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Chewing thoughtfully on his cheeseburger, Carl realized he probably wasn’t doing it thoughtfully at all. He was considering the scent of machine oil and harsh cleanser in the room. He was blaming it for how his stomach now churned. And as his appetite quickly fled, he realized that all of that—far from being thoughtful—was just a delaying tactic.
There’s something I need to deal with—there are important thoughts tumbling around in my head, but they’re something my brain knows I don’t want to face, Carl considered. So why deal with them when I can sit here and leisurely gnaw on greasy hunks of food like a cow chewing cud?
Query looked up from the fuselage of the drone he was fiddling with, and regarded the lawyer through his mask. “Are we going to get to new business any time soon, Carl?” Query asked. “Usually you plow through your two burgers in no time flat—this second one’s taking you a while. Did Wendy’s use some rancid meat?”
“More like my employer using rancid-smelling and probably toxic substances that aren’t supposed to be used in enclosed spaces,” Carl said, finally setting the remains of the burger down on the table next to him.
Query put down his tools, turned in his chair, and pushed the recently installed bulletproof window behind him up about halfway. “There’s no good angle to get a bullet through that particular window anyway unless you’re in a cherry picker, so as long as no one is waiting to lob a grenade up in here, we should be good. Can we get on with things so I can get back to this without complaints from you?”
“Feel the love,” Carl teased wearily, and regarded the compact surveillance craft occupying all of Query’s desk and extending nearly a foot past each end of it. “What’s wrong with your drone there anyway?”
I’m stalling again, he realized, because I think the new business is what will put my mind where I don’t want it to be—it’s what’s going to trigger a talk I don’t want to have.
“New Judah PD shot at it and got lucky,” Query answered. “Nothing too serious, but a pain in my ass. Seems they don’t like my eyes in the sky. Guess they don’t like the competition for the three drones they have that are twice the size of mine, half the speed and not nearly as cool-looking.”
“Well, next time they should steal theirs from the military like you did instead of settling for first-generation models,” Carl shot back, looking at his half-eaten burger and sighing. “OK, new business, then. I’ve heard from inside Fortunato’s building, but only from one of our parties: Zoe. After a few days, Fortunato finally made a job offer, and she’s got a contract to send me for review.”
“Look it over with the finest-tooth comb you have and don’t let him screw her, Carl. At least not screw her over legally and contractually. I don’t care what other kind of screwing might happen.”
“I’ll keep her safe and solidly armored by flawless paperwork. Don’t worry about that. What you should probably worry about is yourself. Fortunato finally gets your attention and now leaves you hanging for three or four days? What’s he up to, you think? Why so coy now?”
Is this what’s bugging me? Carl thought. Fortunato’s plans? No, there’s no sense of dread. What am I avoiding?
Query paused in adjusting the wing articulation controls in the drone and looked up again. “Partly he wants to make me sweat, because he’s delusional enough to think he can. Mostly he’s busy trying to figure out how to get Zoe in his camp—”
“Loc-Down,” Carl interrupted.
“Just occurred to me you might want to know. Zoe’s codename’s apparently going to be Loc-Down.”
“Cute,” Query said. “She’s got a whole head full of locs that can punch through metal plates and tear you to ribbons when she morphs. As good as any name. Anyway, he’s busy with her,” the black-clad hero continued, “because he knows I’ll sit tight. Zoe’s slippery and he doesn’t want to let her get away. Certainly not until he puts her to work with the plans he’s hatching.”
“I don’t know,” Query admitted. “I’ve got wonderful intuitive powers, Carl, but I’m not an oracle. Most likely it has something to do with his cousin that took a dive out a window. I think Fortunato wants revenge.”
“On who? Did the guy’s pharmacist give him the wrong anti-depressants?”
“No, Crazy Jane gave his cousin all the right incentives to make the leap to the great beyond,” Query responded.
“How do you figure that? Did one of your birdies see her watching his swan-dive?” Carl asked, nodding to the owl-head-shaped cowling on the desktop that Query had removed from the nose of the drone some 10 minutes earlier.
“Nah. I got hold of some video that shows her making regular visits to the guy. The images were sent to Fortunato privately so he’d know who was responsible. I knew she could unnerve people psychically as well as transmit electrical shocks, but always wondered if she had more powers, given how unstable she is. Guessing this was either some mind control in action or, more likely, she can make people lose their fucking minds. That’s in line with her name, so it seems most likely. Nasty power.”
“I thought she was being held in the Givens facility under high security.”
“You must have been hung over or out of town a few months back, Carl. She was busted out of Givens. Bloody damn job, too. A dozen dead staff or thereabouts—and they took one of the doctors there with them—hard-ass, DA-hired headshrinker named Marcus Blood. No one knows if he was an accomplice or a hostage. Still haven’t found him. Big news. Janus busted her out personally—well, with some of his lackeys with him. Those three scary killer women he’s got and a couple norm human troopers.”
“So, Crazy Jane got busted out, maybe just to do this job against Fortunato’s cousin, which means Janus is behind it all, and he isn’t just going after you but Fortunato, too. Fortunato wants your help with getting back at him.”
“Probably,” Query acknowledged. “But I can’t say for sure yet. It feels like Fortunato has something else brewing. I think he may be trying to form some kind of team, but I can’t tell if it’s just a revenge kick or some kind of vanity project with longer-term goals. I need more data. Which is part of the reason I’m even going to lend him an ear when he finally calls you up to meet with me. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest single threat to New Judah after Janus is Fortunato right now. Man has a God complex and even if he thinks he’s doing good, he’ll probably leave a whole lot of damage in his wake—eventually, his ego and greed always get in the way.”
And there it is, Carl thought, and with a sickening mental lurch, he realized he was finally in the territory he had been avoiding all along. No stopping now…
“With all due respect, Query—”
“In other words, ‘let me point something out something potentially insulting to you’.” Query said, cutting him off.
“Anyway,” Carl sighed. “No offense—”
“Same thing,” Query teased him.
“Jesus! OK, Query, what I’m trying to say is, you’re right that Fortunato has an ego bigger than the city itself, but you’re not in a position to judge somebody else’s God complex. You have a squadron of high-tech, programmable, auto-pilot mini-drones flying around the city, you’ve got a network of informants, you regularly hack into all kind of surveillance systems and all that, and you share hardly a speck of your intel with the police. You know the identities and even the damn home addresses of several costumed whackjobs and you mostly keep that to yourself. You don’t go after them yourself very often, you don’t send other white hats after them very often and you almost never share with New Judah’s finest men and women in blue. Why?”
For several moments, Query said nothing. Carl’s guts clenched, but he didn’t sense anger from the man. Bewilderment, maybe, but not anger. As the sharp cramp in his belly eased, Carl could almost imagine the hero’s eyes blinking behind the mask like a startled cartoon character. The mental image calmed him a little.
“First off, Carl, my personality gives me plenty of right to judge Fortunato,” Query retorted mildly. “If I’ve got a God complex, and I don’t—but anyway, if I have a similarly large ego and level of presumption as Fortunato—then I’ll judge him all day long. Takes one to know one, and I have enough distance from his issues to know when he’s too close to them to think straight. Honestly—and this pains me to admit—the same could probably be said of him sorting out my issues if he knew enough about me to know what I was up to.”
“So why don’t you?”
“What? Share my entire wealth of data with everyone who’s going after the bad guys, you mean?” Query asked.
“Yeah. Because you should be.” Carl’s tone was flat, but still, the sense of accusation transmitted clearly.
“Partly because I’m not God, Carl. I can’t fix everything, and I shouldn’t try to. I also don’t want people knowing just how much I know, because then they’ll start wondering if I’m more a danger than an asset to the city or, if they’re the bad guys, they’ll realize I’m even more a threat to their operations than they know already. I don’t need to be dodging hit squads like the one Janus sent on a regular basis. That shit’s tiring, and I’m getting too old for that.”
Carl said nothing. But the accusation remained.
“But in the end, it’s really about balance,” Query said.
“You think the crooks deserve to have some kind of balance?” Carl spat out. “That’s crazy. A level playing field for them?”
“Oh, hell no,” Query sneered. “It’s not about making things fair for the black hats; it’s about not adding to their numbers, man.”
“Look, transhumans aren’t crazy per se, Carl, but we’re wired differently. We have issues in our heads—an awful lot of us, anyway. And some of us more than others. Let’s say I handed out my data like candy at Halloween and we cleared out most of the costumed bad guys in the city. What would happen?”
“I guess folks would come in to the city to fill the voids. That what you mean?”
“Worse, Carl. Some of the heroes and vigilantes in the city might fill those voids, too. Without suitable challenges…that is, without enemies that are like them—peers in power, if you will—I suspect some of the white hats who mostly like kicking ass or getting attention might gravitate toward the dark side. Jedi/Sith-style like in Star Wars. A lot of those heroes need an outlet—fighting folks who are like them. Without that, seizing power and misusing their power might start to taste good to them.”
“But some of these black hats are way more of a risk than the average crook, and you let a lot of them continue to run free when you could shut them down. Doesn’t that—”
“Make me feel conflicted? Make me feel like shit sometimes knowing if I’ve misjudged that someone I thought was no big deal might kill a whole bus full of children or a convent full of nuns? Yeah, Carl. My job sucks. But the fact is, no matter how big my ego, I’ve got enough perspective and humility to know that sometimes I need to let nature run its course. I need to remind myself that no one—not even me—can make crime ever go away. We all have our roles to play, Carl. A lot of times, mine is to sit back and keep my nose out of other people’s business—even when I can smell things are going to go sour.”
* * *
Although her work as an assistant district attorney took her to the main building of the New Judah Police Department on a fairly regular basis, Andrea realized this would be her first time going above the fourth floor since she had started the job two months ago. Truth be told, though, that little bit of trivia was only a minor note in her mind right up until the elevator doors opened.
Then she gasped.
The man standing in front of her in a crisp suit-and-tie ensemble might have thought she was gasping at the sight of him, she considered many hours later—he was tall and handsome enough—but what had taken her breath away was the crisp, clean, high-tech appearance of the mostly open-plan landscape of the sixth floor. The rest of the eight-story main precinct building and the other, smaller precinct buildings she’d visited weren’t that much different than what she’d seen in the city of Cleveland’s Division of Police—the offices were neither startlingly decrepit nor were they models of modernity.
But this floor looks like it belongs on the set of some science fiction show, she thought.
“ADA Yates; good to meet you,” the lieutenant said, extending his hand. She took it and gave him a light, quick shake as she exited the elevator car. “Can I get you a coffee?”
“Sure. Black. Do you have a machine that teleports them straight to you, Lt. Greene?” she joked.
He chuckled, low and slow, as he stepped around into a small reception desk and grabbed a cup, pouring from a pot just underneath the counter. “Well, a lot of the officers around here do call this floor ‘The Enterprise,’ but no. Old-fashioned brewing and pouring,” he said, smiling and handing her the paper cup as the steam from it spiraled up in the air between them. “C’mon, let me give you the grand tour. So, I know this is your first time here, or I wouldn’t be your tour guide, but I wanna make sure I show you the right things. I hear that you wanna handle a lot of transhuman cases?”
“Yeah. Is that weird or something?”
“Not at all, Ms. Yates. You see,” he said in an almost boyishly excited voice as he extended one arm in an arc to show off one half of the floor like a gameshow prize, “a lot of this floor is forensics. State-of-the-art lab computers and stuff—the actual labs and clean rooms are a floor above us. Lots of great equipment in there, but that floor looks pretty much like standard police issue architecture. Fortunato actually paid for a lot of this floor as a goodwill gesture to the city. But this—this is what you’re really gonna wanna see.”
He pointed toward the other side of the floor, and led the way to a door marked “SO/GT Div.” Opening it, he waved her in and followed right behind her. It was one of the few parts of the floor that wasn’t open and airy, and there were no windows to let anyone see into this section from the rest of the floor or see out onto the main part of the floor.
“Why do I feel like I’ve been ushered into a secret lair?”
“In a way, you have. This part of the department doesn’t get talked about a lot. I wouldn’t say it’s secret, but it’s probably best if you kind of behave like it is. We talk about it too much, and it may not work as well for us as it does.”
“As what does?” Andrea probed.
“Well, remember how Detective Sergeant Lindemann kind of read you the riot act a few weeks ago about not pushing the department to arrest transhumans on weak evidence?”
“Good God. Is he telling that story all around the department or something? Am I going to be like the village idiot around here?”
“Oh, hell, nothing like that. He’s discreet as hell. But I asked anyone in the department who feels like they have any sense of you or any major interactions with you to come and talk to me before our appointment today.”
“So I know what your level of knowledge is and what I need to teach you about what we do here. What did Joe tell you was one of the biggest problems about arresting transhumans?”
Andrea sighed and didn’t bother to try to mask the exasperation in her voice. “Making a positive ID and linking them to a crime, since they typically wear masks and gloves—hell, whole costumes that make it less likely they’ll even drop hair as evidence. Plus some of them use body doubles as misdirection.”
“Bingo!” the detective said eagerly. “Even if you get good video, making an ID is hard, because unless the mask is pretty form-fitting, you might not even be able to use facial recognition software to match a suspect to the perp you caught on tape. And that’s why we have the SoundOff Program. That’s the ‘SO’ part of what was on the door back there. We have high-quality recordings of the voices of a lot of transhumans—criminals, vigilantes, heroes, whatever—and we can use those to match a suspect with their voice on file to help make the identification stick when we charge ‘em and you try to convict ‘em.”
With a rush of awareness, Andrea realized what felt strange about this area. Much of it struck her like it was a sound recording studio or radio station.
“But you’d only have them recorded if you’d captured them before, right?”
“Oh, no. We estimate we have voiceprints—good, thorough ones—on probably a third of the trans crooks in town, regardless of whether they’ve ever been caught or even questioned, and average to middling quality on another third.”
“They call us.”
“Dead serious, ADA Yates. Dead serious. Transhumans who put on costumes tend to be the ones most touched in the head. They’re the ones who often want the attention, or why would they put on costumes and give themselves these crazy names? They love to call and taunt us right before or after a crime. Or just to try to strike fear into our hearts when they first enter the scene. Or to complain to us when the press is mischaracterizing them or we’re supposedly slandering them. And of course the heroes and vigilantes call in to let us know there are bad guys to pick up—so we’ve got them recorded and stored, too.
“Attention,” Lt. Greene continued. “The biggest mental block most any costumed transhuman has is a desire—on some level—for attention or validation. So we sometimes know the villain’s name before anyone’s even seen the creep in action in costume, and we have a voice to match to it—all because he called to introduce himself—or herself. We’ve even been able to nab a few who changed their costume and name later thinking it would help them avoid capture, and charged them with the crimes committed under their previous identity.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“We’ve had this division and this equipment—or earlier generations of it—for a decade, give or take. There are similar centers like this in Manhattan, D.C., Chicago, L.A., Dallas, Philly and Gryphon. Marksburgh flat-out refuses to adopt the technology, even though God knows they need it more than anyone else.”
“And they still call you? No one’s caught on? Surely you have to reveal to the defense and the judge that you have a recording and how it was obtained.”
“Then why don’t the newer transhuman villains stop calling you and giving you evidence to help identify them?”
“Same reason people see shows on TV like CSI or Law & Order or some cheesy Lifetime woman-gets-murdered-by-crazy-husband movie and know the police have special sprays and lights that can show bloodstains that aren’t visible to the naked eye and yet still clean up all the blood and think they’re free and clear. Or rape a woman without wearing a condom. Or don’t wear gloves even though fingerprinting technology’s been around forever. They’re either dumb, overconfident or want too badly for us to realize how amazing they are. And it’s not like we go trumpeting the fact we have all these technologies—that’s why I say behave like it’s a secret, even though it really isn’t.
“But in the end, who knows?” the lieutenant continued, “Ego? Stupidity? Both? I dunno. Maybe just ignorance in some cases. Doesn’t matter, though. In the end, we have these trans guys and gals on file—and non-transhuman folks who crave attention, too, like serial killers or activist extremists. And that’s where we get into the ‘GT’ part of this division’s name. The GeneTrapper Program. Genetic material when we can get it from a crime a trans villain is known to have been at, cross-referenced with the voiceprint and with the gene records and voiceprints of known associates and enemies. And other stuff, too. But showing’s better that saying, and I’ve got some people for you to meet. C’mon, Yates—let’s show you what you’ve got to work with when you go after these costumed nutjobs.”
Barely even looking at him—her head swimming with the realization of just what kind of people she was about to start making the focus of her work and the strangeness of them—she followed in his wake.
I guess we’re not in Cleveland anymore, are we, Toto? Andrea mused as her guide continued to regale her with tales of technology and transhumans as he led her farther down the long hall. Or maybe I’m picking the wrong fantasy analogy. Maybe I just fell down the rabbit hole like Alice did.
* * *
Pushing a comic book just slightly to cover an errant view of the dull, pitted hardwood of his apartment’s floor, the man leaned back. He admired the wall-to-wall “carpeting” of his small, dingy place in the part of the city known as The Hollows—the sea of comics. This tiny place was more than he deserved, really. Crazy Jane had told him that so many times, even as she stroked his hair and called him her good little puppy. Or her bad little puppy.
In the end, both terms were usually used for the same behavior.
He didn’t deserve this little hovel furnished with nothing but two wooden chairs, a small table, and hundreds of comic books to cover the floors. He didn’t deserve Jane. But in the end, he’d played that small part in her escape because she was his world by then. He needed her. Craved her attention. Even now, he shook with stress over the fact she hadn’t been to see him since two mornings ago, and rubbed his hands nervously across his black-hooded face.
Usually, she’d visit him daily—sometimes a few times in a day—to monitor his progress. To see how he was developing.
Her art project. Her pet project.
And her toy.
Oh, never to play with sexually—such a thought repulsed him. Not because he didn’t desire her. He did. Oh so much. But it would repulse her he was certain. And it would anger Janus, which might cause him to be permanently removed from Crazy Jane’s attentions. He couldn’t disappoint her like that. So he would never overstep that line.
Besides, he could slake his desires on other men and women just like Crazy Jane had taught him. Just as she had molded him to do. Because she’d imprisoned the sanity that had always held him back from glory. She’d freed his mind to the wonder of what others called madness.
But it was really just truth. Problem was, most of society couldn’t handle the truth.
He admired the colorful, paper carpeting of his abode. Comics with Doctor Doom on the cover. Or Doctor Fate. Or Doctor Strange. Doctor Octopus. Doctor Light. Doctor Silvanus. And so many others.
He’d need to get a tarp today. And then a victim. Mustn’t disappoint Crazy Jane, who’d expect him to have some kind of project to show her when she arrived tomorrow. That’s why she was making him wait, probably—he’d been slack in giving her new pieces to admire. It had been a couple weeks now. He needed to find someone new to—modify.
But first, the tarp.
It wouldn’t do to bloody all these famous comic book “doctors.”
Even if his own name was Marcus Blood, M.D.
* * *
Janus looked out through the broad window of the conference room in which he and Underworld were ensconced. Toward the figure sitting outside on a small sofa. Long-legged and busty with silver-streaked dark hair pulled into a pair of pigtails. Black, sleeveless top and plaid miniskirt. Fishnet stockings with a big pair of lacy white garters at the swell of the thighs, matching the four smaller garters on the arms, over black opera gloves. High-heeled red pumps with their own lacy garters. Face shining with pale powder and highlighted with a black circle at each cheek and equally black lips. And to top it all off, contact lenses that made the eyes look red as burning embers.
“I cannot believe you convinced me to let that on my team,” he sighed.
“Our team,” Underworld corrected him. “And you can’t deny the test results and reports. She’s everything I promised you she would be. Her powers are incredible, especially now that my team has honed them with vocal training and couple technological additions. She’s a goddamn work of transhuman art.”
“She? She has a dick. Cleverly secured back between his ass cheeks or not—a dick. That’s a man, and I wish he would act like one.”
“She already agreed to change her name from Shrill to the more intimidating Caterwaul—and go Goth for you so that she doesn’t look too frilly in a fight. And I have to admit, she does Goth so well. She’s made her concessions. I’m not going to make her dress in slacks and a button-down for you.”
“That is not a woman,” Janus insisted. “I cannot believe you are enabling this ridiculousness.”
“She feels like one, and I’m on her side,” Underworld said. “A chick with a dick, as she likes to say. Variety is the spice of life, Janus. I’ve even found a Regenerator who assures me he can get her body to start producing estrogen consistently. With that and a little cosmetic surgery help, she won’t need the padded bra anymore.”
“A fucking she-male on our team. Just what I wanted,” Janus sneered.
“She hates that term; so do I. You know, for someone who wears masks that express some kind of duality and has the name of a two-faced god, you’re awfully persnickety about sexual identity issues,” Underworld observed.
She also observed, silently, that there was a subtle difference to his mask today compared to others he had worn. The forward-facing central part of it struck her as angry and male. On each side were two other faces, one looking right and the other left. Both of them seemed feminine, with one smiling and the other’s mouth exhibiting a more neutral affect.
In a sense, he’s wearing three faces today instead of his usual pair, and it mixes masculine and feminine. A little outside his box and perhaps a sign of confusion. I do believe I’ve hit a nerve and found a new way to make Janus uncomfortable, Underworld considered. And that’s always a good thing for me.
“I’m a superpowered kingpin. I reserve the right to be a hypocrite. I just happen to believe that when it comes to gonads, you play the hand you’re dealt,” Janus said. “Or you go under the knife and change your hand to a whole new one. You don’t mix up two different decks.”
“She likes having a dick. It’s like her big, fat juicy clitoris,” Underworld taunted him in a syrupy sweet tone. “And for a pussy she has—”
“Oh, God, please shut up,” he groaned. “Will he go all the way in a fight if necessary? Does he have the killer instinct?”
“She’s sexy and pretty, not a pushover,” Underworld said. “She’ll perform. She will get the jobs done. She. C’mon…say it. Sheeeeeee.”
“It…has…a…dick,” Janus enunciated slowly. “He’s your responsibility, so just make sure he—”
“If I start using ‘she’ and ‘her’ can you promise me we will never again discuss its sexual anatomy or who and what it sleeps with?” Janus said with quiet intensity.
“Oh, of course, my dear,” Underworld said with even more exaggerated sweetness. “That sounds just lovely.”
“Then I look forward to her proving herself. If she fails me by showing the slightest hesitation—if she crumbles at any crunch-time—I will not hesitate to crush every one of her protuberances before I kill her.”
“Fair enough, Janus,” Underworld said with a smug undertone. “You’ve gotta admit, though, she has a great ass and gorgeous legs.”
Janus sighed heavily. “In hindsight, I suppose I should have made you agree not to talk about any part of Caterwaul’s body.”
“Yeaaaaah,” she responded, slowly and softly.
“I think we’re done today,” said Janus. “Tell the others to come back in a couple days and we can finish sorting out the final roster and backup members. Hopefully, you’ll be over your gloating by then. I trust you can see your Goth-tart protégé out by yourself.”
“Of course, darling,” Underworld said as if addressing a small child, her glee at ruining his day a little taking some of the edge—a sliver at least—off her burning daily desire to murder him. “Wouldn’t want Caterwaul to get any of her transvestite cooties on youuuu, would weeee?”
“Go,” Janus snarled, then smiled brightly beneath the angry frown of his mask. “Please go before I forget how much I need to keep you around.”