Human/Super #3: Slow Burn

 

HUMAN/SUPER #3

SLOW BURN

 

 

 

 

 

Cole Hayes stood in the doorway watching his father, Oliver, cook. A large sirloin steak sizzled on the grill as Oliver added his trademark blend of herbs and spices and closed the lid. After a few minutes, he transferred the steak onto a plate with a Caesar salad and handed it to his son.

“Table four,” Oliver said.

Cole nodded and carried the plate out into the dining room of The Rogues Gallery Steakhouse. Weaving his way between tables, he ended up at a small booth in the far corner where a middle aged couple sat. The woman had already started in on a plate of seafood linguini.

“Top sirloin for the gentleman,” Cole said, sliding the plate in front of the man. “Is there anything else I can get either of you?”

“No thanks,” the man said, and the woman shook her head.

“All right then,” Cole said. “Enjoy your meal.”

On his way back to the kitchen, he noticed the candles had gone out on a table occupied by a family of four. Cole stopped and reached across the table. With a snap of his fingers, the wicks ignited, much to the delight of the children. The youngest, a boy no older than four, leaned forward and blew the candles out.

The mother scolded the child, but Cole smiled and lit the candles again. He winked at the boy and returned to the kitchen. His father was grilling some chicken breasts now; the smell of teriyaki sauce filled the air.

Oliver was the best chef in the city; his face was on billboards and bus shelters, advertising the restaurant. Cole had worked here ever since his parents opened the place, starting out washing dishes before eventually working his way up to waiter. But no higher.

“Trash is getting full,” Oliver said without looking up at his son.

Cole sighed and tied off the black bag in the big steel can in the corner of the kitchen. He carried the bag down the hall and out the side exit. He heaved it into the dumpster and headed back for the door.

“Got a light?” a voice asked.

Cole’s mother, Tori, leaned against the opposite wall of the alley with a cigarette hanging from her lips. Cole pointed his index finger at her face, and a tendril of flame snaked out, lighting the end of the cigarette.

“Those things will kill you, you know,” he said.

She inhaled and said, “I’ve had worse.”

Cole leaned against the wall beside her and she handed him the cigarette. He took a quick drag and passed it back. He stared up at the sky; only a handful of stars shone through the light pollution.

“Do you think Dad’ll ever let me cook?” Cole asked.

Tori blew smoke out across the alley.

“I honestly don’t know, honey,” she said. “I’ve met some hardheaded men in my lifetimes, but Oliver’s more set in his ways than most.”

“He’s jealous of what I can do,” Cole said, holding his hands up and clenching his fists until they burst into flame.

“Maybe,” Tori said, “but the ego runs in the family.”

The fire dissipated as Cole shoved his hands into his pockets.

“I’m just sick of waiting tables,” he said. “I want to do something more with my life.”

“I know,” she said. “Just hang in there, okay?”

She offered him the cigarette again.

He shook his head and said, “I should get back to work.”

“I’ll talk to him later,” Tori said as Cole headed for the door.

“Thanks,” he said, and stepped inside.

///

Cole wasted no time getting out of his uniform the minute his shift ended. As he headed up the hall from the staff room, he heard his parents’ voices wafting out of the kitchen. He crept slowly toward the door and listened.

“…actually really good,” Tori said. “If you would just give him the chance to….”

“I don’t care if he’s the greatest that ever lived,” Oliver replied. “I won’t have that in my kitchen.”

“But you’ll have me?” she asked.

Footsteps clicked slowly across tile.

“That’s… different,” he said. “You’re….”

As Cole leaned against the wall, a hand clapped him on the shoulder. He jolted and turned to face his coworker, Vincent Goodfellow, a lean, dark-haired man nearly a head taller than Cole but a few years younger.

“Spying on your parents, eh?” Vincent said. “Keep that up and you might not like what you see.”

“Are you speaking from experience?” Cole asked.

“Only what I’ve repressed,” Vincent replied, winking. “So what are they saying, anyway? You look like you just found out you’re adopted.”

“No,” Cole said, turning back to the kitchen, “just more of the same.”

His parents’ conversation had already ended, so he sighed and headed outside. Vincent followed.

“Hey, what’s the rush?” he said as they stepped onto the sidewalk. “Let’s grab a beer.”

Cole paused and looked Vincent up and down, considering the offer.

“I think I should just go home and lie down,” Cole said. “Maybe next time?”

“Sure, sure,” Vincent said. “Cheers, mate.”

Cole waved as Vincent ducked down into a metro station. Continuing on home, Cole picked up a few items at the grocery store on his block and headed into his apartment building.

He threw an old jazz CD into his stereo and stepped into the kitchen. He put some of his groceries away, and the rest he laid out on the counter. He grabbed a large bowl and mixed various spices and oils into a paste.

He sliced a tenderloin into smaller pieces and marinated them in the paste briefly before sliding them into a frying pan. Holding the handle with his right hand, he placed his left under the bottom of the pan. Flames curled up around the sides of the pan as the meat started to sizzle.

He cooked the steak medium-well and laid it out on a plate along with a baked potato. He grabbed a fork and knife and sliced a piece off the edge, popping it into his mouth. It was tender and juicy with a distinct blend of flavors, exactly the way his father made it.

He put the fork down and sighed. He’d reverse-engineered more than half of his father’s recipes, but still it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

Cole finished his meal with a glass of wine and loaded the dishwasher. He grabbed a well-worn copy of Joy of Cooking from his bookshelf and climbed into bed.

///

He smelled the smoke as soon as he stepped out of his apartment building in the morning, and it grew curiously stronger the closer he got to work. When he spotted the thick, black smoke rising over the city, he broke into a run.

A line of fire trucks was parked in front of the burnt-out shell of The Rogue’s Gallery Steakhouse, while the police kept the crowd at bay. An officer stopped Cole as he tried to push his way through.

“I work here,” Cole said, trying to get around the cop. “My parents own the damn place.”

“Cole, thank God!” his mother called out, ducking under the police tape and grabbing Cole into a tight hug. “He’s with me, officer.”

The policeman nodded and Tori led Cole around a fire truck to where the restaurant staff had gathered out front. His father sat on the pavement with his head in his hands. Vincent paced back and forth nearby.

The remains of the restaurant’s pale, stone façade reminded Cole of a skull, the blown-out windows staring blankly like hollowed eye sockets in bleached bone. He could see his usual section inside, the tables reduced to furniture-shaped heaps of charcoal.

“How did this happen?” Cole asked.

“Too early to tell,” Tori replied. “They’re still waiting for the all-clear to go inside and look around. All we know at the moment is that it started sometime during the night. By the time the fire department showed up, it was already too late. We’re going to have to start over from scratch.”

She produced a pack of smokes from her pocket but her hand started trembling as she reached inside. Cole took it from her and plucked a cigarette from the box. He pressed his finger to the end and raised it to her lips. She inhaled deeply and sighed with relief.

“I needed that,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with the cops all morning, and now I’ve got to call the insurance company to get the ball rolling on a damage claim. It’s going to be a major pain in the ass, and obviously your father’s in no condition to help me out with any of it at the moment.”

Oliver hadn’t moved from his spot; he just sat there on the ground staring at the smoking wreckage. He glanced up at Cole and glared for a moment before sinking his face back into his hands.

“He’s in shock,” Tori said. “He’ll be on his feet in no time, though. He’s stubborn like that.”

Cole nodded, resisting the urge to reply.

“And don’t worry about looking for a new job,” she said. “I’ll put in a call to an old friend. He should be able to find you some work to hold you over until we can get this place back up and running.”

Cole nodded again and looked up at the remains of the restaurant. Even though he’d wanted nothing more than to take his place in that kitchen someday as head chef, he now felt strangely… liberated. Finally, a chance to do something other than waiting tables.

///

Cole sighed and grabbed a plate of nachos from the kitchen counter. He weaved his way through the crowd of patrons in the Eye of the Storm Pub and Eatery and delivered the food to a group of drunken frat boys watching a basketball game on the television overhead.

On his way back across the room, a thirtysomething brunette sitting alone in a booth flagged him down and ordered a drink. He jotted down her order and made his way to the bar.

“The lady over there wants something called a ‘Rising Phoenix’,” Cole said to Leonard Conway, the pub’s bartender and owner.

Leonard grinned. He was missing quite a few of his teeth, but four oversized canines remained as sharp as ever. He was very old, with thick white hair covering his grizzled face and his massive arms.

“Your mother invented this drink,” he said, grabbing a series of bottles and pouring a drab, grey mixture into a cocktail glass. “When you bring it to the table, you light it on fire. Let it burn for a bit and then put it out. Make sure she waits for the glass to cool.”

Cole nodded and took the drink. The woman smiled as he approached and set the glass on the table. Cole pointed his finger like a gun at the drink and fired a spark into the glass.

A one-foot flame leapt from the surface of the liquid, which quickly shifted from its original grey to a yellow-orange that matched the fire. Cole placed his hand over the glass and pressed down until the flame expired. The woman clapped slowly.

“Very impressive, Mr. Hayes,” she said.

Cole froze. “Do I… know you?”

“Robin Locke,” she said, extending her hand up to him. “Claims adjuster with Victory All Risk.”

Cole shook her hand hesitantly and waited for her to get to the point.

“I’ve been assigned to your parents’ claim,” she said. “I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time to ask you a few questions.”

“I’m kind of busy right now actually,” he said. “Can it wait until—”

“I’m afraid it can’t,” she said. “The claim is quite substantial, and we’d like to get it settled as soon as possible, but there are still a few holes that need to be filled in my investigation.”

“Such as?” Cole asked.

“Such as you,” she replied.

“Me?” he asked. “What about me?”

“Your whereabouts on the night of the fire, for instance,” she said.

“I was home,” he said.

“Alone?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “You don’t think I had something to do with it, do you?”

“I’m just covering all my bases,” she said. “Were you aware that The Rogues Gallery had been losing money for the past several months?”

He tilted his head to one side and said, “News to me.”

She stared at him for a long moment and then jotted something down on her notepad.

“Why don’t you get along with your father?” she asked.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Cole replied.

“I’m told you were angry at him when you left work,” she said. “How angry were you?”

“No more than usual,” he replied, and sighed. “Look, just what are you trying to accuse me of? Do you think I burned the place down because I was mad at Dad? Or did I do it so he could get the insurance money?”

“You tell me,” she replied.

“There’s nothing to tell!” he snapped, then took a deep breath. “I have to get back to work now.”

“Before you go, just take this, please,” she said, handing him her business card. “If you think of anything you’d like to add, feel free to give me a call.”

He held the card between his fingers and it burst into flames, crumbling to ashes in front of his face. He dusted his hands and stormed off. Leonard smiled sympathetically and leaned on the bar.

“What was that about?” he asked.

“I need to talk to my mother,” Cole replied. “I’ll be right back.”

///

“What are you doing here, Cole?” Tori asked as he stepped into the living room. “Shouldn’t you be at the Eye?”

“I was,” Cole replied, “but then this woman named Locke showed up and started throwing accusations around. Is there something going on that I should know about?”

Tori stood from the couch and stepped toward him, crossing her arms.

“Cole,” she said, pausing, “the police think the fire may have been started intentionally.”

“And automatically the finger points to me?” he asked. “Come on, Mom, that’s not fair!”

“I know it’s not,” she said. “The police don’t consider you a suspect, but the insurance company… well, they have their own ideas, obviously.”

“But it’s ridiculous!” he said. “They can’t just blame it on me without evidence.”

“Unfortunately, they can,” Tori said. “Until the police finish their investigation, all we can do is wait.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” he replied. “You’re not the one being accused of arson.”

“We’re all in this together, honey,” Tori said. “And we’ll get through it.”

She hugged him, and he squeezed her back. Across the room, Oliver stepped out of the kitchen and froze. He glared at Cole for a long moment and then stormed up the hall to his bedroom.

“Together,” Cole muttered. “Right.”

///

Cole glanced back and forth between two cuts of steak for several minutes before finally grabbing the cheaper, lower-grade meat. He double-checked his shopping list to make sure he had everything, and made his way to the check-out. He glanced up at the cashier and a familiar face smiled back.

“Cole!” Vincent said, standing there in the store’s uniform. “Long time no see!”

“Yeah, wow,” Cole said, “it’s been a whole week.”

Vincent chuckled. “I know, right?” he said. “Feels like an eternity. So what brings you out here?”

“I live across the street,” Cole replied.

“No way!” Vincent said. “I had no idea. I just started here yesterday. Best I could do last minute, you know?”

Cole nodded and watched Vincent ring in the groceries.

“That’ll be $23.57,” Vincent said.

Cole paid with his credit card while Vincent placed everything into a paper bag.

Vincent handed Cole his receipt and said, “Hey, are you doing anything this evening? Want to… hang out or something?”

Cole picked up his bag and mulled it over for a moment.

“Sure, why not?” he said. “Stop by my place when you’re off. I’ll make dinner.”

“I’ll bring booze,” Vincent replied, grinning.

///

Cole carried two plates of hand-roasted chicken wings to the living room and passed one to Vincent. Leaning back on the couch, Vincent took a bite of chicken and washed it down with a swig of whisky.

“This is one of your dad’s recipes, isn’t it?” Vincent asked.

Cole nodded.

“It’s perfect,” Vincent said. “You’ve really got a knack for this, you know.”

“Thanks,” Cole replied.

“So,” Vincent said, “any idea how long it’ll be until the restaurant’s rebuilt?”

Cole shook his head. “We’re still waiting on the insurance,” he said. “The company seems to think I might have started the fire, myself.”

“What?” Vincent asked, nearly choking on his food. “Why?”

“Apparently,” Cole said, pausing for effect, “someone told the claims adjuster that I was pissed at my dad when I took off that night, and somehow that translates to motive.”

Vincent stared across the coffee table, stunned, for a long moment.

“Dude, I am so sorry,” he said. “I… I didn’t realize. She was acting all concerned. Like, ‘How’s everybody holding up?’ And I said, ‘Tori seems okay, Oliver’s a wreck, and I’m worried about Cole.’ I thought you might be blaming yourself for what happened. Just, you know, in a karmic sort of way. I never thought she would turn around and accuse you of actually doing it. God, I’m such an idiot.”

Cole took a long drink and said, “Well, I guess there’s no point beating yourself up about it.”

“You’re not mad at me?” Vincent asked.

“Nah,” Cole said. “You had no way of knowing what she was up to.”

“I suppose,” Vincent said. “Still, if there’s anything I can do to make it up to you, just name it.”

Cole smiled. “I’m sure I can think of something.”

///

Cole woke alone with a note on his nightstand informing him that Vincent had left for an early shift at the store. After a quick shower, Cole threw an egg into his frying pan and toasted a couple slices of bread in his free hand. Halfway through breakfast, he heard a knock at his door.

“If you think seducing a witness into reversing his statement will help your case, you’re sorely mistaken,” Robin Locke said, standing in the hallway with her arms crossed.

“Are you… staking out my apartment?” Cole asked.

“Do you like puzzles, Mr. Hayes?” she said.

“What?” he replied.

“I don’t,” she said. “Seeing all those scrambled pieces, just waiting to be reassembled, it makes my skin crawl. But once I see it, it burrows itself into my brain and I get this itch that just won’t go away until I’ve put everything back together again, no matter how long it takes.”

“Is there a point to this rambling?” Cole asked.

“The point,” she said, “is that once I start working on a case, I can’t stop until I’ve solved it. If that means I have to sit up all night watching a suspect’s apartment, fine. Hell, I probably wouldn’t have been sleeping anyway.”

“You’re insane,” he said.

“Maybe,” she replied, “but it gets the job done.”

“I’m going back inside now,” he said. “Goodbye.”

He started to close the door but she placed her hand on it.

“Just one more thing,” she said. “I got a call from your father this morning. He wants to cut a deal and accept some liability for the fire in exchange for a reduced claim. And while I’d prefer to keep digging until I find the truth, my bosses are satisfied with this settlement. Are you sure there isn’t something you’d like to say before I head over there? Something that might change my bosses’ minds?”

“I’m sure,” Cole said, crossing his arms.

Robin shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said, and strolled off down the hall.

Cole shut the door and returned to the kitchen. He picked up his plate and reheated his breakfast. He took a bite of his slightly-charred toast and sighed.

“Goddammit,” he muttered.

He dropped the toast, threw his shoes and jacket on, and ran out the door.

///

Cole rushed inside without knocking, storming through the empty living room and into the kitchen, where his parents sat around the table with Robin Locke, reviewing a stack of paperwork. The woman smiled as Cole approached, while Oliver glared angrily at his son. Tori wouldn’t even look at him.

“So this is it?” Cole said, throwing his hands out to his sides. “You’re going to sell me out, just like that? What happened to being ‘in this together’?”

“It’s not about you,” Oliver said. “It’s about not seeing my life’s work crumble because I wasn’t willing to make a few sacrifices.”

“But we shouldn’t have to!” Cole snapped. “We didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

When nobody replied, Cole rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, screw this!”

He turned and marched away from the table. At the doorway, he paused and glanced back. He snapped his fingers and the settlement papers burst into flames.

Robin gasped and jumped out of her seat, while Tori leaned back and watched. Oliver grabbed the fire extinguisher from under the sink and sprayed the table, coating everything with foam. He looked up at Cole with rage in his eyes.

“Get the hell out of my house,” he said coldly.

“With pleasure,” Cole said, stepping through the door.

“Cole, wait,” his mother said, following him out into the living room.

“Why should I?” he asked. “You all think I’m some kind of psychopath.”

“That’s not true,” Tori said. “We’re just trying to make the best of a bad situation. If we have to tell this woman what she wants to hear in order to move forward, so be it.”

“But what about the truth?” Cole asked. “Doesn’t it matter?”

“Not as much as you’d think,” she said. “More than anything, we need to start rebuilding our lives.”

“Can’t you at least wait until the police finish their investigation?” Cole asked. “Once they’ve cleared my name, the insurance company will have no choice but to… Wait, you do believe that I’m innocent, don’t you?”

Tori paused, glanced down, and then said, “Of course I do.”

“I wish I could believe that,” he said. “I’m out of here.”

He turned and stormed out the door. Nobody chased after him this time.

///

A tension hung in the air when Cole arrived at the pub for his shift. The wait staff moved about nervously, while the patrons grumbled amongst themselves. Behind the bar, Leonard was talking anxiously on the phone.

“Cole!” Leonard shouted, tossing the phone over his shoulder. “Thank God you’re here, boy! My chef’s gone AWOL and I can’t track down a replacement at such short notice. You know your way around a kitchen, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” Cole said, “but I’ve never—”

“Great!” Leonard said. “Get your ass back there, we’ve got orders piling up.”

“But I don’t know any of your recipes,” Cole said.

“Don’t worry about that,” Leonard said, “just make it however you normally would.”

“I’ll… try,” Cole said.

“You’ll do fine,” Leonard said. “I have faith in you.”

Cole smiled faintly. “I’m glad someone does.”

He stepped around the bar and pushed through the swinging doors to the kitchen. His hands trembled as he glanced around the room, surveying all the equipment at his disposal.

He grabbed a stack of paper from the counter and flipped through the orders; steak, burgers and fries, a lot of chicken wings, even an order of calamari. Nothing particularly challenging for Cole.

He cracked his knuckles and went to work.

///

The kitchen closed at the end of the night, and Cole stepped outside for some air. A cool breeze blew through the alley, soothing his nerves. He leaned back against the wall and smiled.

“Got a light?” a voice asked.

He glanced up the alley as Robin Locke approached, holding a cigarette between her fingers.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked. “Didn’t you already get everything you wanted?”

“I just have a few loose ends I’d like to tie off before I call it quits,” she said. “You know Jamie Barnes?”

“Should I?” Cole asked.

“I would think so,” she said, looking past him. “You took his job tonight.”

Cole glanced back over his shoulder at the door to the kitchen.

“His house burnt down this afternoon,” Robin said. “He’s in the hospital being treated for smoke inhalation. The police haven’t determined the cause of the fire yet, but I think we both know what they’re going to find.”

“You’re seriously going to accuse me of this, too?” he asked.

“It fits, doesn’t it?” she replied. “Mind telling me where you were this afternoon?”

Cole clenched his fists, felt heat building up in his chest. As he opened his mouth to tell her off, a heavy hand grasped his shoulder.

“Is there some kind of problem here?” Leonard asked.

“Not at all,” Robin replied. “I was just asking Mr. Hayes a few questions.” She extended her hand toward Leonard. “Robin Locke, Victory All Risk.”

Leonard crossed his hair arms and stared her down.

“What’s this about?” he asked.

“I’m following up on an investigation into the Rogues Gallery claim,” she said. “Are you aware your chef almost died in a house fire today?”

“I am,” Leonard said. “What of it?”

“Well, I—”

“You realize that people with abilities are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, don’t you?” Leonard asked, looming over her. “I’m friends with some the best lawyers in town. I could have you in front of the Human Rights Commission by noon tomorrow and out of a job by the end of the week. What do you think? Should I give them a call, or are we done here?”

She flipped through her notepad for a moment and said, “I think I have everything I need. I’ll just be on my way.”

“Nice meeting you,” Leonard said as she disappeared around the corner. “You okay, Cole?”

“Yeah, I… thanks,” Cole stammered. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Leonard shrugged. “You’re on my staff,” he said. “That means I’ve got your back.”

“Even if I tried to kill your chef?” Cole asked.

Leonard scratched his beard and said, “Did you?”

“No,” Cole replied.

“Then there’s nothing else to say,” Leonard said. “Besides, the food was so good tonight, I don’t care if you did torch Jamie’s house. Far as I’m concerned, the kitchen’s yours until he comes back. Hell, maybe even permanently.”

Cole’s eyes widened. “Seriously?” he muttered.

“Of course, I’ll need to find a new waiter,” Leonard said, heading for the door. “You wouldn’t happen to know anybody with experience, would you?”

“As a matter of fact, I might,” Cole replied.

///

Cole waited on a bench in front of the pub the next morning, staring up at the cheerful, welcoming face of his father on a billboard across the street advertising The Rogues Gallery. A few days before the fire, Oliver had signed a new sixteen-week contract for citywide signage. Cole wondered if that money was refundable; a part of him hoped it wasn’t.

Behind him, a door opened, and a pair of hands squeezed the top of his head. He looked up and saw Vincent standing over him with a grin spread across his face.

“So?” Cole asked. “How’d it go?”

“I start tomorrow,” Vincent replied, hopping over the bench to sit beside Cole. “I really appreciate you doing this for me. Working retail was killing me.”

Cole laughed. “You can’t really say that after just a few days,” he said.

“Yeah, well… they felt longer,” Vincent said. “Anyway, I feel like celebrating. Let’s blow this joint and get something to drink.”

“A little early for that, isn’t it?” Cole asked.

“Okay,” Vincent said. “How about instead we go back to my place, kill some time, and then get drunk?”

“I could live with that,” Cole replied, and leaned in for a kiss.

///

Coming home from his sixth consecutive shift as a chef, Cole found Robin Locke once again standing at his door. Heat swelled in the palms of his hands, forming ripples in the air. He clenched his fists but the temperature continued to rise.

“Mr. Hayes,” she said, “I—”

“Not another word!” Cole snapped. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I will,” she said, stepping toward him. “I just want to explain something to you. Please.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled; tiny flames licked out between his lips.

“Make it quick,” he said.

She stared down at her hands for a long moment.

“My father was a firefighter for twenty years,” she said finally. “He saved lives every day, and he loved every minute of it. He didn’t have any superpowers, but he was as much a hero as any cape.”

She leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes.

“One day,” she said, “this guy came along who could control water with his mind, and suddenly all the normal folks were obsolete. Dad lost his job, and he started drinking, and… well, you get the picture.”

She opened her eyes and looked straight at Cole.

“If I’ve been… overzealous in my handling of your parents’ claim,” she said, “it may have had something to do with my own… baggage.”

Cole crossed his arms, the heat in his hands slowly subsiding.

“Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

Robin sighed and stared up at the ceiling.

“A little over an hour ago,” she said, “the police caught a guy trying to set fire to a hotel across town.”

She started pacing from one side of the hall to the other.

“When they checked out his apartment,” she continued, “they found a map of Victory City hanging on his wall with a pentagram pinned to it with string. Each point of the pentagram fell on a building: the hotel, a Laundromat, a library, a house belonging to your pub’s former chef… and your parents’ restaurant.”

Robin stopped pacing and turned to face Cole again.

“Apparently this guy found some ancient ritual in an old book and was trying to summon an army of demons to take over the world or something,” she said. “So, um, it looks like you’re off the hook. Sorry.”

Cole stared at her with his jaw slack for a long moment.

“Are you serious?” he said at last. “I’ve been telling you for two weeks that I had nothing to do with this, but you wouldn’t leave me alone. You even turned my family against me. And now you find out it was one big coincidence and all you’ve got to say for it is ‘Sorry’?”

“Yes,” she said, and shrugged. “I can’t change the past. All I can do is admit that I was wrong and try to learn from my mistakes.”

She turned to leave.

“I won’t bother you again,” she said, and headed for the stairwell.

“It works both ways, you know,” he said.

She stopped and glanced back over her shoulder.

“What does?” she asked.

He stepped toward her.

“My father can’t stand the thought of someone with powers working in his kitchen,” Cole said. “He’s had me washing dishes and waiting tables and taking out the trash for years, anything to keep me away from actually making food, all because I have this ability that I didn’t even ask for. I’m not trying to steal jobs or ruin lives. I just love to cook. That’s all.”

Robin smiled faintly and said, “I think I’d like to try your cooking someday.”

She continued up the hallway and headed down the stairs. Cole fished his keys out of his pocket and stepped into his apartment. The phone was ringing; he answered it and heard his mother’s voice for the first time in almost a week.

“Hey, honey,” she said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” he replied.

“That’s good,” she said. “Listen, I’m… just calling to let you know that, um, the police have closed their investigation into the fire.”

“I heard,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. “Well, we’ve hired a demo company to tear down the restaurant so we can start over. It’s scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, so if you… wanted to get one last look at the place before it’s gone… you should stop by.”

“I’ll think about it,” he replied.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll let you go then. Hope to see you tomorrow.”

“Good night,” he said.

“Love you,” she said.

He hung up.

///

There was already a crowd gathered in front of the restaurant when Cole arrived. Other than some fresh graffiti here and there, the building remained exactly as he’d last seen it, a mere shell of its former self.

Pushing through the crowd, Cole spotted his parents standing among the wreckage and talking to a group of people in hardhats. He waved to them; his mother waved back while his father glanced away quickly. Tori stumbled over the uneven ground to meet Cole on the sidewalk.

“I’m glad you came,” she said.

“I almost didn’t,” he replied. “But then I figured, what better opportunity to hit you guys with an ‘I told you so’?”

She chuckled. “I guess we deserve that.”

“Did you really think I could have done this?” he asked, gesturing to the burnt-out building.

“Of course not,” she replied. “I’m so sorry, honey. I should have stood up for you. I know that. There was just… so much money on the line, and your father, he—”

“—may have been too quick to judge,” Oliver said, approaching his wife from behind.

Tori glared up at her husband and crossed her arms.

“What?” he asked. “You told me to apologize. You didn’t say I had to—”

Oliver,” she said sternly.

“Fine,” he said. “Son, I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve done a lot of things I regret to get where I am today. I know how easy it is to go down that path, so I assumed the worst. But I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry.”

He glanced down at Tori, and she nodded.

“That’s better,” she said, and looked up at Cole. “So, Leo tells me he’s got you cooking now. How’s that going?”

“It’s… pretty great, actually,” Cole said. “I mean, it’s not The Rogues Gallery, but still… it’s nice. I’m experimenting a lot, making up recipes as I go. Just going wherever the inspiration takes me. I think this must be what it feels like to be an artist.”

“You sound just like someone I know,” she said, glancing up at Oliver.

“Excuse me,” a man said into a megaphone. “We’re about to begin, so I need everyone to move back. And, please, cover your ears.”

As Cole and his parents backed up onto the street, the crowd receded and a short woman with curly blonde hair stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the building. The rest of the demolitions crew moved behind her and donned earmuffs.

“Oh man,” a voice said behind Cole, “this is the best part.”

He glanced back as Vincent pushed through the crowd and stood beside him.

“What are you doing here?” Cole asked.

“You kidding?” Vincent replied. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Afternoon, Tori.”

Tori smiled at Vincent and took a cigarette from her pocket. Cole lit it with his finger and she took a long drag. She leaned in to Cole’s ear.

“So,” she said softly, “are you and he…?”

“Yeah,” Cole replied. “I guess we are.”

“Good,” Tori said. “I always did like him.”

Cole smiled and looked over at the woman on the sidewalk. She took a deep breath and let out a scream at the top of her lungs. The sound reverberated in Cole’s skull and he reached out instinctively for Vincent’s hand.

Cracks opened along the stone façade of The Rogues Gallery, spreading like a spider web until the building shuddered and collapsed in on itself. The scream subsided and the man with the megaphone handed the woman a bottle of water, which she emptied in one gulp.

“Pretty badass, huh?” Vincent said.

As the rest of the crew moved in to clear the rubble, Cole glanced over at his father. Tears streamed down Oliver’s face, but he was smiling.

“I’m hungry,” he said, and looked at Cole. “Why don’t you come home for dinner and show me what you can do?”

 

 

 

END