Curiosity Thrills the Cat

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
Tags: , ,

Damned hair, Alan Millos silently muttered, scratching at the tightly curled black toupee that currently adorned his scalp and then pushing the pair of thoroughly non-functional glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. I don’t know how Donald Trump does it every day, all day long with that monstrosity on his head.

One advantage of Alan’s hairpiece, of course, was that he took time to find someone who actually knew how to make a toupee that looked real—why Trump continued with one that looked so fake confused him to no end. Sometimes, he felt like a fool for wearing his own wig, though, along with the plain-lensed glasses he wore around the house. Almost never did anyone pay him a visit here at his small home near the edge of Lark County, and never without advance notice.

I’m always in a role, even as my original self, he noted ruefully. That dangerous-ass drug I helped develop gave me back the use of my legs and gave me transhuman powers, but it robbed me of sleep and the convenience of living just one life.

Since then, four identities and a 24/7 lifestyle of constant activity to keep himself sane. As much as he enjoyed being Milo Phillips in the world of underground rap and local hip-hop, jazz musician and composer Nigel Roy and costumed crime-fighter Query—each for differing reasons—it was nice to be the supposedly still-paraplegic reclusive genius Alan Millos. The man who had unwittingly forged a path toward a conscious decision to lead a four-personality lifestyle.

At times, it seemed frivolous to wear the toupee and glasses around this property—much less to move around in a wheelchair he no longer required. He preferred the bald head he had affected for his Milo Phillips identity, and the Sensor and Regenerator powers he had acquired made prescription glasses entirely unnecessary.

Still, somehow, it helped put him in mind of his previous life. He couldn’t practice the kind of science he once did thanks to changes that drug had made to his brain functions, but he could still keep up on reading the scientific journals to be aware of what was going on with the pharmaceutical and biotech R&D world, as well as peruse the financial news to see how his investments were doing.

Once he took off the glasses and toupee, he felt an urge to start working on rap lyrics or to don his Query costume and find trouble or delve back into an unsolved case. Urges to be Nigel Roy were more rare—he often did jazz composition work and practiced on his saxophone or guitar looking the same as he did in his Milo persona, but the pull of jazz wasn’t as strong as hip-hop.

Of course, another part of the reason Nigel Roy saw less play was the amount of time he had to spend on makeup and prosthetics to become Nigel, who was an olive-complexioned white man as opposed to Alan’s natural African-American nature, when he appeared in public in that role.

The bottom line, though, was that this modest home on a really big and expensive plot of largely wooded land was his one quiet refuge as Alan Millos. He rarely spent time here but it was the one place he could be where he wasn’t faced with people wanting his attention or plagued by crises and danger. In a life lived without sleep, it was the closest he came to remembering what slumber was like. Being here was almost meditative.

Refreshing.

Renewing.

So it was all the more disheartening to remind himself of this and then hear the quiet but persistent ping indicating that several proximity sensors on the edge of his property were registering an intruder.

* * *

My sanctuary has been violated. My peace has been broken.

Alan was furious. His instincts called out for him to get his costume and gear and become Query. His haven had been invaded, and that realization enraged him.

But I will not break my role. Query would not be here. Only a near-hermit wealthy genius in a wheelchair.

The cameras hadn’t picked up anything yet, but several more motion detectors had gone off, and they were carefully programmed to disregard local fauna. The computer algorithms gave it a 99 percent chance the intruder was human.

Or, more precisely and more likely, a transhuman Luminar—a person with the power to manipulate light; in this case, someone who could bend it around his or her body to become invisible.

No matter. Once the intruder is close enough, my enhanced hearing and scent will prevail, along with the .357 Magnum I’m holding in my lap right now.

If that wasn’t enough, a Walther P99 next to his left thigh and Desert Eagle next to his right thigh should keep things lively and in his favor.

Once the intruder had gotten to within about a hundred yards of the house, Alan’s security system stopped giving him any sense of the perpetrator’s whereabouts.

Either the person just discovered my inner-perimeter systems and is avoiding the sensors, or the person is a Cyber as well as a Luminar and is instructing my computers to ignore him or her, he surmised. It also suggests strongly that the person knew I had heavy security coverage all along and wanted me to be aware of the early approach, but ignorant of the entry point.

A game of cat-and-mouse, it seemed to Alan’s hyper-intuitive powers. That felt right.

And the analogy became even more apropos when he sniffed the air.

Smelled her.

Cheshire.

* * *

Alan heard her approach. He’d turned off every form of ambient noise in the house much earlier when his early-warning alarms had gone off—even the refrigerator—to ensure his enhanced aural capabilities would be in peak form.

The sound of her footfall, no matter how stealthy she was, came to him a split-second after her all-too-familiar scent. He had time to turn his wheelchair very leisurely, and have the Magnum raised and ready. Violence had never been necessary with Cheshire before; would it be now?

“I come in peace,” she said from the dining area that abutted his living room. His hearing pinpointed her as being just to one side of the open doorway that connected the two rooms.

I could easily put a bullet through the wall and into her skull, he thought, and the simmering rage that so often lay beneath the civilized surface of his sleep-starved brain whispered a quiet approval of that idea.

But they were, if not friends, allies of a sort. At least they had been for a long time. She was a mercenary and a spy-for-hire. He was an investigator, crime-fighter and vigilante. They both skirted the law frequently; they both crossed the line at times. But neither of them was a “bad guy.”

She wasn’t a killer. She was a data thief and spy, but good spies didn’t invade a home with a hyper-aware resident inside.

Then again, why would she know I have hyper-senses? This isn’t one of Query’s lairs, so it might all be a coincidence, with her ignorant that I’m Query as well as Alan. Alan Millos is supposedly a paraplegic and if she was hired to spy on that identity of mine, she could have underestimated the amount of security I would have. Also, her tripping of the sensors earlier and avoidance of them now might be to send me a message. Did someone have a beef against Alan Millos and wanted me intimidated?

“I have a gun,” Alan said with a modest volume but firm, slow intonation to make himself clear.

“Most people would call 911 and mention that, either before mentioning the gun or instead of it,” Cheshire noted, still to the side of the doorway.

“Response times to the outskirts of the county probably suck,” he responded, and cocked the hammer of the .357 loudly for effect, just to reinforce the point that he was armed.

“Hmmmm. No, actually they’re not that bad at all,” she said, an amused tone creeping into her voice. “This is a small county. New Judah takes up well over half the geography of Lark County and you live near a major highway. State troopers would be here in short order.”

“Maybe I like to explore my Second Amendment rights and prefer the idea of killing intruders first and asking for forgiveness later,” Alan responded.

Cheshire chuckled softly, honestly amused. “So, did Alan Millos always have the same dry sense of humor as Query, or did it develop after you started wearing a costume?”

“Huh?” he answered. “You’re off your rocker, lady. Or your meds. Whomever you are.”

“A-plus on your acting skills. You know who I am and, like I said, I come in peace. I’m going to step into view, and hopefully you’ll offer me a seat instead of shooting me. I like to think all our good times together should have earned me that much goodwill. Not to mention that you got me to owe you a favor recently, and if you want me to do that favor one day, it would be easier if I’m alive.”

“Don’t you have nine of them?” Alan asked. “Lives, I mean. You can spare one or two, I’m sure.”

“Not sure the Cheshire Cat had nine lives. I only know about the invisibility and mischievousness. Is my white flag accepted? Can we parley? Palaver? Whatever?”

Alan sighed heavily, more for effect than for any honest exasperation, and said, “Go plug my fridge back in so my shit doesn’t go bad, then come back and come in. I promise not to shoot you when you come in and sit down on the loveseat. I reserve the right to rescind that based on your subsequent actions.”

Her steps receded, he heard the compressor of his refrigerator kick in again shortly thereafter, and her footfall approached again. There was a hint of wariness in the sound of those steps, Alan noted—something no normal person could have noticed. Then she stepped into view. She was wearing one of her many different costumes—this time one he had never seen before. While the gray and black outfit itself was a simple unitard of some thin, sturdy, skin-hugging material, the feline mask was a more festive black and gold and left her hair, ears, mouth and jawline exposed. Her skin had a golden tone to it that suggested to him she was probably Asian. One more clue about her to file away in his brain, as she’d always worn full-head masks on their many previous encounters.

Of course, it’s also possible she has sufficient control over light to alter the spectrum I’m seeing, and her skin might be another color entirely, Alan considered.

“Nice threads,” he said as she strolled confidently to the small sofa and sat down, crossing one leg over the other and stretching her left arm out across the back of the loveseat. “Now, Cheshire, I would like you to explain yourself while I try to decide whether me keeping my secrets is worth more to me than your life.”

* * *

Instead of responding to his demand, Cheshire asked for a drink. Alan beckoned to a nearby wet bar. She poured herself a single-malt Scotch, sipped at it and sat back down. “I was thinking coffee or tea, but I guess convincing you to go to the kitchen and fix something is out.”

“Explain yourself,” Alan repeated sternly.

She was silent at first, simply waggling her right foot a bit in the air as her left one tapped slowly against the hardwood floor. She took another sip of Scotch, quietly regarded the lipstick stains she had left on the rim of the glass, and then rested the glass on her thigh. Finally, she said, “I don’t like open-ended questions, Query. They are meant to invite over-sharing of information.”

“First off, don’t call me ‘Query.’ Don’t even think of getting into that habit when you see me like this. Just in case we ever meet this way again.”

“Fair enough. Do you prefer ‘Dr. Millos’ or ‘Alan,’ then?”

“Alan is fine. Otherwise I might feel obliged to call you ‘Ms. Cheshire’ or something.”

“I’m open to questions, Alan. Specific ones.”

“How?”

“That’s not specific,” Cheshire chided playfully.

“How did you discover who I was and how did you track me? Tell me every goddamn relevant thing about that.”

“Trade secrets,” Cheshire said.

Alan patted the .357 Magnum in his lap. “Answer my questions, or my civility will wear thin. You have invaded my privacy. You have penetrated a level of secrecy I wanted to remain inviolate. If you think I won’t consider killing you to preserve it, you are an idiot and a fool.”

“I’m neither, Alan,” she responded. “But you’re right. I’ve taken liberties, and so I need to get over my usual reticence. I spent a great deal of my personal fortune—and considering the budgets some of my clients have had to work with, that’s sizable—making a special costume. Not the one I’m wearing now. The other one’s not nearly as flattering to my figure. I wanted to find out where you lived. I’d been able to track you from afar many times—well enough to know your most common routes, but always lost you eventually. So I had a suit made that blocked my odors and would emit scents appropriate for the environment. Pine needles, motor oil, water treatment fumes, et cetera.”

“So that you could follow more closely and thwart my sense of smell,” Alan said. “While invisible, of course.”

“Precisely.”

“Why? And don’t you dare tell me that’s too open-ended.”

“I’m curious. I didn’t get into the line of work I did simply because of my skills and my transhuman powers. I like finding things out. Much like I’m sure you like putting puzzles together and unraveling mysteries as Query. I wanted to know who you are and where you live.”

“No one hired you to find me?”

“No. This is strictly personal.”

“Are you hoping to blackmail me or have it hanging over my head that you might ‘let slip’ my secrets to the highest bidder or most interested parties—either for your own profit or to get out of that favor you owe me?”

“None of the above.”

“To have me owe you a favor?”

“You got me to owe my favor because I asked you to avoid doing something you felt duty-bound to do. That was a negotiation. A trade. A fair deal. If I got you to owe me a favor in this way, that would extortion.”

“We’ve both engaged in extortion, Cheshire,” Alan pointed out.

“True, but generally with unsavory types who deserve it. I wouldn’t extort peers unless there are pressing and extenuating circumstances. Also, if I got into a habit of using my skills like this, particularly against people I have professional relationships with, it could ruin the reputation I have that enables me to make so damn much money.”

“You’re hoping to seduce me, then?” Alan ventured, the tone in his voice suggesting he found that notion highly unlikely but was out of guesses. There were too few clues and too little in the way of contextual cues to give his intuitive powers a foothold, and that was irking him.

“No. Dear God, Alan, I don’t see you like that, and you don’t see me like that, no matter how nice my body is. I go that route, I might as well fuck one of my siblings next—hypothetical or actual ones; no reason to give you any more clues about me.”

“I don’t buy that it’s just curiosity,” Alan said.

“I like you, Alan” she said. “There will likely come a day we’ll be at cross purposes, but I doubt we’ll ever be enemies. Frankly, you’re the nearest thing I have to a friend in the transhuman community. I guess knowing where you live, should I need to contact you—or should I want to share some coffee with you in my civvies—is important to me. I also like the idea of figuring you out, even if I only figure out a small part of you.”

Alan sighed heavily, but this time it wasn’t simply for effect. “How much do you know, Cheshire?”

“In addition to all this?” she said, spreading out her arms to indicate his home and himself. “I don’t like rap all that much, but you do a good job of it.”

“Shit,” Alan hissed. “Anything else?”

“There’s more?” she asked. “More big secrets to uncover aside from this and your Milo Phillips thing? Yummy.”

“We’re back on friendly terms at the moment. Try to uncover any more of my secrets and we stop being so.”

“Fair enough,” she said.

He stared at her long and hard, for nearly 30 seconds.

“What?” she finally said.

“Of course it’s ‘fair enough,’ but I’m looking for something else,” he said.

She paused. “Oh…yeah. Fine, we’ll make it official. I promise not to dig into any of your secrets intentionally or even with indirect or sneaky intent. Unless I trip over something on accident, I’ll let the rest of your secrets be.”

“So, what’s your real name, Cheshire? Quid pro quo, and all that,” Alan said.

“No, no, no,” she responded, waggling a finger. “I owe you an as-yet-to-be-named big favor. I don’t feel like I owe you my secrets simply because I was the first person good enough to unearth yours. If I feel like I want you to know, like I said earlier, I’ll call you up for tea or coffee and come in civilian clothes. I won’t be back here in costume and I won’t come without warning and invite.”

“What if someone pays you to?”

“There are many jobs I wouldn’t take, both for honor’s sake and because I value my life,” she said.

Alan nodded.

“In any case,” Cheshire added, “I’ve overstayed my welcome and should let you get back to what you were doing now that I’ve totally upended your evening. But while I’m sad if I irked you, I like knowing that you can be outwitted. Boosts my confidence.”

“Sounds like I’ve been therapeutic. Expect a bill in the near future,” he said.

“Stay within accepted psychiatric rates. I don’t stand for highway robbery, over-billing or anything like that. Mind if I head out your side porch door over there?”

“Be my guest, Cheshire,” Alan said. He noted that she was carrying the glass of Scotch with her, probably acutely aware that her lipstick and DNA were on it. “I’m going to bill you for that glass, too. It’s crystal.”

“Fair enough,” she said, laughing a little.

As she slid the porch door open and prepared to step outside, he added: “Be aware that I haven’t promised not to try to dig up your secrets. I’m feeling at least a tiny bit vindictive.”

“Oh, I know,” she said as she vanished from sight, purposefully doing so slowly, starting from her head, hand and feet and slowly working toward her torso. “Should be interesting to see how far you get. If you get anywhere.”

As she vanished entirely, stepping outside and sliding the glass door shut, Alan muttered softly, “I have all the time in the world, Cheshire. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and I don’t take Christmas off, either.”

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