Ten minutes for Scarlet Omega
by Joachim Heijndermans
There’s the bell again. Thank God for that. Whoever comes next couldn’t possibly be worse than this last guy. What a creep. Bad hair and bad teeth I can get past, and I’m not one to brag when it comes to my own wardrobe though I overdressed for this nightmare, that’s for sure. But someone so desperate for female contact should not throw the words “ho’s” and “bitches” around like candy from Santa’s float in the thanksgiving parade, or brag about how many “skanks” he’s banged and how and where. Was he a twelve-year-old in disguise? Did he break the chains that kept locked him in the professor’s lair and wandered in here by mistake? And who still wears their cap backward?
Why did I let Janette talk me into this? “Try speed dating,” she said. “That’s where I met my Howie. It’ll be great. I bet you twenty bucks you’ll get a guy who’ll be quite a catch.”
I met Howie. If that guy, a nervous wreck who cowers when she’s having one of the tantrums, was her idea of a catch, then heaven preserve me.
Again, I ask myself, why did I come here? It’s not like they’re handing out free booze. Hell, there’s no booze of any kind. I can’t remember why I thought this would be a good idea, aside from having gone without a date in over seven months. Hell, I don’t even remember the last time I got laid. Ok, that’s a lie. I remember it all too well, and it had been fucking fantastic. But I remember the fallout from it even more.
It was stupid of me to come here. Was I just hoping to get lucky? Because dragging myself through this nonsense is not worth it. I should’ve stayed at home and worked on fixing the suit. The sleeve on the right arm needs stitching and the kevlar needs to be replaced.
“Hello,” says a soft but deep voice. “Are you available for the next round?” He’s a tall guy, dressed in a black suit. The first guy tonight whose outfit actually suits his face. Kind of, as it’s slightly too big for him. Older guy, in his mid-forties I’d say, with slightly graying hair at his temples. His oddly bright eyes catch my attention, but nothing too out of the ordinary. They remind me of a wolf’s eyes. Calm, but alert.
Broad shoulders too. Works out, but doesn’t want to draw attention to it by wearing the suit. Not a bad looking dude, all things considering. So naturally, this is where my famous friendly demeanor kicks in.
“So what’s your damage,” I snap.
He didn’t flinch at that. He even chuckles, rubbing his temples like he’s got a headache. “Bad night?”
“Ugh,” I grunt. “I’m sorry. I’m normally not like this at all. Well, maybe a little. But not trying to be a bitch. It’s just—”
“The timer is about to start,” he says. “But if you’re done for tonight—”
“Siddown,” I growl. He’s the last one. If this guy turns out to be another creep, I’m torching this whole building to the ground. No jury would convict me.
“You’ve got the next ten minutes to give me hope for the male gender. I’m having a shit night, so make this good.”
He takes a seat and scoots closer. When he clenches his hands, his knuckles crack loudly. He’s got some mild scarring on them. Light burn scars, maybe?
“I think I know exactly what you’re going through. And forgive me if this sounds sexist, but you might have it worse than I. The ladies I’ve talked with were…something else, but nothing I can’t escape from. As a woman, you might attract a more extreme personality type.”
I chuckle, but it ain’t a happy one. “You don’t say.”
“Am I wrong?” he asks, giving me the smug I know I’m right but I’m gonna needle you until you say so look. He’s smart and likes to show it off. But I’ve dealt with ‘smart guys’ plenty of times. I’m not worried.
“Don’t get me started,” I grumble. “I’ve talked to over ten guys tonight. It’s been a regular who’s who of creeps, losers, momma’s boys, and creepy loser momma’s boys. And they don’t serve liquor here either, otherwise, it would make this whole charade much easier to bear. But nothing I can’t handle. It’s just exhausting, you know?”
“I can sympathize. The women I’ve met tonight seem to fluctuate between the very needy to the outright frightening.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“Well, my first session I met a lovely woman, as well as her cat Tinkers, whom she smuggled along in her purse. Asked me if I wanted to meet his seven brothers.”
“I got you beat on that one,” I tell him. “There was a guy, who, after we said our hello’s, told me my hair was like his mother’s. But mine didn’t smell as good.”
“I’ll see your hair smeller, and raise it with a charming young lady who asked me if I could co-sign for her new car. When I told her that perhaps she was going a bit fast, she asked me when I was going to meet her parents.”
I fight the urge to laugh, so I give him an awkward smile instead. “You know, I’m almost tempted to ditch this joint and go into the conference door next room. Getting roped into a pyramid scheme doesn’t sound so bad now.”
“There’s a plan. You might get a white Mercedes out of it,” he says with a chuckle. He’s got a pleasant laugh, I’ll give him that. He extends his hand to me. “I’m Ellis.”
I take his hand and shake it. “June. And yes, like the month. I’ve heard that one enough times as it is.”
His eyes go over me. I know that look. It’s the look I give on an almost daily basis. Not the ‘I wonder what she looks like naked’ look, but the ‘what is her damage or secret’ look. Instinctively, I hide my hands in the sleeves of my jacket. He notices.
“Are your hands all right?” he asks? “You don’t need to hide them from me. I’m used to blemishes,” he says, tapping the mild burn scars on his own hands.
“Sorry. I have an active lifestyle, which leaves me with some scrapes now and then. It doesn’t bother me most of the time, but I get self-conscious about the scars on my hands.”
“Please, don’t be. I know all too well what that’s like myself. What sports do you do?”
And there it is. The inevitable subject that either causes guys to get scared or makes them act like even bigger meatheads. Here goes nothing. “Eskrima. It’s a stick-fighting martial art from—”
“—the Philippines. I’m familiar with it. I’m an Aikido man myself.”
Not bad. But I’m staying on my toes. Wouldn’t be the first time some douche challenged me to spar with him, only to wail like a stuck pig when I rough ’em up. “So what do you do?” I ask.
“I’m an engineer with R&D at Oberon. Jet propulsion and the sort. It’s how I burned myself. A little explosion that got out of hand a little while back.”
“You see a lot of explosions?”
He shrugs. “No more than most labs. They say fires are unpredictable. They’re not, just difficult to manage if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you know how fire works, you can avoid losing your eyebrows.”
“You enjoy your work?”
“It’s fine. But it’s to pay the bills mostly. I try to be home more these days.”
“Really? How come?” I ask.
Ellis clears his throat. Another look I recognize. The ‘I hate talking about this super painful shit that happened to me and yet I’m constantly put in the position where I need to talk about it’ look. He takes his time, before hitting me with the sledgehammer that is the story of his life at home.
“My wife passed. About two years ago. So it’s just me and Phillip, my boy. He’s almost seven now.”
Shit. This is where most people come up with something comforting to say. Sadly, I’m not most people. Okay, June. Think of something that doesn’t make you sound like a total bitch.
“And most ladies aren’t into the single dad thing, are they?”
Goddammit, June! Diffuse! Backpedal like you’ve never backpedaled before! “Shit! What I mean, I…uhm,” I stutter. “Fuck, I’m trying to be nice here!”
Oh, thank Jesus. He laughed at that. “It’s all right, June.”
I sigh, relieved I didn’t just emotionally skewer him. My knack for verbal pratfalls has saved another conversation by being funny. It’s weird. Why am I so worried about what he thinks of me? Aside from the fact that he’s the first seemingly nice guy I’ve talked to tonight. But that don’t mean anything just yet. Night Racer was a nice guy. And that experience had been a cold, hard lesson when it comes to ‘nice guys’. ‘I swear baby, my doc says I’m STD free’ my ass.
Ellis reaches into his pocket. I clench up. My instincts kick in, but I can fight it. It’s fine, June. He’s obviously getting a photo of his kid. Not a gun. Not a knife. Settle down. We’re good. He hands me the pic. A black haired boy with a broad smile, missing two front teeth, holding a soccer ball. Cute. He has his dad’s looks as far as I can tell.
“He’s adorable,” I say. Was that the right word? I never know what’s the right way to describe kids? I hand it back. Not really sure what else to do. Shit, I hate being so awkward.
“Do you have any kids?” he asks.
“Nah,” I say, waving my hand in that dismissing way that my friends with kids hate so much. “No time, with my job and all.”
“And what is it you do?” Ellis asks.
Fuck! Don’t get flustered. That’s a rookie mistake. Count to three, like Captain Liberty taught you. One. Two. Three.
“Real estate,” I say, cool as a cucumber. “It’s boring, but it pays the bills. I spar on the side to take the edge off. But you don’t really meet the right people in my line of work.”
“Odd,” Ellis says. “I assumed you would meet a lot of people in your line of work. Everyone needs a house.”
One. Two. Three. “Mostly couples either with kids or expecting. Also, I make it a rule not to date my clients.”
“Ah, smart,” he says. “I’ve had colleagues who dated within their job. Always ends badly.”
“You damn right it does,” I scoff. “I’d been seeing a guy a while back. Works across town. Seemed great. But then the usual bullshit piles up. You miss a few dates when responsibilities get in the way. You bring your work home with you. Stress piles up. And when you try to spare their feelings, that’s when the lying starts. Then you find yourself staying up all night waiting for him to come home, or stalking him on Facebook. It’s what you get when you’re juggling secrets like bowling pins.”
“Secrets?” he asks, raising his eyebrow so high up it might start caressing his hairline.
One. Two. Three. “He was married. Didn’t tell me until it had gone on for a while.”
“Pah,” Ellis snaps. “What an arsehole.”
It’s funny. While I kinda noticed it earlier, when he said “passed” like “pahst” instead of the usual “past”, but it took me until he said “arsehole” to pin down his accent.
“British?” I ask.
“Partly,” he admits. “First three years of my life we lived in Cardiff. Left for the States after that, and never looked back. Can’t quite rid myself of the accent, no matter how hard I try,” he says, slightly embarrassed.
“Don’t,” I say. “It’s cute.”
Cute? When did I start calling anything cute? Oh, fuck me. Backpedal! Backpedal!
“I…uhm…I mean, it makes you sound more distinguished,” I mutter, shrugging my shoulders. Please don’t respond to that. Please don’t respond to that.
“Why thank you,” he says. “You’re quite charming yourself.”
And now my face is turning into a cherry tomato. “Glad to know that even after surviving the Battle of the Bridge, I can still be a twelve-year-old schoolgirl who blushes and swoons when boys compliment me.”
He laughs. Thank God for that. I lean back, stretching my neck. Ugh, no more awkwardness, please. It feels good to laugh for once. Ellis. I run his name through my head some more. Ellis. Ellis. Funny, mature Ellis. For a moment, I actually consider giving him my contact info, which is so not like me. Not a bit. Anyone could tell you that, be it my civilian friends like Janette or my work friends like the Lightning Lady. But he seems all right. Maybe, just maybe?
Then he notices it. “Good lord,” he gasps, “did you get that from fighting as well?”
The scar on my neck! The one I usually hide with scarves or by not wearing anything revealing that shows of my chest. A little courtesy from Yokohama Sally and her kamas during a diamond heist three years back. Missed my artery by a centimeter. My jacket must have sunk down for him to see it. Fuck me for forgetting all about it for a second.
“Uhm,” I stutter. Dammit, count! One. Two. Three. “Rock climbing accident. I fell and cut myself on some rocks. It’s nothing.”
I look at him, half expecting him to bail on me right there. But he’s seen the look in my eyes. Something he recognized. The shame, maybe? Or something else that was familiar to him. In either case, he smiled slightly. He then pulled up his sleeve on his right arm. Two scars, directly parallel from each other on each end just below his wrist. Entry and exit wound. But not from a bullet.
“Archery accident at a company retreat. Some dumb bastard let go of his bowstring prematurely. Nearly bled to death. These things happen,” he says.
I chuckle. No, I’m laughing. I have no idea why. I’m just glad he’s laughing too.
“And then there’s this,” he says, as he raises his pant leg. Skin grafts on his shins. I’ve seen those too many times to count. “I fell from a bike. Nasty fall. I’d been lucky, as I could have fractured my skull.”
“That beats my appendix scar any day,” I joke. That should deter any questions about it, should he see my stomach. Dammit, June! Don’t get ahead of yourself!
“Got one of those too. But I would rather keep my shirt on for now.”
We laugh, but it’s one of those weird laughs you share when you both are thinking the same thing. Change the subject! I raise my leg and tap on my knee. “I have a small piece of shrapnel in my knee from the Battle of the Bridge. Still scrapes sometimes.”
His face turns. His smile vanishes like sand in the wind. Fuck. Why did I tell him that?
“You were there?” he asks.
Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! One. Two. Three. “Bystander. You know how that goes with those people. Never see you until they drop a car on your ass, then write you off as collateral.”
His eyes turn dark. Is that anger? Or sadness? Does he not like the Capes? Fuck, I hope his wife wasn’t killed that day.
“Hey,” I say. For some reason, I take his hand. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“No, I’m sorry,” he says. Thank God, his smile is back. I can’t believe I missed it already after less than a minute. “I’m being childish. The ‘Supers’ just rub me the wrong way sometimes. Especially the way their fights end up affecting the general populace.”
“I get that. You’ve got your boy. You’ve got your job. I’ve seen people lose their family business just because Terrorsaur and Momenta are going at it on Seventh street and one of them chucks a police car through their building. It’s a weird town. I’ve thought about leaving.”
“Why haven’t you?” he asks, taking my hand.
One. Two. Fuck it. No lies.
“It’s…it’s like something compels me to stay. Almost like leaving is turning my back on something. Turning my back on who I am. If that makes any sense.”
“No, I understand. My son…my entire life is here.”
“Right,” I say, thankful he’s not digging deeper into that semi-confession. “And you can’t just stop being what you love, even if it is destructive.”
He nods. His eyes dart to the timer. One minute left. He gives me that look. You know the one. That one.
“Would…would it be improper of me to ask you out sometime?” he asks.
My face must be turning even redder than before because now he’s grinning like an idiot. “No, not improper at all. I’d love that.”
“Great,” he says. We don’t break eye contact. We just stare at each other like two dumb teens. Probably why I didn’t notice his hand reaching out to touch my arm.
“Ow, fuck!” I snap, wincing in pain.
“I’m sorry,” he gasps. “What’s wrong?”
Fuck. One. Two. Three. “I’m fine. It’s just something with my arm.”
Before I can protest, he pulls up my sleeve. He sees the bandage wrapped around my arm.
“How did this happen?” he asks. He recognizes the applied treatment within seconds.
“Were you burned?”
“It’s nothing,” I growl, slapping his hand away as gently as I can. “Just a little accident last Monday at the bank…”
I shut up before I blab even further. But when I meet his eyes, I’ve said too much. It’s all over his face. I don’t know this look. Is it horror? Or concern? Disgust? It almost feels like recognition. Wait, what is he—?
“Scarlet Omega?” he whispers.
My blood turns to ice. He knows! How did he know? I try to count, but I forgot the number after one. I want to laugh it off, and say “Scarlet who? I don’t know my wines.” Anything to segue from that name. But like an idiot, I do nothing. I just stare at him, wide-eyed like a deer on the highway. I want to say something, but anything I’d say would just come out as gibberish. How did he find out? Had he been there? No, there were only two guards, a manager, and a janitor. He’s not any of them. But there was one more person there. The one with the mask, shooting flames from his wrists. One of which scorched my arm with 2nd-degree burns. Right before I slammed my hard-anodized baton into his chest. Even with that body-armor, there’d be a mark. I lean close to him, peering at the neckline of his shirt. I catch myself praying I don’t see anything, that he was just a good guesser. A smart guy who reads the paper and memorized all our silly names and masks. Please, don’t let there be—
A bruise. Or at least, the edge of one. I can only imagine the blue mark on his chest. I almost want to rip his shirt off and check his left fibula, his lower back and his right femur for bruising. But there’s no point. His eyes say it. So I mouth his name.
We don’t need to nod. We don’t need to say a Goddamn thing. We know it’s true. What are the fucking odds?
“Shrapnel in the knee?” he asks, with a deeper and gruffer tone, halfway to his ‘work-voice’. No reason to lie now. Sorry, Cap.
“Mandy Molotov. The bridge part was true,” I reply. I catch myself using my own ‘work-voice’. No point in hiding that either. “Arrow in the arm?” I ask back like I’m parrying a tennis ball.
“The Azure Archer. My second heist. O’Neill bank.”
“Mnn,” I grunt, nodding along. It’s bizarre. I always assumed that the first time I’d confide in anyone about my night job, it would feel like a weight would be lifted from my heart. Instead, I feel a million targets are being painted on my forehead, and the guy with the fire resistant armor and the built-in wrist flamethrowers across the table from me is looking right at them.
My instincts are screaming at me to strike. I have a small retractable baton in my purse. Without armor, he’d be down in a minute. He’s clenching his fist. What does he have up his sleeve? A level-B supervill like him doesn’t go to a public place like this unarmed. Short-range flame burster, maybe, with a mini napalm pack in case he needs a quick escape. My eyes dart around. Eighteen civvies. No cops or backup. Can’t risk it.
“Thirty seconds,” the lady from the speed dating service calls out.
We look at her, then back to each other. We’re both running with itchy trigger fingers. My stomach does that thing it always does before a fight, where it goes queasy for a good minute, then steels itself like I’m about to take a bullet, which does happen from time to time. But there’s also this shitty sad feeling. That the one fucking guy who’s not a complete creepy dingleberry, had been actually very charming and I even briefly considered taking home with me, just happens to be the guy who incinerated The Wire during the Battle of the Bridge feeling.
These thirty seconds are beginning to feel like thirty years. Time crawls at a snail’s pace. We don’t break eye contact. We just sit there, running scenarios on how to cave each other’s skulls in through our heads. At least, that what I think he’s doing.
He breaks the ice by speaking first. “For what it’s worth, June, I had a lovely time with you.”
“Yeah,” I chuckle. “It’s been a good nine minutes.”
“And I hope I’ve restored some of your hope in the male gender.”
“To be honest, I’m so torn between the rules of the job and me actually liking you that I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
His eyebrow springs up. “You like me?”
I don’t hesitate. “I do. Or at least, I like this you. Not so sure about your other persona, seeing as fire hurts like a bitch.”
“And I like you, June,” he says. I can see he’s tempted to take my hand, but we’re both still aching for an opening to strike. “Now that we have a chance to be open, why ‘Scarlet Omega’?”
“Scarlet because I just like the color. Omega because my colleagues felt it needed more punch. Not my choice, but I got lucky compared to LiberGator, Reptile Warrior,” I chuckle.
He chuckles too. “What now?” he asks.
I shrug my shoulders. “I said yes to seeing you again sometime. Why don’t we see how that goes.”
“Yes. That seems reasonable,” he says. I can hear his voice cracking just the teeniest bit. “Have a pleasant evening, June.”
“You too, Ellis.”
The bell rings.
Tags: Joachim Heijndermans