The Gathering Storm, Part 34

Posted: 11th November 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series
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So, as I posted recently, I wasn’t lying when I said I was ready to rock and roll on regular updates to “The Gathering Storm” for a while, as well as whipping out some one-off stories. But the news my chief editor at DDNews would be leaving in December caught me by surprise. The news I’d be taking over wasn’t quite as much of a surprise, but the publishers did throw me a curve ball by asking me to not only do my job but train as chief editor and train my successor at the same time. So, that’s been kind of like doing one full-time job and two part-time ones as well. Hoping that things will get back on a more regular track here once I just have one job to focus on.

But here, without further ado, is a new chapter of “The Gathering Storm” for ya:

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

“So, what are you going to call it? Team Fortunato?”

“Pardon me?” Fortunato responded to Query’s comment, the first words the black-costumed man had uttered since entering the office two minutes ago, high up in the skyscraper headquarters of Resultant International Inc.

“Are we going to play games, Fortunato?” Query asked. “I don’t even know why you want to continue to be cagey with me, of all people. My own attorney and associate negotiated a contract with you on behalf of Zoe Dawson, soon to be known to the world as Loc-Down. It’s clear you’re forming a team.”

“I never said I wasn’t,” Fortunato said. “And, I have made it clear that I want you to be in open dialogue with me. But do you think I am so narcissistic that I would give the team a name that pedestrian?”

“Who knows the depths of your narcissism and ego, Fortunato,” Query sneered. “But why? Why a team? The reason there aren’t many superhero teams is because of our sometimes volatile personalities and the fact that there isn’t as much profit in heroing as there is in villainy—not as much glue to keep people together and overcome the friction. A lot of trouble to manage what I assume will ultimately be much more than just Zoe and your ‘Allison Wonderland’.”

“I have more than enough money, being the CEO and single largest shareholder of Resultant, to make notoriously solo-minded heroes more willing to be team players and stay for the long haul, Query,” the billionaire responded. “But you still want to know the ‘why’ of it all, nonetheless, don’t you?”

“I’m a junkie when it comes to information, Fortunato; that’s no surprise to you, is it? I assume it has to do with your cousin and his death being facilitated thanks to Crazy Jane’s loving hand—and that, ultimately, because of Janus. But I can’t believe that’s the whole story. You take family seriously, but even you don’t take it that seriously.”

Fortunato looked at the costumed transhuman, smiled and sighed.

“Pardon me, but I am not willing to be forthcoming about everything,” Fortunato said, stroking his close-cropped mustache and then the equally trim goatee below it. “Not yet, at least. But you know I am keen on having your buy-in. I will not be coy or feign ignorance in that regard. You have insight, wisdom and connections from which I can benefit. That is what I purchased by providing shelter to Zoe Dawson.”

“No,” Query said flatly. “You bought my willingness to listen and to stop putting you off. Nothing more.”

“Query, Query, Query,” Fortunato said. “Doing even that is both a major coup and a source of extreme pride for me.”

“You want more than my ear, though,” Query stated with flat assurance.

“I do hope I can get something even more than that, though. I would like vetting. Ideas. Prospects.”


“Pardon me?”

“You really seem to like that pair of words today, Fortunato. Look, for now, that’s all I’m willing to give. One name. Solstice. I have to think about how much more I want to enable your ego and machinations beyond that. I’m recommending you add Solstice to your roster.”

“I knew what you were doing, Query; what I do not know is why that would be your first suggestion. Aside from tilting the balance a bit too far to the side of estrogen for a fledgling team, she is so…young.”

“And Zoe isn’t?”

“Touché. But Solstice is also a bit volatile.”

“And Zoe isn’t?”

“I clearly should have thought through my retorts a bit more carefully before speaking them,” Fortunato admitted. “Let me simply say that her powers don’t override her limitations; Zoe’s do—in spades.”

“Spades? Bad word to get in the habit of using around black folks, Fortunato, regardless of context. With me,” he said with a bit of an edge, knowing he’d been seen with a torn costume enough times in public for his race to not be secret, “or with her.”

“Do you think that taunting and teasing me is going to make me tell you to go away and not bother coming back?”

“I figure it was worth a shot,” Query responded. “But, alas. Look, Solstice has a simple but strong power set—blistering heat and chilling cold, plus her ability to attract metal—and she has decent combat abilities, both hand-to-hand and with simple firearms. She’s young but clearly on the maturation track, and smart. I’ve also found myself in an accidental mentoring relationship with her and I’ve even gotten her to start honing some investigative skills.”


“And, what?” Query asked, folding his fingers atop Fortunato’s desk and leaning his black-masked head forward slightly.

“What else makes her come to mind first? When there are several other heroes with whom you are actually a friend or longtime acquaintance.”

“The fact that I’m not comfortable yet sending friends into your loving hands? How about that?” Query said.

“Believable. Likely. But, Query, I’m not without my perceptive skills as well,” Fortunato said, “even if they do not match your transhuman intuitive ones. The fact you gave up any name in our first official meeting—and hers, at that—suggests a specific need.”

“I don’t need you to take her. I’ve thrown you a bone to hold you over. Gnaw on it or don’t.”

“Ahhhhh. You do not have a need. Then what does she need?”

Query blew an exasperated puff of air loud enough to be heard through his thick mask, and leaned back in the chair. “If you approach her, you’ll grill her about it anyway. But I’m going to have to insist that you don’t use her ‘need’ against her to exact some kind of perverse indentured servant situation like you did with Vanessa Santos—that’s none of my business because she was your employee already and whatever leverage she gave you to end up with that ridiculous Allison Wonderland costume on her, that’s on her. But you won’t be playing that game with Solstice.”

“What does she need?” Fortunato pressed.

“In taking on—and taking out—Marty the Hun, she got on the Emerald Godfather’s shit list,” Query answered. “As far as I can see, there’s no official hit out on her, but there is definitely an ‘If you see her, drag her ass to me’ vibe. I figure in a team situation—and likely with her living here in this building, since you’ll probably want to keep most of your team close by—she’ll be about as safe as can be. Plus, I think the discipline of working in a team will be good for her. But seriously, if you try to get over on her because she has a vulnerability, I will take it personally. Very, very personally.”

“Guarantee me four more solid leads in the coming few weeks, and I will do nothing more than give her a good, salary-paying, full-time position plus room and board for the duration of her employment. No contract or stipulations as to the length of her term.”

“So, basically, you want me to build your team for you,” Query said.

“I already started the ball rolling, I already have some ideas of my own, and the team will grow with backup and ancillary members after I finish the starting lineup,” Fortunato said. “But yes, I want you to help me get it off to the best start possible. I have intel aplenty; you have actually up-close field experience with these people as well as probably deeper intel than I do.”

“Offer her the job first,” Query said, “and make sure there is a severance package worth three month’s pay if you fire her, regardless of the cause, and a written promise not to challenge her claiming unemployment benefits as well if you do fire her. Not only will I not have you getting your claws in her; I won’t have her be easily expendable. If you can get her to say ‘yes’ under those circumstances, I’ll give you your four additional leads.”

“Done,” Fortunato said. “I always told Jeremiah you and I would be able to do reasonable business one day.”

“I’m sure when you tell him about our exchange today, he’ll remind you of my hard and unforgiving nature and your ability to push the wrong buttons on the wrong people a lot of times.”

“But of course,” Fortunato said. “What good would he be as my good right hand if he didn’t use that hand to burst my bubbles occasionally?”

* * *

The presence of spilled blood in the suites of the band A Madness to My Method was not uncommon; rare, though, were the times it was allowed to stain the beds, carpeting and curtains instead of being confined to a tarp or the bathtub.

This was one of those rare times.

“I suppose it’s a good thing we’re known for starting fires in our rooms sometimes,” noted Liza Strange, the band’s bassist and also one of its singers, as she surveyed the splatters and a couple small pools of gore. The pair of people they’d tortured and killed were gone now, but this evidence remained.

Lead singer Peter Heigel smiled and nodded. They’d gone too far, he realized, but sometimes, passions ran hot, particularly when you were a band made up of four members who’d all been part of popular bands previously—who’d all been hand-picked and plucked from those bands by Crazy Jane the previous year and bent to madness and cruelty by her.

“Khaos and Hera should be back soon,” Peter said of their lead guitarist and drummer, who by now had almost certainly found a good dumpster in New Judah for disposal of the bodies, “and we’ll finish the clean-up then.”

“How about we call up a maid, make her do it, and then kill her neatly to eliminate having a witness or a new mess?” Liza suggested with a wink.

Peter was fairly confident that she wasn’t serious, but a little reminder never hurt. “You know the rules, Ms. Strange,” he said, using her last name as he always did in somber moments. “Crazy Jane is very clear about us never doing damage to people clearly connected to us, where we stay or where we play.”

“Oh, well, a girl can dream,” Liza said. “A shame, too, since I had just the maid in mind.”

“I figure I know who you mean, and I share your regret,” he said, “But…”

Peter was interrupted by a brief but firm rap on their door. His head snapped up, as did Liza’s. Hera and Khaos wouldn’t have both forgotten their key cards, and both knew it. A Madness to My Method was opening for Siblings on Fire here in New Judah—a band so hard-core and bad-ass it was one of the few to regularly visit Marksburgh, and thus its members unlikely to want to hang out casually with their opening act. Their manager was out of town. No one should be knocking without voicing the words “room service” at this time of night—and the management was on strict orders to give them privacy.

Peter let only a few moments pass, his features impassive but his eyes alert. Another short, sharp rap sounded through the door.

“Let our knocking guest in—firmly,” he said.

Liza glanced through the peephole of the door first, frowned in a lack of recognition, then opened the door suddenly, yanked the man inside—sending him tumbling—and shut and locked the door quickly.

“Stay. Put.” Peter ordered as the middle-aged man began to get up out of his undignified position on the floor. “You don’t look like a fan. Are you a freak? We hate freaks even more than uninvited fans.”

The man lifted his head and smiled. In one hand was something of a dark material, wadded up, and this he pulled over his head, leaving only his wide eyes and short dark hair exposed. “I’m one of Jane’s,” he said. “She told me you might need me.”

“What do we need with you?” Liza snarled. “We already have a manager, and you don’t look like you fit our style, even if you can play a damned thing or sing worth shit.”

“I played with minds for a living before Crazy Jane claimed me,” Marcus Blood answered. “She thought you might like a guide to some of the city’s more fertile ground. My name is Dr. Blood. I may not be musically inclined,” he added, “but I’m a protégé of Jane’s, and I like to think I could be a very good…creative influence…on your extracurricular activities while you’re in town.”

* * *

“A momentous occasion, Underworld,” said Janus, wearing a glossy black-and-white face mask that suggested the pattern of a yin-yang symbol. Complementing today’s mask was a white linen suit and pale silk shirt with a tie, belt, shoes and short gloves all of black leather. “Today we finalize our roster. Today we make history.”

“Perhaps more publicly than we want—or at least in a sooner-than-desired public fashion,” she responded to him.

Sighing, Janus said, “Word is on the street?”

“Not too heavily, but I’ve had inquiries from people we never reached out to for the roster,” Underworld said. “I’ve clamped things down with threats or bribes where needed, but this won’t get off to quite as secret a start as we wanted. I predict Query will know within the week that we’ve formed a team, though it’s unlikely he’ll ferret out details of its size or composition.”

“Do we know whose lips were loose?”

“As near as I can tell, it all goes back to Rancor. He started yapping about how cool and tough he was turning you down.”

“Turning us down,” Janus noted.

“Us, then. That bastard was so bent out of shape that we’d have him and someone with a similar hatred-themed name on the final team—and that we wouldn’t drop Odium for him—that he not only used it as an excuse to rudely turn us down but as a way to try to buy some extra street cred now.”

“One doesn’t need much reputation to gain stature when one’s stomping grounds are Newark,” Janus sneered. “Do you know he called me an idiot to my face for not canning Odium and taking him alone instead? To my face. He’d have been dead on the spot if I hadn’t been concerned word might get out and turn off others from accepting our invitations.”

“Apparently he’s been calling you the same to other people’s faces now, too,” Underworld noted.

“He would never have gotten higher than our B-list roster anyway, and I was edging toward C-list already,” Janus said. “He might have escaped retribution before for his impertinence, but not now. All our applicants were warned about leaking information about our team-building. You’ll see to this, right, Underworld? And you’ll make sure it bears my fingerprints so that other lips are less likely to be loose—or insult me—in the future?”

“Only because I’m protecting my reputation, too.”

“Fair enough,” Janus acknowledged. “Anything else before we get to the main event? You look…thoughtful.”

“In addition to Rancor, my list has Angler Fish, Biohazard, Black Wasp, Heartbreaker, Hellaquinn and Pixie having refused our invitations to try out for the team or join up outright. Do we need to deal with any of them?”

“That’s so very deferential of you, Underworld. Why? If you think any of them are threats, then you’re already arranging for their deliverance without my say-so. I admire your proactive nature and trust you. You already had Rancor on the hit-list regardless of whether I felt insulted by him, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I want your opinion on the others.”

“Why?” Janus repeated.

“Because I wonder about some other choices you’ve made with regard to the team, and I want to make sure your head’s on straight.”

“Angler Fish was headed for the C-list; he’s smart enough to know he was only being invited to be cannon-fodder and so he turned us down. Very politely. Pixie would have been B-list but she doesn’t like teams and she’s violence-averse—she was also very polite. Hellaquinn was destined for the C-list anyway, so no huge loss, and he didn’t want to join because he can’t stand the idea of leaving New York, so he won’t intersect with our activities often in the future, if at all. Black Wasp is local and might step on our toes at some point, but she was sweet enough to not only refuse nicely but also ask us to let her know if she ever infringes on our territory—no threat there. Who did I miss?”

“Heartbreaker and Biohazard.”

“Biohazard might have made the B-list, but I was torn; C-list was just as likely. I knew he had some talent from when I was operating out west, which is the only reason I considered him at all. But he’s a racist and said he knew niggers would be involved—his words, not mine—and wouldn’t join any such team. Also said he wouldn’t take orders from a wetback,” Janus added.

“Meaning me.”

“Meaning you,” Janus acknowledged.

“You left that out of the reports.”

“I didn’t want you distracted by an insult to your heritage. Well, not at that point, anyway. We’re done with the hard work, so I can handle you being briefly distracted now.”

“Yes, I do think I’ll distract myself on Biohazard when I have some time to go to the Southwest. Heartbreaker?”

“It was your idea to approach her to begin with, Underworld. She was never meant for the team itself. Just as I was trying to get some leverage on Hush-a-Bye and GoodKnight by forcing them into an alliance—”

“—which will be a very uneasy one,” Underworld interjected.

“True,” Janus admitted. “But I had to press the issue with them, giving our relative proximity to Marksburgh and the size of their operation. Heartbreaker’s criminal empire is in the South, so she’s not really competition or threat for the foreseeable future. Now, back to the business at hand of the actual roster. Caterwaul is your protégé; your project. Like Jane’s Dr. Blood, Caterwaul may be unleashed or attached to a mission team as appropriate or as you see fit. Unlike Dr. Blood, though, Caterwaul will have full access to the headquarters, as you requested. If he, it it—”

“—she,” Underworld reminded Janus.

“If she compromises our security, it’s your head. Literally. Even the A-list and special team members won’t know where we live and work. But, as I have The Fates and Crazy Jane, I’ll let you have Caterwaul. Now, speaking of special teams, we have agreement with Muerta on her retainer; she will be on tap for assassination and infiltration needs. Tooth Fairy won’t agree to work with anyone, but she’ll be good for solo missions from time to time. Neither one of them needs access to any of our hidey-holes at this point. Steampunk is ad-hoc, too, but she’ll be worked into teams, so she’ll need to have A-list access and know of safehouse locations. Any concerns?”

“Aside from Tooth Fairy running amok on some mission someday and putting us in a bad space, no,” Underworld responded.

“I’ll make it worth her while to keep her urges in check. So, as far as our actual full-time team, the A-list is Alabaster, Fatal Natal, Lady Ronin, Laugh Riot, Medusa, Menthol, Mindfuck, Minotaur, Odium, Red Alice, Sister Penance, Thanksgiving and Urban Decay,” Janus said, running down the list before him with one finger. “Any final objections?”

“I still think Odium is questionable and your decision to have Crazy Jane addict him into a brotherly bond with her is even more so,” Underworld said, “but I know you’re not budging on that. Otherwise, the only thing I can say is you have an awful lot of women between the special team and A-list rosters. Twelve out of sixteen.”

“I find women so much easier to work with,” Janus said.

I bet you do, since you have a power to tell when women lie, Underworld thought, but I’m not supposed to know about that, am I?

“I see that. Even your three bodyguards, The Fates. Just don’t fuck the help we hire for the team, please,” Underworld said, even though he knew that wasn’t his agenda. “Oh, I did have one other comment. Why Red Alice? Her Morph and Brute powers could be useful, but her personality seems a little borderline to trust with A-list status.”

“I have my reasons,” Janus said. “Trust me. All will be clear when we have the big meeting.”

“I don’t like surprises, Janus.”

“I know, and you’ll probably find this one particularly bothersome, but I assure you, it’s all for the best. That brings us to the B-list: Basalt, Bengal, Black Jihad, Breathtaker, Bronze Age, Gentleman Ghoul, Gunslinger, Onyx, Red Riding Wolf and Ripper. Why didn’t you push for Breaktaker to be A-list, by the way? He did very well on your mission to capture Zoe Dawson, even if the enterprise went south for reasons unrelated to him.”

“He’s not always a good team player from what I’ve gleaned, he’s a bit of a braggart—and thus a potential security risk if too close to inner circle—and because he has tendencies toward sexual abuse and sexual assault that I, as a woman, find irritating,” Underworld responded.

“Yes, yes…all that was in your report except the sexual component.”

“My personal concern. Mine to watch; mine to deal with if he crosses a line. I knew you’d appreciate his sadistic streak but I didn’t figure you’d care that he’s a rapist,” Underworld said.

“On his own time, I couldn’t care less, but as you’ve noted, there are many women on our team. I’m glad to see you haven’t overlooked that potential problem area.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem with the team, I suspect, since he won’t have A-list access—ever, and I’m firm on that—so he won’t be bunking near any of his teammates. Now, I still think Bronze Age should be considered for the A-list,” Underworld noted, shifting gears. “She’s young but very mature, and we could always use another person with Brute powers in that roster.”

“I want to team her with Basalt as often as possible,” Janus said. “Their powers are complementary—”

“—we’ll be mixing up members of the A-, B- and C-lists for lots of missions anyway,” Underworld interrupted. “No reason for that to keep her off the A-list.”

“Basalt’s eating disorder is a problem for me, even though you brush it off,” Janus said. “That’s the female solidarity and your frequent interactions with porn stars and models for your business talking on your part. It’s a weakness that she has—a big one. I think Bronze Age could be a good influence on her and if I can, I’d like to push them toward a friendship or even being roommates. If Bronze Age were on the A-list, that wouldn’t be practical, since she’d need to be bunking in our safehouses much of the time.”

“That helpful view toward Basalt’s needs is very disturbingly considerate of you, Janus. Which means it probably isn’t compassion.”

“Underworld, aside from Epitaph on the white-hat side of things, I don’t know of anyone but Basalt who can claim any kind of ability to be more or less bulletproof—at least up to a point,” Janus noted. “Imagine what she could do in full military-grade body armor. It’s in my best interests to keep her physically and mentally well.”

“Glad to see your practicality-mixed-with-sociopathic is still as predictable as ever,” Underworld sneered.

“Any other concerns on the B-list?” Janus prodded.

“No. Onyx is a psychological mess, but she takes orders well, and she’s a five-power transhuman, so that’s too good to pass up. And they all have solid skills we can use but particular flaws—Bronze Age excluded—that would make them potential security risks if they had A-list access.”

“Rest assured, assuming she doesn’t get killed or incarcerated, Bronze Age will move to the A-list as she matures—yes, she’s mature for 17, but she’s still 17, for God’s sake. Will that satisfy you?”

“Fine,” Underworld said. “Before we get to the C-list, there’s something I forgot—I don’t know where this fits, since its neither special teams nor regular team. I don’t have any objection to Lupus Fiasco being your spy in Shadow Pack, but why not simply kill the whole team, or at least their leader, Hellhound? Seems simpler to eliminate the competition.”

“Because I think letting them run loose could be useful. I don’t see them tripping over our operations or infringing on our territory much, but it’s a good-sized, well-organized team and thus could help distract the white hats from us a bit. But I want eyes inside that team just in case they become a potential problem for us. We might even want to help encourage the formation of some other black-hat teams for additional distraction.”

“Agreed,” Underworld said. “So, our C-list: Bad-Ass, Catscratch, Genie, Hellfire, Hood Rat, Roadkill, Scream Queen, Showcase, Tar Baby and Voyeur. Overall, I can’t argue about this, though I’m not sure I consider Roadkill truly expendable given his getaway driving skills along with his powers.”

“He’s not expendable like the rest, but I sense that if he thinks he has some kind of special access—and we have to let the B-list believe they are part of the A-list for morale and motivation—it might pose problems for us. Better to simply see himself as a well-paid employee,” Janus explained. “I can’t really put my finger on why I feel that way, but I think it’s better he stay on C-list, since none of them will know anything useful about us.”

“Fair enough,” Underworld said. “Do we have to have Hellfire, though? He’s a loser and buffoon in the worst possible way. I dislike us being associated with him even tangentially.”

“The C-list is mostly cannon-fodder and you know it, Underworld. Who better than a Hellfire? When the losers of the transhuman world see someone like Hellfire can get a job with us, we’ll have idiots lining up to be our shock troops over the coming weeks and months, and that means all the more bodies in between our A- and B-lists and the opposition. We’re likely to go through C-list people pretty fast once things heat up. Attrition means constant recruitment. Hellfire is our poster boy. That should do it, then,” Janus said. “Please set up the big meeting, if you would—before you arrange to do anything to Rancor or Biohazard, by the way. Priorities, my dear.”

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