Posts Tagged ‘the gathering storm’

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

Almost human again, thought Zoe. Almost human. It’s amazing what water—hot enough and copious enough—can do to sluice away the remnants of a day full of horrors.

In the steamy confines of the small bathroom, a towel wrapped around her torso, Zoe looked at herself in the mirror. No one’s blood on her anymore. And on her face, neck and arms—the places people might see when she had clothes on again—she bore only a few scratches. Once she was dressed, it would almost be as if nothing had happened today. As if she’d never been kidnapped and never killed two men and then watched two more die at the end of Query’s gun barrel.

The intertwined mass of dreadlocks—a ropy mass of reds, pinks and light blonde on her scalp amidst those bearing her natural dark brown, almost ebony, color—reminded her too much of today. She wanted all memories of it shoved as far away from her consciousness as possible.

She closed her eyes, concentrated for a few minutes, and then opened them again, noting that the steam had mostly retreated from the room and the towel had slipped a bit down her upper body. She looked upon the  re-colored landscape of her hair and managed a small smile. A minor change, but a new start of sorts. Most of the locs remained their natural deep dark-chocolate hue but about a third of them now were deep purple or dusky orange, and a couple of them a swirled mix of the two. A few ribbons of lavender wove through the other hues here and there as well.

It’s all got to begin somewhere, she thought, and then slipped into the borrowed clothes from Query’s closets. As she walked out into the main area of the safe-house Query had sent her too, Zoe was greeted by the smell of scrambled eggs and sizzling bacon.

Breakfast for dinner. Mad Dash, I think I love you right now. A little of that in my belly and some TLC from this healer Asclepius when he shows up—I do have a few gashes on my torso along with some serious bumps and bruises—and I just might feel fully human.

* * *

Nearly an hour of searching through Janus’ forest cabins had, as Query had suspected would be the case, yielded no hard evidence to track down the criminal kingpin nor disrupt his schemes. He’d removed the hard drives from several laptops just in case, and commandeered all of the cell phones that Janus’ minions had been carrying, but his hopes weren’t high. The web caches, phone numbers, IP addresses and all the rest would likely lead him on a circuitous path to nowhere.

He’d have more freedom to go on those potential wild goose chases later, once he figured out what to do about Feral and then sent Buttress and Peregrine back home. Even dead-ends could yield insights, though those insights would be hair-thin—Janus seemed quite adept at not leaving evidence that could point to him.

On the other hand, Query didn’t make it common knowledge that all of his senses were highly enhanced, so Janus wouldn’t have guarded against that possibility, perhaps. Janus was probably smart enough that none of these men and women had been near his main headquarters, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t been at some key satellite operations and didn’t bear evidence for Query’s investigation. Every strange scent he picked up that didn’t belong in the woods gave him another clue. Every bit of debris or miscellany in a minion’s pocket that didn’t have anything to do with the forest fed him more information.

I have dozens of tiny puzzle pieces, he thought. Sure, it’s a 5,000-piece puzzle and I can only complete small portions of the overall picture, but I’m getting closer, Janus. My intuitive powers can guess at what some other portions of the puzzle are supposed to be. By having as big an operation as you do, you have lots of people. Eventually, I’m going to find one who can lead me straight to you.

Query glanced up at the two small cameras mounted near the ceiling, and then to the table lamp and potted plant with their hidden spy equipment. He’d disabled all four cameras shortly before beginning his search, but he smiled at them all the same.

Hope you liked the show, you son of bitch.

* * *

The growling and shouting had been going on for some time now; when Buttress first came to tell Query that Feral was fully aware again and angry, the response was simply, “Tell him I’ll be out in 10 and then leave him be.”

Six minutes after that, Buttress was urging Query to come resolve the situation since he had created it to begin with. Without even turning his black mask toward the man, Query held up four fingers and then waved him off with several flicks of his wrist.

Query didn’t really need the extra time to do any more searching for evidence—he was done with that. This exercise in delay was in part meant to gauge Feral’s temperament.

It’s also the principle of the thing. I said 10 minutes and I meant 10 damned minutes.

When he emerged from the cabin, Query was carrying a large black duffel, unzipped and filled to bursting, with a shotgun stock sticking out. He let it drop to the ground. In his other hand, he held a spray bottle he had found in one of the cabin’s kitchens.

Peregrine and Buttress’ eyes were drawn more strongly to the bottle than to the duffel bag that held a firearm. In other circumstances, Query thought, he might have found that amusing. The memory of the horrifically mangled body of one of Janus’ minions in one of the cabins, though, squashed all hope of merriment tonight.

“Get me the fuck outta these!” Feral shouted at Query, spittle flying from his lips, straining at the pair of handcuffs and the various nylon ties as he struggled in his kneeling position.

“Calm down, first.”

“Untie me and unlock me or I will rip your goddamn heart out!”

“That’s not my definition of calm. It’s not anyone’s definition of calm.”

“Let me loose you fu…!”

Query sprayed Feral in the face a dozen times; he could almost feel Peregrine and Buttress tense up at the first few squirts. Clearly, it never occurred to them the bottle would be filled with mere tap water.

What the hell are you…!”

Query sprayed him again, eight more times, saying, “Calm down so we can talk like humans.”

Sputtering as water dripped down his face, Feral half-growled, “I’m not a damn pet on a counter making a mess or getting hair on the couch. Stop trying to humiliate me.”

“I’m not trying to humiliate you, Feral. I am trying to get your attention and appeal to your rational side. I thought this would be a lot nicer than slapping you around.”

“I’m calm now,” Feral answered, his eyes glittering and a snarl teasing at one corner of his mouth.

“No, you’re not, but you’re close enough that I think we can begin to have our talk,” Query said. “I believe I asked you earlier not to kill anyone unless absolutely necessary. I’m pretty sure you could have beaten her senseless instead of shredding her into kibbles and bits. Certainly if you were going to go for a kill, a cleaner and more merciful one seemed appropriate.”

“I was wounded; it sets things off. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“And I’m concerned that this might not have been the first time, Feral. Is it?”

“Plenty of people don’t deserve to live, Query,” he snarled. “Or deserve to die messily.”

You’re avoiding my question, Feral, even as you show you understand my intent in asking it.

“I’m worried about the ones who did deserve to live and might possibly have met a bitter end at the claws you wear. Maybe a petty criminal or an innocent bystander.”

Feral mouthed neither protest nor confirmation, which was precisely what Query had feared might happen. It was a more damning response than an overwrought denial.

Query reached into a side pocket on the duffel bag, extracted something that looked vaguely like a wristwatch, then took out a charger, and tossed both items on the ground near Feral’s feet.

“When I do finally unlock the cuffs and cut off the ties on you, you are going to put that on,” Query said levelly. “I don’t care where. Wrist, ankle, dick—whatever. You will make sure it is charged at all times and you will make sure you wear it every time you leave your home. Do you understand me?”

“An electronic leash? Are you kidding me?”

Query raised the water bottle. “Are we losing our will to be Zen about this?”

“You have no right…”

“I want to know where you are at all times,” Query said. “I want to know if and when you are in the vicinity of a death or serious injury that is…unjustifiable. If I find a pattern, I will chase you down and we will have words—or more. I suggest some meditation classes and anger management.”

On the periphery of his vision, Query saw Buttress and Peregrine fidget, and without taking his eyes off Feral held out a hand, palm out, to urge them to stay out of it.

“I am a Primal. Hardcore Primal. That’s why I call myself Feral,” the man said to Query in a hard growl. “Being a Primal is my key power. It’s in my nature to be wild.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t control yourself and set limits. And if that is what it means for you, then you cannot be on the streets doing what you do because you will put innocent people at risk or you will go too far with someone who is just a minor thug and you will cause me to worry at night and make the rest of us look bad.”

“You can’t tell me what to do, you son of a bitch!”

“I just did,” Query responded, “and you need to calm down.”

“I will not calm down, you piece of shit!” Feral roared, a venomous look in his eyes, his torso and head pressing outward as if he thought he could stretch his way through his bonds to reach Query’s throat. The straining effort left him teetering, though he didn’t tumble.

Query dropped the squirt bottle, quickly snatched the shotgun out of the duffel bag, gave it a quick and hard pump and said with a placid voice, “If you continue to confirm my worst suspicions about you, I will put you down like a rabid dog. I suggest you act like a man instead.”

Feral kneeled back onto his heels, closed his eyes and took a few deep, slow breaths. When he opened his eyes again, there was still anger there, and resentment, but the raw fury had bled away.

“Uh huh,” Query said, sliding the shotgun back into the bag. “You can control yourself when you really want to. Thought so. And that makes my concerns so much more salient. Don’t do anything stupid when I cut you loose, and don’t do anything stupid for the rest of your career in costume. We’ll be working on your control and your boundaries.”

Feral said nothing.

“Did you hear me…Alexander ?” Query said quietly.

Feral flinched at the name, shocked to find that Query knew it and wondering what else he knew.

“Yeah, I heard you.”

“Good, because if you don’t want to cooperate with me on this, you either need to move to Marksburgh or somewhere else far away from here, or get used to the idea of being hunted down. Now let’s get you loose and get the hell out of here.”

* * *

There was no overt odor yet, though it was only a matter of time, and Janus hoped he could dispense with the rest of the unpleasantries in time to get the custodial crew in here before the air became rank. Sparing one last glance at the blue tarp slightly behind him, oblong and lumpy as it lay wrapped around the contents, he put his hands calmly on his desk and centered himself for a few moments.

Picking up the handset of his phone, Janus pressed the button for his receptionist and said, “Please send the next one in.”

“Yes, sir,” the young man answered, and Janus could hear his light chains tinkle quietly as he said “You can go in now” and set down the phone in its cradle, severing the connection to Janus.

Janus glanced down at the file on his desk to remind himself of the name of the man now stepping into his office.

“Please, have a seat, Walt,” Janus said, and spread his hands invitingly as the man settled in. Walt’s eyes drifted around the room, confused, and settled on the back door of the office for a few moments.

“Did Kevin go th…” he began, then stopped as Janus lifted a finger to one set of the lips on the two-faced helmet he wore tonight.

“So, Walt, you are my person in charge of logistics.”

“One of them, sir, yes,” he responded nervously.

“Well, among your various duties, you were charged with oversight of the teams in the Langehorne Woods, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So their supplies were your responsibility?”

“Yes, but what…”

“And do you think you adequately supplied them with…ahhh…defensive tools?”

“As well as my budget allowed. More than they would need, I think.”

“Perhaps you didn’t think hard enough. Perhaps you should have suggested some budgetary adjustments.”


“The team there has been wiped out. The safe-houses there are compromised. Kevin was in charge of communications with that team and I found his defense of his actions somewhat…lacking. I don’t think he communicated my desires well enough to the operatives there. Did you supply them well enough?”

“Yes, sir, I think I…”

“There you go thinking again. But you seem to be doing a lot of thinking now, when I would have preferred you thought ahead earlier. Thought outside the box, perhaps. Anticipated various contingencies like competent trans white hats.”

When Janus paused, Walt fidgeted a little, and then asked, “How big a strike force hit them, sir? Did someone on the team there betray the location? Was it all transhumans in the assault team? There’s so much I don’t know that it’s hard to defend myself to you. If it was more than one transhuman, that wasn’t the sort of thing one could anticipate…”

Janus stood up, calmly stepped past the tarp behind his desk and stood near Walt. “You’re paid to anticipate. You are compensated quite well with other things besides money to anticipate.”

A hand flashed out as Walt opened his mouth to speak, gripping the side of his head firmly. Then a soft, wet, rending sound and a gurgle from the man’s throat instead of words. And then silence, and sluggish lines of gore running down the man’s face and neck toward his torso.

Not as messy as with Kevin; I must be starting to calm down finally.

Janus casually pulled out a second tarp from behind the sofa in his office and deftly whipped it out to lay flat on the ground. No rush. The man’s own clothes would slow the flow of blood and other fluids before they reached the carpet. Then he tipped the chair back onto the tarp, rolled the dead man onto it, and wrapped him tight, dragging him next to his co-worker. Fishing out a tube of Clorox wipes, Janus pulled out two sheets and cleaned a few stray bits of gore from the chair before he set it back up again.

Next time I find your lair, Query, I will have a dozen men fire rockets into the building. No more finesse. I will more than kill you. I will obliterate you for this. You were supposed to already be dead. Why won’t you cooperate?

Janus returned to his leather chair, feeling much less anxious and wondering where Crazy Jane had run off to. He shrugged, sighed, pulled out a new file, and picked up the phone to have his receptionist send in the third and final of the employees to question about this—the one who was supposed to be on top of security protocols for the Langehorne Woods safe-houses.

Maybe she’ll have better answers, Janus thought. It would be nice to send at least one of them back to the offices breathing to show I’m a merciful man at times.

* * *

“Good evening, and welcome to ‘Nighttime RightView,’ Isaac,” Ben Glick said into his headphone as the first caller of the evening was patched into the booth from which he hosted three radio shows a week: mornings on Monday, afternoons on Wednesday and late night on Saturday.

“Thanks, Ben,” said the caller. “I listen to your show at times, and rarely agree with you, but I’ve only felt the need to call tonight with you trying to fire up a race war in connection to transhumans.”

“And how have I done that, exactly?” Ben responded smugly.

“Oh, I don’t know…maybe your insistence on a 50-foot-high wall with snipers and electrified gates along the Mexican border, your call to suspend all immigration and naturalization from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia for the next decade and…uh…your crazy insistence that there’s a ‘Tex-Mix buffet’ of dangerous transhumans all through the Southwest raping norm women to corrupt peaceful white American genetics…”

“Well, Isaac, Caucasians are decidedly less prone to developing transhuman powers, aren’t they? Kinds of puts us at a disadvantage we need to correct and protect against, don’t you think?” Ben retorted.

“No, not really,” Isaac answered. “Whites are still the overwhelming majority of people in this country, even more so when you factor in white Hispanics. So the number of transhumans here is pretty close to even between whites and non-whites in the U.S.”

“Sure, sure,” Ben said with a patronizing tone. “But the projections say that whites will be a minority by 2050; what’s going to happen then?”

“Whites will be a little less than half the population, I think is what the studies say, and that will still make them the single largest group—not a minority.”

“But the transhuman figures won’t be anywhere near as close to equal then, will they, Zach-y boy?” Ben countered. “And when our not-native-born ‘President’ Obama starts ramping up immigration for his extremist Muslim pals abroad and hands out all sorts of government money to them and encourages them to build big, strong families, and then starts marching our Christian, Caucasian women to the abortion clinics to start slicing into our numbers—well, whites will be a minority well before 2050.”

“That’s ridiculous! He doesn’t have broad powers like that, not to mention he’s U.S. born, no matter what your birther nonsense paranoia, and he’s Christian. People like you…”

“Hey, gotta go to the next caller, Isaac. I’m sure you have an militant Liberal-Islamo-Socialist Party meeting to go to so you can raise funds to get Obama his fascist emergency powers and a lifetime seat in the Oval Office anyway. Don’t want you to be late.”

“Muslim, terrorist, socialist, leftist and fascist? That doesn’t even make any…”

With a slice of his index finger across his throat as the signal, Ben had the technician cut the connection, smiled broadly as he saw a thumbs-up in regard to the next caller, and said, “Hello, John, and welcome to the call-in part of our show. I hope you’re a bit smarter than the last guy.”

“Ben, I’m a huge fan, and I wish you’d put your hat in the ring to run against that pretender in the White House. I just wanna say that…”

Ben smiled broadly, and winked at the technician through the booth’s window, watching the phone lines light up with callers, and knowing it was going to be a flood of contempt for the opinions of Isaac and every other weak-willed idiot out in the world who thought like he did.

* * *

After a 15-minute conversation to catch up, most of which she couldn’t hear—not that it would be easy to understand as Mad Dash lapsed into a string of metaphors and absurdities that confused her, anyway—Zoe saw the Speedster give Query a nod, wave to her and then exit the safe-house.

“Sorry about that,” Query said to Zoe. “I know it’s been a rough day for you but I needed to catch Dash up on things.”

“Oh, I feel a lot better,” Zoe said. “About most things, anyway. Not so sure about this,” she added, holding up a tiny, oblong black lozenge between her thumb and forefinger.

“Yes?” Query said in a tone that was unconcerned but also invited her to continue.

“Mad Dash called over that Asclepius guy on your tab, apparently. Nice guy. Fixed up my boo-boos really good. Also sensed a foreign object that he ‘encouraged’ my body to spit out. Funny—it seems to be in the same spot you ‘accidentally’ jabbed me on graduation day when you helped me off the ground.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t exactly 100% forthcoming about that small ‘mishap.’ I put that there on purpose,” Query said.

“Care to tell me what the fuck it is?” Zoe pressed, her voice gaining an edge.

“Transmitter. Tracking device.”

“So, I didn’t need to be kidnapped, or at least not wake up in a trunk panicked and out of control. You could have saved me all that bullshit and stress?”

“No, not really,” Query answered. “That was mainly an emergency backup plan. It’s a passive transmitter; otherwise, Janus’ people could have detected it and be tipped off that you were tagged. I needed to have something else like one of my flying drones get close enough to communicate with it and make it active. I had someone following you when I couldn’t, like tonight.”

“He didn’t do a very good job, did he?”

“He did a great job,” Query countered. “Kept track of you long enough for me to get a couple drones in your vicinity and make sure you had a rescue coming.”

“He let me get caught,” she snapped.

“It was his job to watch you, not protect you.”

“Yeah, that was your job, wasn’t it?” Zoe nearly spat at him. “Except you wanted me to get captured, didn’t you? So that you could get to Janus. You son of a bitch.”

Query regarded her for a moment through the eyeless black mask, arms crossed over his chest, and nodded slightly. “It was something I considered could happen. If I had wanted it to happen, though, I wouldn’t have saved you the first time at graduation, now would I?”

“You hadn’t tagged me before then, though” she pointed out.

“True, but I have my ways,” Query said. “But yes, I did consider that if I couldn’t stop Janus from succeeding with one of his nabs, I could use you as a way to either get to him or at least get close enough to some of his operatives to gather clues.”

Zoe threw the tiny transmitter at him and watched it bounce off the right cheek of his mask. It didn’t satisfy her nearly enough, so she swept one arm wide to knock over a torchiere-style floor lamp and a side table, along with the small candy dish and a set of coasters that had sat on it.

“Tell me how that makes you any different from that bitch Underworld who’s been trying to get me to join up with Janus and trying to manipulate me into saying yes or scare me into it. How the fuck are you any better?” she shouted.

“I could say that you’ve been getting my services for free, so you get what you pay for, but that wouldn’t even be true, because I’ve gone out of my way to keep watch on you—and Underworld where possible—and keep you from harm and prevent you from being whisked away from my surveillance,” Query said. “What I will emphasize though, is that I’m a shitload different from Underworld because my goal in all this—beyond any desire to use you as bait or gain something from Janus’ interest in you—is to ultimately free you from a threat so that you can make your own life decisions. Underworld’s been trying to snare you; I’m trying to get you free to move on with life as you choose. And then get me out of your life, too.”

“You used me,” Zoe said miserably. “I trusted you and you used me.”

“My plan was never to let you get caught, Zoe. That would have been plain stupid along with being rotten,” he said, holding his hands out, palms up as if in supplication. “You being caught and a teeny little passive transmitter vastly increased my chances of losing track of you altogether. But I considered the possibility you might be successfully kidnapped, and I’d have been a fool not to plan ahead to capitalize on that.”

“Capitalize?” Zoe sneered.

“Face it, Zoe: Regardless of any personal interest I have in taking Janus down, it’s in both our interests for me to find him. He may try to get at you again; he may not. Probably not. This latest attempt cost him a lot in terms of manpower, money and more exposure to me. You’ve become expensive. Going after you is now officially a liability and a loss proposition.”

“All the more reason to punish me by coming after me again.”

“Wrong. He’d come after me because I’m the one messing with him.”

“I killed two of his guys,” Zoe pointed out.

“He doesn’t know that. Also, it’s small potatoes compared to the damage I did. He’ll come after me or one of my few friends if he looks for revenge. I doubt you’re one of my friends after all this, so he won’t pick you.”

Zoe leaned against the back of the nearby sofa and sighed. “You could have at least told me what you were up to,” she said dejectedly.

“A secret backup plan ceases to be secret if I tell someone,” Query said. “And I like my secrets. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I’m not sorry I planned things the way I did, because I still think it was necessary, but I am truly sorry for what you went through. That’s the other difference between me and Underworld. She may not be as outright nasty or vicious as Janus, but she likes control. She practically orgasms when she breaks someone or gets them to submit to her will. I don’t get any pleasure from having played you; not even a little bit.”

For nearly a minute, they remained in silence, before Zoe finally broke it. “So, what now?”

“To be on the safe side, I find someplace you can stay that give you a bit more freedom than this little place and even more security. Cute as it is, I doubt you want to spend the next several months here while I assess the fallout and whether you’re still at risk.”

“Any ideas where yet?”

“Yeah, I think I have a place; a person who will make sure nothing happens to you.”

“A friend of yours?”

“No. I don’t like him much at all, but I know you’ll be safe from Janus with him. But for now, you get some sleep, and I’ll fill you in when the sun is up.”

“Where will you be?”

“Right on the couch,” Query said. “I’ll be reading. No one will find you here, and if they do, they won’t get by me. I promise that. I can do that because I’ll die before I break that promise, and if I die, I won’t have to worry about catching shit from you for breaking it.”

Zoe laughed despite herself, and muttered, “I still don’t like you right now.”

“I have that effect on a lot of people.”

“What if you fall asleep?”

“Not a chance. You see—and considering what I’ve put you through, I guess I can tell you what only a few people know—I don’t sleep. And before you ask, yes, I mean that literally. The price for my powers is a brain that doesn’t know how to shut down anymore, even for a few minutes.”

“You know, it’s not a secret if you tell someone,” Zoe pointed out, feeling some satisfaction for using at least some of his earlier words against him.

“It doesn’t need to be a secret, Zoe. It’s just personal. And I don’t share personal with many people. You may not like me, and that’s understandable. But I like you, and I wish we could have met under better circumstances. You’re good people, Zoe, and I want you to step out in the real world with as clean a slate as possible. You deserve that as much as I deserve your scorn.”

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

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

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 – ]

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

“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 – ]

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

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.

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

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

Zoe took a deep breath when she was out of the building, feeling like the Sociology discussion section had been a three-hour political debate on the verge of a brutal election instead of a simple hour-long classroom discussion. She fished around in her purse, came up with a nearly empty pack of cigarettes, and shook one out, lighting it and getting her first and long-overdue nicotine fix of the morning.

A pox on all anti-smoking roommates who claim allergies they don’t have just to make my life a little more difficult—well, on the one roommate who does that to me, anyway, Zoe cursed silently, exhaling a stream of white into the air and seeing a woman through the rapidly dispersing veil of smoke.

The same woman from her class, standing several yards away and looking at her.

She was blonde, maybe in her late 30s or early 40s—looking more like a businesswoman or someone else self-important enough to stare down a stranger while wearing clothes and shoes Zoe only wished she could afford.

Zoe brushed one long, thick loc away from her face and smoked slowly, matching the woman’s stares. There was no hostility from the blonde, but Zoe made sure to add just the tiniest hint of menace to her own brown-eyed gaze, letting the smoke punctuate the heat of her own residual anger from her classmates’ insults against her faith—as well as punctuate her defiance toward this stranger.

Finally, the cigarette burned down near the filter, with no change between them in those several minutes as they had locked gazes. Zoe dreaded that she was going to have to be on the losing end of this staring match so that she could discard her smoke in the butt receptacle nearby, but then the other woman spoke, clearly and distinctly—her voice raised just enough to reach Zoe’s ears, but low enough to be civil and polite.

“You don’t like to back down, do you?” the woman said mildly, but Zoe could catch the glint of amusement in her green eyes.

Zoe ignored her just long enough to toss out the smoldering butt, then turned back toward the woman and blew out her last lungful of smoke. “No, I don’t. Are you from the Ministry of Discussion and Debate Enforcement or something? Did I violate some Oxford debate rule or some aspect of Robert’s Rules of Order in there?”

The blonde smiled. “I don’t have the first thing to do with the university, my dear,” she answered. “I’m just an invader in your class. An intruder on campus. Or, more accurately, a recruiter. It’s too early for lunch, but I had a light breakfast hours ago, so how about I buy you some brunch and I tell you why I’m here?”

Zoe felt a twinge of nervousness. The woman seemed non-threatening on the surface, but a cloud of turmoil seemed to hang in the air, centered on her. A vague miasma of dark portents. But as the blonde had already noted, backing down wasn’t one of Zoe’s strong suits, and it wouldn’t be the first time she let curiosity lead her down a questionable path.

“Sure,” Zoe said, trying to muster a note of confidence and even mild disdain. “Dad always said to never turn down anything but my collar.”

* * *

Desperado and Blockbuster kept Cole company for more than an hour. Blockbuster continued to say nothing—though he let out more than his fair share of periodic grunts and scoffing noises—while Desperado would randomly fire off a question about Cole’s past then lapse into long minutes of silence after Cole answered it and awaited the next one.

I’m starting to think the company of rats and maybe roaches in this shithole was more a comfort than the company of these two, Cole considered.

Finally, there was a light rapping at the door, and Blockbuster admitted a woman whom Cole could only assume was the long-awaited interrogator.

“Nice of you to finally show up,” Desperado said with a mix of joviality and annoyance.

“I was needed in the Bronx last night, and it takes time to drive back to New Judah, and I needed some sleep. Or do you think you have a monopoly on my time?” she responded, blowing a huge pink bubble then sucking it back into her mouth and snapping her gum loudly before saying, “So, this is the newbie?”

“Yup,” Desperado said. “Blockbuster and I will move over there to give you room. He’s all yours.”

She set down a sizeable valise, the contents of which Cole could only guess at—and worry about, frankly, given that the title “interrogator” had been applied to her so many times. She pulled a file folder out of a smaller bag slung over her shoulder, and started perusing it.

The extended silence—broken only by the quiet, vague mutterings of the two men in the corner—gave Cole plenty of time to wonder at the appearance of the woman sent to grill him. The mouthful of bubble gum alone was enough of a dichotomy when he considered the task she had been sent here for, but her attire was even more so, he thought, as she pulled off her overcoat to reveal her outfit.

She wore leggings the color of buttercream and decorated with images of tiny pink cupcakes, little yellow-and-brown wedges of cake and red-and-white peppermint candies. Her boots were knee-high and candy-apple red, made of glistening vinyl. She had on a black T-shirt with a huge yellow smiley face, over which she wore a short cotton-candy-pink translucent plastic coat. From her throat hung a trio of still-wrapped lollipops bound to a red leather cord around her neck and from her ears dangled earrings that were in the shape and color of two vanilla ice cream cones with rainbow sprinkles.

She was neither pretty nor ugly, but Cole realized she also wasn’t “plain” or “average.” Her bobbed hair was a shockingly bright shade of maroon and so unnatural-looking that Cole suspected it was a wig. Her nose was too thin to be flattering and her brown eyes set just a little too far apart above cheeks that were a hair too cherubic for her relatively thin face. Somehow, though, the entirety of it made her look cute while somehow quirky and stern at the same time.

“So, Cole,” she finally said after reviewing the file for some 10 minutes, “why don’t you tell me why you assaulted Hannah.”

“I didn’t,” he said. “I told Desperado that before. I don’t have the slightest clue who did.”

“Well, charges were never brought, but the files from your school are pretty clear on the fact that staff and students thought you were guilty. Convenient that Hannah was in a coma for so long and didn’t have any memory of who attacked her when she came to a month later. So, Cole, just tell me: Why? You don’t really expect me to think everyone was wrong.”

“Why not? People get blamed all the time for things they didn’t do,” Cole said, feeling like he should be indignant but instead finding himself approaching her question with complete serenity instead. “I didn’t do anything to Hannah. I’ve never hurt a girl—or woman. I don’t even know what I’m going to do the first time I have to fight a female thug or villain.”

“But you hurt guys, right?” she said. “Paul…”

“…dammit,” Cole said, interrupting, but his voice still calm and level. “I have the same answer I gave to Desperado. I don’t even know what you all are talking about with Paul getting hurt, and I already admit I hurt Isaac at Homecoming. Can we move on?”

“No, we can’t,” she said, looking him straight in the eyes. “Why did you assault Isaac, then? Let’s start with the person you will cop to trying to kill.”

“I didn’t try to kill him,” Cole said. “Jesus. He was never even in critical condition. I don’t even know if he got tagged as being in serious condition. He…dammit. Isaac hated me. Everyone seemed to dislike me once they started figuring I was transhuman, but most of the students at school had been treating me like crap for years even before that point. It was like I got designated the punching bag. The scapegoat. I don’t know. It was hell.”

“So you figured you’d deal out some hell yourself?”

“No. It wasn’t like that. I’d gotten a girlfriend. Someone across town that I knew through one of my cousins. She didn’t have any damn idea I was trans and I wanted to keep it that way. My first girlfriend. It wasn’t serious, but it was nice to have someone care about me. It was nice to be able to hold hands with her, get a quick kiss. Heck, we broke up before we even got to any rubbing each other through our clothes, much less sex, but it was nice while it lasted.”

“Did I ask you about your love life, Cole?” she asked. “I want to know about your assault life.”

“I’m getting to that. I told a couple people about her at school. It was stupid. I should have known by then that anyone who was kind-of-sort-of a friend wasn’t anything but an acquaintance on the way to scoring points with everyone else by getting a shot in at me,” Cole said. His stomach knotted at the memories, but his voice stayed clear and firm. “They told Isaac about her. Isaac cornered me during the Homecoming Dance and announced he was going to tell her I was a freak.”

“So you attacked him with your powers? You scarred him for life—literally.”

“You people are all so full of melodrama, like I turned him into a double of the Phantom of the Opera or Freddy Kreuger or Quasimodo. He recovered. He got really minor plastic surgery, almost nothing shows, and he still looks better than most guys.”

“Glad you find assault and battery of a non-trans with you using your transhuman powers such a minor thing, Cole,” she said tartly.

“I don’t. I didn’t even use my powers on him—not really,” Cole said. “I was mad, and I was ready to kick his ass, even though I knew he could wipe the floor with me. I just lunged forward, and startled him, and my powers kicked in, and he fell off the bleachers and into a bunch of boxes full of lights and other decorations and stuff that didn’t get used for the dance.”

“So he was bold enough to make your life hell, confront you alone, and then panicked when your modest-sized self starting moving in on his football-playing self?” she asked, her face pinched in way that might as well have said: Who are you trying to shit here?

“I think he was startled that I’d try to take him, but that wasn’t it,” Cole said. “I was mad, and my powers flared, and that made him get disoriented and lose his balance. Then I ran off. I’m almost positive he didn’t even know I used my powers.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, really. I think the only reason he never told anyone I was even around when he got hurt was because first off, he’d risk people thinking he lost his nerve with me and second, he didn’t know what my powers were, so he didn’t dare accuse me of using my powers. I mean, imagine telling people that I pummeled him with Brute powers or threw him into the boxes with some Ecto tendrils, then I have to out myself and show people what my powers really were. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew if he accused me of attacking him and people found out I just had Cyber powers or was a Brain or something, he’d be a laughingstock. I’m surprised you guys managed to connect me to his injuries.”

“We didn’t, Cole. We’ve harped on the Hannah thing because people were saying you hurt her. We picked the others figuring there was a decent chance you might have had something to do with their injuries.”

“And I basically admitted to the Isaac thing, and so that’s my fault that you know.”

“Yeah. But I’m still having trouble swallowing all of this. How come people knew you were a transhuman and no one knew what you could do?”

“My mom,” Cole said bitterly. “She taught there, and she and dad already knew I had powers. One day early in sophomore year my powers flared up at school and she was there to see it happen. She took me aside and gave me a huge lecture about not letting that ever happen again because she and dad couldn’t stand the stigma of being known as parents of a transhuman. I don’t think she meant it to come out so harsh, but it was one of those Freudian slip moments, I guess. She spoke what she really felt.”

“This still doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t sound like she would have told…”

“She didn’t out me. One of my classmates overheard the whole thing. Eavesdropping. All the other kids needed was to know was that I was transhuman. Didn’t matter what my powers were. It just gave them more justification to push me farther to the margins and treat me worse. Incidentally, before you ask, Isaac eventually did find my girlfriend and told her I was trans, and she broke up with me because of that—or maybe just because I was hiding it from her. Believe me, if I wanted to hurt Isaac, I would have done it after that stunt.”

With a suddenness that was almost physically jarring to Cole, she dropped the topic and moved on to other questions that were as far from the previous conversation as he could imagine. She asked him about family. She asked him about earliest memories. She asked about drug use. She asked about his feelings toward various ethnic groups. Whether he had ever committed any crimes, however minor. What his most shameful desire was. Who his heroes and role models might be. What the last three books were that he had read.

No sooner did he answer one question than she would ask another. Two hours or more of picking apart his life and personality—rapid-fire questions that ran from the inane to the essential; the superficial to the philosophical.

“What’s your power, Cole?” she finally asked after all of that.

“I can’t believe it’s taken you guys so long to ask,” he said, almost sounding relieved.

“What you can do isn’t that important, Cole. Sure, there are lots of useless powers and maybe we’d cut you for that. But it’s more important to know your character, Cole, especially when we’ve even let you into this apartment. It’s far removed from our central operations, but it still gives you knowledge most people don’t have. We need to know whether you’re a danger to us before we care what tricks you can do thanks to some genetic quirks. What can you do, Cole?”

“I’m a Warpsmith. That’s why Isaac fell. My powers kicked on and twisted the world a little around him, and he got disoriented,” Cole said. “I’ve knocked some things over without touching them, too, so I think I might have telekinesis, too, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to focus that power.”

“Or you could be an Attractor, Cole, if the items have been of similar material. Or maybe you’re an Ecto. Sometimes quasi-matter is invisible. You could have manifested some tendrils of quasi-matter. It’s extradimensional, and you’re a Warpsmith, so it would make sense they might go together. We can help you figure it out, and help you learn to focus better.”

She took a long drink from her water bottle, popped some fresh gum in her mouth, and within seconds was blowing a huge bubble. It popped, and she asked, “How do you feel about women, Cole? How do you treat them? Mad at them for how you got treated?”

“No. I’m fine with women. Except the ones who’ve earned my disrespect. Jeez. You’ve done enough research on me already. I’ve had girlfriends in college. I do as right by them as my budget allows, and I’m not mean to them.”

“You ever cheat on them, Cole? Ever want to?”

“No and no.”

“Enough of that, Sweet Talker,” Desperado said. “You’re not here to find a guy. Yeah, no one wants to date you, but there are plenty of non-trans guys out there who don’t know what you can do. Go after them.”

“It’s not about me. I’m getting a little tired of how guys like you have been treating some of the women in the Guardian Corps—and some of the not-quite-yet-women,” she snapped. “You all want to be all macho and play the field. Be nice to figure out what guys I can actually point them for dating to instead of pricks like you.”

“Hate the game; don’t hate the player,” Desperado said.

Cole couldn’t help but notice Blockbuster smiling at that—the only bit of amusement he’d ever seen in the man since meeting him. “I’m confused,” Cole said. “I feel like I’m on the outside of a in-joke.”

“Cole, meet Sweet Talker. An Interfacer and a Primal. Her vocal intonations and pheromones together make it damn well irresistible to speak to her honestly and spill your guts—at least if you don’t know what she’s doing. Anyone on their guard who knows her powers can clam up, though lying is still pretty hard. It’s why none of us will date her. Sucks to have a girlfriend who will ferret out all your secrets. A guy can’t be on guard all the time.”

“You shouldn’t have cheated on me, then,” she countered. “A guy who mattered wouldn’t worry about secrets because he wouldn’t have any that could hurt the relationship.”

“You were never relationship material, Sweets,” Desperado said. “Too much drama. Enjoy that I gave you my time at all.”

Sweet Talker blew another bubble and, as it popped, waved at Cole good-naturedly, though she scowled at Desperado. “Anyway, nice to meet you, Cole,” she said, and then to Desperado: “So. Yea or Nay?”

“He’s solid enough to start,” he told her, then faced Cole. “You’ll be camping out here most nights of the week, and we’ll get you into some training and have you shadow some Corps patrols just to see what happens. After a few weeks, we’ll decide if you can see one the big houses and move onto more serious training.”

Sweet Talker touched Cole lightly on the shoulder, “Not sure if you’ll like it here, Cole. You’re a long way from the kind of people you’re used to. But welcome to the club if that’s what you want. It was nice talking to you.”

“Yeah, always nice to talk to guy before he realizes he has to keep his mouth shut around you,” Blockbuster said as she headed to the door to leave.

Desperado caught Cole’s dark glance in Blockbuster’s direction, shrugged his shoulders slightly, and gave a quick and hard glance toward the door. The message was clear: If you don’t like us, you don’t need to stay.

Cole considered it for a moment, but then said, as he watched the woman in candy-themed attire step through the door: “Talk to you later, Sweet Talker.”

Desperado shook his head, laughing quietly, and Cole wondered if he was just generally amused, or laughing at him. Blockbuster had a thin grin on his lips that seemed to be the visual equivalent of Desperado’s laugh—and that gave more weight to the theory that any humor was at his expense. It didn’t matter either way, he figured. He wasn’t necessarily here to make friends but rather to learn something and make connections.

“I’m going to go tell my roommates some tall tales and figure out how to smuggle out a bag full of clothes and stuff to bring here,” Cole said firmly, with just a trace of insolence. “When do you need me here?”

Desperado paused, looked him up and down, seeming surprised at Cole’s shift in demeanor and eagerness to start. “Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and every other Sunday, beginning with the upcoming one. Be here by 8 p.m. and don’t go back to your place before 6 a.m. on your off days. Stock up on antiseptics, bandages and aspirin.”

Cole simply nodded and walked out without another word. He didn’t ask where they were or how to get back to his part of the city. He wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction, even though they had brought him here blindly. He’d find his way soon enough, and then find his way back.

* * *

The blonde woman, who had yet to offer Zoe a name, had picked a very expensive place to dine. Figuring she’d take advantage of the ability to get some decent caffeine, Zoe ordered a regular coffee with room for cream and then a Turkish coffee. She poured the latter into the former when the drinks arrived, as the blonde woman sipped at her cappuccino.

Zoe took a quick gulp of her over-caffeinated and over-sweet coffee concoction, and decided to break the silence. “So, you said you’re a recruiter? U.S. Olympic gymnast team? If so, they must be paying you guys a lot better these days. You have nice clothes.”

“Thank you,” the woman said. “I try to stay in style.”

“Well, my answer is the same as it was seven or eight years ago,” Zoe said. “I have…political and philosophical issues with the Olympics thing. Still not interested.”

“Are you sure you’re not just afraid someone might find out your secret, since the Olympic Committee is so much more thorough than the NCAA?”

Zoe froze in mid-sip, then slowly took another drink and set her cup down. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m not with the Olympic team, Zoe. I’m not even with the NCAA. I don’t really like sports unless they’re the kind that involve a fit man with a broad chest and tight abs on a big, soft bed.” The woman reached up and pulled her hair away—a blonde wig—revealing longer, darker tresses beneath. “So much better. Since we’re in a booth in the corner, I think we can dispense with this until we leave.”

Though she was feeling very nervous now, Zoe carefully sipped her drink again, hoping that it would make her appear unruffled. “Should I recognize you or something? I’m not into celebrities that much.”

“Oh, no reason for you to recognize me, Zoe. I know you have issues with connecting to your fellow transhumans and don’t really follow the exploits of the more famous ones. But some of the men on campus and in here in particular might have recognized me, so I figured better safe than sorry. After all, my website is still very active and the FBI still circulates my picture.”

Her casual knowledge of the hero and villain community began to slowly fall into place, and Zoe said, with a little hitch in her voice: “You’re Underworld?”

“Yes, my dear. Oh, here comes the waiter. Let’s order before we continue.”

“Not sure I’m hungry anymore.”

“Order. And eat. I’m spending good money and if you draw unwanted attention to me I won’t be happy.” Underworld said it all with a good-natured smile, but Zoe heard the tone of mild threat underneath.

She ordered food that she didn’t want, and tried to figure out how she was going to calm her stomach down before it arrived.

“So,” Underworld said once the waiter was gone, “I guess you weren’t expecting this.”

“I’m still not sure what ‘this’ is yet. What are you recruiting for?”

“Who, my dear, not what. I’m recruiting for Janus, who has developed quite an interest in you and your powers,” Underworld said.

“I’m not into that kind of thing. I just want to graduate and get a good job.”

“I don’t think disappearing into the crowd of humanity is going to work, Zoe. When Janus decides he wants something, he tends to refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“So you’re not recruiting me,” Zoe said, feeling her hand shake a little as it lifted the cup of dark and sweet brew to her lips. “You’re drafting me.”

Underworld paused, sipped her own coffee, and licked her dark red, glistening lips. She sighed lightly, and then leaned forward. “Zoe, I’m warning you. And telling you what’s what.”


“Zoe, I am all too familiar with how Janus’ interest in female transhumans usually manifests, and Crazy Jane is a good example of what happens when things don’t go so well for the woman,” Underworld said. “Things often don’t go well.”

“I don’t want to be part of that kind of life. I don’t want to be a criminal. I don’t want to be under the thumb of someone like Janus. What are you going to do? Drag me to him? Force me?” Zoe wanted to sound indignant and defiant, but realized she was sounding frightened instead.

“Zoe, I think you probably have a fine future ahead of you,” Underworld said. “I like to see women get ahead on their own merits, and I don’t like to see them victimized.”

“But you came to tell me I have to work for Janus, anyway, didn’t you?”

“I’m telling you that Janus is insistent. I’m telling you he wants me to recruit you,” Underworld said. “I’m telling you that if you don’t want that, you should run very far, very fast and forget about trying to complete your studies. He likely won’t wait that long, and the longer you’re in his sights, the less chance you’ll be able to run without him knowing exactly where you’re going.”

“I can’t just run. How would I live? Where would I go?”

“Zoe, I’m going to court you and I’m going to tell you all the wonderful perks of being part of a criminal empire and helping to build it from the ground up. I’m going to do that because even I slip up sometimes, and one of these visits, Janus might manage to slip a bug on me to monitor what I say. Since I love my family, I’d prefer to keep them unscathed, and I won’t be this open with you again. I’m going to woo you for as long as it takes to get you to say yes.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Zoe said. “Are you telling me to run or telling me it’s no use to try?”

“I’m telling you that this won’t be the first meal I take you to. I will drag out the process as long as I can for you to figure out what you want to do,” Underworld said. “I don’t have much of a conscience—I just have female solidarity—so if you take too long, I won’t try to stop any of Janus’ people from dragging you to him. I also won’t cry over it. You’re going to have to decide whether you say ‘yes’ before he gets mad, whether to keep trying to buy time for too long and make him mad by doing so, or whether to run.”

Or whether to get help somehow, Zoe thought, but left the words unspoken. This wasn’t an ally—just a reluctant enemy.

“You’ve delivered your message, and clearly I’ll piss you off if I don’t finish this meal with you and let you leave here on your own terms as quietly as you can. So, can we change the subject to something that isn’t terrifying, please, so that I don’t throw up my brunch as soon as I start eating it?”

“By all means, Zoe,” Underworld said with a smile that bore a cruel edge to it. “By all means.”

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

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

Silence was a delicate thing, Jeremiah has always thought, and needed to be treated with respect. His employer had read the letter—his first official task of the morning—and had clearly been considering its implications. But, being ever-attuned to the nuances of environment, behavior and timing, Jeremiah felt that the silence was on the verge of gathering pressure and mass—it was poised to become oppressive and distracting. So he did what he had always done in his role as executive assistant—a role that had been built as something far more than a glorified secretary, even if it was also far less than a vice presidency.

He intervened to manage the silence, and keep the flow of activity in its proper course.

“Sir, how should we respond?” Jeremiah asked the man who had been named Arturo Vasquez shortly after emerging from his mother’s womb, but was known by most people now simply as Fortunato.

Fortunato smiled lightly, both a recognition that it was time to act somehow and also an acknowledgement that he appreciated Jeremiah’s exquisite timing and perception. “For now, we do nothing.”

“Sir, Janus has officially issued you a challenge,” Jeremiah noted. “He is stating his intention to you—as I’m sure he has to other business leaders, as well as various criminal bosses and public officials—to set up a new operation for himself in this region and to impinge upon your income.”

“And that is just the thing,” Fortunato pointed out. “I’m not his only target of interest in making this known.”

“But you are one of the richest men in the nation and one of the most powerful businessmen in New Judah, and a known transhuman. Much of your influence and wealth comes from your notoriety and popularity, which in turn comes from the fact that you lead a life publicly and openly as a transhuman. Even though you rarely intervene directly in crime and such anymore, Janus may see you as a threat.”

“Perhaps,” Fortunato said, “but clearly he sees Query as the big threat. I’ve heard through the transhuman community that Query was targeted by a very well-equipped hit squad backed by Janus. No, Janus isn’t interested in engaging me directly—at least not any time soon. He likes fear and he likes to make aggressive postures. He’s sending a message to all of us that he want a piece of what every one of us has, whether we pay protection or whether we let him into our operations, criminal or legitimate.”

Jeremiah frowned. “But you’re not going to ignore him.”

The words were a statement, not a question; he knew his boss too well. It was just a confirmation, and an invitation for Fortunato to continue.

“Not a bit,” Fortunato said. “As you well know, while I don’t engage in truly unsavory commerce, there are aspects of my corporate reach that are less pure than others, and which Janus might be able to touch directly. I’ll have to keep an eye on those shadier areas in particular.”

“But most of all, we wait for now to see what he will do next, and to determine how we will respond,” Jeremiah stated.

“Exactly,” Fortunato said. “Now, on to reviewing matters that actually impact my bottom line in the short run, before I have to talk to the board of directors this afternoon.”

* * *

Mornings were already anathema to Zoe; having to endure the discussion section for Prof. McGinnis’ Sociology and Culture class at 8 a.m. on Monday was sheerest torture.

Today was worse than most such Mondays.

The grad student who oversaw these discussion sessions was wholly in the professor’s camp in terms of theory, to a degree that was verifiably sycophantic; Zoe wondered often whether Cheryl had a single original thought in her head when it came to the topics they covered in class.

And now that they were discussing religion and culture, the heavy focus on transhuman influences in culture that had so pervaded the class had been poised to go precisely where Zoe didn’t want it to go. But, as she had worried, it did anyway.

Adding to the discomfiture was a woman in the class whom Zoe didn’t recognize—too old to be a student. Perhaps some kind of academic observer? In any case, she was an outsider, which added to Zoe’s stress levels.

“Why does Jesus have to be a transhuman?” Zoe said in response to a theory Cheryl had tossed out to the class like fresh meat to a cage full of lions, and which had been under discussion for at least 15 minutes now.

“Because it’s what makes sense, Zoe,” countered one of her classmates, Ralph, whom she normally liked well enough. But he was rigidly and even haughtily atheist and she had long since learned that religious discussions were a lousy place to go with him.

No helping that in this venue, though, she thought bitterly.

“Why?” she asked. “Look, if you want to say the stories of Jesus’ miracles were just made up, fine. But why does it ‘have to’ make sense that he was a transhuman when we only started seeing transhumans in the 1970s, and Jesus was more than 2,000 years ago?”

“Really, Zoe,” Cheryl chimed in, “do you believe that there were no transhumans before the late 20th century—that they just popped up out of nowhere?”

“Of course not. They have probably been on the rise for some time, but unnoticed for decades—maybe a few centuries. But 2,000 years ago? Because then you have to say that maybe Moses was a transhuman, and that’s even farther back. Or Samson…or the sources of any other miracle-based biblical tales or even the older pre-Judaic mythologies. And you’re saying we almost never see these transhumans throughout all those millennia and then, boom!—we hit the jackpot in the ‘70s? C’mon!”

“It makes a hell of a lot more sense than God incarnating as a human,” Ralph said. “Jesus’ healing powers would be easily explained by him being a Regenerator, and his charisma and ability to discern danger and future events could have been Psionics and/or Primal powers.”

“The loaves and fishes?” Zoe noted. “Creating matter from nothing? Or water to wine? There are no known Transmuters or Creators—those are strictly theoretical and unlikely powers.”

“Well, those were probably just stories added later.”

“Convenient, Ralph,” Zoe said. “The stuff you can’t explain was made up; everything else was due to being transhuman. How about the resurrection? Because I don’t see his entire apostolic crew praising him and risking crucifixion or worse themselves after he called himself the son of God and then died like a punk on the cross. As far as I’m concerned, he had to come back to life for them to put themselves on the line like that.”

“This isn’t a theology class, Zoe,” Cheryl cut in.

“Step off, Cheryl. This is a discussion section, and I’m in a discussion. Add to it or get out of it and leave me to my work,” Zoe snapped.

“Zoe, him ‘coming back to life’ would have just been autonomic self-healing as a powerful Regenerator—he never actually died,” Ralph said, and Cheryl nodded vigorously, face red with anger at Zoe’s challenge to her classroom authority.

“Have you read anything about what damage crucifixion does to the body?” Zoe asked. “After hours on the cross, then being sealed in a tomb for a couple days without food or water—no Regenerator is going to come back from that. The body needs decent conditions and some kind of nutrition to fuel the healing process.”

“It’s a strange world, Zoe, but it doesn’t need God to explain such things,” Cheryl said. “I think we can almost all of us agree to the likelihood that Jesus was transhuman, and move on.”

Zoe was mentally ready to continue the fight, but pushing her agenda and view now wouldn’t win her anything but trouble when it came time for grades to be handed out. But she fumed quietly. Her application of her personal religious and spiritual views tended very much toward liberal and centrist notions, but she didn’t like having her foundational beliefs about God and Jesus challenged and dismissed so blithely.

Yet another area of my life where transhumanity overshadows things, she bemoaned silently.

* * *

Cole’s sleep was jarred by something sharp and hard, and it was only when he heard “Rise and shine” and began to gain awareness that he realized it was the toe of a cowboy boot prodding his ribs. “Get a good night’s rest, Cole?”

“Yeah, this mat’s fantastic, and the rats in the walls kept me company really well,” he answered miserably to the costumed man he had met just hours earlier. This time, he was attired more completely, not just in a mask and wearing those boots, but with a Western-style Stetson hat and a long leather duster over his dark unitard and vest. Everything was shades of brown with hints of black, from the attire and accents to his skin, eyes and hair—making him look like almost like a antique bronze statue of a cowboy. As before, Blockbuster was here with them, and as just as lacking in humor, talkativeness and warmth as he had been before.

“If your apartment’s cozier, go back,” the man said. “I told you this wasn’t going to be easy.”

“You could have told me I’d be living here, and I might have brought a change of clothes or two.”

“You won’t be living here precisely, just camping out, and you can leave soon enough, and check in with your roommates—give them some story to explain why you’ll be gone a while. Assuming that we decide to let you stay here for a probationary period.”

“I guess that’ll be determined by the intense interrogation you mentioned before you left me here alone,” Cole noted hesitantly. “Can I at least get a name for you before you start with the thumbscrews or waterboarding or whatever you’re planning?”

“Would you like to be waterboarded?” the man quipped. “I have a trainer here in the Guardian Corps who did time with the military and has some first-hand experience. I was planning something a little less brutal, but if you prefer…”

“I’ll trust that your original plan is better,” Cole said quickly. Nervousness was beginning to fray his composure.

“Desperado,” the man said, finally answering Cole’s question. “Now you’ll have a name to curse later along with Blockbuster’s.”

Cole’s palms were sweaty and his heart was beating fast enough for him to gauge its beats by the pounding bursts at his temples. With a panicky surge in his mind, he almost got up and ran for the door.

I shouldn’t be here. What the hell am I thinking? I’m a recent college grad who should be applying for biomedical engineering jobs. I…

He didn’t want that life, he realized just as suddenly as the anxiety had struck, and he clenched his sweaty palms into fists instead, squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and took a deep breath.

“Can we get on with it? The sooner you satisfy yourself, the sooner I can find a shower and then settle in here.”

Desperado made a shallow nod, stepped toward him slowly, somehow managing to convey intense menace in those few steps across a span of less than six feet, and said, “Tell me about Hannah.”

The question caught Cole off-guard, and he blurted out “Who?” before he suddenly realized who Desperado meant.

“Hannah Marie Rosenberg, Cole. Sadie Hawkins Dance. Junior year. Was she that forgettable? Or have you assaulted a whole lot of other women we don’t know about yet and she’s just faded into the background of fresher meat? I told you we’ve been checking into your past, Cole, as we wait for our professional interrogator to arrive. I just figured I’d grease the wheels a bit and see if we can save her the trouble of having to use her skills and cut you from consideration right now.”

“I never touched Hannah!” Cole said with more vehemence than he intended.

“Well, I don’t know what your power—or powers—might be yet, so maybe you didn’t need to touch her, Cole.”

“I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even anywhere near her when it happened. I don’t even know where it happened. Everyone assumed I did it, even though there wasn’t any reason to tie me to her, but I didn’t do it,” Cole said.

“I suppose you won’t be taking credit for Paul Whitten or Isaac Stone, either,” Desperado said grimly, a savage note underlying his voice.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about with Paul—I don’t remember anything really bad happening to him in school,” Cole said, and then paused, feeling like not only was his stomach dropping, but the floor was disappearing beneath him. Isaac. “Isaac…I’m sorry about what happened to Isaac. Congratulations. You’re the first person to even say it might have been me. I didn’t mean for him to get hurt that badly. But once…after it happened, I couldn’t cop to it—I didn’t dare—and I figured I was already paying for Hannah’s injuries without having done anything to her, so it came out even.”

“I doubt Isaac felt that way.”

“He recovered all right in the end,” Cole said weakly. “Hardly any of the scars were anywhere he couldn’t cover them. But I still hate that it happened. I’m not proud of it.”

Desperado paused and seemed to take Cole’s measure, then tipped up his Stetson to scratch at his forehead. “It’s not what I would call complete remorse, Cole—not by a long shot—but it’s a start. It’s a good enough start that we can move to the next step.”

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

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

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.”

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

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

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.

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

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

In the middle of a mid-March afternoon, with the sun out and hardly a cloud in the sky, the last thing Martin Osbourne—known to many associates and enemies as Marty the Hun for his take-no-prisoners, kill-or-be-killed attitude—expected to be doing was to be shivering.

Maybe the next guy I should have whacked is the meteorologist for Channel 7 New Judah NewsCenter, Marty fumed silently. The forecast was for low-70s today, and my coat’s 12 miles away at home. Fucking weathermen never get shit right.

“Get the fuckin’ boxes loaded up boys, because it’s getting’ chilly fast, and if my balls start turning blue, I’m gonna choke one’a you until you’re blue in the face,” Marty barked. “Besides, the big boss wants this shit moved, delivered and sold so he can buy himself a city councilman or a police detective. Don’t get in the way of business and civic progress, boys!”

His crew began to pick up the pace, but a few minutes later, Marty was shivering even harder. He pulled out his Droid phone, called up a weather app, and checked the local forecast.

It still called for a high of 72 degrees under mostly sunny skies.

Marty began to look around a bit, and his arm reached through the passenger-side window of his car to pull a pistol from the glove compartment.

“Boys, I think we have company,” he called out to his team, their breath leaving little puffs of white in the air as they worked, and then they dropped boxes at his warning and began to draw weapons. “Of the trans variety, and I don’t mean a chick with a dick or a tranny dude with tits.”

The ambient temperature dipped a bit more, and concerned about how much colder it might get, and how much that might affect their reflexes and concentration, Marty added, “Let’s all move away from the truck and figure out where this fucker is.”

A lithe form darted out into the open for just a moment, too quick to identify, and three pistols suddenly flew from the grips of most of Marty’s guys—and moments later, the gun from Marty’s own. Only one of the four men, Louie, still had a firearm.

Guns yanked away like magic, and temperature dropping. An Attractor and a Psi with cryokinetic powers, probably, Marty theorized—or maybe an Eco who was playing some sort of atmospheric trick. His mind tried to sort through the players he knew, but the cold made it hard to think, and worrying about being weaponless made thinking hard, too. Taking note of the fact Louie still had a gun, and figuring that the hero—or maybe mercenary’s—attractive power was geared toward metal, he pulled open one of the rear doors of his car, yanked out a good old-fashioned baseball bat, and said, “Louie, you got a resin gun, dontcha? Good man. Everyone else grab something not made of metal that you can bash a head in with, right now. Louie, you keep an eye out for our troublemaker and shoot him in his motherfuckin’ head when he pops out again.”

His? He? No, that wasn’t right, Marty realized. Metal Attractor and a Cryo-Psionic, if he was right—and a Thermal, too.

“Fuckin’ Solstice!” Marty cried out. “We got ourselves a feisty bitch, boys! You can all have a shot at her cooch after you take her down if she’s still alive. We’ll have ourselves a regular party. First one to get a hit on her gets first shot at her goods.”

One of Marty’s men, Paulie, reached for a two-by-four with a couple of rusty, bent nails sticking out of it, but before he could lay hold of it, a hand shot out and clamped on his wrist. He screamed in an agonized wail, and the woman was gone into the maze of debris and crates again. Paulie dropped to his knees, shivering all over from the cold, but also holding the heavily blistered and steaming flesh of his right wrist and hand, which was beginning to ooze in a few spots.

Oscar, who already had a weapon in hand—a police baton he kept handy, made a slow circuit of his surroundings. Solstice dropped from above, leaping down from a stack of crates, both of her hands grabbing the side of his head as she used gravity to her advantage to flip him violently as she landed, wrenching his neck painfully but, more importantly, delivering second- and third-degree burns to his face and throat before she let go.

Shit! Now I have two men screaming, Marty thought.

A shot rang out, and Marty held out hope, the bat shaking in his chilled hands, that Louie had nailed the woman. Instead, there was a peal of girlish laughter and then more screaming moments later as she grabbed Carter in a bear hug from behind, making a burning, blistered ruin of his armpits, biceps and chest, then vanishing again into the gloom around the loading dock.

Three men screaming, and one little bitch laughing at us, Marty fumed. “Kill the whore, Louie! Don’t you fuckin’ miss next time!”

“I won’t, chief,” Louie said. But as he turned slowly, waiting for the next sign of Solstice’s approach, a shot rang out and he stumbled back a half-step, red seeping through his shirt just above his left collarbone. He had managed to keep hold of his pistol, and tracked the apparent source of the shot, ready to pull the trigger and shoot into the gloom near the warehouse several times.

Solstice was faster, though, and a second bullet left a hole just above his belly. Louie dropped to the ground, his pistol spinning across the ground. Then she finally came into the open, wearing loose, flared khaki slacks, Doc Marten boots and a tight, dark green tank-top. Marty shivered and cursed her that the cold probably didn’t affect her at all. But he also noticed that it wasn’t as frigid as it had been, and realized she had probably expended a lot of energy to cool down such a large zone. She probably couldn’t keep it up any longer, he assumed, and she might not have any juice left for burning anyone, either.

She looked a little haggard, he thought, and he figured he could take her. He hefted the baseball bat, and looked her in the face defiantly. He saw the dark, kohl-lined Asian eyes beneath an almost buccaneer-like kerchief-style hood, trailing a braid of material down her back, with fake flowers, little pine cones and plastic snowflakes tied into it at intervals. From beneath the mask that covered her scalp, ears, eyes and nose flowed long, black straight hair shot through with a thin line of platinum blonde and a thicker streak of bright purple. Black lipstick adorning narrow lips, a stainless-steel ring piecing the flesh of a lower lip that held a sneer for Marty as she approached him slowly with a casual, dismissive pace.

“C’mon, you bitch-witch pagan trans-whore,” Marty taunted, choking up on the bat and giving it a lazy swing in an almost ‘come hither’ gesture. “Come get a piece of me if you’ve got anything left. See if you can burn my ass, you cunt!”

“Being Goth doesn’t make me automatically pagan, you shithead, or a witch,” Solstice said. “But that said, I don’t like people badmouthing witches because I’m a practicing Wiccan, you greaseball. You don’t hear me badmouthing Catholics just because of a goon like you. And just for the record, I’m not going to bother with trying to fry your greasy ass.”

She lifted one of the guns she had pulled from a member of Marty’s crew and shot the Hun in one kneecap, and then the other.

“I’m not going to go hand-to-hand with you,” she said as his own cries of pain mingled with the moans, sobs and screams of the other men. “Do I look stupid? Try that ego-busting, macho provoking crap with Feral or Nighthunter or someone else who likes the up-close, bone-crunching wet-work. Personally, I like living to fight another day and that’s why I’m a regular at the shooting range, you prick.”

She put a third bullet in Marty the Hun’s right shoulder, then a fourth in his left. She kicked him hard in the ribs with her steel-toed boots, twice, and then took the man’s own smart phone to call the police. Then she shot several holes in each of the truck’s tires.

As the temperature rapidly rose back to the 70s around five heavily wounded men, Solstice took a long ride back into the city in Marty’s own Cadillac, trying to find some decent music on a radio with nothing but presets for conservative talk radio, classical music and light rock.

* * *

“So, what have we got, here?” asked the sergeant as he walked into the convenience store.

“Clerk has some second-degree burns but mostly just a wounded ego,” one of the patrolmen answered. “Perp got away with $200 from the till and a bag full of junk food and 20-ounce sodas. Apparently, it was Hellfire again.”

“Really?” the sergeant said as he looked at the security video playback on a little monitor. “Geez! Five…well, six now…hold-ups and three different costumes. I wish the ass-hat would just pick one style.”

“Might help if he’d shell out for some decent material,” the other patrolman noted, handing over an evidence bag with a fragment of Hellfire’s red cape that had snagged on a display rack nearby. “Probably keeps ripping his cheap-ass suits to shreds. Looks like he bought this cape in the costume aisle at Wal-Mart. Cheap, thin polyester or whatever the hell those crap Halloween costumes are made of.”

“What an embarrassment,” the sergeant said, shaking his head. “Give me a plain old street punk or crackhead, or give me a real villain like Speed Demon or Tooth Fairy. These wannabe, bottom-feeder trans villains just piss me off.”

* * *

Zoe launched herself up onto the balance beam into a handstand position, did a series of twists to get herself halfway down it, then dropped to her feet with perfect grace onto the beam, took a few quick steps, and leapt into the air, twisting and somersaulting—finally sticking a perfect landing three feet from the end of the beam.

“Good work, Dawson!” Coach Hathaway called out. “We’ve got final championships next month that I plan for us to win, so you’d better have that A-game from now until mid-April.”

Zoe didn’t smile at the praise. For one thing, the coach wasn’t really being all that warm in her approach anyway—but more than that, what Zoe had just done wasn’t even difficult for her.

I could run at full speed on a tightrope and do cartwheels across it without breaking a sweat, Zoe mused ruefully. Competitions hold no joy because I’m a transhuman pitted against normal folks.

Not that she would let anyone know that, of course. She carefully held back doing what she was truly capable of, lest she get kicked off the team. NCAA rules were pretty clear on excluding any Acro transhuman from gymnastic competition; she would make sure to make a sloppy landing next time just for show.

I could have been on the U.S. Olympic team, she thought, recalling the recruiters from Team USA who had approached her years ago when she first got involved in gymnastics and dance. But I couldn’t do something that high-level with any sense of good conscience. Of course, using my skills to get scholarship money for college is basic survival, so no guilt there.

Less guilt, at least, she considered. Far less.

“Sure you don’t want my A-plus game instead, Coach?” Zoe shot back.

“Now that you mention it, Dawson, bring your A-plus-plus-hyperspace-level game to the finals, or you’re off the team.”

Zoe snorted. “I’m a senior, Coach, and the season will be over by then.”

“Then I’ll hijack your diploma and keep you from graduating,” the Coach teased, though with a completely stern and deadpan delivery.

As Zoe made her way off the mat, one of the other women on the team hip-checked her a little. “Prize bitch, aren’t you?” Gloria sneered. “Break a leg, Zoe. Really, I mean it. Please break a leg. Better yet, both of them.”

Zoe felt her hairs bristle, and forced down the metabolic shift of her morphing powers, muttering “Fuck you” instead of letting the change take over and slicing and dicing the teammate who’d never forgiven Zoe for being a better gymnast.

Or kissing her boyfriend a few months ago at that Christmas party either, for that matter.

* * *

The Head of Metabolics and Genomics looked at the man on the gurney and sighed. “Dr. Hansen,” he asked, “are you sure we want to dose him so heavily? Or the others, for that matter?”

“Yes, Jacob, I’m very sure. When I work in a secret government lab and the head of the National Security Agency tells me the White House wants a dozen really impressive transhuman conversions by Thanksgiving, I tend to take that kind of seriously.”

Pausing for a moment, Jacob looked at the chart at the end of the man’s gurney, even though he already knew the numbers by heart.

“Dr. Hansen…Jack…you know Earnhardt here is 36 years old. Manifestation of transhuman powers after age 25 correlates to far higher rates of side effects—particularly psychological changes. Especially when it’s not a natural, organic manifestation. You know that as well as I do. Two of the others are also well into their 30s.”

“And all of them, regardless of age, have the most promising set of biomarkers for induced transhuman capabilities, Jacob. That’s the work we’ve agreed to do here, and none of these people here enjoy any right of refusal right now.”

Dr. Jacob Weinbaum swallowed hard, nodded, and pushed the gurney into the next room, trying to comfort himself with the not-so-soothing thought: What could possibly go wrong, right?

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

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

It was always an interesting sensation to be both the hunter and the hunted at the same time, Query mused.

What say ye, pray ye? Oh, prey shall you pray to an indifferent god; while hunter is slaking his thirst on your blood?

Of course, this little game of hide-and-seek was more playful than most Query engaged in. He would never see this extra shadow he had attracted until she wanted him to, but he knew her by sound and sometimes smell; she would never catch him unawares. Not that she likely had hostile intent anyway.

After about 10 minutes, Query decided that the time for foreplay had come to an end—it was, he thought, the prerogative of a decent and sensitive man to engage in such things, but also to know when to bring them to a close and get to the main event.

Not as if I’ve had the chance for a sexual encounter in months, of course, he mused with some regret but not much rancor as the sexual metaphor played out in his mind, nor will this little liaison lead to any such thing. It would be too much like making time with a half-sister or a cousin to get involved with this one, and the feeling is likely mutual on her part.

“Cheshire, you can come out now,” Query said. “If this goes on too much longer, it will become a game of cat-and-mouse. And that’s unbecoming, given that I’m no rodent.”

“Well, I trust you’re not making me out to be the mouse—or a rat—in this scenario,” she answered in mock affront, letting just her head and one gently waving hand emerge from invisibility, then vanishing from sight again.

Query tracked her with his head, focused on the sounds of her steps even if she was hidden to his eyes. She was as stealthy as he was in her movements, but he had the benefit of enhanced senses. “Never, Cheshire. You’re too bold for a mouse and too refined to be a rat. I don’t even know that I’d call you a cat, frankly, despite your name. There’s something of the hound in you too many days to think of you as truly feline.”

“Oh, but I like the name Cheshire so much better than Cat-Dog, so don’t go ruining my image, Query,” she answered from atop a set of crates, resolving into full visibility now.

Or she might not be on that particular crate, Query noted. Her Luminar powers were not only advanced enough for full or selective invisibility, but also able to allow her to appear to be perhaps a couple meters from her true position.

“Are you shadowing me for practice, Cheshire, or do you really think I’m getting too old and sloppy not to notice you?”

Cheshire’s feet touched the ground with a soft thump as she hopped off the crate. Query had a split-second of disorientation as his mind adjusted to the fact that her body wasn’t where his eyes had told her it should be. As he suspected, she had been on an adjacent crate instead, her image out of phase with her true position. “I actually wanted your attention, Query—I just didn’t want to rush you. You can be so moody some nights. I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time near the docks this week.”

“Of course, I have,” he responded. “It’s all part of the rules; don’t you read the transhuman handbook, Cheshire? Villains all conveniently lurk at the docks or put their operations there, and they do all their business at night, and heroes like me show up to thwart them.”

“If only real life really were like the comic books, eh? If only it really were that simple,” she said. “Seriously, though, I’ve been working something of my own for a client—and for personal reasons, too. I think that you know about the villain cruise this weekend. I need you to stay away from it. I need you not to go after the folks who will be on that yacht. I need you to leave them alone. I need you to be someplace else, far away.”

“Goodness, could you be a bit more clear on what you want? Stop beating around the bush,” Query teased. “It’s my job to go after bad guys, you know.”

He let the statement hang there gravely, even though he was chuckling in his head. No reason to let her know that he knew about almost every one of the monthly social get-togethers of various villains in this city, most of them short cruises into Long Island Sound. He kept track of the “sin-ins” but he’d never crashed a single one of those parties and likely never would. He had his reasons for that, but there was no good reason to tell them to her, or even let her know about his hands-off approach with regard to the events. Better to see where this was going.

“Query, I may walk a fine line between the whole black-hat/white-hat thing, but I like to think of you as a friendly acquaintance, perhaps even a potential friend,” Cheshire said. “I really need you to rein in your heroic instincts this once. Please? For me?”

“I like you, Cheshire, even though there have been times I’ve wondered if I should bust you, but I don’t owe you any favors, and I owe plenty of people who will be on that cruise some payback,” he said, packing ominous conviction into his tones and hoping he wasn’t playing up his charade too much.

“No, you don’t owe me any favors, Query, but I’m willing to owe you one if you stay away from that cruise,” Cheshire said.

“That would be a big favor to owe, so I would expect a big payment in return.”

“As long as it doesn’t compromise any existing or upcoming business relationships I’m engaged in, I’m willing to owe such a debt.”

Query made a show of silently considering her offer for nearly a minute, even though her answer was what he had hoped for anyway. One never knew when calling in a favor from one of the best intelligence-gatherers around could be useful.

“All right, Cheshire, but I’m not going to be making a habit of this—it took me a long time to find out about this event, and I might never know about another one,” Query lied, smiling behind his mask.

* * *

Janus waved toward Underworld, gesturing for her to come over. She paused, fixing him with a distasteful glare as she had been doing more often than not ever since reluctantly joining his efforts, and finally stepped over.

“My dear, my dear, I must say that modern surveillance technologies are so useful, particularly when you employ people who know how to hack into them,” he said from behind a kabuki-style mask that was painted black with splatters of faux blood on one side, and violet with drops of dew—or perhaps they were meant to be tears—painted on the other. As garish as it was, the mask actually managed to complement his gray Italian suit with subtle purple pinstripes. “Take, for example, this delicious young coed who tore a small chunk out of a brick building with her fingernails at UConn–New Judah. I doubt campus security reviews the DVDs that closely or would even notice, but then again, I have so many motivated data miners in my employ.”

“My, but you’re chatty today, aren’t you?” Underworld sneered. “Your people work so hard for you because being tortured to death isn’t as attractive as collecting the meager paychecks that your cheap ass doles out.”

“That and the subcutaneous tracking devices that allow me to keep tabs on them, of course. No slackers in my sweatshop; no, indeed. But isn’t that girl stupendous?” he pressed, pointing the paused image on the monitor.

“I’ve seen lots of transhumans, Janus. Morph, probably. Maybe a Brute or a Tank. She doesn’t do anything for me, but if you want to leer at college girls on security vids, be my guest.”

“I’m thinking I should reach out to her soon. Provide her some incentive to leave all those silly college plans behind. It’s time for a recruitment drive, anyway,” Janus said.


“Why don’t you make some plans to find out more about her, maybe get to know her. Have a woman-to-woman talk someday in the near future,” he suggested.

“Why would I do that?”

“Aside from the fact that the more minions I have, the more likely I’ll let you slip back to obscurity one day, there is also the fact that the softer side of recruiting has its value, and you have a softer touch than I,” he noted. “It’s important to rule by fear early on, but it would be nice to have a few key people motivated by something more personal and meaningful than threats to their family.”

“So why does she get such velvet glove treatment and you put the screws to me?” Underworld asked tartly.

“She’s a college student, so she’s young and impressionable,” Janus said. “Nubile and succulent, too. You, on the other hand, are a handsome and stubborn woman, and need to be driven with a cattle prod at times—metaphorically speaking.”

“So, I’m a bitch and a cow, and she’s fresh young meat. Janus, you are a pig.”

“But a well-dressed pig.”

“A pig in an expensive suit is still just swine in the end,” Underworld said. “And the only good I see from pigs is bacon or pork chops. I’ll see what I can do to worm my way into her life and do a soft-sell of your organization, Janus.”

“Thank you, Underworld. It’s good that you’re being civil and professional about this.”

“No, Janus, I’m showing some solidarity with a fellow woman. I’m all too aware of some of your past recruitment tactics with young women,” she said, her gaze drifting to the cramped cage in one corner of the room, where Crazy Jane sat cross-legged on the floor, still in the straitjacket she had been wearing when Janus liberated her from the high-security wing of the Givens Psychiatric Detention Facility three days ago. Her eyes blazed hungry but soulless, sharp and bright and cruel against the contrast of the tattoos all over her face—a mix of sunny, gay images and grim, twisted ones.

Underworld turned away from the cage, and Janus met her eyes knowingly. “So, we understand each other, then?”

“Too well, Janus. All too well.”

* * *

“I want to thank Senator Bodswell for being on the show today—he’s a real patriot and a testament to the power of the Freedom Party to put America back on track,” Ben Glick spoke into the camera as he connected with his viewing audience in the closing moments of his show. “I know I support Freeman candidates whenever I can, and you right-thinking viewers of mine no doubt realize the importance as well.”

He paused for a moment, and adjusted his glasses, then looked gravely into the camera again.

“Before we switch over to Fox News Update, though, I want to remind you all—and please realize that I’m not advocating violence, but we are in violent times with humanity and so-called transhumans right now—you need to exercise your Second Amendment rights as Senator Bodswell mentioned today,” he added. “Use them now while you still have them, because I guarantee that the first thing our great socialist President Barack Hussein Obama and any transhumans in office or that he’s putting in positions of power are going to do is try to overturn that constitutional right. Because if you’re transhuman, what do you need guns for? You have powers. And they’ll want to make sure us traditional humans don’t have bullets if we need them. Think about that tonight, if you can sleep with that prospect in mind. Thanks for watching ‘Ben Glick’s America’ here on America’s fair and balanced news source, Fox News, and see you tomorrow.”

Moments later, as the program director indicated they were off the air, Ben’s assistant Janice came by with a fresh cup of coffee for him, and a pastry.

“Intense stuff, today, Ben,” she remarked. “You seemed really supportive of the senator’s thoughts on screening newborns for any transhuman biomarkers and sterilizing them immediately if they show any signs of being able to develop powers.”

“Of course I support that. Why wouldn’t I?” he remarked cheerfully, but there was a kind of challenge in his eyes.

“I just…I mean, you’ve always been so supportive of right-to-life efforts and reproductive rights and the need of Americans not to have their choices taken away,” Janice said as noncommittally as she could, realizing she had just stepped into treacherous waters.

“Civil rights are for humans, and I hope the Supreme Court make a ruling on that soon, Jan,” he said sagely. “The Constitution was written for humans, not transhumans. And I have to support something like sterilization of transhuman babies and transhuman adults. I’m totally against abortion, so we can’t rip the monsters out of a woman’s uterus. The only answer is to keep those creatures from breeding, and keep them from interbreeding with real people. Coffee could use a bit more cream, Jan,” he said after he took his first, slurping sip from the cup.

“Oh. Sorry. Let me just bring you a fresh one, Ben,” she said nervously, and rushed off. Once she was out of sight, she touched her belly, thinking of the tiny life forming inside her womb, which she had only confirmed the existence of a few days before, and decided tonight would be a good time to update her résumé.

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