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Cole hadn’t heard a voice overflow with such seething rage in his life, and never witnessed a mood change so quickly in any one person. Zero to near-murderous in 0.5 seconds.

“What the fuck!” Desperado bellowed, pointing a finger toward Cole, who had entered the primary Guardian Corps headquarters moments before with Epitaph and Wardawg. “Who the FUCK let him in here? Goddammit, Wardawg, I’m gonna fucking feed you your own mothershitting balls for bringing him here!”

The pale and bloody body of a barely conscious Slyde slung over Epitaph’s shoulder was nothing to Desperado. Even Cole himself seemed barely in the man’s perceptions except insofar as his presence was the catalyst for this enraged outburst. Desperado seemed even larger somehow in his overblown anger, a bronze and brown giant in cowboy boots and hat and with a pair of pistols at his waist launching himself at Wardawg, who was furiously ducking and weaving.

Cole was certain that Desperado would notice Slyde’s plight before long. But probably not before beating Wardawg bloody and then probably doing the same to Cole himself. No one was making the slightest attempt to hold the enraged man back. Cole braced himself internally, and wondered whether fighting back or taking it would be the more socially acceptable option within the Guardian Corps.

“It’s not my fault!” Wardawg shouted quickly as he tried to keep distance between himself and Desperado and avoid anyone else in the headquarters who might grab him or push him toward his antagonist. “Epitaph! Wouldn’t budge. Would’ve brought him here himself. Not my…”

Desperado grabbed hold of him then, and cocked one sepia-gloved fist to smash in his face. The fist never got to where it was going, though. Epitaph had snatched hold of Desperado’s wrist. Desperado’s head turned quickly to see who would dare challenge him, and as he did, all the rage drained out of those topaz-colored eyes. It was replaced neither by fear nor joy at the sight of Epitaph; rather, a blank confusion now filled them.

At once, Desperado released Wardawg and Epitaph released Desperado.

“You touched me,” he said quietly to Epitaph in a voice overflowing with bewilderment. There was no affront, but his tone hinted at a multitude of questions that Desperado seemed eager to ask but for which he had no words.

Or so it seemed to Cole. Disregarding his instinct to stay out of Desperado’s sphere of attention right now, he said, “Slyde’s hurt. Do we have anyone who can help him? Or get him to a hospital?”

Some of the anger returned to Desperado’s gaze as he took in Cole’s words and remembered his unauthorized presence here. But his voice was all business as he said over one shoulder: “Antonio, call Asclepius—he should still be pretty nearby. Have someone debrief Wardawg. Get someone to sit on Puppy here while I decide whether to kill him or just beat him until he’s brain damaged.”

Then his attention returned to Epitaph, who had set Slyde down gently on a battered old sofa while Desperado barked orders. Cole noticed, once again, how the gravestone-wearing man’s feet hovered just a bit off the ground. He seemed to bob and rock ever so gently, as if it was a slight but constant effort to keep his balance.

“Did you really make the decision to bring Puppy here? Did you do that knowing he was on probation? Did Wardawg tell you he wasn’t supposed to know about this place yet?” The words Desperado spoke carried clear recrimination, but not anger toward Epitaph. Cole wasn’t certain if it was respect or fear that kept Epitaph safe from the same wrath that Desperado had been all too ready to visit on Wardawg and perhaps, still, on Cole himself.

Epitaph gave a short, solemn nod at the end of those questions, admitting to all of the accusations and showing not the slightest remorse.

“You stupid fuck,” Desperado hissed. “We have those rules for a…”

“The sweet remembrance of the just shall flourish when he sleeps in dust,” Epitaph responded sagely.

Desperado paused a moment to try to process the meaning, and answered, simply, “I don’t have a soft spot, Ep. You don’t get to break the rules. You could be one of the leaders of the Corps if you wanted; you know that. I’d step back and pull Blaze back and let you have most of the authority. But not until you can speak plainly. You keep talking crazy with the Bartlett’s familiar motherfucking quotations thing, you don’t get to make policy.”

“Most men remember obligations, but are not often likely to be grateful; the proud are made sour by the remembrance and the vain silent,” Epitaph stated.

Cole wasn’t certain what Epitaph meant, but clearly Desperado had focused on the word obligations as he answered: “I don’t owe you anything but basic respect, Ep, and I sure as hell don’t owe Puppy over there a good goddamned thing.”

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory,” Epitaph responded.

“Stop with the fucking word games, Epitaph,” Desperado sneered. “Stop. You speak plainly just once to me and I’ll let Puppy into the circle without question. I’ll end his probation now and welcome him with open arms.”

Epitaph seemed to consider that for a moment, and shook his head ruefully. To Cole, it seemed to convey the sentiment not that he was regretful at his own lack of willingness to comply but rather that he was disappointed Desperado would make such a demand and essentially hold Cole hostage for it. Instead of heeding the wishes of the earth-toned, Wild West-garbed man in front of him, Epitaph turned to Cole, pointed one finger toward him—inches from his heart, and then said to Desperado: “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure its worth watching.”

Cole saw Desperado shake a little bit, and watched as anger began to seethe once more in those brown eyes.

“I’m going to assume you ain’t suggesting Puppy’s a better man than I am based on whatever the hell happened out there with you, him, Slyde and Wardawg. Because even you aren’t crazy enough to make a declaration like that based on one encounter. But I won’t even buy the argument he’s so much as earned the right to be here based on anything he did tonight.”

“Lay off,” cut in a woman’s voice. “Just lay off, Desperado. You want to talk about authorization, I have as much say in leadership decisions around here as you or Blaze, and so I say Cole can be here because I trust Epitaph’s judgment. How’s that?”

Cole turned toward the voice: Sweet Talker.

“That’s worth about as much as a contract written in shit smears on a roll of toilet paper,” Desperado said, his words bobbing about in a sea of condescension. “Tell anyone anything you want, girl. Your position is in name only. No one’s going to listen to you and no one’s going to take your side over mine except for most of your bitches and a few pussies like Puppy who think you’re too cute for words. Most of us don’t give a shit what you have to say unless it’s to give advice on how to properly suck a guy’s dick.”

“Stop being a dick,” Cole snapped. “For God’s sake. You want to call me Puppy, fine. Insult the newbie—great. But stop being so disrespectful to people who already proved themselves.”

“Well, Puppy’s got some puppy love and wants to stick up for his girlfriend. I don’t think she’s gonna be impressed,” Desperado said. “Fine, you two like each other so much, you’re under Sweet Talker’s wing. When she’s around, she can find work for you. When she’s not, maybe you can be the punching bag in training drills, Puppy. Because you’re off patrols permanently. And if someone comes to raid our headquarters, I’m going to know who to fucking kill for giving up the location: You.”

Desperado turned on one heel and stomped away and, as quickly as that, most everyone else lost interest.

Cole saw Antonio approaching, accompanied by Ripper, one of the rougher members of the Guardian Corps—presumably the guy he had picked to babysit him per Desperado’s orders—but Desperado said something to him, and then Ripper and Antonio wandered off.

“He’s an ass, but he’s right about one thing, Cole,” Sweet Talker said as she stepped near him. “I don’t need defending and you did something stupid right now because of a crush.”

“I don’t have a crush on you,” Cole protested. “I just don’t think it’s…”

“Cole, I’m at least a few years older than you and even if you don’t see it, you’re so transparent you’re see-through. I’m sympathetic to you, Cole. But don’t get other notions.”

Cole could feel the embarrassment burning on his face and wanted desperately to change the subject. “Will Slyde be okay?”

“Asclepius should be in soon, so yeah.”

“Who’s Asclepius?”

“Healer. He’s a Regenerator. He’s worked on damn near every heroic type in the New Judah and New York area at some point and a few in Marksburgh, too. He’ll fix Slyde up. Nothing he can do to fix you and Desperado, though. Cole, you were already on thin ice in Desperado’s eyes just being a college boy. You’re done in the Corps as far as learning any crimefighting crap. If you hadn’t done the stupid chivalry thing you might have been all right.”

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it,” Epitaph said softly from behind Cole.

“Huh?” Cole said.

“I think he means that just because Desperado is done with you doesn’t mean you’re done for in the Corps,” Sweet Talker said. “But Epitaph is wrong, and Epitaph made things worse for you by going nose to nose with Desperado over you. This is a boy’s club, Cole, in case you haven’t noticed, and you pissed off the top dog.”

“Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily,” Epitaph noted, having come around to face Cole, and standing near Sweet Talker now.

“Napoleon,” Cole commented, recognizing the quote, and figuring that Epitaph was encouraging him to stand up for himself and continue with the Corps. Then again, maybe he’s telling me to just go out on my own and be done with Desperado and gang.

“Look, I think going out and beating on crooks is stupid, dangerous, testosterone-charged foolishness anyway,” Sweet Talker said. “So, whatever. But it was Cole’s dream, and now it’s wake-up time.”

Epitaph shrugged, looking Cole up and down.

“What’s the shrug for, Epitaph? You gonna train Cole on your own, you flighty bastard?” Sweet Talker asked good-naturedly but with just a hint of rebuff.

Epitaph inclined his head to the side, seemed to consider her words for several moments, then shrugged again and walked away.

For a little while, they both just watched him leave in silence, and then Cole turned to Sweet Talker. “Okay. Seriously. What’s up with him not touching the ground and Desperado being so damned surprised he grabbed his wrist? Not to mention the whole invulnerability thing.”

“Bullet-proof, more or less, but he can be hurt,” Sweet Talker said. “He generates a constant telekinetic field around his body. Really strong one. Pushes stuff away from him unless he was already wearing it or touching it when his field goes up. The larger an object or the more dense it is or something, the less able it is to get through. So he can breathe because air mostly gets through. He could also drown, because given enough time, water would seep through his field. Try to hit him though, and you’ll probably break your wrist. To bullets, his TK field like an all-over flak jacket. An auto-crusher at a junkyard would do him in, though. Or a bomb. Or nerve gas. Lots of things. He can deactivate the field if he concentrates, so he can shower, dress, eat or pick something up—or someone, like Slyde—but it takes a lot of effort, it wears him out, and I think it probably hurts like hell.”

“I don’t have a thing for you, Sweet Talker,” Cole said.

“Mmmm hmmm,” she responded dubiously.

“Really. But…what should I do? You’re apparently in charge of me now.”

“I don’t have a clue, Cole. I guess you’ll be helping me with interrogations and screenings and stuff, until you realize there’s no future for you here and you give up,” she said, popping two big pieces of bubble gun into her mouth and running her fingers through the bright pink wig she was wearing today—at least Cole assumed it was a wig. He got a whiff of her overly sweet perfume, hinting at the scent of a candy shop, and felt his belly flutter. “Some of my crew is in the room back there with the flowers on the door. Go tell PrinSass I sent you and hang out with them until I can figure something out. Maybe you can find someone else to crush on by the time I have a plan.”

* * *

Janus killed my cousin.

Fortunato seethed and fretted. He had other family members. Friends. Business associates.

Janus killed my cousin, dammit.

It wasn’t entirely true, of course. More accurately, Janus had employed someone to kill Ignacio and make it look like suicide. The video snippets, along with the phone call a couple days ago from one of Janus’ agents, had been enough to prove that to Fortunato. But there was no recording of the call and the video snippets were too short, too few and too unclear on the perpetrator’s identity and purpose to have any hope of convincing the police that it had been anything other than a suicide, much less put them on Janus’ trail. As such, Fortunato had decided to keep them out of it.

He attacked my family and wants me to know about it.

This confused and unnerved Fortunato in a manner for which neither his brutal former crimefighting career nor metaphorically bloody business career had prepared him. He had dealt with all kinds of sociopaths before, but not with one who would strike him seemingly randomly, with no clear message or purpose. He had thought perhaps Janus’ attack against Query a few weeks before had possessed some logical basis—that Query had crossed paths with the villain unknowingly. But the business with Ignacio indicated something else: Janus might be willing to strike any highly placed transhuman, crimefighter or not, just to entertain himself.

His fingers tapped at the top of the pile of files Jeremiah had brought him a few hours before, and then he pressed a button on his office intercom—a old-school relic from his father that he kept around as much out of stubbornness as nostalgia.

I recognize and enjoy the benefits of higher technology, but some things should be kept simple.

“Rachel,” Fortunato said into the intercom, “send her in.”

“Vanessa,” Fortunato greeted the woman warmly as she stepped into his office and closed the door behind her. “I have an opportunity for you.”

“Promotion, I hope,” the woman said. Her voice had never quite lost its South Florida Latina lilt even after spending all her high school, college and career years in New Judah, but Fortunato wasn’t sure many people besides him really noticed that.

“Pay raise,” he responded, “though I’m not sure it’s a promotion, exactly. But you’ll need serious hazard pay.”

“Is my professional reputation at stake if I do the work you have in mind?”

“No, literally. Actual hazard pay. I’ll also be increasing your health benefits to be much broader and cost you less—nothing, in fact. Your new uniform is in the…”

“Uniform? But this is an office…”

“Your uniform is in the box there on the conference table,” Fortunato interrupted her. “You won’t be wearing it full-time, as I’ll need you around the office to do some of your current duties, at least for a while. Go on, take a look.”

Dazed and confused, Vanessa walked over to the table, opened the box and felt her breath catch in some mix of dread and shock. It was similar to the outfit that Alice wore in most of the live-action, animated, video game and storybook treatments of Lewis Carroll’s “Wonderland” tales or those that were inspired by them. As she pulled it out and examined it, she could tell the material was tougher, stretchier and more luminous than cotton or polyester. Also in the box was a long, straight blonde wig and a blue-and-white half-head mask to match the colors of the dress, leggings and gloves.

“What the hell?” she said quietly. “What are you proposing?”

AllisonWonderland-1“Nothing kinky, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Fortunato said. “The material is a lot like latex, but this isn’t fetish-wear. The boots, for example, have very low heels, and there is light chest-armor built in, so no one will be seeing any hint of your nipples. It’s designed for durability, protection for you and also to work in certain ways to enhance the use of your powers.”

“My…powers?” Vanessa asked, too dumbfounded to organize her thoughts yet into words. She wanted to yell or scream, but she wasn’t even sure what was going on.

“Yes,” Fortunato said, ignoring her discomfort with the situation entirely. “Until now, I’ve been happy to pay you a bit extra for those days or nights when I’ve needed you to put in extra hours for testing and such in my transhuman R&D programs, but now I’ll need you to use your powers more directly. Not too often at first, but eventually it will come to occupy most of your time, and less and less of your PR skills will be required here at the company.”

“You want me to become a superhero? But I don’t want…”

“It isn’t a suggestion. It’s what you’ll be doing,” Fortunato said flatly. “Your codename will be Allison Wonderland. It’s fitting given the psychedelic tricks you can do with your Luminar and Interfacer abilities. And, of course, it fits the costume I had designed for you.”

“You can’t just tell me to go and risk my life as a…”

“I’m your boss, you owe me a great deal, and it’s your new job,” he said. “You’ll do it.”

“Are you threatening me?” she asked incredulously.

“Don’t be absurd,” Fortunato answered. “It’s business. Not a threat. You can make significantly more money by saying ‘yes’ or you can make no money by saying ‘no.’ It’s your choice. Take the job or clear out your desk.”

“This economy isn’t exactly just going gangbusters, Fortunato.”

“How about you go back to calling me ‘sir’ until I get a ‘yes’ from you, Ms. Santos.”

Vanessa’s eyes widened with affront. “There’s no way I’ll get a job right away…sir,” she said, almost spitting out the last word, “and you know I have a lot of debts.”

“Your debts aren’t my concern, Ms. Santos, and the offer won’t stay on the table much longer.”

“This is blackmail, sir,” she responded.

“This is a work-for-hire state,” Fortunato said, “and I can ensure that you won’t qualify for unemployment benefits, too, once I fire you, Ms. Santos. It’s not blackmail. It’s incentive. Even though you’re making me angry right now, I’m still willing to give you the 125% raise I had in mind and the full health benefits at no cost to you.”

“This…this…” she sputtered, and then sat down hard in one of the chairs. “Why?”

“My reasons will be made clear soon enough. It may even be that you will be lucky enough not to have to enter a career as a crimefighter, in which case you will become a very overpaid associate director of public relations.”

“Would these expanded health benefits cover my bro…”

“No.”

“But…”

“It’s better for both of us if you have to continue to pay that out-of-pocket,” Fortunato said. “Otherwise, my financial incentives will no longer be as incentivizing.”

“You’re a bastard,” Vanessa hissed. “Sir.”

“Yes or no, Ms. Santos?” he asked. “I need an answer within five minutes or the raise goes down by 10 percentage points each minute thereafter.”

She stared out the massive windows of his office at the early-morning skyline of the city for three minutes, as if an answer or savior might emerge from around some high-rise building. Then she stared at the open box on the table for a minute, one legging hanging over the side. Then she stared at Fortunato for a full 30 seconds.

“Yes,” she said, her voice an admixture of defeat and disgust.

“Excellent, Vanessa,” Fortunato said, abandoning the artificial formalities with the speaking of her first name again. “I’ll send a training schedule and other details to you this afternoon along with the official offer and paperwork. Non-compete contracts. Confidentiality papers. All that fun stuff.”

“I hate you, Fortunato,” she said quietly.

“That’s all right,” he said. “You won’t be the first or the last. Maybe you’ll even change your mind one day.”

* * *

As the waitress delivered their coffees—along with a large white milk, medium chocolate milk and small strawberry milk—and then went off to check on other customers, Mad Dash continued his unfinished point.

“I’m just saying, Ladyki—I mean, Honey Badger…sweetie pie…neti pot…snookums…”

“Dash, how about you just stick with ‘Honey’ since it’s an affectionate nickname already and a shortened form of the Honey Badger thing I’m doing on the side,” Ladykiller suggested in a whisper. “You could do fine with ‘Hon’ too.”

“Ah. Wonderific! So, Honey, what I was saying was I’m not sure that this ayyyy-emmm was a time to whip out the claws in the pursuance of public safety-tude,” Mad Dash said.

“Dash, I’m logging extra costume hours and suppressing my usual violent left claw of womanly vengeance thing to spend a little time with you,” Ladykiller noted. “Normally, after a late night of slashing rapists and such, I’d just now be thinking about getting up. Instead, I slashed a rapist last night, changed costumes, I’ve patrolled with you this morning and now we’re having a late breakfast. Is that a problem for you?”

“Nada nunca nyet,” Mad Dash said. “It’s nice to have company sometimes. But, I mean, this morning…you slashed all four of his tires for running a red light.”

“He was drunk. I could’ve smelled the booze on his breath from a dozen paces even if I didn’t have super-smell. School’s still in session for another week or two and he’s drunk when kids are still walking to school. I think I showed incredible restraint.”

“But the leather interior, too?”

“A little over the top, maybe,” Ladykiller admitted, “but at least we know he won’t be driving any…”

“Morning, Dash,” came a voice from off to Ladykiller’s side, and reflexively, one of her clawed hands slid out from under the table.

“Chillax to the max, Molasses…I mean, Honey,” Mad Dash said. “Friend, not foe. Hey, Veeg. How’s it drooping? Honey, this is Vegan Manhunter. We go way back.”

“Cow’s milk, Dash,” said the man in a costume of green and brown, with various accents that made it look leafy in some places, bark-like in others and petal-like in others still. “You know that stuff isn’t naturally for human consumption. I hope your new girlfriend has better eating habits.”

“You can use ‘Honey Badger’ instead of ‘new girlfriend.’ As for my diet, I alternate between omnivorous and ovo-lacto-vegetarian depending on whether I’m PMS-ing or whatever,” Ladykiller replied acidly. “Today, I’m having bacon. Is that a problem? Are you going to duel me over food philosophy?”

“Honey, sweetie, syrup, buttery-dear,” Mad Dash said. “Friend. Not foe. He teases me mercilessly because I chow-town-down more than most trans folks, so I’m an easy target. After all, No one knows what evil lurks in the colons of men—but the Vegan Manhunter knows!”

Vegan Manhunter chuckled behind his mask. “That never gets old the way you say it.”

“Well, sorry, Vegan Manhunter. I get kind of sensitive when I’m hungry and tired and people are needling my boyfriend, okay?” Ladykiller said. “By the way, as long as Dash is plagiarizing and altering a line from ‘The Shadow,’ aren’t you a little worried DC Comics might sue you over your blatant theft of the Martian Manhunter meme? Hell, your costume is almost in the same style except you’re not showing off your legs and you don’t show off quite as much torso.”

“If DC and Marvel together couldn’t make a winning case against that husband-and-wife Wonderman/Wonderwoman duo, I think I’m safe,” Vegan Manhunter said. “If it was Venusian Manhunter, I might be in trouble. Seriously, Dash, you need to lay off the meat at least. For eco-friendly reasons, at least, if not your body’s sake.”

“Oh, congratulatories on getting that PETA sponsorship a few weeks ago by the bye-bye,” Mad Dash said. “You’ll be a great spokesperson. Just advise them to lay off trying to do that thing with trying to rename ‘fish’ as ‘sea kittens.’ That was really a stupid campaign. But hey, I need the meat, su-su-dude-io. You know how I burn through fat, proteins and all that while running.”

“C’mon, Dash, for protein alone there’s quinoa, rice and beans, tofu, seitan…”

“Easier to find meat, I’d think, the way he goes through food,” Ladykiller said, sipping at her coffee. “And as for the beans, well, you don’t have to sit next to him or lie with him for long periods of time.”

“Flesh o’ the beasties tastes better, too. Sorry, Veeg, but bacon is gooood. Pork chops are goooood,” Mad Dash said.

“Sewer rat could taste like pumpkin pie and I still wouldn’t eat it,” Vegan Manhunter replied.

“Okay, boys—enough homoerotic bonding over ‘Pulp Fiction’ lines,” Ladykiller said. “Nice to meet you…uh, Veeg. Can I have my time back with my guy before I go home to collapse into a coma?”

“As the attractive and thankfully fake fur-attired lady desires,” Vegan Manhunter quipped, bowing deeply at the waist. “The honey badger’s an amazing animal, by the way,” he noted as he rose back up. “I keep telling a friend of mine he needs to do some kind of funny ‘crazy-ass honey badger don’t give a shit’ video for YouTube or UrbVid.”

After Vegan Manhunter had wandered off to the counter to order something, Ladykiller leaned across the table. “Seriously, Dash: Real friend or just polite acquaintance?”

“He’s a good guy, LadyHoney,” Mad Dash offered. “I mean, HoneyKiller. Oh, carp. I’m not used to this. Anyway, he’s only a douche-canoe paddler sometimes. I only get the soy-and-bean lecture maybe every third or fourth time I run into him. His sense of humor can take getting used to. Just don’t eat lamb or veal around him. That really pisses him off.”

“Oh, really?” Ladykiller said with a smile, looking around for their waitress. “Wonder if it’s too late to change my order to something more lunch-oriented.”

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