Zen Jackson found himself surrounded. The Black Hole had finally cornered him. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
If this were a bad action movie, the masked henchmen would rush him one at a time, making it easy for him to dispatch them in increasingly creative ways.
But this was no bad action movie. Zen stood cautiously at the center of the circle, the ninjas’ tall shadows clouding his face. He waited, and waited, for one of them, any of them, to make a move.
A cloud rolled across the sun, and the circle parted. Nebula stepped through his henchmen, and stood face to face with Zen, holding him steady with a 9mm.
"I shoulda done this the last time I had the chance, Jackson," Nebula said, and calmly pulled the trigger.
Zen’s eyes widened in recognition – something wasn’t right here. The pfft of the silencer was too loud, the gunpowder too pungent, the bullet too heavy.
The bullet was live.
"Cut, goddammit, cut!"
"We need a doctor now!"
Adonis sat up slowly, clearing his head. He had blacked out briefly as he hit the ground, and a small knot was starting to rise on his head. He gingerly reached over and lifted the collar of his black t-shirt, taking a peek at the already purplish bruise rising on his
Smoke drifted from the ragged hole in his shirt, swirling for a moment in his face before dissipating into the beyond.
"Goddammit! Adonis! Are you all right?"
Adonis nodded slowly at his director’s behest, all the while never taking his eyes off the crumpled bullet on the ground beside him.
The director was wailing now, for anyone who would listen. "This is supposed to be an intelligent action thriller – not a goddamn snuff film!"
Adonis looked over at Nebula, his mask now off, sitting on the ground, sobbing like a baby.
"Propmaster! Where is that asshole? I’ll have his union card for this!"
People began to mill about the set again, a slight buzz in the air. But there wasn’t much concern for Adonis’ bullet wound.
"Hey, boss," he said as he got to his feet, brushing the dust from his jeans. "You don’t mind, I’m gonna take the rest of the day off."
Taking off early had Adonis driving home in the dead center of rush hour, and it took him nearly two hours to get from the set to Venice, where he rented a modest bungalow a few blocks from the beach. It wasn’t much to look at, but Adonis didn’t mind. His career as a stuntman had not been at all lucrative, and his first starring role, in the decidedly low budget Zen Jackson: Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide, wasn’t paying much better. But it gave him hope for bigger, more financially solvent parts. And hope had a way of making a four room rental look like a whole lot more.
He had tried the hero thing, once, years before. It’s what you were supposed to do, right? You wake up the morning of your fourteenth birthday and find out you’ve suddenly got two more options for that school bus in front of you: You can stand flat-footed and vault over it, or you can simply pick it up and move it – what else are you going to do?
So he had tried it, once, years before, when he was young and foolish. But it didn’t take.
Adonis parked his car as always in the alley behind his house. He cut the engine and closed his eyes, exhausted after his two hour brawl with traffic. He opened them to take another look at his chest, the bruise already fading from purple to a sickly yellow-green. As he got out of the car, he lifted his arm in an effort to stretch out the tightness that had already spread to his shoulder.
He grimaced in pain as he turned the corner out of the alley, and tripped right over a squatting Lady Z, spilling the two of them – and all of her inventory – all over the sidewalk.
Adonis didn’t know the woman’s name; he had never asked. To him, though, she looked like someone who should be named Zelda or Zinash or some such; a regular gypsy. So he called her Lady Z. She hung out on his corner with a shopping cart full of "potions" that she sold for five bucks each.
She often told Adonis that she could tell he was in the pictures – that’s what she called them, the pictures – and that he was going to be a big star. She was an actress, too, she said, although she
hadn’t worked in a while. He felt sorry for Lady Z, mostly, but he also enjoyed her brief company each day, and tried to buy a potion from her whenever he had a little to spare.
"Sorry, Z," he said, helping her to her feet. "Let me get that for you." Adonis’ mother had raised nothing if not a gentleman, and he helped Lady Z gather her potions back into the cart. Two of the bottles had broken, so he gave her a twenty, buying a full one to keep and leaving a five dollar tip for the trouble.
Lady Z smiled at his generosity. Adonis told her good night and went inside to melt another Hungry Man Dinner before bed.
A fierce pounding at the door woke Adonis at a little after three. He thought it was a dream at first, or maybe that he had left a pair of heavy work boots tumbling in the dryer. The pain in his chest jolted him awake, and a glance at the already-diminishing bruise confirmed it. Grumbling incoherently, he pulled on some gym shorts and headed towards the door.
An LAPD detective’s shield was all he could see through the peephole.
"Sherman Morgan." A smoker’s voice, sandpaper smooth, using his Christian name, never a good sign.
Adonis paused. He had mailed in the check for that speeding ticket – had it gotten lost? "I can see your shadow under the door. Go ahead and open up."
Adonis opened the door, and the detective stepped into the house. He noticed the bruise on Adonis’ chest, then quickly cut his eyes, trying not to let on that he saw. He flashed his badge again before pocketing it.
"Detective Thorne, Robbery-Homicide."
A bowling ball landed in the deepest pit of Adonis’ stomach. This was definitely not a speeding ticket.
He said nothing.
"Look, Sherman," Thorne said, emphasizing the name to the point that Adonis knew he was doing it on purpose, which meant he had already determined who Adonis was. "We’ve got a bit of a problem outside."
"Yeah, a dead body in the alley, right in front of your car."
The bowling ball sank a little further.
"Sorry to hear about that," Adonis said finally.
"So was I," Thorne said quickly. "My kid’s got hockey practice in, what, three hours or so. Ice time’s so hard to come by, you know? Now I got a dead woman – don’t think I’m going to make it."
Adonis’ thoughts came together like a six car pileup on the 405. Dead woman. The alley. Lady Z.
"Sorry I can’t help you," Adonis said, probably too quickly. "I wish I had seen something, or even heard something, but I sleep like a boulder. Ms. Evereth on the corner is a night owl – you should try her next."
"Thanks for the tip, Sherman," Thorne said. "We just might do that. Here’s the thing, though. Our Jane Doe in the alley. The injuries that caused her death – crushed skull, massive and rapid blood
loss – happen to be extremely consistent with other injuries the M.E. has seen inflicted at the hands of metahumans."
The bowling ball in Adonis’ stomach sank all the way through the floor as the other shoe dropped.
"Is that so?"
Thorne wore the smile of a man who knew he had won round one. "Now, correct me if I’m wrong," he said. "But Sherman Morgan is the only registered Meta living within two miles of the dead body."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah, it is so. Now, I’m not saying you’re stupid enough to kill a woman and then leave her body right there in front of your car. Least, I don’t think you’re that stupid. But I do know that your kind tends to run in packs. Maybe one of your buddies sending you a message – hell, I don’t know how you people think. I ain’t saying you did it – but I’d bet next month’s rent you know something about it."
Thorne gave the house a quick once over. "Not that that’d be much."
Adonis searched for what to say. He found nothing.
"We’ll be in touch, Sherman."
At that point, there was no way Adonis was going back to sleep, so he fried up a pack of bacon for breakfast, then headed in to the set early.
It wasn’t one of his better days – He couldn’t stop thinking about Lady Z. Granted, he didn’t know it was her body there in front of his car, but he knew. He couldn’t shake the image of her body lying in the alley, her skull crushed, bleeding.
The body had been moved by the time he left for work, but he could still see her. And the niggling question in the back of his mind – could he have done anything to stop it?
The new propmaster checked in with Adonis during a set change. He introduced himself, and assured Adonis that nothing of that sort would ever happen on one of his pictures. Adonis listened distractedly,
but politely, and sent the eager youngster on his way with a half-hearted "Nice to be working with ya."
After lunch, Adonis had another visitor. "Zen Jackson," he said, a smoker’s voice. "Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Damned if that don’t sound like the worst movie I’ll never pay ten bucks to see."
Adonis looked up from his craft service chicken breast over angel hair in time to see Detective Thorne straddle the opposite plank of the picnic table where he sat eating. Thorne was accompanied by a petite
brunette, all business in a black skirt suit, her badge on a chain around her neck.
"Sherman, this is Roxanne Rosewood, with our Meta Affairs Division."
"My friends call me Rock," she smiled, extending a hand.
"Detective," Adonis said, not taking it.
"So, Sherman," Thorne said, breaking the stiff silence. "Took your advice, spoke with the neighbor lady this morning. And according
to. . ." Thorne’s voice trailed off as he rifled through his notepad for the name. ". . .Ms. Evereth, you weren’t exactly forthcoming last night."
"How was hockey practice?" Adonis asked, probably not the smartest play.
Rock took over while Thorne fumed. "Turns out our dead transient was doing a brisk business on the corner there, selling. . ." Rock flipped through her notebook. Did they teach this at the academy?
". . .potions?"
"Hunh. I wouldn’t know anything about that."
"Is that so. Well, according to Ms. Evereth, you were a regular customer."
Adonis smiled. "That woman’s a strange old bird. Half of what she says she sees – "
Thorne jumped back in, cutting Adonis off. "And the lab says that they see your prints all over the dead woman’s shopping cart." Beat. "Anything you want to share now?"
Adonis shook his head, nonchalantly.
Rock shrugged her shoulders, nonplussed. "Figures. Well, we’ll probably have you come down to Parker Center in the next couple of days, for a few more questions."
"Don’t leave town," Thorne added. "See ya ‘round, Shermie."
Adonis wasn’t sure why he hadn’t been honest with the police. He really didn’t know what had happened to Lady Z, that much was true; but he did know her, more or less, and could have said so. On the other hand, Thorne never came right out and ID’d the victim for him, either, so he didn’t know they were talking about Lady Z. But the shopping cart and potions confirmed it.
Even when he had tried the hero thing, he never felt comfortable with the police. Probably something to do with the way he was raised, the general air of distrust for authority in his house. That attitude certainly didn’t help in his brief career as a hero, as he constantly ran afoul of the Tucson police, one misunderstanding after another.
Would being straight with Thorne have brought Lady Z back? Certainly not, but it sure would have made Adonis’ life a lot less complicated. But as much as Thorne seemed to think he knew, he didn’t have the first clue as to why anyone, much less one of his fellow Metas, would want her dead.
Robbery seemed plausible, but how much money could she have possibly had? If not money, then maybe the killer was after the potions, which made even less sense. Adonis had tried one or two of the ones he had bought, and they’d done nothing but taste bad. The bottle he had bought the night of the murder promised the drinker ESP, and he never saw this hellstorm coming. Maybe he got a bad batch, but he doubted it. The potion tasted like a watered down Sprite, and probably was.
The questions remained. Who killed Lady Z? Why? And how the hell had he ended up in the middle of all this?
Feeling sorry for himself, Adonis blew the week’s budget by stopping off for fish tacos on the way home. He missed Tucson sometimes, and the little bit of family still there. But LA was were the movies were made, the only legal business he could think of where you could get paid for being virtually indestructible. He didn’t regret the move, but sometimes he missed Sonoran seafood.
He stopped off again, this time to rent a movie, and wandered the action aisles for an hour before finally settling on Bullit, to study McQueen’s style again.
It was after nine before he got home. Two men smoking in a parked car up the block gave him the eyeball as he unlocked the front door. He figured they would sit there all night, waiting for him to dump his bloody clothes in the incinerator out back. Maybe they’d get lucky, and he’d kill another woman twenty feet from his front door, and wrap up their case in shiny gold lamé.
Adonis gave the officers a friendly wave before heading inside.
The phone woke Adonis a little after five. After the events of the last few days, there was no chance this was a dream.
"You alone?" A female voice.
"Detective Rock," Adonis said, fully expecting Thorne.
"Are – you – alone?"
"Are – you – interested?"
"Hungry?" Rock asked, apparently unflappable.
"I could eat."
Rock was waiting in the corner booth of a chicken and waffle joint a few blocks away, a manila folder on the table in front of her. She ordered coffee. Adonis ordered chicken and waffles.
"Do you know this man?" She asked after a while, sliding a black and white mug shot out of the folder and across the sticky table.
"No," Adonis lied.
Rock rolled with it, and slid another photo across. "How about this one?"
Adonis stared at the second photo a long time before answering. It was the same man, only this time his face was covered by a bright orange and black mask, two holes cut out for the eyes. Adonis knew those eyes very well.
If Rock was showing him these two pictures together, then she already knew the answer.
"What about him?" he asked.
Adonis was beginning to think he had wasted his time. Up on the hill, overlooking the city, alone, he found himself craving a cigarette, a nasty habit he’d given up at seventeen. He pushed the idea out of his mind, thinking instead once more of his invited guest. He had left a note pinned to the back door of his house, where he was confident it was away from the eyes of the cops out front, visible only to the man it was intended for.
The note had specified Thursday, one AM, and it was now pushing three. Adonis was certain the note would be found, but he was beginning to doubt the meeting would happen.
Faced with the prospect of a twelve hour shooting day that started in five hours, Adonis weighed his options. He could go home and get at least a couple hours sleep, or he could keep waiting for an uncertain RSVP. He decided he’d give it another hour, then head home.
Adonis didn’t need the hour. Ten minutes later, his guest arrived.
"Clever little note," he said, announcing his presence before Adonis ever saw him. "You seemed pretty confident I’d show."
"The cops told me you’ve been skulking around my backyard the last couple nights, Bobby," Adonis said, asking questions to keep him talking long enough to be located by the sound of his voice in the darkness.
"Those two? Please. I’ve been around for a week." Bobby’s voice seemed to be coming from somewhere above. Adonis looked up the hill, towards the tree line. "I only let them spot me last night. I figured that chick detective would tip you off."
Chick detective? Adonis’ mind raced. Rock hadn’t been to his house – had Bobby watched them at the diner? Had he been on the set?
"When did you get so sneaky, Bobby? You never were in Tucson – pretty easy to catch, if I recall."
"Maybe I picked up a few things since you saw me last," Bobby said, his voice rising. "I’ve been up here watching you since midnight." Adonis spun, looking around, backing up. Bobby was close. "And stop calling
me that. Bobby Llamas is no more. I am simply. . .El Rudo."
Adonis saw him then, perched on the crossbar of the H, legs dangling, swinging like a third grader on a jungle gym. He was in full regalia, an obvious violation of his parole. The sleek black jumpsuit, the overcoat, the burnt orange mask with the black tiger stripes, covering the countenance of a cold killer. . .El Rudo.
Adonis moved closer to the base of the H, keeping his eyes on El Rudo the whole time. He had chosen the Hollywood sign deliberately. El Rudo had always harbored a flair for cheap theatrics; in fact, it had been his downfall on more than one occasion. Such a locale all but guaranteed his attendance.
"What are you doing in LA, Bobby?"
El Rudo laughed. "I’m here to visit you, Big Guy! I missed you while I was away."
Adonis spread his arms wide. "You miss me so much, c’mon down here and give me a hug."
Rudo laughed again. "Not a chance – not with your arms." Another giggle. "Your bag lady friend – her arms, maybe, but not yours."
Lady Z. Adonis turned the collar of his jacket up, guarding against the chill that tapped his spine.
He said nothing.
Rudo shifted his weight, getting comfortable. "Funny story. When I was up there on The Farm all those years." He looked down, making sure he had Adonis’ attention. He did.
"Thursday night was movie night for the boys. Well, most of us, anyway, the ones who had minded their P’s and Q’s all week – I probably caught one flick a month, but anyway, this story isn’t about me.
"So, one Thursday last year, we’re watching something – Freedom’s Prisoners, maybe?"
"Chains of Freedom."
"Riiiight – the Bosnian thing. Totally incomprehensible. Anyhow. It seemed to me that one of the stuntmen – who didn’t look anything like Bruce Willis, that’s how I knew he was a stuntman – one of the stuntmen moved kinda familiar. His. . .carriage. His. . .gait.
"So I sat there for the credits – I’m talking all the credits, caterers and pet wranglers and all, looking for a name. I didn’t see the name I was waiting for, but I saw something even better. A stuntman named
Adonis Strong. And I thought to myself – now that’s a subpar alias if I’ve ever seen one. Straight out of a Stan Lee comic.
"A few months later, another flick, there he is again. And then again. And again, and now I’m thinking to myself, Big Boy’s done all right for himself. So after my parole hearing – a good lawyer’s a beautiful
thing, Big Boy, and don’t let anyone tell you different, and this from a man who tosses around nickels like manhole covers – and here I am talking to a man who tosses around manhole covers like nickels – HA! –
So I packed a bag for sunny LA, and came out to visit my old pal."
El Rudo pointed at Adonis with both arms. "That’d be you."
Adonis just stared.
"Well, once I made sure you were you."
Adonis’ eyes narrowed.
"You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to switch those guns."
Adonis’ chest spasmed in recognition.
"Studio security is so lax – hey, just like the airport. L.A.X. Lax – helluva word."
"Why’d you kill Lady Z, Bobby?" Adonis’ voice was calm, belying the tsunami rising inside.
"Aristocratic bag ladies!" El Rudo clapped twice, tossing his head back in laughter. "Jesus, I love this city!"
"Why." A command, not a question.
Rudo stopped laughing. "You don’t get it? What have I been saying to you?"
"I need you, big guy. I’ve been out for so long. Now look at me – I’m back in the game. And I need you back in the game. Not making movies – in the game. If I’m going to be a star, I need you right there with me.
"You’re my archnemesis."
Adonis shook his head slowly, in disbelief. "I’m what?"
Rudo shrugged his shoulders apologetically. "Look. I’ve been here a little over a week, she’s the only one you’ve talked to, other than the cops. I know you two weren’t exactly close, but I got to work with what I got, you know?"
He shrugged again, and Adonis made his move. He leapt flat-footed from the ground, landing beside Rudo on the H. But Rudo was just as quick, and turned an easy backflip off the crossbar down to the ground, essentially reversing their positions.
"That was kind of fun, Big Guy. I could play that game all night."
Adonis’ torso trembled with controlled rage. "You killed her because you thought she was close to me?"
Rudo nodded easily. "Christ, you’re thick. Yes. That’s how it works. Just like your sister."
Adonis’ heart and mind stopped in their tracks. When they restarted, he spoke quietly, evenly. "What."
El Rudo’s face scrunched in disbelief. "Wait – you think that was all about the Gem Show? I could care less about those diamonds – there’s always more where those came from. Don’t you know how this works? I hurt someone close to you, you hate me forever – Magic! Archnemesis! Without me, you’re just another Boy Scout in a mask. Without you, I’m just another jewel thief. But together – oh, together, that’s where the magic happens."
Rudo’s voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. "We’ll make history."
Adonis’ shoulders slumped. "You’re insane."
"Oh, pooh. That’s such a clinical term. I know I need you – but I need you to know that you need me, too. Vanessa wasn’t personal – that’s so cliché. She was a very prudent cost of doing business."
Adonis looked down at El Rudo, consumed with hate. In the courtroom, years before, El Rudo had confessed that he had murdered twelve year old Vanessa Morgan in retaliation after his diamond heist was thwarted by The Phenom. That was sick enough; this was depraved.
"I had you pegged from the beginning, Big Guy. Young up and comer, super strong, super fast, super temper. Overprotective of your baby sister? Perfect. Magic.
"I knew you’d get me again, send me to prison again. But that’s part of the game. Every time I get out, I’ll find you again. I didn’t think you’d quit, though – made it harder this time.
"But here I am." Rudo winked at Adonis. "Make me famous."
Adonis leapt from the H, pushing with his feet, away from El Rudo. He gave a little extra kick as he did so, and the force caused the cross-section to give way, sending a big chunk of the sign crashing towards Rudo. The masked man quickly rolled forward to avoid being crushed by the debris. He stumbled to his feet, grinning to be in one piece – and found himself standing chest to chest with Adonis.
"You sick fuck."
"C’mon back to the game, Phenom," El Rudo whispered. "The water’s fine."
Adonis wrapped the smaller man in a bearhug and squeezed, snapping his spine like a dry twig. "You need me, too," Rudo murmured, as he slumped to the ground. Adonis straddled his broken torso, and began pounding away with heavy right hands to the face. He watched as a thin, delirious smile took form beneath the tiger mask. "You do hate me. . ."
Adonis sat that way for a long time, until the wet thump of his fists was replaced by the heavy thump of helicopter blades, as Detective Rock led her squad in to clean up the awful mess. . .
Adonis was quietly fired from Zen Jackson: Nowere to Run, Nowhere to Hide the next day. The studio had taken a chance on hiring a Meta in the first place, but nobody wanted to deal with a star with a string of dead bodies following him wherever he went. Their severance package was less than generous, and after paying for Lady Z’s headstone, Adonis wasn’t sure how long it would hold up.
Drugs, hookers, shoplifters – all temporary setbacks in Hollywood. But the stench of murder never washes away, even if you’re innocent – maybe even especially then.
He found himself sitting on the bed in his little four room bungalow, despair making it seem a lot less house than it actually was. The silver cape and mask peeked out at him from the back of the closet, relics of another man’s life.
He grinned in a cheap frame on the wall, standing with an arm around Bruce Willis on the set of Chains of Freedom. Another relic, another man’s life.
He stood up, took the two steps and closed the closet door, leaving the cape in darkness.
The game was over.
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