Chapter One: Truth, Justice, And Drowning In Toxic Sludge

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Ten hours of Chill-fi 'Human Music' above.

You don't need superpowers to defend truth, justice, and the American way. You just need a pallet that doesn't turn at the words "breaking and entering."

Take right now, for instance. I'm at the edge of the Silver Dollar Strip, where the city turns to rust and gnarled tree roots and the moon sinks low in a sponge of gray clouds overhead.

"Monet!" Kaito shouts in the left ear of my headset. "Finn's bullying me!"

"I am not!" Finn says in my right. Buzz buzz snaps a fizz of static. "He's so freaking delicate. It's like I'm riding shotgun with a Cattleya Orchid."

I sigh, skimming my fingers over the dozen or so 'No trespassing' signs scattered through Silver Dollar's "forest" —also known as a thin cospe of twisted magnolia trees—while taking care to hop the loops of barbed wire half-buried in the mud. Last thing I need on a "mission"—a splintered knee.

"He took my calzone, Monet. You know how I feel about him taking my food."

"You know how I feel about Kai in general." Finn huffs. "He's a pathetic, little—"

"Me?" Kai's voice cracks. "You're pathetic and little!"

"Yeah! Well, you're a jerky little emo brat, and I-I'm taller than you!"

In case you're wondering, no, I am not a mother and no, these are not my derpy kids. These are my best friends. Finn, seventeen, the guy with the intel and Kaito, also seventeen, the guy with the Pizzastar delivery car.

"Guys, we're about to see a supervillain." Me, this time. "I'm not your mom. Cut it out."

Kaito whines. "Mon-neet!" I click off his voice and click on a ten-hour chill-fi playlist. For focus. With a clench of my notepad for luck, I stumble onto the overgrown driveway.

It's a cute little cottage, with a front porch and a swinging tropical-printed loveseat. The windows are boarded up with red shutters, its planter boxes filled with tiny star-shaped flowers. Quaint. Reminds me of the place Red Riding Hood's grandmother was supposed to live, all cute and nestled up in the woods.

"Too cute for its own good," I mutter to myself, my hopes for a stone fortress with a spiked fence dashed. With a slap of a crowbar against my thigh, I crouch below the window and press my ear to the wall. A moment passes, then I catch a note of low voices murmuring and laughing.

I rise, adjust my starched collar, and knock on the faded pink door. "Mr. Preston?"

The voices silence. I exhale my held breath.

"Mr. Preston! I'm glad you're here! I was texted an anonymous tip about your meeting with a Masquerade tonight." I flip open my notepad and fumble with the pencil tucked behind my ear. It makes me feel like one of the old reporters, the ones with 'Press' stuck in the bands of their pork-pies. "As in, the villain Masquerade. The one wreaking havoc and terror. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

The silence is so thick my dubstep gives it a heartbeat.

"Okay, great. I'm just going to pry these shutters open and snap some pictures myself."

"Monet!" Kai shouts. The chill-fi zaps off. "You can't just break communication like this. We're on a mission."

"Yeah," says Finn, cutting me off before I can utter a single curse. "Hasn't anyone taught you about stranger danger or anything?"

Precisely.

"And that's why I'm doing this alone." Slinking up against the window, I ready my crowbar, porch creaking under my feet. "The mayor already knows me and my dad. If you guys get involved, he'll hurt you to shut you up."

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