Coastal City

The Time Out Book of New York Stories

'Costal City' was published in The Time Out Book of New York Stories.

From the window of his 38th floor office, Francis X. Riordan could see the Statue of Freedom out in the bay, his torch held high; the Allied Nations HQ, reflecting the city like a giant black mirror; and the Imperial State Building, still the tallest skyscraper in the world.

In the rare moments when Coastal City was not in crisis, Chief Riordan liked to stand before his panoramic window and look out at the metropolis, at the thin mists drifting around the spires of the highest structures, at the blimps making doughnut-holes in low clouds, at the flying folk. Riordan could remember when there were no flying folk. He couldn’t put a date on it, or even a decade, and his head buzzed a little if he tried. But there was a time before the miraculous. Some things had changed enormously, beyond belief in fact, but others, ordinary things you expected to change, had stayed the same. He had no idea any more of his age. At the beginning, he had been only a few years away from retirement. Somewhere in his late 50s, hair iron-gray, moustache white, pipe clamped in his teeth. He was still there, caught in that moment. Wars had come and gone, radio given way to television, books of mug shots and sketch artists replaced by tap-ins to the Federal Bureau of Inquiry’s national database and interactive imaging computers, man had reached the moon and beyond. But Police Chief Frank Riordan still wasn’t retired. He was a tickin A golden jet shot across the sky. It was the first of the flying folk, the most beloved, Amazon Queen. She had come to Coastal City before the War – WWII, the Big One – and declared her own war, on criminals and fifth columnists and other evildoers. Riordan remembered his first sight of her, after the aversion of a major elevated railway sabotage incident. She was a goddess in a golden cape and bathing suit, a streetcar lifted over her head, gently drifting downwards, tiara shining in the sunlight. They coined a word for her, hyperhero. Soon, there were others: some flew, some didn’t. The Streak, who could run faster than sound. Green Masque, who dressed like a Ziegfeld girl and broke up rackets with high kicks. The Darkangel, who haunted the night in search of miscreants. Gecko Man, the wall-scaling, wise-cracking youth. Teensy Teen, the Shrinking Cheerleader, and her sidekick, Blubber Boy. The Outcasts, high-schoolers with hyperpowers and acne. Vindicator, the cyborg avenger remade in Vietnam as an implacable enemy of evil. The hypers brought out the best and worst of Coastal City.

They set an example, protected the innocent, kept the peace. But there were equally powerful, equally hyper, villains; gimmick gang bosses like Max Multiple, Circe and Mr Bones, mad scientists like Dr Megalomaniac and Comrade Atomic Man, freaks like Dead Thing and the Creech, mystery men like the Dealer and Shadowjack, flamboyant sociopaths like Pestilence and Hexfire. And that was only the more-or-less human ones. Giant monsters from beneath the seas or the earth: Tentaclo, the ten-armed titanic octopus; Ssquarrq, the living earthquake; the Anti-Human Wave. Alien invaders from Mars, Mercury, Planet Q, Aldebaran, Dimension Terror and Zandorr. Demons from Hell: Asmodeus Jr, Lillyth, the Jibbenainosay. Coastal City had been leveled more times than Riordan could count. It seemed each of the hyperheroes spent ten months of the year pairing up with a rotating succession of hypervillains, demolishing city blocks in their fights. Sometimes, hypers would form tag teams and knock down whole streets. And once a year, there would be a crossover free-for-all, frequently involving something enormously powerful from another galaxy, and all the hypers would destroy the city while saving the universe. Chief Riordan, whom some called the city’s heart and guts, had lived through mediaeval plagues, alien invasions, month-long nights, demonic manifestations, nuclear fires, transportation of the whole city back to the age of the dinosaurs or one of the moons of Zandorr, and a thousand one-man hypercrimewaves. He had personally been possessed by Asmodeus Jr, temporarily granted all the powers of Gecko Man and had a million dollar contract put on his head by Max Multiple. Always, he’d sustain a few bruises, The city could be rebuilt overnight, and often had been.

In the beginning, it wasn’t even called Coastal City. For the briefest moment, during Amazon Queen’s battle with Lady Nazi, it had been New York, and there had been a Statue of Liberty and a Brooklyn Bridge. Then, when the Streak came to town, the city was revised, the buildings had grown taller and shinier, the shadows become deeper and darker.

Amazon Queen saved President Roosevelt from Lady Nazi’s poison kisses. And the Streak began his decades-long persecution of the crazy crime boss, Max Multiple. Suddenly, everyone was calling the place Coastal City and things became more hectic. That must have been 1939 or ’40. Then, there had been a framed photograph in Riordan’s office of him in France, posed by his biplane after his famous victory over Hans von Hellhund, the Demon Ace. Later, the picture showed him with the crew of the bomber Eudora Fae, after dropping the third atomic bomb on Samurai Satan’s private army. Now, his younger self, flashing Nixon Vs, was beside his experimental hypersonic Stud Fighter on a carrier off the coast of Vietnam. He knew that if he sat here much longer, the picture would show him in Floating about twenty years in his past was a war. But that war kept pace with the present, always lagging the same distance behind him. That was just one of the things that changed. He had no real memories, he thought sometimes, just polished anecdotes, flashbacks that faded. If he concentrated on the framed photograph, he saw all the images at once, all the wars, all the planes. Only his face was always the same, albeit with different moustaches: from Douglas Fairbanks to Clark Gable to Dennis Hopper. There were firebursts over the city. Amazon Queen was dancing in the air with three small, swift, insect-like humans. Flameflowers blossomed and streamers fell towards the streets where people looked up and pointed. They were rarely hurt by falling debris. It was another day in Coastal City. Only a moment ago, it had been the ’30s. There was a Depression finishing and a War to come. That was always the moment in Coastal City, though the Depressions and the Wars changed. Now, it was … what year was it? It was always Next Year in Coastal City, just far enough ahead for the hyperinventions to be off the drawing board, But not so far that the President of the day was out of office. A green shape swept upwards across the building, crossing the window in a green flash, leaving those sucker-marks that were hell to wipe off. Riordan craned to look, but Gecko Man was gone. Riordan was more comfortable with Amazon Queen and the Streak, beyond human comprehension as they were, than youngsters like Gecko Man or the Outcasts. Amazon Queen and the Streak, the first generation of hypers, were of his vintage and had his attitudes. They were clean-cut, good-humoured, even-tempered, unswervingly confident in their own rectitude. Gecko Man never seemed to take anything seriously but was plainly knotted with neurosis; he was just a mixed-up kid, though he had been around since the Brittles came out of Liverpool and Kennedy was shot by that alien in Dallas. And even Gecko Man was weirded out by the Vindicator, who had been a hypervillain the first time he showed up with his blockbustergun but become popular enough to be classed as one of the good guys. The old hypers always trussed up even the most powerful menaces and left them for the cops, but the Vindicator collected severed heads. The department had cops, newer men and women, who understood the world of the Vindicator. But Chief Riordan would always be a New Deal man. Hyperheroes with capabilities that put them in the demigod class looked to him for fatherly advice, and accepted his judgments as final. And the city rose and fell. Again and again.

Ginger, his assistant, brought in a report. The three creatures Amazon Queen was zapping were the latest conjurings of her arch-enemy, Lillyth. Amazon Queen could handle that.

Ginger had been with him since the beginning.

At first, she was a scatty secretary, and looked like Ginger Rogers. Now, she was Assistant Chief, and looked like Sharon Stone. Along the way, she had resembled Lauren Bacall, June Allyson, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep. She had been an undercover femme fatale, a starched housewife, a counterculture radical, a feminist overachiever. But she was still stuck with a name from the ’30s. Riordan told Ginger to pass on a routine alert to Colonel Gritsby of C.O.M.M.A.N.D. (Central Operation to Maintain Massive American National Defense) that hyperhumans were engaged in a firefight over a populated area.

‘Lillyth?’ Ginger mused. ‘Is she a supernatural entity or an extra-terrestrial being?’

‘She’s a demon sorceress from Dimension Terror. Check both boxes.’ Ginger shrugged, and left the office.

For decades, Coastal City had been almost cosy. Buildings might be destroyed, but innocent bystanders were rushed out of the way. Casualties were amazingly light, limited to hypervillains who unwisely made final stands on perches above the bay – the torch of the Statue of Freedom was very popular – and accidentally fell to their usually temporary deaths in the waters below.

Hyperheroes never so much as gave them a shove, though it was quietly agreed that no one should ever hold the Streak, who could accomplish anything in a fragment of a second, responsible for not darting out and saving Dr Megalomaniac from a fatal fall in the way he would if Ginger, on whom he was kind of sweet, were tottering on a ledge. As it happens, dozens of falls, fires, explosions, executions, banishments to Dimension Terror and Mittel European lynch mobs had failed to do any permanent harm to Dr A few months – years? – ago, that had started to change. A few minor hypers, mostly those who had not been heard of for a while, got killed in the odd big brawl. Peers gathered for funerals, though they could hardly be expected to remember much about the fallen. At first, when Iridium Man was destroyed by Mr Bones, Riordan had expected I-Man to be back within the month, but it seemed his death was more permanent than most. In life, he hadn’t been much of a name – just a second-stringer in a short-lived group, the Atom Age Teens, who had been around for a while before Gecko Man turned up. But, as a dead hyperhero, he took on a totemic position. If Iridium Man could die, so could anyone else. About that time, Vindicator started seriously collecting heads. The mood of the city changed, even its look. Edges were sharper, shadows thicker. The Depression spread, affecting more than the picturesque and grateful orphans who received Christmas presents in the Streak’s annual Santa Claus act. There were homeless persons, mentally-ill veterans, even the odd teenage hooker. A few street cops turned out to be dirty. Riordan couldn’t understand it. Once, he found himself picking up the phone and asking to speak with President Roosevelt. Then, in his mind, he asked himself: which one? The silver spires and the elegant dirigibles were still there, in the world of the flying folk. But down in the labyrinthine streets and alleys, the Darkangel kept the fragile peace through terror. Even Vindicator started to seem soft. Nightgaunt, the city’s newest ‘hyperhero’, was a demon turncoat who ate the entrails of slain foes. Once, the city had been an American Ideal. All problems were solved quickly and with good cheer. Even the worst of the worst were like naughty children, sent to their rooms until the next scrape. And the hyperheroes were all big kids, enjoying themselves. What had changed? Now, Coastal City was America’s Nightmare.

The old city was still there, if you looked.

Riordan realised the problem was in himself. Like Max Multiple, he hopped between personalities. He was different with different people: fatherly with Amazon Queen, irascible with Darkangel, a buffoon with Gecko Man, sad but stern with Vindicator, almost senile with Nightgaunt. He was in everyone’s world, and they were all inside him, tearing him apart. Only months til retirement. But months were eternal in Coastal City. It was just months since Watergate (when Dr Meggo replaced the President with an evil robot), since the Bay of Pigs, since Anzio. Riordan wondered. I-Man was gone and even poor sweet dumb Teensy Teen was stomped flat by the Dealer. For a while, it seemed Amazon Queen had actually died, sucked into the Nevergone Void, but she came back, reborn and rejuvenated and with a more revealing costume, and a meaner streak. But Green Masque, who had been around almost as long as Amazon Queen, fell victim to a serial killer, Pestilence, and was actually gone from continuity, rarely seen even as a ghost. It could happen. He could die. Ironically, on the eve of retirement. He would be greatly mourned and swiftly avenged. But he was an anachronism. The times would be served better if Coastal City’s police chief were a woman or a psychopathic hypervillain or a black man. There was more potential in any of those, more chance for conflict or crisis. It was all about stories, about plot material. He wasn’t one of the immortals. Dr Megalomaniac was out there, a one-time nuisance reworked as a mass murderer. And so many others. With grudges, with hyperpowers. Living through months that spanned decades, only noticing the gradual changes when they were well-established, always careening from crisis to crisis, Frank Riordan was wearing out. At first, slowly; now, rapidly. How long would this go on? He looked out of his office window as night fell. The torch of the Statue of Freedom burned bright, its fires reflected in the frontage of the Allied Nations HQ. A giant, ten-armed octopus was pulling itself painfully up the Imperial State Building, tentacle by tentacle. Futile shellbursts were exploding all around. Crowds in the streets were running in panic. Riordan forgot his troubles and used the gold phone. It was answered at the first ring, but as usual she didn’t speak, just listened.

‘There’s a crisis in Coastal City,’ he told the silent party. ‘If ever we’ve needed you, we need you now.’

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