by Hitman 44077
Evening arrived in Central City, and as much as every other city in the United States, it was fully immersed in the holidays that were approaching closer and closer, day by day. Traffic was as hectic as it had been earlier in the day, and the streets were crowded with shoppers seeking gifts for family and friends. Oddly enough, the city had yet to experience a large snowfall, but that didn’t deter its citizens from the spirit of the season.
Within the city’s Taylor Park Shopping Mall, Frances Kane — wearing an off-white suit jacket, a long-sleeved purple shirt, an off-white skirt that ran down to her knees, and a pair of matching dress shoes — was shopping as well. Holding a bag full of clothes she’d recently bought at Mayflower Department Stores, she headed for Round Table Records.
I didn’t think it’d be as busy as I believed when I interviewed to become a social worker. I haven’t even had time to change out of my work clothes, Fran thought, entering the record store. Not that I mind. I needed to get a job after I took off back at the end of May, and I know I didn’t do my former employers any favors by just running off. At least I’m making a difference now, helping the kids in this city and placing them in households where they’ll have a chance at a healthy life.
Fran stopped at the rock ‘n’ roll section of the store and pushed the hair from her face, putting her hair in a ponytail. She then began thumbing through the albums, still thinking about what had recently occurred in her life. The city’s been quiet for a few weeks now. It’s a relief of sorts, but with Firefist still on the loose, I don’t see it staying that way. It’s a miracle no one’s died from that maniac’s actions.
As Fran continued through the D section of records, she didn’t notice a familiar face making his way toward her. The figure stopped behind her back and placed his right hand on Fran’s left shoulder. She slightly jumped in surprise but immediately recognized the voice as she turned toward the individual, who was dressed in a light winter jacket, a striped green, blue, and white T-shirt, a pair of blue jeans, and well-worn Nike sneakers.
“And I thought I was on edge the last few weeks,” Wally West said as he locked eyes with his girlfriend. He chuckled as Fran blushed and restrained a laugh of her own. Her slowly growing warm smile reassured the young man that all was well. “Was work all right today?”
“Busy — but rewarding. I’m glad to see you, though. I didn’t expect you to be here. I thought you’d be sleeping before heading out for the night shift,” Fran said, alluding to Wally’s identity as the Flash.
“Believe it or not, while my priority is protecting this city and the people living here, I’ve got Christmas shopping to do myself. Here I am — fastest man alive and all — and I put off shopping until December like anyone else,” Wally responded warmly. “And I missed you, too.”
“I’m glad you’re in better spirits, Wally. I haven’t seen you in a few days, and I know the Firefist affair has been on the front burner — no pun intended,” Fran said, her concern evident.
Wally saw the concern, both written on her face and within her eyes. His response was solemn but also filled with warmth. He looked away briefly as he said, “I can’t lose my cool over this. As angry as I am over what this maniac has done to the people, to the city itself, and especially to Darryl Frye, I can’t let my anger get the best of me. And I refuse to let this control my life.”
“Even after what happened to you?” Fran asked Wally point-blank, referring to Wally’s first encounter with Firefist.
Wally turned back to face Fran, his eyes reflecting warmth and determination, which reassured her even as he responded, “Yeah, even after that happened. In some way, he’s already tipped his hand by demonstrating that he intends to kill. Knowing that first-hand, I’m more intent on stopping him and bringing him to justice — whoever he may be.”
“That sounded ominous,” Fran said somewhat curiously, narrowing her eyes slightly.
Wally flashed a quick smile but grew serious once more as he responded. “I’m not a detective, but it seems to point to Mick Rory, an old-school Flash rogue who called himself Heat Wave. Last I knew, had either given up the criminal life or rejoined the ranks. That goes back at least a few years or so.”
“That would be odd — someone using the same motif or gimmick but using it through a newly created identity,” Fran said, puzzled.
“Not as odd as you’d believe,” Wally said. “Al Desmond — rather Albert, actually — did just that when he operated as a criminal. He functioned in two identities.”
“That’s right!” Fran exclaimed, snapping her fingers. “Mister Element and Doctor Alchemy!”
“To name one guy, yeah,” Wally agreed. “Manfred Mota did the same thing as the Atom-Smasher and Professor Fallout. It’s a possibility that Mick may have decided to do just that.”
“So why hasn’t he been brought in for questioning, at the very least?” Fran asked, disturbed somewhat by this news.
“Good question,” Wally agreed. “It seems that the CCPD has tried to locate Mick, but he’s nowhere to be seen. That in itself makes him a prime suspect, if not the prime suspect. There’s just one thing that may lend him the benefit of the doubt.”
“What’s that?” Fran asked.
“Firefist, like I said before, has demonstrated that he intends to kill, and has killed someone by the name of Edward Hobart,” Wally said. “Hobart tried to frame Mick a few years back by committing crimes with the Heat Wave identity.”
“That doesn’t seem to help Mick’s case, Wally,” Fran said in a serious tone.
“You’re right, except for one detail — Mick doesn’t kill. Sure, he used his fire gun to steal money or engaged in battle with other super-heroes, but he never resorted to flat-out murder,” Wally admitted. “And I don’t believe he would now.”
“Honestly, I don’t know, Wally,” Fran slowly admitted. “There are times people snap, and when they do, no one’s safe.”
“I can see that point, but another thing to consider is the message Firefist left at Police Headquarters,” Wally responded. “He referred to destroying the trash in the city. His message implied he thought he was better than others. Mick, after making parole, dedicated his life to making amends, and he gave of himself selflessly, doing what good he could for the people of the city. That meant helping the homeless, the same people Firefist set out to kill. In some ways, Mick was definitely in their ranks after his release from prison. He had to repay what he’d stolen, barely had anything left to put a roof over his head, and I believe he did just that after a lengthy amount of time.”
“You believe in Mick,” Fran said, placing her hand against Wally’s face softly. “Knowing what you’ve just told me, I wouldn’t be in such a rush to prejudge him.”
“That’s good. But the one thing that will hopefully clear Mick’s name is capturing Firefist and unmasking him to reveal the truth,” Wally said with determination. “And that reminds me — I have a patrol to make.”
“Another all-nighter?” Fran asked.
“Yeah,” Wally said with a smile. “Plus, I’ve already interrupted your shopping long enough. Who knows? You could be in the process of shopping for me. I don’t want to spoil that.”
Fran had to laugh as she responded mischievously, “You sure about that? You might be on my naughty list.”
“Not me!” Wally said in mock fear. “I’m the man in the red suit. I’m always nice!”
“Tell you what. Let’s grab a quick bite to eat at the food court, and all’s forgiven,” Fran said playfully.
“You’ve got a date,” Wally responded with a hearty smile.
Fran picked up her bag of clothes, and after Wally placed his arm around Fran’s shoulder, they walked together from the record store and into the mall itself, ready for their impromptu date.
Just north of Central City was a small oil drilling operation. Though the land surrounding this refinery did precious little to lend itself to the workings of the larger city to the south, its presence aided in not only Central City’s affairs, but the entire state as well. The oil dig, associated with United Fuel Industries, was only one of its parent company’s many oil refineries. It played a small but pivotal role in the workings of a world dependent on fossil fuel. This branch had the benefit of three shifts maintaining the projected levels that the company’s board of directors deemed acceptable — as long as the acceptability exceeded projected profits.
With the necessary importance this small branch meant to the city, special precautions had been taken to safeguard the structure and the crude that was already being processed. That included the services not only of Central City’s Police Department but of a small company of soldiers deployed by the National Guard. This wasn’t always the case in the city, but recent events demanded certain safeguards, and with such a target existing so close to the city itself, the current situation demanded action. The small squad of soldiers had positioned themselves outside public view while several police cars were parked in such a fashion that it would be hard to break the gates containing the refinery, especially with police officers standing by the vehicles ready to take aim at whatever threat presented itself.
Maybe it was the cold temperatures brought on by winter, or maybe it was stress or restlessness or possibly fear itself, but there was a definite tension that everyone felt, whether they were officers, soldiers, or refinery workers. It was almost as if the dread of expecting the worst gnawed at their nerves.
Next to one of the squad cars stood two officers making the best of their situation. One was using a pair of binoculars to watch the main road that connected the oil refinery to Central City, even as his partner pulled out a thermos and poured two cups of hot chocolate. “Here, Folgate, somethin’ to keep you warm,” the clean-shaven officer with sandy-blond hair said, reaching over to his elder partner who was watching the roads with the binoculars.
“Eh?” Officer Folgate said, lowering his binoculars with his left hand. He saw his partner holding a cup filled with the still-warm beverage and reached to grab the cup. “Thanks a lot, Bowing,” he said, carefully taking the cup and taking a sip. He gave the slightest of smiles — which was normal for an officer who’d seen much in his ten-plus years on the force — and replied, “Good stuff.”
“I enjoy coffee, but sometimes I need something a little sweeter, you know?” Officer Bowing said.
“I hear you,” Folgate agreed, before wiping the liquid from his moustache. “Either I’m going to have to shave or start using a straw.”
“You’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve both seen what type of mess the city’s been in over the years,” Bowing said, pausing to take a sip from his cup. He then grew somewhat concerned as he spoke again. “The world’s getting darker, isn’t it?”
Folgate turned to the younger man and, though he tried not to show too much emotion, was blunt with his answer. “Yeah, it has. It’s just, well, let’s put it this way — I have real concerns with what’s happening to the world… and our place in it.”
“Hearing about what happened to Captain Frye a few weeks ago,” Bowing said nervously, “and knowing the long road he’s gonna have to make to recovery, I guess I’m worried about being in a situation like that.”
“I don’t know about you, but I swore to serve and protect,” Folgate said with some anger. “We have to be ready to die doing our duty. Captain Frye knew the job before either of us started in the Academy. He’s very lucky to be alive, and I know he’s going to return.”
“Have you heard the rumors about a new police captain in the interim?” Bowing asked before drinking from his cup.
“Honestly, they should have had one in place by now, no offense to Captain Frye,” Folgate said, bending his head back and taking a large gulp from his cup. “Frank Curtis has done what he can, but they need someone with the qualifications, and Frank’s more comfortable as a detective. I’m hearing they may bring in Garrett Palmer from St. Louis.”
“Oh, man,” Bowing said with a look of shock.
Though he didn’t react like his younger partner, Folgate responded, “I ain’t happy about it, either. But we have to approach it as something temporary.”
“I don’t know, man. I’ve heard things–” Bowing started to say.
Folgate cut his partner off and replied, “He’s got two things going for him, kid. One is the lowered crime rate while he’s been Captain for the SLPD, and another is the fact that they’ve had little problems with costumed menaces. I’m hearing things’ll be settled before the start of the New Year.”
“Great,” Bowing said, more tense than before. “And what happens when Captain Frye’s ready to return?”
“That I can’t answer. Flat out, when the time comes, my guess is one will be chosen over the other. It’s best not to worry about it right–”
Folgate stopped speaking as he heard the rumbling of a vehicle slowly growing louder. “Wait a minute, kid!” Folgate shouted as he pulled his binoculars back to his eyes and placed his attention to the lone road leading to the oil refinery.
By this time, the other officers and the small number of National Guard soldiers heard the sound of a vehicle approaching. Folgate quickly spotted a garbage truck heading toward them.
“This road’s supposed to be closed!” Folgate shouted as he lowered the binoculars and opened a police car door. He picked up a megaphone and tried to address the the vehicle rapidly approaching. Even as the officers, both police and National Guard, raised their weapons toward the vehicle, Folgate shouted at the vehicle. “This road is closed! You are trespassing! Stop immediately, or you will be placed under arrest!”
The driver either didn’t hear or didn’t care and continued his fast track to the premises. This refusal only fueled the police and National Guard to stop the vehicle at all costs. Weaponry of different sorts began firing from the combined guardians, most seeking to simply blow out the tires. In some ways it was a success as the vehicle — once the tires were shredded by gunfire — began to slow down. But it wasn’t enough to bring it to a complete stop. The police officers, seeing this, quickly moved out of the way as the garbage truck struck the police cars guarding the gate. All guns were raised at the vehicle, ready to shoot at the driver even as Folgate shouted again at the vehicle. “Whoever you are, come out with your hands in the air and surrender!”
Motioning two police officers, Folgate quietly signaled them toward the garbage truck. They approached, guns in hand and ready to fire, and finally reached the driver side of the now-disabled vehicle. But they weren’t prepared for what happened next.
“Folgate, there’s no one inside! Just some weird machinery!” one of the officers shouted.
Folgate was dumbfounded for a brief moment, until the situation began unfolding in his mind. Holy crap, he thought, starting to realize that they’d been tricked. Desperately, Folgate shouted at the two officers, “Move it out of there!”
The officers began running when the garbage truck exploded, engulfing the two officers and the police cars. The other officers did what they could to avoid the ensuing carnage, but not all made it out alive.
Even as that unfolded, the various National Guard soldiers were shaken when several more explosions went off in the complex, including the oil reserves. With everyone surprised by liquid fire and structures crumbling, the appearance of Firefist caught everyone off-guard.
The device on his back not only functioned as the fuel banks for his gloves — connected via insulated tubing from backpack to gloves — but also worked as a jet-pack. He flew around, raising his hands and pointing his fingers in a general direction. From the fingers sprayed a liquid that, upon contact with oxygen, immediately burst into flames.
It wasn’t long before the oil refinery was almost fully engulfed in flames. With dead soldiers and officers all strewn about, and the cries of the workers trapped in the man-made hell, Firefist lowered himself to the ground and stared at his handiwork. Though his face was hidden by his mask-like helmet, what was visible were his eyes, and through those, one could tell the pleasure of the disaster he’d singlehandedly brought about.
They never saw it coming, the villain thought with cold confidence. They never suspected that when their weekly garbage was picked up earlier today, I would have enough time in my disguise to plant bombs all around.
Firefist glanced at his gloved hands and pressed one of them against his chest. His eyes had what appeared to be a grimaced look, even as he continued to think. I owe you one, Flash. You damn near broke my ribs. You had to stick your nose in my business, and I almost won the last time. Our paths are going to cross again — sooner than later.
He then raised his left hand and, using the controls inside his insulated glove, sprayed a flaming message for the scarlet speedster onto the ground. In front of the main entrance/exit to the once-proud oil refinery, the message read: THE FIRE RAGES ON. He narrowed his eyes, pleased with the results, and, pressing another control in his insulated gloves, he activated the jet-pack device and flew away into the night.