Posts Tagged ‘ladykiller’

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Cole looked out across the devastation of the main gathering area at the Guardian Corps’ central headquarters. In some senses, it didn’t look that much different than normal. It wasn’t as if the Corps had deep pockets. They survived mostly by donations and secondarily by whatever bits of money they might surreptitiously lift from some of the gang-bangers that tended to be their main prey as they patrolled the streets.

As such, their main headquarters was a smallish warehouse that a local company had found little interest in using to its full effectiveness and less interest in bringing up to code so that the city would let them, deciding that donating it to a crime-fighting cause was the easiest path. The furniture and computers were likewise donated—old and often not in the best condition. The members of the Corps themselves were often young men with at least a slight propensity for slovenly habits. As such, the place was usually a slightly dusty mess.

But this was something else entirely, and while it might not look tremendously more messy than usual, the substantive damage was more serious. Computers cracked open. Several chairs and one big table reduced to splinters. They were used to litter and clutter, but not from things that used to be useful and now were destroyed. Also, there were the numerous bullet holes in the drywall of haphazardly erected rooms that had been built to give certain members of the Corps a sense of having their own workspaces—something more than cubicles but less than offices. Now those walls were, in many cases, leaning and probably ready to fall over.

The various patches of blood on the concrete floor were also new. They’d been mostly mopped up, but while no longer thick, sticky and wet, they were still red stains that recalled the battle the night before.

Cole had been off-duty last night, so he’d missed that fight. That made him feel a strange combination of guilt and relief.

After weeks of having their patrols and raids sabotaged, some of their enemies had finally taken the fight directly to the Corps—to the main headquarters that it tried to keep as low-key as possible and a secret to their worst enemies, at least.

All in all, the string of ambushes and now an overt attack suggested that one or more people inside the Guardian Corps was a traitor who was feeding information to the highest bidder.

Or bidders.

The leaders of the Corps, including Desperado, were furiously directing people to clean up and pack things, as they also tried to secure a new location to which they could move soon and try to regain some sense of secrecy and security.

This place wasn’t much, but to Cole, it had become a kind of home. He wasn’t sure it was someplace he wanted to be involved with long-term, like Epitaph was, but it was home.

And now, he would have to move, and wonder if any place they might set down roots for the Corps now would ever be truly safe.

Cole saw Desperado in the distance, and met his eyes, which were hard and cold. The man said something to a few nearby lieutenants that Cole had no hope of hearing, and suddenly four sets of eyes were boring into him. Once again, among the most piercing stares was from one of Desperado’s top guys: Puma. A similar look as the man had used a couple other times recently when Cole was the object of attention and derision by Desperado and his inner circle.

But it was a look of deliberation and consideration, it seemed, and only tinged with hostility, while the other sets of eyes looked at Cole as if he were an unwelcome outsider.

Cole turned away, hung his head, and went to help Sweet Talker and PrinSass clean up some debris. At least the candy-themed, chewing-gum addicted woman and her burly, broad sister-in-crimefighting seemed to like him.

* * *

“So, how do you like the place?” Janus asked the man in front of him, who was clad all in black, from his shoes to his jeans to his shirt to his trench coat—all except for the full-head, red mask that revealed no part of the man’s face at all. “A little tender loving care from our new team, and it will be something to adore, don’t you think? A really sweet spot to enjoy life and have a few laughs.”

“Is that supposed to be a joke?” the man said grimly, not a trace of amusement in his tone.

“A joke? Why of course not…oh, all right, a little ribbing, I admit,” Janus said, stroking one side of his mask as if smoothing back some unruly locks of hair—it was some Central American themed thing that looked to Underworld like it was from a Day of the Dead celebration, with one side a smiling face and the other hinting at a skull. “I mean, you might actually end up working for me, after all. It would be nice to know if you appreciate my humor.”

“I’ll do my best to pretend I do,” the man said.

“Janus, his name is Odium,” Underworld noted. “I don’t expect much good humor from a man with that kind of name—and reputation.”

The red-masked head swiveled toward her. “Do you have something against what I do?” The voice was heavy with menace, but Underworld didn’t even flinch—only smiled disarmingly.

“While I know she’s more than capable of taking care of herself, I should point out, Odium, that if you use your powers against either one of us, this interview will be cut brutally short.”

“Oh, I’m well aware,” Odium answered. “So, what if I don’t want the job? Now that you’ve let me see where your headquarters is. Especially with the both of you being suspicious of my attitude.”

“Would that be a threat?” Underworld asked mildly.

“Observation,” Odium responded.

“Well, if you’re basing our worth as an organization with which to connect yourself on this location, you’d be underestimating us,” Janus broke in. “Underworld and I, along with core non-transhuman staff like my hackers and analysts, reside on several nicely appointed floors in a very reputable building.”

“And if I decide I want the job, I get to bunk down a lot with a handful of other folks here in Sparsity Land?”

“Janus and I value security, and whatever transhuman team we assemble will be more likely than us to draw tails and such,” Underworld said, “as well as being less able and sometimes less willing to follow strict security protocols. So, none of you will ever know about the central operations. Also, you won’t all be in the same place at the same time, unless for some seriously big shit. We have several small buildings like this one. You’ll get a small support staff and we will be doing substantial redecorating—fear not.”

“Although,” Janus interrupted, “you don’t seem the type who cares much about the finer things in life. Should we just put a cot and small table in your room at each location? Maybe a radio that only gets AM?”

“I find hate for hatred’s sake to be enough for personal satisfaction most days, but that doesn’t mean I want to hang out someplace with concrete floors and fold-out metal chairs and card tables,” Odium said. “I don’t hate myself.”

“Not entirely, anyway,” Underworld said.

“What’s that supposed to mean? You fixing to psychoanalyze me?”

“Making an observation,” she said, putting just enough emphasis on the last word to let him now she was sending his earlier retort right back at him. “This is a job interview. Make no mistake. For a potentially very lucrative line of work. With benefits. I’d be your boss…”

“One of your bosses,” Janus noted.

“Yes, one of your bosses. But since some people seem to have trouble focusing on administrative details with staffing, I’d be the one giving you most of your marching orders and doing regular performance reviews,” she told Odium, trying to get back to ignoring Janus as much as possible. It was the only way she figured she could avoid the temptation to murder him for the whole Crazy Jane situation.

A line of thought that only reminded her she missed Jane a bit and hadn’t seen her in more than a day.

Shit, she thought, feeling both an eagerness to get back to the main building and see her as well as revulsion at the low-level addiction she had to the other woman’s presence. Problem is that the eagerness and desire have steadily come to outweigh the fear, disgust and annoyance, meaning that I’ve all but stopped trying to find ways to slip the snare that is Crazy Jane. But on the bright side, ending my interest in escaping her small hold will give me more time to figure out how to kill Janus without upsetting her.

“Job reviews, too?” Odium sneered, pulling Underworld out of her private thoughts. “Ah, hell, just what I wanted. A 9-to-5 gig.”

“Hours will be longer than that sometimes, shorter at others,” Underworld noted. “But few jobs will offer such moral latitude, including giving you many chances to hurt people and sometimes kill them, will they? Unless you think your prospects are better as a mob enforcer.”

“Don’t knock it,” Odium said. “I’ve made some bucks that way.”

“Yes, and probably been looked at like a freak and treated with about as much affection as a guard dog by a bunch of norms who don’t understand a damn thing about you,” Underworld noted. “And all so that if there’s a family struggle or organizational squabble, you can possibly end up taking a bullet to the back of your skull during a dinner at an Italian or Russian restaurant as part of the staff reorganization plan.”

“I’ll think about it,” Odium said.

“You have the prospectus,” Underworld said. “And now you have four days to get back to us.”

“And every day you wait, our interest in you will wane accordingly,” Janus added.

* * *

The tiny fluttering sensation of his belly rising a hair and then gravity pulling it back down a fraction of a centimeter. A ding. The tiny rumble of a metal door sliding open.

And then he was looking at it.

Ladykiller’s home.

Well, a hallway, anyway, Mad Dash considered. Not all that great of a hallway, either. Wallpaper is kind of bleu cheesy. Table might be nice in a Greek food temple. Flowers in the vase look like they could use some Vaseline Intensive Care lotion.

“You can go in, Dash—I mean, Peter,” Ladykiller said. She was in civilian clothes, as he was, and clearly she was uncomfortable having to think in un-costumed norm terms, though he noted an almost giddy expectation in her eyes. Nervousness, excitement and a desire to please all rolled into one. “Welcome to my home.”

Of course, this is the most intimate thing she’d done with me, he considered of his girlfriend—Ladykiller or Honey Badger in costume and Sarah out of them; they hadn’t graduated to sharing each other’s surnames yet. Letting me into her home. Her secret lair. The most personal thing we’ve shared aside from making out—at least since that time a few weeks back when she showed up at my tussle with that other Speedster and let me see her real face.

Peter realized he was still just standing there, and then chuckled nervously and stepped into the hall and set down the duffle bag that held his costume and various miscellany. Sarah smiled back, a little less nervousness there, and took her finger off the “hold” button for the private elevator to this penthouse condominium, stepping into the hall herself and taking Peter’s left hand in her right. Her palm felt warm and clammy and her fingers were quivering just a little, he realized, and he gave it a small, encouraging squeeze.

“My home,” she repeated. “Let me show you around.”

She gave him the rounds in a haphazard way, sometimes leaving a room only to bring him back to it again within a minute or two to point out something else about it. She seemed most proud of the bathrooms and living room. The kitchen and small bedroom where she slept got the least attention.

Eight rooms in total, with the last one on the tour a combination of office and armory, where she kept her costumes, weapons, a couple computers, some files and other things related to her vigilante work. It was the biggest of all the rooms, and looked as if it had once been an office and a bedroom with the wall knocked down between them. The door to it was heavy and fitted with several locks, as well as an alarm system.

“Nicey icey place,” the man known in costume as Mad Dash said finally. “How do you pay for this, Sarah? I don’t get the depression you work for a living. Are you noodle riche or something?”

“Noodle…? Oh, Nouveau riche? I wish,” she said. “Oh, wait, I guess I kinda am now for the past couple years. This was his condo. The guy who kidnapped me and kept me here for nearly a year raping me when was home—thankfully, that wasn’t very often. No day job since he locked me up here, though; didn’t even go back to being an office hack after I killed him. I spent my days working out for him; now I spend them working out so I can be Ladykiller.”

“He left you alone all day long in here with that war-room back there? I’m guessing it was his at first. You know, before you sent him to sleep with the daisies.”

“See those white lines on the floor on front of the elevator, doors, and windows, Peter? Well, if I got too close to those lines, it triggered a taser locked around my neck. And that would alert him by pager or phone or something. It only took one time to get the message quick that I shouldn’t try to go where I wasn’t allowed.”

“Still…if I were that freakazoidal I think I’d be nervous you’d get my keys and get into that room with the guns and whatnot,” Peter noted.

“There was a key chain thingy his keys were attached to. He told me if I got near it that would set off my collar too. I didn’t have any reason to doubt that was true; never got a chance to test it. He’d drop them on the table there in the hall near the elevator when he got home and getting near that table would set off the collar too. See? White line all around it.”

“So…but…how? The money. I mean, I know you killed him but it’s not like he put you in his will? Did he?”

Sarah laughed harshly and briefly. “As if,” she huffed. “Dash, no one remembers their account numbers and passwords. He had them all written down in the locked office like anyone else. Took me a while to find them, but once I did, there was no problem doing electronic transfers and stuff. Security questions weren’t that hard either once I went through enough stuff to figure out his mother’s maiden name and his place of birth and shit. Hell, he waxed poetic about his childhood more than a few times while raping me. Paying attention to his diarrhetic spewing about his pets and his cars and crap was better than thinking about what he was doing to me.”

“Sounds like a nasty chunk of work,” Peter said, “but apparently a hard worker if he could afford this.”

“Yeah, I think he was in investments or something along those lines,” Sarah said. “Finance-related, anyway. Also got plenty of money and items to fence from his criminal activities as Mister Master.”

“That name popped up now and again starting a few years back,” Peter said, frowning, “but I didn’t know much about him. Query wasn’t really all that reactive back then, so he probably doesn’t know much either.”

“Guess he was better than the average crook then,” Sarah said. “Anyway, I set up automatic payments from his accounts for some things he didn’t already have set up that way. The mortgage and taxes for this place and the utilities and all that will be covered for at least the next three years. After that, I guess I’ll have to move out.”

“Nobody knows he’s dead?” Peter asked.

“Struck me as being the kind of guy nobody was sorry to see never come back to the office or the family reunions. He was creepy when I first met him.”

“How did you get his keys with the jolty bolty thing on your neck back then?” Peter asked.

“I stepped over some lines enough times to exhaust the battery in the collar,” Sarah answered matter-of-factly, squaring her shoulders a bit and taking a deep breath. “Gave myself a couple days off in between each jolt cuz I was afraid I might fry my brain. Took four times.”

“Cheezy Louise-y!” Peter said. “Honey, you’re one tough petunia.”

“Determined or desperate, more likely,” she countered. “But they look the same as toughness sometimes.”

There was a long pause, during which she silently slipped her right hand into his left again and they simply stood there. Peter tried to process it all through the chaotic filter of his mind and seized upon one thing above all others. Eight rooms she had shown him. But that wasn’t the entirety of the place. There was a ninth one that Sarah had rushed him past at least three times now.

“Would it be impolitic to ask what’s in there?”

“Impolite, you mean?” she asked, then seemed to change the subject as she blurted, “You wanna stay over tonight after we do a patrol as Mad Dash and Honey Badger?”

“Sure. Yeah,” Peter said. “Ummmm, is this the night…”

She busted out laughing. There was a sad look in the back of her eyes, but mostly amusement. “No, tonight won’t be the night I take your virginity and find out if I can even have sex anymore. Wouldn’t mind a cuddle, though. And someone to help keep the nightmares away.”

“Sure, Honey. No problem.”

He realized Sarah’s question and offer to stay over wasn’t a diversion when she sighed heavily and said, “Well, then, if you’ll be staying here in the place I creepily live in, since it’s stuffed full of memories of my abuse and psychological torture, you should know what’s in that room.” After a long pause, she stated, “He is.”

“Mister Master?” Peter gasped. “Right now?”

“Yep,” she responded.

“Isn’t that un-hyphenic and stuff? And stinkerific?”

“You know those big bags they sell for storing your sweaters and stuff in off-season? They’re like big Ziploc baggies?”

“Uh. Yeah. But…”

“…Once you’ve chopped up a body into about four equal portions, they slide in really nicely. I bought a bunch of them. Quadruple bagged each big hunk of that sadistic motherfucker and then stuck the bags in four plastic bins with lids. Then I quadruple-bagged the bloody mattress and bedding in mattress bags. I’m sure after a couple years he’s liquified by now and there’s a nice toxic soup in those bags that can send me straight to prison. Oh, well. You can understand why I don’t invite many people over. Like, ever. Never before now, in fact.”

“But even with all the bags and closed door and spiffy air fresheners, can’t you…”

“My super-powered nose can smell him a little. If I pay attention. I tune it out, mostly. When I notice, I figure it’s a good reminder of how I got where I am today and why I do what I do.”

“I guess I three-wish you hadn’t had to go through any of that but if you didn’t, I guess I wouldn’t have met you,” Peter said, shuffling a bit. His feet didn’t stop moving until her hand slipped into his once more.

“Yeah, life’s fucked up that way, ain’t it?” she said, and led him to the kitchen so they could eat before suiting up and going on patrol.

Several hours later, after they had returned from patrol, they slipped up to the condo that had once belonged to Mister Master, masks off and wearing long coats to conceal their costumes from prying eyes. Exhausted, Sarah pulled off her coat and tossed her mask to the ground, leading Peter to her small bedroom. She quickly slipped under the covers with the faux-fur-trimmed outfit still on—as she did, he barely heard her mumble, “Too soon to see; too soon to show him”—then she told Peter which drawer to open to find her workout clothes so that he wouldn’t have to sleep in his costume.

And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want me naked or in my underwear, or she’d probably be that way herself, he told himself. And she wouldn’t have told me where to find something to wear.

As Sarah drifted off to sleep, Peter remained awake for some time. He thought about the fact he was wearing a women’s pair of black yoga pants and a pink T-shirt with red lettering that read: Redheads Rock! He thought about how even with the air conditioning going, it was way too hot tonight to be spooning a woman wearing a partially furred costume. He considered the fact that just a few doors away, the putrefied remains of a rapist and murderer were locked behind a bedroom door.

Mad Dash buried his face in the auburn hair of the woman mostly dressed as Honey Badger right now, sniffed deeply of the shampoo and sweat there, and figured that despite all that, he was the luckiest man alive.

(Crimson mask image for Odium modified from an image of Black Panther; character copyright of Marvel Comics)

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Through a mouthful of glazed doughnut, Carl Beacham mumbled, “Are we there yet?”

“Yeah, and we’ve been here a bit over an hour and we’ll be here several hours more at least. But you already knew that. I warned you stakeouts were boring,” Query said from the driver’s side of the SUV, peering out the window that, like the others, he had switched to tinted mode when they parked near Zoe’s dorm. “You should have brought some music and headphones; maybe a Raymond Chandler audio book to really get into our theme tonight. You know, I can’t believe you brought a dozen glazed doughnuts.”

“Too cliché?”

“No. I just don’t like glazed, unless it’s Krispy Kremes. We’ve had enough morning meetings for you to know I’m a maple long john or buttercrunch person.”

“You wouldn’t take your mask even halfway off to eat them anyway while I’m around, so I don’t feel all that guilty,” the lawyer retorted. “So, why am I on this stakeout with you again?”

“Because keeping an eye on Zoe is big, if I want to nail the man that almost got you and me shot to hell,” Query answered, glancing at the eight smart phones mounted to the dashboard—all of them the new Droid Nexusz that people had been scrambling for since the novelty had worn off the iPhone Sextet. Each was receiving a spy-camera feed from some exterior part of the dorm they couldn’t see from the vehicle. “Because of that,” Query continued, “I can use a second set of eyes tonight, since I don’t think Janus will wait much longer to nab her. Plus, like I said: Stakeouts are boring. I could use the company.”

“You overpay me a bit for something like this, but I suppose it’s good to be useful,” Carl said sourly. “Even if the only reason you probably pay me is for you to have someone to talk to besides yourself.”

“Jesus, Carl! What’s with the sudden moody tone? I don’t need you going all emo on me during an already agonizing chore.”

“It’s true, isn’t it? You don’t really need a lawyer. You could do all that yourself with your big, bad, super-intuitive damn brain. I’m paid to be around to be the cushion between you and the outside world and to be your friend.”

“What? You don’t like me? We’re not really friends?” Query asked. Carl couldn’t tell for certain through the mask if Query was being light or sarcastic, though his voice seemed to carry vaguely amused tones.

“Yeah, I like ya, but it’s hurting my professional pride, man. You pay me to be around; not because you need my skills.”

“Man goes into existential crisis; falls apart like cells in lysis,” Query mumbled—thinking he should jot that down for a future set of lyrics—then said, in normal tones, “You’ve got no fucking clue, Carl. Of course I need your skills. I don’t know the first thing about lawyering.”

“You could probably pick it up in a matter of weeks—or a few months at most—with your powers,” Carl grumbled. “Some of us have to work years at this shit.”

“Like I said, you have no clue. Is that really how you think my intuitive powers work? That I can do anything I want; learn anything I want?”

“When I asked about the clarinet in your office a few months ago—”

“Alto saxophone,” Query corrected him.

“OK, the sax in your office—you told me you’d never picked up a sax before your powers emerged. But when you started on it, you became a good player in a matter of weeks and a great player not that much longer after. Probably the same with your electronics skills and everything else.”

“Carl, half of why I do all that shit is to give me something to do every hour of the day so that I don’t go crazy. I don’t sleep!”

“Insomnia’s a bitch, to be sure,” Carl said through another mouthful of doughnut.

“No, Carl. I don’t sleep. Ever. I can’t sleep anymore. Not for several years now.”


“A couple years of working this closely with me and you haven’t figured that out? That I’m up any time you need to call? That I send e-mails at all hours every day? That I’m reverse-engineering military drones, patrolling New Judah, tracking people down through physical, electronic and virtual surveillance and still have time to keep up with all the best new cable TV series and read three books a week? Carl, I have two fake secret identities just to keep myself busy and not completely bug out, in addition to who I really am.”

“Which is Donald Trump, of course, right? You forgot to mention the time you spend doing real estate deals, hosting stupid reality TV shows and trying to prove President Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen, right?” Carl paused and Query remained silent, looking at the lawyer briefly and then glancing at the phone displays again. Carl cleared his throat and began again, his voice more somber. “Seriously, though, you never sleep? I didn’t know you were being literal all those times you said ‘I don’t sleep.’ Thought you were just being all mysterious and brooding and bitchy.”

“Carl, I can’t even be properly sedated. Believe me, I used to try,” Query said. “I do tons of stuff and learn to do lots of things so I don’t go insane. My Regenerator powers probably help, too, or I’m sure my synapses would just fall apart anyway, but yeah. That’s me. That’s what I do.”

“But still, you could drop one of your other identities or some extra hobby you have to eat up time, and learn all the law-school stuff I spent years on, and probably have it down in weeks. Ergo, I’m still just hired to be company. You could learn law and hire an agent or PR person or someone trying to earn their private investigator license to do the go-between stuff for way less than I cost.”

“I had no idea the depths of your self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, Carl. Do I need to give you a raise so you can afford some therapy?”

“I’d just spend it on some cool wines to stick in my cellar and tell you I was going to therapy,” Carl said. “I’ve got no interest in shrinks.”

“And I have no interest in law, Carl,” Query said. “I also call a plumber when my pipes back up and I let mechanics work on my cars when they go to shit. Sure, I need your law skills pretty often, even when you’re not my go-between with clients and authorities and crap—a task alone that makes you worth your salary already—but I don’t want to learn that crap.”

Query paused and stared at one of the camera views of Zoe’s dorm for several moments. “Is that…no…just a possum running past the front entrance,” he mumbled, then half-turned his head in the direction of Carl, who couldn’t understand how Query could have picked out such a small detail on such a small display even with enhanced senses. “Look, I play the sax like a pro. The guitar almost as well. I’m great at electrical and mechanical engineering. Master of disguise. Good with a gun. And more. But at a certain point, if I don’t give those skills plenty of exercise, all the intuitive, hyper-learning potential is useless. Practice makes perfect. I spread myself too thin…well, then I won’t be pro at anything. I’ll lose my edge in the things I need to know and the things I want to do well because I like them.”

Carl nibbled thoughtfully at the edge of his doughnut, pursed his lips and finally responded, “All right, I feel valued and valuable again.” Then he pointed the half-eaten doughnut toward Zoe’s dorm and added, “Think that guy over there should be hanging around here?”

“A guy in his 30s or 40s? At a women’s athletic dormitory? Nope,” Query answered. “Probably a pair of Janus’ eyes; either means we can expect a nabbing tonight, or more likely he’s just keeping tabs on her because things are about to come to a head. There’s also a guy on phone number five that shouldn’t be there.”

“Which hopefully means a kidnapping squad shows up here soon, so that you can take them down while I play Angrier Birds on my phone. Otherwise, I guess we’re taking turns sleeping and spending all night in this SUV to see what these guys do and try to figure out where they go.”

If I slept, of course. But yes, you’re a quick study. We’ll make a gumshoe out of you yet.”

“Good thing I’ve got 10 more doughnuts, then. Don’t have the faintest idea what you’re gonna eat though, Query.”

“I’ll dine on imponderable mysteries and deep thoughts. Unlike your diet tonight, I won’t need to wash it down with lukewarm coffee and pee into a bottle later.”

* * *


That was the feeling Dr. Jack Hansen had when he worked very early or very late at the Genesis One facility. The subjects were typically asleep or sedated, and aside from a few screams, curses and incoherent cries on some days, he could simply be.

Be the director of one of the most secret places in the United States. Be alone with his thoughts. Be clear enough to rationalize his actions and push down his guilt. Be calm.

Staff was mostly scant or non-existent in the central operations area before 7:30 a.m., so that desire to be drew him here at 5:30 or 6:00. It was easy most days, given how often he slept in his office—his apartment was usually a memory as vague and inconsequential to him as musings of being a six-year-old or recollections of his first pet.

But serenity was a fragile flower, and the unexpected arrival of Gen. Keith B. Alexander—whose many titles included head of the National Security Agency—a few minutes after six made that peace of mind wilt away instantly.

“General, what an unexpected pleasure,” Jack said.

“I doubt it is, Doctor,” the general responded. “A pleasure or unexpected.”

“Wasn’t expecting your visit to happen quite so early in a workday.”

“I know your schedule; we need privacy.”

“Did the president give the green light?”

“He didn’t have much choice, but there is a decent chance he’ll pull the plug before his term ends,” the NSA director noted. “I hope not, because it would complicate my life a great deal. I don’t need this facility being any blacker a black project that it already is.”

“What can I do to keep us open?” Jack asked.

“Showing him results that involve induced transhumans who aren’t crazy as bedbugs would be a good start.”

“We have many of the usual speed bumps in that regard, but we’re managing all right. If you can put him off another few weeks, that would help.”

“With as much as he has to deal with right now with the Republicans in Congress, I can probably give you a month and a half. Just don’t give me any disasters.”

“There won’t be any more cases like Dr. Kelly’s,” Jack said firmly.

“Which bring me to my next point: Under no circumstances do you tell or allow any information that we are responsible for creating Doctor Holiday to get to the president. Are we clear?”

“I voted for Obama; I still like him more than Bush. Asking me to hide information from the president of the United States is a tall order, Keith. I’m also not pleased you told me some weeks back that he wanted results by Thanksgiving; you had me believing he was already on board.”

“You needed incentive. As for my original point, Obama has been staunchly repeating—himself and through cabinet members—that Doctor Holiday was not a government experiment. It was easy to keep that from President Bush—he was never in a position to know anything but the most vague hints of what we are. But now we’re at a point where the president has to know what we’re doing—but he doesn’t need to know that.”

“Because he’ll shut us down if he does?”

“Jack,” the general responded gravely. “We take away his plausible deniability about that particular thorn in society’s side and his opponents pin him to the wall and make it seem like he’s responsible in some way for Doctor Holiday’s continued freedom—and they will—and the president might find us both special accommodations at Guantanamo Bay that the CIA won’t even know we’re in.”

* * *

Going on patrol with Mad Dash tonight had seemed like a good idea to Ladykiller at the time, since they hadn’t been able to get together for a couple days. It seemed an especially good idea since she had suggested their target: an apparent kidnapping and forced prostitution ring that she had gotten wind of.

If I can’t do my normal Ladykiller routine and take out rapists and such, at least I can go after a similar kind of target—though I wouldn’t have tried something this big solo, she thought.

Sadly, the operation they had decided to take down tonight also seemed to do a small but brisk business in meth and skeez—something she hadn’t expected—and so there were several more heavily armed individuals than she would have expected, an observation punctuated as several rounds whizzed by and dug chips out of the brickwork facade of a nearby warehouse where she had taken cover behind a car.

There was a sudden thump and clatter above her as a body landed on the roof of the vehicle and then rolled on onto the pavement right next to her with a loud “Ouchie!”

“OK, managed not to get shot with that turbo-charged-double-espresso pass, but I don’t see any good way to get near them without ending up dead-dead-deadio,” Mad Dash said, rubbing one shoulder.

Ladykiller was in her Honey Badger identity tonight since Mad Dash might be spotted with her, so she had a pair of bulky clawed gauntlets instead of her usual single, sleek one. She had to pull off both of them as she sighed heavily and then reached behind her back. From a small fanny-pack beneath her faux tail, she pulled a 9mm pistol that was half pink and half gunmetal gray and flipped off the safety.

“Cute gun, hon,” Mad Dash said.

“Thanks. Gift from an admirer. But I’m not that great of a shot and I’ll be out of bullets really quick. You carrying?”

“Gun? Like that?” Nah,” he answered. “I really try to avoid them. Chainsaws, too, but mostly because they’re bulky and burn fossil fuels.” He eyed her gun and then her tail. “Got anything else back there?”

“My ass. If we live, I might let you see it nekkid before bedtime,” she answered, then cringed as another bullet struck the wall behind her, closer than the previous ones. “Any other weapons on you, since you don’t have guns or power tools?”

“I try to remember to bring a couple taser guns but I forgot ‘em again.”

“Not that they’d be much use at this range when we’re being shot at,” she said as she unzipped Mad Dash’s small backpack and looked inside. “Let’s see…no…no…uh…what the fuck!” She pulled out a dark cylindrical item. “What are these and why didn’t you tell me you had them?”

“Oh, my ‘Flashdance’ grenades? Cool! I always forget those are in the bottom. Always burying them under the snickety-snacks. Gift from Query a few months ago. Got 10 more at home.”

“Flashdance? You mean flashbang grenades? Jesus, Dash!”

“Hey, I like Jennifer Beals!”

“I’m not questioning your taste in movies; it’s your total disorganization when it comes to accessorizing that drives me nuts,” she responded, pulling out the other stun grenade. She pulled the pin on the first one, threw it over to where their opponents were, then ducked back down, smiling as the loud blast and blinding flash put a theoretically non-lethal and sudden stop to the gunfire. A few seconds later, she pulled the pin on the second grenade and tossed it over as well. “Never do anything half-way,” she said, then fixed a glare on Mad Dash that was, in truth, only half-irritated. “Let’s go truss them up and get to business. Seriously, Dash, do I have to start dressing you for these outings so that I’ll know you’re properly equipped?”

“Oooo, sounds like fun. OK!” he answered. “Can you also put me in my strawberry jams at night before bed?”

* * *

Solstice didn’t like that Query had dumped the whole Marty the Hun mess back into her lap instead of solving the problem for her. On the other hand, exercising her investigative skills was probably long overdue.

Also, taking down Marty was going to be really fun if the plan her stepsister and roommate, Isabella, had cooked up ended up working. Marty might have dodged the other charges for now, but he would have owner and operator of a drug-cooking lab on the list, too, and likely not slip that one. A few other bits of planted evidence, and he should at least do a decent stretch.

Killing him would have been easier, but killing even a scumbag when she wasn’t in imminent danger from said scumbag was a line she hoped not to cross. Certainly not this early in her crime-fighting career.

While Query wasn’t willing to let her off the hook for dealing with Marty herself, he turned out to be very amenable to assisting her with the frame-up of the man. He seemed very pleased with the plan she and Isabella had hatched, and pointed her in the direction of an operation he’d apparently wanted to take out but had been too busy to address.

Now all she had to do was take down the few people that were usually there, call up Query to have someone pick them up and drop them naked on the turf of their bitterest rivals, and then lure Marty and his goons to the empty drug lab so that she could take them down, plant some more evidence, call the cops and be done with all this shit—maybe still have time to go out dancing with the cute redhead she had run into at that art gallery last week.

* * *

Sleek, stately and elegant, Hush-a-Bye sat in an oversized, dark leather office chair, but with only a small, sleek stainless steel desk before her. Her back was ramrod-straight, hands crossed over her lap, and one leg crossed over the other. The black gown she wore, so close in shade to her long, straight hair, was tight enough to reveal her every curve to perfection, but modest enough to make her appear regal rather than slatternly. A pearl choker graced her pale throat, and diamond earrings hung from her ears. The dichotomy of the short, shiny, red patent-leather gloves and the similarly-colored thigh-high, chunk-heeled boots lent a certain primal edge to the formal demeanor she otherwise conveyed.

At her feet was a man curled up almost like a dog—though doing so more like a pit bull than a lapdog. That man, GoodKnight, wore at least a half-dozen knives and three pistols on his body, clad in heavy black leather from head to toe, except for his mouth and eyes.

“To what do I owe the honor of this visit, Janus?” the woman asked, the slightest sarcastic lilt on the word honor. “I was surprised enough when I heard you’d moved eastward and left a criminal void out west. Now you’re visiting Marksburgh? Paying respects to me? Offering some kind of tribute to me? Looking for me to take you under my wing?”

For a moment, Janus’ two-faced metal helmet regarded her silently, then a low laugh came forth. “Well, business and money are involved, but I was thinking that you might want to become a subsidiary of my operations.”

For a few seconds, Hush-a-Bye pursed her lips and placed one gloved fingertip to them as if in consideration, then put her hands back into her lap and shook her head slightly. “No, I think not. I rather like ruling the roost all by my lonesome, with my faithful vassal by my side.”

“Oh, but I insist. I don’t take ‘no’ very well,” Janus responded.

“Really, I thought you’d be more careful, Janus. Coming with just a pair of bodyguards into my lair. Into the dark heart of Marksburgh, where people watch documentary footage of the roughest gang-ridden Detroit and South Central L.A. neighborhoods to cheer themselves up have something brighter to dream of. To the throne of a crime lord who can put people to sleep with a thought.”

“I suppose it would be foolish if, in fact, I were here,” Janus said, “rather than having sent a minion in a really nice suit wearing one of my used helmets, helpfully installed with a speaker, mic and two-way transmitter in it.”

“I say that’s a bluff,” Hush-a-Bye responded. “GoodKnight, sic him—just a tiny bit.”

In a flash, the muscular man in leather was upon Janus and had two fingers of the left hand in his grip. With a quick jerk, he snapped them both and bent them back hard, until one broken bone of the little finger burst free of the skin. The helmeted, Armani-clad man screamed, but coming through calmly, mixed with that cacophony, was Janus’ voice.

“Really? Violence so early on? You know it’s going to much harder to hear me now over the moans and groans of this pitiful, pain-averse pawn.” The fake Janus was on his knees, gripping the wounded hand close to his chest, as the real Janus’ voice continue to issue forth from the helmet, unperturbed. “Satisfied that I’m not really here, or do you need to wound the two bodyguards, too?”

“Well, I had to be certain. I could have gotten lucky,” Hush-a-Bye noted.

“You’d consider harming the real me to be ‘lucky?’ This does not bode well for our future business dealings.”

“You didn’t come to do business, Janus. You came to get a foothold in my playground and a firm grip on the balls of my criminal enterprise. No one—no one, I say—takes from me anything that is mine. I worked hard to take it all from others, after all.”

“It’s true that I had hoped you’d be a bit softer or more fragile in person and perhaps easily cowed by a personage with such a notorious reputation as mine,” Janus admitted over the sobs and groans of the man on the floor wearing his attire. “But mostly I’d like to diversify. I propose to invest in your operations a bit. And in so doing, reap some of the rewards of your efforts.”

“I’m not a publicly traded company, Janus; I don’t need investors. I subsist on victims, pawns and customers. Privately owned and never imitated.”

“There could be benefits in this for you, Hush-a-Bye. I have begun to assemble a very impressive group of transhumans. I’ve been very exacting in finding just the right personalities and just the right incentives to have a stable dynamic. No infighting. Just a perfect collection of power at my command.”

Hush-a-Bye smiled, but there was no humor in it. She stood up slowly, and then rested one hand on top of the leather-clad head of GoodKnight, who had quickly and quietly returned to her side on all fours after breaking the faux Janus’ fingers.

“Are you telling me that such a force would be available to aid in my own endeavors from time to time, Janus,” she asked with a warning note in her voice, “or that it will be aimed at me if I don’t comply and let you ‘invest’ in my operations?”

“I’ll let you decide which is more likely,” Janus answered.

“You’re playing a dangerous game with a lethal person in the meanest city in the United States, Janus. And even if I do say ‘yes,’ your cut will be small, your obligations will be set in stone and your input will be silent.”

“A ‘silent’ partner? Is the pun intentional, Hush-a-Bye? Is that a sign perhaps you’re warming to my charms?”

“I’ll let you decide which is more likely,” she responded. “Have your two upright henchmen here pick up that whimpering fool and bring him back in two days. I’ll have a response to present through him to you then.”

“As you say,” Janus responded through the speaker in the mask, as the man was lifted by both arms and half-dragged from the room. As the trio retreated slowly toward the door, the voice fading slightly as they did, Janus added, “Let’s just make sure no nuclear responses will be called for.”

* * *

Cole had groaned inwardly when Blockbuster told him to show up at Desperado’s office in the Guardian Corps HQ at 3:15 sharp.

He almost groaned out loud after he passed through the empty meeting area and conference room—a shabby area filled with mismatched chairs and even more mismatched long foldout tables—and then realized that Desperado was meeting with a pair of his top lieutenants. He couldn’t hear everything, but much like the fiasco when he was doing the newsletters the other day, he was certain he was inadvertently intruding on a very private conversation.

For a few minutes, he hovered near the door, unsure whether to stay—it was 3:18 now and he had been told to be here—or whether to leave and risk Desperado’s wrath for being a no-show.

“Is someone out there?” Desperado demanded roughly, then threw open the door, throwing his imposing shadow over Cole in the process. “What the fuck are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be hear for an hour. Get the fuck out and get the fuck back when you’re supposed to!”

The man stepped back into his office and slammed the door, but not so soon that Cole couldn’t see the piercing glares of the other two men inside—one suspicious and one almost hostilely curious.

As he left, the stress of the whole situation sent a piercing stab of pain through his head, and he stumbled to the nearest quiet space away from Desperado’s area as he could to ride out another one of those dirty, almost migraine-like auras dominating his vision. The dirtiest yet, turning his world into a haze of greens, browns and bloody reds.

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Cole hadn’t heard a voice overflow with such seething rage in his life, and never witnessed a mood change so quickly in any one person. Zero to near-murderous in 0.5 seconds.

“What the fuck!” Desperado bellowed, pointing a finger toward Cole, who had entered the primary Guardian Corps headquarters moments before with Epitaph and Wardawg. “Who the FUCK let him in here? Goddammit, Wardawg, I’m gonna fucking feed you your own mothershitting balls for bringing him here!”

The pale and bloody body of a barely conscious Slyde slung over Epitaph’s shoulder was nothing to Desperado. Even Cole himself seemed barely in the man’s perceptions except insofar as his presence was the catalyst for this enraged outburst. Desperado seemed even larger somehow in his overblown anger, a bronze and brown giant in cowboy boots and hat and with a pair of pistols at his waist launching himself at Wardawg, who was furiously ducking and weaving.

Cole was certain that Desperado would notice Slyde’s plight before long. But probably not before beating Wardawg bloody and then probably doing the same to Cole himself. No one was making the slightest attempt to hold the enraged man back. Cole braced himself internally, and wondered whether fighting back or taking it would be the more socially acceptable option within the Guardian Corps.

“It’s not my fault!” Wardawg shouted quickly as he tried to keep distance between himself and Desperado and avoid anyone else in the headquarters who might grab him or push him toward his antagonist. “Epitaph! Wouldn’t budge. Would’ve brought him here himself. Not my…”

Desperado grabbed hold of him then, and cocked one sepia-gloved fist to smash in his face. The fist never got to where it was going, though. Epitaph had snatched hold of Desperado’s wrist. Desperado’s head turned quickly to see who would dare challenge him, and as he did, all the rage drained out of those topaz-colored eyes. It was replaced neither by fear nor joy at the sight of Epitaph; rather, a blank confusion now filled them.

At once, Desperado released Wardawg and Epitaph released Desperado.

“You touched me,” he said quietly to Epitaph in a voice overflowing with bewilderment. There was no affront, but his tone hinted at a multitude of questions that Desperado seemed eager to ask but for which he had no words.

Or so it seemed to Cole. Disregarding his instinct to stay out of Desperado’s sphere of attention right now, he said, “Slyde’s hurt. Do we have anyone who can help him? Or get him to a hospital?”

Some of the anger returned to Desperado’s gaze as he took in Cole’s words and remembered his unauthorized presence here. But his voice was all business as he said over one shoulder: “Antonio, call Asclepius—he should still be pretty nearby. Have someone debrief Wardawg. Get someone to sit on Puppy here while I decide whether to kill him or just beat him until he’s brain damaged.”

Then his attention returned to Epitaph, who had set Slyde down gently on a battered old sofa while Desperado barked orders. Cole noticed, once again, how the gravestone-wearing man’s feet hovered just a bit off the ground. He seemed to bob and rock ever so gently, as if it was a slight but constant effort to keep his balance.

“Did you really make the decision to bring Puppy here? Did you do that knowing he was on probation? Did Wardawg tell you he wasn’t supposed to know about this place yet?” The words Desperado spoke carried clear recrimination, but not anger toward Epitaph. Cole wasn’t certain if it was respect or fear that kept Epitaph safe from the same wrath that Desperado had been all too ready to visit on Wardawg and perhaps, still, on Cole himself.

Epitaph gave a short, solemn nod at the end of those questions, admitting to all of the accusations and showing not the slightest remorse.

“You stupid fuck,” Desperado hissed. “We have those rules for a…”

“The sweet remembrance of the just shall flourish when he sleeps in dust,” Epitaph responded sagely.

Desperado paused a moment to try to process the meaning, and answered, simply, “I don’t have a soft spot, Ep. You don’t get to break the rules. You could be one of the leaders of the Corps if you wanted; you know that. I’d step back and pull Blaze back and let you have most of the authority. But not until you can speak plainly. You keep talking crazy with the Bartlett’s familiar motherfucking quotations thing, you don’t get to make policy.”

“Most men remember obligations, but are not often likely to be grateful; the proud are made sour by the remembrance and the vain silent,” Epitaph stated.

Cole wasn’t certain what Epitaph meant, but clearly Desperado had focused on the word obligations as he answered: “I don’t owe you anything but basic respect, Ep, and I sure as hell don’t owe Puppy over there a good goddamned thing.”

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory,” Epitaph responded.

“Stop with the fucking word games, Epitaph,” Desperado sneered. “Stop. You speak plainly just once to me and I’ll let Puppy into the circle without question. I’ll end his probation now and welcome him with open arms.”

Epitaph seemed to consider that for a moment, and shook his head ruefully. To Cole, it seemed to convey the sentiment not that he was regretful at his own lack of willingness to comply but rather that he was disappointed Desperado would make such a demand and essentially hold Cole hostage for it. Instead of heeding the wishes of the earth-toned, Wild West-garbed man in front of him, Epitaph turned to Cole, pointed one finger toward him—inches from his heart, and then said to Desperado: “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure its worth watching.”

Cole saw Desperado shake a little bit, and watched as anger began to seethe once more in those brown eyes.

“I’m going to assume you ain’t suggesting Puppy’s a better man than I am based on whatever the hell happened out there with you, him, Slyde and Wardawg. Because even you aren’t crazy enough to make a declaration like that based on one encounter. But I won’t even buy the argument he’s so much as earned the right to be here based on anything he did tonight.”

“Lay off,” cut in a woman’s voice. “Just lay off, Desperado. You want to talk about authorization, I have as much say in leadership decisions around here as you or Blaze, and so I say Cole can be here because I trust Epitaph’s judgment. How’s that?”

Cole turned toward the voice: Sweet Talker.

“That’s worth about as much as a contract written in shit smears on a roll of toilet paper,” Desperado said, his words bobbing about in a sea of condescension. “Tell anyone anything you want, girl. Your position is in name only. No one’s going to listen to you and no one’s going to take your side over mine except for most of your bitches and a few pussies like Puppy who think you’re too cute for words. Most of us don’t give a shit what you have to say unless it’s to give advice on how to properly suck a guy’s dick.”

“Stop being a dick,” Cole snapped. “For God’s sake. You want to call me Puppy, fine. Insult the newbie—great. But stop being so disrespectful to people who already proved themselves.”

“Well, Puppy’s got some puppy love and wants to stick up for his girlfriend. I don’t think she’s gonna be impressed,” Desperado said. “Fine, you two like each other so much, you’re under Sweet Talker’s wing. When she’s around, she can find work for you. When she’s not, maybe you can be the punching bag in training drills, Puppy. Because you’re off patrols permanently. And if someone comes to raid our headquarters, I’m going to know who to fucking kill for giving up the location: You.”

Desperado turned on one heel and stomped away and, as quickly as that, most everyone else lost interest.

Cole saw Antonio approaching, accompanied by Ripper, one of the rougher members of the Guardian Corps—presumably the guy he had picked to babysit him per Desperado’s orders—but Desperado said something to him, and then Ripper and Antonio wandered off.

“He’s an ass, but he’s right about one thing, Cole,” Sweet Talker said as she stepped near him. “I don’t need defending and you did something stupid right now because of a crush.”

“I don’t have a crush on you,” Cole protested. “I just don’t think it’s…”

“Cole, I’m at least a few years older than you and even if you don’t see it, you’re so transparent you’re see-through. I’m sympathetic to you, Cole. But don’t get other notions.”

Cole could feel the embarrassment burning on his face and wanted desperately to change the subject. “Will Slyde be okay?”

“Asclepius should be in soon, so yeah.”

“Who’s Asclepius?”

“Healer. He’s a Regenerator. He’s worked on damn near every heroic type in the New Judah and New York area at some point and a few in Marksburgh, too. He’ll fix Slyde up. Nothing he can do to fix you and Desperado, though. Cole, you were already on thin ice in Desperado’s eyes just being a college boy. You’re done in the Corps as far as learning any crimefighting crap. If you hadn’t done the stupid chivalry thing you might have been all right.”

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it,” Epitaph said softly from behind Cole.

“Huh?” Cole said.

“I think he means that just because Desperado is done with you doesn’t mean you’re done for in the Corps,” Sweet Talker said. “But Epitaph is wrong, and Epitaph made things worse for you by going nose to nose with Desperado over you. This is a boy’s club, Cole, in case you haven’t noticed, and you pissed off the top dog.”

“Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily,” Epitaph noted, having come around to face Cole, and standing near Sweet Talker now.

“Napoleon,” Cole commented, recognizing the quote, and figuring that Epitaph was encouraging him to stand up for himself and continue with the Corps. Then again, maybe he’s telling me to just go out on my own and be done with Desperado and gang.

“Look, I think going out and beating on crooks is stupid, dangerous, testosterone-charged foolishness anyway,” Sweet Talker said. “So, whatever. But it was Cole’s dream, and now it’s wake-up time.”

Epitaph shrugged, looking Cole up and down.

“What’s the shrug for, Epitaph? You gonna train Cole on your own, you flighty bastard?” Sweet Talker asked good-naturedly but with just a hint of rebuff.

Epitaph inclined his head to the side, seemed to consider her words for several moments, then shrugged again and walked away.

For a little while, they both just watched him leave in silence, and then Cole turned to Sweet Talker. “Okay. Seriously. What’s up with him not touching the ground and Desperado being so damned surprised he grabbed his wrist? Not to mention the whole invulnerability thing.”

“Bullet-proof, more or less, but he can be hurt,” Sweet Talker said. “He generates a constant telekinetic field around his body. Really strong one. Pushes stuff away from him unless he was already wearing it or touching it when his field goes up. The larger an object or the more dense it is or something, the less able it is to get through. So he can breathe because air mostly gets through. He could also drown, because given enough time, water would seep through his field. Try to hit him though, and you’ll probably break your wrist. To bullets, his TK field like an all-over flak jacket. An auto-crusher at a junkyard would do him in, though. Or a bomb. Or nerve gas. Lots of things. He can deactivate the field if he concentrates, so he can shower, dress, eat or pick something up—or someone, like Slyde—but it takes a lot of effort, it wears him out, and I think it probably hurts like hell.”

“I don’t have a thing for you, Sweet Talker,” Cole said.

“Mmmm hmmm,” she responded dubiously.

“Really. But…what should I do? You’re apparently in charge of me now.”

“I don’t have a clue, Cole. I guess you’ll be helping me with interrogations and screenings and stuff, until you realize there’s no future for you here and you give up,” she said, popping two big pieces of bubble gun into her mouth and running her fingers through the bright pink wig she was wearing today—at least Cole assumed it was a wig. He got a whiff of her overly sweet perfume, hinting at the scent of a candy shop, and felt his belly flutter. “Some of my crew is in the room back there with the flowers on the door. Go tell PrinSass I sent you and hang out with them until I can figure something out. Maybe you can find someone else to crush on by the time I have a plan.”

* * *

Janus killed my cousin.

Fortunato seethed and fretted. He had other family members. Friends. Business associates.

Janus killed my cousin, dammit.

It wasn’t entirely true, of course. More accurately, Janus had employed someone to kill Ignacio and make it look like suicide. The video snippets, along with the phone call a couple days ago from one of Janus’ agents, had been enough to prove that to Fortunato. But there was no recording of the call and the video snippets were too short, too few and too unclear on the perpetrator’s identity and purpose to have any hope of convincing the police that it had been anything other than a suicide, much less put them on Janus’ trail. As such, Fortunato had decided to keep them out of it.

He attacked my family and wants me to know about it.

This confused and unnerved Fortunato in a manner for which neither his brutal former crimefighting career nor metaphorically bloody business career had prepared him. He had dealt with all kinds of sociopaths before, but not with one who would strike him seemingly randomly, with no clear message or purpose. He had thought perhaps Janus’ attack against Query a few weeks before had possessed some logical basis—that Query had crossed paths with the villain unknowingly. But the business with Ignacio indicated something else: Janus might be willing to strike any highly placed transhuman, crimefighter or not, just to entertain himself.

His fingers tapped at the top of the pile of files Jeremiah had brought him a few hours before, and then he pressed a button on his office intercom—a old-school relic from his father that he kept around as much out of stubbornness as nostalgia.

I recognize and enjoy the benefits of higher technology, but some things should be kept simple.

“Rachel,” Fortunato said into the intercom, “send her in.”

“Vanessa,” Fortunato greeted the woman warmly as she stepped into his office and closed the door behind her. “I have an opportunity for you.”

“Promotion, I hope,” the woman said. Her voice had never quite lost its South Florida Latina lilt even after spending all her high school, college and career years in New Judah, but Fortunato wasn’t sure many people besides him really noticed that.

“Pay raise,” he responded, “though I’m not sure it’s a promotion, exactly. But you’ll need serious hazard pay.”

“Is my professional reputation at stake if I do the work you have in mind?”

“No, literally. Actual hazard pay. I’ll also be increasing your health benefits to be much broader and cost you less—nothing, in fact. Your new uniform is in the…”

“Uniform? But this is an office…”

“Your uniform is in the box there on the conference table,” Fortunato interrupted her. “You won’t be wearing it full-time, as I’ll need you around the office to do some of your current duties, at least for a while. Go on, take a look.”

Dazed and confused, Vanessa walked over to the table, opened the box and felt her breath catch in some mix of dread and shock. It was similar to the outfit that Alice wore in most of the live-action, animated, video game and storybook treatments of Lewis Carroll’s “Wonderland” tales or those that were inspired by them. As she pulled it out and examined it, she could tell the material was tougher, stretchier and more luminous than cotton or polyester. Also in the box was a long, straight blonde wig and a blue-and-white half-head mask to match the colors of the dress, leggings and gloves.

“What the hell?” she said quietly. “What are you proposing?”

AllisonWonderland-1“Nothing kinky, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Fortunato said. “The material is a lot like latex, but this isn’t fetish-wear. The boots, for example, have very low heels, and there is light chest-armor built in, so no one will be seeing any hint of your nipples. It’s designed for durability, protection for you and also to work in certain ways to enhance the use of your powers.”

“My…powers?” Vanessa asked, too dumbfounded to organize her thoughts yet into words. She wanted to yell or scream, but she wasn’t even sure what was going on.

“Yes,” Fortunato said, ignoring her discomfort with the situation entirely. “Until now, I’ve been happy to pay you a bit extra for those days or nights when I’ve needed you to put in extra hours for testing and such in my transhuman R&D programs, but now I’ll need you to use your powers more directly. Not too often at first, but eventually it will come to occupy most of your time, and less and less of your PR skills will be required here at the company.”

“You want me to become a superhero? But I don’t want…”

“It isn’t a suggestion. It’s what you’ll be doing,” Fortunato said flatly. “Your codename will be Allison Wonderland. It’s fitting given the psychedelic tricks you can do with your Luminar and Interfacer abilities. And, of course, it fits the costume I had designed for you.”

“You can’t just tell me to go and risk my life as a…”

“I’m your boss, you owe me a great deal, and it’s your new job,” he said. “You’ll do it.”

“Are you threatening me?” she asked incredulously.

“Don’t be absurd,” Fortunato answered. “It’s business. Not a threat. You can make significantly more money by saying ‘yes’ or you can make no money by saying ‘no.’ It’s your choice. Take the job or clear out your desk.”

“This economy isn’t exactly just going gangbusters, Fortunato.”

“How about you go back to calling me ‘sir’ until I get a ‘yes’ from you, Ms. Santos.”

Vanessa’s eyes widened with affront. “There’s no way I’ll get a job right away…sir,” she said, almost spitting out the last word, “and you know I have a lot of debts.”

“Your debts aren’t my concern, Ms. Santos, and the offer won’t stay on the table much longer.”

“This is blackmail, sir,” she responded.

“This is a work-for-hire state,” Fortunato said, “and I can ensure that you won’t qualify for unemployment benefits, too, once I fire you, Ms. Santos. It’s not blackmail. It’s incentive. Even though you’re making me angry right now, I’m still willing to give you the 125% raise I had in mind and the full health benefits at no cost to you.”

“This…this…” she sputtered, and then sat down hard in one of the chairs. “Why?”

“My reasons will be made clear soon enough. It may even be that you will be lucky enough not to have to enter a career as a crimefighter, in which case you will become a very overpaid associate director of public relations.”

“Would these expanded health benefits cover my bro…”



“It’s better for both of us if you have to continue to pay that out-of-pocket,” Fortunato said. “Otherwise, my financial incentives will no longer be as incentivizing.”

“You’re a bastard,” Vanessa hissed. “Sir.”

“Yes or no, Ms. Santos?” he asked. “I need an answer within five minutes or the raise goes down by 10 percentage points each minute thereafter.”

She stared out the massive windows of his office at the early-morning skyline of the city for three minutes, as if an answer or savior might emerge from around some high-rise building. Then she stared at the open box on the table for a minute, one legging hanging over the side. Then she stared at Fortunato for a full 30 seconds.

“Yes,” she said, her voice an admixture of defeat and disgust.

“Excellent, Vanessa,” Fortunato said, abandoning the artificial formalities with the speaking of her first name again. “I’ll send a training schedule and other details to you this afternoon along with the official offer and paperwork. Non-compete contracts. Confidentiality papers. All that fun stuff.”

“I hate you, Fortunato,” she said quietly.

“That’s all right,” he said. “You won’t be the first or the last. Maybe you’ll even change your mind one day.”

* * *

As the waitress delivered their coffees—along with a large white milk, medium chocolate milk and small strawberry milk—and then went off to check on other customers, Mad Dash continued his unfinished point.

“I’m just saying, Ladyki—I mean, Honey Badger…sweetie pie…neti pot…snookums…”

“Dash, how about you just stick with ‘Honey’ since it’s an affectionate nickname already and a shortened form of the Honey Badger thing I’m doing on the side,” Ladykiller suggested in a whisper. “You could do fine with ‘Hon’ too.”

“Ah. Wonderific! So, Honey, what I was saying was I’m not sure that this ayyyy-emmm was a time to whip out the claws in the pursuance of public safety-tude,” Mad Dash said.

“Dash, I’m logging extra costume hours and suppressing my usual violent left claw of womanly vengeance thing to spend a little time with you,” Ladykiller noted. “Normally, after a late night of slashing rapists and such, I’d just now be thinking about getting up. Instead, I slashed a rapist last night, changed costumes, I’ve patrolled with you this morning and now we’re having a late breakfast. Is that a problem for you?”

“Nada nunca nyet,” Mad Dash said. “It’s nice to have company sometimes. But, I mean, this morning…you slashed all four of his tires for running a red light.”

“He was drunk. I could’ve smelled the booze on his breath from a dozen paces even if I didn’t have super-smell. School’s still in session for another week or two and he’s drunk when kids are still walking to school. I think I showed incredible restraint.”

“But the leather interior, too?”

“A little over the top, maybe,” Ladykiller admitted, “but at least we know he won’t be driving any…”

“Morning, Dash,” came a voice from off to Ladykiller’s side, and reflexively, one of her clawed hands slid out from under the table.

“Chillax to the max, Molasses…I mean, Honey,” Mad Dash said. “Friend, not foe. Hey, Veeg. How’s it drooping? Honey, this is Vegan Manhunter. We go way back.”

“Cow’s milk, Dash,” said the man in a costume of green and brown, with various accents that made it look leafy in some places, bark-like in others and petal-like in others still. “You know that stuff isn’t naturally for human consumption. I hope your new girlfriend has better eating habits.”

“You can use ‘Honey Badger’ instead of ‘new girlfriend.’ As for my diet, I alternate between omnivorous and ovo-lacto-vegetarian depending on whether I’m PMS-ing or whatever,” Ladykiller replied acidly. “Today, I’m having bacon. Is that a problem? Are you going to duel me over food philosophy?”

“Honey, sweetie, syrup, buttery-dear,” Mad Dash said. “Friend. Not foe. He teases me mercilessly because I chow-town-down more than most trans folks, so I’m an easy target. After all, No one knows what evil lurks in the colons of men—but the Vegan Manhunter knows!”

Vegan Manhunter chuckled behind his mask. “That never gets old the way you say it.”

“Well, sorry, Vegan Manhunter. I get kind of sensitive when I’m hungry and tired and people are needling my boyfriend, okay?” Ladykiller said. “By the way, as long as Dash is plagiarizing and altering a line from ‘The Shadow,’ aren’t you a little worried DC Comics might sue you over your blatant theft of the Martian Manhunter meme? Hell, your costume is almost in the same style except you’re not showing off your legs and you don’t show off quite as much torso.”

“If DC and Marvel together couldn’t make a winning case against that husband-and-wife Wonderman/Wonderwoman duo, I think I’m safe,” Vegan Manhunter said. “If it was Venusian Manhunter, I might be in trouble. Seriously, Dash, you need to lay off the meat at least. For eco-friendly reasons, at least, if not your body’s sake.”

“Oh, congratulatories on getting that PETA sponsorship a few weeks ago by the bye-bye,” Mad Dash said. “You’ll be a great spokesperson. Just advise them to lay off trying to do that thing with trying to rename ‘fish’ as ‘sea kittens.’ That was really a stupid campaign. But hey, I need the meat, su-su-dude-io. You know how I burn through fat, proteins and all that while running.”

“C’mon, Dash, for protein alone there’s quinoa, rice and beans, tofu, seitan…”

“Easier to find meat, I’d think, the way he goes through food,” Ladykiller said, sipping at her coffee. “And as for the beans, well, you don’t have to sit next to him or lie with him for long periods of time.”

“Flesh o’ the beasties tastes better, too. Sorry, Veeg, but bacon is gooood. Pork chops are goooood,” Mad Dash said.

“Sewer rat could taste like pumpkin pie and I still wouldn’t eat it,” Vegan Manhunter replied.

“Okay, boys—enough homoerotic bonding over ‘Pulp Fiction’ lines,” Ladykiller said. “Nice to meet you…uh, Veeg. Can I have my time back with my guy before I go home to collapse into a coma?”

“As the attractive and thankfully fake fur-attired lady desires,” Vegan Manhunter quipped, bowing deeply at the waist. “The honey badger’s an amazing animal, by the way,” he noted as he rose back up. “I keep telling a friend of mine he needs to do some kind of funny ‘crazy-ass honey badger don’t give a shit’ video for YouTube or UrbVid.”

After Vegan Manhunter had wandered off to the counter to order something, Ladykiller leaned across the table. “Seriously, Dash: Real friend or just polite acquaintance?”

“He’s a good guy, LadyHoney,” Mad Dash offered. “I mean, HoneyKiller. Oh, carp. I’m not used to this. Anyway, he’s only a douche-canoe paddler sometimes. I only get the soy-and-bean lecture maybe every third or fourth time I run into him. His sense of humor can take getting used to. Just don’t eat lamb or veal around him. That really pisses him off.”

“Oh, really?” Ladykiller said with a smile, looking around for their waitress. “Wonder if it’s too late to change my order to something more lunch-oriented.”

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

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“Andrea, was it?” the detective sergeant asked, and the woman he was addressing nodded. “Okay. Andrea, how long you been an assistant DA in this city? I’ve only seen you in around a couple times. First time I’ve talked to you. I’m guessing not long.”

“Sergeant, I don’t understand why I’m getting the attitude here. Speed Demon is a criminal. I’m asking your precinct to investigate and arrest him if possible. That’s your part of the job, and then I try to get him convicted.”

“How long you been with the DA’s office here, Andrea?” the sergeant persisted.

She sighed, and answered, “A couple weeks.”

“Guessing you come from a city with not very much trans white hat/black hat shit happening, right?”

“Hey, I didn’t come from some backwater Podunk, Sergeant,” Andrea protested. “Cleveland has its fair share of transhumans.”

“Yeah, yeah…okay, Andrea,” the sergeant said. “In Cleveland you got plenty of shitty sports teams and a crap economy even before the current recession. I bet you got more crappy teams than you do transhumans worth mentioning.”

“Are you suggesting I can’t handle transhuman convictions, Joe Lindemann, or are you saying you’re afraid to go after the one I, Assistant District Attorney Yates, just told you I need arrested?”

The sergeant furrowed his brow, then coughed. “What I’m suggesting, ADA Yates—sorry for trying to make nice-nice with the ‘Andrea’ stuff—is that the folks in your office who been doing this a lot longer are running you through a little initiation, making you think, ‘Oh, they like me and are going to include me on a case against a big-time villain.’ Because I won’t be sending out any uniforms to go rattling the bushes for Speed Demon, and they know it. They just didn’t tell you that.”

“And why, sergeant, won’t you be doing that?”

Sergeant Lindemann waved the file folder she had handed him in the air a few times and said, “This. You want me to arrest Speed Demon based on this.”

“Three people saw him jack the Rolls Royce and drive off with it. Another few people saw him take a Volvo, Lexus and Porsche later the same day. All in less than a 5-mile radius. Yeah, I know the cars are probably long gone—sold or chopped—but we have at least eight eyewitnesses on record right now.”

“Eight people who saw a guy in a mask and costume. You got high-res video that ain’t mentioned in this file? Fingerprints? Did anyone even see him use super-speed?”

“No, no one mentioned him using his powers, and of course there are no fingerprints. He had on gloves.”

“And a mask,” Sergeant Lindemann pointed out.

“A lot of the transhuman bad guys and heroes do that—wear gloves and masks. Are you saying you don’t arrest them? We rounded up trans folks based on ID’s when they were masked.”

“You don’t have as many black hats, and their lives of crime ain’t as lucrative.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” the assistant DA protested.

“Speed Demon’s got paid guys—maybe just a couple, maybe a half dozen, maybe 20 for all I know, who are just his height and build and walk around New Judah in costumes just like his. Some of them don’t do shit but help make it impossible to know when Speed Demon really is out and around, and some of them help him do crime by stealing cars and shit. Then you’ve probably got another 30 or 40 fanboys out there who dress up like Speed Demon several times a year, sometimes weekly.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she responded.

“No, I’m not. I hear he pays $20 an hour just to walk around in costume where he tells you to,” the sergeant replied. “That’s a nice little sideline gig for a person even if it’s only a couple hours a day on the whole. We go arresting everyone in a Speed Demon suit, we’re going to be sued to within an inch of our lives. Even if we nab the guy himself, what are we gonna do? You had some high-def video, we might have been able to match it to verified video of him for body recognition—body contours at least; kind of hard to figure out the face and head with a mask like that. We’re 90% sure we have his prints from one job where he got sloppy, so if you had fingerprints, great. If someone had even seen this guy use powers, I’d at least send someone out to ask questions. As it stands, you’ve brought me shit. Nothing personal, but it’s shit. And if you plan on lasting here, ADA Yates, you need a thicker skin and need to learn what battles to pick when a transhuman is involved.”

“So we do nothing. Is that it, Sergeant Lindemann?”

“Transhumans make law enforcement a real bitch sometimes, Andrea,” the officer said. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t crack down as hard here in New Judah on white hats who want to help clean up the streets as some other folks do.  Philly does crack the whip hard, and their crime rates are creeping up because they’re doing a better job rounding up vigilantes than crooks.”

“Fine, Joe,” she answered, taking a deep breath. Then she started again, without the acid in her tone. “What do you suggest I do?”

He handed her back the file. “Well, you promise not to come to me with weak cases on transhumans again, and I give you some advice. How’s that?”

She nodded. “Okay, Joe, what’s your advice?”

“You go have yourself a nice, long lunch, Andrea. Go out the side door down the hall to the right. Probably no one from your office has seen you here yet, and they won’t if you go out that way probably. You have a nice lunch, maybe a couple martinis so your colleagues can get just enough of a whiff to know you had a nice time, and you tell them, ‘Nice try, assholes. Thanks for giving me a reason to step out of the office for a while. Because there’s no way I was gonna bring weak shit like that to the precinct and waste the time of our men in blue.’ Can you do that, Andrea?”

She thought for a moment, and took a deep breath. “Did a little community theater in college, before I passed the bar and lost all my free time, Joe. I think I can handle that.”

He smiled, and spread his hands wide in front of him. “Who says the police aren’t any help to regular people, huh?”

* * *

Huddled behind a car, with the staccato accompaniment of gunshots as the theme song for his evening’s adventures, Cole couldn’t help but think of how far removed this was from the afternoon. When the sun had still been up, the worst he had to worry about was Desperado ridiculing him for supposed “flirting” with Sweet Talker, who had dropped into the area to help question another Guardian Corps candidate, and was using the shit apartment in which Cole stayed between his patrols.

There had been seven people total crammed in there with him as he got dressed and wrapped an Ace bandage around one sprained wrist. Cole only knew three of them, and Sweet Talker was the only one of the three he liked.

Cole hardly thought that saying “Hi” and asking how she’d been since he’d last seen her a few days before counted as flirting, but Desperado seemed to think that Cole needed as much ribbing and humiliation as possible in front of as many people at a time as possible. It had made combat training sessions sheer hell half the time.

Several folks had taken enough of a shine to Cole to give him some commiseration and support when Desperado wasn’t around, but they smiled or laughed at the man’s jibes as much as anyone else did when he was in earshot. Most everyone respected Desperado, even if several, like Cole, didn’t like him much.

Cole wasn’t sure if he could even manage respect. He admired Desperado’s convictions when it came to crime-fighting, and dedication to the Corps, but he found the guy repugnant otherwise—a loudmouthed, douche-baggy sack of shit.

But he’d kept his opinions to himself and would continue to do so. He counted himself fortunate that Desperado  had given the okay to start him on training and shadowing some patrols, given the fact the man clearly saw Cole as a failure waiting to happen—some overeducated, prissy hero-wannabe who didn’t have the balls probably to follow through.

However, that tension was pretty much old history in Cole’s mind now, even if had flared up only a few hours earlier. Now he was more concerned about whether he would live to see the morning. Cole was scared shitless but also hyped up. Adrenaline and his fight-or-flight instincts were warring and making him confused as to whether he should whoop or cower; charge the enemy or run.

Truth was, he knew the truth lay in the middle somewhere—blindly fleeing or attacking were both bad options. These were bullets, and the three of them in this Guardian Corps patrol unit were armed with mostly hand-to-hand weapons, plus a pair of tasers. This was supposed to be a quiet patrol and a relatively conflict-free evening. This neighborhood was usually manageable, and most new recruits like Cole got their patrol experience here first.

Lucky me. I get the excitement that almost never happens on my fifth patrol, Cole thought. And even if I live, I won’t be able to tell a single friend or family member about it.

“They’ll run out of bullets eventually, I suppose,” Cole muttered to the guy next to him, who went by the codename Wardawg and was in charge of this patrol. He’d emphasized three times since last night that it was an “aw” not an “o” kind of “dawg.” Cole might have found that annoying—rather than feeling a twinge of envy—if he wasn’t still irritated that his own codename for a while would be “Puppy” by decree of Desperado. Truth be told, even a guy with an annoyingly overblown sense of pride about his name was making him feel jealous. With the name Puppy clinging to him with all the intimidation factor of a pink, frilly dress on a soldier, Cole was certain that Desperado was pairing him with Wardawg just to keep his temporary codename firmly in the forefront of his mind. Dog, meet Puppy.

How about: Desperado, meet Cole’s fist? Cole daydreamed for a moment, knowing it would never happen.

“Doubt it,” Wardawg responded to Cole’s comment about their enemies’ ammunition. “I think they have some kind of hideout nearby or plan to do some deal, and they want us out of here. I figure in another minute or so they’re gonna pull out some automatic weapons and then we’re toast. They’ll take the car apart and if we can’t run, we’ll get taken apart a piece at a time.”

“God damn, you’re cheery, ‘Dawg,” Cole said, as he looked over at the prone body of Slyde just a little ways off, who had been on patrol with them. The young man was bleeding from a shoulder wound, but he was close enough for Cole to tell he was breathing regularly—possibly unconscious or perhaps playing dead to avoid getting shot again. He turned back and looked Wardawg right in the eyes. “You have the field experience; got a plan for me to follow?”

“Not the strategy type,” Wardawg answered.

Cole took a deep breath. The Guardian Corps hadn’t had much success yet figuring out how to help him focus his Ecto powers, but they’d given him some tips for using his Warpsmith powers. Still, warping space around people that far away and that spread out wouldn’t work. He might get the shooters on one end but then the ones on the other side of the street would pick him off. He had too little control to do it any other way than by line of sight; he’d have to stand. But it didn’t seem like a good idea for survival.

“Cops?” Cole asked hopefully.

“Not in this neighborhood. People keep to themselves and hunker down when shit happens,” Wardawg said. “And if anyone does call the cops, they’ll take their sweet time getting here. The reasonably honest ones know the Guardian Corps is almost always in the area and they want to stay in one piece so they wait for us to soften folks up. The crooked ones will wait until someone calls them to say all the illegal stuff is hidden away and all the folks with warrants on them have run off.”

“How about you call Desperado or someone at the headquarters on your cell phone?”

“Only one Speedster in the Guardian Corps right now, and wouldn’t drag him into a fight like this. He’d get wasted. No one’ll get to us in time to help and besides, I forgot to charge my phone,” Wardawg answered. “Don’t fucking tell that to Desperado, though; just say there was no signal. Even if I thought it was a good idea to call them, I can’t give you the number to the HQ yet without getting my ass kicked, and I’m not dragging the cops into this so if you dial 911 on your phone, I’ll hit you. Hard.”


Cole figured he could at least give Wardawg—whose Morph powers were useless in a fight like this—a chance to get clear, and maybe he’d get lucky and they wouldn’t hit him while he was giving Wardawg cover. Maybe he could get to a clear and safe zone himself if they missed and if the guys he disoriented with the warping didn’t recover too fast.

He raised himself up, and then was stopped cold. He almost shit himself as he realized there was a large hand on his shoulder. No, not on his shoulder but hovering just above it. Yet he felt a distinct pressure pushing downward on him. He looked over to see the tall and muscled man who belonged to that hand, and who looked at Cole without any malice while crouched near him.

Over the man’s chest and back were two blocks of glossy dark stone, connected by chains over his shoulders and on either side of his torso, forming a sort of rocky vest. Cole suddenly realized as he saw gold lettering that the two heavy accoutrements were two halves of a fairly large gravestone. The rest of the man’s costume was gray with off-white accents—a bland, short-sleeve head-to-toe bodysuit that emphasized the dark and sinister elegance of the tombstone vest. Even the man’s beard was a dull brown with bits of gray, and his eyes were a pale hazel. He might have been anywhere from his early-30s to mid-40s.

“Epitaph! Thank God,” Wardawg exclaimed. “I thought you had left town; glad to see you around still.”

Epitaph put a finger to his lips to calm the younger man’s exuberance and, Cole suspected, to leave their assailants unaware of his arrival. Then Epitaph removed his hand from above Cole’s shoulder, the pressure vanishing. He motioned for Cole to stay put, and gave him a wry smile with just a hint of grimness in his face.

“Better a live dog than a dead lion,” he told Cole, then stood and rushed at the gunmen himself.

Cole quickly glanced around the front of the car behind which he was hiding and saw Epitaph’s body deform in spots briefly as bullets presumably struck his costume but did not penetrate it. He rose up a bit to peer over the car’s hood and saw one of Epitaph’s mostly bared arms suddenly  develop an angry red welt from a bullet. The many gunshots that struck him made Epitaph hesitate, and made his stride falter. His face registered pain, but there was not blood, and he advanced somewhat erratically but mostly undaunted.

If that wasn’t odd enough, Cole suddenly realized that Epitaph’s feet weren’t quite making contact with the ground.

Suddenly, Cole stood up and faced the trio of assailants farthest from Epitaph. As the gravestone-garbed hero advanced more slowly on the pair he had targeted, alternately wincing and bellowing as those bullets hit home, Cole focused on the other set of gunmen and began to warp space around them. The process was difficult from this distance, but he poured everything he had into the spatial disruption.

He could scarcely pay attention to details, but he could imagine the sickly looks on the faces of the criminals. Two of the three dropped their guns, and one of those wavered, shuddered, and rolled into a fetal position. The other one squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hands to the side of his head in the hopes that might lessen the nauseating feelings of disorientation, but all it did was keep him from falling over. The third man, against all of Cole’s expectations, was still firing at Epitaph, though his aim was wildly erratic. Finally, after several shots, he slumped back against a wall, moaning and wailing.

Cole wasn’t accustomed to keeping up a warp field for so long, much less from such a distance, and he could feel his heartbeat pick up and his blood vessels pound in his neck and head. He suddenly realized he was totally exposed if those men had friends he hadn’t seen yet. He was a sitting duck. A part of him wanted to shit or piss his pants—or at the very least take off running, but he thought about Epitaph and realized there was no reason to assume the man was invulnerable. He’d never heard of someone being totally bulletproof, and clearly the shots were causing the man agony.

He was terrified, but he was damned if he was going to let someone walk right into gunfire, transhuman resistance to harm or not, and fail to back that person up, even if he had cautioned Cole to lay low.

Epitaph showed his first hints of blood—a red smear across his upper arm and another on one cheek—though he still didn’t seem to have been penetrated by a bullet yet, and suddenly he surged forward in a full-tilt charge, screaming bloody murder as the latest set of ammunition ran out. The gunmen hesitated a moment and then grabbed up new guns. But Epitaph was on them by then, pummeling one with a meaty fist as he lifted the second up by his collar and slammed him against a brick wall three times, face-first, before dropping him in a limp heap. The man he had been hitting was likewise down.

Given Epitaph’s size and musculature, plus the burden of the cracked-in-two gravestone he wore, Cole was amazed at the speed of his assaults. He’d rarely seen a Brute with that much raw strength before who wasn’t somewhat slow as well.

Still maintaining the warp field, Cole began to swoon and almost tripped over his own feet as Epitaph headed for the other three men. As he neared them, Cole dropped the spatial disruption so that Epitaph could enter the area unfazed, and then Cole finally stumbled, fell, bounced off the hood of the car and slid to the ground. He felt some kind of breeze on his face, and assumed Wardawg must be fanning him or something. Then a few light, sharp slaps to his face, and the vague recognition of words.

“Cole, are you okay?”

Cole shook his head, his eyes closed, and ran a hand under his nose, suddenly realizing there was something warm and sticky there—blood. He mumbled something about checking on Slyde, heard Wardawg let out a soft “Oh shit” and sensed him rush off.

Grateful for a bit of time to himself, Cole decided it was as good a place as any to lay down and rest. If I’m dying from an aneurism or something, might as well be comfy doing it, he thought, finding the asphalt and dirt almost refreshing after the experience of warping space for an extended period.

Wardawg returned with a breathless “He’s okay” and lifted Cole up to prop his back against the car they had used as a barricade. “Slyde was playing possum but he’s lost a bit of blood so he’ll need help getting back to headquarters. Epitaph? You look pretty good. Can you carry him?”

Cole looked up groggily at the man who clearly had taken out all their assailants and now returned to them. Cole had to admit he looked better than he should, but he didn’t look good in the literal sense, no matter what Wardawg had just said. Epitaph was now adorned with numerous bruises and angry welts on his exposed skin, plus a couple broad scratches that were oozing blood. There were no bullet holes a far as Cole could see, though he figured the man must be sporting dozens of bruises and welts beneath the costume.

Epitaph looked down at Cole curiously. “Remembrance and reflection how allied. What thin partitions divides sense from thought,” the man said in a deep, buttery basso voice.

“Huh?” Cole said.

“I think he’s kind of saying you didn’t listen to him before and maybe didn’t think shit through before you stood up like an idiot,” Wardawg answered.

“Then why didn’t he say that?” Cole said groggily, then realized his rudeness and addressed Epitaph. “Why didn’t you say that, then?”

Epitaph simply smiled and Wardawg said, “He only speaks in quotes from books, movies and songs and shit, and only stuff that has to do with death or remembering. We don’t know if he’s mental and can’t help himself or if he does it on purpose just because he’s totally into the whole role-play of being a living epitaph.”

“Well, thanks for taking those guys out and you’re welcome for the help, Epitaph, even if you didn’t want it,” Cole said. “I don’t know of any good movie quotes or literary quotations for that.”

“A moment lasts all of a second, but the memory lives on forever,” Epitaph answered.

Cole considered for a moment, and then asked, “Are you saying this is a learning opportunity?”

Epitaph nodded.

“For you or me?”

Epitaph smiled and then shrugged, as if to say Not sure, then pointed vaguely toward Cole as if to add, But mostly you.

“Well, I’m not too keen on letting someone take all the risk for me when I can do something to help. But I may need an underwear change when I get back to my shithole of a room that Desperado gave me to hole up in. So maybe the real lesson here is ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ and ‘Doing the right thing isn’t always safe or easy’.”

Epitaph nodded noncommittally. “We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it.”

“Hey, I know that one,” Cole said. “Che Guevara said that.”

“Look, I don’t want to interrupt or anything, but how about we leave before Slyde bleeds too much more or someone else decides to shoot at us.”

Epitaph nodded, and hefted Slyde over one shoulder with ease, though a slight grimace of pain flashed across his face. Cole imagined that being hit by that many bullets was hardly a pleasant experience, no matter what the means of his protection from them.

“Cole, you can find your way back to your hidey-hole, right? I’ll tell Desperado to have someone check back with you there,” Wardawg said. As the man began to walk, Epitaph put a hand in front of him, palm toward Wardawg’s chest. He came to a sudden halt more than an inch from Epitaph’s hand, as if he had hit an invisible wall. He looked at Epitaph’s slowly shaking head, and stepped back a pace. “He’s still on probation period, Ep,” Wardawg said. “I can’t take him to any of our satellites, much less the core HQ.”

Epitaph turned to look at Cole. “Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you’re free to live. You no longer care about your reputation. You no longer care except so far as your life can be used tactically to promote a cause you believe in,” he said. Then he turned back to Wardawg. His voice became harsher, and Cole sensed that the words about to issue forth were not a continuation of the previous quote but a wholly new one. “When the game is over, the king and the pawn go into the same box.”

Frowning, Wardawg said, “I get what you’re getting at—I think. But Desperado and the others may not agree he’s earned it yet.”

Epitaph stepped a hair closer to Wardawg, and glared down at him.

“Look, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble,” Cole interjected. Epitaph pinned him with a slightly less scolding look, but one that told him to hold his tongue, and then went back to glaring at Wardawg. The smaller man looked away from Epitaph’s eyes only to stare at the upper half of the gravestone that was the larger man’s chest piece. Cole looked at it as well. Reynold Merryweather. Soldier. Father. Husband. 1942-1999. Cole wondered if the man whose grave the stone had once adorned was a friend, family member, enemy or stranger to Epitaph. Perhaps Epitaph had a collection of many different gravestone flak vests.

“Okay, fuck!” Wardawg finally responded to Epitaph and then looked over at Cole and added, “We all go together then.” As he began to walk in the direction of the Guardian Corps headquarters, he called out over his shoulder: “But this is your call, Ep, and it’s on your head if Desperado freaks out. I ain’t taking shit credit for this.”

As Cole trailed a bit behind them, and Epitaph looked back at him with a cat-ate-the-canary grin, Cole could only assume that Epitaph didn’t give a good god-damn what Desperado or anyone else might say.

He wished he could say the same.

* * *

Mad Dash sat at one of the two-person booths at the Caped Cuisiner restaurant and tapped his foot nervously at a speed sufficient to make a sound like a frantic tap dancer who performed only to the accompaniment of one-note songs. He slurped his jumbo cherry cola quickly, already having half-consumed it even though he’d only gotten it a few minutes earlier.

Pretty common for us Speedsters to do the nervous supersonic toe tap, but what’s with me? he wondered silently. Why am I nervous? I face down psychotic and violent hooty-hoos all the live long day. This is just a…a…a date? Am I on dates now? How long have these been dates? Good lumpy salty gravy, this place has even become our regular hangout.

Mad Dash caught a glimpse of someone he recognized in his peripheral vision, and turned his head sharply. “Hey! Python! Oh, Pyyyyython. You still owe me fifty singles. Or five tens. Or a thousand nickels…”

The chiseled and nearly bare-chested hero simply smiled and waved. “Si, si. Soon, soon. Don’t worry, my rapido loco amigo.”

Mad Dash frowned, and returned to his drink.

“You still haven’t gotten your money from that muscle-bound pretty boy?” said a female voice. “I could claw his six-pack abs a bit until he opens his wallet.”

Mad Dash looked up, frowned again, started to say, “Who are…” then stopped and whispered: “Ladykiller?”

The woman standing at the edge of the booth certainly had the right voice, but Mad Dash had to admit the costume was throwing him off. She wore a full-body black unitard of a velour-like material with a wide white strip of faux fur running from just above her eyes over her head and down her neck. From the reflections in some of the windows and mirrors, he could see the white streak ran all the way to her buttocks, to where a very short faux tail hung. Instead of one clawed gauntlet on her disfigured left hand, both her hands were thus attired. The new gauntlets were larger than the original one, but with shorter, broader claws, and the glove to which the left-hand gauntlet was attached made her appear to have all five fingers on that hand. Her mask was slightly totemic, and put Mad Dash in mind of some kind of animal he’d seen before. A beaver? A bear?

“Just call me Honey Badger,” Ladykiller said as she slid into the booth. “And even though you are nuttier than a fruitcake, please wipe the crazy look off your face and act like you’re used to seeing me this way.”

“Uh…why are you doing the animal kingdom thing, Lady…uh, Honey Badger?”

“Hmmm. Lady Honey Badger? Nah. Too much,” Ladykiller said with a chuckle as she flagged down a waiter. “Haven’t you ever heard of them? Damn. Guiness Book of World Records or National Geographic or someone says the honey badger is the most fearless animal around. Besides, with Query already knowing more about me than I’d like and you being all heroic and shit, I figured it would be better if you appeared to be dating someone else other than Ladykiller.”

“You don’t think the claws will be a deceased fire-sale?” Mad Dash asked.

“I’m guessing that was supposed to be ‘dead giveaway’,” Ladykiller noted. “If anyone asks why your newest lady friend has fingers as dangerous as your last one, say you have a claw fetish or something.”

“I don’t know if I have any fetish except for shift-running.”

“Yeah, the interdimensional space…the other woman in our relationship,” Ladykiller said. “But she doesn’t take too much of your time and doesn’t carry any STDs.”

“So, we are in a relationship?” Mad Dash asked.

Ladykiller arched one eyebrow, though there was no way Mad Dash could know that with a mask that covered three-quarters of her head. “Do you think I hold hands with everyone under a table or during a moonlit patrol? I’d think you’d’ve figured out by now I’m a survivor of kidnapping, serial rape, imprisonment and enslavement. Warm and fuzzies don’t come easy for me.”

The words were said without malice, but Mad Dash blushed fiercely. “I don’t know what…I don’t  know how…I’m not a veteran of being a boyo toyo.”

“Well, I haven’t exactly made a toy of you yet…hey, is that it?” Ladykiller asked, frowning now—Mad Dash couldn’t miss that facial expression, as the mask didn’t cover her mouth and chin. “Is it because we haven’t had sex? I…I…thought better of you than…”

“Stopitty stop stop. Cease. Desist. Pull over. Keep your hands on the wheel. Red alert. Slippery when wet. Don’t tread on me,” Mad Dash said in a frantic verbal stream just barely decipherable. Then he took a breath, and slowed down. “I don’t have a problem with that. I just. I’ve never. I’m not…” His words sped up again, as he blurted, “I don’t know what to do with a gal pal or ready steady or whatever they call double-X chromosome emotional companions these days.”

“They call us girlfriends,” Ladykiller said with just a trace of irritation. “Or partners. Or significant others. I like girlfriend. Dash, are you…oh, you are, aren’t you? Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“Been running fast since 12 and fighting the forces of very dim light since 15 or 16. Never had time or exclamation.”


“Oh? Didn’t say that? Sorry,” Mad Dash responded. “Are you okay with that? My…uh…status.”

“We’ve fallen together as the oddest couple on record and even I don’t know how or why. But I’m not complaining. Being lonely sucks. If you’re cool with my extralegal hobbies of maiming rapists and abusers, I’m okay with you being disease-free and inexperienced. Whenever I get the ‘exclamation’ to have sex again I’ll be gentle with you.”

Mad Dash let out a whoosh of air, then chuckled. “But what if I decide I do have a claw fetish?”

“Gentle is a relative term,” Ladykiller replied, adding just the slightest twist to her accompanying smile.

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

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The confrontation had begun as a simple attempt to foil a crime. Then it had morphed into something more like a game of Keep Away as Mad Dash continued to prevent the criminal from grabbing the bag of cash and getting away, ever since the hero had come on the scene and knocked it out of the man’s possession to begin with.

The presence of that cash was the only thing keeping the would-be bank robber on the scene. Otherwise, the situation might have become an actual chase, and then the chances of catching him would be lessened.

Because while Mad Dash was almost certainly the faster of the two of them, this thief, the hero realized, was no slouch as a Speedster himself. And all it would take was one bit of distraction to lose him—or for the crook to put just one bystander in jeopardy to get Mad Dash off his ass and dart away.

Given this was a Speedster-vs.-Speedster tussle, the police were worse than useless right now—simple window dressing for the hero-on-villain show playing out. They couldn’t risk taking a shot with two hyperspeed transhumans flitting about, lest they miss and hit a civilian, and there was no way they were going to be able to physically tackle a super-fast villain.

Just gonna ride this out until you run out of gas and are ready for nappy-nap time, chummy-chum, Mad Dash thought. Too bad for you because I’m’a had myself a lunch heavy on carbs right before I heard about your little crime, dude. I’m all fueled up and you’re not going any

His thoughts scattered as the game of Keep Away became something a lot more serious and potentially deadly, with the still-anonymous villain Speedster suddenly producing a baton, changing direction, and then swinging right at Mad Dash’s windpipe as the hero rushed forward to intercept the latest attempt to retrieve the cash and flee.

Mad Dash managed to shift his vector just a bit, and caught the baton on the side of his face instead of in his throat, so he was still in the game. He was momentarily stunned, but mobile, and he just barely managed to head off the villain once more as he made a play for the bag of money on the street.

“Thank smiling fat happy Buddha that I’m a Brute and a Speedster,” Mad Dash said to himself in a rapid-fire mutter as he reoriented himself. It wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone in the public that he possessed some level of Brute power that gave him resistance to harm—too many people had seen him slam into walls and be pummeled and still get back up. Given how slight his frame was and the fact he didn’t wear much in the way of body armor, people could put two and two together. What almost no one realized, except for Query and maybe one or two other heroes, was that his resistance to harm increased the faster he was running.

If I hadn’t been doing a super-dupe-sprint when he hit me, I’d be pushing up Z’s and having marmalade dreams, Mad Dash considered. And an Excedrin 4 hangover with a cherry on top to go with them.

But while he wasn’t hurt much, the hero was starting to wear down, and was wondering if his opponent was, too. It might explain the shift to more violent methods all of a sudden, he considered. On the other hand, the guy wasn’t showing much sign of running out of steam, which made Mad Dash fear the villain might be hyped up on some heavy-duty stimulant or something right now—maybe Red Crush or Skeez—and might just be ornery because of that—not to mention able to push himself farther than he should.

Mad Dash took a quick glance at the clock above the bank entrance. He’d been at it with this guy for more than 10 minutes now.

And that’s way too long to dance the afternoon away with such a homely partner, Mad Dash thought.

He realized he could easily outrun his opponent if he used both his shift-running powers and more traditional Speedster abilities together. But those thousands of little microsecond shifts through interdimensional space would open up his mind and senses to all the wonders of the places most people couldn’t see or sense, and it would be distracting. Using his shift-running was good for getting someplace fast, but horrible in combat situations. So while he knew he could outrun his opponent, he probably wouldn’t outmatch him in the resulting fight

Makes for fun when traveling to use the shift-running—better than listening to tunes on my iShard—but it mellows me out worse than a Harold-and-Kumar pothead fest, Mad Dash considered. This is not a good time for that.

The hero berated himself briefly and silently. He had three tasers at home, a cattle prod, various truncheons and batons, a pair of concussion gloves and dozens of cans of pepper spray and mace. But he rarely remembered to bring them with him when he left his apartment. Sometimes, he considered, it didn’t pay to have madness-induced absent-mindedness and a somewhat pacifist streak.

Maybe I should become the world’s fastest pizza delivery guy, Mad Dash thought, instead of busting up crimes and the occasional criminal.

Just as quickly, though, the thought passed, and Mad Dash felt that little shift in his mind that so often came at these times—a sort of belated resolve that bubbled up from underneath the fluff that usually buried his harsher instincts.

Without hesitation, and hardly knowing himself he was doing it, Mad Dash had liberated a gun from the holster of a nearby police officer. By the time the officer knew what had happened, the bank robber had a bullet hole through one of his ankles and was tumbling head-first toward the sidewalk.

Mad Dash returned the discharged firearm to its holster and watched as the crook just barely managed to slow himself and prevent a face-plant impact into the ground, instead grazing the edge of the bank wall, spinning, tumbling, and then falling to the ground in a confused heap.

Before he could recover—and before anyone could find out whether he had any resistance to harm or quick-recovery powers—Mad Dash had the man’s arms behind his back and had slipped a nylon tie around the guy’s wrists, yanking it tight. Then another one around his ankles.

A few whoops and cheers erupted from the crowd along with some scattered claps, and the police began to descend upon the criminal as Mad Dash retreated slightly. Normally, New Judah police were pretty tolerant of hero activities as long as things stayed pretty close to the letter of the law, but he had just discharged a police firearm, so he wanted to remain wary lest they try to arrest him too.

He surveyed the scene one last time to make sure everything seemed in order and that the police—and not a bystander—were retrieving the money, and then he got ready to run and find someplace to eat so he could refuel his body.

Before he did though, he saw a woman wave to him from the edge of the crowd, and smile crookedly, as if she wasn’t sure how to smile anymore. It was the mouth—and that awkward smile—he recognized first, even before he noticed that her left hand was gloved while her right was not. He wondered which finger of that glove was empty, since he hadn’t seen Ladykiller’s left hand bared in any of the several long meals he and she had shared. He noticed the long but thin scar that ran almost perfectly along her hairline from scalp to neck, and the smaller, shorter one above her right eye. Her “original war wounds,” as she called them, which she had told him about but the source of which she hadn’t yet revealed.

Mad Dash smiled back in his own crooked—but earnest—manner, waved to her, and ran off.

As he did, though, he considered what it meant.

She must have heard I was taking someone down, and she came to see how I was doing, Mad Dash surmised. She cared enough to check in on me because she was close enough to do it.

He hadn’t expected to make enough of an impression on Ladykiller—or win enough of her friendship—that she would let him see her face without a mask. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself, but they had spent an awful lot of hours together and he had gotten the impression she hadn’t met anyone she could open up to in a long time. And open up she had, many times, sometimes happily and sometimes tearfully, even if she kept the worst stories secret for now. Mad Dash had been happy to be there for all her emotions; had fancied himself a friend even before she seemed to have realized that he was.

But do I have an actual girlfriend now? he wondered silently. And if I do, what then? I don’t have the cloudiest idea what the heckedy-hoo-hoo to do with one of those…

* * *

“It’s time, you know. Time to make the leap. Time to get off the edge and make a decision. Time to cut your ties. Time to move on, lover,” the woman cooed softly, stroking the face of the man whose head currently rested on her bosom as they sat together on his Italian leather sofa in a loft-style condo that was a vision of blond wood and glimmering steel.

She could feel the tensions and confusion in his mind. The turmoil stirred up by his neurochemicals and psychological issues were palpable to her. As well they should be, of course, since she was responsible for so many of them. Through her touch and through her mind, she fed those insecurities and confusions a little more, and spoke more words to him.

Encouraging him as she undermined his confidence.

When she slipped away some 20 minutes later, pocketing the little spy camera and pulling the hood of her coat over her head to hide her facial tattoos from the public, Crazy Jane smiled and knew her task for Janus here was done—and completed two days ahead of schedule.

By the time she was a block away from the building the man lived in, he had already slashed his wrists, making the slices vertically instead of horizontally across his wrists—and before he lost consciousness, he threw himself out the twelfth-story window for good measure, just to make sure he succeeded in pleasing her and ending his torment.

* * *

Underworld frowned grimly as she watched a condensed version of the videos—spanning a few weeks of Crazy Jane’s work for Janus—and then consulted the stolen copies of police forensic reports on the apparent suicide of Ignacio Vasquez.

“So, all that time with her, and he had no idea, even though she dropped a million hints she was driving him crazy; even though it was clear he was sleeping with Crazy Jane—or even if not, someone who emulated her,” Underworld muttered. “I don’t get it. Was he that dense, or is there something else at work?”

“Oh, he knew what was happening,” Janus said, brushing a bit of lint off the tuxedo he was wearing and then adjusting the Mardi Gras-style mask he was wearing today, made of dark, gleaming wood on one side and tarnished, pitted gray metal on the other—but both sides sporting gaily colored little feathers. “You can see it in his eyes starting after their third ‘date.’ The hopelessness. The realization of what she was doing but the knowledge he could do nothing to stop it. You should review the video again; you’ll see.”

“I’d rather not. It was disturbing enough to watch the first time. It had a certain ‘snuff porn’ feel to it.”

“As you like,” Janus said. “I plan to watch it a few more times tonight before bed. Hopefully Jane can join me and we can both find intense pleasure in enjoying her work.”

“Well, you were always more a sociopath than me,” Underworld responded. “I’m more selfish and narcissistic. You, on the other hand, are as narcissistic as you are sadistic.”

“Guilty as charged,” Janus admitted. “So, would you really like to know how she was able to keep getting access to him even after he knew what was happening? Why he didn’t go seek help or tell someone he was with Crazy Jane and he needed to be saved?”

“I’ll probably regret it later, but yeah, I do want to know. Since you’re being so talkative.”

“It’s all quite purposeful, my dear,” Janus said. “I’m not blabbering for the hell of it. I can’t let you in on every part of my plans yet, but now that you’ve gotten enough of a taste of criminal life again to…”

“I still plan on killing you for threatening my family,” Underworld noted mildly.

“Of course, but it’s not as pressing now, is it? Once we get into a rhythm with this operation, you’ll only want to break a few of my bones to send me a message. I might even allow you to do so. But getting back to my point, now that you’re in sync with me enough and at least in the same chapter—if not on the same page—I can let you know a few things.”

“Such as?”

“How much do you know about Crazy Jane’s powers?”

“Enough to make educated guesses. She’s an Interfacer or a Psionic to be driving people insane, I should think.”

“Both, actually. She is a Psi and does have very-short-range empathic and mildly telepathic abilities but is stronger as an Interfacer. She uses the latter ability to rewire synapses and such, and that affects various neurotransmitter levels and such. Well, you get the picture.”

“Quite a nasty picture. Having both capabilities is brutal for a victim,” Underworld said. There was mostly recrimination in her voice, but significant appreciation as well.

“Oh, but that isn’t all,” Janus said. “She’s also a Necro—though there, too, her abilities are mostly keyed to the central nervous system, and are via touch or near-touch, like the Interfacer powers.”

“Jesus!” Underworld sputtered. “So she can degrade synapses and shit long-term, too? Maybe permanently with frequent enough contact? Madness, dementia, memory loss. Things like that. Is that what you’re saying?”

Janus nodded and smiled. “She’s a Transmitter, too. Electrical impulses.”

Underworld shrugged and made a face that indicated she wasn’t following his train of thought.

“Mostly, it’s just very cool,” Janus said. “She can essentially taser a person by touch. Only a few times a day, mind you, but still…in any case, that’s the only power the public knows she has—the authorities might know more subsequent to my liberation of her—so you know about it of course. But my point is that low-level electrical impulses from her actually can enhance the effects of her other mental and neurological fiddlings. Helps her disrupt mental processes. Plus, imagine what a sensation of bugs crawling all over you can do on top of everything else she does when she’s messing with perceptions and sensations. I’ve done so many field tests with her. It’s really quite amazing. I’ve trained her to fine-tuned perfection over the years.”

“You must be so proud,” Underworld noted sarcastically. “So, she messes with their heads so much that they can’t…No, it still doesn’t make sense. Early on, if he suspected what she was doing to him, he would have run for help or called someone. There were usually daylong and sometimes several-day-long gaps between each rendezvous.”

“One last power my dear,” Janus said, drawing out his words as Underworld leaned toward him slightly with curiosity. “Or, rather, an additional twist with one of her powers—the Interfacer ability.”

Underworld made an irritated motion with one hand, urging him to get on with it.

“She’s addictive,” Janus said smugly. “She can make a connection with a person’s pleasure centers and addiction centers and make them want her. Need her. After their first time together, Ignacio knew he wanted her back. After a few times, he couldn’t imagine doing anything that would make it impossible for him to get access to her. Like, for example, getting her arrested and hauled back to the loony bin. The effect is quite long-lasting. Given enough exposure, it’s essentially permanent.”

“So he let her come back knowing what she was doing for the same reason an addict goes back to the needle or the pipe even when he knows it will destroy him.”

“Precisely. They can’t help themselves,” Janus said.

“Holy hell,” Underworld said, and then was silent for a bit. She frowned suddenly, then blurted: “You idiot! That’s why you keep her around. That’s why you took that big risk breaking her out of that high-security facility when you started up your ops here. She’s gotten to you. She’s got control of you. Bad enough that you’re as crazy as you are already; I can’t let you be manipulated by someone just as crazy. I’m not working under those kinds of conditions. The bitch dies right now.”

“Relax,” Janus said. “Seriously. Sit down and listen, or I will have to do something we’ll both regret.”

“You aren’t in control of your faculties, and I’m not afraid of you.”

“Shut up, Underworld,” he said mildly, without any rancor, pushing a file folder toward her. “You can look at my notes in here and those of some of my best researchers. Her powers are shit against other transhumans—something about most tranhuman gene sequences messes with her connection. She can cause vague mental unease and she can induce some low level of addiction, but that’s about it. Oh, and she can shock the hell out of you with electricity without any problem. But most of the people with transhuman genes are insulated from her mental and biochemical powers.”

Most,” Underworld emphasized. “Apparently not you, though.”

“I said ‘insulated,’ my dear,” Janus noted. “I never said I was immune—nor anyone else. Yes, I’ve had her around me several years, minus that unfortunate period of incarceration for her. She has, certainly, ‘gotten her hooks in me.’ But isn’t that what women always strive to do with their men? Of course she wants to be my favorite. I feel drawn to her and I feel a need to protect her and keep her near. But I was away from her long enough to know I don’t go through any kind of withdrawal.”

He paused, and his face took on a wistful and vaguely pleased look as he continued: “Oh, you should see what that looks like, when one of her addicted pets is denied her presence for a week or more. Such anguish. Worse than a heroin withdrawal, I think. I’m more loyal to her than to anyone else in my service—even you, who are almost a partner in my endeavors—but I am loyal to my own goals above all else. I took a risk to free her because I wanted her back, yes—but I also needed her talents.”

“And what if I don’t believe that? What if I think you’re making justifications to downplay her influence on you? What if I…”

“Kill her?” Janus finished. “I would punish you. Severely. Would I kill you in turn? Not likely. As I said, my own aims above all else. I feel more loyalty to her than I do to you, but I need your talents and powers more than hers, so killing you would be counterproductive. I would, however, torture you, I’m certain. Nothing personal, of course. Just business.”

Underworld sighed heavily. “Working with you is a tremendous pain in the ass, Janus. So, she addicted Fortunato’s cousin to her so that she could drive him insane for you, because she couldn’t just drive Ignacio insane right away.”

“Oh, she could have, if I wanted her to,” Janus noted. “It’s stressful, and painful for her, but she could have just pushed hard and had him jumping out a window on my behalf the first night. Better than average chance, anyway. She can really mess up a person’s head right away if she tries, but the effects don’t last long. More lasting results require her to take her time. If Ignacio had gone for the high-dive right away, though, it would have looked suspicious. The way she and I planned it, people got see him behaving more and more erratically over time. So the finding of a suicide was a shoo-in.”

“What’s your angle, though? Does Ignacio have some key connection to one of Fortunato’s businesses? Does his absence give you access to his cousin somehow?”

“Maybe a little, but not really,” Janus admitted. “No, the world will think Ignacio took his own life, so that it doesn’t come back to haunt me, since I have so many other outstanding charges already. No need to pile on them when I don’t need to. I do intend, however, to make sure Fortunato is informed subtly that I was responsible for his cousin’s death.”

Underworld whistled. “First, you try to have Query killed, and now you go after one of Fortunato’s family members and plan to wave that in the man’s face. Are you trying to piss off all the major transhuman players in New Judah, Janus?”

He smiled broadly, his mouth fully visible below the Mardi Gras mask, and his teeth looking very white in contrast to that mask and his dark tuxedo. “Why yes; yes I do, Underworld my dear. I plan on pissing them off quite a lot. And those two are just for starters.”

* * *

The late spring night embraced him with air that had the perfect balance of warm and cool, as he crossed the threshold of his home and entered into the wider suburban world around it. Forty minutes earlier, he had sent Clara home, and 15 minutes ago he had gotten his daughter down to sleep. Now, just a lonely and short journey to the garbage can with a full bag of refuse, and then he could enjoy a glass of something involving scotch or wine, and work his way slowly to his own bedtime.

His heart jumped in his chest at the sound of a flat voice from the darkness.

“So, who is she?”

Once William Bastion’s terror came down a notch a few seconds later and he recognized the voice, he ventured: “Teri?”

“Who was the woman, Will?”

“Theresa?” asked the physician, dumbfounded. “Is that you? Where have you been for the past…”

“Once more, Will,” she asked, a keen and deadly edge in her voice now. “Who is she?”

“Who? What are you…” he began, then stopped. “The woman I sent home, you mean? She was watching our daughter like she does three or four days every week. A daughter who would like to know where her mother has…”

“Ahhhh,” came the voice from the shadows. “A nanny. Well, you are a busy man, and your mother isn’t always well—and you wouldn’t trust her with my mom, thank God—so it makes sense. I had thought maybe your taste in women had gone down since I’ve been gone.”

The woman stepped out of the darkness and into the light of a nearby streetlamp, and Will suddenly drew back, dropping the bag of garbage. “Who are you?” he asked, his confusion renewed and amplified now.

“You don’t recognize me? Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder?”

Will sputtered the beginnings of a response, and then fell silent, trying to reconcile the notion of his wife’s voice coming from the body of Tooth Fairy. He took in the costume that mixed elements of the whimsical with absolutely grotesque ones like bones and teeth—and was fascinated with the wings that almost seemed to be real ones, fluttering and flapping negligently behind her. He was ready to protest that she wasn’t his wife—he was ready to ask why this notorious villain was mimicking his wife’s voice—and then he saw in the shape of the cheeks and the turn of the chin, as well as the eyes behind the mask that covered the upper part of her head, that this was Theresa Bastion before him.

His wife.

The mother of his child.

Not missing after all—not exactly. Not a simple abandonment. His wife had left them when their girl was a toddler not for any traditional reasons but to take up a life of crime and cruelty.  It took him a moment to absorb that, and then for the next implication to settle in.

Tooth Fairy had powers. She was transhuman. But Theresa…

“You can’t be,” Will gasped. “You…oh God, you took the compound yourself when you were pregnant, didn’t you? Directly. Instead of just letting me introduce it into the womb. You…Oh my God.”

“I had to make sure our daughter would be transhuman. Or as sure as one can be,” Tooth Fairy said flatly. “Your way was too cautious. Too tentative. I had to be strong, Will, for her sake. It was hard at first to hide how I was still changing after she was born—how I had changed even before then. By the time it would have been impossible to hide, I frankly didn’t want to. But then again, by that time, I also wasn’t feeling very domestic. I’m still a mother, though, and we’re still married, so I’m glad that was a nanny and not a woman I’d be obliged to kill before hurting you very badly. Also disappointed, because she looked tender and succulent.”

“Listen to yourself, Teri. You’re not stupid. You must realize that taking on powers as an adult…”

“No, I’m not stupid, and I embrace who I am. The butterfly that came out of her cocoon,” she replied, then smiled wistfully. “Well, fairy that came out of her cocoon, I guess.”

“But you’re…”

“Terrorizing people. Stealing. Harming. Oh, let’s not go on about that. I’m fulfilling my place in the human animal kingdom. Predators need exist, so that prey won’t go unappreciated. Besides, I’ve been building up the college fund for the little girl. And I’ve even thrown in a retirement fund for daddy.”

“I don’t want…that’s blood money. Theresa, you’ve done notorious…”

“See, you do still feel fondly toward me. Notorious. Such a flattering term. So much better than vile or wicked. I know, I’m good at what I do,” she said, her chest swelling as she took in a deep breath, and Will feeling a stirring of desire as he watched her breasts and remembered that she was once his wife and lover. “What can I say? But believe me, the way the economy has been going, you’ll want to take the retirement funds eventually. Besides, it’s the least I can do for you watching over Haley for a while longer.”

“Watching over? A while longer? She can’t go with…not into your life.”

“Oh, not now of course,” Tooth Fairy said sweetly. “Of course not. Stable family life and all. For now. But once she comes into her powers, I’ll have to take over. You couldn’t possibly understand. You couldn’t possibly give her what she needs. At that point, I’ll reunite with her. Although I suppose I should start laying the groundwork soon and perhaps get to know her a little without the costume on.”

“Teri, no.”

Tooth Fairy stepped forward and hunched down her shoulders, crouching slightly, exhibiting a kind of grace that seemed inherently sinister. The move was tremendously predatory and the implications froze the man with fear.

“That’s a dangerous word to use with me these days, William,” she said. “You’re a physician; I’m sure you can imagine the damage I can do. She’s our daughter, but she’ll eventually be my responsibility. You won’t get in the way of that. Or she will cease to have a father figure of the vanilla human variety.”

“But Teri, please, listen.”

“No. I’ve got to go,” she said, sweetness in her voice again. “Important people to get ready to meet soon. Places to go. Really carving out my place in the world—quite literally in some cases,” Tooth Fairy said. “Put an extra couple marshmallows in her cocoa tomorrow and let he know they’re courtesy of mommy. Toodles.”

With that, she darted off into the night, wings flapping so realistically behind her, and William Bastion stumbled back into the house, the trash on the ground forgotten, and the renewed wreckage of his life all too evident and all too enhanced.

Before he decided to go for that scotch—and make it a double—he checked in on his slumbering daughter, four years of innocence and probably simmering with transhuman potential.

He wondered how long before Theresa might come for her…No, not Theresa anymore, but maybe she can become that person again; maybe there’s a way…and then considered options like calling the police. Or running. Considered them, and thought of what the probably response would be from Tooth Fairy. Very few outcomes in his mind involved him coming out unscathed at the end, or even alive.

Besides, it’s her mother in that costume, Will thought. Somewhere.

There was comfort enough in that thought to allow him sleep that night.

Though the scotch probably helped that process more than did the sentiment.

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Ladykiller started nervously tapping her fingertips against the tabletop until she realized, moments later, that she was doing so with her left hand. She slid the condiment caddy over the several pits and scratches her clawed gauntlet had made, and said, “This is a really bad idea. I don’t even know why I’m here.”

Mad Dash frowned. “What wrong with this place?” he asked, looking around at the large diner-style restaurant, which was busy even at this hour. Nearly half of the patrons were clad in costumes—from the garish to the cheesy to the chic. Almost all of those people wore masks of some sort, whether partial or whole-head. “This is the perfect place to eat. They’ve got great waffle-cut seasoned fries—I like the three-layer ones with chili, cheese and sour cream—and the cheeseburgers are great. Oh! Or are you vegetarian? They have a whole page here of stuff like that—even some things for the hardcore Vegans. And they serve breakfast 24 hours a day. What could be better?”

“How about a place that attracts less attention? The police must have a field day staking this place out. I’m wanted, you know,” she said, lowering her voice and leaning forward. “Doesn’t matter that anyone and everyone I’ve assaulted or killed was a rapist or some other woman-abusing piece of shit—I’m still wanted!” she hissed. “The food looks great, but it’s not going to be so great if my next meal is bologna on white bread in the lock-up.”

Behind the big yellow-lensed goggles that sat over his half-head mask, Mad Dash blinked. Blinked again. Then shook his head and chuckled. “You need to relax. For one thing, there aren’t any public images of you, so who knows what Ladykiller really looks like? I don’t think anyone’s even eye-witnessed you actually offing anyone. People wouldn’t even know it was Ladykiller doing the work if you didn’t always leave a calling card on your victims—is it a literal calling card, by the way? I’ve always wanted to know, and the police never say publicly.”

“Uh, yeah. It’s an actual business card. It says some scary, threatening stuff about what happens to men who abuse women. I figure enough of the cards will be grabbed by other criminals or get in the hands of the media that the word would get out, but…”

“…does it have a phone number on it to call you or an e-mail address?”

“No. That would be stupid…”

“…any cool graphics?”

“If a blood splatter behind the circle-and-arrow symbol for men is cool, then ‘yeah’…look, that doesn’t matter one…Wait! You’re right about me being under the radar so far. I don’t think there are any pictures at all of me in my costume—not even good composite sketches in the hands of police or the media. And most of the women I rescue from these guys never get a look at me and the times they have I sometimes don’t leave a card. How the hell did you know who I was in the alley?”

“We’re gonna need a few more moments,” Mad Dash said to the waitress as she approached. “Query,” he answered as he turned back to Ladykiller. “He circulated a description of you to a bunch of us in the costumed community. He’s a real apricot of a guy.”

Query knows what I look like in costume?”

“Might know what you look like out of costume, too,” he answered, then stopped and put a couple fingers to his lips briefly, blushing. “Oh, crap, I didn’t mean like whoopee-whoopie out of costume. He probably doesn’t know you that well.”

“How does he know at all?”

“20/20 Rule,” Mad Dash said. “You know, the mikshakes here are splendiferous. You should try the oreo-mint-toffee one. I know. Sounds crazy. But it works.”

Ladykiller sighed, and began to tap one foot nervously. Suddenly, the idea that Query had intelligence on her was driving out worries of the police busting in here. “20/20 Rule? I’m guessing that has nothing to do with good eyesight…except maybe metaphorically?”

“It’s actually Mad Dash’s 20/20 Rule of Transhuman Familiarity Regarding Query, but that was too long and people didn’t seem to like the acronym MD2020RoTFRQ either. You see, I figure it like this: If you’re an active transhuman in New Judah and the news or police don’t have photos or good descriptions of you, there’s a 20% chance Query has an image of you in his files, either a sketch or a photo. And if Query knows what you looks like on the job, I figure a 20% chance he knows who you are under the mask, or at least knows what neighborhood you live in.”

“This is very disturbing, Mad Dash. You billed this as a relaxing meal, and now I’m having an anxiety attack.”

“You should take Yoga-nidra. Calm you right down. Mediation works.”

“Meditation,” she corrected him.

“That too,” he said. “Look, unless you start killing off pickpockets or maiming innocent bystanders, Query isn’t going to bother with you. You’re punching the tickets on total scum-sacks. Too much on his plate to go after people just to be all moralizing with them, and it would be the gravy boat calling the coffee cup ceramic anyway if he did.”

The waitress returned, asking, “Can I get you two something to drink while you look at the menus? Oh, my, that clawed glove is striking, Miss. You have such a sleek, clean look to your outfit.”

“A jumbo Coke, jumbo pink lemonade and large chocolate milk for me,” Mad Dash said.

“Um…medium Diet Coke?” Ladykiller asked.

“Sure thing, you two. Just take your time with the menus.”

As the woman walked away to get the drinks, Mad Dash smirked. “See? You clearly don’t get out enough. I’m a little crazy but I’m not dumbedy-dumb-dumb.”

“So no one here seriously thinks we’re transhumans? All the people in costume but us are all just posers and wanna-bes?”

“No, actually, I think that might really be Python in the corner over there—copying or faking abs like that is pretty hard. Dude owes me $50. But yeah, there are like two other locations for this place, and some other places that get similar clientele. Speed Demon and Feral could be sitting on two stools next to each other at the counter and they wouldn’t fight because they couldn’t be sure the other guy was for real. Some people rock their own look, and some people copy their idols in the hero or villain world and a lot of them just like the idea knowing real white hats or black hats might be here. I mean, look at that Devil-May-Care over there. That costume is right on the mark. Probably one of the guys the real villain pays and gives costumes to and has run around town and eat at places like this.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because he likes to eat out, silly-butt, and he wants to know he won’t get hassled if he gets a hankering for a prime rib or an apple pie and coffee when he’s in costume. A buncha years ago, the police would round up ‘villains’ from these places from time to time just to be safe and to question them, and then after a few big lawsuits and shouting about unreasonable cause—because they never actually grabbed a real villain or dangerous vigilante; except for once, and he was C-list all the way—they just gave up watching these kinds of places.”

Ladykiller visibly relaxed. “So, we’re cool here?” Mad Dash nodded vigorously and smiled as the drinks were set down and the waitress promised to come back in a couple minutes. “Foie gras?” Ladykiller blurted out from behind the menu. “Escargot? Steak tartare? Shitake and swordfish risotto?”

“You got to the gourmet page, huh?” Mad Dash said. “You wouldn’t think a place like this could handle that kind of food, but they do. They make money hand over mouth around here and like I said, there are some heavy hitters with fancy tummies who drop in here.”

* * *

Shortly after he had started walking with the costumed guy from the Guardian Corps, Cole had said, pleasantly, “Hi, I’m…”

“No,” the man said, cutting him off. “I’ll just call you Noob, if I have to call you anything at all, and you can call me Blockbuster if some crap happens that I need to know about.”

Cole sensed the undercurrent of “shut up and just follow me” and walked in silence for the next half-hour, until a van came by, stopped for them, and drove for 20 minutes. Blockbuster got out, motioned for Cole to follow him, and led him into a small tenement-style apartment where another costumed figure awaited them.

“Welcome to the Guardian Corps,” the new man said.

“Uh, thanks,” Cole said, doing a quick visual scan of the sparsely and coarsely furnished place. “I kind of thought you guys would have a bigger headquarters.”

“This isn’t our headquarters; this is where you will hang out until we’re sure of you,” he answered. “Gangs don’t like us. Organized crime franchises don’t like us. Supervillains don’t like us because we help bring up new crops of superheroes. Common criminals don’t like us. A lot of left-wing groups and several politicians don’t like us. So you have to work your way to seeing one of our actual headquarters. Because you could be working for any of them. And if you were working for a villain to get inside our operation, you could kill a lot of people. So I don’t want you near any of our people.”

“Oh,” he said, some disappointment in his voice. “I guess I understand that. So how are you going to be sure of me?”

“We’re going to watch you for a bit. We’re going to talk. We have some people doing some poking around right now. A little later, we’ll interrogate you—intensely.”

“I guess you probably want to know what I can do…”

“No,” he said flatly. “I don’t. I don’t know you, so I don’t trust you—which means I wouldn’t believe anything you tell me yet anyway about your powers—if you even have any. And if you try to show us any powers or I even think you’re using powers subtly, it’s going to get ugly for you very fast because I will assume you are attacking me and Blockbuster. Do you understand?”

Cole nodded.

“Now, we’re going to go over some basics, and I’m going to ask you some questions before our expert comes in here to really grill you. You cool with that?”

“Yeah, I guess. I mean, yes.”

“This ain’t exactly what you expected, was it?”


“In a lot of ways, Cole, we’re like a street gang,” the man said. “We look out for each other, and a lot of us put the Guardian Corps before our personal life; sometimes even before family. When the Corps were formed, the Guardian Angels that Curtis Sliwa founded were our model. He took the notion behind gangs and tried to make something positive out of it, bringing young people together under one banner to try to help instead of commit crimes. He had them trained in basic hand-to-hand skills, and put them out to patrol the streets at night. This isn’t going to be some party or day camp.”

“I don’t expect it to be,” Cole answered.

“No, you probably don’t, but you also don’t know what you’re getting into, exactly,” the man said. “Do you know that we’ll eventually beat you up?”

“You mean if you thought I was a traitor or a spy, right?”

“No, I mean that if you get far enough in our training, a bunch of us will be in a circle around you, kicking and hitting you while you just take it, because you need to know what it feels like to get your ass kicked before some bad-ass on the street does it to you.”

“I get it,” Cole said, but there was hesitancy in his voice.

“You can back out, Cole. No harm. No shame. No foul. This kind of life ain’t pretty. You can do a lot of good, and it can be meaningful, but it won’t be fun very often. Maybe in between work there’s fun, but being a hero isn’t a game.”

“I want to learn. I want to try. I want to see how far I can go,” Cole said. “I mean, if you’re looking for promises, I…”

“Promises don’t matter,” the man said. “Actions matter. Intentions matter. You heart matters. Is doing this important enough to you to get your hands dirty and to get hurt?”

Cole paused for a moment, and tried to imagine a life at a desk or a lab table applying engineering techniques to life sciences. He couldn’t. The kind of work he had trained for in college seemed like something more suited to being a hobby. It didn’t feel like his life. He looked at the man and said, “Yeah, it is. I don’t know if I’ll do good enough for you or anyone else. I only know that I have to try.”

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Sometimes, Cole wondered if his affinity for the wee hours had more to do with his obsession to become a crime-fighter than did any actual desire for meting out justice—after all, so much of the action with superpowers and thwarting criminals and supervillains seemed to happen after sundown. And he’d always loved the night.

Ironic, though, that for so much of his life he’d enjoyed the night for the serenity it offered, and now he wanted to find the action in the darkness. The night and the small hours of morning had been his shield—his private and protected time. The night was a place where he could avoid those who caused him such stress, from the fellow students he’d known since Kindergarten who had turned into his quiet tormentors by fourth grade for reasons he still didn’t understand, to his parents Samantha and George Alderman who both taught at the private school that had been the source of so much of his anguish.

So much of his teen and early 20s life spent sleeping as much as he could during the day—and that certainly became easier during college—and doing most of his schoolwork and deep thinking until just an hour or two before dawn.

At first his parents tried to dissuade him from that and convince him to spent the daylight and early evening hours with them or with the peers who should have been his friends but weren’t. They stopped trying that about the time his powers began to manifest themselves—early in high school. Then, suddenly, his nighttime-oriented life was a blessing to them, so that they would have fewer awkward moments trying to figure out how to relate to a transhuman son.

By a trick of his genes, Cole Alderman had managed to alienate his parents in addition to his classmates, and he still wasn’t certain if that was a blessing or a curse that they had withdrawn from him.

College had been easier in terms of finding friends. A campus of thousands, rather than a high school with less than 300 students, offered far more chances to locate like-minded people. By then, he was also so much more adept at hiding the transhuman powers that had made him a complete pariah once a few schoolmates in high school caught on and the rumors and gossip started to fly.

He still hated the fact he had been blamed—though nothing had ever been officially pinned on him—for Hannah’s injuries the night of the Sadie Hawkins Dance—and he regretted the scars that Isaac bore from the Homecoming Dance. The irony was that the attack on Hannah was what made Cole a complete outcast in high school, and he’d had nothing whatsoever to do with her being hurt. Whereas he had been entirely responsible for Isaac’s injuries and no one ever even leveled an accusation at him about that.

Now he stood alone in the darkness, just barely inside the dim oval of illumination from an aging streetlight, having earned a biomedical engineering degree from the New Judah campus of the University of Connecticut almost a year earlier and still not having found enough interest in traditional daytime work hours to put it to use at anyone’s company.

This was the twelfth night in a row he had stood in this spot, in a seedy but not overtly dangerous part of town. He’d been told by people in the know that sometimes, it only took a night or two of waiting, and sometimes it took a few dozen. So he’d made sure to be here every night, from midnight to 3 a.m., without fail. He didn’t want to miss his chance.

The Guardian Corps were very careful. They didn’t want villains or authorities knowing where they were based, so one could only petition them indirectly. They made random sweeps at various official waiting spots in the city. If they saw you at one of those places, they knew you were probably interested in putting on a mask and a costume and trouncing some bad guys. They would take you in, and at least give you a little training; give you a shot.

Teach you some of the ins and outs.

The alternative was to just go out, get a costume and start trying to kick some ass alone. Most people who did that ended up hospitalized or dead pretty fast, though, Cole figured.

Even if he was about to take his night life to a dangerous new level, there was no reason to take chances learning things the hardest way. Better to come up through an established system. Learn in the minor leagues before trying out for the majors.

He ticked off the final minutes and then ticked off some more, and when it was a quarter-past-three, he gave up, and went home on heavy legs, dejection like a shroud over him. He’d gone home feeling that way for 12 days now, and each time the feeling got worse.

This time, though, someone was waiting for him outside when he got to the apartment he shared with three roommates. This time, Cole didn’t go inside his apartment to sleep. Instead, he let himself be led to an unknown place by a costumed stranger to embark on a questionable vocation.

At least the hours are good, Cole thought.

* * *

A scream—a woman. A shout—a man.

In response to the sounds, Mad Dash made a hairpin turn while running at around 40 miles per hour, and headed toward the alley that was the source of both.

He almost knocked over a woman with a torn shirt who was fleeing from the gloom of that alley, and came to a stop a few paces away from another woman inside it, this one in a costume colored like antique ivory—the design of a skull sketched half-realistically and half-abstractly over the face of the mask—and her left hand clad in a glittering and razor-sharp gauntlet with three fingers and a thumb that Mad Dash assumed corresponded to the four deep gashes in the belly of the man slowly writhing at her feet.

A great deal of the man’s blood was on the ground, along with a few pieces of what Mad Dash could only assume were from his small and large intestines. The hero presumed that the man would probably be screaming if not for the fact his windpipe seemed to have been slashed as well.

The costumed woman was simply looking at Mad Dash; she was tense and primed, but not attacking him.

“So, um, did he deserve it?” Mad Dash asked sincerely. “I’m guessing he was the yeller and the woman was the screamer? Wow!” he said, as he looked again at the dying man. “You were kinda sloppy-rough there, don’t you think? Really made a mess of the alley. This is really gonna put the garbage men off their lunch tomorrow”

“Did he deserve it?” the woman asked Mad Dash incredulously, repeating the hero’s words back to him in an almost mocking tone.

“I don’t know. I was asking you. Hey, you’re Ladykiller, aren’t you? Your claw is a lot shinier than I always thought it would be. So, uh, I just gotta ask again…was this like justifiable force? I need to know whether I need to fight you and stuff now.”

“You saw the woman running from the alley. Do you think this guy had this coming?”

“Could be. Was he cheating on you with that woman or something?”

“What?! Are you for real?” Ladykiller sputtered in a dumbfounded tone.

Mad Dash tilted his head and his eyes turned upward as if in deep thought. “I don’t know,” he said as if coming to some sort of mix of epiphany and self-contemplation. “Maybe I’m not real. I mean, I could be a figment of your imagination. But how would I know?”

Ladykiller paused, bewildered. “No,” she finally said when she realized he wasn’t teasing her. “No, no, no. I meant: Are you serious?”

“I try to be, but it never seems to take,” Mad Dash said as if admitting to something deep and shameful. “I just don’t seem to be good at it.”

“Let me try this one more time: You don’t seriously think I just gutted this man as part of a lover’s spat, do you?”

“Well, you’ve got a lot of negativity around you over the idea that you were in a relationship with him, so I’m kind of leaning toward the thought maybe he wasn’t your boyfriend,” Mad Dash responded.

“No shit, Sherlock. He was trying to rape that woman who ran off.”

“Oh. Well, I guess that answers my earlier question about whether he deserved it,” he said, then paused and frowned, jutting out his lower lip. “I’m wondering if disembowelment might be an overreaction though.”

“You barge in here, confuse the hell out of me, and now you’re going to criticize my approach to dealing with forcible rape?”

Mad Dash put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “No, nah, nada. Those in glass igloos shouldn’t punt bricks and all that. I’ve got a skeleton or two in my pantry. Say, you want to get a bite to eat?”


“Eat. Chow. Munch. Nosh. I’ve been running a lot tonight. Need to get some carbs in me like nobody’s tomorrow. I know the perfect place. C’mon,” he said, and darted off in a blur. A few seconds later, he dashed back to her side. “Oh, sorry, guess I should slow down for you,” he said apologetically, and then began to walk out of the alley. When he realized she wasn’t following, he turned back and added: “I’lllll paaaaay. The last crook I pounded had a really fat wallet.”

Ladykiller shook her head quickly as if trying to shake cobwebs off it, then paused and shook her head again, far more slowly. Mad Dash smiled crookedly in an expression that seemed like earnestness-gone-wild, and she threw up her own hands in a gesture of surrender that echoed his earlier one. “Oh, what the hell. OK. I’ll eat with you. But this isn’t a date, in case you have any ideas—and I pick up the tip.”

* * *

Tooth Fairy crouched in the tree, hidden by the night as she looked through one of the windows of the house. The man inside, moving through the kitchen with a cup of black coffee in one hand and a cup of hot chocolate in the other.

Another window, and the sight of a cat sauntering across the carpet.

When did he get a cat? she wondered, then pondered what it might taste like.

Yet another window, and the sight of a nearly four-year-old girl with rosy pink cheeks, accepting the gift of barely steaming cocoa and then returning her gaze to some insipid show with smiling, singing characters who passed along advice on how to work together, play nice and be a good citizen.


I wonder how Dora the Explorer tastes? Or Barney the Dinosaur. Or Arthur and Buster and all their friends at Lakewood Elementary?

Tooth Fairy took one last look at the little girl sipping hot chocolate that was probably in truth only lukewarm, and the woman licked her lips.

Another time, perhaps. Another time.

And then Tooth Fairy was racing across the grass, toward the woods, silken wings on her back flapping and giving the illusion that they were carrying her across the lawn as much as her feet were.

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She lay on the huge bed, clad in a very expensive, very flimsy nightgown of silk with velvety trim. She spent a lot of time there, because it was where she was expected to be so often—just in case he “needed” her—and sometimes that need came at lunchtime or other random points in the day.

Aside from bathroom visits and meals and cleaning up, she didn’t leave the bed much, except to do some spinning or treadmill time—after all, she had to stay in shape for him, too.

It might be nice to have something else to do, but I went through his meager library of books long ago, and he’s never been all that keen on shopping for more very often, she considered ruefully, though he brings so many other gifts.

The gifts were her own fault, in a way, and she knew why he plied her with them initially. Why he bothered now was beyond her. Maybe they were meant to woo her heart or perhaps to make up for what he did to her. Maybe it was both.

Then again, maybe it was habit, or maybe it was to taunt her. Those seemed more likely most days.

Staring at piles of gifts didn’t do much to occupy her mind, though. Logging on any amount of computer time would be a nice change of pace, but she was locked out of his computers as surely as she was the phones in this large condo. She had the bed and the television to keep her company—every once in a while the hundreds of channels of crap yielded something worth watching that engaged her. Those were the good times, when the company of those two inanimate objects almost took her mind away from her imprisonment.

Sometimes, of course, she had him for company instead.

Those were the worst times.

* * *

She heard the sharp “ding” of the private elevator that led up to this penthouse domicile in which she resided, and she cringed beneath the sheets. She’d have 20 or 30 seconds to compose herself before he entered—often he would wait several minutes but she’d learned not to assume that. He had to at least take time to put his mask and goggles back on. He didn’t wear them when he entered the building or went up the elevator, for obvious reasons, but he wore them for her all the time.

Partly for effect, she assumed, but mostly to prevent her from spraying glass cleaner in his eyes or dosing him with some kind of homemade pepper-powder concoction.

“Darling,” she heard him say softly from the doorway, and realized she had drifted a bit—she pulled herself into character quickly and looked toward him, smiling.

“Darling,” he repeated, “I have a gift for you.”

He worked long hours at some kind of legitimate job; investment banking or something else, she guessed—something with long hours that required a Type A personality. And when he wasn’t in the office, he spent little time here at the penthouse condo—after all, he went out to commit crimes almost every night he didn’t work late and often he slept elsewhere, and she feared to ask where, suspecting that often it was in a victim’s own home. Not every night resulted in a crime, and not every crime was satisfying or lucrative, but more often than not, he came home with a gift for her.

Lucky me, she thought with a deep, abiding and sarcastic agony.

She hadn’t even known he was a criminal when she first met him. He was just that awkward, vaguely creepy guy in the support group with her and a dozen other folks. They had only minor powers and none of them were particularly happy being transhumans even though it was easy for most of them to hide their powers, and that was why they were in the group to commiserate with one another. She’d never suspected he had something more than a smidgen of power; never knew he was happy to use his powers and was simply lurking in the group.

Never knew he had targeted her. He probably never would have actually abducted her, though, if she hadn’t given him that accidental invitation—that little bit of goading that made him feel justified in claiming her. He’d asked her out, and she didn’t like the idea one bit, but in a bit of petty nastiness, she’d told him he’d need to be quite the provider for her to consider a date.

“I’m the kind of girl who has lots of wishes,” she had said haughtily, “and I need someone who can make them come true. Jewelry, fine wines, fantastic shoes, expensive dresses, fancy foods, rare wines, furs and all that. You can’t do that.”

So she’d set the trap for herself without meaning too, and she’d baited it. She’d never expected him to take her so seriously and to ply her with expensive gifts. That had intrigued her, she had to admit, so she’d allowed him to take her out a couple times. And then, finally, to have a drink at his place. She’d never imagined a guy like him would live in a penthouse suite of such luxuriousness. She’d never guessed it would become her prison.

It was her own fault coming here against her better instincts, and certainly she’d started the ball rolling with her attempt to dissuade him through ridicule at first. But in the end, it was his fault, because while the things she had done might have earned her some degree of humiliation, they didn’t justify anything near what he’d done to her, she thought as she touched the collar around her neck.

“Darling,” he said again, snatching her attention to the horrid, sickly present circumstances—the hellish reality that had defined the past 10 months of her life. “I have something for you.”

She smiled as realistically as she could, and let him drape the expensive fur around her shoulders, as she guided her arms into the sensually soft lining of the sleeves, wondering at how the trick of perspective and fate could cause something so fancy to now fill her with such revulsion. But he was giving her what she had demanded, of course, here in this prison of her desires. In this cage formed of her former dreams. Binding her in chains of her own vainly professed wishes as he worked his own insidious agenda on her mind and on her flesh.

“I hope you like it,” he said, his eyes greedy as they took in her taut body framed in fur.

Then she felt the warm stickiness at the back of her neck, and stifled the cry that threatened to escape her throat. She tried not to imagine how much of the blood of the coat’s previous owner might be there at the neck of the coat, and perhaps other places as well. She tried to concentrate on the softer, silkier warmth of the rest of the coat, and the softness of the sheets, and tried to block out the feel of fresh blood and the press of his body against her as he took what he thought he had paid for in full.

She gasped and moaned not just to please him and keep him from possibly hurting her but to hide the choking little hiccups in her chest that threatened to become sobs. Which would then become screams. And probably hideous shrieking and cackling thereafter.

There lay madness, and probably punishment at his hands, as well, so she turned her inward eyes away from the abyss and choked off her cries before they could summon her doom.

Her soul cringed inside her as she tried to pay attention to him and yet ignore him.

She tried to tell herself that it could be worse. He’d never actually been violent toward her. Aggressive and insensitive, yes. Degradingly sordid, certainly. Rough, often. But psychopathically violent, no.

Not yet, at least.

But as she tried to convince herself that it could be worse, all she could think of was that if it was this bad without being beaten, or threatened, or cut—how much worse was it for a woman raped with more overt violence? How much worse would it be for her, when perhaps he decided that pleasure could only come from upping the ante and taking more than his pound of flesh from her and stealing a greater slice of her soul?

* * *

It was a minor blessing that he didn’t take her every night. In fact, he didn’t share the bed with her most nights since he rarely stayed here long.

But he took her body twice more over the course of the next five days, paying for the “right” with stolen goods as he stole her dignity.

As she waited for the gift she really wanted.

Finally, he came home with it, along with other items from the store—food for her to cook for herself and sometimes for him; cleaners with which to keep his home tidy. For a month now, she’d been slacking in one area of her duties: cleaning. For weeks now, she’d been less diligent as she used a new cleanser he’d bought. She’d been lax on purpose, letting the grime build a tiny bit at a time, blaming it on the inadequacy of the new brand, and begging him to buy the old one again when this ran out, before the bathroom and kitchen failed to meet his expectations.

And finally, he had produced it.

Tomorrow, she would use it.

Too often, all those channels yielded nothing good, but two months ago, there was that program that talked about how easy it was to make simple explosives with household chemicals.

Never had she been so glad for satellite television, pirate TV channels and paranoid individuals who wanted to tutor “normal” humans how to protect themselves from transhumans in the imagined coming genetic apocalypse.

She had gathered and hoarded and hidden what she’d needed, and then realized she lacked one ingredient. Realized the container that contained it was nearly empty. Insufficient.

And then he’d replaced it with a new brand to be more cost-effective, and her hope had died inside her when she realized it lacked the active ingredient she needed.

But her scheming had worked, and she had it now. She could finish her gift to him now that he’d given her this gift tonight—an item he didn’t even know was a gift.

It was the last gift she ever intended to receive in this prison of wishes that was his home—and her hell.

* * *

As well as his job must pay him, she’d long realized it couldn’t support the opulence in which he had trapped her and in which he lived a few hours a day himself. So that meant his crimes were fairly fruitful overall, and his transhuman powers were probably somewhat formidable.

Not that she knew what they were. He hadn’t told her. She doubted he had invulnerability, since he made sure she couldn’t surprise him when he came home. If she got within two feet of the front door, the elevator, or any window, the collar around her neck gave her a taser-level jolt. It probably also alerted him by pager or cell phone that it had been activated.

She still remembered with mingled humiliation and horror as he cradled her head in his lap that day so many months past, his erection hard against the back of her throbbing skull, as he told her, “Bad girl. I told you not to cross those lines on the floor. I have to keep you safe from the world, so that I can bring just those parts of the world to you that you want. That you need. My princess. If you leave me, how can I give you what you desire?”

And then, as if it was something she desired as much as he did, he stripped her and fucked her body, still recovering from the stunning jolts of electricity, and as she clenched against his manhood in terror and disgust, he no doubt thought it passion and love.

She’d tried to figure out what his powers might be many times since then, but to no avail. He wouldn’t share the information, and the story he’d told them all at the support group—that he had a minor morphing ability to mimic simple textures and colors of nearby surfaces like a chameleon—was probably incomplete at best, and pure fiction at worst.

Not that knowing his powers would give her much of an edge, she realized. Her own abilities weren’t exactly going to win her any fights—acute, almost telescopic vision like a hawk, a nose probably as sensitive as any bloodhound’s, and a level of hearing that sometimes allowed her to hear people on the floors below her captor’s condo, making it feel like help was so near, yet so achingly unreachable. He’d even taken to calling her Sensorama at times because of her powers, like she was some pet superhero he kept, and that diminished her in new ways she hadn’t thought possible, all the more so because it sounded so close to her real name, Sarah. Renamed and ridiculed all at once, in a sociopathic attempt at control over her very identity.

But she had wanted something—something to have of his. The fact he wouldn’t give her that knowledge about his powers irked her—all he had ever told her was the villainous moniker he had decided to take for himself: Mister Master. He took such intimate things from her and left her with the kind of scars that never showed and might never heal, and gave her nothing in return but gifts she no longer desired and nicknames that filled her with dread—when all she wanted now was freedom and vengeance and to know who it really was she was about to kill.

Or try to.

But she could live without knowing his name or his powers. As long as everything else went as planned.

In the end, her near-certainty that he wasn’t particularly resistant to harm was what gave her hope. It was the one rapidly disintegrating vine she clung to as she hung from the edge of her dwindling strength over a precipice of madness.

* * *

It was three more days before he came to take her body for his own again, and it was the first time since she had become his prisoner that she had longed painfully for him to share the bed. She needed him there.

And when finally he was there, panting and pounding her, pinning her body to the bed like a butterfly to a display board, she slipped the small bottle from its hiding place, with that little wrapped parcel taped to the side. She moaned and cried out for him to ravish her harder, so that he wouldn’t sense what was to come.

She realized that she was likely going to sacrifice her left hand in this effort, and perhaps even scar her face, neck and chest. There had once been a time that might have horrified her, but she was beyond the ability to conceive that she would ever let another man see her naked again, so what did she care?

Her chest clenched in fear. This might not work. What if she only stunned him? What if he was able to punish her? Could life become even worse for her? Did she have a choice?

The hand holding the bottle began to shake, and she thought she might drop it, but then she bit her lip, committed herself, and wrapped her legs around him to keep him close; to keep him intent on his assault of her femininity and her autonomy.

He would have to die. She had to believe he would. She would have to stay conscious, though, and wrap the sheets around his throat, just in case he was still alive—just in case he was a Regenerator. She would cut off any hope of air to his lungs or blood to his brain and she would leave that sheet there, tight against his neck, until his body began to rot or she managed to get out of the apartment, whichever came first.

Oh, there would be pain beyond a mangled hand for her and scattered other scars. She would have to step across one of those lines on the floor at least once. Perhaps twice or thrice, to exhaust the battery on the stunning device locked to her.

Then she would be free. She only hoped the multiple taser jolts wouldn’t leave her with some lasting damage.

He had already visited so much destruction upon her already, after all.

But she paused in that thought, and on the verge of striking her blow against him.

Was escape the path to her freedom now? Actual escape? Simply running from this place and reclaiming her old life?


He’d taken her identity and tried to give her a new one.

She would forge her own.

He’d taken her freedom and walled her inside his tower of depravity.

She would claim it for her own.

It would take time to get herself in the shape she would need to be in to do what needed doing. But gaining weapons, at least, would be no problem. When he was dead, she would take the keys from his pocket, and unlock the room she knew housed his arsenal. She could make her own costume. She could use her senses to seek out men like him. Hunters who stole women’s bodies. Who scarred their souls.

She lifted her arm as he came inside her and lost all sensibility and awareness, and she smashed the bottle against the back of his head.

The world roared around her, a sharp and concentrated heat and smell of burning flesh, and she forced herself to remain conscious as her hand was engulfed in agony and her acute hearing made a roaring symphony of the tiny wet sounds of a few small pieces of bloody bone and flesh striking a side table and headboard.

The explosion wasn’t just the sound of her freedom, but a mad epiphany as she abandoned who she had been—as well as abandoning what he had made of her.

Ladykiller, she thought. That will be my name, and what an ironic double entendre it will be when I prowl the night instead of him.

Hours later, she limped from the bedroom, but her steps had never felt more sure. Never lighter.

Never more her own.