Archive for October, 2011

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After the latest recruitment dinner with Zoe—and possibly the last, given how much other work there was to do between now and the woman’s graduation deadline—Underworld was relieved to get back the the headquarters. Not only did she dearly want to get out of her disguise and take a long, hot bath, but she had been under the nagging suspicion she was being followed. She’d taken a few extra twists and turns in her return trip and had herself scanned by two different teams instead of just the one that Janus required. That had easily added an extra hour onto her travels and further delayed her chance to relax and get some time alone.

What was anything but a relief was to run into Crazy Jane within seconds after getting into the more secure areas of the building. The woman was wearing flannel pajamas with PowerPuff Girls characters all over them, the top unbuttoned just enough to reveal most of a very fresh tattoo that extended the artwork of the woman’s flesh beyond her head for the first time—an intricate, sexy, blue-skinned, devil-style woman extending down one side of her neck, the splayed legs riding the very top of one side of her bosom.

“Oh, gosh, Undie, we were getting worried,” Jane said, her fingers interlaced as if she had just been wringing her hands in concern. “So glad to have you back safe and sound.”

The appearance so suddenly of Crazy Jane and the sight of that new tattoo—I’m an alumna of DePaul University, whose mascot is a blue demon, she thought—put her off guard, and she didn’t move quickly enough to avoid a quick and strong hug from Jane. Such a warm and sisterly gesture, it seemed, but it made Underworld stiffen and her chest seized a little in a pang of anxiety.

“Welcome, home,” Crazy Jane said, then skipped happily out of sight. As Jane left, Underworld realized the pajamas had a number of red stains on the left leg and left shoulder, and she wondered if they were blood—and whose.

Shaking her head a little—and her knees shaking a little themselves from the brief but unnerving exchange—Underworld hurried to her floor of the building to find the comfort and privacy or her own quarters.

I keep trying to avoid Janus’ little psycho-girl, and I keep running into her. She keeps trying to ingratiate herself with me when all I want is distance from her scary self, Underworld thought. And yet I can almost never seem to find my voice to tell her to go away. I get anxious seeing her and then it almost feels weird when I go a few hours without bumping into her. And then when I do it almost seems right and welcome…

Underworld stopped, her breath catching in her chest. She leaned against one wall and then started pounding it over and over with one fist.

No no no no no. Fuck! Why didn’t I see it? She’s been using her powers on me. Just like with Janus, she’s introduced a kind of addiction to her. She scares me, but part of me is beginning to want her around.

Worse than that, Underworld realized, the process wasn’t just beginning. It was clearly already well along. Crazy Jane had been calculating and intentional in all these encounters. As she followed her memories backward, Underworld realized when it must have begun. When they physically ran into each other in the hall that one day, after she had convniced Janus to let Shrill join on. That physical contact from their impact, along with Crazy Jane handing some files back to her, allowed for the initial connection—the biochemical infection of Underworld’s mind.

Then random “chance” meetings that were anything but, so that Crazy Jane could keep using her short-range mental abilities to keep reinforcing the bond and building the addiction to her.

Underworld had thoroughly read the reports on Jane’s powers—as Janus has told her and the scientific reports had confirmed, almost invariably transhuman powers dulled the effects of Crazy Jane’s influence over a person. She wouldn’t be able to make Underworld a slave to her will like some normal person, but she’d be able to worm her way into her mind just enough—and probably long since had done so—to ensure that Underworld wouldn’t get rid of her, plot against her or…

…or leave Janus’ operation,  Underworld realized. It’s not just a trap to protect herself from me and gain some tiny bit of way to influence me subtly at times—it’s meant to prevent me from bolting once I figured I had enough money to just go.

And that made her wonder how much Crazy Jane was acting alone, and how much was at Janus’ direction. Underworld’s mind reeled in a mix of anxiety and anger; fear and secret pleasure. She was disgusted with the situation and with herself for not having figured it out sooner. And yet it all felt so right somehow.

In her apartment, Underworld shed her clothes and retreated to the relative safety and comfort of a deep, hot, bubble-filled bath. She briefly considered calling in one of her personal male assistants to drive all the conflicted thoughts about Crazy Jane out of her mind, at least temporarily, but then decided against it.

After all, she wanted to be alone right?

And there was already someone here with her, like it or not.

Jane. Or a ghost of her, anyway. Adding a man right now would just make things too crowded.

The woman had infiltrated her mind and body, and Underworld realized that as creepy as that struck her, there was a comfort in it as well. She pondered amidst steaming water and the scent of bath oils, trying to sort it all out and figure out her next steps in dealing with her revelation.

And, as she tried to revel in her solitude, she realized that she kind of missed Crazy Jane already.


* * *

William Bastion lifted a glass of wine, and wondered how many more he would need to get through this meal.

William Bastion. Successful physician. Father of a young and very sweet and intelligent girl. Devoted son and brother. Pillar of the community. Member of the First Union Church. Member of the Rotary Club. Member of an intramural volleyball team each summer.

Oh, and estranged husband of Tooth Fairy.

That last one had been quite a surprise to him when one of the most dangerous and cruel transhuman villains around had arrived at his home and started talking to him. And the voice she spoke with was Theresa Bastion’s.

The wife who had disappeared so many months before, and left no trace of where she had gone.

In the time since then, relatively brief though it had been, Will had done his best to reconcile himself with the fact that his wife hadn’t left him to run off with some other man or to retreat to some other state or country, but had been committing crimes in the city just minutes away from their suburban home. He had done his best to repress the guilt that his attempt to ensure their daughter would be born a transhuman had led Theresa to go beyond his instructions and expose herself directly to the chemical meant for her womb, changing her into the woman who became Tooth Fairy. He had also done his best to drive down the fear that she would be back to speak with him again.

He had not, however, expected a dinner date, and that threw all his careful mental preparations completely out the window.

She wasn’t wearing her Tooth Fairy costume, and the way she shifted uncomfortably at times and kept adjusting the neck of her blouse with one finger suggested to him that she was more comfortable in the role of a transhuman villain than Theresa Bastion. But despite the discomfort she showed, she was still quite capable of killing him, he knew, and she remained in full control of the evening.

He hadn’t argued when she picked out his food and ordered his steak to be cooked nearly rare. Or corrected her when she ordered wine for both of them, when what he wanted was scotch. Or even criticized her when she she not only ate most of the Oysters Rockefeller appetizer but also munched on some of the oyster shells themselves when no one but he was looking.

“I really should apologize for having left you in the dark for so many months about where I had gone, Will,” she said, “but I’m not going to because it really doesn’t matter. You’ll adjust after all, won’t you? You have a survival instinct, right?”

“I guess this won’t be a romantic evening, then?” Will said, trying to sound nonchalant even though a part of his mind wanted to simply send him running from the table while vacating his bladder.

“Oh, we’re a middle-aged married couple, Will. We’re soooo beyond romance,” Tooth Fairy teased, but with a cruel edge to her voice. “I admit I haven’t really had non-battery-related sex in all the time I’ve been gone, though, so maybe out behind the alley we can have a roll for old time’s sake, or get a room or something. I promise not to bite anything off.”

Will suppressed the urge to shiver, both from stark terror and the spark of desire—this was his wife, after all, and no matter how angry he had been at her disappearance or how frightened he was of her changes, there was somewhere inside this cruel creature across the table from him a kind woman named Theresa. He still desired her on some level; after all, he’d not had any other woman since they’d married.

Well, there was that nursing director a few years ago, but it was only a few times we got together and then I came to my senses, he considered. But I don’t think this is a stage in Theresa’s life when I can share that indiscretion.

“That would be very considerate of you, honey,” Will said, marveling at how the affectation still rolled off tongue with relative ease, despite everything. “Not to bite anything off, that is.”

“You’re so sweet, Will. And you’re taking all of this so well. Now, you haven’t done anything silly like contact the police, have you? Or the FBI. Or the NSA. Or the American Dental Association.”

“No. I’m kind of interested in living long enough to see our daughter graduate from high school one day. Hopefully college. Maybe lead her down the aisle for her wedding…”

“…or maybe watch her take after her wildly successful mother?” Tooth Fairy prompted.

“I admit I’d be less eager to see that. No offense, but…”

“Oh, I understand, Will. Murder and mayhem dismay you. They might bother her, too, in which case maybe she’ll have a great career as a cat burglar or extortionist or something like that. So much will depend on what kinds of powers she develops.”

“If she develops any,” Will pointed out.

“I have faith,” Tooth Fairy said. “Now, about our precious little girl. I’ve been away a while, and it’s time for me to reintroduce myself into her life. You can tell the neighbors, co-workers, family and such whatever tale you like about my return. Just keep it simple. I don’t want to deal with any complex lies that require me to remember too much. Maybe something along the lines of, ‘She decided she hated her family, in-laws and former friends and left to be away from all of them, and she can just stand her husband enough to be a part of her daughter’s life.’ Because I’m not going to be puttering around the house or sleeping over or anything. Though I will have our girl stay with me from time to time.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good…”

“I won’t let her see me in costume or doing my line of work until she’s old enough to keep a secret, Will. But I might want the occasional overnight or weekend. I’m still her mother. I think I can manage a couple days in a row of maternal instinct now and again.”

“I’m concerned about your state of mind and what kind of effect you might have on her own peace of mind, or…or…”

“Moral compass? Sense of right and wrong? Well, you’re going to have to trust me, Will. Because the alternative is to make her fatherless. Neither of us wants that.  You least of all. You want the slim chance of walking her down the aisle, and I don’t want to deal with full-time motherhood until she’s older and her powers have emerged anyway.”

Taking a swig of the wine he didn’t desire but so very clearly needed, Will said, “I’m not sure that negotiating from a position of threat is the best way to go about things if you want to keep things amicable.”

Tooth Fairy snatched the glass away from him, drained it, refilled it from the bottle beside the table, handed it back to him and gave him a lascivious grin. “Whyever not do it that way, Will? Threats have served me so well all this time since I left your side. Besides, on the subject of A-words, while I may entertain some amorous notions later, amicable was never one of my aims.”

* * *

Collating and stapling a couple hundred photocopies of the quarterly Guardian Corps newsletter outside of Desperado’s office certainly wasn’t a task that Cole had really expected to be assigned tonight. In fact, it seemed downright humiliating, but Desperado had told him he’d be going out on a patrol after 11 tonight with a couple of the long-term veterans of the operation, so that took away some of the sting. Besides, he’d long since stopped trying to figure out the man’s mood swings or random passive-aggressive actions.

The lowly office task was made all the stranger and potentially more burdensome when he realized Desperado was having an important meeting and talking about things that Cole probably wasn’t supposed to be privy to. He felt like a lurker so close to the door, and he considered stepping away, but Desperado had been clear that this was a task that needed to be done ASAP.

In fact, his exact words had been: “Don’t stop collating these bastards until they’re all done, even if it means you piss your pants. Don’t worry, though—I’ll have someone else do the folding and distribution who’s pissed me off more than you have this week.”

So he heard it all when Desperado talked about the very likely possibility that there was a traitor in the Guardian Corps who had been feeding information about patrol patterns and schedules. There had been two more ambushes, and Desperado had a plan to change things up secretly and schedule some fake patrols to help flush out the traitor.

Cole heard it all, and when Desperado came out, gave him a withering and suspicious look, then shot a “who the fuck does he think he is” look back at his command team, Cole considered saying, “But you told me not to leave this job.”

Instead, he remained silent, hunched his shoulders and lowered his head, and got back to collating, feeling hot and suspicious stares burning into him as he did.

* * *

On the seventh ring, Crazy Jane answered her phone, with a chipper, “Oh, hi, Undie. Sorry, If I knew it was you calling, I would have answered sooner. I was just in the middle of fiddling with Dr. Mark’s sanity and stuff. He is coming along so well, I just can’t tell you how…”

“Jane, stop,” Underworld said wearily, both from emotional exhaustion and lack of sleep the night before, filled with anxiety as she had been. “I know what you’ve been doing to me. I need…”

“Oh, goodie!!!” Crazy Jane effused, almost shrieking with delight. “I am soooo glad you’ve figured it out. That’s gonna save so much on all that sneaking around, and you won’t keep wondering why…”

“Jane, stop,” Underworld said again but this time with a double meaning. “I mean it. Stop. Please stop talking and please stop messing with my mind.”

“But you like it, don’t you?” Crazy Jane said, with an almost purring undertone to her words. “And you’re starting to really like me now, aren’t you?”

“No, no, no. Jane, I don’t like you. You scare me. There, I admit it. Big, tough Underworld is scared of something. You’re creepy, you’re…”

“…kind of charming, really,” Jane finished. “I mean the Addams Family is creepy, too, but we all wished secretly we lived next to them, ya know?”

“Jane, I want you out of my head.”

“No, you don’t, actually.”

With a sickening lurch in her stomach and a sudden shudder, Underworld realized the woman was right—she really didn’t want Crazy Jane gone—from her head or her life—but therein lie the trap that she could clearly see. It was one thing to want, but…

“It doesn’t matter whether I do or don’t, Jane,” Underworld said, hoping that reason could somehow prevail over Crazy Jane’s unbalanced notions. “The point is I don’t really like you. What you’re doing is trying to hook me on your presence. That isn’t the same. It would be better for us both if you stopped this now.”

“I can’t,” Crazy Jane said. “I really can’t. And I don’t want to. Whether you like me or not, Undie,  I’m kinda fond of you. I don’t have many women I can confide in and watch sappy movies with or get a pedi and mani with. Ya know, if I should start to develop a taste in those things. Thing is, Janus is a man. Men have limitations. So, in the end, you don’t really want me to stop, and I don’t want to stop, so it’ll keep on going, and we’ll be cool in the end.”

“That’s so…wrong…sick…something,” Underworld said. “You can’t force me to be your frie…”

“We’re in a lifestyle that’s already wrong, Undie,” Crazy Jane, and Underworld realized it was perhaps the most lucid and true thing she had ever heard the woman say. “You’ll fight it at first. You’ll try to stay away from me. You’ll make excuses to stay in your apartment. But eventually, you’ll just ‘bump into’ me one day soon, and I’m gonna oblige you by reaching out and making that connection again. Think of it as healthy female bonding. BFF kinda stuff. It’ll make it a lot easier and save us both a lot of time. Seeya, Undie!”

With that Crazy Jane hung up, and Underworld simply looked at her phone, then looked at her door, and shook her head. She didn’t have any real friends and hadn’t for a long time, and even if this wasn’t what she wanted, part of her found the idea pleasing. The most horrifying part of that thought process, though, was that she couldn’t know whether she needed a girlfriend and Crazy Jane was just the ticket, or if she was letting the woman’s addictive powers compromise her judgment and was just justifying the urge to give in.

Whether or not I do give in, I won’t go quietly, she thought. I won’t just hand myself over to an addiction, no matter how relatively benign it might be. I can’t let someone else call the shots for me. I have to make the decisions that affect my future.

Of course, she realized, decisions had already been made for her recently, most notably by Janus himself in dragging her into his organization to begin with—if that sonofabitch is behind this I’ll kill him, she thought—but she wasn’t about to let a wholly unbalanced transhuman woman at least 10 years her junior tell her what to do. Or even drive her to do it.

But as she found herself looking at the door again, Underworld wondered just how long it would be before she made the decision herself to go visit Crazy Jane or make a date to have coffee with her.

I’m looking over the edge of the abyss, she realized, and it already feels so good to give in to the urge to jump.

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In her Allison Wonderland costume, but sans the mask and wig, Vanessa Santos landed a vicious kick at the midsection of the practice dummy, then a quick trio of hand strikes at the nose, throat and chest. She did a short backwards hop away from the dummy, quickly wiped the sweat from her brow with her forearm, huffed so loudly it was almost a grunt, and then howled and launched a series of punches, elbow strikes and kicks at the dummy again.

She repeated her onslaught for several more minutes with a manic energy—having already been at it for nearly 20 minutes—until she began to wear down, her blows slowing and losing strength. Finally she launched one last weak spinning kick that barely grazed the dummy and sent her tumbling to the lightly padded floor.

As she struggled back into a sitting position, Allison looked down at the slick, slightly sparkly, light blue gloves with white cuffs that ran almost to her elbows, then down at the identically hued blue dress and white apron, panting and gasping alternately until the two actions finally began to mix into sobs. She put her face in her hands, and launched one more flailing kick from her place on the floor, missing the dummy entirely, dumping her on her back again and leading to a louder series of sobs as she righted herself.

A few minutes later, she raised her face from out of the puddles in her palms. The streaks on her face and the puffy eyelids were a legacy to her crying jag, but her eyes were dry now. Hard. Angry.

And fixed on the camera in the corner of the training room.

She extended her middle finger, advancing on the camera as she continued to flip it off. When she was as close as she could get to it, she mouthed the words “Fuck you” and exited the room. Her legs were unsteady, but there was still determination in the pace of her stride.

“Dramatic,” Fortunato said, his light brown face impassive as he stopped the video playback of the scene and set the remote control for the digital disc player on the top of his desk. “Sloppy at the end, but certainly fierce. I can only hope she won’t cry in battle.”

“She’s probably embarrassed enough that she forgot about the camera and cried where you could see it,” Jeremiah noted. “I don’t know that she’ll cry again within a 10-mile radius of you now. I can guarantee that if she wasn’t imagining that training dummy was you already, she sure will be from now on.”

“Oh, she clearly already was,” Fortunato answered, “and I’m sure next time she’ll be envisioning testicles on it and aiming quite a number of blows between the legs.”

Jeremiah’s grin bordered on the sardonic as he said, “I find it amazing that she was surprised you had been grooming her for possible duty fighting on the streets and such. All those muay Thai sessions, tai chi and aerobics that you insisted on in between the studying and honing of her transhuman talents…”

“People have an amazing capacity to go into self-denial,” Fortunato responded, “especially when they don’t like the idea of where things are heading. Besides, the story I told her that it was necessary for properly gauging and testing her powers—as well as keeping her in shape for testing—was plausible; partly true, even. And I was never certain when I hired her that I’d ever make use of her transhuman powers.”

Fortunato paused, then fixed his gaze on Jeremiah for several moments before he continued: “You know, you should probably have a bit more sympathy for her.”

“I’m supposed to be on your side, sir,” Jeremiah noted. “I don’t question you unless you need a Devil’s advocate and I don’t coddle people you’re trying to mold—not even in my thoughts. Besides, isn’t it a little ironic that you want me to have sympathy for her when you’re the one who blackmailed her into becoming a costumed transhuman?”

“Well, you both have a similar status in many ways. You both work for me and owe your livelihoods to me,” Fortunato pointed out. “There, but for the grace of God, go you,” he added, gesturing toward the monitor that had so recently played Vanessa’s martial arts workout.

“I’d never be in that position, though, so I don’t have sympathy,” Jeremiah said, shrugging.

“Do you think you’re beyond the reach of my machinations, Jeremiah?” Fortunato’s tone had a hint of playfulness, but also curiosity and intensity.

“No, sir. However, I do think that sending your executive assistant into battle against transhumans when he doesn’t have powers, hand-to-hand combat skills or weapons training would be counterproductive. It would take years to break in somebody that could understand what you need and when you need it half as well as I do.”

“This sudden sense of self-importance and irreplacability will likely factor into your next job review, Jeremiah.”

“Well, sir, it’s a good thing for me that I have nine or ten months before then for you to forget,” he replied. “But, honestly, I know I can be replaced—just as I know that my value lies in where I am at, and replacing me would be an incredible inconvenience for you. So, I have nothing in common with your new project, Allison Wonderland, and no reason to sympathize with her, either in that role or as Vanessa Santos.”

“Do you know that you can be a cold-blooded human at times, Jeremiah?”

“Isn’t that one of the many character traits you hired me for, sir?” he asked. “You need someone who can co-sign your cold-blooded moments and help you maximize them.”

He didn’t smile and neither did Fortunato. It wasn’t a joke and they both knew it; it was nothing more or less than the truth, plainly told.

After several minutes of silence, Jeremiah cleared his throat lightly and said, “So, how large of a team are you planning to create?”

Fortunato gave him a puzzled look. “A team for what? Is there a new IT rollout I’ve forgotten about, or a new drug that our pharmaceutical division needs to get through the FDA approvals?”

“I sincerely doubt you plan to send Allison Wonderland out as a solo avenger for your cousin’s murder,” Jeremiah said. “Also, you’ve been moving funds to some interesting parts of your corporate empire lately. If I couldn’t figure out the implications by now, it would probably be a sign I’ve outlasted my usefulness as an employee.”

Fortunato sighed. “It’s nothing personal, you understand. I would have needed to make you aware eventually. But I had been hoping to secure some support from the transhuman community—a few select individuals, anyway—before I started briefing you.”

“Like Query?”

“Yes, like Query,” Fortunato admitted, “though there are several others that are just as high on my list of potential recruits.”

“But none who’d so readily tell you to go screw yourself when you call them.”

“True. Besides, even when I start getting nibbles—Query excepted in all likelihood—it could all still fall apart.”

“Janus is responsible for the death of one of your family. There is no way you’d allow such a plan to fall apart. Still, team-building among transhumans is a tricky task, and this is no short-term plan you’re hatching.”

“I can’t think short-term on this,” Fortunato said. “It’s highly unlikely that even the most perfectly structured team could take Janus down quickly. There will be too many layers between us and him. Plus, I’ll need the support of the city and perhaps the state, which means I’ll have to include their needs, which means I won’t be able to focus full-time on my real enemy. And, frankly, even if I get lucky and do have a quick resolution to Janus, I have to think ahead. He’s setting a precedent in my city that in all likelihood means that the huge vacuum he leaves once he’s finished off would be filled by someone else—or multiple someones would make a mess of the city trying to. I need a good-sized team and one that has flexibility built into it to fill the ranks again as we lose members through…ummm…attrition.”

“Also a team with a good mix and balance of powers and capabilities,” Jeremiah noted.

“Naturally. Of course, now that you’ve deduced all this, you’ve put me in the position of needing to increase your workload several weeks earlier than I otherwise would have done.”

“Might as well add more work. I can sleep when I’m dead. I’d rather be working than dreaming anyway.”

“A pity we can’t simply eliminate sleep from the equation, eh?” Fortunato said. “I wonder, though, what it would do to a man never to dream again. I seem to recall that the military got some very bad results from long-term sleep deprivation experiments back in the ’60s or ’70s. I’ll have your assignment and project list to you tomorrow morning. Time for some team-building of the non-standard sort.”

* * *

“You’re now up to a total of 17 messages from Fortunato or his associates,” Carl noted midway through his evening meeting with Query. “Are you ready to start responding to them with anything but silence or some version of ‘fuck off’?”

“Do you think it would make him go away faster if I actually paid attention to him?”


“Then I think you have my answer,” Query noted. “I suppose it would be nice to know what he thinks is so important to keep calling, but won’t actually leave any info for me in the messages. Clearly, it’s no peril-and-jeopardy thing.”

“All that vaunted intuitive power you have in that brain, and can’t figure Fortunato out,” Carl teased.

“Who can?” Query said sourly. “Sadly, intuition, no matter how hyped up by mutated genes, doesn’t give me all the answers.”

“The problem is that you’re not really invested in finding out,” Carl pointed out. “You really are just trying to ignore him; not figure out what he wants. Because then you might be tempted to engage with him. Maybe he wants to put all that money to work for a fellow transhuman and respected peer and build you a fancy Question Cave.”

When Query didn’t respond, Carl looked up from his iPad Quinto. The transhuman hero was looking just off to the side of Carl’s face, suggesting he was deep in thought. Carl opened his mouth to speak, and Query lifted one finger to indicate he should be quiet.

After a minute or two, Query got up and started pacing slowly around the office. Carl thought he heard faint mumbling, and then clearer words came forth from the man’s mask—quiet but discernible and spoken in a rhythmic cadence.

“Not so gently; never incidentally. Is he Ritchie Rich or Remy Buxaplenty?”

“Huh?” Carl blurted, and Query stopped. Turned to face him. Considered him for a moment before answering.

“What?” Query said.

“You spaced out, and then you started rapping or something,” Carl said.

“I wasn’t spaced out; I was thinking. As for the rapping, I didn’t realize I was speaking out loud.”

“You rap?” Carl said. He looked like he was about to laugh.

“Maybe. I do a lot of things besides beat up on bad guys.”

“Rap? You know, you can’t…”

“…if you finish that as ‘…spell crap without rap’ I may be beating up more than bad guys in a moment. I think your secret enjoyment of Nickelback, Coldplay and Lady Gaga is questionable.”

For a moment, Carl was tempted to ask how Query knew about those guilty pleasures, then remembered who he was talking to. Even if the man wasn’t monitoring his online listening or music purchases, his hyped-up hearing could probably make out the music from the iPod headphones when Carl listened to music during some of their meetings.

“OK, OK. Truce,” Carl said. “But it was weird.”

“You don’t want to be in my head, Carl. Trust me. It’s a mess. Anyway, I sometimes think in verse, OK? It’s just a thing. But your smart-ass comment about funding me a Query Cave…”

“I said ‘Question Cave’ I think.”

“Not classy enough. Point is, you got me thinking about the bastard, as much as I was trying to avoid it, and you provided the trigger for me to start sorting things out. Not sure if I should kick you or thank you. I think he is looking to fund something big, but not a ‘Query Cave.’ He’s trying to get my buy-in on something, though. Maybe some sort of huge job he needs done. Maybe some kind of transhuman network or team. Maybe something else. Not sure yet. Question is how pure his motives are, whatever it is he’s planning. Whatever. I have to focus on Janus and Zoe Dawson right now, but I’ll set this to simmer on the back burner.”

“Rap singing and cooking. You’re quite the Renaissance hero, aren’t you?”

“Keep it up, Carl, and I’ll make you listen to a marathon of Ice T, Tupac, 50 Cent and Kanye West while I give you paper cuts and drip lemon juice on them.”

* * *

An explosion of flavors on her tongue; a symphony of scents and tastes to dazzle her senses. Zoe swallowed slowly to savor the pricey, gourmet fare, holding tight to every second of anything pleasurable to take her mind off her dinner companion and what that companion symbolized and portended.

“So nice to see you truly enjoy a meal with me for once,” Underworld said. Tonight, the woman was dressed in a somewhat matronly disguise, adding an extra 10 or 15 years to her actual age but barely putting a dent in her sex appeal—their waiter had been subtly flirting with the woman since they had arrived. “After all, I’ve been taking you to ever fancier places; it’s getting expensive to woo you to our little operation.”

“Crime doesn’t pay enough to buy a few nice meals?” Zoe said, her tones sweet but the rhythm of her words hinting at disdain. “I see it’s also no longer just Janus’ operation—you’re ‘all in’ now, are you?”

Underworld brushed off the attempt to bait her, waving her hand in the air as if to literally shoo away Zoe’s words. “Zoe, I appreciate your strength of character; I really do. And while I hate to put a damper on your appetite by bringing up business, since you finally seem to be eating a healthy amount in one of our little dinner meetings, I need to tell you that Janus is giving you room only until after your graduation. Once you hand in that rental gown, though, all bets are off. From that moment on, you’re fair game, and if you don’t sign on, you can expect to be drafted or start running.”

“I’ll let you know,” Zoe said noncommittally, spearing a piece of tender filet mignon and setting it on her tongue to mix with the earlier flavors of mushroom risotto and herb-butter-broiled lobster tail. “It’s nice to have a deadline in mind. That helps me stretch things out just a little and get to feel all pampered and loved and special with these recruitment meals.”

She tried to keep her tone light, as if none of this bothered her, but she could see in Underworld’s smile and eyes that the other woman saw through her charade. Zoe’s bluster was clearly a sham to Underworld, and the villain seemed to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game a bit too much for Zoe’s tastes.

Another glass of wine followed dinner, and then dessert after that. Then more banter and thinly veiled threats of potential abduction and Janus’ potential ire if Zoe hemmed and hawed too much for too long. Zoe playing hard-to-get and Underworld deftly mixing the roles of recruiter and intimidator.

When she could finally leave, Zoe almost sighed openly with relief. When she was far from the restaurant, alone and sure she couldn’t be seen, she pulled out the pre-paid cell phone she had bought for no other reason than to contact Query to begin with, and she started typing a message to him—or whomever handled his calls, emails and texts.

The deadline that Underworld had given her sounded fishy. It felt like a trap. It seemed all too likely it was a way to lull her into a sense of complacency so someone could abduct her sometime between now and graduation—and probably closer to “now.”

She conveyed that in her message to Query as well as she could in typed words, put the phone back in her purse, and rushed to find the nearest taxi so she could get out of the open and back home—someplace she could at least have some shadow of a sense of security.

* * *

The text from Zoe was a welcome thing for Query—it made him look like just another electronic communications-obsessed pedestrian as he read it while trailing Zoe’s dinner companion on foot. He was able to scan the message while he walked, feeling sympathy for the young woman even as he tasted the potential for a chance to get a shot at Janus or one of his cronies soon.

His assessment of the situation was much like Zoe’s own, though he didn’t want to assume too much. Janus had already proven to be unpredictable, and perhaps calculatedly so. He might snatch her up in a matter of hours or days, but he might also wait for months after her graduation just to ensure she’d be unwary when he sent someone after her.

The woman who had bought Zoe dinner tonight was walking calmly. No rush. A few times, she even stopped to check out dresses in the front windows of expensive boutique shops, making Query have to readjust and look natural without getting too close or calling attention to himself—that self being a slightly overweight, no-longer-middle-aged-but-not-quite-elderly Middle Eastern man tonight.

Query was certain that this woman was the same one who had been working to recruit Zoe at every other meal he’d spied on—she wore a different wig each time and altered her appearance in other, more sophisticated ways, but her height and build had never once changed, and that was enough for Query to confirm it was the same woman each time. According to Zoe, the woman was Underworld, and based on the most recent data Query had on the villain, the body type and size matched close enough.

For Janus to have such a well-connected and competent transhuman criminal like Underworld directly recruiting Zoe made him uncomfortable. What was it that Janus knew or suspected about Zoe and her powers that made her so valuable to him thsat he would do that? Such complex and befuddling machinations by Janus were made all the more uncomfortable by the increasing awareness that Fortunato was plotting something himself.

Sure, Fortunato is one of the white hats, but he’s unsavory and borderline criminal in a few ways, and an asshole in most ways, Query thought. To some degree, the plotting of a villain makes me less uncomfortable, because I can simply go after that person. But what to do when someone who’s supposedly my peer and potential ally is someone I don’t trust?

Query pursued Underworld on foot for another 15 minutes before finally losing her in a crowd and finding himself unable to pick up her trail again without looking conspicuous and possibly drawing the attention of any watchers that might be looking out for her on Janus’ behalf.

It had been the same with the other four stake-outs, too, when he’d followed her afterward. Underworld never took the same route, and almost never even headed in the same compass direction each time, leaving him baffled as to where her ultimate destination lay. And always, there came a point at which she managed to lose him. It wasn’t unexpected, but the caution she showed suggested that Janus was keeping security as a top priority. Tracking his operation down and nailing him was going to be very challenging indeed.

Query had considered putting a tracking device on Underworld somehow, but with this much in the way of caution and security protocols, no doubt at some point before she got near Janus, someone would search her physically and electronically. If a device was found, Query would have tipped his hand and would probably lose his chance to draw out Janus.

He doesn’t leave me a single useful clue to which I can apply my much-vaunted intution, Query grumbled mentally. And neither does Underworld. In other words, they’re acting just like I do to protect myself.

A part of him reveled in that. A challenge. Something to put him through his paces.

Query hailed a cab, and set out to re-acquire Zoe. Tonight was probably the last time he could risk wasting time trying to track Underworld without putting Zoe at undue risk. From now on, he would have to stay close to the young woman—but not too close.

The game is afoot, mine enemies, Query thought. Even if you’ve eluded me tonight, eventually you’ll slip up. Or I will. Either way, we’re going to have some resolution eventually. Bet on it.

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

Not measuring up

Posted: October 16, 2011 in Ruminations

Sometimes, I feel almost fraudulent when I write, whether it’s here with the superhero fiction or elsewhere with my erotic fiction. I feel like I’m churning something out and not giving the reader proper value (I know, I know, the fiction I’m writing is free, so how can the value be low compared to your cost? Don’t expect it to make sense; I treat every story as if you’ve paid money to read it).

This doesn’t happen often when I write a “one off” story. Typically, if I’m writing a stand-alone story, I have a clear (or relatively clear) idea of what I want to do, and I’m inspired. As such, most or all of the scenes in the story will be ones that resonate strongly with me and will come out with fairly strong artistry.

But when I write ongoing series, such as “The Gathering Storm” here and <titles redacted> at my erotica blogs (yeah, like I’m gonna trip up now and go publicly revealing my erotica identity in a blog under my real name), things get trickier.

You see, with an ongoing series, I feel obliged to keep turning out chapters at something resembling a regular schedule. Not much worse in my mind than to get people interested in a series and then make them wait weeks or months for a new chapter. So, because of this pressure, I’ll launch into a new chapter knowing what the various scenes in it are likely to be, but not necessarily feeling all those scenes. So, it feels to me at times like I’ll write a chapter and one scene (or two…or half of ’em) will feel stilted and dead, as if I didn’t give them my all.

It’s interesting, because a lot of my ongoing series, erotic or non-erotic, are clearly going to be novel-length by the time I finish them. But if I were writing a novel, then I could have the benefit of leaving a scene unwritten if I wasn’t in the right mood to give it shape and life. Then I could come back to it later. But because the series I do online are in serial form, I don’t have that luxury.

And so, I apologize if sometimes a chapter will leave you feeling at times like I didn’t give one or more scenes my all.

Because I probably didn’t, despite my best intentions.

(In case you’re wondering where the impetus for this particular installment of my “Ruminations” posts comes from, I have two new chapters in the queue and scheduled to post this week for “The Gathering Storm,” both of which have scenes I’m not sure I gave my all. I’ll let you decide, though, for yourselves. Peace.)

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

Entering Janus’ office, she moved with slow, purposeful steps, like a ballet dancer building up toward some grand maneuver—then she abruptly stopped 12 feet away from the imposing mahogany desk, where Janus sat and Underworld and Crazy Jane stood nearby. Standing with straight and perfect posture, arms loosely at her side, her ankles crossed, Tooth Fairy kept her head slightly bowed as she regarded the trio before her.

Underworld had no illusions, though. There was nothing of subservience or deference in the angle of Tooth Fairy’s head. Her eyes still regarded them directly from just under the brows of her fractionally inclined visage. She was intent on them, and there was a coldness in her gaze. Calculation in it, Underworld decided. For all the oddness of Tooth Fairy’s pose, it was clear she was poised for action. A casual observer might think she was  standing at ease. Underworld knew she was holding everything inside, a concentrated force. She was like a living bomb, Underworld concluded, and wondered what might be the trigger that would set her off in this very room.

I wonder about Crazy Jane’s ability to discern all of this, Underworld thought, but I doubt any of my observations would be any surprise to Janus. With her thought of Crazy Jane’s perceptions—or perhaps lack thereof—Underworld realized the woman was less than a foot away from her. Damn, I must be distracted these days to let that freak get so close to me. Nothing to do now but endure it until Tooth Fairy is gone, lest we look like anything less than a unified group.

Underworld found herself immensely glad they were meeting in a dummy location and not the actual headquarters building—Tooth Fairy was someone she felt could be useful. Not someone she felt could be trusted.

“So. I’m here,” Tooth Fairy said, very slowly. “You invited me. I accepted. I’m listening. Make it worth the trouble of my visit.”

As she was speaking, the tone of her words gradually morphed from soft and motherly to something both sensual and grating. Her mouth had also grown slowly into a teeth-baring feral grin, giving Janus, Underworld and Crazy Jane a chance to watch her teeth go from middle-class, soccer-mom standard to a set of 30 or 40 demonic incisors. All of it so at odds with the white body suit and its iridescent accents, silky lavender sash belt and fuchsia ballet slippers—not to mention the vaguely rainbow-hued fairy wings attached to the back of the costume. Of course, the ornate necklace made of teeth and finger bones matched her newly altered dentition all too well, Underworld considered.

“I’ve wanted to meet you for so long,” Crazy Jane gushed before Janus could say anything in response to Tooth Fairy’s arrival and opening statement. “I’m so glad you took Janus’ invitation. Welcome to our happy family.” She stepped toward Tooth Fairy, hand outstretched to offer a shake.

With sinuous grace, Tooth Fairy’s head turned slightly toward Crazy Jane even as she shifted her weight slightly backward on her feet. Underworld noted how the faux wings on Tooth Fairy’s back twitched ever so slightly as muscles tensed. She felt a sudden and odd sense of protectiveness toward Crazy Jane that surprised her, but ultimately she made no move to intervene.

You’ve made your bed, Jane…

“Go back to where you were standing,” Tooth Fairy said in a near-snarl, and Crazy Jane paused, fidgeted a bit, and then stepped back, giggling a little—Underworld thought she detected a bit of hurt in Crazy Jane’s gaze, but also sensed a bit of satisfaction there, as if she had just completed a small task. Underworld let her eyes quickly flit toward Janus’ own and what she saw there confirmed her suspicion that Jane’s exuberance had been at least partly planned.

“My personal space is really big,” Tooth Fairy continued, “and you don’t want to violate it. I’m picky who I invite in. Also, speaking of violations, if I feel even the barest tickle of anything in my brain or body that doesn’t feel natural, you die first Janus—you know, just in case you or any of your crew is a Psi or Feral. Also, if anyone touches me physically or tries to, they’ll pay in flesh. One of your lackeys already discovered that when they let me past reception.”

Behind a face mask that was equal parts angel and demon, with an intricate tiara-like attachment that depicted a half-halo on one side gently morphing into a single horn on the other side, Janus’ eyes never blinked or registered any emotional reaction to Tooth Fairy’s words. “I thought I vaguely heard a scream,” he said without notable inflection. “Did you leave anything my medical team can salvage so that he’ll still be a useful employee?”

“That depends, Janus,” Tooth Fairy said. “Do you require your workers to have noses? And such a nice, big, strong Roman nose it was. Yummy.”

“Well, I don’t see any blood spatters,” Janus said, not missing a beat, a faint note of admiration creeping into his voice. “You certainly did manage to clean up very nicely and quickly.”

“I’m too quick to leave messes on my finery,” Tooth Fairy said. “And I lick my lips after every meal.”

“I do so love fastidiousness,” Janus said, with a slight tone of impatience or perhaps exasperation, “but while I could discuss violently expressed and socially unacceptable expressions of obsessive-compulsive disorder all day long—as well as fashion and finance…well, actually, I guess I will be discussing that last item, won’t I? After all, I did invite you here to extend an offer of employment.”

Tooth Fairy slowly slid her tongue across her lips in consideration, then smiled—her teeth more or less back to normal human shape. “I kinda like being my own boss; no thanks. I don’t take direction well. Or orders. Or criticism. Or job reviews. And I already have a great set of insurance and retirement plans, all funded through self-employment.”

“There are no ‘teeth’ in teamwork, so we weren’t really thinking you’d be all that interested in group activities,” Underworld interjected. “We had in mind something more along the lines of being an independent contractor. You know, consulting, troubleshooting, miscellaneous wetwork.”

Tooth Fairy said nothing, but frowned neutrally in contemplation for a while, one toe tapping nervously. Underworld wondered if the woman had issues with being indoors—perhaps a form of claustrophobia. She mentally filed away the information and waited in silence.

“How much discretion would I get to exercise?” Tooth Fairy finally asked.

“I’d be giving you most of your assignments, and I have better things to do than micromanage…” Underworld began.

“…do the jobs you’re given and don’t draw attention to us unless we want you to, and I don’t care how much collateral recreational mayhem you cause,” Janus interrupted.

“Besides, if we want to sic you on someone, it’s because of your champion-level creeptasticness,” Underworld said, noting mentally that Crazy Jane had moved a few inches closer to her while the exchange with Tooth Fairy had been going on. She mentally gritted her teeth and moved an inch or two away from the woman with as much casualness as she could muster.

“I’m not sure how to feel about that characterization,” Tooth Fairy said archly.

“Do you like striking freakish terror into the hearts of most everyone you encounter?” Underworld asked, welcome to have something to take her attention away from the nearness of Crazy Jane.

“But of course.”

“Then take it as a recognition of how good you are at what you do,” Underworld said, “and keep your teeth away from my extremities.”

“There won’t be any Janus-signal, you promise?” Tooth Fairy said, her gaze and voice hard. “No asking me to partner up with one of your specialists or assembling me to some big brawl or to bail all of you out of a jam with a bunch of do-gooders?”

“Cross my heart and hope to gain 40 pounds all in my hips and thighs if I’m lying,” Underworld said.

“Well, that’s more serious than ‘hope to die’ among a couple body-conscious ladies like ourselves, right?” Tooth Fairy said with a exceedingly wide and utterly human-toothed grin, which almost unnerved Underworld more than the fangs had. “I’m in. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say—of a few pounds if flesh and bones are involved.”

* * *

June. Solstice hated it with a passion. Nothing against the month itself, or the coming of summer. She liked being able to hit the beaches and parks like anyone else and frolic among freshly released college students and work-skipping young professionals. Rather, she hated what it represented among her transhuman peers.

The hotter it got, the more the white hats slacked off. And it wasn’t just the lure of summertime festivals and other recreation that pulled them away from the crime-fighting. It was the damn costumes. So many of them were attired in a manner that was completely at odds with conducting a heavily physical, often combat-oriented avocation under very hot and sometimes humid conditions. Some had summer outfits but many others simply toned down their patrols and stopped regularly listening in to public safety communications until the arrival of autumn.

It wasn’t like she’d be alone in the streets fighting the bad guys, but crime always went up in the summer—the more lackadaisical attitudes of many heroes being just one factor—and more burden would be on her, since she could actually use her powers to keep cool.

Sometimes I think I should just stop caring and ramp down my activities in the summer, too, she complained silently.

But she wouldn’t. She’d keep cleaning up messes.

Including her own now—the one Query had dumped in her lap, damn him. But then again, he was right. She’d made a huge mess and put a lot of women in danger with her recent actions. No matter than she couldn’t have predicted old-school, uber-psycho gangster Marty the Hun would react this way. He wouldn’t be doing it at all if she had done her job right.

She pulled out her smart phone, checked her notepad app to see where her next stop was, and got down to some more investigating.

* * *

Speaking through a half-chewed bite of pizza, Carl Beacham said to Query, “Sure you don’t want a piece?”

“We have these meetings regularly, Carl, and I’m happy to order out for pizza or Chinese or whatever on my tab, but you should know by now that whatever’s left, I’m gonna eat it after you’re long gone.”

“You’d be less grumpy if you had a little cheese and pepperoni in you,” Carl insisted, picking up a fresh slice and dangling it like bait.

“I think pizza’s great, Carl, though I prefer bacon or sausage to the pepperoni, and I don’t share your disdain for mushrooms,” Query said through the near-featurless black mask, the red question mark over his mouth never moving as he spoke. “But I’m not showing you any part of my face, even from lips down—no matter how handsome my mouth may be.”

Carl coughed, paused then took a long swig of his Coke. “You do not want to know where my mind just went with that mouth comment, Query.”

“I’ve known you long enough to guess, Carl.”

Setting down his drink and the slice of pizza, Carl cleared his throat and looked at the agenda on his the screen of his iPad Quinto. “Well, that brings us to the end of things, unless you have anyone to add to the discovery list.”

“Oh, but I do. I know it’s been a while, but you’re gonna love this: I have a two-fer for you today. I have the identities of Coldraven and Good War.”

“Jesus, Query,” Carl said, and then whistled sharply. “You know, if you get killed fighting the good fight, I’m going to make a fortune off this list, even if I don’t do anything but demand that everyone on it pay me $50 a month to never reveal who they are publicly.”

“Yeah, that’ll be good for about a year at most until one of them kills you, Carl. Besides, with these two, I’m going to hold my knowledge over both of their heads soon to secure a favor owed from both of them—leave the blackmail to the professionals, Carl. Anyway, the cool thing is that I figured out both their identities almost the same way. I have to admit, Coldraven was the toughest of the two. I never could understand her name. There’s nothing cold-oriented about her powers and nothing avian about them or about her costume, either. Drove me nuts. Then it occurred to me maybe her codename was related to her real name, and then it only took a few days once that happened. My intuitive powers went into high gear.”

“What? Her name is Winter Byrd—her parents are hippies?” Carl mumbled through another bite of pizza.

“Not a bad guess, but it was nothing that obvious, which is why it took a few days. But I did do some name searches with some homemade data filters and came up with several possibilities. One of them wasn’t far off your snarky guess: Autumn Hawke. But no, actually it turns out to be a woman named Christmas Poe.”

“OK, I get the Christmas equals cold thing, but what’s her last name got to do…ohhhhh. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Raven.’ Gotcha.”

“Yup,” Query said. “After that success, I tried a similar strategy on some other names that had always stumped me as far as their origins. And that’s how I got Good War’s name.”

“No much of a stumper there. He’s a good American boy—a real patriot. Or a fan of Captain America and Sgt. Fury both with the red, white and blue infantryman theme going.”

“Yeah, but even though he’s been known for going after domestic terrorists and such, he’s also gone after dirty military types and crooked cops pretty often,” Query noted. “A dyed-in-the-wool ‘America rocks’ type probably wouldn’t go after guys in uniform, I figured. But then I came across a guy who’s related to an FBI agent—who probably gives Good War the tips on most of his targets, by the way—whose name is Bill Wilcox Jr.”

“OK. Not getting that one at all, Query.”

“William Wilcox II—WWII,” Query said. “That was actually his nickname in college.”

“Still not getting it.”

“Guess you didn’t do well in American History in school then, Carl. World War II—sometimes called ‘The Good War’.”

“War…Huh! Yeah!…What is it good for?…Absolutely nothin’…say it again!” Carl belted out, singing the song wildly out of tune. “I always did better in music class than history. By the way, Bruce Springsteen’s version of ‘War’ is the only one worth listening to. That’s my opinion anyway, about warfare and modern rock. But it does explain why Good War’s costume is so 1940s military-looking—aside from the bright Captain America colors.”

“Yeah, play it cool, Carl. You know you’re impressed with me. Now get the hell out of here. I’m sure Patsy would like to be cuddled while the two of you watch some episodes of ‘Big Love’ or ‘Dexter’ or something, and I’d like to get to finishing what’s left of that pizza.”

* * *

Returning the the Guardian Corps headquarters, Cole was sweaty and sore, bruised and feeling the sting of a cut on his lip that was just barely beginning to scab over—and he was feeling more alive than in a long time. He’d just completed his first real patrol. Not simply a babysitting mission like before to show him the procedures and get him used to things—the one that had unexpectedly turned into a firefight that landed him on Desperado’s bad side.

This had been a full-fledged patrol. Cole had been a junior member of the team, but treated like a peer. Even though in some ways it had been a less harrowing and less exciting patrol than his previous one, it meant more to him.

He felt good, having been in two fights tonight with criminals, but without the madness of his first encounter. It felt different in qualitative way. He was a member of the Corps now. He even had a codename other than Puppy now—Quantum. But something nagged at him.


Desperado had been so dead-set against letting Cole be a part of things mere days ago, and the man didn’t seem like the type to forget a grudge. And yet just last night, he had green-lighted Cole to go on patrols and have free run of the Guardian Corps buildings. He had told Sweet Talker that Cole wasn’t her responsibility anymore. None of that made sense, as there was nothing Cole could think of that he had done to justify Desperado changing his tune.

Had it all been a test just to see if I would take his shit? Cole thought, a shadow of doubt crossing his mind even as his vision blurred for a split-second like a dirty smear across his eyes. Perhaps, but the likelihood of that seems slim. Still, he didn’t feel like he should dwell on it much or complain. It had been a good night of fighting the good fight.

Moreover, he had finally gotten a taste of his full powers in a conflict. He’d grown increasingly comfortable with his Warpsmith powers already, but then again, he’d been toying with those for years. What hadn’t been clear was how to use his other powers—either Ecto or telekinetic Psi powers; he’d never been able to figure it out. Desperado’s approach to training wasn’t likely to have ever helped Cole sort out the confusion and gain insight, since it tended to involve a lot of yelling and screaming to “get it right” and “do it now.”

But Sweet Talker and her all-female crew—who seemed to be united around the idea of being a small but strong front against Desperado’s assholery—had worked with Ectos before, and took Cole under their wings. PrinSass in particular had a knack for explaining things, and now Cole finally knew for sure he was an Ecto as well as a Warpsmith, and finally started tapping his powers.

His control was still awful, though. In the patrol tonight, his quasi-matter constructs were barely in existence long enough to give enemies a good, hard slap. But it was progress.

As he wandered among the other Corps members, he caught snatches of conversation about another patrol that was ambushed tonight, and that soured his mood a bit. From what he heard of the accounts, the ambush had been so thorough that it meant the attackers probably had acquired some inside information. One person in the patrol was dead, another was in critical condition and the third was going to be sporting a couple casts for the next few weeks until Asclepius could fit him in between more critical work.

Cole winced as a slight sharp pain lanced his brow briefly, and another dirty smear crossed his vision and vanished. It reminded him a little of the sensory distortion his Warpsmith powers sometimes produced, but this time more focused on visual alterations.

Not a total buzzkill, Cole thought, but definitely a sign I should probably find a cot and take a quick nap, just in case there’s any more action tonight I can be a part of.

* * *

“Bingo, bango, yatzhee and eureka!” Mad Dash exclaimed. “I’m here, Query. What’s zapping, my man in black?”

Query was leaning against the wall of a building in the secluded back parking lot he often used for meeting with other transhumans at night, his arms crossed. “Thought we might talk about girls, Dash. You know, dating? Something I never thought I’d see you doing so publicly.”

“Uh…I didn’t know you cared enough to send Hallmark?” Mad Dash said. “I kind of figured you for straight-man all the way, Q. You aren’t feeling zoned out, are you? You weren’t…”

“No, Dash,” Query said patiently, accustomed as he was to the Speedster’s sometimes chaotic and rapid-fire stream of consciousness. “I don’t feel left out. I did not have designs on dating you myself. If my schedule ever allows for dating, it will be a woman. I just wanted to discuss the wisdom, or lack thereof, of dating Ladykiller.”

“Um…not reading you clearly on this frequency, Querio. Last I checked my gal-pal was a lot more badger-ish than killer-ish,” Mad Dash said with a huge smile.

“Uh huh. Look, Dash, I know not everyone got the memo on what Ladykiller looks like in costume, because I didn’t give that memo to everyone, and those couple times she was with you in her normal outfit, those folks weren’t around, didn’t notice or just didn’t give a shit,” Query said, then pointed the first two fingers of his right hand to where his eyes where, even if they couldn’t be seen through his black mask. “I pay attention. I keep tabs on things, even if I might be a few days late in catching up on the intel my eyes gather all over the place.”

“Soooooo…you’re saying…that you methinks…that…”

“You don’t lie all that well, Dash.”

“C’mon, Query,” Mad Dash said, a tiny whine in his voice. “You’re not going to bust my gal, are ya?”

“No, Dash, I’m not going to bust her—I’ve got no particular reason to. Which isn’t the same as saying I might not have to take her down someday. But that ain’t my point. My concern is that someone I like is getting personal—and I’m guessing naked and vulnerable—with someone known for wounding, crippling and gutting men. Men almost exclusively. Sometimes on a nightly basis. Many nights more than one guy.”

“And this has whatnot to do with me me meep?”

Query sighed heavily—heavier than he would have in an un-costumed situation, but he knew Mad Dash wouldn’t be able to see his exasperated expression. “Dash, you still have testicles, right? She didn’t claw them off, right?”

“She’s tickled them a little bit with her…”

“Too much info, Dash. Too much. The question was rhetorical.”

“OK, OK. I getcha Q-man. She hurts guys and offs guy. I’m a guy. But she offs total asshole abusive guys. I’m harmless to the average gal unless she’s robbing a bank or trying to kill someone or something.”

“How much do you know about her, Dash? I mean, really know? Do you have any clue what might set her off? What if being late to a date or having lipstick on your collar is all it takes? It’s not like I know a whole lot about her, either. I’ve got some video of her in action, but admittedly even I haven’t tracked her to her lair, though I suppose that should be a priority now…”

“Like hell, goddammit!” Mad Dash blurted, and Query stiffened a bit, startled at the sudden shift in temperament and tone of his friend’s voice. “I’m not a little boy.” Mad Dash paused, his face confused at his own outburst and the angry clarity of his thoughts. “Leave her alone,” he said more quietly. “If you don’t have a reason to need to bust her, leave her be. Leave her secrets alone. I think she’s got some bad ones. And by bad I mean they were bad things that happened to her. Let us do our thing, however long she’s willing to stay with my crazy self.”

“Dash, I…” Query began, then paused for a few moments. “Sorry. I’m so hyped up on keeping tabs and watching out for the few people I care about. It’s easy to forget sometimes you’re not immature. Just…disjointed. Scattered. But even with that…Dash, I don’t know that your judgment is sound given your general state of mind—this sudden splash of cold and lucid water notwithstanding.”

“What guy’s brain is ever screwed in all the way when he’s getting nookie, Q-cue-cue-dee-oh?” Mad Dash said, his normal demeanor and soft voice back in the forefront. “My road is so straight-and-narrowish most days I guess some sinkholes and speedbumps and dead skunks along the way are a nice change. Don’t tell her I said that. She might not get the romantic themes all squirreled away in that biblioteca of amore.”

“All right, Dash, I’ll try not to worry that a violence-prone woman with clawed gauntlets is dating one of the few people I consider a friend. I won’t tell anyone Honey Badger is really Ladykiller. But don’t be surprised if I keep my eyes on the two of you—I’ll avoid peeking in on any intimate moments. Scout’s honor.”

“Well, if you do record anything like that by accident, and it’s all hot like Papa Bear’s porridge or hot sauce in an eyeball, let me know. Maybe we can sell copies and split the cash-bar. All right, dude, are we all done here? I actually do have a date with the cute mammalian predator in query-dom.”

“Off with you, Dash. Be smart. Use protection. Like a titanium sheath on your dick, maybe.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Mad Dash teased before racing away.

A few moments later, Query said, “You can come out now, Epitaph. Sorry to keep you waiting. I guess I don’t have to worry about you sharing all that—it’s not like there are adequate death or remembrance-oriented quotes in literature and movies for you to use to tell people that Dash is dating a potential psycho-killer. ”

Stepping out from behind a dumpster, Epitaph shrugged. “Pleasure is a sort of oblivion, a forgetfulness. Pain is remembrance, you cannot forget pain,” he said, looking in the direction Mad Dash had run.

“Yeah, nothing like bought experience. I agree. Dash will learn—and maybe he’ll prove us both wrong about Ladykiller.”

“There are stars whose light only reaches the earth long after they have fallen apart. There are people whose remembrance gives light in this world, long after they have passed away. This light shines in our darkest nights on the road we must follow.”

“Dash is one of a kind. No doubt about it. Maybe that’s why I worry about him. This crazy transhuman world we live in would be a lot less nice without him. But enough of that. What do you have for me?”

Epitaph reached under the large gravestone fragment over his chest and pulled out a manila envelope, handing it to Query, who pulled out several computer printouts from inside. After perusing them, his head snapped upward and his body language suggested he was giving Epitaph a glare or hard stare.

“Ep, I’ve told you time and again to stop bringing me a printout of Sweet Talker’s summary. She’s fine where she is. I don’t want to pull her out of the Guardian Corps. No matter what you think about how put-upon she is there, her presence in the organization is just about the only thing that moderates Desperado’s dickheadishness properly, in my mind. Any use I could put her to or anyone else I could direct her toward would squander her value.”

“Youth lives on hope, old age on remembrance,” Epitaph said.

“Well, you just keep on with the ‘hope springs eternal’ thing, Ep,” Query said with a snide tone. He figured he was one of the few—perhaps the only person—who could almost always get Epitaph’s meaning or most of it; doubtless, he figured, his transhuman intuitive powers were almost like a translator program for that, especially after the first few months of working with Epitaph and getting a read on his personality. “If Sweet Talker needs to leave, she’ll leave. She’s smart and knows what she needs. Your job is to bring to my attention people with potential who might not realize they have better options than the Guardian Corps.”

“I desire to leave to the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works.”

“OK,” Query said, “your work is otherwise solid week in and week out, aside from that annoying ‘oversight’ you keep making with Sweet Talker. All right. The other two, then. This Wayne Henderson kid. He’s been with the Corps for two months and still hasn’t taken on any kind of codename? No costume of any sort?”

“Death is a delightful hiding place for weary men,” Epitaph noted.

“You’re probably right, based on the historical notes in his file here,” Query responded. “Orphaned. Abused. Abandoned. He’s either looking for an end to his life through working with the Corps or he doesn’t think he has any options or anyone else who would give a shit about him. But he doesn’t really seem to embrace the whole transhuman thing. I’ll think it over and see if there are some better options I can send his way or have you pass along to him. Okaaaaay…Cole Alderman. Going by the name Quantum. Still in street clothes, though, but working on a costume. Newbie. Trouble with Desperado.”

“Time rushes towards us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.”

Query looked at him. “You think Desperado is playing him somehow? Hmmm. Cole is green, but fairly competent for a newbie. Still learning his powers. Seems committed to the heroing thing. Not kissing Desperado’s ass or looking for approval. All right, I see two things here. One is that he could do better than the Guardian Corps, but teams aren’t all that common and I’m not sure anyone who’s looking for a sidekick, apprentice or intern right now are people I’d want to toss Cole to. Second thing is that Desperado, as much of a douchebag as he is, wouldn’t try to get someone killed whom he didn’t like, which makes me think there’s something going on I shouldn’t fuck with here.”

Epitaph raised an eyebrow, scowling.

“Not right now, anyway. Keep me informed, Epitaph. Cole has potential, and I’d like to see him in a better place. But I don’t think this is the moment to pull him out. Besides, like I said, I don’t have anywhere to place him or anyone to refer him to,” Query responded, and handed Epitaph a small envelope filled with cash. “Another clandestine meeting, another payday. Thanks, Epitaph. Do me a favor and have your dinner at the Caped Cuisiner tonight. Make it a really leisurely one. Dash and ‘Honey Badger’ tend to have their dates there, and I’m 90% certain tonight will be one of those nights. I’d like some eyes on them. It’ll mean a bonus next week, and I’ll reimburse you for the tab you’ll run up. Just bring the receipt.”

Epitaph nodded, gave Query a quick military salute, and sauntered off, the two gravestone pieces over his chest and back swaying slightly—his feet hovering just a fraction of an inch off the ground as he walked.

Then Query was off to disappear into the night, and keep watch on Zoe Dawson. She’d probably be his focus until at least mid-June, since UConn’s New Judah campus had an entirely different schedule than the other University of Connecticut campuses, which had all held graduation in May. He’d never understand why the campus wasn’t just spun off as an entirely separate state university or simply privatized—juggling curricula with one campus on the quarter system and the rest on the semester system had to be a nightmare. In any case, whatever happened to Zoe, if anything, was likely to be anytime between now and commencement. Given Janus’ usual impatience with people who disobeyed or show disinterest in him, probably closer to now than to graduation.

Welcome to the real world, Zoe, Query thought, though certainly not the version you were hoping for.

* * *

The best thing about working with Janus, Underworld had recently decided, was the commissary in the building he had purchased for the criminal enterprise that he and she were more or less jointly running. The building held many advantages, not the least of which were spacious living accommodations and many forms of secret egress and ingress so that all key members of the organization—from Janus’ small army of IT geeks to the transhuman operatives to the top-ranking individuals like herself and Janus—could live and work in comfort and with almost no fear of being discovered or tracked by any enemies. Between multiple layers of security measures, threats of the worst kinds of torture for those who broke even the slightest security rule, and the fact the building offered enough amenities that most staff who knew about the criminal side of things didn’t have to leave very often, they were as safe as a group of criminals could be. Janus also had a number of other legitimate businesses in the building, all of which he or Underworld owned and controlled either directly or through proxies, and that also helped hide them and what they were doing that lay outside the bounds of the law.

But while all that was nice, oh, that commissary…

Even the most entry-level lackey in the criminal side of the organization gets to eat there free, and Janus’ insistence on calling it a commissary does it absolutely no justice, Underworld thought. From comfort foods to gourmet fare, everything is the best quality—a testament to his commitment to hedonism in all its forms. The entire culinary operation takes up an entire floor and the cafe is the best part, giving me a constant flow of cappuccinos, Turkish coffees and pastries to go with them. Thank God there’s also a gym in this place. 

This morning had been a particular joy for her, as she reveled in the lovely décor of the cafe and its European vibe, with an espresso drink and a pair of the truffle candies that had recently started shipping in from some European chocolatier. Sheer culinary ecstasy.

Until Crazy Jane arrived.

When she heard the giggle and looked up to see Jane entering the room, Underworld’s belly did a weird flip-and-toss. Nervous flutters. She sighed heavily, and ducked her head into the book she was reading.

Please sit at the other end of the cafe, she had thought at the time with desperate intensity. Please sit at the other end of the cafe. Please sit…

“Watcha doin’ Underworld?” Crazy Jane said in a voice dripping with metaphorical honey—almost manically exuberant, which would make sense given the psychotic stew Janus had set to simmering inside her head. The woman sat down across the small table from Underworld, the chin of her tattoo-covered face propped up on the heels of both hands as her elbows pinned down the paperwork that Underworld had brought along with her. Her eyes were wide and eager, glistening with expectation, as if Underworld were doing the most exciting thing in the world.

“Just waking up, reading and getting ready to look over some files—the ones your elbows are holding down,” Underworld said, feeling impatient to get rid of the woman but speaking as casually as possible. “Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing you’d be interested in.”

Crazy Jane proved her wrong by peppering her with questions for some 10 minutes. Every one of them answerable by a simple, short response—and every one of Underworld’s quick answers rewarded with some new question that probed for more detail on what was already banal. Underworld realized she hadn’t had to deal with a questioning like this since the time she had watched her five-year-old niece for several days.

I think the interrogations I’ve suffered at the hands of police, the FBI and military authorities would be preferable, Underworld mourned in her head, hoping without success that each answer she gave would be the one to get Crazy Jane to stop talking and move on. She wasn’t even sure why she was putting herself through this. Soon, if she doesn’t leave, she thought, I’m going to just have to snatch everything up and head back to my office instead to get some space from this crazy bitch.

And yet, despite the fact it hadn’t worked so far, she kept trying to close things off with a response that she figured was so final and iron-clad that Jane couldn’t possibly have a follow-up. She proved to be wrong three more times then, finally, Crazy Jane said, “Well, it’s been great, Undie. See ya later.”

“Don’t ever call me that…” Underworld began after a few moments of stunned silence, but Jane had already skipped out the door of the cafe to enter the main commissary area. For a brief, exasperating moment, Underworld desperately wished the woman had stuck around for a few choice words. Undie indeed. Bitch.

She almost went to chase Crazy Jane down, then mentally kicked herself, put her ass back onto the bistro chair and downed the rest of her drink, then motioned for the barista to come over with another.

Two more times during that same day, Underworld ran into Crazy Jane accidentally and got caught up in a circular, pointless conversation in which she didn’t want to be engaged. Every time the nervous fluttering in her belly when she saw the woman and the fruitless attempts to disengage from her once they enged up locked in conversation.

At least the other two times were blessedly brief compared to the cafe encounter, Underworld thought when she finally headed to her apartment for the night, almost sprinting there to avoid another unintended run-in with Crazy Jane. I may have to leave this organization just for my piece of mind if this keeps happening. I know too much about her now to want to be anywhere near for long—or so frequently.

Then she rediscovered her resolve by the time she got into bed, realizing that she’d never let anyone get in the way of her success before, psychotic or otherwise, and she wasn’t going to start now. They had to work in the same building together; there was no way around seeing her. At least Crazy Jane wasn’t going to show up in her bedroom, Underworld consoled herself silently.

And then after she finally dozed off, Underworld spent half her dreaming hours with Jane popping up in some way, and wondered in her REM haze if there were any place Crazy Jane wouldn’t invade her privacy.

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