Party Chapter One

Here’s Party Chapter One to give you a taste. When a meet goes wrong for a superhero, it goes really wrong.

Anyway, have fun!

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Party Chapter One

The SWAT teams waiting for her might’ve been a sign that Zita Garcia needed to rethink her life choices.

In the shape of a hawk, she drifted in and out of the clouds in a lazy circle, mimicking a real bird performing a similar spiral nearby.

The person Zita had come to meet, the Pie Lady, sat on a wooden bench by the water of the long, oval lake that filled the center of the park. As she knitted something pastel yellow, the older woman hummed. Her project matched the cheery flowers of her short-sleeved blouse, her lemon-colored capris, and the bulging tote bag sitting beside her. Even her hair projected her contentment, the fluffy short cut like a peppery halo of baking sainthood.

Go to church, knit baby clothes while humming a happy song, and have the metahuman ability to bake pies so good they temporarily cure mental illness… is she trying to be somebody’s ideal mom or something? I bet she’s got snacks, tissues, and chanclas in her bag. What’s her name again? Irma? Iris? Zita tried to remember while she scoped out the others there.

Beneath the shade of a wide oak, a mud-splattered white SUV sat empty. A tired-seeming man, Zita’s age, stretched out on a bench by it. He had Pie Lady’s facial structure, the tight body of a serious runner, and hooded brown eyes glued to his phone, making him the only other person in the park who seemed normal.

Everyone else there was wrong. Nicely muscled, but wrong.

When the Pie Lady waved happily at a fit, young couple with a baby carriage, they returned only a curt nod. A dog walker with the balance of a martial artist walked multiple laps, a slight hitch in his stride that might signal a concealed weapon. The canine itself was on alert, with none of the expected joyous sniffing, marking, and dawdling. Two birdwatchers had locked their binoculars on Zita and the other hawk, completely ignoring the smaller birds in the nearby trees. By the shore, a fisherman hung out, busy observing his environs rather than the line drifting in the water. He had no beer, but a three-foot-long duffel lay open at his feet, the bag lumpy with something too big to be a backup fishing rod. Landscapers poked at the dirt as a tray of flowers wilted beside them. The spotless pickup truck nearby lacked any gardening equipment or racks for such. Four black vans and a sedan sat neatly side-by-side next to the handicapped parking spots. Engines rumbled in two of the vans, but the hard-eyed men in the driver’s seats didn’t even pretend to be doing anything other than watching their surroundings.

Despite the heat and humidity, all the suspicious strangers wore jeans and bulky, plain t-shirts that didn’t quite hide the outline of hidden vests on bodies that’d clearly seen serious gym time. They also seemed to share the flat, assessing gazes of cops that moved endlessly over the landscape, as if expecting something or someone to burst out of nowhere.

Someone like Zita.

She laughed at her own self-absorption. This is pretty far from home. It might not be about me. Maybe they’re staking out the park because of drug deals or something. In any case, I promised Elle I’d help her learn to control her shifting, and it’s been months since we last managed a meet. Screw it. I need to find out how the kid is doing, even if this place is oozing cops.

Coasting on a thermal, she looped overhead, plotting the best time and angle to fly down and talk to the Pie Lady.

The idyllic lake took up a fourth of the grassy park, complete with ducks paddling around. A stone statue of a man reigned over myriad flowers and butterfly bushes on a small island, the shrubs bright and oversized with late summer growth. At one edge, a short wooden pier extended out from a cute little dock that held only a pair of pedal boats tethered with chains. Carefully landscaped trees and shrubs forced otherwise straight lines to wind and meander, making the place seem larger.

Not to mention hiding Pie Lady’s bench from sight at certain points.

Zita waited until as many of the roving cops were at the farthest end of their respective loops as possible. Trees sheltered her from the parking lot view and whatever hid in those vans as she landed beside the older woman and shifted to Arca. Her chosen form was almost identical to her natural one, save for the face, ears, fingerprints, voice, and long hair. She cleared her throat.

The Pie Lady started.

Both spoke.

“Iris, right? Elle’s okay, right?” Zita’s voice was thick with the fake Mexican accent that hid her identity and soothed her nerves at the proximity of so much law enforcement.

“Where’s Eleanor? It’s Irene, actually.”

They blinked at each other.

“You don’t know where she is? Wasn’t she getting surgeries and stuff for her bad heart? Did you just bring the cops with you for giggles, or was there a special reason?” Zita finally said. She adjusted her mask, fingers fussing over the smooth fabric, the same special material as the rest of her vigilante costume, a pair of capris and a sports bra. It was the only clothing she’d found that disappeared when she shifted shape, instead of getting destroyed or tangling her up. When she returned to a human form, the clothing reappeared. Given how weirdly upset people got when their rescuer was naked, that was a blessing.

Their eyes intent on her, the stroller couple and dog walker increased their speed.

The older woman shook her head. “What do you mean police? I didn’t bring any. My car’s been acting up, so one of my boys drove me here after he got off his shift at the hospital. Nobody else came with us. I haven’t seen Eleanor since the last time I texted you her location. DMS took her after that, and nobody will tell me where she is, even though I’m her foster mother and we applied to adopt her. Her doctors said she needed more surgery soon, and I don’t even know if she’s received it. My son, the one that’s a deputy, hasn’t even been able to find out. Given how hard Elle practiced what you taught her, I thought you’d set up some other way to contact her. Why would you ask me to meet you about Eleanor if you didn’t know?”

Zita gaped at Irene. “You texted me, not the other way around… now the cops make sense. I guess it is all about me. Carajo, I was hoping your town had a drug problem. If you see Elle first, tell her to keep working on her control like we did in the hospital.” She sighed. Her back prickled, and she scanned the area.

The fisherman dug through his bag. The landscapers appeared to be attempting to circle around her.

Irene gaped at Zita for a second but then closed her eyes. “What? Then that means…”

Zita took a step away from Irene, preparing to fly.

The stroller couple burst into a run. The female half shouted, “Freeze! DMS! Face down on the ground! Don’t move!” Her male partner trained a gun on Zita, and the dog walker released his dog. It ran toward the bench.

“Oye, no need to get upset now. I didn’t do nothing,” Zita said, raising her hands in the air.

Movement through the trees and the sound of slamming doors made her suspect the vans had just opened up. Somehow, she doubted the occupants were coming to rescue her. The dog was barking and closing in.

Reaching into the carriage, the female DMS agent pulled out a small round item, yanked out a pin, and pitched it at their feet in a practiced move. Under other circumstances, Zita would’ve admired the throw.

Before her conscious mind identified the grenade, she was already in motion. Shifting to a gorilla, Zita grabbed Irene and dragged the woman to the pier’s edge, jumping into the water. Knitting needles clattered on the pavement behind them.

“Wha—!” Irene shouted as they submerged.

Changing shape again to a freshwater dolphin, Zita swam as fast as possible while hauling the other woman to the island in the center. Despite the short distance, she tried to surface a couple times for Irene’s sake, but she stayed mostly underwater herself, not wanting to make either of them a target. With a quick switch back to gorilla, she hauled a coughing Irene out of the water and into the partial screen afforded by the statue and overgrown bushes.

Back where they’d been, a thick cloud of weird orange smoke swirled in a ten-foot radius.

Instinct shrieked, and she whipped to the side.

Something whooshed faintly.

Irene stumbled and fell with a thump. “Ow!”

Zita changed to her Arca shape as she tried to haul the older woman closer to the statue for better cover. “You okay?”

To her credit, Irene recovered her breath and composure quickly, even though her fingers dug into Zita’s arm as they sheltered behind the warm stone. “Fine.”

Standing by the SUV, Irene’s son clutched his phone to his chest but stayed out of the way of the cops.

The words DMS SWAT stood out on the backs of multiple people in tactical gear as they swarmed through all forty acres of the park. Some covered the sky while others combed the underbrush. The landscapers were tearing off vests and boots by the shore.

“Goodness gracious, why does my arm hurt so much?” Irene slurred.

Spotting a dart protruding from the other woman’s shoulder, Zita plucked it out, setting it aside. “You got hit with a dart.” Air guns! Whatever they’ve put in there is taking effect awful quick, too. That can’t be good. Dios, how did I miss that they’ve got at least one sniper out there somewhere?

“I didn’t know… trap. Just wanna… help Eleanor. Go.” Irene collapsed onto the grass, her eyes sliding shut.

Her grip gentle, Zita eased the other woman over to rest propped up against the statue.

“Eleanor?” Irene half-reared up, eyes opening.

Zita nodded, worried about the way the older woman was panting. “I’ll find her.”

“Uh-huh. ‘Ppreciate that. Nice girl,” Irene replied, one hand rising to sloppily pat Zita’s head. The older woman’s words trailed off, and her eyes fluttered shut as her arm dropped. A soft, congested snore followed.

Across the water, the breeze brought words to her. “Dose Arca now with the meta gas! We need her controlled. Find her friends!”

The stroller woman pulled out a grenade launcher.

Zita bellowed, “You hit the old lady. She’s having some kind of reaction! Get an ambulance! Don’t shoot!”

“Mom!” His weariness apparently forgotten, the normal guy from the parking lot grabbed something from his car and sprinted to the edge of the lake. After dropping a big duffel with a red cross on it, he unchained one of the boats.

Freed of their vests, landscapers dove into the water and struck out for the island. The fisherman sidestepped along the shore, trying to get a better angle on Zita with a long gun.

Although she hated to abandon the sleeping woman, Zita leapt up, exploding into golden eagle form. As she rose through the air, she glanced below.

The stroller woman lowered her grenade launcher, while the fisherman tracked Zita with an air gun. A dripping landscaper bent over Irene while the other had a gun out. The boat was just reaching the island.

Zita’s instincts screamed. She banked hard to the left.

A dart buzzed by.

No mames. They ain’t playing. If those things can knock out a woman who’s got at least thirty or forty pounds on me in human form that fast, it might be fatal in this form. Please let her be okay. I’ll have to bring Wyn back and see if Irene needs her healing spell. Zita pumped her wings harder and let the clouds hide her. She circled, changing to a white-bellied sea eagle, and peeked through her cover to check on the Pie Lady.

Irene’s son bent over her, his bag open beside him as he grabbed something in it. One sodden landscaper remained nearby. All the other DMS agents mobbed the area of the lake. Someone in a suit and glasses did a lot of gesturing and stomping. With relief, she saw an ambulance speeding down the road, lights flashing.

Just in case, Zita lingered overhead. Once Irene was safely in the vehicle, she let herself drift higher and teleported home.

Did you enjoy Party Chapter One? Want more?

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