Paul Kennedy looks up into the driving rain, ignoring the droplets as they pound into his face, darting past the shelter of his raised collar and down his neck. He gave up protecting his notepad an hour ago. It’s sodden, the paper ruined, but he still clutches it to his chest, out and ready. It doesn’t matter how long he has to wait, this is the scoop of the century and he’s not going to miss it.
The front of the Alliance Group Building rears out of the darkness before him. Every single light inside has been switched off. He’s only able to see it because its entire front face has been lit up with sweeping police search lights. An occasional dagger of lightning flashes down in the distance and Paul thinks it’s spectacular. It will be the perfect backdrop for his story. This is going to be his big break. This will be the story that lifts him out of the grotty recesses of the local gossip paper and into the big leagues.
People jostle at his side, vying for position, but Paul ignores them all. He was one of the first to follow the sounds of sirens, arriving at the scene before they’d even finished setting up the perimeter barriers. He has the best spot and he already knows who’s hiding behind those blackened windows.
Card Shark and The Lady.
Paul knows about these criminals, nefarious as they are, in the way that only a scummy journalist knows. These are the kind of criminals that commit the dark crimes, the kind whose names are whispered by old drunks and quickly silenced. These are the kind of criminals that you write stories about but never publish.
As Paul watches, one of the spotlights pans upwards, picking out a figure on the building’s roof, and Paul smiles. It is beginning.
The figure on the roof is tiny, he’s nearly forty floors up, but he still commands the hushed attention of every person down below. The spotlight picks him out perfectly, almost as if it’s planned. He waits for another flash of lightening and its accompanying peal of thunder. In this time two further figures join his side.
Two? Paul has heard no hint or tell to give him any indication of who this mysterious addition to the party may be.
The spotlight follows the first silhouette as he walks right to the very edge of the roof, taking his time. Paul can tell from his male physique that it’s Shark. He pauses, toes out over the drop, and waits. As a third strike of lightening scissors down from the sky, Shark throws his arms wide.
“Welcome,” he announces, voice rolling out across the hustling masses, and Paul realises that Shark’s history of hiding in dark corners is all about to come to an explosive end.
At first, Paul can’t work out how his voice is carrying so well but then he notices the banks of speakers, lined up on the lower floors of the building. This is a calculated move. It has been well prepared.
Shark is silent for a second and then he sits suddenly, dropping his arms. His legs dangle over the drop - a woman beside Paul gasps - but he seems utterly at ease.
“I had this big speech planned,” he admits, “it was inspiring. It was dramatic. But I’ve decided to be honest with you instead.”
A police helicopter whirls over the top of the building and, apparently, it gets too close. Paul watches as one of the female figures at Shark’s shoulder whips a pistol out of a holster at her belt, firing three warning shots into the vehicle’s windscreen. Paul can hear the distant pop as the bullets leave the gun but they just bounce harmlessly off bulletproof glass. The helicopter gets the message though, pulling away and disappearing into the high banks of cloud. Paul doubts it’ll be back. The storm is getting closer by the second.
Shark rolls an irritated sound over the back of his throat and the speakers pick it up, amplifying it, washing his displeasure across the entire crowd.
“There is something wrong with putrid this city,” he says. “You people have had your freedoms revoked and you never even fought. Look at those flashing lights before you, red and blue. When was the last time you saw those and felt safe? Do you know how many Sapient+ operatives walk amongst you? I’ll tell you, it’s one in fifty. Do you know what that means? Someone on your weekly shop is a government controlled superhuman and you never even knew. Of your childhood class, people you knew from school, up to five of them have the capacity to kill you with a single thought.’
‘You don’t know who they are. But they know who you are. They can hear your every sentence, read your every thought. And what happens when they decide you are a threat? Nobody knows. Why? Because you disappear. They can make your entire family forget you were ever born.’
‘Do you want to know the worst thing?” Shark turns his head, looking between the women at his back. One of them nods.
“The worst thing,” he continues, “is that you know all this already! You know! And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Shark pauses again and Paul can just about make him out through the rain, nodding his head thoughtfully.
“But that’s all about to change,” he says.
Paul watches as Shark calmly leverages himself off the edge of the building. He tumbles into immediate free fall but the spotlight follows him flawlessly, highlighting his descent against the lifeless surface of the Alliance Group Building. The woman next to Paul, who gasped before, is screaming. But Paul knows Shark and when the man begins to slow, controlling his decent with supernatural means, Paul is not surprised.
With a running leap, one of the women on the roof throws herself into an elegant swan dive, overtaking him in seconds. That’ll be The Lady. She has style.
The Lady continues to fall, faster and faster, as Shark drifts calmly down to the pavement below. Even Paul’s breath hitches slightly. She’s getting so close to ground, he can make out more details the closer she gets, red hair whipping up past her face, but she doesn’t slow.
Almost too late a shudder passes through her body and something strange washes over Paul, washes over everything. He picks it up in the dark recesses of his brain, the parts where his sixth sense lives, the place reserved for clammy skin and nightmares. He doesn’t look down, he’s too terrified to miss it, but he knows that if he were to look, every single hair on his body would be standing on end.
The air around her body almost seems to twist, distorting reality. It’s like he can’t focus on her, can’t make his mind remember what his eyes are seeing even as it happens. In less than a second, her slender, female form is gone, replaced by the powerful body of some great beast.
It lands front paws first, with an echoing crack as the pavement gives way, and folds its hind legs beneath itself. It curls its tail around its back feet, patiently waiting at the centre of its crater for Shark to land at its side. Paul doesn’t know what type of creature it is; it’s not something you’d find in the National Geographic. Its shoulder is about man height and it resembles something dog-like, too lithe to be a wolf, too fierce to be a fox. The only sign that it was once that delicate woman with pistols at her belt is its pelt, a shimmering copper-gold. But within seconds the colour has been darkened by the rain and even that slight similarity is lost.
Shark settles at the side of the creature that used to be The Lady and calmly places a hand in her fur. Together they turn, looking up at the final figure on the roof, the one that Paul had almost forgotten about.
A police spotlight pans across the front of the building, crawling up her thighs. Just as it’s about finished with its ascent, before it can settle on her face, she disappears. No warning.
Paul steps back, confused. He finds her a second later, standing serenely at The Lady’s other shoulder. She didn’t jump, she didn’t fall. One minute she was on the roof, the next she was simply standing on the ground. No in between.
Shark turns back to the arrayed masses, smiling for the banks of cameras. The three of them walk forwards and even from this distance, Paul can hear the wave of clicks as a whole row of police officers ready their weapons.
Shark doesn’t even pause. One minute he’s walking towards a brisling row of police rifles, the next all three of them have reappeared behind the patrol cars, behind the barriers, and he continues walking onwards through the crowds. He’s so close Paul could almost touch him and he just comes closer.
As the three supers draw abreast - Shark, the mystery girl and the thing that used to be The Lady, padding through the crowds on silent paws - Shark pauses. His head swings round until his eyes meet Paul’s and he smiles. The three of them turn, closing the minimal distance, and Shark draws to a halt, folding his arms.
“Paul Kennedy,” he greets with a nod. “You know who we are?” It’s phrased as a question but Paul knows he is not expected to answer.
“How do you know my name?”
Shark smiles benevolently.
“You know my name, I know yours,” he says. “And you know The Lady,” he continues, gesturing to the great beast at his shoulder. “But you have not met our new friend. This is Whisper,” he says, beckoning for her to come forward. She joins his side but it’s obvious she doesn’t relish the attention. “She doesn’t speak,” Shark says with a wink, “But don’t let that fool you. If you underestimate her, we’ll all fall.”
Shark keeps holding Paul’s gaze with his eyes as The Lady and Whisper turn, making their way further through the crowd. He holds on just a second longer before whipping round, returning to their side. Shark stops often, sometimes introducing the whole group, sometimes just Whisper. He greets everyone by name, without fail.
At one point, the air ripples with dissent again and, as Paul peers round the heads of the people at his side, he realises The Lady has returned to her human form. They split up at this point, all three going their separate ways. Shark stops with everyone, continuing to chat, and The Lady does something similar, sashaying happily past those that coil back from her in fear. Whisper, true to Shark’s promise, says nothing. She doesn’t’ even smile, not really. She just walks past everyone, slowly dusting light fingers over those palms stretched out to her in greeting. Because of the way they split, she’s almost walking back towards Paul and of the three of them, she’s the one he can see clearest.
“Shark! Lady!” A man’s voice arches out across the crowds, highlighted by its desperation. Paul watches as Whisper freezes and because she’s so close to him, he can see the fear on her face when she turns back towards the owner of the voice.
“What is the meaning of this madness?” The speaker keeps shouting: People are not making it easy for him to pass and he’s almost having to fight, forcing his way through the crowd
Paul cranes his neck, noticing that all three supers are motionless now, watching the new arrival.
“Hi Jack,” Shark says and Paul realises he’s looking at Inspector Jack Docklen.
The woman at Paul’s side draws his attention back to Whisper just as she fades out of existence. A second later she’s with The Lady, taking the second super’s hand. They disappear together and then, in the blink of an eye, they stand by Shark, united as a threesome once again.
“Remember this night,” The Lady shouts, requiring no microphone. “Everything is about to change!” She screams, a high-pitched wail of uncompromising glee. It’s powerful, sends shivers down his spine.
Whisper reaches out her free hand, linking it with Shark, tying all three of them into a single line. He smiles. Jack Docklen’s still battling through the crowd, trying to reach the group, and Shark throws the Inspector a jaunty little wave.
“Bye Jack,” he says and they disappear.
Paul Kennedy closes his eyes, pushing out a slow, calming breath as the tension he never realised he was carrying falls from his shoulders. He looks down, taking in the notepad he’s been wielding unfailingly for the past two hours, out in the pouring rain. He looks up, watching Jack Docklen stumble to a defeated stop, looks down, eyeing his notepad again.
He hasn’t written a single word.