by Martin Maenza
“This is our son Hero,” Hera Cruz said to the guest. “And you’ve met my husband Bill already.”
“Yes,” said Enrique Lopez, and bent down to pick up two thin bags. “I have brought some wine.” He offered the two packages to Hera, who accepted them graciously. “I was not sure as to what you would be serving, so I brought my favorite white and red wines.”
“How kind of you,” Hera said. She turned to her husband. “Bill, can you put these in the kitchen?”
“Of course,” he said, taking the bottles.
“Good. Now, Enrique, why don’t you come and sit down. You too, Hero.” She escorted them both to the living room area.
“You have such a lovely home, Hera,” Enrique said as he looked about at the furniture and decorations.
“Thank you,” she replied, sitting down on the couch but frowning slightly as Hero sat next to her, while Enrique sat on one of the chairs. “So, you found our neighborhood OK?”
“Yes,” Enrique said. “Your directions were very easy to follow.”
There was a bit of a pause in the conversation as the three sat.
Hera broke it. “Hero, you probably couldn’t guess, but Enrique hails from Argentina,” she said.
“Argentina?” repeated Hero Cruz. “That’s nice.”
“Yes, it is a very beautiful country,” Enrique said. “But I also enjoy being here in the United States. Except maybe the rain, eh?” He laughed a little. Hera did, too.
Hero just smiled. “So, what do you do?”
“I am a hair stylist at the salon your mother comes to,” Enrique said.
“Oh, he’s not just a hair stylist,” Hera said. “He and his brother are in business together. In fact, they are doing so well that Esteban is talking of opening another shop. When he moves over there, Enrique would take over managing the first one.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Hero said.
“Yes,” Enrique said proudly. “And there is talk of my sister coming to the United States as well, if business continues to do well.”
Bill Cruz returned to the room with a small tray in his hand. On top of it were four glasses of wine. “I opened the white,” he said as he put the tray down. He handed one glass to Enrique, then another to his wife. Hero reached over and took a glass for himself.
“Wonderful,” Hera said. She took a sip and let the liquid dance across her palette. “Mmm, delicious.”
Hero took a sip of his wine and was about to put his glass down when his mother stood up. “Bill, you forgot the crab cakes.”
“Oh, did I?” her husband asked. “I’ll…”
“No, that’s OK,” she said. “I’ll get them. Hero can help me, and you can give Enrique the tour.” Hera grabbed her son by the elbow. “Come on, Hero!”
The young man rose to his feet and followed his mother into the kitchen. He started to take another sip of his wine while his mother turned off the oven and removed a pan of the warming hors d’oeuvres.
“So, what do you think of Enrique?” Hera asked. “He’s handsome, isn’t he?”
Hero nearly choked on the wine. “Mom!” he exclaimed.
“Shhh, keep your voice down,” Hera said. “I don’t think they’ve gone upstairs yet.”
Hero frowned, took a bigger sip of the wine, and swallowed. Then, when he spoke again, it was in a lowered voice. “Mom, this isn’t what I think it is, is it?”
“What do you mean, baby?”
“Mom, I don’t need you setting me up with guys,” Hero protested. “I’m old enough to get my own dates.”
Hera smiled. “Oh, baby, I know,” she said, gently tugging his cheek. “I just figured, what with school and hanging out at that junk store you work at, that you might not get a chance to meet some nice men. And Enrique is very nice. Well-groomed, hard-working, and with strong family values. I thought he would be your type.”
Hero shook his head. “I don’t believe this,” he muttered. “I should’ve known.”
“Oh, baby, just give him a chance,” Hera said. “You’ll find him very charming, I’m sure.” She popped a crab cake into his mouth before he could say anything.
Hero chewed and swallowed. “Mom, you aren’t listening to me,” he said. “I’m sure this Enrique is a nice guy, but I would prefer to get dates on my own. You and Dad were both so supportive when I came out a few years ago.”
“And we’re still supportive,” Hera interrupted. “How many mothers with gay sons would go out of their way to cook a huge dinner and invite over a prospective boyfriend for them, hmm?”
“Mom, I know,” Hero said. “I appreciate that. It’s just…”
“Just nothing. Now, you go and spend time with Enrique.”
“Get to know him. Talk about your hobbies and interests.”
“Who knows how things will turn out?”
“Ugghh!” Hero burst out. His mother was a very focused person. Once she had her mind set on something, there was no getting through to her. And this trait often frustrated Hero so. But rather than getting into a shouting match with her, he knew he had to get some space and blow off steam. Without another word, he stormed out of the kitchen just as his father and their guest entered from the other doorway.
Bill looked critically at his son’s exiting back. He then turned to his wife. “Hera, is everything all right?”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said sweetly. “Just fine. Let’s go start on these.” Hera ushered them out of the room, a dish of crab cakes in hand, only turning back at the last moment to see if her son was returning yet.
After about ten minutes of small talk, she excused herself, saying she was checking on dinner. In fact, Hera headed for the stairs to see where her son had gotten off to. “Hero? Hero?” she called softly as she reached the upper landing. There was a glow from their bedroom at the far end of the hall.
Hera opened the door to find the light as well as the television on. “Hmmm,” she mused. On the screen was a local news reporter broadcasting live from some fire or something. She flipped off the television. She went and checked the bathroom and came back, not certain if her husband had left the lights and TV on earlier or what. “Now where did that boy go?”
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, thought the black man in the pale blue body armor with darker blue trim and goggles as he plunged feet-first through the weakened, damaged roof of the burning building. I’m gonna have a hard time explaining my sudden departure to my folks, but I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.
The crimson and orange flames swelled, rising higher into the sky as if trying to replace the crumbling masonry that his entrance had shattered. All about the costumed hero flames were dancing, creating heat and smoke that made it difficult to see. The armor easily kept the hero safe, which allowed him a moment to assess the situation at hand.
That reporter said there was a kid still trapped up here, he thought to himself. And if the firefighters couldn’t reach him soon, he’d be done for. That was enough of a reason for Hero Cruz to use his special dial to call up a new heroic identity. This time, dialing H-E-R-O, he found himself adorned in a special armor with the ability to propel himself through the air. It enhanced his strength, too. I just hope, for everyone’s sake, the dial knew what it was doing.
The entire apartment was a raging inferno. Flames engulfed the furniture and rugs, creating a most difficult obstacle course on the floor. Still, feeling confident, the hero took a few steps, calling out as loud as he could so his voice would be heard over the crackling fire. “Kid! Kid! Where are…?”
The floor gave way without warning under his left foot. He barely had time to shift his weight to the right to avoid plunging through the floor. “Whoa!”
There was another loud, creaking sound.
This time he could feel it underneath his foot. He dived and rolled through the flames toward one of the walls as a large portion of the floor collapsed, falling down into the flames of the apartment below.
“Whoa! Definitely not as easy as I thought,” he said to himself. Rising slowly to his feet, he proceeded a bit more cautiously than before. “Got to find that boy fast and get the hell out of here!”
He put his gloved hands to his mouth, cupping them with an opening. “Kid! Kid! Where are you?” He then paused and tried to listen over the crackling flames.
A faint voice cried out from the back bedroom, but he could not make out the words.
“Stay where you are!” Hero ordered. “Help is coming!”
He started to move forward. Flames sprung up in his path.
Instinctively, he threw up his hands in defense, and something shot out from a valve at the base of each of the wrist pieces of his gloves.
“Cool!” Hero exclaimed as he saw the combined blast of compressed air and chemical mixture lance back at the fire. The flames started to recoil and subside a bit from the assault. “The dial made me like a walking extinguisher!”
Armed with confidence, the Extinguisher — as he now called himself — proceeded through the fire with a little more speed and urgency.
The Extinguisher rounded the corner and saw a closed door. The flames were licking against it. He worked his way to the door and threw it open. Smoke poured out of the room, but the flames seemed to have been kept back. Smart kid, he thought to himself. Must’ve paid some attention to the fire safety talks at school.
He made out a dark-haired head bobbing just beyond the edge of the bed in the far end of the room. The hero slowly made his way around the bed and allowed the frightened child to see him before he spoke. “Hey, there,” he said in his most friendly voice. “I’m here to save you.”
The boy, age five, smiled to see the costumed hero coming to his rescue. “You a fireman?”
The Extinguisher shook his head. “Nope, just someone who wants to help.” He extended his hand to the boy. “What say we get out of here, kiddo?”
On the street below it was chaos. Firefighters were scrambling beneath the red glow of the lights on their trucks, radios squawked, and the crowd held back a good distance murmured as it watched the apartment building blaze.
There was a loud explosion at the top of the building.
The crowd let out a collective sound of shock.
“My baby!” a dark-haired woman cried out as the image of the blazing building filled her tearing eyes. “Someone save my baby!” She pleaded, and shook as one of the firefighters tried to keep her still.
“We’re trying, ma’am,” he said.
“I think we’ve got it covered,” a voice boomed from the air. Everyone turned to see a flying man in pale blue armor drop down from the sky. About his neck clung a five-year-old boy. “Ma’am, is this your son?”
“Roberto!” she cried out, holding out her arms.
“Momma!” the boy called.
The Extinguisher gently lowered the child to her awaiting grasp. “There you go, sport,” he said. Tears of joy filled the mother’s eyes as she hugged her child tightly. “You have a smart little guy, there, ma’am. He knew to close himself off in a room to keep the fire out.”
The mother looked up at the hero. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said.
“Just helping where I can,” the Extinguisher said. He turned to one of the firemen. “Is there anything else I can do here?”
“I think we’ve accounted for everyone,” the fire chief replied. “But if you can help us get the blaze under control…”
“I’ll try!” Hero replied. And he took off to assist. Many of the folks watching cheered.
But, standing in the crowd was a man in his early forties with thinning blonde hair. His face was blank and unemotional as he watched the flaming building. It’s done, he thought to himself. Agnes is dead, and the fire will have consumed her body enough to hide the true cause of her death.
The man put his hand in the deep pocket of his coat and gently touched the triangular object therein. He smiled slightly. Even though she served her purpose, I am now free of the woman. Now, I can start my new life, and I have all that I need to succeed right here with me.
And with that, Carl Browning started to move away from the crowd and walk away.
The flames of the building still danced into the night, but were slowly subsiding.
Elsewhere, fire burst from the many pits that dotted the dreary, dismal world known as Apokolips.
In a high, dark tower that overlooked the fire-pits, a lone figure in a hooded purple robe sat hunched over the monitor of a large, foreboding device. “Ah-ha,” the wicked man named DeSaad cackled. “It is true, then!” He traced his hand across the screen, which showed a burning building.
According to the hidden mechanisms that make up the circuitry, we have activity in the city known as San Francisco, DeSaad thought to himself.
Leaning back, he rubbed his long, tapered hands together greedily. The Angler device we provided to that Earth criminal has been used once more. Finally, after all this time. He recalled how he had sent Lashina of the Female Furies to Earth to retrieve the criminal named Angle Man a years ago. But the operation was interrupted when the great Crisis swept across the cosmos. (*) After that, they had lost track of the man and his weapon. That was, until now.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: Detective Convention: Who Killed the Angle Man?.]
He thought for a moment to quickly alert his lord and master, Darkseid, but then hesitated.
While the news would certainly please Lord Darkseid, I have a better idea, DeSaad thought. Instead of telling him immediately, I shall retrieve the Angler and the man who betrayed us first. Then I shall present both to Lord Darkseid, so that he may bring down his wrath upon the betrayer! And I will gain much favor from Darkseid at the same time!
DeSaad threw back his head and laughed aloud. Soon, his wicked mind would set upon a plan to obtain what he desired.