Archive for the ‘Single-run (“One off”) Stories’ Category

“Are you high, stupid or both?” Wallace asked the man across from him through the steam rising from the coffee cup perched just at the edge of his mouth. “You want to rob The Un-Secret Lair or the Caped Cuisiner? Places that transhuman heroes go to eat.”

“Why not?” Billy shot back. “The prices there are outrageous. Anyone in there has to have a bunch of money on them.”

“I think most of the customers pay with plastic, Billy.”

“Whatever. Point is, the place is busy, I bet lots of people at least are carrying cash for tips, and this is about volume. Plus, no one ever robs cafés and coffee shops and restaurants. They’ll never expect it.”

Wallace stared hard for a moment at his friend, and wondered once again—as he did about twice every month—why he was friends with him. “Billy, please tell me you are not getting your ideas about the best crimes to commit from Pulp Fiction.

“What? I don’t get it,” Billy said, pursing his lips and shrugging.

Pulp Fiction. The movie. That’s how it starts. A boyfriend and girlfriend having a talk just like this in a breakfast joint. And they try to rob the place. And then at the end of the movie we see how it turned out, and what happened is the dude and his lady almost get themselves killed by two mobsters in the place, including the illustrious Jules Winfield with his ‘Bad Mother Fucker’ wallet.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Billy, we saw that movie when it first came out,” Wallace said. “Kind of a hard movie to forget, even if we were both 12 at the time.”

“I was baked. I don’t remember shit about that movie.”

“Well, apparently the coffee shop caper bit stuck in your head,” Wallace retorted. “Except for the part where it went bad. Shit, I don’t know what’s worse: That you can’t remember a classic scene like that in a classic motherfucking movie or the fact you’ve never watched it since then.”

“Well, life ain’t a movie, bro,” Billy said. “This will work.”

“I’ve got 100 billion reasons to not want to do something like this.”

Billy slapped the table hard. “Jesus! Man, do you have to exaggerate like that? You gotta feel all special. You couldn’t list 100 reasons, much less 100 billion.”

“I don’t need to list ‘em or name ‘em, Billy-boy. That’s the number of neurons in the human brain, and every single one of them tells me this is a bad idea,” Wallace said. “That’s the kind of knowledge reading grants you, my man. I know how many cells are in the brain. And the fact that none of them in your head are raising red flags about this idea of yours scares me.”

“Give me one good reason other than an apparently very forgettable scene in a movie,” Billy challenged him.

“Just one? Easy. The place would be filled with transhumans.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Those places are mostly filled with a lot of fanboys, fangirls, wannabes and doubles—plus plain ole normally dressed folks,” Billy said. “And any real transhumans probably won’t raise a stink trying to foil the robbery, because they’re in a place like that so that they blend in and people don’t know who they really are. If Greenguard suddenly steps up, and the real Freak-Easy is sitting right next to him, he risks getting hit from behind…”

“Freak-Easy works New York City; he hardly comes over to this side of the  Long Island Sound,” Wallace pointed out.

“And a trans crook isn’t gonna worry about giving up a wallet because it’s chump change and he won’t want to risk outing himself as the real deal in front of a hero that might be there,” Billy said, ignoring him. “It’s like the Cold War—mutually assured destruction. See that there? You aren’t the only one who’s done some reading, Wallace.”

“Sketchy reasoning, man.”

“Wallace, we knock over a liquor store or bank…”

“I’m not all that keen on knocking over anything these days…” Wallace began.

“You owe me…”

“I don’t see how you see that…”

“Anyway, Wallace, when a person robs a liquor store, they gotta worry that the till won’t have much money and it’s a big, fat wasted effort and maybe the guy behind the counter is the owner instead of some low-wage fuckface, and then maybe you get a shotgun blast. Or you rob a bank and get a little wad of cash with a  dye-bomb in it plus you end up on the FBI’s shit list because it’s a federal crime. A restaurant means a lot of people with wallets and jewelry and shit. Plus whatever’s in the cash register.”

“See? Again. You’re using the same reasoning as in Pulp Fiction.” Wallace noted.

“I’m telling you I don’t remember shit about that shit movie. This is all my own brain working.”

“Or not working,” Wallace groused, sipping at his coffee and glad that the coffee shop they were in right now had almost no other customers to tempt his friend, given how excited Billy was about his “epiphany.”

* * *

Query walked into the Caped Cuisiner, almost immediately picking out three people conveniently clustered at or near the counter whom he was pretty certain were the real thing as far as being transhuman heroes or vigilantes. He knew their habits, patterns and mannerisms well enough, and had spent enough time in here in his Milo Phillips identity or some disguise, to pick them out. Once he got closer, his enhanced senses were able to confirm them by scent.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Query said generally, so as not to focus his attention only on the real transhumans in costume, in case they wanted to stay anonymous. “I thought I’d stop by and share some information that just came my way: Amateur Knight is out and about tonight.”

“Shiiiiiiit,” groaned Brickhouse quietly. “I am not in a mood to bail that geek out. I heard Hardcase Brickhousealmost got killed rescuing that loser a few weeks ago.”

“He did not almost get killed. He did not even almost get injured,” Query corrected him.

“Still, I am not feeling the idea of playing nursemaid to a guy who gets himself into trouble just so he can meet folks like us,” Brickhouse retorted. There were grunts of assent from the two other real transhuman white hats nearby.

“In all fairness…” Query began, then noticed a man at the end of the counter pull the bottom of his red demonic skull mask over his mouth and chin, hastily toss down a fifty for what was clearly a tab of a lot less than that—the food and drink unfinished at that—and hurriedly stand up. Query knew the secret identity of the real Speed Demon but had never had a chance to scent-mark him, so he couldn’t be sure this was the real guy. Still, no paid body-double would be this eager to move along with Query in the room. He had no interest in busting a colorful criminal whose most notorious crimes were grand theft auto, but…

Query stepped over and stopped the costumed man with a  firm grip on one bicep. “The dark green Mercedes—it’s mine. It had better goddamn well still be there when I leave,” Query hissed, and then released the man.

“As I was saying,” Query said, returning to where Brickhouse was, “Amateur Knight is a nuisance, but as idiotic and reckless as he is, he means well and thinks he’s helping. Yes, he’s trying to get to meet a lot of us, but he really thinks he’s a sidekick to every hero.”Wreck Lass

Nearby, Wreck Lass cleared her throat. “Well-meaning or not, he puts himself in danger and then one of us has to bail him out or feel guilty that he goes to an ER for some stitches—or worse—if we don’t. And he could get one of us hurt. Least he could do is get some real armor instead of a Spandex silver suit that looks vaguely like a suit of armor.”

“You’re not going to get any argument out of me,” Query said. “I’m just giving y’all a heads-up in case you care. Like it or not, when you decided you wanted to patrol the mean streets in tights, you kinda signed on to deal with annoying shit, too. But it’s your choices,” he said, signaling a waitress so he could order a sandwich and fries to go.

* * *

“See?” Billy said. “There is no way that’s the real Query over there.”

“There are four people no one in this town is ballsy enough to dress up as,” Wallace said. “Janus, Tooth Fairy and Odium on the black hat side, and Query on the white hat side. Look, I hoped you’d get this crazy idea out of your head after a few days. Only reason I’m here while you case the joint is to remind you why you don’t want to plan—much less pull—a job like this.”

“C’mon! Look, it’s all roleplay over there. That Speed Demon who just left isn’t real and the fake Query knows it. They’re acting out a scene. A fake Query wouldn’t put his hand on someone who might be the real thing and the real Query wouldn’t let a crook just walk. And look at how this ‘Query’ is chatting up with those other fakers. Query’s a damned loner. He wouldn’t be having some stupid convo with a bunch of transhumans.”

“Billy, I don’t think you’ve worked out all the possible angles and scenarios,” Wallace countered. “I’m just saying you came here to case…”

We came…”

You  came here to case the joint and I came to provide input, and on the first visit here, we have more than one probable real honest-to-God transhuman white hat in the place.”

“Let’s say you’re right, which you aren’t. Even so, look, there’s a Dog Pound or Hellhound over there, so again, no white hat is just going to jump up and make themselves a target to deal with a small-time heist…”

“See? You can’t even figure out if that guy is Dog Pound or Hellhound. Even I can tell he’s neither because it’s just a cheesy furry dog mask and both the villains wear leather masks. He ain’t no one, but that Query is real. Don’t think about coming back here to…:”

“I won’t,” Billy said, sliding a gun across the table to Wallace and standing up to pull his own from out the waistband beneath his sweatshirt. “No need to come back since the job’s going down now when it’s perfect timing…”

Then Billy was standing, gun upraised as he shouted, “This is a robbery! Be calm and cooperate and don’t none of you motherfuckers move or pull any shit or we’ll execute every last motherfucking one of you!”

* * *

Nobody moved, but four people in costume were tensed and poised. One of them though, clad all in black with only a red question mark to adorn his mask, signaled to them with one hand to stand down.

Firmly and calmly, so that everyone could hear, Query said, “I’ve got this.”

Query-3Billy looked over at him with an expression of murder in his eyes that Wallace had seen him adopt all too often, even though he’d never actually killed anyone. He didn’t think Query—and he was certain it was the real man behind that mask—was fazed at all.

“You’ve got this, ‘Query’,” Billy taunted. “Do you, now?”

“No, he doesn’t,” came a voice with an angry growl and a little waver. “I’ve goddamn well got this.”

Bill turned his head slightly to see a gun pointed at him. Query stopped his slow approach. Wallace cleared his throat.

“Put your gun down and give yourself up to the nice Query,” Wallace said. “Or I will put a hole in your shoulder. Remember, though, I’m a lousy shot and your chest is really close to your shoulder.”

“Wallace? Man, what are you doing? We’re a team!”

“We ain’t no team here,” Wallace said. “I told you time and again I’m not going to jail and I’m not pushing my luck anymore. I told you I was only coming here with you to show you why this was a bad idea. I didn’t want you to toss me a gun when you lost your mind and started badly misquoting a scene from a great movie you claim you don’t remember. Now, though, I have a gun, you have the attention of at least one very real transhuman, and this shit is all about to end right now.”

“You won’t shoot me,” Billy said. “Just point your gun at the fake Query and let’s get on with…”

“I will sooner shoot you than let that very real Query fuck me up,” Wallace said. “And this job is over. It never shoulda started.”

Billy’s lip quivered. “Wallace? Man…”

“Don’t make me revoke your New Judah privileges permanently, Billy,” Wallace said. “I ain’t never hurt anyone before, and I don’t wanna start with you to make sure no one else gets hurt. Also I don’t think it’s worth it being your friend anymore.”

* * *

In a quiet booth, Query looked at Wallace in silence, then folded his gloved fingers together on the table in front of him.

“My fries will be ready soon, and I have things I ought to be doing,” Query said softly and steadily. “The only thing left to figure out is whether I slap a zip tie around your wrists, too, and sit you next to your buddy to wait for the New Judah police to arrive.”

“I was not down for this heist,” Wallace said. “I didn’t even know he was going to actually improv the whole thing and toss me a gun.”

“Nonetheless, I’m willing to bet this isn’t the first time you’ve held a gun and not the first time you and Billy there have been together when a robbery went down.”

“Whatever might be in my past, I’d like to leave it there. You let Speed Demon walk just now.”

Query glanced out the window and into the street. “Speed Demon left my car alone; you and your friend tried to relieve me and a lot of other people of their wallets.”

“My friend. Former friend, I might add, after this stunt. Not me.”

“I bet I could do a lot of digging and figure out what crimes you committed in the past,” Query said. “I bet the statute of limitations has run out on hardly any of them.”

“Why, man? Why would you do that?” Wallace asked, hating the whine he could hear in his undertone.

“Because I have an idea,” Query said, looking for a moment at the guy in the cheap dog mask off in the distance and then toward the register. “Oh, look! My food is ready and bagged up. So, Wallace, are you coming with me, or would you rather go with Billy and the cops in another couple minutes?”

“Guess I’m riding with you.”

“Great. We have to make a stop along the way.”

“Along the way to where? What stop?” Wallace asked, a nervous flutter in his stomach.

“Wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise,” Query answered. “By the way, what’s your inseam? And do you know your chest size by any chance?”

* * *

The woman ran her fingers through the black and green feathers of the mantle draped across her Coldravenshoulder and over her chest and upper back, then regarded him through the holes of her domino mask.

“Seriously? This is the favor you’re going to call in?” she sneered.

“Favor number one of two,” Query corrected her. “C’mon—it might even be fun. I need you because your face and costume aren’t plastered all over the media.”

Coldraven looked over at the man Query had with him, wrinkled her nose and tried to suppress a laugh. “And who’s this?”

“A guy earning a ‘Get out of jail free’ card,” Query said. “I’ll fill you in along the way.”

* * *


Amateur Knight spun around at the sound, a heavy mace in one hand and a growl issuing from his throat. “Stand down, evild…”

“Relax,” said Query. “Or, rather, refocus. I need your help. There’s someone new and green on the scene about to get killed and you happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

* * *

Amateur Knight pressed onward as Query fell back to cover him, whispering that there was an ambush team behind them.

It’s up to me, Amateur Knight thought. I can handle this.

He rounded the corner and was met with the sight of the lithe, athletic female villain in mask and feathers Query had told him about and whom he’d never seen or heard of before. And hopelessly outclassed against her was…a…a…

Who the hell is this and what is wrong with him?

“Surrender, villainess!” cried a man with a buccaneer-style mustache and goatee, brandishing a Swashbuckler Houndrapier and wearing—Amateur Knight could hardly believe the ludicrous sight—a dog suit covering everything but his face. “Lay down your arms and surrender to Swashbuckler Hound!”

Amateur Knight rushed in, knowing that while he lacked finesse at times, he had Brute powers to help shield him from serious harm in a lot of fights—and the woman fighting this newbie, he realized, was fast and agile. “Get clear, uh, Hound!” he shouted. “This is no place for you. Let me handle…”

“Look out!” shouted the man in the dog suit, lunging toward Amateur Knight, “She’s gonna…”

Swashbuckler Hound tripped and fell into Amateur Knight, stumbled past him and crashed into a wall. Before Amateur Knight could right himself, he saw the woman fling something and felt a soft, firm impact against his legs. Then dampness and stretching and gripping. He stumbled and fell himself as he realized a tangler had been thrown at him, completely tying up his legs.

Suddenly, the woman was over him, and a gun was trained right between his eyes. “Good night forever, Amateur Knight,” she snarled, and pulled the trigger.

He wasn’t sure if his ears registered the laugh first or his chest the sudden impact against his costume as the gun shifted position. But he knew both preceded him looking down to see a neon-green stain across the front of his torso.

“You’re right, that was fun,” she called out. “But I’m still mad at you.”

Amateur Knight struggled to turn his body and see who was approaching from behind. Query, with the silly-looking dog-suited amateur right next to him.

Amateur… the prone young man thought.

“Amateur Knight, I’m going to need you to focus on your memory of that bumbling fool drawing you into a dangerous situation and then messing up your approach and almost getting you killed,” Query said. “I need you to remember that foreverAmateur Knight. Do you know why?”

“Ummmm. Because…uhhh?”

“You’re taking too long,” Query said, cutting him off. “It’s because that’s how every other hero and vigilante in the city sees you, man. And this is the kind of thing we’ve been afraid of happening ever since you started making these forays out at night several months ago.”

“Oh. Uh….”

“No need to thank me or apologize—after all, you gave yourself the name Amateur Knight, so you know you have rough edges, and you’ve clearly been hoping for a mentor. I’ve just mentored you. I’ve brought clarity and understanding to your world,” Query said as he sliced at the tangler strands with a Bowie knife to release the young man. “We do understand each other, right?”

Query couldn’t see the embarrassed flush beneath the mask, but the change in posture told him everything he needed to know, even if it took a bit of time for Amateur Knight to get the words out.

“You want me off the streets, don’t you?” he finally said.

“Amateur Knight,” Query said, “you have at least one thing going for you that my little creation Swashbuckler Hound doesn’t, and that’s actual transhuman powers. But yeah, I need you off the street.”

“I just wanted…”

“Shhhhh,” Query said. “No more words. I want you off the street. I don’t think even this lesson will be able to keep you off them, though, so I’m going to have to insist you be patient while I find someone with enough patience themselves to train you. I don’t want a ‘thank you’ and I don’t want you getting your hopes up. I just want you out of that costume and out of everyone’s hair until you hear otherwise from me.”

“Do I really look as stupid as that guy did?” Amateur Knight whined, looking toward the dog-costumed man, who was pulling off the fake mustache and goatee now.

Query looked from one to the other and back again.

“No, ‘Knight, you don’t look that stupid,” Query answered. “But in comparison, you look as stupid to us experienced folks in the field as he did to you.”

“Yeah, I’ll wait to hear back from you I think,” Amateur Knight said.

* * *

“So, we cool?” Wallace asked Query as he struggled out of the stifling costume.

“We’re a long way from cool,” Query answered, “but I appreciate you cooperation and you have a clean slate with me now. Don’t squander it.”

“I get to keep my New Judah privileges?”

“Yes, Wallace, you get to stay in the city,” Query said. “This isn’t a movie, after all.”

This story is unique among my one-shots so far in that it involves a very central character in this world (Query) and doesn’t take place before or during the events of the as-yet-unfinished saga “The Gathering Storm” but after them instead. As such, this story actually reveals some minor plot points not yet revealed in “The Gathering Storm.” It’s not really a big deal, though, because those plot points have been mentioned in some of the “About” and “Bio” entries on this blog.

The sky was dark as twilight prepared to give way to full night, but the man standing in the courtyard of what had once been the Grand Marquis Hotel was darker still, with the only portions of his ensemble that weren’t black being the red question mark on his full-head mask and a red exclamation point on the palm of each glove.

As he regarded the ornate marble fountain, cracked wide open in two places along the edge, then gazed at the blackened terraces all around, he considered the battle that had taken place here two years earlier and had gutted much of the once-elite hotel. A battle he’d had no part Query-2in, but one that almost everyone in New Judah knew about.

He considered the decay and disrepair. He considered the rubbish left behind by the homeless men and women who often camped here and the junkies who often smoked or shot up here. He considered the dead bird three feet from his right boot.

Mostly, though, he simply wondered how much longer he was going to have to wait.

Forty-seven seconds later, five men converged on him from the four sides of the courtyard, all but one of them carrying Uzis and sporting small headlamps.

“Nice night,” Query said amiably, nodding to the one man not openly brandishing a weapon, as four beams of light swayed back and forth and finally all settled on him directly.

“Nice for me,” the man said. “Only nice for you in terms of being a good night to die.”

“Except your men don’t actually intend to kill me, do they?” Query said.

The man squinted at him. “Why do you think that?”

“Partly because if the plan was to kill me, Mr. Haven, the shooting would have already started, and the bullets would be flying down from the terraces above me if you were smart,” Query pointed out. “Mostly, though, because I hacked your email and saw the message to your brother Quinn in which you wrote, ‘I’m going to make Query suffer for a while before I kill him’.”

“Why would you have been hacking my email?”

“Because you did a terrible job of setting up this meeting and making it look like someone needed my help on short notice. The only way you could have made it look more like a trap would have been to send an invitation saying, ‘Your presence is requested for a very special trap’.”

Dennis Haven frowned and squinted even harder, then said, “Well, now that I’ve captured you, I imagine you’d like to know why I went to all this trouble.”

“No, thanks.”

“Pardon me?” Haven sputtered testily.

“I’ll pass on the soliloquy, thanks,” Query said. “Main reason being that you haven’t, in point of fact, actually captured me yet. So, it’s premature.”

Haven spread his hands and regarded each of his men in turn. “Just how do you think you’re going to escape from this?” he asked. “We know you didn’t bring any friends because we’ve been watching the place all day. You walked into a trap with your eyes wide open and without backup. That’s the problem with being a loner, Query: You’re always outnumbered by your enemies. Also, you’re cocky.”

“I’m going to escape simply by Hedwig strafe,” Query answered him.

A furrow formed across Haven’s brow. “What? That didn’t make any sense,” the mobster said.

“It will in a moment,” Query said, and smiled behind his mask as he heard the mini-drone with an owl head that he had named Hedwig descend from above in response to his voice command. His Sensor powers gave him an edge there, he considered—the drone was very quiet and the others wouldn’t hear it until it actually entered the courtyard.

Five heads turned as it did, seeking the source of the muffled propeller sound, and then they cried out as the drone released two dozen micro-ordinances, targeting everyone in the area who wasn’t Query. Then the drone gained altitude again as it swooped away.

“Fuck!” Haven snapped, hissing his pain as he swore. Addressing his men, he said, “If anything comes in here again, forget what I told you earlier and shoot him dead! What did your toy shoot at us? BBs? Are you fucking kidding me? Are you asking for me to hurt you even more before I kill you?”

Query shrugged. As one of Haven’s men fell to the ground, he said, “Actually, I’m asking you to take a nap and give me some goddamn peace and quiet.”

Almost in unison, Haven and the other three men dropped to the cobblestones, weapons clattering against the ground.

Query bound the mobster’s men, then dragged Dennis Haven himself to a corner of the courtyard and stuck him with a needle that brought him to consciousness in a few seconds with a shuddering, gasping start.

“OK, now I’d like to hear why you went to all this trouble,” Query said.

* * *

Swallowing his mouthful of coffee and setting the cup down on the table at which they sat—costumed hero on one side and suit-wearing lawyer on the other—Carl Beacham asked, “So what was it all about?”

“A damned woman,” Query said. “Unbelievable. Turns out Dennis Haven’s main mistress hired someone to get her free of Haven because I guess she decided the jewels and furs weren’t carl-beachamworth the abuse anymore. He was pissed because he particularly liked that specific piece of ass.”

“But that isn’t one of the jobs you’ve been hired for or that you’ve taken pro bono,” Carl pointed out.

“I know. I know my work schedule as well as you know it, Carl. It’s not like I do side jobs without keeping you in the loop.”

“So why did he target you?”

“I asked him the very same thing, and he told me that he had security video showing his lady being led away by a guy all in black with a long coat and a mask that covered his whole head and had a big red ‘X’ on the forehead,” Query said.

Carl blinked a few times and then picked up his cup again, savoring the fragrant steam. “Your mask has a question mark over your mouth, though.”

“Exactly! Told Haven the very same thing. Even asked him if he had a learning disability that made him unable to distinguish letters from punctuation or mouths from foreheads,” Query said.

“Did he?”

“Nope. Copped to the fact that he was perfectly capable of handling basic skills like that, so I slapped him around a bit just for being generally moronic and wasting my time.”

Carl took another swallow of coffee. “So, end of story, then. Mistaken identity and a bad guy behind bars because of it.”

“Hell, no,” Query snapped. “It isn’t ‘end of story’ until I find out who’s running around New Judah dressing almost exactly like me and getting my time wasted by goons with Uzis.”

* * *

The problem with trying to track down someone who dresses almost exactly like you, Query realized, is that you end up getting a lot of reports of people having seen you.

It had been three days of going through street-level informants, posting Twitter, Facebook and StreetWize requests for help, and checking in with random costumed transhumans. But no matter how often he stressed the red “X” on the forehead, what Query ended up with after all that effort were a bunch of reminders of several of the places he’d been over the past week.

The experience made him mourn for the U.S. educational system and reminded him of why eyewitness testimony was often among the least reliable evidence.

The television news reports, newspaper articles about transhuman activities, police reports and the like hadn’t been any more fruitful.

This guy is either very new to the scene or flies under the radar even more aggressively than I do, Query brooded.

Fortunato, whose people had obviously noticed Query’s activity on the street and online, left Query a message asking if he wanted The Whethermen to start hunting the doppelganger down. Query had Carl send the man a curt message to keep away from the matter—the only reason Fortunato wanted to help, Query figured, was to have him owe the billionaire something or reduce his own indebtedness.

And then, five days after the ambush by Dennis Haven, Carl told Query a message had come through his office from the man they’d been begun referring to as X.

“He called you?” Query probed.

“Actually, he used the email account for reaching you,” Carl said. “He apologizes for not realizing you were looking for him. Says he’s been out of town for a few days relocating a domestic violence victim. Wants to know if you can meet him someplace public but quiet, like Whitley Park.”

“Set it up.”

Carl paused. “You think…I dunno…this might be a trap you’re walking into on purpose and maybe you shouldn’t push your luck pulling that kind of reckless move twice in one week?”

“Well, then, I guess I’d better have Hedwig fueled up and re-armed, won’t I?”

* * *

Two men in black stood across from each other. One had a dense treeline at his back; the other the open meadows of the city park—all the better to allow Hedwig a good approach path.

X had already been here when Query arrived, and had said nothing thus far. Query returned the favor—for now—and studied him.

A smooth and utterly featureless black mask except for the single red “X.” Black boots and black gloves. Black unitard. Black flak vest. Long black trench coat. If not for the different symbol and the fact the man was slightly taller and slightly leaner than him, Query might have thought he was looking into a mirror.

No matter how close our appearance, I still don’t feel bad for beating up Dennis Haven a little bit more than necessary; he should still have been able to figure out I wouldn’t try to disguise my identity by changing my question mark into an ‘X,’ Query mused.

“Mind telling me who you are?” Query inquired of the man before him, who simply stood in an at-ease position. He wondered if the man might be recent ex-military and filed the thought away for later digging to find out who was under the mask.

“Name’s Deus X.”

“Soooo…like ‘deus ex machina’ but without the second ‘e,’ I’m guessing?”

“And without the ‘machina,’ too.”

“Naturally,” Query responded drily. “Mind telling me why you dress like me? Because it caused a bit of trouble with Janine Daly’s former beau, who thought you were me.”

“Oh. Sorry about that. Actually, you’re my inspiration. I figured people could tell the difference between a question mark and an ‘X,’ especially if I put it on a whole different part of the mask.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Go figure. So, I’m inspirational now. Not sure how to feel about that.”

“You don’t just run around beating up transhuman villains or chasing down crooks; you help people or groups that need help. You charge the ones that can afford it and you do freebies for the ones that can’t. That resonated with me. I thought about calling my operation ‘Deus Ex Machina’ since I do like you do and help people who don’t have any other choices for help, but that seemed a bit redundant with my name so I went with ‘In Extremis’ instead.”

“You like Latin a lot, don’t you?” Query retorted. “Actually, a lot of the people who hire me do have other places they can turn; they just choose not to.”

“Well, there’s one other point of distinction between our operations, then, since I only do it for people who are truly and completely up against the wall,” Deus X said.

“Bully for you,” Query answered. “So, you’re not here to apologize because one of your recent jobs got me targeted by Dennis Haven, since you didn’t know that had happened. But you knew I was looking for you, which is a big, bad warning sign to most folks and encourages them to stay away from me. So why did you agree to this meet?”

“Because even if my operation is a tiny bit more noble than yours, you’re way more talented and better equipped. I thought you could be a great resource if I asked really nicely—even if it’s just to get information and intel through you. Thought maybe you could be a bit of a mentor, too. Maybe even lend a direct hand—or fist or kick—in a job now and then.”

“Not great at being a team player,” Query said. “I’m the strong, silent, lonely type.”

“You’re on Fortunato’s team.”

“No, I consult for Fortunato’s team,” Query clarified. “And I charge him an arm and a leg every time I do.”

“Fair enough. It was just a thought. Dreaming big and all that,” Deus X said.

“So, what’s the first distinction between your operation and mine?”

“Hmmmm?” Deus X responded.

“Earlier, you said your whole ‘people with nowhere else to turn’ thing was the other point of distinction. Kind of implies there was a ‘first thing’ you mentioned earlier. Except you didn’t.”

“Oh. That. Yeah, that’s the part that sucks about you not being cool with helping me out,” Deus X said, extending his arms and waggling the fingers of each hand in a “come out” motion.

Three other costumed people stepped into sight from the shadows—not that it was any surprise to Query since he had smelled and heard them with his enhanced senses long before. He recognized one of them—a woman in a red mask and bodysuit, with large, oblong amber lenses over her eyes and a blue musical note over her mouth—as Blue Note. The other two, a man in a white unitard and mask with a gold ankh adorning his forehead, and a woman in a black cloak with orange exclamation points decorating the oversized hood and another one marking her pale cheek, he didn’t recognize.

“Query, meet Golden Ankh, Hyperbole and Blue Note,” Deus X said. “They were theoretically the rest of In Extremis, but they’re not all that hyped to band together unless you’re onboard.”

For nearly a minute, Query simply scanned the quartet slowly, his head tracking one way and then the other, saying nothing and moving no other part of his body.

Finally, he said, “Mentor, huh?”

“Yup,” Deus X said.

“Plus logistics and intelligence help.”

“Uh huh.”

“What do I get out of this?” Query asked.

“The warm and fuzzy feeling of helping some less experienced transhumans help others?”

“Do I look like a Hallmark Card store?”

“Ego boost?” Deus X suggested.

“Thanks, but my ego’s pretty big already,” Query said. “How about being sidekicks?”

“Seems a little cutesy for you, Query.”

“Well, the black hats have pretty much taken over the term ‘henchmen’ and I thought ‘minions’ sounded a little demeaning,” Query teased. “How about we call you ‘associates’?”

“And you’d be working us for your own ends how often?”

“Not very. A few times a year at most. But you’d need to be on-call and move immediately on my ‘go’ unless you were already in the middle of being shot at or pulling people from burning cars or something. And no one knows we’re working together. Ever. No one.”

“Your own secret team? Kind of goes against the whole ‘I’m not a team player’ lone wolf thing,” Deus X pointed out.

“Well, sometimes I find myself dealing with moose and bears instead of rats and sheep,” Query said. “Times like those, the lone wolf thing isn’t a good look. Better to have a pack, then. Or maybe y’all being my buccaneer crew is a better analogy.”

Deus X looked to the other three, eliciting a trio of nods.

“You’ve got a deal, Query,” Deus X said, extending his right hand.

Query shook it, then gripped hard and leaned forward toward the other man’s masked face. “One thing, though. Bad enough that Odium wears damn near the same outfit as me most days, but he’s a villain and I can’t do much about that—plus he has a red mask and no symbol. Ditch your black for Navy blue, wear a shorter coat or a utility vest, and get some eye holes or some visible lenses for your mask. Otherwise, I may have to have my other associate, who’s a lawyer, sue you for infringement.”

A low chuckle from the other man. A release of hands. And an almost imperceptible bow of Deus X’s head.

“Aye, aye, Cap’n Wolf.”


Deus X and Blue Note images based off illustrations of Marvel Comic’s Spider-Man and Spider-Girl, respectively. Source for base image used to create Hyperbole unknown. I think the image I based Golden Ankh off of was one of the G.I. Joe Ninja characters.

Dirt, he decided, tasted decidedly foul.

All the more so mixed with his own blood.

However, the taste of soil and blood in his mouth—a few stray dry pieces of grass sticking to the bloody split at the corner of his mouth—as least gave him clarity. That was a welcome thing if he was going to get out of this mess. Because when the fist had connected with his face and his face with the ground, he had felt certain he’d be out cold.

“Get up, nigger!” the older teen shouted. He was a senior, and Hugo struggled to remember his name. He wasn’t sure he’d known it all that well even before his brain had gotten rattled.


Josh was the name. He played varsity football. But why the fuck did Josh just blindside him? Hugo struggled upward, arms shakily getting him into a push-up-like position, then onto one knee in a crouch.

angry-teen“I said ‘get up’ you fucking nigger!”

Hugo spat out blood, but was relieved that no teeth followed. “I’m not a nigger,” he blurted. The statement made his gut twist coldly and he felt like a coward. His skin was brown, and he lived in Pouco Brasil—New Judah’s “Little Brazil” neighborhood. That had been the home of his family since his grandfather, after whom he’d been named, emigrated here. A light-skinned Brazilian who married a dark-skinned one and started a life in the United States at the age of 21. An act Hugo’s own father had repeated when he put bachelorhood behind him—marrying an even darker-skinned woman at 23. Almost paradoxically, Pouco Brasil was both a microcosm and a mirror image of Brazil. Like the homeland, Portuguese was the local tongue and skin colors ranged from pink to dark brown. Unlike Brazil, though, the rampant racism toward darker Brazilians was nowhere to be seen—though often the paler denizens of Pouco Brasil transferred that racism onto blacks of African-American rather than Brazilian-American heritage.

Just like I just did, Hugo thought. What a little shit I am. A coward.

“You look plenty black to me, shithead. Get up! Take your fucking medicine!”

“Medicine for what?” Hugo cried out as he stumbled to his feet and shakily took three steps back from his attacker.

A thin blonde girl—a junior named Stacy, came into view. “Leave him alone, Josh. Jesus! There’s nothing going on between us. I’ve barely said 10 words to Hank all semester.”

Hank. She called me Hank, Hugo realized.

“Josh,” Hugo warbled, “the only people who call me Hank are most of the fucking school. And most of the fucking school doesn’t give a shit about me or just doesn’t like me. That’s why I tell them to call me Hank. If your girlfriend liked me and we were doing anything, she’d call me by my birth name: Hugo.”

“Fucking spic nigger, right?” Josh shouted. “Fucking Little Brazil bastard bussed in here. I saw you giving my girl the eye today. I’m gonna fuck you up!”

Josh advanced on Hugo and Hugo backed up more. He wasn’t a fighter under normal circumstances, and he was totally outmatched by a football player, even one who was a receiver or kicker or backup quarterback or whatever the hell Josh was.

Thank God he isn’t a lineman or I probably would be missing teeth.

“I was probably giving the eye to some hot Latina behind her,” Hugo retorted.

“Oh, so now you’re saying my girl isn’t worth looking at compared to some wetback slut?”

Josh advanced faster and Hugo retreated in the same way.

Hugo’s head was spinning, and suddenly the world around him started not to make sense.

No! Not now!

It was something that had been happening a lot over the past few weeks and he’d been afraid to say anything to his dad for fear he’d end up getting looked over by doctors. And he hated doctors, and more so hospitals. His mother had died in one when he was five and the memory of visiting her hours before her death had never left his memories. Nor the memory of visiting his grandfather—who’d driven the both of them off the road while drunk—two days before that and having him die a day later.

Hugo tried to focus, and found the world slipping even farther away from comprehension.


Not the world; the people, he realized, and stopped trying to escape Josh as he realized there was a kind of halo around the older teen’s head. A bubble, maybe? Stacy had one, too. It was like a color but it also seemed like a sound and somehow, Hugo felt like he could even touch it from afar. How can something that shouldn’t even exist be something I can see and hear and touch?

Panicked and not sure what to do, Hugo touched the halo of Josh’s head with his eyes. Or his mind. Or…something. The sensation was both nauseating and exhilarating, and Hugo was almost more curious what would happen than he was afraid of being pummeled.

Josh stopped, and looked confused. And then that confusion became something else. Worry? Hugo wondered.

Then it became something so much worse.


Before Hugo could react, Josh was punching him in the belly. The ribs. Over and over. And finally, a blow right to the side of his head that made Hugo’s left ear peal like a church bell. And as the ringing screech reached its crescendo, Hugo hit the ground again.

This time, though, he was unconscious and didn’t taste the dirt or the blood.

* * *

Hugo smiled when Andrea walked into the room. He winced as that made the scab of his injured mouth break open, but he didn’t stop smiling.

A small and rare burst of happiness, even if he was in the place he hated most: A hospital. His father hadn’t even been to visit him yet—apparently, there was something going on at work that he couldn’t get away from.

Or maybe he hates hospitals more than I do and for the same reason, Hugo thought, and that made him feel even more alone. Not to mention more grateful for Andrea.

“Hey, Hugo,” she said, and punched his bicep firmly. “By the way, the doctors told me you didn’t get hurt there, just in case you think I’m heartless. What have I told you about playing rough? What did you do to Josh, anyway?”

“Nothing. He thought I had the hots for his girlfriend.”

teen-girl“No, Hugo. What did you do? There’s all kinds of talk running around the school since you got admitted here yesterday. They haven’t even suspended Josh because there’s talk you provoked him and he was acting in self-defense.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Andrea?”

“Well, Josh is telling the school you tried to make some unwanted advances on his girlfriend and then you sucker-punched him after school saying you were going to get rid of your competition. But to his close friends, he’s telling some weird stories. Only to a few people, because it’s so weird, but I’ve heard some things because I’ve got my ways, you know. To them he’s saying you messed with his mind.”

“I didn’t…I mean…” Hugo paused. “After he started in on me, when I was trying to get away from him, I started seeing something weird and I guess…I dunno…I think maybe it was something psychic. I’ve been feeling weird lately. Could I be a transhuman?”

“I don’t know, dude, but Josh says you changed.”


“He told his buddies that suddenly, it wasn’t you there. It was a police officer that looked a lot like you and he says you must have had him seeing things because you hit him with a ‘psychic blast’ that stunned him and that’s the only reason he hit you. That’s his story to his friends, anyway. I think he hit you first. But it’s all bullshit, though.”

“What do you mean…bullshit? How? Maybe I did blast him…”

“Hugo, I don’t know exactly what the fuck Psi crap you did to him, but it wasn’t a ‘blast.’ He’s a terrible liar and only his friends would believe him. I think he did see a cop where you were. Josh hates cops. His stepfather is a cop and beats him silly sometimes. There’s no one he hates more than that guy except his mom for marrying the bastard to begin with. Plus, Josh has gotten picked up by the cops at least three times for drug possession or being drunk in public. If his dad wasn’t a cop, he’d have been in jail a few times already.”

“Great,” Hugo said. “I have a transhuman power that makes me look like a cop? That has to be the lamest shit around.”

Andrea smiled.

She was Hugo’s best friend in high school and had been since fifth grade. Maybe his only real friend in any school. A fellow sophomore and a fellow outsider, though people liked her more than him—he was more than an outsider; more like an outcast. But she was his friend and he kept her close. Maybe because when she smiled, like she was doing right now, the whole world lit up. If he wasn’t so happy being her buddy, he’d probably have been dating her by now.

Or if I wasn’t so chickenshit.

“What?” Hugo asked. “Why are you smiling?”

“I doubt you’d have a power that specific, dumb-ass. But I think it’s cool you might have one at all. And when they’re sure your skull is OK and they clear you to get out of here, we’re gonna find out just what it is you do. I think I already have a good idea. But you’re probably almost right; it’s probably even more useless than making yourself look like a cop.”

* * *

In one of the more heavily forested edges of Whitley Park, Hugo stood 10 feet away from Andrea. She smiled again—that enchanting smile that kept her on the periphery of so many cliques in high school and not as much the loner as he was. There was also nervousness in that smile. But expectation as well. And, Hugo thought, a hope for something amazing.

“What are we doing here, again?” he asked. “And why am I standing so far from you?”

“Here’s what I think,” Andrea said. “I think you’re a Psi and I think you can make people see you as the things they hate most.”

“Okaaaay. And so…why again are we here? And why am I all the way over here?”

“I want you to try it on me.”


“Science. Curiosity. Morbid curiosity, maybe.”

“I don’t want you to hate me, Andrea. You’re the best friend I have.”

“Oh, don’t be stupid. Josh doesn’t hate you any more than he did before—well, maybe a little more, since Stacy broke up with him. Not that I expect that to last. I just want you far enough away so that if I go trying to assault you, you can stop what you’re doing or at least run away until whatever you do wears off. Not like I want to beat you up any more than you already are.”

“I dunno…”

“C’mon! If you’re transhuman, let’s find out. You should probably learn to use what you have so that you don’t get into trouble if it kicks in again. Learn how to control it and shut it off and stuff.”

Hugo wasn’t even sure he could do what he’d done again. And if he could, the thought of Andrea hating him, for even a little while…

“Hugo! Earth to Hugo! Seriously, you need to work on this. And there’s no one else who’s likely to volunteer to be the guinea pig. Do it!”

For a moment, Hugo heard the “Do it!” in Josh’s voice instead of Andrea’s and remembered the senior telling him to “Get up!” He thought of the things Josh had called him. For a moment, he felt a flash of anger toward Andrea, and it made him sick.

And then the halo appeared—the bubble around her head that was tangible to him and calling to him. No, not calling; singing. And there were colors there, or something like colors, because he had no name for some of them—nor for the almost-scent of them that tickled not his nose but something deeper in his mind.

“C’mon!” she urged impatiently.

Hugo touched her there. At the edge of that aura. His mind to hers.

He saw a similar play of emotions on the sophomore’s face as Josh had expressed, and Andrea snarled. Stepped forward. Stopped. Almost lunged at him. There was something wild in her eyes.

Hugo panicked, and tried to disengage from her mind. For a moment, it seemed like he couldn’t. Her halo seemed sticky. It seemed to want to pull him in. But with something like the feeling of a wet, growling rubber band, he was out again.

Andrea’s face was confused. She swayed a bit and he thought she might fall. She blinked. Closed her eyes. Opened them again to look at him. And sighed. Her smile was nervous at first. Then elated. The world lit up as it always did when she smiled.

“Fuck, Hugo! For a moment there, you looked like a person made of damn snakes. All kinds of snakes. Slithering and hissing.”

Hugo didn’t know what to say.

“I hate snakes, Hugo! Godammit, I was right.”

* * *

Hugo’s face still hurt. And his ribs. And his kidney. But his father’s words hurt more.

“Don’t do that again, Hugo,” Eduardo said. “Don’t pick fights, especially fights you can’t win.”

“I didn’t Dad!”

Eduardo Silva_1999Eduardo waved away his son’s word with a double-flick of his wrist. “Don’t! There aren’t going to be any charges. Your word against his, and that girlfriend of his is the only witness. She doesn’t want to say anything about either one of you. Don’t fuck with another boy’s girl, boy.”

“Dad, I’m telling you…”

“Enough. Son, it’s just you and me, at least for the next couple years, and then you’ll be off,” Eduardo said, a strange hitch in his voice that Hugo couldn’t place. “No one left but you and me,” he added, and Hugo could see the memory of his late wife Monique in the man’s eyes. The memory of Hugo De La Silva. Hugo remembered how it was only weeks after both of them were buried that he’d changed their name to simply Silva, as if to wash away the memory of his own father. Almost as if he knew what his son was thinking, Eduardo put on a pair of sunglasses and mumbled something about going out for a little while. “Just stay out of trouble. Now go. I love you, Son.”

As Hugo headed for his room, he wondered—as he had so many times before—why his father’s voice seemed pained when he said those three words that most boys all wished their father would say—even if they wouldn’t admit it.

* * *

“Why are we here?” Andrea said in Whitley Park, almost exactly where they’d met before two weeks earlier.

Hugo laughed.

“OK, déjà vu,” Andrea admitted with a grin. “We’ve switched roles. Seriously, though, why are Odium_15-yr-old_01we here again?”

“Because something’s been nagging at me, Andrea. There was something more.”

“What?” she said, and now she was intrigued instead of wary.

“When I did that…thing…before…I felt something. Something pulling at me. Like there was another level. But I didn’t touch it.”

“What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know, but maybe there’s more to my power. Maybe I can do something more useful than encouraging people to attack me,” he said with a chuckle. “I figure I don’t need to have a way to make people dislike me more. What do you say? Be my guinea pig again?”

She didn’t hesitate. “Oh why not? Hit me, baby!” she said, and rolled her shoulders back a few times to relax, then clasped her hands in front of her. “Ready when you are.”

Hugo reached toward her again—the aura was easy to pull up now. He’d been able to master the art of perceiving it in anyone at will now without being under duress. He’d also been able to toss away his glasses, though he wore them around his dad. Everyone else he’d let think he was wearing contacts now. He was pretty sure his vision was better than perfect now, but that power—a Sensor power, he guessed—wasn’t foremost on his mind.

As he pressed forward into her psyche, he saw Andrea tense and become angry. Then he let the pull he’d felt before draw him to the next level. No, the next layer. He sensed nothing beyond it, and simply felt that new part of her mind. Stroked it and pushed. Activated it as he had activated hatred before, and hoped it wouldn’t simply make her more angry.

Her demeanor changed almost immediately.

She looked terrified.

But she didn’t run. Unlike the hatred which had spurred her to almost pounce, this terror seemed to root her in place. He wondered what she saw now. Probably still snakes. That’s what he figured. But they didn’t evoke the same feeling in her now. Fear instead of anger.

He didn’t release the connection. It felt comfortable, and since she wasn’t going anywhere and she wasn’t attacking, he figured he could talk to her a bit and then end this.

“I wasn’t sure…I thought it might be…” he started. “I remembered a teacher saying something about how we hate what we fear. Or fear what we hate. Or something like that. From some Shakespeare play or something. Because most people deep down fear something, and that’s why they hate it. Like Josh and cops. And calling me a nigger. He was really just afraid, but I had to push deeper to get that going. You don’t really hate snakes; you’re afraid of them, and we both should have realized that.”

Andrea’s eyes were wild now, and Hugo felt a pang of remorse. He had to break this off now. Why hadn’t he just done it already and told her his thoughts afterwards?

Because this feels good.

That’s what it was. Good. Really  good. Sexual? No, not that. He was inside the walls of her mind and doing this made him feel right. No, that wasn’t it, either.


For the first time since he’d been a little boy who still had a whole family, he felt real again. He felt whole.

Andrea was shaking. She was…

Oh God, is she having a seizure?

Hugo pulled out of her mind, and rushed to her as she fell to the ground in the throes of violent spasms. Her mind probably filled with the horrifying, terrifying image of him as a mass of snakes that wouldn’t leave her alone. Filling her with hopeless fear.

Hugo ran.

She needed help. He couldn’t carry her. He needed to find a phone.

Then he ran back to her.

I’m an idiot. She has a cell phone in her purse. I don’t, but she does.

Hugo called for help. And prayed. And waited as he held her shaking body in his arms and hated himself.

* * *

“What the hell did you do to her?” his father shouted.

“Nothing!” Hugo cried. It wasn’t true, he realized, but he hadn’t done any of the things that were running through his father’s mind right now. Of that he was certain.

“What were you doing in Whitley Park? What were you two doing? What did you do? Her parents are angry. They’re talking about the police, Hugo! Did you give her drugs? Did you try to rape…”

“No, Dad! I didn’t touch her. Except when I was trying to help her after the seizure. I swear!”

“Bullshit!” his father roared. Hugo rarely saw his father angry, and this was the first time in years he’d even shouted. Even now, though, the man was restrained despite the harshness of his words. Of all the things Hugo feared, being beaten by this man wasn’t one of them. His father had never raised a hand to him, not even to spank him. “Hugo, something happened. First that football player; now this! What’s going on? What are you into? What did you do?”

Hugo’s mind reeled. He already felt horrible for pushing too far with Andrea. If her parents thought he had done something, he knew the police wouldn’t find any evidence of anything. A rape kit would prove they hadn’t had sex. Her body was uninjured because he hadn’t attacked her. A toxicology report would show her clean; he knew she’d never done anything harder than pot, and even that rarely.

“Dad…I…I’m a transhuman. It just happened. It happened when Josh beat me up. I mean, it came out then; it’s been happening for a while, I think. Andrea was helping me figure out my powers. It just got out of hand.”

For a moment, his father simply stared. Then shook his head. “No. No no no. I won’t have you making tales. Tell me what really happened.”

“It’s true.”

Only one way to prove to him. Only one way to show…Andrea didn’t attack me right away. Dad doesn’t hit me or hardly even yell. I can show him and pull back before he loses control. I won’t push to that second layer…

Hugo reached out to his father’s mind and felt the connection. It seemed as if Eduardo’s eyes squinted and as if some emotion crossed his face. Hugo couldn’t be sure. But he knew he’d done it, and held the connection for a few seconds. He paused.

“What did you see, Dad?”

“What are you talking about, Hugo?”

“What did you see, just now, for just a brief flash? What did I look like?”

“You look like you, Hugo. What are you on about?”

“No. I changed. You saw something else. What did you see when you looked at me just a few seconds ago?” Hugo’s voice was pleading now. He didn’t understand.

“I saw you, Hugo. What the hell else do you think I would have seen?”

Hugo’s breath caught in his throat. For ten seconds, he couldn’t breathe as his father looked on, dumbfounded.

Oh, God. Oh, no.

It was clear suddenly. His father, made motherless when Hugo was just a baby and the boy’s grandmother had succumbed to cancer. Eduardo’s wife, Monique, taken from him when Hugo was only five. Dead because Hugo’s grandfather had been driving her home drunk off his ass. His father raising him since then, all alone. No other family. Everything lost to him. Raising a son with the same name as the man who’d killed his wife so carelessly.

I am the one thing my father most hates in this world.

Hugo probably could have poured his power into his father for hours and the man wouldn’t have struck him. He was that good at bottling his anger. Every single time he’d said he’d loved Hugo, it had been a lie. Hugo was a burden. The greatest pain in his father’s life. His father hated him, and probably didn’t even really know it.

He hates me. My father hates me. I’ve put my only friend into a coma and if she wakes up she’ll hate me, I know it. My father has hated me since I was five and it was just the two of us. I’ve never had anyone but Andrea and I’ve destroyed that now, too.

Hugo realized he was crying. He looked into his father’s nearly placid—if slightly confused—face and realized that the calm affect was just a mask. Behind it was hate.

Hugo turned and fled. Ran from the house. Down the street. Into the heart of the city.

* * *

There had been fear at first.

Odium_15-yr-old_02He couldn’t go back to school; not that he wanted to. He couldn’t go see Andrea; not that she’d want him to even if he could. He couldn’t go home to the lie of a loving father.

He was 15 and alone. Hated and hating himself.

Then, after a day or so, there had been comfort.

He was free.

Always a loner, lucky to have any casual friends at all and luckier still to have had a true friend in Andrea.

He’d managed to call the hospital under the pretense of a being a relative seeking to visit Andrea, just to find out what he could. She wasn’t in a coma anymore—that much he discerned. But she was in the psych ward now, and he wondered what trauma he had wrought. What damage was done to her mind and her emotions.

With no money and no place to stay, he’d become frantic. He’d targeted a guy he thought looked like a shithead anyway. Hugo made the man hate him and then made him afraid of him. As the stranger cowered in a corner of an alley, Hugo took the man’s wallet and ran.

The money carried him for several days, and he was even able to get a cheap room for a couple nights. In the Hollows—the poorest neighborhood and most violence-ridden one in New Judah, lots of hotels took cash and didn’t ask questions. And Hugo knew he had little to fear from those who lived in that place.

Now, more than three days after fleeing his home, he wasn’t sure how he’d ended up in front of the main branch of New Judah’s library downtown. Oh, he knew he’d taken the bus, but wasn’t sure what drew him here. And then he considered how English classes had been one of his few bright spots in high school. Reading and writing. Hugo knew he wasn’t especially book-smart, but he was pretty good at that stuff.

And now he was inside the library. In the reference section.

He was a transhuman. A transhuman with no more family and no friends. His father had worn a mask for 10 years in front of his own son—a mask that looked like his own face. Looking into the face of a son whom Eduardo had so often said had his mother’s eyes.

I can put on a mask, too. A real one. I only have one way to live now—off my powers. No other future. I can put on a mask; maybe a costume. I can survive. Alone. Like I’ve always been.

He was, he realized, the embodiment of hatred. That was his identity now. His self. His future.

But hatred wasn’t enough. The word was too weak. It didn’t express just how freakish and just how wrong Hugo was. It didn’t truly speak to who and what he was.

He pulled a thesaurus from one of the shelves. Flipped through it until he found the entry for hatred. Looked down the list of synonyms, and almost smiled. He found the word he needed.

The name he needed.

I am Odium.

The tinkle of bells intruded on her solitude—well, perhaps solitude was the wrong word, with the owner of the shop behind the counter in front of her, laying out herbs and vials for her to inspect. Setting out wares in hopes the mambo would buy even more of them than she had intended when she entered.

But for a glorious half-hour in the curio and voodoo shop, it had been her and the shop owner alone, she thought, as she pointed to the jimson weed and sulfur with one long, clear-glossed nail, nodding to the owner that she wanted both added to her order.

voodoo-shopFor some 30 minutes, there had been just the two of them. No curious tourists stumbling in from too much drinking on Bourbon Street to “experience” voodoo first-hand like gawkers at a zoo. No ignorant locals who thought a few exotic powders or dried leaves would give them magical power over the world. No fellow practitioners whom she typically chafed.

And it would, of course, end up being one of the latter, she thought, sighing inwardly as the door to the shop closed and the bell hanging from it progressed quickly toward silence. A houngan who held her in particular disdain. He cleared his throat with a noise that communicated all too well his disgust and irritation. She half expected him to spit a thick wad of phlegm on her.

“Unruly child. Undisciplined whore,” Harmon de la Croix said, spitting words instead of saliva. “How long will you be here?”

“I am not a child or a whore, Harmon,” answered Christine Barrow, turning toward him and regarding him with a face made up half black and half white to make it seem skull-like beneath her black top hat. “I am a mambo in need of supplies. I’ll be done soon and remove my presence from yours.”

“You are no proper mambo. You are a heretic and I would have you remove yourself from New Orleans—and from Louisiana—if I could,” Harmon sneered. “Baroness Samedi indeed. You offend him and all loa with such pretention naming yourself that. You particularly offend his wife, Maman Brigitte.”

“If he is so offended, why does that particular loa ride me so often, Harmon?” Christine answered. “I am Baroness Samedi when I dispense justice and protection with my transhuman powers. I am Mambo Barrow when I preside over ceremonies with the faithful. I intend no offense; instead, I honor him. I am an earthly consort whom he blesses to be of service to others, making my transhuman powers stronger when he rides me, and I thank his dear Maman for letting me be such to him.”

“You are a foul-mouthed, immature woman who has delusions of superiority and probably a touch of Tourette’s syndrome. Even Baron Samedi would blush at the obscene phrases you speak when he supposedly rides you. And certainly he is offended by the way you use your powers of illusion—your transhuman abilities—to make ghostly images of him descending upon you. Tricks to lure followers to your ceremonies. Sacrilege!”

Christine flushed with anger and hurt, and found herself in a rare moment of cursing the fact she had a white father and that her mother’s brown skin was so light. Christine looked very nearly Caucasian to the casual eye, and the blush was probably visible on her neck below the makeup, letting the houngan know he had actually scored an emotional blow.

I do sometimes regret using my powers during ceremonies, she thought. But the faithful often benefit by being able to see what I see or feel, or some semblance. My faith is real, and my devotion to the good god Bondyè is true. And if I name myself after Samedi, is it my fault? I know there are other loa who serve Bondyè, and sometimes they ride me. But Baron Samedi comes to me so much more often. I am a mambo, not a loa nor the Good God. It is not my place to refuse to be ridden, only to moderate Samedi’s actions sometimes when he is upon me and to make him dismount if he overstays his welcome.

“I am a mambo and act with the power of faith and true conviction, Harmon. You are a houngan and I respect your practice as a priest. But I spit on your value as a gentleman and regret that you fail as a peer, making me an outsider.”

“I’m not the only one,” Harmon said as Christine paid for her supplies and passed by him, ready to patrol the streets for a few hours as Baroness Samedi before she removed her makeup and dressed less garishly for tonight’s services with her small but growing flock. His small, dark eyes bored into her and he stroked one side of his thin black-and-gray mustache absently. “Many of us refuse to be associated with you, lest you corrupt our relationships with the loa and our commitment to the good god Bon Dieu.”

“Thank Bondyè and his loa, then, that a few houngans and mambos have more sense and give me the same respect I offer—the respect I wish you would let me offer you.”

“I want nothing from you, heretic,” he answered her as she stepped out to the sidewalk. “Nothing but your absence. And thank our creator Bon Dieu that I am finally granted that.”

* * *

Christine sat at her vanity table, staring for long minutes into the mirrored glass before her. For perhaps the thousandth time since she had developed her transhuman powers at age 12 and later entered the voodoo priesthood, she considered using her powers of illusion to make herself look more like the black woman she was. So many women like her over the generations had been happy to pass, but she wasn’t one of them. Mama said they could trace their family back to Marie Laveau and even farther back to priests of Haitian vodou. Yet on days like these, she felt her paleness mocked all of that.

But changing how she looked wouldn’t change who she was—who she was proud of being most days. Moreover, it would dishonor both the mother and father who had raised her. Besides, people had seen her with this lightly tanned skin for the entire 31 years of her life that she’d been in the Orleans Parish; what good would it do to use powers of illusion to darken her visage and hands? And where would she stop after that? Make her hair appear kinky and black instead of straight and brown?

I am as Bondyè’s will and world have made me. I am a mambo. I am also a transhuman protector of this city. My illusions are for patrolling and for ceremonies. Not for vanity or to soothe regrets and emotional wounds that I refuse to let go of or let heal.

She considered the array of makeup before her, both mundane and exotic, and considered whether she should do up her face as a skull again and work out her frustrations on some thugs in the dark side streets of the French Quarter so that a few less tourists would go to their hotel rooms as mugging victims tonight. She was tired, though. It has been a good ceremony tonight, and the loa Ayida-Weddo—the rainbow serpent—had ridden her tonight. Usually it was Baron Samedi or one of his fellow sexualized and profanity-loving Ghede. It had been far too long since one of the Rada loa had visited her congregation. Longer still since one of the Petro loa had, either, but Christine dreaded the violence they sometimes brought with them.

Baron Samedi and his Ghede kin might bring an air of debauchery and mischief to my ceremonies, but better to have bawdiness than brawling. Bruised thighs are usually more pleasurable in the aftermath than black eyes.

As she struggled with decisions and realized how dark the circles under her eyes were tonight, a light tap at her door demanded attention.

“Yes?” she inquired.

The door opened and a tall man with skin so dark it could almost legitimately be called black peered in. He smiled disarmingly in that usual way of his that suggested he meant no intrusion and at the same time wanted very much to brighten the room with a ribald joke or a loud, long laugh.

“Matthew. What can I do for you?” she asked of the man, who was one of her chief assistants, both in the conduct of this small voodoo church and the carrying out of her transhuman duties in costume.

“I have good news for you, Mambo,” he said. “I have gotten word from some of our friends abroad. We finally have a fix on Mister Voodoo.”

Christine smiled a grin so wicked it was like a razor-sharp sickle. Most people wouldn’t smile at thoughts of Mister Voodoo, much less two people in the same room express glee at the speaking of his name. But they had been hunting for him a long time. And any hunter is happy when the quarry is finally in sight.

“Where? Where is he, Matt?” she asked breathlessly. Harmon may have called her a heretic but Mister Voodoo was the one carrying out true sacrilege. In name and in deed, he exemplified everything in popular culture that made her religion of voodoo and its Haitian cousin vodou seem like something wicked and perverse.

“Atlanta, Mambo. The outskirts, anyway. He is here in the South again, but this time, he didn’t hide so well. Several hundred miles from us, sadly, but from what I’m told, he seems like he won’t be leaving Georgia any time soon. We have him, Christine. Baroness Samedi has him.”

“I don’t have him until he’s actually down—dead or, preferably, in someone’s custody,” she reminded Matthew. “Let everyone know there won’t be services for at least a few days. Have them say prayers and perform rituals on my behalf at home. I’ll need all the blessings I can get for this.”

* * *

Christine, in her full Baroness Samedi costume and makeup, stepped out of the rental van, smoking pouring forth before her from a cigar clutched between her teeth and embraced by her black-and-white-painted lips. The taste of expensive rum was on her tongue—not enough for a serious buzz but enough to entice Baron Samedi, she hoped. Tobacco and booze were the lures to bring him forth, and she feared she would need him soon. She’d need to risk a little of her edge to do that.

Setting the cigar down at the edge of the van’s side door, next to an open bottle of rum, and trailing smoke in her wake, she led three men—one of them a heavily armed Matthew—from the van toward the house in which Mister Voodoo was said to be baron_samedi_ii_by_koennya-d5jt6akholed up. She and Matthew headed for the front door, and the other two headed around back; this wasn’t going to be a subtle operation. The strategy might not be the best, but she intended to kick in the doors and take Mister Voodoo down hard and fast. The more finesse and stealth, she figured, the less likely they’d attack strongly and the more likely their approach would be seen.

Besides, Baron Samedi adores disruptions and chaos—if I want his help today, I need to do what will attract his attention and draw his blessings upon me, she theorized. It’s worked before; I really need it to work today.

Before she and Matthew could reach the front door, hoping to be more or less in sync with Leroy and Vic kicking in the back door, Baroness Samedi heard a sharp cry from the back of the house and recognized it as Vic. She heard Leroy shout, “Remember, the zombies are victims!”—then heard several shots fired. She and Matthew hesitated as they tried to figure out whether to head around back to help or continue toward the front door. Finally, she barked, “Move! Knock it in!”

Matthew surged forward, and kicked the door with a Doc Marten-booted right foot, which was attached to a 6-foot-3-inch,  240-pound body that rarely missed a daily trip to the gym. The door framed splintered, the door flew inward—suddenly, a gaunt, desiccated person lunged at him, flailing meaty fists attached to a pair of withered arms. For a person that looked like a corpse, the swings had a great deal of energy and inertia behind them, forcing Matthew to backpedal. Mister Voodoo appeared in the doorway then, a gun leveled at Baroness Samedi’s right-hand man. Three shots rang out, hitting Matthew in the bicep, shoulder and finally his chest. He tumbled to the ground and the “zombie” that had preceded Mister Voodoo out of the house fixated on her and charged.

She didn’t want to kill him—or her. So hard to tell given the condition of the shirtless, shoeless body in wrinkled jeans. The horrid thing in front of her, as much as it looked like a member of the undead, was just some poor victim—a living person consigned to an earthly hell. Mister Voodoo had the power to control minds, though it seemed he needed considerable time to zombie-shirtlessestablish a link and control, since he’d never simply wrested an enemy’s will away in a fight. Why these poor thralls looked the way they did was still largely a mystery. Baroness Samedi’s sources had liberated one zombie from Mister Voodoo years earlier and nursed her back to some semblance of health, and they theorized that either he had Necro or Disruptor powers he used to damage their tissues and organs, or that he was a Vamp that slowly fed on their bodily fluids.

Opinion leaned toward the latter, since he seemed to go through zombies fairly rapidly, with what seemed to be a new set of three to five of them every few weeks.

Disruptor, Necro or Vamp—whichever it is I almost certainly don’t want him touching me or I’m probably finished.

She didn’t want to kill the zombified thrall, but she also couldn’t afford to be grappling with the wretchedly altered person, so she fired at its legs. Not being all that good an aim, though, and mostly used to relying on her powers, it took six bullets to finally bring the zombie to the ground. Meanwhile, Mister Voodoo was firing at her. He wasn’t any kind of marksman himself, and actually hit his own zombie several times. A few other bullets whizzed past Baroness Samedi as she emptied her gun on him, hoping she’d hit something vital or at least incapacitating. A bullet finally caught her in the left hip and she stumbled. She saw him take careful aim and tumbled away quickly, crying out as she rolled over her hip wound several times and left wet, red stains in the grass. Two bullets sprayed soil and grass from the spot where she had been, and then Mister Voodoo was clicking on an empty magazine.

Baroness Samedi struggled back up to her legs unsteadily as Mister Voodoo charged toward her, seemingly free of even a single gunshot wound despite her volley of bullets. Seeing her regain her bearing, he slowed up to prepare for an attack, and grinned cockily at her.

“Oh, this is rich! A voodoo mambo coming to take me down. Too bad you’re just gonna fail, bitch,” Mister Voodoo said. “Your two dudes are being pummeled and chewed on in my backyard and your wingman is down in my front lawn. I’ve heard about you, Baroness Samedi. Such a joke. Superstitious cunt! Delusional slut with a need to justify the fact she like the occasional gang-bang by the superstitious coons that follow her. And you think your powers get stronger when Baron Samedi rides you. You’re too stupid to realize it’s just adrenaline or whatever, and your powers kicking up under stress. Well, I’m gonna stress you out; no doubt of that. But whatever that stresses squeezes out of you in terms of power, it ain’t gonna be enough. I’ll be beating you down and maybe fucking you ‘til you’re dead. Or maybe I’ll make you my newest zombie. Wouldn’t that be freakin’ ironic?”

He charged her, reaching for her arm. He snapped his fingers around her wrist as she tried to pull the limb away from his grasp.

And he closed on thin air.

Startled, he stepped back and then, as he reoriented, he saw her a few feet away. Whatever satisfaction Baroness Samedi had felt over tricking him, using her illusion powers to make herself appear much closer than she was, they were dulled by the knowledge she was bleeding and limping, and wouldn’t be able to stay out of his reach for long—or continue to generate complex illusions, for that matter.

She felt nothing of her favored loa’s presence in her. She was operating on her power alone, against a transhuman villain who’d never been captured and had killed dozens of people over the course of his career—hundreds perhaps if he did indeed consume the very life essence of his withered and mind-controlled slaves.

She regarded her enemy, searching for a weakness. Searching for a plan of attack. Circled slowly as she limped on a throbbing, blood-soaked leg.

Mister Voodoo just kept smiling, his teeth glistening white and just a single gap in front where a canine had either been knocked out or extracted. His eyes were a sharp, light brown—mottled hazel and boring into her with intense concentration. MisterVoodooHis costume was a canvas tunic with all kinds of supposedly voodoo paraphernalia adorning it—chicken claws, shark fangs, mummified fingers and toes, and more—some of them oddities she’d never seen in any voodoo shop. In a few places, mandrake roots were sewn to the material, and from his neck hung a voodoo doll of beige felt that was pierced with at least a dozen pins and nails, with red spots around them that could be fake blood or might real, though fake seemed more likely unless he’d just recently applied it.

Voodoo doll! That pisses me off on top of everything else. He’s made it into the violent, curse-associated tool that movies and stories love so much. I’ve never known a houngan or mambo who ever used a voodoo doll for anything other than a blessing or—in the worst-case scenario—to exert some control over someone whose behavior needed to be reined in.

She realized he probably had some sort of body armor under the crude, totemic tunic. Probably a codpiece of some sort, too, so she wouldn’t be too quick to aim for his balls. He sported heavy leather and steel gauntlets to protect his hands and forearms, shoulder and elbow pads, and heavy steel-toed boots and knee pads. She was facing off against a man more heavily protected than a football player, except for his lack of helmet. His head was the only place she was sure to do some damage. Now she just needed an illusion to distract him so she could—

Baroness Samedi grunted as she was hit from behind and as frail-looking but strong arms wrapped around her and dragged her to the ground. One of his other zombies, having snuck up behind her.

“This is where it ends, bitch,” Mister Voodoo said, now sauntering toward her with slow, arrogant steps. “This is where you die or end up my newest bony-ass slave. So sweet. Another win in the Mister Voodoo column.”

“Fuck that, you pompous cunt-waffle,” she snarled, surprised at her language. Then she smiled. She almost never swore unless Baron Samedi or one of the other Ghede were upon her. Her patron hadn’t abandoned her. He had come to lend his power. She sighed as she felt the spirit of the loa settle over her. Mount her. “We ain’t even danced yet sugah, and here you are getting ready to suck the life outta me. How goddamned rude of you. What ever happened to romance?”

She stood up, ignoring the pain in her hip and leg now, standing and dragging the zombie back up with her, its arms still pinning her arms to her sides. Baroness Samedi felt a warm ripple of comfort wash over her injured limb and smiled. The loa Baron Samedi was a trouble-maker and charmer, the lord of the dead and an aficionado of tobacco, alcohol and sex. But he could also heal and cure disease in whomever he desired. A power she enjoyed when he rode her at times like these.

“So you’re standing. Big deal. You still ain’t going nowhere,” Mister Voodoo taunted her. “Not in time, at least. You ain’t even trying to throw illusions against me. Weak cunt.”

“My cunt’s wet and strong, darlin’,” came the sensuous voice from Baroness Samedi’s mouth. “Too bad you won’t get to find out, fuckwad. Maybe you’d like some cock from me instead, baby. Like you’ll be getting a daily dose of in prison, peckerwood.”

The ground exploded all around Mister Voodoo as gauzy-looking but substantial tentacles—five in all—burst from the ground. Quasi-matter constructs that flailed, slapping him around and then slapping him to the ground. One whipped toward Baroness Samedi and pulled one of the zombie’s arms from her roughly. She pushed the poor thing away and stepped toward Mister Voodoo, who had scrambled through the morass of tentacles spawned by the Ecto powers Baroness Samedi had never even known she had access to before. Her heart sang at this newest gift from the loa.

“I ain’t scared of you, bitch! What? You came after me because you don’t like my little take on voodoo. My special branding. I was raised in that superstitious shit. Fuck your stupid-ass religion! I’ll mock it and make people fear it more until the day I die. All while I kill and steal and take what I want.”

Unstable as quasi-matter was, the tentacles began to dissociate, and he batted one away, satisfied to watch it quiver and vanish.

“You can’t keep your fake cock up, can you, Baroness Samedi? Worthless cunt. Dead woman walking.”

“You’ve used death words a couple times now, limp-dick,” Baroness Samedi crooned. “And that’s just the problem. This is the lord of the dead riding this woman’s body and soul, and he’s a little sick of you sending quite so many people to him before their natural time. Just because I let the dead into the next life don’t mean I want a fucking crowd at my door of confused bastards. You insult this woman’s religion and you insult me and all the loa, cock-wad. And my dicks have spiritual Viagra flowing like rum on Bourbon Street, he-bitch!”

Three new tentacles coalesced from the air, batting Mister Voodoo around as Baroness Samedi walked calmly to where Matthew lay on the ground. He was breathing, but erratically, and she passed her hands over his wounds, the bullets slowly pressing out of his flesh and the holes sealing as if he’d never been shot. Only the smears of blood on his skin showed anything had happened. Baroness Samedi turned at the snap of a branch, Mister Voodoo racing toward her through the flurry of quasi-matter tentacles.

She snapped her finger, and a new tentacle appeared in front of him, rigid and straight, and his forehead ran straight into it. He stumbled, stunned, and then fell back as it punched him in the face four times.

“I ain’t done with the stud down here. Gotta fix up this rich piece of beefcake for my mambo. Wait your goddamn turn, Mister Frou-Frou.”

Passing her hands over Matthew one last time to complete the regeneration of his wounded body, Baroness Samedi walked to Mister Voodoo and gazed down at him, her head cocked and eyes curious.

“Did you think I’d forget about ya, sweetie?” she asked almost demurely. “I still got a treat for you. I’ll love you long time, soldier!”

A shimmering, ghostly tentacle struck him in the mouth several times, splitting his lip, and then hit him six more times. He struggled to his knees, coughing, and spit up several teeth in a spray of fine red mist. Then the tentacle slid quickly into his mouth and down his throat. He went rigid, scrabbled at it with his fingers, and stumbled, gagging desperately but nearly silently, breath lost to him.

“I loved the movie ‘Deep Throat’ back in the day. The loa like the movies, too. I just always preferred the X-rated ones,” Baroness Samedi said. “How do you like that cock, fucker? This day just isn’t motherfucking going your way all of a sudden, is it?”

When Mister Voodoo went still, the tentacle vanished and the zombie that had attacked Baroness Samedi before simply wandered aimlessly in circles, its unconscious master unable to give it direction. Baroness Samedi sighed as she felt the loa’s presence lift away from her, surprised with how gently she’d been mounted and dismounted today.

She shook her head, got her bearings, and then handcuffed Mister Voodoo. Once she confirmed that her other two men were—as she feared—dead, she roused Matthew and called the police.

Nothing ever goes as planned, she thought sadly, but at least the job is done.

* * *

In a show of coincidence and symmetry so contrived that Christine could only assume it was engineered by the loa themselves, houngan Harmon de la Croix walked once again into the same shop where they had traded words days before, just as she was ready to leave.

“Hmph!” Harmon snorted as he saw her. “At least today you’re not flaunting your heresy by dressing like Baron Samedi. Some of the other houngans and myself thank you, though, for dealing with Mister Voodoo. You’re still a whore and a fraud, though.”

Christine smiled wanly, responding, “It was my honor to serve the loa and the creator god in doing so. But what, Harmon—what will finally get you to stop calling me those horrible names and accept me as a mambo?”

“Can you make the Christians and Hollywood and all the rest stop misrepresenting and fearing us?”

“No, Harmon. I’m no miracle worker. Just a mambo.”

“Not even a mambo,” he retorted. “Just a foul-mouthed slut pretending at being a priestess.”

Christine gave him no response as she brushed past him. Outside, she pulled a hip flask from the pocket of her jeans and swallowed a slug of rum. Once it was slipped back against the curve of her ass, she pulled out a slim cigarillo and lit it up, feeling the gentle caress of Baron Samedi on her mind and soul as she puffed.

You are the constant thorn to keep my mindful, Harmon, she mused, exhaling a thick cloud of acrid smoke into the air, relishing its taste as it mixed with the rum in her throat and belly. At least I know Baron Samedi is proud of me.

Baroness Samedi photo (actual title by artist/photographer is “Baron Samedi II”) is used with permission of Koen, whose work can be seen at DeviantArt under the moniker KoenNya [click here to view her account]. Use here should NOT be implied as permission for the photo to be redistributed or re-used elsewhere or for any other purposes, commercial or otherwise, by myself or others.)

Before you read the story below, some backstory about it, which you may or may not care about (and can always skip if you like).

I don’t think there’s been any other chapter or short story I’ve written for this blog that has posed as much of a challenge for me, taken as long to write and required so many tweaks before it finally got posted. For one thing, this is a Doctor Holiday story, and as you know if you’ve been a regular reader, I tend to post those stories within a few days before or after the appropriate holiday. This one was intended to be a Halloween story. Aside from the fact I had trouble figuring out how to progress and finish the story (and was busy with paying work and such), I didn’t get it done. Finally, I realized that I could have it start on Halloween and finish on Thanksgiving, but then still got hung up time-wise and couldn’t quite finish in time.

Then I had the problem that the story just wasn’t *quite* jelling and I didn’t really have an ending for it yet, and so much tinkering later, I finally have the story, more than a week after Thanksgiving and nearly a month after the original date of Halloween. I am ashamed.

I’m also nervous, because in hindsight, I wonder if this story is really a complete story that stands well on its own, or whether it only serves the purpose of giving more insight into Doctor Holiday and providing some foreshadowing of a future storyline that will take place a long while after I finally finish “The Gathering Storm.”

Picking Up the Pieces

By Deacon Blue / Jeffrey Bouley

November 5, 2012

Rotors spun, and thoughts with them, and Cal Furtado wondered which was the greater flurry of activity. As the helicopter set down on the tarmac of McCarran International Airport several miles outside of Las Vegas, though, he realized it was a stupid and frivolous thought.

helicopter-1The helicopter was powering down, and the blades of the rotors were slowing. The noise of them was steadily ramping down already. Quiet was gaining power over the cacophony there.

The thoughts in his head were as tumultuous as ever, though—perhaps more so now that he wasn’t distracted by the sounds and movements of the vehicle that had flown him here.

Here, of all places. Clark County in Nevada. Home to Las Vegas—“Sin City” itself—as well as the more biotech- and computer-focused city of Gryphon. The latter would be his ultimate destination, and it felt wrong somehow to be going there, when so much was happening in New York and New Jersey. In fact, he’d originally been set to fly a charter plane to the Northeast just a few hours from now.

It was roughly a week since Hurricane Sandy had pounded the East Coast and flooded so much of New York and New Jersey, even though it wasn’t a hurricane anymore by that point—not really—more like an amalgamation of weather patterns that had mixed together in a violent and unseemly manner. Many people were still without power as temperatures fell below freezing lately at night, and much of the subway system in New York City was still unusable thanks to flooding, along with most of the traffic tunnels for cars and trucks.

So much damage, and he should be there to oversee things for such a major undertaking, since he wasn’t just a co-founder of Quicksilver Recovery Inc.—along with Eileen Kosume and Jim Castile—but also the chief operating officer and chief information officer. Jim wouldn’t be there, as he had plenty to do as CEO in their Chicago headquarters. But Eileen would. As company president, she tended to shuttle between the two main satellite offices in Connecticut and Southern California anyway. After all, one of Quicksilver’s specialties was cleaning and recovery efforts after big dust-ups between transhumans or after the actions of transhumans against normals, and most of the big transhuman activity tended to be in the Southwest, Northeast and Midwest.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had tapped Quicksilver to help out after Hurricane Sandy struck with Mother Nature’s wrath, as had several insurance companies, and Cal felt that was where he should be. Where the most people were hurting right now and where everything needed to be handled just right, given the billions upon billions of dollars of damage wrought already.

But Eileen would pull the oversight duty for Quicksilver’s portion of the Sandy cleanup, now that Cal had been pulled away and sent to Nevada, after a quick pitstop at the Los Angeles office.

Because just as Quicksilver had a reputation for quick and effective handling of post-transhuman damage, so too did Cal himself have a bit of a reputation for piecing together mysteries almost as well as he handled his COO and CIO duties—a useful skill sometimes when transhuman-related disaster areas were involved.

The devastation in Gryphon—particularly at the city’s only significant casino, Cyberwalk—was a mystery, even five days after the chaos, and people wanted answers as well as relief and rebuilding.

Because it wasn’t just any mystery—not just any disaster—it was one that had signs of transhumans all over it.

* * *

October 31, 2012

The brown cloth strips hugged his face tightly; he almost felt as if they were all that was holding him together. His mind, at least. His personality.

Or, at least, the one he possessed right now.

The sun was still high in these early afternoon hours, with no hint of the impending night, but that would come soon enough. Halloween would arrive in earnest, and there would be revelers. Children wandering the streets of residential neighborhoods in the less tourist-oriented parts of the city and in the outlying suburbs of Las Vegas.

And even more so in Gryphon, the rival to California’s Silicon Valley, for which gambling was an afterthought, and so many families lived, depending on high-tech industries and living in planned communities (But I bet they never planned for me). Living “normal” lives in the more decadent shadow of Las Vegas (But the normals are about to get a visit from Doctor Holiday).

I’m not in Gryphon yet, but I’m meant to be there, he thought. Not now, but soon enough. My legs seem to know what I can’t yet consciously grasp. I have miles to go before I sleep. Before I slumber until the next holiday. For now, I wander Vegas.

Although night hadn’t fallen, this was a city known for partying even during the day, and what better way to party in Sin City for adults and those barely grown—or pretending with fake IDs to be legal—than to dress up in outfits outrageous and garish and often slutty.

Adults young and old up and down the strip, and even some children. Vegas had tried to become more of a family-friendly place on the surface, at least, but the emphasis remained on gambling, drinking, smoking and other vices. Those were what truly paid the bills here. Even in these leaner economic times, there were many people about, dressed normally or in costumes. Simply strolling or on their way to parties or simply trying to locate parties of which they weren’t yet aware.


There’s someone else in here with me, he suddenly realized. I mean, there are always so many voices inside this skull. Or perhaps more accurately, many presences. They didn’t all speak at once; some shouted, some murmured and many spent long stretches silent. Most of them silent, especially now, on a holiday when just one personality would rule.

But there wasn’t just one this time at center stage—not just himself here in ascendance. He could feel another pressing against him. Impatient. Almost fully aware, though not in control. There were never two at once, though. That didn’t make sense. Then again, not all holidays made sense, he considered. There had been other times when things deviated far from the norm, like when that one personality was allowed to hunt for clues as to their original identity on another Halloween. Not all the answers had been revealed. But he had found their original name from before the transformation. From before Doctor Holiday had been born.

Who is this Other? What does he want? Am I going to have to struggle for control tonight? Is he a good guy like me? A neutral? A mischief-maker? A fool? A villain?

He looked around at the passers-by to make sure no one was taking notice of him. Even on Halloween, people didn’t tend to dress as Doctor Holiday, at least not in any realistic fashion. It made people nervous—sometimes it made them panic. So he didn’t want to be seen.

But no one was paying attention to him, so the psychic emanations he was sending out to make himself unnoticed or at least appear innocuous were holding strong. Despite mental distractions of thinking too much and now feeling that other Doctor Holiday in his head, he wasn’t slipping on control of his powers. Perhaps having been in control of this body before and having the same powers again helped—though, to be honest, he didn’t recall much of a learning curve before when he had this body. It seemed every personality mastered his powers quickly upon emergence.

But now that I think about it, there is something odd about me aside from the mysterious second presence right in the forefront of my brain, isn’t there? I don’t think anyone else in this head has ever held the body on more than one occasion. And here I am, doing a second stint.

And then a voice in his mind, as clear as if someone where standing right next to him in conversation: You and me, both, you simple sonofabitch.

* * *

November 5, 2012

The Cyberwalk hadn’t been the only victim of whatever unknown transhumans had rampaged on Halloween; simply the one that was most hard-hit. But because so much had happened there, the mega-casino had been designated at mission control for both the Quicksilver-led recovery efforts and Cal’s sideline investigation.

Cal was certain that multiple transhumans had to have been involved in the deadly mayhem that had ensued Halloween night. Too much had happened, too soon. It must have been coordinated. That had the feel of some terrorist action, and the notion felt right to him. But then there was the fact that only two groups had stepped forward to claim responsibility for Gryphon’s woes that night, and the FBI had quickly shown both terrorist factions to be liars within two days of the disaster.

So, that seemed to rule out anti-American terrorists; violent activist groups that protested capitalism, consumption or greed; and anti-corporate, anti-technology extremists out to strike a blow to Gryphon’s tech-based economy, which was as yet the only one in the world making huge strides on the artificial intelligence front.

Although, while corporate terrorists might be out, could it be more corporate espionage-oriented instead? Cal wondered. If it was meant to hurt Gryphon, and benefit a company outside the state—or a nation with designs on cornering the AI market—then making a mega-casino the central target would make sense, to draw attention away from the true targets.

He shook his head and began to mutter. That theory fell apart as well, because no high-tech companies, AI-related or otherwise in Gryphon, had seen significant violent activity on Halloween. Nor, he discovered after a quick search online, was there any sign of data theft at such companies that would suggest the mayhem at Cyberwalk and elsewhere was for misdirection.

So, then, why did everyone at Cyberwalk begin to see zombies invading the building and trying to eat people? Cal wondered. Why did a zombie apocalypse scenario suddenly arrive out of nowhere, timed so nicely with the newest season of “The Walking Dead” on TV, sending everyone into a panic?

A panic that had people pummeling the undead senseless left and right as the lights in the casino dimmed. Then, within a half-hour, the lighting was back to normal and there were no undead to be seen. Instead, some 240 dead people in the casino and five times that number injured. When the dust had settled and the injured could be questioned, it turned out that some of them had been beaten by people who thought they were zombies. And the victims who had seemed to be voracious undead, in turn, had been attacking or trying to avoid what they thought were zombies.

A complex illusion that—given the wide scale, the number of people affected and the duration—suggested multiple Psi transhumans had been working in concert, Cal reasoned. But how could they have coordinated so well, and how would a bunch of sociopathic Psis have found each other and managed to band together?

Similar zombie scenarios had broken out elsewhere in Gryphon. Also, a few other violence-based illusions took place as well, but with terrorists or other threats in place of the undead. It had gone on all night, until around midnight, in a spiral pattern radiating out from the casino, one event after another. No single illusion subsequent to the Cyberwalk chaos had been as dramatic or as harmful, but all combined, the events of the night had claimed nearly a thousand lives and left more than 5,000 injured.

But it had all centered on the Cyberwalk Casino. It had begun there. And that was the main reason Cal was here, poring over the records and interviews with guests and employees, as well as reviewing security videos.

Systematic. Spiral. Subsequent. Single-minded?

All the events so similar, and all in a row.

What if there is only one transhuman at work here? Maybe one man or woman did this, starting at the casino and then radiating outward. But how? How could one person do so much with their mind, beginning a little after sundown and running all the way until midnight?


It all ended at midnight, almost on the dot. One person. One day. One holiday.

“Oh, shit,” Cal said aloud, wondering if the authorities already knew what he suspected, and were simply keeping it quiet. Then he swore again, and he started the work of sorting through the casino’s security videos all over again.

* * *

October 31, 2012

He was unnerved by the “Other” in his mind—this personality that wasn’t buried deep and merely murmuring or silent like the dozens (Hundreds?) of others were. This Other had spoken to him directly, then went silent. But Doctor Holiday could still sense him nearby—inside—waiting.

Still, unnerved or not, Doctor Holiday had a purpose. He had saved people the last time he had been in control of this body, more than six years ago. Nearly 20 people at a New Year’s Eve party on a yacht who might have burned or drowned otherwise. He’d saved all of them, and then gone back down in his quiescence in Doctor Holiday’s mind with a sense of satisfaction.

las-vegas-2There was no obvious threat to deal with now, though. No enemy to defeat. No crisis in the making.

So he walked, continuing to make himself essentially invisible by mentally encouraging everyone to ignore him. A few people did a double-take when they saw him. Still others pointed. But only a handful. A couple people had even tried to get the attention of people near them, who could not see what was being pointed out to them.

So, all things considered, a pretty effective form of disguise. When he’d had the body previously several years ago, he had only needed to remain unseen by one person, so it was good to know that the power had wider applicability.

But still, he had no specific purpose.

So he walked, aimlessly.

After a few minutes, he reached out, grabbing a young skateboarder who was about to cross in front of a speeding car, and yanked him away from the road. Snatched quickly and roughly from what would have been certain injury and perhaps skateboarder-cardeath, the youth looked around, confused as to who had saved him. Doctor Holiday walked on, unnoticed.

A few minutes later, reflexively, he intercepted the arm of a purse-snatcher about to victimize a distracted middle-aged woman who Doctor Holiday, for reasons he didn’t fully grasp, knew to be down to the last few dollars she needed to get back home from Vegas. He casually flung the would-be thief into a nearby dumpster and kept walking.

Twelve minutes later, he stepped into a hotel room and stopped a young teen girl from being raped by three college men. One largely untouched and unharmed girl later—along with eight broken limbs among the men—Doctor Holiday then realized that while he might not consciously know where he was going, some part of his mind clearly had an agenda.

He stopped trying to think about it, and let his feet carry him from one task to another. Stranger after stranger was helped, and some lives saved, as he walked through the hours, and toward Gryphon. Eventually, he felt the urge to flag down a cab and did, and let it carry him the rest of the way to the city that he sensed was his ultimate goal. It took a great deal of concentration and pain to allow the cab driver to notice him yet not notice he was Doctor Holiday, but the imperative to take a cab the rest of the way to Gryphon was irresistible.

When he got out of the cab just as dusk was approaching, and it had driven away, Doctor Holiday walked for a few blocks and entered an alley. He promptly doubled over in agony, falling to the ground in a fetal position. He writhed and twitched until the sun was almost down, screaming soundlessly.

When the pain finally passed, he got up and looked to the night sky.

He sensed another in his mind, and smiled. Everything was different now. Before, he had been the “Other” and now he was transcendent.

And it was time for the do-gooder to take a back seat as darkness sat like a shroud upon Halloween.

* * *

November 6, 2012

Cyberwalk was running a quasi-intelligence program in its security system—a precursor to some of the few rudimentary and outrageously expensive AI systems out on the market now. Without the QI, he never could have sorted things out so quickly, but even so, it felt like forever to find what he wanted: A face that was at the scene of every illusory zombie attack in the casino, at the moment it started. In the small hours of the morning, Cal still awake only by the grace of caffeine, the QI finally narrowed it down to one nondescript, average-height, skinny man somewhere in his mid-20s or early 30s.

This completely unremarkable-looking man was no doubt the transhuman Cal suspected was the source of all the trouble.

But it wasn’t whom he had expected.

I expected tall, broad and muscular. Probably with a bandage-covered head and an electronic display over his chest. Instead, the closest thing I found to Doctor Holiday that night was a woman with an Ace-bandage-wrapped face and a faux digital display across her ample bosom that said “Doctor Whore-Daily.”

On the one hand, he felt a thrill of victory to have found the prime suspect and probably perpetrator of all the needless death and injury in Gryphon that night. On the other hand, it disappointed him to find that it wasn’t the one elusive transhuman who seemed to have all the possible powers and too many personalities.

As Cal watched one dimly lit scene on the monitor, the nondescript man walked past a lounge area, at the outside edge of which were mounted a number of hung plants, the bottoms of their pots suspended some six feet off the ground. As the man dodged out of the way of a drunk patron of the bar who was awkwardly fleeing a zombie-that-wasn’t-a-zombie, one of those pots near the presumed transhuman’s head was knocked aside suddenly, and then again when it bounced back against something that wasn’t there.

All that happening six inches or more above the man’s head—but right where his head would have been if he were taller.

Say, several inches over six feet tall and well-muscled, Cal mused. Broad of chest. Wearing an electronic display and his head wrapped in brown cloth strips.

* * *

October 31, 2012

A woman working as a cocktail waitress, struggling to keep the rent paid on a tiny apartment for her and two children, suddenly looked all the world like a bloody, moaning zombie. Not that she knew it. So, when one of the men she’d just zombie womanserved drinks to and flirted with minutes before began beating her with a barstool, she didn’t know why. She could only scream and beg for mercy, her anguish unseen on her supposedly decomposing face and her words unheard from a supposedly twisted, pus-filled mouth.

In another part of the casino, an old man looked like a police officer to the eyes of a nearby accountant. In the chaos, the accountant went to the police officer for help. But to the old man, he saw only a hungry member of the undead lumbering toward him, eager to devour his flesh. He stumbled backwards and fell, feeling his chest constrict with what would be his fourth and final heart attack in eight years. The accountant saw no heart attack but spurting blood instead, and had no one to blame but the zombie that had suddenly appeared behind that poor cop. The accountant beat the zombie down with a heavy vase and then caved in its skull with the police officer’s baton.

It would be several minutes later, when the lights brightened again and the illusions fell away, before he realized that the police baton was an old man’s cane.

And that the zombie he had killed was a 16-year-old cheerleader looking for her parents, while those parents, in turn, were elsewhere busy killing a zombie that would actually turn out to be a grandmother of five enjoying her first vacation in nearly 20 years.

Scene after scene played out. Death after death. Injury after injury. Suffering upon misery.

Doctor Holiday strode through the casino feeling like a god.

I am your god, you ants, he reveled silently in his head, not wanting to draw attention to himself by yelling it out loud. You are nothing. I’m directing your lives like a movie. A pathetic zombie film. I’m going to make you kill each other. You’ll kill for me and for my amusement. You’ll flee and fight in terror now.

And later, he thought to himself giddily, many of them would weep in grief for a long time to come knowing they had someone else’s blood on their hands.

* * *

November 6, 2012

Letting the video play frame-by-frame now, Cal watched closely. After what seemed an interminably long time, he saw it, just for a frame or two, as the illusion faltered just a split-second.

Doctor Holiday.

On the man’s digital chest display, among images of candy corn and black cats, Cal saw part of something that was likely scrolling across it—words and part of one: Trick-or-T

A little while later, the image of Doctor Holiday appeared again in a single frame where the nondescript man had been, and Cal saw -rTreat, Everybo on the display.

For a brief moment, Cal felt elation. Not just because he had cracked the mystery but because like so many large companies, and some smaller ones, Cyberwalk probably had a clause in its main insurance policy, or a rider to it—or even a separate policy—against death and damage by Doctor Holiday.

The likelihood of ever seeing your premiums pay off was ridiculously low, but much like various other forms of disaster insurance, it was a small price to pay each month for a potentially huge payoff.

If Cyberwalk was smart as Cal thought, not only could they easily rebuild, but they’d be able to pay for any legal defenses or settlements that might arise as a result of Doctor Holiday’s aftermath.

Then, more slowly than the elation had kicked in, something darker slid in to take its place. Cal felt cold. Exposed. Anxious.

Suddenly, he was wishing he hadn’t realized who was behind all of this. Being even this close to the boogeyman-made-real was unnerving. Knowing he was in the same building in which the transhuman known as Doctor Holiday had waged destruction and ushered death mere days before made him sick.

Made him feel like the next potential victim.

* * *

Midnight—November 1, 2012

The good one had fought all night, and finally felt himself begin to assert control over his darker half. Felt his grip on the body return as had been the case in the daylight. He held on to his counterpart’s powers somehow to keep them disguised from everyone’s sight, as he propelled their guilty body from the latest crime scene, legs shaking now.

He managed to get a block away before he lost it.

As, both at once, the two Doctor Holidays who had held the body tonight—both of them for their second time—felt control leave them.

The body was no longer their concern as they tottered on the mental precipice, and they found they didn’t care anymore that their freedom had been rescinded. They were prepared to join the others in the muttering multitude who awaited a turn at the body perhaps, on some other holiday.

Both at once, the two personalities sensed him—the one that every single personality forgot about when he took control of the body and always remembered when the holiday was over. The one who knew them all but never controlled the body except for the few moments before and the few after a holiday.

Everyone knew of the Admin, but none remembered ever having heard him speak.

“Take your memories back to the rest,” he said, and his voice was the same as theirs, if the intonations and emotions a slightly different shade. “Whispering and murmuring among yourselves. Take back what it feels like to be two halves of the coin at the same time. What it means to be good and evil in one body. Savior and destroyer. Take back the memory of the pain of sudden transformation, too, when you switched places and your powers changed. Share it. Tell everyone.”

And then they were swept away, and his presence receded as well.

The drone stepped forth into the forefront of Doctor Holiday’s  mind, and life returned to normal.

* * *

November 9, 2012

Although he’d known already for days, Cal had said nothing to the executives of the Cyberwalk Casino what he knew of the perpetrator of their recent woes. Partly, he’d wanted to do some additional investigating, and that meant getting access to a whole lot of other security video and police reports from other areas where Doctor Holiday’s crimes had taken place.

Also, he figured that after all they’d been through, happy news on a Friday would make them feel a lot better—not to mention more generous with Quicksilver’s payment, perhaps. Knowing who the perpetrator had been—and knowing there was a big insurance payout coming—was going to take a lot of the sting out of the recent disaster.

Many other people at other businesses would be happy, too, when the news came out—except perhaps the insurance companies paying the claims.

After introductions had been made and Cal led quickly and succinctly into his findings and conclusions, along with a quick recap of the work Quicksilver had done so far in repair and recovery, the questions flew at him.

How?—and variations of it—were the most fervent and more common.

“Basically, he created an illusion of a major threat, and got people to attack each other thinking they were acting in self-defense,” Cal had said at one point. “Used the same trick to hide himself.”

“We already knew people were hallucinating. But how could it be an illusion projected by Doctor Holiday? You could see it on the cameras, too. There wasn’t any mind trick going on,” one vice president had interjected.

“It wasn’t a Psi power. It was a Luminar power,” Cal said. “He essentially generated holograms of everything. Amazingly complex. Impossibly so. He drew on the available light, which is why everything got so much darker during the event—I think a lot of people assumed there was something wrong with the power, but there wasn’t. It was Doctor Holiday creating the most impossibly perfect light show to fool everyone. It also seems he had some ability to tamper with sound as well, though that wasn’t quite as intricate.”

He’d answered a bunch of technical questions for a while thereafter—and repeated his explanation in more ways than he felt necessary—but with the revelation it was Doctor Holiday, the sense of relief was palpable. Not a terrorist threat but rather a transhuman basket-case who had never been known to strike the same place twice—almost never even the same city or town twice.

For Cal, though, the sense of doom only deepened, even as he realized he’d made everyone’s day—not the least of whom would be his fellow company co-founders, CEO Jim Castile and President Eileen Kosume.

* * *

November 12, 2012

He walked, as the drone always walked, with no purpose and yet with all purpose. He knew the others in the head called him drone mockingly. Some called him robot or retard. Condescendingly. Dismissively.

Most of them, anyway, even though their survival all depended on him.

He didn’t care.

It wasn’t in his nature to care. He had no ego, no emotion, no agenda. No sense of right or wrong or future. No aspirations.

A few days before every holiday, he wrapped the bandages around their head and strapped on the digital display unit across their chest. Sometimes he would dress festively in advance of the holiday, if the Admin so directed. A few days after the holiday, he would find someplace to hide the display and bandages until they were needed again.

Other than that, his only concerns were to eat and drink; to piss and shit. And, when necessary, to sleep. He rarely had money, but the drone always found safe food and secure shelter.

There were no other tasks.

Except, sometimes, to watch for things the Admin and the Others might care about.

Like the headline of a newspaper this morning noting that the responsible party for at least 956 deaths in Gryphon, Nevada, was neither a terrorist group nor a group of transhumans but a single man: Doctor Holiday.

At a subtle direction in his head, the drone acquired the newspaper. Read the article. Learned the name of the man who’d put it all together.

He got other papers that day, and found a computer at a local library to do some online research and learn more.

When the Admin was satisfied that he had enough information, the drone stopped working, stood up and walked onward. Toward nothing and everything.

The drone went back to the simple things in life: feeding their body’s needs and voiding its waste products.

* * *

November 22, 2012

At the Furtado household, Cal had only just finished his pumpkin pie when he saw the hulking form in his backyard, mostly hidden by the tall bushes way in back.

He was sure that he had been meant to see him, and at this precise time.

Cal thought about calling the police, or warning his family, but then considered the likely outcome. If Doctor Holiday had wanted to kill him immediately, he would have. And if he wanted every family member and every one of their guests dead, he’d have done it outright. Calling the police or wasting time would only increase the chances he might yet decide to do both.

Without a word to anyone, Cal walked out the back door, and toward the transhuman he had uncovered as Gryphon’s number-one criminal and one of the most notorious mass murderers in modern times—eclipsed in that regard only by Patient Zero.

When he drew close, not knowing what else to do, Cal quietly babbled, “I guess you didn’t want to be found out. I…guh-guess as far as last meals go, a juicy turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry suh-sauce isn’t bad.”

“Shut up,” Doctor Holiday said, “and step over here. And don’t forget you had green bean casserole, candied sweet potatoes and a slice of pumpkin pie, too. Not to mention all that apple cider and wine.”

“Do you have to kill me?” Cal asked nervously.

“Unlike some of us in here, I’m not into playing with my prey. If you were to be killed, you’d be dead. And what part of ‘shut up’ was hard to understand? Pay attention, or I may revise how this evening ends for you. It’s been a quiet holiday for once for Doctor Holiday, particularly with this covered up,” the transhuman said, patting the digital monitor on his chest, the lighted display of which was obscured by what seemed to be a thick blanket. “I’d like to keep it that way.”

Cal followed Doctor Holiday, his legs wobbly and throat dry. He almost got out the word, “Why?” before he remembered to be quiet.

Finally, Doctor Holiday stopped, turned around, and looked down at Cal’s five-foot-nine-inch frame from six feet, six inches up—two of those inches from the work boots he currently wore. He threw off the bit of heavy canvas covering the display on his chest and Cal saw that displayed in bold letters was HAPPY THANKSGIVING! while small animations played around those words. Turkeys running from knife-wielding farmers. Native Americans waving at Pilgrims before being shot down with muskets in response. A Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon in the shape of Snoopy bursting into flame.

Closer now, Cal could also see what the night had hid previously: the black Pilgrim’s hat perched on top of Doctor Holiday’s head, so small that it must be a child’s size. Cal stifled a giggle of nervous terror and waited, shivering.

“I think we can talk now, Mr. Furtado.”

“I’m guessing you…you didn’t want anyone to…to…find out about you,” Cal stammered quietly. “I don’t know what coming to me to do…do…what…whatever is going to accomplish now.”

“You haven’t stopped digging up info on us yet, have you?” Doctor Holiday asked. “You’re still trying to find out more about that night. What we did do and what we didn’t.”

“Us? We?”

“Yes. Us. Every one of we who live in here. All the us-es that make Doctor Holiday who he is. Who we are. And you’re trying to figure us out.”

Cal shuddered to think at how much Doctor Holiday already knew. Because he was right. The search for answers hadn’t ended with the presentation to the executives of the Cyberwalk Casino, nor with interviews with the police.

There had been no break in the search for answers. Not for Cal.

Not since the moment Cal had seen the last video of Doctor Holiday, far from the Cyberwalk. A glimpse of the real man hidden under the illusion of the nondescript one, as Cal had examined another video frame by frame. The plain man had walked confidently and proudly out of the final site of Doctor Holiday’s Halloween mayhem, shortly before midnight.

But then the flash of Doctor Holiday in a single frame.

The hunched shoulders and drooped head of the imposing transhuman. A man weighted down with sadness, who had spent all the previous hours of the night proudly strutting as he sowed destruction.

That dichotomy—that revelation—had put Cal to wondering what Doctor Holiday had been doing the rest of the day, when the sun was up. A curiosity that led him to vague and sketchy reports of Doctor Holiday sightings in nearby Las Vegas. Of people strangely rescued throughout the city that day in ways they couldn’t explain. So much of it had been police reports that seemed insignificant even to the police, or deemed crank calls, or things that were noted in brief articles buried in newspapers. Rumors, loose talk and blog posts. Things it had taken Cal weeks to pull together and sort out amidst his day-to-day duties at Quicksilver Recovery.

All to realize that this year, Doctor Holiday had been two figures. A hero in the afternoon and a villain in the night. Light and darkness, played out like some overwrought, painfully obvious symbolism in a bad movie or play. Not to mention something so weirdly out of proportion. Dozens upon dozens helped or saved; then hundreds upon hundreds hurt or killed.

“You didn’t want anybody to know,” Cal said flatly. “And you don’t want anyone to know the full truth now. Are you going to hurt me? Or do something else to me? Stop me, I guess. Somehow. Right?”

“It’s true that I hadn’t planned for us to be discovered,” Doctor Holiday said. “But maybe the reason I’m here tonight is that I think you don’t know enough yet.”

Cal had no response, and Doctor Holiday cocked his head.

“I’m sorry,” the transhuman said. “I’ve never really operated this body directly for more than a few seconds at a time, and I don’t even usually speak directly to ourselves inside our head. I’m more a silent partner. Not a social chap. Perhaps I’m not doing this well. Perhaps I’m simply confusing you more.”

“You control all of the personalities, don’t you?”

“No, I direct them to their tasks,” Doctor Holiday answered. “We’re a very democratic society in here. We decided a long time ago to break into pieces and only come out for the holidays. Even if we don’t remember why. I just keep things on track toward our goal. Toward the coming crisis. The Others call me the Admin.”

“What is it you want me to know?” Cal asked.

“Pretty much what I’ve told you already. We are many. For the first time, last month, two minds shared the body the same holiday. They needed to know what it felt like to be good and evil at once. To realize other things, too, like how much it hurts to have the body’s powers change when one is awake and aware. There are other things the Others needed to learn, but I don’t want to share it all.”

“Why? Why did you do it on Halloween? Why do you do any of it?”

“Because this body and all of us in it need to be trained. Tempered. Prepared. Because when we were one, more than 11 years ago, he saw something. Knew it was coming, though I’m not sure he knew what it was. And he knew we needed to be broken to keep the world safe. But it is coming, Mr. Furtado, and it seemed right to me that at least one person should know enough of the truth to understand a little of who we are and why we do what we do, so maybe someone will cheer us on when the crisis finally arrives. So someone might comprehend what it was all for.”

Doctor Holiday paused.

“But I need to impress upon you, Mr. Furtado, how much you can’t tell anyone else until all of us Doctor Holidays come together to face what must be faced and do what must be done, both terrible and glorious. We may have to be brutal to be kind. Quite likely. If you tell anyone, even Jim or Eileen or your wife—if you share it with others—we will kill you and everyone you tell. All in its time, Mr. Furtado, but not before. Find out as much as you want. Pick up the pieces and put them together, but keep it to yourself until the crisis is here.”

“What crisis? When?” Cal asked, no longer sure if Doctor Holiday were a paranoid, deluded transhuman or one with crucial knowledge and purpose.

“We don’t know. But soon enough. Not so many years from now. Or maybe not even years. But I think years,” Doctor Holiday said. “In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one parting tidbit. One recommendation to benefit you and compensate for your silence.”

“What’s that?” Cal asked, suddenly not sure he really wanted to know.

“Business advice. Quicksilver should start forging some international strategic alliances. With similar companies in countries like Australia, Japan—really, anywhere there are a lot of people and lots of coastlines.”


“Because,” Doctor Holiday said as he covered up the display again to darken it, and turned to walk away, “when the crisis comes, it will come from the seas. There is going to be a lot to clean up after that. If anyone’s alive to care. The oceans will spill forth the end of humanity. And transhumanity. Unless we’re still around to stop it.”

For a moment, Cal wanted to cry out, “I don’t want any part of it” but realized he wasn’t included in the “we’re” that Doctor Holiday had mentioned. He had meant all of Them—every personality inside the body. No one else probably; certainly not Cal. Probably not even thinking about other transhumans.

Cal let a madman with too much power walk away, and resolved to do nothing to stop him; nothing to reveal him. Paying in the coin of other people’s lives and his own to peel away some of Doctor Holiday’s secrets for the world to see just wasn’t in him.

And even if the price wasn’t too dear for him to consider, he wasn’t certain he had the right to get in the man’s way. Or the ability. In his own way, Doctor Holiday was a force of nature, every bit as much as Hurricane Sandy.

Doctor Holiday was going to be a savior one day. Or maybe he was going to be the destroyer—the predicted coming crisis itself.

Either way, Cal realized, Doctor Holiday seemed destined to be good business again for Quicksilver Recovery somewhere down the line. Sometime all too soon.

This story is pretty much a direct follow-up to a story I posted earlier in October (my most recent previous piece of fiction, actually), which was titled “Intersections.” Might be worth reading that one first, since some significant things in this story refer directly to events in “Intersections.” Also, there’s a reference in this story to something that happened with a guy named Ringmaster. That story, “Fresh Wounds, Old Scars” can be read here. By the way, any resemblance between the journalist character in this story (and its predecessor) and myself is purely coincidental. Maybe. Or not.

Meeting a masked man in a secluded area of the city park as dusk crept in—just the average workday of an average journalist…

OK, not average at all, Doug admitted to himself as he approached the rendezvous point, and when I started off as a staff writer at a construction engineering magazine right after graduating from Northwestern, I never would have imagined I’d spend more than 18 years of my 21-year journalism career covering transhumans most of the time. Such a niche segment, and it snuck up on me. Took over just like some evil criminal supervillain genius taking over a city’s underworld.

Tonight’s meeting came—indirectly, at least—courtesy of PoweredPEOPLE, which was PEOPLE magazine’s transhuman-oriented sister publication, and more specifically thanks to the email from its managing editor telling Doug that after nearly a year of no new assignments from them, they had a juicy offer if he could quickly secure an exclusive interview with Asclepius and do it in person so that he could also snap a few digital photos of the “white-hat” transhuman in a relatively un-posed manner.

That’s the advantage of living in New Judah and being a freelancer, when so many of the transhuman publications are based in New York or California. I’m on the ground where a large number of the superheroes and supervillains act out their shenanigans, so I’m one of the guys you call when you need a rush interview with one of them.

He nodded as he caught sight of the man in black scrubs and black domino mask which, along with his brown skin, made him blend into the shadows awfully well right now. But Doug knew where Ascelpius was going to be, and hopefully with the growing darkness, they could have just a little privacy before things got involved and maybe drew attention from a random passerby.

“Evenin’ Mr. Jeffries,” Asclepius said amiably, holding out his right hand.

Doug shook it, and said with a goofball tone of voice, “Nice to meet you again, Mr. Asclepius.”

“Heh,” Asclepius said, both amused and sheepish. “Too formal?”

“Yeah, Doug is just fine. No need for ‘mister,’ especially since you saved my life.”

“The doctors probably would have done fine on you Doug, even as badly shot up as you were,” Asclepius responded. “But when word got out what had happened, there was no way I was going to take chances. You might not be transhuman, but you’ve always been fair with us in your stories. Always a stand-up guy. In a way, you’re one of us, and so you get my patented healing services. Hopefully you won’t ever need them again…”

It was time for Doug to let out a brief, amused snort of his own. “God willing,” he agreed. “But still, I can’t thank you enough for what you did.”

“Well, enough of that, right?” Asclepius ventured, as he sat down on a folding chair he had just flipped open, handing a second, still-folded one to Doug. “We’re here to let you work your reporter thing, and I’ve got to get going in a bit to do my own work. Sorry about the oddball time to meet, by the way. I mostly work nights since the heroes mostly work nights, but I also need to be up during the early- and mid-afternoon for the daytimers, so I sleep in two or three little shifts and frankly, I just got up.”

As if to punctuate the point, he reached for an insulated drink container and lifted it to his lips as Doug sat down in his own lawn chair. The Starbucks Coffee logo was easy to see in the fading light, with its white and green patterns.

“So, where do we start? Whatcha wanna ask me, Doug?” Asclepius asked.

“How about, ‘How do you think your new career of healing the bad guys instead of the good guys is gonna work out?’,” came a woman’s voice from some nearby shadows. As she stepped a bit closer, the dark reds of her outfit made her more visible—looking something like a skintight leather version of a carnival barker’s suit or circus ringleader’s, complete with a tophat.

Both Doug and Asclepius immediately stood up.

“That’s very gentlemanly of you both,” she said. “You probably both want to offer me a seat. But that’s all right, because I’ll just be taking Asclepius and going.”

“Jeeesus!” Asclepius exclaimed. “Ringmaster tried to pull this very same shit to force-pimp me out to the other side a couple years ago! And you dress almost like him! What is this, some kind of tired theme I’m gonna have to rehash every few years?”

“My name’s Sideshow. Interned with Ringmaster, and he’s come on hard times. Sold me all his intel on you, Asclepius, and the contacts he had for selling off your services. His various game plans. Everything. Cost me a hell of a lot, and I had to borrow from some dangerous people to afford it, so I need to put you to work as soon as possible. Let’s go. Oh, and just so you know, I’m pumped up on motion sickness medicine, anti-emetics and a whole lot of other stuff, so if you try some of that reverse-healing crap you did with Ringmaster’s crew on me, I’m going to taser you and drag you by your testicles to my trunk before you can even have an effect on me.”

For several moments, neither Ascelpius nor Doug spoke, and finally the former broke the silence.

“I think you might find me putting up a bit more of a fight than you expect,” he said.

“I don’t think so. What do you think, Doug?” Sideshow asked.

When Asclepius turned his face toward the journalist, he saw a gun pointed at him.

“Doug? Shit. You’re working with her?”

“She offered a lot of money, and after me almost getting killed—not to mention my wife and little girl put in danger—by some people who wanted to use me to get to some of you transhumans, well…seems like a good time to cash out of this line of work,” Doug responded. “Sorry. Nothing personal.”

“Damn, Doug. Damn. This just doesn’t seem like you. Not your style. And after saving your life, too.”

“Welllll…” Doug said. “Yeah…not my usual style.” With that, he turned and pointed the gun at Sideshow. “Not my style at all. I wouldn’t take a penny of your money, lady. Granted, I thought about demanding a percentage upfront and then keeping it after you got hauled away, but then figured you’d be really motivated for revenge against me later if I did that.”

“Good plan, Doug,” Asclepius said. “Besides, you can probably get some kind of book deal out of this. Nice acting, by the way. Wasn’t sure you had it in you. I mean, we had so little rehearsal time.”

“A little theater in college before I realized it paid even worse than journalism,” Doug said.

“So, you warned Asclepius after I approached you with my offer,” Sideshow huffed. “How rude.”

“No, I warned Asclepius before you approached me,” he said. “As if the timing of your contact with me right after Katy’s email from PoweredPEOPLE wasn’t obvious enough, I already knew the email didn’t come from her. Sure, the address was almost perfect, since her last name has so damn few vowels and is so damn long, but even if I didn’t notice a couple transposed letters, she doesn’t call me ‘Doug’ and it hasn’t been a year since my last assignment with them.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, clearly you bought off the magazine’s head IT guy—don’t worry, I’ve got a timed-delivery email Katy should be getting later tonight to tell her he needs arresting. So he set up an account I’d think was from her but that wasn’t hers so she wouldn’t know it was being used to contact me. He shared all her sent emails with you so you could mimic her style and all that. Congrats. Except a year ago, we started getting chummy online and she stopped using her work email to contact me. I’ve gotten all my assignments since then through her personal email. Not to mention she calls me ‘D-Bag’ these days, not ‘Doug.’ Rude, but she does it affectionately. Next time have your inside guy check the messages coming into her account instead of just her sent messages. Pro tip.”

“Hey, don’t help her—she’ll probably escape eventually and do better next time,” Asclepius teased him, then turned his attention to his would-be abductor. “You also should have done enough research to know that I don’t tend to go out without a transhuman bodyguard. The good guys like to make sure I stay intact to heal them. And there ain’t no one here with me but Doug tonight. Shoulda been a tip-off.”

“I’m only transhuman, not perfect,” Sideshow responded. “A lot of convoluted effort the two of you went through, though, to snare me. Why?”

“Kind of personal for me, Sideshow, and so I wanted to talk to you face to face,” Doug answered. “That’s why Asclepius agreed to this. After all, it was you who sent those two goons to abduct me a few months ago, after all, right? Same routine—I was targeted because I have the inside track on how to contact so many transhumans, by straightforward means and special ones. I’m kind of pissed about that, seeing as how my family was threatened in the process and I almost died. Oh, damn! I’m a journalist and I’m only just now telling you what all this is about. I went and buried the lead of my story.”

“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Sideshow sneered.


“No, Doug, I don’t. This is the first time I’ve had anything to do with you. The ‘goons’ you refer to were someone else’s.”


“Damn, Doug,” Asclepius said. “For a baseline human, you sure are getting popular with the black hats these days.”

“That’s the kind of popularity I can do without,” Doug answered, and realized that aside from showing no recognition in her eyes, there was no reason for Sideshow to lie about the two guys who’d try to abduct him for their boss in November when she was already caught red-handed trying to abduct Asclepius now in March. “Damn. I was sure I was killing two birds with one stone here tonight.”

“Maybe you should consider a career change, Doug,” Sideshow said with a wicked smile. “If you live through tonight, that is. Anyway, Asclepius is right. I should have realized him being out without a bodyguard was odd, and isn’t it also odd I wouldn’t have brought someone along just in case to help me,” Sideshow said in a lilting, taunting tone. “But…what makes you think your pet reporter’s enough protection for you, Asclepius?” And then she spread her arms wide and four associates strode forth—three of them costumed and therefore probably transhuman, Doug and Asclepius realized. The fourth was an unknown, but he was very clearly armed, so in the end, it didn’t matter much.

“You see? I brought friends, just in case. That’s part of the reason I had to borrow so much money from the loan sharks.”

“What makes you think we don’t have friends of our own around here?” Asclepius asked.

“Because while I may have made missteps in some other areas, I’ve had Doug’s email, landline and cellphone all monitored since the start, and I know he hasn’t contacted the police or any other transhumans before meeting you here.”

“Yeah, but isn’t is funny that you still haven’t realized you also didn’t notice I had warned Asclepius beforehand,” Doug noted snidely. “In fact, aside from one email that I sent to him so that you’d know he’d agreed to an interview with me and where, you haven’t seen any other communications at all between us, have you? Isn’t that funny? And yet I warned him and we planned all this. Almost as if I have all sorts of interesting and nontraditional ways to get in touch of most of these transhuman folks…oh, yeah, riiiight. I do.

On cue, a half-dozen pairs of feet crunched softly from behind their various forms of cover. All costumed. All heroes or vigilantes who regularly worked the streets of New Judah and relied on Asclepius’ healing powers.

“Gosh darn it,” Asclepius said. “Looks like you’re outnumbered, now. And that’s even without the two other white hats still hiding in the shadows. Somehow, I doubt you thought this many moves ahead, given how many other things you missed along the way.”

As the melee began, Doug and Asclepius sat back down on the sidelines of the action, and the latter handed a bottle of beer to the former.

“You know, Doug, you might want to get video of this on your phone,” Asclepius said. “You really should angle for a little book deal, and a viral video on YouTube and UrbVid could help a lot.”

“I like the way you think, Asclepius,” Doug said, and clinked his beer bottle against the transhuman’s stainless steel coffee mug as he fished out his iPhone. “Maybe I can still get out of this line of work before someone else tries to fuck with me.”


Posted: October 8, 2012 in Single-run ("One off") Stories

The perfume of toasted crust, melted mozzarella and sizzling pepperoni was still faintly lingering in his nose—or perhaps just the mere illusion of it as his mind held on to the memory.

Not a new memory nor a strange one. It was the scent of a weekly tradition—Friday night pizza out with his family. His daughter’s warm hand in his as they walked through the darkness of a mid-autumn evening, and then his wife’s fingers slipping more coolly but just as comfortingly into the fingers of his free hand.

A family of three strolling down the streets of a relatively quiet urban neighborhood in New Judah, traffic relatively light and pedestrians milling about on their own journeys. As the conclusion of every Friday night dinner visit to Leonore’s Pizza called for, his journey with the two most important ladies of his life was leading them toward their car, parked on one of the side streets tonight—Oberon Street—with blessed meter-free parking thanks to the timely departure of a big Ford 250 pickup as they made their usual approach toward the main thoroughfare of Abraham Avenue, which Leonore’s and a host of other establishments called home. The gap left behind on Oberon by the truck’s departure had made for one of Douglas Jeffries’ easiest parallel parking maneuvers in weeks, given the family vehicle was a modest-sized and lovingly worn-in—though some might cynically call it “pretty beat-up”—2003 Subaru Outback.

A good night, and one to finish in the usual Friday way with a trip through the drive-through window of the Frosty Duchess.

I just keep feeling every time we go there that Jack and Kim are finally going to get sued over that name by Dairy Queen, Doug mused as they neared the street where the car was parked. Especially if the big-wigs of that chain ever find out they’ve copied every Dairy Queen product and renamed it slightly. Not much distance from a Dilly Bar to a Chilly Bar or a Blizzard to a Hailstorm.

A good night, Doug thought, and he hoped Sharon and Ruby felt the same.

And then they stepped off Abraham onto Oberon, with a sudden shift from dining and retail to quiet graystones and brick townhouses.

The blocked-off road and sidewalks about a quarter of the way down the block was unexpected, with small piles of debris and grimy puddles in between them and the Outback suggesting that a storm sewer had backed up or a sewer line burst while they had been dining. A detour sign pointed to a nearby alley, meaning a short walk to the next avenue over. A man in a white hardhat and orange vest was puttering about, scratching the back of his neck and briefly taking note of the trio as they walked past.

Doug gave him a pleasant nod, and led his family onward.

A small inconvenience that would mean a short trip to the next street, then around the corner and back down Oberon from the other direction. Get dessert, get back home, and then maybe finish his article for Good::Evil, the transhuman-news and feature magazine for which Doug worked as a regular freelance contributor. Much more satisfying and substantial kinds of articles, he thought, compared to the more shallow celebrity-style approach of SuperNews, TransWeek or PoweredPEOPLE—and even more so compared to the sensationalistic tone of Celebrity Crimefighters or excessively militant style ofCostume & Ammo—though Lord knew he’d done work for all of them to pay the bills.

Simple as could be. Dinner, dessert, a little work and then maybe settle in for a movie with Sharon before bed.

Until a van pulled up at the other end of the alley and a man hurriedly got out, as the family reached the halfway point of the alley. Doug felt Sharon’s fingers tense against his own as her urban threat radar went off in her head almost in sync with his own. With a smooth assurance, the husband and wife made a sharp U-turn, pulling Ruby with them.

“Shit shit shit shit,” muttered Sharon, and then punctuated that with a “Fuck” as both parents looked up to see the city worker coming from the end of the alley where they’d entered. Suddenly, the unexpected street blockage made a lot more sense.

A trap.

I bet he was the driver of the pickup who so helpfully provided us a space on Oberon, too, Doug decided as the man in the hardhat approached.

“What do you want?” Doug asked the faux city worker, shocked at how calm and level the words came out, given how much his guts were twisting and his legs quivering at the moment. All he could think about was how this would be a really convenient time for one of the many transhuman heroes he had profiled or written about over the years to swoop in and save the day.

The answer to his question came from behind him, though—the man in jeans and a leather jacket who’d blocked that end of the alley with his van. “Your wife and daughter will keep me company while my partner there takes a ride with you in your car and you go someplace to answer questions for our employer.”

No one was coming. No transhuman heroes. No baseline police. No one. Not in time, anyway.

“I’m just a writer; I can’t possibly have anything you…”

“A writer who knows how to contact a lot of different transhuman heroes in ways no one else knows,” answered the man dressed as a street maintenance worker, pulling out a pistol. “Your wife and girl will be fine with my friend in the van. Safe and sound, as long as you play nice. Now you come here and send them the other way.”

Safe. They’ll be safe. Or so he said.

No, they won’t, Doug reasoned. I bet I won’t live past my questioning, and I’m supposed to trust the bodies and minds of my wife and girl with a criminal?

He was torn, though. The intersection of Oberon and Abraham was so near and yet—with at least one armed man here—so far away. A world away. A nigh-unreachable physical intersection as he stood at the intersection of protecting his family or putting them at risk.

Or both.

Never let yourself be taken away. Never give the criminal control. Fight. Never trust.

“Sharon,” Doug said, very quietly and quickly. “When I say, run with Ruby ’til you can call 911. Now!”

He let go of Ruby and rushed the man with the gun. There was no time to worry if the one behind them was similarly armed. No time to worry whether Sharon and Ruby were running yet—or at all. No time to worry how close the driver of the van was. No time to worry about survival.

Only time to be a human shield and fight a hopeless battle on the slim chance it would buy time for Sharon and Ruby to reach safety.

In a split-second, it occurred to Doug that the man with the gun wouldn’t dare shoot him if his boss wanted to question him. That hope buoyed him.

I’ll ruin his shot and my ladies will get away and..

The sudden heat and weight in his chest seemed all out of proportion to the crack of the pistol just a few feet away from him, and he realized the man must have panicked and shot out of reflex when he rushed him. Doug suddenly wanted nothing more than to slump to the ground, and then wondered why he hadn’t been flung backwards by the impact of the bullet.

Because the movies always lie about such things, he thought almost giddily. Even the sound of the gun isn’t what Hollywood says it should be. So much more “pop” than “boom.”

As the heaviness increased in his chest, and it became so much harder to breathe, he wondered if his lung had been punctured. Wondered how much time he had before he couldn’t stand. Wondered if his family was running and how far they had gotten.

He pressed forward, driven by fear for his loved ones. Driven by desperation. And somewhere even deeper, driven by anger.

How dare you threaten my family. How dare…

Doug pushed forward, and there was another cracking sound, and the world seeming to turn black at the edges of his peripheral vision. A dark halo surrounding him and suffocating him. But he could still see enough to know the man with the gun seemed a little afraid, as if he wondered why the reporter in front of him wouldn’t just fall already. The second bullet seemed to enter in the same place as the first one, Doug thought. The pain seemed less this time, but the heaviness worse.

“Stop shooting him, you stupid son of a bitch!” the van driver shouted. “Stop shooting! We need him alive you moron!”

Doug heard running behind him, but focused on another task.

I need him to stop shooting me I can’t take this my family my family need time stop shooting me.

Pressing up against the man, and feeling as much as hearing the gun discharge a third time, as a hot line seemed to draw itself along the side of his torso—a flesh wound, this time, but the added pain made him swoon—Doug grabbed hold of the man’s gun with both hands, and used the only weapon he had left. He sunk his teeth in his attacker’s throat and bit deep and hard. He heard a shriek, and spun the man around. Bit down more as he shoved with mindless, brutish intensity.

Maybe he thinks I’m a transhuman who won’t die using fangs to rip out his throat if only that were true is my family safe am I gonna die am I…

There was a fourth sharp cracking sound, but this time not a bullet, as Doug realized his opponent’s skull had connected sharply with a brick wall. Suddenly, dead weight was dropping from Doug’s weak grip as the man collapsed, unconscious. The thump of a body; the thunk of a gun hitting pavement. Sounds of feet behind him.

Doug turned in a movement both sluggish and abrupt somehow, like a movie zombie smelling fresh prey, and faced the man running toward him. Refused to fall, no matter how much his chest burned and how much it hurt to breathe. No matter how rubbery his legs and how the world seemed to be sinking and spinning all around him.

Blood in his mouth, Doug heard a voice growling, “One more” and realized with a shock that it was his own.

“One more!” he roared, almost stumbling, red spittle spraying out toward the other man, who was suddenly scrambling to a confused halt, wondering as much as his partner had why this slightly potbellied, balding, middle-aged journalist wouldn’t just fall down already.

Rage is a fuel. Pain is a catalyst. And love conquers pain, Doug thought with a sudden, odd clarity. I have a duty. The blackness at the edges of his vision seemed to become something more clear and sharp, like crystal. Sharp, glassy edges to give him focus and pain to sharpen him and keep him awake. He turned sharply from a street of fading life onto a street of sharp resolve.

“I’m going to chew off your fucking balls and spit them into your mouth and make you swallow them and then I’m going to make you throw them back up,” Doug said in a snarl. “Not done yet.”

If the man possessed a gun, he clearly had forgotten about it. Or decided his would be as useless as his partner’s. He did have a knife in one hand, but that hand was trembling.

“Fresh meat,” Doug growled, feeling the clarity begin to fail him. The world getting ready to collapse on itself. His body ready to collapse with it. “Payback. No one touches them. Not on my watch.”

The second man turned and ran toward the van—Doug wondering if it was fear of him or a certainty that the prize was about to die and he needed to flee before his boss found out.

Doug realized something was weighing down his right arm, and looked down to see a bloody gun in his hand—the one that had already wounded him thrice. How? Had he picked it up? When? Before the man ran or after? Why?

What was a gun for again?

Lazily, almost confused now as to what the heavy metal thing was in his hand, Doug fired toward the running man. Once. Nothing. Twice. Nothing. A third time, and the man stumbled. Doug wasn’t sure where he’d shot him—the hip or lower back maybe.

And Doug strode, reluctant legs marching along despite the protestations of his chest and his blurring consciousness.

No. Not getting away. No more chances. Not again. Police need them both to find their boss. Revenge. Justice. Lesson.

The man got up again to limp toward the van, and Doug fired again, into his right buttock.

Shot in the ass, Doug thought, almost saying the words out loud in a giggle. So absurd. Somehow so appropriate. I can’t let you die, not matter how much I want you dead. But I can’t let you run, either.

Another bullet in the other buttock, and the man went down again, his chin striking the pavement and several white fragments flying through the darkness from his mouth. And then Doug was standing over the prone man, legs wobbling, gun trying so desperately to slip from his grip.

Another shot into his ass, then two into the back of his right kneecap and one in his left knee. And then click after click after click on an empty magazine.

I’m a magazine journalist firing on an empty magazine, his brain babbled at him. Ironic? No…no…ludicrous, maybe. Or insipid. I’m a writer and words fail me in my final moments.

With all the noise, there would be several calls into the police by now, and Doug had a sudden fear he would be shot again, a searing terror that he’d be gunned down as a presumed criminal when the police arrived, and he dropped the spent pistol. Staggered away from the man who couldn’t run now and probably couldn’t even walk—might not even be able to crawl at more than a snail’s pace.

As he walked by the first man, still unconscious, Doug kicked him in the head but couldn’t tell if there was any strength behind it.

He lumbered, and almost fell. Took several steps away from that man, thinking with a ridiculous certainty that he could reach the car well down the block when he got back to where he had entered the alley. Oblivious to the fact there was a cellphone in his pocket; that such a thing even existed and could allow him to call for help.

There was nothing in his mind but agony and exhaustion. Bullets and blades. Victims and villains. And the end of the alley, which he almost reached before he finally fell.

He could see his wife and daughter in the distance, and memories flooded back. His mind sparked again, weakly. They were not nearly close enough to Abraham Avenue to have been safe. Not close enough to be in sight of people who could help. They hadn’t run as far or as fast as they should have. But Sharon had her cell phone out, and next to her face. Making a call 911 probably.

Why didn’t they run farther? Panic-induced stupidity or blind trust in me? Doug wondered, and decided it didn’t matter. Only that they were safe. Or seemingly so. Only that they would live. He wondered as the world turned black if he would live, then decided it didn’t matter.

God,that was stupid, Doug thought, sharp clarity stabbing through him again as sharply as the pain in his chest. All of it. The right choice. Necessary. Maybe even brave. But stupid as hell, rushing a man with a gun. Then facing down a second one.

He took a deep, slow breath and groaned in agony at that simple act. As darkness gathered in his vision again, and he felt his life spilling onto the ground and into the spaces of his rib cage not already occupied by organs and bones—hovering as he did at the crossroad of life and death, he thought: If I survive this, the next question I’ll have to ask a hero during an interview is whether they do what they do because they’re brave.

Or because they’re idiots.

Sorry I still haven’t gotten around to the next chapter of “The Gathering Storm” and even sorrier that it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything new here. My Muse is a bit fickle the past few weeks…

Right Place, Wrong Style

Two aesthetic philosophies continued to duel in his mind even now, more than an hour after he had finally settled on his attire and grabbed the #36 CTA bus to make the rendezvous. He had made a decision, and still second-guessed himself.

His mother’s voice urging him to be bold and take chances and his father’s voice exhorting him not to stand out or make a spectacle of himself.

Maybe if I’d been a tougher guy growing up, and better able to stand up against bullies, Dad’s voice wouldn’t be so loud in my head right now, Sean thought. Queer, pussy, sissy, punk, bitch—so many names I’ve been called by peers and others that bore no relation to my given one.

But he’d stood up to his own father in the end, in some small way, Sean considered, because no one in the family or the neighborhood Sean had grown up in was ignorant of the fact Sean William Carter Sr. had been quite unhappy to see his son apply to a fashion design degree program at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. That act simply cemented Sean Sr.’s notion of parental failure—and the loss of his son. All he saw in the choice was freakishness and “being different.” In Dad’s world, you didn’t go for different; you didn’t go for style.

You followed in your father’s footsteps.

And isn’t that why he gave me his name, in the end? Sean thought. To be like him and maybe even join the Chicago Fire Department where he still serves?

That his roommate and fellow bachelor of fine arts student Jack was one of the biggest queens he had ever met and stood strong in the face of challenge, adversity and threats was an irony that wasn’t lost on Sean as he sat nervously in the little pub waiting for the guy he was supposed to meet.

A man who wanted to wear a costume—or probably already did and simply wanted a better one.

A transhuman of unknown character and demeanor, except that he’d been the only one to answer Sean’s Craigslist ad offering free costume design and construction. The ad inspired by his mother’s voice. He’d wanted to stand out from the rest of his class in costume design for their final design project—what better way to do that, he had thought, than to design a few outfits for someone who was actually an active transhuman, whether they needed a costume to start their career or were in need of an upgrade.

There was a sharp tap on Sean’s shoulder—like a tiny hammerblow—and he turned to see someone wearing camouflage pants, Army boots and a gray hooded sweatshirt. The man pulled back the gray hood to reveal a ski mask-covered face and said, “Let’s take this outside and discuss what I need and what you’re worth,” the man said with a hard, cold edge in his voice.

Beside this simple and vaguely menacing attire, Sean suddenly felt that his choice of narrow-legged jeans, canvas boat shoes, a button-down long-sleeved white shirt and a dark burgundy linen vest made him all the more meek.

Also, as Sean got up from his bar stool and followed the man into the night, he realized—as he felt growing unease from the man’s voice and demeanor—that he’d never specified in the ad that the transhuman for whom he would do the free design work had to be a white hat or a justice-minded vigilante. He’d left it open for mercenaries and villains as well without even realizing it.

But still, he wanted a project with a perfect grade or as close to it as he could manage, and he followed the man outside.

* * *

Sean and the potential pro bono client who had yet to identify himself had been talking for nearly five minutes in the shadows about Sean’s skills and the other man’s costume needs when the stranger announced, very casually, “By the way, my name is Straight Edge, and I’m about to murder you, faggot.”

Sean was stunned into silence, part of him wondering if it was a bad joke, and the other part trying to figure out how to flee without being taken down from behind as he did so.

“Of course, it wouldn’t really be murder, no matter what the police say,” Straight Edge continued. “More like housecleaning. You fags spread disease and immoral behavior and you’re a cancer on society. Straight Edge is here to cut you out. You get to be the first.”

Sean finally picked up on the subtle emphasis the man was putting on the Straight in his name, and realized he was dealing with a homicidal homophobic person who, even if he wasn’t really transhuman, probably was well-equipped to end his life. He wondered with an inward shudder if the monicker also meant this man carried a straight razor or some other blade with which to slice and carve his flesh.

“Scared, faggot?” Straight Edge taunted him with a grin.

“I’m not gay,” Sean protested with a whiney edge in his voice, and it surprised him as he said the words that he was defensively asserting his heterosexuality rather than worrying about his life.

Old habits from grade school, middle school and high school die hard, I guess, Sean thought vaguely.

“No straight man goes to get a degree in fashion,” Straight Edge asserted.

“That’s not true at…at all,” Sean said weakly. “I’m just gu-good at it and I like it. I’ve got a girlfriend. She’s in the graphic arts program.”


“I’ve got pictures of her. Of us,” Sean said. “Right in my wallet,” he added, fumbling for it. “Together. Shit, we’re kissing in one of them.”

“Don’t try to save your life with that pathetic shit, faggot,” Straight Edge sneered.

“Look! Right here!” Sean said, thrusting out his open wallet. “Shit, take the money and credit cards if you want. I’m not gay!”

With a sense of humiliation, Sean realized he was not only pleading for his life like a coward but also trying to distance himself from homosexuals, even when Jack—not just his roommate but supposedly one of his best friends—was as gay as they came. From the pits of that shame, a tiny voice inside him, his own now and neither Mom nor Dad, told him he probably deserved to die.

As flustered now as he had been murderous before, Straight Edge took the wallet and flipped through the four photos in there.

“You think I’m going to fall for this? So you got some fag-hag woman to pose with you as cover,” Straight Edge said.

“What would I need photos in my wallet for to make people think I’m straight? How muh-muh-many gay guys do you think guh-get cornered by someone like you and need to convince the person they’re hetero…straight…c’mon! People don’t come up on gay people like that anymore…except you or whatever!”

Straight Edge looked back and forth from the wallet to the college student in front of him, squinting and grimacing.

“Well…you dress like a homo!” Straight Edge snapped.

“I’m sorry you don’t like my clothes; my girlfriend does and I like to keep getting laid,” Sean babbled, realizing he was still emphasizing his heterosexuality like a punk. A pussy. A loser.

Am I right to do whatever it takes to live, or am I even less of a man for my own little brand of homophobic behavior rising up in the face of a bully—no matter how murderous and psycho he is?

Some small bit of edge creeping into his voice, but not much, Sean blurted, “You’re just looking for an excuse to kill me, now, gay or not!”

Straight Edge paused, then smiled. “Maybe so. What of it?”

“Go to the Manhandler or the Jackhammer or hang around some other guh-gay bar if you wanna kill homos!” Sean said, and felt a little bile in his throat.

I’m trying to point him to gays to kill now just to save my life. What the fuck?

“If you’re not gay, how come you know the names of gay bars?” Straight Edge ventured.

“I don’t like jazz, but I know you go to the Green Mill if you want to listen to some and drink until 4 or 5 in the morning!” Sean keened. A part of him almost wailed I have a gay roommate until the rest of his brain screamed out, Tell him that and he’ll kill you for liking gays.

Heart pounding, Sean waited for the blow to fall, or a blade to cut him. Agonizing seconds looking into Straight Edge’s eyes desperately and cursing himself for his steadily mounting failures here in the dimly streetlights, in the shadow of a man who wanted to become a killer.

“Huh,” Straight Edge said. “I gotta be sure. OK. I gotta be sure before I kill someone. I can’t be killing straight guys. The world needs them. But you’d better fucking have kids. You’d better raise them to be fucking real men you little shit! Do you hear me?”

Ignoring the spittle peppering his face, Sean nodded and said, “I hear you. My dad’s a firefighter. I’m sorry I wasn’t like him. I’ll do better with my son. My sons.”

The wheedling tone in his voice as he made promises to a man he’d likely never see again that he’d do things he knew he probably wasn’t capable of seemed to kill little parts of him one by one, but Sean couldn’t seem to stop. “This isn’t the place to be trying to wipe out gays, and I’m not worth your time.”

Straight Edge nodded at that, and Sean didn’t care whether it meant solidarity between two hetero men or that Straight Edge found him too pathetic to kill. He simply watched the man walk off.

Then his heart froze when Straight Edge stopped and turned around.

“I still want those costumes,” he said. “It better be ready in two weeks. I’ll tell you where to leave it, and if there are any cops that come along with it, I’ll kill you, your girlfriend and all your goddamn teachers. No matter how straight all of you are. Hear me?”

“Yeah,” Sean said in a near whisper, then half-shouted, “Yeah! No problem!”

Finally, Straight Edge departed.

As his knees gave way and Sean slumped to the ground to weep, he knew there was no need for Straight edge worry. There would be no police. He had no good description to give them and worse, if he told them the story, everyone would know how much he had failed. How much he had given up. How he had turned his back on a whole group of people and then fingered them as better targets for Straight Edge. His roommate Jack would find out. His girlfriend Ellie. Everyone would know.

Even his homophobic father wouldn’t approve.

Sean wept for his lost dignity even as some small part of him reminded him he’d probably get an excellent grade in the class for originality and utility of design. Except that he’d never be able to submit Straight Edge’s costumes, or else when the man finally made the news, everyone would know Sean was tied to him. Straight Edge would probably even tell them Sean had pleaded for the man to troll around gay bars to save his own life.

I’ll be working my ass off to outfit a man who might kill Jack one day, and I’ll still have to come up with a project for class. My mom told me to stand out and take chances. Yeah, I’m stand-out, all right. Standing out and standing up for who I really am.

As a pussy. A punk. A bitch.

A dog face peered intently at another dog face and sighed in an all-too-human way. A human voice, too, issued from the ebony muzzle with a weary, “Why did you do it?”

The other dog-head issued its own human response from its dark brown muzzle: “Do what?”

“Leave a witness,” answered Hellhound from behind the dark, slick, heavy rubber of his canine mask, his eyes hidden behind moss-green lenses but his voice making it clear his gaze was stern and annoyed.

“He was just a kid,” Dog Pound said, unzipping the mouth of his mask’s muzzle area to breathe more freely, his gaze visibly confused through the open eye holes. He couldn’t figure out how Hellhound kept from passing out with only two small nose holes and a thin, short slit where his mouth was. Dog Pound’s own canine-themed leather mask was better ventilated than Hellhound’s by far and even so, he felt lightheaded in short order, especially under exertion.

“He’s still a witness, and you took your mask off, too? You’re an idiot.”

“I doubt he could do a very good job of giving a description and I was about to die of heatstroke; it was a fucking hot night.”

“You go shirtless when you’re on the prowl, you pussy,” Hellhound snapped. “I’ve got a full rubber mask, a unitard and body armor when I go out. Point is, the kid saw your face. Doesn’t matter if he can help the police ID you; fact is he’ll see your face over and over in his dreams. You killed his goddamn father right in front of him.”

“So? At least I killed the person best qualified to be a good witness, and a rich one at that.”

“I took you on as an apprentice to teach you, Dog Pound; haven’t you learned anything? Since at least the ‘70s, we’ve been living in a world of costumed heroes and villains who seem to follow similar memes as in the comics. What happens in the comics? What happened with the character Batman? Bruce Wayne.”

“Dude killed his rich mom and dad in an alley for their money and he grew up to hate criminals. Put on a bat costume and then hunted down crooks and shit, including the guy who killed his parents.”

“This kid could be your future Batman, you stupid shit.”

“Slim chance of that,” Dog Pound said.

“But you don’t know, do you? He could be transhuman for all you know. He might already be a Brain with a photographic memory. He might hit puberty and become an Acro or a Brute and one day track you down and tear you up in a fight. Fact is you left a witness you shouldn’t have. He might not put you away or get revenge on you, but every goddamn witness you leave is one more potential person on a stand to get you convicted or maybe even be your future arch-nemesis. We transhumans are messed up in the head—every last one of us. We’re wired to do crazy shit like obsess about someone who fucked us over and then build a costumed life around it. A lot of us, anyway.”

“Like you?” Dog Pound said. “You never did tell me your back-story.”

“And never will. I’m the master and you’re the apprentice, Dog Pound. We will never be equals. But I do know that you used to have to run dog fights for your crazy uncle. And he made you do bare-knuckle boxing and shit against other kids for money. And you couldn’t resist asking me to teach you the ropes when you put on a mask, because I had a canine theme, too. See? We’re fucked in the head. And the only reason I took you on is ego and vanity. Touched in the effin’ head.”

“All right, all right. I get it. I’m not gonna leave witnesses again. Guess I’d better steer clear of marks with kids, ‘cuz I don’t know about killing no kids,” Dog Pound said.

“Do what needs doing if you’re going to wear a mask,” Hellhound said. “If you’re going to be half-assed about it, get a damn day job behind a desk.”

* * *

Dog Pound awoke in his small house in the middle of the night, realizing someone was there. He stayed as still as he could while trying to get his bearings in the dark, his lean-muscled body tensing—ready to teach the intruder what it felt like to be hit by a Brute, even a relatively low-end one.

“Suit up,” came a soft but firm command from the shadows, and something landed on Dog Pound’s face. Just before Hellhound switched on the light, he realized the other man had tossed him his mask.

“I didn’t think we were on tonight,” Dog Pound muttered groggily, not having seen Hellhound in the three days since his lecture about witnesses, revenge and legacies and whatever the hell else he had been on about.

“We weren’t; we are now. Be ready and be in your garage in five minutes,” Hellhound said. His expressionless black dog mask gave him an implacable air. “We’ve got a really special job.”

* * *

They pulled up to the edge of an expansive estate in one of the few parts of Lark County that wasn’t within the borders of New Judah, and Hellhound motioned his protégé to get out. A few paces away from the side of the road, he said, “Grab the ladder,” pointing to the low grass near the property’s border.

“Why is there a ladder here…”

“Shut up, put your muscles to work and bring it with.”

Hellhound led them to the back of the mansion there, and pointed to an open window on the third floor. Dog Pound was confused for a moment, then remembered the ladder and got it extended and propped up as quietly as he could. Every tiny scrape and click, though, sounded like a clarion going off to him.

When the ladder was in place, Dog Pound scratched at an itch underneath a layer of fresh sweat running down the back of his neck, and whispered, as he looked at the wide-open window, “People this rich, you’d think they’d have air conditioning. Hot night.”

“They do have air conditioning, and it’s on, and it’s turned way the hell up, and they have windows open for fresh air,” Hellhound answered conversationally. “That’s how wasteful and self-entitled rich people are. I’m going up first; come up a few feet behind me. Be quick and be quiet.”

When he finally struggled through the open window, finding himself in a room decorated with posters and littered with robots and action figures, Dog Pound saw Hellhound standing over a bed, his hand over a child’s mouth and a small bedside lamp turned on.

“Take off your mask,” he ordered Dog Pound.

“Why?” he started, and then felt a sharp stab of pain in the middle of his forehead that seemed to radiate down to his eardrums and Adam’s apple.

“Take. It. Off.” Hellhound said quietly, and his apprentice relented, unnerved by the sudden pain and its timing so close to showing reluctance toward his mentor. Turning his mask toward the boy in the bed, Hellhound said to the boy, “Do not yell or scream, or I will kill you and everyone else in this house—your sister, your brother, your mother, the maid. Everyone. Do you know that man?”

At first the child said nothing, then nodded slowly.

“Speak up,” Hellhound demanded.

“Yes,” the boy said timidly.


“He killed my dad.”

Grabbing the child roughly by his cheeks with one black-gloved hand, Hellhound turned the boy’s face to look directly into his own mask. “And how do you feel about him doing that?”

The boy’s eyes filled with tears and he whimpered a little, but said nothing.

Hellhound turned back to Dog Pound. “I think he’s a little afraid of what the answer would mean to his safety,” he told his sidekick. “But I can see it in his eyes, underneath the tears. He hates you.”

“How did you find him…”

“You took every valuable thing from his father, and a lot of that value was in his wallet. Not just money and cards, though. Driver’s license, dumb ass. Thought we’d take a field trip. You left a witness who hates you now, and will keep hating you more and more as the years go on, especially now that you’ve paid him a new visit. Someone who will one day inherit a bunch of his daddy’s money. Maybe all of it.”

“I get it already, Hellhound! I get it!” Dog Pound hissed. “It won’t happen again.”

Without a word, Hellhound yanked the boy out of the bed and tossed him through the open window.

Dog Pound thought the sound of the child striking the low stone wall of the rose garden below was surprisingly soft, all things considered. Still, his gut clenched and he felt a little tremor of nausea flutter in his belly.

“What if he’s not dead?” Dog Pound asked haltingly.

“Then you’ll finish the job,” Hellhound responded, “as soon as we get down there. He’ll keep for a couple minutes, though.”

“I swear, it won’t happen again.”

“Yes, it will,” Hellhound said. “I’m going to look up some of his daddy’s friends and track them and we’ll surprise one of them some night after dark when they’re with one or two of their kids someplace dark and quiet. And you’ll kill those kids right in front of me, right after you kill the grown ups. In for a penny, in for a pound. Your messes are my messes, and your hands will be at least as bloody as mine.”

Dog Pound put one gloved hand against the wall to steady himself. Too much, too fast. This wasn’t the kind of thing…

“I can’t do it. I can’t do shit like that, Hellhound.”

A ravaging wave of something like fire and electricity seemed to run through his brain and ricochet off the inside edges of his skull, and Dog Pound almost lost his balance. Then the pain was gone.

“I’m the alpha male of this fucking pack. Don’t forget it. I can give you reminders in pain, or rewards in more pleasant ways. You’re mine, and you’ll do as I say.”

Dog Pound felt a retort on the tip of his tongue, and then felt a tiny lick of pain up and down his upper spine, and bit the words down. Instead, he said, “Yes. Yeah. Got it.”

“I don’t much like the idea of leaving potential vengeance-laden legacies, no matter how unlikely it is that kid would pull a corny Batman-style move from the old comics,” Hellhound said. “But I am liking the idea of the whole sidekick and minion legacy. You’re my bitch. The first of several. You’ll do what I say, and if you do it right, you might be the Beta male, and you might get a taste of any ass I recruit. I’ve got my eye on a wolf-masked woman going by the name of Stalker who’s working Marksburgh right now, and a few other people, too.”

“Teams never work out,” Dog Pound said. “You hardly ever see any…”

“Superhero teams rarely work, because people with morals have trouble funding a headquarters and paying for it and all the bills, and they always want to talk shit out instead of having a strong hand in charge, and they get sued for property damage and all that. You and all the others will be my crew. Not a team. Minions. Dogs to run and jump where I say. Period. Like I said, you can be number two if you start learning my lessons well, or you can be bottom bitch.”

Dog Pound hesitated a split-second, and then found himself tensing for another painful reminder of the power he hadn’t previously known Hellhound possessed. The pain scared him. The prospects of what worse things might come with disobedience scared him more.

“I’m in. Yes. I’m your man…your…your…dog.”

Dog Pound was certain that Hellhound was grinning underneath that thick, black dog mask, and the tone of the voice that issued forth seemed to confirm it.

“Good boy,” Hellhound said, and waved one hand toward the open window and ladder.

If you haven’t already readCustomer Relations,” I’d suggest you do so before reading this story, as the two tales are closely connected, though that story takes place a little over two years before this one.

Bad Business

If there was one thing James could count on at 8 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, it was the ability to turn the sign in the door from “open” to “closed,” close out the cash register and then eat his first leisurely meal of the day at some nearby restaurant—since he and his girlfriend both found the kitchen of their condo useful for little more than storing dry cereal and cold beverages.

So, when he locked the front door of the Shoreline Hero Shop and turned toward the sales counter, the last thing he wanted or expected to see were four intruders—suddenly, 8 p.m. wasn’t very comforting, with an otherwise empty shop and the lights at the front of his store now off.

He considered turning back to the door, unlocking it and fleeing while dialing 911 on his cell phone, but one of the members of the quartet wore a helmet with two classically styled Greek faces—one looking forward and one backward.

I doubt too many common criminals are bold enough to impersonate someone as narcissistic, vengeful and deadly as Janus, and Halloween is still a few weeks off, so I should probably assume this is the real thing and not do anything panicky that will end with something sticking out of my spine or firing right though one of my internal organs, James considered.

Taking a deep breath, he moved halfway toward the counter, hands in his pockets to hide their trembling, and said, “Could you, uh, please step away from my cash register and…um…come around to this side of the counter? If you don’t mind, sir.”

There was a short, derisive sound from the helmet—as much a laugh as a disdainful snort—and then a pause of several seconds before the helmeted man in the charcoal-gray Versace suit responded, “Do you really think I need to raid your cash register, Mr. Pearson?”

All the same, the man who was presumably Janus stepped out from around the counter and the trio of costumed women with him followed suit as James headed back to the cash register via the other end of the counter. One of the women seemed in particular to have her eyes on James as she followed her master—not that he could actually see them, though, nor any other part of her flesh. She was clad head to toe in red and black vinyl or latex, her face completely covered—mouth and nose as well—with a second, heart-shaped skin of glossy red and black goggles with violet lenses hiding her eyes. All the same, James felt her eyes bore into him as one gloved hand fingered the hilt of a kukri at her waist, and he shuddered.

As he switched places with his visitors, James tried his best attempt at a casual smile, even as his guts clenched and made him want to race to the bathroom. Biting down the desire to wince, he sighed instead.

“Not that busy of a day today thanks to the pounding rain out there, so you’d probably kill me if you saw how little was in there anyway,” James said. “But the real reason I wanted you away from it is because I’m about ready to piss myself right now and if I’m going to be facing someone like you, I’d at least like to do it from behind the symbol of my authority—the counter of my store.”

“Yes, the racks of graphic novels and first-edition old comic books behind you makes for an intimidating backdrop to be sure,” Janus sneered, but there was a hint of humor in his voice.

James took a moment to consider his predicament, the toes of his right foot poised near the silent alarm trigger behind his counter. Tripping the alarm was very tempting, but he hesitated. If this was Janus, it seemed unlikely the criminal kingpin would have overlooked the possibility of putting an alarm button within James’ reach by letting him go behind the counter—if that was the case, James figured, summoning the police would probably only result in some deadly blowback for himself.

And if it wasn’t Janus, James figured he could take some time to sort things out. No one had drawn blades or aimed guns at him yet, and all three women quite blatantly had both on their persons. The red-and-black-clad one who had paid such special attention to him was more heavily armed than the others—a kukri, a katana, a Desert Eagle pistol and an Uzi—but the woman with the Venetian carnival-style mask and the one in a lacy black dress with a stark white mask over her face—blonde hair cascading out from behind it—were both equipped with a pair of weapons each, one blade and one firearm each.

Instead of summoning help, James continued to do more of what he usually did during a day at the shop—exude pheromones to keep things pleasant. In this case, calming pheromones, though unlike a normal day it wasn’t because he wanted them to linger and shop. As he did so, he could already feel the headache building behind his temples. The normal way of things was a gradual emission, not a full-on invisible blast of “don’t worry, be happy” chemicals.

“Would it be all right to ask why you’re here?” James ventured.

“Certainly,” Janus said, putting clasped hands behind his back and rocking casually on the balls of his feet in their glistening Bruno Magli dress shoes.

When nothing else was said, James asked, hesitantly, “Why…are you here?”

“Perhaps, like my associate Underworld did once before, some years back, I would like to enlist your aid against an enemy.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say I aided her,” James said.

“She spoke highly of the value your shop played in her taking out Glory Boy. I believe she even signed some publicity photos of herself for you—some of them nude ones—as a token of her esteem.”

“She did. I still have a couple left for sale—keeping the best ones until I die, though. Want one?” James asked. “Only $1,000 each.”

“No. I’ve seen that all already, and in 3D,” the villain responded. “But you did help her out, did you not?”

“She wanted to get a handle on Glory Boy; I had a lot of biographical stuff and even some more obscure underground stuff and even some self-published ‘tell-all’ things about him from folks in the scene who knew him or ran across him,” James acknowledged. “But I don’t know that selling her stuff that helped her research is really helping her out. She put all the info together to—I guess—get into his head a bit and distract him or demoralize him or whatever when she had that final fight with him. She did all the work; I just sold a product, and that product wasn’t even a weapon.”

Janus’ helmeted head turned to survey the racks of minor martial arts weapons in one corner that had probably supplied dozens of would-be beginner heroes and then turned his regard toward James again. “Information is the deadliest weapon around,” he said.

“Maybe so, but she could have found all that stuff on her own,” James said. “Why is this important to you? Is there someone you need an edge on? I’m perfectly willing to point you toward some resources, especially if the so-called hero is as big an ass-hat as Glory Boy was, just like I’d point a hero toward anything on you if asked, and if there was anything on you of value, which there isn’t.”

For a moment, James worried about that last comment. Looking like a potential enemy wasn’t a smart move. On the other hand, he didn’t want to be pegged as some weird combination of librarian/informant to the villain world.

“You know, I employ many people,” Janus said, apparently unperturbed. “One of them is named Hellfire.”

“Seems a bit small-time for someone like you.”

“Someone in my position can always use people who are—expendable.”

“I’ll be sure never to tell him you feel that way about him if I see him.”

“See that you don’t,” Janus said, a distinct note of threat in his voice, but also a hint of respect for James’ discretion. “But interesting you should talk about running into him one day, since he’s already been here once before.”

James didn’t see any reason not to admit it, nor did he think it wise to deny it outright since he didn’t know the extent of Janus’ knowledge. Transhumans at this level were such a tricky lot to deal with, and James didn’t feel that being a lower-tier transhuman himself helped a bit with understanding them. He identified with norms more than he did those who were theoretically his own kind.

Also, something was wrong with this whole situation and Janus’ demeanor, though he couldn’t quite pinpoint it. The silent-and-deadly female bodyguards seemed normal, somehow, but something wasn’t adding up right with their leader. He needed more time to figure things out before he panicked and either hit the silent alarm or made a break for the back door.

“Yeah, he was here once. I don’t even remember when.”

“September 2008,” Janus offered without hesitation. “The exact day eludes him, but the month and year really stick in his memory.”

“Can’t understand why,” James said.

“Neither did I. You see, I interview my potential people very thoroughly, even the losers—if for no other reason than to let them believe they are important to me. Hellfire was very good about telling me every single crime he could remember—and they’re all so pathetically small-time that I won’t bore you with them—and at one point he said, ‘Then there was that time at Shoreline Hero—’ and he just stopped and said, ‘Oh, that one didn’t work out. Nevermind.’ I didn’t let it drop, though. He seemed so downright agitated at the memory that I was curious. I didn’t get much out of him ultimately, I suppose; do you recall the incident?”

James paused only a few moments. He didn’t want to overplay his hand or underplay it. Better to seem not to remember it with crystal clarity—though he did—nor pretend it didn’t matter.

Especially when one of Hellfire’s handprints was very obviously burned into the wooden portion of his countertop—he’d never buffed it out even after all this time.

“He came in with a stack of self-written, self-drawn, poorly conceived and badly photocopied and shoddily stapled comics about his exploits,” James recounted after playing up the act of recalling the scene. “Or, rather, his fantasies about what he wanted to be, anyway. Tried to extort me into selling them for him at a really freakishly high price and then give all the money to him. I think I might still have them here somewhere; I had kind of hoped he’d become something bigger and they’d be worth something. Maybe there’s still a chance of that if he’s under your wing.”

“He’s never been back to your shop, has he, James?” Janus probed. “He never did seal the deal and convince you that you should either sell his wares or pretend to and just give him the money. Did he?”

“No,” James admitted. “No, he didn’t.”

“He left your store here, and left it largely undamaged,” Janus said. “Except for that little burn there. Why is that, James?”

“I don’t know,” James lied.

Something about Janus is out of synch, James thought.

“Are you certain?”

Something’s not matching up.

“I played it cool, I guess. I mean, I’m sort of doing that now, too, and you’re a lot scarier and smarter than Hellfire. Dumb bullies like him don’t do well when people don’t fold right away.”

Why isn’t he… James’ thoughts continued, and he felt the pieces fall into place.

James stopped the flow of soothing pheromones and shifted immediately to ones that would cause agitation, knowing the sudden change was going to make his already growing headache three times worse as well as leave a nasty taste in his mouth for hours. Bile rose in his throat, and he wasn’t sure if the nausea he was feeling came from the overuse of his Primal abilities now or from the fear of what fate might soon befall him.

“You seem like the kind of person who would value his safety,” Janus said. “Someone who would trip the silent alarm button on the floor when faced with someone like that. Yes, I’m well aware of your alarm and I haven’t even disabled it. Oh, I know why you’re not tripping it with me here. You know that you’d die at the first sound of police officers approaching. But with someone like Hellfire, you’d let the police come in, knowing it would freak an amateur like him out. Someone in your shop with incendiary powers but no visible weapon who’d barely begun his life of petty crime—you’d likely not end up a hostage or get hurt. At least not too badly. So why didn’t you? And how did you get him to go away?”

Janus’ three minions are calm—I don’t doubt that they’d kill me in a heartbeat at his command, but they’re relaxed, just like I wanted them to be earlier, though that won’t last much longer with new pheromones in the air. Janus, too, is standing there pleasantly while he interrogates me about Underworld and Hellfire. Except that his voice has kept the same note of menace this whole time and he sounds like the kind of guy who’d like to gesticulate while he talks, but he hasn’t been.

That’s when James realized for certain that Janus wasn’t standing there in front of him, and he kicked himself mentally for not figuring that out earlier. Whatever the reason for being here ultimately, why would Janus himself risk coming out in the open to confront a shopkeeper with a silent alarm who might have an itchy trigger foot? Why would he expose himself to that risk?

He wouldn’t. He’d send a guy in a helmet with a speaker and talk from miles away, James realized. That’s why the body language doesn’t match the personality; that’s why the calming pheromones aren’t doing a thing to mediate the threats implied in his words.

James gradually began to slow the flow of agitating pheromones he had unleashed, with a goal of shutting it down completely soon. He just wanted enough in the air to snap the bodies of these four people out of any sedentary posture. If they reported back to Janus about how calm they’d been the entire time, the villain would have what he wanted: information and confirmation of his suspicions.

I can’t risk getting them too agitated either, or the same thing could happen. I only hope I’ve shifted things soon enough that they won’t have anything notable to remark on in terms of their experiences and demeanor while in my shop.

“I don’t know why he left,” James reiterated.

“Really? Because I was thinking perhaps you might have some sort of Interfacer power and made him feel like fire ants were crawling up his legs and stinging him, or perhaps kicking in the running-away aspect of the fight-or-flight instinct,” Janus suggested, “or some Primal power to send out pheromones to influence behavior.”

James tensed at that last comment, hitting so close to the mark, and prayed it didn’t show on his face or in his posture—more likely than not, Janus had a camera in that minion’s helmet as well as a microphone so he could keep an eye on the situation from afar.

“Maybe you have a Psi power that allows you to manipulate feelings and memories at the neuron level or create illusions,” Janus continued without pause, and James sighed inwardly.

He has suspicions, but he doesn’t know anything for sure.

“I’m not a transhuman,” James lied. “So I couldn’t have done any of that.”

“Are you certain?” Janus pressed. “I could use someone like that on my side. It could be useful for someone to lie in wait at some job, waiting in the wings to secretly undermine the confidence of any enemies who might arrive on the scene. Someone who could turn the tide in my favor. Someone like that could expect to be paid well indeed.”

I make a good living owning my own business and keeping only a few part-time employees, James thought. I have a girlfriend who’s busy enough with her stand-up comedy that she doesn’t resent the long hours I log. And it’s a living that not only has given me a nice bank account, but also doesn’t put me afoul of the law or place me in situations where I’m likely to be beaten up on a semi-regular basis.

“I don’t…I can’t…Janus, sir, if I have any of those kinds of powers I just don’t know about them,” James said. “If I do—and I really don’t think I do—they must be subconscious or autonomic or something. Maybe they kick in when I’m under stress sometimes, but that wouldn’t be of much use to you. Powers that can’t be controlled or whatever.”

“Is that your story, James?”

“It’s the only one I’ve got. The truth has always worked for me so far. I’m no use to you,” James said. “No threat, either,” he added quickly.

The fake Janus stood silently while presumably the real one mulled things over and watched James for any sign of hesitation or duplicity. After a minute that felt like something so much longer, the voice from the helmet said, “Ladies, if you could go make sure the back alley is clear, we’ll go out the way we came in, so that James here can do the same soon and drive on to wherever he might go.”

The three companions filed out with professional precision as Janus remained. He wasn’t looking at James—or at least the helmet wasn’t facing toward him—but he said, “If anything changes—if you should discover you have powers and some control over them—you’ll contact me, won’t you?” At that, the man wearing one of Janus’ helmets laid a business card on the countertop, right on top of the fat black handprint Hellfire had left some two years earlier. Just a white card with a single phone number on it, which James guessed went to some prepaid phone that couldn’t be traced to the villain.

“Honestly, sir, I can’t say that I would,” James said.


“Putting on a mask and sticking my neck out wouldn’t be my style even if I were a Tank, a Regenerator and a Morph,” James said. “Or even a more formidable combo. It’s not my style.”

“Really? That’s a shame.”

James wondered for a moment if his life were about to end. When no killing stroke came after a tense and silent ten-count, he said, “For what it’s worth, if I did suddenly find out I had a power or powers or whatever, and that I could use them at will, I wouldn’t exactly be running to join up with your enemies, either, on the white hat side or the black hat side.”

A low, rumbling chuckle echoed from the helmet.

“See that you don’t, James,” he said as he headed for the rear of the store. “See that you don’t.”

James heard the faint sounds of the city nightlife outside his shop at Janus opened the rear door. The sounds remained several seconds later. The door was still open; had Janus left it that way as he departed, or…

A few moments after that thought, James’ body jerked in huge, startled shudder as he heard Janus’ voice say, “I was never here, James. Make sure of that.”

And then the click of the door shutting.

Before his wobbling knees gave way or his angry guts sent him to an explosive encounter with the toilet in the back room, James forced himself to go to the security system controls in his small office, eject the tiny DVD that was recording everything from the cameras in the store, and snapped it in half.

As the pieces of the DVD make a soft clunking sound in the bottom of the little trash can there, James wished it would be as easy to erase the worry showing in his face or manifesting as knots in his neck and shoulders. By the time Jillian got home, he needed to seem normal. Calm. Untroubled.

Keeping her from knowing about Hellfire was just to keep her from embarrassing me on stage with jokes about such a loser in my shop threatening me, he thought. Keeping her from knowing about this may be the one last thing I need to do tonight that keeps us both breathing.