Archive for November, 2010

She lay on the huge bed, clad in a very expensive, very flimsy nightgown of silk with velvety trim. She spent a lot of time there, because it was where she was expected to be so often—just in case he “needed” her—and sometimes that need came at lunchtime or other random points in the day.

Aside from bathroom visits and meals and cleaning up, she didn’t leave the bed much, except to do some spinning or treadmill time—after all, she had to stay in shape for him, too.

It might be nice to have something else to do, but I went through his meager library of books long ago, and he’s never been all that keen on shopping for more very often, she considered ruefully, though he brings so many other gifts.

The gifts were her own fault, in a way, and she knew why he plied her with them initially. Why he bothered now was beyond her. Maybe they were meant to woo her heart or perhaps to make up for what he did to her. Maybe it was both.

Then again, maybe it was habit, or maybe it was to taunt her. Those seemed more likely most days.

Staring at piles of gifts didn’t do much to occupy her mind, though. Logging on any amount of computer time would be a nice change of pace, but she was locked out of his computers as surely as she was the phones in this large condo. She had the bed and the television to keep her company—every once in a while the hundreds of channels of crap yielded something worth watching that engaged her. Those were the good times, when the company of those two inanimate objects almost took her mind away from her imprisonment.

Sometimes, of course, she had him for company instead.

Those were the worst times.

* * *

She heard the sharp “ding” of the private elevator that led up to this penthouse domicile in which she resided, and she cringed beneath the sheets. She’d have 20 or 30 seconds to compose herself before he entered—often he would wait several minutes but she’d learned not to assume that. He had to at least take time to put his mask and goggles back on. He didn’t wear them when he entered the building or went up the elevator, for obvious reasons, but he wore them for her all the time.

Partly for effect, she assumed, but mostly to prevent her from spraying glass cleaner in his eyes or dosing him with some kind of homemade pepper-powder concoction.

“Darling,” she heard him say softly from the doorway, and realized she had drifted a bit—she pulled herself into character quickly and looked toward him, smiling.

“Darling,” he repeated, “I have a gift for you.”

He worked long hours at some kind of legitimate job; investment banking or something else, she guessed—something with long hours that required a Type A personality. And when he wasn’t in the office, he spent little time here at the penthouse condo—after all, he went out to commit crimes almost every night he didn’t work late and often he slept elsewhere, and she feared to ask where, suspecting that often it was in a victim’s own home. Not every night resulted in a crime, and not every crime was satisfying or lucrative, but more often than not, he came home with a gift for her.

Lucky me, she thought with a deep, abiding and sarcastic agony.

She hadn’t even known he was a criminal when she first met him. He was just that awkward, vaguely creepy guy in the support group with her and a dozen other folks. They had only minor powers and none of them were particularly happy being transhumans even though it was easy for most of them to hide their powers, and that was why they were in the group to commiserate with one another. She’d never suspected he had something more than a smidgen of power; never knew he was happy to use his powers and was simply lurking in the group.

Never knew he had targeted her. He probably never would have actually abducted her, though, if she hadn’t given him that accidental invitation—that little bit of goading that made him feel justified in claiming her. He’d asked her out, and she didn’t like the idea one bit, but in a bit of petty nastiness, she’d told him he’d need to be quite the provider for her to consider a date.

“I’m the kind of girl who has lots of wishes,” she had said haughtily, “and I need someone who can make them come true. Jewelry, fine wines, fantastic shoes, expensive dresses, fancy foods, rare wines, furs and all that. You can’t do that.”

So she’d set the trap for herself without meaning too, and she’d baited it. She’d never expected him to take her so seriously and to ply her with expensive gifts. That had intrigued her, she had to admit, so she’d allowed him to take her out a couple times. And then, finally, to have a drink at his place. She’d never imagined a guy like him would live in a penthouse suite of such luxuriousness. She’d never guessed it would become her prison.

It was her own fault coming here against her better instincts, and certainly she’d started the ball rolling with her attempt to dissuade him through ridicule at first. But in the end, it was his fault, because while the things she had done might have earned her some degree of humiliation, they didn’t justify anything near what he’d done to her, she thought as she touched the collar around her neck.

“Darling,” he said again, snatching her attention to the horrid, sickly present circumstances—the hellish reality that had defined the past 10 months of her life. “I have something for you.”

She smiled as realistically as she could, and let him drape the expensive fur around her shoulders, as she guided her arms into the sensually soft lining of the sleeves, wondering at how the trick of perspective and fate could cause something so fancy to now fill her with such revulsion. But he was giving her what she had demanded, of course, here in this prison of her desires. In this cage formed of her former dreams. Binding her in chains of her own vainly professed wishes as he worked his own insidious agenda on her mind and on her flesh.

“I hope you like it,” he said, his eyes greedy as they took in her taut body framed in fur.

Then she felt the warm stickiness at the back of her neck, and stifled the cry that threatened to escape her throat. She tried not to imagine how much of the blood of the coat’s previous owner might be there at the neck of the coat, and perhaps other places as well. She tried to concentrate on the softer, silkier warmth of the rest of the coat, and the softness of the sheets, and tried to block out the feel of fresh blood and the press of his body against her as he took what he thought he had paid for in full.

She gasped and moaned not just to please him and keep him from possibly hurting her but to hide the choking little hiccups in her chest that threatened to become sobs. Which would then become screams. And probably hideous shrieking and cackling thereafter.

There lay madness, and probably punishment at his hands, as well, so she turned her inward eyes away from the abyss and choked off her cries before they could summon her doom.

Her soul cringed inside her as she tried to pay attention to him and yet ignore him.

She tried to tell herself that it could be worse. He’d never actually been violent toward her. Aggressive and insensitive, yes. Degradingly sordid, certainly. Rough, often. But psychopathically violent, no.

Not yet, at least.

But as she tried to convince herself that it could be worse, all she could think of was that if it was this bad without being beaten, or threatened, or cut—how much worse was it for a woman raped with more overt violence? How much worse would it be for her, when perhaps he decided that pleasure could only come from upping the ante and taking more than his pound of flesh from her and stealing a greater slice of her soul?

* * *

It was a minor blessing that he didn’t take her every night. In fact, he didn’t share the bed with her most nights since he rarely stayed here long.

But he took her body twice more over the course of the next five days, paying for the “right” with stolen goods as he stole her dignity.

As she waited for the gift she really wanted.

Finally, he came home with it, along with other items from the store—food for her to cook for herself and sometimes for him; cleaners with which to keep his home tidy. For a month now, she’d been slacking in one area of her duties: cleaning. For weeks now, she’d been less diligent as she used a new cleanser he’d bought. She’d been lax on purpose, letting the grime build a tiny bit at a time, blaming it on the inadequacy of the new brand, and begging him to buy the old one again when this ran out, before the bathroom and kitchen failed to meet his expectations.

And finally, he had produced it.

Tomorrow, she would use it.

Too often, all those channels yielded nothing good, but two months ago, there was that program that talked about how easy it was to make simple explosives with household chemicals.

Never had she been so glad for satellite television, pirate TV channels and paranoid individuals who wanted to tutor “normal” humans how to protect themselves from transhumans in the imagined coming genetic apocalypse.

She had gathered and hoarded and hidden what she’d needed, and then realized she lacked one ingredient. Realized the container that contained it was nearly empty. Insufficient.

And then he’d replaced it with a new brand to be more cost-effective, and her hope had died inside her when she realized it lacked the active ingredient she needed.

But her scheming had worked, and she had it now. She could finish her gift to him now that he’d given her this gift tonight—an item he didn’t even know was a gift.

It was the last gift she ever intended to receive in this prison of wishes that was his home—and her hell.

* * *

As well as his job must pay him, she’d long realized it couldn’t support the opulence in which he had trapped her and in which he lived a few hours a day himself. So that meant his crimes were fairly fruitful overall, and his transhuman powers were probably somewhat formidable.

Not that she knew what they were. He hadn’t told her. She doubted he had invulnerability, since he made sure she couldn’t surprise him when he came home. If she got within two feet of the front door, the elevator, or any window, the collar around her neck gave her a taser-level jolt. It probably also alerted him by pager or cell phone that it had been activated.

She still remembered with mingled humiliation and horror as he cradled her head in his lap that day so many months past, his erection hard against the back of her throbbing skull, as he told her, “Bad girl. I told you not to cross those lines on the floor. I have to keep you safe from the world, so that I can bring just those parts of the world to you that you want. That you need. My princess. If you leave me, how can I give you what you desire?”

And then, as if it was something she desired as much as he did, he stripped her and fucked her body, still recovering from the stunning jolts of electricity, and as she clenched against his manhood in terror and disgust, he no doubt thought it passion and love.

She’d tried to figure out what his powers might be many times since then, but to no avail. He wouldn’t share the information, and the story he’d told them all at the support group—that he had a minor morphing ability to mimic simple textures and colors of nearby surfaces like a chameleon—was probably incomplete at best, and pure fiction at worst.

Not that knowing his powers would give her much of an edge, she realized. Her own abilities weren’t exactly going to win her any fights—acute, almost telescopic vision like a hawk, a nose probably as sensitive as any bloodhound’s, and a level of hearing that sometimes allowed her to hear people on the floors below her captor’s condo, making it feel like help was so near, yet so achingly unreachable. He’d even taken to calling her Sensorama at times because of her powers, like she was some pet superhero he kept, and that diminished her in new ways she hadn’t thought possible, all the more so because it sounded so close to her real name, Sarah. Renamed and ridiculed all at once, in a sociopathic attempt at control over her very identity.

But she had wanted something—something to have of his. The fact he wouldn’t give her that knowledge about his powers irked her—all he had ever told her was the villainous moniker he had decided to take for himself: Mister Master. He took such intimate things from her and left her with the kind of scars that never showed and might never heal, and gave her nothing in return but gifts she no longer desired and nicknames that filled her with dread—when all she wanted now was freedom and vengeance and to know who it really was she was about to kill.

Or try to.

But she could live without knowing his name or his powers. As long as everything else went as planned.

In the end, her near-certainty that he wasn’t particularly resistant to harm was what gave her hope. It was the one rapidly disintegrating vine she clung to as she hung from the edge of her dwindling strength over a precipice of madness.

* * *

It was three more days before he came to take her body for his own again, and it was the first time since she had become his prisoner that she had longed painfully for him to share the bed. She needed him there.

And when finally he was there, panting and pounding her, pinning her body to the bed like a butterfly to a display board, she slipped the small bottle from its hiding place, with that little wrapped parcel taped to the side. She moaned and cried out for him to ravish her harder, so that he wouldn’t sense what was to come.

She realized that she was likely going to sacrifice her left hand in this effort, and perhaps even scar her face, neck and chest. There had once been a time that might have horrified her, but she was beyond the ability to conceive that she would ever let another man see her naked again, so what did she care?

Her chest clenched in fear. This might not work. What if she only stunned him? What if he was able to punish her? Could life become even worse for her? Did she have a choice?

The hand holding the bottle began to shake, and she thought she might drop it, but then she bit her lip, committed herself, and wrapped her legs around him to keep him close; to keep him intent on his assault of her femininity and her autonomy.

He would have to die. She had to believe he would. She would have to stay conscious, though, and wrap the sheets around his throat, just in case he was still alive—just in case he was a Regenerator. She would cut off any hope of air to his lungs or blood to his brain and she would leave that sheet there, tight against his neck, until his body began to rot or she managed to get out of the apartment, whichever came first.

Oh, there would be pain beyond a mangled hand for her and scattered other scars. She would have to step across one of those lines on the floor at least once. Perhaps twice or thrice, to exhaust the battery on the stunning device locked to her.

Then she would be free. She only hoped the multiple taser jolts wouldn’t leave her with some lasting damage.

He had already visited so much destruction upon her already, after all.

But she paused in that thought, and on the verge of striking her blow against him.

Was escape the path to her freedom now? Actual escape? Simply running from this place and reclaiming her old life?


He’d taken her identity and tried to give her a new one.

She would forge her own.

He’d taken her freedom and walled her inside his tower of depravity.

She would claim it for her own.

It would take time to get herself in the shape she would need to be in to do what needed doing. But gaining weapons, at least, would be no problem. When he was dead, she would take the keys from his pocket, and unlock the room she knew housed his arsenal. She could make her own costume. She could use her senses to seek out men like him. Hunters who stole women’s bodies. Who scarred their souls.

She lifted her arm as he came inside her and lost all sensibility and awareness, and she smashed the bottle against the back of his head.

The world roared around her, a sharp and concentrated heat and smell of burning flesh, and she forced herself to remain conscious as her hand was engulfed in agony and her acute hearing made a roaring symphony of the tiny wet sounds of a few small pieces of bloody bone and flesh striking a side table and headboard.

The explosion wasn’t just the sound of her freedom, but a mad epiphany as she abandoned who she had been—as well as abandoning what he had made of her.

Ladykiller, she thought. That will be my name, and what an ironic double entendre it will be when I prowl the night instead of him.

Hours later, she limped from the bedroom, but her steps had never felt more sure. Never lighter.

Never more her own.

I’ve been adding some more entries to the “About Transhuman Powers” page (accessible through the drop-down menus at the top of the page) over the past week or so after I noticed some gaps (bringing the total to 19 categories thus far). I have no doubt that there are many other types of powers I could add and simply haven’t considered yet, so feel free to chime in with some suggestions of your own, either in the comments section for that page or for this post.

About the only kinds of powers I’ve felt the need to avoid so far are flight (I just cannot conceive of human ability to simply defy gravity to that degree and somehow provide propulsion of any significant kind). I’ve considered that perhaps a Morph with sufficient skill could alter his or her body to glide a short distance or that it might be possible for some kind of Eco to have an ability to affect gravity such that he or she could levitate briefly, but out-and-out flight per se just doesn’t sit well with me in my attempt to have some semblance of reality.

Also, I can’t see intangibility being an option either, though the Warpsmith power category could potentially provide a close approximation.

Other than those two areas (and magic), I haven’t really ruled much out so if you have thoughts, share them please.

Oh, and I have a couple stories in the works right now, both of them one-shots, so new fiction should be up sometime Monday, Tuesday at the latest.

He looked at the uniform on the mannequin in the middle of the Wolf-Den, illuminated by the glow of dozens of computer monitors. He looked at the 6-foot-2-inch man in the gray and brown costume with the clawed gloves, the wolf-like helmet-mask combo, and the fur-topped black boots.

He looked back at the new costume.

“There is no fucking way I am going to wear that,” Sparrow said.

“Please mind the language, Sparrow,” Wolfman said.

“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. How about ‘Holy no fucking way am I going to wear that, Wolfman’?”

“Sparrow, there is nothing wrong with…”

“That costume has no fucking pants, Wolfman! No. Damn. Pants. You want me to wear a no-sleeve tunic top with a V-neck, a pair of tight shorts and some short boots, along with a cape that kind of looks wing-like and has some tail-feather attachments at the lower back to probably call attention to my ass when I run and leap.”

“You’re kind of blowing this out of…”

“Are you a fucking pedophile, Tom?”

“What? Are you out of your mind, Danny?”

“No, seriously. Look, I get that you had a huge damn trust fund and a desire to avenge yourself on the criminal world. I get that you idolized the whole nostalgic old-style, pre-transhuman-emergence Batman and Robin meme. I get that when you decided on the whole Wolfman theme—and by the way, it was smart to pick an actual predator instead of a flying rodent like the DC people did with Batman—you wanted a Robin archetype. Great. So you adopted me at the age of 12. You trained me so that I could actually keep up with you in combat as your sidekick for these past few years, even though I’m not an Acro like you are. You had your Wolfman and Sparrow dynamic duo. But have you been wanting to get in my ass all this time?”

“Sparrow…Danny…that’s…damn! Cut that crap out. No. I’m your father. Pedophile indeed! I’ve never laid a hand on you improperly in your life, or any other child. And you’re not even a child anymore. You turned 18 six months ago, so even if I did have some psychosexual thing going, it wouldn’t be pedophilia. Where the hell is your mind at?”

“My mind is on sex 24/7, Tom. I’m a teenager who’s had to be home-schooled so I can patrol as Sparrow with the Wolfman and strike terror into the hearts of bad guys. Which means I haven’t had a date since puberty hit. I haven’t had any prom. No girls to ogle. I hardly have time to go to convenience stores to buy nudie magazines and you’ve blocked all the porn channels on the satellite TV. I am socially stunted by crime-fighting, and now my foster-parent-turned-adoptive-father is presenting me with the gayest costume I have ever seen.”

“That’s not very politically correct, Danny.”

“Holy obviousness, Wolfman! It’s not all that politically correct to beat the crap out of people without due process of law, either, now is it? It is so…gay. Seriously, what the fuck is up with that costume?”

Wolfman sighed heavily.

“Danny, part of it is nostalgia for the old-style Robin costume from the comics and the 60s television series. Part of it is distraction so that the villains are kept off-guard. Also, I had those boots custom-designed by Julian Gregori to subtly suggest bird’s feet without looking stupid. You wear pants, it ruins the whole bird-leg/bird-claw aesthetic.”



“This whole time, you’ve been rubbing the side of your nose while you’ve been explaining this. Sure sign that you’re lying. Look, I admit that the costume is a nice design. The feather motif is subtle. The touches of red in a few places to accentuate the brown, black and white elements are excellent. And the cape looks hella-cool. I even dig the boots. But I gotta wonder about a grown man as a crime-fighting mentor who wants me out showing off my legs—nice though they may be—and my ass and junk while on patrol.”

“I really need you to do this for me, Danny. C’mon, Sparrow, I need you on this. Please.”

“You’ve been happy to have me in pants this many years, so I need more than that by way of explanation. Otherwise you’re gonna have to add a chastity belt to your costume, and I’m gonna want a serious lock on my bedroom door.”

“Blast it, Danny!” Wolfman huffed. “Look,” he said in a conspiratorial little whisper, “I’ll tell you, but this cannot get out. I mean it. You have got to keep it to yourself. For-damn-ever. Well, at least for the next few years.”

Sparrow looked at him hard for a few moments, then shrugged. “OK. Deal. Give it up.”

“Wolfgirl,” he said.


“Wolfgirl. She wants you in that costume. She’s…she’s got exotic interests.”

“How would you know?”

“I hacked her computer once. You would not believe the stuff she had on there. And I thought the pile of porn I found and trashed from your room a year or so back was mind-boggling.”

“I don’t get it,” Sparrow said.

“Of course you don’t. That comes from having that socially stunted upbringing, son,” Wolfman said. “She’s got a thing for you, and now you’re legal. I mean, Wolfgirl hasn’t really been a ‘girl’ for two years now. But you cannot let on. She really wants to ogle you for a while and do a really elaborate seduction thing. She’s got some baggage, Danny. Nothing sick, but she’s got just a touch of crazy going on. She’s got some massive roleplay fetish, among other things.”

“Um…I might be able to deal with that. She has the hots for me? Really?”


“I’ve never seen her without her mask. Have you?” Sparrow asked. “I mean, her body’s tight; no doubt.”

“Did some surveillance on her once when I figured out where she lived. Not beautiful, but a solid 7 on a 1-to-10 scale,” Wolfman said. “Look, are you in or out?”

“OK, now I get the ‘why’ about the costume showing off my man-parts, but why are you going along with her on this? She have photos of you or something?” Sparrow asked.

“Stock market,” Wolfman said.

“You lost me again, man.”

“We took a serious hit in the stock market. Wolfgirl’s rich from the money her late daddy made while in the Mob. She invested wiser than I did, and kept a lot of cash in hidey holes. She’s underwriting our crime-fighting, and probably will be for the next two or three years while I dig out from our financial hole. Her equity investment in Wolfman and Sparrow comes with a proviso: You wear her boy-toy costume there—and you absolutely cannot let on that you know what she’s up to, or that I let you in on it.”

“Wolfgirl’s honestly not a dog, though? No pun intended.”

“She’s cute. I swear on my grandmother’s grave.”

“The one who died of cancer, or the once murdered by a Mafia enforcer?”

“The latter, Danny. Or both if it will convince you.”


“What do you think, Sparrow my boy?”

“All I can think of is Wolfgirl laid out on top of that fur-trimmed cape of hers in front of the fireplace in the great room of the mansion, wearing nothing but her bulletproof bustier. Is her rack really as big as the costume suggests? Or is that just padding?”

“Now why would my surveillance get that personal…”

“C’mon, Tom.”

“Yeah,” Wolfman said, and his neck flushed red with embarrassment. “No false advertising there. She’s a natural blonde, too, by the way.”

“Holy young adulthood, Wolfman. I’m in. If it gets me laid on the regular, I’m so holy-fucking-yeah in.”

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

It was always an interesting sensation to be both the hunter and the hunted at the same time, Query mused.

What say ye, pray ye? Oh, prey shall you pray to an indifferent god; while hunter is slaking his thirst on your blood?

Of course, this little game of hide-and-seek was more playful than most Query engaged in. He would never see this extra shadow he had attracted until she wanted him to, but he knew her by sound and sometimes smell; she would never catch him unawares. Not that she likely had hostile intent anyway.

After about 10 minutes, Query decided that the time for foreplay had come to an end—it was, he thought, the prerogative of a decent and sensitive man to engage in such things, but also to know when to bring them to a close and get to the main event.

Not as if I’ve had the chance for a sexual encounter in months, of course, he mused with some regret but not much rancor as the sexual metaphor played out in his mind, nor will this little liaison lead to any such thing. It would be too much like making time with a half-sister or a cousin to get involved with this one, and the feeling is likely mutual on her part.

“Cheshire, you can come out now,” Query said. “If this goes on too much longer, it will become a game of cat-and-mouse. And that’s unbecoming, given that I’m no rodent.”

“Well, I trust you’re not making me out to be the mouse—or a rat—in this scenario,” she answered in mock affront, letting just her head and one gently waving hand emerge from invisibility, then vanishing from sight again.

Query tracked her with his head, focused on the sounds of her steps even if she was hidden to his eyes. She was as stealthy as he was in her movements, but he had the benefit of enhanced senses. “Never, Cheshire. You’re too bold for a mouse and too refined to be a rat. I don’t even know that I’d call you a cat, frankly, despite your name. There’s something of the hound in you too many days to think of you as truly feline.”

“Oh, but I like the name Cheshire so much better than Cat-Dog, so don’t go ruining my image, Query,” she answered from atop a set of crates, resolving into full visibility now.

Or she might not be on that particular crate, Query noted. Her Luminar powers were not only advanced enough for full or selective invisibility, but also able to allow her to appear to be perhaps a couple meters from her true position.

“Are you shadowing me for practice, Cheshire, or do you really think I’m getting too old and sloppy not to notice you?”

Cheshire’s feet touched the ground with a soft thump as she hopped off the crate. Query had a split-second of disorientation as his mind adjusted to the fact that her body wasn’t where his eyes had told her it should be. As he suspected, she had been on an adjacent crate instead, her image out of phase with her true position. “I actually wanted your attention, Query—I just didn’t want to rush you. You can be so moody some nights. I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time near the docks this week.”

“Of course, I have,” he responded. “It’s all part of the rules; don’t you read the transhuman handbook, Cheshire? Villains all conveniently lurk at the docks or put their operations there, and they do all their business at night, and heroes like me show up to thwart them.”

“If only real life really were like the comic books, eh? If only it really were that simple,” she said. “Seriously, though, I’ve been working something of my own for a client—and for personal reasons, too. I think that you know about the villain cruise this weekend. I need you to stay away from it. I need you not to go after the folks who will be on that yacht. I need you to leave them alone. I need you to be someplace else, far away.”

“Goodness, could you be a bit more clear on what you want? Stop beating around the bush,” Query teased. “It’s my job to go after bad guys, you know.”

He let the statement hang there gravely, even though he was chuckling in his head. No reason to let her know that he knew about almost every one of the monthly social get-togethers of various villains in this city, most of them short cruises into Long Island Sound. He kept track of the “sin-ins” but he’d never crashed a single one of those parties and likely never would. He had his reasons for that, but there was no good reason to tell them to her, or even let her know about his hands-off approach with regard to the events. Better to see where this was going.

“Query, I may walk a fine line between the whole black-hat/white-hat thing, but I like to think of you as a friendly acquaintance, perhaps even a potential friend,” Cheshire said. “I really need you to rein in your heroic instincts this once. Please? For me?”

“I like you, Cheshire, even though there have been times I’ve wondered if I should bust you, but I don’t owe you any favors, and I owe plenty of people who will be on that cruise some payback,” he said, packing ominous conviction into his tones and hoping he wasn’t playing up his charade too much.

“No, you don’t owe me any favors, Query, but I’m willing to owe you one if you stay away from that cruise,” Cheshire said.

“That would be a big favor to owe, so I would expect a big payment in return.”

“As long as it doesn’t compromise any existing or upcoming business relationships I’m engaged in, I’m willing to owe such a debt.”

Query made a show of silently considering her offer for nearly a minute, even though her answer was what he had hoped for anyway. One never knew when calling in a favor from one of the best intelligence-gatherers around could be useful.

“All right, Cheshire, but I’m not going to be making a habit of this—it took me a long time to find out about this event, and I might never know about another one,” Query lied, smiling behind his mask.

* * *

Janus waved toward Underworld, gesturing for her to come over. She paused, fixing him with a distasteful glare as she had been doing more often than not ever since reluctantly joining his efforts, and finally stepped over.

“My dear, my dear, I must say that modern surveillance technologies are so useful, particularly when you employ people who know how to hack into them,” he said from behind a kabuki-style mask that was painted black with splatters of faux blood on one side, and violet with drops of dew—or perhaps they were meant to be tears—painted on the other. As garish as it was, the mask actually managed to complement his gray Italian suit with subtle purple pinstripes. “Take, for example, this delicious young coed who tore a small chunk out of a brick building with her fingernails at UConn–New Judah. I doubt campus security reviews the DVDs that closely or would even notice, but then again, I have so many motivated data miners in my employ.”

“My, but you’re chatty today, aren’t you?” Underworld sneered. “Your people work so hard for you because being tortured to death isn’t as attractive as collecting the meager paychecks that your cheap ass doles out.”

“That and the subcutaneous tracking devices that allow me to keep tabs on them, of course. No slackers in my sweatshop; no, indeed. But isn’t that girl stupendous?” he pressed, pointing the paused image on the monitor.

“I’ve seen lots of transhumans, Janus. Morph, probably. Maybe a Brute or a Tank. She doesn’t do anything for me, but if you want to leer at college girls on security vids, be my guest.”

“I’m thinking I should reach out to her soon. Provide her some incentive to leave all those silly college plans behind. It’s time for a recruitment drive, anyway,” Janus said.


“Why don’t you make some plans to find out more about her, maybe get to know her. Have a woman-to-woman talk someday in the near future,” he suggested.

“Why would I do that?”

“Aside from the fact that the more minions I have, the more likely I’ll let you slip back to obscurity one day, there is also the fact that the softer side of recruiting has its value, and you have a softer touch than I,” he noted. “It’s important to rule by fear early on, but it would be nice to have a few key people motivated by something more personal and meaningful than threats to their family.”

“So why does she get such velvet glove treatment and you put the screws to me?” Underworld asked tartly.

“She’s a college student, so she’s young and impressionable,” Janus said. “Nubile and succulent, too. You, on the other hand, are a handsome and stubborn woman, and need to be driven with a cattle prod at times—metaphorically speaking.”

“So, I’m a bitch and a cow, and she’s fresh young meat. Janus, you are a pig.”

“But a well-dressed pig.”

“A pig in an expensive suit is still just swine in the end,” Underworld said. “And the only good I see from pigs is bacon or pork chops. I’ll see what I can do to worm my way into her life and do a soft-sell of your organization, Janus.”

“Thank you, Underworld. It’s good that you’re being civil and professional about this.”

“No, Janus, I’m showing some solidarity with a fellow woman. I’m all too aware of some of your past recruitment tactics with young women,” she said, her gaze drifting to the cramped cage in one corner of the room, where Crazy Jane sat cross-legged on the floor, still in the straitjacket she had been wearing when Janus liberated her from the high-security wing of the Givens Psychiatric Detention Facility three days ago. Her eyes blazed hungry but soulless, sharp and bright and cruel against the contrast of the tattoos all over her face—a mix of sunny, gay images and grim, twisted ones.

Underworld turned away from the cage, and Janus met her eyes knowingly. “So, we understand each other, then?”

“Too well, Janus. All too well.”

* * *

“I want to thank Senator Bodswell for being on the show today—he’s a real patriot and a testament to the power of the Freedom Party to put America back on track,” Ben Glick spoke into the camera as he connected with his viewing audience in the closing moments of his show. “I know I support Freeman candidates whenever I can, and you right-thinking viewers of mine no doubt realize the importance as well.”

He paused for a moment, and adjusted his glasses, then looked gravely into the camera again.

“Before we switch over to Fox News Update, though, I want to remind you all—and please realize that I’m not advocating violence, but we are in violent times with humanity and so-called transhumans right now—you need to exercise your Second Amendment rights as Senator Bodswell mentioned today,” he added. “Use them now while you still have them, because I guarantee that the first thing our great socialist President Barack Hussein Obama and any transhumans in office or that he’s putting in positions of power are going to do is try to overturn that constitutional right. Because if you’re transhuman, what do you need guns for? You have powers. And they’ll want to make sure us traditional humans don’t have bullets if we need them. Think about that tonight, if you can sleep with that prospect in mind. Thanks for watching ‘Ben Glick’s America’ here on America’s fair and balanced news source, Fox News, and see you tomorrow.”

Moments later, as the program director indicated they were off the air, Ben’s assistant Janice came by with a fresh cup of coffee for him, and a pastry.

“Intense stuff, today, Ben,” she remarked. “You seemed really supportive of the senator’s thoughts on screening newborns for any transhuman biomarkers and sterilizing them immediately if they show any signs of being able to develop powers.”

“Of course I support that. Why wouldn’t I?” he remarked cheerfully, but there was a kind of challenge in his eyes.

“I just…I mean, you’ve always been so supportive of right-to-life efforts and reproductive rights and the need of Americans not to have their choices taken away,” Janice said as noncommittally as she could, realizing she had just stepped into treacherous waters.

“Civil rights are for humans, and I hope the Supreme Court make a ruling on that soon, Jan,” he said sagely. “The Constitution was written for humans, not transhumans. And I have to support something like sterilization of transhuman babies and transhuman adults. I’m totally against abortion, so we can’t rip the monsters out of a woman’s uterus. The only answer is to keep those creatures from breeding, and keep them from interbreeding with real people. Coffee could use a bit more cream, Jan,” he said after he took his first, slurping sip from the cup.

“Oh. Sorry. Let me just bring you a fresh one, Ben,” she said nervously, and rushed off. Once she was out of sight, she touched her belly, thinking of the tiny life forming inside her womb, which she had only confirmed the existence of a few days before, and decided tonight would be a good time to update her résumé.

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]

I’ve added a few things to some of the bio pages (see drop-down menus at the top of the page) over the past several days, but I’ve been a bit too busy for actual story writing thanks to deadlines and a 12-hour day spent going to, being in, and returning from the Boston area on business.

I do hope to have another chapter in “The Gathering Storm” up by Monday, though…perhaps even sometime Sunday if I’m productive enough.

Kevlar vest. Taser. Chain mail gloves. Three pairs of wings. Sage and honeysuckle sachets. Olive oil soap.

Where the hell were the custom-made pliers?

“Leon!” Julian called out. “Where are the pearl-handled pliers?”

With 7-year-old Lois in tow, Leon pointed to the leather duffel bag. “Jules, you’ve been fretting about those since Saturday. You stuffed them in the side pocket already. You know, that’s skirting the line, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Pliers are a tool, not a weapon.”

“This is Tooth Fairy we’re talking about, Jules. We know what she’s using them for. Makes me feel dirty,” Leon said. “I don’t like feeling dirty unless you and I are doing something special.”

“Hey! Watch the talk around our girl,” Julian whispered intently.

“What?” Leon asked with faux innocence, rolling his eyes since Lois wasn’t even in the room right now, having rushed off to grab a snack from the kitchen. “I can’t talk about gardening in front of our girl?”

“You’re incorrigible, Leon. OK, I have everything I need to keep myself intact if things go wonky, and everything she ordered.”

“I’m serious about the pliers. Let’s not do that again.”

“Leon, Tooth Fairy is our most unbalanced client. You and I didn’t know that when she came to us, but now we do, and we have to deal with it. She’s a sociopath. I figure that as long as she respects our no-weapons and no-controlled-substances rules, and we don’t ‘fire’ her as a client and throw her a little bone like this, you and I get to maintain some semblance of our consciences with the added bonus that we stay alive and/or unmangled.”

“Jules, she uses those pliers to yank out teeth from her victims.”

“And she’d buy plain ones from the hardware store if we didn’t have these made for her,” Julian pointed out. “Except that she’d be using the ones from the hardware store on us to express her displeasure at our poor customer service. To be honest, I think she just wants these ones for show. She seems too concerned about her appearance these days to want to ruin something that pretty with saliva, blood and food that people didn’t finish chewing.”

“We need to screen our future clients a bit better, and we need more heroes on the list,” Leon said.

“We’re getting there, Leo. Villains are the ones with the best money, and all we’re doing is dressing them,” Julian said.

“The wings did turn out nice,” Leon noted. “So they’ll flap with just minor movements of her neck or shoulders?”

“Yeah. Had Karen test them out, and it takes practice, but they work perfectly. Really realistic. Tooth Fairy should have come to us for that first instead of going to Peter Goebel just because he has the prettiest looking silk-work. Shallow bastard. No sense of style, really. OK, we bring Lois to school, then you drop me at the meeting point. Her backpack is on the table. I packed her afternoon snack and the library book she needs to take back.”

“If Tooth Fairy had a better sense of the transhuman design circles, she would have gone with Francesca,” Leon said. “She’s about the only person I’d put above you for style and attention to functional details. Too bad, too, because my conscience would feel a lot better if someone else had her as a client. If you love me, you’ll ‘accidentally’ drop Fran’s name the moment you step out of the car to meet Tooth Fairy.” A slightly panicked look crossed Leon’s face, and then he said, “Oh, shit.”

“What?” Julian asked and, almost simultaneously, Lois came in and said, “Oh shit what, Papa?”

Julian glowered at Leon. “Watch the language in front of our kid. She’s going to be talking like a sailor with you around.”

Leon chuckled. “Time was that you fancied sailors,” he whispered into Julian’s ear, then turned to Lois and half-heartedly scolded her with, “That’s not the kind of language for a young lady to use. At least not until you’re old enough to vote.”

“Sailors,” Julian scoffed. “Way to perpetuate the gay stereotypes, Leon. Besides, their uniforms are terrible. Marines or Air Force men any day of the week.”

“Are you going to join the military, Daddy?” she asked Julian, and he had no idea if she was being sarcastic or serious—she was becoming more like Leon with every passing month, God help them all.

“OK, why the slip of the tongue with the S-word, Leon?” Julian asked.

“I haven’t swept the car for tracking devices yet this morning.”

“Oh dear God almighty, Leon! Lois has to be at school in 15 minutes, I need to meet our toothsome client, and our car is probably going to lose 25 percent of its gas mileage because it’s so loaded down with hidden FBI-issue GPS trackers. What were you thinking?”

“Yeah, what were you thinking, Papa?” Lois mimicked, almost nailing Julian’s tone, essentially making fun of both of them on one fell swoop.

“Frankly, both of you, I was thinking that I had a lot of arrangements to make with people in Europe at 5 a.m. our time for that fashion show that you need to be at next month, Julian,” Leon said, “and I was up past 2 a.m. scheduling drop-offs for various transhuman clients and for our standard garment industry clients. I’ll go sweep the car. You know, Jules, you could stand to bend down and crawl around a bit yourself some days.”

“I do that enough with you,” Julian muttered, hoping that Lois hadn’t heard that. Then, in a normal tone of voice, he added, “I’m sorry, Leon, for snapping at you. Tooth Fairy makes me nervous; you have a good idea, there—I’ll make sure she finds out about Francesca and then we won’t have to worry. She’s a shark with no morals and no conscience, so the two of them would be perfect for each other.”

* * *

Leon declared the car free of tracking devices 12 minutes later, to which Julian replied tartly that it took 8 to 10 minutes to get to Lois’ school, so she was going to be late. Somehow, this spiraled into a short rant about permanent records and lowering her odds of getting into Harvard.

“I could skip school today,” she helpfully offered, then put up her hands in surrender when both of her fathers shot her glares.

They gathered everything up, went to the front door, and opened it to discover that a man was standing there, wearing a white unitard, ivory-hued gloves and boots, and a helmet that looked like a molar. A van had pulled up onto their lawn, close to their front porch, with the back end facing the front of the house.

Julian and Leon both realized that even if any of their neighbors were looking out their windows or strolling, they wouldn’t be able to see who came out of that van and went into the house.

“Step back inside,” the man said grimly behind his tooth-mimicking helmet. “My mistress, Tooth Fairy, commands…ooooff!”

Without hesitation, Leon’s mind and body brought up all the training from his previous extreme fighting days, as he struck the man hard in his solar plexus. Then he grabbed the man by the back of the neck, pulled his head down, and brought his knee up into the helmet, which didn’t look that sturdy.

Leon’s suspicions were confirmed when the helmet cracked open and the man’s nose let out a cracking noise of its own as Leon’s attack broke it. Julian had already pulled the taser from the duffel sack and incapacitated the man.

“Daddy, Papa…can we go now? If I’m going to have to go to school today, I don’t want to miss the morning snack.”

“In a moment, sweetie,” Leon said. “Daddy and I seem to be having a little client trouble.”

“Oh, no trouble at all,” came a husky voice from behind them, and they turned to see Tooth Fairy. As the woman smiled and her teeth began to grown and change to become a fearsome maw, one of Julian’s hands covered Lois’ eyes.

“Really, let’s not traumatize the child,” Julian scolded Tooth Fairy. “We were supposed to meet elsewhere. Is there a problem?”

“Not anymore,” she said, letting her teeth go back to normal and smiling now with a closed-mouth grin as she sauntered forward. “All the FBI people are three blocks away in various strategic locations waiting for you to leave so they can track you. Now when they do, I won’t be where you’re going. I will still need you to go to the meet-up site so that they’re distracted. OK, need my stuff. Chop, chop,” she said, flashing her teeth, a handful of which looked life wolfish fangs now.

“No pun intended, right?” Julian said. “We cleared the car already, and we know how to slip cars shadowing us.”

“Safer this way, especially since they nabbed you in Maine a few months ago. Tsk tsk tsk. Villains need to know their suppliers won’t get caught. Let’s get started. I’m feeling snackish, and since I’m watching my figure, something low-cal would be in order, and only one of the three of you is light fare.”

Leon tensed at the implied threat to Lois, but Julian put a hand on his forearm gently to keep him from doing anything rash.

“Dentistry Dude back there trying to be menacing at our door? Threatening to take a bite out of someone? Tooth Fairy, this is not good business,” Julian said. “We play straight and smooth with you all the time.”

“Oh, don’t be so uptight. Even a sociopath needs to work on her banter. I don’t eat kids…yet,” she added, looking Lois right in the eye as the little girl hugged tighter to Leon’s body. “Dentistry Dude is a terrible name, by the way. By a strange coincidence, though, my currently prone henchman suggested Dental Dude as a possibility when we were brainstorming monikers. He also suggested Captain Cavity. I don’t know what to call him yet, though after his performance this morning, ‘snack’ seems like a good nickname.”

“You want him to take his job seriously, you might want to rethink the tooth-shaped helmet,” Leon offered. “How about you set down some money, we set down the duffel bag, and we all get back to business as usual. My little girl is already tardy, and your henchman got blood all on our cream-colored carpet and my pant leg.”

Tooth Fairy wound one finger into the strand of teeth hanging from her neck in a disturbingly coquettish manner, and shrugged, her flimsy wing-like cape fluttering a little. She pulled out a manila envelope, and tossed it to the ground. As Julian tossed the duffel bag at her feet, first pulling out the chain mail gloves he planned to use to hand it over at the meeting place, a sudden sharp flash of light exploded behind them, and Tooth Fairy screeched, covering her eyes.

“No evil shall hide in the shadows with Morning Glory bearing the light of justice!” came the clichéd cry behind them, as a hero dressed much like an angel burst in after the wake of his demonstration of Luminar powers. He managed to knock over Julian, Leon and Lois and tangle up his own legs in the process. As he struggled to get back on his feet, the wings on his back seriously askew now, Tooth Fairy got up, partially blinded but clearly recovering her sight quickly.

In moments, the two were wrestling and striking each other in the living room.

“Julian, I am going to grab one of those GPS trackers I took off the car with me, along with Lois, and I’m going to take the FBI for a little wild goose chase as I drop her off at school and go to the meeting place and sit there for 15 minutes while the feds try to figure out why I’m doing absolutely nothing,” Leon said, then winced as their new television was smashed by an ill-timed blow from Morning Glory, whose talents with light generation were clearly much better than his fighting skills. “I’m going to keep the feds far away from this. These two better be gone when I get back.”

* * *

Julian was vacuuming the carpet when Leon came back 90 minutes later. Some Oxy-Clean had apparently removed the blood stains from the carpet, and the remains of the television were now in a box. Several knick-knacks were broken, but Julian had managed to straighten things up almost to normal.

“Who won?” Leon asked. “They are gone, right? One or the other of them isn’t using our toilet or having some tea or something, are they?”

“No clear victor, so we’ll call it a draw. Tooth Fairy wasn’t in peak fighting shape with all the strobe-light effects, but she kind of took the fight out of Morning Glory when she bit off his ear—then she ran off with her merchandise and her henchman. She must have been in a good mood, though, because she hardly chewed on the ear at all. I put it on some ice for the poor guy, gave him directions to the nearest hospital, and sent him off with the number for a couple of good martial arts instructors for good measure.”

Leon sighed heavily.

“You know, Julian, Lois will keep this to herself at school, but if the FBI or anyone else got wind of this, Child Protective Services would be so far down our throats we’d be shitting case workers. I’m serious: You have six months.”

“To do what?”

“To get our client list down to no more than 20 percent of them being villains, and only sane ones. I don’t care if we boost our clientele with the more reputable or just semi-reputable mercenary and freelance transhumans or if we just take a bath on all this by just cutting back our number of clients,” Leon said. “Our mortgage is paid off, we’re nearly debt-free, and this was always a sideline business.”

“Agreed. On the future mix of clients, that is. I’m not going to walk away from something I’m so good at. I’m already thinking that I should approach Cheshire; she could really stand to play up feline themes in her costume—and I think she’d be well-served by having a few different styles to switch around and mix-and-match. Not enough transhumans doing that,” Julian said. “Those triplets Conundrum, Paradox and Enigma need a serious style boost, too.”

“Great, Julian. But first, about Tooth…”

“Cutting her loose. Well, driving her toward Fran, anyway,” Julian said. “I ‘let slip’ that my wings, while very high quality, would have never survived a tussle like that—which we both know is untrue, but she doesn’t—and I muttered that I should see if Francesca DeSantos could be convinced to consult with me on a new design.”

“Think she’ll take the bait?”

“She’ll look into Fran,” Julian said. “I’m sure of it. Once they start talking they’ll hit it off and we’ll be off the hook. A shame, though.”

“To get rid of a psycho as fast as possible?” Leon sputtered. “That’s a shame?”

“What’s a shame is that Tooth Fairy is such a damn wildcard and needed to be dumped, because she paid us 75 percent of what we had agreed upon.”

“She shorted us last time, too,” Leon pointed out. “Only reason we didn’t argue was because she’s a sick freak—and because you always pad the price to account for that kind of bullshit.”

“I know,” Julian responded, “but last time she paid us 50 percent of what she owed. She was clearly beginning to warm up to us.”

I’ve been a  bit tied up with deadlines, so I’m not populating this blog with fiction quite as fast as I’d like, but I thought I’d see if I can generate any kind of interaction with (or input from) the readers who visit the blog so far.

Obviously, “The Gathering Storm” is my big piece right now (though not the only story planned for this blog…nor even my only multiparter planned), but I do plan to write one-shot, stand-alone stories too in between chapters of the series.

Thought I’d ask (a) if anyone has any suggestions, idea or scenarios they’d like me to tackle and (b) ask if people would like a mix of really short stories sometimes as well as mid-size and longer pieces.

For that matter, anything you want to sound off about…go for it! Just want to make sure that you don’t only get what I want to write, but also some of what you might want.

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

Another out-of-the-way, grimy location; another dollar.

Well, more accurately, $33,000 for this little trip, which was why Julian Gregori wasn’t grumbling much about driving all the way up to Maine from new Judah to deliver the crate in a defunct textile mill that hadn’t yet been snatched up by developers looking to repurpose it for offices, businesses, condos or a combination of all three.

And, aside from the money, continuing to cement his reputation for personalized and discreet service didn’t hurt, either.

“OK, Leon, I’m all set,” Julian told the driver of the truck, who was his partner in both the business and intimate senses of the word. “You go ahead and have some coffee and a roll down the road a bit, and wait for my call.”

A quick kiss, followed by the roar of an engine, a little spray of dirt and gravel and a dissipating cloud of exhaust, and then Julian was alone with a big box.

Par for the course.

Of course, his latest client was expecting to meet him at another location some 10 miles distant, where he would find instructions to come here instead. When dealing with transhumans, one always wanted to be careful. It was a lucrative enough part of Julian and Leon’s business, but there was no reason for both of them to be put in an exposed position.

For eight minutes, Julian let a song play out in his head and tapped the toe of his left foot in rhythm to it, clad in a relatively modest Ferragamo—no reason to risk a pair of his really high-end A. Testoni or Louis Vuitton shoes on a trip like this. Then he stopped and looked up as he noted the sound of crunching gravel in the distance, and was surprised to see an SUV pull into the parking lot of the old mill. It slowly come to a halt near him, and Julian took a deep breath.

Traveling 10 miles through city streets and here in less than 10 minutes, when he would have had to find my note and figure out how to get here? Julian thought. This client is not only in a hurry; he was there very early. Not a comforting sign. Transhumans can be a volatile bunch, particularly the ones who lead shady lives, as this one might hope to—if he isn’t already doing so.

While a beefy looking woman remained in the passenger seat, a man slid out of the driver’s seat of the SUV wearing khaki slacks, Timberlands on his feet and an L.L. Bean Jacket over a chambray shirt. Julian assessed him immediately. Trying to look like he belonged in Maine, but not from Maine. Not that he had expected his client to be from here, but going to such efforts to look like he belonged? That made Julian a bit more uncomfortable than he already had been.

“My employer doesn’t appreciate wild goose chases, Mr. Gregori,” the man said.

That made Julian a tad more comfortable—this wasn’t the transhuman guy he had been dealing with by phone and online but the client’s lackey instead. But then Julian lost that slight feeling of ease when he noticed the bulge under the coat that told him the man was packing a firearm.

Not the first time, Julian reminded himself, and it doesn’t mean it’s meant for me

“I’m not attempting to give anyone the ‘run-around’ sir,” Julian said. “But security is of course in both my interests and your employer’s.”

“Please open the crate,” the man said as he approached, “so that I can make sure everything is there.”

“I would be happy to, but as a show of serious good faith, perhaps you could at least make an effort to have a duffel bag or briefcase in hand that theoretically has your contribution to this transaction?” Julian suggested. “Mister…?”

“How does ‘Jones’ sound?” the main offered, and went back to his vehicle, opened the driver-side rear door, and pulled out a small duffel sack. He lifted it, gave Julian an expression that suggested, Well? and started back toward him.

Julian pried open the small crate, and stepped away. The so-called Mr. Jones peered in, moved the items around, and stepped back. “It all seems to be here,” he said, and handed over the duffel bag. The moment Julian took it, he heard a rustling from bushes off to the side and slightly behind him, and the woman got out of the SUV, as Mr. Jones said, “Julian Gregori, I am FBI Special Agent Roth, and you are under arrest.”

Julian dropped the duffel bag to the ground and placidly offered his wrists to be cuffed. “For what charge?”

“Attempting to aid and abet a known criminal transhuman,” Roth said as he applied the handcuffs, “and I think we’ll tack on intent to enter conspiracy with the same.” The FBI agent then read Julian his rights.

“I understand my rights fully, Agent Roth, and you should understand that I knew the supposed client I was working for wasn’t really Devil-May-Care, even if I didn’t know he was undercover FBI,” Julian said with a bored tone in his voice. “I figured it was a villain fan-boy who wanted to play serious dress-up or some copy-cat wannabe. Devil-May-Care has an in-house team to do his costumes and equipment, and if I know that, and every other designer who works with transhumans knows that, I’m sure the FBI already knows it, too.”

“Really, do you want to tell me more?” Roth ventured.

“What? You think that’s incriminating? That if I were smart, I’d make sure my lawyer thinks I should say that?” Julian said incredulously. “It’s a crime to sell clothing now? Even to villains or villain fans or wannabe villains? There’s not a single regulated material, controlled substance, weapon or piece of ammunition in that crate. Kevlar is legal. Chain mail links are legal. Leather is legal. So is the Egyptian cotton/Spandex blend undersuit—which breathes wonderfully and is heaven to the skin, by the way. So feel free to let me go at any time.”

“Then explain the secrecy around this transaction, Mr. Gregori, since you’ve clearly decided to waive your right to silence.”

“I deal with anyone who wants costumes like this, Agent Roth, some of them heroes with secret identities, too, by the way. If it’s illegal to do legit business with people you don’t like, are you going to start arresting restaurateurs and chefs who’ve fed Janus or Freak-Easy meals? Hmmmm? Maybe the mechanic who fixes Speed Demon’s day-to-day beater car if you find him?”

“We have enough probable cause and reason for suspicion to arrest you, Mr. Gregori. Now let’s get you in the vehicle and if you want to dig yourself a deeper hole by trying to justify your actions, you just go ahead and ramble. But I’m going to wait to ask any more official questions until we’re sitting down and I’m enjoying a nice hot French roast coffee from a mug while you drink some lukewarm water from a Styrofoam cup.”

“Barbarian,” Julian chided him with an amused and irritated little sneer.

* * *

The night feels good. Comfortable like a well-worn coat, Query thought. Been too antsy for too long. Hunting is good for me. And after three nights of it, I’m feeling almost human again.

There was a sudden shift in the displacement of the surrounding air, but Query’s enhanced hearing had already picked up the “Yoo-hoo, Query…incoming”—the only thing that kept him from reflexively striking out at the man approaching at high speed down the alley.

“Good evening, Mad Dash. How’s things?” Query asked as the man came to a halt with his usual remarkable skill, but with an odd, spinning flair that seemed equal parts ‘70s disco dancing, Olympic ice skating and flamenco dancing.

“Thought things were peachy like Tuesday morning until I got the news,” Mad Dash responded.

“What news, Dash? I like games, but ‘Twenty Questions’ isn’t one of them.”

“Julian Gregori, man. FBI arrested him on some bull-spooky, dude.”

“So?” Query asked, then nodded, adding, “What, is he your costumer?”

“Yeah, man. Crapiolo on that. I needed to order another shipment from him, too.”

“Gregori does your costume?” Query probed dubiously, eyeing the fellow hero’s short coat, which was a crazy-quilt assortment of colors, shapes and at least eight different materials, from velour to leather to corduroy. Mad Dash had a lot of other ones like it, in different styles, but all of them were at least as wild and haphazard in their design, if not far more so. Query couldn’t imagine how much someone like Gregori would charge to risk having his name attached to that kind of look.

“Nah, not my duds, dude,” Mad Dash said. “That would be bubblicious but I couldn’t afford that. I learned how to sew and stuff a couple years ago. I nearly go broke trying to keep my tootsies covered, though. He does my boots. The man is a genius with shoecraft. As much running as I do, I wear through even his phantasmo quality work after a few months. Whoa!” the hero said, swiping at the air. “Oh, though it was a flying scorpion again. Just a dust mote in God’s eye.”

Query had to silently admit that he was impressed at Mad Dash’s tailoring skills. The coat looked ridiculous and insane, but it was well put-together, and dealing with such disparate materials couldn’t be easy. But as usual, he worried about the man in that coat, and he sighed heavily. “You really should lay off the shift-running,” Query said, a concerned and soothing undercurrent in his words.

Mad Dash was that rarest of all Speedsters, not only able to run at legitimately high speed but also able to shift interdimensionally to take tiny split-second shortcuts through space-time—most could only do one or the other, Query reminded himself. It made Mad Dash one of the fastest Speedsters around, able to give a Formula 1 racecar some serious competition. Trouble was that Mad Dash also had some kind of sensitivity to the dimensional in-between space, unlike most shift-runners, and it was so acute a sensitivity that he got good long looks at whatever oddness lay between dimensions, even though he spent only tiny snatches of time there. Query suspected that the images stayed with him and revisited often like hallucinogen flashbacks.

“It’s fucking with your mind,” Query continued,  wondering how many times he’d given the man this admonishment. “Give yourself a rest from it.”

“Gotta go gotta go gotta run,” Mad Dash said in a sing-song voice. “Black hats don’t stand still for long. Besides, it’s too cool. Makes me happy. Anyhoo what I really wanted was to ask your help.”

“With a villain?” Query asked hopefully.

“No. Nah,” he said, then paused. “Nah na na, naaaa na na naaaa,” he added, mimicking some children’s show tune, then stopped. “Nope. Hoping you can spring Julian. Get the feds to let him go. Man, I’m down to my last pair of boots.”

“They’re just hoping Gregori will give up something on his nastier clients,” Query said. “Maybe he will and maybe he won’t—if he even has anything useful to share other than what he charges them, which I doubt. But regardless, his lawyer will get him out soon. He hasn’t committed any kind of crime. FBI is just flailing around the past few months. They’re irritable. Besides, even if that weren’t the case that he’ll be out soon, I’ve got more important things to worry about, Dash. Janus sent a whole team to try to kill me almost two weeks ago.”

“Did they…?”


“Did they kill you?”

“Mad Dash, even for you, that’s a crazy question to ask,” Query noted. “Do I look dead?”

“I don’t know. How do you look when you’re dead?” Dash asked, leaning forward and squinting his eyes behind the oversized yellow goggles he usually wore. “You heal so fast. Maybe you can do a Lazarus trick. Come back from the Great Beyond-oh, you know-oh?”

“Doubt I’m that lucky,” Query muttered. “Or that gifted.”

“Maybe Baby Jesus would raise ya back up,” Mad Dash offered. “You seem worth it to me. You’re worth more than a thousand-year-old solid gold buffalo nickel.” He smiled in his usual disconcerting mix of earnestness and mania, and Query smiled back, even though he knew the man couldn’t see his mouth.

“Thanks, Dash,” he said. “That’s nice. Crazy, but nice. It means more to me than you can know.”

* * *

“I’ve been happy to be mostly retired, Janus, since I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I don’t like being summoned. I don’t like the implications of someone thinking they’re entitled to do that and I don’t like sticking my head out. I still have two unfinished prison sentences.”

“Semi-retired, and yet you came here wearing your costume,” Janus pointed out. “You always did look good in black. It still fits nice. You’ve kept in shape.”

“I still do publicity photo shoots, asshole, and I have a web-based pay-per-view program, and other interests—and you know it,” Underworld said. “And wearing my costume when I’m out is safer. Better for people to see my costume and mask and forget the mugshots, so that I’m less likely to be recognized when I go get a cappuccino in civilian mode.”

“I’ll never forget your face, my dear,” Janus said through his helmet, with a face in front and back, in the style of the Roman god Janus who could look both into the future and the past.

“I’d really like you to forget,” she retorted. “Why did you insist on seeing me?”

“Something has been bothering me for a long while, Underworld, and I do believe that your ability to dispel my confusion will lead to great success in my new life here on the East Coast. I wish to know how you escaped from prison the second time.”

“Trade secret, Janus. Now, if that’s all…”

“How? Don’t lie to me, now…you know I’ll know if you do…”

Underworld said nothing.

“I could hurt you to find out, you know.”

“Bad business to hurt someone you think is so valuable.”

“Your information is valuable,” he noted. “Not your body.”

“I have a great many fans and supporters who would argue otherwise—plus I think you’re lying. In any case, do you really think you’re fast enough to catch me, Janus?”

“Of course not. But how long can you run? I have all the doors sealed. I have since you entered.”

“Really?” Underworld noted blandly. “I hope the place is also rocket-proof. I do have people watching, Janus, and even if you’ve already found and neutralized some of them, you haven’t found all of them. I guarantee it.”

Janus laughed smoothy. “Oh how I miss working with you, Underworld. It will be good to have you back as an associate for a while. After you answer my question, of course.”

“No to both items on your agenda,” Underworld said. “Did I mention that I’m armed as well? I knew from the moment you called that this meeting would be trouble. You were too insistent. Too eager for it. But I couldn’t afford not to know what you wanted.”

“We won’t need to fight, Underworld. I’m sure that keeping your sister alive will be enough incentive to get you to answer my question, avoid killing me and sign on to my team for a while.”

Underworld’s face registered blank confusion as she blinked and said, “I don’t have a sister.”

“You lie so convincingly, my dear,” Janus said, and clapped his hands together in brief applause. “You really should have been an actress. Yes, you went to quite some trouble to erase your old identity and create an entirely new one when you started your criminal career. Complete with wiping out any sign of your surviving sister. And two cousins. And one great-uncle. Would you like me to recite their addresses? Your sister, of course, in Berkeley, California, at 436 North…”

“Enough! I get it!” Underworld snapped. “You’ve made your point. Why is it so important for you to know?”

“There was no sign of your cell being forced. No sign of you on any monitoring equipment. No tunnels. Nothing. What power are you hiding, woman? I want to know, and if I like the answer, I’m going to insist you sign on with me for a while.”

Underworld just looked at him defiantly for three minutes, and he stood impassively, face unreadable behind the bearded and bronze visage of his namesake god gazing into the future. Then she closed her eyes, and her chin drooped just a fraction. “My answer buys a promise from you that my relatives will remain untouched. Not just now, but forever.”

“I will also require you to join me…unless I don’t like the answer, and then you can leave with only my disdain to accompany you.”

“Two months only,” she said. “Not a day longer.”

“Twelve. Rebuilding a criminal empire after abandoning one is a daunting task.”

“Four. Final offer.”

“Don’t dither with me, woman. Twelve. Or I’ll make sure it’s my own hand that helps release your sister’s intestines into the light of day.”

“God DAMN you, Janus!” Underworld growled, and pulled out a grenade. “I’m not your bitch! Be a good businessman and negotiate, or I will send us both to Hell!”

“Now there’s my old Underworld,” Janus said gleefully. “I knew I could bring her out again. Ten months.”

“Four-and-a-fucking-half,” she said.

Janus paused. “Oh, this is getting boring now, and you’re becoming petulant. Let’s just skip to the middle and agree on six months, which is where we both planned to settle anyway. You’ll probably stay on at least another year or two once the money starts whispering sweet nothings to you.”

Underworld put the grenade back in her pocket and shook her head, muttering “Doubtful.” Gritting her teeth, she said, “OK…how I broke out: I phased.”

“You’re a fantastic Speedster, but shift-running only works in fractions of centimeters at a time—an inch or two at best. Even if you managed to hold it a bit longer, you’d have a concussion, contusions all over your body and a few small bits of you stuck inside your cell wall after your dimensionally shifted impact—and you’d still be imprisoned,” he noted, then paused and rubbed one metallic bearded chin of his helmet. “Still, you’re not lying. I’d know. I can’t see how you could be that lucky to have had perfect timing with the dimensional shifts even if you had enough speed to carry you through a wall in concert with them. And the perimeter alarms still would have caught you later. Come now, tell me the whole story. Some hyper-acute clairvoyance, perhaps? Long-term illusion generation?”

“I did tell you the whole story, but you didn’t pay attention. You’re too fucking pleased with the sound of your own voice. I told you: I phased,” she said. “I didn’t just shift-run. I short-hopped through space several feet at a time. I teleported.”

Janus paused, then laughed. “Now who’s won the lottery? Janus, that’s who. Teleportation! No one’s managed that. You’re a true prodigy, Underworld. I never could have hoped for that. Not just some new zero-to-mach-2 in a split-second speedster capability mixed with the shift-running. Not some new powerful mind-bending ability you used on the guards. Real teleportation. This will be so useful.”

“Not as much as you think. It’s exhausting and dangerous.”

“Then we’ll use it sparingly, won’t we? Welcome aboard, Underworld. You can tell your friends outside to stand down now. How many teams did you have by the way?”

“More than one. Less than 10,” she answered.

“Well, then, you can congratulate anywhere between one and nine teams on their consummate skill, because we only found one team, and so you only have two corpses on your conscience. You know how to pick your staff, don’t you?”

“Janus, this is low even for you. This whole thing. Extorting me in an effort to recruit me. What ever happened to honor among thieves?”

“I’ve never believed in that,” Janus countered.

“Then believe this: No one threatens my family,” Underworld said. “This is the kind of thing that leads to a reckoning one day.”

“Yes, I suppose it would,” Janus said. “Then we will both simply have to hope that we come to a reconciliation along the way so that one of us won’t have to kill the other. I’d miss you.”

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