Posts Tagged ‘Crazy Jane’

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She’d known he was coming—she’d been alerted by phone.

But apparently he’d also been warned she was on edge.

All for the best, Zoe supposed, as she heard a twig snap in the distance and a youthful, jovial voice calling out amiably, “Fringe, not foe!” as Mad Dash came into sight. The mask he wore—revealing only his nose, cheeks, mouth and chin and sporting almost comically large dark yellow goggles—was only slightly less grin-inducing than the garish short-coat he wore over his gray-green unitard, which was a medley of different colors, types and shapes of fabric. A sturdy looking coat and well-constructed, but ridiculous as hell, she thought.

God can I use a laugh right now, even if it’s only a chuckle and gone almost as fast as it arrived, Zoe considered, flinging her spent cigarette into the road from the rock on which she sat near the tree line. Before she’d fully exhaled her last lungful of smoke from that butt she was already extracting another one to light.

“Those are terrible for you, you know,” Dash told her when he drew near, though to his credit, Zoe noted, he didn’t wrinkle his nose or wave at the air to disperse the fumes like so many people did when they said something like that. “Your lungfish are going to go belly up in the aquarium if you keep up that habit.”

He delivered the cautionary note so matter-of-factly, without any trace of judgment in his tone, that Zoe decided to forego the usual snide response. “They’re right; you do speak a little odd,” she said. Then she cocked her wrist so that the smoldering cigarette stuck straight up into the air and she pointed at it with the index finger of her other hand. “Bad for me though these may be, they’re the only thing making me feel a little human right now, a little sane right now and a little calm right now. Chain-smoking several butts is phase one. Phase two will be a very long, very hot shower and lots of scrubbing until my skin is raw and any blood I see I know is my own. Phase three would be getting piss-drunk, but I can’t even hardly get a buzz drinking, so I’ll settle for some herbal tea and a warm bed and not getting up for 12 to 15 hours.”

“I didn’t bring a shower. Or tea. Or a bed,” Mad Dash said, though he glanced quickly inside his backpack as if he might find one or all of them in there, while he awkwardly juggled a large and apparently mostly empty soft drink cup from Wendy’s in one hand. He rattled it a little, lifted the lid, and then downed the last swig and let the last few chunks of ice left slide into his mouth. “I have some water bottles left in my backpack and a few snickety-snackedy-munchies,” he mumbled as he crunched the ice. “If you like granola bars and Cliff Bars and stuff.”

“I think I can keep food down now, so a granola bar sounds great,” she responded with a smile. “I’ll make Query come up with the other things to make up for letting me get kidnapped.”

After he handed over the snack and a bottle of water, he paused and then said, “Oh, salmon! Your clothes look like they came from the fall war-refugee fashion line at Macy’s and I should get you a…whoa! I’m so sorry I’m looking at you I just saw a nipple sorry sorry sorry,” he stammered, wrenching off his coat and handing it to Zoe.

“I like you, Madster,” Zoe said as she put her arms through the sleeves and buttoned it up. “You’re weird, but I like you. Chivalry’s not dead, even though your fashion sense might be. Comfy coat, though.”

“Thanks. I make them myself,” Dash said, positively beaming.

“Well, don’t give up your day job, because I think there won’t be many customers for this kind of style. But you’re a Renaissance man, Mad Dash, and you’ll make a fine catch someday.”

“Oh, I’m already the lobster special of the day—got a girlfriend named Honey Badg…hello? Yeah? Querio? Where you at, man? I’m here with Chloe…”

“…Zoe,” she corrected him.

“Zoe,” Dash repeated, and then rattled off a series off a series of “yeah’s” and “uh-huh’s” as his part of the communication with Query.

At least I hope he’s really talking to Query via a Bluetooth or some hidden headset, because I don’t want to find out he has voices in his head, Zoe thought. I can’t deal with shit like that tonight.

Mad Dash paused, then turned to Zoe. “Query says we need to stay put, stay down and don’t get involved with what’s about to happen until he says so.”

“Huh? What?” Zoe sputtered. “No, no, no. Tell Query to call me on my cell phone right now.”

“Says he’s kinda busy setting stuff up.”

“Tell him to call me on my phone right the hell now,” she snarled and then, as if on cue, her phone rang. “Talk to me. What’s gonna happen?”

“Zoe, I need you to trust me right now. I’ve got stuff to do and probably not much time to do it and I just want you and Dash to stay out of the way for now,” Query said.

“Oh no no no no no,” Zoe said, dragging hard on her cigarette and then expelling smoke in a chaotic mass like some angry dragon. “Look, I’ve had a really shit goddamn day and I’m just barely holding it together and you failed to stop them from getting me and I want some damn answers.”

“I take all my jobs very seriously, Zoe, but you’re not being charged for this work,” Query said. “What do you want? A refund check for zero dollars? I’m trying to protect you.”

“And I just killed two guys and some of them is staining my clothes and that’s fucked up and I deserve some answers,” she retorted, her voice sounding angry and anxious all at once. “Plus, if shit is about to go down, I want to know what is going down. Tell me right now or I will walk out into that road and flag down the next car I see.”

“OK, fine. Zoe, they were taking you into the woods. Must mean they have a safe-house somewhere around here. If I were running this operation, I’d have at least a few people waiting there in case there was trouble getting you out of the car. I’ve made some best guesses based on the topography around here and I’ve got some ideas of the most likely places. Also, the guys you zeroed out aren’t able to check in or respond to any communications so chances are Janus and gang will know soon shit’s gone wrong, if they don’t already. I intend to ambush them when they come looking for their friends’ car.”

“How would they find it? You had me drive it off the road.”

“I already figured Janus would likely have all the cars fitted with locators,” Query said. “Pidwidgeon’s on-board sensors have confirmed transmissions from it—someone’s likely monitoring. So I’m going to wait for them to come. I promise I’ll get you out of here. Just sit tight.”

“It’s almost dark already,” she noted.

“I have night vision equipment.”

“We don’t.”

“Dash does. And if things get too hot, and I need you to pitch in, I’ll provide the party lights,” Query said. “I promise. Now find cover, keep quiet and let me do my job. Pretty please. With sugar on top.”

* * *

He was standing in the doorway to her office. Had he been anyone else, Underworld wouldn’t have cared. But she hated him right now, and she was trying not to think of murder right now so that she could get work done. It was way too soon to deal with him again.

Not to mention the fact he never visited other peoples’ office—he summoned them to his. That disturbed her even more.

“I thought we were done after we discussed Odium,” Underworld noted.

“I may have been too quick to praise you for your successful abduction plan,” Janus said, the sourness of his tone mixing in an interesting way with the slightly tinny echo produced by his two-faced helmet.

Underworld said nothing; simply arched one eyebrow.

“We’ve lost contact with the car carrying Zoe,” Janus clarified.


“It was last seen getting ready to get onto Grace Memorial Highway by Breathtaker and the two men in his car when they parted ways.”

“Then I still win,” Underworld said dryly, taking her eyes off him and returning them to the computer monitor.

“How do you figure that?”

“Because if my plan had been flawed, the car would have been stopped or commandeered or whatever long before it got to that point,” she said, still not looking at him. “And the other car, too, for that matter. I assume Breathtaker and the two guys with him are still in contact and running free.”


“Then the problem isn’t that I had a bad plan or that I failed. The problem isn’t that my hand-picked team got sloppy. The problem is, I suspect, that you picked a fight with Query and he’s still got tricks up his sleeve for keeping tabs on Zoe because this shit is personal and not just business.”

A loud metallic sigh, and them a simple “Hmmmph” from Janus. “I hate it when you’re right,” he said as he walked away. “I think I’ll kill somebody after I finish handling this.”

* * *

A car finally arrived nearly 20 minutes after Query got off the phone with Zoe, stopping very near to where Zoe had driven her abductor’s car behind the tree line. Making some educated guesses about probable locations for any Janus-owned safe-houses out here, Query did some quick calculations about when the car with Zoe might have been expected to arrive at any of those areas, figured their comrades would wait until they were 10 or 15 minutes late to panic, factored in required travel times for those other bad guys to show up here from all the possible locations, and had the sites for Janus’ place in the woods narrowed down to three prime leads.

All while he used the scope on his rifle to size up the three men who were now getting out the car. One of them had a device in hand—probably some kind of receiver/locator—and was likely getting a read on just how far away their missing car was and in which direction it lay. All of them had flashlights; the two guys with Mr. Receiver—as Query had mentally designated the lead guy—had Uzis in hand as well.

If Mad Dash and Zoe were following instructions, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the car and its two corpses right now—wouldn’t be in any spot where the three new arrivals would be scanning the trees with their flashlights.

Hopefully, they’ll also be behind some cover, since Mr. Receiver has clearly figured out where the car is and is now pulling out night vision goggles to look for threats, Query thought. He probably doesn’t really expect any police presence here, or else the car they were seeking wouldn’t be out of sight. But he might be expecting a trap of some other sort. As well he should.

Mr. Receiver even took a long, slow look at the other side of the road, where Query had found a tiny hillock to give himself just a bit of high ground. Query didn’t flinch; the modified portable hunter’s blind he had set up in front of himself would block his heat signature and look like a rock or bush to the night-vision goggles. The barrel of his rifle like some branch.

The man was very thorough in taking stock of his surroundings; his companions were very vigilant in watching his back.

And Query’s trigger finger was feeling quite itchy.

But it was too soon. He trusted his instincts and waited for what he expected—for what he would have done in their place.

And so it was that a second new car arrived on the scene some five minutes after the first one, pulling off to the side a bit farther up the road. For a moment, Query considered waiting some more for a third car, but that was just getting paranoid. So he simply waited until the new quartet of men started walking toward the trio, pulling night vision goggles on as they did.

Odds are that the first team will be going down to check out the car and team two is here to give them some additional protection.

About 10 meters from the trio, the quartet’s tight formation began to fragment just the slightest amount as one man slowed a little, and Query knew that was the point one of them would stop, as the other three would continue on and each stop in turn so they could fan out for the best coverage and ability to kill anyone coming at them from the woods. The two armed men from the original trio were already keeping watch on the road from near the edge of the trees.

Since Query knew the most dangerous threats were getting into position, he decided there was no time like the present to prevent them from getting organized.

While the newest arrivals were still clustered relatively closely to one another, he said into his headset, very softly, “Dash, in 10 seconds the first three guys are yours—take them alive,” and then fired off five shots in rapid succession at the group of newcomers.

The first bullet entered the skull of the man who had just stopped walking. The second bullet went through the throat of the man nearest him, who likely would have been the next to stop in a few more meters. Figuring the time for piling up corpses had come to an end, the fourth and fifth bullets took the third man’s ability to shoot and to run with a bullet in his gun arm and another in one thigh.

Naturally, Query thought, the fourth guy would be alert enough and agile enough to take cover.

Query set down his rifle, picked up a grenade launcher not much larger than the Uzis that Janus’ men were carrying, and said into his headset, “Wait, Dash. Close your eyes until you hear two booms, then hit them.”

Query fired two flashbang grenades just past the roof of the original trio’s car, where his quarry had taken cover, one near the front of the car and the other near the trunk. A loud “whump” and another a second or two later accompanied two bursts of bright light and then Query was bounding down the hillock and toward the road.

He wasn’t trying to beat Dash—no sense in trying that anyway and there was a bit of cleanup work yet. Once he had sprinted across the road, he walked to the man he had shot in the arm and thigh and pepper-sprayed him in the eyes and mouth before quickly binding his hands to his ankles with nylon ties, then continued around the front of the trio’s car, confirmed that his target there was stunned insensate, and quickly bound him as well. He did his best to focus on the task at hand and not react to the sounds of shouting and running so close to him; did his best to be as quick as he could without rushing. Then when he was done, squatting behind his place of cover, he closed his eyes and let his ears sort thing out.

Feet running through the dirt, twigs and rocks—faster than a normal person’s. Mad Dash was still moving. Voices calling out to each other and swearing—only two, though, so Dash had likely taken one man out. Shots fired, but none of them in the direction where Query was huddled against the car, so the remaining pair was clearly too focused on Dash to think about or deal with their other threat: Query.

Query opened his eyes and stood, taking out a tangler. He was just in time to see Mad Dash do a furious high-speed zig-zag through the trees, sliding finally as if trying to beat a ball thrown to home plate and slamming into the legs of one of Janus’ men, who went down about as hard as one might expect when being hit at about 35 or 40 miles per hour.

I know Dash’s unitard is padded and/or lightly armored in places like the thighs and ass, but that costume’s likely going to be a goner and Dash is going to be sporting some rather bloody scrapes, Query thought.

The last man, seeing his comrade go down and realizing he was alone now, was already headed for the car and an attempted getaway, but came to a startled halt as he saw Query.

“Evenin’,” Query said, casually throwing the tangler at the man’s legs and smiling as the sticky tendrils burst out and then contracted back on themselves. The man wobbled for several seconds and finally fell over in a heap. Query tossed a small plastic bag of nylon ties to Mad Dash to restrain these last three men and added to the man on the ground at his feet: “You just relax while I make sure those two friends of yours are really dead and decide whether to make all of the rest of you the same way—only much slower.”

* * *

Underworld was finally in a decent frame of mind again—she’d done a quick set of breathing exercises and a few calming yoga poses and was finally able to get back to the work she needed to finish for phase one of her and Janus’ team expansion plans.

It was, therefore, very disheartening to her when a person burst through the door to her office, ran all the way to her desk and jumped over it, pushing by her legs and then crawling underneath it.

Underworld looked down to see a completely tattooed face staring up from between her legs, and resisted the urge to make any number of snide and risqué comments to the woman huddled underneath her large maple desk and only inches from her lap. She was less able, however, to control the flood of irrationally joyous feelings over the fact that Crazy Jane was near her, though she was pretty sure she managed to keep those feelings from showing on her face.

Crazy Jane’s eyes were wide and earnest as she looked up at Underworld. “If Janus comes looking for me, I’m not here. Please don’t tell him. Please say you don’t know where I am.”

Keeping her eyes fixed at a point she could see both her doorway and Jane in her peripheral vision, Underworld said quietly, “He’ll know if I’m lying. He always knows.”

“Not always,” Crazy Jane. “Not when he’s enraged. It doesn’t work when he’s really mad. That’s when he can’t do that and that’s also when he can do other things. That’s why I need to hide. He’s furious.”

“You do something naughty?”

“No, but Query did,” Crazy Jane answered. “At least I think it’s Query. We’ve lost contact with the team sent out to find out what happened to the car Zoe was in.”

“I don’t think you have to worry, Jane,” Underworld said soothingly. “If you got out of Janus’ way, he’ll likely find some staff member to take it out on. Pretty unlikely he’ll come to my floor looking for trouble, much less looking for you.”

“Thank you, Undie,” Crazy Jane said, and Underworld almost teared up at the sincerity in the younger woman’s voice. “Sometimes, we girls have to stick together, right?”

Underworld simply nodded.

“Can I stay here a while, just in case?”

Underworld nodded again.

“You know, while I’m down here I could give you a foot rub. I’m really goooooood.”

“Oh, what the hell,” Underworld said after a few moments of consideration. “Why not? Girls sticking together, right?”

This time is was Crazy Jane’s turn to nod. And to smile as well.

As Underworld settled in to get her admittedly aching feet pampered a little, she smiled, and not just at the wonderful feeling of having knots and kinks worked out of her toes and soles. She smiled as well as getting some unexpected intelligence about Janus.

I’ve long suspected his ability to tell when a person lies was gender-specific, since he only ever stresses to women that he can tell when they’re not speaking the truth, she thought, but I never realized it was tied to his mood, too. And Jane’s reference to “other things” makes me think perhaps Janus has two sets of powers: one for when he’s calm or relatively so, and one for when he’s not. Makes sense when you consider he named himself after a two-faced god.

Suddenly, being Crazy Jane’s friend, willingly or not, didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

* * *

Two corpses had been added to the pair already in the car with the ruined trunk. The five surviving members of Janus’ team were well past the tree line now and all of them bound and gagged. The two other cars were now parked near each other by the side of the road and a little closer to the tree line.

Query walked back toward Mad Dash and Zoe from those cars, after having left Mad Dash’s backpack on the trunk of one of them and a few scattered granola bars on the hood of the other, along with a jacket and a pair of shoes and socks from one of the dead men

“Why did you do that?” Zoe asked.

“To make it look like they pulled over to do a little wandering and hanging out, instead of looking like they need help. Less likely that a state trooper will check things out if a cruiser happens down the road, and regular drivers will be even less likely to stop and look at things,” Query answered, looking over each man in captivity as if assessing and comparing each one, and then setting down a small tool case he had brought back with him.

“What now?” Zoe asked, fiddling with her bright orange disposable lighter nervously.

“You and Dash will go to my van parked a couple hundred yards down the road and head to a safe-house I have near Fishmonger’s Wharf. Dash knows where it is. You can clean up and you should be able to find some clothes that’ll fit you, Zoe. Have a decent meal, too, if your stomach can handle it. Watch some DVDs or listen to some music. Get some sleep. Dash’ll keep you company there until I’m finished. If I’m not there by dawn, chances are I’m dead and Dash will know who to call to get your situation as sorted out as possible.”

“What about them?” Zoe asked, nodding toward the captive men.

“Don’t worry about them. I have that covered.”

Zoe looked at the case at his feet, and then stared down his concealed eyes behind the black mask for several seconds. She walked up to him, pointed to the red question mark on the mask over his mouth—her finger just inches from it—and said, “Your name is Query; I just asked a question.”

“I ask questions; I rarely like answering them,” Query said coldly.

“You’ll answer mine,” she said, nervous at his tone but reminding herself it was probably bluster to get her to leave—and reminding herself that even if she was wrong, she was hardly powerless. “What are you going to do with them?”

Query sighed behind his mask, and Zoe imagined that his eyes were probably rolling behind it as well. “Zoe, I’m going to ask these fine gentlemen where their little hideout in the woods is. If they don’t answer me, I’ve going to demonstrate how badly I can hurt them with easily accessible items here in nature, and then tell them about the tools in my case here that are more professional-grade. If they don’t answer me even then, I’ll begin using those tools on them.”

Zoe shuddered. “You’re going to torture them.”

“Only if they make me.”

“You mean only if it’s the most convenient route for you.”

“Zoe, I don’t want to debate situational ethics with you right now,” Query groused. “These men kidnapped you. They were willing to kill you.”

“Noooo,” Zoe said. “Two of the dead men in that car over there, and I guess some guys in another car from what Dash has told me, were the ones who kidnapped me, and only one of them maybe was trying to kill me. They’re dead. I fucking lost my composure and killed them. Two other men are dead at your hands. These men came to check on their buddies. I don’t know what they would have done if you hadn’t attacked them.”

“Surely you not suggesting I shouldn’t have…”

“Of course not. You shot first. Wise move. They work for Janus. They were armed. But goddamn it I’m not going to let you torture them just to find out where they came from or for anything someone else did to me. I mean, really, do you expect to find Janus at their hidey-hole? Do you expect him to come here to the woods and throw down with you? I’ve been dealing with Underworld all this time and nothing suggests to me that they’ve suddenly gone lax on their security. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts these guys probably don’t even know where Janus is or the other guys who tried to nab me before at graduation probably would have known.”

“I think we need to be sure, Zoe. And if I go to their place here in the woods, I can look for clues that will help me find Janus later,” Query said. “I need you to go now.”

“How would you even know if they were telling the truth if they did give up a location to you, huh?” she pressed. “People will say lots of things under torture or to buy time.”

“Because,” he responded, raising his voice for the benefit of his captives and turning his head slightly in their direction, “I’ve already figured out from their response time and what I know about this area where the three most likely locales are. If they give me any other location that isn’t in one of those areas, I’ll hurt them more.”


“Zoe, this isn’t your operation. This isn’t about you.”

“Yes it goddamn is!” she shouted. “I was the one kidnapped. I’m the one who’s got bits of people all over her. People have been firing bullets all around me and one zipped right past the top of my head. You took on my case so I’m your fucking employer—kinda. It’s all about me and I say you aren’t going to do this.”

“It’s more about me than you know, Zoe. In any case, I need this info…”

“…fine!” she interrupted him, and stalked toward the bound men, morphing as she did to take on a slightly more attention-getting and menacing look—though Query noted her locs, while clearly hardened and sharp, were no longer animated as when she was panicked in the trunk. “Here’s how it’s gonna be, boys. One of you will tell me right now where your little place in the woods is. Then after you’re handed over to the police or whatever—somebody less likely to torture you, in any case—you can go back to clamming up and not saying any damn thing about Janus and if he asks you can all tell him you don’t know how Query knew how to find your hideout. He can just assume Query found your place on his own with his super-intuition. Totally plausible, since he’s apparently already narrowed it down. But he’s really cranky, as you can see, and if you make him search too long, or waste too much time talking to you about it, he’s going to go all Spanish Inquisition on you. Whoever wants to tell me can just nod and I’ll pull off your gag.”

No one nodded.

“Unless Janus is there at your place in the woods, this is a win-win for everyone to tell me, guys,” Zoe said more firmly, flexing her fingers with their sharp, glistening burgundy nails. “You stay quiet about it, then Query is going to start thinking Janus is there, and if that happens I think you’re all going to be probed in a lot of places humans weren’t meant to be probed with things that weren’t meant to go there. Your choice.”

Ten minutes later, Zoe was in the passenger seat of Query’s van on her way to a date with a hot shower, with Mad Dash humming some tune wildly out-of-key on the driver’s side, while Query was taking a ride in one of Janus’ cars to a place in the woods.

Zoe closed her eyes and smiled a little.

I win.

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After the tense visit by Janus’ men, a nearly half-hour-long flogging at Hush-a-Bye’s hands had been very therapeutic, and now—flushed and covered with a sheen of sweat all over his bare, bruised, welted and blood-streaked torso—GoodKnight stood near her.

“Ya did real well dealing with Janus, today, Hush-a-Bye,” he said.

“It isn’t your place to tell me when I’ve done well,” she noted imperiously.

“It is my place sometimes. You’ve come a long way, but yer still learning. I’m impressed but I’ve still got worries after all this time. Like ya don’t speak in the same style as the original Hush-a-Bye. Yer more formal and haughty. Especially tonight.”

“You hired me to fill the void she left so that you could continue to hide the fact that the sleep and silence powers actually are your own and have someone who presents the proper demeanor you require. You paid for extensive plastic surgery so that I could pass for her and no one would know the difference. I did not sign up to actually become her, however. I will carry the name and the duties and reap the rewards, but I am who I am. If anyone notices that Hush-a-Bye sounds more like landed gentry now, we can chalk it up to a change in demeanor due to the growth of our criminal enterprise and the rise of my power.”

Our enterprise? Your power?” he responded, an edge in his voice. But there was a tremor there of something other than simply irritation. Hush-a-Bye wasn’t sure if it was hope, longing or trepidation. Perhaps a mix of them?

This might be the moment of truth; it’s been a long time coming.

“Yes,” she said firmly. “I am our voice. I am the one who presents as the power behind this enterprise, while you make plans in secret and use your powers and let everyone think they’re my powers. I do that for you and for our mutual gain, but in the end, I am your mistress and you are my slave. That is the dynamic you seek, and that is what you hired me for. But long-term, I cannot simply be a hired domme with a submissive client. We must evolve to something more organic and permanent. You know that. Or are you not a true submissive? Do you simply plan to hire a series of dommes one after another and change their faces? Or do you want a stable relationship and a firm hand to ground you? To hold your leash and discipline you.”

GoodKnight gritted his teeth, but in frustration, not anger.


Mistress,” she interrupted him.

He paused, took a deep breath, and lowered himself to his knees, bending his head to gaze at the ground as he spoke. “Mistress, this is an awkward situation. Hush-a-Bye’s death was early. Unexpected. I always knew she might die or might wanna retire from being in the thick of things. But it was too soon. The plan had always been to find someone before then for her to train up. Someone who’d dominate me but be under her. In a perfect world…”

“In an ideal world, I would have learned from the bottom up—the business of crime and the business of ruling over you. To submit before I dominated. Just like all the best mistresses I’ve ever known. But this isn’t an ideal world, worm,” she sneered. “I’ve bottomed before—long ago—and while I might have been willing to do it again for your first Hush-a-Bye, if she were still alive, I won’t do it for you. You are mine, not the other way around.”

He winced at that, feeling defensive and guilty all at once. “Mistress, I do obey you. I carry guns now, at your command, just like ya told me, even though it’s knives I really like and really trust. I take yer lashes with gratitude and grace. I…”

“Obey me in all things, big and small, not simply what you choose to obey,” she said firmly. “Give your whole self to me, not just a part.”

“Mistress, Hush-a-Bye and me…we were a team. A unit. We built our criminal activities together from the ground up. It wasn’t just a mistress-slave relationship. There was love there, too. I lost more than just a domme that night.”

“All the most rewarding mistress-slave relationships will have love in them. We can reach that point. Perhaps soon. But first you must let go of control and submit to me fully,” she said. She could see his shoulders slump just a tiny fraction; could almost feel a kind of psychic tension break.

She’d always been very good at being a bondage and S&M professional and, before she decided to trade in her old face and name for Hush-a-Bye’s, she’d made a good living at it. The level of obedience and loyalty she’d been able to command from clients had sometimes made her wonder if she had Psi or Primal transhuman powers or simply a commanding personality. But regardless, in all these long months, GoodKnight had been resistant—a fact that irked her on personal and professional levels. Now, she felt she had reached a tipping point, whether by force of personality or possible transhuman abilities of her own.

Have I finally put a crack in that resistance? Because if I don’t, there could be trouble for both of us going forward, she worried.

“You have the transhuman powers, GoodKnight; I’m the misdirection so that people don’t know that. You have the proven experience in conducting successful criminal activities and mobilizing criminal minions, so you are the brains for the scheming,” she said to him as she loomed above his kneeling, half naked body and admired the bruises and bloody stripes with which she had marked his back and shoulders. “However, I am the face. I am the voice. I stood up to Janus today without hesitation and proved I’m fully ready. I am the one who says what will be done and why. We are partners. But I make the final decision in all things, in every facet of your life. There was no Hush-a-Bye before; forget her. There was a good woman who paved the way for my arrival. There is only the Hush-a-Bye that is now. Leave the past behind and kneel to embrace the present and future, or forsake all hope of any pleasure and any peace of mind.”

“I…I want…”

“I command,” she said. “And you obey. Or you do not obey, and I leave you to your solitude and misery. There is no want. Not for you. That is my purview. For you, there is the ability and even necessity to advise me and guide me, but above all, in the end, to obey me and protect me.”

She was startled for a moment as he made a strange choking sound, and then smiled when she realized he was sobbing.

“I’m…I’m sorry…Mistress,” he said haltingly. “I’ve been…outta line. For too long. I’m nothing. I…beg forgiveness.”

One red-gloved hand stroked the black leather of the hood that covered almost his entire head, and she said, “Weep upon my boots, and lick up those tears. Wash my feet in your sorrow and your acceptance, and clean the salty residue from the leather with your kisses. That is your penance, and our true beginning.”

* * *

I’m a transhuman in costume, Zoe thought bitterly, but in a very unflattering one and not for a very heroic role.

She turned to one of her few good friends at the university, spread her arms wide, and said, “These graduation gowns are ugly as crap. They make me look and feel fat. The cap doesn’t help a bit, either, and I can barely get it to stay on my locs even with a billion bobby pins.”

“Suck it up and wear it with dignity, Zoe,” the classmate said. “Today we become real adult women, so that we can give our time and talents over to The Man in exchange for paychecks and healthcare benefits.”

Zoe chuckled at that, but she was still nervous about today. Underworld had told her Janus would let her have her graduation. Even if that was true—and this close to the event it seemed it was—that still meant that this was her last day of whatever passed for peace of mind and security since the day the recruitment and intimidation process had begun. But she wasn’t helpless, so she could still laugh. She wasn’t alone, even though she had no idea what Query was doing or whether it would help her.

Time to stand with my class, and hope for the best, she thought. At least if I end up in  Janus’ clutches, I should have my diploma when I do. Maybe I can negotiate a better cut of the criminal profits with that piece of paper, she joked with herself silently and bitterly.

* * *

Two more Guardian Corps patrols had been ambushed in the past week, and it was making Cole nervous. Not so much for himself but for the future of the Corps. Everyone seemed to be on edge, and their enemies in New Judah, especially the five toughest neighborhoods on which they concentrated their efforts, seemed to know where they were going to be much of the time now.

Making it worse was the fact that all of the recent ambushes had been against major operations. Against plans by the Corps to take down big targets. It was a wonder, Cole thought, that no one had been killed in the past two skirmishes, though a couple of the injured had come close to meeting their ends.

Cole was waiting outside Desperado’s office just as he had been told to do, and it was just a couple days after overhearing part of a strategy meeting and catching hell for supposed eavesdropping.

And the hell of it all was that I was only there to hear everything because I was doing something Desperado told me to do, he thought as a sense of déjà vu hit home.

That sensation and the memory of the previous dressing-down made made his gut twist even more when the office door opened and three people left, all of them high-ranking members of the Corps and among them one of the two lieutenants Desperado had been briefing that last time. The man gave Cole a curious look, and then over his shoulder called back to Desperado, “This little punk seems to hang around your office an awful lot.”

“Yeah, yeah he does, doesn’t he?” Desperado said, leaning against the doorway and fingering the hilt of one of his revolvers.

“But you…” Cole began.

Cutting him off, Desperado said, “Shut up, get the fuck in here and let’s address some shit, Cole.”

Calling me by my real name instead of my codename Quantum means he’s pissed, Cole realized. I’ve finally figured that out. Around here, that’s a bigger insult than slapping a name like “Puppy” onto a new recruit.

“Fuck,” Cole muttered under his breath, and shambled into the office to be dressed down yet again.

* * *

As Zoe was pulling her gown off over her head, she couldn’t see the startled looks on the faces of fellow students all around her who had been, like her, returning their gowns at one of the smaller tents that had been set up in the commons for the post-graduation activities. But she did hear the rapid popping sounds of bullets being fired nearby.

She sensed people scattering around her as she struggled out of the gown to free up her limbs and her vision—as she began the metabolic shift of her Morph powers.

Oh shit it’s happening, her panicked mind repeated several times as she finally threw off the gown. Underworld wasn’t fucking kidding about the deadline. Talk about a literal graduation day cut-off to my reprieve.

Something struck her, and then another something, and she felt stunning jolts throughout her body even as her skin began to toughen and her hair and nails become razor sharp potential weapons.

Too slow, though. Too late. As she stiffened, relaxed, and then tumbled over her own feet, she was out before she hit the ground, her last thoughts being: Fuck my life.

* * *

As disguises went, it wasn’t the best in the world, but by standing in the shadows and ducking his head a lot, the human-face mask over his black mask didn’t have to be all that detailed—just easy to yank off.

And a fake graduation gown hides a multitude of “fuck you up” toys, Query mused.

When the assault team rushed out of a nearby van toward Zoe as she was pulling off her gown, Query was ready. The presence of a van already had him alert; the scent of sweat, gun oil and more from inside when he passed by it earlier made him infinitely more so.

He didn’t like the idea of letting them actually reach Zoe, but it seemed the best course. The more they thought they had things in the bag, the better for him and for the element of surprise. Also, since he didn’t know whether Zoe would be a help or a hindrance in a fight, it made sense to have her down and more or less safely out of the way.

When the two tasers struck home and felled her as she finally yanked off her gown, Query pulled off his fake graduation cap, peeled off the black covering and revealed what really lay beneath—a metal disc with several nodules around the edge. He flung it into the van and covered his face for a moment as the series of mini flashbangs went off.

That takes care of the backup team members and the getaway driver.

That left four armed men in light body armor. Ripping off his faux graduation gown, and hoping he’d put the right amount of weights around the hem of it, he flung it like a net over the head of the nearest abductor and pressed a button on his belt as it draped the man’s entire upper torso. Query heard the hacking and gasping as the small gas bomb inside went off  and took him down, even as he rushed the next-nearest man and caught him in an armlock before he could bring his gun to bear. Query put a tree in between himself and one of the other two remaining men, and his mostly immobilized enemy in between himself and the other perpetrator.

To Query’s dismay, that man had enough sense, good reflexes and combat savvy not to fire his weapon.

So much for getting him to maim or kill my human shield, he thought, and pulled out a small cylinder from one of the inside pockets of his leather duster. He jammed one end of it into the lower back of his prisoner and as the needle shot forth and delivered the contents of the ampule inside, he dropped the man to the ground to let him quiver and shake, soon to pass out.

Or, if he’s allergic to what I gave him, to die of anaphylaxis, he considered. No great loss to society if so.

Coming around the other side of the tree, and having been more or less tracking one of the two remaining men by hearing—difficult but not impossible with the yells and screams of bystanders all around—Query had a Walther P99 out and ready.

His first 9mm bullet went a little high and barely grazed the man’s hip; the second hit him squarely in a kneecap. As the man stumbled and fell with a shout, Query shot him with a tranquilizer dart from a gun in his right hand, then tossed the now-useless weapon away since it could only hold one dart.

In other circumstances against armed men like this I’d be more inclined for the lethal approach since bullets are more plentiful and effective, but there are too many bystanders and I’m likely to have police involvement. No reason to make my life any more complicated by killing anyone—even the bad guys.

The fourth and final man shot Query right in the heart, and the costumed hero spun nearly 360 degrees to his right and around the back of another tree, less from the impact of the bullet than a desire to avoid getting shot again.

That hurt, asshole, but you made a bad decision in the heat of the moment. That’s the most heavily armored part of my costume.

Query wasn’t eager to find out how well the lighter armor in his mask would take a bullet—and this remaining man would likely be smart enough to go for a headshot this time—so when he came out from behind his cover, Query flung a pair of tanglers at his final opponent, one after the other. The first exploded against a shin, sending out an array of sticky tendrils, most of them attaching themselves to nearby trees and a few sticking to his other leg. As the man stumbled, the second tangler ended up hitting him in one shoulder instead of his head, but it was still enough to hinder his gun hand and ensure Query could restrain him easily and then attend to all of his friends.

Janus, you’re a bastard for not showing up yourself, Query thought as he finished up with the four men outside and moved on to handcuffing the stunned occupants of the van. But I knew that would be a long-shot.

Retrieving the tranquilizer gun he had tossed aside earlier, Query took stock of his surroundings. He didn’t see any casualties aside from the perpetrators he had subdued—except for the shots at Query, the gunfire from the abduction team had been intended to clear people out of the area.

Zoe was groaning, and the fact she was already getting up confirmed the suspicions he’d had when he saw her skin color and texture shift a bit, along with the texture of her hair—all of which had returned to normal once she had been stunned. In addition to being an Acro, she was a Morph, and likely the change she had initiated provided her some protection against the twin taser shots.

He stepped over to her, and held out his left arm, saying, “You all right, Miss Dawson?”

Blinking and realizing who was standing there, she took the proffered hand and he pulled her upright. As she got to her feet fully, she yelped “Ouch!” and yanked back her hand.

“What?” he asked. “Something wrong?”

“You just stabbed me in the wrist or something,” she complained, rubbing at a small wound there.

He took her wrist lightly and turned it back and forth to examine it. “Sorry about that. I’ve got plenty of sharp edges all over. Probably a bit of my light armor has a little bent edge after that melee. Just a small cut. You OK otherwise, though?”

“Yeah,” she said, taking stock of the trussed-up team. “Wow. You took out six people by yourself?”

“Seven if you count the driver. Helps that I wasn’t expected,” he said with a snort, hearing approaching sirens.

“Is it over?” she asked hopefully, craning her head to get a better look at some of the men who’d tried to abduct her. He suspected she was looking for signs that one of the perps might be Janus.

“Doubt it. But I’m on to some leads to track this back to the source and head things off next time,” Query lied. Then, because it always felt better to him to temper such lies with truth, he added, “But if anyone comes again, I plan to keep showing up. He won’t send as many people next time most likely. As it starts costing him too much, he’ll stop coming at you.”

“I wasn’t sure you were even doing anything all this time,” she admitted.

“I take my jobs seriously, Zoe, even the pro bono ones. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d rather leave before the police get here, but I’m sure you can tell them enough,” Query said. “As well as press charges, I assume,” he added with as jovial a lilt as he could muster.

“Bet on it,” she said with a smile as he brushed by her and headed away from the sirens.

Sorry to keep using you as bait, Zoe, but at least I can be pretty sure he won’t try to kill you, Query thought as he beat his hasty retreat, wishing he could have taken one or two of the abduction team with him for interrogation, though it was unlikely they knew Janus’ whereabouts. Let’s just hope I don’t slip up and let him take you where I can’t follow.

* * *

“Rare Query sighting in the daytime, sir,” Jeremiah said as he entered Fortunato’s office. “He seems to have foiled an armed attempt today to kidnap a graduating senior from UConn’s New Judah campus.”

“A bit more colorful and dramatic than his usual fare,” Fortunato said.

“And a strike team of seven that he took out, no less, with vests, riot helmets, automatic weapons and more,” Jeremiah added.

“My oh my. What is this student heir to, that someone should be so eager to abduct him and that Query should be on alert and waiting in the wings?”

“Actually, sir, a young woman of no particular means at all, except for being a skilled enough athlete to earn a full scholarship,” Jeremiah answered. “However, some of our inside sources in the police have passed along some information that your analysts found interesting, in that the team Query took down may be directly or loosely attached to the group Janus hired to kill him recently.”

“So, Janus still has an inexplicable animosity toward Query, and their antics have become more public. Well, Jeremiah, it’s looking like my decision to build a team is even more prescient than I thought—and maybe this recent twist will make it more likely we can convince Query to sign up.”

* * *

Nearly everyone was on edge on Janus’ floors and Underworld’s floor of the building. By all accounts, Janus was furious about the failure of the operation to kidnap Zoe, and even more so about Query’s involvement in thwarting the abduction.

She bought that story for about 15 minutes until she came to her senses. Everyone else could continue believing the rage was real, but probably the only part of it that was would be true was the irritation about Query’s presence. Janus wanted Query dead very badly, for reasons she still didn’t understand, so it was likely the hero popping up now would anger him.

But the rest rang hollow. The team Janus had sent against Zoe was a good one, to be sure—if it had been sent against a normal person. But Zoe was potentially valuable enough for Janus to have Underworld woo her, so he must suspect she had strong talents or knew of significant powers that he hadn’t revealed to anyone else. Also, he couldn’t have been fool enough to think Zoe might not have tried to secure some kind of transhuman aid since she knew she was being pursued by transhumans.

Both factors would have indicated that the team should include at least one person with a strong power set, if not two of them, and that the operation should never have been carried out so boldly in broad daylight.

Janus isn’t that stupid or sloppy, so why did he order an operation that had a decent chance of failing? Underworld pondered, fuming silently. And why is he keeping me in the dark?

On the way to his office, she spotted Crazy Jane coming around the corner at the other end of the hall, a bright smile on her tattooed face. Underworld’s steps faltered as she considered turning around, but then the compulsion to be near Jane kicked in, and she semi-reluctantly continued forward.

I need to confront the bastard anyway, and to get to him I’ve got to go past her.

“Hi, Undie,” Crazy Jane said. “It’s been a couple days since I’ve seen you. Miss ya! See ya soon,” she concluded as she glided by Underworld and skipped down the remainder of the hall.

Underworld felt a little flood of relief, not just because Crazy Jane hadn’t lingered but, she realized, because she’d given Underworld her much-needed fix.

I needed to see her and hear her voice, and now I have, and it makes me feel better; makes me want to call her up for coffee soon. Shit.

That reminded Underworld of her suspicions that Janus was probably behind Jane setting her hooks into her to begin with, and simply reinforced her commitment to confront him.

She burst into his office moments later without preamble; without knocking.

“Now is not the time!” Janus bellowed. “Come back—”

“Cut the bullshit, you douche-plug,” she responded curtly. “Drop the act.”

“Which act would that be?” he asked, voice suddenly calm and with a playful, teasing hint to his words.

“Take your pick,” she said. “But what the hell, how about I go ahead with lady’s choice? Let’s start with the botched attempt to nab a woman you’ve had me working so hard to bring into our fold. You didn’t consult me on the team, you didn’t tell me you were sending one, and you fucked it up—on purpose. Why?”

“Well, I didn’t actually want it to fail,” Janus said. “That would just be stupid. I don’t throw money and men away, and I do want lovely Zoe to join us. However, I felt there was a high probability things might go south, so I wanted to test the waters without risking any of our more valuable assets.”

“So, are we giving up on Zoe now, or are you going to let me pick a proper team this time with a plan that is actually designed with a win firmly in mind?”

Janus made a show of leaning back dramatically in his chair and putting his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling for several moments before saying, “Oh…fine…you go ahead and show me how it’s done, Underworld.”

“Great. Only problem for you is that I don’t think you’ll be alive to congratulate me when I nab her.”

Janus sat up, and behind the half-comedy/half-drama theater mask he had chosen to wear today, his eyes regarded her more intently, a glint of intrigue in them. “Oh? And why are you stepping up any plans you might have to part me from my mortal coil?”

“Crazy Jane.”

“I know you’ve occasionally gone to your side of the gender line for sexual recreation, Underworld, but I didn’t realize you wanted to steal my girlfriend. So unlike you.”

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” she snapped. “You directed her to nail me with her addictive powers.”

“Why would I do that? We both know their effects aren’t as dramatic on transhumans, and I’d hardly want competition for her time and affections, especially with her pet projects she spends so much time on. I’m the jealous type.”

“Yeah. Jealous and greedy and grasping, which is why you wanted her to make biochemical friends with me because if we’re BFFs, I won’t jump ship from this operation you shanghaied me into joining,” Underworld said.

“Intriguing notion. It’s possible I might even have thought of such a thing,” Janus said. “However, I don’t see why this would make you want to kill me, even if it is true.”

“Because you’ve messed with me in a fundamental and really fucking disturbing way. I may not be able to take any of this out on Jane thanks to her little hold on my affections now, but I can take it out on the person who sicced her on me.”

“Oh, but if that were so, you wouldn’t dare,” Janus said smoothly.

“Why not?”

“Kill me openly and obviously, and Jane would be angry with you. I’m her main man. Her first love. Her true blue. And she cares enough to have a hold on me, too. Take me away, and she’d likely take her attentions away from you in retaliation. It wouldn’t devastate you like it would a normal person, but it already hurts to consider it, doesn’t it? Hurts your heart a bit—metaphorically, that is. You like her regard too much to risk losing it.”

“Bastard,” Underworld hissed.

“And, if you were to kill me clandestinely,” he continued, unfazed, “you’d still risk that she’d suspect you of avenging yourself on me. The more you consider it, the more unpleasant the consequences of taking me out are, aren’t they? In fact, you’ll probably have to consider the necessity of making extra-sure I stay alive, just in case any harm I might come to might look like it was orchestrated by you.”

“Shit!” Underworld spat, turning and storming toward the door. “This isn’t over!” she shouted without turning back.

“I know! Toodles! Go take your anger out on Query by snatching Zoe, please. Thanks oodles!”

Janus smiled and leaned back in his chair, sighing.

If not for Query still being alive, I’d say everything was going perfectly.

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After the latest recruitment dinner with Zoe—and possibly the last, given how much other work there was to do between now and the woman’s graduation deadline—Underworld was relieved to get back the the headquarters. Not only did she dearly want to get out of her disguise and take a long, hot bath, but she had been under the nagging suspicion she was being followed. She’d taken a few extra twists and turns in her return trip and had herself scanned by two different teams instead of just the one that Janus required. That had easily added an extra hour onto her travels and further delayed her chance to relax and get some time alone.

What was anything but a relief was to run into Crazy Jane within seconds after getting into the more secure areas of the building. The woman was wearing flannel pajamas with PowerPuff Girls characters all over them, the top unbuttoned just enough to reveal most of a very fresh tattoo that extended the artwork of the woman’s flesh beyond her head for the first time—an intricate, sexy, blue-skinned, devil-style woman extending down one side of her neck, the splayed legs riding the very top of one side of her bosom.

“Oh, gosh, Undie, we were getting worried,” Jane said, her fingers interlaced as if she had just been wringing her hands in concern. “So glad to have you back safe and sound.”

The appearance so suddenly of Crazy Jane and the sight of that new tattoo—I’m an alumna of DePaul University, whose mascot is a blue demon, she thought—put her off guard, and she didn’t move quickly enough to avoid a quick and strong hug from Jane. Such a warm and sisterly gesture, it seemed, but it made Underworld stiffen and her chest seized a little in a pang of anxiety.

“Welcome, home,” Crazy Jane said, then skipped happily out of sight. As Jane left, Underworld realized the pajamas had a number of red stains on the left leg and left shoulder, and she wondered if they were blood—and whose.

Shaking her head a little—and her knees shaking a little themselves from the brief but unnerving exchange—Underworld hurried to her floor of the building to find the comfort and privacy or her own quarters.

I keep trying to avoid Janus’ little psycho-girl, and I keep running into her. She keeps trying to ingratiate herself with me when all I want is distance from her scary self, Underworld thought. And yet I can almost never seem to find my voice to tell her to go away. I get anxious seeing her and then it almost feels weird when I go a few hours without bumping into her. And then when I do it almost seems right and welcome…

Underworld stopped, her breath catching in her chest. She leaned against one wall and then started pounding it over and over with one fist.

No no no no no. Fuck! Why didn’t I see it? She’s been using her powers on me. Just like with Janus, she’s introduced a kind of addiction to her. She scares me, but part of me is beginning to want her around.

Worse than that, Underworld realized, the process wasn’t just beginning. It was clearly already well along. Crazy Jane had been calculating and intentional in all these encounters. As she followed her memories backward, Underworld realized when it must have begun. When they physically ran into each other in the hall that one day, after she had convniced Janus to let Shrill join on. That physical contact from their impact, along with Crazy Jane handing some files back to her, allowed for the initial connection—the biochemical infection of Underworld’s mind.

Then random “chance” meetings that were anything but, so that Crazy Jane could keep using her short-range mental abilities to keep reinforcing the bond and building the addiction to her.

Underworld had thoroughly read the reports on Jane’s powers—as Janus has told her and the scientific reports had confirmed, almost invariably transhuman powers dulled the effects of Crazy Jane’s influence over a person. She wouldn’t be able to make Underworld a slave to her will like some normal person, but she’d be able to worm her way into her mind just enough—and probably long since had done so—to ensure that Underworld wouldn’t get rid of her, plot against her or…

…or leave Janus’ operation,  Underworld realized. It’s not just a trap to protect herself from me and gain some tiny bit of way to influence me subtly at times—it’s meant to prevent me from bolting once I figured I had enough money to just go.

And that made her wonder how much Crazy Jane was acting alone, and how much was at Janus’ direction. Underworld’s mind reeled in a mix of anxiety and anger; fear and secret pleasure. She was disgusted with the situation and with herself for not having figured it out sooner. And yet it all felt so right somehow.

In her apartment, Underworld shed her clothes and retreated to the relative safety and comfort of a deep, hot, bubble-filled bath. She briefly considered calling in one of her personal male assistants to drive all the conflicted thoughts about Crazy Jane out of her mind, at least temporarily, but then decided against it.

After all, she wanted to be alone right?

And there was already someone here with her, like it or not.

Jane. Or a ghost of her, anyway. Adding a man right now would just make things too crowded.

The woman had infiltrated her mind and body, and Underworld realized that as creepy as that struck her, there was a comfort in it as well. She pondered amidst steaming water and the scent of bath oils, trying to sort it all out and figure out her next steps in dealing with her revelation.

And, as she tried to revel in her solitude, she realized that she kind of missed Crazy Jane already.


* * *

William Bastion lifted a glass of wine, and wondered how many more he would need to get through this meal.

William Bastion. Successful physician. Father of a young and very sweet and intelligent girl. Devoted son and brother. Pillar of the community. Member of the First Union Church. Member of the Rotary Club. Member of an intramural volleyball team each summer.

Oh, and estranged husband of Tooth Fairy.

That last one had been quite a surprise to him when one of the most dangerous and cruel transhuman villains around had arrived at his home and started talking to him. And the voice she spoke with was Theresa Bastion’s.

The wife who had disappeared so many months before, and left no trace of where she had gone.

In the time since then, relatively brief though it had been, Will had done his best to reconcile himself with the fact that his wife hadn’t left him to run off with some other man or to retreat to some other state or country, but had been committing crimes in the city just minutes away from their suburban home. He had done his best to repress the guilt that his attempt to ensure their daughter would be born a transhuman had led Theresa to go beyond his instructions and expose herself directly to the chemical meant for her womb, changing her into the woman who became Tooth Fairy. He had also done his best to drive down the fear that she would be back to speak with him again.

He had not, however, expected a dinner date, and that threw all his careful mental preparations completely out the window.

She wasn’t wearing her Tooth Fairy costume, and the way she shifted uncomfortably at times and kept adjusting the neck of her blouse with one finger suggested to him that she was more comfortable in the role of a transhuman villain than Theresa Bastion. But despite the discomfort she showed, she was still quite capable of killing him, he knew, and she remained in full control of the evening.

He hadn’t argued when she picked out his food and ordered his steak to be cooked nearly rare. Or corrected her when she ordered wine for both of them, when what he wanted was scotch. Or even criticized her when she she not only ate most of the Oysters Rockefeller appetizer but also munched on some of the oyster shells themselves when no one but he was looking.

“I really should apologize for having left you in the dark for so many months about where I had gone, Will,” she said, “but I’m not going to because it really doesn’t matter. You’ll adjust after all, won’t you? You have a survival instinct, right?”

“I guess this won’t be a romantic evening, then?” Will said, trying to sound nonchalant even though a part of his mind wanted to simply send him running from the table while vacating his bladder.

“Oh, we’re a middle-aged married couple, Will. We’re soooo beyond romance,” Tooth Fairy teased, but with a cruel edge to her voice. “I admit I haven’t really had non-battery-related sex in all the time I’ve been gone, though, so maybe out behind the alley we can have a roll for old time’s sake, or get a room or something. I promise not to bite anything off.”

Will suppressed the urge to shiver, both from stark terror and the spark of desire—this was his wife, after all, and no matter how angry he had been at her disappearance or how frightened he was of her changes, there was somewhere inside this cruel creature across the table from him a kind woman named Theresa. He still desired her on some level; after all, he’d not had any other woman since they’d married.

Well, there was that nursing director a few years ago, but it was only a few times we got together and then I came to my senses, he considered. But I don’t think this is a stage in Theresa’s life when I can share that indiscretion.

“That would be very considerate of you, honey,” Will said, marveling at how the affectation still rolled off tongue with relative ease, despite everything. “Not to bite anything off, that is.”

“You’re so sweet, Will. And you’re taking all of this so well. Now, you haven’t done anything silly like contact the police, have you? Or the FBI. Or the NSA. Or the American Dental Association.”

“No. I’m kind of interested in living long enough to see our daughter graduate from high school one day. Hopefully college. Maybe lead her down the aisle for her wedding…”

“…or maybe watch her take after her wildly successful mother?” Tooth Fairy prompted.

“I admit I’d be less eager to see that. No offense, but…”

“Oh, I understand, Will. Murder and mayhem dismay you. They might bother her, too, in which case maybe she’ll have a great career as a cat burglar or extortionist or something like that. So much will depend on what kinds of powers she develops.”

“If she develops any,” Will pointed out.

“I have faith,” Tooth Fairy said. “Now, about our precious little girl. I’ve been away a while, and it’s time for me to reintroduce myself into her life. You can tell the neighbors, co-workers, family and such whatever tale you like about my return. Just keep it simple. I don’t want to deal with any complex lies that require me to remember too much. Maybe something along the lines of, ‘She decided she hated her family, in-laws and former friends and left to be away from all of them, and she can just stand her husband enough to be a part of her daughter’s life.’ Because I’m not going to be puttering around the house or sleeping over or anything. Though I will have our girl stay with me from time to time.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good…”

“I won’t let her see me in costume or doing my line of work until she’s old enough to keep a secret, Will. But I might want the occasional overnight or weekend. I’m still her mother. I think I can manage a couple days in a row of maternal instinct now and again.”

“I’m concerned about your state of mind and what kind of effect you might have on her own peace of mind, or…or…”

“Moral compass? Sense of right and wrong? Well, you’re going to have to trust me, Will. Because the alternative is to make her fatherless. Neither of us wants that.  You least of all. You want the slim chance of walking her down the aisle, and I don’t want to deal with full-time motherhood until she’s older and her powers have emerged anyway.”

Taking a swig of the wine he didn’t desire but so very clearly needed, Will said, “I’m not sure that negotiating from a position of threat is the best way to go about things if you want to keep things amicable.”

Tooth Fairy snatched the glass away from him, drained it, refilled it from the bottle beside the table, handed it back to him and gave him a lascivious grin. “Whyever not do it that way, Will? Threats have served me so well all this time since I left your side. Besides, on the subject of A-words, while I may entertain some amorous notions later, amicable was never one of my aims.”

* * *

Collating and stapling a couple hundred photocopies of the quarterly Guardian Corps newsletter outside of Desperado’s office certainly wasn’t a task that Cole had really expected to be assigned tonight. In fact, it seemed downright humiliating, but Desperado had told him he’d be going out on a patrol after 11 tonight with a couple of the long-term veterans of the operation, so that took away some of the sting. Besides, he’d long since stopped trying to figure out the man’s mood swings or random passive-aggressive actions.

The lowly office task was made all the stranger and potentially more burdensome when he realized Desperado was having an important meeting and talking about things that Cole probably wasn’t supposed to be privy to. He felt like a lurker so close to the door, and he considered stepping away, but Desperado had been clear that this was a task that needed to be done ASAP.

In fact, his exact words had been: “Don’t stop collating these bastards until they’re all done, even if it means you piss your pants. Don’t worry, though—I’ll have someone else do the folding and distribution who’s pissed me off more than you have this week.”

So he heard it all when Desperado talked about the very likely possibility that there was a traitor in the Guardian Corps who had been feeding information about patrol patterns and schedules. There had been two more ambushes, and Desperado had a plan to change things up secretly and schedule some fake patrols to help flush out the traitor.

Cole heard it all, and when Desperado came out, gave him a withering and suspicious look, then shot a “who the fuck does he think he is” look back at his command team, Cole considered saying, “But you told me not to leave this job.”

Instead, he remained silent, hunched his shoulders and lowered his head, and got back to collating, feeling hot and suspicious stares burning into him as he did.

* * *

On the seventh ring, Crazy Jane answered her phone, with a chipper, “Oh, hi, Undie. Sorry, If I knew it was you calling, I would have answered sooner. I was just in the middle of fiddling with Dr. Mark’s sanity and stuff. He is coming along so well, I just can’t tell you how…”

“Jane, stop,” Underworld said wearily, both from emotional exhaustion and lack of sleep the night before, filled with anxiety as she had been. “I know what you’ve been doing to me. I need…”

“Oh, goodie!!!” Crazy Jane effused, almost shrieking with delight. “I am soooo glad you’ve figured it out. That’s gonna save so much on all that sneaking around, and you won’t keep wondering why…”

“Jane, stop,” Underworld said again but this time with a double meaning. “I mean it. Stop. Please stop talking and please stop messing with my mind.”

“But you like it, don’t you?” Crazy Jane said, with an almost purring undertone to her words. “And you’re starting to really like me now, aren’t you?”

“No, no, no. Jane, I don’t like you. You scare me. There, I admit it. Big, tough Underworld is scared of something. You’re creepy, you’re…”

“…kind of charming, really,” Jane finished. “I mean the Addams Family is creepy, too, but we all wished secretly we lived next to them, ya know?”

“Jane, I want you out of my head.”

“No, you don’t, actually.”

With a sickening lurch in her stomach and a sudden shudder, Underworld realized the woman was right—she really didn’t want Crazy Jane gone—from her head or her life—but therein lie the trap that she could clearly see. It was one thing to want, but…

“It doesn’t matter whether I do or don’t, Jane,” Underworld said, hoping that reason could somehow prevail over Crazy Jane’s unbalanced notions. “The point is I don’t really like you. What you’re doing is trying to hook me on your presence. That isn’t the same. It would be better for us both if you stopped this now.”

“I can’t,” Crazy Jane said. “I really can’t. And I don’t want to. Whether you like me or not, Undie,  I’m kinda fond of you. I don’t have many women I can confide in and watch sappy movies with or get a pedi and mani with. Ya know, if I should start to develop a taste in those things. Thing is, Janus is a man. Men have limitations. So, in the end, you don’t really want me to stop, and I don’t want to stop, so it’ll keep on going, and we’ll be cool in the end.”

“That’s so…wrong…sick…something,” Underworld said. “You can’t force me to be your frie…”

“We’re in a lifestyle that’s already wrong, Undie,” Crazy Jane, and Underworld realized it was perhaps the most lucid and true thing she had ever heard the woman say. “You’ll fight it at first. You’ll try to stay away from me. You’ll make excuses to stay in your apartment. But eventually, you’ll just ‘bump into’ me one day soon, and I’m gonna oblige you by reaching out and making that connection again. Think of it as healthy female bonding. BFF kinda stuff. It’ll make it a lot easier and save us both a lot of time. Seeya, Undie!”

With that Crazy Jane hung up, and Underworld simply looked at her phone, then looked at her door, and shook her head. She didn’t have any real friends and hadn’t for a long time, and even if this wasn’t what she wanted, part of her found the idea pleasing. The most horrifying part of that thought process, though, was that she couldn’t know whether she needed a girlfriend and Crazy Jane was just the ticket, or if she was letting the woman’s addictive powers compromise her judgment and was just justifying the urge to give in.

Whether or not I do give in, I won’t go quietly, she thought. I won’t just hand myself over to an addiction, no matter how relatively benign it might be. I can’t let someone else call the shots for me. I have to make the decisions that affect my future.

Of course, she realized, decisions had already been made for her recently, most notably by Janus himself in dragging her into his organization to begin with—if that sonofabitch is behind this I’ll kill him, she thought—but she wasn’t about to let a wholly unbalanced transhuman woman at least 10 years her junior tell her what to do. Or even drive her to do it.

But as she found herself looking at the door again, Underworld wondered just how long it would be before she made the decision herself to go visit Crazy Jane or make a date to have coffee with her.

I’m looking over the edge of the abyss, she realized, and it already feels so good to give in to the urge to jump.

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Entering Janus’ office, she moved with slow, purposeful steps, like a ballet dancer building up toward some grand maneuver—then she abruptly stopped 12 feet away from the imposing mahogany desk, where Janus sat and Underworld and Crazy Jane stood nearby. Standing with straight and perfect posture, arms loosely at her side, her ankles crossed, Tooth Fairy kept her head slightly bowed as she regarded the trio before her.

Underworld had no illusions, though. There was nothing of subservience or deference in the angle of Tooth Fairy’s head. Her eyes still regarded them directly from just under the brows of her fractionally inclined visage. She was intent on them, and there was a coldness in her gaze. Calculation in it, Underworld decided. For all the oddness of Tooth Fairy’s pose, it was clear she was poised for action. A casual observer might think she was  standing at ease. Underworld knew she was holding everything inside, a concentrated force. She was like a living bomb, Underworld concluded, and wondered what might be the trigger that would set her off in this very room.

I wonder about Crazy Jane’s ability to discern all of this, Underworld thought, but I doubt any of my observations would be any surprise to Janus. With her thought of Crazy Jane’s perceptions—or perhaps lack thereof—Underworld realized the woman was less than a foot away from her. Damn, I must be distracted these days to let that freak get so close to me. Nothing to do now but endure it until Tooth Fairy is gone, lest we look like anything less than a unified group.

Underworld found herself immensely glad they were meeting in a dummy location and not the actual headquarters building—Tooth Fairy was someone she felt could be useful. Not someone she felt could be trusted.

“So. I’m here,” Tooth Fairy said, very slowly. “You invited me. I accepted. I’m listening. Make it worth the trouble of my visit.”

As she was speaking, the tone of her words gradually morphed from soft and motherly to something both sensual and grating. Her mouth had also grown slowly into a teeth-baring feral grin, giving Janus, Underworld and Crazy Jane a chance to watch her teeth go from middle-class, soccer-mom standard to a set of 30 or 40 demonic incisors. All of it so at odds with the white body suit and its iridescent accents, silky lavender sash belt and fuchsia ballet slippers—not to mention the vaguely rainbow-hued fairy wings attached to the back of the costume. Of course, the ornate necklace made of teeth and finger bones matched her newly altered dentition all too well, Underworld considered.

“I’ve wanted to meet you for so long,” Crazy Jane gushed before Janus could say anything in response to Tooth Fairy’s arrival and opening statement. “I’m so glad you took Janus’ invitation. Welcome to our happy family.” She stepped toward Tooth Fairy, hand outstretched to offer a shake.

With sinuous grace, Tooth Fairy’s head turned slightly toward Crazy Jane even as she shifted her weight slightly backward on her feet. Underworld noted how the faux wings on Tooth Fairy’s back twitched ever so slightly as muscles tensed. She felt a sudden and odd sense of protectiveness toward Crazy Jane that surprised her, but ultimately she made no move to intervene.

You’ve made your bed, Jane…

“Go back to where you were standing,” Tooth Fairy said in a near-snarl, and Crazy Jane paused, fidgeted a bit, and then stepped back, giggling a little—Underworld thought she detected a bit of hurt in Crazy Jane’s gaze, but also sensed a bit of satisfaction there, as if she had just completed a small task. Underworld let her eyes quickly flit toward Janus’ own and what she saw there confirmed her suspicion that Jane’s exuberance had been at least partly planned.

“My personal space is really big,” Tooth Fairy continued, “and you don’t want to violate it. I’m picky who I invite in. Also, speaking of violations, if I feel even the barest tickle of anything in my brain or body that doesn’t feel natural, you die first Janus—you know, just in case you or any of your crew is a Psi or Feral. Also, if anyone touches me physically or tries to, they’ll pay in flesh. One of your lackeys already discovered that when they let me past reception.”

Behind a face mask that was equal parts angel and demon, with an intricate tiara-like attachment that depicted a half-halo on one side gently morphing into a single horn on the other side, Janus’ eyes never blinked or registered any emotional reaction to Tooth Fairy’s words. “I thought I vaguely heard a scream,” he said without notable inflection. “Did you leave anything my medical team can salvage so that he’ll still be a useful employee?”

“That depends, Janus,” Tooth Fairy said. “Do you require your workers to have noses? And such a nice, big, strong Roman nose it was. Yummy.”

“Well, I don’t see any blood spatters,” Janus said, not missing a beat, a faint note of admiration creeping into his voice. “You certainly did manage to clean up very nicely and quickly.”

“I’m too quick to leave messes on my finery,” Tooth Fairy said. “And I lick my lips after every meal.”

“I do so love fastidiousness,” Janus said, with a slight tone of impatience or perhaps exasperation, “but while I could discuss violently expressed and socially unacceptable expressions of obsessive-compulsive disorder all day long—as well as fashion and finance…well, actually, I guess I will be discussing that last item, won’t I? After all, I did invite you here to extend an offer of employment.”

Tooth Fairy slowly slid her tongue across her lips in consideration, then smiled—her teeth more or less back to normal human shape. “I kinda like being my own boss; no thanks. I don’t take direction well. Or orders. Or criticism. Or job reviews. And I already have a great set of insurance and retirement plans, all funded through self-employment.”

“There are no ‘teeth’ in teamwork, so we weren’t really thinking you’d be all that interested in group activities,” Underworld interjected. “We had in mind something more along the lines of being an independent contractor. You know, consulting, troubleshooting, miscellaneous wetwork.”

Tooth Fairy said nothing, but frowned neutrally in contemplation for a while, one toe tapping nervously. Underworld wondered if the woman had issues with being indoors—perhaps a form of claustrophobia. She mentally filed away the information and waited in silence.

“How much discretion would I get to exercise?” Tooth Fairy finally asked.

“I’d be giving you most of your assignments, and I have better things to do than micromanage…” Underworld began.

“…do the jobs you’re given and don’t draw attention to us unless we want you to, and I don’t care how much collateral recreational mayhem you cause,” Janus interrupted.

“Besides, if we want to sic you on someone, it’s because of your champion-level creeptasticness,” Underworld said, noting mentally that Crazy Jane had moved a few inches closer to her while the exchange with Tooth Fairy had been going on. She mentally gritted her teeth and moved an inch or two away from the woman with as much casualness as she could muster.

“I’m not sure how to feel about that characterization,” Tooth Fairy said archly.

“Do you like striking freakish terror into the hearts of most everyone you encounter?” Underworld asked, welcome to have something to take her attention away from the nearness of Crazy Jane.

“But of course.”

“Then take it as a recognition of how good you are at what you do,” Underworld said, “and keep your teeth away from my extremities.”

“There won’t be any Janus-signal, you promise?” Tooth Fairy said, her gaze and voice hard. “No asking me to partner up with one of your specialists or assembling me to some big brawl or to bail all of you out of a jam with a bunch of do-gooders?”

“Cross my heart and hope to gain 40 pounds all in my hips and thighs if I’m lying,” Underworld said.

“Well, that’s more serious than ‘hope to die’ among a couple body-conscious ladies like ourselves, right?” Tooth Fairy said with a exceedingly wide and utterly human-toothed grin, which almost unnerved Underworld more than the fangs had. “I’m in. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say—of a few pounds if flesh and bones are involved.”

* * *

June. Solstice hated it with a passion. Nothing against the month itself, or the coming of summer. She liked being able to hit the beaches and parks like anyone else and frolic among freshly released college students and work-skipping young professionals. Rather, she hated what it represented among her transhuman peers.

The hotter it got, the more the white hats slacked off. And it wasn’t just the lure of summertime festivals and other recreation that pulled them away from the crime-fighting. It was the damn costumes. So many of them were attired in a manner that was completely at odds with conducting a heavily physical, often combat-oriented avocation under very hot and sometimes humid conditions. Some had summer outfits but many others simply toned down their patrols and stopped regularly listening in to public safety communications until the arrival of autumn.

It wasn’t like she’d be alone in the streets fighting the bad guys, but crime always went up in the summer—the more lackadaisical attitudes of many heroes being just one factor—and more burden would be on her, since she could actually use her powers to keep cool.

Sometimes I think I should just stop caring and ramp down my activities in the summer, too, she complained silently.

But she wouldn’t. She’d keep cleaning up messes.

Including her own now—the one Query had dumped in her lap, damn him. But then again, he was right. She’d made a huge mess and put a lot of women in danger with her recent actions. No matter than she couldn’t have predicted old-school, uber-psycho gangster Marty the Hun would react this way. He wouldn’t be doing it at all if she had done her job right.

She pulled out her smart phone, checked her notepad app to see where her next stop was, and got down to some more investigating.

* * *

Speaking through a half-chewed bite of pizza, Carl Beacham said to Query, “Sure you don’t want a piece?”

“We have these meetings regularly, Carl, and I’m happy to order out for pizza or Chinese or whatever on my tab, but you should know by now that whatever’s left, I’m gonna eat it after you’re long gone.”

“You’d be less grumpy if you had a little cheese and pepperoni in you,” Carl insisted, picking up a fresh slice and dangling it like bait.

“I think pizza’s great, Carl, though I prefer bacon or sausage to the pepperoni, and I don’t share your disdain for mushrooms,” Query said through the near-featurless black mask, the red question mark over his mouth never moving as he spoke. “But I’m not showing you any part of my face, even from lips down—no matter how handsome my mouth may be.”

Carl coughed, paused then took a long swig of his Coke. “You do not want to know where my mind just went with that mouth comment, Query.”

“I’ve known you long enough to guess, Carl.”

Setting down his drink and the slice of pizza, Carl cleared his throat and looked at the agenda on his the screen of his iPad Quinto. “Well, that brings us to the end of things, unless you have anyone to add to the discovery list.”

“Oh, but I do. I know it’s been a while, but you’re gonna love this: I have a two-fer for you today. I have the identities of Coldraven and Good War.”

“Jesus, Query,” Carl said, and then whistled sharply. “You know, if you get killed fighting the good fight, I’m going to make a fortune off this list, even if I don’t do anything but demand that everyone on it pay me $50 a month to never reveal who they are publicly.”

“Yeah, that’ll be good for about a year at most until one of them kills you, Carl. Besides, with these two, I’m going to hold my knowledge over both of their heads soon to secure a favor owed from both of them—leave the blackmail to the professionals, Carl. Anyway, the cool thing is that I figured out both their identities almost the same way. I have to admit, Coldraven was the toughest of the two. I never could understand her name. There’s nothing cold-oriented about her powers and nothing avian about them or about her costume, either. Drove me nuts. Then it occurred to me maybe her codename was related to her real name, and then it only took a few days once that happened. My intuitive powers went into high gear.”

“What? Her name is Winter Byrd—her parents are hippies?” Carl mumbled through another bite of pizza.

“Not a bad guess, but it was nothing that obvious, which is why it took a few days. But I did do some name searches with some homemade data filters and came up with several possibilities. One of them wasn’t far off your snarky guess: Autumn Hawke. But no, actually it turns out to be a woman named Christmas Poe.”

“OK, I get the Christmas equals cold thing, but what’s her last name got to do…ohhhhh. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Raven.’ Gotcha.”

“Yup,” Query said. “After that success, I tried a similar strategy on some other names that had always stumped me as far as their origins. And that’s how I got Good War’s name.”

“No much of a stumper there. He’s a good American boy—a real patriot. Or a fan of Captain America and Sgt. Fury both with the red, white and blue infantryman theme going.”

“Yeah, but even though he’s been known for going after domestic terrorists and such, he’s also gone after dirty military types and crooked cops pretty often,” Query noted. “A dyed-in-the-wool ‘America rocks’ type probably wouldn’t go after guys in uniform, I figured. But then I came across a guy who’s related to an FBI agent—who probably gives Good War the tips on most of his targets, by the way—whose name is Bill Wilcox Jr.”

“OK. Not getting that one at all, Query.”

“William Wilcox II—WWII,” Query said. “That was actually his nickname in college.”

“Still not getting it.”

“Guess you didn’t do well in American History in school then, Carl. World War II—sometimes called ‘The Good War’.”

“War…Huh! Yeah!…What is it good for?…Absolutely nothin’…say it again!” Carl belted out, singing the song wildly out of tune. “I always did better in music class than history. By the way, Bruce Springsteen’s version of ‘War’ is the only one worth listening to. That’s my opinion anyway, about warfare and modern rock. But it does explain why Good War’s costume is so 1940s military-looking—aside from the bright Captain America colors.”

“Yeah, play it cool, Carl. You know you’re impressed with me. Now get the hell out of here. I’m sure Patsy would like to be cuddled while the two of you watch some episodes of ‘Big Love’ or ‘Dexter’ or something, and I’d like to get to finishing what’s left of that pizza.”

* * *

Returning the the Guardian Corps headquarters, Cole was sweaty and sore, bruised and feeling the sting of a cut on his lip that was just barely beginning to scab over—and he was feeling more alive than in a long time. He’d just completed his first real patrol. Not simply a babysitting mission like before to show him the procedures and get him used to things—the one that had unexpectedly turned into a firefight that landed him on Desperado’s bad side.

This had been a full-fledged patrol. Cole had been a junior member of the team, but treated like a peer. Even though in some ways it had been a less harrowing and less exciting patrol than his previous one, it meant more to him.

He felt good, having been in two fights tonight with criminals, but without the madness of his first encounter. It felt different in qualitative way. He was a member of the Corps now. He even had a codename other than Puppy now—Quantum. But something nagged at him.


Desperado had been so dead-set against letting Cole be a part of things mere days ago, and the man didn’t seem like the type to forget a grudge. And yet just last night, he had green-lighted Cole to go on patrols and have free run of the Guardian Corps buildings. He had told Sweet Talker that Cole wasn’t her responsibility anymore. None of that made sense, as there was nothing Cole could think of that he had done to justify Desperado changing his tune.

Had it all been a test just to see if I would take his shit? Cole thought, a shadow of doubt crossing his mind even as his vision blurred for a split-second like a dirty smear across his eyes. Perhaps, but the likelihood of that seems slim. Still, he didn’t feel like he should dwell on it much or complain. It had been a good night of fighting the good fight.

Moreover, he had finally gotten a taste of his full powers in a conflict. He’d grown increasingly comfortable with his Warpsmith powers already, but then again, he’d been toying with those for years. What hadn’t been clear was how to use his other powers—either Ecto or telekinetic Psi powers; he’d never been able to figure it out. Desperado’s approach to training wasn’t likely to have ever helped Cole sort out the confusion and gain insight, since it tended to involve a lot of yelling and screaming to “get it right” and “do it now.”

But Sweet Talker and her all-female crew—who seemed to be united around the idea of being a small but strong front against Desperado’s assholery—had worked with Ectos before, and took Cole under their wings. PrinSass in particular had a knack for explaining things, and now Cole finally knew for sure he was an Ecto as well as a Warpsmith, and finally started tapping his powers.

His control was still awful, though. In the patrol tonight, his quasi-matter constructs were barely in existence long enough to give enemies a good, hard slap. But it was progress.

As he wandered among the other Corps members, he caught snatches of conversation about another patrol that was ambushed tonight, and that soured his mood a bit. From what he heard of the accounts, the ambush had been so thorough that it meant the attackers probably had acquired some inside information. One person in the patrol was dead, another was in critical condition and the third was going to be sporting a couple casts for the next few weeks until Asclepius could fit him in between more critical work.

Cole winced as a slight sharp pain lanced his brow briefly, and another dirty smear crossed his vision and vanished. It reminded him a little of the sensory distortion his Warpsmith powers sometimes produced, but this time more focused on visual alterations.

Not a total buzzkill, Cole thought, but definitely a sign I should probably find a cot and take a quick nap, just in case there’s any more action tonight I can be a part of.

* * *

“Bingo, bango, yatzhee and eureka!” Mad Dash exclaimed. “I’m here, Query. What’s zapping, my man in black?”

Query was leaning against the wall of a building in the secluded back parking lot he often used for meeting with other transhumans at night, his arms crossed. “Thought we might talk about girls, Dash. You know, dating? Something I never thought I’d see you doing so publicly.”

“Uh…I didn’t know you cared enough to send Hallmark?” Mad Dash said. “I kind of figured you for straight-man all the way, Q. You aren’t feeling zoned out, are you? You weren’t…”

“No, Dash,” Query said patiently, accustomed as he was to the Speedster’s sometimes chaotic and rapid-fire stream of consciousness. “I don’t feel left out. I did not have designs on dating you myself. If my schedule ever allows for dating, it will be a woman. I just wanted to discuss the wisdom, or lack thereof, of dating Ladykiller.”

“Um…not reading you clearly on this frequency, Querio. Last I checked my gal-pal was a lot more badger-ish than killer-ish,” Mad Dash said with a huge smile.

“Uh huh. Look, Dash, I know not everyone got the memo on what Ladykiller looks like in costume, because I didn’t give that memo to everyone, and those couple times she was with you in her normal outfit, those folks weren’t around, didn’t notice or just didn’t give a shit,” Query said, then pointed the first two fingers of his right hand to where his eyes where, even if they couldn’t be seen through his black mask. “I pay attention. I keep tabs on things, even if I might be a few days late in catching up on the intel my eyes gather all over the place.”

“Soooooo…you’re saying…that you methinks…that…”

“You don’t lie all that well, Dash.”

“C’mon, Query,” Mad Dash said, a tiny whine in his voice. “You’re not going to bust my gal, are ya?”

“No, Dash, I’m not going to bust her—I’ve got no particular reason to. Which isn’t the same as saying I might not have to take her down someday. But that ain’t my point. My concern is that someone I like is getting personal—and I’m guessing naked and vulnerable—with someone known for wounding, crippling and gutting men. Men almost exclusively. Sometimes on a nightly basis. Many nights more than one guy.”

“And this has whatnot to do with me me meep?”

Query sighed heavily—heavier than he would have in an un-costumed situation, but he knew Mad Dash wouldn’t be able to see his exasperated expression. “Dash, you still have testicles, right? She didn’t claw them off, right?”

“She’s tickled them a little bit with her…”

“Too much info, Dash. Too much. The question was rhetorical.”

“OK, OK. I getcha Q-man. She hurts guys and offs guy. I’m a guy. But she offs total asshole abusive guys. I’m harmless to the average gal unless she’s robbing a bank or trying to kill someone or something.”

“How much do you know about her, Dash? I mean, really know? Do you have any clue what might set her off? What if being late to a date or having lipstick on your collar is all it takes? It’s not like I know a whole lot about her, either. I’ve got some video of her in action, but admittedly even I haven’t tracked her to her lair, though I suppose that should be a priority now…”

“Like hell, goddammit!” Mad Dash blurted, and Query stiffened a bit, startled at the sudden shift in temperament and tone of his friend’s voice. “I’m not a little boy.” Mad Dash paused, his face confused at his own outburst and the angry clarity of his thoughts. “Leave her alone,” he said more quietly. “If you don’t have a reason to need to bust her, leave her be. Leave her secrets alone. I think she’s got some bad ones. And by bad I mean they were bad things that happened to her. Let us do our thing, however long she’s willing to stay with my crazy self.”

“Dash, I…” Query began, then paused for a few moments. “Sorry. I’m so hyped up on keeping tabs and watching out for the few people I care about. It’s easy to forget sometimes you’re not immature. Just…disjointed. Scattered. But even with that…Dash, I don’t know that your judgment is sound given your general state of mind—this sudden splash of cold and lucid water notwithstanding.”

“What guy’s brain is ever screwed in all the way when he’s getting nookie, Q-cue-cue-dee-oh?” Mad Dash said, his normal demeanor and soft voice back in the forefront. “My road is so straight-and-narrowish most days I guess some sinkholes and speedbumps and dead skunks along the way are a nice change. Don’t tell her I said that. She might not get the romantic themes all squirreled away in that biblioteca of amore.”

“All right, Dash, I’ll try not to worry that a violence-prone woman with clawed gauntlets is dating one of the few people I consider a friend. I won’t tell anyone Honey Badger is really Ladykiller. But don’t be surprised if I keep my eyes on the two of you—I’ll avoid peeking in on any intimate moments. Scout’s honor.”

“Well, if you do record anything like that by accident, and it’s all hot like Papa Bear’s porridge or hot sauce in an eyeball, let me know. Maybe we can sell copies and split the cash-bar. All right, dude, are we all done here? I actually do have a date with the cute mammalian predator in query-dom.”

“Off with you, Dash. Be smart. Use protection. Like a titanium sheath on your dick, maybe.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Mad Dash teased before racing away.

A few moments later, Query said, “You can come out now, Epitaph. Sorry to keep you waiting. I guess I don’t have to worry about you sharing all that—it’s not like there are adequate death or remembrance-oriented quotes in literature and movies for you to use to tell people that Dash is dating a potential psycho-killer. ”

Stepping out from behind a dumpster, Epitaph shrugged. “Pleasure is a sort of oblivion, a forgetfulness. Pain is remembrance, you cannot forget pain,” he said, looking in the direction Mad Dash had run.

“Yeah, nothing like bought experience. I agree. Dash will learn—and maybe he’ll prove us both wrong about Ladykiller.”

“There are stars whose light only reaches the earth long after they have fallen apart. There are people whose remembrance gives light in this world, long after they have passed away. This light shines in our darkest nights on the road we must follow.”

“Dash is one of a kind. No doubt about it. Maybe that’s why I worry about him. This crazy transhuman world we live in would be a lot less nice without him. But enough of that. What do you have for me?”

Epitaph reached under the large gravestone fragment over his chest and pulled out a manila envelope, handing it to Query, who pulled out several computer printouts from inside. After perusing them, his head snapped upward and his body language suggested he was giving Epitaph a glare or hard stare.

“Ep, I’ve told you time and again to stop bringing me a printout of Sweet Talker’s summary. She’s fine where she is. I don’t want to pull her out of the Guardian Corps. No matter what you think about how put-upon she is there, her presence in the organization is just about the only thing that moderates Desperado’s dickheadishness properly, in my mind. Any use I could put her to or anyone else I could direct her toward would squander her value.”

“Youth lives on hope, old age on remembrance,” Epitaph said.

“Well, you just keep on with the ‘hope springs eternal’ thing, Ep,” Query said with a snide tone. He figured he was one of the few—perhaps the only person—who could almost always get Epitaph’s meaning or most of it; doubtless, he figured, his transhuman intuitive powers were almost like a translator program for that, especially after the first few months of working with Epitaph and getting a read on his personality. “If Sweet Talker needs to leave, she’ll leave. She’s smart and knows what she needs. Your job is to bring to my attention people with potential who might not realize they have better options than the Guardian Corps.”

“I desire to leave to the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works.”

“OK,” Query said, “your work is otherwise solid week in and week out, aside from that annoying ‘oversight’ you keep making with Sweet Talker. All right. The other two, then. This Wayne Henderson kid. He’s been with the Corps for two months and still hasn’t taken on any kind of codename? No costume of any sort?”

“Death is a delightful hiding place for weary men,” Epitaph noted.

“You’re probably right, based on the historical notes in his file here,” Query responded. “Orphaned. Abused. Abandoned. He’s either looking for an end to his life through working with the Corps or he doesn’t think he has any options or anyone else who would give a shit about him. But he doesn’t really seem to embrace the whole transhuman thing. I’ll think it over and see if there are some better options I can send his way or have you pass along to him. Okaaaaay…Cole Alderman. Going by the name Quantum. Still in street clothes, though, but working on a costume. Newbie. Trouble with Desperado.”

“Time rushes towards us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.”

Query looked at him. “You think Desperado is playing him somehow? Hmmm. Cole is green, but fairly competent for a newbie. Still learning his powers. Seems committed to the heroing thing. Not kissing Desperado’s ass or looking for approval. All right, I see two things here. One is that he could do better than the Guardian Corps, but teams aren’t all that common and I’m not sure anyone who’s looking for a sidekick, apprentice or intern right now are people I’d want to toss Cole to. Second thing is that Desperado, as much of a douchebag as he is, wouldn’t try to get someone killed whom he didn’t like, which makes me think there’s something going on I shouldn’t fuck with here.”

Epitaph raised an eyebrow, scowling.

“Not right now, anyway. Keep me informed, Epitaph. Cole has potential, and I’d like to see him in a better place. But I don’t think this is the moment to pull him out. Besides, like I said, I don’t have anywhere to place him or anyone to refer him to,” Query responded, and handed Epitaph a small envelope filled with cash. “Another clandestine meeting, another payday. Thanks, Epitaph. Do me a favor and have your dinner at the Caped Cuisiner tonight. Make it a really leisurely one. Dash and ‘Honey Badger’ tend to have their dates there, and I’m 90% certain tonight will be one of those nights. I’d like some eyes on them. It’ll mean a bonus next week, and I’ll reimburse you for the tab you’ll run up. Just bring the receipt.”

Epitaph nodded, gave Query a quick military salute, and sauntered off, the two gravestone pieces over his chest and back swaying slightly—his feet hovering just a fraction of an inch off the ground as he walked.

Then Query was off to disappear into the night, and keep watch on Zoe Dawson. She’d probably be his focus until at least mid-June, since UConn’s New Judah campus had an entirely different schedule than the other University of Connecticut campuses, which had all held graduation in May. He’d never understand why the campus wasn’t just spun off as an entirely separate state university or simply privatized—juggling curricula with one campus on the quarter system and the rest on the semester system had to be a nightmare. In any case, whatever happened to Zoe, if anything, was likely to be anytime between now and commencement. Given Janus’ usual impatience with people who disobeyed or show disinterest in him, probably closer to now than to graduation.

Welcome to the real world, Zoe, Query thought, though certainly not the version you were hoping for.

* * *

The best thing about working with Janus, Underworld had recently decided, was the commissary in the building he had purchased for the criminal enterprise that he and she were more or less jointly running. The building held many advantages, not the least of which were spacious living accommodations and many forms of secret egress and ingress so that all key members of the organization—from Janus’ small army of IT geeks to the transhuman operatives to the top-ranking individuals like herself and Janus—could live and work in comfort and with almost no fear of being discovered or tracked by any enemies. Between multiple layers of security measures, threats of the worst kinds of torture for those who broke even the slightest security rule, and the fact the building offered enough amenities that most staff who knew about the criminal side of things didn’t have to leave very often, they were as safe as a group of criminals could be. Janus also had a number of other legitimate businesses in the building, all of which he or Underworld owned and controlled either directly or through proxies, and that also helped hide them and what they were doing that lay outside the bounds of the law.

But while all that was nice, oh, that commissary…

Even the most entry-level lackey in the criminal side of the organization gets to eat there free, and Janus’ insistence on calling it a commissary does it absolutely no justice, Underworld thought. From comfort foods to gourmet fare, everything is the best quality—a testament to his commitment to hedonism in all its forms. The entire culinary operation takes up an entire floor and the cafe is the best part, giving me a constant flow of cappuccinos, Turkish coffees and pastries to go with them. Thank God there’s also a gym in this place. 

This morning had been a particular joy for her, as she reveled in the lovely décor of the cafe and its European vibe, with an espresso drink and a pair of the truffle candies that had recently started shipping in from some European chocolatier. Sheer culinary ecstasy.

Until Crazy Jane arrived.

When she heard the giggle and looked up to see Jane entering the room, Underworld’s belly did a weird flip-and-toss. Nervous flutters. She sighed heavily, and ducked her head into the book she was reading.

Please sit at the other end of the cafe, she had thought at the time with desperate intensity. Please sit at the other end of the cafe. Please sit…

“Watcha doin’ Underworld?” Crazy Jane said in a voice dripping with metaphorical honey—almost manically exuberant, which would make sense given the psychotic stew Janus had set to simmering inside her head. The woman sat down across the small table from Underworld, the chin of her tattoo-covered face propped up on the heels of both hands as her elbows pinned down the paperwork that Underworld had brought along with her. Her eyes were wide and eager, glistening with expectation, as if Underworld were doing the most exciting thing in the world.

“Just waking up, reading and getting ready to look over some files—the ones your elbows are holding down,” Underworld said, feeling impatient to get rid of the woman but speaking as casually as possible. “Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing you’d be interested in.”

Crazy Jane proved her wrong by peppering her with questions for some 10 minutes. Every one of them answerable by a simple, short response—and every one of Underworld’s quick answers rewarded with some new question that probed for more detail on what was already banal. Underworld realized she hadn’t had to deal with a questioning like this since the time she had watched her five-year-old niece for several days.

I think the interrogations I’ve suffered at the hands of police, the FBI and military authorities would be preferable, Underworld mourned in her head, hoping without success that each answer she gave would be the one to get Crazy Jane to stop talking and move on. She wasn’t even sure why she was putting herself through this. Soon, if she doesn’t leave, she thought, I’m going to just have to snatch everything up and head back to my office instead to get some space from this crazy bitch.

And yet, despite the fact it hadn’t worked so far, she kept trying to close things off with a response that she figured was so final and iron-clad that Jane couldn’t possibly have a follow-up. She proved to be wrong three more times then, finally, Crazy Jane said, “Well, it’s been great, Undie. See ya later.”

“Don’t ever call me that…” Underworld began after a few moments of stunned silence, but Jane had already skipped out the door of the cafe to enter the main commissary area. For a brief, exasperating moment, Underworld desperately wished the woman had stuck around for a few choice words. Undie indeed. Bitch.

She almost went to chase Crazy Jane down, then mentally kicked herself, put her ass back onto the bistro chair and downed the rest of her drink, then motioned for the barista to come over with another.

Two more times during that same day, Underworld ran into Crazy Jane accidentally and got caught up in a circular, pointless conversation in which she didn’t want to be engaged. Every time the nervous fluttering in her belly when she saw the woman and the fruitless attempts to disengage from her once they enged up locked in conversation.

At least the other two times were blessedly brief compared to the cafe encounter, Underworld thought when she finally headed to her apartment for the night, almost sprinting there to avoid another unintended run-in with Crazy Jane. I may have to leave this organization just for my piece of mind if this keeps happening. I know too much about her now to want to be anywhere near for long—or so frequently.

Then she rediscovered her resolve by the time she got into bed, realizing that she’d never let anyone get in the way of her success before, psychotic or otherwise, and she wasn’t going to start now. They had to work in the same building together; there was no way around seeing her. At least Crazy Jane wasn’t going to show up in her bedroom, Underworld consoled herself silently.

And then after she finally dozed off, Underworld spent half her dreaming hours with Jane popping up in some way, and wondered in her REM haze if there were any place Crazy Jane wouldn’t invade her privacy.

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]

The man in the three-piece suit flipped the final page of the file, frowned, looked up at the man with the rumpled slacks, gaudy tie and white physician’s coat, and said, “Arthur, I don’t believe she is insane.”

Dr. Arthur Hawkings coughed sharply and briefly, leaving it vague as to whether the cough was coincidence or a sort of scoffing laugh. “Well, Mark, I think you have to be pretty far from sane to slice-and-dice a half-dozen people that way just because Janus told you to.”

Waving away the statement dismissively with his hand, Dr. Marcus Blood responded, “I never said I thought she was stable or altogether right in the head. Sociopath? Certainly. I’m simply saying that I think she knew full well what she was doing, knew right from wrong, and should be considered culpable for her actions.”

“So you’re coming into this with a preconceived notion, eh Mark?” Arthur noted. “Not very dispassionate, clinical or professional.”

“I know who butters my bread,” Marcus answered, “and I wasn’t hired to be clinical and dispassionate and compassionate. I work for the prosecution, and the judge has ordered Janet Caspian to submit to an evaluation by a prosecution-hired psychologist, and that’s that. The DA is the one giving me my directions. Call my ‘assumptions’ more of a hypothesis. She may yet prove it wrong. But I think she’s played the lot of you here, and the state wants her to go to trial, and she will. She’ll likely put in an insanity plea, and the prosecutor’s office has hired me to look at her with their needs at heart. You want to be all soft and cuddly here, that’s fine. I’m here to look for chinks in the armor she’s put on.”

“I’d hardly call us soft and cuddly,” Arthur said. “This is a high-security facility and she’s on lockdown. We get the most unstable and sometimes most dangerous people with mental illness here, Mark. It isn’t some goddamned resort we’re running. The Givens Psychiatric Detention Facility is essentially a prison. Cynthia just doesn’t see the value in making things worse by being assholes with the patients…”

“Prisoners,” Marcus corrected.

“Detainees, then,” Arthur said. “But still patients in need of care, evaluation and, if possible, treatment.”

“I gave up trying to fix people a while back, Arthur. Now my job is to tell it like it is when I take a peek inside their heads and their histories.”

“Tell it like you see, you mean,” Arthur said with a rueful smirk.

“Same thing.”

* * *

Marcus flexed his limbs awkwardly and uncomfortably in the hooded suit with the mesh in front of his face. It wasn’t that the suit was uncomfortable, precisely speaking, but it hugged him tight, almost like a full-body blood pressure cuff, and it made his movements seem sluggish and dreamlike.

I’m dressed in a giant cushioned condom with a fencing mask, he thought to himself grimly.

“Is this suit absolutely necessary?” he asked his escort, one of the security personnel at the high-security psychiatric detention facility. “I see that you aren’t wearing the same ensemble.”

“I also won’t be getting close to her unless there’s trouble, and I’ll be shooting her with a rubber slug or poking her with my extra-long baton if that’s the case, doctor,” the woman pointed out. “You’re the one who’s going to be getting close to her. You were told you could conduct the interviews through shielded glass.”

“I need to look her in the eyes; I need all then cues I can get.”

“Then you need the rubber hippo suit in case she gets feisty. Ever been tasered before? Or undergo electro-convulsive therapy?”


“Do you want to find out what those feel like?”


“Then wear the suit. Because while Ms. Caspian there doesn’t have long range, her Transmitter powers give her the ability to pack quite a wallop. The suit breathes pretty well, so you shouldn’t sweat too much in it. I think your Brooks Brothers shirt will survive without irredeemable pit stains.”

Marcus didn’t like her insubordinate tone, but then had to remind himself she also wasn’t his subordinate—she answered to the facility’s administrator, Cynthia Taggert, and secondarily to Dr. Hawkings, who headed up the clinical psychiatric operations here. So together, they entered Crazy Jane’s cell, which was larger than he had expected it would be—somewhat narrow, but long—perhaps a former conference room repurposed as a cell. At the far end of it sat the transhuman woman herself, wrapped tight in some kind of straitjacket that seemed to be made a of a similar material to his own “hippo suit.” He also took notice of the floor and walls, coated with some kind of rubber-like material and with metallic-looking strips running the length and breadth of them.

Three layers of protection to thwart or bleed off any attempt to use her electricity-based Transmitter powers, he realized, wondering how much of the day she spent in that straitjacket.

“Hiya,” she said sweetly, in a manner that was so in tune with the tattoos of abstract butterflies, happy faces and rainbows on various parts of her face and neck—and yet so out of sync with the cohabitating ultra-realistic tattoos of skulls, bloody razor blades, screaming mouths, cockroaches, barbed wire and more.

The artwork of her face and neck seemed to blend together too well, in a way that made Marcus’ stomach flutter in a brief surge of panic. Her face was not ruined by tattoos but instead was transformed to some kind of unnerving and utterly engaging canvas displaying grotesque art. Her beauty was evident even through all that ink, and he wondered how much more pretty she had been before Janus had made her be marked thus—or perhaps she had chosen to have herself marked by a tattooist’s needle after she had become Janus’ pet.

“Earth to enemy doctor. Come in, doctor,” Crazy Jane said with a taunting edge.

Without missing a beat, Marcus said, simply, “Just assessing things.”

“Janus might not like you staring at his main girl,” she said with a playful tone of menace.

“I’ll take my chances,” Marcus said. “So, mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“My lawyer says I have to let you. Says the judge won’t let him sit in on this.”

“Sounds like you’re sane enough to not want to cooperate because you don’t want anyone to burst your safe little insanity plea bubble,” Marcus said. “Maybe I can just leave now and file my report.”

“Really? Do all insane people just jabber and drool and mutter? Besides, I never said I was crazy all the time. Being away from Janus’ world has been very calming. No one telling me to hurt or kill anyone. Refreshing, really.”

“So, are you saying you weren’t in control of your actions when you tortured and killed those people?”

“Does that seem like the kind of thing someone does when they’re in control?” she countered.

“Some. Some people like doing those kinds of things. Some just don’t care. Being sociopathic doesn’t get you off the hook for prison—or maybe the death penalty.”

“Are you a shrink, an interrogator, or one of the guys who’s gonna grill me in court if I end up there? Because you aren’t acting much like a shrink.”

“You aren’t acting much like a person with serious mental health issues right now, either.”

“Do you have any idea what Janus did to me in the years I was with him?”

“Actually, no.”

“That’s because I don’t want to talk about it. Bad memories. Hurts.”

“But you need to convince me you’re insane if you want any chance of the DA giving you an insanity plea without argument—or of having me give even an inkling that you were insane if he takes it to trial and I have to testify as to your competence when you killed those people.”

Crazy Jane chewed her upper lip a bit. “The people who work here have been a lot sweeter to me than you’re being, and I’d feel a little bad telling you things I don’t even want to tell them.”

“I’m not a negotiator, and I’m not on your side.”

Crazy Jane chewed her lower lip this time as she considered, and then sighed. She shook her head slowly, a lock of her hair falling over one eye, and she nodded. “OK. But can you get this stupid hair out of my face first? It’s tickling, and my arms are a little limited right now mobility-wise.”

Marcus looked at her dubiously, and his eyes flashed in the general direction of the female guard, who was watching but not really in a position to hear anything clearly, as softly as Janet Caspian was speaking.

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” Crazy Jane said. “You’re suited up and I’m wrapped up. Just slide the damn hair back behind my ear before it drives me even nuttier than I already am.”

He reached forward quickly, brushed the hair back, and saw a reflection of the guard in the room’s mirrored window, her body suddenly stiffening in alarm and then relaxing as Marcus finished and pulled back.

“If I scream, you’ll know I need you,” he said to the guard with annoyance, a trace of venom in his voice. “Tell me a tale,” Marcus said to Crazy Jane. “Better yet, tell me the truth.”

She smiled, nodded and began to talk.

* * *

Marcus considered his notes from the initial interview, feeling both a bit of smug satisfaction to have gotten historical information from the woman that the institution’s staff had failed to elicit from her, as well as a sinking feeling that his discoveries could hurt the DA’s case more than a little.

He rotated his neck a bit to get some kinks out, and slid the tip of his pinky finger into one ear in response to a nagging little flare-up of tinnitus—a vague and annoying combination of buzzing and ringing.

“Do you need anything else?” asked one of the clinical psychologists on staff at the institution, who had brought in some files at Marcus’ request.

“No, not right now,” Marcus answered, wondering if the man’s name was “Stan” or “Dan” or something else along those lines. They’d only been given cursory introduction to one another.

“Well, if you have anything else you need, ask one of the nurses or something,” the man said. “I have a counseling session right now with Crazy Jane, and I’m already a few minutes late. Hope you didn’t leave her in a mess.”

“No, I didn’t,” Marcus responded, noting the slightly eager and nervous look in the man’s eyes—clearly more than ready to be done here and counseling the transhuman woman. “You called her by her transhuman nickname, not her real name.”

“She prefers it that way,” he answered in a clipped tone. “I have to get going now.”

“Fine. Go.”

Returning to his own notes and glancing at the files, still irritated at the ringing in his ears, Marcus considered the facts thus far—or at least the data thus far, since it was unclear still what was fact and what was fiction. If even half of what Crazy Jane had told him was true, she’d have a strong case for some kind of plea of diminished competence.

But he wasn’t buying it hook, line and sinker just yet. The fact she was sharing these details now, when a prosecution-hired psychiatrist was grilling her, made it suspicious. On the other hand, it was a horrific story, and she looked visibly pained at recalling some of the more abusive moments at Janus’ hands, forcing her to try to reconcile her lingering attachment to the villain and sense of responsibility to him with the reminders that he had—if her story was true—done utterly heinous things to her. He already felt a pull to return to her cell, even though they didn’t have another session for a couple days. There was so much he still needed to sort out in person with her.

By Crazy Jane’s account, she was a transhuman already long before her crimes, which is what had attracted Janus’ attention, but he had decided her powers needed boosting. So he’d engaged in quite a lot of highly unethical work on her with chemicals, nanos and gene therapies to tweak her transhuman characteristics. At the same time, he’d mind-fucked her on a regularly basis and done things to her that seemed to be one part sensual to three parts depraved and cruel. He’d messed with her body and her mind—not to mention sick manipulations of her affections—to get his results. And those results had been to make her even more strongly transhuman as well as make her utterly loyal, whether through some twisted version of love, abject fear or—probably most attractive to him—a combination of both.

If he had boosted her powers somewhat, it could explain her becoming unhinged. Her original powers had emerged when she was younger, so the chances that any acute and clinical mental health issues had been brought on by the emergence of her powers was relatively low. But since emergence in later life increased the chances of concomitant mental illness, boosting her powers as an adult might have brought that factor into play.

Or, perhaps, Janus triggered some new powers, which almost certainly would have put her at risk of psychological changes, Marcus considered. She’s dropped enough hints that her Transmitter powers aren’t all she has. I’ll have to get more out of her on that front.

In short, he thought, Thursday couldn’t come soon enough, so that he could speak with her again and, hopefully, find some chinks in her armor by finding inconsistencies in her story.

It couldn’t come soon enough.

* * *

“I’m not keeping you from anything, am I, Dr. Danny?” Crazy Jane asked the psychologist when they were already 30 minutes past the scheduled end of their session.

“No, not at all,” Dan Wilson said quickly. “It’s important for me to be here for you, and it sounds like you’ve been through quite a lot today with Dr. Blood. Many breakthroughs and probably no small amount of stress with an adversarial face attached to so many questions.”

“I’m all right. Now that we’ve talked. Or I will be soon. If you can stay a bit longer. How are you? You look a little pale.”

“Just a…it’s just a little something in my head. Like a ringing in my ears. Been going on for a while, but it’s really picked up in the past couple days.”

“Oh, I remember something like that,” she said suddenly, almost breathlessly. “I probably should have told the DA’s pet shrink earlier. Way back when Janus started in on me I had such odd tones and notes in my head. He made me describe them and he had the tattooist design a lot of my markings based on my feelings about those sounds. It was like some ghoulish bell in my head, but so lyrical, too. Tinkling sometimes, screaming at others. My insanity peal. Isn’t that funny, doctor? Insanity peal? My lawyer is aiming for an insanity plea, and I once had an insanity peal? Isn’t that funny?”

“It’s interesting, Jane. Very interesting. Would you like to talk about it some more?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, I would.”

And they did, for another hour, and then he finally and reluctantly ended their session, realizing that his wife was going to be livid that he was coming home late yet again.

* * *

Neither the guard on duty—a male this time—nor the administrative staff at the institution were happy that Marcus had chosen to forego the padded suit for his second go-round with Crazy Jane.

“She was irritated with me, but not hostile,” he had pointed out. “I don’t need a bunch of crap distracting me from my interviews and assessments of her. I’ll trust the other two layers of protection in her cell, along with the fact I don’t think she’s crazy enough to risk shocking me so that she can get put down with a taser or rubber bullet or an injection.”

So he had won his victory there. No doubt that he would; he didn’t work for Cynthia or Arthur.

Her stories weren’t changing today, making Marcus very reluctant to report back to the DA. He was supposed to find inroads for a death penalty case, not bolster the defense position, and the differences in the story today weren’t anything suspicious—just the normal differences of humans never remembering things perfectly. Crazy Jane’s tales of abuse and alteration at Janus’ hands were as compelling and consistent as they had been before.

He dug at his ear a bit with his finger, and noticed Crazy Jane take careful note of the action.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Hmmmm. Yes. Nothing. Just a little ringing in my ear.”

“In your ears?”

“Yes, in my ears,” he responded, wiggling a fingertip in his other ear now, absently. “Annoying, but nothing to concern yourself with. I’m more interested in you going over your story again.”

“Again? You still think I’m lying, don’t you?” she said with a pout. “Oh! I forgot. Did I tell you about my insanity peal?”

“What? Your…you mean your insanity plea.”

“No, my insanity peal, silly. I’m crazy, not stupid about words. Oh, this will be so interesting…just another example of how naughty Janus was with me.”

* * *

“You’re taking more time with Ms. Caspian than I thought you would, Mark.”

“I still don’t buy her not being in control of her actions, Art,” Marcus snapped back. “But I have to admit she’s an interesting case, and the fact is that I have to be thorough if I’m going to give the district attorney an accurate assessment. I may need several more sessions with her.”

“Sounds to me like you’re coming around to our way of thinking and seeing who the real villain here is: Janus. And who the victim is: Janet.”

“It remains to be seen if Janet Caspian can be separated from Crazy Jane in looking at her actions—her crimes,” Marcus said. “I’m still not on your side—and certainly not hers.”

Arthur shrugged. “Whatever you say, Mark. Sounds to me like the clinician in you is trying to claw his way out of your bureaucratic ass.”

Marcus snorted in derision, and made his way to Crazy Jane’s cell.

* * *

Dan fidgeted in his car seat. He was supposed to be going to the store to get a few groceries, and all he wanted to do was get back to work and see Crazy Jane, even though it was his day off. A sharp and warbling ghost of a sound shot through his head, and he smacked himself to drive it off. A few more waves of the irritating peal rolled through his head, and then quieted again.

He drove uncertainly to the store, and bought everything in a half-daze. On the way back home, he realized he was going down the wrong road and had been for 10 minutes—heading toward the Givens institution—toward his workplace. He turned around as soon as he could and righted himself to get back home, before he ended up with a pissed-off wife yet again.

Lucy was feeling randy that night, as it turned out, so she wasn’t mad at his overlong visit to and back from the store. She was more interested in getting done with dinner, snuggling a bit, and then getting intimate.

Through his entire performance in their marriage bed, Dan could only see Crazy Jane’s face in his mind, and when he finally had his orgasm, shortly after his wife’s, he felt both elation and horror at the pealing that ran through his head until he finally drifted off to uneasy slumber.

* * *

“How’s your head today, Dr. Mark?” Crazy Jane asked, a look of concern in her eyes that seemed tinged with hunger as well. It was their seventh session, and Marcus was trying to figure out how to put the district attorney off just a bit longer. He just needed a little more…

“Is it that obvious?” he asked. “It will pass.”

“Oh, yes, it always does. But it always comes back. I think Dan is over his bout with it, though.”

“Huh? Who?”

“My staff psychologist. Dr. Wilson. I called him Dr. Danny.”

Past tense. She used past tense.

“It’s just tinnitus,” Marcus said. “What about Dr. …what about Danny?”

“Oh, it’s more than just ringing in the ears, Dr. Mark. I know better than anyone. It’s the insanity peal. Patented and trademarked. Or it should be anyway. Dr. Danny should be over it now because chances are he committed suicide last night. Unless his wife got to him in time or something. I don’t think he was far enough along to take my hints about killing her first.”

Marcus felt a surge of panic at the terrifyingly morbid implications of her words. He was about to alert the guard, then felt another surge of panic at the thought of cutting his time short with Crazy Jane. He’d already had to wait three days for this session with her…

“Your hints?” Marcus asked carefully. “What about them?”

“Oh, I knew the insanity peal wasn’t quite far enough along, but there was just no more time,” Crazy Jane said with a painful note of regret in her voice. “I put it in his head, and I was so careful cultivating it and I made such good use of our time together. But I had to rush things. And I haven’t gotten nearly far enough along with you, Dr. Mark. And now it’s too late.”

The sounds in his head. The near-obsession to keep interacting with her. It all fell into place.

A part of Marcus wanted to get up, grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she was ready to fall over. The thought that she had messed with his head…but then he considered how assaulting her would probably get him removed from her presence. That thought filled him with a terrible, aching anxiety.

“Too late?” he asked her nervously. “For what? Too late to drive me insane? Is that one of your other powers?”

“Of course, silly. Just one of them, though. Not that it matters for you anymore. But…well, it could, I suppose. It could still matter. It doesn’t have to end. Just do something about the guard,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, “and then get me out of this straitjacket. If you leave the door to my room open, he might be gentle with you. Maybe I can keep you. You can keep asking me questions and I can keep filling your head with new things. We both win.”

Marcus couldn’t speak for a moment, trying to reconcile his desire to flee with the unbearable thought of being wrested away from Crazy Jane after having only been with her for a few minutes. Not enough time. Not enough.

“Who will be gentle with me if I help you? Janus?”

“Of course, silly boy. Dr. Mark, you are so dense sometimes. But I love you for it. My boyfriend’s back. If he’s on schedule, and he always is, there are already dead bodies. I figure he’ll be here in minutes; maybe moments. You still have time. You can still be my newest pet project. I’ll be slow with you. You can be near me for a long, long time. You’ll be a work of art.”

“You’ve been waiting for him all this time. You wanted Janus to come for you. You aren’t afraid of him at all.”

“Oh, of course I am—sometimes—and a little part of me will always hate him for the things he did to me. But mostly it’s love. He’s my man,” she said, and went into a sing-song voice as she warbled, “My boyfriend’s back he’s gonna save my reputation, hey la, hey la, my boyfriend’s back…”

She stopped singing the old ‘60s tune as alarms began to sound. The guard that had accompanied Marcus came to attention and looked to be checking in with someone via the radio on his belt to see what was happening.

“I…I…” Marcus began, feeling afraid and lost. For the first time in a very long time, he didn’t know what to do. Warring feelings of betrayal and attraction buffeted his mind. Terror and exhilaration. Suddenly, Crazy Jane seemed to be the one to turn to—the one who had the answers, but still his rational mind held him back. He stared into her tattooed face, silently pleading. For mercy. For guidance. For release. For instruction.

“There’s not much time left, Dr. Mark,” she whispered, and he heard the peals of madness rippling through his mind once more. “Not much time. You need to choose. I’ll make a masterpiece of madness of you. I’ll mold you. Be my pet and you might yet live for weeks or months or maybe years. You won’t ever have to be away from me for long, and after a while, even when you are my will can be trilling through your mind.”

Marcus wanted to scream to the guard that Janus was coming; that they were doomed. He wanted to urge the man to call for reinforcements and to tell him this wasn’t some routine prisoner disturbance taking place. And then, at once, as he heard crashing sounds outside the locked door and muffled screams, Crazy Jane’s eyes caught his own and he saw the madness in them and found it delicious and tempting. He wanted to swim in it and drown in it. He wanted the tempest of her manipulations to wash away his sanity.

The door was blown inward, and Marcus felt himself move suddenly forward, wondering if the force of whatever explosion had torn it asunder was driving him or if the eyes of the woman before him were pulling him, and he lunged for her.

He frantically reached for her restraints to show he would free her. To show her and Janus that he wasn’t their enemy. That he wanted to help.

As his fingers scrabbled at the buckles and Crazy Jane laughed a quiet, manic, victorious jeering sound, he heard the guard cry out and heard wet, sickening sounds and knew Janus was there—and who knew who else, and he hoped there would be mercy.

He hoped there was yet time.

Time to live.

Time to be driven mad.

Time to be molded into something dark and twisted and lost while also being held and cherished and valued as a work of psychological art.


Hoped for time.

Prayed for the chance to be near her a while longer.

As he felt and saw the shadow of her lover fall over him.


Hope and despair filled him.

But mostly a panicked hope as the sounds that weren’t really sounds pealed through his brain and he released the first of the buckles that held her in her restraints, hoping to be part of delivering her to freedom and his sanity into bondage.