The Gathering Storm, Part 37

Posted: 15th January 2014 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series

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

The cup of coffee cradled between her palms grounded her. It was solid and hot and something she could understand in a place that she hardly understood at all.

Michele Cho had been in her fair share of offices before, of course—though, honestly, she tried to avoid them and all the career implications they held that made her blood run cold—but she had to admit that she’d never been in one huge enough to have two small rooms inside it and still be grossly spacious. The doors to both were closed. She assumed one was probably a full bathroom. She wondered if the other one was a tiny bedroom. One corner of the office even had a kitchenette.

“Do you live here?” Michele asked and sipped at her coffee, Nice, strong, dark blend—thank God he doesn’t cheap out on the coffee like Isabella always does.

“It is my building,” Fortunato answered. “So, yes, I live in it. When you have a high-rise with a view of the water, why bother with mansions and estates just to have lots of lawn space?”

“No, I mean: Do you live in this office? I’ve seen single-family homes that are smaller,” she responded.

Fortunato laughed. “Working 12 to 18 hour days at times, I suppose one could argue I live here, but no, I have the entire top floor as my actual abode—the penthouse suite to end all penthouse suites, if I do say so.”

Michele was silent for nearly 10 seconds, though it felt more like several minutes. “I’m sorry,” she said, when she realized he was watching her closely, waiting for a response. “I’m very nervous being here. I don’t know how to talk to a billionaire.”

The smile Fortunato gave her was two parts narcissistic to one part comforting, and that ratio wasn’t lost on Michele—still, though, the comforting part was welcome, since she had anticipated something more predatory in its place. She sipped more coffee as if it would fuel her confidence.

“Talking to a billionaire is easy, Solstice,” Fortunato said. “You talk to me the same way you would talk to a multimillionaire,” he added, then paused. “Except that you add a few zeroes.”

“Hmmmm,” Michele murmured, smiling instead of giving him a nervous and insincere laugh, uneasy all over again with the awareness that he knew she was Solstice—probably knew more about her non-costumed life already than her own father did, and maybe more about her costumed and non-costumed life than her stepsister did. “But I don’t know how to talk to millionaires, either. I’m just a simple Goth girl with a costumed crime-fighting hobby.”

“Query is a millionaire,” Fortunato countered. “I estimate he has to pull in at least 300K each year somehow—maybe double or triple that—and probably has between three and ten million stashed away to do what he does. And you know him.”

“Barely,” Michele said. “He helped me out of a bit of a problem I had as Solstice, and he’s given me some tips. Reluctant part-time tutor more than friend, I’d say.”

“But still, you know him, and he and I are not that different,” he said, though Michele thought to herself: You may share similar issues over controlling situations, but I doubt you share much else. “And about that ‘trouble’…” Fortunato added. “…I have called you here to help with that. A bit of a favor to Query, so that I can gain some favor in return. But I would need something from you before I can offer you protection from the Emerald Godfather.”

“I’m not that kind of girl,” Michele said teasingly, trying to gain some kind of leverage in the conversation. Banter might make her seem less awkward and confused—might make her less of potential mark.

“Zoe—or perhaps I should start using her codename now instead when I talk shop—Loc-Down made similar jokes when we first met. Do I seem like the lecherous type?”

“Most men with lots of money are. Also, I tend not to trust moneyed people.”

“Also very like Loc-Down, Solstice; I think the two of you would get along well. But you see, while you may not trust moneyed people, money is what can save you. The right amounts, filtered through third parties so that he does not know who your patron is, could put the Emerald Godfather off you. Money as recompense on your behalf will solve everything, for he loves money more than he likes Marty the Hun. He will forget that you took Marty from him.”

“And what do you want in return for this help?”

“I am forming a team. I want you on it, mostly because you came highly recommended by Query, and his character judgment is sound, even if I doubt many other parts of his judgment. Full-time job, with salary and benefits—though, obviously, you wouldn’t be patrolling and fighting all the time. In fact, a good share of your time will be public relations and community relations work while in costume. Looking good and making people feel safe and giving the press something to write about. But you would need to be on call a good share of the week for field missions, and I would want you living here in the building—rent-free, of course—both to keep you close and keep you safe from those who might try to reach out for you. Just in case Marty has any friends I do not know about yet for whom money is not enough to quell their hurt.”

“I’m guessing there’s a contract involved. Signed in blood?” Michele taunted mildly. Silently, though, she was cheering. A chance to get paid for what she did essentially did as an avocation now? She enjoyed freelance graphic design and improv comedy work, but she wouldn’t be able to pay the bills with either if she didn’t regularly lift cash off he criminals she took down.

“Ink will do,” Fortunato said. “The contract is more about non-disclosure on your part, severance terms if you’re fired and things like that. There is no contracted term of employment because I feel I need a bit of a probationary period to assess you. And before you ask: Yes, you can take time to have an attorney look the contract for a few days before you sign it. I figure the odds are about 50-50 that Query has already offered his pet lawyer to you for that task.”

Michele shrugged noncommittally—Query hadn’t done any such thing, but she could ask him later if he would, and if Fortunato thought Query had her back, she wasn’t about to give him a reason to think otherwise.

“A job like that sounds good,” she said, and realized there was still a tremor of nervousness in her voice. She’d have to get over being unnerved by this man’s money and power—and soon, she realized. “If the money is right. But I’m going to need something, too.”

“They always do,” Fortunato said. “And what special thing do you want in addition to me saving you from a mobster and paying you well?”

“Whatever apartment or suite or condo or whatever you plan on putting me up in, well…”


“It’s going to need to be big enough for two, I think,” and then she paused, reconsidering her words and remembering that she was in some kind of position to negotiate here, and shouldn’t leave a single detail vague. “Or maybe it would be better to say it needs to be half-again to twice as big as what you were planning to give me, with at least two bedrooms. And we’d better make it two bathrooms as well.”

* * *

She slid through the shadows, feeling like a child pretending poorly to be a ninja. It didn’t matter how thoroughly she’d been trained and how well she was taking to the skills; they seemed to her like ill-fitting clothes.

Or maybe more accurate to say they’re like someone else’s clothes—someone with a fashion sense totally counter to mine, Vanessa considered. She glanced down at the tight, shiny, light-blue gloves of her Allison Wonderland costume and sighed as she began to tap out a message on her iPhone Sextet. I don’t like the feel of this role, but I don’t have a choice, and I’ll play it as I need to. But only when I must.

Hey, Zoe, Vanessa texted on her phone. Whatcha doin?

A minute later, the response: Thinking about hitting dance floor to woo a cute guy. Whassup Vanessa? Hey aren’t you on patrol tonight? Field ops?

Boss wants me to fine trouble but mostly testing GPS trackers, field op software package and communications, Vanessa texted back. Talking with Fortunato on Bluetooth while I text ya in fact.

Is that a good idea?

For my safety or bc it’ll make him mad if he finds out?

Either/Or, Zoe responded.

Allow me me passive-aggressive outlets for dealing w the bastard & I won’t pester you about going to church weekly.

Agreed. Now let me hit one this guy.

Gotta run anyway. Looks like I found trouble, Vanessa texted, and then slipped the phone into a pocket of her costume. Far ahead, a group of people were gathered in a way that might not otherwise immediately be suspicious except that Fortunato had sent her to the worst part of the Hollows. Nothing much good ever happened in the streets of this part of New Judah at night.

She put a tiny pair of night-vision binoculars to her eyes and spied several weapons, though she couldn’t make out what was going on. If Fortunato’s contacts were reliable, there were no police operations going on right now around here, so it was likely a dirty deal.

“Base, this is Allison Wonderland,” she said with a syrupy tone into the Bluetooth device hugging her ear.

“I have been talking with you this entire time,” Fortunato responded icily. “You hardly need to announce yourself.”

“Yes, but you wanted to test equipment, policy, protocols and procedures,” she said smugly, “and I just ran into what is probably a drugs or arms deal. So I’m talking all official-like now. Do you want me in field mode mindset or not?”

“Fine. You have found a possible crime, Wonderland. Confirm that it is a crime. And then fight it.”

“Not so fast, Base,” she said. “I have no vested authority to intervene in a crime or to detain suspects. Citizen’s arrest rules probably don’t apply 100-percent to what I’m about to do. Vigilantism and obstruction of justice might, though.”

“New Judah is very tolerant of costumed crimefighters,” Fortunato responded. “Do not play games with me.”

“This is no game. I’ve already had the misfortune to be strong-armed into joining your team. Last thing I need is to be arrested for acting like a cop when I’m not one. The way my luck is going lately…”

“I almost have all of my pieces in place. Every member of the team, including yourself, will enjoy police-equivalent credentials soon. Local and state for everyone, and likely federal authority for select members within the next year or two.”

“Soon isn’t now, and a criminal record is forever.”

“Are you refusing to do your job as my employee?”

“No, I’m demanding a promise. And my iPhone has been on record mode this entire time, so it will be on the record,” Vanessa said stiffly.

“What are you demanding? And make it quick.”

“Simple,” she said. “You promise if I’m arrested for doing this, you will bail me out. You will hire me the best attorney money can buy. If I am found guilty of a crime, you will pay for counsel for me to fight for me through every last appeal I’m entitled to. You will pay any fines I am assessed. If I go to prison, you will continue to pay my salary for every day I’m there and put it into an account in my name so that I can have a life when I get out. That’s what I want.”

“Done and promised on all counts. You could have said all this before you left the building tonight,” he noted.

“I won’t expect anything from you ever again, or trust your word ever again, unless I have leverage over you, like I do now, because you want me to wade into a mess and test my powers and test your systems and throw weight around on your behalf. Leverage. Manipulation. That’s what you taught me matters when you left me no choice but to sign a contract to be on your team. That’s a lesson I won’t ever forget.”

“I am sorry to hear that is what you have taken as a lesson out of our earlier negotiations,” he said.

“I am, too. Sorry because I used to like working for you and sorry that you think what you did to me was a negotiation instead of flat-out extortion. Confirm that your systems have my position at roughly 500 Jervis Street.”

“GPS confirms,” Fortunato said. “We have your position and are tracking.”

“Are my vitals transmitting clearly?”


“Engaging targets; contact the authorities in two minutes,” Vanessa said, and fixed her mind on the task. Put aside Vanessa Santos and took on the role of Allison Wonderland. She strode forward, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, and pulled her firearm from the holster at the lower back of the glistening, aqua costume that, along with the blonde wig on her head, made her look something like an R-rated version of Alice from the Wonderland novels and movies.

When she was within about ten yards, Allison Wonderland sprinted from the shadows. Five men, and two of them noticed her right off. As they did, the other three pairs of eyes turned toward her. The two men who had spotted her first were raising their guns, and she forced down her panic.

Patience…patience…just a another moment or…

All of them were looking directly at her now, and she closed her eyes, letting loose with her Luminar powers to project a blindingly bright explosion of multicolored lights in front of her. She remembered the two men who had her in their sights and spun away from where she had been immediately, opening her eyes as she ceased her lightshow.

I wish Fortunato’s people would hurry up with the mask they promised to protect me from my own light shows without compromising my vision in dark places.

The three men who had been slowest to notice her were pulling their guns now, but seemed unable to get a fix on anything after being dazzled by Allison Wonderland’s powers. One of the two men who had been getting ready to shoot her from the start was too confused to fire; the other one sent three rounds blindly in the general direction of where she had been just a moment before.

Congratulations, Trigger-Happy Boy, you’ve just volunteered as the primary threat.

She aimed for his head, feeling a little twinge at the prospect. Her pistol was filled with rubber bullets for theoretically non-lethal effect, but she knew all too well from her combat education that when rubber bullets did lead to fatalities, it was often because of a headshot. “Shit,” she said softly under her breath, and fired two pepper rounds at his skull. The twin impacts were enough to stun him already, and now he was coughing and tearing up from the light haze of pepper mist released near his face.

Allison Wonderland knew that every second ticking by was one second closer to her opponents regaining their bearings, and her focus slipped a little with that sense of unease. The next two rounds struck one of the men in his ribs before a third struck his right temple. Her next four bullets all struck the torso of the man nearest him, and Allison hoped that was enough to keep him out of action as she fired on the fourth man, two shots catching him near the back of the head as she regained her focus.

She tried to target the fifth man, but he was gone. Four down, and one having found cover—and soon to regain his sight probably, too. Allison Wonderland wasted no time pulling a can of pepper spray out of her belt and quickly blasted each man on the ground in the face to ensure that they’d be useless in the short run even if they weren’t fully knocked out by the bullets, circling as she did, trying to reacquire the last man or, better yet, confirm that he had fled and was no longer part of the scenario.

“You’re a bitch!” he shouted from behind some nearby garbage cans. “But at least you dressed sexy. Gotta love a trans woman who’ll dress like a hottie from the comics. Last transhuman bitch I put down dressed like a member of a SWAT team with a mask fetish. Maybe you’ll still be breathing enough for me to show you a good time before I kill you.”

He fired twice from behind his cover and Allison Wonderland was desperately in search for cover herself as the bullets whizzed all too close to her head.

“Wonderland! Situation!” Fortunato barked over her Bluetooth.

“One target left. Armed and firing. Situation currently fucked up!” she shouted back at him.

“Police are being notified now,” he said. “Stay alive.”

Another bullet passed all too close to her as she headed for the recessed entrance to a local store that was, like all of them nearby, closed for the night. She paused just a moment to fire a shot in the direction of her last target, hoping to buy a few more seconds, and then felt the burning impact of a bullet in the center of her chest. She stumbled back and hit the brick wall of the nearby building, cursing herself silently.

I was just a few feet away from cover, she thought miserably. She heard the footsteps of her assailant and the smug “Hey hey hey” from his mouth. “Gotcha,” he said, “and now to get…”

He paused and she realized he had finally noticed something wrong with her chest.

No blood between the exposed cleft of her large breasts.

And I only have porn-star sized breasts because they’re actually part of my torso armor, she thought. Distracting eye candy and an irresistible target.

Before he could collect his thoughts, she attacked him with her Interfacer powers. There were too many people before to use those abilities, but one person was perfect. One person to feel a sudden sense of visual distortion and accompanying dizzy disorientation, plus hallucinations. Judging by the way he was suddenly batting at the air, Allison Wonderland was guessing something like bats or wasps in his case. Her chest hurt with the bruise forming underneath her chest armor, but she smiled all the same as she projected a spray of colored light into the man’s face with her Luminar powers to enhance the disorientation from her Interfacer powers. He still had a gun, though. She remembered the other man, who’d fired blindly, and she reminded herself that her head and limbs had no ballistic armor to protect them.

So, as the man swiped at things only he could see, while dazzled by a rainbow-hued cacophony that was all too real, Allison Wonderland calmly raised her gun.

Three pepper bullets left in her pistol’s magazine, she knew.

She unloaded every one of them, aiming right between his eyes.

As he slumped against a newspaper vending machine, Allison Wonderland found she cared a lot less now about whether one of those “less than lethal” bullets might result in a lethal outcome or whether one of them might have taken out an eye, and decided now was as good a time as any to practice her muay Thai skills as she landed a pair of roundhouse kicks to his head. He slumped flat to the ground, unmoving but still breathing.

“Status,” Fortunato barked.

“Alive,” Vanessa said with a faint groan, suddenly feeling a lot less Allison Wonderland-ish with the battle over. Even less so as she heard the first of the approaching sirens. “Hit in chest, but armor held up. Bruised but nothing broken, I’m pretty sure. Get me pickup six blocks east of current position. We’re done for tonight. And for all the nights until you have at least one other person in a costume to cover my ass.”

“Glad to hear that ‘can-do’ eager spirit,” Fortunato said, “because Loc-Down’s costume and gear will be ready tomorrow and Solstice’s by Thursday. This should be a fruitful week for you testing things out in the field.”

“Shit,” Vanessa swore softly.

“Yes. Do keep that in mind,” Fortunato drawled, “the next time you want to get a little insubordinate with me—otherwise, you would have been enjoying a few days of R&R instead.”

* * *

Isabella was shocked to walk into the apartment and find hot food waiting, and plates on the table—actual silverware, too. A candle burning in the center of the table and drinks out. This was just plain weird; Michele was even less domestic than she was.

“Did I walk in on the middle of a date?” Isabella asked, glancing toward the short hallway that led to the bedrooms and bathroom and then back at her stepsister and roommate, who was sitting on their small couch in the living room right next to their tiny kitchen and eating area, sipping at some red wine in an actual wine glass. She didn’t even know they had wine glasses. “Should I go…or call up a date of my own to share the feast?”

“You’re kinda the guest of honor,” Michele said, “as much as you don’t deserve it. But it’s a celebration, and I need someone to join me.”

“What are we celebrating that I’m not worthy of celebrating?” Isabelle shot back.

“Well, Izzie, we’re celebrating that it looks like I’ll have a high-paying new job with Fortunato,” Michele said, walking to the small table and sitting down before her empty plate.

“Well, we should be moving into a bigger place, then,” Isabella said as she joined Michele at the table.

“I will be,” Michele said. “Very soon.”

“Oh,” Isabella said, keeping her tone neutral, having picked up on the I instead of we.

Michele let her stepsister twist for a while as she served up food for both of them and poured a glass of wine for Isabella, refilling her own after downing the last of it.

“It’s going to be a great place,” Michele said. “And rent-free. I’ll even get comped at the restaurants in Fortunato’s building. Gonna be great for my retirement plan with all the money I can save.”

“Or blow on your nightclub lifestyle,” Isabella sneered.

“Yeah. Problem is, it’s a big place. Too big.”

“Yeah, big problem for you there,” Isabella said. “My heart bleeds for you.”

“I was just thinking that we tolerate each other well enough most days, Izzie. I’d feel a tiny bit guilty leaving you in the lurch with no roommate. And I dunno…Fortunato may be able to benefit from someone inside the motor vehicle department like you, for those times when he needs info on someone’s address. I dunno. Probably a bad idea…” Michele said, trailing off casually. Say “yes” you obnoxious twat, she thought. Don’t be a prideful bitch.

“I suppose you’ll charge me rent to live with you,” Isabella said.

“Of course,” Michele said. “I figure $200 a month should do it. That’ll cover the cigarettes you steal from me, the feminine hygiene products you steal from me, the booze you steal from me, the condoms you steal from me. And so on.”

“Hmmmm. I guess that’s a fair price,” Isabella answered, trying to hide her delight at the thought of her rent being cut by more than two-thirds. You just can’t comfortably say you love me in some heartwarming fashion any more than I can say it to you, can you?

“So, you in? I mean, it’s cool if you don’t want to. You can have your independence and all if you don’t.”

“Yeah, I could. But someone’s gotta keep you grounded and give you proper advice on how to navigate men and shit. Especially now that you’re juggling a billionaire man that you probably can’t trust.”

“Not like I can trust you, either,” Michele lied blandly, “but you’ve done right by me a few times.”

“Well, we’ve been stuck with each other this long,” Isabella said. “I suppose I can let you cramp my style a little longer. We’ll just take it day by day, right?”

“Right, Izzie,” Michele agreed, digging into her food quickly to mask her sigh of relief.

* * *

The trip to Florida had been the perfect thing to clear his mind. He’d been getting precious little personal time or real sleep trying to build his criminal empire in Newark, and a vacation had been in order. Not to mention that verbally abusing Janus and spreading around knowledge about how he had faced down the criminal kingpin had made it prudent to skip town for a while.

A couple weeks will have sufficed, I think, thought Paul Eisenhower, looking like any random middle-aged executive with two employees in tow—albeit employees with bigger muscles than most—as he entered the Newark Liberty International Airport terminal from his United flight in a three-piece suit, rather than sporting his gray bodysuit and a full-head mask that resembled a bone-white demonic visage with golden veins, small black eyes and small demonic faces all across the brow—the face he presented as Rancor. Janus has too much on his plate to think about me; shit, he probably doesn’t even know what’s going on in Newark. No one does—no one cares—that’s why I’m on the top of the criminal food chain here.

A position further solidified by being a man who’d turn down Janus boldly. Word was that Estaban was ready to link up with Rancor and put his drug and prostitution territories under the transhuman’s control. People feared and respected him more now, and so the world was good.

All gain for me, Rancor considered, and no real loss for Janus. Win-win.

After the luggage had been retrieved and they had reached his silver Cadillac CTS in the long-term parking lot, though, the winning feeling dulled a bit when one of his men clicked the button on his key fob to start and unlock the vehicle and nothing happened. No beeps. No flashing lights.

“Boss, hold up a bit,” he said, and nodded to the other man, who tried his own matching electronic fob and got the same result. “Boss, it might just be something wrong with the car, but let’s move back while Nick calls for someone to pick us up and someone to tow the car. Could be a bomb or something. Just gotta be careful.”

Rancor nodded, and they fell back about 20 yards. As Nick began to make a call, Rancor  heard footsteps, and turned quickly. His lead man had reacted the same, and they saw Underworld approach in full costume, wearing a black catsuit and an ornate crimson and gold domino-style mask. Her green-lipsticked lips curled into a smile. Her hands were empty, but Rancor saw his man’s hand push aside the suit coat and reach for his gun, before swearing quietly.

The guns are in the car, because we just got off a flight, Rancor remembered. I should have had some guys meet us here; seems my identity isn’t as secret outside of my costume as I thought.

But Underworld wasn’t armed right now, and Rancor took comfort in that, even as he began to second-guess his decision to be so bold with Janus before.

“I distinctly remember a non-disclosure demand when you were invited to join up with us,” Underworld said.

“Well,” Rancor noted, “it wasn’t exactly a contract, was it? And the demand came along with the invitation, so it wasn’t as if I was given any chance to even not know what you were up to. If I chose to share…”

“If you had only spilled the beans about us forming a team, Rancor, I might not be so irritated,” she interrupted. “And insulting Janus? I normally couldn’t care less. But then there’s both together, plus you’ve been disparaging our entire operation and puffing yourself up as some tough guy who’s too good for us, and that means you’re fucking with my reputation and my business, too.”

“So, what do we do about that?” Rancor asked, considering his options and deciding that launching a Psi attack and kicking in his Primal powers for a fight was a bad idea—to directly assault her would be to declare war against Janus’ entire operation. “You’re clearly delivering a warning, and I don’t really want beef with you. How do we make things right?”

“Who says I’m delivering a warning?” Underworld responded.

“So this is just a social call, and my Caddy just happens to be non-functional as a coincidence?” Rancor said dubiously. “You happened to be Newark and thought you’d stop by to meet me at the airport?”

“No, Rancor. I hate most urban parts of New Jersey, to be honest, and I think Newark is an armpit,” she said. “But I’m not here to deliver a warning or obtain compensation for your insult. I’m here to send a message.”

With that, everything suddenly went black. Rancor and his men found themselves plunged into total darkness. Rancor tried to reach out with his fear-inducing powers, but couldn’t get a lock on Underworld. He couldn’t see her, and she must not be where she had been before. Not that he was surprised by that, considering that among her many powers, she was a Speedster. He tried to remember if she could see in her own darkness, and realized he wasn’t sure if anyone knew the answer to that.

But he did know that the size of the area she could rob of light was limited, and he began to back up, trying to remember where the other cars in the parking lot were around him, bumping into a few as he moved.

He still hadn’t found the light. Rancor was pretty sure the effect of her darkness was less than a 50-foot radius around her and now, as he ventured blindly into unknown territory in the parking lot, unsure of where he was now and increasingly running into things, he knew he must have gone that far or farther by now.

Oh, God, she’s staying with me. She’s pacing me and making sure she stays close enough to keep me in darkness.

He continued to reach out, trying to grab her mind with his and fill her with fear. That was his only hope. But his Psionic powers didn’t work well for seeking out a mind and he generally needed to know where the person was to make a link. He thought about activating his Primal powers to enter his rage state, but he could only keep that up for a limited time, and he would need that ability badly if he got into an actual fight with her.

Maybe this is the message, he thought. Maybe this won’t get violent. She wants me to know just how outclassed I am. Wants to put me in my place and make me wet myself. Well, I may not actually buy into the idea that I’m outclassed, but she definitely got the drop on me this time. We can still work this…

“Boo!” Underworld shouted from nearby, and suddenly Rancor’s world was filled with bright sunlight again. The suddenness dazzled his eyes and cause him to stumble as he ran his left shin into the front bumper of a beat-up Ford Tempo. Her hands were on him and he reached out to her mind, but his focus was shot—fear and momentary blindness. It only got worse as she lifted him up—she hadn’t really grabbed him; it was like he was glued to her palms and when he was over her head, she slammed him down on the roof of a car, knocking the wind out of him.

Whatever slight hold he had gained on her mind was snuffed out.

She kept hold of him with her contact telekinesis and slammed him into the side of a neighboring vehicle even as she produced a dome of darkness around her again to keep his associates from trying to take her down or save Rancor. Slammed him onto the hood of the first car and then into the pavement of the parking lot.

Over and over, until she could feel him literally breaking underneath the assault. The prolonged use of her telekinetic power was taxing, but she kept smashing him into the ground and the vehicles around her until she was relatively sure his rib cage and skull were thoroughly shattered, and then flung him away as she lifted the darkness again.

She looked at his broken body on the ground several yards away, and saw him breathing raggedly. Whether he would survive was the question now, though she doubted he would. If he did, he’d be in no position to run anything or exact any revenge. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t crippled.

But death seemed more likely, and while she wasn’t much for murder most days, Underworld wasn’t about to let anyone casually mess with an operation she was half in charge of. People needed a reminder that she could be a threat when she wanted to be, and that she was no pushover.

Underworld looked at one of Rancor’s well-dressed goons and then the other. Neither was making a move on her.

“The message, in case it isn’t clear,” she said loudly, “is for both of you to deliver. To Rancor’s former crew and any other low-life assholes you associate with. Spread the word that this is what happens,” she added, pointing to Rancor’s still body, “when you insult Janus or me or try to act like you’re tougher than us. Make sure you talk about this a lot, gentlemen, or I’ll be visiting you like I did Rancor, and someone else will be delivering the message instead of you—after they attend your funerals.”

She looked at each man in turn again.

“Was I not clear enough?” she said with venom in her tone, and both men fled.

Underworld’s phone started ringing and she pulled in from the pouch at her waist.

“Since I’m not allowed to track you anymore, would you mind telling me where you are?” Janus asked.

Such perfect timing, Underworld thought, that I’m suspicious he’s still got trackers on me or someone watching me. But I’ll chalk this up to coincidental timing and a gut feeling on his part. No need to get too paranoid or I’ll be jumping at all the shadows.

“Just running an errand in Newark,” she said, pulling a small set of night-vision goggles down from her face to drape from her like necklace.

“Oh,” he said, understanding immediately. “I assumed you would send someone else to do that.”

“Some things require a personal touch,” she said, looking at Rancor’s body. If he was breathing now, it was too shallow to notice, and it was certainly time for her to move on before any authorities or potential witnesses arrived. “Some things, in fact, require a woman’s touch.”

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Chimney Sweeps

Posted: 22nd December 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Single-run ("One off") Stories

I recommend that you review all or most of the previous stories involving Doctor Holiday (if you haven’t read them or don’t recall them well…they are easily found on this page), as it might make certain visuals and situations a bit more…intense…as well as make more sense as you read this tale. Oh, and this is a Christmas tale, but there is nothing at all festive about it. This is more like a horror story. Just thought you should know.

The trail stretched gray and dusty, entwined with streamers of glistening, moist crimson, from the fireplace to the tree.

The bag was wet and thumped across the honeyed toned of the hardwood floor with dull, squishing little thuds. But there was no one to witness the tainted, winding path being laid from one end of the living room to the other. No one whose hair could stand on end at the eerie sound. No one to call out a warning or utter a horrified scream.

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse—all were tucked away snug and warm, some dreaming of Christmas morning, one dreaming of a trip to Mexico and another dreaming of a rendezvous with someone other than his wife. Muted snoring and gentle, sleepy purrs shielded them from the sounds of a damp, lumpy cargo and the shadowy form dragging it, then leaving it near the tree.

And then the gnarled and gangly shape moved through shadows down a hall and around a corner, seeking. Seeking a door. Seeking a treasure.

The small form stirred for a moment. Then turned sleepily as colorful light played across his pajamas and then his face. He rolled over sleepily, some part of his mind expecting Santa to be there. His half-lidded, sleep-dulled gaze took in the digital display with Rudolph’s smiling face and glowing nose. He blinked. He saw the shape wearing that display across its chest. Went rigid as a wide palm and long, stick-like fingers enshrouded his head. Tried to scream against the hot, papery skin that was becoming horrifyingly damper and softer, and felt only muffled groans vibrate back against his mouth.

Lifted from his bed like a ragdoll, shaking and pummeling to get free. Exhausting himself as he was held aloft by his head, until his efforts began to weaken and his attempts to cry out grew less vigorous.

And then, with an almost bored-seeming flick, the large hand on the bony wrist jerked violently, snapping the child’s neck. Turning out the light on the innocent life. Dragging the small corpse by its head, making soft bumping and sliding sounds.

Taking the mutilated form out of the sack and replacing it with this new find. Less bloody, more intact, but equally dead.

The visitor took a large gift from beneath the tree, carefully unwrapped part of it, and removed the huge collection of LEGO construction kits from the box that had lain beneath the bright, foil wrap. In went the bloody and dead child, and then the wrapping was carefully put back into place.

A child given to replace the child taken. Equal exchange. Egalitarian in his gruesome sweep through the small New England city blanketed in snow and slumbering in the dark between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

He shook the sack in his hand and admired the heft of it. Grinned a glistening, sharp-toothed smile. Waved at the home he had just exited as he dropped from the roof to the front yard. Then walked into the street.

And on to the next house.

His sixth of the night.

* * *

Sugar plums didn’t dance in her head. Nor fairies, nor toy-making elves, nor nutcracker soldiers nor decorations in the yard nor lights on the tree.

Lydia awoke knowing someone was in the house, but not knowing how.

Santa? she thought in the wisdom of a seven-year-old whose belief in a jolly old elf hadn’t yet been broken.

She stole quietly out of her room on the first floor, more to avoid startling Santa Claus than awakening her parents. They always drank their sour-smelling drinks to excess on Christmas Eve before retiring to their room on the second floor—as they did on any night that could be painted as a holiday celebration or something similar—and would be nearly impossible to wake until at least 10 a.m. Christmas morning. It was a lesson she had learned well since she was old enough to talk and get her own breakfast cereal.

When she got to the living room, she saw no one, and frowned.

I was sure that…

A scratching sound caught Lydia’s attention.

The fireplace.

The chimney.

“Damn,” she heard quietly but fiercely from that dark and ashy place.

Santa swears? she thought, and decided she shouldn’t be surprised. Grown people, even the nicest ones, did things she never imagined they would, like when she saw her teacher Miss Quimby outside the local Walmart smoking a few months ago.

She ran quickly to the kitchen to retrieve a flashlight, telling herself she wanted to make sure Santa could see what he was doing, since it sounded like he might be stuck, but really just wanting to see his face, even if he might be a little annoyed at the moment navigating their century-old chimney.

She heard another swear word as she approached and clicked on the flashlight. She scooted into the fireplace, which had no logs or ashes in it and hadn’t since she was five, and let the bright beam play up into the chimney.

And she saw him.

Not Santa. Not Santa Claus at all, she realized, and her stomach curled back into itself.

What was in the chimney looked like someone had sculpted a near-clone of The Grinch from raw hamburger meat, took away the pot belly and replaced it with a narrow-waisted, almost conical torso, and gave him broad hands with long, thin claws along with a mouthful of needle-like teeth.

He was struggling to get down, with some electronic display attached to his chest blinking out the lighted words Merry Christmas! even as the ends of the display’s casing were lodged against the sides of the chimney.

The Not-Santa smiled wickedly as he saw her, and redoubled his efforts to extricate himself. A bit of drool fell from his teeth onto her face and she shrieked briefly and loudly as she scuttled out from the chimney. As she heard the thing inside cry out, “Yes!” and finally drop into the fireplace and emerge into the living room.

The body was tall but lean—almost emaciated-looking but sinuously flexible and bearing muscles so wiry and tight that Lydia had no doubt he was far stronger than she. Perfectly shaped to get up and down chimneys and kill children.


Lydia knew not why or how, but she was certain the bag in the left hand of the creature with the moist, pitted, red-and-gray flesh contained the crushed corpse of a child even younger than her. Knew that her own body would replace the other one in that sack and that broken child would be left here in her place.

A pointy-eared head shaped like an elongated, fleshy egg turned toward her. Smiled a needle smile. Winked at her with one broad, almond-shaped brown eye.

“A Christmas sweeeeeet,” the thing cooed to her. “I want to plaaaaaay with yooooooou.”

When Lydia scuttled backward some more, hoping to get to her feet and flee, her back slammed up against a wall, and the Not-Santa lunged forward, looming over her with its raw-meat nakedness, the digital display illuminating them both in gangrene greens and bloody reds. What made it all the worse was the thing smelled sweet like candy, despite looking like rotting flesh.

One long-fingered scarlet hand reached out, with sharp gray nails twitching, and Lydia screamed.


There had been no words, which surprised her all the more. And the thing reeled backwards.


The Not-Santa shook at if having a fit, then stopped and fixed its gaze on her. The smile turned to a snarl and, for some reason, that made Lydia feel safer.

In my head. She’s in my head. How is she…

The thing that most people called Doctor Holiday when they saw him but which Lydia had no name for except Not-Santa paused and then shook with rage. His Morph powers made his body swell outward and turn a grayer color before he reverted to the form in which he had entered the home.

Here to learn a lesson and teach the others. Intolerable! I only want to play! Not learn!

He still didn’t realize what the girl was doing exactly, but some part of him knew one of his own powers, aside from the morphing ability, was telepathy. As was her own as yet unexplored ability. And he knew with a certainty that they could only do this because they both had telepathy. A tool apparently hidden and useless except in the presence of someone with the same talent.

A test! A test! I’ve been let out just to test a theory! Damn you all! the Doctor Holiday thing screamed at the other Doctor Holidays in his mind. I won’t serve you. I’m here to play. To have fun. To take all the little children in their homes and leave gifts for the parents!

He turned toward the girl again. “Plaaaaaaaaay,” he hissed.


He reeled again, but not with the mental onslaught from her. She had surprised him before but he was stronger. Older, more wily and able to push through pain. He could have fought her mental cries now. But now the voices inside his head echoed hers.

“No! Leave her be. Go away! Leave her alone!”

The litany went on and one, hundreds of echoes assaulting him. Even most of the evil-minded or criminally inclined personalities in their shared mental space were revolted by his actions. A few small voices cheered him on and some others were silent, but the vast majority chided and rebuffed him. Commanded him to leave.

It’s my body tonight! Mine! I control it. I do as I will. You can’t tell me!

But he couldn’t shut them out. The girl. The fucking girl! She was goading them. Stirring them up. Amplifying their voices.

I’m still a test subject. They knew. Someone in there knew, at least, he thought savagely and then had a fleeting image of someone inside. Lost it, and silently raged. I won’t be a test! I will bathe in this girl’s blood. I will peel away her skin! I will pull bones from her arms and legs while she still lives and suck the flesh from them. Suck the marrow from inside! I will not…

The screams inside his head redoubled. The girl before him had her eyes shut tight but he knew she could see inside his head. She was looking at everyone inside him. Pleading. Asking for help. And they were—and it infuriated him.

Ready to strike her down, he dropped the sack onto the floor instead and then doubled over, gripping his oblong head in lumpy red palms and then snarling at the girl once. Twice. Spitting at her and then finally turning frantically, trying to find a way out. A way to shut off the voices in head. Escape.

The fireplace had hindered him before. The door seemed too complicated. He ran, and tumbled through a window, shattering glass awaking a dog next door to bark wildly, while Lydia’s parents snored on.

Outside, the Not-Santa Doctor Holiday fled, hundreds of himselves inside him warning and threatening and telling him his night was over. He wailed to the sky now slowly growing into a gray-blue shade. Saw the first hints of light over the horizon. Felt his control on the body slip away. Saw the psychic face of the one he had almost remembered before and then lost his grip on.


I will kill you for making me a guinea pig. I will kill you for letting them all deny me. I will rage inside our shared mind and slaughter all of you!

A few minutes later, the body began to change. Back to a brown-haired, bearded man. Tall and muscular. Walking through the snow in bare feet, heedless of the cold, the digital display slapping coldly against his bare chest as it declared the number of days until New Year’s. As he walked toward their stash of clothing left behind when Not-Santa was given rein. Toward the bandages that would soon obscure his face again. Toward the next holiday and the next liberation of a mind inside the mind. Doctor Holiday looked back once toward Lydia’s house. Disinterested, but drawn to her silent voice, still echoing inside his head. Then broke the connection and walked away.

While she shivered in fear at first, then relief, and later cold.

Until she shakily got herself to her parents’ room after an hour of soft weeping in the living room, and squeezed between them, eliciting barely a grunt from either of them. Settling between them in the hopes that even in their post-drunken slumber, they could protect her as parents should, from things that go bump in the night.

Even the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

The Gathering Storm, Part 36

Posted: 1st December 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series

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The thought of a conflict tonight had already filled Epitaph with mixed emotions, and even more so now that he was hearing the sounds of violence nearby. He was still mulling over what Query had asked of him this afternoon, unsure if he wanted to be the man’s eyes and ears in a new place, but suspecting it was probably for the best. The Guardian Corps would get along fine if he ratcheted down his patrol time with them, and Query would no doubt find someone else to report back to him on the happenings within that organization.

But it was still a lot to think about. He just wasn’t sure his head was in the game tonight.

Or maybe a conflict is just what I need to clear my mind, he thought, shifting gears and dashing toward the Epitaph-facesounds of trouble, the broken tombstone slapping slightly against the torso portion of his short-sleeved gray bodysuit—the top half over his chest and the bottom half over his back, attached by chains and forming a grotesque sort of vest. Yes, I think a good fight with a bad person will clear my mind nicely.

His thoughts were always clear like this, and never muddled by quotes of death or remembrance—at least not until he opened his mouth to voice those thoughts. He wondered if there would ever again be a day like when he was younger, when he could speak out loud without using lines from movies and novels, quotes from philosophers or some other person’s notable words.

At least Query almost always understands what I mean when I talk. If there was no other reason to be the man’s friend, that would be one that made it worth it.

The trouble turned out to be in a nearby parking lot. Mostly out of sight in an empty pair of spaces between a van and an SUV, one man was beating another with a baseball bat. A knife lay on the ground, as did a gun, and the victim—probably the owner of both—looked as much like a street tough as his attacker did.

Gang activity, most likely, or a fight over a woman, drugs or money, Epitaph guessed. Probably no innocent to save tonight, but there’s still no reason to let the guy on the ground get killed.

Epitaph cleared his throat loudly.

The man with the bat stopped, startled, and turned toward him. His eyes were almost glittering in their sharpness and intensity. A bit of spittle hovered at the corner of the man’s mouth. He seemed entirely undaunted by the sight of the transhuman mere yards away, even though it was pretty well known that Epitaph was about as close to bulletproof as a person could be, and even less vulnerable to something like a blunt weapon.

Damn. The guy’s probably hyped up on skeez, Epitaph realized as he took in his appearance and demeanor. He’s in full psychotic mode and isn’t going to have a rational thought in his head.

Apparently, though, the man still had enough clarity to know what he was up against and picked up the gun on the ground.

Probably thinks a point-blank shot at my head will do me in. It could—maybe—or possibly stun me, but we’re not going to get to that point, I hope.

Epitaph held up one hand, index finger extended upward, and shook it slowly back and forth, in rhythm with his shaking head, to dissuade the imminent attack.

“It’s going to make me so happy to be the guy who kills you,” the drug-addled man said in a voice that merged a manic whine with a growl, heedless to the warning. “I’m gonna be so happy to have the rep of being the guy who wasted Epitaph.”

“Nothing is more fatal to happiness than the remembrance of happiness,” Epitaph said.

The man said nothing in response, simply lunging forward, swinging the bat with one hand as the other gripped the pistol, waiting for an opportunity to use a bullet up close—or all of them.

The bat connected with the ubiquitous telekinetic field pushing out from all around Epitaph’s body, and the impact force vibrated down the attacker’s arm, causing the grip to loosen on the bat for a moment, though he didn’t drop it. Epitaph corrected that by grabbing it with his left hand and wresting it from the punk with his genetically enhanced strength. Even as the attacker’s other hand came around with the pistol, Epitaph quickly took hold of the man’s wrist and snapped it easily.

Too easily, in fact, Epitaph observed silently as the gun clattered to the pavement, seeing a wrist bone poking out of the man’s arm. Too much force. The downside of being a Brute is knowing your own strength but not always being able to moderate it well.

“Some men are alive simply because it is against the law to kill them,” Epitaph said, hoping once again to appeal to man’s common sense, if it could be reached beneath the skeez.

But the still-sharp effects of the drug made the man as heedless of his pain and injury—and the warning—as he had been to Epitaph’s earlier attempt to prevent the fight from starting. Depending on when he’d loaded up, he might be this way for just a few more minutes or another 15, Epitaph realized. That was the trap with skeez—they said the high you experienced inside your head was the best you could ever have with any drug, but it lasted only a half hour, give or take. And during that time, as your usual consciousness went deep inside to frolic, the rest of your brain turned sociopathic and took your body for a ride you’d barely remember or not at all, though the memory of the high would haunt and tempt you forever.

He’s going to come after me again, compound fracture in his wrist or not, Epitaph considered. Sometimes they have just enough reason to know when to give up out of self-preservation, even on skeez, but not this one.

So when the man lunged at Epitaph, the costumed hero tossed aside any pretense of finesse. He punch him fast and hard in the face and watched as the man went limp as a ragdoll.

Jesus, I hope I didn’t break his neck. Just like I feared, I’m a little off tonight. Maybe I should pack in the patrolling early.

Epitaph watched for a few moments, and when the unconscious man’s chest rose and fell in a more or less normal rhythm and his neck and one arm twitched a bit from the effects of the skeez, he sighed. Not dead. Not paralyzed. The nose was smashed, though. Maybe a concussion.

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom,” he said to the now-prone attacker, and hoped that was true. Hoped that some part of the skeez-huffer would remember the consequences of having taken the drug and who he’d tried to face off against tonight under its influence. If nothing else, the bone poking through his wrist might inform him of the folly of taking skeez.

Better to go for heroin or meth—at least the chances are lower you’ll kill someone or be killed while under the influence.

Epitaph sent a quick text message to a contact at the nearest police precinct about the unconscious criminal, then hefted the man’s injured victim over one shoulder to carry him to an emergency room just blocks away, leaving the skeez-huffer on the ground.

Remembrance would be good, Epitaph thought as he spared the thug one last glance. Remembrance of how close you might have been to death tonight.

“We all have our time machines. Some take us back—they’re called memories. Some take us forward—they’re called dreams,” Epitaph said out loud, and headed for the nearest hospital, hoping that one or both of these injured men tonight still had dreams left in them.

* * *

Janus calmly and silently surveyed the 23 transhumans standing or sitting before him and his entourage of five women—Crazy Jane, the Fates and Underworld. He smiled broadly, because the mask he wore today, crocodile skin on one side and mink fur on the other, revealed nothing but his mouth and chin. And he so wanted these people to feel welcome.

“If you are here in this warehouse, you are on my metaphorical ‘A-list’,” the crimelord said. “The first thing you need to realize is that we will never meet here again. We will never all meet in the same place again. And we will never have a single, consistent, central location at which to meet.”

“Isn’t the lack of a headquarters going to make us less able to work efficiently and stay in contact?” asked Red Alice, one of the nearly two-dozen assembled members of Janus and Underworld’s fledgling team.

“Oh, there is a headquarters,” Janus told her, his eyes scanning back and forth across the rest of the gathering to make sure he had the attention of all of them. “But none of you will need to know where it is, and Underworld and I will ensure there is always someplace safe for you to gather when you need to.”

Red Alice opened her mouth to speak again, and Janus lifted a finger to his lips in a shushing gesture.

“The second thing you all need to know,” Janus continued, “is that I have also hired—and will hire more in the future—other transhumans who would be decidedly B- or even C-list, metaphorically speaking. They don’t need to be here today because they aren’t as important to me. When you are teamed up with them, you are not to treat them in any way that suggests they are second-stringers. Part of this is for your own survival, as some of the people I have hired are specialists and are every bit your equals or superiors, and some of them may kill you at such an offense. The other reason is because I want even the most inept and expendable people to believe they matter, and if you take away their motivation by letting them know they aren’t every bit as important to me as you all are, I may kill you as both a punishment to you and a lesson to the others. If you think you might represent me in anything other than a professional manner, you would be better to never work for me at all and leave now.”

He paused to let that sink in, and looked from one set of eyes to another, satisfied that no one was yet dissuaded.

“The reason that all of you—my top, key people—are here today is so that you can see first-hand with whom you will be working. So that you can know now who your teammates are and which people you will most regularly be working with. You will all receive modest but significant stipends for being on-call as a member of our team,” he said, glancing toward Underworld to remind them they had two bosses.

“Does this team have a name?” Red Alice queried.

“No, my dear, and I’m not sure it needs one,” Janus said. “But if it gets one, you’ll find out in the company newsletter. Now, you also all will receive additional fees and/or percentages of takes for the jobs that you undertake, which should line your pockets quite nicely and consistently. That said, you are welcome to continue your solo work when you aren’t on our clock if you have the energy or desire to, so long as you don’t interfere with our operations or embarrass us.”

“What would be something that would embarrass you, sir?” Red Alice blurted out.

“Oh, getting caught and saying you work for me. Horning in on someone’s territory for your own gain and saying that you’re doing so under our orders. Bragging to anyone that you’re on our payroll, even though people will figure that out eventually on their own. You get the idea, my dear, I am sure,” Janus said. “Now, all of that said, I have a rather large, special job right now for which I need 13 of you—Alabaster, Red Alice, Laugh Riot, Minotaur, Mindfuck…uh, Sister Penance, Fatal Natal, Lady Ronin, Medusa, Odium, Thanksgiving and, um, oh yes: Menthol and Urban Decay. Those individuals need to stay here; the rest of you go with Crazy Jane to a nearby building where she will finish up the orientation, get you some paperwork to fill out, as well as pay you your first stipend for your time here today. Thank you all.”

He waited as the 13 people he had indicated remained, those who were standing up until now finally sitting, with the exception of Odium, who had been as rigid as a statue the entire time and remained so—and watched as the other 10 filed out with Crazy Jane.

When they were gone, Janus pulled up a chair, sat on it and leaned forward toward the baker’s dozen of villains.

“Now, let’s get real and let’s get honest,” he said to them quietly but clearly. “The A-list isn’t metaphorical; it’s very real. All of you are my A-list. The others you just met are the B-list. They are important, let there be no doubt. But they aren’t the top picks. You are, as are a few others whom you will only meet occasionally or in some cases perhaps never at all: Muerta, Tooth Fairy, Caterwaul, Dr. Blood and Steampunk. Everyone else you work with, unless I tell you otherwise, is C-list. Cannon-fodder. Tools.”

Janus paused and took a deep breath. “However, if any of you tell any of the others they are B-list or C-list, I will kill you personally,” he said, brushing away a piece of lint from his taupe linen suit. “Of that have no doubt. You can revel privately in your privileged status. Which, by the way, will include access to our several safe-houses, which will serve as your homes for at least several days each week. They are very well-appointed, and each has a room specially furnished for you according to your needs and wants. These are where you will bunk when on duty for us. After today, you will never all be together at the same place at the same time.”

“Won’t that be disruptive and confusing to always be moving around like—” Red Alice began, her words cut off as Loveless, chief among The Fates, fired a bullet into her chest at a subtle signal from Janus. Loveless’ shiny black vinyl-clad arm lowered again to her side, the pistol resting against a thigh just as dark and glistening.

Red Alice stumbled backward in her costume that hinted at both Alice of the Wonderland stories and the image of a Goth party-girl. The blood was barely noticeable against the blood-red sheen of her PVC corset, though it became more noticeable as it ran down into her billowy skirt of red, green and white, before virtually disappearing again into her black stockings and heavy black boots.

She kept her footing at first, and her body shrunk to about three-quarters of her normal size as she activated her special Morph power, no doubt hoping the increased density of her body might protect her from further attack. She picked up a large metal pipe nearby with her Brute strength, clearly thinking there was a fight here she might still be able to win. Janus said nothing and did nothing. He knew that Loveless’ aim was true, and after several moments, Red Alice simply toppled to the ground, one of her lungs collapsing and filling with blood. Her breath coming in ragged gasps. The pipe continued to clatter loudly against the cement floor for several seconds.

When finally she was almost quiet and almost dead, Janus spoke again. “I don’t like to be interrupted, certainly not in the frequent fashion young Red Alice has been doing. I also don’t like to have my very basic orders and directives questioned. I appreciate trust, loyalty and discretion. If any of you cannot provide that, you can leave now before another one of you ends up with a bullet for a final souvenir.”

No one stood. No one left. Every single one of the dozen remaining simply turned away from Red Alice and tuned out her final gasps. Janus took note of the body language of Medusa and Alabaster, who seemed to most disturbed by what had happened, Medusa in particular.

No surprise there; they are the two I knew would be most averse to “senseless” violence, but there are plenty of jobs that won’t push their envelopes, Janus thought. At least not too much.

“Good,” Janus said. “Now, as I said, you will have access to many of our facilities in a way that no B-list person will unless he or she rises through the ranks, and which one on the C-list will likely never access. However, as much as I trust you all and have faith in you, none of you will ever know where our central headquarters is located, and if you try to locate it, you will only find your final resting place.”

* * *

When Isabella entered the apartment she shared with her stepsister, Michele was staring at a wall across the room as if in shock.

It was such an unusual look for the Goth woman who dressed as Solstice to fight crime that Isabella was actually a little frightened. Not of her roommate but for her, though she didn’t think she’d ever say such a thing out loud for fear of ruining her bitchy reputation.

She did ease cautiously into the living room, though, and said, slowly and softly, “Michele? You OK? Did I finally push you over the edge stealing another pack of your cigs?” she joked, and knew it came out lamely. That embarrassed her, if only because it might give Michele a hint of how much her stepsister truly cared about her and her well-being.

“Oh,” Michele said absently, brushing her short black hair away from the light golden-toned skin of her face. “Sorry. Didn’t hear you come in.”

“Are…you…OK?” Isabella repeated.

“Yeah. I guess,” Michele answered. “I got a message from Fortunato. Y’know…the billionaire former superhero? He wants to meet with me—as Solstice. Says he has an offer I probably shouldn’t refuse. Seemed very nice about it. But it’s weird.”

“I guess. Sounds different. Don’t freak, Michele.”

“I’m trying not to, Izzie; I really am,” Michele said, and a little tear trickled from one eye. That weirded out Isabella more than anything else so far—she couldn’t remember the last time Michele had cried in front of her to any extent. “But he called our home phone number. I have a secret identity, Izzie. How the fuck does Fortunato even know who I am? And why does he care? So much happening lately; too much. Such heavy-duty shit.”

Isabella decided this probably wasn’t a good time to tell her that Query had been in their apartment recently and probably knew more about her than she thought he did—probably more than Fortunato. That he and Isabella had chatted in detail about Michele. Even pulled a little prank of sorts on her.

In fact, maybe never would be about soon enough to tell her all that.

* * *

“So, I hope you all enjoyed the tour of this safe-house-slash-satellite-facility,” Underworld said to the members of the A-list as they came to a halt near the doors where they had first entered 40 minutes earlier. “This is just one such building, but all of them are very similar. Very nice accommodations and amenities, complete with a chef to make sure you eat well. Of course,” she added, “Janus would have me conducting this part of your orientation, because it’s too ‘girly’ for him, I guess. Rest assured, though, that while I’m not as murder-prone as he is, I won’t hesitate to fuck one of you up if you break our trust or ignore the rules of being on this team.”

“I do hope you appreciate the effort we’ve put into outfitting your rooms and facilities,” Janus interjected. “And, while none of you will ever see the inside of the HQ where Underworld, myself and our closest associates work, you will from time to time be able to access the skills of our staff there, who are mostly norm humans, for things like data gathering, sometimes even for your solo, free-time endeavors.”

“That pretty much brings us to the end of things,” Underworld said, taking charge again. “We’ll be in touch with your schedules, as well as locations of two safe-houses that you will all alternate between at first—this one is more of a backup and model site. We have other safe-houses as well, but they will only be brought into play if one of you is captured. If you are, do not even think of revealing the location of any safe-house. Yes, we will be paranoid enough to put the ones you know about on the ‘don’t use’ list for quite some time and move everyone to other locations for further missions, but if you are captured and one of our safe-houses you knew about is raided, rest assured you will die in custody or in whatever facility you are serving your reduced prison term for revealing our secrets.”

“I certainly don’t want to end up shot like Red Alice, so I don’t want to seem impertinent, but may I ask a couple questions?” Odium said respectfully, though the tone of his voice suggested he did so with great effort.

“Certainly,” Underworld said. “Red Alice was focusing on minutiae and asking questions at the wrong time. She was being disruptive and headstrong rather than smart and assertive. That’s why she’s dead. This is the time for questions.”

“First, while I would like to think I won’t get captured, and while I would like to hope the authorities who might won’t have access to any really good transhuman interrogators, what if we are confronted with someone who has Primal or Psi abilities to soften up our ability to lie or withhold information? I’d certainly hate to die in custody for something I fought hard not to give up.”

“Our eyes and ears are far-reaching, Odium,” Underworld said, though her gaze travelled around the entire group before she spoke again to him directly. “We’ll likely know if they cheat. Such things have actually been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but you never know. We’ll also try to head off such things happening as well as give you a few tips and tricks to fend off such powers a bit. Now, you saying ‘first’ suggests there’s a part two…”

Odium cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t argue that your safe-houses are way classier than the term would suggest. But I’m willing to bet your main headquarters is even way more plush and well-appointed. Mind telling us why a bunch of norms get access to it but not your A-list? Not that I’m prejudiced or anything, but they aren’t in the same class as we are. We’re the future. Humanity 2.0.”

In an almost perfect mimicry of Odium, Janus cleared his own throat and stepped forward to stand next to Underworld. “I’ll take that one, Underworld,” he said. “The norms I employ, many of them talented tech geeks and high-end scientific specialists, hardly ever get to leave the headquarters unless in small, heavily supervised groups. They are each fitted with several tracking devices, at least one of them buried deep in the body. As this all happens while they’re sedated and we poke them in several places just because, they don’t even know where the devices are, and by the time a medical professional were able to X-ray them to find them, we’d know where to find the wayward employee.”

“Not to mention,” Underworld added, “that some of them have micro-ordinances implanted in their skulls so we can detonate their brains via remote control. They can’t raise families or have outside relationships for the dozen years they are in our service. They barely get outside, and while they have a lot of free dining and entertainment luxuries, they sleep in cramped dorms. If you want to undergo the indignities that go with the perks, you are welcome to bunk at the central headquarters.”

“I’ll pass, thanks,” Odium said. “I got nothing else to ask.”

Several others had minor questions, and Underworld fielded them all, finally sending the transhumans their separate ways some 20 minutes later. Once she and Janus were alone—or as alone as they could be, with The Fates doing their silent, imposing bodyguard routine behind him, she said, “So, Red Alice…”


“You did say I’d understand why you placed her on the A-list soon enough,” Underworld noted.

“I did indeed.”

“For no other reason than to serve as an example of what you’re capable of when you’re displeased. You wasted a human life—a transhuman life that might have been good B-list material if nothing else—to grandstand in front of the new recruits.”

“So what?” Janus challenged her.

“Aside from my usual solidarity with women, at least at a casual level until they prove they don’t deserve it, I think it was excessive and unnecessary. I don’t like murder just for effect, Janus. I’ve made a point of keeping my crimes as death-free as possible and as high-brow as I can.”

“Well, you didn’t kill her,” Janus noted. “I ordered it, and Loveless carried out the act. Your hands are still clean.”

“Not insofar as I am your more-or-less equal associate,” she retorted. “No matter how sociopathic you are, I won’t condone or accept constant slaughter. You were already pushing it with that IT guy you made such a public and fatal example of in the HQ not that long ago. And you killed a couple of your higher-up norm supervisors over the failure to snatch Zoe and the resulting coup of Query finding your team in the woods and the safe-houses there—also questionable. This murder, though, was way over the line.”

“I consider it special circumstances. I assure you this isn’t some casual habit I’m going to indulge often.”

“See that you don’t,” she said flatly, unconcerned whether he would consider it a threat or how he might respond—though with the blind loyalty and protective nature of The Fates, she fully admitted to herself that it made her stomach clench coldly to turn her back on those three usually silent and sometimes deadly women.

Especially Loveless.

* * *

Sarah was nervous as Peter entered her penthouse lair—what had once been the home of Mister Master. The place in which she had been imprisoned and violated over and over. Now the place she called her own home and which Peter had come to share with her roughly half the nights of the week.

She smiled nervously as they chatted about their respective evenings. They had patrolled separately tonight, as she had been too long out of her Ladykiller mode. She had put on that persona tonight, seeking the vengeance on abusive men that she could not mete out to the abuser she had killed to free herself.

I got free of him, but then again I didn’t, she realized. I wanted to hurt him over and over, not just kill him. But I had to go for the kill or I’d still be a prisoner. And now other men who hurt women pay the price for his crimes. He still has a hold on me because of that. I haven’t purged him from my system and I don’t know that I ever fully will. Dressing as Honey Badger and patrolling with Mad Dash is nice, but it cannot sustain me.

Peter told him that his night—much like hers—had been a wash, though his exact words were, “It was a real washing machine for me tonight; I texted a few hero duderinos and it seems like only Epitaph had much to showboat for putting on the tighty-nighties and making justice.”

Now they were not Mad Dash and Ladykiller, though; they were only Sarah and Peter. Neither wanted shop-talk to rule the night.

So she brought out some vegetables and meat to cook with, and they shared the sous chef duties, slicing, dicing and chopping so that she could cook up a chili with some Asian hot peppers as a special treat for the sweet-tempered dork she found herself dating now. They talked about news and gossip they’d seen on Twitter, books they were reading, shows they were following when they weren’t together. They shared tales of fellow costumed crimefighters and vigilantes they’d run into lately, and discussed Sarah’s plan to get a part-time gig helping out with transhuman security—in her Honey Badger mode—for the clinic run by a Regenerator named White Cross.

The calm, pleasant domesticity of it all seemed good for them both. It put Peter at ease, even knowing the long-rotted corpse of Mister Master was sealed up and stored away in a nearby room. It took the edge off her frustration at not having bloodied her metal claws tonight.

When the cooking was done, and the chili devoured—mostly by Peter, who’d burned plenty of calories with high-speed running tonight—she suggested they get to sleep before dawn came.

In her bedroom, she hesitated at what she was about to do, then steeled her resolve.

“Pete?” she began with a tremor in her voice. “Take off your clothes and get into bed. Um, just don’t get your hopes up too much—or anything else if possible.”

When he was under the covers, she turned off the lights and stripped down to her bare skin in the dark.

“Are you all righty-oh?” he asked.

“Yeah. But the lights stay off. No peeking, Pete. Please.”

She slid beneath the covers with him, and pressed her body up against his back, wrapping her arms around his chest. She almost balked—almost jumped out of the bed, but fought down the clenching in her stomach.

If I don’t do this, she thought, if I don’t move forward, Mister Master really will have won. He’ll define my whole life. He’ll be the last man who felt my naked body. And that is intolerable.

She thought Peter would freak. In fact, his nervous shivering renewed her urge to flee. The burn-scarred flesh of her left breast and both her legs had to feel alien to him, with the rest of her skin being smooth. He must be disgusted, she fretted, and then reminded herself he wasn’t pulling away. That he wasn’t tensing up. Reminded herself he was a 23-year-old virgin—and probably a nervous virgin at that.

“This is nice,” he said softly, and she finally sighed, realizing she’d been holding her breath in fear all this time.

“Are you sure?” she asked hesitantly. “I can put—”

“No,” he said. “It’s good. I like being held. Do I get to be the head spoon at some tip?”

The word tip made her clench again, and then she realized it was just his often-muddled wording, meaning point, and not some reference to his penis.

“Maybe,” she said. “Can we just stay like this, though? It’s nice to be the one—the one who’s doing whatever we’re doing. Or not. In charge, I guess.”

He chuckled softly. “Sure.”

She couldn’t bear for him to see her yet—to see her burn scars and shrapnel scars. But his growing comfort and ease emboldened her. She reached her unmarred right hand down and felt for him. He was hard, but he hadn’t tried to do anything with his tool. He wouldn’t. His restraint made her almost weep, and it made her want to give herself to him.

But it’s too soon for—too soon for that.

She stroked him slowly. “Pete, would it be OK if I played with you? I mean, I can—”

“A handwork?” he asked nervously.

She laughed. “Handjob, you silly boy. Well, at least you’re way easier to understand than Epitaph. Yeah. That. I may have another kind of ‘job’ in me tonight for you, too, later. Maybe we won’t be asleep by sunrise. But the lights stay off, Peter Nguyen.”


“And I want to get back the same that I give you,” she added, her lips gently kissing behind one of his ears, his unruly hair smelling of sweat just a little—a hint of apple-scented shampoo there as well. Smelling nice. “Mouth and fingers only, though.”

“Way OK,” he said, moaning as her stroking became quicker and more firm. “I think I can handle that. I’m no casserole, but I made it to second base-camp and partway onto third a few times in high-up school.”

Take that, Mister Master, Sarah thought savagely, even as she felt warm feelings toward the man in her bed, her rage never far away but backed into a corner for now. You don’t own me anymore.

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]
Image of Epitaph’s face adapted from a photo by David Goehring (original image at Flickr here) under Creative Commons license to “share” and/or “remix” the work as long as credit is given to artist and it is acknowledged that the artist doesn’t necessarily endorse my own work nor has any direct involvement in its use here.

Ill wind

Posted: 30th November 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Single-run ("One off") Stories

Now, it may very well be that this story is completely understandable as a standalone tale, but as it takes place immediately after the events of the story “Dividing by Zero,” I highly suggest you read that story first, here. I plan to write at least two more stories involving Patient Zero, so keep your eyes peeled…and your antiviral remedies handy.


Ill Wind

Correctional officer Larry Blanchard knew that his prison co-worker and predecessor as henchman to mass-murderer/assassin Patient Zero was a smart man when he started exhibiting symptoms after only one day.

Patient Zero had told Hugo I wouldn’t be contagious for a couple days, Blanchard considered. And here I am feeling sick already. But Hugo wasn’t a trusting man, and skipped town the very day I took his place not only as Patient Zero’s henchman but as the carrier of his final blow—a lethal virus that I’ll spread to my co-workers and their families, friends and associates in town.

What was weird was that he knew he was sick. He felt hot and his skin tingled in an odd way, but he wasn’t obviously ill from his external appearance, nor was he debilitated. Patient Zero had planned it well, it seemed, to maximize Blanchard’s ability to spread the illness, especially at the prison where he worked.

I’m doing this for my kids, he reminded himself. I’m doing this for the money that will support them when their mother fails them, so that they’ll have trust funds waiting when they become adults. So they won’t have to live in poverty thanks to that selfish bitch.

Blanchard went about his work and his usual life in town, shopping and eating at the local diner.

Knowing that he was sowing a path of death.

* * *

People started getting sick by the next morning, Blanchard noted. Obviously ill. And yet he himself showed no outward signs; still felt able to go about life, even as people all around him one by one stayed home or went home sick.

The federal government wasn’t stupid. They knew what mass-murdering, killer-for-hire horror was housed at the Janszen Correctional Institution and had no intention of taking their eyes off Patient Zero between now and his execution that was just weeks away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had staff openly monitoring and watching the area around the prison every day, since the first day the villain arrived. At the first sign of this strange illness, they sealed off the town—and two smaller ones nearby—and military personnel were stationed at all the roads leading anywhere. Even cow paths were marked with sensors or had eyes on them.

A few people tried to leave. No one got past the net the government had cast over the area.

Four days later, half the town was sick and the prison was down to a skeleton crew. Just about everyone was showing signs of heavily scarred skin as the disease not only tore them up inside but ravaged them outwardly.

The towns and the prison were cut off from everyone, and no one even pretended that some miracle cure was coming. They were severed from the rest of the country to die, and later for hazmat-suited military and CDC personnel to move in and make sure the threat was contained and everything sterilized with chemicals or fire. Many were protesting the decision; some were even demonstrating as close to the military blockades as they could get.

But the truth was the outrage wasn’t all that intense from most people unless they had loved ones dying inside the cordoned-off zone. For most of the country, the primary concern was containment, and to ensure that when no one was moving anymore, the military went in to make sure Patient Zero was dead, that they killed him on some pretense, or that they made sure he showed up for his execution date.

* * *

After another couple days, only a handful of people weren’t showing symptoms or scarred hands and faces.

That was when Blanchard knew he’d been had. That’s when he knew that Patient Zero’s talk of simply striking back was a sham. The man had an escape plan.

Why else would Blanchard’s skin be disfigured and his body a carrier for this horrid and deadly disease, but otherwise he was unaffected? Sick but not dying. Contagious but not terminal.

Because he needs his new henchman—his personal Typhoid Marty—able to come to work, so that when there’s no one else able to function, I can make sure he gets out, Blanchard realized. But maybe what I need to do is kill him myself.

* * *

Blanchard was the healthiest of the sick people still standing, and the only reason no one suspected him of anything was because his face was a wreck of scars like everyone else and his skin had a slightly feverish sheen. So he had free run of the prison, being the most functional member of the staff. Getting into the nine-person Transhuman Unit and opening Patient Zero’s cell was as easy as walking in the front door of his own apartment.

Normally, guns weren’t allowed in the Transhuman Unit, but Blanchard carried one openly.

No one’s well enough to watch me, much less stop me.

He stepped into the cell of the man who’d turned him into a biological weapon, and that man simply smiled his perfect smile.

“You could kill me, of course,” Patient Zero said, “but I haven’t authorized the rest of your payment yet. It isn’t in your secret accounts yet. There isn’t nearly enough money with the initial down-payment for your lawyers to create the trust funds for your children. Kill me and you fail them. Serve me and get me out of here, and I’ll pay even more. Enough to truly set them up for life; enough for you to have something nice for yourself to spend as well.”

“I don’t care about myself,” Blanchard stated flatly, and raised the pistol.

“But you do care about them,” Patient Zero reminded him. “And you’re in too deep. You’ll be the only survivor in this town, or one of a handful if anyone has a natural immunity to my little virus. You’ll live and very soon, you won’t even be carrying the virus anymore, though your scars will be proof you once did. I made sure of that. Suspicion will fall on you as being part of this. Assets frozen. Once your people set up the trust funds as you directed, the authorities will notice, they’ll put two and two together, and they’ll seize those accounts, which you cannot hide. Your children getting nothing. You ending up in prison and quite likely in the death chamber meant for my execution.”

“I could kill myself,” Blanchard pointed out. “After I kill you. Then I won’t be a suspicious-seeming survivor.”

“If you could kill yourself,” Patient Zero said, “you would have done so already out of shame for what you’ve become.”

Blanchard lowered the gun. Thought about how, despite his disfigurement, he might still find a way to be part of his children’s life somehow before his cancer claimed him. If not for them and a terminal illness, he wouldn’t be in this predicament. But perhaps he could still get something good out of  this travesty.

And the cancer will limit how much time I have to be under Patient Zero’s thumb.

“What do I have to do?” Blanchard asked.

“Nothing much,” Patient Zero said. “Just whatever I ask, whenever I ask, without question.”

First on the agenda, Blanchard discovered, was finding a phone for Patient Zero to use.

* * *

Texas was such a pleasant place in late fall, Patient Zero considered—in fact, he’d been here often this time of year both in his villainous identity and as Gustavo Dobbins, long before they put him in Texas’ prison system.

The breeze now was cool and refreshing, nothing like the heat and oppressive humidity that dominated the warmer months. A wind upon which his transportation would be carried. A wind that would spirit him away from this prison.

An ill wind, one might venture, the man thought as he smoothed and straightened the white pullover shirt and pulled up the white elastic trousers common to all prisoners in Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities. God, I will be glad to get back into designer clothing soon and visit a five-star restaurant.

Larry Blanchard was with the villain in the courtyard of the prison, standing slightly behind him. Feeling very much the servant now, very much the henchman—however reluctantly.

“Our ride will be here soon,” Patient Zero said. “Four of them, actually, though we’ll only board one of them. If Larry Blanchard goes missing, they’ll know you did it. You should solve that problem.”

Blanchard was so numb from the realization of just how far he’d fallen and the horror he’d unleashed that he couldn’t even fathom choosing a meal anytime soon, much less making sure no one knew he’d helped Patient Zero escape and kill off several nearby communities.

“How?” he croaked.

Patient Zero smiled—almost magnanimously, it seemed to Blanchard, as if he were bestowing a kingly boon. “Many of your co-workers are lying around dead or so close to dead they won’t fight you. I’m sure one of them is about your size. Switch uniforms with him—swap everything, down the socks and underwear, in case anything is marked or identifiable as yours or his. Shoot him in the face afterward. Between that and the scarring from the virus, no one will be able to tell the face doesn’t match the identification on the uniform and in the pockets. Larry Blanchard will seem to be the hero who died from a bullet probably trying to stop me and your evil co-worker who helped me. The CDC will be dealing with a plague zone. No one will check DNA or dental records. The body will be burned. Evidence will be gone. You will be safe and anonymous.”

For several moments, Blanchard stood there, stunned.

“As I said, whatever I say, whenever I say,” Patient Zero told him. “Your children are depending on you, and we don’t have forever.”

Blanchard left without hesitation, and found his patsy on the floor of a corridor within two minutes.

* * *

Nearly a half-hour later, three helicopters flew in over the walls of the prison in almost perfect, synchronized timing. Blanchard nearly fled, assuming the military had arrived to purge the area, but he stayed where he was when Patient Zero said, “Our rides are here.”

Blanchard remembered that his new master had said four rides would arrive, and clearly Patient Zero had noticed the same thing.

“They wouldn’t have full air support or significant anti-aircraft weaponry in this area since there is no airfield here, not even a small one for private planes,” the villain noted. “But clearly the soldiers have something and got lucky shooting down one of our rides. Well, at least the chances are good that we know at least three relatively safe escape routes now.”

The three helicopters landed, manned with mercenaries in hazmat-style protective gear, and Patient Zero picked one of the vehicles seemingly at random. He motioned to Blanchard, smiling.

“Let’s go,” he told his henchman. “My freedom and your new life await.”

* * *

Blanchard was in the well-appointed villa of Patient Zero, somewhere in rural Argentina, for two days, confined to a room there, when he realized he wasn’t sick anymore, though the extensive scarring of his body, especially his face, would be a permanent and hideous reminder of what he had done and what he had carried. Patient Zero left him there three days more, though, ensuring sumptuous meals were delivered, before he let him out.

“So sorry to have left you alone for several days,” Patient Zero said, almost truly seeming remorseful, “but I wanted to be absolutely sure you wouldn’t infect any of my house staff.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Blanchard said, and didn’t care if his master heard the scorn or sarcasm in his voice.

“You don’t have to like me,” Patient Zero said. “You don’t even have to pretend. You only have to obey, and the secrets of Larry Blanchard remain secret. The money in those accounts will be ready for the  eighteenth birthdays of your children. Unfrozen. Ready to save them from the mother you so dislike and so mistrust. If you like, simply hate her more, and perhaps you’ll be able to stomach me a little better.”

“I suppose,” Blanchard said sullenly.

“You know, I sometimes wear a costume,” Patient Zero said. “Modeled after the ‘plague doctors’ of medieval times. A dour robe and a helmet-like mask of leather shaped a bit like a crow’s head and beak. Not always, but there are special times I feel I should dress up.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Blanchard asked.

“Because in that box there is your costume, which you will wear as you carry out mundane tasks for me officially and, maybe every once in a while, as you help spread my viruses,” Patient Zero said. “However, you can rest assured none of them in the future will touch you or mark you in any way.”

Blanchard opened the box, and lifted out the items one by one. A few black, full-head ski masks. Several black scarves. A couple pairs of dark sunglasses and a few black goggles. Two black trench coats—one leather and a lighter fabric one. Three pairs of black dress boots. Eight black slacks and matching black shirts. Even a dozen pair of black boxer shorts and black socks.

He’d look like some grimmer version of the guy from that old “Invisible Man” movie. His scars and identity hidden. His humanity hidden. A vision of darkness and mystery to shadow Patient Zero’s steps.

“Now?” Blanchard asked.

“Now, and forever more,” Patient Zero said, and Blanchard stripped down to his skin to don his new attire. “Welcome to my world, Malady.”

The Gathering Storm, Part 35

Posted: 24th November 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series
Tags: , , , , ,

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

The need to look back over his shoulder constantly was like a burning itch beneath a cast—it tugged at Carl’s will relentlessly. He almost shook with the effort of continuing to look ahead and only casually turn his head to the side from time to time, as if absent-mindedly taking in his surroundings. To look sideward every so often with only his eyes toward storefront windows so he could see reflections from activity across the street or behind him.

Once, he stopped to slowly re-tie his Steve Madden leather brogue shoes. A few people walked by him. He tried to ascertain whether anyone behind him had stopped or slowed to keep pace with him, but didn’t notice anything.

Still, he fretted. And, yet again, he fought the urge to look over his shoulder as he stood and began walking again, his hand sweating as it gripped the handle of his briefcase.

I expect to be followed at times, being Query’s associate, he reminded himself, only to mentally add: But it’s a whole other kind of thing when you know for certain someone is trying to track your steps.

It was the only assumption he could make. The man who had contacted him nearly an hour earlier had sounded like Query, but the number on Carl’s phone wasn’t Query’s normal one. The dark-garbed hero had contacted him a few times before from unfamiliar phones, so it wasn’t unprecedented. And this call had included an explanation from “Query” that he was unable to get a clear signal and had to resort to a landline in someone’s office at a building he was investigating. He had asked Carl to rendezvous with him at Query’s office to discuss some disturbing findings there.

But the only thing that was right about this Query was the voice.

He hadn’t responded in any predictable or expected way to Carl’s comments or to an in-joke he tossed out as a test. The fact that this Query knew they met regularly in an office didn’t convince Carl as to his authenticity. Janus’ assassination squad had tracked him to Query’s previous office back in March, and no doubt Janus and his associates expected Query to set up in an office again and conduct business as usual.

They were right. He had set up in new digs and he and Carl followed much the same protocol, just in a different building in a new neighborhood.

Except that it’s not all the same as before. I’m more paranoid now, and Query has given me some tips and taught me a few tricks about being followed and losing tails.

Carl had called Query immediately after the unexpected summons to the office, using a landline in a hotel room he rented merely to use their telephone system, lest any pursuers were monitoring his smart phone somehow.

Sure enough, Query confirmed they weren’t meeting and that he hadn’t called Carl today.

Carl was relieved to find his instincts confirmed, but then the clumsiness of the whole affair began to bother him, given Janus’ usual careful attention to detail. Such bumbling made him suspicious. But he mustered on, walking toward a dummy office Query kept on the edge of downtown New Judah. He prepared to walk any potential pursuers into a trap as a reminder to them and anyone who might come later.

Don’t underestimate even Query’s portly associate. You fooled me once before, but there won’t be a second time.

I hope.

* * *

Janus walked into Underworld’s office. It was a gesture not lost on her, as he summoned people; he didn’t visit. She had expected this, though.

He set down a thin sheaf of papers on her desk, and she looked at the police report in front of her, and then up into his eyes peering through the holes of a wooden mask that was half human face on one side, half puma face on the other. She reached out, picked up the report and flipped through it. The narrative she read wasn’t entirely unexpected. Three lightly armed intruders found in an office near downtown, thoroughly caught up in sticky threads from a dozen tangler grenades they had set off in their intrusion. Men who had told the police they were hired to find Query.

She set the report down, and looked back into the eyes of Janus, who had yet to speak a word. He even seemed to be breathing more quietly than normal.

Is he trying to manage his anger with me? Underworld wondered. That’s so adorable. Although it’s most likely so he won’t cause his lie-detector powers to go wonky on him.

“Yes?” she asked him. “Is there a problem?”

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Janus responded. “Or are you going to tell me it wasn’t you?”

“Tell you that I didn’t have Carl Beacham followed even though you told me we weren’t going to do that again any time soon?”

“How refreshing that I won’t have to dance with you verbally. Is there a reason you rejected a direct order? You are my associate, but you are not quite my equal.”

“I believe you said you were against the idea of following Query’s associate; you didn’t forbid me from—”

The blow was quick and unexpected, the back of Janus’ hand striking her face and whipping her head to the side. Underworld was stunned and confused—it wasn’t totally unanticipated, but she had not expected an attack so quickly. She tasted blood, and her stomach boiled in anger as much as shock.

“You know what I meant!” Janus hissed savagely. “Are you a fool? Do you think you are above my violence? My anger? My retribution? Do you think your family is above—”

Underworld placed her hands flat against her large maple desk and seized it with her mind. The same contact telekinesis that allowed her to cling to walls or ceilings with no effort—one of her several powers—gave her a very effective emulation of super-strength, and she lifted her desk into the air, papers, pens, telephone and other paraphernalia tumbling to the floor. She couldn’t hold this effect for long, but crushing Janus wouldn’t take long. Only thoughts of Crazy Jane held Underworld back.

“My family is most certainly beyond your touch!” Underworld growled. “That was the promise you made when I agreed to help you lead this criminal operation. I may yet squash you for slapping me, you sonofabitch, but I may not. I will certainly kill you if you even think again, ever of touching my family. If you even mention the possibility again. Now,” she added, the pale piece of furniture still looming overhead to cast a dark shadow around him, “sit the fuck down in that chair.”

Calmly, Janus did so, and Underworld set the desk down with a heavy thump. Several people outside the office gawked through the windows and then hurriedly scuttled away.

“Are you calm now?” Janus asked.

“Are you?” Underworld countered.


“Good. If you ever hit me again, it will either be the last thing you ever do, or it will be the last thing I do when you kill me defending yourself. Are we clear?”

“I won’t make any promises like that.”

Underworld placed her hands flat against the top of the desk again, not re-exerting her power yet but looking him straight in the eye with a hint of savagery in her gaze. “I didn’t ask for a promise. I want your confirmation that you understand what the consequences will be if you do it again.”

She could tell he was smiling from the slight squinting at the outer corners of his eyes as he said, “I understand everything. Except why you had Mr. Beacham followed.”

“Because we had to know if he was still on guard or if it’s possible for Query to become complacent. We had to know if his pet lawyer was still a weak link we could exploit. And so I sent people to follow him,” Underworld said. “And I was intentionally clumsy about it.”

Janus leaned forward, clearly interested now. “Really?”

“Thanks to go-betweens, third-parties and outright lies, there are at least six layers of protection and subterfuge between us and the men who were following Carl Beacham,” Underworld noted. “As far as they know, they were hired by Rancor, who is currently out of the country enjoying a sunny beach and who will be dead shortly after he gets back to Newark. Even the Mimic who faked Query’s voice on a call to Beacham doesn’t know I hired him and didn’t know anything about the operation. He just knew he had a script to follow.”

“Still risky.”

“Not at all. And the fact we didn’t find Query’s new hidey-hole and the fact he’s on guard again means nothing,” Underworld said. “If anything, it will distract him, because now he’s probably going to think there are others out there looking at him as if he might be vulnerable. Not just you. Because why would you be so obvious if you wanted to sneak up on him? In fact, you would do well to have me set up a couple more diversionary tactics to make him think he has even more wolves sniffing at his trail.”

“I’m almost sorry I hit you now,” Query said. “Almost. Now, tell me more about your ideas to keep Query distracted.”

Underworld removed her hands from her desk and sat down, swallowing the last of the blood in her mouth. It tasted good to her in this moment, if only because it reminded her that Janus was as much her enemy as her business partner.

“Certainly,” she agreed, and told him, while her mind simultaneously plotted a dozen ways to kill the man.

And not a single one of them could she figure out how to pull off without Crazy Jane seeing her hand behind the act.

* * *

“She loooooves the new line!” Julian enthused, grabbing Leon by one hand and twirling him, nearly knocking the more burly man over with the surprise of it all. Julian’s mouth at his own, pressing hard, was a surprise as well, but a welcome one. Intimacy had been hard to come by for the two men lately.

“Ewwww!” groaned Lois as she walked in on them. “Parents kissing! Gross!”

“You will learn one day to appreciate romance,” Julian said to their daughter as he gave Leon a quick hug, a brief peck at the corner of his lips that hinted at the promise of continuing where they had left off later, and then sat down on a nearby chair with a flourish.

“Ewwww again,” Lois said, wrinkling her nose. “I’d rather climb trees or build fairy houses than kiss anyone in my class.”

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” Julian said, and then kissed her forehead and turned to face Leon. “As I was saying, Cheshire loves the new line. Six more new outfits, and I’ll be doing three copies of each. I knew she’d go for having so many different costumes. It’s not like she’s trying to have one easily identifiable look or have a big brand image. And she’s more girly and fashion-conscious than she’d admit, just like our girl,” he added, giving a sidelong glance and smirk in the direction of their 8-year-old. She pretended to ignore him.

“Well, she has a ton of money to spend,” Leon reminded him. “Not everyone does.”

“But she’s spending it on us,” Julian said. “And letting us be public about the fact she’s a client. Your dreams of us shedding most of the villains on our client list will soon be realized, Leon.”

“How about we shed all of them?” Leon suggested.

“I love you, but you’ve got to lighten up, especially in the face of success,” Julian kidded him. “Besides, some of our villainous clients are far too interesting and colorful for me to want to stop outfitting them. But I promise to lose all the psychotic, sadistic, murderous ones.”

“Your moral compass never does quite find true north, does it, babyface?” Leon countered. “Good thing I love you too much to find a nice, Jewish boy to replace you.”

* * *

It had been early May, just a little over two months past, when he’d had his secretary of state and secretary of defense together in the Oval Office to discuss the revelation that Genesis One even existed. Now he had them here for the same topic of discussion, and this time with General Alexander there in person, instead of them simply talking about him.

President Obama rubbed his temples slowly before looking at each of the three people in turn.

“Hillary, Bob…Keith…” he said, deliberately forgoing his usual habit of saying ‘General Alexander.’ This man needs to be yanked back just a bit, so there’s no military courtesy today—no title, the president vowed. “Let’s all talk about Genesis One, and let’s hope we don’t talk about it very often going forward. And let’s make damn sure not a one of you talks about it to anyone else.”

He regarded each of them until every one had nodded his or her assent before he continued.

“I’m greenlighting the Genesis One project,” he said simply. “It can continue its work. In fact, knowing some of the things I know now—and there are some things I can’t share with you, Bob and Hillary—I’m going to go back on some of my earlier reservations. I’m going to make some requests for expansion of the facility’s research.”

All three seemed taken aback, but none more so than General Alexander, who said, “Expansion, Mr. President?”

“Yes, Keith,” he answered. “I think that I will be providing you with a ‘wish list’ of potential transhuman conversions—some powers I’d like to see explored—that I will want to move forward. Will that be a problem?”

“No, sir,” the general answered, clearly relieved that his commander-in-chief wasn’t pulling the plug on the entire project.

It was a sentiment the president could read on the man’s face all too clearly—perhaps the only time he’d ever surprise the general and catch him off-guard.

I’m too practical not to see the value of Genesis One, especially if I get a second term, the president thought. Also, if I have some personal pet projects for Bob and Hillary to be aware of, perhaps I can help further keep their eyes off what’s really going on in terms of core research at the facility.

He paused mentally, and the trio before him were clearly aware he was mulling something over, though none dared probe in this delicate and tension-filled moment.

The general and I are going to need to talk in private about knowledge of this project going forward, the president resolved. If I’m the first president to know about Genesis One, maybe I need to be the last, too. And perhaps we need to secure a role for me to keep things on track well into the future.

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]

Real Life in the Midst of Fiction

Posted: 23rd November 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Ruminations

I don’t know if I’ve addressed this issue directly before in any previous ruminations about my writing process around here, but you’ve probably noticed I try to keep pretty grounded in real history. “The Gathering Storm” takes place in 2010, and you’ll find political figures right where they should be: The president, the secretaries of state and defense, the director of the NSA and so on. Matt Lauer is co-host of the “Today” show just like y’all are used to.

Yes, I have plenty of fictional characters, obviously. And I concocted a history in which microprocessors were invented earlier than in our own real timeline, making technology across the board at a more advanced stage, though not overwhelmingly so. But even so, you still see some of the major companies, with Apple’s iPhone and the Droid competing for the love of the consumer…even if the products are named differently than what we’re used to. The cars may be a little more advanced, but the names are all the same ones you see on the road now.

Yes, I’ve created three entire major cities that didn’t exist before. There are “sea people” living in the oceans who are recent genetic offshoots of humanity. I’ve created superheroes and superpowers, for Pete’s sake. So, this is not “reality.” But it’s important for me to remain grounded in reality as much as possible and to create a world that is highly recognizable to everyone.

Plus, I don’t want the hassles of creating a whole new history to keep track of, when I can play off real events and see how they might spin out with a different flavor in a world of superheroes, even if the same basic outcomes result.

So, you might wonder, under these circumstances, why I have a character named Ben Glick as a stand-in for Glenn Beck, when I don’t replace any other famous people with fictional counterparts. Why don’t I have a President Oren Bidama or Secretary of State Celia Hinton, for example? Part of it, I suppose, is because I really think Glenn Beck has some screws loose and might be the kind of guy who might make waves for me and claim slander or something should I ever make it big with the Whethermen stuff. Call me paranoid, but I like to trust my instincts. Also, admittedly, Ben Glick is probably way more nuts and amoral…and certainly way more outright evil…than Glenn Beck is.

In the end, you can continue to expect a world that, for the most part, you recognize and events that are familiar to you. There will have to be some major deviations at a certain point with some truly world-shaking events, but I won’t get into that, because there lie spoilers.

Anyway, just wanted to share that before I finish up the next chapter of “The Gathering Storm” and post it tonight. Peace, my friends!

The Gathering Storm, Part 34

Posted: 11th November 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series
Tags: , , , ,

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.”

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]

With Great Power Comes Great…Lack of Time

Posted: 31st October 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Announcements / General

The disadvantage of being hired to take over as chief editor of the magazine on which I currently serve as managing editor is that for a couple weeks now, I’ve been doing my job, learning my chief editor’s job and…and an added unexpected bonus, training my successor for the magazine editor job about a month earlier than I figured I would be doing.

So, time has been tight, but I’ve found a calm place amidst the storm, and plan to have a new chapter of “The Gathering Storm” up within a few days at most.

Thanks for the patience, folks.

Image Is Everything (Awful)

Posted: 12th October 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Announcements / General

The vast majority of the images I have been using on this blog are now removed, after I got a very evil letter from a very large company telling me I was in violation of using an image (at another blog of mine, for a five-year-old post hardly anyone even viewed) and demanding a ridiculously large settlement amount.

Granted, this blog, Tales of the Whethermen, was always more about the words (the fiction) than the eye candy (images), so it’s no big deal in the end. But it is unfortunate that in these greedy and litigious times, small bloggers have their feet put to the fire for innocent infractions…also, it’s a pain in my butt now that I have to go through every post and remove the links to the non-existent images so I don’t have all these weird blocks of white space with red text labels.

Oh, well.

Oh, and a new chapter of “The Gathering Storm” will be along within a few days.

Lucky Thing

Posted: 27th September 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Single-run ("One off") Stories
Tags: , ,

The sight of the man in costume made her seethe. He’d just saved six hostages from another costume-wearing transhuman, but his actions and appearance fueled her rage with every second she gazed upon him on the television. She snapped up the remote and changed the channel to something—anything—else.

Her fury boiled inside her, but there was no place for it to go.

I feel like kicking a puppy or beating a child, she thought. Breaking a window or shouting at a neighbor until my throat is too sore to make more than a croaking sound. But I am a good Christian woman. I must be meek. I must be forgiving. I must pray for even the demons among us.

And to her, the man in the costume was a demon, no matter how many lives he had saved. A blight upon humanity. A corruption. An abomination in the sight of God. At least the hostage-taking freaking was honest about what he was.

As if the gays weren’t enough; now thousands or millions of these things, thought Abigail Dougherty. Such a lucky thing I’m not one of them; such a lucky thing I’ve never had one in my close family or among my friends.

At least that I know of…

She tried to ignore them all—every transhuman in general but especially those in costume—and never followed their exploits in any detail. She shunned any articles or books about them and their powers and comforted herself with the knowledge that whatever turns her life had taken, at least she didn’t bear their stain on her soul.

* * *

With no place to vent her frustration or to decompress except to watch pregnant teenagers on an MTV reality show or insipid celebrities dancing, cooking or competing against one another in humiliating trials, Abigail struck out from her apartment. A walk would do her good, she thought. A trip to a distressed-older-womanconvenience store and perhaps a Hostess cupcake and a bottle of rosé—maybe even the rare pack of Parliaments just to spite her doctor. He was a nice man, for a Jew, but he certainly knew how to ride her about her bad habits.

At least I don’t break the commandments, she considered. Now, there would be a bad habit worth worrying about.

As she strolled on slightly shaky legs that had carried her for 64 years now, she passed the St. Lucy’s Catholic Church where she used to go for bingo night some eight years earlier. Not because she was Catholic of course, but because a game like bingo played in a church surely could not be considered gambling. Gambling would be a sin.

That had been a good time—What? Six months I’d played there, she considered—but it came to an end, like so many good things in her life. They’d told her one night that she couldn’t play there anymore; that she won too much; too often. Was that her fault? If God chose to bless her thus, who were they to question it? It made her distrust Catholics even more than before. When they ushered her out, they said something about not being able to let a Charm run roughshod over them.

A Charm? Whatever that was, I don’t want to know, Abigail fumed, the memories sharp again, whetting the edge of her anger. Probably some polite way to say “cheater” or “ con-man” these days instead of saying “grifter.” As if!

She remembered the night she’d walked by here eight years ago just days after her expulsion from bingo, and stood staring at the parish church, resentment filling her even as she asked God silently to forgive them. She remembered how the next day, she heard the news that half the church had burned down, and thought with savage satisfaction how God repaid unkindness at times.

Abigail sighed, and was ready to walk again, when she realized something under her shoe didn’t feel right. She looked down, and realized that she was standing on a $50 bill.

Oh, what a lucky thing!

* * *

Two young men from a moving company were hauling furniture from Keith Lubbins’ house across the street. Abigail though about what an irritable and impolite man he was—certainly not one of her better neighbors. But she’d been stuck with him for 15 years now, except for the six-month period when his house was being repaired after a fire broke out there. God was merciful and the flames only took part of the home.

Such a lucky thing, she thought.

Not unlike the church, Abigail thought. Lucky thing for Mr. Lubbins—or, more accurately, a blessing from God—retribution mixed with forgiveness. After all, he’d kicked my little poodle Jasper just a day before the fire over some silly little bite of his ankle.

The movers’ muscles flexed and sweat dotted their brows. Abigail smiled to see such honest sweat and toil. Neither one of them a Brutus—or Brawnies or whatever it was people called the super-strong transhuman things—just fit, masculine humans of the sort God intended.

It made her think of little Bobby McKendrick when she was a girl.

Oh, Lord, how long ago was that? Was is 1954? No, it was 1956, when I was 10 years old—just a year before the curse of Eve came upon me and I began to bleed monthly. Oh, what a foul boy Bobby was!

Not because of how he behaved then, she realized. He was foul because he was almost certainly transhuman—he must have been, she thought. One of the ones who existed before anyone knew they existed. He had to be, she reasoned. Such a skinny boy but with such strength.

She remembered how he had asked her to a school dance when they were both 16. How glad she was in hindsight that she’d declined and gone with Rupert instead—the man who would eventually become her husband. Had she dated Bobby, they might have married, and then she would have borne freakish babies that were counter to God’s intents.

Abigail shuddered.

Such a lucky thing!

* * *

Abigail handed in the lottery scratch ticket to collect her $150—her third winning ticket this month. Ever since Rupert had died seven years ago, she’d been able to mostly get by on his Social Security checks, but the extra $1,800 dollars this month from lottery scratchers had been a welcome boon. She’d worried that unlike bingo, the lottery might be gambling and therefore against God, but clearly He stayed with her, blessing her.

Not everyone was blessed, of course, she realized, even the churchgoing folk. She remembered back when she was 16 and that delivery truck had almost run her down. It missed her by mere inches even as it smashed into her friend Margery.

Perhaps she wasn’t as pure and sweet as I thought, Abigail thought. It was such a lucky thing, I’ve always thought, but maybe she’d been judged. Or maybe she was a freak like Bobby. After all, all the boys were always around her, and don’t some of those transhumans  spew out hormones that make people go wild?

Abigail shuddered at the thought of bearing powers like that—having such a deep-rooted genetic stain that mocked God.

She shuddered even more as she thought of the fish-people who lived in some coastal areas in the oceans, and was glad they had no home on the shores of the Long Island Sound where it touched New Judah. It was truly a lucky thing.

* * *

Dusting her apartment, Abigail took a few minutes to flip through her collection of records, her eyes lingering on Linda Ronstadt’s “Silk Purse” album. She remembered buying it while out shopping with her friend Hope, who had done the duties of best friend in Abigail’s late teens and her 20s for some eight years by then, following Margery’s fateful closed-casket funeral in 1962. Hope had been looking for “Morrison Hotel” from The Doors and Abigail still felt a shudder of disgust for that drug-fueled rock and disco swill from the 1970s. It was the one thing that made her think Hope was someone she shouldn’t hang out with.

Music said a lot about one’s character.

Still, somehow Hope had convinced her to go to that concert in July for a world tour of The Who—God, why had she agreed to that? It was so out of character for Abigail to agree to such a thing that, in hindsight, she wondered if her friend might have had some mind control powers.

Had a transhuman perhaps been that close to her?

Of course, in the end, it hadn’t mattered, since Abigail had won a free trip to France in a contest she hadn’t even remembered entering. It took her out of the country during the concert, so she never had to make good on her agreement to go with Hope.

It was the time of Abigail’s life in the months before she and Rupert finally turned their off-again, on-again courtship into a marriage. The beginning of some very good times.

Not so for Hope, however, who left the concert scarred when some transhuman freak rampaged through the parking lot after the show, maiming and killing people at random.

Suck a lucky thing for me that God saw fit to send me to see the Eiffel Tower instead.

* * *

Abigail in an alley, backed toward a wall, with a greasy-looking man holding a knife. He was approaching her, telling her what horrid things he was going to do to her. How he was going to thrust and hit and spread her wide. The filth pouring from his mouth made her want to vomit. But more than that, she was terrified. No help, and at the mercy of a deviant.

And then she stepped on something as she stumbled into the wall of the alley. A shrieking siren-like whoop! nearly made her bowels loosen inside her underwear. The sudden, screeching wail from the air horn startled her attacker as well, but he hesitated only a few seconds before he advanced on her and thrust her against the wall roughly.

Abigail tried to scream, but only croaked, and then he backhanded her to silence her. She slumped, and he hit her again. Used his knife to cut open her blouse and cut away her belt.

She struggled feebly against him and prayed silently for help.

All at once, he was pulled away by a gold-gloved hand and Abigail gasped in shock but not relief. A man in a unitard and full-head mask, his costume a mix of red, gold and black, hurled the attacker against a wall, then picked him up and hurled him against the opposite one. Satisfied with his work, he bent over the prone body and secured the would-be rapist’s wrists with a plastic zip-tie.

He must have heard the noise and investigated, Abigail realized. Lucky to be safe. Blessed to be safe, but not one of them, please!

Knockout approached her, and held out a hand to help her up. She batted it away, pulling her blouse shut with the other hand.

She’d never been so close to a transhuman. At least not that she’d known of for certain. Certainly not a costumed one, at least.

“Get away from me!” she shrieked.

“Ma’am, you’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you,” Knockout said calmly, soothingly.

“Get away!” she shouted again, lurching to her feet and pushing past him, trying not to touch him and recoiling when she did. “Get away, you freak! Abomination!”

She stumbled backward, never taking her eyes off the costumed man. He was the real threat. The bigger threat than even a rapist. She couldn’t let him out of her sight until she was out of the alley.

And when she was, she fled on unsteady legs, until she was in a secluded doorway to a business that was closed for the day. She panted until she was steady again, still clutching her blouse that she couldn’t close up thanks to the rapist’s knife.

Too close! A transhuman! Oh dear Lord. Safe now. Safe from the abomination, she thought, and then noticed a relatively clean coat crumpled near the door. She put it on and buttoned it up, grateful to preserve her modesty. So fortunate that I’m not a transhuman like that costumed maniac, she told herself.

I’m such a lucky thing.


Photo of woman is titled “Depths of Despair” and is by Neil Moralee. Used under a Creative Commons license. Use of the image does not imply support of artist for my work nor even knowledge of it.