Frank found the entrance hidden beneath a panel in the floor of what used to be Green Tower. It was made from a discontinued Oculux blend. The special material made it unnoticeable by most superhuman vision, but due to its complex production process and the high cost, continued manufacture was deemed impractical. The panel was melded seamlessly into the rest of the floor. Only the slightest deviation in the floor’s pattern let it stand out from the rest. Frank might have missed it too, but he knew it’d be there. It’s the only way Arthur could have made a switch before the League of Guardians began their search. The body had already been taken away, but Frank pieced together the area from the photo with little trouble.
A lightning bolt lit the sky as Frank brushed away dust and debris, dug his fingers in and pried the panel open. A set of stairs lead down into pitch darkness. Frank straightened what remained of his suit and headed down, closing the panel behind him.
The walls were smooth. Every footstep echoed. He continued down, further and further until he finally saw light. A circular room full of computer monitors and filing cabinets waited at the bottom of the stairs. An enormous screen was mounted high above everything else. Frank recognized where he was: the Dark Room. The heart of evil. The room from which the Mastermind made every demand, gave every speech, and plotted every sinister plan.
There was a long rectangular conference table at the center of the room. Polished wood with a golden trim. The Mastermind’s logo was stamped at its center. Arthur was standing at the table, his back to Frank, sifting through dozens of manila folders. He seemed smaller outside his power armor. He was wearing his usual clothes. Dress shirt, sweater vest, glasses. Like a middle-aged dad on a television sitcom, only a bit older.
Arthur raised his head when he heard Frank’s footsteps approach.
“Incredible…,” Frank said, looking around the room. He couldn’t help but smile. “I can’t believe this is really it. The Mastermind’s Dark Room. I used to fantasize about being in here. You know, when I was a kid. Used to pretend I was right here with you. Helping you threaten the world into submission.”
Arthur continued shuffling through folder after folder, not saying a word. Frank’s eyes hardened. His smile dropped.
“You’re not really sick are you?” Frank asked. “And that thing you mentioned up on the roof. That precious thing the world is threatening to take away, it’s not just a threat is it? ”
Arthur paused but said nothing.
“You’re being blackmailed,” Frank said.
“Am I?” Arthur asked.
“I believe so. Yes.”
“And when did you arrive at that conclusion?”
“Just a few minutes ago,” Frank said, taking a few steps closer. “I was standing outside in the rain right next to my ruined car, wearing my ruined suit, thinking about my ruined life when I had a very interesting phone conversation.”
Arthur began shuffling through the folders again.
“It was your medication that really got me thinking,” Frank said. “Oculux has two doctors that head its medicinal manufacturing center. Dr. Rhine and Dr. Stepman. Dr. Rhine handles diseases. Stepman handles crazy pills. You told me you were dying. You requested a custom medication. You had a sudden bout of dizziness at the hotel. Dying from some strange disease seemed pretty plausible so I just assumed you went to Rhine. But I did some digging. What happened at the hotel wasn’t the effect of a disease. All those reminders of your past life hitting you at the same time. Forcing you to remember. You had a panic attack.”
Another file slapped against the table and slid a little way down. Arthur didn’t respond.
“Personal records confirmed…you didn’t see Dr. Rhine,” Frank said. “You saw Dr. Stepman.”
Arthur didn’t respond.
“At first I thought your plan was to take the armor and run…,” Frank said. “But that wasn’t true. You really wanted to go through with that PSA. So what stopped you? Well, the answer’s simple. The Mastermind did.”
“I am the Mastermind,” Arthur said.
“No…you’re not,” Frank said. “At least not all of you is.”
“Even in such a strange world as this, going from the world’s greatest hero to its greatest villain is pretty unique,” Frank said. “My guess is something bad happened to you a long time ago. Something so traumatic…so against your moral and romantic vision of the world that your mind created another personality inside your head. A version of you who could cope with the tragedy of whatever you went through. A version made out of all those negative emotions. A version that could do the things Mr. Impossible could and would never allow himself to do. Two people living inside one mind. Mr. Impossible and the Mastermind.”
Arthur didn’t respond.
“The next question to hit me…,” Frank said. “The Mastermind was never defeated. One day he just vanished. No final speech. No blaze of glory. Not even a festive postcard. My best guess? The medication you ordered was a custom cocktail of psychiatric meds designed to keep the Mastermind at bay. Help Arthur Warden stay in control. Along with what happened at the hotel, I can only conclude that wherever you went…you were content. You were in control. So in control that you eventually didn’t need the pills anymore. That’s why you didn’t have any when you arrived. You must’ve known that making a return would risk you losing the control you desperately fought for. So why did you come back? What could make the mild-mannered Arthur Warden choose to step back into spotlight after all this time? Another simple answer. Blackmail.”
“You’re right,” Arthur said. “But the answers aren’t so simple as you carelessly claimed.”
“No. I guess they aren’t,” Frank said. “But that still leaves we wondering. Who, after all this time, has the balls to blackmail the most dangerous villain in history?”
The two were quiet for a long while and for a long while all either could hear were the sounds of folders slapping against the table and the crinkling of paper. Finally, Arthur let out a heavy sigh. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“It happened a long time ago,” he said.
“What did?” Frank asked.
“I only ever had the best of intentions, you see,” Arthur said, putting his glasses back on and taking another folder from the nearby stack. “For years, I did my part. Saving the world. I did it gladly, never knowing what monsters I’d been protecting.”
“This is about your first sidekick…,” Frank said.
“She was young…but capable,” Arthur said. “By seventeen, she’d already made a name for herself as a terror within the criminal underworld. The fact that she never had any powers…that never mattered. She ran head long into battle regardless. Faced the danger without invulnerability or super speed. Her courage and determination were enough. Probably would’ve made a great hero had she been allowed to grow up. It’s unfortunate she’d picked a terrible time to become one.”
“So what happened?” Frank asked. “Supervillain? Exile? Self-Sacrifice?”
Arthur shook his head.
“Nothing quite so romantic,” he said. “The truth…is much uglier than that. So ugly, the government decided to cut it from history. Like it never happened. As if she were nothing. Just another mistake to sweep under the rug.”
“Another government cover-up?” Frank said.
“We called it the Dark Era,” Arthur said. “By then, our country had been at war for too long. People had tossed away blind patriotism and began to rebel against authority. And who better-represented authority than superheroes? We’d been labeled dangers to society rather than defenders of it. We’d become targets of ridicule. Suddenly truth and justice were out of style. Villains had become the country’s next favorite thing. After all, who better represented rebellion than a supervillain?
They demanded special laws just for us,” Arthur said. “Heroes were questioned, second-guessed, placed under scrutiny. Our every move watched. Every action fell under heavy criticism. We were feared and hated. They called us overlords, oppressors, enemies of freedom…because we kept picking on those poor supervillains.”
“And that’s why you threw it all away?” Frank asked.
“No,” Arthur said. “Though many of us did. Others kept going like we had, only they’d done away with things like ethics and fair play. They fought back the only way they could, by becoming madmen with guns. A bunch of sadistic, scowling killers slaughtering their way through the criminal underground. And worse…the people rallied to their defenses. Because the police hated them. Because like the supervillains before them…they were…’cool.’ Brutality was the country’s new chosen flavor of justice. Truth, kindness, and law were now naive ideals. Childish things and the stuff of fairytales. As if the real world only spun on bloodshed and cynicism.
Only we stubborn few slogged through the malice and contempt and continued to do our job with our morals intact. Those few of us who still believed in second chances, fair play, and kindness. Beloved or loathed, we were still superheroes.” Arthur took a deep breath. “I’d never sought a sidekick,” he said. “I never wanted one, but…then someone revealed the identity of my closest colleague.”
“You’re talking about the Valiant case?” Frank asked.
“Valiant was, perhaps, the third person to officially accept the title of superhero,” Arthur said, pounding his fist against the table. “A good man. The best man you’d ever meet. He wasn’t in it for the fame or the action. He put on the mask because he wanted to help people. All he wanted to do was make this heartless world better. He was right there with me, taking all that abuse. Watching his name dragged through the mud. He was with me through it all.
Then came that nosey reporter. Violating every notion of privacy Valiant had. Tracers. Recordings. Hidden cameras. Stakeouts.” Arthur tossed another manila folder aside. “But nobody cared about the ethics. That reporter didn’t even have the courtesy to tell the plain honest truth. No. He changed the story to attracted more readers. Turned an argument Valiant had with his wife into proof that we superheroes were nothing but abusive hypocrites.”
Arthur took another folder from the stack. He opened it. Looked at it. This time he didn’t toss it aside. Instead, he set the folder down in a separate pile beside him.
“He’d been disgraced. Publicly humiliated. But like everything else, he didn’t let it bother him. He and his pregnant wife had to move. They went into hiding. Even then, Valiant never stopped saving the world. They managed to keep hidden long enough for his kid to be born and a few months after. But eventually…they found him out and…”
“I was with him the night it happened,” he said. “We’d just won a battle against Professor Evil. I escorted Valiant home when we found his house had become a crime scene. Some gang of young degenerates looking to make a name for themselves, broke in and murdered his wife. She was stabbed eighty-two times. Arms were broken. Face heavily bruised. They might’ve killed his child too if his wife hadn’t seen the attack coming and hidden her away.
The police found traces of gasoline. They’d come prepared to burn Valiant alive. That was his weakness, you see. The man could take a bullet, a magical blast, resist the unearthly claws of mythical monsters. Yet he was as vulnerable to fire as the rest of us.
Valiant fell apart after that. His heroic sense of justice and his human need for revenge clashed. He wanted to hunt those people down. He wanted to kill them. Their families. Their friends.”
Frank averted his eyes.
“He wanted to take those powers and coat the town in blood,” Arthur said. “That’s what he said to me. Almost those exact words. It was terrifying…hearing my friend say those things.
But he never took revenge,” he said. “Although, even back then, I wish he had. Not for the sake of revenge, but because of the alternative. That battle I spoke about. The one between justice and revenge…it broke his mind. The man was a romantic. An idealist. His powerful sense of justice told him to do one thing while his desire for revenge commanded him to do another.
He deserved justice, but all he could get was revenge. In the end, he knew he could do nothing. To take revenge would undermine all that we stood for. To kill those who’d wronged him…kill them without trial or proof…would prove them all correct. Prove that violence and cruelty were the only real ideals left in the world. That goodness, kindness, and fair play were little more than luxuries.
Twenty-seven and a half days later, I received a call. Valiant was dead. He’d taken his own life to keep our ideas alive. Burned himself to death…to stop himself from taking actions that would ruin forever what little credibility we had left. For over half my life, Valiant had been my friend. We’d grown from awkward teenagers to veteran heroes. We’d built the League of Guardians from the ground up. I was best man at his wedding. Then for twenty-seven days, I watched him fall apart. Watched him spiral into madness. There was nothing I could do. It was like…watching him from across thick prison glass. I could talk, but he couldn’t listen. I could extend my hand, but he could never feel my touch. Then on the twenty-eighth day…he killed himself.”
Arthur set down another manila folder next to him. It was the second on what Frank could only call the good pile.
“Even then I kept my resolve,” Arthur said. “I told myself it was the work of criminals, not the law-abiding populace. I was deluded. Too enveloped in the belief that the people of this world were any less than wild bloodthirsty animals. I didn’t see it as the betrayal it was.
With both parents gone, I decided to adopt Valiant’s daughter. Raised her like my own. Never like a hero. I wanted to give her a future and back then…the future for heroes seemed all too grim. She was a good kid. Shared her father’s beliefs, his sense of justice. Even from the age of four, all she wanted to do was to be a superhero.
I never wanted her to become like us. Another costumed crime fighter with a target on her back. But by that time there were so few of us left and some of the populace had taken active roles against us. I’d chase a gang of bank robbers down the street and the people would eagerly interfere. Using their cars, shooting dart guns, BB guns, dumping water, spraying me with hoses as I flew past, knowing I’d never hurt them. Anything to slow me down. It’d become ‘cool’ to get in my way. I needed help.
She came up with the name Mega Girl during one of her classes. She had dozens of pictures and costume ideas. She was a pretty good artist. Not great, but she certainly had talent. I’ll always remember this one picture she drew. One of her dressed as Mega Girl. She was grown up in that picture. Standing on a rooftop and watching over the entire city with a big smile on her face.”
Arthur was quiet for a moment. Frank could tell he was smiling.
“The incident happened a little after her eighteenth birthday,” Arthur said. He was no longer smiling. “She’d been my sidekick for six years, so she’d seen her share of danger. But that day wasn’t dangerous. She was chasing after a villain called The Lemur. A pathetic excuse for a criminal. Even his best schemes were no more than a warm-up for heroes like us.
Mega Girl decided to take him on her own. The Lemur had just stolen a rare diamond from the museum and was making his escape over the rooftops. Mega Girl didn’t inherit her father’s powers, so she had to follow him the same way. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop and…it’d been raining that day.”
“Let me guess,” Frank said. “She slipped and fell?”
“Sounds cruel to say now…,” Arthur said. “But I wish she had. Maybe then I could’ve handled it. But no. She wasn’t the one who slipped that day. It was Lemur who slipped. Lost his footing and fell to his death into the alley below.”
Arthur set his fists against the table and leaned forward, closing his eyes.
“They arrested her soon after that,” he said. “Even though it was an accident. Even though it was his fault. He was the one who lost his footing. He was the one who ran. He was the one who chose to be a criminal.
Under ordinary circumstances, she might have been cleared of all charges. Yet…even after helping me save the world countless times. Even after helping all those self-righteous entitled little people. Taking all that pain. Sacrificing so much. Even after all the good she’d done, she went to trial. And even after the evidence was clear…clear that it wasn’t her fault. A few weeks later she was found guilty of murder. I was there when they marched her out like some spectacle. I was there when they strapped her to the table and pumped that poison into her veins. I was there when those bright blue eyes closed forever. I was there…but Mr. Impossible wasn’t.
I tried so hard to block off the pain. To bury it with all the rest. Bury it along with the glory days. With the hurt I felt every time I see the hate in their eyes and with the death of my best friend. I failed. The moment Mega Girl died, was the moment The Mastermind was born. For that one fleeting moment, from the depths of my heart, he shouted his first words: Make them suffer.”
Arthur pulled another folder. This time from the middle of the stack. The folder was black with red numbers written across its fin. Frank couldn’t quite make out which numbers they were, not from where he stood. Arthur shoveled it to the bottom of the good pile.
“After that I felt empty,” Arthur said. “I took on a new sidekick. A powered one this time. One I couldn’t lose so easily to the dripping jowls of the barking populace. For once, I wanted a friend the world couldn’t take away. I wanted something they couldn’t take away.”
“Skippy…,” Frank said.
“Yes. Much like Mega Girl, he too was a fine hero. He was one of her closest friends back then. They were in the same grade. She was the popular girl. Pretty and smart, with a heart of gold. He was a loner. A little shier than the rest and a little smarter. She was his only friend as far as I knew. He eventually became Mega Girl’s sidekick. Creating little devices to keep her alive. She always called him Skippy. In a sense, he was her sidekick. He had a crush on her, you know. They bonded over their love of Mr. Impossible. By the time they became friends, he’d already collected all my action figures and taped every episode of my Saturday morning cartoon show.
In high school, he spent his free time making something that would grant him superpowers just like mine. He succeeded by his senior year. By accident, but he got his wish. Mega Girl never got to see them. She was in the middle of a trial. She was busy being sentenced to death.
Skippy was a fitting replacement. He had the gentle heart of Valiant and all the powers of Mr. Impossible without needing a continuous source of government serum like I did. We fought crime together. Saved the world together. But all the while, my hate grew. All those vile things I buried deep inside my heart were changing me. The shock of Mega Girl’s death had been the lightning bolt that breathed life into my demons.
The Mastermind’s voice had started as little more than a whisper of a whisper, but soon it was like an angry devil yelling in my ear. Louder and louder until one day I finally said: Yes, I will make them suffer.”
Frank looked down, then back up.
“Why tell me all this?” He asked.
“I don’t know,” Arthur said. “Maybe…because I’ve never told this to anyone. Or maybe because…I just wanted someone to know.”
“But why tell it to me?” Frank asked.
“Because you happened to be here.”
Frank’s eyes narrowed.
“Liar,” he said.
Arthur gathered up the files from the good pile. He turned, facing Frank.
“Does it really damage your ego so much to learn that you don’t really matter?”
“Yes,” Frank said.
Arthur took a few steps forward. Frank felt the need to step back but fought the urge. Arthur held out the three folders.
“Take these,” he said.
Frank stretched out his hand, stopped. He looked Arthur in the eyes.
“What are they?” Frank asked.
“An apology,” Arthur said.
Frank took the folders. Arthur brushed by, heading for the stairs.
“What was in the package?” Frank asked.
Arthur placed a foot on the first step and paused.
“A little bird told me something was delivered here just before your big show,” Frank said. “One big enough to hold a body.”
“You’re mistaken,” Arthur said.
“Who’s blackmailing you?”
“Don’t pursue this.”
“What do they have?”
“What could be so important to you after all this time?”
Arthur looked down.
“It’s Firerose,” he said.
Frank raised a brow.
“She’s still alive?” He asked.
“She left the League a few years after Mega Girl’s execution,” Arthur said. “And I never knew why…until recently.”
“Whoever’s blackmailing you…they have her, don’t they?” Frank said.
“If only life were as kind as that,” he said. “Firerose is dead.”
“She was killed defending our son.”
Frank’s whole body went cold.
Help me daddy.
“Your son?” Frank asked.
“She left the League to raise him,” Arthur said. “Raise him away from all the trouble that would come from being the son of the world’s greatest superhero.”
“You never knew about him?
“No,” Arthur said. “One day she just said goodbye. It wasn’t even a real goodbye. Just the type of goodbye you give someone you planned to see again tomorrow. I never saw her again after that. Then a few days ago I received a rose colored letter informing me that the woman I’d once loved was dead and the son I never knew about had been kidnapped.”
I want to go home.
“Who was the letter from?” Frank asked.
Arthur didn’t respond.
“What was in the package that arrived here this morning?” Frank asked.
Arthur didn’t respond.
“It was a clone. Wasn’t it?” Frank said. “Someone provided you with a clone capable of fooling the League…to help fake your death.”
“Locked inside my head are multitudes of terrible secrets and decades of experience,” Arthur said. “They need my mind for whatever they’re planning. I could either co-operate or they would kill my son.”
“So you agreed…”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “Somewhat.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“My plan A was to sell my soul to Oculux,” Arthur said. “I knew your company would do anything to keep me attached to their name. Having the Mastermind under their thumb would likely double their current profits. Unfortunately, that plan relied on me staying in control. My plan B was to die.”
“You mean, fake your death.”
“No,” Arthur said. “I’d said I wasn’t willing to give this world anything more. I had hoped Impossible would kill me. I was determined to die, even if it meant pushing him to his limits. Even if it meant fighting him directly.”
“But you didn’t die,” Frank said.
“Like you mentioned, the Mastermind never died,” Arthur said. “His fate was left ambiguous. My blackmailers knew that any hint of the Mastermind’s return would bring the whole superhero community falling on top of their heads. So my first order was to shatter that ambiguity. To do that, the Mastermind had to die.”
“Then why didn’t you?’ Frank asked. “If you were that determined, why follow through with faking your death?”
Arthur sighed. He closed his eyes.
“Everything you need to know is in those files,” he said.
Frank looked down at the folders in his hand and opened the top file. He read the first page, then the second. He looked up and spent another moment in thought.
“Are these files true?” He asked.
“Yes,” Arthur said. “All true.”
“Two giant legacies come together under the Dark Eagle,” Frank said. “This could save my career.”
“I know,” Arthur said.
Frank reached into his suit pocket. Arthur listened as the hammer of a pistol clicked into place.
“You’re a real bastard, you know that?” Frank said.
“Because I gave you the means to recover your career?”
“You used me,” Frank said, tightening the grip around the gun in his hand. “You knew that I would be sympathetic about your son, but you couldn’t be certain how I would react. You couldn’t be certain I would say yes. So you befriended me. What was it you said? Secrets breed trust?”
Help me daddy.
“Most criminals think up one plan,” Frank said. “One big plan they stick to no matter what. Most criminals are idiots. The greatest criminals always had a backup. A plan B. It’s what makes them a tier above the rest. What makes them great. But…you’re not an idiot and…you’re not a great criminal. You’re the best. You’d have a plan C.”
I want to go home.
“Becker isn’t the generous type,” Frank said. “You must have asked for me specifically. It was no coincidence, you knew about me and my family.”
Help me daddy.
“You studied me,” Frank said. “You knew you couldn’t save your son on your own. You needed someone else to do it for you. You needed someone like me. I was your plan C.”
I just want to go home.
“I should’ve seen it earlier,” Frank said. “If you knew about them…how could you not know about…”
I just want to go home.
“But even with my sympathy and friendship…you still couldn’t be certain how I would respond,” Frank said. “So everything you did, from your extension of friendship to the timing of your story to telling me the truth about your son. It was all carefully arranged. You couldn’t rely on friendship to get me on your side. You needed me to care so much about keeping you alive that I’d sacrifice the thing I loved most to make sure you stayed that way. The moment I burned my career to save your life was the moment you decided to fake your death. And now you have me cornered. Your plan succeeded. Checkmate. Unless I want to live the rest of my life running from Oculux…I have to do as you ask while you get to walk away.”
Frank pointed his gun at his former hero, muzzle aimed at his heart. Arthur didn’t move. His eyes remained closed.
“Do you intend to stop me?” He asked.
Frank paused a moment, then lowered his gun.
“It’s not my job to stop you,” he said.
Arthur only had time to climb a few more steps before a loud boom reverberated through the dark. Arthur looked down. There was a hole in his chest, blood gushed with every heartbeat. Arthur fell back, tumbling down the stairs. He heard the clack of Frank’s footsteps as he approached.
“I thought…you said-,” Arthur muttered through labored breath.
Frank looked down.
“Just because it isn’t my job, doesn’t mean I don’t have some legitimate fucking grievances.”
“Good for you,” he said.
Frank’s eyes narrowed.
“Just one last thing I want know before you check out,” Frank said. “You were the most terrifying villain who ever lived. You were the first supervillain. The first real supervillain. The first guy to outsmart the League of Guardians. The first one to successfully form a supervillain group. You did what no one else thought was possible. You gave the world back that little tinge of doubt. You showed them that even with the full force of the League and all the resources of the Global Alliance…the good guys could still lose. Why give all that up?”
Arthur closed his eyes. His voice was barley louder than a whisper of a whisper.
“Why did the giant steal the magic harp?” Arthur asked.
“Jack and the beanstalk, Mr. Sonata,” Arthur said. “My favorite story.”
“You messing with me?” Frank asked. “I have more bullets, you know.”
“In every version…a young boy named Jack climbs a giant beanstalk and steals from the giant who lives at the top.”
“Sounds like an asshole,” Frank said.
Arthur coughed. Blood spattered the floor. He swallowed.
“In my favorite telling…the Giant comes down to steal an assortment of items,” he said. “One of the items…was a magic harp. A harp who’s only ability was…it could play itself.”
“Of all the things he could have taken, why take the harp?”
“Is it important?”
“We’re all born like Jack,” Arthur said. “Born with big dreams. Born…reaching for the stars. We all climb that beanstalk. Climb higher…into the unknown…hoping our dreams are waiting at the top. That’s why he’s the hero. Nobody ever thinks about the Giant. Nobody…ever thinks…why would the giant bother with the little people below. Why would the Giant steal a harp…who’s only value was its ability to play beautiful music?”
“That’s what Giants do,” Frank said. “They steal and all that.”
“You can say it was because of greed…or cruelty…,” Arthur coughed. “To me…the Giant was someone who’d achieved his dreams. Someone…who’d finally gotten everything they’d ever wished for.”
“Okay I’ll bite,” Frank said. “If he had everything…why steal the harp?”
“Why did Jack climb the beanstalk?” Arthur asked. “We all begin life small…and unaccomplished. We all strive for something greater. All of us wondering if our dreams lie at the end of the road or the top of a beanstalk. You see, Mr. Sonata, all little things dream of greater things. All little things dream of becoming Giants.”
“And Giants dream of little things,” Frank said.
“If Giants dream at all.”
“Is that why you disappeared?” Frank asked. “For the little things?”
“Once you’ve reached the top…,” Arthur said. “Once the journey is over and there’s nothing more to be done…suddenly all the mundane aspects of life you so carelessly tossed aside feel important again. I wanted a family. A house. I wanted to listen to the harp play.”
“But you didn’t succeed,” Frank said. “The League of Guardians is still around. The Mastermind still had work to do.”
“Yes, he did.”
Frank sighed and holstered his pistol.
“Fine, keep your secrets,” he said, tucking the files under his arm. Frank headed up the stairs.
“You lied…about your sister didn’t you?” Arthur said.
“No,” Frank said. “She really did kill herself.”
“But it wasn’t as peaceful as you described, was it?” Arthur said. “She didn’t…just fall asleep. Did she?”
Frank took a deep breath.
“I’ll get my career back,” he said. “I’ll save your son and you get to die. Guess you win after all.”
“I beat him,” he said. “I finally…beat him.”
“Beat who?” Frank asked.
Arthur didn’t respond.
Frank continued up the stairs. He was outside a few minutes later. The sky was clear again and the rain had stopped falling. The streets were empty. Frank looked up. A few of the League were flying by overhead. They didn’t seem to notice him. Frank looked back down. He shifted through the files, stopping on the mysterious black folder. “#91″ was written on the fin in red ink. Then he saw something he hadn’t noticed before. On the body was written the words “Of my first disobedience,” in the same red ink. Frank pressed his thumb along the edge, ready to open the file. He heard a car screech to a halt on the street in front of him. Frank looked up. A sleek, grey Porsche was sitting in the road. Windows were tinted. Oculux license plates.
“Looks like Becker’s getting faster,” Frank said, taking his pistol back out.
He didn’t know who was in that car and he didn’t care. The only thing he knew was whoever was behind the wheel was getting a bullet in the leg and their car stolen. Whoever was driving that car was sent by Becker, ordered to bring him in for processing. Freed, Interrogated, Retconned, Eliminated, and Disposed. F.I.R.E.D.
The passenger side window slowly rolled down. Frank tightened the grip on his gun. Becker would send someone dangerous. Whoever it was, Frank knew he wasn’t going to let himself be taken in. He wasn’t going to be forgotten and killed off like some street trash. He wasn’t going to die a little thing.
The window came down. Frank raised his weapon, then stopped. Karen’s eyes were staring back at him. Frank heard the car door unlock. She smiled at him. He could see a spark of relief in her eyes.
“Hop in,” she said.
Frank lowered his arm. He let the gun drop. It clattered on the cement sidewalk. He walked over and opened the car door. Air hissed from the cushioned seat as he sat down. He closed the door.
“Hey Karen,” Frank said.
“You look like hell,” she said.
“I know,” Frank said.
“What are those?” Karen asked, glancing at the files.
“Nothing,” Frank said.
“Ready to go?” Karen asked.
“Yeah,” Frank said.
“Okay,” she said.
“Do me a favor Kare?”
“You’re racking up quite a debt, Frank,” she said. “But go ahead.”
“Don’t forget me, huh?” Frank said.
“Oh please, Frank,” Karen said, rolling her eyes. “Couldn’t forget you if I tried. Believe me…”
Karen clicked the shift into drive and took off straight ahead. Frank raised a brow.
“We’re heading South,” he said.
“We can get to Oculux faster if we head North.”
“Duh, Frank,” Karen said. “We’re not heading to Oculux.”
“Why would I take you there?” Karen asked. “Becker has everyone looking for you. That would be stupid.”
“Th-then where are we going?” Frank asked.
“Your place,” she said.
“But I thought-”
“You thought what? That I’d turn you in?” Karen asked.
“I thought you’d have more faith in me than that,” she said.
“Didn’t Becker assign you to bring me in?”
“Of course he did,” Karen said. “He’s not an idiot.”
“But that means you’re disobeying a direct order.”
“But…but you could get fired!” Frank said.
“Would you stop whining?” Karen said.
Frank sighed and slumped in his chair.
“I’d prefer you turn me in,” Frank said. “At least then it’d just be me getting the ax.”
“Stop being a sniveling little drama queen,” Karen said. “The first lesson you taught me was to have a backup plan. I know you have one.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “I do. Well, I did.”
Karen raised a brow.
“What happened to it?” She asked.
“I got a better one,” he said.
“What is it?” She asked.
“I think it’s better you don’t know.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m…gonna have to steal your car.”
“Sure,” Karen said.
Frank paused a moment.
“Wait, wait really?”
“Yup,” she said. “It’s insured up the ass. Now that I’m top dog…I’m going to need an upgrade.”
“Women…,” Frank groaned.
“So what’s going to happen?” Karen asked.
“When I don’t come in, they’ll know I’ll be headed to my place,” Frank said. “Becker will probably send in Housekeeping. I know Tim too well so…they shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Didn’t know you two were so close.”
“Well it’s not like we go on dinner dates, Kare,” Frank said. “I started off in Housekeeping. Tim and I worked together.”
“Okay, so…what happens when that doesn’t work?” Karen asked.
Frank stared out the window.
“They’ll send Mouse after me,” he said.
“Mouse?” Karen asked, holding back a chuckle. “Doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Well trust me, it is.”
“Okay, okay,” Karen said. “Didn’t mean to get your ego all over my boots.”
“My best chance is to do everything before she gets me.”
“You sure you don’t need any help then?” Karen asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m not.”
“But you still won’t let me.”
“You can be a real selfish prick sometimes,” Karen said.
“Yeah, sometimes,” Frank said. “Other times I’m just a…”
“Useless prick,” they said at the same time. Both laughed.
“Hey Kare…,” Frank said.
“What?” She said.
“Thanks,” he said.