San Francisco. Three years ago.
The room was ablaze from the setting sun. Smoke clung to the ceiling from the cigarette between her fingers, grey ash devouring the white paper shaft. Her office was decorated in mahogany and brass. Leatherbound books on the shelf had titles such as Abnormal Psychology, Disrupted Development and Motives of the Criminal Mind, and the DSM-IV. A tape recorder rolled as she dictated in a cultured British accent.
"The need for an avenger is a cultural necessity that stems from our inability to act in the face of injustice. The verdicts of Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, the Mendevez brothers, rules of evidence and corruption that protect the criminals and the rich, all these travesties of law, they boil deep within us."
On the other side of town, where the sun had already set, inside the unwanted appendage of San Francisco known as the Mission district, number 778 squatted at the end of Taylor Street. All of the windows and doors were boarded up, and a horrible smell leaked out: whiskey and freebasing, sweat stench and sex.
The San Francisco PD Drug Enforcement Task Force had labeled the crackhouse at 778 Taylor Street a low priority. It was an election year, and resources were turned to higher profile, PR rich opportunities. Police dispatchers started to turn a deaf ear to regular complaints from that neighborhood, and officers stopped responding to 911 calls.
The mostly working-class, mostly African-American residents of Taylor Street warned their children not to play in the street, to wait for the bus on a different block. The air stank from crack smoke and fear. Pressure built to the breaking point.
"Injustice is psychic trauma upon the collective consciousness of society, an open sore festering within. It lives in our hearts and minds, and we are forced to relive it again and again, until a radical step is taken to break the chain of evil. One person ignites into action, doing what we all wish we could do."
In 778, they sprawled over couches and leaned against walls, the young warriors of a discarded urban generation. Bags of cocaine, piles of money and weapons were stacked in the corners. Two teenagers guarding the door with AK-47s watched their boss banging the fourteen-year-old from across the street.
"Man has always had it's gods and demons, personifications of the forces that move our world. If there are no gods, we will make them. Gods of wisdom, demons of greed, monsters of vengeance."
Shadows dripped down the walls and collected around them. The door burst open. It seemed that blackness bled out of the night and into the room. Bullets spat like dragon's fire out of the dark. Despite their weapons and numbers, they died and they died, unable to stop the night.
"He weeds out the spoiled, infected, gangrenous mire within us, and he excises it. Only the knife has the power to split right from wrong. The surgeon's scalpel must do violence to the tissue as it heals."
It was finished in minutes. Blood congealed into brown stains on the carpet. Spent shells laid next to torn bodies, glassy eyes protested to the ceiling. Mother night, lover night, womblike night, it opened itself for the avenger and swallowed him again.
"Our society has become a living entity. We are connected by fiberoptic nerves, moved by mechanical muscles, housed in bones of concrete and steel. Michael is no longer a man, he is a thing, a force, a reaction to our collective pain. Michael is our immune system. His psychology reflects our pathology, his need becomes our release. He seeks out our disease, and he heals by destruction."
Taylor Street's nightmares were interrupted by gunfire. The neighbors cracked open their blinds and saw 778 with its front door gaping open. Like an earthquake or a flood, only a force of nature could have done what needed to be done. The night had come and cured their pain.
Samantha stared out the window, watching the sun dying into the ocean. "In all my years of therapy, I have only tried to cure patients. I don't know how to cure Michael, because to cure him I must cure society itself. As much as we may hate him or fear him, we need him all the more. God help us."
Three days ago, Michael Jason Delaware stood in his studio, head bowed in front of his creation. Mahler played in the background, summoning ghosts trampling in the walls and spectral trains shooting across the roof.
Angry paint crusted on the canvas, still throbbing. It showed an ugly yellow light burning in a house at the edge of the woods. Ochres and violets thrashed in rage at the corners, as if collapsing the whole piece inward. The sky was ablaze with hellish orange light.
The phone rang twice. He picked up the receiver, still looking at his work on the canvas. He turned up Mahler to drown it out.
Michael stood up and wiped his hands on his pants. Michael was whipcord lean, like a steel pipe, with deathly pale skin. His black hair, greying with age, was cropped close to his head. He had shrewd gunmetal-blue eyes that rarely blinked, behind wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a paint-spattered sweater and tattered jeans. Short, thick fingers held the brush lightly, more like a sword then a brush. The eyes of a painter with the hands of a fighter.
A livid scar squatted on his left temple, about
the size of a quarter. The black and purple shape looked like a bird
or a twisted cross, with one straight line up and down, and two curved
lines originating from the center. It moved slightly as he worked
his jaw, as if the bird were beating
The phone kept ringing. The cares of the world had come to invade him again. He picked it up.
"Michael Delaware...," he said. His voice was dry and gruff. He didn't like the sound of it. There was a pause, and all that could be heard was soft breathing from the other end.
"Michael? Is it really you?" The woman on the other end had a soft, controlled British accent that Michael recognized immediately. His emotions rose to the surface, threatening to cloud his judgment. Breath stuck in his throat. He could hear his own heartbeat, fast and powerful, like an angry animal caged within his chest. Memories opened up like a cloudburst pouring rain.
Michael and Samantha met as recruits of the Nighthawks, the experiment of an ambitious politician, Dr. Andrea Van Helsing. The Nighthawks were drafted for the DEA under the auspices of Special Congressional Directive 341, before the Board was formed. Michael, Samantha, and four other Exotics lived and trained, fought and killed together for three years.
Samantha was the only person who didn't see him as just a weapon. She was the only one who understood him, understood his pain. She wanted to heal the rage within him. With love.
Michael remembered long walks along the coast at night, allowing the fog to embrace them in complete privacy. Picnics on bright blustery days on the grassy fields of the Presidio overlooking the Golden Gate bridge. When the demons that stalked his dreams would return, and he would become an animal that lusted for violence and thirsted for blood, she would send the nameless horrors away with soft words and understanding. Like many good things, it was too good to last. When the Nighthawk project collapsed, Michael ran. He ran away from his life, from her love, from everything.
He remembered only too well, but that was a lifetime ago.
"Michael, are you there?" Her voice carried perfectly through the telephone, but his emotion clouded his ears.
"Yes, I'm here, Sam."
"I'm sorry to bother you, Michael, but this is business. Serious business." She breathed a sigh. "I'm in Bogeta. I've been investigating a man named Generalissimo Juan Hernandez, and now I think he's onto me. If he captures me... I don't even want to think about what will happen."
"I need your help."
Michael jogged through the underground tunnel that connected the Tendaiko building to the parking structure. Sterile lights reflected off the walls, but were absorbed by the flat contours of his stealth armor. He approached a security elevator, with thick steel doors nestled deep into reinforced concrete.
"Valerie. Elevator," he whispered into his helmet mike. His voice activated an encrypted microwave signal that went out of his mike and into a local cellphone repeater. On recognizing and verifying the code, all in the space of microseconds, the program sent out a more powerful signal, which was relayed to a satellite broadcasting dish a few miles away.
Five hundred miles in the sky, like a winking
star in the night, Valerie orbited the earth. Valerie was the nickname
for Valkyrie I, an artificial intelligence aboard a spy satellite, skimming
across the outer atmosphere at three thousand miles an hour. Her
consciousness was contained in a
titanium cylinder, with four delicate solar wings that stretched from her body. Antennae and collecting dishes absorbed and projected signals from millions of different sources. She looked down on the planet below, watching, vigilant. Her spy cameras could read a newspaper lying on the street, and her sophisticated electronic intrusion programs could crack any computer system in the world.
She had already seized control of the building's security network with her ethereal cybernetic fingers. Only seven-tenths of a second after his request, the elevator doors opened. He stepped in, and the elevator shot upward.
The worry he felt for Samantha bubbled in his stomach restlessly. The gut reaction that he felt surprised him in its intensity. He probably still loved her. Maybe he always would.
Samantha's face came back to him across the flow of time. Her delicate, elfin features were supported by a strong smile and piercing green eyes. Her face was never symmetrical: one eye was higher then the other, the cheekbones at different altitudes; it gave her an air of mystery. She was his therapist, and his friend, and then his lover. She had given him his life and sanity after Vietnam had taken it away from him.
The Generalissimo would pay. Soon.
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