It was cold, and Jessica felt small for the first time in a long while. She didn't make it to this part of town often, in the air or on the ground; the buildings hung over the sidewalks in postures of regret, and the people kept giving her searching glances. Raising her collar, she tried to hide herself in her coat while she mentally read herself the riot act. They don't know, all right? You're just passing through, just like any normal person. But she got the feeling there weren't a whole lot of strangers in Kiefer Square-it didn't look like someplace you passed through, it looked like someplace you stopped.
Ahead, she saw her destination: a cemetery overlooked by a stone angel. She leaned into the wind and pressed on. The gate was open; she took a few hurried steps inside before she realized how panicked she must look and slowed. If what she'd heard was correct, he'd be in here somewhere. Time to find out.
Her feet started tracing a search pattern automatically and her eyes followed suit, taking in every corner of the place in swift, sure glances. After a few minutes of weaving through tombs and around pebbled pathways she came to a stop in front of a small, undecorated stone seated in a row of unremarkable graves. The stone displayed only a name: Doolittle Taggart.
Something stirred gently in her chest as she read the name, and for a few moments the winter chill could not reach her--only memories and the clean-cut etching of those two words. She crouched down in front of the stone and reached out a gloved hand to touch it, just delicately, as if the granite would break under the slightest pressure.
"I was wonderin' if you'd find out about that," said a slow and heavy voice from behind her. She turned, startled, only to find the caretaker leaning on a rake, his silver face lined with a sad smile. "Hope you don't mind. It just seemed like the right thing to do."
Jessica frowned at herself--Steeljack should never have been able to sneak up on her. How far gone was she, anyway? Then her mind caught up to what he was saying with a jerk. "It's... fine," she concluded. "Just not something I would have expected."
The sunlight glinted and slid off Jack's head as he nodded. "I always meant to ask--was there a funeral for him? We had our own get-together here, but I don't know if..."
"No," she said, a bit more acidly than she'd wanted. "There was no funeral."
Steeljack nodded again slowly, his eyes slung low to the ground. "Then I'm glad we had one."
Jessica found herself rising without thinking, lifted on an anger that was trying to burst up through her body. With her mind she was trying to push Steeljack back, to make him leave her in peace, to crush him; but he just stood there looking at the head of his rake as if the few leaves caught in it were items of extreme interest. Just as she was about to storm out of the cemetery, though, he looked up.
"You look cold," he said. "Want a coffee?"
He must have misunderstood the look Jessica gave him, because he kept going. "I know the only good place around here. And I could do with a few minutes off my feet. How about it?"
"Why?" she asked.
Steeljack shrugged. "Just bein' neighborly."
She wanted to go. She wanted to be anyplace but here--even Christmas shopping with Crackerjack would be preferable. But here was this ex-con--this super-criminal--who just a few months ago she'd tried to throw behind bars, quietly reaching past her to brush the last leaves off her father's grave.
"Coffee," she experimented.
"Coffee," agreed Steeljack. "And maybe pie."
* * *
The corner of Jessica's mouth twitched as she entered the diner. "I thought you said this was the only good place around here."
"It is," he replied as he slid behind a table. "It's the only place--that makes it the only good place. Have a seat."
She joined him. He made small talk with the waitress; they both ordered coffees; and before things could get too awkward waiting, the drinks arrived. Steeljack picked his up delicately, holding it close enough to his face for it to fog his cheeks a little. "So," he said. "How's the hero biz?"
She reached for the creamer and shook some into her cup. "Not bad. We just took down the Primortals again in Mexico."
"I think I read something about that. Evolution powers, right?"
"Yeah, they 'devolve' people to accelerate their own evolution. They were doing it to a whole little town just south of the border."
"It would have been... N-Forcer and Beautie are pretty much immune to their powers, though, so they took care of it."
They sipped their coffee. Jessica could feel the anger fading and the other feeling coming back as she drank. That guy in the corner looked a little bit like Stormcrow, and she could swear she saw one of the customers pull something alien out of a pocket just a few seconds ago. She tried to watch everyone at once, shifting inconspicuously in her seat to get a better angle and be ready to spring.
Steeljack chuckled once--a quick metallic "Hunh." With an effort, Jessica returned her attention to the man across the table. "What?" she asked.
"They're not going to start any trouble, kid. Not unless you do first." He waved at the guy with the alien tech and he raised his cup in return before turning back to his newspaper. Jessica muttered, "I knew they were watching me."
"'Course they were. We don't exactly get a lot of strangers in the Square, and you're not exactly low-profile."
"So they know me. Great."
"They know you, all right," agreed Steeljack. "That's why there's not gonna be any trouble."
She pressed her forehead into one hand. "Steeljack, these people are wanted criminals. Hell, I've probably fought half of them myself. Most of them would love to get a piece of me. And you're telling me there's not going to be trouble?"
He nodded. "We don't fight our own here, Jessica."
"I am not 'your own,'" she hissed.
"Maybe not," he admitted, "but your father was."
And there it was. She looked up at him, caught out by the sheer simplicity of the statement. But if he noticed any guilt or outrage in her expression, it didn't make it to his silvery face. "He was a good guy--everyone liked him. If there was a job needed doing right, you could always go to Quarrel."
"Job," she said. "You mean crime."
"Mostly. But your father also fixed a leaky sink or two in his time. Dug Margie Oakes out of a snowdrift, too, winter of '68."
She shook her head. "You say that like it matters."
He shrugged. "Did to Margie."
"No," she fumed, "I mean you say that like it makes it okay." She let a mocking note creep into her voice: "Okay, yeah, he may have robbed a few banks--but he helped a woman out of a snowdrift, so he's all right."
Steeljack insisted, "He was, though."
"He was a criminal."
The coffee cup clinked slightly as he put it back in the saucer; then he leaned on one arm and took a long, hard look at Jessica. She stared right back, not giving an inch. Eventually, he asked, "Do you know what we call ourselves around here?"
Jessica rolled her eyes. "How dramatic."
"There's a reason," he said, ignoring the sarcasm. "The newspapers and the TV stations, they call us villains. But you probably know about everyone who's ever lived here. Think about 'em for a second--think about the Wolfhound and Penny Pincher and Handgun and the rest. Have any of 'em--any one of them--ever killed anybody on purpose?"
"No," she admitted.
"Have any of them ever stolen from someone who couldn't afford it?"
"Not that we can prove," she attempted.
"There you go," he said. "There are rules to the way we do things--not laws, but rules. We treat the business with respect. Not everyone does--I don't want to think about the people Glowworm's killed, or Sagus--but we do. We're black hats. The others are crooks."
His expression was so genuine that she smirked. "So what do you call heroes, then? White hats?"
He nodded. "Some of them. Only the ones that play by the rules, though, like the Gentleman or the Black Rapier." He tapped one finger on the table, which rang slightly. "You know, the Gentleman met your dad a few times. He said he always looked forward to the next Quarrel heist."
A quick snort of air escaped her nose. "Why? Because he was so easy to catch?"
"Because your dad did things the way they should be," he replied.
She barked a laugh loud enough for the waitress to shoot her a warning look. "Crime the way it should be," she echoed. "I somehow can't picture the Gentleman ever saying that."
"It's true--ask him. Or the N-Forcer or Beautie, they've been around long enough. Your dad was a craftsman-he never took hostages, never knocked over a building while he was makin' his escapes. He tried to make every job cleaner and better than the last. He played fair. And the Gent respected him."
"That's not what I heard," she muttered.
"Well, what did you hear?" he asked. "About your dad?"
She made a few idle circles in her cup with her spoon. "I've read the old clippings, saw some of the news footage."
"That don't count. What did you hear from actual people? From the other heroes?"
She sighed and spread her hands. "Okay--not much. Sometimes I think they're afraid to bring it up."
An expression crossed Steeljack's face that was either him trying to imagine Cleopatra being afraid to talk to her about her father, or him imagining it just fine and trying visibly to avoid the same fate. Either way, it made Jessica smile just a little. "I know, I know," she said. "I have a bit of a reputation."
"You got that from your mom, I think," he agreed with relief. "People didn't cross her if they had a choice, at least not where your dad was concerned. She was a little... protective."
"Believe me, I know," Jessica said. "It was years after I found out about him that she finally stopped calling his jobs 'business trips.' When I was eight he went to prison and she called it 'his vacation.'" She frowned. "Of course, he was on 'business trips' and 'vacation' an awful lot when I was young."
"Yeah. I ran into him a couple times in Biro in the eighties. He talked about you a lot. Offered to spring me a couple times when he escaped, but I didn't go along. Figured I'd serve my time, get out of the game."
"And you did," she said, searching for the right words to follow those. "Look..." she started, "I'm sorry for before. About the Conquistador. I should have trusted you."
"What, just because I knew your dad?" He waved the idea off with a hand. "Gluegun knew your dad, too, and I wouldn't trust him to fold laundry. It's fine. Everything worked out, that's the important thing."
"I guess it did."
They both sipped their coffee, already too cold, and watched the first few stirrings of snow begin to hit the Square. Jessica could see herself in Steeljack's face, her features bent and twisted around his own as he smiled. She smiled back, absently, but she was thinking about the grave again. About her father.
"You know, I asked him to quit," she said quietly.
"Being a criminal. I didn't want him to do it anymore. I just wanted him to be at home, to be with Ma and me like a normal father." She put both hands around the mug, soaking up what little heat was left. "But he wouldn't do it. He just kept going out on his 'business trips.'"
Steeljack nodded, "Yeah, he did. There was always another job for Doolittle, right up to the end."
"But why?" she asked. "Why keep doing it? Did he love it that much?"
He shrugged. "Well, there wasn't much else he could do. By the time you were born his secret identity was already blown--he couldn't have gotten any above-board work if he tried. And if he woulda stayed in prison, he wouldn't have gotten to see you at all."
She pressed her fingers to the table. "But why not just walk away with the money? He pulled plenty of jobs, he should have had enough."
"Enough for expenses, sure. But then there was paying for college, and for your mom's retirement..."
"Stop," she interrupted. "Just... stop."
Steeljack ran his hand over his perfectly smooth hair, a gesture dating back thirty years to when it actually would have mattered. And he waited.
When Jessica came back from her thoughts, she started by saying "I'm sorry. You're not saying anything I didn't..." But she trailed off. "I just wish I would have known it then, you know? I gave him a hard time for years about it. I said things... I did things I can't ever take back."
"You were a teenager," he responded. "And actin' like one, sounds like. But he knew you loved him."
"Maybe. I wish I would have told him, though."
Steeljack's metal brow creased itself into little foil furrows. "I wouldn't worry about it too much."
She blinked. "What? Why not?"
He gestured to the window. "It's a big city out there, full of heroes. More of 'em all the time. When you decided to be one, what name did you pick? You could've been anyone you wanted, picked any costume or name you pleased. But you're a Quarrel. After everything you said to him, after all your problems." He smiled crookedly. "What other proof could he need?"
* * *
When they were done and leaving, Jessica wrapped her scarf tight around her throat. She turned to Steeljack. "Don't you get cold? Being metal in winter?"
"It's fine for me," he said, shaking on his coat. "Just lousy for anyone who wants to kiss me."
She smiled. The snow was already catching in her hair; it was mostly sliding off of him. "Thanks for the coffee," she said.
"Anytime," he replied. "Although next time you can pay for the pie."
"Fair enough. Until next time then, Steeljack."
"Carl. Please," he corrected.
"All right. Carl."
And with that she started to walk away from the Square. He had already zipped his coat and started to think of what else needed to be done around the graveyard when she stopped and turned back, halfway down the block.
"So I'm a white hat, right?" she called out.
"That's what they tell me," he yelled back.
He chuckled to himself as she straightened up and strode off into the city. Then he shook his head and returned to the churchyard before the snow got too bad. After all, she wasn't the only one with work to do.
* * *
You are now leaving
Please drive carefully