Tony Prosdocimi lives in the bustling Metropolis of San Ventura – a city gripped in fear, a city under siege by the hooded supervillain, The Cowl.
When Tony develops super-powers and acts to take down The Cowl, however, he finds that the local superhero team Seven Wonders aren’t as grateful as he assumed they’d be…
It wasn’t until the following week that Tony realized he could fly.
He knew it was coming, of course. Well, hoped it was coming. Hell, the last week had been one wild ride, so it was inevitable – he dared to suggest – that the most glorious, most enjoyable of all superpowers would hit sooner or later. Typically, of course, it had been later, the last of his powers to manifest. But who was complaining? Tony could fly, game over.
Sure, he could freeze a can of beer with a glance and light the gas hob on his stove with a flick of the wrist. He could chop firewood up at his old man’s lodge in the hills with his bare hands. He also thought, maybe, that if the skin of his hand was like the steel blade of an axe, perhaps he was bulletproof as well. That would sure be handy in a city as dangerous as San Ventura, but hardly the kind of superpower you could just test, unless you were the kind of guy who got a kick out of Russian roulette.
A city as dangerous as San Ventura. The Shining City, right? Uh… yeah, right. Tony shifted his weight, trying – failing – to get more comfortable in the awkward squat in which he found himself on a warm Thursday morning. He wobbled, momentarily losing his center of gravity, but couldn’t risk moving his hands from the back of his head. But, under the black, empty gaze of the gun barrel that very quickly appeared in his face, he found his balance again and remained quite, quite still. Unspeaking, but apparently satisfied, the gunslinger pulled the barrel of his Kalashnikov upwards and walked on, the wet creak of his leather combat boots loud from Tony’s low position near the floor of the bank.
Tony really hated Thursdays. And didn’t this one just take the cake.
With the thug’s back moving away, Tony glanced around. A few desperate eyes were on him, wide and white, furious that he’d attracted the attention of one of the raiders, but relieved in a shaky kind of way that he hadn’t got them all shot. Tony wasn’t sure if an apologetic smile was appropriate, so decided not to bother and returned his attention to the cheap carpet tiles in front of him. A distraction came anyway as the leader of the robbers threw a few more heated words out of the window at the cops gathered in the street outside.
Robbers? The word stuck in Tony’s mind. Fuck that. Robbers? What the fuck kind of robbers walked around with AK-47s, or whatever the hell their guns were? They were big guns, automatic assault rifles, with the distinctive curved magazines that only weapons bought on the Kazakhstani black market had. As far as Tony was concerned, the name “AK-47” applied to all that kind of shit. It was a bad, bad scene.
Which meant they weren’t bank robbers. Bank robbers wore black jeans, and balaclavas, or maybe pantyhose (over their heads, anyway). Bank robbers ran in, maybe three or four, waving handguns and shouting at everyone to get the fuck down and fill this fucking bag, bitch, and nobody fucking move. And a few kicks and punches later, out the door, leaving old ladies to cry and bank clerks to comfort each other while the police carefully crunch on the scattered candy of broken glass spilt from what’s left of the front doors.
Machine guns, combat boots − hell, combat uniforms − weren’t the purview of bank robbers. These guys were pros.
No, thought Tony. Even more than that. Organized, disciplined, efficient. There had been no shouting, no running. A dozen men, black-booted, black-suited, each identical and anonymous behind something approaching a paintball mask crossed with a respirator. They came in silence and calmly took up what must have been pre-assigned positions, before their leader clicked something on the side of his mask and told everyone to crouch on the ground with their hands on their heads. Two of his men broke off and brought the bank manager from his back office, and the leader began politely asking a series of questions.
It was surreal, dreamlike, which at first gave an illusion of safety. It was only when the cramp started to bite that reality began to crystallize.
So not robbers, professionals. Soldiers, masked and uniformed. In San Ventura. Soldiers? No, henchmen. Which meant…
Shit. The one day I go to the bank, the one day I go to the bank in, like, a wholeyear, and I walk right into a classic piece of San Ventura villainy. Because henchmen and AK-47s and raiding a quiet bank with overwhelming firepower meant just one thing.
“Your threats are noted, officer, as is your lack of understanding and situational awareness. Discussion terminated.”
The leader turned away from the window and walked behind the main counters, through the now-open security door, around to the main lobby where his eleven soldiers stood over two dozen civilians. One AK-47 for every two members of the public. Tony felt sick.
The bank manager wasn’t talking. Normally, Tony would have seen him as a proud man, defiant to the end, captain-going-down-with-the-ship kind of loyalty – if he was watching this on World’s Most Awesome Bank Robbery Shoot-outs 7. He could imagine the manager’s smoking, bullet-ridden body being stretchered out at the end of a day-long siege, with mugshot and eulogy in Friday morning’s San Ventura Ledger-Leader, with quite possibly a civic funeral the next week complete with police honor guard and respectful mayor in attendance. The mayor would later give one of his all-too-regular press conferences decrying the Cowl and swearing justice would be served, and the citizens of San Ventura would shake their heads and turn off their televisions and lament the dark times that had fallen on the Shining City.
But right now, the bank manager was just being a dick. It’s just a bank, it’s just money, Tony thought. The anger and frustration rose as he watched the Cowl’s mercenary orbit the bank manager like a panther looking for an opening. Stop being such an asshole. Tony’s lips almost shaped the words, willing the bank manager to suck it up and open the safe. Give them the money.
Except… money? It wasn’t money. Couldn’t have been money. The Cowl’s resources were legendary, his ill-gotten wealth rumored to be as close to infinite as any human being could ever hope to approach. The last thing he needed was cash. Diamonds, perhaps? Jewels, or gold? Because all supervillains liked to dive into a vault of treasure and swim around like Scrooge McDuck, right? No. There must have been something else, something locked in a safety deposit box in the vault. Something small, but important; important enough for the Cowl to take it by force, something important enough for the bank manager to risk his life and the lives of his staff and customers, even in the face of a dozen machine guns from central Asia.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The bank manager lifted his chin and pushed his dated, square-framed glasses up his nose a little. A small, defiant act.
“Oh, I think you do, Mr Ballard,” said the leader. “Sure, it’s well hidden here. Who would expect such a small, average branch of an average bank to hold such a priceless artifact. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s why the Seven Wonders entrusted you with it. Locking it in their own citadel would prove, eventually, to be too much of a temptation, even for them. So, the solution is to lose it somewhere in the city − what, they gave it to you, then Bluebell did a mindwipe on everyone, so even they had no idea where or even what it was? Everyone, except you, Mr Ballard.”
Mr Ballard said nothing. But he wasn’t a professional, not like the mercenary. As the leader spoke in an odd, almost synthesized voice that echoed from underneath his respirator, a hundred emotions flickered over Mr Ballard’s face. Satisfaction turned to doubt turned to fear. Even Tony could see that the mercenary was right on the button.
“Interesting, Mr Ballard.” The leader walked away, casually. After a moment of nothing at all, he gestured slightly with a gauntleted hand. Instantly his eleven men prodded each of the two hostages in their charge with their guns, indicating for them to stand.
Each trio – mercenary plus two hostages – was separated from the next by a couple of feet, the whole group arranged in a neat semicircle in front of the counters. To Tony’s left, a young woman, homely and mid-twenties but with that odd thinness that suggested eighteen with three kids, began to cry. With her hands still behind her head, her face turned red and the tears flowed freely, dripping onto the carpet tiles. Tony looked away, focusing instead on the mercenary leader.
Tony had superstrength, he had freeze-breath. He had superspeed. The only thing he wasn’t quite sure of was whether hands of steel translated into torso of Kevlar. And even if it did, what about the other twenty-three hostages? Perhaps he was faster than a bullet, but he wasn’t really sure – how fast did a bullet fly, anyway? Fast enough not to be visible in flight, but Tony had seen his own reflection in the water yesterday as he’d skipped from one side of the bay to the other. But faster than the high-velocity shells spat by the heavy-duty weaponry carried by these guys? Too much of a risk. Hold back, bide your time. Jeannie’s training was sure going to come in useful, he knew that now.
The leader seemed to be watching the hostages, although it was hard to tell; the wraparound visor of his mask meant that his head only had to turn very slightly to give any indication that he was looking for something. For someone − picking a target.
“You see, Mr Ballard,” the leader continued, turning back to the bank manager, “the method I’m about to employ may well be a cliché. In fact, I guarantee you’ll have seen it plenty of times on the television. Do you watch much television, Mr Ballard?
“Anyway, it’s simple, but effective. You have twenty-four chances to get the answer to my next question correct.”
Mr Ballard didn’t move, but he started breaking a hell of a sweat. Tony felt his anger melt, replaced instead with indignation. The Seven Wonders, he thought. I bet those bastards never told you this might happen.
There was a crack − not a gunshot, but an organic splitting, like a young branch bent off a new tree. One of the hostages − a nondescript man in ordinary gray suit, the color of which matched his neatly parted hair, mid-priced black leather slip-ons from a mall shoe shop on his feet − twisted, ever so slightly, arching his back almost like he was stretching out a stiff muscle. Then he dropped, knees folding up and his body telescoping almost vertically down beside his paired hostage.
The crying woman moaned loudly, trying to turn her head away from the body. Several others swore and muttered. A couple of people remained silent, unmoved, staring at the body. Tony included. Then he said: “Holy fuck.”
“Oh, language, please.” A new voice now, from the back of the bank, from the direction of the manager’s office. It was male, low and hoarse, not artificially modulated like the mercenaries, but a rasp put on deliberately, naturally, to disguise the owner. “And that’s twenty-three chances, Mr Ballard. My… staff… were never good with numbers.”
The Cowl stepped forward into the bank lobby. He couldn’t have been there very long, certainly no one had entered since the place had been raided an hour ago. Nobody was really sure what the extent of his powers were, but sudden appearances and disappearances were a regular feature of his exploits reported with depressing regularity in the pages of the Ledger-Leader. Tony had only a few days’ working knowledge of superpowers, but here, witnessing it with his own eyes, he began to reel off possibilities in his mind. Teleportation? Had to be.
The scalloped edge of the Cowl’s cloak brushed over the dead man’s face, catching in the wide, rolling red of blood that had started to ooze from his mouth, nose, ears. His infamous hooded head turned down toward his victim, killed without a finger laid.
Psychokinesis. Fucker was a supervillain, all right. The best − well, the most powerful − and the last. The last, because not even the Seven Wonders could take the bastard down.
Even in the bright daylight of a summer morning, the Cowl was a walking shadow. He had his back to Tony now, and somehow Tony couldn’t quite focus on the inky depth of the black cloak that streamed seamlessly from the villain’s hood and flowed out over the arms. It shimmered, matte black on matte black, with the finesse of silk but with something rubbery, leathery about it. It was high-tech, clearly.
With his appearance, the atmosphere of the siege changed. Fear and tension, fuelled by adrenaline, metamorphosed into something else, something colder. Tony felt quiet calm and he sensed the other hostages around him relax. Then he realized what it was. With the Cowl here, people no longer had any hope. The feeling was one of total, emotionless surrender. Tony didn’t like it.
The Cowl turned with a sweep to face Mr Ballard, whose neck muscles visibly tensed. Under the black hood, the Cowl’s face was obscured by a half-mask which left the mouth and chin exposed, the bare skin peppered with a healthy stubble. The eyes were unfathomable, empty white ellipses against the black of the face-hugging mask. And on the chest, vivid scarlet against the pitch dark of the bodysuit, the famous emblem: an inverted pentagram, the bottom point skewed to the left, the central pentagonal space enclosing the Greek capital omega. And within this, two stacked equilateral triangles, aligned with flat sides vertical to form a runic letter “B”. Inside the open space of the top triangle was the Eye of Horus, while the bottom triangle included some miniscule script in an unknown language.
Nobody knew what the complex symbol meant, but everyone had a theory. It was referred to by most just as the “omega symbol”, including the various criminal gangs who roamed the city, claiming to be doing The Cowl’s work.
Tony’s heart raced. He thought it was probably the same light-headed sensation you might get seeing a famous movie star or your favorite celebrity in the flesh. Surreal, exciting. Only here, now, in the East Side branch of the California Cooperative Bank, terribly, terribly dangerous.
The Cowl raised a gloved hand, the silky cloak swishing aside as he moved his arm. He gently pressed a finger into Mr Ballard’s chest, as if he wasn’t making his point clear.
“Simple, but effective, Mr Ballard. But we’re not going to do it my way. Too… quiet. I want show. I want screams. So now my colleague here will execute another.”
The leader of the mercenaries leapt into action, a blur of precise military training. Without further instruction, he squared his body into battle stance, raised his machine gun, and sent a single round into the head of another bank customer. The woman cartwheeled backwards, blood erupting behind her as the back of her head shattered and her brains evacuated, post-haste. Her body nearly flipped over completely before crashing over a faux-velvet queue barrier, sending two of its moveable metal supports toppling together.
The speed and noise of the execution was shocking. The young crying woman screamed, and several others shouted in surprise. One man, older, turned to the Cowl, protesting the situation. The Cowl did not respond. On the floor, the front of the dead woman’s pants stained darker as her bladder emptied. Tony’s bladder nearly did the same thing.
Mr Ballard looked like he was trying to speak, but shaking in fear he seemed more likely to hyperventilate. The Cowl’s dead eyes regarded the bank manager with indifference, then the corner of his mouth raised in a mocking smile.
“Actually, I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “Guns are a little… unsophisticated, aren’t they? Still too easy, too quick. Loud, though. I like loud. But let’s try the hands-on approach.”
The Cowl looked over the remaining hostages. Each man and woman shrunk into themselves, trying to look as nondescript and invisible as possible, knowing full well that their self-consciously averted gaze betrayed them, that their body language was a giveaway, that if they shifted position even a quarter of an inch it would have been the equivalent of shooting their hand towards the ceiling and calling out Pick me! Pick me!
All save the crying woman. She was quieter now, head bowed, face red, eyes black with streaked mascara. The weakest member of the pack, the easiest target.
Son of a bitch. The Cowl knew picking her would cause the most offence. That was his intention. He strode over and, grasping her chin forcefully with one hand, yanked her head up in a sudden movement. The woman stared into the Cowl’s unreadable mask, her eyes wide and mouth stretched in what almost passed for an apologetic smile. Her shakes now rocked her whole body, the effect exaggerated by the supervillain’s firm grip on her jaw.
At the opposite end of the hostage circle Tony caught a movement from a woman in bad make-up and not-quite-right brunette bob wig. Almost without thinking, he shifted to X-ray vision. Instantly her outline was bleached into a white and blue haze, her bones almost mathematically detailed. Her bones, and a brilliant white shape, narrow and rectangular under her right arm, pressed tight against the now-invisible flesh. A small gun.
Purple spots spun in Tony’s eyes as his vision switched back to the regular spectrum, the morning daylight painfully bright. He blinked, tried to process what he’d just seen, and blinked again. The Cowl was still holding the crying woman’s head, but now raised his other hand to her neck. The other woman, the one with the gun, shifted her balance, just a little.
Whoever she was, she was going to try something, and get everyone killed.
Fuck it. This was it. Tony had the power, he just had to use it. He knew it and Jeannie had encouraged him, had faith in him. Sure, he didn’t know how far he could push his abilities, whether his steel skin would protect him from the high-velocity AK-47 rounds, whether his superspeed would be fast enough to remove the hostages from the bank lobby before any bullets reached them. Whether he could possibly even match the Cowl for strength, speed and firepower.
But he had to try. He felt… responsible, even duty-bound.
Without time for a proper plan, Tony launched himself at the Cowl.
Seven Wonders © Adam Christopher 2012