only Tim and a chunk of wall he’s accidentally dislodged.
“Sorry, Ms. Ruby,” he says.
Bedevil groans and shakes her head. “We shouldn’t stay long. Not if you’re going to tear apart the building like that.”
She returns her attention to the bullets.
“Are you sure it’s safe to stay?” Tim asks.
Bedevil glances up. The molecules of the roof and support beams aren’t in great condition, but she thinks they’ll hold at least for another few moments. “Well, if it isn’t,” she jokes, “that’s kind of your fault.”
Dotty highlights a scrap of metal under one of the pews. “A Winsley dampener,” Dotty says.
Bedevil fishes it out from under the pew by transmuting the floor into stony tentacles, which bring her the bloody prize. The Winsley bracelet is caked in dried blood and skin.
“Do you bet this was on a hand or an ankle?” Bedevil asks Tim.
“Uh…” He glances at her and then at the bracelet. “A wrist, Ms. Ruby. They rarely put them on ankles because the field won’t reach the prisoner’s head.”
Bedevil grins at the bracelet. She plays with it, turning it over and over in her hands. “We’ve got a lead, then.”
“How do you figure?” Tim asks. He glances up at the ceiling.
Worrywart, Bedevil thinks. She says, “Send drones to scour the Shells for people with recent hand injuries. We find that, we find another puzzle piece.”
As Tim produces a small plastic container for Bedevil to place the bracelet in, the roof of the church shudders. Tim glances up and furrows his brow. “Miss Ruby,” he says. The shudder becomes a groan. The wall that Home Run and Danger Close punched a hole in wavers. Dust floats down from the disturbed ceiling.
The death knell is the sound of support beams cracking. Bedevil sees the molecules in the wood and stone ripping apart. Billions and billions of connections broken. The collapse is inevitable.
“Get out!” Bedevil shouts, just too late.
With a roar, the ceiling of the church crashes down. Bedevil reaches out with her power and hardens the air in a shell around them. The collapsing roof breaks against her shield. Tons of stone crash against her power and bury them in rubble.
No light breaks through the pile of rubble. With her Affect she feels the sheer weight that has trapped them. “Dotty.”
Dotty doesn’t respond. Bedevil searches the church with her Affect, looking for metal molecules roughly in the shape of Dotty, but finds none. “Good, she got out,” Bedevil says, keeping control over her emotions. She measures each breath and then calls out to her assistant. “Tim, you okay?”
Tim lies prone on the ground behind her, hyperventilating. She can’t move to help him, not without breaking her control of the shell.
“Tim, I need you to get it together,” she says, but Bedevil knows she’s deflecting. She needs to be strong. She’s the cape here. “Do you have your tablet? Can you signal for help?”
“I…” Tim shuffles around behind her. “No. It’s crushed somewhere.”
Bedevil grimaces. She’s going to pay for this.
From the air she conjures an invisible drill, something to aid the process. She needs to do this as efficiently as possible, or else she’ll prolong the aftereffects. “I’ll need your help. To walk me to the car.”
Tim is silent for a moment. And then he asks, “The drink, ma’am?”
“No,” she says, ignoring her own indignation. No time for flawed emotions.
Bedevil reaches out with her Affect. She dissolves the molecular connections and transforms them into fine dust. Carefully she navigates the debris, dissolving it in pieces while maintaining the shield of air around them.
Sweat drips down her forehead. A full minute passes.
The first shaft of light pierces their dark prison.
She sighs in relief.
The individual atoms of carbon dioxide spill from her lungs, mingling with the myriad of other chemicals in the air. The rotting wood is no longer rotting wood: It is a mass of uncountable decaying organic particles. The stone of the church becomes a mosaic of minerals compacted into impossibly dense shapes. The skin of her arms, of the body of Tim behind her, all break down under her awareness of their composite parts.
Everything is moving. Everything is scraping against everything. A bundle of metals and plastics swims through the chemical soup swallowing her.
Really, though, the thing that does her in is the stream of photons coming from the bundle she vaguely understands is Dotty. They scream their wavelengths and scrape the tender biological material of her eyes. She is lost in that blue haze, suspended in a space both impossibly large and tiny.
She floats in this awareness of the infinitesimal until the heightened state her power grants recedes. The abstract merges with the real in sips, and she wakes in the back seat of the SUV, her face warm from a nosebleed.
Tim sits across from her, staring at her. He offers her a tissue. She feels the fear and wonder wafting from him. “Are you okay, Miss Ruby?”
“I’m fine,” she says. She cleans her nose off and tilts her head back. “Where’s my coffee cup?”
“I… assume it was destroyed,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” she lies. She bought that cup when she first joined Megajoule’s team.
“You saved my life,” Tim says.
Confident she’s no longer leaking blood, Bedevil lowers her head and tosses the tissue paper into a waste bin in the door. “That is what a superhero does.”
“What was the rest of that? You had a seizure.” Tim looks at her with concern. “That wasn’t because of the…” He hesitates, clearly choosing his next word with care. “Not because of the coffee, was it?”
“No,” she half-lies. “My power lets me transmute the world but it also makes me see how the world is really built. All the atoms and molecules that make you and me and everything else. I get lost in it if I go too hard with my power.”
What she doesn’t mention, however, is that she never used to have seizures.