She seemed to consider my question as we made our way outside to the sidewalk.
“What sort of superhero would I be if I immediately let you in on my secret identity?” she playfully answered.
“OK, so what is your hero name then?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” I responded, “How can you be a superhero and not know your own hero name?”
“Haven’t you ever read any comic books?” she asked in mock incredulity, “The hero never comes up with their own name. It is always someone else. Someone they rescued. A reporter. Someone like that. The hero has to earn a name. Society bestows it on them.”
“So you haven’t earned yours yet?”
“Not yet I guess. But that’s OK. It isn’t about making a name for yourself. It’s not about getting recognition. It has to be all about the mission, or you are not a true hero.” She seemed to be totally sincere. “So here we are.”
We had arrived at a classic yellow Vespa scooter parked only a block from the court house. My companion plucked a shiny black helmet from the seat. It was small, form fitting, and lacked any sort of eye protection.
“Here, wear this,” she said as she handed it to me.
“Shouldn’t you wear it?” I answered.
“What sort of hero would I be if I let my passenger go unprotected,” she insisted, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep the stunt driving to a minimum.” She then proceeded to take a pair of tennis shoes and a set of aviator goggles out the storage compartment of the Vespa. She changed shoes, put on the goggles, and climbed on the scooter. “Well don’t just stand there, get on.”
I climbed on and cautiously put my hands on her waist to steady myself.
“Don’t be shy,” she insisted, “make sure you’ve got a good grip. I don’t want to be scooping you off the pavement.” I put my arms around her and laced my fingers together. Suddenly the Vespa roared to life and nearly shot out from under us. We rocketed into traffic, flew down the street, then screeched to a stop at a red light.
“I didn’t realize these could go that fast,” I commented once the motor had quieted to a idling purr. Somehow I managed to keep the edge of hysteria out of my voice.
“They don’t normally,” she answered, “I’ve been doing a bit of tinkering on him.”
This got the engineering student in me rather curious, and I was about to ask what sort of modifications she had made, but then the light changed. I was reduced to silence and hanging on for dear life as we again careened down the road. I survived several more minutes of that before we finally screeched to a stop at our destination.
She hopped off the scooter, pulled down the goggles and let them dangle around her neck. I took off the helmet and set it on the seat. She was already walking up to the door of the enormous brick building we had parked in front of. I hurried to catch up.
“So this is it, Barry,” she stated, “This is what it was all about.”
I took a good look at the building. It appeared to be abandoned. The main door was chained shut. Many of the windows were boarded up. A faded sign over the door declared it to be Chamberlain Textiles, The Home of American Quality. Given the building’s dilapidated state, that was not lacking in irony.
“An abandoned factory?”
“My secret lair,” she countered, “Every hero needs one. You want to look inside?”
I looked at the No Trespassing sign affixed to the door. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Oh its fine. I’ve been inside a bunch of times. Beside, it is basically mine now… or at least it will be when the gears of bureaucracy finish grinding.”
Before I could answer, she was slipping out of her skirt and suit jacket. What I had assumed was black nylons was actually just the legs of a black and gray spandex body stocking, the sort of thing a dancer might wear. She handed me the garments, slipped her goggles back over her eyes, and then proceeded to climb up the side of the building.
Now I’m not saying she went up that wall like Spiderman. She grabbed hold of a rain gutter and used part of a windowsill and basically obeyed the laws of physics… but she still got up the side of that building faster than I would have believed possible. And here is the thing… She really did look a bit like a superhero doing it.
Maybe it was just the combination of that spandex outfit and the mask-like goggles. Maybe it was the way her muscles and tendons stood out so clearly as she worked her way up that wall, so much like a scene a comic book artist might depict. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion… her constant claims to superheroism… but for a moment I almost believed. Then she disappeared onto the roof, and I snapped back to reality.
I was being pulled along in the wake of a crazy woman. Beautiful. Exciting. But definitely crazy. If I was smart I would cut my losses and slip away fast. Find a cab, get back to my dorm, and turn off my cell phone.
I wasn’t feeling particularly smart at that moment.
While I stood there considering who I might call for bail money after the night wound down to its inevitable conclusion, a side door popped open and my companion poked her head out.
“Hey, over here,” she called. I trotted over to where she held the door open.
“How did you…” I began to ask.
“Fire code… doors in commercial properties are not allowed to lock from the inside. They always have to open easily to let people out in an emergency. The main doors are chained only because the lock was busted, probably by someone trying to rob the place of scrap metal.” Her response answered only one of a dozen questions I had, but I just nodded as if it explained everything.
I stepped inside and let the door shut behind me.
With many of the windows boarded up, it was dim inside, but enough light made it in to at least judge the scale of the place. It was cavernous. The interior of the building was mostly one big empty space occasionally interrupted by large steel columns. The ceiling was at least 20 feet above us. The south end of the building consisted mainly of garage doors and loading bays. The north end of the building was built out with two floors of office space, the second floor including a balcony that overlooked the factory floor. Scars on the concrete floor revealed where massive equipment had once stood. Only a few bolts and twisted bits of wiring conduit still remained.
“It’s perfect,” she enthused as she hugged one of the steel support columns.
“It’s huge,” I responded, “How much did it cost you?”
“Exactly one dollar.”
“Impossible,” I blurted out.
“No really. I was the only bidder, and I bid exactly one dollar.”
“I don’t believe it. I mean, I’ve seen late night infomercials about buying real estate for almost nothing, but I always figured that was just a scam.”
“Oh those probably are,” she answered, “but this was something different.” She walked over and plucked her skirt and jacket from my arm and began to put them back on over her spandex outfit. “It was only possible in this case because of local political corruption. Basically I figured out how the system was rigged.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Well, I got it in my head a while ago to buy a tax delinquent property. You know… some foreclosed on fixer upper that I could buy cheap and dump some sweat equity into. I combed through the public auction listings, and stuff would come on the market, but most of it was in really bad shape. Then there was that retail store that went under on the south side of town. I waited for it to hit the auction block. And I waited. Then suddenly one day it was being renovated by new owners. At first I thought maybe it had been purchased directly before going through foreclosure, but then I checked the public records, and there it was. It supposedly WAS auctioned off by the city, but I had somehow missed the public notice.
“So then I dug through the conveyance list… all the properties over the last few years that the city had supposedly sold off for back taxes. There was a bunch of them that had never been publicly listed before being auctioned. I dug through more records, started sniffing around city hall and asking some careful questions, and eventually I pieced it all together.
“Basically all the best properties… the tax delinquent foreclosures that are in really good shape and worth quite a bit… were being held back from the usual process and parceled out to a select group of insiders. They do it by designating them as Brownfield properties. That means they might have some environmental clean up that needs to be done, and the foreclosure is basically held in limbo until an environmental assessment is done. Brownfield foreclosures can work a little different than the usual in that the city sometimes sells them for far less than the tax bill, basically to make up for the high clean-up costs that the new owner is stuck with. It is still a good deal for the city because the property at least gets back on the tax rolls.
“Of course the trick in this case was that none of these properties were actually contaminated. There was no expensive environmental clean-up needed, yet the buyers were getting them at rock bottom prices because of their supposed Brownfield status. They also could be sure nobody else was bidding on them because the Brownfields were not announced in advance in the usual way.
Instead of a listing in the newspaper, they were only posted on a bulletin board in the back of the records office at the Court House, and only hours before the ‘auction’. On top of that, the time period for receiving sealed bids was restricted to a 15 minute window. The game was essentially rigged so there was only one bidder per auction… someone who had learned about the property long before it was publicly ‘announced’.”
“So that guy you sent running from the Clerk of Courts office?” I interjected.
“Was the one bidder lined up to get this place, yes.”
“So how did you get clued in to the scheme?”
“Elementary my dear Barry,” she replied, “I used my superpower.”
“Your superpower… and what might that be? Invisibility? Mind Reading?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yet,” she answered, “You should really pay better attention.”
That sent my mind off into a frenzy of speculation. What exactly did she imagine her super power to be? Finally, I cracked a smile and responded with, “I’ve got it. You possess the power of being frustratingly obtuse.”
She shook her head no, but I could see the suppressed laughter.
We continued wandering through the deserted factory, poking around vacant offices spaces and peering into empty closets. Aside from one area where all the electrical wiring and fixtures had been torn from the walls, the building was in relatively good shape. We chatted as we explored, and despite my attempts to draw her out and learn more about this mysterious woman, we instead talked mostly about me. She expressed real interest in the classes I was taking, my reasons for studying computer science and electrical engineering, even all my varied hobbies and projects.
“We should probably get going,” she finally stated, “It’s only going to get darker in here as the sun goes down.”
“Sure, I’ve got someplace to be anyway,” I answered, remembering the study session I had skipped. Actually, they would probably all be at the bar by now. “Hey, you could come with. I’m just meeting friends at the Brass Rail.”
She seemed to consider my offer for a moment, then finally answered, “Sure, why not.”
We made our way out the same fire exit I had entered through, letting it lock behind us, then walked back to the Vespa and climbed on. As I put on the helmet and she donned her goggles, I finally thought to ask, “So, ah, how exactly should I introduce you to my friends?”
“My name is Diana,” she answered, “but call me Dee.”