Aug 16 2011 10:00am
Empire State (Excerpt)
“A daring, dreamlike, almost hallucinatory thriller, one that plays with the conventions of pulp fiction and superheroes like a cat with a ball of yarn.”
-Eisner Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Kurt Busiek
“What kind of a name,” asked the man in the gas mask, “Is ‘Rad’, anyway?”
Rad shuffled on the alley floor a little, trying to get more comfortable when more comfortable meant a rectangular brick digging into your back instead of a triangular one. It was wet, and Rad was sitting in a puddle. He half-wondered how much the cleaning bill would be for his one and only suit.
“’Rad’ is my kind of name, is what,” said Rad. He didn’t bother looking up at his assailants. The masks and hats were a great disguise. Kooky. Instead he stared ahead and dabbed at his bottom lip with a bloody handkerchief.
The first goon’s shoes moved into Rad’s field of vision, black wingtips shining wetly in the cast-off from the streetlamp just around the lip of the alley. The rain had collected in the punch pattern on the shoes and each step threw a fine spray, some of which collected in the man’s pinstripe turn-ups. Rad figured it was all part of the disguise, the unfashionable shoes, the unfashionable suits, the unfashionable gas masks. The name of some annual affair near the end of the year that was all about ghosts and candy and weird costumes itched at the back of Rad’s mind, but he couldn’t remember what it was and the thought slipped away as he tried to grasp it.
The goon bent down and the gas mask came into view. Two circular goggles in a rubber face, single soup-can canister bobbing over where the mouth would be. The goon’s voice was clear as a whistle despite the business that sat between his lips and Rad’s ears, but echoed in the soup-can like it was coming out of a radio set.
“What do you know about nineteen fifty?”
Rad pulled the handkerchief away and looked at it, then moved his jaw like he was chewing toffee. His teeth were all there, so he was happy. A fat lip he could live with. What he really wanted was a drink, something strong that you couldn’t buy, not legally anyway. He tongued the gash inside his mouth and the pepper-copper taste of blood filled his mouth again. That wasn’t what he had in mind.
“That’s the second time you’ve asked me that, pal,” said Rad. “And for the second time I’m gonna say I don’t know about nineteen fifty. If you’re looking for street directions then there are nicer ways of going about it.”
The gas mask disappeared upwards and Rad shook his head. He felt his own fedora shift against the brick wall behind him. At least he’d kept that on during the fight.
Not that it was much of a fight. One minute he was walking down Fifth, next an arm pulled him out of the light and into the alley, and after just one question a one-two landed with some success on his face, and he was sitting on the floor with a bruised tailbone and a wet backside and a cheekbone that alternated between needle-pain and numbness.
They weren’t after money. Once on the ground, the first goon – a tall, wide, no-neck, who seemed to be doing everything for the entertainment of his friend who just stood and watched behind his black goggles – grabbed his wallet, and together the four glass eyes stared at his ID for a while before the card and wallet were returned to Rad’s inside coat pocket. This was no mugging. It was planned, calculated. They were professionals. The fist responsible for Rad’s aching face was on the end of a trained arm. The crazy get-up wasn’t something you could pick up downtown. They’d collared Rad for nineteen hundred and fifty somethings. Nineteen fifty what? His office was five-A, thirty-four, Fourth Street. His home was five-B. Rad ran through addresses, locations, places that people in unfashionable suits and strange masks might have an interest in. No dice.
A hand under the armpit and Rad was on his feet again. The thin goon had his hands in his pockets and still hadn’t moved. No-neck let go of Rad and pushed him against the wall, stepped back, and pulled a gun out of the holster underneath his trench coat. The alley was dark but the streetlight was enough to glint off a buckle and a shiny leather strap before the trench coat was closed again. Body holster. Rad had always wanted one because it was professional, but professional was expensive and it would have meant attention from the City, and he tried to avoid that most times.
The goon cocked the gun and then cocked his head to the side, like he was expecting something. Rad’s eyes flicked from the rubber face to the gun and back, and he thought he got the point. The gun was a revolver, but the barrel was wide, as wide as the soup-can respirator but a little longer, like a gun for flares or something. Whatever it shot, Rad thought it would probably do the job given the hot end of it was being held six inches in front of his face.
“Rad Bradley.” There was a click from behind the gas mask and then a pause, like the goon was thinking something over. His friend still hadn’t moved. Rad wondered if he was awake in there.
Rad licked his cut lip again. “You seem to have a real problem with my name.”
The gun’s barrel crept forward an eighth of an inch. Rad kept his eyes on the glass portholes in the mask.
“You must be from the other side of town,” Rad continued. “You want directions to nineteen fifty something avenue, why not ask a cop? There are plenty down on Fifth.” He flicked his head towards the glowing opening of the alley. People walked by in the rain, the bright light of the main thoroughfare rendering the alley and the goons and the gun being pointed at the private detective completely invisible.
Something blue and vaporous began curling out of the barrel. It made Rad’s nose itch and he wondered what it was, given that the gun hadn’t been fired yet. Over the goon’s shoulder he saw the thin, silent partner suddenly fidget and turn to the right, looking deeper into the alley while his hands stayed in his pockets.
The soup-can in front of Rad’s face wobbled as the goon with the gun titled his own head slightly in the same direction. His voice was hollow, flat, metallic.
The alley was quiet, and Rad could hear the other goon’s sharp intake of breath amplified by the echo chamber of his gas mask. Something else followed the gasp, the start of a shout, or maybe a warning, but it was cut off in mid-flow. A moment later the thin goon was on the alley floor, not far from where Rad had originally fallen, enveloped in something large and black and smooth.
No-neck spun the strange gun around a clean arc, bringing it to bear on his fallen comrade and whatever was on him.
“Grieves? Can you hear me?” was all he managed to say before a gloved hand rocketed up from the black mass on the alley floor and caught the goon with the gun just under the chin. There was a gurgle but the gas mask held firm, although its wearer was lifted a clear foot into the air and held there by one hell of a strong arm.
Rad backed himself along the rough brick of the wall, trying to keep his not insubstantial frame away from the new, violent arrival. The floored goon stayed floored, mask at a slight angle. Unconscious. The second recovered from his shock at being held up in the air with his legs swinging and lifted the wide-barrelled gun towards the face of his attacker. The trigger tightened and more of the blue smoke escaped the barrel, but it was knocked up and back by the free hand of the newcomer. There was a crack and the large gun arced towards Rad, bouncing off the wall. More sounds came from behind the soup-can, a cry of surprise or pain and then maybe something that was either an insult or a plea for help – Rad couldn’t quite tell which, the sounds were fuzzed by the mask – and then the attacker let go. The goon dropped to his feet, then his knees buckled and he toppled sideways. He lay there, clutching his non-existent neck with both hands, head bobbing and wobbling the respirator as he desperately sucked city air past the filter.
Rad tasted something sour and touched his lip. In his quickstep he’d knocked or bitten his wound again, and the back of his hand came away dark and slick from his chin. And then he realised he’d been saved from something like death by a big man in a cape.
The man stood in the alley, unconscious goon flat out on one side, choked but recovering goon rolling on the other. The man was wearing black, but Rad could see lines and shapes, all grey in the shadows, that differentiated parts of the uniform. The black cape – Rad was fairly sure it was black, so absolute was the void it created – hung from the vast shoulders like the side of a circus tent, covering nearly his entire body, open only in a triangle at the neck which swept down to a scalloped edge that trailed in the puddles left by that evening’s heavy downpour.
As the man moved his head to look first at his two defeated opponents, and then at Rad, the weak light reflected off an angled helmet, a sharp-fronted slatted visor covering the entire face and continuing back and up past the ears. The edges stood nearly a foot away from the top of the man’s head, and were fluted into sharp points, like the flight feathers of a bird’s wing.
The uniform was outrageous, far odder than the two masked villains that lay insensible at his feet. But it didn’t particularly cross Rad’s mind. He relaxed a little, recognising his saviour, but still keeping his back to the wall. He knew he was safe – assumed he was safe, anyway – but he’d… heard things. Not all of them good.
The Skyguard. A legend, a bedtime story for good little boys. A story that the Empire State would rather not be told. A hero, a helper, and according to the city, a vigilante, criminal, and terrorist. Someone who couldn’t be there, not tonight.
“Ah…” Rad said at first and then closed his mouth a little too tight. His lip stung and he winced. Rescued by the Skyguard. Well, okay. Rad was pretty sure he should have been somewhat surprised. And he was. He just didn’t know how to show it.
The Skyguard stepped towards him.
“Are you hurt?”
“Ah…” Rad said again. His head hurt and his face was going to be blue in the morning, and his ass was wet. But other than that…
“No, no, I’m good.” Rad pocketed his bloody hanky. “Thanks, by the way.” He glanced down at the goons. No-neck seemed to have recovered and was sitting tensely, watching his attacker. If the Skyguard noticed he didn’t show it.
“You know these guys?” Rad continued.
Rad’s mouth opened and then shut again, and he thought before he answered. “No, but they seem to know me. Or at least, they thought they did.”
The Skyguard’s visor shifted but he didn’t say anything.
“I mean, they grabbed me from the street, but they didn’t seem to get my name. Seemed a surprise.”
“That a fact?”
No-neck got to his feet, and began brushing down his trench coat. The Skyguard didn’t turn around.
“They’ve been following you.” The Skyguard’s uniform creaked and there was another sound, like ceramics rubbing. “So have I. You need to be careful, Mr Bradley. They’ll come for you again.”
“Well, I’m glad I’ve got you on my side, but you wanna fill me in on this one? Because I got nothing. I haven’t had a case in weeks and there ain’t no loose ends left hanging. Can’t think of who would have a grudge. I’m small fry.”
The sound from behind the Skyguard’s visor might have been a chuckle, but it was late and he was sore and Rad wasn’t much in the mood for guessing games. He stepped away from the wall and pointed at where No-neck was standing.
Had been standing. They were gone, both of them. The alley was empty, save for a private dick with a sore chin and a big guy in a cape.
“Oh, come on!” Rad felt more comfortable now the goons had gone, but there was no way they could have left the alley without being seen. The night was getting stranger.
Rad raised his arms and slapped them against his sides in frustration. “No shit! Where did they go, how did you let them go? Didn’t you see them? I didn’t.”
The Skyguard turned slowly and surveyed the alley.
The observation wasn’t helpful.
“Left? Left how? Gone where?”
The Skyguard turned back to Rad. “They’ve left the city. They’ll be back. Be vigilant.”
Rad had just enough energy to start another objection, but as he drew breath to speak the Skyguard shot directly upwards on a column of blue flame. In seconds he was out of sight, the glow of the rockets strapped to the back of his legs fading slowly into the low clouds.
Rad adjusted his hat and sighed. He still needed that drink to wash the cold metal taste out of his mouth. He glanced around, just in case he’d missed the goons hiding in the shadows, crouching in their gas masks and trench coats behind a dumpster or stack of wet newspapers. But he was alone.
He turned and walked out, running the Skyguard’s words around his head. Left the city? What did that mean? He shook his head, unable to process the statement.
Because you couldn’t leave the city. The city was the Empire State, and it was… well, it was impossible to leave. No, not impossible. Inconceivable. The concept, alien in nature, rattled around Rad’s head. You couldn’t leave the city, because the city was the Empire State, and there wasn’t anywhere else.
Rad gingerly fingered his lip and hobbled out into the street.
Empire State © Adam Christopher 2011