The Gathering Storm, Part 17

Posted: October 2, 2011 in The Gathering Storm series
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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.

Why?

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.

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

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