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The nondescript grey van turned left, without signaling, and rolled lazily into an alleyway.
Another car followed from a distance: a small, red Prius with the headlights switched off. It was a hybrid model, capable of prowling the streets nearly silent on battery power. That’s what the driver told himself, at least. Truthfully, the payments were kind of steep on a gym teacher’s salary in Mesa City, but he loved that car.
Tonight he wasn’t a gym teacher, though. He was a superhero.
Red Mantis allowed ten seconds to pass after losing sight of the van. Then he crept the Prius to within a block of the alley, gliding along the curb.
There was no other activity in sight. It was past ten o’clock at night, after all, and this was a small business neighborhood. There were no residents here. No one to notice any suspicious activity. No one to hear a young girl scream.
He eased to a stop, threw it in park, and turned off the engine.
From across the street, Mantis could see that the alley was flanked by a small adobe-faced shop on the left and a larger, dark building on the right.
Papito’s Tailor and Dry Cleaning was a square, one-story structure with a large, darkened front window. The mechanical centipede of the rotating dry cleaner’s rack made an ominous shadow on the other side of the glass, but there was no obvious movement inside.
The other place was a much larger lodge hall, three stories of dark brick. The Honorable Brotherhood of the Sunset Horizon, the sign read. The lodge crest looked Native American in theme: a red semi-circle resting on a thick black line, irregular, like a brush stroke. A falcon or hawk soared above and a sinuous snake crawled beneath.
“That even sounds like a cult,” Red Mantis mumbled to himself. “Why hasn’t anyone looked into these guys?” He peered over his steering wheel. “Huh. Maybe that’s why.”
A smaller sign read: “Food Pantry: Tuesdays 5-7pm” and “Bingo Night: Thursday at 7”.
Maybe I’m chasing the wrong suspicious van…
He looked at his watch, its face spun around to the underside of his left wrist to allow for the rigid plastic brace that was strapped to his forearm. The digital display read 10:14:49, alongside the time zone and his current pulse rate, which was an excited 92 and anticipating more. (Let’s face it, the watch had probably cost more than he’d needed to spend, too.)
He’d now allowed twenty-seven seconds to pass since the van had left his sight. Too long.
Without another second of hesitation, Caesar Hernandez—the Red Mantis—popped out of the driver’s seat, adjusted the crimson plates of his segmented combat armor, pulled the pointy-frilled mask down over his face, and burst into action.