Happy Hour

Episode 6 of Relativity

by Michelle and James Lehmann

 

Chapter 1

 

The mid-November air was unseasonably warm. Temperatures were in the high 50s and the lakefront parks of Gale were filled with people enjoying the late autumn day. Dozens of bicycles drove along the various sidewalks, and countless joggers mazed through the abundant paths and walkways.

Michael Bruce glanced at his watch as he headed to the far end of Reynold’s Field. He upped his pace, setting his sights on a water fountain a quarter-mile ahead. When he reached his destination, he stopped and jogged in place.

Sara made it there about thirty seconds later. She leaned over, resting her hands on her knees. “I give up,” she said, struggling to catch her breath. “You’re in much better shape than me. I don’t know how I ever thought I could keep up with you.”

Michael smiled and pulled a water bottle from his belt. He took a long swallow, then motioned it towards his sister. “You were giving me quite a run there in the beginning. You only fell behind the last mile or so.”

“I was good at track, but cross-country killed me. I was never a distance runner.”

“You just need a little more training,” he reassured.

Running the back of her hand across her forehead, Sara looked up as a voice sounded in the distance. It was followed by the chanting of a crowd. “What’s that?”

“I don’t know. Let’s go find out.”

Beyond a nearby bridge, a large group had gathered. Several were holding hand-painted signs. One read “Don’t Re-Count the Re-Count.” Another said, “Let the People’s Voice Stand.”

The mayoral election had been two weeks earlier, and Lloyd Brooks had claimed victory over the incumbent with a mere two percent lead. James Cannon had challenged the results, claiming improprieties in the voting process. A recount had been conducted, and while some new votes had been discovered for Cannon, Brooks still came out one and a half percent ahead. Not satisfied, Cannon challenged again, and after a court battle, won the right to recount a second time. The whole process was putting the city on edge, and supporters on both sides of the fence had taken to the streets to voice their opinions.

The man on the podium started to talk again, quoting Bible passages on truth and fairness. The crowd clapped and hooted, urging the preacher to continue.

“At least they’re peaceful,” Sara said with a weak smile.

Michael grimaced. Unfortunately, not all the gatherings had been so calm. “Must be terrible for the Brooks family, living in limbo.”

“I know. I’m supposed to meet with Aaron tomorrow to discuss some community projects. With everything that’s going on, I told him we could do it another time, but he insisted on coming. I guess he’s just trying to keep things normal until they get word one way or the other.”

Making it back to the fountain, Michael grinned. “So, you up for another run back to the car?”

Sara stared at the long stretch they had covered. “That’s four miles.” She clutched at his arm. “Do you think we can take a cab?”

“All right,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “But next time...” Turning to the main street, he raised his hand. “Taxi!”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Right this way, Mr. Bruce.” The maitre d’ weaved through the maze of tables and led the man to a small area near the back of the restaurant. At a far table sat Ulysses David, glancing at a menu.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Michael apologized. “Casper called and said the Florida union voted to go on strike. That means we’re not going to have service staff at the Orlando resort come tomorrow.”

Yule sighed. “I was worried about that. Do they have a back-up plan?”

“There’s an agency that said they can supply us with people, but there’s concerns about crossing the picket line.”

“Well, I guess I know what I’ll be busy handling in the morning.”

A young blonde waitress approached the table, giving a shy smile. Michael smiled back. Her name was Sheila, and she had been their server the last half dozen times they’d dined at Cardisio’s. Not only was she attractive, but she had been flirting with him incessantly over the past couple of months.

“Are you ready to order?” she asked with a bat of her eyelashes.

Yule nodded. “I’ll have the trout with steamed vegetables.”

“I’ll have the penne with braised squash.” Michael made a point to brush the woman’s fingers as he handed back the menu.

As the waitress disappeared into the kitchen, he returned his attention to his father. “I heard the second recount came in but they haven’t announced the results.”

“My guess is that it’s going to show Brooks still in the lead and they’re going to do another recount.”

“Really?” Michael groaned. “Have they ever done a triple recount?”

“I think the benchmark was four. That was back when I was a kid. I don’t remember much of it, but my father was upset at the time. He didn’t like the guy who was behind in the race.”

Taking a sip of his water, Michael shook his head. “My concern is that this is going to pull the city apart further. The protests are getting more frequent, and I’m worried about these fires. I don’t know why people feel torching abandoned buildings is going to solve anything.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s that arbitrary.” Lowering his voice, Yule glanced around. “I did a little digging, and all of the buildings bombed were owned by African-Americans.”

“You think this is race related?”

“Perhaps. Or someone is trying to make it appear that way.” He adjusted the napkin in his lap. “I’m surprised the media hasn’t picked up on that yet, but I’m sure they will.”

Fifteen minutes later, the men’s dinner arrived. The conversation shifted from politics to the stock market, and then to sports. The whole time, Michael kept trying to think of a way to bring up Sara. Though things were better between Yule and his daughter, it was still a tense subject.

Not able to work it in, he sighed as the waitress brought the check. “My turn,” he announced.

Yule didn’t argue. Instead, he pulled out his phone, checking his email.

Michael rose and walked over to the bar where Sheila was standing. He handed her the bill and his credit card.

“Was everything okay?” she asked.

“Perfect.” Signing his name on the pay slip, he gave a coy smile. “What are you doing Saturday night?”

 

Yule was already waiting by the door when Michael finally caught up to him. He was still holding his phone, but his expression was grim.

“What happened? What’s wrong?”

“There’s been another bombing.”

“What? Where?”

His father grimaced. “Our warehouse on Seventh Avenue.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The men arrived at the Bruce Storage Facility, just as the last of the flames were being extinguished. Yule had suggested Michael go in his street clothes, as the authorities would be more likely to share information with the owner rather than a costumed crimefighter. Both were surprised, however, to see that Overcast was already there.

The lead firefighter approached the men. “Mr. Bruce?”

“Yes,” Michael answered. He started to extend his hand, but realized the man had dirt covered gloves on. He nodded instead.

“What happened?” Yule asked.

“We still need to conduct our formal investigation, but at first glance it appears that a bomb was detonated in the docking bay area.”

Michael was perplexed. “I don’t understand how this could have happened. We have high security here.”

Overcast approached the group. “It looks like someone stowed away inside a delivery vehicle. When the truck stopped, they jumped out and set the bomb.”

“What about the security cameras?” Michael asked.

“Your staff is trying to retrieve the tapes,” the fire chief advised. “But they were in a part of the building that was heavily burned.”

“We don’t have off-site streams of the surveillance information?”

Yule shook his head. “This is one of our older facilities. I don’t think it was ever upgraded from the standard on-site VCR monitoring.”

“Probably why this building was selected,” Overcast added.

The men spent the next hour getting details of the damage, discussing insurance coverage, and generally learning everything they could about the situation. Once the firefighters were gone, Yule offered to stay behind and coordinate cleanup efforts. While Michael didn’t like his father taking on all the responsibility, he knew he did it to allow Team Torrent to do other things.

Assuring no one else was around, Overcast made his way over to the CEO. “Random attack?” he offered.

Michael stooped to examine something on the ground. “I don’t think so. We discovered whoever’s doing this has been targeting African-American business owners.”

“Oh... kay... So where does that leave you?”

Standing up, Michael locked eyes on his friend’s. “I was one of Lloyd’s biggest campaign supporters.”

“Ah. So you’re thinking this is in retaliation for his winning, not about the recount.”

“It’s starting to look that way.”

Glancing back at the scene, the hatted hero nodded. “I’m going to poke around here some more and see what I can find. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.”

Michael watched Overcast leave, then looked at the piece of brick in his hand. Narrowing his eyes, he headed to his car.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Aaron Brooks flipped the pages in his binder to the profile of a twelve year old boy. “What about George Ramirez? I thought he was leaving the program?”

Madge checked her chart. “His mother decided to keep him in. She rescinded her withdrawal form on the ninth.”

“And Tony Hamilton?”

Madge scanned down the list. “Same thing. Pulled out and then backtracked. I think the parents get worried when they hear they have to go back on a waiting list if they want their children re-enrolled.”

Sara flipped through the rest of her files, then glanced up. “Okay, I think that’s it. The only one left is Sheryl Tanner and we’ll know for sure about her next week.”

“All right, then.” Closing his book, Aaron let out a long yawn.

“Can I get you a cup of coffee, captain?” Madge asked as she gathered her things.

“That would be great. Cream and sugar.”

“Your usual?” she asked the administrator as she headed out the door.

Sara returned her attention to her paperwork, scribbling down a few last notes. She stopped when Aaron’s hand fell on top of hers.

“Do you ever think about me?” he asked in a whisper.

Her heart began to race and she squeezed his fingers. “Sometimes.”

“I think about you a lot.”

Sara closed her eyes as he stroked her cheek. She gently pushed his hand away. “You know we can’t do this. You’re married, remember?”

Aaron’s mouth twisted as if he had bitten into something sour. “I know, I know. Married.” He rose and walked across the room.

Though it was inappropriate, Sara knew the man’s advances were usually prompted by stress. Considering all the drama surrounding the election, she tried not to hold it against him. “So, how are things with you?”

“Hell?” He rubbed his hand across his forehead. “My dad’s a nervous wreck, I’m a nervous wreck. We have this crap going on with these riots and bombings. I go to work and all the guys look at me like it’s my fault, because my dad ran against the Mayor.” He returned to his chair. “This recount is bullshit.”

“I agree,” she said with a nod. “I know this is kinda crazy, but do you think Cannon is somehow involved in the bombings?”

“Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know, just a feeling.”

Aaron shrugged. “As much as I hate the guy, I don’t see what benefit it would have. The vote is what’s going to rule. I mean, if he’s looking to burn down the city, he’d do that after my dad was declared winner, not before. He could still win, and then he’d have that to deal with the ugly cleanup. Doesn’t make sense.”

“You’re right. So, what are you going to do if your father loses?”

The captain smirked. “Carry on? Though it’s going to be hell. So many of them wanted me out before my dad ran. Now they’ll figure if they can’t lynch him, they’ll lynch me.”

Sara knew the man was only kidding, but the imagery still frightened her. “You shouldn’t joke about that.”

Aaron scooted towards her, his voice softening. “I’m sorry. I know you’re worried about me and my family, and I appreciate that.”

“I just don’t want anything bad to happen.” Glancing down at her notebook, Sara avoided his eyes. “I care about you. Even if it can only be as a friend.”

The door opened and Madge entered, carrying a tray of coffee and cookies. “Kids just made a batch of chocolate chip delights. They’re as hard as rocks, but I thought you might want to try one anyway.”

Aaron chuckled. “Hockey puck are my favorite. Food and weapon in one.”

Happy to see the man smile, Sara repeated the gesture and grabbed a cookie from the tray.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Zephyra scaled up the drainpipe and leapt onto the rooftop. She looked around, hopeful she had finally managed to beat her team leader. But it was no use. Black Torrent already there, his gaze fixed out on the horizon. With a sigh, she focused her attention in the direction he was looking.

“There was a protest rally over on Fourth a few hours ago,” he said. “I figure if something’s going to happen, it’s gonna be in that area.”

It was obvious Torrent was concentrating, so Zephyra turned and headed to the opposite side of the building. The view faced away from the city and towards the old stockcar race track. A heavy haze hung in the air, and it only took a moment for her to realize the haze was actually smoke.

“Torrent...”

The crimefighter was at her side in an instant. He stared out, pointing to a building three blocks away. “There.” He didn’t wait for her. Leaping over the side, he landed on the fire escape and headed downwards. Melody quickly followed.

The building was a small corner store with an apartment above. The fire wasn’t large yet, but it covered the back entrance and had begun to consume two garbage dumpsters.

“The hose!” Michael yelled, pointing to the side of the building. “I have to make sure no one’s inside.”

Zephyra rushed over and kicked open the heavy plastic box that housed the water spigot. She began to soak the blaze just as Torrent reappeared from the doorway, a man, woman, and two children following behind him. In the far distance, the sound of firetrucks could be heard.

“My building!” the owner cried.

The blaze was nearly out when the emergency crews arrived. Turning things over to the firefighters, Torrent waited until they were preoccupied before he slipped away. Melody followed him to the side of the building. There were several stains on the pavement. The crimefighter tipped his finger with the liquid and sniffed it. “Alcohol.”

“What does that mean?”

“Molotov cocktail. Crude, but effective.” He stood again. “This just doesn’t make any sense. We have sophisticated bombs, then petty thug tactics. Also, this building isn’t high profile. I don’t understand why it would be targeted.”

“There was a ‘Support Brooks’ sign in the front window.”

Torrent smiled. “Good catch. I didn’t see that. Still, it doesn’t make sense. Michael Bruce was attacked because he’s a major supporter. This is a tiny store run by a nobody. Attacking them accomplishes nothing.”

Another voice spoke up. “What’s a Molotov cocktail?” A young black man stood by the front of the store, looking into the gangway.

“You take a rag soaked in something flammable,” Torrent started to explain patiently.

Zephyra cut him off. “It’s a glass jar with liquid inside. You set it on fire and throw it.”

“Yeah, that’s what that guy had.”

The two heroes moved to where the man was standing. “You saw the guy who threw this?”

“Yeah, I saw him. I’m the one who called the fire department.”

“Could you describe him? What did he look like?”

The young man shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t get close enough to see his face much. He was a chubby guy.”

Zephyra nodded. “Chubby. That’s good. Was he black, white? Hair color?”

After a few more questions, the superheroes established that it was a medium height white man with black hair, no beard or mustache. He drove up in a green car and stopped behind the store. Apparently, he hadn’t set anything up beforehand, because he assembled what he needed right there in the alley. He then lobbed the bottles at the building before driving away.

The witness was getting nervous and Melody realized he was probably worried the cops would be around soon. While he might be okay talking with a couple of crimefighters, being questioned by the police might be another thing. She wondered if she should mention that to Torrent, but he already seemed to pick up on it.

“Thank you,” Michael said, shaking the young man’s hand. “Your information is valuable. You acted quickly and helped save this building. We’ll make sure this information gets to the authorities.”

With a relieved sigh, the man nodded, then jogged down the street.

Zephyra moved back to Torrent’s side. “Well that was helpful. Unfortunately, there’s thousands of chubby white guys in the city.”

“Right, but it’s more than we had before, and it narrows things down considerably. We need to report this so the police can start working on a composite.”

“All right, then what?”

“Back to the rooftop. We need to keep on the lookout for more fires.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Sara stepped outside, a cow bell in her hand. It was a crude method of summoning the kids, but one that worked better than anything else she had tried before. As she clanged it up and down, the children stopped playing and headed inside.

On the far corner of the lawn, there was a group of middle-school boys. Two were wards of the Home, but Sara didn’t recognize the other three. While it wasn’t suspicious that some neighborhood kids would be hanging around, the fact that one was waving around a large wad of cash was.

The administrator gave the bell another vigorous ring and the boys turned and looked towards her. Saying their goodbyes, they headed back to the main door.

“Who were those guys you were talking to?” she asked them as they made it to the door. “And where did that kid get all that money?”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Aaron Brooks pulled his coat tighter around himself, shivering as a gust of wind blew past. As Police Captain, most of his time was spent pushing papers behind a desk at the station. In recent months, however, he had taken to walking the streets once a week, travelling the various neighborhoods in his precinct. It allowed the citizens to get to know the man behind the badge, and helped him get cooperation from the community when he needed it.

As he approached the corner of Elk and Monroe, an older man appeared from one of the houses. “I saw a group of kids on the next block over. They look like they’re up to no good.”

Nodding in thanks, Aaron headed in that direction.

The police captain caught sight of the gathering as he turned the corner. Several teen boys and girls huddled together, trying to keep anyone from glimpsing what they were doing. Although he was in plain clothes, he was well known by the local gangs. One of the boys glanced up and caught sight of him.

“Chota!”

The group scattered, only a few hanging back. They were talking to someone who was now visible—a familiar costumed crimefighter. The older gang members regarded him for a moment, finished what they were saying, then sauntered away. He followed them with his eyes before he approached the woman.

“Hello, Captain,” she said with a smile.

“Dark Flame,” he greeted simply.

The woman turned and started to walk, heading to a part of the street where the lighting was more dim. “Quiet night?” she asked.

“No fires, if that’s what you mean.”

“Do you have any ideas who’s doing this?”

Aaron shook his head. “It’s been erratic. Though, we’re starting to lean in the direction that it may be two or three separate groups.”

“Or one person working with a lot of hands?”

“I don’t understand.”

She turned to face him. “Someone’s been paying kids to pitch burning bottles and plant bombs on vehicles. They’re focusing on younger gang members and initiates. For a couple hundred dollars, these kids will do just about anything.”

The idea was intriguing and Brooks stared out into the street. “Who would be making such a calculated effort? What would they gain?”

“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “But I’m worried if we don’t find out soon, there’s not going to be much of a city for your father to take over.”

Aaron’s eyebrows rose. Would someone really burn down the city to keep Lloyd Brooks from taking office?

Dark Flame started to walk again. “I think I need to talk to one of the ring leaders, to get more information on this.”

“That’s dangerous,” Brooks warned. “I know you have relationships with some of the street runners, but getting in bed with gang leaders is not advisable.”

“I can take care of myself,” she said with a smug smile. “I’ll let you know if I find anything.” The woman darted off into the dark maze of streets, finally disappearing into an alley a block away.

Aaron felt his anxiety level rise, but realized there wasn’t much he could do about it. “Be careful, Sara,” he whispered under his breath. With a sigh, he turned and headed back to the station.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood Cadavre flipped the power switch on the coffee maker. Nothing happened. He unplugged it, plugged it back in, then tried the switch again. Still nothing.

“Can you fix it?” Melody asked with a yawn.

“No,” said Ravenswood. “I’ve tried everything I can think of.”

“As long as we keep the others running constantly, we should be able to keep up with the morning rush.”

“Okay. We’ll call your father later and ask him what to do about it.” He walked to the door, ready to open it for the few customers already waiting outside. “Are you sure you’re okay? Want me to wait a few more minutes? You did get in late again last night.”

She shook her head. “It’s all part of the business. Someone’s gotta protect the city.”

Taking her position behind the counter, Melody smiled as the first customer approached. He was a tall man, dressed in jeans and a dingy t-shirt. She guessed he was a construction worker. “Good morning. Welcome to Stan’s coffee. What can we get you this morning?”

“I’d like a breve cappuccino.”

Ravenswood began making the drink.

“That’ll be $4.61.”

The customer pulled out his wallet and retrieved his credit card. “Did you hear the news last night? Demonstrations at City Hall.”

“Yes, a lot of discontent around the city these days.”

The next customer approached. “I’ll have a tall coffee, black, with a little ice.” The man pulled out a five dollar bill and kept talking. “I heard a store was set on fire. Family almost lost their home.”

“Really?” said Melody, feigning ignorance. “How awful.”

“Did you hear?” said the next patron. “There was a riot at a train station this morning.”

Even though Melody was keeping the commentary to a minimum, the fact that so many of the customers seemed preoccupied with the recent city drama began to worry her.

“Things are getting worse and worse,” another patron said, bringing their coffee to a nearby table.

“These bombings are just going to continue...”

“I’m getting afraid to live in this city...”

“You know this wouldn’t have happened if the election had gone the other way...”

“I’m not racist, but...”

“We need a do-over...”

“They should call for a re-vote...”

Around ten o’clock the flow of customers abated and the coffee shop workers were able to relax in between orders. However, Melody and Ravenswood found themselves even more on-edge.

“Do you really think there could be a re-vote?” Melody asked her husband in a hushed voice.

“I wouldn’t think so, but perhaps if there was enough public outcry for it.”

A disturbing thought occurred to her. “It would be a lot easier to rig a vote that way, wouldn’t it?”

Ravenswood nodded. “Terrorism.”

“What? You think this is being done by terrorists?”

“Not per se. But it’s terrorist tactics. You disrupt the lives of people, to coerce them into the action you want. When people are scared and discouraged, they may do things they wouldn’t otherwise—like call for a new vote.”

A small group of people entered the store, dressed in business suits. “Round two,” Ravenswood said.

Melody nodded and headed back to the register.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Torrent stared out at the city. From his vantage point, he could see most of the neighborhood; he looked for any sign of fire or smoke. It had been two days since the blaze at the corner store, and since then there had been no other incidents. Though he dared not think the bombings were over, he was thankful for the small reprieve.

There was a clanking sound and the crimefighter noticed a claw hook embedded into the brick of the ledge. After a moment, Dark Flame leapt over and stood, smiling.

“I see you’ve gotten the hang of the grappling,” he commented.

“After a little practice,” she said with a blush. She clasped her hands behind her back and took a step towards him. “I saw you up here and thought I would come by and say ‘Hi.’ I haven’t been on patrol much lately.”

Torrent nodded. He hadn’t seen the female crimefighter since their run-in with Cricket. “Well, we could use your help. These fires are getting pretty serious. We have an idea of who’s doing it now, but we still need to track him down.”

“You do?” Dark Flame seemed surprised and disappointed. “I’ve been doing some digging and learned a few things myself and thought that maybe I had a lead—” She sighed. “Of course you’d figure it out first.”

“Well, we haven’t caught anyone yet. If you think you know something—?”

From her body language, Torrent could see the woman’s insecurity and doubt. She shook her head. “No, I’m sure you have it covered.”

Though Michael was curious to hear her thoughts, he didn’t press the issue. There would be enough time later, and at the moment, he was just happy she was there to keep him company.

“Do you think there will be another bombing soon?” she asked, her eyes focused on the uptown lights in the distance.

“There were no formal protests or rallies today. I’m hoping we’ll have another quiet night.”

The two stared out in silence at the city. Dark Flame shifted her feet. “I never got a chance to thank you.”

“For what?”

“For taking me to the hospital when I got those bee stings. I really thought I might die. But I felt safe with you.” She glanced up, her eyes locking on his. “I always feel safe with you.”

It was Torrent’s turn to blush. “I had to. I couldn’t let anything happen to you.”

The woman stepped closer, her hand moving to his chest. “Thank you.” Grasping his cape front, Dark Flame pulled his mouth to hers. The kiss was deep, passionate. Torrent felt his heart race, instinct causing him to wrap his arms around her. Her breath was sweet and tasted like mint, and Torrent found himself liking it, wanting it, until he remembered...

“No,” he gasped, pushing her back. “We can’t do this.”

It took a moment for Dark Flame to come down from the high. There was confusion in her eyes. “But, I thought you wanted—”

“I do,” he said, then blurted. “I mean, I did. I mean, that was before—” He clenched his fists, turning away in embarrassment.

The female crimefighter glanced down, rubbing her fingers across her lips. “You’re gay, right?” She turned, cringing. “Oh, God, I was worried about that. You and Overcast.”

“No,” Torrent stammered, then more powerfully, “No, not at all. Nothing like that.” He turned back, his voice lowering. “It’s complicated.”

Covering her face with her hands, she shook her head. “I’m so sorry.” Quicker than he could anticipate, she pulled her grappling from her belt, clamped it to the nearby ventilation pipe, and leapt over the building. A moment later it disengaged, disappearing along with her.

Michael stared at the spot where his sister had been, his heart still pounding in his chest. A part of him cringed at the realization that if she had done that a few months earlier, the outcome would have been very different.

Taking a deep breath, he waited a few more minutes to assure she was gone, then headed down the fire escape.