HUMAN/SUPER #7

BALANCE OF POWER

 

 

 

 

 

Nicholas Tate stood at the window in the control room of the Victory City Municipal Wind Plant, staring out at the yard of wind turbines stretching into the distance. One by one, the turbines slowed, a few at the far end stopping entirely.

“Levels are dropping fast, Dad,” Edith Tate said from behind a computer screen. “Something’s wrong upstairs.”

“What the hell’s that boy up to this time?” Nicholas grumbled, storming through the double doors that led out of the control room.

He marched up the stairs and crossed the roof to the stainless steel booth overlooking the yard. He threw the door open as J.J. Phillips took a deep breath and blew a gust of wind out the window. The turbines began to spin again but quickly slowed.

“What are you still doing here?” Nicholas asked. “Your shift ended almost an hour ago.”

“Dustin’s late,” J.J. replied, and blew again. “I’m running on fumes here, Nick. I can’t keep this up much longer.”

Nicholas raised his hands and a powerful wind descended from the sky, rolling across the turbines until they were all spinning.

“You go on home,” Nicholas said. “I’ve got this.”

J.J. sighed with relief and said, “I swear, the next time this happens, I’m not waiting around. I’m just going to leave.”

“I’ll have a word with Dustin when he shows up,” Nicholas said. “It won’t happen again.”

“I sure hope not,” J.J. said, standing from his seat. “I like working here, I really do, but I have my limits. And Dustin’s beginning to be a dealbreaker.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Nicholas replied.

J.J. stepped out of the booth and Nicholas took his place in the chair.

“See you tomorrow,” J.J. said.

Nicholas nodded and J.J. headed for the stairs. As Nicholas reached his hand out the window, a low-pressure system formed in the yard below, drawing intense winds that spun the turbines to full capacity.

A little over thirty minutes had passed when Nicholas finally heard the stairwell door open and slam shut. He sent another gust across the yard and stepped out of the booth. Dustin Clarke stood at the edge of the roof with his foot up on the ledge, peering down at the ground.

“You’re two hours late,” Nicholas said.

Dustin shrugged.

“Couldn’t help it,” he said. “The traffic in this city blows.”

He glanced back over his shoulder and grinned.

“This can’t keep happening,” Nicholas said. “I’m retiring in a few weeks. You’re supposed to be my replacement, but if we can’t rely on you, we’re going to have to find someone else.”

“Come on, cut me some slack,” Dustin said. “I’ve barely been here a month.”

“Yeah, and you caused a blackout in your first week,” Nicholas said.

“For, like, five minutes,” Dustin said.

“A lot can happen in five minutes,” Nicholas said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Dustin said. “Can I get to work now?”

“Be my guest,” Nicholas replied, gesturing to the yard of wind turbines.

Dustin spat over the side of the building and took a step back. He linked his fingers together and stretched, cracking his knuckles. Rearing back as if to throw a ball, he thrust his hands forward. The wind blasted from his palms and rolled across the turbines below.

Nicholas crossed the roof to the stairwell without saying another word, and headed back down to the control room. He took a seat and glanced over at his daughter, who was talking quietly on the phone at her desk.

“Okay, I’ll let him know,” she said. “Love you too. Bye.”

She hung up the phone and stared at her monitor for a long moment.

“What’s wrong, honey?” he asked.

She turned to him with reddened eyes and said, “Tom Rutherford is dead.”

///

“Tom Rutherford was an arrogant, stubborn, and ruthless man,” Nicholas said to the packed church, “and he was the best friend I ever had.”

Nicholas swallowed hard and gripped the stack of hastily-scrawled cue cards in his hands.

“When we met,” he said, “we were just a couple of kids with more power than we knew what to do with. But Tom… he had a vision. He….”

Nicholas sighed and shoved the cue cards back into his pocket.

“You know what?” he said. “I honestly hoped I would be the first to go. Tom was always so good with words. He would’ve said something amazing, something you would’ve remembered with a smile for years to come. Figures it’d end up being him in the box instead.”

Nicholas stepped forward and rested a hand on the lead-lined casket in front of the lectern.

“Sorry, buddy, looks like you’re stuck with me,” he said. “Thanks for… well, everything.”

He took a deep breath and headed back to his seat in silence. His wife, Marie, squeezed his hand and leaned in toward his ear as Tom’s son, Tommy, approached the lectern.

“I knew you wouldn’t stick to the script,” Marie said.

Nicholas shrugged and said, “If he wanted a good speech, he should’ve written it himself.”

“Oh, he would’ve loved that,” she said.

Nicholas chuckled softly and glanced up at Tommy. He was a handsome man, like his father. He was in his thirties now; seemed like only yesterday that Nicholas was playing catch with him in Tom’s backyard.

“I knew this day would come,” Tommy said. “My father’s been preparing me for it my entire life. The day he would be gone and the day I would take his place at the head of the company he spent his life building. I still don’t know if I’m up to the task, but I have some big ideas for the future, and plans to put them into motion. In the days ahead, I hope to change Victory City in the much the same way that my father did when he first founded Mighty Atomic all those years ago.”

Marie leaned in again and whispered, “Is this a funeral or a shareholders’ meeting?”

“I’m sure he’s just grieving in his own way,” Nicholas replied.

As Tommy continued on about his father’s business legacy, Nicholas found himself wishing his own replacement were so passionate.

///

Nicholas heard yelling as he landed outside the plant the following Friday. He headed into the building and nearly collided with Maggie Fleming on her way down from the roof. She stepped in front of the double doors to the control room and jabbed her index finger at Nicholas’s chest.

“If he makes one more ‘blowjob’ joke, I’m throwing him off the goddamn roof,” she said. “I’m not even kidding.”

Nicholas sighed and said, “Just let me handle him.”

She turned and stormed into the control room. Nicholas headed up the stairs and stepped out onto the roof to the sound of thumping techno music blaring from a stereo. He opened the door to the booth and peered inside. Dustin sat with his feet up on the window ledge, directing the air with his fingers to the beat of the music.

“Can you turn that off for a second?” Nicholas said, nearly yelling. “We need to talk.”

Dustin ignored Nicholas and started nodding his head along with the music. Nicholas reached down and turned the stereo off. Dustin crossed his arms and stared straight ahead.

“I don’t know how things worked at your last job,” Nicholas said, “but here, we treat each other with respect. So lay off the sexist remarks, okay?”

Dustin leaned forward and turned his music back on. He glanced at Nicholas and a gust of wind blew the door shut in his face. Nicholas clenched his fists, took a deep breath, and headed back downstairs. The double doors opened as he reached the main floor, and Maggie stepped out with Edith.

“We’re making a coffee run,” Edith said. “Want me to grab your usual?”

Nicholas nodded and said, “Make it a large.”

“Coming right up,” she said.

The women headed off down the hall as Nicholas stepped into the control room. He sank into his chair and sighed; he was really beginning to hate that boy.

///

Nicholas touched down on the sidewalk and headed up the driveway to the front door of his house. As he climbed the steps, a man he hadn’t seen in years stood from the porch swing and stepped forward.

“Saul!” Nicholas said, embracing his old friend. “It’s so good to see you! How’ve you been?”

“I’ve been better,” Saul replied. “Do you… have a few minutes to talk?”

“Of course I do, come on in,” Nicholas said, unlocking the door. “I’ll put on some coffee.”

“Thanks,” Saul said, following Nicholas inside. “I hope I’m not imposing.”

“Oh, not at all,” Nicholas said.

They headed into the kitchen and Nicholas loaded up the coffee maker.

“Have a seat,” he said, gesturing to the table. “Marie should be home from work soon and I’m sure she’d love to see you. We… missed you at the funeral.”

“Sorry about that,” Saul said, sitting, “I thought about going, but it… didn’t seem appropriate. Not after the way things ended between me and him.”

“That was a long time ago,” Nicholas said. “I’m sure Tom would’ve wanted you there, even if he’d never have admitted it.”

Nicholas poured coffee into two mugs and set them down on the table. He added milk to his own and watched the white cloud swirl around the black liquid. Saul picked up the sugar bowl and stared down at it for a long moment.

“They’re shutting down my plant,” he said finally.

“What?” Nicholas sputtered, choking on a mouthful of coffee. “Why?”

“Our efficiency levels have been slipping lately,” Saul said. “When we reached a particularly low point, Mighty Atomic approached City Council with an offer to take over energy production for our area.”

“But… that doesn’t make any sense,” Nicholas said. “You and Tom may have had your differences, but he never would have allowed this to happen.”

“I don’t think he did,” Saul said. “I think this is something his son’s been cooking up on the sly, waiting for his father to die or retire so he could make his move.”

“Well… I guess that would explain the speech he gave at the funeral,” Nicholas said. “He was going on about some big plans he has for the future of the company, plans that would really change things.”

“He’s expanding,” Saul said. “From what I’ve heard, he’s about to break ground on a new reactor later this summer, and he’s bringing in a bunch of radioactive Ukrainians to run it. You know what that means, right?”

“Your plant is just the beginning,” Nicholas said.

Saul nodded.

“At least you’re retiring soon,” he said. “I may not be as bright as I used to be, but I still had a few good years left in me.”

He closed his eyes and his skin glowed with a warm yellow light. Outside, a car pulled up to the house. Saul sighed and the light faded.

“I should go,” he said, rising from his seat.

“You can’t stay for supper?” Nicholas asked.

Saul shook his head. “My wife is waiting for me,” he said. “You’ll let Marie know what I’ve told you, won’t you? Her plant’s in danger too.”

“Of course,” Nicholas said, leading the way back to the front door. “Don’t be a stranger this time, okay?”

“I won’t,” Saul said, stepping outside. “I’ll see you around.”

He headed down the steps as Marie climbed out of the car. She froze. He nodded to her and continued walking, down the driveway and up the sidewalk. Marie watched him go and then slowly looked up at Nicholas, standing on the porch.

“Was that…?” she muttered.

“Yeah,” he said. “Come on inside. We’ve got a problem.”

///

Nicholas awoke Saturday morning to the sound of a ringing phone. He rolled over and glanced at his alarm clock: 8:30 AM. He closed his eyes and waited for the ringing to stop.

“Tate residence,” Marie said. “Good morning, dear! How are… Oh, um, I think he’s still asleep. Shall I wake him?”

She leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder. He pretended not to notice. She tapped again, this time sending a mild electrical shock down his left arm. He sat up sharply and clutched his arm. Marie smiled and handed him the phone.

He took it and muttered, “Hello?”

“Hey, Dad,” Edith said. “I know it’s your day off and all, but… well, we need you.”

He stood from the bed and rubbed his eyes.

“What now?” he asked.

“The usual, I’m afraid,” she replied. “Dustin hasn’t shown up for his shift and J.J.’s about ready to take off. I’ve been stalling him as best I can, but I can’t keep him here much longer.”

“I’ll be right there,” Nicholas said, hanging up.

“Dustin again?” Marie asked as Nicholas shambled to the bathroom. “You really ought to just fire him.”

“I wish it were that simple,” Nicholas replied. “If Mighty Atomic really is planning a takeover, I have to be careful not to do anything they could use against us.”

“I still can’t believe the nerve of Tommy,” Marie said. “All that talk at the funeral about legacy, and the first thing he does is stab his father’s friends in the back. Swear to God, if he so much as tries to mess with my team, I’ll put him in his place.”

She clenched her fist and electricity arced across her knuckles. Nicholas leaned in and kissed her on the forehead.

“Honey, I’ve already buried one Tom Rutherford,” he said. “Let’s not make it a double, okay?”

“Oh, fine,” she said. “Now, hurry up and get yourself clean. I’ll go make breakfast.”

He took a shower and got dressed just in time to dig into a plate of bacon and eggs. He finished as quickly as he could and kissed Marie on the way out of the house. He reached his hands up to the sky and a whirlwind descended from the clouds, lifting him up over the city.

He landed on the roof of the plant and waited a moment for the vertigo to subside. When he opened his eyes, J.J. and Edith were standing by the booth, staring at him.

“Okay, I’m here,” Nicholas said.

J.J. headed for the stairs without speaking, and paused at the doorway.

“I meant what I told you the other day,” he said. “Either Dustin goes, or I do. There’s no other way this is going to work.”

He stepped inside and shut the door behind him.

“He’s right, you know,” Edith said.

Nicholas peered down over the ledge and said, “I know.”

///

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Nicholas asked as Dustin stepped out onto the roof.

“Um… eight-ish?” Dustin replied.

“Try ‘noon’,” Nicholas said.

Dustin fished a cellphone out of his pocket and poked at the screen for a moment.

“Huh, wrong time zone,” he said, and grinned “My bad.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say?” Nicholas asked, sending a gust of wind over the side of the building.

Dustin shrugged and said, “Pretty much.”

“Well, it’s not good enough,” Nicholas said. “I can’t afford any more screw-ups from you. Consider this your last warning. Next time, I really will have to let you go.”

Dustin chuckled and stepped into the booth.

“Something funny?” Nicholas asked.

“Yeah, you,” Dustin replied. “You keep huffing and puffing, but you’re all talk. As much as you’d like to, you can’t fire me. You need me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, if I were you,” Nicholas said, crossing his arms.

Dustin smiled smugly and shut the door. Nicholas clenched his fists and marched down the stairs. He opened a file cabinet in one of the back rooms and riffled through until he found a manila folder full of resumes. He picked up the phone and dialled the first number he found.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice said.

“Good afternoon, Miss Bell,” he said. “This is Nicholas Tate at the Municipal Wind Plant. You dropped off your resume here last month and I was wondering if you might still be interested in interviewing for the position.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I just started a new job a week ago. But thanks anyway.”

“Okay,” he said. “Thanks for your time.”

Miss Bell hung up, and Nicholas moved on to the next resume. He spent the better part of the afternoon on the phone, repeating the same conversation over and over until his voice had all but given out. In the end, not one of the previous applicants was still available.

“Dad?” Edith said, stepping into the room. “I thought you went home hours ago”

“No, I’ve… been making some calls,” he replied, shoving the papers back into the folder.

“Oh,” she said. “Any luck?”

He shook his head slowly and returned the folder to the file cabinet. He took a step toward his daughter and felt lightheaded, staggering for a moment. Edith hurried over to him and took his arm to steady him.

“How long’s it been since you had something to eat?” she asked.

“Uh, right after you called this morning,” he replied.

“Okay, come with me,” she said, leading him out of the room. “I’m buying you dinner.”

///

Nicholas slumped down into a seat and motioned a waitress toward him. It was a quiet evening at the Eye of the Storm, just a handful of the pub’s regulars scattered around the room.

“Bourbon,” he said. “Neat.”

Edith touched the waitress’s arm and shook her head. “We’ll both have coffee.”

“Coming right up,” the waitress said, and headed off to the kitchen.

Edith stared at her father for a long moment, then said, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he replied.

“Dad,” she said, “you tried to order whiskey. Something’s wrong.”

He sighed. “Do you remember Saul?”

“He glows in the dark,” she said. “Of course I remember. I haven’t heard anything about him since you had your falling out, though.”

“He came to visit me the other day,” Nicholas said. “Apparently, City Council has decided to shut down his plant, and Mighty Atomic is behind it. Looks like Tommy’s got his sights set on a monopoly.”

“That… that can’t be right,” she said. “I mean, Tommy was always ambitious, but this… Jesus. Is there anything we can do to stop it?”

“I don’t know,” Nicholas said, “but we’re going to try. I think the first thing we need to do is get rid of Dustin. For real, this time.”

“You’ll hear no argument from me on that,” she replied. “But how will we make it work? We don’t have enough manpower without him.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Nicholas said. “What if I put off my retirement? We could go back to the way things were before Dustin come into the picture.”

“Dad, no,” Edith said. “You’ve earned your rest. I won’t let you sacrifice that just because of one jackass. There’s got to be another way.”

“Like what?” he asked. “You haven’t finally developed superpowers by any chance, have you?”

“That’s not fair,” she said.

“Sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have gone there.”

“Apology accepted,” she said. “Anyway, let’s hold off on doing anything drastic for now. If we’re lucky, the whole thing will just… blow over.”

///

Nicholas leaned back in his seat with his hands behind his head and watched the readouts on his monitor. Dustin was off Sundays, with Ben Faraday filling his usual shift, so Nicholas knew he could rest easy for at least twenty-four hours. That is, until the phone rang.

“Wait, slow down,” Edith said. “What happened? Okay. Okay, I’ll tell him now. Love you too.”

She hung up and turned to Nicholas.

“Okay, I don’t want you to freak out,” she said, “but there’s been an accident at Mom’s—”

He was out the door and in the air before she could finish her sentence. He landed in front of the electric plant, out in one of Victory City’s more industrial areas, and hurried inside.

He found Marie downstairs with the generators, managing a pair of employees as they fired lightning into the machines from their fingertips. A third generator sat dormant against the far wall, smoking and charred. Marie’s hands were wrapped thickly in gauze.

“What happened?” Nicholas asked, rushing to her side. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “One of the generators overloaded and I got burned. It’s just second-degree. Didn’t Edith tell you it wasn’t serious?”

“She… didn’t get the chance,” he said. “I kind of panicked.”

Marie chuckled. “Typical,” she said, and wandered over toward the wrecked generator. “It only hurt for a moment. I should be good as new in a couple weeks.”

“That’s a relief,” he said, standing beside her. “How did this happen?”

“Rats,” she said.

“Rats?” he asked.

“Little buggers got into the machinery,” she replied. “Started chewing through wires and pissing on circuits until finally… poof. I’ve already called someone in to deal with them. There she goes now.”

Marie pointed to the floor as a ponytailed woman, no more than six inches tall, ran by dragging a dead rat behind her by the tail. She was dressed in dark body armor with a tiny bow and quiver strapped to her back. She ducked into nearby storage room and the door shut behind her.

“It’s actually a good thing this happened when it did,” Marie said. “If they’d had a chance to get into the rest of the generators before we noticed, they could have put us out of commission entirely.”

The door reopened and the tiny woman stepped out of the storage room, now standing over six feet tall. She was wearing coveralls with her dark hair loose about her shoulders.

“That should be the last of them,” she said. “They haven’t been here long. No more than a week, I’d say. They didn’t have a chance to really dig in and make themselves at home.”

“That’s good to hear,” Marie said. “Any idea how they got in?”

“Well, I didn’t notice anything obvious,” the woman said, “but….”

“But what?” Marie asked.

“It’s probably nothing,” the woman said, “but I noticed a loose brick near the southeast corner of the building. It… kind of looks like it’s been pried out and then shoved back in. There was a concentration of rat droppings nearby.”

“Are you telling me someone intentionally set these things loose in my plant?” Marie asked.

“Like I said, it’s probably nothing,” the woman replied. “Anyway, I still have some cleaning up to do, so I should get back to it.”

Marie turned to Nicholas as the exterminator returned to the storage room.

“I knew it!” she said, throwing her hands up. “Tommy did this.”

“Slow down,” Nicholas said. “Industrial espionage is a pretty big leap from a loose brick.”

“It fits, though,” she said. “We get overrun with rats, we have to shut the place down to get rid of them, and then Tommy waltzes in offering to pick up the slack. Only we got lucky and found the rats earlier than he expected.”

“Don’t know if I’d call that luck,” Nicholas said, glancing at her hands. “Besides, we’ve known Tommy his whole life. He’s a lot of things, but not a criminal.”

“I wish I had as much faith in him as you do,” she said. “I just want to march over to his office and give him a piece of my mind. But… I won’t. For now.”

“That’s all I ask,” Nicholas said. “Now, let’s get you home.”

“I hope you can remember how to drive,” she said as they headed out of the building.

“So do I,” he replied.

///

“Thanks,” Nicholas said without looking up as Edith handed him a small coffee Wednesday afternoon.

He sipped his cup and stared at the monitor in front of him, watching the peaks and valleys of energy output. The levels had remained within acceptable margins all day, but Nicholas knew it was only a matter of time before Dustin stepped out of line again.

“Maggie’s on her way up now,” Edith said. “There shouldn’t be any—”

Before she could finish, something large fell past the control room window, landing on the ground with a thud. A murmur swept across the room as the staff exchanged glances, waiting for someone else to investigate.

“Don’t everyone get up at once,” Edith muttered.

She stood and approached the window. Nicholas began to rise, but hesitated when he noticed the power levels steadily dropping. Outside, the turbines were slowing.

“Oh my God!” Edith said, hurrying for the door that led out to the yard. “Dad, you’d better get out here!”

He followed her outside and found Dustin lying sprawled on his back in the grass between a pair of turbines. She kneeled by his side and checked his pulse at his throat.

“He’s alive,” she said, and looked up at the roof. “What the hell happened?”

Nicholas followed her gaze as Maggie peered down over the edge and quickly shrunk back. He reached his hands to the sky and a whirlwind descended around him.

“Call 9-1-1,” he said as the wind lifted him off his feet.

He landed on the roof and found Maggie pacing back and forth in front of the booth. She stopped in her tracks and turned to Nicholas.

“It was an accident,” she said. “I didn’t mean to do it, I just… Is he okay?”

“We don’t know yet,” Nicholas said. “Edith’s calling an ambulance. Can you tell me what happened?”

Maggie turned away from him and sighed heavily.

“I ignored the staring,” she said. “I bit my tongue at all the gross comments. But today, when he blew my skirt up, then whistled….”

She spun and fired a blast of wind from her fingertips, cracking the stone ledge and spinning the turbines wildly from one end of the yard to the other.

“I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “I just snapped.”

Nicholas glanced back over the ledge at Dustin, surrounded by coworkers trying to help. From up here, Nicholas realized just how lucky Dustin was lucky that she hadn’t sent him right into one of the turbines.

“I’m fired, aren’t I?” Maggie asked.

“What?” Nicholas replied, turned back toward her. “Of course you’re not fired. Far as I’m concerned, you acted in self-defence. And I’ll make sure that’s what the police hear, too, if it comes to that.”

Maggie took a step back, wringing her hands.

“You don’t really think…?” she muttered.

“I suppose we’ll find out soon,” Nicholas said. “In the meantime, I need someone running these turbines. Do you think you’ll be able to finish out your shift?”

Maggie nodded and sent another gust down over the side of the building. Nicholas stepped past her and headed for the stairwell. The door opened and Edith stepped out.

“Paramedics are on their way,” she said. “And, um, Mom’s on the phone. It’s… sort of urgent.”

“What happened?” he asked. “Is she okay?”

“You should probably just let her explain it,” Edith replied. “If you need me, I’ll be up here for a bit.”

Nicholas stepped around her and hurried down the stairs to the control room. He picked up the phone and leaned against a desk, panting.

“What’s wrong?” he asked when he caught his breath. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Marie replied. “I’m just… in a bit of a pickle at the moment.”

“What kind of pickle?” he asked.

“Well,” she said, “I may have gone to see Tommy Rutherford at his office this afternoon, and I may have said a few things that could be interpreted as threats, if one were inclined to do so.”

Nicholas rubbed the bridge of his nose and said, “Please don’t tell me you were arrested.”

“No, I’ve just been detained by security,” she replied, “but I need you to come bail me out.”

He sighed. “I’ll be right there.”

///

Nicholas pulled up in front of Mighty Atomic’s downtown headquarters, an angular glass building designed in the 1970s with a futuristic aesthetic that had aged surprisingly well. The lobby was a massive, sunlit chamber joined by hallways and elevators. Tommy Rutherford approached from across the room with his arms outstretched.

“Uncle Nick!” Tommy said, shaking Nicholas’s hand. “It’s good to see you again, though I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.”

“Where’s my wife?” Nicholas asked.

“She’s in the security office,” Tommy replied, “but I’d like to have a quick word with you before I take you to her, if that’s okay with you.”

Nicholas crossed his arms and said, “Go ahead.”

Tommy took a seat on one of the lobby’s leather couches and Nicholas pulled up a chair opposite him.

“I just want you to understand how serious this is,” Tommy said. “Mrs. Tate was extremely hostile when she came into my office. I could have called the police. Legally, I probably should have. But out of respect for you, I did not. I’m telling you this simply so you’re aware that we have not treated your wife unfairly.”

“Noted,” Nicholas said through his teeth.

“Now, this would be the end of it if not for one small detail,” Tommy said. “During her tirade, your wife made a number of accusations against both my company and myself. Breaking-and-entering, sabotage, industrial espionage; serious charges, and completely baseless. Unfortunately, respect or no, Mighty Atomic will be forced to take legal action if these attacks were to continue.”

“You would sue a sixty-year-old woman?” Nicholas asked. “For what?”

“Slander, for starters,” Tommy said, and leaned forward. “Uncle Nick, I’m not saying that I want to do that. I’m just letting you know that I will do it if my father’s legacy is placed in jeopardy by a few… thoughtless remarks. It’s nothing personal, you understand.”

Nicholas stared at Tommy for a long moment, astonished by how much the boy looked like his father, and how little he acted like him.

“Can I see my wife now?” Nicholas asked.

Tommy half-smiled.

“Of course,” he said, and pointed across the lobby. “Down that hall, first door on your left.”

Nicholas stood from the chair and paused, looking down at Tommy.

“You’re not coming?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t think she particularly wants to see me again,” Tommy replied, straightening his suit as he rose to his feet. “My men already know to expect you.”

“Thanks,” Nicholas said.

“I hope there are no hard feelings over this,” Tommy said as Nicholas turned away. “Growing up, you were like a second father to me. I’d hate to think a little thing like this could get between us.”

Nicholas continued to the security office without looking back. He knocked on the door and a tall man with metallic skin answered. Behind him, Marie sat in a chair with her arms crossed, flanked by two other security guards.

“I’m here for my wife,” Nicholas said.

The metal man stepped aside and one of the guards reached for Marie’s elbow. She jerked her arm away and strolled to the door. She made a face at the guards and stepped out into the hallway. The door closed behind her.

“Fascists,” she said over her shoulder.

“Would you mind telling me what you’re doing here?” Nicholas asked, heading for the exit. “I thought you were going to stay away.”

“I was,” she said, “until I got my hands on a copy of the agenda for next week’s City Council meeting. They’re reviewing my plant’s contract, and Tommy’s listed as one of the speakers. He’s making his move, Nick. We’re out of time.”

///

Nicholas stopped by Victorious Memorial Hospital after dropping Marie off at home. Dustin was in a room on the third floor, resting. He was a very lucky man, according to the doctors, suffering little more than a concussion and a sprained ankle. They still decided to keep him at the hospital overnight for observation, but he was expected to make a full recovery.

“Glad you’re here, boss,” Dustin said groggily as Nicholas stepped into the room. “I’m trying to figure out what kind of charges I should press against Miss Fleming, but I can’t make up my mind. At first I was going to keep things simple and go with aggravated assault, but I’m starting to think I could probably bump it up to attempted murder pretty easily. What do you think?”

“I think you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone of that,” Nicholas said, “considering we all saw you trip off that roof due to inattention.”

Dustin chuckled. “Finally learned to fight dirty, eh?” he said. “It’s about time.”

“I’m serious, Dustin,” Nicholas said. “You’ve got no leverage. You’re done. Fired.”

“And who’ll fill my position?” Dustin asked. “You?”

“For now,” Nicholas replied. “Until we find someone permanent.”

“Good luck,” Dustin said, chuckling again. “Hey, could you pass me my coat?”

He nodded to a grass-stained denim jacket hanging on the back of a chair by the door. Nicholas grabbed the jacket and something heavy fell from a pocket, landing with a thud on the carpet.

He glanced down and saw a small metal flask on the floor between his feet. He picked it up and unscrewed the top; the sweet smell of Kentucky bourbon wafted from within the flask. His hand trembled.

“You can have some if you want,” Dustin said. “But, uh, not too much.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t realize it sooner,” Nicholas said, approaching the bed. “The tardiness, the attitude, the harassment.” He held up the flask. “It’s because of this, isn’t it?”

“Hey, I’m no drunk,” Dustin said. “I just like to take a sip every now and then. No harm in that.”

“You’d be surprised how much harm it can do, actually,” Nicholas said. “Listen, I know I’ve been really hard on you these past several weeks, but….”

“But you’re going to give me another chance?” Dustin asked.

“No, I can’t give you that,” Nichole replied, “but you’ll have my ear if you ever need to talk about… you know.”

“Uh huh,” Dustin replied. “Can I have my booze back now?”

Nicholas sighed. He held the flask toward Dustin and turned it upside down, pouring the contents out into a plastic garbage can beside the bed.

“Dude!” Dustin snapped. “That stuff wasn’t cheap, you know.”

“Trust me, I know,” Nicholas replied, shaking the last few drops out.

He screwed the cap back on and tossed the flask onto the bed. He turned and stepped out of the room. Halfway up the hall, he noticed woman in her early twenties leaning against the wall and staring at him.

“You’re Mr. Tate, aren’t you?” she asked.

“I am,” he replied, approaching her. “And you are?”

“Audra Clarke,” she said. “Dustin’s sister.”

Really,” Nicholas said, and glanced back at Dustin’s door. “He’s never mentioned you.”

“Yeah, he’s… kind of overprotective,” she said, stuffing her hands in her pockets. “He talks about you all the time, though. None of it nice.” She winked and added, “I only believe about half of it.”

“Well, I’m half-glad to hear it,” he replied. “Did he… tell you what happened today?”

“Just that he fell off the roof,” she said, “but he didn’t say how it went down.”

“I don’t think he’s decided yet,” Nicholas said.

“You’re probably right,” she said, chuckling. “So what did happen?”

Nicholas glanced away for a moment, thinking about the story he’d cooked up to explain the fall. But he couldn’t go through with it.

“He pushed someone too far,” Nicholas said, “and she pushed back.”

“Ah,” Audra said. “Well, good for her. Hopefully she knocked some sense into him.”

“I, uh, wouldn’t hold your breath,” Nicholas replied, and glanced down the hallway. “I should go.”

“All right,” she replied. “Nice meeting you.”

He took a step away and hesitated, turning back.

“I know this isn’t any of my business,” he said, “but I think your brother might have a drinking problem.”

Audra laughed. “He’s got plenty of problems,” she said, “but drinking’s definitely not one of them. He never touches the stuff. He’s allergic.”

“Then why does he carry a flask of bourbon in his pocket?” Nicholas asked.

“Oh, that’s just a good luck charm,” she replied. “Tommy gave it to him right before he got the job at your plant, and he hasn’t let it out of his sight since.”

Nicholas froze. “Tommy?” he asked. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, a friend of Dustin’s,” she said. “They were roommates in college and just reconnected a couple months ago.”

“Do you… know his last name, by any chance?” Nicholas asked.

“Something with an R,” she replied. “Rochester or Richardson or—”

“Rutherford?” Nicholas asked.

“Yeah, that’s it!” she said. “You know him?”

“I thought I did,” Nicholas said.

He told her everything, from the moment he hired her brother to the incident with Tommy this afternoon. She was silent for a long moment after he finished, then she looked up at Nicholas with fire in her eyes.

“I’m going to kick his ass,” she said.

She marched into Dustin’s room, and Nicholas followed hesitantly. He stood in the doorway as Audra stormed over to her brother’s bedside and slapped him across the face.

“You little weasel,” she said. “How much is Tommy paying you?”

“What are you talking about?” Dustin asked. “I don’t work for Tommy.” He shot a glance at Nicholas. “I don’t work for anyone anymore.”

“Are you seriously just going to sit there and lie to my face?” she asked.

“I’m not lying,” he said. “Why would you believe the word of a stranger over mine?”

“Because I know you,” she replied. “Come on, Dustin, you’re better than this.”

He stared down at the flask still laying at his feet.

“Even if I am,” he said, “what do you expect me to do about it?”

“There’s a City Council meeting next week,” she said. “You can go there and blow the whistle.”

“No way!” Dustin snapped. “Do you have any idea what Tommy would do to me?”

“You should be more worried about what I’ll do to you,” Audra said.

She clenched her fists and a gust of wind blew through the room, rattling the equipment and shaking the bed. Dustin sighed and turned to Nicholas.

“I’ll do it on one condition,” he said.

“If you’re going to ask me to give you your job back,” Nicholas said, “I can’t do that. Not after everything you’ve done.”

Dustin shook his head.

“I don’t want you to give it to me,” he said, and glanced at his sister.

///

“And this is the control room,” Nicholas said, pushing the double doors open. “It’s where we monitor power levels and weather conditions and things like that. My daughter, Edith, is in charge here. You’ll get to know all the staff eventually, though you’ll spend most of your time up top. Follow me. Hope you don’t mind stairs.”

He led the new recruit out of the control room and up onto the roof.

“This is where you’ll be working,” he said, approaching the booth. “Generally you’ll be doing four eight-hour shifts and one twelve-hour each week. The booth is fully equipped. Fridge, microwave, bathroom, and so on.”

He opened the door and J.J. looked up at them.

“This is J.J.,” Nicholas said. “He’s been with us for years. Sometimes moonlights in show business. J.J., I’d like you to meet the newest addition to our team: Audra.”

“You’re on time,” J.J. said. “I like you already.”

 

 

 

END