Power Chapter One

For discerning readers, here’s Power Chapter One for your reading amusement.This third installment in the lighthearted Arca series was a blast to write! Anyway, enjoy the sample. This is from the edited and proofread copy.

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Power Chapter One

In retrospect, perhaps ambushing your best friend was not the best way to start a conversation… especially in a cold, sullen drizzle that brought down the chilly October temperature several additional degrees and enhanced the scent of moldy leaves and wood smoke.

Rocking on her heels, Zita Garcia fought the urge to jog in place, or better yet, set up an obstacle course using the many Halloween decorations that littered the front lawn where she stood. A nice free running session would make the waiting much easier. As a trickle of water snuck inside her secondhand brown bomber jacket and dribbled down her muscular back, she glanced up at Wyn beside her. “I hope you know what we’re doing.”

Beneath an umbrella emblazoned with the logo of an environmental organization, her best friend smiled serenely and tossed an errant chestnut ringlet over her shoulder. As Wyn moved, creamy embroidery flashed at the wrists and waist of the close-fitted navy jacket the tall, sylph-like woman wore. She adjusted the dainty matching hat, her lashes drooping over hazel eyes. “Andy will be delighted to see us, and he needs this. We’ve allowed him plenty of privacy to grieve the failure of his romantic relationship. Now we should remind him he has friends.”

“If you say so,” Zita said, not bothering to keep the dubiousness from her voice. She studied the customer’s house where her other best friend had yet to emerge. After quarantine for a mysterious coma had reunited her with two buddies from her teenage years in the cancer ward, she was still getting used to the idea of having close friends. Hiding their superpowers—and the enforced proximity of the quarantine—had only cemented the bond, so now they felt as much like siblings as her two actual brothers.

Of the three ubiquitous brick home models repeated ad nauseam in the older Maryland suburb, this was the single-story rancher with the requisite big living room window and miserly twin windows flanking it. The lawn clung grimly to life, though brown streaks and the litter of unraked leaves marred the green expanse visible between plastic interpretations of Halloween monsters. To offset the narrow lots that made conversations between houses possible without stepping outside, mature trees and shrubs delineated the properties and circled all the front lawns and yards. Despite the thick concrete sound barrier wall two houses to the south, noise from the nearby highway still leaked into the neighborhood. A tangle of overgrown bushes and the odd tree lined the barrier, filling the narrow strip between it and the closest home. Wyn’s car waited several houses to the north, in front of a claustrophobic park that offered a fancy, oversized interpretation of a tree fort and a place for children to play if they didn’t mind running a mere fifty feet in any direction.

Before they could say any more, Andy emerged from the kitchen door of the house carrying a black trash bag and wearing a rain poncho over wrinkled coveralls and a downtrodden expression. Little blue plastic booties on his feet squished and splashed as he approached and dropped the bag in the can. His mood and footwear did not change his normal smooth, balanced glide, the hallmark of an accomplished martial artist. He banged the lid on and trudged over where his dad’s work van had been parked at the curb. Confusion crossed his face as he searched for the vehicle, and his eyes widened when he caught sight of the two women. “What are you two doing at a job site?”

“Remember, I invited you to eat with us?” Wyn said. She smiled sweeter than the tea she favored. “You never said no, so we came to take you to lunch. Shall we be on our way before Zita becomes an ice cube?”

“I am freezing my cute little brown culo off,” Zita admitted, as icy rain dripped from the soaked hood of the fluorescent orange sweatshirt she had layered beneath her jacket. She glared overhead, and water spat in her face, proving the clear and sunny forecast a lie. The eternal rain that has been plaguing Anne Arundel County this past month better not have spread to Prince George’s County. I’m not ready to put my motorcycle away for the winter yet, and usually Maryland’s okay for another month.

Almost automatically, Andy shot back, “You can’t freeze off what you don’t have.”

“Sure feels like I can, and if I pretend long enough, maybe I’ll grow an ass someday,” Zita said, cheering up at his response. If he’s feeling up to harassing me, he could be coming out of the funk he’s been in since New York. It has been a whole month after all.

“You keep telling yourself that,” he grumbled, but the corner of Andy’s mouth tilted up.

Her tone gentler than her words, Wyn took his side. “You’d need to remain still for more than a minute at a time, Zita, and I’m not certain you have that capacity.”

With another shiver, Zita snorted. “Haters, both of you. Sitting around is boring. I’ll remain awesomely fun and interesting, thanks. Can we go drip inside Wyn’s new car now? Have you seen it? It’s adorable and dry, though she needs to pump up the color, but I bet the heater works good.”

Wyn giggled, raising a hand to her mouth. Her umbrella had kept the worst of the drizzle off. The few drops that escaped clung to her like tiny diamonds, accenting the face and form that could have stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine. “It would have to be some garish neon combination for you to approve of the paint.”

Zita waved a hand in dismissal. “Not true. You could get something cool and discreet since you’re not woman enough for neon. Oye, I know! You could do a red interior, a green exterior, and toss in some subtle stripes in a lighter green on the outside. Totally sweet.”

Furrowing her brow, Wyn glanced down at her. “Are you describing a car or a watermelon? Andy, we should go. As usual, it’s time to feed Zita.”

“Lunch would be awesome,” Zita admitted. Her stomach rumbled agreement.

Andy averted his eyes. “I have to work today,” he said, his expression falling flat. “Maybe we can try to meet another day for lunch. You should take Zita and go before she turns into the half-drowned kitten she resembles.”

“Kitten?” Zita said, her chin jutting out. “I’m at least a full-grown cat if you’re going to say that sort of thing.”

“While it’s commendable that you’re dedicated to assisting the growth of your father’s business in between teaching classes, he said he could spare you on the next appointment, so you have plenty of time to eat with us.” Wyn beamed at Andy.

Zita nodded. “Since it’s the last appointment before he leaves on that big cruise he’s all excited about, he scheduled an easy one and doesn’t need you. He said so right before he took off in his work truck.”

Andy continued to stare at the puddles on the ground.

If he’s going to admit that he lost his university job, now would be his chance. Wyn just thinks he’s been teaching nights, and I’m so not getting involved. When Andy didn’t admit anything, Zita plastered on a smile and forged ahead. “Long lunches must be a perk to being the boss’ kid, am I right? I can tell you being the boss’ sister doesn’t get you that kind of benny. Let’s get going.” Unable to stand still any longer, she bounded over to him and punched his arm. Even though his invulnerability would prevent her from hurting him, she kept the hit light.

If she had had any doubts before that he had been avoiding them, they were dispelled when Andy failed to raise his gaze and rubbed the back of his neck. “I… how did you guys find me, anyway?”

Zita shrugged. “Weirdly enough, your stepmom likes me. When we showed up at your dad’s place and knocked on the door, she told us where to find you. Though really, mano, you need to get the whole idea that you and I got something going on out of her head. We both know that ain’t happening.” She shuddered and made a face, a gesture he mirrored.

Andy groaned. “That’s certainly true. Don’t worry, she just doesn’t know you well enough to be grateful we have nothing between us. Give her time.”

Before Zita could retort, Wyn strolled over and hooked Andy’s arm with her own. His plastic poncho crinkled with the movement. “So, where shall we go?” She slanted a winsome smile at him.

He narrowed brown eyes at the taller woman, ignoring Zita. “Are you certain that interpreting statements to your own benefit isn’t one of your powers?”

With the quirk of an elegant eyebrow, Wyn’s smile grew. “Just the witchcraft and telepathy. Don’t worry. I only use my powers for good.”

Something crashed, once, twice, and then multiple tires squealed on the other side of the highway noise barrier. After another boom rattled Zita’s teeth, a thin plume of smoke fought its way upward from the other side of the wall.

Glancing in the direction of the crash, Zita grimaced in sympathy for whomever had been involved in the accident. That sounds bad, especially since we’re not that close to the wall. “Given the sounds of that, we should take back roads to get to lunch.”

Andy said, “I appreciate the efforts you’ve made to come out here, but—”

Zita missed the rest of his excuse, as a man ascended in the air, his hands glowing. Light shot down once, twice, before he swooped out of view. “Save the ahoritas for people who don’t recognize excuses when they hear them. Was that Pretorius?” she said.

She rose on her tiptoes, craning her neck to see better. Zita had gotten nothing more than a glimpse of a man’s form and blond hair before he dived out of sight. “Is that murdering chingado asshole back in town? If he’s kidnapping people again…” Her focus on the flying man, Zita sped off in a run past a startled Andy. I’m not letting Pretorius get away with hurting anyone else. He assisted that psycho who tortured my brother, and even now, Quentin’s still not the same.

“Wait, Zita!” Wyn cried out.

Gunfire exploded on the other side of the wall in a series of rapid bursts.

Reaching the shelter of the bushes at the base of the pebbled sound barrier, Zita stripped off most of her layers of clothing down to a tank with its built-in bra and capris. Happily, she wore the Spandex-like sportswear—made from a fabric disappeared in her animal forms but kept her clothed in human ones—beneath her regular clothes. Others seemed to assume she was crazy if she tried to talk to them while naked. She barely acknowledged the warm touch of Wyn’s telepathy tying her together with her friends in what they jokingly called “party line.”

Zita, you need to calm down, Wyn sent as she ran toward the wall.

Calm down, my culo. Last time we saw him, he was supervising human trafficking, a meth lab, and a psychopath’s sick games. I don’t know what he’s doing here, but it can’t be good. He’ll be even harder to catch now as he must’ve been practicing his flying. Before, he was slower, like he was riding an invisible escalator instead of zipping around like that. She shifted to the gray feathered form of a gavião-real harpy eagle and flew to the top of the wall. Perching there, her sharp vision let her take in the busy scene.

On the other side of the sound barrier where she perched, trees crowded close to the road, leaving only a narrow strip of grass before the asphalt began. The broad expanse of a multi-lane highway stretched wide before another slim bit of green, with the east- and westbound lanes split by a long low wall of cement traffic barricades. Another high wall on the other side separated the noisy road from whatever lay beyond it.

All lanes were shut down. To the west, two electrical poles had fallen in front of an overpass, one on either side of the highway, creating an impassable barrier of snarling, snapping live wires. At the far end, to the east, a cement truck and a sixteen-wheeler heavily laden with steel rods obstructed both directions. Armed men stood behind the shelter of the trucks, peering around them with an assortment of assault rifles. Farther down, past the thugs, a pair of police cruisers attempted to block the roadway. A seething mass of vehicles turned and escaped down the vacant lanes with only slightly more finesse than those near the electrical lines.

The source of most of the noise came from the west, beyond the poles, where a long line of cars had devolved into swirling chaos. Panicked drivers tried to turn around on the narrow shoulder or battled other cars to slip through a narrow gap in the cement barrier, showing little patience or care for anyone around them. Horns yowled, people shouted, and the occasional low-speed collision added screeching and crunching to the din.

At the edges of the west side, sparks arced and played in a wide aura around the snapped lines. One forlorn and unfortunate bucket truck sat on a broken power line, dark streaks blooming with each new incandescent discharge racing over it. The original wording on the sides of the vehicle was unreadable, and nothing moved within. Sorrow for the occupants tugged at Zita before the blond man from earlier caught her attention. He drifted in the air fifteen feet above the dangerous voltage. While she couldn’t make out his words over the cacophony, he held a bullhorn to his lips, and the wind carried the occasional burst of derisive laughter.

Gray crest lifting, Zita shifted on her taloned feet. Not Pretorius after all. I don’t remember his name, but he’s familiar and not in a good way.

Just outside of the sparking area, a now-shattered tree and the curious angle of a vehicle straddling two empty lanes suggested a passenger van had been driven off the roadway. It had apparently spun upon impact with the wood and bounced partially back into the street. Now, a thin line of smoke drifted up from the wrecked vehicle’s engine. Something moved inside.

In the area blocked off by the trucks and downed poles, two prison transport vehicles and a pair of police cars sat near the edge of the sparking area on the opposite side of the road from the crashed van. Tires on all four vehicles sagged, the rubber visibly peeling off one. The prison vehicles had been turned as if to make a run across a gap in the center barrier and down the westbound lane. One transport’s windshield was missing, and the other had starbursts of broken glass where gunfire had pierced it, splattered with a lot of blood. Cops crouched behind the engine blocks and tires of their vehicles, weapons aimed at the truck blockade.

Incongruously, between the trucks and cruisers, a panel van with the logo of a major network news station was planted in the grass, all four tires flat. While no one stood outside, the driver’s side window was down, and the black, inquisitive nose of a camera poked out at the scene.

Zita swore mentally. Seriously? No way a news crew just happened to show up and be allowed that close. Whoever’s doing this must’ve brought them or tipped them off. You guys need to see this. The mess of prison vehicles must be the target.

Bracing herself, she was prepared when her vision doubled, and she had the sensation of someone breathing down her neck, a sure sign that Wyn was borrowing her sight. She fidgeted on her perch and focused on what she wanted her friends to see.

At least it’s not rush hour, or the mess would be even worse, and traffic copters would be everywhere overhead, Zita thought. The double vision disappeared. When their party line’s warm connection resumed, the first thing she heard was Andy swearing in resignation.

From behind the cement truck, another blond man—a more familiar and hated one—threw blobs of white light at those guarding the vans. His attacks forced the men to retreat behind the prisoner transport vehicles, the only solid cover left as the escort vehicles and ground around them became riddled with holes. Gigantic and hairy, a midnight-furred wolf stalked inexorably toward the prison vans, a large, feminine satchel slung across his giant withers. Zita wasn’t a fan of him either. Oye, that evil pendejo Pretorius is here, and he brought the deranged furball Garm with him.

Oh, lucky us, Andy sent. How many people do you think they’re planning to murder today?

The mass murder stuff was Tiffany, and she’s in jail somewhere. Zita eyed the transports and the lumpy bag the wolf shapeshifter carried, suspicion whispering a nasty possibility. I hope.

Zita sailed down and landed on the ground by her friends. Once she changed to her disguise form, that of the woman known as Arca, she said, “So. It’s totally a bad idea, but I’m going to interfere anyway. You guys in?” She shivered a little. Even though the rain was abating, the thigh-length hair that came with this shape was becoming a heavy, wet, and very cold weight. Her sportswear kept her clothed but offered no protection for her exposed limbs. Since she’d switch back to a bird again soon, she made no move to retrieve her other garments, even if it would have been warmer, especially for her bare feet.

Wyn groaned and opened her purse.

Though the witch had never said exactly what the limits were on the items she could store in the enchanted handbag, Zita suspected it was limited more by Wyn’s willingness to carry an item than anything else. Why else would she have room for everything but that leftover kimchi I wanted to bring as a snack? Rubbing her arms to reduce the goosebumps, she turned her face—Arca’s face, one of the few differences between this body and her natural one—toward her friends.

His long face dolorous, Andy sighed. “Yeah.”

“People need us,” Wyn admitted. She dug through the magic bag and removed a pair of masks, embroidered gloves, and a set of plum-colored sportswear. After slipping on the gloves, she offered Andy the clothing and a mask.

Accepting the items, he retreated to the bushes. Mournfulness filled Andy’s voice. “I’m going as fast as I can, but I’m pretty certain I’m getting dressed while standing in a patch of poison ivy.”

A flash of olive-bronze skin from his direction had Zita averting her eyes, well aware of Andy’s issues with nudity. Prude. A body’s just a body, but if he’s that uncomfortable, I’ll ensure he knows I’m not peeking, though I have to ask… “Does poison ivy still give you rashes? I mean, you’re pretty much immune to everything.”

“With my luck, it probably still does,” he replied.

Grabbing the remaining mask from Wyn’s hands and slipping it on over Arca’s pointy ears, Zita said, “Do you have any of those enchanted zip ties, Wyn?”

“No, we used those all up in New York. By the way, I collected your clothing and put it in my bag.” Wyn tapped an amethyst pentagram pendant hanging from her neck. At the touch, her favored illusion appeared in her stead… a slim, blond woman with the icy, forbidding perfection of a carved goddess, the glittery silver and green dress of a clubgoer, and the amethyst circlet of a princess. She blinked large, purple eyes and slung her purse diagonally across her body. The oversized brown handbag now appeared as a tiny, glittering one, the sort that held an ID, a lipstick, and nothing else of any real use. With a sigh, she tucked her umbrella inside too.

Rubbing her hands together, Zita thought out loud, rocking on her feet. “So, here’s what we need to do. The cops are holding off the guys with guns pretty well, but they’re losing ground to the metahumans. Andy, you jump over the wall carrying Wyn and set her down somewhere safe. Then you protect her—if you need to, step in to stop Pretorius or Garm from slaughtering anyone or bringing down more electrical lines. They’ve got a guy hanging out in the electrical zone, the one from the video in New York—”

Her perfect memory no doubt supplying the information, Wyn interrupted. “His name is Zeus.”

“Sí, that guy. We can’t do much while he’s there, but you throw a tree at him if he acts up, Andy. Wyn, you hang back and take out the shooters by the trucks with that handy sleep spell. Once they’re not outnumbered, the cops can handle dudes with guns better than us and clean up the rest. I’ve got the best chance of sneaking around unnoticed, so I’ll see if I can get the people in the crashed van… and any other civilians stuck in that mess to safety. Once the shooters in the trucks are out or under control, Wyn, use your shield, and I’ll bring whoever I’m rescuing to you so you can heal them. The cops will shoot everything without a badge that moves, so let’s try not to attract attention or approach the prison vans if we can help it. You done yet, Andy?” While she hated every millisecond of delay, Andy’s regular clothes always got shredded when he fought, and he had no way to disguise himself without a mask. Allowing him time to change was a necessity.

Wyn’s hands fluttered, and a furrow appeared in her brow. “Actually, the shield only works against magic and magical creatures.” The illusion pitched her warm tones higher, changing it to a silvery voice like a chorus of tiny bells.

That stopped Zita. “What? You mean in New York, you went up against all those people with guns knowing they could…”

Pale, Wyn nodded. “I had hoped to never repeat the experience.”

Zita shook her head. “And I’m the one with a death wish?”

Andy growled from the bushes. “This’d be so much faster if I didn’t have to handle my clothes like cobwebs to avoid tearing them. Super strength was much cooler when I didn’t have it.”

Another crunch sounded from the other side of the wall, and when Zita glanced that way, a flash of brilliant light caught her eye. “Momentito, what’s that?” She teleported to the top of the wall and crouched there.

Sirens wailing, two more police cars squeezed up the shoulder from the east, one showing a damaged headlight where it must have clipped another vehicle on the way there.

A figure emerged from the morass of panicked cars and ran toward the mess. His speed belied by his muscular frame, a man with dark skin and the peculiar grace of a boxer sprinted toward the trucks. Large, wraparound aviator shades and a ball cap hid the upper part of his face, but she recognized his body and the way he moved. Another old friend from quarantine and the cancer ward. We need to get down there. “Jerome’s here.”

Still struggling in the shrubbery with his clothes, Andy gasped. “Oh, no, he’s going to get killed!”

Wyn shook her head. “No, his body heals at a remarkable rate. It has to be useful as a private detective.” Unlike Zita, the only indication of her impatience was in the frequent worried glances she gave the concrete structure separating them from the highway.

With a frown, Zita eyed Wyn. “His power wasn’t our secret to hand out. He must have the same idea we do about helping that we do.” With an impatient grumble, she shoved the long, black strands of Arca’s hair away from her face.

Her pretty face flushing a rosy color, Wyn winced. “Sorry. I don’t usually keep secrets from you two, and I forgot Andy didn’t know. Why don’t you come down and let me fix your hair for you? Andy’s was braided for work so he won’t need any help.”

Zita shook her head. “Never mind my hair. Work on getting those shooters to sleep. The faster the bad guys go down, the sooner we can get out of here. Andy, can you stop Pretorius before he kills someone? Ideally, we can keep everyone here alive.”

Andy’s answer sounded as if it came through gritted teeth. “Doing my best to finish up.”

From above, a fiery, androgynous figure flew from the direction of DC and hovered in the sky. “Who dares?”

The shape and belligerent tone were both familiar. Aideen. It must be quarantine reunion week. “This just got way more complicated,” Zita said with a groan.

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