Posts Tagged ‘tooth fairy’

A vision of lacy, frilly, girly splendor in the darkness. A pale blur against the backdrop of small night-shadowed park spaces and commercial buildings. A lithe, springing, satin-winged form running and skipping in the moonlight.

The night was her time. The time of sleep and the time when the Tooth Fairy wandered. Even before she had existed, it had been a time for the mythical tooth fairies that left money in return for baby teeth.

Night. A time of monsters and financially generous fae folk, she thought with a giggle in her head.

Her movements were somehow joyous in a childlike fashion while also suggesting something predatory.

But tonight she wasn’t hunting for random trouble—or random teeth. She didn’t have a scheme or plan to carry out to satisfy her sadistic urges or her greedy ones.

Tonight she was trying to figure out who was following her and why.

Eluding a pursuer while secretly hunting that pursuer. Playing at being unwitting prey so that she could strike.

Tooth Fairy smiled as she jogged and skipped and moved in and out of the dark places. Smiled and let her mouth be home to a wide assortment of different types of fangs, changing over and over as they glistened and sparkled in the moonlight and glow of the streetlamps.

* * *

Another shape in the night, moving quickly but stealthily and avoiding the open spaces and the light as much as possible.

Another shape whose back also bore wings—though these were darker, smaller and shaped like a butterfly. Unlike Tooth Fairy’s more articulated wings, these ones didn’t flap realistically as the skulking form moved and pursued Tooth Fairy.

They were pretty, but static. Rigid. Fixed.

A perfect complement to someone who felt stuck. Who felt awkward. Who need direction.

Catching up with Tooth Fairy was the beginning of solving all of that.

* * *

From above—from a fire escape on the side of a shuttered department store—came a snarling voice.

“Who are you, what the hell do you want and which body part should I start chomping on first?” Tooth Fairy queried and challenged from her shadowy perch. “I’ve known you were behind me a long time; might as well come out and play.”

A woman stepped just barely into view. Pale skin and hair, but a short gauzy dress of deepest black, and her butterfly-shaped wings affixed to the back of it, colored mostly in purple, indigo and charcoal. Her mask was a simple black domino-style one, with a pair of butterfly antennae extending from the sides of it.

The Tooth Fairy being shadowed by a butterfly fairy, thought the woman poised above and licking her teeth which she morphed from sharp fangs back to her natural dentition. That’s a novel change of pace.

“I’m Night Fae,” the woman said from below.

“I don’t know if there’s room for more than one fairy in New Judah,” Tooth Fairy warned. “So, you got the short straw this month, eh?”

“What do you mean?” Night Fae asked, scrunching her blue eyes as she warily and curiously observed the woman watching her from above.

“Seems like every month, give or take, some half-assed hero finds me and tries to take me down. I had thought handing them their asses and keeping parts of some of their bodies as trophies might have sent a message by now,” Tooth Fairy said in a half-snarl, half-purr. “Do I have to start killing all of you to make it more clear?”

“I’m not here to take you in or take you down,” Night Fae said. “I’m no hero. I want to be something, but not that. I want to be like you. I really admire you, Tooth Fairy.”

Mouth wide and filled with jagged teeth like broken white chisel tips, Tooth Fairy dropped to the pavement and fixed her eyes on Night Fae’s.

“I don’t need your admiration,” Tooth Fairy snapped. “I don’t fucking want it.”

“And I like the idea of your apprenticeship even more repulsive,” she added as she pounced, the carefully designed white wings on her back flapping furiously as she launched herself forward.

* * *

The third time that Night Fae evaded one of Tooth Fairy’s attacks, the aggressor skipped backward and stopped, feet together in something almost like a ballerina’s stance, and swayed back and forth, almost seductively, for a few moments as she assessed her former pursuer.

“Better moves than the last guy who tussled with me,” Tooth Fairy noted. “Aggravating, really. I wasn’t looking for a workout tonight. I just cleaned this outfit and I don’t want pit stains or crotch sweat. I might force my estranged husband to have disturbing sex with me tonight and I had fragrant things in mind much more exotic and unsettling than sweat. That’s three times you’ve slipped away. That’s three teeth I’ll claim.”

Then Tooth Fairy struck again, and Night Fae dodged a flurry of attacks again, putting distance between her and the woman she emulated.

“I’m not your enemy,” she said. “Even so-called villains could use allies and friends.”

“I have more allies than I ever wanted, and Janus had to pay me a lot of money to accept them into my world at all,” Tooth Fairy said. “That’s four teeth I’ll have from your mouth now.”

“If you’re that dead-set against having anything to do with me, I’ll leave then,” Night Fae said, breathing heavily—clearly unused to prolonged combat maneuvers.

“Not until I have the teeth you owe for putting me out.”

“God you’re so fucking eerie and menacing and self-assured and independent,” Night Fae effused.

“Stop with the fucking reverence, bitch!” Tooth Fairy snapped. “I don’t want your adoration and I don’t want to be a mentor to anyone but my child.”

“You’re better than me; I know that. In so many ways,” Night Fae said. “That’s why I hoped I could learn from you. But one thing I can do really well is stay away from you. I’ve stolen so many security videos and even a couple news recordings of you in action. I know all your moves.”

That’s what’s so unnervingly familiar and that’s what’s annoying me more and more as this goes on, Tooth Fairy realized. She has my moves.

“You’re a Mimic,” Tooth Fairy growled. “Can you do voices, too?” she sneered. “Go ahead, imitate my voice. I want a new reason to dislike you and add a fifth tooth to your debt.”

“I don’t mimic voices,” Night Fae said. “I can do movements, though. I can copy moves and I learn enough from what I see to fill in a lot of the blanks. Plus add my own touches. I’ve got other powers, too, like the ones that helped me find and follow you. I could be a great help to you. I swear!”

“I don’t want an attention whore sidekick either, you needy bitch!” Tooth Fairy shrieked, and rushed forward again.

This time, though, she abandoned all those martial arts classes she had taken over the years, especially the ones she’d taken up as her powers began to emerge. Instead, she thought of her years with her husband—before she’d become a transhuman; before she’d made herself thus to hopefully ensure her unborn child could grow into powers as well one day. She thought about the college wrestling moves he’d playfully taught her and that she’d seen when he’d coach wrestling camps in the summers for the high school boys. She abandoned everything that had worked in battles since she’d taken up crime, mayhem and torture as her career and went after Night Fae like she’d in the past sometimes gone after Will playfully in the bedroom to pin him and fuck him.

Night Fae hadn’t been ready for any of that, and she grunted as Tooth Fairy slammed into her, hugged her tight, and wrestled her to the ground. Legs wrapped around her prey’s torso now, Tooth Fairy used her Morph powers to extend two long, razor-like prongs from her forearm instead of altering her teeth, and let the sharp, bony tips of those organic blades hover at the throat of Night Fae.

As the women recovered her senses, she tried to struggle out of Tooth Fairy’s grip and failed, then noticed the deadly predicament at her neck. She settled down, and smiled.

“You have enough real enemies out there without killing me. If you don’t want me, at least let me be bad like you’ve been able to be,” Night Fae said. “Reject me if you must; but this is still a man’s world. It needs more women like us. Let me live to be a bad girl like you did.”

“I dislike you on general principles,” Tooth Fairy said. “But you make a good case for a sorority of villainy. If you move or try to get away from me, I’ll kill you. If you cooperate, you live. I might even warm to mentoring one day—long in the future—if you can follow those simple instructions.”

Night Fae nodded and the deadly protrusions retreated back into Tooth Fairy’s skeletal system as she traded them in for the gold-plated pair of pliers she carried in a small, silky white fanny pack under her wing assembly.

“This will only hurt  a lot,” Tooth Fairy whispered eagerly.

* * *

Tooth Fairy walked slowly and contemplatively as she worked her way back to her lair.

In a Ziploc bag in her fanny pack were four teeth—payment in full. Out of kindness, she’d taken the woman’s four rearmost molars so as not to ruin her smile. She felt enough sympathy to hope Night Fae had dental insurance to get some dental implants as replacements.

Along with those teeth, a small slip of paper with Night Fae’s phone numbers and email address.

I don’t want an apprentice or a sidekick, but I might teach her a thing or two, Tooth Fairy thought. More importantly, I will be taking my child more and more often to have time with her away from Will, and a bad girl’s gotta work even on visitation weekends.

Good nannies were hard to find.

Especially ones who could appreciate the need for a mother to go out and sow pain that wasn’t deserved and reap treasures that weren’t hers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, she wanted to be alone right?

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

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

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

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


* * *

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

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

Oh, and estranged husband of Tooth Fairy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If she develops any,” Will pointed out.

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

“I don’t know if that’s a good…”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jane, I want you out of my head.”

“No, you don’t, actually.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 – ]

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When Carl Beacham, attorney-at-law, entered Query’s office from the tiny and unstaffed outer reception area—He really should get a sexy secretary, Carl mused silently—a head swiveled toward him swiftly—a metallic-and-polymer visage regarding him coldly with two large and luminous eyes separated by a sharp and curving beak.

His body jerked reflexively, and he faltered in his stride, but saw Query patiently tinkering immediately behind that bird-like head and his heart rate quickly ramped downward. He closed the door as he stepped inside, curious now instead of concerned, at the thing on Query’s desk that looked like a hybrid between a large model airplane and an owl.

Query was intent on his project, and said nothing, so Carl sat in one of the time-worn chairs, wood darkened from thousands of sittings, probably, creaking loud enough to make him worry he might be about to land on his ass on the floor.

He waited, and was rewarded a couple minutes later with a cordial “How are you, Carl?” as Query set down the precision tools he had been using and flipped a switch. The eyes of the “owl” went dead, and its head tilted forward slightly as if in rest.

“Doin’ fine, Query,” he responded. “You couldn’t afford a better office? Bigger at least?”

“It suits me fine, Carl, and it’ll be easier to trash if I have to make an escape again because you let some hottie slip a transmitter into your pocket. Building is older, and access to escape routes and hidey holes is better.”

“Is the main escape hatch behind the bookcase again?” Carl asked casually, not really expecting an answer this time any more than he had when he asked it at their previous meeting.

“You’ll find out if you happen to accidentally lead another hit squad to me, Carl,” Query said with dry humor. “So let’s both say a prayer for you to never know where I’ve hidden my bolt-hole.”

Carl nodded to the mechanical construct on Query’s desk. “New pet? I think you should try for something a bit warmer and softer that licks you. And it is…?”

“This is Archimedes,” Query said nonchalantly, ignoring the verbal bait that Carl had set out.

“You named it after a philosopher?”

“No. Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, scientist, engineer and inventor,” Query corrected him, “but I actually named it after the owl that Merlin had in The Sword in the Stone or The Once and Future King—I forget which. Maybe both.”

“So, it does have a name. Funny, I always figured you for a cat person,” Carl said with a wink and slight leer.

“There is no truth to the rumor you are no doubt attempting to start that Cheshire and I have a ‘thing’ going,” Query said with mild irritation, unable to let the second bit of bait pass by. “It has a name so that I can know which one it is. I have eleven, after all.”

“Eleven? OK, eleven what? What is that thing?”

“Same tech as military drones. You know, the ones that do the spying missions over Afghanistan or Iraq or whatever. Or killing missions if they’re fitted with micro-ordinances.”

Carl opened his mouth but Query interrupted him before he could speak.

“Before you ask—No, I’ve armed none of them, at least not yet, and yes, the others have names too. Bubo, after the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans; Hedwig, Pidwidgeon and Hermes, who are the only owls I remember in the Harry Potter books; Plop from a children’s story called The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark; Soren and Coryn from the Guardians of Ga’Hoole stories; Woodsy Owl from the U.S. Forest Service’s ‘Give a Hoot—Don’t Pollute’ campaign; and Laurel and Hardy. Now you know a little more about my operations and I’ve given you literature, film and pop culture education to boot. You can thank me later.”

“Laurel and Hardy were humans,” Carl pointed out.

“I ran out of owl names and besides, those two drones typically work together in back-and-forth, crisscrossing surveillance runs, like a well-tuned comedy duo routine. There, another cultural reference for you. You need all of the culture you can get.”

“You built yourself eleven drones?” Carl asked incredulously. “I know you have a lot of time on your hands, but…”

“This one I built,” Query said, passing his hand over the drone almost theatrically, “which is why I’m tinkering with it. It’s always been a bit buggy. Reverse-engineered it from one of the ten military-issue models that I acquired previously. All I did with the others was reprogram them a little and fit them with some custom sensors and their own owl heads. I wanted them to have some customization and not just be khaki couture. I’d like them to have a little flair and style.”

“Wasn’t aware that you had a shopping account with the military. How did you get them to sell you ten…” Carl paused, then said, “Oh, Query…you didn’t steal them from the military, did you?”

“A bit too ambitious for me. And a little unpatriotic I might add. No, someone else stole them, and when I crushed their operation and started scavenging through their ill-gotten wares, I found the drones. That was about a year ago. Figured they’d be useful; I was right. Figured the military already wrote them off; don’t care whether I was right about that or not—finder’s keepers. Archimedes here is my pet project. Once I get him to be more or less bug-free, I can build my own in the future. Still expensive as fuck, but I can cut some corners and score some deals on materials that the military can’t.”

“So, this is how you keep tabs on events in New Judah.”

“And New York,” Query added. “They’re just one tool, really, but they are very useful. Aerial recon is a serious upper hand. I can only do so much hacking into surveillance systems, hiring informants and all that. As much as I’d love to talk shop, though, we’re not here to discuss aerodynamics and espionage, are we?”

“Patsy and I had a little fight, so I’m in no rush to get back home and besides, I’m enjoying our repartee, but yeah, flying spying owl mini-planes isn’t really on our agenda.”

“Argument?” Query said, turning his head more directly toward Carl—the other man could feel the intensity of the gaze even though he couldn’t see the eyes behind the mask. “Patsy’s the best thing in your life aside from my paychecks. Try not to screw it up. OK, give me the daily report.”

Not for the first time, Carl took note of the tone in Query’s voice when he spoke of Patsy, and he wondered if the hero had some personal connection, or whether he simply snooped so much on Carl’s life that he had a strong opinion about how the man should live it.

“Allrighty then…first item on the list is Zoe Dawson. Met with her, talked with her, researched her. Feels legit, but I still have worries.”

“How so?”

“She sounds honestly unnerved by this recruitment effort she says Janus is conducting on her through Underworld. She seems sincere in wanting help, but at the same time, she’s two parts pissed and one part scared. Seems like the ratio should be reversed, and that makes me wonder if she’s just a good actress. Also, I’m not buying the level of interest Janus supposedly has here. She’s an Acro—I got her to admit that much and it wasn’t hard to figure out anyway—but why would he expend this much effort on her? And if she has other powers, why is she being so cagey about them with me? Frankly, I think the odds are slightly tilted toward this being a trap, with her as the willing bait to lure you out.”

Query leaned back slowly in his office chair after sliding Archimedes to the side of his oversized desk, and put his army-booted feet up on the desk. By turns for the next few minutes, he gazed up at the ceiling or consulted something on his computer monitor.

Carl, for his part, regarded the well-worn soles of those boots, and wondered how much they’d witnessed; how much they’d done. How many moonlit, blood-tinged puddles had lapped at them in alleyways where Query might save a wounded victim from a rape or murder? How many skulls might they have concussed and how many cheekbones might they have shattered in fights? How many miles had they logged pacing or wandering over countless sleepless nights and days?

Finally, Query sighed and removed his feet, sitting back upright and looking right at Carl in what the lawyer presumed was an intense and penetrating gaze.

“She’s legit,” Query said. “Certain enough to bet your life on it, anyway.”

“How kind of you,” Carl said dryly, knowing it was a joke.

“OK, I’d bet my life too,” Query said. “I’ve already hacked into her student records, medical records, e-mail accounts, parent’s e-mail accounts and all other sorts of shit, and her being more pissed than scared fits the personality profile I’ve constructed. So unless Janus recruited her for this theoretical trap for me back in middle school—which is long before I even entered onto the hero scene—I think we can mark that off the list of concerns. Zoe is confrontational and smart; if she wasn’t so much the former, her professors’ grades would more accurately reflect the latter. As it is, probably half of them downgrade her a half to a full grade because they don’t like the way she challenges their assumptions so often.”

“What about the whole power thing? She’s either not much in that respect or she’s being evasive about other ones she possesses. Doesn’t it seem a bit much for Janus to be so hot for an Acro?”

“Not odd for Janus to be hot for any attractive transhuman female from what I’ve been able to figure. He’s a man-whore, apparently, as well as being a sociopath, sadist and control freak. But what it comes down to is that Zoe doesn’t trust us. Or you, at least.”

“Why not? She called us for help, remember?”

“She’s smart, and now a little paranoid thanks to Underworld’s avid attentions,” Query noted. “She’s wondering if perhaps you’re actually working for Janus and trying to find out more about her or trick her somehow. Most likely, she doesn’t know how Janus knows she has any powers, but she’s deduced he still doesn’t know the full extent and she doesn’t want him to know, because then she knows he won’t let up on getting her. Janus is still unsure of what she’s capable of, but Zoe knows she’d be very valuable to him. And she doesn’t want to be.”

“I know you have great insight, deductive powers and intuition, Query, but those are big jumps.”

“Backed by your report, my research, those nifty transhuman intuitive abilities of mine, and the fact I’ve spied on your two interactions with Zoe—so I have some personal insight into her demeanor. I’ve also slipped into her classes and her dorm on a few occasions over the past several days.”

“She lives in an all-girl athletic dorm,” Carl pointed out. “Really working your disguise skills this week, aren’t you?”

“I hadn’t used them in too long. Weeks, really. Don’t want to get sloppy in my skills.”

“So, you’ve vetted her; what do we do now? Help her vanish? Nab Underworld at their next meeting? What?”

“You do nothing, Carl, except to let her know you’ve reported to me and to tell her to sit tight. The rest is up to me.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“More or less,” Query responded. “I have a few. Circumstances in the field will dictate which comes into play.”

For several moments, Carl stared into the almost featureless black mask, focusing on the red question mark—the sole bit of flair it possessed—and tried to form his own theories as that punctuation mark mocked him silently.

“You’re going to use her as bait to draw out Janus, at the same time as you’re going to try to protect her, aren’t you?”

“Probably,” Query admitted.

“Risky for both of you.”

“Yeah,” Query admitted, putting his feet back up on his desk, presenting Carl with their scuffed, cracked landscape once more. “But Janus tried to have me killed without provocation, and I’m not about to let that slide.”

* * *

“Love what you’ve done with the wings,” Tooth Fairy said, craning her neck a little, twisting her torso this way and that, and regarding her back in the trio of mirrors. “I really appreciate those little bits of decoration that make them a bit more sinister, and the flapping action is so much easier to control now.”

She stopped admiring herself and the updates to her costume, and turned to face the woman with whom she was speaking. Tooth Fairy smiled and added, “You know, it’s not many people in your line of work who would be so accepting of a severed head in a plastic shopping bag. You really are the best.”

Francesca DeSantos returned Tooth Fairy’s smile—she was genuinely flattered and felt no guilt taking credit for everything, even though Julian Gregori’s original wing-work was still in place—just tweaked a bit. She was actually impressed with Julian’s design, but wasn’t about to admit respect of a rival designer to her new client. “Thank you, my dear. In the few weeks since you switched from Julian over to me for costume design, I’ve found you to be a refreshing bit of company as well. Too many of your ilk are so serious and don’t know how to enjoy themselves in their work.”

Tooth Fairy snorted slightly, and frowned. “Julian and Leon. Pffffpppht! So many rules and principles with those two. You’ll actually hook me up with weapons suppliers, which saves me so much time. They couldn’t even take a joke or two about me snacking on the flesh of their little girl.”

“Truth be told, considering most of the children I’ve encountered in life, the world would be a better place if more than a few of them were eaten,” Francesca responded drolly. “By the way, why do you have a severed head with you?”

Tooth Fairy quickly recounted a tale of a kidnapping for ransom that she decided to abort when she realized how annoying her victim was going to be while she negotiated a ransom amount and the delivery method for of money. In the end, she noted, he was less trouble to her dead than as a source of new income.

“Are you sending a message to his family with the head, then?” Francesca asked with undisguised curiosity and sincere interest.

Tooth Fairy shook her head. “Just want the teeth. Need some new jewelry. I normally let victims off with just a couple extractions, but since he was dead, well…might as well take them all. Easier with the head off. Anyway, I was just getting ready to pull them out when I heard police sirens. Decided not to take a chance and bolted with it in a bag.”

“Really? What kind of jewelry? I do design accessories as well, you know,” Francesca noted.

Tooth Fairy smiled broadly, and let her teeth grow longer and wider to make an almost cartoon-like exaggeration of a smile. “I was thinking something more substantial than my normal baubles. Maybe a broad torc-style necklace. Not enough teeth in this head for that, but I have others at home.”

“Do you have any objection to mixed media?” Francesca asked. “Perhaps his teeth and some of your other human ones mixed with animal teeth and a few bones, and working in some precious metals and stones here and there for accent?”

“Sounds expensive,” Tooth Fairy noted, but she was still smiling, albeit with normal teeth now.

“A girl’s got to stay in business,” Francesca answered. “And I promise I’ll make you even more gorgeous than you already are.”

Tooth Fairy reached out a hand, and as she shook the other woman’s, she noted that the designer didn’t flinch a bit when she felt the brief touch and scrape of tiny dentition that Tooth Fairy had formed momentarily in a faux mouth on her palm. “I think this is going to be a beautiful business relationship,” the villain said. “As long as you keep the cost under $20,000, you’ve got a deal.”

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“Welcome to the show, Secretary Dahl, and congratulations on your recent confirmation earlier this spring as head of the Department of Transhuman Affairs,” Ben Glick said with his unique mix of solicitude and disdain. “Why don’t you tell myself and my audience how you’re going to deal with the transhuman problem in this country and how you’ll be working with the Defense Department and State Department to deal with transhuman threats abroad.”

“Well,” the guest said, clearly taken aback, “thank you so much, Mr. Glick, for telling me what my agenda is supposed to be, particularly the foreign affairs role you seem to think I have. If you don’t mind, though, I’ll wait on President Obama to tell me what he sees my priorities being on what you call a ‘problem’ and what I simply see as a fact of life. We have transhumans…”

“…so, you don’t have any original thoughts,  Secretary Dahl?” the host goaded him. “The man who brought us socialist Obamacare and who’s trampling on the Constitution and refusing to produce a physical birth certificate from the U.S. has to march you through every step? Well, why does he need a secretary to head the department, then? He can just keep doing nothing and run Transhuman Affairs himself.”

“I think you’re well aware of the fact I meant I’ll be getting my broad goals and parameters from the President, as do all Cabinet members, Mr. Glick. And the U.S. government has hardly been ‘doing nothing’ as you say with regard to transhumans.”

“Really? What has been done with regard to the transhuman problem?”

“These are fellow humans, sir, not a ‘problem’ to be solved.”

“Oh, I’ll grant you there are a small number—those who watch me regularly, I’m sure—who side with humanity, but they aren’t human, sir. That’s why we call them ‘transhuman’ and they most certainly are a problem, as evidenced by the crimes so many of them commit and the damage the so-called ‘heroes’ do as well.”

Dahl rolled his eyes visibly. “You’re talking about a very small percentage of the population of transhumans, out of the already small percentage who have significant powers.”

“Interesting word choice: significant. Yes, Mr. Secretary, I worry about the ones I don’t see talked about on the news, or who have powers that aren’t showy, who might be using them to get over on humans, or push them out of jobs, or influence them, as the Socialist-in-Chief looks the other way.”

“I’m well aware of your conspiracy theories, but making charts of presumed connections between the Oval Office, transhuman agitators or anyone else with your dry erase markers on a whiteboard when you’re on the air hardly makes your theories fact.”

“Oh, certainly, sir, belittle my audience.”

“It’s not your audience that I’m addressing, and I’m still not sure what it is you think the President should be doing that isn’t already being done, particularly my part, given that my department is concerned with issues of health, discrimination and social issues—not law enforcement.”

“Well, aside from no longer cozying up to transhumans behind closed doors and handing the keys to the kingdom to them,” Ben Glick said loftily, “how about he give us some enforcement of the laws against them?”

“I’m a bit more concerned in my department about enforcing laws that should be protecting them to ensure they have the same rights as any other American, but the fact is that transhumans who break the law are arrested by local authorities or the FBI depending on the nature of their crime.”

“Oh, yes, some of them—for show. Those who aren’t of any use, since ‘President’ Obama has a history of throwing inconvenient people under the bus, as it were,” the talk show host responded. “How about…oh…Doctor Holiday?”

“Why would you pick him?” Secretary Dahl asked. “The government clearly has him in its sights. He’s on FBI’s most-wanted list.”

“And yet still at large—for Obama’s entire administration.”

“All of Bush’s, too, I should add,” Secretary Dahl said.

“Yes, but not with an official ‘hands off’ rule from the Oval Office back then.”

The Transhuman Affairs Secretary got an “ah-ha” look on his face. “I see. The so-called order to let Doctor Holiday do whatever he pleases. It doesn’t exist. It never did. It never will. More conspiracy theories, as is the idea that the government created him.”

“On Christmas 2009, just last year, he tossed a man into his own burning house after accusing him of horrific crimes for which there was no evidence—killing him without letting him have the benefit of a trial—and putting a whole neighborhood in danger. On Veteran’s Day three years ago, he dug up several caskets in Arlington Cemetery and flung them away. Several months ago, on New Year’s, he murdered…”

“Look, let me stop you there,” Secretary Dahl said. “I’ll grant you the Christmas example, as it was murder, though I should note the family has since confirmed many of the accusations. But all three caskets at Arlington turned out to be problematic—two of them were in the wrong graves, having been switched, and one corpse was of a soldier who it later turned out was guilty of several heinous crimes while deployed in Iraq. As for the New Year’s incident, we have the word of one man that Doctor Holiday did it. I’ll remind you of how many people accuse Doctor Holiday of everything under the sun, even when it isn’t a holiday, like the woman who drowned her three children a few years back and said ‘Doctor Holiday did it’ or the man who robbed the bank he worked at a few days before Easter and said Doctor Holiday did it. Even BP was trying to blame their oil spill in the Gulf on Doctor Holiday for the first few weeks. Need I go on?”

“Still, he walks free, and on that Christmas incident, why didn’t the authorities notify the FBI unless they were ordered to ignore…”

“As I understand it, Mr. Glick, the local authorities were a bit frightened and confused and were slow in letting the FBI know, and there was a mix-up in the message going through proper channels once the FBI was called…”

“So, every time Doctor Holiday shows up, the FBI or military are conveniently nowhere to be found.”

“You know as well as I do that Doctor Holiday seems to have a very large number of powers, and…”

“…and apparently friends in high places,” Ben Glick snapped. “There should be teams ready nationwide so that the moment someone spots Doctor Holiday, an Apache helicopter is sent out to fire a Sidewinder missile right at that menace to society.”

“Aside from the danger of using a Sidewinder on a single man in what would be a populated area most likely, weren’t you just complaining how Doctor Holiday denied a man the right to a trial by summarily executing him?” Secretary Dahl noted. “And now you want him executed on the spot?”

“The Constitution was written by humans and for humans, Mr. Secretary,” Glick said. “Someone like Doctor Holiday deserves no more consideration for due process than a rabid wolf in a Macy’s.”

* * *

Zoe consulted her e-mail and her Twitter account on her smart phone, then set it down to take a drink of her mocha with a double-shot of espresso. As she did, she heard the scrape of a chair behind her as someone sat at the table there, then a quiet voice saying, “Ms. Dawson—you should go to the library and look for some books by Donald Miller. An associate of Query’s would like to make your acquaintance in that section.”

Then the man moved his chair closer to his table, and she heard him sip at some beverage loudly.

Her heart seemed to stop in her chest for a moment, and she wondered if it was a trap set by Janus or Underworld to test her or trip her up, then realized the ridiculousness of that. They’d have to know she called him first, and that seemed unlikely. She hadn’t used her own phone or her normal e-mail account to do that. Then once she dispensed with that fear she felt a fresh wave of anxiety as she wondered how deep she was getting if she actually had gotten Query’s attention.

Part of me wonders if the wiser move would simply have been to play along with Underworld and take her offer at face value, Zoe considered. Except I don’t like being forced into a corner and I’m not sure I can just turn off my conscience that easily.

She stood up, gathered her things, and headed back to the campus to visit the library, hoping that her mysterious contact hadn’t meant the city library. She thought about asking him, and then wondered how many eyes Underworld or Janus might have on her, and kept walking instead.

* * *

The man behind the desk sighed, removed his feet from the top of it, and then leaned forward, hands steepled together in front of him. “Bob, I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with the direction of this project. I’m particularly uncomfortable now that I’m only just finding out about its existence 17 months into my presidency.”

“I only found out about it a couple days ago myself, sir,” responded the Secretary of Defense. “This has been an active but largely black-budget project for many years, and apparently they’re under a standing executive order to only bring themselves to my attention or yours at certain milestone points. Like this one, for which they need approval to proceed.”

“This just isn’t right,” President Obama said. “It smells bad, Bob.”

“But it isn’t some ultra-secret autonomous project or some rogue thing, sir, as evidenced by the safeguards and approval processes we’re seeing now.”

“I promised a more transparent government, not a more opaque one.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing we can tell people about, but I think it’s a project we need, no matter how distasteful it might seem. Look, we know that China is pushing transhuman development plans, both training the ones they have—most of them in the military—and working on ways to activate dormant transhuman genes in otherwise normal citizens.”

“China isn’t an enemy, I should point out,” the President said.

“Nor a friend, really, when we get down to it,” added Secretary of State Clinton, who had been silent until that point. “They already flex the muscle they have owning so much of our debt and being such an economic force potentially. Their people are already genetically predisposed more to transhuman powers than our largely white population here in the U.S., and they have a fifth of the world’s people in their borders.”

“Hillary’s right, sir. They will push the envelope, and if they decide to be aggressive, we will be at a serious disadvantage,” Secretary Gates added.

“General Alexander knew about this?”

“Yes sir,” Secretary Gates admitted. “He was NSA director under President Bush, too, and oversees it. He, like the facility in question, was under a standing order…”

“…he authorized them to take the next step and gave them a deadline to produce induced transhumans,” the President pointed out, an edge to his voice. “That is totally unacceptable.”

“Unfortunately, sir, it was part of his job, and written into his national security duties, as well as his military obligations, to only notify you when he needed authorization. He gave them a deadline, but only you can push the button on this,” Secretary Gates noted. “Given that China is mostly on our minds here, but also Iran and other nations who are more predisposed to their people becoming transhumans, you, me and Secretary Clinton need to know about this. But we either need to be on board with it, or stop and bury the project and make sure no one ever finds out about it. Those are really our only two options.”

For several minutes, the president of the United States said nothing. “Shit I need a cigarette,” he muttered. “OK. Hillary, Bob, we need to keep a tight lid on this. Obviously. I don’t like it one bit, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much I can do about what’s already been done, so let’s finish the project’s currently active phase. But I swear to God, if General Alexander or anyone else authorizes any new warm bodies to be added in in this exercise, I will make sure some heads start rolling, no matter what ‘standing executive orders’ are in place. And speaking of that, I want the general in here tomorrow to give me a full accounting of these standing orders he has as director of the National Security Agency and what orders the Genesis One facility has, or I’ll have him manning an Arctic research station by week’s end. Are we clear?”

“Crystal-clear, sir,” Robert Gates noted, and Hillary Clinton herself just nodded.

“I need a lot more convincing that this is important enough to keep going,” the President added. “As of right now, I’m feeling like this batch of poor guinea pigs in this program needs to be the last.”

* * *

In a quiet warehouse far from the New Judah city limits, a man in a suit walked nervously to the center of the structure, and stopped. After a while, he said, “I hope you’re here. You’re not an easy woman to find, my employer was very clear that I needed to reach you, and I am supposed to report back soon.”

“Is that your way of suggesting that I can’t kill you or people will know right away you’re missing?” came the gleeful reply from above. Moments later, Tooth Fairy dropped from above, and grunted as she hit the ground a little harder than she planned on.

“Just trying to emphasize that I don’t want to rush you, but I have to,” the man said.

“Oh, really? So I have to make a decision now. Is that it?” she asked, opening her mouth and letting her normal teeth turn into long needle-like curving fangs.

The man put his hands before his chest, waving them back and forth quickly. “Not at all, ma’am. I just need to be able to report that you got my message and that I gave you the means to contact my employer.”

“Are you a cop?” she asked suddenly.


“For your sake, I hope not. Because if a bunch of boys in blue rush in here, you’ll be dead before they take me and certain unmentionable parts of your anatomy will be in my mouth—and not in a loving or affectionate manner.”

“That won’t be necessary…”

“Damn!” she said, smiling and with a playful look in her eyes, which contrasted hideously with her toothy visage. She let the teeth revert to normal. “That’s a pity. Well, you’ve given me your message. I’m really not the joining type, though. Maybe killing you would be a good message to send to that effect.”

“It’s just an offer, ma’am. An expression of respect for your abilities and a chance for you to say yes or no as you please.”

“Call me ma’am one more time, and I’m going to have a snicky-snack,” Tooth Fairy said. “Go on, now, and run back to Janus. Leave your card or whatever on the ground and fly away home little ladybug.”

“Yes, ma…” the man said, then bit down on his tongue, set a business card on the ground, and hurried away as fast as he could without completely abandoning his dignity or decorum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach you some of the ins and outs.

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

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

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

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

At least the hours are good, Cole thought.

* * *

A scream—a woman. A shout—a man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


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

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

Another time, perhaps. Another time.

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

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Kevlar vest. Taser. Chain mail gloves. Three pairs of wings. Sage and honeysuckle sachets. Olive oil soap.

Where the hell were the custom-made pliers?

“Leon!” Julian called out. “Where are the pearl-handled pliers?”

With 7-year-old Lois in tow, Leon pointed to the leather duffel bag. “Jules, you’ve been fretting about those since Saturday. You stuffed them in the side pocket already. You know, that’s skirting the line, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Pliers are a tool, not a weapon.”

“This is Tooth Fairy we’re talking about, Jules. We know what she’s using them for. Makes me feel dirty,” Leon said. “I don’t like feeling dirty unless you and I are doing something special.”

“Hey! Watch the talk around our girl,” Julian whispered intently.

“What?” Leon asked with faux innocence, rolling his eyes since Lois wasn’t even in the room right now, having rushed off to grab a snack from the kitchen. “I can’t talk about gardening in front of our girl?”

“You’re incorrigible, Leon. OK, I have everything I need to keep myself intact if things go wonky, and everything she ordered.”

“I’m serious about the pliers. Let’s not do that again.”

“Leon, Tooth Fairy is our most unbalanced client. You and I didn’t know that when she came to us, but now we do, and we have to deal with it. She’s a sociopath. I figure that as long as she respects our no-weapons and no-controlled-substances rules, and we don’t ‘fire’ her as a client and throw her a little bone like this, you and I get to maintain some semblance of our consciences with the added bonus that we stay alive and/or unmangled.”

“Jules, she uses those pliers to yank out teeth from her victims.”

“And she’d buy plain ones from the hardware store if we didn’t have these made for her,” Julian pointed out. “Except that she’d be using the ones from the hardware store on us to express her displeasure at our poor customer service. To be honest, I think she just wants these ones for show. She seems too concerned about her appearance these days to want to ruin something that pretty with saliva, blood and food that people didn’t finish chewing.”

“We need to screen our future clients a bit better, and we need more heroes on the list,” Leon said.

“We’re getting there, Leo. Villains are the ones with the best money, and all we’re doing is dressing them,” Julian said.

“The wings did turn out nice,” Leon noted. “So they’ll flap with just minor movements of her neck or shoulders?”

“Yeah. Had Karen test them out, and it takes practice, but they work perfectly. Really realistic. Tooth Fairy should have come to us for that first instead of going to Peter Goebel just because he has the prettiest looking silk-work. Shallow bastard. No sense of style, really. OK, we bring Lois to school, then you drop me at the meeting point. Her backpack is on the table. I packed her afternoon snack and the library book she needs to take back.”

“If Tooth Fairy had a better sense of the transhuman design circles, she would have gone with Francesca,” Leon said. “She’s about the only person I’d put above you for style and attention to functional details. Too bad, too, because my conscience would feel a lot better if someone else had her as a client. If you love me, you’ll ‘accidentally’ drop Fran’s name the moment you step out of the car to meet Tooth Fairy.” A slightly panicked look crossed Leon’s face, and then he said, “Oh, shit.”

“What?” Julian asked and, almost simultaneously, Lois came in and said, “Oh shit what, Papa?”

Julian glowered at Leon. “Watch the language in front of our kid. She’s going to be talking like a sailor with you around.”

Leon chuckled. “Time was that you fancied sailors,” he whispered into Julian’s ear, then turned to Lois and half-heartedly scolded her with, “That’s not the kind of language for a young lady to use. At least not until you’re old enough to vote.”

“Sailors,” Julian scoffed. “Way to perpetuate the gay stereotypes, Leon. Besides, their uniforms are terrible. Marines or Air Force men any day of the week.”

“Are you going to join the military, Daddy?” she asked Julian, and he had no idea if she was being sarcastic or serious—she was becoming more like Leon with every passing month, God help them all.

“OK, why the slip of the tongue with the S-word, Leon?” Julian asked.

“I haven’t swept the car for tracking devices yet this morning.”

“Oh dear God almighty, Leon! Lois has to be at school in 15 minutes, I need to meet our toothsome client, and our car is probably going to lose 25 percent of its gas mileage because it’s so loaded down with hidden FBI-issue GPS trackers. What were you thinking?”

“Yeah, what were you thinking, Papa?” Lois mimicked, almost nailing Julian’s tone, essentially making fun of both of them on one fell swoop.

“Frankly, both of you, I was thinking that I had a lot of arrangements to make with people in Europe at 5 a.m. our time for that fashion show that you need to be at next month, Julian,” Leon said, “and I was up past 2 a.m. scheduling drop-offs for various transhuman clients and for our standard garment industry clients. I’ll go sweep the car. You know, Jules, you could stand to bend down and crawl around a bit yourself some days.”

“I do that enough with you,” Julian muttered, hoping that Lois hadn’t heard that. Then, in a normal tone of voice, he added, “I’m sorry, Leon, for snapping at you. Tooth Fairy makes me nervous; you have a good idea, there—I’ll make sure she finds out about Francesca and then we won’t have to worry. She’s a shark with no morals and no conscience, so the two of them would be perfect for each other.”

* * *

Leon declared the car free of tracking devices 12 minutes later, to which Julian replied tartly that it took 8 to 10 minutes to get to Lois’ school, so she was going to be late. Somehow, this spiraled into a short rant about permanent records and lowering her odds of getting into Harvard.

“I could skip school today,” she helpfully offered, then put up her hands in surrender when both of her fathers shot her glares.

They gathered everything up, went to the front door, and opened it to discover that a man was standing there, wearing a white unitard, ivory-hued gloves and boots, and a helmet that looked like a molar. A van had pulled up onto their lawn, close to their front porch, with the back end facing the front of the house.

Julian and Leon both realized that even if any of their neighbors were looking out their windows or strolling, they wouldn’t be able to see who came out of that van and went into the house.

“Step back inside,” the man said grimly behind his tooth-mimicking helmet. “My mistress, Tooth Fairy, commands…ooooff!”

Without hesitation, Leon’s mind and body brought up all the training from his previous extreme fighting days, as he struck the man hard in his solar plexus. Then he grabbed the man by the back of the neck, pulled his head down, and brought his knee up into the helmet, which didn’t look that sturdy.

Leon’s suspicions were confirmed when the helmet cracked open and the man’s nose let out a cracking noise of its own as Leon’s attack broke it. Julian had already pulled the taser from the duffel sack and incapacitated the man.

“Daddy, Papa…can we go now? If I’m going to have to go to school today, I don’t want to miss the morning snack.”

“In a moment, sweetie,” Leon said. “Daddy and I seem to be having a little client trouble.”

“Oh, no trouble at all,” came a husky voice from behind them, and they turned to see Tooth Fairy. As the woman smiled and her teeth began to grown and change to become a fearsome maw, one of Julian’s hands covered Lois’ eyes.

“Really, let’s not traumatize the child,” Julian scolded Tooth Fairy. “We were supposed to meet elsewhere. Is there a problem?”

“Not anymore,” she said, letting her teeth go back to normal and smiling now with a closed-mouth grin as she sauntered forward. “All the FBI people are three blocks away in various strategic locations waiting for you to leave so they can track you. Now when they do, I won’t be where you’re going. I will still need you to go to the meet-up site so that they’re distracted. OK, need my stuff. Chop, chop,” she said, flashing her teeth, a handful of which looked life wolfish fangs now.

“No pun intended, right?” Julian said. “We cleared the car already, and we know how to slip cars shadowing us.”

“Safer this way, especially since they nabbed you in Maine a few months ago. Tsk tsk tsk. Villains need to know their suppliers won’t get caught. Let’s get started. I’m feeling snackish, and since I’m watching my figure, something low-cal would be in order, and only one of the three of you is light fare.”

Leon tensed at the implied threat to Lois, but Julian put a hand on his forearm gently to keep him from doing anything rash.

“Dentistry Dude back there trying to be menacing at our door? Threatening to take a bite out of someone? Tooth Fairy, this is not good business,” Julian said. “We play straight and smooth with you all the time.”

“Oh, don’t be so uptight. Even a sociopath needs to work on her banter. I don’t eat kids…yet,” she added, looking Lois right in the eye as the little girl hugged tighter to Leon’s body. “Dentistry Dude is a terrible name, by the way. By a strange coincidence, though, my currently prone henchman suggested Dental Dude as a possibility when we were brainstorming monikers. He also suggested Captain Cavity. I don’t know what to call him yet, though after his performance this morning, ‘snack’ seems like a good nickname.”

“You want him to take his job seriously, you might want to rethink the tooth-shaped helmet,” Leon offered. “How about you set down some money, we set down the duffel bag, and we all get back to business as usual. My little girl is already tardy, and your henchman got blood all on our cream-colored carpet and my pant leg.”

Tooth Fairy wound one finger into the strand of teeth hanging from her neck in a disturbingly coquettish manner, and shrugged, her flimsy wing-like cape fluttering a little. She pulled out a manila envelope, and tossed it to the ground. As Julian tossed the duffel bag at her feet, first pulling out the chain mail gloves he planned to use to hand it over at the meeting place, a sudden sharp flash of light exploded behind them, and Tooth Fairy screeched, covering her eyes.

“No evil shall hide in the shadows with Morning Glory bearing the light of justice!” came the clichéd cry behind them, as a hero dressed much like an angel burst in after the wake of his demonstration of Luminar powers. He managed to knock over Julian, Leon and Lois and tangle up his own legs in the process. As he struggled to get back on his feet, the wings on his back seriously askew now, Tooth Fairy got up, partially blinded but clearly recovering her sight quickly.

In moments, the two were wrestling and striking each other in the living room.

“Julian, I am going to grab one of those GPS trackers I took off the car with me, along with Lois, and I’m going to take the FBI for a little wild goose chase as I drop her off at school and go to the meeting place and sit there for 15 minutes while the feds try to figure out why I’m doing absolutely nothing,” Leon said, then winced as their new television was smashed by an ill-timed blow from Morning Glory, whose talents with light generation were clearly much better than his fighting skills. “I’m going to keep the feds far away from this. These two better be gone when I get back.”

* * *

Julian was vacuuming the carpet when Leon came back 90 minutes later. Some Oxy-Clean had apparently removed the blood stains from the carpet, and the remains of the television were now in a box. Several knick-knacks were broken, but Julian had managed to straighten things up almost to normal.

“Who won?” Leon asked. “They are gone, right? One or the other of them isn’t using our toilet or having some tea or something, are they?”

“No clear victor, so we’ll call it a draw. Tooth Fairy wasn’t in peak fighting shape with all the strobe-light effects, but she kind of took the fight out of Morning Glory when she bit off his ear—then she ran off with her merchandise and her henchman. She must have been in a good mood, though, because she hardly chewed on the ear at all. I put it on some ice for the poor guy, gave him directions to the nearest hospital, and sent him off with the number for a couple of good martial arts instructors for good measure.”

Leon sighed heavily.

“You know, Julian, Lois will keep this to herself at school, but if the FBI or anyone else got wind of this, Child Protective Services would be so far down our throats we’d be shitting case workers. I’m serious: You have six months.”

“To do what?”

“To get our client list down to no more than 20 percent of them being villains, and only sane ones. I don’t care if we boost our clientele with the more reputable or just semi-reputable mercenary and freelance transhumans or if we just take a bath on all this by just cutting back our number of clients,” Leon said. “Our mortgage is paid off, we’re nearly debt-free, and this was always a sideline business.”

“Agreed. On the future mix of clients, that is. I’m not going to walk away from something I’m so good at. I’m already thinking that I should approach Cheshire; she could really stand to play up feline themes in her costume—and I think she’d be well-served by having a few different styles to switch around and mix-and-match. Not enough transhumans doing that,” Julian said. “Those triplets Conundrum, Paradox and Enigma need a serious style boost, too.”

“Great, Julian. But first, about Tooth…”

“Cutting her loose. Well, driving her toward Fran, anyway,” Julian said. “I ‘let slip’ that my wings, while very high quality, would have never survived a tussle like that—which we both know is untrue, but she doesn’t—and I muttered that I should see if Francesca DeSantos could be convinced to consult with me on a new design.”

“Think she’ll take the bait?”

“She’ll look into Fran,” Julian said. “I’m sure of it. Once they start talking they’ll hit it off and we’ll be off the hook. A shame, though.”

“To get rid of a psycho as fast as possible?” Leon sputtered. “That’s a shame?”

“What’s a shame is that Tooth Fairy is such a damn wildcard and needed to be dumped, because she paid us 75 percent of what we had agreed upon.”

“She shorted us last time, too,” Leon pointed out. “Only reason we didn’t argue was because she’s a sick freak—and because you always pad the price to account for that kind of bullshit.”

“I know,” Julian responded, “but last time she paid us 50 percent of what she owed. She was clearly beginning to warm up to us.”

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Professor McGinnis jotted down a date on the whiteboard—1970—then underneath it the current year: 2010. He turned to his Sociology and Culture class, every one of the 25 students a senior, pointing the dry erase marker at them, waving it like a wand and saying, “Who can tell me what they think is the most important change in society to occur in this period?”

Zoe caught his eyes squarely even as she raised her hand—it was a trick she had learned long ago to ensure she didn’t get overlooked. Joe McGinnis was as often flustered by her as he was elated with her answers, so he sometimes had an inclination to ignore her at first. But the main reason Zoe did it was because when she had a thought to share, she was damned if anyone else was going to go first. It often came at the cost of getting in the final word, but it was a price she was typically willing to pay.

“Yes, Ms. Dawson.”

“Very rapid advances in microchip technology over what had been created in the early ‘60s, which ushered in the widespread use of personal computers in homes in the early 1980s and led in turn to widespread high-speed access to the web later that same decade thanks to fiber-optic advances as well as memory and data processing speed breakthroughs,” Zoe said.

“Interesting approach, Zoe,” the professor said. “I would have thought…”

“…that I’d pick the answer everyone else does?” she noted. “The emergence of the first documented and confirmed transhuman in the mid-1970s? No, that’s just a freak occurrence of nature that has become a more widespread occurrence of nature over the past 30 or 40 years. It’s a major evolutionary development, sure…but it doesn’t represent a fundamental altering of the way we live and work.”

“I beg to differ,” Prof. McGinnis said. “The rise of transhumanity has had widespread and fundamental impacts on our nation and the entire world. For example, it changed the nature of crime and forced police departments to include transhuman units in addition to SWAT units. It also forced the creation of special prisons, and the need to identify and keep separate so-called ‘heroes’ who violate anti-vigilante laws from ‘villains’ who are more identifiably evil. It also sharply altered media and entertainment, from comic books to mo…”

“All of those things are simply ramped up versions of things we already had,” Zoe interrupted him. “It didn’t change anything fundamentally, not like computer and web access have. Crime, punishment and incarceration have always been in flux. Entertainment is always shifting. I mean, look at the rise and fall and re-emergence of musicals in film…”

Interrupting her himself now, the professor cut in with, “Then what about social issues? Transhuman changes seem to sharply favor those of Asian or African descent. This is rapidly leading to global socioeconomic and sociopolitical shifts of staggering implications. And here in the U.S., it’s bringing race relations issues to a boiling point in many areas as Caucasians come to fear that their hold on wealth and power isn’t just at risk—but also wondering if they are going to be rendered extinct in the next century or so. Have you considered that?”

“Certainly I have, Prof. McGinnis, but shifts in power and the rise and fall of world powers is nothing new, either. Neither are race relations issues in this country or globally. China already owned so much of our debt—does it really make a big difference that they will have more transhumans and take a lead role as a world power? Or Africa, for that matter? It’s just their turn. On the other hand, widespread access to the Internet and the ability to process, send and store massive amounts of data instantly is truly transformative. Just for starters, widespread access to e-mail for going on nearly three decades now has made the U.S. Post Office a shadow of its former self. The way people meet and interact and what they are willing to share about themselves has changed in ways that are so deep and so broad they can’t even be compared to the impact of the telephone’s invention. The way news is disseminated has changed fundamentally.”

Zoe stopped to take a breath, but held up a finger and gave the professor a stern look to indicate she wasn’t done.

“The fact that you can store a terabyte of data on your pocket PC is transformative. You can store a huge library in your pants,” she said, earning a round of chuckles from her classmates, “which is something unimaginable for thousands of years of civilization. We have the first artificial intelligence computers emerging now. Internet access has enabled people to conduct research and share ideas in minutes—sometimes seconds—instead of having to hop a bus to the nearest library, hoping the books they need are there, and spending tons of time finding them. Scientific and healthcare breakthroughs we see now coming at us at geometric rates, and the rapid changes in science and the understanding of the world, too—and this all came about from microchip technology, not transhumans.”

The professor smiled.

“But, Ms. Dawson, what about the fact that the first ‘documented’ and ‘confirmed’—both your words, by the way—transhumans were in the 1970s? That means that likely transhuman genetic effects were in play before that and were simply unseen and unrecognized. Meaning that the microchip breakthroughs you note were probably the result of transhumans who would now be classified as ‘Brains.’ Check and mate, I believe.”

Zoe smiled in turn, but it was a bitter and rueful one. “Only if you base your conclusions on unproven assumptions, professor—which you have.”

After that, others in the class began to get their comments in, and the tide was overwhelmingly in favor of the professor’s view. A few other ideas were tossed out here and there about other major changes to society and culture from other sources, but it always ended up coming back to the transhumans.

Seething with frustration and simmering with unspent anger as well, Zoe literally stomped through the first half of her journey to her dorm after class. At one point, her emotions coming to a peak, she felt the cellular shift take hold, and winced slightly at the split-second pain as her nails and hair changed composition to become harder and sharper than any knife—and as her skin became tighter and more resilient. In a flash of anger, she struck the corner of one of the oldest buildings on the New Judah campus of the University of Connecticut when no one was looking, raking four deep gouges in the bricks with her nails.

Then she calmed down, felt her body shift back to normal, and brushed the red-brown dust from her hand and the tiny hard chunks from under her fingernails. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, and when a passing student scowled at her like she was a leper for doing so, she smiled sweetly, blew a kiss as she exhaled her smoke, and then flipped him off.

We aren’t transformative, professor, Zoe thought bitterly. People like me are just the next logical step, I guess. Or maybe just freaks. We just complicate things; we aren’t that special in the end.

* * *

Query flexed his arm, and contemplated the scars that had been with him for three days now, and would soon enough fade away. Still plenty of internal damage to heal, though, so the arm was far from fully functional. Still, looking at it, no one would know that less than a week ago, it had been slashed and shot to a bloody pulp.

He looked at the clock. 4:17 a.m. A perfectly putrid time of day when he wasn’t in proper condition to patrol, investigate, capture or punish as Query.

So I guess that makes me Alan Millos right now…or is it Milo Phillips, since that’s the human face that most people see?

He was restless. How long had it been since he’d actually slept at all? Three or four years now? Even before then, increasingly sporadic sleep after the accidentally forced emergence of his transhuman powers. Not even the strongest anti-insomnia medications had done a thing for him. Anesthetics were equally useless. He’d forgotten what dreaming felt like—forgotten how it felt to drift off into slumber with his head resting on a soft and warm pillow. All because he had wanted to heal his spine—ruined that night so long ago as the victim of a hold-up. All because he had taken that drug that he himself had deemed too dangerous to bring to market. He’d gained so much in return—besides just the use of his legs again—but he’d lost so much as well.


And dreams.

Don’t become maudlin. Find something to do.

Got to feed the sleep-starved brain; or else I’ll fucking go insane.

Sadly, he had nothing to investigate—well, that wasn’t true, precisely. He just didn’t have any paying clients or specific pro-bono cases now that the Grimmond kidnapping had turned out to be a setup all along. What he should be investigating was why Janus had gone through all that trouble and sent a team of 18 hired killers to get rid of him.

Janus had been running a successful criminal empire out west. There wasn’t much reason to come out this far—all the way to the East Coast. The man’s network wasn’t solid enough to expand this far out—hell, he wasn’t even in a position to dominate the entire Pacific coastline yet, much less start expanding into Arizona or New Mexico or the plains states. Yet here he was, skipping all the way across the nation in one fell swoop.

Based on the interrogations of his two prisoners, along with some other probing, it seemed that Janus had essentially closed up shop in California, Tijuana and Nevada and was setting up a whole new network out here, centered either in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh or New Judah.

And since the New Judah and New York metro areas are where I spend most of my time—and he tried to have me killed, that helps me narrow it down to two choices.

What was harder for Query to figure out yet was why Janus would try to kill him specifically. He’d never had any reason to go head-to-head against any of the villain’s operations out west, so there was no grudge match in play, and Query certainly wasn’t the only hero here out east—nor even the most active. Yet as near as he could discern, no one else had been targeted but him.

It was just confusing him instead of inspiring his investigative instincts. Worse, his lack of interaction with the scene out west meant he didn’t have a good handle on Janus and what made him tick—aside from what he could glean from sketchy reports and profiles generated by others. Every time he tried to examine the angles on the situation, it gave him a headache.

Aside from the investigatory block he was suffering, the underground rap scene had been irritating him more than inspiring him for some days now, so he finally decided to compose a couple new jazz tunes. He hadn’t produced anything as part of his Nigel Roy identity in a few months, so it was a good choice. Melodies for a while, instead of rap lyrics. In fact, he hadn’t made an appearance in public as Nigel in more than six months, and that was too long. Disguising himself as a Caucasian was good for keeping up his skills with makeup and prosthetics—he hadn’t had to use those talents in a while. It would also give him a chance to go on stage and work the sax or the guitar a bit.

Can’t get rusty. Need to keep all my diverse balls in the air.

Distract myself from lack of dreams; or else be driven mad with screams.

He sighed. Maybe after getting a rough melody down, he could review some pharmaceutical journals and attend to some of his business affairs as Alan Millos, too. Sure, he couldn’t investigate or patrol right now, but there were plenty of other things to do as he lived each day 24 hours without a break.

Sometimes he wondered if four identities was enough anymore to keep him sane—enough to occupy a mind forever denied the restorative power of sleep and dreams.

* * *

The teeth, the bank executive thought. Oh, God, the teeth. Please don’t smile again.

Of course she smiled though, and the executive squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.

“That’s rude,” the woman told him in a voice that sounded like the husky, smoky intonation of Kathleen Turner with just an added hint of razor blades scraping together. “Open your eyes and look at me when I’m talking to you. Don’t make me ask again, or I’ll take another nibble.”

Sweating and shivering at the same time, he opened his eyes to look at that face. A face that looked so normal—just your average 30-something-year-old soccer mom—except for a set of teeth than was mix of oversized canines, needle-like fangs, curving fangs, jagged molars, blade-like teeth, and more. And then she smiled wider, and he saw a second set of equally horrific dentition just grow behind those teeth, and then vanish just as quickly. The smile faded. Then she lifted a hand, presented it palm-first, and the flesh peeled open like a gash until he realized a mouth was forming there, full of tiny needle-like teeth. Then it, too, retreated.

Somehow, through it all, he managed to keep his eyes open as she had ordered. He didn’t want her to nibble anymore. The ruin of the little finger and ring finger of his left hand wasn’t something he wanted repeated.

“Wha…wha…what do you want?” he managed. “Please just tell me what you want.”

She said nothing, instead pulling out a set of pliers, pushing him to the ground—not a difficult feat, since he was already on his buttocks on the floor—and then straddled his chest. Without preamble, and ignoring his screams, she reached in with the tool and yanked out a tooth, then slipped it into a pouch on her belt. Even through the pain, he couldn’t help but notice the gruesome jewelry she wore and wondered if his tooth was destined to be a new charm on her bracelet or a sixth earring to adorn her right ear. With a giddiness born of fear and dread, he even wondered if it might end up being a belly button piercing.

Moaning with pain and the metallic tang of blood in his mouth, he moaned, “Why? Why are you doing this?”

“To get your attention, silly,” the woman said. “Now, if you don’t want me to own all of your teeth, or nibble some more, or both, you will tell me the passwords to get into the mainframe, so that I can conduct a very quiet robbery of a lot of money. Well, quiet except for those moans and whimpers you keep making.”

“But…” he began, and she waved the pliers in a lazy arc in the air, and he said, “Yes. Fine. Yes. Yes. Whatever you want.”

“Good boy,” she said.

When he’d given her what she asked, and she’d made the necessary transfers 15 minutes later, she pushed him down again, and sat on his chest, and his eyes bulged with terror. “But you said…”

“I said if you didn’t give me the passwords, I’d own all your teeth,” she said, and shook her shoulders bit to loosen up. The bank exec noticed the short cape or whatever it was hanging from her neck, gauzy and fluttering almost like two wings. “Don’t worry; I’ll only take two or three more. Tooth Fairy needs her souvenirs.”

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