8FOLD/ACRA: Jolt City # 18, War of the Balloonists! (part one of two)

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Tue Sep 29 22:55:33 PDT 2009

   A hot-air balloon rises out of Jolt City, bearing a reluctant
passenger into the clouds!-- for Blue Boxer, partner to the Green
Knight, clutches precariously to the side of the basket, dozens of
feet above the ground-- and counting!
   In the basket sits the corpulent form of the Balloonist; with one
hand, he uncoils the luxurious curl of his moustache; with the other,
he trains a deadly ray gun-- not on the Blue Boxer, nor at the earth-
bound Green Knight, who dodges its wayward blast with ease-- but at
another queer costumed figure-- a spindlely sketch of a man who
deflects the blast with a modeling-balloon shield!
   "It was my name first!" cries the air-born Balloonist.  "And I will
kerfuffle any pretenders to my throne, you presumptuous popinjay!"
   "But I deserve the name!" asserts his rival.  "All men quake with
fear at my living menagerie of evil balloon animals!-- the persnickety
pets of the sinister twister, the Baron of Busking-- the one true
   What will be the outcome of this anthroponymic antagonism?  And
what will become of our two heroes as they find themselves caught in
the middle of the...


    ////  //////  /// //////  ////// /// ////// \  //
// ////  //  //  ///   //    ///    ///   //     \//# 18
//////  //////  ///// //    ////// ///   //      // PT.1

Thursday the thirty-first of January, aught-eight.  JCU.
   Doctor Fay asks Derek to stay after class.
   "I don't think I've been causing any kind of disruption," says
Derek, slinging his book-bag over his shoulder as he approaches her
desk.  "And I know there's nothing wrong with my work."  (Did that
sound too conceited?)
   "No," says Dr. Fay with a practically carnivorous smile.  "Your
work is good.  It's excellent.  Three weeks into the semester, and
you're top of the class, easy.  And that's why I was wondering if come
the fall you'd like to be part of my AATS group."
   "Oh, wow," says Derek.  "I don't know.  Um.  Do I have to decide
right now?"
   "Not right away," says Dr. Fay.  "But soon.  I only have four slots
open, and I can't exactly set one aside for you.  It wouldn't be fair
to other students.  So try to let me know in the next week or so."
   "Thanks, Dr. Fay," says Derek.

City streets, en route to lunch.
   He's excited about the opportunity-- no doubt about that.  The tech-
geek in him swoons at the thought of AATS.  And he doesn't see any
drawbacks right off the bat; it won't eat up any more time than the
three classes he's taking this semester.  He doesn't think it will
draw too much attention to himself, either: just because Blue Boxer is
going to use a lot of tech once he's first-app'd doesn't mean people
will draw a line necessarily from the Boxer to Derek; with Dr. Fay
already established as a tech supplier for the Green Knight, many will
assume she'll do the same for his crime-fighting partner.
   So why didn't he say yes?  Because he knows he has to clear it with
Martin first.  Not that Martin is going to raise any objections (he
won't).  But Martin still has the final say in what Derek does with
his life outside the costume, despite the fact that his life inside
the costume hasn't started yet.  Yet.
   That's going to change in five, four, three, two----

   Kaboom! Derek hears the cacophonous lovemaking of aluminium and
potassium chlorate and spies its white flashing orgasm mere fractions
of a second before the shockwaves of its afterglow send him sprawling
onto the cement.  Derek jerks his head to the right in time to see a
hot air balloon birthed from the explosion's terrible uterus of fire.
>From the balloon's apparently fireproof basket, a heavy-set man in a
moustache and top hat looks over the burning remains of the Triangle T-
Shirt Company.  It was condemned by Jolt City's Building and Safety
department last July; it would have been empty; good.  Derek gets up
and runs into an alley between two restaurants.
   He turns the corner and hides himself behind the restaurant's
dumpster.  A wall sequestering the business end of the block from the
residential provides additional cover.
   He begins in haste.  He opens the secret compartment in his book
bag and spills out his union suit and his action bag.  He slips on the
gloves first to prevent leaving any prints.  He pulls off his pants,
doffing his socks and shoes in the same fluid motion (that took a lot
of practice to get right, boy howdy); he brings his union pants up and
takes off his shirt with the same economy.  The union shirt comes on
and he scoops up his mask as the back door opens: a restaurant
employee with two bags of garbage for the dumpster.
   "Gah!" cries Derek, spinning away from him, flustered.  It takes
him three tries to get the mask on.
   "Sorry, man," says the employee as he heaves the bags over Derek's
head into the open dumpster.  By the time they land, Derek already has
his utility belt and action bag attached.  With some difficulty, he
slips on the padded outer gloves and boots (he dropped the kneepads
last month).
   "Um," says the employee, "so, are you new or...?"
   "Yes.  Blue Boxer, Green Knight's partner, in a hurry, can't
talk."  Derek leaps up, grabs the edge of the dumpster, swings himself
over its chasm, and catapults off the lid.  He grabs the edge of the
roof, pulls himself up, and is on his way.
   The employee scratches his head.  "The Green Knight is gay?"

   Derek catches sight of the balloon, now about a block ahead of
him.  He breaks into a sprint and leaps to the next rooftop.  (Don't
fall.)  Hup.  (Don't fall.)  Hup.  And another.  (Don't-- oh dear.)
   He catches the ledge with his right arm, wrenching his shoulder.
(Oh, wow, that hurts.  That hurts a lot.)  He tries to swing his left
arm up to grab ahold of the ledge, but he can't quite manage it.
   His bleeper goes off; he taps the compartment on his utility belt,
and it slides open, revealing the bleeper and its message: it's from
Martin; it's the code to activate the comm-line.  Derek taps his
earpiece twice.
   "Green Knight?"
   "You busy?"
   "Uh, no.  Just hanging around.  Um, literally.  I'm hanging off the
side of a building with one hand."
   "Use your grapple."
   Derek mumbles something.
   "What was that?"
   "I said, my grapple's in my bag."
   "And you can't get into your bag right now."
   "Not so much, no."
   "Well, don't die or anything."
   "Trying not to."
   "Call 911." (That's three taps on the comm-line.)
   "Are you serious?  That's embarrassing."
   "Don't be stubborn," says Martin.  "I can't help you right now
because I'm fighting the Balloonist.  I was actually calling to see if
you could give me a hand."
   "Aw, man," says Derek.  "I already know about him.  I was on my
   "Well, you better call 911.  Maybe next-- oof!"
   "GK?  GK?"
   Derek taps off his earpiece.  Martin's in trouble, needs his help.
He's going to be damned if he's going to let him down, and he's
certainly not going to ruin his first-app by plummeting to a squishy
death.  Maybe he can get to his grapple after all-- if he disconnects
the bag from the belt, lets it drop, and catches it with his feet, he
might be able to swing it around so he can dig around through it.
(And while he's not about to admit that the bag was a bad idea, he can
readily appreciate how a redesign-- easily accessible pockets for
frequently-used items, for example-- might just be in order.)
   He disconnects the bag, feels it slide off his back, and swings his
feet behind him just in time to miss it by a mile.  It hits the street
below with a thud.
   That was graceful.
   He knows he doesn't have the upper body strength to lift himself up
with just the one arm.  He tries again to swing his other arm up, but
with no success.
   It's at that moment that a huge shadow looms over him; he looks up
to see the hot hair balloon passing over him as it ascends into the
clouds, Martin nowhere in sight.  If he had his grapple, he could fire
it into the basket, push the button, reel himself up to it, punch out
the Balloonist and make a daring capture in mid-air: a perfectly
exciting adventure for Blue Boxer's first-app.  But no.  The grapple's
in his bag, and his bag...
   ... is in the process of being stolen by a small child.  "Hey!
Hey, you!  Come back with that..."
   His bleeper goes off again.  Derek taps on the comm-line.
   "Green Knight, are you okay?"
   "I'm fine.  You?"
   "Still hanging here.  Watching the Balloonist get away in his hot-
air balloon."
   "What hot-air balloon?"
   "Wait, what?"
   "Where are you exactly?"
   "Uh, about three, maybe four blocks from Triangle T-Shirts."
   "But I'm at Cradle Plaza."
   "But that's on the other side of town."
   "We'll figure this out later.  Call 911.  Now."  Martin's comm-line
clicks off abruptly.
   Derek taps his three times.
   And then it starts to snow.

   The front page is dominated by a huge colour photo of the Blue
Boxer hanging off the building.  Headline: THE ACRO-BAT HE'S NOT.

Local television.
   "Sources inside the police department confirm that the two
incidents are apparently unrelated.  The suspect that battled the
Green Knight yesterday, designated Balloonist One, has sent the police
an audio recording denying any involvement with the Triangle T-Shirt
bombing by Balloonist Two."

Talk Radio.
   "What motivates Godfrey Granger, the man they call Balloonist One?
Did Anders Cradle's limousine liberal bias push him over the edge?"

Message board.
   mechinator said:
   "way i understand it, bb told this guy that he & gk were gay w/
each other."
   well that explains a lot mechinator b/c i mean why would someone
like gk pick a goober like that otherwise?? i hope he gets canceraids

Flash game.
   Check out this game based on Blue Boxer's first-app.  The object is
to jump from rooftop to rooftop without falling off.  Sounds easy?  It
is.  Too bad no one told that to Boxer.

Cat macro.
   i'm in ur union, hangin off ur buildin

   Police headquarters, Office of Four-Colour Relations.  Derek creeps
into work ten minutes late.
   Dani Handler, Jolt City's Official Four-Colour Liaison, is arguing
with a young man wearing what is either a halfway-decent homemade or a
shabby store-bought costume.  Either way, it's neon purple and
randomly patched with bits of fur, and those aren't the only reasons
it hurts the eyes; hastily-cobbled telescoping tubes jut out of his
arms and back, sagging and jittering like a slinky held in mid-air.
   "... but why does he get to be his sidekick?"
   "Because that's who he chose."
   "But he's ridiculous!"
   Dani catches Derek's eye.  "Well, I wouldn't go that far.  A bit of
a doofus, maybe.  But in the end, it's his choice and I'm sure he
knows what he's doing."
   "Maybe he's too close to it," argues the would-be sidekick.  "Maybe
he can't be objective because of his romantic feelings towards him."
   Derek quietly facepalms.
   "Look," says the young man earnestly, "could you maybe talk to him
for me?  Just, just tell him, y'know, if he wants to change his mind,
or consider a second candidate-- I'm available and I'm good.  I am.
You won't see me falling off of rooftops."  He thrusts a predatory
business card at Dani.
   She accepts it and nods and even he has to know that nothing's
going to happen with it but he departs anyway.  Derek and Dani watch
him leave.
   "So," says Dani.
   "So," says Derek.
   She reads the card: "Lance Ocelot."
   Derek nods, grimaces, and settles down at his desk.

   Just before noon (lunch), a woman strolls in with Blue Boxer's
action-bag over her shoulder.  She's not quite thirty, not quite five
feet tall, and not quite gamine.  Her thick black hair is drawn from
her high forehead into a ponytail that sashays in a counter-rhythm
with her hips.  She walks like she owns the place, like she's been
here before: absolutely fearless, absolutely direct, absolutely
   She drops the bag on Derek's desk without so much as an
invitation.  "My brother found this," she explains.  "I think it
belongs to Blue Boxer.  See that he gets it?"
   "Of course," says Derek.
   She turns to leave.
   "Um, can I have your name, please?"
   She turns back.  "No."
   "Well, really, we need to have your name," says Derek, standing
up.  "Anyone turning in any kind of package needs to leave their name
and, uh, contact info.  Just in case.  Safety reasons."
   "Sounds reasonable enough," she admits.  "But I'm afraid I have to
   "He won't get in trouble."
   "Who won't?"
   "Your brother," says Derek.  "However he, uh, came across the bag.
Blue Boxer doesn't care, he just wants the bag back.  So, your brother
won't get in any trouble or anything."
   "No," she says as she makes her exit, "he won't."

   At the first opportunity, Derek investigates the bag.  Nothing
appears to be missing; the secret compartment containing his civilian
attire was not compromised; nothing seems to have been damaged in the
fall.  Good, good, good.  He pulls out his SOA card ruefully.  Boy
howdy, could he have used that yesterday...

Thursday afternoon.
   By the time Derek's on solid ground, the snow has picked up
something fierce.  He's freezing cold and dripping wet; his shoulders
hurt and his fingers ache.  To top it off, the rescue workers don't
believe that he's the Green Knight's partner in crime fighting.
   "I've never heard of you before," says the man who operated the
bucket, vapors passing through the bristles of his unruly moustache.
   "Well, I'm just getting started," says Derek, irritated.  "This is
my... I guess this is my first-app."
   "Real prestigious," says another rescue worker (thinner, younger,
smooth-faced and, apparently, snarky).
   "Do you have any proof?" asks the moustache.  All business, this
   "I mean, you can ask GK when he gets here.  Or you can ask Danielle
Handler in the Liaison's Office.  She'll vouch for me."
   "You don't have an SOA?"
   "I do," says Derek.  He goes for his belt and then stops himself.
"I left it in my bag.  Bag got stolen."
   "What?" says snarky smooth-face.  "Some big bad man stole your
widdle pursey-wursey?"
   Moustache sighs: big exhale, plumes of winter vapor, heavy and
white.  "You're not the first kid I've pulled off the side of a
rooftop pretending to be the Green Knight's sidekick.  And sometimes
we don't get there fast enough to catch them."
   "I'm not pretending," says Derek.  "I've had eight months of
training..." He stops himself.  Probably shouldn't have said that;
specifics equal dots and dots are only for connecting.  "Well, it
doesn't matter what you believe.  I've got to go look for my bag..."
   Moustache grabs his arm.  "Until we get someone to vouch for your
identity, you're not going anywhere.  Except in custody."
   "Well, like I said before, if you call Dani Handler's office..."
   Moustache points at snarky smooth-face with the side of his head.
His coworker pulls out his cell phone begrudgingly and stalks off a
few paces for some auditory privacy.
   Roughly three minutes later, he returns.  "She wants to talk to
you."  He thrusts the phone towards Derek.
   Moustache still hasn't let go of Derek's arm, and doesn't seem
willing to relinquish it just yet.  Rather than awkwardly move his
free arm across, Derek lets snarky smooth-face hold the phone against
Derek's ear-piece.
   "Lt. Handler?"
   "Blue Boxer?"
   "You don't have your SOA card?"
   "That kind of defeats the purpose of an SOA card, doesn't it?"
   She sighs.  "Put the rescue worker back on."
   Derek nods to his captors and the phone is withdrawn.  A moment
later, his identity having been verified, his arm is released.
   At just that moment, Martin arrives.
   Derek turns to moustache: "Satisfied?"
   Moustache shrugs and the rescue workers make their exit.
   "If you had been here a couple minutes earlier, I would have been
saved a lot of hassle."
   "I'm just glad you're alright," says Martin.  "I did hurry here as
fast as I could.  Seems to be two Balloonists."
   "You think they're working together?"
   "Too soon to tell.  Two different crimes, two different sides of
town.  Mine tries to kidnap Anders Cradle.  Yours blew up an abandoned
building that, near as I can tell, has no ties to Cradle.  I wouldn't
rule anything out at the moment but... hang on."  He taps his comm-
link.  "Hi Dani.  Really?  What's it say?  We'll be right there.  Yes,
both of us.  What?  Really?  Huh.  Well, see you soon."  He taps his
link again and looks at Derek.
   "You don't have your SOA card?"
   "It was in my bag.  Some kid ran off with it."
   "That's why it's best to keep it in your belt," says Martin,
tapping one of the leather pouches that lines his own.  "Of course,
belt can hold pretty much everything you need in the first place..."
   "So, what'd she have to say?"
   "Police just got a tape from a Balloonist.  They think it's my guy
and they want me to check."

Martin recognizes the voice instantly.  It is crisp, precise, and
possesses no emotion.
   "I am the One True Balloonist.  A few moments ago, I attempted to
rectify certain wrongs committed against my person by Anders Ray
Cradle the Third, who is not a person at all.  He is a leech.  People
work for a living; they rise and fall by the sweat of their own brow.
Leeches profit off the blood of others.  The life of others.  He was
given every luxury, did not deserve it, and has squandered it.  I, on
the other hand, have been given nothing and have thus squandered
nothing.  So you see, I am correcting an injustice."  Still no
emotion: not 'cold' or 'chilling', just lifeless and flat.
   "And that is what separates me from this apparent pretender to my
name.  I am acting under a moral imperative.  I am destroying a
parasite that has bloated itself off the fame and genius of his
father.  And I will do likewise with all parasites, including those
who use my good name for succor."
   "Were they able to trace this?"
   Dani shakes her head.  "One of our guys found it on the steps,
wrapped up in brown paper.  We're checking the bag for prints or DNA
   Martin nods.  "Play it again?"
   It's played two more times before Martin turns to Derek.
   Now, Derek knows that anything he has to offer here, Martin already
knows.  And, chances are, Martin, being the more experienced of the
two, heard a thing or two extra in that recording.  And he knows that
Martin's only asking him to give him a chance to shine and to learn on
the job.  And he doesn't mind this, he doesn't mind it one bit,
actually.  But with Dani in the room, it feels like he's being put on
the spot.  And because of that, he finds himself suffering from
cerebral flatulence.
   "Uh, there's not a whole lot of emotion there.  Um, sociopath,
   "Fine, what else?"
   "Uh, uh, I don't know..."
   "What about the words he uses?"
   "Um... I mean... hold on..."
   "What do his words tell us about him?"
   "I couldn't... I mean he doesn't... I..."
   Dani clicks her teeth.
   The words escape Derek's mouth before he can think them: "Don't you
dare do that to me!"
   Dani arches her eyebrows, pointing the whites of her eyes towards
   Martin puts his hand on Derek's back.  "Let's just take a moment
and listen to it again.  Dani, if you could give us a minute?"
   "With pleasure."  She exits.
   "I'm sorry," says Derek.
   "It's okay.  I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
   Derek doesn't answer; he starts the recording again.

  Several copies of the audio tape are made; Martin slips one into a
pouch in his utility belt.  "Yep.  Room here for everything.  More
than enough."

Stately Cradle Manor.
   It's been just over two years since the deranged psychologist
Melvin Tightly, the so-called Green Night, blew up Cradle Manor and
held Anders hostage in the old Knight's Den.  Over the course of those
two years, the house has slowly but surely been rebuilt.  In passing,
Martin would note the wooden frames, the first bricks, the replanted
grass and transplanted trees.  And now, here it was, complete and
resplendent in the moonlight, rebuilt to Ray's original vision
(presumably sans secret sub-basement).
   And yet something seems different.  It seems less like a house and
more like a ghost: unreal, fading, sad.

   Martin and Derek wait in the foyer for Anders to make his
appearance, nodding somewhat awkwardly to his armed guards.  At last,
Ray Cradle's son descends the grand staircase.
   He dismisses the guards with a wave of his hand.  "I don't suppose
you've caught him?"
   "Fraid not," says Martin.  "Mr. Cradle, this is Blue Boxer."
   "Yes, I saw your photo," says Anders.  He mimics hanging off the
side of a building and forces a laugh; when he realizes that this
might be perceived as inappropriate, he lets his arms slump once again
limply and gracelessly to his sides.  He's been head of his father's
company for over a year and still doesn't know quite what to do with
his hands.
   "We received an audio message from the Balloonist," says Martin,
reaching into his belt to procure the tape.  "If you could listen to
it?  Just to make absolutely sure you don't know him?"
   "Sure," says Anders.  "Um.  Do you have a tape player?"
   "You don't...?"
   "It all got destroyed when the house did," says Anders.  "I don't
think I bought a replacement.  Everything's CDs now."
   "I have a tape player," says Derek.  He reaches into his
   "Oh," says Derek.  "It's in my bag."
   "I'll try to find one," says Anders.  "Wait here?"
   Anders calls for one of the guards and waddles off down one of the
hallways.  Martin looks about him, and his eyes light upon the top of
the staircase.  Before the explosion, there had been a painting of
Ree.  Ree: Ray's wife, Anders's mother, Martin's lover.  The painting
had been destroyed and was not replaced.  Ree was irreplaceable.
   Anders returns with a tape player.  They play the tape; Anders
doesn't recognize the voice.  "Sorry."
   "Are you absolutely sure?"
   "I'd help you if I could," says Anders.  "I assume if you don't
find him tonight, he'll try something on Saturday?"
   "What's on Saturday?" says Derek.
   "The Jordans are having their..." Anders squirms. "... thing."
   "The Society Ball," says Martin.
   "Yeah," says Anders.  "I missed it the last two years and I've been
told in no uncertain terms that if I miss it this year that side of
the family is going to disown me."  The Jordans were Ree's people.  "I
don't know if you're familiar with my Grandma Jordan..."
   Martin shudders in remembrance.  "Yeah, if my Balloonist is the
type I think he is, he'll probably try something.  But we can work
that to our advantage.  Maybe set a trap for him."
   "Oh boy," says Anders sourly.
   "Hey, don't worry," says Martin.  "We will get this guy."
   Anders just nods kind of dumbly, touching the scar on his left arm
with his right hand.  The scar that had been left there when Melvin
Tightly had tortured him.  "It's like I told you a couple years back,"
he says quietly.  "I don't like your world.  And I don't want to be
any part of it."

   Night is just beginning to fall when our heroes get an address from
Dani.  "Woman in the building reported seeing a living balloon
animal.  I'm sending some people to secure the perimeter, but since
we're not sure exactly how dangerous or how many these things are,
you're getting first crack at it, heroes."
   Martin nods grimly to Derek and, unicycles mounted, they slice
through the wet snow.

Apartment building.
   Some of the police snicker at Derek, but most just ignore him.
It's Martin that they're looking at: some with awe, some with respect,
some with contempt disguised as apathy.  The two adventurers leave
their unicycles next to one of the cars and head inside.
   It's a tall building as opposed to a long one, with only two
apartments on each floor, one door staring down another across a stale
white landing with two parallel staircases: one going down, one going
up, identical and symmetrical floors, landings, stairs, and apartments
all the way to the top.
   Our intrepid duo heads downstairs first, in case their target has
taken refuge in the boiler room.  It takes a split-second for their
eyes to adjust to the darkness; when they do, Derek makes out the
slightest sprig of an orange dress.
   "Excuse me, miss...?"
   "Oh!" she says, turning from her laundry.  "You startled me!"
   "Our apologies," says Martin.  "Miss, it's not safe here.  There's
a kind of creature..."
   "You mean the dog?  The little balloon dog?"
   "You've seen it?"
   "Seen it, hell.  I killed it."
   "You... killed...?"
   "Shot it," she says.  "Right in front of my doorstep.  Here, I'll
show you..." She pulls her laundry out of the dryer and heaps it into
a basket; the basket, in turn, she heaps into Derek's arms.  He barely
has time to be indignant before she heads back up the stairs.
    "My son Robert (that's his middle name, his real name is Preston
but he doesn't like it so we call him Robert, though right now he's
telling everyone to call him Byron) was due home from practicing with
his band and all of the sudden, I hear this squeaky barking and this
screaming, and I open the door, and there's this little... wiener
   "This your door?"
   "Hmm-mm."  There's no balloon animal.
   "Are you sure you shot him?"
   "Blasted him to smithereens," she says.
   "Look," says Derek.  "There's a... is that a piece of him?"
   He points to a small scrap of rubbery pink, struggling to hold the
laundry basket at the same time.
   "Miss," says Martin, "it'll be safer if you go inside."
   "I mean, I shot him," she says, taking the basket from Derek after
unlocking her door.  "I really did."
   "Just stay inside."
   She shuts the door.
   "Should we look downstairs first?" says Derek.
   "My gut feeling is that if she did shoot the thing, and it somehow
survived, it's unlikely it would have let her just do her laundry.
Let's sweep up all the stairs, then we'll start searching apartments."

   Three flights of stairs pass without incident; then, they see it:
elongated and frayed, an exploded mass of pink pathetic plastic,
splayed before a door.  As a reflex, Martin moves his arm behind him
to caution Derek to stay back before Martin steps towards it; Derek
bristles but holds his tongue.
   Martin jabs at it; nothing happens.  He touches its innards and
holds his hand there; nothing happens.  He picks it up by what used to
be its head; nothing happens.  "It's dead.  If it ever was alive.  Why
would it come here?"
   Derek's not sure if it's another leading question or if Martin is
genuinely looking for help.  Derek points at the eviction notice on
the door.  "Must've heard there's a vacancy."
   Martin rolls his eyes before pulling a large plastic baggie out of
his utility belt.  He drops the remains inside.
   "It's home," says Derek.  He points at the bottom of the door:
faintly, faintly, ever so faintly, there are tiny whimpering
scratches.  "This was its home.  It picked this door.  Knew this
   They're startled by some shouting from upstairs; it takes a moment
to register it not as fright or shock but an argument.  Martin seals
the bag and tries to turn the knob.  Locked.
   He knocks on the door a couple of times and gets no response.
   He reaches into his utility belt and procures his lock-picking kit;
he hands it to Derek.  "I'll let you do the honours."
   "Thanks," says Derek.  It takes him twelve long humiliating
seconds.  He hands the kit back to Martin sheepishly.
   Martin examines the eviction notice before opening the door.
"Godfrey Granger.  Let's see if he's our man."
   Martin takes the lead, quickly moving about the living room,
looking for evidence, listening for a tell-tale balloon squeak.  Derek
tries to help, but everything he thinks of looking at or for Martin is
currently doing, just started doing, or just got done.
   More shouting upstairs.  Apparently the man in the room upstairs
thinks the woman is sleeping around.  Martin sojourns into the
bedroom.  Derek stands in the living room and feels useless.  His eyes
light upon a stack of mail that Martin had shuffled through, and
wanting perhaps to appear busy, Derek decides to shuffle through it
himself.  Nothing but bills and credit card offers; no invoices for
modeling balloons, no personal correspondence.
      The man upstairs has evidence, he says, but then refuses to
provide it.  Martin exits the bedroom with what appears to be a helium
tank, further underlining how unnecessary Derek is.
   From upstairs, there is the sound of flesh hitting flesh and a body
colliding with a piece of furniture (sounds like oak).  Martin rushes
out the door and up the stairs.
   He knocks.
   "Go 'way," says the man.  "Ain't nobody's business but mine."  He
continues to beat her.
   Martin pulls back and slams into the door with his body.  The first
time his back creaks in agony.  The second time it is his shoulder
that complains.  (He's getting too old for this.)  The third time the
door is busted off its hinges.
   The man turns, sees Martin, and cowers.  "I didn't know it was
you," he says.  "Please.  Please don't hurt me.  I didn't know it was
   "You're not fighting a woman now."
   He punches the man hard, sends him flying across the room.  The
body hits the wall with a nasty thud.  Before he can even start to get
up, Martin is already upon him, grabbing him by the collar of his
sleeveless sweat-stained undershirt.  "Where is she?"
   "In the, in the bathroom... she locked herself in the bathroom..."
   "Don't move," says Martin.
   The man nods fervently.
   Martin knocks on the bathroom door.  The woman yelps.
   "Miss, this is the Green Knight.  Are you okay?"
   "I'm fine."
   "What's your name?"
   "... Jenny."
   "Could you come out here, please, Jenny?"
   "He's not going to hurt you.  I won't let him hurt you.  Will you
come out?"
   "I don't know..."
   "I'd like to see if you need medical attention."
   "I'm fine."
   "Could you let me see?  Just for my own peace of mind?"
   She unlocks the door.  Before she even steps out, the man is
inundating her with apologies.  She starts to back into the bathroom.
   "Not another word," Martin says to the man; he clams up right
   Martin reaches his green-gloved hand out to her.  She takes it,
smiling slightly, and he leads her into the living room.  He sits her
down on her couch and examines the violent blushing red of her cheeks.
   "I heard you crash into something," he says gently.  "Did you hit
your head?  Show me where."
   She touches the back and the left side of her head.  Martin pulls
apart the messy strands of hair and looks at her scalp.  No bumps, no
bruises, no blood.
   "I don't see anything there," he says.  "But I'd like you to go to
the hospital just the same, to make sure you haven't suffered a
   "No, that isn't necessary."
   "It's better to be safe."
   "I don't have insurance," she says.
   And those are the four worst words in the English language.  Martin
has nothing in his utility belt that will answer their challenge.
There is nothing he can say to counter those four words.  The silence
hangs there, awkward and heavy, and she sees the sadness in his eyes.
   "I'll be fine," she says by way of reassurance: "He's hit me much
harder before."
   Martin's eyes flit to her abuser.
   "I'm so sorry," the man begins.
   "Shut up," says Martin.  He turns back to the victim.  "Have you
pressed charges before?"
   She shakes her head.
   "Are you going to press charges this time?"
   She exhales; her lips flinch upwards in the slightest indication of
an ironic smile.  Then she shakes her head.
   "Is there somewhere else you can stay tonight, Jenny?"
   "Yes, with..."
   Martin holds his finger up to his mask.  "Just go there.  When you
come home tomorrow, we'll have fixed the door."
   "Thank you," says the woman.
   "It's the least I can do."
   "No, I mean, really, thank you," says the woman.  Her eyes well
up.  "Thank you so much.  And I'm sorry.  I know I should... but...
but I love him."
   But I love him. Four more terrible words, four more that he's heard
far too often.
   The man starts to get up.  "I'm really sorry.  It won't..."
   Martin stands up.  He just stands there.  It's enough; the man
melts back down to the floor.  His wife fetches her purse and her
jacket.  Martin helps her step over the door; Derek moves back from
the door frame.  Martin turns back to the man.
   "She's not pressing charges," says Martin.  "But if you hurt her
again, I will come back.  Do you believe me?"
   The man nods.
   "Thank you again," says the woman.  Martin escorts her out of the
building and to her car.  Derek follows up to the door of the
   Martin returns.  He looks at Derek, and Derek's not really sure
what the look means.  It certainly isn't a comforting look, that's for
   Then, finally: "Can you put the door back on tomorrow morning?"
   "Sure," says Derek.
   "Usually they'd get someone from D.P.W. to repair it, but since
she's not pressing..."
   "No, it's fine," says Derek.  "Be glad to help."  Wow.  That
sounded pathetic.
   "Back to Granger's."

   They find some unused modeling balloons and another tank but no
other animals.  Nothing that might hint at where Godfrey Granger might
stay after his eviction; no phone book, no scraps of paper stuck to
the refrigerator, not even a phone.
   Martin checks in with Dani.  "I think I got a name for Balloonist
One: Godfrey Granger.  Lives in the apartment building, recently got
his eviction notice.  Found a couple helium tanks and some unused
   "We'll see what we can find on him."
   "Good girl.  I want to have these tanks sent over to JCU, see if
Doctor Fay can give them a look-see, just in case there's more than
   "How's the Boxer?"
   "He's... he's fine," says Martin, turning his voice away from
Derek.  As if Derek doesn't notice.  "Um, we're going to sweep through
all the apartments, just to make sure, then we'll let you send in your
   "Keep me posted, and I'll let you know if anything comes up on
   Martin taps off his comm-link and turns back towards Derek.  "We'll
move faster if we split up."
   "What.  What if they.  What if they ask me for my SOA?"
   "You remember when we went over body language?  You walk like you
know what you're doing, then people think you know what you're doing.
If you stop and sputter around and slump, they're going to ask you for
your SOA card.   Be bold; be confident; be swift.  Movement is
dynamic, and dynamism attracts.  Now let's get going."

   "Can I see your SOA card?"
   "I don't have it with me," says Derek.  "Look, I'm with the Green
   "I don't see the Green Knight."
   "He's in that one," says Derek, thumbing across the landing.
   "Why do they get the Green Knight?"

   The only person with whom he doesn't have that same exact
conversation is wearing a white see-through blouse and has a lot worth
seeing-through to.  Her name is Barbara, she's just a few years older
than Derek, and she invites him in with a smile.  "No, no balloon
animals here.  But you're free to look around."
   He does just that, quickly exhausting the living room and the
adjacent dining room and kitchen.  He pokes into the bathroom, which
smells vaguely of incense.  "Just going to look in the bedroom," he
   He opens the door.  Like all the other rooms before it, it is free
of balloon life.  The only thing he takes notice of is a woman's union
suit hanging up against the vanity mirror.
   "It's just for fun," says Barbara, appearing behind him.  "I'm not
a villain or anything.  I just have a thing for supers.  A sexual
thing."  Derek's not sure if it's a bashful confession or a brazen
invitation.  She puts that question to rest almost immediately.  "Do
you think I'm pretty?"
   "Um, I'm not sure if I should be answering that question..."
   "You're not gay, are you?"
   "What, do you only like white girls?  I heard black supers only
liked skinny white girls..."
   "I like black girls just fine," says Derek.
   "Well, how do you like this black girl?"
   Oh, wow, this is shades of Erika.  Be careful, Derek.  "I don't
know you."
   "What I meant was, do you think I'm attractive?"
   Don't play it her way.  Stonewall her.  "Yeah, sure, you're
attractive..." Nice stonewall there, buddy.
   "You just saying that or...?"
   "No, you're very pretty.  You're a gorgeous, gorgeous lady."
   The silence this winter evening is summer-sticky.
   "You're really gorgeous," Derek says again.  "And one day, I'm sure
you'll make some lucky guy very happy..."
   "You don't need to brush me off," says Barbara.  "I'm not one of
those weirdos or celebrity stalker types.  I'm just kind of a sex
freak who'd get off on sucking your big fat superhero dick."  Her last
sentence is rushed and mumbled, as if she's an actress who's been
saddled with a line she doesn't believe in, like a little girl trying
desperately to sound like a grown-up.
   "Well," says Derek slowly, "that's, uh, that's a very tempting
offer, and I'm very flattered.  But I'm gonna have to pass."
   "I figured," she says.  "To tell you the truth, that's probably why
I asked."
   "Have a safe evening, miss."  Crisis averted.

   Martin's waiting for Derek on the landing.  "Got some info from
Dani.  Granger's a former Cradle employee."
   "But Cradle didn't recognize the voice."
   "In a company that employs over half of Jolt City?  Granger was an
assembly line guy any way.  Apparently, he wasn't cut out for it.  Got
canned a little over a year ago and his unemployment just ran out."
   "I guess we can call that motive, then."
   "She's going to see if she can get any of Granger's paperwork from
when he was working at Cradle.  References, emergency contacts, stuff
like that.  None of the neighbors I asked really knew anything about
him.  Kept to himself.  How about yours?"
   Derek didn't ask; he just looked for the balloon animals.  "Um,
none.  That is, they didn't know anything."
   "Hey, if it was easy, it wouldn't be fun."

   The line at the end of Granger's resume promises that references
are available upon request; apparently, human resources either didn't
request them or didn't keep a record of it.  The emergency contact
card, however, yields one name.

   "Charles Hoffman?"
   "What are you doing knocking on my door at eleven at night?"
   "I'm the Green Knight.  This is my sidekick, Blue Boxer."
   "I know who you are," says Hoffman (to Martin only).  "I repeat,
what are you doing knocking on my door at eleven at night?"
   "I wanted to ask you a few questions about Godfrey Granger."
   "Well," says Hoffman, "you can ask them in the morning."  He begins
to shut his door.
   Martin puts his foot in the door.  "I really insist.  Lives depend
on it."
   Hoffman starts to fidget.  "Godfrey's my cousin.  He stayed here a
while.  We didn't get along.  I kicked him out.  The end."
   "Was this before or after he got the job with Cradle?"
   "He got the job while he was living here.  When he lost the job, he
started getting on my nerves.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be
getting back to bed..."  He attempts to shut the door again.
   Again, Martin stops him while Derek stands there useless as a
brick.  "And you haven't heard from him since?"
   "Not a peep, not since I kicked him out."
   "How did he take it?"
   "Not well," says Hoffman.  "Let's just leave it at that."  He
starts to shut the door again.
   "You're not hiding him, are you?" says Martin.
   Derek blurts out: "Did he make balloon animals?"
   Hoffman glares at him like he's crazy.
   Derek, quietly: "Take that as a no, then."
   "You're sure you're not hiding him?"
   "Why would I be hiding him?" says Hoffman.
   "You look nervous."
   "I'm  not nervous, just a little cranky because some god-damn
yahoos in their god-damn pajamas are god-damn interrogating me at god-
damn eleven in the god-damn night."
   "I'm just going to take a look around."
   "Oh, like hell you will!"  Hoffman tries to slam the door; Martin
juts his foot in the frame.  "Do you have a god-damn warrant?" demands
   "I don't need a god-damn warrant.  I'm the god-damn Green Knight,"
says Martin.  He forces the door open, pushes past Hoffman, and turns
on his electric torch.
   "He's not here," says Hoffman.  "I already told you, he's not
   Martin darts down the hallway.  He peers into the bathroom, then
into the two bedrooms, waving his torch to and fro.  It lights upon
the face of a small child.  She awakes.
   "It's okay, sweetheart," says Hoffman.  "It's just the Green
   Martin's pulse quickens; is Hoffman giving a cue to his cousin?
   "Really?" says the child.
   "Yes," says her father.  "Ssh.  Go back to sleep."
   "Why is he here?"
   "He just... he needed to use our bathroom."
   Hoffman turns to Martin.  "Can I shut the door to my daughter's
bedroom now?"
   Martin nods.  He checks the remaining rooms and heads back into the
   Before Martin can mumble an apology, his eyes light upon the lines
of cocaine on the coffee table.  He lets his electric torch-light hang
there, hovering.
   "Oh shit," says Hoffman.  "Oh, fuck."
   Martin flits off his torch and hands Hoffman one of Dani's business
cards.  "If you have any other information about Granger, or if he
tries to contact you in any way, call this number immediately."
   Martin repeats himself.
   "Sure, sure," says Hoffman, a bit bewildered.
   "You might want to flush the toilet after I leave," says Martin.
"You told your daughter I was using your bathroom.  Don't want to
disappoint her."
   "Right," says Hoffman.
   "Be a good father," says Martin.  He considers saying more, or
punctuating the statement with a glance at the coffee table.  But
perhaps those words are enough.
   He makes his exit (Derek follows like a lady-in-waiting holding his

   "Uh, GK?"
   "Did we do the right thing there, with the, the stuff?"
   "I don't know," says Martin.
   "Is that a 'I don't know, you tell me' or a..."
   "I don't know," repeats Martin.  "We're vigilantes, so we don't use
warrants.  But if police went in there without a warrant, they
couldn't use that coke against him.  And since he's not who we're
after anyway... well, it's a tricky thing."
   "So it's more of a legal thing than a moral thing, right?"
  "Kid," says Martin, "everything is a moral thing."

Friday morning, before work.
   The Blue Boxer returns to Granger's apartment building so that he
can put that door back on its hinges.  He passes by Barbara's door and
recalls with some queasiness the offer she made him.  He passes by
Granger's door and notes the fresh and taut yellow police tape
cordoning it off.  And then, finally, he gets to the apartment in
question, the door still resting on the beige carpeting.
   Derek does a quick look around before he gets started.  There's no
sign of the woman; must still be at that safe place.  Her abuser is
sleeping in the bed, wearing the same greasy clothes he was the night
before.  Derek quietly backs away from the bedroom.
   What if the guy wakes up?, Derek wonders.  What if he tries to
start something with me?  Martin's not here...
   But why does that matter?  After all, Derek filled in as the Green
Knight for nearly a month without any sort of training while the real
deal was in prison awaiting trial.  And the night that Martin busted
out of prison and brought Dani back to life, hadn't Derek been there
all along, assisting?  Hadn't Derek helped in bringing down Samson
Snapp and halting the invasion of the Apelantians?  Hadn't he had
successful team-ups with a couple of visiting heroes and hadn't he put
some villains away on his lonesome?
   So why is it, not even a year later, that he found himself hanging
off the side of a building, helpless and stupid?  How is it that he
stood there like a jackass as Martin took out the abuser and took care
of the victim?  How is it that he's still, even now, a bit worried
about the fat schlub sleeping in the bedroom?
   He shakes his head and admires his handiwork.  Door's good as new.
He places the tools back into his plastic shopping bag and, not for
the first time, he keenly misses that backpack.
   He turns the lock on the knob before he closes the door.  He heads
down the stairs with a nod at Granger's door.  Hopefully Dr. Fay will
have some results on the balloons and tanks they found before the day
is through.  Hopefully they'll catch the bastard.  Hell, both of them,
hopefully they'll catch both bastards before the day is through and
the papers won't be giving him any shit about yesterday.  He'll show
them, show them that he's not just some idiot in tights, show them
that he knows what he's doing, show them that he's show them show them
show them
   He backtracks a few steps and stands in front of Barbara's door.

   He comes in her mouth; she lets it dribble out into the folds of a
paper towel.  She heads to the kitchen and tosses the paper towel into
the waste-paper basket.  He tucks his dick back into his pants, the
tip still slightly sticky and sore.
   Derek notices that Barbara is hovering over the waste-paper basket,
staring into it.  "Is everything okay?"
   "I'm fine," she says.  "I just expected it to be different, that I
would like it, since you're a four-colour."
   "Could you leave now, please?"
   He walks over to her and puts his hand on her shoulder.  "Thank
you.  It was lovely."
   "Please just leave."

After work.  Home.  Derek's basement workshop.
   Martin knocks before entering.  "Dinner's ready."
   Derek sniffs the air in trepidation.  "Dani or Pam?"
   "Dani.  Pam's had to go out of town on business."
   "Really?  Where'd she go?"
   "Some joker skipped bail this morning.  Probably went to Vegas.
She'll be a couple days."
   Derek mumbles something about Dani's cooking as he turns off his
   "Don't let her hear you say that," says Martin.  "See you got your
bag back."
   "Still going to use it?"
   "Nothing; I said okay."
   "Okay then."
   Martin looks at Derek's workbench.  "So what are you working on?"
   "Just finished.  New boots," says Derek, holding one up to the
light.  "They'll help me jump higher and farther."
   "What, they got springs on the bottom?"
   "No," says Derek.  "It's a tungstate ceramic.  If I juice it with
some electricity, it'll produce a converse piezoelectric effect."
   "It'll what?"
   "It'll expand," says Derek.  "There's more to it than that, but
basically, I juice it, it expands, I bounce a little."  He sets it
   "How're you going to juice it?"
   "I'll run some wires up to my belt," says Derek.  "You see, as I
walk, uh, normally, it compresses it, and that's direct
piezoelectricity.  You put stress on the material, and it generates
energy, and that feeds into the belt."  He picks up the belt he's been
working on.  "It'll recharge the torch, the built-in bleeper,
whatever, as I walk or run.  Then when I need a little help jumping, I
press a button and it sends a charge down to the boots from the belt's
battery and the material rapidly expands."
   "Doesn't that add a little more time to getting dressed?"
   "Not really," says Derek.  "It's the same as before, I just click
in the wires."
   "What if someone snips the wires?"
   "Well, I got to figure that out yet," says Derek.
   "You know, you probably could have made that jump if you didn't
have the back-pack throwing you off balance."
   Derek snits off his light and heads upstairs to dinner.

   Dinner is mostly edible.  He'll say that much for it.
   Dani's cell phone starts ringing.  She excuses herself from the
   "Hey, Derek," says Martin between mouthfuls, "you did get a chance
to go over and fix that door this morning...?  In the apartment
   "Yeah," says Derek.  "Uh.  Why do you ask?"
   "Just checking," says Martin.  "Guy didn't give you any trouble?"
   "No, no," says Derek.  "He just slept the whole time."

JCU.  Dr. Fay's not alone; Derek finally learns the name of the young
woman who returned his bag this afternoon.
   "It is my pleasure to introduce the glamorous Trinity Tran," says
Dr. Fay.  "She's a Med student here at JCU.  She's also slightly psi-
sensitive.  I asked her to come by to see if she could detect any kind
of psychic link or phenomena."
   "And?" says Martin.
   "Nothing," says Tran, pointing at the remains of the wiener dog.
"I was telling Dr. Fay that there is a trace of, for lack of a better
term, some life energy.  And some trauma.  That's to be expected
though, considering how the thing's dead.  But I can't detect anything
really psychic, per se.  But," and here she looks at Fay, "like I keep
telling you, I'm not an expert."
   "You're fine," says Dr. Fay.  "Miss Tran has to get going; she has
a hot date."
   Tran rolls her eyes.
   "Unless you boys have any further questions?"
   Martin shakes his head.  Derek follows his lead but waits for Tran
to make some kind of comment about the return of the action bag.  She
makes none.
   Once Tran's made her exit, Dr. Fay resumes speaking.  "If she's
right, then things just got very, very interesting.  Because if there
was some residual life energy, if it recorded trauma, but there is no
psychic link, then they're not just Granger's puppets..."
   "They're alive," says Derek.
   "The question, of course," says Dr. Fay, "is how are they alive?"
   Both Derek and Martin know Dr. Fay well enough to know that she's
about to answer her own question.
   "It's not the balloons," says Dr. Fay.  "They're perfectly
ordinary.  Which leaves..."
   "The gas in the tanks," says Martin.
   "It ain't helium," says Dr. Fay.  "What it is, precisely, might be
a question for my AATS class next semester."
   "It's extraterrestrial?" says Derek.
   "Or from a parallel reality," says Dr. Fay.  "All those Vibra-
Jackets on the streets last year, there was a lot of hopping back and
forth.  It's certainly possible that someone brought it back with
   "Do we know how it works?" says Derek.
   "I have a notion," says Dr. Fay.  "But, in case the thing turned
out to be dangerous, I thought it'd be best to wait until I had a
couple of big strong men around."  There's a sudden bubbling of water
in the large tank in the center of the lab.  "Oh, Alister," says the
good doctor to her Apelantian assistant, "don't be cross.  You're
plenty strong.  I'm just flirting."  Another furious expulsion of
bubbles.  "At any rate, I think it works just-- Alister, you're being
ridunkulous-- just like blowing it up with helium."
   Martin grabs a balloon and begins filling it up; he pinches its
withering meatus and ties it off.  He begins twisting the balloon into
   "What animal are you making?" asks Derek.
   "A fish."
   "Why a fish?"
   "It's the only one I know how to do."  He had learned it decades
before while working undercover as a born-again birthday clown in a
case that ultimately resulted with the apprehension of Reverend
Rapture and the collapse of his hypnotic doomsday pyramid scheme.
   "Oh," says Derek.  "It's one of those bumper sticker Jesus fish?"
   "It's still a  fish," says Martin.
   It's at that moment that the balloon jumps to life on the counter-
top, flipping about and fluttering on its side.  "It's alive, I
think," says Martin.
   The jittering becomes more frantic; the fish bounces into the air
and falls to the tile floor.  It continues to quiver and shake.
   "I don't know if I did it wrong...?" says Martin.  "Maybe there's
some other trick to it?"
   "Maybe," says Dr. Fay.  "Maybe the gas has become unstable..."
   "It's a fish," says Derek.
   "Yes, and?" says Martin.
   "It's a fish out of water," says Derek.  "It's suffocating.  It's
   Fay starts to reach for it.  Martin grabs her wrist.  "It might
attack.  Let's all just step back and wait."
   The three of them step away from the fish as it slowly jerks and
flops in the dying winter sunlight.  It's no longer so erratic or
frightening.  Less like an epileptic and more like an eerie dance,
half-remembered and performed half-heartedly, listlessly; it no longer
gasps for oxygen-carrying water but merely goes through the motions of
doing so.  No longer fights for life but still plays its part because
there is nothing left to do with the short pathetic span of time that
has been afforded to it.  A final series of bounces, followed by a
final series of barely imperceptible shakes, followed by nothing at
   Martin approaches it warily and ascertains its lifelessness with a
few pokes of his finger.  He reaches into his belt, pulls out a pin,
and stabs it gently in its plastic tube of a belly.  The air squeaks
out, wheezing and whispering.  He picks up the wilted carcass and
drapes it on Fay's counter-top.
   Derek is the one that breaks the silence.  "I thought you said
heroes don't kill."
   Martin exhales sharply, as if to laugh, as if there is a joke in
there somewhere, or at the very least as if he wishes there was one.


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