Nicole stood on the front steps of the high school. Her backpack lay on the ground next to her duffel bag, which was currently filled with her soccer uniform, and a towel.
It was a warm day. It could have been summer. The grass had turned green. The trees had leaves, or at least buds. Nicole was barely noticing any of it. She was on the phone.
“My boyfriend? Mr. Noshow, you mean? He’s still not here, and soccer ended twenty minutes ago.”
Over the phone, Melissa said, “Well, he might have a good reason.”
Nicole shrugged. “If he does, he has a good reason an awful lot. I don’t think he’s ever been on time.”
Melissa laughed, and then, more seriously asked, “So is this it? The end?”
Nicole thought about it. “I don’t know. It depends what he says, but as late as he is now? I’m going to call him. If he doesn’t answer, that’s it.”
They said goodbye. As they did, she noticed a black dog in the shade of a tree across the street. She stared at it. The dog was huge. God, she thought, it’s the size of a small pony.
And there was no question about it, it was looking at her. She wondered if she should run. Then she blinked, and when she looked again, it was just a normal dog. A Labrador Retriever maybe.
She laughed, deciding not to tell Melissa about that. Melissa would joke about it for weeks.
Then she started looking through her phone again.
She found his number as he pulled into the drive in front of her school. The car splashed in the puddles left over from the afternoon’s rain.
Adam drove a sports car, not one of the well known ones, but a nicer car that she would have expected. He didn’t have a job, and his family wasn’t wealthy from what she’d seen.
She couldn’t think of the model, something that struck her as odd because she ought to have known the model, or recognized that she didn’t. She’d tried to ask her brothers what it was, but she couldn’t remember what it looked like when it wasn’t in front of her—not even the color.
He pulled up the school’s driveway, and opened his door, waving her over. “Hey Nicole, I was thinking instead of coffee, we’d take a drive. I’ve got something I want to tell you.”
He grinned at her. He looked better than the last time she’d seen him. It was nice to see him make an effort. Between the green, button down shirt, blue jeans, and short haircut, it was step better than the muddy t-shirt, he’d shown up in for their last date. She wasn’t even sure how he’d found the mud. It hadn’t rained in a week.
Last time she’d seen him, she’d given him an ultimatum, “Explain why you didn’t show up last Friday, and make me believe it, or we’re done.”
“I’ve been thinking about what you said last time we talked, and you were right. I should have told you what I was doing. I’ll tell you now, but… inside the car. It’s not something I want to say where everyone can hear.”
She thought about it, and decided almost in the same instant. She’d give him the chance. At least he was trying to explain now.
“Okay,” she said, “let’s talk.”
“Great,” he said, and sat back down in the car, unlocking the door.
As she opened it and stepped inside, she wondered what she was letting herself in for.
Family drama? Medical problems? Was he on drugs?
She put her seatbelt on, and looked over at him. Drugs? Who was she kidding? He was almost boring—a complete straight arrow—except that he became a little intense at times.
He started the car. “There’s a park down the street. We could stop there and talk. Maybe take a walk afterward? Anyway, what we’re talking about has to stay in the car.”
That brought her back to wondering about drugs. Well, she thought, it didn’t have to be that big a secret. It might just be embarrassing.
“Nicole?” He sounded a little worried.
“Don’t worry about it. I won’t say anything.”
“Good,” he said, and they drove to the park.
It wasn’t a big park. It had a small parking lot on one end, kids’ playground equipment, and a baseball diamond on the other end.
Three kids, two boys and a girl ran around, sometimes climbing on the wooden structure in the middle of the lot, sometimes swinging on the swings. A woman in blue jeans and a light, green jacket sat on a park bench and read something on her cell phone.
Spring in Chicago, Nicole thought.
Adam grinned at her as he took off his seat belt. “You don’t know how much of a relief this is. You’re never supposed to do this. I’ve been told not to every time I even thought about it, but screw them. This is it. I’m a superhero. I’m Dark Cloak.”
She couldn’t help it. She giggled, then stifled the giggled, and then she blushed.
It seemed so unlikely. Okay, it fit. She had to admit that. It fit every superhero stereotype she’d ever heard of—the disappearances, being late, and all of it.
It wasn’t like she lived under a rock. She’d seen comic books, not to mention the real supers on cable—on the SuperTV channel and all the TV shows.
Maybe, she thought, it wasn’t that he’d claimed to be one, but who he’d claimed to be. Dark Cloak was one of those dark avenger of the night types, practically a ninja. He’d taken down leaders in the Outfit, Chicago’s mob, on his own.
Adam was a little short, and kind of cute, but not the kind of guy she expected to come out of the dark like an avenging angel, or however the cliches put it.
He stiffened, not moving.
He probably hadn’t expected that response.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was surprised. You don’t seem anything like him.”
Deciding that might have sounded insulting, she decided to distract him. What would he want to talk about? She had a terrifying moment of not being able to think of anything, and then blurted out, “What can you do?”
From his expression, he’d been waiting to answer this one for years. “I don’t ever talk about that on TV, but at this point, I might as well…
“I obscure things. That means I can hide myself, but I can also make things disappear. Like if I was being chased, I could obscure the first or second step of a stairway, and the next thing anybody knows they’ll be falling.”
She thought about some of the stairways she’d been on. “You could kill somebody.”
“Well, yeah,” he said, slowly, “but if somebody’s chasing me, they’re part of the mob, or a supervillain. Those guys don’t die on stairways. I’m lucky to make it out ahead of them. Besides if they did die, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. They’re trying to kill me. That’s self-defense.”
She wasn’t sure what she thought about him talking that casually about killing. She agreed he had a right to defend himself, but still they were people, and sometimes they might not be trying to kill you.
He paused as if waiting for her to respond. When she didn’t, he said, “I’ve never done it. Even when I brought Malone and his guys down, all I needed to do was sneak in and bug them. I installed some keyloggers on their computers too. Pretty soon I knew all their passwords to everything. It was enough to put them all away. Did you see me on TV? I got on the Tonight Show, Letterman, and all that. I did a few shows on SuperTV too, but you’re not a capewatcher, right?”
There, at least, she was on firmer ground.
“No,” she said. “I never watch that stuff.”
He leaned forward in his seat, smiling at her. “I completely understand. It’s kind of like following any other celebrity, but with more violence. It’s pretty fun being a cape though—at least after the hard parts are over. Running for your life’s not fun, but once the police have the guy in custody, it can be fun to talk to the press.
“Plus, everybody likes you and acts like you’re a big deal. You get limos and endorsements, and stuff. I’ve got a business manager that handles licensing my image, and it’s pretty crazy. I’ve put away enough for college just in the last two years. Of course, I can’t spend much of it in real life, but I’m working on that. Anyway, I can spend a little without drawing attention. That’s how I bought my car.”
She thought about how nervous her parents got when they talked about paying for college. Forcing a small smile, she said, “I can do without the attention, but the money would be nice.”
He nodded. “I get that. Sometimes, the attention is a bit much. I get sick of autographs the most, and sometimes I’m trying to catch somebody, and out of nowhere a fan shows up and wants to chat. Crazy, right?”
Then he leaned back in his seat. “So, are we good? I’m not trying to be late. Sometimes things come up. Like that time I didn’t show up, someone was getting mugged, and I stopped it, but an Outfit hitman saw me, and it only got crazier after that.”
She reached out and squeezed his hand. “We’re good. I can’t fault you for stopping a mugger. I definitely can’t fault you for trying to escape a hitman. Just don’t lie about it next time, and I won’t get angry.”
He squeezed her hand back. “Don’t worry about it. I won’t have any reason to lie from now on. Besides, who says I was trying to escape that hitman?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
He grinned at her.
“That is so crazy,” she said. “I can’t believe you told me, but I’m glad you did. This would only be better if I could tell Melissa. I know I can’t, but—”
He pulled his hand away. He screamed at her, “Don’t tell anyone!”
He was loud enough that the woman watching her kids turned around, looking up from her cell phone, and staring at the car.
Then he blinked. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I get this way sometimes. I’m so sorry…”
The woman didn’t look away, and for a moment Nicole thought the woman changed, her body becoming more muscular, tusks extending from her mouth like a boar.
When Nicole checked again, the woman was watching her smartphone. She didn’t have tusks at all.
Nicole didn’t call Melissa that night. Sitting on her bed, she pulled out her iPad and searched Google for “women with tusks.”
She considered searching for “shapeshifting dogs that shapeshift into dogs,” but decided it was stupid, and settled for “shapeshifting dogs.” She didn’t find anything.
She sat and thought before she did it, but ultimately did search for “Dark Cloak temper.” She didn’t find anything for that either.
They came for her two days later.
She stood in front of the high school. Melissa, her regular ride home from soccer, had gone home sick after lunch. This left her standing on the front steps of the high school alone, waiting for her mother—who hadn’t sounded happy about leaving work early so that she only had to wait half an hour instead of an hour.
The weather was warm enough that she’d put her coat in her backpack. Tulip stems were poking their way out of the soil near the bushes.
She could have called Adam. He probably would have come.
He’d been apologetic afterward, and he’d even told her a little more, probably to see if he could recover what they’d been feeling before he’d shouted.
It hadn’t worked, leaving her to think that if there were a “magical council” that handed out superpowers to humans, she wasn’t impressed with their vetting process.
A blue SUV rolled up the driveway that ran in front of the school, stopping in front of her. Still tired from practice, she didn’t think much about about it until the two men got out. Both of them looked at least thirty. They wore jeans, and frayed jackets. Only one of them had shaved.
It didn’t occur to her that they might be coming for her until the unshaven guy grabbed her arm. “Shut up, and don’t make trouble. We’re going to the car.”
He stood at least six inches taller than she did, and even if he had a potbelly, he wasn’t weak. When he started to guide her down the steps the wasn’t any question if she was going.
The other man didn’t say anything, catching her eye, and pulling a pistol halfway out of his jacket pocket before pushing it back in.
Glancing backward, she realized her backpack lay at the top of the steps. Was that good? At least her mom would know that she had been here.
She realized that her heart was racing.
They brought her to a warehouse. She didn’t know where it was, or even how long it took to get there. They wouldn’t respond to any of her questions, and they’d blindfolded her, and taken her phone.
At first she didn’t even know it was a warehouse. She only knew that from the sounds of their footsteps, they had to be in a big room. She recognized the sound of a forklift in the distance just before a door opened. The door sounded much closer than the forklift.
She felt the cold before she even stepped through the door. Realizing that they were pushing her into a refrigerator, or worse, a freezer, she tried to stop, but one of them, she couldn’t tell which, pushed her forward, and she fell.
It hurt, but she tried to push herself up. If she could get her hand in the door, or foot… Something… Then maybe she could get out.
They shut the door before she even got up on one knee.
The door muffled the sound on the other side, so she couldn’t understand what they said, but one of them said something. The other one laughed.
Then something clicked. They’d locked her in.
She ran to the door. It had a handle inside. She turned it. She pushed out.
It didn’t move. She should have known better.
She turned around, checking out what was in the freezer with her. It wasn’t much. Empty metal shelving took up half the room. Boxes filled with bags of frozen chicken breasts lay on the floor.
She was going to die in here.
No, she told herself. She wasn’t. She was going to find a way out. Maybe she could break a leg off one of the pieces of shelving. They all looked old. She could batter it with one the boxes of chicken breasts?
At that she gave a laugh, which even to her ears, sounded a little hysterical.
She took a deep breath, and even if it felt like she was breathing in winter, she felt a little calmer.
She counted to ten. What did she know? Nothing, but she had some guesses about what was going on. This had to be connected with Adam. He’d brought down members of the mob as Dark Cloak, and they had to be using her to get at him.
They must be trying to get him to come down here, she thought. He’d be able to get around them. Hadn’t he already? Not being noticed was his thing. He could be here at any moment.
All she needed to do was wait—that and not freeze to death, but she decided to try to get out anyway since he might not make it.
As she walked back to the shelves, she wished she hadn’t left her coat in her backpack.
She woke up later to the sound of voices talking. She couldn’t quite understand them.
He hadn’t come. She hadn’t been able to budge the door on her own, and eventually she’d sat down and fallen asleep.
She still felt cold at the memory. No, she realized, she still felt cold. It was dark. They must have turned off the lights, and then the voices must mean that they’d thrown other people in too, or she was hallucinating.
A voice spoke—clearly this time. “She’s awake. She hears us.” It was high pitched, but somehow sounded male to her.
“Another one, and sssoo soon. This doesss not bode well.” This voice sounded like the wind.
A third voice, this one deep, but definitely female said, “Her fate hangs in the balance. She should stay.”
Something growled, “Yes, she should stay.”
Nicole got the impression that that voice didn’t talk very often, and also that it was very big. She could feel the rumble of its growl in the air.
“Then let her stay,” the high pitched voice said. “Our question for tonight’s meeting lies more with him than her in any case. It is, put simply, what do we do with Dark Cloak? He’s nearly gone over to the Shade Circle. Do we bring him back, or let him go?”
The voice that sounded like the wind asked, “How would we bring him back?”
“A means has presented itself. This mortal girl. They’ve set a trap for him. If she dies, it will cause him to reflect, to rethink where he is going.”
She struggled to speak, but her mouth wouldn’t work. The sounds that came out weren’t speech.
Her tongue felt cold in her mouth.
The speakers didn’t seem to notice, talking over her as if she’d made no noise at all.
The voice that sounded like wind made a tuneless whistle that turned into speech. “And then if he were visited and reminded of his purposssse… Yesss. It might work.”
A growl. “I don’t like it. It’s too like what we fight. Didn’t we—”
The high pitched voice broke in before it finished. “Sacrifices are inevitable. We regret it, but we know it must happen. Our champion faces a long, lonely road. Even the shadows stand against him—“
“Especially the shadows,” the deep voice muttered.
“Yes, exactly,” the high pitched voice said. “It requires someone who can work without help, without family or friends, and without rewards. If it helps, consider that the girl would not be in danger were it not that she’d been told. The universe works to keep things as they should be— one man standing alone against the dark.”
“Hardly without rewards,” the deep voice said. “It sounds as though rewards are part of the problem, and I doubt it’s the universe working to keep things as they should be. It seems more like a bit of bad luck, or deliberate eavesdropping. You know they’ve done it before. You picked him. I think you need to admit your mistake and move on.”
The high pitched voice sputtered. “I—“
Nicole had stopped listening at the phrase, “keeps things as they should be.” Did that mean that she should be dying in a warehouse freezer? At that thought, she had to ask herself, was that what was going on here? Was this her last gasp of consciousness before it all went dark?
She couldn’t feel her limbs anymore. She couldn’t be sure, but wasn’t that one of the symptoms of hypothermia?
In the background, the voices kept on talking, and there were more of them. She could almost feel the bodies around her. She concentrated, trying to hear them better, trying to open her eyes so that she could see.
She felt something. In fact, she felt many things, but two of them were close. One of them held noise, laughter, and she thought she saw a firefly glowing. In the other she felt a quiet watchfulness, and she suspected, fear.
She aimed toward the firefly.
As she did it, she felt something inside her change, and somehow she knew that she had been about to die, but now she wasn’t.
She felt warm.
Their voices became clearer, and she felt their heat. As they spoke, she had visions—a flash of an enormous, black dog, a woman with tusks, a small man—less than two feet high, and a dim, smokey campfire. Eyes appeared in the smoke, and sometimes a mouth.
Eyes in the darkness reflected the fire’s red light. She couldn’t see any of the beings around it clearly—only shapes, and sometimes a glint of light when their fangs reflected the fire.
“The mortal,” a voice grunted. “She’s fully here.”
The short man wore clothes she would have expected to see at a Renaissance fair—a pointed hat, pointed shoes, and a coat held shut by buttons. He stared up at her, the tops of his ears sticking straight up.
“There’s something wrong. She shouldn’t be able to do that. This council gives its champions power. She can’t simply claim it. She—“
The dog sneezed, and lowered its head to the man, tilting it quizzically before snorting, and announcing, “The council is over. Our new champion is here.”
When she woke, the door was open, and she could hear sirens. The police, she thought.
Finally. Then she wondered who had opened the door. She suspected she knew.
She stepped into the warehouse, seeing it for the first time. It was nothing special—concrete floors with yellow lines, and steel beams holding up the roof.
One of the loading docks was open. She could leave. She walked over to it, and looked out.
The men who’d kidnapped her lay on the ground, both of them to the side of the stairs next to the dock. She couldn’t know for sure, but they looked dead.
She checked the news on an iPad that night after the ambulance ride, questions from the police, and riding home with her parents. They were less hysterical by then. It helped that somehow, miraculously, she wasn’t hurt.
The news reports didn’t mention her, but did mention “a downtown warehouse where the first two bodies were found.”
There were seventeen bodies in all, each with “reported mob connections,” and no reports on who had done it.
A part of her thought she should call Adam, telling him that she wasn’t dead, and he could stop killing people now.
“No.” She could hear the woman with the deep voice in her head.
Nicole dropped the family’s landline phone. The police still had hers.
It landed on her bed.
“Is this what’s its going to be like now? You’re going to drop in whenever you want?”
“We’ll drop in when it’s necessary. We’ve taken care of him. He’ll be taking a break from all this, and even seeing a healer. A therapist. You call them therapists.”
“Will I see him again?”
“Maybe, but not soon. He believes that you’re dead. Do you want to see him?”
“I…” She thought about it. He’d killed seventeen people. “No. I don’t want to become like him either. I’ve got his powers now. Wasn’t that what the council was about?”
“Yes, that’s true, and no, you don’t want to become like him. So, don’t make his mistakes. Find someone you can trust and tell them before you lose yourself. Then listen to them.”
She nodded, but then realized the woman might not see it. “I will.”
The voice didn’t reply.
Nicole picked up the phone. After a little while, she called Melissa.