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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. That would be stupid…”

“…any cool graphics?”

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

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

Query knows what I look like in costume?”

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

“How does he know at all?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Meditation,” she corrected him.

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

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

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

“Um…medium Diet Coke?” Ladykiller asked.

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

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

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

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

“Why would he do that?”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cole nodded.

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

“Yeah, I guess. I mean, yes.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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