“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” growled the one man, his hands palm-down on the tabletop and arms spread wide as he leaned just ever so slightly forward—as his eyes narrowed behind the sapphire-colored mask that covered the middle of his face.
“Really? You’re going to go with a cheeseball line like that?” responded the other man, his voice a tinny bass and with a light metallic echo behind the full-head metal helm, colored cobalt blue. He sat with ramrod-straight posture, arms crossed over his chest. “Melodramatic much, Blue Deacon?”
“Look at you talking, with the helmet, cape and brooding man of mystery thing. I’m serious,” Blue Deacon said, “I will take things to the next level. Stop using the name Deacon Blue and find a new one or I will take legal action.”
Behind his helmet, Deacon Blue let out a harsh, short bark of a laugh so sudden and brief it almost sounded like a cough. “Legal action? You’ll sue me? I thought you were threatening to fight me over this whole name thing. Would have been a lot more convenient, actually, since I’m pretty sure I could take you.”
“Typical,” Blue Deacon said, leaning back in his seat and tipping his blue fedora back just slightly. “Fists first with you. I’m not backing down on this. It irks me. I’m Blue Deacon; you’re Deacon Blue. It’s confusing and disrespectful of you. We’re both working the same city fighting crime. Either change your name, get the blazes out of this region and find a new city, or hire a lawyer.”
“Not very charitable of you, Blue Deacon—not very…Christian,” Deacon Blue said. From the eye holes of his helmet, his sharp blue eyes met Blue Deacon’s brown ones, then moved down to linger at the bright silver cross on one of Blue Deacon’s lapels. It was the one thing besides the man’s hair, skin and eye color that wasn’t blue. Nearly navy-blue patent leather dress shoes, electric-blue trousers and suit coat, and an aquamarine shirt under an intricately brocaded suit vest that was indigo with threads in designs and patterns of much lighter blues. Then Blue Deacon’s sapphire-blue tie, mask and hat that almost perfectly matched one another.
“Being Christian doesn’t mean meekly backing down when one is wronged; it just means not getting vicious about it. But at least I have a religious angle with my identity and costume. There’s a hint of ‘deacon’ in my look. You basically stole the Dr. Fate imagery from DC Comics and changed up the colors so that you have a blue helmet and some other parts, with black cape and hood and crap to be all menacing.”
“Don’t forget I do have hints of gold and red in my costume, too,” Deacon Blue said with a snort. “You know, I actually do serve as a deacon in a church,” Deacon Blue pointed out. “I just don’t wear my cross on my sleeve…or my lapel. Are you really a deacon? Do you even go to church regularly, Blue Deacon?”
There was a profound silence from the blue-masked man, and the blue-helmeted one chuckled.
“None of your business, and not the point,” Blue Deacon said. “It’s still an image thing. If you aren’t going to wear your faith outwardly and you’re going to go with some warlock-y theme, why use the label ‘deacon’ at all?”
“Honestly? Because I dig the shit out of Steely Dan. My two favorite songs of all time are ‘Deacon Blues’ and ‘Babylon Sister.’ But why are you letting this get to you so much? I don’t care if you want to be Blue Deacon.”
“I used my name first. I get dibs.”
“No, you got noticed by the news folks first, Blue Deacon. I was being a lot more low-key and didn’t really want media attention. I still try to keep it to a low level. You nearly got trounced in your first few fights when you burst on the scene—I know. So I’m pretty sure I was working the streets at least a year before you because you were green—no pun intended. Again, though, I don’t give a shit what you call yourself, as long as it isn’t Deacon Blue. But keep being Blue Deacon and stop making a stink, OK?”
“Not OK,” Blue Deacon insisted. “Blast it, you’re going for a threatening appearance and demeanor, so why not pick a blue-themed name that’s more mysterious or menacing? How about Indigo? Dr. Sapphire? Blue Shadow? Cerise Warlock? Anything.”
“Damn, you put a lot of thought into this, didn’t you? Too much. By the way, ‘cerise’ is a kind of red, not blue—I was an English major, which explains why I’m working in crime-fighting instead of making big bucks in an office,” Deacon Blue said. “So, I can use anything but something with ‘deacon’ in it, right? Doesn’t work for me. Look, as long as we’re playing the thesaurus name game, why can’t you be the Cerulean Cleric? Evangelist Azure? Hey, how about Blueberry Deacon? You’d really bring in the kiddo fan-base then; you could get a deal to be featured on some new version of ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ or something.”
“Stop mocking me.”
“Stop harassing me,” Deacon Blue retorted. “Live and let live. Mind your business.”
“I’m not going to drop this,” Blue Deacon said.
“Shit, I just want you off my neck, asswipe,” Deacon Blue muttered. “So, you don’t want to fight for it, and a lawsuit is a pain in the ass for people who don’t want to take off their masks or helmets and let the world see who they are. So both of those are out. What the fuck do you suggest to resolve this and move on with fucking real-life concerns?”
Deacon Blue didn’t like the “You’ll see” answer he got before Blue Deacon stomped off, nor the shit-eating grin on his face before he turned away.
* * *
Deacon Blue shook his helmeted head slowly and let a metallically ringing sigh. Over the past three weeks he had hoped Blue Deacon would just drop the whole issue. But here they were facing off again—in a quiet alley instead of a coffee shop—with Blue Deacon having just metaphorically and officially thrown down the gauntlet. “A contest? Who can find and shut down the Change Gang first? Why are we going after a bunch of illiterate losers who don’t even know it should be Chain Gang?”
“They’re actually very literate. They got their hands on small doses of some compounds that can encourage development of transhuman powers and several of them have biology or chemistry degrees,” Blue Deacon said. “They’re looking to jumpstart evolutionary change in norms to create a society of trans. Problem for them is trying to reproduce and mass-produce the compound.”
“OK, I’m semi-impressed. Hoping that if you show off your investigative skills I’ll throw up my hands, say ‘uncle’ and change my name?”
There was an awkward silence, and Blue Deacon shifted back and forth a bit, nervously. “No…to be honest, I thought they were a bunch of fools myself; they’ve certainly put on a good act to make people think so. Turns out they were going to start stealing coins from armored trucks and collectible stores to draw attention away from the real meaning of their name until their plans were well along. I only know because I hired Cheshire to find us a fair target for the contest.”
“Cheshire? Dude, how much money do you have?” Deacon Blue sputtered, whistling sharply once his words were done.
“Big trust fund, but I blew a lot of it on hiring Cheshire. I told you I’m serious about this name thing.”
“OK, even though you’re showing some trends toward brutal and total honesty, how do I know this is going to be a fair contest?”
“Well,” Blue Deacon said, “you know Cheshire’s rep as well as I do. She’s a merc and a spy but she’s not into cheating or betraying a confidence. In about 15 minutes, she’ll be delivering intel to both of us to give us clues of how to find the Change Gang’s headquarters, but neither of us gets a free ride. If neither of us can find and shut down the gang in 72 hours, it’s a draw and we both live with each other keeping our names.”
“Which I’m happy to do anyway, and it’s a lot less trouble,” Deacon Blue said. “And you and I could just take out the Change Gang together and then walk our separate ways and leave each other alone.”
“Not willing to do that,” Blue Deacon answered.
“Why am I not surprised? Still, how do I know this contest is legit and not stacked?”
“Because I also hired Cheshire to be the referee,” Blue Deacon. “That’s almost as expensive as having her do the set-up of the contest.”
“A referee neither of us will ever see or hear,” Deacon Blue said. “Guess that’ll keep us honest.”
* * *
Blue Deacon pushed an azure sleeve up slightly to look at his watch. He did the math quickly, and realized that some 39 hours had passed since the contest had begun and he still hadn’t tracked down the Change Gang. On the other hand, the high-tech paging unit on his belt—which had a twin resting somewhere on Deacon Blue’s costume as well—hadn’t gone off yet, which meant his opponent in this contest hadn’t had any better luck.
Well, possibly he might be having better luck—there was no way to know—but at least not enough to win the game yet.
Over the next hour, Blue Deacon found one of his more elusive and reluctant informants and came up with nothing, then found a previously unknown street hood to question roughly, gaining some information that might or might not be true. But at least following up on it would give him something to do.
Then the pager device on his belt vibrated and he looked down, dejection tugging at his heart. But the numbers there weren’t the “000” that signified victory by the other person. They were “911.” Cheshire had set things up so they could hit a panic button if one or the other got into trouble at the end. Quickly, an address came up, thanks to the GPS technology built into the smart-pagers.
For just a split-second, Blue Deacon considered just waiting and leaving Deacon Blue to defeat and possibly death, and then going to the address to take down the Change Gang himself.
That would solve his problems with Deacon Blue, but the cost of guilt that went with it wasn’t worth the price.
Blue Deacon went off at a full run to the address where Deacon Blue was in peril.
* * *
Deacon Blue was reeling. He’d been attacked from behind, and in the moment of shock had also been the thrill that he must have found the Change Gang at last—he didn’t care about whether or not Blue Deacon would lose the ability to use his monicker anymore. At this point, it was just about rubbing the man’s face in a loss and making him go away already.
But when Deacon Blue rolled and came up to face his attacker, it wasn’t any member of the Change Gang. It was a villain just recently arrived on the scene in the city, and about whom Deacon Blue knew absolutely nothing but his name and appearance. The man was tall, thin and wearing a scarlet bodysuit with glowing yellow lenses over his eyes and black horns protruding from the top of his full-face mask. Red Devil.
I’ve been sucker-punched by an idiot with a predictably simplistic name. Time to end this.
Except that Deacon Blue was still recovering from the surprise attack and Red Devil was removing with lightning reflexes from the back of his costume’s belt the crimson tail with the little spade-shaped bulge at the end. It struck Deacon Blue three times, the tip razor-sharp and ripping shreds in the reinforced material of Deacon Blue’s bodysuit. Then a fourth strike of the tail-whip, with the flat of the lash this time instead of the tip. Deacon Blue saw what looked like some metallic mesh on the surface, and then when it touched him he felt a sharp jolt.
Taser whip on top of everything else, Deacon Blue managed to mentally complain as his finger hit the panic button on his smart-pager and then his thoughts became a jumbled mess as he fell to the ground. Just fucking wonder…
* * *
No, Deacon Blue realized as he rose back to consciousness—he was awakening to agony.
He realized he was bound, and lying on the ground. When his eyes opened, he could see the multitude of cuts across his torso and arms, and Red Devil looming above his prone body.
“Fuuuuuck,” Deacon Blue groaned.
“I’ve been so very careful,” Red Devil said. “I wanted to make sure I could enjoy the pain in your eyes and voice for a little while before I killed you. You haven’t lost much blood, but it hurts like a sonofabitch, doesn’t it?”
“Fuck you,” Deacon Blue growled through gritted teeth.
“I’m going to start cutting deeper now. Eventually I’ll work my way up to your neck and then slit your throat. I was really hoping you’d be a better adversary. First night opposing each other, and such a letdown. You owe me some fun.”
Every cut was like liquid fire, added to every stinging memory of every cut that had come before. Deacon Blue screamed a few times in between the moans. He felt tears burn at the corners of his eyes. Helplessness and defeat made for bitter dregs, and he hated Red Devil for that feeling. Hated and feared, and realized the fear was gaining momentum. He wondered if he’d end up begging for his life.
At the pace Red Devil was going, Deacon Blue figured he had about 10 or 15 minutes of life left to decide.
* * *
Red Devil was carefully tracing a deep red whorl below Deacon Blue’s sternum when he felt it. A mental twinge to which he wasn’t accustomed. Bubbling up from all that anger and vicious glee was something unsettling. Something abstractly painful. It muddled his thoughts and distracted him from his bloody work. It had been so long since he’d felt it—probably since shortly after his powers asserted themselves in high school—that he scarcely recognized it.
No, that wasn’t it.
It rode over him in waves now, and he began to understand it for what it was—an outside influence. He fought against it. It wasn’t his own feelings; rather, it was something forced on him from another mind to distract him. So, when Blue Deacon burst into the room, Red Devil wasn’t helpless. Still recovering his wits, yes, but not caught unawares. Blue Deacon rushed him, and managed to strike Red Devil, but only managed to knock the knife out of the villain’s hand. In its place, with fearful speed, was the tail-whip, and Blue Deacon couldn’t help but notice how sharp the end of it was—how much blood caked the bladed, serrated edges of the little spaded tip. He saw the various mesh patches, knobs and spikes along the length of that lash and decided that getting hit by any of them was probably bad news.
His head was pounding, but he continued to pour feelings of self-recrimination into Red Devil’s mind. If he couldn’t overwhelm the man, at least he might be able to keep him off-balance.
Here’s hoping the pain and disorientation I’m about to suffer from doing that for so long isn’t going to overwhelm me, Blue Deacon worried.
They circled each other, with Red Devil managing to just catch the edges of Blue Deacon’s suit coat with the bladed tip of the tail-whip. Blood hadn’t been drawn yet, but Blue Deacon assumed it was only a matter of time.
“So nice to meet both my potential adversaries tonight,” Red Devil said. “I wanted a blue to my red, but even though I knew both of you were lurking here in the ‘hood, I never guessed I’d be lucky enough to get both of you. Why don’t you beat a hasty retreat so I can finish Deacon Blue—maybe I can milk you for a few months of entertainment and lovely cat-and-mouse games. I didn’t want two blue-colored deacon guys anyway. Just one. You can be the winner.”
Red Devil felt a multitude of tweaks, pokes and small slaps across his ears, shoulder blades and back of the neck, and turned quickly to see what was going on. A blue helmet slammed into his face as Deacon Blue, having freed his limbs and bleeding all over above the waist, head-butted him—boosting the impact slightly with the same telekinetic powers he had used to tweak the villain moments earlier—and grunted, “Suck this blue, motherfucker!”
Red Devil tumbled but was on his feet immediately, seeming utterly unfazed by the cranial impact.
Deacon Blue and Blue Deacon had the same thought simultaneously. Red Devil was probably a Brute, but not a full-on Tank since he hadn’t shown any super-strength. In concert, they began to hammer the villain from both sides, refusing to let up and give him an opening. They made progress for a while, until blood loss took its toll, and Deacon Blue stumbled, then fell against a wall, light-headed and about to pass out. In a heartbeat, Red Devil pressed his advantage, and placed the bladed tip of his tail-whip at Deacon Blue’s throat. The blade broke flesh, and bloody tears burst forth. Before the cut could become a slice and the blood a torrent, though, a wave of self-loathing swept through Red Devil from Blue Deacon’s mind. The villain bit back those feelings and turned to slap Blue Deacon with a taser-equipped portion of the whip. When he lashed the whip at the hero, though, it was caught in mid-strike, wrapping itself around something that looked like a combination of a crucifix and a police baton. Blue Deacon snatched the whip away, smiled and then thrust the tip of the baton into Red Devil’s throat, depressing a button.
Red Devil felt a jolt rush through his skull, and then darkness crashed in to replace the waves of guilt being withdrawn from his mind.
* * *
When Deacon Blue came to his senses again, there were three people around him and something protruding from his arm.
“Lie still, Deacon,” said a male voice from off to his side, and the woman—clearly Cheshire—standing right in Deacon Blue’s line of sight nodded to reinforce the advice.
Deacon Blue turned his head wearily to see who was helping him. “Asclepius? I still owe money to the emergency service. Why are you…”
“Shut up, Deac,” Asclepius said. “I’m not going to let a hero die just because he’s behind in contributions to the cause. Besides, Cheshire has some special favors she can call in from me. I’ve healed the worst of your wounds. I’m also giving you a small transfusion. Not enough to replace what you’ve lost in blood, but enough to get you home for a long rest. A few days at least, you hear me?”
Deacon Blue chuckled ruefully. “A filthy alley. What a great place for a transfusion.”
“Lucky you that my powers also allow me to kick up your immune system for the process,” Asclepius said. “Just a few more minutes, then I’ll cut you loose and head off to my next call.”
Catching Cheshire’s gaze, Deacon Blue said to the woman: “Can’t help but notice from Red Devil’s villainous cackling diatribe that he seemed to know all about me and Blue Deacon lurking around the past day-and-a-half. The Change Gang thing was a lie—why the setup? And why call in help to fix me up?”
“I was wondering the same thing,” Blue Deacon chimed in.
“You asked me to set up a contest,” Cheshire said matter-of-factly. “You thought you were working toward a certain goal, but the real goal was to be the first to defeat Red Devil, once my clues eventually put you somewhere he’d be looking for the both of you.”
“So, is there some reason you wanted one or both of us dead bad enough to sic Red Devil on us?” Blue Deacon asked.
“Want you dead? Hardly. Look, you were willing to go after the Change Gang independently for this stupid-ass pissing match over the Deacon Blue/Blue Deacon name crap. Do you think the Change Gang would have been any less dangerous to you?”
“Probably not, but still, why the cloak-and-dagger stuff? Why not just tell us Red Devil was the goal?” Deacon Blue asked.
“I couldn’t really lead you to the Change Gang,” Cheshire said. “They have me doing a small job for them. I’m not finished with it yet, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m honor-bound not to rat them out by leading you to them while I’m still under contract. But I have to admit their motives scare me a bit, so I wanted you to know what they’re up to. All that intelligence I gave you is true, except clues to their current location. So, I did the task you paid me for, and got what I wanted, too, which is knowing that one or both of you will be looking for these nut-cases and have already started the legwork on that.”
“Hmmmph. Well, I guess you won the contest, Blue Deacon,” Deacon Blue noted.
“Yup. Looks that way,” the other hero agreed.
“You’re an asshole,” Deacon Blue muttered.
“The contest does seem a little dishonest now in retrospect, even though we were both duped.”
“So, that mean you’re gonna ease up on making me change my name?”
“No, I want you to drop the Deacon Blue thing anyway. A win’s a win. I played honest, even if I didn’t know the real game.”
“Yeah, you are an asshole,” Deacon Blue said. “You should be Blue Balls or the Azure Dickhead. Fine, then. I’m Mr. Indigo from now on. Happy?”
“You could always call yourself Babylon Sister,” Blue Deacon offered.
“Are you trying to go for a world record in asshole behavior?” the newly minted Mr. Indigo grumbled.
“Wouldn’t work anyway,” Cheshire said. “There’s a transhuman woman over on the South End who’s just starting up. She’s already got that name. And I’m defending her right to it.”
“Dang, there are too many Steely Dan fans in this city,” Blue Deacon muttered. “Maybe I’ll have to do something about that—right after I deal with the Change Gang.”
“I’m feeling a bit competitive still,” Mr. Indigo said as Asclepius removed the transfusion needle from his arm. “And looking for payback. I’m betting that Babylon Sister and I will take them out before you do. Willing to wager your name on it?”
“Nope,” Blue Deacon said as he walked off into the night. “But how about the loser has to leave New Judah and go fight crime somewhere else?”
“Getting rid of you is worth the risk of losing my nice rent-controlled apartment, shit-head,” Mr. Indigo said. “You’re on.”