Hero - 1
Leighton Del Mia
As quickly as it starts, it’s over: a flash of snowy screen and a brash assault of noise that sounds the way ripping off a Band-Aid feels. Then, a video plays.
Frida and I lean forward at the same moment, our heads tilted and our bodies at the couch’s edge. The onscreen figure is shadowy, but I can just make out the signature charcoal-colored armor that’s the rubbery second skin of a towering, powerful frame. At his boots kneels a silver-haired man, his brown skin lined with experience. Despite the man’s age, he is solid and sturdy, even with his hands knotted behind his rigid back. He lifts his face skyward, and where fear should be, there is only defiance.
There have been impostors before, but there’s no mistaking who commands him to his knees. Even in the haze of falling dusk and grainy footage, Hero is raw. His movements are deliberate and calculated as he closes a merciless hand around the man’s neck. I’ve never watched a man die, but I know that’s what I’m seeing. Life seeps away in dreamlike slow motion, his struggling and bound body growing slack.
Hero’s head turns toward us. I squint to see better the eyes behind the thick, dark mask, but after his short nod, the camera falls to the ground. All we see is pavement until the lifeless body drops into the frame, and all we hear are retreating footsteps.
The television screen rips to snow again. Black and white pixels dazzle as seconds tick by, the noise still grating but somehow appropriate. Finally I glance at my roommate with wide eyes. Orange embers flare as she sucks on the joint pinched between her fingers. She reclines lengthwise on the sofa, tossing her sharp, black bob over the arm and crossing her ankles in my lap. “Damn,” she says on an exhalation.
The anchorwoman on screen wears a dour expression, but excitement sparks in her eyes. “You’ve just watched footage recorded yesterday evening. Witnesses attest New Rhone’s own Hero took down renowned drug lord, Ignacio Riviera, and two members of his crew without a single weapon. Riviera was the head of the Riviera Cartel, an association known for their drug dealings south of the border and whose presence in the city has recently increased. Their leader’s death comes weeks after the discovery that the Cartel has been recruiting American youth into their developing prostitution ring.
“To date, it’s only the third time our masked avenger has been caught on camera since it’s known he prefers to work under the cover of darkness. Even with protests earlier this week, the police force continues to call for the unveiling of Hero, labeling him a bad example and a disruption to their efforts to clean up New Rhone. We go now to Police Headquarters for a press conference with Police Chief Strong.”
I don’t even breathe as the woman disappears from the screen and is replaced by a statuesque, older man. “The removal of Ignacio Riviera from New Rhone’s streets is a step in the right direction,” he says, “but no matter Hero’s intentions, the fact is that three men are dead by his hand. He’s a citizen who’s not above the law and who’s not exempt from punishment. We’ll be offering a reward for tips that lead to his arrest.”
A woman’s voice comes from off screen. “Chief, you’ve been after the Cartel ever since they started dealing here. The FBI has called Ignacio Riviera ‘untouchable’ and ‘one of the decade’s most dangerous men.’ Shouldn’t you be thanking Hero for completing a job no one else could?”
“If every citizen took justice into his or her own hands, we’d have chaos. The FBI has spent years quietly gathering intel on the Cartel to lower the hammer of justice. Now we’re all back to square one. Hero may have solved a problem temporarily, but the Cartel will thrive regardless. As it is, Riviera leaves an heir behind. Hero sets a poor example—”
“Is it that he’s a bad example, or that he’s once again highlighted NRPD’s incompetence?”
“As I was saying, Hero has been a presence in New Rhone for long enough. The eyewitnesses we’re currently interviewing and the video you’ve just seen cannot be ignored. Hero will be apprehended because he’s a criminal.”
Injustice burns through my veins. “How can they do that to him?”
Frida shakes her head slowly against the arm of the couch. She aims the remote at the TV to mute it. “I know you don’t want to hear it, Cataline, but they have a point. When everyday citizens take things into their own hands like Hero, avenging every injustice they encounter, it creates problems. Last week is proof of that.”
“That was a fluke.”
“A man went to the East Side dressed as Hero to find the gang member who mugged and beat his wife. He’s not the first person to pull that and end up dead.”
“The answer is not removing Hero. He’s good for this city. Not only does he keep criminals in line, but he also puts fear into would-be criminals.”
“Look at the facts. Hero may be the good guy, but he’s an outlaw. He just murdered a man on camera. That wasn’t self-defense, and he’s not law enforcement. He’s just a guy.”
“He’s not ‘just a guy,’” I retort. “He risks his life daily for this city. They should show some gratitude for his service, not crucify him.”
“Okay, fine,” she says. “Just be prepared if they catch him.”
“They won’t,” I say.
Frida takes another hit of the joint and studies me from across the couch. “You were quiet on the walk home. Everything okay?”
“Same as usual.”
“How was work?”
My head rolls along the back of the couch, my gaze fixing on the ceiling. “I’m grateful to have a job, right?”
I can hear the smile in her voice. “Yes. Especially at Parish Media. For not having a college education, the salary’s pretty generous.”
“And yet, I’m still indebted to you.”
“Once your credit cards are paid off, we can figure that out.”
I smile at her, and she shrugs.
“You’re too good to me,” I say. “Hale, on the other hand, seems to hate me a little more every day. Maybe he’ll promote me just to get rid of me.”
She starts hacking without warning, waving her joint in the air as she gasps for breath. Finally, she wheezes, “Good luck with that.”
“One day the landlord’s going to smell that and call the cops,” I say.
“You think they give a shit about a stoner like me? This city is huge.” She half nods at the TV. “And they got bigger fish to fry. Want a hit?”
I purse my lips at her.
“Right,” she says through a grin. “More for me.”
She flips through the channels with the TV on mute. Images flash by, but I’m not watching. Frida tells me all the time I can talk to her, yet I still find it difficult to open up. No matter how many times I swallow, my throat feels dry as a desert. “Calvin Parish is sleeping with Lyla.”
“Oh, shit,” she says, looking at me with huge eyes. “Wait—who’s Lyla?”
“She works in accounting. I overheard her bragging in the break room about ‘boning the boss.’”
“Crap. That sucks.” She pushes her big toe into my side. “But how’s he supposed to know you want to sit on his face if you won’t even talk to him?”
I simultaneously laugh and cringe. “I don’t want to ‘sit on his face.’ Anyway, he’s the one who won’t talk to me. I’ve been there a year, and he’s hardly ever said a word to me.”
She drums the fingers of one hand on her stomach. “I think this is a good thing. From what you’ve told me, the guy sounds like a jerk. Plus, I have a beef with him. I got all dressed up for your lame office party just to catch a glimpse of this supposed god, and he didn’t even have the decency to show. His own company’s party.”
My answer gets me a raised eyebrow, but it’s the truth: Calvin Parish likes his privacy. If it weren’t obvious from his permanent scowl, it is in the way he tenses when anyone gets too close to him.
The fortieth floor reeks of stale coffee and is congested with half-walled cubicles, but none of that matters during Calvin’s daily visits. I work hard. I run every morning and attend Mass most Sundays. I’ve never smoked pot, despite the fact that Frida offers it weekly. I only allow myself one vice, and it’s Calvin Parish. Thick, wavy brown hair that falls over his forehead, even though he constantly brushes it back. His expression is perpetually grim, and his eyes permanently hooded, like there’s an entire universe behind them. Even shielded by bulky, black-rimmed glasses, his olive green eyes smolder. I’ve imagined that looking directly into them is such an experience, I’d come out a different person. I’d do it anyway, even knowing it could be my undoing. Just to see what would happen.
“I’m sorry about Lyla,” Frida says. I wonder how long she’s been watching me with her inquisitive look.
“It’s okay. I should concentrate on other things right now anyway. No time for boys.”
“Boys? Isn’t Calvin in his thirties?”
“Okay, no time for men,” I say. “For now, I’ll have to settle for appreciating his beauty from afar.”
At some point she’d stopped switching channels and unmuted the TV. Bugs Bunny is on the screen, sleeping and snoring though his rabbit hole floods. Even focused on the cartoon, I sense the disapproval in Frida’s glare, as though it’s a thing that might reach out and knock me over the head. Finally she says what I already know she’s been thinking: “I’m going to get you laid.”
There’s frustration in her sigh. “You need this. You know I think it’s sweet that you’re holding out for the right guy, but that’s fairytale stuff, Cat. This is real life, not one of your books. I promise, your first time is not as big a deal as you’ve made it out to be. It’s just messy fumbling in the dark.”