The Gathering Storm, Part 19

Posted: October 20, 2011 in The Gathering Storm series
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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.

Fuck.

* * *

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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