by Joachim Heijndermans
With a quick tug, Russ pulled the left leather glove from his hand. The right stayed where it was, lest it would betray the artificial state of his hand. No sense in startling the neighbors with it, especially the geriatrics he’d told that it covered up the nasty scars of a childhood accident. With one quick motion he placed the removed glove in his pocket, then, with another flick of the wrist, he extracted a small bottle of cologne, which he liberally sprayed across his body. He could still smell her on himself, so a second coating was applied, followed by a breath mint to mask the smell and taste of cigarette smoke. He then took out his side-knife to check his reflection in the blade, inspecting his neck for possible scratches, a habit he picked up after one particularly close call.
It was a good thing he took the time to clean up, or he would probably not have noticed the lone silver hair on his jacket. Russ chuckled to himself when the memories that came with the hair flooded his mind. Her lips and tongue against his skin. The touch of her fingers. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked forward to going to the damn meetings as much as he did now. What was once a slog to sit through, was now something to get excited about. And outside of his work, very few things excited Russ anymore.
As he entered their apartment, he undid his utility belt and pushed aside the Modigliani forgery (painted by de Hory, which was the real secret and the real reason it was priceless) in the hallway, pressed the keys for seven, eight, one and five that opened the compartment for his work supplies, and placed the belt and other weapons within. He felt lighter. Naked. But he was home. And home was a place where he had no need for his guns. Besides, the second knife up his sleeve was security enough.
He entered the hallway and took out a hanger from the closet to hang is work-coat on. “Honey? I’m home,” he cried out. There was no answer. But there was a smell that lingered. Food? Something from the kitchen?
Russ wrapped his jacket on the hanger and hung it in the closet. He was just about to head toward the living room when he spotted his reflection in the mirror, realizing that he’d left his mask on his face. Such a funny but crucial thing to oversee. Seven years in the business, and he’d still forget to remove the mask. Was he turning into that nutjob that haunts the lower East Side? The one who calls his mask his ‘face’? It was a damned good thing he never went through the front lobby, preferring to glide down to their rooftop condo in his flight-suit instead, or his SI would have been exposed years ago. But so what? Even if the complex’s security people did find out about his ‘day job’, what would they do? Arrest him? Half of them were underpaid schmucks that couldn’t hold their own against a pack of rowdy teenagers, let alone a Second tier member of the Legion. Call the cops? Hell, the condo board would advertise the fact they had a black cape as their neighbor, just for the bragging rights alone. But as much as Russ loved the attention, there was no way in hell he’d expose himself like that. Not with the other capes breathing down his neck about security. Not with what they had planned for next month.
Other, more pleasant thoughts took control of him. Thoughts of shapely breasts covered in Kevlar infused polymer. Silver lipstick that never seemed to smear. He whistled a happy tune (‘Give It Up’, by either KC and the Sunshine Band or Cool & the Gang, but he couldn’t remember which) as he entered the dining area, when he suddenly froze in place. His wife, Siobhan, who sat at the dinner table in complete silence, threw him a quick glance from the corner of her eyes. Her lips were narrow and her left hand laid locked on the tabletop, while in her right she held her wine glass between her fingers. Russ smiled at her, oblivious to Siobhan’s mood. It wasn’t the first time he neglected to notice the awkward silence that clung to the air, like dead flies to a dark strip of glue. He had made a habit, if not an outright skill, in ignoring the little things around the house.
“Hey, babe. What’s for dinner?” Russ said as he planted a quick peck on Siobhan’s cheek, before he walked off to remove the rest of his clothes. She did not reply. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Siobhan tapped her fingers against the hardwood in a successive pattern, anxiously counting down until the penny would finally drop for her husband. It was then that Russ noticed the table had been laid out with lit candles, the satin tablecloth from Australia, their good China, an empty bottle of wine, and two plates of now-cold risotto and salmon slathered with Siobhan’s signature sauce. He wondered what could possibly justify this amount of effort on her part. What was it about today? What event did he forget about?
“Where were you?”
“Anniversary?” he asked, fishing for a clue.
“You said you’d be home by five. It’s past ten.”
“Valentine’s Day?” he tried, until he remembered it was June.
“Where were you? And don’t lie. Please, for once, don’t lie.”
Russ paused. “I was at work.”
“Goddammit!” Siobhan snapped. “You’re lying. Couldn’t you, just this once, do me the courtesy of being honest?”
“Babe, you know my job is–,”
“Shut up. You talk like you’ve been in a cubicle all day. But you’re a goddamn crook. You steal and kill and–,”
“Honey, there was a meeting–,”
“A meeting?” Siobhan scoffed.
“Yes! A meeting. The Shadow Legion had a long meeting, and we all had to be there, from the first to the fifth tiers. Seriously, the whole gang was there, from the Gadgeteer to the Black Spectre to Zebra. Even that creep Dr. Gargunza was there, and he only shows up unless he’s ordered to, or he gets a chance to stare at PhaseShift’s ass. Do you need evidence? Check my timecard and the notes of our meeting on my access feed. I’m telling–,”
“Who is she? Who?”
“She? I don’t know who or what you’re talking about.”
“The slut you’re sleeping with.”
“Who? Who, dammit?!”
Russ took a deep breath, trying to maintain his composure and keep the twitch from his eye. “Siobhan, I am in no mood to argue over this lunacy with you. We had a meeting. The Legion is organizing a massive strike against Justice Forever, and all members were required to be present. That is classified information, by the by. Just talking about it with you could bring the sword down on both of us. So, if you could stop being hysterical for just one–,”
“It was Sunscreamer, wasn’t it?” she said coldly. “That bitch with the silver hair and makeup?”
“Sunscreamer? Jesus, Siobhan, Sunscreamer? Really?” Russ snapped, doing his best to sound aghast, while he fought the urge to peer his eyes to the right. “Look, Melissa and I are–,”
“Melissa,” she laughed. “Of course it’s Melissa. All the masks and names go right out the window when you fu–,”
“Can you let me finish?” he snapped, his artificial hand clenched into a fist. “Melissa is a friend and comrade in the battle against the blue capes. She’s a fellow black cape, a valuable partner in the fight, and a cunning strategist. Nothing more, believe me.”
Siobhan slowly took a sip of her wine, doing her best not to tremble with rage. “You’re lying. You lie and lie, and then heap another steaming pile of lies all over those. Your words are just piles of shit upon shit. Nothing you say means anything anymore,” she hissed like a viper. She then fought back a sob, as a lone tear rolled down her face. “And the worst part of it all is, you still don’t know what this dinner was for. You don’t have a Goddamn clue, do you?”
Russ rolled his eyes. “You know what? I’ve had a long day. I’m tired and I’m done arguing with you about this nonsense. So I’ll take my shower and then I’m off to bed, so join me if you wish, or sit here and pout. I don’t care which.”
She sniffed loudly, pushing back her tears. “You know, I’ve put up with a lot these last five years. After we got married, and you told me what you did with the Legion, I stuck by you. I even stuck with you after what you all did at the U.N. building, and that lunatic Sabre killed that poor boy in yellow. I stuck by you every time things got ugly, with never a word of complaint. And I was okay with that. I was okay with the money, and I could live with from seeing Payback on the news every few weeks, hurting innocent people or doing something terrible. I knew there might be a day where you’d end up in jail or dead at the hands of another cape, and I made peace with that because this is what you love, and I loved you. But I never, ever, believed you could be unfaithful. I thought that, despite all the odds, you could never do that to me. That you were better than that.”
“Baby–,” Russ muttered.
“You hurt me.”
“Look, babe, it’s not like I’m–,”
“You hurt me, Russ. And now I have to hurt you.”
Russ chuckled. “Hurt me? Hurt me? That’s rich. What, you gonna go all ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ on me? Did you forget who I am? I’m Payback, bitch. The cape who owns this side of town. The one that the blue capes can never nail. You’re nobody. What could you possibly do?”
The doorbell rang. Russ ignored it, hoping Siobhan would go to answer it. She didn’t.
“I have my ways,” she said through gritted teeth.
“What are you planning? Did you plan to leave me? Try it, doll. Just try it. See how long it takes for the Legion to come down on and drag you back by your hair to me. You wanna sleep with another man? Go ahead. Fuck everyone in the Tri-state area. But it’ll be his blood you’ll have on your hands. The cops? That’s a joke. Half of them are already in our pocket. And you wouldn’t dare to go to Justice Forever. Who would they even send? They can bring a squad, and I can call up a handful of black capes for backup. Face it, you’ve got nothing against me. Nothing!” he snapped, slamming his gloved hand on the table, which left a large crack in the hardwood. For a moment he reflected on his own words, wondering if there was anyone she could contact that might pose an actual threat. There were a few, but there was no way she’d call those pillars of justice without being arrested herself as an accomplice. And there was her, but he doubted Siobhan would even know how to get a hold of her, let alone have the nerve to even make the call. No, he was right. There was no-one she could get to come after him.
Siobhan sat there, silently swirling the wine in her glass around, which created a little red whirlpool in the small sea of Bordeaux. No response. She just glared at Russ, who stood there with a self-assured smirk. There may have been a time when Russ wouldn’t have dreamed of being so blunt to his wife. But the years had made him colder. What once would have broken his heart, now left him with a cocky grin targeted at a hurt, lonely woman.
Again, the doorbell chimed. “You gonna get that?” Russ huffed. No response from Siobhan. Russ’s patience began to run out. “Fine. I’ll get it myself.”
“You think I’m stupid, don’t you?” Siobhan sighed.
“No, my dear. I don’t think you’re stupid. Far from it. But I do think you’re out of your depth. You wanna play your hand? Then next time, have some better cards to play.”
The doorbell rang again, this time accompanied by a knock. Russ rushed to the door, losing his temper. “I’m coming, I’m coming! Christ, wha–!” he snapped, reaching for the door.
As if hit by a volley of cannons, the wood burst apart when the fist flew through it. The impact of the door into his face surprised Russ more than that it hurt. At least, at first, before the initial adrenaline wore off. The splinters pierced in his eyebrows that left him howling in agony. The sudden collision of the carbon baton with his clavicle canceled out that pain, as the splintering of bone tends to do.
Russ bit through the pain (and, in the process, his lip), having gone through this song and dance too often to let a single injury stop him now. His first instinct was to go for his gun, but since that was still nestled inside the holster on his belt that laid in the safe, he ejected the retractable blade from his left sleeve instead. Sadly, his attacker was quicker to the draw. A heavy, steel-enforced, boot came down on his wrist, snapping the ends of his ulna and radius like dried twigs under a grindstone. Another yelp of pain filled the hallway, as Russ cried for the first time since he’d been stabbed in the leg all those years ago.
He looked up, his vision blurry from the pain, confused by the sight of a masked woman of a little over five feet tall, dressed in black and red, her eyes covered with a green visor. No! Not her! He couldn’t believe it. It was her! And she was in his home, a stone-throw from where he slept. The madwoman who’d taken down the Tech-Nō-gang, the Never-ever-land crew, and Dr. Mabuse the 5th. The bitch that even the other blue capes feared. Pain and destruction made form of a woman; the Fury.
She was the worst of the blue capes. Cunning, brutal, unforgiving, and seemingly addicted to violence. The reason her membership with Justice Forever wasn’t canceled was only by virtue of her never actually killing any of her arrests (and the rumors about what happened to Crocomire-Z and whether she was involved have never been confirmed). Like her Carrollian namesake, she ran around being judge, jury, and hair away from executioner if she didn’t let the other ‘“good guys’” hold her back. And now she was here, in his home. She’d found him.
“How…how did you…how did you find this place? That’s impossible!”
“Not impossible. It happened, ergo: possible,” the Fury said in her cracking voice, distorted by her voc-box distortion system. “You meant improbable. Improbable, yes, but inevitable. ‘Specially considering the way you’ve been galavantinggalivanting around town with ‘Screamer, while you treat Siobhan here like dirt, little mouse.” She followed it with what sounded like a laugh, as she then began to mutter under her breath. Russ recognized it from somewhere. Is…is that the actual ‘The Mouse’s Tale’ poem? he thought.
The Fury looked away for a moment, toward the dining room. A chance! Russ tried to rise from the floor for another attempt at a counter-attack. His metal fist flew at her head, then collided with something just as powerful, if not stronger. The Fury had blocked the punch with her hand, which she now clenched down. Steel groaned under the pressure, before his hand shattered like porcelain under a wrecking ball. Russ tried to break free from her grasp, but the Fury wrapped her leg around his throat and pushed him back down, locking him in a convoluted stranglehold with her lower body. No matter how much he struggled, Russ could not break free. It was then that he saw Siobhan hover over them, quietly taking sips of her wine, as a slight grin formed in the corner of her mouth. The dots finally connected.
“Hell hath no fury, Russ. Your words. Here’s another little idiom for you. One that you seem to like so very much: payback’s a bitch.”
With a swift motion, the Fury shackled his ankles to his remaining hand with titanium cuffs, which left him hogtied into the most humiliating position. Russ didn’t even try to fight anymore as she called in the pick-up wagon. What was the point? No-one in the Legion was gonna help him if he got the call out, not now that the Fury caught him.
He couldn’t believe it. Years of keeping up a low profile, doing his absolute best to avoid capture by the blue capes, maneuvering around every other crook and crime-lord this town threw at him, and it was his wife who was the one who sold him out. Not only that, she went directly to the worst of the bunch. A calculated move, turning him over to the Fury. He’d go down, and no-one would raise a finger to help. Were it any other blue cape, the Legion would rush to free him, then dunk Siobhan into a tank of sharks for good measure. But no-one crossed the Fury. No-one. And no-one would try her by going after Siobhan now. Russ was on his own. The only way the Legion could keep him from spilling what he knew to J.F. was a well-aimed bullet to the brain. And with the cunning old Fury around, even that would be tricky to pull off. And if Russ somehow managed to survive after all of that, he’d never work in this line of work again. He was done for. The days of Payback were finished.
“Time to move, little mouse,” the Fury grunted, as she heaved him over her shoulders. Siobhan gasped, clearly startled that such a small woman could lift a two-hundred-pound man without any effort. “My mates back at the tower want a word with you. You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do and stories to tell, which you will if you know what’s good for you.”
“Please. You can’t do this.”
“Incorrect,” the Fury said, followed with another distorted laugh.
“Bye Russ,” Siobhan said. “Give my love to the blue capes. I’ll tell Melissa not to hold her breath.”
“You bi–,” he managed to say, before the Fury jabbed her hard gauntlet into his ribs, cracking one. He winced in pain, as his voice became several octaves higher than it had been.
“Oh, and happy birthday,” Siobhan added.
Joachim Heijndermans is a writer and artist from the Netherlands. His work has been featured in a number of publications, including The Gallery of Curiosities, Ahoy Comics, Mad Scientist Journal, Planet Scumm, Novel Noctule and Curiouser Magazine. His short story, ‘All Through the House’, was adapted as an episode of the Netflix animated anthology ‘Love, Death & Robots’.