Wisconsin, Monday afternoon, June 18th, 2007
I was sitting on top of a hill, staring through a pair of binoculars at the fenced compound in the distance. Normally when I did this kind of surveillance, I’d use my chameleon field to blend into my surroundings and become invisible, though I’d avoided doing so this time as a courtesy to Chickenhawk.
Chickenhawk sat beside me, once again dressed up in his familiar costume, just as I was dressed in mine. Now that we knew where Melissa was being held, we were both dressed and ready for action, though I’d been forced to call foul on my current partner’s plan to charge through the front gate. Only an idiot did that kind of thing without proper preparation. And though I’d normally say that I couldn’t expect anything else from Chickenhawk, I’d been recently around him enough to discover that he wasn’t quite as dimwitted as I’d always thought. The fact that he’d actually listened to my advice just proved that.
“Small visible compound,” I commented. “Four small buildings inside the fence.”
“You said visible compound,” Chickenhawk pointed out.
I nodded, having wondered if he’d catch that. “There are a couple vents around the compound. My guess is that the real base is underground, probably about the same size as the fenced area, though I can’t guarantee how many stories deep.”
“I’ve only seen half a dozen people outside,” Chickenhawk said.
“Wearing off the rack minion garb,” I added with a grin.
I remembered seeing those same uniforms the last time I was at Simply Faboo getting a replacement uniform made. They were basic uniforms, designed more to give a standardized look rather than provide any real armoring. Of course, that wasn’t a surprise, considering what I knew of Paradigm.
Paradigm didn’t usually go into places with guns blazing, but considered herself a mastermind and puppet master. From what I’d read in her file, instead of hiring soldiers and cheap thugs, she tended to hire hackers and accountants…people who could help her achieve her goals using less than physical methods. And if you weren’t expecting people to go into combat, why spend the extra money to buy them quality combat armor?
“Most of her people are probably underground,” I told Chickenhawk. “Hijack told me that Paradigm has about three dozen people working for her, but that she usually doesn’t have more than two dozen at her base. However, she may or may not have someone else with powers working for her too.”
“Then I guess it’s time to go get Melissa,” Chickenhawk announced, standing up with a look of fierce determination on his face.
“Wait,” I exclaimed, jumping to my own feet. “Don’t tell me you’re just going to go charging in there…”
Chickenhawk gave me a dark look and stated, “I’m going to get my daughter back…”
“Patience grasshopper,” I told him, letting out an exasperated sigh. I thought I’d already talked him out of just blindly charging in. Then before he could fly off, I asked, “What is your primary objective? Do you want to capture Paradigm, disrupt this entire operation, or recover the hostage?”
Chickenhawk paused at that, giving me a curious look. “You know damn well what I’m here for.”
“If you want to disrupt Paradigm’s current setup, then flying in would be the way to go,” I explained. “You’d probably create a lot of chaos and her people might even freak out. However, when you announce your presence that way, you’ll be giving Paradigm enough warning that she can simply grab the hostage and teleport out…before you ever reached either of them.”
Chickenhawk tensed at that and I saw the realization setting in. By being impatient and charging in, he could blow the entire thing and let Paradigm get away with his daughter. A moment later, his confidence seemed to fade and he began to almost deflate in front of me.
“We’re better off thinking of this as a heist,” I pointed out with a grin. “The best option is to sneak in, grab the valuable, then sneak back out before anyone notices…” Then I paused to muse, “Of course, if this was a normal heist job, I never would have accepted it. It usually takes time to gather information and plan a proper heist… Unfortunately, that isn’t an option this time.”
“It’s strange, hearing you talk like that,” Chickenhawk said, giving me an odd look. “You sound so…professional.”
“I am a professional,” I reminded him with a grin. “If I wasn’t, you would have caught me a long time ago.”
“A professional pain in the ass,” Chickenhawk muttered. Then he looked a bit chagrinned as he admitted, “I always thought you relied on dumb luck.”
I just grinned more broadly at that. “Good research and preparation can put luck on your side.”
Chickenhawk nodded faintly. “Then what do you recommend?”
“A hot bubble bath with a good book and a glass of chardonnay,” I responded almost absently. Chickenhawk gave me a dirty look, so I said, “As I said a few minutes ago, I’ll sneak in alone, see if I can find Melissa, then see if I can sneak her out. This is the best chance of getting her out unharmed.”
“And if you can’t get her out?” Chickenhawk demanded, his voice filled with worry and frustration.
“Then I’ve at least scouted the place,” I answered, meeting his gaze. “At the very least, I’ll get a look at their security and find out exactly where they’re keeping her. Then I come back and we make our plans with that in mind.”
“That sounds…reasonable,” Chickenhawk reluctantly agreed. Then he stared at me for a moment before shaking his head. “Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine working with you…or that you’d be the voice of patience and reason.”
“I’m a woman of many layers,” I stated wisely. “Like an onion.” That earned a faint chuckle from Chickenhawk.
I just watched Chickenhawk for a moment, reminding myself that once this was over…once Melissa was back home…we’d go back to our usual game. I actually felt sad at that thought. And unfortunately, once we did, I’d be at a distinct disadvantage. I’d shown Chickenhawk too many of my cards, so now, many of my normal tricks would no longer work on him. I might be forced to snoop into his personal life a little, just to even the score.
“No distractions,” I muttered to myself as I tried to rein in my thoughts. “Not now.” This alliance was going to cause me problems in the future, but I’d gone into it knowing that would be the case. I’d deal with those problems when they came. For now, Melissa came first.
“So,” Chickenhawk asked me grimly. “What am I supposed to do while you’re out trying to rescue my daughter?” It was obvious that he hated the idea of sitting still while sending a villain in to do the rescue. I couldn’t really blame him for that.
“Wait here and be patient,” I told him. “And if I don’t call you within an hour of going in, feel free to come charging in.” After all, I might need a noisy distraction and he fit the bill perfectly, not that I was going to tell him that.
With that, I started down towards the compound, using the chameleon effect of my PK aura so that I’d draw less attention. Once I reached the fence, it was an easy matter to slip past it and get to one of the large air vents. I looked it over and found that it was wired to an alarm system, but that was no problem to bypass either. After a mere ten seconds, I deactivated the alarm, removed the grate, then slid myself inside.
The ventilation ducts were tight, but I used my aura to make myself slick so that I could slip through with ease. Then, once I’d gone far enough, I used my PK claws to create a nice exit for myself, and I began to crawl through the ceiling crawlspace instead. It was much roomier, and it offered me the advantage of being able to move aside the ceiling tiles in order to peek at what was below.
Several men walked past and I remained where I was, carefully listening to their conversation before moving on. A minute later, another pair of men passed beneath me and I eavesdropped on them as well while they complained about having to watch ‘the girl’ in room seventeen.
“Gotcha,” I whispered, assuming that they’d been referring to Melissa.
I found Melissa’s cell a few minutes later, with a door that had a fairly simple electronic combination lock on it. And though I could have worked my way around that…or simply used my PK claws to cut through the door, I’d long since learned the value of cheating. I pulled out a small devise I carried, which was about the size of a golf ball, and stuck it on the keypad. After a moment, the lock was neutralized so I opened the door and stepped inside.
The room didn’t look anything like I would have expected for a dungeon cell. There was carpeting, a comfortable looking queen sized bed, and walls that were decorated with a few pieces of generic art. All in all, it looked more like a decent hotel room. Of course, all of this fit with what Hijack had told me about Paradigm and how she liked to treat her prisoners.
“Not a bad setup,” I mused as I looked around. Of course, a gilded cage was still a cage, though the bling might distract some people from that fact.
Melissa was in the room, sitting back in a chair and watching TV. She hadn’t noticed my entrance, so I took advantage of that distraction to sneak up behind her. I suddenly put my hands over her eyes and cheerfully exclaimed, “Guess who.”
Melissa let out a faint shriek as she jumped to her feet. And as soon as she snapped around, looking like she was ready to start fighting, she froze. Her eyes went wide and a look of relief passed over her face, followed by one of disappointment. I imagined that she’d been expecting her father to come and save her.
“Imp,” she exclaimed, looking as though she couldn’t quite believe it. “You’re here…”
“You act like this is the first time I ever came for you,” I replied off-handedly.
“Oh my God,” Melissa blurted out, almost bouncing with excitement. Then without warning, the threw herself at me, grabbing me in a hug. I hugged her back a little awkwardly, though I had to admit that I enjoyed it.
“So,” I asked her in a casual tone. “Why didn’t you just walk on out of here?”
Melissa deflated a little then admitted, “I did… Then Paradigm caught me and brought me back…” She gestured to the golden metal collar on her neck. “And she put this thing on me, and it won’t let me walk through walls, and every time I try teleporting or doing anything at all it shocks me…”
“Oooh, a very pretty dog collar,” I commented as I moved closer to examine it. “Let’s say we get rid of this thing…”
The collar was a fairly smooth gold metal without any key hole, though I could see where the latch was. While I was carefully looking it over, Melissa continued talking. “It’s REALLY heavy…and it shocks me when I use my powers…and Paradigm says they’ll shock me with it if I try running away again…and that it has a tracking device in it…and…”
“It won’t be a problem much longer,” I told Melissa, cutting her off. She was rambling a bit and it was getting just a little distracting.
With that, I touched the collar, then extended my PK aura into it, feeling the latch inside and nudging it just a little. The collar popped open, so I quickly removed it from Melissa’s neck and looked at it a little more closely.
“Well I’ll be a monkey’s aunt,” I mused, noticing the black metal that lined the inside surface of the collar. It was a thin layer...very thin…almost as if painted on. “Ebidium. No wonder it was so heavy…and why you couldn’t just phase through it.” Then I shrugged and casually tossed the collar into the corner.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Melissa blurted out, grabbing me in another hug.
“Now then,” I said, giving her a grin. “I do have one question for you…” I paused and Melissa looked at me expectantly. “Why didn’t you tell me that Chickenhawk was your dad?”
Melissa’s eyes shot wide and she took a nervous step back, giving me a guilty look. “I…,” she started, staring at the ground awkwardly. “I didn’t think you’d want to be my friend…”
I let out a sigh at that since she was probably right. If I’d known who her dad was, I probably would have avoided her instead of teaching her. Then again, it might have been even more fun to teach her if I had known who her dad was.
I sat down on the edge of the bed and gestured for Melissa to sit next to me. “We don’t have a lot of time,” I told her gently, “but I think this is worth taking a minute for. I don’t care who your dad is or what horribly evil things he’s done…” Melissa giggled at that. “I don’t blame you for any of it.”
“You aren’t mad?” Melissa asked me hopefully.
“A little annoyed,” I admitted with a shrug. “Knowing that little tidbit would have saved me a lot of trouble and worry, but I can understand wanting to be seen as your own person.”
“I’m sorry,” Melissa said quietly.
Melissa looked so sad and pitiful at the moment that I couldn’t resist putting my arm around her for a half-hug. She seemed to brighten up a little at that. “So,” I asked, “if your dad is a superhero, why in the world would you want to hang around someone like me?”
“Because you’re so cool,” she exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. Then she deflated just a little bit again as she grumbled, “And my dad isn’t…”
I chuckled at that, feeling just a little smug. “Most people would probably be pretty excited at having superheroes in the family.”
Melissa shrugged awkwardly. “He’s always so serious…and he never wants to have any fun. He’s always talking about being responsible and professional…and he just doesn’t understand. He’s always too busy for me.” She deflated a little more, then quietly admitted, “I figured that once I had powers, he’d make me become a hero too…and then I wouldn’t be allowed to have any fun…”
“And you thought that I’d be more fun,” I responded with a faint smile.
The girl beside me nodded, then stared at me for several seconds with an odd expression. “You can even make my dad smile.” I was a little startled by that statement, but before I could ask what she meant, she explained. “He’s usually grumpy and serious when he comes back from work…but not when he fights you. After he fights you, he comes home smiling or laughing…” Then she paused and admitted, “Well, sometimes he’s really mad…but after he calms down he starts laughing.”
“Is that so?” I asked, not sure what else to say to that.
I’d always thought that Chickenhawk was boring and stuffy, and it seemed that his own daughter shared that opinion. And though I knew my antics usually annoyed him, I never thought that he’d also find them amusing. Then again, after all the time I’d spent with Chickenhawk over the last couple days, I’d learned that he does have a sense of humor…even if it isn’t as brilliant and well developed as my own. Not everyone is lucky enough to be a comedy genius.
“So,” I asked as I stood back up, sweeping my arm around the room. “How would you rate the accommodations of this hotel?”
Melissa giggled at that, then grinned as she answered, “They have great room service…” She gestured to a side table which had a tray of candy sitting on it. Then she almost looked embarrassed as she admitted, “Paradigm was kind of nice… She kept coming in to talk with me, and gave me pizza and candy, and brought the TV so I wouldn’t be bored. One of the guards is really mean and scary, but Paradigm makes him leave me alone…”
“I see,” I said, in a flat tone.
It seemed that Paradigm really was trying to work the whole Stockholm Syndrome thing, just like Hijack said she would. She’d even been playing good cop/bad cop…or good kidnapper/bad kidnapper with Melissa, trying to make Melissa look to her as a protector as well as the source of all the good things. If we hadn’t found Melissa, then Paradigm’s manipulations of the girl might actually have worked.
“Let’s get out of here,” I told Melissa, pulling out my cell phone and scowling in annoyance at the fact that I didn’t have any bars. That was inconvenient. “If we take too long, your dad will kick down the front door…and then we lose the element of surprise.”
“He’s here?” Melissa blurted out, looking both excited and worried at the same time.
“Oh yeah,” I said in a cheerful tone. “He was so worried about you, he actually came and begged me to help him find you…”
Melissa gave me a skeptical look at that, though I wasn’t sure if it was over the idea that her dad would come rescue her, or that he’d ask me to help him do so. Then she looked a bit confuse and cautiously asked, “You and my dad are working together?”
“Classic team-up,” I responded with cheerfully. “Now, this is where things get tricky. You can’t go out the way I came in, so we’ll have to sneak out through the hallway. It’s a good thing we can both turn invisible.”
“You can turn invisible too?” Melissa exclaimed with a look of delight.
Normally I’d never tell someone about that power, but I’d already revealed it to Chickenhawk and this was the best way to get her out of here alive. “Just don’t spread it around,” I said, giving Melissa a steady look to show that I was actually serious about that. “Now, the problem is, you can’t stay invisible for long so will have to move quickly, and my powers won’t let me move quickly while invisible…”
“Really?” Melissa asked, looking a little startled at that revelation.
I just frowned a little, not at all happy about having to give up more of my secrets, especially about my weaknesses, but it was necessary. I’d already made the decision that getting Melissa out safely was more important than anything else.
“Pay attention and you’ll be able to see me when I move fast enough,” I told Melissa, even though my every instinct was to keep this to myself. “When I stop moving or disappear completely, you stop as well.”
With that, I gave Melissa a wink and a thumbs up, then activated the chameleon effect of my PK aura. Melissa let out a faint gasp, then she grinned excitedly before she suddenly vanished from view. Without saying a word, I opened the door, took a look down the hallway, and began heading for the exit. I didn’t bother looking behind me since it wouldn’t do any good, and I could hear Melissa’s breathing and footsteps.
I moved down the hall a little faster than I would have if I’d been by myself, but Melissa couldn’t be as patient as I could. However, when I saw a woman up ahead of us, I froze in place, as if I was playing a real life version of the game red light/green light. The woman walked right past Melissa and I, not even realizing we were there. But unfortunately, just as I was about to start moving again, I noticed Melissa pop back into view.
“Sorry,” she whispered self-consciously. “I couldn’t hold it any longer...”
“You should have gone before we left,” I joked weakly, glancing back and forth down the hall to make sure no one came and saw us. “How long does it usually take you to recharge?”
“I just need a little break, then I can do it again,” Melissa told me, sounding almost apologetic.
“Okay then,” I said, dropping my own invisibility so Melissa could see me. “New plan. Once you’re able to go again, we’ll look for a spot so you can hide and rest up for the next jump. We’ll do this a little bit at a time.”
Melissa pouted at that, then asked, “Why can’t we just run for the door?”
“Because someone would probably see us and sound the alarm,” I explained. “And that creates all kinds of problems. Remember, when you’re trying to sneak in or out of a place, patience is your best tool. You take your time and wait for your opportunities.”
“Now you sound like my dad,” Melissa grumbled. Then in what was clearly intended to be an impersonation of her father, she said, “You need to learn patience…”
I couldn’t help but laughing at that, even as I was a little offended by the comparison. “What do you know. Chickenhawk and I actually agree on something.” Then I quickly added, “But don’t you ever tell him I said that.” Melissa giggled in response.
Suddenly, a loud alarm began going off and Melissa jumped, demanding, “What’s that…?”
“Either they realized you’re gone,” I answered, “or your dad got impatient and decided to come knocking. Either way, that alarm doesn’t sound good.”
“What does sound good?” Melissa asked, obviously afraid though she tried hiding it.
“An MLT. A mutton lettuce and tomato sandwich,” I answered with my best Billy Crystal impression, though I wasn’t sure if she caught the reference. “Especially when the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe…”
While I was regaling Melissa with my impression, several uniformed men came running around the corner, though they nearly tripped over themselves stopping when they saw us. They obviously weren’t very good guards, because they fumbled a bit as they reached for the pistols strapped to their belts. I guess this was what Paradigm got when she hired hackers instead of soldiers. I just let out an exasperated sigh, thinking that this was why I didn’t like doing the whole rescue thing. If it had just been me, I would have been out of here without anyone noticing, but now I had Melissa to slow me down. Of course, there was no way I was about to abandon her.
I immediately threw a smoke bomb at the men, then rushed them while they were confused. “Knock knock,” I exclaimed, right before I knocked their heads into the wall. “Come on,” I told Melissa, who was staring with her eyes wide open. “Remember, those who taunt and run away live to taunt another day.”
Since Melissa had already rested enough, she turned invisible and we tried to sneak out as quickly as we could. We made it past a few armed guards who actually looked competent, then got into the elevator. A minute later, we emerged back on the surface, inside one of the four buildings I’d seen from a distance.
A loud booming sound came from somewhere outside the small building, and in response, Melissa ran right for the door to check it out. I grimaced and ran after her, wishing that she’d think before acting, because she was going to get us both in trouble. Melissa had paused just outside the door and was looking around, so I stopped behind her and was about to tell her to turn invisible again, when I realized we weren’t alone. Paradigm was floating in the air about twenty feet above the ground, with her cape billowing around her in a rather impressive manner.
“Did you really think you could catch me by surprise?” Paradigm demanded, though she wasn’t looking at me.
I followed her gaze, expecting to see Chickenhawk, though I was surprised to see someone else there instead. Jack Rabbit stood out in the open, looking just as cocky as every other time I’d seen him. So far, he hadn’t noticed me either, or if he had, he gave no indication of it.
“Actually,” Jack Ass responded with a smirk, “I believe I did catch you by surprise…”
With that, Jack Ass jumped at Paradigm, leaping an impressive distance and with a surprising speed. But just as he was about to hit her with one of his rabbit punches, she vanished, only to reappear a short distance away. An air conditioner suddenly tore loose from one of the buildings and went flying straight at the hero, though he managed to snap around and kick it, shattering it into pieces.
“How did you find me?” Paradigm demanded in a cold tone.
“I asked your mother,” Jack responded. “She always did like me…”
“My mother has dementia,” Paradigm snapped back angrily. “She likes everybody…”
“Now to take what I came for,” Jack Ass demanded. “Mouse Girl and your gems. I won’t let you abuse their power anymore…”
I rolled my eyes at the amount of self-righteous hypocrisy that came from his mouth. Heroes like Jack always annoyed me, because they were always spouting of some kind of self-serving gibberish about how they were morally superior. This time, it was even worse than usual because I knew exactly what Jack had been up to, and the fact that he probably rationalized every bit of it as being ‘for the greater good’.
Jack Ass looked like he was about to leap at Paradigm again, but then he abruptly paused and seemed to notice Melissa for the first time. “Mouse Girl,” he exclaimed, though his eyes settled on me a moment later. “Again, I find you in the presence of this demon. It seems I will have to remind you of where your true loyalties lay…”
“Leave me alone, you jerk,” Melissa yelled at him.
Jack took several steps towards us, then he suddenly went flying sideways and smashed into one of the buildings. From the look of surprise on Paradigm’s face, it was obvious that she hadn’t been responsible for that, which meant that I knew exactly who had done it.
“DAD,” Melissa blurted out, right before clamping her hands over her mouth.
Chickenhawk descended from the sky, and he was glaring at Jack Rabbit, looking pissed. He’d obviously hit Jack Ass with one of his gravity altering spheres, and from his expression, he was planning on doing a lot more than that to the other ‘hero’. But then, he looked towards Melissa and his anger was suddenly replaced with relief.
“Melissa,” he gasped. “Are you all right?”
“Um…,” Melissa responded, giving me a nervous look. “Yeah…”
Just then, Jack Ass got back to his feet and seemed to notice Chickenhawk for the first time. “Superhawk, isn’t it? I don’t know why you’re here, but it’s a good thing you are. Now it’s two against two, and these villains will fall.”
He obviously didn’t realize that Chickenhawk was the one who’d sent him flying into the side of the building, nor had he heard Chickenhawk and Melissa calling out to each other. If he had, he certainly wouldn’t be making the conclusion that Chickenhawk was here to help him.
“Another hero,” Paradigm exclaimed, spitting out the word hero. “You call yourselves heroes, but you do NOTHING to actually try fixing the problems of the world. Anyone who does…anyone who tries to change the status quo…you call a villain…all the while ignoring the real villains. An executive steals millions, destroys a company, causes thousands of people to lose their jobs and retirement accounts…and then he gets paid millions more to walk away and do it all over again. A politician steals from the public coffers and accepts bribes to work against the public good for decades on end. A company pours tons of toxins into the environment and makes obscene amounts of wealth for doing so. These are the true villains, yet your kind would rather bask in the spotlight and chase muggers than deal with them. But unlike you, I accept the responsibility that comes with my power. I accept the responsibility to deal with these problems as they should have been dealt with long ago. Maybe once the world regains its senses, everyone will see me as a hero…and you as the frauds you are.”
“Run,” I whispered to Melissa, glancing at the same time to Chickenhawk and Jack Ass, both of whom had paused while listening to Paradigm’s speech. “Get out of here and hide until this is over…”
“But what about…?” Melissa started to protest, until I gave her a gentle shove and she started to hurry away.
With that, I began to clap, which made everyone else turn and stare at me in surprise. “Great monologue,” I told Paradigm cheerfully. “One of the best I’ve ever heard. Passionate, dramatically delivered, and you provided a clear mission statement. So many fall into the trap of rambling on and completely losing track of any point they were trying to make…”
Jack Ass stared at me and demanded, “Are you fucking stupid?”
“Oh no,” I responded cheerfully, walking over and grabbing Chickenhawk’s arm. “We don’t have that kind of relationship.”
I was sure that if I’d been able to see all of Chickenhawk’s face, the look on it would have been priceless. However, it was Paradigm, who looking confused, demanded, “What kind of hero are you supposed to be?”
I just burst out laughing at that. “Me? A hero?”
“She’s a demon,” Jack Ass snarled. “She’s the worst sort of villain…”
“I’m a villain,” I stated with a grand gesture. “I am the fabulous Imp…by both name and nature. By profession, I am a brilliantly talented thief.”
“Imp,” Chickenhawk growled a warning. “What are you doing?”
“Providing a distraction,” I answered quietly. “Giving Melissa time to get away.” He seemed surprised by that, though I didn’t pay him any more attention. “Now, Paradigm,” I started again. “Or is that Pair of Dimes? Pretty cheap if you ask me. You should have gone for a full dollar, or a quarter at the very least…”
“If you aren’t a hero,” Paradigm demanded, seeming both angry and confused by my presence, which was actually pretty normal. “Then what are you doing here?”
“I don’t have any problems with your world domination business,” I answered with a shrug and a grin. “Not my business. However, I am a bit miffed with you. You see, you took someone who was under my protection and made me drive all the way out here to pick her up again…”
“The so-called Mouse Girl,” Paradigm said with a sigh. “She seems…quite energetic.”
“And she’s MINE,” Jack Ass snarled. “She’s my sidekick…”
“She’s my DAUGHTER,” Chickenhawk yelled, suddenly firing one of his warped gravity balls at Jack Ass, though the bouncing buffoon reacted quickly enough to dodge the attack.
I silently cursed Chickenhawk for jumping the gun and attacking like that when he should have done the smart thing, which was take advantage of my distraction to fly off, grab Melissa, and get the hell out of there. Now we were stuck in a brawl that could have been avoided. Of course, I really wanted to smack Jack Ass upside the head as well, so I couldn’t blame him for taking advantage of the opportunity.
Jack Ass jumped at Chickenhawk faster than my ally expected, and though Chickenhawk was already trying to fly out of the way, he caught a glancing blow from a rabbit punch. Chickenhawk was thrown back from the blow, and I suspected that if it wasn’t for his armor, he would have suffered some broken ribs. As it was, he looked a little shaken.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” I muttered, right before calling out, “Go Chickenhawk. Kick his ass.” Then I shook my head and muttered, “If anyone in the union hears that I’m cheering on a hero, I’ll never hear the end of it…”
Chickenhawk grabbed a small forklift and threw it at Jack Rabbit, who immediately jumped out of the way. However, my usual opponent followed the forklift up with several balls of his warped gravity, which missed Jack Ass. One of them hit a barrel, which suddenly went flying right at the asshole, catching him from behind.
While the two heroes were fighting it out, I turned my attention to Paradigm, who was watching the fight with an expression of surprise and curiosity. Obviously, she was wondering why the heroes were fighting amongst themselves rather than coming after her, and she was smart enough to stay out of the way and let them do their work. Then she noticed me coming towards her and she tensed up, ready to attack me, though I made no aggressive moves. I had no real desire or reason to fight Paradigm now that Melissa had been freed. In fact, if I ever ran into her at the Black Mask, I’d probably invite her to sit down and have a talk.
“Yo, Dimes,” I said, giving her a broad grin. “While the menfolk are busy releasing all that excess testosterone, what say we have a little powwow.”
“What do you want?” Paradigm asked, giving me a suspicious look. Then she lowered herself back to the ground so we were at the same level.
“I’m not here to get up in your business,” I told Paradigm in a cheerful tone. “Like I said, I’m only here for the girl. If you’d actually hurt her, I wouldn’t be so friendly, but since she’s all right, I’m willing to forgive and forget…”
“How generous of you,” she responded, the sarcasm clear in her voice.
“You seem like a reasonable woman,” I continued, “and you have a problem with Little Bunny Foo Foo over there…”
“Little Bunny Foo Foo?” she asked, smirking faintly. “I’ll have to remember that one.”
That just made me chuckle. In spite of the fact that she’d kidnapped Melissa, I kind of liked this woman. Of course, she was one of those people who was motivated by a grand purpose, which meant that she could probably be quite dangerous while serving that purpose. Fortunately, her goals and mine coincided at the moment.
“If you’re willing to leave the girl alone,” I offered, “then all three of us can focus on kicking Little Bunny Foo Foo’s ass…”
Paradigm stared at me for a moment before giving a short laugh. “I can agree to that. I won’t touch the girl again.”
Suddenly, Melissa appeared right behind Paradigm and exclaimed, “Let’s see how you like it…” And with that, she snapped a familiar looking collar around Paradigm’s neck. Paradigm screamed in pain, grabbed at the collar and then collapsed to the ground. Melissa was excited and looking quite satisfied as she said, “She told me it would shock me if I was outside that room…”
I stared at Melissa, who instead of running away like I’d told her, had obviously gone back down to her cell to recover the necklace. Then I glanced at Paradigm, who was twitching helplessly, and did a facepalm. “Did you hear what I was talking to her about?”
“No,” Melissa responded awkwardly, obviously realizing that I wasn’t happy with her ‘help’.
“She’d just promised to leave you alone,” I said with an exasperated sigh. “And she was going to help us fight Jack Ass…”
“Oh,” Melissa said in a near whisper, seeming to deflate. “But I just wanted to help…”
“You can help by getting out of here so your dad doesn’t have to worry about you,” I pointed out, deciding that I was going to have to escort her out of here myself.
But then, Jack Ass called out, “Good job, Mouse Girl. I knew I could count on your loyalty…”
With that, I looked over to the ‘hero’, just in time to see him leaping away from Chickenhawk and going straight for us. He swung his fist at me, so I jumped aside, barely avoiding one of his rabbit punches. Then as I snapped around, pulling out a couple throwing spikes, I realized that instead of coming at me again, he was bending over Paradigm.
“Finally,” Jack Rabbit exclaimed, holding up Paradigm’s belt and revealing the three gems that had been hidden in it. “After all these years, I finally have what she stole from me, and I owe it all to you, Mouse Girl…”
Melissa paled and moved behind me, nervously asking, “Did I just make a big mistake?”
“Clever move,” I responded, not taking my eyes off Jack Ass. “Bad timing. Now get out of her. NOW.”
Jack Rabbit gestured towards Melissa and she suddenly floated up off the ground, courtesy of the levitation power gem that he now possessed. As she started floating towards him, she teleported away. I took immediate advantage of that to throw a pair of throwing spikes at Jack Rabbit, though he easily dodged them. He was even faster than before.
“That damn amplifier gem,” I muttered in realization. Now that Jack Ass had all six of those power gems, he had the same abilities as Dominion used to possess, which meant he’d just become a lot more dangerous. “Shazbot.”
“This is your last chance to surrender, you bastard,” Chickenhawk exclaimed, floating into the air again and holding a large chunk of metal above his head. It looked like he was about to throw it right at Jack Ass.
However, Jack Ass ignored him and instead turned his attention back to Melissa, who was running off. “Stop right there, Mouse Girl… We need to finish your training.” To my horror, Melissa stopped and stood there.
Chickenhawk threw the chunk of metal at Jack Rabbit, but Jack just gestured and the metal went flying right back, smashing into Chickenhawk and knocking him from the air. Intellectually, I knew that the smart thing to do would be to just hide and wait for a better opportunity, but at the moment, I was too angry to care. There was absolutely no way in hell that I was going to let this bastard dig his claws into Melissa again. I focused all the PK energy from my aura to my hands, concentrating it into the invisible PK claws that extended out several inches from each of my fingers. Then without a word, I ran straight at Jack, intent on hitting him from behind while he was focused on Chickenhawk.
“I think not,” Jack Ass exclaimed as he snapped around. I suddenly found myself being lifted off the ground and held in mid-air. “I won’t allow you to terrorize innocent people ever again…”
“Now THAT is ironic,” I commented, wondering if he really believed that crap, though I had the impression that he was actually trying to convince himself as much as everyone else. It was as though he thought that by insisting on something hard enough, he could actually make it true. “But about what I’d expect from someone named Little Bunny Foo Foo.”
While I’d been talking, I’d released my PK claws and was focusing instead on altering my whole aura, using it to interfere and resist the telekinesis that was holding me. I finally got it and slipped free of Jack’s grasp, but before I even hit the ground, he snarled and gestured. A massive wave of force smashed into me, throwing me back so that I slammed into the wall with an explosion of pain through my entire body. Everything went dark.
Wisconsin, Monday evening, June 18th, 2007
Pain. I awoke to a world of pain, or at least to a body that was full of it. Nearly every inch of my body hurt, from the tip of my nose to the end of my tail, though my left big toe was doing surprisingly well considering the way the rest of me felt. There was no doubt that I had a number of broken bones, and what wasn’t broken was seriously bruised. Of course, that was to be expected since I was blasted right through a wall.
Thanks to the amplifier gem, Little Bunny Foo Foo’s rabbit punch could now be thrown from a distance, turning it into a focused concussion blast. And unfortunately, I’d caught one right to the chest, without even having a PK shield up to absorb some of the impact. As it was, I was lucky to be alive. Or considering the fact that I’d woken up on the floor of a building, wrapped up in chains, maybe I would have been better off not surviving.
I silently cursed myself for getting into this situation in the first place. I should have been more careful. I should have avoided a direct fight in the first place, because I knew that wasn’t where my strengths were. In the last couple of months, I’d been hurt more times than in the previous five years combined, and I was really getting tired of it. Just because I could heal from any injury didn’t mean that it hurt any less.
“At least I can heal,” I quietly reminded myself, moving my jaw a bit to assure myself that it wasn’t broken.
Though I was still in a lot of pain, I could tell that the injuries were well on their way to healing. From experience, I knew that by now, any damaged organs or internal bleeding would have been taken care of. The worst of my broken bones were probably fixed as well, though certainly not all the way. The bruising was the least threatening to my wellbeing, so that would be the last thing to clear up.
“The little bunny sure has a nasty kick,” I muttered bitterly.
After I’d pulled myself awake enough to focus, I looked around the room I was in. It was nearly empty, looking like it was used more for keeping people out of the weather and giving them a place to sit guard than anything else. My guess was that I was still in Paradigm’s compound, but instead of being taken underground, I’d just been tossed in the nearest building. And through the window, I could see that it was night out. I’d been here for hours…not days. If it had been days, I would have been completely healed.
I didn’t have to wait much longer before the door opened and Jack Rabbit came in, radiating a sense of arrogance and smugness. It was even worse than before, which was no surprise. He’d recovered Paradigm’s power gems, which he’d been after for years, and he was now much more powerful than before. However, what did surprise me was that Melissa came in right behind him, wearing the same costume I’d seen her wearing the last time she’d been following Jack Ass around.
“Melissa,” I gasped, though the effort to speak hurt.
“My name is Mouse Girl,” Melissa stated as though it was a simple fact. “And you are going to pay for your crimes, villain…”
I stared at Melissa in horror, then snapped my eyes to Jack Ass, who I glared at in hatred. With the amplifier gem that he’d taken from Paradigm, he didn’t even need to drug Melissa. He’d simply overwhelmed her resistance completely.
“I’ve heard you were slippery and difficult to capture,” Jack Ass told me with a smirk. “Personally, I found it rather easy. But then again, most people don’t have my power and abilities.”
“Or your modesty,” I pointed out sarcastically. “Of course, you have so much to be modest about…Foo Foo.”
Jack Ass kicked me, sending a sharp pain all through my side, though I grimaced and tried not to make a sound. I didn’t want to give that bastard the satisfaction. He looked far too pleased with himself as it was.
“You’re a dangerous one,” Jack Ass said as he looked down at me. “You kidnap children. You steal souls…”
I just stared back at Jack, looking him right in the eyes. They were filled with arrogance, but not the insane mania that I would have expected. Now I was certain of it. He didn’t really believe all that nonsense he was spouting, though he was trying to convince himself as much as he was everyone else. He had a script he was following and a role he was playing, and he was going to stick to it no matter what. His ego was so massive, he was actually trying to change reality…or at least how everyone perceived it…by sheer stubborn insistence.
“I’ve freed Mouse Girl from your influence,” Jack Ass told me. “And I’ve been trying to redeem Paradigm’s minions…turn them into a force for good. But you… You’re evil…and your total corruption shows in your features.”
“Oh,” I said, unable to resist taunting him a little. “You mean my devilish good looks?” That earned me another kick.
Jack Ass just sneered at me. “You’re beyond redemption…and I can’t risk you escaping and harming more innocents…” He paused at that, then mused, “I’ll have to consider what to do with you. For now, I have more urgent things to attend to…”
With that, Jack Ass turned and walked out the door. Melissa stood where she was, watching me for a moment. Then I saw it, a look of worry passing over her face. She stared at me with an odd expression, looking as though she was about to either say something or come over to me. But then, the moment passed and she snapped around and followed after Jack. That expression hadn’t lasted for long, only for a couple seconds, but it was enough to tell me that Melissa wasn’t completely under his control. She was still trying to fight it.
“Good girl,” I said with a weak grin. “Keep fighting him…”
A few seconds later, I turned my attention back to my own situation, and the fact that I was injured and chained up, which was going to make it a real pain in the tail to try escaping. If I’d been awake while being chained, I could have flexed my aura enough to provide some resistance and kept the chains from being pulled tight, but I hadn’t been conscious and they were very tight.
Time was on my side. The longer I waited, the more I’d heal and the better shape I’d be in to escape. However, time was also against Melissa. The longer she stayed under Jack’s influence, the more difficult it would be to break her away.
I struggled against the chains as much as I could with my pain, trying to get enough wiggle room to get out. However, I couldn’t find any wiggle room and was left with the feeling that I was tied up with more than just the chains. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been tied up with duct tape, and then with the chains over that. For the moment, I was trapped and vulnerable, which I absolutely hated.
I wasn’t some helpless damsel in distress, and I sure as hell wasn’t a Disney princess. I’d long ago accepted the fact that I’d never have some white knight charging to my rescue, nor a Price Charming to sweep me off my feet. In fact, every white knight I’d ever met had come after me like I was some dragon that needed slaying, and every prince had been an arrogant prick. No one was coming for me, so I had to figure out how to get out of this on my own. Only then would I be able to help Melissa.
Though it wasn’t easy, I forced myself to calm down, to be patient and think clearly. I wanted to go yelling and screaming, to distract Jack’s attention away from Melissa and give her a chance, but I knew that wouldn’t work. Instead, I focused all of my attention on my bindings again…and on using my power. I tried using my aura to probe against the chains and bindings, trying to get a better sense of what I was dealing with and where the week points would be. This confirmed that I was indeed wrapped up in duct tape under the chains, much to my annoyance. That would slow me down, but I wasn’t about to let it stop my escape.
About an hour after Jack’s visit, the door opened again and I braced myself to deal with the ‘hero’. But to my surprise, it was a completely different hero who quickly came into the room. Chickenhawk closed the door behind him, then rushed to my side.
“Imp,” he exclaimed, actually looking concerned. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I responded with a weak smile. “Just a little tied up at the moment.”
I just stared at Chickenhawk for a moment, feeling incredibly relieved to see him, but also a bit confused. He’d come for me. For ME. No hero had ever tried to help me before. Not once.
When I was younger…much younger…and before I’d discovered most of my powers…an angry mob had come after me, only lacking torches and pitchforks to be complete. I hadn’t done anything to earn their wrath, other than begging for a little spare change on the street corner, but that hadn’t mattered to them. They’d attacked me, left me beaten and bruised…and then a superhero arrived. I’d been so relieved to see him, thinking that he was there to save me, but after only taking one look at me, he decided that I was some kind of monster who’d been attacking those ‘innocent civilians’. After all that, after my ‘hero’ had turned his back on me, I’d barely managed to escape, running away with my tail between my legs.
“You came for me?” I asked awkwardly, a little afraid to get my hopes up. Chickenhawk nodded and gave me a gentle smile.
“When I saw Jack Rabbit blast you through that wall,” Chickenhawk said awkwardly. “I…feared the worst.”
“So, you beat the bastard?” I asked.
Chickenhawk hesitated a moment, then admitted, “No.” He began working at my chains, trying to get them off. “After he got those new gems…he became too strong. When he grabbed Melissa, I went after him with everything I had…and it wasn’t enough.”
I nodded at that, not surprised since they’d been pretty evenly matched before Jack Ass got his upgrade. Now, not only were all of his own abilities stronger, but he also had Paradigm’s powers as well. That made him very dangerous.
When Chickenhawk finished removing most of the chains, he started on some of the duct tape so that he could get my arms free. Once I could move those again, I tore at the tape which held my tail strapped against my leg. That had been extremely uncomfortable, so I was more than happy for the chance to flick my tail around again and get some blood flowing back into it. Before long, the only thing left holding me were the thick metal manacles that Jack had somehow found and locked around my feet.
“I don’t see a key for those,” Chickenhawk said, sounding a little frustrated.
“No problem,” I responded with a weak grin. I bent over and formed my PK claws, then I cut right through the manacles. Chickenhawk watched with a look of interest. I gave him a real grin and said, “Much better.”
I started to get up, then paused at the pain that hadn’t completely faded yet. Chickenhawk seemed to notice because he quickly said, “Here. I think you need this.” He held up several of those power bars and protein drinks that athletes liked to use. “I know regenerators need energy after they heal…”
I nodded at that, snatching one of the bars and tearing into it. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I was starving. Until now, the gnawing in my stomach had just blended in with all the other pains and discomfort. I gulped down the first bar then went for the second, knowing that my body was really going to thank me for this. Whenever I heal from some serious injury, my body needed to get the energy and resources for the repairs, and if I couldn’t get calories into my system, my powers would start cannibalizing my own body for what it needed.
“Much better,” I announced, gulping down one of the nasty tasting protein drinks. At the moment, it tasted like ambrosia. As I finished the can, I asked Chickenhawk, “So, how did you get away?”
“I took a page from your playbook,” Chickenhawk admitted a little self-consciously. “I pretended to run away…then hid and waited until I saw an opportunity. In this case, until I saw a chance to come back and free you.”
“Sneaky,” I said appreciatively. “You might make a good thief yet.”
Chickenhawk snorted, then pointed out, “Considering the way you’ve been trying to save Melissa, you might make a decent hero.” I nearly choked at that. “Have you even thought of being a hero?”
“Hell no,” I responded, simultaneously amused and offended that he’d suggest such a thing. I thought about making a snarky comment, but instead, I simply said, “That path has never been an option.”
Now that I’d eaten, I stood up and stretched, though my body still ached from even this effort. I’d healed a great deal, and all this food was helping the process, but I still had a way to go.
“Why not?” Chickenhawk pressed, much to my annoyance. As if he couldn’t tell just by looking at me.
“Someone once told me that monsters can’t be heroes,” I stated flatly, not happy about having old memories dredged up like that. At least not that memory. “And then the world proved him right.”
Chickenhawk looked surprised by my response. “You aren’t a monster.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I snapped.
Normally, a little probing wouldn’t do more than annoy me, earning a smart-ass comment in response. However, the situation was already getting to me and Chickenhawk was pushing in a spot that I might conceivably be a little touchy about.
Chickenhawk stared at me, obviously a little surprised by my outburst. He’d probably been expecting the snappy comeback I was famous for rather than something like that. I scowled, annoyed at losing control like that. Things had just been getting too personal lately.
“I know you’re slippery as hell and damn difficult to catch,” Chickenhawk said, not taking his eye off me. “I know that you’re probably the most frustrating woman I’ve ever met…and the funniest. I know you’re more interested in the art than the money from selling it, that you’re a talented artist in your own right, that you have a soft spot for kids, and that when you don’t think anyone is watching, you like to dance. And I know that no matter what anyone else says…you aren’t a monster.”
Chickenhawk put a gentle hand on my shoulder and gave me a concerned look. I was suddenly aware of his close presence and my heart rate sped up. I looked up into his eyes, feeling the urge to just grab him and give him a kiss. It was just like on the porch again.
“Of course I’m not a monster,” I announced with a forced grin, pulling myself away from Chickenhawk in spite of the fact that it was the last thing I wanted to do. “I’m the fabulous Imp. A brilliant, talented, and extraordinarily good looking art thief.”
Chickenhawk gave me a concerned look, obviously not falling for it. “Imp…”
“Now, where is that wascally wabbit?” I asked with a false cheerfulness. “Let me at em. I’ll splat em.”
“That bastard has Melissa,” Chickenhawk reminded me, his voice filled with renewed fear and worry. “How can you joke around at a time like this?”
“As a wise rabbit once said,” I responded quietly, giving Chickenhawk a weak smile. “A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”
Chickenhawk stared at me for several long seconds before nodding faintly. “I understand.”
I took a deep breath, then got serious again. “You were keeping watch. What did you see?”
My companion straightened up at that and went into professional mode as well. “Jack Rabbit was keeping close to the surface of the compound, checking the buildings but not staying out of sight for long. Melissa was trailing after him the entire time.” His voice was carefully controlled, but I could still hear the worry and frustration in it. “He wasn’t away long enough for me to do anything until now.”
“I saw her trying to fight it,” I told him. “Jack Ass doesn’t have her completely. Not yet.”
Chickenhawk let out a faint sigh of relief. “I ran into one of Paradigm’s people. Most of them were escaping out a back route…”
I nodded at that, not at all surprised the minions had been escaping that way. None of the minions had shown up above ground during the fight, which was expected since they were mostly banker and hacker types. I’d strongly suspected that Paradigm had a back door in her headquarters, though I hadn’t known where the exit was located and there hadn’t been time to locate it.
“I made him show me where the entrance was,” Chickenhawk continued, “but Jack Rabbit had found out they were escaping this way and sealed it off.”
“Too bad,” I mused. A back door could have been useful.
“We have to get Melissa away from him,” Chickenhawk snarled, clenching his fists. He didn’t need to add the fact that it wouldn’t be easy, not with Jack Rabbit’s power boost. “There’s a hero team in Milwaukee…”
“You want to call in reinforcements,” I mused. “Not a bad idea, but we have a limited window of opportunity…” I grimaced as I pointed out, “The longer Melissa is under his control, the harder it will be to break her away. She’s still fighting for now, but if she gives in…”
“Then I’m getting her away from him NOW,” Chickenhawk exclaimed. “I’m not leaving her with him for a minute longer than I have to.”
I nodded at that. “What about Paradigm?” Not only did she know Jack Ass, but she also knew what her own gems were capable of better than anyone.
“I saw Jack haul her into one of the other buildings,” Chickenhawk told me. “I think he’s giving her the same treatment he gave you.”
“Then we should probably have a friendly chat with her,” I told Chickenhawk. “She may not have her powers anymore, but she may know how to work around them.”
The food that Chickenhawk had brought me had helped a great deal, but what I really needed now was rest and a chance to finish my healing in peace. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. As I’d told Chickenhawk, we had a limited window of opportunity and we needed to take advantage of it before it closed, whether I was in top shape or not.
“Let’s go,” I told him.
Now that Chickenhawk and I had a next move in mind, I would have just had him stay here out of sight while I quietly snooped around the other buildings to see if I could find Paradigm. However, Chickenhawk had already used up what patience he possessed and walked right out the door and into the open, not seeming to care if he was seen. I had little choice but to follow him, thankful that the compound seemed to be empty at the moment. Though it was night and everything outside the compound fence was dark, the compound itself was actually well lit. It seemed that everyone had gone downstairs for the night, including Jack Ass.
There were three buildings remaining, one of which was obviously used as some kind of garage. “Jinkies,” I said as I looked around. “Let’s split up and look for clues…”
“No need,” Chickenhawk responded. “I saw Jack Rabbit carry Paradigm to that building.”
We went into the building Chickenhawk indicated, and I saw that it was used mostly for storage. A single look around revealed numerous shelves full of food and supplies, probably things that could be grabbed and loaded into vehicles at the last minute, without having to go back down into the bunker. However, right in the middle of the floor was Paradigm, who was tied up in a similar manner to how I’d been.
“You,” Paradigm snarled as she looked up at me. “You set me up…”
“No,” I responded with a shake of my head. “My offer was completely sincere. Unfortunately, your kidnap victim didn’t get the memo in time and took an opportunity for a little revenge.”
Chickenhawk stood back, his expression grim and not giving much away. However, I was pretty sure that he was proud of Melissa for taking down a villain like Paradigm, even if her timing could have been much better. He watched the still bound Paradigm, making no move to free her, obviously remembering that she was the one we’d originally come here to stop.
“Little Bunny Foo Foo is still making a nuisance of himself,” I said as I bent down and began to free Paradigm. “And while you may not have the firepower you did before, you still know him and his abilities better than we do.”
“Oh, I know him all right,” Paradigm said with a sneer. “I can’t believe I ever dated that egomaniac.”
Just then, the door opened up again and Melissa stepped inside. She froze, looking the three of us over with an expression of surprise.
“Melissa,” Chickenhawk exclaimed in delight. However, there was no matching look on her face.
“JACK!” Melissa yelled, right before she turned and ran. Chickenhawk grabbed her arm, but she turned intangible and pulled free, screaming out, “They’re escaping…”
Chickenhawk ran out the door after Melissa and I let out a muttered profanity. I glanced to Paradigm, who was halfway freed. I’d gotten the chains off her and enough of the duct tape away that she could use her hands. After only a moment of hesitation, I left her to finish freeing herself while I turned and ran out the door as well.
Jack Ass was standing out in the middle of the compound, having just come out of the structure that contained the elevator. He and Chickenhawk were staring at each other, facing each other down almost like a pair of gunfighters in the Old West. Melissa was by Jack’s side, which pissed me off and obviously pissed Chickenhawk off even more.
“How dare you betray a fellow hero,” Jack Ass snarled. “How could you side with these villains? Have they seduced you with their evil?”
I just rolled my eyes and was about to make a smart-ass comment, when Chickenhawk exclaimed, “Enough with your nonsense. Release my daughter from your control. NOW!”
“Your daughter?” Jack asked with a snort. “Unlikely.” He put a possessive arm around Melissa’s shoulder. “I found Mouse Girl living homeless on the streets…prey for evil monsters who would have done unspeakable things… You can lie all you won’t, but I won’t let you steal my sidekick.”
“Go away,” Melissa yelled at her dad. “I’m Jack Rabbit’s sidekick. He’s the greatest hero in the world.” However, in spite of her words, there seemed a certain lack of enthusiasm that gave me hope.
“Melissa,” Chickenhawk called out to his daughter. “Remember who you are… You can fight this…”
Melissa hesitated a moment, and I could see the resistance pass over her face. Unfortunately, Jack Ass noticed it as well because he immediately fired a concussion blast right at Chickenhawk. Chickenhawk was hit by the blast and thrown back, but he quickly scrambled back to his feet. He’d been far enough away from Jack Ass that a lot of the energy in the blast had already dissipated by the time it reached Chickenhawk, and his armor seemed to have protected him from the rest.
“You MONSTER,” Chickenhawk exclaimed, flying up into the air and then throwing one of his balls of warped gravity at Jack Ass. However, Jack Ass teleported out of the way, reappearing up in the air behind Chickenhawk. As he unleashed another concussion blast, Chickenhawk let himself drop like a rock, avoiding the blast entirely and catching himself in the air again just before hitting the ground.
“You can’t beat me,” Jack Ass announced, his voice filled with arrogance. “I am the greatest hero in the world, and I’m damn well going to prove it…”
Normally, a fight between two heroes would have been good cause to sit back with a bowl of popcorn, but this time it was deadly serious and I was cheering for Chickenhawk one hundred percent. However, while they were going at it, Melissa decided to get in on the act and suddenly teleported behind me. I barely saw her from the corner of my eye, but it was enough for me to begin moving, avoiding her punch…not that it would have done much. After all, she was just a kid.
“Come on, Melissa,” I said, jumping back and out of her way again. I flashed her a broad grin and teased, “I thought you didn’t want to be a hero… You know, they’re all boring and stuff.” I jumped back again. “They don’t get to have any fun.”
“I’m Mouse Girl,” she said, teleporting again and trying to hit me from behind.
“You don’t look like you’re having fun to me,” I pointed out, hoping that I could get through to her. Then I jumped back, did a back flip, and then when I landed, I did a bow and grinned. “Ta da… Now me, I’m having fun.”
Melissa paused and watched me, her eyes going wide as I did another back flip and grinned at her. Then she started to grin back. “Imp,” she started, though a dazed expression quickly returned. “I’m Mouse Girl… I have to help Jack Rabbit… He’s counting on me…”
“Your dad is counting on you,” I reminded her. Unfortunately, even though I could get through to her briefly, it wasn’t doing much good. That power gem had too much of a grip on her mind.
Melissa kept coming after me, but even though she could teleport and get behind me, she wasn’t really much of a threat. I was just hesitant to fight back because I didn’t want to hurt the kid. It wasn’t her fault.
I looked over to where Jack Rabbit and Chickenhawk were fighting, and though Chickenhawk was going all out, I was pretty sure that Jack Rabbit was holding back. I was pretty sure he wanted to stretch the fight out and toy with Chickenhawk a bit more. I could appreciate wanting to get into a hero’s head and mess with them, but in this case, I wanted Chickenhawk to win.
Chickenhawk landed on the ground, then grabbed a large chunk of machinery of some kind and threw it at Jack Rabbit, who was floating in the air. Jack teleported out of the way, landed on the ground, then jumped at Chickenhawk, clearly intending to hit him with a rabbit punch. Chickenhawk flew up, so Jack grabbed his foot instead, using that to slam my partner onto the ground. Jack had a smug grin on his face as he went to kick Chickenhawk, and I REALLY wanted to wipe that grin away.
“I’ve had all I can stands and I can’t stands no more,” I exclaimed, right before I threw several of my throwing spikes at Jack.
Thanks to his upgrade, Jack was stronger, tougher, and faster than before. He snapped around, his reflexes now being fast enough to dodge most of the spikes…but not all of them. One of my spikes hit him in the shoulder, though it barely went in at all before bouncing off.
“That stings,” Jack Rabbit snarled, looking pissed off but not seriously hurt. Jack fired a concussion blast at me, but I used some of the juice from my aura to give me a small boost as I jumped to the side and out of the way.
“Oompa loompa doompadee doo,” I sang as I ran, knowing that Jack was far too powerful for me to fight head on, so I’d just have to resort to my usual tactic of annoying the hell out of him. “I’ve got another riddle for you…”
“Are you insane?” Jack demanded.
I just grinned, making a show of looking rather cocky as I continued singing, “What do you do when your mask is on too tight…? When your brain is small and you’re not very bright…?”
Jack snarled and fired another concussion blast at me, and I dove and avoided this one as well. However, as I hit the ground and began to spring back to my feet, Melissa suddenly appeared beside me and kicked me in the face. I sprawled backward, having lost my balance as well as having gained a split lip.
“Move, Mouse Girl,” Jack yelled and Melissa immediately vanished again.
I quickly scrambled back to my feet, seeing that I was in a race against Jack who was about to blast me again. Suddenly, Chickenhawk slammed into me from the side, tackling me and knocking me out of the way a moment before another concussion blast hit.
“DADDY!,” Melissa cried out, running to her dad, who’d taken the brunt of that blast and was now spread out on the ground.
“Melissa,” Chickenhawk gasped, obviously in a bit of pain. He stared at his daughter, a smile forming as he realized that for the moment at least, she was back to herself. However, even as I watched, her expression threatened to glaze over again, though she was fighting it back. I had no idea how long she could continue to fight against the power of the gem.
“Are you okay?” I asked Chickenhawk, who was slowly sitting back up.
Jack Ass just stood back, looking annoyed. “Mouse Girl,” he snapped. “What are you doing? Get back over here…” He must have used the gem to emphasize his command, because Melissa immediately snapped back under his control and teleported back to his side.
“Imp,” Chickenhawk said, looking to me. His expression was almost pleading for me to do something.
“Don’t worry,” I told Chickenhawk. “I’m the best there is at what I do, and what I do isn’t very nice.” Then I gave him an evil grin as I added, “But it can be damn fun…”
I blew Jack Ass a raspberry, then ran, scrambling up the wall of one of the buildings, pausing at the top to flip him off with both fingers. He snarled and fired a concussion blast at me while I just grinned, thinking about the fact that he had all sorts of nifty new powers, but he was barely using them. After all, he could teleport right to me, use telekinesis, or even mind control me. Instead, he kept blasting at me with an almost single-minded determination. I could take advantage of that.
“Little Bunny Foo Foo, hopping through the forest,” I sang, taunting the ‘hero’ since that would keep him too distracted to think about all the options he now had available to him. “You know, Foo Foo, you are the worst superhero I’ve ever seen. And let me tell you, I’ve seen a lot of them…”
Jack Ass snarled, then threatened, “You won’t be laughing once I get my hands on you…”
“You know that wide screen TV in your apartment,” I called out, intentionally reminding him of that encounter and how his apartment had been destroyed because of it. “That looked expensive…”
That seemed to do the trick because Jack Ass launched himself at me with a powerful leap, so caught up in the moment that he was reacting out of habit, forgetting that he had more options than that now. I dove to the side, barely avoiding one of his rabbit punches, then jumped back to the ground while he came charging after me. However, he wasn’t quite as distracted as I’d hoped because he suddenly teleported, appearing right in front of me, and right in the middle of throwing one of the rabbit punches.
I immediately focused every bit of energy in my aura to one spot, creating a dinner plate sized PK shield which he slammed his fist into. The shield absorbed most of the energy from the rabbit punch, though I was still thrown back and landed on my fanny. It was just too bad my little shields were too small to do any good against a concussion blast.
“Imp,” Melissa cried out, breaking free again. “Leave her alone…”
Melissa ran towards us and tried to get in between Jack Ass and me, but he casually slapped her away, sending her flying. “I’ll deal with your insubordination later, Mouse Girl…”
I snarled at that, and hissed, “That’s it. No more miss nice Imp.”
“Face me,” Chickenhawk demanded.
Jack Ass was pissed off and coming at me like a raging bull, so he completely ignored Chickenhawk and charged. I focused all the energy from my aura into one spot, then at the very last moment, I suddenly dropped down and snapped my tail around. The PK blade I’d formed around the tip of my tail sliced right through Jack’s leg, right above the ankle. He screamed as his foot was severed, then he fell forward, landing on his face. I smoothly slipped around, then held up my prize, Jack’s belt...which my deft fingers had snatched right off him.
“YOU are the weakest link,” I said with an evil grin. “Goodbye.”
Jack was on the ground, screaming as he clutched the bleeding stump where his foot had been. With the health gem and the amplifier, he’d probably be able to heal from that in no time at all. Too bad for him all his power gems had been hidden in his belt.
I grinned evilly as I pulled the gems from the slots on the inside of the belt, feeling smug as I found them. When Jack had revealed that Paradigm had been keeping her gems in her belt, I’d suspected that he kept his in the same place. It looked like I was right.
When Bob had given me the files on Paradigm and Jack Ass, he’d provided a brief description of each gem, or at least of the color of each gem. From what Bob had said, the violet colored power gem was the one with the mind control powers. That was the one I was after.
“Melissa,” I said, willing the gem to work. “You are completely free of the gem’s power and any commands you were given.”
The ‘Mouse Girl’ expression immediately faded from Melissa’s face, and she yelled, “IMP,” right before throwing herself at me, running into me hard enough that I dropped the belt and gems. She hugged me tight and blurted out, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…”
“Glad to help, kiddo,” I responded with a sincere grin, hugging her back and thinking that this made everything I’d gone through worth it.
“What about me?” Chickenhawk asked with an amused smile.
Melissa’s eyes went wide and she exclaimed, “Dad,” as she ran over and grabbed him in a hug. “I was so scared…”
I watched father and daughter hugging for a moment, then turned my attention to Jack Ass. My eyes went to his severed foot, and I couldn’t help but wondering if Bob would be interested in a rabbit foot keychain as a souvenir. After all, rabbit feet are supposed to be lucky.
“I can’t believe that you and Imp are both here,” Melissa exclaimed to her dad, still hugging him tightly.
That drew my attention back to them, and I suddenly found myself wishing that I could join them. I was a little startled by this feeling, and the realization that after everything we’d been through together, I just wanted to hold Chickenhawk and give him a kiss.
“What the hell am I thinking?” I asked myself, a bit shaken by the turn of my thoughts and emotions. “That’s Chickenhawk…”
Of course, I this wasn’t the first time I’d had these thoughts and feelings about Chickenhawk. I’d gotten all excited with him last night, though this morning, I’d convinced myself that it had been a one-time thing, or at least I’d tried to.
“No,” I gasped in horror. “No way…” There was no way I was falling for Chickenhawk. Not CHICKENHAWK.
My heart was racing, and even as I was shocked by the idea, just watching him made me want to run over and give him a celebratory kiss…and maybe more. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, I couldn’t deny that I definitely felt something for him…something that both excited and scared me at the same time.
Chickenhawk was the guy who’d been chasing me for years, being a self-righteous pain in my tail and trying to put me in jail. I couldn’t be feeling this way about him. But he was also the guy who’d complimented me on my paintings, who had a sense of humor that kept peeking out when I didn’t expect it, and who’d given me kind words when I needed them.
And of course, Chickenhawk had come for me. When I’d been tied up and helpless, trapped in the cliché role of damsel in distress…he’d come to rescue me. Chickenhawk had come for me. He was the first hero…the only hero to have ever come to save me.
“He only came for me because he needed me,” I whispered to myself, remembering that we’d tried to free Paradigm as well.
He’d come for me for the same reason we’d gone for her…because he needed my help to save Melissa. I felt hurt at that realization and betrayed, though I knew it was stupid to feel that way. After all, I’d never expected a hero to come save me before…at least not since I was a kid.
For a moment, I just stood there, staring at Chickenhawk and Melissa with tears starting to form in my eyes. No matter how much I wanted to deny it, I couldn’t. I was falling for Chickenhawk. Intellectually, I knew that I shouldn’t…that it was one of the worst things I could possibly do. But my heart didn’t seem to care.
“He’s a hero,” I reminded myself, but my heart simply responded, “I don’t care.”
There was no way I could have a relationship with Chickenhawk. None. I was a criminal…he was a hero. I stole paintings…he put people like me in jail. And even if I was attracted to him…and maybe even more…there was no way he could feel that way about me. None. The world didn’t work that way and I wasn’t that lucky. As I stood there, I felt my heart starting to break.
Just then, I noticed something from the corner of my eye and snapped around, only to see Paradigm bending down and grabbing at the belt and spilled power gems. She spared a quick smirk for Jack Ass, then she gave me a faint nod before she suddenly vanished. She’d just escaped with all the power gems…all except the one I still had in my hand…and I didn’t care.
“She has a good idea,” I whispered, my voice catching.
I looked at Melissa and Chickenhawk again, feeling delight and pain at the same time. I wanted to be with them more than I should, and I felt like an idiot for feeling that way. I didn’t belong with them and I knew it. I fought back against the tears that were trying to come out. I’d learned a long time ago that tears didn’t do any good.
“Time to take this show on the road,” I told myself, smiling even though that was the last thing I felt like doing. “Exit, stage left.”
And with that, I turned and slipped away, not even bothering with the kind of flashy exit I normally took such pride in. Right now, I just wanted to get as far away from Chickenhawk as I could.
After everything that had happened between us, everything he’d learned about me, I didn’t know what I’d do the next time we faced each other as enemies. In fact, I couldn’t imagine going back to that kind of relationship, not after this. The thought of it made the tears start flowing.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” I demanded of myself as I hurried away.
I’d just saved Melissa and got to take down a particularly obnoxious hero in the process. I should be happy. I should be celebrating. However, celebrating was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead, I just wanted to go home, climb into my tub for a long hot bath, and then get completely plastered…not necessarily in that order.
“Imp,” Melissa called out from a distance behind me. I paused to glance back and saw her looking all over, though she couldn’t see me, not when I was using my aura and being careful about not being seen. “Where’s Imp…?”
“I think she decided it was time to leave,” Chickenhawk told his daughter as he put a gentle hand on her shoulder. Then he called out, “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
I smiled faintly at that, momentarily tempted to reveal myself and go running back to them, though I restrained myself. “I’m done,” I said with a sigh, realizing that somewhere along the way, I’d lost a step and had gotten sloppy. I’d let the whole business get too personal and now I was hurting because of it. “I’m done with everything.”
Then on a sudden impulse, I blew Chickenhawk and Melissa a raspberry, even though neither of them could see it. I remained where I was for several more seconds, then said a silent goodbye before I turned and continued on my way.
New York, Saturday evening, June 30th, 2007
I stood in the middle of an art gallery, surrounded by beautiful paintings as well as well as a few mediocre ones. This was my art gallery, not in the sense that I owned it, but because this was the gallery that permanently hosted some of my own paintings, and it was where I usually introduced my new pieces.
Tonight, the gallery was hosting a party, as they did about every other week. Sometimes the parties were hosted in honor of a specific artist or player in the art scene, but tonight, it was a more general purpose party. Many of the artists who were signed with the gallery had been invited to bring a new piece or two, to unveil for the many other guests. I myself had brought two new pieces, which I was quite proud of.
People surrounded me on all sides, though few paid me any real attention, or at least not any more than they would an attractive woman and artist. I was currently wearing a slinky black dress and stiletto heels, as well as my favorite accessory…a magic amulet which used some kind of illusion to hide my tail, horns, and other unusual features. As far as everyone here was concerned, I was a perfectly normal baseline.
“If they only knew,” I quietly mused to myself.
I had no doubt that if most of the people here saw what I really looked like, they’d freak out at the sight of me. And if they knew who I really was, none of them would be quite so friendly. After all, professional art thieves weren’t usually very popular, no matter how fabulous. The irony with that was that I’d already counted three of my previous clients in this room, and they’d be just as quick to condemn me as everyone else, even though they were more than happy to actually use my services.
But in spite of the fact that I was in the middle of a party, surrounded by beautiful art, and had a glass of a good quality merlot in my hand, I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I’d come to the party and had thrown myself into the role of Candice Kade, largely to try taking my mind off the events of two weeks ago, but it wasn’t really doing much good.
I smiled faintly as I thought of Jack Ass, who’d not only lost all of his power gems, but his foot as well. Bob had laughed his ass off when I’d told him about that, and he’d even declared that he owed me a favor for doing the deed. Unfortunately, Chickenhawk had turned Jack Ass over to the authorities, which was far better than he deserved. However, since Melissa was his daughter, I let him make the decision, though I reserved the right to go after Jack Ass in the future should the law be too lenient.
Paradigm was the other major player who’d gotten off lightly. Sure, she’d lost her headquarters, and all of her henchman had gone running at the first sign of violence, but she herself had not only escaped with all of her power gems, she’d also acquired two of Jack’s gems as well. Now she had all the gems in the set, except for one…the mind control gem.
Somehow, I’d come out of that with the mind control gem in my possession, though I had no intention of actually using the thing. I was a professional thief, and though I felt no guilt at all for relieving people of their possessions, stealing someone’s free will was something I wouldn’t do. That was a line I wouldn’t cross, no matter how much easier it would make my work. Because of that, I’d hidden the gem away in a safe spot, along with a few other items I didn’t want anyone else to find.
Of course, the real topic that I was trying hard to avoid thinking about was Chickenhawk. When I’d surrendered my secrets to him in order to earn his trust, I’d known that I’d pay for it. However, I’d just thought that I’d be giving him a massive advantage over me the next time we fought…and that he’d probably share the information with the other heroes, making it much more difficult for me to continue as I had been. But unfortunately, the price I was paying now was even greater than I’d expected.
Whenever I thought of Chickenhawk…of Ben…it was with a mixture of giddiness and pain. I couldn’t believe that I’d gone and fallen for a superhero, and with Chickenhawk at that. Out of everyone I could been interested in, he was one of the worst possible choices. There was no way a relationship between us could possibly work, and I was an idiot for letting myself get into this position in the first place. I was a professional thief…a supervillain…not some hormonal teenage girl.
I’d heard from one of my contacts that Chickenhawk had been looking for me, though there wasn’t any chance of him actually finding me. I hadn’t taken any jobs during the last two weeks, had avoided the haunts he knew of, and I hadn’t even gone out in my working duds. And even though I was tempted to go out to some rooftop and taunt him when he flew past, I avoided doing that as well.
And then there was Melissa. I hadn’t seen her since the fight at Paradigm’s compound, nor had I gone to our normal meeting spot or checked our hidden drop box. I liked the kid and missed talking with her. And though I wanted to see her again, it was better for everyone if I didn’t. After all, she’d only gotten involved with Jack Ass and Paradigm because of me, though admittedly, that wasn’t my only reason. I just wished I didn’t feel like I was abandoning her.
Just then, a voice beside me said, “Candice?”
I nearly jumped in surprise. “David,” I said, greeting David Herman, the gallery manager.
“You looked a little distracted,” David told me almost apologetically.
“Sorry,” I responded with a faint smile. “I’ve just had a lot on my mind lately.”
“I can understand that,” David said, giving me a gentle smile of his own. Then he gestured to skinny young man with long blond hair, asking, “Have you met Apollo Claive… He’s one of our other artists…”
Before I could really answer, David grabbed Apollo and introduced us. I had a feeling that David was trying to play matchmaker, which both amused and annoyed me at the same time.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Apollo told me with a smug look. “Have you seen my new painting?”
“It’s very nice,” I lied.
Apollo’s new painting looked like some kid randomly splattered paint across the canvas in a style reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. I’d never been a fan of abstract art, especially not in this style. It seemed lazy and sloppy to me, which was what I’d expect from Apollo. He was one of those pretentious twits who lacked any real artistic talent but made up for it with a lot of self-aggrandizing bullshit.
I was trapped for several minutes as Apollo filled my ears with talk about his brilliance. I stuck around long enough to be polite, then took advantage of a small distraction to slip away from him.
I made my way back to the area where my own paintings where hung, then made a little small-talk with a few people who came over to check them out and meet the artist. Some of these people were fellow artists who’d been invited to the party the same as Apollo and myself, while others were potential buyers.
Then I noticed a woman who was standing a short distance away and who’d been there for several minutes. She looked to be in her thirties, with blonde hair that was pulled back into a bun. She was wearing a pair of glasses and was dressed in a professional manner that didn’t quite fit with the way most of the other guests were dressed. What really caught my attention about her was the way she was looking straight at me.
The blonde woman realized that I’d noticed her because she walked over to me. “You’re Candice Kade,” she said, gesturing to my paintings. “I have to say, those are some interesting pieces.”
“Thank you,” I responded with a smile. However, there was something about this woman’s body language that made me a little wary, though I wasn’t sure why. Then it dawned on me what it was. She held herself with a confidence that I very rarely saw.
“I’m Elizabeth Carson,” she introduced herself, pausing as if expecting that I might recognize the name. That made me look her over again, and though there was something about her that seemed vaguely familiar, I couldn’t place what it was. That set my Imp senses to tingling.
“Nice to meet you,” I said politely. From the way she was dressed, I didn’t think she was one of the artists or one of the people who just came to socialize and enjoy the art scene. She came off a bit too businesslike for that. “Are you here as a buyer?”
Carson smiled very faintly before responding, “Actually, I came to meet you.”
“Me?” I asked in surprise. Then I grinned, swishing my tail back and forth a bit as I decided that she had to be a buyer of some sort. Maybe she was interested in commissioning me for something specific, which could be both profitable and interesting. Most of my commissions to this date had been for forgeries, so this definitely tickled my curiosity.
“There’s something I need to discuss with you,” Carson continued, giving me an odd look, “though this isn’t the place to do so.”
Carson had definitely stirred my curiosity with that, and I was about to ask her for more information when I suddenly noticed a familiar face standing nearby. I looked over at Ryan Chambers, who was carefully examining one of my new paintings, much to my delight and curiosity. I wanted to know what he thought about my latest works. Ryan was a professional buyer, who people would hire to find just the right art pieces for their homes and offices. We’d talked about art on several occasions, and he’d previously bought several of my pieces for his clients.
“We can continue this conversation later,” Carson told me, giving me a faint nod and then turning to leave. “Perhaps when the party is over.”
I nodded at that, then went over and said, “Ryan…”
“Candice,” Ryan responded with a smile. “These are some interesting new pieces.” He gestured to the one I’d just finished last week. “This one is quite beautiful. I can easily see it on the wall of my own office…”
“Thank you,” I responded with a grin. My tail swished back and forth with my pleasure from the compliment, though no one could actually see it.
“And this one,” he nodded to the second new painting I’d brought. It was the painting I’d done of a battle between a superhero and a supervillain, and which I’d had hanging on my own living room wall for awhile. “This kind of fight scene is a little different than your usual works, but I can almost feel the fight… And as always, you’ve added a touch of whimsy. Very well done.”
“Thank you again,” I repeated with an even broader grin, delighted by the praise. I’d always been a sucker for a sincere compliment on my paintings.
I stared at Ryan for a moment, feeling very aware of his height and athletic build. He was definitely good looking too, and I felt an impulse to run my fingers through his blonde hair. I smiled faintly at that thought, pleased to find that I could still be interested in people besides Chickenhawk…especially in someone who wasn’t a hero.
Unfortunately, I knew that I couldn’t have any real relationship with Ryan either. As much as I’d love to romance him and let him take me to bed, that kind of thing wouldn’t work out very well. For one thing, even with the help of my magic amulet, I couldn’t get intimate with someone without them noticing my horns, tail, and scales. Covering my features with illusion didn’t do much good when the other person could feel them, and I seriously doubted that Ryan would be able to handle all of me. I was just too much woman for most men. And that wasn’t even going into the matter of what I did for a living.
I was so caught up in my thoughts that it took me a moment to realize that Ryan was talking again. He was smiling at me as he said, “David told me that you’ve got a distribution deal. Congratulations.”
I nodded my head at that, blushing a bit at where my thoughts had been going a few seconds earlier. “Yes,” I replied with a faint smile. “A national distributor is going to start selling some of my prints.” I was actually quite pleased at that, and not because of the money this deal would earn me, but by the greater exposure my work would be getting. The money was just a nice little bonus.
Just then, a familiar voice called out, “There you are…” I snapped around and was shocked to see a very recognizable blonde girl coming straight for me. It was Melissa. “I was looking all over for you…”
“What?” I blurted out in surprise and confusion, wondering how she could have possibly tracked me down in my Candice identity. But to my further surprise, she completely ignored me and stopped in front of Ryan.
“I told you I’d be looking around,” Ryan told her with an amused expression. Then he turned to me and said, “I’d like you to meet my daughter, Melissa…”
“Daughter…?” I gasped.
For a brief moment, my mind refused to make the connection, and once it did…it struck me like a physical blow. I stared at Melissa, then at her father. Ryan Chambers was Ben…was Chickenhawk. My heart jumped up into my throat, and for one of the few times in my life, I was overwhelmed and completely speechless.
As my mind began to move again, I thought of all the times I’d run into Chickenhawk, all the times he’d tried to catch me. On many of those occasions, he’d been waiting for me at an art museum, or where a private collector was hosting a show for their collection. For years, I’d suspected that Chickenhawk was somehow connected to the art scene, though I’d always thought he would have been an insurance investigator or something of the sort.
“This is Candice,” Ryan said as he introduced me to Melissa.
Melissa’s eyes went wide and she blurted out, “You’re Candice Kade?”
“Yes,” I responded with a weak smile. My eyes darted nervously to Ryan while my heart raced in my chest.
“I love your paintings,” Melissa exclaimed, nearly bouncing with enthusiasm. That was enough to make me chuckle a little, though it did little to defuse the situation. “We have one of your paintings at home, and it’s really cool to look at, and I love the way you always hide stuff in your paintings, and…”
“Candice has a couple new ones,” Ryan said, cutting Melissa off before she could ramble anymore.
“Really?” Melissa asked, eagerly turning to look at my new pictures. She stared at both of them for a moment, then complained, “But I’ve already seen both of these ones…”
I looked at my paintings, feeling the knot in my stomach tighten even further. Melissa was right. She had seen both of these paintings…back when she’d been visiting my condo.
“You couldn’t have seen these ones,” Ryan gently told her. “They’re brand new. Candice is showing them here for the first time…”
Melissa gave me a slightly confused look, then her eyes suddenly went wide in realization. “Oh my God,” she blurted out. “You’re…” Then she clamped her hands over her mouth, though she continued staring at me with a look of stunned amazement.
“What?” I joked weakly. “Are my horns showing?” Ryan chuckled, completely missing the joke, while Melissa nearly choked. Her eyes darted to her dad she watched for his reaction.
I just stood there for a moment, frozen in place and feeling like I was on the verge of panic. For two weeks, I’d gone out of my way to avoid Chickenhawk, and I’d even thrown myself into my Candice identity as a way to hide and distract myself. But now, Chickenhawk had not only found me here…he’d already been here waiting for me…right under my nose. Then I almost burst out laughing as I realized that the guy I’d been thinking of having a brief fling with, was the very same guy I was trying to distract myself from.
Ryan didn’t know who I was yet, but it was only a matter of time. Melissa knew, and though she was keeping quiet so far, I didn’t expect that to last for long.
“I…there’s something I need to take care of,” I told Ryan, feeling almost desperate to get away. “I’ll see you later…”
With that, I gave Melissa a wink and then hurried away. It only took me a minute to slip through the crowd, avoiding those people who wanted to talk to me until I reached the exit. Yet again, the brilliant and fabulous Imp had made a daring escape from Chickenhawk.
New York, Saturday evening, June 30th, 2007
One of the great joys of life, as well as one of the best cures for stress, was a long, hot, soapy bath, enjoyed with a nice glass of wine. Unfortunately, this time, it just wasn’t enough. When I got out of the tub and slipped into my bathrobe, I decided that I needed something a lot stronger than wine. Unfortunately, alcohol didn’t have much of an effect on me, but that wasn’t really the point.
I sat down in my recliner with a glass of scotch, thinking about how I’d run away from Ryan a couple hours ago. I felt like an idiot for overreacting and panicking like that. I was a professional, so I damn well should have acted like it. I should have stayed, made some small-talk, then calmly slipped away once I had a distraction.
Now that I thought about it, I realized that this thing with Chickenhawk was merely a symptom of the real problem, one that had slowly been building over the last year or two. I’d been feeling a growing sense of dissatisfaction with my life. As hard as it was to believe, I…the brilliant, talented, and fabulous Imp…was having a midlife crisis.
My regeneration was strong enough that it actually slowed down my aging process, so that ever since I manifested, I’ve only aged at about half the normal rate. Physically, I was an extremely fit and healthy thirty-years old, though chronologically, I was actually forty-five. I’d been in this business for thirty years, and I was becoming tired of it.
“I’ve gotten sloppy,” I said with a sigh.
Ever since I’d come out of my sabbatical, I’d been making mistakes. I kept lowering my guard and getting careless, and that had resulted in my getting into fights I could have avoided and in being injured. If it wasn’t for my regeneration, I probably would have died half a dozen times in the last few months.
I took a sip of my scotch and considered what I was going to do about this, and what I was going to do about Ryan. Whether I liked it or not, I’d fallen for a superhero, and my heart was going somewhere that it had only gone one time before. I shuddered as I remembered how well that had turned out. I couldn’t go through that again. No, even if I was drawn to Chickenhawk…to Ryan…there was no future there.
Just then, I heard a knocking, though it wasn’t coming from my front door. It was coming from my patio door instead, which was a surprise since I was on the seventeenth floor and the only way for someone to reach my patio would have been to climb the wall or fly.
“Chickenhawk,” I whispered.
I felt a strange mixture of excitement, fear, and resignation as I realized who had to be knocking. Melissa must have told him who I was, and somehow, he’d found where I lived. But when I went to my patio door, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t Chickenhawk, Ben, or even Ryan who was standing out there. It was the blonde woman I’d met at the gallery, Elizabeth Carson.
When I’d met Carson at the gallery, I’d thought she looked vaguely familiar, though I hadn’t been able to place where I might have seen her before. But now that I had a context, I knew exactly where I’d seen her face before.
“Astarte,” I said as I opened the patio door and greeted her. I didn’t even call her Ass Tart, which was the nickname I’d given her the last time we’d met. I stepped aside and let her in, knowing that it would be pointless to try locking out Lady Astarte. “I hope you’ll forgive the lack of witty banter. I’ve had a tiring day and just don’t have the energy for it. Perhaps you’ll accept a rain check.”
As I let the visitor into my condo, I tried to act calm and nonchalant, but my mind was racing. I could escape out through my patio and climb down the building, but that would be pointless against someone who could fly. Or I could just do that long enough to let myself back into the building through someone else’s patio. There was also my front door, but if she’d come with backup, that would be my obvious exit and where they’d be set up to catch me. And then, I had a trap door cut into the floor of my bedroom, and from there, I could get into the crawl space between floors.
However, Lady Astarte hadn’t made any aggressive or hostile moves towards me yet, and that stirred my curiosity. The one other time we’d run into each other, it had been a short encounter with me taunting her, creating a distraction, and then running away. I couldn’t think of any reason that she’d hold a grudge from back then, or why she’d go through the effort of hunting me down now.
I looked Lady Astarte over again, noting that she was still in her professional business type attire, with glasses, rather than the costume I associated with the hero. “I don’t think that either of us is dressed appropriately at the moment.”
“I’m not here to fight you,” she said, giving me an even look. “I’m not even here as Lady Astarte. I’m here as Elizabeth Carson, the headmistress of Whateley Academy.” Then she paused, giving me a very faint smile before adding, “And as I said earlier, I wanted to have a talk with you once the party was over.”
I nodded faintly, then casually walked over to my liquor cabinet to refill my glass. “Would you like a glass of scotch?”
“No, thank you,” Lady Astarte…Carson responded, giving me a curious look. She was probably surprised that I could be polite and play the good host.
“Are you sure?” I asked her with a faint smile. “It’s a thirty year Glenfiddich that I liberated from Bruce Goodkind’s office.”
Carson actually gave a brief chuckle. “In that case, how can I say no?”
I poured us each a glass, then we went and sat down in my living room, facing each other across the coffee table. “I wasn’t expecting any visitors tonight,” I said, growing even more curious about why she’d come. After all, she’d obviously done her research because she knew about both of my identities as well as where I lived. Those were secrets I was usually very careful in protecting.
“Getting straight to the point,” Carson said, fixing me with her gaze. “I want to offer you a job.”
I stared back at her for a moment and then burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “Just a few weeks ago, I would have jumped on the chance to do a job for you, just for the irony of it if nothing else.” Then I shrugged and gave her a wry smile. “But I’m retired now. I don’t do that kind of thing anymore.”
Carson smiled ever so slightly, and she actually looked somewhat pleased by that answer. “May I ask why you decided to retire?”
Instead of answering immediately, I took a sip of my scotch. “I’ve been in the business a long time,” I finally said, not sure why I was telling her this. It wasn’t really any of her business. “I’ve decided that it’s time to try something else.”
Carson took a sip from her own drink, still watching me with a careful expression. “Then I assume you intend to focus exclusively on your budding art career.”
“Not really,” I answered with a shrug.
I’d already taken a year off from my normal work in order to focus on my art career, and while that had been immensely satisfying for my artistic side, it just hadn’t been enough for my impish nature. I craved excitement, or at least something that would keep me from getting bored, which was why I’d ended my sabbatical in the first place. Of course, things hadn’t worked out very well for me since then, but the issue still stood.
“I consider that more of a part-time thing,” I mused, giving Carson a wry smile. “Maybe I’ll become a security consultant or something… You know, help people find the weak spots in their security…” That kind of thing didn’t really appeal to me, but it an idea.
For a moment, Carson just stared at me, then she abruptly asked, “Have you ever considered a career in education?”
“Education?” I asked in confusion.
“I didn’t come here to hire a thief,” Carson told me. “I came here to see about hiring an art teacher for my school.”
I blinked at that, sure that I had to have heard wrong. “An art teacher? Me?” I gave her a curious look, wondering if she was going senile. After all, I’d heard that Lady Astarte had been around, using one name or another, since the forties.
“Whateley Academy is a school for mutants,” Carson explained patiently. “As such, we have unique requirements for our teaching staff, which can sometimes make it difficult to locate qualified teachers. I am in need of an art teacher, and I believe you would be well suited for the position.”
“Me?” I repeated. “A teacher? You’ve got to be kidding…” However, I could see from her expression that she was indeed serious.
“You were brought to my attention by one of my students,” Carson said, taking a sip of her drink. “Alicia Thacker. Miss Thacker told me about what you did for her, and she was quite enthusiastic about the painting lessons that you gave her. Along with being a superhero, I have also been an educator for many years, and I can tell you that for a teacher, being able to inspire passion and enthusiasm in your students is a priceless talent.”
“Alicia,” I mused, remembering the girl I’d saved from Hexagoner a couple months ago. She’d been a good kid, if a little odd, though I put that down more to her being Cajun than from being a mutant. Then I focused on the other thing that Carson had said. “I’m hardly qualified to be a teacher…”
“You have an art degree that you earned under an alias,” Carson pointed out calmly. I wasn’t too surprised that she knew about that degree, not after she’d found out my other secrets. Whoever she had doing the research was obviously very good. “And in spite of the illegalities involved with your career, you are considered to be something of an expert regarding paintings and art history.” Then she paused, smiling faintly as she added, “And then there’s your more recent secondary career as well.”
Before I could offer my next protest, Carson continued. “Nearly all of our students are mutants, and many of them have to deal with GSD or other challenges that their baseline peers can’t even imagine. I need…THEY need a teacher who won’t hesitate to accept them, who will remember that, in spite of their abilities and unusual appearances, they are still children who need to be taught.”
I took a sip of my scotch, feeling a little stunned as I considered that there was actually a school for mutants. “You have students with GSD?”
“Many of them,” Carson assured me. “And several of our faculty as well.”
For a moment, I just sat there, staring into my drink and trying to imagine a school full of mutants…a place where kids with unusual appearances could get an education…where they could actually be themselves and not have to hide what they looked like…and where they didn’t need to worry about being attacked by angry mobs. That kind of sanctuary sounded too good to be true, which made me wonder, just how different my life might have been if I’d had a place like to go to when I’d been that age.
“That’s very interesting,” I admitted before giving her a wry smile. “But you’re forgetting one small detail. I’m a professional thief. A supervillain.”
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten that,” Carson responded, giving me a flat look, which was a clear reminder that she was a superhero and that normally we’d be at odds. “As a superhero, my job is to stop people like you, but as the headmistress of Whateley Academy, my responsibility is to my students, and I believe you can be of great benefit to them.”
“Whateley Academy is strictly neutral,” Carson continued in a professional tone, which gave me the impression that this was a lecture she’d given many times before. “Our students include the children of both heroes and villains, so both sides have a vested interest in protecting the school and maintaining our neutrality.” She paused at that, giving me the impression that she was actually cutting the lecture short and leaving out a few details, probably so that she wouldn’t overwhelm me with them. Then, Carson smiled faintly and said, “Our staff includes both retired heroes and former villains. You would hardly be the first teacher we’ve had with a criminal background.”
I took a long drink of my scotch, then just sat there for a minute, feeling stunned by this unexpected job offer. The idea of me being a teacher was completely and utterly ludicrous. After all, who in their right mind would ever ask ME to teach kids? I was a supervillain…a professional thief. I looked like some kind of a devil and I had the reputation for being anything but mature and responsible.
But even as I laughed at the idea, I thought about the few times I actually had taken on the role of teacher, and how much I’d enjoyed it. I’d told Alicia about various painters and their styles, and then I’d shown her the basics of how to create her own paintings. And more recently, there was Melissa, and all the time I’d spent with her, teaching her how to pick locks. Teaching those girls had been a lot of fun, more than I would have imagined.
Then my thoughts turned back to the school, a place where kids with unusual features could actually walk around in the open. A place where I wouldn’t have to hide my devilish good looks. The idea of working in such a place was actually quite appealing, even if it would be a legitimate job. In fact, the more I thought about Carson’s offer, the more interesting I found it.
The life of a professional thief and supervillain was an exciting one, but even someone as brilliant, talented and modest as myself could eventually start to get bored with it. Maybe it was time to shake things up, to change my life and try something new. Maybe it was time to get away from familiar surroundings and people who caused my heart to ache. And if nothing else, there was no way that a school full of mutants could ever be boring.
I downed the rest of my scotch, then flashed Carson a grin. “When can I start?”