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Exploring the Whateley Universe - a DeWinter Residence Story

Professional Courtesy

by Bek D. Corbin

 

I just sat there for about two hours, just staring off into space. I swear, I tried to think, but nothing came. Then the nurse made me move for the next patient, and I had to cope with reality again, and the entirety of it came seeping in, bit by bit.

Cancer.

I had cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer. Not the nastiest, deadliest, most crippling, most humiliating form of cancer, but a definite ‘Miss Uncongeniality’ in the pageant. I wasn’t a human being anymore, I was a cog in the American Medical Industry, a way for a succession of HMOs to sock it to my insurance carrier, which was currently the Illinois Bureau of Prisons. I numbly wondered how the IBP would manage to sluff off the costs onto my feeble IRA. I mean, hey, it’s not like I’m really going to retire now, is it?

And don’t give me any guff about ‘oh, the survival rate for cancer is SO MUCH better than it used to be’. Five members of my family have had cancer within my personal experience, and all of them died. Nope, there’s no inspiring pictures of me, 100 pounds lighter but game, as a plucky survivor in my future. No matter what the doctors tell you, surviving Cancer is still 90% heredity. And my heritage says, ‘we’re saving a seat for you, son’.

I don’t know which is worse: dying, or dying as a cliché, ‘an innocent man jailed for crimes he didn’t commit’. Yes, I said, ‘an innocent man jailed for crimes he didn’t commit’. They exist. I’ve met a couple of other ones inside. Mind you, they were both Black, but they were indeed innocent men jailed for crimes they didn’t commit. Still, there aren’t a lot of them; despite the USA’s high percentage of the population currently under lock and key, we really do prefer to give the accused a benefit of a doubt.

Well, unless the fix is in. And that happens everywhere. No matter what system we use, the Rich and Powerful manage to quietly contrive to have two sets of rules: one for Us and one for Them. I could tell that whoever put the fix in was connected; it was very professional and clean. The problem is that I have no idea why I was framed. I mean, I was an insurance investigator for Montauk Mutual, and I investigated theft and fraud and sabotage and all kinds of juicy stuff. But the thing is, none of the people that I’ve put through the wringer are the type to go looking for payback. In the immortal words of Henry Gondorff, ‘Revenge is for suckers’. Only punks and psychos go looking for revenge, and punks and psychos don’t have the chops or clout to pull off a nice squeaky clean frame like they put around me.

So far the three leading contenders for the reason why I was framed are:

  1. Well, someone had to take the fall for the disappearance of an entire railroad car full of Military Grade Wexlerene, and I was connected to the matter in a secondary way, just the sort of connection that someone planning a heist like that would have.

  2. One of my other cases was rubbing someone’s rhubarb the wrong way, and I needed to be gotten out of the equation. Which case and why, I don’t know; I’d been very effectively taken out of the loop and mushroomed.

  3. I had to be discredited for some reason. For which case and why, see the end of Case: B.

I admit it: I’d had some serious ‘there will be JUSTICE!’ fantasies for a while, and I’d done the bit where I trained physically and re-familiarized myself with what sneaky criminal skills as I was familiar with, and tried to negotiate with the other cons for information about this and that. The problem was, I was in Prison Satellite Camp with guys who were in for 5-to-10, not the Maximum Security with the professional crooks.

If I was just in a minimum security prison camp, why didn’t I try to escape, you ask? I could, but where would I go? What would I do? Like I said, ‘Revenge is for suckers’, and all things considered, my best option is to just sit out the seven more years and be clean with The Man. Also, while the camp may be minimum security, it’s still attached to a Maximum Security prison and there’s miles and miles of deliberately maintained nothing between here and the nearest piece of what could be called ‘civilization’. Also, from what I’ve seen of the local sheriff’s department, I’d say that they’re on a par with the rest of Illinois: shoddy, overworked, slightly outdated, corrupt, and still somehow very effective.

Which, all things considered, is a blessing. Or at least a mixed blessing, like when I had my yearly physical. The standard of Health Care was good enough to catch it, just not good enough to catch it in time.

Then, after a couple of weeks, I was told that I had a visitor, the first (rather, only) one in years.

Like Nick Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster, he must have been waiting for me to be in just that bloody-minded state. He sat down in a chair next to me, and gave me a bland smile. He reminded me of something out of Agatha Christie, a bit she did a bunch of times: the man who was so average looking that he was practically invisible. He could blend perfectly into almost any crowd in North America or Europe. He looked at me blandly. “I thought that vultures like you roosted in hospital waiting rooms and methadone clinics.” You hear about guys like this, but you never expect them to come on to you; the guys who recruit ‘subjects’ *cough!guinea pigs!* for mad scientists to experiment on, as in to create supervillains. Or monsters. Or in 80% of the real cases, corpses that they can examine to determine what went wrong.

But instead of either being offended, or trying to be my buddy, all he said was, “I’m here because you need me to be here. If you didn’t need me to be here, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Go sell it to some junkie who’s desperate enough to believe you.”

“A junkie doesn’t have what I’m looking for,” he said calmly. “Three TODs in the Coast Guard. Four citations for bravery. Lapsed Commercial Pilot’s licenses for single- and multi-engine land- and sea-based airplanes and helicopters. Masters Degrees in Criminology and Engineering, and Bachelors in Inorganic Chemistry, Electrical Engineering and Forensic Engineering. Twenty-five years experience investigating break-ins, burglaries, sabotage and vandalism, expertise with the highest-end of both mechanical and electronic locks and security systems. Fluent in Spanish and French, knowledgeable in German, Russian and Japanese.”

Ahhh… the good old days, when I actually thought that I was training for something great… “And the last of the red-hot clog dancers,” I sniped.

My principal is looking for persons of proven merit and real skill,” the bland man said… well… blandly. “He does so, because he expects a significant portion of his subjects to survive and adapt.”

Okay, that stopped me. Why would they go to all the trouble of learning about me, if I was just one more rat for the grinder? And my medical files are supposed to be confidential. The odds of them hearing about me through office gossip are pretty minimal. The odds are much better that they’re hacking hospital records, but, really, why bother with that, when there are dozens of junkies ripe for the picking, and tons of teenage runaways who’d have a much better chance of surviving? But if you actually had a decent survival rate for your whatever, you’d want people who had the skills that would be useful for a special agent. “Why would you want a special agent who’s over 50 years old?”

"You wouldn’t have to be. The process involves more or less a complete re-make.” He took a smartphone out of his jacket pocket and laid it on the table in front of him. You’re not supposed to get cell phones in prison.

"What survival rate are we talking about?”

"We can offer a solid 25-to-30%, with a guarantee that if you wake up, you’ll be cancer-free. After all, why go through all that, if you go invalid three years after the fact?”

"I’ll… think about it…” I said uncertainly.

He pushed the smartphone at me. “When you have your questions lined up, turn on the phone and hit the red button. Let it ring until you get a ‘message accepted’ message, and then hang up. You may have to wait for maybe an hour or so to get a call-back. After all, we won’t be sitting by the phone, waiting for you to call.” With that, he got up and left the visiting room.

Well, whoever his ‘principal’ is, he hires some very effective sales people.

Okay figure a 20% chance, +/- 10% depending on unknowable variables of continued survival and freedom vs. an 8% chance of marginal recovery after years of painful and expensive procedures, which I won’t get, with no guarantee that there won’t be a recurrence, and the only way that I’ll get out will be ‘Compassionate Leave’ (gimme a break). The problem is, even if there is a rejuvenation (which I know can happen with exotic technologies, which is what we’re talking here), I’ll owe my life and freedom- which means my unquestioning loyalty- to a possibly demented criminal scientist, and life as a supervillain. I have seen the damage and suffering that supervillains cause; I do not want to be a part of that. On the other hand, why would they recruit an expert on security systems and Breaking & Entry methods, just to be a super-powered leg-breaker?

I think that it says something about my inner need to view myself as the innocent victim of a corrupt system that it took me about three days to work up the indignation to push the red button. I remember, it was after lights-out, I was in my cot, and I was just falling asleep when there was a feeling like a knife in my side. Bolting upright, I checked my side, just in case it was a knife in my side- I mean, stranger things have happened in prison- and had to fight down a wave of nausea, what I was sure would the first of many scenic but quick trips to the john.

When I got to my bunk, I weakly wrestled that smartphone out from its niche in my bunk, turned it on and pressed the red ‘button’. Nothing happened, but I felt a little better, and I was able to get to sleep.

An hour or so? Try four days. I wasn’t really expecting anything, other than maybe an interview with the Psychology students who’d cooked up that stupid ‘push the red button’ piece of mindfuck. Then, at about 2 in the afternoon, I was called away from mopping out the shower stalls for a meeting in the visitor’s room. The guard told me that it was someone from Montauk Mutual, here to discuss my case. As he said it, he gave me a smirk that I didn’t understand at the time.

Then I walked into the ‘high trust’ visitor’s room. ‘High Trust’ means that you’re not listened in on, or even watched, because they trust you, and if you abuse that trust, that small measure of privacy can be taken away. Well, that and they’d have to put someone on watching and listening in on your visits. And I understood that guard’s smirk. My visitor was a woman. Well, calling her a woman is sort of like calling a Lamborghini a ‘car’; it’s technically accurate, but it’s sort of selling it short as well. Even under her bulky overcoat, you could tell that she had a great body, and despite the fact that she was tearing into a hero sandwich with all the demure decorum of a piranha, she was sexy as all hell.

I sat down across from her and watched her eat for a second. “Okay Lady, who the hell are you?” I asked, “’Cause the only way that you’re from Montauk, is if you’re old man Farnham’s secret girlfriend. And if you’re that, then I’m very impressed with Farnham and disappointed as hell in you.”

She gave a slightly annoyed tisk. “Hello? You called US? I’m your friendly supervillain service provider representative.”

"HAH?”

"Look, once you accept that there’s a possibility that you’ll go black mask, then your next obvious question is: ‘how can I be sure that your process will really work’, right?”

"So, you’re saying that you survived the process?”

"Yep!” she took a bite of the Dagwood- scale sandwich and as she chewed she put down the sandwich and removed her overcoat. Under the overcoat, she was wearing a dark red sleeveless and legless bodysuit with matching thigh-high boots and opera gloves. The bodysuit was cut to resemble a ‘strapless’ top, but actually protected her up to the neck. There was a stylish yet very functional looking belt with pouches around her narrow waist. All in all, she looked like your basic ‘dangerous hottie’ type supervillainess. It says something about the level of security here that she was able to get in here wearing that. “’Scuze me,” she said as she finished chewing and swallowed, “but you caught me just as I was about to get lunch.”

"So… that’s your work outfit?”

"Oh, not while I’m on a serious job, NO! No, this is what I wear when I’d doing a decoy job, y’know keeping the Cops or some superhero busy while someone else pulls off a real job. Normally, on a serious job, I wear very practical stealth ops blacks.”

"And what do you do on ‘serious jobs’?”

She pulled the glove off her right hand and held it up. After a brief pause, it burst into flames, though her hand was completely untouched and unharmed. “Arson. That, sabotage, destroying evidence, distraction fires, pretty much anything where being able to set and control fires is a major asset.”

"Why do you wear gloves, if you have to take it off to use your power?”

"I don’t,” she answered, “I just did that to show that that it was ME doing it, and not some hidden gimmick.”

"You’ve done this before?”

"It’s a way of paying off one of my services.” Before I could ask anything about ‘services’, she continued, “But, to get back to the topic at hand, YES, I can say with absolutely certainty that if you sign on, you WILL get super powers, your Cancer WILL be resolved, you WILL be rejuvenated, and yes, you WILL not only be turned into a woman, but a genuine young hottie.”

"WHAT?” How? How could they know?

"CHILL,” she said smoothly, putting her hand reassuringly on my shoulder (after waving out the flames on it) “you’re with a sister.”

"What? You?”

"YUP!” she said smugly, “Born male going on 65 years ago, and didn’t enjoy a minute of it. Well, at least not the guy stuff. Hated Boy Scouts, and don’t get me started on the Army. Did everything I could to be as manly as I possibly could, bulked up, got tattoos, learned karate, hiked, drank, got into fights, all that and none of it worked.”

"oh-kay… but what about the Cancer? I mean, every treatment they have is pretty much a gamble. They don’t really have any idea how to cure cancer.”

"So? They don’t really have any idea how to cure Parkinson’s Disease, but here I am.” She pulled her glove back on, took the sandwich back and tore a bite out of it.

"Parkinson’s?”

"I had it so bad, Michael J Fox would’a looked at me and said, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.”

I gave a sideways nod, accepting it because, well, I sort of had to. Nature had already done a hell of a lot worse to me that these guys ever could, and if they were scamming me, at least they were doing me the honor of doing a first-rate job of it. “Okaaayyy… so, what’s the procedure like?”

"Good question,” she allowed. “I have no idea.”

"What?”

"Yeah, that was my reaction too,” she said with a look of weary resignation. “You expect the big uber-tech lab, the mad scientist, the assistant, the long-winded self-glorifying explanation, being strapped onto a slab… but all I got was an address for a hotel, a reservation, and when I got there, a paper packet with a capsule inside and instructions to take it and lie down.

"Six months later, I woke up in another hotel in another state and *boom!*” she swept her hand down her side, indicating her drop-dead gorgeous physique. “I had a new identity packet, including a Gold Card, some serviceable clothing, and tickets to take me to a spa in yet another state, where I was given a 3-month boot camp in makeup, clothes, deportment and the subtle art of being a sex bomb.”

"Three months?”

"Yeah, well, y’gotta remember, half of that is unlearning old habits.”

"Okaaayyy… and what does… your boss… expect from you?” I asked. “And me? What’s his agenda?”

She screwed up her face, and said, “Well… basically, he’s sort of runs a supervillain talent agency.”

"You mean he’s a super-powered pimp.”

"Not THAT,” she snapped with an insulted expression. “He gets orders from customers for various supervillain niches, and if he’s got a girl who’ll fit the bill, he sends her out to do the job. He gets 10% right off the top, and another 20% for upkeep of the treatment and other provided services, and another 20% to pay off the costs of the original treatment.”

"Like the Process Debt in that Erinyes web comic,” I said.

"Bingo!”

"And how much IS the cost of the original treatment?”

"One… Million… dollars!” she did a bad ‘Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil’ impression (if that isn’t redundant)

"URK!”

"Yeah,” she nodded sympathetically, “but a million isn’t as much as it used to be, and if you get a heavy-duty rep in the B&E field, burglars can ask a pretty penny. And the Syndicate will make your clients pony up- or else- and they’ll also make sure that Talon keeps his word about letting us buy out.”

"Wait a minute… who’s ‘Talon’?”

"Talon is our boss,” she said. “That’s what he calls himself, those times that he’s contacted me.” She finished off the sandwich and took a swig of the coke.

"What’s he like? What’s his agenda?”

"Very secretive, very hands-off. I’ve never met him face-to-face, only as a masked voice on the phone.”

"So, basically it’s an evil version of Charlie’s Angels.”

"Yeah, but I’m Farrah,” she said, preening.

"So what? I always preferred Jaclyn Smith, myself. A classic beauty AND a better actress.” She humphed, and I got off that topic quickly. Never diss the favorite Angel of someone who can roast you with a flick of her wrist. “Still, what’s his agenda then?”

She shrugged. “Dunno. From what I can tell, his agenda seems to be making money, perfecting his process, firming up his relationship with the Syndicate, aaannd… something else.”

"Something else?”

"Part of the repayment deal is that you will perform X number of services for HIM every year, pretty much for free. X number of these recruitment talks per year counts as one of those services; One if the recruit actually survives the process, so I AM rooting for you, Hon. But, as I said, every so often, Talon gives me a call and I go off to do something that I have no idea as to what it’s about.”

I sat down and thought it over. “Okay and what’s the catch? Do some of those ‘services’ involve killing people? Am I saving my own life by becoming a contract killer?”

"NO!” she snapped, offended. “As a matter of fact, I take a LOT of pride in the fact that I’ve managed to pull off all my contracts without a single casualty!” She paused and mugged a face. “Okay… I sent a couple of guys to the hospital… but they were superheroes, and they were trying to bust me, aaandannnddd…”

"AND?”

"AND, I sort of lose my temper every now and again.”

"How bad?” I asked. “Did you have anger issues before?”

"Oh, sure I got mad, same as everyone else!” she owned up. “But not like this… every so often, when I’m in a fight, it’s like… I totally wig out! It’s like I’m on fire and I just want to destroy everything. Fortunately, I’ve managed to snap out of it before I did anyone any real lasting damage, but… there are a couple of guys in spandex who’d really love to put a hurting on me, and I can’t say I blame ‘em much.” She finished with a very worried look.

Well, that was unexpectedly up-front! Well, there’s basically just one more question. Yeah, I know it’s cliché, but seriously, I gotta know. “So… looking like that… you get a lot of action?”

She just gave me a smug pussycat smile.

"So… what’s it like?”

She gave me a broad grin. “To be honest, the first time? It was icky. It was painful, it was messy, it was embarrassing, and t’tell you the truth, Honey, I asked myself what all the hubbub was about. The second and third times? They were… mmm… okay… But the FOURTH time? WHOO! I tell you true, Sweetie, there are reasons why women do strange and awkward things for a man who really pushes their buttons! And for some bizarre ‘God must hate us’ reason, the guys who are best in the sack seem to be complete and utter shitheels. Believe me, if I could hook up with a sweet, nurturing, reliable guy who charged my batteries the way that ratsass Randy does, I’d kick Randy to the curb in a second!”

"And what about women?”

"Meh, yeah. It’s okay…” she groused, “but it just doesn’t have that nitro-charged WOW that doing it with a guy does. At least not with the chicks that I’ve bumped nasties with.” She shrugged broadly. “All’s I can tell you honey, is your mileage may vary.”

I sat down and thought it over. I’ll give Talon his due: he made it seem very reasonable. But then, the best con artists always do. Still, it came down to one solitary thing: A 25% (approx.) survival chance into a situation that might be very compromising, but I might be able to find a way out of because I was FREE (or at least out of jail), was a hell of a lot better than a 8% survival chance into a sucky, broke, wasted, compromised and pain-wracked incarceration, hands down.

And if I hit one of the 75% non-survival chances? From the sounds of it, I’d never know it.

She gave me a knowing look and said, “Well, I think that I’ve done all that I can here.” She reached into her briefcase and pulled out a manila envelope. “Here’s a copy of the contract. Read it over and make any corrections that you think you’ll need. Talon expects you to have a few revisions that you’d like to make. Read it over, make the corrections you want, and e-mail the revisions to this addy.” She handed me a card. “Expect to waste a week or two doing that.”

"That’s… very… reasonable…” I commented numbly. Really! I’d expect a mad scientist to sink every hook he possibly could into me!

"Yeah, I know,” she said, clearly reading my feelings. “I kind of get the impression that he tried the hard-nosed approach before, and it bit him on the ass. So now he’s trying to be more reasonable and giving it a more hands-off, ‘let us live our own lives’ approach now.” She shrugged widely. And with that, she pulled on her overcoat and discreetly left me to my deliberations.

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Hot Stuff - yes, I know that she never told me her name, but according to the news services about four hours later, there was a big superhero dustup in Cicero between one of the local longjohn jockeys and a fire-throwing redheaded hottie called ‘Hot Stuff’ so it wasn’t any big Sherlock moment to figure out that it was her- was quite right about one thing: I did indeed waste about a week going back and forth with the contract. Talon- whoever, whatever he is- may be reasonable, but he’s not stupid, and he’s not a pushover.

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Once we stopped bouncing revisions back and forth, and settled on an agreeable contract, I printed it out, signed it, and sent it to… wherever… in the envelope that she had left with the original contract. I received a last message that the website we’d been using would be taken down and erased. I was to wind up my affairs as best I saw fit, and when that was done, I was to press that red ‘button’ on the smartphone again. I’d get one last message on it, and I was to obey the instructions given.

Well, it sounds like it’s a go. And not before time. I’ve been getting queasy feelings in the mornings. Again, I pressed the button. When I got to my cell that night, I checked my cell phone, and there was that one last message. It told me to check under my pillow, follow the instructions, and then press the red button one last time. Under my pillow was a small manila envelope with two gelatin capsules in it, and the Lewis Carroll-esque instructions: ‘Eat Me’.

I dry-swallowed the two capsules and pressed the button on the smartphone. The smartphone promptly did a ‘Mission Impossible’, dissolving into a nasty yet neat pile of plastic rubble that was easily flushed down the toilet.

I’ll give Talon this: whatever he put in those capsules was first-rate; I didn’t even have a chance to count to 100 before I felt them kick in, and I drifted with the random thought that my old life was ending, and there was a decent chance that a better one was starting.

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What happened next? Who knows?

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Insert all the bad imitation Raymond Chandler ‘I slowly regained consciousness’ patter here. I did not spring out of bed singing ‘I enjoy being a girl’. I woke up fuzzy-headed, and I sat around for at least an hour, looking numbly around the room as basic facts clicked into place, like I’m in a hotel room, I’m a girl, I cut a deal with a mad doctor whose name I’m not 100% about, I’m alive, I’m not nauseous, and… oh SHIT! I’m A Girl!

When my brain completed its reboot, I went over to the mirror and looked in it. The girl I saw in the mirror wouldn’t win the Miss America contest, but only because I don’t have the patience for all the political bullshit. Yep, somehow I got the face and figure that I’ve always wanted: heart-shaped, with killer cheekbones, big green sloe eyes, a straight but slightly turned up nose, a full lower lip, long slender neck, shaggy but silky blonde hair down to my jaw, a lithe build with all the right curves, a bust that’s just full enough for a good décolletage while not slowing me down, and a butt that was ripe and round, but firm and tight.

Well, if you’re gonna sell your soul, at least sell it to a devil who gives you full value in return.

Then it registered that I was dressed only in girls’ underwear, and not frilly lacy sexy stuff either, but slightly athletic jersey not-quite BVD panties and a ‘camisole’ that was basically a sports bra and t-shirt in one. Good for sleeping by yourself in, and that’s about it. When I searched around for something to wear, I found about three full changes of clothing, all of the jeans-and-T-shirt variety, a tote bag that suggested hostel living and an envelope.

In the envelope was a wallet with an Illinois driver’s license in the name of Tina Montgomery (something that I insisted on in our negotiation; think about it and you’ll spot the joke; I just hope no one else does), three credit cards also in that name, a birth certificate and social security card in that name, some other purse-lint, most of which was also in that name, $200 in cash, a smartphone, a few of the other inescapable techno-toys, a bus ticket and a letter. The letter told me that I was now legally dead of an overdose, my autopsy had been rubber-stamped, my ‘remains’ had been cremated, and my fingerprints removed from circulation and lost. I was now Helga Eileen Dubcek, the 19-year-old daughter of an insurance executive in LaGrange, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago. It also told me that Helga Dubceck had been a real girl who died in Los Angeles 8 months ago and to not to worry about Helga’s past coming back to haunt me, as she’d fulfilled the general expectation at her high school, where she’d unofficially been named ‘the Girl Most Likely to OD’. Helga’s record had been cleaned up some, with arrests and jail time erased, fingerprints changed and her GPA improved, but I should still avoid going to LaGrange. Helga, or rather Tina (she was listed as changing her name, and can you blame her?) was on record as taking a sabbatical, and was scheduled to start classes at NYU, with the stated intention of a major in the Fine Arts.

Okay, I’m working for a competent, methodical and thorough supervillain; I’m just not sure whether that’s a good thing or not.

From that point let’s go on fast forward: travel by bus is a pain in the ass. Unfortunately my first interaction with the opposite sex, as the opposite sex, was a grabby sleazebag who thought that any cute chick traveling by Trailways™ had to be a hooker looking for a pimp. I talked him into the restroom at the next rest stop we came to, and left him there, bleeding on the floor of the john. I may not be Wonder Woman, but I’m definitely strong out of proportion to my build. The bus dropped me off in a little town in Upstate New York, where I had a reservation at a ‘Fitness Spa’ (read: fat farm). I was greeted by a ‘grooming specialist’ who gave me the ‘I’ve done this before for you people; I don’t know what you’re about, I don’t want to know, all I want is for you to take this seriously’ speech.

And fast-forward again through three months of not-quite boot camp discipline (but just barely so), only instead of calisthenics, hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship and hiking, I got a crash course in makeup, hair care, how to dress, how to walk, and the intricacies of comportment. Y’know, all the stuff they sort of gloss over in all those ‘feminization fantasy’ stories on Fictionmania and other such sites. The results were delightful, but let me tell you, it was work, thank you very much! But the details are woefully prosaic, so let me gloss over all that to the one really interesting bit. Something that I Figured out was that I was super-humanly strong and fast. Not Superman level strong, but strong well out of proportion to my weight and frame. I’d say that I was in the lower reaches of Spiderman’s weight class, allowing for the wild fluctuation in strength that he was depicted as having. I could lap an Olympic track in half a minute. I was doing some gymnastics practice on the parallel bars, working on getting better overall control of a body that had subtle but very different dynamics than the one that I’d gotten used to. I was going for a dramatic dismount, when I missed the matt. And no, I don’t mean that I landed wrong, I didn’t land. I was floating about a foot off the floor.

I think that I’ve discovered that super power that was such a mystery factor.

I’ll spare you the step-by-step discovery process- God knows, I wished at the time that someone would spell it out for me. The short form was that I had a limited ability to affect gravity. I could make things lighter, almost to the point of weightlessness, or I could make them heavier by a factor of 16 (this is a SWAG- Scientific Wild-Ass Guess), I could do some serious super-leaps and controlled descents, I could make myself super-strong… kinda-a, sort-a, I had a strange sort of ‘float and slide’ thing going on and I found that I could move REAL fast in very short bursts, not exactly sure how that works. I found that I could use the gravity flux as a weird sort of sensory… thing; again, I’m not 100% sure there. In theory, I might be able to create protective fields around myself, or deflect incoming attacks, or maybe even bend light around me as to make myself invisible. But that’s gonna take some serious objectivity, the kind that I can’t really expect from myself. I’m gonna have to talk to Talon about that, when we do talk. Oh, and a couple of times, I got ‘stuck’ in weightless and superheavy modes. Again, I’ll have to talk to Talon about that.

The complete story is a lot longer and probably a lot more interesting- IF you’re not the person it’s happening to.

But still, I got to the point where I could pass for a reasonably stylish young lady, and I was given my walking papers. My ‘walking papers’ were a train ticket, and a note from Talon, telling me that berth at NYU was waiting for me, as was a reservation for a long-term room at the DeWinter Residence for Young Ladies in Manhattan.

A residence hotel for young ladies; how Bosom Buddies.

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August 10th, 2016

I admit it; I felt a rush of excitement as the taxi drove me from Grand Central Station to the DeWinter Residence in the Upper Eastside. It wasn’t just that I was in New York- I’ve been in the Big Apple before. It was that I was beginning my supervillain career in New York. I’m not trying out in Philadelphia or opening in New Haven; I’m going straight to Broadway! I am going to be mixing it up with some of the top-of-the-line superheroes and-

Hey, the Dark Avenger IS dead isn’t he? I mean he shot people! He didn’t just shoot villains, he fucking killed them. I mean, he’d get them down, and then put the barrel of the gun right to their head and blow their brains out! I mean, seriously, Dirty Harry movies look a lot different when you’re on the other side of the Law.

The DeWinter was just another brownstone, you’ve seen them in a thousand New York movies, with a walkup stoop and a modest plaque that said what it was. This was definitely one of those ‘you’ve got to know what it is before you step in the door’ kinds of places. The lobby was a modest affair, not really a place to hang out and socialize, more of a place for gentlemen visitors (who were informed by a decorous notice that they were not allowed beyond the first floor) to wait for the young lady in question to come down. Okay, it’s a tad old-fashioned, but it does give you options. The cabbie was nice enough to bring my bags up the stairs to the lobby, so I gave him his tip in cash. I rang a slap-bell that was in keeping with the conservative but refined décor of the lobby, and a few minutes later, a door behind the concierge’s desk opened and a handsome woman in either her mid-to-late 40s or possibly very graceful early-to-mid 50s stepped up to the counter. She had dark hair, large dark eyes, the very pale clear complexion that used to be called ‘porcelain’, and aristocratic features. She was little too heavy for the current waifish fashions, but she had the off-hand refinement, and far more importantly, certain confidence that her weight clearly didn’t bother her. She favored me with a cool polished professional smile and asked me my business.

I identified myself as Tina Montgomery, and said that I had a reservation. “Ah!” some but not all of the cool melted off her professional smile. “Yes, we’ve been expecting you. Your rooms are ready. I’m Madam Maria Zaleska, the concierge,” she introduced herself with a lovely velvet contralto voice that had just a touch of a Mittle Europa accent. She arranged for someone to take over the desk, and had the residence’s handyman help me with two of my bags while taking one herself. We took the small elevator up three floors, and Madam Zaleska gave me the basic rundown: washbasins and studio coolers in the rooms, a shared bathroom down the hall, there was a common area on the top floor, and there was a dining room where breakfast and a 6:00 dinner were included in the rent. When we got to my room, the handyman set my bags down and left. When he was well away, Mdm. Zaleska asked me, “And what’s your specialty?”

"Specialty?”

"What sort of supervillain work do you do? Talon merely informed me that you were coming, but he never bothers to give any specifics.”

"You know about Talon?”

"Yes, he sends some of his new girls here when they’re just getting started.”

"You rent rooms to supervillains?”

"It’s our core business! Good Lord knows if we provided rooms of this caliber in this neighborhood only to civilian girls, we’d be lucky to just break even! We charge 10 times the going rate,” she admitted, “but we provide seamless security without the dreary prison-like conditions that other services offer.”

"You mean all the girls who room here are supervillains?”

"Oh no,” she assured me, “the majority of the girls who live here are exactly what they appear to be: affluent young women just starting out in New York. They provide a perfect cover, far more effective than all the cloak-and-dagger measures that the Lowdown or the Hole-in-the-Wall or the Barataria, let alone the Tortuga or Port Royale, offer. Besides our cover and security, we also offer various services that cover the special needs of the profession.”

"Oh! Well then, my specialty is Stealth Entry and Acquisition.”

Her smile got noticeably more real and gracious. “Ah, a burglar! Excellent! Burglars always understand the need to keep things quiet.”

I offered a chuckle at the witticism and asked, “So what sort of colleagues will I be bunking with?”

Let’s see… we offer 12 rooms like this to the Trade. Four are available at the moment, two are on reserve; one of them’s down in Latin America for a few weeks and the other’s in the East Indies for a month or two. So you have five colleagues right at the moment. That will change rather unpredictably. First off, there’s Pinball; she’s what they’re calling a ‘Quick Entry’ operative these days. She’s a little rambunctious, but a good sort all told. She’s friendly with Lady Medusa, who’s a witch. Not bad as witches go, but there you are. Sadly, so is Hexfire. And, as usually happens when you have two witches under the same roof, they have a rivalry going on.” Madam let out a martyred sigh. “Next, there’s Rumble Rose, who’s a bit of a hooligan. Reasonable sort, but still a hooligan. Superstrong, very tough, and very good in a fistfight, that sort. And there’s Bloody Mary. She’s like Rose, only she likes razors.”

Razors?

"Oh, don’t worry about her, dear,” Madam assured me. “Mary won’t try anything in the DeWinter. She’s smart enough to know better than to do any dirt where she sleeps. Besides,” she added with a chuckle, “she thinks that I’m a vampire.” I gave her a questioning look, which she returned with a wry smirk.

The only things unusual about the rather spacious room were the loft bed (one of the reasons why it was so spacious) and suspiciously well placed gripping areas in the airwell, so Madam handed me my key and went on giving me the tour of the place. She showed me where the toilets and showers were, and then, right after the showers, she stopped and pulled out her cell phone. She punched something in and went right back into the shower room. From there she went into the first shower stall through a secret door, which led into a secret stairwell. She led me down several flights of stairs into what I took to be a sub-basement. When she closed the door to the stairwell behind her, she said, “We’re expensive, but we do our best to provide value for the cost. The civilian tenants don’t know anything about this sub-basement.”

"And I’ll keep it that way.”

"Very good. Keep all your exotic gear down here, in a secure locker we’ll provide. Remember dear: NO exotic gear in the rooms above. If you couldn’t explain it in court to an honest judge, keep it down here. Also, we have an infirmary with a VI automated emergency trauma surgery unit here. It’s not very smart, but it’ll do for minor knife wounds, non-threatening gunshots, cracked bones and like that. Anything nastier than that, and we can get you to any of five black clinics in the Five Boroughs without too much fuss. Now here’s the most important thing down here.” She took me into what appeared to be a locker room, with a showers, a makeup table, a triple full-length mirrors, and of course, lockers. Very sturdy lockers with very serious locks on them. “This is what we call the Staging Room. You’re not to wear your working clothes upstairs-”

"Do it down here,” I extemporized. “Keep the gear and costumes and weapons and whatever down here in the lockers. Change from mufti to working clothes here, and don’t let the civilians see you come down here. And if this map is any indication, you have a secret entrance- no, what a minute, how many entrances do you have down here?”

"It varies,” she said with a proud smile. “We have six main branches that go out in all directions, with several entrances along each branch. It’s not one long tunnel- that would be stupid; it’s a network of tunnels and corridors and passages with doors and so on that all connect together.”

Looking at the map, I noticed that the sheet was Smart Paper, and there were condition indicators at each entrance that included a Green-to-Red color bar, options of color coded Xs, and an option for skull-and-crossbones. “I take it that you have some way of telling whether a specific entrance is compromised or being watched?”

"Yes, it’s expensive, but the alternative is possibly losing this property in a RICO confiscation,” she said.

"How do you get back in?” I asked. “I mean, when you need a quick getaway, you need a quick getaway!”

Madam Z nodded. “That got a lot easier when everything went cellular. You just phone ahead and the Virtual Intelligence will guide you to the best entrance, prepare the door for you, and provide suitable distractions.”

"I see that a couple of the entrances are connected to parking garages,” I noted. “Still, the best policy is to only use these tunnels for, ah, strictly business matters.”

Madam nodded approvingly. “I’ve never met Talon personally, but I do admire his ability to recruit young ladies who understand that Professionalism isn’t a burden, it’s an asset.” Then she noticed something moving on the map. “And speaking of that let’s see how professional this one is…”

A few minutes later, the door to the Staging Room opened and a tall, strapping, and rather busty woman wearing a red-and-white outfit that couldn’t decide whether it was a spacesuit, motorcycle armor or a gymnast’s leotard swaggered in. Besides the leotard part, there were several reinforced parts including a few strategic pouches and caches here and there, there was a logo on the red chest unit consisting of a white dot and two elongated white lozenges forming a V. There were a few abrasions and tears here and there on her suit. There was a pause in her swagger when she saw Madam Zaleska, and she froze when she saw me. “So… ah…” she said hollowly. “Anything going on here that I should know?”

"We have a new guest,” the Madam said, gesturing at me. “Jackie, this is Tina; she’s going to be staying here for a while. Tina, this is Jackie, professionally known as ‘Pinball’; I mentioned her earlier. Oh, come to think of it, I never did ask: have you decided on your professional name yet?”

"I’m thinking ‘The Countess’, if that hasn’t been taken, or isn’t too presumptuous,” I answered back. “It’s suggestive, but doesn’t spell anything out, let alone make any tacit threats.”

"Do you speak any European languages?” Madam Z asked. “People are far more tolerant of Europeans affecting a title than Americans.”

"My French and Spanish are passable,” I said in French. “My mother and grandmother were Belgian, and they spoke French in the house, so I picked up on the proper pronunciation and cadence. My Russian and German are… comprehensible, though I’m told I speak German with a Dutch accent for some reason.”

"You’re multi-lingual, which puts you one up on the majority of Americans,” Madam Z said with an amused snort. “And as for passing for a European, just tell the French that you’re German and the Germans that you’re French, and for the most part, they’ll just congratulate themselves on speaking the other language so well; anyone else, and just tell them that you’re Hungarian. Everyone thinks that Hungarians are strange. ”

“’Professional name’?” Jackie cut in. She had shoulder-length carrot-red hair. Her face, which was still slightly stiff with being off guard, along with the figure that was so clearly displayed by the costume, showed that she was a prime example of the supervillainess as killer babe, which seems to be so prevalent in the business. “You’re in the Biz?”

"Why else would I bring her down here?” Madam Z asked dryly.

"Oh right!” Jackie perked up and looked at me with interest.

"And speaking of such things,” the Madam continued, “Jackie, exactly what are you doing, using the tunnels at this hour? It’s only Two in the afternoon!”

"You don’t wanna know,” Pinball said with flat certainty. “Plausible Deniability.” Dear God, I’m in an industry where that’s not only a valid answer, but a reasonable and responsible one… “So? What’s your shtick?” she asked with curiosity.

"I’m in Stealth Entry and Acquisition,” I answered. It sounds so much better than ‘sneak thief’.

"That’s nice,” Jackie said as she unbuckled the hardplate on her outfit and walked toward the infirmary. “But I meant, what’s your angle? What’s your edge? What’s your gimmick?”

"Oh, you mean do I have a super power?”

"BINGO.” She sat down on the couch in the infirmary and flashed her cell phone at a sensor. Then she peeled out of the top of her outfit and let lights play over bruises and scrapes. I gave her a brief and very superficial summation of my abilities, which I demonstrated by ‘figure skating’ around the locker room. “Okay, I can see how that could be a help to a sneak,” she admitted as she went over to the shower, stripped completely out of her outfit and took a quick shower. “I mean, it’s not invisibility or intangibility or even PK, like some sneaks do, but it’s an edge.”

"It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it,” I said, and instantly realized that I’d unwittingly quoted an old Country and Western song.

"There y’go!” Stepping out of the shower, Jackie bought a few packets out of a vending machine, very similar to the machines that are in the powder rooms of many venues, and swabbed a few of her cuts with a pad and slapped a couple of other pads on her bruises. “Oh well, at least I made this month’s rent and beer money.”

"Good to hear it,” Madam Z said. “Jackie since you’re through with your business for the day, why don’t you show Tina around? Veda gets nervous if I leave her at the desk for too long.” A beat later, she added. “Get dressed first.”

"Oh, right!” As Jackie pulled on some jeans and a sweater with a very deep neckline, Madam Z walked me through synching my phone with the Residence’s computer, so the ‘watchdog’ would recognize me. After Jackie got herself put together and had a decorous layer of makeup over her showing bruises, she gave me the 50-cent tour of the place which was… pretty nice. The common area on the top floor had the expected lounge with a TV set and vending machines, a pool table and the inexorable ping-pong table. Then she spotted a sleek young woman sitting in one of the chairs reading, who had a trim dark style that might be called retro-beat, or pared-down Goth, or maybe non-angsty Emo. She was pale, wore a dark gray turtleneck sweater and had sort of long ropy dirty blonde hair that was pulled back into a chignon. She had the sort of narrow angular features that I tend to associate with the French. “Hey Dooz!” Jackie greeted her. “This is…”

"Tina,” I finished for her.

"ah Yeah, she just moved in. She’s in show biz too. So, you wanna get a cup of coffee?”

Picking up that there was more involved here than a cup of java, I nodded.

As we rode the elevator down to the First floor, I worried at the remark ‘in show biz too’. Once we were on the street and away from the Residence, I asked the blonde, “’Dooz’?”

"My handle is ‘Lady Medusa’,” she said with a slightly superior smile.

"Oh yes, Madam Zaleska mentioned that you were friendly with Jackie here. But what was that about ‘show biz’? My cover is that I’m going to be going to college to study Art.”

"Oh!” Jackie said like she’d stumbled on something. “Oh, y’see Tina, here in Noo Yawk when we supervils gotta talk to each other, we got our own special slang. But we don’t use Cockney Rhyming Slang, or Yiddish- or at least not that much Yiddish- instead we use words and stuff from Show Business for something in Super-crime.”

"So, when you say that I’m in Show Biz too, you’re saying that I’m a supervillain. And what does ‘wanna get a cup of coffee’ mean?”

"It means ‘you want to go to the coffee shop on the corner and get a cup?’”

"What she means, is that talking about The Biz, even using Show Biz slang, isn’t the safest thing to do at Milady’s,” Dooz explained. “Oh, ‘Milady’s’ is a nickname for the Residence. From Milady DeWinter, the villainess in the Three Musketeers.”

"And a kickass broad if there ever was one!” Jackie cracked.

"Let me guess,” I smirked, “one of the civilians at Milady’s overheard some of you talking about, ah, say an ‘audition’, and tried to muscle her way into what she thought was a foot in the door on Broadway?”

"It didn’t happen to me,” Dooz said smothering a snicker. “But I hear that it got very sticky for a while.”

I was gratified to learn that the local coffee shop wasn’t yet another Starbucks, but rather an independent that still had comfy chairs and accepted that lounging customers was part of the business. Okay, so the barista just plunked a teabag into a cup and poured hot water into it; you can’t have everything. There was the inevitable friction that you have to expect when tea drinkers rub elbows with coffee drinkers, but nothing nasty. But Jackie tried to get past that by saying, “So, Tina… how’d you get your powers?” She gave ‘Dooz’ (whose name was apparently Melody) the brief rundown on my powers and like that. “So, I’m a mutant, and Melody’s what’s called a ‘Legacy Witch’.”

"That means that my magical powers have been handed down from generation to generation,” Melody explained. “Mother or grandmother passing down both lore and power to the next generation.” And then her smile went cagy. “And I think that Tina’s sponsor might not appreciate you looking too closely.”

"Sponsor?” I echoed, trying very hard to avoid letting the chill I felt in my gut show. “What makes you think I have a sponsor?”

"You’re clearly new to the supervillainy scene; you don’t know that much about the details of the Biz, and to be honest, you’re not really that comfortable with the entire idea of being a career criminal,” she explained. “But at the same time, you’re not all abuzz with curiosity or enthusiasm about it, and you’re not damping down a lot of rage; there goes the mindset of most rookie supervillains. What’s your specialty?”

"Stealth Entry and Acquisitions, with a sideline in Sabotage,” I said clinically.

Melody gave me a smug nod. “Stealth Entry and Acquisitions, with a sideline in Sabotage. Another young woman with a formidable array of skills at Milady’s. And you come to straight to the DeWinter, and the Madam takes you in without a fuss. I’ve noticed a string of newbies coming to Milady’s- all of them young, beautiful and very skilled. None of the others are at Milady’s right at the moment, but then they DO sort of filter out in suspiciously well-timed order. I’m guessing that you have a sponsor, who somehow rejuvenated you and gave you super powers and is funding your entry into the supervillain game.”

Ick. So much for being stealth; this does not bode well for my career as a sneak thief. Still, grace under fire, and all that… “I’m not kicking,” I said and took a ladylike sip of tea.

"Ew,” Pinball said with a grimace. “Sponsor. Maximus Suckimage. Honey, whatever kind of deal you think you got, you got shafted. You may think that you can buy out quick, but the leeches who play that game like to have their suckers on the line for as long as they can, and bleed them for as much as they can. And they will trip you up, just to show they can.”

"It would have been nice to have the option to say ‘No’,” I said with a sigh.

"He made you an offer you couldn’t refuse?”

"It was more like I was in a position at the time where this is a distinct improvement, no matter how much vig he’s putting on all of this, than he had a gun at my head,” I said.

"Jackie…” Melody said with a warning note to her voice, “we don’t know, we don’t need to know, we don’t want to know…”

"Still,” Jackie clucked, “you’re in a sucky position: every day that you’re not bringing in money is more money that you’re deeper in hock to your sponsor. If you just go out and steal something, the fences will lowball you into the ground, and that’s if you can find a fence who’s willing to take it.”

"My sponsor is listing me with the Syndicate,” I said.

"Yeah, but you’re in a Catch-22,” Jackie pointed out. I wondered if she’d even heard of Joseph Heller. “You won’t get hired for anything profitable until you get a rep, and you can’t get a rep because you won’t get hired for anything that will earn you a rep.”

"Jackeee…” Melody droned in a ‘don’t borrow trouble’ tone.

"Not to worry,” I breezed. “I’ve been giving this some thought.” Like weeks of concentrated thought and sweat and tortured dreams, back at the fat farm. “And I’ve got an angle.”

"An angle? What angle, Captain Sternn?”

I avoided that by asking about the details of that ‘Show Biz Slang’ they’d mentioned: ‘Actors’ are basically the operatives who pull off a job, the backup goons are ‘Extras’, the ‘Director’ is the guy calling the shots on the job, the principal is called ‘the Producer’, big name supervillains are ‘stars’, and supervillains with innate powers are called ‘talents’, while supervillains whose powers come from power objects are called ‘prop men’, and supervillains with no powers at all are called ‘stunt men’. “Stunt men?” I asked, “Wouldn’t a ‘stunt man’ be a breaking and entry artist, like me?”

"No, you’re a ‘Magic Act’,” Jackie said smugly. “After all, your act is basically making things disappear, right?”

"Okaaayy… and what about real magicians?” I asked raising a curious eyebrow at Melody.

"Simple,” Dooz said with a snarky smirk, twiddling her fingers. “We’re Special Effects.”

"Okay, enough of that,” Jackie said sternly. “Look, the reason I asked you down here is that I wanted to sound you out, get an idea of where you was coming from. But since it turns out that you’re a rookie, it looks like I’m gonna have to spell out The Code to you.”

"The Code?” I peeped, “There’s a Supervillain’s Code?” Okay, this does not sound like anything that I heard during my 25+ years as an investigator; Supervillains have a Code they have to follow?

Jackie scrunched up her face in a grimace of awkwardness. “YeesssNnnooo… kinda- sorta… it’s complicated.”

Melody stepped in and covered for Jackie. “Tina, you may have gotten the rather odd notion that Supervillainy is one big happy evil family. It’s NOT. When you scrape away all the posturing, we’re all Criminals. Outlaws. VILLAINS, like it says on the tin. We rob, destroy, terrorize, and even kill, for a profit. But at the same time, we have to be able to do business, which is very hard when you’re worrying whether the guy you’re doing business with is going to whip out a disintegrator and dissolve you at any second.”

"Wait a minute,” Jackie cut in again, “I think I got it. You ever heard of Damon Runyon?”

"I was an extra in my high school production of Guys and Dolls,’” I lied.

"Good enough,” Jackie said. “Look, in Guys and Dolls, the lowlifes of Broadway are… well… lowlifes. BUT there are things they just do not DO. In a Damon Runyon story, if a guy gives his marker, whether it is for money or a favor, when the guy holding the marker calls it in, the guy whose marker he has makes good on it. Period. Otherwise the word gets out that he is a welcher, his marker is no good, and he will never get into a hot game ever again, let alone get anyone to take his marker, and the only people who will associate with him are crumb-bums who are just as sleazy and untrustworthy as he is.” By this time, Jackie had fallen into a Sheldon Leonard-esque patter; whether that was intentional or not, who knows?

"You mean that bit in the movies, where crooks never rat each other out to the Cops?” I asked. “But that’s bullshit! Crooks snitch each other out all the time!”

"Yeaahhh… but those are street crooks and even then you know the saying-”

"Snitches get stitches’?”

"BINGO,” she said, shooting me a finger. “That’s very real. Okay, it’s hypocritical as hell, but it’s still real. Let’s see… uhm… okay, back in the Eighties, the Columbian Cartels and the Jamaican Posses were big in the News. They were coming up here and kicking up a fuss and getting very bloody, and simply not following the rules, doin’ stuff like shooting it out with the Cops and hitting the families of guys they was feuding with. BUT, after a while they stopped doing that, ‘cause nobody was talking to them, they weren’t moving any coke, and the Cops stopped trying to bust them and just took them out and put a bullet in the backs of their heads.”

"Actually, I think that it’s more that they picked up that up here, it’s all about Business,” Melody said. “Down in El Sur, there’s honor and pride and machismo… but up here, if you’re not making money, then why are you wasting our time?”

"EXACTLY!” Jackie peeped, “That’s just what I was tryin’ to get at! Tina, when you scrape away all the comic book crap, Supervillainy is really just a business! Yeah, there are guys in costumes doing some really crazy shit- or political stuff, which is just crazy shit with a printed agenda- but most of us are just in it for the money. That’s what The Code is really about: it’s about a bunch of dangerous violent people getting together so’s they can make money. It’s about Professionalism!

"So it’s like ‘guidelines’, like that ‘parley’ thing in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies?”

"More to the point right here,” Melody cut in, “it’s about living arrangements. The DeWinter is a good place to stay, and having everyone abiding by The Code helps keep it that way.”

‘The Code’ pretty much boiled down to:

  • Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #1: Don’t Shit Where You Eat

  • Rule #2: Keep Family out of it

  • Rule # 3: Professional courtesy. No interfering with another supervillain's contracts. No ‘pissing in the pool’.

  • Rule #4: Pay Your Debts

  • Rule #5: Keep it Business, never take things personal

  • Rule #6: Don’t play both sides

  • Rule #7: Don’t double-cross your principal or partners unless they cross you first

  • Rule #8: Keep your word

  • Rule #9: Never steal anything needed or loved

  • Rule #10: Only kill as a matter of necessity or blood-debt

  • Rule #11: Always take care of your people.

  • Rule #12: Look out for other Right Guys

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Yes, like I told Jackie, I had an angle to play. But I didn’t just go in, that’s a rookie’s move. And this may be my first professional burglary, but I’m no rookie. First, on Madam Zaleska’s suggestion, I went to a Personal Electronics store just off Times Square called ‘Next Step’ and gave them her name. I was taken down a secret elevator into what I can only describe as a Best Buy™ for supervillains. Basically it was a high tech retail outlet catering to the costumed mayhem crowd. Okay, some of the stuff was pretty rinky-dink, but that pen-and-pencil set looked killer, and I definitely picked up the selection of tricked-out faux credit cards, and well, deep down I’m still guy enough to drool over that set of multi-tools. Shane, the proprietor, main salesguy and head tech geek, was very helpful- when he wasn’t drooling all over me. Still, when he had his libido in check, he was very intelligent, knew what he was talking about, and was full of great suggestions. He steered to me to exactly the gizmos that I needed.

And three others that I only realized that I didn’t really need until I got them home and out of the wrapper. What can I say? He was a really good salesman.

That bit of silliness out of the way, I got down to business. First, I paid a visit to Montauk Mutual’s Manhattan regional office, claiming to be pursuing a complaint. As it’s the norm with Montauk Mutual, saying that you’re pursuing a complaint is a sovereign way of being totally ignored, so I was able to move through the building as though I was invisible. Still, I managed to pull some Social Engineering and got three bits of information that I needed, the first and at the moment most important of them being the name of Montauk Mutual’s main IT guy in the Five Boroughs and his address in Brooklyn. The ride over to Brooklyn and back on the subway train was the hardest part of this. Getting into his apartment was so easy that I barely broke stride. His apartment was a rat’s nest, and inserting the special gizmo into IT Guy’s (well, would you remember something like that yutz’s name?) work-at-home desktop was simplicity itself. The ‘special gizmo’ was basically a wireless link that was designed to blend seamlessly into the architecture of the desktop. When IT Guy worked from home (something he did frequently), the gizmo phoned a unit that I had set up that recorded and analyzed every password and address that he worked with. Three days later, Montauk’s internal network was pretty much my bitch.

But I didn’t go merrily snooping through Montauk’s files. That’s a sure way to get spotted. Instead, I waited for a time when the Montauk network’s traffic was heaviest and used IT Guy’s desktop to get in. I quietly accessed and copied highly confidential information on over 200 high profile contracts, with an eye for those contracts that had big screaming red notes about gaping holes in the security. I also copied out their information on over 1000 suspected ‘Magpies’, rich art collectors who have small but hideously valuable collections of stolen artwork that they keep for their private appreciation. They also have very strong leads on museum employees and officials and trustees that we suspect made off with various works for their own enjoyment. Seriously, clerks and guards and curators who just walk off with something are estimated to be a major cause of the art theft that insurance companies have to pay off on. We have suspects, but the legal obstacles to recovering it are simply appalling. But I now have their files, and I’m not bound by those strictures anymore.

And no, I didn’t download it on the Net; they look for that. Instead, I ordered a hard text of the reports to be made, and a thumb-drive to be copied of the data. And then I went back to Montauk’s office and picked up both in person, and walked them out with a hand truck. To be honest, the hardest part of all this was plowing through the reports; Montauk’s corporate style for their reports can best be summed up as ‘turgid’.

Five days later- and yes, I know that I’m supposed to be getting ready to enroll at NYU! But Please! I’m BUSY!- I went to the Syndicate’s hideously encrypted Black ICE from Hell website and using Talon’s sponsorship, registered the handle ‘The Countess’ (last known user retired in 1987), filed my trademark (A sideways brilliant-cut diamond within a tiara as a script capital C), listed my services as an ‘Attainer of High Demand Valuables’, and Kickstarted an art theft. Yes, since I look 19 years old, I’m unleashing the most insidious weapon of this new era: SOCIAL MEDIA! Basically, I said that I was confident that I could acquire seven Dutch Old Masters (specifically, two ter Borches, a Danckerts, two Van Ostades, a Holsteyns and a Knijff) from the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, but if I didn’t get at least 50 grand per, I wouldn’t bother. Actually, it was more of an auction, with the specific pieces going to the highest bidder. Four days later, I stopped the bidding with the Van Ostades tavern scene going for 75 grand, and the ter Borches Judgment scene scraping the bottom of the barrel at $100 over the bare minimum. All in all, 480 grand and change. Yeah, I know, standing back and looking at it, 480 K is a LOT of money; so why do I get the impression that art collectors are really CHEAP?

I also noticed a few cheap shots about ‘pushy newbies’ on the chat forum, and there was even a betting line on whether or not I’d pull it off. The line was pretty steady at 9:2 against me. Really! If it wasn’t such an opportunity, I’d be insulted! I put down a 5K bet on myself, with a double-or-nothing condition that I’d pull it off by TONIGHT.

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Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #9: Never steal anything needed or loved

At 1:15 (only yoyos insist on going in at midnight) I stood atop the National Academy School of Fine Arts building, looking across East 88th St. at the assault on the common good taste that is the Solomon Guggenheim Museum of Art. No, I’m not a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, and don’t get me started on Bauhaus!

I was wearing the nigh-obligatory skin-tight not-quite latext bodysuit that Shane tells me is called a ‘Spark Suit’ for some reason. It’s black just at the moment, but it can shift to any pattern of colors that you can think of, and is rated as proof up to .357 rounds at close range, and resists stains and acids and adhesives and a whole bunch of other stuff. Over the spark suit I wore a motorcycle-style jacket of the same material with a hood, and a utility belt that Batman would approve of with my ‘diamond-inside- a tiara/C’ logo for the belt buckle. Under the hood, I wore a golden blonde wig cut in a pageboy with bangs, which was polyester, so that if any strands of it got lost somehow, they’d think that I was another hair color. Strapped to my back was a large, slightly awkward squarish package, roughly 100 x 80 x 22 cm. Over my eyes I wore a GizSpex 540, which has vision enhancement, Starlight, IR, UV, Thermograph imaging, Telescopic vision at x640, flare suppression, Augmented Reality, and Object Recognition and Targeting that synched with the GizTac-2015 Tac/Ops Sensor Suite, which was itself synched to the GizStop455 and GizMist724 units on the back of my belt, and I wore a GizSpritz555 tactical chem sprayer on my left wrist.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know… What can I say? Shane is a VERY good salesman.

I looked around and let the GizSpex spot one, two, three, four potential observers on various rooftops. Good. Going in completely unseen and having no one the wiser that I was ever there might be the theoretical optimum, but then you don’t build up a rep by doing things that nobody hears about.

I took a deep breath, walked back to the furthest edge of the roof, and started my career in crime in the dumbest way that I can imagine. I did a speed-burst to the edge of the roof, did a power-jump, bounced off a lamppost and landed on the side of the Guggenheim. The normal annex, not the FLW eyesore. Then I skittered over to the edge of the funnel, and got onto the roof, making sure to stick within the narrow wedge of roof that the Montauk file on the Guggie indicated wasn’t covered by some camera or sensor. Then I used my Gizmatic OmniTool545® to open up the housing to one of the AC units just enough, very carefully disengage the alarm trigger, and I fit theat package into the very narrow access tube and followed immediately. Why the access tube? Because everyone and their idiot kid brother has seen the bit on TV about the ventilation shaft.

I managed to get the packet and myself inside without tripping any alarms. When I was at the very top of the corkscrew, I affixed the GizRappel623 (what can I say? Shane is a very good salesman) to the edge of the rail and let myself down. And YES, Best Beloved, I know that that will only make me conspicuous if I’m spotted. Trust me, I got an angle. I let myself down the center of the spiral, and one at a time, I took care of business. The ter Borches Seamstress? Check! The Holsteyns watercolor cockerel? Check! The Danckerts Harbor of Rye? Check! The Van Osteads Drinking Soldiers? Check! The Knijff Scene of an English Country House? Check! The Van Osteads Tavern Scene? … Oh Shit, somebody moved it! I scrambled about until I found it (and I have NO IDEA how it got there), and finally took care of that. The ter Borches Judgment scene? Check! My link into the Guggie’s security forces told me that they were running Yellow-going-Amber. And that suited me right down to the ground.

I got to my waiting rappel line and set the packet on my shoulder. And waited. And waited. Will you guys come ON? I don’t have all night! Then- finally!- a guard on his grounds came by, and I just barely by the skin of my teeth managed to get seen just before I hit the recall button on the GizRappel, which jerked me up to the very top before you could say James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree. Guggie Security immediately went from Yellow-going-Amber to Screaming Red, and lights filled every part of the building, which was not designed for that sort of thing. The GizRappel was designed to unclamp with a simple pull that could be combined with coming up over the edge, so I did that as read. Since the alarms were going off already, I just kicked open the door to the roof.

I clamped the GizRappel on the edge of the roof, and paused to target the clamping plate that I’d set on the roof of one of the other buildings across the street earlier. The GizRappel shot out from my hand and latched onto the clamping plate magnetically and pulled the trailing line taut. The part that was still in my hand easily converted to a powered zipline, and I rode the line up to the other roof. I then disconnected the magnetic connector, and the line contracted back to the clamp back on the Guggie, which then unclamped itself and fell to the street below. And Yes, it IS designed to do just that.

Not that I was hanging around to gloat over how sophisticated it all was. No, I sprinted across the roof, jumped across the alley to the next building and climbed the corner up to the roof of that one, and paused for a quick look around to see if anyone or anything was following me.

But just as I’d made sure that there wasn’t anyone on the rooftop with me, there was a motion, and suddenly there was someone there. A figure crouched with metallic wings spread wide, arms posed, and a man with a hawks-head helmet grated out, “Surrender now, or face the razor-edged justice of…The Steel Falcon!

I strove mightily to stifle a guffaw, which still managed to escape as a snicker, which then turned into gales of laughter. “Mwah-ha-ha-hah!” I caroled, and then the words simply came bursting out. “Let me guess: you have a poster of Batman over your bed!” And then I broke out laughing again, waggling a finger at him. But even as I laughed, I realized that though I’d decided that I’d be using a ‘sophisticated Cosmopolitan European’ accent and persona, for some reason I was using a sort of ‘Merry Upper Crust Brit’ accent, one of those things you hear in movies with the Gentry riding to the hounds, liveried servants, massive country estates, being terribly terribly witty and having discreet affairs between cocktails and world wars. Fuck. Well, I’m stuck with it; changing would only make it worse.

"WHY does everybody say that?” he snapped, which only set me off on another gale of laughter “You’re not going to heckle me out of arresting you!” With that, he lunged at me, and tried to grab me. I blocked his grab, used my gravity to lift him up and over, and throw him into the roof.

"REALLY! I knew that you Yanks were forward, but really! We haven’t even been introduced! Do you know Olivia Palmero?”

"ah, NO.”

"You’re joking… everyone knows Olivia Palmero, even if they’ve never met her… Well, do you know Byrdie Bell?”

"Who?”

"Oh dear… well, what about Anisa Anisimova? You can’t go anywhere without running into Anisa these days…”

"ah… No.”

"Really, I’m going to be robbing Olivia Palmero this weekend, and I was hoping that she’d introduce us. But I’m afraid, my good man, that you’re vigilanticizing out of your league! You simply haven’t the social cachet to be a brooding avenger of the night in New York! Maybe Hoboken…” I have no idea where any of this is coming from. I just open my mouth, and Lynn Redgrave comes pouring out. “Ah well, do give my very best to your sidekick or partner or teenage ward or butler or houseboy or significant other…!”

And with that, fun and games time was over. He went for something, and really not wanting to find out what sort of nasty, I dove for the edge of the roof. He threw something in front of me that went flash and bang, and I was battered back from the edge. He managed to get a grip on me, and we grappled around for a while- STRICTLY platonic, I assure you, purely business. We were both at a bit of a disadvantage, both of us having awkward things strapped to our backs. I had the advantage of superior strength and speed, but he had the advantage that he went around with those wings strapped to his back all the time. I however, had the advantage that the spark suit that I was wearing was geared to be slick-going-on-frictionless in the vast majority of areas. Certain strategic areas are left untreated so that you can do things like stand, put on gear, and, well, get dressed. The point being is that I am now officially a slippery character, and every time he tried to get a grip on me, I just wriggled out of it.

But then I felt something on my wrist that wouldn’t slip off. Looking at it, I saw that he’d managed to fasten a thick cuff, like one half of a handcuff, around my wrist. Oh I do NOT like where this is going. I kicked him off of me and, not bothering to take any bearings, I zipped to the edge and power-jumped for everything I had. Which landed me nowhere near any rooftops, but I managed to bounce off a lamppost and latched onto the side of a building and spider-crawled up to the roof. The sad part is that I had a ‘gauntlet’ prepared for anyone following me that would trip them up and get me to one of the Residence’s secret entrance tunnels, but I wasn’t exactly sure where I was right at the moment. I’d been in such a hurry to get away from Iron Turkey before whatever nastiness was connected to this cuff went off that I’d jumped without taking my bearings. After that scramble, I could be on the wrong side of the building from my gauntlet.

Well, it would be stupid to be running along the tops of these buildings with a flying superhero looking for me, so I headed for the fire escape with an eye toward using the concrete jungle to my advantage. A good plan that hit a major roadblock when I grabbed the fire escape and it grabbed back. Or, should I say that stupid cuff grabbed onto it. I was going at a good clip, and I almost pulled my arm out of its socket. I managed to pull the cuff from the fire escape, but it cost me time and slowed me down. The cuff would do that every time I came near anything ferrous, and I couldn’t spare the time to pick the lock to get the damned thing off my wrist without making myself a sitting duck. Steel Falcon may not be the yoyo I’d taken him for.

Still, getting off this rooftop was still a valid strategy, so in order to keep from having to pry this thing off the fire escape every five seconds I just jumped off the top of the building. Yes indeedy, having gravity power does come in handy, don’t it?

I pelted down the alley, hoping to figure out how to get back onto my gauntlet, or at least find a nice little niche where I could get this stupid cuff off. I stopped just long enough to check the GPS in my visor. And as I was, a warning alert that I was being targeted went off. I did a high vaulting leap up onto a second story window sill, just in time to avoid getting glopped by some sort of maybe not explosive but exploding glob that looked like chewed bubble gum. And not even tutti-frutti!

Steel Falcon zoomed past me through the alleyway, taking a huge risk in the narrow passage. “HEY!” I yelled at him, “At the very least, you could use a hanky!” He pulled up out of the alleyway. Okay, tactics time: he’s willing to come down into the concrete canyon to get at me, so staying on the ground isn’t any real advantage. On the other hand, staying down here limits me as much as it does him, and he can keep an eye on all the exits from above. So, limiting my arc of movement favors him more than me. Also, he’s expecting me to stay down here, so going topside and making a very fast break for it over the rooftops gives me a chance of slipping out of his target lock. Once I’m out of his sight, subtlety and evasion favor me. As it is, by moving sneaky and slow, I’m just giving him a chance to draw a bead.

And the second that I realized that, I jumped and managed to avoid yet another gumwad. I did a couple of Spiderman style- bounding bounces off fire escapes, ledges or whatever, I wasn’t keeping track, to get to the roof of the building and made tracks. Unfortunately, I made tracks way too near a standing pipe, and that cuff clamped itself on. Again, my poor besieged shoulder was almost wrenched out of its socket, and worse, it made me a sitting duck for Superchicken up there *Sploosh!* He nailed me good and proper, getting me in my center mass, covering me and the pack in quickly setting goop. He even got some in my hair, and I had the horrible image of trying to get that crap out. Then I remembered that my hair was safely tucked away under a wig. Heh.

I pulled at the goop, and to my surprise, it simply slid off. Oh, right, right: spark suit. Shane said something about it not allowing paints, dyes, acids- or adhesives- to get into the fabric. Keep this up, Shane, and I might even give your wares an unsolicited endorsement!

Thank God there was no one to see that but the two of us. I'm certain there are porn sites devoted to that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to give the pack that I was lugging around, or its harness or straps the same treatment. I frantically tugged at the harness, trying to get it loose before the Turkey of Steel completed his turn and came back. Then I kicked myself for being an idiot, flicked on my GizSpritz, and set it for super-freeze, one of 5 shots of a very potent cryogenic, which could have a number of useful properties, including freezing that goop to the point where it would be brittle. James Bond, wherever you are, eat your heart out!

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Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule # 3: Professional courtesy. No interfering with another supervillain's contracts. No ‘pissing in the pool’.

But, just as the pressure was building up (it’s always something with these gadgets) a metallic hand reached out of left field, grabbed onto one of the straps of the harness and yanked the pack out of the goop. “HEY!” I managed to grab onto the other strap and was pulled off the rooftop, across the alley, and onto the roof of another building.

"What?” Demanded the tall and well-built figure who was dragging me over. “Let GO, you fucking skank!”

"Skank?” I echoed, getting to my feet. “Look… Strongarm,” I said, reading the name that was written down one side of his pants. He was wearing a sleeveless black suit with a wide gray belt and gray metallic ‘paldrons’ (shoulder pads), a close-fitting gray helmet, and his left arm was a massive, overbuilt cybernetic thing that was contracting. Oh, and as I said, he had ‘Strongarm’ written down the sides of his pants in red letters. I suppose it’s one way of advertising, I suppose. “I just spent no small amount of time and effort into getting that out of that museum, so those are MY spoils you’re mistreating. So, kindly hand that back and be off with you!”

"Oh please,” he muttered. He reared back that massive fist and shot a telescoping arm out at me, which I just barely managed to get out of the way of.

"What?” I sputtered, “What happened to ‘Professional Courtesy’?”

"Hey, I’m a professional- you’re just some screwy broad who thinks that she can play at being a sexy cat burglar.”

"Very well… if you’re going to be like THAT about it,” I said as I skootched over a couple of steps.

"And what do you think you’re doing?”

"Oh, I’m just putting you between myself and the incoming low-flying superhero.”

Strongarm was savvy enough to not do the old ‘I’m not stupid enough to fall for that old gag’ ploy, spun around and threw a punch right into Steel Falcon. Not into his face; that probably would have killed him, but squarely into his center mass, which probably knocked the wind out of him. Unfortunately for Strongarm, Steel Falcon was just in the process of unleashing a flurry of razor-edged ‘feathers’, and he (Strongarm) wound up shielding me from them. “THEN KEW!” I sang as the last of the very nasty projectiles clattered off of Strongarm. I grabbed Strongarm by the back of his chest whatever that kind of armor’s called before he could recall that arm, and lifted him up. It was awkward, what with him thrashing around with that telephone pole of an arm, but I managed to heft him over the side of the roof. He managed to latch onto the side of the roof, but I still got my opening to put some distance between myself and two extremely unreasonable men.

Not that I was getting any closer to getting to that gauntlet that I’d put so much effort into. I was making my way across the roof, when Steel Falcon made another strafing run, sending another volley of those damned feathers in front of me, cutting me off. God alone knows what kind of nastiness he has them primed with. I did a 180 and ran right into Strongarm, who used that trick arm of his to pole-vault over to me. I suspect that he has a whole raft of tricks like that. I turned the 180 into a 360 and charged into the feathers, which exploded into a very thick smokescreen.

How considerate!

The smokescreen hampered Strongarm and Darkwing Dork a lot more than it did me- I have that gravity sense, remember? So, using the smoke as cover, I did a light-hop and came down as heavy as I could in the center of the feathers. I broke through the slat and tarpaper roofing into the far-pricier than the building materials really warranted apartment or condominium below. I interrupted what looked like a hot date- or, given the difference in the ages of the two *ahem!* ‘lovers’, possibly a negotiation for a promotion- excused myself and let myself out the door. From there, I went to the stairwell, dropped down twelve flights, found the doorway to the service entrance, went out into the alleyway-

-and almost bumped my nose into Steel Falcon’s chest. As I was reacting, he clamped another of those damned cuffs onto my other wrist, which magnetically clamped my wrists together. Knowing a bad situation when I saw it, I jumped up, hopped off the side of the building-

-and got snagged on the fly by Strongarm’s long arm of the lawless.

I know, they brag about it a lot, but New York really IS a very tough town.

Still, Strongarm managed to pull my hands apart from each other, even if he didn’t mean to do it. As he dragged me up, I managed to clear my GizSpritz, and just as he was dragging me over the lip of the roof, I let him have it, right in the face. Y’know, with the cryogenic spray that I was gonna use on the glop? Besides frosting up his mask so that he couldn’t see, it was fucking COLD, and he reacted by flinching back and flailing around. With that opening, I slammed the palm of my fist onto his brow, sending a gravitic wave through his head, which, if I’m guessing right should mess up his sense of balance something fierce. He reacted by stumbling around, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure if I messed up his sense of balance, or he was just reacting to having a concentrated wave of gravity go through his brain. I mean, how can you really be sure?

Even as Strongstench was stumbling around, Steel Falcon shot up past us and did a quick turn to take in the situation. Well, we can’t have that, so I made tracks across the rooftop, did a long jump across the street and badly missed the next roof, and lost precious time scrabbling back up to the roof again. Once I was (more or less) safe up on the roof, I took five, got my breath back, and forced myself to think again. Where is Steel Falcon? He should be right on my heels. And how did me find me so quickly, after I ditched him? But I wasn’t able to ponder that very much, because Superchicken made a pass at me, just missing me by inches. I jumped, and he kept zipping past me, until I stepped on a mine that he’d apparently dropped on the roof. I’ll give him credit, that it didn’t explode, but rather erupted with expanding plastic ‘tentacles’ that wrapped around me and, to be honest, got into some rather rude locations. I managed to get my hand to the trigger for the GizStop, and the force field bubble peeled away the tentacles. I glowered at Steel Falcon and snapped in my coldest tones of stern disapproval, “I will THANK you to leave me OUT of your sleazy hentai anime fantasies!”

But he didn’t react, just flew off into the darkness. Okay, why was he doing that? I mean, I doubted that he’d decided that Strongarm was the greater threat, and I’d just pulled off a major profile job, so why wasn’t he all over me?

I jumped over the alley to the next building, and called up GPS to figure out who to get back to my gauntlet- hey, I’d paid out for a gauntlet, I was going to get something for the money!- and that stupid cuff latched onto the sheet metal of an AC unit. I let out a groan of frustration and weariness, and then it hit me: the cuffs. He was tracking me with the cuffs. They’re designed so that I’ll run around prying the damn things apart, only to have them clamp onto something ferrous, which given the terrain, is like every five steps, throwing me increasingly off my mark, and wearing me out. He’ll harass me, like a cat playing with a mouse, until I’m worn out and lashing out blindly, using up every trick I’ve got, and then when I’m played out, he’ll take me. And if anything, Strongarm only plays into the gambit as we’ll wear each other out, taking the prize from each other, back and forth, wearing each other down.

Steel Falcon may be smarter than that doofus entrance made him seem.

Still, I have two assets that Iron Turkey doesn’t know about: namely, the GizSpex and the OmniTool. I used the GizSpex to analyze the locking mechanism on the cuffs, making it look like I was taking a breather. Oh, and I took a breather as well. Not the best mechanism, but then it’s really biased for resisting brute strength than technical finesse; if anything, Steel Falcon wants to avoid a finicky lock for legal reasons. Once the GizSpex had the cuffs figured out, the Omnitool opened it no problem.

But, since it seemed to be that kind of night, just as I got the stupid cuff off my wrist, something whizzed out of the darkness, caught me on my blind side and slammed me hard into the AC unit. My spark suit stopped the worst of it, but it was still like getting hit by a baseball bat- no fun, no fun at all.

There was a sound of metal against metal, and Strongarm gripped the AC unit and pulled himself over to me with mayhem clearly on his mind. As I pulled myself up, I hit my GizStop again and I became pointedly aware of the fact that while the mild occlusion that the force field creates isn’t that annoying or problematic in a well-lit store, on a dimly-lit rooftop, it was totes a whole ‘nuther goat.

Kids this age DO still say ‘totes’, right?

Strongarm made a disgusted sound and muttered, “Rookie. What did you do, buy every toy in the store?”

"What can I say?” I said, wondering how the force field would hold up to a close hit by that pile-driver of a fist of his. “Shane is a very good salesman.”

Strongarm gave the field a tap to test it. “Not bad,” he admitted. “But how long does that battery hold out?”

"Let’s not find out,” said a female voice from out in the darkness. Out from the gloom, into what light we had, strode a figure that was paradoxically precious and creepy. She was dressed in a blue satin ‘loligoth’ dress with white lace trimming, tattered black fishnet stockings, and high button shoes. She wore a wig of blonde sausage curls with bright cheery red ribbons. But what got you was her makeup. She wore dead white pancake makeup with red ‘dollface’ dots on her cheeks, and a glossy red plastic goop over her eyes that looked like blood and ran down her face in gory rivulets, and more of it from the corners of her mouth, and it covered her hands up to the elbows like gloves. And, as Madam Zaleska had said, in each hand she carried a cutthroat straight razor that gleamed even in the meager light.

The word from Pinball and Lady Medusa was that Bloody Mary was nuts. Just sane enough to not drag her nuts back to the Residence, but still… nuts…

"Back off!” Strongarm yelled, “This is MY score!”

"My my,” I drawled, “Déjà vu all over again…”

Bloody Mary just held up the two razors, opened her mouth in a truly disturbing grin, and said in a vicious little girl voice, “MINE.” Then she let out a loud tittering giggle that rattled all over the place and just creeped the hell out of me.

Bloody Mary and Strongarm squared off, with Mary looking forward to the scrap a lot more than Strongarm was. Then, just as things were about to get… well… bloody, there was a *sploosh!* and we were all covered in that goop. Well, Strongarm and Bloody Mary were covered with it, Strongarm more than Mary. Me, I was still clean, protected by the GizStop’s force bubble. I took advantage of the lull to get that other cuff off my other wrist- it took longer, as I had to use my off hand- and then just as Strongarm was pulling himself free, I bolted for the side and was down onto the street. I ran down the open street- I’m not 100% sure which one, shed the cuffs as I went, ran around the corner, across Park Avenue- yes, THAT Park Avenue- and ducked into yet another alley to figure out whether I was anywhere near that gauntlet.

Yes! I actually had moved toward my goal in all that mess! I may just make it out of this alive, intact and free!

My celebratory dance was interrupted when something slammed into me, smacking me into the wall of the alley. There was a tittering giggle, and I just barely managed to evade a swipe of a razor which gouged a slice out of the concrete behind me. I gave Bloody Mary a G-reinforced kick that sent her flying, but she tumbled back to her feet, her eyes glittering and her grin wide. Whatever else she is, Mary’s one tough little fruitcake.

I jumped up to the fire escape, leveraged myself up on it and made tracks up to the roof- again. I heard the clang of Mary in hot pursuit. Then I heard more generalized clanging, and the fire escape started to shake. It rattled so hard that the vibration passed clear through both of us and rattled us until we couldn’t think straight. Still, I managed to make my way up to the roof and off the fire escape. Mary came staggering behind me a few minutes later. But instead of attacking at me, Mary gave me a bright smile and said in a far more lucid voice, “WOW! I didn’t have that much fun on my last three dates! And I didn’t have to sleep on the wet spot!”

"Very invigorating!” I agreed in my ‘Lady Pamela’ voice. “Steel Falcon, we know you’re out there, you naughty, naughty boy! You might try selling that on a Sex Toy website! There’s definitely a market for experiences like that!”

"God knows, it’s probably a lot more fun than HE is himself,” Mary snickered. There was a brief moment of sisterhood, and then Mary remembered that she was insane. She went at me with her razors, and I barely had time to get my GizStop up and running again. Not that that slowed Mary down in the slightest. She kept slicing away at my force field, keeping me off balance, and my force field started reacting to the blows, and I could actually see the field arcing and glitching. But I hadn’t been just standing there, watching it all go on the fritz. I’d been building up the necessary pressure, and when my force field went down, I gave Mary a wide-angle spray of fullerene dust compound, and she went down, too slippery to even stand.

But as I was gathering myself for another burst of speed to exit, stage left, Steel Falcon swooped down in my path, his gauntlet set and aimed and exulted, “HAH! Got You!” He fired-

- and the epoxy charge in his gauntlet, probably overheated and jammed from all the previous uses, exploded in his face, covering him in his own goop.

You’ll forgive me, but I simply had to: “Might I suggest that you adopt a better heroic name? Say… ‘The Coyote’?”<beep beep!> and with that, I dashed off. I was careful to make sure that I was running off in the right direction this time.

But, of course, just as I was in the home stretch, and I had my eye on the sign of the Best Buy™ store on E. 89th Street, which was my cue for where my gauntlet started, when I felt a tug at my pack and I was pulled off my feet- AGAIN. As Strongarm, dragged me up- again- I decided that I’d had quite enough of this creep and prepped my most devastating weapon. He hauled me up and stripped the pack right off my back without even saying anything. I did a flip over his head, spun around and took him from behind. I slipped the Omni-tool under the shoulder plate, found the repair access hatch and twisted with malice aforethought.

Strongarm stiffened like a board and he said, “What did you DO?”

"Oh, I just interrupted the command link for all your cybernetics,” I responded in my best ‘mechanic discussing your car’s transmission’ tone.

"You did WHAT?” he yelped with a note of true panic.

"Don’t you worry your pretty little head,” I purred (yes, as a matter of fact, some blockhead used that line on me the other day; I had no idea how infuriating it was). “It won’t affect your involuntary responses: breathing, heartbeat, bladder control…” then after a sharp whiff of ammonia, I amended, “Well, at least not heartbeat or breathing…”

Strongarm flailed away, trying to get at me with his meat arm. Then there was a flurry, and one of those damned cuffs appeared on his wrist. Together, we turned to see where it came from, and there, from the far side of the roof, was Steel Falcon, looking rather seedy, what with bits and pieces of this and that sticking to his armor. In his hand, clearly channeling his idol, he held a boomerang-like throwing whatever it was. He threw the boomerang at me, but I saw it coming this time, and I deflected it with my gravity. It struck a standing venting pipe, and wrapped around it to form another of those stupid magnetic cuffs.

A Cuff-a-rang? He has Cuff-a-rangs? Who designs a cuff-a-rang, let alone trains with the damned thing to the point where he can reasonably expect to latch one onto someone’s wrist?

Oh Hell, I just got two of those things off my wrists, I’m not going to just stand there and let him slap another set on me! I grabbed Strongarm, jabbed the Omnitool back into that socket, and took careful aim. Steel Falcon lifted up, did a backwards summersault and was about to throw another cuff-a-rang when I fired. Strongarm’s good strong arm shot out and nailed Steel Falcon right in the labonza. SF managed to recover just enough to pitch himself in a painful heap on the roof, not over the side, and a good 12 stories to the street. His cuff-a-rang landed with a clattering noise maybe three feet from him. Leaving Strongarm still gridlocked, I rushed over, picked up the cuff-a-rang and slapped it around the wrist of his right hand.

Then I dragged him over to Strongarm and connected the contact plates of the cuffs together. There was an immensely gratifying click as not only the magnetic plates connected directly, but physical metal catches kicked in as well. Then, as Steel Falcon came completely to, I undid the interrupt on Strongarm’s command link. I still left his long arm extended and flopping around flaccid in a sadly Freudian way. Strongarm and Steel Falcon started thrashing about, each trying to control the situation over the other. As they did this, I said puckishly, “Annoying, isn’t it?” And then I split, before Bloody Mary caught up again.

Strongarm had cost me several minutes and a block and a half, but Best Buy was in sight. I keyed the gauntlet into activity, and was gratified to see that 4 of the 7 traps that I’d ordered set were green-light, two were yellow (they were ready to go, but would require a little warm-up time), one was amber (iffy but ready on cue) and only one was red (no go). So all that I have to do is get to the starting line without running into Bloody Mary, and I’m golden.

So, of course, the second that I framed it that way, Bloody Mary came running around a corner at a full tilt, and ran smack into me, knocking us both down. I groaned and struggled to my feet, forced her off of me because she was sticky. I started to yell at the idiot who wasn’t looking where she was going, when we simultaneously recognized each other. “YOU!”

Then there was the sound of running feet, and I could sense that we were surrounded on all sides. Just my luck: I’m gonna spend the next 20 years in jail, because this bitch is running around looking like an Emo 15-year-old’s wet dream turned nightmare. Then I got a better look at them, and instead of being worried that they were cops, my first reaction was to yell for the Cops. There were six of them, four guys and two girls, all tricked out like urban Injuns, with buckskins mixed with jeans, and beads and feathers mixed with high tech, only with some serious, obvious cyberwear.

I looked around at them and said, “You’re in the wrong neighborhood. Fort Apache the Bronx is THAT a-way.”

"Like we haven’t heard THAT a million times,” one of them grumbled in a very Noo Yawk accent. He and one of his buddies grabbed Bloody Mary by the arms. “Don’t try to stop us, bitch!”

"Why do you want her?” I asked, genuinely curious.

"She owes money,” one of the other guys, the one holding up a Bowie knife significantly. “And we’re here to get it out of her hide.”

"Well, don’t let little ME stop you!” I said with a big smile, hands up as I backed away.

Bloody Mary looked around at her situation and blurted out, “She’s got paintings worth a half MILLION bucks in that pack!”

"_bitch_”

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Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #5: Don’t play both sides

Should I be appalled at Bloody Mary’s lack of professional ethics, or gratified that my personal impression of many years, that supervillains were basically a bunch of unprincipled opportunistic bums was correct?

The ‘Injuns’ regrouped around me, giving Bloody Mary her chance to split. As the big one grabbed me by the arm, I said in my best ‘There will always be an England, and I won’t have any more of these beastly habits!’ manner, “Very well, if we’re going to do this, we’d best do it properly. There’s no one to provide proper introductions, but we’ll just have to muddle through as best we can. Very well, exactly WHO is the leader, for want of a better word, of this… agglomeration?

The guy with the Bowie knife copped a ‘stoic noble Indian’ pose and said portentously, “WE are Cyber-Tribe. I am the Big Chief of Cyber-Tribe.”

"Chawrmed, I’m sure,” I drawled snidely. I pulled a hand away from the ragamuffin with the feathers in her hair and reached into my harness. “My Card.” I handed him a business card.

Taken rather aback by my stance, ‘Big Chief’ took the card and looked at it. The other members of ‘Cyber-Tribe’ also peered at it curiously. I think that they’ve seen business cards in movies, but never actually held one before. It probably took him a few seconds to realize that the elegant script on the card actually said ‘You’re An Idiot’ in flowing Edwardian script ITC font. Counting off the seconds, I upped the Flare Suppression feature on my GizSpex up to maximum and closed my eyes. There was a yip as the chemical fuse that I’d set when I ran my fingers across the top of the card burned down, setting off the magnesium foil flare that was under the lush high-quality paper surface of that card, burning it in a blindingly bright flash.

As soon as the flare went off, I grav-hopped way over their heads and sprinted to my starting line of my gauntlet at the top of the Best Buy building-

-where Bloody Mary was waiting for me.

"WHAT?” I yelped, “Don’t you have a drunk you could be rolling or something?”

"What happened to that Limey accent of yours?”

"It’s called a ‘working persona’,” I grated out. “Sort of like that ‘giggling knife-crazy psycho’ act of yours?”

"What ‘giggling knife-crazy psycho’ act?”

"WHY are you running away from them?” I demanded. “You’re a lot tougher and certainly crazier than any of them.”

“Yeah, any ONE of them,” she pointed out. “But there are SIX of them, and they’re very good at coordinated gang-ups.” Then she kited a predatory look at me. “But there’s only ONE of you.” With a sharkish grin, she whipped out one of her razors.

"THAT ‘giggling knife-crazy psycho’ Act,” I said pointedly at her.

"Act?” she started giggling, and took a swipe at me.

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Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #10: Only kill as a matter of necessity or blood-debt

“And that’s quite enough of that,” came a voice from above. A flash-bang grenade dropped and went flash and bang. Then, as Mary and I were dealing with that, a scintillating light played down over us. Mary made a hurking noise and fell to her knees, and there were sounds of her working very hard to keep her lunch down. My GizSpex informed me that the light was a vertigo-inducing light barrage, and kicked up my flare suppression to the max. Still, the ‘aha, I saw your attack coming and was specially prepared’ bit is way too ‘1966 Batman TV show’. Besides, I’m tired of that yutz, I’m just plain tired, and I’ve gotten beaten up, and I want this OVER dammit! So, I sank to my hands and knees and made like I was also having second thoughts about my choice of dinner.

Steel Falcon came down and whipped out yet another of those cuff-a-rangs. “You had a good run tonight,” he said like he was making the summation speech in an old superhero TV show, “but in the end JUSTICE always comes in f-URK!” What, you don’t think that I was honestly going to sit through that? He’s probably start up on a lecture on civic responsibility, and if only I’d used my skills and hellacious bod for GOOD and crap like that. I leveraged myself on my hands, using both legs to knock him off his pins. As he reacted, I got the cuff-a-rang away from him and used it to cuff his hands behind his back, and then another cuff-a-rang to bind his feet, making sure to set the catches. “Well, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred,” I quipped.

MAN he is packing a small hardware store in the racks hidden by his cape! ooohh, THAT looks interesting! Oh, a ¾ Pinckney Flange! I’ve been looking everywhere for one of those! And that, and th-

Then there was a loud *BANG* and I turned just in time to see Bloody Mary go sailing over the rooftops. Mary had just used a portable personal catapult to throw her a good 300 yards, a great way of leaving a close follow and avoiding any encounters on the street or rooftops. It used two blanked 20-gauge shotgun shells with a hideously effective one-shot lever system to throw you. The problem was that that was MY personal catapult, and I didn’t spring for a spare! Why would I spend money to give the assholes chasing me a way of following me? SHIT!

Then I saw Steel Falcon struggling on the rooftop, and a wide nasty smirk spread across my face. And yet again, my Engineering degree will be invaluable. My Omnitool made short work of the clasps fixing the wing/flying rig to Steel Falcon’s body harness, and jury rigging a handheld control took longer to say than do. Unfortunately, his clasp system was incompatible with the harness I was using, and that was sort of full at the moment with the pack that so many people are so interested in. So, I took a page from the Green Goblin’s book, and stood on top of the wing, which if anything, was more effective from an aeronautical point of view. Wanting a good exit line, as I lifted off, I recited, “Ah! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies on silver- laughtered wings!”

From there I totally mangled ‘High Flight’, but before I could ‘fling my eager craft through footless halls of air’, let alone reach out and touch the face of God, I took a nasty tumble. While I’d like to say that someone shot me out of the air, or that Steel Falcon had remotely retaken control of his wings, the sad fact is that standing on top of a lifting body is NOT the stablest way to fly, and I just biffed it when some killer wind shear came out of nowhere. Hey, you’d never know it to see Batman and Spiderman swinging around, but the crosswinds in those concrete canyons are murder!

I bounced off the side of one building hard enough to crack the glass of the window, and the only reasons that I didn’t break anything when I hit the pavement were that I reflexively lightened myself, and I hit the GizStop. The GizStop shorted out when I hit, but it had done its job. Yes, definite letter of recommendation; being overcharged for something that saves your life is a bargain in the final equation.

And then, as I was pulling myself together and trying to get my bearings, Bloody Mary damn near ran over me-again- with Cyber-Tribe hard on her heels- again. Apparently eager to put me on her spot- AGAIN- Mary pointed and yelled, “There she is!”

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Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #7: Don’t double-cross your principal or partners unless they cross you first

And we were off again. On the down side, I was getting tired- even with a force field pillow, taking a fall like that takes it out of you. On the upside, they’d been running around and they were getting a little raggedy around the edges as well. More on the upside, we were well within range of my gauntlet, and it was time to make that pay for me. I cued the gauntlet, with my cell phone that I was coming, and from there, it was all on automatic.

It was a little touch-and-go for a bit, but then I saw the alleyway where the second stage of my gauntlet was. I burned some rubber and headed into the alley. About 5 feet into the alley there was a fire hydrant set into the side of the building, nothing too outrageous, you see ‘em all over the place in the better parts of Manhattan. Only slightly more remarkable was the remote controlled automated valve that had replaced the usual cap on that hydrant. That RC valve noted my passing and went from ‘primed’ to ‘ready’, and when either Bloody Mary or one of ‘Cyber-Tribe’ (do you honestly think that I was looking back to watch?) passed, the valve opened all the way and sent a high pressure spray of water at them. Okay, not exactly what you’d call ‘high-tech’ or sophisticated, but what can I say? I’m on a budget here.

Okay, okay, I did turn around, but not just to watch. As Bloody Mary, Big Chief, and two of Cyber-Tribe (Apache and Warpath, I think) barely managed to stagger out of the water, I sent a wide-area spray of that cryogenic that I’d used on Strongarm, freezing them in ice, and turning the wet ground to slick ice.

Well, it didn’t freeze them solid, but then it wasn’t supposed to. It knocked some of the sass out of them, and more to the point, it got them wet and cold. They kept after me, but it hadn’t quite worked its way into their thinking that they were running a gauntlet. So I let them get right behind me just as I passed the third stage of the gauntlet. Triggered by my passage, a 15-foot high chain link fence shot out from a recess, blocking my path. Normally, with that crew, it would barely qualify as even a speed bump. But then, this is Manhattan, and the designer of this trap knew that that was exactly the sort of pursuer you had to anticipate. So the panel of fence was both electrified and hyper-magnetized. Just the thing for heavily armed vigilantes and cyborgs, and it’s cheap.

There was a sound of yips and screams, and it was probably my imagination, but I got a whiff of burning pork. Bloody Mary, who had been bringing up the rear to Cyber-Tribe, handled the fence by slicing open the power box. But even so, I slowed down, and stopped near the exit of the alley, leaning against the wall and breathing hard. Which was not entirely a sham. But once burned, twice shy; Mary and her little lost black lambs came after me, because they’re New Yorkers and they’d rather eviscerate themselves with runcible spoons than let themselves be bluffed, but wary all the same. But they made the mistake of coming up on me in a cluster. But they didn’t see the electric eye which they tripped, which tipped over the very full dumpster that was being held up high on a stolen forklift tucked away in a niche, which dumped its load of three-day old and very ripe Filipino restaurant scraps all over them. Yet another classic for the budget conscious scofflaw. Even from where I stood by the mouth of the alley, the stench was gut-wrenching. They struggled out of the mess and stood there, stunned. Then, figuring that I’d given them enough time, I bolted out of the alley.

I trotted across the street, just barely dodging a taxi, went into an alley and listened for the sound of electrical motors. Yep, there was the hum. I used my cell phone to disengage the restraining clamps and ran past the electrical eye into the service courtyard. As I passed the electric eye, the ‘crates’ popped open, and five Spinning Tops of Doom whirled out into the courtyard. Yes, they’re expensive… but they’re Spinning Tops of DOOM! When I saw it in the catalogue I just had to have them! That’s why I had to cheap it out with the rest.

When I got to the open street at the far end of the block, I heard the clang of metal against metal and shouts and screams of pain. I let out a sigh of satisfaction- money well spent.

I trotted along with satisfaction, having not only dealt with the last of the people who were trying to rip me off, but having done it in a fashion that sent the message that I wouldn’t be messed with. I felt very pleased with myself-

-that is, until I became aware of a horrible stench right in front of me. And behind me. And to the left of me. And to the right of me. Then ‘Big Chief’ loomed out of the darkness with a tomahawk in his hand and murder clearly on his mind- oh, and scraps of Adobo, Sisig and Sinigang here and there. “What?” I yelped. “How did you kindergarten dropouts get ahead of me?”

"What? You think you’re the only one with smooth moves, bitch?” Big Chief snarled at me.

And that was pretty much it for clever dialogue. ‘Cyber-Tribe’ lit into me with profound enthusiasm. Bloody Mary was right about one thing: they were very good at coordinating with each other. My Giz-Stop gave up the ghost two minutes into the beating, and if not for my spark suit, I think that I would have been put in the hospital. As it was, I was banged up badly, though I was able to give them a little of the old rancid. I managed to latch onto one of them, ‘Scalper’, and say, “You Sir, are No Gentleman!”

"That’s becuz I’m a GIRL!” she snapped back.

"Are you sure about that? After all, Drag Queens are very chic these days…” For that, she clocked me in the face, and I have a hard time saying that I didn’t have it coming.

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Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #5: Keep it Business, never take things personal

But then, as two of the Cyber-Tribals held me by the arms, and Big Chief was looking to do something woefully serious with that tomahawk, and I was prepping to play my gravity card, which would have left me exhausted and sleeping all day next day but get me OUT of this, something happened. A metallic three-tined curved claw at the end of a chain wrapped around Big Chief’s axe-arm and pulled him back, slamming him against the wall of the alley.

That caught the bionic redskins with their loincloths around their ankles. As they were busy reacting, a dark orange blur dove in among us, and a guy in some kind of tiger-drag was getting all Bruce Lee on Cyber-Tribe, tripping them up with the chains, and using the claws to mess with their obvious bionics. Which would have been very impressive-

-IF Cyber-Tribe hadn’t been running around for the better part of an hour, and just been in order, drowned, frozen, electrified, trashed and spinning-topped, courtesy of Yours Truly. Also, I think that he has somehow hacked whatever it is that Cyber-Tribe uses to coordinate those moves that Bloody Mary was so wary of. As he took down ‘Comanche’, it slowed down a notch and I got a better look at him. My first impression wasn’t that good; my second impression was worse. He was definitely into the 1970s. He just couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to be a Blaxploitation Badass or a Martial Arts Master or a Disco Dynamo. And as for the first, it really didn’t help that he wasn’t Black. Dig it: he was wearing a bronze colored polyester long-sleeved shirt that was open to the waistband of his BVDs, which was showing off some admittedly killer pecs, a tiger-striped faux- fur (I’m giving him the benefit of a doubt there) vest connected by gold-tone chain clasps, a large ‘roaring tiger head’ medallion, a tiger-face half-mask, gold-tone bracers on his wrists with those insane claw-chain things on them, a lineup of rings that Mr. T would have envied, a wide belt with a soup plate- sized belt buckle that matched the medallion, darker orange pants that were so tight that he had some serious Moose Knuckle going on, and a pair of black platform shoes that could conceivably be excused because I think they were loaded. He had a serious ‘Jewfro’ (or whatever) and one of those thick ‘Zapata’ mustaches going on. I mean, I know that there are Retro types who are into the 70s, but PLEASE!

Dear God, John Travolta would have called the Fashion Police on him!

He let Scalper, the smallest of the lot who was already gasping from exhaustion, stagger away, only to drag her back with his chain. As Orange Julius dealt with Scalper, who I never much liked anyway, I quietly made my way to the next stage of my gauntlet.

No such luck.

I was almost out of the alley when a chain wrapped around my middle and I was jerked over into Orange Boy’s massive and very strong arms. Looking down into my face with an amused smirk he purred in a silky Hispanic accent, “Now is that any way to treat the man who came to your rescue?”

"Arrreee… you gonna try to sell me some rich Corinthian leather?”

"I… am Shere Khan… and I claim both your baggage… and you… as the rightful spoils of conquest,” he said, pulling me tighter. And I became very aware of exactly how tight those pants were.

Man, here’s a situation that Catwoman never found herself in!

"My good man,” I said in a prim proper voice with a hint of ice in it, “those paintings are the product of many hours of hard work and several minutes of extreme risk upon my part. It ill-behooves the Art of Larceny for every grabby git in the Five Boroughs to come along and lay claim to them. Those louts that you just routed had been through a carefully planned bailing machine, and I had everything under control. Now release me, or suffer the consequences. I will only be civil about this once.”

He smirked at me and said, “Ah, the pretense of resistance… it only makes the fulfillment, when you are screaming the name of Shere Khan, that much sweeter.”

Ohhhh… FUCK.

Ew, poor choice of words. No way, I already went through the 70s once, and that was more than enough for a lifetime!

But even as I was reaching for one of Steel Falcon’s dingbobs on the back of my belt, someone kind of-sort of came to my rescue. “Oh, that is just… pathetic,” Bloody Mary snarled as she stomped up, draped with bits of Komaro and Longanzia still stuck in her wig and the frills of her dress. “You want that bitch? FINE. Just hand me the paintings, and I’ll leave you two to make beautiful music together.” She flicked open one of her razors and gave us a crazed lopsided grin. “Of course, I have a very different idea about what ‘beautiful music’ is.”

With a casual, almost negligent flick of the wrist, Shere Khan wrapped the chains of his other gauntlet around Mary and yanked her off her feet and into his grasp. “Ah, a soiled dove, come to worship at the altar of love that is…Shere Khan…” Then the smell of her hit him. “A VERY soiled dove. But do not worry, Dulcita… you will be allowed to have your turn… after a shower… a very long shower…”

Shere Khan made the deadly error of mistaking the blank wide-eyed look on Bloody Mary’s face for a form of submission, and he pulled her to him and puckered up for a kiss.

Bloody Mary let out a maenad shriek that would have given even Bacchus second thoughts, and sliced through the very thick (if gold plated) chains with her razors. Shere Khan released me if only because he needed the chain to save his meat from getting carved. I slipped out of the chains and made tracks. As I put distance between us, I heard Bloody Mary making sounds that weren’t really human.

I’d heard that Bloody Mary was nasty around the DeWinter, but seriously, that girl’s got more issues than the newsstand on Times Square!

Feeling like I’d done a marathon, I finally made it up to the last stage on my gauntlet. Climbing up the fire escape to the last rooftop that I’d visit that night, I unclipped the case that I’d been hauling all over the place and secured it to a zip-line that I’d prepared earlier. Then ducking around the hutch, I picked up the dummy that I’d left at the same time, and connected it to a zip-line going in exactly the opposite direction. And, sure enough there were the clattering footsteps of multiple people running up those fire escape steps in my direction. Waiting until I thought that I had enough of an audience, I pushed the case down the zip-line in one direction, and then (from behind the hutch) I pushed the dummy down the other one. Then I turned on that GizMist that I mentioned earlier, and dropped down seven stories to the ground.

As I landed, I heard Bloody Mary scream, “SHIT!” And five seconds later, first the case’s zip-line, and then the dummy’s zip-line came down, both of them neatly severed by her razors.

Well, it will take her the better part of ten minutes to find either, let alone both of them, so I discreetly made my way to the nearest secure entrance to the Residence’s access tunnels. The Residence’s guardian VI guided me through a series of doors, obvious and otherwise, a hatch, a ladder, and something that was out of Get Smart. As I started to relax now that I was finally safe in the access tunnels, I felt the adrenaline start to fade, and the first of many, many aches and pains started to make their objections known. So I popped an extra-strength aspirin and hoped that it would kick in before the endorphins completely washed away.

Finally, the VI told me that I had lost all my follows, none of the stuff that I was carrying was broadcasting an RFID signal, nobody had tagged me with any tracker dyes, and I was clear to enter the Staging Area. MAN, I never thought that a jumped-up locker room would look so good. I stashed all the stuff in my locker and staggered over to the infirmary. I stripped out of my spark suit and let the autodoc scan me. It told me that I had four bruises, two lacerations, and bone bruises on three ribs. Yep, definite unsolicited testimonial for the spark suit. Past that, there was basically a whole lot of ‘got knocked around’, and prescribed a massive course of Walkitoff™. It recommended some disinfectant, iodine and medicated pads for both the lacerations and bruises, which could be bought at the vending machine.

I grudgingly allowed myself to be extorted, and tottered into the real medicine- a good hot shower. I let the water play over my body, and gave some serious thought about using the Jacuzzi. Unfortunately, the way that I felt, I’d probably fall asleep in it.

My only excuse was that the mist from the shower was too heavy. Okay, I was coming down from an adrenaline high and those pain killers were kicking in, and I got sloppy. I turned off the shower and just as I was about to towel down, a hand reached out from the mist and grabbed me by the throat. Like something out of a 1980s slasher film, Bloody Mary loomed out of the steam her face set in a snarl of pure insane rage, her razor in her other hand, ready to strike. She slammed me against the shower wall and shrieked, “WHERE ARE THE FUCKING PAINTINGS?

A hand reached out of the steam and grabbed Mary’s razor hand by the wrist and snarled, “No. Fighting. In. The. Residence!”

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Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #1: Don’t Shit Where You Eat

Mary wilted like a kicked dog. “But she…!”

"Doesn’t matter!” Madam Z snapped, taking the razor out of Mary’s hand. “What happens out there is none of my business! Keeping the Residence safe IS my business!”

"You dumped an entire dumpster from a Filipino restaurant on me!” Mary whined at me, shifting instantly from bloody fury to pissy teenager.

"You’re more partial to Thai?” I snipped back, covering myself with my hands.

"Do you have any idea how bad that SMELLS?” she demanded.

"As a matter of fact, I’m experiencing it right now, close up. You should be glad I just emptied the trash on you, and didn’t just drop the entire dumpster.”

"You got dumpster gunk in my WIG!” she pulled it off and indicated its soiled state. “And it’s POLYESTER!”

"Polyester?”

"Do you think that real hair could hold a sausage curl like this?”

Madam Zaleska shared a pained look with me: It’s almost impossible to get a smell out of polyester once it gets in, and that wig was reeking. “Tell you what,” I offered, trying to show a little class. “As it’s part of your working gear, I’ll be a sport and pay to replace it.” I shot Mary a stern look. “And it had better be a replacement, not an upgrade!”

"And what about my dress? It’s ruined!”

"Fine, fine, send me the bill…”

"And my shoes?”

"Don’t. Press. Your. Luck!”

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The next morning, I was going through the local papers with the glee of a Broadway ingénue looking for her reviews. Unlike most American cities where dead tree news sources are creaking along, in the Big Apple, there are seven furiously competing news dailies, including the legendary New York Times. I was front page news for amNewYork and Metro and the Daily News; below the fold, but still, front page news! Okay, it was largely because I managed to get a really GOOD picture taken of me dangling from the GizRappel, and a cute chick in a tight fitting outfit dangling from a cord sells papers. The NY Post had a Kardashian doing something stupid hogging their front page; like I cared. I was on the front of the City section for the NYT! (yes!) But nobody really expected me to make the Wall Street Journal.

"Oh look!” Melody said, “Someone got a great picture of you riding Steel Falcon’s wings for Metro!”

"Pity you couldn’t keep those wings,” Jackie sighed. “I mean, talk about bragging rights forever!”

"Yeah, but where would I keep them?” I asked facetiously. “All my room is taken up by the stuffed T-Rex and the giant penny!”

"Okay, you had a great debut, Tina,” Melody told me. “But watch your ass. You really pissed off Bloody Mary. She won’t do anything around the Residence, but she’s nuts enough to hold a real grudge. She’ll wait for you to replace her dress and wig first, but once that’s done, you better watch it.”

"Is it MY fault that Mary put 5 K she didn’t have down on the Golden State Warriors, just because Step Curry was having a good year?” I asked.

Jackie waved that aside. “So, what are you doin’ today?”

"Oh, I’m going over to NYU and get the paperwork done and confirm my classes,” I said.

"And after that?”

"Meh, look around, find a place to drink and maybe hang,” I said. “I mean, MiLady’s is great and all, but only losers hang around where they bunk.”

"Groovy!” Jackie slapped the tabletop. “I have the perfect place!”

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The perfect place’ was a wooden door with a black domino mask painted on it. Jackie had to confirm where it was twice for some reason. My first impression of the place was that it was a standard slightly upscale New York bar, with cocktail waitresses in uniforms and like that. Then I noticed the chick in the lurid purple bodysuit with the slightly darker purple catseye domino mask and the matching long cape and thigh-high boots. And the very dangerous looking guy with the obvious cybernetic eye and the small arsenal tucked under his long coat. And the woman with the blue-and-white suit: that’s the Blue Diamond, the World’s Most Loveable Supervillain™! “This is a supervillain bar?” I asked, not really believing it.

"Yep!” Jackie said perkily. “After your magnificent debut, I figured that you’d earned your way in the door. Besides, there’s someone who wants to meet you.” She strutted over to the bar, yelled, “Chris!” and embraced a woman there. Turning around, she said, “Countess, meet the Imp!”

My first impression was that she was a very fit, very attractive woman in her mid-30s or so-

-if you ignored the horns

- or the scales

or the tail

-or the talons at the tips of her fingers.

"aaahhh…” I totally biffed it, “You’re… Taller than I imagined.” The Imp is- or was- or whatever- a noteworthy superpowered burglar who dropped out of sight ten or so years ago. She was less known for her stealth or subtlety than she was for being annoying as all hell.

"I get that a lot,” she said with a wry grin. She turned around and slapped the bar. “CARL! Pour me a Countess!”

The bartender didn’t blink an eye, but just started stirring things into a brandy snifter. He handed it to the Imp, who handed the glass to me. I took a smell. It was cognac, with a hint of mint, which really shouldn’t have worked, and a few other things, and it smelled pretty good. I took a swig and was pleasantly surprised. “Not bad!”

"HAH!” Imp exulted, “And having accepted a drink that I commissioned made in your honor, you are now beholden to me!”

"Hanh?” I bleated with a look aside at Pinball, who just gave a ‘who knows?’ shrug.

"Now, you MUST tell me… how did you pull off that raid last night?”

"ah, I might want to use that trick again, y’know,” I pointed out.

"But it was the GUGGENHEIM!” Imp said, pleading. “pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease- you DO know that I’m just gonna keep saying it until you crack- pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease-”

"And you know that she will,” Jackie said, putting her fingers in her ears.

"Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease-”

"FINE!” I said, my hands over my ears. “I’ll TELL you!”

"They always crack,” Imp gloated. “So, how did you get all of that done in less than ten minutes? At least tell me how you got that camel-herniater of a load of forged paintings in through the AC!”

"Simple,” I gloated. “I didn’t.”

"But… they SAW you!” Jackie objected. “The guys who were running the betting pool on the Syndicate forums were taping you!’

"I know,” I grumped. “I felt like I was on the latest hot Reality TV show.”

"ooohhh…” Imp squealed, “’America’s Next Most Wanted’! Every week we follow a band of up and coming felons as they plan and commit daring crimes! See who’ll be arrested this week, as the outlaws compete to be America’s Most Wanted!”

"You shouldn’t have said that,” Jackie groaned. “Now she’ll be throwing out ideas for challenges and bets and special conditions for it. Then she’ll probably try to sell it to A&E.”

"The B&E Channel!” Imp exulted. “Okay, but seriously- how did you get that pack in through that dinky little hatch? And where did you get those great forgeries? They were so good that the only way that the Guggenheim curators even suspected that anything was wrong, was that you put those goofy trademark stickers on them! And how did you get the paintings off the special theft-proof moorings that the Guggenheim uses? I mean, besides the usual contact trigger, those things have laser scanners that scan a special bar code on the frame 200 thousand times a second, and proximity alarms and electromagnetic signature scanners and-”

"Simple,” I repeated, “I didn’t.”

Imp gave me a really cross look and started to sing, “aHUNDREDbottlesofbeerontheWALLaHUNDREDbottlesof BEEEEER-”

"I didn’t,” I interrupted her loudly, “because I didn’t HAVE TO.” Imp stopped, confused, and I continued. “Now, I know that an experienced professional such as yourself already knows this, but for context, I’m sorry, Maurice LeBlanc, but the greatest cause of art theft are not daring gentlemean cambrioleurs, but the employees, guards, art experts, and most especially the ‘Trustees’ of the museums themselves. They just walk off with them. And they have access to absolutely perfect forgeries, especially when they make the switches after the paintings have been verified.”

"One of the governors of the Guggenheim switched the paintings and you stole them from HIM!” Imp blurted out, eyes wide with realization. “But how did you know where he kept them? Hell, how did you know that it was the guy who stole them? It was a guy, wasn’t it? That’s just such a guy thing.”

"I killed two birds with one stone,” I said. “Another tangent for context. As I’m sure you’re well aware, museums are very picky about their air conditioning.”

"Well, YAH!” Imp bleated, “The Old Masters may have been masters of light and form, but in day to day life, they were hacks cranking out product on demand! They didn’t choose their materials with any thought to the long-term condition of the finished product! I mean, screw canvas, some of them did their best work on burlap! Do you have any idea how acidic burlap gets after a century or two? And some of them used food products like egg in their work. In order to keep those works in anything even vaguely resembling good shape, the conditions have to be just right! Not too much UV in the lighting, not too cold, not too hot, not too humid, not too arid- just right, and it has to be stable and constant, because rapid changes in any of those conditions can cause chemical changes.”

"Spoken as a true professional,” I said. “You’ll notice that the air conditioning units on museums like the Guggenheim are huge, not just because they’re cooling or heating a large area- though that is an issue- but because they have to maintain strict control over those conditions. AND-” I paused, holding their attention, “-he had those paintings in a secret room in his condo.”

"You found him through his air conditioning?” Jackie goggled.

"Air conditioning units that can meet those standards are a very small and every expensive market,” I said. “There are only a handful of firms that produce systems that meet those criteria, and the number that make units that fit them for the home market are even smaller. So I just found out the names and addresses of the Guggenheim Board of Trustees, and checked their roofs for their AC units.” Actually, the air conditioning manufacturers that meet the standards I mentioned go out of their way to avoid being obvious. I was checking out one particular Guggenheim Un-Trustee and spotted the oversized-for-the-building AC unit, and it all followed from there. Even so, I hacked into IT Guy’s home system and put Montauk into ferreting out a list of customers of the short list of high end AC producers; I could wind up retiring on the proceeds from those raids. “Heck, the placement of the special AC unit even told me where in the flat the paintings were.”

"So, you chose the paintings that you offered in your ‘kickstarter’ not based on some obscure theme,” Imp spelled it out as she figured it out, “but simply on what you found in his secret art room.”

"Actually, I based it on what I found in his secret art room that he lifted from the Guggenheim,” I corrected her. “I have nine more paintings from different museums that he’s connected with. Moving those is gonna be a lot trickier.”

"You have nine masterpieces that you’re sitting on?” Jackie asked me. “Where?”

"Madam Zaleska’s holding them for me,” I explained. “The Residence’s reputation is worth a lot more to her than those paintings would fetch.”

"No, wait,” Imp objected. “Then WHY did you go into the Guggenheim last night? You already had the paintings! Why go through all that?”

"Because I had to prove that I had them!” I said. “I mean, anyone can say that they stole a bunch of paintings, and the paintings in the big famous museum are fakes, but who’s gonna believe a rookie?”

"So… you went in, found the forgeries already on display, and instead of going through all the hoopla of getting them off those moorings,” Imp worked it out, “you just stuck those trademark ‘C’ stickers-”

"Which are registered with the Syndicate,” I cut in.

"Which doesn’t set off the alarm system, but gets them well into the Amber, so the guards actually look at the paintings and see the stickers, so the museum will check the paintings to see if they’re real…”

"Well, that’s ONE way to get the NYPD Art Theft Division to drum up the fact that I stole those works, no?” I smirked and took another sip of my drink. “Besides, the real point was to give a booster shot to my reputation. Like Jackie told me, a burglar with a good rep can ask for a pretty penny. But a rookie is at the mercy of the fences.”

"So you went in there a fresh-faced kid from the sticks, but you came back… a STAR!” Imp said melodramatically.

"Pity you didn’t get away clean,” Jackie said as Carl made a ‘Countess’ for her as well.

"Are you kidding? Even with all the running around, and the place being on Amber, I hadda wait a minute and a half for that idiot guard to spot me!”

WHY?” Jackie asked aghast. “You spent the better part of an hour being chased around and getting the shit kicked out of you!”

"Becaaauuusse…” Imp drawled, putting it together, “that way, everyone knows that it was her, AND they know that she isn’t afraid to mix it up in order to keep her swag. Thanks to that ‘Kickstarter’ gimmick that she used, the fences’ money is locked up in escrow, and they can’t all say that she didn’t pull off the heist, so that they can pull their money out of escrow and try to lowball her, now that the paintings are in hand.”

"Well, that is exactly what they’d try to do,” I pointed out. “God knows, I can’t rely on that stupid ‘Supervillain’s Code of Honor’ you were pushing, Jackie.”

"What are you talking about?” Jackie asked.

"Last night, those creeps- Bloody Mary, Strongarm, the Cyber-Tribers- all pretty much laughed at the idea of letting me keep the stuff that they thought I took out of the Guggenheim,” I pointed out.

Jackie made a disappointed sound “Tisk! And you were doing so well… Tina, when I told you about The Code, I said that there were ratsasses who didn’t go along with it, didn’t !? Well, when you advertise that you’re going to stroll out of a place on a specific night with a big bag of money, who do you expect to show up? The Mayberry Chamber of Commerce? Tina, everybody knows that those yutzes are a bunch of ratsasses. Strongarm? All he can get these days are basic enforcer jobs. Supervillain? HAH! He’s a jumped-up leg-breaker, and everybody knows it. I mean, the clientele in the Black Mask may not be exactly elevated, but you’re never gonna see Strongarm drinking here!”

"Got that right,” Carl said from behind the bar.

"And Cyber-Tribe?” Jackie went on, “They’re a bunch of combat level cyborgs, and what are they doing? They’re doing shakedown work for a bookie! They were gonna take on Bloody Mary for a couple of stinking hundred bucks. They’re that desperate.”

"And can you blame them?” Imp asked rhetorically. “All their money goes into upgrades. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade! And the upgrades are getting more and more expensive, and they’re doing less and less. There’s nothing more pathetic than an obsolete cyborg.”

"Right!” Jackie nodded. “And Bloody Mary? Madam Zaleska lets Bloody Mary stay at MiLady’s out of some sort of pity. But if Mary ever sets one toe over the line, Madam Z will cut it off at the knee, and Mary knows it. And that is all the slack that Mary will ever get cut in this town. What you pulled on Bloody Mary, and Cyber-Tribe and Strongarn and Sh-sh-she-” Jackie broke down laughing, and the rest of us joined in with her. “Shere Khan,” she said with a gasp, “What you did would have been over the line with a Stand-up crew. But they’re ratasses and nutjobs and screwballs, so fuck ‘em. And that’s The Code in action. They were ratsasses, and everyone saw that they were ratsasses, and nobody gives a rat’s ass about them. Hell, you should be grateful that most people thought that you were talking out of your ass, and only weenies like Strongarm and Bloody Mary were paying any real attention; there are some ratsasses in this town who could’a used you for knot-tying practice!”

"Wait a minute,” Imp cut in, “You still haven’t explained how you got that carrying case for the paintings that you never carried out- by the way kid, nice piece of misdirection there- you never explained how you got it into that access hatch for the air conditioning.”

"That ‘carrying case’ wasn’t really a carrying case,” I explained. “It was a riff on that old magician’s trick where he stretches some cloth over a wire frame, so that it looks like he’s putting something big and heavy in the box; then he just mashes it down, and it looks like it disappeared. What I had was a memory plastic shell that converted from that big ‘armored’ carrying case to this little thing the size of a deck of cards on a cue. When I sent it sliding down that zip-line, it was rigged to switch down to its compact form and drop when it hit the end of the line. Bloody Mary cut the zip-line, but the ‘case’ still compacted down when it hit the ground.”

linebreak shadow

“Not bad,” Imp nodded. “Not a classic move, but not bad.”

"Here’s to Tina’s Stunning Debut!” Jackie toasted me with a glass of my namesake. “Nearly a half million on her first score! Not a bad way to start out on the Road to Ruin and Despair!”

"Not that I’ll see any of it,” I grumped.

"What? But you said that the Syndicate was holding your ‘kickstarter’ money in escrow!” Imp said.

"Oh, she’s got a sponsor,” Jackie explained. “Didn’t I say that he’d squeeze you for everything he could, kid? Still, with a half MIL, I’ll bet that you took a BIG bite out of that debt!”

"Well, it would have, but there were some other debts that I’ve racked up in the meantime that were deducted.” I started to count off the deductions, “There was the retraining spa-

–and transportation-

–and six months room and board at Milady’s-

-and my tuition, books and expenses at NYU-

-and my credit card purchases-

-and the costs of that spark suit

–AND all the other stuff that I bought at Next Step-

-what can I say? Shane’s a great salesman!-

-AND the costs of that gauntlet…Especially the Spinning Tops of Doom…” With each expense, my head jerked down a little, until I was face-down on the bar.

"owwchhh…” Jackie winced in sympathy. “How much did you get to keep?”

I managed to whittle 20 grand off my debt,” I whimpered.

Pinball and the Imp gave me consoling pats.

Then I straightened up and cheered up. “Still, it’s not all bad! I completed my first mission against stiff opposition. I’m not an unknown anymore, and I may not be famous, but for a burglar is that really a bad thing? I’ve got my kit and my gear, and it’s paid for! My room and board for the next six months is clear, and my tuition is paid up- and no Student Loan Debt! My credit card balance is a nice comfortable ZERO. AND, I’ve got nine paintings that I’ll probably have to get chump change for, as the fences will see me coming this time, and I’ve got 45 grand in bet money coming!”

"BEER MONEY!” Jackie cheered.

"Here’s to CRIME!” the Imp toasted.

linebreak shadow

The last thing I remember was us all drunkenly singing ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ from ‘My Fair Lady, probably sounding a like a bunch of cats wailing on the back fence.

linebreak shadow

The next day, before setting out to NYU to confirm those classes, I checked on the little visual bug that I’d planted in the condo of the Guggenheim Trustee who I’d ripped off. There’s an interesting thing- people never look up. As long as it’s not this big obvious thing that contrasts with the roof, people simply never notice. So I planted a visual pickup, disguised as a cheap smoke alarm, over and just behind the place where a very impressive wall safe was hidden. Jackpot! According to the pickup’s records, the Un-trustee had come and checked the safe, I assume just after checking that his paintings in his not-as-secure-as-he-thought room were gone. Then, being understandably paranoid, he changed the combination on the safe- as my unobtrusive little camera was watching over his shoulder.

Oh, I know what I’m gonna be doing tonight, and it’s not my toenails. Besides the bundles of no-doubt unmarked cash, the sheaves of bearer bonds, and the discreet boxes of jewelry that he checked on, there are some very interesting hard-text documents that I want to take a look at, and a couple of thumb drives that I’m VERY interested in.

You see, I didn’t pick the Un-trustee just because of his air conditioner. No, he was on my short list of suspects, for having me framed and sent to prison. He’s very well connected, and his name popped up in no less than three of the cases that I was working on when the hammer came down.

linebreak shadow


Code of the Honorable Outlaw Rule #4: Pay Your Debts

The man I was is gone, dead, died in prison. Now I am the Countess, Tina Montgomery. Countess. Montgomery. Tina. Short for Christina. Monte Cristo. I am the Countess of Monte Cristo. Like Edmond Dantes, I was cast into prison for a crime I didn’t commit, and was carried out with the Dead. Like Edmond Dantes, I rose from the Dead with a new name and a new life. But unlike Edmond Dantes, I don’t have the kindly Abbe Ferria to explain to me who my enemies are, or the treasure of the Spadas to be my weapon. But I have other weapons, and I can steal more. But I still need to know who my true enemies are, who my Danglars and Mondego and Caderousse and de Villefort are. The Un-trustee may be one of them. Probably not. But he’s still the loose thread in the tapestry of treachery that wove my doom. I’ll carefully pull him loose and use him to loosen other threads to pull, until it all unravels. My framing has all the earmarks of the Rich and Powerful blithely ignoring the laws they make for the average man. As a burglar, the Rich and Powerful are my chosen prey. I will hunt among them, until I find the ones responsible for sending me to my own Chateau d’If.

I am the Countess of Monte Cristo, and like Edmond Dantes, though I live among criminals as a thief, I will see JUSTICE!

Comments   

+8 # Valentine 2016-07-26 01:52
The State of Illinois would like to thank you for accurate description of their incorruptable Government. and its Agencies.
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+1 # AbiDrew 2016-07-26 14:12
Amazing start to a new series and great introduction to a new anti-hero! I love these kinds of super villain stories where the villain isn't quite as awful as they're often painted and the "heros" are less than heroic.

Please sur, can I have some moar?
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0 # NeoMagus 2016-08-02 03:10
Are you trying to imply that Steel Falcon was in any way "un-heroic"?
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+1 # joreymay 2016-07-26 18:02
Ooooh... just... oooh! :lol: Great debut!

I was looking forward to her meeting Imp, and I wasn't disappointed. They are so alike that they would either get along famously or hate each other - glad it was the former!
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0 # AbiDrew 2016-07-28 10:01
I know! I loved the Imp-tastic cameo too!
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0 # DocSavage 2016-07-27 00:09
Awesome as usual
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0 # Ahimsa 2016-07-27 11:44
Well done.
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0 # MorganPhilips 2016-07-27 14:13
What a great start!
I love the way you manage to quickly build the World your story is set in without a lot of exposition then get on with the action. I'm really looking forward to reading more from this setting.
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0 # ~Archangel~ 2016-07-27 14:15
Just finished, great as usual. Looking forward to more.
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0 # Grog 2016-07-30 19:31
Great start, happy to see a few cameo's as well. Looking forward to more!
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0 # Dpragan 2016-07-31 18:02
Noticed a few discussions, BTW a certain female is obviously a saint to dealing with her husband they way she has to. ;)
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0 # alisa28 2016-08-01 18:00
Tiny looks to have an interesting future before her. Great start!
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0 # reist 2017-03-03 22:25
This was seriously awesome, and a really nice way to expand on the rest of the world.
The only thing I really didn't like was the one part of the story I have enough knowledge in - networks. That whole first hacking was Hollywood-style cringe worthy. Put a pgp key as the only access to the company servers and good luck getting ANY useful information out of wi-fi data. Also, if any data that is considered crucial was encoded via something like Vault, even before being gadgeteer-suped? That company will know the data was viewed, when and quite possibly by who.
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