The cafe still smelled like coffee, but now a metallic undercurrent of blood lurked below. The staff and customers had all been cleared out, some of them being interviewed by DSA agents outside. Khaki Suit’s body lay where it had fallen, a medical examiner crouched over it. Moreen was standing over the examiner, arms crossed as she oversaw his work. The Illusionist sat in one of the booths across from Lightblade. She’d wiped Khaki Suit’s blood from her face, but there was a messy red stain on the front of her T-shirt. She’d given up on keeping the illusion of her costume intact, and Dave couldn’t say that he blamed her.
“It happens.” Lightblade’s rough voice was surprisingly gentle as he spoke to her. “No matter how good you are, no matter how long you’ve been doing this, people die, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. You can shoulder the blame for each one until the weight pins you to the floor, or you can put it behind you and do your best to save the next one.”
It was good advice. Dave should think about taking it. He leaned against the brick wall, watching the medical examiner work. He wasn’t sure why they even needed one. It wasn’t like the cause of death was hard to figure out, but these things needed to be official.
“Let’s get a coffee,” said the Black Valentine.
She stood next to him, a little too close than he was comfortable with. A hint of her honey-scented perfume mingled with the smells of blood and coffee beans.
“I think they’ve shut down for the day,” Dave said.
“There’s another place right down the street.” She gestured out the window.
“We’re staying here.”
“Come on.” She somehow managed to make the two words sound almost musical. “They won’t miss us. You standing here all sullen isn’t exactly a critical part of the investigation.”
Dave didn’t answer. She didn’t give up.
“You know it’s a good idea. I need some caffeine, and you need to stop staring at that corpse.”
Dave looked away from her, because she was turning that charming smile on him, and while he couldn’t stop the effect it was having on him, he could at least stop looking at it. “We’re staying here. Deal with it.”
“Oh, I’ll deal with it.” Her voice took on the tone she probably used to threaten rival gangs. “I’ll deal with it by screaming that there’s another gunman and sending the whole crowd out there into a panic. You’ll be stuck here for another half hour doing damage control. Agent Lee will be pissed. And all because you wouldn’t let me get a cup of coffee.”
“Do you always throw temper tantrums when you don’t get your way?”
His anger only made her smile wider. “Yeah, I’m a spoiled brat. Don’t doubt it for a second.”
He clenched shut his eyes and exhaled. This wasn’t what he wanted to deal with right now. It wouldn’t hurt to go get a coffee, would it? Between jet lag and the post-adrenaline crash, he could use one. And he had been staring at Khaki Suit’s body for too long, wondering what would have happened if he’d just been half a second faster. So they’d go get coffee. But it was his decision, not hers.
“We can’t take too long,” he warned.
“Fine by me.”
She led the way out the door, and he followed, glaring at the back of her head.
Dave didn’t realize how small and stuffy the cafe had felt until he stepped outside. Granted, the street was filled with police, DSA agents, and a small crowd of bystanders who raised their voices excitedly when White Knight appeared, but it had fresh air and sunlight and no stench of death. The block had been cordoned off from traffic, which made crossing the street easy. (And it was a good thing, too, because “White Knight stops the Black Valentine from Jaywalking” wasn’t a headline he particularly wanted to make.) Dave almost flinched when they stepped inside the next cafe and the smell of coffee hit him, but there was no underlying odor of blood this time.
This coffee shop was more brightly lit than the last one and had soft electronica playing over the speakers. There was no line at the counter, so the Black Valentine walked right up to it and started giving her order, Dave hovering awkwardly behind her. There weren’t many people here, but they were all staring at him. Dave couldn’t say that he “liked” his costume, but he’d gotten used to having it on during stakeouts, emergency situations, and public events. Wearing it while doing something as ordinary as ordering coffee made him feel ridiculous.
The Black Valentine paid (nice to know she didn’t steal everything), and Dave stepped up to the register next.
“Don’t,” she said. “I already ordered for you.”
“What did you—”
“Caffè latte, right?”
Right. “How…?” Oh, no. Had Moreen forgotten to inject her with her last dose of exatrin?
“Relax. I noticed you ordered one at the airport.”
“Ah.” And now he felt stupid. They moved farther down to wait for their drinks. The people behind the counter were moving unusually fast, which was probably the costume making them nervous.
“Worried they’re not going to make it right?” she asked as he watched them.
“Actually, I’m half-worried one of them might work for you and will poison my cup.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re paranoid?” Her lips pursed as she gave the people behind the counter a considering look. “That’s not a bad idea, though. I’ll remember it for next time.”
Great. When she poisoned him, he’d have no one but himself to blame. She grinned in response to his look. The barista set a latte and a mocha on the counter, and Dave picked his up. He gave her a suspicious look over the brim, and was surprised to find that he was joking.
“I wouldn’t put poison in your coffee,” she said. “Cross my heart.”
Dave took a sip.
“I mean, a sedative maybe, but not poison.”
Dave nearly choked.
She walked past him towards the door, still smiling serenely. Dave caught up immediately and stayed on her heels, since the confusion outside might be her best chance to make a break for it. He had to get a grip on himself. She was a criminal. He couldn’t let himself get lured into a false sense of security around her. You’d think he’d have learned his lesson last time when he found out she’d kidnapped the Prophet Kid. Jean-Baptiste Dupree would never have a chance at a normal life now, and it was her doing. Dave shouldn’t be joking with her over a cup of coffee.
But why did it feel so natural?
“Thank you for the coffee,” he said as they walked back across the street. There. That would end it. No more chatting. No more special side trips. He was a superhero, and she was a supervillain; that was the extent of their relationship.
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “It was Agent Lee’s treat.”
She handed him a brown leather wallet so battered that the seams were coming undone. Dave flipped it open and saw Moreen staring grumpily at him from her driver’s license photo. Dave groaned. He didn’t know what was worse: that the Black Valentine had stolen her wallet, or that Val was going to make him be the one to give it back to her.
“Where have you been?” Moreen strode out of the cafe door before they reached it. “Never mind. Van, now.”
“Did you find something?” Dave asked.
“Not here. Van.”
Lightblade and the Illusionist were following her, looking as confused as Dave felt. They all piled into the van and closed the doors.
“What are we doing exactly?” Lightblade asked.
“For all we know, Death is standing on the sidewalk and listening to our every word,” Moreen said in a low voice. “I don’t want to say anything out in the open.”
“Then you did find something,” Dave said.
“The man’s name was Bill Finch. He had a press pass on him for the Seattle Post-Intelligence.”
“He must have been working on a story about the yakuza!” the Illusionist exclaimed. “He knew something just like Carl, so they had him killed, too.”
“Keep your voice down,” Moreen warned, “But I agree. I want to head to the newspaper’s headquarters now and go through Finch’s computer and notes. The Kurodas knew he had a meeting with Rundstrom today, so it’s a safe assumption that they might know where he works. White Knight, Lightblade, Illusionist, I want you there in case Death shows up again. Keep on the lookout for floating guns and eyeballs.”
“What’s the deal with the eyeballs anyway?” the Illusionist asked. “Why doesn’t he make all of himself invisible?”
“We see when light reflects off the cornea,” Moreen said. “It can’t do that if the eyeballs are invisible. If you can’t see his eyes, then he can’t see anything.”
Dave looked Moreen up and down. “How do you know that?”
She lifted her chin. “I read.”
The Black Valentine took a sip of her mocha. “Sure would be nice if you had someone who could telepathically sense when Death was around.”
“Yeah.” If looks could kill, Moreen’s would have done the job with a baseball bat. “Sure would be nice if we had someone like that who we could trust.” Then her tone flipped back to business as she addressed the others. “The Kurodas have killed to keep this info from us. They’re not above property damage. Let’s get to Finch’s stuff before it’s destroyed.”
Everyone agreed, and Lightblade and the Illusionist hopped out of the van to get into their own car.
Dave hung back to return Moreen’s wallet.
I almost went to sleep without posting this, but my sister reminded me.
This week, Moreen confirms that Jean Martin’s comment on part 4 about the eyeballs was correct, and the team has a lead. Hopefully, they can follow it up in time.
Dave’s favorite coffee is actually café con leche, but neither the airport nor the coffee shop sold it. 😦