Astute readers will notice that this chapter references two standalone short stories that came before here at Tales of the Whethermen. One of them is the very recent “Contrivance” and the other is the older “Bad Breakup”
Janus heard the clatter of thick, metal links from the office outside his own right after the hurried, unintelligible exchange of words reached his ears—a furious, protracted rattling sound of the man chained to the reception desk that probably meant he was scrambling out of his chair to intercept someone.
And so, to Janus, it seemed a foregone conclusion who it was heading for his office door. The words may have been indistinct, but the voice had been a woman’s. Then a surprised cry, a slamming sound and the resulting shaking of the wall between the two offices.
“First, you need to tell your little bondage workplace fantasy out there—” Underworld began.
“You know that I am completely disinterested in BDSM sexplay and thoroughly heterosexual,” Janus said, a scolding look in his eyes, peering out from a mask half gold and half oak, with thin green wire entwined all around in a subtle imitation of creeper vines.
“Maybe you’re playing to Jane’s fantasies, then. Seriously, when are you going to let him off that chain? It’s been weeks since the infraction that got him locked to that desk to begin with.”
“My forgiveness hasn’t caught up with my sadistic streak yet,” Janus answered.
“So, he’ll never be off the chain then,” she retorted. “In any case, tell him that when I come to your office—and we both know I like to avoid that so I must have a good goddamn reason—he is to let me in without hesitation.”
“Done. Would you like me to have him brew compost instead of coffee for his morning beverage needs for the rest of the week?”
“Unlike you, I’m not a sadist. His bruised ribs and head will suffice. The actual reason I’m here personally, though, is we have a problem and I don’t want anyone overhearing it,” Underworld said.
Janus looked toward his office door. Underworld had shut it, but the chain was long enough to allow his receptionist to eavesdrop if he were so inclined.
“He’s unconscious anyway,” Underworld said, noticing his gaze. “That mercenary group you hired to go after Query and then to try to snatch Zoe—you know, the one that’s apparently too good to have a name we can put in our Rolodex?”
“They want our heads. Technically just yours. But, effectively, that mean ‘ours’.”
“They didn’t like the trajectory of those two jobs, I assume.”
Underworld sighed. “Well, they didn’t like the torture session—”
“—aggressive debriefing,” Janus corrected.
“They didn’t like the way you did the two mercs who got away from the botched Query job. They also apparently figured out the Zoe job was in part always intended to be a distraction or a ruse instead of a legit snatch-and-grab. They’re feeling unloved and used, and the head honchos have decided to take you out for it.”
“I thought mercenaries wanted money, not love,” Janus scoffed.
“You’ve cost them more than they were paid is the way they see it. And it’s not like you offered any extra compensation,” Underworld noted.
“Is this reliable intel?” he asked. “Or just gossip around the water cooler?”
“I have a guy inside the operation, Janus. It’s credible and then some.”
Janus clapped his hands twice. “Ahead of schedule. Delightful! I will need you to resolve the situation. Aggressively. Use some of our new transhuman recruits. It will be a good field test. Also, you will be hiring muscle and guns from Hugo Blacke for additional backup.”
“Aggressive as in ‘Make sure the entire leadership of the group is dead’?”
“Aggressive as in ‘Burn their operation to the ground,’ actually,” Janus said. “I want as few people left alive as possible; certainly no one who would try to revive the group or feel any level of loyalty that leads to retribution against us.”
“Done and done. So, you’re helping Blacke Ops Solutions—or at least Hugo’s totally immoral arm of the company—to get rid of its major competition.”
“And to owe us some free work in the short run.”
“Anything in particular against the nameless folks we’ve been using?”
“The fact they refuse to get a name,” Janus said. The smile beneath his mask was toothy and bright.
“My but you’re pleased,” Underworld said. “What did they do to you? Really.”
“I just don’t trust them. I never have; I never will. They have designs. I think that they imagine they can become a criminal empire or take over a small country one day. They are less a large mercenary group than they are a collection of classless and less-talented James Bond villains. Oh, I will need you to ensure that your contact in the group dies as well.”
Underworld sneered. “Whoa, now! That’s one of my resources you’re screwing with. You don’t get to do that.”
Janus paused, templed his fingers together and closed his eyes. “Then he needs to arrange to come into our loving hands before the raid and become one of the indentured employees here. I’m sure he’ll be fantastic in the security crew.”
“This is not going to happen, Janus.”
“He’s going to be useless to you after this. You won’t be able to insert him anywhere safely like this ever again. I’m doing you both a favor.”
“The favor,” Underworld said, “would be letting me handle my resources myself and trust me.”
“I will. If I know about them. This one was secret.”
“Several of my resources are secret. That’s why they’re mine.”
“I’ve already let you keep some secrets. If you don’t let me know about your people in the future, they become expendable. That’s the new rule. As for this resource, he comes to work and live here for the next 12 years like everyone else here or he dies. Oh, and tell Caterwaul she needs to stop trying to seduce everyone around here.”
Underworld raised an eyebrow, partly out of surprise at the sudden shift in topic but more in disbelief that the pronoun “she” had come out of Janus’ mouth without the usual forced undertone. “What?”
“Tell Caterwaul to stop using her vocal powers to make everyone salivate over her,” he said. “Or drip other bodily fluids.”
“The indentured staff here enjoys nearly unlimited access to weed and cocaine and most other hard drugs in more restrained amounts and we have onsite 24/7 sex workers, and you’re worried about people being hot for Caterwaul because of your transgenderphobic tendencies?”
“Yes,” Janus said curtly. “I’m a rather traditional sort aside from the wanton cruelty toward people who displease me.”
Underworld shook her head. “She’s not using her voice on everyone. She doesn’t have enough free time to use it on more than a handful of the staff here and she’s not interested in most of them anyway”
“Well, my impression had been—”
“—your impression is highly influenced by your hang-ups,” Underworld snapped. “I told her she should practice a little with her powers when she has a chance to, both here and outside. That tone that has a few employees walking around with wood or damp panties will serve us well when we start sending Caterwaul out to help shake down the bottom-tier and middle-tier players in New Judah for a cut of their action. You know, between this Caterwaul thing and my guy in with the mercs, you are only making me resent you more and want to kill you sooner.”
“Good,” Janus said. “You’re one of the few forces I can count on to keep me alert and on my toes.”
* * *
Reality wasn’t always faithful to Mad Dash. Not his enemy, though. It wasn’t that he couldn’t relate to it. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the difference between the here-and-now and fantasy. But sometimes really dealing with reality head-on was a massive pain in his ass.
But still, while he could be distracted or scatterbrained much of the time, he wasn’t clueless. He was perceptive when he needed to be. He could detect that subtle difference between a child screaming in play and a child screaming in fear. He could tell the difference between a group of people crying out in surprise and crying out in alarm. You log enough hours as a superhero, that kind of thing becomes second-nature, he had realized some years ago.
The crowd hurrying out of the mall food court clearly wasn’t responding to a fire drill or rushing out for some free promotional giveaway deal here in the parking lot.
Although he was a Speedster, Mad Dash did the ironic thing—and a relatively unfamiliar one. He didn’t rush. He slowly stepped out of the way of the hurried masses, got close to a wall, and shed the trenchcoat he wore to reveal his costume—the unitard and many-colored coat of diverse fabrics. Slowly unzipped his backpack and pulled out his mask with the big yellow goggle lenses. Put it on.
Lately, it seemed reality was more honest with him when he moved slowly. It gave the two of them time to get to know one another better.
When the flow of people out of the food court had slowed to almost nothing, he took a deep breath. Remembered for once to pull out a weapon from the pack—a taser baton. Then thought to grab a couple grenades to stuff in his pockets, though he wasn’t sure at the moment which was the flashbang and which the smoke grenade. Still, it was better than he usually did, given he was even remembering to gear up first with weapons.
Sarah—Ladykiller—my honey bunny badger bear—seems to be a good influx on me. Teaching me that sometimes, I have to be slow.
Oh, yes, a few plastic zip ties, too, he remembered. He reached into the bag for those.
I don’t know how many anemones I’ll have to restrain after I’m done, after all.
He tightened the straps and laces of his boots.
One more deep breath.
And then he ran, straight through the glass of the doors.
The faster I’m moving, the more resistant to harm I am, and a hungry cheater chasing down a Giselle at full speed couldn’t keep up right now.
And then he was in the middle of the now nearly-abandoned food court.
“Can’t a guy get a fresh batch of fries at a fucking McDonald’s?!” a man shouted—though whether to himself or the victim below him or the few people hiding behind counters or tables, Mad Dash wasn’t certain. “It’s the only thing you fucking have worth eating anymore. This wouldn’t have happened if the fries had been hot and crispy! Can’t a guy get some decent service?”
At the man’s feet, the McDonald’s clerk was twitching. His skin was mottled in places. He looked like he was gasping.
Still alive, but maybe not for long. Hard to tell.
“I only hurt one of you fuckers! I could do more! Get me some fresh…”
He trailed off, noticing Mad Dash standing 10 yard away. Stared a few moments, then narrowed his eyes.
“Fuck,” he said. “Oh, well, I’ve never killed a transhuman before. Much less a white hat. Good a day as any.”
Mad Dash stared in turn. Narrowed his own gaze at the pale-skinned man with dark-edged eyes as he slowly moved forward toward him, trying to assess things before the fight started.
Him again? The man with the adjective for a name. What was that—about a year ago that I had to send him packing in my plainclothes mode when my cousin Christine was hooked up with him? Because he was a freaky-sneaky, abuser-user douche-satchel. Name. Name-game. Namesake. What’s his name? Cartoonish? Cantankerous?
“Hi again,” Mad Dash said. “Nice to greet you again. Guess it’s time for a knockoff, drag-queen fight.”
“Again? I’ve never met you before in my life,” Cadaverous said.
“Well, there’s a second time for everything,” Mad Dash said. “Say, could you clear some zits up for me, because I never could tell before or now. Are you trying to look Goth or trying to look Elmo—Alpo—Emo! That’s it.”
“I’m not trying to look Emo or Goth,” Cadaverous sneered.
“Good, because you were doing a bad job anyway. More like death boiled over.”
“I am death!” Cadaverous shouted, and lunged for Mad Dash.
He never should have had a chance. Cadaverous wasn’t a Speedster; Mad Dash was. But as Dash geared up for speed, he felt dizzy. His lungs wouldn’t work right. His heart pounded erratically. His vision blurred. Cadaverous was going to reach him…
Necro! That’s right! He’s a Necro. Touch me and I’m a do-goner.
The pale hands were close. The eyes filled with gleeful rage. Mouth grinning at wreaking pain and death on Mad Dash once he could exert the full force of his powers through physical contact.
And then Cadaverous’ body stiffened. Jerked. Flailed. And his face contorted.
And Mad Dash noticed that he had shoved the taser baton almost right into Cadaverous’ groin. He felt a moment of elation, followed by mortification.
Oh my Cod! I’m so embarrassed! I’m shoving a baton in a man’s crutch. That’s got to be syllabic, right?
Mad Dash withdrew the weapon, flicking it off, and watched Cadaverous drop to a stunned heap.
He took a deep breath.
He bound the man’s hands and feet with zip ties.
He was about to call the police when he saw mall cops approaching, and decided there was already enough evidence and a victim on the ground at the McDonald’s stand and plenty of witnesses probably still in the parking lot, not to mention the few in the food court. No need to stick around. His heart and lungs were feeling fine again.
And hey, now I really, really don’t need to worry about my cousin hooking back up with this abusive assorted nut-mix.
Mad Dash ran to his backpack and then ran toward home, thinking that the battle seemed awfully anticlimactic in hindsight.
And now I’m craving some fries, he thought, keeping an eye out for the nearest Sonic or Popeye’s as he zipped between the commuting cars heading toward their homes.
* * *
“So, how did the clandestine meeting with the really wicked dangerous bad guys go?” Carl asked by way of launching their debriefing meeting via videoconferencing. Thanks to an Internet connection that was heavily encrypted and being routed through several dummy locations, Query had guaranteed they would have at least 10 minutes of privacy even if someone was monitoring Carl’s office. “I take it no one’s people had to shoot anyone else’s people.”
Onscreen, Carl watched Query glance down at his torso, then look at his palms before placing them on the desk. “I seem to be both free of holes and devoid of blood on my hands, Carl. Satisfied?”
“Ah, but did you learn anything?” Carl prodded. “Because if you learned that you’re at war with Marksburgh kingpins and New Judah kingpins at the same time, I may need a huge raise or maybe a letter of recommendation so I can find a new employer.”
“They wanted to tell me personally they didn’t have anything to do with the two evil clowns,” Query said. “I don’t think they’d come all the way from their home ground to tell me that if it wasn’t true. Seems too elaborate even for a long con. But I’ll keep one eye on Pennsylvania all the same for a while.”
“That’s it? I expected something with more bullets and blows and maybe witty repartee.”
“I insulted them a little,” Query said, and when he saw Carl’s grimace, he added, “Just a little. A nose tweak. A verbal wedgie. Hush-a-Bye isn’t the same, though—that was an interesting thing to learn.”
“I didn’t know you two were well-acquainted enough for you to notice a personality or mood shift,” Carl responded.
“No. She’s literally not the same. I have surveillance photos of Hush-a-Bye from a couple years back. This is a different woman. Cosmetic surgery. Really good surgery. I don’t know how many people would notice the differences but me. Keep that between you and me, though. You spread that info around, and I may have to attend a memorial service for you.”
“Not like it would be the first time a villain—or hero for that matter—replaced a sidekick and gave them the same look. Cosmetic surgery is a little beyond the norm, though. Still, why would GoodKnight care enough to kill if that got out?”
“You’re not seeing the big picture, Carl. The use of the sleepy-time and sound-dampening powers hasn’t changed, but the woman has.”
“What are you gett…” Carl began, then whistled. “Oh, that’s right. GoodKnight’s never exhibited powers. It’s always been Hush-a-Bye. Supposedly. But it would be about near impossible to find another woman with those exact powers. Damn. So, he uses a partner to pretend that the powers don’t come from him. That’s sly. He’s a dangerous piece of work. Don’t insult him again, please. It’s hard enough for me to keep my blood pressure down with Janus right in our backyard and gunning for you. So, if not them, who? Janus trying to wind you up, maybe?”
“Could be,” Query said. “I’m running some theories. For now, cut the connection, go home and buy Patsy a nice dinner. We’ll talk more in person at our next regular meeting.”
* * *
Crazy Jane snuggled closer to Janus on the bed, pressing her breasts into his bicep and cooing. She ran a finger along the edge of his demonic Japanese theater-style mask—she struggled mentally for a moment to remember what he had called it—oh yeah, a hannya mask, she recalled. He’d had it painted blood-red on one side and a mottled moss-like textured mix of greens and yellows on the other.
“You gotta wear the mask here in bed, baby?” she pouted. “I know what you look like underneath it already. Lucky-lucky-ducky me, since I’m one of only four folks to have that honor and still be breathing.”
“I like masks,” Janus replied. “They’re more honest.”
“It is an adorable one,” Crazy Jane admitted. “Y’know, I kinda miss how you used to have the security detail wear kabuki masks like this.”
“Noh,” Janus said.
“No, what?” Crazy Jane asked. “I say something wrong?”
“N-O-H,” Janus spelled. “Noh theater. Kabuki actors wear makeup; Noh actors wear masks.”
“Cool. Naked Japanese theater lessons in bed. Almost as good as the sex—when it happens.”
“My dear,” Janus said. “We have sex at least a couple times a month. I’m a busy man. That’s always been the way it is. And even back when our relationship was young, I was always better at hurting you or terrorizing you than making love. It was far more important for our bonding.”
Crazy Jane kissed him on one masked cheek. “I guess that’s what made the sex all the better when it did happen,” she said wistfully. “And when it still does.” He hadn’t hurt her—not much, anyway—in a long time; it wasn’t necessary anymore, she considered. But the echoes of the cruelty and the things he did to change her were still ringing in her mind even after several years. Reminding her of her place.
She knew she should hate him, but she could never seem to keep a grip on those feelings long enough to do anything with them. Fear, though—she could get a good solid feeling for that when he was really angry with someone or something.
That’s when I run from him for a little while. But I always run back. He’s my man, after all. I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for him. And that would be a shame. I owe him so much. I hope I can make someone as deliciously twisted-up someday. Maybe Dr. Mark. Maybe one of the members of a Madness to My Method.
“Baaaaaaaaaby?” Crazy Jane queried in a sing-song tone. “Can I aaaaaaask a faaaaaaaavor?”
“I’m feeling indulgent. Ask away.”
“Could you pretty please with sugar and gunpowder and cocaine and a cherry bomb on top stop purposefully pissing off Undie?”
Janus groaned. “I should have realized this would happen when you got ‘attached’ to Underworld. Really, Jane, you need to let this work itself out. Or not work itself out. I rather enjoy tweaking her. It’s almost impossible to keep a woman like that in her place—whatever that place might be. My pokes and jabs and threats are the cattle prod I need to keep her doing her part of the work while I do mine.”
“Baby, sometimes you do stupid things,” Crazy Jane said, and felt him tense. “Hey, hey, it’s nothing you haven’t said before, so don’t go getting someone to waterboard me—three days straight of that a few years ago was quite enough. Anyway, what I mean is it’s like those kabuki—I mean, Noh—masks. You realized pretty soon it was too over-the-top for simple security folks. Not to mention kind of an insult to The Fates. I mean, your bodyguard girlie squad already has a Japanese theater/ninja thing going. So you changed course.”
“And?” he prompted, slight irritation in his tone but his body relaxing against hers again.
“Well,” she said with slight hesitation, “this thing with Undie is stupid, too. And disrespectful. I mean, she’s the only person who’s really a peer for you. The Fates protect you. I’m your creation. She’s president to your CEO. You need her and, well…”
“Babycakes, if you don’t lay off a little on reminding her of all the ways you’ve manipulated her and threatened her and inconvenienced her and used her and start letting her enjoy being a criminal mastermind again, she’s gonna kill you.”
“I can handle myself,” Janus said soothingly. “Trust me.”
“You need her, and that might make you hesitate enough that she’ll be able to kill you. I don’t want that,” Crazy Jane said. “How can I properly be monstrous me if my Dr. Frankenstein is gone? And, well, you might manage to kill her and stay alive, and I don’t like that, either. She’s my only real gal-pal. You’re my two sweet things.”
Crazy Jane traced a path up and down Janus’ arm with her fingertip. Looked at him with puppy-dog eyes.
“The Noh masks for the staff really were a bit overly theatrical,” he admitted. “Do you really think I could make two stupid mistakes in the same year?”
Crazy Jane didn’t answer; just smiled sweetly. She knew a trick question when she heard one.
“I suppose it’s possible,” Janus admitted eventually, when it was clear she was ignoring the bait. “I’m allowed an off year when I’m setting up a whole new criminal empire in a whole new part of the country, right? Perhaps I am pushing my luck a bit with Underworld. But it’s so…fun. However will I compensate for the loss of those little cruelties? That fun.”
Crazy Jane snorted. “All right. You can waterboard me again or put me in the sensory deprivation tank or whatever. Like old times,” she said. “But only as many times a month as I get laid—and I mean the good stuff. Not quickies.”
“Are you trying to trick me into giving you more sex or just minimize how often I might be cruel to you?” Janus asked.
Crazy Jane smiled. Her stomach knotted, but her tattooed face beamed. “Does it matter?”
“No, my dear; no, it does not. You drive a hard bargain, but I will—tone down—my pushing of the envelope with Underworld.”