The Gathering Storm, Part 28

Posted: February 1, 2013 in The Gathering Storm series
Tags: , , , ,

Quick Recap (since it’s been a while since I’ve posted a new chapter in this series):
Thus far in the series, a supervillain named Janus has moved his operations from the West Coast to the East Coast, with designs on the Connecticut city of New Judah primarily, it seems. One of his first acts was to target one of the city’s primary heroes, Query, as well as to recruit a semi-retired supervillain named Underworld. In addition to gathering various villains, Janus and Underworld aggressively and threateningly courted a young transhuman named Zoe, who then sought out Query for protection. Meanwhile, billionaire and former hero Fortunato has been drawn into Janus’ machinations, as well as scheming something himself. Query has fended off Janus’ attempts to abduct Zoe, as well as trying to nudge along a young hero named Solstice in growing up, and he has taken down a small part of Janus’ operation in the process. Zoe ended up unleashing her full powers in the last kidnapping attempt by Janus, and wrestles with the deaths that led to. In the midst of all this, a friend and fellow hero of Query’s, Mad Dash, has found himself in an unlikely romance with a violent vigilante named Ladykiller, who now also dresses up as someone named Honey Badger so that she can occasionally patrol with Mad Dash and not smear his reputation.
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Two men in black faced each other across a desk. One in a tuxedo, after readying himself for a charity event; the other in body armor almost from head to toe, eager to be back on the streets.

One seated; one standing. One who no longer wore a mask; one who did. One who was lifting a tumbler of scotch to his lips; one who made almost a show of avoiding the drink that had been placed before him.

“So, tell me, why I would take this young lady in and provide her with protection against Janus and his machinations?” Fortunato asked Query, raising one eyebrow. “No matter how interesting she sounds from this…clearly very abridged…file you’ve given me on her.”

Query-8“Because you’ve been trying to reach me so damned hard for days now—well, weeks, really,” Query said, rocking back on his heels a bit with his gloved hands clasped behind his back.

“I fail to see the connection,” Fortunato said in a tone mixing a growl and a purr.

“Perhaps you’re not as smart as everyone thinks you are, then,” Query responded dryly. “Perhaps you’re not even as smart as I thought you were.” He paused for several moments, savoring the growing irritation in Fortunato’s gaze, then smiled, despite the fact the other man wouldn’t be able to see that grin beneath the full-head mask.

“What I am saying,” Query continued, “is that because you are so eager to speak with me about something—a topic that I would successfully dodge for years, until it became irrelevant, given that I find you so odious—and because I want safe harbor for Zoe…well, I will actually begin returning your phone calls and you can tell me whatever it is you want to tell me. Or pitch to me. Or plead for my help on. You’re a man with something in mind; guard her true and I’ll spare you my time.”

“I hate it when you lapse into rhyme, Query. Even near-rhyme. It suggests to me that your mind is getting ready to spin out plans that will confound my own.”

“Plotting and planning by someone theoretically on the side of the angels. Yes, it’s a trait I find pretty irritating in you as well,” Query retorted. “So, do we have a deal? You keep watch over her while I assess things, and I stop putting you off?”

Fortunato_businessman“Doesn’t sound like an equitable trade,” Fortunato drawled, his accent lapsing into something more befitting his upbringing in a Latino neighborhood  than the Wall Street-style tonality he had perfected over the years. “Why could I possibly want that much for you to listen to me? I think you have misread the level of my interest in speaking with you.”

“Well, then, I’m sure I can throw a few shekels someone’s way for some babysitting or some recommendations of someone who can watch over Zoe. Cheshire always knows people…”

“Fine, fine,” Fortunato said quickly and irritably. “Negotiating with you is so irritating, since even my best poker face is useless. She can stay in a suite here in my building for a few weeks if necessary—or maybe a couple months. If you actually listen to what I have to say. Play me off or tune me out and she can hit the streets.”

“Excellent,” Query said. “Although I seriously doubt you could bring yourself to kick her out. Well, I’m all ears right now, even if you can’t see them. Talk.”

“Now I want you to wait for a while,” Fortunato said. “I have an event I’m already late in attending and some things to take care of first before we talk. New business, as it were. Until I settle that, talking to you would be premature.”

“Yes,” Query said. “And I’m sure that ‘new business’ has cafe-au-lait-colored skin and multicolored locs upon her head. And a very interesting—if abridged—file.”

* * *

Solstice couldn’t fault Isabella’s background work about the skeez lab; her stepsister’s research had been impeccable, and the floorplans she had unearthed for the building were nearly spot-on accurate. But apparently, a small bathroom—suited only for a toilet and sink—had been installed in the past year or two. That was the one thing not on the blueprints.

Also on the “unpredictable list” would be the annoying fact that one of the guys working in the drug house was using that crummy little bathroom because, presumably, someone else was occupying the better two toilets elsewhere in the building.

Solstice-summer_2Which also wouldn’t be so bad, Solstice thought, if he weren’t armed and coming out of that bathroom just when she was halfway through a back window trying to slip in unnoticed. Normally, she was quicker on the draw with her chilling powers than people were with guns—especially people who’d just finished taking a piss and still had damp hands from washing them—but a bit of panic set in at her sensation of utter exposure and she thrust herself through the window in an ungainly lunge.

As she tumbled awkwardly to the floor, the man had his gun pointed at her. Her Attractor power took a few moments to focus, so there was no way she could relieve him of his gun in time. Instead, she began to lower the temperature around his body sharply as she kicked over a nearby trash and dodged. The sound of the can wasn’t precisely in sync with the gunshot as he squeezed the trigger, but it was close enough, she hoped, that no one would realize a gun had been fired.

She heard the bullet whiz past her, far too close for comfort, and she pounced—counting on the sudden chill in his muscles to give her an edge—and pinned his cheeks between both her palms as she set her thermal powers to work and burned him severely. It was more brutal than she would have liked, but felt better than killing him outright. The only thing keeping him from bringing attention to their struggle by screaming in agony was her bosom smashed up against his face as she mounted his torso—legs squeezing his ribs hard—and forced him against a wall hard while searing his face.

The awkward and blunt-force assault stunned him just enough to ensure his silence for a moment as she grabbed a mop from a bucket near the tiny bathroom and struck him in the skull several times. For long moments, she stayed quiet and crouched, awaiting an attack but hoping her panicked plan had worked and the whole brief fight had sounded like nothing more than the guy clumsily knocking stuff over.

When no attack came, she gagged him with a dirty cleaning rag and bound his wrists with one of the many plastic ties in a pouch on her belt.

She worked through the lab efficiently—trying to do so slowly even as her pounding heart and throbbing temples urged her to rush—and took out her opponents by ones and twos—five in all—somehow without getting shot in the process. By the time she actually got to the working part of the lab where the skeez was cooked, there were only four people left, all of them unarmed cookers, and they surrendered without hesitation.

Pulling out her cell phone after the last of them was restrained, she dialed up Query. The voice on the other end made a curt greeting, and she couldn’t quite place it. “Hello? Is this the Dark Jerk or is this his faithful sidekick, Portly Lawyer?”

Might as well get a little passive-aggressive dig in somewhere,  she thought.

“I don’t pay Portly Lawyer to answer my phone, and please don’t call him that again. Only I have authority to tease him. Would this happen to be Careless Impetuous Goth by any chance?”

“Yes. Operation Hun is a done deal. Part one, anyway. Can you come pick up the trash and drop off the merchandise?”

“Oh, darn, we’re going to get all professional and official now and cut the witty banter short?” Query said dryly. “In all honesty, I’m glad you pulled it off. Team will be there in less than 10. Good luck on surviving part two.”

“There’s still time for you to join up with me and help out so that I do,” Solstice said.

“Some lessons need to be learned the hard way, my dear,” Query said, and hung up.

* * *

Sitting with her legs drawn up to her chest at one end of her sofa, while Mad Dash wolfed down spoonful after spoonful of Raisin Bran that was filling half of a mixing bowl, Ladykiller blinked several times. “Um…did I hear you right? You want to take me to…a bank? In costume. As Ladykiller.”

Swallowing a mouthful of milk, soggy flakes and raisins, Mad Dash smiled. “Sure! Or as Honey Badger. Or we can do two trips and make it both!”

“Why? Weird date even by your standards.”

mad-dash-1_peter“Well, they always give out an iTunes or Starbucks gift card when you open your first new account,” he said happily, a little dribble of milk running from one corner of his mouth back into the bowl. “Way better than a toaster or a hair dryer or whatever they gave out back in the olden days. Well, at least Bank of America gives out gift cards. Not sure about Citibank and Wells Fargo. I’m not a big fanboy of B&A but they have the most market square.”

“Ummm…OK. I have a bank account already. Also, since when does B-of-A give out gifts for opening accounts? Also, don’t you think going to a bank as Ladykiller is a good way to make the guards think the place is about to get robbed? A lot of people assume the worst about me.”

“Well, of course B-to-the-A-izzle gives out inventives,” Mad Dash mumbled through a mouthful of cereal. “Fierce composition for the transhuman customers, ya know. Important market but not the biggest one. Only the national chains have the resources to do that kind of business.”

“I already have an account. At a nice little community bank in my neighborhood here. I’d think you’d be the sort of guy who’d support the little guys, Petey.”

Mad Dash smiled, frowned and smiled again, setting down the bowl. “I’ll finish the rest later when it’s ooper-dooper nice and mushy,” he said by way of preamble, then sat down near her on the sofa, setting his right hand on her clenched knees. “You’ve got an accounting at a bank, sure, but as Sarah. But you should have one for your dress-up self—whichever one. Or both, though I’m not sure what banking rules are about that.”

“Accounts for costumed weirdos like us? What are you talking about?”

“Wow! I know you were a…um…prisoner…um…here for a while, but you’ve been in costume for more than a year now and don’t know about things like Cape Checking and Super-Savings accounts? Masked Moneymarkets? Any of this ring-ding-a-linging any horns?”

Ladykiller-1_sarah“Dash, I’m spending the money of the dead man who kept me here as his sex-slave and have been for the past couple years,” Ladykiller answered. “The only reason I even have a bank account as Sarah is because I had it before I ended up in this crazy life. I don’t think it has more than a hundred bucks in it anymore. I’m an e-payment and cash economy kinda girl these days.”

“Honey-runny, you really, really didn’t care about costumed folks before you jumped into becoming one, did you? Or how they live.”

“Dash…Peter…I still don’t really care about them. I just dress and act like some of them,” Ladykiller said. “And now I date one. Anyway. The bank thing. What the fuck already.”

“Well, my cinnamon sticky bun…the big three banks will open accounts for your hero identity, with checks, debit cards and all that. You can even get credit cards—even loans sometimes—if you’re established enough. It kinda helps when you need to pay for things when you’re in costume, but don’t want to muck with a bunch of cash. I once had to rent a car to get to a meet-up when my boots were on their last treads. Sure, the Hertz folks blocked off an extra thousand bucks on my debit card to cover themselves while I was using the car and didn’t remove the block until a week afterward, but still, I wouldn’t have been able to doo-doo that if I was on a cash ecology.”

“I don’t want to tell them my identity and show my civilian ID and shit, Peter!”

“You don’t need to. Banking privacy for exotic customers law—or whatever it’s called. Don’t you know about that either? The big three pushed that legislation through to get the trans business years ago,” Dash said. “You confirm your identity with a thumbprint scan. Police aren’t allowed to demand print records from the bank to match to their own fingerprint files unless the transhuman is being charged with bank fraud or bank robbery.”

“I can’t believe that all of you would be that trusting. What if the laws change?”

“Do what I do—thanks to paranoia coaching from my buddy-pal Query: Do palm print instead, since police don’t do those. Or you can even do retina scan if you choose Citibank. It’s sort of their point of distinction. Wells Fargo has a voiceprint option. But Citi and Wells don’t have as many flexible account options as body odor of America. Main downside usually is that if your card gets stolen, you’re usually on the hoof for half of the charges to your account, unlike the civilian crowd. That’s the way the banks  help make it less risky for themselves. Also, the monthly fees for us can be a sung of a twitch.”

Ladykiller sighed. “Why would they even do that? How much money can that be worth to them? I mean, the villains wouldn’t dare open accounts there and heroes make lousy money usually—no offense.”

“Sure they would. Well, sorta,” Mad Dash said. “Most of the successful bad guys hire minor transhumans to do low-level hero work part-time for show and then launder their money through them. Use their debit cards. Stuff like that. As long as the money isn’t used for obviously illegal things, the banks don’t care.”

“I dunno. I have lots of money still left from Mister Master’s civilian accounts.”

“Sarah-baby-pecan-pie…you need to get out of here someday. Set up a life away from this. I mean, you were held prisoner here. Raped. Staying here in his old condo and spending his old money—it’s kind of dork and twizzler.”

Ladykiller paused for several moment to process that. She’d gotten better at figuring out his nonsense words here and there, but she was confused. Frowning, she finally ventured, “Dark and twisted, you mean?”

“That too,” Mad Dash said. “Besides,” he added, standing up and holding out his hand, “there’s a Bank of America branch just down the street, I want you to get an iTunes card for opening an account so you can buy me the latest Adele album and a Fruit Ninja app for my iPad, and by the time we get back the rest of the cereal should be really sludgy goodness.”

* * *

Zoe finished her latest chapter of The Girl Who Played With Fire, deciding that while hiding out in Fortunato’s building loc-down-1_zoewas as boring as it was safe, at least it offered a chance to catch up on her reading list. The free ride she had been given for the building’s commissaries and the small account set up for her at the gift shops didn’t hurt either. Not even two days into this hiding out thing yet, and she was feeling almost comfortable.

As she slipped the bookmark into the novel and set it down to return her attention to her mocha, she noticed a presumably twenty-something Latina looking directly at her from a nearby table. Before she could decide what to do or say about the unexpected stare-down, the woman got up, walked over to Zoe’s table, and sat down.

“Hi, I’m Vanessa,” the woman said, holding out her hand.

“Zoe.”

“Yeah, I know, and I don’t know if I’m too late yet, but when I heard about a transhuman in the building, I wanted to warn you.”

“I thought I was supposed to be under the radar here—and warn me about what?”

“Only a few of us know about you, and not much about you, at that—I think Fortunato told me as some kind of test. I’m probably about to fail it and get in a lot of trouble,” Vanessa said, then paused to take a breath before a rapid-fire delivery of: “Whatever he offers you, don’t take it. Don’t trust him.”

“He hasn’t offered anything yet, and I wasn’t planning to trust him.”

Vanessa stared hard at Zoe like a frustrated parent dealing with a stubborn child. She shook her head, gritted her teeth and leaned forward.

“I mean it, Zoe!” she hissed. “No matter how smart you think you are, don’t even start up with him. I’m telling you, I know from experience. I’m in a pile of crap so deep I feel like I’m drowning. And he’ll never let me out of it probably. I’ll be Allison Wonderland for him probably until the day I die. He’ll stoop lower than you think to snag you. Believe me.”

Zoe sighed heavily. “Vanessa, was it? Or…Allison now? I’m confused. But anyway, Vanessa, I appreciate your concern. Really. But you need to understand. I’ve been dealing with devils for weeks already, and I wasn’t exactly an easy mark before then. I don’t know how you got in your mess, but just because you stepped in shit doesn’t mean I will.”

Vanessa’s gaze darkened, and she frowned, and Zoe realized she’d just carelessly hit a nerve; the blunt tone of her voice probably hadn’t helped. But with the blood of two men already on her hands and Janus and Underworld sniffing after her, she didn’t have it in her to worry about someone else’s hurt feelings just yet. Still, the awkward silence wasn’t helping her mood, so she stood, turned, and left both her drink and Vanessa behind her as she sought a new place to continue her reading.

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