So this was supposed to come out in the fall, as in the first one was supposed to drop on Sept 22 (the autumnal equinox). But it’s my birthday and I’m feeling reckless so I figured I’d post the first chapter a few weeks early. When last we checked in with our boy Nick and The Checkers, they were on the cusp of a vote to decide the future of the team. This takes place six months later.
Six Months Later…
“I understand your concerns, Mr. Jones, but is there really a reason for you to be this upset with the Fields family?” I said gently, careful to underscore that I was taking issue with the extent of his complaint without trivializing it.
The older man paused, squinted at me and sighed. “You don’t fucking listen do you? These people are freaks. Like the ones you see on the news leaping over buildings. You can call them heroes all you like, but my hero is Jesus, and there’s nothing in the bible about that. So you can tell them and anyone else who wants to come into this neighborhood that I’ve spent twenty years making this place safe and I’m not backing down on that for some half-assed diversity initiative. Come back and talk to me when you’ve got a plan for how to protect my rights too.”
And then he slammed the door in my face.
Our conversation could have gone better. I could have made it go better.
I could have pushed through his resistance and had him eating out of the palm of my hand, but I was starting to learn that my powers weren’t a permanent solution, especially not to the fear and discomfort that the city — hell the whole country — was living with regarding people with abilities. Marty Jones wasn’t the only person who felt they’d already been pushed too far, asked to accept too much. I hadn’t realized that there was so much tension brewing in regular human, or baseline, populations. Then again, I’d spent so much time running from my abilities that I hadn’t been aware of what was going on in the world around me for a very long time.
I fished the phone out of my pocket as I walked away from Mr. Jones’s door and loosened my tie while I dialed. A peppy female voice came on the line.
“Hey, Nicky. What’s up?” she asked.
“Oh you know, getting doors slammed in my face, getting told off. The usual,” I answered.
“I’m making a sad face for you right now, Nick. You should see it. You’d weep. So sad.”
“I’m sorry you’re having a shitty morning, but I have news that will turn that frown upside down.”
“No shit. Is it that soccer player I like? The hot brazilian one? Did he finally come in the mail?” I asked eagerly as I made my way to my car.
“Even better. Ian wants you to liaise in the Huerta case,” she said.
“Noooooooo,” I moaned over my car’s engine starting. “Did you tell him I have meetings all afternoon for the community development thing?”
“I did. He moved them himself.”
“All of them?”
“Every. Single. One.”
“Vona…kill me…” I said.
I banged my head on the steering wheel once and then another time for good measure. Six months ago I quit the SLA. It didn’t take me terribly long to realize that it wasn’t the kind of place where I’d flourish. Even though the organization talked a good talk about protecting people’s rights and dispensing even-hand justice, there seemed to be a great deal of manipulation and withholding of critical information. It had only taken me a few weeks to find a new job and only a few weeks after that to find myself working with the SLA again in a different capacity, this time at the behest of Ian Graham, my boss.
“Hold on a sec, el jefe wants to pass a word with you.”
There was nothing for a minute then I heard Ian’s voice.
“Alright, so I’m guessing that right about now you’re wanting to kill yourself. I can give you three reasons why you shouldn’t.”
“You better talk quickly, I’m searching for a bridge to drive off of,” I said.
“One: you’re the only one who can talk to these people. They respect you. Without your help, this family is fucked, Nick.”
“That’s one reason,” I said, still grumpily, but mostly for show.
“Two: I made lunch reservations at Miss Chen’s. I know you have a place in your heart for their veggie eggrolls and I totally won’t judge you if you order wine.”
I made a noise, a kind of half-snort, half laugh. Something an amused warthog might make. I realized that I was just being childish now, but I was told that my last meeting with the SLA representatives would actually be my last. Someone had been hired at our company for exactly that position, but the guy was still training and Ian had more confidence in my ability to get my point across with them anyway.
“So are we cool? Think you can postpone your death until we get this case wrapped up?” Ian asked.
“You’re a little light on convincing arguments there, friend,” I pointed out.
“Oh yeah. They’re sending Justin.”
Miss Chen’s was a small restaurant on the trendier side of quaint. It had a patio in the back that was little more than a walled off garden with a few tables and chairs. I arrived at the restaurant and knew to make my way back there. I found Ian reading over some files. He was older than me, but still young enough to make it amazing how much he’d done in his relatively short life. He’d started out as a law student, but dropped out for health reasons. It turns out that what he and the doctors thought was a gall bladder infection was actually the manifestation of his ability. The stress of the ordeal made his hair start to fall out so he shaved it down to stubble and dropped out of law school. Instead he got a business degree and started a little non-profit that was so in-demand that he quickly had to start acquiring specialized staff to deal with the needs of his clientele.
His company The Whole Project had emerged as the one of the premier advocacy groups for people with abilities. It didn’t aim for the kind of extreme autonomy of Sanctuary, but neither did it require anyone to take up arms for basic needs like healthcare or stable housing like the SLA. Instead its employees worked in communities building safe and affordable spaces for people with abilities to live in and constantly talked to legislators to try to pass anti-discrimination laws.
The project got most of its funding from partnerships with various big companies, but it diligently avoiding crossing revenue streams with the SLA. Better to take in a few less bucks a year than to end up in the pocket of one of the forces with which you routinely butt heads. Occasionally the company got directly involved in particularly visible or personal cases. That was the case with the Huertas.
As I got closer, Ian looked up and waved his hands back and forth over his files as if to say, ‘Can you believe this?’. At first glance he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d run any kind of business, much less one of the fastest growing non-profits in the country. He had heavily tattooed arms that were well-developed underneath the ink. He wore thick black framed glasses that made him look like an action star trying — and mostly failing — to play a nerd on TV, but I knew that he actually had terrible eyesight.
“Thanks for coming, Nick. I really mean that,” Ian said as I sat down next to him.
A half-dozen eggrolls were already sitting in a dish steaming at the center of the table. I wasted no time grabbing one and taking a bite.
“I came for the eggrolls and the wine. As far as I’m concerned everything else is still in negotiation stages,” I said.
“You drive a hard bargain, even with your mouth full,” Ian responded.
“I haven’t even started bargaining yet. By the time I get done here you might need to sell your company to appease me.”
Ian and I both laughed. Even though I hadn’t wanted to keep dealing with the SLA, Ian knew that I’d do almost anything for the company. After quitting the SLA I needed something to throw myself into and the Whole Project seemed a better option than most. It was a way to meaningfully connect with communities that I didn’t know existed and to tap into their hopes and dreams. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing. If I felt like I was playing at being a hero at the SLA then being at the project felt like actually being one.
At least it did most of the time. Somehow dealing with the SLA reps always had a way of making me feel a little less sure of myself. I didn’t know most of them personally, but they all looked at me the same way, like I was less than they imagined I’d be. A disappointment perhaps for people who were expecting some kind of superhero, a man who’d worked for Europa Evers personally and who’d done field operations with the SLA’s new tactical director.
Justin was different. In my time after the league, I’d seen more of him than any of my other former comrades. There was no shaking his faith in the organization, but he didn’t see me as a failure. He considered us to be on “different paths.” At least that’s how I think he put it. That didn’t stop him from trying to convince me to come back every once in a while, but I don’t think either of us thought that was a real possibility.
When Justin arrived, both Ian and I stood to greet him. After we all shook hands and such, we sat and Ian started.
“Do you want to order anything to eat? Drink? Your friend here swears by the eggrolls. I think the sesame vinaigrette garden salad is euphoric myself.”
Justin held out a hand. “Nothing for me, thanks. I have early dinner reservations and my date would kill me if I’d already eaten.”
The reference to a date sent a pang of jealousy through me. Justin was mostly straight despite our occasional handjob sessions. It wasn’t the first time I’d wished we were something more.
“Fair enough. Should we just jump right in then?” Ian asked.
“I’d appreciate that,” said Justin.
Ian flipped a few of the pages in the document before him and frowned slightly. He licked his bottom lip gently and then looked up.
“I don’t think the SLA has a good enough justification for taking this girl away from her father. That’s as plain as I can make it, Justin. There’s no reason why she’s not better served by staying exactly where she is. If you disrupt her environment now, it could be detrimental to her education, her development, even her safety. I’d like it, her father would like it, if you just let her grow up without your intervention.”
Justin nodded, then spoke, “I hear you. I don’t think anyone likes the fact that this girl is a necessary part of SLA operations, but she is. Her ability is so unique, so unprecedented, that we can’t just pass up an opportunity to study it. I appreciate your candor and I hope you don’t mind me speaking on similarly candid terms…”
“No, of course not. Please, go ahead,” Ian said.
“…Rich Huerta agreed to Selena’s evaluation period through early adulthood. The agreement was vetted by his lawyer and it’s not like he didn’t get anything out of the deal. Selena will receive free healthcare for her entire lifetime, a guaranteed job should she ever want it, and free tuition to the college of her choice. And I don’t think I need to remind you that our doctors saved her life. I’ve been authorized to tell you that the process we used to treat her birth defect ten years ago was pioneered through research into another young woman with a remarkable ability. We save lives and not just from psychotics in masks.”
“Do you save lives in order to acquire interesting subjects for indentured servitude?” I asked.
Justin’s expression was pained as he answered: “You know that’s not the case, Nick.”
“Explain that to this man whose daughter you saved only to yank her out of his arms a few years later. He would have signed anything to save her life. No matter what his lawyer or anyone else said.”
“That’s not fair.”
“It’s not fair what you’re doing to his family, Justin. She’s all he has. Is that fair?”
Justin ground his teeth. I tried to subtly get a read on his emotions through his pheromone output, but his eyes lit up a bright green for a few seconds before shifting back to dark brown and my efforts were easily thwarted. His nickname wasn’t Cancel for nothing.
“I feel for this man, I truly do, but this situation is big enough to justify a little discomfort on his part. Selena’s evaluation will take place primarily during the week where she will also receive top-shelf instruction at our facilities. She’ll be home most weekends and for a longer stay every two months. This hyperbolic dialogue about the SLA tearing up a family is better suited to the gossip rags. If Mr. Huerta wants to come to a different outcome, we’re open to arbitration as per our agreement…for what it’s worth, I don’t want to see her separated from her dad any more than you do, but her ability is one of a kind and we have to take the opportunity to study it.”
Justin stood up.
“If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me at any time. But don’t expect the SLA to roll over on this one. It can’t happen this time.”
He took his leave shortly after that and I was left sitting there with Ian.
“So that just happened,” I said.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“What is this girl’s ability that it’s got them so riled up?” I asked.
“It’s been suggested through our independent research, and I’m guessing the SLA has come to a similar conclusion, that she’s a kind of human lie-detector. What’s actually going on is more sophisticated. She can detect, allegedly, dissonance between what a person says versus what they’re thinking. She picks it up via electrical signals firing through a person’s brain,” Ian said.
“So the SLA funded her healthcare as a baby somehow knowing she’d be capable of this?” I was not well-versed in the financial aspects of our interactions with the SLA.
Ian shook his head. “No. The SLA funds care for a lot of people with abilities: children, teens, elders, college-students. Most everyone who receives care signs the standard clause and in 90% of cases, the care comes without a direct cost to the consumer, but the SLA tends to keep an eye on people and when they notice that someone is of particular interest, they start to move on them using all the legalese anyone can stand.”
“So what happens now?”
Ian started gathering up his papers and putting them in their appropriate folders. “Now you finish lunch and I go tell Rich that the SLA is set on taking his daughter away. We’ll try to get it blocked, of course, but who once this thing goes to court it’ll get nasty. The SLA has a lot of cache in the judicial system and their lawyers are pieces of work too. I don’t have high hopes, but maybe…” Ian glanced over at me and sighed. “…finish your eggrolls. we’ll talk about this later.”
Under orders I finished my lunch while Ian paid our check then went off to meet with the client. I never did get that glass of wine, but I wasn’t too worried about it; I could always add it to the laundry list of favors that I’d done for my boss since I’d started.
Afterward I got back into my car and started heading back to the office when I got a call from the cell phone of Lavona Wilson, Ian’s executive secretary. She was just a few years out of college, but her work was impeccable and she was great with clients, even if it was amusing seeing people’s reactions when they first met her after speaking with her voice on the phone. For some reason few people matched her polite, bubbly speech with the dark-skinned woman it belonged to. She’d been told by more than one client that she “spoke like a white girl,” but she always took the statement with grace and aplomb even if she sometimes gave those people the finger behind their backs.
I answered her call like I usually do.
“Vona, please don’t give me bad news.”
“Nick, I need you to head over to Rich Huerta’s place. How soon can you get there?”
There was no sign of the joking, jovial tone from earlier. My stomach lurched.
“I’ve already called Ian and the police, they’re sending a squad cars and an SLA response team.”
“I’ll be there, but Vona, what’s going on?” I asked again.
“I don’t have details, but Sanctuary is there. They’re trying to take his daughter and he’s trying his hardest to stop them.”