Dead Air: The Origin of Shock Jock




Part One

“Screw you, Ron, you freakin’ idiot. You make me—“

“I think that’s enough from you caller. Anyone else out there like to take a shot at Ron Jon? Give us a ring here at the studio. We’ll be back after these lousy commercials.”

“Amateur,” he mumbled, shaking his head slightly.

The bright glow of the midday sun reflected off the towering glass skyscraper in front of him, his silvery white suit glistening brightly. He shifted slightly, leaning forward a bit. The concrete ledge he was sitting on was becoming uncomfortable. He raised a hand, glancing over the circuitry embedded in his thick black gloves, and slid the metallic white sunglasses back over his eyes. Breathing a heavy sigh, he leaned back against the side of the building and glanced down. He could still see the tear near his black armored shoulder guards; a scrape with some Devouring Earth Blade Grasses had left his costume in pretty bad shape. The bright blue electricity pattern emblazoned on his torso was almost unrecognizable. He'd even gotten a few cuts and scrapes on his face, though the blue mask surrounding most of his head had somehow gone mostly unscathed. He raised a hand to his stiff neck, trying to massage out some of the pain, and gazed at his reflection mirrored in the glass. The high altitude gusts were tossing his wild brown hair all over the place.

Mel would be having a fit, he thought. She hated my hair this long.

“Mel,” he sighed.

He closed his eyes for a moment, picturing her soft blue eyes and her warm inviting smile.

“Welcome back, Paragon parasites. Ron Jon still at the mic waiting for your calls…”

He reached a hand down to the black metallic belt at his waist and quickly flipped a small switch, turning off the radio. He shook his head, unable to stop himself from chuckling. Lord knows he missed those days - when he didn't have the weight of the world pressed upon his weary shoulders.

I wonder if I sounded that foolish and arrogant?

He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to drift back...


"Screw you Andy, you freakin' moron. Who do you think you are, huh? Think you're some--"

"Right, then...thank you, sir, for your ignorant and misinformed opinion. On behalf of all of Paragon City I'd like to thank you for making us all feel that much smarter. Folks, we've got to take a quick break. We'll be back for some more Shock Talk."

"And we're clear. Nice job, Andy."

"Thanks, Jake. You just keep lining them up and I'll keep knocking them down."

Andy spun around on his chair and propped both his feet up on the control panel.

"Oh, before I forget," Jake said quickly. "You got a few calls during that last segment."

"Mel?" Andy asked with a smile.

"Yep," Jake answered. "Wants to make sure you pick up your suit from the cleaners."

"Ah, I forgot about dinner tonight. You ever been to Emilio's?"

"That place near Atlas Park? Yeah, went there last week with Anna."

"The new intern?" Andy laughed. "How much you have to pay her?"

"Ha ha," Jake replied sarcastically. "Food's not too bad. I'd stay away from the chicken parmesan, though - chicken was tougher than an old shoe."

"I'll remember that," Andy chuckled. "So who's the other call from?"

"Dr. Gage," Jake said. "This is like the fifth time this week, Andy. Who is this guy?"

"My old engineering professor," Andy sighed. "Did he leave an actual message this time?"

"Nope. Left his cell number, though. Oh, hey...ten seconds."

Andy lifted his feet off of the control panel and slid back up close to the mic. He glanced at Jake across the room. After a few seconds, Jake pointed at him.

"All right, we're back for more Shock Talk. We'll take some more calls in a moment, but first let's finish up where we left off. The latest gossip around the streets here in Steel is that the Outcasts are moving on something big, and - big surprise here - the men in tights at Hero Corps have said exactly squat. Do they think we're idiots? Do they have so little respect for the hard working citizens of Paragon that they refuse to acknowledge the gang activities in our streets? Honestly, are they any better than the Skulls or Hellions? How do we know what these so called heroes are really up to? Remember: power corrupts. As far as I'm concerned the hero organizations are no better than the gangs they fight. Do they not cause just as much destruction? How many gang wars and battles are caused because they're after some hero, trying to make a name for themselves? Take this latest fiasco in King's. An entire block goes up in smoke because some Skull bonehead tries to ambush some backwoods super hero. Conveniently, the hero was not identified. And what was the Skull's name? Spineadjuster? Backscratcher? Weakknees? Chickenwing? Does it matter? The point is that this city deserves better. We deserve better. It’s time that the citizens of Paragon take back our city from all the freaks infesting it. That goes for unnamed “heroes” and oafish Neanderthals like Knucklecracker. Agree with me? Give us a call. If you think otherwise, you’re wrong – but still give us a call. Coming up after the break we have an awesome clip from yesterday’s –“

“Shut it off!” a gruff voice yelled.

“Right, boss.”

The dark and dusty warehouse grew silent, the din of shouting and gunfire subsiding. A dozen or so well-built men gathered around the stack of crates arranged like a throne in the center of the room.

“I’m sick and tired of this punk on the radio bashing us,” the gruff voice sneered. “And mocking us, mocking me.”

He pounded a fist and smashed open a worn wooden crate.

"Yeah!" the others growled in unison

"No one mocks Vertebrake!" one shouted.

“You want we should shut him up?” one of the other men asked, lowering the skull mask on his face.

“Yeah,” the gruff voice said. “Shut him up. Permanently.

The gathering of Skulls roared loudly in approval as the loud, vile laughter of their leader echoed through the darkness…



Part Two

“Great show, Andy,” Jake said, flashing a thumbs-up.

“As always,” Andy grinned in reply. “Guess that does it for me.”

Andy jumped out of his chair, spun it around a few times with his hand, and threw his headphones down onto the table.

“I’m out,” he called.

“Don’t forget to grab your stuff from the cleaners,” Jake reminded him. “Oh, hey. Do you want that doctor’s number?”

Andy paused. “Yeah, better give it to me. Don’t want him calling everyday next week, too.”

He reached over and took the small slip of paper from Jake’s hand and stashed it in his pants pocket.

“Okay. I’ll see ya on Sunday, Jake.”

“Later, Andy.”

Andy turned and gave the metal door a light kick, causing it to swing out into the hall. He happily strutted out of the studio.

“Geez, Andy,” a woman’s voice sighed. “Could you at least check the hall before you do that?”

“Sorry, Anna,” Andy laughed.

On the floor behind the door was a young woman, gathering up stacks of folders and papers that had been scattered on the floor. The door swinging open had obviously knocked the things out of her hands.

“I see Carl hasn’t lightened your load,” he commented.

“Nope,” Anna replied, trying to balance the documents in her hands as she stood up. “Mr. Munson still treats me like his secretary. I haven’t even gone in the studio yet. I don’t suppose you’d reconsider and let me intern under you.”

“Nah,” Andy said, shaking his head. “I doubt a job reference from me would bring as much cred as one from Carl. In case you’ve been living under a rock, I’m not exactly the most respectable DJ in town. Besides, you know what they say: never mix business with pleasure.”


“Aren’t you and Jake kind of dating?” Andy asked her.

“Well,” Anna replied hesitantly. “To tell the truth, I only went out with him so that he would put in a good word with you. I already have a boyfriend.”

“Ha,” Andy snickered. “Do me a favor and don’t tell Jake until after Sunday afternoon – we’ve got a poker game and he’ll wind up drowning the rest of us in his misery.”

Anna shook her head. “Okay.”

“Your boyfriend work in radio, too?”

“No,” Anna told him. “He owns his own business. You know the electronics shop in the Equinox sector of Galaxy City? That’s his place. He buys and sells a lot of hi-tech stuff. Even does business with Hero Corps on occasion.”

“Business must be well to survive in Equinox; all those gang members and thugs in the area,” Andy said, turning. “Well, I’ve gotta get going. Got a few errands to run before I get home.”

“Going someplace special?” Anna asked.

“You might say that,” Andy responded. “Melanie and I have a dinner date. Hey, I asked Jake, so I should probably ask you. How’s the food at Emilio’s? Anything we should stay away from?”

“Um, well, Jake didn’t seem to like the chicken parmesan. I thought it was okay, though. The fettuccini was a little dry and crunchy, so you might want to avoid that.”

“No to the chicken and no to the fettuccini,” Andy said. “Got it. Thanks, Anna. And tell Carl I said to give you a break.”

“Bye, Andy.”

Andy briskly walked down the hallway, turning down the wide corridor at the end, and made his way to the station’s front lobby.

“See ya next week, Andy.”

“Yep. See ya then, Sara,” he waved.

He slipped on his tan wool jacket and pressed a hand against the solid glass door. He stepped outside into the brisk autumn air and turned towards the tram a few blocks away. The mid afternoon sun shone brightly, the hazy clouds of the morning having faded away. Andy reached a hand into the breast pocket inside his coat and withdrew a pair of metallic white sunglasses. He slid them on to shield his eyes from the sun’s powerful rays. He hummed to himself as he walked, acknowledging the few passersby who recognized him. He smiled as he gazed up at the towering billboard mounted across the street. His ten-foot counterpart smiled back at him. He ran a hand through his thick, medium-length brown hair.

I love that picture. Got my good side, hair looks great…perfect shot.

After the brief pause to admire himself, he remembered his errand and continued on to the tram. He weaved his way through the swarm of people gathered outside the station and quickly hopped onto the car bound for Atlas Park. Finding an empty seat near the back, he plopped down loudly and picked up a newspaper someone had discarded nearby. Before he could finish reading the headline, he noticed a few people whispering a few rows in front of him. Then he noticed the bright green-colored back of the man standing near the doors. His garish tights and stern demeanor identified him as another hero.

“Can you believe the nerve?” a man in front of Andy whispered. “Riding the tram like he’s just a normal person.”

“Probably makes him feel better,” another grumbled. “Mixing with the commoners like us.”

“You hear Shock Talk this morning?” an older woman asked them. “That young man is dead on: what if some gang member or hoodlum decides to attack our car because of that fellow? Does he think we’re safer with him onboard?”

Andy raised the newspaper higher to hide his growing smile. After five minutes or so, the tram slowed to a stop. “ATLAS PARK” flashed across the screen mounted near the doors. Andy rose slowly and dropped the paper on the seat beside him. He marched out the doors into the station with the other passengers, a few of whom were making disgusted glances towards the hero who had gotten off with them. Andy strolled down the tram station ramp and headed towards the cleaners in the northern part of town. Luckily, the place was only a few minutes from the tram. He pushed open the freshly painted door and waved to the girl behind the counter.

“Hey, I’m here to pick up a suit.”

“Name?” she asked.


“You have the ticket, sir?”

“Got it somewhere,” Andy said, reaching into his pants pocket.

He pulled out some change and a few scraps of paper. He unfolded one the pieces.

“Here you go,” he said, handing the ticket to the girl.

“One minute, sir,” she replied.

Andy began to shove the rest of the stuff back into his pockets, but stopped when he saw the slip of paper with Dr. Gage’s cell phone number. He thought for a moment, then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a silver phone. Glancing at the digits on the paper, he dialed the number. A strong, deep voice answered.


“Dr. Gage?”


“Hey, Doc. It’s Andy Pierson. You left a couple messages this week so I thought I’d return your call.”

“Andy,” Dr. Gage exclaimed. “Thank goodness. I had hoped you might call today. I’ve been busy doing some fascinating research here in Paragon City and I wanted to share some of it with you. I realize you’ve turned your back on science and engineering, but-

“Whoa, that’s a low blow, Doc,” Andy interrupted. “I didn’t turn my back on anything – I just found something I enjoy more.”

“Fine, fine,” Dr. Gage continued. “But you really must drop by and see some of my projects. Many of them are continuations of the work we started together during your final year.”

“Here you go, sir,” the girl said loudly. “That’ll be $19.45”

“Right, here you go,” Andy said, handing her a twenty from his wallet. “Keep the change. Sorry, Dr. Gage. You were saying?”

“I’d rather finish our discussion in person, Andy. Why don’t you stop by and we can talk face to face?”

“Well, I’m supposed to meet my fiancé for dinner this evening, so-“

“I’m free at the moment,” Dr. Gage said. “Why don’t you drop by my lab? I’ve got a temporary setup in Steel Canyon, in the Bronze Way sector. I promise it’ll only take a few minutes.”

Andy sighed. “Okay, Doc. I’ll be there in a few.”

“Excellent,” Dr. Gage exclaimed, giving Andy directions.

Andy flipped his phone closed and shoved it back into his pocket. He grabbed his freshly cleaned suit from the counter and exited the shop. The tunnel to Steel Canyon was only a few minutes away, so he headed towards the bus stop at the corner. A few seconds after he sat down, a bus pulled up. Lugging his suit on the hanger, he boarded the bus and grabbed the first seat he could find. He wasn’t really looking forward to meeting Dr. Gage again. The two hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms. Dr. Gage had been Andy’s electrical engineering professor and mentor during college. He had also worked with him on numerous research projects during Andy’s senior year. So it came as no surprise that Dr. Gage had been less than enthused about Andy’s choice of vocation. Having been the DJ of the college radio station, Andy parlayed his popularity there into a full-time gig at one of Paragon’s more popular stations. Dr. Gage thought he was wasting his talents and had told him as much the day they had parted ways. The doctor’s sudden enthusiasm was therefore a little surprising considering their past; that fact alone may have been enough to peak Andy’s curiosity. Before long, the bus had screeched to a halt outside the Bronze Way district. Andy hopped off and followed Dr. Gage’s directions. He arrived at a shabby, brick-laden apartment complex.

“This can’t be the place,” he murmured.

He double-checked the address. It was indeed the address the Doc had given him. He opened the rickety wooden door and stepped into the hallway. The musty smell of old wood and dust made him cough. He walked past a few doors until he came to a newly constructed steel door.

This has to be it., he thought.

He knocked softly, but no one answered. He reached a hand to the handle and checked it. It was unlocked. Slowly turning the handle, he pushed the door in and stepped inside. He had walked only a few feet when a soft humming sound caught his attention. He turned in time to see a sparking blast of electricity surging straight towards him.



Part Three

Andy instinctively threw his hands up to shield himself. The freshly cleaned suit he held in one offered little protection. His chest suddenly felt like it was on fire. He could feel every muscle in his body tense up. He felt his knees buckle and could do nothing to stop himself from falling to the floor. He had to use every ounce of strength left in him just to stay conscious. His feet and hands were still twitching when he heard a familiar voice by his side.

“Dear Lord. Andy? Are you okay?”

It took a moment for the voice to register in his head.

“Doc?” he stammered.

“Yes, it’s me, Andy. Are you able to stand?”

Andy wasn’t sure. His body still felt a little numb. Slowly, he tried to lift his hands and prop himself up. Despite the stiffness in his arms and back, he managed to sit up. He took a moment to gather his thoughts and then looked up at the concerned face checking him over. Dr. Gage hadn’t changed much. The man’s tall, wiry frame was hardly the visage of a man his age. His long silver hair was tied back in its usual ponytail, and small, silver-framed spectacles were firmly affixed to his bearded face.

“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Gage said with a frown. “I was in the middle of a trial and I guess I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Obviously,” Andy groaned, as he carefully got to his feet.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Dr. Gage asked again.

Andy opened and closed his hands, wiggling his fingers and flexing his arms. The numbness had finally faded. He looked himself over. Apart from what looked like a few singe marks on his polo shirt and coat, he seemed to be okay. He then remembered the suit he had been holding. Glancing around, he spotted the plastic-covered garment a few feet away. He gingerly walked over and bent down to pick it up. He lifted the hanger up; his face suddenly drooped. A fairly large area of the suit had been seared, and the plastic covering it completely melted.

“Man,” Andy sighed. “Mel’s gonna kill me.”

“Again, I apologize for that, Andy,” Dr. Gage said. “I will of course reimburse you for the damage.”

“No, no, it’s cool, Doc,” Andy replied sarcastically. “I’m sure Melanie has the perfect dress to match burn marks. What the heck was that anyway?”

Dr. Gage smiled wryly. “You should know, Andy. You helped design it.”

A puzzled expression spread across Andy’s face. Then, his eyes suddenly lit up. His mind began racing, recalling images from his days spent with Dr. Gage in the lab. All of the hours, all of the days and weeks. Something was trying to come out. What was it? Then it hit him, and a look of wonder and excitement appeared across his face. Andy’s final project. The schematics…

“You built it?” Andy said in awe.

“I built it,” Dr. Gage smiled.

“But how?” Andy replied quickly. “How did you bypass the voltage overload from the long-term environmental exposure? And how did you manage to focus the direction of the burst without compromising intensity?”

“It’s nice to see your scientific mind hasn’t completely abandoned you,” Dr. Gage remarked. “All your questions can be answered later. I assume you’d like to see the devices first?”

Andy nodded without hesitation. He tossed his now ruined suit to the floor and followed Dr. Gage over to a long metal table. Scattered about were numerous sketches, designs, data tables, and notes. A large metal case, filled with some sort of form-fitting rubber, sat open in the center. Lying haphazardly atop either side was a pair of thick black gloves, a few frayed wires, and various instruments. Andy picked one of the gloves up. It was made of some kind of rubbery or latex fiber, though it felt as hard as metal. With his fingertips, he could feel the circuitry embedded into the material. He turned the glove over and examined the palm. A dozen tiny nodes protruded from the fingers and middle of the palm.

“Go ahead,” Dr. Gage said, reading Andy’s mind.

Andy slipped the glove over his left hand. It fit perfectly. He held his hand up to his face and turned it over, studying it thoroughly.

“How does it fire?” Andy asked.

“Same way you designed it to,” Dr. Gage answered.

Andy turned with surprise. “But how did—“

“Later, remember?” Dr. Gage responded.

Andy looked at him with curiosity, and then turned his attention back to the glove on his hand. He tried to remember the signal.

What was the motion? Come on, Andy. Think.

Andy gradually raised his gloved hand out in front of him. Hesitating for a brief moment, he tilted his hand up and thrust his palm forward. He felt the heat build up in his hand then recoiled a bit when a bolt of electricity shot forth from his palm. He couldn’t help but smile.

“Unbelievable,” he said with amazement.

“Indeed,” Dr. Gage added. “Quite an ingenious design you had. Of course it took a few finishing touches from me to make it work, but you, Andy, sowed the seeds of success. This is what I wanted you to see. Your work, brought to life.”

“But why?” Andy asked, turning towards him. “You can’t possibly think this will change my mind about my career?”

“Of course not,” Dr. Gage replied with a look of disgust. “Not that I approve of your presumptuous hero-bashing program.”

“Doc, that’s mostly for show. Anything to draw ratings, you know?”

“Well, regardless, I think we’ve both moved beyond that point. No, I wanted to show this to you because I wanted you to see the difference you’re going to make. I’m working with the city and the Police Department in addition to my teaching duties. In exchange for research grants, the department gets access to some of the technology. You’re “Shock Gauntlets” are to be issued to every officer, once they’re perfected.”

“They’re not finished?” Andy asked. “Could have fooled me.”

“I’m nearly there,” Dr. Gage said. “I only need to get around the storage problem. Right now, there’s only enough charge stored in the gloves for an hour or two of power. Hey, if you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand, Andy, I’d appreciate it.”

“Thanks, Doc, but maybe some other time. You’ve made it this far without me. Between my show and the wedding coming up, my free time is pretty much nonexistent.”

“Fair enough,” Dr. Gage said, glancing at his watch. “It’s getting late and I do have a few more tests to run. If you feel like experimenting with the gloves again, I’m free most of tomorrow.”

Andy smiled. “Maybe I’ll drop by…for a quick visit.”

Dr. Gage grinned as he and Andy walked towards the door leading out. Andy grabbed his scorched suit and stepped outside into the hall. A quick wave goodbye and he was outside of the complex. He could see the crimson glow of the sun setting in the distance and suddenly remembered he was supposed to be home getting ready for dinner. Then he remembered his ruined suit.

“She’s definitely gonna kill me,” he sighed.

The tram ride back to Steel Canyon seemed to take forever. Andy glanced at the digital clock inside the car every few minutes. By the time he reached the station it was nearly seven. Sprinting as fast as he could, the ruined suit flung over his shoulder, Andy dashed into his apartment’s parking lot just as Melanie got out of his car. He waved briefly as he bent down to catch his breathe. He stood back up when Melanie reached him.

“Hey,” he gasped. “Ready for dinner?”

“Just give me a few minutes,” she replied with a smile. “Oh, did you remember to pick up your suit?”

Andy nodded, his eyes darting around nervously. “Yeah, I got it. Something happened on the way home, though.”

He held up the suit for Melanie to observe. Her face wrinkled into a look of confusion; then it morphed into a piercing scowl. Andy shrugged.

“I’ll explain it over dinner,” he sighed.

After some quick ironing, Andy donned an old shirt and tie, and he and Melanie hopped into his car. The two didn’t say much during the drive to the restaurant. Andy could tell Melanie was still irked by the misfortune with his suit. He understood why, of course. Today was the two-year anniversary commemorating their first date. She had also bought him the suit for his birthday this past spring. Desperate for something to break the deafening silence, he reached out and clicked on the radio. The light rock music was still playing when they pulled into the lot at Emilio’s. The two of them exited the car quickly and strolled to the entrance. Inside, the hostess showed them to a candle-lit table near one of the windows. A few of the waiters recognized Andy and jovially greeted him as he and Melanie sat down. Dinner, for the most part, went smoothly. Melanie eventually warmed back up to conversation and the two were again laughing and smiling like they had done since the day they had met.

“So are you going to tell me how the suit that I bought you was burned and seared to the plastic covering?” Melanie inquired.

“Um…” Andy hesitated. “Well I visited an old friend and we sort of had a little accident.”

“What kind of accident?” Melanie frowned.

“You remember Dr. Gage, my old engineering professor?” Andy questioned. “He’s been calling me this week, and today he invited me over to check out a new toy, one that I had designed for my senior project last fall. I kinda walked in during the middle of testing and the suit, well…kind of got in the way.”

Melanie sighed and shook her head. “What kind of toy could do that kind of damage?”

“Just something the Doc is constructing for the city,” Andy smiled. “Now, where’s that waiter with the dessert cart?”

The two shared a large slice of cheesecake and sat for a moment before settling the bill and getting up to leave. Andy waved to a couple that were pointing at him and whispering. As he and Melanie stepped through the twin oaken doors, several young men and women bombarded them. They eagerly shoved pens and scraps of paper towards Andy, who smiled and reached out to grab one.

Melanie looked at him with annoyance and pressed him to leave. “Andy, I’m really tired.”

“Okay,” Andy said quickly. “Just a few minutes. Can’t turn away my adoring fans, can I?”

He reached into his pocket and tossed Melanie the car keys.

“Go warm it up for us.”

Melanie caught them and smirked, shaking her head in reluctance. “Don’t forget your trademark,” she said loudly, pointing to her eyes.

“What would I do without you?” Andy called back, taking the metallic white sunglasses out of his coat pocket.

He pulled the glasses on and the crowd of autograph hounds went wild. A few girls pulled out a small disposable camera and Andy happily obliged them a few photos.

“Say cheese,” the girl with the camera squealed.


A loud, earsplitting explosion echoed through the parking lot. Andy and the horde around him stared in trepidation as a pillar of smoke and flames erupted from a darkened corner of the lot. A few people sprinted out of the restaurant, their jaws agape and hands trembling. A voice behind Andy screamed for someone to call the police and fire department. Andy couldn’t move. His eyes had followed the column of fire down to its point of origin. His car was parked in that area. Before he knew it, he was sprinting as fast as he possibly could towards his car, crying Melanie’s name over and over, waiting for her to run into his arms. She wouldn’t come. He stopped at the sight of the burning wreckage. His car was completely engulfed in flames. Panic-stricken, he rushed to the driver’s side door. He could see the shadow of a woman unconscious inside. He reached a hand towards the door handle, ignoring the intense heat and pain and yanked open the door. He couldn’t bear to look at Melanie, the damage from the fire and force of the explosion leaving her in an indescribable condition. He reached in and hurriedly grabbed her and pulled her away from the fiery wreck. He sat, deflated and exhausted, on the cold hard pavement, his fiancé lying silent in his lap. His sunglasses hung loosely and the tears welling in his eyes began to fall. The sound of sirens in the distance drew closer. Andy looked once more at the flaming vehicle and gazed intently at what remained of the windshield. Though a few shards of glass had broken loose, a name scrawled in black was still clearly visible: Vertebrake.



Part Four


“Still nothing.”

“Charge to 300…clear!”


“How long’s it been?”

“Fifty minutes.”

“Damn it….okay…time of death: 23:37.”

The piercing high-pitched alarm stopped. The two women in the room began unplugging cords and moved a few machines off to the side, leaving the body in full view. Andy couldn’t bear to look at it. The past few hours had all blurred together; he couldn’t remember how long he’d sat there in the lot, holding Melanie in his arms as his car continued to burn. He vaguely remembered an armor-clad woman drop out of the sky and extinguish the burning vehicle with a flurry of snow. She said something to him as she flew off, but he brushed her words aside. He didn’t care. Paramedics had arrived sometime later and taken Melanie from him. He continued to sit, empty and broken, until a few uniformed police officers had dragged him up and taken him to the hospital in their patrol car. He blindly followed them as they guided him to the trauma room. Everything happened so fast; it was like he was viewing all of this through his television screen. He watched the team of doctors and nurses sticking needles and tubes in his fiancé’s body. He watched them put a tube in her mouth and hook her up to numerous machines. The doctors worked feverishly for what seemed like hours. Then he saw them stop after shocking her chest. He saw them glance with pity towards his face peering through the window. He saw them shake their heads and leave Melanie lying motionless on the gurney. She was dead.

Sometime after the last nurse left the room, Andy shuffled slowly to the swinging metal doors and gently pushed his way inside. He gazed around the room, avoiding looking at the lifeless shell of the woman he loved. His mind was distraught. He wanted to say something, but couldn’t make the words come out. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t make the tears come. So he just stood there by Melanie’s side, holding her cold, blistered hand. He stared at the gold ring on her finger, touching it gently. He remembered the day he’d given it to her. They had both gone to her parents’ house for Christmas last year. It was then that he’d asked their permission to ask Melanie to marry him. He hadn’t really seen the need, but Melanie had always said it was the proper thing to do. He recalled how nervous he was Christmas Eve, the night he asked her. He hadn’t ever stuttered or nervously sweated that much in his life. When she said yes, he had felt the greatest feeling of warmth and happiness. Now those feelings were gone. Long gone.

Sometime in the early morning, the police had returned and asked to see Andy. He halfheartedly followed them into an unused exam room.

One of the officers pulled out a chair for him. “I’m Sgt. Janson, and this is Detective Morrissey. First off, we’re very sorry for your loss, Mr. Pierson. If you need any grief counseling or anything, the folks here would be happy to provide it for you.”

Andy nodded slowly and sat.

“We realize this is a difficult time for you, but we do need to ask you a few questions so we can get to the bottom of the accident,” Detective Morrissey stated.

“It was no accident,” Andy said solemnly, his words finally returning.

“Yes, of course,” Detective Morrissey replied. “Now, witness reports indicate you gave Miss Huffman the keys to your vehicle and were signing autographs and taking pictures while she went to bring your car around, correct?”

“Yes,” Andy answered.

“And then you and the others saw the explosion and fire and you ran over to your car to find it on fire with Miss Huffman inside?”


“The name, Vertebrake, ring any bells, Mr. Pierson?” Sgt Janson inquired.


“You positive?” he asked again.

“Yes,” Andy replied angrily. “Should it?”

“You recall mentioning a Skulls gang leader on your radio show Friday morning?” the detective questioned.

Andy thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yes.”

“You didn’t exactly portray him in the most positive light, did you?” Sgt Janson confirmed. “You think maybe he was trying to make a point?”

Andy couldn’t speak.

“You and Miss Huffman getting along okay?” Detective Morrissey interjected.

Andy’s head shot up and he looked back at the detective with a puzzled expression.

“What I mean is,” Morrissey continued, “were you two having any problems, any fights or disagreements?”

Andy gradually shook his head, still unsure of where the detective was going with this.

“So then you wouldn’t have sent her to your car as a check, to see if it was rigged for something like this, in case this Vertebrake tried to get back at you?”

Andy lost it. He leapt from his chair and struck the detective square in the jaw. Morrissey hit the floor hard as Sgt Janson restrained Andy.

“Don’t even try to suggest what I think you are,” Andy yelled. “I loved her.”

Morrissey got up, rubbing a hand on his bloody lip. “Of course you did, Mr. Pierson. However, we have to check every possible angle. I know how hard it is to lose a loved one, believe me.”

Andy broke from Sgt Janson’s hold. “I didn’t lose her. She was taken from me.”

“Right,” Morrissey nodded gravely. “Well then, I think we’ve got enough for now. If you have any questions, or think of anything else, do give me a call.”

Detective Morrissey handed him a small business card.

“Again, our deepest sympathies,” Sgt Janson added.

Andy slid the card in his pocket and walked somberly out the room. The two police officers walked briskly passed him and headed outside. Before he could figure out where to go next, a familiar voice called to him.

“Andy!” Dr. Gage exclaimed. “I’ve been looking all over this hospital for you. I’m so sorry about your fiancé. Is there anything I can do?”

Andy shrugged. “No…thanks, Dr. Gage. But how did you…”

“Know about the accident?” Dr. Gage finished. “I saw it on the news, Andy. Most of the major stations mentioned something about it, you being the infamous host of ‘Shock Talk’ and all.”

“I don’t want to talk about the show anymore,” Andy said. “Not after today. Not after what happened…”

“Andy?” Dr. Gage asked with concern.

“It’s nothing,” Andy sighed. “Look…thanks for coming down and everything, but I need to be alone for awhile.”

“Of course, of course,” Dr. Gage replied quickly. “What was I thinking? Look, Andy, if you need someone to talk to or help out with anything, you let me know, okay? And don’t worry about stopping by the lab, today. Well, I’d best be going…you may want to exit out a back entrance somewhere when you decide to leave – I noticed a few reporters gathering out front.”

“Thanks,” Andy halfheartedly smiled.

Andy watched as Dr. Gage headed down the hall and turned down the corridor towards the entrance. He sat for a few moments, trying to absorb all that had befallen him. He didn’t want go home – there were too many things to remind him of Melanie. But he didn’t want to stay here at the hospital either. Finally, Andy got up and proceeded towards the nearby nurse’s station. He asked an elderly woman to direct him to an alternate exit, explaining his situation. She smiled sympathetically, and pointed him towards the cafeteria. Andy followed the signs that pointed the way and shuffled through the twenty or so people inside. He quietly walked through the disordered kitchen and quickly pushed open the sullied wooden door. He stepped outside into the cold, harsh darkness and began walking. He had no destination in mind, no place to go or friend with whom he wanted to talk. No one could understand the emotions he was feeling. The sorrow and pain of losing Melanie; the guilt and remorse he felt for being the cause of it. He felt so frustrated and angry and desperate for something to ease his tortured heart.

“L-Leave me alone!”

A girl’s cry for help resonated from a nearby alley. Andy instinctively turned his head and carefully crept around the corner, staying hidden in the shadows. The girl, tears streaming down her face, was shaking with fright. Her short blonde hair was matted to her face and the few scrapes on her tanned face showed she had been attacked. She was attempting to hide her petite body behind a dumpster.

“Look, girlie” a scratchy voice barked. “Just give me the purse and the watch, and that pretty necklace, and we’ll call it a night.”

A short, burly man stepped close to her. He was covered in tattoos and was brandishing an old wooden baseball bat in his hand. A chain hung around his neck clanged softly as he tapped the bat against the dumpster, scaring the girl even more. Andy was seething. Before he knew what he was doing, he picked up a half-empty beer bottle someone had discarded and flung it right at the man’s head. The glass hitting his skull made a sickening thud, and the man staggered back momentarily. Andy swiftly ran and tackled him, knocking the bat out of his hands.

“Run,” he screamed at the girl, who quickly got up and mouthed a thank you before sprinting out of sight.

The man had come to his senses and immediately shoved Andy off of him. He turned, an intense scowl on his face, and made a mad grab for his bat a few yards away. Andy dashed after him and wrestled him down again. Rolling around in the dingy alleyway, the two struggled to gain the upper hand. Andy couldn’t match the man’s brute strength and eventually found himself pinned beneath the man.

“You made a big mistake, man,” the guy sneered. “Was it worth it? Trading your hide for her stuff?”

Andy struggled to free himself. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the bottle he’d thrown earlier a few inches from his fingertips. He writhed out the man’s hold and tried desperately to grasp the bottle. His finger brushed against the tip. He grimaced as he felt his arm being nearly pulled out of its socket. Andy tried one last frantic attempt to grab the bottle. With the nail of his index finger, he managed to start the bottle rolling towards his hand. He hastily seized the mouth of the bottle and swung it up at the man’s head with all the force he could muster. The glass bottle shattered, scattering broken pieces everywhere; the man collapsed in a heap next to Andy, who was breathing heavy and dripping with sweat. He gingerly got up and grabbed the man’s bat. He nudged him with it, to make sure he was out. He started to turn to walk away but something in him made him stop. He saw the splintered windshield with the name “Vertebrake” on it. He saw Melanie lying dead in the hospital. Without thinking, he raised the bat high in the air and swung. The cracking sound of the man’s ribs reverberated in Andy’s head. He swung the bat again. And again. Tears suddenly began falling from his swollen and reddened eyes.

“You took her from me,” he shouted. “Damn you…Vertebrake…you took her from me…”

He stopped himself mid-swing and instantly dropped the bat. His sanity had returned and he shook his head in disbelief. What had come over him? He had been fine, until he remembered Vertebrake. He imagined the man being Vertebrake, and imagined himself beating the life out of him for what he did. The man on the ground was still breathing, though now more bruised and bloodied. Andy didn’t know what to do, so he left him there. He didn’t care about him anymore. He walked out of the alley into the early morning haze, the day’s events leaving him both physically and emotionally drained.



Part Five

Cloistered inside his apartment, Andy had hardly noticed the days pass. Time had turned against him, speeding up when he found those rare moments of peace and practically stopping when his mind conjured images of the tragic night. He had finally come home late Saturday morning, after walking aimlessly around the city. Numerous messages were waiting for him on his answering machine. Jake and other people from the radio station had left their condolences and sympathy. Detective Morrissey had left him a message asking him to stop by as soon as possible for further discussions and suspect identification. But the last message was the worst, the one that made Andy’s heart sink even further – Melanie’s mother had called. He’d forgotten that the hospital had even phoned her parents. He slumped down into the leather recliner. He didn’t want to talk with Melanie’s parents.

What am I supposed to say, he thought. I’m sorry, but I got your daughter killed because I was being an arrogant jerk?

So Andy sat alone in his apartment, lost in his thoughts. A sudden knock at the door Sunday afternoon woke him from his long daze. He grudgingly walked out of the bedroom, kicking the shirts and socks strewn across the floor out of his way. A second, louder knock echoed down the small hallway from the door.

“I’m coming!” Andy yelled with aggravation.

He huffily unfastened the gold chain from the door, grabbed the handle, and flung the door open.

“What?!” he shouted, before lowering his face.


“Hello…Mr. Huffman…Mrs. Huffman…”

Melanie’s parents stood somberly in his doorway, her father’s grim face buried under his long gray hair and her mother looking ashen and weary. The three of them looked uncomfortably at the floor. Andy slowly put his hands in his pants pocket, rolling a piece of lint that was inside between his fingers. Melanie’s father cleared his throat and finally broke the silence.

“We all know what happened,” he said softly. “So…we don’t really need to go over Melanie’s de-“

“Don’t say it,” Mrs. Huffman pleaded quietly.

“Um…the accident – we don’t need to talk about it,” Mr. Huffman continued. “We just wanted to stop by and talk, Andy.”

“Right,” Andy mumbled.

“The, uh, funeral arrangements have been made,” Mr. Huffman said. “Thursday at two’ o’clock…”

“Okay…” Andy replied. “I’ll be there.”

“Good, then…well…” Mr. Huffman hesitated.

“We wanted to see if you’re doing okay? Mrs. Huffman said with concern.

“Y-Yeah,” Andy stammered. “I’m fine…”

Mr. Huffman looked at him and then took a deep breath. “Andy…we’ve spoken with the police about the accident. We know about the car bomb…”

Andy’s head dropped and he began choking back tears. “I’m sorry…about what happened. I never thought that anyone would…you know if I could trade places with her...”

“We know,” Mrs. Huffman said, faking a smile. “But we thought we should tell you that…we don’t blame you, Andy.”

Andy confusingly looked up.

“You didn’t kill her, Andy,” Mr. Huffman said. “Whatever you said to make this gang member angry, you not responsible for what he did.”

“But if I hadn’t said what I said, then Vertebrake wouldn’t have been out to get me, and then Mel would still be her.” Andy lamented. “I may not have put the bomb on my car, but I may as well have been the one to detonate it…”

“We all have things we’d like to take back,” Mrs. Huffman sighed. “What if we hadn’t let Melanie stay in Paragon City? If we had made her stay in Baltimore to finish nursing school like we’d planned, none of this would have happened. But she loved you, Andy, and wanted to be with you.”

“And look what it cost her…” Andy remarked sadly.

None of them spoke for a few minutes.

“Well, I guess we should go,” Mr. Huffman said. “We just wanted to check on you…we’ll see you on Thursday then.”

Mr. Huffman turned and stepped out of Andy’s apartment with his wife following behind him. She turned suddenly and looked Andy in the eyes; her own eyes slightly watering.

“Andy…it’s not your fault. If you need to hear it…then we forgive you.”

Andy looked up and tried to force a smile.

“Thank you,” he replied softly. “But I’m not sure I can forgive myself…”

Andy nodded goodbye to Melanie’s parents and slowly shut the apartment door. He reached up, slid the chain back into the groove, and headed back to the solitude of his bedroom.



Part Six


Andy groggily reached a hand up and pounded on his alarm clock several times until the loud beeping stopped. He thrust his head back into his pillow and thought about going back to sleep. But it was Monday - he had a show to do that afternoon and had to stop off at the police station to meet with Detective Morrissey. Andy rolled over onto his back and stared up, gazing at the faded white ceiling. He turned his head to the right just a bit towards the bedroom window, enough to view the sun burning off the last of the morning haze. Lifting himself up, he spun around and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing a hand over the stubble on his face as he yawned. He slowly got up and walked out in the hall to the bathroom. Andy flicked on the light switch and looked at himself in the mirror.

“Man,” he sighed to himself.

The past few sleepless nights had finally caught up with him. The dark circles under his eyes, his disheveled hair, and the ratty, wrinkled t-shirt and shorts he was wearing caused him shake his head with disgust. Andy yanked a towel from the plastic shelf nearby and flung it over the top of the glass shower door, which he slid open. He turned the brass handle, and small jets of water shot from the large showerhead. He pulled his t-shirt off and tossed it into the overflowing hamper. He scratched his chest and abdomen, which he noticed had lost some of its tone. He shook his head as he reached out to the large medicine cabinet to the side and pulled out his toothbrush and toothpaste. He flipped open the cap and spread some on the toothbrush, then ran it under the faucet before starting to brush.

After showering and shaving, Andy grabbed a faded blue sweater and khaki pants from his closet. Dressing as he walked, Andy stumbled into the kitchen, quickly grabbed the last cinnamon-raisin bagel, and hurried out the door, his tan jacket in hand. Without a car, Andy headed to the tram and rode it to Atlas Park. He wanted to get this meeting with Morrissey over with as soon as possible. As he stepped off of the tram, he grabbed his cell from his coat pocket and phoned the radio station to let them know he’d be a little late.

He arrived at the police station a few minutes later. He passed a few officers outside, who, upon recognizing him, looked the other direction. Andy disregarded it and pulled open the heavy, metal doors. He walked past the woman at the front desk and headed towards a row of cubicles. He spotted an officer that looked no younger than he.

“Excuse me,” Andy said. “Could you tell me where Detective Morrissey is?”

The officer glanced up, lifting his hat up so he could get a full view of Andy.

“Down that hall,” he said pointing. “Third office.”

“Thanks,” Andy nodded.

Andy followed the hall to third office. “Detective James Morrissey” was written on the glass in washed out gold lettering. Andy knocked.

“Yeah,” a familiar voice called.

“Detective?” Andy asked, stepping inside the office. “It’s Andy Pierson. I got your message.”

“Ah, Mr. Pierson,” Morrissey exclaimed. “Fine, have a seat then.”

Andy moved and sat down in one of the stiff wooden chair in front of Morrissey’s desk. He shifted uncomfortably as Morrissey brought out a fairly large manila folder and dropped it on the desk in front of Andy.

“Take a look at these photos,” Morrissey told him, flipping open the folder and spreading out maybe a dozen pictures. “See if you recognize any of the men.”

Andy stretched out and grabbed the stack of photos and began scanning through them. After a few minutes, he tossed them back down in the folder.

“Well?” Morrissey asked.

“Well, what?” Andy countered. “I don’t recognize any of them.”

“I see,” Morrissey replied. “These are photos of known members of the Skulls that operate in and around Atlas Park. We were hoping you might have seen one at the restaurant or following you around town that day.”

“Sorry – I didn’t see anyone,” Andy told him.

“Well, we’ll call you if anything new turns up,” Morrissey said, grabbing the folder as he stood up.

“Wait, that’s it?” Andy inquired.


“That’s all you’ve got?” Andy shouted. “What about Vertebrake? Why haven’t you gone after him?”

“Look, Mr. Pierson…Andy…I promise we’re doing all that we can. You need to understand, however, that most of these higher-level gang members rarely get captured. Heroes caught most of the ones currently in prison. And as much as I hate to admit it, we’re not exactly equipped as well to handle some of these thugs.”

“I see. But what if you were?” Andy questioned. “What if the shock gauntlets being developed were finished?”

“The what?” Morrissey responded.

“The shock gauntlets…” Andy answered. “The project Dr. William Gage is working on for the city’s police force.”

“Ah, don’t know anything about it,” Morrissey replied. “I’m usually in the dark on most of the precinct’s pet projects. In any case, finding this Vertebrake may be near impossible. You need to understand that.”

Andy clenched his teeth. “I may have to understand it. But I don’t have to like it.”

Andy turned and walked out of Morrissey’s office, slamming the door. Outside the police station, Andy shoved his hands into his coat pockets and angrily began the trek back to the tram.

“Andy,” a voice called.

Andy looked back. “Dr. Gage?”

“Hello, my boy,” Dr. Gage greeted him. “How are you doing?”

“Okay, considering…you know…” Andy replied.

“Of course,” Dr. Gage nodded.

“So what are you doing here, Doc?” Andy asked him.

“Making a progress report to the department,” he smiled. “And you? What were you doing?”

“Wasting my time,” Andy huffed. “The detective wanted me to look over some photos of Skulls members – to see if I recognized any of them.”

“I take it you did not,” Dr. Gage surmised.

“You’d be right, Doc,” Andy confirmed. “According to them, finding the guy responsible will be practically impossible.”

“I see,” Dr. Gage frowned. “What did they say about the other mystery?”

“Other mystery?”

“Come now, Andy,” Dr. Gage chided him. “Use that head of yours. If you didn’t see anyone following you to the restaurant, then the question becomes: how did they know where to find you?”

Andy started to reply, but hesitated. “I don’t know. They could have overheard me talking about it, or I suppose someone could have told them, but I didn’t tell anyone that would…”

Andy’s voice trailed off.

“What is it, Andy?” Dr. Gage asked.

“I can only remember mentioning going to dinner at Emilio’s to a few people,” Andy answered, his mind racing back to Friday. “Jake, my producer, and Anna, the new intern at the station. Oh, and the girl at the cleaners may have heard me when we were talking on the phone.”

“You think perhaps one of your comrades at the radio station let slip your dinner plans?” Dr Gage inquired.

“I’d like to think not,” Andy answered. “But with the way the case is being handled so far, I’m ready to take a few long shots. I need to get going. Thanks, Doc.”

“You’re welcome, Andy,” Dr. Gage replied. “If you ever need something to take your mind off of the recent tragedy, I could always use a hand at the lab.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Andy said. “See ya, Doc.”

Andy waved a quick goodbye and then began trotting towards the tram back to Steel Canyon.



Part Seven

Andy hadn’t taken more than a few steps inside the station’s lobby when Carl Munson, the station manager, came screaming out of one of the offices behind the front desk. Sara, the receptionist, immediately jumped from her seat and scrambled to clear the desk and counter. She didn’t even notice Andy walk past her. Munson’s loud shouting followed Andy as he made his way down the familiar hallway to the studio. He peered inside and saw Jake sitting silently at his producer’s chair, reading over some papers on his clipboard. Andy hesitated. He didn’t really want to go in – there would be that awkward silence where the two of them wouldn’t know what to say followed by some stupid icebreaking question that would make them both feel even more uncomfortable. But, he knew he couldn’t avoid it. Andy reached out and gently pushed open the swinging metal door.

“Hey, Jake.”

Startled, Jake dropped his clipboard and papers on the floor and promptly bent over to begin picking them up.

“Oh…hey, Andy,” Jake replied, not looking up.

Once he had the last document in hand, Jake slowly got back up and sat back in his chair. Silence. Andy started biting his lip as he suffered through the awkward quiet.

“Look-” Andy started.

“I-“ Jake began.

Both of them stopped and glanced at one another.

“Andy…” Jake said nervously. “I’m sorry. We’re all sorry…about Mel. When they first reported the news, I…I didn’t really know what to say, you know? I couldn’t even finish my breakfast…”

“I know,” Andy responded. “Thanks for all your support and everything, but I’m doing okay considering.”

“Good to hear,” Jake replied, relaxing a bit. “Haven’t heard anything else on the news yet – cops got anything on the guy who did it?”

“Nah,” Andy answered dejectedly. “Though, there is…”

“Is what?” Jake asked.

Andy didn’t respond. He was thinking about the question Dr. Gage had brought up: how did the Skulls know where he was that night? Could one of his friends have told them?

“Andy?” Jake nudged.

No, Andy thought. There’s no way…someone must have followed me that I didn’t see…why would Jake betray me, or Anna…what would they have to gain? And whom could they possibly tell? I mean, how would they have a connection to any gang mem-?

Andy thought back to Friday and his eyes suddenly widened. He started biting his lip again as his mind kicked into gear.

“Andy?” Jake said loudly, shaking him on the shoulder.

Andy glanced up. “Sorry, Jake, I was just thinking about…do you know where Anna is?”

“Um…I think she’s cataloging the tape archives. Why?”


Andy raced out of the studio and down the hall.

“We’ve got a show in ten minutes!” Jake called after him.

Andy quickly paced down the hall towards the room where the studio kept its archives of old tapes of shows. He pushed the door open forcefully and scanned around the room. Off in the corner to his right he could see a head of dirty blonde hair poking up from a stack of boxes.

“Anna,” Jake shouted.

The head of hair shot up and Anna’s face appeared over the stack.

“Andy?” she asked. “Is everything okay?”

Andy strode over and looked intently at her.

“No…not anymore,” he replied coldly. “Mind if I ask you something?”

“Of course not,” Anna replied. “I’m so sorry about your fiancé, Andy, if there’s anything I can do-“

“There is,” Jake instantly answered. “Tell me about your boyfriend.”

“My boyfriend?” Anna said puzzled. “Wh-”

“Just tell me,” Andy continued. “Did you see him last Friday? Did you tell him anything about me? About my plans for dinner?”

“Well, I saw him when he picked me up for work,” Anna timidly responded. “I might have mentioned that you were going to the same place Jake and I had gone…I think he had asked me about Jake–“

“Your boyfriend’s place is in GC, right?”

“Yes, in Equinox, but why does that-“

“Thanks, Anna.”

Andy left Anna standing confused and worried. He moved swiftly, almost running through the hallway. He passed the studio, then turned back for a moment and hollered inside to Jake.

“I’m leaving, Jake. Put on a rerun or best-of show or something.”

“Andy, wait. Where are you going?”

Andy was already in the lobby. He ignored Sara’s greeting and Mr. Munson’s barking and walked quickly outside.

Can’t be a coincidence, he thought to himself. Has to be it. Just has to be. Why else could he survive?

Andy raced to the tram station and hopped on the first one he saw. He sat, nervously bouncing his foot. Finally, the tram slowed to a stop, Galaxy City flashing across the screen. Andy jumped out of the car and weaved past the other citizens waiting outside. His walk turned into a run as he dashed towards Equinox. He’d forgotten to ask Anna where her boyfriend’s store was. He was glad it was the afternoon and the sun was shining. Most of the gang members would restrict themselves in the alleys and their hangouts. When he finally arrived, he began scanning the buildings, looking for an electronics shop. Five minutes or so had passed before Andy spotted it. Squeezed between two large office buildings sat a fairly small brick building with a sign reading: Hardwired. Scrawled on the tinted black windows was the phrase “Your One Stop Tech Shop.” He hurriedly walked up to the entrance and reached out to the door handle. He pulled and heard the deadbolt rattle inside the doorframe. It was locked.

“No,” Andy said disgustedly.

On the door hung a small red sign: Out For Lunch. Andy slammed his fist against the side of the store. He turned around and unhappily leaned back against the wall. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He flipped it open and punched in the station’s number. He held the phone to his hear as he glanced around the rest of the street. His call had just connected when a loud crash startled him. He swiveled around and heard voices coming from inside the store. Loud, rough-sounding voices.

“Thank for calling KPA-“

Andy flipped his phone closed and held his hands around his face and tried to see through the window. He thought he could make out two large shadows moving around near the back, but the tint in the glass hindered any way for him to identify them. Instinctively, Andy crept around the front of the building to the side. In the alleyway, he anxiously looked for another door or window or something that would give him a view inside. His heart sped up as he spotted a small, narrow vent a few feet from the ground. Andy tiptoed over to it and slowly knelt down. He lowered his head and brought his face to the vent. He heard the voices again. He looked through an empty space between the vent’s grates, but could only make out a pair of cruddy blue jeans and worn leather boots.

“We almost got everything, right?” one of the men grunted.

“Yeah, just dat crate by the door,” the other answered. “Gotta give Cole credit. He came through again, big time. Boss is gonna love these new toys.”

“Yeah. Think he’ll let us have a go with ‘em?”

“Doubt it. You know him. Wouldn’t even let us touch that freakin’ car bomb he set up last week.”

At hearing this, Andy seethed.

“Gotcha,” he muttered.


Andy froze as his head unconsciously shot up. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes, something cold and metal pressing against the back of his neck.



Part Eight

"What do we got here?"

Andy could feel his heart pounding. It felt like it would burst through his chest any second.

Not that you'll live that long, the voice in his head said.

The man kicked Andy hard in the back between his shoulders, causing Andy to fall face first onto the asphalt. Andy groaned, the pain in his back offset only by the sting he felt on his cheek after it scraped along the rough ground.

"I asked you a question, punk," the rough voice growled.

"I was just looking around," Andy muttered. "My, uh, girlfriend lost her cat...since she lives down the block, I figured he could have wandered off this way. I'm sorry if-"

The man raised the gun in his hand and pressed it down against the back of Andy's head. He chuckled as he twisted it, driving the barrel into the scalp.

"I ain't seen no cat around," the man said. "But I think I've caught myself a rat. Get up! Got some questions for you to answer."

The man grabbed the collar on Andy's coat and dragged him to his feet. Shoving him with his gun, the man prodded Andy towards a door in the back of the store. A rusted padlock hung loosely on an iron loop protruding from the brick. Andy reached a hand up and touched his cheek, gently brushing off little bits of dirt caught in the scrape. He anxiously glanced around, hoping for a police officer or even a hero to show up and save the day. No one came. The man quickly grabbed Andy around the neck and held him tight as he reached out for the door. The rusted hinges creaked as it opened.

"Move," he grunted.

Andy obliged and shuffled slowly inside. The room he entered was obviously a storage area. Five long metal shelving units ran along the wall on either side. Numerous boxes and crates were stacked haphazardly atop them. A dozen or so newer boxes sat near the center of the room, piled on one another forming two large towers. Off to the left was a doorway leading to another part of the store. The man made Andy stop just in front of the box towers. They had to be at least a foot taller than he was. Andy brushed a cobweb from his hair. He felt a tickle in his nose and was about to sneeze from all the dust and debris, but promptly pinched his nose to hold it back.

"That's good," the man said, grabbing a dirty steel folding chair and setting it against the tower of boxes. "Have a seat."

Andy sighed and nervously sat down.

Guess I'll see you soon, Mel, he thought, knowing there was little hope they'd just let him go.

"Yo, boys!" the man yelled. "Come here. Caught myself a snoop."

Andy heard two men say something and then heard a lot of rattling and clanging. The men appeared in the doorway and walked over to join the first man who'd caught Andy. All three were equally as large and burly. Beads of sweat glistened off their bald heads and massive, muscular arms. The two men each carried a weapon in their hand - one held a bat while the other carried a sledgehammer - which they tapped menacingly on the floor. All three stared intently at Andy.

"Where'd you find him, Lock?" the man with the bat asked.

"Hiding out on the side," the first man answered. "Looks like he was listening or peeping through one of the vents."

"What'd you hear?" the other man scowled.

"Nothing," Andy said hesitantly. "I was just looking for my girlfriend's-"

"Don't pull that lame excuse," Lock growled, snatching Andy by his hair and yanking his head back. "The truth...then maybe we let you go."

The other two snickered. Andy clenched his teeth tighter and glared at the three of them. Suddenly, the man with the bat turned away for a second. He looked lost in thought. He turned around almost as fast and moved within inches of Andy's face, staring intently into his eyes. Andy could smell the man's foul breath and he recoiled with disgust.

"I know who you are," the man finally grinned.

Andy glanced up into the man's eyes, which were still studying him, before looking back at the ground.

"Yeah, thought so," the man continued. "Looks like we caught a big one, boys. Don't you morons recognize this chump?"

The others moved close and gave Andy the once-over.

"Used to listen to the show all the time," the man commented as the others looked on. "Wasn't smart to tick off the boss, though. Real temper. Guess you know that now, huh?"

A sneer spread across Andy's face. "Vertebrake," he seethed.

The other two men became attentive immediately. Both looked at one another before moving closer to Andy, standing next to the one who'd recognized him.

"The radio guy?" one laughed, poking Andy with the handle of his sledgehammer.

"Boss is gonna reward us big time," Lock added. "Especially after Tars' crew blew the car deal."

"Should we finish him off, Splint?" the first asked, raisng his hammer.

No," Splint replied, pointing his bat towards Andy. "He was so anxious to find us, maybe we should take him with us. Let the boss decide."

"Good plan," the others nodded.

Andy frantically began looking for a way out. The door he'd come through was still ajar, but there was no way he could make it before they stopped him. He was trapped. He sighed slowly and felt a tickle in his nose.

"Grab the DJ," Splint said to Lock. "Nail and I got a few more crates to snatch."

Lock shoved his gun back into his shirt and walked up next to Andy as the other two went back through the doorway. He reached a hand out to grab Andy.


Andy sneezed violently, causing his head and body to jerk forward. His momentum drove the chair and his lower body back into the towers of boxes behind him, which began to wobble. Lock looked up to see the top half of them tumble towards him. He shouted as he tried to knock the falling boxes away, but there were too many. His body made a loud thud as he crashed to the floor, buried beneath several boxes. Andy immediately looked up, grateful they hadn't buried him, too. He instinctively looked towards the door. Without a thought, he leapt up from his chair and sprinted towards the exit.


The other two had heard the noise and reappeared in the room. Andy ignored them and raced outside. He could hear their heavy feet clomping as they chased after him. Andy made it outside to the back ally and made a break for it. He raced down the shadowy path, looking for a way back to the main streets. His head dropped when he found himself in a dead end. Andy could hear the two thugs yelling not too far behind him. He desperately searched for a way out or a place to hide. He spotted a worn sewer grate along the concrete wall. Without hesitation, he grabbed hold of the bars and pulled as hard as he could. He could feel the edges giving way. The grate suddenly broke free, and Andy stumbled backwards to the ground. He leapt up instantly and dove inside the pipe, ignoring the stench. He reached down and grabbed the grate, lifting it up and pulling it back into place. He scurried deeper into the pipe so that he was out of the light. The silhouettes of the thugs came into view.

"Where'd he go?" Nail asked, pounding his sledgehammer against the pavement.

"Don't know," Splint frowned. "Couldn't have double-backed on us."

"Argh!" Nail shouted. "Boss ain't gonna like this. When he finds out-"

"If he finds out," Splint interrupted. "Guy don't know anything. What difference does it make?"

"What if he snitches to someone?"

"Who?" Splint questioned. "The cops? Ain't nothing they can do. Ain't no tights gonna rush off for his sake after what he's said and done on his show. Besides, we just have to grab the last shipment from Cole tonight, then we're done here."

"Guess so," Nail shrugged. "Better get back and dig Lock outta them boxes."

The two turned and slowly sauntered back towards the shop. Andy sat in a puddle of foul-smelling sewer water, waiting until they were completely out of view. He had heard every word. He waited a few more minutes to be sure that the two were gone, then kicked the grate off. Andy slipped back outside, taking in the fresh air. They weren't done at the store yet, which meant Andy still had a shot. He could tell Morrissey about the store. But would he believe him? Andy couldn't afford to have him not to.

"They're coming back tonight," Andy muttered to himself. "And if it's the only way to get Vertebrake, then so am I."