Ash struggled to put his cell phone back in his pocket, trying not to elbow Ivy in the face as she drove.
“Just take off your seat belt,” Ivy hissed.
Ash grunted and did so.
“So where are we going already?” Ivy whined. “It’s dark, and it’s downtown. I could get carjacked, you know.”
“I know where we’re going. I’ll tell you.”
“What, is it a surprise?”
“Not for you.”
She gave him a fiery look while he kept his eyes forward. “This is some date.”
“This is not a date,” Ash replied. “But I promise, you will be entertained.”
She chuckled and shook her head. “You’re weird, kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” he said.
“You act like one. Gettin’ all-“
“I’m not weak,” he shouted like something had burst inside him. “I’m not taking any more shit. From you or anyone. Now DRIVE.”
Ivy didn’t shrink back, but she shut up. She seemed more comfortable being yelled at than talked to politely. When I’m a dick, she becomes a lady.
He ordered her to turn once more, then into the parking lot. The strip mall was deserted and dark. Ivy parked where Ash told her to–in front of the only storefront with lights on.
“White Knights?” she read the sign. “This is where you wanted to go?”
Ash whipped off his safety belt and got out.
“Do you want me to stay in the car?” she asked.
“You can come in if you want.” He shut the car door. This won’t take long.
While Ivy fiddled with her keys and purse, Ash walked up to the window.
The floor had been cleared. Ivan’s shirt was off, blond & gray hair speckling his chest. Anfernee and Jamal rested on the sidelines in their White Knights jumpsuits, while Squirrel approached Ivan with a fake knife that looked like a toy.
Ivan said something–his voiced blocked by the window–and grabbed Squirrel’s hand. He dropped the knife before Ivan had completed the wrist lock. Squirrel’s face contorted in pain, while Ivan bent him over and dragged him around in a circle, all while lecturing.
Without warning, Ivan thrust Squirrel’s arm upward. Squirrel had to either let his elbows break or flip over, which he did, undignified and out of breath.
Ivy had joined him by now, but Ash had seen enough. He stepped up to the door and knocked on it three times.
Ivan opened it as far as the chain-latch would let him.
“Ye-, oh. Ash. It’s you,” Ivan said.
Ash smiled. “Hey there, you remember me. That’s good, because, you know, I thought you had a memory lapse or something. Good thing, that. Cause I could have sworn you didn’t remember who I was.”
“Ash, what do you want?”
“What do I want? Hmm, that’s a funny question. I guess it depends on what you want. Did you get what you wanted, Ivan? Did you get rid of me? Did you sweep me under the rug like you hoped?”
“Look, Ash, I’ve already told you several times to shape up. And then you went and got arrested. I thought I’d try and avoid a big confrontation.”
“Ah, in that case, no.”
“Look, let’s let this go, and go our separate ways? Okay? I’m sure you’ll be happier somewhere else, but not here. You didn’t fit in. You and I both know that.”
“Everyone else seems to fit in, even though they’re less effective,” Ash said.
“They also know how to follow orders.”
“They know how to be sheep.”
“Look,” Ivan said, elevating his tone. “I’m saying it now. You’re just not a good fit with my vision for the White Knights. You and I just didn’t mesh. That’s all that needs to be said. Good luck.” He shut the door.
Ash, standing in the shadows, stared blankly into space.
“Ash?” said Ivy, who was watching nearby.
Ash nodded his head solemnly. He turned to Ivy. “He said I wasn’t a good fit with his vision. Mm,” he said in a contemplating tone.
Ivy said, “What-“
Ash raised his arm, as if to silence her. A red, iridescent glow dilated until it enveloped his fist.
“What the hell?” she asked, eyes growing wide.
Ash breathed in deep, reared back his hands like a martial artist, and shoved forward. The door ripped open, tearing off the chain-latch.
The four people inside looked up, stunned. Ash entered like he was at a Western saloon.
“I don’t believe I was finished talking to you,” Ash said.
“Ash? What are you doing here?” Anfernee said.
Squirrel, nursing his wrist, said, “Ash? You’re back! What happened to you? I thought… Ivan said…”
Ash grinned. “Oh, yes, I figured Fearless Leader would have to explain my absence. What did you come up with?”
Ivan stood in the middle of the room with his arms at his sides. He said nothing. “He said you quit,” Squirrel said.
“Yeah, he said you walked off the job,” Anfernee said.
Ash nodded. “It would have to be something like that. ‘Ash decided to go his own way.’ ‘Ash didn’t fit in with my vision‘,” he made quote marks with his fingers, “‘So he decided to quit.’ Well… yes, actually, that’s pretty accurate. I did quit. I quit listening to cowardly chumps. I quit following people who say one thing and do another. I quit working with people who trade their ideals for a dollar. Like they were worth something to begin with.”
“Ash,” Ivan said, “Quit now. I don’t want this to turn into something. I’ll call the cops. This is breaking and entering.”
“Now, that’s funny,” Ash said. “You–call the cops. Have you ever stopped a crime in your entire career, I wonder?”
“Do you think it’s easy running this thing? I founded the White Knights. It’s a lot of responsibility making sure no one gets killed in the line of duty.”
“Yes, it’s easy to take responsibility when you never do anything to be responsible for.”
“You never wanted to follow the rules.”
“The rules are stupid. The rules don’t work.”
“The rules are there to keep us safe,” Ivan said.
“If you want to make an omelet, you gotta break a few eggs. You just don’t want to take the risk,” Ash said.
“We are not vigilantes. We never have been. You can be arrested for what you’re talking about.” He squinted at Ash. “That was your problem. You thought you were some bandito. Some Zorro for the people. You just wanted to crack some skulls.”
“I wanted to crack the right skulls.”
“You didn’t behave. Bottom line.”
“There’s no point to behave when the rules don’t do anything. I was here three days and not one person was arrested.”
Ivan brought himself to his tallest stance. “This is my organization. You have no right to tell me how to run it. You don’t have the experience. Three days? Hah. I started this thing with nothing. Nothing!” He stepped closer to Ash. “Sometimes my vision is the only thing that’s kept this going.”
“Ah, your vision. You know, that’s funny–your vision. You talk a lot about ‘your vision’. Tell me, what is your vision? You never quite explained it to me. Do you even know what it is?” Ash said.
“It’s about helping others and retaking the neighborhood,” Ivan said through gritted teeth.
“The neighborhood doesn’t need to be taken. All you want to do is dress up and play army. You’re like little boy soldiers.”
Ivan shook his head. “I don’t need to justify myself to you. I’m not going to continue this conversation.”
“What happened? Couldn’t get on the force? Were they full up on assholes?”
“I’m done with you, Ash. I’m calling the cops.” Ivan started towards the phone on the desk.
“That’s right, call the cops. Because why confront people on your own, when someone else can do it? Except there’s one thing I forgot to tell you.”
Even though the motion was unnecessary, Ash wound up like he was pitching a baseball and threw out his arm. The carpet between Ivan and the desk ignited in a three-foot high pillar of flame. Everyone in the room gasped. Ivan jumped back and turned to Ash, fear in his eyes.
“I’m a pyromaniac!” Ash gleefully said.
So far, everything had gone according to the plan–the confrontation, the bursting through the door, the revelation of his power. At this point, he expected Ivan to either mewl for forgiveness, or run away, never to be seen again. He did not expect him to rush forward and sucker-punch Ash in the mouth.
Ash spun away and struggled to stay on his feet while his mouth filled with warm blood. Ivy squealed with surprise. The other White Knights started forward, but did nothing, too scared and confused.
Ivan snuck up behind Ash while he was doubled over and locked his arms in a full-nelson. “Ow, ow, ow,” Ash said.
Ivan pulled Ash back, straining the ligaments. “You see what I did there? The element of surprise?”
Son of a bitch was using him to teach his class? With the way he’d handled Squirrel, Ash was sure Ivan would hold nothing back in this demonstration.
“You see how my punch was smooth and straight?” Ivan said. “How it came from the hip? You do that each time, the guy will never see it coming.”
Ash tried using his power, but it only came out in burps of energy that coursed through his body and petered out. If he couldn’t see him, he couldn’t focus on him.
“See how trapped he is?” Ivan continued, “Once you have him in this hold, you should keep tightening up, or else he’ll get used to the pain.” Ivan clenched his grip.
Ash’s arms felt like they were going to rip out. His eyes welled, and he closed them to stop people from seeing.
He was trapped, like Ivan said. Trapped, and weak, and incompetent. He couldn’t do anything right. He could set things on fire with a thought, and he was still getting beaten up by some third-rate asshole.
“Now from here,” Ivan continued. “You can do several things. If you’re in a good position, there’s a nerve cluster in the back of the knee you can kick.” Ivan did so. Ash howled with pain and rage. The only thing holding him up was Ivan’s arm lock.
“That… that doesn’t seem fair,” Squirrel mumbled.
“When someone’s attacking you on the street…” Ivan looked down at Ash, “Or in your own headquarters, you don’t think about fighting fair. Right, Ash?” Ivan tweaked his hold to drive the point home.
Ash sighed. “I couldn’t agree more.” He opened his eyes.
They glowed hot red.
A violent red fringe radiated from the center of his body, pulsing outward into his arms. Ash wrenched his arms down on Ivan’s elbows. There was a distinct double-crack as Ivan’s shoulders broke and his arms whipped out loosely. He cried out and staggered back as Ash faced him, eyes glowing red.
Ivan backed up, looking like he was getting ready to kick. He charged forward.
Ash snapped out his wrist, quick as an asp, and pointed his thin finger at him.
Ivan didn’t react at first. Fire was like that. He probably saw the bright flash of yellow before his nerves became hot enough to send signals to his brain. He looked confused, probably wondering why his arm was lighting up? Then he screamed like a record spun too fast.
Ash brought up his other hand, and set Ivan’s other arm ablaze. He spread the orange flames across his body. Ivan’s screams faded to a raspy whisper. The fire was sucking all the oxygen from around him, and he couldn’t breathe.
The ceiling sprinklers snapped on and rained water, but could do nothing to douse the orange sheets leaping over Ivan’s body.
Ivan took three steps towards Ash, his skin black and bubbling, and fell to his knees. His eyes burst like balloons of jelly. His hair crackled like kindling. And Ash kept the fire on him.
Ivan toppled over, lifeless. Ash kept sending out his power for good measure, then turned it off like a spigot.
With the fire out, the sprinklers ceased. Seeing his enemy defeated, Ash breathed deeply. The reddish aura dissipated and his eyes returned to normal. He turned to the others.
They were all soaking wet. Ivy hugged herself and shivered, either from fear or cold. Mascara ran down her cheeks. The others stood like statues, jaws hanging. Jamal looked like he might be crying, but he was too wet to tell.
“Jesus… Christ…,” Anfernee stumbled.
“Ash…” Squirrel said. “You killed him.”
“If there’s any one of you who think what I did was unjust, speak up.” Ash pointed to Ivan’s corpse. “If there’s anyone here who thinks he didn’t get what he deserved, go ahead and say something.”
No one spoke up.
“Go ahead. I won’t hurt you. You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re my friends. You’re the good ones. He,” Ash pointed an accusing finger at the corpse, “He was the bad apple in this bunch. I stopped him from rotting the rest.”
They continued to stare, unconvinced. Jamal started to back away.
“I only did what was demanded,” Ash said. “I deal in justice. In retribution. That is our new vision. And I will execute it. I’m not afraid, like he was. He hid behind policies and rhetoric.” Ash approached the desk and looked down at the top of Ivan’s tracksuit. “And uniforms.”
Ash picked up the shirt. “Look at this. What is this, West Side Story? I’m expecting you all to start singing and dancing about Sergeant Krupke.”
With a quick wave, it burst into flames, smoldering away into black carbonized ribbons in a few seconds. Ash picked up the red sash.
“All you need is this.” He wrapped the sash around him like a belt. “The rest of it, you can look as badass as you want. But this is how the people will know we’re there. No one’s ever going to respect us based on how we look. They’ll respect us by what we do. Our actions. Our integrity. That’s how we’re going to do things from now on..”
Ash hopped up on the desk. Their eyes were softening. Maybe it was working.
“Things are going to be different around here now. No more flyers. No more diamond formation. No more searches. You all want to clean up this town? That’s why you came here right? You wanted to make a difference? It’s not gonna happen babysitting protestors. It’s gonna happen making headlines. We can do it, if we’re all together. It’s a war out there. And in war, the side that’s most united wins. Every time.”
Ash paused to assess their faces. They looked calm but scared. Maybe burning the shirt was too much. They still expected him to go psycho and kill them all. A new leader had to establish trust.
Ash sighed. “Look, I’m going to lay it all on the line for you. Ash isn’t my real name. I don’t know what my real name is. I woke up four days ago in an alley, and I have no memory before that. No identity. I got the name Ash from a poster. The only thing I had in my pockets was fifty dollars and some pills. And I lost both of them because of the kind of people I’m trying to stop. The only thing I know about myself is that I can set things on fire with my mind.
“I don’t expect you to follow me because of that–because you think I have some power over you. I don’t. But if you’ve got some ambition… if you’ve got an idea of what this city could be if we tried, then I hope to see you tomorrow at eight.”
The three others stayed slack-jawed. They glanced at each other, hoping someone else would speak for the group.
Ivy walked up beside Ash, looked out at the others, and crossed her arms. “Well?” she said. “Are you in or out? I know which one’s the winning side. I’m not stupid.”
Ash smiled, nodded, and turned to the others. “Well?”
Squirrel looked between Anfernee and Jamal. Then raised his fist in the air. “Fuck Ivan. You go, Ash.”
Jamal and Anfernee nodded in approval. “Yeah, you da man, Ash,” Jamal said.
Ash sat back and smiled wide.
I could get used to this, he thought.