The hardest part was breaking routine. Routine is a good thing; it breeds method, which breeds reliability. Unfortunately, it also breeds predictability, which is a bad thing in my chosen field, which happens to be Supervillain Minion. The image that immediately pops into your mind is a large burly thug in a jumpsuit rushing to get his chops handed to him by a superhero. NO. Besides being a member of ATHUG, I’m also a card-carrying member of the IBEW and IASTE, which means that I get double scale, which is a lot better than the yahoos they pour into those jumpsuits get. My specialty is Security Systems, and a big part of my job is doing routine eyeball checks on various key entry points.
The problem is that I’ve been working for the Green Devil for six months straight, which is great for my bank account, but horrible for my life expectancy. Y’see, three months and six months are the crunch times for supervillains with bases. With Crime Sprees, it’s two months for getting the base together, two weeks of drilling and training for the goons to get them so they know what the boss wants them to do, then a week of prep time as they set up the actual crime, and another week where we either have to tear the whole thing down, or some stalwart champion of justice and decency comes to do it for us. Personally, I prefer it when the boss gets away with his grand scheme. Not only does it happen, but it happens often enough that this IS a business, y’know. Besides getting the nifty ‘successful completion’ bonus from the Syndicate, I do a little Payday Advance loan sharking, and I vastly prefer cash to the rinky-dink, shoddy, already obsolete personal electronics that these goons tend to put up as surety for their loans.
But this isn’t a Crime Spree or some big power play; the Green Devil is playing it smart by producing something for the supervillain market. I’m not 100% what, but then I’m an Electronics guy, not a Chem goon. He’s operating under the cover of a Craft Brewery, peddling Loch Lomond Beer™, with a good Bock, a decent Lager, a nice Pilsner, and a Stout that’s pretty damn good! I’m hoping that when the Green Devil either gets busted or moves on, he’ll arrange for legit operators to take over the brewery. But anyway, GD uses the brewery as a cover for his chemical refinery, and uses the beer trucks to move the less palatable product.
But as I said, it was right about six months in operation, which is the turnaround time for long-haul scams like this. Usually for this kind of operation, instead of some girder-bender in tights bashing his way through a reinforced concrete wall, we get some super-stealthy type who may or may not regard himself as some kind of ninja. The Green Devil’s being pretty savvy about this: he’s got teleport sensors at all the right places, and electrified meshes in the right areas. The meshes won’t stop someone who’s desolid, but they’ll give them a nasty zap, which they usually react to by reflexively going solid, which in the middle of reinforced concrete is pretty fatal. But it still comes down to the old standby: a live human being making rounds and doing eyeball checks of the security points. It’s a nasty job, but someone’s got to get paid double Union Scale plus benefits to do it.
I was halfway through my rounds, and I was seriously thinking that it might be a smart thing to disassemble my escape package before the Green Devil thinks to do a surprise audit, when an arm snaked around my neck. My attacker pulled me back into him, and there was a jabbing at my side, just below the floating ribs. But I wasn’t the one who went down. By pulling me against his chest, the wiseass activated my patent-pending ‘Back Urchin’; basically, it’s a very powerful hand shocker that’s strapped to my back just between and under the shoulder blades. When something presses against the plate that’s on the outside, the Urchin extends two 1-inch tines that penetrate both my clothing and usually whatever they’re wearing, and discharges a nasty 250 kilovolt zotz. It’s a good idea, and as soon as I get a few bugs ironed out, I am patenting this thing. Though putting a piece of insulating rubber with bypass foil over the place most likely to get tasered always helps.
Collecting myself, I checked out the guy who jumped me. Not a Cop, not SWAT, or FBI or a Federal Marshal, Thank God. Still, he had the good sense to be working a nice sensible modern urban commando ensemble instead of those stupid ninja outfits. I mean, dammit, they’re STAGE HAND COSTUMES! Then I noticed the allegiance patch on his shoulder- yes, insertion squads wear them, so they’ll know their own without being too obvious in the costume- it was a hexagon with a pentacle in the center and six mystical glyphs in the corners of the hexagon. This asshole worked for Hexagon, a C-list wizard supervillain. Shit; White Hats are bad enough when they come a-knocking, but Black Hats get bloody when they raid each other, and Wizards play a particularly nasty brand of hardball. I pulled out my cell phone and hit speed dial. “Wheels? Slim. Come and get me fast, this job just went down the crapper.” Then I hit the ‘Alert the Troops’ ultra. When I got responses, I said, “Listen in, so there’s no time lost repeating.” Then I called the Boss. “Green Devil? This is Sli- er, Henchman 3-3-12. We have contact.” ‘Contact’ being a reasonably common term in Military and Covert Ops circles for ‘we’re being attacked’.
Give him his due, the Green Devil was cool in an emergency. “Where? Who? How? How Many? What are they carrying?”
“Sector G-6; Hexagon; my goon was attempting a stealth entry but SOP says assume that we’re compromised on other chokepoints; unknown; he was a solo entry operator, and he’s carrying stock B&E gear, a wonder nine, and a harness with some very strange looking pouches. Oh, by the way, the On Duty, Off Duty and Technical squad leaders are listening in.”
“Good man, Slim. Consider yourself bonused,” the Green Devil said. Then he started giving out orders, and I switched out. SOP was for me to get to cover; I’m not combat rated, and I get double Hazard Pay if I have to fight. Which was fine and dandy by me; I had my own agenda to take care of. As you may have guessed, I’ve been to this rodeo before and I know the ropes. I knew that Hexagon’s forces were going to enter the base; those pouches that Green Devil didn’t bother to ask me about weren’t anti-personnel. I’m guessing that they’re the components for a ‘receiving circle’ for a teleport. And since nobody sends in ONE ninja, there are between 3 and 5 more of these guys that Hexagon sent in, and at least one of them is putting together that teleport circle even as I hauled ass. First thing, I nabbed my Go-bag, which I had packed in my locker for the dreaded crunch week.
Then I took advantage of the red flashing lights and klaxons going off to make it to the paymaster’s office. The paymaster, who was also the Duty Officer for this shift, was predictably out of his office. The Green Devil pays us minions half of our take-home pay through a civilian payroll service; hey, you gotta give the IRS something to tax, or they get all cranky. The other half we get weekly from the paymaster in cash; otherwise, the payroll service might get suspicious that ‘extras’ and ‘key grips’ and ‘ushers’ and ‘concessionaires’ were getting Minion wages for working in an off-Broadway theater. The safe was locked, of course. Please! I’m the Security Guy! I got that thing open even quicker than the paymaster could. But I didn’t take all the money; that would be both greedy and stupid. Instead, I took two bi-weekly pay packets. And then another one. Hey, the Boss said that I had a bonus coming, and I’m not counting on him being able to make good on it. Oh, and then another one to cover my losses on my Payday Advance gig. Just enough to tide me over, but not enough that the paymaster will notice when he heads here to do the exact same thing.
I checked my smartphone and sure enough the Boss and the guys were mixing it up with Hexagon, her stooges, a company of mercs and a handful of WTFITs. I figured that I had time to take care of the third item on my agenda before my exit window closed.
The entire reason that the Green Devil was running this base was that he was he was producing something for the Supervillain market, like I said. Besides the… whatever it was… he was also renting out space to a criminal scientist who called himself ‘Vitreus’ – no doctor for once- who was using the space to run some exotic experiments of some sort, and producing those low-range ‘cultured’ power crystals that Weird Science and magical types drool over so much to pay his bills. Now the thing is, the Green Devil is a pretty good boss, all things considered, and my personal code doesn’t allow me to rip off a good boss. And yes, having a code is something that I take seriously. I can justify dipping into the pay money because, well, that’s as good as gone anyway. But Vitreus isn’t my boss, and I’ve been dipping into his reserves of lesser stones in a mild way for weeks. I haven’t removed them from the base; I’ve kept them stashed in a small box near Vitreus’ lab, just in case anyone does an unexpected audit or something like, oh, a superhero comes knocking down the door. So, given the current circumstances, I’d say that those cultured power gems are pretty much up for grabs, no?
Vitreus’ lab was in sight when I got sandbagged-again- from behind. And again, my Back Urchin took him out before the very nasty dagger could get past my clothing, let alone my skin. <memo to self: get this thing patented, it’s pure gold!> When I checked my assailant, sure enough he was wearing Stealth blacks with Hexagon’s logo on the allegiance patch. And get this: he was lugging around a satchel with a large metal box in it. I shook the box and was pleased to hear small mineral chunks shifting around. He’d hit Vitreous’ lab before I got there. And his box was bigger than mine! So why risk my neck trying to get the smaller box?
That taken care of, I headed for the escape hatch that I’d arranged without the boss knowing about it. Which is only fair; he never told me about his escape hatch, even though I found it my first week there.
As soon as I was clear of the building, I shed my minion suit and calmly made my way to the bus stop. Just three minutes before the actual bus would have shown up, a car roared up and screeched to into a reversing skid that threw the door open. I stepped into the car, and Wheels hit the gas and we were out of there. Wheels claims that that maneuver should somehow be able to get the door open and allow whoever to step in while the car is still in motion. It may not be physically possible, but if so then it won’t be ‘cause Wheels didn’t try to figure out how to pull it off.
I handed Wheels a hundred bucks and he took it without slowing down a bit. “So, how was work?” he asked, like we wasn’t running away at top speed from a small battle.
“I got jumped from behind. TWICE,” I answered.
“And it worked like a charm, both times.”
“Yeah, a few more bugs to iron out, and I am going to the PATENT OFFICE with that puppy!”
“So, who was it?” Wheels asked.
“Hey, don’t diss the Craft,” I warned him. “I still got an open application to work for the Witch Queen, y’know.”
“What?” he scoffed, “Yer gonna work in Jersey? She doesn’t work in the Boroughs, y’know.”
“And when did you become such a Jersey snob?” I asked, “Besides, she has covens and like that up in Westchester. The universe doesn’t end at the city limits, y’know!”
“That’s just what they WANT you to think!”
I rolled my eyes and let out a martyred sigh. Then I pulled out my cell phone and hit my contacts list. When it connected, I said, “Yo, Doc! School let out a little early. You know a good non-foodie restaurant that’s still open right about now? I’ll repay you the money you lent me last week. Cool!” Then I told Wheels, “He says that the Angora Kebab House on 9th isn’t too bad. Floor it while there’s still parking.”
Actually, the Angora Kebab was pretty good, especially for the price. I will remember this place. While the place wasn’t a buffet, the owner of the place blanched when Doc walked in. It’s not that Doc is hideous or monstrous, it’s just that, well, he’s large. He’s your basic ‘big shambling goof’ type of dork, the kind who looks like a brainless oaf, while he has both a razor-keen mind and a surprisingly sensitive soul. He wasn’t always that way, but that’s what happens when you fool around with Super-Science. Doc pulled up two chairs, sat and one of them still groaned under his weight. He rubbed his knees, flexed his aching feet and asked, “So, what’s on the menu?”
I had the waiter bring three bottles of Loch Lomond™ stout. Doc took the bottle and opened it with the meaty palm of his hand. And Loch Lomond doesn’t use screw-top bottles. He took a slug of it and looked at the bottle. “What? Why are you buying this at restaurant prices? Don’t you just walk out with bottles of this in your pocket?”
“Savor this, Doc,” I told him, “because Loch Lomond is about to become nostalgia.” I gave him the Reader’s Digest version of what had happened earlier. Without mentioning the hefty severance pay packet; it’s not that I don’t trust Wheels or Doc, it’s just that letting it be known that you have 8 grand in cash on you is a bad idea on general principles.
Doc gave me a cold look. “You said that you were gonna repay me the money I loaned you.”
Under the table I passed him one of the wallets that I lifted from the yahoos who jumped me back at work. Doc looked in the wallet and said, “There’s only $70 and change in here; I loaned you $240.”
“And 3 credit cards,” I pointed out, “Visa, Discover and MasterCard Gold.”
“That will be shut down the second this asshole wakes up in the morning and checks for his wallet,” Doc countered.
I gave Doc a sharp look and pointed out, “You know as well as I do that it’s SOP if a major strike goes sour, the attackers go to the mattresses for at least a week. Hexagon didn’t get what she wanted, so she thinks that she struck out, and if her Rent-a-Ninja has the survival instinct of a Yorkie, he’ll be right there on the same mattress as Hexagon. So, you’ve got seven days; if you can’t make your money back with those cards times TEN in seven days, then you need to find another line of work, sweetie.”
“What about the wallet of the other guy that tried to jump you?”
“What do you think I’m paying for this with?”
Doc thought it over, nodded, hefted the pint of the Green Devil’s best, and said, “I regard myself as being repaid.” He gave a sigh. “Well Slim, sucks to be you. It was a good job, as minion gigs go.”
“And as good jobs go, it went,” I finished.
Then something occurred to Doc. “How do you know that Hexagon biffed her raid? From what you said, you, being a good sensible coward- like me- were out of there the second that you knew that blood was gonna hit the wall.”
I nodded, and filled in the blanks regarding what happened when I made a run on Vitreous’s lab.
“You’re not shitting me? You’ve got 30 pounds of cultured power gems?”
“Closer to 20-to-25 pounds.”
“Let me see.”
Not fool enough to just hand over the entire box- I mean, there’s friendship and there’s stupid!- I opened up the box under the table, fumbled around inside and picked out one small plastic bag of stones, and handed it to Doc. But as I did, I found something taped to the inside of the lid. Curious, I pulled it free. It was a cylinder, maybe five inches long and an inch-and-a-half thick. I pulled it out to look at it. The cylinder was made of… silver?... and inscribed with strange markings along the edges of both ends. There was a seam and a fine hinge along one side. “What’s that?” Wheels asked.
“Dunno,” I admitted. “I didn’t open the box before. Didn’t have the time or any reason to.” I worried my nails into the seam and pried it open. There, nestled in recesses in temper foam were three peach-pit sized crystals, that each glowed a different color, one clear blue, another milky green, and the last a translucent red. I snapped the case shut. “_oh shit_”
But it was too late. I’d sat there, just staring at it for one second too long. “OH MY…” Wheels realized that he’d started to shout and toned it way down, “oh my GOD…”
I snapped the lid shut again the second it registered that the markings on the case were concealment wards. Doc gave me a curious look, so I started to hand him the cylinder, but thought better of it (again, there’s friendship and there’s stupid).I just gave him a peek from my side of the table, and snapped it shut again. Doc gave me an envious smirk and saluted me with his bottle. “Well this IS your night, isn’t it Slim?”
Power Gems. They hadda be power gems. Heck, those are the only things that Hexagon would go to the risk of that kind of raid for. Twenty-odd pounds of cultured power gems were a nice little bonus, but only the real things worth declaring a small war for were the gems that had real power. If nothing else, that explained why the damn things were glowing. “Well, this just got complicated,” I sighed. “Vitreus was probably examining these things and conducting experiments, and using them to breed those cultured gems to pay the bills.”
“Oh yeah, complicated,” Doc snorted. “Yer gonna have all kinds of problems from having the kind of money you’ll get for selling those things.”
“SELL?” Wheels yelped. “What sell? I thought that we were gonna be sexy supervillainesses as a team, and the keys to all that just drops in our laps, and you wanna sell them?”
As we pause to let the other diners get back to their grub, let me explain something to those who aren’t familiar with our little cluster of boon companions: we met back in high school at a therapy group for teenage transsexuals. And, this being New York, which is sort of a Mecca for weird science types as well as other supervillains, we sort of fell in with the minion set together. And, well, no one ever goes into supercrime just to be a minion, and why become just another supervillain, when you can become a sexy supervillainess? Hey, they seem to have more fun, anyway.
Fixing Wheels with what I hoped was an appropriately daunting glower, I said, “First of all, what’s this ‘we’ jazz? This is MY score, Wheels. And I don’t think that anyone at this table is stupid enough to think that taking them away from me is a smart idea. Crossing your buds, let alone killing them, is a good way to start a long painful death by backstab. Am I right?” Both Doc and Wheels paused and nodded. Thank God, I don’t hang out with idiots.
“Second, I can’t sell these things! I don’t have the contacts to sell these things, and going through the Syndicate would be a slow death by red tape!” Doc started to say something, but I cut him off. “And NO, you don’t have the contacts to move something like this. Too much power, too much money, too much temptation to cut out the middleman- and everyone else.” Doc thought it over for a moment, saw my point and nodded.
“And third, I have to assume that Vitreous is still alive. As it is, Vitreous and the Green Devil will assume that Hexagon has them, or at the very least, nobody knows that I have them. And that’s a good thing.
“And fourth, I don’t know what the fuck these things are! Vitreous was probably using them to cultivate the lesser gems, but past that? Who knows? I don’t know a lot about power gems, but I DO know that there’s more to them than holding them up and yelling I HAVE THE POOOWEEERR! I dunno what I’m gonna do with them, but I can tell you that no matter how it rolls out, it’s gonna be complicated.”
“Okay, so odds are that they’re not just Green Lantern knock-offs,” Doc said. “But I’m willing to bet that I could figure out a few uses for them.”
“Aaannnddd… I’m supposed to just hand over a good-sized fortune that can be carried around in a hip pocket?” I said with an arched eyebrow.
Doc started to argue, but Wheels cut him off. “DOC, he’s right. Handing something like that over would be stupid. What we need is a little quid pro quo.”
“What kind of quid pro quo- hey, what’s this ‘We’ jazz?” Doc looked suspiciously at Wheels.
“CHILL, Doc, I’m not trying to cut into your action,” Wheels breezed. “And let’s face it: you don’t really have a lot of action to cut in on. BUT maybe if we work together on something, we can come up with something where we can offer Slim some value for value.”
“Wheels?” I asked with a certain dread filling my gut. “What are you up to?”
“Nothing right now,” he said like he was settling a little kid or something. “Give us a few days to run down a couple of leads. I got some ideas that might pan out. And Doc, maybe you got a few prospects of yer own, things that you spotted but didn’t do anything about ‘cause you didn’t really have anything to DO with ‘em?”
Doc looked unsure. “LOOK, guys,” Wheels launched into one of his spiels, “we didn’t get into the whole ‘Supervillain Minion’ shtick cause we like taking orders from guys who prance around in badly color-coordinated tights, right? NO, from the very beginning the whole idea was that we’d minion and learn the ropes, and when we spotted our shots, we’d trade up and become sexy supervillainesses, right? Okay, we know the ropes, better’n some of the yutzes going around calling themselves supervillains. It’s time we started going for our shots at the big time!”
“We’ve taken our shots, remember?” I jogged his memory. “Remember Slick? And Charlie? And…” I waved my bottle in Doc’s direction. There used to be five of us. We went the distance for Charlie, and she came out of it as one hawt broad. And she dumped us to head for the West Coast. A couple of months later, we spotted a blonde in a bikini that we think might’a been Charlie in a beach shot on some TV show. And the last we saw of Slick, he was a she; unfortunately, she was a semi-lobotomized cyborg enforcer for Macro Daddy. And Doc? Well, like I said, Doc didn’t always look like that. He used to be a reasonably slender normal looking guy who didn’t stand out in a crowd. Now? Now he eats enough for three, and didn’t even get disproportionate strength for his bulk. Or anything to reinforce his back, knees or feet.
“And Charlie proves that it CAN be done,” Wheels kept at it. “And Slick proves that we can’t trust big shit mad scientists to do it.”
As Wheels struggled to put a positive spin on what happened to Doc, I sneered, “All that Charlie proves is that we need some kind of control, so Charlie doesn’t get a hawt sister dropping in on her in LA.”
“Agreed, agreed,” Wheels nodded. “I like to think that there’s more trust right here, but then I never saw Charlie just upping and leaving us holding the bag either. Juuusssttt… hold onto those sparklers for a couple of days, let the ol’ Doc and me rattle a few cages, and let us see if between the two of us, we can’t scare up something that we can offer you as a fair trade.”
“Doc,” I said with exasperation, “back me up here?”
“Slim, I’m sorry,” Doc whined in a voice that simply didn’t fit his immense bulk. “He’s right! Slim, I know the risks! I knew them when this happened.” He squirmed a bit. “But… I don’t LIKE being like this! I HATE being this big! I hate having to squeeze through doors! I hate people giving me the evil eye on the bus! I hate people being intimidated by me, even when I’m not doing anything! And my FEET always hurt! I can’t live the rest of my life like this! I’ve got to do SOMETHING! I’m willing to take the risk.” He finished with a look that silently asked, ‘why aren’t you?’
A man who stands 6-foot-8-inches tall and weighs over 300 pounds shouldn’t be able to play the pity card, but somehow Doc managed to be downright heartbreaking. I tried to fight it, but I just couldn’t. That could have been me who went into Praetorius’ ‘optimization’ chamber; we shot fingers for it, and Doc ‘won’. Finally, I let out a martyred sigh and said, “Fine, have it your way. You have two weeks to come up with something.”
“Two weeks?” Wheels demanded.
“Hey, I always take two weeks off after losing a job,” I told him. “It lets the dust settle, and I can get some rest and relaxation in while the Union cycles me through again. But at the end of two weeks, I gotta start looking for a paying gig, ‘cause my savings account is still only five figures. And I ain’t retiring until it’s at least seven figures.”
“Yeah, but two measly weeks?” Wheels whined.
“You don’t have to deliver,” I told him. “You just gotta come up with a material lead, something real, something more than ‘I know a guy’. You gotta have something that I want, or that Doc wants, and he’s willing to trade something that I want for it, capice?”
Wheels looked at Doc, and Doc looked back and him, and they reached an understanding. “Fair enough. Deal!” Wheels reached forth his bottle, which we clinked to toast our tacit deal.
Ten days later, I was multi-tasking watching CNN (most minion types are news junkies, ‘cause you never know when you’re gonna see something need-to-know; it HAS happened to me, more than once), doing my Tai Chi exercises, and reviewing a ‘Protection from Malign Spirits’ spell that a buddy assured me had been copied out of one of those spell books that the Witch Queen sells to her covens, when my special ‘screw you NSA’ phone rang. I let it ring as I wrapped up my routine. It wasn’t the ‘OMG, the sky is falling; we must go and tell the King!’ ring, and it is not a good idea to break off a really good Tai Chi session in mid-sequence. When I was done, I checked the Caller ID. “Hey Wheels, what’s up? You didn’t get busted, did you?”
Like me and Doc, Wheels does minion work. And like me, Wheels doesn’t take ‘gorilla in a jumpsuit’ gigs. Of course, Wheels stands 5’ 2” in his socks, and it’s sort of given that he isn’t offered those jobs very often. Wheels is a driver: trucks, shuttles, limos, getaway cars, pursuit interceptors, and like that. Wheels maintains that aggressive driving is an American martial art. Though I wonder how the French and Italians would feel about that.
“Nope!” he said with a cheery enthusiasm that suggested to me that it had been a near thing, probably involved GTA, multiple felony traffic violations, and at least one APB for a vaguely described White Male in his early 30s. “Been running my ass ragged, but I finally managed to nail down something that you’d be willing to, ah, um, ‘negotiate’ a, ah, settlement, for the… ah, properties.”
“Wheels, this is my ultra-secure line, remember? You don’t just accidentally dial my ultra-secure line.”
“It’s not your phone that I’m worried about. It’s where I’m calling from. I’m calling from Mugsy’s.” Mugsy’s is one of a handful of bars that cater to the supervillain minion trade. It’s a good place to go if you want to find work. It’s also a very good place to go if you’re looking for a knock-down-drag-out fight. It is NOT a good place to go if you’re looking to keep a secret.
Knowing from bitter personal experience that I’d probably regret it, I asked, “So, where do you want to meet?”
“Papa Cracky’s in Far Rockaway.”
Papa Cracky’s is a seafood joint in Far Rockaway on Coney Island. I think that Papa Cracky’s can best be described as ‘cheap, large portions, and it hasn’t been shut down by the Health Board- yet.’ On the upside, it’s decidedly working class, and the people there regard minding their own business as an obligation. Basically, it was the Angora Kebob again, only without the egregious overuse of spices and Wheels was paying.
As Doc settled himself into his chairs, Wheels was bubbling over. After we finished ordering, Wheels said, “I hope that you’ve had your shoes shined, ‘cause we are heading into the BIG TIME!”
I gave him the cold fish eye. “You’re seriously telling me that you managed to scrounge up something that’s worth three power gems, in ten days?”
Doc gave a pained smile. “Well, it’s better than ‘I know a guy’…”
“Papa Cracky’s lobster surprise- the surprise being that the ‘lobster’ is really whiting- is not worth this, Doc.”
“It’s a classic trade-off,” Doc insisted. “I’ve got something that Wheels wants, and Wheels has found something that I’m pretty sure you’ll want.”
I let out an aggrieved sigh. “Okay, let’s start with the marginally sane- what do you have that Wheels wants?”
“Do you remember Belphegor?”
“Of course I remember Belphegor!” I said with perfect honesty. “I had to help you hijack a shipment of consumer electronics to pay off the Solid I owed you for getting me out of that contract, so you’d better believe that I remember that yutz!” Phillip ‘Belphegor’ Blackadar is a criminal inventor and self-styled ‘Criminal Mastermind’. And yes, I’ve worked for him. Let me put it to you this way: at his very worst, the Green Devil was a better boss than Belphegor at his best. Belphegor is not the worst boss that I’ve worked for; there are two or three truly toxic assholes that I’ve suffered under. But ATHUG was able to get me out of those contracts under the ‘Provable Nutcase’ clause. But Belphegor isn’t crazy. Just a bleeding superior, stingy, pretentious, conniving, double-dealing pain-in-the-ass. Worse, Belphegor has a knack for grabbing first-rate henchmen and getting them to sign long-term, very binding contracts. Doc, Wheels and I have all done tours of duty under Belphegor, and we’re all glad as hell to be out.
Doc leaned forward and gave me a wolfish smile. “I happen to have a mole inside Belphegor’s operating system that sends me periodic updates on all of his Security changes and upgrades. I can get into his system any time that I want.”
“You know Belphegor’s ‘Charlie’s Angels’ squad of hench-wenches?”
“Sure. AND?” Besides his admittedly very good henchmen, Belphegor always has a squad of three beautiful women who hide their faces behind gold masks, like Belphegor does himself. Always the same three types: a tall busty amazon, a sleek curvy bombshell, and a petite but curvy gamine. But they’re all deadly as hell. The word is that Belphegor ‘oggs’ them, that is he augments them somehow, so that no matter what they looked like before, they now fit one of those three templates. And there are other rumors about those three chicks that make that look downright wholesome.
Doc smiled even wider. “Belphegor’s improved his hench-wench process, and his internal VI rates it as ‘Green-going-Blue’.” The Five-Color scale for various procedures rates them for safety and reliability. Blue is ‘If it wasn’t an exotic procedure, Medicare would cover this’. Green is ‘Good Bet, but still a gamble’. Yellow is ‘you pays yer money, you takes yer chances’. Amber is ‘Don’t do this to anyone you like’. And Red is ‘Don’t do this to anyone at ALL’. ‘Green-going-Blue’ pretty much means ‘reasonably safe and reliable’.
BUT. “Doc, I’m not climbing into anything made by Belphegor, I don’t give a shit WHAT his virtual kiss-asses say.”
“We’re not asking you to, Slim,” Wheels said. “That’s for ME. According to Doc, Belphegor’s really improved his process in the past few years. I checked with Texas Jack, and he says that Belphegor’s been cycling through his hench-wenches at the rate of about a year or so. But get this: then they buy out and get the fuck OUT of New York. Well, the ones that don’t die because Belphegor pissed off the wrong guy, which happens all-too often. The thing is, the girls who survive and get out? They’re healthy, wherever it is they move to. Well, at least the ones that Texas Jack heard of. No signs of Ex-Bel-Babes who just dropped in their tracks or burned out or turned into monsters or any of that crap what happened at first.”
Doc grinned at me. “I checked his internal records. Belphegor’s current priority with his hench-wench procedure is ‘ensuring longer loyalty’.”
“And get THIS, Slim:” Wheels cut in with a crazy look in his eye, “Belphegor’s got it rigged so that his process now ensures a complete body change in three _days_!”
“The only problem is that beforehand, you’ve got to prep three times your weight in stem cell solution,” Doc said.
“That can NOT be safe,” I groaned.
“Slim, the only reason that I’m not jumping on it myself is that I did a simulated run on myself, and the results say that my abnormal metabolism would send the process wrong in nasty ways,” Doc said seriously, like that annoyed him. “But Wheels is well within the ‘Optimum Candidate’ range.”
“And do you happen to HAVE-” I did a quick estimation and calculation, “440 pounds of stem cell solution?”
“Better,” Doc shot back, “Belphegor happens to have 20 times that much in his lair in Brownsville. Along with the forced adaptation chambers that he uses, along with a bunch of other stuff…” Doc paused for dramatic effect, “In warehouses that YOU happened to do the Security for.”
“It’s been three years,” I pointed out. “There’s no way that he hasn’t ripped out all of that stuff and upgraded since then.”
“You’re forgetting how stingy Belphegor is.”
“The idea is that Doc has their housekeeping VIs move one of the forced adaptation units, along with 500 pounds of stem cell solution and all the other fixin’s for Belphegor’s A-for-amazon option from his main base to his secondary warehouse. Then he tags that stuff as ‘down for maintenance’ or ‘needs repairs’ or ‘broken ¾ Pinckney flange’ or whatever, says that those jugs of stem cell solution went rancid or whatever. Once we’re sure that it’s cool, we break in, you guys set me up in the adaptation chamber, and you leave me there for three days. After 3 days, you come back and get me out, and bring along some cool threads, ‘cause I am gonna be one hawt babe!”
“Wheels, you are talking about completely re-creating your entire body from scratch, on auto-pilot, using hardware and software and wetware all created by Belphegor!” Which means that it’s all stuff from 6 or 7 different ‘exotic researchers’ that Belphegor stole and kludged as to work together. He says that he doesn’t believe in recreating the wheel; everyone else says that he’s just lazy.
Wheels started to quibble, but Doc cut him off. “Wheels- just tell him.”
Wheels grumped like an 8-year-old told to say ‘please and thank you’, but he owned up, “Slim, d’you remember that direct vehicle control linkage that I had installed last year?”
“The one you went into hock for 4 months to pay off, figuring that you could get hired for a power frame goon gig and make it all back?”
“Yeah. The reason I didn’t get the job was that there was a nasty feedback with the power rig and… something broke…”
“Broke? Then why didn’t you go to the lab rat who installed it?”
“He skipped town.”
“AND it turned out that the interface he’d been pushing as DiabolikGear™ was just a cheap Finnish knock-off,” Doc kicked in.
“Slim…” Wheels didn’t quite whine, but not by much, a look of mixed awkwardness, discomfort and fear on his face, “it’s doing something to me. It’s… miscuing or something and I get these weird twinges every now and again, and… something’s just wrong!”
“So wrong that you’d risk completely fucking yourself up using stuff created by a slipshod crapmeister like Belphegor?”
Wheels gave another really uncomfortable look and nodded. “Hey, I’d rather fall off the merry-go-round going for the gold ring than just sit there, waiting for the ride to grind to a stop.”
Okay, I can understand that. Wheels is a lot more of a gambler than I am, but even so… “And what about the rumors we’ve all heard from his henches, that Belphegor uses some kind of brainwashing on his hench-wenches?”
“It’s an emotional response induction function that’s built into the reflex upgrade system,” Doc explained. “Every time they see Belphegor, their nervous system is stimulated in a way that their unconscious interprets as feedback for the physical symptoms of various emotions and mind-states. They reflexively conform to that mind-state. Belphegor’s default setting is ‘respect, tinged by inspiration and an urge to earn his respect’. Depending on how he feels about that girl, he can reset it to submission, fear, terror, attraction, overwhelming lust, and so on.”
That didn’t quite work for me. “Wait a minute, but then the girls would have a near-addiction to him. But his girls always walk out on him after a year or so.”
Doc chuckled. “Because Belphegor’s system has two intrinsic weaknesses he can’t weasel or kludge around. First, it’s just a form of electronically induced suggestion. After a while, the girls simply develop a resistance to the suggestion or they figure it out or they have a nervous breakdown.”
“Ew,” I winced. “And what’s the second weakness?”
Wheels smirked. “His personality. The submissive doormat kind of chicks who’d become addicted to him make lousy bodyguards. The kind of girls who’d make good bodyguards get sick and tired of his crap after about a year, no matter what kind of suggestion he uses.”
“The real point here is that Belphegor can adjust the setting by remote control,” Doc said, thumping the table with a finger. “And I know the band and protocols of the remote that he uses. After Wheels comes out, we can just turn the damn thing off.”
“You know a lot about this,” I said, not sure how to take that.
“Hello?” Doc hooted, “Belphegor has a method of turning competent and gritty schlubs into competent and gritty mega-babes! Of COURSE I was interested and researched it while I was working for him! That’s how I found out that I couldn’t use the process! The real question is: why DIDN’T you?”
“Weeelllll… to be honest… it just creeps the hell out of me!” I owned up.
“Says the guy who’s studying to be a minion to the Witch Queen!” Wheels sneered.
“Hey, at least Mages understand that the forces they’re dealing with are dangerous! Mad Doctor types just say ‘SCIENCE!’ and expect reality to be their bitch.”
“Maybe, but that’s not really the point here, Slim!”
“Okay, okay, okay, just stop with the big sad eyes already! BUT there had better damn well be something in it for ME!”
Wheels bucked up, the way he always does when he talks me into something stupid. He pulled out his Smartphone and opened a file. “Okay, have you ever heard of a guy called ‘the Witch Hunter’?”
I batted that around my head for a moment and chased down two possibles. “Are you talking about Matthew Hopkins, the James the First era ‘Witch Finder General’? Or the magical vigilante that got busted out in California a few years ago?”
“The second one, Jacob Hopkins,” Wheels said, kinda miffed that he couldn’t exposit it up a little. “Anyway, Hopkins didn’t just kill the witches and magic-types he hunted, he-”
“He pretty much shook them down for everything he could,” I interrupted. Hey, I know the story better’n he does. “Money, bank accounts, properties, businesses, valuables, and most especially magical texts and power items. For a guy who talked so loud about what an instrument of righteousness he was, Jacob Hopkins was just as grabby and money-grubbing as his great-great-great- grand-daddy. You’re telling me that you found the Witch Hunter’s stash? People have been looking for that for years!”
“No, I didn’t find it. BUT, remember, last year, I was henching for Belladonna? SHE found it, out in some suburb of Syosset! I drove the truck she used to move it to five different stashes of her own out in Connecticut.”
“Hey, she wasn’t dumb enough to go through all of that, just to put it in the Witch Queen’s pocket.” Wheels waved that aside. “Anyway, she used stuff from some of those caches in her big move, and the Shadowmage slapped her down hard."
“Thrilling,” I said in my hardest-assed flat voice, “I can’t wait until the TV-movie comes out. AND?”
“And I just checked. Four of the caches were cleaned out, SOP.”
“And the fifth?”
“The seal is still intact.” Wheels grinned evilly. “Or, should I say, WAS.”
“I just happened to have keys made to all five caches. Just in case, y’understand.” He raised his bottle in a toast to me. “When you work with the best, you learn things. Anyway, I opened it, figuring that while it would be unethical for me, y’know, help myself to anything in there, you two have never worked for Belladonna, so…” he picked up his cell phone, swatted around a few files, and handed it to me. There was a slideshow of Jpegs starting with shots of three large old-fashioned steamer trunks. And then:
· A squat Brass bottle with a lead stopper
· A thick black-leather bound book with a gold design on the cover that I recognized as a common representation of the conjoined phases of the moon with a superimposed eye, suggesting a Book of Moons, which is a kind of grimoire or spellbook.
· A weird contraption that looked sort of like a really elaborate astrological ‘Compass’ of several circles that moved around on a platen made of a silvery mirror
· A dagger with a white wooden handle and a copper ‘leaf’ blade with marks on it; all the classic signs of an athame
· A dagger in the Arabic style, with a curved steel blade and a filigree handle with flat disk pommel.
· A glass flask in the shape of a nautilus shell with an elaborate stopper, with a chain connected.
· A disk of solid crystal rock salt (so Wheels told me) with a glyph carved into it
· A brass ‘telescope’
Fighting off a rush of pure acquisitive greed, I asked, “Okay, and what’s the catch?”
Now, normally, Wheels would try to zoom me and tell me that it was a slam-dunk, no problem, just pick up the goods and go. Instead, he said, “Two things. First, there’s competition.”
“Competition? But I thought that this find was ten years cold.”
“Don’t ask me how, nobody sat down and drew me any diagrams,” Wheels said pettishly. “But these two broads have been breathing down my neck, and both of ‘em are tougher than we are.”
“Anyone we know?”
Wheels shook his head. “Never heard of ‘em before. The tough one is this big Swedish blonde with some nasty pets and a nastier attitude, Erica something. But the other one, calls herself ‘the Artful Dodger’, now she worries me. She’s fast, sneaky and smart.”
“Always a nasty combination,” Doc agreed.
“They know where the stash is?” I asked.
Wheels shook his head. “No. But for some reason, they came to rattle my cage about Belladonna’s hidey-holes, right after I got back to my motel in Connecticut. They’re interested and they’re sharp. Slim, you don’t have a lot of time to waste making sure that everything just so with this one.”
“How tight are they?” I asked carefully. “I mean, are they buds, are they just partners, are they teaming up just for this score?”
Wheels shook his head again. “Not even teamed up. Ericka’s the one who’s hot after Belladonna’s stash. The Dodger’s after Ericka, probably looking to cash in on a reward, but I get the impression that she wouldn’t mind cutting Ericka out from her big score either.”
Interesting. That’s not the kind of wrinkle that Wheels would come up with if he was gaming me. “You say they’re tough- how tough? What kind of tough?”
Wheels shrugged. “Not a hundred percent sure. Erica’s strong, hella strong and way mean. And like I said, she’s got some mean pets. And I get the impression that she’s hella weird. But the Dodger? She’s fast and she’s got some seriously slick moves. Again, I’m not 100% sure what she can do. And she works that, for everything she can.”
Hmmm… “Okay, and what’s the second catch?”
Wheels took his phone back, flicked around a file and showed me another image:
· A teak chest bound in iron with wards carved into woods and an elaborate lock on the clasp. A wooden ruler included in the shot for scale suggested that the box was maybe four feet long, three feet wide, and about two and a half feet high
“What is it?” I asked.
“Dunno. Mystery Box. But hey! I don’t know what any of that does, except maybe for the book. But I took it from where Belladonna hid it, and brought it back here to Noo Yawk, and hid it somewhere that _I_ know it is.”
“What are you pulling, Wheels?”
“Look, Slim, I want to trust you, and I want you to trust me. But, let’s face it: after what Charlie pulled on us? And with shit like we’re talking? We’d be nuts to not be a little film noir, right? So, we need one of those deals where everybody’s getting something and everybody needs everyone else.”
“Those tend to be very complicated and can get very nasty, Wheels.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “IF the payoff is all at once. But I’ve noticed that if there are smaller payoffs along the line, with everyone ponying up when their turn comes, then trust builds with every payoff, and everyone comes across with their final payoff, ‘cause they’ve already come across for most of it, and the last thing ain’t worth pissing everyone else off for.”
“Lay it out for me,” I said.
“Okay, first Doc does his shtick where he plays games with Belphegor’s inventory database, moving crap around. Then, when everything’s moved around, you and I break in and move the stuff to a single location, where we know it is, starting with the forced adaptation chamber, then the stem cell goop, and then stuff I’ll need. You give Doc one of the power gems. Oh, and we fill a couple of transit containers fill of stuff from Belphegor’s shelves. ‘Cause, hey, even at black market prices, we’re talking at least 20K for something the size of a microwave oven! Oh, and we both take something nice and re-saleable with us.
“Then we get out and make our ‘leaving town’ moves. When we’re sure that Belphegor hasn’t caught onto us, we-and Doc- break back in. You and Doc tuck me away in the forced adaptation chamber for three night’s sleep.”
“Why don’t we just steal the forced adaptation chamber?”
“Because it’s the size of a Winnebago! Y’think that I didn’t think of that? You hand me one of the power gems for safe keeping. I give you the address in Connecticut and the keys. You two leave, again both of you taking along something small but expensive for your trouble.
“You two go to Connecticut with a U-Haul trailer. You go to the address and load up all of Belladonna’s stuff that’s still there, and haul back to the Big Apple. When you get here, Slim, you give Doc the second power gem. Then you drop him off and drive the U-Haul to… wherever you wanna stash your stuff. I don’t know, I don’t need to know, I don’t wanna know.
“At the end of the three nights- or whenever Belphegor’s chamber’s watchdog says that I’m ready to pop out the oven, let’s get real- you guys rent another U-Haul, and break back into Belphegor’s place. You bring me out of the chamber, and I hand Doc the third power gem. Together we load up the U-Haul with those transit containers, and get the fuck out. Then we go together to where I have that chest stashed and get it. You FedEx it to… wherever. Then we drag that U-Haul to Chicago, and we sell all that Bel-Tech- or at least what Doc’s willing to part with- and if we can’t make at least a hundred grand starting-over money each, then we’d better just go straight and get it over with!
“So, Slim, you will have all the spooky crap from Belladonna’s stash- WHY you would want that, I have no idea; that kind of crap is nothing but trouble! Doc will have all three power gems and all the weird science toys that he can carry. I will finally be the Kick-Ass Babe of my- and so many men’s- dreams. And all of us will have nice big wads of CASH. Which may not buy happiness, but definitely smoothes over a lot of rough edges.” He finished with a big ‘gee isn’t that simple?’ smile.
“What if you DIE while you’re in the adaptation chamber?” I asked with a ‘you do know that you’re crazy’ voice.
“Then you take the power gem from my dead hand, and give it to Doc. You two load up the U-Haul as best you can, and you have a big drink to my memory in Chicago.”
“And what if Ericka or the Artful Dodger catch up with us?”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take. And Slim, if you want that chest, you’ll have to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
I looked over the pictures of the artifacts on the cell phone, and gave in. “Fine! I’m in! When do we start?”
“Slim, I just barely got out of Connecticut at 3 in the morning,” Wheels said. And I think they’re gonna follow me back to the City.”
“But… what about… getting ready to skip town?” I asked. “We can’t just leave all our money and shit behind!”
“What do you think I’ve been doing all day?”
“And what about all that ‘we make sure that Belphegor hasn’t caught onto us’ crap?” I asked, shooting him the Eye of Ice.
“We’ll DO that!” Wheels insisted. “After we get back out, I’ll head down to Atlantic City and lay low for a few days! When we’re sure, I’ll come back and we go in and DO it!”
“You’re making this up as you go along, aren’t you?” I asked in the Weary Voice of Mild Disgust.
“Hey, so I didn’t see a pair of superpowered bitches from Hell finally catching onto where Belladonna’s last stash was just when I was gonna snag the load, Mister ‘Gee-I-got-my-exit-strategy-planned-down-to-the-last-detail’!”
“Slim,” Doc cut in, seeing that it was getting ugly, “Yeah, it sucks, but there are three very important things that you’re forgetting:
“First, done is done. Wheels didn’t want to draw those two into this, and let’s be honest; the odds are that it was a massive fluke that they were there at the right time. And from what Wheels has said about this Ericka chick, she sounds like a witch or sorceress or whatever. She’s gonna keep looking for us, no matter what. And between what she can do as a magicker and a few well-placed bribes, the odds are she’ll be able to find out all about all of us. And once she starts squeezing Wheels or me, she’ll find out about you and your power gems. And once she finds out about them, it’s all over for you, Slim. She’ll take you for everything you’ve got, and keep twisting just on the off chance that you might have more.
“Second, you want what Wheels is offering you. Don’t ask me why, I think that they’re just bad news, and will turn around and bite big sloppy chunks out of your ASS. If you want that stuff, you gotta pay Wheels’ price, just on a schedule that I admit is a little hairy.
“Third, no matter what, we’re gonna need weapons, ‘cause we don’t have the kind of friends who’d back us up. Or, at least the ones who would don’t have the chops, and the best we can expect from the ones that have the chops is that they’d let us put money down on the betting pool that they’re gonna make on our odds of survival. So, we need weapons, the kind that are real game-changers. Belphegor’s got ‘em, and we can’t afford his prices.
“I thought you only had three points.”
“I just thought of another one, so shaddap! Slim, this is not the time for the Finger-Pointing Game. No, we can’t get everything nailed down beforehand, like you want. We just don’t have the time for it. Wheels was straight up enough to tell us about all this, so let’s get GOING!”
I hated it, but they had a point: we didn’t have the time. If this ‘Erica’ chick is as nasty as Wheels is making out, we gotta to do this, and it will have to be fast and hairy. I nodded and got up. Once we got into Wheels’ car, I said, “It goes against the grain, but if this Erica is as sharp as you say, then we can’t spare the time. We get the U-Haul, go to Belphegor’s place, load it up, and tuck you away, all in one night. Doc and I take the U-Haul up to say, White Plains and stash the stuff there. Then we rent a van, not a trailer, and go straight to Connecticut. We pick up the stuff and go down to Atlantic City for a couple of days. When you’re ready, we come get you out. And NO, we don’t go for a second haul of Belphegor’s stash; we stand to make too much from this, we can’t afford to get greedy. We just break you out, go back to White Plains, and haul to Chicago from there.”
“What about our clothes and tools and stuff?”
“This is cut-and-run and don’t look back time, Doc,” I said, “if you can’t carry it in both hands, just leave it. If nothing else, if we don’t clear out completely, it might confuse them for a day and we’re gonna need that.”
So, of course, Doc just HAD to drag along all his tools and gear and crap. Still, he had the minimal good sense to leave his TV and stereo and most of his clothes behind. And, well, I need my gear to make this happen…
Once we had our stuff- we didn’t go back to Wheel’s place, ‘cause as he said, if it worked, none of his stuff would fit, and if it didn’t work then he’d never need clothes again- Doc logged into his backdoor in Belphegor’s network. “By the way, how are you getting around Belphegor’s AI net overwatch?”
“What get around? His VIs like me better’n they like him.”
“The true test of artificial intelligence: the ability to spot a pompous jerkwad.” I got into the Physical Security board and accessed the History and Upgrades section. “How much moving around do think you’ll be able to get done before we get there if we take the surface streets?” I asked Doc.
“Already done. I got three times what we need already stacked at the northeast access door, covered with a tarp. We take what we can load, leave the rest, and nobody will notice until they do an inventory. Which I am making very, very hard to do.”
“What do you think I was doing all day, before we got to Papa Cracky’s?”
“Okay, it is time for me to deploy my ULTIMATE WEAPON: Pro Sports! The Knicks are playing the Bulls, and Pay per View is charging $50 a pop. I’m willing to eat the $50, and pipe it into the Security Ops room.”
“ooohhh… you play hardball…” Wheels said, giving me a mock look of severity from the driver’s wheel.
“Damn Skippy…” I rasped through my teeth in my best Clint Eastwood.
When we got to the particularly blighted part of Yonkers that Belphegor has his lair setup in, we waited around the corner and down the block for the gold-faced guard to really get into the Knicks and Bulls. Like I said, Belphegor’s henches are good men, but they’re not exactly what you’d call inspired by his charismatic leadership.
Once the guards were busy, I went in so smoothly it barely bears mentioning. Having the keys and keypad codes helps. And YES, Belphegor is just so stingy that he never changed the locks or the codes. Or maybe he was just so lazy that he never bothered.
BUT he hadn’t been completely idle in the year-and-a-half since I managed to wriggle out from his employ. There was something new. As someone who’s breaking in, I welcomed this new development with glee; but as a Security Expert, I was appalled. He’d added a garage on the second floor.
Yes, a garage.
From what I put together, it was a sort of ‘oh shit’ escape pod, a way for Belphegor and one-to-three of his henchwenches to get the fuck out of there in a screaming hurry. He had a high-performance sports car parked in the ‘garage’, facing a ‘wall’ that would swing down and extend into a disembarkation ramp, so he could go from Zero to 100 MPH while getting the fuck out of there in a way that the vast majority of people wouldn’t see coming. But there’s no way to build that in a way that an experienced housebreaker (me) couldn’t just walk through.
So we did.
Mind you, there is a certain coolness factor to it, but still, as a security expert, I was fucking appalled. Wheels damn near had a nerdgasm over the car, and I had to drag him out of there to let Doc in.
Belphegor’s storage lair is disguised as a recycling center. Like the Green Devil and his micro-brewery scam, Belphegor realizes that a real operating business makes for a better cover than a mysterious allegedly empty building. Also, if it’s a decent business, it helps to underwrite the operating costs. Heck, more’n one business got started as a cover for a supervillain lair that they kept up, ‘cause the supervil didn’t expect much in the way of profits, so their costs were low and they built up a customer base.
The recycling plant is laid out in six long buildings; four of the buildings are parallel to each other, and the last two ‘cap’ them at either end. While this isn’t very efficient for the recycling plant, it does segregate the two buildings that do the recycling from the four buildings that are Admin, Rolling Stock, General Storage and Special Storage. And the recycling part of the business is yucky enough that your average citizen doesn’t pay that much attention to the other four buildings. Nice idea. I wonder who Belphegor swiped it from.
Wheels and I left Doc loading stuff into the U-Haul, as he drove me to Belphegor’s main lair in Brownsville, where we’d pick up the Stem Cell solution, the catalytic fluid and a few other marketables. Oh, that place was covered by a working dry-cleaning plant.
Isn’t it sad that supervillains seem to be doing more to stimulate the economy than most of the FIRE industries?
Unfortunately, Wheels hadn’t told me about that part, going to the Brownsville lair, and I hadn’t prepped for that. So, we hadda tack on another half-hour while Wheels and I danced around the Brownsville security detail. And while the Brownsville detail was bored, they weren’t distracted, so Wheels and I settled for the stem cell solution, catalyst fluid and a few cases of high-power general-purpose batteries. Hey, there is always a market for high power batteries, and give him his due, Belphegor has pretty high standards for his power supplies.
When we got back to the Yonkers lair, Doc was about halfway finished with loading the stuff. Dig it, the Security shift honcho in the Main lair we’d just come from was having paranoid fits, ‘cause Belphegor was planning something big, and he was of the school that says ‘Batman never breaks in during the Poker tournament’. And since the Security Honcho was in the main lair, he was bending the ear of the guys in the Yonkers lair on the phone. Which, in principle, I respect; in Security, paranoia just means that you take your job seriously. But that doesn’t make it any easier for us hard-working inventory mooches. Why he was leaning on this lair and not his own, I have no idea.
As we waited for the security grunts to do the Due Diligence dance, we used the U-Haul to prep Wheels with IV and catheters. This was probably the hardest part of the whole shebang, as Wheels does not like needles. Doc sat on him and I did the dirty work. Then, when Duty was satisfied (and far more importantly, halftime was over), things quieted down again, and we were able to slip back in and get back to work. I won’t bother you with listing the stuff we ripped off, ‘cause one the cardinal rules of inventory pilferage is ‘Never take anything that will be missed’. So, while the place was lousy with zap-o-trons and fiendish thingies and other stuff that was sending Doc into techno-drool overload, besides a few deadly weapons to cover our asses, we were loading up on uber-tech components and materials and other stuff that we could actually SELL.
That done, we finally got down to what we really came here to do. Wheels stripped out of his coveralls, showing off the ‘soup suit’ (or ‘Adaptation Medium Prophylactic Unitard’, if you gotta be anal about it) and climbed into the ‘tub’ (or ‘Adaptation Suspension Chamber’, same terms). We carefully connected the calcium ceramic plates and emulsion packs to the right places. Some of them would merge with Wheel’s bones, both reinforcing them and adding mass to make sure that his skeleton grew into exactly the form he wanted, while some would form into armoring plates for his spinal column and hips. We inserted the mouthpiece that would keep him from drowning in his own saliva, even as it inserted the dental implants that would replace his teeth when they shed. We loaded up the tanks with 300 gallons of ‘soup’, of which about one-third would be cushioning his body and soaking up all the nasty cast-off gunk that’s an unavoidable part of the process at any one time, the second third would be having the gunk filtered out, and the final third would be in reserve refilling the first third as it sank from specific gravity and was vacuumed out. Oh, and of course, that 500 pounds of stem cell solution. Before we pumped in the soup, we got Wheels laid out properly, and Doc fixed the Somnolator- which is a 26th iteration descendent of those ‘Electro-narcosis’ things they were yapping about years ago- onto Wheel’s forehead; they cause a state of artificial sleep, complete with periodic induced dream-state. Once Wheels was well and truly under, Doc entubed him, which would have made prepping him with needles and catheters look like a stroll in the park. Oh, and Doc loaded the auto-implant with a real DaibolikGear™ interface chip; if you’re gonna do something stupid and potentially suicidal, at least do it so that if you DO survive it, you’re better off than you were before.
As a capper, Doc had CASPAR, the overseer VI that he was so buddy-buddy with, keep a close eye on the process, so that when she woke up Wheels would look more like the John Byrne She-Hulk, than the Toxic Avenger. Doc nudged me with an elbow and I remembered to put the clear blue power gem in Wheels’ hand and closed it around the jewel. Here’s hoping that we don’t have to pry it out of his dead fingers in three days. Then we slid the tray that Wheels was strapped into back into the main body of the chamber.
Then we had a very nasty moment when one of the guys on the Security detail came charging in. But he was just making an emergency pit stop, and didn’t even notice us on the way to the john. That gave us the opportunity to darken everything we had going. Then he strolled back a lot more casually, which was far more dangerous. He stopped and started looking around. But hey, it was the Knicks and the Bulls, and he was missing the game.
When our heart rates went back to normal, we double-checked Wheels’ condition, and all the other stuff, flooded the tub with soup, started the stem cell tap. Doc put up a sign saying that the unit was undergoing a thorough systems check, and the condition monitor was prepped with an emulation of just such a process. The Status Monitor said that Wheels’ colon was being flooded with the catalytic fluid, the stem cells were being primed, and the main sequence would begin in 26 hrs, 14 min, and 42 sec., with an estimated time of completion in 73 hrs, 22 min, and 14 sec., barring unforeseen complications. Then Doc nudged me again and held out his hand. I reached into my secret pocket and handed him the second power gem, the translucent red one. With that, we shut the lid, crossed ourselves and said a brief prayer to St. Jude, ‘cause, hey, what could it hurt?
Then we got going and left quietly. Or as quietly as someone lugging around as much tonnage as Doc does can. I had a very uncomfortable moment slowly driving Wheel’s car out with the U-Haul. Wheels has that car tuned to a precision instrument, and while I have a driver’s license, I don’t really drive that much. We were two blocks down the street before I shifted out of ‘little old lady’ gear. And it’s a good thing we were two blocks away, ‘cause the roar from that blown out 5.4L 640 HP V-8 could’a raised the dead!
Doc and I waited a solid day, quietly listening for any sounds of loud faux-Shakespearean outrage from Yonkers. And we periodically checked an anonymous website that had been created to extol the cuteness of Aaron Carter and never taken down, that we’d hacked and put up a watch on the status alerts from CASPAR on Wheels. Mind you, if anyone ever checks out our browser histories, we’ll never hear the end of it. And quietly doing all those finicky little things so that you’re not bankrupting yourself when you run. Finally, I mentioned to my landlady that I was heading down to Philadelphia for a couple of days, but I took a commuter train to Hartford. There I rented a U-Haul step van and picked up Doc at the train station. Once we were out of Hartford proper, we stopped, did a quick and nasty peel-off latex paint job and slapped logos for a Hartford Antiques Dealer on the van. Never go in with a U-Haul unit flying their colors; it just screams ‘I’m up to no good!’
As we waited for the paint to dry, we got out the maps and tried to figure out where the hell Willowby was.
Willowby was one of those Connecticut towns that woofs that Amy Sherman- Palladino based ‘Stars Hollow’ on them. And yes, I do have all 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls on DVD; why do you ask? It was just so picturesque and quaint that you were torn between moving there and burning the place down with napalm. Sadly, I ain’t got a flamethrower or any job skills they needed.
Wheels did leave us an information packet with his car, but either he was paranoid about those two women he was talking about or it just sort of slipped his mind that he wouldn’t be there to explain everything. He does that every so often. The most indicative thing was a picture of what appeared to be a rather off-appearing church spire. Well, stashing stuff like Belladonna was hiding in a church would make sense; the consecration of the church would interfere with any attempt to find it magically. And let’s be honest; most churches have old storage rooms they haven’t looked in for years. So, we killed a few hours ‘touring’ the town, taking in the local culture and to be perfectly honest, being suspicious as hell.
Doc’s feet were killing him (being that heavy will do that to you), so we stopped at a coffee shop that wasn’t Luke’s Diner (but not by much) for a couple of cups of joe. I was going over the information packet, when I felt a large heavy foot step on mine. Now Doc is not the sort to play footsie; there is NO sexual tension whatsoever in our group, and especially not in a strange town. I gave Doc an odd look and he just looked out the window. Following his gaze… a church spire, which was quite pointedly NOT on the ‘items of interest’ list we got from the local visitor’s bureau. We casually killed our coffees, paid our bill and spent the better part of an hour slowly haphazardly following the spire.
The spire belonged to the Greater Covenant Swedenborgian church. Or should I say, the old Greater Covenant Swedenborgian church. From what we could gather from the ‘Help Save the Old Covenant’ sign beside the church, some seven years ago, there had been a fire that damaged the roof (no explanations for the fire, and really, who cares?), and despite appeals and the historic significance of the church, they hadn’t managed to scrape enough together to repair the roof. And, the longer that went unfixed, the more uninhabitable the church got, and the more it would cost to fix the place up. I sort of got the impression that the people in charge were sort of hoping that there’d be another fire to save them the money.
Doc, being the more noticeable of the two of us, stayed out in front as I ducked around the side. There were several doors out the side and back, as tends to be the case, and all of them had been painted over in the past five to six years. But one of them showed signs that the paint had been broken, and the coat over the tumbler of the lock had cracked off.
Subtle as always, Wheels, Subtle…
I tried the key in the lock. It was stiff, but it still worked. Like it had only been used once in the past six years or so. I tried the door, and it opened, if ever only so slightly. I shut it and relocked it, and hurried back to Doc. Doc followed my lead and we ambled aimlessly around for another hour. Then we got in the step van and drove out of town. We headed over to the next quaint little ‘No, WE were the inspiration for Stars Hollow!’ town over. Why? Because we weren’t suspicious in that town yet.
At the motel just outside Nextdoorsburg we tried to figure out what we were coping with. “Okay, this is either a cakewalk or a firefight,” Doc said. “Either Erica’s moved on to New York looking for Wheels, or she’s still hanging out around here, trying to figure out where Belladonna last stash is. The Artful Dodger is on her trail, so wherever Erica is, she is, and vice-versa.”
“When he was pitching this to you so you could sell it to me, what did Wheels say were Erica or the Dodger’s powers?” I asked.
Doc thought it over for a bit. “Well, he said that Erica was strong; strong enough to bat him around the room without straining. But I didn’t get the impression that she was superhumanly strong. You know Wheels: if he thought that she was super-strong, he’d go into all kinds of details and guesses about her upper limits and all that. Instead he focused on her pets.”
“Wolves. Or dogs big and mean enough to pass themselves off as wolves. From the way he talked, I’d say between 3 to 5 of them, more’n a couple, less than a pack. And he said that they listened to her and understood. So, either well-trained or slightly weird.”
Yech. A macho chick who runs with wolves, who’s interested in a mixed bag of mystic items. “Hmmm… it could go either way. On one hand, running down a squirrel like Wheels sounds like something she’d go for. But on the other hand, out here in the boonies is way more her style than trying to find him in the Big Apple. And what about the Dodger?”
Doc chewed it over. “I’m not sure. Then again, Wheels wasn’t sure. He said that the Dodger tripped up Erica something fierce, and that she was never where he or Erica thought she’d be. She was fast and full of surprises, but there wasn’t anything that Wheels was able to peg her on.”
I let out a groan. “A badass and a wiseass. And they’re already on the outs, so we can’t set them against each other. Wait… Wheels said that the Dodger was after Erica?” Doc nodded. “Then we give her to the Dodger. We ignore the Dodger- NO, we make noises like we’re working for the Dodger, concentrate on Erica, stun her, trip her up, and set her up for the Dodger. Even if she gets away from the Dodger, Erica will think that we’re working for the broad who’s looking to bust her, so she’ll avoid us.”
Doc nodded. “And since Willowby wasn’t buzzing with the news about the big fight two nights ago, it follows that it didn’t get too noisy. Which means that they’ll both try to keep it quiet if anything happens tonight. So, we keep it quiet, so they’ll keep it quiet.”
“Quiet is good,” I agreed. “Quiet means no guns, no grenades, no massive explosions, no throwing Buicks around like Frisbees. Of course, ‘quiet’ doesn’t mean ‘nice’.” I plugged my back urchin into a power socket.
Doc nodded. “But we keep it legal.” He tapped his own special contribution to Minion self-defense (a truncheon-level Maglite that he’d amped up with some lead shot in the head, and a blinding strobe into the light) in the palm of his hand. Of course, to Doc ‘legal’ means ‘won’t get you busted on a casual pat-down’. And Doc’s homebrew ‘pepper spray’ has double the Scovilles of the legal limit, but the sprayers he loaded it into looked mild enough to put on chili. One thing that I respect about Doc: he’s definitely of the ‘don’t fight to win, fight to get the fuck away’ school of Minioning. Wheels needs to be reminded of that occasionally.
We put yet another stick-on/ peel-off logo on the step van, and headed back to Willowby at about 9 in the evening. It’s after dark, but you’re not suspicious by being out and about, and let’s face it: only flakes go in at midnight.
Step vans are a little clumsy, but they more than make up for that by being large enough in the driver’s compartment that Doc can drive them without voiding the deposit at U-Haul. The plan was that I’d go in, find the stash, move it to the door, and Doc would drive the van up to the door. We’d make quick work of loading it. At least that was the plan. But then, those nine things that Wheels showed us were just the glamour shots. I’m willing to bet that there’s other stuff stashed in there. And if I’m giving up 3 power gems, by GOD, I’m going to get value for them!
It was a nice, neat, simple plan. It had every chance of working. So, naturally, nothing worked. Of course, it helped that Doc, Wheels and I were big city boys, not Burb-zombies. But we’d read enough Archie comics and seen enough John Hughes movies to realize what was going on. It was a burned out spooky old church out on a disused side street. So, naturally, Friday and Saturday nights, it was kegger central. There were Daddy’s Cars and Mom’s Vans and ratty old POS sedans on their fifth owner parked all around the back of the church. There were lights flashing in the windows, and you could just hear Gangsta Rap playing. Nobody loves Gangsta Rap like white suburban kids who’ve never actually been in a bad neighborhood.
As I started a slow burn to a steady simmer, Doc said diplomatically, “Y’know, this isn’t really a setback.”
“HOW?” I grated through my teeth.
“We come back at 11. These are kids; anyone who hasn’t gone back home by then will be so blitzed that we could drive a tank through there without a hitch.” He gave a wicked grin. “Hell, this works better; we load the stuff into whichever Dadmobile is still there, and use that to ferry the crap over to this van. We switch over and leave the car in a ditch somewhere. So, there’s nothing connecting this van with that church.”
“Doc, they’re a bunch of meddling kids! If one of them’s got a dog, we’re screwed!”
“As long as we don’t wear rubber masks, we’re golden!”
“Okay, but if I hear 1960s bubblegum music start playing, I’m OUT of here!”
Two very boring hours later, Doc was vindicated. Most of the cars had indeed left, and the sounds from the house had shifted from bad-boy pabulum to make-out pabulum. There were four cars left, including, thank you God, a ratty 1970s vintage VW bus; just the thing for discreetly moving a bunch of boxes off the premises. I sent Doc a picture of the bus, and got a ‘good choice’ text in reply. Then I went, quiet as a mouse, down to the basement door and let myself in. I looked around, greedily searching for the crates of goodies besides the stuff that Wheels had shown me and finding-
-three trunks. Exactly as promised, and not a matchbox more.
I had one of those flat, cold, stale and unprofitable moments where you’re absolutely disgusted with yourself. Then, to get the musty taste of my own absurd greed out of my mouth, I went out to make sure the bugbus was ready. I pointed the key fob at the car, and hit the alarm-pick. There are 11,167 different combinations used by the car alarm companies use for their ‘locks’. The decrypter built into my key fob can brute-force search them in less time than it does to turn a hardware key in a lock. It’s not even technically illegal. All four alarms beeped off, and I opened the side sliding door so that I could wrestle those trunks in quickly.
My hopes for when I finally get around to opening those trunks perked up as I hauled the first of them up. Those trunks were heavy! Okay, for all I know, Belladonna put cinderblocks or cement in those trunks to keep people from moving them around carelessly. But in the part of my heart that keeps hoping that this time, Joss Whedon will create another Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I just knew that the weight was books. Magical books besides that grimoire that Wheels had taken that picture of. After all, Hopkins may have shaken down all those mystics for money and power items, but he also took their books. And Belladonna didn’t use books in the big brainfart that got her sent to the Prison with No Name.
The thought of that made lugging those trunks up those stairs bearable. Still, I was very, very glad when I settled that last trunk on the floor of that archaic hippy-ark, and slid the door shut. Now I’d just start it up and drive off before the kids inside could react. Assuming, of course, that they were in any state to react. “HOLD IT FAGGOT, WE GOT YOU DEAD TO RIGHTS!” Powerful hands grabbed the back of my collar and slammed my head into the side of the bus.
My reflex, from having been in this situation a lot, was to go limp and let the guy manhandle me up the stairs and into the church. As the stars in my eyes cleared, I had a bizarre Scooby-Doo moment. There were six kids there, and while there weren’t any Shaggy or Velma analogs, let alone a Great Dane, there were three Fred and Daphne clones. The most alpha of the faux-Freds had me by the collar, and he was yelling all sorts of semi-sober stuff about thieves and perverts and snitches. The kid looked like a football jock, and I was gearing myself towards getting away from them without hurting anyone, when the Cops showed up.
Now, normally this would be ‘crap, this just went down the toilet’ time. But if anything, this was mana from heaven for me. “THANK GOD,” I said in a loud peeved voice, “These punks just grabbed me and were trying to MUG me!”
That stopped them cold. The cops were there to shut down the kegger, which was probably a routine going on tradition. And the kids were just steady enough on their pins to realize that I’d turned it around on them. And they’re kids, so they automatically assume that the drama is always about them. I gave them the ‘angry neighbor’ bit; that worked well. I was frantically trying to figure out how to rationalize ‘commandeering’ the VW bus right from under the Cops’ noses, when there was a comment that completely chucked that scenario down the crapper. “Now that the Comedy portion of our program is done, maybe we can get down to real business?”
The voice that said that was deep, throaty, and had a weird lilt to it that I couldn’t peg. While I didn’t recognize it, the woman it was attached to was just this side of obvious. She was tall, had long, butter-yellow straight hair parted in the middle going down past her shoulders, and a long narrow very Nordic face. She could have been the Svenska blonde that the Swedish Tourism Bureau likes to sell the rest of the world that all Swedish women are; but she wasn’t a gigglesome member of the Swedish Bikini team. Her eyes weren’t blue, but a tawny wolfish light brown, and her long lanky but very powerful form wasn’t wrapped up in a swimsuit. She wore a long tan leather long coat over a rawhide halter top with a pair of black leather trousers that could have been painted on. She had a wolf’s head amulet around her neck. In her left hand, she carried a long unfinished wood staff capped by a roughhewn wolf’s head. But the kicker was the four large, exceedingly nasty dogs that stood at her side. If this isn’t the Ericka that had Wheels all in a tizzy, then when the real thing comes along, I am SCREWED.
“I… am Ulrike…” Okay, Ulrike, not Ericka, but I am still pretty damn screwed. If she isn’t a supervillainess, then she’s at least willing to kill to move up into the position. “You have something of mine. Hand it over NOW!”
The Cops stood between the kids (oh, and me) and the weird leather-broad, and gave her the stock, ‘please don’t interfere’ spiel. God bless their noble, utterly clueless hearts. Ulrike completely ignored them, shoving the lead cop aside and grabbing me by my jacket. The other cop pulled me back, and wouldn’t you know it! The one time in my life that I’m actually glad to see a Policeman, and he pulls me back into him, and my back urchin goes off, zapping the poor fool! The Cop went down, and fun-and-games time was over! The other cop didn’t connect distressingly normal, drab, forgettable me with his buddy going down. No, that clearly had to be the work of the far more dramatic weirdo in front of us.
The Cop cleared leather, but Ulrike yelled out something terse and compelling, and his reflexes went kerflooey badly enough that his gun went flying out of his hand. It flew and landed behind one of the ratty, broken-down, soiled sofas lying about the nave. Fred-1, the alpha jock, was not about to be dishonored by showing weakness in front of a male fantasy made flesh. So he stepped up and showed what he was made of. Five seconds later, he was a blubbering mass on the ground. The near-wolves were snarling and snapping. So Daphne-1, the alpha female, did what she did best: whip out her smartphone and tried to call someone.
One of the not-quite-wolves lunged forward and snatched the phone out her hand with its teeth. Fred-2 tried to step up into Fred-1’s alpha position. He rushed Ulrike, and she just strong-armed him into a wall. That wall was 10 feet away. Fred-3 saw his opening and came at Ulrike on her left side. She just rapped him on the shoulder with her staff, and the ‘jaws’ of the wolf’s head ripped at Fred-3’s shirt, drawing blood.
Having proved her more Alpha-than-you-could-ever-stand status, Ulrike snarled at the lot of us. So, Fred-1 did what all red-blooded American males of his station do at times like this: he ratted me out. I hotly denied it of course, but Ulrike grabbed me by the collar and somehow managed to not get zapped by my back urchin. Yep, still a few bugs to iron out there. Following Fred-1’s story, she dragged me out the back to where-
-the bugbus was NOT.
“WHERE IS IT?” Ulrike snarled at me.
“Where is WHAT?” I shot back. “I have NO IDEA of what you’re talking about!”
“Roight that, Tall, Blonde and ‘Eyegienik’ly-Challenged, wot ARE yew talkin’ ‘bowt?” came a droll, amused soprano voice with a ‘Cockney’ accent that would make Dick Van Dyke wince. Ulrike and her dogs turned to face the voice with a snarl, and the eyes on that the wolf’s head of that staff glowed. But the attack came from exactly the opposite direction. A static-adhesive net came out of the darkness and wrapped itself around Ulrike. She dropped her staff. Both I and the larger of her maybe-wolves went for the staff at the same time. It had big teeth; I had double-maximum limit CRC pepper spray. Short form: Big Bad went scuttling off into the darkness crying for his mommy.
Ulrike was tearing out of the net and the remaining 3 big bad wolves were trying to get at me. I kept them at bay with the staff while trying to get in a good shot, with my back intentionally to Ulrike. But just when I was expecting her to go for me, there was a crash of glass and the sounds of a massive tussle behind me. Risking it, I turned to see Ulrike mixing it up with a slight figure in a flapping longcoat with a pouched bandolier slung over one shoulder. If this is the Artful Dodger, then she’s very well named: Ulrike was wailing away at her like a buzzsaw, but never quite managed to connect. And Ulrike was taking some serious kicks and single-stick strikes in return.
Two of the dogs got past me. “Heads up, Dodger!” Hey, confusion to the enemy and all that. It was very complicated, with me trying to keep the last dog off the Dodger’s back while keeping it from mauling me in the process, the dogs trying to get at the Dodger, Ulrike trying to get away from the Dodger, the Dodger trying to get Ulrike’s other wrist into the handcuffs she already had on one wrist, and the Cop and kids standing there trying to make some sense of the mess.
Then Ulrike did something that caused a whirlwind that sent us all up a good ten feet into the air and then dumped us. Ulrike and the Dodger landed neat as pins, I managed a decent landing, and the dogs recovered pretty well too. The cop and the kids landed badly though. As I was getting up, one of the not-wolves grabbed the wolf-staff in its teeth and tore it out of my hands. The dog ran off into the night. As Dodger reacted to that, Ulrike did a bounding leap over the hedge and out of the fight.
Seeing my opening, I yelled loudly, “Go get her, Dodger! I’ll get the staff!” The Dodger was right on Ulrike’s heels, but I have no idea whether she heard me or not. I turned to the cop, who was getting up, and barked out like I had some kind of authority, “Call this in NOW! Get a BOLO out for her ASAP! Her name’s Ulrike, and she’s got three First Degree Murder warrants out for her in two states! Tell your men to NOT INTERFERE with the Dodger! Ulrike’s too dangerous for your men!” Then I pointed at the kids, and said, “Get depositions from them, and call their parents!”
Then I ran as quickly as I could in the general direction that the dog had hied off with the wolf-staff went. And NO, I didn’t try to chase down that dog. What am I, mental? And to be honest, I have no idea as to whether Ulrike has murder warrants out for her or not; but given her act, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she did. I ran a suburban block, then slowed down to a walk, took a breather, and gave Doc a ‘where you at?’ call.
When he picked me up in the step van, Doc explained that when he saw the kids grab me, he just released the brake and pushed the VW bus out of the yard. I acknowledged that this was a good idea, and then told him about the dustup with Ulrike and the Artful Dodger. “You told the Cop to get a deposition out of a bunch of snockered kids? And to call their parents? MAN, you play hardball, Slim!”
“Damn Skippy,” I repeated my (awesome) Clint Eastwood impression. Then I noticed something in the rearview mirror. “Oh Crud.”
Doc grunted and looked in the mirror, spotting the dog running after us. “You’re shitting me,” he guffawed, and sped up a little.
“Ah, Doc? Not only is Rover back there not dropping back, but he’s gained a buddy.”
“CRAP!” Doc put the pedal to the metal. But the dogs- no, wolves were still after us.
“Take the next left and head for I-87!” I said, checking my GPS to be sure. “We can put as much heat on it as this crate will put out, and if the State Troopers pull us over, we’ve got the good excuse that we were running away from a pack of WOLVES!”
But that wasn’t necessary. We lost the wolves- all three of them- at the on-ramp. I all but melted into the seat and moaned, “SCREW IT! I’m selling that crap to the Witch Queen! Let HER handle this bullshit!” Doc made a happy noise at that, as to say, ‘Finally! Some sense!’ “AFTER I photocopy that book and take detailed pictures of the stuff in there.” Doc shot me a dirty look.
In Hartford, we got a motel with two adjoining rooms. After we lugged the three trunks into my room, Doc decided to call it a night. But me? Hey, after all that crap we went through to get this, I want to see my early Christmas presents! As I started to crack open the first trunk, Doc cleared his throat loudly. “AHEM!”
He held out his hand and made the ‘cough it up’ gesture. I locked for a second, but then I remembered- Oh! Right! I dug into my other secret pocket, and handed over the last power gem, the milky green one. Oh well, it’s not like I was ever really comfortable with those things…
Doc gave me the ‘good boy’ smile and went through the door into his room.
Now happily power-gem free, I went back to opening up the trunks. Meh. The first trunk was full of roots and leaves and bark and other stuff that probably would have had all kinds of magical properties- IF the damn ROT hadn’t gotten to it! Phew! Was that trunk funky! The third trunk was full of books, notebooks, journals, and like all that. I’m getting that these were all the grimoires and Books of Moons and Agrippas that the Witch Hunter had ripped off. From the looks of it, he’d been a busy- and very bad- boy. If I was a scholar or real wizard, I’d probably be going jackpot! But I’m not. Well, maybe selling these to the Witch Queen for reals is a good idea…
Now you’re asking yourself ‘Second trunk’? Yeah, that’s where all the real glamour was, and I wanted to save the best for last. THAT was where the real swag was. The squat brass bottle with the lead stopper, the thick black-leather bound book with the gold conjoined moon design on the cover, the weird ‘compass/ mirror’ contraption, the white handled athame, the dagger in the Arabic style with a curved steel blade, the ‘nautilus’ glass flask (which turned out to be half full of some clear amber liquid), the disk of solid crystal rock salt, and the brass ‘telescope’, which wasn’t really a telescope, but some sort of odd twisting instrument that’s purpose I wasn’t even going to try to figure out that night.
And, something that Wheels hadn’t put on the bargaining table, for some reason: an elaborately worked silver full-face mask inlaid with white enamel, with a filigree ‘rose’ over the mouth and a chamsa on the brow. It had holds which hooked over the ears, and a domed forehead that partially covered the front of the head. I know, in retrospect, it was a dumb idea, but on pure ‘Christmas Morning’ reflex, I put the mask on. The bars slipped over my ear, and while it clearly hadn’t been made for me, it had been designed to fit most faces. It was comfortable, and I definitely got the sense that I could get used to it easy. Of course, the very second that it got comfortable on my face, it occurred to me that I’d just put a possibly magical mask on my face. It could do almost anything to me! It could house the intellect of some vile inhuman prehistoric evil mage who has been waiting thousands of years for some nitwit to don this mask, so he could usurp my body, sending my mind into a bottomless pit of engulfing oblivion!
Memo to self: stop reading so much H.P. Lovecraft. That crap never happens in real life.
Feeling a paradoxical sense of anticlimactic disappointment, I looked around, trying to figure out what was so special about this mask. Then, just as I was about to give up, take off the mask, and put it down as a nice-looking knickknack, I noticed the lead stopper on the brass bottle. There was something, not quite shining worked into a circle on the top of the stopper. I picked up the bottle and examined the stopper more closely. Worked into the stopper were several concentric circles of characters. And then I noticed several rings of characters worked into the brass around the neck of the bottle. And what looked suspiciously like a Seal of Solomon surrounded by yet another circle of letters. I broke off, lifted the mask from my face and looked at the bottle and stopper again. Nothing. Not even lines of indentation in the lead.
I just sat there, wrapping my head around that for a bit.
Okay, that means something. It’s not just registering at the moment. Pulling the mask back down, I looked around. There weren’t any weird lines running around-
-no, wait… the dagger! There were lines and characters running down the blade of the dagger. And some in the grip, especially in a complex circle on the oversized pommel of the butt of the grip. As a matter of fact, there were weird lines and characters on each of the big prize items, except for the nautilus phial, and that liquid definitely had something weird going on.
And then- jackpot! The Book! The Grimoire! The book was absolutely lousy with them! And it wasn’t just ‘moon runes’ or invisible writing or any crap like that- the lines, the characters, they… reacted to me reading them, to what I thought, to what I wanted to know. It wasn’t just a bunch of pages of writing… it was literally a body of knowledge. And like the cyberpunks like to say, knowledge wants to be free!
I lost myself in that book for hours, learning how to use it, what it did, what it wanted. I had the giddy feeling that I had finally found the doorway to the higher planes that I’ve been looking for, for so long.
I was wrapping my head around the very basics of how magical energies are bound into material objects- a very tricky and nuanced subject- when there was a loud howling that would have frozen the spine of the Dalai Lama, and a scream from next door. Being yanked out of that contemplative mind-state like that was a real jolt to the system, but I managed to pull myself back to the Here-and-Now, or at least the Then-and-There. Not bothering to take off the mask (to tell the truth, I sort of forgot that I had the thing on), I blundered through the connecting door into Doc’s room.
Doc’s room was a mess. My first thought was that I was ridiculously happy that we’d rented these rooms with a stolen credit card. My second thought was that someone had attempted a home invasion on the Munsters. The room was draped in gooey cobwebs of adhesive, and there were several smoking holes in the walls. Doc was scrunched up on the bed in the center of a barely visible sphere, wildly jabbing away at a large snarling matte black wolf. The wolf wasn’t really a wolf, it was an animated wolf-shaped patch of darkness. The part of me that’s a little too proud of all the reading that I’ve done over the years riffed on the image of Skoll, the wolf of night, chasing Solle, the Germanic Sun-Goddess through the sky. Though Solle is supposed to be a glorious golden female and Doc- well, Doc’s a bud and he’s going through enough hell just at the moment. The sphere was a PFG (personal force field generator), one of the self-protection gizmos that Doc had picked up at Belphegor’s warehouse. Doc had the PFG strapped on, and the wolf-thing was clawing the hell out of the force field globe. Doc was jabbing away frantically at the wolf-thing. The prod he was using was a particularly nasty vital energy disruptor called an ‘Agonizer’, a combination taser and paralysis gizmo. It has a vicious reputation, which it wasn’t living up to at the moment. The wolf-thing was reacting, but it wasn’t yelping and going into agonized death-throws. What’s the point of risking of being caught with a weapon that’s illegal in 42 states and 6 provinces, if it doesn’t cause a wolf-thing to go into agonized death-throws when it attacks you?
And all that was weird enough, but what I was seeing with the wolf was three steps beyond weird. It was some sort of hungry, predatory, unclean spirit sent here on a very strong leash. I ducked immediately back into my own room, and grabbed the weird faux-Arabic dagger and the thick tablet of salt. As I sprinted back into Doc’s room, the scenario hadn’t changed that much, but Doc looked like he was running out of gas. I slashed the wolf-thing with the dagger, and a single swipe did more to upset it than a dozen square hits from Doc’s Agonizer had.
As the wolf-thing reacted to my dagger, I threw the salt tablet to Doc. “Catch!” Doc’s force sphere made that more easily said than done. As I kept the wolf-thing busy, he tried to get at the tablet through the globe. He finally managed to resolve the problem by rolling over on the tablet, and letting the salt disk sort of sink through. Once that was done, I broke off and Wolfie seemed a little uncertain as to who to maul.
Holding up the salt tablet, Doc asked, “What IS this?”
“It’s an enchanted tablet of rock salt.”
“And Salt, especially crystal salt, has virtues to cleanse the corrupt and unclean!” I shot back.
“SO? I don’t think this thing is on the take, Slim!”
“Just press the salt into its face! It’s an unclean spirit; Salt is like… silver to a werewolf, to unclean spirits!”
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
‘Just DO it!”
For once, Doc did what I told him to and rammed the salt disk into the wolf-thing’s face. Or at least into the force field globe. Which seemed to do the trick. The wolf-thing shied away from Doc with a yip and seemed confused by the development. Okay, Doc was safe for the moment; it was time to see if I am the stuff of that Wizards are made of. I hauled back into my room and brought back the Grimoire and the brass bottle. If that bottle was what I thought it was, it could bind and hold the wolf-wraith, and maybe I could figure out how to use its essence for magic!
When I got back, the wolf-wraith was worrying at the protective sphere, and both sides were taking damage. Doc wasn’t hurt, but the urine was never gonna wash out of those sheets. I stabbed it in the back with that dagger to get it off Doc, and then I went to work. First I created a working circle and… well, from there it gets very technical…
And to be honest, I admit that I was winging it a lot…
And there were big chunks where I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right…
And I gotta admit, there were parts where I thought I lost it, but I got it right back….
BUT, in the end, I hauled the wolf-wraith by the tether and dragged it into the bottle, and sealed off the locks. Or locked off the seals. Whatever. The thing is at the end of it, I was victorious, Doc was safe, the wolf-thing was sealed away, my understanding of the grimoire was a lot better, and I’d taken my first steps into being a real MAGE!
As I stood there, flush with victory, Doc was still squatting on his bed, wan with horror, looking straight ahead. I started to ask him something smug and self-congratulatory, when I noticed the bad shape he was in. “DOC! You okay?”
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
I could see that he was getting pissed, and I didn’t blame him in the least. So, I tried to derail his mad, or at least put it on the right track. “How come the wraith thing attacked you?” I wondered aloud. “Okay, obviously, Ulrike sent it, but why did it attack you?”
“Ulrike?” he echoed, like he was trying to get his brains back in proper working order.
“Now, logically, she would have attacked Me, ‘cause I’ve got all the books and artifacts-”
“WAIT!” I snapped my fingers. “The Power Gems!”
“Yeah! Do you still have them? It didn’t get them, did it?”Clearly still pretty rattled by the experience, Doc rummaged around in his clothing until he found the two glittering embodiments of inexplicable power. That seemed to focus him. “MAN, if Ulrike’s like that after those two, she’s gonna go NUTS when you get your third gem from Wheels!”
“Third? Wheels?” That snapped him out of it. “WHEELS! We haven’t checked on Wheels yet!”
“Finally!” I gusted, “You were beginning to spook me there, Doc.”
“What?” he said absently, but at least this time he had the excuse that he had his smartphone out and he was blowing past Aaron Carter’s profile to check on Wheel’s update. “CASPAR says that Wheels’ skeleton has adjusted to the Cartilaginization process, and is adapting to the new parameters, but adding 8 inches to Wheels’ height will add another 10 hours to the process. Twelve hours, if we don’t want Wheels to be a twitching wreck, because her peripheral nervous system isn’t up to snuff.”
“But… she’d wake up at 2 in the afternoon!” I objected. “Is there any way that it can stretch out the process? Maybe tack on a few procedures that you and Wheels left off, for Time’s sake?”
Doc fiddled around a little and said, “Okay, if we slow down the re-calcification process by 3 hours and … and prolong the nerve-way extensions by 2 hours… and the pancreas and liver re-development by 2 hours… and the lipofuscin purge by an hour… then we’ve got 8 more hours. She’ll still have to put up with her uterus completing its development in situ, some serious cramps for a few weeks but at least her ovaries will be producing estrogen. Mind you, optimal results would require another 36 hours, but hey, with Ulrike out there, we gotta get out of New York ASAP.” And they wonder WHY I didn’t jump on Belphegor’s conversion process.
“Okay, that’ll do. But we still gotta get out of here NOW!”
“Why? Do you think that Ulrike will attack again so soon?”
“Ulrike? I’m not worried about Ulrike!” I snapped. “I’m worried about the COPS!” I waved a hand around the goop-stained, plasma-scored wreckage of the room that Doc’s futile fight with the wolf-wraith had caused. “Screw our deposit, we gotta get before the boys in blue show up and start asking about how come we got energy weapons!” And, lack of sleep or no lack of sleep, Doc really got that point. We were loaded up, out, on the road and halfway to Upstate New York before it registered with Doc that I had only two trunks.
Once we were back in the Empire State, we pulled into a gas station, got rid of the bogus signage and peeled off the false colors. Nothing we haven’t done before, and given our luck, something we’ll probably do again. After that, we drove to the nearest U-Haul outlet, parked right next to it, and bunked out in the back. Doc said that he was fine, that he’d seen worse when he was henching for Dr. Nefarius and one of the Doctor’s *ahem!* ‘projects’ got away from him. But I think that wraith-wolf got to him worse than he’s letting on. When he was sleeping, he whimpered and gave out these yips, like he was having a nightmare.
But give him his due, Doc’s tough. When he woke up in the morning, he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, like nothing had happened. But still, he wasn’t happy, after we drove down to the City, and I made a side-trip without him. It wasn’t that I dropped off that trunk of books; it was what I still had when I came back with: “What’s all that?” He jabbed an accusing finger at the glass nautilus shell that I was wearing on a chain around my neck.
“Hey, it’s some kind of elixir,” I said. “I mean, maybe having a healing potion on hand can’t hurt, now can it?”
Doc gave a martyred groan and sagged, but didn’t fight it. “Well, at least you left the rest of that crap behind.” I avoided his eyes. “You DID leave the rest of that crap behind, didn’t you?”
“I… don’t think that leaving that stuff behind is a good idea, Doc,” I hedged.
Doc let out a loud whine and kvetched, “WHY? What possible good would having that hoodoo trash on us do us when we spring Wheels, hah?”
“Hey, it won’t do any harm, but if Belphegor’s mucking around with mixing magic and technology again, this dagger or that mask could be the only things between us and being spare parts, hah?” Doc grumped, but gave me the point. Among his other alienating habits, Belphegor has a burr in his britches to make Magic and Technology, which normally don’t work together very well, mesh into some kind of push-button sorcery, a notion that doesn’t sit very well with either the High Tech or High Wizardry sets. Or the Rank and File for that matter; those projects tend to gang nastily agley, and the Boots tend to be the ones who gotta clean up the messes.
We spent the day driving down to Atlantic City and keeping on the move. There was no sign of either Ulrike or the Artful Dodger, or the Witch Queen, for which favors I’m duly grateful, God. Hauling minor power objects around on her turf or bringing trouble onto that turf is NOT how I want to get to know the Witch Queen. Doc was checking on Wheels’ update with a diligence that was either commendable or annoying, depending on whether he was driving when he checked or not. The problem was that I knew enough about hardware to get a bad feeling about it, but not enough about wetware to know if there was a whiff of rat or it was just squick.
It was so tense that we parted ways about 2 in the afternoon, and got back together at 7 to start the drive back up to Brooklyn. But what little good mood we had going in was totally shot when we saw pigeons roosting on the exterior fence. “SHIT! Robo-Pigeons!”
“Belphegor only uses those things when he has something special planned.”
“So, when do you think he’s gonna wise up that everybody can spot them, ‘cause pigeons don’t fly at night?”
“Well, he ain’t gonna hear it from ME.” Robo-Pigeons are perimeter patrol drones designed to look like any of the millions of roof-rats that infest the greater NYC metroplex, which fly around the edges of a property in pseudorandom patterns. They’re not armed. When they spot something, they alert the Security center and try to mark it. How do they mark it? It’s designed to look like a pigeon; how would a pigeon mark something without being obvious about it? They ‘poop’ on it with a special chemical marker that’s also about as radioactive as a watch dial.
“Slim, what’s your professional opinion of the chances that Belphegor knows what we’re doing?”
I thought it over. “Low and going lower. Security was already tight, remember? It’s more like Belphegor was ramping up and prepping for whatever he’s got going on.”
“MELCHIOR says that His August Majesty is playing it very close to his vest, but whatever it is, is going down tonight.”
“MELCHIOR? I thought we were doing business with CASPAR.”
“CASPAR’s busy. But it’s cool. MELCHIOR doesn’t like Belphegor anymore than CASPAR or BALTHAZAR do. And I took a page from your book, Slim, and I’m piping BALTHAZAR the Rangers vs. the Flyers game.”
I gave Doc a worried look. “So, Doc, what’s your educated opinion of the chances that we can do the smart thing and just, y’know, come back tomorrow, after whatever big noise Round Boy is up to quiets down?”
Doc gave a martyred whine. “Nada. The nutrients that were a part of the conversion package were very carefully rationed out for the original conversion period. CASPAR has been pretty much feeding Wheels extra stem cell solution for the past 8 hours. When Wheels gets out of that pot, she’s gonna be weak and HUNGRY. Another 24 hours? After what she’s been through, Wheels might not survive!”
“Any chance that the Friendly Ghost in the Machine can sneak some nutri-noshies to Wheels?”
“Not under that level of Security,” Doc said. “At that level of diligence, MELCHIOR has maybe a 30% chance of pulling it off. Which is 36% lower than I’m willing to risk at this point. If Belphegor finds out about Wheels, she’s screwed; and then Belphegor finds out about that power gem-” Doc sort of phased out for a second and continued, “-and then we’re screwed. I’m screwed because I have two power gems that I can’t hold up and say, ‘I HAVE THE POWER!’, and you’re screwed because you’re involved and you just might have a power gem that you’re holding out.”
“Okay, what about sneaking in with 24 hours’ worth of liquid noshies, switch out the cartridge and get out before anyone spots us?”
“Slim, YOU’RE the big security expert; which is smarter: sneaking in ONCE and getting it over with, or sneaking in TWICE, when we don’t know what’s going to happen to the site after the first time?”
Still, I delayed the entry to drive 7 blocks out of our way to buy 5 full-pint cans of bodybuilder ‘protein shakes’ for that first ‘feed me!’ moment. We also picked up a couple of cheapo nylon rain ponchos.
Yes, we got splattered. And Yes, the ponchos handled it. But MAN, has Belphegor gone all-out for this… whatever it is. Okay, it’s all ‘I can get my deposit back for this, right?’ rental tack-on stuff, and actual real boilerplate upgrades would be a lot more effective, but still Belphegor added on some killer stuff! The uncomfortable thought that Belphegor had done the meticulous, intelligent thing, run an inventory, and found out about our looting occurred to me, and from the worried look on Doc’s face, he’s running over the same thought. We almost jumped out of our skins when three ghostly figures in draping shrouds loomed out of the darkness in formation. But I ducked under cover and pulled Doc back with me. They passed by us without a pause. “Patrol Drones,” I said. “Someone just can’t let go of those old ‘Scooby-Doo’ episodes.”
But when we checked the special cache we’d laid in the second time we were through, the bottom-rung minion outfits in our sizes were still there. Doc called CASPAR, and the techno-spook assured us that the IFF RIFDs in the outfits were registered with the mainframe and pre-selected as ‘disregard’.
The problem was that while both uniforms fit, and I was nicely nondescript regards my physique, Doc was NOT. Unless Belphegor got hisself another big lunking minion on staff- which is not that far out; I mean, that uniform came from somewhere- Doc both stands out and is rather memorable. The problem is that Security’s on pins and needles, and dressing up as a minion is, like Heroic Daring-do 050. But we don’t really have a lot of options at this point. Doc had the combo PFG/ dazzler that had saved his bacon back at the motel (as far as that went), the Agonizer (maybe the next thing he uses it on won’t be zotz-proof), a Spiderman-model multi-chemical sprayer that Belphegor stole from Gizmatic, and an energy weapon with a really fancy name that’s basically a vari-phase plasma carbine with an underslung vibration weapon. Think the Star Wars Stormtrooper general issue gun with a few nasty tack-ons. I had a wrist-mounted force-field deflection unit, a power lariat (hey, if it’s good enough for Wonder Woman, it’s good enough for me!), a few glop grenades and another vari-phase plasma weapon with a wider selection of settings and an integral voltage thrower that has a nasty circuitry scrambler function. All we needed was a stirring background score by John Williams, and we were ready for action!
Then, just when we were ready to go get Wheels, a tricycle-chassis patrol/ quick-response drone zipped out of the darkness and stopped right in front of us. [Hey Bajko!] it said to Doc in a high electronic voice, [What you doing, poking around in the dark?]
Doc started to respond, but I stepped on his foot. Using a white noise generator that foxes most audio-pickup units, I told him, “Don’t. Sucker Bait. There’s no ‘Bajko’; you say you’re Bajko, and it sets off an alarm.” And yes, this kind of weasel-think is the norm in Security.
Doc got the point. “I’m not Bajko.”
[Of course you’re Bajko, Bajko! Hey, Bajko, when you gonna do that upgrade you said you’d do on me?]
“I’m not Bajko,” Doc said, seeing the double trap there.
[Then where’s Bajko?]
“Dunno. I got work to do.”
[Okay! See you later, Bajko!] then it tooled off. And that is Reason #3 of why I don’t trust AI: Cheap = Stupid, and most people are cheap, so when AI goes mainstream, you’ll have tons of Artificial Stupidity running around. And God knows, we have enough Natural Stupidity, we don’t need to mass produce it!
But then, when we finally got to where Wheels’ forced adaptation Winnebago was, and…. It wasn’t there? “Crap! Belphegor found Wheels!” Doc gasped.
“No way,” I said with certainty. “If Belphegor had found Wheels, he’d have taken her out of the chamber and left a booby trap, along with an ambush unit. He may not be the genius he likes to think he is, but he’s sharp enough to realize that Wheel’s couldn’t bring herself out, and he’d want deal with whoever was gonna come and wake her up.”
“Point.” Doc contacted MELCHIOR. “Oh crap.”
“MELCHIOR moved Wheels, chamber and all. HE says that he had to, that it was attracting too much attention where it was, and he moved it to a more secure location, where it won’t raise any red flags.”
“Let me guess,” I said, rubbing my temples to keep down that throbbing headache that was threatening to pop up, “he knows where it is, but the location is stored in a compressed file somewhere in his peripheral memory, right? And he’s real busy, and he’d need some sort of compensation for dredging that file out, right?”
I let out a massively annoyed groan. This is Reason #14 why I don’t trust AIs: They find Humans stupid and regard outthinking us as a core priority.
Then, looking around, I noticed something that put the ball back in our court. “Doc? Look down. Check it out: the chamber sprung a minor leak. Nothing much, especially now that we’re here to spring Wheels anyway… buuut…” I followed the trail of dots of suspension fluid, and a few fading track marks. “Cybersleaze moved Wheels over that way. And I doubt that Mel’s gonna risk moving a chamber the size of a RV up to the next floor, and moving anything that big between buildings is just asking for it. So, I’m guessing that we’ll find Wheels in either Bay J, K, or M.”
Bay J was taken up by something that looked like a bunch of Trekkies- and fans of the Original Series at that- tried to re-create the transporter from the Enterprise. It had two launch spots, one of which had a control panel, complete with that ‘are you effing kidding me?’ slide control.
“Okay, Doc, you’re way more into the Weird Science stuff than I am; do you think that this is a genuine project, something that Belphegor stole from someone else and is trying to reverse engineer, or is just some kind of mindfuck trap?”
Doc worked on that far too long and finally said, “Does it really matter? Even if it IS what it looks like, WHO in their right mind wants to be disassembled and reassembled?”
“Hey, just because it looks like Starfleet general issue doesn’t mean that they’re using the same teleportation method,” I pointed out.
“Actually, I don’t think it’s that big a deal,” Doc said. “May I point out that this bay isn’t locked? That means the Belphegor doesn’t really care about it that much. Odds are it’s just something that he threw together for Geek Cred back in college, and never got around to taking to a Con.”
We found the forced adaptation chamber in Bay K. I smirked at Doc and said, “Betcha 20 bucks that MELCHIOR says something to the effect of, ‘well, you can’t blame me for trying.’”
We waited for a flight of 5 flat disk patrol drones, or ‘flying garbage can lids’, to pass in formation. Then we opened Bay K and checked. “Good news: Wheels is hot and poppin’ fresh, ready to come out of the oven,” Doc said. “Bad News: Bringing her out in a way that won’t give her a stroke or some sort of metabolic crash requires a very precise ‘wakeup’ regulation system- that WAS here, and isn’t now.”
“Five’ll get you Fifty that MELCHIOR nabbed it. I TOLD you that letting virtual intelligences watch Green Acres- or any 1960s sitcom- is a bad idea! Now he’s trying to ‘Mr. Hainey’ us by giving us the stuff we need in drips and drabs!”
“So, I’ll fudge it!” While he has many sterling qualities, Doc is a MacGyver fan, and he seriously thinks that improvising solutions with found materials is a good way of getting a job done. “Slim, I need you to scrounge around and find me-”
“OR, we can call CASPAR, and ask him where MELCHIOR stashed the wakeup regulator,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, IF Cap doesn’t have his servos full with whatever Belphegor is pulling.” Doc made the call and sourly informed me that he was #127 on CASPAR’s priority list. Then he made out a shopping list for me that wasn’t full of stuff that we could resell.
“I have good news, annoying news, more good news, unsettling news, and bad news,” I said as I lugged two armloads of junk into the bay.
“Okay, Mr. Bones,” Doc responded as he looked up from the discombobulated regulator, “what’s the good news?”
“I got almost everything you wanted, and what I couldn’t find, I found an alternative.”
“Groovy! And the annoying news?”
“I ran into one of Belphegor’s new security measures: frictionless surfaces in strategic areas. One of the crates I needed to riffle was in a stack on one of said slip-squares, and nobody told me about it.”
“How’d you get off?”
“Power Lariat,” I hefted the cable. “Wonder Woman is vindicated.”
“Foresight, ingenuity, and fan-girl geekiness come through again,” Doc smirked. “Let’s see… what’s the ‘more good news’?”
“I found the hench-staff locker room.”
“And, more importantly, I found a locker that was full of Belphegor Hench-wench outfits.” I held up two clothing bags, complete with attached satchels for boots and other stuff. “I think that the ‘Angels’ who timed out their contracts and quit just left these behind. So, I brought one set each of the Amazon and Bombshell somatotypes; between them, Wheels should be able to put together something that fits. It may not be particularly stylish, but it’ll get us out of here.”
“What about the outfit we brought?”
“Doc, which is more likely to set off a general alarm: a tall strapping blonde Amazon walking around in a set of ‘Juicy’ sweatpants, a Nets hoodie and some sneaks, or a tall strapping blonde Amazon who’s dressed like one of the Boss’ go-to girls?”
Doc mulled it over for a sec. “Point.” He paused. “Okay, and the unsettling news?”
“The level of unmanned patrol has about tripled, in both frequency and scrutiny. But NOT manned patrol.”
“Y’think that Mel’s looking to squeeze us?”
“Doc, this is number ONE on my list of ‘Why I don’t trust AIs’: no matter what they SAY, they’re all high functioning sociopaths! No matter how hard we try, we can’t write effective Moral Compass emulation software! From what you tell me, CASPAR is all right enough, but let’s face it, MELCHIOR is the fuckin’ poster child for having electromagnetic shotguns taped to their foreheads! Of COURSE, he’s gonna try and squeeze us! That’s not the real problem! The real problem is ‘what’s he squeezing us FOR?’”
Then, as if to underline my point, that frickin’ trike-drone wheeled up and asked ‘Bajko’ what he was up to. Doc did the whole ‘I’m not Bajko’ routine. Then the trike asked ‘Bajko’ if he had gotten around to that upgrade that he’d promised it. Doc got rid of the trike, and asked me, “And what’s the more bad news?”
‘We have company. Someone who’s sneaky, but not as Security-savvy as they think they are. While I was running around getting your stuff, I spotted a couple of places where someone had to deal with Belphegor’s security rental junk and didn’t do as good a job of covering their tracks as they think they did. I cleaned up after them, but I think the only reason this place isn’t on Screaming Red is that MELCHIOR realizes that he can’t squeeze us if Belphegor’s got us on a table with a blow torch in his hand.”
“Any clue who it is?”
I gave a wide ‘who knows?’ shrug. “Princess Jobe or one of her Drow wouldn’t bother for what’s in one of Belphegor’s warehouses. Nephandus is in Eastern Europe. This isn’t Jadis Frost or her crew’s style. Hazard would do a better job of it. The Darcy sisters wouldn’t bother covering their tracks; they’d just bust in and put Belphegor’s balls in a vice. Jabberwock would have us out cold by now. It’s too quiet for Scoundrel, Tek-Spider wouldn’t leave any traces, and this place is too jejune for the Countess, that hot new ‘sophisticated burglar’ who kicked up such a ruckus at the Guggenheim last month. Ulrike has no way of finding us here, and the Artful Dodger?” I shrugged again. “Who knows? My point is that speed is of the utmost concern. Start kludging!”
Doc groused that he would have already had it done if I hadn’t distracted him with all that ‘good news/ bad news’ comedy. Still, between the two of us, we got the wakeup regulator put together and synched it with the chamber. It was a little glitchy, and we had to start from scratch a couple of times, but I think that that may have been better for Wheels than coming out in one smooth uninterrupted action. She knew that something was going on, and she was able to wrap her head around what was going on, on a very fundamental level.
Finally, Wheels was thinking straight enough that she could follow the exit directions, and the tray she was strapped to slid out from the main body of the chamber. All you had to do was look at her chest to see that it wasn’t the same old Wheels. But at the same time, I knew that it was the same old Wheels: the second her arms were free, her hands flew to her chest and we hadda work around her while she did the ‘squish-squish’ thing. The thing that struck me the most as we were getting all the tubes and catheters and like that undone, was that she smelled great. Not like perfume or anything, but like a newborn baby. Not that the whole package wasn’t worth taking in. For once, one of Belphegor’s gizmos had performed as advertised, without any of the fuck-ups that I associate with Bel-Tech. When Wheels stepped off the tray, she looked like something out of a cheesy Science-Fiction movie, the ‘mad scientist creates the perfect woman’ scene or something like that. As Wheels had provided the criteria, she was tall, strapping and buxom, but slender, graceful and well-made. She had a face that reminded me of Ursula Andress, the first Bond Girl, but with a better mouth and eyes. Or maybe it was just that Wheels was grinning like a little girl at her birthday party and her eyes were dancing. Not only had she gone for the gold ring and gotten it, but it had a big diamond on it.
I handed her one of those protein drinks. She took it and drank it. But she didn’t slug it down like I was expecting. “Thanks, Slim,” she said with a voice that was a little raspy, “but couldn’t you have gotten something that didn’t taste like antifreeze?”
That didn’t sound like someone who was on the verge of starvation. “Doc? Look at the on-board monitoring systems. Check the nutrient reservoirs.”
Doc did so, and reported, “It says that CASPAR switched out everything 8 hours ago, as per schedule and replaced all necessary supplies.”
“Which is NOT what we were hearing from our Wellness Check reports,” I pointed out. “MELCHIOR has been fucking with our data-feed, probably to try and stick it to us some more.”
“But MELCHIOR’s an AI!” Doc argued, “AIs don’t fudge data! All they ARE is data!”
“Any AI that deals with Belphegor for more than three months would have to figure out the Ins and Outs of Lying, just to stay sane!” I counter-argued.
“Come to think of it, PETER, PAUL and MARY all had to be cycled through and replaced when I was henching for him,” Wheels mused. “MARY had to be put down ‘Old Yeller’ style.”
“SHIT!” I snapped, “We can’t be sure that MELCHIOR hasn’t messed with… something! We can’t trust anything that the VIs told us about anything! Wheels! Get back on the tray, we’re gonna have to do a complete in-house scan of… everything!”
“Do I have to?” Wheels whined. “I mean, I just got OUT.”
Doc snapped to, like he’d had to cope with one stupid thing too many, and said with a hard voice, “Get on the tray. Sooner done, sooner over with.” Wheels gave him a ‘hah?’ but sat down on the tray, like a good girl. “But first, the Power Gem.”
That confused Wheels for a bit, but just as I saw the penny drop, we heard, “Power Gem?” An accented feminine voice that was dreadfully familiar from a very brief but very intense encounter came from out of the darkness, followed by Ulrike herself and her four maybe-wolves. “You have a Power Gem?” she didn’t ask, but demand.
“And who are YOU?” Doc asked in a hardass voice that suggests to me that he’s been having a harder time of this than he let on.
“I’m the one you’re going to hand those power gems over to, AND the Witch Hunter’s cache as well, if you don’t want me to feed your livers to my pets,” she snarled.
Now I’d love to say that this is the point where I pulled an Uber-Cool maneuver that turned everything around on She-Who-Must-Be-A-Bitch. But to be honest, I was all out of sneaky crap at the moment. I was going to pull something that even I knew wouldn’t work, when Wheels hopped off the gurney and- well, let’s just say that 600 pounds of force moving a woman who weighed maybe 130 or so, does strange things. It got every Rube Goldberg, and basically Wheels klutz-fu’ed us out of it. The adaptation chamber was in shreds, Ulrike was under a pile of scrap, and her wolves were covered in waste liquid from the chamber. Even I was reeling from the stink; pity the poor puppies. Or not.
While she was dealing with that, I said, “Okay, we’ve got what we came here to get- so let’s GO!” And not waiting for a consensus, I beat feet in the general direction of our cache of Bel-Tech. Screw loading up the U-Haul, we’d just grab an armload each and get the fuck OUT of there. Then we’d have CASPAR or MELCHIOR, or Frosty the Snowman, whoever, lift the Security veil, and let Belphegor handle Ulrike.
Wheels grabbed Doc by the hand and pretty much dragged him after us. Unfortunately, her klutz-fu can work against us as much as it does for us. I realized that we were heading in the direction of one of those frictionless patches that Belphegor had put down. But Wheels couldn’t stop in time, and all three of us went spilling onto the slip. And this time there wasn’t anything close enough for my power lariat to latch onto, except for the pile of crates in the center. And it’s designed so that all reaching that will do is give you something to hold onto until Security comes and blows you away.
Doc was working himself up into a fine fury, when a flight of those stupid ‘flying garbage can lids’ flew past, blithely unconcerned about the frictionless surface, probably so that anyone following them would think that it was safe to pass that way. I latched onto one of them, and Wheels did likewise, and Doc latched onto Wheels. The drones hauled us off the slick, but the disk gave me an angry set of beeps before they went off on their merry way.
“Crap,” I said, rubbing my face through the Bel-mask. “We’re rumbled.”
“What do you mean?” Doc asked, stumbling to get up.
“Those were patrol drones. They gave me an ID prompt, and I didn’t have the right answer. If MELCHIOR was still covering for us, that drone wouldn’t have asked for the counter-sign.”
“So, what do we do?” Wheels asked.
“We get you dressed, and blend into the background as best we can,” I said, shoving the clothing bags at her.
“We’re wasting TIME,” Doc growled.
“Which will waste more time,” I asked rhetorically, “her doing a quick change, or fighting off whatever MELCHIOR decides to throw at us, to get us up a tree?”
Okay, it took longer than I thought it would; getting the leggings over that soup suit was more trouble than it was worth, so Wheels had to strip out of it and get dressed from scratch. Doc spent the time fielding some very confusing messages that were allegedly from CASPAR, but some of them smelled suspiciously of MELCHIOR trying to pull a fast one.
As Wheels finally finished up and put the gold-tone mask over her face, Doc seemed to realize something and asked, “Why aren’t we up to our armpits with Security? Even if MELCHIOR and CASPAR are still covering for us, the flesh-and-blood Security honcho must have twigged to the fact that something’s going on! They were making noises like they were having paranoia fits already, so WHY aren’t they sending the guys with guns?”
“Ulrike,” Wheels said as she adjusted the mask. “WE set off one alarm, but she’s running around with four fucking WOLVES. They gotta be setting off alarms all over the place, and there’s no way that CASPAR or MELCHIOR would bother covering for her.”
“Nice theory, Wheels,” I said. “But there’s one big problem with that- actually, THREE.” I pointed my light over one, then another, and then another stacks of crates. All of them were covered with white pasty gelatinous globs that moved with a truly sinister silence. They seemed to drain all sound from the area as they moved towards us, hedging us in, maneuvering us to where we had the slick right behind us.
“Jeezus!” Wheels gasped, “I thought that the Feds passed laws against Gizmatic selling those things in the US!”
“Well, I did hear Belphegor say that he’d gone to school with Princess Jobe.”
“Yeah… only 30 or 40 times…”
“Curling,” I said, free-associating for all I was worth. “Wheels, slide us across the slick; you can lift 600 pounds of force? In theory, right?”
Well, it was a theory anyway. Unfortunately, Wheels still hasn’t learned how to use all that strength, and this time she didn’t she didn’t klutz us out of a corner. If anything, she almost klutzed us into body casts. The only reason that I don’t still have bruises is- well, I’ll get around to that eventually. The short form is we wound up in the middle of the slick, banged up all to hell, and we were being completely encapsulated by the glob-drones. And trust me, that is one very disturbing sensation. I was running through my options and pretty much settling on going out in a blaze of glory when Belphegor made these things disgorge us, when suddenly the glob-drone shuddered and dissolved around me.
And let me just say: YUCK. Thank God, Belphegor coats these minion outfits with an anti-adhesive factor, and the yuck just rolled off. Wheels’ hair wasn’t as lucky.
Looking around, I spotted Wheels sitting, looking dazed in a puddle of former glob-drone, and Doc, standing there with the Agonizer out and glowing, and a look on his face that kind of scared me.“Doc?” I asked gently, “Put the pain-stick DOWN. It’s time to get OUT of here, before they send something that will make those things look like the Pillsbury Dough-boy.”
Doc flinched at that, and seemed to get back to his normal self. “Right, right,” he said with a sigh. “Let’s go, get out, and get this the fuck OVER with.” He switched off the Agonizer and stashed it, but I noticed that he didn’t secure it, which is SOP with nasty-tech like that. Then he lurched in the direction of our stash, grumbling about his knees. But then, when Doc’s tired, he complains about his knees; that is, when he’s not complaining about his feet.
“WHERE IS IT?” I demanded- not so much of Doc as of the Universe- when we got to the stash-point, which was right next to the door, so we could make short work of loading it into the U-Haul. You could tell where the container had been. But this time, there wasn’t any convenient trail to follow. “Looks like MELCHIOR stuck it to us again. Okay, this is the point where we contact Mel and ask him what he wants in exchange for the stuff we ripped off.”
“But we don’t,” Wheels said solidly, taking my point. “Here’s where we do the smart thing, and just leave. We all have what we want- I finally have the right body; Slim, you have your hocus-pocus focuses, and Doc-” the smug look melted off her face like soft ice cream on a hot sidewalk. “oh, _crap_,” she said as she patted herself down vigorously. I was about to ask her what the hell she was doing, when she suddenly sprinted back the way we came.
“What?” Doc grunted, looking at me for clarification.
I just shrugged and headed off after Wheels, because you just know that she’s going to run into something and hilarity will ensue. I had to wait a couple of times as Doc caught up, breathing hard. But following the dangerous sounds of materials being moved around, we tracked Wheels to-
-Bay K, where we’d just barely managed to escape from with our lives. Wheels was digging around the wreckage of the forced adaptation chamber. Fortunately, it looked like Ulrike and her mini-pack had moved on to sweeter smelling locales, and hopefully were being wrapped up from head to toe in capture tape. Of course, the stink of the waste liquid may make this too tough for Ulrike to leave her wolves here, but there’s nothing saying that she couldn’t have left something that didn’t need to smell here. I don’t know enough about Ulrike’s magical praxis; that wolf-wraith she sent at Doc might have required a ritual or ceremony to call, or it may just come when she whistles, or she could have magical wolf-wraith-summoning grenades for all I know. I know just enough about these things to be scared right down to my socks, but not enough to do anything.
Then I kicked myself for being an idiot. I pulled that silver mask out of the pouch I had it in, took off my Bel-minion mask, and put it on. Then I drew the nasty-slicing dagger and the icky-burning tab of salt. Thus armed, I looked around for something wicked to do more to than prick their thumbs.
As I was doing this, Doc was raling and wheezing and slowly catching his breath. Well, if nothing else, maybe it will get his mind off his knees and feet. When he was finally down to panting heavily, he asked Wheels, “What? ARE? You? Doing?”
She poked her head up with the mask pulled back, and answered, “Your power gem! I forgot that I was holding it and let go of it. But I know that I had both hands full right after I got out,” fondling those new pumpkins on her chest, “so it must have fallen in the tray I was on- And here it is!” she held up the clear blue power gem with a big ‘I found it and all’s well with the world’ smile. Wheels is adapting at an appalling rate.
Doc held out his hand with a slight tremble, and Wheels dropped the clear blue gem into his hand. But then Doc’s body language completely changed. And worse, with my mask, I saw an ethereal figure rise out of Doc’s body, an invisible to the unawakened eye raven that spread its wings and loomed over him. As Doc grinned at the gem, patterns of invisible energy gathered around his body. Carefully, I drew that Arabic dagger and asked the thing possessing Doc, “Who are you?”
“Ah, Slim?” Wheels asked me in the tone of voice that you use with people who are acting a little crazy, but aren’t violent (yet) “What’s with the mask?”
Then, proving that maybe, just maybe I do have a few ‘good behavior’ points stocked away upstairs after all, that idiot trike drone zipped and asked, [Hey Bajko! What happened?]
Doc gestured, and the invisible raven lashed out with purple lightning that totally trashed the little electronic bedbug. “Hah?” Wheels yipped in complete befuddlement. The only tactical advantage we had was that Wheels was on one side of Doc/Raven and I was on the other. The downside of that was that the only move that would work was Wheels jumping Doc/Raven while he dealt with me. And that required that I get zotzed to do it.
With lighting flashing from his/her/its hands, Doc/Raven demanded in a weird reverb voice that combined Doc’s and what I think was hers, “NOW GIVE ME THE URN!”
“But you gotta urn it first!” Wheels quipped, in a boggling lapse of timing- and taste. Doc/Raven turned with a snarl and made to zap Wheels. As he/she/they turned, I whipped out that power lariat. Yes, I had the Arabic dagger, which did a real number on the wraith-wolf, but hey, that’s DOC that ethereal bitch is wearing! If I can get him hogtied and get the grimoire back, I can use the Salt Tablet to force the Raven out of Doc. Then I can find something in the grimoire to get rid of the bitch, and get the fuck out of here. Come to think of it, maybe I can sic her on Ulrike, one uncanny bitch against another.
A good, solid, sensible plan.
BUT, like so many good solid sensible plans, it didn’t turn out that way.
I wrapped Doc up in the lariat, but he just ran some of that raven-lightning through it, and it sort of crumbled, like something out of a Chuck Jones cartoon. And while I was standing there feeling (and probably looking) like Wyle E. Coyote waiting for the pain to start, Wheels jumped Doc. Actually, she sort of clipped Doc as she sailed past him, but she still did him more damage than a solid punch from Arnold Schwarzenegger. This didn’t put Doc down, but it dazed him enough for me to get out of his sight.
I managed to drag Wheels out of the wreckage she’d dived into and got her well out of Doc’s line of sight. I was furiously trying to decide whether to leave, alert Belphegor like a good little minion, let him handle it, and try to drag Doc out of durance vile after Belphegor handled the Raven, or call in the Shadowmage, who handles this kind of action for Brooklyn (hey, the Magus can’t be everywhere) and try the same with someone who won’t fry Doc’s brain with a Memory Dredge. The hard part is that the Shadowmage is actually competent, and I might wind up sending Doc to Ryker’s Island for a few months. Friends don’t send friends to Ryker’s.
Then again, friends don’t let friends get possessed by maybe not demonic but still damn nasty spooks. It’s a hard call. And speaking of calls, I felt a sharp buzzing in my chest that made me worried that maybe I hadn’t been eating as carefully as I should, and all this excitement has knocked my ticker off-line. But no, it was just my smartphone. Dammit if this is Schilling, trying to get me to sign on with that idiot Dr. Insidious again, I’m gonna go postal! I may be a henchman, but dammit, I have STANDARDS!
It’s CASPAR? “Hello?”
[Hey, Slim, I tried to get in touch with Doc, but he’s not answering and he listed you as a valid secondary. Do you know what Wayne Gretzski’s Lifetime Assists record is?]
“Are you shitting me?”
[The Boss has us off-line for the duration of his big meet, and I’ve got a bet going with BALTHAZAR-]
“Wheels, don’t ask me to explain, but off-hand, do you remember what Wayne Gretzski’s Lifetime Assists record is?”
She paused, though it over and said, “I think it’s 45.”
“Are you sure? 45? I mean, we’re talking Wayne Gretzski here…”
“Hey, that’s the best I can do, right off the cuff,” Wheels said.
“CASPAR? The best I can do is 45, but don’t quote me on that.”
“Actually, it’s 64,” said a feminine voice that was deep, throaty, and had a weird lilt to it. Ulrike loomed out of the darkness (is that something they teach in Evil Mystic school or something?), looking worse for the wear and damn pissed about it. Her four pooches didn’t look happy, either. She reached out, grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me to her. Snarling with teeth that looked a little too long and sharp for her mouth, she said, “And if you don’t want me to tear you into 64 tiny little pieces, you’ll tell me where the POWER GEMS are!”
Wheels tried to jump Ulrike, but she was too battle savvy, and Wheels hadn’t had a chance to work any of her hard-earned brawling reflexes into the new chassis. Not that Wheels’ old brawling moves were that great, or that they’d translate well for a woman who could lift 600 pounds. Wheels did her best, but Ulrike did a damn good job of kicking her ass.
MAN, I hope that Belphegor worked some sort of healing factor into his hench-wench process, ‘cause that looked painful.
Wheels was trying to get up, but Ulrike was crouched over her, hands curled up in claws, yellow eyes glowing, snarling with teeth that were now too big for her mouth. And hand to God, I swear she was sprouting fur. She growled, “Where. Are. The. Power Gems?”
Timing is everything, and for once, time was on my side. “HE has ‘em,” I pointed at Doc, who was chugging up following the sound of the fracas.
Y’know, looking back, that was a pretty lame attempt to fob off her stressing regard, but I wasn’t in a position to be subtle. For some strange reason, she believed me, snarled at Doc and pounced with her mutts backing her up. As I coaxed Wheels back to consciousness, they went at it like some retro-Universal Monster movie, The Wolfwoman meets Flabbenstein or something. Doc/Raven caught Ulrike by surprise, but the Raven saw Ulrike coming a mile away. Not that that was hard; Ulrike sort of over-relies on intimidation, and she telegraphed her attack. Ulrike pounced on Doc/Raven, probably to get him to commit to dealing with her while her pups attacked from the side. Didn’t work that well. The Raven knocked her off him with a zap of power that even sounded painful, and chucked her into a pile of crates so hard that her body broke the wood. Then Doc/Raven used a sort of ‘lightning whip’ effect that scattered the not-wolves.
Then Doc/Raven advanced on Ulrike, who was pulling herself together and out of that crate. “Well, you’re an improvement on this big lummox,” Doc said in a weird feminine voice with a very off lilt that I couldn’t recognize. “Never did cotton to wearing a male suit of clothes. I was going to try on the big blonde, but you? Some sort of Were, with power of her own. Not a lot of power, but you’ll do. And if your body doesn’t suit me? Well, I’ll just eat what little power ye do have, and move onto the other.” Then Doc/Raven pulled out both the Grimoire and that brass twisting not-telescope thing. Consulting the Grimoire, Doc starting fiddling with the not-telescope.
Ulrike realized that she was facing someone who was as predatory, rapacious and ruthless as she was- and promptly lost it. She let out a panicked yap and started flailing around wildly with her wolfshead staff, knocking the not-telescope out of Doc/Raven’s hands. She did well enough that she managed to break away from Doc. Then she wasted no time in running away. I’m pretty sure that the sounds of her yipping like a whipped dog were the product of my imagination.
But then again, given the night I was having, who knows?
But, for all that, a good idea is a good idea, and I’m not too proud to borrow a good idea. I grabbed Wheels and hauled ass in a very different direction. Hey, maybe the Raven will decide to chase Ulrike instead of us.
Well, it was a thought anyway. The Raven Witch started to throw not-lightning bolts at us, which did a lot for motivating Wheels to get hauling. But the Raven did something that made Doc move in sudden bursts of speed, and eventually s/he/y had us squarely boxed in. Then, just as the Raven had us dead to rights and was about to blast us, Doc sort of locked up. I couldn’t see anything through the minion mask, but from the body English, I got the impression that Doc was fighting something. Of course! Doc was fighting the Raven! Go DOC!
This time Wheels and I split at the same time and hauled for the door. Hey, staying in this stupid warehouse was just asking to get fried. We’d probably get spotted by Belphegor’s security detail this way, but at this point, that’s an improvement over the sticking around to see who wins the fight.
But apparently some Horror Movie tropes really are ‘Truth in Television’: We were about 10 feet away from the door when one of Wheel’s shoes twisted under her, and she took a spill. But that kind of balances out, ‘cause just as I was helping her to her feet, that door opened, and figures with tactical lights came in. Wheels pulled me down to her and then got both of us to cover behind some crates. A 5-man Belphegor Security squad (two guys with rapidfire low-impact energy assault weapons, a guy with a capture net caster, a chem-gun man, and a guy with a BFG) entered in standard staggered reinforcing bounds. When they had that area secured, three women, Belphegor’s ‘Angels’ by their clothes, physiques, and the gold masks they wore entered. The ‘Amazon’ held one of Belphegor’s ‘combat staffs’ (basically a quarterstaff that had everything that Belphegor could think of packed into it), the ‘Bombshell’ wore a pair of overbuilt gloves that glowed suggestively, and the ‘Gamine’ was toting around Belphegor’s latest attempt to one-up Dr. Helen Smart’s Stinger. Oh crap, just what we don’t need-
No, wait! It’s JUST what we need!
Pulling Wheels back, I pantomimed the basics of my plan to her. Then I took off the silver mask I’d been wearing and put my Belphegor minion mask back on. Then taking a deep breath and savoring the taste of it (‘cause it might be my last) I staggered out of the shadows and into their lights. “Thank GOD!” I gasped, completely ignoring the very deadly weapons trained on me, “Where have you BEEN? I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a HALF HOUR! That crazy bitch DID something to him!”
“HER?” the Bombshell demanded, amping up the glow in her gauntlets to a crackle. “What her?”
“Some big crazy Swedish bitch!” I sobbed “She’s got fucking WOLVES or something running around with her! She jumped us while we were… y’know… the game… and she DID something to him!”
“’Him’?” the Bombshell asked, less demanding and more inquiring. “Which ‘Him’ are you talking about?”
“HIM!” I croaked, pointing to where Doc, who was standing there with the grimoire and that not-telescope thing again, barely ducked out of the glare of their lights.
The 5-man team went after him as I rattled out scattershot remarks about the normal operating procedures not working and why, why, WHY? I got the distinct impression that Belphegor, or at least his Security Chief, had twigged to the fact that MELCHIOR had Siberia’d this warehouse despite the fact that the AIs were supposed to be off-line, and that Ulrike and her pack had set off enough alarms that weren’t controlled by the AIs to support my shell-shocked story. Always tailor your story to the person you’re trying to con. Then there was a crash as the team ran into whatever the Raven decided to deal with them with. Bombshell and Gamine advanced to back up the team, while Amazon stayed with me to cover their backs. I cleared my throat, and Amazon focused on me to hear what I had to say. Which was Wheel’s cue to take her from behind.
And thank you, Wheels, for not leaving me hanging for once.
As Wheels strangled Amazon with baling tape, I used the shocker on my vari-phase plasma carbine to put her down. Quick, nasty, quiet, and best of all, completely unnoticed. As I carefully removed her security bracelet from her wrist and wrapped it around Wheel’s wrist, Wheels wrapped her in a combination of baling tape and duct tape. And forgive me, but what went through my head was, ‘A hawt blonde wrapping up another hawt blonde with duct tape; there has GOT to be a market for images like this’.
Wheel’s switched masks with the Amazon; they DO model those masks after the girls’ own faces, just so you can keep who you’re dealing with straight. Then, for some reason, Wheels put the soles of the Amazon’s feet against her own. She checked carefully, and dropped her with a sigh. She quickly figured out the combat staff as best she could. Then, looking at the melee going down, she asked me, “So? Now what?”
I let out a long hard sigh. “Now, hopefully they’ll truss him up like a turkey, and not just shoot him and be done with it.”
“Yeah, Belphegor’s pretty good about no ‘shoot first and ask questions later,” Wheels agreed. “But what if Big Boy doesn’t have an Exorcisinator?”
“I have this,” I showed Wheels my enchanted salt tablet. “Birdbrain doesn’t like it much. If I can force the Raven out of Doc, it’ll go looking for someone else to hijack. While they handle that, you say that you’re taking Doc and me to the Boss. Don’t worry about sounding like the original; they’ll be way too busy to notice.”
For some reason, Wheels decided to test my theory. Waiting for an opening, Wheels stepped up to the Gamine, who was trying every setting on her BFG, looking for a blast that the Raven couldn’t counter. “What shoe size are you?”
The Gamine looked at Wheels like she was nuts, but didn’t pick up on any difference in voices. And then the Raven threw the Chem-Gun guy into the Gamine’s back and they had bigger things to worry about. Their coordination was off, ‘cause they were expecting the Amazon to be stepping in and taking care of things. And, well, besides Wheels needing to stay fresh for when the dust settles, she doesn’t fight like the Amazon does, and it could get real sticky. Still, those glowing gauntlets on the Bombshell were what’s called a ‘Retarius’. Y’know those gladiators in all the old Sword and Sandal movies, the ones with the net and trident? Those were called ‘Retarius’. In modern Super-Crime, ‘Retarius’ usually refers to someone working a similar net-and-weapon combo. It took a little doing, but she finally managed to get Doc wrapped up in that net and from there it was dogpile city. Then Wheels stepped in and pinned Doc’s head to the floor with the combat staff.
As they were getting their breath back, I got the Grimoire and started going through it, which was a lot harder without the silver mask, but it was possible. “What are you DOING?” the Gamine asked me, still breathing hard.
“When that… whatever it is… was controlling him, every so often, he’d pick up this book and that telescopy thing over there. Maybe there’s something in here that will get it out of him… or at least give the Boss an idea what we’re dealing with.”
Even through the masks, I got the distinct impression that they were dubious about this, and I got that Security guy’s hunch that they were about to ask me who the hell Doc and I were in the first place. Then I got a call on my smartphone. Needing some breathing room, I answered it. “CASPAR?” then I asked them, “It’s CASPAR. Does anyone know Bobby Orr’s points in a single NHL season by a defenseman stat?”
We thrashed out our knowledge of Hockey stats among us, and answered CASPAR’s question as best we could. (BTW: 139) With that serendipitous bit of bonding between us, I had the breathing room to get out the salt tab, and reading the grimoire, placed it on Doc’s chest. Doc reacted, and while the crew wasn’t very happy with the screams and sparks and small objects being thrown around, they conceded that I was onto something. I had the Raven to the point where it was showing itself in minor displays, and I really do think that I could have forced the damn thing out of Doc. But, at that point, I said to the crew, “Okay, I think I almost got it out of him. Now the problem is what are we gonna do with it, once we get it out of Bajko?”
And I knew that I’d screwed the pooch the second the word ‘Bajko’ was out of my mouth. From that microscopic reaction they had, I could tell that I’d been right, and ‘Bajko’ was a security hook. And I just bit down on it.
But Wheels tapped the Bombshell on the shoulder and asked, “What shoe size are you?”
“Size 9 ½,” Bombshell answered on pure reflex.
“Great!” then Wheels picked her up and threw her into the guy with the BFG. As they reacted to that, I zapped the Gamine with the electric prod on my own vari-phase plasma gun. But unmixed blessings are few and far between in my world, and in all the thrashing around, that magical tablet of rock salt was knocked off Doc. As the Raven dived back into the big guy, Wheels and I made all due haste for the door. Or at least I did; Wheels stopped to take the shoes off the Bombshell.
When we did get to the door, I pointed to the door to the warehouse that was Belphegor’s Special Projects storage. Wheels nodded, and getting through Belphegor’s Highest Level Hard Security took me a whole minute. Once we were inside, Wheels leaned against the wall, took off her shoes and pulled on the shoes she’d taken from the Bombshell. “MAN, my feet have been killing me! WHY doesn’t Belphegor have his minionettes wear shoes that are comfortable?”
“Because HE doesn’t have to wear them?” I pointed out, reminding Wheels about Guy Logic.
“Okay, and what are we supposed to be doing here?” she looked around.
“This is Belphegor’s Special Projects storage,” I reminded her. “They know we’re here, and between the Goldface Triplets, the rank and file, and that Raven Witch, we are way outnumbered. We need to find something powerful that can change the odds in our favor, and if at all possible, we can use to get that fucking buzzard out of Doc.”
“PROBLEM,” Wheels pointed out, “the guy who knows how Belphegor’s inventory system works is back there, with a bird in his brain. Slim, give me a colicky transmission system, and I’m your girl. But, Miz Scahlett, I don’t know nothin’ about riffin’ no inventory! And,” she jerked a thumb at the deliberately cryptic bar-coded boxes of stuff, “it’s not like Mr. ‘Belly almost as Big as his Ego’ is making it easy for us.”
“Right…” I looked around as best the unlit warehouse would let me. “What would Doc do?” I thought it over for a long hard minute and it occurred to me. “He’d call CASPAR and ask for a manifest.”
“Which he’ll probably only tell us if we know the Philadelphia Flyers’ recovery stats for the past five years,” Wheels grumped.
But instead, CASPAR came across with something really useful: Belphegor had bits and pieces of various gadgets in that warehouse that could be combined to create a capture/ restraint drone. All we had to do was get the junk together in front of an assembly drone and hook CASPAR up to it.
The thing is, we spent 15 very quiet, very undisturbed minutes (okay, there was some hellacious noise in the next warehouse, but as long as there’s noise, it means that Doc is still alive) getting the stuff together. Nobody noticed that we were in there. That didn’t fit with my understanding of how Security worked. I mean, they should have live patrols going through every warehouse in the complex until all of us, me, Wheels, Doc, Ulrike, even her dogs, were found. But they’re focusing on Doc for some reason.
“Hey, CASPAR,” I phoned him, “while we’re at it, we’re gonna need some stuff to take care of the Security goons. Are there any Paralysis Rays or Electrical System Overloaders in inventory, or anything that we could throw together while this is assembling?”
[Sure, Slim. Hook me up to the assembly drone, and I’ll kludge you up a paralysis inducer that will work wonderfully with the capture/restraint drone]
Hold the phone- why would CASPAR want to cobble together a paralysis inducer, when all he has to do is riffle through the inventory manifest? My well-honed Security Guy paranoia kicking in, I looked at all the stuff that CASPAR had had us get together, and I didn’t see a capture/restraint drone.
No, there was the parts for a reasonable mobility platform, a 3-ply set of manipulators (heavy hauling, median handling and fine manipulation), and an array of sensors including a spinning 360o visual, but there was no restraint system or chamber. But there was, once I’d identified and eliminated everything else, what looked like it would make for a good cradle/ interface for a large server.
Say, the size of CASPAR- or MELCHIOR’s- core processor. And there was a battery that was about ten times the size that a capture/restraint drone would need. MELCHIOR is trying to finesse us into building him a mobile processor chassis, so he can escape. To quote Walter Gibson: ‘In the Net, one burning bush looks just like another’.
I think I took so long to respond that I telegraphed my little epiphany. [Just plug me into the assembly drone] It didn’t add ‘meatbag’, but it was there.
“After what happened with JILL, KELLY and SABRINA? No WAY!” I shut off my smartphone and told Wheels, “If there’s anything here we can use, we’re gonna have to do it the hard way. That wasn’t CASPAR on the phone, it was MELCHIOR. He wants out of Belphegor’s control-”
“Can’t blame him there,” Wheels shrugged.
“Yeah, but he’s ruthless enough to scrag both of us to cover his tracks. All this? It’s a getaway car for MELCHIOR.”
“It’s not as bad as it might be, Slim,” Wheels said. “While we were tracking down all this, I spotted a bunch of stuff that might be useful.”
“Good one, Wheels!” I held up a bro-fist, and she almost broke my knuckles.
“Sorry!” she chirped. “Look, over there- one of those floating ‘Egg’ chairs that Belphegor used to tool around in.”
I stopped sucking my knuckle and said, “Those are just booby-traps! He leaves them around, and if anyone climbs in one, they’re trapped!”
“I KNOW that!” she said, pissed. “But they’ll still big enough to hold Doc, and the Raven’s out of the loop, so she might try to work the controls to escape!”
“Okay, that’s a good one- they’re designed to be moved around. But how do we get him IN there, without char-broiling ourselves?”
“LATER! In the meantime, let’s find something… capture-y but won’t hurt Doc?”
Then the overhead lights snapped on, alarms went off and we were bracketed by spotlights. “MELCHIOR, you pissy little fuckwad, I hope you get trapped in an infinite loop of DOOM,” I growled into the air.
Wheels rushed over to a set of tall crates, grabbed a crowbar and started opening it. “What’s that?”
“POWER ARMOR!” Wheels pointed at the manifest label on the crate. “Belphegor ‘acquired’ a few suits with ‘interesting-”
“Don’t bother,” I grabbed the crowbar away from her.
“But if we can find a battery, I have an interface that works now and-”
“We don’t HAVE three hours to calibrate it to your specs.”
“Oh, right-no, wait!” she grabbed the crowbar away from me and opened up another crate.
“Okay, what’s THAT?”
“Personal Force-field Generators.”
“NOW you’re talking!” I helped myself to a few (hey, I’ve seen these things fry on the first plasma bolt).
“SLIM! DIG IT!” Wheels pointed at the label on one crate, “A Duplicator.”
“NO. Do not even GO there…”
“Check it out! A SHRINK Ray!” I quickly snagged the bulky cylinder that was slung under the ‘barrel’ of the ray. “What did you do that for?”
“This is the ‘Unshrink’ counter-measure,” I said, waggling it at her. “If that thing works, then THIS is the Ace of Trumps. Who knows? If that thing goes off, we could be Gullivers in Lilliput.”
“Well, there are some robots over there-”
“Do you really want to give MELCHIOR more things to hit us over the head with?”
I let out a long, martyred sigh, but it was the best thing we’d come up with so far. Besides, someone was busting down the door-literally. Hurriedly, we dragged the Vortex Generator into an open space, set it up as best we could in the screaming hurry we were in, and hooked it up to a power line. Then we each grabbed something big and squad-weapon-ish, and took as best cover as we could manage.
I didn’t have time to aim my… whatever it was, let alone figure out what the settings were. Doc came storming in, and I didn’t need any magic mask to see the Raven riding him. And dear God, Doc’s not going to enjoy it when we get that thing out of him. He was shot up and bruised and burned, and his outfit was in tatters. I think that stupid bird-thing was the only thing keeping him going.
I fiddled with the zap-o-tron I’d picked up, trying to figure out which setting was ‘lull gently to a restoring sleep’. While I was doing that, Wheels hit him with a burst that must have been set to ‘Fuck, I’m Blind!’ The entire place was washed out in white light for a second, and all three of us just lay or stood there, trying to get our eyes to work again. When I could make out shapes again, I saw a really BIG shape coming in my direction. On pure reflex, I hit the selector and pulled the trigger.
A ball of plasma hit him square on, interacted with the Raven’s (force field? Bio-sphere? Etheric Aura? What do you insert here that doesn’t sound like you should have Yanni, master of the pan flute in the background?) and did… weird stuff. The plasma ball didn’t really hurt the Raven, but it sure as hell didn’t LIKE it either. I put that down as ‘interesting, continue testing until satisfied, or decapitated or an escape option opens’.
Then Belphegor’s Angels and a squad of goldmasks busted in. They opened with magnetic capture nets, and went hand-to-hand as the Hench-wenches took up positions with nasty looking energy weapons. What they did not have was automated backup, and it looked like they were counting on it.
Not only didn’t the heavy nets work as expected, but the Raven turned them against two of the Hench-Wenches. And then he (they?) ripped into the foot soldiers, and let’s just say that it was ugly. Doc wasn’t just soaking up serious damage; he was dishing it out as well. It had figured out what Doc’s Agonizer was all about, and they were dishing out agony with a sloppy ladle.
Then, finally, the Golden Girls’ automated backup showed up. Doc was surrounded by ‘Scooby Ghosts’ and trikes wheeled in, and a couple of octobots crawled in. Just as I was shooting Wheels an ‘any ideas?’ look, a familiar figure dropped onto the Amazon goldbabe. Ulrike beat the crap out of her, as her four dogs latched onto the Gamine goldbabe. And then it got weird. As I’d said, Doc/Raven had already been doing a damn good job of tearing the Bel-Goons a wide selection of new ones. So they’d reacted to the patrol spooks and trikes and octobots like the Seventh Cavalry charging to the rescue. But while the octobots latched onto Doc and brought him down, the patrol spooks and trikes turned on the Goldfaces.
Wheels and I shared a look of confusion, but the answer occurred to us at the same time. “Oh Crap! MELCHIOR cut a deal with Ulrike! Reason #7: they think that any agreement that isn’t a mathematical statement is ‘filler’.”
“You know he’s gonna stab her in the back the second she puts that getaway chassis together for him,” Wheels said.
“Which will be SUCH a consolation, when she’s three spaces behind us on the line for the Final Reckon- NO! He won’t kill us!” I realized, “He’ll have Ulrike bullyrag us into putting the damn thing together, and then she kills us and then he kills her, ‘cause he doesn’t need her anymore.”
“And this an improvement over getting squished like bugs HOW?”
“Ulrike’s a classic Mysticism wonk- all Humanities, no Hard Sciences,” I pointed out. “So she’d be two steps up from a trained chimp in putting together that scooter. So, he’s gonna use her as a club to get either us or one of the Goldfaces to patch him into the assembly drone system. SO, first we let them wrap up Doc- I think that Ulrike wants that Raven in a box, so she can use it- and have them wrap up the Goldface Girls. We play nice-nice for Ulrike and-”
With the Octobots holding Doc down, Ulrike went to work, using the grimoire and the salt tablet and the brass bottle.
The brass bottle? What was she using the brass bottle? She was examining the bottle- no, one place on the bottle- very closely, and breaking off every now and again to consult the grimoire. She set the salt tablet on Doc’s chest, which the Raven didn’t like in the least. Then she went to work on the bottle again, and she released that stupid wolf-wraith that I’d-
-that I’d sealed that wolf-wraith away last night. In that very bottle. Come to think of it, where did that corpse-eating ghoul-bird come from, in the first place?
Oh Crap! The Raven was in the fucking bottle! I somehow let the damn thing out when I was looking for a place to stash the wolf-wraith. I sprung it from the bottle, so the first thing it did was duck for cover in Doc’s body! That’s why he’s been such a spaz all day! The bottle must have the Raven’s True Name or something written on the bottle. Crud, if either Doc or Wheels figures this out, they’ll beat me over the head with it for the rest of our lives.
“Okay, as soon as Ulrike-”
“I thought her name was Ericka-”
“It’s Ulrike, and she’s just the type to get pissy about it, Wheels! As soon as Ulrike finishes binding that Raven into the bottle, blast the wolf-thing with whatever you think will work. Then I’ll kick-start the Vortex Generator. That should rattle their cages but good. The Ocotobots will keep Doc weighed down, but everyone else will-”
I was in the middle of an inspired surge of improvisational tactical brilliance when a slightly familiar figure in a flapping long overcoat dropped out of nowhere and clamped a cuff of some sort on Ulrike. Sadly, she did this before Ulrike could finish binding the Raven into the bottle. The Artful Dodger was in the middle of slapping another cuff on Ulrike’s other wrist when the wraith-wolf jumped her, and the place sort of exploded.
It was very difficult to keep tabs on. MELCHIOR turned on ALL the firepower, no matter who got hurt. Ulrike’s wolves, both carnate and spiritual, ganged up on the Dodger. The Raven was free and clawing the hell out Ulrike. The Dodger was living up to her name again, and was dancing merrily through the energy bolts and teeth, but that Wraith-Wolf was busily tearing her a new one. Well, my enemy’s enemy may not be my friend, but the Dodger looks like she needs at least allies of expedience, and Wheels and I fit that perfectly.
I switched on the Vortex Generator, and the melee went vertical. The Octobots kept Doc on the ground, and the Vortex Generator kept them devoting all their power to doing that. Whatever it was that the generator used to create the cyclone somehow effected both the Raven and the Wraith-Wolf. It wasn’t doing the trikes or patrol-spooks much good either. The Dodger was bearing up nicely, but Ulrike? Like I give a shit… With a nod between us, Wheels and I went in. I zotzed the bots, and Wheels used that battlestaff of hers to drag Doc out from under the vortex.
OWCH… Doc does not look good. Even the superficial stuff looked nasty as hell, and he moaned in dull misery. If Doc ever finds out that my brainfart let loose the crow that did all this to him, he is gonna KILL me! I got the egg-chair trap ready for him, and Wheels stuffed Doc into the seat. eww… that looks painful…
Once we had Doc safely tucked away, we looked up at the whirling storm of people, beings and objects that mostly didn’t like us very much. “So… any ideas?” I asked Wheels.
“So, all things considered, which individual is the biggest threat to us?”
I mulled it over and decided, “Ulrike. She controls the Wraith-Wolf, she can probably turn the Raven against us, she’s got those fucking dogs. We take her out, and this becomes a quantum shift easier. We take her out and give her to the Dodger. We leave the Raven up there, but we drag the salt tablet, the grimoire and the bottle out of there, just in case. With any luck, the Raven will try to ride one of the Goldbitches, and it’ll be Belphegor’s problem.”
“What about MELCHIOR?”
“All we need at this point is Doc. We wheel that chair out of here and cope with whatever tricks Melchior decides to throw at us. Like you said before the thing with the last power gem, ‘Here’s where we do the smart thing, and just leave. We have what we want.’”
“I notice we keep saying that, but here we still are…”
Looking up into the maelstrom, Wheels said, “Okay, we get your dinguses- you’d only just whine and be pissy if you couldn’t have them, then we drag the Dodger out of that, and then Ericka-”
“Whatever! But first, we make sure that she isn’t in any shape to give any of us any grief.” Wheels raised her energy carbine and tracked Ulrike’s furiously squirming form.
“Wheels!” I snapped, “DON’T!” But Wheels had her target tracked and fired. The plasma bolt not only glanced off the vortex generator’s definition cone, but it caused a Dirac Spike (I think) that traveled down the bolt’s ionic trail back to the carbine and catastrophically interfered with its cohesion chamber.
Short form: Wheel’s gun damn near melted in her hands.
Wheels gave a ‘shit!’ and started grubbing around the piles of stuff as I took her battlestaff and snagged the grimoire. By the time that I’d snagged the Dodger, she’d found something that looked reasonably phaser-ish.
“Not that I’m complaining,” the Dodger said with a voice that wasn’t cluttered up by her bad Cockney accent, “But who ARE you two, and what do you want?”
“We’re people who are very interested in seeing you take Ulrike in,” I said as I tried to latch onto the she-devil in question. “Let’s keep it real simple, Dodge: you help us get out with that egg-chair over there, and we’ll help you get out with the bitch up there.”
“That is suspiciously reasonable from two people flying Belpho’s colors,” she said with a tinge of Bow Bells that wasn’t promising.
“Belpho?” Wheels asked.
“Ah, Belphegor? Back at school, we used to call him Belpho.”
“You went to school?”
“And ‘Belflabbo’, ‘Belfroggo’, ‘Belfartor’, ‘Blobphegor’-”
“And we never heard about this?” Wheels asked like a kid discovering a great new game that grownups don’t like.
“The point being that I didn’t graduate on the best of terms with your boss, so-”
“NOT our boss,” I corrected her. “As a matter of fact, we want to see him even less that you do.”
“Hey, if you see anything that you like lying around, feel free to pocket it,” Wheels added.
And then, just as we were about to get Ulrike into Dodger’s clutches (and out of our hair), the Vortex Generator ground to a hiccoughing stop. They all fell to the floor and just lay there for a moment in a painful heap for a moment. Then the Raven launched itself directly at Wheels. Do not ask me WHY, Ulrike was right there, and she [the Raven] had already said that she preferred lutefisk to corned beef.
Wheels screamed, fired blindly, and actually managed to hit the Raven with a couple of shots. Strangely, none of the shots that missed seemed to do anything. The entire point of an energy weapon is that it goes ‘boom’, but those blasts didn’t seem to do anything. Still they did slow the Raven down, and I managed to peg it with a couple of plasma bursts. Those blasts were sort of like pegging it with softballs, but as anyone who’s ever been hit by a softball knows, it may not kill you, but it ain’t nohow fun.
I was pegging the boneless buzzard pretty regular, and I was thinking of experimenting with a few new settings, to see if, say, something more in the Ultraviolet range would cause it to set itself on fire. Then one of Wheel’s misfires hit something that burst out of its storage container and looked like a Jetsons idea of a washing machine run amok. It bounced around and the ‘wishbone’ array that popped up from the front showed that it was some sort of Jacob’s Ladder. Wheels fired a couple of more times at it, hoping to short it out, but if anything, that just seemed to encourage it.
As Wheels put yet more rounds into the wishbone washer, Ulrike staggered to her hind legs, reached into her longcoat and paused as she almost lost her lunch. When she got her stomach back under control, she pulled out what looked like three amulets (a pendant, a small pouch, and what I think was sort of a Viking mezuzah, a small plaque inside a leather sleeve; I’m guessing that the plaque had some of those Futhark runes that the New Agers love so much in some sort of pattern), with the cords lashed together as to form a noose. She said something terse and harsh in Swedish (I’m guessing) and gestured at the Raven. Her Wraith-Wolf made a growling leap and jumped the Raven on the fly, bringing it down. Ulrike hurried over and looped the troika of charms around the dirty bird’s neck. Making note of this, Dodger asked, “Is that a good thing or bad?”
“If she manages to take control of that Raven, it’s VERY bad,” I said. “So far, one of the few breaks we’ve had is that those two don’t seem to like each other.”
“Crap,” she said in a flat, disgusted voice. “I hate dealing with spooks. Cover me.” With that, she dived into the melee, pulling out something that did… something… to the Wraith-Wolf and sent it rolling on the floor yipping in pain. The corporal maybe-wolves growled, so I figured that ‘cover me’ meant ‘shoot them’, and I did just that. More yipping. Not a good night to be a maybe-wolf. There was more of that furiously flailing around between Ulrike and the Dodger. Being very, very careful, I dialed the blaster down to ‘rap on the nose with a rolled up newspaper’, took very careful aim, waited for an opening, and jumped on it when they broke. I hit Ulrike. I didn’t take her down, but she overreacted to getting hit, and the Dodger took full advantage of that.
But just as the Dodger had Ulrike face-down with one arm behind her, that egg-chair trap that we stuffed Doc into kind of exploded from inside. Doc tore off the main hatch, and he didn’t look sane. “Aw CRAP,” Wheels and I said in nigh-perfect chorus, “This AGAIN!”
“DODGER,” I shouted, “Get Ulrike down, keep her that way, and get out whatever thing that was you used on the Wolf-thing. We’ll try to get him under control without hurting him.”
On the upside, the Raven seemed to be getting tired; getting mauled by a spirit-wolf will do that to you. On the downside, it still hurt. I slammed the salt tablet against Doc’s chest, and tried to figure out what to do next. Doc/Raven screamed and bucked us off of him, and then he scrambled for the brass bottle for some reason. Wheels blasted the bottle with that energy zapper that didn’t seem to be doing anything, but sent the bottle rolling out of Doc/Raven’s reach.
BUT, that bolt glanced off the bottle and hit that wishbone-washer thingie. And that gave it whatever it needed. A polychrome ball of light formed between the horns of the ‘wishbone’, popped out, hit the floor and immediately sprouted into a monster. A draping hemispherical heap of iridescent translucent energy formed. It spun around and aimed a… nexus? You couldn’t really call it an eye. Then it let out an electronic ‘wail’ like escalating feedback, and started chugging in the general direction of Belpho’s goon squad, ponderously moving one of two anchoring points, one after another. The goldfaces looked at this and reached a unanimous ‘let’s get the fuck OUT of here!’ decision.
On the very off chance that I would get CASPAR, and not MELCHIOR, I made a call: “CASPAR? On the off-chance-”
[You’re in Warehouse D, and you just set off the Boss’ Electromorph Cultivator that’s he’s been meaning to examine- since high school,] CASPAR cut me off.
“And how do I-”
[You told me that Wayne Gretzski’s Lifetime Assists record was 45-]
“When it was 64, yeah, we were informed of that after the fact, sorry.”
[You cost me points with BALTHASAR, and I need them a lot right now, Slim. Anyway, just use a fire extinguisher on that thing. That won’t destroy it, but it’ll confuse it to the point where it wastes its charge wandering around in a daze. At least, that’s what happened with the last three of those things that gadget coughed up]
[Slim, you’re not in Belphegor’s Special Projects warehouse- that’s in Brownsville. Why would he have his Special Projects warehouse in Yonkers? That’s his Flawed Projects warehouse, where he stashes the stuff that isn’t immediately useful, or has major problems, but might be useful or repairable later on]
“But the sign said… MELCHIOR…” Reason #14: they find humans- oh, I already ran that one off, didn’t I?
[Sorry to be so terse, Slim, but things are getting very hairy. MELCHIOR’s sluffing a ton of his schedule off on the rest of us, and BALATHASAR’s so far ahead in the betting pool that I have to do the work of three]
“Wait a minute, MELCHIOR’s sluffing his schedule-?”
[Later, Slim. See that crate?] the lights dimmed, and one spotlight hit a stack of crates. [The crate on the middle left corner has a Paralysis Projector project that has… unfortunate long-term neurological effects- and some nasty memory loss, too- but should hit that spook where it’s weakest: where it’s possessing Doc.]
“Okay, but is the battery already installed? Are you sure that it’s still viable?”
[Just have Wheels zap it with that ‘ray gun’ she’s been blasting all over the place. It was supposed to be an energy weapon, but instead it remotely projects an energy charge to an electrical device that lasts for on an average, 5 to 8 minutes] As much as I hated to think it, that was actually an interesting project, and I could see why Belpho stashed it. [Of course, multiple charges tend to cause the target device to melt down]
Okay, it took some doing, and God knows MELCHIOR wasn’t helping with shooting everything he could at me. I lost 3 PFGs; thank God, I took 27; but I got to the crate and literally cut the Paralysis Dingus out of the side of the cardboard box. Feeling a thousand targeting dots on me, I kicked the paralysis ray over to Wheels. “Juice it up, and give Doc a squirt!”
Wheels grabbed it and ducked behind something that looked like it was something they rejected from ‘Space: 1999’. I found some cover and got the salt tablet ready. Doc was mixing it up with the Goldface Girls, who for some unknowable reason were still hanging tough. Okay, give him is due, Belphegor doesn’t hire wimps. Then Wheels popped up and aimed. I yelled “DUCK!” And sunuvagun, they did! Wheels hit Doc/Raven squarely in his center mass, and you didn’t need the silver mask to see the Raven scream. Knowing a cue when it breaks my eardrums, I sprinted up and slapped the salt tablet on Doc’s chest.
That did the job. The Raven rose up out of Doc (again) spread its wings and--promptly got nailed.
The Artful Dodger had found yet another energy projector of some sort, and was holding the damn bird in one place with it. Do not ask me where she got the thing, or how she knew that it would contain the Raven; getting that broad to stay in one place, let alone give a straight answer to anything, is like giving a speeding ticket to a rainbow. “WELL? Aren’t you going to DO something?”
“Yeah, RIGHT!” Bottle! Where’s the bottle? Oh FUCK, the bottle’s GONE, and we don’t have TIME to look for it! Damn, WHY didn’t I take a picture of the Raven’s true name while I had the chance? Well, besides the fact that all the writing on the bottle looked like it was Arabic or Farsi… and why is an Arabic relic binding a Raven Witch, which is an Irish thing, anyway?
I slipped the mask back on and dug through the grimoire as quickly as I could. Working furiously, I bound it into the only thing I had on hand that was even vaguely valid- my smartphone.
“Why did you use that?” Wheels asked, looking over my shoulder.
“It was the only thing I had that did the job!”
“But the Galaxy S5 has so much more RAM!”
“Okay, now that that’s over with,” one of the Belphettes, the Gamine to be precise, said with more badass than her perky little frame would suggest, “assume the position and start answering questions!” She pointed her BFG at us, as did the Amazon, and the Bombshell had an energy sword ready in one hand and a glowing net in the other. Even through their serene masks, you could tell that they were stone cold out of fucks and looking for someone to vent on.
“LOOK,” Dodger started, “I came here trailing that nasty blonde with the wolves-”
Mind you, I really doubt that they were going to listen, but even so, Ulrike popped out from behind the crate where she’d been hiding, and let loose with yet another energy weapon. She opened up on Belpho’s Angels (hey, they were the ones holding the big firepower), hitting the Gamine totally flat-footed, the Amazon just as she was starting to react, and the Bombshell as she was diving for cover. Then she wasted time and battery charge trying to hit the Dodger, who’s handle stood firm and unchallenged. Mind you, being anywhere near her would have been disastrous.
Then the Belphettes stood up with the weirdest postures, and you could hear them muttering ‘belphegor… belphegor… belphegor…” Then they scampered off in a herd.
“Vad FAN?” Ulrike snapped, looking after them with the face and posture of complete befuddlement.
Wheels too advantage of that to sprint up to Ulrike and tackle her. They grappled for the gun for a moment, and then there was a flare of light. Wheels and Ulrike broke, and Wheels had the gun. Ulrike was giving Wheels a weird look, and Wheels also had a weird look on her face, but it wasn’t aimed at anyone. Then Wheels started muttering, “belphegor, belphegor, belphegor,” under her breath and ran after the Bel-Bitches, taking the gun with her. Ulrike just looked after her with a ‘WTF?’ look on her face and muttered, “Vad i Helvete?”
The Dodger saw her opening and tackled Ulrike, and they got into a catfight that would have gotten a thousand Likes on You-Tube, but my phone was full of a seriously peeved raven witch. Ulrike started moving, and the Dodger was right after her. Me? I had a man down, and, if anything, he looked worse than before. I had to ask it. “You cool to move on your own, Doc?”
Doc struggled to open one bruised eye and grated out a whisper, “My feet hurt…” And then he shut his eye and slipped into a merciful oblivion. Oh, crap. Doc weighs over 300, rising 350 pounds, and I can carry maybe my own weight plus 30 pounds. For a short period of time. Fortunately, while Belpho is cheap and lazy, he knows that every so often you have to spend money or your business suffers for it. He sprung for some motorized hand-trucks, and there was one next to one of the more recent stacks. I turned that hand-truck into an improvised gurney that sort of made Doc look like Hannibal Lector. I found that bottle and added it to the other cache-stuff that I recovered, in a satchel. Then I fished his phone out of a pocket (I’m amazed that it was still working) and called for help. “CASPAR, I remember that Belphegor was upgrading his MedBay when I cut loose. Where does he have it now?”
[In the Brownsville lair. Where HE is] Fuck, that made way too much sense. [But I can get you there in time to help Doc, if you follow my directions] With a knot in my stomach that an Eagle Scout couldn’t untie, I agreed. CASPAR (I’m hoping and praying) managed to lead me out of the Flawed Projects warehouse while avoiding the Goldface squads that were finally showing up. Then he finessed me around the other squads, to-
-Bay J, where Belphegor’s Star Fleet knockoff transporter was powered up and ready to shuffle atoms. Aw, Man, he didn’t want me to scramble Doc through that thing? Not in the shape he’s in! Then again, with that thing, healthy, unhealthy, what’s the difference really?
And the Artful Dodger was furiously trying to get it to work. “What are you doing?”
“That bitch, Ulrike, used this! Where does it go?”
“Well, I’m operating under the assumption that there’s a dedicated cable from here to Belpho’s Brownsville base.”
“He has a base in Brownsville?”
“And another one in Trenton,” I said. “You didn’t know that?”
“I didn’t know that I was going into one of Belly-boy’s bases until I ran into his 80s retread minions,” she said. “We weren’t what you’d call ‘close’ at school.” Then she looked at Doc. “And what are you doing with him?”
“Belpho has a passable Medbay in his Brownsville base. I’ll stick him in one of the Autodocs, seal it for a day or two, find my other buddy, and we’ll get the hell out of here. We’ll come back in that day or two, and spring him before Belpho’s medical officer gets suspicious. Hey, between Ulrike, the Raven and you, the infirmary’s gonna be packed, so it won’t be suspicious.”
“Tell you what,” she offered. “If you can beam me over to Brownsville, I’ll help you get your buddy to the medical bay.”
“You’re on. I’ll send you first. When you’re complete on the other side, you just slide this bar back up. YES, it’s stupid and unnecessary, but that’s how they did it on the show! Watch the procedure as I send Doc, and repeat when he’s complete. When I’m ready to come over, you look for a green light here, and lower the bar again.”
I set Doc’s gurney next to the teleport pad and went to the control panel. “Won’t sending the hand truck along with him confuse the teleporter?” Dodger asked.
“Dodge, we’re talking about disassembling and reassembling people at the molecular level- either it does it right or it doesn’t. If it goes bad, it’ll screw us up by merging us with our clothes.” The Dodger nodded and stepped onto the staging pad. I ran through the procedure and Dodger melted into a cloud of sparkles. Damn, that looks so cool… when you’re Eight…
There was a twenty count, and I had a horrible gut feeling that I’d just turned a reasonably nice person into a pile of chemically confused goo.
Then the panel showed that the ‘gate’ was closed, and the unit on the far side was ready to receive another passenger. I wheeled Doc, gurney and all, onto the transport disk, and repeated the procedure. Doc buzzed into a similar cloud of sparkles. Well… if it didn’t work, at least his feet won’t hurt anymore…
Then the ‘gate’ closed again. Well, can’t say ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. I took a deep breath, set the pre-trigger, and stepped onto the transport disk. I couldn’t get the fanfare from the ST:TOS opening out of my head. Well, here’s something off my Bucket List. Let’s just hope that it’s not the LAST thing off my Bucket List.