Bad Business

Posted: 14th May 2012 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Single-run ("One off") Stories
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If you haven’t already readCustomer Relations,” I’d suggest you do so before reading this story, as the two tales are closely connected, though that story takes place a little over two years before this one.

Bad Business

If there was one thing James could count on at 8 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, it was the ability to turn the sign in the door from “open” to “closed,” close out the cash register and then eat his first leisurely meal of the day at some nearby restaurant—since he and his girlfriend both found the kitchen of their condo useful for little more than storing dry cereal and cold beverages.

So, when he locked the front door of the Shoreline Hero Shop and turned toward the sales counter, the last thing he wanted or expected to see were four intruders—suddenly, 8 p.m. wasn’t very comforting, with an otherwise empty shop and the lights at the front of his store now off.

He considered turning back to the door, unlocking it and fleeing while dialing 911 on his cell phone, but one of the members of the quartet wore a helmet with two classically styled Greek faces—one looking forward and one backward.

I doubt too many common criminals are bold enough to impersonate someone as narcissistic, vengeful and deadly as Janus, and Halloween is still a few weeks off, so I should probably assume this is the real thing and not do anything panicky that will end with something sticking out of my spine or firing right though one of my internal organs, James considered.

Taking a deep breath, he moved halfway toward the counter, hands in his pockets to hide their trembling, and said, “Could you, uh, please step away from my cash register and…um…come around to this side of the counter? If you don’t mind, sir.”

There was a short, derisive sound from the helmet—as much a laugh as a disdainful snort—and then a pause of several seconds before the helmeted man in the charcoal-gray Versace suit responded, “Do you really think I need to raid your cash register, Mr. Pearson?”

All the same, the man who was presumably Janus stepped out from around the counter and the trio of costumed women with him followed suit as James headed back to the cash register via the other end of the counter. One of the women seemed in particular to have her eyes on James as she followed her master—not that he could actually see them, though, nor any other part of her flesh. She was clad head to toe in red and black vinyl or latex, her face completely covered—mouth and nose as well—with a second, heart-shaped skin of glossy red and black goggles with violet lenses hiding her eyes. All the same, James felt her eyes bore into him as one gloved hand fingered the hilt of a kukri at her waist, and he shuddered.

As he switched places with his visitors, James tried his best attempt at a casual smile, even as his guts clenched and made him want to race to the bathroom. Biting down the desire to wince, he sighed instead.

“Not that busy of a day today thanks to the pounding rain out there, so you’d probably kill me if you saw how little was in there anyway,” James said. “But the real reason I wanted you away from it is because I’m about ready to piss myself right now and if I’m going to be facing someone like you, I’d at least like to do it from behind the symbol of my authority—the counter of my store.”

“Yes, the racks of graphic novels and first-edition old comic books behind you makes for an intimidating backdrop to be sure,” Janus sneered, but there was a hint of humor in his voice.

James took a moment to consider his predicament, the toes of his right foot poised near the silent alarm trigger behind his counter. Tripping the alarm was very tempting, but he hesitated. If this was Janus, it seemed unlikely the criminal kingpin would have overlooked the possibility of putting an alarm button within James’ reach by letting him go behind the counter—if that was the case, James figured, summoning the police would probably only result in some deadly blowback for himself.

And if it wasn’t Janus, James figured he could take some time to sort things out. No one had drawn blades or aimed guns at him yet, and all three women quite blatantly had both on their persons. The red-and-black-clad one who had paid such special attention to him was more heavily armed than the others—a kukri, a katana, a Desert Eagle pistol and an Uzi—but the woman with the Venetian carnival-style mask and the one in a lacy black dress with a stark white mask over her face—blonde hair cascading out from behind it—were both equipped with a pair of weapons each, one blade and one firearm each.

Instead of summoning help, James continued to do more of what he usually did during a day at the shop—exude pheromones to keep things pleasant. In this case, calming pheromones, though unlike a normal day it wasn’t because he wanted them to linger and shop. As he did so, he could already feel the headache building behind his temples. The normal way of things was a gradual emission, not a full-on invisible blast of “don’t worry, be happy” chemicals.

“Would it be all right to ask why you’re here?” James ventured.

“Certainly,” Janus said, putting clasped hands behind his back and rocking casually on the balls of his feet in their glistening Bruno Magli dress shoes.

When nothing else was said, James asked, hesitantly, “Why…are you here?”

“Perhaps, like my associate Underworld did once before, some years back, I would like to enlist your aid against an enemy.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say I aided her,” James said.

“She spoke highly of the value your shop played in her taking out Glory Boy. I believe she even signed some publicity photos of herself for you—some of them nude ones—as a token of her esteem.”

“She did. I still have a couple left for sale—keeping the best ones until I die, though. Want one?” James asked. “Only $1,000 each.”

“No. I’ve seen that all already, and in 3D,” the villain responded. “But you did help her out, did you not?”

“She wanted to get a handle on Glory Boy; I had a lot of biographical stuff and even some more obscure underground stuff and even some self-published ‘tell-all’ things about him from folks in the scene who knew him or ran across him,” James acknowledged. “But I don’t know that selling her stuff that helped her research is really helping her out. She put all the info together to—I guess—get into his head a bit and distract him or demoralize him or whatever when she had that final fight with him. She did all the work; I just sold a product, and that product wasn’t even a weapon.”

Janus’ helmeted head turned to survey the racks of minor martial arts weapons in one corner that had probably supplied dozens of would-be beginner heroes and then turned his regard toward James again. “Information is the deadliest weapon around,” he said.

“Maybe so, but she could have found all that stuff on her own,” James said. “Why is this important to you? Is there someone you need an edge on? I’m perfectly willing to point you toward some resources, especially if the so-called hero is as big an ass-hat as Glory Boy was, just like I’d point a hero toward anything on you if asked, and if there was anything on you of value, which there isn’t.”

For a moment, James worried about that last comment. Looking like a potential enemy wasn’t a smart move. On the other hand, he didn’t want to be pegged as some weird combination of librarian/informant to the villain world.

“You know, I employ many people,” Janus said, apparently unperturbed. “One of them is named Hellfire.”

“Seems a bit small-time for someone like you.”

“Someone in my position can always use people who are—expendable.”

“I’ll be sure never to tell him you feel that way about him if I see him.”

“See that you don’t,” Janus said, a distinct note of threat in his voice, but also a hint of respect for James’ discretion. “But interesting you should talk about running into him one day, since he’s already been here once before.”

James didn’t see any reason not to admit it, nor did he think it wise to deny it outright since he didn’t know the extent of Janus’ knowledge. Transhumans at this level were such a tricky lot to deal with, and James didn’t feel that being a lower-tier transhuman himself helped a bit with understanding them. He identified with norms more than he did those who were theoretically his own kind.

Also, something was wrong with this whole situation and Janus’ demeanor, though he couldn’t quite pinpoint it. The silent-and-deadly female bodyguards seemed normal, somehow, but something wasn’t adding up right with their leader. He needed more time to figure things out before he panicked and either hit the silent alarm or made a break for the back door.

“Yeah, he was here once. I don’t even remember when.”

“September 2008,” Janus offered without hesitation. “The exact day eludes him, but the month and year really stick in his memory.”

“Can’t understand why,” James said.

“Neither did I. You see, I interview my potential people very thoroughly, even the losers—if for no other reason than to let them believe they are important to me. Hellfire was very good about telling me every single crime he could remember—and they’re all so pathetically small-time that I won’t bore you with them—and at one point he said, ‘Then there was that time at Shoreline Hero—’ and he just stopped and said, ‘Oh, that one didn’t work out. Nevermind.’ I didn’t let it drop, though. He seemed so downright agitated at the memory that I was curious. I didn’t get much out of him ultimately, I suppose; do you recall the incident?”

James paused only a few moments. He didn’t want to overplay his hand or underplay it. Better to seem not to remember it with crystal clarity—though he did—nor pretend it didn’t matter.

Especially when one of Hellfire’s handprints was very obviously burned into the wooden portion of his countertop—he’d never buffed it out even after all this time.

“He came in with a stack of self-written, self-drawn, poorly conceived and badly photocopied and shoddily stapled comics about his exploits,” James recounted after playing up the act of recalling the scene. “Or, rather, his fantasies about what he wanted to be, anyway. Tried to extort me into selling them for him at a really freakishly high price and then give all the money to him. I think I might still have them here somewhere; I had kind of hoped he’d become something bigger and they’d be worth something. Maybe there’s still a chance of that if he’s under your wing.”

“He’s never been back to your shop, has he, James?” Janus probed. “He never did seal the deal and convince you that you should either sell his wares or pretend to and just give him the money. Did he?”

“No,” James admitted. “No, he didn’t.”

“He left your store here, and left it largely undamaged,” Janus said. “Except for that little burn there. Why is that, James?”

“I don’t know,” James lied.

Something about Janus is out of synch, James thought.

“Are you certain?”

Something’s not matching up.

“I played it cool, I guess. I mean, I’m sort of doing that now, too, and you’re a lot scarier and smarter than Hellfire. Dumb bullies like him don’t do well when people don’t fold right away.”

Why isn’t he… James’ thoughts continued, and he felt the pieces fall into place.

James stopped the flow of soothing pheromones and shifted immediately to ones that would cause agitation, knowing the sudden change was going to make his already growing headache three times worse as well as leave a nasty taste in his mouth for hours. Bile rose in his throat, and he wasn’t sure if the nausea he was feeling came from the overuse of his Primal abilities now or from the fear of what fate might soon befall him.

“You seem like the kind of person who would value his safety,” Janus said. “Someone who would trip the silent alarm button on the floor when faced with someone like that. Yes, I’m well aware of your alarm and I haven’t even disabled it. Oh, I know why you’re not tripping it with me here. You know that you’d die at the first sound of police officers approaching. But with someone like Hellfire, you’d let the police come in, knowing it would freak an amateur like him out. Someone in your shop with incendiary powers but no visible weapon who’d barely begun his life of petty crime—you’d likely not end up a hostage or get hurt. At least not too badly. So why didn’t you? And how did you get him to go away?”

Janus’ three minions are calm—I don’t doubt that they’d kill me in a heartbeat at his command, but they’re relaxed, just like I wanted them to be earlier, though that won’t last much longer with new pheromones in the air. Janus, too, is standing there pleasantly while he interrogates me about Underworld and Hellfire. Except that his voice has kept the same note of menace this whole time and he sounds like the kind of guy who’d like to gesticulate while he talks, but he hasn’t been.

That’s when James realized for certain that Janus wasn’t standing there in front of him, and he kicked himself mentally for not figuring that out earlier. Whatever the reason for being here ultimately, why would Janus himself risk coming out in the open to confront a shopkeeper with a silent alarm who might have an itchy trigger foot? Why would he expose himself to that risk?

He wouldn’t. He’d send a guy in a helmet with a speaker and talk from miles away, James realized. That’s why the body language doesn’t match the personality; that’s why the calming pheromones aren’t doing a thing to mediate the threats implied in his words.

James gradually began to slow the flow of agitating pheromones he had unleashed, with a goal of shutting it down completely soon. He just wanted enough in the air to snap the bodies of these four people out of any sedentary posture. If they reported back to Janus about how calm they’d been the entire time, the villain would have what he wanted: information and confirmation of his suspicions.

I can’t risk getting them too agitated either, or the same thing could happen. I only hope I’ve shifted things soon enough that they won’t have anything notable to remark on in terms of their experiences and demeanor while in my shop.

“I don’t know why he left,” James reiterated.

“Really? Because I was thinking perhaps you might have some sort of Interfacer power and made him feel like fire ants were crawling up his legs and stinging him, or perhaps kicking in the running-away aspect of the fight-or-flight instinct,” Janus suggested, “or some Primal power to send out pheromones to influence behavior.”

James tensed at that last comment, hitting so close to the mark, and prayed it didn’t show on his face or in his posture—more likely than not, Janus had a camera in that minion’s helmet as well as a microphone so he could keep an eye on the situation from afar.

“Maybe you have a Psi power that allows you to manipulate feelings and memories at the neuron level or create illusions,” Janus continued without pause, and James sighed inwardly.

He has suspicions, but he doesn’t know anything for sure.

“I’m not a transhuman,” James lied. “So I couldn’t have done any of that.”

“Are you certain?” Janus pressed. “I could use someone like that on my side. It could be useful for someone to lie in wait at some job, waiting in the wings to secretly undermine the confidence of any enemies who might arrive on the scene. Someone who could turn the tide in my favor. Someone like that could expect to be paid well indeed.”

I make a good living owning my own business and keeping only a few part-time employees, James thought. I have a girlfriend who’s busy enough with her stand-up comedy that she doesn’t resent the long hours I log. And it’s a living that not only has given me a nice bank account, but also doesn’t put me afoul of the law or place me in situations where I’m likely to be beaten up on a semi-regular basis.

“I don’t…I can’t…Janus, sir, if I have any of those kinds of powers I just don’t know about them,” James said. “If I do—and I really don’t think I do—they must be subconscious or autonomic or something. Maybe they kick in when I’m under stress sometimes, but that wouldn’t be of much use to you. Powers that can’t be controlled or whatever.”

“Is that your story, James?”

“It’s the only one I’ve got. The truth has always worked for me so far. I’m no use to you,” James said. “No threat, either,” he added quickly.

The fake Janus stood silently while presumably the real one mulled things over and watched James for any sign of hesitation or duplicity. After a minute that felt like something so much longer, the voice from the helmet said, “Ladies, if you could go make sure the back alley is clear, we’ll go out the way we came in, so that James here can do the same soon and drive on to wherever he might go.”

The three companions filed out with professional precision as Janus remained. He wasn’t looking at James—or at least the helmet wasn’t facing toward him—but he said, “If anything changes—if you should discover you have powers and some control over them—you’ll contact me, won’t you?” At that, the man wearing one of Janus’ helmets laid a business card on the countertop, right on top of the fat black handprint Hellfire had left some two years earlier. Just a white card with a single phone number on it, which James guessed went to some prepaid phone that couldn’t be traced to the villain.

“Honestly, sir, I can’t say that I would,” James said.


“Putting on a mask and sticking my neck out wouldn’t be my style even if I were a Tank, a Regenerator and a Morph,” James said. “Or even a more formidable combo. It’s not my style.”

“Really? That’s a shame.”

James wondered for a moment if his life were about to end. When no killing stroke came after a tense and silent ten-count, he said, “For what it’s worth, if I did suddenly find out I had a power or powers or whatever, and that I could use them at will, I wouldn’t exactly be running to join up with your enemies, either, on the white hat side or the black hat side.”

A low, rumbling chuckle echoed from the helmet.

“See that you don’t, James,” he said as he headed for the rear of the store. “See that you don’t.”

James heard the faint sounds of the city nightlife outside his shop at Janus opened the rear door. The sounds remained several seconds later. The door was still open; had Janus left it that way as he departed, or…

A few moments after that thought, James’ body jerked in huge, startled shudder as he heard Janus’ voice say, “I was never here, James. Make sure of that.”

And then the click of the door shutting.

Before his wobbling knees gave way or his angry guts sent him to an explosive encounter with the toilet in the back room, James forced himself to go to the security system controls in his small office, eject the tiny DVD that was recording everything from the cameras in the store, and snapped it in half.

As the pieces of the DVD make a soft clunking sound in the bottom of the little trash can there, James wished it would be as easy to erase the worry showing in his face or manifesting as knots in his neck and shoulders. By the time Jillian got home, he needed to seem normal. Calm. Untroubled.

Keeping her from knowing about Hellfire was just to keep her from embarrassing me on stage with jokes about such a loser in my shop threatening me, he thought. Keeping her from knowing about this may be the one last thing I need to do tonight that keeps us both breathing.