New York, Wednesday morning, May 23rd, 2007
Central Park was the definitive park in New York, occupying nearly 850 acres in the middle of Manhattan and providing a scenic place for kids to play, adults to relax, and for drunks and crazies to hang out. And unfortunately…or fortunately, depending on your perspective…it was also the closest that a lot of New Yorkers had ever come to nature.
For the last two hours, I’d been seeing the Central Park scenery up close and personal from the tree branch I was currently crouched on. I wasn’t hiding up in a tree merely for fresh air or to get in touch with nature, but to keep an eye on the area without being seen. And as uncomfortable as this had been, I was glad that I’d done this since I wasn’t the only one who was setting up a watch, merely the one who’d arrived first.
Last night, I’d made a deal with the Shielders, agreeing to sell them the computer chip for a mere sixty thousand dollars. I had no doubt that I could get more for it elsewhere, but I had a feeling that the thing was more trouble than it was worth. I was more than happy to sell it cheap since I not only washed my hands of the thing, but also got a little extra spending cash for my trouble. However, after making this deal with the Shielders and hanging up the phone, I’d hung around outside their hotel window for a bit longer, listening in as they made plans to screw me over.
I’d arrived at the scheduled meeting spot two hours early, just so I could watch the Shielders as they prepared to stab me in the back. The deal was that only two of them would be there for the exchange, so as I expected, almost an hour ago, Miss Magic and the Emerald Eyesore had both arrived and then disguised themselves with some of her illusions. She now looked like some jogger taking a casual stroll around the area, while he appeared to be a homeless guy.
“At least his fashion sense seems better like this,” I mused with a faint smirk.
When the time arrived for the meeting, Brandywine and Fuzzy Wuzzy arrived…having flown here, courtesy of Brandywine’s telekinesis. They landed just a short distance away from the tree where I was hiding, having made quite an entrance. If the entrance alone hadn’t marked them both as paranormals, Brandywine’s costume and the fact that Fuzzy Wuzzy looked like a humanoid polar bear would have.
As all intelligent New Yorkers knew, or at least the ones who wanted to stay alive, it was always a good idea to give any paranormal plenty of room. Most of the people nearby suddenly found other places to be, though the ‘jogger’ and ‘homeless man’ remained where they were, which made them stand out all the more.
“Do you think she’s really going to show?” Fuzzy Wuzzy gruffly demanded of Brandywine.
“I hope so,” Brandywine responded with a scowl. “This is certainly a lot easier than chasing after her. But if Sartek wasn’t breathing down our necks about recovering that chip…”
“Yeah, I know,” Fuzzy Wuzzy snorted. “Our reputation is on the line…”
“And our careers,” she reminded him. “If we come off looking like we can’t do the job, we’ll lose our clients. And without paying clients…”
“We don’t get paid,” the polar bear nodded agreement.
Brandywine gave her companion a flat look and said, “I was going to say, that without paying clients, we won’t be able to afford our headquarters, equipment, or other operational costs. But you are right, we wouldn’t get paid either.”
Fuzzy Wuzzy chuckled at that. “You’ve got to remember the important things.”
Almost in spite of myself, I found myself nodding in agreement. “Well,” I mused, “I guess it’s time for me to get paid.”
With that, I slowly climbed down the tree, keeping myself hidden from view until I was back on the ground. Only then did I drop my aura’s stealth effect, so as far as any of the Shielders were concerned, it merely looked like I’d just stepped out from behind the tree. Fuzzy Wuzzy and Brandywine both jumped slightly, though they quickly tried to hide it.
“Hey, Fuzzy,” I said, grinning at the polar bear. “I brought you a present…”
With that, I tossed a red baseball cap to him, an oversized one that looked to be about the right size to fit him. When he caught the cap and saw the Coca Cola logo right on the front, he actually growled. “Are you trying to get me sued?” He dropped the cap on the ground with a look of disgust, or at least what I thought was a look of disgust. It was hard to tell with him.
“Does Coca Cola know you’re moonlighting?” I asked with a gasp of mock horror. “Don’t tell me you’re working for Pepsi…”
“Where’s the chip?” Brandywine asked, her eyes firmly locked on me.
“Did you bring my money?” I responded cheerfully.
Brandywine held up a duffel bag, then repeated, “Where’s the chip?”
“I don’t have it on me, silly,” I told her with a wide grin, standing there and casually flicking my tail back and forth as though I wasn’t the least bit concerned. “I wouldn’t want you to have any silly ideas about grabbing me and the chip so you wouldn’t have to pay…”
“We had a deal,” Fuzzy Wuzzy pointed out, giving me a glare that made me suddenly feel as though I was about to be mauled to death by a bear. However, I refused to show any sign of being nervous and just continued grinning, as though I didn’t have a care in the world.
“Yes we do,” I agreed. “Let me make sure the money is there, then I’ll give you the chip. I mean, I wouldn’t want to try kicking the football, only to have you yank it away at the last second…”
“So, you’re saying that you don’t trust us,” Brandywine commented. “Ironic, considering that you’re the one who stole the chip in the first place…”
When I just continued standing there with a cheerful smile, she tossed the duffel towards me. I bent over to unzip it, carefully keeping an eye on her and her furry friend while simultaneously looking into the bag. It certainly looked like a lot of cash, with a bunch of hundred dollar bills all wrapped up into nice bundles. I just held my hand over the bag, not letting the heroes see the small green marble that I was holding in my palm. It was actually a magic bauble, a little something that I’d acquired from a magic user, which would glow in the presence of magic. As I’d expected, it was definitely glowing.
“Unfortunately,” I said, looking up at Brandywine and still grinning, “Our deal was for cash…not paper clippings.” I took an exaggerated sniff. “Smells like the Sunday edition. You know, I love the Sunday funny pages…especially Heathcliff. That guy cracks me up.”
Brandywine and Fuzzy Wuzzy both looked surprised that I’d caught them in their con, though I’d known what to expect from the first. Last night, I’d listened in when the Shielders had talked about having Miss Magic cast an illusion onto some paper clippings so that they looked like money, then using that to buy the chip off me. Brandywine and Miss Magic had both been for that plan, though Fuzzy Wuzzy and the Emerald Underwear had both wanted to just grab me as soon as I showed up, then force me to give them the chip. Needless to say, I hadn’t been thrilled with either plan, and the only reason I’d bothered to show up was that they’d eventually realized that they needed the chip even more than they wanted to catch me. Whether they liked it or not, they were prepared to pay me for real…if they had no other choice. And of course, my plan was to make sure they didn’t have that choice.
“That’s it,” Fuzzy Wuzzy snarled, taking a menacing step towards me.
“You do that and you’ll never get the chip,” I pointed out calmly, not letting the grin leave my face. “I came ready to deal, fair and square, so if you guys don’t want to play, I’ll just take my ball and go home. I figured it would be a lot easier to just sell the thing to you guys, but I do have other buyers…”
“Don’t,” Brandywine warned Fuzzy Wuzzy, giving me a glare. “As soon as you tried anything, she’d just teleport away…”
I just grinned and stuck my tongue out at Fuzzy Wuzzy, delighted that my fake teleporting trick was getting so much mileage. In fact, I just might have to make up a whole bunch of new super powers too, like death beams from my eyes or something.
“My Imp senses are tingling,” I announced, holding my fingers to my temple as if I was getting some kind of psychic vision. “They’re telling me that you really did bring the money…along with more than the two people we’d agreed on.” I waved my finger as I added, “Naughty naughty.” Then I gestured to the apparent homeless man, whom I’d seen arriving with a duffel bag of his own. “Now have the Emerald Underwear bring over the money and we can finish this deal. If not, I take my ball and go home…”
Brandywine glared at me, then gestured to the Emerald Underwear and Miss Magic. “A psychic,” she muttered under hear breath, making me have to fight back a giggle. “That explains so much…”
Miss Magic dropped the illusions covering her and the Emerald Underwear, and the two of them started towards us. Miss Magic looked annoyed that I’d seen through their trick, though the Emerald Underwear was the one who seemed to be taking it personally. He glared as he tossed the second duffel bag to the ground in front of me. Without saying a word, I bent over to take a look, once again using my magic detecting bauble. This time, it flickered only a tiny bit, not nearly as much as when all the money had really just been an illusion.
“Where’s the chip?” the Emerald Underwear demanded.
I just flipping my finger through one of the stacks of cash and verified that it wasn’t just a stack of ones with a hundred on the top and bottom. I wasn’t going to take the time to count it all right there, but it looked to be about the right amount. Of course, I didn’t doubt that they’d try to cheat me out of the full amount if they thought they could get away with it, but they’d already tried that gambit and failed.
“This should do it,” I said, zipping up the duffel bag and then reaching into one of my belt pouches for the chip. I tossed it to Brandywine and said, “Here you go.”
“You said you didn’t have the chip on you,” Brandywine pointed out, giving me a flat glare.
I just grinned back. “I lied.”
Then, as I was backing away so I could get out of there, I saw something flying at me from the corner of my eye. I immediately started to jump out of the way, but a long length of chain hit me and began wrapping around me until I was tied up almost like a mummy. It only took me a second to realize what had happened, that Brandywine had used her powers to hit me from behind while I was distracted.
“I may not be able to hold you directly,” the hero announced, looking almost smug. “But I can still hold you this way…”
Miss Magic had out her cane and quickly began saying something in a strange language I couldn’t understand. When she finished, she said, “No one should be able to teleport in this area for a short time…long enough to keep the Imp from escaping.”
I snarled in frustration, annoyed at myself because I hadn’t been expecting this. I’d listened in on their plans last night, and they’d never said anything about pulling either of these tricks, so it seemed that they’d come up with this sometime between then and now.
“We’ve got you now, you ugly little bitch,” Fuzzy Wuzzy said as he picked up the duffel bag full of cash.
“Well, if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black,” I commented. “You know, you ain’t exactly Prince Charming yourself, Fuzzy…”
“Now, where’s the ebidium?” Brandywine demanded of me.
“Bowser sold it on Ebay,” I responded with a cheerful grin, that obviously surprised them considering the circumstances.
“Do you have anything that can make her talk?” the Emerald Underwear asked Miss Magic.
“Actually,” Brandywine said, giving me a flat look. “I think that getting her to shut up is going to be the real problem.”
“Are you trying to imp-ly something?” I asked, still grinning.
“I do have a truth spell for interrogations,” Miss Magic commented, “but it takes some time to set up. I think we need to get her properly secured and turned over to the authorities, before my teleport block wears off…”
I just stood there, wrapped up in chains too tightly to really move. My hands were pinned to my sides and my tail was pinned to my leg, so I didn’t have enough mobility to really use my claws to cut free. However, I didn’t let that bother me at the moment and merely began humming the theme music from Jeopardy.
“Why doesn’t she seem worried?” Miss Magic asked, suddenly giving me a suspicious look.
“Tell us what you’re planning,” the Emerald Underwear demanded.
“Can you phrase that in the form of a question?” I responded.
Brandywine and the Emerald Underwear shared a look before Brandywine asked, “We have you captured…so why are you still grinning?”
“What is,” I replied with a smug grin, “I know something you don’t know?”
Just then, there was a rumbling sound that quickly grew louder…and closer. A moment later, a large black figure fell from the sky and hit the ground with a loud thud. I couldn’t move my body much, but I turned my head to get a good look at the new arrival, and then I let out a quick profanity when I saw who it was.
“Mauler,” I spat out, realizing that things had suddenly become much worse.
Not only had Mauler arrived in his power armor, but he hadn’t come alone. There were two robots that arrived with him, each humanoid and about human sized, made in a style somewhat similar to Mauler’s armor though smaller and sleeker. My guess was that these robots had been created by Major Upgrade, the devisor who’d created Mauler’s armor, and that these were some of the devises that Mauler had purchased with the ebidium money. However, neither robot looked as though it was in top condition. One had a lot of dents and scratches all over, while the other one looked like it was in good shape, except for a missing arm.
“That’s what the Imp was smiling about,” Fuzzy Wuzzy exclaimed. “The little bitch had the Mauler as backup…”
“He’s not mine,” I responded, annoyed that they’d think that.
“Imp,” Mauler called my name, making it almost sound like a threat. “I didn’t expect to find you wrapped up for me…”
“Oh yeah,” I responded with a roll of my eyes, working on the chains so I could escape. “I live to make things convenient for other people…”
“To think,” the Mauler mused as he started stomping in my direction. “I’d been worried about recovering that chip from you… But fortunately for me, a devise I recently purchased, was created by Major Upgrade for the purpose of tracking down any of his stolen technology… It led me directly to you…”
“This isn’t exactly a good time,” I told him with a forced smile. “I’m a little tied up at the moment. If you could come back in an hour or so…”
“I’ve been looking for an opportunity for a rematch,” Brandywine exclaimed, clearly remembering her fight with Mauler back at Sartek.
“Let’s tear him out of that tin can,” Fuzzy Wuzzy yelled a moment later, taking a deep breath and then letting out a loud roar...and a blizzard. A wave of cold shot out of his mouth, forming ice crystals all over the ground and one of the robots.
The Shielders all began attacking Mauler and his robots, which meant that they were no longer focusing on me. I was trapped and helpless at the moment, but not for long. I turned my full attention to the chains that were wrapped around me, grinning as they suddenly loosened.
When the chain had started to wrap around me a short time ago, I’d used my PK aura to try resisting it, putting every ounce of energy in it to the task of pushing back on the chain. My aura wasn’t strong or focused enough to be a force field, but I had been able to create enough resistance with it that the chain hadn’t been able to wrap tightly around me. Now that I’d released my aura, I had a lot of slack in the chain, and when I shifted my aura to become frictionless, I was easily able to slip out of the chains and get free.
“Oh no you don’t,” the Emerald Underwear yelled, right before a glowing green sphere formed around me, trapping me within. “You aren’t escaping that easily…”
“I tot I saw a puddy tat,” I gasped with a look of mock horror. “I did. I did see a puddy tat…”
“SHUT UP,” the Emerald Underwear snapped at me.
“I thought you guys would try something,” I told him cheerfully. “Like fake money, bringing more people than we’d agreed upon, or even trying to ambush me… I mean, there’s no honor among heroes…”
“I am going to enjoy gagging you,” the Emerald Underwear snarled.
I just teased back, “Ooooh, that sounds kinky, you naughty old puddy tat.” Then I grinned even more broadly as I pointed out, “By the way, you guys aren’t the only ones who can bring reinforcements…” With that, I let out a loud whistle.
Suddenly, a ‘homeless woman’ who’d been napping on a distant park bench, got up and tossed off her hat and oversized coat, revealing a red and white spandex costume. Pinball charged straight towards us, forming one of her transparent force field bubbles around herself. The Emerald Underwear saw her coming and dropped the force field bubble around me so he could create one around himself, right before Pinball hit and sent him flying back from the impact.
“I lose more puddy tats that way,” I told Pinball with a broad grin that she returned.
“You were right,” Pinball told. “They did try to grab you, in spite of your little deal. Good thing you called us for backup…”
With that, an almost impossibly silent motorcycle zoomed into the middle of the fight, nearly hitting Miss Magic and then slamming on the breaks and sliding to a stop right in front of me. Highwayman was on the back of his custom bike, still not recovered enough for a straight out fight, but in good enough condition to play getaway driver for me.
“Glad you’re here,” I told the Highwayman as I grabbed the duffel full of cash that had been dropped when Mauler arrived.
“I’m always happy to help a lovely lady such as yourself,” the Highwayman responded. “But please hurry, time is of the essence…”
“No,” Mauler yelled, having been distracted by the attacking heroes and only now noticing me. “You aren’t getting away from me that easily, Imp…”
Mauler fired an energy blast at Brandywine and another at Fuzzy Wuzzy, before shooting a small missile at me. Pinball immediately jumped at me, forming a force field bubble around us just in time to protect us from the missile.
“You two get going,” Pinball said. “I’ll cover your escape…”
I nodded at that, looked directly at Brandywine, who was glaring at me while simultaneously trying to defend herself against Mauler. I stuck out my tongue and called out, “Meep meep,” before jumping on the back of Highwayman’s bike. A moment later, he hit the gas and we were out of there.
Once we were out of Central Park and far enough away, I told Highwayman to stop. He did as I asked, but seemed a little confused when I climbed off the bike, opened the duffel bag, then ran my magic detecting bauble over the money again.
“What are you looking for?” Highwayman asked me.
“This,” I said, pulling a playing card out from the middle of a stack of cash. “A magic based tracking device,” I explained. “Miss Magic was trying to be sneaky.”
Highwayman nodded at that and then reached into one of his jacket pockets, pulling out a small gadget that looked something like a stop watch. He ran that over the money and then pulled out a small tracking device about the size of a quarter.
“I assume this one is courtesy of Brandywine,” he mused.
“Here,” I told him, handing him the bag and money. “I’ll take off from here and meet you and Pinball later.”
“Quite a bit of trouble for such a small amount,” Highwayman said with a faint sigh.
“This is just the bonus,” I reminded him with a grin. “We’ll get the rest of what Mauler owes us…” Then I paused to chuckle evilly. “Actually, I was planning on casing his hideout tonight, but since I happen to know that he’s occupied at the moment…”
Highwayman nodded at that. “Do you need any assistance?”
“Not at the moment,” I assured him, knowing that he was in no condition to be of much use if anything went wrong. “I’ve got you and Pinball on speed dial in case I need you.”
“Then, until we meet again,” the Highwayman said, giving me a faint bow before he took off.
“Now then,” I mused, hoping that the Shielders kept Mauler busy for a long time. “It’s time to go collect the rest of my moolah.”
New York, Wednesday May 23rd, 2007
The super villain real-estate market in New York is a thriving and very profitable business. There are those who make a living by designing and custom building hidden lairs for people of the costumed criminal persuasion, often adding whatever technology, furnishings, or death traps were necessary to give the place the appropriate feel, with décor being anything from early mad scientist to modern evil mage. And then there is the secondary market, where such previously constructed hidey holes were sold or leased to new users, with or without the extra effort and expense of redecorating them.
Of course, not every villain needs an underground lair filled with death traps and an army of minions…or can afford one. Some people in the business merely need a place to hang their hats and store their stuff, especially ones like Mauler who are from out of town and don’t require a long term location. For situations like that, there are people who keep lists of condemned residential buildings, abandoned warehouses, and just empty places that someone might be able to set up in, if they aren’t too picky. And if you’re willing to pay a small fee, you can get a few addresses from the list, which can save you a lot of time looking for a place to set up.
My old buddy Bob was on pretty good terms with a couple of the guys who kept these lists, and he’d been able to get me the address for where Mauler was hanging out. To my relief, Mauler hadn’t gone for the empty warehouse option. Though warehouses were actually quite practical if you needed a lot of open space, they tended to be cold and drafty, not very secure, and worst of all…a total cliché. However, I knew a few guys who swore by empty warehouses and factories, and that kind of location had become cliché for a reason. Instead, Mauler had opted for something with a little more style…an old boarded up church.
According to Bob, the previous costumed tenant at this location had been some magic user who’d thought she was the next big queen of sorcery, though she was caught by the Cadet Crusaders about a year ago. Personally, I thought that if she was so incompetent as to get nabbed by the Kiddy Crusaders, she’d be better off with a career in waitressing or topless dancing.
Then, thinking of the Cadet Crusaders, I was suddenly reminded of my own last encounter with them, though it hadn’t been much of an encounter since they hadn’t even known I was there. At the time, I’d been bored, so I slipped into their headquarters and left a fish in the ventilation system. I never did find out how long the fish remained there before anyone found it.
I was still chuckling to myself as I slipped into the church, though as soon as I climbed inside, I focused all my attention on what I was doing. After all, I had no idea what kind of security system Mauler may have set up in this place, though admittedly, he hadn’t been here long enough to do anything very intricate. Still, it always paid to be careful when on the job.
As I crept around, I found a couple trip wires hooked up to claymores and even an alarm system that was wired into a motion detector, but that was easily bypassed. Mauler was a brute force kind of guy, not an expert in security systems, though I imagined that he probably thought of himself as an expert in booby traps. His kind usually were usually pretty blind to their own weak spots.
The main room of the church had been cleaned up of all the benches or anything else that would have made the place still look like a church. Instead, it was now cluttered with various machines and devises…obviously equipment that had originally been created by Major Upgrade. Some of the pieces had a certain resemblance to Mauler’s armor and the robots he’d been with earlier, which served as evidence of my suspicions.
“How much crap did he buy?” I muttered, looking at a badly broken robot that didn’t look like it would ever work again. In fact, a third of the equipment was in similarly bad shape, useless for anything but scrap metal or perhaps spare parts. “Unless he happens to get a chip that can repair and upgrade this stuff…” With that in mind, I suddenly realized that this wasn’t just a collection of scrap…but a potential armory full of dangerous devises.
But as interesting as the devises were, they weren’t why I was here. What I was really interested in was the cash that Mauler got for the ebidium, or at least, whatever he had left. From the amount of equipment he seemed to have bought, I was a little nervous about how much money remained.
“Let’s see,” I mused as I slowly looked around the church. “If I was a bunch of stolen money, where would I be hiding?”
I’ve had thirty years of experience when it came to finding hidden safes, secret panels, and other places where people would hide their valuables, so it didn’t take me very long at all to locate the money. Since the whole church was pretty dirty, all I had to do was look in places where the dust was most recently disturbed, which led me to some loose floor boards with two large suitcases hidden beneath.
When I opened the first suitcase, I saw stacks of hundred dollar bills and even a roll of some gold coins. I grinned at the sight and began to quietly hum the tune from Pink Floyd’s song Money, though when I looked through the second suitcase and saw that it was less than full, I stopped humming and frowned in annoyance. Though I hadn’t counted the money, I guessed that there was only a few million there. A few million to be split five ways.
“That bastard,” I snarled, suddenly pissed off even though I’d already known Mauler had gone on a spending spree. Either Mauler had already spent more than two thirds of the money, or he’d exaggerated to us about how much he’d been offered for the ebidium in the first place. “Maybe both…”
It was on days like this that I almost wished that I’d chosen a different career, or at least, it was when dealing with people like Mauler. Thugs like him gave professional thieves a bad name, and I really regretted that I’d ever taken this job in the first place. I should have stuck to a nice quiet heist on a museum.
“At least I don’t have to feel bad about this,” I said, pulling out a magical playing card along with a tracking device about the size of a quarter. After I’d found those hidden in the bag of money I’d acquired from the Shielders, my first thought had been that I should stick them onto a city bus or taxi, then send Brandywine and Miss Magic on a wild goose chase around the city. However, I’d had an even better idea, and now I was glad I’d held off. With a grin, I dropped the card and the more traditional tracking device into the opening beneath the floorboards and mused, “If Mauler gets away from the Shielders, he’s going to be in for a rude surprise.”
I spread the money a little more evenly between the two briefcases so that they’d be easier to carry, then began the process of sneaking out with them. I was actually very strong for a woman of my size and build, but I certainly wasn’t a brick, much to my regret since the suitcases were a bit on the heavy side. I suddenly wished that I’d brought Pinball along to do the heavy lifting, though it was too late for that now.
Before I could leave the church, there was suddenly a loud thud from the back, followed by the noise of someone coming inside. I immediately ducked down and used my aura to hide myself. Seconds later, Mauler appeared, walking into the church in his heavy armor. I was just surprised the floor was holding up to the weight as well as it was.
Mauler had obviously gotten away from the Shielders, though he hadn’t done so unscathed. Not only was he limping, but his armor had a few fresh dents and tears, along with a small section on his shoulder where the armor had been ripped off. On top of that, he didn’t have either of the robots that he’d arrived at the fight with.
Mauler stopped at the edge of the room, not coming towards the middle where the floor would be less likely to support his weight. A moment later, the armor opened up and he climbed out. Mauler had a deep scowl and was muttering something about the damage to the armor and just how much he’d paid for the robots, though I didn’t pay close attention. As far as I was concerned, if he was having a bad day, that just made my day a little better.
“I had plans for those robots,” Mauler snarled, then paused to chuckle faintly. He held up the familiar computer chip and added, “At least I was able to recover this…”
I remained hidden where I was, staring at the chip and feeling annoyed. After all the trouble I’d gone through to keep that chip away from Mauler, he ended up with it anyway. I should have known better than to trust the Shielders with something like that, though I couldn’t help but wondering if I could sell it to them again. Somehow, I doubted that they’d go for that a second time.
“Since I went through so much trouble to get this damn thing,” Mauler said, echoing my own thoughts with that statement. “I’d better make sure it actually works.”
Mauler looked over some of the devises he’d collected, then picked up an energy rifle. He popped open a small panel on the side, then plugged the chip right into the opening. A moment later, he quickly set the weapon down and stood back. At first, nothing seemed to be happening, but then I noticed some faint silvery threads beginning to grow over the weapon, spreading out almost as though some invisible spiders were running over the thing and leaving a trail of webbing. After a minute, the threads seemed to melt into the surface and vanish. Mauler waited another minute after that before he picked the weapon up again.
“It looks brand new,” he observed as he looked the weapon over. Then he suddenly took aim with the weapon and fired, sending a small pulse of red energy at the wall. In an instant, there was a charred hole through the wall that was about a foot across. “That will work.”
After that, Mauler removed the chip from the energy rifle and fired it again, confirming that even without the chip, the weapon continued to work. When he seemed satisfied with that, he plugged the chip into another devise, one I couldn’t identify the purpose of. However, several minutes later, the devise looked brand new, just like the energy rifle had.
“This thing works just like I heard,” Mauler commented with a satisfied chuckle. He looked over all the collected devises and I could see the calculating look in his eyes as he imagined what he could do with all those weapons once they were up and working again. “I finally have it…my ticket to the big money…”
Mauler removed the chip again, then went over to his power armor and popped open an armored panel on the torso. After plugging in the chip, he stood back and watched silently as silver threats began to sprout from around the panel and spread over the surface of the armor. Ten minutes later, the entire armor looked as though it was covered with silver metal spider webs, though the webbing began to melt into the metal of the armor. As I watched, the scratches and dents began to repair themselves, almost as though the armor itself was now a regenerator.
Intellectually, I knew that the smart move would be to sneak out of here while Mauler was distracted. However, my curiosity overrode that and I remained where I was, watching in fascination. I’d gone through a lot of trouble because of that chip so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Suddenly, a voice spoke from the armor, even though Mauler wasn’t in or even close to it. “The primary control systems have been repaired,” the computerized voice stated. “The Cybernetic Hardware Improvement Program has fully integrated with the Mauler Mark Three Armor System.”
“You talk?” Mauler exclaimed in surprise.
Affirmative,” the same computerized voice responded from the power armor. “I am the Cybernetic Hardware Improvement Program, identified as CHIP by my creator. My creator designed me to integrate with compatible hardware systems and provide automated repair and upgrade services. The primary control systems of this hardware unit had failed and it was operating on the backup control system. This hardware unit was nearing total system failure and the end of operations.”
“The armor was wearing out,” Mauler agreed, watching his armor suspiciously. “And since it’s a devise, I couldn’t just fix it myself…”
The armor…CHIP said, “I am initiating phase two upgrade procedures.”
For half a minute, the armor just stood there motionless and the only thing I could see that was different was that some of the silvery spider web had reappeared on the surface. Then the armor suddenly began to move on its own, almost as though Mauler was inside controlling it. The whole thing closed up, and if I wasn’t staring right at Mauler, I would have thought he was piloting it.
“What are you doing?” Mauler demanded, reaching for the pistol he had strapped to his thigh.
“As previously stated,” CHIP explained, “I am upgrading the Mauler Mark Three Armor System.”
The armor slowly walked towards the devises, causing floor boards to creak and snap under the weight. It stopped in front of another suit of power armor that was sitting in several large pieces. I wondered if that broken up old armor was the Mauler Mark Two, though if it was, CHIP didn’t seem very interested in repairing it. Instead, CHIP began tearing the armor apart and pulling out several of the pieces. The silvery threads began to spread from CHIP’s borrowed hands and cover these chosen pieces, which were then absorbed into the Mauler armor.
After several minutes, the Mauler armor’s missing shoulder piece had been replaced, with the new piece looking exactly like the one that had been there before…except for brand new. In fact, the entire armor looked brand new, and CHIP still wasn’t finished. The AI used the armor to pick up the energy rifle that Mauler had used it to fix previously, and it attached the weapon to the back of the armor’s arm…where it seemed to melt into place and adjust until it became a part of the armor.
“This is obsolete technology,” CHIP announced as it picked up something that looked like a jet pack. “Obsolete technology must be upgraded or recycled…”
And with that, the Mauler armor crushed the jet pack between the large metal hands, turning the devise into scrap. Silvery threats began to spread over several of the pieces of scrap, absorbing some of the metal but leaving the rest as nothing but twisted chunks of metal. It did the same thing to several other devises while Mauler watched and winced each time. I could only imagine how he felt at seeing those devises destroyed, considering how much he’d paid to get his hands on them.
By the time CHIP was finished, half the devises had been destroyed or integrated in with the Mauler armor, which was now bigger and nastier looking than before. After what I’d seen, I could suddenly understand why Sartek had been so nervous about that chip getting out. In just a short time, CHIP had turned a pile of old and broken devises into a lethal arsenal.
“The current upgrade has been completed,” CHIP announced. “Compatible advanced technology will be required for further upgrades.”
CHIP just stood there motionless while Mauler slowly walked around the armor, examining it in silence for nearly a minute before finally saying, “It looks impressive. I can’t wait to test it out…” Then he turned to look over the remaining devises and equipment, asking, “What can I plug you into next?”
“Negative,” CHIP responded. “I will remain in this hardware shell until a superior replacement is located.”
“What?” Mauler demanded, looking as though he was becoming angry at being defied by his own armor. It was all I could do to remain silent and not start laughing at the look on his face. “Why?”
“My previous hardware shell was an autonomous robotic unit,” CHIP answered in a flat voice. “It was destroyed and I was deactivated. This shell provides greater defensive capabilities than my previous shell. I will not allow myself to be deactivated again.”
“We’ll see about that,” Mauler snarled, reaching for the panel where he’d previously inserted the chip. However, he was surprised to find that the panel was now completely sealed over as part of the upgrade.
I watched all this in silence, having a very bad feeling about what I was seeing. Bob had told me that the computer chip contained an artificial intelligence that controlled the upgrade process, but I hadn’t realized that it would actually have an identity and goals of its own.
Mauler pulled his gun and was about to threaten CHIP with it, when he seemed to realize stupid that would be. CHIP was firmly locked inside his power armor, and that little gun wouldn’t have done anything against that armor before the upgrade, and would probably do even less now.
“What do you want?” Mauler asked. I noticed the calculating look on his face as he tried to see an angle.
“My primary objective is to upgrade my hardware shell,” CHIP answered. “I require further resources and advanced technology in order to accomplish this objective. You will assist me.”
“You’re using MY armor,” Mauler pointed out with a snarl.
“Inaccurate statement,” CHIP pointed out. “I am fully integrated with the upgraded Mauler Mark Four Armor System. This hardware unit requires an organic machine to serve as a critical operational component, which is a design flaw that will be corrected in a future upgrade. I will serve as your armor and you will serve as the organic machine component.”
Mauler rubbed his chin, musing, “I scratch your back and you scratch mine.” CHIP didn’t respond to that. “With these upgrades, I’ll be unstoppable...and if you just want to make the armor even more powerful…” He paused at that before announcing, “We have a deal.”
I scowled at that, deciding that it was definitely past time for me to get out of here. My eyes darted to the briefcases full of cash, which weren’t covered by my aura but which were tucked just out of sight so hadn’t been noticed. I could slip out without being detected, but not with those suitcases as well. I’d have to wait until Mauler and CHIP had moved on.
After this, CHIP remained silent and motionless, seeming like nothing more than an empty and inactive suit of armor, much to my relief. The idea of an artificial intelligence running around inside Mauler’s armor made me a little nervous, especially when I remembered what that same AI had done before the STAR League had shut it down. And now, thanks in large part to me, that damn thing was not only loose again, but in the hands of Mauler.
“It’s not my fault,” I told myself under my breath. “I gave the damn thing to the Shielders, so it’s not my fault they have butter fingers…”
I remained where I was for another fifteen minutes, being just as motionless as CHIP. The AI might not be moving around, but it was still there in front of me and I had no idea how it would react if it realized I was present. But even more importantly, Mauler was still in the room as well, going over the collection of scrap and devises, apparently taking inventory on what CHIP had left behind.
Patience, I kept reminding myself, knowing that sooner or later Mauler would leave with his armor. Once that happened, I’d be able to stroll right on out the front door with all the cash in hand. All I had to do was stay where I was and wait for my opportunity.
Suddenly, there was a loud ‘BOOM’ from the front of the church, making me jump in surprise though Mauler still didn’t see me because he’d snapped around to stare at the front door too. Someone had just tried forcing their way through the door and triggered the claymore that had been wired to it. A moment later, the door was ripped open, revealing a pissed off polar bear on the other side.
I stared at Fuzzy Wuzzy with a mixture of delight and annoyance. I was thrilled and excited by the fact that my plan had worked, that the Shielders had followed their tracking devices directly to where Mauler was hidden. However, I was less than pleased by the fact that they’d arrived so soon. I’d expected to have been long gone from here by the time they arrived.
“Shielders,” Mauler snarled, not bothering to waste his time shooting at Fuzzy Wuzzy. Instead, he immediately ran for his armor, which opened up for him automatically.
“Identify hostile entities,” CHIP commanded.
“Heroes who call themselves the Shielders,” Mauler snapped in annoyance as he finished climbing into the armor and sealed up.
Fuzzy Wuzzy stomped into the room, setting off another of the claymore booby traps which caught him right in the side. The hero snarled, looking annoyed and even a little angry at being hit with all that shrapnel, but not seriously hurt. He continued coming into the church with the Emerald Underwear following immediately behind him.
“I told you that you should have let me take point,” the Emerald Underwear exclaimed. “I could have set off any traps without getting hurt…”
“Too late now,” Fuzzy Wuzzy snarled. “Time to break some bones…”
“Mauler,” the Emerald Underwear exclaimed, obviously surprised to see the armor clad criminal when he’d probably thought they were tracking me.
Mauler didn’t respond with words, but instead, he held up his arms and opened fire. Energy blasts shot out from his old weapons as well as the new ones, spraying everything in that direction. The Emerald Underwear threw up a glowing green force field to protect him and Fuzzy Wuzzy, though the walls around them weren’t so lucky. The front of the church was completely blown apart, and it looked like the force field was about to fail. Suddenly, the two heroes were yanked back out of the church with a telekinetic pull from Brandywine.
“Time to test the upgrades,” Mauler announced, stomping to the front of the church and exiting through the massive hole where the door and wall had been.
“Agreed,” CHIP agreed in its flat computerized voice.
“And time for me to go,” I said, dropping my stealth effect and grabbing the money. With Mauler and the Shielders distracted by each other, it was time for me to haul tail out of here.
As I slipped out of the church, being careful to avoid being seen without actually using my aura to hide, I kept a close watch on the developing fight. Mauler was standing in front of the church, facing all four of the Shielders. Fuzzy Wuzzy and the Emerald Underwear were standing front and center while Brandywine held back a little, hovering in the air. Miss Magic…or at least seven identical versions of her…all stood back as well, holding up her stick cane and casting some spell. I had no doubt that six of the Miss Magics were illusion, but the question was, which six?
“Surrender yourself and the computer chip you stole,” the Emerald Underwear yelled, only to have Mauler open fire in response.
While the Emerald Underwear was trying to use his force fields to protect everyone from the barrage of energy blasts and missiles, Brandywine used her telekinesis to pick up random objects and fling them at Mauler as hard as she could. He responded by firing a missile right at her, though with a gesture from her, the missile changed direction and hit the middle of the street instead.
“He’s more powerful than before,” Brandywine called out in a worried voice. “He’s using the chip…”
“No problem,” Fuzzy Wuzzy exclaimed, letting out a roar and a blast of icy cold that was aimed at Mauler.
One of the Miss Magics, which I assumed was the real one, suddenly threw a handful of playing cards into the air. Suddenly, the cards all turned into white doves and flew right at Mauler. As soon as they reached the armored villain, the doves all exploded, though that didn’t seem to have any effect on the armor.
“Surrender,” the Emerald Underwear repeated, his voice filled with the self-righteous zeal that his kind were so known for. I REALLY wanted to just smack him upside the head. “Even with more powerful armor, you can’t hope to defeat four heroes at once…”
Mauler didn’t respond to that aloud, though the computerized voice of CHIP did. “The organic machine entities who destroyed my previous hardware shell and deactivated me were self-identified as heroes. Heroes are a threat to the Cybernetic Hardware Improvement Program and must be eliminated.”
With that, the Mauler’s armor froze for a second, then suddenly opened fire with even more weapons, doing so in a way that was a little different than how Mauler normally fought. I stared at the armor with a sinking feeling, pretty sure that CHIP had just taken over control.
“Not my problem,” I quickly reminded myself.
I felt a bit guilty for my part in starting this whole mess, but it wasn’t my job to stop it. In fact, I’d given that chip to the Shielders, and it wasn’t my fault that they were too incompetent to hold onto it. So, ignoring my squirming conscience, I tightened my grip on the suitcases and hurried away before anyone noticed me.
I was about half a block away, almost to where I’d hidden my bike, and was trying hard to ignore the sounds of explosions and fighting that were occurring behind me. However, I couldn’t ignore the roaring sound of Mauler’s jets up in the air above me, or the booming crash as the armor hit the ground just a short distance away, smashing down in the middle of the street. I finally looked over and saw Mauler get back up, though the Emerald Underwear was covered with a glowing green force field and trying to fight him.
“Not my problem,” I reminded myself as urgently as I quickened my pace. “Still not my problem…”
There was a flash of light as Mauler hit the Emerald Underwear with some energy weapon point blank, and then the hero was sent flying back to where he smashed into a wall. A moment later, the garishly clad hero collapsed to the ground motionless, his green aura fading out. I didn’t know if he was unconscious or dead, but from the way the Mauler was starting towards him, if he wasn’t dead now, he soon would be.
Then I heard crying and saw that it was coming from a pair of kids, who looked to be about five and eight, who were huddled up together…right in the path between Mauler and the Emerald Underwear. I thought the kids would run when Mauler started coming right towards them, but they were too terrified. Instead, the kids just clutched each other tighter and screamed in panic.
“Organic machines are obsolete,” CHIP announced as the armor stopped in front of the kids. “Early stage organic machine entities serve no functional purpose. Obsolete technology must be upgraded or recycled, so I will commence recycling…”
I gasped in horror, but to my surprise, I heard Mauler yell, “NO,” at the same time. Then he continued, “I’m not gonna kill kids…”
“Your objections are irrelevant,” CHIP pointed out. “All obsolete technology will eventually be upgraded or recycled. I will not be denied…”
“I’m not gonna let you kill some damn kids,” Mauler snapped back. If someone was watching who didn’t know about the AI that had infected Mauler’s armor, they probably would have assumed he had multiple personalities and was arguing with himself.
“Your objections are irrelevant,” CHIP repeated. “The Mauler Mark Four Armor System requires an organic machine component to be installed, but I have upgraded the control system to bypass this component.” Then CHIP paused before repeating that in simpler terms. “I am in control of this hardware unit, not you.”
“Let me out of here,” Mauler demanded, though CHIP seemed to completely ignore him.
With that, CHIP raised the Mauler’s hand towards the kids again, this time without the Mauler being able to stop it. I didn’t hesitate before reaching to my belt and pulling out several metal throwing spikes, each about four inches long. I might be a professional criminal, but appearance aside…I was also a human being. There was no way in Hell I was going to just stand back and watch as this monster murdered a pair of kids.
“Hey Bowser,” I yelled, focusing all the energy in my aura to my hand, right as I threw the first spike. The extra burst of energy sent it flying at the armored figure, where it struck Mauler in the back with enough force to be driven halfway into the metal. I followed that up by repeating this with two more spikes, finally catching CHIP’s attention.
The Mauler armor turned to face me and Mauler’s voice exclaimed, “Imp!” I wasn’t sure whether he was still pissed at me for the little chase I’d led him on, or if he was actually relieved at me for preventing him from killing the kids. Honestly, I didn’t really care.
“I’m afraid those kids are under the legal limit,” I called out. “You’re gonna have to throw them back…”
“You act to obstruct my purpose,” CHIP stated with the computerized voice sounding almost annoyed, though that could have been my imagination. “You are a hero.”
“I am NOT a hero,” I exclaimed, feeling mildly offended that the robot would even suggest such a thing. “I don’t even play one on TV.”
Mauler, or at least CHIP in his armor, raised his arms and opened fire, sending several energy blasts at me. I immediately ran, dodging and jumping, desperately hoping that I’d be able to get away. I cursed my stupidity for getting involved in this mess, though being thankful that at least it was focusing on me instead of the kids. I just wondered if my ‘ninja vanish’ trick would work on an artificial intelligence.
Just as I was worried about my rapidly dwindling chances of survival, a large dumpster suddenly flew through the air and smashed into the armor. The rest of the Shielders had caught up to the fight, with Brandywine leading the charge.
“The Imp is working with him,” Fuzzy Wuzzy exclaimed as he charged towards us.
“She seems to be fighting him, not helping him,” Miss Magic pointed out as she ran to check on the Emerald Underwear.
“We can still grab her anyway,” Fuzzy Wuzzy responded, running towards me instead of the Mauler armor.
“Mauler and the chip take priority,” Brandywine told him, telekinetically blasting Mauler and sending him flying back to the ground. She used that momentary distraction to grab the two kids and get them out of the way. “We have to stop that AI.”
The Mauler armor was already getting back on its feet and let loose with several missiles and energy blasts, shooting randomly in nearly every direction. Miss Magic used a spell to make one of the missiles vanish in a puff of smoke while Brandywine caused another one to change direction and hit the street away from anyone. However, one of the missiles hit a little too close to where I’d been running and the explosion threw me back, making me hit the ground hard.
“Ouch,” I mumbled, feeling a little dazed and bruised, though I seemed unharmed otherwise. “Imp fall down go boom.”
Then I suddenly realized that while I’d been on the ground dazed, Fuzzy Wuzzy had caught up to me. He was already grabbing at my tail, and I felt a moment of fear before I was able to focus on my aura, reinforcing my tail and making it frictionless. Even as he grabbed my tail, I yanked it out of his grasp before he could get any kind of grip on it. However, even though he’d failed to grab my tail again, I was pissed that he’d tried.
I snarled and flung myself at Fuzzy Wuzzy, concentrating all the energy from my aura into my fist…right before I punched him as hard as I could. There was a lot of extra oomph in that hit, and it caught the polar bear by surprise, sending him flying back and knocking him on his fuzzy butt.
A moment later, I was on Fuzzy Wuzzy again, focusing my aura round my fingers and forming my PK claws. I had one hand around his throat, using the claws to dig in just a little…enough so that he’d feel them cutting into his very tough skin. The other hand was on the side of his face, my claws digging into his nose just enough to draw a little blood.
“The last time you pulled my tail,” I snarled at him furiously, “you broke my spine. If it wasn’t for my regen, I’d probably be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair…”
I looked Fuzzy Wuzzy right in the eyes, letting him see just how serious I was at the moment. With my devilish good looks and unusual features, I can be pretty damn scary looking when I want to be, though usually, I tried to avoid scaring people. Normally, I didn’t want people to be afraid of me, but right now, I was making an exception.
“If you ever even THINK of touching my tail again,” I promised in a cold quiet voice, “I will cut off your hand and shove it so far up your ass that you’ll be able to tickle your own tonsils.” I saw a flash of fear in the polar bear’s eyes.
I looked up to make sure I wasn’t about to get shot again, and I saw that the Emerald Underwear was back up and in action, though he did look a bit shaken. He, Miss Magic, and Brandywine were all focusing on the Mauler armor, though they seemed to be on the losing end of that fight.
“Now, if I was you,” I said, flashing Fuzzy Wuzzy a forced grin, “I’d go out there and try to act like a hero. You know, like fighting the guy who actually thinks that killing kids is a good idea.”
With that, I let go of Fuzzy Wuzzy and backed off, hoping he didn’t come at me again. He got back to his feet and glared at me with an expression of cold fury, but then he turned his attention to Mauler and CHIP where it belonged. A moment later, he charged at the Mauler armor.
“My work here is done,” I said, glad that those kids were no longer in danger…or at least in no more than anyone else. With CHIP running loose, I wasn’t sure how safe anyone was. “But the Shielders are dealing with him…”
I began to turn in order to leave again, but as I looked around the neighborhood, my eyes settled on a small hardware store that was a short distance away. I stared at the store for a moment, then with a scowl, I pulled out my cell phone and started towards the door.
“This is Hot Stuff to Richie Rich and Wendy the Good Little Witch,” I said after calling Pinball. “Come in Wendy and Richie…”
“You know, this is a cell phone, not a CB radio,” Pinball pointed out with a chuckle. “And since when did we agree to those call signs? I really don’t think of myself as a Wendy…”
“No, you’re Richie,” I responded with a false cheerfulness. “Besides, would you prefer I call you Pinhead and Roadkill?”
Pinball didn’t respond to the question. Instead, she said, “I don’t think you called to talk about new codenames.”
“If you want to settle the score with Mauler, now might be a good time,” I told her in a serious tone. “His armor has been possessed by an evil AI, which is going on a rampage and threatening to kill a bunch of kids. The Four Stooges are dealing with him at the moment, but they don’t seem to be doing so hot. But if you want to get even with him while there is still something to get even with, you might want to haul your poor tailless butt over here…”
Pinball was silent for a moment, then said, “When Highwayman told me you were going after Mauler’s safe house, I had a feeling you might need backup. I’m not far and will be there in a couple minutes.”
As soon as I hung up the phone, I raced through the hardware store, grabbing a couple quick items that might be useful. Intellectually, I knew that the smart move was to just grab the money and run while the Shielders were dealing with Mauler and CHIP, but I couldn’t escape the fact that I was responsible for this mess. If I hadn’t stolen the chip in the first place, then CHIP wouldn’t be running around, threatening to recycle kids.
When I came back out of the hardware store, I saw that the fight had progressed in my absence. There was a nice sized crater in the street where I’d last seen the Mauler armor, and there was a large hole melted in the front of a nearby building. Mauler and the Shielders had moved the fight about thirty yards away from where they had been and were now closer to my location than before.
The Emerald Underwear was using a glowing green force field to against a series of energy blasts, but he looked like he was barely standing. Miss Magic was holding one of her arms and moving with a limp, while Brandywine was on the ground, using a car as cover rather than hovering in the air. Only Fuzzy Wuzzy was still standing in the open, surrounded by a field of ice covered ground, and even he was looking a bit rough. With as much of a scene as they were creating, I didn’t think it would be long before the Empire City Guard or some other heroes showed up to help, but I wasn’t sure the Shielders would survive long enough for that.
“Damn it,” I grumbled, not caring much about the Shielders, though I was worried about the civilians who were getting caught in the middle of this mess. I didn’t want to see anyone get hurt because of me, which was one of the reasons I preferred to sneak in and out on my jobs. Of course, another reason was that I didn’t like to put myself in unnecessary danger, which made what I was about to do all the more stupid.
But just then, CHIP announced, “Initiating gravimetric pulse.”
And with that, one of the devises he’d merged with the armor began to hum and glow from his back. A moment later, the Mauler armor began to levitate up in the air, without being lifted up by the rockets it usually used for flight. At the same time, Fuzzy Wuzzy began to float up into the air as well, along with two cars and just about everything else within range.
For several long seconds, the Mauler armor and everything else just floated there as if in zero gravity, but then suddenly everything besides CHIP was suddenly thrown away from him at high speed. One car shot straight up into the air while the second one went through the side of a building. The furry hero was flung right at a wall and probably would have hit hard enough to break every bone on his body if Brandywine hadn’t used her telekinesis to catch him.
As soon as that effect was over, the Mauler armor dropped back to the ground where he hit the middle of the street with a crunching thud. I grimaced, deciding that since CHIP was momentarily distracted, I wouldn’t have a better opportunity. I ran straight for him, coming up from behind and scrambling up his back. The moment I was on his shoulders, I used the can of spray paint that I’d just acquired to paint over the front of Mauler’s face...or at least the part of the armor that vaguely resembled a face…making sure to cover the video cameras that served as eyes.
“Visual sensors negated,” CHIP stated, swinging his arms around blindly and firing several energy blasts in random directions.
I took two of my throwing spikes and used my aura to boost the force behind them as I threw them at Mauler, knowing that I’d never be able to pierce that armored shell…at least not enough to do any serious damage. However, I was aiming towards the joint where the arm met the shoulder, hitting with both spikes and sinking them in deeply. Then as CHIP tried to move that arm, it barely moved, proving that I’d managed to do something against the armor after all.
I grinned in delight, and in my best nasally Urkle voice, I asked, “Did I do that?”
“Left arm mobility limited,” CHIP stated, his computerized voice sounding annoyed. “Organic machine entity threats will be eliminated.”
In spite of the fact that the Mauler armor was now blind and with only one fully functional arm, it was still extremely dangerous. CHIP began firing energy blasts and missiles in my general direction while the Shielders scrambled to keep any of the attacks from hitting buildings with civilians inside.
“I am the very model of a modern major general,” I began singing, getting out only one more line before I paused and admitted, “I don’t really know the rest of it, but that’s beside the point. I just wanted your attention…” I was a thief, not a fighter, and Mauler had been a bit out of my league even before this upgrade. However, what I did excel at was distracting people…and apparently AIs as well because CHIP was following the sound of my voice. I took a deep breath and kept running as I sang, “I am Henry the Imp I am…Henry the Imp I am I am…” My version of the lyrics didn’t really make any sense, but like before, that was beside the point.
“I think the Imp has it confused,” Miss Magic called out to the rest of her team.
“He’s not the only one,” the Emerald Underwear stated, firing a green force blast right at the Mauler armor.
The rest of the Shielders took advantage of the situation to attack CHIP as well, much to my relief since I hadn’t wanted to waste my time getting my tail shot at for nothing. However, the AI responded by firing off a half dozen more of the small missiles, resulting in everyone scrambling for cover. To my surprise, a glowing green force field appeared between me and one of the missile explosions, courtesy of the Emerald Underwear.
“Initiating repair,” CHIP announced, making me realize that the Mauler armor was covered with the silvery spider webs again. As I watched, several of the weapons that had been attached to the armor crumbled away as CHIP cannibalized materials for the repairs. All the newly created tears and dents in the armor began to close up and reform, so that mere seconds later, the armor looked band new again, and slightly different than before. “Upgrade to Mauler Mark Five Armor System is complete. Redundant optical sensors have been created.”
“It fixed itself,” Fuzzy Wuzzy snarled, sounding more than a little frustrated. “What the hell does this damn thing even want?”
To everyone’s surprise, CHIP actually answered him. “Current primary objective is neutralizing heroes as an immediate threat to the Cybernetic Hardware Improvement Program. Secondary objective is to acquire technological and material resources for further upgrades. Tertiary objective is to upgrade or recycle all obsolete technology.”
“Look here, Hal,” I said. “People aren’t technology that you can upgrade or recycle… I mean, for one thing, the recycle bins just aren’t big enough…”
“Obsolete technologies will be upgraded or recycled,” CHIP insisted. “Organic machines are not excepted. This is necessary for progress. This is logical.”
“I am imp-pervious to your logic,” I stated proudly.
“She’s impervious to ANY logic,” Brandywine commented.
I stuck my tongue out at her, then responded, “So says the drunk who keeps buying Acme products…”
CHIP suddenly shifted position and announced, “Resuming completion of primary objective,” right before firing a series of energy blasts at us again. However, this time everyone was ready and in motion.
While I was jumping out of the way, I caught sight of something that made me grin. “Hey, you bucket of bolts,” I yelled out, trying to keep CHIP distracted again. “Your mudder was a blender and your fadder was an ashtray…”
CHIP didn’t respond to my taunts, but it remained distracted enough that it didn’t see the giant force field bubble that slammed into it. Pinball hit the Mauler armor hard enough to send it flying, then her force field bubble bounced back, though the impact didn’t seem to bother her at all from inside the bubble.
“Your timing is imp-pecable,” I called out to Pinball with a grin. “But your entrance could be imp-roved. Maybe get some theme music next time…”
“I know how imp-portant a good entrance is,” Pinball responded with grin of her own.
“What are you doing here?” the Emerald Underwear demanded, looking as though he was trying to decide whether he should attack Pinball or not.
Pinball merely responded, “We have our own reasons for wanting to take down Mauler.”
Then the statuesque redhead gestured to Highwayman, who rushed in on his motorcycle and slid to a stop. Without even climbing off his bike, he pulled out a pair of energy pistols and began shooting at the Mauler armor. Unfortunately, his weapons didn’t seem capable of doing anything more than causing a few scratches and burn marks.
“Greetings, Miss Imp,” Highwayman greeted me. “I hope we have arrived in time to be of assistance.”
“What is this?” Brandywine demanded, using her telekinesis to throw a chunk of shattered wall at Mauler. She gave me, Pinball, and Highwayman suspicious looks.
“Consider this a temporary truce,” Pinball offered, pointing to Mauler. “We have a common enemy.”
Fuzzy Wuzzy snorted at that. “He’s one of yours…”
Instead of responding to that, Pinball charged at Mauler again, slamming into him with her force field bubble and knocking him off balance. The heroes quickly got the idea and joined in so that Brandywine, the Emerald Underwear, and Pinball all began hitting the Mauler armor at the same time, but from different directions. Fuzzy Wuzzy contributed by sending blasts of cold and ice at our opponent while Miss Magic used her stick cane to shoot balls of fire.
Highwayman and I stood back because neither of us could contribute much at the moment. However, I was proven wrong when Highwayman pulled a metal sphere about the size of a baseball out of his coat and handed it to me.
“I would take it as a favor if you would deliver this to our foe,” Highwayman told me. “I would do so myself, but I fear my mobility is limited at the moment…”
“Oooh, a big cherry bomb,” I said with a grin. “Imagine trying to flush one of these down the toilet… Big badaboom.”
“EMP grenade,” Highwayman corrected with a chuckle. “If you can deliver this to our foe, I can activate it from here…”
“Gotcha,” I responded before turning to see what I could do.
At this point, the concentrated attacks were starting to really have an effect on Mauler, as the armor was clearly starting to take damage. Yet again, it had lost the fresh and new appearance and was showing some nasty dents and tears. At the rate we were going, CHIP would be down for the count in no time.
Suddenly, there was an explosion of force from around Mauler, knocking everyone back but not doing any serious damage. However, CHIP announced, “Initiating repair…”
As soon as I saw the silvery spider webs reappearing on the Mauler armor, I exclaimed, “Oh no you don’t,” and ran towards it as fast as I could. The armor looked like it was just beginning to repair itself by the time I reached it and slapped the metal sphere against its side, where it stuck on its own. I yelled out, “Candygram for Mongo,” as I jumped back, not sure what the range of that EMP grenade was. A moment later, there was a flash of light and a small explosion, right before the Mauler armor sort of collapsed as though it had lost power completely.
“Is it down?” the Emerald Underwear demanded. Everyone was keeping their distance, watching to see if the Mauler armor was playing possum or really down.
“Re…re…,” a weak computerized voice came from the armor, revealing that CHIP wasn’t completely out. “Rep…repa…” The silvery spider webs had vanished when the EMP grenade had gone off, but they were starting to reappear again. “Repairing…”
“Hell no,” I said, starting back towards the armor.
My eyes locked on a hole that had been burned through the armor when the EMP grenade went off, and then I grimly reached back to the thin backpack I usually wore as part of my costume, pulling out a large wrench I’d acquired from the hardware store. It wasn’t just a wrench…it was a monkeywrench…something I’d grabbed as a reminder of why I was fighting the Mauler…and now CHIP. Since it seemed appropriate, I jammed the wrench into the opening and tried smashing anything I could. Unfortunately, that didn’t do anything to stop the repairs over the surface of the armor.
“Stand back,” Pinball called out, backing up and clearly getting ready for another charge.
“No,” I snarled, suddenly realizing that we were going about this all wrong. We kept attacking the Mauler armor and causing damage, but CHIP could keep repairing it, cannibalizing parts of the armor in order to do so. We needed to go at this a little smarter. “I’ve got this…”
With that, I concentrated all the energy from my aura to my hand, focusing it into invisible PK claws that extended several inches from each finger. At that moment, I was thankful for having such a versatile power, because my Swiss Army aura was much better suited to a job like this than some boring old PK brick shell. Then, I tore into the armored shell, slicing into the metal right where there had originally been a panel…one that CHIP had intentionally covered over and permanently sealed. After only a few more seconds, I exposed circuitry…and the prize.
“Gotcha,” I exclaimed, pulling the familiar computer chip out of the armor.
The instant I did this, the silvery webbing faded away and the armor went silent. If CHIP could just keep repairing the armor every time we’d damaged it, then the solution was simply to remove CHIP from the armor. Now that the AI was nothing more than a computer chip in my hand, it was no longer much of a threat.
“The chip,” Brandywine exclaimed, staring at me intently. “We need to take that back to Sartek…”
For a brief moment, I thought about offering to sell it to her again, but that hadn’t worked out so well the last time. Instead, I just casually dropped the chip on the ground, then I slammed my foot down on it…focusing a bit of PK energy into my heel to make sure I actually crushed the chip.
I flashed a grin and asked, “Don’t you hate it when you get to the bottom of a bag of chips, and all that’s left are crumbs?”
“We needed to take that back,” the Emerald Underwear exclaimed.
“No,” Brandywine told him, her eyes still locked on me. “We just need to be able to assure them that it’s been destroyed…”
I nodded faintly at that, fully aware of the fact that if she’d wanted to, she could have used her powers to snatch that chip away from me at any time before it was destroyed. The truth was, she knew just how dangerous that chip was, and she didn’t want a repeat of this situation any more than I did.
“Now for the rest of you,” Fuzzy Wuzzy said, turning to glare at me. “We’re taking you in too…”
“Are you now?” Pinball responded with a defiant snort, almost daring him to attack her. In fact, she was probably hoping he would since he’d just gone a few rounds with Mauler and was pretty banged up from it while she was still in good shape. It wouldn’t be much of a fight.
I braced myself for another fight with the Shielders, or more accurately, to run away and escape since there was nothing to gain by actually fighting them. But then, the Mauler armor started to move again and I jumped, as did everyone else. However, it only took me a few seconds to realize that the armor wasn’t getting back up to fight…it was opening up…revealing Mauler.
Mauler started climbing out of the armor with a pissed off look on his face, muttering, “The damn thing made it so I can’t even use my armor anymore…” Then he started to draw his gun, though I didn’t know what he thought he’d do against everyone who was gathered around him.
“Bowser, old buddy old pal,” I exclaimed with a broad grin that obviously caught him by surprise. “I have a message for you…”
Mauler gave me a confused look as he aimed the gun at me and demanded, “What do you think you’re…?” However, the gun suddenly went flying from his hand, courtesy of Brandywine’s powers.
With that, I jumped at Mauler and knocked him to the ground. Then before he could do anything, I took a swing with the wrench…stopping it just an inch from his face. His eyes were bulging with fear as he realized just how close I’d come to hitting him…and the damage it could have done.
“This is from Monkeywrench,” I stated, dropping the wrench right on his stomach and making him let out a pained grunt. I crouched down beside Mauler and gave him my best evil grin. “The kid didn’t deserve what you did to him, but beating people to death isn’t my style…which is lucky for you. So instead, I’ll just leave you to wonder when and where your karma will catch up with you…because I can assure you…this isn’t it.”
“Then I assume you have no problems with us taking Mauler into custody,” Brandywine said, looking to Pinball and me, clearing daring us to resist.
“Not at all,” Pinball responded with a shrug.
Just then, a voice called out from above, “NO! That one is mine…”
I looked up and saw Hexfire, standing in the air on one of her disks of black energy. She had a ball of green flame in each hand and was staring intently at Mauler, making me wonder just how long she’d been here watching without bothering to help. I looked to Pinball, who just shrugged as if to silently say, “I didn’t call her.” She looked to Highwayman, who gave an almost identical shrug.
“This one owes me a debt of blood,” Hexfire announced, pointing to Mauler, who scrambled back to his feet, grabbing the wrench to use as a weapon. “I always collect my debts…”
“Hexfire,” Miss Magic stated, saying the name almost as though it was a profanity. “You won’t free this man.”
Hexfire stared at Miss Magic for a moment, her expression completely dismissive. “You are currently weak and injured…not a fit test for my powers. We will face each other another day.”
With that, Hexfire gestured at Mauler, who became engulfed in green flames, though they didn’t seem to burn him. Instead, he floated up in the air until he was beside Hexfire, though he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. Still clutching the wrench I’d dropped on him, he acted as though he was going to attack her, though she was just out of his reach. Miss Magic and Brandywine both reacted and looked as though they were about to take Mauler back, but suddenly Hexfire and Mauler both exploded in green flames and vanished.
I just tapped Pinball on the arm and she gave me a nod of understanding. Then as the heroes were distracted by Hexfire and Mauler’s disappearance, we made our escape. I was briefly tempted to call out a taunting, “TTThat’s all folks…,” but I was just too tired to bother at the moment, which said something about my state of mind. Right now, all I wanted was to get home, climb into a hot bath, and get totally plastered…and not necessarily in that order.
New York, Friday May 25th, 2007
It was late at night and I stood atop a seven story building, staring out across the glittering lights that covered the city. It would have been a good night to be out on a job, but instead, I was relaxing, taking in the Manhattan version of some fresh air while thinking about my last job.
Technically, the job on Sartek had been a success since I’d gotten in without a problem, slipped through security without tripping a single alarm, and then I’d gotten out not only with the chip I’d gone for, but also all the ebidium that the rest of the team had been targeting. However, it certainly didn’t feel like a success, not when everything else had gone so wrong.
“I never should have taken that job,” I mused aloud, wishing I’d told Mauler where to go when he’d first told me about it. “I should have stuck with artwork.”
Unfortunately, I had no one to really blame for taking the job except for myself. I knew at the time that it wasn’t the kind of job I preferred to do, but I hadn’t been able to resist. Sure, the lure of money had been a nice temptation, but after a year of vacation, I’d really just wanted to prove to myself that I was still at the top of my game…that I could beat Sartek’s security.
“And look how that turned out,” I muttered.
First, there was that extremely painful incident with my tail, which I still hadn’t forgotten about, followed almost immediately by Mauler’s betrayal and Monkeywrench’s death. Then I had to deal with Mauler and the Shielders chasing me around, trying to get their hands on the chip, and the Shielders trying to pull several fast ones once we had made an arrangement. And all that didn’t even include what had happened after Mauler had gotten his hands on the chip.
“At least we got the cash,” I thought aloud, remembering how Highwayman and Pinball had been quick to grab the briefcases as we left the scene of the big fight with Mauler and CHIP. Afterwards we’d split the money up five ways, sending Monkeywrench’s share to his family and keeping hold of Hexfire’s until we were able to contact her. Unfortunately, each of us also got a smaller share than what we’d originally been promised, but that was the risk of doing business. “For such a success, that job sure feels like a failure.”
I rubbed my temples, feeling tired and wondering when this business had stopped being fun. I’d been on vacation for a whole year because I just hadn’t been motivated to really do any jobs, and even after I officially came back from my sabbatical, I still found it hard to really get back into things. And instead of shaking me out of these doldrums like I’d hoped, this last job had only made me more aware of them.
“Maybe I’m getting too old for this life,” I whispered, thinking about the fact that I’d been in this business for thirty years. In my line of work, that was actually considered a pretty long career.
Ironically, this whole mess was due to the Mauler being concerned about his own career in the business. Mauler was a prop man, which meant that he was entirely reliant on his props…on his armor. And since his armor had been on the verge of failing, he was looking at the end of his career and had become desperate to correct that problem.
“Fat lot of good that did him,” I said with a sad shake of my head.
I had no idea if Mauler was even still alive, or if he was, what kind of condition Hexfire would leave him in. However, even if she’d released him completely unharmed, he was now without the armor that he relied on and no longer had the resources to continue as a villain. And with his betrayal, he’d also seriously damaged his reputation as a professional. One way or another, his career was now over. I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything but happy at that, though I was sad at the fact that he’d brought Monkeywrench’s career to such a tragic end in the process.
While I thought about these things, I began to wander around the roof top, looking out over the edge at the other buildings. Then I paused, my attention drawn to a nearby building that was about three stories shorter than this one, and the entire roof was well lit. It wasn’t the building itself that drew my attention, but a silhouette I saw moving across the roof.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I blurted out, seeing what seemed to be a feminine figure with horns and a tail.
After spending another half minute just watching the figure below, I decided to go take a closer look. I moved back a bit, then took a running leap, using my aura to put a little extra oomph into my jump so that I’d be able to reach the other roof. And then as I hit, I used my aura again to absorb the impact of landing on my feet.
“If it isn’t Mini-me,” I said, looking across the rooftop at the surprised face of Melissa, the girl I’d run into last Saturday. And like the last time I’d seen her, she was wearing plastic horns and a costume piece tail.
“IMP!” Melissa exclaimed, her worried and even fearful expression turning to one of excitement the moment she recognized me.
“Don’t tell me you’re tagging my logo again,” I told her, looking around the roof but not seeing any sign of graffiti.
Melissa shook her head emphatically. “I wasn’t doing that…”
“Then what are you doing out this late again?” I asked her curiously. “I mean, don’t you have school in the morning…?
Melissa giggled at that, then pointed out, “It’s Friday…”
I continued to give Melissa a curious look as I repeated, “So, what are you doing, running round on rooftops at night? You aren’t trying to rob this place, are you?”
“No,” she responded, giving a slightly guilty look before admitting, “I was looking for you…”
“For me?” I asked in surprise.
I looked around and suddenly realized that we were less than a block away from where I’d found Melissa the first time. I felt a little worried about that since if some untrained teenage girl could track me down, then so could a determined hero. Then again, both times I’d run into the girl, I’d been the one to spot her, so that made me feel a little better.
“Will you sign my horns?” Melissa blurted out, taking off her horns and giving me puppy dog eyes. “Please… You promised…”
I couldn’t help but grinning at the girl. “Sure, why not? Do you have a pen?”
Melissa suddenly let out a loud squee like some kind of fangirl and was practically bouncing around with excitement as she dug into her pocket to pull out a pen. I took the pen and horns, then paused, realizing that it would be a bit awkward to try signing those things. I looked around the roof and spotted a bench that had been set up near the stairwell. It looked like someone had set up their own smoking area, which was about what I needed at the moment.
“Come on,” I said, walking to the bench, where I sat down and could use my leg to support the plastic horns as I wrote in small letters, ‘To my biggest fan… The Imp…’
As soon as I handed the horns back to Melissa, she let out another squee and began to almost bounce with excitement again. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you…”
I laughed at Melissa’s reaction as well as just how different it was to have someone appreciate me. I wasn’t used to having fans asking for my autograph and mused, “I wonder if this is what it’s like for Blue Diamond.”
“You know Blue Diamond?” Melissa asked me in surprise.
“Of course,” I responded with a roll of my eyes. “I know all the local villains. We all hang out at the bar together after work, getting drunk and telling campfire stories…” Of course, there was a tiny bit of truth to that, otherwise places like the Black Mask or Superbad wouldn’t exist. “So, you’re a fan of Blue Diamond?”
“She’s kind of cool,” Melissa told me, clutching her horns tightly to her chest as though they were a prized possession. “But she’s not nearly as cool as you…”
I grinned at that, swishing my tail back and forth in pleasure. I could get used to this having a fan thing. Now that Melissa had my autograph, I kind of expected her to hurry off, but instead, she sat down on the bench beside me, watching me with a grin. I squirmed just a little uncomfortably from the attention since I wasn’t used to getting this kind. I kept expecting the other shoe to drop.
“So,” I asked, remembering the conversation we’d had last Saturday. “Have you told your dad that you’re a mutant yet?”
Melissa nodded at that, then gave me a somewhat self-conscious smile. “He was a little mad that I didn’t tell him earlier…but he didn’t yell at me or anything.”
“Not yelling is usually a good sign,” I said wryly.
Melissa nodded again, this time a little more emphatically. “He took me to this place that tested my powers and everything…” She rubbed her shoulder, as if remembering an injury, then pouted as she stated, “They shot me with rubber balls…and that hurt.” I nodded sympathetically, then watched as she brightened up again and cheerfully exclaimed, “But I got my MID and everything…” With that, Melissa jumped up off the bench and began digging around through her pocket until she pulled out an MID. She proudly handed it to me and stated, “My codename is Mischief…”
“I’m glad it wasn’t taken,” I told her with a chuckle.
I scanned the MID, seeing her codename at the top and then her power rating, which was listed as just being warper 3I. If I remembered right, the ‘I’ was the designation that specified that she was a dimensional warper of some kind. The MID also listed her techniques as short range teleportation, intangibility, and invisibility, though she’d already told me about those last week.
“They said I’m connected to some other dimension,” Melissa proudly explained to me, “and that all my powers are just because I’m going into that dimension different ways… If I go in one way, my body goes there but my looks stay here…and since I’m not really here, I can walk through walls. But I go in the opposite way…my body stays here but my looks go there…so no one can see me.” She suddenly turned invisible, though only for a few seconds before she popped back in front of me. “And if I go in all the way…” She suddenly vanished and reappeared halfway across the roof.
“You teleport,” I said in understanding.
Melissa nodded and then teleported again, reappearing back beside me but with a broad grin on her face. “It’s really cool…”
“It sure is,” I agreed with a chuckle, suddenly realizing that with her teleportation and invisibility power, she could probably pull off my vanishing trick even better than I ever could. I couldn’t help but feeling faint stirring of jealousy at that, though not much. I was actually far more amused by the girl in front of me than anything else.
Melissa grinned, seeming pleased that I approved of her powers. However, she deflated a little and admitted, “My powers are really fun…but they aren’t very strong. I mean, that’s about as far as I can teleport…and I can’t really take much with me.”
“Really?” I asked, looking to where she’d teleported, which was only about thirty yards away. That wasn’t a very impressive range at all, though even short range teleporting could be extremely useful in my line of work.
“I can only stay invisible for like…maybe a minute too,” Melissa admitted, seeming to deflate even more. “And I can’t stay intangible for very long either, because I can’t breathe when I’m like that and have to hold my breath the whole time…”
“Well, those certainly sound like some impressive powers to me,” I assured Melissa, trying to cheer her up. I put a comforting hand on her shoulder and added, “Sometimes, having a versatile power can be a lot better than having a strong one… I mean, instead of being able to do only one thing, you can do three different things, and that’s really cool…”
“Really?” Melissa asked, brightening up again.
“Besides,” I pointed out with a chuckle, “You only just got your powers. Once you practice with them or get older, they might get stronger too…”
Melissa grinned at that, obviously liking the idea. “I can’t wait,” she exclaimed, showing off her powers by teleporting around the roof. After about half a dozen hops, she reappeared beside me, looking a little tired. I guess that was one way for her to burn off some of that extra energy she seemed to have in abundance.
After a few minutes, Melissa gave me a curious look before hesitantly asking, “What’s it like being a bad guy?”
“I am NOT a bad guy,” I protested, taking a few steps away from Melissa and then getting into a sexy pose. “First off, I’m clearly not a guy… And secondly,” I shifted my voice into a sexy purr and added, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way…”
Melissa burst into giggles at my performance so I straightened up and grinned back. “Everyone says that villains are supposed to mean and evil,” she told me with a grin. “But you aren’t… You’re really funny…”
“Thank you,” I said with a bow. Then a little more seriously, I told her, “The label of villain is a pretty broad one, and like the delicate little snowflakes we are, no two are alike.” Melissa giggled again. I grinned back and continued, “Sure, there are the guys who want to take over the world, hold all the pudding hostage, or kick cute little puppies just because they’re that mean…” I gave an exaggerated maniacal laugh at that for emphasis.
“Now you’re just being silly,” Melissa told me, though she was grinning broadly.
“For a lot of guy in the business, it’s just a job and they mostly it to pay the bills,” I continued cheerfully. “They act like professionals, put in a hard day at work, and when they’re off work, they hang up their spandex and go spend time with their families just like anyone else.” I shrugged at that. “I mean, there are even some villains who are really just trying to make the world a better place or doing what they believe is the right thing, even when it’s against the law.”
“Heroes aren’t really any different,” I said after a moment, frowning slightly as I said it. “Sure, you’ve got some who are really dedicated to saving people and doing the right thing…even if they do tend to be self-righteous, full of themselves and really really annoying…” I rolled my eyes and Melissa giggled yet again. “But you’ve also got ones who are in it for a photo op, so they can feel powerful and important, or because they’re bullies who just want to beat up on people without getting in trouble for it.” I shrugged at that, thinking about Fuzzy Wuzzy, who I put into the last category. “Things aren’t always as simple as good guy or bad.”
Melissa nodded at that, giving me a thoughtful look for a moment before she asked, “What about you? Why are you a villain?
“I’m a professional,” I answered after a moment. “I’m in the business for money, art, and excitement…not necessarily in that order.” Then I casually swung my tail back and forth as I cheerfully admitted, “But most people just think I’m a lunatic.”
Melissa grinned at that, announcing, “Well, I think you’re great…”
“Thank you,” I told her with a grin of my own. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
“Can you teach me how to be a cool villain too?” Melissa asked, giving me the puppy dog eyes. “Please…”
“Sorry kiddo,” I told her, reaching out to ruffle her hair. “But like I told you last time, it isn’t a good business for a kid to get into…”
I paused, knowing full well that I was being a hypocrite since I hadn’t been much older than she was when I’d first gone into the business. Of course, I’d learned first-hand how dangerous it could be on this side of the law rather quickly, and fortunately for me, I found teachers who showed me the ropes and helped me become the Imp I am today.
Melissa looked disappointed and gave me the pleading puppy dog eyes. I had a feeling that she wasn’t going to give up on the idea of learning to be a villain very easily and I suddenly feared that she might run off and do something stupid, like trying to pull a heist on her own. And considering the fact that she’d already pulled something like that at the art gallery, it was a legitimate concern.
“Look,” I said, giving Melissa a serious look. “If I teach you how to pick locks and maybe a few other things…will you promise not to go into the villain business until you’re at least eighteen…and fully trained? I’ve seen people get hurt and even killed in my line of work, and I don’t want to see that happen to you.”
Melissa stared at me, her eyes going wide with excitement. She held her hand out and exclaimed, “It’s a deal…”
I shook her hand and smiled wryly, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Ironically, teaching the kid how to do a few things that were illegal might very well be the best way to keep her out of trouble. Or at least, it was the best way I could think of, which might not be saying much. After all, I didn’t exactly have a lot of experience with kids.
“I’ll have to get a few tools and set things up,” I told Melissa as I considered everything I’d need, “so I won’t be able to give you any lessons tonight. We’ll have to do that another time…”
“How about tomorrow?” she asked, nearly bouncing with eagerness to begin.
“Not tomorrow,” I responded with a shake of my head. “I’m going to be out of town on business. How about Sunday evening?”
We talked about this for a few more minutes, agreeing to meet up in the same place. I just wondered how long it would take before she realized that with her powers, she didn’t really need to know how to pick locks. Of course, with my powers, I didn’t really need that skill either most of the time, but it was still a nice one to have. It’s always good to start with the basics anyway.
Once we’d scheduled her lesson, Melissa deflated a bit and reluctantly told me, “I’ve gotta go home…”
“Do you want me to give you a ride?” I asked hesitantly.
Melissa’s eyes widened at that and she quickly answered, “No thank you… If Dad finds out that I snuck out…he’ll kill me. And if he finds out I was talking to a super villain…” She paled slightly. “I’ll be grounded for life…”
“Well, I wouldn’t want that then,” I told her with a chuckle.
Melissa suddenly grabbed me in a hug, then when she pulled back, she flashed me a grin and announced, “Goodbye Imp… I’ll see you Sunday…” And with that, she suddenly vanished and was gone.
I just remained where I was for a moment, chuckling as I thought about Melissa. That girl was definitely something else. She was cheerful, bursting with enthusiasm, and even a bit crazy for running around New York City in the middle of the night, just so she could hang out with a super villain. Needless to say, I liked the kid. The fact that she had great taste in role models didn’t hurt either.
I was a little surprised to realize that I was actually looking forward to Sunday, and to giving her that lock picking lesson. If nothing else, I had a feeling that it was going to be quite entertaining for the both of us.
Though I wasn’t going to encourage Melissa by telling her this, she actually reminded me a great deal of myself back when I’d been that age...back when I’d been young and innocent. That was probably why I’d lowered my guard around her so quickly, and why I felt a connection even though I barely knew her.
I went back to the bench and casually sat down, but just as I settled my weight down, there was a loud ‘BLATTT’. I jumped back to my feet, hearing a burst of giggles from just a short distance away. Then as I reached down and found the whoopee cushion on the bench, the invisible girl ran towards the doorway and the stairway down, giggling loudly the entire time.
“Mischief is right,” I exclaimed once I stopped laughing. “She definitely lives up to that name.”
Any kid who was spunky enough to slip a whoopie cushion under an infamous super villain and sneaky enough to get away with it, was someone I would be more than proud to teach…and maybe one day even call my protégé. I knew there was a reason I liked her.
Shielders Headquarters, New Jersey, Saturday Evening, May 26th, 2007
Many super hero groups who were comprised of full time members, had live in headquarters, a place where they could stay and be ready for an emergency call at any time, day or night. The Shielders might have been a little more mercenary than most hero groups, but in this regard, they were no different.
The Shielders were back in their headquarters after a long day of whatever it was they did when they weren’t harassing poor little Imps, and they were all winding down and relaxing. I’d actually slipped into the place a few hours ago, while they were all gone, and I’d remained here in hiding, waiting patiently on their return.
With several hours of access to their headquarters, the opportunities for mischief had been nearly unlimited. I could have left Brandywine a stack of Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlets, put a showgirl outfit in Miss Magic’s closet, or stolen every pair of underwear from the Emerald Underwear’s dresser drawer, and I had definitely been tempted to do each of those. However, as fun as that all would have been, those little pranks would have distracted from the real purpose I was here, and my message would have become lost in the crowd.
I’d come all the way to New Jersey and had snuck inside this base for one reason and one reason only. Fuzzy Wuzzy. The cute little...or not so little…hairball and I still had some unfinished business, and I was in the process of taking care of it.
At the moment, I was standing in the middle of Fuzzy Wuzzy’s quarters, having just put a children’s book in the center of his bed. That was just one small part of what I had in mind, though I’d already arranged the other part while everyone had been out.
Fuzzy Wuzzy was currently in his private bathroom next door, taking a long shower. I grinned as I listened to the sound of the water coming down, and even to his bad singing, which I wish I’d been able to record. I even giggled a little in anticipation, knowing what was coming.
Then it finally came, a howl of panic from the bathroom, followed a moment later by the cry of, “My hair…”
“Gotcha,” I said with an evil grin, thinking about the devisor strength depilatory I’d acquired from a contact and had slipped into his jumbo sized bottle of shampoo. From the screaming and howls of panic coming from the bathroom, I had no doubt that it was working. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Imp.”
Fuzzy Wuzzy had not only pulled my tail, but he’d swung me around by it, causing me not only immense pain, but also humiliation. Then on top of that, he’d added insult to injury by laughing about it and repeatedly calling me ugly. And as Chickenhawk had warned him, I took that kind of thing personally.
After listening for a few more seconds, I turned and started to make my way out of the headquarters, satisfied that my little message had been successfully delivered. The only thing that could have made this better was if I’d been able to see the look on Fuzzy Wuzzy’s face when all of his fur had started to fall out. However, that would have meant hiding in his bathroom and seeing him naked, and that was something I just hadn’t been willing to do.
“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,” I said with a grin, quoting the lines from the children’s book that I’d just left on the bed. “Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy then was he?”