NEW FICTION: NYSS: post nine-eleven (Conclusion)
August 23, 2002
Concluding the speculative tale of real-life super-heroes in post 9-11 America...
Had we not been squeamish about it, had we no qualms about walking into a hospital and snapping the necks of the sleeping conjoined Davidovich twins, the great coastal storm of 2002 might never have occurred. But of our assigned kill list, we (and Yevick) considered Storm Central the least hostile threat and the lowest priority. If I known what was to come, I’d have walked into the WPVH and snapped each of their necks before engaging in a celebratory cigar. If...
Storm Central were elementals. Through Sarah, all forces of nature could be controlled at random. She was, in essence, a living, breathing Mother Nature. Therein lay the problem. The NYSS membership contained a variety of able-bodied men and women, each of whom could adequately pull his or her respective weight in any altercation.
But none of us could control the weather.
The storm had originated on the Jersey shore and had traveled inland to central New York. The funnel cloud stopped in Central Park, possibly because the twins were anticipating an altercation, possibly for a reason or reasons unknown to us. The funnel cloud extended 150 meters into the sky, with a peak diameter of 65 meters; its winds exceeded 300 mph. That was our first problem. The second problem was that much of NYSS personnel were outside New York when the storm hit. With air traffic grounded due to the intensity of the storm (JFK and LaGuardia were ordered closed by the FAA hours earlier), these key personnel were unable to return in time to assist us in the forthcoming altercation, a situation that mirrored 9-11. Of the NYSS personnel who were available, only three members were capable of self-flight.
The NYSS assault team consisted of myself, Barry, Venene, the Red Starr, Fast Forward, and TW (whom I considered to be our ace-in-the-hole should things go wrong).
Things quickly went wrong.
Fast Forward, who could attain speeds in excess of 475 mph, attempted to circle the funnel cloud in a counter-clockwise direction of its swirl. He hypothesized that by generating a counter-vacuum he would cancel out, or at least severely diminish the intensity of, the funnel cloud. Despite his efforts, the funnel cloud atop which Sarah and Philip stood, remained unchanged.
The Red Starr flew into the funnel and attempted a direct physical altercation. However, the strain and effort required to avoid being caught up in the spiral all but drained him of his strength. Our flying visual-recording devices, the camera eyes, captured his final struggles before he was hurled first into the expansive funnel cloud, and subsequently thrown from it with such force that he was quickly lost to our sight. Only Red Starr’s virtually indestructible body and exoskeleton-laced uniform saved him from certain death.
I felt as if we’d reached an impasse. Storm Central seemed indifferent toward actually pressing an assault, and NYSS seemed unable to mount a substantial resistance. However, the storms they generated continued to beat upon Manhattan, at one point actually shaking the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. The severe weather was felt as far north as Quebec and as far south as Virginia Beach. We knew that Fast Forward was tiring. His counter-clockwise motion was keeping Ground Central from advancing through Central Park, but even he would be exhausted shortly. Venene, Barry, or I could have easily stopped Sarah and Philip had we been able to get close to them, but the storm was too great and it was only through the most concentrated efforts that we were not swept from the park grounds and into the air. There was little choice in the matter.
“Listen to me!” I shouted over the reverberating winds and rains to TW. “Looks like it’s up to you, big guy!”
“I can’t lock onto them! There’s too much interference from the storm!”
“I know! I can’t get through to brain blast, but I might be able to lock onto Sarah’s brain waves! What if I feed that data into your guidance system to give you a lock?”
“It should work! It might work!” he replied.
“You’ve got to disarm your atomic warhead. We can’t risk a thermonuclear explosion in Central Park! Besides, the missile itself should get the job done, even if it doesn’t detonate!”
The winds were building in intensity as Fast Forward’s strength rapidly faded.
I knew what was going happen, but was still shocked when it did. His speed and strength taxed beyond their limits, Fast Forward disappeared in the funnel cloud only to reemerge seconds later, his body twisting helplessly in the maelstrom before vanishing completely. Unencumbered, the funnel cloud lumbered forward dinosaur-like through the park, cutting a destructive path through the landscape toward midtown. I shut my eyes and reached out through the storm with my mind. The atmospheric disturbances limited my ability to effectively “lock” onto a target, but at last a connection was secured—I hoped. A hand-held converter translated my mental images into a digitized wav file and I loaded the data into the disc drive on TW’s armored head. Atop his head was a metal frame that served as the launch pad for an Autologic ICBM-9 A-Class missile. The launch sequence involved a complex series of commands, both mental and physical (security measures to ensure the missile could not be launched by any person other than TW). Rather than a physical target, TW’s guidance system keyed into the digital recordings of Philip’s right hemisphere. The funnel cloud was further away, moving with determination and confidence.
“Now or never!” I shouted.
TW braced himself for the forthcoming reverb; he adjusted the density of the thin, flesh-like exoskeleton he wore beneath his clothes to protect him against neck and spinal injuries. Suddenly the missile was deployed in a haze of smoke and fire that was immediately extinguished by the wind and rain. I lost sight of the missile’s path immediately.
At 00:00:42:01 seconds after missile deployment the storm ended. It ended with the abruptness of a light switch being thrown, a traffic light changing from yellow to red, the floor dropping out from a hangman’s gallows. Sarah and Philip fell from the sky like misshapen angels whose wings had been unexpectedly clipped.
Sarah was dead, and not from the fall. The missile had found its target. Even with its warhead disabled, the destruction caused by the ICBM was horrific. Perhaps even more astounding was the fact that any portion of Sarah’s upper torso was still intact. The missile had impacted just below the right shoulder. Her right arm and most of the left half of her upper torso had been obliterated. Her death had been instantaneous. Philip lived a while longer, speaking in fragmented sentences that grew more faint and directionless with each passing minute.
“She wanted to go to the beach. I told her not to. Told her they’d laugh. And now look where we are. Heh…”
I didn’t try to comfort him. None of us did. There was nothing we could do even if we’d wanted to.
“It was all Sarah, you know. She had the powers. I was just a…a freak with MPD who happened to be…literally attached to her. Ha. Still, there is one thing I can do—she taught me. It’s pretty neat…I think you’d agree.”
He looked up at us, past us toward the sky. The sun was becoming visible through thinning clouds. He gestured faintly with a trembling hand. The bolt shot down from heaven, its white-hot light striking Philip and sending him to join his sister. There was a smile on his face. I honestly think he was glad it was all over. He could have easily struck any of us—all of us—but instead he took his own life. We collected our wounded—both Red Starr and Fast Forward had survived—and walked home. A gentle rain began to fall. Unlike the former storm, it held no secrets. In the aftermath of Storm Central, it actually felt cleansing.
And then there was one.
Our search for the Demolition began just four days after we’d watched Philip Davidovich strike himself down with lightning. Neither Barry nor myself looked forward to the task, but we took some comfort knowing this work of killing was nearly at an end.
We drove to Chester, PA, and spoke to Ellison’s ex-wife, Charise. I didn’t need to surf the outer edges of her mind to know she was being truthful when she told us: 1. she hadn’t seen her ex-husband, 2. she did not wish to see him, and 3. should he show up, she would “call the cops and have his sorry ass rearrested.” I left a business card with her and asked that she notify us directly, rather than contact local authorities, if Lyle decided to pay her a visit.
From Chester we drove to Center City and spoke with the Super-Heroes of Philadelphia (better known to local residents as the s.h.o.p.). We spoke with Mr. Malevolence, the team’s square-jawed, white haired, broad-shouldered muscle man. He was the team’s only currently active member to have encountered the Demolition (in both 1995 and 1998).
“Mr. Malevolence,” I began.
“You can call me Chad.”
“Right. Let’s talk about your previous altercations with the Demolition.”
“You going to kill him?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” Barry said.
“NYSS, s.h.o.p., all the Establishment-run teams operate regionally. I can only assume if you’re after Lyle it’s to kill him. Why else would you care? So…are you?”
“Are we what?” I asked.
“Are you going to kill him?”
“We really can’t talk about it.”
“Well, I’m sure you have your reasons.” He looked at us with what I thought was an understanding of sorts. “We—that is, Cosmopolitan, Recoil, Meridian, and I—first encountered the Demolition in ’95—I think it was ’95. We were at the Amtrak station here in Philly en route to Castleton for the Establishment-sponsored super-hero recruitment party in Vermont.”
“Right. I remember that show,” Barry recalled. “It was kind of an open audition for super-hero wannabees. Bunch of freaks, mostly. But I don’t remember seeing you there.”
“That’s because we never made it to the show. The Demolition attacked the train station—I think he’d been contracted to destroy it, or at least damage the infrastructure beyond repair. I made the mistake of getting too close to him. His touch nearly killed me. Cosmo ultimately stopped him single handedly. Following that narrow victory, the city commissioned us to work as its official super-hero squad.”
“Right. You called yourselves Template?”
“Right. And Threshold functioned independently of the Establishment—until the Tourist fiasco, at which point Threshold was integrated into the Establishment and you changed your name to the s.h.o.p.”
“Yeah,” Chad said, a wave of melancholy washed across his stoic face. “Shortly thereafter, Recoil was killed, Cosmopolitan was blinded, and Meridian developed cancer.”
“Tough breaks all around,” Barry said.
“Anyway, our second meeting with the Demolition wasn’t so much to fight him as it was to help save him from himself.”
“How’s that?” Barry asked.
“He’d been paroled and was trying to find a half-decent job so he could support his wife and kid. But his wife no longer wanted to be with him, and he couldn’t find anything but menial jobs. Wasn’t too long before he fell back into the old habits. It cost him.”
“Maybe we should talk with the Cosmopolitan,” I said to Barry.
“Talk with Meridian,” Chad suggested. “She knew him best—not that any of us really knew him, if you take my meaning. But Meridian was really trying to help Lyle stay legit. I think he’s a troubled soul. I mean, despite his extraordinary powers, I always had the feeling he just wanted to live like an average person and be a decent provider for his wife and kid.”
“They usually do,” Barry said, “until something goes wrong. So where’s Meridian living these days?”
Meridian had been an active member of Threshold and the s.h.o.p. for several years until health problems caused her to resign. As a crime fighter she faced a difficult dilemma—her health deteriorated each time she used her unique super powers. She developed cancer and had no choice but to leave the team and seek treatment. She was presently employed as a forensic investigator for the Albany, New York police department. We found her on assignment, and walked down the narrow basement stairs of 2127 Regulare Street.
“This area’s off limits to civil—oh…” she said, taking notice of our jacket insignia.
Meridian held a notebook in her left hand and a pen in her right. A portable tape recorder was clipped to her belt. She was dressed in black DKNY jeans and a NYU t-shirt atop which hung a thick trench coat that seemed to envelop her diminutive frame. Her black hair was boot-camp short, and I wondered—but didn’t ask—if that had been a style choice or a result of chemo.
Directly in front of Meridian hung the body of a man in his 40s; it turned slowly counter-clockwise from a rope wrapped tightly at one end around his neck. The other end of the noose was affixed to an exposed ceiling I-beam. The head of the dead man was completely wrapped in cellophane several times over. His face was ambiguous as if being seen through a glass shower door. He was naked except for the black penny-loafers and argyle socks upon his feet. The smell of bile and excrement shot through my lungs with unexpected and overwhelming potency. I covered my mouth and nose with my hand; Barry did likewise.
“Put these on,” Meridian said, and handed us each a disposable surgical mask.
“Guess this one’s a no-brainer,” Barry said, placing the mask across his mouth.
“Whatever do you mean?” Meridian asked.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? This guy hung himself; it’s a suicide, right?”
“Look, it’s a slow day, and you’re Syndicate, otherwise I wouldn’t bother explaining this to you. The man’s death was accidental. He died of auto-erotic asphyxiation.”
“Auto-erotic…?” I asked.
“Asphyxiation. Yes. First of all, there’s no suicide note. Second, most suicides don’t strip down to their shoes before offing themselves. I think this fellow died in a self-gratification sexual ritual. I don’t mean ‘ritual’ in the voodoo sense of course, just that this was something he did regularly...habitually.”
Meridian walked across the basement floor toward the stairwell door.
“He’d begin by locking the door so as not to be seen or disturbed by his wife and kids. Next, he’d play one of those video cassettes in the cabinet to your right, mostly straightforward porn—boy/girl stuff—nothing esoteric.”
“What about the cellophane?” Barry asked.
“Asphyxiation, the sensation of being choked, is known to heighten the sensations produced during male orgasm. This gentleman was an extremist who would wrap a cellophane mask tightly around his head, leaving only two air holes (one for each nostril) through which to breathe. He would then insert a short drinking straw through each nostril of the cellophane mask.”
I hadn’t noticed it earlier, but a pair of plastic straws were protruding from the nostril area of the cellophane mask. The body continued to dangle slowly, oblivious to Meridian’s deductions.
“He would then stand upon a chair,” she pointed toward a chair lying on its side several feet distant, “and wrap the noose around his neck. This particular slip noose is unusual in that it is made from two separate sections of twine, and is joined by metal connector ports approximately six inches above the neck opening by a standard padlock, the keys of which are on the bracelet around the victim’s left wrist. This man would step into the noose and step off the chair, essentially hanging himself. But he had two safeguards: First, he had the option of simply stepping back onto the chair. The rope hung low enough that stepping onto the chair would release the strangulation and loss of air. Unfortunately, blinded as he was by the cellophane mask, he seems to have accidentally kicked away the chair.”
“But you said there was a second safeguard,” Barry said.
“There was. The padlock. When the chair tipped over he needed to remove the key from his wrist and use it to open the lock. Unfortunately, his sexual hunger seems to have been more compelling than his survival instinct because it doesn’t appear he made any effort to free himself with the key.” She pointed to the key, still wrapped around his wrist.
“His wife reports having heard a crashing sound—probably the chair. She tried the door but it was, as I noted, locked from the inside.”
“Wait a second. You’re telling me he did this while his family was upstairs watching Leave it to Beaver?”
“I don’t know what they were doing at the time, but yes, they were in the house. Judging from the organization of this room, as well as the number of video cassettes and unused rolls of cellophane, I’d wager this was an act performed quite often.”
“Geez, Meridian. I mean, what do you think of all this?” Barry asked.
“I don’t. I’m not paid to think about it. I’m paid to report what I see and make a determination. That’s all.”
“Doesn’t—doesn’t it make you, ya know, sick after a while.”
“I’ve seen worse when I was in s.h.o.p. I assume you’re here on some kind of ‘hero’ business.”
“Have you seen the Demolition?” I asked.
“The Demolition. I heard he’s escaped.”
“Really. I wasn’t aware it was public knowledge.”
“You should read the papers more often, or watch Nightline. But no, I haven’t seen him. Why would I?”
“You were close,” Barry said.
“Close? I tried to help him avoid making the same mistakes he’d made earlier in his life. I failed. End of story.”
“Any idea where he might be hiding—we already visited with his Ex.”
“If you see him or if he contacts you, give us a call.” I handed Meridian a business card.
“Goodbye, Meridian. It’s been, well, educative,” Barry said as we began to ascend the long stairwell and removed the surgical masks. Only upon removing the mask did I realize the degree to which the basement reeked of death. We passed through the dining room toward the front door. A family photo hung on the wall next to the doorway. Husband, wife, kids, each with all-American smiles on their all-American faces. I understood what Meridian meant by not thinking about it. Thinking about it would rip a person apart. It was the same reason I’d not thought about the lives Barry and I had destroyed, or the life we still had to destroy.
“Back to square none,” Barry said as we stepped into the silver Accord.
“What are you saying? She lied to us?”
“I’m sure. I’d stake my semiprofessional reputation on it.”
“You think she’s hiding him?”
“Maybe,” I said. “and I’m tired of this piece of shit assignment, Barry. I’m tired of hunting down and killing these psychopaths. I miss my apartment and my cat and my friends. Let’s find this guy and be done this business. We’ll know soon enough if Meridian is hiding him.”
“I’ve got her home address.”
"But she didn't tell us her...oh."
That evening we watched 124 Cherry Street from the cover of night. It had been raining for several hours. Claps of thunder and flashes of lighting ignited the night sky. No lights were on inside the house, but there was movement from within that could easily be seen through infra-red.
The front door was unlocked. We entered without a sound. A moment later the lights came up. Meridian stood protectively in front of her much taller guest. Dressed as he was in khakis and a blue polo shirt, he looked neither super nor villainous.
“Step aside, Meridian,” Barry ordered.
“So you can murder him? I don’t think so.”
“Meridian, this is official NYSS business,” I reasoned.
“First off, my name is Carol. Meridian was my s.h.o.p. code name. I’m no longer in the business, so you can refer to me as Carol. Second, Lyle here is a fugitive, but I believe what he’s told me.”
“Not that I care, but what’s he told you?” I asked.
“Why don’t you find out for yourself. I mean, that is what you do, isn’t it? Go ahead, take a look inside his mind.”
I’d always considered mind walking a clear, albeit necessary, invasion of one’s privacy. I’d never been ‘invited’ into one’s mind. Lyle looked at me accommodatingly and said, “It’s okay.”
So I went in. Four seconds later I turned to Barry.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“We can’t just leave him here.”
“We can. We will.”
“What did you just tell me earlier today? You want this business to come to a close. Now you’re telling me, what—we just walk away?”
At that moment I simply wanted to be far, far away from Lyle and Meridian. Far away from Barry. Far away from NYSS and the job of killing.
“You no longer want to finish, I understand. It’s okay. I can do this without you.” Barry extended his right arm in the direction of Meridian and Lyle.
“Step aside, Meridian,” he said.
An explosion of lightning crashed across the horizon and the house fell suddenly into darkness. An oval light began to build from Barry’s fingertips as he readied his attack. We were all silhouetted in darkness. Meridian lunged at Barry. There was a crashing of a table lamp as they fell to the floor. Lyle moved to help his friend. I rushed to aid Barry. The four of us became entangled in a sea of violence, each lashing out blindly at one another. There was a low rumbling sound, a soft vibration that doubled in its intensity with each passing second. We all knew what was happening.
“Lyle, don’t—” Meridian cried out.
We knew it was about to begin. Lyle was engaging the demolition wave, the destructive force that would bring the entire dwelling down atop us. There was no time to think, only to act. I grasped about the floor and found an object. It was sharp and jagged. I thrust it into the bulky shadow before me. Forced it through cotton fabric through meaty flesh until my hand became immersed in something warm and wet. I heard not a scream, but a gasp. An eruption lit up the house only for a moment, but long enough for all to see the shard of glass from a broken lamp lodged deep in his throat. But it was Barry, not the Demolition, who lay steadily bleeding his life’s blood. As darkness returned, I felt his trembling hands tightly grasp my wrists. He was trying to talk, but couldn’t. His mind and body were slipping into shock. The fear in his heart and mind pounded at my brain in a desperate plea for help.
I was powerless to save him. The wound and blood loss were too extreme. But I calmed his mind with mine. His grip on my wrists weakened, though I knew part of the reason was that his strength was waning. I held him close and kept whispering “I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry,” as if it was a single, infinite word—as if it mattered—as he faded away.
The lights slowly flickered to life.
“You’d better leave,” Meridian said to Lyle.
“I’m not going to be a scapegoat the murder of an NYSS member,” he said, quietly.
“You won’t be,” Meridian answered. “Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right,” I whispered distantly.
Lyle stepped out into the rain and was gone in seconds.
“There’s a phone in the kitchen,” Meridian said, and closed the front door.
Yevick was furious. I related the events exactly as they’d occurred. She filed a final report to the White House on August 5. The FBI Super-Hero Surveillance Committee was dissolved on August 6. I would like to think her report to the White House contained no fabrications; the fact that Lyle was added to the FBI’s International Terrorist Most-Wanted List on August 15 and was listed as being “last seen in Cuba” leads me to believe otherwise.
I’ll never forgive myself for what I’ve done even though my NYSS colleagues tell me it was purely an accident. But I know that if I’d only taken a moment to “show” Barry what I’d seen within Lyle’s mind, he might still be alive. Lyle wasn’t a threat, he never was. He mourns the dead of 9-11 like most of us. All Lyle wanted was to finish his jail sentence and leave the Demolition behind him. I hope that wherever he is he’s found a respite from the madness of this world.
Yevick recently abandoned a proposed secret initiative that would have put over 500 agents on the Demolition’s trail. I indirectly helped her make up her mind in that regard; I owed Lyle that much.
As the nation braces itself for the “anniversary” of 9-11 (which in and of itself seems inconceivable and almost beyond all belief) most of NYSS’ operatives have returned to their former roles—to protect and serve. They remain on high-alert during holidays and during special events occurring in Manhattan. Mostly they just wait, acting as damage control against whatever crazed “super-criminals” are trying to endanger lives on any given day. However, they’re now well aware that not all villains wear leather masks and silk capes.
I no longer play with NYSS. I’ve seen enough violence to last a lifetime. In my dreams and sometimes when I’m awake I still see red. I see Barry’s blood on my fingers and beneath the tips of my nails; I feel its warmth upon my hands.
Barry’s death was one of the many post 9-11 casualties and mine is but one of countless stories of post 9-11 America. I’d like to think that it all meant something—that somehow we’d learn a lesson or become united as a nation and as a people. We’ve lost a few of our civil liberties—boarding an airplane or passenger train takes a bit longer as the government-appointed security personnel scrutinize passengers with mistrusting eyes—yet we remain the most technologically advanced savages in the world. We dial Paris via palm-sized cell phones with our left hand while we stab, shoot, and kill with our right. In Chicago men are beaten to death by an enraged mob following a car accident. In New York a troubled youth is killed by vagrants over a dollar bill. In North Dakota a child is kidnapped from her home and subsequently raped and killed. A Los Angeles man bludgeons his son to death with an axe. A New Jersey man kills his infant son and burns the corpse. A well-to-do Houston woman runs down her husband three times with her Mercedes and claims, “It was an accident.” A Dallas man kills his wife and five children. Status quo America; business as usual. And I realize that I’m not so special. I’m just like everyone else. My nails are caked red, too.
Watch for more new stories coming soon including:
The Man Who Could Not Die
And be sure to check out the all-new ALTERCATIONS preview!