Posts Tagged ‘Cheshire’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smelled her.


* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“Explain yourself,” Alan repeated sternly.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Trade secrets,” Cheshire said.

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

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

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


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

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

“No one hired you to find me?”

“No. This is strictly personal.”

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

“None of the above.”

“To have me owe you a favor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit,” Alan hissed. “Anything else?”

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

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

“Fair enough,” she said.

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

“What?” she finally said.

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

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

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

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

“What if someone pays you to?”

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

Alan nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” growled the one man, his hands palm-down on the tabletop and arms spread wide as he leaned just ever so slightly forward—as his eyes narrowed behind the sapphire-colored mask that covered the middle of his face.

“Really? You’re going to go with a cheeseball line like that?” responded the other man, his voice a tinny bass and with a light metallic echo behind the full-head metal helm, colored cobalt blue. He sat with ramrod-straight posture, arms crossed over his chest. “Melodramatic much, Blue Deacon?”

“Look at you talking, with the helmet, cape and brooding man of mystery thing. I’m serious,” Blue Deacon said, “I will take things to the next level. Stop using the name Deacon Blue and find a new one or I will take legal action.”

Behind his helmet, Deacon Blue let out a harsh, short bark of a laugh so sudden and brief it almost sounded like a cough. “Legal action? You’ll sue me? I thought you were threatening to fight me over this whole name thing. Would have been a lot more convenient, actually, since I’m pretty sure I could take you.”

“Typical,” Blue Deacon said, leaning back in his seat and tipping his blue fedora back just slightly. “Fists first with you. I’m not backing down on this. It irks me. I’m Blue Deacon; you’re Deacon Blue. It’s confusing and disrespectful of you. We’re both working the same city fighting crime. Either change your name, get the blazes out of this region and find a new city, or hire a lawyer.”

“Not very charitable of you, Blue Deacon—not very…Christian,” Deacon Blue said. From the eye holes of his helmet, his sharp blue eyes met Blue Deacon’s brown ones, then moved down to linger at the bright silver cross on one of Blue Deacon’s lapels. It was the one thing besides the man’s hair, skin and eye color that wasn’t blue. Nearly navy-blue patent leather dress shoes, electric-blue trousers and suit coat, and an aquamarine shirt under an intricately brocaded suit vest that was indigo with threads in designs and patterns of much lighter blues. Then Blue Deacon’s sapphire-blue tie, mask and hat that almost perfectly matched one another.

“Being Christian doesn’t mean meekly backing down when one is wronged; it just means not getting vicious about it. But at least I have a religious angle with my identity and costume. There’s a hint of ‘deacon’ in my look. You basically stole the Dr. Fate imagery from DC Comics and changed up the colors so that you have a blue helmet and some other parts, with black cape and hood and crap to be all menacing.”

“Don’t forget I do have hints of gold and red in my costume, too,” Deacon Blue said with a snort. “You know, I actually do serve as a deacon in a church,” Deacon Blue pointed out. “I just don’t wear my cross on my sleeve…or my lapel. Are you really a deacon? Do you even go to church regularly, Blue Deacon?”

There was a profound silence from the blue-masked man, and the blue-helmeted one chuckled.

“None of your business, and not the point,” Blue Deacon said. “It’s still an image thing. If you aren’t going to wear your faith outwardly and you’re going to go with some warlock-y theme, why use the label ‘deacon’ at all?”

“Honestly? Because I dig the shit out of Steely Dan. My two favorite songs of all time are ‘Deacon Blues’ and ‘Babylon Sister.’ But why are you letting this get to you so much? I don’t care if you want to be Blue Deacon.”

“I used my name first. I get dibs.”

“No, you got noticed by the news folks first, Blue Deacon. I was being a lot more low-key and didn’t really want media attention. I still try to keep it to a low level. You nearly got trounced in your first few fights when you burst on the scene—I know. So I’m pretty sure I was working the streets at least a year before you because you were green—no pun intended. Again, though, I don’t give a shit what you call yourself, as long as it isn’t Deacon Blue. But keep being Blue Deacon and stop making a stink, OK?”

“Not OK,” Blue Deacon insisted. “Blast it, you’re going for a threatening appearance and demeanor, so why not pick a blue-themed name that’s more mysterious or menacing? How about Indigo? Dr. Sapphire? Blue Shadow? Cerise Warlock? Anything.”

“Damn, you put a lot of thought into this, didn’t you? Too much. By the way, ‘cerise’ is a kind of red, not blue—I was an English major, which explains why I’m working in crime-fighting instead of making big bucks in an office,” Deacon Blue said. “So, I can use anything but something with ‘deacon’ in it, right? Doesn’t work for me. Look, as long as we’re playing the thesaurus name game, why can’t you be the Cerulean Cleric? Evangelist Azure? Hey, how about Blueberry Deacon? You’d really bring in the kiddo fan-base then; you could get a deal to be featured on some new version of ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ or something.”

“Stop mocking me.”

“Stop harassing me,” Deacon Blue retorted. “Live and let live. Mind your business.”

“I’m not going to drop this,” Blue Deacon said.

“Shit, I just want you off my neck, asswipe,” Deacon Blue muttered. “So, you don’t want to fight for it, and a lawsuit is a pain in the ass for people who don’t want to take off their masks or helmets and let the world see who they are. So both of those are out. What the fuck do you suggest to resolve this and move on with fucking real-life concerns?”

Deacon Blue didn’t like the “You’ll see” answer he got before Blue Deacon stomped off, nor the shit-eating grin on his face before he turned away.

* * *

Deacon Blue shook his helmeted head slowly and let a metallically ringing sigh. Over the past three weeks he had hoped Blue Deacon would just drop the whole issue. But here they were facing off again—in a quiet alley instead of a coffee shop—with Blue Deacon having just metaphorically and officially thrown down the gauntlet. “A contest? Who can find and shut down the Change Gang first? Why are we going after a bunch of illiterate losers who don’t even know it should be Chain Gang?”

“They’re actually very literate. They got their hands on small doses of some compounds that can encourage development of transhuman powers and several of them have biology or chemistry degrees,” Blue Deacon said. “They’re looking to jumpstart evolutionary change in norms to create a society of trans. Problem for them is trying to reproduce and mass-produce the compound.”

“OK, I’m semi-impressed. Hoping that if you show off your investigative skills I’ll throw up my hands, say ‘uncle’ and change my name?”

There was an awkward silence, and Blue Deacon shifted back and forth a bit, nervously. “No…to be honest, I thought they were a bunch of fools myself; they’ve certainly put on a good act to make people think so. Turns out they were going to start stealing coins from armored trucks and collectible stores to draw attention away from the real meaning of their name until their plans were well along. I only know because I hired Cheshire to find us a fair target for the contest.”

“Cheshire? Dude, how much money do you have?” Deacon Blue sputtered, whistling sharply once his words were done.

“Big trust fund, but I blew a lot of it on hiring Cheshire. I told you I’m serious about this name thing.”

“OK, even though you’re showing some trends toward brutal and total honesty, how do I know this is going to be a fair contest?”

“Well,” Blue Deacon said, “you know Cheshire’s rep as well as I do. She’s a merc and a spy but she’s not into cheating or betraying a confidence. In about 15 minutes, she’ll be delivering intel to both of us to give us clues of how to find the Change Gang’s headquarters, but neither of us gets a free ride. If neither of us can find and shut down the gang in 72 hours, it’s a draw and we both live with each other keeping our names.”

“Which I’m happy to do anyway, and it’s a lot less trouble,” Deacon Blue said. “And you and I could just take out the Change Gang together and then walk our separate ways and leave each other alone.”

“Not willing to do that,” Blue Deacon answered.

“Why am I not surprised? Still, how do I know this contest is legit and not stacked?”

“Because I also hired Cheshire to be the referee,” Blue Deacon. “That’s almost as expensive as having her do the set-up of the contest.”

“A referee neither of us will ever see or hear,” Deacon Blue said. “Guess that’ll keep us honest.”

* * *

Blue Deacon pushed an azure sleeve up slightly to look at his watch. He did the math quickly, and realized that some 39 hours had passed since the contest had begun and he still hadn’t tracked down the Change Gang. On the other hand, the high-tech paging unit on his belt—which had a twin resting somewhere on Deacon Blue’s costume as well—hadn’t gone off yet, which meant his opponent in this contest hadn’t had any better luck.

Well, possibly he might be having better luck—there was no way to know—but at least not enough to win the game yet.

Over the next hour, Blue Deacon found one of his more elusive and reluctant informants and came up with nothing, then found a previously unknown street hood to question roughly, gaining some information that might or might not be true. But at least following up on it would give him something to do.

Then the pager device on his belt vibrated and he looked down, dejection tugging at his heart. But the numbers there weren’t the “000” that signified victory by the other person. They were “911.” Cheshire had set things up so they could hit a panic button if one or the other got into trouble at the end. Quickly, an address came up, thanks to the GPS technology built into the smart-pagers.

For just a split-second, Blue Deacon considered just waiting and leaving Deacon Blue to defeat and possibly death, and then going to the address to take down the Change Gang himself.

That would solve his problems with Deacon Blue, but the cost of guilt that went with it wasn’t worth the price.

Blue Deacon went off at a full run to the address where Deacon Blue was in peril.

* * *

Deacon Blue was reeling. He’d been attacked from behind, and in the moment of shock had also been the thrill that he must have found the Change Gang at last—he didn’t care about whether or not Blue Deacon would lose the ability to use his monicker anymore. At this point, it was just about rubbing the man’s face in a loss and making him go away already.

But when Deacon Blue rolled and came up to face his attacker, it wasn’t any member of the Change Gang. It was a villain just recently arrived on the scene in the city, and about whom Deacon Blue knew absolutely nothing but his name and appearance. The man was tall, thin and wearing a scarlet bodysuit with glowing yellow lenses over his eyes and black horns protruding from the top of his full-face mask. Red Devil.

I’ve been sucker-punched by an idiot with a predictably simplistic name. Time to end this.

Except that Deacon Blue was still recovering from the surprise attack and Red Devil was removing with lightning reflexes from the back of his costume’s belt the crimson tail with the little spade-shaped bulge at the end. It struck Deacon Blue three times, the tip razor-sharp and ripping shreds in the reinforced material of Deacon Blue’s bodysuit. Then a fourth strike of the tail-whip, with the flat of the lash this time instead of the tip. Deacon Blue saw what looked like some metallic mesh on the surface, and then when it touched him he felt a sharp jolt.

Taser whip on top of everything else, Deacon Blue managed to mentally complain as his finger hit the panic button on his smart-pager and then his thoughts became a jumbled mess as he fell to the ground. Just fucking wonder…

* * *


No, Deacon Blue realized as he rose back to consciousness—he was awakening to agony.

He realized he was bound, and lying on the ground. When his eyes opened, he could see the multitude of cuts across his torso and arms, and Red Devil looming above his prone body.

“Fuuuuuck,” Deacon Blue groaned.

“I’ve been so very careful,” Red Devil said. “I wanted to make sure I could enjoy the pain in your eyes and voice for a little while before I killed you. You haven’t lost much blood, but it hurts like a sonofabitch, doesn’t it?”

“Fuck you,” Deacon Blue growled through gritted teeth.

“I’m going to start cutting deeper now. Eventually I’ll work my way up to your neck and then slit your throat. I was really hoping you’d be a better adversary. First night opposing each other, and such a letdown. You owe me some fun.”

Every cut was like liquid fire, added to every stinging memory of every cut that had come before. Deacon Blue screamed a few times in between the moans. He felt tears burn at the corners of his eyes. Helplessness and defeat made for bitter dregs, and he hated Red Devil for that feeling. Hated and feared, and realized the fear was gaining momentum. He wondered if he’d end up begging for his life.

At the pace Red Devil was going, Deacon Blue figured he had about 10 or 15 minutes of life left to decide.

* * *

Red Devil was carefully tracing a deep red whorl below Deacon Blue’s sternum when he felt it. A mental twinge to which he wasn’t accustomed. Bubbling up from all that anger and vicious glee was something unsettling. Something abstractly painful. It muddled his thoughts and distracted him from his bloody work. It had been so long since he’d felt it—probably since shortly after his powers asserted themselves in high school—that he scarcely recognized it.


No, that wasn’t it.


It rode over him in waves now, and he began to understand it for what it was—an outside influence. He fought against it. It wasn’t his own feelings; rather, it was something forced on him from another mind to distract him. So, when Blue Deacon burst into the room, Red Devil wasn’t helpless. Still recovering his wits, yes, but not caught unawares. Blue Deacon rushed him, and managed to strike Red Devil, but only managed to knock the knife out of the villain’s hand. In its place, with fearful speed, was the tail-whip, and Blue Deacon couldn’t help but notice how sharp the end of it was—how much blood caked the bladed, serrated edges of the little spaded tip. He saw the various mesh patches, knobs and spikes along the length of that lash and decided that getting hit by any of them was probably bad news.

His head was pounding, but he continued to pour feelings of self-recrimination into Red Devil’s mind. If he couldn’t overwhelm the man, at least he might be able to keep him off-balance.

Here’s hoping the pain and disorientation I’m about to suffer from doing that for so long isn’t going to overwhelm me, Blue Deacon worried.

They circled each other, with Red Devil managing to just catch the edges of Blue Deacon’s suit coat with the bladed tip of the tail-whip. Blood hadn’t been drawn yet, but Blue Deacon assumed it was only a matter of time.

“So nice to meet both my potential adversaries tonight,” Red Devil said. “I wanted a blue to my red, but even though I knew both of you were lurking here in the ‘hood, I never guessed I’d be lucky enough to get both of you. Why don’t you beat a hasty retreat so I can finish Deacon Blue—maybe I can milk you for a few months of entertainment and lovely cat-and-mouse games. I didn’t want two blue-colored deacon guys anyway. Just one. You can be the winner.”

Red Devil felt a multitude of tweaks, pokes and small slaps across his ears, shoulder blades and back of the neck, and turned quickly to see what was going on. A blue helmet slammed into his face as Deacon Blue, having freed his limbs and bleeding all over above the waist, head-butted him—boosting the impact slightly with the same telekinetic powers he had used to tweak the villain moments earlier—and grunted, “Suck this blue, motherfucker!”

Red Devil tumbled but was on his feet immediately, seeming utterly unfazed by the cranial impact.

Deacon Blue and Blue Deacon had the same thought simultaneously. Red Devil was probably a Brute, but not a full-on Tank since he hadn’t shown any super-strength. In concert, they began to hammer the villain from both sides, refusing to let up and give him an opening. They made progress for a while, until blood loss took its toll, and Deacon Blue stumbled, then fell against a wall, light-headed and about to pass out. In a heartbeat, Red Devil pressed his advantage, and placed the bladed tip of his tail-whip at Deacon Blue’s throat. The blade broke flesh, and bloody tears burst forth. Before the cut could become a slice and the blood a torrent, though, a wave of self-loathing swept through Red Devil from Blue Deacon’s mind. The villain bit back those feelings and turned to slap Blue Deacon with a taser-equipped portion of the whip. When he lashed the whip at the hero, though, it was caught in mid-strike, wrapping itself around something that looked like a combination of a crucifix and a police baton. Blue Deacon snatched the whip away, smiled and then thrust the tip of the baton into Red Devil’s throat, depressing a button.

Red Devil felt a jolt rush through his skull, and then darkness crashed in to replace the waves of guilt being withdrawn from his mind.

* * *

When Deacon Blue came to his senses again, there were three people around him and something protruding from his arm.

“Lie still, Deacon,” said a male voice from off to his side, and the woman—clearly Cheshire—standing right in Deacon Blue’s line of sight nodded to reinforce the advice.

Deacon Blue turned his head wearily to see who was helping him. “Asclepius? I still owe money to the emergency service. Why are you…”

“Shut up, Deac,” Asclepius said. “I’m not going to let a hero die just because he’s behind in contributions to the cause. Besides, Cheshire has some special favors she can call in from me. I’ve healed the worst of your wounds. I’m also giving you a small transfusion. Not enough to replace what you’ve lost in blood, but enough to get you home for a long rest. A few days at least, you hear me?”

Deacon Blue chuckled ruefully. “A filthy alley. What a great place for a transfusion.”

“Lucky you that my powers also allow me to kick up your immune system for the process,” Asclepius said. “Just a few more minutes, then I’ll cut you loose and head off to my next call.”

Catching Cheshire’s gaze, Deacon Blue said to the woman: “Can’t help but notice from Red Devil’s villainous cackling diatribe that he seemed to know all about me and Blue Deacon lurking around the past day-and-a-half. The Change Gang thing was a lie—why the setup? And why call in help to fix me up?”

“I was wondering the same thing,” Blue Deacon chimed in.

“You asked me to set up a contest,” Cheshire said matter-of-factly. “You thought you were working toward a certain goal, but the real goal was to be the first to defeat Red Devil, once my clues eventually put you somewhere he’d be looking for the both of you.”

“So, is there some reason you wanted one or both of us dead bad enough to sic Red Devil on us?” Blue Deacon asked.

“Want you dead? Hardly. Look, you were willing to go after the Change Gang independently for this stupid-ass pissing match over the Deacon Blue/Blue Deacon name crap. Do you think the Change Gang would have been any less dangerous to you?”

“Probably not, but still, why the cloak-and-dagger stuff? Why not just tell us Red Devil was the goal?” Deacon Blue asked.

“I couldn’t really lead you to the Change Gang,” Cheshire said. “They have me doing a small job for them. I’m not finished with it yet, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m honor-bound not to rat them out by leading you to them while I’m still under contract. But I have to admit their motives scare me a bit, so I wanted you to know what they’re up to. All that intelligence I gave you is true, except clues to their current location. So, I did the task you paid me for, and got what I wanted, too, which is knowing that one or both of you will be looking for these nut-cases and have already started the legwork on that.”

“Hmmmph. Well, I guess you won the contest, Blue Deacon,” Deacon Blue noted.

“Yup. Looks that way,” the other hero agreed.

“You’re an asshole,” Deacon Blue muttered.

“The contest does seem a little dishonest now in retrospect, even though we were both duped.”

“So, that mean you’re gonna ease up on making me change my name?”

“No, I want you to drop the Deacon Blue thing anyway. A win’s a win. I played honest, even if I didn’t know the real game.”

“Yeah, you are an asshole,” Deacon Blue said. “You should be Blue Balls or the Azure Dickhead. Fine, then. I’m Mr. Indigo from now on. Happy?”


“Fuck you.”

“You could always call yourself Babylon Sister,” Blue Deacon offered.

“Are you trying to go for a world record in asshole behavior?” the newly minted Mr. Indigo grumbled.

“Wouldn’t work anyway,” Cheshire said. “There’s a transhuman woman over on the South End who’s just starting up. She’s already got that name. And I’m defending her right to it.”

“Dang, there are too many Steely Dan fans in this city,” Blue Deacon muttered. “Maybe I’ll have to do something about that—right after I deal with the Change Gang.”

“I’m feeling a bit competitive still,” Mr. Indigo said as Asclepius removed the transfusion needle from his arm. “And looking for payback. I’m betting that Babylon Sister and I will take them out before you do. Willing to wager your name on it?”

“Nope,” Blue Deacon said as he walked off into the night. “But how about the loser has to leave New Judah and go fight crime somewhere else?”

“Getting rid of you is worth the risk of losing my nice rent-controlled apartment, shit-head,” Mr. Indigo said. “You’re on.”

His touch was both professional and gentle—his hands on her skin spreading warmth and making the pain go away bit by bit—and his voice was pleasant and demeanor collegial.

And all she could think about was how much she wanted to punch him in the face.

“OK, Peregrine, what’s up? You seem tense.”

“I got my butt kicked, Asclepius,” she told him. “Would that put you in a good mood?”

“I imagine the other guy looks worse.”

“Of course, but that doesn’t change the fact…” she began, then stopped herself, frowning.

“The leg had some bone damage, but I think it was only bruising and maybe a hairline fracture. I should have it mostly taken care of in another few minutes, and then we can move on to more cosmetic things,” Asclepius said as he smoothed his hands slowly up and down her lower leg. “Really. What is up? What’s going on Peregrine? You’re pissed at me; I can tell. Mind telling me why?”

“I needed you more than 24 hours ago, dammit!” she snapped.

“When you texted me, you said it wasn’t an emergency, and clearly it wasn’t.” Asclepius said, eyes earnest through the holes of his domino mask, colored black like the medical scrubs he wore and the Crocs on his feet. “I’m sorry if you’ve had to deal with some pain for a day or so, but that’s kind of par for the course being a superhero.”

“I texted that it was important,” she said sulkily.

“Important still doesn’t mean emergency,” he responded. “High Impact was bleeding out last night. I barely got to him in time. And then several other heroes had head injuries or broken bones. Busy night. I was exhausted. This is the soonest I could get to you.”

“I follow all the procedures, and I kick in more money than the average hero, and I hardly ever call you for minor injuries. All the shit I have to go through just to get an appointment, I’d like a quicker response when I say it’s important.”

Now she was feeling guilty that perhaps she was being petulant, and that made her want to punch Asclepius even more. She thought about all the hoops she had to go through—even if they were the same hoops as everyone else: getting three heroes to vouch for her before she could even talk to him, then buying the pre-paid cell phone and setting up an e-mail account only for Asclepius, and having to answer a 50-question form to give him trivia about herself like her favorite color or the name of her first love.

It was all for security of course, and she understood that—too many villains would be willing to strike Asclepius dead so that he couldn’t use his healing powers for their enemies anymore. He was one of the best Regenerators around and had been courted by several prestigious hospitals, each of which he had turned down.

But dammit, I follow the rules, and I want service! she thought fiercely. Every day I have to check the cell phone for a code sent by text message and then check the e-mail for a second code, then put them together, then use that to log into his damn website, then answer a trivia question about myself. Then I have to wait for the verification link, click that, and enter in the previous day’s password to get the current password so that when I text him saying I need help, he knows it’s me and not Freak-Easy or some other psycho trying to get to him. And I do all that religiously, and then makes me wait over a day.

“This isn’t like you, Peregrine. It isn’t about us, is it? I mean, we stopped dating almost a year ago, and you broke up with me,” Asclepius said, a trace of bitterness creeping into his voice.

“You wanted to take the masks off,” she said huffily. “I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. I wasn’t ready to tell you who I am. But that’s not what this is about.”

“Then what, dammit!”

“This!” she said, pointing to the livid black eye she was sporting. “The limping wouldn’t have been anything. The wincing from my ribs when I sat down was all right. All the contusions and abrasions where my clothing covered could wait. But I needed this healed,” she said, pointing to her eye again.

“I don’t get it,” he said, honestly confused.

“I had to go to work today, and with the black eye and the limping, now all my co-workers think I’m in an abusive relationship. I don’t know what’s worse: the misplaced pity for something that didn’t happen or the fact I can’t bring my boyfriend to the next company party for fear of what people will think of him. And I couldn’t go to his place last night—like I was supposed to!—because he would have wondered how I got a black eye, and if I wasn’t ready to tell you who I was after a year when we’re both heroes, I certainly don’t want him knowing what I do at night after four months of dating! So now he thinks I’m being cold and flighty.”

“Shit,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry. Maybe if you had been more explicit in the text I could have squeezed you in.”

Peregrine sighed heavily. “It’s not your fault,” she admitted. “Heck, I probably would have, but I fell asleep because I was so tired from the fight, and didn’t wake up until 5 minutes before I need to leave for work. Just needed to get that off my chest. Sorry.”

“Well, it does pose a problem,” Asclepius said.

“What?” Peregrine asked—she was the confused one now.

“If I don’t fix that eye, your boyfriend will ask questions; it I do, your co-workers will wonder how you healed so fast.”

“Crap,” she said. “I don’t have any more personal days to use to take time off. And it’s only Wednesday night. Two more days before the weekend that I have to go to work; I can’t push my boyfriend off that long.”

“Hey, I know,”  Asclepius offered. “Fugue. I’ve got her number in my files. She does that whole disguise and mimicking thing, and she usually works the daylight hours, so she should be up and can probably loan you some stage makeup and show you how to make a fake black eye.”

Peregrine smiled and began, “Tha…”

“Sweet. Wonderful. Nice. All problems solved in minutes, just like a sitcom episode,” said a new female voice, which had no visible body to go with it. “Get her healed, give her the number and come with me, Harold.”

“Harold?” Peregine asked, laughing lightly. “Really?”

“I prefer Harry,” he mumbled. “Really nice, Cheshire. You want to give her my last name, too?”

“I always side with the ladies when forced to choose,” answered the woman, now resolving into visibility. “She had to endure dating you, the least she can have is your first name—and no, I don’t care that she won’t give you hers. Anyway, I’m in a rush; someone’s hurt. I need him un-hurt, so he can pay me. Giddy-on-up now.”

“Women,” Asclepius huffed, and finished up with Peregrine as fast as he could.

* * *

“I’m not letting him go anywhere with you without me tagging along,” said the man whom Cheshire had slipped past to get into the room in the first place, and who was now standing mere inches behind Asclepius, watching her warily.

“Buttress, where I need to take him, I can’t let you see. Who I’m taking him to, I can’t let you see because you might decide you want to apprehend him. So, my short, broad and handsome hero, you have to stay here and wait,” Cheshire said.

“So, it’s a criminal, then, that you want me to treat. No go, Cheshire,” Asclepius said. “And even if I were willing, I wouldn’t go without protection. Buttress is pulling that duty with me tonight, and I’m afraid I don’t have time to round up someone with a less rigid moral code. Not that I would anyway.”

“He’s strictly white-collar crime, Asclepius. No blood on his hands, not even indirectly. But I need him alive. More immediately, I need him conscious so I can get the code he has and add it to the ones I acquired, and finish his job. Then I need him to be healed and grateful so that he will release the two million he owes me from the Swiss bank account. Before he passed out, he made it very clear that if I took him to a hospital, I could piss off.”

“If his hands are so clean of blood, why is he critically injured and in need of healing?” Buttress pointed out, crossing his arms over his broad chest and squinting at Cheshire irritably.

“Just because he doesn’t get anyone killed doesn’t mean he hasn’t done things that make other people want to kill him,” Cheshire answered. “C’mon, Asclepius. I’m sure you owe me one for something or another.”

“No,” the two men said in unison.

“Men,” Cheshire said grumpily, and then she vanished from sight, to be replaced with a loud popping sound and a gaseous cloud that rendered both men unconscious. Cheshire became visible again when she was certain they were out, a respirator over her nose and mouth, and took what she had come for.

* * *

Asclepius awoke suddenly, to a sharp and evil smell that seemed to burn its way through his sinuses and into the frontal lobe of his brain. Cheshire tossed away the broken capsule she had been waving under his nose, and gave him a very light—almost playful—slap across one cheek.

“I really wish you wouldn’t have made me do this the hard way,” she said. “You’ve put on weight since the last time I saw you, and I can’t drag you any farther. I sure as hell can’t fireman-carry you. I need you to walk, get in my car, and come with me.”

“Or what?” he said groggily. If there was anything he knew about Cheshire, it was that she didn’t do violence for the sake of violence. She’d kill in self-defense if it came to that, but she wouldn’t hurt him to make him do what she wanted.

“I’ll make your secret identity public.”


“Actually, I’d be doing you a favor if I did, since you’d have to drop out of the hero support racket to keep yourself from being a target of the black hats,” she noted. “And you’d make better money in the public or private sector with trans and non-trans folks who don’t wear masks and tights. But I know how much you like being of service to the heroes, so even though it would mean a higher standard of living for you, I know you’d hate it.”

“How about I tell people who you are?” he countered.

“Yeah, try that,” she offered. “You know what I look like, or at least how I looked a few years ago, but no one knows who I am really. I didn’t even use my real name when I married you.”

* * *

Halfway between her car and the building where her client lay injured, Asclepius stopped and said, quietly, “No.”

Harold,” she hissed irritably, “we’ve been over this. It hurts no one and it keeps me funded. I will pay you well for your trouble tonight.”

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

“What could be wrong?” she asked. “No one followed us here, and I swept his body for tracking devices out of my usual paranoia. What?! Is your Spidey-sense tingling?”

“Actually, it is,” he said. “I’m not a good healer because I have any medical school training to back up my Regenerator skills, you know. Remember? I have clairvoyance.”

“Good point,” she said. “Clairvoyance going off. Silent alarm in your head. Danger. Shit.”

Cheshire pulled a small set of what looked like binoculars from her belt and scanned the building, then said, “Crap.”


“No heat signatures in the building.”

“Your client is dead?”

“No, my client would at least still be slightly warm even if he died right after I left,” she pointed out.

“The heat signatures would be over here,” offered a gruff voice, and both Cheshire and Asclepius turned toward it. Two men and a woman stood there, and one of them smiled at Cheshire.

“Claude,” she said to the smiling man. “If that’s your real name. My but you’re looking so much better. That’s quite the makeup job you did on yourself before to fool me.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short,” said the gruff-voiced man—wearing a black top hat and a vintage circus owner’s outfit—standing beside Cheshire’s bogus client, who was wearing sullied clothing that looked like he had been attacked, though there were no signs of injury now. The woman was dressed in a red-and-black outfit that looked like a combination of a ninja costume and ballerina attire. Each of them had a pair of high-tech goggles hanging from his or her neck that Cheshire recognized immediately—after all, she had a pair herself at home.

“Nothing so crude as red food coloring and corn syrup,” continued the man in the circus attire, “so you weren’t easily fooled. Claude is a Morph, so he was able to create faux wounds from his own flesh and blood; he’s also a very accomplished former community theater actor. I’m Ringmaster, and I want to thank you for delivering Asclepius to me.”

“That wasn’t the job I signed on for,” Cheshire said.

“Nonetheless, it’s the job I will pay you for. I’ll even throw in a couple hundred thousand more on top of the two mil to help soothe your conscience—if you really do have one,” Ringmaster said.

“Working quite the long con, weren’t you?” Cheshire noted, wondering how they had known she and Asclepius had once been together—it seemed the only rationale for having gone through her like this and to have known she’d seek the healer out. “Claude checked out eight ways to Sunday,  so you’ve been setting up his fake white-collar criminal thing for years. I wasn’t aware the black hats wanted Asclepius dead that badly.”

“They don’t,” Ringmaster said. “And neither do I. I’m going to use him for his skills, and make a fortune off the villain community by making him their healer.”

“Not gonna happen,” Asclepius said.

“I’m very convincing,” Ringmaster said. “I don’t need a whip like an old-school Ringmaster or lion tamer to get results, but I sometimes use one. No, I just need to be close enough to you so that I can generate enough pain to make you heal whomever I tell you to.”

“You need to be flexible, Asclepius,” Cheshire said, with a vague tone of sarcasm that Asclepius recalled all too well. “I’m sure Ringmaster knows how to reward loyalty and pay you well. I’m sure he has more than negative reinforcement in his bag of tricks.”

“Of course,” Ringmaster said with a smile.

“Liar,” Cheshire said, then hissed to Asclepius: “Run for the ditch. Now!”

It took him a moment to figure out where the ditch was, and then he headed off at a dead run, already feeling a burn in the back of his throat and wishing that he spent some time at the gym. Cheshire vanished from sight.

“Claude, go get Asclepius,” Ringmaster said. “Nightdancer, you’re with me.”

All three villains put on their goggles and Ringmaster gleefully shouted, “No hiding for you, Cheshire. We get night-vision and can see infra-red signatures with these. So neither darkness nor invisibility will avail you. Here kitty, kitty…”

* * *

Asclepius could hear Claude gaining on him—there was no way he’d reach the ditch in time, and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do once he was in it. So he slowed, turned, and made as if to bull-rush Claude—and let the other man tackle him instead.

With Claude thinking he had the upper hand, and Asclepius prepared for the impact as much as he could be—though it still stunned him a little—the healer used the physical contact with his foe to reach into the man with his powers, unsettling the delicate balance of fluids in Claude’s inner ear and then flooding him with nauseated sensations. Claude made an “urk” sound and loosened his grip on Asclepius to throw up violently, as the healer rolled away just in time to avoid getting splashed with the vomit. As Asclepius began running for the ditch again, Claude tried to stand up, then fell over as his inner-ear disruptions upset his balance, and he threw up again, cursing Asclepius as he did.

Asclepius took a look around quickly as he ran, trying to find Cheshire and then kicking himself mentally, remembering her invisibility powers. What he did see, though, was that Ringmaster and Nightdancer had noticed Claude’s predicament, and now the woman was heading right toward Asclepius, at a highly unnatural velocity.

Great. A Speedster, he thought, and kept running, hoping he could make it to the ditch as Cheshire had directed before he was tackled from behind.

He tensed when he heard a loud “whump,” then realized no one had hit him. He stopped, turned, and saw Cheshire spring away from Nightdancer, who was trying to shake off the effects of the stunning tackle. No sooner had she gotten her feet than Cheshire vanished again, and Nightdancer let out a lungful of air as she was struck by an invisible fist in the stomach, then went rigid as Cheshire appeared again, a taser in hand and pressed against Nightdancer’s neck. The villain slumped the ground and Cheshire smiled.

“Thanks, sweetie,” Cheshire told Asclepius. “Unless you want to be all muddy, you can abandon the whole jumping-in-the-ditch thing. You’ve done your part—more than your part actually. Nice work with Claude. I’d stay low, though, and not go anywhere until I come back for you.”

Asclepius frowned as she left, and hugged the ground tightly to stay out of Ringmaster’s view and avoid any bullets that might fly. Sweetie. That word stung more than any insult. It only served to remind Asclepius that he was in this current mess thanks to his ex-wife half-kidnapping him. The affectionate nickname also reminded him of how painfully he had been dumped and how much he had been hurt by her.

And he didn’t even know her real name.

* * *

“Yoo-hoooo!” Cheshire called from the distance, fully visible. “Say, circus-boy: How far does your little pain-power reach? I’m guessing 12 yards may be a bit out of your range, right?”

Ringmaster pulled a pistol out from beneath his long red coat with its gold and black embroidery and said, “You’re within range of this,” and took aim. As he shot twice, Cheshire vanished again.

“You’re not a very good shot,” she called out. “Most people aren’t, especially from more than 30 feet away. So, how are those goggles working for you?”

Ringmaster scanned the landscape, panning back and forth from the general source of her taunts, and saw nothing. “Where the hell are you?” he whispered to himself.

He heard the soft and rapid pad of footsteps in the gravel and grass, but didn’t have enough time to react before she struck him, knocking the gun away and knocking the wind out of him. She slapped him hard a couple times, and then bounded away. He struggled upward, tried to locate her with the goggles askew on his face, and was rewarded by her sudden appearance in front of him. He reached out to sear her nerves with agony, but he barely made contact with her nervous system before her foot crashed against his skull with the vicious roundhouse kick she had begun before becoming visible, and he tumbled to the ground.

Groaning and swearing, Cheshire rolled away from him and retrieved his gun. She retreated a couple yards and pointed it at him. “That hurt a lot,” she said. “If you do that again—and I doubt you’re capable of it from that far away, I will shoot you. You’d better hope I don’t get a leg cramp coincidentally, or you’re a dead man. Unlike you, I’m a very good shot,” she lied. “By the way, take off those stupid-looking googles. I can bend light outside the visible spectrum as well. They’re useless to you.”

“Asclepius!” she shouted. “We’re leaving! Ringmaster, I’m not a hero, and the police have a lot of beefs against me, so I’m not going to take you in for justice or a reward or anything like that. You can go, with your two friends. After tonight, though, you and Claude can both lose my number. You’re blacklisted. I will, however, expect that two million dollars I am owed, plus another 200K for pain and suffering tonight, in my account by the time I get home. If not, I will find you and do very uncivilized things to you. As you already know, I’m really good at finding things.”

* * *

In Cheshire’s car, Asclepius spent the first several minutes simply glaring at the road in front on them. Then he shifted his gaze to glare at her from his peripheral vision.

“I’m guessing that ‘sorry’ won’t quite cut it, will it?” Cheshire said. “Though I really am. I owe you big—I’ll kick some of the money your way.”

“I don’t give a crap about money that much, and you know it,” Asclepius said.

“Well, I’ll set up a nice IRA for your retirement then,” she said. “Still, I owe you one. How can I pay that off? I’ll need an answer now, because I already have some long-term, open-ended IOUs out there that I owe, and I don’t want any more of them.”

“Your name,” he said. “I want your real name.”

Cheshire paused, and the silence in the car seemed thick enough to mute even the traffic noises from outside the vehicle.

“I can’t do that,” she said. “Too high a price to ask. How about I stay in town a few days and we have ‘for old time’s sake’ sex instead?”

Asclepius exhaled heavily, then sighed more lightly, and said, “I haven’t had time for dating in a while. What the hell. Your place or mine?”

“Mine’s closer, but it’s an RV.”

“Sounds fine to me. Bed is probably less lumpy than mine at the apartment.”

A few minutes later, Cheshire slipped the fingers of her right hand into Ascelpius’ left and said, “Diane.”


“My name, stupid,” she said. “It’s only my first name, but it’s my real one. You deserve that much at least.”

He squeezed her hand lightly, and then stared at the road ahead some more—a path filled with unknowns and possibilities.

And a new name among them.