His house smelled like casseroles and flowers on the verge of wilt. Carolina hated the smell, had associated it with death for years since she had attended her first wake as a child, for the grandmother of a friend. She didn’t think that she would be able to eat for as long as that smell lingered.
Carolina paused for a long moment just inside the front door with her purse in one hand and the fingers of her other resting lightly against the lights before she came the rest of the way in. She closed and locked the front door behind her before deciding to leave it dark for now rather than letting the neighbors know that she was back. They would be over within minutes to keep her company; her grandfather had been a well-liked man even among people who hadn’t known his profession. She toed her high-heeled shoes off in the entryway and padded across the carpet in her stocking feet, threw her purse down into one of the living room chairs. Even though Carolina had lived in the house for months and could have navigated every inch of it without the silvery light that slipped in through the windows, it still didn’t feel enough like hers to keep her shoes on. She had been on her feet for most of the day, and the plush felt good against her soles.
Carolina climbed slowly up the stairs and then headed towards her bathroom, pausing to open a window along the way and let a fresh breeze start carrying away the mingled reeks of roses, chicken lasagna, and a lingering air of sickness. She very carefully did not enter the last room on the left, not yet. In her own bathroom, Carolina stripped her stockings off with a brisk efficiency, clipped her hair back from her face, and then washed off what little traces of mascara and shadow had made it through the day. She left the funeral dress on for now; it was comfortable enough.
“Okay, sweetheart,” she whispered to herself in the mirror, trying to imitate Granddad’s gruffness. “What are you going to do now, you going to sit and cry or are you going to pick yourself up and cry?” Her reflection was hollow-eyed and unimpressed. Carolina sighed. “Maybe you can pick yourself up tomorrow.” She turned away from the mirror, intending to go downstairs and make herself a cup of tea that she could nurse until she was too tired to stay awake any longer.
Down the hall, from the room on the left that Carolina had walked past without entering, there was a distinct thumping sound. Carolina froze with one hand on the handle of the bathroom door. She had left her cell phone in her purse, and the nearest landline was three rooms down the hall. After several seconds of standing still and scarcely daring to do more than breathe, Carolina knelt down to scoop her stockings off of the floor and then fill them with the tray of scented soaps that she had brought with her upon moving in. She hesitated scarcely a beat before she followed the soaps with their decorative porcelain bowl as well, twisting the stockings rapidly until she had about the closest thing to a weapon that she thought she was going to be able to manage, and then she slipped out into the hall.
She should have turned on more lights. Carolina balanced for a moment on the balls of her bare feet, uncertain, before she crept up to the closed bedroom door, knob a faint gleam in the shadow. Three rooms wasn’t that far away, and she would have a phone in her hands. She could use it, or she could just scream while she was standing right here, the neighbors were only a house away. Or she could get out of here before she did something deeply and irreparably stupid that was going to end with a tragic bulletin about her murder on tomorrow night’s news--Carolina steeled herself before her imagination could get too far away from her and grabbed for the doorknob. Bravado had a longer legs and a louder voice than stealth; Carolina hurled the door open so hard that it made a dent in the plaster of the opposite wall and came back at her so fast that she barely avoided being clipped in the face. The widest part of the door’s arc revealed a black-clad figure, and Carolina screamed, saw a light flick on in the house next door. Carolina stumbled back and started to swing her makeshift weapon above her head, but the man grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her the rest of the way into the room so roughly that her feet left the floor. He hurled her down against the bed while she kicked out against his midsection and hoped to hit something used to being treated nicely. In her bare feet, his abdomen was like kicking a wall. Carolina paused only long enough for another good shriek before she rolled off of the far edge of the bed, caught herself, and then sprinted as fast as she was able around the intruder and back towards the bedroom door. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she told herself. She should have marched right back down the stairs and called 911 from the porch as soon as she had realized that she was not alone in the house, there was nothing in here worth dying for--
The man in black, she finally noticed, was holding a red file folder in his hands.
Carolina abruptly forgot that she was within leaping distance of safety and spun back around. She intended to rip the folder from the man’s hands, but he caught her instead right at the weakest point of her balance, right at the top of the stairs. It took one hard push, and then Carolina found herself windmilling for a molasses second before her brain caught up to what the rest of her body was doing before she was tumbling down in a flurry of ankles and wrists that she mercifully never heard crack. She twisted as she was flying from the last step, struck her temple hard against the corner of the wall, and went still.
Carolina Guerrera paused so that she could take a breath, obviously trying to keep her emotions under control. She had ordered a scotch and soda upon sitting down but hadn’t touched it, explaining that she mostly just wanted the smell of it. While Hardison and Nate watched, she lifted the glass to her mouth and took a gulp. Her hands were trembling; upon setting the glass back down on the table, she set her mouth, closed her eyes, and very determinedly shook out her fingers until she had them under her control again before she took a second drink.
“I woke up three days later in Intensive Care with a massive concussion and four cracked ribs,” Carolina said flatly. She lifted her dark brunette hair back from her eye so that Nate and Hardison could see a ragged pink scar stretching down from her hairline and ending scarcely an inch from the corner of her eye. Once it had faded, she would be able to push her hair back again and have people refer to her as “striking” in response. While it was still raw and new, Hardison couldn’t stop himself from wincing before she noticed.
That didn’t mean that it escaped Nate’s attention. He gave Hardison an ugly look and said, “It’s not as bad as you think.”
Carolina held up her hand before he could get too far. “I wasn’t planning on a modeling career,” she said. “Don’t meet the height requirement.” While Carolina paired long, lustrous dark hair with olive skin and green eyes just a hair away from being too large for her face, she barely came up to Hardison’s shoulder. “I woke up in a hospital to find out that the screen had been slit on the window I opened coming in, so I got to have the lovely experience of three different police officers all but telling me I’m too stupid to live, and my grandfather’s homeowner’s insurance wants to cite negligence so that they can refuse to pay the claim.” She had introduced herself as Carolina Guerrera, wait a minute there. Hardison frowned, but the thought flitted away before he could pin it down just yet.
“They can be unfair like that,” Nate said calmly. Because Hardison still wasn’t sure why Carolina’s last name sounded so familiar to him, and because he was still having to damn near make all of Nate’s aliases wanted for tax evasion before he could take Sophie’s place in meeting with new clients, he decided to let the understatement go.
Carolina waved her hand and took another sip of her drink. “I don’t even care,” she said. “They took electronics, some petty cash. My grandfather had--” She paused and shook the ice in her glass for a few seconds as if she meant to punish it. “He didn’t die suddenly, he had time to give away everything that mattered to people in the family.” She tilted her hand so that they could see an antique pearl cocktail ring resting on one hand. “My grandmother’s. He bought it for her as a present after he got his first big check.”
Nate was frowning, and Hardison already knew that it was because Carolina kept playing with her scotch instead of actually drinking it and Nate’s coffee was untouched by the finer points of grain alcohol for once. “I’m sorry, Ms. Guerrera,” he said to her gently. “But if you don’t have any idea who broke into your grandfather’s house, and you don’t believe that the insurance company is actually corrupt--” Nate paused with an expression very close to physical pain.
“You had to take a breather for that one, didn’t you?” Hardison asked, and Nate made a see-sawing gesture before he continued.
“I’m just not quite certain how you want us to help you,” Nate finished, and did a very good job of checking the clock without giving himself away. They already had a single dad whose bank was taking advantage of his adjustable rate mortgage so that the bank president could buy himself a new boat coming in shortly, and possibly a case involving a puppy mill. Hardison had not been surprised to learn that Parker and Eliot both had very strong feelings on puppies, even when they were those little Chinese ones that looked as if they had been flipped inside out.
Carolina looked confused for a moment, and then she shook her head. “Believe me, Mr. Ford, I am not trying to hire you to get back a couple grand in electronics. That’s not why there was a strange man in my house, that was just his cover story.” Carolina paused to take in each of their blank expressions, then fished a pen out of her purse and pulled one of the cocktail napkins towards her. “This will be faster.” She drew one line, and then another and another, until a few moments later Hardison was looking down at a sketch of a woman wearing tights and a mask, and standing in a pose that he recognized immediately from most of his reading material from the ages of seven to (no way in hell Eliot was ever going to find out about this) twenty-two. “My grandfather was working on a new character right before he died, and I was helping him with the art once his hands started getting weak. All of the materials were in his house, the sketches, the notes, everything. That’s what was taken.”
It clicked. Hardison couldn’t believe that it had taken him this long, the message boards had been flowing up. “Your grandfather was Steve Guerrera,” Hardison blurted out.
Carolina nodded, putting all of her attention onto Hardison and ignoring Nate for the first time since she had sat down. “You were a fan of his work?”
“‘Were’? Try am.” Hardison spun towards Nate and forgot for the moment that this might mean having no other choice but to bury Eliot in a shallow grave, or at least hack his Pay-Per-View and have Parker break into his house and hang all of the art upside down or something. “Do you know who this girl’s grandfather was?” he demanded.
Wearing a bemused expression, Nate took a long pull of his coffee and answered mildly, “I think that you maybe you’re about to cover that for me.”
“Steve Guerrera.” Nate continued to look blank. The tiniest beginnings of a smile were twitching at the corners of Carolina’s mouth, the first that she had worn since stepping through the door. “Helped jump-start the Silver Age of comics? The creative brain behind such legends as the Siren, Mutual Assured Destruction, and The Brethren?” Nate took another drink of coffee. Hardison made a disgusted noise from the back of his throat and turned towards Carolina again. “Your grandfather’s death crashed Twitter for six hours. It broke Chat Cache for eight. If Stan Lee himself did not give the eulogy at his funeral, I think that I just lost a little of my faith in the humanity.”
Still clinging to the last vestiges of her smile, though it was becoming more hollow by the second, Carolina answered, “He called, and sent a really nice flower arrangement. They had a bit of a professional rivalry.”
Hardison held up his hand before Nate could deliver the very gentle, very bullshit rejection that he could already feel coming and leaned across the table to Carolina. He took her hands in his and said, “Why don’t you tell us what we can do for you.”
Carolina was agitated enough to forget about her scar; she pulled her hands away from Hardison’s and swiped her hair behind her ears as she stared down into the remains of her drink. “My grandfather was with the same agent and the same publishing house for twenty years, right up until six months after he got sick. Medical bills were piling up, he nearly bankrupted himself when my grandmother was diagnosed with her own cancer, and he just...he needed more money.” She looked faintly ashamed for a moment, as if wishing that she could throw a shield over the dead. “So he fired the people who had been with him for twenty years and would have taken care of him, and he and signed with this new company. They told him that they could get him an advance big enough to take care of all of his medical expenses for the next two years, just like that. All that my grandfather had to do was keep quiet about his newest project and get all of the materials to this one agent in particular, Thomas Regan.”
“And conveniently, all those materials were the ones that turned up stolen,” Nate finished.
“Exactly.” Carolina leaned forward across the table. “I called Regan as soon as I was out of the hospital and told him that I could get him duplicates of the stolen work if he would just give me a , but he just said that that wasn’t the deal and has been ducking my calls every since. Then a few days ago, I see this.” She pulled a flyer out from her purse and unfolded it on the table. Hardison craned his neck and discovered himself looking at a nearly exact replica of the woman that Carolina had sketched out for them on the cocktail napkin, but now with the color filled in: deep skin, dark blonde hair, a black mask poised over her eyes and a don’t-fuck-with-me expression on the parts of her face that remained visible. “Willpower” was emblazoned in jagged white letters at the bottom of a purple-and-blue backdrop that looked as if it was supposed to be New York City viewed through a funhouse mirror.
“Premiering at the Eastern Seaboard Comics Convention in three days,” Carolina finished grimly, leaning back in her seat and folding her arms over her chest. “Written by authors and illustrators that no one has ever heard of before and who couldn’t command nearly the royalties that my grandfather’s name would have gotten.” She shook her head. “And before you ask why I’m not going through the courts, I’m telling you: the burglar took everything, all of the hand sketches, all of the scripts that I had on my computer--” Hardison tilted his head to one side and ignored Nate making note of the gesture. “Even if my grandfather’s estate had the money to fight this after paying all of his hospital bills, I don’t have any hard proof, and once it’s in the court of public opinion it’s going to be that much harder to call back.” Carolina finished off her drink and glared at her fingers when she noticed that they had gone back to trembling.
Hardison turned the flier around so that he could get a better look at it. On the woman’s left hand was a pearl ring. He said before Nate could, “Ms. Guerrara, by the time we’re done, this dude’s going to wish he had never laid eyes on a comic book in his life.”
Nate impressed Hardison and made it to three steps away from the condo door before he started in; maybe their had been something more than coffee in that cup, after all. “You don’t, ah, think that maybe you’re jumping the gun just a bit there, Hardison?” He tried the door and made a face at discovering that it was already unlocked.
“Hey.” Hardison spread his hands. “Girl needs help. The Man needs his ass kicked. Unless I’m very much mistaken, that puts this right up our alley.”
“You don’t get final say on the jobs,” Nate reminded him. “When you’re running this crew, then you get final say on the jobs, but until then--”
“You’re gonna hypnotize me again to make sure I behave?” Hardison asked sourly as he followed Nate inside. Nate had the good grace to not look surprised when he discovered that the reason for his unlocked door was the three people who had been making themselves at home in his absence.
“As I recall, you hardly have final say on the jobs any longer, either,” Sophie remarked from the sofa, where she was watching Eliot watching a football game and explaining the finer points to Parker. Nate’s face was going to freeze like that one of these days, if he kept contorting it without stretching first.
“Are we going to stop the puppy mill?” Parker asked, turning away from where Eliot was trying to explain the defense’s strategy by using pretzels as stand-ins for the players. Nate turned to Hardison, eyebrows slightly raised. He was keep thinking that, right up until the moment when Hardison learned enough hypnosis to make him cluck like a chicken or finally just ask Sophie out or something else equally out of character.
“Gonna have to put the puppy mill on the back burner for a week or so,” Hardison said, shooting Nate a little bit of a glare. It was more than fair, given the looks that Eliot and Parker were now turning on him. Hardison held his hands up in a defensive gesture. “Hey, hey. You know that I would not leave the poor little puppies defenseless if there wasn’t a person out there who needed us even more.” All the while thinking that he was going to need some hand-wavey Force magic to convince the two people watching him dubiously that primary colors needed to take a bigger priority than squishy canine faces for even a short period of time. Nate was leaning back against the couch with a smug look on his face and his arms folded over his chest. Sophie had stopped watching Hardison and was now instead looking at Nate as if she could just hear him switching gears over into the mode where he was kind of a son of a bitch. “The client is Steve Guerrera’s granddaughter, and she kind of...needs for us to prove that his former publishers are a bunch of lying SOBs who stole a new comic book character from him right before he died.” Those were not faces boiling over with enthusiasm, right there. “It’s Steve Guerrera, y’all, come on.”
“Yeah, I actually go on dates with girls, that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Eliot said sourly. Something on the television made him swear under his breath, and Hardison wanted to point out that the man didn’t exactly have room to talk about brightly colored obsessions to anyone.
Parker ate one of her defensive linemen and said, “I’ve never understood what was so special about comic books. I hang off of buildings all the time, it’s not that special.” She furrowed her brow at Hardison in the way that was even cuter because she had no clue how cute it was. “They’re not puppies.” And if Nate got any more smug, Hardison was just going to have to ask Sophie to smack him. He was pretty sure that she would go along with it.
“Oh, come on, Eliot, I’ve seen your Netflix, there ain’t a hero-sociopath that you’ve let pass you by.” Hardison snatched the remote away from Eliot and turned off the game, ignoring the way that Eliot growled at him. “That right there, that’s what I’m saying. The nineties were not a good decade for you, were they?” Parker was tapping one of her pretzel people against Nate’s coffee table hard enough to leave a path of crumbs. To her, Hardison said, “We will go back for the puppies.” Her response was to break one of her linemen in half and then quarters in a shower of salt, ignoring the noise of protest that Nate made. Sophie was curving her hand over her mouth to hide a smile, though Hardison wasn’t about to ask what she was actually smiling at. “Look. Y’all might be complete philistines who don’t understand legendary storytelling--”
“I’m picturing you saying all of this with fake ears glued on, just so you know,” Eliot interrupted. Hardison thought about chucking the remote at him, but all of the skills that Eliot had taught him over the past couple of years still didn’t mean that he could best the man himself, and there was no telling which one of them Parker would help while she still had her lower lip jutting out like that. Hardison took another look at her and steeled himself before he could be swayed back onto Team Puppy Mill.
“But Steve Guerrera,” he finally went on as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “just so happens to be one of my childhood heroes. He’s one of the main people who took comics into the Silver Age, right up there with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He took the old heroes and made them actual people with flaws and tempers and demons, and he did all of that without losing any of the things that made them super. That’s some Gilgamesh and Enkidu stuff going down right there, and every last page of it--” Hardison paused to point at Eliot. “In glorious primary colors, baby. His granddaughter is trying to keep the last page of his legacy intact.” Damn, he was glad that he had listened to the pointers that Sophie had given him on selling these speeches. “And, anyway, what the hell is it that we do? We step in where the law doesn’t, we make some voodoo happen that no one else can, and we right a wrong. One step away from wearing capes and leaping tall buildings in a single bound, baby.”
Parker sucked her lip back into its rightful position, leaving Hardison vaguely disappointed, and began cleaning up her dismembered football team before they could roll down to the floor. She still looked dubious, though, and Hardison expected that he would find a lot of puppy mill literature stapled over the walls of his apartment without any sign of how she had gotten in. Eliot snatched the remote out of Hardison’s hand and muttered, “You’re just lucky I don’t have money on this game.”
Looking inexplicably pleased even though from where Hardison was standing he hadn’t done a damned bit of the work, Nate clapped his hands together and said, “Okay, then. Looks like we’re going to steal ourselves a superhero.”
End Part One