Here’s Sea Chapter One to let you dip your toes in the eighth adventure in the Arca superhero series! Once again, Zita is in over her head and out of her league.
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Sea Chapter One
If he let her handle his grapple gun, it would be the best birthday excursion ever. Even if her birthday wasn’t technically until Monday.
Zita Garcia was in an excellent mood. She’d worked double shifts and Thanksgiving, so her bills were covered this month. As she’d almost finished her Christmas shopping, she could funnel time into her hobbies. Earlier today, she’d gone on a challenging free run, and now she was on a date with her very hot sort-of boyfriend, the first in weeks. Dinner was going to be something she didn’t have to cook, and the odds were high that she’d get a scorching kiss once they hid somewhere private.
The future was promising, too. With the information from this boat trip, they’d be able to plan an upcoming climb on the bridge together. Maybe with some bungee jumping. Neither of them had done that for months.
As usual, she wore her Arca form, a shape almost identical to her own except for the pointy ears, hair, face, and fingerprints. A gust of chilly December wind blew a lock of her long hair into her eyes, and she brushed it out of the way. With a grin, she glanced over at her silent companion.
Freelance sat behind the steering wheel of their cozy rented speedboat, fiddling with a depth finder as they floated in the shadowed, choppy waters near the base of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Occasionally, he would jot down something in the small notebook on his knee. The quiet mercenary wore what she thought of as his amateur costume, the one that appeared to be a collection of aftermarket body armor but fit too well and closely to be as random as it seemed. Somehow, he’d found a life preserver in black to bundle over it. Since the balaclava hid all but his mouth, and a voice changer obscured most of the vocal cues from the few words he said, she had to scrutinize his body language to figure out his moods.
Not that she minded. His form was all honed strength and stamina, a balanced blade he wielded with precision, and that she’d drooled over since they’d first met. Right now, he seemed as relaxed as she’d ever seen him.
He must have sensed her gaze, for his goggles lifted and then fixed on her. Without looking away, he corrected their boat’s path. His thin lips curled upward slightly in one of his rare, precious smiles.
To distract herself from the dopey urge to hug him in response, she focused on their task. Zita dropped into the seat next to him and leaned over to peer at the depth finder.
It was a mistake. This close, the warmth of his body enticed her to move closer, and his subtle scent of man and woods and spicy gun oil made her mouth go dry. Her gaze drifted to his face. She licked her lips and reminded herself they’d agreed to go slow. It felt glacial.
He turned toward her, his head dipping down. His mouth opened.
Despite her best efforts to appear unaffected, her heart rate sped up as she leaned into him, tilting her face up to meet his.
Blaring horns on the bridge overhead recalled her to reality.
She pulled back before their lips touched. Her ears burned. “Witnesses.”
Freelance said nothing, but tension now coiled in his shoulders. His gaze returned to the depth finder after another microscopic correction to the boat.
Zita tried to refocus on their purpose. “I’m guessing it’s not deep enough and we’ll have to settle for just a climb?”
“Unfortunately,” he said. His earlier relaxation, and worse still, little smile, had disappeared.
She tried not to mourn the loss. “That sucks, but better to know now than after one of us hits the bottom. Did you grow up using boats? Your family big on fishing and swimming and stuff?”
At her words, his entire body stiffened. His mask hid the reason, so she did not know whether her question bothered him or if he was trying not to lie to her. He never spoke of his family, and apparently wasn’t going to start now.
She exhaled and gave him an out. “They’ve got to be useful skills for the mercenary thing.”
Now she got a nod, and some of the tension knotted in his shoulders dissipated.
Promising herself it would only be a brief touch, she rested her hand on his biceps and stroked it once. He seldom reciprocated, so she was trying to restrain her more physical affection, even if it felt unnatural.
When he didn’t tense up, she took that as a promising sign. “Do we have what we need? Those food trucks we saw earlier in the park we passed looked good and it’s almost sunset. If we split up to be less conspicuous, we can order whatever we want and meet back at the boat. After we sail off, between the dark and the distance, we can eat without risking our identities.”
His position altered subtly as he did something to the controls and turned from her. A moment passed. “Practical.”
“I thought so. Oh, a bunch of folks and I are doing a tamalada on December twenty-first. They wanted to invite you, but I already refused. You want I should bring you some extras? They’re going to be absolutely delicious and they reheat great for when you get off all those extra shifts you’ve been taking.”
His lips pinched, and he didn’t even take a second to think about it. “No.”
She frowned. He turned down my tamales, and he is the one annoyed? Why?
A loud series of bangs interrupted, followed by splashes and more car horns.
Freelance revved the boat and turned the wheel, taking them away from the bridge.
She grabbed the side of the boat to stabilize herself and looked up.
Smoke coiled up from the highway of the long suspension bridge. A quarter mile away, a white stretch SUV limousine dangled over the side of the bridge, bright neon-lit rims spinning in the air. The hood was a crumpled mess on the passenger side.
“Dios.” Zita prayed no one had been sitting there.
The boat slowed, and Freelance’s goggles hummed beside her as he focused on the bridge.
Zita grabbed her phone and texted her friends and partners in vigilantism. “Bad crash on the Bay bridge. Cars about to go over the edge.”
Wyn didn’t reply, but Andy wrote back on his Wingspan phone. “We’ll BRT.”
Zita shoved the phone into her coat pocket. She stripped off the life preserver she’d borrowed, the ski mask over her costume mask, and her coat, and kicked off her shoes. Even though her special costume—a hoodie over a sports bra and exercise leggings, all in a special fabric that kept her clothed when shapeshifting—was warmer than it should’ve been, goosebumps rose on her bare skin in the biting wind. “Guess playtime’s over.”
“Playtime?” Freelance asked. His mouth was a thin line, and his shoulders stiffened more.
She took a step toward the bridge, paused, and then glanced back at Freelance. “You and me. I’ll meet you at the boat dock by the food trucks if I can. Leave my stuff up in that old lightning-struck tree so I can toss it on when I get there. There’s a plastic bag in my coat pocket that’s big enough to hold everything. Hopefully, we can still go ahead with the separate-and-reconvene dinner thing.”
Freelance hesitated, and then nodded.
After dropping her things on her seat, she checked nothing had changed with the SUV, and then started to reach out for Freelance. Her fingers curled at her sides and she pulled away.
His head tilted.
She sighed. “See you later.”
Without waiting for a reply—he rarely bothered with one—Zita jumped into the air, shifting to a peregrine falcon and beating her wings hard to gain altitude. Once she’d gotten high enough up, she checked the accident again.
An ancient, boxy minivan lay on its dirt-encrusted side across two lanes. Smoke curled up from its engine. Along with the white stretch SUV she’d seen before, a blue pickup hung half-off the other side of the bridge. It had fared better than the SUV, with the front end crumpled but the passenger compartment undamaged.
Zita pulled her wings in and dove toward the bridge. No time to wait for the others.
The accident was chaos closeup. Hazard lights flashed, horns screamed, and the odor of exhaust stuck in her throat. Cars fought to turn around and retreat from the area or were parked on what little shoulder existed. A landscaping truck and a moving-van rental had rammed each other and served as an informal barricade to the crash. Rhythmic bass still rumbled from the stretch SUV, and the neon rims flared, bright in the late-afternoon sunlight.
By the overturned minivan, a bloodied man sat on the ground, his head in his hands and naked except for a ball cap. Some guy with a camera was filming everything, and several people gathered around the stretch SUV, so she circled the more precariously balanced pickup and studied it.
The driver stared into space over a deflating airbag, the blank look and blood on his pale face a bad sign. He seemed frozen. In the rear of the extended cab, a small child, seemingly uninjured, waved both arms. Even with the windows up and all the noise, she could hear the high-pitched, panicked shrieks. The front wheels hung off the bridge, the undercarriage caught on the edge and the back half of the truck lifted off the pavement. While the front doors would open into air, the rear doors were barely on the bridge. A stocky biker couple and a short skinny man in blue scrubs were near the truck, arguing about the best way to stabilize it so they could get those inside out.
Her friends hadn’t arrived yet, but Zita didn’t want to take the chance that the pickup would fall. She tried to remember what Andy had said about lifting cars the last time they’d practiced together in a junkyard, one of the few places where he didn’t need to fear destroying anything. Something about how applying too much strength would break a car.
Do I even have that much strength in any form? No time to think too hard about this. She landed right behind the pickup and shifted to her Arca form. Zita whistled to get the arguing people’s attention.
They glanced at her and did a double take.
“Any of you got a rope I can use to tow it back onto the bridge?” she called out.
They all shook their heads.
“Carajo. I’ll hold it still. You get the people out. Try not to rock it too much in case something big’s broken. Got it?”
The trio nodded and muttered to each other, the discussion ending with the man in scrubs pulling his locs up into a bun and nodding firmly.
As she was too short to reach where she needed to, Zita shifted to a grizzly and rose onto her hind legs. With care, she bent over the tailgate and placed her front paws on the bed of the truck. She pressed down.
The rear of the truck lowered, and she’d gone slowly enough that it did not slip any further over the edge, but she struggled to hold it still.
Need more weight, she thought.
The others readied themselves by the rear doors. Wailing still came from inside.
After checking where her feet were, Zita shifted to an elephant. Thanks to the practice she’d had in the shape, the changes to her senses were not unexpected, though they were still unpleasant. The cacophony on the bridge grew uncomfortably louder. Colors flattened, reds and greens becoming indistinguishable, and everything beyond a few trunk-lengths became blurrier until she couldn’t make out more than a haze of muddy colors interspersed with silhouetted shapes. She turned her head so her peripheral vision could focus better on the front of the truck.
Her increased weight brought the rear of the vehicle down to the pavement with a thud and a creak. A rectangular object in the truck bed tumbled down and thumped against her.
Since it hadn’t hurt, she surmised the cooler was empty. She picked it up with her trunk and dropped it beside her so it wouldn’t be in the way.
The man in scrubs opened the doors and reached in. Something clicked, and then he pulled a screaming toddler out. He handed the kid off to a biker. Once he’d done that, he got into the back seat of the cab.
Must be trying to get the shocky driver out. Dude’s got serious huevos to climb in, she thought. Her elephant instincts were unsettled by the clamor and her unnatural position—front legs in the bed and rear legs on the asphalt—so she fought the urge to move or startle with each new sound.
The wail of sirens, the crunch of tires on the asphalt, and engines being switched off behind her told her that the police and other rescue crews had arrived. Hope they brought ambulances and a tow truck or something. The stretch SUV doesn’t have a convenient way for me to pull this trick.
While it seemed an eternity of holding still while people exclaimed about the elephant on the bridge, the guy in scrubs dragged the driver out of the truck a minute later. The biker not holding the kid helped both move away from the open door. Others hurried forward to take him and the child, whose cries had died down to sobs once reunited with the dazed driver.
With relief, she backed up until her front feet were up against the closed tailgate. Hoping to avoid the truck slipping, she pressed down as she shifted to a grizzly bear. Blissfully, the noise decreased, though acrid smoke stung her nose and throat.
Despite her efforts, the entire vehicle slid forward. It dragged her unwilling body forward with it.
She pulled her paws out and stumbled backward, nearly landing on her butt.
The truck fell off the bridge.
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