My job is—was—covering the metro section. On the late shift, that means city council meetings, a couple emergency sewer safety motions, and crime: all the armed robberies, murders, and rapes I could write about in blocks of double overtime.
I started on a Tuesday at 10:30pm, crammed in front of a folding table desk across from the Boss in his office.
“Think you can handle it?” The Boss peered at me from under bushy eyebrows draped down a long-jowled face, framed by stacks of yesterday’s news.
I held up the can of pepper spray that clunked against my keys on their ring. I hadn’t used it yet, but it gave me something solid to hold when I happened to be wearing a skirt and walking home alone at the same time.
“Smart girl.” The Boss gave one short nod and buried a paw in his desk debris. He came up with a police scanner radio the size and heft of a brick. A dark stain rusted at the base of its antenna. “You’ll need this, too.”
I reached across his stacks. “Was it—”
“It’s company property.” He let it go, and I felt the weight of the city drop into my hand. “Take better care of it than the last . . . the last one did.”
He meant Artie, the guy I was replacing. Artie, the guy who filed three hundred last words before blowing his brains out and leaving a gaping hole in the staff I now got to fill.
“You’re near Ginger, the copyeditor,” the Boss said, pointing over my shoulder and out his door.
From the middle of the room, a shelf of brown Betty Page bangs appeared around a felted corner. “Fresh meat?”
I took Artie’s scanner, already tuned nice and crisp, and hung it on the coat peg in my new cubicle. Then I scraped the hell out of some old linoleum, turning my new desk around so I couldn’t see the blood stains.
“Don’t those tickle your eyelashes?” I said.
We stared at each other long enough for me to notice how much I towered over her and how little she seemed to care. Behind me, Artie’s scanner crackled.
“Nor’easter zero-niner-three, roger and copy.”
“Copy, zero-niner-two, roger-“
“Negatory, niner-three. Niner-three, numbskull. Roger and copy right this time.”
“Jesus, niner-three? Nor’easter zero-niner-three, poor bastards, roger.”
“Roger roger—10-4 out.”
The empty office seemed to hold its breath in the sudden silence.
“That’s your cue.” Betty Page disappeared behind a three-quarters-height wall reinforced with battlements of stacked books. Hers was the only other cubicle lit up at this point in the work cycle, but even the dormant desks looked like spillover from half a dozen uniquely stuffed minds. All except mine—Artie’s—a flat desert of public school wood. I looped my voice recorder’s strap over my neck and pressed the red button as I went out to fill the void.
Zero-niner-three, it turns out, is cop speak for triple vehicular manslaughter.
“Yeah, we got a couple-a these assholes every month,” the nearest cop told me. His bored expression flashed violet-tinged blue and red in time with the EMT lights behind him. Theoretically, I could look him straight in the eye, but he kept scanning the scene he guarded. Behind him, orange cones ringed a trio of lumpy garbage bags that had leaked something thick and dark onto the pale sidewalk.
The cop didn’t let me get any closer to the tangle of car metal gleaming under a streetlamp’s gaze, but he talked to me. “Think they got better reflexes when they’re shitfaced.” He tapped the recorder I was holding between us like a dowsing rod. “Put that in your story. It. Ain’t. True.”
I angled my voice up at him as I adjusted the volume knob. “Could you maybe tell me—”
His belt squawked. A walkie-talkie, smaller than Artie’s scanner, but bigger than my recorder, clipped next to his gun. He grabbed the box, brought it to his lips, and muttered something into it before glancing back at me. “Tell you what. I’ll getcha the report. From our press to yours, yeah?” He chuckled. “Don’t go nowhere.”
I didn’t believe him because he walked away without taking my name. After I counted to one hundred, I picked out the next closest cop and walked in a straight line right at him until I tripped over one of the slick lumps and caught a glimpse of the night hurling itself sideways. A star of pain exploded across my temple and I went black, hard.
I woke up to the hot stench of blood clogging my sinuses; my stomach cramped and ran up my throat and threw my half-digested dinner onto the sidewalk.
Someone was breathing like a winded horse above me. I smelled ham and onions. A shriek of metal scraped my eardrums, and a man’s torso dropped into view. He was panting hard, half-buttoned into an EMT’s loose coveralls.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m supposed to ask you that,” he said, gusting wind between words. “They said—don’t move her—‘til she wakes—up. Like I didn’t—know that.”
I eased myself up into a sit. Everything still spun around me, but the night slowed down until I could make out the full man hunched over the crashed car, resting a few feet away from the lamp post. He slapped metal, then stumbled over and plopped down next to me. This close, I saw a square chin and black hair hanging to one side in a limp wave. “Thought—I could move the—car—while you—while I waited.”His next breath lasted thirty seconds in and out and settled his chest’s convulsive heaving.
“Why?” I said.
“I was practicing.” He frowned. “It might help.”
“They’re already dead.”
His frown turned into a scowl. “I’m here to take you to safety.”
He sounded so determined that I bent my head low to show the scrape I could feel burning my scalp. “Are you the one with the police report?”
“What?” He patted the ground around him, searching, distracted. What he picked up was heavy and quilted; he pressed one corner to my head and let the rest drape down to my knees. “No, I’m here to—” He took the blanket off my hairline and examined a faint red trailing off into the grey. “Help.”
I glanced down at my recorder. The on light was still steady, like an unblinking eye. “Could you tell me what you know?”
“I want to help.” He stood up piece by piece, resting his hands on his knees before pushing his top half upright. The whole time, he stared at the car’s mangled grill. I wondered what else he saw in it. “I—this place really needs help.”
“Can I quote you?”
His face snapped back into a frown. “Let me get you back to safety.” It was only a few blocks by foot, but my feet weren’t doing so hot, so I let him.
That was how Ginger saw him for the first time—his neatly kept lines staggering a little into the newsroom’s chaos, me flopped over one of his shoulders like an old roll of carpet.
Click psfff. I heard a mechanical sneeze and saw a bright light for a blink, and when I got turned around I saw Ginger with a camera for a face. Her cube flash was starting to cool by the time she thought to ask, “Can I help you?”
The man shrugged his shoulder so I shifted the tiniest bit. A marble of pain rolled from one side of my head to the other. “Her press badge says she belongs here,” he said to Ginger.
Ginger must have nodded or gestured or stopped glaring because I went to the center of the room, watching the night bounce away through the office’s front door until my nose was half an inch from cubicle felt. An extra pair of hands that smelled like peaches took on my weight and leaned me against a wall. I used my last bit of strength to hold out the blanket.
He took it and settled it on one of his shoulders as he made his way back out.
Ginger squatted, filling my vision. It was her—she was the one who smelled like peaches, the tinned kind in heavy syrup that made me ache for my college dining hall. “Did you get a story?”
I tapped my recorder. Her fingers worked it off my neck before I passed out for the rest of my first night as a crime reporter.
When I came to (again), Ginger had propped me up on a stack of dictionaries that happened to form a chair in her cubicle. Her back was to me, but close enough to brush my fingers if either of us moved any way but vertical. Towers of fire hazards threatened to smother us in facts and grammar and laws, the six a.m. broadcast news flashing across a porthole television just visible above her shoulder.
“That’s him!” When I struggled to get more upright, a manila folder tipped and spilled newsprint down my shins. “That’s my face-blood!”
On screen, the EMT still wore the rescue blanket slung over one shoulder.
“Don’t worry. We scooped ‘em by a couple hours,” Ginger said. She didn’t look away from the screen.
But he wasn’t an EMT anymore. Just a built guy in long johns with a kitten tucked under one arm and black bags under his eyes. “I guess I wanted to, uh, start small,” he said, ducking his chin towards the cat every few seconds.
“Holy shit. Is he for real?” Ginger’s hand swooped down onto her desk and plucked her camera from the fray. Digital single-lens reflex: she kept it closer than her red pencil. I mean she was our copyeditor, but it’s not like she wanted to stay one.
“But I’ll be back.” He put the kitten down and made sure it was safely turning between the interviewer’s legs before dashing out of frame.
We waited for him.
I mean, we didn’t stop our lives in their tracks or anything. We had other shit to do. But the hopeful parts of us watched, and waited for him to come back.
Ginger wanted a Pulitzer and I wanted a better way of filling three inches of story every day of the week. Sometimes we caught a little glimmer—retirement papers pushed through the city for a suspiciously young hospital worker, a few less pedestrians getting run over and a few more prostitutes surviving their night walks—a little dip in the crime level that you couldn’t scoop with a tortilla chip. But it showed up in the naked statistics.
I tried to bring back stories about him, eye-witness accounts from locals who claimed to see him.
“I dunno. Like, tall. Like you. With a chin.” Here words would fail a witness to a parking lot close call, a dispute over the corner ATM. They would square off their jaws with their hands. When I asked for places, they’d get shifty, and when I asked for names they’d disappear. The Boss was not impressed.
“You said you wanted more metro coverage,” I protested when he drew a bleeding X over one of my more speculative efforts. If we didn’t put some human interest on the pages, our more delicate readers were going to kill themselves, or their subscriptions.
“Come back when you’ve got a real story,” he said, not unkindly.
Ginger gave up sooner than I did. One shift I caught her staring at her computer screen, paging through photos that all looked like variations of a sky on the same cloudy day. Finally she burst out, “Why does he always have to wear grey?”
I caught the camera she flung and set it carefully on top of her medical thesaurus collection. There, it was visible only if she wanted to look or had to help with the health section.
He wore grey and he rescued small things that couldn’t speak for themselves, so he didn’t sell newspapers. But, while I learned how to swallow my vomit at mangled bodies and turn police reports into readable English over the next few months, I wondered if he was ever going to get off his well-toned ass and do something bigger. If he didn’t, maybe I would.
A few months later, the Boss called me in early to cover an emergency city council meeting. I took a few seconds to put my phone back in its cradle. My assignment felt like a pillow to the face. It also sounded like something we could get done by 10pm.
When I got to the office, day shift had cleared out, leaving half the room dark under the blank gazes of computer screens. I stepped around piles of back issues. They ranged in height from my ankle to my waist, but all were a yellowing brittle that sent puffs of mustiness into the air as I passed. Ginger’s light still escaped from her cubby, so I made my way over there to see if she’d grant me some company at the meeting.
“No way in hell,” she said, without looking up.
I noticed her absently swipe at the hives bunched up on one cheek, the bit of her skin that rubbed the synthetic tweed of our office sleeper sofa when she stayed overnight. “You won’t have to sleep on the couch tonight.” I leaned further over her cubicle wall like a moon trying to pull the tide higher. “If you come with me, you can file it while we’re there and get home before eleven for the first time in—how many years?”
She shook her head. “Your copy will still be filthy.”
She was right, and we both knew it. She settled back into her chair. It was a throne, large and leather with armrests, and she seemed to grow about a foot and a half of good posture every time she tucked herself into it with a rough draft and red pencil.
“But you can use the building’s wi-fi, can’t you? And it’s so close – we won’t need a cab, or even our jackets.”
She placed a palm on top of a pile of tabloid sheets. “I really need to get these proofed for tomorrow. Sorry.”
I showed her my last card. Hand. Whatever, I’m terrible at poker. “I’ll buy dinner. The Hut will still be open after the meeting, won’t it?”
Ginger started detaching herself and reaching for her mobile editing bag. She finally squinted up at me. “You really are desperate, aren’t you?”
“Camera?” I asked.
She patted a canvas bag on her hip. Standing, she looked all of twelve years old. I’m not exactly what my grandmother called “developed,” either, but I have some height and pointy elbows I could use to protect us, if it came to that.
I know exactly what time we got out of that stupid endless meeting—8:37pm. Besides the watches we all synchronized to the Boss’s so there was no question of misinterpreting deadlines, each of Ginger’s edits were time-stamped from her cell phone, my laptop, and the both of our pagers.
We followed the council members out of their building into the night. The city had already gone all twinkly as we headed down Main. I’ve always felt safer when the streetlamps go on—sort of tucked in. The sun is dangerous.
Ginger lagged behind, letting her bag gape open and her camera lens peek out, but we didn’t spot so much as a jaywalker before we got to the Hut and entered through its grease-smeared steamy doors.
The smell, roasting fat and charring vegetables from the grill, hair gel and shoe polish from the council members crowding to make room, hit us pretty hard once we got inside. The Hut’s a steel drum, dark metal (easier to clean), uneven clusters of stools circling a hulking grill where the cook bangs his knives and flips his meat. I yelled ingredients for our usual orders at him over the clatter and let my eyes wander for the best seat. For usable acoustics, I needed something five or six feet at a curve next to the council member that seemed the most pissed off, but everyone had sleepwalked through this meeting. I let Ginger lead me to the end spot closest to the one decaying power outlet and the best shot of dancing fire on the cook’s face.
The guy at my right elbow wore a trench coat while I was licking sweat off my lips—everyone else had loosened collars and pushed up sleeves. I nudged Ginger and caught a glare for screwing up her focus.
“Ginger. Guy in a big coat.”
Her look didn’t get any friendlier.
“It’s hot in here.” I tried to signal with my eyebrows.
But then her eyes widened to match mine and she brought her camera up and started clicking.
I turned in my stool to see what she saw, and there he was. Our Superman, right outside the plate glass door, yanking it open and striding through, trailing a scarlet cape that draped down his shoulders and caressed his new leotard. Silver, to match his boots.
Ginger’s flash had triggered something primal in Trench Coat. He dove across me and yanked her off her stool, smashing her lens with the butt of a rifle that emerged from behind his coat.
“No witnesses!” Trench Coat screamed. The city council members, not one of them under fifty or trained for emergencies, turned into a panicked mass of pant creases as they tried to run or hide. The cook seemed to know that he didn’t have enough space to do either; he held out his longest knife in wavering self-defense.
Lunging forward without thinking, I pushed Trench Coat backwards towards the door. Our Superman lunged to catch him, dragging Ginger along by the camera strap she couldn’t force off her neck. The three of them stumbled through the front door, getting away before I could push through the rest of the crowd to catch up.
One thing about this city, you can disappear like a magician’s assistant if you know the right alleys and doormen. And scarlet draped everywhere—flagpoles, storefronts, evening-dressed bodies, washing strung out on clotheslines. It all blurred together until I stopped trying to keep up.
It was then that I ran into Ginger, briefly, propping herself up against slate just long enough to dig out another lens.
“Oh good.” I wanted to laugh. I don’t know why. “Oh good! Come on, let’s—”
But she wasn’t twisting the lens on. She was breaking it down, repacking. She was headed back. “Go report yourself,” she said, bending her neck to give me the best view of a necklace of blooming purple bruises. She blended into the after-dinner crowd that was starting to trickle out of the restaurants and apartment buildings that lined downtown.
I let her go.
I figured her three-block walk back to the paper’s office would be safe enough before 9pm. It might even be long enough for her to forget who dragged her out in the first place. She’d be fine, I told myself, and she might even not hate me if I got a story out of it. I made my way to the police station a few streets over in the opposite direction.
It was worth a shot.
“Whatcha talkin about?” the cop at the door said, when I asked after Trench Coat.
“What—seriously?” I showed the cop my press badge, poked it at his hand until his fingers closed around it. “Someone tried to shoot up city council, and you guys—”
“Nobody’s called it in.” His eyes checked me against my photo, but the rest of his face stayed unimpressed. “Look, we gotta ‘bout seventeen real-life crimes goin’ on right now, and—” A crackle of radio static at his hip followed by a barked string of instructions set him to stiff attention. He pushed me aside with one arm. “’Scuse me, miss, we’ve got an all-call emergency.”
He trotted down the stairs in practiced clips, and I followed, carrying a heart now loaded with fear. And something else.
It felt so corny, but I couldn’t deny it was there: hope. Hope for a good story with a happy ending, for once. But hope drained out of me as a scream rose above the city’s white noise. I caught enough of it before the police sirens wailed past me to recognize the source.
“Ginger!” I started hoofing it blindly until she screamed again.
Her voice led me from the city’s center to a corner boxed-in by three buildings and a streetlamp. A red cape flared.
Trench Coat held Ginger in a tight cinch around her waist, and shook her at our Superman like a dog toy. “No citizens, right? Right?”
Our Superman looked pissed. His face could’ve burnt a hole through Trench Coat’s skull, if he had been that kind of Superman. But he isn’t—wasn’t—so he swooped to wrestle Ginger back.
Our Superman was stronger, I’ll give him that. Strong enough to grab her with a gross double pencil-snap noise—her arms went limp and the rest of her followed fast into what I really wanted to be a faint. He dropped her near my feet and reached for Trench Coat, giving a leap to lasso an arm around his neck. Our Superman flattened a massive hand on the side of Trench Coat’s head and pushed it like a stuck door.
This time the snap was much louder.
Trench Coat went down in a heap. Our Superman bent over his knees, huffing. “Not—in the plan,” he said, whether to me or himself I still don’t know. When he stood up, he stunk of gasoline, and his boots slid a little on a puddle as he sprinted off in the direction of swelling sirens.
I swear I didn’t know the side panels of ambulances were that weight-sensitive, or else I never would’ve grabbed on.
We rode through smoke for five solid minutes. As the ambulance slowed to a crawl, a back wheel bumped over something solid, but weak and empty, something that crumpled under the vehicle’s weight. I glanced down and saw a plastic container with a long nozzle flattened on the street, thought I saw a red piece of cloth caught in its mouth, but my fingers refused to let up their death grip on the side panels. My lungs felt like wool and the back of my neck broke into a feverish tickle of sweat.
Then I saw the fire.
It rushed around the base of a high-rise apartment, charring brick as it roared upward. People were clustered at windows, trying to get out. I could see scurrying silhouettes, growing clearer as the fire lit up the interior.
Something in me broke. No more. This was it; I wanted out. I wanted to go home. I curled back towards the ambulance and rested my forehead against its side. It was lukewarm, like bathwater set out too long, but it was cooler than everything else in the whole world, including the two mitts that pulled me off the van.
“How many times do I have to save this paper’s ass today?” Our Superman was looking frantic about something other than the heat flaring at his back.
“People! Fire! People fire!” I gasped, gripping his shoulder and pointing.
“I told you I’m here to help—” He got a running start and bounced off the ambulance’s front bumper, landing in the building through a second-floor window, the glass of it broken into a million jagged sequins on the street. I traced his progress as best I could with smarting eyes, but he disappeared into the center of the building, where there was usually a pre-war iron staircase or two for just this sort of emergency.
The growing crowd pushed me along on my feet whether I wanted to be or not. We were all lit in jumpy red and orange and yellow flickers, and forced into an awkward L around the building.
“People still in there!”
“Children! Somebody go get the burning children!” An old lady set her eyes on me.
“You! You’re tall! Go help them with the ladder!”
“She ain’t fireproof, dear.” Next to her, a white-haired man leaned on his cane and pointed upward. “But you know who might be . . .”
Nobody. Nobody’s fireproof.
Our Superman emerged from window ledge on the top floor, shouldering his way past a crying woman and taking her baby to his chest. “Citizens! Don’t worry!”He sounded like a traffic cop.
The ground force firefighters didn’t take notice, swarming through us shouting, “Get back! Back!” We grabbed at the edges of a rescue trampoline, pulling it taut and yelling at the mother on the top floor to jump, tuck and roll, she’d be fine and so would her baby if she would just trust us. Heaving with sobs, she grabbed her baby from our Superman, and jumped, tucking herself into a ball around it as they fell towards our open canvas.
I squeezed my eyes shut just as the bundle hit, sending deep vibrations through our arms, shaking so much I was terrified they’d bounce right out, but the crowd rushed in and took them, and the baby sounded healthily pissed off against its unconscious mother.
I saw our Superman etched against the fire raging at his back. The toes of his boots hung off the ledge, his shoulders leaned forward, and his face was a blank I recognized from the very worst crimes I had covered over the last six months.
“He’s gonna jump!” I yelled, pushing at my neighbors to spread out the canvas again.
“Get the tarp ready!”
Our Superman flung back his arms and launched into a swan dive. He plummeted towards our heads like a comet tightening its orbit.
It was a beautiful death. His cape had caught fire and traced his arc through the black velvet sky. We can’t see stars around here through the city lights, but for a brief cluster of seconds that seemed so much longer, he made me remember why I miss them. Until he hit the ground, I really thought he was going to make it.
His landing was cushioned as much as we could manage, but he broke in front of us. He lay sprawled in the same pose he had left Trench Coat a few blocks over. A charred, mostly used tear-away slip of matches had fallen from his belt and bounced off the tip of my shoe.
As the crowd thinned out, I stepped onto the matches. When no one was looking, I bent down, picked them up, and slid them into my back pocket.
Ginger was in a wheelchair instead of her throne. She was plastered up on both arms, but her right wrist worked again, so she was back working.
She didn’t look at me as I walked out of her cubicle on solid legs—scratched, but still usable. I was supposed to cover another city council meeting, this one set to award the Superman a minor civil service medal. Minor, they said, because it couldn’t be ignored that he failed. But, they agreed, he had a helluva try. Instead of covering that circle-jerk, I turned in my police scanner. The Boss didn’t look up when I set the torn remains of the matches down on his desk next to it. His eyes were already scanning fresh copy.
I was dead to him and Ginger now, but that much I could live with.