As promised, here is the first installment of the newly revised and edited Devious Origins. Give it a read, and don’t be afraid to provide feedback as comments to this post.
“I’m a superhero,” she declared in between bites of her chicken salad sandwich. The words were delivered as casually as one might comment on the weather.
“A superhero…” I repeated, an unspoken question hanging in the silence that followed.
“Yeah. You asked what classes I’m in, but I’m not actually a student here. I tried the college thing for a while, but it just wasn’t me. Did retail for a bit but couldn’t stick with it… pimping overpriced plastic crap to the consumer masses… it was damaging my soul. I quit and just drifted for a while. Then I really took a hard look at myself, what I wanted out of life, the mark I wanted to make. One day it all just snapped into focus. Superhero.”
“There are openings for that kind of work?” I asked, my amusement clearly showing. I was more than willing to play along with the gag.
“Oh it’s definitely an under-served market, but you won’t find any posting for it on craigslist. This is totally a freelance sort of gig.” She finished the last of her sandwich and turned her attention to her papaya and wheat grass smoothie. She took a long slurp and continued. “I actually made a list. All the things my dream job would have. Excitement. Adventure. The chance to do something big. Important. The chance to help people. I thought about all sorts of possibilities, but only one really seemed to fit. Superhero.”
I chased the last of my three bean salad around my plate, finally getting it onto the plastic fork. I gazed across the table at her while I finished eating. She showed no sign she was joking. She either believed what she was saying or was one hell of an actress.
My eyes wandered around the Student Union, taking in the varied patrons. Some were obviously studying. Others were having lunch. Some appeared to be socializing, just chatting and laughing. A typical collection of university students engaged in the usual activities. No one really standing out. Everything normal.
My eyes found their way back to my companion.
She seemed normal enough as well, at least at first glance. The right age to be in college. Dressed with an individualistic flare that made me assume she was an art student, maybe a theater major. Her short dark hair had a few purple streaks dyed into it and some small feathers woven into it near her left ear. She wore tennis shoes, a motorcycle jacket, and cut-off jeans over black tights. On her hands she wore leather gloves with the fingers cut off. She carried a small backpack with a much larger skateboard strapped to it. She was the most interesting person in the room, though not so unusual that she didn’t fit in to the wide spectrum of college persona.
I admit I was surprised when she asked to sit at my table, me being rather the opposite of the flamboyant art student I imagined her to be, but then the Union was close to full at the moment, so it was probably just the three empty seats at my table that drew her here. Making smalltalk with strangers has never been a great skill of mine, but she seemed surprisingly easy to talk to. Nevertheless, I now found myself at a loss for words. What do you say to someone who has just claimed to be a superhero?
My companion noisily slurped the last of her smoothie and finally broke the verbal deadlock.
“Well, I have to get going,” she said, “thanks for letting me sit here.”
“No problem,” I replied, then realized the one and only female who had shown any interest in talking to me since I started college was about to walk out of my life as quickly as she had entered it. “Um… I would love hear more about this whole superhero thing… do you… like… have a phone number?”
She smiled. It was not one of those ‘Oh I am so glad he asked for my number’ sort of smiles, more like an ‘Oh god he is so clumsy at this sort of thing I think I might burst into laughter’ sort of smile.
“Must we really fall into such tired gender roles?” she answered. “What if I want to ask for your number instead?”
My brain seemed to freeze up. No words came. Instead I simply opened up one of my notebooks, tore off a section of paper, and wrote my name and number on it. She smiled as I handed it to her. It was a less amused smile, more genuinely warm.
“Thanks… and welcome to the team,” she exclaimed, then slung her backpack on her back, turned, and headed for the door. I sat looking at the door for several minutes after she left.
It finally occurred to me that I had never learned her name.
* * *
It was three days later when I next heard from her. I was walking to my Theory of Computing lecture when my phone rang. I answered without even looking at the number.
“Hey, do you own a suit?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Um… Yes?” I answered, so surprised by the unusual question that I stopped walking. Was this some sort of telemarketing call? Was I about to get a sales pitch from Men’s Warehouse?
“Cool. Meet me at 4:30 PM tomorrow at the Clerk of Courts office in City Hall. Wear a suit. Oh, and bring that blue three ring binder you had at lunch the other day.”
“Uh, what exactly…” but then my question was interrupted by a loud crashing noise coming over the phone.
“Sorry, gotta go,” she insisted, “got a thing to deal with. See you tomorrow.” Then she hung up.
I stood there for another full minute as my brain chewed through the conversation, piecing together who the caller must be and what it might mean. Did I just agree to a date at City Hall? With a crazy woman who thinks she is a superhero no less? I resumed walking to my lecture, nearly overshooting the lecture hall as my mind replayed the phone call, trying to make sense of it. Taking a seat in the back row of the hall, I tried to concentrate on the lecture, but Professor Perdowski’s words receded into a meaningless droning as my thoughts kept returning to the phone call and tomorrow’s potential meeting.
“Barry. Hey, Barry… Earth to Barry.” My mind snapped back to my actual surroundings as I realized my classmate Jake Meyer was talking to me.
“Jake. Yeah… Sorry, I was just… thinking about something.” I finally noticed class was over. Everyone was packing up to leave.
“I’ve been trying to ask if you are coming to the study session tomorrow. Tony says he has copies of last year’s mid-term. Should be a big help.”
“Study session. Yes. I remember. I’ll be there.” Then I remembered that the study session started at 4PM. “Oh crap. I think I’ve got something else going on then. I’ve got to be downtown by four thirty tomorrow.”
“Dude, whatever it is, blow it off,” Jake insisted, “We’re all going out for one dollar tappers at the Brass Rail after.”
“No really, I’ve got this thing. Maybe I’ll catch up with you later at the Rail.” I thought about it for a moment. I really didn’t know where tomorrow’s activities would lead. “I might even bring a friend along.”
“Oh I get it now,” Jake answered mirthfully, “you are blowing us off for a woman. Officially, I condemn this frivolous disregard of your academic responsibilities. Unofficially…. way to go dude! I was beginning to think you were some sort of monk. By all means, bring her around. The Rail could stand to have its babe to bro ratio improved.”
I was about to argue that it wasn’t like that, but then I realized I didn’t actually know much of anything. I wasn’t actually sure this meeting tomorrow was really a date. Heck, I still didn’t even know her name. After saying my goodbyes to Jake, I packed up and headed back to my dorm room.
I needed to see what sort of shape my suit was in.
* * *
My two Wednesday classes passed in a blur. I managed to pay attention most of the time, but my attention kept wandering. I kept thinking about the coming mystery meeting. As my Applied Computer Architecture class drew to a close, I nearly flew from my seat and ran back to the dorms. I cleaned up and put on my suit, one I normally only wore to weddings and funerals, then headed out the door with plenty of time to catch the 4:10 bus toward downtown. I was down four flights of stairs and heading for the main exit when I remembered her instructions to bring my blue binder. Did I have time to go back and get it? Would it be better to show up on time but without the binder, or was the binder more important than punctuality? I froze for a moment at the base of the stairs before making my decision. Not wanting to wait on the dorm’s ancient and painfully slow elevator, I bolted back up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Grabbing the folder from my desk, I frantically relocked my dorm and ran for the stairs again, nearly knocking over another student as I rounded the corner to the stairwell. I shouted an apology but didn’t look back as I took the stairs so quickly that I nearly fell.
I ran to the bus stop, slowing down only as I approached and saw several other people sitting there. The bus had not arrived yet. I checked the time on my phone. 4:05. I still had at least five more minutes to wait. Those minutes seemed to stretch on forever, as did the twelve minute ride on the bus after it arrived two minutes late.
I walked up to the massive concrete steps of City Hall to the granite and glass facade of the building’s entrance. I took a moment to check my reflection in the glass door, ran my fingers through my hair and straighten my tie a bit, then I walked in. It was 4:28PM when I found the Clerk of Courts office. A scattering of lawyers were milling about, talking, occasionally approaching the clerk’s window to engage in some bureaucratic paper shuffling.
She wasn’t there.
I felt like an idiot. What was I thinking? One cryptic phone call and I’m pulling out all the stops to meet up with some girl I don’t even know. She was probably right now off with her friends having a big laugh about the whole thing.
“Barry, thank goodness you made it.” I looked up to see a smartly dressed woman gesturing at me to join her. Even then I did not immediately recognize her.
Gone was the jeans, tennis shoes, and motorcycle jacket. Instead she now wore a conservative business outfit… skirt with matching jacket, uncomfortable shoes, even a tie. The blue streaks and feathers were missing from her hair, and she now wore thick rimmed but stylish glasses. Under her arm was tucked the type of leather satchel popular with the lawyers that scurried about the court house. The biggest difference, however, was how she carried herself. She exuded a supreme confidence… an almost haughty superiority. She seemed ten years older. She looked like a lawyer. Like a high priced corporate attorney or a rock-star federal prosecutor from some late night crime drama.
I realized I was standing there with my mouth open. I closed it and walked over. She pointed at my blue binder as I approached.
“Ah good, you brought the environmental inspection report,” she exclaimed, “I was afraid it wouldn’t be ready in time.” She snatched the binder from my hands and began flipping through my Theory of Computing lecture notes. “Hmm… not good. Not good at all.” Her brow furrowed as she turned the pages. “It’s a good thing you got this to me when you did,” she continued, “The property is a literal cesspool of toxic chemicals, and we never would have caught it without this phase two survey. It would be stupid to buy that building at any price. Whoever ends up with that old textile plant is going to be stuck with a hellacious environmental remediation bill. Good work, Barry. Thanks to you we dodged a bullet on this one.”
Before she had even finished speaking, one of the lawyerish looking guys sitting at a nearby bench seemed to react. He jumped to his feet, jammed some papers back into his leather satchel, and began stabbing at his cell phone even as he started running down the hall. My companion watched with a growing grin as he grew more distant.
She turned back to me, winked, and said, “Yatzee!”
“What the hell just happened,” I replied.
“You were great, Barry,” she answered, “but the mission isn’t over yet.” She turned and walked to the Clerk’s window.
“Is this where I drop off a sealed bid for a tax delinquent Brownfield property?” she asked the woman behind the counter.
“Yes,” was all the woman replied. My companion pulled a large envelope from her leather satchel and handed it over. The clerk took out an immense date stamp, stabbed it down on the envelop, then flung the envelop into a plastic bin behind her. “Anything else?” the clerk asked.
“Nope. That’s it. Thanks.” Then my superhero/lawyer friend spun around, grabbed my arm, and started us walking toward the exit. “OK, Barry, go ahead and ask your questions.”
A thousand different questions immediately charged from the cognitive areas of my brain toward the speech center, temporarily log-jamming and leaving me mute. Then the one thing I really needed to ask finally broke through and found voice.
“So… um… what is your name?”