Archive for December, 2010


Posted: December 31, 2010 in Single-run ("One off") Stories

Raucous laughter, mixing a shrill feminine giggle, a bass-laden masculine guffaw, a gender-neutral chuckle and a bellowing laugh. All reverberated within the tight confines of a four-door sedan. There was a fifth person in the car, but he wasn’t laughing, passed out in the back as he was and sandwiched between the giggler and the guffawer.

Along with the cacophony of laughs about every topic that arose and about nothing at all hovered the scent of alcohol—a perfume of intoxication that became something thicker and more sour the longer they remained in the car.

Not that they noticed.

It had been a long night of partying to ring in the new year and keep drinking well beyond its beginnings. The driver was the most sober of the lot, which merely amounted to being able to almost walk a straight line.

He was sweating a bit with nervousness. There had been one close call with a pedestrian already, and he knew he shouldn’t be driving. But somehow, his brain couldn’t wrap around the concept of simply stopping the car. He had committed to driving, and by God, he would get them all home—or to somebody’s home, anyway. He wasn’t so far gone that he thought it wise to make five stops. Perhaps just one stop—at the nearest apartment, and then declare that everyone sleep it off there.

Yes, that would be the right thing to do, he thought as his alcohol-sodden brain rationalized his folly as wisdom and as he tried to remain in his lane and keep a blurry watch out for police cars.

As he cautiously rounded a corner in a quiet part of the city, he didn’t expect to see a man wearing an old-fashioned tuxedo with tails—complete with black top hat—standing in the middle of the road, several dozens of meters away. Nor did he expect to see a display across the man’s chest, digitally expressing the year 2010 with the words “New Year’s Day!” in scintillating colors and images of fireworks and champagne bottles spewing all around those words.

Weird. Digital display…

Oh shit! the driver thought, knowing of only one person who wore such a thing on the front of his torso, declaring the arrival of a holiday—and whose face was bandaged all around.

His foot was already on the brake—not too fast; not too slow. He didn’t dare hit Doctor Holiday, and he didn’t dare get any closer than he had to. It was time to turn around, as there was no telling if the transhuman would be in a heroic mood, a villainous one or some strange mash-up of both.

And then he saw Doctor Holiday reach down for something and pick it up. Then cock back his arm with something long and heavy in it—a pipe or pole or something.

The driver realized he would never stop and turn around in time—and his only other option was to speed up.

Not to run over the man—that was too risky. He might survive. He might be pissed if he did. He might still be in a condition to do something about it. No, he’d speed up and swerve around Doctor Holiday.

His foot no sooner moved to follow his commands and press the accelerator to the floor than Doctor Holiday let his missile fly.

The passengers had one by one begun to sense something was wrong, and one of them screamed—a man, in fact—as the long PVC pipe lanced through the front windshield, sending out a spiderweb of cracks radiating from the hole in the glass even as it slid with high and deadly velocity through the head of the man sitting next to the driver, and far enough through it and into the backseat to knock the passenger behind him in the back seat senseless.

Now everyone was screaming, including the driver, and the car was slowing as his fear left his mind far short of recalling just how to drive. Then everyone else was screaming for him to get them out of here, and his brain reignited. He pressed his foot down hard. But there was no time for the car to move far before another missile penetrated the front windshield—this time a shorter one—perhaps a lead pipe. It crushed the skull of the passed-out passenger who still hadn’t awakened  even with the chaos of screams and crying all around him in the car.

The driver gave up all rational thought and all notions of driving away—or over Doctor Holiday’s body for that matter. He simply opened the driver side door and fled. As he ran, he heard screams and impacts and shattering glass and then, with a jarring suddenness: silence.

He stumbled, but did not fall. He realized, though, that he was running toward a dead end, and changed directions.

The driver didn’t get far, though, before he was yanked off his feet.

He stared at the face of his antagonist—even though he could read nothing there on that Ace-bandage-wrapped head but the glare in the eyes and what seemed to be a sneer on the lips.

Doctor Holiday hauled him like an unruly child back to the car, and thrust his face through the non-existent windshield to behold the carnage. Blood everywhere. Death inside. The scent of blood and piss and alcohol mixed together.

Still gripped hard by the back of his neck, the driver retched into the front seat and began to wail and cry.

“Irresponsible,” Doctor Holiday hissed. “Driving under the influence. You could have gotten them all killed. You could have killed someone else. Shameful.”

“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!” the driver screeched. “Don’t kill me!”

“Kill you? How would you learn your lesson? You might have killed them all, but don’t worry. I’ve saved you the trouble.”

Doctor Holiday re-opened the driver’s side door and set the man gently into the driver’s seat.

“Drive safely,” Doctor Holiday said over his shoulder as he walked away slowly. He began to whistle Auld Lang Syne, then stopped suddenly, and turned around, smiling brightly as his display reset, displaying 44 Days Until Valentine’s Day. “And have a great 2010.”

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

After a long day of meting out justice—or perhaps just venting her frustrations over life’s problems on the few kinds of people on whom it was more or less socially acceptable to do so—Solstice really just wanted to relax, grab a quick bite, and get acquainted with her bed.

Instead, she was met by the words, “Hey, Michele, welcome back!” and an upraised arm with a half-empty glass of soda being shaken back and forth as the woman added the words, “Drink’s a little warm.”

Shaking her head in half-amused irritation, Michele Cho stepped over to the couch, touched the glass of her stepsister and roommate for a few seconds, and used her cryokinetic powers to cool the beverage down to something near refrigerator temperature. She could smell just a hint of rum wafting up from the Coca-Cola.

“Thanks,” Isabella said. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around aside from that half-the-rent and half-the-bills thing.”

“That and my sunny disposition and the sheer joy of my company,” Michele responded dryly. “Why I keep your demanding and bitchy ass around, though, I’m not entirely sure.”

“I’m adorable and bitchy. You know you want me bad.”

“Oh God, that’s unseemly and depraved even for you, Izzie. We’re sisters.”

“Hardly. You the almost full-blooded Chink and me the almost full-blooded Spic. Sisters? Does not compute.”

Michele snorted a half-laugh. Isabella was right, of course—there wasn’t much sisterly in their relationship. Her Chinese father and the other woman’s Puerto Rican mother had married when Michele was 14 and Izzie was 12 and neither had ever viewed her respective stepparent as anything other than an annoyance.

“Still, it would be really awkward to explain you and me sleeping together at the family gatherings at holiday time,” Michele noted. “Not to mention the fact that you don’t go for girls, so why would I bother with keeping you around as a potential piece of tail? I don’t need to work on converting someone when I can get dates easy enough outside the apartment.”

“Not to mention the fact you don’t like brunettes,” Isabella said, flipping a bit of her hair for effect.

“Not true at all. I’m not generally attracted to brunette women—blondes and redheads all the way there,” Michele said. “Men, though—I love me some tall, dark and handsome there. Brown and black hair for the XY chromosome recreational nookie.”

“Fickle bitch,” Isabella muttered. “Hey, don’t go to bed too soon. I might need my drink chilled again.”

“Then get some ice you lazy twat,” Michele said with good-natured affront.

“So, how did the whole superwoman thing go tonight?” Isabella called out as Michele stepped into the kitchen and pulled out her Solstice cowl from her shoulder bag to give it a quick wash in the sink. “No trouble, I hope. No one got a good hit in on you, did they?”

“Nah,” Michele said. “Strictly losers tonight. I was busy and I’m tired, but it wasn’t even a challenge. Lots ’o bad guys, but zero skill.”

“Just don’t get cocky,” Isabella said. “I may find you to be a gloomy, pretentious Goth freak, but you’re still technically family as well as my roomie, so you’re my gloomy pretentious Goth freak. I don’t want to be dropping some roses on a casket for you until you’re at least in your 60s.”

“I’ll do my best to stay safe and alive, you self-absorbed, overly entitled slut,” Solstice said, blowing a kiss.

Isabella snatched the phantom kiss from the air and made as if she was popping into her mouth, then pantomimed chewing and swallowing. “Love you, too, Michele.”

* * *

Only a few days old now, the month of May did not look to be shaping up as a sunny time, Zoe considered as she nursed a soft drink and picked at the appetizer before her. This was the fourth time now that Underworld had treated her to a recruitment meal and each time, Zoe could feel her time running out more and more. She should be looking forward to graduation in about six weeks, but instead she could only envision doom. Underworld had made it clear that Janus wanted her to recruit Zoe soon and that college plans should be discarded—whether Zoe complied with Janus’ desires or decided to flee.

Zoe wanted a cap and gown and diploma, a little down time, a little time in the work world, and then start applying to grad school.

Instead, a madman was mentally fitting her for a costume and a criminal career, using Underworld as his proxy.

Underworld had gotten very good at reading Zoe’s expressions and discerning the track of her thoughts, and smiled. “Tick, tock; tick, tock,” the villainess said. She was wearing an auburn wig today and clothes that made her look a little like a soccer mom. “Are you feeling Janus’ breath on the back of your neck?”

“You’re an evil bitch,” Zoe said mildly.

“Hardly. You want to know about evil bitches, you should meet Madamnation.”

“Madame Nation? Who’s that? Some jingoistic villainess with a patriotic theme?”

“You really don’t like to follow the transhuman crowd in the news or on the web, do you?” Underworld noted. “Not Madame Nation. Madamnation. Madame plus Damnation. And believe me, she takes the demonic and hellishness thing all the way. The only fellow female for whom I’d reserve the use of the word cunt.”

“Guess you and her have some history,” Zoe noted, trying to keep the discussion away from Janus. The closer the talk came to him, the more her anxiety deepened.

“History? Yeah. She runs a website, too, for all the fanboys and girls, just like I do,” Underworld said. “Except where I do merchandise, book sales and soft porn or artistic sexy images, she’s riding high on the kinky stuff. Fetish, full nudity, a whole stable of girls with cam shows and everything. Tacky, slutty stuff all the way.”

“And more popular because of that, of course,” Zoe added, relishing the chance to get even a small dig into the woman relentlessly recruiting her.

“True. The web was always ripe for the most base desires and for our darkest fantasies to be made readily accessible, wasn’t it? But we’ve also crossed paths in criminal endeavors and she’s done me wrong there, too. Still, as much as I hate her and as unbalanced as she is, she’s less psychotic than Janus, so that’s one plus in her column. Maybe you should see if she’ll take you in and shield you from us.”

Zoe groaned as the conversation again steered where she didn’t want it.

“Really, Zoe,” Underworld continued. “You need to make a decision soon. Janus is a terror, to be true, but he can be managed and I can help you learn how to avoid the dangers. To be honest, I think it might be nice to make you my protégé. You’d find a lot to like on our side of the line, my dear. Crime really does pay when you’re smart enough to do it right. While I don’t like his approach much, Janus and I both know the business, we complement each other, and you’ll do a lot better financially with us than you will with corporate America.”

“I have this nagging moral streak, you see.”

“Oh, yes, the moral streak that allows you to lie to the NCAA that you’re not transhuman, so that you can get scholarship money to pay for college. What does Jesus think of that, Zoe?”

“Don’t go there. Don’t,” Zoe said with unvarnished threat in her tone.

“You see? Zoe, I’m a hardened criminal. I publicly crippled Glory Boy. I’ve escaped prison twice. I’m not a sociopath, but I’m dangerous all the same. And right now, you show that spark again that you aren’t cowed by me. That’s the kind of spirit I want to work with. Yes, I’m worried about you being close to Janus but I think he’s got the right idea about your potential, and I’m really warming to the idea of mentoring you.”

“Not interested.”

“How long can you put it off before you realize you don’t have any choice?”

“There are always choices. And they don’t have to be limited to running away or bending my knee to Janus—or you,” Zoe noted.

Underworld looked around slowly, assessed her surroundings, and then smiled. “I don’t think you’ve brought in the authorities yet, but I admit I was wondering for a moment there. I am curious why you haven’t yet done so.”

“Because if I do, you or Janus might be mad enough to kill me—or worse.”

“Now, now, Zoe. You know we aren’t going to throw away such potential as you have over something like that. You’d only get hurt…a little. And don’t try to play as if you’re afraid of me. What’s the real reason you don’t call in the cops and tell them about me and my efforts to recruit you?”

“Easy. For one thing, I don’t ever know where we’re meeting until the last minute.”

“Oh, I’m sure the FBI would love to stake you out and be ready at a moment’s notice to follow you and try to nab me,” Underworld pointed out.

“Oh, yes, and won’t it be so nice to have to tell them I’m transhuman and possibly trash the college education that I’m still hoping I can finish before I have to figure out how to get Janus and you to fuck off.”

“Well, there are always the so-called ‘white hats’ that you could call in,” Underworld noted with an air of disdain.

“Oh, yes, because it’s so easy to just call up a superhero to come on over and help—or to be my bodyguard for a while,” Zoe said. “And a transhuman battle on campus between you and some super-dude would be so fucking great for my college career. And yeah, I have tried to see if there are any who I could get to help, just in case. But they don’t have receptionists.”

“Well, some of them…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Zoe said dismissively. “Super groups. Teams. Sure. I’ve done my research. Most of them are more like clubs. A bunch of transhumans who sort of get along but none of whom think the others know shit. They’ll have an office and a phone number for a few months and then they can’t keep up with the bills any more and the number they had in the phone book is disconnected, their website hasn’t been updated in months, and their e-mail inbox is overloaded and kicking back your messages. The only transhumans who always keep their phones operational are mercenaries, and I can’t afford one of them.”

“I see someone has been doing some homework other than prepping for final exams,” Underworld noted.

“As if I’m going to sit on my ass while you and Janus map out my life without my consent?” Zoe said. “There are only what—three legitimate transhuman hero teams?—and one of them is in California, the other one’s in Texas, and the third is in New York and its has such a low opinion of New Judah that they wouldn’t come across the Long Island Sound to do anything here if you paid them. And the fucking Guardian Corps are all about street crime and training new heroes. So, yeah, I’ve got lots of backup, don’t I?” Zoe finished with a sarcastic note.

“That’s what I like about you, Zoe. Proactive. Thorough. Practical. Logical. Fearless. You’ve been working the angles and you’re not afraid to make sure I know it. Join us, Zoe. I’ll keep Janus off you. He has Crazy Jane back in his hands and that makes him happier, and I’ll find new playthings for him, too. You don’t have to worry.”

“Put myself in your loving hands. Lesser of two evils, huh?”

“I’m not so evil, Zoe. I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

“Go ahead, steal lines from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but that doesn’t change the fact I don’t trust you to have my best interests at heart,” Zoe said. “I’m still weighing options. I figure it’s going to take you at least two or three more lunches to convince me.”

“I doubt Janus will let me do this more than four or five more times before he steps in, Zoe, so I hope you’re right,” Underworld said. “And I hope you make the smart choice.”

Oh, I plan to, Zoe thought, as she idly fingered the smart phone in her pocket. And now that I finally have a number worth calling, I have more choices than you think. At least I hope I do; I don’t know what kind of response time I can count on with this option.

* * *

Carl wasn’t sure he liked Query’s new office all that much—this building was even older than the last one, and smaller, too. After the attack at the last one, he felt more exposed now. But he supposed he would also get used to it soon enough.

“I trust you passed on the chance to dance with, fondle, feel up or neck with any strange women, right?” Query asked. It was the first time they had met face-to-face for business purposes since the destruction of the previous office.

“Learned my lesson,” Carl said. “Mr. Beacham has turned over a whole new leaf in terms of fidelity thanks to almost getting killed before.”

“Don’t refer to yourself in the third person. You’re not famous or eccentric enough.”

“Agreed,” Carl said. “So, is there an escape route behind the bookcase, just in case?”

“If we need to escape, that’s the point at which you’ll find out where I’ve put it. But you also passed through several screeners on the way in here, and I think you’re clean. I clearly need to step up my paranoia level now that Janus is in the region,” Query said. “So, on to the business stuff, which I’m sure has backed up. What do you have for me?”

“Backed up is an understatement,” Carl noted. “I haven’t been able to screen or research all of the calls. Fortunato is trying to reach you…”

“He can go fuck himself,” Query interrupted. “At least until I have a personal reason to want to talk to him, then he can have his say. Go on.”

“The FBI and ATF both want to talk to you—I think they’ve guessed that the whole hit squad thing at your last office had something to do with you…”

“The ‘fuck off’ thing goes triple for them,” Query noted. “Next?”

“A senior at UConn New Judah says Janus is trying to press her into service, using Underworld as a recruiter. She wants help, she’s asking for discretion, and even though she tried to sound tough in her message, there’s a strong undertone of ‘scared shitless’,” Carl said. “She’s also left several e-mails.”


“Too soon to tell. Could be. Good chance. Janus would want to make it look good, and this student is likely already in his pocket and ready to stab us in the back when we—rather, you—show up to help. On the other hand…”

“I don’t want to leave some girl twisting in the wind while Janus is stalking her—if she’s on the up-and-up.”

“Exactly,” Carl said.

“All right. Be discreet. Get in touch with her. Find out if she seems to be playing it straight. Let me know what you think. I’ll have to trust your judgment.”

“All in a day’s work, boss,” Carl said, batting his eyelashes and smiling in a purposefully insincere manner.

“Yeah, Carl, I know the check is late. I would say it’s in the mail, but I actually have it right here,” Query said, handing over an envelope. “Have I ever let you down?”

“No, and that’s why I try not to let you down either, Query.”

“Just stay away from loose women with transmitters to drop in your pocket, Carl, and you probably won’t let me down ever again—Patsy will be a lot happier too. All right, what else do you have for me?”

As Carl turned over the sheet of paper on his clipboard, and Query spied how many lay underneath it, he knew it was going to be a long night.

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

The man walked down Chesterson Road, mere inches from the narrow, dusty two-lane roadway itself, with a steady pace and unwavering steps through the short, dry grass covered here and there in a thin dusting of snow.

It was a pair of kids who first took note of the six-foot-four traveler—his shoulders hunched just a bit and his face unreadable behind a full-head “mask” of Ace bandages. The long strips of material were wrapped around almost every part of his head so that only his eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears showed through.

That wouldn’t have been enough to identify him—several costumed transhumans wore similar attire on their heads, inspired by DC Comics’ Unknown Soldier and Negative Man—but there was also the large-character digital display device affixed to his torso, on a body which was clad in otherwise unremarkable and standard-issue clothing, albeit wrinkled and stained.

It read, simply: 2 days, 6 hours and 31 minutes ’til Christmas

When it clicked down to 2 days, 6 hours and 30 minutes, the two pre-teens, who were very well-versed in trivia about the most notable transhumans in the nation, broke and ran to tell their parents.

Doctor Holiday was headed toward their town.

* * *

Word spread quickly through the town of Travis, and by the time the transhuman pedestrian had made it to Main Street, there was a group six adults and one junior from the nearby high school who competed in football and wrestling who were shadowing him.

None of them carried anything that remotely looked like a weapon. At least two of the adults had heard the warning in the news—that no one should ever make a provocative move. It was only on a holiday that this transhuman would use his powers.

Unless he felt threatened.

When that happened, God help the person who had made the provocative move.

* * *

Within 20 minutes, the group of people shadowing Doctor Holiday had grown to a dozen people. They followed at what they thought was likely a safe distance, and kept up with him. They were tense at first, but at a certain point, when they all realized they were well past the middle of town, they actually became less anxiety-ridden the longer he walked.

Because now he seemed to be headed out of town.

They would be spared the risks of him choosing to stay here. The risks of “hosting” a transhuman who had more personalities than anyone had yet been able to keep track of and whose demeanor could shift from heroic to villainous and back again within a span of minutes some days.

Mostly on the holidays, though.

When he reached the edge of town and continued walking down the narrow highway, there were audible sighs of relief from many in the small crowd of followers.

A few of them, though, raced back to town at a dead run to make some phone calls.

To warn the residents of the town of Marcy that Doctor Holiday was headed their way.

* * *

The people of Marcy waited anxiously for hours. When Doctor Holiday didn’t show up for six hours—and it was clearly no more than a couple hour’s walk from Travis even if he slowed up a lot or took a long break to rest—they began to feel hope.

When they went to bed with no sign of him, everyone was calm again.

But the next afternoon, Ralph Stanley and a couple of guys he played poker with every Friday night saw an unfamiliar car drive into town, and park in front of Dolly’s store, the Pharm & Shop. A tall man got out, his face swaddled in brown bandage strips and the display on his chest still ticking down the minutes until Christmas.

It read: 1 day, 9 hours and 13 minutes ’til Christmas.

Doctor Holiday ignored the three men completely. He stopped to look up at the lampposts and to peer at the store fronts, his gaze most intent on the Christmas decorations. Then he walked slowly away from the car, four storefronts away, and sat down in front of the door of Walt Smith’s old accounting and insurance office—closed up now since his heart attack almost a year earlier.

The town’s unwelcome visitor settled his chin against his chest, closed his eyes and dozed.

Ralph spread the word quickly, and everyone steered well clear of that portion of sidewalk, but many gathered in little knots of humanity here and there to watch while two sheriff’s deputies carefully looked over the car Doctor Holiday had inexplicably driven to their town in after being spotted walking out of Travis before.

One of those deputies kept an eye on the seemingly napping transhuman, in case their efforts might seem to anger him. He showed no response to their presence and presented no complaint.

They ran the vehicle identification number through their office, as there were no license plates on the car and no registration inside it.

The vehicle had no current owner, and had last been registered in the next county over some five years earlier to a woman who hadn’t lived in the state for the last two years.

By the time all this was figured out, and the news had filtered to the gathered onlookers for them to pass along to family, friends and neighbors later,  the display on Doctor Holiday’s chest told them all that it was 1 day, 5 hours and 49 minutes until Christmas.

* * *

Doctor Holiday got up once that evening after his arrival to walk into the diner nearby. He ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and a bottle of Pepsi in a voice that sounded like it hadn’t been used in weeks. The teen-aged girl at the register got him the sandwich, but was afraid to ring him up or ask for money.

When she handed him the sandwich and drink, he didn’t leave. After several tense seconds, his eyes moved toward the cash register and then back to her face.

Fingers shaking, she punched the buttons and said in a tremulous voice, “That’s $3.75.”

Doctor Holiday slowly reached into a pocket, took out a five-dollar bill, and set it down on the counter.

He walked out without waiting for change, ate his sandwich and drank his beverage while standing and admiring the Christmas decorations all around, and then sat down for another nap.

A single deputy stood across the street, watching.

His orders were to do nothing unless he absolutely had to.

He hoped desperately that nothing would happen, because he wasn’t sure what extreme Doctor Holiday would have to go to that would give him the courage to reach for his gun.

* * *

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Doctor Holiday ordered an omelet and a coffee at the diner with a voice that sounded less haggard and scratchy, and left another five without getting change. He ate while standing at the counter. Everyone who could see it looked at his digital display, which told them that only a little more than 15 hours remained until midnight came and Christmas would officially begin.

When he had cleaned his plate and emptied his cup, he returned to the empty storefront that had become his home here in town.

Several men in town had already agreed to stand vigil tonight with the deputy on duty to see what would happen, and they were already bringing folding chairs, blankets and space heaters to set up in their appointed spot.

In the afternoon, Doctor Holiday ordered an egg salad sandwich and a pastrami on rye with swiss cheese from the diner, asking for a to-go bag and a two-liter of pink lemonade to wash it down. He left a ten-dollar bill. This time, he waited for change, and left a couple dollars on the counter after he got it.

His display read: 10 hours and 16 minutes ’til Christmas.

Some of the men who would stand watch with Deputy Mitchell tonight began to arrive with coolers. One came with a large satchel loaded with rifles and shotguns, and the hope that they wouldn’t need to be brandished, much less used.

None of the men had any more desire than the deputy to draw weapons, and each doubted he could unless someone he loved was being threatened by the man.

10 hours and 8 minutes remained.

* * *

Midnight approached, and what Christmas Eve lacked for snow this year it more than made up for in cold. The men watched, fascinated and fearful, as the digital display read: 1 minute ’til Christmas. Then not only were the days and hours gone but also the minutes, as time ticked down from 59 seconds.

When it read :00 seconds ’til Christmas, and then the display suddenly flared with festive red, green and white letters and graphics that declared it to be Christmas, there was no alarm from the device. No sound at all.

Nothing but the soft scratch of Doctor Holiday’s boots on the sidewalk as his eyes opened from his latest nap and he stood slowly, then stretched and then turned toward the empty store before which he had squatted for most of his time in town.

He opened the door, which to everyone’s knowledge had been locked, and stepped inside. In the darkness, the onlookers could see vague movement, but the dim illumination of his chest display gave them little help, as he removed it and set it display-side-down on the floor. After several minutes, he exited the store with the display back on his chest, but now he was wearing a Santa Claus suit, complete with shiny black boots and black gloves, a large sack slung over his shoulder, a Santa hat on his Ace-bandaged head and a long, fake white beard.

He said “Ho, ho, ho!” in a strong, bellowing voice, and sat down again.

One of the men muttered, “Where the hell did he get the costume?”

Someone else shushed him, as if fearful that even talking about Doctor Holiday’s actions or speculating about him might incur his wrath.

No one said “Merry Christmas.” No one said much of anything.

They watched and waited.

* * *

Dawn broke, and 40 minutes after it did, Doctor Holiday stood up and began to walk.

In his full Santa attire, he strode quickly down the main street of the town, which was called Elm Avenue. He turned right at Ulster Street and walked a half-mile to Bacon Avenue, where he turned left. Then another several blocks and another left, this time at Wallace Street.

He strode up to 9 Wallace Street, a modest single-family home, and stopped at the end of the front walk.

“Merry Christmas to all,” bellowed Doctor Holiday, “except to Daniel Gavin James! Gambler! Thief! Liar! Adulterer! Wife beater! Child molester! Rapist of his own kin!”

The lights went on in the house, and curtains in two windows were pulled slightly aside, furtively.

The men who had stood vigil and followed the transhuman here watched Doctor Holiday, as did that one reluctant sheriff’s deputy named Dennis Mitchell.

No one responded from the house. Doctor Holiday set down his Santa sack at the edge of the street and walked up to the porch. He place one hand on each railing on either side of the steps leading up the front porch, and gripped hard.

The men watching from outside, along with the curious and slowly gathering neighbors, weren’t sure what to expect. Doctor Holiday rarely displayed the same set of powers on any holiday any more than he displayed the same personality. Inside the house, a family watched and listened, one of them more fearful than the rest, and angry too—while the others felt a mix of hope, dread and pity.

Danny James, husband and father of three, had been named and marked.

No one was certain if this was common with Doctor Holiday, but neither did they doubt any accusation that the transhuman had hurled. Few liked Danny, and most would freely admit he was a drunk and a lout, even if they wouldn’t have guessed at half of the crimes of which he had just been accused.

After several minutes of Doctor Holiday standing there, gripping the railings, a few people spied smoke. The wood of the porch began to blacken, then catch fire. Within moments, the porch was engulfed in flame, though nothing touched Doctor Holiday. The fire spread with swift ferocity to the walls and nearly the entire house was burning in less than two minutes. Someone nudged the deputy hard, and gave him a questioning look. He seemed dazed at first, then took out his gun.

“Doctor Holiday, I am Deputy Mitchell and I ask you to stand aside so that I can take Mr. James into custody!” He pointedly and purposely left out any mention of arson or endangering innocents.

Doctor Holiday didn’t turn or in any other way acknowledge the deputy. And when the lawman raised his pistol, he dropped it just as fast with a sharp cry, his hand blistered and the gun falling into the snow to send up a burst of steam as it melted the scant bit of white on the lawn.

The house was a conflagration, and then the family inside began to flee it. Some went out windows while most went out the back door.

Danny James no sooner had left the house then he began to run toward Bacon Avenue.

He came to a sudden halt and fell as if yanked to the ground. Something unseen seemed to drag him back toward his burning home. Every so often, he would win his freedom from the invisible whatever that had taken hold of him, only to be snared again and dragged ever closer. When he was within reach of Doctor Holiday, one Santa-attired arm reached down and picked Danny up by the collar of his pajama shirt.

Doctor Holiday looked into the man’s eyes as he thrashed and cursed, hit and kicked, screeched and cried. None of which availed him against the tall and burly transhuman.

“Guilty,” Doctor Holiday said. “As charged.”

With as much emotion in his eyes as a man putting a bag of trash into a garbage can, Doctor Holiday hurled Daniel James into the inferno that had been his home.

The James family watched aghast, and cringed at the screams inside. They cried for their family member even though they had hated him most days more than anything else.

Doctor Holiday went to his bag, reached in, and began tossing out clothes, boots and coats that no onlooker doubted was sized appropriately to each surviving family member. As they pulled warm clothing over their pajamas, shivering and terrified, Doctor Holiday said, “I’m glad none of you are hurt or dead. I would say I’m sorry about the hamster, but I despise rodents. For the same reason, I don’t mourn your husband and father.”

Then Doctor Holiday looked at the thick photo album in the arms of the former Mrs. James, and plucked it away, throwing it into the house.

“This is no place for sentiment, Sally,” he told her. “The man in them isn’t worth remembering, and the children of those years aren’t to be remembered either—only repaired and raised right from now on as healthy versions of the tortured shadows they once were.”

He reached into the bag one more time, and pulled out stack after stack of plastic-wrapped currency. Some of it U.S. currency, some Canadian, some Mexican, some Italian and one small parcel that was Chinese.

“I apologize for the need to do some currency exchange,” he said. “But I think you can buy a new house, furniture and necessities.”

He turned away, muttered “Merry Christmas” and headed for the edge of town.

No one followed him.

* * *

Doctor Holiday was spotted by tourists in a car some days later, who thought it odd to see a man in a three-piece suit with his head wrapped in bandages and a digital display on his chest walking by the edge of a major highway.

Before they sped by in their travels down the interstate, they noted what the display said.

4 days, 9 hours and 2 minutes ’til New Year’s Day.

The low illumination in the jewelry store hampered her as little as had the alarms on the doors, the motion detectors on the walls, the security cameras on the ceiling or the alarms on the display case in the middle of the store.

The systems all listened to her, and stopped paying attention at her command. As for the low light, she had the little high-tech set of eyewear about the size of swimmer’s goggles that opened up the darkness like a stage curtain at the start of a performance.

Not to mention that my prize is so large and glittery already. It almost lights up the room on its own, she thought playfully.

But as little trouble as everything else had posed, the presence of a man with a silvery, oblong helmet, gray-and-blue bodysuit and silver gloves and boots was 180 degrees removed from all that.

In fact, he was a real problem for her. A 5-foot-4-inch woman going by the name of Burlesque was not the kind of person to go toe-to-toe with…what was his name again?

…oh, yeah, that’s right: I think this is Mister Conviction, Burlesque thought, trying to call up her limited knowledge of New York heroes. I don’t know many of them, but this guy makes the news enough, sometimes nationally, for me to have some clue. A clue that I’m in deep shit, in fact.

“And here I thought tonight was gonna be a total bust,” came his voice, the smooth, almost featureless helmet giving it a more mechanical and menacing note. “Next stop for you is the 19th Precinct—whoever you are.”

“Burlesque,” she answered, trying to sound as non-threatening as possible, given Mister Conviction’s history of putting even non-transhuman crooks in the hospital pretty often, regardless of their gender. “I know this is going to sound stupid, but could we maybe just pretend this never happened and I put this necklace back? You see that I’m not out to rob the whole place. It’s just I have someplace to be, and I really wanted to look nice…”

“Save it. In fact, stuff if. I don’t take bribes and you aren’t going to sweet-talk me into cutting you a break,” Mister Conviction intoned grimly. “That necklace is worth tens of thousands, I’d bet. Time to…unnnnggghh!”

The hero went rigid as a burst of sparks appeared behind him, then shook violently for a few seconds before falling to the ground. As he did, Burlesque saw the man behind him, wearing a bodysuit of black, blue and yellow with various stylized lightning graphics. Over that he wore a short coat with various company logos, the most prominent being the Sports Authority and Gatorade. The Nike shoes on his feet were far more colorful than most anything on the market for civilians, and were built almost like combat boots, though still with a very gym shoe vibe about them.

“Damn it, Burlesque,” the new man said.

“Oh, thank God. Shock Jock to the rescue…”

“…save it. Deactivate the alarms on that door again and unlock it. I can’t leave him out here helpless,” Shock Jock said. “Hurry up.”

Burlesque made her silent mental communications with the electronics systems guarding the shop, and then generated a small shaft of quasi-matter, pushing it through the lock on the door, tripping the tumblers and then using it like a key to open the shop back up before the construct lost cohesion and the quasi-matter slipped back to its proper dimension. Shock Jock dragged Mister Conviction into the store, locked the door, and shut it, so that Burlesque could put the alarms back to normal function.

Then he saw the necklace in her left hand, scowled, and made her go through the entire process again so that he could put it back in the store.

When everything was secure again, he looked down at her from his six feet and two inches of height. He took in her costume—the black PVC pants, light brown Ugg boots and red-and-black corset top, along with the Mardi Gras-style red and gold mask she wore. Somehow, she managed to make it all look sexy instead of ridiculous. But he shook his head slowly.

“He’s a friend of mine,” Shock Jock said.

“Well, then, I really owe you a special treat or two tonight,” Burlesque said. She licked her lips seductively as she said the words, but there was also an abashed look in her eyes. “I’m sorry?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Well, I did mention I was coming to town, or did you forg…”

“…our dinner date is more than an hour from now,” Shock Jock said with exasperation.

“Well, you’re in costume,” she pointed out, “so why not me?”

“Yeah, well I’m working,” he said. “I was going to get in my civvies in about 30 or 40 minutes and head for the restaurant. You, on the other hand, have no reason to be working. This isn’t Gryphon. Or Vegas. Or Reno. Or Lake Tahoe. Or…”

“I was walking around earlier today after I landed in LaGuardia and got a cab here, and saw the necklace in the store,” Burlesque said. “It was so pretty, and I wanted to look great for you—I know you’ve got reservations for someplace fancy. And it’s been so long since I’ve seen you. Oh!” she exclaimed, looking at his jacket and focusing in on one of the sponsor logos. “NASCAR. You got NASCAR as a sponsor! Oh, honey! Congratulations. You must be the first hero in the Northeast U.S. to get them. They almost never go with anyone who isn’t from the Southwest or a Southerner.”

“Thanks,” he said, “but we’ll talk about that later. Look, baby, long-distance relationships are hard enough; it’s even more messed up when I find myself in love with a thief. But you know what, you don’t work my town—or my state, OK? New relationship rule. Just like I don’t bust you when I’m in Nevada, you don’t steal in New York. Got it? What you do in Las Vegas—or Gryphon or anywhere else out there—stays out there.”

Burlesque smiled brightly. “Promise. No work when I come to visit. Will he be OK?” she asked, nodding toward the back door to the jewelry store.

“I’ve had lots of practice zapping people. He’ll be out at least another 20 minutes but he won’t have any lasting damage.”

“You mad? Are we still on for dinner?”

“Of course. I’ll get over it by the time the appetizer comes.”

“I’m sorry, lover,” she said. “Old habits die hard. And shiny things call my name.”

Shock Jock let a little play of electricity run up and down one arm, then drew her close for a kiss, letting a little current run between them to tingle their lips. Burlesque’s tongue dipped past his lips quickly, tingling as well, and then he withdrew slightly and looked her in the eyes intently, wondering how he ever managed to get hooked up with her in the first place—oh yeah, too many Long Island Ice Teas and that gorgeous suite the Gatorade people hooked me up with, he recalled with an inward smile. Good times, and she has a sweet heart—for a thief.

“Burlesque, just remember one thing,” he added, moving some hair away from her face gently with the back of one hand and kissing her again—this time letting only metaphorical sparks fly. “I’m the only sparkly thing you should care about when you’re in New York.”

I add new people to the various biographical pages as I feel the need (and usually only after they’ve made at least one appearance), but for various reasons of practicality (and laziness) I don’t go popping them in alphabetically.

To get around this “problem” as well as keep track of other characters for whom I have no official biographies/histories, I’ve established a “Who’s Who” page (which includes links to bios when applicable).

You can go to the “About” menu at the top of the page for a drop-down menu to get to it, or you can click here.

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

Zoe took a deep breath when she was out of the building, feeling like the Sociology discussion section had been a three-hour political debate on the verge of a brutal election instead of a simple hour-long classroom discussion. She fished around in her purse, came up with a nearly empty pack of cigarettes, and shook one out, lighting it and getting her first and long-overdue nicotine fix of the morning.

A pox on all anti-smoking roommates who claim allergies they don’t have just to make my life a little more difficult—well, on the one roommate who does that to me, anyway, Zoe cursed silently, exhaling a stream of white into the air and seeing a woman through the rapidly dispersing veil of smoke.

The same woman from her class, standing several yards away and looking at her.

She was blonde, maybe in her late 30s or early 40s—looking more like a businesswoman or someone else self-important enough to stare down a stranger while wearing clothes and shoes Zoe only wished she could afford.

Zoe brushed one long, thick loc away from her face and smoked slowly, matching the woman’s stares. There was no hostility from the blonde, but Zoe made sure to add just the tiniest hint of menace to her own brown-eyed gaze, letting the smoke punctuate the heat of her own residual anger from her classmates’ insults against her faith—as well as punctuate her defiance toward this stranger.

Finally, the cigarette burned down near the filter, with no change between them in those several minutes as they had locked gazes. Zoe dreaded that she was going to have to be on the losing end of this staring match so that she could discard her smoke in the butt receptacle nearby, but then the other woman spoke, clearly and distinctly—her voice raised just enough to reach Zoe’s ears, but low enough to be civil and polite.

“You don’t like to back down, do you?” the woman said mildly, but Zoe could catch the glint of amusement in her green eyes.

Zoe ignored her just long enough to toss out the smoldering butt, then turned back toward the woman and blew out her last lungful of smoke. “No, I don’t. Are you from the Ministry of Discussion and Debate Enforcement or something? Did I violate some Oxford debate rule or some aspect of Robert’s Rules of Order in there?”

The blonde smiled. “I don’t have the first thing to do with the university, my dear,” she answered. “I’m just an invader in your class. An intruder on campus. Or, more accurately, a recruiter. It’s too early for lunch, but I had a light breakfast hours ago, so how about I buy you some brunch and I tell you why I’m here?”

Zoe felt a twinge of nervousness. The woman seemed non-threatening on the surface, but a cloud of turmoil seemed to hang in the air, centered on her. A vague miasma of dark portents. But as the blonde had already noted, backing down wasn’t one of Zoe’s strong suits, and it wouldn’t be the first time she let curiosity lead her down a questionable path.

“Sure,” Zoe said, trying to muster a note of confidence and even mild disdain. “Dad always said to never turn down anything but my collar.”

* * *

Desperado and Blockbuster kept Cole company for more than an hour. Blockbuster continued to say nothing—though he let out more than his fair share of periodic grunts and scoffing noises—while Desperado would randomly fire off a question about Cole’s past then lapse into long minutes of silence after Cole answered it and awaited the next one.

I’m starting to think the company of rats and maybe roaches in this shithole was more a comfort than the company of these two, Cole considered.

Finally, there was a light rapping at the door, and Blockbuster admitted a woman whom Cole could only assume was the long-awaited interrogator.

“Nice of you to finally show up,” Desperado said with a mix of joviality and annoyance.

“I was needed in the Bronx last night, and it takes time to drive back to New Judah, and I needed some sleep. Or do you think you have a monopoly on my time?” she responded, blowing a huge pink bubble then sucking it back into her mouth and snapping her gum loudly before saying, “So, this is the newbie?”

“Yup,” Desperado said. “Blockbuster and I will move over there to give you room. He’s all yours.”

She set down a sizeable valise, the contents of which Cole could only guess at—and worry about, frankly, given that the title “interrogator” had been applied to her so many times. She pulled a file folder out of a smaller bag slung over her shoulder, and started perusing it.

The extended silence—broken only by the quiet, vague mutterings of the two men in the corner—gave Cole plenty of time to wonder at the appearance of the woman sent to grill him. The mouthful of bubble gum alone was enough of a dichotomy when he considered the task she had been sent here for, but her attire was even more so, he thought, as she pulled off her overcoat to reveal her outfit.

She wore leggings the color of buttercream and decorated with images of tiny pink cupcakes, little yellow-and-brown wedges of cake and red-and-white peppermint candies. Her boots were knee-high and candy-apple red, made of glistening vinyl. She had on a black T-shirt with a huge yellow smiley face, over which she wore a short cotton-candy-pink translucent plastic coat. From her throat hung a trio of still-wrapped lollipops bound to a red leather cord around her neck and from her ears dangled earrings that were in the shape and color of two vanilla ice cream cones with rainbow sprinkles.

She was neither pretty nor ugly, but Cole realized she also wasn’t “plain” or “average.” Her bobbed hair was a shockingly bright shade of maroon and so unnatural-looking that Cole suspected it was a wig. Her nose was too thin to be flattering and her brown eyes set just a little too far apart above cheeks that were a hair too cherubic for her relatively thin face. Somehow, though, the entirety of it made her look cute while somehow quirky and stern at the same time.

“So, Cole,” she finally said after reviewing the file for some 10 minutes, “why don’t you tell me why you assaulted Hannah.”

“I didn’t,” he said. “I told Desperado that before. I don’t have the slightest clue who did.”

“Well, charges were never brought, but the files from your school are pretty clear on the fact that staff and students thought you were guilty. Convenient that Hannah was in a coma for so long and didn’t have any memory of who attacked her when she came to a month later. So, Cole, just tell me: Why? You don’t really expect me to think everyone was wrong.”

“Why not? People get blamed all the time for things they didn’t do,” Cole said, feeling like he should be indignant but instead finding himself approaching her question with complete serenity instead. “I didn’t do anything to Hannah. I’ve never hurt a girl—or woman. I don’t even know what I’m going to do the first time I have to fight a female thug or villain.”

“But you hurt guys, right?” she said. “Paul…”

“…dammit,” Cole said, interrupting, but his voice still calm and level. “I have the same answer I gave to Desperado. I don’t even know what you all are talking about with Paul getting hurt, and I already admit I hurt Isaac at Homecoming. Can we move on?”

“No, we can’t,” she said, looking him straight in the eyes. “Why did you assault Isaac, then? Let’s start with the person you will cop to trying to kill.”

“I didn’t try to kill him,” Cole said. “Jesus. He was never even in critical condition. I don’t even know if he got tagged as being in serious condition. He…dammit. Isaac hated me. Everyone seemed to dislike me once they started figuring I was transhuman, but most of the students at school had been treating me like crap for years even before that point. It was like I got designated the punching bag. The scapegoat. I don’t know. It was hell.”

“So you figured you’d deal out some hell yourself?”

“No. It wasn’t like that. I’d gotten a girlfriend. Someone across town that I knew through one of my cousins. She didn’t have any damn idea I was trans and I wanted to keep it that way. My first girlfriend. It wasn’t serious, but it was nice to have someone care about me. It was nice to be able to hold hands with her, get a quick kiss. Heck, we broke up before we even got to any rubbing each other through our clothes, much less sex, but it was nice while it lasted.”

“Did I ask you about your love life, Cole?” she asked. “I want to know about your assault life.”

“I’m getting to that. I told a couple people about her at school. It was stupid. I should have known by then that anyone who was kind-of-sort-of a friend wasn’t anything but an acquaintance on the way to scoring points with everyone else by getting a shot in at me,” Cole said. His stomach knotted at the memories, but his voice stayed clear and firm. “They told Isaac about her. Isaac cornered me during the Homecoming Dance and announced he was going to tell her I was a freak.”

“So you attacked him with your powers? You scarred him for life—literally.”

“You people are all so full of melodrama, like I turned him into a double of the Phantom of the Opera or Freddy Kreuger or Quasimodo. He recovered. He got really minor plastic surgery, almost nothing shows, and he still looks better than most guys.”

“Glad you find assault and battery of a non-trans with you using your transhuman powers such a minor thing, Cole,” she said tartly.

“I don’t. I didn’t even use my powers on him—not really,” Cole said. “I was mad, and I was ready to kick his ass, even though I knew he could wipe the floor with me. I just lunged forward, and startled him, and my powers kicked in, and he fell off the bleachers and into a bunch of boxes full of lights and other decorations and stuff that didn’t get used for the dance.”

“So he was bold enough to make your life hell, confront you alone, and then panicked when your modest-sized self starting moving in on his football-playing self?” she asked, her face pinched in way that might as well have said: Who are you trying to shit here?

“I think he was startled that I’d try to take him, but that wasn’t it,” Cole said. “I was mad, and my powers flared, and that made him get disoriented and lose his balance. Then I ran off. I’m almost positive he didn’t even know I used my powers.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, really. I think the only reason he never told anyone I was even around when he got hurt was because first off, he’d risk people thinking he lost his nerve with me and second, he didn’t know what my powers were, so he didn’t dare accuse me of using my powers. I mean, imagine telling people that I pummeled him with Brute powers or threw him into the boxes with some Ecto tendrils, then I have to out myself and show people what my powers really were. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew if he accused me of attacking him and people found out I just had Cyber powers or was a Brain or something, he’d be a laughingstock. I’m surprised you guys managed to connect me to his injuries.”

“We didn’t, Cole. We’ve harped on the Hannah thing because people were saying you hurt her. We picked the others figuring there was a decent chance you might have had something to do with their injuries.”

“And I basically admitted to the Isaac thing, and so that’s my fault that you know.”

“Yeah. But I’m still having trouble swallowing all of this. How come people knew you were a transhuman and no one knew what you could do?”

“My mom,” Cole said bitterly. “She taught there, and she and dad already knew I had powers. One day early in sophomore year my powers flared up at school and she was there to see it happen. She took me aside and gave me a huge lecture about not letting that ever happen again because she and dad couldn’t stand the stigma of being known as parents of a transhuman. I don’t think she meant it to come out so harsh, but it was one of those Freudian slip moments, I guess. She spoke what she really felt.”

“This still doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t sound like she would have told…”

“She didn’t out me. One of my classmates overheard the whole thing. Eavesdropping. All the other kids needed was to know was that I was transhuman. Didn’t matter what my powers were. It just gave them more justification to push me farther to the margins and treat me worse. Incidentally, before you ask, Isaac eventually did find my girlfriend and told her I was trans, and she broke up with me because of that—or maybe just because I was hiding it from her. Believe me, if I wanted to hurt Isaac, I would have done it after that stunt.”

With a suddenness that was almost physically jarring to Cole, she dropped the topic and moved on to other questions that were as far from the previous conversation as he could imagine. She asked him about family. She asked him about earliest memories. She asked about drug use. She asked about his feelings toward various ethnic groups. Whether he had ever committed any crimes, however minor. What his most shameful desire was. Who his heroes and role models might be. What the last three books were that he had read.

No sooner did he answer one question than she would ask another. Two hours or more of picking apart his life and personality—rapid-fire questions that ran from the inane to the essential; the superficial to the philosophical.

“What’s your power, Cole?” she finally asked after all of that.

“I can’t believe it’s taken you guys so long to ask,” he said, almost sounding relieved.

“What you can do isn’t that important, Cole. Sure, there are lots of useless powers and maybe we’d cut you for that. But it’s more important to know your character, Cole, especially when we’ve even let you into this apartment. It’s far removed from our central operations, but it still gives you knowledge most people don’t have. We need to know whether you’re a danger to us before we care what tricks you can do thanks to some genetic quirks. What can you do, Cole?”

“I’m a Warpsmith. That’s why Isaac fell. My powers kicked on and twisted the world a little around him, and he got disoriented,” Cole said. “I’ve knocked some things over without touching them, too, so I think I might have telekinesis, too, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to focus that power.”

“Or you could be an Attractor, Cole, if the items have been of similar material. Or maybe you’re an Ecto. Sometimes quasi-matter is invisible. You could have manifested some tendrils of quasi-matter. It’s extradimensional, and you’re a Warpsmith, so it would make sense they might go together. We can help you figure it out, and help you learn to focus better.”

She took a long drink from her water bottle, popped some fresh gum in her mouth, and within seconds was blowing a huge bubble. It popped, and she asked, “How do you feel about women, Cole? How do you treat them? Mad at them for how you got treated?”

“No. I’m fine with women. Except the ones who’ve earned my disrespect. Jeez. You’ve done enough research on me already. I’ve had girlfriends in college. I do as right by them as my budget allows, and I’m not mean to them.”

“You ever cheat on them, Cole? Ever want to?”

“No and no.”

“Enough of that, Sweet Talker,” Desperado said. “You’re not here to find a guy. Yeah, no one wants to date you, but there are plenty of non-trans guys out there who don’t know what you can do. Go after them.”

“It’s not about me. I’m getting a little tired of how guys like you have been treating some of the women in the Guardian Corps—and some of the not-quite-yet-women,” she snapped. “You all want to be all macho and play the field. Be nice to figure out what guys I can actually point them for dating to instead of pricks like you.”

“Hate the game; don’t hate the player,” Desperado said.

Cole couldn’t help but notice Blockbuster smiling at that—the only bit of amusement he’d ever seen in the man since meeting him. “I’m confused,” Cole said. “I feel like I’m on the outside of a in-joke.”

“Cole, meet Sweet Talker. An Interfacer and a Primal. Her vocal intonations and pheromones together make it damn well irresistible to speak to her honestly and spill your guts—at least if you don’t know what she’s doing. Anyone on their guard who knows her powers can clam up, though lying is still pretty hard. It’s why none of us will date her. Sucks to have a girlfriend who will ferret out all your secrets. A guy can’t be on guard all the time.”

“You shouldn’t have cheated on me, then,” she countered. “A guy who mattered wouldn’t worry about secrets because he wouldn’t have any that could hurt the relationship.”

“You were never relationship material, Sweets,” Desperado said. “Too much drama. Enjoy that I gave you my time at all.”

Sweet Talker blew another bubble and, as it popped, waved at Cole good-naturedly, though she scowled at Desperado. “Anyway, nice to meet you, Cole,” she said, and then to Desperado: “So. Yea or Nay?”

“He’s solid enough to start,” he told her, then faced Cole. “You’ll be camping out here most nights of the week, and we’ll get you into some training and have you shadow some Corps patrols just to see what happens. After a few weeks, we’ll decide if you can see one the big houses and move onto more serious training.”

Sweet Talker touched Cole lightly on the shoulder, “Not sure if you’ll like it here, Cole. You’re a long way from the kind of people you’re used to. But welcome to the club if that’s what you want. It was nice talking to you.”

“Yeah, always nice to talk to guy before he realizes he has to keep his mouth shut around you,” Blockbuster said as she headed to the door to leave.

Desperado caught Cole’s dark glance in Blockbuster’s direction, shrugged his shoulders slightly, and gave a quick and hard glance toward the door. The message was clear: If you don’t like us, you don’t need to stay.

Cole considered it for a moment, but then said, as he watched the woman in candy-themed attire step through the door: “Talk to you later, Sweet Talker.”

Desperado shook his head, laughing quietly, and Cole wondered if he was just generally amused, or laughing at him. Blockbuster had a thin grin on his lips that seemed to be the visual equivalent of Desperado’s laugh—and that gave more weight to the theory that any humor was at his expense. It didn’t matter either way, he figured. He wasn’t necessarily here to make friends but rather to learn something and make connections.

“I’m going to go tell my roommates some tall tales and figure out how to smuggle out a bag full of clothes and stuff to bring here,” Cole said firmly, with just a trace of insolence. “When do you need me here?”

Desperado paused, looked him up and down, seeming surprised at Cole’s shift in demeanor and eagerness to start. “Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and every other Sunday, beginning with the upcoming one. Be here by 8 p.m. and don’t go back to your place before 6 a.m. on your off days. Stock up on antiseptics, bandages and aspirin.”

Cole simply nodded and walked out without another word. He didn’t ask where they were or how to get back to his part of the city. He wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction, even though they had brought him here blindly. He’d find his way soon enough, and then find his way back.

* * *

The blonde woman, who had yet to offer Zoe a name, had picked a very expensive place to dine. Figuring she’d take advantage of the ability to get some decent caffeine, Zoe ordered a regular coffee with room for cream and then a Turkish coffee. She poured the latter into the former when the drinks arrived, as the blonde woman sipped at her cappuccino.

Zoe took a quick gulp of her over-caffeinated and over-sweet coffee concoction, and decided to break the silence. “So, you said you’re a recruiter? U.S. Olympic gymnast team? If so, they must be paying you guys a lot better these days. You have nice clothes.”

“Thank you,” the woman said. “I try to stay in style.”

“Well, my answer is the same as it was seven or eight years ago,” Zoe said. “I have…political and philosophical issues with the Olympics thing. Still not interested.”

“Are you sure you’re not just afraid someone might find out your secret, since the Olympic Committee is so much more thorough than the NCAA?”

Zoe froze in mid-sip, then slowly took another drink and set her cup down. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m not with the Olympic team, Zoe. I’m not even with the NCAA. I don’t really like sports unless they’re the kind that involve a fit man with a broad chest and tight abs on a big, soft bed.” The woman reached up and pulled her hair away—a blonde wig—revealing longer, darker tresses beneath. “So much better. Since we’re in a booth in the corner, I think we can dispense with this until we leave.”

Though she was feeling very nervous now, Zoe carefully sipped her drink again, hoping that it would make her appear unruffled. “Should I recognize you or something? I’m not into celebrities that much.”

“Oh, no reason for you to recognize me, Zoe. I know you have issues with connecting to your fellow transhumans and don’t really follow the exploits of the more famous ones. But some of the men on campus and in here in particular might have recognized me, so I figured better safe than sorry. After all, my website is still very active and the FBI still circulates my picture.”

Her casual knowledge of the hero and villain community began to slowly fall into place, and Zoe said, with a little hitch in her voice: “You’re Underworld?”

“Yes, my dear. Oh, here comes the waiter. Let’s order before we continue.”

“Not sure I’m hungry anymore.”

“Order. And eat. I’m spending good money and if you draw unwanted attention to me I won’t be happy.” Underworld said it all with a good-natured smile, but Zoe heard the tone of mild threat underneath.

She ordered food that she didn’t want, and tried to figure out how she was going to calm her stomach down before it arrived.

“So,” Underworld said once the waiter was gone, “I guess you weren’t expecting this.”

“I’m still not sure what ‘this’ is yet. What are you recruiting for?”

“Who, my dear, not what. I’m recruiting for Janus, who has developed quite an interest in you and your powers,” Underworld said.

“I’m not into that kind of thing. I just want to graduate and get a good job.”

“I don’t think disappearing into the crowd of humanity is going to work, Zoe. When Janus decides he wants something, he tends to refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“So you’re not recruiting me,” Zoe said, feeling her hand shake a little as it lifted the cup of dark and sweet brew to her lips. “You’re drafting me.”

Underworld paused, sipped her own coffee, and licked her dark red, glistening lips. She sighed lightly, and then leaned forward. “Zoe, I’m warning you. And telling you what’s what.”


“Zoe, I am all too familiar with how Janus’ interest in female transhumans usually manifests, and Crazy Jane is a good example of what happens when things don’t go so well for the woman,” Underworld said. “Things often don’t go well.”

“I don’t want to be part of that kind of life. I don’t want to be a criminal. I don’t want to be under the thumb of someone like Janus. What are you going to do? Drag me to him? Force me?” Zoe wanted to sound indignant and defiant, but realized she was sounding frightened instead.

“Zoe, I think you probably have a fine future ahead of you,” Underworld said. “I like to see women get ahead on their own merits, and I don’t like to see them victimized.”

“But you came to tell me I have to work for Janus, anyway, didn’t you?”

“I’m telling you that Janus is insistent. I’m telling you he wants me to recruit you,” Underworld said. “I’m telling you that if you don’t want that, you should run very far, very fast and forget about trying to complete your studies. He likely won’t wait that long, and the longer you’re in his sights, the less chance you’ll be able to run without him knowing exactly where you’re going.”

“I can’t just run. How would I live? Where would I go?”

“Zoe, I’m going to court you and I’m going to tell you all the wonderful perks of being part of a criminal empire and helping to build it from the ground up. I’m going to do that because even I slip up sometimes, and one of these visits, Janus might manage to slip a bug on me to monitor what I say. Since I love my family, I’d prefer to keep them unscathed, and I won’t be this open with you again. I’m going to woo you for as long as it takes to get you to say yes.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Zoe said. “Are you telling me to run or telling me it’s no use to try?”

“I’m telling you that this won’t be the first meal I take you to. I will drag out the process as long as I can for you to figure out what you want to do,” Underworld said. “I don’t have much of a conscience—I just have female solidarity—so if you take too long, I won’t try to stop any of Janus’ people from dragging you to him. I also won’t cry over it. You’re going to have to decide whether you say ‘yes’ before he gets mad, whether to keep trying to buy time for too long and make him mad by doing so, or whether to run.”

Or whether to get help somehow, Zoe thought, but left the words unspoken. This wasn’t an ally—just a reluctant enemy.

“You’ve delivered your message, and clearly I’ll piss you off if I don’t finish this meal with you and let you leave here on your own terms as quietly as you can. So, can we change the subject to something that isn’t terrifying, please, so that I don’t throw up my brunch as soon as I start eating it?”

“By all means, Zoe,” Underworld said with a smile that bore a cruel edge to it. “By all means.”

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

In the darkness of the alley, two masked men crouched, shrouded by shadows, waiting for the lights and sirens to pass far enough into the distance for them to stand again, and venture out into the night.

More into the open, though still moving with as much stealth as they could and still be alert to potential threats and potential work.

“I don’t think those cops were looking for us, anyway,” Streetwise said.

“They hardly ever are, but we just never know, so it’s always duck-and-cover when they come,” Ballistic answered.

“Wonder how long we’ll keep having this conversation?” Streetwise ventured, and not for the first time in recent weeks.

“As long as we keep living in Philly,” Ballistic noted. “Probably the strictest anti-transhuman-vigilantism laws anywhere here in this city. Pretty harsh in the rest of the state, too. We’d be better off moving to Marksburgh, you know. Or better, move to Erie to live, and commute into Marksburgh for the hero stuff.”

“Yeah, except the only reason the laws don’t get enforced there is because that area is so fucking crime-ridden and dangerous that the cops hardly do anything there except collect bribes or try to stay alive. The governor would shut that whole area down if he could, but there’s too much tax revenue flowing out of there.”

“Well, all the more reason we should move there,” Ballistic said. “We could do some real good.”

“You got a day job lined up?” Streetwise asked snarkily. “Do you know what unemployment is like up there?”

“But we could end up doing work that means something to the people there.”

“And end up real dead,” Streetwise pointed out. “Only the most hardcore and crazy heroes and vigilantes work that gig.”

“Fine, New York City, then. They have vigilante laws, too, but a whole lot less strict and loosely enforced because the cops know they need the help.”

“Yeah, just what I want to do: Deal with New York pricks on a daily basis,” Streetwise groaned. “Shit, I’ll bet even the folks in the Bronx have got an uptight attitude and hoity-toity vibe going compared to real folks like us. I’d probably punch out the civs as much as the crooks.”

“Philadelphia may be more ‘real’ in terms of the people, Street, but it’s no good for us anymore. Darkgirl got nabbed by the police for violation of vig laws end of last week.”

“I know, shithead; I was dating her. Remember?”

“Screwing her a couple times a week isn’t dating, Street,” Ballistic said. “I don’t think you ever bought her a single gift, meal or anything else. Point is we’ve been getting picked off. It fucking sucks. The police are rounding up more heroes than villains. I don’t know if it’s just because they know we’re less likely to hurt them and they can keep their numbers up for arrests and the DA can keep up his conviction numbers, or if they’re afraid we’ll cost them jobs if we’re allowed to work the streets freely.”

“Whatever. Let’s just find some action. I thought I saw some movement in that strip mall over there. Maybe a break-in. Might not be a trans villain, but I’ll take a street tough if we have to,” Streetwise said.

“Why not New Judah?” Ballistic asked. “Now there’s a city that appreciates its heroes. Or at least enough not to make their work illegal.”

“Because this is my city. Because this is where we were born. Because this is where American government started. Because it’s Philly,” Streetwise said. “You want to run out on your city, you go right ahead.”

They approached the stores, and Ballistic noted a door that was ajar. “OK, Street. How do you want to play this?”

“You’re the Brute, so you take the front door. Just give me a minute or two to get moving around the back,” Streetwise answered.

“Cool,” Ballistic said.

The night was quiet, and only the buzz of old, overworked streetlights and illuminated store signs gave any evidence that there was life around these shops. That, Ballistic realized, and the tiny ghost of movement inside the store.

Really quiet if it is a break-in, he thought. So I’ll be just as quiet.

A slow approach not only increased his chances of surprise but meant he’d be in position to go in about the same time Streetwise was in position to enter from the rear. As a Cyber, he had a knack with electronics, so he wouldn’t trip any alarms back there, and his TK powers were sufficient to open locks.

Ballistic gave it just a few more moments, knowing that Streetwise wouldn’t move until he did, and then he burst in.

His entrance was rewarded by the sudden assault of several flashlight beams blinding him, then the room lights inside being thrown on in concert with a symphony of “Freeze! Police. Grab floor now!”

Ballistic swore and then dropped onto his belly, putting his hands behind his back, interested neither in getting shot nor hurting cops.

I hope they didn’t get Streetwise, at least.

* * *

“Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you,” the police officer said to Streetwise.

“Not really.”

“Well, we’re the ones who did the real work, but you’re good as a trained dog to flush ‘em out for us. Now if only we could teach you to retrieve. Then maybe I could take ya on a duck hunt or something.”

Streetwise frowned, and swallowed the insult. “I don’t have any more friends to give up to you. Are we done?”

“Friends,” the officer scoffed. “If you’re their friend, I’d hate to see their enemies. I may not like the lot of y’all, but I hate traitors more. Guess it goes to show what kinda cloth transhumans are cut from, huh?”

“Yeah, sure,” Streetwise said. “We done?”

“Yeah, we’re done. You can walk. But next time I see you, I arrest your ass just like your friends. And won’t it be fun when you see ‘em in prison and they start to put together that you were with ‘em every time they got caught, but always got away.”

Streetwise said nothing as the police cruisers turned off the colorful, spinning cacophony of the rollers atop their roofs, and drove away. He peeked out from the corner, seeing a glimpse of Ballistic in the back of one of them, and felt that sick twist in his stomach. It didn’t get any better no matter how often he had done this. Ten times now? A dozen, maybe?

He looked out into the night, wondering if he should chance trying to find any criminal activity tonight to thwart, knowing the police had a general fix on his location, and decided to trudge home instead, sticking to the shadows.

No one ever thanks the Judas for his work, Streetwise thought miserably, any more than this city thanks the heroes who’ve been bruised, broken or killed protecting it.

He thought back to Ballistic’s words, and considered them. New York didn’t feel right, and New Judah was a place he’d just be part of the crowd. Besides, Janus was setting up shop near there, and that made things a bit too dicey. The D.C. area didn’t have any anti-vig laws targeting transhumans yet, but that was largely because of the dearth of activity there. Might be a good place to blend in and just work the hero thing lightly. Or maybe Detroit, he considered, where there was some action but not as much heat from the police. Or Milwaukee. But leaving the East for the Midwest? It didn’t sit well.

Plenty of time to consider his options, Streetwise realized bitterly.

It wasn’t as if he had any friends to distract him from his thoughts anymore.

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

Silence was a delicate thing, Jeremiah has always thought, and needed to be treated with respect. His employer had read the letter—his first official task of the morning—and had clearly been considering its implications. But, being ever-attuned to the nuances of environment, behavior and timing, Jeremiah felt that the silence was on the verge of gathering pressure and mass—it was poised to become oppressive and distracting. So he did what he had always done in his role as executive assistant—a role that had been built as something far more than a glorified secretary, even if it was also far less than a vice presidency.

He intervened to manage the silence, and keep the flow of activity in its proper course.

“Sir, how should we respond?” Jeremiah asked the man who had been named Arturo Vasquez shortly after emerging from his mother’s womb, but was known by most people now simply as Fortunato.

Fortunato smiled lightly, both a recognition that it was time to act somehow and also an acknowledgement that he appreciated Jeremiah’s exquisite timing and perception. “For now, we do nothing.”

“Sir, Janus has officially issued you a challenge,” Jeremiah noted. “He is stating his intention to you—as I’m sure he has to other business leaders, as well as various criminal bosses and public officials—to set up a new operation for himself in this region and to impinge upon your income.”

“And that is just the thing,” Fortunato pointed out. “I’m not his only target of interest in making this known.”

“But you are one of the richest men in the nation and one of the most powerful businessmen in New Judah, and a known transhuman. Much of your influence and wealth comes from your notoriety and popularity, which in turn comes from the fact that you lead a life publicly and openly as a transhuman. Even though you rarely intervene directly in crime and such anymore, Janus may see you as a threat.”

“Perhaps,” Fortunato said, “but clearly he sees Query as the big threat. I’ve heard through the transhuman community that Query was targeted by a very well-equipped hit squad backed by Janus. No, Janus isn’t interested in engaging me directly—at least not any time soon. He likes fear and he likes to make aggressive postures. He’s sending a message to all of us that he want a piece of what every one of us has, whether we pay protection or whether we let him into our operations, criminal or legitimate.”

Jeremiah frowned. “But you’re not going to ignore him.”

The words were a statement, not a question; he knew his boss too well. It was just a confirmation, and an invitation for Fortunato to continue.

“Not a bit,” Fortunato said. “As you well know, while I don’t engage in truly unsavory commerce, there are aspects of my corporate reach that are less pure than others, and which Janus might be able to touch directly. I’ll have to keep an eye on those shadier areas in particular.”

“But most of all, we wait for now to see what he will do next, and to determine how we will respond,” Jeremiah stated.

“Exactly,” Fortunato said. “Now, on to reviewing matters that actually impact my bottom line in the short run, before I have to talk to the board of directors this afternoon.”

* * *

Mornings were already anathema to Zoe; having to endure the discussion section for Prof. McGinnis’ Sociology and Culture class at 8 a.m. on Monday was sheerest torture.

Today was worse than most such Mondays.

The grad student who oversaw these discussion sessions was wholly in the professor’s camp in terms of theory, to a degree that was verifiably sycophantic; Zoe wondered often whether Cheryl had a single original thought in her head when it came to the topics they covered in class.

And now that they were discussing religion and culture, the heavy focus on transhuman influences in culture that had so pervaded the class had been poised to go precisely where Zoe didn’t want it to go. But, as she had worried, it did anyway.

Adding to the discomfiture was a woman in the class whom Zoe didn’t recognize—too old to be a student. Perhaps some kind of academic observer? In any case, she was an outsider, which added to Zoe’s stress levels.

“Why does Jesus have to be a transhuman?” Zoe said in response to a theory Cheryl had tossed out to the class like fresh meat to a cage full of lions, and which had been under discussion for at least 15 minutes now.

“Because it’s what makes sense, Zoe,” countered one of her classmates, Ralph, whom she normally liked well enough. But he was rigidly and even haughtily atheist and she had long since learned that religious discussions were a lousy place to go with him.

No helping that in this venue, though, she thought bitterly.

“Why?” she asked. “Look, if you want to say the stories of Jesus’ miracles were just made up, fine. But why does it ‘have to’ make sense that he was a transhuman when we only started seeing transhumans in the 1970s, and Jesus was more than 2,000 years ago?”

“Really, Zoe,” Cheryl chimed in, “do you believe that there were no transhumans before the late 20th century—that they just popped up out of nowhere?”

“Of course not. They have probably been on the rise for some time, but unnoticed for decades—maybe a few centuries. But 2,000 years ago? Because then you have to say that maybe Moses was a transhuman, and that’s even farther back. Or Samson…or the sources of any other miracle-based biblical tales or even the older pre-Judaic mythologies. And you’re saying we almost never see these transhumans throughout all those millennia and then, boom!—we hit the jackpot in the ‘70s? C’mon!”

“It makes a hell of a lot more sense than God incarnating as a human,” Ralph said. “Jesus’ healing powers would be easily explained by him being a Regenerator, and his charisma and ability to discern danger and future events could have been Psionics and/or Primal powers.”

“The loaves and fishes?” Zoe noted. “Creating matter from nothing? Or water to wine? There are no known Transmuters or Creators—those are strictly theoretical and unlikely powers.”

“Well, those were probably just stories added later.”

“Convenient, Ralph,” Zoe said. “The stuff you can’t explain was made up; everything else was due to being transhuman. How about the resurrection? Because I don’t see his entire apostolic crew praising him and risking crucifixion or worse themselves after he called himself the son of God and then died like a punk on the cross. As far as I’m concerned, he had to come back to life for them to put themselves on the line like that.”

“This isn’t a theology class, Zoe,” Cheryl cut in.

“Step off, Cheryl. This is a discussion section, and I’m in a discussion. Add to it or get out of it and leave me to my work,” Zoe snapped.

“Zoe, him ‘coming back to life’ would have just been autonomic self-healing as a powerful Regenerator—he never actually died,” Ralph said, and Cheryl nodded vigorously, face red with anger at Zoe’s challenge to her classroom authority.

“Have you read anything about what damage crucifixion does to the body?” Zoe asked. “After hours on the cross, then being sealed in a tomb for a couple days without food or water—no Regenerator is going to come back from that. The body needs decent conditions and some kind of nutrition to fuel the healing process.”

“It’s a strange world, Zoe, but it doesn’t need God to explain such things,” Cheryl said. “I think we can almost all of us agree to the likelihood that Jesus was transhuman, and move on.”

Zoe was mentally ready to continue the fight, but pushing her agenda and view now wouldn’t win her anything but trouble when it came time for grades to be handed out. But she fumed quietly. Her application of her personal religious and spiritual views tended very much toward liberal and centrist notions, but she didn’t like having her foundational beliefs about God and Jesus challenged and dismissed so blithely.

Yet another area of my life where transhumanity overshadows things, she bemoaned silently.

* * *

Cole’s sleep was jarred by something sharp and hard, and it was only when he heard “Rise and shine” and began to gain awareness that he realized it was the toe of a cowboy boot prodding his ribs. “Get a good night’s rest, Cole?”

“Yeah, this mat’s fantastic, and the rats in the walls kept me company really well,” he answered miserably to the costumed man he had met just hours earlier. This time, he was attired more completely, not just in a mask and wearing those boots, but with a Western-style Stetson hat and a long leather duster over his dark unitard and vest. Everything was shades of brown with hints of black, from the attire and accents to his skin, eyes and hair—making him look like almost like a antique bronze statue of a cowboy. As before, Blockbuster was here with them, and as just as lacking in humor, talkativeness and warmth as he had been before.

“If your apartment’s cozier, go back,” the man said. “I told you this wasn’t going to be easy.”

“You could have told me I’d be living here, and I might have brought a change of clothes or two.”

“You won’t be living here precisely, just camping out, and you can leave soon enough, and check in with your roommates—give them some story to explain why you’ll be gone a while. Assuming that we decide to let you stay here for a probationary period.”

“I guess that’ll be determined by the intense interrogation you mentioned before you left me here alone,” Cole noted hesitantly. “Can I at least get a name for you before you start with the thumbscrews or waterboarding or whatever you’re planning?”

“Would you like to be waterboarded?” the man quipped. “I have a trainer here in the Guardian Corps who did time with the military and has some first-hand experience. I was planning something a little less brutal, but if you prefer…”

“I’ll trust that your original plan is better,” Cole said quickly. Nervousness was beginning to fray his composure.

“Desperado,” the man said, finally answering Cole’s question. “Now you’ll have a name to curse later along with Blockbuster’s.”

Cole’s palms were sweaty and his heart was beating fast enough for him to gauge its beats by the pounding bursts at his temples. With a panicky surge in his mind, he almost got up and ran for the door.

I shouldn’t be here. What the hell am I thinking? I’m a recent college grad who should be applying for biomedical engineering jobs. I…

He didn’t want that life, he realized just as suddenly as the anxiety had struck, and he clenched his sweaty palms into fists instead, squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and took a deep breath.

“Can we get on with it? The sooner you satisfy yourself, the sooner I can find a shower and then settle in here.”

Desperado made a shallow nod, stepped toward him slowly, somehow managing to convey intense menace in those few steps across a span of less than six feet, and said, “Tell me about Hannah.”

The question caught Cole off-guard, and he blurted out “Who?” before he suddenly realized who Desperado meant.

“Hannah Marie Rosenberg, Cole. Sadie Hawkins Dance. Junior year. Was she that forgettable? Or have you assaulted a whole lot of other women we don’t know about yet and she’s just faded into the background of fresher meat? I told you we’ve been checking into your past, Cole, as we wait for our professional interrogator to arrive. I just figured I’d grease the wheels a bit and see if we can save her the trouble of having to use her skills and cut you from consideration right now.”

“I never touched Hannah!” Cole said with more vehemence than he intended.

“Well, I don’t know what your power—or powers—might be yet, so maybe you didn’t need to touch her, Cole.”

“I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even anywhere near her when it happened. I don’t even know where it happened. Everyone assumed I did it, even though there wasn’t any reason to tie me to her, but I didn’t do it,” Cole said.

“I suppose you won’t be taking credit for Paul Whitten or Isaac Stone, either,” Desperado said grimly, a savage note underlying his voice.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about with Paul—I don’t remember anything really bad happening to him in school,” Cole said, and then paused, feeling like not only was his stomach dropping, but the floor was disappearing beneath him. Isaac. “Isaac…I’m sorry about what happened to Isaac. Congratulations. You’re the first person to even say it might have been me. I didn’t mean for him to get hurt that badly. But once…after it happened, I couldn’t cop to it—I didn’t dare—and I figured I was already paying for Hannah’s injuries without having done anything to her, so it came out even.”

“I doubt Isaac felt that way.”

“He recovered all right in the end,” Cole said weakly. “Hardly any of the scars were anywhere he couldn’t cover them. But I still hate that it happened. I’m not proud of it.”

Desperado paused and seemed to take Cole’s measure, then tipped up his Stetson to scratch at his forehead. “It’s not what I would call complete remorse, Cole—not by a long shot—but it’s a start. It’s a good enough start that we can move to the next step.”

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


Posted: December 14, 2010 in Single-run ("One off") Stories

“I’m tellin’ ya, Stevie is a trans—he’s one’a them heroes,” Gus said quietly, following his words with a bite of an apple fritter and then sipping from his thermos of coffee.

“How are you figuring that?” Mark asked him, taking a bite of one of the McGriddle breakfast sandwiches he had bought on the way to the worksite this morning.

“Look, you ‘member that day ‘bout three months back he was all ‘I got the runs’ and rushes off, then acts like he can’t get the Porta-Potty door open, then rushes off lookin’ for a bathroom at a diner or somethin’?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Five minutes later, who comes leapin’ over a building? Greenguard, that’s who. Twenty minutes after that, Stevie is wanderin’ back onto the site actin’ all refreshed and askin’ what we were all excited about.”

“He didn’t jump over a building,” Mark said.

“What? Sure he did.”

“Greenguard jumped over the foreman’s trailer, Gus.”

“Shee-it! OK, the trailer then. Can you jump over a 10-foot high trailer?”

“Point taken. Doesn’t prove anything, though.”

“What about a couple months after that? Sirens all blazin’ a block or two away, and Stevie’s suddenly just fuckin’ gone. Supposed to be mixin’ cement, and he’s gone,” Gus said. “Then what do we hear on the news that night and talk about during coffee break the next mornin’? Hardcase had busted up some gangbangers with automatic rifles for the cops.”

“See? There you go? Two different heroes. Couldn’t both be Steve.”

“Two heroes with the same powers. Stevie’s just tryin’ to keep people off the scent, ya know.”

“Greenguard and Hardcase have almost the same powers,” Mark noted.

“He just plays his powers up different. Underplays stuff or overplays it. I’m tellin’ ya, Stevie’s a supe. One of the white hats,” Gus declared.

“Seems a stretch, Gus,” Mark said, munching on his breakfast sandwich while he spoke. “Isn’t Greenguard tall and lean, and Harcase is kind of average height and really bulky?”

“He’s got some trick, then. Maybe a Morph on top’a bein’ a Tank.”

“Greenguard’s a plain Brute—Hardcase is a Tank,” Mark pointed out after washing down the last of his initial McGriddle with some coffee.

“Ain’t ya listenin’ to me? He plays it up different. He just doesn’t use his strength as obvious when he’s doin’ the Greenguard bit.”

Mark shook his head. “Coincidence, I say. Steve is about as laid back as a guy can get. Shy, even. If I had to pick one guy on the crew I was pretty sure hadn’t got laid in the past year and maybe never, it would be Steve. Good worker, but mild-mannered as all get out.”

“Yeah. Mild-mannered. Put some glasses on him and stick him in a newsroom and he’d be Clark Kent doin’ the Superman thing, just like in them comics.”

“Steve already wears glasses, dumb-ass.”

“There ya go,” Gus said, downing some more coffee and dropping the uneaten half of his apple fritter back in his lunchbox. “Probably not even real prescription ones. And I tell ya what I’m gonna do. Next time I see Stevie, I’m gonna call him out on this. I’m gonna tell him I know he’s Greenguard.”

“And Hardcase,” Mark added with a smirk.

“Yeah, and Hardcase. You watch.”

They sat in silence for a while, Gus lighting up a cigarette in place of his abandoned apple fritter, and Mark waving the smoke away while he finished his second breakfast sandwich. Gravel crunched behind them, and they heard a familiar voice.

“Hey guys, what’s shakin’?”

“Hey, Steve,” Mark said, saluting him with his paper coffee cup. “What’s up?”

“Heya, Stevie!” Gus said. “Nice day, huh? Man. Yeah. Well, I better get back to those support beams.”

Steve slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t sweat it. I already started on it. Take another five or ten and we’ll get on it together then.”

“Sure, sure, Stevie. Seeya.” Gus said.

When Steve had wandered off, Mark snickered. “Yeah, that’s telling him, Gus. Way to confront the mild-mannered civilian who works two hero gigs.”

“Shut up. Next time. Tomorrow, I mean. Soon.”

As he got near the edge of the worksite, the sound of sirens caught Steve’s attention, and he saw three police cruisers converging on a bank nearby. He frowned, trying to remember.

Shit, who am I today?

He unbuttoned his shirt a bit, saw the red material there, and sighed. “That’s right,” he muttered to himself. “It’s Tuesday.”

The day he was Knockout.

Time to get into character, he thought, and went off to tell the foreman that he had a sudden family crisis to deal with.


Well, we’ll see how much longer I can continue this pace, but it’s been busy around here, so if you haven’t been by in a few days or if you were even just here earlier today, I should note that not only did I add Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 to the ongoing tale “The Gathering Storm” a few days ago but also added two more items, both today: the one-shot stories “Fresh Wounds, Old Scars” and “The Pleasure Principle.”


We’ll see what tomorrow brings.