The toxin wore off.
Richard stared at the ice crystals that were forming around his hands. His fingers were shaking, not from the cold, but from the panic that was threatening to shoot through his body. The icicles were slithering toward the computer.
“Grace, I’m taking off a few minutes early.” Richard glared at the clock, willing it to help him with his excuse. It never changed the fact that he still had a good forty-five minutes of his shift to go.
“What?” Grace poked her head out of the main office, the copy machine whirring behind her. Her brows were furrowed, making small creases in her forehead. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m just done,” Richard said, hiding his hands in his pockets. He felt the ice crystals begin to melt. “You have a good handle on what’s going on right now. Please, Grace… I need to go.”
Her forehead wrinkles went away, but her raised eyebrow almost hit the edge of her bangs. “You owe me,” she said, and ducked back into the office. “Feel better, or whatever. And whatever is in your pocket is starting to leak.”
Richard swore under his breath. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. “I owe you a thousand times over, Grace. Thank you!”
“Stop freezing.” Richard snarled at the ice crystals from his hands trying to crawl along the steering wheel of his car. He broke off the ice and tossed the chunks out of the window. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back and began counting backwards from fifty. By the time he reached twenty-seven, his hands had stopped forming ice.
He sighed and muttered, “It used to only take until forty…”
Richard pulled the car out of the parking lot and, at the next red light, fished his cell phone out of his pocket. He hit an old speed dial button and waited impatiently for both the green light and for the call to be picked up.
The green light came just as the voicemail activated.
“Hey, professor,” Richard said, hoping he didn’t sound annoyed. “Think the last batch of toxin I got was a fluke. It didn’t last too long. Hope you don’t mind me dropping by to get more. See you soon!”
He hung up and tossed his cell into the passenger seat. Flicking on his turn signal, Richard maneuvered his way onto the highway and began to pray that he wouldn’t get pulled over for speeding.
By the time he reached Professor Williamson’s house, twilight was beginning to creep in on the horizon, and all Richard could think of was how hungry he was. After grabbing a new bottle of toxin, he planned on finding the closest burger joint.
Richard cruised down the gravel driveway, his car’s tires protesting all the while, and parked to the side next to a white pickup truck. He shoved his hands in his damp pockets and strolled up the walkway to the old Victorian house. The place seemed older than he remembered, with the lawn needing a mowing and the outside paint needing a touch-up. Professor Williamson had always been a bit eccentric. He probably forgot to rehire the landscapers again in his mad rush with his experiments and research. That was always common enough when Richard appeared more frequently at the house.
Richard knocked on the door and rocked back and forth on his heels while waiting for an answer. After knocking for the fourth time, Richard could feel the ice beginning to form on his hands again. Grumbling to himself, Richard banged on the door with his fist, the ice shattering to scatter around his feet.
“Alright, then.” Richard took a couple of steps back. “I’ll let myself in.” Aiming at the doorknob, Richard blasted an ice crystal from his hand and kicked the frozen doorknob off, allowing the door to swing open on its hinges.
The foyer was dark and Richard jumped when he stepped on a squeaky floorboard. If he had been part of a horror movie, this would be the house that the crazed serial killer would be hiding in. His heart sunk as he stared at the desolate interior. The furniture in the living room had been spewed about as if it had been caught in a tornado, broken dishes were cluttering the kitchen floor, and Richard was tracking dirt from overturned potted plants as he investigated the rest of the house.
“Professor?” Richard called out in every room, his panic and heartbeat increasing with every silence that followed. He made his way to the basement where the professor had created the toxin, and Richard’s ice had swarmed up his hands and all along his arms at the sight.
The basement had been cleaned out. Not a speck of dust had been left behind.
“Professor!” Richard looked in every cranny and nook he could find, nearly slipping on his melting ice whenever he moved too quickly. Where was the professor? How long had he been gone? Richard needed the toxin—
A blast of heat rushed past Richard, and the ice along his arm melted immediately. The shock sent Richard sprawling into the puddle, and he looked up to see a dark man with an arm engulfed in flames.
“Who are you?” the man asked, his eyes narrowed as he took firm steps toward Richard.
“The name’s Richard.” Richard stood up, grumbling about his wet shirt and pants, and returned the other man’s glare. “Care to introduce yourself?”
A huff came before the muttered, “Darrien. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for Professor Williamson,” Richard said.
“I’ve been doing the same for the past couple of days.” Darrien spit on the ground. “Thought I finally found a clue when I saw the door broken down.”
“Sorry, man.” Richard shrugged. “You know nothing about where he might be?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be standing here,” Darrien said. He shook his hand, the flames going out slowly. He gestured to Richard’s hand. “Need toxin too?”
Richard balled his fists, trying to stop the ice from forming again. “Good guess.”
“I’ve been hunting down possible leads,” Darrien said, turning and going back up the stairs. Richard jogged to keep up with him. “Haven’t been getting far. Found the information for some other supers that used Williamson as their contact, so I’ve been trying to see them.”
“So, you haven’t found any other toxin around here?” Richard asked.
“No.” Darrien shook his head, and then glanced back at Richard. “That all you care about? All these signs lead to abduction or a panicked escape.”
“I can’t do much without the toxin,” Richard said. “I had to ditch work early to—“
Darrien’s deep laugh startled Richard. “You’re worried about work? I was fired for job abandonment after not showing up due to being on fire. Think you can hide your popsicle arms?”
Richard paused at the end of the hallway, and Darrien veered off into the next room, a study by the looks of it. Richard looked down at his hands, his skin blue in color in preparation to ice over. He thought of Grace and how she covered for him, and of his other coworkers at the office. The office was no Disneyland, but he and his coworkers were good friends. He was loyal enough to never desert them without a notice.
“I can’t do that,” Richard said.
Darrien poked his head out from the study. “You talking to me?”
“I can’t just leave work like that,” Richard repeated. “My friends there… We wouldn’t leave each other like that. Maybe I can wear gloves, keep my hands warm—“
“I don’t care,” Darrien said and disappeared back into the study. “Do whatever you want with your life. I’m focusing on the professor.”
“Yeah, yeah, you do that,” Richard said, sighing and rubbing the back of his neck. He shivered from the cold that crept down his spine. “When was the last time you saw the professor?”
“Six months, if not longer,” Darrien said. He was rifling through the bookshelf, knocking volumes of texts onto the ground when they didn’t appear interesting enough. “I got the toxin through the mail, about a month’s supply at a time.”
“Same with me,” Richard said. “About the mail. Haven’t seen the professor in a couple of years.”
“I only came to visit just now when the last batch of toxin didn’t work–” A book burst into flames, and Darrien swore in three languages while smothering it out with his jacket. “Obviously.”
Richard had jumped back into the hallway once the book erupted, but he cautiously crept back into the study once Darrien had extinguished it. “Yeah, obviously. It’s the same story with me.”
Darrien glanced up at Richard. “We’re probably not the only ones.”
“Was Professor Williamson the only one who had this toxin?” Richard asked.
“He had an assistant,” Darrien said, returning to the books. “When I couldn’t get any leads for the professor, I started searching for the assistant. I’ve been back and forth between different towns, going through possible addresses and contacts, but this assistant is slippery. Like this chick I dated throughout college.”
Richard blinked. “Alright then… So you found nothing so far?”
“Think I’d be here again if something had turned up?” Darrien glared at Richard before abandoning the books and searching through a second cabinet.
“Do you have the name of the assistant?” Richard said. “Have you done a search on the Internet?”
“All I know is Baker,” Darrien said. “That’s not exactly a unique surname, now is it?”
“Do you have the next lead?” Richard asked. “If you have more than one, I can investigate–” A leaflet of papers was tossed at Richard.
“Comb through that for a Baker,” Darrien said. The fire-prone man was sitting cross-legged on the floor and looking through another set of papers. Richard took a seat on the cleanest spot of the loveseat in the corner and did as he was told.
There wasn’t much to go through, if Richard was honest, but that could have been due to the fact that he wasn’t entirely sure what was good enough for a lead. Searching for a last name and anything connected to it wasn’t the easy task. The leaflet spoke mainly of the research for the toxin that temporarily cured the super gene, and how the professor was trying to create a permanent solution to it.
“Hey.” Richard’s voice made Darrien look up so quickly that Richard wondered if the other man would get whiplash. “This has an ingredient list for the toxin. We may be able to make our own if we find his supplies–”
“There is a man, maybe two if we count the assistant,” Darrien said, “missing. I would like the toxin as much as you, but after not hearing from the professor or any of his colleagues, I’m more concerned with him.”
Guilt hit Richard like a freight train.
“Besides,” Darrien looked back down at his papers, “most of the supplies were all cleaned out. Even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t drink anything I mixed up in a lab. I don’t trust myself that much.”
“Where was the last place you looked?” Richard asked. “For the professor or the assistant?”
“The local community college,” Darrien said. “Gold Tree or something…”
“Golden Oak college?” Richard said. “I always thought that sounded like a retirement community. What connected a couple of his brainiacs like Professor Williamson and his assistant there?”
“The Baker guy went there,” Darrien said. “For a while, anyway. I found some incomplete transcripts the other day with his name. The first name was faded out. The college wouldn’t give me any information on all of the people with the last name Baker. I left before arguing enough to get kicked out by security.”
“Maybe I can try,” Richard said. “I went there for a couple of semesters for some easy credits and made friends with one of the secretaries.”
“Like actual friends,” Darrien asked, a grin on his face, “or was she really hot?”
“He was actually a friend,” Richard snapped. He stood up and added, “C’mon, let’s go there now. It shouldn’t be too busy around this time. We’ll grab something on the way, too. I’m starving.”
Darrien rolled his eyes but didn’t protest the idea. “You got a car?”
“Don’t you?” Richard asked back. “How’d you get here?”
“Flew.” Darrien shrugged to Richard’s deer-in-the-headlights expression. “I can make pretend I have jetpacks on the bottom of my feet with my fire.”
“Right.” Richard rubbed the back of his head. “Why don’t you take the passenger seat? We’ll appear to come in peace that way at the college…”