New Jersey, Monday morning, Nov 12th 2007
New Jersey. The Garden State. Home of Tony Soprano, the Jersey Shore, the Toxic Avenger, and Fiddleback. In other words, the place was a complete dump. Then again, the Sopranos are pretty cool, so Jersey couldn’t be all bad.
Fiddleback’s lair didn’t look like much from the outside. It looked like a normal commercial building, though without any real windows. There was a sign out front that said, ‘RECLUSE VIOLIN MANUFACTURING’.
“At least it’s not a warehouse,” I commented. Some villains could be so unimaginative when it came to lairs. Any villain with real taste knows to use a nice comfy condo.
I carefully made my way around the building, keeping my distance as I did so and avoiding the cameras. The Shielders were nearby, along with Ryan, all waiting on my signal. They couldn’t do their jobs and play hero until I’d done mine.
“Just like any other heist,” I mused to myself. “Only with less time for planning.”
I easily slipped past the external security, avoiding the cameras, the pressure plates, and even the motion detectors. Before long, I’d reached the wall, where I immediately proceeded to climb. There was much less security on the roof than there had been around the building, but that wasn’t surprising. There were some anti-aircraft weapons set up there, but these were intended to deal with threats from the air, not from someone climbing up over the side.
“And here we are,” I said, finding the maintenance hatch. This was how technicians got up onto the roof in order to work on the anti-aircraft weapons. Of course, it was locked, but that had never stopped me before. Once I had the hatch open, I activated my radio and contacted Chickenhawk. “I’m in place and about to enter.”
“Be careful,” Chickenhawk said.
That was immediately followed by Fuzzy Wuzzy. “You’d better not screw this up.”
“Bite me, Fuzzy Wuzzy,” I responded cheerfully. “On second thought, don’t. I might get rabies.”
With that, I paused for a moment to consider how strange it was for me to be working with the Shielders. Sure, I’d worked alongside them once before when we were fighting Mauler and CHIP, but that had been more of a brief truce while we dealt with a common enemy. At least this wasn’t quite as weird as working with Chickenhawk had been that first time.
I smiled faintly as I remembered our search for Melissa, and what it had been like to deal with him in such a new and different way. We’d been allies instead of enemies, for the first time ever. That very alliance had eventually led to our current relationship.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that my current plan was quite similar to the one Chickenhawk and I had used to rescue Melissa from Pair of Dimes. Back then, I snuck into Paradigm’s headquarters to find the prisoner while Chickenhawk had knocked on the front door, providing a nice distraction. We were doing the same thing now, only with more prisoners and more people knocking on the door.
“That should make this interesting,” I announced with a chuckle.
Once I was inside the building, I made my way to where I suspected the kids were being held. It was one of the few places on the blueprints that would have been perfect for some kind of dungeon. I just had to be careful not to be seen by any of the people who wandered down the hallway. Fortunately for me, with my amazing brilliance, unmatched talent, and chameleon field, I was able to do that with no problem.
When I reached the suspected dungeon, I let out a quiet stream of profanity. Instead of a dungeon, I’d found a storage room full of folded sheets and spare uniforms, not to mention some large bins full of dirty clothes. This wasn’t a dungeon, it was the laundry room.
“Not the first time blueprints didn’t cover everything,” I muttered in annoyance. “And it won’t be the last.”
Fortunately, I’d been prepared for this eventuality and had mentally noted the other places where the kids were likely to be held. With that in mind, I simply went to the next closest one on my list, where I found a locked door with two guards positioned beside it.
“Bingo,” I muttered with a grin. I don’t think that Fiddleback would have Lenny and Squiggy guarding a storage closet, which meant that this had to be the right place.
I reached to my belt and pulled out a small canister that looked like it should hold some pepper spray. And while that could have been a lot of fun, this would be a little more effective.
“No problemo,” I whispered.
With that, I climbed up the wall and onto the ceiling, using my chameleon field to stay invisible and unseen. I had to move slowly so that they didn’t see the blurred edges of my field, but I’d had a lot of practice doing that. I made my way to the space right above the guards, without them having any idea I was there. Then it was a simple matter of spraying each of them with that knockout spray. Both collapsed to the ground, no longer a problem.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” I quietly sang out as I unlocked the door. “Imp’s gonna buy you a mocking bird.”
The door slid open in Star Trek fashion, revealing that I was definitely in the right place. There were a dozen beds in the room, and nearly each one had a teenager on it. Most of the kids were sitting on the beds, with a couple laying down and obviously trying to nap. However, I also noticed that each kid had a shackle around one of their ankles, with the other end of a chain connected to the beds themselves
My eyes narrowed as I took in this sight, and a surge of anger welled up inside me. These kids were all about the same age as my freshman and sophomore students. They were about the same age as Melissa.
All the kids turned to stare at me, but one girl screamed and yelled out, “IT’S A DEMON!”
“I am not a demon,” I said, trying to hide the annoyance. “Just your friendly neighborhood Spider Imp.”
“What?” the nearest boy asked with a worried look.
“Come with me if you want to live,” I said in my best Schwarzenegger voice. I’ve always wanted to say that. However, when that didn’t work, I decided to try Luke Skywalker instead. “My name is the Imp and I’m here to rescue you.”
“A demon…,” the one girl cried out again, trying to get as far away from me as she could, though the furthest she could go was to the bed beside her.
However, one of the boys stared at me and exclaimed, “I think she’s a mutant…like Jerome.”
That caught my attention because Jerome Hubbard was the kid that Carson had told me about, the one who was supposed to attend Whateley next semester. However, when I looked around, none of these kids matched his description. In fact, there were fewer kids here than there were supposed to be. I only counted ten, not the seventeen who’d been taken.
“Where are the other kids?” I asked, walking up to the first kid and grabbing the chain around his ankle. “I was told that there were seventeen of you…”
“They…got taken away,” the kid in front of me blurted out, staring at me with a fearful expression. “On a helicopter.”
I formed a PK claw and sliced through the chain, freeing the boy from his bed. Then I walked over to the next kid and did the same thing. At this point, the kids realized that I wasn’t going to hurt them and seemed to relax a little. At least, most of them did. The one girl was making the sign of the cross.
“They did that before we got here,” one girl offered with a worried expression. “They took my best friend, Sherry…”
I scowled at that, then turned on my radio. “Impress to Chickenhawk, come in Chickenhawk. Do you hear me, over?”
“You don’t need to do that,” Chickenhawk said over the radio.
“Understood,” I responded. “Over.”
“You don’t need to say over,” Chickenhawk said with a note of exasperation.
I smiled faintly at that, and probably would have continued to mess with him, but I didn’t have time for that. “I found the kids, but seven of them are missing. Apparently, Fiddleback sent them off by chopper before they even arrived here. Give me five minutes to move these kids, then you guys can come and knock on the door.”
“Are you rescuing us?” one boy asked in a quiet voice.
“More or less,” I answered with a grin. “A group of heroes is about to come charging in to the rescue, and I’ve been hired to steal you from Fiddleback and keep you safe.” I gestured to the first two boys that I’d freed and said, “You two, grabby Lenny and Squiggy there and drag them inside.”
It only took me a minute to get all the kids free of their chains, even the girl who thought I was a demon. I had a feeling that she could be a real problem, but fortunately, one of her friends was trying to keep her calm and under control. That was good because I didn’t have time for any distractions.
As soon as the kids were free, I had them step out of the room, then I messed with the lock a bit and closed the door. Now, when Fiddleback or his people came to check on the kids, they’d find the door locked shut. Hopefully, they’d assume the kids had locked themselves inside or something, and would waste a lot of time trying to get through the door.
“Are you a hero?” one girl tentatively asked.
I snorted at that. “Nope. I’m an art teacher.” That had all the kids staring at me.
Instead of explaining that, I told them, “I can’t get you out the way I came in, and soon, it’s going to be very dangerous outside. So for now, we’re going to find a safe place to hunker down while the heroes deal with Fiddleback and his people.”
With that, I began leading the kids to the area that I’d picked out on the map. When I ran into someone in the hallway, I leapt at him, hit him with a face full of knockout spray, then tossed him into a random cleaning closet. After this, we made our way to the basement complex, which was filled with things like the furnace, plumbing, and other necessities that were kept out of sight.
Since the kids were all scared and confused, I decided to lay things out straight for them. “When the Shielders make their move, Fiddleback or his people might try to grab you guys to use as hostages. However, they’re going to look at that room where you used to be, rather than where you are now. And if they happen to come down here, well, there are several side paths we can take. We can keep moving, so they won’t be sure where we are. Worst case scenario, we play this like an episode of Scooby Doo, where we run back and forth, from room to room, while they chase us, and some groovy chase music plays in the background.”
“What?” one of the kids asked, giving me a blank look.
I rolled my eyes. “Education these days. You don’t even know the classics.” Then I sadly shook my head at that, silently promising myself that I was going to make sure Melissa received a proper education, even if it meant cartoon marathons every Saturday till the end of the year. “Fiddleback and his people are about to be too busy to go running around this place, looking for you guys. So, sit tight but keep a watch on the doors, just in case.”
“Just a heads up,” Chickenhawk’s voice said over my radio. “We’re ringing the doorbell.”
“Yay,” I responded over the radio. “I love ding-dong ditch.” Then with an evil grin and a wide swish of my tail, I added, “Over.”
Now, I just had to sit back and wait for Chickenhawk and the Shielders to finish with their part. My instinct was to go harass Fiddleback, or maybe shut off the power and lights to his headquarters, then make a bunch of spooky ghost noises. However, my job was to keep the kids safe, which meant that I had to remain where I was. Sometimes, I really hated being responsible. It was so BORING.
“Have you guys ever heard about a superhero called Optiman?” I asked with a grin. If nothing else, I could at least distract these kids from their fear
After this, I began tell the story, which was quite humorous, partly due to my fantastic storytelling abilities, and partly because the hero in question had been a real idiot. It didn’t take long before I had my audience listening in rapt attention, even the girl who thought I was a demon.
It was nearly half an hour after this that Chickenhawk’s voice came out over the radio again. “We’ve captured Fiddleback, but some of his people are still loose. Stay where you are until we come to you.”
“Gotcha,” I responded cheerfully. “Over.”
“You hear that?” I said to the kids. “It’s pretty much over. It looks like you’ll all be back home in time for lunch.”
A short time later, Chickenhawk and Brandywine arrived, announcing that they’d cleared a path for the kids to leave. I let out a sigh of relief because my job was done.
“Thank you, Miss Imp,” one girl exclaimed, throwing her arms around me in a hug before rushing off with the rest of her friends.
Chickenhawk just watched this with a smirk. “What?” I demanded a little self-consciously.
“You seem to have a way with teenage girls,” he said in amusement.
“Well, I used to be one myself,” I responded wryly.
As we left the building, I overheard Brandywine grudgingly admitting to Chickenhawk, “All right, she came through.” However, she didn’t say a word to me, which was fine.
Outside the building, I saw nearly two dozen men in uniforms, sprawled out on the ground with their hands zip-tied behind them. Off to the side, there was a pile of high tech weapons and power armor, which looked to be in pretty rough shape.
Fuzzy Wuzzy stood next to the prisoners, his furry arms crossed as he tried to look tough and intimidating. It seemed to be working because nobody was giving him any trouble.
Then I saw Fiddleback, who looked just like he did in his pictures. He was wearing a suit of lightweight armor, which was all green and gray, including the mask that covered his entire head. He had a green cape draped around behind him as well, and in the middle of the cape, there was a black shape like a fiddle.
I was a little confused by Fiddleback’s costume since his name was a reference to the brown recluse spider, which was often called a fiddleback spider because it had a marking on the back that resembled a violin. Because of that, I would have expected him to have a brown costume with an obvious spider theme. The spider theme was there, in the green and black patterns, which resembled eight green spider legs wrapping around his torso, but it was fairly subtle.
Even though Fiddleback was supposed to be pretty dangerous, he was tied up with ordinary looking rope. Of course, Miss Magic was standing a short distance away, keeping an eye on him, so I suspected that these ropes were anything but ordinary. The fact that he just stood there motionless, not even trying to struggle against the ropes, only served to support this.
Fuzzy Wuzzy glared at me and announced, “We should be cuffing her along with the rest of this scum.”
“You’re welcome to try,” I responded cheerfully.
“Don’t tempt me,” Brandywine commented with a scowl.
Tempting her actually sounded like a whole lot of fun, and I could imagine trying to sit on her shoulder and giving her some bad advice. That could actually be a blast. Unfortunately, the police were just arriving en masse, and I had absolutely no desire to deal with them…or risk getting shot on sight. So, I backed off, slipped out of sight, and waited.
This whole mission had actually been pretty quick and easy. Too quick and easy. Sure, we’d gotten the kids out safely, captured Fiddleback, and shut down his operation. However, in spite of all that, I still felt like we’d failed. Seventeen kids had been taken, and only ten of them had been rescued. Seven kids were still missing.
Shielders’ Headquarters NJ, Monday late afternoon, Nov 12th 2007
I was in the Shielders’ war room, leaning back in my chair and watching the heroes discuss the situation with Fiddleback and his hostages. I probably shouldn’t have been there for that part. In fact, I probably shouldn’t have been there at all. Technically, my job was done. I’d done what I’d been brought in to do, which was bypass Fiddleback’s security and get his hostages out. It wasn’t my fault that not all the hostages had been there.
Carson wasn’t going to be happy about this. Her whole rationalization for Whateley getting involved, even indirectly via my assistance, was that Fiddleback had taken a future student of ours. Unfortunately, Jerome Hubbard hadn’t been with those hostages. He was still out there somewhere, along with six other kids. That did not sit right with me. Not at all.
“What the hell is she still doing here?” Fuzzy Wuzzy demanded, gesturing at me.
I had been sitting back against the wall, nowhere near the table and their conversation. It seemed that they’d forgotten all about me, at least until now.
“She’s done her part,” Brandywine agreed, giving me a flat look. “We don’t need you here anymore.”
“This isn’t over yet,” I said, ignoring the fact that Brandywine was simply saying what I myself had been thinking. “I wasn’t hired JUST to break into Fiddlesticks’ house. I was hired to help get those kids back, and I won’t get paid until they are. Besides, one of those kids is a mutant, and my other employer was very specific about wanting to get him back home.”
“Other employer?” Brandywine asked suspiciously.
“Her…probation officer,” Chickenhawk quickly cut in. “She’s a former hero with her own interest in this case, which is why she allowed the Imp to get involved.”
Miss Magic smirked faintly. “So, you’re being paid by two different people to perform the same job. That sounds rather questionable…”
“And two heroes at that,” the Emerald Avenger said, looking amused too.
I just shrugged. “Hey, even us fabulous Imps have to pay bills and put food on the table.” Then I grinned before exclaiming, “Mmmmm… Lobster, caviar, and REALLY good pizza…”
“The bitch is going to stab us in the back and screw us over,” Fuzzy Wuzzy warned, fixing me with a hate filled gaze. “She’s probably working with Fiddleback.”
“Are you sure you aren’t a member of the IRS?” I asked him curiously.
Fuzzy Wuzzy gave me a look of confusion, which I took to mean that he’d never heard of the Imp Revenge Squad. At least that was good news. I didn’t want to have to worry about those idiots showing up again while I was busy with this.
I glanced to the clock on the wall and scowled. I’d been so busy with this that I’d missed every one of my classes today, and at the rate this was going, I’d probably miss them tomorrow too. I was particularly annoyed at that, because I liked teaching those classes. Whoever was lucky enough to sub for me, was going to owe me big for that privilege.
“Look,” the Emerald Avenger said, turning back to the topic at hand and pointedly ignoring me. “Fiddleback isn’t talking yet, but a couple of his people are…”
Miss Magic nodded at that. “Apparently, we’re dealing with two groups…besides Fiddleback and his people. According to one of the soldiers, six of the kids were shipped off to some mad scientist who wants guinea pigs for some super soldier process.”
“Why are scientists always mad?” I asked in my best innocent tone. “Can’t they just be happy…?”
Brandywine glared at me while Chickenhawk held back a laugh…barely. “Idiot,” Brandywine muttered in annoyance.
I grinned at that setup. “Wait, you’re a gadgeteer…and you’re mad…” I made a mock gasp of horror, “She’s a mad scientist... Lock up your guinea pigs…”
Brandywine glared at me again, but Miss Magic quickly continued with what she’d been saying. “As Imp said, the last student is a mutant.”
“Jerome Hubbard,” I said, becoming a little more serious. “He’s a healer, which means that there are probably a lot of people who’d love to get their hands on him.”
Several of the Shielders gave me a look of surprise, probably because they’d known that he was a mutant, but not what his powers were. Unlike them, I had access to the application paperwork he’d submitted to Whateley, so I knew a few things about him that they didn’t.
Miss Magic nodded. “Yes. And according to the man I questioned, Fiddleback had a deal to sell Jerome before they’d ever captured him. It seems that Jerome was the actual target of the kidnapping, and Fiddleback simply took the other kids as a…bonus.” She had a look of disgust and anger on her face, and I could agree completely. There were some lines that should never be crossed, and selling kids was pretty high on that list.
“So, who has Jerome?” I asked in a cold tone, fixing Miss Magic with my gaze. “Who did Fiddlesticks sell him to?”
“Yes, I’d like to know that too,” Chickenhawk said with a growl while the others nodded their agreement.
The sequined hero hesitated, then let out a sigh, looking almost defeated. “I don’t know. The ones I questioned didn’t know either. All they knew was that it was a small group of men who’d bought weapons from Fiddleback before. They had no costumes or uniforms, used no names, and dealt strictly in cash.”
“So, we’ll just have to question Fiddleback directly,” Fuzzy Wuzzy exclaimed, punching one hand into an open palm in a threatening matter. For once, I actually agreed with the hairball.
“Won’t do much good,” Brandywine said with a bitter look. “He’s in police custody and has already lawyered up. Our only chance is if they convince him to cut a deal.”
“There is one clue,” Miss Magic said with a grim expression. “One thing they remembered that might be useful.” Everyone was staring at her now. “Apparently, whenever these men showed up, they all wore pins of a blue triangle.”
“A blue triangle?” the Emerald Avenger asked with a thoughtful look. “It doesn’t sound familiar.”
“No,” Brandywine added a moment later. “It doesn’t.”
Chickenhawk turned to me. “Do you know anyone who uses a blue triangle?”
I considered that for a moment before shaking my head. “Nope.” Then I hesitated for a couple seconds before admitting, “But I know someone who might.”
“Can you call this person?” Chickenhawk asked.
I shook my head. “Nope. This is the kind of conversation you need to have face to face.” I slowly stood up and stretched. “I’ll guess I’ll just head on over to Atlantic City and have a talk with him.”
“I’ll go with you,” Chickenhawk said.
“No,” Brandywine interrupted. “I’ll go with her.” She fixed me with a suspicious look. “I don’t trust her, especially since you two have a history. She might take the opportunity to stick a knife in your back when you aren’t looking.”
Chickenhawk gave her a wry look while it was all I could do to keep from laughing. “This isn’t the kind of place a hero should be going…”
“Too bad,” Brandywine told me with a stubborn expression. “Someone has to keep an eye on you.”
“Oh, you like watching me?” I asked, giving her a sexy pose. “I didn’t know you swung that way…” The look on her face made me chuckle.
“Why do I not see this working out well?” Chickenhawk muttered.
I started to walk towards the door while Brandywine followed behind. However, Chickenhawk stopped his sister for a few words. I was halfway across the room, but I could hear most of what he said.
“Imp is a lot smarter and more capable than she usually lets on,” Chickenhawk told his sister. “Don’t underestimate her.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Brandywine responded, sounding skeptical.
“And in spite of how she acts, she is a professional,” Chickenhawk added. “Once she makes a deal, she sticks to it, unless you break your end first. You might not like her, but you can trust her to do what she’s been hired for.”
Brandywine caught up to me, then warned, “I saw the way you were looking at Superhawk. If you have any plans of trying to seduce him and wrap him around your fingers for whatever reason, forget it. He’s not stupid enough to fall for it.”
“Really?” I asked with a grin and a snicker, before teasing her, “Do you mean I should try seducing you instead?” She glared at me.
All I could do was shake my head and grin. This was the first time that anyone had ever accused me of being some sort of femme-fatale seductress. I liked it.
“Come my faithful sidekick,” I exclaimed dramatically. “To the Impmobile...”
Atlantic City NJ, Monday evening, Nov 12th 2007
“Are we there yet?” I asked enthusiastically. The question was a classic, even a tradition for car trips.
“How the hell should I know?” Brandywine snapped in annoyance. “You’re the one driving.”
I was sitting behind the wheel of my rental car, rented under a false identity of course. For some reason, most places weren’t thrilled about renting cars to known supervillains and thieves.
Brandywine and I had been driving for about an hour, crossing half of Jersey in order to get to Atlantic City. Of course, the Shielders actually had better transportation options, ones that would have gotten us to our destination by now if Brandywine hadn’t been so stingy. Of course, she was keeping the chopper back at the headquarters along with the rest of her team in case some kind of emergency popped up. Apparently, Brandy Swine didn’t trust me or my contact enough to consider this a legitimate use for the thing.
In spite of my cheerful grin, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about spending so much time trapped in a car, especially not with a hero who wanted to haul me in by my tail. I kept expecting her to try jumping me at any minute, even though I was the one driving. Still, old habits were hard to break, especially when that kind of paranoia was what had helped to keep me alive for so long.
“Do you even have a driver’s license?” Brandywine demanded.
“Of course,” I responded with a grin. “I got it out of a Cracker Jack box.”
The heroine crossed her arms and grumbled to herself, obviously no happier about this situation than I was. Her discomfort actually improved my own mood a bit. Maybe the old saying was true. Misery did love company.
A couple minutes later, my passenger demanded, “Are we there yet?” She was obviously attempting to mess with me, though the question only made me grin.
“Yep,” I answered cheerfully.
Brandywine gave me a look of surprise. “Really?”
“Nope,” I told her with a chuckle. “I was just pulling your tail.” She glared at me. A minute later, I announced, “Now we’re here…”
I pulled the car into the parking lot of a nightclub called the Silver Lining. It was a nice place, which I knew since I’d been here a couple times before on business, and even once for pleasure. This was a great place to come for a drink or two when I happened to be in town. After all, it was the local equivalent to the Black Mask, though admittedly, a bit more open to the public than my favorite watering hole back home.
“Okay,” I told Brandywine, giving her my ‘serious’ face so that she’d know this was important. “Heroes aren’t exactly welcome here, so you should probably cover up your costume. Of course, they aren’t exactly banned either, and as long as you don’t go starting any trouble, we should be fine. Still, it’s a good idea not to go looking for any in the first place.”
I climbed out of the car and put on a long overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat to help hide my features. It would have been a lot more effective if I’d simply put on my magic amulet and went in as Candice Kade, but I wasn’t about to risk that identity here…and especially not in front of a hero like my companion. Fortunately, Brandywine took my hint and put a long coat of her own, which would help hide her costume.
At the front door, there was a well-dressed bouncer who looked us both over before asking, “Shouldn’t you be using the back door?”
“Nope,” I answered evenly. “I’m not some employee or delivery girl who needs to go around to the back.”
The bouncer shrugged but let us in. The inside of the Silver Lining was really nice and classy, in an old school Vegas kind of way. I could easily imagine the Rat Pack sitting back and holding court in a corner booth.
Everywhere I looked, people were drinking, dancing, or sitting at tables for a private card game. I even recognized one or two of them, like the Witch Queen, who was wearing a nice dress.
There was also a huge bruiser, over seven feet tall and bulging with muscle, who was wearing an expensive suit that had to have been tailor made. I immediately recognized Adamant, who had obviously made his way out of Boston successfully.
This was the public face of the Silver Lining, the area where civilians and visitors were encouraged to come and have a good time. Villains and other people in related professions were dressed in civilian attire and mingling among them.
Of course, there was another part of the Silver Lining, the ‘VIP’ area, which was accessible through the ‘back door’. That was for villains who wanted to show up in costume or conduct business in a neutral location. However, that wasn’t my destination, and I certainly didn’t want to bring Brandywine back there. No, I was here for something else.
“Pretty busy for a Monday night,” I commented.
“I’ve heard of this place before,” Brandywine said as she glanced around. “It’s supposed to be pretty popular.” Then she gave me a curious look. “Why are we here? I don’t think you drove us here just for some drinks.”
“They have great drinks,” I protested. “I mean, they make a great old-fashioned here…” Then I looked around again before adding, “But you are right. That isn’t why we’re here.”
With that, I led Brandywine towards the back, out of the public area. There was a set of wide wooden doors, which were currently closed, along with two people guarding them. One was the obvious guard, a big guy who looked like he was probably a brick. However, sitting off to the side was a short and slender guy, who looked like he might be a janitor. I was experienced enough to know not to be fooled by appearances. The little guy probably had some kind of nasty power that made him the real threat. The big guy was for intimidation and keeping people from causing problems while the little guy was probably for actually dealing with those problems.
“Hello,” I said with a friendly grin, careful not to make any threatening moves. “I’m here to talk with your boss. He’s expecting me.”
“The name on your reservation?” the little guy asked in a polite tone.
“Imp,” I answered in my best Sean Connery accent. “Jane Imp.”
The little guy glanced to Brandywine then touched the radio bud in his ear. He muttered something under his breath, though I couldn’t quite make it out. A few seconds later, he nodded. “You can go on in.”
Once the big guy opened the door, Brandywine and I went in. I immediately took off my hat since I had no reason to wear it in here, and looked around.
The first thing that I noticed was that the large room was split into two. On one side, there was a room that looked like a fairly ordinary office, with bookshelves, a desk, and so on. But on the other side, there were some couches, a table, and even wall covered with TV screens, each showing various news channels or images from the building security cameras. It was a cross between a living room, a private room in the club, and a security office. There was also partitioned wall that could come down and separate the two sections, depending on how they wanted to greet visitors.
There were three people sitting down on the casual side of the room, a man and two women. The man was middle-aged, with dark hair that was liberally sprinkled with gray, and he was wearing a nice suit. This was the owner of the Silver Lining, a former supervillain and mercenary who’d retired from active duty in order to build this club.
Sitting beside him was a beautiful blonde woman in a white dress. She was probably in her forties, but she wore it well and still looked quite attractive. And then, there was a younger woman of about nineteen or twenty, who was dressed in slacks and a jacket. Her dark hair covered half her face in a peekaboo fashion, so that only one green eye seemed to be staring at me.
“Focus,” I said in greeting.
“Imp,” he responded, holding out his hand for me to shake. “I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“I’ve been busy,” I told him.
Focus just chuckled faintly at that. “So I’ve heard. How are you enjoying the new career?”
I was a little surprised that he’d heard about that, but not too much. It wasn’t like I’d been keeping it a huge secret, and gossip did tend to spread through the community.
“It’s…different,” I answered honestly. “But I’m enjoying it.”
Focus nodded at that, then admitted, “My latest protégé attends the school and mentioned you were there.”
“Oh?” I responded curiously. “What’s his name?” He probably wouldn’t answer that with Brandywine there, but I was curious.
To my surprise, Focus answered, “Her name is Lodestone.”
“I’ve met her,” I told him with a grin. “In fact, my own protégé is her roommate…”
“It is a small world,” Focus said with a knowing smile that made me wonder if he’d already known that.
I turned my attention to the blonde woman. “Hey, Diamond. Nice to see you again.”
White Diamond smiled and gave me a nod of acknowledgement but didn’t say anything. Of course, since she was mute, I would have been surprised if she had said something. Instead, she signed a greeting to me.
When I glanced to the other woman, Focus said, “This is my associate, Michelle.”
I had a feeling that he was going to say something else, perhaps to introduce her by her professional name, whatever that was, but held back because of my companion. That was probably smart since it never paid to give away too much information, especially to someone you didn’t know.
With that, I gestured to Brandywine and started, “And this is…”
“Brandywine,” Focus finished for me. “I like to keep appraised of who the local heroes are.” He gave me a curious look. “I am curious though, about why you’re here with someone like her.”
“I’m running a side-job,” I explained. “And it just happens to coincide with what the heroes are doing, so we’re helping each other out a little…for fun and profit.”
“Profit is good,” Michelle commented with a faint smile.
“If you know who I am,” Brandywine started, giving Focus a suspicious look, “then why…”
“You’re perfectly welcome here,” Focus assured her. “Just as long as you don’t cause any trouble. I run a peaceful club and fights are bad for business.”
“Focus is a legitimate businessman,” I explained to Brandywine, though the ‘legitimate’ part could be considered a bit of a stretch.
Focus owned and ran the Silver Lining, which really was a legitimate club, even if many of his customers were criminals. However, there was another side of his business, one that was a little more relevant to why I’d come here. In addition to owning the Silver Lightning, Focus was also a professional middleman. People in the business would come to him with a job that they wanted to pull, and he’d find the right people to help pull it, even providing the introductions…all for a small fee.
“As a businessman,” I said, meeting Focus’ eyes, “I figured that you’d be aware of who all the local players were, and would probably know a bit about the ones we’re looking for.”
His expression closed off into a perfect poker face. Focus was a businessman and a professional, and I’d just turned the conversation to business.
“You know that I cannot discuss any of my clients or our business dealings,” Focus said in an even tone.
“Of course,” I responded with a dismissive wave. “You’re a professional and I’d expect no less.”
Brandywine was tensed up beside me, and I could tell that she was bursting with curiosity and wanted to demand some answers. However, to her credit, she kept her mouth shut and let me do my thing.
“Now, you have me curious as to your purpose,” Focus admitted, waiting for me to explain.
“I’m looking for a group of people,” I explained. “I don’t know anything about them, other than that they’ve been doing a lot of business with Fiddleback, and that they wear pins with a blue triangle symbol.”
White Diamond signed something to Focus, who merely nodded and signed back. He glanced to Brandywine and then me. “What is your interest in this group?”
“They have something that I’ve been paid to acquire,” I explained in a cheerful tone. “So, I plan on stealing it from them.”
“SomeTHING?” Focus asked me. “Or someone?”
“Does it make a difference?” Brandywine asked.
Focus looked at her for a moment before answering, “Yes, it does.”
“Someone,” I stated flatly.
“They’re called the Triangle,” Michelle offered. I gave her a curious look. She shrugged. “I know. Real impressive name.” The sarcasm was strong with this one. I liked it.
“I’ve never had any contact with the Triangle,” Force told me with a scowl, “but several of my associates have told me about them.” He glanced to Michelle.
“I ran into them a couple weeks ago,” she told me. “It actually made me thankful for all that crap Sensei Ito put me through.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. So, Michelle was a former Whateley student. I’d been pretty sure she was in the business, and this nearly confirmed it.
“From what I understand,” Focus explained, “the Triangle is a splinter group from Humanity First.”
Brandywine blurted out, “They’re H One?”
This was not good news. Humanity First was the modern-day Klan, a national organization dedicated to their shared hatred of mutants. It was a good thing that they weren’t really all that organized or unified, or mutants in general would have been in serious trouble. As it was, any mutant who ended up in their hands, could probably expecting a lynching, bonfire, or if they were lucky…a quick bullet to the head.
Focus scowled, and this was no longer a purely professional expression. “They have a different philosophy from their parent organization, hence the split. According to their official statements, they believe that humans and mutants can coexist peacefully, and that mutant powers can greatly benefit the human race.”
“That’s…different,” Brandywine said cautiously.
“That smells like the back end of Pepe Le Pew,” I responded, feeling more than a little skeptical.
“On the surface, they appear to be benevolent,” Focus explained. “And they’ve even swayed a few mutants to their cause. However, I’ve also heard reports of them coercing mutants into helping them.”
“Like Jerome,” I mused, remembering how he’d been specifically targeted for kidnapping. “So, their real goal is to either have mutants as second-class citizens…or straight out slaves.”
“That sounds more like H One,” Brandywine said with a note of anger. For once, we actually agreed on something.
“They only have one or two hundred members at most,” Focus continued, “but they’ve been growing. And just as importantly, they’ve been buying up all the exotic weapons they can. The Triangle doesn’t have any problem doing business with mutants, and several devisors seem to have bought into their claims.”
“And now they have a healer,” I mused. “Weapons, a growing army, and now at least one healer. They’re prepping for war.”
“SHIT!” Brandywine blurted out.
Focus nodded agreement. “Some of my customers are…concerned about where this may go. Several have even suggested that they’d accept contracts against the Triangle…at a large discount.”
“Wow, that is some serious charity work,” I said. Supervillains tended to be a pretty mercenary bunch, so giving a discount on their services was a big statement. “They should get some serious tax breaks from Uncle Sam.”
“How come I’ve never heard of the Triangle before?” Brandywine asked with a deep scowl.
“The Shielders aren’t exactly proactive,” I pointed out wryly. Most heroes weren’t, even if they liked to think they were. The ones who were tended to be the vigilantes that ignored things like evidence and due process, all in the name of ‘justice’, however they defined it. “You guys would probably never even hear of the Triangle until they pulled something obvious on your turf.”
Brandywine glared at me, but she couldn’t argue with the truth. So, she made a show of ignoring me and asking Focus, “So, where are they headquartered?”
“I’m afraid that I have no idea,” Focus admitted. “I’ve heard that they have several training camps, but I don’t know where. However, there is someone who would know…”
“The Pooka,” Michelle said. “He’s been working with the Triangle, and I had a run in with him a couple weeks during a job. That’s how I found out about them.”
“I’m afraid that the Pooka is one of my clients,” Focus explained, “so I am unable to tell you where to find him.”
Michelle smirked at that. “Fortunately, I am under no such constraints and will be happy to provide that information.”
“And the price for this information?” I asked.
“Just promise that you’ll kick his ass, if you get a chance,” Michelle said with a fierce look. “He cost me a nice paycheck.”
“That I can promise,” Brandywine said with a fierce expression. “I’ve dealt with him before and look forward to getting another chance.”
“You’re welcome to him,” I said. “My only interest is in the kid. I was hired to recover him, not to take down the Triangle or some old competition.”
I glanced to Focus, thinking about everything that he’d told us about the Triangle. He could have asked for a favor in exchange for that information, but he hadn’t. The only reasons I could see why was that he either wanted us to go after the Triangle for some reason, maybe because his customers weren’t the only ones worried about them, or he simply wanted to get on the good side of the local heroes. Honestly, knowing Focus, it was probably both.
We talked for only a few more minutes before Brandywine and I had what we needed. After thanking Focus, White Diamond, and Michelle, we left the room and the Silver Lining.
Once we were back in the parking lot, Brandywine grudgingly admitted, “That was a lot more productive than I expected.”
“And what were you expecting?” I asked curiously.
Instead of answering me, Brandywine pulled out her cell phone and made a call. She chatted for just a minute before hanging up with a look of annoyance.
Brandywine didn’t say what the problem was, and I didn’t bother to ask. At least not directly. Instead, I started humming the theme music for Jeopardy until she glared at me.
“The others have a lead on the mad scientist with the kids,” she finally said, giving me a flat look. “They’re all going after him, which leaves you and I to follow this lead on our own.”
“You and I, alone in a car,” I announced with a lot more enthusiasm than I actually felt. “It’ll be just like Thelma and Louise… You know what this means?” I flashed her a broad grin before loudly exclaiming, “ROAD TRIP!”
Philadelphia PA, Monday evening, Nov 12th 2007
Home sweet home, or more accurately, hotel smelly hotel. It wasn’t a bad hotel, as far as such places go, but it certainly wasn’t the Imp Lair.
It had been a long day. Between getting the kids out of Fiddlestick’s headquarters, dodging the cops, putting up with those annoying heroes all day, and finally, spending hours in a car with Brandywine, I was exhausted. Admittedly, Brandywine was pretty tired too, but at least she had the honor of spending the day with the fabulous Imp.
Brandywine and I made it to Philadelphia before we decided that this would be a good spot to stop for the night. And now, we were at the hotel my companion had picked out.
“I’ll go rent us a room,” Brandywine announced, pulling out her official Shielders credit card, and a fake drivers license. I took a glance at it, and it was a pretty good fake.
“I’ll take care of my own sleeping arrangements,” I responded, thinking of a much better hotel just down the street.
“You’re staying with me,” Brandywine insisted, fixing me with a flat look. “I don’t trust you on your own and want to keep an eye on you.”
“Oooh, I’m flattered,” I said with a cheerful grin.
Brandywine glared at me. “I’m watching you… I mean…” I just burst out laughing.
After giving me one more glare, Brandywine went in and got us a room with two beds. Even with my usual disguise of oversized clothes and hat, it would have been hard for me to really interact with the guy at the registration desk without him getting suspicious at the very least. I knew that from personal experience. Lots and lots of experience.
A short time later, we entered our new home for the night. I let out a sigh of relief and casually tossed my coat and hat in the general direction of a chair. They both hit the floor, but that was all right. They’d only be there for one night.
“Do you have to be such a pig?” Brandywine snapped in annoyance. She carefully placed her own coat onto a hanger and put it in the closet.
I rolled my eyes, then went over to the TV and turned it on. After flipping through the channels, I found an old Woody Woodpecker cartoon playing. With a grin, I left it there and went to check out my new bed.
As soon as I sat down om my bed, Brandywine gave the TV a look of annoyance and changed the channel, setting it to some news show. I frowned in annoyance. I had little interest in the latest political scandal, and after a long day, I just wanted to relax and have a few chuckles.
I waited until Brandywine went to the bathroom, then I got up and grabbed the remote. Bam, back to Woody Woodpecker. I even made his infamous laugh, though I needed to practice it a little more before it was ready for an official unveiling.
Brandywine came out of the bathroom a couple minutes later, having changed out of her costume and into a pair of sweats. She gave me a wary look, then glanced to the TV.
“What is this?” Brandywine demanded.
“Just giving you the bird,” I responded with a grin.
Suddenly, the remote control rose up from my bed and flew across the room, right into Brandywine’s hand. Damn her telekinesis.
“I prefer something a little less…childish,” she said, changing the channel back to the news and giving me a smug look.
“Fine,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “Whatever.”
With that, went into my luggage and pulled out my laptop. A few seconds later, I logged online and began playing a video of Woody Woodpecker with the volume turned up as loud as it could go. Brandy glared at me. I gave her a smug look.
I only watched cartoons for half an hour, just long enough to take the edge off and relax a bit. During this time, my roommate and I avoided saying a single word to each other. And while I would have enjoyed watching more cartoons, and annoying her in the process, there was something else I wanted to do.
“Time for the intermission,” I announced, grabbing a few things from my luggage and heading into the bathroom. Brandywine made a show of ignoring me, so I made a show of strutting past her with my tail swishing back and forth.
I went into the bathroom and locked the door behind me, letting out a sigh of relief as I did so. Sharing hotel space with a superhero I’d fought with was a bit stressful. Why couldn’t I have ended up doing this mission with Ryan. That would have been fun.
“Too late for this now,” I reminded myself. “I just have to make the best of things and deal with it.
I stripped out of my costume and then stretched out. My work wear might be fantastically stylish, but it did get uncomfortable after wearing it for so long. I tossed it to the side, then climbed into the shower.
“Ah, a nice hot shower,” I said with a sigh. “Just what I need…”
Once I was standing beneath the hot water, I began soaping up and singing, “Splish, splash, I was taking a bath, long about a Saturday night…” I raised my voice enough so that Brandywine would be able to hear me, then I continued with the song.
When I was finished with my shower, I dried off and slipped into some of my own night wear, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. I normally wouldn’t show off so much skin to a near stranger, but I’d be damned if wear a burka to bed.
I came out of the bathroom and walked right past Brandywine and her bed. She stared at me, probably a bit surprised to see the scattered patches of tiny black scales that were now visible. Fortunately, she didn’t say anything about them.
As soon as I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, I turned my attention back to my laptop. However, this time, I didn’t start playing cartoon videos, though I was tempted. Instead, I checked my email and sent updates on the mission to both Carson and Ryan.
“What are you doing?” Brandywine asked.
I smiled faintly. “I’m sending a love letter to my boyfriend.”
Brandywine gave a skeptical snort. “Somehow, I have a hard time believing that YOU have a boyfriend.”
I scowled at that, thinking, “If you only knew…” Though I was tempted to tell her that I was dating Ryan, her brother, I kept my mouth shut. I can do that on occasion. If Ryan didn’t want her knowing that he was dating his former archenemy, then I’d respect that decision.
There were several long minutes of silence before my roommate said, “Focus said something about you having a new career…” She gave me a suspicious look. “What did he mean?”
I hesitated for a moment, not sure if I should bother explaining. After all, it wasn’t like she’d believe me.
“After that whole CHIP thing,” I finally said, “I decided to retire from the acquisitions game. I’d been doing that for a long time, and it seemed like a good time for a change of career.”
“So, you just went straight?” Brandywine asked, giving me a very skeptical look.
“Of course not,” I responded with a grin. “I just decided to retire and enjoy my ill-gotten gains in peace.”
Brandywine stared at me for several long seconds. “If you’d really retired, I doubt you would have taken this job…”
“I needed the money,” I explained cheerfully. “Do you know how hard it is to live on a fixed income? Besides, it’s not like they give social security benefits to people in my old career…”
“So,” she said with a sneer, “you charge money to help save those poor kids…”
“You’re so selfless,” I exclaimed with a clear note of sarcasm. “So self-righteous. So…hypocritical.”
“What?” Brandywine demanded, jumping off her bed and glaring at me.
I met her gaze and responded with my own sneer. “Don’t try to play this off as being some kind of selfless hero. You’re getting paid for this, just like I am. The city pays the Shielders a retainer for your services, and the mayor called you guys in on this. You can play at being selfless heroes, but you’re just mercenaries, so stop trying to act noble.”
Brandywine snarled, clearly pissed off at me. I’d hit her right where it hurt, her own ego and heroic self-image. “Running a superhero group isn’t easy, nor are the resources we use to save lives. Yes, we collect payment from those who can afford it, but all that money is invested right back into saving lives.”
“With a nice percentage off the top to pay your bills,” I pointed out, knowing that they were each paid for their work as well. “After all, bills don’t pay themselves…”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Brandywine snapped, though she was getting defensive. I was definitely getting a little too close for her comfort.
I smiled at her, an evil little smile as I was about to turn the screws. “I happen to know for a fact that one of your…clients…a company you Shielders have a contract with…is owned by the Syndicate. Your protests might mean a little more if you weren’t all on the Syndicate payroll.”
Brandywine glared at me, and for a moment, I thought she was actually going to attack. But instead, she turned her back and went to her own bed. Still, that ended our conversation for the night.
Eerie PA, Tuesday afternoon, Nov 13th 2007
“You’re crazy,” Brandywine stated.
“Crazy is as crazy does,” I said in my best Forrest Gump accent. She just glared at me.
I gestured to the house across the street. It belonged to Malcolm Zeiffar, AKA, the Pooka. I had no idea how Michelle knew Pooka’s real name or where he lived, but her information checked out. This was the Pooka’s house and he was currently inside.
“If you catch him on the job, that’s just a professional risk,” I explained. “That’s just the cost of doing business and part of why we can charge as much as we do. It’s just business, and no real professional is going to take that personally. But if you attack him in his own home, without provocation, you’ve crossed a line. It’s no longer business. Its personal. And trust me, that kind of thing can cause all kinds of long-term problems.”
“He’s a criminal,” Brandywine stated firmly. “Scum. It doesn’t matter where I arrest him, as long as I do.”
“Are you sure that you want to set that precedent?” I asked, giving her a cold look. “The whole secret identity thing is all about separating your professional life from your personal. If you don’t respect his separation, why should anyone respect yours? I mean, how would you like to wake up in the middle of the night, in your own home, and find some supervillain standing over your bed?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Brandywine started to protest, looking offended by the very idea.
“Brandy Chambers,” I said, using her real name.
Brandywine froze and stared at me in surprise. “What…?”
“If I can figure out your other identity, then don’t you think other people can?” I asked her. “I’m a professional and make a clear distinction between professional and personal. If we have a professional disagreement, it stays professional. Your personal life has nothing to do with it and is completely off limits…unless you cross the line and make things personal.” I gestured at Pooka’s house again. “If you go charging in there, you cross the line…and you don’t want to deal with that.”
Brandywine stared at me, obviously still shaken by the realization that I knew her real name. Her whole secret identity was now at risk, at least as far as she was concerned.
“So, you think that it’s better for you to just go in and talk to him?” she asked, sounding more than a little sarcastic, partly to cover her worry.
“Yes,” I answered honestly. “I can talk to him, one thief to another. Maybe get a bit of professional courtesy going on.”
“You mean, conspire with him,” Brandywine hissed.
I rolled my eyes at that. “Look at it this way. If you go charging in, even if you catch him, you’ll have to take all the time of interrogating him when he won’t be feeling very cooperative. And if he gets away, well then, it takes us a LOT longer, and Jerome doesn’t have the time. If I go in and fail, then we can still do things your way.”
Brandywine wasn’t happy about that, but after a couple more minutes, I managed to convince her. I’d go in and talk to the Pooka, while she’d wait outside, just in case he made a run for it. It was a bit too close to intruding into his personal life for my tastes, but like I’d told her, our time was limited.
“Fine,” Brandywine grudgingly told me. “You get one chance.”
I looked her over, taking note of the harness she was wearing which contained a variety of gadgeteer made weapons. She was even holding some kind of large rifle that fired nets, which were fused with tasers. Nasty little toy. I just hoped that she didn’t get a chance to use any of that stuff.
“One is all I need,” I said.
A minute later, I was standing at Pooka’s front door and pushing the doorbell. When the door opened, I found myself staring at the barrel of a gun. The gun was held by a short man, about five foot three, with dark hair and a tan complexion.
Pooka and I were in the same business, or at least, we had been before I’d retired. But where I specialized in art, he focused on cash…or whatever anyone paid him to steal. Because of that, we never really competed against each other directly. Of course, if we had, it wouldn’t have been much of a competition, because I was MUCH better than he was. However, now wasn’t the time to remind him of that fact.
“Imp,” he stated with narrowed eyes.
“Pookie,” I exclaimed with a broad grin. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by…”
“What the hell do you want?” he demanded. “And how did you find me?”
“Do you mind if we discuss this inside?” I asked. “We’re kind of in the open, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want your neighbors asking questions.”
Pooka glared at me for a moment before lowering the gun and gesturing for me to enter. His house was pretty nice, though nowhere near as nice as my Imp Lair. Of course, I’d been in the business a lot longer than him, and I’d saved up a larger nest egg during that time.
“Well?” Pooka demanded. He didn’t even offer me a seat or anything to drink. Definitely a rude host.
“I’m working on a job,” I said, getting straight down to business. “But to pull this job, I need some information. I was told that you possess this information and was hoping we could make a deal.”
That seemed to catch his interest. He gave me a suspicious look and asked, “What kind of information?”
“I heard that you’ve been doing work for the Triangle lately,” I said. Pooka grunted but didn’t say anything. “I’ve been hired to…acquire something from them, but I can’t do that if I don’t know where to find them.”
“So, you want me to rat out the Triangle,” Pooka said with a sneer. He raised his gun again.
I rolled my eyes at that. “I’m not asking for any privileged information between you and your clients. I just need to know where to look. I’ll even pay a nice finder’s fee…”
My eyes remained locked on Pooka, while I tried reading him. He was a dynahost, not a mutant, so there was a chance that he was a Triangle sympathizer…or even a member. However, he had a pretty solid record for being a mercenary, more interested in money than politics. I was counting on that.
Pooka suddenly opened fire, but I’d been ready for that. I’d already focused the energy from my PK aura into a small area in front of my chest. The bullets hid my small PK shield and were stopped, much to Pooka’s surprise.
“Bad choice, Pookie,” I said with a snarl. “Last chance to do business like reasonable professionals.”
“What the fuck?” Pooka demanded.
Since the gun hadn’t worked on me, Pooka dropped it and suddenly flew up into the air, and right through the ceiling as though it wasn’t even there. Flight and intangibility were useful powers for someone in our profession. They meant that he could get into secure places and back out again before anyone even realized that he was there. Those powers also meant that he was a real pain to catch.
“Bad choice, Pookie,” I repeated again, this time with a shake of my head and exasperated sigh.
I went outside, then climbed up the wall and onto the roof. There, I found Pooka all caught up in a metal net, twitching from the current going through it. Brandywine floated in the air above him, looking rather pleased with herself.
“Why did you have to do that, Pookie?” I asked in annoyance. I was NOT happy that he’d proven Brandywine right about how useful our talk would be. “We could have done this the easy way, and you could have gotten paid.”
“My net is electrified,” Brandywine bragged, “Which keeps you from phasing through it. And its anchored to the roof, which keeps you from flying away.”
I just stared at Pooka, shaking my head in disgust as I did so. I could think of several ways out of that situation, but he seemed to be well and truly trapped. It was such a shame. He had some pretty nice powers, but he relied almost entirely on them and lacked a lot of the basic skills. I was going to make sure that Melissa didn’t make that same mistake.
“Where is the Triangle?” Brandywine demanded in the usual arrogant tone that heroes all seemed to have.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Pooka lied.
Brandywine repeated the question several more times, even phrasing it different ways. However, Pooka kept giving the same response, not even bothering to change it up a bit.
I just stood back and let the hero work, watching Pooka closely as she did so. He kept looking at the anchors that were pinning the net to the roof. Maybe he was trying to figure how to get them loose, but there was an odd look in his eyes.
“You know, Pookie,” I said cheerfully. “This is a nice house. A real nice house.”
Pooka glared at me, his eyes narrowing. “I can’t believe you’re working with the heroes…”
“More of a temporary ceasefire,” I told him with a grin. “I’m being paid to do a job, and that means I have to play nice with them…for now.”
“Tell us what we want to know,” Brandywine insisted again.
“Or what?” Pooka asked with a smirk. “You’ll ask again?”
I formed a single PK claw, which was invisible to the naked eye. However, when I poked my finger into the ceiling and sliced deep into the shingle, Pooka definitely saw that. His eyes widened and I saw a look of anger. Bingo.
“Like I said,” I commented, driving my PK claw into a different shingle, “this is a really nice house. And I mean, you aren’t even renting, are you? You own this place.”
“Yeah, I own it,” Pooka responded, glaring at me and at the holes I was punching in his roof.
“I bet maintenance can get real expensive though, especially if you have to replace a roof…” I gave him an evil grin and went to poke another hole in the roof. Then I let out my Woody Woodpecker laugh, which came out even better than I’d hoped. Brandy groaned while Pooka had a look of horror.
“STOP,” Pooka blurted out. “Look, I’ll make a deal…”
“Too late,” Brandywine said, but I held up my hand to stop her.
I sat there with an evil grin on my face, holding my hands together with my fingers steepled. “Yes,” I said, “it’s time to make a deal with the devil…”
Brandywine gave me a disapproving look, but she didn’t say anything or interfere. And in spite of my theatrical pronouncement, the deal that Pooka and I agreed on was pretty simple. I’d pay him enough to get his roof redone, and he’d tell us what we wanted to know. Apparently, he’d already been having a few problems with leaks, so this worked out well for him. Of course, if he’d been willing to deal right away, he probably would have gotten a bit more.
“Then its agreed,” I said. “You tell us where to find the Triangle, and I’ll deposit the money into your account.”
“I can’t believe you’re paying him,” Brandywine grumbled bitterly.
“Of course,” I said. “This was a business discussion with…aggressive negotiation. But now that we’ve struck a deal, I have to keep up my end. It’s only professional.”
I gave Brandywine a flat look, silently reminding her that the two of us had once made a deal, but that she’d reneged on her end of it. The whole trouble with CHIP could have been prevented if the Shielders had only given me the money they’d promised, instead of using the opportunity to try trapping me.
Now that I had what I wanted, I needed to ease the hard feelings and keep this from becoming a personal grudge. After all, we had come to his home, and I’d damaged his property, so paying for his roof was a big part of that. Pooka hadn’t actually wronged me, so there was no need to turn him into a future member of the Imp Revenge Squad.
“Now, let him go,” I told Brandywine, who gave me a look of surprise.
“Are you crazy?” she demanded.
“You keep asking that,” I pointed out cheerfully. “Do you really think the answer has changed?”
“He’s a criminal,” Brandywine spat out, her eyes narrowing. “And so are you…”
“Well DUH,” I responded with a roll of my eyes. “But consider this… You came to his home…while he was in civilian guise…and not committing any crimes.”
“She’s got you there,” Pooka said, watching me with interest. Brandywine glared at him.
“You could arrest him,” I pointed out, “but it would take a lot of time to get him booked properly and fill out all the paperwork. Time that we don’t have. Besides that, his lawyer will have a field day with this, and he’ll be back on the street before bed…with possible grounds for a lawsuit. Trust me, cutting him loose now will just be easier on everyone.”
Pooka laughed, and I could tell that all had been forgiven. Between paying for his roof and the free show, he might even think that he owed me one, albeit a very small one.
Brandywine muttered a couple profanities as she released Pooka from the net. He immediately floated backwards, watching her warily.
“If I ever see you again,” Brandywine threatened, “I’m sending you to prison.”
“And if you ever come here again, I’ll have you arrested for trespassing,” he responded. Then he dropped down through the roof, returning to his house. However, I suspected that he’d be selling this house before long and moving somewhere a little more secure. At least he’d do so with a brand-new roof to increase the selling price.
“What are you so grumpy about?” I asked Brandywine, who looked like she couldn’t decide between being angry or pouting. “We got the information we needed.”
Brandywine just glared at me, not saying a word before she turned and flew away. I shrugged and followed after her, guessing that the rest of the road trip was going to be filled with arguing or awkward silence. I could hardly wait.
Berlin NH, Tuesday late afternoon, Nov 13th 2007
Roland Williams stared across the cafe table, at the man sitting on the other side. He was gaunt and worn, bearing the hallmarks of a rough life. Even though Roland knew this man to be a decade younger than him, he actually looked ten years older.
“What happened to you?” Roland asked the man formerly known as the Crimson Kid.
“The Imp,” the Crimson Kid said, his voice as rough as his appearance.
“You mentioned something about her in your message,” Roland said, his eyes narrowing as he thought of that villain.
“She destroyed my life,” the Crimson Kid said with flash of hatred in his eyes. “She framed me for several crimes, in both my costumed and civilian identities, and then she gave my identity to some of my enemies. I’ve been in hiding since, always looking over my shoulder in case they find me.”
Roland scowled. “I’m sorry to hear that. When you suddenly disappeared, I feared that she’d left you in some unmarked grave.”
“That would have been kinder,” the Crimson Kid stated.
Roland could only nod agreement. “She destroyed my life too. She humiliated me, cost me my fiancé, and my career as a hero.”
“Then you got off light,” the Crimson Kid told him. “Not all of us were that lucky.”
“She’s an evil monster,” Roland stated with a snarl. “She manipulates everyone, and somehow, she has Elizabeth Carson protecting her.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what that monster has on our headmistress, but I intend to find out. Sooner or later, I’m going to bring her down. I’m going to make her face justice, even if I have to grab her by the tail and drag her to prison myself.”
The Crimson Kid smiled at that, though it was a predatory expression. “She’s hurt a lot of people over the years, and some of us have banded together in order to bring her down. We nearly had her in New York, but she slipped out of our grasp.”
“She’s slippery,” Roland agreed bitterly. “If there’s a way to fight dirty or cheat, she’ll use it.”
“My allies and I tracked her to Whateley,” the Crimson Kid said. “She’s hiding there…behind Whateley security…where we can’t get her.”
Roland ran a hand through his beard. “I doubt you contacted me just to reminisce about old times, or to complain about our mutual problem.”
“No, I didn’t,” the Crimson Kid said. “I want to talk about a solution to that problem.”
Roland scowled at that. Something seemed a bit off with his old ally, and with the whole situation. However, he shrugged it off. Anything related to the Imp was off.
“I’m listening,” he said.
The Crimson Kid smiled again. “We need to know when she leaves that school…when she’s unprotected. All we need is the chance, and I can guarantee that she’ll pay for everything she’s done. We’ll make sure that she can’t ruin anyone else ever again.”
A cold chill ran down Roland’s spine. What his companion said sounded less like they wanted to bring the Imp in, and more like they wanted to kill her. It was one thing to kill a villain in a fight…in the heat of the moment… But to plan it out ahead of time. That might be going too far.
However, when Roland remembered everything the Imp had done to him, and everything she’d taken from him, an old rage bubbled to the surface. He found himself growing several inches taller.
“I’m in,” Roland said.
Albany NY, Tuesday evening, Nov 13th 2007
I couldn’t believe that I was stuck sharing a hotel room with Brandywine again. This was the second night that I had her as a roommate, and I was not happy about it.
This whole thing should have been done and over with the other day. I’d been recruited to sneak into Fiddlesticks’ headquarters and get those kids out, and I’d done that. However, every time I thought about poor Jerome, I felt guilty for those thoughts.
I was in my shared hotel room, sitting on a chair with my laptop in my lap and my feet up on the coffee table. Brandywine was on the other side of the room, with a small toolkit beside her as she worked on her weapons. That would have been fine, but she kept glaring at me and muttering something about my being born in a barn.
“Baaaa,” I said with a smirk, earning a glare in response.
Of course, I knew that I could have skipped out on her and made my own arrangements, but that would have been more trouble than it was worth. And besides, I was trying to get along with her…at least a little…for Ryan’s sake.
“Are you EVER serious?” Brandywine demanded.
I just gave my best innocent look. “Am I being baaaad?” She groaned at my sheepish pun, which made me smirk again.
With a shake of my head, I thought about the long drive here and all the time we’d spent together in the car. It would have been a lot quicker to just fly to our destination, but I couldn’t hop on a plane that easily with her along. I’d have to either reveal my invisibility trick, or even worse, reveal my Candice identity. Both options were off the table.
Though Brandyswine hadn’t said anything, I was pretty sure that she knew how much I hated being stuck in a car…any car. It made me feel claustrophobic and trapped, a feeling that was made even worse by the fact that I was sharing space with a hero who could attack me at any moment. She was taking every opportunity to make me miserable, so I saw no reason not to return the favor.
Admittedly, at least part of the drive to Albany had been interesting. We’d driven right through Buffalo, and I’d been so tempted to stop by the Moonrise Gallery…MY gallery…just to take a peak. I didn’t. I kept driving right on through, not even stopping for gas. However, I did keep my eyes open for even a glimpse of Danny Boy, or even the Sphincter. I didn’t see any sign of either.
After a few seconds, I turned my attention back to my laptop and what I’d been working on. I’d received an email from Whateley, reminding me that even though I was on this mission, I still had my normal responsibilities as a teacher. That was actually kind of reassuring.
I focused on my work for a good fifteen minutes after this before Brandywine abruptly asked, “What are you doing? You’ve been so quiet…”
My first imp-ulse was to answer, “Looking at porn,” but she actually seemed sincere. So, in the spirit of playing nice, I gave her an honest answer. “I’m grading papers for my art history class.”
My roommate stared at me with a skeptical look, which didn’t surprise me. However, what did surprise me was that she said, “Focus said something about you being at a school…”
“For my new career,” I explained with a wry smile.
Brandywine gave me an odd look. “You said you’d retired…”
“From my old career,” I pointed out. “I just started a new one.”
“Doing what?” she asked in a suspicious tone.
I gave her a wry look since she should have figured that out from my comments about grading papers. “I’m an art teacher.“
Brandywine snorted, her skepticism more than a little obvious. “Who in the world would hire you as a teacher?”
I rolled my eyes. “Why is that the first thing everyone asks?” Then I grinned as I answered, “That would be Elizabeth Carson…headmistress of Whateley Academy.”
Brandywine’s eyes went wide. “Whateley…?”
“Yep,” I answered with an evil grin. “And yes, Melissa is in one of my classes.”
My roommate nearly choked at that, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I didn’t hold back the smirk though.
“How do you think Chickenhawk knew where to find me?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “We kind of ran into each other during parents day.”
The look on Brandywine’s face was priceless, especially considering the fact that I’d already revealed that I knew her real name. She’d been worrying about that for half the day, and now this. I was SO tempted to rub salt into the wound. But I was trying to play nice, so I didn’t.
Brandywine looked more than a little shaken, so I cheerfully commented, “Here’s a paper from Doctor Diabolik’s daughter…” Brandywine choked again. “And here’s one from Bruce Goodkind’s kid…”
“Now I know you’re screwing with me,” Brandywine snapped. “I should have known better than to think you might be serious.”
I shrugged at that and turned back to my grading. I still had a couple more papers to go, Once I was done, I’d email my students and let them know their grades.
A short time later, I was just finishing up when Brandywine stood up and commented, “When we checked in, I noticed that this hotel has a nice hot tub…”
“That sounds nice,” I responded.
Brandywine hesitated a moment before asking, “Did you want to come with me?”
I blinked at that. She looked sincere. Was she trying to offer an olive branch?
“I don’t do well in public places,” I admitted before joking, “Everyone always wants my autograph.”
“Somehow, I don’t think that will be a problem,” Brandywine said. “But suit yourself.”
Brandywine left the hotel room, and after a moment of hesitation, I decided to go with. I had a bad feeling about this and knew that it was a bad idea. However, Brandy had made an effort, so I’d try to meet her half way.
I quickly changed into my swimsuit, a black one-piece that looked pretty nice on me. Normally, a swimsuit isn’t something that I’d pack for a mission, but I hadn’t actually packed specifically for this mission. My luggage had already been packed ahead of time, ready for my next trip to visit with Ryan. When I got the call for this mission, I hadn’t bothered to repack. I’d just grabbed my luggage and went.
A few minutes later, I slipped through the hotel, carefully avoiding any other guests. Fortunately, at this time of night, there weren’t a lot of people around. And when I reached the room with the hot tubs, I was relieved to see that Brandywine was the only other person there.
“You came,” Brandywine said, looking a bit surprised.
I slipped into the large hot top on the opposite side of her. The hot water felt great on my muscles, which made this a great way to relax after a long day.
“Who can turn down a hot tub social?” I asked wryly.
We sat there for some time without either of us saying a word. This whole situation was a lot more relaxing than when we were in our room, and I suspected that my companion wanted me relaxed for some reason. But why? I was pretty sure that it wasn’t to attack me.
Finally, Brandywine asked, “How did you know my real name?”
And there it was, the real reason she’d invited me to the hot tub. I smiled faintly at that since I’d been expecting that question along with a few similar ones.
“I’ve been in the business for a long time,” I said contentedly. “My old business that is. I was in that business for about as long as you’ve been alive.”
Brandywine gave me a look of surprise, maybe because I looked about fifteen years younger than I actually was. Maybe she just had a hard time imagining me as having that much experience. There were advantages in having people underestimate me all the time, so I usually tended to encourage that kind of thinking.
“I learned a long time ago,” I continued with a faint smile, “that if you want to survive in the business, you have to do your research. You need to know who you’re likely to face and how to deal with them. Sometimes, during that research, things like real names and identities come up.” Then I sat up straighter and looked Brandywine in the eyes. She was definitely concerned, though she was trying not to show it.
“I see,” Brandywine said with a carefully controlled expression.
“Over the years, I’ve built up a nice collection of real names,” I admitted. “I don’t intentionally go looking for them, but there they are.” I shrugged at that. “I’m a thief, not an extortionist or blackmailer. I doubt you’ll believe me, but I won’t use your name against you or share it with anyone else. That kind of thing crosses a professional line, and in spite of what you may think, I am a professional.”
“You confuse me,” Brandywine admitted.
“Good,” I responded cheerfully. “I try.”
She continued staring at me for several more seconds before saying, “You really do try.”
I just leaned back and stretched my arms out along the side of the pool. I let the tip of my tail float to the surface of the water, then I absently began using it to make tiny splashes. This was definitely nice and relaxing.
“No offense,” I commented, “but I really wish I was here with my boyfriend instead of you.”
Brandywine didn’t say anything to that, but she still seemed skeptical about me having a boyfriend. That just made me chuckle, not to mention, tempted me to tell her who I was dating. However, I kept my mouth shut…for once.
A couple minutes later, there was a sudden scream from the doorway. I looked up and saw a woman standing there, wearing a bathing suit and holding a towel in her hands. The other hotel guest was staring at me with a look of shock and horror.
“A MONSTER!” she yelled, right before turning and running back the way she’d come.
“Well, I knew this was too good to last,” I said with a sigh. “I should have known better than to come here.” I did know better, but that hadn’t stopped me.
“What the…?” Brandywine started.
I climbed out of the water and reached for a towel. “I’d better get going before the MCO or a SWAT team shows up…”
After this, I hurried back to my room, being careful not to be seen. The last thing I wanted was for someone to come pounding on my door, demanding that the ‘mutant freak’ leave the hotel, or worse, have someone kick down the door so they can attack me. I’ve had both things happen before and was not eager to repeat the experience.
Once I was back to the room where it was safe, or at least out of sight, I let out a sigh of relief then quickly dried off the rest of the way and changed back into my shorts and T-shirt. Still, I kept my belt with the tools of my trade close at hand, just in case.
“I should have known better,” I repeated to myself in disgust. Of course that kind of thing was going to happen. I was just grateful that it hadn’t been worse this time. “Maybe I’m getting too used to being able to walk around in the open.”
Then with a sigh, I turned on the TV. I didn’t really feel like watching anything specific, so I played around with the remote, then went to the ‘on demand’ channels. My eyes went to the ‘adult’ section and I found myself grinning evilly as I ordered one of the shows, one with a particularly crude title. I had absolutely no interest in watching BBW Lesbian Orgy, but that wasn’t the point. Imagining the look on Brandywine’s face when she got the hotel bill and saw all the adult movies charged to her, really made me feel better.