Chapter 8: The Encounter

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Before long, the front parking lot of the convenience store became full with lots of cars and a whole bunch of serious-looking people, resembling the aftermath of a chaotic war zone minus the usual destruction.

There were half a dozen police cars, their sirens silently flashing non-stop. There were ambulances, a fire truck, and a crowd of curious on-lookers that had magically appeared from somewhere, kept behind the barriers of yellow tapes, their smartphones working overtime as photos were taken constantly. If there were snack vendors and local news reporting teams to the side, the whole area might have resembled a carnival.

Jack was sitting on the back of an ambulance, with a burly African-American paramedic performing a simple treatment on his numerous superficial wounds – cuts and bruises he got from diving out of the window. Nothing too serious, and with the aid of the red soul reserves, he’d recover within hours, provided that he went to sleep soon. Thankfully, the small wounds didn’t close up by themselves right in front of the paramedic; now that’d be quite awkward to explain.

Taylor was sitting on the open back seat of a patrol car, talking to a pair of plain-clothed detectives, explaining what had happened for the millionth time. Who knew that making a statement and all that could be this difficult?

Jack watched with a detached interest as she kept on sighing all the while slowly repeating the event to the aged, slightly potbellied cop and his equally aged partner for the umpteenth time. She was clearly fed up with saying the same things over and over again. The two cops displayed a certain level of empathy but, perhaps unsurprisingly, Jack couldn’t really tell whether it was faked or genuine.

The contents of the story, the one she and Jack had agreed upon before the arrival of the cavalry, was a simple one: the two of them were on a bicycle ride to the park and when they were done with that, they stopped by the store to use the bathroom, only to encounter the two armed robbers.

Luckily, Jack was able to tackle one of them into a shelf full of stuff, knocking him out. The second guy got spooked and after emptying the gun, he fled as if his ass was on fire. That was the story. No more, no less. A few things were omitted, but otherwise, it was not made up of lies. Easy to remember, too – meaning, they’d be able to stick to it later on.

The paramedic dabbed some clear liquid, an antiseptic solution, on Jack’s forehead to cleanse the wound, causing the teen to wince in a slight stinging pain. The medic chuckled apologetically and mouthed the word “Sorry” as he continued with his job.

Sighing, Jack turned to see the second ambulance with the other robber in it. Jack was surprised to learn that the bastard had suffered quite a lot of wounds, like broken bones and torn ligaments and the like. Jack was pretty sure of how strong he was, but the end result was out of his expectations. Hell, he seemed to have gotten stronger since the encounter with the coyote earlier, which made no sense. Just why did his strength gain several levels, even if it was only for split second? He just couldn’t chalk it up to adrenaline. There was something more to it. Could it be the fault of that ethereal energy he felt during his showdown with the animal?

Anyways, after the preliminary look-see was complete, the paramedics were ready to take the perp to the nearest hospital for a further treatment. Whatever would happen to that guy, it was out of Jack’s hands now. There was a slight worry that the perp might blab on about him being a Super and all that, but Jack and Taylor agreed that as long as the two of them maintained the same story, the perp’s version wouldn’t wash.

The store’s clerk was hanging on by the proverbial thread after losing a lot of blood so he was already rushed away from the scene to the nearest hospital. All Jack could do for that guy was to pray for him, although he wasn’t particularly religious to begin with. There were Supers who were devout followers/believers of their chosen faiths, though.

The paramedic finished up fixing Jack and said that he’d be back in a jiffy, before entering the back of the ambulance to do something. Jack didn’t have enough energy to take a closer look, nor did he care, so that was that.

Instead, he fished out his phone and took a quick glance at the screen; still no reply from either of his parents. He’d been trying to contact them for a while, but for some reason or the other, both of them couldn’t be reached. When Jack dialed Min-jung’s number, the call went straight to the standardized automated voicemail, not the customized one, as if she was in an area where there was no network. That was bit odd, not to mention slightly worrying.

And Bob was in the middle of an important meeting with a client accompanied by his boss on a golf course. Naturally, his phone was off as well. Jack had to wait for a bit longer before he could get in touch. Sighing grandly, Jack pocketed his phone and leaned against the frame of the ambulance, feeling just a bit dejected. He thought about calling his sister but in the end, chose not to, because he just knew what kind of reaction Dana would have.

Taylor was far luckier with contacting her parent. Her dad immediately agreed to come over, which kind of made Jack a bit envious inside.

Envy aside, he wondered why his mother couldn’t be reached at all in the middle of a Saturday. It wasn’t like she was working on an urgent assignment or anything and had to rush to her lab. She did say she was going to see some old acquaintances and that she might be a little late coming home, but nothing about her phone being off at all.

This was not like her. Jack tried her office, the big pharmaceutical company, but the answer was not so good; they too had no clue where she was.

Having gone through this one crappy ordeal after another, Jack was feeling just a bit paranoid. He hoped for nothing bad happening to his mom.

The desire to go home and just lie down for a while grew so much, it was making him somewhat impatient. It had been one exhausting day so far and he had very little mental energy left to sustain him.

There was one more thing that greatly bothered him – when Jack was near the dying clerk, he ended up, inadvertently, absorbing some amount of red soul oozing out of the wounded man. It was not a lot, but still, Jack was worried it might have some kind of negative consequences, for both himself and the clerk. One more reason to bury his head in the sand and try to pretend nothing was going on with him.

But he knew very well that was not how the world worked.

The words Taylor spoke the moments before the cops showed up still rang in his ears.

You should have moved. That man wouldn’t have been shot if you acted faster, Jack.

Jack wanted to retort that her idea of him coming to the rescue was insane. He wanted to refute her logic but, seeing that he did take an action after all, maybe she had a point, that she was right to blame his indecisiveness. His body now possessed the power, even if it was only the bare acceptable minimum required for a Super.

Jack looked at his hands. There was not a drop of blood on them anymore. They were regular hands. Innocuous, even. Jack touched his face with those hands to confirm that, indeed it was his face. The pale reflections of him on the ambulance’s glass showed him, not the blood-soaked monster from before.

What the hell am I? What the hell is going on with me?! Jack slowly touched his face again, a choking, tightening feeling of being uncertain slowly creeping in. What am I turning into? What am I afraid of becoming? A monster?

He had no clue. He wished for someone to tell him. Tell him that there was nothing to be afraid of, that the future would be alright. That he just needed to take one step at a time.

The temptation to tell his parents welled up inside his heart like crazy. He couldn’t remember the initial reason for not opening up to them. Jack frowned, worrying just what kind of expressions Bob and Min-jung would make when they hear their son was a Super. And one with a very unusual set of powers at that.

As he was sitting on the back bumper of the ambulance continuously sighing and thinking all these unhappy things, Jack suddenly sensed a movement from up in the sky. Once more, his enhanced hearing played a key part in quickly picking up the clues.

When he raised his head, Jack saw a costumed figure descending down from the sky. Jack could tell right away that a Super had come to take in the situation.

Narrowing his eyes, Jack carefully observed the unexpected arrival of this Superhero. He didn’t immediately recognize who this was supposed to be, but even still, he could sense some type of unnatural ripples, fluctuations, in the air as the Superhero slowly landed on the ground near the police cars.

Jack’s mind told him that, physically, he was no match for this guy. Not even close. The disparity of strength between them was just too vast. He wasn’t sure how he could tell this fact, though. It was almost like a primal instinct, helping him recognize a superior predator so he could quickly run away if it came to that.

With his pale gray cape whipping in the wind – even though there wasn’t any – the mask wearing Superhero scanned the lot before latching on the supervising officer on the scene and gallantly strode over, his facial expression, what’s visible of it anyway, solemn and serious.

There was a Greek alphabet Alpha etched on his chest armor in gold which contrasted rather gaudily against his costume’s gray color scheme. It wasn’t at the level of irredeemable campiness but also it was something Jack would never, ever wear voluntarily on his own, not even for a million dollars. Well, if someone offered a billion, then maybe, he could be persuaded to having a change of heart. Maybe.

The Superhero had a pair of matching, lengthy baton mounted on his hips and some kind of utility belt commonly seen on construction workers worn around his waist. He looked exactly like a comic book superhero come to life. But not in a particularly good way, not to Jack’s sensibilities anyways. But his sudden appearance seemed to have sparked a huge commotion from the cops and the onlookers. Apparently, his preference was his alone, as everyone else seemed to unanimously approve of this get-up.

The paramedic who was inside the ambulance peeked out at after hearing all the commotion, and when he recognized the Super, murmured in shock. “Holy cow, that’s Alpha Man of the Scales of Justice. What’s he doing here?”

The Scales of Justice, huh? Jack nodded inwardly after remembering the name of this group. Even he had heard about this collection of Superheroes; many did.

The SoJ, as they were known sometimes, consisted of the Supers who wanted to uphold the law and serve the society in the name of justice and all that. In other words, a bunch of altruistic, idealistic fools that the world desperately needed as a beacon of hope. Even if the said world was a cynical and corrupt one, deep down to its core.

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Alpha Man spoke to the officer in charge, exchanging lengthy words and waving his hands at the crowd before striding over to where Taylor was. She visibly stiffened up at the sight of a costumed hero but recovered enough faculty to have a reasonable chat with him. Jack could see how nervous she was, and how awkward the atmosphere became as a result.

Then it was his turn to talk to the Superhero. Alpha Man walked over to where Jack was and smiled warmly, extending his hand for a friendly shake.

“How are you holding up, son?”

His voice was a lot kinder than Jack expected it to be. Deeper, too. Quite smooth as well, like a husky Jazz singer drowning in bourbon or something like that.

“Been better,” Jack shook his head slightly, frowning a little at the glare of the sunlight briefly reflected from one of Alpha Man’s costume flourishes.

The two of them shook hands but as they parted, Alpha Man asked.

“Mmm. I have seen you from somewhere before, haven’t I? I’m sure of it. Oh, wait a minute!! You are Jack Mercer if I’m not mistaken.”

Jack smiled wryly. “Yeah, I am.”

Normally, being recognized by a celebrity would be a cool thing to happen to anyone, but as he was right now, Jack couldn’t help but think that it was all just a little on the anti-climatic side of things.

Unaware of such thoughts percolating in the teen’s mind, Alpha Man simply looked at him with pity. “It’s really terrible that you had to endure two ordeals like this. You have my sympathy, young man.”

Maintaining the wry smile, Jack nodded his thanks.

“You don’t need to worry; We, the members of SoJ and the police force, will work tirelessly to bring the perpetrator to justice. I, Alpha Man, guarantee it.”

Alpha Man stated his intent matter-of-factly. Jack realized that the Superhero in front of him was dead serious in saying this. Flabbergasted, he had to ask in a manner that was rather close to being a retort instead of a question.

“How would you do that?! The robber was wearing a ski mask. He got in a car and drove off to god knows where. He’s probably long gone by now. Half way to Mexico, even.”

“Due to your timely intervention, the police has successfully apprehended the other suspect. And I have a feeling that he will cooperate with the investigation in full. With his confession, finding his partner in crime is only a matter of time. I just know it!!” said Alpha Man. Again, he was dead serious, completely sincere with his words.

Jack blankly looked at the hero for a second or two, before nearly spitting out another retort that it’d be the police, not him nor SoJ that would end up catching the bad guy instead, but held back before making a social faux pas. The paramedic was watching this exchange with glittering eyes right next to him, and that facial expression left Jack wry and speechless. Sighing, Jack simply agreed half-heartedly and nodded.

This defeatist gesture didn’t please Alpha Man much, but he knew not to criticize the boy as he was now. He was well aware of the hardships this young Jack Mercer had to go through, so being reticent and dispirited wasn’t too surprising a behavior to witness.

What troubled Alpha Man the most, though, was that girl, Taylor Finn. She was constantly on guard against him for some reason, as if she couldn’t trust him fully. That slightly hurt this pride; after all, his image as the righteous man of justice was something he took a great deal of pride in.

Alpha Man went to a great length to ensure his image was of someone solid and dependable, someone who even the most cynical man would wholeheartedly give his trust to. In fact, that carefully cultivated image was actually not a facade but real him. That’s how strived to live his life every day.

So, when a person showed a dislike to this image, it hurt. And a teenage girl was showing a clear lack of trust in him, in the image of Alpha Man. So yes, it hurt his pride a bit. Inwardly, he swore to track down the armed robber and bring the perp to justice. That’d show her that he could be trusted, that he was a righteous man of justice.

The paramedic who was next to Jack hurriedly introduced himself and shook Alpha Man’s hand enthusiastically, bringing another wry grin on Jack’s face.

The talk naturally flowed to the reasons why a Superhero like him would show up in a small scale armed robbery gone wrong like this.

“I was returning from an assignment when I saw the officers gathering here. I wanted to contribute by offering my skills, so here I am,” was Alpha Man’s reply.

The paramedic’s eyes went round and all sparkly from admiration.

Jack, on the other hand, saw it as a pure coincidence that a Superhero was passing by the right place and at the right time. Nothing to write home about there.

Meanwhile, a vintage British luxury car drove up to the police cordon. Taylor’s eyes brightened for a moment as she stood up from the patrol car’s open backseat.

A well-built man in early forties exited the vintage car in a hurry. He was wearing what one would call a chauffeur’s uniform – a black suit, matching gloves and a driving cap. But hell, he looked sharp and neat, like some kind of a model.

A policeman tried to stop him from going beyond the police cordon but after explaining who he was, he got through. It didn’t take long before he spotted his daughter.

“Dad,” Taylor sighed happily as the handsome chauffeur ran up to her and embraced her tightly.

“Holy cow, Taylor. You okay? You are not hurt, right? You had me so damn worried, girl.” The man spoke in a worried voice as he stroked her hair.

They remained in the tight hug for a good while before Taylor pushed him away.

“Dad, your suit.”

She frowned as her hands carefully smoothed down the creases on her father’s suit.

“Don’t be silly, kiddo. That’s what ironing is for.” Finn senior chuckled and lightly kissed Taylor’s forehead. “Are we done here? Can I take you home now?”

He looked around and met his gazes with the detectives on the scene. The cops nodded, saying that they will be in touch after handing over a business card.

Alpha Man watched the tender reunion of a father and a daughter with a pair of warm eyes before turning to Jack. “What about your parents? Are they coming to get you?”

“I can’t get a hold of them,” said Jack, shrugging his tired shoulders. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll hitch a ride home, somehow.”

Alpha Man nodded his consent before walking over to Taylor and her dad to introduce himself. Jack watched them chat, seeing how awestruck Taylor’s dad was and couldn’t help but think that maybe he was the abnormal one here for not getting all psyched and worked up after meeting a genuine Superhero.

After all the pleasantries were finished, Alpha Man made his way over to the robber, stretched out on the gurney and ready to be shipped off to a hospital. He was planning to interrogate the perp for more information but when he saw the terrible state the man was in, he couldn’t hide his shock.

The robber had so much of him broken. This level of damage would be very, very difficult to pin down on a regular teenager riding an irresistible burst of pure adrenaline to achieve. It wasn’t entirely impossible, but the likelihood of it happening was literally one in a million.

The robber himself was too delirious from the effects of sedatives to answer his questions. That meant he had to review the closed-circuit camera footage inside the convenience store in order to solve this riddle.

Alpha Man raised his head and stared at Jack Mercer, watching the boy scratch the back of his head apologetically as he talked with Taylor’s father. The Super hesitated, wondering to himself if it was wise to act rashly, based only on his gut feelings.

He whispered under his breath. “Could that boy be a Super? Maybe, he’s not aware of it himself as yet?”

His words were too softly spoken for anyone else to hear. But the serious expression visible from the gaps of his mask definitely told enough of a story for a passerby to not bother him at that moment.

Unaware of any strange thoughts towards him, Jack was busy thanking Taylor’s father, David Finn, for giving him a ride home. His bicycle was mounted onto a rack on the rear bumper of the car alongside Taylor’s.

Once they got in the luxurious vintage vehicle, Jack began apologizing as well to David for putting his daughter through a rough ordeal, He thought it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.

“No need to apologize, Jack. It wasn’t you who decided to rob that store after all. Right? The way I see it, you are the savior of the day, so that’s something you should be proud of.”

David told the boy as he smoothly drove the car. Taylor and Jack sat in the back seat.

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Jack was shocked at how quiet it was. Also, the ride quality was absolutely incomparable to either of his parents’ cars. Even though they were moving, Jack couldn’t feel it at all. As a matter of fact, his phobia of moving cars wasn’t acting up as badly as before – so much so that he could remain much more composed than usual. He was glad about not showing his weak side to Taylor or her dad.

David continued with his speech.

“Jack, it’s not easy to make a life or death decision when you have a gun waved in your face. Only the bravest, toughest man can do that. I should know. So, today, you saved my daughter, you saved yourself, and maybe you even saved the future victims of that robber. You have every right to feel proud of what you have done.”

“I… I sure don’t feel like that, Mister Finn,” Jack shook his head slowly.

The feeling of being unsure still gnawed at him. He couldn’t tell whether him stepping up from the beginning would have made any difference at all after it was said and done. Not with his limited strength, anyway. He got lucky this time. Even Jack had to admit that fact.

“Oh, come on now, don’t sell yourself short like that, Jack. Be more proud of your achievements. You did good today, and that’s the end of the story.”

David smiled as he adjusted the sharp sunglasses on his nose. He also rubbed his chin full of an unshaven but carefully groomed stubble.

Jack took another look at the man; he seemed younger than his age. Hell, he was certainly not what Jack was expecting in the first place. Plus, his outfit – it was definitely a chauffeur get-up. But it was also at the same time, not really.

Whatever David did for a living, Jack decided not to pry. He recalled Cindy McAlister making fun of the profession David chose to earn money. It was a weird subject for him to approach, so he’d rather not.

“So, uh, how did you meet Taylor? What’s the story here?”

David asked as he gazed at Jack’s reflection in the rear view mirror.

A figurative question mark floated above Jack’s head initially before he realized the undercurrent of David’s query.

“We go to the same school, dad,” Taylor quickly replied, not giving Jack time to say that there was nothing going on between the two of them.

“Really? That’s nice,” chuckled David. “You know, it’s the first time you showed up with a friend after entering that school. And with a boy, no less.”

“Don’t worry, dad. We are just friends, that’s all.” Taylor rolled her eyes as she refuted her father.

David simply smirked and spoke under his breath, as if he was inadvertently letting out his own inner thoughts. Meaning, for his passengers to hear it as well.

“Sure didn’t look like that, though – jumping out in front of a gun to save you and all.”

“Dad!!” Taylor angrily punched David on his shoulder.

“Oh!! Ouch, kiddo. That hurts. Hey, watch, it. I’m still driving here. What? Oh, you heard that? My bad.”

Even though he was apologizing, David continued to smirk.

Jack was left speechless, but in a good way. He wasn’t sure how to explain his relationship with Taylor without tangling himself up in a web of lies. The way he saw it, David didn’t seem to know his daughter was a Super. If he could help it, he didn’t want to affect the dynamics of the Finn family. If Taylor wanted to tell the truth, then she would find the right time to do just that. Jack shouldn’t even figure into this equation, like, at all.

So, for now, he had to let the misunderstanding brew on its own.

Taylor will probably correct it in the future. Probably. Right?

After putting this matter aside, Jack fell into a deep thought, thinking about the way forward. Even though he was mentally tired, there were several things tumbling around in his head, now that there was some peace and quiet. His phobia was staying hidden, the ride was buttery smooth, and the pleasant banter between Taylor and her dad was oddly relaxing to listen to. His mind soon settled, finding a good little space to contemplate and organize. Might as well take the advantage of it, then.

He thought back to his encounter with the wild coyote. How did he know where to strike, and precisely when? And just now, against the armed robber – how did he manage to land such a clean hit that would make a professional boxer green with envy? After that, how did he predict the bullet’s path and duck in time?

Before he knew it, Jack was looking at his hands again. No blood there on them, just some bandages and stuff.

Could it be…. that dream – no, that memory of the…. past has done something to me? Could my current weird condition have something to do with that?

His brows furrowed slightly as a strange thought began to creep up on him.

Wait, is it possible that I somehow regained the memories of my past life? Those memories, manifesting as dreams, are now changing my body and giving me these otherworldly reflexes? That man in my dreams was an incredible Super, as if he was…. a demigod or something incredible like that. Am I… inheriting his battle knowledge and his powers?

But is that even possible? Reincarnation and all that? Scientifically, no, it’s not. But how else do I explain what’s happening to me?

The mere thought of this totally weirded him out, big time. The world was indeed filled with oddballs and Superheroes but there was a line that even Jack thought couldn’t be crossed. And these mystical things that couldn’t be figured out by science were exactly where that line was drawn. Perhaps, he thought, this was because his mother happened to be a scientist.

Some of the abilities exhibited by the Supers around the world bordered on being magical, but they all had some sort of scientific explanations behind them, as preposterous and almost improbable as they sounded sometimes. So far, no powers that could defy the scope of “logical” thinking had shown up. Jack thought that was simply because such powers didn’t exist to begin with.

Yet, here he was, stepping onto something crazy and difficult to explain. The red souls of the dead and his memories of the distant, unrecorded historical past served as the proof of how limited his line of thinking was. What he was experiencing right now could be rightfully called mystical, supernatural.

Jesus, how do I even begin to explain this to my parents?! Absolutely insane….

All Jack could do was sigh and massage his aching temples. He unbuckled his seat belt, after feeling the material chafing into his chest via ruined shirt. That proved to be another piece of bad timing on his part.

“What the?!”

David suddenly shouted out in surprise and he slammed on the brakes. The vintage luxury car screeched to an abrupt halt. Both him and Taylor had left their seatbelts on so they were fine, other than having their breaths stolen from the belts tightening around their torso.

But for Jack, he wasn’t so fortunate and his head painfully crashed into the back of the front passenger seat with a vengeance.

“What’s going on, dad?!” Taylor asked in alarm, while Jack groaned in dizziness as he tried to take stock of the situation.

“Uh… that,” said David as he pointed at the road ahead.

Before them, three figures were blocking the way forward; a frail but handsome boy wearing glasses, an athletic-type girl with a good, tall physique, and another with an exotic Oriental countenance.


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