The Return of the Purple Puffin – The End


“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Alex, at which Declan roared with laughter.
“And what is that one thing you don’t understand, Lady Constance?” he enquired with the air of a detective who has gathered everyone together in the library.
She grinned sheepishly. “Pretty much all of it, I suppose. Just go over it again for me, will you?”
It was ten days later and already the case showed signs of being buried in the Press, as John Major had finally succumbed to the inevitable and requested the Queen to dissolve Parliament. Both parties had swung into full Election mode and, although the outcome seemed foreordained, New Labour were campaigning as if their very existence depended upon it and the Conservatives were busy warning everyone who would still listen to them about the absolute disaster it would be if their hands were forcibly ripped from the wheel.
They were in an obscure but well-appointed hotel in Devon. Alex had been there, with Alicia, for nine days, but Declan had only arrived that afternoon, slipping in by Movements unseen. Although emphasis had shifted more than somewhat from the Regina Tyler scandal, the lady’s photogenic looks ensured a level of tabloid attention robust enough to have lasted thus far.
Miss Tyler had escaped custody, thanks to some formidable lawyering and, it has to be said, an undue emphasis on the fact that most of the evidence in the case had been procured by not merely a costumed figure, but one who was wanted as a criminal himself.
“Yes, Declan said. “Not that I regret for one minute frying Eric Johnson’s brain, I mean, do unto others as they would do to you, but get it in first, they should make everyone who decides to do this stupid, and may I say, unpaid job learn that off by heart before they’re allowed to even design a costume. But whilst it doesn’t leave me filled with regret that someone who’d decided to dedicate his life to destroying mine has ended up the way he is, it does rather take the edge off thins to have given the Queen Bee something with which to belabour the evidence again her.”
“Is he really going to be incapacitated for life?” Alex asked.
Declan shrugged. “Never say never. Not with the kind of stuff some of my colleagues can do, and with what science is desperately trying to reproduce now it knows there’s some of us trying to do it. It was a complete surprise to discover Regina Tyler’s efforts were all focussed on trying to duplicate my powers.” He looked pensive. “I retire for five years because I’m disgusted with the whole business and, I don’t know, I’m still distorting the world all the time I’m trying to avoid using my powers.”
“You took to them again pretty quickly though, didn’t you?” said Alex with a queer note to her voice.
Declan looked at her along the length of the sofa. Arms folded around her stomach, knees drawn up to her waist, body language set to defensive, that’s what he’d have expected to see with that voice, but she was sat casually, one hand supporting her face.
“Alex, you can accuse me of being a lot of things, and a lot of them will be true, but I am not stupid. When you take the decision to put on a mask and put yourself out there, you either learn to be smart, or you don’t get to sit there and talk about it ten years later. The moment I realised that I was up against a combination of two very rich, very successful people who seemed to be behind a scheme that involved fake battles being organised to destroy public buildings, I knew I couldn’t tackle this alone. I’ve always been a loner, never joined any teams, very rarely teamed up with anyone, and never deliberately, but I’ve always been a realist. You do what works.”
So, and without going into details by so much as it’s name, he explained to Alex that he’d enlisted the Switchboard to provide him with full operational assistance. Surveillance devices, remote and personal – he had had both audio and video recording equipment, supplied by Barrington, woven seamlessly into his costume – linked to Police units waiting just off-site for the call-in. Electronic depressors, baffles and penetrators overcoming the majority of the site security, especially the really scary crap protecting the laboratories. Aid from his peers: Icecapade, who had the best relationship with the authorities of all of them, to broker the approach to the Police, including the incidental news that these two masterminds were attempting to smear a guy called Declan Cuffe, who’d gotten in their way over Planning issues: Doctor Star, who’d recently retired from active duty but was now working closely with the Switchboard on providing supporting services to any costume needing specialist equipment to achieve things they couldn’t alone: Hyperwoman running interference for the London Raid and the Labrat conducting a sweep of the computer systems of both perpetrators’ organisations and clearing out any references to the White Knight.
Which had no doubt gone no further than the information banks of the Switchboard itself, but whilst he would once – say, about a fortnight ago –  have gone apeshit about that, Declan was more sanguine than he had ever been. A lot of people now knew his secret, not just him and Harry, but the most important thing was that the authorities firmly believed that Declan Cuffe was not involved with the White Knight in any way.
Of course, that didn’t stop Regina Tyler from getting his name into the Press, which was why Alex and Alicia, asleep in her cot on the other side of the room, had spent the last week and a half in one of the Switchboard’s protected locations, away from the press. Declan had faced up to it and rode the storm.
“But how can you be sure they can’t connect you to this?” Alex pleaded. “I mean, you are the White Knight, unless you were lying to me about that, and you were there without your costume in front of them. And why were you so stupid as to go and do a thing like that?”
“Firstly, they created their own White Knight, thanks to Eric Johnson’s mind. I mean, ok, he was right, he did have a superpower after all, which is another good reason that I’m not losing any sleep over his having had a stroke, because that means he can’t do that any more.” Declan shook his head.”Just think how dangerous he could have been with that. I mean, that not-me that he created wasn’t just a thought construct, he was solid, through and through.
“But by producing him, and trying to make me come out of the woodworks in time to have my name blackened, they gave me alibi after alibi. The White Knight kept appearing when I was provably somewhere else, and, with the aid of Doctor Star’s fabulous Chameleodroid to go visit Sammy and Andy a couple of hours before it all kicked off, and stay there weeping all evening, they don’t have any doubts whatsoever.”
“I hope you’re right, but that doesn’t mean the Press will shut up, does it?” Declan noticed that Alex had been a little tight-faced over the reference to his weeping, which he thought augured well.
“No, but they’ve other fish to fry, and the public’s losing interest. I reckon we can all go home next week without worries.”
Alex let that pass. “And what are you going to do?”
“Well, given all the publicity about me being victimised, not to mention that the Tyler scheme is now officially dead in the water, George has been forced to rescind my suspension and take me back. Of course it’s had to have been formally reviewed, and I’ve had a severe slap on the wrist over my pissiness that day I walked out, just to make them feel better, but I start back at the Town Hall on Monday, and everything goes back to normal.”
“Everything?” she asked. He should have spoken then but chose not to, spoke instead of what he believed she first needed to hear.
“I’m not doing that again,” he said, shaking his head firmly. “It was a one-off, and I didn’t have much choice in the end, but it’s only told me what I already knew: that I’m not cut out for living that kind of life. I don’t believe in it, and it doesn’t help anyone.”
Alex inclined her head. “So, what was Hillsborough?”
Declan closed his eyes. “A nightmare,” he said. “One I plan to wake up from. No,I’ve made it plain, officially this time, there is no more White Knight, and there never will be again.”
They sat and looked at each other. Maybe they were each waiting for the other to begin,hoping that neither of them had to take the responsibility for whatever might happen. The longer he waited, the harder Declan knew it was for him, and it was so awkward already, but if Alex wouldn’t offer him a sign, then he had to walk into the dark to try to find her.
“It’s over,” he repeated. “and it’s never going to happen again. And I want to come home. To you, I mean, not just to Lissy.”
“Come over here,” she said, and he was in her arms on the instant, kissing her, passionately, feeling her responsiveness, moving together in ways that were familiar yet startlingly new. Her face was wet, and so was his, tears of relief and release, as his hands pushed in under her top, ran across the soft, smooth skin of her back, touching and drawing, her mouth eager for his as he began to unhook her bra, and the tears became sobs and her mouth fought to escape his, to give way to great heaves that pressed her into him in a way he found wonderful, but which halted as she put her hands to his face and held it away.
“I’m sorry,” she said, repeating the words many times, as he wrapped his arms round her to comfort her in whatever this meant, as stones began to churn in the pit of his stomach.
It should have been dark. It should have been evening, with dimmed lights the only illumination, where they could talk with faces half-hidden in shadows and expressions impossible to decipher, but it was afternoon and the sun streamed in through all windows, pin-sharp and unforgivingly cheerful.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said again. “It’s not that you lied, though that hurt me so badly, knowing I could never trust you again. It’s not even necessarily what you lied about, though you don’t seem to understand that it isn’t over and it never will be, as long as that Tyler woman knows who you are. You turned Alicia and me into targets, and I can’t cope with that.”
“But isn’t there a way to try to handle this? We have so much to talk about. We love each other, we’ve got to be able to find a way to let that work.”
“Declan, I… I’m sorry, I know it’s a lousy thing to say, but I don’t know, at the moment, if I love you or not. But one thing I do know is… that I don’t think you love me any more.”
“What are you saying? Of course I love you!”
“You love Alicia, I know. But me? When I asked you to go, Declan, what did you do?”
“I went. Because you wanted me, and because we needed space at that time.”
“Yes, but what did you do?”
He thought about it. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“You didn’t fight. You didn’t argue with me. You didn’t try to get me to change your mind, or plead with me to give you a chance, or tell me you loved me. You didn’t even wait to see if I thought better of it. You took out a six month letting on a flat.
“I don’t think you do love me any more, Declan. I’m sure you think you do, but if you look a lot closer at yourself, maybe you’ll see that most of it is a reflection of Alicia.”
He was stunned, crushed. He wanted to fulminate, to jump and shout and swear and deny, but instead he was paralysed. “And are you really sure you aren’t cut out to be a superhero?” Alex gently quizzed him. “You seemed to have no difficulty handling it again.”
Declan shook his head. “That’s over,” he said, firmly. “But surely you and I aren’t?”
Alex lowered her eyes. “I’m afraid we are. I’m sorry, Declan. But even superpowers can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Don’t feel too bad. You saved everybody else, after all. Isn’t that what the White Knight does? Save people?”
Save people? But who had he really saved?

Advertisements

The Return of the Purple Puffin – Day 28


Take it outside, that was what went through Declan’s mind instantly. Five people in a room, even a big room, with all sorts of as yet hidden security: no place for the kind of slam-bang action that he suddenly welcomed. Regina Tyler’s office became a sudden mass of fissures, exits in every direction, and Declan Moved through one. One White Knight disappeared at the same moment.
Two steps later, one White Knight burst into the courtyard. The Purple Puffin floated down, wings spread wide, landing ten paces in the Knight’s rear. Regina Tyler detached herself from his grasp. There was an oddly-shaped pistol in her left hand, with a fat barrel and two spikes projecting forward from its muzzle.
“Where is he?” the Puffin screamed. “Has he run again? Don’t tell me he’s run again!”
“Don’t worry,” she assured him, crossing over to a position to the Knight’s left, scanning the area. “We know who he is, we know where he lives. I can drop a word in a tabloid journalist’s ear any time.”
“Why wouldn’t he just admit it? We caught him, fair and square. Why’s he lying?”
“You just don’t get it,” said another White Knight, stepping through nothingness into the space behind the Puffin and hammering him across the back of the neck with an arm encased in white mail. The Puffin stumbled forward, using his wings to balance himself, and shaking his head. Metal backed mask, Declan thought. Lunatic, but well-organised with it.
The false Knight had blinked out. Declan, now safely encased in the helm, wrapped once more in his old costume, the costume he’d had poised, ready to step from the Space, as if an independent being, saw three entries around him, but the false Knight came at him from a fourth direction, ramming a mailed fist into his kidneys. Sickening nausea shot through him, even as he Moved sideways, across the Courtyard, appearing fifteen yards distant.
“Your man’s gone,” he shouted, Moving diagonally as the false Knight apparated, arm raised. The blow fell on nothing, and Declan hit Regina Tyler across the wrist with the edge of his fist, sending the gun flying out of her hand.
“He was never here,” he called, avoiding a sweeping kick from the false Knight, zooming in from the left, Moved behind the Puffin and chopped his legs out from under.
“No more phoney enemies!” he whooped, appearing clinging to a ledge on the second floor, then back to the round and kicking the gun hard across the ground before Regina, her eyes tearing with pain, could scrabble for it with her right hand. “Sorry, did I hurt your wrist there?” he sympathised, stopping long enough for the false Knight to wrap his arms around Declan’s shoulders. Elbows into the other’s ribs loosened the grasp just enough to allow him to wriggle free and Move before the false Knight could come back at him.
“You’re facing me now, not a civilian,” he roared. Adrenalin pulsated and he sprang into the air, Moved and descended on the Puffin’s head, knocking the other to the ground. “Pathetic obsessive loser,” he added as he sprang away, only to find himself Moving into the path of the false Knight, who hammered two quick punches to the helm, Declan landing a kick on the other’s thigh at the same time but getting no weight behind it.
“Bring it on,” he said, and increased the pace. Twenty White Knights appeared, momentary flashes, vanishing as soon as they were seen, charging in to hack, slash, kick or hammer upon the false knight and the Puffin, sometimes all at once, others in little relay strikes, sending them one after another. Regina was left alone, cradling her wrist – broken or merely fractured, it didn’t matter – but her eyes followed every movement with the speed of the expert fencer who can see the individual motions of the Master’s attack. And if there were twenty Knights, there were a half dozen more, dealing out shattering blows, clubbing and sweeping other Knights. Some fell, vanished a last time, others stumbled and disappeared as well, though the false Knights were thinned out too, only not so quickly.
The Puffin fluttered about the edge of the combat, trying to intervene with kicks and punches, swinging into the swirling mêlèe. When he hit, he usually hit Declan, who was leaping and whirling through gates and cracks that he was faster than the eye can see, creating the impression of a band of gladiators, and not the false Knight, who didn’t seem to be duplicating himself through a trick of the eye, but rather by actual multiple location.
He’s already not Moving like me. He hasn’t used a single entrypoint to get himself anywhere. Block a fist, kick and Move. So whoever he is, he’s not using my powers, only something that looks like it. Scythe a boot out from beneath him, Move to the other side and kick him in the ribs before he hits the deck, bastard trying to rabbit punch me in the neck and Move. Why’s Regina here instead of somewhere safe? She’s not fighting, but then the bloody Puffin is a waste of space… Move: there’s that gun, wonder what the bastard thing does, try to grab it or at least stomp it flat when I next. Move: roundhouse into the face, knee in the groin, shit, that hurt! Move. No security guards are coming to see what’s going on. There was site security when I canvassed the place to find Regina’s offices, what’s happened to them? Move.
Whatever lay behind the false Knight, it was damned effective. There was never a moment to breathe, never a second to relax, to plan anything. Just hit, rush on, try to knock the Puffin down every chance you get, see where Regina is, but time to shift again before that pseudo-me arrives again.
Hit and run and hit and run and try to vary the pattern, try to change the Move before this becomes nothing more than a series of endless repetitions, because both of us have a power that encourages us to sneak attack and we’re too good at getting away and rebounding from another angle.
So break the mould, Cuffe, demonstrate that you’ve not totally forgotten how to deploy this power. Show that you learned something from Harry, he used his power over time in s many different ways, never at a loss, that lad, take a blow and roll with it and return a kick from close range instead of Moving, only watch out for that Purple Twat, christ, that costume’s fucking stupid but that beak is sharp, that actually cut me, oww!
And Declan had a thought, Moved instantly to an aerial position, fixed the whereabouts of everybody in his mind and, before the pseudo-Knight could spring at him,Moved again. Regina Tyler gasped and immediately began to struggle, but the Declan-Knight had her gripped, arm around the waist and pulling her back against him, and against the wall.
“Wait!” the Purple Puffin called desperately, waving the false Knight down. The silent figure   dimmed, as if he was about to do whatever he did when he Moved, but resolidified, fists clenched.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” screeched Regina. “What are you doing, let me go, now!” And she struggled in his grasp, trying to squeeze his arm away from round her, scratching at it with her nails, trying to slash at his legs with her heels. Declan caught one of her ankles with his free and, snapped off the heel, his eyes fixed on the purple and white figures standing less than en feet away.
“Naughty girl,” he admonished, “and I don’t know what on Earth’s so filthy about a friendly cuddle like this? It’s not like I’m trying to get my hand inside your bra or anything, although if we an et rid of these gooseberries for the evening and sit down perfectly civilised, a couple of glasses of wine, some friendly conversation, a signed confession on behalf of yourself and your associates, and we could find ourselves getting into something a little more comfortable.”
Her nails squeezed into him where the puffin-beak had dug a gash along the forearm. Blood dripped from his arm and spattered down her skirt. Declan winced.
“Now that’s not nice, Regina,” he said, tightening his arm around her. “Sorry about your skirt, but at this point, any well brought-up young lady would already be tearing strips off her hemline to bind up the hero’s wounds, so it’s not like the stains will really show.”
“You bastard, Cuffe!” the Purple Puffin spat out. “You let her go! She’s nothing to do with this!”
Declan roared with laughter, whilst swivelling his captive more towards the silent Knight, who had moved a step or two closer.
“Get him back, Puffin, now! This is a stand-off, and any movements from your side and it’s not going to go well for the lovely Miss King here.” The Puffin gestured and the false Knight stepped back.”And go on, tell me another,” Declan said. “I could do with the laugh. Nothing to do with this? Bollocks.”
Regina was still struggling to free herself from his rip. She’d reached above and behind herself, trying to find his eyes, but the helm frustrated her, and Declan paused for a moment to bend over her and whisper something in her ear that made her face darken, but caused her to lapse into stillness, albeit a shaking, breathless stillness.
“Yes,” Declan repeated. “Stand-off. If you’d ever been anything remotely like a self-respecting supervillain, Puffin, you’d know that there comes a time when the fighting isn’t getting you anywhere, so you start to talk. So let’s do that now, whilst everyone’s still on one piece, ok?”
“I have nothing to say to you,” the angry Puffin shrilled.
“I didn’t say both sides had to talk,” Declan said, his eyes continually flicking from one to the other. “You’re a loser. A completely pathetic, useless, ignorant waste of space, with the worst delusions of grandeur that I have ever seen. Look at you! You think you can be a villain, can dress up in a costume and go out there and be the big man doing damage all around him? Cheating and lying and thieving and beating up all the big kids who used to pick on you at school and nick your Dinner Money? And you’re going to tower over them and show them who’s the really big guy dressed as a Puffin? A fucking Puffin! A short-arse bird that dives into the water and eats fish? You really, truly, seriously expected to be treated with respect, dressed like that? And in Purple, too!”
Declan shook his head. “Oh yeah, they were right mate, I did quit because of you. Because as soon as I saw you, I thought, I can’t go on like this. I don’t even know if I’m doing anyone any damned good any more, wearing this costume and now, because I’m wearing this costume, some great stupid zebe thinks he can seriously get away with dressing up like a Purple Puffin! Jesus, even football mascots don’t look as stupid as you, and they don’t go around pretending to have superpowers!”
“Who’s pretending?” snapped the Puffin. Regina was suddenly torn from Declan’s arms, as if she’d not been there. The false Knight jumped at him and, instinctively, Declan Moved, clean across the courtyard. Regina stood in front of him, her left hand cradled defensively across her midriff, the hand hanging loose, and the gun raised in her right hand.
“Fucking bastard,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
The first thing he was aware of was the heaviness of his head. Raising it, and blinking, he was grateful to find his sight enhanced by transparent lens,which meant his helm was intact and unbreached. His arms were bound, to something heavy by the feel of it, and his legs clamped. Extending his field of vision, he was perturbed, but not surprised to find he could not see any fissures. No Moves on the table, then.
“You’re awake then,” Regina Tyler said, from somewhere to his left. She sounded surly, and there was none of the implied seductiveness to her voice. Perhaps she didn’t appreciate a companionable cuddle, he thought. Might have blown my chances with her, now I’m a single man again.
“Don’t start playing games any more. You’re not funny and this is no longer the time for your disgusting attempts at levity.”
Declan shrugged lightly, or did as best as he could in the circumstances. “Congratulations are in order, I see. You’re thinking at this moment that you’ve neutralised me, and that I can’t go anywhere now, so your boyfriend’s probably going to come in at some point and rant at me again about how I ruined his life. Fair enough, I’ll sit and listen. But you might warn him that I’m going to be wanting equal time to explain to him my theories about how far beyond the reach of psychiatric treatment his complexes are.”
He twisted his head on his shoulders a little, feeling cramped muscles unwind stiffly. “Couldn’t get the helmet off, mind, could you?”
A resounding blow on the back of his head snapped it forward, crushing his forehead into the inner part of the helm. Declan grimaced, and carefully explored the inside of his mouth with his tongue, which was already swollen where he’d bitten it. A little gingerly, but no less brightly, he addressed the stern-faced Regina. “Unfortunately, it appears we’re not alone. Who brought the wallflower?”
He was ready for the second blow, but his forehead was still tender, and he’d have bruising there, for days if he wasn’t careful. “Still think I haven’t got superpowers, you sanctimonious cretin?” the Purple Puffin demanded.
“Give over. It was Regina’s magic gun that got me, not anything you did. Don’t worry though, it’s the first thing that’s getting broken the moment I’m out of your fancy chair. Unless you’re in the way, of course.”
“It’s incredible! Your egotism is unbelievable! Do you seriously imagine that, having gotten you to this point, we would actually let you go?”
“You’re not listening, Puffin old pal. Maybe you should take that stupid mask off, stop the feathers mucking your ears up. I shall be leaving under my own steam, and I’m sorry Regina, but under the obligations placed on me by reason of being a feminist, I shalln’t hesitate to punch the lights out of you if you make it necessary. You shouldn’t have dragged that other guy in to this. You made a very big mistake there.”
The Puffin laughed. “No, it’s you who have made the mistakes here. The mistake of thinking that you were cleverer than me, that I wasn’t a force to be reckoned with, that I was just something to be spurned and trodden on. No, my friend, if you want me to remove my mask, I will, always providing that you have done me the courtesy of first removing your own.”
“Not quite this minute, Eric.” Declan laughed. “I suppose you think you’ve been a bit on the clever side,you two. Getting up that impersonator to play me, knocking down first the only bit of your complex that wasn’t already devoted to experiments, like this room. It’s a wormhole project, isn’t it? You’re trying to find a way into them, get them under control, accessible. All sorts of advantages to you, being able to travel the way I do.
“But you’ve got exactly nowhere with it except that you can shut them off, clog them up,divert them away. That generator I can see, churning out all that energy, it’s reversing their polarity somehow, so they fall in on themselves.
“Don’t look so bloody surprised. I may have been out of touch for five years but once you wake up and find that someone with his eye to to wreak havoc for you is trying to work on your powers, you make sure you catch up.”
The Puffin was fuming ever more at everything Declan was saying, but there was a trace of concern on Regina’s face, the merest suggestion of a line on her otherwise perfect brow. “It doesn’t really matter to you either way. Within this room, there simply is nowhere for you to exercise your peculiar abilities. There is nowhere to go, no Move for you to make, and you cannot break those shackles. You can issue whatever threats you like, it simply will not wash. You are powerless.”
“I’m sure that saying that makes you feel happier, Regina, but it’s not going to make you any more secure. Except on that deep, psychological level that we don’t usually go to the NHS to try to get straightened out.”
Declan pointedly grinned, though it had no effect on anyone but himself.
“You really should choose your boyfriend’s better, Regina. I mean, when it came to that first magical moment, when the wine was fine and the night full of stars, and he took you in his arms and whispered those words you’d been longing to hear, ‘Darling, let’s take over the world’, deep inside you should have trusted that little voice that said, dammit, I really wanted him to ask me if I would take my knickers off.”
“You filthy bastard!” she shouted, moving forward and raising her left hand, as if to deliver a sweeping slap to his face. Declan could see that she’d changed her clothing, replacing her skirt with tailored dark trousers, and adding a plaster-reinforced bandage to her wrist.”
“Careful,” he warned. “You’ll hurt yourself more than me if you do that, especially with that hand.”
“Regina, don’t fall for it,” the Puffin said. “He’s trying to provoke you into something foolish because he has no other cards to play. He’s trapped, and he’s just trying to get under your skin by being crude.”
“Crude?” Declan said in tones of mock-amazement. “When you give me feed-lines like that, it’s almost a duty to be crude, but I shall rise above that. And I’d blame your bird, not me, Eric. If she wants to manipulate people by sexual stimulation, she’s got to expect some people actually take that act for more than face value. It might not be that much, but at least it is a superpower.”
The Purple Puffin stared at him, little beady eyes above the gaudy beak. “Oh, but I do have a superpower,” he said, very quietly. “You keep doubting me, trying to make out I’m beneath your notice, but I have a power, and it’s a much better power than yours.”
“I’ll bet you think you can piss higher, too,” Declan taunted.
There was a flash between them and the false White Knight appeared, tall and silent.
“So much for your wormhole free environment, Regina,” he called to the sullen-faced woman. “Your science isn’t so cutting edge as you think.”
The false Knight stepped forward, towering over the real one. He seemed to expand, upwards, outwards. He did expand, his helm rising up towards the overhead lights, his plume, moving artificially in the absence of any wind, spreading widely.
“That would only be true if my White Knight used the same powers as you. But he doesn’t need to. He doesn’t come and go where he pleases, he comes and goes where I please. Because I created him. With my mind. A perfect replica. And I know he’s perfect because I remember every stinking inch of you, and I could from him in my mind until I could draw him out and make him do things, completely independent things. That’s when I knew I’d finally got the means for revenge against you.”
“You don’t say?” Declan drawled. That explained a lot, an awful lot. For everybody’s sake.
He looked up and around. “I hope you got all of that, Sammy, because I’m going to bash them now.”
And then he stood up, ripping the chair in half along with him, no matter that it was steel, as a surge of power unfolded through every limb. The Puffin snarled and the false Knight leapt at him but Declan, hoarding a second reserve of power for all this, slammed a right fist into the chest of the White Knight: into and through, shattering the construct and sending a wave of psychic backlash into all the nerves of the Puffin, who shrieked and collapsed, his mask and beak spinning off his head with the force that his head snapped back.
Regina Tyler’s eyes rolled in shock and at the sight of her associate collapsing like spaghetti she screamed. Declan was across the room to grab her arm. Desperately, she tried to bring the gun to bear on him, but with a very precise motion, he kicked the gun very solidly out of her hand, sending it spiralling across the room.
“Sorry,” he said, in tones of apparent regret.”Did I break your other wrist as well? The problem is, Regina darling, and before I forget to mention it, I’ve already arranged for your pheromones to be blanketed out, you’ll find you get more joy with Lancombe rather than your natural, ah, assets, now where was I? Oh yes, the problem is that if you focus your attempts wholly on neutralising someone’s obvious abilities, you can kinda overlook the less obvious ones.”
“What less obvious ones?” she gasped. Declan, considerately holding her by the arm, turned and surveyed the mess he’d made of the room.
“Well, I should think that at least one of them is a bit less hidden by now. Ahh, DCI Norton, good evening. It took some time to gather admissions on all scores, but I hope I’ve handed you enough to put a crimp in these two birds’ careers.”
Sammy Norton shouldered her way to his side, looking coldly at Regina, and not so warmly at the White Knight. “We’ve got all your broadcasts, audio and visual, plus I’ve got the Met raiding Miss Tyler’s head offices in London at this moment, but we’ll wait and see the extent of what can be proved.”
“That’s nonsense, and you know it!” Regina burst in. “You’ve no right to be here at all, Inspector! This is private property, and you have no warrant, and besides, this man has no legal standing whatsoever. I demand my Lawyer! I’ll be taking action against this, this, White Knight for assault, trespass, forced entry, criminal damage. My God, what has he done to Eric? And my arms, he’s broken both my arms!”
“Guilty as charged,” the White Knight said, happily. “In the purely moral sense, of course. Should any criminal proceedings result from this, I will naturally plead self-defence, and introduce in evidence that rather nasty gun over there, the moulds and blueprints for you might want to accidentally destroy when you’re conducting a thorough search of this building.”
“You’re not searching anywhere,” Regina yelled. “These are private premises. There are commercial and industrial processes being conducted here, research worth millions to this company that you simply will not be allowed to compromise.”
“That will be a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service, madam,” Sammy Norton said. “But after what I’ve seen you and your friend doing, not to mention the wide-ranging damage and destruction you’ve admitted to being jointly responsible for procuring, I don’t think there’ll be much objection to our ferreting out what else you may have been doing from this site.
“And I see that your associate is Mr Eric Johnson, a prominently known local developer, who will face similar charges to you as a joint enterprise, but who will also face enquires as to the exact reason he has chosen to dress as a purple bird, of some unknown species.”
“Puffin, Officer,” put in Declan, who had, almost as a matter of course relogged onto the shifting patterns of fissures that had begun to populate the room once the generator had been powered down.
“Shut up you,” ordered Sammy. “We still have to question you about your part in all this, not to mention your legal standing.”
“He has none,” Regina said, coldly, and calmly. Declan looked at her askance. She had started to recover her self-possession. “But if you want to question him, it’s easy to find him. His name’s Declan Cuffe, and he’s a Senior Officer with your Council, in Planning ad emergency Reconstruction. I’m sure he has a long record of law-breaking that you should discuss with hi. Don’t forget to tell the Press you have a suspect. I know I won’t.”
“Ms Norton?” Declan said, quizzically. “Is this true what she’s saying about me?”
“Hardly,” snorted the DCI. “Miss Tyler, I know Declan Cuffe. I don’t know what your motive is in trying to drag him in to all this, but when I left to supervise this operation, Declan Cuffe was drinking tea on my sofa, and crying on the shoulder of my partner about his marital problems.” It wasn’t easy with a blank ceramic helm, but Declan tried to radiate beaming innocence.
“So I think we’ll just start dealing with this down at GMP HQ. Is that man in the purple pyjamas ready to talk, DS Hooper?”
“Doubt it very much, boss,” Stephen Hooper said, speaking into his radio. “We’ve got an ambulance coming. Don’t know what’s happened to him, but he looks like my uncle did when he had that stroke, so I don’t think we’ll get that much out of him immediately.”
“Stroke, eh?” said Morton, turning back to the White Knight. “I don’t know what you’ve been up to, my lad, but if you’ve caused that gentleman any harm, that helmet’s coming off right now, and we’re off to the station now.” Regina Tyler was standing there, mascara running as big tears drained down her face.
“I’ll probably have to pass on that,” Declan said. “But I can promise you that the helmet’s not a problem. You won’t be seeing it again, and this time that’s for good.”
He Moved.

The Return of the Purple Puffin – Day 27


“Certainly,” Regina said, and turned to her other guest. “Mr Cuffe, I believe you have met the Purple Puffin before. I’m delighted to reunite you in this manner.”
Declan’s head was ringing. Once, in his fledgling days as the White Knight, he’d Moved the wrong way during a battle against Ironmaster, and had walked into a massive, and entirely metal, right fist that had nearly torn his head off, and it would not have gone well for his nascent career if, at the same time, the Red Devil hadn’t been making a largely successful attempt at unscrewing Ironmaster’s own noggin. The experience had always stood out in Declan’s memory as the most disorienting thing that had ever happened to him. Until now.
The Purple Puffin?
Here?
The Purple Puffin!?
Back again?
She called him Eric. Jesus, that’s got to mean Eric Johnson! He’s a certified supervillain? He’s the Purple Puffin?
The Purple fucking Puffin. Take me now, God.
“What a shame, Regina,” the man in the purple costume said. Declan refused to let the name cross his lips and would have done much to ensure it had never even crossed his mind. “Our guest seems to have temporarily lost his voice. And he was so obliging with his comments only so short a time ago, wasn’t he?”
“Indeed he was,” Regina said. “To listen to him, you’d think he was the perfect advertisement for the clean living, ultra competent hero, but he doesn’t seem to be so confident in his superiority over such figures as ourselves any more. Mr Cuffe – or should I begin to call you the White Knight at this point? – you don’t seem prepared to greet the Purple Puffin after so long a gap in your shared history. That’s most unmannerly of you.”
“History?” croaked Declan, amazed to find his voice still working, even if it sounded like a swinging chain in an abandoned shipyard.
“Well, yes,” the figure in purple said. You look at him and your eyes want to both run away somewhere round the back of your head and want to gape even wider so that you can assure them that they are indeed beholding the spectacle of a grown man wearing an action costume based on, indeed, the puffin. “Surely you can’t have forgotten our last meeting? In that jeweller’s warehouse? It certainly seemed to affect you. After all, you retired immediately after our encounter, didn’t you?”
Unfortunately, Declan did remember. He could have gone to Brainshaver and had the offensive memories sucked out of his head, so he’d never have to remember that moment of utter loathing, the lowness of discovering that, far from being the big go-to-guy that protected the weak and seriously duffed up the imprudently strong, he had only helped to invent new ways for people to try to force their greed on everyone around them. His presence only forced them to greater and more desperate lengths to try to get their own way. That there were no depths of inanity to which people wouldn’t stoop to be noticed as they beat their own heads in against the defensive ramparts of a cadre of supposed heroes, seeking to protect society, even as Government denied its existence. That he was standing in the path of a mass of people whose values of taking, demanding, wanting and grabbing he could no longer distinguish from the ethos of those who were supposed to demonstrate to them the value of life accessible to everyone.
Unfortunately, he still remembered the absurdity, the humiliation, the moment of nihilistic despair when he was brought face to face with the understanding that, instead of acting as a bulwark, a protector, a shining White Knight providing a living example to those in need of inspiration as to their lives, all he had done had been to create a situation where an otherwise ordinary, self-centred creature found it appropriate to dress up as a Puffin.
And a Purple Puffin at that.
“You remember,” said the man in the absurd costume. “Of course you remember. You wouldn’t fight me. You wouldn’t even look at me! I was standing there, ready for you. I’d planned for your tricks carefully, I was ready, I was going to beat you, and you just turned round sand walked away!” His voice rose. “Just what the hell was the matter with you? Fucking superhero, turning your back on me, me! Like I was nothing at all, too insignificant to be bothered with.”
Declan tightened his fists, his nails grinding so far into his palms that he began to think he was cutting into the bones. He couldn’t trust himself to speak. Normally, this wasn’t a bad idea, since most of the mad bastards could be relied upon to come out with enough waffle to cover up any number of gaps in the conversation, but this horrific re-emergence of a nightmare that had sent him fleeing was too much of an enormity for him to handle it.
“And then you disappeared. And nobody knew where you’d gone, White frigging Knight, but everybody said it was me, it was down to me, I’d gotten rid of you, and we were all well rid of you. But I didn’t get any credit. They weren’t praising me, they weren’t respecting me, they were… laughing!”
Declan looked up at that. There was something extra to the voice there, something more than megalomaniac rant, the ego spilling out and getting on everybody’s clothes. This had really meant something to this guy. Who he still couldn’t believe might be Eric Johnson. And who he seriously couldn’t believe was acting in concert with someone like Regina Tyler.
“No!” the birdhead foamed. “No, they didn’t respect me, they didn’t look up to me for getting rid of one of you sanctimonious cretins, they were laughing. At me. Behind my back. And to my face. Saying that you’d quit because you just couldn’t face the humiliation of being seen fighting someone so pathetic and feeble as me!”
A slow grin began to spread on Declan’s face. “What if I did?” he asked, relieved to hear his voice operating somewhere in the vocal range he was used to.
“You were a coward! You wouldn’t fight! You walked away from me! It was you who was pathetic, not me! They should have been laughing at you! Coward! You never gave me the chance! I would have shown how much faster than you I was, and stronger, and cleverer, and stronger too. You cheated me, and then you ran away and hid so no-one would see you, but you couldn’t hide from me! Oh no, I found you. I always knew I’d find you.”
“Ok, Johnson,” Declan said. The other man’s ragged anger inspired confidence in himself. So the Purple Puffin, the embodiment of all his doubts and fears about this whole life, should be a very successful businessman in real life? Or a property owner and developer like Eric Johnson should also be such an ineffectual supervillain? Somewhere, his contempt shifted, the balance of the scales tipping away to where it should have been all along.
“So you went looking for the White Knight, to try and get over your little self-humiliation,” he said, his voice getting clearer and more contemptuous with every syllable, “and you didn’t even get it right. You fixated on some poor innocent that you decided was your fantasy enemy and now you’re trying to make his life a misery because you can’t get your hands on the real thing.”
“Oh, Declan,” Regina cut in it exasperation. “We’re not complete idiots. Stop trying to pretend that it’s someone else beneath that mask. Or that it isn’t the same person behind the helmet of the White Knight.”
“And what makes you sure of that, Regina?” Declan asked, turning her direction but keeping more than half an eye and a great deal of focussed power trained on the purple clown. “Only, given this poor fool’s less than glowing track record, I wouldn’t put much weight on anything he claims.”
The Purple Puffin fluttered his fake feathers aggressively, but Regina Tyler stepped across to him, laying a soothing hand on a wing. She smiled sweetly at Declan, and a look of concentration entered her eyes.
A figure began to form in the air between them. At first it was transparent, a collection of lines and shades like a particularly uninspired abstract. But it grew more solid, developed a shape. It looked like a hoodie from the back, in the exact shade of the one Declan wore, and at his exact height. When it solidified, the figure turned on absent legs, and it’s hood fell away. Declan’s own face stared at him, lacking the mask he had drawn upon himself.
“Impressive,” he said. “You should paint that on a wall somewhere, someone might mistake it for a Banksy and pay you a lot of money for it. But where’s the post-modernism? Where’s the irony? And who’s the artist?”
“Does it matter?” Regina said. “You can see that these are the same people. The ridiculous mask doesn’t hide who you are.”
“Yes, I’ve looked you in the face, Declan Cuffe, and I know who you are. You sat opposite me in meetings about Canalside, blocking everything I did or said, at every turn, frustrating every move I tried to make, getting my project thrown out, and I kept wondering, who is this man, the little, petty man, who couldn’t build anything, couldn’t make anything stand up, and what has he got against me, such meagre resentment.”
“You have one of the worst cases of galloping paranoia I’ve ever come across, and you know nothing about Local Government if you think a single Council Officer blocked a scheme of that size,” Declan said, watching carefully.
“And it wasn’t until after, until we spoke, face to face, after that decision, when you gloated over me, that I realised who you really were. That I understood where I knew that voice from. That you hadn’t been able to beat me when I wore this suit, and you knew that I was your better, you just lied and planted stories that made people think you’d hidden for any other reason than that you were scared of me. And now you’d seen a way, a dirty, indirect, sneaking way to frustrate my plans,  to enable yourself to pretend you weren’t my inferior.”
The Puffin face was expressionless, but the mask was an inadequate cover for the naked hatred in the voice. “That’s when I swore I’d destroy you. That I’d take away from you everything that went to make up your sad, limited life.”
“Good luck to you,” Declan said. “I hope you’ve got enough money, to pay damages to this poor sod you’ve dragged in to your warped ideas. Because, for once and for all, I am not your Declan Cuffe. I’m not even the White Knight.”
And upon this enormity of a denial, the air at the end of the room shimmered like an acid curtain, and the tall, lean, muscular figure, in it’s white casing, leggings and boots, and the high, blank, ceramic helm with the flowing plume, stepped into Regina Tyler’s office and eased Declan out of the way.
“This meeting’s overdue, I think,” the White Knight intoned, in a voice not dissimilar to, but clearly different from Declan’s.
The Purple Puffin drew back, wings raised, an odd, barking shriek erupting from it’s beak and its feathers rustling. Regina Tyler, however, remained utterly calm.
“Oh, you have a White Knight, do you?” she said, stepping aside rapidly, as the wall shattered inwards, showering the office with bricks, none of which so much as grazed her. A tall figure dressed in white emerged unhurriedly through the rubble, a flowing plume depending from a blank ceramic helm.
“So do we.”

The Return of the Purple Puffin – Day 26


In the time before he could extend his investigations further, Declan went to visit Lissy again. Sitting and playing with his daughter was more than a world away, it was a transfer to the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way. Alex stayed downstairs, her face still set against him. There was nothing in that room to connect him to the lineation of his life; just a bubbling little face with dark eyes and an expression trying to practice anything she saw. It was sobering to the depth of him. He could win battles against everybody who had pissed on him so profusely this last couple of days, but the only battle worth a moment’s consideration was to share the love of this bounteous little being in whom he was perpetuated.
“Do you think…” he tried, but got no further than Alex’s rapidly turning head and her refusal to talk to him. So he went out, visited the Estate Agents to pick up the keys for his new flat, and spent an hour there, moving over the stuff he’d taken to Mickey’s and, for all intents and purposes, moving himself in.
Declan had planned to conduct a private raid on Johnson’s offices, but he had a new priority after the afternoon. Given the importance Regina Tyler was placing on the Manchester element of her Empire, it clearly demanded inspecting for the kind of documents, plans,models etc. that even the oleaginous Adrian Jepson might have trouble glossing over.
First, though, he took a few precautions. It was one thing to easily evade the security of the Town Hall, and even the more resolute version employed at the Land Registry, whilst it was a near certainty that nobody from the Switchboard had even taken a bus past Companies House whilst it was having it’s repository rifled, but Declan had the feeling that it wouldn’t prove half so easy with Regina Tyler. Funny how personalised things got around her.
Come dark, Declan set off. From the sanctity of a ring of pockets, surrounding the boundary walls and fences, he studied the external security: cameras, lights, motion detectors: not all of them new since the previous Monday. Funny that: all the time he’d spent since them grounding himself in Regina Tyler’s plans, and he hadn’t even ventured back to the site to look. Suspicious that, with all this security, nothing had come out to evidence the presence of either the Biker or his doppelgänger.
But there would certainly be no crossing the compound to the main building. Of course that wasn’t a handicap, but instead of sailing in with his usual confidence, Declan chose to stay where he was and check his route.
Hmm, yes. That would get him into the lower ground floor, but at that point the chain was pinched shut. From this direction, so far, a little further, but no: a sonic trap that would shatter his hearing. Try again: barricaded before I’d even reach the building. Yes, someone has anticipated non-corporeal access and done a damned good job of deflecting it. What of further in? Oh yes: yes. All these stages are one-shot traps. The route’s not destroyed, it’s simply not possible to go further along it. But you can go round it. If I emerge here, and re-enter here: no, better yet, that’s a free route there, I’d get into the third floor from there, but there’s no way of accessing the fourth floor at all, it can’t be fully protected, no wait. Does that upline get higher? It does, but how to get into that. Move down again, and I can see an entrypoint there, but there’s no access to that quadrant except from above?
Slowly, like playing a three dimensional game of Snakes and Ladders, Declan traced lines into and out of holes in the fabric of the building, and not just the building but the whole compound. Some lines of advancement seemed promising but petered out, others looked too easy and direct,too clearly traps designed to lure any visitor into a pre-planned spot in which he could be handled.
Gradually though, using the skills that had served him so well in his well-worn Asterix SNES game, he found a path there. A narrow one, a tentative route, that spun and rose and dropped and   looped about itself until it was almost impassable, but trod with care, and with the White Knight’s well known skills, it presented the only feasible route into Regina Tyler’s personal offices.
Should be something really good in there if she’s prepared to go to such lengths to keep people like me out.
So, treading at a deliberate speed that was almost the complete opposite of his normal progression, Declan manoeuvred through the maze, moving carefully to points before blocks had been inserted, dropping out into reality to cross to other lines, avoiding internal monitors on one place and superhuman protection on the other, until completing his journey by melting through the door of Regina Tyler’s office.
Visions of the spider at the centre of the web thus traversed were almost inevitable, as were the black stockings his imagination insisted on applying to Miss Tyler .
It was a spacious office, carpeted wall to wall in the kind of stuff that you could imagine Regina reclining back upon, and luxuriously tossing her head back, with elegant leather-covered sofas on which she would sit, entertaining her guests,her evening dress slit daringly along one thigh, and a drinks cabinet of such size as to ensure she could befuddle the senses of anyone who she might brush up against: Declan gathered himself together abruptly. Surely he was being got at? He’d never been that bad about Pauline Watson: in fact he tried to re-imagine the scene with Pauline draping herself across it beguilingly and Regina still pressed herself into his view.
Interesting form of defence, Declan thought, shaking himself and dispelling the images with the equivalent of a self-applied cold shower, though I’d like to see you get away with that against Pink Triangle. Maybe that thought of her in a set of skintights wasn’t so far off the mark, eh?
He began on the set of black-trimmed woodgrain filing cabinets at the end of the room. They were locked, but unpicking locks was just a Knight’s Move in miniature, and he was soon fingering through various papers, looking for material primarily about Ardwick, but also for anything pertinent to overall plans. And associates.
“I am somewhat disappointed in you, Mr Cuffe,” a voice said, unexpectedly, from near the desk. Declan hardly paused in his rifling but, his back still turned to Regina, lines began to form on his face, tracing first the outline and then the colouring of a face-mask.
“You realise that, upon top of the disappointment of probably losing your position with the Council, this extremely silly attempt at a break-in will expose you to quite serious criminal charges,” she went on. Declan merely shrugged but otherwise ignored her.
It didn’t affect the tone of her voice. “I cannot imagine what you thought you could possibly discover from intruding on my company’s private documentation in this manner, given how open Tyler Chemicals has been towards the Council with regard to our plans.”
Declan smiled but still didn’t turn round.
“And, before this new Government takes office after the foregone conclusion of the Election,it will be a useful demonstration of the corruption inherent in the Public Sector and it’s quite hysterical response to the possibility that it cannot control every aspect of people’s lives.” She had left the desk and was advancing on him, unhurriedly.
That was worth turning around for. Declan extracted a file from its drawer and held that by his side. “Is that what all this is about, Miss Tyler? An Ideological campaign, instead of the traditionally sordid motives of profit and power?”
“The mask is of no use to you, Mr Cuffe, and it will not prevent you going to your just desserts.”
“Oh please, call me Edward,” Declan said.
“And why Edward?” Regina asked, stopping in the middle of the room.
“It’s such an thoroughly English name,” he said. “And as close to my real one as your mistaken implications are trying to suggest.”
Regina smiled, and put her head to one side. “Tautology,” she said. “Implications. Suggestions. A triple denial. You could simply admit it, and have done with it. Declan.”
“Or you can admit, Miss Tyler, that you are engaged in a genuinely criminal conspiracy, involving criminal damage on a grand scale, reckless endangerment of the public, encouraging acts of public threat, breach of the peace and general distasteful megalomania. Not to mention that you’ve encouraged that evil little scrote the Monster Biker to show his hairy arse in public again.”
“You are really quite amusing,” Regina said. “You will excuse me whilst I take a little wine, or may I offer you a glass?”
“You may offer, but I’m sure a businesswoman of your calibre will have already anticipated that I will refuse.”
“Of course. Some petty moral objection to drinking with someone you regard, with characteristic simplicity, as a villain,no doubt.”
“Or an aversion to being drugged,” Declan suggested. He tucked the file he was carrying under his arm. “But do feel free to indulge yourself before I leave.”
“Leave?” Regina decanted a modest portion of red wine into a glass and raised it to her nose to absorb its aroma. Holding it in her left hand, whilst her right clasped her elbow, she turned half towards him. “Now that is taking simplicity far further than is warranted. You surely don’t think you’ll be permitted to leave, other than in the custody of my Security.”
“Your Security did not,” observed Declan, still enjoying himself, “prevent me from coming in here in the first place. Every system has a loophole, and where access can be gained, egress will certainly follow.”
“That doesn’t always follow,” she said. “You no doubt thought yourself extremely clever in sneaking in, but perhaps your pride in your ability to find a loophole in a nearly, but ultimately not quite foolproof system may have blinded you to other possible explanations of how you achieved your goal?”
Declan shrugged. “You mean the subtle way that you warded off every possible angle of approach except one that would guarantee me arriving at the one spot by a predictable point in time? Lady, you will have to try a little harder than that after they let you out of prison.”
Regina smiled, though there was a certain something to the expression that smacked of the sour. “Such bravado! Such nobility. Such…” Her low, mellow voice skidded to a halt as Declan vanished.
To reappear, instants later, immediately behind her, saying, “Boo!” in her ear.
He was gone before she’d swivelled in shock, back to the wall with the filing cabinets, opening a drawer with casual ease, then disappearing once more, with another file in hand. “Hmm, no keys,” he mused by the door, testing the handle, and was out of sight again before she’d properly focussed on him.
“Never leave a whole in an otherwise perfect system,” he said from behind her left ear, and “You just never know what sort of short-cuts people can build into it,” from the other side. As she whirled about in confusion, Declan popped in with his face bent over her neck: “Darling, you smell divine,” he woofled, an arm round her waist suddenly pulling her back against him. Hardly had she yelped in shock than he was before her, a hand resting on her hip, her hand in his other hand. “Shall we dance?” he murmured, before dissolving again.
“Or shall we talk seriously?” he continued, in a detached, almost ironic voice. “About your part in this sudden wave of destruction sweeping across my city, your plans to extend your complex into something resembling the basis of a private enclave, the pecuniary advantage for you and your business associate, whose name I am looking forward to having you confirm. And not to mention the blackening of the name of a once respected hero, formerly of this parish, who would like you to know that he bloody well resents it.
She recovered her self-possession admirably, putting a hand to her hair to tease a few black strands back into their perfectly positioned place, and sipping her wine.
“Yes, that’s what has really offended you, isn’t it? Given you the most personal affront. Not that you’ve been branded a renegade among your supposed peers, or that the job in which you took such pride in your authority has not only been taken from you, but demeaned by Mr Masters’ abject urge to crawl to my every whim. It’s that your pathetic secret identity, your so-noble creation has been used to do so.” She smiled, a rich and loaded smile. Declan felt the urge to drink her in, to repeat those precious moments of physical contact, the desire to sink his mouth upon her lips, oh yes, she had something beyond the natural, but he had protection against outside interference and he wasn’t distracted by her glamour.
“How do you do it, Miss Tyler?” he asked. “Is it pheromones, or a degree of mental domination? You’re that bit powered up yourself, aren’t you. But you’re one of the ones who thinks it just confirms their right to have what they want when they want it, instead of actually doing anything useful with it.”
“Useful?” she mocked. “That’s just a teensy bit rich coming from someone who, for no better reason than his own personal embarrassment, gave up using his powers for anything five years ago. Such a shallow argument from such a shallow man.”
Declan’s eyes narrowed. “What’s this about personal embarrassment?” he asked. “You think you know something about me, lady?”
“I do know rather a lot about you, Declan,” she said, “but on this particular detail, I am reliant on the evidence of another.” A sweat broke out on Declan’s back. Regina smiled faintly, aware of and enjoying his discomfort.
“You said you were eager to meet my business associate,” she said, impishly. “Eric, perhaps you would like to come out and greet your old friend?”
Declan’s eyes turned towards the door, which slid smoothly open. In the gloom of the corridor, he could see little but the outline of a male figure: a perhaps rotund figure given how his silhouette belled out about the waist, but as he stepped forward, Declan could see that he wore boots and leggings of a distinctly violet tone, that his arms supported sweeping wings of deep black above a similarly tinted chest and that across his head was stretched a full-face mask, with a black skull cap behind a curved, projecting multi-coloured beak.
“Oh Jesus Christ, no, oh God no,” said Declan, unconsciously aping the intonation of Sergeant Neil Howie on his first sight of the Wicker Man.
“Thank you, Regina dear,” the figure spoke, awkwardly around his beak, “but when I’m wearing my work outfit, perhaps you could address me as the Purple Puffin.”

The Return of the Purple Puffin – Day 25


Refreshed, physically at any rate, from a sleep in the Space, Declan planned his day. He had two viewings for flats in the morning, the second of which ended with his signing signing a contract for a six month Assured Shorthold Tenancy. This left him three hours before the meeting he intended attending.
Without Barrington’s information, the picture was frustratingly unclear. His instinct was that Eric Johnson was behind the Ardwick demolitions, clearing the ground for a re-run at the Leisure complex project that had been rejected, though the dispersed site ownership didn’t immediately support that.
He’d met Johnson twice over the months the development had been progressing, but once had been enough to recognise the developer as someone intent on having his own way, and not accepting of obstacles or challenges to his vision. Just another self-centred bastard, incapable of understanding that other priorities might exist, or that his schemes – which inevitably meant the gathering in of large sums of money at one point or another – might not be as important as others’ proposals.
All Johnson could see was the East side regeneration schemes centring on the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and the stadium construction, and he wanted in by providing a gateway leisure complex, offering all the latest sporting equipment and opportunities for people to participate in the very activities that, in five years time, they would (hopefully) be flocking to watch the World’s top athletes carrying out.
Commercially, sound and sensible, and there had been a very strong political faction within the Council that wanted to take advantage of the opportunities it provided to further the regeneration of a sector of the City that had suffered badly from the decline in manufacturing industry over the past twenty years of Thatcherite government.
But at the same time, Johnson had devoted too little attention to statutory regulation – rather like Regina Tyler today – and his proposals for costume-proofing were far from inadequate. On top of the unwillingness of too many Elected Members to create too large a corridor devoted to Sport and little else, there were genuine concerns for the City’s reputation, and prospects in the run-up to 2002, if a hero incident should be aggravated by corner-cutting.
Declan had been privately sorry when the scheme was voted down, but with his professional hat on, he had recognised that a lot needed doing to make the scheme acceptable. Not that Johnson had ever agreed that for a moment, campaigning, scheming, wheedling and pressurising, when it would surely have been cheaper to have revised the plans and get his own way legitimately.
They’d all been surprised when he seemed to accept the reversal, when he didn’t lodge an appeal, and when rumours started to spread that he was selling the site off, taking his ideas somewhere else, to a city more grateful to have him improving facilities for everyone. And then he was gone, and the Evening News, which had always been for the Canalside Project, stopped printing stories about him.
So: Regina Tyler this afternoon, and tonight Declan would go on another forage, among Eric Johnson’s papers, wherever they were.
Eavesdropping on George’s room was not going to be easy. Accessing the room was going to be no more difficult than it had been last night, but the trouble was the the Knight’s Move took you around or through space without it being there. That meant you neither saw nor heard it, which made it useless for earwigging, without coming out of whatever fissures led to the Director’s Office.
Diffusion screens seemed to offer a solution, but diffusing light away from himself so as to obviate others’ seeing him had the unfortunate side-effect of diffusing away from himself the very light he wanted to see himself. Invisor could turn invisible at will, but like Declan she had always been a loner, sharing little or nothing of herself and her techniques. Flatpack could fold himself up, something to do with accessing a whole new set of dimensions, so he could turn sideways on from reality and be there but not detectable. Harry would have just walked in five minutes after the meeting ended and lifted a chronal snapshot from the walls that he could take home and watch over a pie and a fag.
Superheroes whose power was to turn reality into a Swiss-cheese of transport routes weren’t cut out for eavesdropping on anything quiet.
It needed a dose of thinking.
Funnily enough, when Declan got an idea, it came from the pre-Red Skies week bunch, the old American heroes who’d vanished, never to be seen again. There’d been one who had superspeed, like Hyperwoman, and he was always going on about controlling the vibration rate of the molecules of his body.
Apparently, objects that vibrate at different rates can occupy the same physical space without damaging each other in an irreversible manner, and objects hat vibrate at a certain pitch can let not just physical objects pass through them, but light also. Maybe Declan could accelerate his bodily vibrations to a point where he could not only let light through him but remain coherent enough to hear what Regina Tyler was saying at the same time.
It wasn’t easy though, and a few extra hours to practice would have been welcome, but after a dozen or so test runs in front of Mickey’s big mirror, fine-tuning each time his image began to waver, Declan thought he was getting somewhere, and besides, it was time to go. There was still a faint after-image that might be noticeable if someone was looking directly at him, but if he didn’t stay too long in the same place, or walk into a coat-stand, he should be able to get by in George Master’s office.
He Moved into place ten minutes before the meeting was about to start. Masters was talking with a smartly dressed man, sharp suit and gelled hair, whilst Davina was preparing his papers and taking orders for drinks in readiness for the almost Papal visit. Declan stayed on the balls of his feet, moving quietly about, amused as anything by how close he could stroll to the Director without giving away his presence at all. He wondered who the dressed-up pillock was: no doubt the external Reconstruction expert they’d had to hire to piss all over his work.
In this he was right: Regina Tyler swept in with her legal, architectural and engineering entourage and decorously occupied the four chairs in front of George’s desk, and was promptly introduced to “Adrian Jepson” – well, he certainly looked like an Adrian – who had come in to take over Miss Tyler’s case on behalf of the Council.
“And I think we should congratulate Adrian on the speed and thoroughness with which he’s mastered his brief.”
Certainly, Declan thought, listening to the ultra-smooth Mr Jepson deliver a verbal massage of praise as to the forward-thinking, revolutionary and inspiring scheme that he had taken over. That is, if you interpreted Mastering One’s Brief as rolling over for every idiot and unsupported element of an over-ambitious, inflated and practically unsafe scheme that would render future development of the area for any of the purposes of the City Development Plan. Guess that’s why you call it the Private Sector: you only worry about what benefits you privately.
“I’m certainly glad to see Mr… Jepson, was it?” Miss Tyler said, going on to ignore the slickster’s invitation to call him Adrian, not all bad, this woman then, “Mr Jepson has a clearer appreciation of the benefits of this proposal to the City Council, and of course to the City in general terms. I’m very grateful that you have listened to my representations about your Mr Cuffe.”
No doubt you are, Declan thought, carefully maintaining the correct pitch, and rounding the end chair to take up a position where he could see Miss Tyler to his advantage. Definitely an advantage: her dark, glossy hair was again brushed in a perfect curve above her right eye, and she was dressed in a chicly tailored dark green suit with piped lapels and hems. All in all, a classy little number wearing a classy little number.
“I’m only sorry that we all had to be delayed in this manner, though I rather anticipated from the moment I was advised of who my proposals had been assigned to.” What’s this? Declan thought, switching from Miss Tyler’s legs to her face, with its expression of earnest innocence. “You may not be aware of this but Mr Cuffe does have something of a reputation in the Business Community as a hindrance to development. A business associate of mine was prevented from moving forward with an extremely valuable and publicly desirable project primarily because of the objections created by your Principal Officer.”
Declan turned his back and prowled away into anther part of the room whilst he fumed. We call it the Public Sector because we’re supposed to think of the benefits to the Public,not of greedy, rasping developers like you, lady. Business associate? I’d like to know who you mean by that.
Meanwhile, Masters was being profusely apologetic, and the indubitably commercially minded Adrian was snaking his tongue in the direction of Miss Tyler’s no doubt immaculately groomed arsehole, but Declan’s consideration of Tyler Chemicals’ CEO’s charms was depreciating with the Stock Market.
He was also distracted at that moment by sensations that almost caused him to lose his control of his vibrations. Thankfully, he was out of everyone’s eye-line except George’s, and the Director was preening himself at his immediate reversal of the Council’s fortunes and wouldn’t have recognised any spectre that didn’t announce itself with at least a severed head.
It was obviously the Switchboard responding, and Declan faced a hairy moment or two of balancing between the manipulation of his atoms and the diversion of contact into some metaphysical equivalent of an answering machine. He wanted to hear what else George and Regina had to say: Adrian and the stooges could go hang.
In that, he was disappointed. Miss Tyler had got her way, Masters had folded like a cheap suit, Adrian was there to give the ‘expert’ aides whatever answer they wanted, and it was all technical issues that betrayed everything Declan had already identified as stumbling blocks, technical issues that Regina Tyler leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs upon, steepling her fingers and watching proceedings with the eye of a snake contemplating a particularly white mouse.
She was still pretty fit, though. Give her some fairly innocuous superpower, like, well, giving a really hot massage, and he’d happily watch her working away in a skin-tight costume. But it wasn’t anything like lusting after Pauline Watson, who was taller and slimmer and who he’d long since imagined taking to bed: with Pauline, he would have wanted to do it at least a second time.
Nothing more to learn, except curious insights about sexuality, which wouldn’t do anything for his situation, but Declan stayed till the end. He would have to collect his own copy of Jepson’s work, to add to his investigation, which had now expanded to include public exposure of the iniquities of the private sector, but which still had as one of its primary goals the ritual slaying of George Masters’ career.
He Moved away, to neutral ground on the first floor of the Central Reference Library, and from there into the Space. His files had integrated the Switchboard’s information: company registers, list of Directors and Shareholders, property lists, share transfers, the total absence of any dividends being declared. Very intricate stuff, already given the fine tooth comb treatment by the invaluable Barrington.
The patterns were subtle in themselves, but they were inescapable once every piece extracted from Companies House had been sorted, linked and cross-referred, and overlaid on the Property Registers he’d liberated from Lytham last night. More than two hundred transactions: changes of ownership of land, changes of ownership of companies, subsidiaries acquiring holding companies and switching them into other company’s portfolios.
It was a money-launderer’s wet dream, with cash purchases  being wiped clean in property and share transfers, and the money going in and around, but somehow never relating to where and to whom it went out again.
And well, well. Some of those companies were owned by companies who didn’t appear anywhere in the whirligig, and they, in turn were owned by other companies, and a familiar name started to peep shyly through the afforestation when you started getting to the mesosphere. Nice to see you again, love. Now I really do wonder who your business associate is.

The Return of the Purple Puffin – Day 24


Declan looked her steadily in the eye, and in silence took up his glass and drained it. “Thank you, Sammy. Am I this guy who’s caused more damage in a shorter space of time than when Red Devil flattened half of Hulme in a fistfight with Tonka? You really have a high opinion of me, don’t you? No. That’s not me.”
Norton regarded him levelly for some time. “And that’s all you have to say, Declan?”
Declan looked around,making a point of seeing every part of the pub except the areas directly behind him, and finished up staring into her face again. “No, I don’t think there’s anything else I have to say to you about this, Sammy. Or DCI Norton, if you’d rather. I haven’t been going around smashing down buildings, I make a point of not smashing down buildings every day, and if you’ve been talking to Peter Haldane, then presumably he’s told you that he and I were in the same room together last week when it kicked off in Albert Square.”
Sammy pushed her glass over towards him. “You’re getting awfully sarky for someone who’s the big innocent you’re saying you are. I’ll have another.”
“As long as you’re suggesting I’m a menace, DCI Norton, you’re buying your own.”
“Oh, get off your high horse, Declan. Vodka and tonic. That blonde behind the bar’s not serving anyone right now, go and keep her honest, and you can stare at her tits whilst you’re at it. Then you can explain again why you were at the crime scene this afternoon if you weren’t taking part in it.”
Reluctantly, and with a mixture of fury and cold determination, Declan bought drinks. The barmaid had great tits, substantial portions of which were on display but, as far as was masculinely possible, he avoided looking at them.
Norton was leaning back in her seat when he returned. She shook her head slightly at him. “Look at you, Declan. I tell you you can go stare at that tart’s cleavage and you damn near break your neck trying not to fall in between them. When I was a young DC, hadn’t been out of uniform over three months, I was working on Stan Harper’s team and, every night, we’d be down the White Horse, having a session, he’d be bullshitting about this and that. Had me getting the drinks in, one night, he told me he wanted a pint and the barmaid’s telephone number. I didn’t have the nerve to ask her, not for some great old bullfrog like him, so I made a number up and came back and told him, and he wrote it on the back of his hand, and it was still there when he waddled off back to his old woman, two hours later.”
She paused to sip from her glass. “Sounds like a lucky escape for her,” Declan said, still coldly.
“Lucky escape for him, more like. I went back on my own, three nights later, got her number off her, and she was in my bed half that weekend. Lovely girl, and she’d got great tits too, and if Fat Stan had ever had her on top of him, she’d have seen him off well short of his pension.” And Sammy laughed, in a heavy, and not all that amused manner.
Declan was wondering what relevance had to anything, when Norton looked up at him.
“You’ve got yourself noticed, Declan. Now you say you’re not this White Knight, and from what I’ve known of you this past six years, I don’t think it’s likely at all. But you were spotted at the crime scene and I was bound to follow that up. Consider it followed up, and we’ll just agree to believe your story about being a Sherlock off your own bat, so long as I don’t see you hanging around any more incidents.
“Now I’m sorry to hear you and Alex are having problems, and I’d like to see this thing of yours over work sorted out quickly, because when all is said and done, you’ve got the best set of brains on you among that lot, and I’d rather have someone who knows his job handling the emergency planning. You’ve got enough on your plate with that lot, don’t complicate things by making me have to take notice of you again, or we will have to have another talk, and the only drinks you’ll be getting there will be station tea or coffee.
She drained her glass and stood up. “I’m off back to Andy. She’ll be sorry to hear about you and Alex too. Do us all a favour and get that straightened out too.”
She made her way out unhurriedly, leaving Declan staring fixedly at his glass and thinking furiously. Not least among his thoughts was whether Sammy Norton really suspected him of being the White Knight. He didn’t even pause to consider whether she had believed his denial, because she wouldn’t have: she was a copper, come on. Even though, in the terms of his response, he’d spoken the literal truth, he’d not actually answered her question, and they both of them knew it.
Six thirty, more or less. By that count, it had taken only some fifteen hours for his entire life to fall apart around him. He came out of the pub under a greying sky that was so wonderfully timely it could have been ordered up especially by Jane Austen to reflect his inner emotions. Job, under serious threat, Sammy Norton looking at me with suspicion, the bloody Switchboard thinking of lumping him in with the unlamented Solomon, who’d only tried to take over the running of the country, none of this demolish half a dozen empty buildings to make life easier for graspers like Eric Johnson.
Well, if Sammy thought he was going to just sit back and let that develop according to other people’s agendas, she was no judge of character. Declan was going to explode what was going on and put things back where they should be. Maybe he’d wrap it all up in pretty ribbon and present it to Sammy, get her to tick the box marked No Publicity, but he was going to find out about this scheme and expose the phony White Knight and remind everyone that Declan Cuffe was a clean-living, law-abiding citizen, who might just be offered a raise in gratitude for saving the Council from making a very big mistake.
Of course, the downside of that was that, in the fourth corner, stood Alex. Alex and Lissy. Lovely, gurgly, happy, beautiful Lissy, whose life he was going to share for years to come. But being the hero, being what the White Knight had originally stood for, or at least stood against, would only make matters worse for him on that side.
First things first. Declan took himself over to Pizza Hut to eat, then tracked back to Mickey’s place for an hour of sympathy, before Mr Bannon took himself off round to Cody Bennett’s place for his regular poker game. Declan agreed he would be alright on his own, in fact he’d probably just go straight to bed, long day, lots happened, need a bit of a time-out, don’t worry about me mate, you enjoy yourself, I’ll be dead to the world when you get back.
Then, as soon as Mickey was gone, he crossed over into the Space.
The first thing he needed was a mask. That would not prove too difficult, but for a moment he considered – he actually considered! – his old helm. And what was wrong about that? He was the White Knight, and some of this was about proving that, and denying the imposter. But it was the costume, the stupid costume, and that was what was so utterly fucked about all of this. Why, that, that, but he still couldn’t bring himself to think of that last humiliation.
Declan rejected the helm, for tonight. Maybe it would become necessary, if there was a confrontation, a showdown. The need to declare his colours. Better if he could avoid that, though, be smart. So, a mask for tonight, but not that mask
He was surprised at how relieved he felt.
Having got himself into the right gear, Declan stepped through the wall again. Over the next few minutes he flickered into view at a dozen places, the last of them in St Peter’s Square, where he took a sharp right into the ground floor of the Town Hall.
Emergency Planning was empty, the lights turned low, and whatever security guards were on duty were concentrating upon exits and entrances and not the third floor. Declan started with George Masters’ room, and the Tyler file: nothing new except a lot of red slashes drawn across the main copy of his Brief, and the revisions he’d completed this morning not even printed out. Getting into the computer, he found the document had been vanished. Like that, is it, George?
Declan allowed some of his energy to flow into the computer, establishing a connection to the system that made restoring the document very easy. To make sure it didn’t disappear a second time, Declan connected it to the Chief Executive’s account, burying it under three levels of encryption and several complicated passwords, whist simultaneously sending it to two untraceable external addresses, one of them his own.
He also took note of a meeting with Regina Tyler for two days hence, which it might be instructive to attend and minute – in a manner wholly undetectable by Masters or anyone around him.
Next he combed Peter Haldane’s desk, paying considerable attention to the file on today’s incident. Peter was starting to think his way, that was good. Declan was also pleased to see that his colleague had had the Canalside scheme brought out of store. There was a wealth of information in it, which he kept syphoning off into little pockets of Space, into a recording system that synthesised what went in in a manner that would have made Bill Gates sweat and Steve Jobs immediately re-designing the case.
There was a very useful schedule of titles, itemising the various plots and parcels of land making up the imprint. Many of these had been owned by Johnson’s holding company, Fratercula Investments Ltd, but by no means all. Declan ransacked the file, looking for something to support the rumour he’d heard that, after his proposals were shot down in Committee, Johnson abandoned his project and sold off his holdings, but the file held no confirmation of that.
With the advantage of being able to get in eight hours of sleep in a real-time instant, Declan decided to check on developments on that front. Plotting a newer, longer course, he hopscotched across South Lancashire in the direction of the Fylde Coast, emerging after the equivalent of a gentle jog, at the bottom end of Lytham St Annes, and the Land Registry.
Needless to say, security was high, given that the Registry was guardian to the official Certificates of Title to several millions houses, homes, businesses and buildings in the North West, and, needless to say, Declan went past it like a toddler ignoring his cabbage. A number of short jumps from strongroom to strongroom, vault to vault, soon narrowed down the search and he was scanning and absorbing updated titles, cross-referring them to the paperwork from two years earlier. And extremely interesting it was.
According to the Title Registers, Fratercula had indeed disposed of a large part of its holdings, whilst retaining all the key sites governing accesses, power plants and site management. Only one of these plots was affected by the week of demolitions.
Two others were owned by Nelson Properties Ltd and Kent Developments Ltd respectively, who, most interestingly, had a shared Registered Office in a prominent Solicitor’s Firm in London, whilst the last was one of a dozen plots – including over half the sites Johnson had been dependent upon acquiring, and which had counted so strongly against him in Committee – under the ownership of Queensferry Ltd, Registered Office in Bromsgrove.
One day, Declan thought, restoring Certificates to their proper place, they’ll develop a method of searching all this stuff by computer so I don’t need to do all this running around on foot. Was there enough time to do the next stage in the same night and still sleep enough to stay human tomorrow? Not if I have to do London and back, there’s not. Time to call in outside assistance.
And without leaving the Registry, at least not in any physical sense, Declan returned to the Space, picked up the sequencer and had a short but fruitful conversation with Barrington, who promised him results  within twelve hours. Longer than Declan would have liked, but given the puzzle pieces he had already gathered, not to be sniffed at.
So George was meeting Regina Tyler tomorrow afternoon at 2.00pm. A fly on the wall would have an interesting time of it, and Declan could be as fly as they came.

The Return of the Purple Puffin – Day 23


There wasn’t much left, just enough to show that the semi-destruction of the warehouse had been an accidental by-product of the effort of hero to frustrate villain, and now villain would retreat with tail between legs, to his hidden lair, to lick his wounds – none, so far as Declan could see – whilst hero returned to the anonymity that protected him from those who were trying to attack, frustrate and bring him down, and also his enemies.
Just how the Monster Biker got away was a continuing mystery to Declan, given that he was seven foot tall, covered in swathes of blue and orange fur and apparently couldn’t afford suppressors for his hog: try merging into the crowd looking like that.
But he wasn’t interested in the Biker’s getaway, the Police could worry about that, it could keep Sammy Norton and Steven Hooper occupied. Declan wanted to know where the so-called White Knight went, and if there was anyone who could successfully track a person slipping in between reality, he was the man.
With nothing but, again, a single wall half standing, the job looked done. The White Knight burst out of nowhere to land a devastating haymaker that knocked the Biker fully a dozen yards off his bike. That’s what it would look like at the distances the Police were gathering from the scene: only Declan was near enough to see that the punch hadn’t landed at all.
But the sudden distance between the protagonists proved decisive. The bike roared into life, crashed through mounded debris, spewing bricks in every direction, causing further damage to everything within reach and, fortuitously, causing a momentary screen between hero and villain, which villain used to his advantage by leaping onto his bike, roaring at the site entrance and leaping his mechanical steed into the air to clear the barricades by at least eight feet. The Doppler Effect of his receding engine faded rapidly.
Declan only had eyes for the Knight, who’d reacted to the bricks hurled into the air by throwing his arms up for protection and checking, all of which seemed eminently reasonable to anyone not aware that bricks meant bugger all to someone who could walk through the space surrounding them.
He moved sideways, emerging only a few feet to the rear of the white-clad figure. This was going to be the tricky bit: he had to be close to the pseudo-Knight to see what he next did, and that meant fully entering the natural plane, but he also needed, desperately, to not be seen. Not merely by Knight, but by any boys in blue watching from the periphery: Declan had no mask, and he was familiar enough to too many of the cops to risk being seen.
Ok, yes, there was a point to masks, but still no justification for costumes.
The Knight was hanging around far too long. There was no point in pursuing the Monster Biker now, even if there had ever been any intention of capturing him, but he was still here, and Declan couldn’t understand why. He shifted himself two Moves, keeping as close as he could, always out of the sight-line of those moulded eye-holes in the white helm. The plume waved lazily as the air disturbed in the brief but aggressive battle settled.
Then he moved.
To the watching Police, he seemed to simply disappear, the way the White Knight always did, instantly and inexplicably. Declan knew that, instead, in a form of sleight of hand that would have had Tommy Cooper busting a gut to add to his act, the White Knight would leap into one of the plethora of interstices around, making his way, Move by Move, to a place where he could remove the costume and resume his real identity.
Declan was going to follow him. Follow him and find out who he was, and where he could be found, and stick to him until he was contacted by whoever was paying him – although Eric Johnson, the man who had been the driving force behind the abortive Canalside Leisure Scheme was a very high favourite – and follow he leads back to all the various places they stemmed from: one of them being George Masters’ office, if he was any judge.
Watch him go, follow his trail, always a Move behind him.
And now he had started. Declan threw off his cover, leapt for the point where the imposter had vanished, and stopped dead.
There was no crack, no fissure, no gap, no sliver there. Nothing for a White Knight to fold himself into when walking around the known Universe. No entry way into the underland of existence. No trail to follow.
Declan stared aghast. Where the hell had he gone? And if he hadn’t ducked through any of the gates clearly visible around the point he once stood, then how had he disappeared.
And where the hell was he?
His thinking was interrupted by the strident, and unmannerly, cry of “Oi, you! Stay where you are!” delivered by the first of two policemen advancing on his. Declan had no intention of staying, and stepped out through a gap that involved both ducking into a shadow, and turning his  back on the authorities. Time to not be here.
Three moves later, he emerged a mile and a half away and thinking. This was sloppy of him: in future, he would have Plan Bs prepared in advance. But if he couldn’t follow his imposter, that left one useful source who were bound to have kept tabs on this new manifestation. Swallowing yet another fresh-brewed glass of pride, Declan made a ninety degree turn into a shop doorway, but didn’t arrive in the shop: since it was a ladies’ lingerie emporium, this spared him irrelevant questions.
From the Space,he dialled the Switchboard again. “ Code 7413 Alice, this is the White Knight, urgent assistance needed, Barrymore.”
“White Knight acknowledged. This is becoming almost a regular event. If you are proposing a return to full-time action, we shall have to look at updating your status.”
“Don’t act too fast, Barrington. I’m not doing this under anything except necessity, and once I’ve gotten to the bottom of things, I shall once more fade into the shadows. Or as far back as I can get, with your magic eyes no doubt focussed on me.”
“You made it plain before that you were withdrawing entirely from communication with our community, White Knight, and your privacy has been respected. It was you who emerged from cover to contact us.”
“And you told me then that you knew I was alive, so don’t pretend you’ve just wiped me off the books and haven’t a clue what’s happened to me, Barrington. You keep your fingers in as many pies as you can lay hands on.”
“As it happens, White Knight, we don’t need to in your case. There is an… interested party who furnishes us with occasional reports, denuded of significant detail, and thus we are kept aware of your current good health.”
“Who’ve you got watching me, Barrington? I think I should know.”
“We have no-one watching you, although I must warn you that that is a subject under debate after the events of the last week. We merely have a mutual acquaintance who is connected to you.”
“A mutual acquaintance? I want a name, Barrington.”
“In the immortal words of Number Six, you won’t get it.”
A face came into Declan’s mind. “Harry White,” he said.
“No names, White Knight. Never any names without sanction.”
“Don’t worry. If it’s Harry, I don’t mind.” Even if it means the old bastard’s been keeping closer tabs on me than I knew, but that’s not important now. “Wait a minute. What was that you said? You’re talking about putting me under surveillance? What the hell for.”
The lack of emotion in the electronic tones grew, if anything, more pronounced. “A figure dressed in the White Knight’s costume, and utilising the White Knight’s powers and techniques has, after five years absence, been highly visible for the last seven days. As a consequence of his actions, considerable property damage, and concomitant economic deprivation, has been incurred, without the halting of any criminal activities or the arrest of any seeming culprit. It is being questioned in some areas as to whether we may have another Solomon Situation on our hands.”
Declan roared in rage. “Solomon? You seriously mean you’re wondering if I’ve gone renegade?! Jesus bloody Christ, Barrington, it was me who alerted you that the guy was an imposter the moment he first appeared!”
“Which would be a sound tactical step if you were proposing to turn your coat, deflecting attention and suspicion away from you, and enabling advancement of your plans without outside scrutiny.”
“Fuck me, you don’t half talk some shite at times, Barrington.”
“As was said, and if I recall correctly, in the exact same words by Megabomb when it was first mooted that the late Wisest Man in the World had lost the wisdom to eschew acting in his own interests.”
“Oh, great! I contact you, needing your help to take down some imposter who is definitely assisting some scammer, and you accuse me of being the villain myself. Gee, thanks, Barry! In the last twenty four hours I may just have lost my marriage and my baby daughter, and my job on top of that and when I decide to do something about it, at the cost of forswearing myself on one of the mostly deeply important decisions of my life, I’m under a black cloud from the very people who know best of all how clean I am. Way to go, Barry.”
“Fortunately for you, we do not invest in emotional flights of fancy here. There are some who are considering if extra surveillance is required to eliminate that possibility, and we never rule out possibilities until they are dispelled, but such possibilities are not used to withhold assistance. How can we help you, White Knight?”
Declan found it hard to come down from his anger at the mere thought of being treated as a renegade, but, with the occasional prompt and nudge when he seemed to be veering off-topic, he recounted his suspicions over the series of events in Ancoats, and it’s possible relation to Tyler Chemicals.
“Intriguing. We have on record your previous explanation of your powers and your ability to transport yourself over distances. Theories are inconclusive, but mainly centre upon the assumption that you were transformed into a natural identifier/conveyor of wormholes in space. All attempts to duplicate your abilities have failed, as have attempts to detect your passage. When you vanish off our radar, you vanish.”
“That’s good to know at least,” Declan said, cautiously. “Can’t say I appreciate the theory though.”
“But you’re confirming that your doppelgänger, whatever and whoever he is, isn’t using the identical method. This being so, we’ll re-analyse the information we’ve already gathered on his appearances with this in mind, and look for alternate conclusions. Trace his whereabouts and we can begin to neutralise him. Oh and White Knight?”
“Yes?”
“It might be in your interests to contrive to be seen with him on his next emergence. Just to eliminate other theories.”
Declan made no overt comment upon this, but did consent to wear a mobile connection which would enable instantaneous transmission of information to him. Then he broke the connection and settled into some serious brooding.
Emerging again into reality, he found a text message on his phone from Sammy Norton, inviting him – actually, more like commanding him – to meet her for a drink at 6.00pm. Presumably she’d heard of his temporary job difficulties and wanted to sympathise with him. In the intervening couple of hours, he would attend to some personal issues.
First among these was a visit to the house to collect a suitcase of clothes and some immediately essential personal items. Alex greeted him coldly, refused to talk to him, but did not prevent him from spending a quarter hour in the nursery, simply standing and looking at the sleeping Sissy.
He left without a word in the car, promising to return it after dropping his things off at Mickey Bannon’s. It would all have been so much easier using his powers, but that would have been provocative to his wife, alarming to his mate and a sign of laxity to himself: some standards had to be kept.
At 6.00pm on the dot, he was walking into the Red Lion. DCI Norton was already installed at a table to the right of the bar, drinking from a small glass of clear liquid, and frowning, but then again she was ever the most sunny of creatures. She had changed in out of uniform, was dressed in a heavy yellow shirt and pinstriped slacks. She saw Declan on his way over to her and drained her glass.
“Ahh, there you are, Sammy,” he greeted her. “Had a good day, have we? I can’t remember the last time you bought me a drink.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Norton said. “It’s you that’s buying me one. You know my usual.”
“I see,” Declan said, still striving for bright and breezy. “So this is not a social occasion. What can it be about?”
“Get the drinks in,” Norton said, with a tilt to her head that would have Dis and below jumping.
It was getting busy. Declan took five minutes to get served, enough time to put himself on guard. “Vodka and tonic for you,” he said, returning to the table, “Half a lager for me, and what can I do for my favourite lady of the Law?”
Sammy shot him a glance that burned that one down in flames.
“I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the news this afternoon, or whether you’ve just been simply too busy, but you may not have heard that there’s been another incident in Ancoats with your friends the White knight and the Monster Biker.”
“What? Another?” Declan cried. “That’s, what,” and he paused and pretended to work it out in his head, “four now. Five if you count the Tyler compound. In just a week. What are these clowns on?”
“Interesting,” Sammy Norton said. “And that’s the first you’ve heard of it today?”
“Well, yes,” Declan said. “You may be aware that I wasn’t working today. The fact of the matter is, that I’ve been scapegoated for trying to deal with Regina Tyler’s plans on a statutory basis, instead of immediately lying down and inviting her to further extend her little empire in whatever way she chooses, and they’re trying to undercut the arguments by suspending me.”
“I heard it as Garden Leave,” Norton commented.
“PFW,” he said.
Norton inclined her head with a modicum of enquiry. “PFW?” she prompted.
“Posh Fucking Word,” Declan supplied.
“I see. So what have you been doing today instead of working.”
“The usual things you do when you’ve also had a barney with your missus. Fixing up a gaff for tonight, looking at flats or in case this is going to be serious. Keeping myself busy.”
“So busy, you’ve had no time for news.”
“Indubitably,” he said, airily.
“So when Peter Haldane rang you at 1.40pm to tell you that the White Knight had been seen on site in Ancoats again, the significance of this didn’t register with you? Even though you’d specifically asked him to warn you as soon as he got wind of this very thing happening.”
Declan took up his glass and drank from it very deliberately. Setting it down, his manner changed.
“Yes, I did know. I told you otherwise because Peter’s not supposed to be speaking to me whilst I’m suspended and I didn’t want to drop him in it.”
“Instead, he’s already dropped you in it, and good and proper. According to one of my men,who’s seen you often enough to know who you are, you were on the incident scene immediately after the attack ended. You refused to stop when instructed to do so by a Police Officer in the execution of his duties and instead fled. Do you deny this?”
“Are you accusing me of anything, Sammy?”
“Not at this moment in time. Not when you’re buying me the drinks, and I’m ready for another, just as soon as you’ve satisfied my curiosity. Are you going to deny you were there, Declan?”
“No, I’m not,” said Declan, who made it a rule never to deny anything that could be proven. “Three attacks in Ancoats, clearing three adjacent sites, Sammy? All three of which comprised in a multi-million pound rebuilding scheme refused by Planning not two years ago? All featuring one of our old costumes who hasn’t been seen for years, until a week ago today, and is now causing havoc every day? Come on, am I the only one who thinks that stinks on ice? Of course I wanted to get in there and see some of this myself.”
“Why? Is it your job? What has a potential criminal scheme to do with the Council? That’s for us to think about, and for us to investigate, not you going around turning up on sealed incident sites and leaving any manner of false evidence.” She paused, and then very deliberately drew out a cigarette, lit it and took a long draw from it. Smoke poured from her nostrils as she exhaled.
“Not that you seem to have left any physical evidence on this occasion, Declan. Which intrigues me even more, and which is why we’re meeting here as opposed to Bootle Street.”
Sammy Norton leaned forward, lowering her voice, not that anyone was listening in. “You disappear from a sealed site that you shouldn’t have been able to get on in the first place, and the only evidence you were there is that someone saw you, and there’s nothing there that forensics can find that suggests anyone was on that spot at all.
“So, Declan, I have one question for you, and I think you should think very carefully about the answer you give.”
“Are you the White Knight?”