Chapter One: Truth, Justice, And Drowning In Toxic Sludge
You don't need superpowers to defend truth, justice, and the American way. You just need a stomach that doesn't turn at the words "breaking and entering."
Take right now, for instance. I'm at the edge of the Silver Dollar Strip, where the city turns to gnarled tree roots and the moon sinks low in a sponge of gray clouds overhead.
"Monet!" Kai shouts in the left ear of my headset. "Finn's bullying me!"
"I am not!" Finn says in my right. Static pops, making him sound like he's talking through a mouthful of bees. "He's so freaking delicate. It's like I'm riding shotgun with a....buzz buzz...with a...buzzzzz...flower. An orchid. A Cattleya Orchid."
Really, I'm about to kick them both. While they fight, I'm skimming my fingers over the dozen or so 'No trespassing' signs scattered through Silver Dollar's "forest" — a thin copse of magnolia trees—while taking care to hop the loops of barbed wire half-buried in the mud. Last thing I need on a "mission"—a splintered knee. And these two arguing and buzz-buzzing in my ears while I'm doing all my law-breaking.
"He took my calzone! All of it! Just crammed the whole thing in his mouth like a disgusting slob! You know how I feel about him taking my food."
"You know how I feel about Kai in general." Finn huffs. "He's a pathetic, little—"
"Me?" Kai's voice cracks. "You're pathetic and little!"
"Yeah! Well, you're a jerky little emo brat, and I-I'm taller than you!"
In case you're wondering, no, I am not a mother and no, these are not my derpy kids. These are my friends. My only and I guess best friends. Finn, seventeen, the guy with the intel and Kaito, also seventeen, the guy with the Pizzastar delivery car.
"Guys, we're about to see a supervillain." Me, this time, as the trees thin and the signs slip deeper and deeper into the mud and finally disappear. "I'm not your mom. Cut it out."
Kaito whines. "Mon-neet!" I click off his voice and click on a ten-hour chill-fi playlist. For focus. With a clench of my notepad for luck, I stumble onto the overgrown driveway.
It's a cute little cottage, with a front porch and a swinging tropical-printed loveseat. The windows are boarded up with red shutters, its planter boxes filled with tiny star-shaped flowers. Quaint. Reminds me of the place Red Riding Hood's grandmother was supposed to live, all cute and nestled up in the woods.
"Shit." Nothing good happens in cottages nestled in the the woods. With a slap of a crowbar against my thigh, I crouch below the window and press my ear to the wall. A moment passes, then I hear low voices murmuring and laughing.
I rise, adjust my starched collar, and knock on the faded pink door. "Mr. Preston?"
Silence. I feel it' sudden presence with as much force as if it were a gunshot. I let go of my held breath; good thing too. I was about to suffocate.
"Mr. Preston! I'm glad you're here! I was texted an anonymous tip about your meeting with a Masquerade tonight." I flip open my notepad and fumble with the pencil tucked behind my ear. It makes me feel like one of the old reporters, the ones with 'Press' stuck in the bands of their hats. "As in, the villain Masquerade. The one wreaking havoc and terror. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
The silence is so thick my dubstep gives it a heartbeat.
"Okay, great. I'm just going to pry these shutters open and snap some pictures myself."
"Monet!" Kai's voice makes me gnash my jaw, because the soothing chill-fi zaps off. I can hear the exclamation mark slammed on the back of his sentences."You can't just break communication like this! We're on a mission!"
"Yeah," says Finn, cutting me off before I can eek out a single curse or shut out their voices for good. "Hasn't anyone taught you about stranger danger or anything?"
"And that's why I'm doing this alone." Slinking up against the window, I ready my crowbar, porch creaking under my feet. "The mayor already knows me and my dad. If you guys get involved, he'll hurt you to shut you up."
"And he won't hurt you, too?" Kai's voice is quiet and shaky.
"Yeah, Mo'," Finn says, "this is kind of stupid. Even more than it usually is."
The guys are at my command. I make them the best coffee to be had by the Silver Dollar Shore and they act out my plans. Easy-peasy, as the saying goes, lemon-squeezy. "Yeah, well, if I end up in tiny slivers at the bottom of the Surf, everyone's gonna know who did it."
"Sound logic," Finn says. "You know, that would be perfect, except you'd be dead. Forget that part?"
I pry the shutters open with one, two, three tugs of my crowbar, drawing a croaky little sound from the slats before I lift my camera to the frosted blue glass. The room is average enough, luxury Americana, straight from the catalogs. Beige furniture, honeysuckle hued trim. A chestnut coffee table with a fruit bowl on top, pastel paintings on the back wall, and sure enough, a balding, pot-bellied mayor lounging on the couch. Beside a hooded figure.
Jackpot. I wave, smile, and snap as many pictures as my giant old camera will allow. It's a beaut, this camera. Boxy with silver corrugated skin, must weight a good ten pounds at least. I fished it out of a dumpster and it's got a heavy feel in my hands. Not to mention the surge of journalistic pride that can only arrive from slapping prints on my boss's desk.
I snap another. And another. The mayor catches my eye and smiles. You know the kind of smile I'm talking about, the slow one that takes maybe a minute to materialize, where the lips curl back and show the red fleshy mouth, the canines are the first teeth to flash, brown and pointy.
And that's when it hits me that maybe the boys are right.
"Guys, guys, I'm going." But it's too late. The window bursts and nickel-sized glass shards whip out behind me. I'm nicked at least a dozen or so times before I can even duck, and I can't help a little cry of pain. Maybe more than a little. Maybe I scream and jump and scream some more like someone set me on fire. Maybe.
"Monet, what's happening?" Finn. His voice is calm. "Are you okay?"
Fingers claw my throat, choking off my response. Though I struggle, they only sink deeper into the delicate flesh and I'm yanked back through the window, kicking and screaming.
"I take that as a no. Trying to lock in on your location. Stay strong, I guess."
"What's happening?" Kai, again. "Monet, answer me! What's going on?"
I'm dying, Kai, that's what's going on. "Choking, for the most part." My knees, hands, stomach, they throb something awful as they scrape over the frame. It's shock, I think, that keeps my mouth hanging open in a silent scream, my heart racing. You're screwed, you're screwed, you're screwed runs through my head like a sort of whiplash.
"What should I do with her?" Masquerade asks, dangling me inches above the shag carpet. It takes about three seconds to remember where I am. Boring room. Hand on my throat. Evil mayor. The Preston rises from the couch and sets his Coke on the table, giving me a long look with those ice blue eyes of his while I scramble and scream, arms flailing, legs kicking.
"Ms. April O'Neil. What a pleasant surprise." He finally says with a slow smile. I have to admit, I never pegged him to be much of TMNT fan. "Or Ms. Jackson, I should say. You share a remarkable resemblance with your father."
I drop limp against Masquerade, too tired and weak to breathe. Those words hit me like the world's best punch in the gut. "Flattered," I say, trying on a weak smile for size. "Would you mind answering a few questions? Or do you usually have supervillains attack your house guests?" I can barely choke out the words, gasping even to breathe. At least they sound snarky in my head.
"Look." Masquerade huffs. He has a young voice, soft and the smallest part croaky. "Should I kill her or do you want to monologue at her?"
"I'll kill you!" Kai cries as Finn cooes at him in hushed, mothering tones in the background.
The mayor shrugs. "She has friends. They come here or she dies. Tell them that."
Just what I feared. It's a fight to blink back tears as Masquerade lets go. I hit the floor in a wheezing puddle, the headset wrenched out of my ears. "Really, sirs." My chest heaves. "I just wanted you to answer some questions, is all. The superheroes are gone. What happened to them? If you're innocent, I can clear your name."
"A junior reporter." The mayor steps forward with a catty yawn, that smile still intact. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Did your father send you? Or are you all prying scum?"
"My job is to learn the truth." I rise shakily to my feet. "And I'll do anything to get it." Ooh, yes time to break out the cheesy loglines, idiot. I'd kick myself if I wasn't already suffering more than enough.
Masquerade groans, and I give him a once-over. He's wearing faded skinny jeans, his hair is tied in a neat blonde bun at the nape of his neck, and he's even giving his cloak a rest for a hoodie. You'd think that would make him less intimidating, but he's still wearing his usual white mask, the one with the curved slits for eyes and the grin set into the bottom half, the one that gives me chills. "Your friends are stupid, Monet, and so are you. It's best to keep out of the affairs of beings higher on the evolutionary scale than you. Didn't your dad tell you that?"
"Quit spewing your crap." My fists are trembling. "And what are you? Thirteen, fourteen—"
"Interesting." Beads of sweat quiver on my brow. "Taking your hormonal stress out on the city. Sounds completely healthy." I trace each swelling bruise on my throat while scribbling illegibly in my notepad. I've probably written something like, maniacsendhelpIdontwannadiethanks. I smile sweetly as I back toward the door. "I'm sixteen, too. Care to help a friend out and let me go?"
Another step toward the door, still too slow. Masquerade's eyes glint in his mask-like an animal's, and in a single swift move, he pounces. A shadow, all liquid muscle, swifter on his feet than a dancer or any athlete I've ever seen. For a second I doubt he's a human at all. For a second, I'm sure he's a demon.
I hit the ground beneath him, the wind torn from my lungs as I wriggle and claw under his slim body. Panic implodes inside me as he grasps my waist, his grip like a steel band. Suffocating. Crushing. No, I tell myself in this strange kind of relectivesummary, this isn't about a scoop anymore. This is about life and death. My life and death. Great.
My body kicks into autopilot, my fists swinging in rapid fire uppercuts. A brush of my knuckles against his chin. A crack in his mask. He lifts a hand as if to bat me away and I wriggle out of his hold, my knee crunching his stern.
"Hah!" I shout as I wheel to my feet, camera bouncing against my thumping heart. It hits so hard I know it'll leave bruises."Hah, hah, hah!"
Though I can't read Masquerade's expression, I doubt he's amused.
I take off. There's a window at the end of the hall, a beautiful, glowing blue behind tousled cream curtains. Masquerade breezes past me and leans against the frame, that eternal grin burning on his mask. "Going anywhere, Miss Jackson?"
"Back off!" I kick off my heels and lunge for the closest door. It leads to a small bedroom, maybe meant for a child. The rooms' walls are painted a baby pink, a crocheted quilt drawn up over a twin-sized bed that's pushed against the room's only window. I suck in a sharp breath and lunge for it.
"Running like a rat in a maze." Masquerade snorts behind me. His young voice has taken on a deep quality, low and throaty. I whip around, tripping over the bed with a cry, backed now against the nylon drapes.
"Crap!" The world's biggest understatement hisses out as my shaking fingers find the window locks and fumble with them. I should've been sneakier, stealthier. But how would I know the man would try to kill me?
Sure, the Prestons and the Jacksons have feuded. The mayor is a wealthy politician, and my father is a reporter who has his salary slashed every year because the Journal can't afford him. Or any of its employees, really. I'm not even on the payroll. Mayweather just slips me twenties in pink envelopes and I cover zoning meetings.
"I suggest you not jump." The voice becomes a low purr.
My heart slams against my ribs, because no matter how much I jiggle and fight the latches, the window won't budge.
"If you want a lead," Masquerade continues with a sigh of laugh, "I can give you a lead. That warehouse outback, there's some bad stuff happening there." He lifts his mask up its sculpted chin, just to show me the twitching smirk on his lips. "It isn't safe behind here for you mortals. Chemical pollution. The swamp is contaminated."
"Good one." My voice is surprisingly cool. Thank the Lord schools still fund their theatre classes. I point my crowbar at his chest when he steps forward. "Don't come any closer."
"Or what? You gonna pry me to death?" Another step. The smirk widens.
"I'll bash your brains in, that's what." I whip back around, wrinkling the sheets, and slam the crowbar into the glass. It draws a crack across the surface, long and slender. Now, I could pry the window open. That's a crowbar's function, after all. But that dumb realization after my desperate hacking and swinging is far too late. Masquerade is still too quick.
A blur of black and white with a low, chilling laugh.
By the time I process his position, Masquerade's got his gloved hands around my wrists. I wriggle and bash the crowbar against his stomach and thighs, kicking, screaming. Maybe you've never fought a supervillain before. Maybe you don't know the feeling of being held by someone who wants to hurt you and has all the crushing power of a locomotive.
My stomach locks up, my voice pitches up into a perpetual cry, and all my strength goes into my twitching hand, swinging and swinging. His grip tightens. Bones bend and creak as stars explode in front of my eyes. "Quit fighting! Stupid mortal—"
"Hey, hey!" Kai's voice. Not from the headset this time, but from the other room. "Let her go!" My heart sinks that much deeper in my chest. I've endangered them, just like I promised myself I wouldn't.
"Please?" Finn adds.
I swing around, faint and bleeding, and hit the floor. But I have to get out of here. Can't give in, I tell myself, even if he is a super and even if I am a panicking, puny teen. With the last of my strength, I drag myself back to the window on my knees. My jeans tear at the shin. My shoulders strain at my blazer, arms yanked taut behind me. The pain lacing them is sharp and sudden.
"I'm going to break your wrists," Masquerade says with a jerk of his hand, "unless you chill out."
"Do it, then." My socked feet graze the window. I wrench a wrist out of the divot between the villain's thumb and forefinger, a little trick Lady Self-Defense taught me when Dad had me sit in front of all those martial arts training Vhses as a kid so if someone tried to hurt me, I could fight back. "Who needs wrists anyway? You can't type with them. You can't even dial 911 with them."
I swing the crowbar at his throat, drawing a yelp from him. There's blood, bright red, on his fingertips, dribbling down his face. With a few hard whacks, I bash out the window and it explodes in a shower of shattered glass. "Guys, guys, guys! Go! Now!" I throw myself out of the cottage, but my blazer snaps back at my shoulders, seams rubbing raw patches into my skin.
I whip my head around, and sure enough, Masquerade has the tail of my blazer clenched in his mighty, super-strong fist.
"What did I just say, Monet?" His voice is measured and clipped. "You see all that. That's all dangerous chemicals down there." And he isn't lying, at least, not about the existence of the chemicals below. The watershed is half-submerged in a milky swirl of red and white. Thick and opaque-like, it laps the cottage like a moat.
"What is it?" The curse of having an inquisitive mind. The goo pulses and snaps, bubbles brewing on the surface and popping when they reach the air, like a boiling, chemical soup.
"None of your business," he snaps. "If I drowned you, no one would know. It would be an unfortunate accident."
I squirm, the acrid fumes making my head spin and the world throb with muted white light. Kai and Finn need time to escape, time I have to buy them. I drop the crowbar into the spitting brew and watch it sink. "You have a bad attitude."
"I'm deciding whether or not to drop you, Monet." He sighs from deep in his throat. "Don't speed up the process, okay? Now, if you'll behave, maybe I'll drag you back into this house and brew you a cup of hot tea."
"So long as you beg for mercy."
I know this tactic. Look how merciful he is. He saved me when all I could do was beg. This can lead to all sorts of bad destinations. Stockholm Syndrome, for instance.
"No thank you." I wrench my blazer out of his grasp with a jerk of my arm, and catch the shutter with both sweat-drenched hands. Masquerade leans out the sill, his glove pressed against his masked cheek. He sighs dreamily.
"I gave you a choice, Juliet."
Since this isn't even happening on a balcony, his reference game is pretty off. I grasp up at a loose vinyl slat to steady myself, and with a lazy slap of his hand, he breaks my grip, snapping joints with a sickening crunch.
"Ow, ow, ow, hey!" I'm hanging with one hand, my vision dashed with stars.
He snatches up my free wrist in his glove, his masked face edging toward mine. I let my other hand dangle limply at my side, every moment his fingers roam my skin sending fireworks dancing behind my eyelids.
"Beg, or die."
I shake my head.
He lifts me another inch, and just when I think he's taken pity on me, he drops me into the hissing bog below.
Working on a new superhero story between Stolen Souls and Damsel[ed]. I haven't worked out an update schedule, but I'm thinking along the lines of something weekly, like every Monday. Anyway, I hope you like this and would love to read your comments!