It was supposed to have been Frank’s day off. He’d planned to wake up and spend the day in his penthouse watching television. Instead, he was dressed in his favorite designer charcoal grey suit and found himself sitting at a little white table on the back patio of Geno’s Creamery. He leaned back in his chair and watched the pedestrians walk by. His eyes were occasionally drawn to Tribunus Tower, an iconic landmark of Empire city and an identifiable part of its skyline. At least it was an identifiable part of the skyline until Black Hood‘s last battle against the devious Midnight Chorus. Now it was a fourth shorter and several construction crews were working around the clock to repair the damage.
Rumor was both sides died. Frank knew better. Melody Dove leads the Midnight Chorus. She was young. Brilliant. Manipulative. A borderline sociopath. One of the most dangerous meta-human criminals alive. It wasn’t her powers. It was her ambition. Her sheer talent for terror and mayhem. If anyone survived it would be Melody Dove. She was one of the greats, and every great villain had a plan B. They always did.
Frank heard the clack of high heels approaching from behind.
“Here you are,” Karen said, setting down a white ceramic bowl in front of him. Inside were three scoops of French vanilla ice-cream smothered in homemade chocolate sauce and topped with a bright red maraschino cherry. A meticulously polished spoon was stabbed into one of the scoops. Frank smiled. The spoon was actually made of silver. That’s one of the reasons Frank loved Geno’s. The spoons were made of silver.
Karen sat down in the chair across from him. She’d gotten herself a banana split.
“Thanks for the ice-cream, Kare,” Frank said.
She was wearing a one button, mostly grey, jacket. The lapels and pocket flaps were black. She also wore a pair of black slacks, a white button-up and a pair of black designer pumps. Her dark red hair hung luxuriously down around her shoulders. She always looked like a movie star. She elegantly placed one knee over the other and proceeded to devour her treat like a starving animal. She was halfway done by the time Frank noticed what she bought.
“No problem,” she said with a mouth full of ice-cream. “That’s what friends are for. Go ahead and dig in. Don’t want it to melt.”
Frank looked down. Took a big spoonful. Raised it to his mouth and stopped. He squinted one eye.
“Hold on,” he said. “This isn’t poison is it?”
“Why would it be poisoned?” She asked.
Frank leaned back and folded his arms.
“Well last time we talked, you weren’t exactly happy with me.”
“Well yeah,” she said. “You stole my assignment and stuck me with that weirdo.”
“Yeah, that guy.”
A short silence passed.
“So…what’s in it?” Frank asked.
Karen rolled her eyes.
“Nothing Frank,” she said. “It’s fine.”
“Nothing at all?” He asked.
“No,” she said.
“Not this time.”
“It wouldn’t be truth serum again, would it?” He asked.
“Oh no. Never again,” she said. “I learned my lesson last time. Besides, all I got from you was a recipe for dip. Wasn’t even good dip. Come on, Frank. Do you really think I’d spike ice-cream that costs twenty dollars a scoop?”
“Got a point there,” he said.
Frank dug in.
“Hmmm. Pretty good,” he said. “I have to admit, Kare, I wasn’t expecting you to be so forgiving.”
“What’s to forgive?” She asked. “You got me out of the Kloner account. Even if you were the one who stuck me with him.”
“Trust me,” Frank said. “I wasn’t planning to.”
“Trust me,” she said. “I know you weren’t, but…well…you’re kind of pathetic now, aren’t you? I mean you ruined all chance of getting Crown Industries, lost most of your better clients and severed all ties with Dr. Kloner.”
“Yeah…that’s kinda what happens when you shoot people.”
“Like I said. You’re basically down to square one again,” she said. “You’re kind of like a wounded puppy. Who can be mad at a wounded puppy?”
“I’m not a puppy, Kare.”
“Kitten then,” she said.
“These animal metaphors really aren’t helping.”
Karen looked Frank in the eye.
“In all seriousness though…you got off lucky, Frank.”
“Yeah? Becker reassigned most of my other clients to different agents. I’m back doing entry-level work with wannabe startup villains and now I’m all dressed up on my day off about to attend some secret mystery meeting which’ll probably end with Becker chopping off my head and sticking it on a pike as a warning to others. Lucky me.”
Karen leaned back.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I don’t blame you for shooting Kloner. Hell, if our meeting wasn’t cut short, I probably would’ve shot him myself.”
“No I don’t,” Frank said. “What precisely am I supposed to be knowing here?”
“Like it or not Frank, had anyone else done what you did…they’d have been F.I.R.E.D, ” she said.
“Becker would never fire you.” Frank said.
“Oh yes he would,” Karen said. “But that’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point.”
“The point, Frank, is that you better thank your lucky stars you had your reputation to land on. Most of us don’t have that luxury. You still have a chance to pick yourself back up. So stop feeling sorry for yourself. Suck it up and move on. You’re Frances Sonata for heaven’s sake. Act like him.”
Frank ran a hand through his hair.
“Maybe you’re right…for once,” he said.
“You bet I am,” Karen said, finishing off her banana split and standing up. “Now if you’ll excuse me I have your old clients to attend to.”
“Wait. What?” Frank said. “Becker reassigned my clients to you?”
“Of course he did. The tolerable ones anyway,” she said. “One good thing about you taking the great fall is that now I’m top dog.”
Karen wiped her mouth and shouldered her purse.
“Hey Kare,” Frank said.
She glanced over her shoulder.
“Want to go out?” He asked.
Karen raised a brow.
“Like a date?” She asked.
“Not on your life,” she said.
Frank smiled back.
“Good luck Karen,” he said.
“Good luck Frank,” she said. “Oh Frank?”
“Be careful. You can’t take another hit like this,” she said. “No one’s reputation is that good.”
Oculux Limited jetted up over six hundred meters off the ground. The current building was almost one hundred years old. A giant clock embedded at the top. The four corners of the roof were marked by four tall spires. Each spire had a nook and within each nook stood a full sized marble angel armed with a spear.
Frank walked up the stone steps to the entrance. The doors were completely made of glass save for the brass handles. Inside, the floor was made of grey travertine tile. The high ceilings captured every sound. Every footstep let out an audible echo. There was a fountain in the center of the lobby. Water poured from the mouth of the large stone gargoyle into a copper basin. Frank waved hello to the receptionist and made his way down the pillared hallway. He entered an elevator, swiped his ID card and tapped the button for Becker’s floor. The elevator dinged and a few moments later the doors slid open.
Becker’s office was dark, ominously painted by low lighting coming from a small chandelier and sconces tastefully spaced out along the walls. A marble replica of the Ex Nihilo was carved into the wall just behind Becker’s ornate wooden desk. The replica was haunting. A swirling mix of human bodies emerging from an angry sea of lost souls. At least, that’s how Frank saw it. On either side of the Ex Nihilo were tall grated windows with red velvet curtains. One could see the entire city from that view. The curtains were open today.
Frank heard something clink, followed by the sound of liquid pouring into a glass. William Becker was standing in front of a crackling fireplace. He’d taken a bottle from atop the minibar beside him and served up a modest glass of bourbon.
Becker set the bottle back down. He half turned toward Frank and smiled.
“Ah! Frank,” he said. “Glad you could make it.”
“Of course,” he said.
Becker was a small man, standing little over five feet. Fifties. Slightly hunched stature. Black oiled hair. Soft blue eyes. He was wearing a black pinstripe suit and a matching vest. No tie. The collar of his white button-up hung open. He took a sip from his glass.
“How’ve you been doing?” He asked in his usual harsh raspy voice. One made rough by countless years of smoking.
“You mean ever since you reassigned my clients, threw me back in the trenches, and pretty much ruined my life? Just fine. How are you?”
“Me? Oh, I’m great,” Becker laughed. “It’s you I’m worried about, kid. Plugging clients isn’t exactly the best way to earn the board’s affections. It sure as hell doesn’t make for good business. I had to dump your clients on to others before they found out what you did.”
Frank looked down.
“Don’t worry,” Becker said. “They’re not gone. I just got’em on ice for ya.”
Becker paced across the room. He sighed.
“They’re there. Waiting. Until the day you earn them back.”
“And how do I go about doing that? A little song and dance?”
“Wouldn’t hurt. How about a tango? Ha!” Becker spun on his heel and walked back to the fireplace. “But in all seriousness, how would you like another shot at the title huh? Another chance to give Oculux the passionate night she deserves? How would you like…to be king again, hmm?”
“Great! I knew you’d say yes,” Becker said. He set his glass down, walked to his desk and opened a drawer. He pulled out a thick vanilla folder bound in brown cord and dropped the folder down on the desk.
“What’s that?” Frank asked.
Becker leaned on the desk. Licked his lips. He looked right at Frank.
“Tell me something,” he said. “Ever heard of a man by the name of…Arthur Warden?
“Nah. Didn’t think so,” he said. “Few people have, considering it’s not his real name.”
“Judging by the size of that folder,” Frank said. “I’d say he’s a little more than a weekend warrior?”
“Just a bit,” Becker said with a wink. He grabbed the folder and sauntered over to Frank. “Decades ago, a young man went off to war. A year later, he was wounded in action. Another year goes by. He comes back. Joined the police department of his home city. More time passed. A few…other things happened.” Becker waved his hand as if wafting away the smoke. “Long story shorter, he lost faith in the adequacy of this country’s sense of justice, whatever that means. Too much corruption. That sorta thing.”
Frank peaked a brow.
“So what? Is this about a superhero?”
“Did I say that?” Becker looked around, then back to Frank. “I don’t remember saying that.”
Frank looked at the folder. The word confidential was stamped across it in red ink.
“I’m not killing anyone, Becker.” Frank said.
“Relax, relax,” Becker said. “You don’t have to kill anyone, and this has nothing to do with a superhero. This is about a villain.”
Becker took a switchblade from his back pocket and cut the cord.
“Open it,” he said.
Frank opened the folder. For one brief moment, his legs went numb.
“No frickin’ way.”
“He disappeared about fifteen years ago,” Becker said. “Yesterday…he resurfaced as a Mr. Arthur Warden, but you probably know him better as The Mastermind.”
“The first supervillain…”