Dim, artificial light. Cramped space. A controlled, level speed that almost lulled me into taking a nap. The lack of control.
A taxi ride was the stark opposite of traversing a jagged city skyline.
“Gotta say, never thought I’d ever see you again, boss,” the driver said. She was calm, unconcerned. Not that she would be keen to my exact plans, but the contrast between us was almost amusing.
Claire, her name was. Not due to any connection to this person being notably strong, all I did was ask.
“Funny how that works out,” I said, though I didn’t sound very amused. I was looking out the window, watching cars and buildings pass. I saw a man strolling on the sidewalk, and as the taxi continued, I noticed a group, tailing him. A gang.
That won’t end well.
The taxi turned a corner, and I lost sight of them. I was left assuming the worst.
“Oh, and don’t call me ‘boss,”’ I added.
“Why not?” Claire questioned, eyes still on the road. “You called me up, gave me a job, now I’m working for some dough. As long as you’re in my taxi, you’re my boss.”
She said it so matter-of-factly.
I rested my head on the window beside me. “Sound logic, there.”
My eyes roamed some more, not really focusing on anything or anyone. I just watched, letting the scene pass. When buildings gave way for slivers of sky, I saw Hleuco, soaring through the air, on his own.
I felt an oddly placed sense of envy.
But I had to go about it this way, buildings and rooftops weren’t going to take me where I needed to go. It was too far, and walking was too time consuming. Taking the bus would have been another option, but this was more convenient, more direct.
I had to remember the number to call for Claire’s taxi, and have her come pick me up. I wouldn’t use my personal phone, just to be safe, so I elected to use a payphone. It took some time finding one, and it took some time learning how to use one, but I got it all straightened out.
Claire arrived at the back of a liquor store ten minutes later. My mask was off, but my hood was still up.
The taxi slowed to a stop. We were at a light. Cars lined up around us.
“Oh, shoot,” Claire said. She lightly smacked her hand on the wheel.
“Problem?” I asked, my eye on a car.
“I, um, no. I just got on the wrong lane and now I’ll have to go around. Barely a detour.”
“You’re just running up my meter,” I said, partly as a joke, but she really would be running up the meter.
“I promise it wasn’t intentional. It’s just that I’m not very familiar with this part of town. I don’t get called out here too often, and even with the GPS, it’s easy to get on a middle lane and not realize you can only turn left.”
“I wasn’t being too serious about it,” I said, having to reassure her. “As long as you get me to where I need to go.”
“Uh, yeah, sure thing, boss.”
The light turned green, and we started moving again.
The ride wasn’t uncomfortable, but there was a tinge of anxiety in the air. A sort of pressure. No music from the radio, with the only sound coming from our breathing, and the wheezing of the engine. The taxi was old, seemingly.
“That Bluemoon stuff, huh? Such a shame that happened.” Claire said. Out of nowhere.
“The school, those kids. What a shame.”
“It was,” I said, wary. Uneasy.
“You know, I remember the last time I had you in my taxi. You left quite the impression.”
“You did. If I recall, I asked if you were the Bluemoon or not. You denied it, and said the Bluemoon was arrested at the Panorama. The club that was promptly burned to the ground just minutes after you asked me to take you there.”
The decoy. I remembered. It bought me some time on that night, allowing me to slip past police and meet with Gomez, but the illusion didn’t hold, I supposed. It was probably easy to prove the decoy was fake, and it went unreported. Had anyone actually bought it, Benny wouldn’t have went to the school.
I drew my hand to my side, my pocket. Fingers traced the edge of my knife.
“Your point being?” I asked.
“I may be just a lowly taxi driver, but I’m not dumb. Just tell me if you’re the Bluemoon.”
That right there. Her million dollar question.
I remembered denying her once before. It probably wouldn’t work again.
“And what if I was?” I asked, my hand in my pocket. “Would you tell anyone? Call police?”
There was a notable silence from Claire.
“I wouldn’t,” she answered.
“It’s an unspoken rule among cab drivers here, we don’t talk about who we pick up, where we take them, or what they do when they get there. And, the Bluemoon has superpowers. I’ve seen the videos. I’d get ripped into pieces before I could even think to do anything. No, it wouldn’t be worth it. I just…”
Claire went mute.
“You just what?” I asked.
“I just want my money.”
I asked another question. “Claire, do you have a family?”
“I do,” she whispered. She left out the details, and I didn’t ask for them.
She couldn’t see me, but I nodded.
“You don’t have anything to worry about, Claire. I’m not the Bluemoon. I’m not going to kill you, and you’re not going to be ripped into pieces. You’re far more useful to me alive.”
And we’re saving that intent for someone else.
“That’s… a relief,” Claire said, but there was no relief to be found in her tone.
The conversation died on that soured note, and the remainder of the drive went without another word.
The ride took us farther away from downtown, where the buildings became shorter, the housing becoming more public. The hood.
Another turn, and the road changed to something considerably less paved. We were almost there.
“And here we are,” Claire said. The taxi began to slow, but not to a stop. It cruised, instead.
My destination was up ahead. I positioned myself to get a better look through the windshield.
An abandoned factory. The abandoned factory. The one Hleuco and I used as a meeting place, back when I was Blank Face.
It was as run-down as ever, maybe even more so in the weeks I hadn’t come back here. Cracks in the cement structure ran up several levels, reaching up to the roof. The tops of smoke stacks were solid black, covered in dirt. Blocky windows were either broken or so dirty, useless either way. Graffiti was tagged and retagged, resulting in legitimate murals becoming indecipherable scribbles.
It was a skeleton of a factory, now. Out of the way, forgotten.
That made it a perfect place for wannabe-heroes to meet up. And the perfect place to hide the toys they used when they went out to play pretend.
Claire kept the taxi at a low speed, inching towards the broken building. “Want me to keep going?” she asked.
“That won’t be necessary,” I said. “Don’t want you running the meter any more.”
She gave a short laugh, putting the taxi in park. “Of course, boss.”
I checked the meter at the front, the cost of the trip here. Oh. It was more than I expected. And there was still more to come. I still needed Claire, I still needed her taxi.
But that was the price for convenience.
I was aware of how light my funds had become. Thomas had once compensated me for my outings as Blank Face, but I was on my own, now, and I’d need another way to get some cash.
Time was money, and wasting one was wasting the other. Drag this out, and I’d run the chance of never being able to find Benny. Claire was useful, but I couldn’t rely on her forever.
I had to budget my time and money.
As I walked ahead, Claire rolled down her window.
“I’m guessing you want me to stay here?” she asked. “Haven’t paid me yet.”
“Yeah, if you don’t mind,” I said, not very enthused. “I’ll be bringing back some stuff.”
“Sounds good to me. I’ll move ahead so I can wait for you. My lights will probably be off.”
She then added, “Don’t worry, I won’t run the meter for that.”
“You’re funny,” I said.
“Also, um, this place is a little suspect, even for me. I might honk, in case of, I dunno, anything.”
“Sorry about that,” I said. “I promise I won’t take long.”
Claire nodded, and I turned to the factory. No point in loitering. Backlit by the taxi’s headlights, I headed to the factory, keeping a hurried pace.
I entered through a wide gap where doors were supposed to be. A huge hole, as wide as it was tall. Large enough to drive a van through.
I stepped into complete darkness, but I continued without pause or hesitation. As if reading from a map, I knew where to go.
Thomas’s old van. The one he used when his beak was still part of a mask.
Inside would be all the equipment Thomas had left behind. Police scanners, radios, laptops, anything and everything I’d need to listen in on police activity. Where they were, what they were doing, I’d be privy to. And if they happen to get even the smallest whispers of Benny and her location, I’d be there, listening in.
Gomez wasn’t going to help me, but he’d provide assistance all the same.
I had to watch my footing, stepping over fallen pipes and other broken bits of metal and glass. I recalled a stack of used needles I had to look out for, too. Even with my healing, I wasn’t about to let any of those things prick me.
Carefully, I maneuvered through winding assembly lines and heavy machinery, over to where Thomas last left the van.
There, tucked to the side, between the wall and a hulking block of metal. Another machine. The van should still be parked in that space, hidden under a heavy tarp.
I stopped where I was.
There was nothing here.
The van was gone.
Nope. Still gone. Just the tarp that would have covered it up, now crumpled and flat on the floor. Where the van should have been.
I took a step closer, and picked up the tarp, feeling the rough fabric.
Where did it go? Who took it? How? In the back of my head, I had feared the worst, but I didn’t actually expect this to happen. It was hidden well out of sight, the only people who’d dare to come around here were druggies and their dealers. That, and the stupid and the curious, maybe. But there was never a good reason to stick around and wander. Even the homeless had no need for this place, it was too far from the city.
The only way to find the van was to already know of its existence. Yet, it wasn’t here.
Then, who took it?
I dropped the tarp, backing away to avoid dust and bugs.
Fuck, I needed that equipment. The ability to listen in on the police was a valuable asset, and now it was gone, along with the van. Back to square one, and I couldn’t afford to take any more losses. Not at this juncture.
Otherwise, it would have been all for naught.
But, what were my other options? What else could I do?
I slammed a fist against the machine beside me, and it dented.
I was frustrated, but I wasn’t defeated. This was but a minor setback, I could figure out something else.
Hell, maybe the van was still-
A burst of noise. I tensed up.
The sound of a car horn.
Did something happen?
I didn’t waste time to question it, I just moved.
I hopped onto the machine, getting on top. I knew my way out, now, I could take a short cut.
Smoothly, I flowed into my next move. I sprung through the air, my hands reaching into the bag strapped to my back.
I had my mask in my hands by the time I touched ground, running out of the factory. Just in case.
A flash of light flooded my eyes. I reacted, blocking with my arms and spinning around. I threw my mask on, as well.
The light drew away the next instant, and I was able to regain my bearings.
A black van was turning back, speeding off when it righted itself.
A black van, at this hour, here? That was no coincidence.
We have to get that van.
The vehicle was already retreating into the distance, down the path we took to get here.
I had to find Claire.
I scanned the lot, quickly finding Claire’s taxi heading to me. I met her halfway.
“You signaled?” I asked, her window already down.
“I did, and-”
She paused for a moment, her eyes widening a fraction.
My mask. I had it on. That pretty much confirmed who I was, who I used to be.
But that was the least of my concerns, right now. The van was getting away.
“Yes?” I said, urging her to go on.
“Um, yeah, that van came and shined its light at me, and I got worried. I thought something was about to go down, or I was about to get caught in some ugly business. I’m used to taking people to where they need to go, but I’m not used to sticking around. So I signaled.”
“Good, thanks,” I said.
“It’s a good thing it went and ran off, or I might’ve been a goner.”
I stole a glance back at the path, at the van. Two red brake lights were becoming smaller and smaller.
“Actually…” I started to say.
I looked back at Claire, completely serious.
“We need to catch that van.”
She looked as if I had told a really bad joke. Deadpan.
“Boss, honey, you’re not seriously suggesting-”
“I am, that was what I came here for.”
I ran around the taxi, getting into the passenger side.
“Just drive,” I said as I slammed the door.
Claire grunted, but she listened, slamming on the pedal. The taxi lurched before sending us forward, but we were moving.
We got back on the path, giving chase.
The red lights were mere dots, now. The van was farther up, having had a head start, but we could do it. Claire could do it.
“I’m really doing this right now!” Claire yelled as we streaked down the bumpy road. Thuds and clanks. The taxi sounded like it was going to tear itself apart from all the little hits and impacts.
She yelled again. “You’re really making me do this!”
“Just keep going!”
I was leaning forward, knuckles clenched on the dashboard. White. As if doing that could make us go faster.
But we were going faster. The speedometer was rising at a steady pace.
“How are we even going to stop them? We’re just chasing it!”
“I’ve got that covered!” I said. “Just get me as close as you can!”
“Jesus fuck, I am absolutely charging extra for this!”
The taxi tore up the path, and we were nearing where dirt met road. Squinting, I swore the lights on the van were getting bigger. We were gaining.
The van sped off the dirt path, and continued straight. It was a heavy vehicle, not to mention large, it couldn’t make a turn without having to slow down. It crossed the intersection, and a red light, making a beeline to the city proper.
We raced behind.
“Come on!” I shouted. “Faster!”
“That’s not helping!”
I had to make an effort to zip my mouth. A significant effort. My blood was going as fast as the taxi.
My eyes scanned the road ahead. If I was going to help, I’d be the lookout.
Not a lot to worry about. The late hour had cleared out any potential obstacles, drivers or pedestrians alike. There was one – make that two – cars we zipped by, but they took up other lanes. Claire was free to push this hunk of metal as hard as it would allow.
The advantage was double-edged, though, since there wasn’t anything impeding the van, either.
The van was going fast, and we needed to be going faster.
We were making progress, however. I had a better visual on the van. We were closing in.
“Just a bit more!” I yelled. “We’re almost there!”
Claire grunted, gripping the wheel even harder.
“There’s still the question of how we’re gonna stop it! We’ve got about a half-mile before we have to make a turn, we can’t go straight forever!”
I took a hand off the dashboard, moving to the door. I pressed a button, and the window came down.
Wind immediately whipped my face.
“I said I’ve got it covered!”
I put my feet up on the seat, and I started climbing out of the taxi, through the window.
Claire yelled something, but it was lost on me, now. The wind was too loud out here.
I twisted and turned, positioning myself so I was sitting on the bottom of the frame, my butt hanging outside. If we passed by a car now, I’d be clipped and turned into paint.
I extended my arms, trying to reach the taxi sign bolted to the roof of the vehicle. My fingers got a hold of it, and I pulled.
It was like being thrown into a hurricane. I flung myself up onto the roof, and the wind kicked back my hood, my hair flying everywhere.
The taxi was accelerating even more, and I was hanging on for dear life.
Wind rushed past my ears, compromising my hearing. I could barely hear myself think. Every movement of the taxi sent my veering in that direction, with only my hold on the taxi’s sign to keep me in place. It took all my strength to not slip off.
My jaw clenched, I pulled myself again, lifting my legs so I could get some footing on the roof. I had to manage by feeling it out, my eyes were getting watery.
I shifted, moving my arms and legs until I had a decent position, crouched on top of the taxi. Even with powers, this was harder than movies had led me to believe.
Blinking water away, I tried getting another look at the van.
It was even closer, now, we were going to catch up. Just a little more, and I could jump over.
Just… a little more…
Tires screeching, horns honking.
The van swerved left, onto another street. Drifting around the corner, without sacrificing too much speed or momentum. Tires screeched again, and the van fixed its course, continuing down a new path.
To pull that stunt with a huge van, I was almost impressed. Almost.
Claire just had to try and pull off the same thing.
The taxi swerved left as well, but it was lacking in the execution. The turn was too sharp, and Claire tried to compensate by stepping harder on the brakes.
My whole body was heaved one way, a hard right. I lost my footing, and my legs were hanging off the taxi.
Claire had taken her foot of the brake, I could tell that much. The taxi skidded, then accelerated forward.
“Agh!” I yelled.
The tips of my fingers were fighting for purchase on the taxi sign. It was the only thing I had to hang on to, or I’d be sent spiraling off the car.
But, coupled with my weight, and how fast we had turned, and how old the taxi was…
It was all grounds for a disaster.
The sign started coming off, bolts and screws flying apart where I had put too much force in my grip. I could feel the sign getting loose, and with half my body being dragged off the taxi, I was completely and utterly dependent on the support of small, rusted metal pieces. My whole weight was on it.
It wasn’t going to last.
The taxi straightened itself into a new lane, and the chase continued. Other cars were around, and Claire drove past them.
The sign was starting to hang onto the roof of the taxi as much as I was hanging onto the sign itself, bolts and screws scattering everywhere.
Another second of this, and I’d fall off. The van would get away, and I’d lose them. I’d lose everything.
No, we mustn’t let go.
I removed my hand off the sign, at the same time it gave out. I made a fist, then punched into the metal roof.
Then, with my other hand, I released my hold on the sign. Tossed back, it hit the cement behind me. I reached out, fitting my fingers into the hole I made in the roof.
There we go.
I wouldn’t fall off like this. I moved myself again, regaining a better position on the top of the taxi.
Below, I heard Claire yelling.
But, damn, that was a close call.
With my hands secured, gloves protecting my fingers from the jagged metal edges, I could put my energy back on the van.
We had lost some distance back at that turn, but we were quickly making up for it. When it came to speed, the smaller taxi was faster than the larger, weightier van.
But there were other variables to keep in mind. The length of the street, the number of lights and intersections, other cars. Other people. Obstacles. Whoever was in the van was apparently a better driver, too. I couldn’t allow them to pull another fast one on us, they might actually slip away next time.
Claire had to bring me closer, and I’d be the one to stop them. If by force, with my bare hands, then so be it.
I was more than capable.
A moment later, I saw Hleuco rushing by, overhead.
He was fast, fast enough to reach the van and circle around. No one else could see him, though. Little in the way of a distraction.
But that wasn’t the only way he could help.
Hleuco circled one more time, then flew ahead, passing the van. My eyes followed him.
He came onto another corner, making his turn into it wide… and obvious.
It was the next turn. The end of the road.
And there was only one way to turn.
I changed positions, lowering myself so my stomach was flat on the roof’s surface. I pulled up so my mouth was near the hole.
“Right turn up ahead!” I shouted. “Get ready!”
“Fuck!” Claire barked out, but the taxi adjusted from under me. Inching right while we sped forward.
We were going to cut them off at the turn.
Readying myself, I wiggled my fingers some, trying to get some feeling back. They’d gone numb.
Holy hell, we were going fast. People willingly strapped themselves into these fucking death machines.
And I was sitting on top of one of those fucking death machines, hanging by the skin of, not my teeth, but my fingers. There was no seat belt to help me here.
I only had one shot at this.
We were tailing them, and approaching the corner at top speeds. Now or never.
Underneath me, I felt the taxi start to decelerate slightly. Claire had taken her foot off the gas pedal.
Then, she had switched to the brake, tilting the wheel, and we started drifting.
We beat them to it, already preparing to make the turn. It slowed us down a touch, and the distance grew, but it was marginal.
And it was planned.
The van’s brake lights finally went on, and the entire vehicle shifted, keeping its momentum. A controlled drift.
Claire managed to pull it off the second time around, but the van’s driver was still way better at it, probably more experienced. But it wasn’t about skill. It was about timing.
They were still angling themselves by the time we were already in a new position. Momentum carried us, sliding us so close it was dangerous. Between the two vehicles, we formed a lopsided ‘T.’
My feet were flat, my knees pressed to my chest. I let go of the roof. Wheeling around, I faced the van.
I hopped over.
A hard impact, knocking the wind out of me. But there was no time to grumble over it, or try and catch my breath.
I landed on my stomach, nearly sliding off. As hard as I possibly could, I gripped the edges of the roof, keeping myself stable. Pulling inward, tightening the muscles of my arms.
The van finished rounding the corner, and continued forward. Hleuco rejoined me, flapping his wings with more fervor, as if to cheer.
I did it. I had the van. I wasn’t sure about Claire, if she was still following or not, but I had a feeling I’d be seeing her again either way. It was something my gut told me.
How the fuck was I supposed to get this thing to stop?
I couldn’t start punching holes into the thing. I didn’t want to. I’d try to keep as much of it intact as possible. Hopefully, the equipment was still in there.
The person inside? I didn’t care less over what would befall them.
I moved bit by bit, slowing crawling along the top of the van. I probably moved more cautiously than what was necessary, but I’d rather be safe than sorry, here. Should I fall off, it would be that much harder to come back.
The van still rolled along, fast, but I could manage. It swerved when it had the opportunity, trying to shake me off.
Nice try, I thought. I was too strong.
I recalled, in movies, wouldn’t people usually shoot at the roof of the cars if their pursuer was above them? Whoever was in the van hadn’t tried that, yet.
I should probably end this before it went there.
The chase was over, I had them. Now, it was time to end it.
I reached the front of the vehicle, my hands on the top of the windshield. I crouched, having found a decent foothold.
I braced for impact.
Lifting my hand, I banged my fist against the windshield. It cracked, running like spider-webs across the glass.
The driver immediately hit the brakes.
I was flipped over, sent forward, but I was aware enough to catch myself. I twirled.
A solid landing, my feet on concrete.
Then the four-thousand pound speeding block of metal hit me.
Everything exploded everywhere.
Bones crunched, metal crushed, the sharp pain enveloped.
But I held on, pushing back.
I wasn’t sent flying.
Hugging the grill of the van, I took the brunt of the force head on. It reverberated, shaking me to the core.
But I held on.
My feet were skidding on the road, my arms on fire as I threw my weight forward.
“Uff!” I cried out.
I was fighting back, and it was working. We were slowing down, losing speed. I was forcing us to a stop.
My eyes were screwed shut. Brown and black shapes formed as I concentrated on not dying.
Everything bore into me. Let go for even a second, and I would crumble, be flattened, crushed.
Not this time.
I put more strength into my arms and legs, and my resolve.
Come on come on come on come on come on come on come on come on–
Eventual, but gradual. And then final.
We were no longer in motion.
I fell back, leaning heavily on my right foot for balance. I winced.
From the toes to the heel, my feet were stinging. The soles of my shoes were wrecked, burned by friction. They clung by a thread, now.
The rest of my body was ten times worse. Like an inferno, it throbbed, hitting me in waves. Every muscle and joint and tendon burned. It was a miracle I was still standing.
It hurt. A lot.
But I could move. Broken bones and torn muscles were already being attended to. Healing. I could still go on.
As my healing did its thing, I looked over the result of my work.
And, between me and the van, I was in a worse condition.
The van was still, unmoving. The front bumper was bent in some places, the hood dented. The left headlight flickered twice before fixing itself. The windshield cracked. It was pretty banged up, but the engine was running, a low hum emanating from the vehicle. It would still drive.
But, it wasn’t the outside that mattered. What mattered was the equipment inside. The scanners and laptops.
I had healed enough to walk with my own strength. I crossed the distance, to the driver’s side.
Hleuco landed by me, his wings folding around him. We moved as a pair.
Even with my blood pumping, adrenaline running, it was cold out here. I was sweating, but the wind and air had chilled me to the bone. Any sort of movement did wonders in keeping me warm.
Another set of lights fell on me. A car, with stickers and logos on the side to indicate it was a taxi, but the sign on top was missing.
Claire. She had followed.
I’d deal with her next. This came first.
I flung the door open. I looked inside.
I tilted my head.
The first thing I noticed were the teddy bears. The van was filled to the brim with them. The passenger’s seat, and from what little I saw of the back row, were covered with the stuffed animals.
The second thing I noticed was the person in the driver’s seat.
Teddy bears had landed in her lap, and she tossed them aside. She grunted and groaned, then looked at me as she massaged her jaw.
But her appearance… She didn’t look any older than thirteen.
The girl opened and closed her mouth, testing, before giving me an outright sneer. It had a vulpine quality to it, though she was missing a tooth.