That last question really stuck in my throat. What if the death trap WORKED. Would they celebrate the death of The Bat with the A-list villain, or be struck down by the horror of facilitating a slow, gruesome, and painful murder? Here’s my answer.
The Death of Joe Average
It wasn’t that Martha was dulled to the sound of a slamming door; it was more that she was accustomed to it. It was a common sound in her life, like the crying child somewhere behind a door down the dirty hallway of almost every building she had ever lived in. Angry voices was another. The ones through the ceiling and the floor were usually harder to understand then the ones from adjacent apartments. Sometimes she could hear the quick, low thud that cut short the fury of words and replaced with it with crying. Had she thought about it, she would have had to say she also heard laughing, children playing, and the noises young couples are prone to make. But those noises are not warnings. Slamming, crying, and yelling are the ones to pay attention to. Martha had learned, for example, there are several ways a door is opened. One is when a door knob seems to twitch or click, rather than twist through its full range of motion before exploding open. What is important here is what happens afterward. If the opener holds the door to keep it from hitting whatever is behind it and closes it just as fast and just as silently, then the goal is speed. The opener might be hiding or running from someone. If the door is left to its own momentum, they might be trying to catch you by surprise. Another way is when the sound of a knob wrenched is paired with the impact of a shoulder or hand sending the door crashing into whatever is behind it. There is no attempt to stop it or reclose it as the door was merely an obstacle, and it, along with anyone nearby better damn well not get in their way.
Martha was lying in bed next to her young daughter reading her Good Night Moon when her front door suddenly slammed open. She placed her hand over her daughter’s mouth holding a finger over her own to silence the girl. The door had been locked. She checked it twice before putting her daughter to bed. The door bounced off the wall before she heard a hand fumble off and then on the knob before catching it and closing it in failed silence.
The voice was her husband’s and it confirmed what she heard in the door: he was panicked.
“You stay here,” she whispered to her daughter.The girl nodded pulling a small plush panda to her chin.
Martha closed the door behind her as she walked into the short hallway to the living room. Her husband paced around a small glass-top table occupying the space between the couch and a dying flat screen television.
“Who is, Steve?” Martha spoke in a low, calm tone. She tried to guess from one of the number of people he used to work for and with. All dangerous people. All skilled, like her husband, in ways to hurt people.
He turned. He was crying. Or was. Thin shiny lines wandered down from his eyes to his chin. His eyes were blood shot. Martha noticed the right eye was puffy and darker than the left.
“YOU PROMISED US NEVER AGAIN!”
She lunged at him, fists flailing at his face. His hands never moved from his sides. His arms hung limp from his shoulders never moving to protect his already swelling face. Steve took every hit, every blow. He could stop her, and she knew it, but he deserved it. He went back on his word, lied to his wife and child. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
“Damn you! What did you do, Steve? Huh? Did you get punch happy on another wannabe cape? Someone hire you and a goon squad to break an arm? Or was a back? Or was this cape thrown off a building as a message like the last time? Huh, tough guy? WHO IS DEAD?!”
“Joe Average!” he yelled in her face.
She instantly stopped. Her chest continued heaving like a bellows but for the rest of her, time ceased. Her eyes captured movement again flicking back and forth across his face reading its lines and how the evaded hers.
“no..” Her voice was lower than the whisper she used for her daughter.
“Joe Average is dead.” Steve said it simply.
He slowly turned and sat on the couch. His hands fell into his lap as lifeless as before. He looked at them wishing they were gone.
Martha blinked rapidly with no regular pattern. A spastic, processing blink mirroring the twitch in mouth as if she meant to say something. It lasted only for a moment before she looked down at him.
“He can’t be dead. A thousand guys like you couldn’t hurt him.” She threw the words at him as if their truth could undue Steve’s words. He was wrong. He had to be.
“Joe Average is stronger and tougher than…anybody!” She blurted it out not really knowing what she was trying to say.
“He’s invulnerable. The real kind of invulnerable. Remember in the 80’s when, what’s his name, Professor Crisis teleported him to the center of the Earth during his UN speech? He crawled back to the surface of the Earth. Everybody knows that! He can’t be dead, you idiot!”
Steve listened to every word. The last part, he thought, was right. But, she knows I’m not lying. She knows I’m right. That’s what she’s trying to talk out of existence.
“He gave me this black eye,” he said pointing to the darkening patch around his swollen left eye.
“Who?” she asked.
“Joe did!” he answered. “The guy who freezes rivers with this breath. He hit me with everything he had trying to save his life and all I got was this black eye. I should be dead!”
“Oh god, Martha,” he added. “…it was terrible...”
His head dropped as if following the words falling from his mouth. He sobbed low, never wiping the tears from his eyes, never moving his hands.
Martha stared at him not knowing what to make of this. Steve wasn’t’ smart when it came to decisions, but he was always solid when the consequences fell back on top of him. He’s…broke. Steve has been on the receiving end of beatings before, some bad. It was a constant danger in his line of work: thug for hire. She remembered one night he came home with a smashed right hand, four cracked ribs, and a shattered sternum. A local crime boss put out the word for hired fists to take out a new cape. The cape, a woman, was making a name for herself as a skilled fighter. So, twenty men and women eager to score a bonus by landing her mask waited in ambush. Turns out she was a Super, only she kept it hidden. Real smart. Steve landed a clean jaw breaker and pulped his own hand in return. Rock-hard skin. She reversed punched him in chest and that was that. He woke up a short time later alone and injured behind a crate. Even this didn’t stop him. He just said next time someone else can take the first swing.
“What happened?” she demanded
“I got a text from this guy I know,” he replied taking deep breath. “He got a call from a guy we both worked for a while ago. Turns out this guy runs his own, uh, like temp agency or something. He hires bodies for other people now. You know what kind of people I mean. Anyway, it was big money paid in advance for a single night. I thought it was enough money that maybe you’d forgive me breaking my promise to give it up. Stupid, I know.”
Steve described the setting from earlier that night. He was in a warehouse near the industrial section of the city where business concerns too loud or noxious were tucked away. A dozen other hired hands wandered about stretching or talking to pass the time. No one knew who had arranged for them, which was common, but waiting around was not. Time was money. Idle chatter drifted past Steve distracting him from forgetting his promise to never again accept money to hurt someone.
“Damn right I got the money he owed me!”
“My wife never smiles at me the way this chick does.”
“ …just as long as I get paid.”
“Crap in a hat where is this guy?”
“Do we get costumes?”
“Settle down, kids.”
The group quieted instantly. This voice was new.
“Daddy’s home. Do any of you actually know who your father is? Never mind. Rhetorical and don’t care.”
The speaker looked plain to Steve. No fright wigs or bizarre togs. A cheap, dark charcoal suit. Scuffed shoes. White shirt. Nothing special except for his tie. That was expensive. You could tell by looking at it. A thick black line right down the center of him.
Steve and the rest of the crew were all veterans of the trade. Each had dozens of capers notched on his or her belt. Some specialized in military style operations while others were legitimate masters of unarmed combat. What thread they all seemed to share, from Steve’s quick review of the room, was the lack of enhancements. He had worked a few times with thugs hardwired for superhuman strength and speed. Bone Breakers who did not give a shit about cash and only cared about upgrades and maintenance agreements. Scary, dangerous people in a pool of workers filled with scary and dangerous. That lot was absent. That meant this truly was a cash-only crowd. Short-time work, in other words. Whatever this guy was paying them for, it wasn’t going to take very long.
The suit glided up to the group and continued.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” His tone was pleasant yet carried a deep vein of self-confidence. “I… am none of your damn business.”
“Nothing personal,” he continued. “Understand we are here to complete a transaction. That’s all.”
The suit’s eyes scanned the faces before him. They all looked calm with a couple on the verge of boredom. Steve wondered if the suit understood the group was watching him right back. Their calm exteriors would evaporate if threatened or they smelled a set-up. He figured the suit knew. The suit moved a bit at all times, but especially when he talked as if like a body caught in the tides of a racing mind. Steve thought the suit was nervous. He was wrong.
“To complete this transaction you need to do exactly as I say. Chisel that in stone.” The suit pointed to his head to demonstrate. “If I say sit on a duck, you ask which one and how long. If you have any other questions then I suggest you change lines of work.”
He turned from the group without another word. He didn’t have to worry about questions. No one arranges a gathering like this without having a target to throw it at. Besides, details and plans are important before the action starts and rarely after.
“We have a guest coming.” The suit was looking at one of three watches on his wrist now visible when he pulled up on his jacket sleeve.
Again, meaningless information, thought Steve, unless they were here to hit him. He had heard of that kind of thing happening before.
“I want everyone on their best behavior,” he added. “He should be here right…now.”
Suddenly, silently the room filled with brilliant white light.
Ah hell, thought Steve. His internal assessment was joined very externally by the woman to his left.
The other reason plans were often useless was some powers in the world were immune to them. Above them. Her single word encapsulated everything that brilliance meant for them. They all knew this signature, this particular shade of white that quickly condensed into a man floating six inches above the concrete floor between them and the suit.
Joe Average thought Steve in a whisper to himself fearing the owner of the name could hear even the words spoken in a man’s own head.
“Remain calm,” says Joe.
His voice fills the building, though it is not loud. To Steve and the others the voice comes into their ears from all angles. It’s a disquieting sensation that alludes to the power in the man before them who otherwise looks typical in every way. Average height. Average build. Average appearance. Even his clothes are normal. Store bought jeans topped with a white button shirt. Joe Average. But then you remember the voice. You remember the power. You remember pictures of a man kneeling unprotected in the vacuum of space on the wing of a damaged space shuttle. You remember footage of a man standing a between forty-foot tall tsunami and the island it never reached.
The thugs didn’t move. If the suit thought they were willing to even touch him for any price he was beyond mistaken. Steve once saw an enhanced villain try to hit Joe. Joe moved so fast he simply ceased being at one place and came into being a few inches away. The man punched air for what seemed like a several minutes without any signs of fatigue until Joe reappeared with a resigned look on his face saying If you insist. Joe didn’t move that time. The villain’s man’s fist folded like a car ramming a thick concrete wall. His knuckles caved so far into his palm his fingertips touched past his own wrist. The noise was like a muffled wet pop! It was the worst sound Steve ever heard until the man started screaming. Punching a block of diamond would feel softer than hitting Joe.
“Joe!” cried the suit happily.
Joe turned to the suit. The suit in turned rushed forward as if into the embrace of an old friend.
“THE Joe Average!” The suit slapped Joe on the shoulder, only to quickly pull it back with a shake.”
“Ouch! Ha! Lost my head there for a moment. Not every day I get to meet ‘The Everyman’s Hero’. ‘The Paladin’. This is a real pleasure,” said the suit.
Joe leaned a fraction closer to the suit then turned toward us. His eyes traveled the over the rest of the small warehouse before returning to the suit. He looked puzzled. Steve thought he saw a faint glow in those puzzled eyes. A short lived shuffle of shifting clothes and boots rose around him. Rapidly exchanged glances confirmed the others, like Steve, suddenly wanted very much to be somewhere else.
“Where is…” Joe started to ask.
“The Umbra King,” interrupted the suit. “Your nemesis. Yeah. Sorry about that. The rumors of him hatching a mass death scheme were a lie. I started those ants up and down the grapevine. Everyone knows lies don’t work on you, so I’ll be blunt; I wanted to meet you.”
“Sonofabitch!” Shot out a man in the back of the group. “He’s a damn fanboy!”
The thought spread instantly on low nervous chuckles greased by the hope this was the moment they all were waiting for. The group slowly backed away as if by one mind. The fanboy got his meet-n-greet. Time for the props to go.
“Stay where you are, please”, said Joe without looking at them and without loss on the effect of his voice. He was fixated on the suit. Not worried, but curious.
“Yes, stay put,” echoed the suit meeting Joe’s bemused look.
Steve didn’t like this. The suit was right. Joe always knew a lie when he heard one. Yet the suit never said yes or no to being a fan boy. Something was wrong. There was an invisible puzzle in front of him. He tried to piece together what was wrong, but all he kept going to was the promise he broke coming here. So he just stopped trying.
“We’re not trespassing, Joe. I rented the place. And none of the kids here have warrants. We’re sin free as far as you’re concerned.” The suit turned to Steve and the others. “It’s not every day you get to stand before God, in a manner of speaking, and look him in the eyes guilt free.” The suit paused to let the smile growing in the corners of his mouth reach full size. “In fact, you Joe, are the only person here who has broken the law tonight.”
Surprisingly, Joe laughed. He landed and walked to a discarded chair. He brushed off the split leather seat, placed it back on four legs, and sat down.
“You have three minutes then I have to go,” said Joe.
“Thank you, but I won’t take that long. I have another appointment tonight as well. Do you mind if I stand?” he asked politely.
“Please do”, answered Joe.
The suit’s smile rapidly fell away.
“Best estimates give you thirteen distinct senses. I’m willing to bet you used every one to poke around the building, any vehicles parked outside, and us. That’s a Federal level invasion of privacy even for you. But, given how many people have tried to kill you over the years, I understand your caution and forgive you. My car is the one leaking antifreeze, by the way. Got a little on my hands.”
“I know”, said Joe in so matter of fact a tone it struck Steve as creepy. Hearing the words from all directions at once did not help.
“I knew you did. Okay,” said the suit with a wave of dismal reserved for flies. “You have places to be. I have places to be. I arranged this with the hope of shaking your hand.”
The suit walked up to Joe and simply, confidently thrust out his right hand to Joe. Joe looked at the hand and the man bearing it. Again, surprisingly, he laughed. Joe leaned back in the chair.
“Then what happens?” asked Joe. “And what was your name?”
The suit’s arm didn’t move.
“What’s happens next is we’ll all probably just go home. Theirs to theirs. Me to mine. And you’ll probably be on the moon or some such place. I’d rather not give my name, if that is ok.”
“I’ve met a lot of people over the years. You’re an interesting nut. I could discover it in a few seconds if I wanted to. And if I ever see you again I will.”
Joe straightened himself to his full average height and shook the suit’s hand. It was a brief exchange that ended as silently as it started. Joe nodded to the suit and closed his eyes.
His eyes snapped open wide and alarmed. He closed his eyes again. His face strained for a brief instant. When he opened them again he stepped back staring in panic at the suit.
“Is something wrong?” asked the suit with a too stressed sincerity.
Joe looked at his hands. Then back at the suit. They were trembling.
“It’s been a long time since you felt fear, hasn’t it?” asked the suit. “Long enough to forget what it felt like. Your mind turns against itself. Your body rushes to run, fight, and piss itself at the same time.”
Joe stepped back from the suit and looked at the thugs.
“Yes,” answered the suit to Joe’s glance. “This is why they are here.”
The suit turned to the hired fists. “Kill him.”
“What?” asked a man in the back of the group.
“Kill him,” repeated the suit. ”Perhaps I should say kill this man because I just killed Joe Average.”
Steve looked at the still living, breathing Joe Average standing some twenty-feet away. Breathing? Joe’s chest pushed and pulled air in quick, shallow motions. Steve also noticed small damp patches soaking through Joe’s white shirt pinning it to his body at random spots. Just like his own clothes.
“Some of you are catching on,” said the suit. He sat down in the chair Joe used while checking his watches again. “I was serious about my appointment so someone bring the slow kids up to speed.”
“He took away my power,” said Joe calmly pronouncing his own death.
Steve relived Joe’s words from the sagging cushions of his own couch. Chaotic images of fists and boots hammering like pistons on bone and opened flesh flashed in his head.
“We were on him instantly. I’m not even sure why. I guess to see if it was true. Does that make sense? He fought back. Fought hard. Never tried to run. That scared me. What if he got his power back? We HAD to kill him then because every second was maybe the second…
“You went back to being to nothing,” said Martha.
“Ya, I guess so.”
“What about the man in the suit?” she asked.
Steve looked up at Martha. She back down at him. She hadn’t physically moved and her eyes gave no hint of movement behind them, either.
“He watched. Never said a word. He just watched. Typical guy hires goons, he never shuts up. Got to rub it in. Got to show off who is the smartest guy in the room. This guy watches every punch and kick like he had to,” said Steve.
“No plans? No next step?” she demanded.
“Not to us, but I heard him whisper to Joe. That’s when I knew how bad it all really was.” Steve’s lapse from despair fell into waste. Without warning he started sobbing again, but just as fast as the emotions showed up he bottle them back up. “He bent down over Joe at the end. I was closest to them. A group like us can kill a man in a few seconds. Joe lasted almost three minutes and he looked like it. His right eye was caved in and dead. I don’t know where his ear was.” Steve took a deep breath. The real bloody picture of Joe, the one Martha must never learn, refused to move from in front of him. “Maybe he had a piece of his power left. A little one that made him last so long. It was horrible.”
“What did he say?” she demanded more than asked.
“He said it wasn’t personal. He told Joe he died from a thousand cuts. Or something like that. That all the ways people tried to kill him over the years left traces, like scratches. He figured out how to add them up and push them over. The suit held up his right hand when he said it. I don’t know what that was supposed to mean”
“The handshake?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he answered. “I don’t know. Then he said he was meeting with The Umbra King next and he’d get the same but different.” Steve knew what those words meant. What they meant for everyone. He waited for Martha to show some sign she understood. She gave none.
“Damn it, Martha! He killed the most powerful person on the planet and was off to kill the second most powerful. Except, the other guy ain’t Joe! The other guy will pull you part first and never ask questions later. Joe kept the other guy in check. And now there’s no more Joe.”
“How do you know it was really Joe?” she asked.
“Stop it!” He yelled sending a spray of drying tears and spit onto the table between them.“Stop trying to convince yourself I’m wrong! I am not wrong!”
Before she saw him actually move he was on his feet and the table was crashing into the wall behind her. Its cheap frame crumbled at the joints on contact with a wooden thunkrish leaving deep gashes in the drywall. The glass top broke in several large shards that burst into dozens of smaller, sharper pieces when they hit the floor.
“We got to, got to get out of here!” Suddenly animated, Steve moved toward their bedroom.
His daughter, hugging the stuffed panda to her thin chest, stood in the doorway. Her small silhouette cast an even smaller shadow into the hall from the bedroom ceiling light.
“Sweetie, go back to bed,” Martha prompted. “Close the door and go back to bed. Mommy will be right in.”
The child froze staring at her father’s face.
Steve looked at her, and then at his bedroom beyond her. She was in his way. A small obstacle between him and everything he needed to run away. Everything they needed, he corrected himself. Hidden money, clothes, and cell numbers with owed favors tied to them. All the things he needed right now. Martha again directed their daughter back to bed. Her words were unrushed, disarming, and silky. It was the voice Martha reserved for comforting the child whenever he smashed a glass or installed a new hole in a nearby wall during an argument. His voice inside his head pushed with a strange, unfamiliar vigor. Get your stuff NOW! Don’t stop for her. Suddenly, he remembered another voice. This was the voice of a good man competing with his own. This other man his girl would run to when she heard the work of his own anger. This other man never asked for anything other than the opportunity to use his vast power to help others. That other voice was pleading to him in his memory under the clamoring of his own words. (Run idiot! Push her aside! HIT HER!) Past a shattered jaw and through bloody gaps in a irreparable mouth (DON’T STOP FOR HER!) that other man asked to live simply because:
“…therez …more to do…”
The building suddenly shook without warning. Martha ran to her daughter. She was surprised and oddly comforted to see Steve did the same just as the windows shattered. Glass tore through the air like tiny drunk daggers. Several slivers struck Steve in the head as he placed himself between his family and the flying debris.
“Was that an explosion?” yelled Martha over din of creaking walls and a rising wail of fearful children and adults from the other apartments.
Steve raised his head. Small, warm lines drew themselves down the back of his head and into his collar. He said nothing. He was thinking about a meeting between a man in a suit and a murderous demi-god. One of them wasn’t going to walk away and the world was going to be left on its own to deal with the other.
Martha read his face. It occurred to her the sound wasn’t so much an explosion after all, but more like a door slamming shut.