"There are only two things certain in life, Doctor Dismay," Justifier said, delivering a punch capable of cracking concrete to the villain's perfectly chiseled jaw. "And I'm not the tax-man!"
The blow sent the spandex-clad doctor through a wall of stone and into the electrified mote that waited on the other side.
It was a Friday night--which meant Anna, me, PJs, a bowl of popcorn, and a two hour marathon of Powered Wrestling Federation highlights. We were prepped and ready for a night spent watching giant musclemen punching each other through walls while spouting some of the most ridiculous one-liners this side of a James Bond movie.
"I'm writing you a prescription--for DEATH!" Doctor Dismay fired back, emerging from the moat with electrical currents rolling up and down his arms.
"Justifier forgot that Doctor Dismay's powers are based on generating and controlling electricity," Anna said.
"Duh," I said, rolling my eyes. "You know it's all fake, right? Like, they're all powers, but they're actors, too."
"Don't take away my dreams, Sue."
A commercial break came on; Anna seized hold of the remote and started flipping. As she searched for some bit of entertainment to carry her past the adverts for hemorrhoid cream and fast-food, she stumbled onto a news-cast with a familiar picture wedged on the upper right screen.
"Hold off a second," I told her.
"...are requesting that any information about her current whereabouts be forwarded to local authorities," the reporter said.
The picture was of a smiling Gina McKennith. We'd been close friends for a few years through middle-school, but had gradually drifted apart.
"Another one?" Anna said.
"You haven't heard about this?"
"No. Heard about what?"
"There've been a lot of kids disappearing recently," Anna said. "Like, eight kids this semester alone. Most of them look like runaways, but there's been a big stink about it."
"Oo. Show's back on," Anna said, turning back to the screen.
Justifier was in the process of beating the crap out of Doctor Dismay with a robotic shark he had yanked out of the moat.
Best. Show. Ever.
After the marathon, we filled the rest of the night's sleepover with videogames and my attempts to justify my stuffed unicorn collection to Anna. I spent the next morning in the bunker beneath my house--training for my night-job.
Sumerset had been training me for over two months, now; he had started showing me everything. Quick takedowns, nasty takedowns, how to react to a gun, how to react to a knife, how to take on bigger opponents--even how to kill.
I wasn't happy with that last one, but he had made it clear that if I didn't learn, he wouldn't teach me anything.
He had reset the obstacle course earlier. It consisted of an arrangeable set of blocks, varying in size from as large as a basketball to the size of a refrigerator. Included were a variety of adjustable, mobile challenges--monkey bars, ladders, flagpoles--with a dummy on top of one big block and a red flag dangling between two others.
I stood at the start position, dressed in gym-shorts and a tank-top.
"Kick the dummy's head off, retrieve the flag, and return to the start position--in thirty seconds," Sumerset said, holding a pocket-watch.
I scoffed. "Is that all, old man?"
He drew his other hand out of his coat, revealing a nasty looking paint-gun. "While under fire."
I moved. The soft pft-pft-pft of the gun kept pace with each of my steps; I heard wads of paint splatting against the wall behind me. Sumerset wasn't messing around--when it came to my training, he never did.
I felt a harsh, painful sting spear up my thigh as he clipped me. I kicked my feet up and threw myself into the air, grasping the edge of the block where the dummy sat. I flexed my shoulders and threw myself up over the edge, moving behind the target.
A paintball smacked the dummy's chest. "Good cover," Sumerset said. "But now you're stuck right th--"
I knocked the dummy's head off and launched it for the space directly over his head. Sumerset flinched, pulling back; I used the opportunity to leap for the next block.
"Good," I heard Sumerset say. "You're thinking laterally. That's how the Skull wins his fights--by refusing to play by other people's rules."
My fingers wrapped around one of the flagpoles, using it as a linchpin as I turned hard--catapulting toward the dangling flag. My fingers snagged it as I fell into a roll, disappearing behind another block. "It's her fight now, old man."
"You ain't the Skull yet, kid," Sumerset replied. "Get the flag back home without getting shot again. Maybe we'll talk."
The blocks were assembled along several rails that criss-crossed the obstacle course's floor in a grid; they were 'set' in place by metal pins that locked them down. I reached for them and yanked them out of place--the giant block was suddenly free. I seized hold of it and pulled it with me, rolling it towards the start position.
I heard Sumerset cursing and moving. But by the time he circled around the moving cover, I was already crawling on top of the block--with a single flying leap, I hurled myself over his head and landed behind him on top of the platform.
"Gruh," he said.
"Would you like some ketchup? To go with the words I just made you eat, I mean."
"Mmn. Good work," he said.
"I wanted to ask," I said as I dropped down to the floor to rub at the paintball that had hit my bare thigh. "You know, I've been doing this training thing for a while, and--"
"You're not ready for the field yet."
I bit my lip. "I'm not talking about going out and, like, punching masks in the face or anything. But what about some investigative work?"
Sumerset gave me a look, but remained silent. I took this as a prompt to go on.
"You've been teaching me how to fight, and move, and defend myself, but you haven't really touched on any of the crime-solving stuff. And you told me how Elizabeth, the second Skull--how she was this amazing detective--"
"You got something in mind?"
"Kids have been disappearing," I told him. "A lot of them. Almost all of them as reported runaways, but--something seems fishy about it. One of the girls was on the news tonight. I recognized her, back from middle-school. She used to be a good friend of mine. I thought maybe I could track her down, see what happened."
"Investigation is boring work," he told me. "Mostly involves research. Staring at patterns until you go crazy. You willing to give it a try?"
"All right," he said. "Then let's investigate."