"The Long Drop" can be found in the short story collection BEAT to a PULP: Superhero. Click here for more details.
Two days ago, I woke up with my face buried in the green industrial carpet of a hotel room. I was still in my police uniform, but my mask was crooked and my black cape was wrapped around my throat. When I pushed myself up, my head slopped around like a goldfish bowl. Taking a deep breath, I looked around the room. It wasn't familiar. I don't have x-ray vision like some of the guys at my precinctSergeant Benavidez can even see through leadso all I had to go on was the room I was in.
The letterhead on the desk under a curtain-drawn window read: Holiday InnCoxsackie, New York. "How'n the hell I get upstate?" I asked the empty room. When it didn't answer, I pulled the curtain back. A blast of sunlight jolted my headache like a power surge. I whipped the curtain back and stumbled over to the full length mirror by the door to check myself out.
Mostly, I looked normal in my standard-issue police uniform. Black cape, belt, gloves, and boots. Blue tights and mask. NYPD went full head covering last year and while some guys didn't like the mask, I thought it looked pretty cool. Right then, however, my mask was crooked.
I pulled it off. My uniform wasn't the only thing black and blue. My face looked like I'd survived a massacre. When I touched my swollen cheek, I didn't feel much, which wasn't a surprise. You can't even get on the force these days if you have anything like citizen-level nerve response. My nerve endings are like the grill of a truckin fact, I pretty much have to be hit by a truck to feel any kind of pain.
Deep in my head I was feeling pain now, though. Something had hurt me the night before, but I'd be damned if I could remember what it was. I stumbled to the bathroom and splashed some water on my face. I left the faucet going and stuck my head under it.
Was I drunk last night?
I shut off the water and pulled a towel from the rack and dried my face. Then I tossed the towel aside, and I finally noticed the bathtub.
The shower curtain lay crumbled between the toilet and the tub. In the tub was a wet plastic Walmart bag, full, heavy, and stinking, like it held a rotting watermelon. I picked it up and it sagged low. Straining against the distended plastic was a man's face.
I let out a startled yelp and dropped the bag. It split open and the head rolled out.
As I jumped back, all the way to the bed, my hand went to my belt. No radio.
I crept to the door of the bathroom again. The bloody head lay sideways on the linoleum, staring cross-eyed and slack-jawed at the toilet.
It took me a minute to calm down. Center myself.
Anyone would be freaked out by this. There's a head on the bathroom floor. Anyone would be rattled.
I shut my eyes. Took some breaths, breaths already full of the death smell.
I regained my composure.
I stepped into the bathroom and knelt down by the head. White male. Maybe sixty or so.
I knew him.
Before I could do anything, though, I heard footsteps stomping up the hall. I don't have the highly amplified auditory abilities of some of the capes I've knownI worked with an inspector once who could literally hear people's hearts beatingbut I didn't need anything special to hear these guys parading up the hall like a couple of show horses. Once they got to the door, then these idiots tried to be quiet and use the swipe key.
No reason to expect anything good to walk in that room. I blew through the window, pulled on my mask, and poured on the speed. As I shot over the mountains surrounding the little Holiday Inn, I didn't have to look back to know I was being pursued.
Couple of hick capes. Beige uniforms, red cloaks. No masks. One was fast, though. A lot of civiliansmost of whom, of course, can't flydon't really understand human flight. They think we defy gravity. In truth, we bend gravity, using a magnetic wave like a sling shot to hurl ourselves through the air. If you do it wrong you can splatter yourself like a bug hitting a windshield. Like any physical skill, some of it comes from training, but a lot of it is raw natural ability. This guy gaining on me probably didn't have much training, but he had innate skill. After a few seconds, he grabbed my ankle.
He wasn't sure what to do with it though. He was still trying to figure it out when I spun under him, then swung up and over him and slugged him in the jaw. I caught him good and sent him spiraling into the trees below.
Then the other guy slammed into me. He wasn't as fast as his friend but he hit me like a train. Holding me around the waist he drove me down through the trees and into the parking lot of a little antique store.
It was a dumb move, though, I twisted him in front of me at the last moment and he hit the ground harder than I did. I was spitting out pavement and shaking off the impact before he could get to his feet. I hit him hard, a nice wallop that blew out the windows of a truck parked across the street, and he stayed down.
I took to flight again. I knew what I had to do. I needed to ditch the police uniform and get back to New York City. Then I needed to find out how the hell I wound up in Coxsackie with a bag containing the head of Mayor Alton R. Hornbuckle.
I flew a couple towns over and bought some civilian clothes at an outlet mall. Dressed like a regular doofusgreen button-up, blue jeans, some sneakersand flew in short bursts toward the city. Didn't want to get stopped by a cape and asked for my flyer's license. I had no idea who knew I was in that hotel room. It wouldn't take them long to figure out that the mayor of NYC was sitting on the bathroom floor without anything below his neck. And it wouldn't take them long to start looking for the NYPD officer who assaulted two local capes after fleeing the scene. I had to get into the city and talk to McKenty.
He lived in the Bronx in an old apartment complex littered with kids. They swarmed the front steps. I jumped a fence in the back and climbed the fire escape. Through his window, I could see McKenty at his table talking heatedly on the phone.
For a guy with nearly impenetrable skin, a guy who can shoot lasers from his eyes, McKenty is a jumpy bastard. He nearly hit the ceilingliterallywhen I tapped on the glass. He threw down the phone and ran over to unlatch the window.
"Cooper, holy shit! I'm glad to see you."
"What do you mean?"
He squared his shoulders and ran a hand through his thick blond hair. "Shit, man, everyone is out looking for you."
"Look," I said, "let me tell you what I know. Then you tell me what the hell's going on."
As I told him about the insanity in Coxsackie, McKenty furrowed his bushy eyebrows and stood with his hands on his hips. He listened and didn't say a word, which was unusual for him. When I finished, he walked over to his sofa and sat down.
I pushed back the coffee table, sat on it, and looked him in the eye. "Give me the bad news, Mike."
He leaned forward. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"Been thinking about that. Last thing I remember before Coxsackie is being at the lounge." All the NYPD capes hung out at a bar called Jerry's Lounge and Restaurant, a quaint name for a smelly, wood-paneled joint that was always full of drunk guys who could punch their ways through brick walls.
"That was two days ago. No idea where you've been since then?"
"None. Last thing I remember was being at Jerry's. I don't remember leaving. Don't remember flying home. Don't remember passing out, or leaving with anyone else. Nothing."
"You were there," I said. "Where'd I go? How'd I leave?"
McKenty creased his brow again and thought. "Well ... let me think ..."
I couldn't tell why he was hesitating at first. Took me a second. After all, I'd come to see my friend, my partner. It took me a moment to recognize his hesitation, recognize it from the countless interrogations I'd done over the years.
He was running out the clock, waiting. I realized this about the moment the door blasted off its hinges and two capes burst in. Without bothering to curse McKenty, I hurled myself out his window and smashed into another cape swooping in from the sky.
He and I tumbled into someone's patio. I kicked him across the parking lot and got to my feet.
Too late. Capes all around me.
Black and blues, everyone of them.
"C'mon, Coop, let's do this easy," one guy said.
Four total. They formed a quad press around me. Stupid move since I could fly. I hit the air without a word, and they were after me.
I didn't have time to wonder why my partner had betrayed me back there. Didn't have time to wonder what the hell was going on. Someone hit me with a laser that seared off half my shirt. I always admired the guys with the corneal control to twist light into heat. Sons of bitches had it easy. All I has was my mitts.
I pulled up short, stopped in midair, and hung there for a second. Couldn't do that for more than a couple of seconds before you plummeted to the earth, but it was enough time to let the guy with the laser-wielding eyeballs zoom close enough that I could elbow him in the peepers.
Then I was falling. I caught a magnetic wave and swung myself closer to the city. More places to hide.
The other bastards were still on me. Someone grabbed me and I slugged him six times in the face.
Then we were over the water and into the city. One of themthe biggest and the slowestfinally caught me and dragged me down. We went through the roof of a bakery, and I had to kick my way past nine racks with trays of cooling pastries. Before I could find my balance, big boy punched me through the wall and into the street.
As capes, we're taught to keep any hand-to-hand scuffle with other physically advanced humans to an absolute minimum. It's why roughhouse between police officers is such a severe crime. The cost to property is just too damn horrendous. This asshole had knocked me though the roof of a building and then through the wall. Maybe the owner could sue the city for damages, but we'd probably put the poor son of a bitch out of business.
Big Boy flew through the wall after me, but I'd already gotten to my feet. Two other capes swooped down and I sprang up in time for one of them to land on Big Boy's head. I grabbed the third guy, jackhammered him in the nuts, and then punched him a city block.
Then I was gone.
I peeled off my charred shirt and tried to dust off the ash, dirt, and baking powder. I slipped through alleys until I was sure no one was after me, and then I forced open the first doorway I found. It was a theater, off-off-off-off-off Broadway. No one seemed to be there, so I rummaged around in the costumes but only found outfits for some sort of biblical story. If I didn't want to go outside dressed like Moses, they wouldn't do me much good. Bare-chested and caked in grime, I looked around until I located a manager's office. I popped the door and went inside. It was cramped but secure for the moment. Better still, it had a little bathroom where I splashed some water on myself and washed off some of the crap.
I walked over to a big well-worn leather chair behind the desk and sunk down.
Hell of a day.
One severed head. Couple of resisting arrest charges. Maybe six counts of assault. If I wasn't on every channel an hour ago, I was now.
McKenty had betrayed me back there, but something else bothered me.
The capes had been waiting for me.
How'd they know I'd come back to the city? I mean, if I really was a murderer, why the hell would I come back here? Why wouldn't I flee? The only reason for me to come back was to try and find out what happened.
As I knocked that idea around my brain, something else occurred to me.
I've been a cape seven years. I'm trained, experienced, and I have an excellent arrest record. I am, in a word, tough.
So why would they only send six guys to get me? I've helped take down crooked capes before. You send in at least ten guys, with some more on back up. The key to taking down a cape is to do it as quick and hard as possible.
That meant someone was pulling the strings.
Someone had clipped the mayor and set me up to take the fall for it.
The first question to answer, the key to this whole mess, was to figure out where I'd been the last two days. I was at the bar and then ... nothing.
If I was still a cape, I could go to someone in the department with cognitive retrieval abilities. But, of course, I couldn't trust anyone on the force.
That left criminals.
Brian-the-Brain lived out in Queens. He had a nice little apartment over a Kosher restaurant in Kew Gardens Hills. He was a little guy with a mop of curly black hair and just the hint of a Russian accent. The word on Brian-the-Brain was that about five years ago some kids discovered him passed out in the playground area of a synagogue. He spoke Russian and English, had on some non-descript clothes, and had no idea who he was or where he'd come from. They took him to the capes but no one could retrieve any of his memories. His past, whatever it was, had just disappeared. A family from the synagogue took him in and gave him a first name and a job, but then it tuned out that Brian could read minds and pull out memories. That ability freaks out a lot of people. He tried to get on the force, but his lack of background meant that the capes had to reject his application.
After that, he started his petty life of crime, reading people's minds for their bank account PINs. He got busted, did some time, and now he's mostly on the up and up.
Mostly. You're not supposed to sell mind-reading services in New York State. In fact, every state except for Nevada has outlawed it. For one thing, you can easily defraud people, claiming to "find" secrets when in fact you're just making crap up. For another thing, you can find stuff people don't want you to findlike their ATM passwords or details about their sex lives. And finally, you can, if you do it wrong, give people brain damage while you're rooting around in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Brian-the-Brain, though, sells his services cheap.
I waited until dark and coasted over to Queens. The capes were out, so I had to fly short and sweet. The wind was cool against my bare chest and face, and, despite all that I had been through, I felt alive and alert.
The light in his apartment was on when I got to his place. The restaurant downstairs was busy, so I had to go around back and jump up to his open bedroom window, push through the screen, and slink in.
The television was on in the next room. I stole a plain black button up shirt from the closet and eased down the hallway. With his back to me, Brian-the-Brain was sitting on his sofa reading a book. He put it down and, without turning around, said, "Officer Cooper."
He turned around and peered at me over glasses. "I smelled your neurotransmitters."
He put his book down. He wore a faded green cardigan over a red button-up shirt, with some brown corduroys and loafers. He looked like a young professor.
"That's the word I use. I suppose it's more correct to say I 'sensed' them, but for me the sensation is more akin to smell."
I crept into the room and peaked through an open door into his empty kitchen.
"Just me," he said.
He gestured toward a stuffed chair across from the sofa.
"Know why I'm here?" I asked as I sat down.
"I heard you're in trouble with the capes."
"And now you're sneaking into my house."
"What does that tell you?"
He adjusted his glasses. "You don't know what happened, do you?"
"No. I woke up in a hotel room with no idea how I got there. Two days are missing."
"And now you want me to help you find them."
"By means of a practice which you yourself have previously pointed out to me is against the law."
"Do you have money to buy this service?"
"So you would like me to aid and abet a wanted man by performing an action which itself is punishable by jail time, and you would like me to do this for free."
"And why would I do that?"
"Because I'm not asking."
He took off his glasses and chewed the earpiece. "That's rhetorically blunt." He put his glasses back on. "But effective. Slide over here."
I slid over.
I'd seen this done before. I moved over to him and he took my head in his hands, with his thumbs under my jaw and his fingers around the base of my neck. He pulled me close and put his forehead to mine. It was like we were going to kiss. But he gripped me tight, his skull against mine.
And then I felt the retrieval. Ever have a migraine? That horrible brain-shattering pain? This was that times ten. It was like he was wringing out my brain.
When it was over, I had to rest. In that time, Brian-the-Brain could have called the capes. He could had wheeled me outside and dumped me in the street. But he didn't.
Most civilians are in bed for a week after a retrieval. Enhanced jokers like me, we bounce back at an accelerated pace.
After a while, I recovered, and Brian-the-Brain was sipping tea and staring at me when I came to.
"How long have I been out?"
"About forty-five minutes."
I rubbed my temples. "I feel like someone kicked my brain."
"It's a great deal worse than that, I'm afraid."
I sat up. "Then you found it?"
"Stop making me ask questions, Brian. Just tell me what happened."
"I don't have to. Sit back and close your eyes and try to remember. The memory will be there."
I sat back. I closed my eyes. I tried to remember. And there it was.
We were sitting at Jerry's Lounge and Restaurant, me and about ten other off-duty capes. I was having a beer with McKenty. A game was on the television. Behind the counter, Jerry was pouring drinks. He was a pug-nosed ex-cape, built like a cement mixer, maybe sixty years old with red-gone-gray hair.
The door opened and an older man came in, a slender man in a gray suit with a gray tie and a ruby pinkie ring. I'd never seen him before, and Jerry's was the kind of place where you only see people you know.
The odd thing was that everyone seemed to know him but me. No one clapped him on the back or called him by name, but everyone stopped and looked at him. Jerry came around the counter and stood beside me. The man in gray walked up to us. Jerry pointed at me.
I was about to ask him what was going on when the man reached out and lightly touched my face. That same instant, my bones turned to jelly.
Then I was on the floor. Everyone was crowded around.
The man in gray touched my face again and spoke. His voice was smooth, soft, comforting somehow: "You will get up now, Officer Cooper."
I climbed to my feet. Around me, my friends looked on without comment.
"You will fly to the mayor's office. You know where the mayor's office is, don't you?"
"You will kill the mayor."
He touched me again and I was flying though the mayor's window. There were guards in green uniforms and red capes. We fought.
Hornbuckle was a geeky little civilian with a large forehead and enormous eyes. I kicked in his door as he was trying to climb out his window. I pulled him to the floor, and then I had my hands around his neck. I squeezed until he stopped choking and then I squeezed harder, squeezed through skin and muscle and tissue, squeezed until there was nothing but a spinal cord and then I squeezed that until it snapped. I picked up his head.
I opened my eyes. Brian sipped his tea.
"No," I said.
"I'm afraid so."
"You saw it? You saw my memory?"
I stared at the ceiling. "I ... killed him."
"Yes, you did."
"And there's no way ... there's no mistake? There's no possibility that"
"Officer Cooper, you killed the mayor. There's no doubt about it. You were set up, manipulated by a cognitive control specialist."
"I didn't think that was real. We've all heard stories about it, but I didn't think it was actually possible."
He sipped some tea. "It's rare. Extremely. But it's possible. You've heard about brainwashing achieved through sleep deprivation, deprogramming, power of suggestion and so on? Well this is that, except it's immediate. The street term for it is leapfrogging."
"Sure, I've heard of leapfrogging. Heard it used as a defense in court. 'I was set up. I didn't have a choice.' Always thought it was a bunch of bullshit."
"You'll want to reevaluate your position on that now, I suspect."
I rubbed my face. It hurt. My whole head hurt. "I need to find the guy in my memory, the guy who did this to me."
He placed his tea cup on its saucer and set it on the end table beside his sofa. "That's the good news, Officer Cooper. I know who he is."
"Who is he?"
Grimacing, Brian said, "Well, that's the bad news."
The guy's name was Dr. Soren Jorgenson, and he had spent twenty years as a brain man for the cops. He'd retired about the time I came on the force, and now he was a psychologist in the city and kept an office on the fourth floor of a brownstone on the Upper West Side. It was a nice neighborhood. The street was quiet. Brian-the-Brain warned me not to go.
"You don't know what this man is up to," he said.
"I'm going to find out."
"He's bad news, Officer Cooper. He's been a master criminal operating with impunity in this town for twenty years."
"You said he worked for the cops? How could he do that and be a master criminal at the same time?"
"Maybe you should ask yourself that question. If he's gone this long without being detected, and if he can walk into a bar, in full view of twenty capes, and order you to go kill the mayor of New York City, then maybe you're better off running away as fast and hard as you can."
But I didn't listen, of course. I was driven, compelled to find Jorgenson and find out how to get my life back.
I waited outside Jorgenson's place for an hour in the shadows. Jorgenson had been ahead of my every move so far, but he didn't know that I would go to Brian. He didn't know that I would find out what he'd done to me. After I waited for an hour, I was sure there were no capes staked out. I flew to his roof, eyeballed the street to see if anything was moving. Nothing was, so I crawled down his fire escape and climbed through his window of his office.
Shelves of books. A leather couch. Some filing cabinets.
A man at a desk looking over some papers. The man from my recovered memory.
Looking up at me as I stood at the window, he leaned back in his chair. "Officer Cooper. I must say, this is a surprise."
"Weren't expecting me, Jorgenson?"
"No. No, I was not. How'd you find me?"
"I'm a cape. It's what we do."
"No, you were a cape. Now you're a wanted killer."
I walked over, picked him up, and threw him across the room. I did it hard enough to rattle him but not hard enough to put his head through the plaster.
He lay on the floor and laughed.
I pulled him up with one hand and held him so high his head brushed the ceiling. As his face turned blue, he tried to pry my fingers loose. For a second, I thought of Alton Hornbuckle's head popping off in my hand. I dropped Jorgenson to the floor.
"After I take you in, I won't be a wanted man."
He coughed and sputtered and caught his breath. Then he drew himself up and stared at me with genuine amusement.
"Take me in and tell them what, Officer?"
"That you leapfrogged me ..."
"And made you murder the mayor."
"And I did this in front of a room full of your fellow capes?"
"You admit you did it, then?"
Rubbing his throat Jorgenson said, "Admit what, Officer? I didn't kill anyone. You did." He straightened his tie. "Besides," he said, "you're not going to take me anywhere."
I walked over to shut him upplanning to use the soft slap method of knocking out civilians without really hurting them that we're taught at the academybut he reached out and lightly touched my arm and my body seemed to turn to cement. My joints locked up. My muscles hardened and froze.
I stood there like a statue.
Jorgenson walked around me. "Your appearance here was unforeseen. I take it you found someoneprobably a street hustler with the ability to do DPC retrieval work. Perhaps Brian-the-Brain? Yes, I can see that it was Brian. I'll have to dispatch someone over to his home tonight to punish his impertinence."
He sighed. "It's always something. You plan and plan and plan, but there's always something more to do. Through my years as a police psychologist, I assembled the team I would need to initiate my plan. Once Hornbuckle's mind proved too strong to control, I installed a new man in the mayor's office ready to take over when the mayor died. I choose you to kill Hornbuckle because you're big, strong, and stupid. But then I forgot about that little brain-burglar in Queens." He shrugged. "Alas."
I wanted to say something to him, insult him for talking too long like villains do in movies, but Jorgenson just smiled.
"Your mind is like a house with open doors," he said. "I can walk right in and see what you're thinking." He shook his head and patted my arm. "I can afford to keep talking because there's no chance of being caught. There's no way out of this for you. No one is coming to help. This is not a comic book. This is not a movie. This is reality, and, in reality, you are just grist for the mill."
"I had planned for you to die fighting with other capes, but I see now it's better to get you to the gallows quickly." He stopped and looked out the window. "Yes. Gallows ...." He turned back to me. "Did you know that, in the nineteenth century, Britain perfected a method of hanging that snapped the condemned's neck? Before that they just let a man suffocate. The new method, though, measured the drop perfectly for height and weight and then let gravity take its course. Very efficient.
He touched my face. "Fly up, Officer Cooper. As high as you can, fly until you feel the air leave you, and then hurl yourself back to earth. Let gravity take its course."
I jumped out his window, falling four stories to the sidewalk. I ran down the street and took off. I went up.
Now I'm higher than I've ever flown before. New York City long ago shrunk beneath my feet and vanished. I fly above clouds, above even night itself, so high that the sun on the other side of the earth peeks over the curving horizon. I fly until the air leaves my lungs and I choke. Then as I let go of the last ribbon of air and resistance and mass, the sun disappears. I start my fall, gathering speed as I hurtle back toward the earth.
This is it. I can't stop. But Jorgenson made one mistake. He didn't tell me where to land.
And I know where he lives.
Copyright © 2012 Jake Hinkson.
First published in BEAT to a PULP: Superhero
Jake Hinkson is the author of the novel Hell on Church Street and the novellas The Posthumoous Man and Saint Homicide. He's also a regular contributor to Macmillan's websites Criminal Element and Tor, as well as the film journal Noir City (the flagship publication of the Film Noir Foundation). Find him at http://www.jakehinkson.com/.