Imp 8: Imp-rints on an Aching Heart (part 2)
A Whateley Academy Tale
Imp 8: Imp-rints on an Aching Heart
Boston MA, Friday evening, Nov 30th, 2007
I’d spent the entire day in a bit of a daze, still reeling over what I’d learned yesterday. However, I couldn’t afford to remain like that. It was time to put on my game face. Or more accurately, it was time to put on my Candice face.
At the moment, I was at the Goresky Gallery in Boston, in my Candice Kade identity. Thanks to a little magic bauble, I was covered in illusion which made me look ‘normal’. It was because of this very illusion and the boringly normal look it gave me, that let me build my career as a respectable artist.
Tonight, the gallery was holding a show and I was the guest of honor, or at least, one of three. Three artists were being showcased this weekend, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. This could be a big boost for my career.
I stood there in my little black dress, flicking my tail back and forth while being careful not to hit anyone with it. Just because it was hidden by illusion, that didn’t mean others wouldn’t feel it. After taking a sip from my glass of champagne, I smiled in satisfaction, enjoying the way people were reacting to my paintings.
“This one is interesting,” a woman said as she admired one of my recent works.
Her companion, a man in a nice suit, explained, “I’ve seen this artist before, back in New York. Kade’s work is always interesting…and whimsical.”
A man who was standing nearby and who heard this, chuckled, “Whimsical is right.” He pointed to the painting beside him and added, “If you look in the corner of this one, you’ll see the silhouette of two dogs playing cards.”
By this point, I was smirking and soaking up the admiration. I absolutely loved honest enjoyment of my work. After having spent most of my career either stealing or making copies of other people’s works, there was almost nothing better than having people appreciate mine.
However, my mood dampened a bit as I remembered that Ryan was supposed to have been here tonight but was notably absent. Apparently, something had come up and he hadn’t been able to make it.
“Something,” I muttered in annoyance. Then I snorted, “Damn superheroes and their sense of responsibility.”
Well, a lot of heroes seemed to be missing that sense of responsibility, so I shouldn’t be too hard on Chickenhawk for having one. But still, I was frustrated that he was busy chasing down a bank robber rather than being there with me.
With a shake of my head and a sigh, I mused, “Metal Maniac is going to owe me a drink or ten for making my boyfriend miss this.”
“Ms. Kade,” a man said from the side, drawing my attention out of my thoughts. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m a fan of your work.”
“Thank you,” I said, accepting the hand that he held out and shaking it gently.
As soon as I touched him, I sensed it…a faint hum along his skin. It was a PK shell. From his expression, I didn’t think he’d sensed anything, but that was no surprise. My own PK abilities weren’t especially powerful, but when it came to fine control and sensitivity, there weren’t many better.
I stared at the man with greater attention, taking in every detail. He was just under six feet tall, lean and athletic, with naturally tanned skin and short dark hair. Overall, he was moderately attractive, though definitely no exemplar.
“Can you tell me the story behind this piece?” he asked, indicating a painting, which depicted a cat cornering a terrified looking mouse, though the mouse’s shadow looked a bit predatory and held a knife behind its back. At the same time, the cat’s shadow looked terrified, and as though it was about to turn and run. “It’s quite interesting…”
“Thank you,” I told him with a smile. “And you are?”
“Kyle Vasquez,” he answered with a polite smile.
“Kyle,” I repeated before turning my attention back to the painting. “I find that things are rarely as simple and obvious as they appear at first glance. Sometimes, you have to take a second look at a situation to see what’s really going on.”
“I see,” he responded with a nod of understanding.
I just grinned at that and added, “And I probably watched a little too much Tom and Jerry growing up.”
Kyle chuckled faintly at that. “Yes, I can see the inspiration…”
We chatted politely for a couple minutes, then Kyle wandered off to go talk to another artist. I watched him leave, thinking about his height, build, and PK shell. Unless I missed my guess, I’d just met El Puno, a midlevel villain who’d been running around Boston for the last two years.
The rest of the party was almost anticlimactic compared to that brief encounter. I’d already met the other artists, and I was able to politely hob-nob with many of the guests, though I felt a little annoyed to do so. That kind of thing reminded me too much of my mother and what she’d wanted me to be.
“Behave yourself,” I quietly told myself. “No wedgies or wet Willies… At least not now…” I could behave myself for the sake of my art career.
Eventually, I found an excuse to step out of the party for a bit, thankful for the chance to catch my breath and get away from all that fake politeness. I wasn’t sure how much more of that I could handle. Fortunately, the party had given me a little time to think, and now I was ready to be a little naughty.
With my tail swishing back and forth, I pulled out my phone and made a call. “Yo, Rebar,” I said, greeting the other villain. “This is the fabulous Imp…” After a few seconds, I had to convince him, “Yes, I really am the one and only, genuine, originally fabulous Imp…” I paused again and rolled my eyes. “Okay then, remember that job we did in Seattle, where you tried hitting on Crucibelle and she threatened to tear off your nards…?”
I chuckled evilly as I imagined the expression on Rebar’s face, and even more at the memory of how badly he’d pouted after Crucibelle’s threat. The poor guy had developed a crush on a hero, and that kind of thing rarely worked out for those in our profession.
It was a good thing I was retired, or at least, it had been. Somehow, I didn’t think Ryan would approve of the job I had planned, and I really hoped he never found out.
“How’d you like to make an easy ten grand?” I asked, knowing that I now had Rebar’s full attention. “Venture is in your back yard, and he’s one of your old playmates, so what I need is for you to distract him for an hour or two…” A few seconds later, I grinned. “I thought you’d agree. Nice doing business with you, Rebar.”
After hanging up, I turned my attention back to the party, which was still going on. With a sigh, I braced myself for more of the forced politeness, though at least, there were people kissing my tail and a few honest compliments of my work.
Boston MA, Saturday early afternoon, Dec 1st, 2007
I glanced around the Goresky Gallery, feeling a mixture of delight and impatience. The party from last night was long since over, but the gallery showing was continuing all weekend.
Last night, the gallery had been full of art snobs and the socially connected, many of whom were more interested in appearances and making connections than they were in the art. Today, the gallery was open for anyone who wanted to walk in off the street and take a look. As a result, many who were present today, couldn’t afford to buy anything, but they were quite willing to appreciate the paintings.
My eyes went to a ‘sold’ tag above one of my paintings, and I smiled at the sight, knowing that it would soon decorate someone’s wall. Over half my paintings had sold last night and I expected a few more to sell between today and tomorrow. Overall, I thought that this was turning out to be quite a decent showing.
And then, my thoughts turned to El Puno, if that actually had been him last night. I had no fear that he was casing the gallery for a robbery, because that simply wasn’t his style. El Puno was not a thief, and certainly not an art thief. Professionally, he worked as a leg breaker, a bodyguard, or generally, as hired muscle, though there was nothing to say that personally, he couldn’t appreciate the finer things in life, such as beautifully crafted art.
While I looked around the gallery, at the small handful of people who were currently present and admiring the paintings, I couldn’t help but thinking that I should be working on that job for Doc. I had such a limited amount of time to pull it off, but I did have other obligations that needed to be taken care of first.
Of course, last night, there had been the party. Then this morning, I’d spent a couple hours holding my Saturday morning open classroom, where I let any student, whether they were in any of my classes or not, come in and work on their art projects. This was actually one of my favorite parts of working at Whateley, since there were no lectures or lesson plans, just kids and art.
“They just need a little of my brilliant and wise guidance,” I mused.
And now, there was my obligation to the gallery, which had been kind enough to show my paintings. All I had to do was hang around a little and talk with some of the visitors, mostly about my work. This was a lot more casual than the party, which was proven by the fact that I was wearing slacks and a jacket rather than a dress.
I slowly strolled through the gallery, my eyes sweeping from one piece to another. One of the other artists being showcased was quite nice, and I was seriously thinking about buying one of the pieces. However, the one I had my eye on had already been claimed by someone else, as proven by the ‘sold’ tag above it.
While I was doing this, I couldn’t help but take in some other details as well, such as the location of every security camera and the holes in their coverage. I absently noted how all the alarms were hooked up, where best place was to shut down the system, not to mention the location of every potential entrance or exit in the building. I might be retired, but old habits die hard.
Then I heard a girl say, “Ah like this one. It’s really nice…”
That immediately caught my attention because I knew that voice along with the girl it belonged to. In fact, I’d just seen her a couple hours ago in my open classroom. With that, I turned and saw Alicia Thacker standing next to one of my paintings. There was another girl beside her, her friend and roommate, Adalie Vitesse.
“Oui,” Adalie agreed. “It is not in the same league as a Monet, but it is still quite beautiful.”
“Candice Kade,” Alicia said, reading my name off the tag next to the painting. Then she abruptly turned to a woman who worked for the gallery and asked, “Does Ms. Kade come here very much?”
The gallery employee gave her a polite smile. “Well, you’re in luck. Ms. Kade is here today…” And with that, she gestured towards me.
The girls turned to look at me, and a second later, Alicia’s eyes went wide while her mouth dropped open. It wasn’t until that moment that I remembered that she’d seen me this way before, the very first time we met last spring.
“Well, this is awkward,” I muttered.
“You’re Candice Kade?” Alicia gasped in surprise.
“I sure hope so,” I responded wryly. “I’m wearing her underwear…”
Alicia blinked at that. “Ah mean…”
The look on Alicia’s face was amusing, but it was also a little worrying. Ever since I’d gone semi-legit, all my tricks and secrets had been coming to light. Too many people knew how my powers worked, just as too many people knew that Candice Kade and the Imp were the same person. That worried me…a lot.
“No putting the genie back in the bottle,” I muttered, thankful that at least some of my secrets were still safe, though I didn’t know for how much longer. “So,” I said, putting on a cheerful smile. “Did I overhear you saying that you liked my work?”
“The paintin?” Alicia asked, blinking as she shook herself out of it. “It’s really nice… Ah didn’t know you could paint like that…”
“Do you two know each other?” Adalie asked curiously.
“We met briefly at a museum some months back,” I told the French girl, swishing my tail back and forth as I did. “I don’t think I ever told her my name though…or that I was an artist.”
“No,” Alicia said, giving me an odd look. “Ah don’t think ya did…”
“Well, I am,” I continued in a cheerful tone, hoping that Alicia didn’t spill the beans. “Being an artist is just one of several careers I’ve had in my life, but one that’s very important to me.” I gave the Cajun girl a pointed look, hoping that she understood the message.
Alicia nodded at that, glanced at Adalie, and when her roommate wasn’t watching she made a gesture as though zipping her mouth shut. I nodded at that, letting out a sigh of relief. I wasn’t too surprised though since Alicia was one of the very few people who’d ever visited me at the Imp Lair, and it was her recommendations that had led to me getting my job at Whateley in the first place.
“Now then,” I said, looking back and forth between the girls. “Would you two like a personal tour of my works here?”
“Yes, please,” Alicia responded brightly.
Adalie’s eyes seemed to light up a little as well. “If it would not be too much trouble…”
“Not at all,” I assured them, gesturing back to the painting that they’d previously been looking at. “This one is called Nighttime Wanderings…”
I showed the girls a couple of my paintings and answering their questions. It was great to see how interested they both were, as well as how much they appreciated the art. Now, if only all my students were this open to artwork.
“So,” I finally asked. “What brings you to the gallery?”
“We came to Boston for a little shoppin,” Alicia answered. “And when ah saw this place, ah had to come poke mah head in…”
“She was most insistent,” Adalie added with an amused look. “Alicia really wanted to see the paintings…”
“I can definitely appreciate that,” I said with a grin, swishing my tail back and forth. “I’ve spent countless hours visiting places like this…”
“And art museums,” Alicia added, giving me a knowing look.
“And art museums,” I agreed. “There are very few things better than being able to admire a true masterpiece. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to achieve the skill and artistry to create one myself…” I let out a sigh at that, since being able to create a true masterpiece was on my bucket list, right above stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.
“Well, ah think your stuff is really nice,” Alicia assured me.
“Yes,” Adalie agreed. “Your paintings are tres amusing…”
“Thank you,” I said, appreciating the sincere compliments.
It didn’t take long to finish the brief tour of the gallery, and I not only showed them all of my paintings, but also the ones from the other artists. Adalie seemed to like one of those artists a little more than me, but I didn’t take it personally. In fact, I was just pleased that she’d come to enjoy the paintings at all.
Eventually, while Adalie was admiring one of those other paintings, Alicia pulled me aside and quietly asked, “Does Mrs. Carson know about this?” She gestured around us.
“What?” I asked with a look of mock innocence. “That I’m moonlighting?” At Alicia’s nod, I grinned. “Of course. In fact, she showed up at one of these gallery showings to ask if I wanted a job…” Then in a more serious tone, I asked, “Please keep this to yourself though. I’d prefer it if your classmates and everyone else remained a little ignorant about my side job…”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Alicia assured me.
“Thank you,” I responded with a smile.
A few minutes after this, Alicia and Adalie left the gallery, which had suddenly become just a little more boring. I imagined what would happen if any other students happened to wander in here…especially Dino. In fact, I could picture it clearly… The goofy dinosaur comes in, disguised as Bob Ross or pretending to be an art critic, while half the people in the gallery immediately ran out in fear, and the other half just stand there as their minds break. The very idea was enough to make me burst out laughing.
“Okay,” I finally said, taking one more look around the gallery. As fun as it was to hang around a bunch of paintings, it was time to get to work. “Time to pay my debt.”
Cleveland OH, Saturday early evening, Dec 1st, 2007
I was crouched down on top of a statue which resided on the outer edge of a park. The statue was of a large horse and its rider, though I had absolutely no idea who the rider was supposed to represent. For all I knew, the statue was honoring the horse, and the rider was just decoration. Still, the statue provided me with a great spot to perch and watch my surroundings, as well as an out of the way place to wait.
Then, what I was waiting for finally happened. A motorcycle shot out of an alleyway and zoomed off down the street like a bullet, moving so fast that I could barely make out any details about the rider, save that he was wearing a green and white costume with gold metal trim. And that was mostly due to the fact that I knew what to expect.
“Venture has left the building,” I announced.
At the same time, I considered how much fun it would be to race him on my Impcycle. Car chases were old fashion and out of style, but motorcycle chases… I grinned at that, swishing my tail back and forth excitedly.
Once Venture was gone, I climbed down off my high horse and quickly made my way towards the alley that Venture had just departed from. There were a couple hidden security cameras watching the alley to make sure nobody was present whenever Venture came or left, but they were easy to avoid. What was more difficult, was finding the hidden garage door and figuring out how to get through that.
The door was hidden behind a dumpster that was rigged to roll out of the way. I had to admit, I was impressed. That was a really fun way for Venture to hide the entrance to his lair. However, the door was still locked and I had to get past the security system without setting off any alarms. The challenging part was, I suspected that he’d have precautions against my usual alarm busting devise, so I had to do this the hard way.
While I worked, I quietly sang, “Na na na na na na BAT IMP!” What can I say, I loved the classics. “Bap. Boom. Pow…”
In spite of breaking in the slow way, it didn’t take me too long to unlock the door and let myself inside. As soon as I did so, I found that I was inside a garage with several vehicles parked around me. There was a nondescript white van, a nice-looking Mustang, a plain looking sedan, and two spare motorcycles, not to mention some armored contraption that looked like it had come out of Mad Max…or the Wacky Races.
“Just like Doc said,” I mused in relief.
Normally, I’d spend weeks planning a job like this. I’d do all the research, make sure I knew the security system and building layout, as well as exactly where to find my target. However, this time, I hadn’t been able to do my own research, much to my annoyance. I hated going in unprepared. I was just lucky that Doc had been able to provide me most of what I needed, while Bob had been able to provide the rest. All it had cost me was the last favor that Bob owed me, the last piece of leverage I had on him.
“It’s worth it,” I reminded myself.
On the outside, this building looked pretty bad. It was three stories tall and made of brick, much of which looked old and crumbling. In fact, from the outside, the building looked like it was empty and on the verge of being condemned. However, on the inside, things had clearly been renovated.
According to Doc, who’d known exactly where Venture’s secret lair was, the hero owned this entire building. The top floor was his living area and personal space, which was supposedly set up a bit like a nice penthouse apartment, just really well camouflaged from the outside. The second floor was the gym and training area, while the bottom level was the garage.
I looked around, quickly spotting the freight elevator as well as the smaller personal elevator. Those two elevators, along with the garage door I’d come through, were the only ways to enter the garage. All the windows had been sealed from the inside and blocked with metal plating, which covered all the walls. There was an entrance in the front of the building, but it only went up to the penthouse and had no direct access to the other floors.
“A good way to sneak in his girlfriends,” I mused, though I had absolutely no idea if Venture had anybody or not. “Or boyfriends. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
My eyes lingered on the elevators for several seconds. It probably would have been much easier to break in if I’d simply used my usual method to go in through the top floor, where security was a little lighter, and accessed the elevator from there. However, I wanted to avoid Venture’s personal living space since that could have been seen as crossing a line and making this personal.
“Keep it professional,” I reminded myself.
My old mentor and father figure, Frank Cowan, had told me that a long time ago, and I’d taken it to heart. That advice…that motto…had served me well during my career.
I had to admit, I was a little curious about Venture and how he lived. However, I wasn’t going to go there without a good reason. And while I would have felt perfectly justified in looking at the second floor, that wasn’t why I was here. What I was interested in was in the basement…in what Doc had referred to as the Vault…with a capital V.
“Keep focused,” I quietly told myself, though I silently added, “Keep yourself distracted.”
This whole job was a conveniently timed distraction, which I really needed. Focus on the job, not on… Then with a shake of my head, I took my own advice and went to the freight elevator. There was a security lock on that thing too, a keypad that required a code to access. Easy peasy, lemon squeazy. A few seconds later, I was going down.
“Elevator go down…,” I intoned, channeling my baby Plucky.
As soon as the elevator stopped and the doors opened, I looked around the Vault and my eyes widened a little. The Vault consisted of not only the entire basement, but also the basement of the neighboring building too, which made it the size of a small warehouse.
The first thing I noticed were a pair of dice…each one about six feet across on each side. They were placed in a prominent position, almost straight across from the elevator.
“Now that would be one hell of a big board game,” I mused.
Of course, the dice weren’t the only thing I noticed, just the first. Off to one side, there seemed to be a wooly mammoth…or maybe just a statue of one. And on the other side, I noticed a giant dollar bill that was hanging from the wall like a tapestry. In fact, as I glanced around, it looked like the entire Vault was actually one big trophy room or private museum.
“Makes sense,” I said, considering what I knew about Venture.
I stepped out of the elevator and nearly into a motion sensor, though I caught myself in time. A sneaky little security trap like that would have been easy to miss and would have been rather embarrassing on my part. Fortunately, I caught it in time to avoid it.
After this, there didn’t seem to be any more security measures or traps, though I wasn’t going to take that for granted. I had to get my target and get out as quickly as I could, but I couldn’t be careless about it.
“Now, to find the precious,” I said, realizing that I had no idea where my target was located.
A large part of the Vault was broken up into aisles, though I didn’t know which one, if any, held Doc’s prize. That meant I would have to go searching, which would be time consuming and annoying. However, I’d known this would be an issue, which was why I’d hired Rebar to get me the time I needed to search.
I started off on one side, just a short distance from the wooly mammoth. After a closer look, I decided that this wasn’t just a statue, it was some kind of taxidermy work. How Venture got a stuffed mammoth, I had no idea, but there were plenty of mad scientists with ways to make one.
Near the mammoth, there were six glass cases leaned up against the wall, each of which contained a mannequin that wore a different version of Venture’s costume. Venture was a legacy hero and most of these costumes belonged to his predecessors. From what I’d heard, the current Venture was the third or fourth one.
Beyond these costumes was an area full of glass cases, each containing a variety of weapons. This didn’t look like an arsenal but more of a collection of souvenirs. Considering the age of these weapons and a few labels, it looked like these were trophies from the previous Ventures.
I quickly scanned through these cases but didn’t see what I was looking for, so I continued on my way. This was a large area to search and I didn’t have time for a leisurely stroll.
“Vroom a zoom zoom,” I exclaimed as I raced down to the next aisle.
In the next aisle, I saw more display cases which presented various artifacts and trophies from life in the business. However, what was more interesting, not to mention creepier, were the mannequins. Well, they seemed to be a cross between mannequins and statues, because they resembled real people and were dressed in colorful costumes. All these figures were done up in full costume regalia, even if only one or two pieces on each seemed to be authentic, and they were all placed on low platforms. These were display pieces as well, showing the trophies in a somewhat more personal context.
There were replicas of numerous villains, with labels on the platforms that identified the trophies as DIAMOND DUDE’S MASK, THE LEPER QUEEN’S STAFF, MACH-5’S BOOTS and THE HIGHWAYMAN’S GUN. I absently wondered if the Highwayman would want that back since he’s upgraded his weapons since then.
This whole place was starting to remind me of a wax museum, and that was a bit creepy. There were even a few replicas of heroes, such as one that looked like the Comet Queen, and which noted that this was one of her actual costumes. I wondered if it included the underwear, then chuckled at that thought. A moment later, I wondered what Carson would say about this…not that I’d ever tell her. After all, I’d prefer it if she never found out about this job.
“Damn,” I said as I glanced around the size of the Vault and considered how many items were stored here. “This guy is almost as bad as Doctor Avarice…”
I knew a lot of heroes kept some trophies of their victories, as did many villains. I myself had a few pieces, such as a painting with a magic spell on the back, a mind controlling power gem, and some great artwork that I really wanted to keep. However, what I saw here seemed more than a little excessive.
Bob and Doc had both told me that Venture was a collector, but I hadn’t realized just how extensive his collection was until now. I probably should have though, considering what I’d heard.
Venture, at least the current one, had a reputation for ‘confiscating’ weapons and power items from the villains he caught, and occasionally, even from rookie heroes. He claimed he was keeping them out of dangerous or irresponsible hands, but that didn’t explain the fact that he often kept their costumes, or parts of it. And from what I’d heard, his habit of taking trophies had only gotten worse over the years.
According to Doc, Venture was no longer satisfied with only taking trophies of his victories, but he had begun buying up memorabilia off E-bay and the black market, just to add to his collection. In fact, that was how he’d acquired the item I was after.
Fortunately, all the costumed figures made my job a lot easier. With just a brief glance, I could tell that a display was not what I was looking for, which saved a lot of time. And because of this, when I did come across what I was looking for, I knew it immediately.
“And there it is,” I announced, seeing a figure that looked just like Doc in his heyday. It even had an accurate replica of Doc’s old costume, though that wasn’t what I was looking at.
The figure was holding a golden metal rod, about sixteen inches in length. An intricately carved sphere decorated one end, and from openings in the carving, I could barely make out a glowing gemstone. This was it, Doc’s old scepter, the source of all his power, and the thing that he’d been looking for, for over a decade.
“Talk about pretentious,” I mused.
Doc had never met the current Venture, yet here Venture was, with a trophy that suggested otherwise. This whole display seemed to say that Venture and Doc had fought, and Venture had won, taking the scepter as a prize. As far as I was concerned, this was in bad taste. It was no different than buying a fake trophy, then claiming you won some sporting event you’d never even competed in.
I moved closer and carefully examined the figure, trying to determine if it had been wired for alarms. I saw no sign of security on either the figure or the scepter, which didn’t really surprise me. So far, all the security on this place had been at the entrances. It was as though Venture was so sure of his external security, that he didn’t think it was necessary to add extra security to the inside of his headquarters. Of course, I wasn’t about to take that for granted.
Once I was relatively confident in the lack of sensors or alarms, I reached into my backpack and pulled out the replacement I’d brought for the scepter. I held it up while reaching for the scepter, trying to determine how quickly I could make the switch. While I did this, I hummed the theme from Indiana Jones, just to get into the spirit. Then on the count of three, I made the switch. I was almost disappointed when no boulder started rolling towards me.
“Got the goodie,” I mused as I slipped the scepter into my backpack. “Now it’s time to go…”
However, before moving, I glanced around, thinking about just how many displays there were in the Vault…just how many trophies. How many villains had Venture stolen weapons and power items from? And more importantly, how much would they pay for their return? This was quite the opportunity, and a greedy voice in the back of my head urged me to seize it.
After half a minute of debating with myself, I let out a disappointed sigh. “No, not a good idea…”
As fun as it would be to rob Venture blind, I was here for one item and one item only. If I got too greedy, or too distracted by all the toys around me, it increased my chances of getting caught, and I certainly couldn’t have that.
With that, I took one more look at Doc’s figurine, smirking at the sight of the giant dildo it was now holding. Doc probably wouldn’t approve, but that was what made this so fun. I kind of wished I could see Venture’s face once he noticed the switch, but I had absolutely no idea how long that would be, and even less interest in sticking around.
I hurried back towards the elevator, moving as quickly as I could while still keeping an eye out for any traps or alarms. I was pretty confident though, because I had my prize, and now, all I had to do was go back the way I’d come. And then, just as I was well on my way to a clean getaway, I suddenly found myself face to face with…myself.
“What the…?” I blurted out, coming to an abrupt stop.
There, right next to me was another figure, no different than any of the other ones in the Vault, except for one major difference. This one represented ME.
I just stood there and gaped. “You’ve got to be kidding… It’s an Imp-oster…”
This figure was clearly meant to look like me, and was even wearing my costume, albeit, an older version that I hadn’t work in a couple decades. The colors and style were similar, though there were a number of differences.
One of the main differences was the fact that my older costume actually had a pair of capelets that hung halfway down the back, resembling little demon wings. They’d looked kind of cool and fit my theme, but I’d gotten rid of those things a LONG time ago. They tended to catch on things when I was sneaking through tight places, and they were easy for my enemies to grab hold of.
“No capelets,” I stated firmly. This was a rule I’d made well over twenty years ago, and I’d stuck by it since. “What in the world was I even thinking?”
What can I say, it was the eighties, a time when parachute pants and neon clothes were popular. At least it wasn’t the nineties, when for some reason, big shoulder pads and lots of needless pouches were in fashion. Big shoulder pads do NOT work with my line of work, though admittedly, some of the pouches were useful.
As interesting as it was to see my old costume design again, I was even more interested in what the figure was holding. It was holding a pitchfork. Not the kind of pitchfork that farmers use, but the kind that devils were often depicted as having. It was basically a black metal trident with a more infernal than aquatic style.
“Pitchy,” I exclaimed in surprise, realizing that unlike the replica costume, this was actually the real thing.
Early in my costumed career, I’d actually carried this weapon around, though more for theatrics and style than for practical purposes. Sure, it made a decent weapon, but it got in the way more often than not, especially when I was sneaking or trying to maneuver through tight places. So when I’d lost it during a particularly close escape, I’d never bothered getting a replacement.
“How did Venture get you?” I asked, snatching the weapon from the figure’s hands. I’d never met Venture, but then again, neither had Doc.
I swung Pitchy around, then slammed it into the center of the figure, knocking it back and off the platform. That was particularly satisfying, not because I wanted to hurt myself, but because I was offended to see that thing in the first place. Venture had set it up almost like a trophy, as though bragging that he’d somehow beaten me.
“As if,” I snorted disdainfully.
For a moment, I seriously considered going up to the top floor so I could short sheet his bed, plastic wrap his toilet bowl, and generally relieve my annoyance with a little harmless mischief. But then I thought better of it and decided to just leave. Getting Pitchy back…and taking Doc’s scepter, would have to do for now.
With that, I slammed the base of Pitchy into the floor and hit the concealed button that should have released a stream of smoke, great for distracting opponents and making theatrical escapes. Unfortunately, nothing happened. Either the smoke cartridge had been used up a long time ago, or it had just gone bad after sitting for all those years.
“Too bad,” I mused, a little disappointed since I wanted to use Pitchy again just out of nostalgia.
I was just about to check the cartridge when I heard the elevator doors opening. A moment later, I turned to see Venture stepping out of the elevator. His full helmet obscured his face so I couldn’t see his expression, but he seemed to be looking around.
For a brief moment, I silently cursed Rebar, who hadn’t kept Venture distracted nearly long enough. Then, I realized that Venture must know something was wrong. Maybe it was because I’d left the elevator on the ground level, or maybe it was something else. Whatever it was, he seemed alert and suspicious.
Normally, I’d immediately crouch down and turn invisible, but this time I had another idea. I simply stepped onto the platform that had previously been occupied by my figure, and froze in place, holding the exact same position the figure had.
Venture came further into the Vault, looking for the intruder. I remained motionless, though there was an itch on my nose that I REALLY wanted to scratch. Still, I couldn’t give in, especially since Venture was so close.
After a minute, Venture began walking down this Aisle. Why he’d chosen this aisle rather than any of the others, I had no idea. But when he walked right past me, I had to fight back the nearly overwhelming urge to jump out and go ‘BOO!’
Just as I thought I was in the clear, Venture abruptly stopped, then turned around to give me another look. He probably realized that I was wearing the wrong costume, because he raised his arm and launched an attack. There was a flash of light, then a net made of energy shot out at me.
I dove to the side, avoiding the net, though only barely. “Hey,” I exclaimed. “I’ll have you know that I’m a priceless collector’s item.”
“The Imp,” Venture said in surprise.
“I am the IMPostor,” I announced, turning and running for the elevator.
Venture yelled, “Lockdown.” Suddenly, the elevator doors shut and locked with a loud click. “Whomever you are, you won’t escape.”
“We’ll just see about that,” I responded.
The hero held out his arms and both of his weaponized wrist bracers activated. The first fired a blast of energy at me, and when I dove to the side to dodge it, I found myself right in the path of the energy net he’d fired with the second.
I swung Pitchy, catching the net and knocking it aside. “Well, fork you,” I called out, knowing that I’d have to find another way out.
While I ran away from Venture, I tried to think of how I could get back to the elevator and the locked door before he caught up with me. Unfortunately, that elevator was the only point of entrance for the Vault. I mean, this place didn’t even have a ventilation system big enough for me to crawl through. How much more inconsiderate can you be than that?
“I knew this job was a bad idea,” I muttered in annoyance.
There was a reason that I’d hired Rebar to lure Venture away, because I needed the extra time to get through this place. Now, in spite of my precaution, Venture was here, blocking my escape. I HATED going into a place with only one possible exit. This kind of bottleneck was always a risk, the kind I preferred to avoid. Unfortunately, this time it couldn’t be helped.
I needed to distract Venture, and I needed to do it fast. “Wow,” I exclaimed, “this place is a dump. What have you been doing, raiding villains’ garbage?”
Venture responded by throwing some kind of grenade at me. It hit the ground and exploded, sending strands of sticky goo shooting out in all directions. Several of them hit my thigh and leg, then immediately hardened so that they were like ropes, tying me to the ground where the grenade had gone off.
“Oooh, nasty,” I gasped.
I lashed out with my tail, forming a PK blade on the tip, and slicing right through these strands. Then, for good measure, I shifted my PK shell to knock the remaining pieces of strand away from where they connected to me.
“No need to feel too bad about it,” I called back. “I hear lots of guys come early…”
“Surrender now,” Venture called back, “and I’ll go easy on you.”
“You know, this is a hoarder’s paradise,” I responded, still running down an aisle and using the figures and display cases as cover. “You must have hit every flea market in three states.” Then for good measure, I added, “Hey, is that Cinder Ella’s underwear? Oooh, you nasty pervert…”
Unfortunately, Venture seemed to ignore my taunts, which was annoying since I was trying to push his buttons. If I could get him angry and off balance, then he wouldn’t be thinking as clearly and would be easier to deal with.
The hero continued coming at me, firing energy blasts, nets, and more of those sticky nets. I sliced a net with my tail, used Pitchy to knock a display case over to take the brunt of a grenade, and then leapt out of the way. I dodged one attack after another, but they kept coming.
“Fast as fast can be,” I called out mockingly, “you’ll never catch me…”
Another energy net came at me, so I reached out with my tail and yanked one of the mannequins into its path. “Sorry about your underoos, Lord Basilisk.”
It was at this point that I realized Venture was no longer just attacking me, he was actively trying to herd me… But where? I quickly glanced around, not sure exactly where he was trying to direct me, only that it would be a bad idea for me to go there. He probably had some kind of trap or cage set up, or maybe just some kind of bottleneck that would keep me in place long enough to get netted. No thank you.
I decided that it was time to cut this chase short and make my escape. With that in mind, I threw myself around a large display case, into the next aisle, and as soon as I was out of sight, I activated my chameleon field. I crouched down low, keeping Pitchy next to the floor where it would be too low to be seen. Unfortunately, Pitchy was too big for me to cover with my aura, which was one of the reasons I’d never bothered replacing it.
Venture came around the corner and immediately fired another net, directly at me, as though he didn’t even realize I was supposed to be invisible. I silently cursed and leapt out of the way. How…? His helmet… But how? Was he using thermal scanning? Sonic detection? Something else? I had no idea, and that was a problem. Obviously, he could see me while I was camouflaged, and if I knew how he was doing it, I’d be able to adjust my aura to hide. But if I didn’t know…
“Shazbot,” I exclaimed in frustration.
This hero was REALLY starting to annoy me. My vanishing trick didn’t work on him and he seemed to be ignoring my clever and witty banter. Why wasn’t he getting distracted? And more importantly, how the hell was I supposed to beat a guy who seemed immune to most of my tricks.
“Fortunately,” I reminded myself with an evil grin, “I’m surrounded by other people’s tricks…”
I snatched three grenades off a display for Trick and Treat, grinning as I did so. Those two had always been a lot of fun, and what happened to them had been a real shame. Still, I had a couple of their toys, and they were bound to be useful. A couple seconds later, all three grenades went flying at Venture.
One grenade exploded into a shower of brightly colored confetti. I knew that there was probably some effect besides that, though I certainly couldn’t tell from looking. The second grenade exploded in a thick green fog, which smelled absolutely horrible. There were students at Whateley who made nastier stink bombs than that, but this one was still pretty effective. Or at least, it would have been for someone who wasn’t wearing a helmet with a built-in filter. Venture walked straight through the confetti and the fog as though he barely even noticed them.
The third grenade actually exploded for real, sending Venture flying into one of his display cases, which shattered from the impact. However, I had no doubt that his lightweight armor had protected him from any real injury, though he was bound to be pissed. A couple seconds later, he was back on his feet and coming at me again.
I growled to myself, “Who is this guy, the Terminator?” I’d much rather be dealing with Elmer Fudd.
As much as I hated to admit it, Venture, in spite of his creepy hobby, was actually pretty good. He was staying calm and focused, coming at me methodically, and he seemed to have a plan. A plan that I was doing my best to avoid, of course.
There was a figure beside me, which was dressed in some kind of black knight armor and holding a large metal shield. The label for this figure said, “THE BLACK SHIELD’S SHIELD’. A shield was just what I needed, so I snatched it off the figure, just in time to block an energy blast.
With the shield on one arm and Pitchy in my other hand, I was starting to feel a little more confident. However, I knew better than to really believe it. After all, I was better at running and hiding than at straight-out combat, and that happened to be what Venture specialized in.
Venture suddenly shot up into the air, using a pair of rocket boots, where he went up and over me. He came down right on my other side, and I snapped around just in time to block one of his punches with the shield. But a second later, he lashed out and tore the shield right out of my hand, then casually tossed it aside.
He threw a punch at me but I dropped down, exclaiming, “DUCK season!”
Unfortunately, Venture must have lost his script because he failed to respond with ‘wabbit season’. Instead, he quickly reached out with his other hand and managed to grab hold of my shoulder. I shifted my aura so that it became frictionless, then I slipped right out of his grip and retaliated by kneeing him in the crotch. He was wearing protection, and not the thin rubber kind.
Since nothing else was working, it looked like I’d have to play dirty. I didn’t like doing this, but Venture wasn’t giving me much choice. So with that, I focused my aura and formed my PK claws. These would go through his armor without much problem.
Before I could do anything, Venture used his jet boots again to launch him up and back away from me. At the same time, he threw out his arms and fired a burst of darts from his wrist bracers, at least a dozen of them. I leapt back as well, shifting power in my aura from my blades to my front side, trying to protect myself from the darts. It worked as about half the darts hit me, but not one got through.
If Venture was surprised that I’d shrugged off his darts, he didn’t show it. Then again, with that helmet on, I couldn’t see any of his expressions. For all I knew, he was sticking his tongue out at me and making funny faces. That’s what I would have done if I had a full helmet like that.
“So, you want to throw things,” I said, deciding to return the favor. A moment later, I threw one of my spikes at him, one augmented with a little ‘oomph’ from my aura.
Venture leapt to the side, but my spike still grazed his arm, tearing a nice little gouge through his armored costume, though not doing any serious damage. I followed that up with a second spike, which hit one of his bracer weapons. I didn’t know if I’d damaged the thing, but I certainly hoped so.
I turned and ran, desperately looking at all the trophies and displays in the hope of finding something I could use. Tech Head’s drones. Destroya’s power bands. Deathmonger’s staff. Steelskin’s arm… I did a double take at that. Steelskin might be a cyborg, but to take his arm as a trophy was just wrong.
Then I saw it, a high-tech devisor weapon that would take two hands to properly wield. Beneath it was the label ‘KID CHAOS’ DISRUPTOR CANNON’.
I’d run into Kid Chaos once, and it hadn’t been a very pleasant for either of us. He’d been an avowed anarchist, with absolutely zero respect for the rules of professionalism. In fact, he’d been a total heel, the kind that professional villains refused to work with. And when I’d heard that some hero had killed him, I’d actually gone out to celebrate.
However, even though I couldn’t stand Kid Chaos on either a personal or professional level, I had seen how his gear worked, and I had a good idea of how to use it. So, with an evil chuckle, I snatched up the disruptor cannon and hoped that it still worked better than Pitchy did.
“Gee, I wonder what this does,” I said in an innocent tone as I took aim.
“DON’T FIRE THAT,” Venture yelled, leaping to the side and avoiding the beam of energy.
Fortunately for Venture, I hadn’t actually been aiming at him. Instead, I’d been aiming at the elevator. The disruptor cannon’s blast hit the elevator, and in the next couple seconds, the armored door crumbled and disintegrated, as did the elevator itself.
“Bada bing, bada BOOM,” I exclaimed, dropping the weapon and running straight for what was left of the elevator, as fast as I could. Right before diving into the wreckage, I called out, “See ya later, Wally Gator.”
The elevator was gone, but the shaft was still present, and I climbed up it as quickly as I could move. I saw the door to the garage level, sealed and locked shut, the same way the other door had been. Ignoring that door, I scrambled up another floor, then paused at the next set of doors. Then, I formed my PK claws and began to cut. It didn’t take long for me to get through.
I heard noise from the elevator shaft below me and realized that Venture was following. Fortunately, he couldn’t climb nearly as well as I could, which was going to slow him down. Hopefully, it would slow him down enough for me to finish my escape.
“Now, where to go?” I mused, taking a quick look around the second floor.
As I’d been told, the second floor had been set up as a training facility, with a gym, an empty area for sparring, and even a small shooting range. However, I wasn’t interested in any of that. The only thing I was interested in was the way out.
I ran straight for the wall, which was lined with metal plates. All of the windows had been sealed with these plates, which would definitely help to keep intruders from getting in…or from getting out. For a moment, I really wished that I hadn’t left the disruptor cannon behind, then I went to work with my PK claws, just like I had on the door. I had just finished cutting a hole through the metal plate and the window behind it, when Venture finally emerged from the elevator shaft.
“Too late,” I said with a grin, flicking my tail back and forth. I took one more look back at the hero and announced, “Th…th..that’s all folks,” before diving through the opening and taking my leave.
Once I’d escaped Venture’s hideout, I suddenly had a lot more options. There were numerous directions I could go and countless routes I could take, several of which had been set up and prepared ahead of time. From this point, my escape was nearly a foregone conclusion.
A few minutes later, I was in an empty room in a nearby building, a room that I’d identified earlier just for such a purpose. I let out a sigh of relief, sure that I’d lost Venture. He’d have a hard time finding me here, even if he knew which building I’d gone into.
“That didn’t go as well as I’d hoped,” I said with a shake of my head. Of course, this job hadn’t gone as badly as I’d feared either.
Still, I’d encountered Venture, which was something that I’d hoped to avoid entirely. He didn’t strike me as the kind of hero who’d just let this go, especially not after I’d recovered a couple of his trophies and had made such a mess of his headquarters. And while I didn’t think that he’d be hooking up with the Imp Revenge Squad, I strongly suspected that this wasn’t over. Sooner or later, I’d have to deal with Venture again.
“At least I have you back,” I said, looking at Pitchy.
It wasn’t like I was going to start carrying this thing around again, especially after going so long without it. However, it was nice to have Pitchy back, just for the memories, if nothing else. In the end, it would probably end up hanging on my wall.
With that, I pushed a hidden button and twisted Pitchy’s shaft in just the right spot, releasing the hidden catch. A moment later, the shaft snapped loose and began to fold in several places. Pitchy was now in four equal length sections, and it folded up until it was now only a quarter of its overall length, making it smaller and more manageable.
Back in the old days, I used to wear a holster for Pitchy on my back, hidden beneath the capelets. That kept the compacted weapon close to my body, where I could easily cover it with my aura. However, since I no longer had such a harness, I simply stuck Pitchy into my backpack instead.
“And now for you,” I said, holding up the scepter that I’d just stolen. Once I gave this to Doc, my debt would finally be repaid.
I carefully placed the scepter back into my backpack, right beside Pitchy. Then I grabbed the oversized coat and wide-brimmed hat that I’d previously stashed in the room, got ready to go out in public. After all, I had another plane to go catch.
Upstate NY, Sunday morning, Dec 2nd, 2007
I stood at the doorstep of Doc’s house, calmly waiting for Lurch to open the door. At the same time, I kind of hoped that this time I’d get Cousin It, Fester, or maybe Morticia…
“Naw,” I chuckled to myself. “She’s back at Whateley.” Still, the next time I came, I’d have to bring Grimes, just to help with the ambience.
A few seconds later, the door opened and Lurch stood there, looking tired. Of course, this was pretty early in the morning, and considering how long it took for anyone to answer the doorbell, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d had to get out of bed first.
“Can Doc come out and play?” I asked in a childish tone.
Lurch gave me a flat look at first, though something that looked like hope suddenly crossed over his face. “Did you get it?”
I didn’t answer Lurch since Doc was the one I was working for, not his butler. However, Lurch nodded, then gestured for me to come inside, suddenly seeming a little livelier than before.
This time, instead of taking me to the den, like the last time I’d been here, Lurch brought me to what looked like a formal living room. The furniture still looked antique, but it was a lot less cluttered and a lot less personal…or comfortable.
“Please wait here,” Lurch told me. “I’ll go get him.”
As soon as Lurch was gone, I began to slowly walk around the room, looking at the artwork on the walls. There were several paintings, and one of them caught my attention because it was so well done. I didn’t recognize the artist, but there was no doubt that they were talented.
“Do you like it?” a voice asked from behind me.
I turned to see Doc at the doorway, sitting in a motorized wheelchair. As bad as he’d looked the last time I saw him, he seemed even worse now, somehow. Still, he tried sitting up straight as he stared at me, even though it was obviously taking a lot of effort.
“It’s beautiful,” I admitted. “If I wasn’t retired, I’d seriously consider stealing it.”
Doc blinked at that. “Retired?”
“I retired from my old career last summer,” I said with a shrug. “The only reason I took this job was because you called in the favor.”
Doc scowled as he responded, “I find that hard to believe, Imp.”
I shrugged again in response. “Then you’ll find it even harder to believe that I’m now working as a high school art teacher.” From his expression, he did doubt that, so I couldn’t resist pushing things a little more. “And that I’m working for Lady Astarte now.”
For a moment, Doc just stared at me with an unreadable expression, and I expected him to call me on what he probably assumed were a couple of tall tales. However, instead of that, he looked up at the painting, smiling just slightly as he did so.
“My wife painted that,” Doc finally said in a rough voice. “Before her passing…”
“She was very talented,” I told him with a nod of my head. Doc had been single for as long as I’ve known him, so his wife must have died a long time ago.
“She was,” he agreed. His tone was even, but there was no mistaking the grief. A moment later, he abruptly asked, “Did you get it?”
For my answer, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the scepter. Doc’s eyes seemed to light up at the sight of it while a faint smile formed on his lips.
“After all this time,” he whispered hoarsely.
I gently handed the scepter to Doc, who snatched it up, though the item seemed too heavy for him to properly lift. However, that didn’t seem to bother him much. He just stared at the scepter as though it was a long lost loved one.
“What now?” I asked Doc curiously. “Are you going to fix yourself up and come out of retirement?”
Doc tore his eyes from the scepter and fixed them on me. “It’s too late for that,” he answered, his voice noticeably weaker than it had been a few minutes earlier. He was exhausting himself, just talking to me. “I’m dying and have very little time left. Its too late for even this to save me…” His eyes went back to the scepter.
I just stared at Doc, not sure of what to say to that. I shouldn’t have been surprised by that announcement since he looked like he was on the verge of death, but I was anyway. I’d assumed that this was why he’d wanted to the scepter back so badly, that he would have used it to save himself.
“Then,” I started slowly, “what are you going to do with it? Why send me after the thing if it couldn’t help you?”
There was a long paused and I was beginning to fear that Doc hadn’t heard me. Then he finally said, “You’ve met my grandson, James.”
He looked towards the door and I was startled to realize that he meant Lurch. Lurch was his grandson?
“James’ daughter,” Doc continued, choking a little, “My granddaughter Sarah, has a degenerative disease that is slowly killing her… I’m old and have lived a long life. My deterioration is…painful…but Sarah’s is a true tragedy.” The scepter was sitting in his lap and he put a trembling hand on top of it. “If she bonds to my scepter…it will not only halt the progression of her disease…but reverse it.”
“Is there…is there anything I can do to help?” I gently asked Doc.
“You’ve already done it,” he assured me with a weak smile. “You’ve just fulfilled a dying man’s last wish, and have ensured that Sarah has a chance at a long and healthy life…”
Doc looked like he was about to say something more, but then he began coughing in a loud and gasping fit. Lurch…James came running into the room to check on him while I stepped back, feeling depressed at the sight. Doc was dying and it didn’t seem possible.
Once the coughing fit had passed, Doc was left even more drained. I was pretty sure that he was completely out of it, but he looked up at me one final time and gasped, “Thank you, Imp…”
“You’re welcome Doc,” I told him. Then I forced a smile and said, “And thank you, Doctor Miracle,” before I turned and left, knowing that this was the last time I would ever see one of the few superheroes I’d ever truly respected.
Rochester NY, Sunday afternoon, Dec 2nd, 2007
I stood on the front porch with a knot in my stomach and my finger on the doorbell. My hand actually trembled a little as I pressed it.
‘RUN,’ nearly every instinct screamed. ‘HIDE’.
I shouldn’t be here. I should have come a long time ago. I should run. I needed to stay. This was something that I shouldn’t be doing, yet, it was something that I needed to do.
My eyes closed and my heart raced, threatening to jump up into my throat. It was strange that I’d feel far more nervous about ringing a doorbell than I did about pulling a heist. Compared to this, dealing with Venture had been child’s play.
This morning, talking with Doc had been something of an eye-opening experience. He’d reminded me of my own mortality, and the simple fact that tomorrow was never guaranteed. There was something I needed to do, someone I needed to talk to, and I had to do it while I still had the opportunity.
When the door opened, a woman stood there, staring at me with a look of surprise. She was middle-aged, blonde, and still in good shape for her age.
“Hello?” she asked a little awkwardly.
“Hello,” I responded nervously, removing my hat so that she had a clear look at me without any disguises. “I’m here to talk to you about Aeg…Chris. I’m…”
“I know who you are,” she blurted out in surprise.
I blinked at that. “You do?”
“You’re Ms. Imp,” she responded with a cautious smile. “Chris told me all about you…”
“He did?” I asked with a wry smile. “Then I imagine it wasn’t anything good.”
“Well,” she said carefully, “Chris said that you used to be some kind of cat burglar…”
I gasped in mock offense. “I am not a cat burglar. I’ve never stolen a cat before in my life.”
She chuckled at that and gave me a look of amusement. “Chris also said that you taught him more than any other teacher at that school…and that the things you taught him saved his life.”
That surprised me a bit because I hadn’t imagined that Aegis…that Chris would admit that to anyone, especially while also talking about my previous career. After all, when I first started to tutor him in his powers, he’d been pretty unhappy about being taught by a supervillain.
“I’m Susan Matthews,” she said, giving me an honest smile. “Do you want to come in and talk?”
“I think that would be a little easier than talking out here,” I said in agreement.
Not to mention, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for the neighbors to see me there. A lot of people tended to overreact at the sight of me, and I didn’t want to cause any problems for Susan and her family because of that.
As we went inside, Susan asked, “Would you like some coffee?”
“Sure,” I responded, wondering if it would be too much to ask for something a little stronger, like maybe, some of Shine’s best.
A short time later, we were sitting down in the living room, sipping from cups of coffee. It was a little awkward, but Susan was being very polite. She’d barely even blinked at my imp-ossibly good looks.
“So,” I finally said. “Tell me about Chris.”
Susan seemed just a little startled at that, perhaps wondering why her son’s teacher had come to visit her, only to ask about him. However, if Susan was confused by this, she didn’t really show it.
“Chris is a good boy,” she started, looking rather proud. “A little…stubborn at times…”
“That’s an understatement,” I muttered in agreement, earning a curious look. “But it can be a useful trait,” I added a few seconds later, “as long as you can keep him focused on something positive.”
“Exactly,” Susan said, nodding her own agreement. “You wouldn’t believe how long he spent practicing with his sports… He never let any setback stop him for long. He was so determined to become a professional athlete…” Her expression saddened a little. “When he manifested and realized that he could never compete professionally, he was heartbroken…”
“He seems to have found a new goal,” I pointed out wryly.
Susan chuckled at that. “Yes. Now, he wants to be a superhero…”
“He has…potential,” I assured Susan, chuckling myself. “At first, his stubbornness was getting in his way, but now, he’s making progress.”
Susan gave me a thoughtful look. “From what Chris said, he owes that all to you…”
I shrugged at that. “He’s an interesting student…and determined. All I had to do was point him in the right direction and let his own stubbornness keep him going.”
My host smiled, looking rather proud of her son. I didn’t blame her. When I’d first met Chris, he’d been a bit of an idiot, on the path to become another Barney or Jack Ass. I was happy to get him off that path, and onto one where he might become a real hero one day.
“Chris is a blessing,” Susan said quietly. She gave me a faint smile and continued, “I don’t know if you know this, but we adopted him…”
“I’d heard that,” I responded quietly.
Susan nodded as she continued with a sad tone. “My first husband…Greg… Greg and I tried having children, but unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, so we adopted…”
She took a long sip from her coffee, and as I watched, I could see the memories clouding her eyes. I wasn’t even sure how much she was really aware of my presence anymore.
“Greg passed away when Chris was just a toddler,” she said, the ache in her voice clear. She still grieved for Greg. “Alan, my current husband, came along a couple years later, and he accepted Chris as his own. Alan is the only father that Chris has ever really known…”
“Where is Alan now?” I asked curiously.
“He’s at work,” Susan replied. “He should be home in a couple hours…”
“It’s a shame I’m missing him,” I lied.
I was actually quite thankful that he wasn’t home since he wasn’t the one I wanted to deal with. In fact, his presence could have made this even harder, if not impossible.
Susan nodded politely, though I didn’t think she actually believed me. Instead, her eyes were still clouded with memories, enough that she easily slipped back into her previous line of thought.
“When Chris came into our lives,” Susan said with a smile, “Greg and I were ecstatic. We were delighted to have a child of our own. Then she chuckled and shook her head sadly before adding, “I actually named Chris after an old friend of mine…my best friend growing up.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Of course,” Susan said with a chuckle. “I couldn’t just call him Candice. She hated that name anyway… But her middle name was Christine, and she’d always preferred that one. So, I named Chris after her…”
“His first name is Christine?” I weakly joked, which was hard since my heart felt like it was jumping up into my throat and it was hard to speak. Tears were even threatening to form, though I held them back.
“Christopher,” Susan corrected with a look of amusement. “I had to make some adjustment.”
“Of course,” I agreed with a weak smile, still choking up. “That must have been quite some friend to name your son after her…”
“She was,” Susan assured me. “Candice was…unique. She was crazy…but a lot of fun.” Then her expression turned sad again. “Unfortunately, when we were around Chris’ age, she got sick and passed away…”
“That’s…horrible,” I said, my voice shaking. I was no longer sure I could trust myself to speak. Susan didn’t seem to notice.
Susan let out a sigh, then she began to smile, even if it was a sad one. “Candice always found the most interesting ways to get into trouble…and she always took me along for the ride. I remember one time, when we were about twelve, Candice and I skipped school and snuck out to go see Ms. Might, who was doing some kind of publicity event at the mall. Candice actually yelled that there was a superhero fight outside, and when everyone else ran off to go see…she walked right up to Ms. Might and asked for an autograph. The look on that hero’s face was priceless…”
“I imagine,” I responded with a grin and a swish of my tail. It was an expression I’d never forgotten.
“And then there was this one time,” Susan continued with a chuckle, “where Candice greased the hallway in our school, then pulled the fire alarm.” She was laughing and snorting at this point, but managed to continue, “Everyone ran out into the hallway, then started slipping and sliding… Mrs. Holbert slid right down the middle and…”
Susan was now laughing too hard to continue, so I couldn’t resist taking over. “And old Hold Fart slid right into a group of teachers and knocked them all over like they were a bunch of bowling pins.”
I was laughing right along with her as I remembered the incident. I’d been grounded for two whole months, but it had been totally worth it.
“How did you know that?” Susan blurted out, staring at me in surprise. “And Hold Fart…? The only one who called Hobart that was…”
With a nervous smile, I said, “Heya, Suzie Q. It’s been a long time.”
Susan’s eyes shot wide. “What?” She stared at me in confusion and stunned disbelief. “Nobody has called me Suzie Q since Candice… Who are you?”
“I am Candice,” I assured her, giving a nervous smile. “But I don’t really use that name anymore…”
“You can’t be,” Susan exclaimed, looking more than a little shaken. “Candice is dead…”
“Not dead,” I responded, gesturing to my horns and the fine black scales that covered most of the upper part of my face. “I came down with a bad case of GSD, and my parents were too ashamed to let anyone know…so they told everyone I died instead.”
I gestured for Susan to sit back down since she’d jumped to her feet during the excitement. I felt guilty for coming back into her life like this…and for leaving it the way I did in the first place.
“Danny Boy called me a hideous monster,” I said in a quiet voice. “My parents practically locked me in the basement for six months. Eventually, I ran away…”
“Candice?” Susan asked me after a few seconds. “Is that really you?”
“Yeah,” I replied with a sigh. “But I really prefer Christine.”
“Holy shit,” Susan gasped, still staring at me. “Why didn’t you tell me? I thought you were dead…”
I stared down at my hands, unable to meet her eyes. “I…I was ashamed of how I looked,” I quietly admitted. “And after the way my family treated me, I was afraid of how you’d react. I was afraid that you’d turn on me too…”
“I wouldn’t have,” Susan insisted, giving me a look as though silently pleading with me to believe her. “I never would have treated you like that…”
That brought a smile back to my lips. “I know that now,” I said. “Back then…” I shook my head.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
At first, I didn’t answer. I just sat there for half a minute, maybe even longer. I wasn’t used to giving out my life story, even to someone who’d been such a key part of the first third. Then I let out a sigh.
“After running away,” I began to explain, “I ended up on the streets, dodging cops and superheroes who thought I was some kind of monster that had to be stopped.” Susan gave me a look of pity, though I tried to ignore it. “Eventually, I was taken in by a gang of thieves who gave me a new home and a career.”
“You really are a cat burglar,” she said, sounding surprised. As if Chris hadn’t already told her that.
“Art thief,” I corrected. “Forger. And of course, supervillain.” Then, I gave her a wry smile and a shrug. “All former. Now, I’m just a teacher.”
There was an uncomfortable silence after that, so after a couple seconds, I admitted, “I went back.”
“What?” Susan asked, still a bit shaken from these revelations.
“After a couple years,” I quietly told her, “I went back to see you. But when I got there…I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to explain…so I didn’t. And the longer I waited, the harder it seemed.”
“Candice,” Susan started. “Christine…”
“I kept track of you,” I admitted, no longer looking at Susan. “Of your life. You might not have seen me…but I was watching. “When you married Greg, I was happy for you. I even got you a wedding present.”
“The toaster,” Susan blurted out. “It played pop goes the weasel whenever it popped the toast…and absolutely nobody would admit to giving it to us. But…I’d always imagined that it was Candice’s ghost…your ghost.”
I nodded acknowledgement, then took a deep breath and forced myself to continue. “I saw when you and Greg tried adopting…and when they turned you down. I thought it was a tragedy because I knew you’d make great parents. But at the same time, I thought it must be fate.”
“Fate?” Susan asked.
“Fate,” I repeated, though my voice cracked. “You desperately wanted a child but couldn’t have one, and I…” My heart leapt up into my throat and tears welled up in my eyes. “I had one that I couldn’t take care of.”
“Couldn’t…,” Susan gasped, her eyes going wide in understanding. “You’re his birth mother…”
“Yes,” I whispered, the tears now running free.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at Susan. This was my greatest secret, the one I hadn’t shared with anyone. To finally reveal it now, after all this time, was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, yet once I began, I couldn’t stop.
“It was a very hard time for me,” I explained quietly. “I was a professional thief…a supervillain with lots of enemies. I even had a price on my head…and a series of hitmen coming after me to collect.”
“My God,” Susan gasped, looking a bit nauseous.
“But in spite of that,” I admitted, giving a pained smile, “I planned to retire. I was going to find a nice safe place to raise my baby…for us to be a family. I had a dream for our future…a hope…” Then I paused and shook my head, bitterly adding, “I should have known better…”
Susan visibly gulped. “What…? What happened?”
“A superhero happened,” I answered, spitting out the word ‘superhero’. “I was still pregnant at the time and had started my…maternal leave. I was minding my own business, not causing any trouble when…I was attacked. He beat me nearly to death, then tried to finish the job.” I snarled as the old rage bubbled to the surface. “It was a miracle that I…that we survived.”
Susan gasped, putting a hand over her mouth and staring at me with a look of horror. I could see the concern in her eyes, along with the tears which matched the ones in mine.
“I realized that I’d been fooling myself,” I said, my voice shaking. “I couldn’t just retire and disappear… The world wouldn’t let me. And even worse, I realized that no child of mine had a chance… Even if my enemies didn’t get him, what kind of life could I possibly have offered? What kind of life could I have given him? One where we were always running and hiding? One where we couldn’t go out in public together? Where he couldn’t go to school or have any real friends?”
I paused at that to wipe the tears from my eyes, though they were quickly replaced. Then, I looked up and met Susan’s eyes, willing her to understand.
“So, I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I told her. “I gave him up. I gave him to someone I trusted, who would raise him as her own, who would give him a loving home, and a normal life. I gave him to someone who could give him everything I couldn’t.”
“Candice,” Susan whispered. “Christine…”
I just closed my eyes and muttered, “I hate that bastard…that so-called hero… In the end, he might not have killed my baby, but he still made me lose my child anyway. He took my hopes…my dreams for the future. He broke my heart and then had the arrogance to act like he was the good guy…”
After a few seconds of just seething in the old grudge, I shook my head and let it fade. I had to remind myself that my baby still lived… That I might not have raised my son, but he was alive, healthy, and happy. In the end, Barney had failed.
“I arranged the adoption,” I continued. “I only saw him once…immediately after he was born, before I gave him up…” The tears were coming again. “And after I did this, after I gave him to you… I couldn’t bare the pain of seeing what I’d given up, so I stopped watching over you. I didn’t know about Greg’s passing or about your marriage to Alan…”
Susan stared at me for several long seconds, and I could still see the sympathy and understanding in her eyes. “Thank you for that gift,” she finally told me, her voice shaking a bit as well. “I imagine it must have been hard then, when Chris arrived at Whateley…”
“No,” I responded with a weak chuckle and a shake of my head. “I had absolutely no idea… I mean, if he’d been using Greg’s last name, Peyton, I probably would have caught on. But Matthews? That name didn’t mean anything to me. I only found out the other day…and purely by accident.”
“Does Chris know?” Susan asked, looking perhaps a little worried.
“No,” I answered, reaching into my pocket and pulling out that funky magic necklace. It was dead at the moment, or at least, not moving. Once I got back within range of Chris though, it would probably come back to life and point at him. “I don’t think he does. I suspect that he was close to finding out but…lost the opportunity.”
Susan let out a sigh and then rubbed at her temples. “What is he going to say when we tell him?”
“No,” I responded sharply, making Susan jump a little. “He can’t know…”
“What?” Susan asked in surprise. “But you’re his mother…”
“I can’t be his mother,” I answered quietly, feeling an ache through my heart. “He already has a mother, and it isn’t me…”
“But Candice,” Susan started to protest. “Christine…”
“I…I gave that up,” I told her. “I’ve regretted the need to do it every single day since…but its too late to take back.” Then I took a deep breath and continued, “Besides, there are some things he’d be happier not knowing…”
Chris wanted to become a superhero, so I could only imagine how horrified he’d be to discover that I was his mother. To find out that he qualified for membership in the Bad Seeds. That knowledge could break him, or at least, drive him away from his chosen path.
There was another reason as well, one a little more selfish. The baby I’d given up and had never expected to see again, was in my life, and I could see him…interact with him on a regular basis. It might not be much, but it was more than I’d allowed myself to hope for in many years.
One of the reasons I’d been so successful as a thief was that I knew not to get too greedy. If you tried to take more than you could carry, or more than you could get away with, you’d lose everything. I refused to risk what I had now by getting too greedy.
Susan gave me a serious look. “Chris deserves to know.”
“Maybe,” I reluctantly agreed. “Probably.” I shook my head and let out a sigh. “But not now. He’s already having a hard time and this would only make it a lot worse for him. Trust me, this isn’t the kind of thing he’d be happy knowing.”
Susan scowled but didn’t argue. “Then what are you going to do?”
I considered this for a few seconds before answering, “I’m going to keep being his teacher. I’m going to be the best damn teacher he’s ever had.” With that, I sat up straighter, having decided on my course of action. “I’m going to do the best thing I can for him…and help him become the best hero he can be.”
Even as I said this, my heart ached. To be so close yet so far, and all because of my own choices. Still, it was the best decision I could make, for Chris and myself.
Susan didn’t say a word at this, though I could see the tears in her eyes. She came over and gave me a comforting hug while my own tears flowed freely once again.
The Village, Sunday evening, Dec 2nd, 2007
It had been a long and emotionally exhausting weekend, so I was glad to be home, or at least, back at my second home at Whateley. I was looking forward to climbing into bed, though I suspected that I wouldn’t be able to get much sleep. As tired as I was, my mind was still racing far too much.
When I reached the door to my apartment, I was surprised to see a familiar figure standing there. “Ryan,” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
My boyfriend smiled at me, though his expression was a little tight and worried. “I felt bad about missing your show the other night,” he answered, “and was originally going to come visit today to try making up for that…”
“I’m glad to see you,” I said, unlocking the door to my apartment. “But isn’t it a little late to show up?” Then I paused, mentally going over what he’d said. “You said originally…”
Ryan nodded. “We need to talk.” Then he paused before adding, “Or in your language, Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.”
I snickered a little at that since he actually was speaking my language. That also told me exactly what this was about, which made me a little nervous since I’d been hoping he’d never find out.
“What do you mean?” I asked in my best innocent voice. It didn’t work.
“This morning,” Ryan said in a grim tone, “Venture contacted me…asking about you.”
“What did you tell him?” I asked, going into my apartment and gesturing for Ryan to come inside.
I didn’t bother to ask why Venture had contacted him. Chickenhawk was the hero that I’d run into the most often over the last decade, so it made sense that if any other heroes had questions about me, that they’d ask him.
Without saying another word, I activated a small anti-eavesdropping devise that I kept handy for when I wanted to keep my conversations private. This definitely counted.
“I told him that you were supposed to be retired,” Ryan answered. “And that I had absolutely no idea why you’d be stealing from him.”
“Stealing from HIM?” I asked with a snort. “That guy has a whole warehouse full of stolen goods, including something that belonged to me. He’s almost as big a thief as I am.”
“Christine,” Ryan said, but I continued.
“For once,” I stated, grabbing a couple wine glasses and reaching for a bottle of wine, “I was actually recovering stolen property and returning it to the rightful owner…”
Ryan let out a sigh, then asked, “What’s going on?”
I stared at Ryan for a moment, pleased to note that he wasn’t coming at me with accusations like he would have done in the old days. He’d grown past that kind of thing, which made him a much better hero than he used to be. Instead, he was calmly trying to find out what was going on, so he deserved an honest answer.
“Last week,” I began carefully, “an old associate contacted me and called in a favor.” I gave Ryan a serious look and tried to explain. “This was a serious favor…a solid. The kind of favor that you can’t turn down.”
“Okay,” Ryan said cautiously. “I assume that this associate asked you to steal something from Venture…”
“Recover,” I corrected. “Doc wanted me to recover something that had been stolen from him.”
“Doc?” Ryan asked, giving me a look that seemed equal parts curiosity and worry. “Doctor who? Diabolik? Avarice? Macabre?” Then he smiled just faintly and added, “Evil?”
I liked the movie reference, but for once, I didn’t take the opening for a joke of my own. Instead, I quietly answered, “Miracle.”
“Miracle?” Ryan repeated with a look of surprise. “As in Doctor Miracle? The hero?”
“Yeah,” I nodded with a sigh.
Ryan’s eyes widened at that. “Doctor Miracle was MY hero growing up… He was the one who inspired me to become a hero…”
This was the first time Ryan had told me that, but I wasn’t surprised. Doctor Miracle had inspired a lot of people, and there was a good reason that he was one of the few heroes I’d ever respected.
Doctor Miracle had been one of the first costumed heroes, and he’d been active since the late thirties or early forties. But unlike a lot of so-called heroes, he didn’t really chase after criminals. In fact, he’d once told me that he was a doctor, not a cop, and that his job was to save lives…not punish bad guys. Sure, he fought his share of villains, but that had always been secondary to protecting civilians and saving lives.
“Doctor Miracle disappeared eleven years ago,” Ryan continued, still looking a bit surprised. “I thought he was dead…”
“Not dead,” I told him, silently adding the ‘yet’. “Just forcibly retired.” I paused for a moment, scowling as I did so. “One of his enemies took him down…and left him broken and crippled…” Ryan gasped at that while I took a sip from my wine glass. “And they took his scepter…the source of all his power. With it, he could have healed himself without much problem, but without it…”
I paused again, thinking about what Doc looked like now and shuddering. Doc didn’t deserve to go out like this, and I hated to see him like that. The truth was, if he’d simply asked for my help, I probably would have given it without his even calling in my marker.
“Doc’s scepter halted his aging process,” I explained grimly. “Without it…he quickly aged to his true age.”
Ryan gulped at that. “But he’s been active since…”
I nodded at that. “He’s been trying to find his scepter ever since, and only recently learned that Venture had it. Apparently, Venture bought it on the black market for his collection. When Doc contacted him, asking for it back…even offering to pay a LOT…Venture refused.”
“So, he called you,” Ryan said in understanding. He hesitated a moment, then admitted, “In that position, I’d probably call you too. I can’t think of anyone better for that.”
“Thank you,” I responded with a faint smile at the compliment.
Ryan had a thoughtful look for a moment, then he gave me a hopeful look. “Since you succeeded on this job…does that mean Doctor Miracle will be coming out of retirement?”
“No,” I answered with a sad shake of my head. “He… His scepter can halt the aging process…but it can’t reverse it.” Then I let out a sigh before explaining. “He didn’t want the scepter back for himself. He wanted it to save someone else.”
“That seems appropriate,” he grudgingly admitted. Then he stared at me for several seconds again. “There’s one thing I don’t understand?”
“Only one?” I asked with a grin. “Then please, explain string theory to me, because I just don’t get it…”
“Smartass,” Ryan said with a chuckle.
“Always,” I agreed.
“What I don’t understand,” Ryan told me, “is how you ended up owing that kind of favor to Doctor Miracle.”
If there had ever been a good time for misdirection, it was now. However, I didn’t do that…at least not much.
“He once pulled me out of a river,” I answered honestly. “He saved my life…” My hand went to my stomach, almost of its own will. “And something even more important.”
Doc had never asked for payment, nor had he expected any. He’d saved me, a known supervillain, simply because he thought it was the right thing to do. I’d been so grateful and impressed, that I’d actually offered him the favor entirely on my own.
Ryan nodded in understanding, though he clearly didn’t really understand and I wasn’t about to explain it to him at the moment. This was something I needed to tell him about…and Carson too…but not today. I couldn’t bring myself to go through that twice in one day.
I took a sip of wine, though my hands were starting to shake a little. A couple seconds later, I set the wine down and grabbed Ryan in a hug, catching him a little by surprise. He hugged me back, clearly not knowing what brought this on, but sensing that I needed the comfort. Only then did I allow the tears to come again, though only one or two.
My past had come back with a vengeance, and all my greatest secrets had been revealed. This had been painful and difficult to face, but now that it was done, at least for Susan, there was a strange sense of relief. It was as though a bit of weight had been removed from my heart.
Now, I had to face the future that these revelations had opened for me. After thirty years, Suzie Q, my old best friend, was back in my life, and we were able to bond over the child we shared. Even more importantly, Chris had somehow returned to my life as well.
My child wouldn’t know what I was to him, but that wasn’t going to stop me from doing everything I could to help him achieve his dreams. I was going to help him… No, I was going to help THEM…the son of my blood and the daughter of my heart.