Chapter 3

 

The Dark Flame groaned as she stared down the empty street. She always hated the last leg of the journey home after crimefighting. Usually, she was tired and sore. Tonight, she was also in severe pain. Her arm was badly burned, and she was also shaken. She shuddered to think what would have happened had she not reacted quickly enough. A direct shot to the face might have cost her her vision... or a lot worse. As if that wasn’t enough, the whole scene had been witnessed by the Black Torrent. For months, she had tried to prove herself, to show the city’s top crimefighter that she was capable enough to stand beside him. Now she felt like a fool. When he had confronted her, she had wanted to cry.

Superheroes don’t cry.

Glancing around to assure no one was looking, the woman started towards the large building a half mile away.

In her early days of crimefighting, Sara Wolff had resorted to using her own car to get to her patrol areas, parking a distance away and walking. As she had become more active, the fear of her car, and her identity, being discovered, prompted her to find a different means of transportation. It wasn’t her first choice to use a motorcycle, but it was cheap and easy to hide. However, even with the installation of a silencer, she had still been concerned that one of the kids might see her driving up. So she had taken to renting a garage several blocks away and storing the vehicle there. It gave her peace of mind, but made the final trek of every evening long and hard.

Sara approached the brick and mortar building, glancing at the sign on the lawn. Above the brass lettering there was red spray paint, so the title read “Gale Home for UNWANTED Children.” She rolled her eyes and made a mental note to have the custodian clean it up in the morning.

The building was a large rectangular structure with a small unit tacked on. Originally, the addition was to house a separate medical clinic, but cost issues had forced the institution to abandon the project. When Sara had come on as administrator, she had converted the space to a small apartment where she resided.

Stopping at the back door, the crimefighter had just pulled out her keys when the door flew open.

“Oh, my God, are you all right?!”

Sara pulled her finger to her lips and pushed past the brunette. “You can’t yell like that, someone is gonna hear you.” She closed the door. “What are you doing here, anyway? Where’s Trevor?”

“Karen’s watching him.” Madge Sinclaire was Sara’s secretary, and friend. She was also one of only two people who knew she was the Dark Flame. “You said you’d only be gone an hour and it’s been nearly five. I was worried sick.”

Sara pulled off her bright red and orange wig to reveal darker auburn hair beneath. She held up her arm, revealing the burned and mangled flesh. “I ran into some trouble.”

“Holy crap, what happened?”

“Some punk sprayed acid on me.” Sara moved to the couch, ripping the fabric from around the wound. “I can’t believe I was so careless.”

Madge grimaced, sitting next to her friend. “That’s got to be a third degree burn. You need to get to the hospital.”

“No way. They’ll ask all sorts of questions.”

“They’re not supposed to. Especially if you go in costume.”

“Un-uh. I don’t trust anyone. I’ve got a first-aid kit; I’ll take care of it myself.”

Sara knew Madge wanted to give her a lecture. In fact, Madge had given her a lecture every night over the last two months about the dangers of crimefighting. Tonight, however, the woman simply rose. “Let me get the stuff and I’ll bandage you up.”

“Thank you.” Sara was relieved to avoid another confrontation, but she was even more relieved that her friend would care for her injury. The pain had gotten quite intense and she wasn’t sure if she could manage it on her own.

“Did you run into Torrent?” Madge called from the bathroom.

“Yes, and Overcast. I gave them the pictures. I don’t know if they’ll take them seriously, but they have them.”

The secretary returned and began to tend to the wound. “Are you worried?”

From the moment she had taken the pictures, Sara had been worried. They were taken while she had been attending a private party. With so few people there, if the photos were ever to leak out, there would be a good chance someone could piece together who the photographer was. Though her greatest fear wasn’t for her own safety. “I just don’t want them tying Martin up into this. I know he does some shady stuff, but he’s no terrorist.”

Madge unrolled a line of gauze. “Speaking of Martin, he called again. He wants to know if you’re going to that fundraiser with him tomorrow.”

Sara was upset, worried, and in pain. The last thing she wanted to do was deal with Martin Bling. “I can’t think about that right now.”

“You can’t avoid him forever. Besides, he’s been calling two or three times a day.”

“Good, let him know how that feels.”

Madge sighed and continued to work on the wound in silence.

Sara let out a sigh of her own. In the beginning, Madge had been against the idea of her getting involved with the notorious womanizer. However, as time had gone by and the secretary had gotten to know him better, her fondness for the real estate mogul had grown. She had helped the couple find time together, smoothed over several rifts, and generally supported their relationship. Even now, Sara realized she wasn’t trying to be pushy, but was hoping to fix the current drama.

“All right,” she relented. “Call him and tell him I’ll go. But I’m not happy about it.”

That was enough to make her friend smile. Madge clipped the white medical tape and examined her handiwork. “Looks good. Now what?”

“I go to bed.” Sara stretched, wincing as the motion pulled on her arm. “All I want to do is sleep until noon tomorrow.”

“Good. You need the rest. I don’t know how you survive on four hours sleep all the time.”

Sara didn’t either, but it was often a necessity and she just dealt with it. Though, after a couple of weeks of doing that, her body would protest, demanding a good night’s sleep to recharge. She was looking forward to that night being tonight.

A knock came at the door, then the doorbell. Both women panicked as they realized Sara was still in costume. Madge hurried to the peephole. “It’s Johnny.”

The one other person who knew her secret identity. “Let him in.”

Johnny Preston was seventeen years old, and one of the kids who’d been with the Home the longest. His long blonde hair was neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and he walked with his hands shoved into his jeans. He noticed the women’s tense expression.

“Bad timing?” He glanced at Sara’s bandage. “What happened to the arm?”

“Spray can of flesh-eating acid. The usual stuff. What’s up?”

The young man cocked his head towards the main building. “Kevin spiked a fever an hour ago. Stella’s sitting up with him, but he really wants you. He’s missing his mom.”

Kevin was the Home’s newest ward. His parents had been killed a month earlier in an automobile accident and the child had no other living relatives. For days, the boy would talk to no one, but Sara had finally managed to get him to open up. He’d confided to her that he felt responsible for the accident, since he’d been crying at the time the car collided with a pick-up truck. The administrator realized that in such a delicate emotional state, it was dangerous for the boy to feel alone or abandoned.

“So much for a good night’s sleep,” she said.

Madge gave her a hug.

Turning back to the young man, Sara smiled. “Give me a minute to change and I’ll be right over.”