Authors: Jennifer Harlow
Off comes my Prada suit and on slip my old sweats from the Academy. I pull my long, curly black hair into a ponytail, wash off a hundred dollars worth of make-up, and stroll out of my bedroom the size of my old apartment into the equally gigantic, dark hallway with oil paintings and ancient tapestries hanging between the six doors. Unlike the rest, the master bedroom is modern and light with white walls, comfortable furniture, and electronic gadgets galore. Justin didn't see the point of messing with the rest of the hundred-year-old mansion when he inherited it, and I didn't either. Everything is exactly how he left it. My cousin Veronica says it's unhealthy. The few times she's come over, she comments it's like walking into a mausoleum with shrines to my dead friend in every room. She actually gave me the name of a therapist when she found out I refused to throw out his clothes and I was sleeping in his old bed. I changed the sheets!
As I descend the grand marble staircase, my butler Dobbs strolls out from the kitchen carrying a tray of food. I inherited him as well. Justin left him seven million dollars and the Rolls Royce, but he insisted on sticking around to serve the house's owner as he had for over forty years. His wife died before I met him twenty years ago, and like me the Pendergasts were all he really had. I thank God everyday he decided to stay. He's family. "Miss Joanna, cook made you chicken breast, steamed cauliflower, and an apple for desert. I hope this is satisfactory."
I grimace. "I hate diets."
"If I may be so forward, I will say it appears to be working."
I take the tray. "Thanks. I still have fifteen pounds to go." I gained twenty-five this year and have been in a dozen gossip rags, none flattering. My favorite was that I was pregnant with Justin's love child. He would have gotten a kick out of that. "I'll eat this then go for a run. Have you had dinner?"
"I was about to," Dobbs says.
"Then you can keep me company. Let's eat outside. Take advantage of the weather."
"Yes, miss," he says before disappearing back into the kitchen. I really don't feel like having dinner with anyone but the few nights I'm home at a reasonable time I try to dine with him. He's stuck in this monstrosity all day with no one but the servants under him to talk to, who he just orders around. The man's probably lonelier than even I. If that's possible.
I turn on the TV in the living room and up the volume before opening the sliding glass door and stepping onto the patio. Even with the TV I can hear the lapping of waves of the ocean below. I don't know how many nights Justin and I spent out here just talking, drinking--that last one was me--and laughing our asses off. A wave of sadness washes over me like a tsunami as I remember his smiling face sitting across from me. I get at least five of those a day. A smell, a pair of Caribbean blue eyes, hell even just an Armani suit triggers the emotional natural disaster. I have gotten better at hiding when it happens. No more near panic attacks, sharp intakes of breath, and the desire to double over as if punched in the stomach for me. I've found that not having investors believing the head of the company needs a straightjacket is a great motivator to develop a poker face. Only took half a year. I'm a slow learner.
I start on my flavorless chicken--diets
suck--as a CBN correspondent reports today's attack. We've made national news. Again. Dobbs comes out with his tray of French onion soup and veal parmesan. My mouth almost waters. I hate being a girl. "Another attack today," he says as he sits. "No casualties this time, thank God."
"I know. Mayor Miracle must be shitting himself. I heard tourism is down fifteen percent this summer. They just got the numbers."
"Not surprising," Dobbs says. "I've lived in this city all my life and things have never been this bad. The newspaper said we were averaging an attack a week."
I chuckle. "And two billion in property damage a month. Everyone was having shit fits at the zoo fundraiser last week about the state upping taxes to pay for it. There goes that jewel encrusted jet Bitsy had her eye on."
Justin would smile but Dobbs just spoons soup into his mouth. "I don't like what's happening to this city. Mr. J.T. must be turning over in his grave. Master Justin too."
If he had a grave. "Things will level out." Or there'll be nothing left of this city to pick at like these vultures have been doing. I swear some villain must have put out an ad in Psychopath Weekly. "Come to Galilee Falls. Dad's gone, time to party." Reaper from Darlington and Boneshaker from fucking England now permanently call Galilee home, and those are two we know of for a fact. Ache, Brujah, Boil have all put in appearances this year. And it's not just supers. Bank robberies, rapes, even murders have shot up. Superheroes like Geronimo and Olympia are doing their best, but they're no Justice. He was a symbol. Hell, some even thought he was a literal God. God's don't plummet to their death from a hospital rooftop.
"Perhaps the Royal Triumvirate will help," Dobbs says.
"They were probably just passing through," I say, stabbing my cauliflower. "You know how territorial superheroes are. Justice only left the city twice to help in others. The Royal's were probably popping back to repay the favor."
About two and a half years ago, Justice went to Independence to help banish Emperor Cain after he destroyed the President's mansion, placed bombs at every national monument, and kidnapped the First Lady. They got her back, only a museum was obliterated, and the Emperor is presumed dead. I thought Justin was in Hawaii with his latest bimbo.
"I hope not," Dobbs says. We eat in silence for a few seconds before he says, "If only Master Justin were here. He--"
"Well, he's not," I cut in, voice hard. "He's dead." And I've completely lost my appetite. I set down my fork and stand. "I'm going for my run."
"Miss Joanna, I'm sorry. I--"
"It's okay," I say, meaning it.
I squeeze his bony shoulder before rushing to the stairs. The mansion rests on a cliff overlooking the ocean about seventy-five feet up. Just walking up and down the steps is a work-out. When I reach the sand, I perform quick stretches before taking off in a trot to the left. The sun has already set so only a little orange shades the dark blue and stars twinkling over the sea. The only way I can stand running is if I have something pretty to look at. The sand adds extra resistance, so I get more bang for my buck than the treadmill at work. I used to be able to do a mile and a half before stopping, but I'm out of practice. Didn't see much point after I left the force. The only times I need to run now are from the limo to the venue when the paparazzi go nuts. Even though it's been a long-ass day, when I pass the house next door I hit my stride. My maudlin thoughts always spur me on, and tonight is no different. Misery has always driven me.
I didn't mean to snap at Dobbs, but he keeps doing that. At least once a week it's, "If only Master Justin was here" or "Master Justin would know what to say or who to call" as if he's gone on vacation and forgot his cell. It'll be a year next month, way too long to be in denial. I lasted a month and a half. I was even convinced I saw him in the park smiling proudly at me once. So I waited for his call. And waited. Waited some more for a sign. A letter. A phone call explaining the whole thing. Never came. I grew angrier and angrier as the days of waiting began to hammer cracks into my wall of denial. Then one day, I lost it. Put a child pornographer in the hospital after pistol-whipping him repeatedly. Broke his jaw in three places, his nose, even his ocular bone. I turned in my badge that day. Justin still didn't come. That's when I finally lost hope. And my mind went tumbling after.
Anger became depression. I couldn't get out of bed, couldn't even sleep without having horrific nightmares, hell even when I was awake. The booze helped a little and a lot of booze helped even more. My boyfriend at the time, Harry, begged me to get help. I refused, he gave me an ultimatum: get help or we were through. I proceeded to go bar hopping for two days then ended up in a hotel with another man. Not my finest hour. Thus ended the close to love story of Harry O'Hara and Joanna Fallon.
Yet even though I embarrassed and cheated on him, my ex is first and foremost a good man. Too damn good. He was going to save me whether I liked it or not. He called the exact right person to come and kick my pathetic ass. Justin's Aunt Lucy flew in from Independence, took one look at me, and said the magic words: "Jesus. Looks like your mother's risen from the grave." One glance in the mirror and I had to agree. I spent thirty days on "vacation" at a private rehab center, slept for three days straight, and came out the other end broken but taped together enough to function. So yes, my name is Joanna and I'm an alcoholic. Almost nine months without a drink and on Step Ten: admit when I'm wrong. Kind of stuck on that one as from birth it has not been my strong suit.
I stop to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my face. My trip down memory lane has distracted me so I have no idea how far I've gone. Judging from the house above I've done a mile. Yep, there are the lovebirds. A man and woman stand on their balcony holding champagne glasses wrapped around each other. The woman throws her head back and laughs before the man kisses her neck. Their house is more modern than mine, all glass and sharp angles. With the house lit up I can actually make out their features tonight as I pant like a dog. They're both tall, her an inch shorter than him, though he's much bigger width-wise. His hair glows orange against the light, and if I had to guess her short hair is dark brown. I'd also guess they're newlyweds judging from the fact I've seen them making out on that balcony three times this month. They must feel me staring because the man turns my way, says something to the woman, and they both wave. I'm so mortified by my lack of stealth skills, I sprint back the way I came. Maybe I'll start jogging right next time.
Dobbs has cleaned up our aborted dinner and retreated to his domain when I return. I take a quick shower, throw on my pajamas, and debate climbing into bed and watching crap TV all night. The glamorous life of an heiress, right? But there's work to be done. Since I have become an expert multi-tasker, I answer the trillion e-mails on my BlackBerry as I go back downstairs, through the Hall of Pendergasts with all their portraits hanging on the wall, and into the living room again. I press the button under the stone fireplace. It slides to the side.
Justin Pendergast IV wasn't the only one to leave me his legacy. His alter-ego Justice did as well. Uniforms, equipment, weapons, and super-computer hooked into every worldwide law enforcement database, police band, and closed circuit TV in the city. It has programs that analyze trace evidence, faces on CCTV, along with hacking programs so I can get into any computer, plus a whole host of other programs used to catch bad guys. I call her Doris.
I move down the ramp into the dark room. Doris takes up the majority of the space with only a worn leather couch, rack of Justice uniforms in the corner, closet filled with weapons including stuff I never knew existed--the laser gun is fun--and a coffee pot. A literal man cave. There are two rooms that connect here, one with enough lab equipment to give a mad scientist a chubby, and the other a medical clinic/gun range. That's become Joanna's stress reliever room. I've shot a small town's worth of paper men. They had it coming. They're safe tonight though. I flop into the computer chair and start reviewing the log. Doris keeps track of all the emergency calls and is even programmed to recognize and record any suspicious or violent images she finds on CCTV. Hell, even telephone and cell conversations are within her grasp. Big sister is watching.
Most cases are easily handled by the police. Muggings, domestic violence, drug use are noted and archived just in case. With the bigger offenses she sends a message to a special BlackBerry. When I asked Justin why he had two, he said it was a work thing. He'd excuse himself to take the "call" and lock himself in his office. Really he'd use a secret passage, do a quick change into his costume, and zoom off to fight a bad guy. He even had a program to pump his voice into the room as if he was having a phone conversation. There's a speaker in his office at Pendergast Pavilion too. When I accidentally set it off, for a moment, I thought Justin had risen from the dead to lecture me on the Chinese markets. I was a wreck for the rest of the day.
Justice was mostly muscle, a first responder to crimes normal police officers could be hurt in. He wasn't the great detective we thought he was. The man didn't have time to track down every drug dealer and rapist unless they caused maximum damage. Seeing as I'm all of 5'2", now overweight, and prone to panic attacks, I take a different tact. I may not be on the force anymore but once a cop, always a cop. It's in the bones. I have every crime boss, enforcer, sex offender, and known supervillain under some form of surveillance. Every second of my spare time is spent down here reviewing footage, phone calls, and e-mails on my targets. My, or rather confidential informant #794's, tips helped stop a shipment of sex trafficked young girls from further horrors last week. The case against Oleg Casanov is still building, but my tips to the Feds keep making it stronger. And since I was a police officer for twelve years, I know what evidence can be used at trial. I'd give them the recorded conversation about the shipment but since it came from an illegal wiretap they can't use it. I simply guide them in the right direction.
But tonight is all about helping old friends. My old squad, Priority Homicide, caught a triple last night, a drive-by in Diablo's Ward, my old neighborhood. Two dead bangers and one civilian, Dorothea Clarke, grandmother to one of the dead men. They know it was the men's rival gang, the 3-4's, but have no proof or witnesses. Since crime in the Ward is mostly poor bangers killing bangers, and the press could give a shit, CCTV cameras are sparse there. Must be why Justice installed a few of his own, one of which is right around the corner from the crime scene. I pull up the file from that area. Seconds before the shots, a black SUV turns the corner onto the victim's street. The same car speeds away a few seconds later on the next available camera. No other cars turn on that street at the same time. I enhance the license plate, click a button, and Doris automatically starts her magic. Thirty seconds later I have the owner's name, Duquan Harris. Another click and I get his criminal history. Big shock, he's a known 3-4 member. Gotcha. I package the info together and send it to Harry. He's smart enough to know how to make it look legally obtained. C.I. #794 sure is in a lot of places at the right time. I just saved my old friends days of legwork.