Legal Disclaimer: Haim Saban owns everything. I own nothing. Just so everyone is clear on this.
The night was always bright in Downtown Angel Grove, lit by neon billboards, organic street lamps, computer displays flashing news and ads covered the sides of buildings, painting the ivory towers of Angel Grove's remaining elite with light and sound for the edification of what remained of the masses. Tonight, the night was just a little brighter outside the city's premier nightclub, Alien Dojo, as the result of the darkest of acts. Sirens flashed from the tops of the patrol cars and armored vans of Metro Police and the elite Alien Crimes Unit , lights glared pitilessly from the mobile units and video cameras of the small flock of reporters that had descended on the sight of the kill, hoping for scraps, the one trying to prevent the other from getting a shot of the body of one Zachary Taylor as he was wheeled out of the club he had helped propel to greatness with the sweat of his brow and smile on his face.
The deceased was young, rich, famous and handsome. The crime was sudden, mysterious and brutal, executed with the trendiest of weapons, a military laser, the first generation child of Earth's newly acquired, and very profitable, hence popular, alien technologies. Even the witnesses were glamorous and exciting, William Cranston, Earth's first ambassador to another world and his beautiful, exotic alien wife Cestria, Victoria McMasters and Cassandra Chan, two of Earth's top five recording artists, the dashing Karovan war hero Andros, nearby Mariner Bay's own star Power Ranger, Joel Rawlings and a host of others, perhaps not as famous, but equally exotic. It was, in short, great television and all the dogs were beginning to bay for blood. The entire block was clogged to overflowing with the vultures and the jackals, newspeople, fighting each other and the cops for a shot of the corpse of the most photogenic man in Angel Grove, or for a scrap of information on the killer, real or imagined, the cops vainly trying to maintain a semblance of order with the impotent threat of force and barked orders that only added to the din, gawkers, flocking in from the nearby towers, hoping for a glimpse of everything, their fifteen minutes of fame and nightclub patrons, milling about like lost sheep looking for a flock. It was a circus of death, a pickpocket's paradise, a sleeping riot. Chaos held court and ruled with a heavy and jealous hand.
Behind the club, the mood was more subdued, a single bulb glowed a soft, steady blue over a mirrored door left casually ajar, giving the whole scene a sense of serenity that belied the pandemonium just the other side of the building. The only sign that anything had happened here at all was the thin, yellow police tape that blocked off either side of the alley, and even that seemed serene, flapping gently in the night breeze where it had been cut at one end. A handsome dark suit containing a plain-looking young man, who's eyes were a thousand years older then his face, stood in the doorway, looking out, an expression of concern crossing his face.
"Do you think I made the right call?" He addressed the darkness behind him quietly, without looking, almost as if speaking to himself. "Do you think he can do it?"
"I don't know." Trini Kwan's voice echoed from the hollow spaces in the darkness, soft as the evening breeze among the cherry blossoms and just as sad. "He did manage to sneak in here after all."
"Yeah, but he did it through you." The young man, Delmar, protested.
"Yes, he did, didn't he?" Trini replied with a half-smile and retreated into the darkness once more. Delmar paused for a moment and then began to laugh softly as he stepped out of the door and into the alley, careful to cross the end of the alley with the uncut police tape, readying the proper credentials to cross police lines.
Meanwhile, back in anarchy's domain, the ubiquitous "he" under discussion, Eugene "Skull" Skullovitch, milled through the crowd with the other sheep, his head spinning, his senses flickering with the lights, a tired old wolf sniffing out the sick and the weak. Or at very least, the familiar. He'd had nightmares like this, where the crowd was too large for the street, the light too bright for his eyes, the sounds too many for his ears and he was crushed to death in the warm, sweaty hands of humanity massed.
Panicky, as he went with the crowd, he managed to pick out one pair of voices from the cacophony. Familiar voices. Desperately, he wove through the mass, between and behind, he slipped through the cracks in the crowd, reaching for the voices, the islands of sanity in this rolling sea of madness.
They materialized out of the crowd, like the shore emerging from a thick mist, a slightly asian man with short black hair, wearing a stylish, casual suit cut to fit his athletic form, arguing with a black woman with her hair done up in a bun, in a sheer, low-cut dress. Just another couple out clubbing. Except they weren't just another couple, they were Skull's friends. Tanya Park was a local club singer, pipes like an angel and a heart to match; he had used to back her up on the piano and Adam on the trumpet back when she was just starting out. The Parks were old friends. Skull had found his Island.
"How dare you talk about him like that? After what just happened here? The man I married would have never..." Tanya shouted over the din, shoving Adam in the chest, her face made up in the colors of shock and anger.
"I am the man you married!" Adam shouted back with surprising venom. Skull was taken aback. Adam raised his hand a little but then lowered it. No matter how angry, he could never strike the woman he loved. "And I have a right to know! Did you, or did you not?" His eyelids pressed together, and a tear ran down his cheek. He was almost quivering with the suppressed electricity of humiliation and betrayal. Skull stayed to one side, shocked as waves rose and crashed on that calmest of shores that was Adam Park.
"I don't believe you even asked that!" Her eyes grew wide with shock and her mouth twisted into an expression of disgust. Without even stopping to think, she hit Adam in the side of his face with the flat of her hand, knocking his head sideways and then turning to leave, plowing through the crowd, which moved aside as if by some survival instinct that told them not to stand in her way. Skull knew for a fact not to. Adam, his mouth and eyes open in shock, just stared blankly after Tanya's wake.
"Wait? Where are you going?" He reached out as if to follow her. She stopped him with the ice in her eyes.
"Away." Her face was trembling with unnamed emotions as she turned and continued into the mass of people, lost to his senses.
"Adam?" Skull said tentatively as he moved towards the man, who was still staring out into the crowd to where the image of Tanya still was burned into his eyes, onto his soul.
"Skull?" Slow recognition lit in Adam's teary eyes. "Skull!" He laughed weakly and without conviction, trying to hide with his voice what was written deep on every fiber of his being. "Where you been hiding? Been a good two years since you came around the house. Phillip's going to school next year, you know, very bright kid, strong willed like his... his..." The banter broke down, its engine ground to a halt, the emotion overcoming him, Skull grabbed one shoulder to steady him, keep him from falling. "...like his mother..." The last words came out as little more then a whisper.
"C'mon, man, lets get you out of here. You have a car?" Skull asked quietly. Adam replied silently, with a simple, tearful nod. Skull followed quietly as they slipped wordlessly through the shouting, growling, fighting, shoving, living crowd, against the flow, out to where Adam's old '98 compact sat, crammed between one of those tiny electric GSA cars and a streamlined minivan with racing stripes. Adam mechanically opened the driver's side door and slumped into the seat. He almost got the key in his ignition but then stopped, frozen in place.
"Adam, what's wrong man?" Skull paused at the passenger's side door.
"Where am I going, Skull? Where's she going...?" His voice was still that low, shocked whisper. Skull took a deep breath and a swig from the flask. It was gonna be a long night.
"I don't know, but buddy, I think maybe we'd better get you home, want me to drive?" Adam didn't look quite all together. His own head spun, and vision blurred, but he had to offer.
"Not in the state you're in, Skull!" Adam managed a forced, weak smile. "God, Skull," Blinking the tears out of his eyes briefly, he focused on the other man's problems to forget about his own, just like always. "Maybe I should be the one asking if you're OK? What have you been doing to yourself, pal?" Adam narrowed his eyes and shook his head. Skull made a face and took another swig from his flask, unconsciously answering Adam's question.
"I been surviving." He replied darkly, his words tight and close to the vest. Adam sighed and just nodded for him to get in the car. Skull shrugged and slipped into the passenger's seat, his legs collapsing under him.
"You sure about that?" Adam managed to paint a smile on his face and clumsily jabbed the keys into the car's ignition on the second, maybe third, try, it was starting to get harder and harder for Skull to tell. His head spun and stomach heaved, but he managed to pull a weak, pale imitation of a smile from somewhere deep within, some forgotten corner that hadn't long ago crumbled from the booze and the decay.
"Uhm, yeah, so, ah, where we goin', Adam?" He stared out his window as the waxing crowd, milling and shouting and muttering and drinking and felt a sudden pang of guilt, here he was, driving away, running away, when he had a case again, for the first time in years he was a cop again, albeit about as undercover as you could get as one. But his friend needed him, he told himself unconvincingly, he couldn't let Adam down, not after all the times they had saved each other's bacon over the years. The shooter would still be there later, but Adam's marriage might not. He debated as if his own thoughts had put him on trial for this gross dereliction of duty, came up with all sorts of excuses. But a badge still nagged at him from the inside, gnawed at him. He took another swallow from the flask, it had a penchant for silencing those little voices in his head.
"For a ride. Fuck it, Skull, how should I know? Huh? How should I know anything anymore!?" Adam snapped and screamed, his fury as sudden as a summer storm, hitting hard and fast, but leaving quickly and leaving behind only its wet and teary carcass. Adam collapsed against the wheel, the tears running down the plastic steering wheel, muttering "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry" over and over again so low as to be nearly inaudible. Skull took a stabilizing hit from his flask, emptying it. He was going to need a drink.
"Its OK man, just let it flow, its gonna be alright..." Skull lied quietly, not certain if was talking to Adam or to himself.
Finally, Adam's sobbing quieted to soft breathing and the tide of tears dimmed in to a trickle, and Skull, holding one hand to his throbbing head, reached out the other one to rest gently on Adam's shoulder, an unspoken validation, license to speak, it was a respectful gesture, a priest opening his confessional and slowly, but surely, Adam took the cue gratefully.
"Dojo. It all started when she got the gig at Dojo. Zack got it for her, we go back, Zack and us..." He started, his eyes pinched shut, voice dull and flat, quivering with the repressed emotions.
"Rangers. I know, man, I know..." Skull voiced the unspoken implication, sympathetic but with just a touch of impatience. Adam's eyes flew open and he turned his head to look askance at his old friend, as if seeing someone new sitting there. He continued, wary, awakened.
"Right. So Z.. Za..." The name welled up in Adam's throat like bile but stuck, wouldn't come out, not without a lot of painful surgery, "He got her the gig as an old Ranger, 'we should stick together' he said. Her career'd been in a slump and we had to get by on my salary, which was enough, but just barely, Tanya felt helpless, and you know how Tanya hates to feel helpless. Maybe she even seemed a little cold or a little bitter, but that was just her way. I was so happy for her when she finally got the gig and she was ecstatic. Even Phillip picked up on it. But after that things started to change. I mean, she always showed up early to a gig, you know, to get to know the crowd..."
"Like the old days."
"Yeah", he smiled sadly, the Old Days, maybe five years ago at most, "like the Old Days. Anyhow, now she starts staying after, to 'wind down' she says and starts going out sooner and coming home later, some nights not at all." His face twisted and Skull winced in sympathy, knowing that those nights twisted like a knife in Adam's gut. "Then, tonight, she got tonight off, because of Cassie and the Creeps playing the place, you know? With Phillip at his grandparents', we'd finally have a night to ourselves. Maybe stay home, maybe make right whatever's gone wrong. But she insists we come here, 'to see the show' is all she'd say. Our first night to ourselves and she comes back here." He shook his head eyes narrowed in incomprehension.
"There's more to it, isn't there? It wasn't just to see the band was it." Skull said, trying to draw him out, being the cop again, pretending, like you had to, that this was a new story, that you hadn't heard it a thousand times before.
"No. It wasn't. I know that now. I know it!" Adam looked up suddenly, tears welling up in his eyes but his face reddening into a mask of anger, defending a position against an attack that hadn't come. "You didn't see them, together, the way they looked at each other! I know that look, it was how we used to look, and how they dodged around me, avoiding me just barely, not quite letting me see them together, like it was a game! A fucking game! Like destroying this family is a Goddamn game!" Crying and angry and despairing and helpless all at once, Skull just sat out the storm, keeping his eyes on Adam's, drawing out his story, patiently, like removing a tumor that's gone cancerous. "And He's gone now... and she's gone and... and..." Adam's mouth moved up and down a couple of times, as if trying to find words to say, but, his heart being emptied, could find nothing but air. Skull sat back and in his long-sleeping detective's mind yawned and groggily turned these over, trying to push something through the gray veil of fatigue and alcohol that lay around his consciousness. Dojo, Adam, Tanya. Tanya, Adam, Dojo. Adam, Dojo, Tanya. Then, with a suddenness that frightened him, it came to him and he stopped dead in his tracks.
"Zack." He said it out loud, almost as if not believing the word existed. It sent a bolt through Adam and he snapped his head up, his eyes large, pale and frightened.
"What?" One trembling word his only reply.
"Zack. Its Zack that you're talking about, isn't it?" Skull said more then asked. Rolling the idea around in his mouth to see how it tasted. It was bitter and hard to stomach, it tasted like the truth.
"You...knew...I only asked if they had... if they had..." the sentence just hung there, like an empty noose. Adam sighed with a heavy finality, slumping like a corpse in the drivers seat, dead eyes staring out at the world with a strange longing, as if it was their last such view.
"I guessed." Skull shrugged gently, pursing his lips with regret. "It's the only thing that makes this whole mess make sense." It made something else make sense too, something that chilled him from the inside out and twisted his gun into rough knots. Skull closed his eyes and his door.
"Lets go. I need a drink." The small car came to life, purring in agreement. They rode in an agreed upon silence, neither one taking their eyes off of the road. Skull gave tired, one word directions at intersections then slipped back into an almost-sleep that wanted to go farther. It took forty-five minutes back to the bar, Adam drove by the signs, speed limit, yield, that sort of thing, avoiding cop barricades as if they held the plague. Besides, he knew where they were going.
The Juice Bar was filled with a low murmuring quiet when they arrived, somehow muted, muffled, like a funeral home. The leaping parody of a band had quietly slipped into the night and stark, unsteady yellow light bulbs lit the place in the stead of the flashing psychedelia that usually accompanied music in the Juice Bar. The crowd had congealed into small, manageable groups clustered around the tables like primate tribesmen around their campfires. Music of some indeterminate sort fought static to seep out of the jukebox in the corner, counterpointed by the illegible screaming of a drunk with half a pool cue at a cowering hooker with the dull look of career prey in her eyes. Adam cautiously stepped over the shattered remains of bottles past, a jagged pile of glass Skull had avoided so many times that he didn't even see any more. A half-broken beer sign lit the low-lying smoke haze with an eerie colored light, which in return obscured the sign's outdated pandering. Adam stopped short and tried to take it all in.
"What the hell happened here? Where's the Juice Bar?"
"The original Juice Bar? Gone. The building's down the street, abandoned like everything else outside the military sectors, been boarded up since before old Ernie knocked off down in that godforsaken jungle." Skull answered flatly, just another part of his childhood dead and gone. "They were gonna build this place on it, but I was on the force at the time." Outside the narrow avenues ruled by law, an ACU officer would have the guns and money to make sure something that he didn't want to happen would not happen. Cold reality settled on Adam's shoulder like a carrion crow waiting for the kill and Skull turned eyes front, pained by the disillusion that swept across Adam's eyes. Illusions were a dying breed in this town.
"Hey Skullovitch!" Skull cringed slightly and stopped as a sneering shout rang from one of the tables. A pair of younger men sat there, faces barely concealing laughing contempt. Skull's hand went into his jacket pocket.
"Who are they, Skull?" Whoever they were, Adam could tell they weren't friends.
"Humphry and Bogart." He spat the words out like curses, "professional pains in the ass. Ignore them, they don't go away, but its better then listening to them." He gritted his teeth and continued on, hard eyes glaring forward, a slight twitch just under his left eye.
"Hey Skullovitch, how was business tonight? Make a killing?" One of them shouted and, snickering, nudged the other one into action.
"Yeah, Skull, what's the deal?" The other one said, just barely holding a straight face. "You the second gunman on the glassy knoll?" Which seemed to trigger a reaction, dissolving them both in mocking laughter. Skull responded with a simple flick of the finger.
"Skull, what are they talking about?" Adam whispered his question, keeping disapproving eyes on the pair. His voice wavered, nervous.
"Fuck if I know. Assholes." Skull muttered under his breath and shot straight for the bar, a dark seed of an idea what it is that they might mean taking root in his mind. He didn't want to think about it. Fortunately, he was in a bar and that's what bars were for.
At the far end of the bar, Eddie and Emily sat, perched on a barstool, wound together like snakes, snuggling casually and whispering gravely in low, hushed tones. They stopped suddenly and looked up, a pair of deer in the headlights, at Skull and Adam's approach. Skull took a seat and ordered a beer from the hulking night bartender, Adam cautiously brushed something unidentifiable off of the stool on the other side of him from lovers and took his place there.
"So," he looked at the scene and noticed something missing. Something important. "Hey, what happened to Rich? Wasn't he coming back with you guys?" The pair exchanged nervous glances, a silent lovers' dialogue, finally, an agreement was come to and Emily turned to face Skull, solemn and consoling, the sympathetic face of bad news.
"You didn't hear, did you? The cops picked up Rich just outside Dojo, they've charged him with the murder..." Her voice was low and thin, maybe even a little scared. What color there was in Skull's face drained from it. Richie? How? The question answered itself. His rifle, the damn fool's old space laser that he'd been waving around. The police's need for speed was being felt acutely now. He understood now what Crandall had said in that darkened back hall, during the meeting that had most emphatically not taken place. "It was on all the news reports." She continued blindly in a small voice as if trying to abrogate herself from the guilt she felt at having left him behind.
"I didn't hear any of the news reports!" He snapped at her and turned suddenly on the great mass of a barkeep. "Hey pal, wanna turn on the TV?" The bartender stopped, as if considering a weighty matter. Skull had no patience for cheap games. "Yo! TV! Now!" he growled with surprising venom and before he fully realized it, the bartender was turning on the cracked set that hung above the bar, which fuzzed to life with a disconcerting crackle and discharge of sparks. The picture was permanently warped, a gourd-shaped purple ring dominated the area around the center of the crack. Slowly the static arranged itself into the shape of KTBA anchor Wolf Blizzard, looking duly concerned but oddly smug, the kind of smug he usually reserved for special reports on six hour stand-offs and police victories. Wolf was an old friend of the force.
"KTBA now brings you live footage of the ongoing investigation into the death of one of Angel Grove's brightest lights, Zachary Taylor. Once again, Angel Grove Metropolitan Police have acted with speed and clarity to apprehend the assassin, now revealed to be one Richard Castillo, a part-time bartender from Angel Grove's notorious Warehouse District. Castillo, aged 28, is believed to have ties to several radical alien political groups and is reported to have been quoted as saying that terran life, which the Creeps and Taylor both represented for him, was 'corrupt and bankrupt', more details as they..." Skull turned away, disgusted.
"Turn it off."
"But I thought you wanted..?" The Bartender tried to object, but Skull caught him with a gaze to freeze beer in the glass.
"I said turn that shit off!" He barked and the TV switched off.
"I'm sorry about your friend, Skull, but I'm sure that in a court of law..." Adam nodded, trying too hard to be consoling. Skull wasn't buying.
"In a court of law he's fucked! He's already convicted, that's why they're having Wolf there do one of his standard 'Blizzard Snow Jobs' on him. He had a rifle and no messy ties, that's the only reason he's going down. You hear me?" Skull's voice raised gradually to a violent should until he realized that it was Adam, not Bob Hemming, not Reggie, not Billy, that was recoiling from his verbal onslaught and sat back, suddenly quiet, to take an unhealthy swallow of the beer.
"So what can you do?" Adam asked softly, rationally, maybe a little scared.
"I can get to work." Skull said simply. He finished his beer in a heroic gesture and swayed up from his seat, a strange glaze in his eyes and began throwing himself in the direction of the door. Adam exchanged quick glances with Emily and Eddie and started out after him.
"C'mon, let me at least give you a ride. Where you headed?" Adam laid his hand on Skull's shoulder to steady and stop him. Skull turned back, a predator's grin sharpening his bony face.
"For a ride. Yeah, lets take a ride." He smirked and tore his shoulder gently out from under Adam's hand and turned back towards the door. Adam squinted, paused for a moment, a moment of contemplation, but followed nonetheless. Skull's eyes followed him in the dust-coated bar mirror for as far as it went and seemed to stare at him from every reflective surface. Adam squirmed inside his expensive clothes, a bug under a slide.
The ride was long, silent and tense. Despite the best efforts of the overworked air conditioner, the air seemed stiflingly still, the quiet so close that it threatened to bite anything that moved. Adam moved just enough to drive the car, sweating slightly and sparing nervous glances over at Skull, who moved not at all, staring at him intently, considering him like a hawk considers a mouse. Skull spoke in short, terse words, imparting just enough information to get them past the next intersection, and the next, and the next. What little light there was in the Warehouse district fell away as they pulled into the eerily silent streets of the empty, private, communities of the Mansion district, once-proud gates of once-elite communities hanging off of their hinges, corpses of another Angel Grove, one slain by neglect not violence. Once or twice, Adam looked over to Skull and almost opened his mouth to say something, anything, but was stropped in his tracks by those huge, empty, dead, bloodshot eyes, the boarded-up windows to the soul, absorbing everything with a black hunger, giving away nothing. Adam kept his words to himself, to keep them from falling into that abyss. Outside, they had passed the last garbage-can fire and only the headlights of the little car dared, somewhat ashamedly, to break the pure, undiluted darkness with their beams. Weak, pallid things when compared to the oppressive darkness beyond.
Finally, Skull directed him to pull into a chipped, concrete driveway, flanked by bullet-ridden corpses of ceramic garden gnomes, and the car came to a stop. He stopped with the car and held his breath, waiting for Skull to get out. Skull didn't get out. Finally, the tension, backed by a building outrage at being held at emotional gunpoint on this of all nights, broke him and he turned, ready to wish Skull a terse, authoritative "Good Night". He squeaked sideways and opened his mouth as if to speak but found himself silenced by a soft, suggestive little click.
Skull was smiling, that was the first thing he noticed, consciously, a hard, sad, joyless monster of a grin, the grin of the dangerously lucid drunk, the kind of smile you could hurt yourself on. Then he moved up to the eyes, which were lit with understanding or some mad fire that substituted for it. Then and only then did he allow himself to look down at what had first truly drawn his attention. In his hand, Skull carried a small death, bound up in duct tape around a petite section of PVC, his zip gun. One shot. Pointed at him, close enough to kill.
"She knows you killed him, Adam." The words were sharp and brutal with a punch that had been something like an hour and a half in coming, they were honed and heated and cut straight to the heart with such unerring accuracy, that for a moment, Adam thought himself dead. In the same controlled enunciation of the career drunk, Skull continued as Adam learned to breathe again. "I don't really blame you, you know. Smug bastard, had it coming, didn't he? Nobody would blame you, not really. Not when you think about what he did to you. Well, nobody except her, she might, but then, she was in love with hi..."
"NO!" Adam broke in a choked scream, every syllable was like a brick on his shoulders, weighing on him like a ton of the same, crushing him, finally, he made one, final lunge for freedom. "I... couldn't! Even if she had been having an affair! Especially then..! The only thing I couldn't stand more then to lose her is to have her hate me! I swear to God, Skull, I didn't kill him, even after I stopped liking him. Alright, maybe I did think about killing him! So what? Who wouldn't? But I could never do it, never! I couldn't kill an innocent man, and I couldn't.. couldn't.. kill anyone my Tanya loved, anyone!" It all seemed to come out at once, as if the words were jostling each other to leave his mouth, his thoughts piling up faster then he could give them voice. Skull recoiled inside and his eyes flickered to life as he realized what he had just done. He blinked several times as the words started to sink in, leave their marks. Adam sat before him, the last thing he could call a friend in a harsh and empty world, spilling his guts out on the floor, because he had just accused him of murder. Adam drew back like a cornered animal and before he himself knew it, he had taken advantage of Skull's hesitation and one hand pinned Skull's gun hnd to the dashboard.
"What's this about, Skull? This isn't just some drunken prank, is it? You're serious. Why'd you bring me out here? To blackmail me? For something I didn't do? Dammit, Skull, tell me what's going on here?" Adam's eyes were still wet with his own tears but there was steel behind those tears now, and his grip was iron. Skull opened and closed his mouth wordlessly, gasping like a fish, not knowing if he was going to throw up or not. Slowly, carefully, Adam reached over with his other hand and pried open Skull's fingers, removing the gun from them, then gritted his teeth."
"Once more, what is this? How would you know if I killed him or not?" Adam's voice was steadier now, he was angry, hurt and not about to be jerked around. Skull smiled crookedly, barely holding his stomach together.
"You didn't." He shrugged in conciliation, although his eyes still doubted and kept a closely locked on Adam's.
"Good." Adam's voice was hard and tight, kept close to the vest, to keep the fear and the shock at bay. "You can walk the rest of the way." He pronounced and Skull heard the door lock click open behind him. Taking the hint, he opened the door and backed slowly out of the car, keeping his eyes on Adam. Adam reached over and quickly slammed the door closed as soon as Skull was clear. Then, his eyes never leaving Skull's, put the car back in gear and peeled out, burning away into the void.
Skull sat down on the curb and held his head, for a long moment, then, looking up at where the last image of Adam's taillights had been, closed his fist around them in the air and mouthed "gotcha".
"You had motive, Park. Now lets see if you had opportunity." Skull got up, tired and somewhere unpleasantly between drunk and hung over, dusted himself off and started walking, slowly, carefully, so as not to disturb his stomach, back towards home. Well-trod paths spun unfamiliar in the twisting, unlit darkness, each step a journey onto new soil. It was a long walk, replete with inconvenient detours and long, thin sounds of night, screaming just below hearing, ever-present. Without the helping hand of his little silver flask of blessed amber silence, the little voice in the back of his head rang ever more persistent, growing to a shout and forcing his eyes shut and knocking his balance askew with its sudden violence. He stumbled and clutched a building for support, letting loose with a hot, bitter stream of all the booze and bile he'd swallowed since Zack's murder. It had a purgative effect. So it was that cold, sober, aching and shivering from something other then the cold, he pushed open the door of the vast, if somewhat less-then palatial, abandoned Angel Grove mansion. He collapsed into the house, closing the door weakly behind him, so that it swung back open, letting in a bar of moonlight in Skull's wake.
Even the silence seemed to breathe lightly as Skull made his way through the house towards his bedroom, easing him along, keeping him on the path. He knew the silence well, an old friend and good neighbor. He almost made it there and ended up dressing a section of floor in a dark corner of the hallway, the thick carpeting almost soft against his numbed face. Sleep came easily, but had a rough stay.
He dreamed. Dark, crawling, gibbering dreams, of pale, eyeless things in caverns unimaginable to mortal man, performing obscene and incomprehensible rites to indescribable carven idols under the sickly glow of phosphorus fungi, howling and chanting in hideously wet, inhuman voices, deep and rumbling, like the sounds of the thunder bubbling up through thick mud. Great, tentacled shapes quivered in strange ecstasy and danced madly in the half-lit caverns, elderich, half-formed things that writhed and squirmed, twisting their pale, boneless bulks in the shadowless caverns of everlasting twilight, screaming and moaning in supplication and hunger, an unnatural, indescribable hunger that seemed to rise off them like the steam that cloaked their loathsome, malformed bodies. Every syllable intoned sent a shiver through Skull's entire person, for although he could not make them out, the dire intent of those words, if that is what truly they were, was readily evident. It was with a malicious glee they were spoken, in rites older then man's rule upon the earth. Their words were heavy with a foul expectance, a dark and chilling promise of things to come. They spoke of immediacy, for the creatures did not dance as patient creatures dance, conserving their energy, unhurried, biding their time, but instead loped and cavorted madly, howling blasphemously against the half-night, like wild beasts straining at the very limits of their bonds. How long this mad assemblage seemed to continue in its intricate, but utterly alien, rites beneath the earth, its strange and terrible dance, Skull could not say, cloaked as he was in the timelessness of dreaming, only that it was but an eternity latter when he awoke, screaming, from his troubled, fevered sleep, his mouth dry as a result of his debaucheries of the night before and his eyes blinded by the first golden-white rays of noon.
Head beating with a painful rhythm, Skull pulled himself up slowly, cautiously, with one hand on the wall, and the other pressed therapeutically against his forehead, where he could feel the individual veins throbbing. Squinting with troglodyte pain against the long-risen sunlight, Skull made his way across the bare, stripped hallway to the depressingly empty bedroom where he let his clothes molder in a great pile on the floor. It was painted an institutional cream color, sprinkled lightly with gashes and graffiti, badges of its brief stint on the looting circuit. The floor was a weird maze of cast-off fast-food boxes, forgotten porn, barely unpacked possessions and other miscellaneous effluence of his past lives. His first step created an uncomfortable crunch and Skull cringed visibly, lifting his foot from the damaged space with exaggerated carefulness, as if he could somehow make up for his previous carelessness. Slowly, carefully, every motion an exercise in exaggerated caution, he slowly began to fish certain articles out of the pile. A black suit jacket with a barely perceptible ketchup stain on it, a pair of black pants wrinkled almost beyond hope of return, endlessly scuffed black shoes, a white dress shirt turned the lightest gray with old sweat and misuse, work clothes. His old black leather wallet glared at him from atop a nearby pile, its empty hole where the badge his soul had lived in had rested like an accusing eye. He tried not to look at it. It was with something akin to loathing that he held up the tie that he had worn that last day, still smelling of dirty laundry, the smooth artificial silk gone rough with moisture, he could almost feel it choking the life out of him like it had that day, the day that Hemming had fired him, the day he had died. It seemed almost like a venomous snake in his hands, ready to strike. He felt constrained, threatened, and the door already open, panic came to call. He shuddered and fell back instinctively, letting it flutter down to the top of the pile as he staggered back in repulsion towards the door and cried out as a cold, sharp pain in the sole of his foot welcomed him as his foot came down on top of a subsidiary pile of t-shirts. He stumbled and fell over backwards, clutching at the wounded foot, feeling the warm, thick, blood ooze through his fingers as he tightened his grip on the offended member.
"Ah, shit!" He gritted his teeth and swore with real passion. Eyes wide with pain's adrenaline, Skull shot into a sitting position, and rocking back and forth glared hatefully at the cause of his current anguish, a single, dull, silver spike protruding from between t-shirts with a rivulet of sticky red drying on it. A quick swipe with a bloodied hand and the t-shirts flew, revealing a dull black leather dog collar studded with tarnished steel spikes, like the one that had pierced his foot. The past bit back. If not for the dull throbbing coming from his foot, Skull could have laughed. The collar was a relic, he hadn't worn it since being abandoned by Terra Venture. It hadn't exactly met police dress code, even for a plainclothes man in a renegade unit like the ACU. It was his punk collar, his old trademark. Finding his wound clotting, he hopped towards the bathroom, half-cursing, half-laughing. A band-aid stopped the blood, but not the laughter. Maybe this was an omen, maybe it was destiny. Maybe the collar had just missed Skull. Skull had.
After a stale bagel, half a bottle of orange juice that smelled vaguely like turpentine, and a pair of aspirin for breakfast, Skull found himself dressed, if unshowered and reaching for the doorknob. He was wearing his old suit now, except sans the tie and in its general place, the collar. Skull was ready for work.
He opened the door and slammed straight into a solid wall of blinding, golden, Southern California sunlight. Grunting with displeasure, he covered his eyes with one hand and with the other removed a pair of pitch black John Lennon's from the inside pocket of his jacket and quickly stuck them crookedly on his head. Still squinting, but able to see, Skull pushed into the daylight and started to follow where gravity took him, down the hill and towards the warehouse district.
The mansion district was, if anything, lonelier by daylight then it was at night, his only company the occasional police cruiser hurrying past to get its patrols finished in time to be back in the civilized city before sundown. Still they were better then no company at all and Skull would occasionally wave to the unresponsive Black and Whites.
It was fifteen minutes downhill from Skull's squat to the first functioning pay phone in the outer city. This lone operating outpost of civilization marked the border between the sparsely populated Warehouse district and the truly abandoned Mansion district. Someone had even taken the time to cover the left side in graffiti, leaving the right side blank, abandoned. Skull laughed as he checked the place where he had scratched an ex-girlfriend's phone number with a "for a good time call" into the inside of the booth in a fit of drunken spite some two years ago and found that "time" had been scratched out and replaced with something slightly more descriptive.
Skull thought for a moment, but there was really only one lead he had worth following. Reluctantly he fished a motley assortment of coins out of his pocket and dropped them into the waiting slot, hoping that the phone lines to the outer city had chosen today to be up. Three phone calls and nearly a dollar in spare change later, Skull had impersonated an entertainment reporter, a limo driver and a bank official and for his trouble had the address of a swanky downtown hotel which had the extreme pleasure of accepting Cassandra Chan's Platinum credit card.
It was a long, sun-drenched afternoon's walk and again Skull found himself regretting black as a choice in attire. School was almost out when he walked up the steps of the Angel Grove Hilton and his stomach had long since ceased to churn and begun to rumble.
A classy, understated little man behind the vast oak plain of a front desk inside the Hilton regretfully informed Skull that he was sorry but Cassie and the Creeps had checked out sometime in the wee hours of the morning and no he didn't know where they'd gone and even if he did he certainly couldn't tell Skull. Five minutes and all of his liquid cash later, Skull strolled down the steps of the of the Angel Grove Hilton with another address, this one a budget place right on the beach. Skull was a little hungry and a lot broke, but otherwise feeling pretty good, about himself and about this case. Almost like a cop. Thinking about being a cop made his wallet itch, where the hole that had once held his badge was, the kind of itch you can't scratch, like feeling an amputated limb itch. He tried to put it out of his head and focus on the case, as he now had no money for a drink.
School was still in session so there weren't quite the crowds along the boardwalk. Only the perpetually unemployed roamed the beaches, not yet shooed by cops mindful of the tourist trade and only the three-martini lunches gone to five martinis and a couple of beers filled seats at the quaint, mass-produced little bistros along the beach, no yet ready to leave work they weren't really doing. A set of regular, red letters, faded slightly pink by the sun, hanging over a pastel arch announced Skull's destination.
The inside was as factory issue as the outside, the lobby was done up in institutional off-white and earth tones, with paintings of generic southwest scenes that looked like they'd been clipped from a magazine. A cheap magazine. In the center of the lobby, a balding Midwest man, with brand-new khaki shorts and legs so white they blinded shouted indignities over the lobby phone at an uncooperative operator, while his frazzled wife in the Disneyland T-shirt of the sort not sold in Disneyland tried to simultaneously convince their oldest sun-burnt child not to pick on their youngest, convince their youngest not to cry so loud, its OK honey, and inform their middle child that he could certainly not have candy, not this close to dinner. And just around one side of the family, pretending to be intently interested in the pop machines, was a young man in a suit way too nice for this hotel, and too tight for the build, with a short military haircut. At the front desk, a middle-aged woman whose name tag read "Betty" and invited the viewer to "ask about our great group rates" tried patiently to explain something a third time to a party in Texas who's lack of knowledge about credit card use and hotel reservations seemed almost impossible in the modern age while a greasy, too-clean young man easily half her age in an orange "manager" jacket harangued her on some minor point of etiquette or another. Skull sauntered easily up to the counter, peeled off his shades, and made eye contact with the "Betty" shrug sympathetically and holding up one palm to indicate he could wait. While he was waiting, he made sure to try just a little bit harder not to look at the monkey in the suit then the monkey was trying not to look at him.
It was a short wait, mercifully. Betty gingerly put down the receiver on the Texans and turned towards Skull, looking releived and anxious to help someone, anyone other then ignorant Texans, but the kid in the manager's jacket broke in authoritatively.
"Yes, have you been helped?" He was impatient and slightly annoyed that someone was taking up the precious time he was obviously wasting by not letting Betty do her job.
"I was about to be.." Skull smiled amiably and turned towards Betty, flashing the business card to a strip club Skull used to patronize just fast enough that it might have been identification. "Nick Nicos, West Coast Music Magazine, I made an appointment with Cassie and the Creeps for a short interview a couple days ago, so, lets see," He took an old grocery list out of one pocket of his pants, "Room 113, right?" He smiled and started down towards the rooms.
"Sir! I have specific orders not to let anyone in to see them that they haven't preapproved!" The kid grabbed his shoulder and whined with simulated authority.
"Right, call up 113 then." Skull said, now somewhat insulted. "Tell them Nick from West Coast is here..." He rolled his eyes dramatically and crossed his arms stubborn. Doubtful and distrustful, the kid was still shooting suspicious glances at Skull as he dialed '216' into the phone. Winking to Betty, Skull was off like a shot, trailed by the junior manager's frenzied shouting, which faded beneath the interminable grinding of the ice machine.
216 was, predictably enough, on the second story of this two story building and just far enough down the hall from the stairs that the pair of hard boys lounging casually by the door had plenty of time to see Skull shoot out of the stairwell. More then enough time to seize Skull's arms and involve him in an attempt to make him at one with the wall. One held Skull's wrists in one hand and casually pressed Skull's face into the wall with the forearm of the other arm while his partner frisked every possible angle, including some that Skull was under the distinct impression were against the law in the State of California. Whoever these boys were they possessed both an intimate knowledge of human physiology and a blatant disrespect for it. Either ex-cops or aliens. And neither of them was talkative enough to be a cop.
"That's it?" The searcher muttered almost disappointedly as he lifted the zip-gun from Skull's jacket pocket. Skull caught the accent, well-hidden but still slightly otherworldly. Made sense for the Queen of Alien Rock to have alien bodyguards. "A one-shot? Pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?"
"Been...eeerrrggg.... Out of the loop for a bit...what is the...aaaahhhkkk... well armed mad stalker packing these days..." Skull managed to squeeze out between bouts of being in pain from having a brawny alien grind his face into the a unyielding, unforgiving surface.
"Lasers." The two kneecappers said as one and Skull could almost feel the smirks on their faces. The one holding him let up a little on his head, still not letting him move but not cracking his skull anymore.
"We have a problem out here, boys?" A voice that every radio and TV in the nation knew well rang sardonically from the doorway just opposite where Skull was being held.
"I'll say we do, your boy in the blue here has hands like ice." Skull began almost sincerely, "And that makes quite the difference when said hands are up your..."
"Skull?" Cassie broke in suddenly. "That you there?"
"You know this guy?" The one holding him to the wall asked, almost surprised. "We thought he was another stalker, or some psycho out to copy-cat last night's performance."
"Oh no, Skull's one of the good guys.... Kinda..." Cassie laughed. "Right Skull? You aren't a homocidal stalker, are you?" She asked seriously, but it was the kind of serious that had trouble holding a straight face.
"Nope, not me, never..." He tried to make a vestigial nod in agreement, but it would've hurt too much.
"Alright, let him go..." Skull staggered and held his head as bloodflow resumed to his brain. He took a second to regain his sense of the word "up" and turned to face Cassie, who was leaning causally in the open doorway across the hall.
"So, Skull," She began as soon as she had his attention again. "What brings the ACU to our humble little camp? You think there was alien involvement with the shooter, or is it that every other division of the police has had their interviews already, and you were just feeling left out?" It took Skull a moment to comprehend, to realize that she still thought he was working ACU undercover. The door was open in more then one way.
"Something like that..." He put on his best fake smirk. "Maybe we better discuss this inside, if you don't mind, Ms. Chan."
"Sure, and Jesus, Skull, call me Cassie... would ya? I mean, you're beginning to sound like my manager." She shook her head and laughed as she spun and headed into the open room door. Gathering himself up, Skull straightened his jacket and smirked smugly at the two gooney boys before heading in himself, turning around only to wave to them and slam the door in their faces.
"Jackass." They agreed as one.
The inside of the room was at least as unimpressive as the rest of the hotel, a four-person room packed with the stuff for six, plus their equipment. Floor space was a premium and furniture space an impossibility. Victoria McMasters, the slender, red-headed singing genius, was sprawled out on the bed, between a pair of amps, lost in a pair of headphones playing some slightly audible tunes, probably orchestral. Their backup guitarist, a large, bipedal feline was staring discontentedly out the window and the drummer, a tall, lean, wingless bird, was on the phone, presumably with the psudo-manager downstairs.
"Where's the rest of the band?" Skull had his hands in his pockets and was looking around mock-casually.
"Where do you think?" Cassie smiled sweetly and nodded out towards the hall. Skull gritted his teeth and groaned.
"You mean I just got groped and beaten by your keyboard man and bass-player? Let me guess, field disguises?"
Cassie grinned cattishly, "Yep, and don't think you'll get that autographed either."
"Hey, chief..." The bird held one paw over the phone and nodded to Cassie, "its front desk, they say that some reporter just broke in and is headed up this way."
"Oh, ah, that was me..." Skull grinned sheepishly. "Didn't want to publicize ACU's involvement. I'[ve been undercover, you know?" And gave a short, nervous cackle.
"Right. Way undercover by the looks of it." She scowled slightly and turned back to the bird. "Tell him we were expecting Mister... what name you give him?"
"Nicos, Nick Nicos." Skull grinned goofily and shrugged.
"Always were a sucker for alliteration. Actually now that I think of it, you've always just been a sucker. Right. Tell him we've been expecting Mr. Nicos ever since the shooti..errrr...since the shoot, the photo shoot." She winked conspiratorially at Skull as the drummer droned the message, in as serious a tone as could be imagined.
"Man, Eugene Skullovitch. Wow." She stepped back and shook her head. "Here, move into the light, let me get a look at you..." Cassie gripped him by the shoulder, scooted him around a drum set and got him into the sunlight from the window.
"Christ, Skull, you look like hell." and he did, skin so pale as to be almost translucent, sunken, bloodshot eyes, a network of burst veins criss-crossing his nose. And smelled like it, the stink of cheap cigarettes, stale booze and the peculiar stench of the perpetually unwashed hung about him, sickly sweet, strangely like the reek of death. Maybe Skull had never looked particularly good, but he'd definitely looked better.
"I was gonna offer you a drink, but maybe that'd be bad idea..." She considered him critically and he opened his mouth to protest but never got any of the words past her gaze. He could've really used that drink. "God, how long has it been? Three, Four years?"
"Five, it was at the Disbanding Ceremony, Stone played with the schedules and made sure everyone in the ACU could make it." He smirked nostalgically and shook his head slightly.
"Oh Yeah, I remember it now," She grinned wickedly, "You got completely plastered and started hitting on the Chief's daughter like a mad fiend. A damn miracle you didn't get your bony ass fired for that one..."
"Ahhhh..." Skull shrugged it off and waved it away, "She understood. After all, she used to date Bulk you know..."
"No shit?" Cassie raised an eyebrow.
"No shit." Skull nodded in the affirmative, he and Connie Crandall had had a lot in common. For one thing they'd both had their hearts busted open by Terra Venture.
"So, all those disgusting things you promised," Cassie grinned a little wider and Skull blushed slightly at the memory. "She ever take you up on any of them."
"Er.. some of them." He admitted reluctantly, "But nothing ever came of it." Reality started pushing through the lie he was using for a sheild, so he dodged. "Well, listen, I'd love to chit-chat, but as you may have noticed last night..."
"Yeah..." It was like all the air had left the room. Cassie sighed heavily and her cheerful fašade dropped tiredly into a look of distace, dull and sad, the face of a heart numbed by pain. "..we noticed." She slumped tiredly down on top of a giant speaker lain on its side. "And everything we noticed is in every one of your damn reports." With ritual slowness, she tapped a cigarette out of a half-empty box and placed it carefully between lips that closed just enough to keep it from falling.
"Another Cop? Christ! What do you people want, blood?" Vicki had her headphones off and was sitting up, cross-legged on the bed, her eyes wet with rage and frustration, her mouth a hard, sharp line. "We've told your people the same story like a dozen times, so why don't you just leave her, us, be? Get the story from the other little piggies down at Metro PD or maybe just read a fuckin' paper? Huh?" She snapped challengingly to Skull.
"Jesus, back down, will ya, Vicki? He's just trying to do his job. Isn't that right, Skull?" Cassie muttered around the unlit cigarette dangling from her lips, slightly disgusted but too drained to do much more. Skull started to reply, but that was cut off at the pass.
"Cassie! Look at what this is taking out of you! These bastards are just using you, don't you see that? There taking advantage of your..."
"Listen Vicki, I can take care of my own damn self and I don't need you or anyone protecting me, got it?" Cassie bit back hard, a new energy rising. She rose slightly from her slump, moving the cig to a firm clamp in the corner of her mouth. The other two band members stepped back a bit and Skull had the distinct impression he should follow suit. He didn't.
"Why're you doing this to yourself, Cas? Why're you taking all this on yourself for these assholes?" Vicki snarled, jerking her head towards Skull as the token "asshole" present. "You trying to prove something? That the big, bad Pink Ranger's still 'got it'? You know, this one's not coming back! No matter how hard you try!" Cassie recoiled as if struck and tears began to well from the corners of her eyes. Skull finally just stepped out of the line of fire. He felt like someone who had come in on the second act of a play.
"I know that! You think I don't know that? I'm not doing this for 'these assholes', I'm doing it for Zack, to find his killer. He was one of us, Dammit! You have no idea what's at stake here! Besides," Cassie calmed down a little bit and smiled weakly at Skull. "Skull isn't just any asshole, he's damn near like extended family."
"Yeah," Skull joked, hoping to lighten the air a bit, "The cousin no one ever talks about..." It just sat in the air, listlessly.
"So," Cassie wiped her eyes against her sleeve and composed herself. "Shall we get this over with?" She locked eyes with Skull and left no question that the interview was offcially started.
Vicki, perceiving she was being disregarded, huffed angrily and collapsed violently into a prone position on the bed, jamming her headphones down low over her ears, turning the volume up until Skull could hear the difference between the first and second flute sections.
"If its alright with you." Skull said evenly, professionally. "I know how hard this must be for you." He added a little more quietly.
"No you don't." She sighed sadly and covered her eyes with her hand. "You have no idea how hard this is for me. But that's OK. At least you tried. So" There was a break between sentences, as if changing sentences was changing subjects. "I suppose you knew about Zack."
"About him being an ex-Power Ranger. Yeah, I knew." He nodded sympathetically to her, encouraging her to go on.
"You did?" She lowered her hand a little and looked questioningly at him from over it.
"Hey," He shrugged, "I am a detective, after all. This is what I do." He sounded almost as if he meant it.
"Gotcha. Well, that puts you about a mile ahead of the bozos over at Homicide. That why Stone send you? He think it was an old enemy of the Rangers?" Her eyes pleaded for answers he didn't have.
"I... we... don't know. Now, as I'm sure even the clowns in homicide noticed, you and your band were in the best position to see the shooter, anything, even if you've already told the other officers." Silently, Skull kicked himself for not bringing a notepad or anything. A little late in the game for that.
"Nothing. Like we told the other officers, nobody in the band was able to make the shooter out, the shooter was hidden in the shadows of the 2nd Deck at Dojo, and if he, she or it did anything afterwards, none of us we able to see it after the laser flash." She closed her eyes and again and repeated the information by rote.
"What about the murder weapon, make out any details of it?" He was starting to go by rote himself.
"The Weapon?" She raised an eyebrow and opened her eyes again. "I thought you guys already had that all figured out?"
"Yeah, I mean," Skull backpedaled and bullshitted, "we know it was a laser weapon, probably military grade, more then likely terran manufacture, but it might help us to find the culprit if we had some hint what kind, currently between governments, SWAT units and pan-governmental organizations, there are almost 37 different major models of military-grade laser in human hands." It was probably double that now, as Skull's information was almost two years old.
"Well, none of the others ever asked us about the weapon before." The hand came away from he face and she leaned forward seriously.
"Really?" Now it was Skull's turn to raise an eyebrow. "That's usually standard procedure. Huh?" He shook his head slightly. This wasn't right, even Metro PD wasn't usually this sloppy.
I can't remember anything specific but..." She turned towards the other two band members. "Say, either of you guys see anything about the weapon you can remember?" The other two exchanged quick glances, the cat shrugged and shook her head but the bird pulled itself up to its full, impressive height.
"Well, maybe all the mammal eyes in the room were too slow to react to the flash, but I'm a little sharper then that. Yeah, I saw something.." He screeched proudly, raising his beak a little, almost as if challenging Skull to doubt him. Skull didn't.
"Good, good, now what'd you see?" If the real cops hadn't asked this question, then Skull wanted the answer twice as much.
"A sharp barrel, almost like a spear's point, long, thin, it gleamed red in the moment before it fired, put a dot on Zack's head exactly where the hole appeared..." He recounted in his almost indecipherable squawk. Skull's eyes got wide.
"Shit." He stated matter-of-factly. "Pre-targeting. Basically, a high-powered laser sight that can be intensified as soon as the target is made. Military Sniper Rife." He shook his head and sat down on the keyboard case, staring at the floor, in thought.
"What?" Cassie asked, standing up tentatively, her turn to ask the questions, "What's it mean?"
"It means," Skull said enigmatically as he looked up at her, "That nothing is really ever over...."