Nightingale’s Lament

It was the tea cup, in the end, that convinced me completely.

I’d been looking around the room.  It was one of those situations that could go either way. The guy seemed nervous, antsy, but that’s hardly unusual in my line of work. Reading body language will only take you so far. When it fails, you need evidence.

Like the cup.

It’s not hard to see what a person is feeling, if you know how to look. The problem is knowing why they’re feeling it. A guy can be sweating bullets because he’s convinced my presence is cosmic payback for cheating on his taxes, just as easily as guilt from whatever mess more directly caused me to show up.

You’d think I’d have a little more understanding for superstitious beliefs, all things considered. Maybe I do. It still pisses me off when it gets in the way of me doing my job.

“Mr. Harper,” I started, “Are you sure you haven’t seen your ex-wife recently?” I held his gaze. Behind the cowl, my eyes never blinked.

Calling someone’s bluff is a very different thing from a verbal fishing expedition. You might use the exact same words, but when you know the true answer with complete conviction? The delivery, your entire body language, even your body chemistry, is different.

Your prey will sense and respond to the difference, even if they don’t consciously recognize it. Predator and prey, the dance is established and the steps are preordained. You’ve taken your position and they’ve taken theirs.

I’m sure there are men out there who drink hot tea out of bone china cups, and bother to use the cup and its matching saucer together. Rodney Harper was not one of those men.

The question pushed Harper from nervousness past panic to defensive rage.

“Yes, dammit, I told you that already. I haven’t seen her for at least a month. Now are you gonna get the hell off of my property, or am I gonna have to kick your bony ass off it, you crazy costumed bitch?”

Ah. So we’d moved on to the “pointless blustering” part of the proceedings. Wonderful. Which mean his next move was going to be—

His fist flew out at my head, an unfortunate mistake on his part. If he’d aimed for my gut, he might have been fast enough to make contact. But he didn’t see a person who could stand toe-to-toe trading punches with him. He saw a woman. I was just another dumb bitch to slap around, so he went for the head.

I dropped back into a crouch as his fist caught nothing but the chill night air. In the same movement, I pulled out my baton and telescoped it open, swinging it towards his nearest kneecap. It connected with a satisfying loud crack. Harper screamed something obscene and mangled by pain. He dropped to the dingy carpeted floor, grabbing for me.

By this time, I’d already reached up with my other hand, activating the soundproof panels hidden under my hood. I tapped a recessed button on the baton, and it emitted an ear-splitting, high pitched sound. Harper howled and grabbed the sides of his head, falling backwards.

Most of the time, that would signal the end of the fight. But apparently, Rodney Harper was a special kind of stupid.

His hand reached back under the beat-up sofa, and I assumed he wasn’t grabbing for a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Odds were good his next plan for fixing the problem of me involved something with a higher caliber than his moral character.

Damn. I was going to have to put this idiot down. Fast.

The butt end of the baton cracked across his temple, dazing him. But I caught a glimpse of the shotgun he was pulling out from under the sofa. Dazed, angry and hurt wasn’t going to cut it with this guy. I popped a smoke capsule from my utility belt. The room filled with curling, eye-stinging plumes. At least, the smoke stung the hell out of his eyes, since he didn’t have the protective goggles built into my head gear.

Let’s see, buddy. You’ve got one knee cap that’s probably broken, two busted ear drums, a likely concussion, and you can’t see a damn thing. Are you still going to try to pull out that shotgun on the off chance you’ll hit the trained fighter you’ve thus far been unable to touch?

Of course you are.

Or you would be, if not for the fact that in addition to stinging like hell and turning your living room (such as it is) into a zero-visibility environment, the smoke bomb I just let off also functions as knockout gas.

You know, people think the costume, the head gear, the cowl, is some kind of stupid showmanship thing. That it’s about creating a mystery and being “more than human” and instilling fear into the hearts of your foe, or whatever other bullshit the movies like to push.

The truth is, the costume and the cowl is the only damn practical thing about this whole ridiculous gig. It hides a lot of really useful crap, which in addition to my real identity, includes the noise-blocking panels and goggles I mentioned earlier (they’ve got night vision, too, quite handy), and of course, a streamlined gas mask for just such occasions as this.

I watched as the gas finally pacified poor, stupid Rodney Harper, and he slumped to the floor. I kicked his arm a nice safe distance away from the offending sofa and it’s still partly hidden shotgun.

Probably the same damn shotgun he’d killed his ex-wife with, bastard. The ex-wife who’d come back for some family relics, including an antique tea set, according to her sister. But Rodney Harper wasn’t going to let her walk away again, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let her walk away with her precious damn tea cups.

If he hadn’t had time to hide the tea cup and saucer, he hadn’t had time to get rid of  any other evidence. The remains of Marla Harper had been found earlier today at the county landfill.

Before I buzzed the sheriff’s department, I figured the least I could do would be to leave a zip drive with photos of any other evidence sitting around the house. I shut off the siren, my Nightingale’s song. I opened a window and turned on a fan. Wouldn’t be good if one of the county deputies passed out and blamed it on traces of gas lingering in the room.

Not that anything related to my presence here would ever be mentioned in any official report. As far as the county sheriff’s office was concerned, the Nightingale didn’t exist, and if s/he did, s/he’d be arrested on the spot.

The upside to rampant corruption in the local police force was they were happy to take full credit for any crimes solved or criminals apprehended. On one level, the sheriff was livid that someone was interfering in his business. On the other hand, my activity had caused the state authorities to back off him a bit. In subverting his agenda, I’d unfortunately made it less likely he’d be called to account through official channels. But I’d watched long enough, and official channels had their shot.

Unless the sheriff was directly involved, the actual murderer was probably going to be put away in this case. Everything pointed to this being yet another domestic violence case ending in death. Not much profit potential in a guy killing his battered former wife, especially if the guy in question didn’t have two dimes to rub together.

It didn’t take long to get blood trace evidence photographed and shunted onto a zip drive. The drive perfectly matched the ones they had at the County Justice Center. A cheap and common brand, but I knew it was yet another of those little details that irked the sheriff—getting contraband evidence handed to him on his own damn thumb drives. I also knew he’d had them switch brands twice. Each time, I’d gotten wind of it and swapped out my own stock to match, just to piss him off.

I did a quick sweep to make sure I wasn’t leaving behind any trace evidence of my own presence. Once again, the police would show up and discover someone had already subdued the suspect and provided ample evidence.

Now, if I really were into the whole flamboyant persona thing, the whole “building a mystery” of it all, I’d leave some kind of dumb calling card behind. A feather, maybe. But I’m not freaking Zorro, people.

I’m just a woman who got sick of watching people get hurt and lives get destroyed. I’m a woman with a certain set of skills and resources. My proclivity towards using those skills and resources to make occasional creative citizen’s arrests is probably just a sign of some sort of mental illness. Frankly, subverting the system is tremendously fun stuff. Especially when you’re only hurting bad guys, and only making fools look as foolish as they really are.

If I had to come up with a job description or business card title for this reckless hobby, it’d probably be “amateur sleuth, professional humiliator.” I’m not in it for the glory. I’m in it to hold destructive, violent idiots up to the spotlight and let them flounder in their own shame.

I like the name Nightingale because I’ve got to have something besides my real name to call myself, and that just sort of fit.

Don’t call me a superhero. There’s nothing remotely heroic about me.


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