Sometimes, the summers in New York could get so hot that nobody really wanted to move, not even the criminals. Or, for that matter, the vigilantes who were usually hot on their heels to catch them. Most of them had still gravitated towards the Minutemen headquarters, probably because the old stone building was nice and cool inside.
Silhouette was lounging around in a chair, head leaned back, her straight black hair falling down like a curtain. Well, at least those parts that weren't plastered to the back of her neck. She was smoking one cigarette after the other, something Hollis couldn't understand, at least not in this weather. After all, the air outside felt like the inside of an oven anyway, so why go and turn it into an oven where the roast was turning to charcoal on top of that?
Mothman was copying Silhouette's posture, only his hand didn't hold a cigarette, but rather a glass that, for once, held more ice than whiskey, rolling it against his temple with a small groan before taking a sip. Hollis hadn't counted how many of those glasses Byron had downed, but “more than enough” was always a good guess.
Sally was cooling her face with the help of one of those oversized, garishly colored chinese fans. Occasionally, she would pull out her costume a bit and fan her chest, a movement that always brought her the attention of the Comedian. Hollis had already shot the boy a warning glance or two, but all that had done was get him one of the little punk's trademark cheeky grins.
Dollar Bill was sitting in the corner by the radio, twiddling the controls, trying half-heartedly to catch a station that would bring them the news. Even Phantom was reduced to lying on his mat in the corner, his slightly raspy panting providing a steady background noise to Hollis' thoughts. He glanced over to check the water bowl that was sitting next to the dog's muzzle. He would probably have to refill it in another half hour or so. Yes, this really was the kind of weather you wouldn't even put a dog out into.
The only one who seemed to be mostly unperturbed by the temperatures was Captain Metropolis. Instead of lounging around in the next best chair like the rest of his compatriots, Nelson was bustling about the room, dusting. Of all things. Hollis watched the other man as he went around the room, shaking his head slightly and trying to suppress a grin. There seemed to be absolutely nothing that could get the Captain down.
Suddenly, the lazy silence was broken by a voice from the radio. Apparently, Dollar Bill had finally found a station that was broadcasting something else than music or updates on the heatwave. As if anyone needed to be told that it was really blistering hot outside. “...police failed to capture the armed robbers, who escaped with about fifteen thousand dollars worth of jewelery. First inquiries into the identities of the robbers have...”
“Of course they failed to get those bozos,” the Comedian said with a derisive snort, “seeing how our police are pretty much clowns themselves.” He chuckled, obviously pleased with his lame pun.
Hollis sat up in his chair, and shot the youngster an angry look: “Excuse me?”
“You heard me all right,” the Comedian said, both his tone and the nasty little grin carrying more than a hint of a challenge. “The police is useless. I mean, if they weren't, where's the need for people like us, then? And yet here we are...”
“You better watch your mouth,” Hollis growled, pointing a finger at the Comedian. “I won't have you putting down the brave men of the force while I'm around.”
By now, Hollis wasn't the only one who had been roused from his heat-induced stupor. Everyone's eyes were on the Comedian and him, watching how this would play out. It wasn't the first time that Eddie had tried to get a rise out of him. Or, in fact, any of his fellow Minutemen. Hollis was pretty sure the Comedian saw this as some kind of sport. Well, for Hollis, making disparaging remarks about the police was going one step too far.
“The brave men of the force,” the Comedian mocked, his grin so wide as to be almost shark-like now. “You sound like Aunt Nelly here, when he's telling one of his boring stories about his time in the army.” He waved a hand dismissively: “Bunch of faggots who think they're better than the rest of us because they've got uniforms and guns handed over to them by the government.”
“You disrespectful, nasty...” Neslon almost slammed the small wooden case he had been dusting – which, as Hollis noticed, contained the Captain's medals from his tour of duty – back onto the mantelpiece and rounded in on the Comedian. “I was serving my country when you were still soiling your diapers, you little...”
“Oh, I'm sure you were servicing someone all right,” the Comedian leered.
In retrospect, it was amazing how fast Bill had moved. One second, he had been sitting next to the radio, and the next, he was standing between Nelson and Eddie, pushing the former back slightly, his hands on the other man's chest, and shooting the latter a look that was way too dark for someone who usually had such a sunny temperament.
“Calm down, Nelson,” Bill was saying, his voice sounding like the one Hollis remembered his grandfather using when the horses got spooked, “there's no sense in you cracking his skull over this. Even if he deserves it.”
Hollis agreed with the sentiment, even though his blood was boiling over the Comedian's remarks. The atmosphere in the room, which only moments ago had been laid-back and easy, was now filled with an apprehensive tension that was almost crackling in the air. Even Phantom had stopped panting, and had half-risen on his front paws, watching the humans in the room intently.
Nelson, his handsome face still drawn into an ugly snarl, tried to push back for a moment, but he was no match for the young athlete. Straightening up, he glowered at the Comedian: “I can't just let him get away with that!”
“And whatcha going to do about it, Nelly? Challenge me to a duel to defend you old maid's honor?”
The smugness in the Comedian's voice really was too much to bear. “We can't go around shooting at each other,” Hollis cut in, and waited for the triumphant glint to rise in the Comedian's eyes before he added: “But you know what, boy? I'm challenging you to a shooting contest. Right now, in the back yard. We're going to shoot some cans, and then we'll see if you have anything to back up that big mouth of yours.” Hollis leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the table and looking the Comedian straight in the eye: “And if you lose, you're going to take back everything you just said. You're going to apologize to Nelson and me, and you'll never say a bad word about the military or the police force again, you hear me?”
For a moment there, Hollis was sure he had seen a glimmer of fear in Eddie's eyes. But then it was gone, and the boy was back to his usual smug self: “Bring it on. And if I win... Aunt Nelly here has to throw out his pretty ribbons and medals.”
Hollis looked over to Nelson and raised a questioning eyebrow, but Nelson just nodded, his face set in determination: “Let's show him a bit of what you learn on the forces, Hollis.”
“Which leaves the problem of what you boys are going to shoot at.” Silhouette, who, like everyone else, had been roused from her lethargy by the dispute and the promise of some entertainment, crossed her arms in front of her chest and smirked. “Or do you just happen to have a stack of cans lying around in your locker, Hollis?”
Hollis frowned. She was right, that was a problem. A minor one, but...
“I've got some empty bottles in my office, you could use those. Ten, maybe a dozen, should be enough.” The comment earned Mothman a raised eyebrow and a frown from Bill, who was still standing next to Captain Metropolis. “What? I just haven't cleaned out for a while.” Byron's tone was a tad defensive, but he quickly smoothed it over with a charming grin.
“Sounds good to me,” Hollis said, nodding slightly. “If you'd get the bottles? I'll go outside and set something up in the back yard.”
A few minutes later, twelve bottles were sitting propped up on the fence, a good distance away from where everyone was now milling around, waiting for the showdown to begin. Silhouette was just whispering something into Sally's ear, and Sally giggled, trying to hide her somewhat un-ladylike grin behind her hand while shooting a glance in his direction, and somehow, Hollis didn't even want to know what it was that Ursula had said.
“Comedian, how about you go first?” Bill, who had somehow found himself in the position of master of ceremonies, held out the gun towards Eddie.
The Comedian shook his head, smirking, then nodded in the direction where Hollis and Nelson were standing: “Nah. Ladies first.”
Bill sighed and rolled his eyes, walking over and handing the gun to Nelson. “All right,” he said, his voice ringing through the oppressive heat of the back yard, “everyone has four shots. Whoever hits the most bottles wins. If there's a tie, we'll just move them further away.”
Nelson took his position, took a deep breath, and only a second later, the first two bottles lay in shards. The third one, though, was a miss, accompanied by a snicker from Eddie. Nelson's head whipped around, and he shot the Comedian an angry look.
“Just stay calm and focused. Bet you the little punk won't even hit two of them,” Hollis murmured, standing next to Nelson's shoulder.
The fourth bottle exploded in a shower of glass, and then, it was Hollis' turn. This was easy. He'd been shooting cans ever since he'd gotten his first air rifle as a boy, back on the farm, and he was one of the best shots among New York's cops.
After the first two bottles, Hollis allowed himself a glance over at where the Comedian was standing, and he couldn't help but notice that Eddie was looking just a tad worried. After the third, a small crease appeared between the Comedian's brows, and when the fourth bottle was a goner, the trademark grin had been replaced by a frown so stormy, it was probably causing thunderheads to form in the sky.
Hollis allowed himself a jovial smile as he handed the gun over to Eddie: “Do you want to spare yourself the humiliation and just apologize right now, son?”
The Comedian gave him a look that under any other circumstances would have probably worried Hollis a bit, but right now, he didn't care about how angry the little punk was.
And really, the first rule of sharpshooting was that you had to be calm while doing it. If you were nervous, afraid, or angry – or possibly all three at the same time – you were bound to miss, because your hands would be shaking, even if it were just so lightly that no one would notice it.
Eddie's first shot hit its mark, which, Hollis had to admit, was a respectable achievement under the circumstances. But the second and third were a miss. For a few seconds, the Comedian just stood there, unmoving in the hot, flickering summer air. Then, he handed the gun over to Bill without a word.
Turning towards Hollis and Nelson, the Comedian crossed his arms in front of his chest, raising his chin defiantly. He was grinning, but it was easy to see by the look in his eyes that he wasn't feeling particularly happy right now.
“Well, I guess I gotta apologize, then. I take it back. Not everyone wearing a uniform is a pansy who can't find his own ass in the dark.”
And that was it. For a moment, Hollis was tempted to tell the kid that no, that wasn't good enough. But then, really, Eddie had had enough humiliation for one day. So he just nodded, and then clapped Nelson on the shoulder: “Come on. I think we could all use some iced lemonade now.”
Nelson nodded, throwing a last evil look in the Comedian's direction before turning towards Silk Spectre and offering her his arm, which she took with an amused, almost coquettish smile. The show now over, everyone filed back inside, glad to escape the baking heat outside.
And suddenly, there was a shot. And another. Hollis spun back towards the door, and for a moment, he felt his blood run cold despite the heat. The warmth returned to his body in a rush when he saw that it wasn't Eddie holding the gun, but Mothman, and he was... shooting the remaining bottles off the fence. From where he had been standing all the time, a few steps back from the line Nelson, Eddie and Hollis had been shooting from. Four shots, four tinkling cracks, and the ground was now littered with pieces of glass that glittered in the afternoon sun.
Hollis shook his head as if dazed, and gave Byron an incredulous look.
Byron just shrugged, and handed Hollis the gun: “I didn't feel like carrying them up to my office again.” With that, he disappeared into the gloom of the hallway, humming some swing tune to himself.
Hollis looked over at Bill, who was shaking his head fondly, watching Mothman's lithe form pass by. “Did you...?”
Bill nodded, grinning that boyish grin of his: “You should see him when he's sober. He could shoot the fleas off a dog at a mile away, I swear.”
Hollis sighed, slowly shaking his head. “The things you don't know about people,” he muttered to himself, closing the door