Where There's Smoke (Panopolis, #1)
Panopolis is a rough place to be an average Joe. I came here looking for adventure and excitement, but nobody cares about one more normal guy in a city filled with super-powered heroes. The closest I’ve come to glory is working in a bank that villains often rob.
But then I maybe accidentally-on-purpose helped a villain escape the hero who was trying to save the day. Imagine my shock when, a week later, that villain asked me out for coffee. One date turned into more, and now I’m head over heels in love with Raul.
Falling in love with the guy dubbed the Mad Bombardier isn’t without its downsides, though. I’ve had to deal with near-death encounters with other villains, awkwardly flirtatious heroes who won’t take no for an answer, and a lover I’m not sure I can trust. It’s getting to the point where I know I’ll have to make a choice: side with the heroes, or stand fast by my villain.
Either way, I think my days as a normal guy are over.
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
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Heat Wave: 4 - On-screen and mildly explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 3 - Moderate
Genre: action / adventure, alternate world / alternate universe, dystopian, romance, sci-fi, superhero, suspense / thriller, urban fantasy / paranormal
Tone: dark, exciting, gritty, humorous, intense
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), angst, hurt / comfort, protection, trust issues
Kinks: barebacking, biting, frottage
Careers: clerk, criminal / outlaw, mercenary
SuperTruther here, guys, bringing you the real McCoy on Heroes, Villains, and the twisted quagmire that is life for us regular Joes in Panopolis. Sometimes you have to wonder what it is that brings the nonnatives to Panopolis, huh? I mean, where else in the world do you have insurers who include “acts of domestic terrorism and/or damage incurred by accidental heroics” in their list of exclusion clauses? And yet we have the highest influx of newcomers on the Eastern seaboard. Every year, more people flock to Panopolis than New York City, looking for . . . well, I can only guess, since I was born here. Looking for opportunity? Danger? Thrills? Chronic hypertension? Trust me, doctors do a real business in antianxiety medication here in the big city.
I’m no Hero.
In fact, I’d never even met a Hero, despite living in downtown Panopolis, where there tended to be the most sightings. Before I moved here I thought that Heroes were practically part of the welcoming committee, they showed up in the news so often. Even if you didn’t live in Panopolis, you heard about it. I was addicted to the anonymous reporter SuperTruther’s blog, which was all about Heroes and Villains and Panopolis politics. For me it became a siren call, one that I eventually gave in to. My folks thought I was crazy to move to the City of Heroes, away from safe and boring suburban Kansas, where the only thing people get excited about on a regular basis are college sports and the fall harvest.
But it seemed that Heroes had better things to do than go around shaking hands with out-of-towners. Apart from some distant sightings at the mall or stadium, I was hardly any closer to meeting a Hero living in Panopolis than before my arrival. I shouldn’t have worried, though. Heroes went after Villains, and Villains? Well, they went after money, and it just so happened that I worked at a bank.
At two in the afternoon almost one month after I arrived, during the bank’s slowest traffic time of the day, a sudden fizzing spray of sparks erupted at each of the front doors, fusing them cherry red down the midline. The overhead lights flickered, and I heard the teller next to me frantically pushing his panic button. I should have been doing the same, should also have ducked down behind the counter with the rest of my coworkers like I’d been shown in my first week during our “robbery and mock holdup” seminar. But I was too stiff with fear to move. The customers cowered, and our security guards reached for their guns only to find them stuck in their holsters.
The lights went out completely for a moment, throwing everything into shadow, and when they came back on he was there, standing in the middle of the lobby. He was wearing all black, from the buckles on his boots to the trench coat that hung heavy around him all the way up to the mask covering his face. The only spot of color on him was a red digital readout on his forehead—a long string of blinking numbers I couldn’t make out from where I sat behind the booth.
The Mad Bombardier.
That was the press’s stupid name for him; he’d never bothered to announce one for himself. Most Villains, and all Heroes, gave themselves larger-than-life monikers meant to inspire awe, fear, or both. The Bombardier was different. He was . . . well, subtle wasn’t exactly the right word, not for a Villain, because none of them did subtle very well. He wasn’t much of a grandstander, but he’d pulled off some huge jobs, and that made him interesting enough to not dismiss out of hand. Plus, the name might be dumb but it fit: he was a bomber, and he was definitely more than a little crazy.
He saw me before I could duck. “You.” His voice sounded like an echo of itself somehow, hollow and deep. “Fill this.” He threw a small canvas bag over the counter at me. “You have two minutes.”
He turned to the manager’s desk where our boss, who knew the routine way better than I did, calmly stood up and said, “The vault is this way.” They walked into the back together.
So far, so good. No shots fired, no one had been hurt. Just a few flashy pyrotechnics and a demand for cash—all fine. My hands trembled as I opened my drawer and reached for the money. There wasn’t that much in there, no more than a thousand dollars, but I placed it all into the bag.
“Psst!” one of my coworkers hissed at me from his place on the floor. “Edward! The dye packs!”
I stared at him blankly. “What?”
“Add the dye packs! Look under your drawer!”
Oh, right. We stocked little containers of indelible ink that you could set to go off and drop into a money bag. Perfect for a situation like this. Our bank really did have getting robbed down to an art. I pulled the drawer and fumbled for some of the packets, the small sachets slipping through my clumsy, clutching fingers. I finally grabbed one and put it in the bag, way down at the bottom where he’d be less likely to see it, and punched the button that would set it off in about five minutes. Doing so made me feel strange, almost guilty, but the feelings were quickly buried under the resurgence of fear as the robber appeared again, alone this time, holding a safety-deposit box under one arm.
“The money,” he demanded, thrusting his hand forward. His other hand held a small circular device, his thumb poised above it, just waiting to jab down and . . . and what? What if he’d set a bomb beneath the desk? What if he was going to blow me up the minute I handed him the bag? He was a Villain; that’s what Villains did!
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the sight of it, a precarious, unknown fate resting in this man’s hand. I didn’t even hear him speak, I was so lost in my own terror. Blood rushed hard through my veins, my hearing turned fuzzy, and my lungs fluttered in my chest like a pair of landed fish, flapping and striving and useless. My vision blurred around the edges, slowly closing in on me like a collapsing tunnel.
A firm but not cruel grip tightened around my upper arm and pulled me out of my panic. As my sight cleared I saw him, closer now, his black goggles reflecting my own startled gaze back at me.
“It’s going to be fine,” he said, still deep and resonant but not as loud as before. “I won’t hurt you. I promise. Just give me the bag.”
I knew I couldn’t trust him, but for some reason his assurances made me feel better. Slowly, I handed the bag over to him. He let go of me to take it, equally slow and controlled. I thought that was the end of it, then the fused front doors broke off their hinges, carried straight through the gaping entrance, and into the lobby by a huge, hulking man. He stopped, but the doors kept going, crashing down flat, sliding right into the tellers’ booths and knocking the Mad Bombardier off his feet. He lost his grip on the device, which flew across the counter at me. I caught it reflexively, then almost forgot I was holding it as the newcomer straightened up.
Freight Train. There were a few exclamations, and a sob of relief here and there. Freight Train was one of Panopolis’s greatest Heroes, an institution in the city for the past five years. He was a former cop, which maybe explained why he tended to respond whenever the city police got involved. He’d been accidentally exposed to an experimental chemical meant to create temporary force fields around living organisms as an emergency quarantine measure. On him, it had turned into a permanent force field, and scientists had barely been able to figure out a way to penetrate it before he died of dehydration. Nothing beyond the field that wasn’t a gas could get in without some very proprietary technology to help. That meant he was immune to bullets, knives, acid—just about everything that could kill him. With enough momentum he could power his way through walls, so the doors . . . definitely not a problem for him.
“I hear there’s a vermin problem in this bank.” Freight Train’s voice rang loud and clear through the ruin of our foyer. “Show yourself, scum! Let’s see if you’ve got what it takes to go up against a Hero!”
I couldn’t see the Mad Bombardier any more, but I heard a pained moan from somewhere in front of me, faint and echoing. The edges of the device I held in my hand bit into my palm, my grip on it was so tight. What I did next, I did without thinking too much about it, an impulse I couldn’t quite control.
My teller booth was the last one in the row, and I slid out of my chair onto the ground and crawled over to the door that led to the main lobby. I opened it, then peeked around the corner at the wreckage, the people, and the Hero himself. Freight Train was still glaring this way and that, his hands on his hips. He hadn’t seen me yet, and it seemed like he hadn’t seen the Mad Bombardier either, who was trying to press up onto one elbow, his black clothes coated in gray plaster dust. The Bombardier’s head lifted, and even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I could still tell when he focused on me.
My hand was trembling so badly I thought I was going to just drop the device, but instead I managed to slide it across the floor in his general direction, praying my poor treatment of it didn’t set anything off. The Villain grabbed it, but the noise attracted Freight Train’s attention.
“Ah, Bombardier,” he sneered, coming forward. “You’re looking done in.” The Mad Bombardier sat up and leaned away from Freight Train as he got closer. “You know, I’ve always wondered about those numbers on your head. What do they mean?” He stepped onto the wreckage of the doors and leaned in with a grin. “A countdown to your capture, maybe? Because if that’s the case, they should already read zer—”
That was when the secondary explosives set on the undersides of the doors were set off. I hadn’t even seen them, but they catapulted the sides of the fused piece of metal up at the edges, squeezing Freight Train like the filling in a taco. He toppled to the ground, wrapped up tight in a metallic embrace. The Bombardier got to his feet, brushed his coat off, then grabbed the bag of money and shoved the safety-deposit box into it. He glanced my way once more before sauntering out the gaping entrance, leaving behind a lot of astonished civilians and an utterly irate Freight Train.
I thought that was the end of it, nothing more than my first interaction with the darker, more exciting, and certainly more explosive side of Panopolis. It had been every bit as thrilling as I’d thought it would be, and way more terrifying than I’d dreamed of. My move to Panopolis was meant to be the start of a new beginning for me. I’d find purpose, feel alive. I would do something with myself. As it was, I was mostly just happy to still be alive. I wrote the whole thing off as a close call that, hopefully, wouldn’t repeat itself.
Imagine my surprise when a week later, once the bank was open for business again, I was sent a bouquet of flowers at work. It was pretty simple, one long spray of pink flowers surrounded by a few attendant red-and-black blossoms. Attached was a little envelope. The card inside was matte black, and the writing on it was red.
You’re either extraordinarily kind or inordinately brave. I’d like to meet with you and discover which one for myself. If you’re interested, come to the coffee shop on Pinnacle and 24th at six tonight.
If you’re not interested, then at least let me say very sincerely, thank you.
“Those are nice,” Wendy, another teller, commented as she passed my booth. “Who’re they from?”
“Ah . . .” Why did my lungs feel so tight? “No one in particular, just a friend.” Why was I lying? “Just a way to welcome me back to work.”
“Well.” She arched one lovely eyebrow at me. “You’ve got a very nice friend.” She walked away and left me to ponder my ridiculous life choices.
Why lie about it? For heaven’s sake, why not tell the truth and get the police involved? The man had robbed our bank; people could have been hurt. He’d compression-locked a superhero with our own doors. It had turned out there were bombs all over the bank, inactive unless triggered by remote, and practically invisible unless you happened to be standing right next to them and staring at just the right angle. I didn’t even know what he looked like.
But I wanted to. It hadn’t taken me long to discover that a regular person couldn’t amount to much in Panopolis; it just didn’t happen. But maybe I could get to know someone who did.
What motivates a Hero, guys? Or a Villain? What keeps them risking their bacon in a city that treats its people, and its Super people, little better than lab rats? I mean, why don’t Mr. Fabulous and Justice Queen go and make a fortune on the modeling circuit? Why isn’t Alpha working as a celebrity dog trainer instead of being a Hero chew toy? Why can’t Mount Doom just go blow smoke on a quiet little island somewhere? Do they stay out of a sense of loyalty to the city? For the fun of it? Maybe even for true love?
Or is there another reason, a darker and much more complicated reason why our Super population just can’t quit Panopolis? Smart money says yes, folks. There’s a lot more going on here than meets the patriotic lens of the media, that’s for sure.
The coffeehouse on Pinnacle and 24th was a sweet little place. It was just far enough off the main streets that it hadn’t had to be remodeled in some time, if the water stains on the plaster were anything to go by. It had half a dozen tables set out in front beneath a green-and-cream striped awning, with a few people sitting, reading books and nursing their beverages. It was an innocuous enough place for a meeting, no shady characters or glowering bouncers, and I headed inside to get a drink feeling a little less like butterflies were going to pour out of my mouth if I dared to open it.
I got a cambric tea—sadly decaf, but I didn’t want to be up all night—and took one of the tables for myself, forcing my hands around the tall, hot glass to keep them still. “Your twitchy fingers are your biggest tell,” my dad had told me on the one night he’d bothered to try to teach me to play poker. I could lie with my eyes, but my hands always gave me away.
It was five after six. I quelled the impulse to stare at my watch. I didn’t need to, I could feel the seconds tick by. Ten after six. Fifteen . . .
A man in a pair of battered old jeans and a moth-eaten sweater approached the café, his hands filled with flowers. My heart sped up as I looked at them, but—no. They were carnations, and the guy was giving them away, one to each person he saw. “To match your smile,” he said to a college student as he handed her a pale-pink one. “To brighten your evening,” he told an older man who was reading the newspaper and scowling. No one turned a flower away, and when he got to me I was resigned. I’d had enough of flowers, I wanted to see a person.
“Red for you,” he told me as he passed me a bloom. “To match the others.”
“I don’t have any . . .” I took a second glance at the flower. It wasn’t a carnation. It was a little red-and-black blossom, the same type as had been in my mysterious bouquet.
“Who gave you this?” I asked quietly, looking the man in the face for the first time. He had a slightly pinched expression, like his mouth was a little too small for his chin, which jutted forward a bit too far to be symmetrical.
“May I sit for a moment?”
I nodded, and he levered himself into the chair across from me with a sigh, like his back or knees had been hurting him. I stared at him expectantly, waiting for my message. Maybe I’d be sent somewhere else; maybe this was like a scavenger hunt.
He let me look my fill, then his shoulders began to shake with silent laughter. “What?” he asked after a moment. “Not what you were expecting?”
“Wait . . . you?” But this was a middle-aged man, a plain, bent, aching middle-aged man who was offering up carnations to people like he had nothing better to do with his time. “You’re . . .” I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it.
Then something miraculous happened. In the space of a second, his whole face changed. His jaw pulled back, still strong but no longer misshapen. His cupid’s bow of a mouth expanded to fill the space left behind, wide and sharply defined. His nose, which I hadn’t even noticed before, was broad and slightly crooked, long and imperial but it suited him. Dark eyes sat deep beneath caterpillar brows, and his forehead was high but almost completely unlined. Thick black hair curled around his collar and his ears, and his hands were elegance itself as he picked up the flower I’d accidentally dropped onto the table and twirled it between his fingers.
“Is this better?” he asked me. Even his voice had changed a bit, going a little deeper, sounding more like what I remembered from last week.
“How on earth did you do that?” I didn’t mean to make it sound like a demand, and as soon as the words came out I felt like clapping my hand over my mouth. Fortunately, peremptory didn’t seem to bother him.
“Long practice. Making faces at myself in the mirror. The occasional use of cosmetics.” He shrugged. “It never hurts to have a boring face lying around in case you need one.”
“You should see what I can make out of C-4.”
“I think I already did,” I said faintly. “It was a very big mess. Freight Train’s angry with you too—he’s been on the news talking about you.”
He shrugged. “That’s what Heroes do, mostly. Pontificate and assure people that they’ll get the Villain next time. It loses its sting after a while.” There was a hint of an accent in his voice, a faint harshness to his consonants, but I couldn’t place it.
“Why are you meeting with me?” It was a rather abrupt segue, but I really did want to know. “And why did you send me those flowers?”
“Why did you help me escape?” he parried. “It was a risky move. There was a Hero less than fifteen feet from us.”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. It just didn’t seem right not to help you, after you treated me . . .” I settled on, “gently.”
“Kind and brave, then.”
I laughed a little. “No, neither, I think. Just foolish.”
“Foolish enough to sit here and wait while I go and get something to drink?” The and not call the cops or start screaming went unspoken, but I heard it anyway.
“Exactly that foolish, I think.”
He smiled at me. His lips were dusky, darker than the rest of his face. They looked soft. “Good.” He held out a hand. “Raul Tremblay.”
It probably wasn’t his real name, but it was nice to have something other than the Mad Bombardier to call him in my mind. I took his hand. His fingers were long enough to wrap all the way around the back of my palm. “Edward Dinges.” Boring, dull Eddie Ding-us, but he didn’t make fun of my name, just nodded.
“I’ll be back in a moment, Edward.”
I watched him walk away, not the arrogant stride of the Mad Bombardier or the stooped, slightly pained meander of the flower man, but . . . well, if “normal” was a verb, then that walk was what it would have been. Raul seemed nondescript now, just another face in the crowd, although it was a substantially handsomer face than it had been before. I wondered if it was hard to keep all his personas straight in his mind, but wasn’t quite sure how to ask him. That probably wasn’t a first-date kind of question.
Instead, when he returned, I stuck to our common ground, which was the robbery. I learned a few things about him, things that had been bugging me, like how he made our guards’ guns stick in their holsters (a resinous spray that bonded to their plastic handles), and when he’d planted the dozens of nearly invisible bombs all over the bank. It turned out that he had numerous disguises, each one perfectly innocuous, each with a special purpose. The best way to move around in a bank? Dress like a janitor, apparently. I’d probably seen him half a dozen times before he actually robbed the place, and I hadn’t even realized it.
Raul interested me, intrigued me actually. I’d never considered the logistics of robbing a bank before, and he put way more planning into it than I’d thought a Villain would. By the time the coffee shop closed its doors I’d had two more cups of tea while he’d barely finished his coffee with cream, and I still hadn’t had enough time. I didn’t want to know more about what he’d done, so much as more about him.
“Next time,” Raul said as we deposited our glasses in the bin beside the stirring spoons and paper napkins, “let me buy.” He flashed a ten-dollar bill at me with a grin, and my face heated up as I saw the tiny smear of red dye in the corner. He stuffed the bill in the tip jar. “I got quite lucky recently.”
We had other dates. He took me to dinner a few times, we went to a movie—one that we had to leave before it began because the Rocketeer accidentally set fire to the screen as he landed to deliver a public service announcement—and got ice cream after. Eventually I settled into the idea that I could see Raul, that I could be with him, and not be a bad person for it.
At first I was overwhelmed by the weirdness of my life: the fact that the man I was getting to know and starting to fall in love with came up on the news every now and then under the local station’s “Villain Report!” alerts. I mean, it was one thing to date the guy who’d keyed the principal’s car in high school, but another entirely to get together with someone who was rapidly climbing Panopolis’s Most Wanted list.
A month after we started dating, I dreamed of the bank job where we’d met, only instead of Freight Train being caught in the door bomb I was—crushed and helpless and unable to breathe.
I woke up, wrenched myself out of Raul’s sleepy embrace, and fell to the floor. I got onto all fours and stared down at my beige carpet, totally different from the bank’s marble floors, and desperately tried to catch my breath. It was so hard, though—my lungs just didn’t want to cooperate, still convinced they were caught in a vice. It wasn’t until Raul laid a warm hand on my back that I was finally able to inhale deeply enough to banish the stars swimming in front of my eyes.
“Nice and slow, Edward,” Raul said, rubbing his hand up and down my sweaty back. “Nice and slow. It’s okay, it’s okay . . .” Gradually he managed to calm me, and by the time I was able to sit and lean back against the bed, he was next to me on the floor. He looked concerned, heavy brows drawn low over his dark eyes. “Did you have a nightmare?”
I sighed. “Yeah. It was . . . Yeah.”
Apparently he understood my fragments pretty well. “Was it about me?”
“Kind of.” Raul didn’t seem satisfied by that. “I was caught in the doors. At the bank. They crushed me.”
Raul frowned, but he didn’t reach out to touch me. “Those were an emergency escape for me. I would never have used them on a civilian. I didn’t plan to use them at all. They were something of a last resort.”
“I know that.” At least, I thought I did. “But what if . . . what if you needed to use them against a regular person in order to escape? What if I had been the one in the way, and you had to activate them in order to get out?”
“I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“You wouldn’t now, but would you have then?” I stared at him, and he looked back at me, then sighed and got up off the floor. “No, wait, are you leaving?” That didn’t make me feel any better.
“I’m not leaving.” He was getting my tablet, actually. He turned it on and brought up the search function. “I want to show you something. You know that there are sites that track every Villain’s personal statistics? What sort of jobs we pull, who we fight with or work with, the number of people we hurt and kill? Look at this.”
He handed the tablet over, opened to SuperTruther’s blog. He’d pulled up his own page, and highlighted the section labeled “Reported Fatalities.” His count was at zero. In fact, his rate of injury was the lowest of any Villain listed on the site, which was pretty impressive since his rate of villainous acts was one of the highest, almost all of it stemming from creatively explosive robberies.
Still . . . “People have gotten injured, though,” I said.
“Very few. I came to Panopolis to do what I’m good at, Edward, and nothing more sinister than that. I wasn’t made here, and I have no desire to rule here.”
I homed in on the part I didn’t really understand. “Made here?”
“A native. A Villain who works for, or against, whoever created them.” Raul reached out and took my hand, and I looked up at his strong, serious face. “And I assure you, I will never bring you harm through my actions.”
“Do you swear?” My voice came out small, but Raul heard it all the same.
After a few more minutes we got back into bed, and I managed to grab another hour of decent sleep before the start of the day. It wasn’t my last panic attack, but it was the only one that ran away with me. As weeks of dating turned into months without any sort of incidents, I started to really believe what Raul had told me. Sure, he was technically a Villain, not a Hero, but according to SuperTruther, the distinction could be a little shaky. There was nothing in our relationship that I could bring myself to regret, even though I probably should have.
I certainly didn’t regret coming to Panopolis. I loved my job; I’d moved up into a management position a few months back—apparently promotion happened fast when your bosses suffered occasional nervous breakdowns from the stress. The perks were nice, though; I got a better salary and also got to speak with Heroes on a fairly regular basis. Mostly about bank safety regulations, but we occasionally chatted for more personal reasons.
In fact, Freight Train, the first Hero I’d ever met, was becoming an actual acquaintance. It turned out his grandmother lived in my apartment building, just across the hall from me. He visited her at least once a week, and she had forcibly introduced us twice now, just in case the initial introduction hadn’t stuck or something. I was worried for a while that he and Raul would bump into each other and that somehow he would recognize the Mad Bombardier, who since that first incident had become one of Freight Train’s “nemeses,” but Freight Train hadn’t so far. Of course, what was there to recognize? The Mad Bombardier wore a mask and never got close enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat, which seemed to frustrate Freight Train to no end whenever they clashed.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t kind of turned on by the fact that my boyfriend was a Villain. He didn’t talk to me about how he did the jobs he pulled off, and I never asked. He certainly never asked me for help, which I appreciated. I . . . I didn’t know what I would do if he did. I wouldn’t be able to use shock and adrenaline as an excuse if I ever helped a Villain again, and I didn’t want the temptation. Some stones were better left unturned.
That wasn’t to say that I knew nothing about him. Raul was happy to talk about his childhood insofar as he’d only sort of had one. He was Basque, he’d told me. “And our particular group was very separatist,” he related one morning as he scrambled eggs and spicy pork sausage together with some tiny mushrooms. He was a decent cook, nothing fancy but neither of us needed that. I’d live on nothing but oatmeal and tea if I could get away with it, and he knew that, so he made sure to fix more substantial meals whenever he stayed over. “From the Spanish and from our own people. My father was the leader, and he was both fearless and feared. I began running bombs for him at the age of five.”
He had to be fucking kidding me. “Running bombs . . . really?”
Raul nodded. “Into towns, to place under empty cars, mostly.” He stirred the spatula through the pan, like this revelation was nothing special, the kind of thing that every little kid did. Maybe where he came from, it was. “They were simple things, on remote detonators. He would take me to the edge of town and give me a bomb and a stopwatch. I would gauge how much time I had, what the best targets were, and plan accordingly.
“My mother didn’t like it. She was his ultimate supporter in every other way, but in this she felt he was being reckless with me. They fought for a long time over it. She wanted to stop letting me go. My father insisted I continue, and I agreed with him, for all the weight a child could add to the debate. I felt like I was doing something important.”
“What if something had gone wrong?” I demanded. “I mean, you were just a kid! What if the bomb had gone off early, or you’d been caught and unable to drop it somewhere safe in time?”
“I was never caught,” Raul said as he dished up breakfast, nicely evading the rest of my question. “But one day, a few weeks before my eighth birthday, my father was. He’d done a poor job of hiding outside of the town we were targeting, and the police found him. They took the remote from him, and though he pleaded with them to be careful, they accidentally pressed the button before the timer had counted down.”
I stared at him, my jaw dropping so low it almost scraped the tabletop. “How did you survive?”
“The detonator was improperly attached. A wire was loose, and the bomb never went off.” He sat down at the table across from me and handed me a plate. “My father was arrested. I never saw him again. My mother fled with me to France, and tried to change our lives into something more normal. She failed, clearly. My parents might have fought, but her heart was always with my father. When I was twelve, she’d had enough. She left me with friends and went back to break him out of prison.” Raul’s dark eyes were distant, not looking at anything but the past. “Neither of them survived. She tried to blow the prison wall apart, but miscalculated and blew the entire place up instead.”
“Oh, Raul.” I reached out and took his hand. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was better this way. She wasn’t herself without him.” He squeezed my fingers gently. “And it taught me a lesson about the strength of love and the importance of precision. I only ever worked with bombs I made myself after that.” He lifted a carafe. “Tea?”
Needless to say, I was careful how I pried into his past after that. He was an orphan, he’d been raised a terrorist, he’d come to America looking for a future and found Panopolis almost tailor-made to his particular brand of mayhem. I couldn’t fault him for doing what everything in his history had perfected him for.
Or, check your local library.