Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TWO: OLIVER VS LUTHER




THE BREAK ROOM WAS, thank the merciful gods above, devoid of people.

Oliver had requested that he be allowed to take his lunch as late in the day as possible for that very reason. He preferred to eat alone. It wasn’t that he didn’t like people; Oliver simply yearned for a bit of solitude now and again to break up a day of talking to customers who he had always felt were more than a little needy. He had tried eating in his car at first, but found it difficult to juggle everything in such a cramped space, especially when he brought chili or soup. So, as he couldn’t afford to eat out every day, he’d had to make the break room work.

He made a beeline for his table of choice—all the way in the back corner—took a seat and unpacked his lunch: Bologna and cheese slathered in mayonnaise and nestled between two slices of store brand white bread served up with a small bag of generic potato chips. Looking at the two items on the table, he realized that he’d forgotten to grab a soda from the machine, which was on the other side of the room. He sighed and pulled himself to his feet.

Back at the table, soda bottle in hand, Oliver sat down once more and placed the bottle next to the sandwich.

“Dude!”

The word rang out across the all but empty room and Oliver’s stomach nearly dropped out from under him. There, striding across the break room floor, paper fast food bag clutched in one fist, was Luther Brodwell. He approached the table at a quick clip, a smile on his face and a bounce in his step.

Oliver wanted to cry.

He had just begun to hope that he’d be able to avoid lunch with Luther today. He had nothing against Luther, other than the man’s insistence at spending all of their free time together talking about work.

“You won’t believe the call I took today,” Luther said, sitting across from Oliver at the table.

Luther was tall and thin with a long mane of red hair that he let hang down to the small of his back. His entire wardrobe seemed to consist of Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes, jeans, and Shadow Fox tee shirts, because Oliver had never known him to wear anything else.

Twenty minutes, one sandwich, one bag of chips, and whatever had been inside the fast food bag later, and Luther had himself worked into a narrative lather.

“So this guy is trying to get me to look up his student aid application, right?” Luther said as Oliver tried to focus in on a single spot on the wall at the other end of the room. “And so I ask the guy for his Social Security number. He refuses. I mean, he absolutely refuses. Can you believe that?”

“Crazy,” Oliver said.

“I know, right? So I tell him, I say to him, ‘Look man, I just don’t have the capability to look up your application unless you give me that Social Security number.’ So you know what he says?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“He tells me that he had his Social Security number deleted from the Social Security Administration’s records. Can you believe that?”

“Actually, no I can’t,” Oliver said, surprised to find one of Luther’s stories interesting.

“Yeah, he tells me that he’s sick to death of the Federal Government being all Big Brother and stuff and that he wants to distance himself from them and all that, right?”

“Can you do that?” Oliver asked.

“I don’t know, dude,” Luther said with a laugh. “But this guy wanted nothing to do with the Federal Government, yet he still expected them to pony up for his tuition. I mean, come on, dude. Wake up and get with life and stuff, right?”

Oliver chuckled and shook his head.

“It’s crazy here, dude. I’m telling you. I should write a book or something,” Luther said, cackling away like a madman as he got up from the table. “Oh well, you know. Thank God it’s Friday, am I right?”

“You are one hundred percent correct, sir.”

“You know I am,” and with that, Luther broke into the mad cackling again as he left Oliver alone with his soda. He could hear the man braying all the way back to his cubicle down the hall.

Oliver sighed and finished his soda in peace.

With his lunch drawing to a close, Oliver shuffled his way back to his cubicle, fell back into his chair, and pulled the headset onto his head. He let out another sigh and looked at a photograph hanging on the cubicle wall, just to the right of his monitor.

In the photo were two girls—ages ten and twelve—and a woman. All three had long, dark hair and were smiling. Oliver’s heart lifted. They were why he put up with guys who eat ham patties after their expiration date. They were why he could sit and listen to Luther Brodwell tell story after story about the same types of call he took himself each day.

The woman was Elyse, his wife. They’d been married now for twenty-two years, but started late on making a family. The two girls were his daughters. Ruthie was the youngest. She wore her heart right out there on her sleeve for everyone to see. Susie was the elder of the two. She was known—from time to time—to take things a little too seriously, yet could also be one of the silliest people he knew. He couldn’t imagine loving three people more than he loved his wife and daughters.

And so, taking one last calming look, Oliver took a deep breath and pressed a button on his phone marked AVAILABLE. A call popped in almost immediately.

First was a gentleman who needed to purchase dryer sheets and wanted to know how they might work on leather. Oliver assured the man that it might not be the best idea to put leather through the wash.

Next in the queue was a woman who couldn’t decide if she should purchase a garage door from the Huge Mart online store. The website stated that there were no refunds which made her nervous about making such a decision considering she wasn’t sure what size door she needed. She was afraid she’d purchase the wrong door and be stuck with it. Her contractor had the size requirements, but he wasn’t available today, so she hoped that Oliver could tell her which one to buy. Oliver—rather proud at himself for the infinite amount of patience he possessed—suggested that she put off her purchase until tomorrow after she had the chance to speak with her contractor.

The woman, however, was not at all satisfied with his suggestion and refused to believe that he could not tell her which door size to purchase without coming out and measuring the opening in her garage. She’d demanded to speak to his supervisor. Oliver had been more than happy to make the transfer.

Following the garage door lady, he had a guy who needed to fill out an application for Federal student aid. His daughter was attending school in the fall and they needed help with tuition. He wasn’t sure what to put on the line for STUDENT. Oliver assured him that as his daughter would be the one attending school, she would be the student, and therefore her name would need to go on that line.

After that was a guy who had somehow ingested an entire tube of foot powder, making it the second caller today that Oliver had had to refer to a local hospital. His record for a single day was six.

Soon the clock reached five, and it was time to go. Oliver collected his things and threw them into his backpack. He was zipping it up when someone called out his name.

“Hey, Oliver,” it was Luther again. “You going to the bar tonight?”

The bar in question was the Shady Banana. Oliver had never been inside—he felt the name to be a tad untrustworthy—but it was the regular Friday night hangout for most of the Customer Service Representatives at Solutions Incorporated.

“Oh, not tonight,” Oliver said as he slung the backpack onto one shoulder.

“Come on, dude! You never go out with us.”

“That’s because I have to work.”

“Aw, man. You still working that second job delivering sandwiches?”

“It’s pizza actually, but yes.”

“You need to call in sick, man. Come drinking with us, dude. When Phil gets drunk he likes to act out the entire opening scene from the Holy Grail. It cracks me up every time!”

“Sorry, I wish I could,” he thought he might actually like to see Phil drunk. “But even if I could call in sick, I don’t think my wife would appreciate me ditching work to go out drinking.”

“Ah, yes. The old ball and chain. I understand, muchacho. I truly do. Well then, you have a good weekend, dude. Later days,” and with that, Luther was gone.

Soon Oliver was in his car and speeding across Garrison to the Pizza Dude near the river on the other side of town. He typically took the bypass to avoid the traffic, but today he had to drop off a prescription for Elyse. This meant he had to cut right through the heart of downtown Garrison so that he could use the drive-thru drop off at the Drug Hut. Though traffic was heavy this time of day, he shouldn’t have any issue arriving at the Pizza Dude in time for his shift. He didn’t need to be there until six o’clock, and it took only twenty minutes to get across town with light traffic. He should be okay.

Ten minutes later a cell phone tower dropped out of the sky and landed in front of his car.





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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

ONE: CUSTOMER SERVICE




NOW

OLIVER JORDAN SIGHED AS an electronic tone sounded in his ears through the headset. He wasn’t a big fan of the headset. It was new. The old ones were more comfortable. The new ones made his ears sweat. He wasn’t sure why the company had changed headset vendors, but Management tended not to solicit his opinion when they made the really big decisions.

It was a shame really; Oliver had only been working for the company for thirteen years after all. He liked to think his opinion mattered; he liked to think he mattered. He’d learned long ago however, that in Corporate America, all that mattered were the numbers. Oliver was a number, and as long as he didn’t make any waves, he would forever remain a number.

The tone in his ear signified an incoming call; that someone, somewhere in the country, had picked up their phone and dialed a 1-800 number found on the back of most products that sat on the shelves in your local department or grocery store. The tone also meant that Oliver had to answer the call, and so—as he had done over a hundred times a day—Oliver opened said call using the scripted greeting he’d received back on Day One of training all those many years ago.

“Solutions Incorporated, this is Oliver, how may I help you today?” He gave his belly a small scratch.

“Which product are you calling about?” Oliver said.

“Ham patties?”

This was how many of his calls began. Oliver—Ollie to the people that didn’t know him all that well—worked for a privately held company called Solutions Incorporated. They were a customer service firm who hired themselves out to handle most of the 1-800 help lines you see on products.

Similar businesses, and there weren’t many, have a different 1-800 number created for each of the companies they were contracted to service. That way the operator knows, when a call comes in, which product company the customer is calling about. This helps create the illusion that the customer is speaking with the manufacturer of the product they purchased, and not some faceless corporation such as the one in which Oliver worked for.

Solutions Incorporated, unfortunately, were too cheap to pay for multiple lines. This meant that many of the calls taken each day by Oliver and his fellow representatives in the cubicle jungle started out with the operator convincing the caller that they had, in fact, called the correct number.

“You’ve got the right place,” Oliver said. “How can I help you?”

“You sure?” said the gentleman on the other line. “I’ve never heard of Solutions Incorporated.”

Oliver sighed, but only on the inside. Customer Service 101: Never let them hear you sigh.

“We are a call center that contracts out to many of the products and services you use everyday. How can I help you?”

“Uh, okay, yeah,”said the gentlemen. “I uh, I bought a case of your canned ham patties seven years ago. I’m down to my last can, and it says here that it expired.”

Ham patties meant a Yummy Tum product. Oliver worked the mouse like a pro and in less than two seconds had the Yummy Tum product file open and began to toggle through to the ham patty designation. As he pulled the information he attempted to engage the customer.

Engagement is one of the primary keys to good customer service. Of the many roles that the well-qualified customer service representative is tasked to perform during the life of a call—Subject Matter Expert, Voice of Reason, Detective—the Engaged Listener role allows the representative to show his or her customer that they are involved. Within moments of the greeting, the customer should feel that the representative’s sole purpose in life is to help and that the only two people alive in the world during the length of that call are the customer and the customer service representative.

Oliver—being the professional that he was, and with over a decade of experience under his belt—had a wide variety of tricks he’d cultivated over the years; sure-fire techniques he would often employ when acting in the role of Engaged Listener. So, with the speed of a billion dollar super computer, he pulled the perfect engagement technique from his bag of tricks and lobbed it softly over to the customer on the other end of the line.

“Uh-huh,” Oliver said.

His technique inspired only the best from his fellow coworkers.

“Yeah, so… uh, I wanted to have some ham patties for lunch,” the caller continued. “I mean, I love ham patties, right.”

“Okay.” He could relate. The Yummy Tum ham patties were damn good. Too good, in fact. Oliver had spent many years indulging on them, which hadn’t been good for his figure.

Oliver wasn’t fat, at least he wasn’t what medical science would call morbidly obese. He did, however, meet the clinical definition of overweight, but as he thought about those ham patties, as he scratched once more at his belly, he gave it a bit of a pat and watched it jiggle and shake like the proverbial bowl full of jelly.

“Yeah, you know. I mean, I bought this case at a Huge Mart because it was cheap and on sale and I love ham patties and so I thought I’d pick it up.”

“Right.” Oliver sat—to be honest, he lounged—in a cramped cubicle of four-foot high walls covered in pictures of his family and all of his favorite Mighties.

“So I pull the last can from the cabinet to cook me up some ham patties, right?” The customer continued. “And I look at the date on the back, which I never do, I just figured its ham patties, right? Ham patties don’t go bad.”

“Sure.”

“Well the date says—here let me grab the can and I’ll read you exactly what it says, just a sec.”

“Take your time,” Oliver stood, snatching the yo-yo from off the desk where he kept it next to the monitor, slipped the string over his right middle finger, and let loose, the yo-yo spinning to the end of the string and back with the quickness of a bullet train.

If there is one thing that Oliver has learned from sitting in the same cubicle for over thirteen years and taking the same kinds of calls day after day, it’s that if you don’t have something around you to take your mind off of the tedium, the job does things to your mind.

He’d become pretty good with the thing over the years. He could walk the dog and go round the world and all that, which he figured in the end was better than spending the rest of his life in jail.

“Okay, found it,” the caller returned.

“Great.”

“Yeah, so the date, the date on the top of the can, it says ‘Use before April twenty-seventh’, right?”

“Okay.”

“And that’s April twenty-seventh of this year.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah, well… that was last month, wasn’t it?”

Oliver checked his calendar before responding.

“It sure was,” he said.

He always took that extra step to ensure that everything he told a caller was factual and correct.

“Well, I guess what I’m asking here is in regards to that date that’s printed there on the top of the can. I mean, is there like a hard and fast rule on that date? I mean, does the date mean that the ham patties have gone bad starting the day after that date, or is there some wiggle room there.”

“That date is meant to inform the consumer that it’s best to prepare, serve, and consume those ham patties before the date.”

“Right, I understand that, but if I was to eat it, you know… like, after the date? Would I become sick or anything?”

“It is possible,” Oliver rolled his eyes. “Depending on how long the time-frame is following the date, it is possible that you could become sick, which is why we would never recommend that you consume any of our products after the date that has been printed on the package.”

“Okay, okay cool. I, uh… yeah, I guess that makes sense. Thanks.”

“No, thank you,” Oliver said, a smile on his face. After all, a caller can hear your smile. “Is there anything else I can do for you today, sir?”

“Um… no, I don’t think so.”

“Okay, well thank you for your call and you have a good day.”

“Okay, you too… um…”

“Yes sir, is there something else I can help you with.”

There was a long pause from the other end of the phone and for a moment Oliver thought the caller had disconnected.

“Sir?”

“I ate the ham patties,” the caller said, his voice small and embarrassed.

“Well,” Oliver said, rolling his eyes again. “I’m sure you’ll be okay.”

“I’ve thrown up four times already.”

“Ah,” Oliver reached over to his phone and engaged the mute function, sighed loudly, and pushed the mute button again, disengaging it before continuing. “In that case, sir, I would suggest you seek medical help as soon as possible.”

“Really? You think that’s necessary?”

Once again, Oliver engaged the mute button for a good sigh, a sigh of such magnitude that small herds of gazelle could live upon its surface and graze among its open fields of waving grasslands.

“Yes sir, I believe under these circumstances that it would be in your best interest to hang up the phone and continue at once to the emergency room of your local hospital or possibly even a walk-in urgent care facility.” Oliver continued to smile.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. But… well, I’m new in town and I’m not really sure where the hospital is, or if we even have one.”

“No problem. In that case I would recommend you hang up and dial 9-1-1 with all due haste.”

“Oh, okay. Yeah, I could do that, I suppose. What was your name again?”

“My name is Oliver.”

“Okay, great. Thanks, Oliver.”

“Thank you.”

The call ended and Oliver let out another sigh of exasperation. This would not be his last sigh of the day. If things went as per usual Oliver could look forward to many more sighs before this day would end.

He took off his headset and placed it on a hook which hung from the wall of the cubicle. Then he pushed a button on his phone labeled AUX, which put the phone in a state that would not allow any incoming calls. He then grabbed up a small cooler from under the desk, and went off to eat his lunch, unaware that before this day would end, Oliver Jordan would become one of the most powerful men in the world.





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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

PROLOGUE: OLD HABITS DIE HARD




1991

THE OLD MAN CLUNG precariously to the side of the Kent Building. His fingers ached, sharp bursts of pain stabbing at each knuckle as he struggled to find purchase among the brick and mortar. He looked down through the night to the street below and gazed wearily at the traffic that passed beneath him. He sighed. Five floors up and he had two more to go. He’d been climbing for fifteen minutes now, three minutes per floor.

Not good enough.

Twenty years ago he could have climbed all seven stories in less than five minutes without breaking a sweat.

But now? Well, now his body didn’t quite work the way it used to.

He shook his head in disgust. He wasn’t here to dwell on what he couldn’t control or pine for the good old days. He had to keep his mind on the task at hand. Just get on with it already. So he groaned, blew out his thick, snowy mustache, and continued his ascent.

The wind chose at that moment to pick up and blow all around the old man. It whipped his cape about and, for just a moment, threatened to pull him away from the building. He swore under his breath and pulled himself closer to the bricks, hugging the wall as he sucked in great gulps of air, realizing that it was too late to rethink this plan. He could have easily taken the elevator, or even the stairs, but that was not his way. Besides, he’d look foolish in an elevator wearing a cape and mask.

His costume—dark gray with burgundy boots, gloves, and cape—favored functional over flashy. The mask was gray, covering his entire head but nose, mouth, and chin. A large strip of burgundy covered his eyes, flaring out at the sides and ending in points. The mask had been meant to emulate a fox, though he’d always felt he’d never quite made it work. But then, the costume was meant for the shadows, not the light of day. It was constructed to wrap the darkness around him and convince the lawless underbelly of society that he was more monster than man.

Fear had always been his most steadfast ally.

But to wear the costume as he stood idly in the safe confines of an elevator? It wasn’t dignified.

He was the Shadow Fox after all. He had a reputation to maintain.

Still, climbing a building at his age was tantamount to suicide. But he was British, and if there’s one thing the British are known for, it’s keeping the proverbial stiff upper lip in even the most dire of circumstances. Keep calm and carry on. And so he did just that.

When not climbing buildings and fighting crime as the Shadow Fox, he was Gerald Farnsworth III, millionaire recluse and tech magnate. He had come from rags and filth, found a comfortable life after the Second World War, but then in 1984 he had built and sold his first home computer, the Farnsworth One. Since then it had been nothing but up.

After all these years, and all his financial success, his world continued to be the night. But at sixty-six years old, a weariness had set in, like the entire history of the world rested upon his shoulders. Of course, there weren’t many other sixty-six year old men who could climb a tree, much less scale a seven story building. But still, Gerald was tired.

Both of his feet slipped on a damp patch of brick as he reached the sixth floor, and for a moment he dangled from a window ledge by his fingers. His arms shook from the strain and for the first time in a long time, he felt the icy grip of panic around his heart.

He couldn’t die here. Not like this.

This was not a death meant for the Shadow Fox.

Eventually his feet found the traction they’d sought and his panic abated.

Gerald embraced the wall like an old friend and took a moment to catch his breath. How had he come to this? This life? Hugging a wall sixty-or-so feet off the ground? Trembling like the old man his years have made him? The panic he’d felt moments before turned into disgust. This was not what his life was meant to be.

When Gerald had been sixteen years old, he had lied his way into the British Royal Army. It had been 1941, Britain had joined the war against Germany, and Gerald—ever the patriot—had wanted to do his part. Little did he know that six months later he would be part of an experimental program by the Crown to create soldiers whose abilities far exceeded those of the average Tommy.

Gerald was still haunted by the memory of that night in 1942. The night that changed his life forever.

Leftenant Smyth, the man who had recruited Gerald for Project Avalon, had come in the night to Gerald’s quarters. He can recall that memory quite clearly. He’d been bundled into a car and a hood had been placed over his head. A twenty minute drive later, when they had removed the hood, Gerald found himself in what he assumed at the time was a hospital room surrounded by lights. From there his memory grew hazy as it was in that room that they had sedated him.

He can recall waking some time later, though how long he had been out has forever remained a mystery. But when he woke, it was to the sound of thunder. Gerald can remember being led along a dark forest path as part of a procession, each one in line wearing dark robes. He remembers the rain that fell from the sky that night, soaking Gerald and his companions, lightning flashing all around. Between claps of thunder all he heard was the pounding of the rain and the sounds of their boots squelching in the mud.

There had been a clearing, he can picture that in his mind, a clearing with a stone altar in the center. And atop the altar, a stone cup. He had been made to stand at the altar and drink from the cup, all the while his robed companions, arranged in a circle around him, chanted in unison. The language had been unfamiliar to him. He’d later learned that it was Latin.

Everything had gone black after that. Though, anytime he thinks back on that night, on the cup, on the mysterious liquid within, he would invariable taste cinnamon.

He’d eventually come out of whatever funk, or spell, he’d been under and had found himself back in his quarters. He had been told later, as part of his training in Project Avalon, that he had imbibed a magical potion that was said to derive back from the days of Merlin.

Gerald had laughed over that, still does, but whatever had been in that stone cup, he had been given a wonderful and miraculous gift that night. Gerald had been empowered with exceptional strength, stamina, and agility. The potion, or whatever, had slowed the aging process considerably, which allowed him to climb buildings at the age of sixty-six.

Regardless of the way he felt or what he could do, those close to him still had their doubts. He was getting too old, they would say. He wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer; the crime fighting and the climbing about. Gerald was well aware of his limitations. He knew that the end was coming, he just wasn’t quite ready to accept it.

Personally, he figured he still had a good twenty years left in him before the job took his life, and frankly, even then he felt like it just wasn’t going to be enough. Crime never quits, it never retires, so why should he? He just needed something to push that twenty years out to thirty, forty, even fifty. It was power. He needed more power. He needed to keep fighting. The war was all that was important.

The war was all that mattered.

The Shadow Fox reached the top of the building, puffing and gulping, his breath whooshing in and out as he fought for a bit of air. The top of the building was a flat roof covered in gravel and tar. A wall about two feet tall ran along the edge of the roof. He flung a leg over the wall and strained as he pulled himself up and over, landing a little less than gracefully on the roof top. He used to be better at this.

As he lay panting among the dark gravel, he noticed for the first time a man floating in the air above him.

“Hello, Gerald,” the floating man said. He was dressed in a red bodysuit. His boots, gloves, cape, and belt were blue. And on his chest was a large golden letter M.

“Peter,” Gerald said.

“The city seems quiet,” Peter gazed out at Garrison. He seemed to watch everything in view, which for him—Gerald knew—was a few hundred miles.

“From up there maybe,” Gerald said, pulling himself to his feet.

“Up here?” Peter looked confused.

“Oh come now, Peter. Sometimes the legendary Captain Might has to come out of the sky once in a while if he wants to see what really goes on below him.”

A hurt looked crawled across Peter’s face. Gerald could almost feel bad for him.

Almost.

“The city is restless,” Gerald continued. “You’d feel it yourself if you’d ever deem to come down to my level.”

“Gerald,” Peter began, but Gerald just continued to talk right over him.

“Something’s up tonight. The Down Boys are planning something,” Gerald walked over to the wall at the edge of the roof. “I noticed a group of them gathering behind Ralph’s Pawn Shop on the way over.”

“We need to talk.” Peter tried to change the subject. Gerald hadn’t noticed.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Gerald continued. “You hit them high, I’ll hit them low. They’ll all be in prison by dawn.”

“You remember that night during the war,” Peter said, as if Gerald hadn’t spoken. “The night we made a visit to the boys in Bastogne?”

“What’re you on about?”

“We just wanted to raise their spirits, remember?” Peter continued to gaze into the distance.

“Of course I remember. Why are you bringing that up now?”

“There wasn’t much we could do for the boys.”

“You could have taken Bastogne by yourself.”

“True. God knows I wanted to. But by the time we’d arrived the men had already been there for nearly a week. They were dug in. Lieutenant Liberty told me to stay out of it.” Peter smiled at the memory. “She’d said that the boys had their pride. They’d lasted that long, they were going all the way.”

“I remember.”

“Of course,” Peter said. “The very next day, General Patton and his boys showed up and helped turn the tide.”

“What’s this all about, Peter? The Down Boys won’t just stand around all night.”

Peter floated down, his feet making contact with the roof.

“I’m tired, Gerald,” said Peter with a sigh, taking a seat on the wall.

“Tired?” Gerald said, joining friend. “You? The man with the power of a thousand bull elephants!?”

“We weren’t needed in Bastogne,” Peter said. He looked at the ground, kicking a few of the gravel pieces around. “And we aren’t needed here.”

“What’re you on about? Of course we’re needed here. The Down Boys—” but Peter cut him off.

“Someone else can look after the city for a change. Your protégé seems to have a good handle on things.”

“Walter!?” Gerald shot to his feet. “Are you barking!? That boy couldn’t handle an umbrella on a sunny afternoon!”

“You don’t give him enough credit. He’s perfectly capable of protecting the city without you and me.”

“What’s going on here, Peter? What are you trying to say?”

Peter was silent for a moment. He looked up from the gravel on the roof, looked Gerald in the eyes, then stood and turned to gaze out at the city again before speaking.

“I’m retiring.”

“Retiring?” Gerald laughed. “Captain Might is going to retire. You’re having me on.”

“I can’t do it anymore, Gerald. I’ve been fighting for over seventy years now. I’m done.”

“Done?”

“Done.”

“Are you completely mental?”

“This is no joke, Gerald. It’s over. I’m over. You may want to think about coming with me.”

“Coming with you?” Gerald laughed again.

“Come with me. Retire. You’re getting a little long in the tooth, old friend.”

“So you say,” Gerald said, anger rising in his voice.

“I do say. Tell me, how long did it take you to climb up here?”

“You sound like an old woman, you do.”

“How long did it take you to climb this building?”

“I got up here, I did! That’s all that matters!”

“Gerald,” Peter said, his voice calm and steady. “Your mind is still as sharp and brilliant as ever. But your body…”

Gerald returned to the wall at the edge of the roof, sat down, and placed his head in his hands.

“I don’t deserve this. To be treated like this,” he said quietly to himself.

“Gerald, please.”

“I’m the Shadow Fox.”

“Gerald. You’re my closest friend. We’re practically brothers. I can’t do this alone.”

“Brothers!?” Gerald shot to his feet, thrusting a finger into Peter’s chest. “You selfish bastard! You have the powers of a god! A GOD! You have responsibilities to this planet and you want to quit!”

“Gerald.” Peter put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“No!” Shadow Fox slapped the hand away. “How dare you?! How dare you walk away from this city?! These people?!”

“I need something more, Gerald.”

“More? What else could you possibly want?”

“I’ve met someone.”

“I should have known,” Gerald threw his hands into the air. “I should have known a woman was involved.”

“Gerald.”

“Who is she?”

“It’s not important who she is.”

“Is she a Mighty like you and I?”

“No, she’s a Normal.”

“And so, for her, you’re going to leave the good people of this city—the world—to fend for themselves?”

“Gerald, I love her. I’m ready to start a family. I want to start a family.”

“Then start a family. You don’t have to hang up the cape, Peter.”

“I think I do. You know the demands that this lifestyle puts on us. I can’t be away all the time. It’s not fair to her. I can’t put myself in danger like I do. I would have to be there for my family… for Cecilia.”

“So you’re just going to give it all up then,” Gerald had turned back to the city, his head down.

“Yes,” Peter said, his voice nearly a whisper. “I have to. I need to.” He let out a sigh. “It’s time, Gerald.”

Gerald stood silent, looking out at the city. Somewhere in the distance he heard the sounds of crime. Car alarms, police sirens, a scream, the high klaxon of a bank alarm… the city needed him.

Without warning, Gerald spun and slammed his fist into Peter’s face with such force that it would have punched through a car door.

It didn’t faze Peter, not in a physical sense.

“How can you be so selfish?” Shadow Fox screamed, spittle flying from his lips. “You have all this power, all this… this… might! And you chose to turn your back on it? I’d give anything for even a fraction of your power!”

Tears streamed from under Gerald’s mask. “Good Lord, Peter. If I had just a little of what you have, I could continue. I could do so much for this city. Just a little. That’s all I need,” his voice was almost pleading.

“I’m sorry Gerald,” Peter’s voice cracked with sorrow. “You aren’t ready for that kind of power.”

Gerald didn’t know what else to do, what else to say. All he could do was stare at his friend, his brother, as the two stood in silence. It didn’t last long, that moment of quiet, as the sound of sirens erupted from below. Garrison’s finest, doing their duty. Just as he should be doing.

“You can go to Hell, Peter Pembleton,” Gerald whispered, his voice cold and empty. “This city doesn’t need you.”

The Shadow Fox turned his back on Captain Might and retrieved a thin, black, rope-line from the belt at his back, beneath the cape. Attached to the line was a steel grappling hook, the size of a baby’s fist, its three sharpened barbed points folded inward. With a flick of his wrist, the barbed points snapped into place with an audible click and he began to spin the line in a tight circle before flinging it out into the night to connect with another building.

“I don’t need you,” the Shadow Fox said, his back to his friend. Then, without another word, he leapt from atop the Kent Building and swung out into the night.

Peter remained on the roof of the Kent Building for a full ten minutes. He stood stoic, weeping silently. He knew in his heart that he had done the right thing, and he hoped that one day Gerald would see it as well. Then maybe, just maybe, Gerald would be able to give Peter the only thing he would ever need.

Forgiveness.