So a few of you wanted to see a new Leaving the League installment, huh? I’ve been sitting on this for a while because there were a few scenes that didn’t work, but I powered through and made some changes. I’m happy to say it reads a lot better. I hope you enjoy. Also, a quick note, I changed Selena’s age from around 10 to 13. Enjoy. -B.
Rich Huerta lived in a quiet suburb a stone’s throw outside of the city that ran along a creek, had a middle school, a high school, one or two supermarkets, a few restaurants and not much else. That quiet suburb had become a war zone by the time I arrived. The police had cordoned off Rich’s street and even on the drive through the neighborhood I could feel the ground vibrating up through the car. Concerned neighbors were standing on their lawns and in the street trying to get a look at what was happening on Pleasant Drive. I had to lay on my horn to get past people and eventually the concentration of bodies in the street got so thick that I had to get out of my car and walk the rest of the way.
Using my elbows, subtle pheromone blasts, and a healthy dose of menacing tones, I managed to muscle my way right up to the police line where a half-dozen cops stood watching the spectacle beyond. A few of them had their guns trained, but it was unclear who or what they were supposed to be shooting at. They were from the town sheriff’s office and probably not trained in superhuman conflict management.
When I got to their line I was liberal with my power usage and the facts.
“Gentlemen, I need to get in there now. I’m an SLA member,” I said, and flashed my old badge. Technically it was illegal for me to carry it after leaving the league, but they’d forgotten to confiscate it when I left. Their bad.
The officers seemed almost relieved to let me pass and that told me something important: that the actual SLA hadn’t shown up yet. Once they did, things were likely to get more complicated.
The closer I got to the Huerta’s house, the stronger the vibrations in the ground got and about thirty feet in front of me was the cause. Rich Huerta was ripping up whole sections of the earth. There were three people in a wide semi-circle around him, standing at cautious distances and eyeing each other. They were clearly afraid of him, or at the very least concerned about what he could do and for good reason: he was a muscular, imposing figure in his dirty jeans and torn white t-shirt, and that was to say nothing of his ability.
As I got closer I could hear them all talking. I only recognized one of them though, a woman in dark clothing and a blue hood with a lit cigarette trailing smoke. She was the smoke-manipulator, Vic. The other two I had never seen before. One was a slightly darker-skinned man with asian features wearing a nice dark shirt and slacks. He looked like more like a day trader than a member of a veritable terrorist organization. The other person was diminutive in stature and crouched down low, balanced on the balls of his feet. His hair was long and knotted.
“We don’t want to have to continue this,” the asian man said. “You’re a brother to us. In our hands, Selena will reach her potential without any of this government’s incessant babble in her head.”
“This is how you treat a brother?” Rich growled. “You come into my home and try to use force to take my daughter from me?”
Something in Rich’s tone must have tipped off the asian man because he started to dodge out of the way even as Rich forcefully shoved his arm in the man’s direction. The earth obliged his command. A focused line in the ground shot out in the Sanctuary member’s direction, cracking the concrete, shooting dirt and grass into the air, and very nearly throwing the man off his feet despite his timely dodge. Rich moved to throw another wave, but Vic whipped the smoke from her cigarette into a whirling bolt and sent it flying at Rich. He leapt away from it but caught the barbed end against his temple. Blood sprayed from the impact and Rich cursed.
The little man was about to take the opportunity to leap at Rich, but I stopped him in his tracks. A deep push from my gut kept him rooted to the spot by firing both ends of his fight or flight mechanism, he couldn’t decide whether or attack or flee, so instead just kept looking around from side-to-side in wide-eyed confusion.
Vic looked at her companion and then she searched the area until she saw me approaching. I could see her smile even though the hood covered most of her face.
“This one used to be SLA, don’t know what angle he’s playing now though, since he’s all alone,” she said to her other teammate.
Rich saw me too through his left eye. Blood was running down from his temple over the right so he had it shut tight.
“Nick? Thank you,” he said.
Closer up I could see how exhausted he looked. I wondered how long this stand-off had been going on before I’d got Lavona’s call. I realized that every passing second meant that it was more likely that the SLA would show up and the situation would turn into a full on shitstorm.
“Are you ok, Rich? Is Selena ok?” I asked.
He nodded. “I wouldn’t let these fucks get into the house. They’d have to kill me first.”
I intended to respond, but I was hit with a wave of nausea. I couldn’t place it immediately, but after the second wave I looked at the man I’d pushed. He was fighting back against my control. I hadn’t even realized I had been in control. For me, a push is like a sped arrow, it goes out and it’s gone. Usually it only took one to achieve the desired effect, but somehow this push had stuck. It took hold of him and as his body started to fight my artificial controls, I was starting to feel like he was pushing back. I shook my head and let him go.
I thought he would attack me, but he seemed more interested in clearing his head from whatever had been done to him. That was good, because I didn’t want to push him again. Hell, I didn’t want to push anyone for a while. The feeling of asserting lasting control over someone had left me rattled. Furthermore, Vic and the other Sanctuary member were starting to close ranks again. I made my way closer to Rich until we were standing next to each other. I was preparing to fight when I heard the distinct ring of the SLA’s siren.
“The SLA is here, probably alongside some backup of my own. There’s no way that three of you can take us all. You could barely handle Rich by yourselves. Do yourself a favor and get out of here,” I said.
The asian man smiled.
“You make a good point…Nick, was it? We’ll take our leave, but you can expect us to call again soon,” he said to me, then to Rich. “My name is Jasni, by the way. When you change your mind about your daughter’s safety. Please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
“Jasni? Akma’s brother?” I asked.
“My baby sister. She was so quick to buy into the line that the repressive agenda sold her and how did that turn out, Nick? Is she still with the SLA, fighting for justice, or has she left to find her own way?”
I didn’t like the way he said that, as if he had knowledge that he wasn’t sharing. I hadn’t spoken to Akma in a while, but her brother’s words made me think that it was about time I caught up with her.
Jasni gestured at the other two Sanctuary members and the three of them took off down the street. The police sent a squad car or two after them, but I didn’t have much faith that they’d catch them. Maybe the SLA would have better luck when they got on the scene, but that wasn’t my concern. I looked at the gash on Rich’s temple and shook my head.
“That doesn’t look good, Rich. There’s an ambulance right down the street, let’s get you looked at,”
He shook his head. “Not until I see Selena. She’s probably scared. She doesn’t like me using my abilities, it gets loud, it frightens her.”
“Can I check on her for you? I’ll make sure she’s ok…I’ll bring her out to the ambulance. I’ll be right behind you.”
Rich affixed his hard gaze on me which seemed even harder with one dark eye peering and the other shut, covered in blood. It was obvious he didn’t like the sound of my plan. His daughter always came first.
“If she’s scared now, imagine how she’ll react to seeing her dad covered in blood with his clothes torn to shreds?”
He looked down at himself and then pointed a finger at me.
“You bring her right there. No shit,” he said.
So Rich made his way down the street to the ambulance. Since the immediate threat had passed the police started crowding Rich. I made my way to Rich’s house. It was a nice ranch style place with plenty of open space. I walked up to the front door and found it open. I shook my head, I grew up in the city and could never quite make sense of all the unlocked doors.
“Selena,” I called.
We’d meet a few times. She was a smart girl with a penchant for discerning exactly what people were talking about, as a result she wasn’t good at small talk and her ability had made her something of an outcast at school. But she was incredibly clever for a thirteen year old and her relationship with her dad was much stronger than either of their relationships with anyone else.
I wandered through the house calling after her and looking for her in various rooms, growing slightly anxious as I went. She wasn’t responding and I was running out of rooms. At last I came to the laundry room which was little more than a little nook near the back of the house. That’s where I found Selena sandwiched in the space between the stacked washer/dryer and the ceiling.
“Selena,” I started. “What are you—”
She didn’t speak, instead she just pointed down. I looked and there was a dog standing next to the washer. It was a little miniature pinscher that I hadn’t noticed was there. Their dog, Oli.
“Why are you up there? Is something wrong with —”
Oli turned and fucking came after me. I’m not particularly scared of dogs, but this animal, this tiny animal came after me with teeth bared and intent to kill in his little eyes. I ran for it and just managed to jump onto the dining room table before he bit off my ankle. I immediately tried to push him calm, but I felt something unusual when I did. The dog was not in control of itself, there was another force exerting control and it was doing so far more skillfully than I could.
“How long has he been like this?” I shouted to the other room.
“Twenty minutes? Longer?” Selena shouted back.
Oli didn’t take his eyes off me. I didn’t want to do anything to hurt Selena’s dog, especially if it wasn’t in control of itself, but standing on a table wasn’t going to help anyone. I took my cell phone out of my pocket and Oli started barking incessantly, trying to climb up the table.
I called Ian.
“Nick? Did you find Selena? I’m here with Rich now. By the way, the cops are a little pissed that you told them you were SLA —” Ian started, but I cut him off.
“Ian, I need help here. I have a dog trying to eat me. It’s possessed or something, under mind control? Can you mind control dogs?”
“What?” Ian asked. “I can barely hear you over the barking.”
“Rescue me! I’m in the house!” I shouted into my phone.
“I’m coming,” Ian said, and hung up.
A minute later Ian entered the front door.
“In here! Be careful, the dog’s crazed!”
Oli looked at me and then toward the voice from the other room. He looked confused as to who he should harry, but then Ian appeared and made the decision easy for him. Oli charged.
To be honest I was afraid that Ian would hurt the thing. A long white snake inked on Ian’s forearm flared to life and leapt off his skin into three-dimensions. Oli came fast, but the snake was faster. It dropped off of Ian’s arm and darted between Oli’s leg. The dog tried to snap at it, but the snake, struck his midsection and immediately began to constrict. Oli, now trapped, began struggling and crying loudly as the snake slowly crushed him.
“Pala, that’s enough,” Ian commanded. “Just hold him. Nothing else.”
The snake flicked her tongue at him, but eased the pressure a little around the dog’s midsection.
“Shit.” I swore quietly as I climbed off the table. “Selena, everything’s ok. We’ve —”
Selena was already entering the room. She was a pretty girl with the kind of features you could tell would blossom into something special later on. She also had a bit of her father’s temper.
“What are you doing to my dog? Are you killing him?” she asked Ian sharply.
Ian shook his head.
“No, Selena, I’m not. My friend here is just holding him until we can figure out what’s wrong.”
Selena gave Ian a chastising look. “I know what’s wrong with him, but I can’t fix it. His brain is all scrambled. There’s someone inside his head, they’re making him angry and territorial.”
“Why?” I asked.
That earned me a look. “You know what my power is right? How am I supposed to know? I can tell there’s something wrong in his brain. That’s it.”
I was about to ask another question when Rich came into the dining room. There was a bandage on the side of his head and a scowl on his face.
“What did —” he started. Then he saw the monstrous snake coiled around Oli. “— you do to my dog?”
“Someone’s apparently controlling Oli remotely. We’re just trying to keep him stable until we can undo whatever’s been done to him,” Ian explained.
“Where the fuck did that snake come from? Is it killing him?”
“Sorry, mjia,” Rich said to his daughter.
Ian shook his head. “The snake is…mine. Her name is Pala, she’s…I got this tattoo when I was seventeen and it kind of came to life. She was the first.”
Ian held out his arm and twisted it around so that we could all see the colorful cast of inked characters, scenes, and objects. Some of them were moving, others completely inert.
“It took a few years to figure out exactly what made some of them come to life. But I guess that’s a conversation for a different day. Your dog is fine, Pala won’t hurt him, and we’ll certainly figure out how to help him. But right now we’ve got to figure out what just happened here.”
Ian was about to continue, but yet another newcomer cut him off.
“Actually, I think that’s kind of our responsibility. Don’t you?” the voice said.
It was smug, so it had to Ringo. Low and behold, the muscular hero stepped into the dining room. Behind him were two of the members of his team, Silas Bloom, the inorganic manipulator and their newest addition, Devon, also known as Stream, my former teammate and one-time (and I do mean one time) lover.
“Rich Huerta has contracted the services of the Whole Project. We have every right to be here, Ringo,” Ian said.
“Had every right to be here maybe, but this is an active crime scene now and I don’t believe either of you have any law enforcement clearance. I’m going to have to ask you both to leave so that we can secure the perimeter and have a chat with Mr. Huerta and Ms. Huerta.”
“Maybe you should have been securing the perimeter fifteen minutes ago when Rich was fighting for his life,” I said.
Ringo was about to say something, but Devon put a hand on his shoulder and he settled for a glare.
“Nick. Can you just wait outside while we get a statement from Mr. Huerta? If Sanctuary is involved then you of all people know how serious this is. Just give us ten minutes and you can have your client back,” Devon said.
Devon looked as good as he always did and his earnest expression was making me feel all melty. When it had come down to voting to the future of The Checkers, he’d voted to stay in the League. He could no longer be a professional surfer, but he’d found his niche as a professional soldier. Within less than two months of the team disbanding he’d found a place in Ringo’s Ocelots replacing Shroud whose injuries during the Sanctuary raid left him hesitant to return to active hero work.
“That’s fair,” Ian said, answering for me. “Be warned though, the dog is under mind control of some sort, so when I tell Pala to let him go you might want to be ready.”
Selena interjected. “Not anymore. His brain is back to normal. It went back a minute ago. He’s ok now.”
“You’re sure?” Rich asked.
Selena nodded and Ian crouched down next to the snake and the dog. He communicated something to the snake without speak and it started to unwrap itself. Oli bolted as soon as he was free and hid behind Selena, licking himself everywhere the snake had touched. Pala just flicked her tongue a few times and then slithered back onto Ian’s arm. It made your head hurt a little to watch it. A three-dimensional creature becoming two-dimensional. Weird.
After that Ian and I left the house and let the SLA do its work. We sat on the stoop and Ian pulled out a cigarette. He’d been trying to quit.
“So what now?” I asked.
“Now, the SLA is probably giving Rich the hard sell. Sanctuary’s attack gives them more leverage to insist on some form of protective custody for Selena, which is what they’ve wanted all along. If he decides to take them up on it, there isn’t much we can do. And to be honest…” Ian paused to exhale. “If Sanctuary is coming after her too, maybe Selena is better off with the SLA. Our staff is too small to offer Rich any real protection. Yeah, you have SLA training and I can hold my own, but what are we going to watch her in shifts?”
“So we just let the SLA steamroll over what Rich wants for his daughter?”
Ian took a hard pull off of his cigarette.
“This isn’t what I want, Nick. This is very goddamn far from ideal, but we can’t fight Sanctuary. Even if we had the manpower, that’s not what the Whole Project is about. Think about the other people, other clients, we’d be doing a disservice to by getting involved in the crossfire between Sanctuary and the SLA. We’re supposed to provide safe haven. How are we supposed to do that if we become targets ourselves?”
I didn’t respond. I just looked up at the sky. It was a sunny, clear day. Awesome weather. The kind of day you’d want to spend with your kid, not talking to superheroes dead set on taking your daughter away.
Eventually the Ocelots emerged from the house and came down the stairs. Before leaving, Ringo turned to me and outstretched his hand.
“Your badge please, Mr. Palavin. I understand we were somewhat negligent in taking it from you.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled it out. I placed it into his hand and shrugged.
“You know, I’d forgotten all about it. Must have been my mistake.”
“Clerical error. Won’t happen again, I’m sure.”
Ringo and Bloom walked off and Ian flicked his cigarette then went back in to talk to Rich. That left Devon and I. I was still sitting on the stoop and he took Ian’s seat beside me. He looked straight ahead.
“Have you heard from Akma?” he asked.
A few moments passed.
“Busy. He’s the SLA’s newest tactical director. He wanted to be in the field, but Europa made the decision personally. He couldn’t say no. He’s doing a good job they say. We haven’t seen too much of each other.”
“How about Exeter?”
“Still cleaning up after the SLA. Last I heard he was in Croatia dealing with some situation. Haven’t seen much of him either. I’m beginning to realize it was a strange time when we were in the Checkers. We had unprecedented access to the director, we were on a mission that was murky as fuck. Most of the time things are just…normal. Aside from the occasional call on Sanctuary’s doings, we just catch regular bad guys and the occasional person with abilities trying to step into the criminal big leagues. It’s not always like it was. Rarely is.”
“Are you trying to lure me back?”
“No. Unless it’s working. Then yes.” Devon laughed. The melty feeling came back.
“I can’t, Devon. I’m doing work I believe in. I don’t want that to change.”
“Not even for me, huh?”
“If there was anyone I’d do it for it’d be you. You’re hot enough to strip paint, Dev, but I can’t.”
Devon nodded and stood. “Figured I’d try. We had fun together, all of us did. I miss it, you know? But everybody’s got to find their own way I guess. Either way, I’m here if you need anything and if you hear from Akma, let her know she still can’t fucking drive. And that I’d like to hear from her.”
“Will do,” I said.
Devon took a few steps and then said. “By the way, Rich Huerta has decided to agree to our offer to protect Selena. It’s best for everyone.”
I took a deep breath.
“Thanks for letting me know.”
“No problem, Nick. See you around.”
I sat on the stoop and watched the sky for another few minutes. It was really a beautiful day and that was a damn shame.