Sympathy 1 - Vignette

Every Cop is a Criminal

1 & 1/2 years ago, or thereabouts.

The old warehouse looked like it was on the verge of falling apart. Metal sheeting hung loosely from the roof, often held on by a single join. The windows that weren't broken were dirty with years of grime, and the walls seemed to almost be crumpling under their own weight. And if that wasn't enough, every single one of the buildings on either side of it looked exactly the same, stretched out in an unbroken line of griminess. 

Though, Flint Perez mused as he inspected the building from the top of the apartment block opposite, that might have been the point. No-one had probably been to this area of the docks in years, and even if someone did come by, they wouldn't expect anyone to be inside the abandoned warehouses. In another area of the city, there might have been squatters, drug dealers and 31 different flavors of criminal, but a combination of the nearby upscale districts and their prevalence of law enforcement officers, along with recent developments in the area, meant that Lakeside Avenue was a crime-free area. 

Flint glanced at his watch. 18:55, it flashed at him muted LED: five minutes left. He'd been waiting in his vantage point for nearly an hour now, and not a single person had shown up. No pedestrians, no cops, but more importantly, no other costumes. Either none of the supposed others had shown up early, or they'd found better vantage points than he had. 

Or, of course, the whole thing could be a trap. He'd been tossing up the possibility in his head for the last couple of days, ever since the encounter with the woman in white. On one hand, it was incredibly suspicious. A random costume approaching him while he was patrolling, acting like she knew him and then inviting him to a meeting? Flint may not have gotten the best grades, but he was far from stupid, and the whole thing set alarms bells going in his head. On the other hand, though... the way she'd talked, about doing something bigger, helping more people... he considered himself a pretty good people reader, and to him, she'd been completely and utterly sincere. Despite himself, he'd decided that he'd at least listen to what she had to say. And if it was a trap?

His fingers tightened around the handle of the short sword at his side. If it was a trap, she was going to wish she'd never tried it. 

The watch beeped as it ticked over to 7:00, and there was still no one present. He absentmindedly ran a hand through his dreadlocks, pushing them back beneath his hood, and blew out a blast of air through his nose. He'd decided he wasn't going to be the first one in, and he was willing to deal with being late. Better to be seen as tardy to walk into a trap. 

A humid summer breeze rolled over his neck, tinged with the slightest dusk chill. Just a few hundred feet past the warehouse, the sun's last rays glinted over the waters of Lake Michigan.

The completely still waters of Lake Michigan. 

Before the realization had even had time to fully form, he'd thrown himself to the side, tucking in and rolling across the rough concrete. He skidded behind an exhaust block, sword whipping out of its scabbard with a soft rasp. The metal clanked softly against his back, sending an echo ringing down through the shaft.  

A loud, sharp noise snapped out, and he instinctively ducked to the side, before realizing it was the sound of someone clapping. 

"Impressive. Not, like, sarcastic 'impressive', but actually impressive."

He sighed; he recognized the voice. "Oh," he said as he stood up from behind the block, "it's you."

The woman in white stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded across her chest. Seeing her in better lighting, he realized that the trim that he'd thought was black was actually a bloody crimson, marking the edges of the plated armor she wore as well as the cape draped down her back. She was taller than he was and full-figured, but the mask that covered her face made it hard to guess her age. Probably mid-twenties, if he had to estimate. Oddly-styled red hair fell down to her shoulders: ordinary ginger on one side, and a deep glossy red on the other. He couldn't imagine any way that it could be real; it'd be nearly impossible to conceal in her civilian identity.

He pointed the sword at her warily. "What, exactly, did you think you were going to achieve by sneaking up on me?" he asked, glaring at her. 

She shrugged nonchalantly. "I wanted to see how well you'd react, that's all."

"Really," he said flatly.

"Yep, really. What tipped you off, if I'm allowed to ask?"

He considered not telling her, but decided it couldn't hurt. "The breeze," he said, gesturing out at the lake. "The water was perfectly still, and it hadn't been windy at all before."

"And what if the wind had just picked up?" she asked, sounding amused.

It was his turn to shrug. "Then no harm done. You're lucky I did, though. If you were closer, I'd probably have gored you on instinct."

She laughed softly. "I'm sure you would have tried," she said kindly. 

He bared his teeth, and whipped his left hand forward, the one not holding the sword. There was a soft chink as the shuriken he'd concealed in his palm buried itself in the ground in front of her foot. She jumped back, swearing. 

"I could have put that in your gut," he said in a controlled, measured tone. "Don't condescend at me, lady, or I will make you regret it."

She looked down at the shuriken, then up at him. And then she laughed. His grip on the blade's handle tightened, and he began reaching for another projectile. 

She noticed his reaction, and held up her hands, gesturing submission. "Sorry, sorry. You're right, that was uncalled for." There was still some amusement in her tone, but he slowly lowered his hand. "It's just... the whole ninja thing. Throwing stars? That scarf? And what is that, a shoto?" 

He blinked in surprise. "...yeah. How did you..."

"Internet," she said, waving a hand dismissively. "Seriously though, what's that whole thing about? You're obviously not Asian," she said, obviously referring to his dark skin. 

He gave a small, noncommittal gesture. "I worked with what I had available."

"And what you had available was shurikens and a short sword? You look like you escaped from the Karate Kid reboot."

Despite himself, a small chuckle escaped his throat. She pointed accusingly. "I heard that, Mr. 'Look-at-how-angry-and-moody-I-am'."

He glared at her. She didn't seem fazed. "Come on, let's get down there. We're already late," she said as she strode past him. She stopped at the edge of the roof, and turned back towards him. "Are you coming or not?" she asked. 

He looked over the edge, and at the street below. "I think I'll stick with the stairs."

She shrugged. "Suit yourself," she replied, and stepped backwards off the edge.

He watched as she fell, oddly slow, towards the pavement. When she landed, it looked less like a human body that had just fallen 12 stories and more like a feather that had gently come to a rest. She turned around and saw him looking down, waved, and crossed the street towards the meeting point. He waited a minute, then walked back towards the door to the stairwell.

He descended slowly, checking every corner before he rounded them. Just because she hadn't attacked him on the rooftop didn't mean it wasn't still a trap. When he got to the ground level, he paused in the lobby for a second, gathering his wits, then sprinting out across the road, weaving and juking in case of any ranged attackers. 

There apparently weren't any, or they were biding their time, and he reached the door unmolested. He pressed his back up against the wall next to the doorframe, and slowly pushed it open with his sword. The hinges creaked as it swung open, but there were no explosions or gunshots, so he slipped in through the crack. 

"That's a bit paranoid, isn't it?" 

The inside of the warehouse looked much like the outside had, except with more dust and debris. One of the support columns had fallen, and the section of the roof it had been supporting was crumpled and sagging in a manner that he didn't like the look of. A small amount of light was managing to trickle in through the dirty skylights, and it provided a scant view of the figures standing in the center of the room. 

There were four of them. The woman, a guy in makeshift armor who looked vaguely Indian, a white guy with no sleeves and a balaclava and goggles, and a figure of indeterminate gender in full combat gear. The voice that had spoken had been male and sounded fairly proper and English, so he guessed it was the Indian-looking one.

"There's no such thing as too paranoid," he said to the figure. "There's paranoid enough, and there's dead."

His guess had been wrong: the white guy, Balaclava, opened his mouth and replied. "That doesn't seem like the healthiest of mindsets to be living by."

Flint fixed him with a glare. "I'm a vigilante. They really are all out to get me."

The Indian guy snorted. "Wow. Who invited this clown? What, you think you're a ninja or something?"

"Foresight, please," said the woman in white, holding up a hand in a forestalling gesture. "I invited him, like I did everyone else. As for why, if you'd join us," she said to Flint, "I'll begin."

He cautiously approached the group, until they were standing in a loose circle, a few feet between them. 

The guy snorted at him, but didn't say anything else, just folding his bulky gauntlets over his chest.

"So," she said. "Welcome. In case you hadn't guessed, I invited you here because you're all the vigilantes of this city." We all looked at her silently. "Not the only ones," she amended, raising her hand, "or even the highest profile ones, but the point still stands. You've all managed to stay under the radar, mostly dealing with your own areas, and it took a significant amount of time for me to track you down."

The figure in combat gear spoke up, revealing themselves to be female. "Why don't ya just fuck right off, ya snooty bitch. If we wanted ta hear shit we already knew, we'd be atta school." Now there was a sentiment Flint could get behind. He had to wonder about her accent, though; it didn't sound like any he'd ever heard. She'd pronounced three uses of the same sound three different ways, and there didn't seem to be any sort of pattern to it. Maybe it was intentional, a way of hiding her voice?

The woman raised her hand again; it seemed to be a habit of hers. "There is a point, I promise, and I'm getting to it. In case you hadn't guessed, I'm one of you, or I at least do the same thing, but I've not been so under the radar. Have any if you heard of the Steelmill Phantom?" Flint vaguely recalled hearing something about it on the news a few weeks ago, but he hadn't paid any attention to it, brushing it off as more Tower business. The rest of them either nodded, shook their heads, or shrugged. "Well," she said, spreading her arms, "you're looking at her. I've been giving the so-called 'heroes' a bit of trouble in the area, and apparently they've decided I've warranted a name."

"How much trouble?" asked the gauntlet guy (Foresight, she'd called him) suspiciously. 

Her posture shifted slightly, and although he couldn't see it, it was obvious to Flint that a huge grin covered her face. "I was stopping a mugging when Fog and Thrust showed up and tried to bring me in. I refused. They tried to make me come anyway, and I… nicely convinced them not to."

Flint gave a low whistle. Fog and Thrust belonged to the Guardians, the local Tower's junior hero team. But junior didn't mean weaker, and they were both tough customers: if this Phantom had 'convinced' them both, then she was either very lucky, lying, or really strong (or some combination of the three). But if she had...

He swore out loud, his sword appearing in his hand. "You lying... This whole thing! You just want us to be here when they find you!"

The others looked at her, eyes narrowing and fists clenching as the implications of his words sunk in. "Is that true?" asked Balaclava. "Because if it is, the next few minutes are going to be very unpleasant for you." There were angry murmurs of assent all around, Flint included. He'd worked very hard to make sure he didn’t attract attention to himself, and if this woman thought she was going to mess that up, she had another one coming. 

She took a step back, arms raised up in front of her like a shield. "Whoa whoa whoa. Hold your horses, people. I promise, that wasn't my intent at all.  Though," she said, “you did touch on a point that’s relevant to what I was getting at.”

“Then maybe,” he suggested sarcastically, “you should just fucking say it, rather than dancing around it like the prettiest ballerina at the show.”

“Aww, you think I’m pretty.”

He growled. “I will kill you. Right here, right now.”

She laughed again. “You are way too easy to rile up. But the main gist of what I’m trying to say is this: I want to form a team.”

They all stared at her for a second. “Is that a joke?” Balaclava asked at last.

“Nope,” she replied. “Dead serious.”

“Why?” Flint asked.

“Well, if you’d let me ‘dance’ a little longer, I would’ve gotten to that. Look, it’s pretty simple; ‘United We Stand’ and all that. We’re all working towards the same goal, and if we work together, our ability to do that increases exponentially.”

Foresight scoffed. “So, you want us to do what, exactly? Get matching costumes and get into fights with the heroes?”

“Nothing that complicated. All I’m suggesting is that we assign areas, keep in communication, that sort of thing. If any of us get into trouble, the others come and help out. That way, we can make sure that we’re covering the most areas, and we don’t have to worry about the Tower finding us.”

“I’m pretty sure we’d still hafta,” the armored figure of ambiguous nationality said. “It’s the fuckin’ Tower.”

Phantom snorted. “Please. They play up their rep, but they’re not a government agency; they can’t go around spying on people or anything like that. Besides, half of those pansies they call heroes haven’t been in a real fight in their life. The five of us? More than enough to take on anything that gets thrown at us.”

“And if we don’t like the idea of having things thrown at us in the first place?” Balaclava asked. “I don’t know if you’ve forgotten or if you’re simply willfully ignoring it, but the rest of us,” and he enunciated in such a way to make it clear as the not-so-subtle dig that it was, “have managed to be just fine flying under the radar.”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “I’m not expecting an answer right here and now. All I’m asking is that you think it through, and judge for yourself which way’s going to allow you to do more good.”

“Wha’ makes ya think ya can trust us?” Combat Gear asked. “S’not like you actually know any of us. We could jus’ stab ya in the back or something.”

“Maybe I’m just a trusting person,” Phantom replied easily. “Or maybe I’ve been watching you all for a while now and think I’ve gotten a good measure of you. Pick whichever answer make you more comfortable.”

“Telling us you’ve been spying on us isn’t the best way to get us to trust you,” Flint said suspiciously.

“Man, you’re just like a broken record, aren’t you?” she asked with a smile in her voice. “Do you want a big neon sign that says ‘I Have Issues’ or something? I’ve said my thing. Once you get home, look me up, and you’ll see that I’ve been doing exactly what I said I have. Put aside your own issues for a second and look at this… what’s the word? Um, without bias and that stuff?”

“Objective?” asked Balaclava dryly.

She clicked her fingers. “Yeah, that one. Look at it objectively, and you’ll see what I’m saying makes sense.”

He stared at her, then at the others. “This isn’t a joke, is it? You’re serious. You,” he pointed at her,” are actually serious, and you lot,” he gestured at the others, “are actually considering it.”

“You’re just now getting that?” she asked, sounding surprised.

Balaclava shrugged. “She does have something of a point.”

He threw his arms up in exasperation. “I give up. You’re all stupid, this idea is idiotic, and you’re going to end up dead or in jail because of it. Hell, now you’re probably going to get me dragged down along with you. So thanks a fucking bunch, but I’m done.” He turned away from them and strode towards the door.

“Oh, come on,” Phantom called after him. “You’ve got to admit that knowing who the other vigilantes are is useful. At least give me that.”

He stopped and sighed. “Fine.” He turned and pointed to each of them in turn. “Steelmill Phantom, works in the industrial area. Frequent gunfire in the slums means that’s probably Combat Gear’s stomping ground. “Foresight” sounds preppy as hell, so I’m assuming he’s working near the burbs. Balaclava, no idea. Happy?”

Balaclava spoke up. “Slums, in case you’re interested.”

“I’m really not.” He moved to leave again. “Have fun with your little suicide party.”

“What about you?” Phantom asked innocently. “Least you can do.”

“Yeah,” Combat Gear said, sounding annoyed. “’Specially since ya got all pissed about her watching ya, then turns out, you’ve been doin’ the same.”

“I haven’t been spying on any of you,” he replied, irritated, not turning. “I just did my research, specifically to avoid this scenario.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, not sounding convinced.

“If you really want to know, I’ve been working here. Stay out of my turf, and I’ll stay out of yours.”

“You got a name?” asked Foresight.

He snorted dismissively. “Names are for poseurs and arrogant shits.”

They all stared at him for a second. “Void,” the woman in white said flatly, tapping her chest.

“Flatline,” said Balaclava, sounding amused.

“Ricochet,” and she looked like she was death staring him.

“Names are kind of important these days,” Void said. “You might want to reconsider that stance.”

“Whatever,” he said, stepping out the door. “Don’t contact me again.”

He strode down the street, passing in and out of the pools of light cast by the streetlamps. Those idiots didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Sure, they might get something going in the short term, but he’d met good money that within a year, year and a half at the most, either the Tower would stomp them out, or they’d stumble into something bigger than themselves, and one of the groups of criminals would do the Tower’s job for them. And he’d had warned them, of exactly that. It was a shame, but what it wasn’t was his business. He’d just keep doing what he was doing, saving people.

So why did it bother him so much?