Archive for March, 2011

Coming Soon…

Posted: March 29, 2011 in Announcements / General

So, been playing more Wizard 101 than I should be, partly to clear my head of other concerns and reboot my brain, but also because my 5-year-old girl wants to see all the worlds in the game, so I have to build up one of her characters to a respectable level as quick as is feasible.

Anyway, obviously that has eaten into my writing time.

But fear not!

I have a partially written (and almost finished) one-shot tale called “Hush-a-Bye and GoodKnight” that will be posted soon. Also, another chapter of “The Gathering Storm” will be coming up, in which, among other things, I may be unveiling for the first time a character called Vegan Manhunter. This is a nod both to my stepson, who for some eight months now (I think) has been vegetarian (not full vegan, mind you…he does dairy and some foods with animal products in trace amounts)…that would be @yomilo on Twitter by the way and one of the founders of the Whethermen’s Union website that inspired this blog…but the character is also an homage to DC’s Martian Manhunter.

Yes, the character name is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I won’t likely play him/her (not sure of gender yet) for laughs overall.

Anyway, that’s it for the moment. Hope to have both things above posted this week, and looking forward to bringing forth more goodness (and vileness) thereafter.

I should point out that the title for this story came from my 5-year-old daughter. Of course, from such a playful and almost innocently simple title, I’ve crafted anything but a sweet and child-friendly story. Oh, well, what can I say? When you start with a title before a plot, you never know what will happen.

“Hello, Fishboy,” came the low, growling tone—with just a hint of amiability in it, almost a mocking one—from the telephone receiver. “Been a long time.”

A man who had gone by his birth name Jim Washington exclusively now for six years paused only the barest of moments, and then he tried to make his words steady as he said, “I’m sorry. I think you have a wrong number.”

“No, I don’t,” said the other man. “I’d recognize that voice anywhere. Have you missed me, Fishboy? Just a little? Have you missed Madman?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jim insisted firmly, knowing all too well what was going on.

“I have your little boy, Fishboy. Fishboy’s boy. Isn’t that darling-sounding? I know fishies like you eat little crumbles floating in your fishbowls. How about I grind him up and dehydrate his remains and sprinkle them into your breakfast cereal and the flour in your house and…”

“Stop!” Jim snapped loudly. “You…my son…what do you want, Madman?”

“You, Fishboy. You were always my arch-nemesis.”

“I was never…”

“Oh, you didn’t want to be. You didn’t even want to do any hero stuff. But I wanted you, Fishboy. I wanted an arch-nemesis. You’ve robbed me of a proper criminal legacy hiding all these years. But I found you again. We’ll do it right this time. You’ll come to me. You’ll come alone. We’ll sort all this out. Unless of course you want to have half as many kids and encourage me to go after the girl next.”

Jim’s heart hammered and his throat was dry. He barely got the words out.

“Where? Where do you want to meet?”

* * *

Another time, another place.

Instead of chinos, a polo shirt, some gym shoes and the occasional baseball or bebop cap, he wore that ridiculous costume. A mask of faux fish scales with convex goggles that made his eyes appear so much larger than they really were. Plus those stretchy boots and gloves with the fish fin-like accoutrements. Tight baby blue leggings and almost-as-tight green shorts. And the crowning glory: The Kevlar vest colored in aqua, white and chartreuse, with the stylized F emblazoned over a stylized scallop shell.

It was, he had thought a first, a chick magnet. Who could resist a superhero costume? Then he found out just how wrong he was about that. It didn’t even attract men or boys. Jeers, yes. Adulation, not so much. Dates, never.

Instead of a wife and two kids and a job doing inventory and package management as he had now, he had his mentor, The Hydra, whose own outfit was ridiculous enough. Oh, it was a marvel of engineering—a sort of armored suit with three appendages that looked like draconic necks and heads. Hydra himself was an Ecto and could produce quasi-matter constructs, usually blasts and tendrils that vaguely resembled water. He shot them out of the hydra heads for effect, sometimes adding or substituting electricity instead, since he was a Transmitter, too.

He’d apparently wanted a sidekick for years and had been trying to find one that had some sort of thematic fit. Since The Hydra had gone with a reptilian mythological motif and tried to make his powers seem water and sea-like somehow, Jim was perfect for him.

How the guy had ever found out that he was transhuman at all, much less what powers he had…well, Jim had never figured that out and The Hydra had never answered him when asked. The arrogant, self-entitled jackass did, however, have plenty of other things to say, Jim realized, and had browbeat the teen-ager into the hero business as Fishboy.

Jim had never forgiven him the manipulations that had put him in that silly costume and in danger, just because he had some Morph and Regenerator talents.

He’d never forgiven The Hydra for a life of fighting crime that had constantly put him at risk. That had ultimately turned Jim into an orphan three months after his 17th birthday. That had almost robbed him of his pregnant girlfriend nearly a year after that.

A life that had introduced him to the singularly obsessive Madman, onetime sidekick to Lord Jurassic, seemingly of similar age to Jim and determined to be the arch-nemesis of Fishboy, a reluctant hero who simply wanted to get through high school without ridicule and come out the other side acne-free and with a plan for the rest of his life.

Now, at the age of 24, Madman was still calling him Fishboy and still on the same old kick, except now a five-and-half-year-old boy was at risk.

The Hydra is dead now, and good riddance, Jim thought, but his legacy of screwing up my life continues through Madman.

* * *

Jim had left a written note, voicemail message and text message for his wife, Grace, to leave work as soon as she could, gather up Lydia, and go to Noah’s house. He was a longtime friend of theirs and a retired hero once known as Ocular. He’d helped Jim escape out from under The Hydra and vanish into civilian obscurity; he would keep them safe for now.

No police, he’d indicated to her, though he’d let her know where he was going. No heroes. I’ll either save our boy or die trying. You get both your guys back or neither at all, most likely.

She wouldn’t like that, but she’d understand the necessity. He only hoped she’d still be his wife afterward. She’d told him never to return to hero work—a demand he’d been happy to heed—but this wasn’t exactly a willing re-entry into that world of madness between transhumans. Maybe she’d have mercy.

When he entered the warehouse he had been told to come to, he followed a series of arrows on the floor, created by blue masking tape, until he entered a large room in which was a huge pool built into the ground. On the far side of it, Madman stood on some sort of raised control platform. There was no sign of his son, but a pile of clothing was on the ground. From the colors, Jim could guess what it was. All that aqua and blue and green and white.

“Welcome, Fishboy!” Madman cried through a microphone, his voice blaring from speakers all around. “Welcome! My God it’s good to see you again, my old foe! Fishboy and Madman strike again!”

“Where’s my son?” Jim shouted.

Madman frowned, and his brow wrinkled. Jim was pretty sure his eyes were squinting in irritation, too, but since the mask that covered his eyes, ears and nose had one-way lenses that displayed a myriad of changing colors to the observer and nothing else, who could know?

“You’re gonna go and ruin my delivery like that? What a showstopper. Let’s try that again,” he snarled. “Fishboy and Madman strike again!”

The words rang out and echoed through the room, and by the time the din had quieted, Jim was close enough that he barely had to shout to ensure he was heard from up on the control platform.

“If we were a team, that would make sense. We’re not. It’s Fishboy versus Madman, you twisted ass.”

“Well, I’m striking at you. You’re going to strike at me—or try to. So, ‘strikes again’ it is,” Madman said, waggling his finger. “Besides, maybe we should have been a team. I offered to cut you in with Lord Jurassic back in the day, or for us to go in together without him. I just wanted you in my life, Jim. Partner or enemy. I wasn’t choosy. It’s just we were meant to be a package. I could always sense it.”

“I never understood why you felt that way,” Jim said. “I still don’t. Some kind of buried homoerotic feelings you’re scared of admitting to yourself? Basic obsession? Stupidity? Anyway, I don’t care. I’m here to save my son. Where is he, and what do I need to do to get him out of here alive?”

“Put it on,” Madman said.

Jim pretended not to understand. It was too much. Too much, damn it. “I don’t understand. Let’s just get to my son. Please…”

“Put on the costume. I know you saw it on the ground. Strip down to your skin. Put it on. Now. Or I press this button here and James Jr. gets to see what nerve gas tastes like.”

There was no place for privacy, and it was clear he wasn’t meant to have any, so Jim stripped naked, leaving his clothes in a heap and then walking nude to the costume that lay ready for him. He slipped it on, feeling more humiliation in that than in being naked before his tormenter, and realized it fit him perfectly. How many times had Madman snuck into the house, perhaps, to make sure he knew Jim’s sizes?

Jim looked down at himself and the perfect replica of his old costume, built for a body that had changed since then. He’d gained another inch or so and gained weight in places; lost it in others.

It fit like a glove. But it felt like slipping on a glove just taken from a moldering corpse. It felt like defeat and death. Still, the water in the pool beckoned, and the costume brought back memories. Those transhuman genes of his, which seemed to have a love affair for the long-ago days before man, when fish were just testing out going on land, urged him to change. To release the gills that would let his complex respiratory system process water instead of air. To let his hands and feet grow longer, wider and webbed.

Jim looked up and asked again, “Where is my son?”

“In the pool,” Madman said. “In a small capsule at the bottom. In the middle. It had enough air to keep him going for a while but as you know, it ain’t running out of air that’s his danger. It’s all that carbon dioxide he’s breathing out that’s getting thicker and will kill him.”

Now that he knew, Jim could just barely make out the small dark shape of the capsule below. Then he heard a loud beep from Madman’s general direction, looked up, and saw his son’s face displayed on a large monitor. He was alive, and fear was in his mocha-colored eyes. But he also looked tired and sick—a paler shade of tan than Jim had seen in a long time. He wondered how long his son had been in there.

“So, I go down there to get the capsule, and you gas him before I get him out. Is that it? Because I don’t see you really giving me a chance to win here.”

“You gonna rush me and hope for the best? Won’t take but a moment for me to press the button to gas him. But hey, let me show some good faith.”

With that, Madman went over the tube that led down the capsule. He cut it with a knife, and stepped away.

“Now I can’t just kill him,” Madman said. “But you also just lost the easiest way to pull it up out of the water. So now you can’t come after me. Not unless you want to hope your boy isn’t about to pass out and die from CO2 poisoning. Every moment you wait is another risk. Every minute we might fight puts him closer to being dead. So you need to go down and get him. Of course, that water is just riddled with poisons of all kinds, I should mention. So can you bring yourself to do it?”

Jim considered that. He’d die for his son, but what good would that be in the end, unless he could die saving him? He gauged the depth of the capsule. There was no way of knowing how toxic the pool was. But it was clear he could never wrestle the capsule all the way to the surface on the air in his lungs. To survive long enough to get his son out of there, he would have to breathe eventually. He’d have to let his gills consume tainted water and hope that he could live long enough to get his boy out and free him from his tiny prison.

He knew what he would do. There was no choice. He was a father who loved his son.

As he walked toward the edge of the pool, he spoke to Madman without looking at him. “This is a deathtrap. Not a fight. Why all the trouble? You could have shot me from a car with less money spent and less time wasted.”

“I spent two years building this with my own hands!” Madman screeched. “I knew I’d find you. This may be a deathtrap or not. All I know is I win either way. If you die, I get to close the books on you and move on to something or someone new. It’s the only way I can let go. Or if you live, which means your boy dies, you’ll have a reason to carry on a vendetta with me until one or the other of us is killed. I get what I want no matter what. Win-win. You’re the one who loses.”

Jim didn’t respond, but simply began the change and dove into the pool. He pushed downward with powerful strokes. The deeper he went, the higher the pressure. It wasn’t a big deal for a body now designed to live underwater. But it made it harder not to give in to the temptation to use his gills. The pressure pushed at his ribcage and his exertions were burning up the oxygen in his system. His chest made a slow progression to searing pain and his head was swimming in a fog of gray by the time he even got to the capsule.

His son stared out at him in terror, not recognizing his father in the costume; not even knowing that his father had once been someone called Fishboy. In some attempt to put the boy at ease, Jim smiled and gave a thumbs-up signal, and hope flared in little Jimmy’s eyes. Weak and dim, but hope nonetheless.

Jim wrapped his arms around the capsule, and used his powerful legs and his feet—now almost spade-shaped and webbed—to push him up back toward the surface. The swimming was easy enough for his modified form, and the load of the capsule wasn’t beyond his physical abilities. But the weight slowed his progress all the same. The depth they were at made freedom so far away. His muscles screamed and cramped and demanded that he feed his body oxygen so that they could do their job properly. His head swam vertiginously and he knew he would pass out if he didn’t unfurl his gills and breathe water.

But the moment he did, the timer on his life began to tick. How much poison was in the water? How long would he last? Some small part of him feared death but mostly he feared dying with his son still trapped. He had to hold out as long as possible before he gave his body what it so self-destructively cried out for—oxygen from the water or oxygen from the air. One was still too far way and the other was laced with God only knew what.

Jim realized his progress was slowing, and felt the weight of the capsule begin to pull him downward. He screamed inwardly and tried to press on. But it was no use. They were going to die. His son was going to die. Unless…

The gills pressed out from beneath his skin, and he drew in water to bathe them in the ready source of oxygen—the ready source of his poisoning as well. His gills burned with both the overexertion to replenish his body’s oxygen and with the touch of the poisons. Pain lanced into his head and down his neck. His muscles began to cramp and knot in new ways.

But Jim had what his body needed to fuel his exertions, and he pressed on again. He swam with all the speed he could muster, straight up, feeling death flow through his gills and into his blood and through his organs.

Now it was a race again his demise. He was racing to delay his own death so he could prevent his son’s. The only problem in the end was that his sacrifice would leave his son helpless in the presence of Madman. The only comforting thought as Jim pushed toward the surface was that his end might put an end to Madman’s interest in his son. The other hope was too unlikely to wish for, and so Jim latched on to the only thing he could.

Reaching the surface.

Then freeing his boy.

As the open air beckoned just out of reach, Jim surged forward in the way he had so many times before, launching himself out of the water like a missile. His clawed fingers had a firm grip on the capsule as he broke from the pool into the air and his gills retracted. He dragged fresh air in again, his blood still swimming in toxins, and crashed onto the floor at the edge of the pool.

Darkness was embracing him. His vision was going dark at the edges, and his thoughts were garbled. He fumbled at catches and latches, his fingers shaking and slipping, until finally he wrenched the capsule open and pulled Jimmy out.

The boy gasped for air to fill his starving lungs, and Fishboy lost his grip on awareness as the floor rushed up to greet his falling body.

* * *

Words trickled at the edge of his consciousness and at first his ears and mind could gain no purchase on them.

Slowly, he made out Madman’s voice, a taunting, self-satisfied lilt to it. “You actually did it, Fishboy. You saved your son. Wow. Now I just have to figure out if I let him live to cower over there, or take out the fruit of your loins.”

“Fuck you,” Jim burbled weakly. “You…won…all right? Over. Over.”

“Really? No, it’s not over until I watch the light burn out of your poisoned eyes, Fishboy.”

Madman grabbed at the mask and goggles, and ripped them from Jim’s head. He leaned down, rank breath giving Jim just a little jolt of mental clarity with the irritation it brought—like smelling salts, only more sour.

“I’m going to enjoy watching you die,” Madman said, bending down lower to stare right into Jim’s eyes. “Die, Fishboy.”

“OK,” Jim said quietly. “But…don’t want to…hog…all that fun…to myself.”

He took hold of Madman’s arm. His grip was weak, but it didn’t need to be strong. Tiny spines and tendrils extended from his flesh, and pumped a potent neurotoxin into Madman’s body. Whatever had been put into the water was deadly but dilute, all the better to fuel Madman’s desire to make Jim suffer slowly. But what Jim gave to Madman was pure and sharp. By the time the villain knew what had happened, he was already clawing at his throat, going into seizures, and well on his way to paralysis and—most likely—death within a few minutes.

That last thing was uncertain, but Jim couldn’t bring himself to care one way or the other.

“Yeah…you noticed my clothing sizes…changed over the years…didn’t you?” Jim said, rolling over weakly to look at the man—to look into a new set of dying eyes. “But other things…you couldn’t…see. My body had some…other changes in…store, too. So much prehistoric…shit…it had yet to do to…me.”

Once again, Jim lost his grasp on consciousness, but at least this time he didn’t have to bother with the falling part.

* * *

Another set of sounds digging at his awareness and pulling his attention away from dying.

Softer sounds. A child’s voice.

“Daddy? Daddy? Please don’t die, Daddy.”

Jim eyes flickered open. Little Jimmy’s face was right in his own. His breath wasn’t much fresher than Madman’s had been, but it still seemed sweeter by far to Jim.

“Hey, Cap’n,” Jim said. “How…how ya doing?”

“I’m OK,” the boy said, sniffling. “Are you gonna die, Daddy? Please don’t die.”

“Go to my pants…over there. Get…get my phone.”

When his son didn’t move, he added, “We need…help. Jimmy. Please.”

The boy scuttled off, and brought back the phone. With trembling fingers, Jim managed to text his wife: Get us now come quick

* * *

It wasn’t that much more typing or tapping than trying to get her number dialed, and he had precious little energy for talking anyway. When the phone rang, he ignored it. He needed to conserve his strength. Besides, when he didn’t answer Grace would be more motivated to get to them fast, because she’d assume the worst. Win-win, but a better win-win scenario than Madman had thought he’d concocted for himself.

Jimmy touched his father’s face, crying as he looked at the sickly hue of the skin—turned from brown to something almost like rust-tinged tan.

“Are you gonna die, Daddy?” he asked again.

Jim thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t think so, Jimmy. I don’t think so, Cap’n.”

His voice was feeling stronger. He knew if he could get out of the water before he died, he might have a chance, and that gave him something to hold on to now. More games with his children. More time with Grace. More life to live if his body would let him.

Of course, Madman couldn’t have known I was a Regenerator, too. That’s not the kind of thing you advertise. It just makes the bad guys thrower heavier artillery at you. Or brew stronger poisons.


“Yeah, Cap’n?”

“You’re a superhero.”

The words made a little glimmer of tears push out from Jim’s swollen eyelids, and he almost laughed but only managed to cough and choke a little instead. “Yeah,” he admitted. “But never before today, son. Not really before today. And never again.”

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

The confrontation had begun as a simple attempt to foil a crime. Then it had morphed into something more like a game of Keep Away as Mad Dash continued to prevent the criminal from grabbing the bag of cash and getting away, ever since the hero had come on the scene and knocked it out of the man’s possession to begin with.

The presence of that cash was the only thing keeping the would-be bank robber on the scene. Otherwise, the situation might have become an actual chase, and then the chances of catching him would be lessened.

Because while Mad Dash was almost certainly the faster of the two of them, this thief, the hero realized, was no slouch as a Speedster himself. And all it would take was one bit of distraction to lose him—or for the crook to put just one bystander in jeopardy to get Mad Dash off his ass and dart away.

Given this was a Speedster-vs.-Speedster tussle, the police were worse than useless right now—simple window dressing for the hero-on-villain show playing out. They couldn’t risk taking a shot with two hyperspeed transhumans flitting about, lest they miss and hit a civilian, and there was no way they were going to be able to physically tackle a super-fast villain.

Just gonna ride this out until you run out of gas and are ready for nappy-nap time, chummy-chum, Mad Dash thought. Too bad for you because I’m’a had myself a lunch heavy on carbs right before I heard about your little crime, dude. I’m all fueled up and you’re not going any

His thoughts scattered as the game of Keep Away became something a lot more serious and potentially deadly, with the still-anonymous villain Speedster suddenly producing a baton, changing direction, and then swinging right at Mad Dash’s windpipe as the hero rushed forward to intercept the latest attempt to retrieve the cash and flee.

Mad Dash managed to shift his vector just a bit, and caught the baton on the side of his face instead of in his throat, so he was still in the game. He was momentarily stunned, but mobile, and he just barely managed to head off the villain once more as he made a play for the bag of money on the street.

“Thank smiling fat happy Buddha that I’m a Brute and a Speedster,” Mad Dash said to himself in a rapid-fire mutter as he reoriented himself. It wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone in the public that he possessed some level of Brute power that gave him resistance to harm—too many people had seen him slam into walls and be pummeled and still get back up. Given how slight his frame was and the fact he didn’t wear much in the way of body armor, people could put two and two together. What almost no one realized, except for Query and maybe one or two other heroes, was that his resistance to harm increased the faster he was running.

If I hadn’t been doing a super-dupe-sprint when he hit me, I’d be pushing up Z’s and having marmalade dreams, Mad Dash considered. And an Excedrin 4 hangover with a cherry on top to go with them.

But while he wasn’t hurt much, the hero was starting to wear down, and was wondering if his opponent was, too. It might explain the shift to more violent methods all of a sudden, he considered. On the other hand, the guy wasn’t showing much sign of running out of steam, which made Mad Dash fear the villain might be hyped up on some heavy-duty stimulant or something right now—maybe Red Crush or Skeez—and might just be ornery because of that—not to mention able to push himself farther than he should.

Mad Dash took a quick glance at the clock above the bank entrance. He’d been at it with this guy for more than 10 minutes now.

And that’s way too long to dance the afternoon away with such a homely partner, Mad Dash thought.

He realized he could easily outrun his opponent if he used both his shift-running powers and more traditional Speedster abilities together. But those thousands of little microsecond shifts through interdimensional space would open up his mind and senses to all the wonders of the places most people couldn’t see or sense, and it would be distracting. Using his shift-running was good for getting someplace fast, but horrible in combat situations. So while he knew he could outrun his opponent, he probably wouldn’t outmatch him in the resulting fight

Makes for fun when traveling to use the shift-running—better than listening to tunes on my iShard—but it mellows me out worse than a Harold-and-Kumar pothead fest, Mad Dash considered. This is not a good time for that.

The hero berated himself briefly and silently. He had three tasers at home, a cattle prod, various truncheons and batons, a pair of concussion gloves and dozens of cans of pepper spray and mace. But he rarely remembered to bring them with him when he left his apartment. Sometimes, he considered, it didn’t pay to have madness-induced absent-mindedness and a somewhat pacifist streak.

Maybe I should become the world’s fastest pizza delivery guy, Mad Dash thought, instead of busting up crimes and the occasional criminal.

Just as quickly, though, the thought passed, and Mad Dash felt that little shift in his mind that so often came at these times—a sort of belated resolve that bubbled up from underneath the fluff that usually buried his harsher instincts.

Without hesitation, and hardly knowing himself he was doing it, Mad Dash had liberated a gun from the holster of a nearby police officer. By the time the officer knew what had happened, the bank robber had a bullet hole through one of his ankles and was tumbling head-first toward the sidewalk.

Mad Dash returned the discharged firearm to its holster and watched as the crook just barely managed to slow himself and prevent a face-plant impact into the ground, instead grazing the edge of the bank wall, spinning, tumbling, and then falling to the ground in a confused heap.

Before he could recover—and before anyone could find out whether he had any resistance to harm or quick-recovery powers—Mad Dash had the man’s arms behind his back and had slipped a nylon tie around the guy’s wrists, yanking it tight. Then another one around his ankles.

A few whoops and cheers erupted from the crowd along with some scattered claps, and the police began to descend upon the criminal as Mad Dash retreated slightly. Normally, New Judah police were pretty tolerant of hero activities as long as things stayed pretty close to the letter of the law, but he had just discharged a police firearm, so he wanted to remain wary lest they try to arrest him too.

He surveyed the scene one last time to make sure everything seemed in order and that the police—and not a bystander—were retrieving the money, and then he got ready to run and find someplace to eat so he could refuel his body.

Before he did though, he saw a woman wave to him from the edge of the crowd, and smile crookedly, as if she wasn’t sure how to smile anymore. It was the mouth—and that awkward smile—he recognized first, even before he noticed that her left hand was gloved while her right was not. He wondered which finger of that glove was empty, since he hadn’t seen Ladykiller’s left hand bared in any of the several long meals he and she had shared. He noticed the long but thin scar that ran almost perfectly along her hairline from scalp to neck, and the smaller, shorter one above her right eye. Her “original war wounds,” as she called them, which she had told him about but the source of which she hadn’t yet revealed.

Mad Dash smiled back in his own crooked—but earnest—manner, waved to her, and ran off.

As he did, though, he considered what it meant.

She must have heard I was taking someone down, and she came to see how I was doing, Mad Dash surmised. She cared enough to check in on me because she was close enough to do it.

He hadn’t expected to make enough of an impression on Ladykiller—or win enough of her friendship—that she would let him see her face without a mask. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself, but they had spent an awful lot of hours together and he had gotten the impression she hadn’t met anyone she could open up to in a long time. And open up she had, many times, sometimes happily and sometimes tearfully, even if she kept the worst stories secret for now. Mad Dash had been happy to be there for all her emotions; had fancied himself a friend even before she seemed to have realized that he was.

But do I have an actual girlfriend now? he wondered silently. And if I do, what then? I don’t have the cloudiest idea what the heckedy-hoo-hoo to do with one of those…

* * *

“It’s time, you know. Time to make the leap. Time to get off the edge and make a decision. Time to cut your ties. Time to move on, lover,” the woman cooed softly, stroking the face of the man whose head currently rested on her bosom as they sat together on his Italian leather sofa in a loft-style condo that was a vision of blond wood and glimmering steel.

She could feel the tensions and confusion in his mind. The turmoil stirred up by his neurochemicals and psychological issues were palpable to her. As well they should be, of course, since she was responsible for so many of them. Through her touch and through her mind, she fed those insecurities and confusions a little more, and spoke more words to him.

Encouraging him as she undermined his confidence.

When she slipped away some 20 minutes later, pocketing the little spy camera and pulling the hood of her coat over her head to hide her facial tattoos from the public, Crazy Jane smiled and knew her task for Janus here was done—and completed two days ahead of schedule.

By the time she was a block away from the building the man lived in, he had already slashed his wrists, making the slices vertically instead of horizontally across his wrists—and before he lost consciousness, he threw himself out the twelfth-story window for good measure, just to make sure he succeeded in pleasing her and ending his torment.

* * *

Underworld frowned grimly as she watched a condensed version of the videos—spanning a few weeks of Crazy Jane’s work for Janus—and then consulted the stolen copies of police forensic reports on the apparent suicide of Ignacio Vasquez.

“So, all that time with her, and he had no idea, even though she dropped a million hints she was driving him crazy; even though it was clear he was sleeping with Crazy Jane—or even if not, someone who emulated her,” Underworld muttered. “I don’t get it. Was he that dense, or is there something else at work?”

“Oh, he knew what was happening,” Janus said, brushing a bit of lint off the tuxedo he was wearing and then adjusting the Mardi Gras-style mask he was wearing today, made of dark, gleaming wood on one side and tarnished, pitted gray metal on the other—but both sides sporting gaily colored little feathers. “You can see it in his eyes starting after their third ‘date.’ The hopelessness. The realization of what she was doing but the knowledge he could do nothing to stop it. You should review the video again; you’ll see.”

“I’d rather not. It was disturbing enough to watch the first time. It had a certain ‘snuff porn’ feel to it.”

“As you like,” Janus said. “I plan to watch it a few more times tonight before bed. Hopefully Jane can join me and we can both find intense pleasure in enjoying her work.”

“Well, you were always more a sociopath than me,” Underworld responded. “I’m more selfish and narcissistic. You, on the other hand, are as narcissistic as you are sadistic.”

“Guilty as charged,” Janus admitted. “So, would you really like to know how she was able to keep getting access to him even after he knew what was happening? Why he didn’t go seek help or tell someone he was with Crazy Jane and he needed to be saved?”

“I’ll probably regret it later, but yeah, I do want to know. Since you’re being so talkative.”

“It’s all quite purposeful, my dear,” Janus said. “I’m not blabbering for the hell of it. I can’t let you in on every part of my plans yet, but now that you’ve gotten enough of a taste of criminal life again to…”

“I still plan on killing you for threatening my family,” Underworld noted mildly.

“Of course, but it’s not as pressing now, is it? Once we get into a rhythm with this operation, you’ll only want to break a few of my bones to send me a message. I might even allow you to do so. But getting back to my point, now that you’re in sync with me enough and at least in the same chapter—if not on the same page—I can let you know a few things.”

“Such as?”

“How much do you know about Crazy Jane’s powers?”

“Enough to make educated guesses. She’s an Interfacer or a Psionic to be driving people insane, I should think.”

“Both, actually. She is a Psi and does have very-short-range empathic and mildly telepathic abilities but is stronger as an Interfacer. She uses the latter ability to rewire synapses and such, and that affects various neurotransmitter levels and such. Well, you get the picture.”

“Quite a nasty picture. Having both capabilities is brutal for a victim,” Underworld said. There was mostly recrimination in her voice, but significant appreciation as well.

“Oh, but that isn’t all,” Janus said. “She’s also a Necro—though there, too, her abilities are mostly keyed to the central nervous system, and are via touch or near-touch, like the Interfacer powers.”

“Jesus!” Underworld sputtered. “So she can degrade synapses and shit long-term, too? Maybe permanently with frequent enough contact? Madness, dementia, memory loss. Things like that. Is that what you’re saying?”

Janus nodded and smiled. “She’s a Transmitter, too. Electrical impulses.”

Underworld shrugged and made a face that indicated she wasn’t following his train of thought.

“Mostly, it’s just very cool,” Janus said. “She can essentially taser a person by touch. Only a few times a day, mind you, but still…in any case, that’s the only power the public knows she has—the authorities might know more subsequent to my liberation of her—so you know about it of course. But my point is that low-level electrical impulses from her actually can enhance the effects of her other mental and neurological fiddlings. Helps her disrupt mental processes. Plus, imagine what a sensation of bugs crawling all over you can do on top of everything else she does when she’s messing with perceptions and sensations. I’ve done so many field tests with her. It’s really quite amazing. I’ve trained her to fine-tuned perfection over the years.”

“You must be so proud,” Underworld noted sarcastically. “So, she messes with their heads so much that they can’t…No, it still doesn’t make sense. Early on, if he suspected what she was doing to him, he would have run for help or called someone. There were usually daylong and sometimes several-day-long gaps between each rendezvous.”

“One last power my dear,” Janus said, drawing out his words as Underworld leaned toward him slightly with curiosity. “Or, rather, an additional twist with one of her powers—the Interfacer ability.”

Underworld made an irritated motion with one hand, urging him to get on with it.

“She’s addictive,” Janus said smugly. “She can make a connection with a person’s pleasure centers and addiction centers and make them want her. Need her. After their first time together, Ignacio knew he wanted her back. After a few times, he couldn’t imagine doing anything that would make it impossible for him to get access to her. Like, for example, getting her arrested and hauled back to the loony bin. The effect is quite long-lasting. Given enough exposure, it’s essentially permanent.”

“So he let her come back knowing what she was doing for the same reason an addict goes back to the needle or the pipe even when he knows it will destroy him.”

“Precisely. They can’t help themselves,” Janus said.

“Holy hell,” Underworld said, and then was silent for a bit. She frowned suddenly, then blurted: “You idiot! That’s why you keep her around. That’s why you took that big risk breaking her out of that high-security facility when you started up your ops here. She’s gotten to you. She’s got control of you. Bad enough that you’re as crazy as you are already; I can’t let you be manipulated by someone just as crazy. I’m not working under those kinds of conditions. The bitch dies right now.”

“Relax,” Janus said. “Seriously. Sit down and listen, or I will have to do something we’ll both regret.”

“You aren’t in control of your faculties, and I’m not afraid of you.”

“Shut up, Underworld,” he said mildly, without any rancor, pushing a file folder toward her. “You can look at my notes in here and those of some of my best researchers. Her powers are shit against other transhumans—something about most tranhuman gene sequences messes with her connection. She can cause vague mental unease and she can induce some low level of addiction, but that’s about it. Oh, and she can shock the hell out of you with electricity without any problem. But most of the people with transhuman genes are insulated from her mental and biochemical powers.”

Most,” Underworld emphasized. “Apparently not you, though.”

“I said ‘insulated,’ my dear,” Janus noted. “I never said I was immune—nor anyone else. Yes, I’ve had her around me several years, minus that unfortunate period of incarceration for her. She has, certainly, ‘gotten her hooks in me.’ But isn’t that what women always strive to do with their men? Of course she wants to be my favorite. I feel drawn to her and I feel a need to protect her and keep her near. But I was away from her long enough to know I don’t go through any kind of withdrawal.”

He paused, and his face took on a wistful and vaguely pleased look as he continued: “Oh, you should see what that looks like, when one of her addicted pets is denied her presence for a week or more. Such anguish. Worse than a heroin withdrawal, I think. I’m more loyal to her than to anyone else in my service—even you, who are almost a partner in my endeavors—but I am loyal to my own goals above all else. I took a risk to free her because I wanted her back, yes—but I also needed her talents.”

“And what if I don’t believe that? What if I think you’re making justifications to downplay her influence on you? What if I…”

“Kill her?” Janus finished. “I would punish you. Severely. Would I kill you in turn? Not likely. As I said, my own aims above all else. I feel more loyalty to her than I do to you, but I need your talents and powers more than hers, so killing you would be counterproductive. I would, however, torture you, I’m certain. Nothing personal, of course. Just business.”

Underworld sighed heavily. “Working with you is a tremendous pain in the ass, Janus. So, she addicted Fortunato’s cousin to her so that she could drive him insane for you, because she couldn’t just drive Ignacio insane right away.”

“Oh, she could have, if I wanted her to,” Janus noted. “It’s stressful, and painful for her, but she could have just pushed hard and had him jumping out a window on my behalf the first night. Better than average chance, anyway. She can really mess up a person’s head right away if she tries, but the effects don’t last long. More lasting results require her to take her time. If Ignacio had gone for the high-dive right away, though, it would have looked suspicious. The way she and I planned it, people got see him behaving more and more erratically over time. So the finding of a suicide was a shoo-in.”

“What’s your angle, though? Does Ignacio have some key connection to one of Fortunato’s businesses? Does his absence give you access to his cousin somehow?”

“Maybe a little, but not really,” Janus admitted. “No, the world will think Ignacio took his own life, so that it doesn’t come back to haunt me, since I have so many other outstanding charges already. No need to pile on them when I don’t need to. I do intend, however, to make sure Fortunato is informed subtly that I was responsible for his cousin’s death.”

Underworld whistled. “First, you try to have Query killed, and now you go after one of Fortunato’s family members and plan to wave that in the man’s face. Are you trying to piss off all the major transhuman players in New Judah, Janus?”

He smiled broadly, his mouth fully visible below the Mardi Gras mask, and his teeth looking very white in contrast to that mask and his dark tuxedo. “Why yes; yes I do, Underworld my dear. I plan on pissing them off quite a lot. And those two are just for starters.”

* * *

The late spring night embraced him with air that had the perfect balance of warm and cool, as he crossed the threshold of his home and entered into the wider suburban world around it. Forty minutes earlier, he had sent Clara home, and 15 minutes ago he had gotten his daughter down to sleep. Now, just a lonely and short journey to the garbage can with a full bag of refuse, and then he could enjoy a glass of something involving scotch or wine, and work his way slowly to his own bedtime.

His heart jumped in his chest at the sound of a flat voice from the darkness.

“So, who is she?”

Once William Bastion’s terror came down a notch a few seconds later and he recognized the voice, he ventured: “Teri?”

“Who was the woman, Will?”

“Theresa?” asked the physician, dumbfounded. “Is that you? Where have you been for the past…”

“Once more, Will,” she asked, a keen and deadly edge in her voice now. “Who is she?”

“Who? What are you…” he began, then stopped. “The woman I sent home, you mean? She was watching our daughter like she does three or four days every week. A daughter who would like to know where her mother has…”

“Ahhhh,” came the voice from the shadows. “A nanny. Well, you are a busy man, and your mother isn’t always well—and you wouldn’t trust her with my mom, thank God—so it makes sense. I had thought maybe your taste in women had gone down since I’ve been gone.”

The woman stepped out of the darkness and into the light of a nearby streetlamp, and Will suddenly drew back, dropping the bag of garbage. “Who are you?” he asked, his confusion renewed and amplified now.

“You don’t recognize me? Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder?”

Will sputtered the beginnings of a response, and then fell silent, trying to reconcile the notion of his wife’s voice coming from the body of Tooth Fairy. He took in the costume that mixed elements of the whimsical with absolutely grotesque ones like bones and teeth—and was fascinated with the wings that almost seemed to be real ones, fluttering and flapping negligently behind her. He was ready to protest that she wasn’t his wife—he was ready to ask why this notorious villain was mimicking his wife’s voice—and then he saw in the shape of the cheeks and the turn of the chin, as well as the eyes behind the mask that covered the upper part of her head, that this was Theresa Bastion before him.

His wife.

The mother of his child.

Not missing after all—not exactly. Not a simple abandonment. His wife had left them when their girl was a toddler not for any traditional reasons but to take up a life of crime and cruelty.  It took him a moment to absorb that, and then for the next implication to settle in.

Tooth Fairy had powers. She was transhuman. But Theresa…

“You can’t be,” Will gasped. “You…oh God, you took the compound yourself when you were pregnant, didn’t you? Directly. Instead of just letting me introduce it into the womb. You…Oh my God.”

“I had to make sure our daughter would be transhuman. Or as sure as one can be,” Tooth Fairy said flatly. “Your way was too cautious. Too tentative. I had to be strong, Will, for her sake. It was hard at first to hide how I was still changing after she was born—how I had changed even before then. By the time it would have been impossible to hide, I frankly didn’t want to. But then again, by that time, I also wasn’t feeling very domestic. I’m still a mother, though, and we’re still married, so I’m glad that was a nanny and not a woman I’d be obliged to kill before hurting you very badly. Also disappointed, because she looked tender and succulent.”

“Listen to yourself, Teri. You’re not stupid. You must realize that taking on powers as an adult…”

“No, I’m not stupid, and I embrace who I am. The butterfly that came out of her cocoon,” she replied, then smiled wistfully. “Well, fairy that came out of her cocoon, I guess.”

“But you’re…”

“Terrorizing people. Stealing. Harming. Oh, let’s not go on about that. I’m fulfilling my place in the human animal kingdom. Predators need exist, so that prey won’t go unappreciated. Besides, I’ve been building up the college fund for the little girl. And I’ve even thrown in a retirement fund for daddy.”

“I don’t want…that’s blood money. Theresa, you’ve done notorious…”

“See, you do still feel fondly toward me. Notorious. Such a flattering term. So much better than vile or wicked. I know, I’m good at what I do,” she said, her chest swelling as she took in a deep breath, and Will feeling a stirring of desire as he watched her breasts and remembered that she was once his wife and lover. “What can I say? But believe me, the way the economy has been going, you’ll want to take the retirement funds eventually. Besides, it’s the least I can do for you watching over Haley for a while longer.”

“Watching over? A while longer? She can’t go with…not into your life.”

“Oh, not now of course,” Tooth Fairy said sweetly. “Of course not. Stable family life and all. For now. But once she comes into her powers, I’ll have to take over. You couldn’t possibly understand. You couldn’t possibly give her what she needs. At that point, I’ll reunite with her. Although I suppose I should start laying the groundwork soon and perhaps get to know her a little without the costume on.”

“Teri, no.”

Tooth Fairy stepped forward and hunched down her shoulders, crouching slightly, exhibiting a kind of grace that seemed inherently sinister. The move was tremendously predatory and the implications froze the man with fear.

“That’s a dangerous word to use with me these days, William,” she said. “You’re a physician; I’m sure you can imagine the damage I can do. She’s our daughter, but she’ll eventually be my responsibility. You won’t get in the way of that. Or she will cease to have a father figure of the vanilla human variety.”

“But Teri, please, listen.”

“No. I’ve got to go,” she said, sweetness in her voice again. “Important people to get ready to meet soon. Places to go. Really carving out my place in the world—quite literally in some cases,” Tooth Fairy said. “Put an extra couple marshmallows in her cocoa tomorrow and let he know they’re courtesy of mommy. Toodles.”

With that, she darted off into the night, wings flapping so realistically behind her, and William Bastion stumbled back into the house, the trash on the ground forgotten, and the renewed wreckage of his life all too evident and all too enhanced.

Before he decided to go for that scotch—and make it a double—he checked in on his slumbering daughter, four years of innocence and probably simmering with transhuman potential.

He wondered how long before Theresa might come for her…No, not Theresa anymore, but maybe she can become that person again; maybe there’s a way…and then considered options like calling the police. Or running. Considered them, and thought of what the probably response would be from Tooth Fairy. Very few outcomes in his mind involved him coming out unscathed at the end, or even alive.

Besides, it’s her mother in that costume, Will thought. Somewhere.

There was comfort enough in that thought to allow him sleep that night.

Though the scotch probably helped that process more than did the sentiment.

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

Going to Dark Places

Posted: March 10, 2011 in Ruminations

I’m not a particular “dark” guy in real life. I’m pretty pleasant actually. I like puns (too much) and goofy humor (much too much) and I’m usually looking for the proverbial silver lining. I wouldn’t say I’m a hopeless optimist because I don’t necessarily see the glass as “half full” rather than “half empty.” Rather, I see the value in being able to have access to clean water at all.

Point is that my fiction can often go in dark places, and my choices of films and books for entertainment often go some dark places as well. I’m guessing those are the outlets for my more vicious side that I keep penned up almost all the time…so much so that I forget there might be a monster buried in my mental basement.

So I find it interesting that when I started this blog, my “The Gathering Storm” series was more serious and dark-tinged (though with flashes of humor and levity, too) and the one-shot stories were more light-hearted and even silly at times.

But as I look at the current list of stories on the blog (here) I can’t help but notice that while the first three one-shot stories were pretty sunny overall (focusing on humor more often than nastiness), there’s only been one truly light-hearted story in that list since then (Mild-Mannered). The others are serious, and in many cases they are downright grim in their subject matter.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that (unless of course you guys begin to feel I’m getting too dark and gritty at some point), but it is interesting. I still have levity in the stories, and wit where it fits, but the world of the Whethermen has definitely trended toward the serious.

I mean, for God’s sake, my daughter said, “Daddy, write a story called ‘Fishboy and Madman Strike Again’ OK?” And as I begin writing it, there is already a huge note of menace and threat in it. I have a title like that from my little girl, and I can’t find a humorous angle.

Maybe I’m just being contrary, as my daughter so often is with me, in some form of unintentional passive-aggressiveness.

Anyway, we’ll see where Fishboy and Madman go. I never planned to write it for my little girl, since even if I played the humor route, any levity I might introduce would be too adult for her ears or would go right over her head. (But this does remind me that I should probably write some kid-oriented stories that perhaps I can read to her now and in the future).

As I noted a couple days ago, the next chapter of “The Gathering Storm” is almost ready. Today I figure I’ll finally get that last scene written, even with the distraction of starting things rolling with the Fishboy and Madman story.

Stay tuned, citizens of New Judah…

So, at least a couple of my readers of this blog thought an idea I had was a good one for something to add to the blog, and that would be periodic ruminations on the act and art of writing these stories. That is, the thought processes behind them, the stray thoughts that guide me, the running themes and other such miscellany on the non-fiction part of the fiction-writing process. Hence, a new category called “Ruminations,” of which this is the first.

Today I wanted to talk about how I tend to approach stories, and the guilt (as well as pride) that comes with my approach and my results.

So to start off with, I have a confession.

I don’t spend much time writing these tales.

Well, relatively speaking.

Authors who get paid to write fiction (which I do not have the honor of being right now…I only get paid for the journalistic work I do, mostly writing about pharmaceutical business news and research these days) have their own styles. Some work from detailed outlines and some let the stories just flow out in almost stream of consciousness, and most probably fall in between those two extremes. But one thing I suspect that most paid fiction writers do is obsess over the details usually. In the end, however they got their words down, they will go back and re-work things through multiple drafts until they have a fully polished piece of art (or highly marketable pablum, which also takes a lot of work).

That’s not me.

Oh, I spend time on my stories. Writing one can take hours, easily, and with other work and deadlines to attend to, as well as being a husband and father and wanting to fit in things like DVDs and computer games at times, I don’t have as much time to write as I’d like. Therefore, my output is less than I would desire (or you readers would desire, since a steady flow would be more entertaining for you probably).

But I don’t spend a ton of time on them. I usually have some vague outline, but frankly, that usually amounts to between two and seven sentences that briefly mark out characters and situations and serve more to remind me not to forget certain things. When I actually do get down to the writing, I often let the story form as I go, which often means surprises for me as the writer, since characters and situations in stories drive me sometimes, instead of the other way around. Sometimes, I feel more like a man possessed and writing the words of some Muse or other non-corporeal entity than I do someone putting my own imagination into words.

Sometimes, I’ll put a story aside only partly finished, and might go back to re-read what I have done, and make minor adjustments before delving into the new portions. Or I might just write the whole thing before I go back and look it over.

In the end though, either way, I don’t make very many changes. I tighten things up perhaps, improve grammar, add a few more lines or an extra scene if I feel there are gaps, and things like that. But I don’t go through multiple iterations of the story and I don’t really do drafts. I write, and then I polish it up.

This is where the guilt comes in, because sometimes I feel that I’m not taking it all as seriously as I should, and not producing as high a quality as I could. This is probably endemic to most writers, but I can’t speak for them. Just making assumptions. But I do know that for me, I often think my writing, whether journalistic or fictional, is crap until I am told otherwise by editors and/or readers. That is when I can usually see the quality, and acknowledge that I am, in fact, a pretty talented guy.

My writer’s ego, you see, is apparently into delayed gratification. I can’t say I’m humble about my writing, because I don’t know if that’s possible. But my pride is diluted greatly until I have outside validation.

This is something I feel in particular with my fiction, more so than my journalism, and maybe that’s because I’ve been a journalist for more than two decades now and written God only knows how many hundred of stories (or thousands more likely). That part of my writing craft is well-honed and I know how to do quality work and what shortcuts I can get away with while not sacrificing quality.

This is a feature of all the fiction I’ve written, from the epic sci-fi novel (currently in hiatus) I was doing online at my other blog (here) and the erotic fiction I write online (which can be found at…uh, no…can’t share that with y’all, since some readers know me in real life or I do work for them, and don’t want/need to know my kinks). And yes, as for that latter mention, you can stop snickering. My erotica actually has plots and characterization and even if it didn’t, writing a sex scene well is harder than most people think.

In any case, the fact is that I always feel like I’ve given my fiction short-shrift, and I’m almost always pleasantly surprised to find that my readers disagree and truly enjoy it. But the guilt and doubt will be something I’m unlikely to shed for years, and the genuine surprise that you like what I write will continue to warm the cockles of my heart (whatever those are).

By the way, I did post a new piece of fiction here just the other day, a one-shot story titled “Insanity Peal” (here) and I thought I’d mention that in case this post pushes it down too far for you to have noticed it. Another chapter of “The Gathering Storm” will be up very soon, and I have a couple more one-shot stories I hope to get written in the near future.

The man in the three-piece suit flipped the final page of the file, frowned, looked up at the man with the rumpled slacks, gaudy tie and white physician’s coat, and said, “Arthur, I don’t believe she is insane.”

Dr. Arthur Hawkings coughed sharply and briefly, leaving it vague as to whether the cough was coincidence or a sort of scoffing laugh. “Well, Mark, I think you have to be pretty far from sane to slice-and-dice a half-dozen people that way just because Janus told you to.”

Waving away the statement dismissively with his hand, Dr. Marcus Blood responded, “I never said I thought she was stable or altogether right in the head. Sociopath? Certainly. I’m simply saying that I think she knew full well what she was doing, knew right from wrong, and should be considered culpable for her actions.”

“So you’re coming into this with a preconceived notion, eh Mark?” Arthur noted. “Not very dispassionate, clinical or professional.”

“I know who butters my bread,” Marcus answered, “and I wasn’t hired to be clinical and dispassionate and compassionate. I work for the prosecution, and the judge has ordered Janet Caspian to submit to an evaluation by a prosecution-hired psychologist, and that’s that. The DA is the one giving me my directions. Call my ‘assumptions’ more of a hypothesis. She may yet prove it wrong. But I think she’s played the lot of you here, and the state wants her to go to trial, and she will. She’ll likely put in an insanity plea, and the prosecutor’s office has hired me to look at her with their needs at heart. You want to be all soft and cuddly here, that’s fine. I’m here to look for chinks in the armor she’s put on.”

“I’d hardly call us soft and cuddly,” Arthur said. “This is a high-security facility and she’s on lockdown. We get the most unstable and sometimes most dangerous people with mental illness here, Mark. It isn’t some goddamned resort we’re running. The Givens Psychiatric Detention Facility is essentially a prison. Cynthia just doesn’t see the value in making things worse by being assholes with the patients…”

“Prisoners,” Marcus corrected.

“Detainees, then,” Arthur said. “But still patients in need of care, evaluation and, if possible, treatment.”

“I gave up trying to fix people a while back, Arthur. Now my job is to tell it like it is when I take a peek inside their heads and their histories.”

“Tell it like you see, you mean,” Arthur said with a rueful smirk.

“Same thing.”

* * *

Marcus flexed his limbs awkwardly and uncomfortably in the hooded suit with the mesh in front of his face. It wasn’t that the suit was uncomfortable, precisely speaking, but it hugged him tight, almost like a full-body blood pressure cuff, and it made his movements seem sluggish and dreamlike.

I’m dressed in a giant cushioned condom with a fencing mask, he thought to himself grimly.

“Is this suit absolutely necessary?” he asked his escort, one of the security personnel at the high-security psychiatric detention facility. “I see that you aren’t wearing the same ensemble.”

“I also won’t be getting close to her unless there’s trouble, and I’ll be shooting her with a rubber slug or poking her with my extra-long baton if that’s the case, doctor,” the woman pointed out. “You’re the one who’s going to be getting close to her. You were told you could conduct the interviews through shielded glass.”

“I need to look her in the eyes; I need all then cues I can get.”

“Then you need the rubber hippo suit in case she gets feisty. Ever been tasered before? Or undergo electro-convulsive therapy?”


“Do you want to find out what those feel like?”


“Then wear the suit. Because while Ms. Caspian there doesn’t have long range, her Transmitter powers give her the ability to pack quite a wallop. The suit breathes pretty well, so you shouldn’t sweat too much in it. I think your Brooks Brothers shirt will survive without irredeemable pit stains.”

Marcus didn’t like her insubordinate tone, but then had to remind himself she also wasn’t his subordinate—she answered to the facility’s administrator, Cynthia Taggert, and secondarily to Dr. Hawkings, who headed up the clinical psychiatric operations here. So together, they entered Crazy Jane’s cell, which was larger than he had expected it would be—somewhat narrow, but long—perhaps a former conference room repurposed as a cell. At the far end of it sat the transhuman woman herself, wrapped tight in some kind of straitjacket that seemed to be made a of a similar material to his own “hippo suit.” He also took notice of the floor and walls, coated with some kind of rubber-like material and with metallic-looking strips running the length and breadth of them.

Three layers of protection to thwart or bleed off any attempt to use her electricity-based Transmitter powers, he realized, wondering how much of the day she spent in that straitjacket.

“Hiya,” she said sweetly, in a manner that was so in tune with the tattoos of abstract butterflies, happy faces and rainbows on various parts of her face and neck—and yet so out of sync with the cohabitating ultra-realistic tattoos of skulls, bloody razor blades, screaming mouths, cockroaches, barbed wire and more.

The artwork of her face and neck seemed to blend together too well, in a way that made Marcus’ stomach flutter in a brief surge of panic. Her face was not ruined by tattoos but instead was transformed to some kind of unnerving and utterly engaging canvas displaying grotesque art. Her beauty was evident even through all that ink, and he wondered how much more pretty she had been before Janus had made her be marked thus—or perhaps she had chosen to have herself marked by a tattooist’s needle after she had become Janus’ pet.

“Earth to enemy doctor. Come in, doctor,” Crazy Jane said with a taunting edge.

Without missing a beat, Marcus said, simply, “Just assessing things.”

“Janus might not like you staring at his main girl,” she said with a playful tone of menace.

“I’ll take my chances,” Marcus said. “So, mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“My lawyer says I have to let you. Says the judge won’t let him sit in on this.”

“Sounds like you’re sane enough to not want to cooperate because you don’t want anyone to burst your safe little insanity plea bubble,” Marcus said. “Maybe I can just leave now and file my report.”

“Really? Do all insane people just jabber and drool and mutter? Besides, I never said I was crazy all the time. Being away from Janus’ world has been very calming. No one telling me to hurt or kill anyone. Refreshing, really.”

“So, are you saying you weren’t in control of your actions when you tortured and killed those people?”

“Does that seem like the kind of thing someone does when they’re in control?” she countered.

“Some. Some people like doing those kinds of things. Some just don’t care. Being sociopathic doesn’t get you off the hook for prison—or maybe the death penalty.”

“Are you a shrink, an interrogator, or one of the guys who’s gonna grill me in court if I end up there? Because you aren’t acting much like a shrink.”

“You aren’t acting much like a person with serious mental health issues right now, either.”

“Do you have any idea what Janus did to me in the years I was with him?”

“Actually, no.”

“That’s because I don’t want to talk about it. Bad memories. Hurts.”

“But you need to convince me you’re insane if you want any chance of the DA giving you an insanity plea without argument—or of having me give even an inkling that you were insane if he takes it to trial and I have to testify as to your competence when you killed those people.”

Crazy Jane chewed her upper lip a bit. “The people who work here have been a lot sweeter to me than you’re being, and I’d feel a little bad telling you things I don’t even want to tell them.”

“I’m not a negotiator, and I’m not on your side.”

Crazy Jane chewed her lower lip this time as she considered, and then sighed. She shook her head slowly, a lock of her hair falling over one eye, and she nodded. “OK. But can you get this stupid hair out of my face first? It’s tickling, and my arms are a little limited right now mobility-wise.”

Marcus looked at her dubiously, and his eyes flashed in the general direction of the female guard, who was watching but not really in a position to hear anything clearly, as softly as Janet Caspian was speaking.

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” Crazy Jane said. “You’re suited up and I’m wrapped up. Just slide the damn hair back behind my ear before it drives me even nuttier than I already am.”

He reached forward quickly, brushed the hair back, and saw a reflection of the guard in the room’s mirrored window, her body suddenly stiffening in alarm and then relaxing as Marcus finished and pulled back.

“If I scream, you’ll know I need you,” he said to the guard with annoyance, a trace of venom in his voice. “Tell me a tale,” Marcus said to Crazy Jane. “Better yet, tell me the truth.”

She smiled, nodded and began to talk.

* * *

Marcus considered his notes from the initial interview, feeling both a bit of smug satisfaction to have gotten historical information from the woman that the institution’s staff had failed to elicit from her, as well as a sinking feeling that his discoveries could hurt the DA’s case more than a little.

He rotated his neck a bit to get some kinks out, and slid the tip of his pinky finger into one ear in response to a nagging little flare-up of tinnitus—a vague and annoying combination of buzzing and ringing.

“Do you need anything else?” asked one of the clinical psychologists on staff at the institution, who had brought in some files at Marcus’ request.

“No, not right now,” Marcus answered, wondering if the man’s name was “Stan” or “Dan” or something else along those lines. They’d only been given cursory introduction to one another.

“Well, if you have anything else you need, ask one of the nurses or something,” the man said. “I have a counseling session right now with Crazy Jane, and I’m already a few minutes late. Hope you didn’t leave her in a mess.”

“No, I didn’t,” Marcus responded, noting the slightly eager and nervous look in the man’s eyes—clearly more than ready to be done here and counseling the transhuman woman. “You called her by her transhuman nickname, not her real name.”

“She prefers it that way,” he answered in a clipped tone. “I have to get going now.”

“Fine. Go.”

Returning to his own notes and glancing at the files, still irritated at the ringing in his ears, Marcus considered the facts thus far—or at least the data thus far, since it was unclear still what was fact and what was fiction. If even half of what Crazy Jane had told him was true, she’d have a strong case for some kind of plea of diminished competence.

But he wasn’t buying it hook, line and sinker just yet. The fact she was sharing these details now, when a prosecution-hired psychiatrist was grilling her, made it suspicious. On the other hand, it was a horrific story, and she looked visibly pained at recalling some of the more abusive moments at Janus’ hands, forcing her to try to reconcile her lingering attachment to the villain and sense of responsibility to him with the reminders that he had—if her story was true—done utterly heinous things to her. He already felt a pull to return to her cell, even though they didn’t have another session for a couple days. There was so much he still needed to sort out in person with her.

By Crazy Jane’s account, she was a transhuman already long before her crimes, which is what had attracted Janus’ attention, but he had decided her powers needed boosting. So he’d engaged in quite a lot of highly unethical work on her with chemicals, nanos and gene therapies to tweak her transhuman characteristics. At the same time, he’d mind-fucked her on a regularly basis and done things to her that seemed to be one part sensual to three parts depraved and cruel. He’d messed with her body and her mind—not to mention sick manipulations of her affections—to get his results. And those results had been to make her even more strongly transhuman as well as make her utterly loyal, whether through some twisted version of love, abject fear or—probably most attractive to him—a combination of both.

If he had boosted her powers somewhat, it could explain her becoming unhinged. Her original powers had emerged when she was younger, so the chances that any acute and clinical mental health issues had been brought on by the emergence of her powers was relatively low. But since emergence in later life increased the chances of concomitant mental illness, boosting her powers as an adult might have brought that factor into play.

Or, perhaps, Janus triggered some new powers, which almost certainly would have put her at risk of psychological changes, Marcus considered. She’s dropped enough hints that her Transmitter powers aren’t all she has. I’ll have to get more out of her on that front.

In short, he thought, Thursday couldn’t come soon enough, so that he could speak with her again and, hopefully, find some chinks in her armor by finding inconsistencies in her story.

It couldn’t come soon enough.

* * *

“I’m not keeping you from anything, am I, Dr. Danny?” Crazy Jane asked the psychologist when they were already 30 minutes past the scheduled end of their session.

“No, not at all,” Dan Wilson said quickly. “It’s important for me to be here for you, and it sounds like you’ve been through quite a lot today with Dr. Blood. Many breakthroughs and probably no small amount of stress with an adversarial face attached to so many questions.”

“I’m all right. Now that we’ve talked. Or I will be soon. If you can stay a bit longer. How are you? You look a little pale.”

“Just a…it’s just a little something in my head. Like a ringing in my ears. Been going on for a while, but it’s really picked up in the past couple days.”

“Oh, I remember something like that,” she said suddenly, almost breathlessly. “I probably should have told the DA’s pet shrink earlier. Way back when Janus started in on me I had such odd tones and notes in my head. He made me describe them and he had the tattooist design a lot of my markings based on my feelings about those sounds. It was like some ghoulish bell in my head, but so lyrical, too. Tinkling sometimes, screaming at others. My insanity peal. Isn’t that funny, doctor? Insanity peal? My lawyer is aiming for an insanity plea, and I once had an insanity peal? Isn’t that funny?”

“It’s interesting, Jane. Very interesting. Would you like to talk about it some more?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, I would.”

And they did, for another hour, and then he finally and reluctantly ended their session, realizing that his wife was going to be livid that he was coming home late yet again.

* * *

Neither the guard on duty—a male this time—nor the administrative staff at the institution were happy that Marcus had chosen to forego the padded suit for his second go-round with Crazy Jane.

“She was irritated with me, but not hostile,” he had pointed out. “I don’t need a bunch of crap distracting me from my interviews and assessments of her. I’ll trust the other two layers of protection in her cell, along with the fact I don’t think she’s crazy enough to risk shocking me so that she can get put down with a taser or rubber bullet or an injection.”

So he had won his victory there. No doubt that he would; he didn’t work for Cynthia or Arthur.

Her stories weren’t changing today, making Marcus very reluctant to report back to the DA. He was supposed to find inroads for a death penalty case, not bolster the defense position, and the differences in the story today weren’t anything suspicious—just the normal differences of humans never remembering things perfectly. Crazy Jane’s tales of abuse and alteration at Janus’ hands were as compelling and consistent as they had been before.

He dug at his ear a bit with his finger, and noticed Crazy Jane take careful note of the action.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Hmmmm. Yes. Nothing. Just a little ringing in my ear.”

“In your ears?”

“Yes, in my ears,” he responded, wiggling a fingertip in his other ear now, absently. “Annoying, but nothing to concern yourself with. I’m more interested in you going over your story again.”

“Again? You still think I’m lying, don’t you?” she said with a pout. “Oh! I forgot. Did I tell you about my insanity peal?”

“What? Your…you mean your insanity plea.”

“No, my insanity peal, silly. I’m crazy, not stupid about words. Oh, this will be so interesting…just another example of how naughty Janus was with me.”

* * *

“You’re taking more time with Ms. Caspian than I thought you would, Mark.”

“I still don’t buy her not being in control of her actions, Art,” Marcus snapped back. “But I have to admit she’s an interesting case, and the fact is that I have to be thorough if I’m going to give the district attorney an accurate assessment. I may need several more sessions with her.”

“Sounds to me like you’re coming around to our way of thinking and seeing who the real villain here is: Janus. And who the victim is: Janet.”

“It remains to be seen if Janet Caspian can be separated from Crazy Jane in looking at her actions—her crimes,” Marcus said. “I’m still not on your side—and certainly not hers.”

Arthur shrugged. “Whatever you say, Mark. Sounds to me like the clinician in you is trying to claw his way out of your bureaucratic ass.”

Marcus snorted in derision, and made his way to Crazy Jane’s cell.

* * *

Dan fidgeted in his car seat. He was supposed to be going to the store to get a few groceries, and all he wanted to do was get back to work and see Crazy Jane, even though it was his day off. A sharp and warbling ghost of a sound shot through his head, and he smacked himself to drive it off. A few more waves of the irritating peal rolled through his head, and then quieted again.

He drove uncertainly to the store, and bought everything in a half-daze. On the way back home, he realized he was going down the wrong road and had been for 10 minutes—heading toward the Givens institution—toward his workplace. He turned around as soon as he could and righted himself to get back home, before he ended up with a pissed-off wife yet again.

Lucy was feeling randy that night, as it turned out, so she wasn’t mad at his overlong visit to and back from the store. She was more interested in getting done with dinner, snuggling a bit, and then getting intimate.

Through his entire performance in their marriage bed, Dan could only see Crazy Jane’s face in his mind, and when he finally had his orgasm, shortly after his wife’s, he felt both elation and horror at the pealing that ran through his head until he finally drifted off to uneasy slumber.

* * *

“How’s your head today, Dr. Mark?” Crazy Jane asked, a look of concern in her eyes that seemed tinged with hunger as well. It was their seventh session, and Marcus was trying to figure out how to put the district attorney off just a bit longer. He just needed a little more…

“Is it that obvious?” he asked. “It will pass.”

“Oh, yes, it always does. But it always comes back. I think Dan is over his bout with it, though.”

“Huh? Who?”

“My staff psychologist. Dr. Wilson. I called him Dr. Danny.”

Past tense. She used past tense.

“It’s just tinnitus,” Marcus said. “What about Dr. …what about Danny?”

“Oh, it’s more than just ringing in the ears, Dr. Mark. I know better than anyone. It’s the insanity peal. Patented and trademarked. Or it should be anyway. Dr. Danny should be over it now because chances are he committed suicide last night. Unless his wife got to him in time or something. I don’t think he was far enough along to take my hints about killing her first.”

Marcus felt a surge of panic at the terrifyingly morbid implications of her words. He was about to alert the guard, then felt another surge of panic at the thought of cutting his time short with Crazy Jane. He’d already had to wait three days for this session with her…

“Your hints?” Marcus asked carefully. “What about them?”

“Oh, I knew the insanity peal wasn’t quite far enough along, but there was just no more time,” Crazy Jane said with a painful note of regret in her voice. “I put it in his head, and I was so careful cultivating it and I made such good use of our time together. But I had to rush things. And I haven’t gotten nearly far enough along with you, Dr. Mark. And now it’s too late.”

The sounds in his head. The near-obsession to keep interacting with her. It all fell into place.

A part of Marcus wanted to get up, grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she was ready to fall over. The thought that she had messed with his head…but then he considered how assaulting her would probably get him removed from her presence. That thought filled him with a terrible, aching anxiety.

“Too late?” he asked her nervously. “For what? Too late to drive me insane? Is that one of your other powers?”

“Of course, silly. Just one of them, though. Not that it matters for you anymore. But…well, it could, I suppose. It could still matter. It doesn’t have to end. Just do something about the guard,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, “and then get me out of this straitjacket. If you leave the door to my room open, he might be gentle with you. Maybe I can keep you. You can keep asking me questions and I can keep filling your head with new things. We both win.”

Marcus couldn’t speak for a moment, trying to reconcile his desire to flee with the unbearable thought of being wrested away from Crazy Jane after having only been with her for a few minutes. Not enough time. Not enough.

“Who will be gentle with me if I help you? Janus?”

“Of course, silly boy. Dr. Mark, you are so dense sometimes. But I love you for it. My boyfriend’s back. If he’s on schedule, and he always is, there are already dead bodies. I figure he’ll be here in minutes; maybe moments. You still have time. You can still be my newest pet project. I’ll be slow with you. You can be near me for a long, long time. You’ll be a work of art.”

“You’ve been waiting for him all this time. You wanted Janus to come for you. You aren’t afraid of him at all.”

“Oh, of course I am—sometimes—and a little part of me will always hate him for the things he did to me. But mostly it’s love. He’s my man,” she said, and went into a sing-song voice as she warbled, “My boyfriend’s back he’s gonna save my reputation, hey la, hey la, my boyfriend’s back…”

She stopped singing the old ‘60s tune as alarms began to sound. The guard that had accompanied Marcus came to attention and looked to be checking in with someone via the radio on his belt to see what was happening.

“I…I…” Marcus began, feeling afraid and lost. For the first time in a very long time, he didn’t know what to do. Warring feelings of betrayal and attraction buffeted his mind. Terror and exhilaration. Suddenly, Crazy Jane seemed to be the one to turn to—the one who had the answers, but still his rational mind held him back. He stared into her tattooed face, silently pleading. For mercy. For guidance. For release. For instruction.

“There’s not much time left, Dr. Mark,” she whispered, and he heard the peals of madness rippling through his mind once more. “Not much time. You need to choose. I’ll make a masterpiece of madness of you. I’ll mold you. Be my pet and you might yet live for weeks or months or maybe years. You won’t ever have to be away from me for long, and after a while, even when you are my will can be trilling through your mind.”

Marcus wanted to scream to the guard that Janus was coming; that they were doomed. He wanted to urge the man to call for reinforcements and to tell him this wasn’t some routine prisoner disturbance taking place. And then, at once, as he heard crashing sounds outside the locked door and muffled screams, Crazy Jane’s eyes caught his own and he saw the madness in them and found it delicious and tempting. He wanted to swim in it and drown in it. He wanted the tempest of her manipulations to wash away his sanity.

The door was blown inward, and Marcus felt himself move suddenly forward, wondering if the force of whatever explosion had torn it asunder was driving him or if the eyes of the woman before him were pulling him, and he lunged for her.

He frantically reached for her restraints to show he would free her. To show her and Janus that he wasn’t their enemy. That he wanted to help.

As his fingers scrabbled at the buckles and Crazy Jane laughed a quiet, manic, victorious jeering sound, he heard the guard cry out and heard wet, sickening sounds and knew Janus was there—and who knew who else, and he hoped there would be mercy.

He hoped there was yet time.

Time to live.

Time to be driven mad.

Time to be molded into something dark and twisted and lost while also being held and cherished and valued as a work of psychological art.


Hoped for time.

Prayed for the chance to be near her a while longer.

As he felt and saw the shadow of her lover fall over him.


Hope and despair filled him.

But mostly a panicked hope as the sounds that weren’t really sounds pealed through his brain and he released the first of the buckles that held her in her restraints, hoping to be part of delivering her to freedom and his sanity into bondage.