A Better Place
Dark Flame drove down the streets. The fact that a woman was out there, possibly in the hands of a killer, scared her to death. What would happen if she didn’t get there in time? Would she be able to handle the guilt if she was unable to save her? Her heart sank into her stomach.
“Okay, okay,” she whispered. “You have to calm down.”
Turning onto one of the residential streets, a light in a window caught her attention. Even though it was a nicer neighborhood, this particular block had been burned out years ago and not many buildings still had residents in them. It was odd enough to cause her to slow down... and notice the tan Civic parked in the back.
“Oh, my God,” she gasped, pulling into an open spot on the street.
Babs moaned, her head spinning. Whatever the man had sprayed her with had left her dazed and nauseous. He had picked her up, thrown her into the chair, and secured her wrists and ankles to the arms with a thick layer of duct tape. What she found odd is that he had placed her hands palm side up. There was a piece of tape across her mouth so she couldn’t scream.
Her eyes fluttered open and she could see clearly again. The man was looking at her. He didn’t look sinister. He didn’t look angry. He just looked disappointed.
“Prostitution is no life for a pretty girl like you. Such low self-esteem. Such low morale. You need to be freed of this burden, to go on to a happier place.”
The words sent shivers down Babs’s spine, even before the man pulled out the straight razor. Staring at the weapon, she began to thrash in the chair, her screams muffled. Though she realized that even if she had managed to cry out, no one was around to hear her. She had walked into the perfect place to be murdered.
Tears streamed from her eyes. Her heart pounded in her chest as the man moved forward, holding the silver blade in front of her face. He started to rub her wrists. However, he didn’t slice. Instead, his face twisted and he began to stroke her cheek. “You are so pretty, dear. So pretty. Perhaps I should have kissed you first. Perhaps I should have...” His face flushed as he fumbled with the zipper on his pants and began to masturbate.
The door to the building was locked. Dark Flame didn’t want to take the time to break it in, nor did she want to make noise and tip the killer off to her presence. The building had no fire escape, so she resorted to her grappling. Shooting it onto the roof, she scaled the wall and stopped at the second level. Through the window she could make out a woman tied to a chair, a man standing over her... and something sharp in his hand.
Tensing, she kicked out twice, swinging outwards. On the third kick, she aimed her feet for the glass.
Babs couldn’t see through the tears. The man had climaxed and then started sobbing. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. You’re just so beautiful.”
Please don’t kill me, she thought over and over. She wished he would take the tape off her mouth so she could beg for her life. She would do anything... anything to save herself.
The man shook off the haze and poised the razor above her wrist. “I know you wanted to commit suicide, but you couldn’t bring yourself to do it. Don’t worry, I’ll be brave for you.”
A loud crash came from behind the man, glass spraying forward and falling at their feet. Henry turned and growled. He was blocking her view, but Babs knew a superhero was there, and she wondered, could it be...?
“Get away from her,” the female voice shouted.
Babs was perplexed for a moment, then realized her savior was not the Black Torrent, but the Dark Flame.
Confusion filled the man’s eyes. “Why are you doing this? I’m one of the good guys.”
The crimefighter didn’t bother answering. Instead, she lunged forward, grabbing the man’s hand which held the razor. She managed to pull it back, but his grip was too tight. She twisted her leg and wrapped it around the serial killer’s. Again, he was too fast. He swung around and slashed with the razor. The masked woman cried out as the blade cut deep into her arm. Babs suddenly became afraid, wondering if she would have to watch the man kill the superhero before turning back on her. Fortunately, the pain had made Dark Flame angry. She turned and punched, catching him in the face. She punched again in the stomach, and again in the face. The man groaned, dropping the blade and holding his nose.
“You cunt,” he roared.
Instead of continuing the assault, the ginger-haired hero ran to the hooker and tore at the duct tape on the her arms. “You need to get to safety,” she said. She had just managed to get one of the hooker’s hands free when the man lunged. Babs screamed as Henry grabbed the crimefighter around her neck, poising the blade to slash her throat. Dark Flame managed to get her hand under his arm and pull free. She whirled around, kicking his hand and sending the blade from his grip.
Babs began to free herself, keeping an eye on the scene. She watched the two fight, punching and kicking. Then the man reached into his pocket.
“Watch out!” the prostitute screamed.
It was too late. The man pumped the mist into the crimefighter’s eyes: one, two, three times. Dark Flame screamed and staggered back, coughing and gasping for air, but not before lashing out and slapping the bottle out of his hand. The man scrambled for his razor on the floor, but the superhero dropped forward, falling on top of it.
Glaring back at her with sad eyes, Henry shook his head in Babs’s direction. “I’m sorry, dear,” he whispered and bolted out the door.
The female crimefighter was gasping, crying out. “My eyes,” she moaned, spatting twice, then vomiting. Babs was terrified. She was finally free and her only instinct was to run. But she knew the woman had saved her life. She had to do something.
Running to the caped superhero, the hooker helped her up.
“Water,” Dark Flame pleaded.
Babs led the crimefighter to the small bathroom, turning on the cold faucet. Pulling off her gloves, Dark Flame began splashing her face.
“Thank you for saving me. The man said his name was Henry and that he wanted to kill me because he felt sorry I was a prostitute. It was like he thought it was an assisted suicide or something. He said he wanted to send me to a better place.” Babs knew she had to give the woman details, to help her catch the killer. But she couldn’t stay. She couldn’t be there when the cops arrived. Backing up, she started to sob. “I’m so sorry.” Without another word, she rushed from the room.
* * * * *
Dark Flame, sans wig and mask, sat on the small medical bed. Michael pried her eye open, shining a light into it.
“Oww,” she cried, instinctively slapping his hand away.
“Sara, please. I need to look.”
Her eyes had burned so much that she had been scared to drive home. From the apartment, she had called her brother for help, right before calling the police. Torrent and the cops had arrived minutes from each other. While she was simply in too much pain to offer much help, she had managed to give a quick rundown of what had happened, as well as provide a sketchy description of the killer. As no homicide had occurred, the cops had reluctantly agreed to release her to seek medical care.
“Looks like the water was effective. They’re red with major irritation, but I don’t see any significant damage.” He switched off the light. “You may need to wear sunglasses for a few days.”
“Great,” she grumbled.
Her brother opened the nearby drawer, pulling a needle and surgical thread from the cabinet. He examined the deep gash in her arm. “This is ugly. You said he had a straight razor?”
She sucked in a ragged breath as her brother poured iodine on the wound. “Yeah. Just like the old barber shops. He was good at wielding it too.”
Michael started to sew the gash closed and Sara cried out as he caught the needle too deep. “Sorry,” he winced. “I’m not as good at this as Dad.”
“That’s all right, I’m here.” The elder man moved to his daughter’s side, concern in his eyes. “I got the tail-end on the police band. Are you all right?”
Sara forced a smile, but the mere presence of her father made her want to break down and cry. “Mostly. That guy got me in the eyes with a chemical. I couldn’t see or breathe, and I felt like passing out.”
Yule motioned to Michael, taking the needle from him. “But you saved the victim, right?”
It was a fact that Sara didn’t find much consolation in. “Yes, but the killer got away.”
“You can’t worry about that. You saved the girl, got a good lick in on him, and gave the police some information. That’s further than we were yesterday.”
“And I got this.” Sara reached into her utility belt, pulling out a small glass vial of liquid. “I didn’t want to bring the spray bottle because it was crime scene evidence, but I manage to get a sample of the concoction in there.”
Yule smiled wide. “Good girl.” He grabbed the bottle, leaving the needle and thread hanging. “I’m going to run some tests on this.”
The man left the room and Sara stared at her half-sewn arm.
“Guess I’m finishing this,” Michael saidwith a shrug.
Sara sighed and closed her eyes.
* * * * *
Even though the police were keeping a tight lid on the case, there was a leak in information and an article on the murders was printed in the Gale Globe. The details of the bound victims and slashed wrists prompted the killer to be deemed the Suicide Slasher. With the public spotlight on, and talk of the killing hitting all the news stations, the pressure on the police to catch the killer was mounting, and that pressure was rolling downhill to Team Torrent.
“What was in the spray bottle again?” Ravenswood asked. He had insisted on attending the team meeting, as Melody was off worrying about last-minute dress fittings and catering issues.
“A mix of household chemicals,” Yule answered. “Bleach, ammonia, and a few others. Mixing them creates a noxious gas that can kill you. The killer was able to come up with a formula that was diluted just enough to cause dizziness and nausea. By administering it in a thin mist, it wasn’t deadly.”
“But it burns the hell out of your eyes,” Sara grumbled.
“What about that apartment? Was that where he was staying?”
“No. Apparently it was being renovated, but work had stopped. This guy must have snuck in and set it up for this killing.”
The detective shook his head. “Well, it’s been four days since he’s hit. Isn’t that the longest stretch since the third victim? Maybe he’s going to lie low for a while. He knows things are too hot now. It may take him months to return.”
Michael shook his head. “No. Not this guy. He likes the killing. He’s getting off watching these women die. They found semen at the scene of the last murder attempt, so he’s starting to get a sexual thrill from this. You can’t escalate like he did and then just turn it off. He’s out there and he wants it. He’s not going to wait much longer.”
“So, the question is, what do we do?” Ravenswood asked.
Sara inhaled deeply. “I still think I should pose as a hooker.”
It was something his sister had suggested before, but Michael was adamantly against it, as was Yule. “No, I don’t want to go there. This is far too dangerous.”
“Listen,” the redhead argued, “I’ve seen the guy.”
“In a mostly dark room.”
“I know, but I’m sure I could make him out if I saw him again. I know how to fight. I’m going to have a better chance against him than an unsuspecting hooker will.”
Yule leaned back in his chair. “Actually, it may be our best bet.”
“What?” Michael asked in shock. “What made you change your mind?”
“Your profile. You’re right, this guy is going to strike again. As much as I don’t like putting one of our team at risk, Sara has a point. She’s going to have a better time of it.”
“If he picks her.”
“Even if he doesn’t, she can follow or get word to you.”
Michael stared at the bandage on his sister’s arm. “You really want to do this?”
“No... but I have to.”
Throwing up his hands, he grumbled. “All right, let’s do it.”
Yule nodded. “First we need to get her a disguise.”
* * * * *
Sara stood at Papa Bear’s corner. The hookers called it that because Papa Bear Barclay claimed it as his territory. New walkers and those without a pimp were tolerated, but competitor’s girls could get killed. Even though it was a volatile location, Michael insisted it was the safest place, as there was usually a crowd there.
To hide her appearance, they had settled on a long, black, curly wig, and oversized round sunglasses. Yule insisted on a bright red lipstick, which Sara thought made her look like a vampire. She was dressed in a tight black leather skirt, brown bomber jacket, and low cut tank-top. It was deliberately understated, as Michael insisted she be dressed-down to keep most johns away.
“Kiki,” she said in a Southern belle accent when she told the hookers her name. A few of the women were nice to her, but most left her alone. They didn’t know her, and from the whispers she could make out, most of them thought she was an undercover cop.
“Not too far from the truth,” she muttered under the breath.
She’d been walking the streets for two days and nothing had happened. She’d only managed to have one guy pull her over, and she had quoted him a price double the standard so that he would pass her up. Still, she needed to keep up the facade that she was real a hooker, and that was where Ravenswood came in.
The detective was driving his regular car, a dark green Ford sedan that was five years old and looked like it had seen better days. He was trolling for hookers.
Not really. He was looking for Sara, to drive her somewhere for a sandwich, then drop her back off at the same corner. When he had offered to help, he didn’t expect to be earmarked as the customer who would help make his teammate look like a real prostitute.
Riding down the street, he began to scan the crowd for the redhead. Some of the hookers were quite sexy, and he got embarrassed looking at them, feeling like he was cheating on Melody. Finally, he spotted a brunette wearing Michael’s leather jacket. Sara looked amazing, and he felt like shouting “Hey, great disguise!” but of course that would have given her away. He pulled over and unrolled the passenger-side window. He then realized he had no idea what one actually said to call to a hooker. “Hey!” he shouted.
Sara walked over to his car.
“Hey, um, um...” It was the high school performance of Don Quixote all over again. Ravenswood had forgotten his lines and his female counterpart had to cover for him.
“Are you trying to pick me up?” she said, pulling down her shirt so he could see the top curves of her breasts.
Ravenswood swallowed hard, then nodded.
Sara turned away, playing coy. “It’ll cost you...”
“Uh, I have money.”
She sighed and got into the car. “You’re terrible at this,” she whispered.
Sara cut him off by kissing him, long and hard. He alternated between trying to go along with it and panicking. A jumble of alarms and emotions tumbled through his brain, too fast to think of any one of them with any clarity. Sara is my friend, why is she doing this? I’m a taken man. She’s not really that bad of a kisser. Oh, my gosh, Melody is going to kill me.
When Sara ended the kiss, she pointed to the steering wheel. “Start driving, Tiger.”
Ravenswood looked at her incredulously for a moment, then shifted into gear.
“Why did you that?” he managed to sputter once they were a block away.
Sara gave him an exasperated look. “We needed to make it look real, you idiot. You nearly blew it.”
“Oh, right.” He felt stupid. “Sorry. I wasn’t ready. I just...”
Sara took a deep breath before answering. “I know the wedding’s a few days away. You probably shouldn’t be here with everything on your mind. It’s just not going to help if you blow my cover.”
“Sorry,” he apologized, his face flushing hot. He was quiet for a moment, then turned to her with a crooked smile. “You look pretty, though.”
All irritation gone, she smiled. “C’mon, let’s head over to the Drippy Donut and I’ll buy you a coffee.”
* * * * *
Sara continued to walk the streets. Different neighborhoods on different nights, with no luck She was starting to think that the killer may have gone into hiding for good. But Michael kept insisting that he wasn’t going to lay low for long. When a savage animal had a taste of blood, it was only a matter of time before it would strike again.
Tonight, she had decided to notch it up a bit, choosing tight leggings, a shimmering gold tunic, and a fuzzy white coat. She’d actually gotten seven propositions, six of which she overpriced herself out of, and one which was Yule, whom she drove around with for forty-five minutes before he dropped her back off at the same place and headed home. Even though she’d been at it for hours, for all the men coming and going, there was no sign of the Suicide Slasher.
Upset and frustrated, Sara had half a mind to call it a night when she saw a familiar blonde appear down the block—the woman she had rescued from the killer. Her clothing was streetwalker fare, but much more reserved than before, and she looked nervous. Sara didn’t blame her. She hadn’t been the victim, yet she still found herself waking with nightmares from the incident.
Lowering her head, Sara stepped back. If the blonde did join the others, she didn’t want to be recognized. It was bad enough the girls already suspected she was a cop. She didn’t want them to know Dark Flame was in their midst.
A car drove up and the girls began to primp their hair and pose their bodies. The blue Toyota stopped just short of where the group was. The driver scanned the crowd, then stared down the street. Sara squinted to see in the car. The man wore a baseball cap, dark glasses... and a flannel shirt.
The car shifted into gear, accelerating quickly. Sara turned to see the blonde hooker walking away. The man was following her.
“Oh, my God. He wants to finish what he started,” she gasped. Surrounded by other hookers, she tried to head in the direction of the car which had just turned the corner.
“Let me past,” she screamed, just as the sirens roared.
Three cop cars screeched to a halt in front of them, seven officers leaping out. “All right girls, fun’s over.”
Tammy Tamale turned and pointed at her, “I told you she was a cop.”
Sara couldn’t stop now. She struggled to get past the girls and head down the street. An officer grabbed her arm. “Un-uh, honey. No getting away. You’re coming in for questioning.”
“Questioning?” one of the other girls squealed. “You didn’t catch us in the act. You have nothing to charge us with.”
“We need to know what you girls know about the Slasher.”
Sara realized what was happening. In a round-about way, the city was taking it upon itself to protect the women. Except they were letting the killer get away!
“You have to let me go. Don’t you understand? The Slasher just went that way. He was driving a dark blue, 4-door sedan, going down Fullerton and turning onto Larabie, and he was following the blonde woman he attacked the other night.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” the cop asked, cocking his head.
Sara had been very deliberate in what she said, and soon a voice answered through the small communicator in her ear. “Got it. In pursuit.”
“Thank goodness,” she whispered under her breath, right before the scream. It came from the direction the car had disappeared. “He’s got her! You have to let me go.”
The cop tightened his grip, but motioned to a couple of officers nearby. “You guys go check that out.”
Frustrated, Sara wrenched free from the hold. She scanned the street, recognizing a heavy-set man in a trench coat. She rushed to his side. “Detective Pechyvych.”
He sneered at her. “Oh brother. What now?”
Sara switched from a Southern American drawl to an upper-class British accent. “I’m Dark Flame. I’m in disguise investigating the serial killer. I just spotted him going that way. You have to let me go!”
The officers who had gone to investigate, turned back around the corner, calling, “There’s nothing down here.”
Sara grabbed the man’s hand. “You have to trust me.”
Pechyvych’s eyebrow rose, and Sara was sure he was going to balk. Instead, he smiled and squeezed her hand back. “Dark Flame. Of course, of course. Go on.”
“Thank you,” she smiled.
As the crimefighter darted in the direction of the car, she could hear the girls hissing.
“Hey, I’m Zephyra in disguise. Why don’t you let me go?”
“I’m Coral Crayfish, I’m on a mission. Give me a break.”
“All of you shut-up!” Pechyvych cried.
* * * * *
Torrent let out a sigh of relief. He had started to panic when he heard the cops come in on the sting. It would have been quite problematic if Sara Wolff had been discovered posing as a hooker. His goal had been to speed over in time to plead her case... and invoke the Superhero Protection Act, if needed.
Then she had given him the details on the killer and he had no choice but to take pursuit. Michael had feared that without his intervention, his sister’s cover, and perhaps all of their identities, would be compromised.
“Thank goodness for Pechyvych,” he whispered, surprised those words would ever leave his lips.
Torrent had followed in the direction Sara had told him, but he worried the killer had too much of a lead. He was surprised when he quickly spotted a blue sedan driven by a man matching the killer’s description. The passenger side was empty.
“She must be in the back seat or the trunk.”
The car was doing eighty. Torrent realized a high-speed chase would be dangerous, so he kept a distance behind and hoped he could follow the killer until he stopped. However, the car didn’t head for a hotel or anywhere else in the area. It hit the highway, travelled twenty miles, then turned off at a forest area.
The man was going to take his victim into the woods to kill her.
Notifying the police, Torrent watched the sedan turn off the main road. He sped up, making it to the same spot a minute later. It was a nature preserve and the gate was locked. Beyond, he could see the tail-lights of the car in the distance. With a growl, he started to climb the fence to take pursuit by foot.
Babs sobbed as she felt the car lurch to a stop. There had been lots of sounds before, of cars and the city. Now it was silent. She could hear crickets in the distance, but beyond that was a quiet nothingness that terrified her. Her head hurt something awful. The man had hit her with a blunt object, dazing her, but she had managed to scream. She had also managed to claw at his face and pull his hair. If the police found her body, she hoped they would find his DNA. If she had to die, she was going to make sure she helped stop the killer somehow.
But she didn’t want to die.
The man had bound her arms with cording and shoved a rag in her mouth. Now, as the trunk opened, he grabbed her and pulled her out.
“I’m really sorry I had to hit you,” he apologized. “I didn’t think you’d come with me again. It’s okay that you scratched me, you were scared.” He placed her on her feet, then grabbed a battery operated lantern from the trunk. He began to pull her along. “I work here, y’know. I help run the parks. It’s quiet here. No one will disturb us this time. No one around to hear anything.”
They walked quite a distance, into a clearing near a small lake. He pushed her to the ground, standing over her. “I’ve been thinking about you all the time. You’re so beautiful. I want to make love to you, like we should have the other night. Then I’ll make it quick, not like the other girls. I’ll help you go somewhere much better than this.” He began to unfasten his belt. “I love you.”
Babs didn’t know what to do, so she closed her eyes.
Hail Mary, full of grace...
Then the man screamed.
Babs opened her eyes and he was there. Like a knight in shining armor, Black Torrent had appeared from the shadows. The killer was disrobed from the waist down. Without access to his weapon or spray, he was at a disadvantage—though he wasn’t going down without a fight. The men sparred. As they fought, Babs realized that Torrent was moving deliberately. He must have talked to Dark Flame, must have found out how the man battled, because he was able to keep the upper hand with ease. Then in a fluid movement, he grabbed the killer, turned sharply and kicked down. There was a sickening snap as the crimefighter broke the man’s leg, sending him into shrill screams of pain.
Henry collapsed, rolling on the ground in agony.
The superhero looked at Babs, and in an instant, every bit of her fear melted away.
“Are you all right?” he asked as he pulled the rag from her mouth.
For a moment, Babs forgot how to speak. She finally swallowed and nodded. He helped her up, but her head was still woozy and her legs sagged.
“Whoa,” he said, his arms wrapping around her waist.
A flashlight shone and a police officer appeared from the trees. “Holy shit. Sorry, Torrent, we’re trying to get through that gate back there. We’ll have squads here soon.”
“You have your killer,” he growled, gesturing to man thrashing on the ground. In a motion, he scooped Babs into his arms. “I’m going to get her out of here. She needs medical care.”
“No, I don’t—” Babs started to argue, then quieted. Losing herself in the man’s deep blue eyes, she let him carry her from the clearing.
They walked for a while and the hooker found herself snuggling deep into his hold. She fought to hold back the tears. There was something wrong that her fantasy of meeting the Black Torrent should be mixed with the terror of almost being killed. She closed her eyes.
The crimefighter brought her to the gate, which was finally open. There was one squad car waiting, the officer talking on his radio. More sirens sounded in the distance. Torrent didn’t get close to the exit. He stayed back, away from the road. When he spoke, his tone was stern. “The rest of the police should be here soon. You’re going to have to talk to them this time. No sneaking away.” His eyes softened. “I promise I won’t let them hurt you.”
Without a word, Babs moved forward, her lips meeting the man’s. There were only four men in her life that she had kissed with true meaning—Torrent was one of them. As her mouth pressed against his, she was surprised that he didn’t fight. Instead, he leaned into it for a moment before pulling back.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I felt faint and thought I needed a little mouth to mouth.”
A smirk cornered his lips, and Babs decided that she had never seen a cuter smile in her life.
“Are you okay now?” he asked.
“I think so.” Studying his face, she ran her finger across his jaw. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Then she began to cry.
* * * * *
Yule ran the surgical scissors under the stitches, slicing them apart. He removed the pieces with a pair of tweezers. “Looks good,” he said, examining the wound. “Healed nicely. But you’re going to have a mark.”
“Another battle scar,” Sara muttered as she rubbed the faded remnants of the burns on her wrist.
“Don’t ask Dad to show you his,” her brother laughed. “We’ll be here for three days.”
The redhead moved to the mirror to look her arm. “So, what happened to the killer?”
Michael grimaced. “The medics thought he was unconscious in the ambulance. He managed to overcome one of them and grabbed a scalpel, shoved it through his own throat. They couldn’t save him.”
“Some criminals don’t want to be caught, at any cost,” Yule said with a shake of his head.
Sara swallowed hard. “Do they have any idea why he did this?”
“The only thing they can find is that he liked this girl in high school. Apparently, she got into prostitution and drugs and ended up overdosing. He was devastated by it. The police think he dealt with the loss by convincing himself the girl went on to a better place and was happier.”
“So he thought he’d go around mercy killing other prostitutes. Creepy.” Sara let out a sigh. “Well, I’m just happy it’s all over. I’m also glad that girl is all right. She was too pretty to be a hooker.”
Michael gazed off into the distance. “I thought so, too. Too bad a woman like that has to get into prostitution. I wish someone could help her.” His voice trailed off.
“Well, she survived the Slasher. Whatever may be, that was a positive.” Scanning to make sure everything was tidy, Yule clasped his hands in front of him. “So another case solved by Team Torrent.”
“With the help of Team Dark Flame,” Sara said with a grin.
“So what now?” Michael asked.
Sara clutched at her stomach. “I don’t know about you, but I’m famished. I want to get something to eat.”
“All right,” Yule agreed. “Dinner. My treat. How about Cardisio’s?”
“Oh no,” Sara said, raising her arms. “I don’t want another lap full of spaghetti.”
“The Golden Pestle is good,” Michael suggested.
“I totally have a craving for the Burger Shack,” Sara admitted.
Michael groaned. “That place is a greasy dive. No way.”
The elder man smiled. “The Burger Shack sounds great. I could go for a double bacon cheeseburger about now.” He looped his arm for his daughter to grab.
“You aren’t serious, are you? Dad? Sara?” Grumbling, he watched as they headed for the door. “C’mon. You guys are killing me here.” The two exited and Michael reluctantly followed. “Do they have salads on the menu?” he asked as the door shut behind them.