When you sorted the namus.gov list by date, April 24th took up eight pages. It was nearly as much as the rest of the database put together. And this was after there’d been nearly a month to sort through all the stray children found in the rubble and shepherded into refugee camps. And to identify bodies.
“Matthew Habashy?” he asked.
“Yes, who is this?” came the voice on the other end of the Tracfone. Before picking one up from Wal-Mart today, Ophiuchus hadn’t even known that cell phones came as cheap as $25.
“I’m calling about the FBSA,” Ophiuchus said.
“I think there’s been a mix-up, this isn’t my work number,” Matthew said.
“I know,” Ophiuchus said. At fbsa.gov, the only numbers listed were general contact numbers, not specific agents. At whitepages.com, you could reliably find the address and phone number of anyone over 30 years old with a name and a city of residence. Now he’d confirmed he worked for the FBSA, Ophiuchus knew he had the right Matthew Habashy.
“Who is this?” Matthew asked.
“I’m looking for missing persons abducted out of Galaxy City by the Hellions,” Ophiuchus said.
“Why didn’t you go through the FBSA?” Matthew asked.
“I’m not a hero,” Ophiuchus said.
Matthew was silent a while. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”
“My name is Ophiuchus,” he said, “and I have an interest in the people the Hellions have been abducting.”
“What kind of an interest?” Matthew asked, “are you with Arachnos?”
“No,” Ophiuchus said, “I’m working independently. I can’t give you any more details than that.”
“I don’t work with, ah, independents,” Matthew said, “you’ll have to get in touch-”
“Do you think Dana will still be there when the FBSA gets around to assigning you a super?” Ophiuchus asked.
Matthew was silent again. Finally he asked “how do you know all this?”
Facebook. “That’s not important,” Ophiuchus said, “what matters is what I don’t know. I don’t know why the Hellions are kidnapping people, and I don’t know where they’re taking them. Until I do, I can’t get any of them back. Do you want Dana back?”
“I do,” Matthew said, “what do you need from me?”
“Information. Options,” Ophiuchus said. “The closest thing to a lead I’ve gotten is a name. Cinderburn. I don’t even know for sure that he’s involved.”
“Do you know about the Myrmidon tunnel?” Matthew asked.
“What about it?” Ophiuchus asked.
“Eyewitnesses have spotted Hellions loitering around there. Probably standing guard,” Matthew said.
“You think the hostages are there?” Ophiuchus asked.
“No idea, but if they’re guarding it, it must be important. And whatever these kidnappings are for, it must be a big operation,” Matthew said.
“You don’t think the Hellions have the resources to run two major hustles at once?” Ophiuchus asked.
“Maybe they do,” Matthew said, “they’re definitely taking advantage of how much of our emergency services are sifting through Galaxy City right now. Even if this has nothing to do with the kidnappings, though, the guy in charge of this place must know which Hellion is in charge of the kidnappings and what they’re being used for.”
“I’ll drop by,” Ophiuchus said.
The daytime trains were packed with people, even in midday when most people were at school or work. He was technically now enrolled in Copper High, but nobody complained when he missed a day. Everyone had quietly accepted that a lot of the Galaxy City kids might need to coast through the last few weeks. He planned to make up for disappointing SATs with a personal growth essay entitled “I’m Pursuing Higher Education Even Though My High School Was Obliterated By Meteors.” His suit, the damaged leg haphazardly stitched back together, was tucked into the duffel bag between his legs again. He drummed his fingers against the armrest at the edge of the bench. The suit had done its job disguising his identity, but any hope he’d had of passing himself off as a member of Team Red or Team Blue was sunk. At least two Hellions already knew he was hunting them down, and the police would’ve realized by now that, if there was any such hero as Ophiuchus, he looked nothing like the suit he had tucked under the train bench. And he’d left so much evidence behind. Blood, murder weapons, a face-to-face conversation with a top ten super. Every time the train stopped, he looked over his shoulder to see who was boarding. Any minute he expected the PPD or Longbow or maybe some super to come on board with a warrant for his arrest.
A woman in business casual approached him, asked a question, and he jumped from his seat in alarm, ready to run, before he’d even processed what they said. It was during the split-second between leaping out of his chair and resting on his feet that his conscious mind caught up with the meaning of the words: “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” he said.
“Uh…thank you,” the woman said, taking the seat next to the one he’d just vacated and pointedly not looking at him. The seat he had actually been sitting in was still open, but he gripped one of the loops hanging from the ceiling for stability instead. Popping up from his seat looked weird once. Taking the seat again would look weird twice.
He wasn’t sure how he got off that tram without having the cops called on him, but he did. Finding a lone Hellion was harder, anyone flying colors was liable to get jumped by the Skulls. When he finally did find one, he wasn’t completely alone. He was in a convenience store with a girl who wasn’t dressed like a Hellion. Did the Hellions even let women join? If the internet was to be believed, the corporate-feudal structure of gangs usually lent itself to some pretty conservative social mores, but he knew for a fact that the Skulls had women as actual members, not just hangers-on. The internet didn’t specifically call the Skulls out for being special, but he’d seen both men and women in Skull colors conducting a robbery from CCTV footage that made it to the news. Was the internet just wrong about women in gangs? Reporting outdated information or urban legend? Or maybe that article just didn’t feel the need to mention that the Skulls were specifically an exception to a general rule.
How many opponents was he about to take on? All his success so far had been in hitting people so fast they couldn’t recover until they were already on the ground and he was on top of them. And also one time he’d killed someone.
The man, the one who was clearly dressed as a Hellion, had a gun shoved down the back of his pants. The woman had pants too tight to conceal a weapon, but her jacket might carry one. A plan came together in his mind as he approached the Hellion down the aisle, freezer full of beer on one end, racks of ramen on the other. He looked to the ground until he was right next to him and threw an uppercut into the Hellion’s gut, then reached over to grab the gun out of his pants. Doubled over from the sucker punch, the Hellion’s hands fumbled for the gun a moment too late. He wrapped his spare arm around the Hellion’s neck to keep him doubled over and aimed the weapon at the woman, who’d started forwards, but now stopped short. “You aren’t visiting anyone in the Zig if your brains are on the wall, back away,” he said, and the Hellion in his grip stopped struggling. Good thing, too. The Hellion’s hands were in an awkward position for striking, but completely unrestrained. He could probably manage a good enough punch into his assailant’s stomach to knock the wind out of him and get the gun back if he thought to try. Were these Hellions so used to getting kicked off the streets by heroes that they just gave up as soon as they were knocked down?
Whatever the case, he didn’t have any trouble moving the Hellion with him while the girl remained frozen in place, the gun still trained on her. “Hey,” he said to the guy running the counter, whose eyes were wide, knuckles white from the grip he had on the edge. “I’m out of my mask, can you do me a favor and make sure your CCTV footage mysteriously disappears?’
“The camera doesn’t even work,” the guy at the counter said.
“Perfect,” he said, backing towards the door with his arm still wrapped around the captive Hellion’s neck, “if the cops ask for a name, tell them it was Ophiuchus. Just pretend I was in uniform.” If he was lucky, the cashier might actually keep up the ruse even after the cops told him that name was for an unlicensed vigilante. Unless he was lying about the broken camera, the worst case scenario is that they got a vague eyewitness description.
Five minutes later, he had finished donning the Hellion’s clothes, and was placing the revolver down the pants, when he stopped to look at the Hellion. Stripped to his boxers, hogtied, and with one of his own socks shoved in his mouth, he certainly didn’t look very threatening now. Neither had the Hellion who had called him in last night. He had almost died because Cinderburn – if that was even the real Cinderburn – knew he was coming. Now here was a Hellion who had watched him don a disguise. He didn’t know he was heading for the Myrmidon tunnel, but how many major hideouts did the local Hellions have? Dammit, he should’ve tried to find someone in Perez Park. No way the word would get all the way to Atlas Park that someone was disguising themselves as one of them. Gangs just weren’t that centralized. Being a Hellion meant having a shared criminal legacy with every other Hellion in the world, and having an implicit alliance against other gangs and the police, but the actual organization barely existed above the set level. Mess with one set, and other sets don’t get alerted, they just hear about it through the grapevine sooner or later. Instead, he’d alerted a Hellion close enough to do something about it to his plan. Sure, he was hogtied, phoneless, gagged, but only with a sock. You could push a sock out of your mouth with a bit of effort, he could draw enough attention to get himself untied after that, and then all he had to do was find someone willing to lend him a phone long enough to make a call. How long would that give to infiltrate the Hellions? An hour or two?
He pointed the revolver at the Hellion, trigger finger along the side of the barrel. If he got caught, it would specifically be for homicide. He could’ve punched out a Hellion right in front of a cop and, while technically assault, the cop probably wouldn’t bring him in for it. But murder? Cops and capes would bring him in for murder, even if it was a Hellion. He was already over that threshold. What did he care if there was one more rap on his sheet? If he got caught, his plan was to fight to the death rather than face the Zig anyway. After however many years in prison, Chase’s trail would be completely cold, and he’d rather die on his feet than live on his knees.
His finger dropped to the trigger. If he was really such a free thinking independent spirit, then why was his decision on whether or not to kill someone coming down to whether or not he’d face state retribution for it? Shouldn’t he at least be asking himself whether or not he believed it was okay to kill this guy? He was a Hellion, but he hadn’t even seen the guy commit a crime. For all he knew, this “Hellion” was just a poseur. It’s not like they had a uniform only available to recruits through authorized channels. He was just wearing an Arizona Sun Devils jacket with some Satanist patches sewn on. It cost $40 off of Amazon, and he would’ve bought one himself if he had $40.
The Hellions had kidnapped Chase. All the shit Ophiuchus was doing now, the reason why he’d wound up a murderer in the first place, it was because of them. And this guy at best looked up to those thugs. Dim-witted and violent cannon fodder for super villains that they were, would the world really mourn the loss of someone who looked at that and thought “yeah, I wish I was like them?” Someone who looked at people who used violence to get what they wanted with total disregard for the lives of others, and wanted to be just like them? Even if he was a poseur, there was karmic justice in being killed because it was convenient to someone else – that’s the kind of behavior he’d idolized, why shouldn’t he eat the consequences of it?
Ophiuchus knelt down next to the Hellion, the barrel of the gun placed against his head, the Hellion’s eyes full of panic and screaming in muffled distress through the sock. Now the cowardly asshole was scared. Gangs liked to talk tough when they were at an advantage, but they didn’t have that brave face when they were staring down a real threat.
Or maybe this Hellion was just angry because Ophiuchus had promised to take him to the Zig, and he’d given up fighting after that. Not really promised directly, but whatever, it was implied. Ophiuchus sighed. “You’re lucky I promised your girl she’d be able to see you in the Zig,” he said, stood up, and walked away.