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It began with a call. Well, not actually a call, but a text (kids and their technology). It read: “Captain Comet. Roof of the Professional Business Building. Block 97. 11:00 PM. Reply if interested.” I replied with my interest, of course. The details were given to me, and two days later here I am on the roof of a downtown skyscraper, my shoulder aching from the weight of the large steel suitcase I’ve been carrying. Below me, the city’s nightlife hustles and bustles with no sign of slowing down as the lights of taxis and limos zip around like strobe lights. Out in the suburbs though, most are calling it a night. In my home, for example, my daughter is already asleep. My son is blaring music through his headphones as he combs The Higher Law’s public site for “research” while my wife is sitting in her nightgown, either reading her latest book or playing Sudoku. If you ask her, I’m just out drinking with “The Guys.” She may get suspicious and call Joe’s house to check on me only to find that I haven’t visited him in weeks, but I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it..
For twenty minutes now, I’ve been standing on this rooftop in the cold November night, waiting for the curtain on this show to rise. Finally, about two miles away, there’s an explosion and flames dance into the air. Debris and rubble fall like rain onto the streets. People scatter in panic while a dozen armed men, robbers, run into the building.
“A ‘distraction’ will be scheduled to draw him out,” my employer said, “He’s always had a thing for bank robberies.”
After a few minutes I hear a rush of wind coming from behind me and a streak of golden light streams over me before arcing downward onto the streets, leaving a sparkling dust like glitter in its wake. Captain Comet is on the scene. As he turns and crashes through a window into the bank, I open my suitcase and assemble my kit. I do it without even thinking, the muscle memory having been hardwired into my hands decades ago. Were I a younger man, I have tried to take him out mid-flight. It would’ve been a good challenge. But at 50, I’m well aware of my limits, and having been retired for several years, I’m not going to push it.
I think of the day I first told Joe I was “retiring,” ten years ago. At the time, he’d already been out of the game for three years, ever since “San Francisco.” He’d rarely smile after what happened there but I’ll never forget that goofy grin he donned when I told him I was out. He was so impressed with me, proud even. Then I think of how he looked when I told him I’d gone back in one more time. He didn’t smile. He didn’t frown or scold me or do anything. He just stared at me like I was a stranger. In a way, that was worse than anything. I wonder how he’d feel now as, for the fourth time in 10 years, I come out of retirement for “one last job.”
Down in the bank, the action has been going on for about three minutes. A small fleet of cop cars has formed a perimeter around the bank, shutting down the street as muzzle flares and Captain Comet’s “stellar blasts” light up the windows. A minute later the flashes die down and, as if on cue, police officers move in on the bank. As they ascend the granite steps to the entrance, Captain Comet casually strolls out of the door as if he wasn’t just dodging gunfire five seconds earlier. A crowd has formed just outside the police perimeter and burst into applause as Comet comes into view. Through my scope I can see Comet’s face as he waves at his adoring public, flashing that wide, toothy grin of his; the same grin he offered me last time we met face-to-face. Back then we still called him “Kid Comet”, for his partnership/apprenticeship/sidekick-ship with the famous hero, Meteorman. Even after Meteorman was killed and Comet came into his own, it still took a year or two for the world to drop the “Kid” from Comet’s moniker. It was during that year or two after his mentor’s death that he and I last met.
It was two o’clock in the morning. My family and I were returning to our then home of Indianapolis after a vacation on L.A. It was my bright idea to drive there and back, a four-day journey round-trip in our mini-van, and thusly my responsibility to do said driving. The kids had fallen asleep hours earlier and my wife had finally been lulled to sleep by the metronome sounds of the nighttime highway. I’m not sure when I lost it but the next thing I knew our van had plowed through the concrete barrier and was sailing down toward the streets below the highway overpass. I’d fallen asleep. I’d put my family in danger, killed them. None of us screamed or cried for divine help, my family in too much on shock and I, for my part, too accustomed to death to be afraid. Suddenly, the window went white, a bright light producing a blinding glare on the glass. The van spun around like a top, sending the cups and bags from the Drive-Thru’s we’d visited bouncing about the cabin. Then, the spinning slowed and with a slight jerk, we stopped moving and settled on a level plane. The light that had surrounded us dissipated, revealing Comet standing in front of us sporting his best “heroic” pose: feet apart, arms akimbo and that goofy grin splattered across his then-boyish face. After his posing was done, he walked over and opened my door.
“Kid Comet,” My wife and I gasped in unison, although her tone was more exclamatory while mine was blatantly accusatory. Thankfully, she yelled louder.
“I prefer ‘Captain Comet’ or just ‘Comet’ actually,” he said sheepishly, “Are you guys, okay?”
My wife shook her head vigorously without speaking, still in awe of the “superhero’s” presence. Before I could respond, my son ambled out of the back row over me and presented himself, wide-eyed, before Comet.
“Well hello,” Comet said kindly, “What’s your name?”
“Jason,’ my son answered quickly, “You caught us outta the sky! How’d’ you do that?”
“Well,” Comet paused as he conceived something clever to say, “I farted out a cloud of stardust until it was thick enough that you guys just drifted safely down to the street.” I rolled my eyes at the sophomoric joke but it was more than enough for nine-year-old Jason.
“Wow! I want to be just like you when I get big,” he exclaimed. Comet smiled warmly.
“You want to fart clouds of stardust?”
My son pondered this for a moment.
“Yes,” he decided at last. Comet laughed heartily.
“Okay, little man,” he said as he pat Jason’s head, “you be good and when you’re older and you still want to get in the Hero Business, you look me up, okay?”
Jason nodded in consent.
“Cool,” Comet said as he adjusted his aviator goggles and rose off the ground, “Well, you folks take care. Drive carefully.” With the last comment he flashed a playful glance in my direction. I was not amused and it showed. At that, he zipped away into the distance at top speed, his golden trail of “fairy dust” chasing after him.
Looking at him now, seven years later, I can see he’s hardly changed. Granted, he looks older. He’s taller (barely). His jaw is more defined with slight traces of stubble starting to surface. His once messy, neck-length hair has been cut into a shorter, more “mature,” hipster kind of style. Even his costume has improved. The goofy goggles and aviator jumpsuit he sported in the Old Days dropped for a more superhero-y get-up, complete with gold boots and cape. But underneath it all that, he’s still the same overly optimistic boy scout he was back when he held onto Meteorman’s coattails, rescuing kittens, saving old ladies and catching mini-vans out of the air. He’s the same guy that my son idolized, who he still idolizes.
After he met Comet, whenever Jason was asked the famous “What-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up” question, he would unequivocally answer, “A superhero!” Even now that he’s older, instead of begging for a car for his birthday like most kids, he’s given me a list of supplies; a wetsuit, mountain climbing gear, etc., that’s supposedly for this “hiking” club he’s joined in school, but he’s not fooling me. I know once he gets his kit, I’ll be watching “the newest teen superhero” chasing down bank robbers on the evening news. His mother would freak out if she found out her “baby” is trying to do something so asinine and reckless, but it isn’t his age that bothers me. Comet was far younger than Jason is now when he first teamed up with Meteorman. It’s the fact that a guy like me raised an aspiring superhero that makes it so ironic. Imagine if Hitler’s son became a rabbi. Same principle.
Down on the street, Captain Comet has finished addressing the crowd and has begun to rise from the ground, preparing to take off. This is the moment. Instinctively, I grip the cold steel of my rifle, inhale sharply and zero my sights on the center of Captain Comet’s forehead. My finger tenses against the trigger, ready to pull back at a millisecond’s notice. I give in to the tension and the air around me explodes as the gunpowder ignites, pushing the bullet down to meet Comet at twice the speed of sound.
If the guilt for killing a man in cold-blood didn’t tear at me, one would think that taking the life of one who’d saved mine would…but it didn’t. I’ve done this too many times for morality to bug me now. What does eat at me is Jason. I think of my future, thirty or so years from now as I lay dying, and how I’ll explain my actions to him, how I’ll justify killing his favorite hero, his idol, his inspiration.
From the depths of my memory, the voice of my most recent “employer” comes to mind. I’d called him at the last minute in a half-hearted attempt to back out of the job.
“I can’t do this. I’m out, retired. Find somebody else,” I’d said in a tone that was hardly resolute.
“Oh please,” he said, his deep, rough voice drifting like thick smoke though the telephone receiver, “Don’t get all moral on me now. This is what you do. This is who you are.” Two hours later, I was standing on this rooftop prepared to murder a man.
So Jason, why did I kill him? Because me on this roof, with this rifle in the dark of the night, is who I am. And this: causing a hero’s head to evaporate off his shoulders, is what I do.