New York, Friday morning June 15th, 2007
Mornings were my favorite time of the day. They were calm, peaceful, and I could usually enjoy them by myself before I had to go out and deal with all the idiots of the world. This morning, I was sitting back in my favorite recliner, watching reruns of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons while I sipped my coffee and read the paper.
The newspaper in my lap wasn’t a new edition. In fact, it was several weeks old, though I had no intention of throwing it away. Instead, I was thinking of framing it and hanging it on my wall. After all, the picture that covered most of the front page was absolutely priceless.
It was a picture of an anthropomorphic polar bear, who was both buck naked and completely without fur, which made him look more like a giant naked mole rat than a polar bear. The look of humiliation on his face while he desperately tried to cover his genitals was utterly fantastic. The headline read ‘FUZZY WUZZY ISN’T FUZZY,’ which made me laugh every time I read it.
“At least Fuzzy Wuzzy learned his lesson,” I mused with a smirk.
Of course, I still had to teach Jack Ass a lesson as well, and I seriously doubted that dousing him with depilatory, then having him depantsed and photographed in public would have the same effect. Besides, Jack Ass deserved something worse than that for what he’d done to Melissa. Far worse.
With that, my thoughts turned to the girl who was currently sound asleep in my spare bedroom. After I’d brought her home yesterday afternoon, I’d put her to bed in my spare bedroom, where she’d remained without getting up since. Melissa was sleeping off all the drugs in her system, so I was letting her stay in bed for as long as she needed, though I did make sure to keep checking on her.
I wasn’t comfortable with someone else being in my home, in my sanctuary from the world, but this was the second time I’d brought someone here in the last couple months. I’d taken the same precautions I had when I’d brought Alicia here, hiding my mail and anything else that might give away my other identity or where I lived, and I’d even gone a step further. I’d covered up all the windows. Alicia hadn’t been familiar with Manhattan and I’d known that there was no way she’d be able to find my home again unless I brought her back. However, Melissa was a local and the view from my windows might very well give her a good clue as to where to find me.
“I need to get a new safehouse,” I mused. A safehouse would be perfect for this kind of situation, and for a number of others. I used to have a nice safehouse set up for emergencies, but it had been compromised and I’d been forced to abandon it. Then I went into my sabbatical, and I’d gotten a bit complacent and hadn’t set up any replacements. “It might be time to fix that.”
I set the newspaper aside and began making mental notes on what I’d need for a new safehouse when I heard noise from down the hallway. Melissa was out of bed. I imagined that she’d be confused and a bit afraid at waking up in a strange place, though I had tried to make things a little easier for her. I’d left some clean clothes for her, right beside her bed.
“The bathroom is right across from you,” I called out. A minute later, I heard the faucet running from the bathroom.
I didn’t have to wait for very long before Melissa emerged from the hallway, dressed in the clothes that I’d left her and looking very nervous. She looked around with wide eyes, as if she was afraid that something might jump out at any moment. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised at that. After all, she’d just woken up in the home of a notorious and oh so fabulous supervillain.
“How do you feel?” I asked Melissa, giving her a gentle smile. That seemed to relax her a little.
“I feel kinda sick,” she admitted awkwardly. “And I have a headache and a really bad taste in my mouth…”
“That’s the drugs wearing off,” I explained. “Jack Ass kept you drugged up so you wouldn’t think of leaving while he brainwashed you…”
“Jack Rabbit would never,” Melissa started in protest, only to pause with an odd and expression. She shook her head and exclaimed, “He’s a total jerkface…”
“The jerkiest,” I agreed with a grin. “I think you’re a bit more stubborn than he expected, and don’t think that he expected it would take so long with you. From what I’ve heard, one of his previous kids only took two days to turn into an obedient puppet…”
Melissa gave a visible shudder at that. “I don’t wanna be a superhero,” she announced with a pout. “Superheroes are all serious and don’t get to do anything fun.”
“True,” I cheerfully agreed. “But to be honest, most people in my business aren’t much better. In fact, most people in my business don’t really have a sense of humor…and a lot of them are pretty mean.”
“That’s too bad,” Melissa said, looking disappointed at the revelation.
“So,” I abruptly asked her. “Do you want breakfast?”
Melissa’s eyes went wide at that and she nodded an emphatic agreement. “I’m hungry…”
“Let’s see,” I mused as I went to my kitchen and began looking through the fridge and cupboards. “I have bacon…and Fruit Loops…and bacon…and Captain Crunch…and bacon…” Then I paused and exclaimed, “Oh, and it looks like I still have some grits in here too…”
“Grits?” Melissa exclaimed, sticking her tongue out with a look of disgust. “Yuck. Can I have some Fruit Loops?” She hesitated a moment, then added, “And bacon?”
“A girl after my own heart,” I responded with a chuckle.
Melissa ate her cereal while I cooked the bacon, and as she ate, she talked about her time with Jack. “I thought he was the greatest hero,” she admitted with a look of disgust. “And I wanted to be the best sidekick ever…” She scrunched up her nose and stuck her tongue out at that. “I still kinda want to…”
“That’s the mind control talking,” I assured Melissa, setting a plate of bacon down in front of her, then helping myself to one of the slices. “Since he didn’t get to finish the job, it should fade away pretty quickly. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”
Once Melissa was finished eating, she looked to be much more like her normal self. That suddenly made me wonder if it had actually been a good idea to feed sugar to a hyperactive girl. It was too late to worry about that now.
“Is this your house?” Melissa asked, looking around curiously.
“No,” I lied, swishing my tail back and forth behind me. “It’s just some apartment I picked at random. I figured it would be a good place to lay low since the owners are on vacation…”
Melissa nodded at that as she continued to look at just about everything. “Well, they have a really pretty Picasso,” she exclaimed, pointing to the wall.
“That’s a Monet,” I corrected her.
A moment later, I noticed that Melissa was standing there with a smug look on her face, and it suddenly dawned on me that I’d corrected her without even looking at the painting. The rugrat hadn’t believed my lie for a moment, and she’d just set me up to prove it. I actually felt rather pleased by her initiative.
“You got me,” I admitted, sweeping my arm around the living room in a grand and dramatic gesture. “Welcome to the Imp Lair.”
“You live here?” Melissa asked, looking around with an expression of surprise and a little disappointment. “It’s…nice.”
“What?” I asked wryly. “You were expecting my home to look like a carnival threw up all over it? Or maybe you thought my decoration style would be more Dante’s Inferno.”
Melissa deflated a little and look self-conscious as she admitted, “Sort of…”
I just laughed at that. “I might have a fantastic sense of humor, but I also have good taste and like nice things.”
My houseguest nodded at that, then looked around with an even more curious expression. “Do you have a dungeon here for your enemies?”
“Just the closet,” I admitted with a grin. “But it can hold a whole dozen clowns. And I’m afraid all the death traps are out of order. I mean, that Jehovah’s Witness gave my sharks food poisoning and I ran out of fuel for the flame throwers in my bottomless pit.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” She said with a broad grin of her own. Then she paused and abruptly exclaimed, “Candice Kade…”
“WHAT?” I blurted out in stunned disbelief. How could she possibly know my original name?
Melissa rushed over to the wall and pointed to one of my paintings that hung from it “This by from Candice Kade, isn’t it?”
“Um…yes,” I responded, letting out a sigh of relief. I chuckled faintly, asking, “You recognize the artist?”
I gave Melissa a curious look, surprised that a kid her age would recognize one of my works just from the style. In fact, a kid her age probably shouldn’t even know my name. But then again, she had broken into an art gallery and swiped…or at least she’d hidden one of my paintings. Maybe my painting hadn’t been quite as random a target as I’d previously thought.
“Oh yeah,” Melissa responded with a broad grin. “We’ve got one of her paintings in our living room… She’s my dad’s favorite artist…”
“I see,” I commented, feeling rather pleased by that. “It sounds like he has good taste then.”
Melissa nodded emphatically, admitting, “I really like her paintings too… I mean, she always hides stuff in them…”
“Really?” I asked with a faint smirk. I looked over the painting, which I’d only recently finished. It was a battle scene between a hero and villain. Neither of them were based on real people, though they were both modeled off stereotypes. The villain was dressed in black and red and had an air of menace about him while the hero was one of those guys with square-jawed good looks and a brightly colored costume. “And what is hidden in this one?”
Melissa took that as a challenge and immediately began examining the painting more closely. After a minute, she exclaimed, “Here…” She pointed to the hero as she explained, “Look behind his cape… It sort of looks like a devil is peeking out from under it…”
“Why, so it does,” I commented, keeping my tone neutral and wondering if she’d catch the other bit that I’d hidden in the painting.
“And here,” she added, pointing to the villain…or at least to his shadow. “His shadow looks sort of like an angel…with wings and a halo.”
“Good eye,” I told her with a smile, delighted that she’d actually caught those details. Melissa just beamed under the compliment, looking almost like she was about to start bouncing again. Then on a sudden impulse, I said, “I’m working on replica of one of her paintings… Do you want to see it?”
“Can I?” Melissa asked excitedly, which only made me grin more.
I led Melissa to the back room I’d converted to an art studio, then proudly stood back as she looked it over. There were several easels set up and holding pieces that I was still working on, but there were also some finished pieces scattered around the edges of the room as well. Melissa’s eyes swept everything, then she slowly went to the easel that held one of my own original pieces, one which was close to being completed.
“Wow,” Melissa said. “It looks just like one of hers…”
“I do my best,” I responded wryly, wondering what she’d say if she knew that I was Candice Kade. Unfortunately, at the moment, I couldn’t take credit for my own works, at least not as the originals they were.
“You’re really good,” Melissa told me with a grin. Then before I could respond, she rushed over to another painting and asked, “Is this one a fake too?”
I winced slightly as she’d referred to my original piece as a fake, though I could hardly blame her since I’d just told her it was. Unfortunately, this was just the price I paid for having a secret identity. But in spite of that annoyance, I was still quite happy to have that second identity. After all, the fabulous Imp might be famous as an art thief and forger, but that same reputation was a disadvantage when it came to developing my own art career.
Once Melissa finished looking around my little studio and all my paintings, she asked me, “What now?” She looked just a little nervous, and I wondered if she thought that I’d never let her leave now that she’d seen the inside of the Imp Lair
“Now,” I announced, raising my voice and taking a dramatic pose. Melissa’s eyes widened in anticipation of whatever my brilliant plan was going to be, so I almost felt bad about disappointing her. “You call your dad and let him know you’re all right…”
“Oh,” Melissa responded, deflating a bit. She gave me another nervous look, then awkwardly said, “He doesn’t have a phone…” She wasn’t a very good liar.
“Then I’ll just give you a ride home,” I offered, but Melissa’s eyes went wide at that.
“My dad would kill me if he knew I was with you,” Melissa admitted, looking a bit ashamed as she said that.
I watched Melissa for a moment, then let out a sigh. Obviously, she didn’t want to let the professional thief know where she lived, and if I’d been in her shoes, I probably would have been wary too. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of my chosen career was that people had a hard time trusting me for some reason.
“Then how about this,” I suggested. “I can drop you off at the police station, then you can call your dad to pick you up from there.”
Melissa hesitated a moment, then nodded her acceptance. “Okay.” Then she gave me a hopeful look and asked, “Can we still do the lock picking thing?”
“Sure,” I responded with a broad grin, swinging my tail back and forth behind me. After this whole kidnapping thing, I was afraid that the kid would be scared off and wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Of course, it would have been smart of me to avoid her in the future as well, but I liked the kid and had fun spending time with her. “We’ll have to arrange a new meeting spot though. One that isn’t so out in the open.”
“Yeah,” Melissa agreed with a broad grin and a gleam in her eyes. “Maybe we can do it here…”
“I don’t think so,” I responded, reaching out and ‘booping’ her nose. “A secret hideout doesn’t do much good if it isn’t secret…” Then I paused at that and mused, “Well, I have been thinking of setting up a new safehouse, so that might work… I wonder if there are any abandoned amusement parks for sale…”
“That would be so cool,” Melissa exclaimed, nearly bouncing with excitement. “You could get robot clowns, and a big pool filled with sharks…”
“With frickin laser beams on their heads,” I agreed in my best Doctor Evil impression, which made Melissa burst into giggles.
For the next hour, we continued to make ‘plans’ for my new evil lair, with each of us taking turns at coming up with completely outlandish death traps for it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had so much fun doing something that wasn’t either illegal or related to art.
New York, late Friday morning, June 15th, 2007
“Are we there yet?” Melissa asked, for what had to be the tenth time in the last two minutes. When I didn’t immediately answer, she repeated, “Are we there yet?”
I glanced over to the passenger seat of my ‘borrowed’ car and said, “If you ask that one more time, I’m turning this car around and we’re going home…”
“Really?” Melissa asked with a broad grin and a mischievous gleam in her eyes. I wondered if she just wanted to find the way back to my place, without the blindfold I’d made her wear when we were leaving. I suspected that if she did figure out where I lived, I could expect her to start playing ding dong ditch with my doorbell.
“No,” I responded with a grin of my own. “We’re here.”
With that, I made a sweeping gesture to the large building that I’d just parked the car in front of. I’d spent the last three decades avoiding the police, so it felt kind of wrong to be parked right in front of the police station, especially when I wasn’t even invisible. Instead, I was wearing an oversized coat and hat, as well as a large pair of sunglasses, all of which would help to hide my devilish good looks and unique features, though this wasn’t nearly the disguise I’d need if I wanted to go inside.
I stared at the police station for a moment, chuckling evilly as I remembered the one time I actually had gone inside that building. About ten years ago, I’d slipped inside and left some laxative laced donuts in their break room…and then I’d locked the bathroom doors. That had been a lot of fun, though more for me than it was for the cops.
“This is it,” I told Melissa.
“Ah,” she responded, sounding disappointed though she gave a quick glance to the police station, probably thinking about the fact that the sooner she went in and called her dad, the sooner she’d get back home. Then she abruptly leaned over and hugged me, quickly blurting out, “Thank you, Imp.” A moment later, she teleported out of her seat and reappeared right in front of the car. She gave me a quick wave and then rushed into the building.
Once I’d made sure that Melissa was inside, I pulled the car out and began to drive away, though I didn’t go very far. I parked the car just down the street, then I quickly made my way back to the police station, though I made no move to go inside. Instead, I positioned myself across the street, in a spot where I could easily see who was coming and leaving from the main entrance.
After everything I’d just gone through with rescuing Melissa, I’d decided that it was time to find out a little more about her, such as who her family was and where she lived. My plan was to wait for her dad to come pick her up, then to follow them home.
I was only waiting for half an hour when a familiar figure suddenly appeared, though it wasn’t one I was happy to see. Jack Rabbit landed right in front of the police station, then calmly walked right through the front door. A minute later, he came right back out with Melissa in hand. She had a somewhat dazed look on her face and I felt a surge of fury at the realization that he was digging his hooks in again.
“I saved you from that villain,” Jack Ass was saying, though he was far enough away that I could barely make this out. “I took you off the streets and gave you a home…a noble purpose… And this is how you repay me?”
“What the hell?” I blurted out in stunned disbelief.
Jack Rabbit put a gentle hand on Melissa’s shoulders and assured her, “But I know it isn’t your fault. That evil monster used mind control on you. She twisted your loyalties. Fortunately, my contact in the department called me as soon as you arrived. Once we get home…to my new warren…we’ll resume your training…”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I snarled, silently cursing the police with every profanity I could think of. I knew those bastards were useless, but to hand a kidnap victim right back to the kidnapper…
I was already in motion, running towards them as fast as I could. If Jack Ass was able to jump away with Melissa again, I might not be able to find them again in time.
“Melissa,” I called out to get her attention.
Melissa turned to look at me, blinking as the dazed expression faded. She blurted out, “Imp…,” then suddenly teleported away from Jack, appearing right beside me.
“Glad you’re back,” I told the girl, glaring at the hero and snarling, “We need to get out of here now…”
“You MONSTER,” Jack yelled, glaring at me with an expression of pure hatred. Obviously, he was taking our last encounter rather personally.
“If it isn’t Little Bunny Foo Foo,” I exclaimed in mock surprise. “Fancy seeing you here…”
Jack snarled and leapt at me, showing no signs of the injuries I’d given him during our last fight. I’d flung throwing spikes through his thigh and shoulder, but he was acting as though he wasn’t injured at all. As I dove to the side to avoid his attack, I wondered if his power gem boosted his healing the way it did his strength and reflexes. If so, that was pretty inconvenient for me.
Jack had missed me in his first charge, but now he was close and came at me in shorter lunges, making it more difficult to avoid him. He suddenly shot forward at full speed, and I barely had time to concentrate all the energy in my aura into one spot. I managed to create a small PK shield right before it hit it. There was an explosion of force and I was thrown back, even with my shield having stopped the worst of the impact.
“You leave her alone,” Melissa yelled, suddenly appearing right behind Jack. She tried to punch him, but he snapped around and backhanded her, knocking her to the ground.
“She’s gotten into your head again,” Jack accused. “But don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you, Mouse Girl. I couldn’t expect you to resist her mind control…”
I scrambled back to my feet, wondering if Jack was so delusional that he actually believed all that…or if he was just saying this for the benefit of the people watching us. I quickly glanced around, realizing that there were enough people nearby to make this a very uncomfortable scene for me, especially if they bought into what he was spouting. If so, I imagined that there would be pitch forks and torches appearing before long.
The cops were starting to gather too, though they were standing back without doing anything. Instead, they all seemed content to watch, probably because they wanted to see Jack Rabbit wipe the floor with me. I’d never had a very good relationship with the police, so I expected them to start cheering Jack on at any moment.
I gave Jack a cold look, and in my best imitation of Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, announced, “Worst superhero EVER.”
“I’m putting an end to your crime spree right now,” Jack Rabbit exclaimed, this time making me sure that he was playing to the audience. “Jack Rabbit will make sure you never harm an innocent person again…”
Jack Ass seemed to enjoy having a crowd to play to, though I couldn’t say the same. I liked getting attention, but this was too much and too hostile. I didn’t like being out in the open like this, not when I was surrounded by cops with itchy trigger fingers.
“Run,” I ordered Melissa. “Get away from here…” With her powers, she wouldn’t have a problem getting away from Jack…as long as she wasn’t fogged up with drugs or that mind control power. And once she was out of here, I’d be able to pull my own disappearing act.
Melissa started to run away, then to my surprise, she floated up into the air. I was a bit startled by that since I hadn’t known that flying was one of her powers, and from the look on her face, neither had she. But then I realized that Melissa wasn’t actually flying…and this wasn’t under her own power. A new player had just arrived and was floating in the air above us.
My eyes went to the woman, who was wearing a purple and white costume, with a long purple cape that billowed out around her. Since she wasn’t wearing a mask, I had a clear view of her face and her shoulder length black hair.
“So, what is he calling you, little one?” the new arrival mused, looking straight at Melissa, who was floating just a short distance in front of her. “Miss Mouse? Mouse Lass? He has a habit of naming all of his sidekicks after those rodents… I suppose his ego simply won’t allow him to have a sidekick named after something more intimidating than a bunny rabbit…”
I grinned faintly at that. Anyone who could make fun of Jack Ass and his overblown ego was someone I might potentially like. If nothing else, this woman had earned a few bonus points, though I was concerned by the fact that she’d stopped Melissa from running away and was using what appeared to be telekinesis to hold her up in the air.
“Paradigm,” Jack Ass exclaimed. “Release Mouse Girl immediately…”
“I think not,” the woman…Paradigm responded dismissively, though she did give Melissa a curious look.
“Well, I think so,” Melissa responded, sticking her tongue out at Paradigm before she suddenly teleported away, reappearing on the ground a short distance away.
“A useful ability,” Paradigm responded, then suddenly vanished, only to reappear beside Melissa. “As I well know…”
Melissa let out a squeal of fright and started to run away, but she was suddenly pulled back to Paradigm with invisible hands. I snarled and started towards Paradigm, wondering what I was going to do against both her and Jack Ass at the same time. I hated getting involved in these kinds of fights, but it seemed that ever since I’d come off my sabbatical, I kept being pulled into them. And as I well knew, I kept getting injured as a result.
While I was trying to come up with a plan, Jack leapt right at Paradigm, his fist cocked back so he could punch as soon as he made contact. However, Paradigm gestured to Jack and he suddenly went flying back into a group of police. At that, the crowd immediately began to disperse as most intelligent people…or at least people with any sense of survival…wanted to avoid getting caught between two fighting paranormals.
“It’s WABBIT SEASON,” I yelled out, realizing that I could use this to my advantage. If Paradigm and Jack Ass were focused on each other, then Melissa and I should be able to slip away while they were distracted. I grinned and began singing in my best Elmer Fudd voice, “Kill the wabbit. Kill the wabbit…”
Jack Rabbit got back to his feet and ran straight at Paradigm, but she gestured and he suddenly went up into the air, and not under his own power. A moment later, he came falling back, though when he hit the ground, he obviously used his own power to neutralize the impact. He barely hesitated before charging at Paradigm again.
Melissa saw me gesturing to her and she teleported again, slipping out of Paradigm’s grasp the same way she had previously. Unfortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed as Paradigm suddenly snapped around and I found myself flying back away from her. I hit the ground hard enough to leave bruises over most of my body, though I was thankful I hadn’t broken anything. By the time I was back to my feet, Paradigm had already grabbed Melissa again.
“I can use you,” Paradigm announced, right before she pulled out something that looked like a stun gun and shot Melissa with it point blank. The girl collapsed to the ground while Paradigm merely gestured and the unconscious body rose into the air. “If nothing else, I can find a use for your powers… But first…”
I snarled in anger and tried creeping towards Paradigm, hoping I could strike her from behind. I had a couple of metal throwing spikes in hand, and I fully intended to put a few holes in her if she didn’t put Melissa down. Ironically, I was counting on Jack Rabbit to help me rescue Melissa…though he didn’t know that. I just figured that he’d charge Paradigm head on, which would provide me with the distraction I needed.
“Release Mouse Girl at once,” Jack demanded. “If you touch one hair on her head…”
“Please,” Paradigm said dismissively, floating up in the air and taking Melissa with her. “Save your threats, John. You know what I want. Give it to me and I’ll let you have the girl…”
Jack Ass stood there for a moment with a grim expression before announcing, “I’ll never give in to your evil…”
Paradigm actually rolled her eyes before responding, “Spare me the theatrics. Unlike most of those idiots, I’m not fooled by your act. Now, if you want the girl back, you know what I want. If not…I’ll find another use for her.” And with that, Paradigm and Melissa both vanished, though I didn’t see them reappearing anywhere else. They were gone.
I stood there for a moment, frozen in anger and frustration. I’d held off on throwing my spikes at Paradigm because I hadn’t wanted to risk hitting Melissa, but I’d waited too long and lost my opportunity. A moment later, I turned my angry gaze on Jack Ass, who looked almost as frustrated as I felt. I was damn temped to use my spikes on him, but the more rational part of my brain reminded me that this wasn’t a good idea…at least not now.
I took a deep breath, then I turned and hurried off as quickly as I could, before another hero showed up…or even worse…the cops got their act together and started shooting. Fortunately, between my ‘ninja vanish’ trick and all the chaos, I was able to slip away without any difficulty.
New York, Friday afternoon, June 15th, 2007
I stood atop a tall building, pacing back and forth with a pair of binoculars in my hands. This was actually the same place where I’d spent half the day yesterday, crouched down in wait for Jack Rabbit, but today, I didn’t have the patience to sit still…or even remain invisible when I didn’t need to. I was too worried about Melissa.
I used the binoculars to look out at the surrounding area, but I still saw no sign of Jack Rabbit. I clenched the binoculars so tightly that I almost feared they would break in my hands, and in a way, I kind of hoped they did. At least that would give me some kind of release.
First, Jack Rabbit had kidnapped Melissa, then I’d gone through all that trouble to get her back. And as soon as I turn her over to the police, where I mistakenly thought she’d be safe, Jack Ass went and kidnapped her again. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, that Paradigm woman showed up and kidnapped Melissa from Jack. This was all so ludicrous that it almost sounded like the madcap plot of an old cartoon, though I certainly wasn’t laughing.
I didn’t know much about Paradigm, other than the fact that she wasn’t local. If she was, I would have heard about her before now since I tended to keep track of who the local players were. And of course, I knew that she and Jack had some kind of history together. From what Paradigm had said, Jack would know how to contact her if he wanted to make the exchange, which meant that Jack was my best chance at finding her…and Melissa.
Looking for Jack was easier said than done, especially after I’d already tracked him down once. When I went to his apartment, I wasn’t surprised to find that he’d cleaned it out and moved. Apparently, he didn’t want a supervillain…no matter how fabulous and talented she was…to know where he lived. And so far, he hadn’t made another appearance in his usual territory.
“Come on little bunny,” I muttered in frustration. “It’s wabbit season and I haven’t got my limit yet…” I scowled at that since I preferred taking the role of Bugs to Elmer. After all, Bugs had a LOT more style and panache…like me.
When I took another look around without seeing Jack Ass, I shook my head in disgust. You knew the world is screwed up when heroes were the ones who kidnapped kids, and a villain was the one who had to go rescue them. I was no hero and I resented being put into the position where I had to act like one. However, there was absolutely no way I could turn my back on Melissa.
Then without warning, I suddenly began falling…straight up. I let out a brief shriek of surprise, but a moment later, someone grabbed me from behind and demanded, “WHERE IS SHE?”
I immediately recognized the man’s voice, which told me exactly who I was dealing with and what was going on. “Chickenhawk,” I exclaimed, knowing that the hero must be trying to take me as high up as he could, so I couldn’t slip away from him without falling to my death. With that knowledge, I immediately turned my aura frictionless and slipped right out of his grasp.
Seconds later, I channeled all the energy of my PK aura to my feet, so that when I landed back on the roof, I was able to absorb as much of the impact as possible. As soon as I hit, I was already rolling, reducing the damage even further, which left me with bruises over much of my body. However, if I’d waited any longer before pulling that stunt, I’d be dealing with broken bones instead.
A quick glance upward revealed Chickenhawk flying down towards me. Chickenhawk…or Superhawk as he insisted on calling himself for some silly reason…was a superhero who actually had a fairly decent looking costume…not that I’d ever admit that to him. His costume was dark blue and white, and it consisted largely of tight fitting body armor, that was so sleek and lightweight that from a distance, it could almost be mistaken for spandex. He had a cowl that covered most of his head, except for the lower part of his face, and his chest was adorned with a symbol that resembled a bird in flight.
“Chickenhawk,” I called out with a grin I didn’t feel. I didn’t have the time or inclination to play with the hero right now, but in spite of the situation, appearances had to be kept. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d be dropping in. I would have baked a cake…or maybe a whip cream pie…”
Chickenhawk held out his hands and fired a ball of glowing blue energy...which I knew was some kind of warped gravity effect. I knew from personal experience that if he hit me with that ball, it would alter my personal gravity for a few seconds. In fact, he’d obviously hit me with one of those from behind, which was why I’d gone flying up into the air in the first place. This time, I saw it coming and easily dodged to the side, though he followed up with another attack.
“I like pie,” I continued with my mouth running almost on automatic. “And whip cream. And whips. And whip cream and whips together…” I paused at that to give Chickenhawk a suggestive wink.
However, the hero obviously didn’t appreciate my witty banter because he looked pissed. “Where is she?” he demanded again, flying straight at me with a raised fist, looking like he actually intended to punch me. He was serious.
“You’ll have to be a little more specific,” I said with a false cheerfulness, jumping to the side right before he would have hit me.
“A girl,” Chickenhawk answered, pausing to float a couple feet in the air. He glared at me as he stated, “The one you kidnapped…”
“Kidnapped?” I asked, a little surprised at the accusation, though I knew I shouldn’t have been. Of course, Jack Ass had been running around and telling stories, and as usual, the other heroes had eaten it all up without question. “I’m sorry, but you have the wrong Imp. Please check your accusations and try again later…”
Chickenhawk snarled. “Witnesses saw you take the girl yesterday…not far from here. And sources told me that today, you were on the scene when she was taken from the police station. Now, WHERE IS SHE?”
“Ah say boy,” I announced in my best Foghorn Leghorn voice. “Ah think your mask is on too tight. Your logic is as screwy as a curveball in a tornado…”
The hero’s response to that was to form two glowing blue balls simultaneously, one in each hand, and then he fired both while flying straight at me. But in spite of the multiple attack, I was able to focus all the energy from my aura to my legs, giving myself a little extra push as I leapt up to avoid the incoming barrage. My jumps weren’t nearly as impressive as what Little Bunny Foo Foo could do, but they were still useful.
“You’re going to tell me what you did with her,” Chickenhawk exclaimed, pausing to hover several feet in the air again. He was watching me with an intense look that told me he wasn’t kidding around.
“I’m disappointed,” I said with a mock pout. “We’ve been dancing for years, so I thought you would have recognized my moves by now. You should know by now that I’m not into kidnapping, and I don’t take hostages. Never ever ever.”
“There are witnesses,” he stated as though this was the end of it. But then he paused and I could see his body language shift just a little. It was doubt.
“Then I’m sure your witnesses told you the girl was kidnapped by a crazy hero,” I commented with a forced grin and a casual wave of my hand. “He wanted to make her into his sidekick and teach her how to be a hero, but you know, that’s a fate worse than death and no kid deserves that. So I decided to help the kid out and saved her from that horrible fate.”
“I don’t have time for your nonsense,” Chickenhawk snarled. I was sure he was about to attack me again, but he held back and demanded, “Tell me where…the girl is.”
“No can do,” I responded with an exaggerated shrug. “I know who has her…but not where.”
“What?” Chickenhawk demanded.
I gave another shrug, trying to look casual with my tail swaying back and forth, though I was prepared to jump the moment Chickenhawk moved. Since he’d stopped charging at me like a crazy man, I decided to reward his good behavior by tossing him a treat. But honestly, I was just eager to get rid of him so I could get back to what I’d been working on.
“After I got the kid away from Jack Ass, I took her to the police station and dropped her off at the lost and found,” I explained with a false cheerfulness. “But then, Little Bunny Foo Foo came and took her away again…but then…surprise twist…some new chickadee named Paradigm showed up and sidekick-napped her.” I paused at that, them mused, “Of course, your witnesses could have told you all that if you’d asked. There were a lot of them there.”
Chickenhawk almost seemed frozen for a moment as he repeated, “Paradigm?”
“Yep,” I agreed.
“Where did Paradigm take her?” Chickenhawk demanded. “Which direction did she go?”
“Can’t say,” I responded with a shrug. “She pulled a beam me up Scotty, then went bye bye.”
Chickenhawk was silent for several seconds, then he angrily accused me, “You’re lying…”
“Afraid not,” I commented. “I’ve told you what I know, so go away.” Then I shifted into my Foghorn Leghorn impression and said, “Ah say, go away boy. You bother me.”
Chickenhawk snarled and suddenly fired another ball of blue energy at me, though I saw it coming and easily jumped to the side. He threw another one, but I avoided that one as well.
“I believe our business here is completed,” I said, giving an exaggerated yawn, just to yank his chain a little. Then, in my best Schwarzenegger accent, which was probably pretty bad, I stated, ”Hasta la vista, baby.”
With that, I threw a smoke bomb at my feet and pulled my trademarked vanishing act. I used the smoke for cover as I jumped back, dropped down, and activated my chameleon field. By the time the smoke cleared, I appeared to have vanished.
“No!” Chickenhawk exclaimed, dropping from where he’d been hovering a little above the rooftop. As soon as he landed on the roof, he looked around and then screamed, “MELISSA!”
Chickenhawk let out a howl of anguish, the kind that was filled with fear, anger, and nameless other emotions that couldn’t be put into words. A faint chill ran up my spine as I realized that he wasn’t merely looking for some missing girl. This was personal for him. Very personal. Then all the pieces suddenly snapped into place.
“You’re her father,” I blurted out in sudden realization.
Chickenhawk snapped around, obviously surprised to hear my voice since I’d supposedly teleported away less than a minute ago. He scanned the area with a grim intensity, though of course, he looked right past me without any indication of seeing me.
“Imp,” he snarled, not bothering to deny my statement.
“You’re Melissa’s father,” I said, for once not teasing or taunting him. Instead, I stared at my frequent opponent, suddenly feeling sorry for him. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have your kid taken, knowing that they might not even be alive. “She’s a good kid. Smart, gutsy…and a wicked sense of humor.” Then I weakly joked, “And she has great taste in role models…”
“Enough with the jokes,” Chickenhawk snapped angrily, still looking around for any sign of where I might be hiding. I had a feeling that if he found me, he might very well take all his frustration out on me. “This is serious…”
“You’re right,” I admitted grimly. “This is serious, maybe even more than you realize.”
I watched Chickenhawk, remembering everything Melissa had said about her father and trying to imagine what was going through his head. He was worried…desperate and frantic. Unfortunately, this also meant that he wasn’t in his right mind. Chickenhawk wasn’t a detective, and he certainly wasn’t in any condition to track his daughter’s kidnappers at the moment. In his current state, he was likely to get her killed...along with himself.
After several long seconds, I made a decision. It wasn’t an easy decision, and I knew that I was going to pay for it. I was going to pay a great deal.
“I take Melissa’s kidnapping very seriously,” I announced, keeping my voice calm and serious. I’d known Chickenhawk for years, or at least the two of us had sparred and danced around for all that time, but this was the first time I’ve ever talked to him like this. “I take this seriously enough that I’m dropping my mask.”
“You don’t wear a mask,” he snapped in response, still looking around for me.
“We all wear masks,” I told him with a sigh. “Some more figurative than others.” I hesitated a moment, knowing that once I did this, there was no turning back. However, I couldn’t see any other way of getting through to him. “I’ve spent years, playing up my quirks, carefully building a reputation as being impulsive, reckless, and childish…just so people like you would underestimate me.”
Chickenhawk paused at that, looking surprised. “What?”
“I take this seriously enough that I’m revealing I don’t have the power to teleport,” I added, standing up and walking towards him. My aura couldn’t adjust quickly enough to match my movements, so Chickenhawk saw me as a blur in the air. “I merely have the ability to hide in plain sight.” Once he was staring right at me with a look of surprise, I dropped my aura entirely. I slowly approached him, holding my hands out to the side to show that I wasn’t going to attack.
“Imp,” he stated, looking more stunned and confused than hostile. I’d completely thrown him off his game, and at any other time I would have been smirking over that.
I looked Chickenhawk right in the eyes, then grimly told him, “I take this seriously enough that I’ve just surrendered two of my greatest advantages…just so you’ll know I’m serious...so that you’ll believe I’m sincere when I say…I’m going to help you rescue Melissa.”
Chickenhawk just stared at me, and for a moment, I was afraid that I’d overloaded him with too much at one time. Then he finally demanded, “Why would you do that?” His tone was filled with suspicion, and with our history, I couldn’t really blame him.
“I’m a professional thief,” I answered proudly. Then I sneered as I added, “But I would never steal a child, and I feel nothing but disgust for those who would. Besides, I like Melissa, and there is no way I’d let either Jack Ass or Paradigm keep her.”
“Then what are you suggesting?” Chickenhawk asked, still suspicious but no longer quite as hostile.
“A truce until this is over,” I answered him simply. “A temporary alliance until we find your daughter.”
“You’re not serious,” Chickenhawk started, though this was probably the only time I’d ever been completely serious with him, and I think he realized that. “Why would I ever work with you?”
“Because you need me,” I replied in a calm tone, looking him right in the eyes. “I have contacts and resources you don’t, ones that you’re probably going to need.” I paused at that, then admitted, “I was already looking for Melissa when you interrupted me. I can find her…but I’m not as confident in my ability to handle Paradigm once I do. If we work together, it only increases our chances of getting her back alive.”
“You’re serious,” Chickenhawk gasped, staring at me in surprise.
“Yes,” I responded, resisting the urge to make a smart-ass comment since that would sabotage what I was trying to do.
Chickenhawk stared at me for several long seconds, as if trying to make sense of me. Then, he finally said, “I have one condition.” He paused again, probably to give me the opportunity to protest. “I’m not going to blindly trust you or your contacts with my daughter’s life. If we’re going to do this…then I want to be there when you talk to your contacts.”
“Then I have a condition of my own,” I said in response. “If I’m going to let you peek behind the curtain, then when this is done…you forget everything you’ve seen and heard. I don’t want my friends and business associates getting harassed because I helped you.”
I hadn’t included my own secrets in this condition because I’d surrendered those as a show of good faith. It was too late to negotiate for those, and it would only be counterproductive.
“Agreed,” Chickenhawk said, holding out his hand. I hesitated a moment before taking it.
As soon as Chickenhawk and I were finished shaking hands, I stepped away from him and pulled out my cell phone to make a call. “It’s me,” I told Bob, knowing that he’d recognize my voice. “About that meeting we have set up for tonight… We need a change of venue. I’m going to be bringing someone with me, and we’ll need a neutral location…”
I talked to Bob for about half a minute more before I hung up. Turning back to Chickenhawk, I said, “We have a meeting with one of my contacts tonight at six. It’s a fairly public place, but we’ll have enough privacy to talk. You’ll want to dress down so as not to draw much attention, and we do NOT want my contact to know who you are. If he thinks that you’re a white hat, he might not tell us anything.”
“Understood,” Chickenhawk responded.
I reached into one of my pouches and pulled out a business card. It was blank, except for my logo on one side…a black circle with devil horns and a little devil tail. I used to use these calling cards for some of my jobs, but I’d stopped that a few years ago. After I’d run into Melissa, who asked me for my autograph, I’d begun carrying a few of these around again as well as a small pen…just in case I ran into someone else who wanted my autograph.
“Here,” I said, quickly writing the address on the back of the card before handing it to Chickenhawk. “This is the address, so I’ll see you there at six. For now, I have a few things I need to take care of first.”
With that, I turned and walked away from Chickenhawk, then I stopped, turned to give him a bow and announced, “Until tonight.” I threw a smoke bomb at my feet and did my ‘ninja vanish’ trick again. It wasn’t nearly as effective now that Chickenhawk knew how it worked, but I’d always been a sucker for a good exit.
New York, Friday evening, June 15th, 2007
Barnaby’s was a small hole-in-the wall restaurant, the kind of place that you could walk right past and completely miss unless you knew it was there. The inside only had six tables, and the décor was just as bland and uninspired as the outside. And then there was the food from the Italian-themed menu, which was good though certainly not worth going out of your way for.
However, Barnaby’s did have one thing going for it. The owner was welcoming to mutants, regardless of which side of the legal divide they fell on. He didn’t ask questions and didn’t care who his customers were or what they did for a living, just as long as they paid their bills and didn’t cause any trouble.
I was currently sitting in the back corner of the small dining room, looking over the empty tables. The lack of customers wasn’t unusual for Barnaby’s, and I suspected that they were only able to stay in business because of the large tips that were left by people like me.
I’d come to Barnaby’s in disguise, which I hadn’t bothered taking off yet. I was wearing an oversized coat, wide brimmed hat, and large pair of sunglasses, all of which helped to hide my devilish good looks. However, none of that really mattered at the moment as I was currently using my powers to be invisible.
The meeting wasn’t until six, but as I usually did in business meetings, I arrived early, just to check out the area and make sure there were no unpleasant surprises. So far, I’d been sitting here for twenty minutes and I still had almost half an hour to go.
A couple minutes later, another customer entered the restaurant, stopped at the doorway and cautiously looked around. Then he went to one of the tables and sat down. I just remained where I was, silently examining him.
The newcomer was tall and athletic, with a loose fitting jacket and a baseball cap that had dark hair sticking out from beneath it. However, the fact that he was wearing sunglasses indoors was an immediate warning that something was up with him, and which begged for closer scrutiny. That closer scrutiny helped me to notice that the skin color on his face was slightly off from that on his neck and hands, which was an indication he was wearing a skin mask.
Skin masks, or any of the other names they were known by, were made to look like human skin and alter your appearance without making it look like you were wearing a mask. But unlike with the cartoons and movies, skin masks often couldn’t pass a close inspection unless they were high quality…like the one Chickenhawk was currently wearing.
As someone whose unique good looks tends to draw a lot of attention when she goes out in public, I’ve looked into a lot of different ways of hiding my features, including skin masks. Unfortunately, they didn’t really work well for me. For one thing, good quality skin masks had to be custom made for the wearer, were usually fragile, and they were always expensive. For another, they didn’t really stick right to the tiny black scales that covered my forehead and cheeks, and that wasn’t even taking my horns into account.
After watching the disguised Chickenhawk for a minute, I waited until he relaxed a little then got up and went over to him. “Fancy meeting you here,” I commented, setting my hat onto the table and taking a seat across from him.
“Imp,” he greeted me in a carefully controlled tone.
I waved for the waiter to come over, then said, “I’ll have the house merlot.” I looked to Chickenhawk.
“I’ll just have water,” he said, finally removing his sunglasses. Then once the waiter was gone, he turned to me and gave me a suspicious look as he asked, “I hope you didn’t just get me here for dinner.”
“I don’t make a habit of eating dinner with people who want to put me behind bars,” I answered him, though I had to admit, it would be interesting. “My contact always gets a lot more talkative when he’s eating, so whenever I need some information from him, I always make sure that there’s food.”
Chickenhawk nodded, then looked towards the door. “How long before he arrives?”
“We’re both early,” I told him with a shrug. “Bob will be on time.”
At that, the waiter arrived with our drinks as well as a plate of garlic bread. I took a minute to much on the bread and sip my wine, feeling amused at how uncomfortable Chickenhawk was. Of course, this whole situation was pretty awkward, though I refused to let him see me sweat.
“That’s a pretty nice skin mask,” I finally said, making Chickenhawk jump a little in surprise. I didn’t blame him for wearing a mask like that since he obviously didn’t want me to see his real face. And from the way he reacted to my pointing it out, I suspected that he hadn’t expected me to notice. “Did Brandywine provide it?”
Chickenhawk hesitated a moment before responding, “Yes, she did.”
“And is she going to be involved in this?” I gave him a curious look. “I’d imagine that she’d want to help her niece.”
Chickenhawk looked surprised again and he scowled before asking, “How did you know she was my sister?”
“She told me the first time I met her,” I responded with an amused smile. It would have been more accurate to say that she told her teammates and I just happened to be nearby, but that was a minor distinction.
The hero didn’t look happy, though I suspected that this time he was more annoyed at Brandywine than me. After all, he couldn’t be thrilled at having his archenemy know his personal business. Then again, I knew that Melissa was his daughter, and that was even more personal.
“No,” he finally answered. “She and her team are caught up in something critical. She’ll drop everything and come if I need her, but at the moment, she wouldn’t be very helpful…not until we find Paradigm.”
I nodded at that and took a sip of my wine, trying not to look relieved. It was awkward enough dealing with Chickenhawk, so I didn’t want to throw Brandywine and the Shielders in the mix as well. Especially when that would have meant dealing with Fuzzy Wuzzy, who probably bore quite a grudge against me for my little payback.
“So,” Chickenhawk asked, giving me a faintly smug look. “I assume you expected to use this as an opportunity to see me without my mask.”
I just rolled my eyes at that. “If I wanted to know what you look like without your mask, I could have found that out a long time ago.”
During one of my first encounters with Chickenhawk, he’d made the mistake of grabbing my tail, which is actually pretty sensitive. Getting my tail pulled hurts, so I’d decided to teach him a lesson about doing that again. That lesson involved ambushing him, drugging him into unconsciousness, then stripping off his armor and every stitch of clothes he had on except for his underwear and mask. After that, I’d just dropped him off in Times Square.
Chickenhawk blushed as he obviously remembered the incident and how I’d had every available opportunity to unmask him. I noted the blush and gave even more credit to whoever made the skin mask. That was very good quality.
“Why didn’t you?” he asked, sounding curious.
I was tempted to give him a smartass answer, but since we were actually having a relatively civil conversation, I decided to skip that for now. “Because I don’t care who you are under your mask,” I finally said. “It’s irrelevant. We’re professional rivals, emphasis on professional. I see no reason to bring your private life into it…unless you give me a reason.” Of course, since I was helping him find his daughter, I was already involved in his private life, though I didn’t mention that.
Chickenhawk gave me a curious look, as if he couldn’t quite decide what to make of me. Of course, I wasn’t acting the way he was used to. This was the first real conversation we’d ever had, and only the second time I’d talked to him without all the jokes and mockery. If I’d known that playing it straight could throw him off, I might have tried it earlier. Or not.
“Melissa,” the hero abruptly said, his voice a rough with emotion. He gave me a grim look as he demanded, “How do you know her?”
I hesitated a moment, not sure how much to tell him. However, when I looked into the eyes of the desperately worried father across from me, I nodded faintly and decided to be honest. Even if he was an arrogant and self-righteous prick of a hero, he deserved that much.
“I had no idea she was your daughter until a few hours ago,” I commented.
Chickenhawk nodded. “I’d gathered as much.”
“Do you know what your daughter has been up to?” I asked Chickenhawk with a weak chuckle. “Do you know how much she’s been living up to her codename?” From the look in on his face, I was pretty sure he didn’t. “About two months ago, she started tagging my logo all over the streets…trying to get my attention.”
“What?” he demanded with a look of stunned disbelief. He looked like he was about to protest that Melissa would never do such a thing, but then he paused to shake his head. “Go on…”
“When that wasn’t enough,” I continued wryly, “she decided to up the ante. She pulled a heist and fingered me.” I frowned at that, feeling a little guilty for snitching on Melissa this way.
“WHAT?” Chickenhawk blurted out again. His eyes went wide at that for a moment, then he shook his head again and scowled. “The art gallery where nothing left the building…”
“Bingo,” I said in agreement, taking a sip of my wine.
I also took a few seconds to savor the moment when the big hero realized that his own daughter wasn’t exactly following his footsteps. Then I felt guilty for enjoying his shock. At any other time, I wouldn’t have a problem with rubbing salt in the wound and teasing him about it, but these weren’t normal circumstances.
“I tracked her down and had a bit of a talk with her,” I told him. “She asked for my autograph, then she asked me to teach her how to be a supervillain…”
“WHAT?” Chickenhawk gasped again.
“You keep saying that,” I teased him half-heartedly. “I think you need to work on your vocabulary.” Then I decided to be a bit merciful. “I told her no, of course, then sent her on her way.”
“Thank God,” Chickenhawk muttered with a look of relief.
“We ran into each other again,” I continued, pausing to take another sip of my wine. “Long story short, I made a deal with her. She promised not to pull any more antics like what she did at the art gallery, at least until she turns eighteen…and I agreed to teach her how to pick locks.”
“You were teaching a thirteen year old girl how to pick locks?” he demanded.
“Actually,” I responded with a smirk, swirling the wine in my glass. “It’s kind of useless to someone who can simply walk through doors, though she was picking it up pretty quick.”
Chickenhawk let out a long sigh at that, then muttered, “At least now I know why I keep finding all my cabinets unlocked…”
I chuckled faintly at that, then told him about how we’d run into Jack Ass, and how I’d rescued Melissa from him. I told him about what happened at the police station, though I left out the small detail of how I’d planned on following Melissa home in order to find out more about her.
Once I was done talking, Chickenhawk just sat there with a dark look on his face, absorbing everything I’d told him. I imagined it was pretty rough, realizing that there was so much going on in his daughter’s life that he’d been completely unaware of.
Then Chickenhawk finally looked at me again, staring with an odd expression. He looked like he was about to say something when Bob finally arrived. Bob came in, gave Chickenhawk a suspicious look, then came to our table.
“Imp,” Bob greeted me, not taking his eyes off Chickenhawk.
“This is…,” I started to introduce Chickenhawk.
“Ben,” he quickly interjected, probably before I could assign him an annoying name like I’d been about to.
He said the name with an ease that made me think it was one he was familiar with. Since I doubted that Chickenhawk would give us his real name, I suspected that Ben might be his middle name, or the name of someone he knew.
“Ben is a client,” I explained to Bob. “He’s hired me to do a job that’s closely related to what we were already talking about, and part of our contract is that he wants to be closely involved in all aspects of this job.”
Bob scowled at that and didn’t look very happy about having ‘Ben’ here with us, but he didn’t protest. After all, I told Bob that I’d pay for dinner, and he wasn’t one to turn down free food. Instead, he gave ‘Ben’ a suspicious look, and without a word, he dropped two folders onto the table in front of me.
While Bob ordered his food, I looked through the folders. The first one was on Jack Rabbit, and contained everything that Bob had told me previously plus a few more details. The other folder was on Paradigm.
“I already had most of the information you called me about this morning,” Bob finally said. “I just had to dig it out and check for any recent changes…”
“So, what can you tell me about Paradigm?” I asked, knowing that Bob sometimes had a few nuggets of information that never made it into the folders.
Instead of answering that, Bob responded with a question of his own. “Have you ever heard of a guy named Dominion?”
Ben shook his head at that while I nodded and said, “He was a wannabe world conquerer who made a bit of a name for himself back in the eighties. He was lower B list, but he made a few moves towards going up the list right before he suddenly vanished from the scene.” I shrugged at that. “He had too much ego to ever retire quietly, so I always figured that one of his enemies must have caught up to him.”
“You seem to know a lot about him,” Ben probed, giving me a curious look.
I just shrugged at that. “I did a job for him back in eighty-six.” That earned me a look of surprise from the hero.
Bob nodded at that. “Turns out, he died of natural causes, if you can believe it. Massive stroke. Died in his sleep.”
“But what does that have to do with Paradigm?” Ben demanded impatiently. I gave him a warning look. The last thing we needed right now was for him to go pissing off Bob. That could wait until after we had the information.
Bob scowled at Ben, then promptly ignored him and told me, “About ten years later, a pair of lovers stumbled across Dominion’s hideout…and his set of power gems.”
“Paradigm and Jack Rabbit,” I stated in understanding.
“Yeah,” Bob agreed with a nod. He paused to take a drink of the beer that had just been brought over by the waiter. “From what I’ve been able to find out, they initially decided that they wanted to use the gems to change things…to make a difference in the world.” He snorted derisively to show what he thought of that kind of idealism. “Then they started fighting over what that meant, and before long, they came to blows, with each of them walking away with half the gems.”
“Jack’s power gems give him health, jumping, and the mind control thing,” I said, more for Ben’s benefit than for anything else.
Bob scowled intensely and I saw a flash of hatred in his eyes. “Fucking bastard likes glory and attention. Paradigm prefers to avoid the spotlight. She’s all about trying to change things from behind the scenes.”
“And what about her powers?” Ben asked grimly.
“Telekinesis and teleporting,” I answered, having seen both of those earlier today.
“Yeah,” Bob agreed, taking another drink of beer. “She has three of the gems too. One is levitation and one is for teleporting. It’s the last one though that’s the real doozy. It’s just an amplifier. On its own, it’s pretty damn useless, but when you use it with another gem from the set…it boosts it. Makes her levitation and teleporting a lot more powerful than they’d be without it.”
At this point, the food arrived and Bob began to dig into his lasagna. I’d ordered some chicken parmesan earlier, so I was happy to take a bite of my own dinner. However, Ben hadn’t bothered ordering anything and seemed impatient and annoyed that Bob and I actually were eating. I could certainly understand his frustration, but hurrying Bob rarely did any good.
Once Bob had taken a couple bites, he finally continued. “Jack Rabbit and Paradigm have been going at each other for years…mostly trying to get each other’s power gems. I mean, if the asshole gets that amplifier stone, he suddenly gets upgraded to being a brick, with concussion blasts, and he’ll be able to control anyone’s mind in an instant.”
“And that’s what Paradigm was after,” I exclaimed in understanding as I remembered the way she’d tried to trade Melissa to Jack. “She wants his power gems…”
Bob nodded at that, taking another long drink of beer. “Especially the mind control one. She’s all about trying to ‘fix’ the world, and from what I hear, she wants to do this by controlling the people in charge.”
“Dominion tried something like that,” I mused. “But he couldn’t resist showing off how powerful he was and bragging about people being his puppets… ”
“Paradigm is a softer touch,” Bob said. “She might even be able to pull it off.”
Ben was scowling intently at this, obviously not comfortable with the way Bob and I were comparing the styles of the two villains so casually. Of course, he had a personal stake in this…as did I.
“Paradigm took a kid,” I grimly told Bob. “The same one Jack Ass took previously. What’s she likely to do to one of his sidekicks?”
Bob scratched his chin thoughtfully, then shrugged as though it wasn’t really important. “No idea, but the kid will probably be better off than with Jack Rabbit.”
That definitely didn’t ease Ben’s fears, or my own. I talked with Bob for a few more minutes while I finished my dinner and wine, and at the same time, I flipped through both folders for any information I could use. Unfortunately, Bob had no idea of where we could find either Paradigm or Jack Rabbit, much to our shared annoyance. However, there was something in one of the files that caught my attention.
Once we were finished, I put my coat, hat, and sunglasses back on, then slapped thee hundred dollar bills down on the table to pay for both the meal and the privacy. With that, I left Barnaby’s, regretting the fact that I’d have to avoid the place for a few months at least. Now that Chickenhawk knew it was one of my hangouts, it wouldn’t be safe coming back for awhile.
Ben left the restaurant right behind me, and as soon as we were out, he commented, “I never realized that villains used informants like that. I suppose it makes sense.” Then as we both stopped on the sidewalk outside, he grimly asked, “Do you trust him?”
“No,” I answered honestly, which seemed to surprise Ben. “Bob is good at digging up information…and finding people who can help him get whatever he needs. And most of the time, his information is good. However,” I paused at that, giving Ben a wry smile as I added, “he has a personal grudge against Jack Ass, and I wouldn’t put it past him to point us more towards him than Paradigm.”
“He didn’t give us anything useful,” Ben growled impatiently.
I just grinned at that and pointed out, “Actually, he gave us quite a bit. Now we know what Paradigm’s powers are, how they work, and we have a better idea of what she’s after.”
“But we don’t know where she is,” Ben snapped at me. “This was a waste of time.”
“You need to work on your patience,” I teased Ben, which made him to stop and stare at me with his mouth open. After all, I’d spent years building up the reputation of being reckless, impulsive, and impatient, so I was probably the last person he’d ever expected to hear that from. “He also gave us this…” I opened Paradigm’s folder and pointed to the list of her known associates. “I happen to know this young lady…and since it’s Friday night…I also know exactly where to find her.”
With those words, I saw a look of hope pass over Ben’s extremely realistic skin mask. “Then let’s go have a talk with her.”
New York, Friday evening, June 15th, 2007
“Well?” Ben demanded impatiently. “Where to?”
I just stood where I was for a moment, staring down the street and scowling at the knot of worry in my stomach. Actually, there were now two knots of worry. One of them was for Melissa, while the other one was for myself. I knew that I shouldn’t have told Ben that I recognized that name, because he’d insist on coming along to question her. The smart move would have been to keep that nugget to myself, then go and question her by on my own.
“I must be getting soft,” I muttered.
I’d told Chickenhawk about this lead because I’d wanted to give him a little hope that we were making progress, that we’d find Melissa. And admittedly, I’d made a deal with him and I actually wanted to keep it.
“What did you say?” Ben asked me.
“Nothing,” I responded with a scowl of annoyance.
Then without another word, I took an abrupt turn down and alley and immediately spotted what I was looking for. It was a plain wooden door, though it was painted with a black domino mask on the front. This was the door to the Black Mask…a bar for supervillains. I glanced to Ben, knowing that if I brought him inside, things could end very badly for both of us. After all, bringing a superhero into a supervillain hangout was begging for trouble.
“This isn’t a place for you or your kind,” I told Ben, giving him a flat look to let him see how serious I was about this. “It would be a lot better if I go in and talk to her by myself.”
“We had a deal,” Ben reminded me grimly.
I nodded faintly at that. “Then remember your part. If anyone here finds out who you are…the best case scenario would be that we’d both get kicked out.” I didn’t mention what the worst case scenario would be as I looked him over, thankful that he was still wearing his Ben disguise. That would definitely help a lot.
A moment later, I put my hand against the door and stated, “I have a one-time guest.” If I didn’t specify that, then the very act of bringing Ben through the door would register him as a customer in good standing, and he’d be able to come back anytime he wanted. Bringing a hero here once was bad enough, but there was no way I was going to give him a full time pass. “Come on.”
After we stepped through the door, I paused for a moment to look around the central room, knowing that there were also several back rooms that customers could use to discuss private business. There was a large and very well stocked bar, and even a live band in the back corner, playing some soft jazz. And while I took all that in, I also took mental note of who the other customers were.
“This is also one of the few places in town where I can come to socialize and get a drink as myself,” I told Ben in a quiet but firm tone. “If you do anything to get me banned from here, I’ll be VERY unhappy.”
Just then, a voice called out, “Hey, Impy…”
I looked over to Blue Diamond, whom I’d already noticed sitting at the bar, talking to some man I didn’t recognize. She was waving to me, so I waved back and then started towards her. Ben followed close behind.
“Hey, Diamond,” I greeted ‘the world’s most lovable supervillain’ with a grin. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, about the same as usual,” she responded in her Long Island accent. Then she looked to the man she’d been talking to, gave me a wink and added, “You know me. I always have a great time...”
“Then I’ll leave you to it,” I told her with a grin of my own. A moment later, I turned to Carl, the bartender. “Yo barkeep,” I said loud enough to get his attention. “I’ll have a goblet of your freshest virgin blood.”
I’d ordered that drink mostly just to see if I could shock Ben, and the look on his skin mask face was priceless. He watched Carl intently as the bartender ran around, mixing up a crimson colored drink, which he set down on the bar in front of me.
I took a sip of the crimson cocktail and immediately noted the cherry taste. “Not bad,” I told Carl, who was waiting for my response. “I think it’s just a little on the sweet side though…”
“I’ll make a note of it,” Carl said. “Would you like a different drink?”
“No, I’ll be good with this,” I told him with a grin. Then I glanced to Ben and asked, “You want anything?”
“I’m good,” Ben said with a scowl.
I shrugged at that, then went to go find a table, bringing my drink with me. Ben followed, and I noticed that he was looking around with a very wary expression. I guessed that I couldn’t blame him, being a superhero who was surrounded by ‘the enemy’. If anyone here knew who he was, they’d probably jump at the chance to kick his ass.
“That was Blue Diamond,” Ben said in a careful tone. “When you went to talk to her, I thought she was the one we were here to see…”
“Nope,” I responded cheerfully. “Just a friend I was saying hi to.”
Ben didn’t look like he knew what to say to that. Instead, he looked around again, then mused, “So, this is where you come to socialize…”
“Yep,” I agreed. “All work and no play makes Imp a dull girl.”
Ben snorted at that. “I don’t think that dull is a word anyone would ever use to describe you.”
I grinned at him. “Why, thank you.”
We didn’t have to wait long before a waitress came over to check on us. Brandi was gorgeous, with golden blond hair, breasts that were bigger than her head, and the kind of looks that said she should be a porn star or stripper rather than merely a waitress. Personally, I thought the blonde Barbie look was a little overhyped, and that she’d look even better if she added a little something extra…like horns. Horns were sexy.
I gave Brandi a friendly smile, then asked, “Can you have Janine come over when she gets a chance? There’s something I need to talk to her about…”
“Sure thing,” Brandi responded with a smile of her own.
Then just as Brandi walked away, another figure started towards the table. He was just over six feet tall, heavily muscled, and currently wearing jeans and a shirt that was just a little too tight on him.
“Hey, Imp,” he greeted me, pausing to give Ben an appraising look…as if trying to decide how difficult it would be to beat him in a fight. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
“Musclehead,” I greeted him back. “What’s up?”
Muscle wasn’t currently in his working clothes, but he was in the business, though he had a different specialty than mine. Whereas I specialized in sneaking into a place and then walking out with some valuable goodies, he was professional muscle. He worked for various criminals as a bodyguard, enforcer, leg-breaker, or doing just about any other job that just needed someone to be very big, very strong, and very intimidating. At the moment, he was mostly powered down so wasn’t as big as he could be.
Muscle had apparently decided that Ben wasn’t worth bothering with, because he ignored his presence completely. “I’ve got a big job coming up, and my current employer says that he’s looking for a thief to help out… I recommended you for the job.”
“Thanks for the offer,” I told Muscle, cutting him off before he could go into any details. In spite of Ben’s promise to look the other way for now, I didn’t want to put it to the test. “But I’m pretty busy right now and will be for the foreseeable future.”
Muscle stared at me for a moment, then asked, “This isn’t because that Hexagon job, is it? I mean, that was just business…”
“Naw,” I waved that off. “I don’t take that personally. Like I said, I’m just pretty heavily involved in my own job.” I gave a nod towards Ben. “We were just working out some details…”
Muscle nodded at that, seeming to get the hint that I wanted to be left alone. He started to turn, then paused, “Oh, by the way…you might want to keep an eye out for Crash Test Dummy…” He chuckled as he said the name, a name that I’d given to the other villain. “He does take what happened personally, and he has it out for you…”
“So I disarmed him,” I said with a roll of my eyes, referring to the way I’d cut off the man’s hand. “He was trying to kill me, so I think we’re even…”
“It’s not the hand he’s pissed about,” Muscle told me. “I think he’s already found someone to make him a replacement. It’s the name… You’ve got everyone calling him Crash Test Dummy now, and he’s not happy about that…”
I just grinned at that, and I would have flicked my tail back and forth behind me if it wasn’t for the fact that I currently had it stuffed down the leg of my pants. It was very uncomfortable, but doing that helped to hide my tail when I went out and about.
Once Muscle was gone, Ben commented wryly, “So, it’s not just the heroes you do that to…”
“Nope,” I agreed cheerfully. “I’m an equal opportunity nicknamer.”
A minute later, another waitress came over to us, though this one wasn’t here to take our drink orders. Janine was a tall and slender black woman, with what could be called a willowy build. She gave me and Ben curious looks, then said, “Brandi said you wanted to talk to me…”
“Yeperooni,” I agreed, gesturing for her to have a seat. “This concerns a job I’m currently working, and I hope you might be able to help.”
“Help how?” she asked, giving me a suspicious look.
“Well, a little birdy told me that you used to do a little minion work for Paradigm,” I commented. The look in Janine’s eyes immediately told me that this was correct.
“For about a month,” Janine admitted with a shrug. “I figured it would be a great way for me to earn money for my tuition and make a few contacts in the business for when my dad retires…”
“That’s right,” I mused. “Your dad is the Silver Scepter…”
Janine nodded at that. “And when he retires in a year or two, I’ll get his gear and become the new Silver Scepter. I figure, it would be a good idea to learn as much as I could beforehand, so I’ll be ready to hit the ground running…”
“Good idea,” I told her.
However, Ben seemed surprised by this and blurted out, “You’re planning to become a villain?”
“Why not?” Janine asked him. “I mean, it runs in the family, and it can pay pretty well… I figure, if I make a couple good scores and invest my money right, I’ll probably be able to retire in about fifteen years.”
Ben looked almost mortified at that, so I quickly asked, “So, working here is good preparation?”
“Of course,” Janine responded, looking rather proud. “Waitressing is a lot less risky than minion work, I make a lot of contacts in the business, and of course, the pay is WAY better. You know how people tip here after they make a big score...”
I nodded at that, having tipped quite generously myself after a few big jobs. “Anyway, back to Paradigm… She has something I want, and I need to know where to find her…” I slid a pair of hundreds across the table to her.
“I’d tell you if I knew,” Janine said, glancing to the money with a disappointed look. “Paradigm has this base with her people in it, but only the top ones know where it is. She teleports most of the people in and out for security.”
“Damn,” Ben snarled, slamming his fist against the table in frustration and making Janine jump.
Janine looked from Ben to me, hesitated a moment, then admitted, “I don’t know where this place is…but Jack might.”
“Jack Rabbit?” Ben demanded.
“No, MY Jack,” Janine told me, suddenly reminding me of her ex. “Jack and I met while working with Paradigm…and left together.”
I nodded thoughtfully at that, then asked, “Does Jack still work in the same place?”
“As far as I know,” Janine said. Then she looked around and added, “Sorry, but my break is about over and I have to get back to work.”
“Thanks for your help,” I told her, gesturing for her to keep the money. “And give your dad a raspberry for me when you see him.”
With that, I got up to leave and Ben followed after me. As soon as we were outside of the Black Mask, I let out a sigh of relief. That could have gone much worse.
“So, that’s the Black Mask,” Ben mused, looking around and obviously trying to remember where the door was, probably so he could come back and check it out some other time, regardless of our deal. I just smiled faintly, knowing that since he was a one-time guest and not a customer in good standing, he wouldn’t be able to find the door. It tended to move around and avoided people who didn’t belong. “I’ve never heard of another hero getting in…”
I grunted at that, knowing full well the risk I’d taken just getting him in this one time. “I heard that the heroes have their own bar,” I said, giving Ben a curious look. “The Golden Cape?”
This time, it was Ben who grunted, not bothering to confirm or deny it. Then he gruffly asked, “Where to now?”
“Not too far,” I said, pulling my hat down low to help hide my face as I waved for a taxi.
A short time later, we arrived at our destination. I smirked and told Ben, “Keep your head down and don’t draw attention. They don’t like your kind here…”
“Heroes?” Ben asked as we went inside.
I paused at the entrance and looked around the busy club and all the women who occupied it. A couple of the women looked in our direction and glared at Ben with clear hostility.
“No,” I said with a smirk. “Men.”
Ben’s eyes went wide as he realized that I’d taken him to a lesbian club, and he suddenly looked extremely uncomfortable, which made me chuckle to myself. This was so amusing, I was tempted to drag him to some S&M club just to see his reactions there. However, finding Melissa came first.
“I didn’t know you were…,” Ben started awkwardly, which only made me laugh. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it…”
I just smirked at his reaction as I looked around, immediately spotting the bar. I gestured for Ben to follow as I started for the bar, and the woman who was standing behind it. She was lean and athletic, with short blonde hair and a half dozen rings through one ear.
“Hijack,” I greeted the former villain, who’d recently quit the business after an especially close call with the law.
Hijack gave me a momentarily worried look at being caught, until I pulled my hat off and gave her a good look at me. Then her eyes suddenly widened and a grin formed on her face.
“Imp,” she said, quickly glancing around to see if anyone else was listening in. “I never expected to see you in a place like this… I didn’t you know you were part of the sisterhood…”
She gave me an appraising look, as if trying to decide how attractive I was. I found that amusing since I was still wearing the far too large coat, which hid my figure anyway.
“I’m not,” I told her with a grin. “I came because I needed to talk to you about something.” She gave me a curious look so I told her, “One of your former employers. Paradigm.”
Hijack quickly glanced around again, then scowled. “One minute,” she told me, then rushed over to pour some drinks for a few people before coming back. “What about Paradigm?”
“My associate and I need to find her,” I said, giving a nod towards Ben, who was trying to avoid notice as much as possible. “Janine said you might be able to help us.”
Hijack shook her head. “Sorry, but I’m not gonna snitch on anyone…”
I just stared at Hijack for a moment, deciding that I could trust her with this bit of information. I had to. “She took a kid. A teenage girl.”
“Why would you care about some kid?” Hijack asked, giving me a suspicious look.
“She’s my protégé,” I stated, which made Ben jump a little. “I was starting to train her, but long story short, Paradigm kidnapped her and vanished. I need to find Paradigm so I can get the kid back.”
“We don’t know what Paradigm might be doing to her,” Ben exclaimed, nearly pleading.
Hijack nodded at that, then let out a sigh. “Well, I seriously doubt Paradigm would hurt her… Paradigm would never hurt a kid. She was really interested in brainwashing techniques and how to change people’s views, so she might try something like that on the kid, you know, get the whole Stockholm syndrome thing going on…but she wouldn’t hurt her.”
“So, Mel…the girl is relatively safe?” I asked Hijack.
The bartender nodded again. “Oh yeah. Paradigm probably has the kid in a nice room, giving her good food, and acting like her best friend so she can win the kid over. I’ve seen her win people over like that before. If that doesn’t work, then she might move onto drugs and hypnosis, but she always says to try the soft approach first.”
“That’s good news at least,” I said with a sigh. I looked to Ben and said, “It looks like she’s not in immediate danger, which gives us enough time to find her…”
“But we still aren’t any closer to finding out where,” Ben pointed out grimly.
”Wisconsin,” Hijack abruptly said, getting Ben and I both to immediately look at her again. She looked just a little self-conscious as she admitted, “I don’t know exactly where in Wisconsin…other than that her base is somewhere rural.” She shrugged and admitted, “When I was there, I heard some of her people talking.”
“But you can’t narrow it down any more than that?” I asked, feeling excited and disappointed at the same time.
“Sorry,” Hijack told me with a shrug.
I nodded at that, then slipped her a couple hundreds. “At least now we have a place to start.”
Ben and I left the club after that, and as soon as we were outside, I pulled out my phone and gave Bob a call. The call only lasted a minute, with me telling him what we’d learned while he promised to keep looking. Once I hung up, I turned back to Ben.
“Now that Bob has a place to start looking,” I told Ben, “he’ll be able to narrow things down. In fact, he promised that he’d have the location for us in just a couple days.”
“A couple days?” Ben spat out impatiently, the worry clear in his voice. “What if he can’t find it?”
“This is Bob,” I stated, sounding more confident in him than I actually felt. “If he promises that he can dig up some information, he can.”
“And what am I supposed to do until then?” Ben demanded.
“WE need to get to Wisconsin,” I told him firmly. “That way we’ll be in the neighborhood and ready to act as soon as we can narrow things down.”
Ben nodded agreement. “Good idea.” He seemed in a little better mood now that he’d been assured that Paradigm wouldn’t hurt Melissa, and that we at least had a direction to start looking. “It looks like we’ll need plane tickets.”
“Excuse me,” I said, giving him a flat look. “There’s a teeny tiny little problem with my traveling by plane…” I took off my hat and pointed at my horns. “Two of them.”
Of course, I had a magic amulet that would hide my unusual features and let me look like a normal person, but that would mean giving up my Candice Kade identity. I’d already given away too many of my secrets and would probably end up giving away more. However, that small piece of my life was the one thing I wouldn’t give up unless I had absolutely no other choice.
“We have a couple days before we get the information we need to act,” I pointed out. “And there are other ways to travel besides aircraft.”
For a moment, Ben looked like he wanted to argue, then to my surprise, he nodded. He actually had a faint look of relief as he said, “Getting there as soon as possible doesn’t do much good if we have to spend several days waiting. I suppose we can drive…”
“Yay,” I said, shuddering at the idea of spending that much time trapped inside a car. Still, I didn’t want Ben to see how uncomfortable that made me, so it was with a false sense of enthusiasm that I exclaimed, “Road trip!”