It started with a bird. Perched on a branch outside of Nikki's apartment, it would wake her way too early with its persistent chirping. 'Freet! Freet! Freet!' It'd make an exellent alarm clock if only it had come with a timer. God, how she hated that bird although she had to admit it looked rather magnificent. Bright, fiery orange feathers and a very long tail, she'd never seen anything like it. Nikki had gone round asking her neighbours if they could possibly identify it, but so far nobody else seemed to have spotted it. Searching the internet hadn't given her an answer either, unless it happened to be a rather small phoenix. She'd even gone so far as to take the test on it, soaking some grains in whisky and placing it on her windowsill, but the bird wouldn't touch it. So either it wasn't a phoenix, or it had learned a thing or two over the centuries. Still, whatever it was, it wasn't doing her any good! She'd been feeling rather feverish lately, and waking up every morning at the crack of dawn wasn't helping her. At first she thought it was the flu, but it didn't break through. Maybe it was just fatigue.
Somehow, she struggled through the working day; every phone call a trial, the paperwork a mountain of doom. And of course there was Larry Phelps, the inevitable turd on the dunghill, who could be relied upon to make the worst of any bad day. Once back home she took a shower, ate half a bucket of ice cream hoping it'd cool her down a bit and went to bed around eight, whereupon she spent half the night tossing and turning. God, was it really this warm or was it a fever? It wasn't like she felt sick in any other way... At last, she dozed off.
You had to be kidding! Nikki looked at her alarm clock. 5.21 am. Just great. She opened her curtains and shot a would-be-lethal look at the bird sitting in her neighbours cherry tree.
'So you expanded your little tweet, or did I never hear it right?' Nikki yawned. 'Still, this is no hour for band practice, so if you don't mind?' She let out a sigh. She was trying to broke a deal with a bird, for crying out loud! As if on cue, the little fella opened its beak again. She gave it a look of acquiescence; and thereby made eye contact. The birds eyes were like pearls of magma, blazing jewels of heat. As Nikki gasped, the bird chirped one more time and took flight toward her.
A wave of heat knocked her back as she heard the crackling of tiny flames around her, momentarily blinded by... what? Did it explode? Slowly, she opened her eyes only to see her curtains ablaze and small fires eating away at her bed and wardrobe.
'Oh God, no, stop!!' she cried. Immediately, the flames went out. Nikki was dumbfound. She had to be hallucinating.
'No, you are not.'
There you were, she was even hearing voices.
'You're hearing me, you silly mortal, because I managed to merge our spirits. We are now bonded by soul.' The voice was deep and silklike, with a strong Middle-Eastern accent. It reverberated in her mind in a manner that made her shiver.
'Who are you? And why have you done this?'
'I am an efreeti -a fire spirit, if you please. And I joined with you because you are one of the very few humans still capable of linking with our kind. You already show great prowess despite your obvious cognitive shortcomings. It usually takes people a while to control the gifts we bestow upon them.'
'Gifts? What do you mean?'
'Did you not notice? The power to generate and manipulate that most feared and dangerous element: fire. This power is now yours to use.'
'To use? For what?'
'As you see fit.'
'Generate and manipulate fire... I guess it's kinda like The Torch then, huh?'
'If you say so.'
'I could, like, become a sort of superhero? You know... stop riots, prevent robberies... except that I never know when there's a robbery going on. I only hear about them afterwards.'
'Then maybe you're looking at it the wrong way.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, instead of preventing robberies, you could use your power to stage them.'
Now that wàs tempting... Of course, if she just walked up to a clerk in a bank saying 'give me all your money or I'll burn the place down' they'd have a good laugh at her. She'd have to show them. No, she couldn't do that, even though it would mean seeing the last of Larry Phelps.
'Who's this Larry Phelps?'
'This guy at work. He's a complete dickhead.'
'Tell me more.'
'He just believes he's God's gift to economy. Acts like we're all just retards and it's only thanks to his efforts we make it through the day's work. I just wish he got promoted, or hit by a bus.'
'So you hate him.'
'Well, hate is a strong word, but yes, I do.'
'Then show him!'
Nikki froze. She looked at her right hand. A simple thought was enough to cause a small flame to appear in her palm and float there without causing any harm whatsoever in fact it tingled a bit. Then, she let the flame disappear and turned around to look at the newspaper. After a while, she found what she was looking for.
'Here. There've been reports of a mugger in Emmbush Park. If we go there and, you know... look muggable, we might lure him out so I can bust him!'
'Thàt's what you want to do?'
'Gotta start somewhere, right?'
The whole deal had only taken them twenty minutes, Nikki realised as she heard the sirens close in on them. Most of that time had been spent ambling aimlessly through the park while whistling (and, when that got tiring, singing) the theme song from Shaun the Sheep, trying to attract attention. Then, suddenly, somebody had jumped her from behind; almost subduing her with an iron chokehold if, from within her, a voice hadn't roared 'BURN HIM!!' Once she had a ring of fire encircling the both of them at waist height (she'd been practicing that during the day) and set fire to his pants, the struggle came to a quick halt. By the time the cops arrived her assaillant was as tame as a lamb. Nikki had to go down to the station as well for an official statement.
'He claims you burned him,' she was told by the officer handling her paperwork.
'Burn him? What with? I don't even have a lighter on me. I swear I only kicked him in the nuts.'
'Well, that's what he says. In fact, he stated you threw fire at him. Of course, his word doesn't carry much weight right now. And tales of somebody throwing fire with their bare hands sounds a lot like someone who's trying to get a free ride to psychiatry instead of prison.'
Nikki nodded cooperatively, and was sent home shortly after.
When she went to work the next morning even the sight of Larry Phelps could not bring her down.
'Hey there, Holes! Where were you yesterday?' he inquired, the usual condescending look in his eyes.
'A bit under the weather. Feverish. But I'm àll better now!'
'Sounds like someone had a romance with her percolator this morning. Is your electronic boyfriend low on batteries again?'
Nikki gave him a smile like a supernova. 'Fuck you, Larry.'
'That's insubordination, that is; and you know it, Holes.'
'Yeah, well, what'cha gonna do?' Nikki swayed to her cubicle.
'That's the little shit you told me about?'
'That's the one. But don't underestimate him. He'll spend half the day plotting things to make the rest of the week utter hell for me.'
It took the little shit far less than that, and by eleven he had Nikki ready to erupt.
'You'll have to do the calc on this again, Holes! They changed the percentages, remember?'
'Like when?' Nikki frowned.
'Like yesterday. I told everybody, didn't I?'
'Well, I wasn't in yesterday, remember?'
'Not my fault, is it? Do it again and, while you're going, take this to the cabinet.' he thrust a stack of papers into her hands. Nikki gritted her teeth. She hated the cabinet.
'What's the cabinet?'
'It's where we file all our records and documents. You know, signed contracts and the like. Larry has it organised so that we can never find anything and have to call on him for help, and he keeps coming up with changes every few weeks. Last week I spent twenty minutes looking for the 'Macwell'-file, only to have him tell me he filed it under 'S' because they're shareholders.'
'So, it would be really bad if all this were to, say, catch fire?'
'Well... from a bureaucratic point of view, yes...'
If you looked at it from a non-bureaucratic point of view, the fire was no big deal. The fire extinguisher rapidly made short work of it and the fire brigade needed only to come and have a look. The entire floor was sent home for the day, minus of course the head of department.
Forty-eight hours later, Nikki's adrenaline rush had diminished enough for her to put things in perspective.
'Look,' she started, 'there are many things bothering me about all this, and if we're gonna continue together I'd like to get some of them out of the way right now!'
'For starters: do you have a name?'
'Yes, I do.'
There was a silence.
'Well, what is it?'
'I can't tell you. Not just now, anyway. Maybe given time, when we've got a solid bond.'
'Oh, right. You just invade my body and mind, but telling me your name is too intimate?'
'In a nutshell.'
'That's just great.'
'You should focus on your abilities. Learn to develop them to reach your full potential. Why, you haven't even tried flying.'
'...I can fly?'
'Give it a shot.'
'Enjoying ourselves, are we?'
'You have to admit this is great.'
'I never said it wasn't. So could we now move on to a new level and start operating on a larger scale? I mean, chasing petty thieves and rescuing kittens...'
'We're doing a great job at that!'
'We are, but what do you expect? These are minor skirmishes, hardly worth using your powers for.'
'Come on. You enjoyed it when we hit that getaway car yesterday.'
'That I did. And it was most impressive how you burned the wheels from underneath said vehicle so it crashed into that statue. But going to check on the occupants and asking "is everybody all right in there?" seemed a bit out of context.'
'Well, it was a big crash.'
'Exactly. So why would they be all right?'
'I was only being... polite?'
'We could be doing such big things together, you and I...'
'We're helping the community! They appreciate us.'
'Those people who saw you in action with the car looked more scared than appreciative.'
'Well, they probably need to get used to the idea first.'
'Is this really what you want to do with your gift?
'Are you gonna keep whining about it? What's wrong with this?'
'I told you, you lack ambition. You know you hold immense power, and there's far more to be had.'
'But I'm not interested in power.'
'If you'd just open up to me...
'Look, mister! Let's not forget I didn't ask for any of this, right? This is my life you barged into, so I'm calling the shots, got that?'
'Damn straight. If you're not down with that, you can leave!'
'Good. Now that's out... whoa...' Nikki felt gravity increase its pull on her as tiny sparks started to seep out of her body and encircle her. She struggled to remain airborne, but failed. As she fell, the sparks joined above her, merging into the little bird. It gave her a wink. Then, she reached the end of her plummet.
Jeffrey Watson was baffled. When they told him to take that enormous heap of empty cardboard boxes out back, rip them up and throw them away, he didn't exactly have high expectations. Therefor, he was all the more surprised when he found this young, good looking brunette lying unconscious in the dumpster. He frowned, and looked around. What was this, candid camera? Was someone trying to pull a prank on him? Maybe he should just throw the cardboard in and walk away... His conscience kicked his brain into shape. The right course of action was to help her, of course. He did another quick lookaround to ensure no one was watching him and then climbed into the dumpster.
Waking her up proved less difficult than he'd imagined. After poking her arm a couple of times saying 'hey, um...' she started to moan, blinked a bit and tried to focus her glazed eyes on him.
'Uhh, hi! I'm Jeff. Are you all right?'
'Where am I?'
'You're in the, um, parking lot of K.R.A.P.P.-radio.'
'Oh no, not Krapp.' Nikki sighed automatically. It was likely the worst radio station in the region, with their way too loud jingles, idiot DJ's who continuously forgot what they were saying by the time they were mid-sentence; and strange idea to pick the Lighthouse Family's "Lifted" as their top song to be played at least twice a week over the past fourteen years. Larry subjected the entire department to it on a daily basis. 'Man, your parking lot reeks!'
'Well, that's because, technically... you're in our dumpster.'
'Oh, God! This is so humiliating...'
Jeff thought about this. If he were to be found out cold in a dumpster, it would automatically be assumed to be the apotheosis of a really good night's drinking and a heroic addition to the assorted myths and legends about his person. But he had often before noticed women tended to have strange views on things. 'Let me get you out of here.'
'Oww... my back. This hasn't been my week, I'll tell you.'
Seeing how having women lying unconscious around their dumpster would not benefit the politically correct image of K.R.A.P.P.-radio, the board of directors rapidly agreed to let Jeffrey give Nikki a ride home. She soaked herself in the tub for half the evening and then went straight to bed for a nightmare-ridden sleep until she got saved by the doorbell. She opened the door and saw two men in blue.
'Yes? Is there a problem, officer?'
'We have a warrant for your arrest.'
'Come again? What the hell for?'
'You have been identified as the sole consistent participant in numerous breaches of the peace during the past week. You are also accused of arson on more than one account and causing damage to one of the city's ornaments.'
'Whàt?! But... I... look, I hèlped you guys, didn't I? Caught the bad guys, no?'
'And that's very commendable of you, ma'am; but I think we all agree people will feel a lot more comfortable knowing the proper authorities are taking care of such things.'
'I'm sorry, ma'am?'
'I 'it mah 'ongue...'
Her court date came remarkably quick. She didn't like the prosecutor, however. Somehow, he seemed out to get her.
'Now then, mrs. Holmes,' the man smirked after a lengthy and unpleasant cross-examination. 'Tell us why you shouldn't be confined? You are clearly a hazard for the public safety.'
'No, I'm not! I only used my powers to do good!'
'What about this time you used them to assault your supervisor at work?'
'Well, okay, that was uncalled for. It was all new to me, and I... slipped. But it was only once, and I was provoked! Besides, like I said, I don't hàve my powers anymore!'
'So you claim. They just... vanished. But how can we be sure about this? Can you prove it?'
'You mean, by not generating fire?'
He smiled. 'Have you seen the news last wednesday? There was somebody with remarkable similar "powers" as yours on it. Now I wonder what are the odds to that?'
'I did tell you about the spirit, didn't I? Clearly he possessed somebody else after he ditched me.'
'Maybe so. Or are you not only able to generate fire, but also to change shape?'
'What are you saying? That I can turn myself into a man as a clever form of disguise?'
'No, I can't.'
'But how can we know?'
'Well, if you like, I could not turn into a man right here.'
The prosecutor assumed a position widely practiced by reprimanding schoolteachers. 'I trust, miss Holmes, that you are taking this seriously?'
'Let the record show the defendant bit her tongue.'
'Are you alright, miss?' the judge inquired.
'Es, 'ank you, youh 'o'our...'
'Court adjourned, back in session in one hour!'
Nikki and Jeff (who had come for moral support) sat outside of the courtroom, close to the vending machines.
'So, how did I do?'
Jeff hissed and bobbed his head, 'Well, I wouldn't start inflating balloons just yet. That prosecutor is one mean son of a bitch! And calling the judge "your horror" sure didn't help things either...'
'I never said that! When did I say that?'
'Right after you bit your tongue.'
'I said honour! Honour!'
'Sounded like horror to me.'
'Oh God... I'm screwed, aren't I?'Nikki rested her forehead on her knees. Spiderman never got into this kind of trouble for sure. Then again, he kept his true identity a secret, and he probably never lingered for the cops either. She'd really have to start reading comics. Meanwhile, Jeffrey had ventured near the vending machines, looking for consolation food.
'Want some crisps? They have cheese & onion, salt & vinegar, potato & grease, let's see... Benson & Hedges...'
'Do you get to shave your legs in the women's prison?'
'Dunno... papaya & mudkip... ooh, Calvin & Hobbs...'
'I'm soooo screwed.'
In the end, Nikki got off with six months of community service and a stern warning never to get caught with so much as a lighter on her person. As she left the courthouse in a funk, she was barely aware of Jeff's attempts for light-hearted conversation until he grabbed hold of her arm.
'I said, I'm going this way, unless you want me to walk you home?'
'No. No, that's fine, thank you. I could really appreciate some time alone now.'
'I understand. Well, let me know if I can do anything for you, okay?'
'Will do.' Nikki watched him walk away and headed home herself, reflecting on her current situation. So, she was without a job. And sadly enough, almost everybody knew who she was, so her chances of ever getting a new one were very, very slim - though this meant she did have plenty of time to do her community service. Ah hell - she was screwed. And for what? A couple of bad guys who were bound to escape prison by the end of the week and a statue in need of some plaster. She sighed as she walked into Emmbush park. Well, at least the park was safe now, she accomplished thàt much.
Suddenly, someone rose from the bushes on her right, grabbed her by the arms and pulled her off the gravelled path, throwing her down a small slope. As she looked up to him, moonlight fell upon his features.
Without a word, he rushed downhill and punted her in the temple.
As her consciousness slowly gained the upperhand Nikki became more and more aware of her surroundings.
'Deeeee! DeeDeeeDeeee! Deeeeeee!'
She had a huge headache, beyond which there were these rather familiar, high pitched whining sounds, very much like seagulls. There was sand between her fingers, and a briny quality to the air she breathed.
And if that wasn't a wave she didn't know what was. So she was on a beach. It was still night, with a beautiful, wide open starlit sky.
'Seeing stars, are we?' Larry's nasal voice cut in.
Nikki sat up, causing a new gulf of pain to surge through her head. 'Larry... ow! Have you lost your mind?'
'Part of it, maybe. But I gained a friend.'
'What are you talking about?'
'As if you don't know. Your former buddy, the efreeti! He visited me and told me everything. How you loathed me, and how he abandoned you for your insipid simplemindedness believe me, I can sympathize with him. But tonight, at least I'll get to put a permanent end to your parade of errors.'
Nikki's heart turned to ice whe she saw the expression on his face. The bastard was a sucker for that efreeti which shouldn't surprise her. They both reveled in her fear no doubt.
Yyyyyàààààààààààààààààhhhhhhh The ocean sighed as another wave rolled up the beach.
'You can't get away with this, Larry!' she cried, desperately.
'Deeeee!' A seagull sailed overhead.
'Oh, but I can. Rest assured that I can. It's only a matter of basics, you know. I burn you to ashes, the tide comes in and sweeps them away. Nobody ever hears from you ever again. A tragic disappearance.
Nnnnnààààààààààààhhhhhhh. The tide wàs coming in, the water almost touched her feet.
'Well, maybe not thàt tragic,' Larry continued, 'who'll miss a superheroine-wannabe?'
'Well, Miss Holmes, it's been nice catching up with you, but I have a world for an oyster, so I can't stay and chat.' Flames erupted from his palms and danced a jig in his hands.
As the fire shot towards her, the first wave soaked her feet. A cool, tingling sensation made every hair on her body stand on end as a soft, lisping voice whispered in her head:
a huge fist of fire closed around her, the ever-changing pattern of the flames all she could see. Her body, however, was completely focused upon the tide, the pull of the water... no, pulling the water!
'You can do it, sister... you can feel the ocean calling you. Answer it, and it will come to your aid.'
'Oh God, how do I get into these things?'
'It is your gift. Of course, you could let him burn you to ashes...'
Larry smirked as he closed the titanic flaming fist around Nikki's body. How long would it take her to burn? A couple of minutes, likely. Ah well, this was fun. And after he got rid of the little bitch, he'd...
An enormous wave crushed down upon him, knocking him over. He tried to get back upright, but his fingers couldn't get any grip on the sand as the wave dragged him along into the ocean, both he and the efreeti within him screaming in mortal fear. Then, the ocean swallowed them both.
'Is it over?' Nikki asked.
'For the mortal, yes. The efreeti is powerless in the waters, but eventually he will emerge, given a few decades. For you, however, this is a new beginning. A new opportunity.'
'To do what?'
'As you please. But take your time. You have a lifetime to learn the water isn't going anywhere.'
As they were having breakfast, Nikki briefed Jeff about the new developments.
'So, she's a kind of water spirit? That's convenient. And she's not bossing you around or anything?'
'No, I havent heard from her since. But I can feel her power in me... I'm aware of every drop of water in my surrounding. It's pretty... well, scary really. But in a cool way.'
'So long as she doesn't ask you to flood the city.'
'I don't think she will. She's different from that efreeti, like... fire and water?'
'Well, all the better for it. So, are you gonna pick up your superhero career?'
'You think I should?'
'Sure, why not? The world needs a hero. But wear a mask this time.'
'Yeah. And don't linger for the cops.'
'And you need a name.'
Nikki considered this. 'What do you suggest?'
'Hmmm... It has to be related to your powers. First fire, now water.... Opposite Girl?'
'People'll think I'm a crossdresser.'
'Great cover, though.'
'Okay... how about... ooh, I know!'
'What? Go on, out with it!'
Jeff gave her a smug smile. 'Elementary, dear Holmes.'
'You are such a nerd, Watson.' Nikki smiled, and kissed him on the cheek.