Monday, May 28, 2012

3/14/12 - The Last Flight of The Owl pt. 1

Outside of Chicago, Illinois, over in the Northern suburb of Glenview, there's a large, sprawling estate that's been there since forever.

Built by the incredibly well-moneyed Samuels family, back around the middle of the 19th century, the mansion and its 10 acre, well-wooded lot have stood testament to the history of the nearby city, and the family's not-inconsiderable fortunes. Even today, many people in and around the city work at something bearing the Samuels family name.

Anything to do with trains entering or leaving Chicago is obvious, but there are many hospitals and free clinics that were either founded by the family, or given a generous kickstart in their funding by them. And there are also many missions, emergency pregnancy centers, homeless shelters, rehab facilities, and halfway houses that operate almost entirely on the Samuels' dime.

Some may ask why the Samuels are so keen to give their hard-earned wealth away almost as fast as they can make it. The answer to that stretches back more than 150 years, when Robert Samuels went West from New York City with a portion of his family's money, looking to make a fortune.

By 1847, he'd gotten no further than the Windy City, and no more rich than he'd started out. But a sharp mind and a genius for long-term investments got him heavily involved in the town's railroads, and a good marriage cemented his place in the city's upper crust. So it was little surprise that, before long, if it had a locomotive engine and ran on rails, Robert was the man to go to.

More surprising was that, in spite of his many gifts, he was a totally greedy man who would sooner spit at a fellow down on his luck than help him. "Those who can, do, and those who can't, don't exist" was one of his famous maxims. He refused to hire anyone whose family hadn't been in the country more than two generations, did not tolerate mistakes of any kind, and was known to fire people just for looking "stupid," or being unable to answer a difficult question to his liking.

And when asked of his sense of Christian charity, he said, simply, "God only helps those who help themselves." 

Then, one day, in 1878, Robert went missing while at lunch at a well-to-do restaurant, downtown. No one could find him, and Chicago's police were next to useless in the search, believing he'd been abducted for ransom and that the kidnappers would be making demands, soon. The family made numerous public appeals, but after a month passed it became apparent, to the police at least, that Robert was most likely dead -- no doubt killed by the abductors when he tried to escape captivity. 

Thankfully, the police were wrong, and Robert appeared on his front doorstep three days after his family were told he was probably gone. He was much skinnier, quite unkempt, and dressed only in the raggedy clothes of a bum. And his gaze was so serene it was hard to imagine that he'd been in less than ideal circumstances for the month.

In fact, such was the change in his appearance and demeanor that, at first, even his butler refused him entry to his own home, not knowing who he was. When he realized his mistake, and fell all over himself apologizing, realizing he'd probably just talked himself out of his position, given his master's bullheaded intolerance for mistakes of any kind. But Robert just smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, telling him to never mind, and he went into his home without further mention of the incident.

After he'd bathed, fed, and spent some time with his wife, he told his family and servants what had happened. The police were actually correct: he had been taken from the restaurant -- while using the gents, no less -- and quickly bustled out a back door to a waiting carriage. He was stripped of his clothes and valuables in the car, and told to keep quiet or he would die; his family would be receiving their demands, soon, but they didn't have to follow through on a promise to deliver him alive, now did they?

But on the way to the gang's hideout, down in one of the poorer areas, the driver lost control of the horse and the carriage slammed into a wall. His abductors were either killed or seriously injured, but he was miraculously thrown clear. He struck the ground head first, and having no idea who he was or what had just happened, wandered in a daze from the wreckage. 

The poor people of the neighborhood came to him, not long thereafter, as he was about to collapse in fear and pain. He could not answer their questions about who he was, or what had happened, but, recognizing a soul in need, they helped him. They took him to a nearby church, bound his wounds, and nursed him back to health.

And they named him Job, on account that, when they found him, he appeared as though the world had smacked him down for no reason but God's.

"Job" lived amongst the poor and destitute for a month, working alongside them to gather what food they could and improve their lot. He read the Bible through a new pair of eyes, unbound by what he'd learned at his stately, childhood home. And while he couldn't remember why he would know such things, he gave what fiscal advice he could to the church and the people who lived there, in the hopes that they would prosper.

30 days later, while in church, praying for the needs of others, he received a vision. He not only recalled his entire life up until the accident, but remembered that the horse had been startled by an owl, which had swooped down and attacked it. In fact, the last thing he had seen before he'd flown out the door of the carriage had been the owl, flying away.

He recalled the chapter of the Bible that bore his namesake: "I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls." It was a portion of Job's lengthy lamentation of the state of his life -- a righteous man cursed by God to prove a point to the Devil.

Robert realized, then and there, that while he had been as wealthy as a king in the flesh, he had been as poor as a beggar in the spirit. His gifts and talents had been used shamefully, and without compassion. The poor men and women who had tended to him in his time of need were worth a hundred men such as he.

And there, surrounded by the poor who had given him what little they had, and expected nothing of him but that he give the same kindness to others, he realized he owed more to this city than wealth and industry.  He owed it kindness and charity, without which great wealth truly meant nothing.

From that day forward, Robert Samuels became Robert Job Samuels, and dedicated his life to Christ. He began to put his wealth to work for the poor and needy, and stipulated that at no time should any less than 50% of the family's earnings be put towards charity -- preferably ones they established themselves, so as to retain full responsibility over the money.

It was a tradition that was built upon, year by year, generation by generation. Some say that they gave even Andrew Carnegie, himself, something of a black eye when it came to how much they handed out. And the result was that, while Chicago still had many blights and poor areas, the city's destitute could at least be certain of a hot meal, a decent place to stay, a competent doctor, and a place to worship.

Such was the obvious legacy of the Samuels family. But there has been another, more secret legacy -- one born out of disgust at the almost-endemic crime spawned by the way large cities degrade the mind, body, and spirit.

Since the early parts of the last century, Chicago has been protected by a dark presence: one seen yet unseen, flitting across the rooftops and skittering through back alleys, and occasionally rocketing down its streets and highways. It quickly and overwhelmingly attacks crime and criminals, but also seeks to cure the roots of the problem through compassion and rehabilitation, as well as the words of Christ.

Whether its targets truly learn from the experience of meeting it or not depends on the individual criminal, of course. But in a world where so many urban vigilantes are willing to break crooks' bones and leave them tied up and bleeding for the police to find, only one is known to disable as non-harmfully as possible, and slip small copies of the Bible into their pockets.

And some repentant criminals have said that one act of kindness was what made them turn over a new leaf. 

He is called The Owl, and, both singly and alone, he has protected Chicago -- and sometimes the entire world -- for over 100 years. He has done this without direct supervision from the Federal Government, thanks to a special "understanding" with The COMPANY. And, in spite of what is either extremely advanced age, or several changes of person, he shows no sign of  hanging up his wings, or turning his back on the ethos that fuels him.

As Job, Jonah, and Robert could have told you, when the Almighty calls, you don't get to say no.

* * *

March 14th is a Wednesday. Wednesday means that, by late afternoon, the Samuels family is mostly together, except for young Kaitlyn, who's at band practice at her school. 

"Together" means "working," of course. Grandpa Joe is "researching." Uncle Mark is "fixing the car." Aunt Rachel is "updating files." And Martha and her son, Thomas, are getting ready to "do homework."

(Conversely, the butler, Harcourt, is actually butlering.) 

It takes a full minute for the hidden elevator in the study to deposit its riders in the Owl's Nest. Thomas doesn't really care for the ride up. Not because he doesn't enjoy what's awaiting him, up in the Nest, but because the elevator's one of the few times he and his mother have to themselves.

So, of course, it's the perfect time to nag him about something.

"I just don't like you listening to that kind of music," she continues, maybe thirty seconds away from the doors opening: "I can't stop you when you're not in the house, but when you are here, I'd really rather you didn't."

"I know, mom," Thomas sighs, trying to avoid eye contact: "But all my friends like him. He's a good musician."

"I know he is. But I don't care for his lyrics, and I don't like the message behind them. He's not a good example to young people."

"Well, maybe not, but..."

Martha looks at Thomas, with one eyebrow cocked way up her forehead, and he sighs again, knowing he's not winning this one.

"I just really like 'Lord of All,' you know?" he says: "It says something."

"I met him, once," she explains, putting a hand on his shoulder: "Back when I was close to your age. He talked up a storm about how we had to band together as an army for Jesus and take back the country from homosexuals and liberals, so as to make America a great Christian nation, and pave the way for Jesus' return and rule. When I asked him where it said this in the Bible, he blew me off, and one of his assistants told me I was going to Hell for not believing the truth."

"Wow," Thomas says: "What did he do?"

"Nothing. He just stood there and shook hands with people who liked what he had to say, and there's a lot of them. But he's insincere and mean-spirited and, while I forgive him, I don't think he's the best person to be putting in your ears."


"Is that 'okay' as in 'yes, mother,' or 'okay' as in 'I'll think about it'?"

"'Okay' as in 'if he dissed you, then forget him.' I'd rather listen to Marilyn Manson."

Martha's about to say something to that, but the elevator comes to a stop, the doors open, and he races off to change into his uniform before she can. She just smiles and heads over to the Eyes, where her father's been working most of the day.

* * *

The Owl's Nest is located above the mansion: well-hidden by a number of holographic projections, as well as a battery of sophisticated devices intended to scramble and confuse all terrestrial scanning options into thinking there's nothing above the roof but air. In reality, a beetling, metal structure with notably strigidian lines enshrouds the entire structure, with specially-built light-carriers bringing sunlight down to the building, as though nothing were standing between it and the sun.

Inside is a well-structured, if dimly-lit, network of open platforms and hanging rooms, all suspended above a massive vehicle bay and state-of-the-art armory. Both levels are encircled by a loop of trophies and memorabilia, which document the story of The Owl from its earliest beginnings -- the day Robert Job Samuels was saved -- up until now. 

The Eyes are the forward observation posts, providing a pair of lookouts on the world, as well as a good place to take meetings and receive debriefings. Thanks to the Nest's interactive, totally mobile, 3-D computer system, it also makes a good place to monitor the city, as opposed to the darkened and cavernous insides of the Nest.

Up the stairs from the elevator, up a walkway, and around a barrier, and there, in the long, wooden-paneled section before the eyes, sits Joseph Samuels, sipping coffee from a mug that proclaims WORLD'S FINEST FATHER. While he looks nowhere near his age (65, this year), she can tell that he's actually feeling it, now that he doesn't have to put the uniform on, every night.

'People in motion remain in motion,' he used to tell her when she was younger -- the Talon to his Owl -- and tired of running across rooftops all night long. It was a saying his father told him, when he was the Talon, and his father The Owl. Not that it made the run any less grueling, but it gave her something to focus on other than the exhaustion.

And now that he wasn't in motion, anymore? She could see him slowing down -- taking longer to get up in the morning, a little achier around the edges. But his mind was still as sharp as it ever was, and she was glad to have use of it, here in the Nest.

"How's it going, pops?" Martha asks, kissing the older man's temple. He looks up at her, smiling, and taps a few buttons floating in the air to change the pictures from traffic cameras to mugshots.

"Looking over the arrests from last week," he says: "These would-be kidnappers you and Thomas busted just made bail, today."

"Of course they did," she sighs, grabbing a chair and sitting down: "So we tail them, and see where they lead us. Hopefully it's a step up in the chain."

"And hopefully it's something as mundane as a normal kidnapping," he says: "Fatso's been seen in the tri-state area, again. You know what that means."

"Do I ever," she shudders, remembering the time she went up against the gargantuan pervert all by her lonesome, in a well-lit warehouse filled with gruesome, oversized toys and the broken bodies of his past victims.

"So," he says, dropping the photos down with a wave of his hand and turning to look at her: "It's been a month and a half. How are you feeling?"

"Like I just got handed the keys to the biggest, scariest car in the world," she laughs, leaning back in the chair: "That and the most wonderful."

"It'll be like that," he says: "Just remember, when the darkness hits, and it will, the wonderful will outshine it, given time."

"I know that."

"I know you know that," he winks: "But I'm gonna keep reminding you, anyway."

Martha's watch communicator goes off, and she answers it. A hologram of her son, dressed as the Talon, pops up in mid-air, projected from her watch.

"I'm going to work on the obstacle course, again," he says, adjusting the big, round goggles on his mask: "50% visibility, like you said."

"Do it in five minutes?" she says.

"Mom, that's impossible."

"Loaves and fishes, Thomas."

"Yes, mom," he says, and breaks communication. She sighs, and Joe chuckles.

"Remind you of anyone you know?" he asks, winking.

"Was I really?"

"Yes you were. And I loved every minute of it."


"Well...." he winks, sipping his coffee: "Most of it. But I think you turned out just fine."

"It's him I'm worried about. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing enough. He's asking questions I can't answer."

"They're in the Bible, somewhere."

"Yes, but finding them is something of a challenge, as I'm sure you're well aware."

"If all else fails, just still your mind and listen to your heart," he says, tapping his chest: "Jesus is in there, talking to you. You just have to know how to listen."

"Well... I wish he'd tell me what to say about the question Thomas hasn't asked yet."

"You mean, his real father?"

She nods, looking out the large portal, and the world outside of it: "I don't know what I'm going to tell him. I know he's curious. He talks about his friends' dads a lot. I think he's warming up."

"And you don't want to lie."

"No," she says, looking back: "That would be cowardly and wrong. But how do you tell him something like that?"

"You just do," he says, putting the coffee down and taking her hands in his: "It won't be easy, and it won't be something he wants to hear, but if all else fails you just remind him that he's got us for a family. You're a wonderful mother and a stellar daughter. I think Mathew..."

He starts to say it, but can't finish it. She takes his hands and puts them to her forehead, like she used to when she was younger.

They don't need to say any more about Mathew, tonight.

* * *

Kaitlyn Clutch tries to concentrate as her music teacher -- maybe two more sour notes away from a mental breakdown -- imperiously directs her side of the room to tighten up its playing. 

She'd really rather be back home, helping her mom use the computer to catch crooks, and watching her cousin leap around the training areas. But her dad insisted that she go do other things, outside the Nest, saying that it would be "good" for her. So here she is, playing a flute in a grade school band, and having a woman ten times scarier than any of the criminals they've taught her about hover over her every movement.

"No, no, no!" Mrs. Fann exclaims, punctuating each 'no' with a jab of her baton: "I swear! I have never, ever, in all my years conducting, heard such a sloppy, disjointed rendering of 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' The way you're doing, that poor lamb is being sold as Chops in Behemart! On sale! As yesterday's meat!"

A few of the kids start crying. Kaitlyn just sighs, putting her flute down and wondering when Mom's going to be allowed to teach her something really cool. 

(Thomas had to wait until he was twelve before he could be the Talon. That means she has four more years to go, unless they change the rules again. And adults are always changing the rules, darn it.)

She ponders that sad fact of childhood for a moment, and is relieved when a knock at the door interrupts her music teacher in mid-rant. A pair of men in overcoats are at the door, looking into the room with friendly but plastic-looking smiles. 

"Mrs. Fann?" one of them asks.

"We need to talk to you for just a second," the other says.

"Won't take too long," one reassures her.

"Just something important about one of your students," the other adds. 

They smile in unison, and Mrs. Fann stomps out, obviously displeased to be derailed in her quest to crush any imperfections in her prized possession. The moment she leaves the room, the crying kids are comforted by their classmates, and tissues and hankies are passed around. Kaitlyn just rolls her eyes, and looks at the ground, thinking about some of the things that she's looking forward to learning, once she's old enough. But, halfway through her mental gymnastics routine, she realizes that Mrs. Fann is shrieking her name.

"Kaitlyn Marie Clutch!" she says, all her black and capped teeth showing.

"Yes, ma'am!" Kaitlyn says, looking up like a startled rabbit: "I'm paying attention, ma'am."

"Well, that's good to know, young lady," she says, gesturing to the door: "I'm sure these nice men from child services would like to hear all about that. They're here to pick you up and take you home."

The moment Kaitlyn hears that, her blood runs cold, as it can only mean one of two things. The first thing is that something's gone wrong, back at the house, and government's here to help. 

The second is that the government's here, but not to help.

She quickly packs up her flute, collects her other stuff, nods to the teacher, and walks out into the hall with the men.

"Is everything alright?" she asks.

"We'll explain on the way," one says, putting a hand on her shoulder.

"It's a bit of a thing, I'm afraid," the other says, putting his hand on her other shoulder.

"Quite a kerfuffle, really," one says, using the codeword the government came up with for situations just like these. The moment he says it, she's quite relived, as it means that whatever's gone wrong, the men are just here to help her family through it, same as always. 

"What's a kerfuffle?" she asks, sounding as innocent as possible.

"A commotion," the other says.

"Sometimes a fuss," one adds. 

"Nothing good, at any rate."

"No, not at all."

Kaitlyn nods, playing along, but feeling her previous relief breaking apart at the seams. 

Something is not right, here. Not right at all. 

* * *

 "Ten minutes, huh?" Martha asks Thomas as he leaps from bar to bar in the large, aerial course that makes up the topmost part of the Owl's Nest.

"It's harder at 50%, mom," he shouts down, trying not to lose his concentration. There's nets to catch him if he falls, but if he falls in front of her he'll never hear the end of it, tonight.

"You did worse than last time," she chides: "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah," he lies, not wanting to let her know how much a certain thing is bothering him.

She's about to call him on the lie when both of them receive a message from her cousin, Rachel: "Guys, come to the records room. Now. We have problem."

"On the way," Martha says, looking up at Thomas as he executes a perfect move to get down to her level, just as she's running towards the computer core, where Rachel spends most of her time.

Once they get there, Grandpa Joe and Rachel's husband, Mark, are already there. Mark has his favorite wrench with him, and doesn't look to happy to have been called off whatever repairs he was working on, today. But if she wanted him here then it must be something really serious.

"What's up?" Martha asks: "Did you find something out?"

"Okay, do you remember that, four days ago, we got a garbled message that we couldn't decrypt?" Rachel asks: "The one that I thought came from the Eye-Phone?"

"Did it?" Grandpa Joe asks, leaning over his late brother's daughter and looking at the jittery mess of a hologram that she's been working with.

"It did," she says, applying a few filters: "It's The COMPANY, alright."

"What the heck do they want, now?" Mark sighs and leaning up against a wall: "If they're gonna ask us about where he is, one more time..."

"The COMPANY's always done right by us, Mark," Joe says, not looking at the man: "Even after what happened to SPYGOD."

"You mean what he did."

"He means what happened, Uncle Mark," Martha says: "SPYGOD's innocent. I know it."

"How do you..." Mark starts to say, but soon feels every eye in the room upon him -- including his wife's - and puts his hands up in mock surrender: "Okay, fine. It wasn't his style. We can take a number of things on faith, here."

"Well, let's see what they have to say," Thomas says, hoping to stop yet another family squabble over the subject before it starts.

"It's not good," Rachel warns, and then plays it. The garbled hologram regains some level of cohesion, and turns out to be the head of the man they know as Second -- SPYGOD's long-suffering assistant, now something of a fifth wheel in The COMPANY, now that others are running the show around him.

"... in terrible danger," he says: "... they know who you are. They have access to all our files. They know your identities, your hideouts, your families, skillsets, powers... they know everything. And I've received word that they're on the move, in preparation for something that's supposed to happen on the 15th of this month."

Martha and Joe look at each other, and then at their watches. That's tomorrow, isn't it...?

"... I repeat... GORGON has control of a number of key installations and organizations. Do not trust anyone from any government agency from this point on. Get your close friends and families to safety. Abandon your homes and headquarters. Go as underground as you can. 

"As soon as we know what's going on, I'll send word. But for now-"

The message degenerates again, and Rachel throws up her hands: "That's as much as I could get it to play."

"That was four days ago," Joe says: "Rachel, have we heard anything from anyone else? Old Liberty Patrol people? The League?"

"Nobody," Rachel confirms: "And that's really unusual. Someone's usually calling for Martha-"

She could say more, but decides not to. Martha knows why, and is very grateful.

"How much do they know about us?" Martha asks Joe, hoping to change the subject: "SPYGOD always told us that he told them as little as possible."

"If he knew how to find us, we can be certain they do, too," Joe says, looking around the room: "And that means that..."

He doesn't want to say it. He doesn't have to.

"How soon can we be gone?" Martha asks.

"Ten minutes," Rachels says, opening up a panel that no one ever wants to see activated, and looking to Joe for confirmation.

"We're just going to leave?" Thomas asks: "All this? Our home?"

"Sometimes you have to run, son," Joe says, putting a hand on his grandson's shoulder: "It's the hardest lesson to learn. But when we run, we come back stronger, together."

"Oh my God," Rachel says, looking at Mark. 

"Kaitlyn," Mark says.

* * *

Downstairs, in the kitchen, Hargreaves -- the elderly, long-suffering butler of the Samuels estate -- sees to the preparation of several different meals for those headed in separate directions, and listens to his one guilty pleasure on his headphones as he does so. 

"I need your discipline..." he sings, quite-off key as he stirs Rachel's chicken soup: "I need your help..."

So intent is he on getting everything just perfect for everyone else -- and enjoying the one time he can actually listen to his one favorite, modern musical combo -- that he doesn't notice that a pair of naked, sexless beings have teleported into the dining hall, behind him. Both of them carry very large, long gauss rifles, and the moment they've fully materialized, they point them in his direction.

"I see you left a mark..." he croons: 'Up and down my skin skin skin... I don't know where I end... and where I begin..."

Not the greatest choice in last words, perhaps, but the False Faces are happy to oblige him. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Aquarium (Saint-Saens, by way of William Orbit) and having a Goose Island India Pale Ale)

No comments:

Post a Comment