The Gathering Storm, Part 33

Posted: 6th September 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series
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Will hadn’t seen his wife in her actual Tooth Fairy costume for a couple months, since that night she had suddenly and frighteningly thrust herself back into the lives of her husband and daughter. Seeing her this way—with her realistic-looking fairy wings faintly flapping, gauzy dress and a girdle-style belt at her waist with two ornate pliers hanging from it, lips glistening with black lipstick and gloss, a black wig and an array of jewelry made of teeth and bones—he was reminded starkly of how much Theresa Bastion had changed in two or so years and just what she had been doing since she had left them.

She was a psychotic, sociopathic, narcissistic, greedy fiend who preyed on others for profit and personal satisfaction. And yet, as he stood here with her in the abandoned building she had instructed him to meet her at, a part of him just wanted to hold her, kiss her gently and somehow return everything to its proper place in life.

I guess I should have thought of things like this before I hatched a plan to ensure our daughter would have a good chance of being born transhuman, he thought. Because it I hadn’t done that and convinced Theresa of the need to go through with it, my wife wouldn’t have become transhuman herself and taken what is almost certainly a permanent psychological relocation.

“So good of you to meet me, Will. A gal’s gotta work, you know, and I really don’t like dressing up a norm anymore. I’ve done it several times to get our marriage back onto some kind of track, but I’m not going to do it regularly. It makes me feel dirty.”

Yes, my wife sees tormenting, hurting and robbing people as normal and proper. I wonder how long before whatever affection she still feels for me and what’s left of our marriage turns into some murderous rage that will leave me dead.

And yet he still couldn’t bring himself to alert the authorities that he knew the identity of Tooth Fairy. More than that, he still couldn’t sort out whether he refused to do so more out of love or fear.

“I’m trying to be flexible,” he said, managing a smile, however conflicted his emotions really were.

“Take up yoga if you want to be flexible,” Tooth Fairy said, and he chuckled nervously. “No, seriously, Will. I need you more flexible. I still plan to pay you booty calls, and…well…you’re a little stiff and out of practice. We need to work on that.”

Do you know how much a miracle it is that I can even get hard and stay that way when I’m so terrified of you? he thought, but kept that sentiment silent, and simply said, “I’ll look into that. Hard to find time—”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time, soon, Will. I can be pretty demanding and I think I’m going to want you to be in Haley’s life more full-time instead of letting some norm nanny watch her. Plus, your drinking has really picked up since I’ve been gone, I see—and even more since I came back—and I’m sure eventually your work at the hospital will suffer for that. Don’t worry, though, baby,” she said in a soothing, sing-song voice Will wasn’t sure was mocking or sincere. “I’ll make sure you don’t go hungry or homeless. Mama makes a good living.”

Her fingers trailed through her wide, ornate bone-and-tooth torc-style necklace, the various elements tinkling together with an unsettling sound amid the precious metals and stones, and he shuddered.

“Now, I really must ask: How are our daughter’s teeth?” With that, Tooth Fairy smiled, and Will watched her dentition morph into something feral and predatory before it returned to normal human teeth. She licked her lips in a sultry gesture.

“Um, fine. I take her to the dentist twice a year and all that. Just like we always had before. Why do you…” Will said, then paused. “Um…I don’t think she’ll develop your same powers, Teri. Is that what you’re getting at?”

“Unless I’m playing at being a norm and other norms are around, don’t call me Teri anymore, Will. Or Theresa, either. I’m Tooth Fairy. Or, if you prefer, you can use darling, dear or honey to refer to me. And no, I realize my sweet little girl won’t be just like mommy. But good teeth are important. They say a lot about a person. I know my teeth often say a lot about me. Make sure she gets plenty of calcium and vitamin D, now. Tooth Fairy’s orders! Of course, I need a lot of calcium, too, for my special physiological needs. So it’s good for me there are plenty of sources I can tap for that.”

Will shuddered at the tone her voice had taken, and then he thought about how much calcium and other minerals and biological materiel her body must store to allow her to morph her teeth and bones so drastically on a whim. Oh, God, he realized. She sometimes feeds off other people to get it. She’s some kind of Vamp on top of being a Morph and Brute.

He found himself wondering if she left her victims with crippling osteoporotic-like symptoms when she was done with them, or simply killed them. He couldn’t imagine she exercised restraint and just took a little from a lot of people. That wouldn’t be cruel enough for her newfound tastes.

“I see your thoughts wandering, Will,” she said in an amused tone. “Rest assured I’ll draw the line at feeding from you or your mother—as sick as she is so often, I don’t think I’d like any of her essential minerals anyway. Now, on to more important things: visitation. I have to reacquaint myself with Haley if I’m going to raise her pretty much full time when her powers come in—”

If they come in,” Will noted quietly.

When,” Tooth Fairy responded with a wicked grin. “I will be taking our daughter…oh…whenever I want. Mostly weekends, I expect, since most of the people I torment and rob keep relatively normal office hours. But when she’s with me, we’ll be in a nice hotel suite or something. I’m not moving back in and I’m not going back to being domestic.”

“Teri…I mean, Tooth Fairy…uh, Honey, you were never a homemaker. You had a lab job.”

“Oh, fine, deal in reality if you must. But all the same, I’m not moving back, and when she’s with me, she’s with me alone. There isn’t going to be any cozy family time. I may stop into the house occasionally to visit you and her together, but that won’t be the usual thing. Any problems with that arrangement?”

“Would I survive long if I did have a problem with it and voiced any big objection?” Will pointed out, more calmly than he would have thought possible.

“Oh, darling, you get it,” Tooth Fairy said with a delighted chirpy tone, clapping her hands together and grinning. “This is going to work out so well. So it’s decided. I take her randomly for visits, for as long as I can stand the maternal thing and resist the urge to kill someone in front of her, and you don’t complain or bring the police in. It warm the cockles of my heart.”

She walked over to a large tarp covering some lumpy mound, and Will’s guts froze. He’d been wondering about that since he got here.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Well, darling, we’re husband and wife. I’m not a slut, and I don’t go sleeping around. I want a conjugal visit,” she said, and pulled the tarp away, revealing a pile of bones of all sizes and shapes. “It’s just that a bed isn’t always my style anymore.”

Will shuddered, and thought about running—then thought about the consequences of such an action. He desperately scanned the pile, and was relieved at least to see that it was overwhelmingly animal bones. He wondered if he’d be lucky enough that none of it was—

“Oh, Will, penny for your thoughts?” Tooth Fairy asked, and he looked over at her, to see her fellating a bone.

Oh, God, what I wouldn’t give not to be a physician right now and know anatomy so well…

She was lewdly sucking on and licking an ulna—one of the two long bones of a person’s forearm. All hope he had harbored that the pile of bones she was about to make him lie down in contained nothing but those of animals was dashed on the lurid display she was making in front of him.

“I know this is weird for you, Will,” she said, and her words almost seemed sincerely concerned as she gave the ulna a long, slow lick and kissed the end of it gently. “That’s why I brought some Viagra. We’ll just sit and cuddle and drink some wine for a half hour or so until it starts to kick in.”

Will swallowed hard, and forced down the desire to flee with a redoubled effort.

“And then we’ll have the fun I’ve been waiting for,” Tooth Fairy finished, tossing the saliva-slicked, lipstick-stained bone into the pile and leering at him.

* * *

Three-quarters of a double-pepperoni pizza sat on the table as Carl waved a hand toward it. “Well, I don’t seem to have much of an appetite tonight, Query, and since this only just got delivered to one of your dummy offices in this building 15 minutes ago, it’s still warm, and you get the lion’s share of it now that we’re done.”

Query waved both his hands and shook his head. “Take it with you, Carl. Gonna pass on that.”

“What? You’re too good for leftovers now? This is tradition for us. We meet to go over your caseload and affairs. I order food. I eat food during our meeting. You refuse to eat the food until I’m gone so you can take off your mask and fill your belly.”

“Except I’m vegetarian now, Carl.”

“Since when?”

“Since two days ago when I finished some reading that doesn’t involve my work and decided I was giving up meat,” Query said.

Carl looked at him, dumbfounded for a few moments. “You’re not pulling my leg? Has Vegan Manhunter been working on you? Can he wear even the mighty Query down?”

“I said vegetarian, not vegan,” Query pointed out. “Next time order a pizza half veggie. Or feel free to bring a couple asparagus and swiss quiches from that upscale new joint downtown—Cinnabar Bistro. Eggs and dairy I’m fine with; just cutting out the meat.”

“High cholesterol?”

“Philosophical reasons,” Query said.

“Ahhhh. You’re dating someone who’s a vegetarian, then,” Carl said. “I had no idea Cheshire would be vegetarian. I assumed she’s at least eat fish and chicken like any good feline—”

“Jesus, Carl! I’m not interested in Cheshire and she’s not interested in me. Sexually, at least. Get that notion out of your head, please. It would be like screwing a first cousin,” Query said, shaking his black-masked head. “If you must know, I’ve been reading stuff by Peter Singer and Jonathan Safran Foer about the morality and philosophy of eating meat, and I’m opting out. Granted, Singer’s got some weird philosophical notions about bestiality possibly being an OK thing at times, but I’m with him on the non-meat-eating bandwagon, at least.”

“Query, I don’t want to sound unsupportive or insensitive, but you often beat people up in the course of your job. You’ve dabbled in torture. You’ve killed quite a number of people, even if it was mostly in self-defense,” Carl noted. “And you’re going to feel too warm and fuzzy toward the animals to eat them? Are you going non-violent, too?”

“Carl, I don’t give a shit about the animals, really. Well…I do give a shit about animals, actually, but I also don’t put them on any pedestals. You wanna eat them, go ahead. I’m not judging. I just can’t condone how much land is wasted and how much produce and such is fed to animals that could be feeding humans instead. Seems a waste to use land for raising meat animals that could be growing more nutritionally packed plants for a hungry world, and at the same time taking things grown on land elsewhere to feed those animals—instead of humans—until they’re big enough to be slaughtered and eaten. It’s wasteful. I’m not a wasteful guy.”

“So, you’d still snap the neck of an attack dog if you got into a pickle at some villain’s compound?” Carl asked.

“Totally. In a heartbeat. I just wouldn’t eat the sonofabitch.”

* * *

Going out on patrol tonight, Cole had felt powerful. He had no idea how much a costume mattered until he’d been gifted with this one the previous day from Sweet Talker and PrinSass. Sheathed in the head-to-toe, skin-hugging outfit, he almost felt like he was armored. More than that, he felt like someone else. No longer Cole when he put it on, but Quantum instead.

The lightweight unitard and mask was iridescent, with grey, silver and blue dominating the mask, upper torso, arms, back and the outer portions of his legs, and red and green dominating the abdomen, inner legs, back of the legs and feet. The mask had two irregular shaped black lenses over his eyes that were roughly peanut-shaped and there were holes and visible black seams over the nose and mouth, giving him a somewhat eerie visage. He had a uniform, and his two patrons in the Guardian Corps had even given him tips on sewing and patching it, handing him several yards of the material afterward, since he wasn’t likely to be able to afford replacing the ensemble itself any time soon. And it was bound to see some damage in action eventually against baseline human criminals and possibly other transhumans.

And now, I feel helpless in it, Quantum thought, as he stared down a man with a gun.

A man with a gun and a hostage.

“Get the fuck outta here,” the gangbanger snarled, the barrel wavering a little, but still trained on the right temple of the woman he held tight. “Get outta here or I kill her.”

“And what promise do I have you won’t do that to her—or worse—if I leave,” Quantum prodded, trying to put a steely edge to his voice and wondering if his doubts had put more waver into his words than threat.

“You got my promise she’ll die right here and then I’ll shoot you if you don’t,” the young man answered.

Quantum didn’t have any backup. He’d gone out on patrol with a team of four guys from the Guardian Corps, but Wardawg was in charge and insisted they split up to cover more ground. It was a shitty field decision, and reminded him of his first time out on patrol with Wardawg. Another member of the Corps had gotten seriously hurt that night, and if not for the serendipity of Epitaph showing up, all three of them might have ended up dead, riddled with bullets from pistols and assault rifles. Wardawg was a terrible field leader, but he was in charge, and Desperado would have been all over Cole if he had questioned the order and insisted on sticking with his teammates after being told to spread out and reconnoiter.

Except now, I don’t have the luxury of scouting and calling them in to help break something up. I’ve stepped right into a clusterfuck and I’m all alone. And an innocent victim could end up shot because of that. Or raped and shot if I leave.

A gunman with a hostage: What do you do?

Pop quiz, hotshot.

A movie popped into Quantum’s head with that thought. Something from the 90s that he’d watched a couple times because his parents refused to fully embrace DVD culture and refused to throw out all their old VHS tapes. The movie Speed.

Something about a gunman using a hostage for cover, and he’s almost about to get away. And what do you do, as a cop who’s fifty or a hundred feet away?

Shoot the hostage.

Before he’d gotten this costume, Cole had been practicing with his powers. His Ecto powers were still spotty, or maybe he could manifest a quasi-matter tendril to yank the gun away. But he’d already had plenty of practice with his Warpsmith powers and had been playing with some new tricks lately.

He didn’t hesitate; there wasn’t time and this guy wasn’t going to listen to him talk long before pulling the trigger. Quantum began to twist reality, but in a very focused zone—right around the head of the hostage, carefully keeping the gangbanger out of the zone of effect. He might be able to take the guy down with this trick, but the moment things got weird for him, he’d probably pull the trigger.

Quantum saw the woman’s eyes bug out a little and her cheeks push out as a violent wave of nausea hit her along with the disorientation. With a sudden violent expulsion, she vomited all down the front of herself and over the gunman’s arm.

What a pleasant surprise to make this even better, Quantum thought.

“What the FUCK?” the gangbanger blurted, grossed out by the vomit and momentarily confused.

And then the woman promptly lost consciousness and became dead weight in the man’s arm. The sudden change made him lose his grip suddenly, and she was on the ground before he could even figure out what was going on, much less react.

Unfortunately for Quantum, that trick took a lot out of him, and as he was getting his own bearings back, the gangbanger was bringing his gun to bear on his costumed antagonist. Quantum reached out suddenly with his Warpsmith powers to disrupt the man’s balance momentarily, and managed a weak Ecto tendril to slap at his face.

Just enough to rush forward. Quantum didn’t have the focus or the energy right now for a full-out Warpsmith attack to bring the man to his knees. But he had enough to buy time to close the distance. Cole had never really been a fighter and never learned how to beat anyone up before joining the Guardian Corps. They’d given him some basic fighting tips, though, and one of his early initiation processes was to be in the middle of a circle of his peers to receive a beating—it was as much preparation for the reality of being in a fight as it was a gang-like bonding experience.

Quantum took what few skills he had learned and got ready to strike. He bent his fingers back to form a knife-life wedge consisting of his four biggest knuckles. All the better to concentrate the impact. He lunged forward, set his feet, pivoted at the hip and aimed his knuckles straight at the man’s throat, slamming into his windpipe with all the force he could muster.

The gangbanger sputtered and began to hack violently, gasping for air and dropping his gun. Before it had even clattered to the ground, Quantum’s adrenaline and anger had coalesced into a blind rage and his left knee was buried in the man’s groin. As the guy doubled over, Quantum smashed his right elbow down on the back of his enemy’s skull. When the man hit the ground, Quantum was kicking him over and over in the face and abdomen until he was groaning in agony and rolling feebly and helplessly.

Then Quantum called for his backup.

Your leadership skills suck, Wardawg. But the upside is that you get to help me spread the tale of how I saved a hostage and took down my first guy in a solo fight, Cole thought. Suck on that—oh, and you suck on it too, Desperado. I may have a long ways to go, but sooner or later you’re going to have to admit I’m not just some useless college-boy hero-wannabe..

I’m a crimefighter now for real.

* * *

Leon Donnelly frowned as he looked over the week’s financials on his iPad, and near him at the kitchen table, his daughter Lois said, “Uh oh…I know that look. What did Daddy do now?”

Leon looked up at her and frowned in a new way, and then smiled at her. “You’ve been eight less than a week now. How is it you’re growing up so fast, munchkin?”

“I’m just a natural that way, Papa,” she said proudly.

Julian Gregori walked into the kitchen and immediately caught the odd vibe. He looked at Leon, saw the look on his face, and went over to give him a kiss on the cheek. “What did I do now, Leon?” he whispered, just loudly enough for Lois to hear and giggle. And then he stood up and went to sit on a stool at the breakfast bar in their kitchen, sipping at a cup of coffee.

“I’m just wondering, since I’m in charge of the books and all the inventory and shit, why you gave a way a free costume—and a fairly intricate and high-quality one—to a guy called Quantum in the New Judah Guardian Corps.”

“It’s for him, but I actually gave it to Sweet Talker, technically speaking,” Julian said. “Designer’s privilege. I can’t give a gift now and again?”

“Maybe to someone who can get us some word of mouth, but a punk in the Guardian Corps? Most of them end up dead, injured or otherwise out of the costumed game within a matter of months,” Leon pointed out. “A lot of them before they even have a costume. They have no networks, they have no reputation most of the time, they—”

“Calm down, Leon,” Julian said, and he sipped at his coffee again.

“Yeah, calm down, Papa,” Lois said with a smirk.

“You mind the fact you’re still in single digits age-wise,” Leon told Lois with a half-amused and half-scolding tone. “As for you, Jules, we run a fashion design business. Costumes for transhuman heroes, mercs and not-too-psycho criminals is a lucrative side business, but it’s not lucrative enough to give away the store.”

“I’m not being Santa Claus, here, Leon,” he responded. “This Quantum guy is a special case. He’s not just some confused young guy who would have ended up in a street gang if he didn’t do the Corps. Apparently he’s a college grad and probably will turn out to be something someday if he doesn’t get killed in the short run. More to the point, we owed Sweet Talker a favor, and you know it. Now we’re square with her and that’s one less debt on our accounts.”

“He did get you there, Papa,” Lois pointed out to Leon.

He frowned, and gave her a mostly mocking glare of anger. “Hmmph!” he said, and stuck his tongue out at his daughter. “Someone’s been standing up for her Daddy an awful lot lately, forgetting which one of us two was around from the beginning when she was only a couple days old.”

“I know, Papa. I’m sorry,” Lois said, batting her eyelashes cutely. “But Daddy’s been around since I was three, at least, and he is the one who slips cupcakes into my lunch when you’re not looking.”

“Bribery for the win,” Julian said, pumping his left fist in the air and lifting his coffee cup with his right hand, sipping and winking at Lois first and then Leon. “I’ve got a backrub for you to ease the pain, love,” he told Leon, and then, much more quietly, added, “Maybe more than that tonight if you stop scowling.”

* * *

“I’m here, and I assume you’re in the shadows someplace,” said the man in military-themed clothing, his fully covered head scanning back and forth. “You can come out. No need to play the mysterious masked man role so heavily. After all, you asked for this meeting through the grapevine.”

“Can we drop the pretense that you only assume I’m here, Good War?” Query said good-naturedly. “I’d bet good money you know exactly where I am.”

Good War’s head turned fractionally—almost imperceptibly—in one direction and then stopped, panning instead toward the sound of Query’s voice. “Over there, of course.”

“Are you afraid I’m here to attack you, totally out of character?” Query asked. “Your head was turning the right direction the first time; you didn’t catch yourself quickly enough. You know good and damn well my voice is coming out of a speaker, don’t you? And you know precisely where my body is. I bet you know everything that’s in this room, all around you, even with your entire face covered. Would I be right that using your normal vision confuses your ‘radar sense,’ Good War, and that’s why your eyes are covered?”

“You know,” Good War drawled, one hand coming to rest on the hilt of the Colt .45 pistol at his side, “a lot of people might be shocked and awed by this crap. It actually makes me antsy and irritable.”

Query stood up slowly and walked casually out of his hiding space, carefully regarding the man he’d invited here. Good War’s costume was based primarily on the basic World War II U.S. Army uniform, including the helmet, with the color olive drab being predominant—even his boots were the dull green color instead of the traditional black color, as was the mask that concealed his entire head. There were small touches of brighter hues, though. His costume featured three large, vertical utility pouches across his front torso that were each a different color: one red, one white and one blue, and a red, white and blue striped kerchief covered his eyes like a blindfold. Having traced the man to his home weeks earlier, Query knew the skin beneath was as brown as his own.

“That’s not a denial of my assessment of your Sensor powers, though, is it, Mr. Wilcox?” Query noted. “After all, I’ve had a fair amount of time to record you in action.”

“I don’t like intimidation, Query,” the man told him flatly. “I’m not impressed by you dropping a name that may or may not be mine. If I catch you in my house, I’ll shoot you as fast as I would any burglar. If you harass me right now or in the field, I’ll put bullet holes in your kneecaps. If you think you can extort—”

“Relax,” Query said. “Yes, I like to go for the mysterious thing in the shadows. Yes, I go for a little showmanship, especially on a first meeting. Yes, I’m a nosy bastard who digs into other people’s business all the time. Yes, I know more about you than you’d like. No, I’m not here to extort you into any favors.”

“Bullshit. I know your reputation.”

“You should ask around to the people who kind of like me and not just the ones who have grudges,” Query said. “They’d tell you I met most of them like this the first time, too. I don’t want to extort you—I save that to get a favor or two out of people who are far less than pristine. You’re so justice-minded it almost makes me feel filthy and corrupt by comparison. All I want from you is a way to contact you when you’re in costume, in case I need to ask for help—nicely—or in case I have information I should pass along to you.”

“I don’t have some special way to be contacted in costume. It’s not my style. I work alone.”

“Sometimes it’s good to work with others. Even I know how to play nice when it suits the greater good or my own personal ends,” Query said. “I’d suggest you get a pre-paid cell phone or something similarly anonymous. I can connect you with people who can set up a cell phone account for you under your Good War identity and they won’t even ask what your real name is.”

Query held out a business card.

“When you have a suitable phone or whatever, call me at this number,” Query continued. “Call me if you need help or just to pass along your contact info to me—I can pass it along to others if you have anyone in mind. I respect you, Good War. You’re actually fighting the good fight, and I wish there were a few more like you out there and a few less like Mister Conviction or Feral.”

“You know, you’d make more friends more quickly with guys like me if you cut the asshole approach,” Good War pointed out, taking the business card.

“I’m not looking for friends; I look for allies or tools,” Query responded. “I have a few friends, and I keep them close, but I don’t like to have too many.”

“Man, if you think there’s such a thing as too many friends, you really are more than a little messed up in the head, Query. But I’ll be in touch.”

* * *

Working for Janus in his headquarters was like being in heaven and hell all at the same time. For most of them there, it was usually heavenly. The employees had just about everything they could want, at no cost to themselves, and all they had to do was give up was their freedom. Live here, work here and go out only on supervised trips. Banking their relatively modest salaries—modest, at least, compared to their peers in private industry—but never needing to pay a cent for good food, copious entertainment options, healthcare, utilities, clothing or almost anything else available to them on the several floors that constituted their home, their workplace and their prison. Almost every cent they earned going into their bank and investment accounts except for a few knick-knacks, jewelry, special clothing or decorations they might want to buy. All their worldly needs catered to.

Those were mostly the good parts. Almost never being able to leave the building bothered all of them at times, but having access to sex workers on site, limitless amounts of booze and drugs when off duty and so much else for free dulled that pain. Being in perpetual fear of Janus’ wrath could be unnerving, but it was rare that anyone on staff in the course of normal duties would have a situation in which they could screw up bad enough to get hurt or killed, particularly since so much of their work overlapped.

So, mostly heaven. But hell often enough to make them all regret their choice to work for Janus at times.

Today was a hellish day.

All those thoughts were running at breakneck speed through Oscar’s mind as he watched one of his best friends, Jim, bleed all over his keyboard, his nose broken and Janus holding the man’s head up by its ponytail so Jim could look on miserably at his co-workers.

“Jim here has disappointed me,” Janus declared loudly but calmly to the assembled staff—almost everyone who worked for him and Underworld except for staff that had to keep at their stations like security; even they would get a recording of this afterward, though. “Does anyone know why Jim is in my disfavor?”

Not a single hand went up. To know the answer would be to share the guilt and punishment. Most didn’t know what Jim had done. Oscar had known—weeks in advance.

But Oscar kept his hand and his head down.

“Jim ran.” Janus said. “Can you imagine that? All that he had here and all that he could gain, and he ran. And if there is anything all of you know I will never forgive here, it is a reckless or intentional breach of security. Jim’s actions were both.”

“I’m so sorry, Janus,” Jim moaned. “It will never happen again…”

“Jim, you are interrupting me,” Janus said, signaling to his trio of costumed bodyguards—The Fates. No one knew what subtle part of his gesture gave the message of who was to step forward or what to do, but in seconds, Loveless—in her red and black latex bodysuit and purple-goggled mask—was there. Janus pried open Jim’s mouth, and Loveless cut out the man’s tongue with expert speed and precision.

More blood on the keyboard and desk and every employee in the room dumbfounded and paralyzed with fear in 10 seconds flat.

Loveless returned to her two “sisters,” Contessa and Lace, and Janus looked at the assembled norm humans through his mask.

“Please ignore the pitiful moans, but surely they will be less distracting than his words were,” Janus said. “I told you all you could not run. Did any of you think you’d get far enough with my diligence and those tracking devices in your bodies to find a police officer and give up this location? Or to reach an airport and leave the country?”

No one answered.

“And why?” Janus asked. “This headquarters was established roughly a year ago; most of you have been with me all of that time. I swore to you—and I am known as a man of my word—that on the 12th anniversary of the founding of this facility, if I am still blessed enough to be committing crimes and free of the law, I will not be here on that anniversary. I will be in a new building with a new staff that none of you know about, and you will be free to leave here and carry on your lives as you wish, with well-stuffed accounts. Twelve years! That’s all. I know I can run you hard at times, but there aren’t more than a half-dozen among you over 35 years of age. Twelve years is all I ask, and you leave here still young enough to more than enjoy early retirement with a comfortable lifestyle if you like. Until then, I own your bodies and souls. Don’t you appreciate me and your jobs at least a little?”

Numerous heads bobbed up and down, but no one said a word.

“You all have people you care about,” Janus continued. “A list of people I swore I would choose from to hurt if any of you ever betrayed me. And, so, Jim’s dear retarded younger sister will soon be killed in a very brutal, slow and bloody fashion.”

Jim wept wordlessly; no one else made a sound.

“But, perhaps all of you have become jaded,” Janus said, “and perhaps some of you are willing at times to win your freedom even if it means the blood of those you once cared for. Well, then, I’ll just have to make sure you all watch each other more closely. By tomorrow noon, each of you will have the ability to access any of your co-workers’ computers from your own—be they security workers, physicians, IT and data experts like most of you or whatever else. You cannot write data to their computers, so don’t try to plant evidence or misdirect me from your own efforts. But you can see, at any time, what they are surfing on the web. What they are saying to others in this room. You will be able to see the clues that they might be looking to run, and you will tell me when you see this and I will investigate and watch to make sure they don’t flee or that they don’t get more than a yard outside this building if they do. None of you has any secrets anymore.”

Many in the room sighed, but whether out of fear that their own nascent or hopeful backup plans might be discovered or pleasure that they could keep a day like this from happening again, Oscar couldn’t tell.

Janus turned his head toward Underworld, watching the scene from several yards away. The look in her eyes told him all he needed to know. She thought he was being extreme, and she was disgusted. But, in the end, as long as he didn’t make an example today of the few people dedicated to her, who worked on her own floor of the building, she had no personal investment in stopping him.

“Next order of business,” Janus intoned as he returned his gaze to the assembled workers. “I’m sure Jim shared his desire to flee with at least one of you—one of you who could have warned me about this runner before he ran.”

No one offered up an answer to that. Oscar didn’t know how many others might have been able to confirm that Jim meant to run, but he knew he was one of them, and his guts clenched.

“So, to make you all even more watchful of each other, I propose this: I am going to randomly generate a name from among the rest of you. Whomever’s name comes up, whether that person was complicit in this crime or not, one of their loved ones on my list will be raped this week. This will happen the same way if anything like this ever happens again. So, watch each other for the love of your own, even if you don’t ever plan to run. An extra hour or two a day of work looking over each other’s shoulders will be useful. And rest assured that anyone I hire to come in here going forward will see a recording of today’s events as a motivational tool. I don’t think any of you will run again. Your plans will be unearthed. Even if you decide to run on a whim during one of your rare field trips outside, rest assured more than one of your coworkers will see you trying to slip away from the group and tackle you no matter how public a disruption it causes.”

Still there was silence from the crowd, and whimpers of pain mixed with tears of anguish from Jim.

“But just one extra motivator this time to help hammer home the point, since I know Jim probably told at least one someone about his plans…” Janus said, letting his words trail off. “Hmmmm. Who is Jim’s closest friend here? Point the person out. Now!

Oscar’s heart froze. Fingers upon fingers pointed at him. But, he realized as he cowered from them, fingers were pointed at two other IT workers, too: Tammy and Bruce. Everyone had their own opinion about whom Jim liked more. Oscar felt a twinge of hope.

Janus stepped up on to Jim’s desk, keeping his errant employee in place with a Christian Louboutin-clad foot on the back of his neck, and the villain counted the pointing fingers.

“Well,” he finally said. “It looks like Mr. Walters has the most fingers.”

Oscar panicked for a split-second, and then realized, My last name is Ramirez; Bruce’s is Walters.

“So,” Janus said, looking toward Bruce, “I am going to have to assume that you were Jim’s best friend—unless he offers up another name to fill that role—and that he told you. As such, one of your loved ones will be raped and then murdered.”

“But I didn’t know!” Bruce wailed. “Please!”

“Mr. Walters, that outburst has now consigned two of your loved ones to the fate I just mentioned. Would you like to make it a threesome?”

No one spoke, and Bruce hardly dared breathe.

“Good,” Janus said, lifting his foot off Jim’s neck. “Jim, before I have your sister killed and then have you watch the video of the murder before I kill you, would you like to save one of Bruce’s loved ones by giving up a different name—or even both people, if you have two names to give—of people you told…you know, if it wasn’t Bruce, after all? There’s a pad of paper there without too much blood on it, and a pen right next to it.”

Jim cried, blood drooling from his tongueless mouth, but wrote nothing. Gave up no name.

Oscar didn’t know if Jim had told Bruce anything. But Jim stayed silent about Oscar, even knowing he could save a life for Bruce if he gave him up.

So, at the very least, Oscar did have the very small comfort to know that apparently he really was Jim’s best friend in the end.

He was almost certain, though, that he was going to need a small mountain of cocaine tonight to feel even remotely good about that.

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