Chapter 3

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E: Text me when you get to the bar.

The Mecha Squad had become a nuisance. It only took three goons with advance weapons pilfered from the government and they thought themselves the next overlords of Vanguard. Before long, they’d be beaten, thrown in jail, and a new menace would emerge. The life cycle of Vanguard supervillains. Somebody should write a book about it, not that I’d get to it soon.

I just needed to make it to the next block, and I’d shelter inside while the powered-folk did their dance. The street had emptied. I should jump inside the closest doorway and wait out the attack. If it wasn’t the Mecha Squad, it’d be the Squirrel Patrol. If not them, then an Alpha Centuri death squad. Dammit, if I was going to hide, I’d do it in my bar.

“Mickey, what are you doing?”

I spun about to an empty street. He fell out of the sky, brushing the flames off his shoulders. They thought they were being clever with their masks. I ran a bar where patrons wore hoods, pup masks, and face paint. Identifying a superhero was my superpower, especially if they were of the bearish variety.

“Howdy Xander.”

“Lionheart,” he whispered. Oh right, the spandex closet. How dare I forget my manners?

“I’m too old for dress up.” I patted away flames on his chest and gave him a hug. He stiffened. I chuckled in his ear. They took their jobs so seriously. “Your turn to save the world?”

“Just the Ward today. Why are you not—”

“Hiding like a coward?”

I pointed to the Bottom’s Up sign hanging over the doorway. It’d only take me a minute to dash across the intersection and be inside. At least when I got there, I could stop and see if Alex needed help to prep the bar for tonight. I couldn’t wait to tell him about the calamity with Elizabeth.

“Hold on.” He thrust both hands into the air. I stepped back as a stream of fire poured from his arms. I followed the flame until it slammed into the chest of a robot. It spun through the air before slamming into the fifth story of a nearby building.

“I should let you go—”

“I can escort—” Insect-like arms appeared from his back, chucking fireballs at another robot in the air. He had his hands, all four of them, busy with the Mechas. He didn’t need me as a distraction.

“You save the city. I’ll get out of danger’s way.”

He raised an unconvinced eyebrow. I smiled, taking a step back before I pushing the crosswalk button. I didn’t need him threatening to arrest me for jaywalking. When it gave the signal, I started across the street. 

My phone vibrated while I inched toward the sidewalk. I had the utmost faith Xander would walk away victorious. As he rose into the air, he continued his suspicious gaze. With a final wave, I turned around, making my way to safety.

I checked my phone. Of course, Elizabeth, the ever doting sister.

 

E: No text? I’m assuming you’ve been kidnapped or killed. It better be the latter. 

 

A news van tore its way down the street as I approached the bar. The driver weaved between abandoned cars as if they were on a race track. A man with a camera hung out of the sunroof, trying to capture the fight between the Mecha Squad and Lionheart. It’d be one of a dozen similar stories on the six o’clock news. We really needed to—

A loud whistle filled the street. I turned just in time to see a plume of smoke heading toward the vehicle. If I ran, I’d make it to Bottom’s Up. Running hadn’t been an option for years. Thanks, knees.

I froze.

From the smoke, a missile struck the pavement. The explosion nearly knocked the van over. Every muscle in my body tightened. It steered to avoid a car in the road, jumping the sidewalk. Great, they headed straight for me. I glanced to each side, debating which direction to leap. Pinned between a building and a parked car, there was nowhere to go.

I threw up my arms as if they’d somehow protect me. I braced for impact. My knees were going to be the least of my concerns when I connected with the grill. Metal crunched and bent, while wheels screeched along the sidewalk. It sounded like carnage, but none of it involved me.

I peaked through my fingers. The front of the van had compacted as if it had slammed into a wall. Tires continued turning, but something held it in place. The driver shook their head, and the cameraman had all but fallen inside the vehicle.

High above, Xander traded blows with one of the squad. Everybody knew he inherited his powers from Prometheus. He flipped about, trying to gain the higher ground. Did he have abilities beyond the suit and wielding fire? I was damned near creating an invisible barrier wasn’t in his repertoire.

“Sorry!” The driver had jumped from the van, staggering. “Billy, hurry. We don’t want to miss this.” The cameraman jumped from the back of the van and started recording. They had nearly killed me, and without missing a beat, they went right back to their jobs.

“This is Trish Libby reporting for Powered News…” 

“Mick,” I had frozen in place. It took a second to realize Alex had come out of the bar. He gave my shoulders a shake before I stopped staring at the reporter. I debated giving them a one-finger salute.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I think Lionheart saved you.”

No, that wasn’t it. Alex guided me past the van. My fingers ran along the crunched doors. It’d be off t the junkyard before the end of the day. I waved my hands through the air, looking for an invisible force-field. I couldn’t make sense of it. Alex gave me a push toward the bar. Something unexplainable had saved my life. I chalked it up to another normal day in Vanguard.

 


 

Alex flipped a cup onto the counter and filled it with water. I should have given him a smart ass comment about showing off both his skills and the patch of chest hair. I couldn’t form coherent thoughts, still stuck on the near-death experience. Gripping the sides of the glass, I focused on the chill in my hands. My phone shook in my pocket. I pulled it out and stole a glance.

 

E: Do my eyes deceive me? You’re not dead. But how can that be? I still haven’t received a text.

 

What was she getting at it? It wasn’t until Alex said, “You made the news, boss,” that I understood her message. I ignored Elizabeth’s passive aggressive text, pocketing my phone, and focusing on the television. I was barely a blip on the radar before they went to the airborne fight happening outside. Lionheart had taken off the kid gloves and unleashed his pent up rage, dropping the remaining two bad guys to the street below.

“Good job, Lio.”

“Wait.” Alex pointed from me to the screen. “You know Lionheart?” When I didn’t give an immediate reply, his eyes lit up. “You know Lionheart?”

“It’s rude to assume I’ve slept with the guy.” Fantasize? Yes, I had imagined myself under Xander plenty of times. I lifted the glass, waving it about enough that water spilled over the edge. “Gay men don’t bang every guy they come across. I haven’t slept with you, have I?”

“Not yet.”

I gulped the water, sending it down the wrong pipe. I choked. Forget killer robots and a runaway news van. With two words, my manager almost succeeded where they had failed. With a grin on his face, I bet he patted himself on the back for a job well done.

Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my phone while I tried clearing water from my throat. I’d deal with Alex in a moment. She had worried long enough. I’m sure I’d hear about it again as she tortured my way through another yoga session. 

For a moment, the bar was flooded in a warm orange light. Outside, Lionheart melted the metal suits of the Mecha Squad. He struck a pose for the news and then flew upward. Did he have another rendezvous as the fire wielding Lionheart? Or as the hot-headed muscle bear?

 

M: Not dead. Got caught up.

E: Dead to me! 

 

“Hot date?” Alex asked.

“Only if it’s with my sister.” I nearly laughed at her last message. “She wanted to make sure I didn’t get kidnapped.”

“That’s sweet.”

I couldn’t tell if his words were sincere or sarcastic. He always had a glimmer of mischievousness in his eyes. It’s half the reason I hired him. The other half might have something to do with that broad furry chest. The fact he tucked in his shirt to show off his girth didn’t hurt either. Oh yeah, his resume. That too. I still believed ‘straight bear’ should have been listed under his qualifications.

“You’ll change your tune when you meet her. Elizabeth is a walking force of nature. A cyclone mixed with a forest fire.”

“So it runs in the family?”

He flirted with danger. “She’d be fun if she didn’t try to set me up with every man she comes across. Well, not that she will now.” 

Being employed in a bar is a different type of work environment. The barriers between personal and professional were, at best, a suggestion. The long hours and playing therapist with every pint meant getting closer than if we worked in an office. 

“Funny story,” I said, leaning back. I ran my hands along the bar top. It hadn’t been this clean in years. Alex continued dropping beers into the fridge, preparing for another busy night. “She always goes on about me meeting people like I’m a hermit.”

“And she’s wrong, how?”

I frowned. Why did everybody think I avoided human contact? I owned a bar. I dealt with people every night. “We were at yoga—”

“The donut place next to yoga, you mean?”

Alex shouldn’t know me this well. Again, our working relationship bordered on unprofessional. I shot him a dirty look.

“Fine. We were having a donut, and she started asking about my love life. She’s going through a midlife crisis and likes to take it out on me. So I might have lied and told I was seeing somebody.”

“That’s going to bite you in the ass,” he said. He had moved onto stacking the glasses behind the counter. I thought about dropping it there, but I figured he could use a good laugh.

“I might have mentioned a handsome guy.”

“Congrats, Mick. Is your imaginary man the one?”

“You tell me.”

It took a moment for the meaning to set in. It was my turn to grin as his expression went from amused to confused and back again. If he thought I didn’t catch him almost dropping a pint glass, he fooled himself. I couldn’t help but belt out laughing at the turn of events. 

“So we’re dating now? I’m pretty sure you owe me dinner and a movie.”

“Don’t expect too much. I’d spring for a taco from the food truck.”

He gasped, hand to his chest. “Good sir! I am not a cheap date.”

I appreciated he found the humor in the situation. Anybody else might fear the entire conversation served as a misguided attempt to ask them on a date. This was the real reason I hired Alex. He went with the flow and nothing seemed to faze him.

“Oh, you think I’m kidding?”

Wait. What?

“If you’re using me as your arm candy. The least you could do is buy me dinner.”

Being his boss complicated this. More than that, his persuasion for the ladies made it awkward. Did Alex have his own secret? I had never asked why he and his ex-wife split. Had he left a window open on the computer where he indulged in his man-on-man fantasies? If I asked now, it’d look like a set up. Despite the growing list of questions  — heck, a growing list of red flags, I threw caution to the wind.

“Okay, mister. Where is this supposed dinner happening?”

He slung a dish rag over his shoulder. I could swear he raised his shoulders to broaden his chest more than usual. I wanted to rest my head in the middle of this burly man’s body and listen to his heartbeat until I drifted off. Little Mick jumped at the idea.

He threw his hands up. “You asked me—”

“That’s not exactly—”

He walked away, hands waving in the air. “Stop being a bad fake boyfriend and figure it out. You better impress, or you’re getting dumped in public.”

Alex vanished into the back of the bar. I took a long swig of water, trying to figure out what had just happened. I couldn’t put my finger on where things went sideways, but somehow, I blamed Elizabeth. Did Alex expect a proper date, or was this a situation of co-workers giving each other a hard time? If I read the situation wrong, I’d be down a manager. But if he expected an actual date… This is why I was single, at least partly.

My phone vibrated again, this time with a photo. Elizabeth had taken a screen shot of her television. In the back of the frame, Alex ushered me to the bar.

 

E: Oh, and he’s cute.

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You the reader get to decide the outcome. Something is missing for Mickey and he's on the verge of a discovery that will change his life forever. Each month, readers get to decide how the story flows.

So a date is in the works... where does Mick take his "date?"*

So a date is in the works... where does Mick take his "date?"*

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