Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 7

By the time the car pulls up in front of his apartment building Zach’s standing outside. He climbs behind the wheel and plugs in the address. The GPS says he’ll be ten minutes early.

The sun’s starting to set and he gets nervous considering his options. He wants to wear his gear but they’ll see him coming and take off. He doesn’t know what he’s walking into but they’re meeting in an apartment complex surrounded by people. He can’t see any reason for them to give him trouble. He should be safe unarmed. Relying on should makes his skin crawl.

Pulling up outside the building, Zach hops out of the car and opens his trunk. Inside his costume is neatly laid out and ready for him to slip into. He grabs his shock baton and slips it into the waistband of his pants, pulling his shirt down. Taking anything else is too risky. He closes the trunk and heads to the door.

The front door to the building’s locked but there’s an intercom outside. He presses the button for 1728 and after a moment the speaker crackles to life with a woman’s voice. “Yes?”

“This is the guy to see about the wedding dress?” Did Nowak give her a name? If so what is it?

“You’re early.”

“Sorry about that, traffic was light. I can wait out here in the dark for ten more minutes if you like.”

There’s a long pause. “No, it’s cool. Come on in. We’re the second door on the right once you reach the second floor.” A long beep later he finds himself able to pull the door open.

Inside he finds a well lit, cheerful hallway. This is an excellent part of town and this apartment definitely fits the area. The finishes look expensive, lots of browns and tans. Making his way up the stairs, Zach sees the door ahead open. A pretty young blonde steps out smiling. “Sorry about the nervous thing. My brother’s coming by before long. Can’t be too careful when meeting a stranger. That’s why I said eight thirty so be cool.”

“Sorry about being early again, didn’t know how long it’d take me to get here. Can I see the dress?”

She leads him inside to a strangely sterile apartment. It’s nice, with high end appliances visible in the kitchen and plenty of space. There’s not much furniture though and there’s almost nothing on the walls or on any shelves. The closest thing to decoration is a TV with a few DVDs in the living room and a few dirty dishes in the sink. “Follow me, the dress is laid out on my bed.”

They go into the bedroom which doesn’t feel any more lived in. There’s an alarm clock on the bed side table and a blanket on the bed but nothing else. The dress laying before him looks familiar. At first he’s not sure it’s the one though. “That’s a beautiful dress. Can I ask why you’re selling it? Is it because of the tear?”

She laughs. “I wish. I broke up with my fiancée. I was so mad I started taking scissors to the thing. Realized after a minute how much money I was cutting up so I stopped myself but it’s already damaged. Luckily I started with a really hard to see place. A train will cover this right up so most brides won’t have a problem. Nobody will see. She’ll know though and for a lot of brides that’s an issue. Hence the low price. Out of curiosity, why are you interested? Are you getting married?”

A good story. Zach’s tempted to believe her. “Nothing like that. My sister’s getting married. We don’t have a ton of money for a fancy dress so this could be an opportunity. She liked the picture you put up and asked me to check it out.”

“She wants you to buy a dress she hasn’t seen?”

Zach sticks his hands in his pockets. “Not really, but she had to work and she was afraid if I didn’t come tonight it’d sell. I’m supposed to only buy if I’m sure she’ll love it. Where’s the tear?”

Guiding him to the bottom of the dress, the woman shows him exactly where it is. His belief in her fades. The tear is exactly the shape of the piece of cloth back at the lab. The missing piece is close to the bottom and the beading’s identical. This has to be the one. He wants to believe this woman didn’t know but her story must be fake which means she knows something.

The shock baton digs into his back and his first thought is to reach for it. He doesn’t want to threaten her though and she may not know all the details. “It’s pretty, but I’m not confident enough my sister will love it. The tear would be hidden by a long train but she’s going to remove that after the ceremony. Can I take a picture? I’ll send it to her and if she approves I’ll check with you and see if it’s still available.”

She seems disappointed but agrees to let him take the photo. With that out of the way, he says goodbye and thanks her for her time. Exiting the apartment, he can hear the lock twist behind him.

Soon he’s back on the streets and heading for his car. She said her brother was coming by soon. That could be one of the robbers and if it is he wants to be ready. He pops the trunk and scans for any sign of people on the street. With nobody in sight he pops his helmet on. Once that’s in place it won’t be a disaster if somebody sees him changing.

Booting it up, he tries to run the helmet through some tests. Almost every menu he tries to open shows an error though. Nowak was telling the truth when he said the helmet was mostly still out of order.

The remainder of his suit goes over his clothes and he snaps his weapons into place. He’s getting better at getting into this. Sealing up the back is hard but other than that it only takes a minute. His midnight blue outfit blends into the dark and Zach sneaks into the yard outside the building. He finds a dark corner to wait in.

A few minutes later a man walks up to the building. It’s too dark to make his face out until he’s on the stoop but Zach’s almost certain he recognizes the man. His yellow scarf billows behind him on this windy night. Was he the one on the boat? He presses a button on the intercom and the girl’s voice is there.

Stepping into the light, Zach considers just shooting him but he feels weird about doing it in the back. “Turn around and face me.”

Turning, the man’s face goes white when he sees Hitbox standing before him. “Oh shit.” There’s a buzz and they both realize the door just opened. The man grabs for it and Zach grabs for his shock baton. The man’s through before he can react. He’s headed for the second floor.

Zach manages to grab the door before it closes and pull himself inside. He hits the stairs hard but running up them causes his knee to throb. He really needs to have Lorelei check that once she’s better. Reaching the top of the flight, he sees the man turning a corner to the next floor. His sister, if she is his sister, stands in her doorway shocked. When she sees Zach she slams her door. He can clearly hear the sound of her deadbolt. The man in the yellow scarf doesn’t pause. He just keeps moving.

Another flight of stairs finds him on the top floor but by the time he reaches it there’s no sign of the man. Zach runs down the hall, his knee throbbing now. There’s not going to be another way out on the third floor. Does he know someone else in the building? His heat vision would be useful here.

Turning a corner, Zach sees a door still open. A sign identifies it as roof access and when he opens the door he finds a small set of stairs. Reaching the top, he opens a door to find himself in the dark. There’s never complete dark in New York but for the city this is dark. They’re a little ways from the main downtown hub and it shows. His eyes try to adjust but without night vision he’s not going to see much.

Movement catches his eye. Turning, he sees the man rushing from one end of the roof to another. His yellow scarf stands out. There’s nowhere for him to go. If he had a weapon he’d be fighting back. Get close, shock him, then call the cops. The plan writes itself.

As the man continues to run Zach realizes he’s not slowing down. He’s nearing the edge of the roof and suddenly panic flashes through his mind. “Don’t.” The man doesn’t listen. He leaps and catches his feet on the lip of the building. Pushing off, he goes head first into a flying somersault. He lands gracefully on the next building without stopping, popping right back to his feet.

Zach’s eyes go wide under his helmet. He hurries to the edge of the building and stares at the gap. It’s not huge, three or four feet across. To him that feels like the Grand Canyon. He tries to convince himself to follow. He can make this jump. Can’t he? Doubt starts to set in. His knee isn’t 100%. If he falls, there won’t be much he can do. There’s always his winch but can he aim in time? They aren’t that high. An image from his childhood of a vigilante falling off a roof and splattering on the ground before him won’t go away.

His promise won’t go away either. He promised Sami he’d catch this guy. He’s going to try. He grabs his winch and fires into the side of the next building to give himself a backup if he misses. Then he steps on the ledge. His knees feel weak and the pain in his wounded leg dominates his thoughts. He bends them a few times before leaning forward. The wind threatens to push him off so he leaps before it can. His arms make it with ease and his right leg clears the gap. His left leg is slightly behind though and catches on the ledge. Grabbing for the roof, he pulls himself over and collapses in a heap.

His fear dissipates. He made it. Getting back to his feet’s a challenge but one he’s grateful for. After cutting his winch line he searches for any sign of the yellow scarf. He finds it but his heart breaks. The man’s on the next roof over. Shuffling in that direction, he sees this gap’s even larger than the last. At least five or six feet. Not an impossible distance but after barely making a smaller jump, he doubts he can keep up.

To drive that point home, the man with the yellow scarf takes off running and dives from that roof to another. He lands and with barely any hesitation takes off running for another roof. When he’s there the man turns back to him, silently daring Zach to try.

He realizes that fights over. Giving up isn’t the answer though. He can’t keep up with this guy on the roofs but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still an option. Glad to find the roof door unlocked, Zach heads inside and makes his way to the ground. A man coming out of his apartment gives a funny look but he doesn’t say anything.

Reaching the street Zach counts the buildings. The man was three buildings down. If he’s lucky he won’t be expecting Zach to come this way. He may even be exiting the building through the halls. He hopes so. The idea of going back on a roof isn’t exciting.

The third building down is behind a gate but it’s not locked. Kind of defeats the purpose of a gate. He hopes the door to the building will be unlocked as well but he isn’t that lucky. It’s sealed tight. Not sure what to do, he sees the speaker system to the right of the door has at least twenty options. He starts pressing every button one by one. On the fifth try someone buzzes him in without a word.

Rushing up another two flights of stairs is hard work. His knee’s on fire now. The entire way he hopes to stumble upon the man and not have to go back into the night. There’s no sign of him. Finding the roof access in this building is even tougher. It’s hidden in a corner and this time there’s no stairs leading up. Instead there’s a ladder and on each rung his knee screams.

Reaching the top of the ladder, he finds a hatch which pushes open. Immediately the wind is raging around his head. Pulling himself the last few steps to the roof, he wants to stay down. The man could be anywhere though so he stands with some difficulty.

His head on a swivel, searching for any sign of the man. There’s nothing. No movement, no flash of yellow. He’s gone. Maybe he snuck out before Zach go to the building. Unlikely but hard to say. Maybe he took off across the rooftops. He can see a few more that are close enough this guy might be able to jump to them.

Staring into the night, he whips his head around. There must to be some sign of where he went. There’s no other lead and they’ll be way more careful advertising these dresses after tonight. After a few minutes it starts to sink in. There’s no sign of movement, there’s no yellow flash. The man’s lost to the night. He took the best chance Zach had to find justice for his friends with him.

Slumping to the roof, Zach wants to give up. He can go home now, tell Mr. Nowak he was right and forget this case. Then he pictures Sami still laying in a hospital bed, fighting for his life. If he can keep fighting, Zach can do the same. Thinking of his next move, he heads for the ladder. With every rung he climbs down, he’s more determined to find these men.

Part 6

Part 8

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Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 6

“You here Nowak?” The lights are on as Zach walks into the repair shop but he doesn’t see any sign of the only other person who should have a key. His first thought is that the man is likely downstairs again but he doesn’t hear anything below him. He runs to the basement and finds himself still alone. The lights down here are out and there’s no sign of anyone.

Concern grows in his head. Why would the lights be on if Nowak’s not here? He calls the man’s phone but it goes right to voice mail. He calls again but gets the same result. Sweat’s pouring down his face now. He feels weak and considers finding a place to sit. He sends a text asking where the man is before trying another call. This time a voice answers. “What’s up kid?”

Zach finally breathes. “Thank god you’re okay. Where the hell are you? I show up and the lights are on but there’s no sign of you.”

“Relax, I ran down the street to grab lunch. I’m getting soup. You want anything?” When Zach tells him he doesn’t want soup Nowak promises to be back in a few minutes before ending the call.

Pacing back and forth gets old fast and his legs start to shake. Zach finds a chair and sits. By the time Nowak shows up carrying a big brown bag he’s managed to calm his legs. “You alright kid? You look rough.” He sets his bag down and pulls out a couple of styrofoam containers. “Sure you don’t want any of this? It’s really good soup. I got an extra in case you changed your mind. Figured I’d have it for dinner if you didn’t but you look like you could use it.”

Zach wheels the chair he’s in toward the table and takes one of the soup containers. “Sorry if I snapped at you. Long day and it’s not over.”

“How’d your meeting go? Tell me you didn’t screw things up and get our funding cut off.”

Chicken and rice is a nice surprise. A quick sip of the broth finds it a bit salty but with a deep chicken flavor. “It went fine. I even managed to push through a proposal I liked. It was a lot though, so many people staring at me.”

“You should be used to that though, right? Everyone in the city was talking about you after the bank robbery.”

Surprised to realize the soup’s nearly half gone, Zach pauses. “No, they were talking about Hitbox. That’s me but it isn’t the same. I liked this proposal and now we’re working on it. Before I opened my mouth it was going to fail. I also don’t even know it’s a good investment. I just thought the technology could possibly help us here so I pushed.”

“Don’t worry too much kid. The kind of money your company has, one project isn’t going to bankrupt anyone.”

Nowak’s right and he takes solace in it. He’s a billionaire, it’s okay to push a project. Championing an interesting product is a good use of his power.

The older man’s face is smiling for once. “Looks like you needed that, your face is getting some color back. When did you eat last?”

“I had a granola bar for breakfast.” Zach’s been dodging his trainer who will want to get back to work now that his knee’s healed. To make up for it he’s been trying to eat healthy.

“Going out there weak and tired isn’t doing anyone a favor. Eat. You can eat healthy without starving yourself. If you can’t figure that out, hire a cook. You can afford it. Has Lorelei checked your knee recently?”

“She’s a little busy being in the hospital. It’s fine though. No pain today.” Another big sip of broth hits the spot. “You were right about the soup but that’s not why I’m here. I have plans tomorrow so I want to get some work in today. You find anything about those guys?”

After a long slurp of his soup, Nowak wipes his mouth. “Actually, yes.”

He’s so used to bad news that it takes a moment for Zach to realize what Nowak said. When he does, he jumps out of his chair. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? What did you find?”

“I’ve been running some searches and one got a hit while you were in your meeting. Figured I’d call you after but I didn’t know what time you got done. Then I got back here and you looked half dead so I wanted to get some food in you first. If you want my opinion I think you should wait, at least until tomorrow.”

He moves closer and grabs the table. He still feels weak but he can’t let Nowak find out. He’ll try to stop him and right now Lorelei and Sami need him to push through. “Tell me what you have.”

Turning away, Nowak throws his hands in the air. “Can’t say I didn’t try. One of my hits found a wedding dress that’s the same style as the material you gave me. There’s a note about a small strip of fabric being torn at the bottom of the dress. They’ve got it cheaper than I expected as a result. They want to move this fast.”

“Where are they?”

“No clue yet. It was on a local classified site. I emailed them asking for a meeting but haven’t heard back.”

“Can you try to trace where they placed this from? Maybe I can find them myself.”

Shaking his head, Nowak cringes. “This isn’t a TV show, I can’t run traces. They’ll get back to us soon enough. You know you can’t go in there in your suit, right? They’ll clam up right away. You need information. You need to go as you.”

“That’s fine, I can handle myself.”

Nowak runs his eyes up and down Zach, settling on his still pale face. “I don’t know if that’s true.”

They sit around for fifteen minutes and Zach keeps checking the time on his phone. “They haven’t emailed you back yet? They should be eager. You’re not keeping this from me are you? Once that sells we may not get another chance.”

“I’m not hiding anything. I’ll let you know when it’s back. I also spent the morning trying to fix your suit. I’ll get it loaded into the car so it’s ready to go when you are. Have Beth drive you home and get some rest. When they reply I’ll send the car over.”

“How’s the gear coming?”

“Not well. The helmet’s bad. You can see out of it and I have the police radio back up and running but that’s all that works. No heat vision, no night vision, no maps or anything like that. You’ll mostly be flying blind. Give me a few days and I can solve it.”

“In a few days this dress will be gone. We might not find the other one. I can’t wait. Send the car when you hear the word and I’ll handle it. Make sure everything’s in the trunk in case I need it. I’ll take it from there.”

Zach stands and heads for the door. Nowak can only watch as he leaves.

 

When the text comes it’s nearly eight at night. Laying on his couch with a soda on the table next to him, Zach’s caught up in the news and almost misses it. A story about a pair of Chicago vigilantes who stopped a bombing has him feeling awesome. Vigilantes really can make a difference. Picking up his phone, he almost wants to follow Nowak’s advice.

 

They want to meet at 1728 Union Rd around 8:30. If you drive fast you’ll make it. The car’s already on the way. Be careful.

Part 5

Part 7

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 5

Walking into the board room Zach feels all eyes on him. He’s surrounded by the group of men and women who’ve spent years making the choices for his multi billion dollar company. They’re all lingering around the long table where they meet. He knows many of them, though he hasn’t seen any since his parents’ funeral. There’s many others he doesn’t recognize and he’s certain he’s never seen. They all know who he is. They whisper as he walks by, flashing nervous smiles. They range in age from the fairly young to the very old. Age doesn’t have much to do with their reactions.

Is she here? Asking Linus feels impossible, like an admission of what he did. She wouldn’t necessarily be on the board, but he wouldn’t be surprised if she is either. She must hate him. He can’t undo what he did. Scanning the faces of every woman in the room, none of them look like her although how would he know after so long? What does she even look like now?

The new suit Linus recommended itches like crazy but he has to admit he looks great in it. It slims him in all the right places and makes him look twenty pounds lighter. He loved his reflection in the mirror this morning. Now he wishes he could stop fidgeting, or that his tie was a little looser so he could breathe.

An older man with a cane comes over and offers his hand. Seeing no polite way around the gesture Zach accepts while trying to remember where he knows this guy from. There’s a hint of recognition but he can’t come up with a name. He’s saved by Linus calling the meeting to order.

Everyone takes a seat. There’s an empty seat near Linus and the man waives him over. His shoulders slump. Why’d they have to put him right at the front of the room? This is his first meeting, somewhere in the back where he can observe without getting in the way would work a lot better. There’s no other free chairs though so he makes his way there and fidgets into his chair.

New business is brought up first and a variety of committee members stand to present new issues or new products they’d like to throw the company behind. Acquiring another company’s discussed but Zach finds the business side of that confusing. Other members of the group are concerned about the cost of buying a company in dire financial straits but the man proposing the purchase suggests at this price they don’t need the company to make money. Their patents alone will make the purchase a steal.

The vote on that one’s close but they pass. Too large a financial obligation. Zach abstains on the vote and can’t miss the eyes rolling around the table. He doesn’t waiver though; he doesn’t know enough to make an informed decision. He won’t contribute to messing this company up. The man who made the proposal seems upset but after a moment manages to calm himself down enough that he doesn’t storm out.

Next is an investment opportunity in VR. A short brunette woman in a long green dress gets up to discuss all the money they’ve been pouring into it and where they can go from here. She presents a program which can map your way around a city and take you on a virtual trip. It uses real time data from a satellite network to show what’s happening in the city in real time. This seems way more advanced than current GPS programs and Zach takes notice. He can see a hundred ways this could help him.

The claws emerge the second she finishes her presentation. They’ve spent too much on VR in the last few years with little to show for it. This could take years to show results. What are the practical applications?

The room goes quiet and Zach worries this isn’t going to pass. He needs a way to sway the room and he’s out of time. Linus notices his agitation and leans toward him. “Everything alright Zach? This all a bit much for your first day?”

“I’m good, thanks. I actually have a question about this last presentation. Do I raise my hand or something? Or just speak up?”

Linus frowns. “You’re the controlling owner, stand and speak and everyone in this room’s going to listen.”

Standing, Zach feels every eye in the room focus on him. His fight or flight instincts kick in and he wants nothing more than to escape and bury his head under a pillow. He breathes in and out a few times, trying to calm himself. There was a time he regularly had to appear confident when he wasn’t and he calls on his best fake smile. “I actually rather liked the presentation, the technology looks impressive. I wonder if we’ve considered what could be our best customer for this though.”

The woman who gave the presentation looks ready to grab any flotation device tossed her way. She can read the room. “What would that be? We’re certainly interested in ways we can get the most out of the technology.”

“How about first responders? Police, paramedics, fire fighters. They could all use a technology that helps them plot the best course around a city. That can shave valuable seconds which for emergency responders can be everything.”

A man sitting a few seats down climbs to his feet. “That’s great Mr. Thomas and I can see the application but usually those public agencies don’t pay all that well. If that’s our main market I question whether we would ever recoup our development cost.”

Run away. The urge is strong. Zach’s legs shake but he stands his ground. “That may be true and I know we’re here to make money. There are other considerations though. Working with the police to help with this sort of technology could be huge for public relations. I’d also argue that if we get this working everywhere then every first responder in the world will want one. That may not be a huge amount per unit but the amount of units adds up.”

The crowd starts whispering and everyone seems to be considering his points. If there’s one thing the board likes more than money it’s public recognition. The vote starts soon after and while there are a few nail biting moments the proposal passes. Zach’s relieved to see Linus votes along with him.

Another hour goes by before the meeting ends and none of the other proposals interest him. He abstains from the remaining votes though none are close enough that he could have mattered. When everyone gets up to leave the woman who proposed the VR technology makes her way over to him and offers her hand. “Mr. Thomas, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your support. If you hadn’t spoken up I don’t think we would have passed.”

She’s a little older but attractive and Zach starts to sweat as she comes close. “Glad I could help. Your proposal was fascinating.”

Her eyes narrow. “Thanks, I had considered the law enforcement angle but I guess the potential for pushing that hadn’t occurred to me. I think there are a lot of other applications as well but that could be great for the company’s image.”

“Ya, big help. Glad to do so…” Zach sticks his hands in his pockets. He realizes how weird he must seem but feeling awkward about his awkwardness just makes him more awkward. Finally he decides to end things. Removing his hand from his pocket he offers it to her. “I really want to see more of this when it’s done Ms…”

“Moore. Charley Moore. I’ll make sure you receive any updates Mr. Thomas.” She takes Zach’s hand and he’s suddenly very aware of how sweaty it is. She doesn’t seem to mind though and she smiles as she leaves.

Linus sneaks up behind him and slaps him on the back. “Great first meeting. I was surprised you stood up for a project but you made some excellent points.”

“I saw you voted for with me. Did you like the project too?”

Linus puts a hand to his head and rubs his temple. “Honestly? Not really. It’s okay and could be cool but I think the business applications are small and even if we can sell it to first responders, that’s years away. It’s not going to break us or anything though and I wanted to support a project you were passionate about. Everyone in this room understands you have pull now. The next time you speak up, they’re all going to listen.”

His skin crawls. Zach’s never liked getting ahead because of who he is and knowing that this only passed because he’s a Thomas hurts. He reminds himself his success wasn’t at stake here. Charley’s was. “If this thing doesn’t work out am I going to take the blame?”

“Not at all, don’t worry about that. Nobody hits them all out of the park. I’ve championed plenty of investments that bombed. Try to make more of your passion projects hit than not and you’ll be fine.” Linus pulls his phone out and starts scrolling through it. “By the way, I wanted to grab lunch with you tomorrow. We can go over the meeting, I can answer any questions you might have, then we can start looking at next steps.”

Every instinct in his body tells him that he doesn’t have time. Sami and Lorelei are in the hospital and he needs to track down the people responsible. He needs to keep Linus in the dark though. “Now definitely isn’t the right time. I have a lot going on with the business I’m investing in. Maybe in a couple weeks?”

Linus’ eyes narrow, not much but enough that Zach can tell he isn’t happy. “I know this all seems like a lot and maybe you don’t want to rush things. Today went great though and I want to keep the momentum going. Besides, it’s my treat. You have to eat.”

Fidgeting in place, Zach tries to think of another excuse. None come to mind. “Alright, we’ll make it work. Send Beth the details about where and I’ll be there. Try to pick somewhere that’s not super fancy though. I don’t want to dress up.”

Another slap on his back sees the smile return to Linus’ face. “You’ve got it. I have the perfect spot. Low key, secluded, not super busy. Fantastic Cuban food and you don’t have to wear anything fancy.”

“Sounds perfect.” The men shake hands and Zach calls his driver. His original plan was to take today for himself since he knew this meeting would be a lot to handle. If he’s going to make time for Linus tomorrow though, that means he needs to make more time today for hunting down these men.

Part 4

Part 6

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 4

Storming into the auto body shop he operates out of, Zach Thomas looks for any sign of his partner. “Nowak! Get out here.”

There’s noise coming from the basement and he hears something fall. A shout goes out. He considers investigating but he still hears movement so everything’s probably fine. After a minute Nowak struggles up the stairs with his arms full of equipment. Zach’s helmet, his stun gun and the top half of his costume are all stacked on top of each other.

Tossing all of this on his work bench Nowak comes at Zach finger first. “Do you have any idea how much work you’ve stuck me with? I’m trying to get your costume working like you want but this helmet’s going to take at least a couple more days. It’s a complete mess.”

“Sorry about that. Is it working at all?”

With a sigh Nowak lowers his hand. His shoulders slump. “Not as more than an actual helmet. The gear’s shot. I can get the one way glass working so you can see out but that’s the best I can do.”

“That’ll do. You can get back to fixing it soon but first I need you looking into the guys we took on at the arena. I need to know who they are, where they operate from, how I can take them down.”

Zach starts to turn away but Nowak grabs his shoulder. “Don’t do that. It isn’t your job to fix everything. Solve new problems, don’t get caught up in the old ones. You’ll keep digging forever. I could give you evil people I dealt with thirty years ago to go after. That wouldn’t solve our current problems. There’s always more evil in the world. These guys weren’t any worse than the rest.”

Pulling away, Zach walks toward the locker he keeps in the back. “We’re finding them. That’s not up for debate.”

Shaking his head, Nowak walks to a computer terminal. “Then what can you tell me about them? I need every detail you remember.”

Zach thinks, surprised how easily Nowak gave in. Pacing back and forth, he tries to clear his head and remember everything from the pier. That’s hard when he spent the entire time he was there working to stay alive and focusing on how close he was to the water. “There were two of them, they got away on a boat. They’re probably trying to sell a bunch of incredibly expensive wedding dresses. That’s something to start with.”

“That’s actually not a lot to go on. What do they look like?”

Zach opens his mouth but nothing comes out. Thinking back, he realizes he has almost no clue what they look like. “They’re both guys; one’s kind of tall with long hair. The other’s a little shorter with short hair.”

“Your descriptions are stunning in their elegance and detail.”

Glaring at Nowak, Zach says, “I was a little busy trying to stop them from killing me. Sorry I couldn’t remember if they have a mole on their cheek.”

“Did they have a mole on their cheek?”

“I have no clue. I don’t think so. I was just being sarcastic.”

Nowak coughs a few times as he searches a few classified sites for wedding dresses. “You’re not good at it. Can you tell me anything else? Any little detail might be the hint I need.”

“Can’t you just check into wedding dresses on the black market?”

Nowak almost chokes and covers his mouth to suppress his hacking. “The black market? What do you think this is? I’m going to be searching online auction sites and classified ads. Hopefully I’ll stumble onto something but the more I know, the better we’ll do.”

Hitting the table in front of him, Zach readies himself to storm out of the shop. As if the hit jarred something loose though one detail pops into his head. He reaches into his pocket in the same jeans he’s been wearing since yesterday. He pulls out a small strip of cloth streaked with a few beautiful beads. “Will this help?”

“What the hell is it? An old handkerchief”

“Me and Lorelei found it in a door when we were rushing after the first guy. It’s a piece of one of the dresses which tore off.”

Nowak snatches the cloth from his hand and turns it over. He rubs the cloth back and forth between his fingers before heading for a microscope. “This is good news. Most people selling online will try and be detailed so a rip, even a small one, is probably going to be listed. I didn’t even need the fabric, just knowing it ripped is helpful. Having the actual material’s even better.”

Leaving the shop, Zach wants to get back on the street and go after another set of bad guys. Plenty of other people are causing problems in New York. Without his gear working though that’s not an option. If an emergency comes up he can try using it but a lot of people out on the streets are more than capable of killing him without his full set of gear. Instead he calls his driver Beth and asks her to come get him.

While he waits he notices a text from Linus Setterberg, the CEO of his company Thomas Computing. They’re in the process of introducing him back into the business.

 

Hey Zach, just checking in. The next board meeting’s tomorrow and I have things ready for you. I know you weren’t feeling up to the last few with your knee so just want to make sure you’ll be there. LS.

 

Considering his options, Zach almost deletes the text and pretends he never got it. That’d be the easy thing to do. Taking his money back is one thing but being at the company, the place where he hasn’t spent serious time since the death of his parents, is another. He told Linus he’d show up though and if he doesn’t show up, there’s going to be trouble. He’s living in the company’s apartment, using the company’s driver, and running his life using the company’s money. Holding up his end of the bargain isn’t optional anymore. He’s already canceled multiple meetings because he hadn’t healed yet.

He texts back that he’ll be there. When Beth shows up he tells her to take him home so he can get ready. A woman of few words, her shrug tells him that works for her.

Part 3

Part 5

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 3

Nowak calls his driver Beth and she’s soon waiting outside. She gives him a nod as he climbs into the limo but doesn’t say anything else. Nowak’s already told her where to take him. They ride the entire way to the hospital in silence. He thanks her for the ride and asks her to stay close.

Crowds are everywhere as Zach pushes his way through the lobby. He feels them push in from every side and his first thought is escape. He’s not needed here. He can’t do anything for Sami or Lorelei. Retreating to a corner of the room, he wants to close his eyes and walk away. His head’s pounding. They aren’t going to want to see him. He messed up.

Pushed around the room, he fights to reach the reception desk. Knowing this isn’t going to get easier if he waits, he asks the receptionist for the room of Sami Sadik, mentioning that he’s related to Dr. Sadik. She doesn’t look it up when he mentions Lorelei’s name. She asks a young looking man in a white coat to guide him to Dr. Sadik. He nods and leads the way.

Zach follows at a distance, his hands white from how hard he’s squeezing them together. He’s led to a private room where Lorelei’s sitting on the edge of a bed, though her feet are hanging down. She’s in a hospital gown and wearing a wristband.

When Zach walks into the room a small smile spreads across her face. She tries to stand but thinks better of it. Instead she waves him closer. She motions for him to sit. “I’m glad you’re here. Didn’t know if you were going to come by tonight.”

Why is she in a bed? He tries to stay calm. The last thing she needs right now is more stress. “Figured I should. Where are Heather and Hammer?”

She lays back down. “They were here a little bit ago but Hammer had a meeting and he was Heather’s ride.”

“Didn’t expect to find you in a bed. Are you alright?”

With a wave of her hand she says, “I’m fine, they’re just being cautious because I was knocked out. They insist on running a few tests to make sure I’ll be okay. Nothing to worry about. I’ll be out of here tonight. Tomorrow at the latest. How’s your knee?”

She doesn’t have time for that right now. “I’m fine, don’t worry about it. How’s Sami?”

“We’ll get to that. Seriously though, how’s your knee? I didn’t spend months healing you to mess it up today.”

Rubbing his knee instinctively as he talks about it Zach says, “It’s okay. Hurts a fair amount, but no signs of damage. Just a bit red. I probably pushed a little too far too soon but it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Keep an eye on it. Tell me if the redness doesn’t go down in the next couple days. Until that happens I want you taking things easy too.”

“I will. Seriously though, how’s Sami?”

Her hands cover her face. “Bad. Really bad. He’s on life support now. There’s some brain activity but they don’t know if he’s going to come out of this.”

“Shit.”

Finding his way into a chair, Zach slumps and puts his head in his hands. He hates hospitals. He never wanted to be in one again. “I’m sorry. I should have let you shoot them. If I had…”

“Get over yourself.”

Looking up, surprised, Lorelei’s smile’s long gone. “What do you mean?”

“You aren’t my boss Zach. I thought you two could handle them so I let you. I made a choice, you didn’t make it for me. Do I wish you hadn’t let them grab that grenade? Sure. I also wish Sami hadn’t gone rushing off after them alone after I got knocked out. I wish I hadn’t gotten knocked out for that matter. There’s plenty of regret to go around. you don’t have a monopoly on it.”

Nodding, Zach wants to believe she’s right. That this isn’t all on him. That’s hard to accept though when he could have done more. The shame makes it hard for him to breathe. “Whatever he needs, any procedures or medicine or whatever, please let me help.”

She purses her lips. “Fine, but only because this is his life. Don’t get used to me taking money from you.”

“Can I see him?”

Pressing her call button, Lorelei summons an orderly to take Zach to see Sami. He’s laying in intensive care, looking incredibly frail with what feels like every tube in the world sticking out of him. His chest rises and falls but there’s no life to him. He looks broken.

Zach’s seen far too many people like this in his life. He watched a man who survived the sinking of his yacht slip away, unable to help him. He can’t go back and undo this. All the money in the world might not be able to bring Sami back to them. Unable to keep looking, he instead turns his attention to the monitor showing his heartbeat. As he watches the line on screen rise and fall, he vows to do for Sami what he could never do for his parents. He’s going to find the people responsible and make them pay.

Part 2

Part 4

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 2

Climbing out of his car in the auto body shop he operates out of, Zach Thomas expects to be alone. Instead Mr. Nowak who builds all of his tech is working on some new piece of technology. He turns to smile at Zach. When he climbs out of the car and Nowak sees how soaked he is though he turns red. “Tell me you didn’t fall into water in that thing.”

“Ya, went right off the pier. So that was fun. You’re going to have your hands full fixing everything.”

“You think!” He snatches the helmet from Zach and looks it over. He tosses it on a work bench and puts his head in his hands. “I tried to waterproof but something like this is hard to waterproof from the inside. It can get rained on but you can’t soak it through. Do you have any idea how much you’re going to pay to fix all of this?”

“Good thing I’m a billionaire.” His eyes stay down. He’s usually not here this late and he wanted to be alone. He can’t look at anyone right now. He continues stripping out of his gear. When he pulls off the pants his knee’s bright red but there’s no bleeding or serious damage.

“Your money. You think it’s all money. That’s not the only problem though. Fixing something like this takes time. More than an hour or two. Time I spend on this is time I don’t get so spend on your new gear.”

“My current gear is fine except you need to figure something out with ventilation. I was dying in the heat today.”

Nowak takes a deep breath and closes his eyes before responding. “I can’t do anything about the weather but I’ll see what I can figure out. Hard to put cooling systems into a pair of pants but I’ll work on it once I the main suit’s back up and running. This was terrific work but I can do so much better. Your car still needs so many upgrades.”

Zach opens a locker in the corner where he stores a spare set of clothes and begins dressing. “Can you call Beth? I need a ride.”

“Not going home?” Zach usually would walk from the shop, it’s only a few minutes away and he likes the exercise. He’s been trying to get in better shape and while his activity should help in time, being off his feet for months put him behind.

“I need to go to the hospital.”

For the first time since Zach came in, Nowak stops working. “What’s going on? Is your knee okay? I can call Lorelei.”

“That’s not going to help considering she’s at the hospital. I’m fine. Her cousin got caught in the water when one of the electric grenades went off. One of the guys we were fighting got ahold of one and threw it in.”

Nowak goes quiet for a moment before saying, “Is he going to be okay?”

“Not sure. He’s in bad shape. I need to find out more though. Kind of my fault.”

Steadying himself on a table, Nowak takes a deep breath. ”Being a vigilante’s dangerous, he knew what he was doing. Don’t put this on yourself. Do you want me to come with you?”

“I have it. Just need a ride.”

Part 1

Part 3

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 1

Throwing himself around a corner, Zach Thomas’ car skids down a busy Chelsea street. His tires screech and other cars fight to move out of his way. His midnight blue sports car takes the turn with ease and the driving assistant his equipment designer Mr. Nowak built in keeps him from flying onto the sidewalk and taking out the pedestrians who stand around gawking at him.

A woman’s voice crackles over the car’s speakers. “Keep funneling him toward the park. We’ll cut him off.”

“Sounds like a plan. Who’s with you?”

“Just me and Sami. The others should be on their way though. Let’s see if we can finish this before they show up.” Sami calls out in the background but Lorelei tells him to be quiet.

The car he’s pursuing is bright red with a wedding dress flapping out one of the back windows. Who robs a bridal shop? The dress material flutters in the wind and provides an easy target to follow. They’re flying along at nearly 70 miles an hour, darting in and out of New York traffic. It’s mid day and not right downtown but there’s still far too many cars down here for this to be safe.

Zach’s thankful for the car’s driving assistance because until recently he hadn’t driven in years and he’s never had to go this fast, especially in the city. Before Nowak finished this car he’d actually never driven in the city at all. Nobody drives in New York and he only learned how because his family used to spend a lot of time in the country. He assured Mr. Nowak he could handle the vehicle and so far he can, but without the system’s help he could never keep up with this guy. The dress thieves don’t seem at all concerned with the safety of bystanders.

Driving isn’t his top concern. He’s been practicing and he feels confident the driving assistance won’t let him down. When they ditch the cars though he hopes he’ll be able to keep up. He feels a small twinge as he accelerates. Lorelei says his knee is mostly healed and she cleared him to be back out on the streets. There’s still pain if he pushes too hard though and a part of him worries he’ll hurt himself again if he’s not careful. Being shot in the knee isn’t an experience he wants to repeat, even if the bullet missed the most important parts. Only through months of hard work has he reached this point.

This is his first time back on the streets since his injury and he’s glad to not be alone. Lorelei is both his doctor and a fellow vigilante. He met her during the same bank robbery where he was hurt and she saved his life, both in the bank and afterwards when she patched up his knee. Meeting her crew opened doors for him and although they might not agree on every detail of how they should stop people, having backup on the streets makes him feel safer. Sami’s excitable but excellent in a fight and he’s probably the weakest of the group.

The robbers try to turn left but Zach’s able to swerve around them and block their path. They slam on the breaks to avoid a collision and with nowhere else to go, they swerve back to the right. They’re heading toward the park and the water where help is waiting.

Soon he’s back on their heels. He’d love to box them in somewhere but these guys are good at avoiding traps. They mostly stick to the middle of the road, unafraid to dart into oncoming traffic when needed or to jump onto a sidewalk if there’s no other path forward.

Nearing the park, Zach looks for any sign of Lorelei and Sami. He can’t see their car but there’s so many around that if they were two cars behind him and he wouldn’t notice. A cab cuts him off and he doesn’t slam on the breaks fast enough. Luckily, the driving assistant notices the obstacle and breaks for him. He looks for a way to move around them but the street’s packed from side to side and unlike the robbers he isn’t willing to risk running people down. A hole opens to his left and he considers filling it. A moment of hesitation dooms him. The hole shrinks and the self driving technology’s too conservative to use a hole that small. The computer has no problem going around the block five times if needed. Nowak didn’t program it to hurry. He’s left without a way forward.

The red car speeds past the traffic and there’s little he can do except pass this off. “You guys hear me?”

“What’s up?”

“I got cut off and lost them but they’re going right past the park. Looks like they’re heading toward the docks or the ice rink. Think you can catch them?”

Sounding distracted Lorelei says, “We’ll try. Get there as soon as you can. You’re the one with the tech.”

Boxed in by traffic, Zach sets the car to drive itself back to the auto shop before climbing out and locking the door. the windows are blacked out so nobody on the street will know there’s no driver. As he climbs out Sami’s beat up four door goes flying through the intersection ahead of him. He’s offered to buy his new allies a better car for exactly this sort of situation but so far they’ve declined any offers of financial assistance.

Rushing past crowds on the street, stares follow him. Zach feels his skin crawl, still uncomfortable with attention. He’s a private person and he never wanted to be noticed. He hears the name Hitbox uttered a few times. He tries to move fast but not too fast. A busted knee didn’t help him get in shape and even a fast walk soon leaves him out of breath. The warm summer weather and the weight of his suit don’t help. The New York summer’s sweltering and the masses of bodies around him don’t help.

Reaching the end of the street, Zach searches for the two cars he’s following. They’re nowhere to be found but people are still looking in the direction of the sports complex ahead. A large ice arena used by minor league hockey teams sits on the water. Activating the radio in his helmet he says, “Where are you guys?”

There’s no answer. Wherever they’ve gone they’re out of range. Another voice is in his ear a moment later. “This is the Hammer and Heather, can you hear us?”

“Ya, I hear you. Lorelei said you guys were on your way. We’re over by the Chelsea hockey arena. How far away are you?”

The deep voiced man sighs. “Depends on traffic. No more than fifteen minutes. We’ll try to be there sooner. Were you just calling them?”

“Ya, we got separated but I’m heading after them. Just trying to narrow down the search area.”

The arena looms above him and as Zach reaches the front entrance he sees the red car parked without any wedding dresses in the back. When the thieves ran inside they took their haul with them. Sami’s piece of junk sits right behind. He didn’t bother to lock the doors. There’s only four other cars in the parking lot so the place should be pretty empty.

The pain in his knee grows as he pushes harder. Except for a couple training sessions on a treadmill he avoided putting much weight on it the last few months. Lorelei kept stressing how it’d never heal if he refused to relax. She says he’s ready to be out here now so he’ll trust her.

Someone busted the glass doors at the front of the arena. The ground’s covered in large shards of glass. Climbing through the broken door, he peers into a long hallway and finds it abandoned. The hall’s lined with food vendors but all of the booths are shuttered. Banners for the Chelsea Challengers flap above his head as they’re caught by the building’s air conditioning. The cool air’s a welcome relief but only does so much in this suit.

There’s no sign of anyone and with the building being a giant circle, Zach has zero idea which direction to go. He doesn’t care what Lorelei says, he’s buying them some sort of headset for next time. He spends far too long trying to pick a direction. Every so often he’ll hear what sounds like shoes in the distance but this place is cavernous and any noise echoes off everything. It’s impossible to tell which way the sound is coming from.

Calling to them’s out of the question with an armed thief in the building. Giving their position away could be dangerous. He turns on his helmet’s heat vision, hoping it’ll find them, but nothing shows up. It can only see so far and most of the building’s made of concrete which is too thick for his helmet to see through.

Leaving the heat vision running, he decides to go right. His knee pounds more with each step. Lorelei was wrong. He’s not ready to be out here. He should just go. The Hammer and Heather should be here any time. They’re more experienced at this. They know how to work with Lorelei and Sami. He’s just going to get in the way. Even with his desperation to run he can’t walk away from them until he’s sure other help has arrived so he continues.

He’s a quarter of the way around the building before his heat vision picks up anything. The light’s vague at first but as he gets closer he sees something in the women’s room on his right. Zach turns bright red at the thought of going inside. What if it’s one of the few employees here this time of day? The closer he gets though, the less he worries about an awkward encounter. Whoever is inside, they’re laying on the ground. That might be scarier than whatever they’re facing here.

There’s two entrances to the restroom and he’s again faced with a decision. With someone potentially injured he picks faster this time and enters on the left. He finds Lorelei sprawled face down on the floor. Her hair’s everywhere and her right temple bleeding. She’s still wearing the top to her scrubs, though she changed into better pants for action and a brown leather jacket sit over the top even though this time of year certainly isn’t providing jacket weather. She must have come right from work.

Moving to her side, Zach’s whole body goes cold. She saved his life, if not his literal one than certainly his ability to live the life he wants. Failing her’s not an option. He fears the worst but relief washes over him as he notices her chest rising and falling. Where’s Sami? Why would he leave her like this? He needs answers but for now needs to attend to his friend. He knows enough about head wounds to know he shouldn’t move her. The woman laying in front of him knows a lot more about them than he does though. He runs to the sink and fills his gloves with water. Returning to Lorelei, he shakes drops on her face, hoping for some reaction.

Her eyes flutter and after a moment they stay open. She squints at Zach. “Can you please take the helmet off? It’s weird talking to you when you’re wearing it.”

Doing as she asks, Zach notices his hair stand straight up from static. Looking at himself in the bathroom mirror makes him cringe. He’s way overdue for a hair cut. For a long time he’s just taken a trimmer to his head every few weeks but if he’s going to start back on the board at Thomas Computing soon he needs to look the part. He’s been growing the hair out and it’s time to have a good hair dresser shape it into something. Right now the wild hair makes him feel self concious but Lorelei doesn’t seem to care.

She starts to push herself up but Zach tries to stop her. “You shouldn’t move.”

Her head turns to the side and she grunts at him. “I’m the doctor, not you. I have zero desire to leave my face on a public bathroom’s floor. Besides, I think I’m alright. What’s our status? Did you catch the guy?”

“No, I only got here a few minutes ago and I didn’t see you guys. I circled the building until my heat vision picked you up in here. That’s all I know. What the hell happened? Do you know where Sami went?”

Unsteady on her feet, Lorelei leans against the sinks. “Kind of fuzzy. We were chasing the guy and I think me and Sami followed him in here. He was trying to drag a pair of wedding dresses along and we were gaining ground. He must have gotten the jump on me though because I don’t remember what happened after that.”

“Seems weird Sami would just leave you here. Was he right behind you?”

Putting her hands over her face, she pauses. “Think so, not sure what happened though. Have you heard from Heather or the Hammer?”

Zach pops his helmet back into place. “They got ahold of me before I got here. Said they were about fifteen minutes out so they should be here any time. You should rest, I’ll go look for Sami.”

Pushing herself away from the sink Lorelei says, “Not a chance, I’m coming with you. He’s my cousin. How’s your knee holding up?”

“It hurts but I’ll be alright.”

He turns to walk away but Lorelei grabs his shoulder. “How bad?”

He doesn’t meet her gaze. “Don’t know how to describe it. A fair amount of pain but it’s not slowing me down much.”

“It shouldn’t be doing that by now. When we get out of here you need to let me look at it. We may have pushed you back out here too soon.”

Grinning, Zach wishes he’d waited a little longer to put the helmet back on. He thinks the look would reassure her. “Well then we both have a reason we shouldn’t be doing this. Let’s go.”

Zach exits the room first, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Lorelei is right behind him with her gun drawn. He doesn’t approve of the guns, he’s a firm believer in non lethal weaponry. He offered to have a set made for her but so far she’s declined almost every piece of tech he’s offered her. She’ll accept payment for taking care of him but she sees anything else he offers as charity.

They move through the halls slowly. Lorelei keeps putting a hand on her head and he worries she’s not up for this. Her facial expression is more angry than anything else though and he knows how worried she is about her cousin. This is his first time working with her crew but she’s told him plenty of stories about Sami and it sounds like he tends to rush in without thinking.

They walk round the place searching for Sami or the thief but by the time they’ve walked a full lap around the circular building, they’ve found no sign of him. A stop in the ticket office finds some very surprised phone operators but nobody else. They lock their door as the vigilantes leave after promising to call the police right away.

Other than those five people the building’s empty. At this point Lorelei’s grinding her teeth so hard it’s giving Zach a headache. “Where they hell are they? You’re not seeing anything else on your helmet?”

“Nothing. Almost like they disappeared. Do you think he chased the guy out of here already? Have you tried calling him?”

“I can’t, he never remembers to put his phone on silent. If I call him at the wrong moment he could get hurt.”

“If we don’t call him he might already be hurt.”

She doesn’t respond at first. She pushes past Zach and takes the lead. “We’ll make another lap. If we don’t notice anything maybe I’ll call him.”

The next lap’s slow going. Zach lets Lorelei lead the way and every time he tries to move faster she gives him a look that cuts sharper than a dagger. When they’re nearing the halfway point Lorelei takes off at a run. Zach tries to keep pace, not seeing what she does. His heat vision isn’t picking anything up.

She stops at an entrance and as he closes in Zach sees why. The door’s slightly open due to a short strip of white fabric with gemstones attached which is stuck. Counting the number of stones in this small piece answers Zach’s questions about why someone would rob a bridal shop.

They exchange a glance before Lorelei pushes the door. There’s a small lobby before another set of doors leading outside. As they open the next doors the heat washes over Zach and he immediately misses air conditioning. He only has a moment to think though because the smell of sea air washes over him and makes him nautious. They’re on the side of the building facing the water and the ocean fills his vision. Lorelei moves toward the water but Zach freezes. She notices and returns to him. She understands his issue.

“You need to push through the fear. I know that’s hard for you but now isn’t the time.”

Nodding, he tries to push forward, to think of anything else. They head in the direction of the water and the mystery of where Sami went is solved. Before them is a small pier behind the arena and a stack of wedding dresses are sprawled across it. In front of them Sami and the thief are brawling. Neither looks to be armed but they’re pushing back and forth while beating on each other. It looks like they’ve been fighting for a few minutes because both men are battered and bruised. A long tear runs across Sami’s shirt.

A boat’s rapidly approaching on the river and at first Zach hopes it’s the police. It looks like a pretty average speed boat though. His heat vision only picks up one person on board and cops don’t normally show up alone.

Lorelei points her gun right at them but Zach puts a hand in front of the gun. “Too much chance of hitting Sami, let me try my way. You can always shoot them if I can’t handle it.”

Zach can’t believe he’s rushing toward the water. It’s the only way they’re going to stop the theft though and Sami clearly needs help. He notices Zach out of the corner of his eye as he approaches. “Took you two long enough. A little help would be nice.”

Getting close, Zach draws his stun baton, ready to put a beating on this guy up close and personal. By the time he reaches the men, the boat’s docked and the man on board’s starting to load the dresses. His mouth twists into a scowl. A yellow scarf flaps in the wind behind him. “You had to pick a fight with vigilantes, didn’t you?”

His friend shoves Sami aside. “Fuck you, they were in the area at the time. They’re everywhere nowadays. What was I supposed to do?”

Going right for the man on the boat, Zach tackles him hard. They crash to the dock and for a moment he’s terrified he’ll go into the water. It takes all his strength to avoid freezing again. He manages to stop himself and climb to his feet. His electric baton’s charged and he delivers a low power jolt to the man. He could go higher but the man doesn’t seem armed and he’s afraid of what might happen if the shock knocks him into the water.

Knocked back, the boat driver stays on his feet. He rushes Zach and tackles him to the ground. The suit pads his landing but at this point he’s in a wrestling match and he’s never been good at those. He also finds the padding gets in the way when he needs leverage. The man’s punching him repeatedly but his hits don’t hurt through the suit. The man’s bloodying knuckles must be hurting him though.

Lorelei circles the action with her gun drawn. So far she’s stayed out of things but she’s ready to fire the second it makes sense. Sami’s losing his fight. The original thief’s knocking him around. If he doesn’t end this soon Lorelei’s going to shoot. He manages to twist his arm so he can press the shock baton into the man on top of him’s side. He’s knocked away though not unconscious. He rolls in the direction of the boat.

With his partner seemingly out of the fight, the other thief panics. He gets a grip on Sami and starts running him down the pier before lifting him into the air. He hits the water hard, causing a giant splash. A thick splat sounds painful. Water flies over all of them. After a long minute Sami pops back out of the water and keeps his head above the waves. If he swallowed any of that water he’s going to need a quarantine.

Ready to return the favor Zach charges his stun baton and heads toward the original robber. A throat clears behind him. Turning, he sees the robber from the boat’s back on his feet and in his hand he holds one of Zach’s grenades. It must have come loose from his belt, or maybe it was pulled free when they were on the ground.

Running his hand over his belt tells him the problem’s bad. That’s a shock grenade, filled with electricity. If it goes off anywhere near the water they’re in trouble. The man’s eyes are wide. “I don’t have to use this. Up to you. Let us get on our boat and get out of here and we’ll let you all go. Otherwise, I’m blowing something up.”

Zach’s willing to lose to protect them. He holsters his stun baton. “That’s fine. Get out of here. You win. Just toss me the grenade back.”

“No dice, that’s my insurance policy. I’ll be hanging onto it.” The two men make their way onto the speedboat. A glance at Lorelei shows she’s holstered her gun. “Good doing business with you folks. Stay out of our way next time.”

The boat starts and pulls away. As it picks up speed the man pulls the pin and tosses the grenade into the water. He aims away from them. If anything the man throws it further away than needed to act as a distraction. He doesn’t know what the grenade he’s holding can do though. “No!” Zach scrambles forward, reaching a hand toward Sami to try and pull him out in time. He’s too far into the water. The boat’s out of range by the time the grenade goes off but Sami isn’t.

Electricity rips through and above the water, travelling at least thirty feet. Zach’s not close enough to pull Sami from the water but he is close enough to see the look on his face as the power rips through him. He lets out a shriek and starts to spasm.

It doesn’t last long. After a few seconds the electricity starts to dissipate, though the water’s still sparking lightly. Lorelei rushes forward, desperate to do something. She tears her coat off as she closes in and Zach can see she’s preparing to dive in. “Don’t, the water’s still electric. You’ll get lit up as bad as he is.”

“What the hell do you suggest I do?”

Ideas aren’t popping into his head. He looks around for something they can throw to Sami but he’s face down in the water. Zach scans for something to hook Sami with but there’s nothing out here. None of his equipment will work and by the time he finds something it’s going to be too late.

His suit’s shock resistant. The thought pops into his head but he can’t do that. He hasn’t been in the water since the raft and the idea of plunging in makes his knees go weak. There’s no other way he can see to save Sami but he doesn’t know if he can make himself do what he needs to.

“Push me in.”

“What?” Lorelei’s eyes go wide but she doesn’t look away from Sami.

“My suit’s shock resistant. I can help him. Push me in.”

“Can you even swim in that thing?”

“Now’s as good a time as any to find out. He’s going to drown if we don’t do something. Push me in.”

She doesn’t need further encouragement. A hard shove sends him flying into the water. Water slowly fill his pants and his helmet. Soon he realizes this suit definitely wasn’t meant to be worn in the water. The water streamss under everything so while the suit offers some protection, it doesn’t completely stop the electricity. He can swim though. Awkwardly but he can swim.

Trying to push away thoughts of a cold, stormy night many years ago, Zach focuses on the current warm summer day while trying to swim to Sami. He isn’t far and it doesn’t take long to reach him. He struggles to flip his limp body but manages to get his head into the air. At that point it’s just a matter of hanging onto the man’s shoulder while flopping his way back to the dock.

By the time he grabs the dock the electricity has died down. It takes teamwork but with Lorelei pulling and him pushing they’re able to lift Sami out of the water.

Forgetting he’s still in the water, Lorelei attends to her cousin. She searches for signs life. “He’s not breathing.” She pumps his chest.

There’s no ladder here and on his own Zach realizes he can’t climb out of the water. He hangs onto one of the polls of the dock, trying to think of anything except where he is. Left without a goal after freeing Sami he can’t keep the water out of his mind. He thinks of his parents, of the friends he lost that night, of the chill of the water and the heat coming off their boat as it sank. The warmth of the water today reminds him of his panic that night and soon he begins to panic. Thrashing about, he wants to call for help but Sami needs Lorelei more right now. He can’t take her from him.

She continues CPR and eventually Sami spits up a lot of water and starts breathing again but his breaths are ragged and weak. She continues taking care of him until the police and emergency workers show up. Heather and the Hammer aren’t far behind, finally showing up after it’s too late to help.

Sami’s loaded onto a stretcher and led to an ambulance. The Hammer crouches on the dock and offers a hand to pull Zach out of the water. The man’s exposed biceps bulge as he lifts Zach with one hand. Lorelei realizes she left him and returns to make sure he’s okay but Zach waves her off. “Go with your cousin, I’ll have one of them drive his car. We’ll meet you at the hospital.”

She tosses him the keys. “Fine, but before you go, get yourself checked out by one of the emergency workers. I saw you in the water, your suit didn’t stop it all. I need to look at your knee later too.”

He’s cleared by the emergency workers after a few tests. He gives Sami’s keys to Heather and leads her and the Hammer to where the car was left. The two of them drive off but Zach just stands in the parking lot staring after them. He wants to follow to the hospital. He wants to make sure Sami’s okay. He isn’t sure he can do so though. He’s not part of their group. This was his first time working with them and he messed up. He replays every mistake. Arriving late. Not figuring out the thief had gone outside sooner. Letting that guy grab one of his grenades. Even stopping Lorelei from shooting them. He’s against killing but where’s the line? Doesn’t there come a time when you have to protect people first?

Zach’s not willing to find that line right now. He needs to get to the hospital. Even if he only stays for a minute he needs to know Sami’s okay. His helmet’s acting weird, the picture inside distorting. Everything has a slight red film over it. It still works at least and he’s able to call his car. He wishes his day was over but there’s a long way to go.

Part 2

Hitbox Vol. 1 Finding Your Sea Legs Part 24

It’s a few days into Zach Thomas’ self imposed injury exile before he hears from the one person he expected to see right away. They’ve been bad days. He had to cancel his sessions with his trainer Simon Brant and the man didn’t believe him when he told him he was injured. It took everything he had and finally a picture of his bandaged knee to convince the man not to drop him as a client.

Lorelei stopped by twice to change his bandages and clean the wound but she hasn’t had time to stick around and talk. Both times she stopped she was on her way to work and was in and out within twenty minutes. She promised to stop again soon with her crew so they can meet but she hasn’t said when. Something to look forward to could work wonders for him. All they talked about other than his injury was how amazing his loft is.

For years he was on his own and he got so used to it that he thought he preferred it. The last couple days have proven that’s not the case. He’s terribly anxious for any conversation, any human interaction. He has an amazing apartment to relax in but he can’t use the workout room and he doesn’t want to sit around playing video games or watching movies anymore. He’s spent way too many years sitting around doing so. Playing some game through for the tenth time seems like a complete waste.

Being unable to move around encourages his worst habits. Soda and snack cakes are breakfast. Lunch and dinner aren’t any better. The slight progress he’s made losing weight evaporates and he actually starts to gain weight.

When Nowak finally calls, Zach practically jumps up and down on his one good leg. “Can I stop by kid? I want to have a talk with you.”

Immediately accepting Zach waits impatiently in his living room. He knows how long it takes to get from Nowak’s place to here but it seems to be taking a lot longer. He’s almost given up when there’s a knock at the door.

He considers getting up to answer but his sore underarms give him pause. “Come in, it’s not locked.”

Stumbling through the door, Nowak looks like he hasn’t showered since the last time they saw each other. His eyes are red and Zach’s pretty sure he catches the aroma of alcohol on him. He didn’t sound drunk on the phone but that seems to have changed. He looks around the place, clearly surprised how nice it is. “Nicely done kid, this place is great. No wonder you got out of our dump of a building. How you feeling?”

Pushing himself into a sitting position Zach lies. “Not bad. Lorelei has me on so many pain pills that I don’t feel much. I’m just getting bored sitting around here with nothing to do.”

“I get that. Sorry I haven’t called until now. I’ve been in the lab pretty much since I took off the other night. Trying to fix your suit up so you have protection over your knees and elbows. I found some bulletproof material I can make a joint out of. They’ll strap around your joints over the rest of the suit. Not easy to shape how we’ll need them and I’ll need to get some measurements from you but this won’t happen again.” Zach can make out a cheap measuring tape tied around Nowak’s waist like a belt.

“That’s awesome. There’s no huge hurry though. Lorelei says I won’t be able to put full weight on it for a few more weeks. After that she wants me up and around for at least a couple more weeks before I go back out. I’m out of commission for at least a month.”

Nowak puts a hand against his forehead. “Ya, that okay. I just, well, I just needed to know it was ready. I let you down and you got hurt because of it.”

“What do you mean you let me down? I’m the one who decided to go into that bank. I decided on being a vigilante in the first place. You were pretty much telling me right from the start I’d end up dead.”

With a chuckle Nowak says, “Well, overall that’s true. You said you needed something over your knees though and I said it’d be fine. You were right, I was wrong. You got hurt because I was wrong. That can’t happen. My job’s to figure out the dangerous stuff and solve it before it’s a problem. Besides, you didn’t even want to go to that second bank. I pushed you to do it because I was so convinced my gear could handle it and it seemed like an opportunity. I was wrong about so much.” He makes his way to the couch and sits. He’s sweating bad and he keeps wiping it away with his sleeve. The temperature’s spiked over the last few days but even with that Nowak’s still wearing long sleeves.

“You can’t blame yourself for this, I messed up. All the technology works great. The helmet’s amazing, the shock gun and rod are incredible, even the suit worked great. I just got hit in the spot there wasn’t any suit. I’m glad you’re fixing the issue but don’t worry too much. I don’t want to make getting shot a regular thing but I’m okay. Have you been drinking while working on this stuff by the way?”

Nowak brightens up as Zach praises his gear. That quickly shifts when the alcohol comes up. He looks down, chuckling under his breath. “No, stopped off on the way over here for that. I was kind of nervous to see you kid, wasn’t sure if you’d be pissed and I was kind of pissed at myself. Needed a drink to give myself the courage.”

“That’s alright. Want something? I have a ton of stuff in the cabinet above the fridge. I’d have a drink with you but I can’t drink with the pain meds I’m on.”

Shaking his head, Nowak leans back. “I’ve had enough. Thanks though. Just wanted to come by and tell you I solved the problem and make sure you were okay. I’ll get to work on the car and the boat security to make sure it’s all ready by the time you get back out there. In the mean time, relax.”

He pauses at this point and heads for the kitchen. “Maybe I will have that drink after all. I don’t do well with people getting hurt kid. I have a son who, well, let’s just say someone hurt him and he’s never been the same. I don’t want to go into it too much, but you’re a good kid. You went into that place and put yourself in danger to help strangers. Not a lot of people would do that. Feel good about it.”

Now Zach really wishes he could have a drink. “I’m not sure I helped. A guy got shot in the first bank. Innocent guy, paramedic said he’d be okay, but they also said he might never use his right arm again. I can’t even imagine. A bunch of the robbers in the second bank are dead. I sit around here and I have nothing to do so I think. I keep thinking if I’d stayed out of it maybe those guys would have taken the money and left. Maybe everyone would have been fine.”

The cabinets in the kitchen squeak as they’re opened. “Sure, or maybe they’d have executed every hostage in there so they couldn’t identify them. There’s no way to know what would have happened. You can’t think that way. You did what you had to and everything worked out pretty well. You’re worse off than most anyone else in the place. Feel proud of that.”

Nowak comes back with a drink, straight whiskey. Apparently his turning down a drink was only really turning down Zach making it. He plops back on the couch near Zach. “I’ve probably had too much to drink. Mind if I hang around awhile? Watch some TV or something until I sober up?” That won’t be anytime soon if he keeps drinking.

Desperate for company, Zach’s glad to have him stay. They sit around watching TV but after an hour Zach’s phone rings. Not a lot of people know the number so he’s a bit surprised. He answers the unknown caller to hear Linus Setterberg on the other end. “Hey Zach, good to talk to you. Your driver told me you hurt your knee. Bad sprain or something? How’s it feeling?”

Well handled Beth. “Not too bad, taking some pain medicine. Using crutches to get around but it could be worse.”

“Glad to hear it. Everything okay with the accommodations? Good food, good apartment, all of that looking good? Want me to send a doctor over to take a look? My personal guy’s good.”

“No complaints and not needed but thanks. The place is beautiful. I’d like to stay here for awhile actually.”

“That’s not a problem at all. Hope you’re up and around real soon. I’m actually calling because the board got back together this week and I told them about you coming back to the company. They weren’t thrilled, I told you they wouldn’t be. They can’t stop it though and there are a few in your corner. The next board meeting isn’t for three weeks but I want to meet for lunch before that if you’re up to it. We’ll get something to eat, go over a strategy for how you’re going to approach things. It’s my treat of course. What do you say?”

Without being able to think of an excuse to turn the man down, Zach agrees to lunch two weeks from Friday at a, “great little Vietnamese place,” Linus knows. After hanging up the phone, Zach sits there staring at the TV but not really watching. He’s glad to have lunch with Linus. He realizes how much he needs to be around people that matter to him. He just hopes he doesn’t mess up rejoining his company as bad as he messed up his start to being a vigilante.

 

 Part 23

Volume 2 Commitment Shock Begins December 31st

Hitbox Vol. 1 Finding Your Sea Legs Part 23

Riding home from his boat is excruciating. Zach Thomas’ leg feels fine, mostly thanks to an absurd amount of drugs. He’s going to miss those IVs now that he has to get by on pills. Instead the pain comes from the silence. Beth doesn’t say a word the entire trip which means after they drop Lorelei at her place Zach sits in complete silence.

Normally he loves how quiet Beth is. He chose her as his driver because she knew how to keep quiet and not ask a lot of questions. Now that she knows what he’s doing though he wants to know what’s on her mind. She doesn’t work for him, she works for Thomas Computing. She’s only a driver for them but she could easily tell them what he’s doing. He doesn’t have a good grasp on her loyalties. If they found out she knew and didn’t tell anyone she might be fired.

Linus Setterberg, the CEO of the company, has been fantastic since his return. He’s made getting access to his money, needed to pay for all this equipment, incredibly simple. That would almost have to change if he found out what the money’s for. The company would potentially be opening itself up to lawsuits if they ignored something like that. At the very least they’d be ridiculed. In some ways that’s worse. He’s been around the business world enough of his life to know how that would go. Their first move would be to run for the hills.

Pulling up to his apartment, Beth stops the car but stays silent. She looks at Zach in her rear view mirror, waiting for him to either get out of the car or say something. He wants more than anything to get out of this car and get inside. Confrontation isn’t his strong suit. He spent years living alone in a tiny studio apartment to avoid it. It’s still weird to be around people, let alone to argue with them.

Running from this would be a mistake though. He needs to know where he stands. Besides, Beth took a risk for him last night. Unable to meet her gaze, Zach looks at the ground. ”I really want to thank you for last night. I know that can’t have been easy but I’d probably be dead if you didn’t help Nowak. I asked him to come get me but I planned on being conscious when he got there. I’m actually surprised the two of you were able to get me into the back of here.”

Beth shrugs but doesn’t say anything. Zach waits, hoping she’ll offer up the answers he’s seeking but he figures out he’s going to have to get them himself. “Did I get any blood back here last night? Everything looks good.”

“A little,” Beth says. She sounds like she wants to spit. “Got it cleaned, Nowak knew a guy. Nobody knows.”

“That’s good to hear. That’s actually the other thing I’d like to talk to you about. I know you work for the company and probably feel a need to be loyal to them. I completely understand that. I’d really like to keep this quiet though. It wouldn’t be good for the company and right now I don’t want to be a big deal. I’m trying to figure things out and that’s going to be easier if the media isn’t losing their minds and following me around.”

She smiles a light smile, a rarity for her. “Probably shouldn’t have talked to the media last night then.”

He returns her smile and actually laughs at that. “You’re probably right. They’ll get tired of that story in five minutes though. I’m not worried.”

“Well they certainly haven’t yet and it’s been a lot more than five minutes. They’re running you constantly. They want to know who you are.”

He’ll have to keep that in mind. It’s a bargaining chip he can use later. “That’s not surprising. Thanks for letting me know. Seriously though, are you going to say anything to Linus or anyone else at the company? I won’t be mad if you feel you have to but I’d rather you don’t.”

“You don’t have to worry about me.” She returns her eyes to the road.

“That’s nice to hear. Any reason why? You don’t really know me that well. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it. Just curious.”

She shrugs, not meeting his gaze. “You picked me to drive you. I appreciate it. A lot of the executives want someone who can talk all day. That’s not me. I just like to drive. Being a private driver’s a lot easier than being in the pool though. Plus, my sister’s a vigilante out in Portland so I know how that goes.”

The vigilante connection’s a relief. Betraying him would be like betraying someone in her family. “Well that’s good. If there’s anything I can do to help her, will you let me know? I owe you one and I like to pay my debts.”

Beth nods and looks up, now staring at him when he’d rather she stare at the road. The conversation seems to be coming to a close. “Anyway, I really appreciate it. I’ll call you if I need a ride anywhere. I’m supposed to take it easy for the next few weeks so I probably won’t be going a lot of places. Guess you get to take it easy too.” A final nod from Beth confirms she understands. With a quick goodbye, Zach hobbles away from the car and into his building to return to resting.

Part 22

Part 24

Hitbox Vol. 1 Finding Your Sea Legs Part 22

Waking the next morning, it takes Zach Thomas a moment to figure out where he is. He figures it out a lot quicker this time. This is actually the first time he’s seen the inside of his private yacht. He came up with the idea to use a yacht for his headquarters so he can easily move around the city. It’s nice, but he’s still terrified of the ocean. After what happened to his family, who wouldn’t be? He may have rushed into this idea. If not for the medicine pumping through him he doubts he would have gotten any sleep.

Besides that, so far he’s mostly been getting involved in his own neighborhood. You don’t need a yacht to get around Chelsea. The entire thing would seem like a waste if it wasn’t making a very nice emergency room in a pinch.

Sunshine blares through the windows and he can smell the sea air through a few open windows. He used to love that smell. Now it makes him feel vaguely ill. A light breeze brushes his face. There’s no sign of Lorelei, Nowak or anyone else. He sees a pair of crutches sitting against the wall next to him. Not feeling like laying in bed all day, he swings his legs over the side. His knee’s heavily bandaged. It hurts, but not as bad as it did last night. Hoisting himself onto the crutches, he steadies himself and heads out the door, trying not to put weight on his injured leg.

Finding Lorelei doesn’t prove difficult. Leaning against the far railing on deck, she seems comfortable as she smokes a cigarette and looks out to sea. Glancing back at the docks, there’s no sign of anyone else around. It’s still pretty early though. The sun’s mostly up but he can still see darkness on the horizon.

“A doctor smoking? That seems like a contradiction.”

Turning to face him, Lorelei doesn’t seem surprised he’s out of bed. She takes another puff. “What can I say, I’m a mess of contradictions. I’m down to just a few a week though. You probably shouldn’t be moving around yet. Rest, feel better. That’s why you’re here.”

He shrugs as he crosses the deck to reach her. “I was getting restless. Besides, I feel a lot better this morning.”

Lorelei laughs, putting her cigarette out as he gets close. “You got shot last night, how you feel has nothing to do with you being better. You feel better because I’ve got enough drugs in you to knock a horse out. If you’re careful you can stay out here but not for long. You really need to take it easy.”

Looking out to sea, Zach feels anxious even with the sea having calmed since last night. A few small waves hit the side of the yacht but they’re no more than a foot high. “How much do you know about me?”

“Enough. I know who you are, your company, all the big stuff. I know about your parents. Sorry about that. I’m sure the whole boat thing isn’t easy. It was a good place to take you though if you didn’t want to go to a hospital.”

“I haven’t been on a boat since that night.” Zach’s leg’s starting to shake even being held in the air. “The only time I’ve been near one is when I came to buy this and I could barely step on the dock. The water’s fine right now and we’re not even at sea but my mind’s kind of freaking. I loved boats. Never missed a chance to go out to sea with my family. My little sister always made excuses to stay home but not me. That’s one more thing I lost. I don’t think I’m ever going to feel comfortable at sea again.”

Lorelei’s eyes travel to his knee which is feeling worse. The shaking’s increasing. For now she ignores it. “Maybe not, but you can face it. Really you should face it. You’re out here right now. You ripped the band aid off, even if it was done for you. It’s a start.”

Using the railing for additional support would be so easy. He’s not there. “Ya, guess it is. So about you, why did you become a vigilante? Seems weird for a doctor, especially one who was so cool with shooting people yesterday. No offense.”

“No, it’s fine. You’re right, I’m cool with killing if it protects people. I signed up because there’s too many people out there taking advantage of each other, willing to hurt anyone to get ahead, to take a little more. I became a doctor because I wanted to help people who needed it. This is another way for me to do that.”

“You can help people without killing.”

She looks away, her voice tightening. “I really can’t. You’re a billionaire, you can buy your way to all this great technology to fight without killing. You’ve got some cool stuff by the way, this isn’t an attack. I don’t have that option though. I have guns. I have to use what’s available to me. Besides, I’m not killing shoplifters who are willing to surrender. Bank robbers who take hostages though? They don’t deserve mercy. I’ll do what I have to do and worry about the rest later.”

“Don’t doctors take some kind of oath though? Do no harm or something?”

Frowning, Lorelei reaches into her pocket for another cigarette. “Ya, we do. I’ll honor that when I’m being a doctor. When I’m a vigilante, I’m not a doctor at that moment. I have to keep those lives separate. Don’t get me wrong, once they’re no longer a threat and everyone’s safe, I’ll be glad to try and save the lives of anyone I shot. I don’t want people dead. I’m just not going to risk anyone else’s life to protect the people putting those lives at risk.”

Zach’s mind’s at work and an idea crosses it. “What if I was to get you non-lethal tech? Something similar to what I use, or we can make it different if you like.”

“I don’t want your money. Well, that’s not true. I want your money for saving your life when you get hurt. But I don’t want your technology. I’d feel like I’m doing this for you instead of for me. Besides, I have a crew I work with and we’d all need the stuff.”

“What sort of crew?”

She pauses, thinking about how to respond. “I can’t tell you everything, too much risk. There’s me, my cousin, a couple friends. We’re all vigilantes. Most of us operate as ourselves like I do. There is one guy who wears a costume like you, he has a good reason to hide who he is. I’ll introduce you to them if you want. We’re always looking for more people to work with. We’re more effective if we work together.”

Smiling, Zach adjusts his weight. “I’d like that. I don’t know any other vigilantes. I don’t really know a lot of people.”

Zach’s latest adjustment isn’t lost on Lorelei. “You’re going to have to do something about that. Allies are important. For what it’s worth, I’m glad you met me. Your driver’s coming in a few hours to take you home. You need to keep relaxing even after you get there. I’ll stop by every couple days to check the wound, make sure you’re changing the dressing on it properly, make sure it isn’t infected. You got lucky. As long as it doesn’t get infected you should be fine before long. Now get back in bed, you need rest.”

Part 21

Part 23