When Superman died, it happened on Main Street in Metropolis, live and in color, from five different angles, on five hundred different channels. There was nothing like that for the Flash. He just... disappeared. The League formed a wall of silence, holding a single press conference where Superman spun out a frustratingly vague tale topped off by the bizarre claim that Flash had died saving not just Keystone, not just the world, but the universe.
Word on the street said the League's story was a scam. Flash had given up his secret identity to work for the Feds. Flash had been kidnapped and dissected by the Russians, or the Japanese, or the mob. He was faking his death, the better to sweep up the Rogues, who would surely grow overconfident in his absence.
Overconfident... wasn't exactly the word.
Twitchy, maybe. Staccato. I certainly was. Trickster's regular poker game, which had been scheduled since before the news hit, was attended by only Heat Wave, Captain Cold, and me. It wasn't a regular thing, as none of us exactly lived a life that predictable. It just happened sometimes-- James Jesse would put the word out that he'd stocked some random warehouse squat with pretzels, beer, a TV. The rest of us would show up to drink, trash-talk the Flash, and lose all our money. For a small initial outlay, James would go home a few thousand dollars richer than when he'd started.
Nice work if you can get it, but as much time as Tricks spent trying to teach me how to palm cards, I never was any good at the game, and tended to drift away from the table after a few hands. It was especially a relief to escape the game that afternoon. Mick and Len were bad losers, and James was a worse winner. And like I said, we'd all been knocked off our stride.
I was nursing my second beer, watching a baseball game and trying to ignore the grumbling coming from the table. Sometimes the muttering roused itself into snarls, Mick and Len snapping at each other like a couple of dogs on a hot day. Watching the Sox get their asses kicked wasn't doing much to distract me, and my artificially heightened hearing wouldn't let me tune them out entirely.
"Tellin' ya," Len said, hunched over the table, "it's a goddamn con job. Black flags and a candlelight vigil at Flashland and the whole city's fallin' for it. If he's dead, where's the body?"
"That's exactly why I don't think it is a con. It's too random," James observed, fingers shifting nimbly over his cards. "If someone was trying to play with our heads, they'd be doing a better job."
"Damn straight. I could pull off a better fake fuckin' death with one hand tied behind my back." Len grunted.
"Wouldn't have been hard to find a body to bury." Mick shook his head, pushing back from the table to get another beer. "Considering none of us know what he really looked like. Coulda picked anyone, y'know?"
I'd pretty much given up on trying to pay attention to the game, and was focusing on listening to the cars passing by outside, the chatter of people sitting on the stoops of their brownstones, competing conversations in English and Spanish, blurry music coming from someone's portable radio, an emergency newscast--
Mick stopped as he passed the couch where I was sitting. "Piper?"
I glanced over at him, then fumbled for the remote on the crate in front of me. Had I heard correctly?
"What's up?" James asked, behind me.
"Piper's got that 'I hear a dog whistle' look--" Mick said.
"I did-- I heard something." I was switching through the channels, barely paying attention to the visuals, till I found the one with the jerky, half-nauseating camera work that meant someone-- someone right here in Keystone, maybe closer than we knew-- was trying in vain to catch the Flash on film.
"Shit!" Mick crashed down next to me, grabbing the remote out of my hands in order to crank up the volume. I winced back. "Hey, Rogues, look at this!"
The Channel Seven logo was the only steady thing on the screen for a few long moments. Finally the cameraman gave up on trying to catch Flash and refocused on a pretty redheaded newscaster, nervous and stumbling over her words. "--appears to be Mister-- uh, Doctor Alchemy, self-styled Master of Transubstation--"
"Transubstation!?" James blurted, and I smacked him.
"--police were on the scene within minutes--" the newscaster continued, and you could've heard a pin drop as they cut back to the footage they'd shot five minutes ago. Yellow-green bolts of energy flashing outward from Alchemy's stone, and yes, there-- an unmistakable red blur, moving cops out of the field of fire.
"Can't be him. It's the girl, or the geezer--" Mick's hands curled around the edge of the couch.
"Come on, where are they?" Len leaned forward. "Piece of shit TV, Trickster--"
"Harrison Plaza," James pointed suddenly. "That fountain, it's right outside the Keystone STARlabs--"
"Too fucking far," Mick cursed, and then the camera cut back to live action. Alchemy was in the middle of the plaza, laughing, waiting, and I think most of us would've killed to be him, because the Flash was running at him. He was easily recognizable, not moving at anything like his top speed-- just fast enough to bypass normal human reflexes and grab the Stone.
"No," I said under my breath.
The man in the red suit cried out in pain, smoke and steam rising from his hand. He dropped the stone, and Alchemy taunted him, but I didn't hear a thing, my thoughts ringing and echoing in my head. Alchemy coated his stone with powerful acids. We all knew that, everyone knew that. The Flash certainly did. Which meant--
"--impostor!" Alchemy taunted, raising the stone again. "You may think you fill his suit, but you're not fit to wear it!"
Faster than thought, more energy shot out from the stone, enveloping the pretender. The channel seven cameraman had balls-- he kept the camera steady, and we all watched. Perhaps Alchemy had doused the would-be Flash in acid, or turned his bones to water-- but when the light faded, only the Flash's costume had been transmuted.
It was quieter in the hot little room than it had been all day. We were all holding our breaths, and then James let out a long, slow sigh. "It's the kid."
"World's fastest pipsqueak," Mick muttered.
I blinked, and the sense of jamais vu resolved itself. Of course. The younger man's usual costume didn't hide that distinctive reddish-blond hair. Stripped out of the Flash suit, there was no question that it was him, Kid Flash, dashing about in his boxers and still trying to get the bystanders out of the way of Alchemy's destructive rays.
Kid Flash, trying to fill his mentor's boots...
Len lifted his beer in a slow salute, then drank deeply. I stood, sucking in a deep breath. It was stifling, I couldn't breathe. I had to get out.
The last thing I heard before I pushed open the door was Len clicking his tongue. "Well," he said. "It was a hell of a run, anyway."
People used to ask me, "so what was it like?" And I'd tell them. Well.
You know that moment in a relationship when the person you think you just might, maybe love, looks at you and says the one thing that makes it perfect, makes it safe to give it all up, to fall into their arms and feel--?
It's not like that.
It's kind of like that, but it's really more like the part maybe two months later when he's standing there and you're flat on your back on the ratty couch with a broken arm and nothing to kill the ache except for Tylenol because there's a fucking warrant out on you which means the hospital's out, and the usual underground doctor that you go to has given it up to be a vet at the dog fights, and someone, let's not say who because the yelling is starting to hurt your throat, led the cops back to your last hideout, the one with the couch that actually folded out into an actual bed, and anyway he's standing there in the doorway and not even really looking at you and he says listen, I don't think this is working out, and you say what? and he says This isn't working out and you say, cut the fucking bullshit, Earl, because he hates it when you call him Earl, just like you hate it when he calls you Hartley, what you mean is that you're fucking someone else and your throat hurts and your arm hurts and as it turns out (quelle surprise) your partner has been fucking some skanky bleach-blond club-rat coke dealer, but hey, as you're then informed: you're the one who's been bitching about his broken arm for two weeks and not putting out, so really, when you look at it like that, why even get mad, it's your own fault, right? These things happen.
Then a month later, a month of quiet, the radio on all the time to keep you company, he comes back. He says, just listen, baby, I'm sorry, baby, and you hate him and you hate yourself but you hate the silence more.
You take him back.
You want to know what fighting the Flash is like?
Ninety percent of the time it's like that.
Physically, of course, it's not that complex. If you've ever fallen down the stairs or wiped out on the ski slopes, then you know exactly what that part is like. Momentum and gravity, taking you down, no time to even verbalize the thought 'oh shit' before you hit the ground, barely even feeling it at first. Because of the rush.
The adrenaline, the hype, the sheer gut-clenching, skin-tingling excitement of throwing yourself in front of a speeding train armed with nothing but wits and skill. That's what it's like the other ten percent of the time, the time not spent in jail cells, manacles, little padded rooms, ratholes and hideouts and in the back of the getaway car. All worth it, or so you think when you're living the life. All worth it for those five minutes, every couple of months, when you're flying. Living the highest high, feeling the biggest thrill.
Sometimes people say they're out of the game. They take off the costume, they leave the name behind, and someone else picks it up. The game goes on. And the thing is...
You know what it's like, don't you? Some part of you will always be back in that claustrophobic little basement room, your arm hurting so bad you can't read, can't think, can't even listen to the radio, listening to your lover tell you he's leaving, that he's already gone. Some part of you will never leave that room.
That's why it's hard to describe, why most Rogues will just grunt or tell you to fuck off if you even ask. They've heard it before, a hundred times if they've heard it once. "What's it like to fight the Flash?" Who can say? You can't get a good view of anything if you're right in the middle of it. You've got no distance, no perspective.
And you never really leave the game.
A few nights after the card game at Trickster's I was standing on the vaulted roof of the Flash Museum, looking out into the oncoming night. It was probably stupid to be there, practically screaming 'arrest me,' but I didn't know where else to go. There was no grave, no marker, nothing but the statue. Also, I was drunk.
I could see the river, and the twin cities lying out below me, lights beginning to sparkle on. I could see Crown Hills, where I'd grown up and where my parents still lived. Iron Heights. The slums, the factories...
I looked down at the head and shoulders of the statue of the Flash that stood in front of the museum, a black banner tied around its base. Then I heard a clunking noise as the front doors of the museum opened, and I drew back into the shadow. A tall, mustached man moved down the front steps, making a slow circuit around the statue.
Dexter Myles, the director of the museum-- I recognized him, any Rogue would have. We don't have a lot in common, but I feel confident in saying that any Rogue who tells you he doesn't have a members' pass to the Flash museum is a damned liar.
"Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!'
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion."
Dexter projected his voice well, his stage training obvious. His emotion was honest, and obvious, but his words were still nearly lost in the night, carried away by the breeze. He looked at the statue for a while after that, reaching out his hand once as if to touch it. But the candles and the wreaths and the teddy bears were heaped so high that he couldn't get close. Eventually he went back inside.
I hate silence. I couldn't think of anything to say. I didn't have any Shakespeare to quote. I had nothing.
Nothing but this.
"I'm out of the game," I whispered. It took a breath, just one, I said it so quickly. I felt my heart pounding in my chest, and I said it again. "I'm out of the game."
I want to be cynical and tell you my darkest days were yet to come, that it was all downhill from that point, and the first part is true and the second part isn't. I've switched sides so many times I'm not surprised that even my best friends never really trusted me. But I've done a lot of growing up, since then. A lot of growing up lately.
I don't play for thrills any more, but I'm still playing.
I thought I could quit. They thought they could take me out of the game. I know now that I was wrong, and if it takes me a thousand years, I'll show them that they were wrong, too.
You're never truly out of the game.