February 28, 2007
“Jadis, may I ask you a question?”
“Yes, Jay-Arm, you may, and the answer is: yes, that frock coat and lace jabot DO make you look like a total gaylord.”
Nephandus must really have been tied up in knots; he didn’t even give me his usual panicked denial. Hey, it’s his own fault; any boy with features that delicate and pretty has NO BUSINESS wearing his hair in a long braid. “You’ve sort of become friends with that drow-clone that Jobe and Belphegor whipped up between them, right?”
“Belphoebe? Well, yeah, sort of. She kinda hangs out with me and Misty. But hey, look at the alternative: staying in that room, with Momma Jobe trying to pound ‘the Gospel According to Gizmatic’ into her head. Why do you wanna know, Jay-Arm?”
Jay-Arm looked uncharacteristically uncertain. Usually Jay-Arm just charges in and lets the chips fall where they may. I mean, look at what happened with that ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ chick, right after Christmas break. “So… she’s a girl… but she’s really a boy inside her head? Where it really counts? She’s really… Belphegor?”
Okay, I could actually empathize with that. For all that we twit him about being a nancy-boy and let on that he’s gay, Jay-Arm regards chasing pretty girls as something between a sport and a religious devotion. He’s nowhere as good at it as, oh say, Romeo is, but Romeo takes his girlfriends seriously. But still, Jay-Arm is pretty damn straight for a guy who spends an hour every night taking care of his hair. And even if he weren’t, the image of Belphegor in a dress would put even the most diehard homosexual right off his feed. “Naaawwwtt really, Jay-Arm.” I spelled out how Belfuckup had ‘scanned’ his mind into the brain of the clone that we now called ‘Belphoebe’, and how superficial the imprint was. Just like the rest of him. “Anyway, Belfy’s had a few major personal identity breakthroughs since then. While she’s still a little glitchy here and there, I’d say that she’s pretty much her own person by now.”
Nephandus relaxed and brightened. “Oh! Well! That changes everything! So, Jadis, would you be a dear and do two people who were obviously-”
“Not a chance in Hell, nancy-boy.”
“Why not? The girl could do a lot worse!”
“Jay-Arm, even IF I were in the habit of pimping out my friends – which I’m not – I still wouldn’t hook Belfy up with YOU!”
“Why not? Am I not handsome? Am I not charming? Am I not dashing? Am I not-”
“Yes, you are not ALL those things!”
“You could be a little more helpful here, Jadis!”
“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?” I was just about to hit Jay-Arm with the inconvenient truth that Belphy was still wrapping her pretty little head around the fact that she was female, and dating a guy just might break her, when a shadow fell over our conversation. A very large shadow. Looking up, I saw a cow standing there.
Literally. A six-foot-plus humanoid bipedal cow with horns, hunched shoulders and a bovine face, though, thank god, she seemed to lack an udder. She must have been a student; she was wearing a Whateley uniform. “Yes? You want something?” I asked. Jay-Arm made his excuses and split. Well, I owe cow-girl something at least for that.
“I understand that you’re Jadis Diabolik,” she started, surprisingly eloquent for a throat that distorted. “I hear that you make deals.”
I relaxed. “You should work on your openings,” I told her. “Usually when someone points out who I am, they’re about to set off on a rant about how my father killed someone they know. Yes, I’ve been known to wheel and deal a little. Exactly what do you need? Oh, yes, and feel free to take a chair.”
“None of these will hold me,” she said with the tone of an expert. “I’ll stand. I need to talk to Jobe.”
Oh crap. “Ah, dear? I beg to differ. Believe me, the last thing that you need to do is talk to Jobe.”
“No, believe ME, I need to talk to Jobe.”
“Honey, I can tell that you have problems. But cutting a deal with Jobe will only make them worse!”
She blinked at me for a moment, seemed unsure – it was hard to tell through that face – and then she seemed to gain some resolve. “Have you ever heard of a condition called ‘Chimerical Trait Acquisition’?”
I thought for a second, and then admitted, “ah, No… that’s a new one on me.”
“Chimerical Trait Acquisition happens when for some reason, during the manifestation of a mutant trait, the mutant’s DNA somehow takes bits of the DNA of other animals into it, and spreads the corrupted DNA throughout the body.”
“Eeewww…” I couldn’t help it. “And let me guess, at the wrong time, you had steak for dinner?”
“I’m not sure exactly how the cattle DNA got into my system. No one is. But the point is, this isn’t just ugly, it’s potentially lethal. My body is trying to remake itself into another form, and I don’t have whatever it is that Shifters have that controls the change. My body will cripple itself trying to turn me into a cow. And that’s just the gross physical stuff; the corruption hasn’t gotten to my nervous system yet.”
“And when it does, there’s a chance that it will remake your brain into a cow’s,” I said following the sick logic. “How… Jeff Goldblum…”
“I have talked with the scientists here at Whateley. They admit that Jobe understands genetics in ways they can’t.”
“Honey, letting Jobe tinker with your DNA is a recipe for disaster. Jobe doesn’t really have what you’d call the ‘doctor instinct’. Her first instinct won’t be to cure you; it’ll be to see what she can learn from your condition, and what she can do with that.”
“That’s what the scientists told me. But I’m not interested in being an experiment. I’m more interested in one of Jobe’s tested and proven cures.”
“She has one?”
“I’m talking about the Drow formula.”
Whoa! “Ah, did you hear that there’s a roughly 80% chance that the process will turn you into a drooling vegetable or worse?”
“But Jobe used it on himself!”
“NO, she accidentally injected himself and managed to bungle her way into a successful transition. Look, ah-”
“Bova,” she offered.
“Look, Bova, Jobe is a lot of things, but one thing that she’s NOT is a responsible researcher. Even with something like the Drow complex, you’re playing Russian Roulette with four bullets in the cylinder when you put yourself in Jobe’s hands.”
“It’s better than playing Russian Roulette with SIX bullets in the cylinder. She-Beast, look at me. I’m not human. Even if the CTA doesn’t kill me, or turn me into a mindless animal, I’ll have to live my life like this. Jadis, I’m a telepath. I know what people think when they see me. If Jobe fails, at least it will be over.”
I paused and thought. “I’ll talk to Jobe, and see what I can arrange. I’ll also talk to the R&D guys, and try to cobble together some kind of safety net for you. But to be honest, if you’re gonna do this, I’m afraid that the old chestnut about ‘it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission’ applies in spades. And Carson will NOT be happy. Also, the GSD crowd will be in an uproar. Half of them will be after your hide for switching sides, and the other half will be twisting your arm to get you to do it to them too.”
“Leave Whitman to me. They’ll be annoying, but at least I’ll be alive to be annoyed.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Bova nodded and clopped away on feet with hooves. File that one under ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. I let out a long shuddering breath and pulled out my cell phone and hit the speed dial for Judicator, Whitman’s fixer. Judicator and I aren’t exactly buds, but we’ve done business, fixer to fixer. And I figured that if anyone had the straight line on this Bova chick, it would be her. Okay, the word is that Judicator’s part of that psycho ‘New Olympian’ crowd with Imperious and Majestic, but hey, who am *I* to cast asparagus?
I got Judicator on the third try. She knew Bova and confirmed what Bova had said about the Chimerical Trait Acquisition. She was worried about Bova doing ‘business’ with me, and warned me that Bova had a lot of friends in Whitman, who’d be very ticked off if she got shafted. Reading between the lines, I picked up that Bova was some sort of sweetheart, the kind that people got very defensive about. That could be very good, or very bad. If she took the Drow transformation complex, she’d sort of be compelled by social pressure into Jobe’s orbit. On one hand, Jobe really does need someone with social skills to handle that end, and if Bova’s the kind of ‘sweetheart’ who can get people to do things by being nice, this could be just what the doctor ordered. On the other hand, if she was a doormat who needed other people to protect her, well, that was just the very last thing that Jobe needed. I’d have to put out a few feelers, before I approached Jobe with Bova’s, ah, ‘application’.
I was picking Judicator’s brain, getting a better feel for Bova, when, of all people, Trevor Goodkind walked up. Trev, who goes by ‘Ayla’ these days, gave me the ‘we need to talk’ look. “Thanks, Liz, you’ve been a ton of help. Talk to you later, got someone on the other line.” I shut my cell and said, “Sorry, Trev. You know how it is; normally, nobody wants to talk to you, but then all of a sudden, they’re lining up to yap at you. What’s up?”
Trev did the thing where he grinned embarrassed and scratched the back of his head. “Actually, Jadis, I’m here because a friend wants to talk to you.” I raised my eyebrows and Trev looked back and quirked a beckoning finger. From one of the other tables, one of Trev’s ‘Team Kimba’ buddies (and who the HELL came up with that NAME?) came over, one Nikki Reilly to be exact, or ‘Fey’, or if rumor is to be believed, the current reigning queen of the Sidhe at Whateley.
“Well! Color me honored! And to what do I owe this honor?”
Fey gave me this ‘we are not amused’ look.
“I need to talk with you about something that could well turn out to be very important in the future.” The rumored Faerie Queen told me very matter-of-factly. Well at least I now knew she wasn’t one to beat around the bush much, anyway.
“Okay, so what is the nature of this ‘problem’ you went to the trouble of having Trev here wrangling you an introduction. Jadis Diabolik, by the way, nice to meet you…”
“Nikki Reilly.” She answered with a quirk of her mouth that suggested to me that she was a little embarrassed and more than a little impatient. “I apologize for my abruptness, but this thing really has me tied it knots.”
“What ‘thing’ would that be?” I questioned with a lift of my eyebrows. I know I was being deliberately obtuse, but tweaking this chick gave me a nice warm feeling. I was pretty sure that she was more used to people falling all over themselves to accommodate her, and I was damned if I was going to cave in and join that crowd. Even if her presence was both intimidating and extremely distracting. I’d heard that girl could make gay boys reconsider their sexual orientation and tempted more than a few straight gals, too. Now I knew up close and sweaty just how true that was. But no way was I going to let that little detail keep me from having my fun with the girl.
“Drow.” Nikki answered in a near whisper then shuddered in obvious revulsion. “I need to find a way to get rid of them, to do something about them that will insure that they don’t infest the entire world in time. Without killing them or taking an active hand in what happens to them.”
Drow. Sheesh. Twice in less than ten minutes I get slapped with the equivalent of a wet fish with that subject. “Umm. And just what exactly do you think I can do about that. I don’t have any control over Jobe, no one does, not even his er, her father when it comes down to her experiments and other processes.”
“It’s got to be stopped.” She wrapped a strand of fiery red hair around one finger and started pulling at it hard enough to look like she was trying to pull it out by the roots. “They shouldn’t exist at all and are a mockery of both bright and dark Sidhe. Aunghadhail is driving me nuts with her railing about that. I have to find some way to get rid of them, or at least to stop Jobe from making more of the creatures.”
Who’s Aung whatever?” I questioned and noticed Trev wince.
“My alter ego, I guess you could say.” Nikki sighed then shook her head setting up reactions in other parts of her anatomy that had the guys nearby not only drooling, but having near orgasms right where they were sitting. “The spirit that did this to me.”
She gestured at herself then moved her hands from her head to her feet with a frown. Now THAT got audible reactions from the nearby watchers, and she spared a few of the noisier ones a glare that would have frozen a volcano in mid eruption. “She really, really hates these Drow.”
“I see.” I didn’t quite, but had a glimmering of the idea. “What exactly, is this spirit telling you?”
“You really don’t want to know.” The redhead answered with a little shrug and a frown. “Trust me on that one.”
“I’ll take your word for it, I guess.” I answered, curious but not in the mood to really press the issue. “But getting back to the original problem, just what do you expect ME to do about this?”
“Talk with Jobe.” She answered with a hopeful expression on her too-perfect face. I really wanted to hate her, but couldn’t do it. She was a powerful mage, that I knew from having seen her in action and from some of the stories I’d heard about other things she had done. On top of that, she absolutely had to be the most beautiful girl on a campus that routinely had girls who would give supermodels an inferiority complex about their looks. In spite of that I really couldn’t bring myself to hate her. Dammit.
“And what do you expect me to say to him?”
“Ask her to stop making Drow?”
“That’s easy, but there’s a problem with doing that all the same.” I answered. “Jobe doesn’t listen to anyone when it comes to her projects. Especially this one.”
“MAKE her listen.” Nikki answered with a force that she hadn’t used before and I realized it wasn’t the school girl talking. “Or I will be compelled to take other measures, and not even this prideful mortal with all her abilities to twist nature will be able to counter that.”
This personality had a lot more presence, and force of personality than even Nikki Reilly, which was saying something. I decided right there that I didn’t like this one at all.
“Why don’t you just walk up and tell her that?”
“The child I am part of won’t allow that.” The being in front of me shot back almost petulantly. “She tells me that doing so would result in more trouble than either she or I need.”
“She’s right.” I told the being that filled Nikki Reilly’s body to overflowing. “But I’ll try and talk with Jobe. Just don’t expect the conversation to convince her to stop what she’s doing with the Drow right now.”
“These abominations must be curtailed.” The other part of Nikki Reilly insisted in a voice filled with command that nearly compelled me to head for Jobe’s digs and do that right now.
“Stop that!” I managed to shake off that idea. “If you want my help at all, with anything, in the future, don’t even try that crap on me again. I said I’ll talk with Jobe. Leave it at that, or I won’t do a thing. Got it?”
Aung whatever, was still there, but she actually chuckled, and smiled at that one. “You humans. So adaptable, and you’ve all grown so much. No wonder you now rule the world. I don’t care for it, but I find I must accept what you’ve told me.”
“Good for you.” I told her.
“I wish she hadn’t done that.” Nikki was back, and looked very embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Aung tends to be more than a little demanding at times.”
“You live with that every day?” I questioned.
“No wonder most people around here think you’re nuts.” I muttered.
“No shit.” Nikki sighed. “Thanks for your time, Jadis. I appreciate you listening to me, and to Aunghadhail. If you ever need anything you can’t manage by yourself, look me up and I’ll see what I can do to help you out.”
“I haven’t done anything yet.” I pointed out.
“You listened to me, and her rants,” The pre-eminent new mage on campus sighed. “Aung likes you, by the way.”
“Is that a good thing?” I questioned.
“Trev, you have some really weird friends, you know that?” I told him/her while watching the most beautiful girl on campus leave a trail of idiotically drooling males in her wake as she walked away.
“Yeah.” Trev let out a long sigh. “You should talk with Jade sometime. Now that’s weird.”
Okay, that was surreal. I picked up my plate of noshies and went over to where Jobe and Belphy were looking through a magazine with Sizzle and Winter. Interesting. Sizzle and Winter don’t usually hang. The Brat Factor is against it. I looked at the magazine. “You’re reading Vogue?” I asked, more than a tad shocked. I mean, Jobe thinks that Scientific American belongs next to Highlights for Children.
“Well, Darcy thought that I should at least have an idea of what I was getting myself into, before we head out to New York.” She flipped through the pages. “I mean, there’s a pattern here, but I’ll be damned if I’m getting it…”
Jobe was flipping through the page, and Belfy suddenly speared a page with a finger. “THAT!” she was pointing at an eye shadow ad. “That would look fabulous on me!”
“Well…” Sizzle worried her lower lip. “At the very least, we’d have to try it out…”
“Bronze tone?” Winter said with a sneer. “Nah, I know that finding makeup that will work on flat black skin is a bear, but that’s no reason to resort to metallics.”
“And why are you two throwing in your two cents’ worth?” I asked.
“Well, we’re coming along, of course!” Winter said with a winning smile.
“Well, of course we’re going along! Lindsey got to go along last time!”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked, feeling one of those headaches that happen every time that I try to talk sense to Winter coming on.
“Jobe said that I was coming along,” Sizzle said definitively.
“Yes?” she said, tearing her nose out of the Vogue.
“Why did you invite little miss twinkle toes here along?”
“Well, Darcy does have a certain flair that I think would be useful in putting together my own distinctive look. I mean, I can’t keep wearing Belphy’s clothing, now can I? That IS the entire point of this isn’t it?”
More likely, so that Belphy can’t wear HER clothes. Having a sibling who’s co-equal with her, let alone a twin sister, may turn out to be as big a crack in Jobe’s cosmic egg as becoming female is. And if the buzz in the halls back in Melville’s any clue, Sizzle’s sleazed her way into Jobe’s bed as cuddle-buddy. So, no use trying to talk her out of Sizzle.
Then, as if I didn’t already know that the Universe gets its jollies dumping on me, Gloriana walked up, with two giddy Cape Squad girls in tow. “Ah! Jadis! Jobe! Are you excited about our little trip to New York?” Glor said with a blue-blooded élan that the Winsors only wish they had.
“Oh, champing at the bit!” I responded. “Lady Liberty. Magni-Girl.” I raised an unamused eyebrow at Gloriana. “What are they doing here?”
“Well, they’re coming along with us, of course! New York is dangerous and-”
I let out a piercing whistle. “Yeah, I can see where THIS is heading at a high rate of speed! Okay, listen up girls! I know, you all want to go on this really great shopping trip, but please keep this in mind! The Administration won’t let a big group go down to New York, if it’s just to buy clothes for ONE GIRL!” I gestured at Jobe.”Four would be primo, we could get away with six, and eight is the absolute maximum we can get away with, pleading security. Glor, between you and Jobe, we should be able to get that many past the Administration.
“SO! Jobe goes, no question. She’s paying, and it’s all for her. Period. Glor goes, ‘cause she’s the chaperone. I’m going, because I’m the Event Coordinator. If I don’t go, you all can handle the logistics yourselves, I have better things to do. And I’m offering the use of Chez Diabolik for the weekend. So, try and get a decent suite of hotel rooms in New York on such short notice.” I paused, and waited for someone to rise to the occasion.
Nobody did. Always volunteer to do the logistics; it makes you indispensible, and most people don’t have the slightest clue of how to pull it off. “Okay then! Next, Belphy goes. She needs more clothing, she’ll be invaluable in helping Jobe get an idea of what does and doesn’t work, and after two weeks with Jobe, I think she needs a good booster shot of pure estrogen to get her back on the track. Well, that’s the essential, non-negotiable four. So, who goes?”
“Well, I’m willing to have others tag along, as long as they carry their own weight,” Jobe said. “But I have two that I’m expressly asking along. I promised Darcy that she’d come along, and I always keep my promises.” Sizzle simpered happily. But then, she’s looking forward to shopping in a price bracket that she could only dream of before. “And I’m inviting Nacht along.”
“Me?” Kate raised an icy eyebrow. “Why?”
“Uhm, Jobe?” Belphy asked, her ears drooping and her eyes wide. “Nacht scares me…”
“Exactly,” Jobe said portentously. “Belphy dear, if you are going to be Drow, then you must learn to conquer your fears. Although, Kate, it would be nice if you made that feasible?”
“We shop where *I* want to shop?” Kate asked, managing to put a wide range of meaning into a flat monotone.
“You DO know that there ARE colors other than black, don’t you?”
“Colors? Is that what they are?” Kate smiled her creepy little smile, and Belphy whimpered.
“Well then!” Jobe said grandly. “That’s six. Do we really need two more?”
“I was thinking that we’d ask Hazard along,” I offered.
“Hazard?” Jobe, Gloriana, Magni-Girl and Lady Liberty all asked together. “Why?”
“First, she’s a known commodity. Glor, Belphy and I know that we can work with her. In New York, that’ll be important, especially if things get weird. Second, she’s an odds mangler, who’s very good at picking up on threats. Can you say ‘danger sense’?” I stuck my fingers out from my head in ‘spidey sense’ waves. “I knew you could. Third, the girl has style. Not my style, or your style, Glor, or Sizzle’s style, but she has style. And she came up with a lot of really solid fashion advice last time. All that spells out ‘asset’ to me.” Jobe and Gloriana nodded, and the other postulants had a hard time refuting my logic. “Okay, one spot left open. And I’m stepping away from the table. Thrash this spot out among yourselves.”
There was a spate of very spirited (if ‘spirited’ can be applied to vicious wheedling) negotiation, which ended when Belphy said sturdily, “Misty comes along.”
“Misty?” Jobe asked, “Why her?”
“Well, like Jadis said, she’s a known commodity, and she knows how to handle herself in a tight spot. And she needs the clothing. And I like her.”
Jobe shrugged. “Well, after all, I suppose we WILL need someone to carry the packages… so be it.”
Winter, Magni-Girl and Lady Liberty took that with all the grace and decorum that you’d expect. Lucky for me, I wasn’t the one who made the last call. Still, their bickering distracted me enough that I didn’t notice the girl coming up on my side. “You’re Jadis Diabolik,” she said in a flat voice.
“Yeah,” I said, not picking up on her vibe because of the micro-drama I was paying attention to. “Can this wait? I’m kind of busy right now.”
“Your father-” she grated out.
“oh, crap,” I said, recognizing the tone, now that it was too late.
“-killed my grandfather!” she continued, her volume and pitch rising.
“Yeah,” I sighed, trying to keep it as non-confrontational as possible, “I get that a lot.”
“He KILLED thirty people!”
“When was this?”
“It was in Tampa Bay, Florida!”
“Tampa?” I made a minor production of counting out on my fingers as a mnemonic. “If it was Tampa Bay, five years ago, then I’d say that it was closer to 140.”
“You’re proud of that?” she shrieked.
“No,” I said reasonably, “just trying to keep it accurate. How did it happen?”
“He was in a nursing home, and your father’s stupid mind web thing kept the attendants from helping him when he had a heart attack!” she stifled a sob. “I never got a chance to say goodbye to him!” she finished with a shriek.
“Oh, I see,” Jobe sniped from where she was listening in. “You packed Grampaw off to the old-folks’ home to rot, and now that he’s dead, you feel bad. As you spend the money that you don’t have to shell out keeping him alive anymore.”
“WHAT?” she shrieked. Well, Jobe does have a gift for hitting those raw nerves.
“Well? How long was it since you visited him, before Jads’ Dad came calling?” See what I mean?
Now, what happened next is sort of the story of my life. There I was, when this chick comes up to me and starts to dump on me. Jobe puts her two cents in, and then little Miss Tragic Avenger goes nuclear on ME. Some weird energy starts crackling around one of her hands, and she throws a punch at me. I caught it with one of my ‘gloves’ and held her there. Five seconds later, the Betas are there doing their Peace keeper bit, and Stormwolf gets all Jack Webb on me. The next thing I know, I’m in the Headmistress’ office, with Hardass giving me shit about bumping me off the list for Jobe’s shopping trip. “Hey, hey, HEY!” I objected, “She threw on ME! I kept it from escalating!”
“That’s not how Stormwolf saw it.”
“Stormwolf sees what he wants to see. I have witnesses who will back me up.”
“Oh? The Bad Seeds, I suppose?”
“And Gloriana, Lady Liberty and Magni-Girl.”
“Why would the Cape Squad back you up?” Hartless asked suspiciously.
I smiled acidly. “They’ll do it, because that’s how it happened. And none of them are stupid enough to put their names on a flat-out LIE. They were there when little Miss Angst-o-rama-”
“I AM NEMESIS!”
“Ooohhh… Nemesis! How Original! Or something…”
“I am YOUR nemesis! I will kill your father and drag you to JAIL, where you belong!”
“Take a number and get in line, bitch.”
By this time, Hartford had called Gloriana and confirmed my story. She told me that I could go. She gave ‘Nemesis’ (Lord, give me strength! Or, at the very least, frequent arch-enemy miles) her patented ‘Killer Bitch’ glower. “What?” Nemesis sputtered. “She’s GOING? Just like that? But her father’s a MASS MURDERER!”
“Yes,” Hartford agreed dryly. “He’s also a major contributor.”
“And She-Beast and the rest of the Bad Seeds, who are also the children of supervillains, are not to be harassed.”
“Shall I explain it to her, Miss Hartford?” I offered.
“If you’d be so good. It might actually penetrate, coming from you.”
I looked Nemesis right in the eye. She was about an inch shorter than me, with a perfect Exemplar oval face, big gray eyes that burned with hatred, and long red hair. “Okay, Neme-Sissy, here’s the drill. The Bad Seeds get to go here, because THEY haven’t committed any crimes.”
“Yet,” she snarled.
“Not only not the point, but in complete counter to the actual point. The point is that future supervillains are welcome here, because they help enforce the Truce. Y’see, everybody in the Law Enforcement, Intelligence, Organized Crime, Superhero, Supervillain, and Covert Operations communities know all about this place. But this school has managed to survive for going on forty years now, because from the get-go, both the superhero and supervillain ‘communities’ agreed that the school would be neutral grounds. Captain Virtuous and his arch-enemy Baron Nasty can both send their kids here and not have to worry about them. If the Bad Seeds weren’t here, then there wouldn’t be any proof of the Truce. Without the Truce, the school isn’t neutral grounds anymore. Instead, it’s the richest repository of several hideously valuable commodities this side of Fort Knox. It would be a race to see who got the goodies first. If it became known that Whateley had rejected their policy of neutrality, the school would be rubble within a month. On top of that, the Bad Seeds include the kids of some MAJOR players; nobody wants to cross our parents, on top of everything else.” I stepped up a little into her face. “So, Sissy – what do YOU bring to the table, huh?”
She snarled up into my face, “I WILL take you down!”
“Then book a refereed match in one of the arenas. By the numbers. And bring your ‘A’ game. I’ll bring my ‘C’ game, and still walk out, while you’re being carried out on a stretcher.” With that, I walked out to let Hartford get down to the serious business of giving the noob her first detention.
I called Gloriana with my cell phone and told them that I was still cool to go to New York.
Hazard caught me in the lobby back at Melville. “So, Beast, I heard that you got jumped in the caff, and that Dorkwolf hauled you off with the bint who started the fight.”
“Yeah, standard Beta procedure,” I said with a martyred sigh. “Blame the victim.”
“The word is that you won’t be able to go to New York on Jobe’s big shopping adventure.”
“Sorry, but for once, the grapevine is wrong,” I corrected her. “I had witnesses who backed me up. Gloriana put in the good word with Hartford, and I’ve been cleared of all charges. But don’t worry,” I gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “You’re still going along.”
“I am?” She perked up.
“Yep.” I gave her the lineup. “And I’m heading upstairs to give Misty the good news.”
“Will Sizzle be going along?”
“Yeah,” I said with a leer. “But look at the bright side: at least none of us will be stuck rooming with Jobe.”
“That’s what I like about you, Beast: that uncanny knack for finding an advantageous spin for practically anything.” As I headed up the stairs to my room, I overheard Hazard on her cell phone. “Boxcars? Hazard. Get this: she got off! Nothing! She’s even still goin’ to New York! Yeah! So, you owe me four points on the next duel.”
Misty was duly jazzed when I told her that she was going, and she was thrilled when she heard that Belphy had gone to bat for her in the last selection. She started trying to decide which of her unicorns she’d give Belphy as a thank-you. “I think that a simple hug will suffice, Misty,” I told her. And Belphy would prefer the hug, the dichromatic perv.
We trotted out our overnight bags (one of the nice things about shopping jaunts – you don’t have to worry too much about what you’re going to wear) and headed out. Kate joined us in the hallway, looking like an orphan on her way back to the orphanage. Then Jobe came stalking out of her room with a tense expression that I haven’t learned to read yet. I know most of Jobe’s expressions, having been forced into close proximity to the walking biohazard far too many times while we were growing up. But her upgrade has changed her face enough that I’ll have to learn them all over again. “Sheba!” she snapped, holding out her cell phone. “You speak Moron. Maybe YOU can talk to her in her own language.”
I took the cell phone. “Oh. Another UN sanction. Right. I’ll get her and a few interested parties there.” Oh. So that’s the drow version of Jobe’s ‘confederacy of dunces’ look. Noted and filed. “Jobe, Belphy, get your overnight bags. We might as well haul our stuff over there on our way to the ritual chewing out, and save ourselves the trip back.”
Fifteen minutes later, the shopping expedition was assembled in Carson’s office, with Jobe front and center, with what I’m guessing is the new and improved version of his patent pending scowl of persecuted innocence on her face. Carson looked up at the rest of us. “And what are the rest of you doing here?”
“Replay of the Boston shopping trip, only this time to New York,” I explained. “Hopefully without a replay of the Bedlam incident. Jobe needs clothes, and Belphy’s getting tired of Jobe dipping into her undies drawer.”
“Delicate and discreet as always, Beast,” Jobe snarled.
“And since they’re going to be hanging around Jobe, I wanted Belphy, Sizzle and, ah, ‘Superchick’ to hear this, so they’ll have an idea of what they’re getting themselves into.”
“All of you are going?” Carson asked, eyebrow arched.
“I figure that New York needs to be protected from Jobe.”
Carson quirked a smile and muttered, “Oh well, it’s not MY money… Well! Prince Jobe! I have good news and bad news. First, that strain of modified squid that you released-”
“Well, SOMEONE had to do something about those zebra mussels!”
“So, you created an aggressive predator species with a specialized shell-cracking beak, a paralytic sting and a taste for zebra mussels.”
“Well, it’s better than standing at waterways, waving signs saying ‘Zebra mussels go home!’“
“But you didn’t breed anything into them that stops them from attacking anything and everything in the water!”
“Well, they get hungry…”
“Anyway, the ‘harpoon squids’ are dying off. Some combination of industrial pollutants is causing their gills to rot.”
“Oh,” Jobe said mournfully. “What’s the good news?”
“That IS the good news. The harpoon squids managed to spread out of the Great Lakes and into the St. Lawrence and Missouri rivers. If they’d gotten out of the St. Lawrence and into cleaner waters, they could have devastated the Newfoundland Cod Beds. The bad news is that the UN Security Council has passed a measure condemning you.”
“What for THIS time?” Jobe groaned like a cheerleader being told that her skirt is too short.
“For your part in the Chiruwi regime.”
“WHAT?” Jobe bleated, “I sold the ‘Ultimate Leader and Champion of the People for Life’ a strain of COWS that could feed on what they laughingly refer to as grass in that part of Hell’s back porch! So that he could feed his PEOPLE! They were on the brink of starvation! I should be getting a humanitarian award, not sanctions!”
“Jobe, the beef was cancerous! It grew in huge malformed TUMORS that they cut off and sold to their people as beef!”
“Of COURSE! I designed it that way! How else could those cows produce that much meat in time to prevent mass die-offs from starvation?”
“Jobe, you had those people eating cancers!”
“So, it tasted a little off…”
“JOBE, it was CARCINOGENIC!”
“So is fifteen percent of what’s sold in American supermarkets, and I don’t see you busting RJR/Nabisco’s chops about it! And the excised parts grew back, so you didn’t have to raise a whole new cow every time you need a brisket.”
Carson let out a muted snarl, but saw – as she so often did with Jobe – that further exploration would only aggravate her blood pressure. “At any rate, the UN has passed the condemnation and is exploring sanctions against you. Not Karedonia, but you.”
Jobe blew it off. “So, I’ll have the Karedonian ambassador scotch it.”
“Jobe, the Karedonian ambassador voted FOR the condemnation vote.”
“WHAT? Uncle Ralph ratted me out?” Jobe was suddenly shocked.
“You can talk about it with him, while you’re down in New York. And, while you’re at it, you’d better iron out the matter of Karedonia recognizing that you are Jobe Wilkins. After your dramatic change, it IS a valid issue.”
“What?” Jobe actually seemed taken aback. “Dad hasn’t sent in his Statement of Official Recognition yet?”
“Talk about it with your Uncle Ralph.”
Jobe grumped about it on the way out. I think that she was more miffed at her Uncle Ralph than she was at the UN. As we headed out of the office, Gloriana asked me, “The United Nations Security Council has met repeatedly to censure one minor?”
“And I don’t blame them!” I said. “I keep telling people that Jobe is one of the most dangerous people at Whateley, but nobody ever believes me! The Security Council should be worried about her! We’re talking about a socially stunted super-genius who thinks that all the world’s problems are a lack of sufficient genetic engineering!”
“I _am_ right here, you know,” Jobe said. “And NO, I don’t think that all the world’s problems can be solved with Genetic Engineering. For instance, there’s no way that genetic engineering can stave off the scourges that are ignorance, poverty, bigotry or line dancing. I just think that the world would be vastly better off if we simply discarded this neurotic, counterproductive, and inexorably suicidal fixation with inorganic technology and embrace the staggering potentials within enzyme-catalyst energies!”
“Like the Mining Sponges?” Kate asked innocently.
“That was a temporary setback!” Jobe snapped. “Dad had NO RIGHT to incinerate the entire clade before I could recover a testing sample! I mean, the Nitrous Acid clouds in the water were absorbed into the greater body of water without a glitch. Geez, when Union Carbide does it, they get billions in grants from the American government to help clean it up, but when _I_ do it…”
“Well, let’s just hope that there’s no more drama before the van shows up to take us to the train station,” I said as we walked down the stair from Carson’s office to the lobby of Shuster Hall. “I just wish that they wouldn’t make us wait in the lobby for the van, it’s just waiting for a potshot from some random crackpot who doesn’t know any better-”
“OH SCOTT!” Jobe called out from the staircase to one of a pair of boys passing through the lobby. It took me a moment to recognize him as Scott Emerson, aka ‘Thunderbird’, a peripheral member of the Cape Squad. But Scott recognized Jobe with a look like a deer that’s just spotted a mountain lion. Jobe didn’t notice the look, because she skittered up to Thunderbird, and just sort of looked up at him simpering. As T-bird tried to cope with this gracefully, Sizzle zoomed up, and even from thirty feet away, you could see it getting sticky.
“Do you think we ought’a do something?” Misty asked, looking down at the scene.
“Nah,” I said with a dismissive bleat. “Sizzle knows which side her bread is buttered on, and a little wholesome rejection will do Jobe a world of good. Let’s just hope that we can avoid-”
“Ah! The lovely Katrina!” the boy who called himself ‘Thorn’, despite some ‘intellectual property’ issues, rode up on a silver barded war ostrich and dismounted with a flourish, going from a strange ‘Frank Frazetta does polo’ outfit to his normal (if that word applies to Thorn) clothes as he did so. “My day is complete,” he beamed at her.
“And mine just went down the drain,” Kate glowered back at him.
“And what’s this? Bags?”
“I’m running away from school, to get away from you.”
“Bonny Kate, if you were sincere, all you need do is tell me to stop.”
“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?”
“You are a shameless flirt, young lady. I LIKE that!” he paused a beat. “But in truth, are you going on a trip?”
“It’s my detention,” Kate said. “I’m being forced to participate in a soul-deadening adolescent female rite of passage.”
“They’re making you read ‘Twilight’ in groups? THE FIENDS!”
“What?” I gasped, hand to breast, miming horror and despair, “Kate! You never said anything about Twilight!”
“These are dark days indeed,” Thorn droned portentously, as he sparkled all over. “Heavy overcast, eighty percent humidity, with a 76% chance of rain, and scattered showers throughout the day.” Rainclouds formed around his head, and he started waving his hands about blindly. “But fear not, Sweet Kate! Our Love shall lead the way!”
“Why do you insist on encouraging him?” Kate asked dryly, giving me the gorgon’s eye.
“It’s my duty as your best friend to see to it that you don’t let your Ice Witch act get in the way of a beautiful relationship.”
“Well, if you’ll excuse us, Thorn, we have to get going, before some hooligan-”
“Jadis!” came a voice that I recognized all-too well.
“Oh fnark,” I said with a disgusted slump of futility.
Sure enough, a dark mass glided down from the mezzanine, and clarified into an admittedly very good looking guy (if you like them dark and Byronic), wearing the classic black hooded cloak over his Whateley uniform. “Stealthily, the Lord of Shadows approached the lithe daughter of the devil himself….” he monologued to himself.
“Hey, Nightloser! I’m right here, y’know…”
“You’re going on a trip…”
“Amazing deduction, Sherlock,” I shot back. “What was your first clue? The baggage or the traveling clothes?”
“And yet, the fabulous foremost female of the school’s superhero squad is also carrying luggage…”
“Aaannddd?” I prompted. Poor boy locked.
Nacht coughed and murmured, “Of course, the rest of us are also carrying overnight bags…”
“That much is obvious,” Nightlord snapped. He leaned in close to my face and said ominously, “I WILL be watching you…”
“Do you have your stalker’s permit handy?” I retorted.
He just swirled his cloak around himself and went dark again. He power-leapt up to the mezzanine, but his foot slipped on the banister and he fell back down. Thorn stepped in at the last second, and created a huge whipped cream pie that broke Nerdlord’s fall. The fall splattered ‘whipped cream’ all over the place, but for some bizarre reason, only Nightlunch and Thorn were hit by it. And they were both covered from head to foot in it. “Well! Thorn said in his best Oliver Hardy voice, “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”
“Heavens to Murgatroyd!” I said in a ‘Snagglepuss’ voice, “Leave us take this cue to exit, stage left, even!” Being careful not to step in the ectoplasm (I hope), we made our way past the crush, to the front door. I stopped by Jobe as she was babbling away to Thunderbird and made a politic ‘ahem!’
Jobe ignored me. As the van was waiting for us, I grabbed her by the tip of her ear and towed her along with me. “Ow-ow-ow-ow!” Jobe yipped as she tripped along, wide-eyed, after me. I managed to keep her off-balance until we got into the van. “HEY! That HURT!” she sulked, cradling her offended lobe.
“Then why on Earth did you design the Drow with that nifty grip, if not for use as a handle?”
* * * * * *
“Very well, if we start at Fifth Avenue and work west…” It seems that Gloriana is a frustrated strategist. While we sort of blindsided her with the short notice for the Boston trip, she had two entire weeks of planning for this one. She had a laminated map of Manhattan spread across her lap, and she was going over our planned itinerary as we chugged southwards on the Grand Miskatonic Shuttle.
“Brilliant!” Hazard sniped. “They’re expecting us to land at Calais, so they’ll never expect us to storm the beaches of Bloomingdales’!”
Gloriana glared at Hazard, and I cut in, “What I think Haz is trying to say, Glor, is that you’re thinking too much in terms of geography. Remember last time? We decided what we were going to shop for first, and we took it from there. Let’s learn from last trip’s lessons. First, we get Jobe undies made with natural fibers and dyes.”
“Too right,” Belphy said with a glare in Jobe’s direction.
“It’s a simple allergic reaction,” Jobe said defensively. “I don’t know why you’re making such a big thing about it.”
“Glor, did you make a listing of shops in the general area that carry such lingerie?”
“Yes, they’re listed here with the pink hearts.”
“Excellent! The basic itinerary that we used last time worked, so we’ll stay with that. We get undies and sleepwear first, so that’s not an issue. After that, we buzz Jobe through Bloomie’s, just to get her acclimated. But this time, we do casual and sporting wear before the glitzy stuff. Jobe’s going to need stuff to bop around Whateley and like that in, and to be honest, Belphy, I think we sort of skimped on that one for you last time. After we’ve got the afterschool stuff taken care of, we can then head onto clubwear and then eveningwear.”
“And what about Office Wear?” Jobe demanded. “I notice that for all your splurging with Imperial Funds, you only bought ONE semi-formal suit for Belphy.”
“Good point. We’ll get you one, too. By the way, now that it’s an issue, Belphy, Jobe? Will you be doing the Doublemint Twins gag, or will you each want to develop your own signature style?”
Jobe looked puzzled by the question, but Belphy thought it over carefully. “Neither, I think, Sheba,” she said finally. “Doing the ‘identical twins’ thing would require that Her Majesty over there and I agree on outfits, but at the same time, I don’t really think that either one of us is really up to a ‘signature style’ just at the moment. I think that it’s far more likely that we’ll each just get those outfits that we like, and I’ll just have to accept the fact that that means that Sweet Sister will be raiding my closets on a regular basis.”
“Ahhh… the joys of sisterhood,” I sighed. “Thank God, I only have one brother, and he’s not a cross-dresser.”
“Oh, buck up, Jobe!” Sizzle said, “Just think of the fun that we’ll have shopping for new stuff, just the three of us, when Spring Break rolls around!”
“More shopping?” Jobe bleated. “WHEN are we going to have enough clothes?”
“Enough clothes?” Sizzle echoed. Then we all burst out in gales of female laughter, even Misty and Nacht joining in. Jobe fumed through the long crack-up, which ended with Sizzle wheezing, “And people say you have no sense of humor, Jobe…’Enough clothes…’“ <hee!>
“Remind me again, WHY I need all of you, just to carry packages for me?” Jobe snarled.
“Expertise!” I answered immediately. “I thought that we covered that at breakfast! Jobe, you’re going to have enough problems adjusting to being a girl as it is, let alone landing yourself anything even vaguely resembling a reasonable boyfriend, if you’re tottering around looking like Fashion Victim Barbie©!”
“What makes you think that I want a boyfriend at all, let alone one from the assembled DVD collection of America’s Funniest Evolutionary Bloopers that is the Whateley male student body?” Jobe snapped.
“What about the way that you were drooling over Thunderbird in the lobby?” Gloriana riposted with her trademark élan.
“And I believe that while we were down in Boston, there was a certain incident involving you, Thunderbird, Chaka, two of the T-Bird-ettes, and a décolletage full of snow, was there not?” Belphy threw in her two cents’ worth.
“MY, you WERE busy that weekend, weren’t you?” I asked with a satisfied smile. “Still, even I have to admit that you’re a quick study when you apply yourself to something, so there IS hope for you. So, this weekend, you will study under some masters of the craft, and hopefully, with application, I won’t be embarrassed to be seen with you. Or, at least, no more so than usual. In Belphy, you have an invaluable aid in seeing why things do or don’t work on you. You have Gloriana here for the classics. You have Hazard for the jazzy, bad girl angle. You have Kate for input regarding the Goth look. You have myself for the deeper understanding of trends-”
“True, Beast,” Sizzle purred, “but then, with your face and figure, you need all the understanding you can get…”
“You have Sizzle for comedy relief,” I continued, not giving the peanut gallery the satisfaction of rising to her bait, “and you have Misty for the Girl-Next-Door’s point of view.”
“And you all get to increase Karedonia’s national debt- AGAIN,” Jobe grumped.
“I thought that you said she wasn’t cheap,” Glor said.
“Jobe, getting input from your girlfriends is a major part of the shopping experience!” I maintained. “Why, without a critical eye, you might do something like Kelly Bingham at Montessori did, and come to school wearing a white moiré satin bolero jacket with gold brocade epaulettes!”
“And? That sounds rather snappy.” The entire compartment stared at Jobe, recoiled in mute horror.
God bless her, as the rest of us were gob-smacked with revulsion, Misty reached into her bag and pulled out a classic distraction. “Uhm, skuze me? But Jobe, there’s something I been wondering about – your daddy, Giztronic is king of this island down in the Caribbean, right?”
“His supervillain name was Gizmatic, and he’s the Emperor, but otherwise correct. And?”
“Okaaayyy… Gizmatic… okay, but how did he pull it off? I mean, that Lord Parachute-”
“Right. He’s got his own country too, but that’s way off in Eastern Europe somewhere. But Kardona-”
“Right. Karedonia. Anyway, howcum the US didn’t send in troops, after your daddy kicked out the old government and took over? I mean, he was like a big name supervillain, right? Why’d they let him take over like that?”
Gloriana sat up straight and raised her eyebrows. “She does have a point there, Jobe. I always did rather wonder why the American Government let your father set up shop in Uncle Sam’s wading pool.”
Jobe puffed up, and before she could bury us in a layer of Karedonian propaganda, I cut in, “Gizmatic got away with it because he did his homework. Before he moved in and took over, Karedonia was Sao Monica, this dinky little revenue black hole that even Venezuela didn’t want, with no resources worth mentioning, and they didn’t even have a tourist industry! Think about it! A Caribbean island without a tourist industry! The local leadership- for want of a better word – would have lost in a military (or political) fight with a Chicago street gang. Also, Gizmatic timed it so that he hit when the US was already militarily committed overseas. He hit with overwhelming force right after a big blowout at the ‘Presidential Palace’, and the old President woke up with a bad hangover in the lockup. Even so, Champion, who has a long history with Gizmatic-”
“Or, at least, Champion-3,” Jobe cut in rudely. “They went to Whateley together, and let’s just say that Champ-3 wasn’t quite as heroic as his estate would like people to think. Dad and C-3 went at it pretty regularly, but after C-3 went down, Dad didn’t see any point in continuing the matter with C-4. Of course, that didn’t stop C-4 from flying down to Sao Monica and rescuing El Presidente and his cabinet. Still, I will give C-4 credit. He got one whiff of El Presidente and his hoods and saw them for what they were. He dropped them off in Trinidad and flew off in disgust.”
“By the time that the State Department had figured out what had happened,” I took over again, “Gizmatic had passed a raft of banking laws and established customs protocols that virtually ensured that if anyone tried anything against him, a big chunk of the International Banking Community was raise a scream that would wake up Elvis. But then he did something really clever, something that gave Sao Monica, now Karedonia, both a real industry with real income, and ensured that nobody would fuck with him. Y’see one of the reasons that GizKing chose Sao Monica was, aside from the fact that nobody else worth mentioning wanted the dump, it was close to several hydrothermal vents.
“Hydrothermal vents are these underwater cracks in the Earth’s crust, where very cold seawater mixes with very hot and mineral rich magma. The seawater boils and becomes super-saturated with various minerals, which it sheds when it cools. Gizmatic exploited the magma pockets to create a ‘bubble’ of magma that slowly raised a large part of the seabed adjacent to Karedonia. It took five years, but when he was done, he’d quintupled the size of the island, provided a source of nearly free electricity and fresh water, and created a mining industry.”
“Currently, Karedonia is the world’s fifth largest exporter of Cobalt, Manganese, Osmium, Scandium and Palladium, and the ninth largest exporter of various sulfides,” Jobe said proudly.
“Yes,” Gloriana drawled disapprovingly. “And it’s the world’s largest Tax Evasion haven, money-laundry, illegal weapons warehouse, open-air black market, stolen goods bazaar, and illegal drugs refinery.”
“You’re forgetting about our local annual Native Culture festival,” Jobe reminded her.
I tried to defuse the brewing nastiness. “And on top of that, Gizmatic had the good financial sense – and money – to clean the place up and create several Five-going-on-Six star resorts tailored for the Uber-rich. It was a little iffy at first, but people have a tendency to want to come and check on their money first-hand, and Gizmatic made sure that they had an absolutely wonderful time doing it, and they told their friends and so on and so on. And, give them their due, even the Goodkinds would have a hard time finding anything wrong with either the North Palace or the Sunset Palace. Top Drawer all the way.”
“Thank you, Beast,” Jobe glowed with proprietary pride.
“Thennn… howcum no other supervillain has tried to take it away from him?” Misty asked. “I mean, it sounds like a GREAT racket! And when one crook’s got a great racket going for him, the first thing that happens is that some bigger crook comes along and tries to muscle it out from under him, right?”
Jobe gave out a prideful chuckle. “Oh, they try, every so often. But Dad’s still in charge.”
“Gizmatic’s got a three-layered defense mechanism going,” I said. “First, he has a PRIMO cybernetic defense array established, and he’s constantly changing and improving it.”
“Cybernetic defense array?” Misty asked, clearly out of her depth.
“Combat robots, drone attack helicopters that could go toe-to-toe with Apaches, RC combat laser-armed Great White Sharks, 150 Exxo-Watt particle accelerator emplacements – stuff like that,” Hazard explained.
“Really?” Belphy said, her eyes a-sparkle with techno-greed. “I wonder if I couldn’t get a tour, when we go ‘home’…”
“Hardware…” Jobe muttered. “Globulon would have been so much more effective, but nooo… ‘Never deploy what you can’t remotely auto-destruct’… sheeesh… like Globulon would ever turn on ME…”
“That’s the first, most obvious level of defense,” I explained. “The second, more subtle level of defense is that at any given time, there are anywhere from 25 to a hundred B-list supervillains, most of them with big chunks of their support organizations -with hardware – on hand, either at the resorts or in time-share lair-estates. ALL of whom have a vested interest in seeing that Joe Wilkins stays in charge of the country. Give him his due, Gizmatic is an excellent manager and administrator.”
“Oh?” Gloriana said snarkily, “From what I hear, he just spends most of his time in his lab, tinkering with the next generation of killing machine, and lets his support staff handle everything.”
“Gloriana?” Kate said dryly. “That IS the definition of an excellent manager and administrator.”
“But the final, last-ditch defense measure is Gizmatic’s stroke of genius; remember that ‘bubble’ of magma that four-fifths of Karedonia sits on?”
“Sorta,” Misty admitted.
“Well, that bubble isn’t exactly stable. From what I’ve heard, about three-eighths of the electricity generated by the steam from that thing is earmarked for keeping the magma bubble stable. If the mechanism that kept the magma bubble both liquid and stable were ever to fail…”
“The whole island would blow up?” Sizzle gleeped.
“Well, not the whole island,” I hedged, “and even that’s not the real point. The real point is that the ‘new land’ is roughly the size of Trinidad, which is just shy of two thousand square miles. I think that Karedonia is – what, sixteen hundred and change? – square miles, high and wide, and the highest point-”
“Mount Wilkins,” Jobe provided. “It’s six thousand, four hundred feet high, more than twice the height of Mt. Aripo on Trinidad, and the highest point in the Caribbean.”
“No, that would be Pico Duarte, in the Dominican Republic. We’ve HAD this conversation before, Jobe.”
“Okay, okay – the highest point in the Lesser Antilles…”
“Anyway! All of that is held up by the magma bubble. If the bubble ever bursts, all of that, all 16 hundred MILLION TONS -and change- of it will drop more than a hundred feet into the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean, causing a massive 360 degree mega-tsunami, one which would dwarf the wave that hit Indonesia in 2004. The Lesser Antilles would be swamped and the southern coasts of the Greater Antilles would be trashed. Venezuela would be a disaster area, as would the Gulf locks of the Panama Canal, the Gulf coasts of Central America, Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. And it won’t do Africa, Spain, England or Ireland a bit of good, either.
“Gizmatic’s the only person who really understands how the Magma Management device works-”
“Oh, I understand how it works,” Jobe said. “I just don’t really CARE.”
“And if that device ever stops working – or if Gizmatic ever pushes that button everyone knows he’s got – SPLOOSH! Not only is Karedonia gone, but so are a few million people elsewhere. It’s cold, it’s mass murder, it’s heartless, it’s unnecessary, it’s effective – it’s… Gizmatic…”
“I still say that Globulon would have been just as effective, AND a tourist draw,” Jobe said pettishly. GOD, I hope no one tells Jobe that she’s cute when she does that; there’d be no living with her.
“Don’t scowl so much, Jobe,” I warned her. “You brought along enough of that fake skin stuff for you and Belphy for the weekend, but there’s still a limited supply. By the way – when is your appointment to see your Uncle Ralph, the Ambassador?”
“WHY would I need an appointment to see Uncle Ralph?”
Letting out a martyred moan, I pulled out my cell phone and made the call. “Okay, Jobe, it’s too late for today, so I managed to squeeze in an appointment for tomorrow afternoon, and we can use that as an excuse for you to talk to him personally.”
“WHY do I need an appointment?”
“BECAUSE, your identity is in question,” I said slowly, enunciating carefully, lest there be any misunderstanding. “YOU say that you’re Jobe Wilkins, and that you look different because of a lab accident. But ANYONE can say that. AND, since you are the next in succession to be the head of state of an independent nation, with all the perks attached to that, it has to be verified. Whateley backs your claim, so you’re not just some bimbo in off the street, but it still comes down to either your father or your uncle officially recognizing you.”
“If Jobe doesn’t get recognized, does that mean that I’ll be the Crown Princess of Karedonia?” Belphy said chipperly.
“NO,” Gloriana said with heavy precision. “Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. As I understand it, your claim to the succession is a matter of being regarded as Jobe’s daughter or sister, or however the Wilkins decide to accept you. IF they do. But all that hinges on Jobe’s situation as the acknowledged heir. If Jobe’s acknowledged, despite her current condition, then you have a definite claim to at least being part of the Imperial family. If Jobe isn’t acknowledged, then you’re both in trouble, as besides losing her place in the succession, then Jobe loses all title to everything that she owns AS Jobe Wilkins, including all her money and patents-”
“WHAT?” Jobe yelped as though she’d been scalded.
“Jobe, the patents are in the name of Jobe Wilkins,” I spelled it out for her. “If your father says that you’re not Jobe Wilkins, then, looking like you do, and having absolutely NONE of the usual physical confirmations: fingerprints, retinal scans, dental records – ANY of that- there’s no way to prove that you ARE Jobe Wilkins. It’ll all revert to your parents as your heirs.”
“You’re making a big to-do over nothing,” Jobe assured us. “I’ve spoken with the Imperial Parental Unit over a secured video link. He knows all about this, and he’s given me his word that he’ll stand right behind me.”
“Isn’t standing right behind someone the perfect place to stab them in the back?” Kate asked innocently (for her).
The driver for the Limo was waiting for us at Grand Central Station as we got off the train from Boston. As we loaded our stuff into the trunk of the station, Hazard asked me, “So, Sheba, do you always travel in limousines?”
“I do when I’m ferrying more than three people around,” I answered. “Limos will hire out for long-haul periods, you don’t have the hassle of trying to flag down a cab, you don’t have to fight other people for the ride, and people take you seriously when you show up in a limo.” After we all got in, I added. “And this service’s units have the advantage of being armored, just in case.”
“For once, I’m with the Beast,” Sizzle said as she made herself comfortable. “I know Old Money penny-pinchers who are all ‘what’s the point? Both ends of the plane arrive at the same time’, and I think that they deserve all the leg cramp and backache that they get. Okay, maybe not the Ultra-Deluxe, Nuevo Riche rip-off stuff, but if you’ve got the money, First Class is the only sensible way to go. I mean, look at this? Clean, comfortable, secure and private. Okay, it’s not one of those Rap Star special stretch models with the bowling alley in the back, but that’s just stupid!”
When the limo pulled up in front of the townhouse on West 71st Street, Hazard made the expected crack about Crime paying pretty well, after all. “Hold off on the bags,” I told them all. “There’s something we need to do first. I picked up the coffee and doughnuts that we’d stopped for on the way and led the troop through an alley to a stairwell down to a basement door in one of the neighboring apartments. I pounded on the door heavily and said in a loud voice, “Okay, Vice Squad! Open Up! We know you’re operating an illegal Bingo parlor in there!”
Crawford opened up the door with a distinct ‘Not Funny’ glower on his face. “Okay, Jadis, why are you here?”
“Dropping off coffee and crullers.”
“Not HERE – in New York. Shouldn’t you still be up at that ivy-covered insane asylum they send you to? And who are these? More escapees?”
“Girls, this is Special Agent Dan Crawford, the poor slob in charge of the unit that the FBI assigned to keep tabs on our place, on the off chance that Dr. Dad comes strolling through the front door, or does something else stupid. And past him is the rest of the crew.” I poked my head past Crawford and said, “Hey Guys! Who ordered the bear claws?”
From the room there were a few, “Hey, Jadis!” remarks and a “Dibs on the bear claws!”
“The Federal Government has you under surveillance?” Gloriana asked with a worried tone. “And you’re on first-name basis with the men doing the surveillance?”
“Istanbul Rules. We don’t make it hard for them to do their job; they don’t make it hard for us to live our lives. It works out pretty well for everyone concerned.” Then I introduced the girls to Crawford and explained our reasons for being in the Big Apple. “Anyway, after what happened in Boston, we thought that it would be best if we did the shopping for Jobe here in the big leagues.”
Crawford looked at Jobe dyspeptically. “You’re tell me that SHE is that obnoxious little runt who talked our ears off, razzing three PhDs and two Nobel Prize winners?”
Jobe made a tisk, and muttered, “Really, a girl can’t sit down and have a friendly conversation with a few intellectual almost-peers, what IS the world coming to?”
“Anyway, Crawford, pass this along to whoever’s interested. Maybe you’ll finally get a few kudos for this gig. As for us? Time’s a-wastin’, and there’s SHOPPING to do!” I led the girls up to the townhouse, got them all introduced to Pierson and Hernandez, and got our rooms settled. A few words of socialization, and we were back in the limo.
“And NOW we see what Saks Fifth Avenue is like?” Belfy asked eagerly.
“No, first we have one last party to check in with, then we get some lunch – NEVER shop on an empty stomach, it does things to you- and then we storm the bastions!”
I had the driver take us to a certain address in Mid-Town. “Are you SURE that you want to go in there?” he asked us.
“Yep. Drive around and find a place to park. I’ll let you know when we need you. Don’t worry, it shouldn’t take THAT long… C’mon, girls!” Then I got out and led the procession into the Manhattan HQ of the Empire City Guard. The front part was strictly touristville and Fan Central. Statues of past and present members of the Guard, ‘trophies’ of past victories (or very good replicas thereof – I mean, there’s NO WAY that they’re putting Professor Reaper’s Geno-Scythe on display!), the ‘hall of remembrance’ with momento mori relics of fallen members, a Rogue’s Gallery, and like all that. There was the usual crowd of tourists, fans, gawkers and like all that milling around
“Jadis,” Gloriana asked quietly, “while I appreciate the opportunity for cultural enrichment… what are we doing here?”
“Yeah,” Sizzle sneered, “this is for nerdlingers and out-of-towners.”
“Just covering my bases,” I said lightly. I walked up to the main desk and told the Information-bunny, “I’d like to see Dr. Thunder, or whoever the senior member of the Guard on duty is.” As the jumped-up receptionist started to give me the standard anti-crank spiel, I handed her my MID. She paused when she recognized the card, and the plastic smile faded entirely when she read the card. I don’t know why everyone’s always complaining about MIDs – I find them incredibly handy! Maybe the name recognition factor has something to do with it.
“Jadis…” Hazard said in a low warning tone, “we’ve just been targeted by 12- 17- 21- 32- 35 different laser targeting dots…”
“WHAT?” I asked the receptionist, “No attempt to lure us into an armored room, to protect the civilians?”
“Sloppy,” Kate droned, “VERY sloppy.”
“Get your foot off the protective shield pedal, and tell Dr. T that we’re not here to start trouble, we’re just checking in.”
I was just about to explain further, when – yet again – I was interrupted by, “DIABOLIK!” A lithe figure in black-and-dark-orange vaulted over the heads of the crowd and landed on top of one of the exhibit cases. “What are YOU doing here?”
“Oh, very subtle,” I sneered.
“Yep, yep, no way THAT approach could set off a panic,” Kate added.
Tiger Girl snarled and looked like she was deciding which of us to jump first, when a firm contralto voice shouted, “Tiger Girl! Calm Down!” The Lioness strolled in, all ‘what’s Wonder Woman got that I haven’t got?’ in her Thundercats retread outfit. “I’m sure that Miss Diabolik wouldn’t walk in here and announce herself, if she was looking to cause trouble. Now would you?”
I smiled at Gloriana. “Wanna bet she’s the brains of the team?”
“SO, what DO you want?” Lioness asked in an ‘I’m humoring you, but don’t give me shit’ way that, to be honest, after Carson, simply wasn’t as intimidating as it might have been.
“I was asking for Dr. Thunder. That is, unless you’re the senior-most member?”
“No,” said another strong female voice, “that dubious honor still belongs to me.” Doctor Thunder walked in, wearing her dark blue form-fitting impact suit with the matching gold-tone trimming, including that big-ass ‘thunder-gun’ which she wore on her hip. “Shall we discuss this in private?” she gestured at a door. We obligingly trooped through the door into a bare – and probably armored – room, where Junkyard, Paladin, and Heavyweight were waiting for us. Immediately, we were targeted by at least five laser targeting dots each.
“SEE?” I said to Tiger Girl, “This is how it’s done- you get the perp away from the civilians, surround them, and prevent them from being able to use cover.”
“Very funny,” Dr. Thunder said, all business, her arms folded across her ample chest, her mirrored visor gleaming as to suggest steely eyes. Jeez, pass ‘Intimidation 101’? “Now, why are you here?”
I introduced the girls, giving Jobe star billing (as if she’d accept anything less). “Jobe Wilkins?” Tiger Girl said dubiously. “I heard that the UN condemned Jobe Wilkins. But I thought that the ‘Crown Prince’ of Karedonia was an adult – and MALE.”
“Well, someone’s keeping up with current events!” I responded blithely. “Jobe, would you care to explain?” Jobe filled them in on the details, in her patented, ‘God, I’m so tired of spelling this out for idiots’ way.
“So…” Paladin started off, “Why are you telling US all this?”
“Perhaps I should take over from here,” Gloriana cut in smoothly. She introduced herself to Dr. T, mentioned that she was the current Vice President of the Future Superheroes of America at Whateley, and all but knocked class rings with Dr. Thunder. She spelled out about the Cape Squad’s recurring problems with Bedlam, including his ambush back in Boston. “Now, I surmise that Jadis’ intentions in coming here – I must surmise, as she hadn’t bothered to inform us of her intentions-”
“You get used to it,” Jobe interrupted.
“-is that she feels that the Empire City Guard should be aware of it, in case Bedlam tries again.”
“You really think that Bedlam will attack you?” Paladin asked, all ‘Man of Action’ like.
“To be honest, I doubt it,” I admitted. “Bedlam strikes me as a sneak attack artist; it would be a little too obvious to try again under almost exactly the same circumstance. If I really thought that he was going to pull something, I’d have made for more… serious… arrangements. But, Bedlam does know a lot about us, stuff like how much I can lift, the people who were with us the last time, things like that. And, I’ve been wrong before. If he doesn’t try anything, FINE! We get some quality shopping in, and we get back to school, no problem. BUT, if he DOES-”
“You want the Guard to handle him.”
“More to the point, Doctor, we don’t want people yelling at us that we should have alerted them to a possible threat. We’ve already alerted the FBI, and by alerting you, we let NYPD know without wasting time slogging through their anti-crank measures. And by doing so, we have observed Due Diligence… tra-la-la! And we’re outta here! Oh… Tiger Girl? Would you pass on to Gryphon, that I’ve spoken to my guardian, and if the Li’l Rascals try any tricks like the LAST time I was in town, my guardian has a restraining order all warmed up. And if you violate that restraining order? Well, that would be all the excuse that the DA’s office would need to finally cut all of you loose, now wouldn’t it?”
As Tiger Girl snarled at me, I gave a merry “TA!” and sashayed out of the room, with the rest of the girls behind me.
As we got into the limo, Gloriana asked, “What was that business with Lioness’ sidekick, Tiger Girl?”
“Oh, when we were laid over on our way down to Karedonia for Christmas break, the Bad Seeds had a run-in with the Kiddie Krusaders. Nothing we couldn’t handle.”
“You’ve been holding out on me,” Kate grumbled ominously.
“What do you think Jay-Arm was nattering about when we came back from vacay?”
“Oh,” Kate relented, “THAT. Well, that was Jay-Arm, so I automatically tuned it out.”
“Well, that IS generally the sensible thing to do with Jay-Arm.”
“So, what happened, exactly?”
* * * * * *
As the girls traipsed out of the room, curious onlookers watched them exit, and there was a buzz of speculation as to what all that fuss had been about. But one of the bystanders, a tall, lanky man with a thin face wearing a long draping pea coat knew exactly what the fuss was about. The dispersed eavesdropping devise hidden within the folds of the pea coat had picked up everything said in the room, which had been designed to be damage-resistant, not bug-resistant. He couldn’t believe his luck! His simple ‘fishing expedition’ had hooked the little fish that would be perfect bait. Now, all that he had to do was reel in the little fish, and set his hooks for the biggest fish of them all…
* * * * * *
“-and then I calmly made them a sensible and reasonable offer, and their leader decided that it would be better to try and take the medicine away from me by force! Really! And the DeVille Academy is always yammering about how subtle and refined they are! Humphf!”
“Translation:” I provided, “Jobe infected them all with a deadly pathogen and then shook them down for the cure. The oldest boy, Sanjay was his name if I recall correctly, didn’t want to play and tried to beat Jobe up for the drugs. Jobe took him down in less time than it takes to tell it.”
“You DID?” Gloriana favored Jobe with a surprised look.
“A lot of people underestimate Jobe,” Kate said. “But even back then, he was a lot more dangerous than people expected. He was trained in unarmed combat from the time that he could walk, by experts in the martial arts.”
“REALLY?” Hazard asked in a bleat.
“Well, a becoming modesty has always been a hallmark of the Wilkins clan,” Jobe breathed.
“By the way, Jobe?” I opened. “No hidden weaponry, especially when we’re shopping for undies. You’re going to be hard enough to explain as it is, without shuriken or kunai or any of your usual holdouts.” With her usual air of being greatly put upon, Jobe started unloading lethal hardware from her sleeves and other hiding places into Misty’s carryall.
“HOW did you hide all of that on you?” Misty asked, all a-gawp, “I never spotted ANY of it!”
“Well!” I said, finishing up my desert. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s plan our immediate itinerary. First, we head over to Victoria’s Secret. Yes, Jobe, I know, you probably can’t wear any of it, but you’ve got to get the idea as to how lingerie works and how to shop for it and all that, and the best way to learn is to see how it’s done up close…
* * * * * *
“Oh, this is a NYAA photography project, a new kind of skin paint. We’re seeing how it holds up and contrasts. I’ll bet that you can’t tell it from real skin, can you?”
* * * * * *
“Belphy dear, it’s fine to look, but it’s not done to STARE.”
* * * * * *
“Unicorn… underwear… in SILK…”
* * * * * *
“Let me get this straight, Beast… Girls make statements… with their underwear…”
* * * * * *
“Excuse me ma’am, but I’m doing a little field research – now, what would you pay for a minimal-intrusion surgical enhancement that would provide all the support and presentation of a push-up bra, without the discomfort or expense of a garment?”
* * * * * *
“Sizzle, you’re supposed to be here to offer helpful criticism?”
* * * * * *
“You’ll know if Thorn ever sees this, because he’ll be the boy staggering down the halls, clutching at the ruined wreckage of his eyeballs.”
* * * * * *
“Whoa… VAST tracts of land…”
* * * * * *
“Don’t whine to ME, Jadis, this was all YOUR idea…”
* * * * * *
“Glor, I know that you’re an exemplar and all… but CHAINMAIL?”
* * * * * *
Three hours later, we bustled out of the last specialty lingerie shop, our hands full of designer shopping bags. “Okay, now that I’m officially in the club, there’s something that I’ve always wondered,” Jobe warmed up. “What IS it with these dinky little, ‘oh, it’ll hold a hanky, maybe TWO if you really cram it in’ shopping bags? I mean, what’s the point?”
“Bragging rights,” Sizzle sighed, a glow on her face. Finally, she’d actually shopped in the stores she’d woofed about frequenting.
“It’s the female equivalent of a hunter bringing the stag home on the front bumper of his car,” Glor added.
“Jobe, you are NOT going to regret buying the silk nightgown,” Belphy gushed. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the feeling of silk against your skin,” she finished with a roguish leer.
“Does that mean that you’re finally going to return mine?” I asked with an acid smile.
“Hopefully, after she’s had it cleaned,” Kate added.
Belphy got that slightly offended look on her face, and was about to say something, when the sound of whatever she was going to say was abruptly cut off by the sound of metal being crushed. Turning around we saw a tall man wearing a red superhero suit with a black hood, cape, gauntlet, trunks and boots, and a blue ‘C’ on the chest, which had a black capital ‘A’ superimposed over it. Speaking critically (and God knows, there was so much to be critical of), this schlub’s outfit was way too busy. He had one of those ‘Cyclops’ visors, and his belt was loaded with techno-crack from the Jack Kirby design school, and his gauntlets had overlay of the same kind of stuff, and you could tell that he was wearing a ‘shoulder-pads’ type collar, which was probably still more of that kind of stuff. Now, I can understand wanting to give yourself a technological advantage, but really! If you’re going to schlep around that much gear, you might as well go all-out and get power armor! “Don’t give me any crap, you’re coming with ME!” he growled in an admittedly rather intimidating voice. Then he blew it. He paused, looked us over, and a look of uncertainty dropped across his face. “Aaahhh… which one of you two is Jobe?”
Gloriana reacted in a way that suggested that Bedlam was bugging her a lot more than she let on; she reflexively let out a blinding light-bolt that caught ‘AC’ square in the chest, and to be honest, should have hurt a lot. “Stunning blonde moment, Gloriosky,” Jobe sneered. “He’s a power absorber. You just made him stronger.”
“Ah-HAH!” the loser with too much techno-bling exulted. He lashed out, grabbed Jobe by the coat, and lifted her off her feet. “I’d know that sneer anywhere! You’re looking a lot better these days, Jobe!”
“Hello, Philo,” Jobe said, remarkably unperturbed for someone dangling three feet off the sidewalk. She blew him a kiss, and said with a snide smile, “So, let me guess – you’re all excited because you’ve been nominated for Loser of the Year – Again – and you wanted to tell me about it.”
“Put her DOWN, vile Miscreant!” Glor said menacingly, glowing brightly.
“‘Vile Miscreant’?” Kate asked, “Who talks like that?”
“HEY!” the limo driver had gotten out and was shouting, “Get the fuck OFF my Limo, you spandex-wearing pansy!”
“Hah-HAH!” ‘AC’ exulted. “When Gizmatic asks who has taken his only living heir-”
“Weeellll… technically…” Belphy started, until Sizzle kicked her in the shins.
“Tell him, ha-hah… that it was, ha-hah… hah-ha…ha-ha-haaa…” Suddenly, ‘AC’ started to lose control of his laughter. He dropped Jobe, clutched at his throat and fell to his knees. He started laughing uncontrollably, his guffaws growing louder – and higher pitched.
The limo driver growled and said, “GET. OFF. THE LIMO!” He grabbed ‘AC’ by the shoulder pads and hauled him off the roof of the limo. “Awww…. MAN! There are footprints in the roof. Not ON the roof, but IN the roof! How’m I supposed to explain this to my boss?”
“Hey,” Sizzle offered, “just tell him that it’s New York! Things like this happen.”
Jobe just retrieved her bags, fussed the slush off the bottoms and stepped over ‘AC’, who was still giggling like a pack of 13-year-olds at a boy band concert, to get into the back of the limo. “Well, it’s been a pleasure as always, Philo. Give my best to the guys in the holding tank.”
Nonplussed, Gloriana looked down at ‘Philo’ as the rest of us piled into the Limo over his twitching body. “We’re not going to do anything?”
Jobe was busy spraying the anti-agent into her mouth, so I answered. “That’s a crowd-control measure that Jobe developed. She got him with it when she blew him that ‘kiss’. It stimulates the ‘tickle’ reflex. Not to worry about Mister Big and Bad; the culture will die after he passes out, and his laughing isn’t feeding the culture any oxygen. NYPD will come along and pick him up. He’s probably got a dozen or so warrants out for him, so let them deal with him.”
“Actually, he’s an escaped convicted felon,” Jobe said, touching up her lipstick.
Gloriana looked a little miffed as she got in and the limo drove off, leaving ‘Philo’ to the vagaries of the New York streets. “Well? You two obviously knew each other. Who, pray tell, was ‘Philo’ back there?”
Jobe gave one of her ‘Oh, what I have to put up with’ sighs, and said, “His name’s Philo Finderbinder. He’s one of my father’s more annoying recurring mistakes. You may know him better as ‘Anti-Champion’.”
“Anti-Champion?” Gloriana echoed. “But he’s major league!”
“C-list,” I corrected her. “Strictly a jumped-up minion.”
“But he’s listed as one of Champion’s recurring nemeses!”
“Oh, it’s not that he lacks power,” Jobe said. “It’s just that he’s a bit of a… how to put it…?”
“Putz?” Kate offered. “Loser? Flake? Screw-up? Weenie? Dork?”
“Yes, thank you, Nacht, that more or less covers everything,” Jobe nodded.
“And what does he want YOU for?” Misty asked, wide-eyed.
“Ah well, it’s ‘secret origins’ time. As I’m sure you’re aware, my father was the arch-nemesis of the third Champion, Steve Briggs-”
“You know his name, his secret identity?” Hazard asked.
“Of COURSE I know his name! He and Dad went to Whateley together! As a matter of fact, that’s how the feud between them started. As I’ve said before, let’s just say that Briggs, or ‘Blue Blaze’ as he was known at school-”
“‘Blue Blaze’?” Sizzle asked, curling her lip.
“It was the Sixties. Let’s just say that Blue Blaze was the sort who would have hung out with Bloodwolf, and Dad was his favorite chew toy. Anyway, GizDad conceived a passion to somehow obtain a sample of the Champion Force, to study and see if he couldn’t synthesize it somehow. And when he learned that ‘Blue Blaze’ had been chosen as the new custodian of the Champion Force, he decided that he had a heaven-sent opportunity to kill two birds (or buttheads) with one stone, and that he had a duty to protect Chicago from its protector. They went at it a bunch of times, and Dad almost got him a couple of times, but he could never quite get Briggs down for the count.”
“Excuse me, this is all terribly fascinating, but what does it have to do with that prat in the cape back there?” Belphy asked, keeping her eyes on the prize.
“I’m getting there, I’m getting there! And pay attention, this is part of your family history I’m passing along. Now, one of Dad’s less attractive qualities-” groans all around “-is that he’s got this weird, twisted obsession with imprinting ‘backup’ templates of his personality into clones, ‘just in case something goes wrong’. He’s always at me to update my template. He even wants me to download myself into a cloned body, and download a ‘perfect girlfriend’ into this body.”
“Sooo…” Belphy said inquiringly. “Emperor Daddy thinks of clones with downloaded personas as people…”
“Not the point, Starscream,” Jobe snarled. “The point here is that GizDad was experimenting with it on a volunteer, a total minion reject named Philo Finderbinder, who thought that Dad was going to give him superpowers or something. As if you could just walk in and order a set of superpowers, like a McRonalds. ‘Oh, I’ll have a strawberry milkshake, invulnerability, an apple pie, laser eyes, and tornado speed.’ ‘You want a Fries with that?’ Anyway, just as GizDad is downloading the template of someone competent – I think that it was one of those Shattenherren Nazi ‘theme agents’ who’d gone senile by then – when Philo had a Batson Event, right there on the slab.”
“A WHAT event?” Misty asked, completely confused. Not that Sizzle or Hazard looked any more clued in.
“The Batson Factor,” I explained, “is one of the theories that tries to explain how some non-mutant people get super powers, the ones they call ‘origins’. Y’know, the people who somehow survive something that should have killed them, like getting struck by lightning or being bitten by a radioactive gerbil, but instead of dying they get weird powers? It’s more of a rubber stamp than a real scientific theory, but there are still hundreds of mad scientist types trying to figure out how it works. Jobe, you’re telling me that your father has an actual Batson Factor triggering event on record, under close scrutiny?”
“Meh,” I said, unimpressed. “I’ll lay you odds that it was probably something in the Personality Overlay, something left over from the old Nazi theme agent treatment. What did he do with the data?”
“Oh, like everybody else, he fiddled with it for a while, and tried to figure out how to mass-produce the effect. But he couldn’t get anywhere with it, so he traded that information, along with a bunch of other super-science crap that he’d given up on, to the US State Department in exchange for a little breathing room, while he got Karedonia up and running.”
“Your tax dollars at work,” Sizzle grumped.
“Well, it WAS the Reagan administration,” Jobe allowed. “Where were we?”
“Your dad had this Philo guy in that personality thing, and he had a Batson Event,” Misty prompted.
“Oh! Right! Anyway, Philo’s reacting to it and going berserk and tearing up the lab, and the whole ‘mad science experiment gone wrong’ shtick. So, GizDad, all grace under fire, goes ‘HUZZAH! The experiment is a SUCCESS!’“
“And Philo was chump enough to believe that?” Hazard asked with an amazed expression on her face.
“OH YEAH. Anyway, the next thing you know, ‘It’s a worm! It’s a pain! No, it’s ANTI-CHAMPION!’ Yes, Anti-Champion, strange visitor from Loserville, who, despite all the gadgets and bionic implants and special gear that GizDad could give him, couldn’t beat Champion, not even ONCE. And his track record against other superheroes wasn’t a lot better. Every so often, Philo would go off on his own, claiming that he didn’t need Dad anymore, but he always came crawling back, whining that he needed this doo-hickey or that upgrade to make him anything besides a world-grade wimp. After Champion-3 died, Champ-4 turned out to be a decent kid, he saved Dad’s life once, and well, GizDad just didn’t have the heart to keep up the feud.”
“Yes, well, you never really get over your first Nemesis,” Kate allowed.
“Don’t worry, Kate,” I patted her hand. “Someday, that special hero will come along, someone you can really HATE.”
“Well, that’s all very interesting, Jobe dear,” Gloriana said. “But I still don’t see why Anti-Champion back there was trying to kidnap you.”
“Well, Philo is one of those whining non-entities who simply doesn’t get the whole idea that you have to bear down and MAKE things go right for you. No, on some deep level, he really does still want daddy to come and make everything right. So, despite the fact that he’s actually quite powerful in his own right, and the gear that he’s already GOT makes him even more formidable, Philo thinks that he needs something to make him competent, a gadget or a gizmo that will suddenly make him a winner. AS IF. And he’s fixated on GizDad, being the one who gave him those powers in the first place. He’s kind of like a hypochondriac; he thinks that he always needs to be fixed, or up-graded or something, and that GizDad is the one to do it. Emperor Dad has moved on to bigger and better things, but Philo hasn’t. Or can’t.”
“So… Chumpion back there thinks that if he kidnaps you, your father will give him a pair of magical ruby slippers?” Sizzle asked.
“Yeah, that’s what passes for strategic thinking with Philo,” Jobe said.
“So, how are we going to handle this?” Gloriana asked.
“There’s only one thing TO do!” Hazard said, reaching into her purse. She pulled out her PDA and started tabulating. “We need to establish a betting pool! Okay, the factors are where he’ll strike, how he’ll strike, how long it takes to put him down, and who does it. Jobe! Has Philo ever knocked himself out?”
* * * * * *
The limo driver was griping about the foot imprints on the roof of the car, so I had him pull over, and I used my PK to smooth out the dents. “Do you do fenders?” He asked.
* * * * * *
Having pretty much taken care of Stage One (undies, nighties and other scandalous things), we proceeded on to Stage Two: Casual and Sportswear. And there’s no better place to start than Bloomingdale’s. “Excuse me,” Jobe said looking around, “but WHY are we shopping here? I mean, I’ve heard of this place, but it’s so… mass market… We can afford to shop at the finest stores in the world!”
“Training wheels, Princess,” I said, looking through the racks of sweaters. “We need to get you broken in on the basics of shopping. The underwear places are, by definition, closed and discreet, so there wasn’t any real threat of you making a spectacle. But on this level, you need to be seen out in the open, in open light. So, you’ll have to learn how it’s done in a place where we won’t get a reputation for making fools of ourselves.”
“Ooohhh!” Misty gushed. “My Little Pony!”
* * * * * *
While we were poking around Bloomies, Sizzle found a sale on klubwear that wasn’t TOO dire. Okay, okay, so, for throwaway ‘look at me, ain’t I hawt’ slips of silk, they were pretty good. Belphy had the poor judgment to mention our round of club-hopping on the last trip, and, well, there was simply no stopping Sizzle. She simply HAD to make the rounds of the Big Apple’s world-famous nightlife, just so that she could brag about what a klub kid she was.
Okay, I could do with a night out on the town as well. I just wish that I could make the others see how badly this could turn out. The last thing we need is for Jobe to get drunk, and jab some goober who couldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer with something deadly – or worse, contagious. But I was overruled, and Belphy showed that she was learning at a frightening rate, and wheedled Mrs. Pierson into letting us go. But I managed to get Jobe to leave behind most of her deadlier toys.
We asked Javier, the limo driver, where the best dance clubs were – not the hottest, but the best, and he took us to a place in Chelsea called Bogie’s. At least Bogie’s wasn’t yet another converted warehouse or something like that. It was a converted A&P supermarket. No, don’t ask me, I don’t get it either.
Getting past the door king back in Boston hadn’t been that hard, but New York door kings take their power a lot more seriously. Gloriana, Sizzle, Misty and Hazard all got in easy. Jobe and Belphy were showing off their true skins, so they were ‘exotic’ on top of being gorgeous- any place else, and hysterical assholes would be screaming ‘mutant!’, but here they’re ‘exotic’. Go figure. But the guy whose ego was almost as big as his pecs did the ‘human wall’ number and said, “You don’t get in.” He said with the finality of a Supreme Court Justice.”
“Do you know who her father is?” Misty asked.
“I don’t fuggin’ care if he’s Doctah DOOM,” the door king said with the ultimate authority that only a person with a tiny amount of power can muster. “Now get outta my door, skank.”
“SKANK?” I echoed, feeling that tic on my right cheek kick in.
I was five seconds from getting beastly all over this mook, when Kate stepped up. “I’ll handle this.”
“Yeah? I’d like to see this,” the door-despot chuckled.
Kate used her shadows to get up eye-to-eye with the jerk. “We’re going in,” she said.
“Yeah… right!” the mook snorted.
* * * * * *
TWO MINUTES LATER
I’ll give him his due – the door-king was tough. He’d gone eye-to-eye with Kate for two minutes. He was sweating, in 30-degree weather. He was shaking. He was pale. But he was holding on.
Kate was as cool and calm as a cucumber, and she hadn’t moved a muscle or said a word. Then she got serious and opened up with the heavy artillery. She gave him one of her icy smiles.
He was only human. He broke. “Okay, okay! Go in! Just… don’t smile again… please?” Kate and I traipsed in, and as we passed into the holy of holies, I heard the door king roar, “And whadda YOU lookin’ at?” to someone behind us.
Inside, it was your basic dark-lit-by-flashes, eardrum-shattering electronica, thrashing bodies, uber-hip, tood-a-rama with a bunch of Maxim magazine wannabes trolling for ego gratification. Kate and I made our way to the bar, where Sizzle said, “Wow, they let you IN? MAN, this place has really gone to the dogs! When *I* first came here, it was COOL!”
I snagged an ice cube from somebody’s drink and dropped it down the front of her dress.
* * * * * *
As she thrashed her body around to the throbbing Electronica music, Belphoebe had an epiphany. Belphegor had always resented and was bewildered by attractive girls who flaunted their beauty, but were cold to his advances. Belphy had already grasped the concepts of liking looking good for its own sake, and for attracting a possible lover, like that sweet little brunette a few doors down from her and Jobe. But now, she understood how exhilarating it could be, drinking in the attention and appreciation of others for your beauty. Even if you didn’t want to get down and dirty with them, the very fact that they were in awe of you was a rush all in itself.
But, of course, there’s always a putz (like Pip) who just doesn’t get that, and has to go one step too far. Someone reached out and grabbed her by the wrist. Not bothering to see who it was, she pulled her arm back, trusting that the git would have the minimal sense to let go before she pulled his arm from its socket.
But she couldn’t pull free. The hand was as solid on her wrist as the Rock of Gibraltar. Bothering to see who it was, Belphy saw a tall, rather gangly-looking man in his mid-to-late thirties, wearing a hopelessly out-of-date shirt and jacket, holding onto her wrist with a look of grim satisfaction on his face. “How did a dog’s lunch like you get in here?” Belphy asked.
The man said something through a victorious grin.
“What?” Belphy said through the din. He said something, probably repeating it, but without the victorious grin. “YOU’LL HAVE TO SPEAK LOUDER,” Belphy said.
A look of annoyance spread over the man’s face, and he pulled Belphy closer and said loudly, “I’VE GOT YOU NOW, JOBE!”
‘Oh, it must be that Philo idiot again,’ Belphy thought to herself. “SORRY. WRONG DROW.”
“I SAID, WRONG DROW.”
“YES, NOW!” Philo shouted, clearly not getting it.
“NO, NOT ‘NOT NOW’; WRONG DROW!”
“I GOT IN THROUGH THE SKYLIGHT, WHY?”
“NO, NOT ‘HOW’, I SAID, WRONG DROW!” Philo looked confused, so Belphy changed her wording. “LOOK, ARSE-BANDIT, YOU’VE GOT THE WRONG BLOODY ELF!”
“YES, I’M HERE BY MYSELF, WHY?”
Belphy muted a snarl, and held up a finger. She dug around in her clutch purse that was draped over her shoulder and found what she was looking for. She pulled out a cell phone and flipped it open. She pointed to it with her other hand and held it in front of Philo’s face. Puzzled, Philo looked into it, and took the unit’s ‘Neuralizer’ flash right in the face. He immediately zoned out, and Belphy retrieved her wrist from his grasp.
Belphy rubbed her wrist a bit, and then perked up when something occurred to her. She looked at her cell phone, scrolled through a few options and let out a gleep of joy. She looked around and skittered happily in the direction of where Hazard, Jadis and Misty were sitting. Hazard was building some sort of elaborate contraption out of things laying about the bar and tables. Just as Belphy got up to the table, Hazard slapped down on the arrangement, sending a shot glass flying. The glass set off a Rube Goldberg chain of actions that ended with a waitress being tripped and spilling the tray of drinks that she was carrying on Philo, snapping him out of the trance his was in.
Belphy watched Philo fly up and away, her ears and shoulders drooping. Then she turned, ears laid back, and snarled at Hazard, “Dirty Pool, Haz. BLOODY Dirty Pool.”
* * * * * *
As Belphy stalked off to go dance some more, I turned to Hazard and raised an enquiring eyebrow. “And what was all that about?”
Haz smirked. “It’s the pool. I’m trying to leverage one of those ‘flashy-thingies’ out of Belphy.”
I quirked a non-smile at her. “I’ll remember that, when my patch in the pool comes up.”
* * * * * *
Take devisor powers, deadly toxins, Jobe’s personality, gushing female hormones, and Drow libido, blend with electronica music, male pheromones, and one too many margaritas; it’s a potent brew. It was big. It was ugly. It was embarrassing. <Wicked Evil Grin> I have pictures.
The next morning, Jobe was bright-eyed and bushy tailed (well, after about five minutes of well-earned pain and nausea; damned Drow metabolism!) and had no idea as to what had happened. So, I at least had the satisfaction of showing her the iPhone pictures. As Jobe reeled, the rest of us planned out our plan of attack. This morning, it was casual wear and sports stuff. “I still don’t see why you spend so much time fussing over each and every stitch of clothing,” Jobe grumbled as she tried to purge the images from my phone.
“For the same reason you spend so much time fussing over each and every genetic sequence,” I said as I snitched my phone back before Jobe could get rid of the bla- er, precious memories. “Because we’re trying to create a specific effect. Now, while physical beauty is a great place to build from-”
“How would you know?” Sizzle sniped.
“-it’s only the starting point,” I continued, ignoring the freeloader. “Clothing refines the impact that your looks make, getting across a subtle message about how you define yourself. For instance, Gloriana’s clothes send the message, ‘I’m confident, competent, refined, and I’m not hiding anything, but I’m not giving you a free show, either.’ Misty’s clothes say, ‘HI! I’m a friendly, down-home kind of girl.’ Hazard’s clothes say, ‘I’m sleek, sexy, and I know exactly what I’m about.’“ And I finished in a flat voice, “And Sizzle’s clothes say, ‘I take Visa and Mastercard.’“
“And Nacht’s clothes say-?” Jobe started to ask, before the thundering obviousness of the answer hit her. “They say, ‘I am the Dread Pirate Roberts; there will be no survivors.’“
“And don’t you ever forget that,” Kate droned.
* * * * * *
“Misty, do you remember the rule we established about unicorns?”
* * * * * *
“Lifts and separates? Lifts and separates what?”
* * * * * *
“Jobe, this is the Fashion Police! You’re surrounded! Put the culottes BACK on the rack, and nobody gets hurt!”
* * * * * *
“But we visited the Disney store in BOSTON…”
* * * * * *
“Well, I admit that it’s an interesting combination, Jobe…”
* * * * * *
“Put it back, Hazard. No, I don’t want to talk about it, just put it back.”
* * * * * *
“Needs more spiders.”
* * * * * *
“And WHY, on God’s green Earth, would I want to look like Hannah Montana?”
* * * * * *
“Would you mind if I took a digital photo of you? Thank you ever so much! <flash!>
* * * * * *
“That isn’t a digital camera? It does WHAT?”
* * * * * *
“It’s not that my father is a cold, distant, abusive asshole. He simply has no patience with idiots, and, well, there goes 99.9% of the human population!”
* * * * * *
“What? This catsuit has synthetics? Oh, I never would have guessed! And we’ve already paid for it! Oh, too bad, Jobe, you looked wonderful in it! Still, it IS paid for, and it does fit me a treat…”
* * * * * *
“No, Misty. Pink, yes. Ruffles, yes. Kittens, yes. But NOT all together.”
* * * * * *
“Hazard, if Thorn ever sees pictures of me in this outfit, I WILL know who showed him.”
* * * * * *
“But does it say, ‘Stern Sentinel of Justice’?”
* * * * * *
“I thought we weren’t going for the ‘Doublemint’ look.”
* * * * * *
“Well, Sizzle, you could always pay someone to sew an Oleg Cassini label on it.”
* * * * * *
“Why wouldn’t an intelligent, dynamic, charming woman want to be super-strong, super-quick, regenerating, devastatingly beautiful, and nearly immortal - with ME?”
* * * * * *
“Spiderwebs, spiders, lace, embroidered snakes, silver skulls – why JOBE! I never knew that you had TASTE!”
* * * * * *
“Yes, Jobe, that boy IS rather cute. What’s your point? Jobe? Jobe? <snaps fingers several times> Jobe? You’re drooling…”
* * * * * *
“Do you have anything that shows more cleavage?”
* * * * * *
“So, Hazard, is there any chance that I can buy another spot on the Anti-Champion pool?”
* * * * * *
Finally, I couldn’t put it off anymore. As we were trying to find an all-natural blend jumper outfit that didn’t look like it had been donated to the Salvation Army, I managed to get close to Jobe. “Jobe, I have good news and bad news for you.”
“You can undo his drow-ing, but she has to admit that he’s a total git?” Belphy said puckishly.
“No, I’m serious. Jobe, before I joined you this morning, I was approached by two people who were very interested in your Drow project.”
“Well, it’s about TIME!” Jobe said, tearing her attention from the chiffon atrocity that she was checking out. “Really, with the obvious benefits from a proven treatment, I’d have thought that there’d be girls lined up and beating down my door!”
“There are,” I assured her. “But only the ones who want your head on a pike. Still, one of them IS interested in taking the Drow treatment. But there’s a catch. What do you know about Chimerical Trait Acquisition?”
It turned out that not only was Jobe quite familiar with CTA, but she was more than a trifle interested in examining Bova’s DNA. “It complicates the overall cellular transition, but the interaction between the two should prove VERY enlightening!”
“Cool your jets, Doctor Gluegenes,” I warned her. “I’m gonna have to check this Bova chick out. Get a look at her records, psych profiles, medical exams – especially her brain scans – cast a few divinations, and so on like that. If she doesn’t go blank-brain from the process, you’re gonna have to put up with her for a LONG TIME.”
“I must say, for someone who keeps saying that she thinks that the Drow are a bad idea, you do seem to worry about things going wrong for them,” Glor noted.
“Hey, Carson’s gonna be pissed about this, no matter which side the pancake lands on,” I answered. “If the transformation is a success, and Bova remains sane, then Carson won’t have as much ammunition, and we won’t have Whitman Cottage screaming for Jobe’s blood – well, anymore than usual, anyway.”
“Actually, it’s just force of habit,” Kate snipped. “Jadis has been cleaning up after Jobe for years, and after that mess with the Fury twins…” Kate rolled her eyes and gave a long, low whistle of dismay.
“By the way, Mater, are you sure that it’s a good idea to create more drow?” Belphy asked.
“Of course, it’s a good idea! The Nation of the Drow is an idea whose time is long overdue!”
“An entire NATION of drows?” Sizzle asked incredulously. “Are you kidding? It’s weird enough with TWO of you, looking exactly the same! But an entire Nation, all looking the same? And exactly how many do you need for a nation?”
“We’re NOT all going to look the same!” Jobe went into typical devisor lecture mode. “I put a LOT of work into designing this body, and I explored as many possible looks and configurations as I possibly could, and I executed genome models to see exactly how many permutations I could work while maintaining enzymic cohesion. While this configuration IS eminently the most desirable of all, I thrashed out no less than 78 possible physiques for my perfect bride, ranging from petite little pixies to strapping amazons, all with their own distinctive look, and all drop-dead gorgeous. This Bova girl – IF she meets my stringent standards for the Drow – will have the entire range of somatotypes-”
“Somatotype is a pretentious way of saying ‘body type’,” Kate explained for Misty and Sizzle.
Jobe shot Kate a nasty look, which Kate returned with her usual glacial composure. “Bova will have the entire range of somatotypes to choose from,” Jobe finished. “It will merely be a matter of picking the perfect physique to send the appropriate message. Like THIS.” Jobe pulled a jumper from the rack and held it in front of her with a triumphant grin.
The rest of us looked at Jobe’s choice with unanimous disdain. “Well, we can hope that Bova’s got better taste,” Hazard said as she took the offending item and returned it to the rack. “And a better selection.”
“And that’s the good news, Jobe,” I went on. “It seems that the Drow have already made an enemy.”
“How?” Belphy asked. “Jobe hasn’t been a drow long enough for everyone who hates her to spread that bile around to the race entire- by which I mean ME.”
“More to the point, WHO?” Gloriana asked.
“Oh, no doubt some trivial little nonentity who resents the fact that Belphy and I totally eclipse him or her in every possible way, and finds the notion of an entire race of such glory unbearable,” Jobe said, nose high in air.
“Actually, it’s Fey. You know, not only the hawtest chick on campus, AND a candidate for the most powerful mage, AND a core member of this year’s hot power team, BUT according to Mystic Arts department scuttlebutt, possibly the long-lost Queen of the Sidhe. ‘Trivial little nonentity’? Not hardly.”
Jobe made a dismissive snort. “Please. Fey is SO last year.” She draped an arm over Belphy’s shoulder. “The Drow are the new hot elves on the scene, and once we get the Drow Nation really going, we’ll blow those lop-eared tree-huggers off the stage.”
I rubbed my eyes. “I don’t think that you GET what you’re stepping into, Jobe. I know that it’s going to be asking a lot of you, but put the biotech text down, and find a book on the old legends of the Fey. And not ‘fairy tales’, but real books about Celtic, Norse, and other cultures takes on the Fey. You’ll find that they’re remarkably consistent, especially on one issue: fairy vengeance. The Fey don’t do tit-for-tat or symbolic gestures or any of that; when they get riled up they are downright vicious. Before the Victorians started watering them down for the kiddies, the Grimm’s Fairy Tales really were pretty damn grim.”
But of course, Jobe just blew this off, as she always did whenever I mentioned anything having to do with magic. Really, I simply do NOT understand the Scientific Community’s collective need to diminish the supernatural. I mean, it’s not like magic is this vague, mysterious thing that a lot of people claim to have seen, but there aren’t any pictures of it, like an honest politician. I mean, HELLO? A fricking DRAGON rampaged through Pyanying, China last year! MILLIONS of witnesses! But they’re still all ‘oh, it can be explained by mundane forces, blah, blah, blah’. Just because their instruments go blooey when they try to measure anything magical, they say that magic as classically defined doesn’t exist. One of the few things, possibly the ONLY thing that I respect about Belphegor, is that while he can’t do magic, he admits that it’s there.
After we depleted that store, we went over to Body Image, a store that specialized in Gym Wear and like that. The girls were picking through Body Image’s inventory, allegedly looking for exercise wear for the drow that didn’t have synthetics blended in (HA!), but Kate was just holding back. “I’m allergic to neon orange.” Well, holding back from the shopping, at least.
Then this broad – and you know what I mean by ‘broad’; she looked like she belonged in Los Angeles, or at the very least New Jersey - walked up and looked at Kate like she was something that the poodle just squat-and-dropped. Said bimbo was tall, a few inches taller than Glor (allowing for the needle heels on her boots), which is saying something, with big fluffy platinum blonde hair, and a body that Playboy would have rejected on the grounds that it exceeded their maximum silicone limit, all wrapped up in a mini-dress that wouldn’t leave much to the imagination of a Xerox machine, thigh-high hooker boots, and a long fur coat. Said frat boy’s wet dream slid her mirrored shades down her little turned up nose and looked icily at Kate. Kate returned the icy glare, and won on style, execution, duration, intensity and sheer frostiness. “Oh…” the tart said with a sneer. “It IS you.”
“Doesn’t this store have a ‘No Hookers Allowed’ sign?” Kate immediately shot back.
“I suppose that you think that you got away with it.”
“You made a new friend, Kate?” I asked blithely.
“Jadis, this is Doctor Venus, we met rather… forcefully… in Los Angeles over the Christmas vacation. Oh! Jobe! I think that you two should meet. Jobe, this is Dr. Venus, she’s a bio-geek like you. She allegedly spliced herself that body from scratch. Dr. Venus, this is Jobe Wilkins, who spliced herself into that body by accident. Now, you two go talk alleles or enzymes or something; I’m going to go do something interesting, like watch tar melt.”
Dr. Venus twisted her pouty lips into a sneering grin, “JOBE? Jobe Wilkins?”
Jobe laid back her ears and said, “Well, I didn’t think that it was possible, but that body is just as inane and vapid as your last posted thesis.”
Dr. V curled a lip and sneered, “Oh, this from the BOY who was all over my ass about using my procedures on myself? At least *I* stayed the same SEX, faggo!” And it went on like this for a bit. It seems that Jobe and Dr. V knew each other from the high-end genetics and biology chatrooms that Jobe trolls.
As they went at it, screeching like a couple of cats on the same back fence, the rest of us stood back and watched. “It’s bloody pathetic,” Hazard drawled. “Two socially stunted swots trying to be bitch queens at each other.”
“And yet, it’s strangely watchable,” Glor commented, a note of wonder in her voice. “Rather like watching two overweight viddy game nerds, who’ve only played martial arts video games, trying to Kung Fu each other.”
“Shouldn’t we stop them?” Misty asked, worried. “I mean, what if Jobe loses her temper and uses one of those claws of hers?”
“Not to worry,” Kate droned. “Dr Venus didn’t just splice herself into a Pam Anderson knockoff, she also spliced some energizer into the mix.”
“She can do that?”
“Yeah, but it’s not stable. She has to constantly renew the treatment, or her condition will begin to deteriorate. I hear that her lab bills are KILLER.”
“Humph!” Sizzle snorted. “JOBE would never do that kind of sloppy work.”
“Yeah, but Dr. Venus has gone places that Jobe would never have dared to, and it bugs the hell out of her.”
Finally Dr. Venus gave in, snorted a miffed ‘humfph!’ and minced out of the store, nose up in the air.
“Very good, my child,” I said to Jobe in a ‘wise sensei enlightening the eager disciple’ voice, “you emerge from your first combat victorious. Your bitching skills are developing well. But do not think that you have mastered the Way of the Snarky Bitch. You have much to learn. You didn’t say anything about those shoes she was wearing. Your Bitch-Fu is good, but you need discipline.”
“And the hair,” Kate added. “Hair, especially Dolly Parton-style hayracks like she had, is always a good target.”
“And her MAKEUP!” Sizzle moaned as we made our purchases, “It’s like someone painted over the Mona Lisa with finger paints!”
“The fur coat?” Belphy asked, trying to get in on the action as we left the door. “It looked like she spliced it out of rat pelts?”
“Not bad,” Hazard said, “but with furs, it’s usually best to go for a Cruella DeVil reference. That gets ‘em on the quality, morality AND style issues, all at once.”
“ACTUALLY, I always rather liked Cruella DeVil,” Dr. Venus said as she stepped into our path. “She knew what she was about.”
“WHY, Dr Veee-NUS!” I breezed, “We were just talking about you!”
“So I heard,” she snarled as eight big buff guys with fitness model bodies and male model features surrounded us, holding what looked to be very nasty energy weapons on us.
“Wow, I’m impressed,” Kate droned. “You already replaced the guys you lost at Christmas? What did you do, raid a Star Trek convention?”
“Aw, come ON!” I moaned, “Even a ditz like YOU can’t be petty enough to try and whack us over a few snotty comments?”
“True enough,” Dr. V purred with a nasty grin. “But gaining not only two living samples of Jobe’s magnum opus, but the source of all that know-how, no matter how second-rate, is more than enough reason to get tough. Bitch.”
Glor stepped forward and got her Queen Victoria on. “Dr. Venus, I feel that I should warn you that both Jobe and Belpheobe are students at Whateley Academy, as are the rest of us, and as such, we are under protection from both the Whateley Alumni Association and the Syndicate. Not to mention, Jobe’s Diplomatic Immunity. Very well, you’ve made your show of strength; now, we do have to get moving, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
Dr. Venus just stood there and smiled nastily. “Yeah, well, that’s nice, honey. But all that just is a problem if anyone knows that I’ve taken them, now isn’t it? And you’re a Whateley girl? Well, then you’ll make for wonderful sources of DNA. And test subjects. Wrap them up boys, I’ll take them!”
I just hate it when intelligent people are willfully stupid. I sighed and was about to tell Kate to handle this, when, suddenly! Out of the sky! Flying to the rescue! It’s…
AC dropped behind Dr. Venus and got her in a chokehold. “Okay Jobe, no fucking around this time! Surrender, or I’ll snap her neck!” As one, all of Dr. V’s ridiculously good-looking hench-hunks turned their energy weapons on AC. “What?”
“FIRE!” Dr. V snarled as she gave AC a jolt of electromagnetic power. Of course, this was like throwing a bucket of gasoline on the Human Torch, so it quickly got very involved and messy. Thank God, we weren’t a part of it. It required practically towing Gloriana away from the scene, but we got to the limo without any real problems.
I had Hector, the limo driver, pull up next to Dr. Venus, as she watched her boys mix it up with Anti-Champion. I powered the window down and said out the window, “Hey, Doctor V? Who would you rather I report this to: The Academy, the Alumni Association, the Syndicate, or my father?”
“Your father?” she echoed in obvious bewilderment. “Why should I care about your DADDY?”
“Oh, that’s right, I never did introduce myself, did I? Hello, I’m Jadis. Jadis Diabolik.” As the ‘Oh Shit!’ expression melted across her face, I powered the window up and had Hector drive off.
“You know, for someone who’s always complaining about how her father has screwed up her life, you LOVE to drop that bomb on people,” Sizzle said from her part of the compartment.
“Hey, if I have to put up with self-appointed tragic avengers like Nemesis, then I can enjoy what perks come with it,” I shot back.
“Who WAS that ODD woman,” Glor asked, “and WHY did she have all those amazingly good-looking men with her? Is she some sort of evil modeling agency executive?”
“There are evil models?”
“Of course, Misty! Who do you think Super-Models fight?”
“SHE is a third-rater who does sloppy work, and I refuse to waste any more of my valuable time on her,” Jobe said pettishly. “It’s bad enough that I have to waste time that could be better be put to use putting that elastic, tissue-raping, walking cancer that pollutes the very air of Whateley, into a thousand separate Petrie dishes, where she could be analyzed, studied and finally ERADICATED!”
“Are you STILL on that?” Belphy sighed.
“Still?” Jobe barked back, “Of COURSE I’m still on it! A Wilkins NEVER gives up on a vendetta! When Dad declared war on Champion-3, he-”
“He wasted a good-sized fortune in combat robots, fiendish devices, doomsday machines, augmented stooges, and practically every other trite cliché in the supervillain trope cache,” Kate sniped, bored.
“What’s Jobe talking about?” Misty asked me.
I gave a duly martyred sigh. “Jobe has declared vendetta on that Kellith weirdo over in Hawthorne, because she wouldn’t play nice-nice when he asked her to. Okay, Jobe, I’ll admit, she screwed you over royally by slurping up all your unaltered cells, but really! THINK about it! She could easily really have messed you over, just by not being careful! She could have left you a drooling vegetable, or crippled you in ways that even your regen factor couldn’t cure! She could have left you with any of a thousand banes or curses or taboos, but she didn’t!”
I thought that maybe something I’d said had sunk in, because Jobe seemed thoughtful, but instead she pulled out her PDA and muttered as she wrote, ‘Drooling Vegetable…’
“You mean, she really IS carrying on a Blood Feud with that ‘Carmilla’ creature?” Gloriana asked incredulously.
“FOUR attacks, this week alone,” Belphy grumped, “Bugs, bugs, bugs! Jobe, what IS it with you and BUGS?”
“I have chosen my weapon,” Jobe said haughtily, “and now I am honing my arsenal, in preparation for delivering the crushing blow.”
“Why hasn’t the Administration come down on this like a thundering bolt from above?” Glor asked, aghast.
“Don’t ask me,” I grumped, “I expected Security to break down their door after the first swarm of exploding bumblebees.”
“Hazard, let me start the betting pool,” Kate said, holding up a ten dollar bill. “I put Ten on Reverend Englund running interference for Jobe, hoping that she’ll do what he couldn’t on Halloween.”
There was a bit of spirited wagering, but then we had to take care of business, and I told Hector the address of the Karedonian embassy. Yes, embassy, not consulate. Karedonia has its embassy in New York, as Emperor Wilkins makes a show of courting the other micro-states who all have a vote in the UN General Assembly, over the US.
The Karedonian embassy is done in the style that you’d expect from a wealthy micro-state run by an angry science geek, triumphant and obnoxious. Fortunately, I had Hector pull up around the corner and told him to use his ingenuity to find a place to wait for us. We all got out, and Jobe and Misty started towards the corner. I gave them a sharp New York whistle and asked, “Where you two going?”
“We’re… going… to the Embassy… right?” she waffled. I shook my head and pointed at the green awning that had ‘Wilkins Fine Meats’ on it. Jobe stuck out her lower lip and stomped towards it.
“WHY are we going to a butcher shop?” Gloriana asked as she followed us into the shop.
“Because going through the Embassy bureaucracy is a pain in the ass, and Mrs. Barnes needs some things to feed this crew. Hello, Your Excellency!” I greeted the weedy looking man with the pushbroom mustache standing behind the counter. “Mrs. Barnes sends her regards, and here’s her order.”
Ralph Wilkins, the Karedonian ambassador to the UN, took the paper and looked at it. “Hello, Jadis, Kate” he said with a suspicious twitch of his mustache. “Who are the rest of them?”
“It’s me, Unk,” Jobe said. “An annoying lab accident, spider bite, wrong serum, that sort of thing. I’m working on a counter-measure, but in the mean time, I’m stuck using the good restrooms. This lot is draining my clothing allowance dry under the pretext of helping me pick out a suitable wardrobe.”
“I know about the accident, Jobe,” the ambassador said coldly. “Now, Jadis, please wait while I take care of the Venezuelan ambassador’s wife.”
As Mr. Wilkins carved up an order of lamb, Gloriana quietly asked me, “Jadis, WHY is the Karedonia ambassador working as a mere butcher?”
“There’s nothing ‘mere’ about Mr. Wilkins’ butchering,” I answered. “He is to meat handling what Jobe is to gene splicing. He is, hands down, THE best butcher in New York. And I mean New York STATE, not City. All the Wilkinses are like that; they aren’t just very good at what they do, they’re passionate about it. When Gizmatic had Karedonia join the UN, he decided that family was the only one that he could trust to handle his business – at least, without discipline collars, that is – so he made his older brother Ralph his ambassador. Well, Ralph Wilkins wasn’t about to give up a butchering practice that he’d spent decades building up, just to cater to his tech-geek little brother, so he decided to let the professionals handle all the paperwork, and keep cutting meat.”
“And they LET him?”
“Why wouldn’t they? Do you know how hard it is to find a really good butcher in New York, let alone one who doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for a leg of mutton? Ambassador Ralph uses his diplomatic immunity to get his customers the best meat, while using the fact that he’s tax exempt to give them low prices. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he doesn’t have to pay off the New York Health Dept. inspectors.”
“I see…” Glor said, obviously not really getting it that New York Health inspectors are notoriously corrupt and greedy. “But why are we talking to him down HERE?”
“What? And go through the embassy bureaucracy? That would take hours and a small fortune in bribes. Besides, most of the real diplomatic business with Karedonia gets done down here, off the record.”
Mr. Wilkins finished up the Venezuelan ambassador’s wife’s order, and sent her off with a cryptic comment about Panama. As he started on the veal cutlets, Jobe said impatiently, “Okay, Unk, what’s all this crap about you giving the nod to those stupid UN sanctions?”
Mr. Wilkins gave Jobe an icy glare over his bristling mustache. “Jobe, you are a sore disappointment to me. I thought you understood. I thought that you were better than my little brother, or my other nephew, or even my own SON! You have no idea how heartbroken I was when I heard that you were behind that… abomination in Tikdoshe that Generalissimo Chiruwi perpetrated. I cried when I heard about it. Yes, I cried.”
“Unk, I had nothing to do with the ethnic cleansing, I just sold him some modified cows.”
“THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT! D’you think that I care about a bunch of half-naked savages who’d just go around slaughtering each other if they weren’t busy starving to death? What you did was an insult to Honest BEEF! Tumorous growths all over the poor cattle? Do you have any idea of what that tastes like? Stringy, spongy…” he ranted on like this for a while, doing Mrs. Barnes’ order while he raved. In anyone else, I’d be worried that he’d cut himself, he was that upset. But not Ralph Wilkins. Some butchers just hack and saw at the meat, but not him. Watching him carve meat is like watching Isaac Stern play the violin. “When you decided that you were interested in Biology and not that stupid hardware that my brother is always sticking into himself, I thought that there was hope for you, Jobe. I thought that you understood and respected flesh!”
Jobe rubbed her eyes and assumed a position that I think is her ‘dear God, why do you plague me with idiots that I can’t order killed?’ pose. “Okay, Unk, since it means so much to you, I’ll give back the money for the next shipment of adjusted cows. Not that it’ll do any good. I’ve heard that Chiruwi’s had men grafting tumors onto unmodified cows. They’ll kill the cows, but, hey, if it makes you feel better… Okay, while you were foaming at the mouth about this, did you at least talk to his Imperial Majesty, the Dad, about the statement of recognition, acknowledging that I am, indeed, ME, Crown Prince, Heir to the Empire, and all that?”
“And what about ME?” Belphy cut in eagerly. “Have they made any decisions as regards ME? I’m Belphoebe, by the way. Am I Jobe’s sister or daughter or what? Am I Heir Apparent, or Presumptive, or Crown Princess, or Royal Princess, or just a Princess? Does a crown or tiara or something go with it?” She finished, her sapphire blue eyes sparkling with Status Greed.
“I wonder what Wills and Harry were like,” Gloriana mused quietly.
The Ambassador held up his hand regally. “Yes, I’ve spoken with my brother, and for once, we are in complete agreement. Even now, a statement has been made to the proper agencies. That is ALL taken care of.”
“And ME?” Belphy peeped.
“You’re taken care of, as well.” With that, he handed me Mrs. Barnes’ order, and he told us to get out, that he had a big order to fill for the Syrian embassy’s party.
“Well!” Jobe said with the air of having taken gotten a tiresome chore over and done with. “So? What’s next on our list? Do we finally get around to getting some decent office wear? I may not understand all the trifling bits about women’s dresses – YET, but I do understand the importance of giving the right message in the business office. A woman’s got to look GOOD, but still-”
Never let Jobe start lecturing; she’ll never stop. I cut her off with, “Actually Jobe, I was thinking that it’s time that we initiated you and Belphy into a sacred female mystery: SHOES.”
“Shoes? But I’ve already GOT shoes!” Even Belphy joined in the derisive laughter at that one.
* * * * * *
“One foot in front of the other, and keep reminding yourself, ‘they make my legs look fabulous!’“
* * * * * *
“But this looks just LIKE that other pair of black pumps!”
“NO, they DON’T. Look at them again…”
* * * * * *
“Just remember: discomfort is temporary, but a great entrance is forever!”
* * * * * *
“Oh, yeah, Sizzle, I can really see you doing 95 MPH in THOSE heels…”
* * * * * *
“No Jobe, don’t look at the price tag, just hand it to the salesgirl and say ‘Do you have this in cherry red?’ If you look at the price tag, you’re just making yourself crazy.”
* * * * * *
As we walked out of Prada, Belphy looked down at her feet and cooed, “I have the cutest toes!”
Sizzle had a look like she’d conquered Mount Everest. She threw back her shoulders and sighed, “Do you feel that, Jobe? That’s the thrill of knowing that, no matter what else life throws at you, you’re wearing great shoes…”
“Yep, I’d like to see anyone diss us right now,” I said with confidence. Of course, God having that kind of humor, I may have been setting myself up.
“Well, well, well…” sleazed an oily voice that I didn’t need eidetic recall to place. “Jadis Diabolik, as I live and breathe, what are YOU doing in town with these two lovely young ladies?” the slimeball in question smirked in the general direction of Jobe and Belphy.
“Well, well, well…” I said mockingly right back at him, turning on my digital recorder, just so that he couldn’t put words into my mouth again. “Jack Prewitt, as I get violently ill… hopefully all over that cheap-ass jacket you’re wearing.”
“What?” he said, mock-hurt, “You’re not going to introduce me to your fetching friends?”
“Not if I want to keep them as my friends, dickwad. Now, scram, before I have you hauled off for lowering the tone of Fifth Avenue.”
“His name’s Jack Prewitt,” Kate stepping up, face set in her ‘Wednesday Addams on the warpath’ mode. “Do you remember how Jadis said that some sleazy, slander-mongering reporter at some tabloid rag-”
“Hey, the New York Times is NOT a tabloid!”
“Then what are YOU doing there? Cleaning out the spittoons?”
“Actually, I was wondering WHY the daughter of Dr. Diabolik was spending time with the, ah, child, of Gizmatic, and his – or her, depending on your point of view – ah, ‘Science Project’.”
Warning bells went off in my head a second too late. “Hold on. How do YOU know who they are?”
Prewitt’s answer was cut off by a shriek that was, incredibly, even harder on the ears than his voice would have been. It was a bone-rattling, eardrum breaking yodeling screech that grated on every nerve I had. But I’ve been sonically attacked before, and I put up my beast-skin, which muffled the worst of the ruckus. Glor, Sizzle, Hazard and Misty weren’t anywhere near as lucky, and both Jobe and Belphy were in sheer agony. Kate did her thing where she melts down into a puddle of Erebreal darkness. Prewitt stuck something into his ears, and pulled out a cell phone and started flashing pictures for all he was worth.
Gryphon must not have gotten the memo from Tiger Girl; her power frame set down and kept blasting us as the rest of the Cadets formed ranks behind her. I chugged towards Gryphon, fully intending to rip those speakers off that power frame and ramming them up her ass, but that ass Ultramax charged at me, knocked me back, and immediately rebounded back to safety. Then Splendor and some new guy all tricked out in silver and black kept me off balance with blasts. But Kate held up her end by popping up behind Gryphon, popping the hatch on the armor (don’t ask how) and yanking the cables on Griff’s sound system. Misty shook her head, cleared out the woofles, and slammed the Cadets down with a crushing 5 G field. Tiger Girl, Splendor, Aurora, and Rubber Boy were mashed down into the concrete, but Tower, Ultramax, Griff and the new guy were hanging tough. That is, until Misty switched off the heavy Gs, and reduced their gravity to Nil. They were braced for five gees, and their own legs catapulted them into the air. Tower had the wits to shrink down to his default size, and Aurora caught him on the fly with her TK, and the new guy sprouted a pair of jets from somewhere, but Griff landed hard, and I think I heard something in the leg struts break.
Still, that gave our crew a chance to recover. Or, at the very least, it gave Sizzle a chance to run away, which IS what she does best. Gloriana whipped out one of her ‘Glories’, which had its usual ‘whhoooaaa…’ effect. Belphy scrambled around in her purse for something to use, and Jobe was reaching for her hold-outs. Holdouts, which, unfortunately, weren’t there, because I’d insisted that she put them aside while we were shopping.
Rubber Boy reached out and tried to grapple Jobe. BAD idea on the kid’s part. Jobe’s handled stretchers before, and before you could say ‘Boy Scout Handbook’, she had him in a double-half-hitch. Nightchylde came out of a pool of darkness and grappled Kate. They disappeared back into that pool of darkness. Tiger Girl tried to jump Misty before she could do anything more, but I caught her on the fly. The new guy, whose name I hadn’t caught yet, tried to grapple my beast skin. The silver bits on the matte black of the rest of his outfit flowed and formed a set of manacles. Nice try; I simply broke free of them, though his ploy did give Tower an opening to go for Misty. But, as Tower was crouching down to grab at her, Misty slammed him with another 5G weight increase, and he face-planted on the sidewalk.
I was trying to figure out what to do next, when I felt a tingling in my head. I turned to see Aurora floating there, her trademark ‘rosy hues of dawn’ playing around her head. She was trying to do something to my head with telepathy. She quickly found out that that’s a BAD idea. Her eyes popped open, and she screamed, “Oh My GOD! What ARE you?”
Belphy had a few dinguses out of her purse and was fiddling with them and the rest of us were warming up for the second go round, when the Empire City Guard showed up. “Oh, thank GOD!” I breathed, shedding my ‘beast skin’, “It’s about TIME the-”
“FREEZE, DIABOLIK!” Doctor Thunder shouted, aiming her thunder-gun right at me. “You’re under arrest!”
“Arrest? For WHAT?”
Kate stepped out of a pool of darkness, dragging Nightchylde after her. Nightchylde was curled up in a fetal ball, shivering. “Wow. The superheroes are siding with the kid sidekicks. What a shocker.”
Jobe stepped forward and flashed her Diplomatic Credentials. “I don’t know what the rest of them are supposed to have done, but Belphy here – she’s the one who’s almost as beautiful as I am – and I have Diplomatic Immunity, as part of the Imperial family of Karedonia.”
“We know who you are,” Paladin barked, trying to muscle in on Dr. Thunder’s limelight again. “You’re the one that we’re here to arrest! You’re under arrest for Crimes against Humanity!”
“What?” Jobe sputtered. “What about ‘Diplomatic Immunity’ doesn’t penetrate that depleted moronium SKULL of yours?”
“What?” Gryphon said, obviously gloating, even through the PA system. “You haven’t heard? GizMatic issued a statement two hours ago, officially stating that the person calling themselves Jobe Wilkins was not recognized as a part of the Wilkins family or as part of the Imperial line in any way, shape or form, and not covered by Diplomatic Immunity.”
“What?” Jobe bleated, her big lavender eyes going wide with shock, and maybe it was dawning on her exactly how screwed she was. “Dad… disowned… me?”
* * * * * *
Assistant District Attorney Linus Garfield gloated at me in the little ‘interview’ room at Foley Square. “Well, well, well… the daughter of Doctor Diabolik. Caught red-handed, no doubt about it, hand in the cookie jar. Quite a feather in my cap.”
I said nothing, and stared straight ahead. One of the first things that you learn as the kid of a supervillain is ‘Lawyer Up’. Like they say on all the cop shows, you have a right to remain silent, and anything you say can and will be used against you in court of law. That nice cop, the one who says that he wants to help you? He’s not your friend. He will screw you over seven ways to Sunday, just to speed up the paper work. Just sit still, look straight ahead, say NOTHING, and wait for your lawyer to come, and let him do the talking. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done anything or not, just Lawyer Up. Don’t argue the Law with them. ADAs love suckering chumps into debates on the Law; it’s like playground bullies pestering a smaller kid into throwing the first punch.
“You’re going away forever, Diabolik. There’s no way that you’re walking away from this. No freak Academy is going to save you. You’re going to spend the rest of your life in an iron BOX.”
I kept looking straight ahead.
“I should bring Jason Timbrook in here. He deserves something, after what you did to him.”
That was the most heartening thing that I’d heard all day. He’s trying to get a rise out of me. That means that he wants me to make a mistake. Which means that his case isn’t as strong as he’s saying it is. When Parky gets here, he’s gonna hand Garfield his ass.
Garfield spent the better part of a half hour verbally harassing me, until Dunmore walked into the room, followed by two NYPD detectives who were loudly protesting that this interview room was empty. J. Parkinson Dunmore is Five-Six, maybe 180 pounds dripping wet, fifty-something years old, balding, and Central Casting would send him out for roles as an accountant. He looks like a wimp.
DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT.
J. Parkinson Dunmore is to legal jurisprudence what Tinsnip is to contract assassination. He is THE guy you never want to hear is on your ass. He is tough, ruthless, effective, canny, and utterly relentless. What? You thought that Dr. Dad would make just any lawyer my Legal Guardian? And Parky takes his duties deadly serious. “Well, well, it seems that we’ve found one of our little lost lambs. Well, Jadis, what have you told Mr. Garfield here, without benefit of legal counsel?” I mimed zipping my lips. “Good. And what of the other girls who were with you?”
“Well, Kate, Hazard and Belphy all know to keep their mouths shut. And Jobe’s in shock. I told Misty and Gloria to stay quiet until you got here, but I dunno how well it sunk in. Gloria’s got notions of being a superhero.”
“Superhero?” Garfield sneered, “Then WHY did she attack the Cadet Crusaders, when they were acting under direct orders from the New York Attorney General’s office, to apprehend a dangerous threat to society?”
“You ordered them to attack President Bush?”
Then Parky stepped in and showed Garfield that his Law-Fu was better than Garfield’s Law-Fu. I said that the Cadets hadn’t identified themselves before attacking, which threw any Resisting Arrest or Obstruction charges out the window. Garfield said that Prewitt had made a statement that the Cadets had properly identified themselves and stated that they were acting on an issued warrant. Parky had the advantage that I had that digital recording of Prewitt questioning me, which was immediately followed by Gryphon’s trademark shriek, with NO voice announcing any legal action. Parky also busted Garfield’s chops about Gryphon using a sonic weapon in a crowded urban setting, recklessly endangering innocent bystanders. One of the reasons why sonic weaponry is mostly used by supervillains and techno-baddies is that they’re tightly controlled in most countries, and there are a ton of weapons treaties against them, at least the ones that do traumatic damage, rather than ‘dissuade’. That’s largely because you can’t AIM the fucking things; they do collateral damage like you wouldn’t believe. And Gryphon had been using that ‘shriek’ thing for years, mostly under the auspices of the NYC DA’s office. Then Parky brought out the secondary attached complaints, damages, and so forth, and Garfield slapped the mat to finish it.
Parky shoved a clipboard of forms at Garfield. Garfield gave Parky the ‘are you fucking yanking my chain?’ raised eyebrow. Parky responded with the ‘No, I’m giving you a chance to walk out of this with your head still attached to your shoulders’ glower. Garfield gave him the ‘I don’t wanna’ pout. Parky came back with the ‘Ask me if I give a shit’ deadpan and shoved the clipboard at him again. Garfield signed with all the enthusiasm of someone signing away his first born child.
It took a little more time prying the others away from the DA’s goons. As I predicted, Belphy and Hazard had hung tough and given Garfield’s bozos nothing but studied silence as they worked on them. Glor had this odd notion that she was one of the good guys, and they were good guys, so she had nothing to fear from them. Strange, she’s really a very intelligent girl, otherwise. Still, she’s got the social skills, and the detective didn’t get anything out of her that they could use against us. When we found Misty, Garfield asked the detective grilling her, “Did you get her to talk?”
“aaahhh… YEAH,” the detective said with a croggled look on his face.
“What did she say?”
“I have NO idea…” the detective said as he leafed through at least fifty pages of notes.
When we found Kate, we was just sitting there quietly, glaring impassively into one corner. Huddled in that corner was the detective assigned to her, cowering and shivering. “Kate! Stop scaring the 20-year veteran of Law Enforcement!”
“Very well, it only took an HOUR to find the girls that you claimed weren’t even here,” Parky said snidely. “Now, where’s Jobe Wilkins, the one that all the fuss is about?”
“LOOK, Dunmore, even though you got the rest of these menaces to society off on a technicality-”
“More aptly, you couldn’t hang them on a technicality.”
“That Wilkins freak is a dead-bang lockup.”
“That’s what you said about me,” I cut in.
“What are the charges?” Parky picked up the ball again.
“Crimes against Humanity, in relation to the atrocities committed by the Chiruwi regime in Tikdoshe.”
“Which is a sitting, legally constituted, and officially recognized government. AND, everything that happened there is well out of the jurisdiction of the New York City District Attorney’s office, so WHY did you send those spandex-wearing juvenile delinquents to attack her?”
“We were acting on behalf of the UN, to be extradited to The Hague which has passed a condemnation of Jobe Wilkins, for her part in-”
“Leaving aside the fact that the UN doesn’t have the authority to arrest anyone, even through the agency of your office, you’re trying to get two negatives make a positive,” Parky spelled out carefully. “Your position is that since Miss Wilkins hasn’t been recognized by Karedonia as Prince Jobe, that she has no Diplomatic Standing, and so she can be arrested in pursuit of the UN injunction, which is questionable enough, in itself. However, Emperor Wilkins hasn’t disowned Jobe. No, the Karedonian embassy has merely issued an announcement that they do not recognize the female asserting to be Prince Jobe’s claims. Prince Jobe Wilkins is still therefore a legally existing entity. The UN’s sanctions are against Jobe Wilkins. Emperor Wilkins, and therefore the Law, does not recognize that young lady as Prince Jobe Wilkins. If the United States, which requires a statement from the State Department, not a branch of the local government, recognizes the young lady as the person for whom the sanctions are set, then they must also recognize that she is Prince Jobe Wilkins, and as such, her diplomatic standing.
“However, if she is NOT Prince Jobe Wilkins, and as such without diplomatic standing, then she is not the person for which the sanctions are set, and so, you have no reason to be holding her.”
Give him his due, Garfield tried to argue that the UN’s sanctions were against a renegade genetic engineer, and that the matter of diplomatic status was irrelevant. Parky counter-argued that the sanctions were very specific, and that the DA was trying to have his cake and eat it too. They went at it some more, but in the end, Garfield had to admit again that Parky’s Law Fu was better. Think of Parky as Yoda and Garfield as Count Dooku, and replace the light sabers with legal briefs and citations; it was just like that.
Garfield melted into a puddle of corruption – or just left the room in a huff (hey, leave me my inner fantasies). With a winsome smile, I asked the detectives, “Okay, now that that’s all cleared up, where’d you stash Jobe? You didn’t pull that ‘Lockup Roulette’ dodge, and lose her, did you?”
The detective grinned nastily and said, “Nah, we know exactly where she is. We put her in the Supervillain tank, where she belongs.”
“Don’t worry, we didn’t put her in with the guys, we put her in the Super-Fish Tank.”
“Are you NUTS?” I demanded, “You gotta get her out of there!”
“Oh don’t worry. We don’t have anyone TOO dangerous in there. Let’s see: Big Bertha, Bloody Mary, the Killer Doll, The Mamba, and the Man-eater. All of ‘em street-level superbitches. And accordin’ to her MID, she’s got level: 4 Regen, so-”
“I’m not worried about HER, you idiot!” I snapped, “I’m worried about THEM! You put five unarmed bottom-rung supergoons in a locked room with Jobe, in the state of mind she’s in? GET HER OUT OF THERE, BEFORE SHE CRIPPLES THEM!”
“Do you have any idea of the liability that you’ve assumed, by endangering their lives?” At the sound of the word ‘liability’ in the presence of a lawyer, let alone a lawyer who can rout an ADA without breaking a sweat, the detectives exchanged ‘oh shit’ looks and hurried out of the room. A few very tense minutes later, and the holding cell matron came out for me, and showed me into the lockup.
Going willingly into a lockup: another thing I never thought I’d do.
The Security Level: D lockup for women is basically a Messingite™ reinforced version of your basic ‘fish tank’, with a door that’s thicker than a bank vault and takes a solid minute to slide open or closed. All that I could see of the Mamba was her eyes peeking out from the gap between the toilet and the wall, like a spooked cat looking out from under the sofa. The Killer Doll looked like a 9” tall Cyberpunk Barbie©, clutching onto the Man-eater’s hair as the Man-eater wedged herself high up into the upper corner of the cell, well out of harm’s reach. Bloody Mary had some blood trickling out of her obviously broken jaw onto the polished Hazardite© floor, her trademark Loli-Goth outfit in tatters. And Big Bertha, a strapping 6’ 8” tall African American woman who obviously played the ‘Pam Grier 1970s Blaxploitation’ look for everything it was worth, was writhing on the ground, her right arm in a hold, and bending in more places than is normally humanly possible. One of the detectives who’d gone in before was on the ground near the cell door, clutching protectively at his amply padded middle, and was making sick noises. Jobe was standing there in the middle of the cell, looking ahead numbly, holding onto Big Bertha’s hand in a controlling grip, keeping the woman on the ground out of sheer autonomic reflex.
“Stay back…” I said in a clear, calm, commanding voice to the room. “Don’t move. I’m going to handle this.”
“MOVE?” the Man-eater said from up in the corner. “Are you KIDDING?”
“Yeah!” the Killer Doll said in a tiny voice, moving behind the Man-eater’s head, and peering fearfully over the crown. “You go right ahead, Kid!”
I paused, set my voice for my best ‘Bossy Big Sister’ delivery, and said, “Jobe? Jobe, what do you think you’re doing?”
Jobe snapped to, ever so slightly, and looked at me with a classic thousand-yard stare. “Jadis? My Dad… he disowned me… I’m not Prince of Karedonia anymore… I’m… Nobody…”
“Now, Jobe,” I said moving with the same care as you would when handling sweating dynamite, “you just know that that’s your father, being his usual prick self. He’s… probably just… seeing if you’ve got what it takes to stand on your own, or something psycho-Darwinian like that.” I gingerly took her by the shoulders and steered her out of the cell. Big Bertha dropped to the floor like a wet towel. “Do you have a place where she can be alone and can work this out?” I asked the matron. “I don’t think that she’s safe to be loose when she’s in this state.”
The matron guided me to an empty holding cell in a minimum security part of the women’s wing. After I rejoined the detectives and the girls, one of the detectives, a sergeant named Vasjlevic, asked, “What happened to HER?”
“Let’s see, in the past two weeks or so, she’s had her life’s work turn on her, gained an unwanted sibling in the form of her dream girl, lost her manhood, been turned into a version of her dream girl, been widely ridiculed, had her hopes of regaining her manhood yanked out from under her, experienced emotions and urges that are alien to her, and been repeated attacked and almost killed. And through all that, she’s managed to keep a grip, largely because she was absolutely certain that her position in her family and nation was secure. And now, after being attacked – AGAIN – her jerkass father just cut one of the few threads of certainty left in her life.”
“Ew,” the sergeant, a man who’d seen thousands of minor (and not-so-minor) tragedies in his career winced.
“But I’m pretty sure that she’ll snap out of it. She’s tough and she’s a survivor.” I fixed both the detectives and the girls with a steely glance. “By the way, I never said that, and if ANY of you tell her that I did, I WILL make your life a living Hell. She’s hard enough to live with as it is, without giving her that kind of props.”
“Too Right,” Belphy muttered.
“When she snaps out of it, call us and let us know,” I told Vasjlevic, jotting down my cell phone number. “We’ll come pick her up. If she hasn’t snapped out of it by morning, send her over to Belleview, and let us know. Still, does the City have a shrink with (hmmm… what powers grading system do you use again? Oh, right the Miller-McFarlane system) with Grade C or better Invulnerability?”
“This is New York,” Vasjlevic grated, “We got FIVE. And you’re all of, what? Fifteen?”
“Sixteen,” I managed to not snarl.
“So, why should I let YOU decide what we’re gonna do with her?”
Oh Lovely. Yet another bureaucrat with a tiny amount of power and an itch to use it. I was about to uncork a dose of my patent pending She-Beast brand of Inconvenient Truth, when the lights went out. “Kate?”
Glor lit up the room, and then there was a sudden, building-rattling THUD!
“No,” said one of the secretaries, “I’d say blunt strike at maybe 30,000 psi on the Centre Street side, northern corner, third floor.
“Nah, that was at least 40,000 psi,” another office worker opined. “Yeah on the Center Street, but midway, and on the fifth floor.”
“Fourth floor,” disagreed one of the detectives. “I got ten on the Fourth floor!”
As one of the detectives used his cell phone to check on the status of the strike (he had twenty on the Third floor), Glor commented, “I must say, they’re taking this very calmly. Who knows what that concussion could have been?”
“Glor,” I told her, “these are NEW YORKERS. Floridians know how to cope with hurricanes. Californians know how to cope with earthquakes. Kansans know how to cope with tornados. New Yorkers know how to cope with garbage strikes, blackouts and Superhero fights. Somebody just broke in or just broke out. It has nothing to do with us, so we don’t worry about it, unless they carry the fight over to where we are.”
The detective announced to the room, “Someone just broke into holding cell A-54, third floor.”
“Cell A-54?” I echoed, that kicking in a recollection. “SHIT! That’s JOBE’s cell!”
When we got there, the cell was taped off, but sure enough, there was a big gaping hole in the wall to the outside, and there was absolutely NO sign whatsoever of Jobe.
“WHAT?” I screeched, “Are you MENTAL, Garfield? WHY would we arrange to break Jobe out of that cell? She was already as good as out, on legal grounds!”
“That’s debatable,” Garfield smirked. “I was just about to completely blow that fluff your shyster threw at me out of the game, when you pulled your breakout. All that I know, is that you were here, and you were desperate to get her out,” Garfield smirked. “Two plus Two equals Four.”
“Oh? Did you finally figure that out? Your First Grade teacher must be SO proud,” I sniped. “And WHY would I be desperate to get Jobe out of that cell? I was the one who put her IN there, in the FIRST PLACE!”
“Of course you did,” Gryphon sneered. “You couldn’t get her out of heavy detention, so you contrived that whole charade to get her out of that holding cell and into a minimum security cell, where breaking her out would be simple!”
“And what are YOU rejects doing here?” I snarled at the Cadet Crusaders, “Was ‘Barney and Friends ‘ preempted?”
“We were here, because we had to go through another lecture on proper procedure because of you!” said the new guy in silver-and-black. “We tried to get there in time to stop your buddy from getting away, but she was too quick.”
“MY fault?” I shot back. “It couldn’t have been the fault of the broad who forgot that people can’t hear you say ‘Halt, you’re under arrest’ when you’re SONICALLY ATTACKING them, could it?” I stopped and checked him out. “And who are you? You weren’t with this crew the last time that I came through. You actually look competent.”
He folded his arms against his chest. “My handle’s PowerJack. Thank you. I think.”
I dismissed the Cadet Crusaders (or is it Crusader Cadets? I keep getting that mixed up), as is only their due. I turned my attention back to Garfield. “Why are you even bothering? You know that the second that Dunmore gets back here, he’s going to have a writ of habeas corpus, AND a suit for Harassment AND that restraining order with him.”
“That would be hard, even for him, seeing as it’s Saturday,” Garfield gloated.
“Even so,” Two men in matching black suits with red ties and mirrored shades stepped into the conversation, “I think that we can be helpful,” one of them said, flipping open a MCO ID.
“Are you sure that you want to get involved with this?” I asked them.
“You: Shut Up,” Garfield said, sticking his finger way too far into my face for his safety (I bite). “What are you guys doing here?” He asked the MCO goon.
“Just offering a solution to this sticky situation that suits everyone’s purposes.” I tried to stop Garfield, but the smug little prick pretty much signed the girls and me over to the Men in Black, with the Kiddie Krusaders and the NYPD Power Suit Squad backing him up. Garfield offered the use of the Iron Coffin, but Marwood, the MCO stiff, insisted that using a MCO vehicle would ‘insulate’ the DAs office from anything that happened from that point on. Which Garfield gleefully signed off on, the fuckwad.
As we pulled out of Foley Square, Marwood smiled and said, “Well, Ladies? Where to?”
“Fifth Avenue,” I said, taking the shackles off my wrists. “No, find an open Notary Public. We’re each going to want notarized copies of the forms that Garfield signed off on. And who do I make the check out to?” I asked, pulling my check book out of my purse.
“Briar Patch Charities.”
“For an extra Five Thousand, I can produce genuine MCO forms stating that the Office has decided that there’s no merit to the claims against you, and they’ve signed off on you. The form will be filed with the New York branch.”
I thought about it for a moment, and nodded. “For the want of a nail, and all that.” I started writing out a second check. “And who is this one out to?”
“The Monte Cristo Foundation.”
As the transport van drove off, after we got the notarized copies (one per), Gloriana leaned over and asked me, “Jadis, were those men corrupt MCO agents, or private contractors who get prisoners out of jail for a fee?”
I smiled at Glor and said, “No.”
Then a limo drove up, and Sizzle popped out of it. “HEY! What happened? I thought the MCO had you!”
“We got better,” I said. “And what happened to you?”
“Hey, I’m no superhero! I ran back to your place, and told Mrs. Pierson what happened. She called some lawyer she said could fix it, and I’ve been waiting for you guys to get sprung. What happened? I heard that someone broke out! And where’s Jobe?”
The sad thing is, that probably WAS the smartest and most effective thing that Sizzle could have done.
I brought Sizzle up to speed, and then clapped my hands briskly. “Okay! We’re gonna have to break up into teams. Belphy, you remember the things we still have to shop for, for Jobe? Good. I’m sorry, honey, but you’re going to have to doublemint it. Get the stuff that Jobe’s gonna need, and buy it in pairs. Glor, you go with her, help her, keep the awfulness down. Darcy, you’re the faithful native guide; keep them from getting lost. Haz, I’m trusting you to keep this lot out of trouble, capise? Misty, Kate and I are going to have to go do some stuff that you’d probably rather not be involved in.”
“HOLD IT!” Sizzle snapped, “We’re still SHOPPING? What about JOBE? She’s been kidnapped!” Wow. Darcy was actually worried about Jobe! Maybe I’ve misjudged her. “And in case you missed it, while those Dickwads took everything else possible from us, they didn’t take the Amex Card from Jobe! She’s still got it on her! How are we supposed to shop for anything without a credit card?”
So much for nobility.
<sigh> “Just put everything that you choose on hold, and we’ll pay for it when we get Jobe (or at least the credit card) back.”
“Jadis?” Misty asked, “Hey, Jobe’s my friend too! Besides, I got more’n I can really wear already, and wouldn’t they be more inconspicuous if I wasn’t with ‘em?” I started to tell her that she wasn’t used to dealing with the seamier side of New York, but she just gave me those big innocent blue eyes, and the sweet trusting smile and…
Dear God, is this what guys have to put up with, dealing with girls? If it is, I’ve got to remember this, it’s a killer.
“Besides, if you weren’t there, they’d probably come back with their arms full of unicorns,” Kate pointed out.
“OKAY! FINE! You can come with us! Glor, don’t let Hazard get you into a leather store. Sizzle? Remember, you’ve already GOT shopping bags from the really killer stores. Hector, I leave them in your capable hands.”
“You guys are cool with the cops, right?” he asked uncertainly.
“Close enough.” I handed Hector four fifties, and suddenly he was cool with it. He drove them off, and Misty, Kate and I caught a taxi to Midtown West. I led Misty and Kate to an alley. “I found this place last Christmas,” I explained, pointing to the painted sign saying ‘Superbad’. “It’s only 5:30, so it shouldn’t be that bad.” I led them down the stairs, and into the bar.
“You wanted to go where everybody knows your name?” Kate asked.
“I wanted to come to a place where somebody knows where either Anti-Champion or Dr. Venus hang out. This is a bar for low-level supervillains. I figure that they’d probably have a better chance of knowing where either Anti-Chimp or Silicone Sally are hiding out than the higher-ups.”
“Which would explain the stops at the ATMs along the way,” Kate noted. “All twenty of them.”
“Damn $300 maximum withdrawal,” I grumbled. Dr. Dad was going to rake me over the coals for this month’s expenditures as it was.
We were greeted with ‘Hey! You Kids! Out of here!”
“Hey, it’s cool, we’re not here to bum a drink,” I assured the woman behind the bar.
“Oh, it’s YOU again,” she said, raising one eyebrow at us. “What? You brought your friends from Whateley? We’ve gotten all touristy?”
“Not quite. We’re here looking for some information that I think you’re in a position to help me with.” I raised my palm from the bar, showing off the wad of $20s. She made a few snarky comments about not being a snitch, and we started dickering. Kate was about to come in and do her ‘glare of doom’ bit, but Misty started in, and the conversation took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. “Wow this is just like on TV with buying information and how do you guys always know what’s going on don’t people try to keep stuff like that a secret I know that if I was running a secret lab or something I wouldn’t tell anyone just like that time in Darrington when a bunch of guys were running a meth lab out on Crocker Road I never told anyone but then everyone already knew anyway is it like that here in New York ‘cause Darrington’s this small town and everybody knows everybody business like when-” Misty started in on how exciting it was being in a bar for supervillains, and how Jobe had been kidnapped, and the encounter with Dr. Venus, and the shopping, and this really sweet pair of shoes that she’d tried on, and on and on and on. The barmaid reeled before this storm of nonsequence, and was dragged into it. Seeing my opportunity, I carefully prompted first Misty and then the barmaid, and got responses that slipped out before the barmaid realized what she was answering. After about five minutes of this, I took mercy on the poor suds-slinger and said, “Well, I’m sorry to have wasted your time, we’ll just go somewhere else.”
“HUH?” the barmaid asked, dazed, trying to figure out what Misty had actually said, and if it made any sense. Poor thing.
I dragged Misty out the door and up the stairs. “So, where are we gonna go next? ‘Cause I don’t know any supervillain bars or snitches in New York,” Kate asked.
“Why do we need to go anywhere?” I asked, pulling out my cell phone and dialing. “The lady in there was VERY informative. Good work, Misty.”
“Thanks!” Misty chirped happily. “Why?”
“You mean that you gleaned something from that mishmash?” Kate asked, her normal frosty façade slipping ever so slightly.
“Simple. Live with it for two weeks. Anyway, Dr. Venus uses a local rental agent who specializes in secret labs. It’s a very tight specialty, but I guess that it’s a sideline, and he makes up for it by charging through the nose. Given that it’s New York, he makes them pay through Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose.” I got out my phone. “Hello, Glor? Jadis. Did you buy any ass-kicking boots? ‘Cause if you did, strap ‘em on. We’re going to go rescue Jobe – and her credit card. I’m sending Hector to pick you up. We’ll be along in a bit, we have a bit of you don’t want to know about to take care of first.”
Breaking into the real estate agent’s office was harder than you’d think. Wow, you’d think that someone who worked with supervillains would be more trusting!
Dr. Venus’ current lab was in Brooklyn, which I suppose qualifies her for ‘Tunnel People’ snipes. It was a ‘closed for renovations’ micro-brewery that had been renovating for eight years. But from the get-go, there was something seriously wrong. Both of the roll-down doors to the garage were rolled up, and there wasn’t any rolling stock in the garage. I shushed the girls, and gave Kate the nod to do forward recon. She did her ‘disappear into shrouds of darkness’ bit, but came back only a few moments later. “You’ve GOT to see this!” was all that she said. She led us in through the garage, where there were stacks of high tech equipment set up for loading or unloading. Kate guided us through the halls, which showed all the signs of a recent battle: blast pockmarks on the walls, the floors were sticky with the residue of anti-intruder gasses and half-dissolved capture gel, the wrecked remnants of various security gizmos dangling out of their niches, shattered capture-bots, and, of course ‘Super-hunks’ lying around unconscious.
“It looks like someone beat us here,” Glor said, giving voice to the flippin’ obvious. “But who? If it were a superhero or the Police, there would be Health Department people all over the place, checking for Biohazard leaks. Jadis? Do supervillains rob each other?”
“All the time,” I said clinically, as I checked the schematic that we’d taken from the real estate agent. “If anything, most of the security in most supervillains’ lairs is less for superheroes, and more for other villains. Hey, most superheroes will at least TRY to take you prisoner and avoid letting stuff loose that would endanger the general neighborhood. With supervillains? No such luck.”
“Really? I thought that there was some sort of standard of professional conduct that supervillains were expected to abide by.”
“Standard of professional conduct?” I pondered that for a moment. “No, it’s more like Organized Crime: it’s a business, and nobody wants to do business with someone who’s too fucking greedy or rabid, but on a very real level, you have to watch your back. They put a polite face on it to make doing business possible, but it’s still dog-eat-dog.”
“Even the Mad Scientists?”
“ESPECIALLY the mad scientists.” Then I found what I was looking for. “Okay, there it is. Every evil genius wannabe always insists on the ‘escape pod’ feature. Can’t say that I blame them; if I was gonna build an evil lair, I’d have three, and a couple of decoys. Sizzle, do a quick recon of the place, see if you can find any of these yoyos who are still conscious. Belphy, find the security center and see if you can find the security tapes for the incident; Glor, cover her. Hazard, see if you can find any prisoner holding cells, on the off chance that Jobe’s still here. Kate, check out the materials lockers and the construct rooms. Misty,” I handed her my cell phone and adjusted it so that it was getting the NYPD bands, “listen in to the police traffic. The last thing we need is to be caught red-handed in a supervillain’s lair.” We split up, and Misty followed me as I went in search of Dr. Venus’ escape pod.
The escape pod was still there, and so was Dr. Venus. Her escape pod was open, and it looked like Dr. V had made an attempt to get the hell out of Dodge, but someone caught her and literally tore the hatch to the pod open. Dr. Venus was draped halfway out of the hatch, and it looked like someone had really gone to town on her face. I found her Go-bag and checked it. “Interesting…” I said.
“What’s interesting?” Gloriana asked as she trotted up to us. “Belphy found the security center, and she’s doing what she can. It looks like every nasty card that Dr. Venus had up her sleeve got played and trumped. Again, what’s so interesting?”
“The person who beat up Dr. Venus seemed to have a real personal grudge against her. He really messed up her face. And he riffled through her Go-bag, and he took her emergency progress notes, but left her ‘oh shit’ money.” I held up a bundle of $50 and $100 notes.
“How do you know he took her progress notes?”
“Mad Scientist SOP: always make sure that you have your notes backed up on a hard drive that you can tuck into your go-bag. You never know when Kim Possible is going to come crashing through your skylight, but you can’t afford to lose any information from your experiments, either. There’s no hard drive in this bag, but there IS a niche right here, where a hard drive would fit perfectly.”
Then Hazard came running up. “I found four prisoner holding cells, and three of them are occupied, but none of them are Jobe. Is that money?” I handed Hazard a few hundred, just so that it wouldn’t be an issue.
Then Kate rose up out of a puddle of darkness. “There were two trucks that used to be in the garage, that are missing, and there are several lab units and materials units that are gone. From the amount that’s gone, and the stray units that were left in the garage, I’d say that they grabbed the two trucks’ worth of what they wanted and left.”
“Interesting…” I muttered, “Anything else?”
“Yes, I think that there were six cloning units that were taken. I found six demi-human half-formed bodies in the bin, waiting for the wood chipper. And, I’m reasonably sure that they took at least a hundred quick-clone forms.”
“Excuse me?” Gloriana cut in. “Demi-human bodies? Quick-clone forms?”
“A stock bit for biologists working in the Mad Science racket is creating monsters and custom-built goons to order, for various supervillains with ‘themes’, like ‘Prince Altair’, who makes out like he’s some outer-space Ming the Merciless type,” I explained. “Whoever raided this place didn’t want to lug around whatever Dr. Venus was cooking up for her client, and dumped the bodies. And quick-clone forms are graphite fiber ‘bodies’ that guide the growth of a genetic construct. The cells cluster on the fibers, which are arranged in the form of bone, organs, muscle groups, and like that, to form whatever body part fits. Growing a clone from a zygote is surer, and way less prone to protein antagonism, but it’s SLOW. Depending on the genetic stock, Quick-clone forms can have a viable clone or construct up and running within a few hours. They’ll melt the second they take any traumatic damage, but they’ll still be up and running.”
“And what does all that mean?”
“It means that they dumped the demi-human bodies as to empty out at least six cloning chambers, which they would do only if they were taking said cloning chambers, and didn’t want to have to deal with the weight of the constructs. And the quick-clone forms mean either that whoever did this is God’s own cheap, or they’re in a real hurry to clone up a small army.”
“A small army?” Sizzle echoed, “What for?”
“Dunno,” I admitted. “We don’t know who DID this.”
“Whoever it was is very nasty,” Glor said clinically. “I mean, LOOK at this poor man!” she gestured at the Super-Hunk lying near us. And, I gotta say, she was right: whoever did that to him, knew where the body’s weak spots were, scientifically enhanced or not, and went right for ‘em. He was a MESS. “And, speaking of that, shouldn’t we do something for these poor people?”
“You got any First Aid training?” I asked. “If not, leave ‘em be: with that kind of damage, you gotta be real careful.”
Then Belphy came trotting up. “I know who broke in here and broke up the place: it was Anti-Champion.”
“ANTI-CHAMPION?” was the general response. “That Loss? Did THIS?” Hazard summed it up for the rest of us.
“He had help,” Belphy insisted. “I’m not sure who. Whoever it was, had a very high ultraviolet signature, which played absolute HOB with the security cameras. I found a lot of footage with Anti-Champion chugging down the hallways, battering the besnoogers out of Dr. Boobjob’s men, with this blob of white light hanging back, sometimes a few feet off the ground, and occasionally letting off a burst of energy; sometimes at Anti-Champion.”
“Probably bucking him up with a charge,” Glor guessed.
“Okay, that makes a lot more sense,” I said. “Anti-Chucklehead is a stone-cold lackey with a situational delusion of competence. He’d latch onto anyone who could make it all better for him and do the hard work thinking-wise. Of course, this raises a new question: Did Dr. Silicone nab Jobe, and Philo and his new bestest buddy came here to grab her? Or did Philo’s new brain trust bust Jobe out, she was never here, and they just raided this place for a quick infusion of free materials? I assumed that the snatch out of Foley Square was Dr. Venus, because it was way too slick for Ay-Cee. But with a new player? That changes things.”
“Not really,” Kate said. “Either way, Anti-Champion is now the one most likely to be holding Jobe. And, whether they already had Jobe, or they came here specifically to get her or they just lucked out major, the odds are that they’re going to put Jobe to work on whatever Philo’s new buddy is up to.”
As there was a collective ‘Ick!’ over the potentials with Jobe put to work for an unknown – but apparently quite competent – party, I tried to put as good a spin on it as I could. “Well, with those quick-clone forms, the odds are that at least they’ll put Jobe onto something non-microscopic. That’s something.”
“So… what’re we gonna do?” Misty asked in a rather lost little voice.
“We get the hell out of here. The last thing we need is to be found here in the middle of all this. And, while we’re high-tailing it, we should head over to Westchester, and see if Parky’s at home.”
“Parky? You mean, Mr. Dunmore? Do we really need to see him? I mean, we have those MCO release papers, so we’re clear, right?”
“In your hands, these would just be a bunch of papers. In my hands, they’d be usable tools. But in Parky’s hands? We’re talking precision instruments and weapons of mass legal destruction. That putz Garfield more or less signed off on all charges for the NY DA’s office, placing us entirely in the hands of the MCO. If anything goes wrong, the DA’s hands are clean. Crap like this, having the MCO do a lot of various officials’ dirty work, is a major reason why the MCO gets away with as much crap as they do. And now since the MCO – or a reasonable facsimile thereof, with archival documentation backing it up – has signed off on us, they can’t take it back. I could do things with these papers? Parky? He could blow Garfield out of the water with ‘em.”
We got back to the limo, and I told Hector to head over to Westchester, but to avoid Manhattan, and take the route through Queens. It would take longer, but it would cut down massively on any chances of a freak encounter with the Guard or the Katzenjammer Kadets. Once we hit Queens, I made a cell phone call. “Yo, Geneva? It’s Jadis. Yes, I still have phone privileges, thanks for the sour persimmons! Don’t ask. Look, how are you set for brownie points with the DA? Yeah, I thought so. Listen, I have a major bust that you can take credit for? Dr. Venus, C- going on B- list mad scientist type. Yeah, it’s safe. It’s a done deal. What do I want? Well, as it is, I’ll settle for a square ‘you owe me one’. And Geneva? When I come looking for that repay? You WILL pony up, if you know what’s good for you. Oh, and get there pronto; those guys need medical attention. Oh, PLEASE, Geneva! I’m surprised at you! Garfield knew that he didn’t have anything to hold us on, but he didn’t want to go on record as cutting the daughter of Dr. Diabolik loose! So he let the MCO take the hit. Why? Because they know what’s good for them. Good, I knew you’d get the hint if beat over the head enough. Okay, here’s the address. I’ll let you cut the PR yourself.” I rattled out the microbrewery’s address and hung up.
“What was that?”
“Just making sure that Dr. V and her goons got decent medical care – that won’t involve us having to file reports or anything. Splendor will get the credit for the bust, but then, it’s not like WE did the heavy carrying on that one.”
“The Kiddie Kadets’ resident blaster-chick. She was the one in the purple-and-red crime of fashion?”
“You know her?”
“Long, involved story. It would be indiscreet to say more.”
“So, how are we going to find Jobe now, Jadis?” Belphy asked.
“I’m sorry, Belphy,” I said with a note of genuine regret that surprised me. “But our source had absolutely nada on Anti-Champion. I got nuthin’.”
“And, even so, I’m not sure that the best wouldn’t be to pick up what we’ve already bought and head back to Whateley,” Glor said. “Yes, I owe Jobe a debt for the enviable wardrobe that I’ve built up on these trips, but I’m responsible for you girls; the only reason that we’re not either still in the heavy holding cells, or in the clutches of the MCO is Jadis’ deep pockets. I’m not sure that I approve of that maneuver – whatever it was-”
“-but I’m not fool enough to look a gift horse in the mouth. The only reason that I agreed to try and liberate Jobe from Dr. Venus was that we had an address, and I am responsible for her as well. But now? Now we have nothing to go on. As soon as Jadis gives her lawyers those papers, we’re going BACK to Whateley.”
“Jadis!” Belphy and Sizzle whined at me in unison.
“Hey, she’s the chaperone! She’s the one who’s really in charge here! What she says goes! Besides, like she says, we have nothing to go on. Hey, I don’t like leaving a friend – or, in this case, Jobe – in the lurch but we don’t have any leads, and if we stick around New York and poke our noses into it, it’ll only be a matter of time before Garfield finds another excuse to nail us. And buying us out drained my bank account! I’m gonna have to call Dr. Dad and have him transfer some money into my account before the bank opens Monday, or those checks will bounce! And believe me, I do NOT want those checks to bounce!”
“Jadis,” Belphy said, no pleaded, “we’ve GOT to get Jobe back! Without Jobe, I’ve got no official standing at ALL! Since her father disowned Jobe, I can’t even inherit her accounts or patents! If Jobe disappears, my only designated parent will be…” she choked, “PIP!” she finished with a squeak.
Hazard looked at me with an atypically sympathetic look on her face. “C’mon, Beast, think about it… Belphegor! I mean, it’s got to be weird enough, having Jobe AND Belfo as parents. Can you imagine what it would be like, having only Belfreak to lean on?”
“Hmmm…” Kate murmured, “TWO Belphegors…” And Belphy gave a muted squeak of panic.
“Beast, we HAVE to get Jobe back!” Sizzle insisted. “I mean, the whole excuse we gave Carson for coming along on this trip, was that we were supposed to be security, protection for Jobe! What’s it going to do to our standing, if we let her get kidnapped, and don’t DO anything about it? We’ll be laughingstocks! We HAVE to get Jobe back!”
“Chill out, Darcy!” I told her, as she was getting a little more stressed than I thought she would. “And what’s with the almonds?”
“Nothing! It’s just… that almonds calm me down!” she said as she bolted down a handful of them. I hate not knowing what’s going on…
We lucked out, and Parky was at his place in Westchester, waiting for us. I gave him the MCO release papers, and explained what had happened; less, of course, the pointless details of the ‘Briar Patch Charities’ and the ‘Monte Christo Foundation’, despite the fact that I was absolutely sure that Parky set that all up in the first place. No, Parky taught me everything that I know about the Law and wrangling things, and the first thing that he taught me was Lawyers never do anything illegal for their clients. Period. As far as we were concerned, the MCO weighed our cases on their own merits, decided that we had nothing to do with Jobe’s escape/ kidnapping and weren’t threats to the general welfare, and let us go. And as we left, they were sitting around, playing an acoustic guitar, singing ‘Kum Bye Ya’ and talking about all the good works they would do in the Peace Corps.
Parky looked over the papers, and made ‘I can work with these’ noises. “You have notarized copies?”
“First thing I did.”
“Good Girl.” Ah, praise from the master. “Normally, I would advise all of you girls to head back to Whateley immediately.”
“Not five minutes ago, I received a phone call from the Karedonian ambassador. He wanted to talk to you, very badly.”
Now, I don’t particularly like talking to Ralph Wilkins, with the possible exception of when he’s cutting a particularly juicy slab of prime rib. And after he pretty much threw his own nephew (of sorts) to the wolves? I was in no mood to give that pompous oaf any of my valuable time.
On the other hand, he WAS an Ambassador, AND Jobe’s uncle, AND Gizmatic’s good right hand in the US (Gizmatic’s left hand IS the cybernetic one. I think). And after the day we’ve had, even a Wilkins couldn’t make it even crappier. With a long sigh of ‘Oh gawd, I don’t wanna do this’, I pulled out my cell phone, engaged the security scrambles and anti-eavesdrop measures, and punched in the contact number.
[Well, it’s about TIME you got back to me!] Surprise, surprise, he found a way to make this day even crappier. [What TOOK you so long?]
“You only called, like five minutes ago. P- er, Mr. Dunmore only just told us about your call. I assume that you’ve heard that Jobe was taken by force from a holding cell at Foley Square.”
[Yes, I’ve heard that. And I know that that lox Anti-Champion did it!]
“How’d you find that out? I mean, we found out, but we actually went looking for her.”
[How did I find out? I tell you how I found out! That bozo left Jobe’s MID at Gladys’ nursing home!]
“Why would Anti-Champion leave Jobe’s MID at the nursing home where your relative Gladys is staying?”
[Gladys doesn’t stay there, she RUNS the place! The asshole came busting in, beat up the guards and attendants, and grabbed five trucks full of materials and equipment!]
“WHY would Anti-Champion rip off a NURSING HO- oooh, oh, I get it… So, let me guess, Mr. Wilkins: your cousin, niece, whatever Gladys runs an absolutely top-flight, five-star, A-list, ‘gee, don’t you wish that YOU lived this well?’ old folks’ home, and she, ah, subsidizes said class act in the same way that your sister Millie does with her boutique?”
[Of course she does! Do you have any idea of how hard it is to provide decent geriatric care and turn a profit these days?]
“Can’t say that I do, and I’m looking forward to not finding out for a very long time. Dare I presume that this call concerns either Jobe or Anti-Champion?”
[Watch your tone, young lady,] he quibbled. [YES, it has to do with Anti-Champion and Jobe. We need Finderbinder captured ASAP, and Jobe returned.]
“Why?” I asked, trying to sound as hard and indifferent as I could.
“Yeah. Gizmatic made it official that he didn’t consider Jobette any relation of his. And you can afford to hire the best super-powered mercs in the world to nail down Anti-Champion. So, why are we talking?”
[You’re going to make this as hard as you can, aren’t you?]
“Oh gracious no! When I really want to put the screws to you, I’ll just hand you over to Parky.” Then I got down to business. “Look, Wilkins, I’m getting that you want us to track down Anti-Champion and Jobe. WHY? Why don’t you just use any of the dozens of black masks in this town? I mean, me and the girls could pull it off, but hey! We’re amateurs, and this is a job for professionals.”
[BECAUSE, Imperial Security is at stake! Job-er, that girl has highly classified Karedonian internal secrets locked between those pointy ears of hers! And I think that Whateley’s reputation – and YOURS – would be adversely affected, if you were to try and exploit that.]
“And that never occurred to you, when you arranged to have her thrown in JAIL?”
[Things didn’t go as planned.]
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Okay, I’m willing to give a tentative nod on this; but NOW, it gets hard, Wilkins. Now, I’m handing you over to Parky.” I switched the link over to Parky’s phone. I told Parky, “Get him to take over the payment for my checks to the Briar Patch Charities and the Monte Cristo Foundation. Also, we’re gonna need Diplomatic Immunity for this, all of us. I’m talking Picture IDs with attached credentials, the whole schmeer, and a Karedonian functionary on duty for the next 72 hours available to confirm those credentials. Oh, and the understanding that if we hire anyone, that protection covers them as well. Oh, and an instant line of credit at ‘Simply Faboo’ and ‘Cutting Edge’. And get him to call up to Whateley, and inform the Administration that we may be late getting back. We’ll try to wrap this up quickly, but there’s no way of telling how long it might be. And let’s face it, if we can’t wrap this up in 72 hours, then any more time is just wasted.” Parky nodded – I’m reasonably sure that he understood, and would it be asking too much to hope that he approved?
After Parky nailed down the particulars (you could hear Ralph Wilkins screaming over the line, from where we were), he gave us $50 thousand in cash for operating expenses (and yes, it was coming out of the Imperial pocket), and sent us on our way. As we left, I heard Parky finishing up with the ambassador with, “Just remember THIS, if you get any ideas about playing fast and loose with her: SHE can only KILL you. I, on the other hand, am a Lawyer.”
* * * * * *
Once we had picked up the Diplomatic Credentials at the embassy, I told Hector to head back to Brooklyn. “Again?”
“What’s in Brooklyn?” Sizzle asked.
“Jobe’s Aunt Millie runs a seamstress and custom-made clothing business called ‘Simply Faboo’. It makes money. Some money. But Aunt Millie also runs a VERY profitable business in making supervillain costumes to order. Well, actually, as I understand it, her real money maker is costumes for underlings and like that. I hear that the Syndicate gives her five needles and thread on their referral site.”
“What did you mean, back there when you were talking with Ambassador Wilkins, when you said that that Gladys ‘subsidized’ her nursing home the same way that Millie did her boutique?” Gloriana asked suspiciously.
“Well, I don’t KNOW, I’m not sure, but I suspect that Cousin Gladys’ nursing home is a front for a black clinic.”
“A black clinic?” Misty asked, baffled. “But then, wouldn’t it be over in Harlem?”
“Not that kind of ‘black clinic’,” Kate said dryly. “What Jadis means is that Gladys Wilkins’ nursing home offers services to the criminal element. Legitimate hospitals and clinics are required by Law to report gunshot wounds, knife wounds, and other injuries like that. A black clinic will just take the money and stitch the guy up, no questions asked. I’ve heard that they also provide hospital beds for villains and underlings who are very hot after a big super-fight. And if that remark about stealing equipment and materials is any indication, they probably offer facilities for renegade scientists to perform procedures on volunteers.”
“At least, one HOPES that they’re volunteers,” Glor said with a sigh. “She-Beast, trips with you are SO educational.”
I pulled out my cell phone and used the contact number for ‘Simply Faboo’s’ encrypted sub-basement website. “What are you doing?” Hazard asked.
“Time’s a-wastin’,” I said. “We don’t have any time for fittings, so I’m pre-ordering our ‘working clothes’ for pickup. Fortunately, we’ve been dealing with our sizes all weekend, so there’s no problem with that.”
“Does it have one of those ‘make-an-outfit’ functions?” Sizzle asked, fascinated. “Keep it simple and classic: a red bodysuit with a descending left-to-right yellow flame pattern – or is that too ‘fire projector’? The lightning bolt theme has been done to DEATH… Maybe a cloud-and-wind theme? Oh, protective goggles, of course, and reinforced Smartelyne ® maximum-impact running soles, with a sure-grip pattern-”
“We don’t have TIME for that, Darcy!” I snapped. “I’m ordering off-the-rack ninja outfits for us. It’s quick, fast, and, to be honest, we can’t afford to advertise who we are. Garfield thinks that we’ve disappeared into the night and fog, and so does the Empire City Guard. And we’re gonna let them go on thinking that. Okay, we’ll go for the Zevra® overalls, the Nibelcamo™ poncho, the Penetrator® visual aids visor, and the Whisperlink™ communications link. Okay, and I’ll add the Smartelyne shoes for your outfit, Darce.”
“Still,” Darcy said with a squeak, “Going into combat… wearing off-the-rack!” She suddenly went steely-eyed. “NO ONE must EVER learn of this!”
“Do they have any ninja suits in pink, like on the Might Morphing Power Rangers?” Misty asked.
“Jadis, WHY did you commit us to this?” Gloriana asked. “What’s really changed?”
“Glor, in the space of maybe five hours, Philo and his new buddy have broken into the holding cells and grabbed Jobe, taken out Dr. Venus’ operation and swiped a ton of exotic gear and materials, and now he’s raided Cousin Gladys’ black clinic for more of the same. Three operations in five hours? Someone is in a mighty big hurry. And there’s no way that Ralph Wilkins would ask us to handle this, unless Gizmatic told him to do it.”
“Then… Gizmatic wants Jobe alive and safe? Why?”
“Well, Ralph SAID that he’s afraid that Jobe knows things that could be used against Karedonia, and the Wilkinses are just coldblooded enough that that might be the only reason. But I think that there’s more to it. Let’s just hope that Anti-Champion kicks up enough dust that we can find whoever’s pulling his strings.”
Hector pulled up in front of a storefront about a block away from Flatbush Avenue. Sizzle looked in the window with the neon sign saying ‘Simply Faboo’. The mannequins in the window looked like something out of a 1940s girly magazine. “Oh, you’ve GOT to be kidding me.”
We went in and started innocently perusing the wares. “Sheba,” Sizzle said under her breath, “I thought that you said that all the Wilkinses were good at what they did. Will you just LOOK at this crap?”
“Aunt Millie IS very good at what she does – as long as it’s sewing and dressmaking,” I replied. “Look at these seams! Check out this hem! She is a GREAT seamstress. Unfortunately, she thinks that she’s a great fashion designer. And her taste just happens to be stuck in the 1940s. Still, I do understand that she has a considerable following in the Vintage fashions crowd.”
“And the Lili St. Cyr crowd I imagine as well,” Gloriana sneered looking at one ensemble that looked like it was from an old Burlesque routine.
“Let’s get this over, before anyone I know sees us,” Sizzle said, trying to stay hidden from the front window.
“Who do you know, who shops in Flatbush?”
“Well, I think that we’ve done enough pro forma browsing,” I gestured for the girls to follow me as I took a dress that I had NO intention of even trying on, let alone buying, to the counter. The counter-girl, a thin-faced chick with big poofy hair and a touch too much makeup, gave me strictly professional smile that salesgirls give teenage girls who are wasting their time without intending to buy anything. “Hello?” I put the dress on the counter. “We called ahead for seven ‘Osaka Specials’?”
The shoddy professional smile vanished, and she checked her Blackberry. Then the more polished professional smile that salesgirls give paying clients blossomed on her face. “Sure, honey, they’re expecting you,” she said in a classic nasal Greenpernt whine. “Last changing booth in the back, right next to the payphone.”
We all trooped to the back. I went in, and the triple-fold mirror opened up into a door. I had the rest follow me through the door, which probably would have looked very odd to a bystander, seven girls cramming into a single rather cramped changing booth. Behind the mirror was a stairs leading down. At the bottom of the stairs was an area at least as large in floor space as the building that ‘Simply Faboo’ occupied, and maybe just under the two buildings on either side. One side of the place was tricked out like a high profile fashion salon. Or, at least, a Brooklyn chick’s (one who’d never actually been in one) idea of what a high profile fashion salon would look like. Rococo in Royal Blue all over the place, with Eggshell White trim. Mannequins in various garish ‘supervillain concept’ outfits struck dramatic poses, and there were individual pieces draped here and there near 3-ply mirrors. One the other end of the chamber, there were racks of outfits that looked disturbingly… uniform… and… practical. In other words, minion suits.
A sales girl in something that was probably very chic (back in 1949) walked over and we went through the usual rigmarole. Then she walked us over to a trio of women, two of them in very prime 30s, the third in an obviously artificially preserved 50s or 60s. “I’ll be right with you, girls,” the woman, slightly ghastly in a pair of white Capri pants and a garish polyester print tied-off blouse, with a matching (if that’s the word here) beehive ‘do, said before returning her attention to her two customers.
“What?” the taller woman with the long wavy black hair asked, “Are super powered Girl Gangs the hot new thing, and nobody told me?”
“We’re down from Whateley,” I explained. “We just need a few quickie outfits for a trivial little thing, no biggie.”
“Whateley?” the woman peeped, “Oh Cool! You see a lot of outfits, so tell me-” she held up a powder blue legless long sleeved super-suit with a white ‘tabard’ (that sort of ‘vest’ thing that a lot of super designs have) that had a diamond (I’m talking the five sided type diamond, like the gem, not the suit of cards) ‘keyhole’ in the front, “-would you add a white cape to this outfit? And if so, how long? Collar or no collar?”
“Oh, wait!” Hazard said, sparking in a barely restrained fan-girl buzz, “I know you! You’re the Blue Diamond!”
“You know me?”
“How could I not know the World’s Most Loveable Supervillain™?”
The Blue Diamond smirked and looked at the other woman, who was maybe an inch or two shorter and obviously a bit more athletic, with red hair pulled back into a ponytail. “SEE? Positive PR!” The other one just gave her a ‘yeah, yeah’, half-smile. “So? Cape or no cape?”
Hazard looked at the ensemble critically. “Are you going to be hiding any equipment, like a power amplifier?”
“Nah, I’m used to the gear I use already; amping anything up would throw off my timing.”
“Then I wouldn’t. You’re too tall for a short cape, and too curvy for a long cape. Besides, you’ve got a great rear-”
“I’ve always thought so.”
“-and a long cape would cover that.”
“The world’s most loveable supervillain’?” Gloriana asked, confused.
“Let me guess: you’re from out of town,” the Blue Diamond said drolly, referencing Glor’s British Public School accent. “Honey,” she said, letting her Long Island through, “No matter what most super-thugs think, everybody gets busted eventually. Period. It WILL happen, eventually. Now, some superbads are all, ‘I’m EEEE-VILLLL, bwah-ha-ha-hah’ when they’re working. Sweetie, juries put guys like that away FOREVER! Witnesses remember every little detail, cops scour the scene for every possible clue, superheroes get ALL self-righteous and beat up every informant for any lead- not that they need to, ‘cause the snitches are only too willing to spill on an asshole like that. And people REMEMBER, ‘cause it’s all traumatic, like? Now ME? When I pull a job, it’s a PARTY! I spread the wealth around, I make sure that people aren’t afraid, and that nobody gets hurt. Oh, and I try to stick to targets that people don’t mind getting taken down a peg or two… Heck, I’ve gotten applause when I made my getaway a couple of times. Gettin’ people to testify against me is gonna be a real pain in the tukkis, lemme tell ya.”
“I prefer to simply keep current with my Syndicate Prison Insurance,” the other woman said smugly. “While I applaud your commitment to avoiding wanton endangerment, I find that keeping a lower profile works a lot better.”
“Yeah, yeah – Oh, girls, this is Heller, she-”
Blue Diamond’s intro was cut off by a shrill fangirl squee from Hazard. “HELLER? Oh, I am your BIGGEST FAN!” she burbled, her usual - and totally affected – posh accent tossed aside in her excitement. “Oh, it is SO GOOD to find a supervillainess who can pull of the ‘Catwoman sophisticated thief’ act without looking like she just got rejected from a road company production of ‘Cats’!”
Heller preened from the praise. “Really? Are you on the Supervillain track, up at Whateley?”
“We, ah, don’t really HAVE a supervillainy program at Whateley,” I cut in. “Whateley Neutrality, and all that. Mind you, that doesn’t keep some people from aggressively training along the opposite track,” I added with a significant look in Gloriana’s direction.
“Oh!” Hazard said, all jazzed about meeting two personal idols, “This is Jadis Diabolik, the daughter of Doctor Diabolik!” Thank you, Hazard, that’s JUST what I like having passed around.
“Doctor Diabolik?” Blue Diamond asked, like she knew him. Aw, FUCK, just what I don’t want. “What a GENTLEMAN! Y’know, I ran into him on a gig, out in – where was it? – oh yeah, Fort Wayne, Indiana – and I was pulling a job doing – oh well, you don’t need to know – when he dropped his Mind Web on the whole town. I wasn’t affected, so I started to mix it up with his guys. Then he came down personally, and when I explained it, he was just SO reasonable! He let me go with my target, no problem! He even arranged it so that it looked to Fort Wayne like I was the big hero and fought him off! MAN did I get props for that! Heck, I have a standing offer to relocate to Fort Wayne as a local superhero! Of course, that would mean living in Fort Wayne…”
“So, Blue Diamond, Heller,” Gloriana said, oozing Upper Crust charm, “we’re in New York looking for someone. Would either of you happen to know anything about Anti-Champion? His usual haunts, his usual associates, his agents, any rumors as to where he’s hiding out these days, if that’s not hoping too much?”
“Anti-Champion?” Blue Diamond repeated. “No, I haven’t heard anything about him being in town. But then, I’ve never actually met the guy, even in passing.”
“I have,” Heller grumped. “You didn’t miss much.”
“This is all very nice,” Aunt Millie, ‘or Madam Millicent’ said in a phony and (snide) cosmopolitan European sophisticate’s accent, “But who are you, and what are you lot doing in my salon?” And queering her pitch to foist off an Edna Mode no-no on the Blue Diamond, no doubt.
“I’m Jadis Diabolik, remember? I was in here last year and had a costume designed? Red sleeveless unitard with a special triple-intercross stitch inseam-”
“Oh, yes,” she interrupted; she was a Wilkins through and through: she forgot people the second that they left, but she never forgot a special stitch. “Special order, red variant off of the ‘Madam Hydra’ design. Good call on that, not many kids are using that design anymore. Pity, classic lines. How did the Zevra work at that .25mm thickness?”
“It was a little stiff at the joints,” I answered. “I had Cecelia Rogers in Berlin reduce the thickness by .05 mm at the elbow fold, and it wasn’t too bad.”
Aunt Millie regained some of her chill at the mention of Cecelia Rogers. “What about the back of the knee?”
“Left it as is; too many people go for the back of the knee in a pinch. Or, at least, too many of the people that I actually worry about do.” I got her back onto the track; like her niece, Jobe, if you let her, Aunt Millie would talk about clothes, designs, and stitches for hours. Well, at least I find her diatribes moderately informative (something that I can rarely say about Jobe). “We’re here for seven ‘Osaka Specials’ that we pre-ordered about a half hour ago. We’re in a hurry, so we’ll have to take it off the rack without fittings. Still, one of us did ask for Smartelyne soles on the shoes, so-”
“Hold a sec,” Hazard cut in, her working class London accent suddenly at the fore. “We got summat headin’ our way.”
Then one of the triple-plex mirrors swung open, and we were barraged by an onslaught of nerve-grating sound. A heartbeat later, just enough time for us to reflexively look towards the source of the noise, there was a blinding flash.
Then just as I was wrapping my head around the situation – and getting the stars out of my eyes – there was someone in the middle of us. Two women in black pants and sweaters, wearing ski masks, were grappling Aunt Millie, and Anti-Champion was trading punches with the Blue Diamond, and pretty much ignoring Heller as she was whaling on the back of his head with high kicks. He suckered BD into blasting him with light energy, which of course, only made him stronger. Gloriana also started to give him a big zap, more or less on reflex, but she had the good sense to realize that that was a mistake and cut it off short. Instead, she made up for her lapse of judgment by zotzing the sonic weapon. She was repaid for this by having the two women, joined by a third, jumping her in tandem.
Glor had only dinged the shrieker, so I got beastly and trudged toward the surprise entrance, ready to trash it. But, just as I was about to shred it with my PK claws, a missile of some sort hit me and exploded in a shower of white cottony threads. The threads wrapped themselves around me, forming a cocoon that forced my arms to my side and my legs together. I dropped to the floor and just laid there, squealing with outrage.
Now, I can’t say personally what happened next; hey, I was bound and blindfolded. But I have it on excellent authority (Hazard, who was mixing it up with the attacking women) that Anti-Champion, who up to then had been getting by pretty much on raw power and the fact that Blue Diamond was feeding him more and more of it by the second, suddenly snapped to and started fighting like someone who actually knew how to fight. He took down first Heller, then the Blue Diamond, then Gloriana, and then Misty with a series of short, fast, brutal and every effective moves that laid the lot of them out in less time than it takes to say it. Despite Aunt Millie and Hazard’s best efforts, the women managed to rip off two racks of Minion ware, a rack of stuff that she was keeping down there until she had room up in the upstairs showroom, and a rack of female ninja togs – including OUR ORDER – and made off with them. Still, the second that they started to head back out through that secret passage again, they had to shut down the shrieker, which was all that Kate needed. When the sonic attack cut off, she rose up out of her ‘escape hatch’ of darkness and came to get me out of that stupid cocoon. It took her a bit to get the hang of it, but she managed to peel me out.
Aunt Millie staggered over to us and screeched at us without a shred of her ‘cultured’ faux-European accent, “What are you doing, just standing there? They’re getting away with everything in a Size Two! Get it back, and I’ll give you a 20% off on anything that you buy from my Juniors’ line!”
I spared a second to silently snark as whether that was a promise or a threat, and then said, “Okay Crew, let’s do this! Aunt Millie, how many exits does this tunnel have?”
Five different exits for an escape tunnel? It seems that paranoia is yet another Wilkins family trait. “Let’s motor, Crew!” I shouted and ran into the tunnel, and an eternal moment later, the girls followed me.
Y’know, it’s ridiculously gratifying when people don’t just stand there, saying, ‘Hell no, I ain’t goin’ in there, I got my own thing goin’ down’?
Even so, as we were pelting down the poorly-lit escape tunnel (it was rigged so that only the first people going down it got any advantages whatsoever), Glor asked, “Excuse me, Jadis, but WHY are we doing this? This is pretty much a fight between two supervillains. I mean, it’s rather hard on Jobe, but if anyone could weather being taken hostage by her father’s arch-nemesis, it’s Jobe. So why are we getting between them?”
“Because we already ARE in the middle!” I shot back. “Gizmatic wants Jobe back for some reason. We were there – more or less – when Jobe was taken. Therefore, in Gizmatic’s mind, WE are responsible for it. That’s the only reason why he’d ask us to take care of this, because he sees it as our mess, so we clean it up.”
“WHAT? You’re joking! No sane, reasonable-”
“What sane? What reasonable? This is GIZMATIC we’re talking about!” I pointed out. “From everything that I’ve heard, he was a shrill, arbitrary, megalomaniacal, unreasonable, demanding shit even before he became the absolute ruler of an independent state! Jobe is the only person who’s said anything less obliging than ‘your wish is my command’ to Joe Wilkins in over ten years. People like Gizmatic don’t have to be reasonable; they just have to be able to back it up.”
“That may be so, Jadis, but please! We’re Whateley students! Gizmatic has too much invested in the status quo to challenge Academy neutrality by taking out his frustrations on us.”
“True, but he also has a lot invested in the SCHOOL, and all that he has to do to really mess with any one of us is have a nice word with Hartless. Tell me, Glor, exactly HOW much chance do you think that you’d have of getting into the Sorbonne if your scholarship money suddenly dried up?”
“Given a choice between this year’s Senior Class soon-to-be Grad or a couple of million a year in alumni contributions from Karedonia, do you really see Hartless as even letting Carson KNOW about this?”
“Well then, what are we WAITING for? Jobe NEEDS us!” Gloriana started running with some genuine enthusiasm for the hunt. By this time, Sizzle had gotten back to us with news that Anti-Champion and his women had exited from the tunnel and had set some sort of anti-pursuit trap. Kate went ahead, and when she didn’t report back, I put up my beast skin and went ahead.
Kate was trapped in some sort of gelatinous goop-trap that seemed to be resistant to her powers. She glared at us as we walked up, and glowered, “There’s never a briar patch around when you really need one.” Between us, Gloriana and I managed to freeze and fry the stuff off of her without doing her any real damage. Whoever had set it had been savvy enough to rig it to the ‘sneak peek’ monitor. That emergency exit led up to the roof of a five-story building just down the block and across the street from Simply Faboo, which had a concealed landing spot for an airship, and a choice of several rooftops and convenient methods down to the street, all of which you could check on with that ‘sneak peek’ monitor before heading up the stairs, in case you needed to move on to one of the other exits to avoid anyone trying to head you off. However, whoever had rigged that trap hadn’t been savvy enough to actually USE that sneak peeker, ‘cause they were in the middle of a fight with someone.
Peering at the monitor, Glor said, “Any idea as to who it is?” Sizzle and I tried to get an idea.
“They’re moving too fucking fast for me to get an ID,” Sizzle said. “We’re gonna have to risk going up and eyeballing it.”
We got to the door and we were able to make out that there were two guys doing a pretty good job of keeping Anti-Champion and his girl gang from getting their aircraft (your basic flying-brick type dropship) off the ground. “Who’s the guy in the ‘Batman Beyond’ ripoff outfit?” Kate asked.
“I think that’s Night Ranger,” I said. “Night Ranger is supposed to have vampire powers, or at least he’s working the ‘righteous vampire’ angle. The guy working the ‘Question’ look with the blank face mask and the leather trench coat is Mr. X. And Mr. X may have some sort of invulnerability angle, but give him his due, he does a good job of working the ‘crazy prepared’ and ‘badass trench coat’ tropes.”
“Do you know all the New York area superheroes?” Glor asked.
“Not personally,” I shot back, a touch offended. “But I DO like to know about people who may make an ill-advised attempt to arrest me some day.”
“That’s a touch paranoid, Jadis.”
“I cite today as a prima facie example.”
“I see your point.” Glor looked harder. “How do they get away with those outfits? I’d think that Marvel and DC would both jump with both feet on superheroes infringing on their copyrights in their own back yard.”
“Mr. X’s look is too generic; several other heroes and villains, both comic book and real life, have used it. And Night Ranger was using that basic design before the ‘Batman Beyond’ show aired. I hear on the chatrooms that DC paid him off, to keep from having to re-draw the entire series.”
We watched as Night Ranger and Mr. X prevented Anti-Champion and his women from loading the racks into the dropship. “Uhm, shouldn’t we HELP them?” Misty asked, “I mean, that Anti-Champion guy’s got Jobe!”
“Normally, I’d agree with you, Misty dear,” Glor said, watching the fight with clinical interest. “But release papers or no, our relationship with the Law at the moment is too chancy to risk falling into the hands of the Police again. At the moment, I’m taking my cues from the expert in being a fugitive.” She gave me a wry look.
“Not to worry, Misty,” Hazard said. “The Good Guys have backup coming. They should arrive in… five, four, three, two, ONE:” and there was a blinding flash of light, and three figures, a big muscular man in a sleeveless red-and-black body outfit, a statuesque blonde in a blue-and-white strapless generic superheroine suit with cape, opera gloves and thigh boots, and a guy tricked out in a faux-chivalric suit of power armor were standing there in the stock ‘we’re superheroes, here to save the day’ poses.
“Ironjack, Miss Magnificent and Laser Knight. Hey, Laser Knight!” I started to say, but it was too late. Laser Knight let off a flash of light right into Anti-Champion’s center mass, perking up the big goofball something considerable. “Fnark,” I muttered disgustedly.
One of the women, one who’d been holding back from the fight so far, dumped a bunch of clothing on the roof and lifted off. “Jadis, I think that we have our mysterious mastermind,” Kate said.
“Definitely,” Belphy agreed as the woman started trading shots with Laser Knight and closed with Miss Magnificent. “That glow would probably show as an ultraviolet blob on a security camera.”
“Anyone you know, Jadis?”
“Nope. How about you, Kate?”
“Me neither,” Kate admitted. “Stock, ‘I went to Crazy Eddie’s’ power armor, possibly an innate energy power, given how flimsy that armor is; could be almost anyone.”
“Maybe it’s a newcomer, looking to get Gizmatic over a barrel?” Glor opined.
“Enh,” I bleated, “Maybe. Iffy. But a newcomer would either try to avoid antagonizing the established supervillains until she got her rep established, or she’d be flying her own colors, instead of doing a ‘Miss Anti-Champion’ the way she is, with Ay-Cee’s colors on her armor. It means something, but I dunno what.”
‘Miss Anti-Champion’ did a very nice job of keeping Miss Magnificent off balance as she suckered Laser Knight right into Anti-Champion’s clutches. Then she started fiddling with a console built into her left vambrace. Then the entire tenor of the fight changed. The women, who’d been holding their own, suddenly grabbed Night Ranger and held him in front of them as shields, blocking the blasts from Mr. X’s weapon. Mr. X managed to cut off his blaster, but Night Ranger still got burned badly by it. As Mister X reached into that improbable trench coat of his, probably rummaging around for yet another gimmick, the two women pulled a slick maneuver that wrapped up not only Mr. X and Night Ranger, but Ironjack, who was coming to their rescue. This put Miss Magnificent in the position of having to choose between Laser Knight, who was getting mauled by Anti-Champion, and Mr. X, Night Ranger and Ironjack, who were also in trouble. She stopped and thought about it, which can be the right thing to do, getting your tactics straight; it can also be the wrong thing to do, if you just hang there in midair, like a big sitting duck. ‘Lady Anti-Champion’ took advantage of that to blast her into Anti-Champion, who batted her with Laser Knight.
“Aw, fuuuhhhccckk!” I moaned. So much for any hope of a nice, simple resolution, with Anti-Champion and his buddy getting busted by something vaguely resembling a recognized authority, and the goon-girls rolling over on their boss to cut a deal, telling them where Jobe was. I sprinted forward, hoping to get Laser Knight and Miss Magnificent free of Anti-Champion. Glor was in motion too, obviously just as reluctant as I was to let superheroes get mauled while we just stood there. She let off a blast that the hench-chicks just barely managed to evade with a high vaulting leap. Yeah, I said a high vaulting leap. Still, that got them away from Mr. X and crew. I managed to get Anti-Champion while he was way off balance, trying to hold onto both Laser Knight and Miss Magnificent at the same time. He did the absolute worst thing that he could have done: let slip of them, and then double-guess himself and try to get them back. He lost his grip on both of them, and was completely off balance when I charged into him. I had AC off balance and I kept him there as I rang his bell over and over again, giving Laser Knight and Miss ‘I really need a better Press Agent’ a chance to get their bearings again.
On reflection, maybe ‘ringing his bell’ was a bad choice of words. The next thing that I remember, it was like I was inside the bell as Quasimodo was ringing out the Mass. When I was able to string two thoughts together again, Sizzle was helping me up. ‘You okay, Beast?”
“Been better. How’s the fight going?”
“Been better. It’s kinda confused. The Sentinels aren’t sure which side is which, and the only reason that the airship hasn’t taken off yet, is that Misty’s keeping it down with gravity.”
“Hey, Siz, you got any idea who the leader of the Sentinels is, or at least the one that the rest of those yahoos listen to?”
“Why would I have any idea of what goes on in Brooklyn?”
I was about to tell Sizzle what I thought about her snooty airs, when a few of the girl-goons (there were more than three of them, but to be honest, I never really got a chance to count them) did a truly classic triple-team on Mr. X and they started sharing out weapons from his cache of stuff in his trench coat. Then it got nasty. That guy has some seriously weird shit in the recesses of that Burberry. The women dominated the rooftop, and they managed to get the last of the racks aboard the dropship. But in the middle of this, I felt something, and I heard Kate say, “What?”
At one corner of the roof, a whirling mass of darkness appeared and three figures walked out of it. The one guy was working your basic ‘enigmatic figure of darkness’ look, with the hooded cape, black leathers and a few carefully chosen bits of silvery mystical doodadage (you know the drill). The Shadowmage had made the scene; I was wondering when he’d show up. In stark contrast to the Shadowmage was Bliss, all in white, with white thigh-high boots, white opera gloves, white sleeveless mini-dress, white half-mask, and that bizarroid light neon-blue haystack wig of hers. The one I didn’t make was the petite blonde in the light blue outfit who was flying with the assistance of the small hoard of glittering sparkles that she seemed to generate. “Well, this should be amusing,” Kate muttered.
“NO!” I shouted, “BLISS! DON’T!”
Too late. Sure enough, Bliss gave her trademark wonky grin, placed her fingers on her temples and let out with her signature attack. I only felt a tingle of it through my shielding devil, but even so, it almost made up for really crappy day (well, at least since we got busted on Fifth Avenue, anyway). Bliss’ ace-in-the-hole is a psychic attack, but it doesn’t take the context of pain or fear or confusion, or any of the usual suspects. Rather, she overloads their pleasure center. Even if they don’t pass out from it, most hoods are having WAY too good a time to do anything intelligent or hostile.
I wonder how many supervillains would have gone straight, but they’re addicted to mixing it up with Bliss.
Now, this would have all been very good, if not for the fact that in her perfectly understandable haste to shut down the fight before anyone got hurt, Bliss did a wide area attack with this. And she didn’t factor in the fact that one of the persons most likely to be taken out of the fight by this – namely, Misty – was the only one keeping that stupid shuttle on the rooftop. Sure enough, like most of the Sentinels and most of the rest of my team, Misty zoned out with a goofy ‘oh whaow’ look on her face. Sure enough, the shuttle went straight up, and AC and Lady AC flew after it, with a couple of hench-wenches in tow.
I toned down my beast-skin and manifested a pair of batwings, and took off after them. But Lady AC spun around and aimed something at me, and it was Quasimodo time again. Gloriana managed to catch me before I hit the pavement hard, and bore me back to the rooftop.
But get this: just before they climbed onto the shuttle and it cloaked for its getaway, Lady AC turns and fires on the three hench-chicks still on the roof. *SPLAT!* And I mean that seriously! Whatever it was that she used on them reduced them to gooey smears on the rooftop.
As I was shaking my head clear again, Glor landed us on the roof. Belphy, Hazard and Sizzle were all holding Kate, who was giggling merrily, and trying to claw at Bliss. Shaking the last of that ringing out of my ears, I shouted, “KATE! What do you think you’re doing?”
Kate turned to me, a wide grin on her face. “I’m giggling! I’m Bubbly! I’m GIDDY! The bitch must pay with her soul!”
“You’ll have to excuse her,” I said with an apologetic grin, “but you really rubbed her rhubarb the wrong way.”
“Not so fast!” Mr. X snapped, “Exactly who ARE you girls, and what did you have to do with all that?” And battered as most of them were, you could just tell that the Sentinels were looking for someone to vent on.
Gloriana started, but I shushed her. “Now, now, let Misty handle this…”
“Gee THANKS Jadis! Wow how did you DO that thing with the fingers on your head I never felt ANYTHING even LIKE that-” as Misty led the Sentinels into her labyrinth of illogic, I took a breather and tried to figure out what we could salvage from this cluster fuck. Then I spotted a pile of clothes that was scattered where Miss Zappity-zap had dumped them. I meandered over and casually picked up one particularly colorful bit of clothing. It was a cherry-red satin short-short set of bib overalls, like something that you’d see on an old cheesecake calendar. Definitely one of Aunt Millie’s pieces. Out of sheer curiosity, I checked the label. And then it all clicked together. I felt the tips of my ears turn red hot.
Oh. So, THAT’S how it was.
I double-checked with the other discards, and it was the same with all of them. I waited until Misty had completely boggled the Sentinels, especially Bliss, who probably had made the horrible mistake of trying to read Misty’s mind. I made our excuses, and pretty much pulled Misty away and down into the escape hatch. The Sentinels watched us leave with that look of puzzled relief that I come to expect from people who are exposed to Misty for too long. Once we were all in the stairwell, I grabbed Belphy and hopped into the airwell, dropping to the very bottom. “Now, RUN!”
“So we’ll be long gone by the time that those yutzes realize that Misty zoomed them! Ironjack was a member of the Cadet Crusaders, back when they weren’t a joke, and he’s probably still on speaking terms with Gryphon. If Misty hadn’t confused them, he probably would have put two and two together, and release papers or no release papers, we’d have spent the night in the Brooklyn lockup!”
Glor stopped and gave Misty her best ‘stern schoolmistress’ look. “Misty dear, you’ve been given a devastating power. You must only use that power for GOOD!”
“But what about Whateley neutrality?” Hazard sniped. Then she paused. “Something’s happening. What’s that noise?”
“What’s that SMELL?”
“Oh SHIT!” I said, getting what was going on. “Aunt Millie’s flooding this tunnel with sewer water, so it won’t be connected to her operation under Simply Faboo! Gee thanks, Millie, yer a real Wilkins! Sizzle, grab ahold of Misty! Misty, lift! Everyone else, grab onto Misty! Sizzle, RUN! That way!” This way, we were able to get to the next exit before the stanky-ass waters got to us, and we were out of there with only a mild case of nasal bombardment.
Once we were in clean air (well, as clean as you can really expect in Brooklyn), Hazard said, “So, now we sneak back to Aunt Millie and get what ninja suits as she’s got in stores?”
“Nope,” I said as I phoned for Hector and the limo, “change of plan. We don’t need the sneak suits; I’ve got an idea as to what’s going on.”
“Oh, thank GOD! What is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“‘Cause if the authorities found out about it, it could screw things up a thousand ways.”
“So?” Gloriana asked like I’d dissed her. “I’m not going to tell anyone!”
“In the past 12 hours, we’ve run into TWO super-grade telepaths, neither of whom we can regard as our friend,” I pointed out. “And it’s very likely that we’ll run into at least ONE more in the next 12 hours.”
“And maybe it’s because you just like calling all the shots,” Glor grumbled.
“You get used to it,” Misty said.
Hector pulled up and we piled in. “Back to Manhattan,” I told him. “Head for the Lower East Side.”
“So, what CAN you tell us?” Hazard asked, rather uncomfortable in the position of peacemaker.
“Listen in.” I pulled out my phone and hit Uncle Ralph’s contact number. “Ambassador Wilkins? Here’s the low-down: Anti-Champion and his little buddy are attacking the Wilkins family’s holdings in the Five Boroughs, and they’re doing it in a sequence that allows them to swipe gear and other materials that make them more powerful and better able to raid the other holdings. They have the element of surprise at first, but with each raid, they’re more powerful and better able to operate. They’ll keep raiding all night, and not let you regroup and plan. Now, I assume that other members of your family are working scams similar to Cousin Gladys and Aunt Millie, providing some sort of service or product to the supervillain community. Now, I could go to the Syndicate website – yes, I have a web account with them, thank you very much (NO, Glor, you can’t see it!) – and figure out which of the service providers is your family hiding behind whatever names, but that would take hours. And nobody except Anti-Champion wants me to waste hours, so just TELL me who in your family has a business with a back room, ‘Kay?” Uncle Ralph rattled off six names and addresses. “Okay, that’s atypically reasonable of you. Now Ralph, of these names, I figure that four of them will be raided. Tell Shane, Larry and Stephanie that they can expect unwelcome visitors tonight. Also, tell them that Jadis Diabolik, or someone working with her will be dropping by to act as backup. Oh, the fourth. That’s you, Ralph. But don’t worry. They’re saving you for last. Yes, I’m sure of it. It shouldn’t come down to that, Ralph. They can only raid one place at a time, and I DO have a plan. Oh Ralph? I’m going to have to hire some backup. Parky already went over this with you, I’m just giving you a head’s up. NO, we DON’T have a thing about it, we just get that screwing over our own people is counter-productive! Yes, I can see how that would be an alien concept to you, Wilkins. Just pony up when they come for their paychecks.” I shut off the phone and closed my eyes and remembered the wonderful Liz Claiborne outfits that I’d bought with Jobe’s credit card that morning. It seems so long ago now.
When we rolled into Hell’s Kitchen, I told Hector to go gas up the limo and take Gloriana, Belphy, and Sizzle with him. I’d call him when we were done. As the limo drove off, Hazard asked, “So, what now?”
* * * * * *
Hazard was all eyes as we walked back into Superbad. “THIS is a supervillain lair?”
“No, it’s a working class bar, whose clientele are mostly working supervillains,” I told her. “There are other supervillain bars in town, but the guys who hang out here have the muscle, without the ‘Mastermind’ hassle.”
“Ex-squeeze me?” Haz arched a ‘you talkin’ to ME?’ brow in my direction.
“They’re very nice people, from what I’ve seen,” Misty said.
When we walked over to the bar, the barmaid said, “YOU again? And you brought another one?”
“Chill out,” I said. “We’re here looking to hire someone.”
“Hire?” the barmaid chuckled. “Hey, honey, it’s SATURDAY NIGHT in New York! This is a very busy night! And it’s a quarter to Eight! Most of the Actors who hang here are either working, getting ready to go to work, or getting ready to party down – somewhere else. We don’t get a lot of business on Saturday night.”
“Yeah, it IS a little sparse, right about now,” I observed, scanning the bar. There were only five people sitting around, and I had a distinct sense that this was where the guys without a date (so to speak) were hanging out.
“Hey, come back Monday, and we should-”
“Sorry, but time IS a consideration.” Then I spotted someone I remembered. “Hey, that guy… that’s Brainstorm, right?”
“He any good?”
She shrugged. “He’s okay. He’s been at the supervillain gig for about three years now, and he works pretty regular, and he hasn’t been caught or killed yet. And he’s kept to his contracts, or at least so I’ve heard. I wouldn’t say that he was the next Typhon or anything, but he holds his own.”
“Sounds about right.” I shook her hand, palming her five twenties.
I strolled up to Brainstorm, with the girls in tow. “Hey, Brainstorm!”
Brainstorm looked at us with no small measure of confusion, his beer halfway to his mouth. He looked at us, clearly not getting the joke. Then his eyes drifted to my ‘horn’ forelocks, and the penny dropped. “Oh! Right! Jadis Diabolik!” More confusion. “So… what’re you doin’ here on a Saturday night?”
“I’m looking to hire some men for a quick job.”
“No, it’s not. Something dropped out of the clear blue sky and right into my lap. I need some guys with serious chops to handle it.”
“You hirin’ for your dad?”
“He’s not involved in this, and it’s best if it stays that way. But I am fronting for someone who can pay.”
“I can’t say until you’ve taken the contract.”
“I don’t do wetwork.”
“Good to hear it. We’ll need more men, at least two more, but no more than five. I need people who are smart enough to act on their own initiative, but can take orders, and can hold their own in a fight. It would help if they weren’t smartasses who’d try to muscle in on the action and cut their own deals.”
Brainstorm gave a wry smile. “There go most of the Actors I know. Yeah, I know a few guys who might still be available. What’s the ticket?”
“Five grand just for passing the audition, another ten grand if they’re there when the curtain closes, another ten if there’s stuntwork, and another twenty grand for anyone who does a star turn. And I don’t have any time to vet Extras.”
Brainstorm raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “Okay, that ought’a raise their interest. But before I roust them out’a bed, I gotta tell you: we’re all Prop Men.”
“Sounds just about right. Still we might need some talent, maybe a little star power. Would you happen to know how to get in contact with either the Blue Diamond or Heller?”
“Sorry. I’ve met the Diamond, but Heller runs in way classier circles than I do. I dunno how to get in touch with them, and I don’t know who their agents are, either.”
“Fnark. Okay, how long to get your crew all together with their props?”
“Call it an hour.”
“Cool. Make the casting call and give me a call when you’ve got who’ll come.” I gave him my contact number.
“So, who’s the director?”
“And the Producer?”
“Later, after you’ve taken the contract.”
As we were on our way out, up the stairs back to the street, I called Hector and told him to pick us up. When I hung up, Misty asked, “Jadis, what did that Brainstorm guy mean, when he said that he and his buddies were ‘prop men’?”
“Misty, like a lot of professions, Supervillains use a jargon, a special slang. But in New York, they use Show Business jargon, so they can talk in front of civilians, and anything they say will be mistaken for show biz shop talk. Supervillains are ‘Actors’. Thugs and henchmen are ‘Extras’. Big name supervillains are ‘Stars’. The persons who call the shots on the job are ‘Directors’. The people who are bankrolling the whole thing are ‘Producers’, and so on.”
“What are ‘agents’?”
“Agents are agents, guys who go out and scrounge up work for the supervillains, and get 10% of their take. Hey, it’s hard to find work without one. Let’s see… Supervillains who have innate powers, mutants, dyna-hosts, like that, are called ‘talents’, but ‘Prop Men’ are supervillains who don’t have an innate power. They have some sort of power item, a power ring or power armor, or hypno-gun, like that.” Then Hector picked us up in the limo, and we took advantage of the hour to go get something to eat at a very good El Salvadorian restaurant that Hector just happened to know about.
Not quite an hour later, just as we were tucking into thirds, Brainstorm called and told me that he’d found three people willing to shuck their Saturday night plans for the money offered. We got a doggie bag and five minutes later, we were in that most honored of meeting places: a dingy alley on the West Side. Brainstorm, who was wearing a gray bodysuit with a Psi symbol inside a storm symbol and was carrying a brass-tone helmet that looked like something out of an old movie serial, walked forward with a smile. “Well, I was able to get three of the guys that I was talking about. Freezer had family commitments, Power Glove already had a gig, and Sneaky Pete said that he was busy.”
‘Smart move, Sneaky Pete,’ I muttered to myself. Who? Me? Hold a grudge? HELL YEAH! “You’re friends with Sneaky Pete?”
“Well, we play cards some times.”
One of the others, a big, stocky, but not quite fat guy in a blue reinforced boiler suit with a tricked out belt, reinforced black gloves and boots, and a matching black hood, stepped forward. He said with a mild Brooklyn accent, “So, Brainstorm said that you was payin’ Five long, just for showin’ up?”
“NO, I said, ‘Five Grand for passing the audition’. It’s a signing bonus. If you think that I’m paying five grand for the privilege of seeing you in your work jammies, then you’ve just flunked this audition.” He waved off on that, stepping back. “Look, I’m not going to hire you, just because you’ve got a silly suit. It’s an audition. Tell me your handle, your powers, any skills or assets that I should know about, and in general, you got three minutes each to convince me that you’re worth my time and money. Okay Brainstorm, let’s get you out of the way.”
Brainstorm gave an embarrassed shrug. “Okay, this rig I got gives me psychokinesis, y’know, moving stuff with your mind? I can levitate with it, lift a hair over 1200 pounds, deflect bullets, do a blast at about 4 sticks-”
“That means a force equal to four standard sticks of dynamite, Misty.”
“Right, and I can do the ‘poltergeist’ thing, lifting about 300 pounds and throwing it around an area of maybe fifty feet across, for about, oh, I’ve never done it more’n 2 minutes at a time. It’s real tiring. And as for skills… well, I been at the black mask game for three years-”
“And you haven’t been caught yet,” I finished for him. “Okay, that does suggest a certain level of competence.”
“Knowin’ my limits helps.”
“And that suggests a certain level of intelligence. Can you do any fine manipulation with it?”
“Nope, don’t really have the equipment for it. I just lift the whole thing.”
“Yep, it’s good to know your limits. Okay, Brainstorm, you’re hired. Next!”
The woman of the group stepped forward. She was a reasonably attractive woman in maybe her late twenties, early thirties with long straight black hair, in a legless black-and-purple bodystocking with a half-mask and a starburst on her chest. “I’m Starstone,” she introduced herself in a voice that hid traces of a Brooklyn accent under a New York elocution class polish.
“Any connection to the Starstone who dropped out of sight about ten years ago?”
“Yeah; I have two of her power gems.”
“And you’re sure that she’s cool with that?”
“I’m sure that she’s DEAD. She died eight years ago in a big fight with Dynamo.”
“Stony, you DO know that in this business, people have a nasty tendency to come back from the dead?”
Starstone just shook her head with a very certain expression. “I can fly, project a force field that will stop a RPG, project both dazzling bursts of light and blasts at about six sticks. I can’t do fancy tricks with it; I’m your basic blaster.”
“You know about Splendor, of the Cadet Crusaders?”
“We’ve traded shots a couple of times.”
“Are we talking Nemesis or anything?”
“Nah. I wouldn’t mind kicking the little bitch’s ass for her, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do it. I got better things to do with my time.”
“Another one with a clue!” I said. “Okay, just to warn you, we have run into the CCs and Splendor on this one already. Are you cool with that?” Starstone nodded. “Cool! You’re hired. Next!”
A tall, thin African-American guy who I vaguely recalled from my first visit to Superbad, just before Christmas, walked up, wearing an outfit that was, at the very best, busy. I mean, there should be a three-color limit on an outfit. And there was a sort of ‘patchwork’ quality to it. It was also utility belt and pouch intensive, and he had a tricked out gun at his hip, and he was carrying a large techno-intense disk by his side. “Hey there! I’m Gravity Gun!” He said, working the charm for as much as he could. “The name sort of says it all: I lift stuff, make it lighter or heavier, and like all that, and the G-Gun hits with about five sticks. And I ride this disk here, so transport’s not a problem. But that’s not all! I got a real bag of tricks up my sleeve. I’d tell you want they all were, but we’d still be here in the morning.”
“Okay, not bad! Most Actors think that they can take over the world with just one prop!” then I fixed him with a stern look. “Do they all WORK?”
“yyyeaaahh…” Gravity Gun said in a way that suggested that he had occasional equipment problems. I shot Brainstorm a look, which he accepted with a silent shrug that suggested that he trusted G-Gun well enough.
<sigh> “Okay, dude, it’s your ass. You’re hired. Next!”
The big chunky guy swaggered forward. “Hey. I’m Dave.”
“Yeah…” He said rather defensively, “I, ah, don’t have a splashy supervillain name. C’mon, do you know how hard it is to come up with a name for a brick that hasn’t already been copped, and don’t sound totally retarded? I mean, the comic books alone have chewed up most of the good ones. And, I’ve managed to stay under the radar for four years, so it’s hasn’t really been a problem. And, I mean… what’s some snitch gonna do, tell his cop contact, “Hey, I’ve got some juicy info on ‘Dave’?”
“Okay, you’re still auditioning, but you’re gonna have to sell me on this, Dave,” I said, trying to not sound like a Broadway producer. “Okay, what’s your shtick?”
“I’m your basic brick. I can lift seven and a half long tons, stop heavy machine gun fire, and jump a city block. Nothin’ fancy, but I get the job done.”
I gave him a critical once-over. “Okay, judging by that belt, and the fact that Brainstorm said that you were all ‘Prop Men’, I’m guessing that you get all that strength from that belt. How reliable is it?”
“I’ve had it fail on me about twice, in the past three years.”
“You know how to fix it?”
“Yes’n no. I can spot a burned out circuit, but I’m not really sure how the basic mechanism works,” he said in a way that suggested that he’d explained all this before.
“Okay, how long does the charge last?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Really? I’m guessing that that readout on your left glove is a timer, and it’s got four panels; ten minutes counted out in seconds would only take three panels. What’s that for?”
“Oh, this counts down the recharge, the time until I can recharge without frying myself; which is about 45 minutes.”
“You sure about that?”
“No. Finding out for sure would mean frying my brains, until I found out for sure, and I ain’t doin’ that to myself.”
“Dave, you may be smarter than a lot of guys who think that they’re geniuses,” I granted him. “Any skills that I should know about?”
“My civilian job requires that I have an intimate working knowledge of the layout of the City, all five boroughs, and the main roadways and routine traffic patterns,” he said officiously.
“In other words, you’re a taxi or truck driver. Useful, I suppose. Well, you can always use a good brick on any job, and we’re a little light on that right now.” I let out a weary sigh. “Well, you all look like at least you know your asses from holes in the ground. You’re probably the best that I can reasonably expect on such short notice.” I pulled a handful of envelopes from my purse and selected four of them. One by one, I handed them an envelope, told them that their contract was to obey my instructions, back up myself and my companions as it was called for, not to sell us out, not to run if the going got rough, and generally to stick around and to as they were told until the contract was finished. And, one by one, they said that they agreed and took the envelope. Once Starstone, the last one, who took her envelope with a look like she wasn’t that sure about it, agreed, I told them, “Open up your envelopes and count the money.”
“Oh, fuck,” Starstone said as she riffled through her envelope and found my spell slip. She pulled out the slip, and showed it to the others. In an all-too-due panic, the others looked through their envelopes and pulled out their slips. When the last one was out, I snapped my fingers and they all burst into flames. “What did you DO to us?” Stony demanded.
“Oh, I just made those to make sure that nobody got the bright idea to just take the money and run, ‘cause I’m just a dumb gullible kid who’d just hand over twenty grand to four people I don’t even know, and expect career criminals to keep their word.”
“Okaaayy…” Brainstorm said uncertainly, “Now I wanna know… what DID you do?”
“Those slips of paper were magical charms – and YES, I can do magic. Just because my father’s a mad scientist, doesn’t mean that I’m limited to mad science,” I spelled it out for them. “By taking the money and agreeing to the terms I set, You’ve just entered into what’s called a Sorcerer’s Contract.”
“Oh, That does NOT sound good,” Dave said in a flat voice.
“Oh, don’t worry – you haven’t sold your souls, or anything like that. The short form? You’ll hold up your end of the contract – OR ELSE. The ‘or else’ begins with you having incredible spates of bad luck at the absolute worst times, and goes downhill at a high rate of speed to me coming, finding you and RIPPING YOUR FUCKING HEADS OFF!” I put up my beast skin at the last bit, to illustrate my point. All four of them jumped back like they’d been scalded. I hoped that none of them had lost control or anything; we didn’t have time for them to go and get a change of underwear.
“BUT, if you just do what you freely agreed to do, of your own will and all that jazz, and you’re cool!” I said chipperly, dropping my beast skin. I gave them my ‘Diabolik’ grin and asked, “Any questions?”
It took them a few, but Brainstorm was able to pull himself together and ask, “aahhh… yeah: what’s the job?”
“That’s more LIKE it!” I cheered them. “Okay, here’s the deal:” I filled them in on the bare basics: Jobe disowned, then kidnapped, Anti-Champion, Gizmatic still wants her back, and the raids on the Wilkinses’ businesses. “So, of the businesses that the Ambassador owned up to, I figure that there are three that Anti-Champion and his little buddies will attack within a few hours or so: Stephanie’s interior decorating business near Park Avenue, Shane’s top-end consumer electronics outlet near St. Mark’s, and Larry’s car and exotic vehicle customization shop in the Bronx. We have NO idea as to which one he’ll hit next, so we’ve got to cover all of them. We don’t have enough people to do that effectively, which is why we hired YOU guys.”
“We?” Glor echoed with a snort.
“Close enough,” I muttered back. “What we want you to do is go to one of the addresses, and basically keep a low profile until Anti-Champion attacks one of the places. If he attacks your position, call for backup, and keep him busy until we can get there to hammer his ass; if you get a call that he’s attacked, haul ass to provide backup. The heavy hitter is Anti-Champion; he’s a brick and a flier, and worse, he’s a power absorber. You’re professionals, so I’ll assume that you know how to use that information. Sound like you can handle it?”
There was a general murmur of agreement, but the tall skinny one, Gravity Gun stepped forward. “Excuse me, you said that one of the sites we’re supposed to protect is a consumer electronics outlet run by a guy called Shane Wilkins?”
“Would that be a store called ‘Cutting Edge’?”
“Cutting Edge?” I paused and thought about it for a sec. “Yeah, I think so. Gizmatic mentioned something about a line of credit at Cutting Edge, and he’s probably so cheap that he’d ask his relatives to pay for our gear out of their own pockets.”
“We’ll take THAT post,” Gravity Gun said with a winning smile.
I had second thoughts about it, but Kate said, “Let them have it, Jadis. They’ll be more likely to stick around if they think that they can walk away with something extra in their back pockets.”
“You wound me!” Gravity Gun said lightly.
“No, when I decide to wound you, there’ll be blood on the walls up to the third floor.”
“Okay,” I said, keeping it from getting nasty, “you guys seem to know where Cutting Edge is. Here’s my contact number, and I’ll need all of yours. Good. Okay, Glor, why don’t you take Sizzle, Belphy and Hazard?” She agreed. “So, you want Cousin Stephanie, the interior designer, or Cousin Larry, the motorhead?”
Glor considered the options, and said, “Well, they’re both Wilkinses, so I think we’ll take the one that won’t spend the time trying to get into our individual or collective pants. Which could be both of them, but the odds are better with the interior designer.”
“You’re learning, Glor. Well, St. Mark’s is closer, so Kate and Misty will be riding to the Bronx with me in the limo. Besides, the limo needs to be looked at anyway.”
* * * * * *
Jadis and her team left in the limo, and her hired goons left on their own power. Gloriana didn’t like the way that She-Beast sort of shoved her plans down everyone’s throat, but on the other hand, she didn’t see any real alternative. Jadis seemed to know what was going on. Putting away the sneaking suspicion that the daughter of Dr. Diabolik was playing some underhanded ploy for later, Gloriana briskly took charge of her own team and hailed a taxi to the address she’d been given.
* * * * * *
Iron Mike stepped out of the shadows, where he’d been watching the whole thing. He’d known that Brainstorm and his little fag buddies had been up to something; he always knew when there was action going down. So, that skinny little bitch who’d chucked him in the river was back in town? And she had something cooking? Well, here was a primo chance of screwing up her plan, whatever it was. He knew that he couldn’t take on Jadis Diabolik by himself, and he had a hunch that he couldn’t take on the other girls either. But Brainstorm and that crew of losers? He could handle them in his SLEEP! And they each had five grand in cash on them. Just what he’d become a hero for: to do good, and make money kicking ass. Of course, he’d wait until whatever happened, and then see what else landed on the ground…
The address near Park Avenue – not ON Park Avenue, but NEAR it – was a marble-clad entrance with a brass plaque that had on it simply: FELICITY. “I thought that this Wilkins was named Stephanie,” Belphoebe said.
“Well, this is the address,” Glor said as she rang the doorbell. “We can but ask.”
The door opened, and a classic Wilkins face with harsh, rather ferret-like features that weren’t in the least softened by the bowl-cut blonde pageboy hairdo or the severe makeup she wore, popped out and snapped, “Where have you BEEN? Get IN here!”
“You know who we are?”
“Of course I do! Who else would you be at 9:30 on a Saturday night?”
“Well, she does have a point there, Glor,” Hazard said as she pushed into the storefront.
“Wait a minute, where are the rest of you?” the woman said as she watched the girls come in with the air of a house-proud wife watching some stray dogs tracking mud on her immaculate white shag rug.
“‘Rest of us’?” Belphy said blithely, “Did I leave body parts in the street again?”
“Where are the big guys with the guns?” the woman screeched, “I got a call from my mom that Anti-Champion crashed her shop and made off with half of her inventory! WHY, I have no idea…”
“Not to worry, Ma’am,” Gloriana said soothingly
“MA’AM?” the woman said with a tic in one side of her mouth.
“Everything’s under control,” Glor continued without a pause. “We are merely the advance team. We have two other teams that are poised to strike as soon as Anti-Champion shows himself. We are merely here to keep him in one place until the backup shows, and from doing too much damage to your establishment, and of course, yourself. We were chosen instead of large, burly men as we wouldn’t be too obvious.”
“I don’t decorate sororities,” the woman said, her eyes narrowing in Glor’s direction.
Seeing that Lady Gracious was bollixing it rather badly, Belphy stepped up. “I do think that we should be properly introduced, seeing as we’re practically family. I’m Belphoebe Blackadar-Wilkins. Jobe is my, ah, progenitor, and I’m sure that you’re worried just as sick as I am that she’s-”
“Oh, so you’re Jobe’s little science project,” the woman said, her face going, if anything, even more sour looking at Belphy’s fresh bouncy young perfection. “I’m Steph. Not Steph Wilkins, just… Steph. And I don’t take in strays. Anti-Champion’s probably already taken care of Jobe, which simplifies things regarding the succession; or, at least it would if Uncle Joe wouldn’t keep cloning himself! There simply isn’t room in the Wilkins family tree for every one of Baby Jobe’s little experiments that think that just because that freak cooked them up, that they’re entitled to something. Well, since you’ve been hired, you might as well get to work, and be useful.”
‘Steph’ turned away with a sniff, her beak of a nose high in the air. As she turned, Belphy reached into her purse with the air of someone going for a shoe to mash a nasty little cockroach with. Gloriana and Sizzle grappled with her to keep her from reducing Steph to a pile of… something. Hazard distracted Steph by asking, “So, exactly what do you DO here? From the name of the place, I assume that this is one of those ‘you’re supposed to know what we do before you ever get here’ type places.” Hazard looked around the showcase, honestly at a loss. Scattered around the minimalist showcase on daises, lit by overhead spotlights were various… objects, of woods, leather, brass, glass and metal. The objects seemed to perform some function without mechanisms or electronics, but Haz had no idea as to what those functions might be.
“DO?” Steph said in a tone suggesting a Roman Senator about to address the elders of the city, “Why, I DESTROY! I destroy the stifling and moribund arbitrary distinctions that define and delineate the essential dynamics of everyday life! I SHATTER and sweep aside the mundane constructions that ensnare our defining space! I repudiate the dialectical dualisms of bourgeois symmetry! I am a daringly innovative pseudo anti-neo post-modern deconstructionist! Uncle Joseph wants to conquer the world! HAH! WHY would I want to conquer the world? I can RE-DEFINE it!” She finished by flinging her arms out, encompassing her entire label-less and utterly oblique collection.
“So…” Hazard said, feeling like she was trapped in an elevator with Mega-Death during one of his drick-outs, “There’s money in that?”
“Not really,” Steph admitted in a very lucid voice and unaffected voice. “So, to make ends meet, I package pre-fabricated lairs and like that to supervillains.” She marched over to one of the display daises and touched a seemingly ornamental knob on top of the display. The dais started to descend. Gloriana, Hazard, Sizzle and Belphy all hurried to step onto the dais as it went down. The minimalist elevator descended into another showroom, of a decidedly different type. “You have to understand that supervillains are all about the drama. The smarter ones use it, and the flakier ones are slaves to it, but they’re all in it up to their ears. My service is more about Set Design than anything else, but I do my best to provide real quality for the money.” She gestured around the showroom, which looked like an IKEA version of a movie set department. A fully functioning high-tech War Room, complete with situation monitors, hologram strategic map, asset tracking stations, and a tricked-out command chair stood with a couple of very realistic guards in full body armor and heavy assault rifles flanking it occupied one area delineated by a red velvet rope. Another set looked like something out of a 1960s Spy Movie, all Danish Modern with brushed steel and molded woods. Another set looked like a medieval torture chamber, complete with rugged stone walls and thick wrought iron implements. Another set looked like something out of the old Star Trek series, complete with the ‘rough-cut walls’ and odd inexplicable devices with flashing lights. Another set was all Industrial Chic, with expansion grating, ‘waffle’ pattern steel plates, and lots of ‘heavy metal’, tastefully encrusted with decorative rashes of rust. Another set was all gleaming polished stone with delicate carvings, while in pointed contrast, another was reverse-chic poured concrete and cinderblocks, with drab yet functional mass-market accessories. “You’d be amazed at how popular that ‘Poured-concrete-and-cinderblock’ look is with the ‘super-spy’ types,” Steph commented. “They think that it looks more ‘real’, more threatening, more credible somehow.”
Steph walked over to one of the displays. “But it’s all fake, of course. Building a real lair from scratch anywhere in the Five Boroughs would be a nightmare; the property costs alone would bankrupt most supervillains. Most of them just rent out a generic space and they have me block out the needed areas with these modular panels.” She stepped over to a selection of wall types: brick, cinderblock, fieldstone, tile, metal, and so on. She flipped over one of the sections, revealing that the material face was false, and behind that was a honeycomb construction laden with wiring and pipes. “The walls are modular panels made of four-inch Hazardite hexagonal constructons with 1.5 mm membranes of Wexlerite containing them, and a 3.75 mm fronting of Wexlerite and a 1.25 mm backing of Messingite, and of course, the façades. It’s rated to stop a blast equal to three sticks of dynamite. Flooring units are four layers of four-inch Hazardite constructons with a 5 mm surface of Messingite, and three layers of 2 mm Wexlerite between the layers of constructons. I do have sturdier panels, but this is the composition that sells the best. It’s designed so that the lair can be put up in a few days and taken down in a couple of hours, with wiring routes and sound baffling in the walls, and water and sewage pipes built into the flooring.
“Of course, the panels are the least of it; my real expertise is designing the layout of the lair within the confines of the space they’re using. And some of the places that they find to put up a lair!” Steph let out a whistle.
Seeing that the unpleasant woman was relaxing a touch, as uptight people tended to do when talking about something that they excel at, Gloriana asked, “So, what’s your favorite part about arranging the layout of a lair to be constructed?”
“DEATH TRAPS!” Steph said with a fire in her eyes. “I know, I know: it’s trite, it’s cliché, but everybody loves death traps!” An atypical beam of enthusiasm on her ferret face, Steph pointed a remote at one section, and it flipped around to reveal a wide door. Without bothering to notice if the girls were following, Steph clipped through the doors, chattering away. “The GREAT thing about death traps is that the clients not only accept innovation, not only want innovation, but they actually DEMAND innovation! It’s GOT to be new; it’s GOT to be unexpected; it’s GOT to catch the opposition with their spandex around their ankles! There’s nothing more embarrassing than trying to nail someone with last year’s trite, tired old death trap, and them calling you on it! If you’ve got something really new, something really unexpected, you’ll have buyers THROWING money at you by the bushels!” She paused and deflated a bit. “Of course, you’ve got to be careful only to sell ONE of them. Supervillains are SO PICKY about that sort of thing! Still, here are three of my classics, the ones that I show the customers to give them an idea as to what I can come up with.”
Steph walked up to what appeared to be a rather standard equipment console, with a large lever under a smoked transparent cover, and a sign saying in clear, easily legible letters: ‘Self Destruct Trigger. DO NOT TOUCH!’ She took a dummy made of ballistics gelatin, with synthetic bones clearly showing through the mock flesh, and a few pouches of liquid inside the chest and abdomen, placed it on stand and set it in front of the console and set the hand on the lever. “Okay, you’ve seen this in a couple of thousand cheesy TV shows: The hero is tearing up the nefarious villain’s lair, spots the self-destruct button and says, ‘Aha! I’ll end Dr. Nefarious’ nefarious nephariousness with a single push of a button!’ And a voice starts a countdown, and everyone heads for the exits, with just enough time for that one last-minute rescue and punch-up with the villain before getting out just before the big explosions, roll the credits.
“BUT…” with a wide grin, Steph pulled out a remote control and hit a button. Spray came up from four hidden nozzles in the floor. “FIRST, the sucker gets spritzed with a cryogenic spray that lowers their temperature to 75 degrees below Zero Fahrenheit in less than 1.35 seconds. “THEN-” there was a crackling, and the rime-encrusted dummy started to smoke, “- he gets zapped with over 4,000 Kilowatts of electricity running from the lever to the metal plate that he’s standing on. The cryogenic spray helps to bridge any gap in the circuit made by gloves or boots. AND, after 25 seconds of that-” a squarish column came down with a resounding thud, squashing the dummy flat, “-this column of Messingite-reinforced Hazardite comes down with 25,000 p.s.i. of force!” Steph hit another button, and the column rose back up into its recess, revealing the swashed broken mess that was left of the dummy. “Each step is a killer, but since we’re talking about superheroes here, not only do you have several different kill methods, but they don’t conflict and they even abet each other.”
“So, supervillains don’t really have self-destruct switches in their lairs?” Gloriana asked with a mournful tone.
“Of course they do!” Steph answered with a note of disdain in her voice. “But WHY would they have the trigger out where everyone could SEE it, and no doubt some halfwit henchman with a suicidal streak could come along and be tempted into pushing it? No, this is the wireless age! Supervillains carry the self-destruct codes in their cell phones! While most supervillains are very big on having unique, ‘nobody’s ever seen this wrinkle before’ deathtraps, I’ve managed to sell the ‘Killjoy Swatter’ here to a bunch of guys. Pity I’ll never sell this next one again…”
Steph walked over to a transparent tube set into a console. Inside the tube was a little girl of maybe Five or Six years old in a blue denim bib overall with a red striped shirt, who was pounding at the side of the tube, making noises with her mouth like she was trying to get out. “Now, this hologram image is the default, the most likely to kick in the heroic impulse in an intruder. The image can be changed to that of someone that the intruder knows, if you’ve got that information. Just remember to clue in your henchmen that it’s only a computer generated image projected onto the inside of the tube.” Steph set up another dummy on a stand in front of the tube. She pulled out that remote again. “Now, the beauty of this is that the unlocking mechanism on the tube is so simple that even the dumbest brick will figure it out and use that instead of risking the ‘prisoner’s’ life by smashing the tube. AND, in so doing, he preps the trap.” She hit another button on the remote. The tube swung open rapidly, and the ‘little girl’ disappeared. Metallic tentacles snaked out, wrapped the dummy and dragged it inside the tube, which swung close again with a snap. A mist filled the tube, and icy crystals started to form on the dummy and the inside of the tube. “The tentacles are tool-steel shod in Wexlerite and electrified with 2,500 Kilowatts of electricity. The spray reaches over a hundred degrees below zero Fahrenheit and is toxic to most warm-blooded species. AND-” water started filling the tube. “-that water is absolutely pure, and it’s twenty degrees below Zero. Being absolutely pure is the only thing keeping ice crystals from forming and causing it to freeze solid. The second that it hits the chamber, ice crystals start to form and the chump is frozen in a solid block of ice! The customer who bought this model sent me an unsolicited testimonial letter, telling me that she snagged FIVE GUYS with this one, and kept the frozen blocks of ice around as trophies!”
Steph paused. “Okay, that one was a little ghoulish, but things like that really impress the sponsors.”
“Sponsors?” Gloriana asked, aghast. “Supervillains have SPONSORS?”
“Well, sure,” Steph said matter-of-factly. “Well, the Operators, the guys who run the actual projects and rackets do. How do you think they afford all this crap?”
“Who would sponsor a supervillain?” Gloriana demanded, incredulous.
“Oh, all kinds of people: Organized Crime, Political Action Groups, Corporations, Law Enforcement Agencies-”
“Law Enforcement Agencies?”
“Oh yeah, Construction Contractors, various religious groups, even some superhero groups. You have to understand that sponsoring a supervillain isn’t like sponsoring a race car driver; no, giving a supervillain money gives you a measure of control over what he does, when he does it, who he does it to, and how he does it.”
“You’re telling me that Typhon and Deathmaiden have sponsors,” Sizzle said, not really buying it.
“Nah, the real big leaguers don’t really need sponsors anymore. They’ve already nailed down sources of funding that don’t crimp their style. Most of the supervillains who get sponsors are either the ones who are making the step up from hireling to independent operator, or they’re the ones who are just managing to stay in business. Once they’re established and they can support themselves, most supervils tell their sponsors to take a hike. Of course, sponsors don’t like that, and they send the supervils who are still under contract after them, and it can get pretty damn ugly.”
“Soooo…” Belphy drawled innocently, “exactly HOW does one go about gaining a sponsor?”
Steph ignored Belphy as she strode towards a wide expanse of what appeared to be white sand. “Now THIS one, I’m really proud of. I’ve got multiple buyers waiting for their financing to clear for it, and they know about each other, and they don’t care.”
Sizzle, Belphy, Gloriana and Hazard all looked at it. “Oh-kaaayyy… I’ll ask…” Sizzle offered. “What does it DO?”
Steph walked smugly across the sand and hopped up and down on it a couple of times. She asked the girls to walk across it. “AND?” With a superior smirk, Steph fetched one of the dummies, hit her remote, and then tossed the dummy in. The dummy sank into the sand with a splash and disappeared under the white expanse. When its head popped up out of the sand, Steph hit the remote again, and the dummy froze in place.
“This pit is twelve feet deep, just deep enough for most people to completely disappear beneath the surface,” Steph explained with a superior look. “The sand is very fine, and there’s a water distribution system that can saturate the sand with water, going from bone-dry to quicksand in 4.38 seconds, and I’m tinkering with systems that target specific areas, so that one part of the tank is dry and another’s quicksand, reducing the saturation time even more. There’s also a water extraction system that can evacuate the water from a saturated area within 2.43 seconds, and that regional system will reduce even that time.”
“So… it’s a quicksand trap,” Gloraia said dryly, giving Steph a ‘you wasted our time with THIS?’ glower.
“Yes, but you miss the point,” Steph said, her smirk still firmly in place. “You see, unlike what you see in old movies, you don’t sink slowly in quicksand; it’s basically water that’s supersaturated with sand. You just fall in, just like you would with regular water. But when the water’s removed, suddenly you’re incased in five-to-six feet of SAND, without any leverage for super-strength. And the particulate nature of sand makes it very hard to blast your way out of.” Her smirk went acid. “And if your victim’s mouth or nose is under the surface, they have maybe ten minutes before they suffocate. Of course, even if they’re lucky enough to have head above water when it goes solid, there’s tons of sand depressing their chest, keeping them from breathing. It takes a couple of hours, but as one customer put it: ‘Is there any music sweeter than the sound of your enemies dying?’“
“This is very interesting,” Hazard said, covering for Gloriana and Sizzle’s squicked reaction to all that, “but what about Lair Defense? How is this place set up for Anti-Intrusion? I hope that it’s rigged better than Dr. Venus’ lair was.”
“Dr. Venus?” Steph’s face looked like it was ready to chop something apart at the supervillainess’ name. “What does that over-inflated pseudo intellectual super-bimbo have to do with any of this?”
“Anti-Champion raided her place earlier this afternoon,” Gloriana explained. “She had an entire lair full of counter-intrusion measures, and he just waded through them like they were so much confetti. He thumped all of her men and took everything that he wanted, after he beat her like a rug.”
“Reeeaaalllyyy…” Steph drawled with a sadistic grin, striking a pose of feline amusement. “You don’t say? It just goes to show that even Anti-Champion has his standards… Yes, Dr. Venereal was in here last month and talked a lot of trash about doing it herself.” She let out a bitter chuckle. “I’ll bet that she thought that she could just wave those funbags under Shawn’s nose and he’d give her some kind of major discount. HAH! Every two-bit femme fatale wannabe that comes through the Five Boroughs tries that trick. Shawn may be a complete and utter horndog, but he’s never let a ‘sale’ pass through his fingers that didn’t turn at least a 150% clear profit.”
“Yes, well, what can you say?” Hazard said soothingly, “Amateurs… Now, we were talking about your base defenses?”
“My defenses? *Pfui!* The very best! What else would I have? GizSec© passive and active sensors on 128 different frequencies, running through the entire spectrum 12,300 times per second, installed at all entrances and exits, utility and ventilation ports, major compartment portals, major traffic nexi, and important chambers. GizBlast® and GizTrap® remote controlled weapons and capture devices covering almost every square inch of the place. Three competing GizSmart ® AIs are coordinating the weapons and monitoring the sensors. The entire place is shrouded in a GizPlex® electrified counter-intrusion mesh. ‘Flying Eye’ drones constantly patrol the place, and I have over a hundred ‘Nomad Enforcers’ – you know, ‘Nomad’, from that stupid original ‘Star Trek’ series? – flying at all times! I have sixteen of those stupid ‘Dalek’ drones on a continuous choreographed patrol. The ‘Daleks’ are pretty corny and tacky-”
Hazard and Gloriana had to restrain Belphy. “She dissed Dr. Who!”
“I know, I know…” Glor said soothingly.
Not that Steph noticed. “-but I have to admit that they’re damned tough, and there’s always some idiot who tries to get away from them by going up a flight of stairs.” Steph gave a bitter laugh. “No, you girls may not be much, but between you and my defenses, there’s as much chance of Anti-Champion getting in here as there is of-”
“Hold on,” Hazard said, “Something weird’s goin’ on…”
One of Steph’s panels blew open, and in a scene straight out of the aforementioned BBC classic, a wave of ‘Daleks’, swept in, croaking ‘EX-TER-MIN-ATE! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!’ in hoarse electronic voices.
Steph snarled, “Oh, what NOW?” But Sizzle had the presence of mind to dive at her when the drones turned their turrets on her, and pushed Steph to the floor as multiple capture nets hit where the Evil Interior Designer had been only moments before. Belphy, Gloriana and Hazard all stared helplessly at a British childhood primal fear image come to life. Darcy was barely able to push them out of the line of fire as well, but the shove was all that the girls needed to snap them out of it.
“You never have a sonic screwdriver at hand, when you really need one,” Belphy snarled. “Those things are remote driven by those AIs that you spoke of?”
“Well, either your AIs have suddenly risen up in revolt against you – and it IS a possibility – or Anti-Champion and his friend have managed to double your AIs to their purpose.” Belphy let out a miffed sniff. “I can’t say that I’m any more impressed with your security than I am with your décor.”
“WHAT WAS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?” Steph stood up, stiff with outrage. Gloriana reached up to drag her back down out of the line of fire, but a Nomad Enforcer zipped out of nowhere and tagged her, drawing blood. “OWCH! The fucking thing BIT me!”
Steph was about to start screeching at the enforcer, which was winging its way out of the chamber, when Gloriana managed to haul her back down to safety. “WELL? Aren’t you going to shut these things OFF?” Gloriana hissed.
“How am I supposed to do THAT?”
“WELL, as it is clear that your security AIs have been doubled, the obvious thing to do is to activate the ‘Rogue AI Kill’ function that you have in your cell phone.”
“Why would I have one of those in my cell phone?”
“You have a Base Self-Destruct cue in your cell phone, but not the AI Kill cue?”
“Why would I have a Self-Destruct cue in my cell phone? I’m not a supervillain! I’m not doing anything wrong!”
“Leaving that highly debatable point aside, WHY would you let AIs run your base defense without some way of turning them OFF, should they turn against you?”
“Oh, I’ve got that,” Steph said with a sniff. “I just don’t carry it in my cell phone.”
“Well then, where IS it?”
“In the Demo Room, behind the graffiti’d brick wall section! Nobody ever really looks at that selection, and it swings open!”
“How are we supposed to get there?”
“There’s a secure path between the defense emplacements, if you know where it is.” Steph pulled out her cell phone and pulled up a schematic with a zigzag path.
“That’s good for the emplacements, but what about the Daleks and the flying drones?” Hazard asked.
“That’s why the defenses are run by three separate competing AIs! One runs the emplacements, one runs the Daleks and other mobile ground units, and the third one runs the flying units! The idea was that if one system was compromised, the other two systems would pick up on it, and counter its moves, until I could get to the panel and shut it off. I never thought that all three would go at the same time!”
“Sounds good!” Sizzle said. “I’m a speedster; throw me the cell phone, and I’ll pull the plug!”
“No good!” Steph shook her head. “The corridors are lined with a special surface that becomes frictionless at the levels of friction that you see with speedsters. The second that you hit those floors, you’ll start skidding, and the emplacements will pick you off for sure!”
“WHY would you put something like THAT in your showroom?” Sizzle asked, aghast.
“There is nothing that supervillains hate worse than paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for an interior defense system, and having some hyperactive yahoo in spandex go breezing through it, too fast for the guns to hit! The customers LOVE the super-slip floor!”
“Well, she’s got a point there,” Hazard said grudgingly.
“Steph, do the emplacements use lethal or capture weapons?”
“Strictly Capture,” Steph said sturdily. “Hey, the last thing that I want is for one of the emplacements to go off accidentally and hit one of my customers – or ME. Besides, snagging one of the customer’s goons with a capture weapon is a stock part of my sales pitch.”
“Very good,” Gloriana said, rising to the challenge. “Very well! I’ll let off a lightburst to overwhelm their visual sensors. Sizzle, distract them by zipping around a bit. Don’t try to actually DO anything, just keep them reacting to you. Don’t worry about them hitting you; sonar is absolutely the bollocks for super-speedsters, that Doppler Effect is a killer. Hazard! I need you to get Belphy to cut-off switch, and keep the capture weapons off her. Steph, slide your phone with the map over to Hazard. Hazard, she’s the Asian one in the leather… Very good, now all together girls, it goes: One, Two, Three, I zap, Sizzle zips, Hazard runs cover, Belphy takes out the panel. Right? Good! One! Two! Three! And…” Gloriana leapt out from her cover and let out a coruscating wave of visible and invisible light, trying to cover every band of the spectrum that she could. Sizzle started running in the general direction of the Demo Room, and managed to get two of the Daleks to neutralize each other.
Then Hazard set off, bobbing and weaving, jumping and hand-springing, and every so often throwing something in a seemingly casual way, which managed to bollix the trajectory of something incoming in a hostile manner. Belphy scurried after her in a far less graceful manner, constantly stumbling over something that had just barely missed Hazard. Finally, after nearly getting scared to death by near-misses against her, Belphy got to the panel of ugly faux-red-brick-covered-by-inane-graffiti panel and swung it open-
-to reveal a very mundane circuit-breaker panel. Belphy blinked for a second, and considered the possibility that Steph had led her there in order to prune the Wilkins’ family tree a bit. No, Steph’s inventory- and possibly her life – were on the line. So, this was Steph’s way of getting around the possibility of someone finding this by accident, without having to resort to a physical key that could get lost or would take valuable time as one of her AIs was taking potshots at her. So, there were three switches, one for each of the AIs; the others probably triggered booby traps targeted squarely on this spot.
So, which ones were they? The logical semiotics favored the upper right-hand set. But was Steph Right – or Left-handed? And would she trust anything so straightforward and obvious? What would Steph’s train of logic be here?
Then Hazard snarled, “Will you get a MOVE on, already?”
Belphy kicked herself for almost falling into Steph’s subtle trap. Using her Drow strength, she ripped the panel off, revealing the wiring. Three of the switches led off to different sections of the grid; all the rest clustered into a single circuit, no doubt the one that would activate when any of those connections were broken. With a smirk, Belphy pulled the three individual connections from the switches, and the emplacements stopped firing, and the Daleks stopped squawking. “HAH! Trained Engineering Logic: One; Artsy Psychobabble: NIL!”
The Daleks, Nomad Enforcers and Flying Eyes all stopped aggressive actions, and turned to start moving in a rough concert in a single direction. “Where are they going?” Sizzle asked as she got up from where she’d skidded to a halt.
“Their maintenance bay,” Belphy guessed. “It’s probably their default instruction for when their connection to the driver AIs is cut off.”
“Maintenance…” Hazard said, a penny audibly dropping. “Follow those droids!”
“Why?” Sizzle said, visibly forcing herself to slow down to a trot so she wouldn’t slip on the freaked-out floor.
“Why would Anti-Champion raid this place?” Hazard answered with a question. “He already has a base, where he’s keeping Jobe and all the other stuff he’s rooked. He doesn’t need base stuff! He needs weapons and soldiers.” Haz jerked a thumb at one of the Daleks. “He came here for soldiers.”
“But Gizmatics’ people will certainly have some countermeasure to keep people from turning his gear against him!” Gloriana pointed out.
“Which is exactly what whoever’s pulling Anti-Champion’s strings is counting on!” Belphy said, getting Hazard’s point. “The Karedonians will rely on whatever shutoff switch Gizmatic has installed in them, Anti-Champion will let them appear to shut down, and as the defenders shift their guard, the Daleks come back to life and blast them.”
“Or some variant thereon,” Gloriana agreed. Reaching out, she grabbed one of the Flying Eyes right out of the air. As it squirmed in her hands, she said, “Belphy can you patch into this thing and get it under control? We need to be able to see what’s going on in there before we go charging in.”
A few moments later, the others peered over Belphy’s shoulders as she steered the Flying Eye with her belPhone. “Hmmm… Anti-Champion, a flying blob that we can assume is that person in the power armor, and Anti-Champion’s henchwomen, some of whom are using power loaders. Let’s see… Daleks, emplacement weapons (no doubt to buck up the Daleks), crates of Nomad Enforcers and Flying Eyes, other sinister looking things (mostly portable), tubes of something, what look like medical supplies, and… building materials?”
“Yes. See? It looks like those erector set panels that Steph peddles, only the vanilla flavored ones.”
Gloriana let out an annoyed grunt. “They’re expecting us. No doubt, they’re wondering why we haven’t just charged in like the Light Brigade. Anti-Champion – or at least his minder – must be just about figuring out that we’re going to pull something. So, no time for anything clever; they’d probably see it coming, anyway. So, what we do-”
“Not to worry, your ladyship,” Belphy said, looking at one of the powered-down emplacement weapons. “I’ve got a trump for their ace-in-the-hole.”
A few minutes later, one of the very last Daleks trundled in. “Hey,” Anti-Champion said, giving it the once over, “what are those things strapped to its side?”
The flying female in power armor dropped immediately and shouted, “DOWN! Execute Routine-”
The packets strapped to the Dalek exploded and covered everything in the maintenance and loading dock with a sheet of thick, gooey capture gel. Gloriana and the girls came charging in, with Glor clearing a path for them. But Anti-Champion came right at them as though the capture gel didn’t slow him down in the least. He managed to scatter the girls, but Glor took to the air and started blasting at the jury-rigged heavy emplaced guns that the henchwomen were trying to clear.
“Let me at him!” Belphy said, readying the neutralizer function on her cell phone. Sizzle and Hazard got Anti-Champion off balance and were keeping him that way, Gloriana was reaching for his visor, to expose his eyes, when she felt something wash over them all. She looked over at the source of the sensation, and saw that the woman in power armor had picked up an emplacement weapon and hooked it up to a power source. The weapon looked like a flat black square plate. There was nothing visible coming from the plate, nothing dramatic, but Gloriana’s energizer senses picked up a steady stream of microwave pulses.
And then she giggled.
It wasn’t that she found the situation funny. Rather, she just couldn’t help it. Every inch of her skin was crawling, it was like being tickled all over. She wriggled and giggled and fell and guffawed until she was red in the face. At first, Sizzle and Hazard paused in their fight with Anti-Champion, baffled as to what Gloriana was doing, which gave him an opening to get his balance back. Hazard was immediately on her feet, but for some reason, Sizzle found this incredibly hilarious, and broke into laughter. Belphy joined in, and then Hazard did as well, and they all writhed on the floor in an agony of giggles.
Gloriana and the other girls lay on the floor for a while, not being able to keep track of anything past their irresistible need to laugh. Finally, they managed to gather themselves, their wits cleared considerably by the buzz-saw whine of Steph’s voice snarling at them, “What are you bitches waiting for? They’re getting away! They’re getting away with a big chunk of the most expensive selections of my inventory! What? Did Uncle Ralph choose you for your cleavage?”
Glor took a deep breath and managed to stand up, despite her aching ribs. “What? Was? THAT?”
“That was the GizTickle® Ray! It stimulates the ‘tickle’ reflex by stimulating the body’s nerve endings with microwave sequences.” Steph paused, to consider. “Mind you, it’s damned effective, but we never really move that many of them; too silly.”
“Oh, this just got personal!” Glor raged, “Up and at them, girls! Haz, Belphy, onto that hover-pallet! Sizzle, pull that pallet! We are going to GET them; there is no way that I’m going to be TICKLED into defeat!”
As they zipped up the delivery ramp in hot pursuit, Steph added, “And that’s the other reason why we never sold that many units of the GizTickle: getting tickled into helplessness just seems to piss the hell out of some people.”
* * * * * *
Gloriana flew out into the street near Park Avenue (not ON Park Avenue, but near it) and managed to spot the large lorry hauling mass around a corner, which was a dead giveaway. After all, what trucker speeds through the narrow streets of this part of New York at that hour, on honest business? “This way!” she shouted as she flew in hot pursuit. As the lorry started another sharp turn, Glor shot the far rear tire, causing it to burst and send the lorry fishtailing, which brought it to a screeching halt. The back and side doors of the lorry popped open, and a wave of the henchwomen burst forth, followed quickly by a second wave that leapt further out as barely visible blurs and hid among the shadows and crannies, quickly flanking them. Gloriana tried to pick off some of the jumpers, but they were too quick and blurry. Sizzle and Hazard did better, with Sizzle using her incredible speed to scatter the henchwomen, setting them for Hazard to nab them on the fly, sending their weapons flying. Seeing her chance to do something, Belphy grabbed one of the weapons and fired it at the henchwoman who came at her, wrapping her up in a mesh-snare.
Belphy kept at that, letting Sizzle and Hazard set up the henchwomen for her, and Gloriana kept those who’d flanked them from using their weapons effectively. But they all kept one eye squarely on the truck, waiting for Anti-Champion and his string-puller to show. Belphy used up the rounds of the snare-caster, tossed it aside, and grabbed another one from the ground. One that had, of all things, a pair of sturdy earphones. What sort of weapon would have a pair of earphones as an integral part of it? Then it clicked home: a sonic weapon, of course! Interesting, it was from an almost completely different design philosophy from the snarecaster. Still, she could follow the logic, and snapped open the cowling, causing the ‘daisy’ directional panels to open up, exposing the three vibratory ‘pistils’. Belphoebe was just figuring out the frequency modulator when they all were attacked by a sonic assault from above! Reeling for a moment from the onset, her hypersensitive ears ringing, Belphy managed to focus enough to get the earphones on, and get her wits back.
Once she could think straight again, Belphy followed the (muffled) screech to its source, and sure enough, there was Gryphon, standing on the ledge of a nearby building. There were three more of the Cadet Crusaders standing by; Belphy wasn’t exactly sure as to which of them was who. They were obviously waiting for some sort of cue. Like she was going to let that happen. Fiddling furiously with the frequency modulator, she turned the sonic gun on Gryphon, and sent her assault frequency wild by interfering with it. At one point, several windows in the area shattered. Then Belphy got an idea as to what sequences Gryphon’s unit was employing, and there was a loud ‘woop-woop’ sound for moment as the frequencies interfered with each other, and then there was blessed silence.
Gloriana shook her head for a second, getting the ringing out of her ears, but she rapidly seized on the idea of getting rid of that stupid thing, before it could start up again! She let off an energy bolt, which damaged the siren, but the protective plate immediately slammed down to project the (comparatively) delicate speaker membrane. But that completely shut off Gryphon’s sonic weapon, and the Cadet Crusaders found themselves on the receiving end of the caterwauling for a change. Aurora reeled from the onslaught, but Rubberboy reflexively dropped from the ledge of the roof down onto the sidewalk, banked against the wall of the building and slammed right into Belphy, knocking her down and sending her sonic weapon scattering.
Which would have been a really cool move, if Rubberboy hadn’t been dealing with people who’d dealt with stretchers before. Hazard caught him on the rebound, dribbled him a few times, forcing him to keep that ball shape or get really creamed, and passed him to Sizzle, who dribbled him up and down the street. Predictably, his ‘sister’ (or, at least the closest thing that a genetic construct can have to a sister, a construct from a variant line in the same project) came to his rescue. Aurora dropped from the roof to in front of Sizzle and demanded, “Stop it!” in a way that suggested that she expected to be heeded. But Hazard wasn’t buying it, and clocked Aurora from behind, sending her into a particularly nasty pile of garbage, that absolutely ruined her lovely shades-of-red-and-pink outfit.
Ultramax dropped and covered Aurora in a dramatic pose, his shield and hammer out, his face steely and action-hero-y. “Don’t even think about it!” he snarled in his best Clint Eastwood rasp.
While she didn’t have Jadis’ anal-retentive need to know everything about everyone who might someday try to arrest her (she actually had a life!), Sizzle did read Hero™ magazine and the other gossip rags, and she recognized Ultramax. And from that and various comments around Whateley she’d heard in passing, she knew that Ultramax was generally considered one of the primo factors in the Cadet Crusaders’ fall to their current inglory. So, she sneered, “Aaannnddd, exactly WHO are YOU supposed to be? The runner-up in the ‘Worst Costume Design’ contest?”
“I’m ULTRAMAX!” he snarled, “I have the power to channel my super-energy into strength, speed, force fields, flight or energy blasts!”
“Reeeaalllyyy…? Betcha can’t catch ME, though!” and Sizzle zipped off, dribbling Rubberboy on the fly. Ultramax ran off after her, putting all of his power into his running. They zipped back and forth, with Ultramax slowly but surely catching up to Sizzle. But Sizzle knew more about running at very high speeds than Max did, and she ran him over and through several street hazards, including a mailbox and a trashcan.
But Ultramax kept at it and finally managed to latch onto Sizzle’s shoulder. “HAH! Gotcha!” Max exulted.
But Sizzle didn’t seem all that worried. She smirked over at him, and said, “Gee… I’d say that you were putting all your energy into keeping up with me, aren’t you Maxie? And from that grip, I’d say that without the super power amping you up, that you’re not that much stronger than, oh, say, a high school football player. And not Varsity, either. Bad news, Maxie; I’d say that I’m stronger than you.” Sizzle reversed the grip, and now she had Max by the arm.
Suddenly Max realized that he was running at over 80 MPH. If he shifted to strength, he wouldn’t be able to keep up with her, and all she’d have to do was throw him into something. At 80 MPH. All that Max could think of to do was shift to protection. Sizzle felt Max slow down, but felt no change in his grip. So she ran Max into the corner of a wall. Max was still in the process of shifting his power when he hit. As he felt the impact and saw stars fill his gaze, his last thought before passing out was, ‘I gotta stop telling people I’m fighting how my powers work.’
Gryphon dropped down to protect Aurora as she struggled to get back on her feet. “YOU!” Gryphon thundered at Gloriana and Hazard. “Stay where you are! Where’s Diabolik? Hey, where’s that freaky elf chick with the white hair?”
“Well, just at the moment, she’s right behind you, opening the hatch to your power frame,” Gloriana said stolidly.
Refusing to commit the old ‘Oh, I’m not going to fall for THAT old trick’ blunder, Grphyon wheeled around inside her power frame-
-just in time to look straight into the flash of Belphoebe’s neutralizer cell phone. “Got her,” Belphy said calmly. “Would you lend me a hand in getting her out of this? She’s quite firmly strapped in.”
“Are you sure that that’s a good idea?” Gloriana asked hesitantly. “I mean, doesn’t it fall under Grand Theft Auto or something?”
“Hey, yer Ladyship,” Hazard said as she helped Belphy with the straps, “it changes our equation from three girls with tactically useful powers and one with a limited bag of tricks, to three girls with tactically useful powers and one with POWER ARMOR. Which roster would you rather we face those punters in that truck with?”
“You have a point,” Glor allowed as she helped drag the still-befuddled Gryphon out of her armor. But just as Belphy was about to climb into the armor, a blast of energy came out from left field, nailing her in the back. Turning around, the girls saw that the truck had opened the back and the door on the upside, and that Anti-Champion, several of the hench-girls, and a squad of Nomad Enforcers were piling out. “LORD, I hate it when the opposition has decent tactical instincts…”
Sizzle tried to scatter the hench-girls, but they managed to use their superior numbers to trip her up badly. Gloriana pulled out one of her ‘glories’, which for once, didn’t have its intended effect. But rescue came in an unexpected form – namely, UltraMax. The Cadet Crusader had shrugged off his stunning, and, for once, identified Anti-Champion as both the enemy and the greatest threat. Sizzle had stopped dribbling Rubberboy, so he’d managed to get his second wind, and he was doing a surprisingly good job of wrapping up the henchgirls. Hazard did her best to keep the Nomad Enforcers off Belphy’s back as she climbed into the Gryphon power armor.
However, once Belphy had gotten into the armor, the Nomad Enforcers all aimed their energy weapons at UltraMax and peeled him off of Anti-Champion with a concerted blast that rattled Max, and perked up Anti-Champion considerably. Then they surrounded the combatants, and they interacted with the hench-girls as though they’d rehearsed it all.
Inside the power armor, Belphy spent a precious moment figuring out the controls. ‘Stone the crows,’ Belphy thought to herself, ‘these controls aren’t just idiot-proofed, they’re bloody drooling-moron-proofed!’ The hench-girls and Nomad Enforcers were centering their efforts around Anti-Champion, who’d well and properly clobbered UltraMax into the ground. Now he was trying to get his hands on Hazard, who was just barely keeping from getting herded into his mitts. Belphy thought for a moment about charging right into Anti-Champion, and seeing how much damage this rig could take. But no, that would be playing to Anti-Chump’s strength. The real point was to take out the hench-girls and Nomad Enforcers, and keep Anti-Champion there until backup could get there. She had a sonic weapon and a dazzling laser and a grappling hook and a snare-caster. What could she do with them? What would Pip do? He’d hide in an alleyway, steal one of the Nomad Enforcers when the opportunity presented itself and leave. What would Jobe do? She’d probably deploy some sort of Bio-warfare agent, and bugger Haz and Glor and Sizzle. What would Jadis do? What would Jadis tell her to do? Almost unbidden, Belphy heard Jadis’ voice tell her, ‘Go with your strengths’.
Then Belphy had a devisor moment. She dug into her purse (purses, how did Pip ever get along without such useful things?) and pulled out part of the Vertigo Inducer project that she’d brought along to work on. With a few quick kludges, she patched it into the controls for the dazzling laser and the sonic weapon, and integrated them. She didn’t have time for any test runs, so, biting her lower lip, she powered the array up, dropped the protective shields and let loose. The Vertigo Inducer worked on the heterodyning principles of a sonic wave that affected the liquids of the Eustachian Tube, and a hologram affect that played tricks on the eye. It didn’t overwhelm, it tricked the eyes and ears into feeding the brain self-sabotaging information. Once the fighters stopped to try and reorient themselves, Belphy used the grapple caster to haul Glor, Sizzle and Hazard out of the area of effect.
Belphy had Hazard halfway out of the Vertigo area of effect, when suddenly the entire power frame shut down – including the Vertigo Projector. “HAH!” Gryphon said from where she was standing, an obvious remote control in her hand. “Did you honestly think that you were the first person who thought that they could jack my frame?” Gryphon had a brief ‘oh fuck, that was stupid’ moment as Gloriana, Hazard and Sizzle all turned on her. Which she immediately forgot as Anti-Champion’s henchwomen piled on them from behind.
This was the part of Gryphon’s script where Belphy was supposed to rail venomously though futilely in her weapon-turned-prison. But, given a brief moment to think about it, Belphoebe had the answer. She reached over, pried open a panel that didn’t seem to have an obvious function, and found an emergency escape latch. She looked around for a Remote Cutoff Override, but couldn’t find anything. Well, it was a long shot anyway. She’d just have to get that flipping remote the hard way. She turned the lever and the back of the power frame pivoted up, opening up the frame for her. “HAH! Trained Engineering Logic: Two; Vigilante Paranoia: NIL!”
Flipping out of the frame, Belphy pelted right at Gryphon. “Oh, Puh-LEEZE!” Gryphon scoffed, “Like I’m going to be afraid of some pissed-off tech geek! I’ve trained in- nneeerrk!” She never got a chance to finish her brag about how much she’d trained as Belphy slammed a fist into her stomach. The blow was enough to break a brick wall, but Gryphon’s fighting togs were well armored there, and she really was in very good physical condition. Which just meant that Gryphon went back, heaving as her wind was knocked out of her.
But Gryphon didn’t let go of the remote, so Belphy had to go and get it before the git came to what she used for senses. But just as she was taking Gryphon’s wrist to get the remote control, a bolt of energy came zinging out from left field and hit her squarely in the side. Given her drow physique, it hurt like the blazes, but it didn’t put her down. As a matter of fact, she got up just in time to grab the remote before Gryphon came fully to, just in time to grab it back. They were grappling for the remote, and Belphy was winning, when it occurred to her to wonder where that bolt of energy had come from. Gryphon turned to look at what Belphy was looking at, and they both had just enough time to break as Anti-Champion’s ladyfriend zoomed through them.
The remote went clattering, and the three females started fighting over it. Gryphon focused all her most devastating techniques on Miss Anti-Champion. Some of them even worked, and the black-and-red armored figure went down. Belphy grabbed for the remote again, but Gryphon was quick enough to jump her for it. Not quick enough to dodge the nasty trip/ kick/ bind maneuver that Miss AC laid on her, but quick. Then it was Belphy’s turn, and they grappled, until Miss AC brought up a gauntlet that was glowing with barely restrained power and aimed it right in Belphy’s face. Belphy let go of the remote, and Miss AC crushed it. But instead of either blasting Belphy right in the face, or running off to rejoin her forces, she sort of stood there for a moment.
Then, suddenly, everything became weightless, and Miss AC lifted off, taking her by surprise and throwing her stance way off. Just as she started to right herself, a bolt of energy hit her and sent her flying. Looking to where the bolt of energy came from, she spotted the four supervillains who Jadis had hired earlier standing on a rooftop. The woman, Starstone, shifted her aim and started potting Nomad Enforcers. The guy in the gray suit with the brass-tone retro-tech helmet, Brainstorm, picked up the big guy, Dave, and threw him like a javelin at Anti-Champion. Gravity Gun did a swoop on his flying disk, scattering the henchwomen with his namesake weapon.
Seeing her opening, Belphy scrambled for the Gryphon power frame, and hopped in. As Belphy shut the hatch, Gryphon proper limped up to the hatch and banged on it. “What do you think you’re doing? It’s shut down, and the remote’s broken! There’s no way that you’ll be able to get it to start again!”
“So?” Belphy called out through the hatch, “It’s still the safest place to be for ten blocks!” Gryphon paused, looked around, and realized that she was (comparatively) unarmored and unprotected, in the middle of a roiling super-fight with energy blasts going every which way. Then she started hammering on the hatch, screaming to be let in.
As Brainstorm levitated over to where Gloriana was taking out some Nomad Enforcers, he remarked loudly, “Gee, it’s good to have backup, isn’t it?”
There was a loud ground-shaking rattling, and a loud, deep voice said, “Yes, now that you mention it, it IS.” Tower gave Dave a kick, separating him from Anti-Champion. As Dave rolled back to his feet, Starstone took a blast in her back. Splendor and the new guy, PowerJack, were flying in formation, with PowerJack blasting the Nomad Enforcers, and Splendor aiming for another blast. Gravity Gun aimed his namesake weapon at Tower, but before he could fire, Tiger Girl knocked him off his flying disk. As Gravity Gun created a field of darkness around himself, Nightchylde rose up out of a pool of darkness and wrapped him, Brainstorm and Hazard in chains of inky black.
Seeing the quantum shift in the situation, Miss Anti-Champion blasted UltraMax, which gave Anti-Champion an opening to throw him into Rubberboy, and Team Anti-Champion managed to pull off a general withdrawal back into the truck. “Leave ‘em be!” Gryphon ordered, “I’ve got this one trapped! Take out these yahoos, and then we take out the weenies in the truck!”
Powerjack, freed from having to deal with the still-retreating Nomad Enforcers, concentrated on keeping Sizzle busy from above, and managed to herd her into a trap that Nightchylde had waiting. Gloriana blasted away at Nightchylde, who smugly said, “Go ahead, take your best shot,” realizing that Glor’s light-based powers only fed her Erebreal magic.
Then a pale hand reached from behind Nightchylde and tapped her on the shoulder. Nightchylde spun around, surprised, and looked down into the glacially calm face of Nacht. “Boo.” Nightchylde squeaked and reeled with shock as Kate calmly took the threads of Erebreal darkness from her, unsnared the prisoners and threw them at Splendor.
Splendor tried blasting Kate, but PowerJack, who was demonstrably sharper than Splendor, shifted that odd metallic framework around him so that he constructed a snarecaster. He was aiming it at Nacht, when something dark landed on top of him. Jadis, her beast-skin up, sank one of her PK talons into the central unit of PowerJack’s transforming carapace, disrupting it. PowerJack dropped, but Jadis caught him before he hit hard. Splendor reacted to that just before Nacht wrapped her up in a superior version of the chains-of-darkness that Nightchylde had used on Brainstorm’s crew.
Tower swatted She-Beast between two hands and tried to stomp on Nacht, but Kate dropped into a pool of darkness just as this foot came down. He was reaching for Starstone, when he stumbled as his footing turned against him when Misty lightened his gravity again. Gravity Gun gave her an assist, and Dave used that to pick Tower up by one foot and smash him into UltraMax, who was looking around, trying to figure out what to do.
Tiger Girl kicked Gravity Gun off his flying disk, got him in an arm lock and commandeered his namesake gun. Firing the gun at the villains, she got them off balance long enough for Tower and UltraMax to separate themselves from each other and get on their marks with Rubberboy and Aurora. Splendor took her mark over them, largely because she was all-too aware that if she was by herself, the villains would probably concentrate their fire on HER. The Cadet Crusaders were ready to cover each other until someone came up with an idea to reverse the situation. They never got a chance.
Suddenly, Gryphon’s power frame turned on its Vertigo-inducing ray and charged them, scattering Rubberboy, Aurora and Tiger Girl. UltraMax put a fist into the power frame, but before it could register with him that he still had his power set on Invulnerability, Dave grabbed him from behind and chucked him up onto the nearest rooftop. Starstone and Gloriana concentrated their fire on Splendor while she was still logy from the vertigo, and Gravity Gun got his gun back, and joined Misty for a repeat with Tower. The rest was mop up.
“HEY!” Gryphon yelled, pounding on the hatch of her power frame, “I had the controls on Lockup! How’d you get it unlocked?”
Belphy opened the hatch and leaned out. “Did it never occur to you that trapping a technological genius inside a power frame was a BAD idea? Really! I thought that Americans taught their teenagers how to hotwire cars in Auto Shop!” Then she held up her cell phone before the livid Gryphon and Neuralizer-flashed her. “Trained Engineering Logic: THREE; Shoddy American security design: Nil!” she sang merrily.
* * * * * *
“Jadis, we have Anti-Champion, his girl sidekick, the henchwomen and a small army of Gizmatic® brand evil tech doobobs inside that lorry,” Gloriana said, indicating the semi. “Anything that I should know, before we go in and GET them?”
“Just leave Anti-Chimp’s little buddy in one piece,” I said looking at the semi. “Knock her around all you want, but leave her in one piece. She’s got a LOT of explaining to do. Everything else – especially Anti-Champion – is pretty disposable.”
“I say, that’s a tad harsh, Jadis,” Gloriana said. “After all, they ARE just minions.”
“True that,” Brainstorm said. “Still, there IS something to be said for just going in and getting this OVER, before the Teen Tantrums wake up again.”
“Spoken like a professional,” I said. “Okay, everybody on your mark! Dave, open the truck – Belphy, first you flash them with that Vertigo ray, and then we wing it.”
“Hold the phone, Beast,” Hazard said. “I’m getting the weirdest tangle of probabilities here.” She walked over to the wrong-sided truck and threw open the door. It was empty. Stone-cold absolutely empty; no Anti-Champion, no mysterious ‘sidekick’, no hench-girls, no robots, no boxes or crates, no nothin’.
“SHIT!” I screamed, ducking my head into the back of the truck and looking around. I noticed that the only thing left was a metallic grating that covered all six sides of the interior, including a hatch that swung down. “Crap! They used a Vandervecken Grid!”
“What’s a ‘Vandervecken Grid’?” Misty asked.
“It’s a teleportation scheme,” Gravity Gun explained (hey, I was in no mood to), “This grid creates a field which allows the teleportation device to move everything inside the grid from where it was, to where the teleporter is. It’s effective and safe, but you can’t teleport away from the machine, just TO the machine, and it leaves this grid behind.”
“And it’s an energy hog,” I noted, looking around. “If we had access to Con Ed’s records, we could track the transporter’s location down. BUT, we don’t, so let’s get the fuck out of here before SWAT or the power suit squad responds!”
A good ten blocks away, we were discreetly away. Well, as discreet as you can be with a seven-foot high power frame and four guys in supervillain costumes. “Running away from the Police,” Glor sighed, “Exactly where did my life go so badly astray?” she glowered at Belphy inside Gryphon’s power frame. “You DO realize that you’ve just committed Grand Larceny, don’t you?”
“Oooh!” Belphy squealed, “And I got away with it, too! Another one up on Bel-Aught!”
“Okay, now we only have two sites to cover, so we need two teams,” I spelled it out to get them back on track. “Glor, Cousin Larry’s being a pain; worse, he’s being a Wilkins. Reason, Fear and Confusion,” I indicated myself, Kate and Misty in turn, “aren’t doing the job. Why don’t you see if sweet persuasion can turn the trick? Kate, Misty, go with her, keep her from stepping in the landmines that I did.”
“Jadis?” Belphy asked from where she was examining the leg of Gryphon’s power frame, “This leg’s main flex support is badly damaged. If it takes another hit, it’ll snap and the frame will be effectively hamstrung. There’s no way that it’ll make it to the Bronx, so why don’t we take it to this ‘Cutting Edge’. If Cousin Shane is running a high-tech equipment store in his back room, he should have some tools that I can use to repair this and get it back up to snuff. What say we double up fixing this with guarding his store?”
“Good call, Belphy. Hey, Brainstorm, how’re you doing, covering Cutting Edge?”
“Hey, we got it under control,” Gravity Gun said. “We know the turf and we’ve managed to insert ourselves to our best advantage without upsetting the locals.”
“Good. Let’s not throw away a good thing. Hazard, you and Sizzle go with Glor over to the Bronx. Gimme a sec – Hector? Yeah, we need you. Come to-” I rattled off the street address, “-and pick up some of the girls. They’ll give you the address to head to. Yeah, I know, I know, you’re putting in extra hours. How does an extra grand sound? I thought it would.” Hey, it’s not MY money.
We got Glor, and the girls packed off in the limo, and headed over to St. Mark’s. “Brainstorm, call ahead and tell Shane that we’re coming back with a power frame, and to get his loading dock or whatever ready to accept it.”
Brainstorm paused. “aaahhh… that’s gonna be kind of a problem.”
“Because Shane Wilkins never let us into the store, that’s why,” Starstone said, letting her Brooklyn show through as she glared at Gravity Gun. “Because SOMEBODY got hisself Black Listed from the store two weeks ago, by geeking out so hard that even Wilkins couldn’t stand it anymore! When we showed up, G-Gun started yakking about that line of credit you were talking about, and Wilkins didn’t believe that we’d been hired, and threatened to sic the store’s defense weapons on us!”
“So, I got a leeetle carried away a couple of weeks ago…”
I growled as I massaged the bridge of my nose, trying to keep that tension headache that I felt coming on from becoming a full-grown migraine. “I thought you said that you had the scene all-wrapped up, that you’d inserted yourself to your best advantage.”
“We did!” Brainstorm defended his crew, “We’ve found vantage points watching all the entrances, and we’ve been keeping tabs, and nobody’s said ‘boo.’“
Yes, I know, I know, it’s MY fault, I hired them… bargain basement villains, hired at the last minute… SO, this is why some supervillains are always screaming about being surrounded by incompetents.
I had Brainstorm’s crew take their positions again, and sent Belphy around to the loading dock. Then I went to the door of ‘Cutting Edge’ and rang the night bell. A thin, sour, weaselly Wilkins face appeared at the glass and yelled, “We’re closed! Go away!”
“I’m the protection that the Embassy told you was coming.”
“I’ve already heard that line of bullshit tonight, from people who’re a lot more convincing that YOU.”
He started to go away, but I tapped at the glass with the ID card that the Embassy gave me. That got his attention, and I set the card flush against the glass, so that he could see it. He bent over and looked it over. He opened the door. “Jadis… Diabolik? Any relation to-”
“My father.” I showed him my NYS ID and my MID.
“You don’t wanna know.”
“The Embassy just sent YOU?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. My exterior team has taken positions outside, and they’ve been there for over an hour. My backup for the interior is waiting at your loading dock in power armor.”
“Power Armor?” The weasel in Armani perked up. “Now you’re talking!” As he bustled through the front display area, I could tell that Shane Wilkins was pretty much an off-the-rack Wilkins, thin, stoop-shouldered, weasel-faced and no- er, *ahem!* SHY-chinned, only much better packed than the rest, in a well-cut Armani suit of the latest style and a trendy haircut. He led me through the inventory room, to the reinforced roll-down gate, which I noticed was, instead of corrugated sheet metal, made of thick squared tubes of metal; serious stopping power for a trendy mass-market consumer electronics outlet. But when he rolled up the gate, he saw the Gryphon power frame, let out a loud squawk, and started to roll down the gate, but I caught him. “What are you DOING?”
“She’s with US!”
“You brought a Superhero here?”
“NO,” I said in the ‘Doy!’ voice, “but if we don’t handle this right, it could still drop us in the shit. Roll ‘er in, Belphy.”
Shane stepped back and gave us an impressed look. “You stole Gryphon’s armor? You ripped off a Superhero? Well, I’ll give you props for balls – not BRAINS, but balls.”
“We’re going to give it back before this is all over.”
“Oh, I’m sure that that’ll make it ALL better.”
“Do you have a workshop or repair room? Belphy says that one of the leg units took some damage, and we need this thing in fighting trim before Anti-Champion gets here.”
“Yeah, maybe if he totally trashes it, we can scrap what’s left, so there won’t be any evidence.” Shane led us out of the storage area to a very well-equipped workshop. “I hope you have the slightest idea of what yer doin’,” Shane sneered, “‘cause I ain’t gonna--- aaa…” he trailed off as Belphy popped out. “aaahh… woo… WHO are YOU?” he asked as that damned Drow physique pounded its carnal message into that little rat brain of his.
“Belphoebe Blackadar-Wilkins,” Belphy said, sticking out her hand in a way that I think she (or Belphegor) once saw in a movie.
“Blackadar-Wilkins?” Shane said, pausing over her hand.
“Belphy here is the, ah, prototype of the overall upgrade that Jobe accidentally injected himself with,” I explained.
Shane reared back and took in Belphy’s charms with pleased surprise. “Well, I’d heard that one of little Jobe’s bozo experiments had gotten up on its hind legs and bitten him – but who knew the little creep had TASTE?” With a calculating, all-too Wilkins smirk, he asked, “So who were you, before he slipped you the magic elixir?”
“No one, really,” Belphy admitted, opening the cowling of the shin unit and poking at the ‘tendon’ assembly. “I was force-grown in a stolen cloning vat and imprinted with the brain patterns of a legitimate – if rather neurotic – genius. But I’m getting better.”
“Then… you’re not a blood relation…” the shark-toothed grin returned.
“That depends on who you ask.” Belphy pulled out something that looked like something that Jim Henson would have put inside of Kermit to make him hop on cue. “Hmm… nostalgia time… There’s no way that you’d have a replacement for this… is there any chance that we could mill a replacement for this tendon solenoid?”
Shane took the solenoid and asked, “Yeah, but why? I mean, I have a couple of widgets around here that I could adjust to these specs, that would do the job and better! Look at this? This design is at least five years old! It’s practically a fossil!”
Shane and Belphy fussed with the frame’s ‘tendons’, replacing both of them. Shane was appalled by the obsolescence of the hardware in such a high profile frame. After they redid the ‘tendons’ and ‘knees’ on both legs, Belphy showed him the control array. “Are you fucking KIDDING me? Who did they design with this in mind? Jojo the brain-damaged chimp?”
“Do you have any decent video game controls?” Belphy asked, “If we hurried, we might be able to get all this rubbage torn out and replaced by something with better handling? A PS2 handset might do…”
“Video game controllers?” Shane snorted, “I happen to have a set of Hazmat Waldo controllers – last years, but still damned good-”
I gave a shrill whistle and stopped them in mid- geekout. Belphy and Shane were getting along, which was nice, but they were getting along in that ‘we have to separate them’ way that is the despair of all devisor and gadgeteers’ relations. Major tech-heads seem to mix in three basic ways: neutral dismissal, venomous rivalry, and Little Rascals. Shane may not be a devisor, but Belphy shows every sign of being one (don’t ask me how), and the thought of her running amok in a high-tech workshop without the kind of strict supervision that the Whateley workshop provides filled me with the kind of dread that Steven King only wishes that he could inspire. “Look, we have a rough idea of what Anti-Champion’s going to throw at us, so I have a few ideas toward being prepared. Let me see your inventory.”
The gleam of technophilia faded, to be replaced by a weasel look of predatory anticipation. “That depends. You can p- oh, RIGHT, Dr. Diabolik’s daughter! Well come right this way!” smarm dripping off him in buckets, Shane led me out of the workshop into his main showroom. “Okay, this is just for the suckers and early adopters: MP3 players, PDAs, cell phones, DVD players, and like all that. Which, I gotta admit, pays the bills. BUT-” theatrically, he pulled a cell phone from his pocket, aimed it at a wall of merchandise, which slid open, revealing an armored door behind it. Another tweak of a button and the door opened. “-if you’re just paying the bills, then you’re LOSING.”
We stepped inside the elevator, which blessedly wasn’t playing ‘the Girl from Ipanema’, and went down at least a hundred feet. I wondered if Shane was just that paranoid, or if property values in Manhattan had something to do with it. The elevator opened up into a large open area with free-standing shelves with various bits of gonzo-tech with appropriate nameplates. “So, tell me,” I sneered, looking around, “where you going for ‘Q’s Workshop’, or did you just come up with this after a long weekend of spy movies?”
“Oh, it was strictly intentional,” Shane said, clearly not getting the dig. “Hey, Supervillains are all about the drama-”
“‘The smarter ones use it, and the flakier ones are slaves to it, but they’re all in it up to their ears’,” Belphy said, “We heard that line from your cousin Steph.”
“She would steal my line,” Shane grumped. “ANYWAY! We have here the finest selection of covert and metahuman ops weapons and equipment this side of Sin D’rome, AND you don’t have to worry about hackers or data trails or Sin D’rome’s problematic delivery service.”
“Shane, I’m seeing gift pen and pencil sets.”
“The Pen is a 25 megapixel high definition digital camera with a standard 16.25 zoom, flare and IR/UV compensation and a built in digital sound recorder with innate counter-eavesdropping baffling. The mechanical pencil is made of thermite, and has a built in pepper spray dispenser. The pen knife is a manganese steel alloy with a mono-edge blade, and it has five artisan-grade lockpicks built in. Just the thing for the superspy on your Christmas shopping list. And of course, you have the Gizmatic © Bond Collection™ of superspy doodads: the watch with the 25 special functions, that also keeps perfect time. The selection of ‘credit cards’ that include a thermite charge, a plastique charge, a supercharged scrambler charge, a blinding magnesium charge, a toxic cloud charge, and a few other nasty tricks, all of which are completely safe, until they’re properly primed. And they’re all made to pass perfectly for accepted bank cards. The classic ‘Man with the Golden Gun’ compartmental gun that can be assembled out of six innocent appearing personal objects, which fires a clip of eight .25 long rifle rounds. A men’s belt with six different nasty little surprises, including a 3” razor-sharp blade. The ‘Hardback Book’ catapult, capable of throwing a 200-pound man fifteen feet straight up or twenty-five feet horizontally. The hardback book smuggling unit, capable of concealing most handguns from both metal detectors and X-ray scans without raising so much as a beep.
“And this-” he held up a rather conventional push-blade; then he turned it toward a dartboard, pushed another button, and the blade shot out, embedding itself in the dartboard. “-hits with over a hundred pounds of force, and has a razor-sharp point. Okay, yeah, you’re disarmed,” he pulled the blade out of the dartboard with effort, “but it really catches guys with their pants down. And THIS-” he held up something that looked like a lapel pin. He twisted the pin and held it up. It erupted in a blinding light. As I shook the flickering light out of my eyes, he continued, “produces over 250,000 Lumens per square MM for five seconds, while staying only as hot as a regular flash bulb. Quick, effective, and it’ll take care of almost any non-superpowered or cyborg enforcer on the street today. We got it all! The ‘Instant Escape’ smokescreen, the inductive lock opener, the-”
“The ‘Inflate-a-Date’,” I muttered, giving the ‘lifelike female companion’ unit on display the cold eye.
“It’s a lifelike quick-inflatable decoy!” Shane insisted.
“Yeah, yeah, like anyone’s gonna be fooled by that.”
“It’s for when it’s dark and the opposition is hurried!”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what you say NOW, but I’d like to know what YOU were doing last Saturday night.”
“ANYWAY! On to the Ultra-Special Ops department! Here we have the finest selection of Ninja gear this side of Hawaii. Ninja-to with replaceable mono-edged obsidian insets and titanium alloy shafts. Manriki-gusari, kunai, tiger-claws and every variety of shuriken known, all perfectly balanced, and annealed in black with a noise-muffling coating. Flash-bombs, smoke-bombs, pepper-spray, acid-squirters, ink-squirters, lubricants, adhesives – name a nasty trick in the ninja arsenal, and we got it! Well, except for the magic stuff; hey, I only move merchandise that I can personally vouch for the quality. Everything that you see on this shelf has been vetted and given their seal of approval by the Shoji ninja clan.”
“Like the Shoji give a damn if you sell crap to gaijin.”
“ah, Moving right along, we come to the Minion and Street-level Operative Gear. Please note that everything on these shelves is marked with the trademark GizMatic™ ‘G-in-a-gear’ logo. This has Emperor Joseph Wilkin’s own seal of approval on it, personally conceived, developed, tested and okayed by the Imperial Presence himself.”
“Is this the ‘Imperial Presence’ that designed the warbot that became famous as the ‘Wacky Watusi’ because of the way that it spun out of control in any terrain more uneven than the Bonneville Salt Flats?”
“That was over twenty years ago,” Shane replied primly. “Uncle Joe has learned a lot since then. And he makes a point of incorporating what he’s learned in each iteration of gear that he produces for the supervillain market. For instance: the Gizmatic 2007™ line!” He grabbed something that looked suspiciously like an armored cigarette case. “This is the GizTac-2007. It is NOT simply a communications router and Tactical Information compiler. No! This little baby is the lynchpin of the entire Gizmatic 2007 Integrated Intelligent Combat System! Not only does it monitor input from your sensors and coordinate information from that to give you a comprehensible overview of your tactical situation, BUT it has an onboard micro GizSnitch130© cryptographic chip that monitors ALL systems broadcasting a signal in the immediate area, INCLUDING the systems of your battle buddies AND your opposition! Yeah, you’ll KNOW where that yoyo in the power armor is aiming that blaster! And, how much juice he has in his battery, how much damage he’s taken, how hot his electronics are running, what he’s set his scanners for, the whole nine yards! Then the GizSnitch runs all that through the GizCaesar430 Combat AI® – also onboard – to create a comprehensive, constantly updating SitRep that includes tactical layout, IFF, Specific Opposition ID Threat Eval, Sniper Spotting, Lines of Fire, blast proximity estimates, Safe Zone and Cover spotting, Structural Hazard Spotting, identification of Water, Power and Communications Lines within the combat area. It will even eavesdrop on the Opposition’s comms to identify their immediate, intermediate and long-range tactical intentions. While it works with almost any sensor system, the GizTac is specifically designed to work with the GizSpex 430, which has vision enhancement, IR, UV, Telescopic vision at x512, flare suppression, Augmented Reality, Object Recognition, and Targeting with or WITHOUT the GizTac, while blending with almost any disguise motif.
“That alone would make the GizTac a must-have on the street. BUT combined with the GizRat150©,” he hefted up another box, “it becomes truly deadly. The GizRat is a target specific sensor and analyzer, which can study the composition of any object, and determine any weak points or fractures, so that you can lay on the hurting where it’ll hurt the most! But that’s not all! It also analyzes incoming damage, whether it’s from conventional weapons, unconventional weapons or innate powers – not magic though, *enh!* can’t have everything – to determine the best defense to stop whatever the opposition is throwing at you. That is where the GizStop301© comes in! Now, you’re saying, ‘It’s a PFG. So what? I’ve seen PFGs before. Hell, I’ve blown UP PFGs before!’ Right! BUT, what is the weakness of every PFG ever built up to now? I’ll TELL you what that weakness is: it can’t be strong against everything. Neither can the GizStop. UNLESS it’s hooked up to the GizTac and the GizRat! The GizRat senses what the mook shooting at you is packing, it tells the GizTac, and the GizTac tells the GizStop to adjust its configuration to the most effective setting for that attack.”
“Which just means that it’ll be almost useless against the attack that the guy’s partner will be throwing at you,” I said with a vicious smile.
“Nah-ah! The GizStop can completely readjust settings within 2.3 seconds, AND it has a buffer of 30 settings, and the GizTac can automatically assign settings to the proper slot. So, unless your opposition can time their shots so they land in two seconds or less of each other, NADA! But you’re right, that sort of thing does happen in a close fight, so there’s the GizMist250© and the GizSpoof1313© anti-targeting systems, which make the chance of the opposition even hitting you in the first place almost impossible by baffling their targeting systems. Also, the GizStop is not only fully compatible with the GizCamo2020© and GizJump400©, not conflicting with the camouflage or jump target site acquisition, but it actually enhances them, turning the camo into damn near invisibility!
“AND! And, just to complete the set, there’s the GizMassacre430!” He picked up and hefted a boxy carbine weapon. “The GizMassacre isn’t just another plasma weapon, it is THE most versatile weapon ever designed! It can adapt to over 15 different configurations, six basic energy type settings, including good old kinetic impact, and in conjunction with the GizRat, it can be adjusted so that it can either batter down, or just GO THROUGH almost any PFG field on the market! WOO!” Shane finished with a whoop. Well, he’s a Wilkins all right; he loves his job.
Belphy was watching all of this, eyes glittering with Techno-Lust. If she could have had sex with a weapons system, she’d be on her back with her panties around one ankle, waving in the breeze. She started asking questions, and it went back and forth for a few minutes. I let them techno-natter at each other for a bit, and then shut it down. “LOOK, Shane, this is very nice, but I don’t need this. I need either a Force Field disruptor or leech, preferably both, a high-frequency sonic weapon with appropriate protection for Belphy here, a snare-gel launcher that we can rig to Gryphon’s rig, a Stealth-field detector, a Shaker with a magnetic limpet function, a Vortex cannon with a very high ionization rate, a Seizure weapon-”
“No,” Shane said, like he was laying down the law, “NO Seizure weapons. I won’t carry Seizure weapons. No. They cause epilepsy. I… I had a buddy… he had epilepsy. He had a Grand Mal fit one day, and… and he was never the same again. No. I won’t do it. When I opened this place, I promised myself, that no matter what else I did, I’d never build or sell a Seizure device. Don’t tell me that it’s a humane, non-lethal weapon; there are things that you just don’t DO to people!”
Wow. A Wilkins with a scruple. “Okay, what about an Inductive Circuit Overloader?” Which I’d personally avoid, given the crippling affect that it has on cyborgs, who usually NEED their implants to keep going.
“Oh sure, I got three great models, right here on the floor: the GizGlitch101©, the GizJam202©, and the GizSlag303©. But the GizSlag is a vehicle weapon.”
“Good. I’ll take it and one of the GizJams. Load the GizSlag onto Gryphon’s frame, along with the Vortex Cannon.”
“Maybe we could fit one of the GizJump units onto the fame as well?” Belphy suggested, “It’s a Weight-Neutralizer, not a Thrust unit, so it would improve the frame’s speed and jump range, and in reverse it could help anchor the frame while it’s using the Vortex cannon?”
“Go for it, Belphy,” I said. “Shane? Before you and Belphy get to work, we also need a couple of handheld snare-gel launchers, and… oh! Right! Did Gizmatic ever come up with anything to cope with Anti-Champion, once he became such a pain in the ass?”
Shane smirked. “I wondered when you’d finally get around to that. Yeah, Uncle Joe came up with this a while ago. Y’see, one of the things that Uncle Joe built into that rig he made for Anti-Cheesehead was a dingus to help extract the Champion Force from Champion-whateverhewas. BUT, one of Uncle Joe’s major rules is ‘never deploy something that you can’t self-destruct’. So, he designed the Force Extractor so that it could that it could extract energy from ol’ Philo as well. BUT, it would be stupid to build that into Anti-Chump’s suit, where some smartass who wasn’t Uncle Joe could use it against Philo. I mean, Philo’s track record was shitty enough as it was, he didn’t need a self-destruct button that anyone could push, y’know? So, Uncle Joe designed the Anti-Champion frame with half of the draining components built in, and the other half on a plate, that all you gotta do is just… clamp it onto his back. There’s sort of a circle right at the small of his back. Just line up the arrows, and clamp the sucker into the circle, and the interior circuitry does the rest! And, of course, Anti-Schmuck doesn’t know jack about this!”
“Let me guess…” I drawled, “You just happen to have to have a copy of this plate on hand, don’t you?” Shane grinned, pulled back one of the shelves, revealing a hidden cabinet. He reached in and pulled out an electronic device in off-white cerametal, just large enough to hold in two hands. “And what do we need to do to get it to work?”
“Like I said: find the circle, line up the arrows, and slam it in! Uncle Joe said, ‘When you’re dealing with someone as powerful as Anti-Champion, even if he’s a loss like Philo, you keep it as simple as you possibly CAN’.”
“Well!” I breathed, “It’s nice to see that Gizmatic actually CAN do simple and effective. And, on that note, do you have any Dalek or Nomad Enforcers or other robotic units protecting your store?”
“Sure! I got a nice little sideline in robots for the Trade. The GizThug340©, the GizStooge570© and the GizGrunt1125© are the best robotic enforcement units-”
“Shut them down.”
“Shut them down, and isolate the AIs that you have driving them. Also, shut off the power to any of the emergency escape tunnels that you’ve got, and manually dog them down.”
“What are you talking about?” Shane yelled, looking at me like I was nuts.
“I just came from your Cousin Steff’s-” Belphy started.
“Call her ‘Stephanie’,” Shane growled, “buying into that artsy crap of hers only encourages her.”
“-Stephanie’s,” she continued, apparently agreeing with Shane enough to not mind being cut off, “and Anti-Champion not only managed to get into*ahem!*’ ‘Felicity’ through Stephanie’s emergency exits, but he managed to double her AIs and turn all her Daleks and Nomad Enforcers and other RC drones against us.”
“Really?” Shane perked up, “Now, maybe she’ll listen to me, when I tell her that there’s more to setting up a base than Feng Shui, or whatever the fuck she does.”
“Shane, Anti-Champion whizzed right through both Stephanie AND your Aunt Millie, AND I’m willing to bet your Cousin Gladys’ alarms and defenses like they weren’t even there!” Belphy went on. “Odds are, that whoever’s running Anti-Champion has studied the Wilkins’ defenses in detail!”
“Or something,” I muttered, looking at the other gear.
“What’s with her?” Shane asked.
“Oh, she knows what’s going on,” Belphy said with a huff, “but she won’t tell anyone.” Under her breath, she added, “Does it all the time, it’s like hanging out with Sherlock bloody ‘I’m so much smarter than everyone, I’ve got to dope my brain into mush to stand the smegging boredom’ Holmes…”
“Shane,” I said, to keep Belphy from sinking further into a Belphegor-echo pawky fit, “power them down, or the odds are, you’ll be fried by your own lasers. By the way, Shane, do you have any Compliance Collars?”
“Are you talkin’ Threat Collars, Punishment Collars, or-”
“I’m talking Obedience Collars, the sort that transmit an inductive signal into the brain, simulating the Submission Reflex in the wearer.” I looked him coldly in the eye.
“Those are fucking beyond illegal.”
“AND? Do you have any?”
“Look, Uncle Joe does NOT produce those things. He’s got a THING about Free Will and-” I couldn’t help it; I had to stifle a guffaw at that. “What’s THAT about?” Shane asked.
“Gizmatic has a ‘thing’ about ‘Free Will’?” I jeered. “Then why has he systematically brainwashed his wife for the past twenty-odd years?”
“What are you talking about? Uncle Joe would never-”
“Hello? Have you ever spent any time down in Karedonia? I have! And I’ve seen your Aunt Lana when she snapped out of her conditioning, and she was NOT happy! I’ll admit that it was damned sophisticated conditioning – she knew exactly where she was, who everyone around her was, and she had a damned good idea as to what was going on. Which means that Gizmatic is very good at that sort of thing. So? Do you have any?”
“No,” Shane said mulishly. “Uncle Joe’s real touchy about that, and he likes to make out that he doesn’t DO that kind of tech.”
“So, do you have Obedience Collars by any other makers?”
“Hey, I am Uncle Joe’s main distributor in the Five Boroughs-”
“It’s a Yes or No question.”
“Yeah, I got a few different lines.” He pushed back one of the shelves, revealing a second set of merchandise. “Hey, Uncle Joe gives me the family discount, and lets me operate under Diplomatic Immunity. So, I gotta push his stuff first and foremost. But, he’s not my only supplier. Hey, a lot of guys like the idea that they don’t have to worry about me gettin’ raided and losin-”
He rambled on like this as I examined the various Obedience Collars that he had for sale. Then I noticed something. I opened up the body of the unit and examined it. “This unit is based on some of my father’s designs. But I know that he doesn’t retail his work. Where did this come from?”
“A black lab out of Cincinnati called Wayland-Yutani Labs.”
“Oh, I see. They’re one of those ‘we’re outlaws, so Copyright Infringement isn’t an issue for us’ bunches. I’ll call Dr. Dad; he’ll probably put Madam Lash on it. Say a prayer for these poor fools; they’re gonna need it.”
“Hey, what the hell do you need an Obedience Collar for, anyway?”
As I studied another design, I replied, “With a little luck, one of these things might be the key to getting Jobe back.”
“JOBE?” Shane snatched the obedience collar out of my hand, “WHY would I want that pissy little know-it-all back? Hey, as it stands, I actually have a shot at the succession now!”
I gave him a withering glare. “Don’t go simple on me, Shane. You want Jobe back, safe and sound, restored to her place as the Heir Apparent, and very much aware of your help in getting her there.”
“WHY? Why wouldn’t I want my own shot at the throne?” he demanded. “Hey, now that baby Jobe has not only spliced himself out of the succession, but gone MIA, I am in a PRIMO position! I don’t mean to brag, but, ah, I am one of Uncle Joe’s favorites. I understand technology, which gives me a HUGE advantage over the rest of the field.”
I gave him the ‘you’re being a putz’ look. “Shane, step back and THINK: the only way that you’re going to ascend to the throne of Karedonia is if Gizmatic’s dead, right?”
“Shane, THINK! What else besides you getting the throne would result if Gizmatic died?”
“What Else?” Shane hooted, confused.
I gave him the ‘You’re being willfully stupid’ look. “Shane, your Uncle Joe has pulled a posthumous clone resurrection at least twice that I know about. WHY he doesn’t clone himself younger, and with a whole body, I have No Idea. And he’s the only one who really understands the Magma Control thing that’s keeping Karedonia afloat. SO, if you ever ARE in a situation where suddenly you’re in a position to inherit the throne of Karedonia, it means one of two things: Either someone who’s mean enough to take Gizmatic down, and smart enough to keep the Magma Controls going has taken over, OR something happened, and the Magma Bubble has collapsed, Karedonia has sunk back into the Caribbean, and that inevitable tsunami has laid out a swath of destruction that makes Hurricane Katrina look like Spring Break. In the first case, the vicious badass who took out your Uncle Joe will be looking to eliminate the immediate line of Pretenders; probably not the entire family, just the Heirs Apparent and Presumptive. In the second case, being heir to the throne of Karedonia simply means that you’re legally responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and tens of billions of American dollars in damages.”
I watched Shane wilt as the implications sank in. “On the flip side,” I continued, “Jobe is up against the wall, and she knows it. But Gizmatic wants her for something; I’m laying odds that your Uncle Joe was playing some sort of Darwinian mindgames with her, to keep her in line or something. If you make a show of supporting Jobe in these trying times…” I trailed off suggestively.
“You think that Jobe would be grateful?”
“Jobe? Grateful? Please!” I snorted. “‘It is better to take refuge in the LORD, than it is to trust in princes’, [Psalms 118:9]. No, Jobe is about as grateful as the next Wilkins. Rather, once Jobe hears that we’ve had this conversation, and she understands that you get what a gilt potato the crown of Karedonia is, you’ll be in an excellent place. Not ‘Good Ol’ Cousin Shane’; rather, ‘Safe, Reliable, Un-Ambitious Cousin Shane’. You’ll be the one thing that every member of a Royal family since the Caesars has wanted: a relative who doesn’t want to step all over them. You’ll be useful, Shane; being useful has most of the perks of being powerful, and few of the dangers.”
But Shane’s weasel-senses were tingling. “And why are you telling me this?”
“Hey, I have a vested interest in seeing Jobe back, Princess or no Princess. It’ll be that much easier, if I don’t have to worry about you doing something ambitious, just because you think that you’d look cool in a coronet.”
Shane looked like he’d swallowed something that he wasn’t entirely sure wasn’t still alive. He nodded, did a few things with a control panel, and then went to work with Belphy getting Gryphon’s rig upgraded. They got the Vortex cannon and the GizSlag unit mounted as over-the-shoulder weapons, upgraded both the dazzle laser and the sonic weapon, as well integrating Belphy’s Nausea inductor into them more securely, installing that Jump unit, and replacing the current controls with something more responsive. Shane was talking about installing vehicular versions of the GizTac and GizRat as well as the rest of the GizJunk, so I slapped my hand on the hatch. “Enough of that! Too many options, and you just start confusing yourself!”
Shane nodded, cleaned his hands of grease, pulled on his sales-guy coat. He went over to a counter and started toting things up. I threw a pair of GizSpex, a GizFreeze424® gun, and a GizSpritz333© wrist unit on the pile, and Belphy also added a pile of various doodads, including the famous Gizmatic OmniTool434®. “You’re sure that you won’t go for the whole Gizmatic 2007 Integrated Intelligent Combat System? I mean, I’m not just Uncle Joe’s primary source for Gizmatic Esoteric Devices in the Boroughs; I’m also his biggest FAN! And I’m tellin’ you, Uncle Joe has-”
“NOT interested. Just set these GizSpex to that they’ll rat out a Nibelcamo™ system.”
“Neibelcamo? Who’d sell anyone a piece of crap stealth system like Neibelcamo?”
“Your Aunt Millie.”
He had the good grace to blush, and started toting things up. I sneaked a peak at what he was adding up, and it was well into the high six figures. The big items were the vehicle weapons for Belphy’s frame, of course, but I had to admit that it was pretty much in line with the prices for the bleeding edge uber-tech that Sin d’Rome peddles. I was surprised; from what Belphy had told me of Stephanie’s remarks, I was rather expecting Shane to try and pad the bill as much as he could, given his customer base. Then he handed me the standard Cutting Edge® financing contract. As part of his duty as my Guardian, Parky taught me the 164 standard contract traps that will stand up in court. A quick skim through that contract revealed 112 of them, and maybe six clauses that I think may be Shane’s own innovations. Oh, and the contract was enforced by the Syndicate. Shane and Jay-Arm should get together sometime and talk shop. Whoever signed one of these things was pretty squarely screwed.
I picked up the contract, pulled on my ‘beast-gloves’ and shredded the contract into wood pulp, and then used pyrokinesis (not my long suit, but I can pull it off) to set the fluff on fire.
“What the HELL was THAT for?”
“Shane,” I said in the voice of patience tried, “didn’t your Uncle Ralph call, and tell you to arrange a line of credit for us?”
“Well, YEAH, but all this totes up to over three-quarters of a MILLION dollars! Your old man can afford that!”
“Shane,” I said in the voice of ‘you’re smarter than that’, “this gear is our price for putting up with all this shit.”
“PRICE? You’re saying that your services are worth eight hundred GRAND? You’re just a Kid!”
“Shane,” I said in the voice of ‘y’know, you’re really starting to tic me off, little man’, “Your Uncle Ralph and my guardian already signed off on this. Stop screwing around and finish up with Gryphon’s frame.”
“Yes, Shane,” Belphy said severely. She was clearly torn. On one hand, she obviously liked and got along with Shane; on the other, he was standing between her and a pile of techno-bling. “Stop screwing around and try to act like a professional.”
“Thanks, Belphy,” I said, “You have the makings of a real Wilkins.”
“Thank you, Jadis… I think…”
“WHAT? You mean that I went through all that song-and-dance for a FREEBIE?” Shane collected himself, and tried a new pitch. “LOOK, just let me open that thing, and look at what Gryphon’s using for a power plant, ‘kay? I mean, there is something seriously weird going on with that rig, ‘cause with the batteries that I’m seein’, it shouldn’t be able to run in non-combat applications for more’n thirty minutes, but both Gryphon and Gargoyle’s frames run for frickin’ HOURS, and hold their own in fights that go on and on! Hey, I don’t wanna TAKE the power plant, see? I just wanna open it up and see what the hell it IS? Maybe take a few pictures? Hey, there is a lot of interest in how those two dingbats made these things run; even photos of the insides of that thing are worth serious moolah to some people!”
Belphy was giving the rig looks with a greedy gleam in her eye; not so much that she was interested in the money that Shane was talking about, as the chance of checking out a serious new exotic power plant.
We were interrupted when my phone rang. [Yo, Jadis,] I recognized Gravity Gun’s voice, [You got someone trying to get in the front. Howcome Wilkins’ security hasn’t fried them yet?]
“Shane, you have visitors.”
Shane pulled out his smart phone looked at it and swore, “What? Those idiots again? Why haven’t my interior security weapons… cut… them… to…” he turned to me and gave me a dirty look. “Because YOU made me turn them off…”
“Is it Anti-Champion?” I asked, refusing to be blamed.
“Then we go up and deal with it, don’t we Shane?”
“Yeah, We. You and Me, and Belphy goes up in the frame in the cargo elevator, and waits to see if we need an assist.”
“Don’t I recall just writing off the better part of a MIL, so’s you’d handle crap like this?”
“NO, your Uncle Joe wrote off the better part of a Mil, so that we – as in Me, Belfy and the rest of our team – would go and find Jobe. THIS? This is a side issue, which, if anything only hampers us in handling our primary mission. I’m going up there with you, Shane, only to simplify this, and get on with the real task at hand. Now, come on, let’s get this over with.” I steered him toward the elevator.
“Is she always this pushy?” Shane whined.
“No,” Belphy replied as she got into the power frame, “normally, she’s much pushier. I’m guessing that she’s a lot more worried about Jobe than she’s letting on. Normally, she’d insist that you leave the interior weaponry off, stay down here in case Anti-Champion showed up, send you up there to deal with whoever it is on your own, and extort a small fortune out of you to go and do it for you.”
“Really?” Shane looked at me appraisingly and said, “What are you doing over the Summer Vacation? ‘Cause you sound like you have a real future in retail sales.”
We went up in the elevator and quick-opened the secret door. “HEY!” Shane snapped, “Hey, hey, HEY! Waddya think yer DOIN’?” he yelled at the group of scruffy long-haired street-gang types (Italians? Greeks? Puerto Ricans? El Salvadorians? Cubans? Mixture thereof? I wasn’t sure), who where poking around the storefront like they were looking for something.
“HEY!” one of them yelled back, pointing an accusing finger at Shane, “We had an appointment!” I couldn’t peg his accent, which was your basic Street Noo Yawk, with a little something else added. Like the rest of his crew, he was rocking an ‘Urban Injun’ look, with a fringed rawhide vest, some beads and braids and a bunch of ‘I saw it in a Westrun on TV’ crap. “Why’d ya close up?”
“I had an emergency. I had to close up. Y’don’t wanna know.” Shane gave me a quick side-glance and said with the warmth, respect and charm that the Wilkins family is famous for, “Oh. THIS is ‘Cyber-Tribe’.” He rolled his eyes. “They had an appointment for me to tell them that they wasn’t gonna get no more bionic implants on credit.”
“WHAT?” the first guy, who I took to be the leader yelped, “But we need UPGRADES! Now! This stuff is two years old!”
“Yeah, CHIEF,” Shane sneered, “and yer three months behind on yer payments.”
“Hey! You know how long it’s been since we got a decent score with this junk?”
“LOOK, Big Chief, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but they can’t graft guts or brains or real CHOPS into you. They can only make you stronger and faster and like all that. Maybe you should do something really radical and innovative, like maybe THINK about what yer gonna steal before you go out, huh?”
I was wondering why Shane was ratsassing four big cybernetically enhanced bad-asses and three not-quite-as-big cybernetically enhanced chicks (and when you’re talking the street, the girls really are the ones you gotta worry about) when his automated internal defenses where down, when it clicked that he expecting ME to defend him. Why do I keep letting Wilkinses drag me into these things? “Ah, LOOK, guys,” I said, trying to pour some oil on the waters, “what ‘Mister Warmth’ here is trying to say in his own inimitable way is that you’ve come at a very bad time. Hey, I can tell that you’re some very bad hombres, but honestly, you don’t want to get between Shane here and what’s coming our way. Believe me, if I wasn’t already stuck in this mess up to my eyebrows, I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
“Yeah?” ‘Big Chief’ said with a sneer, “And who’re YOU, skank?”
Skank? Working very hard not to let this yahoo rile me, I said, “You don’t wanna know,” keeping my eyes locked with his. Then it struck me that I was playing hardball with assholes who’s reflex response to people playing hardball is to kick it up a notch. *Bam!* I wasn’t that worried about these yahoos; these guys were scraping by to pay off the sort of junk that Shane would foist off on them. I was worried about the collateral damage, to Shane’s store, to Shane, to the neighborhood. And it was a good thing that I was worried, ‘cause it seemed that I was the only one who was.
Okay, they’re young, tough, aggressive, and overconfident. Render likes to quote Machiavelli and Sun Tsu, and one of his favorites is, ‘the essence of all strategy is this: to be strong where your enemy is weak, and to not be where your enemy is strong.’ These guys’ weak spot is obviously between their ears, or they’d never have signed that sales contract. Let’s see how they react to the old Hypochondria ploy… I squinted at ‘Chief’ and asked, “Do you have optical implants?”
“Have you been getting weird ‘ghost’ images, but only of images that are down in the deep red end of the spectrum?”
“aaahhh, yeah. Why?” From there, I led them down a rabbit’s hole of commonplace nervous and metabolic adjustments to cybernetic implants reasonable equipment glitches that they’d probably never given a second thought to, and led them, step by step, into a state of hypochondriac near-panic. Like far too many people, they never really gave the technology that they depended on that much thought, until it broke down. And the thought of their implants going wonky on them is the stuff of nightmares for cyborgs.
“Have you had any unusual reactions with your anti-rejection drugs?” I asked, pulling out my PDA and poking through it like I was researching something.
I gave them the cold fish eye. “You guys have been taking anti-rejection drugs haven’t you?”
“What would we be rejecting?” the big one asked, worried.
“The implants!” I said, exasperated, “You can’t just stick stuff into your body! Your immune system will attack it and isolate it from your body! You need drugs to interact with the materials of the implants so the leukocytes don’t identify it as foreign matter!” Okay, now I was just fucking with them; that used to be a real problem, back when cyborgs were first coming on-line, but now most covert-ops grade implants are made of bio-compatible materials that don’t trigger a rejection reflex.
“But HE said that we didn’t need-”
“I never said anything like that!” Shane cut in. And he probably didn’t, as it wasn’t an issue. But they don’t know that.
“Who did you get to implant those things?” I asked. “It may explain a few things.”
“It was Doctah Veritas.”
“Doctor VERITAS?” Shane yelped, “You went to THAT senile old bag? She thinks that Interociters are cutting edge! Guys, I told you to go to my Au- er, to the Golden Years Rest Home’s black clinic, or to Doc Neon’s or at the very least the Techmeister for those implants! Not having them done by one of our bonded surgery providers means that you’ve voided your warranty, guys! The Syndicate won’t let me sell you any more implants, even if you had cash up-front!” And if his contract didn’t have that clause before, it did now, and it would mysteriously sneak into all his old contracts somehow.
Shane was warming up his bum’s rush spiel, when my phone jangled. It was Belphy. [She-Beast! We have incoming! They just beat down one of the escape tunnels!]
“SHIT! Murphy’s Law strikes again!” I snapped, “Shane, get these idiots out of here, they’ll only get in the way!” I stepped into the elevator and hit the down button, but nothing happened. “Why am I surprised?” I muttered to myself. “SHANE! Do you have an emergency stairs down to your sales space?” Shane used his cell phone, and another panel opened up, revealing a hollow stairwell going down. I jumped over the railing into the center without a pause. Hey, I go downstairs this way all the time, back at Melville; it saves time and ‘random encounters’. Before I even hit the bottom, I had already hit Brainstorm’s number on the autodial. “We’ve been breached!” I told Brainstorm, who answered on the first ring. *thud!* I Landed. “GET IN HERE!”
I kicked in the door that opened into the main store, and it looked like a White Sale at Macy’s on steroids. Belphy’s frame was in the middle of the sales area, and she was jerking it around furiously, but not firing at anything. Anti-Champion’s henchwomen, between 30 and 50 of them (someone’s been busy) were all over the place, going through the place like swarm of driver ants, but neither Philo nor his new Number One Girl were anywhere in sight. Since my cell phone was in my hand, I speed-dialed Belphy. “Belphy? What are you doing?”
[I’m! Trying! To get! A BEAD! On the slippery little buggers! But! Every time! I lock on! They jump away! FUCK!]
“Belphy?” I asked, trying to keep that tic from tearing a muscle in my face, “Did you and Shane install one of those stupid Giz-Tac systems, despite my telling you both NOT to?”
“Because, your Giz-Rat is ratting you out. The DOWNSIDE to all that electronic intelligence is that if anyone breaks your transmissions code, you’re feeding them all your moves on engraved stationary. Shut down the stupid computer, and just shoot!”
“Use the Force, Belphy… use the Force…” So, sue me, It was the first good laugh that I’d had in hours. And, sure enough, Belphy let off a round with a snare-gel round and nailed one of the hench-wenches, right to the wall, and then another. “Nice Shot! But why aren’t you using your vertigo weapon?”
[I tried it and it didn’t work. They’re shielded somehow dammit!]
“What about that Vortex Cannon? I chose it specifically to deal with these bitches!”
[WHAT? But that would completely ruin the inventory!] she had the good grace to pause and add, [Besides, in this close space, with all this loose debris that would fly around, it would most likely KILL them!] Okay, so her priorities aren’t completely Wilkins-based, but still…
Then that became moot, as a raucous war-whoop erupted from behind me, and Cyber-Tribe came vaulting over my head into the mix. [Who are they?]
“How the hell? Don’t shoot them, Belfy, they’re the- OHIDONTBELIEVETHIS! Belfy, forget what I just said, SHOOT these assholes, and make it hurt!” The ‘white sale’ was now more like a rugby match, with the hench-chicks and the robo-injuns scrambling over boxes and bags of Shane’s high-tech.
[Oh, so you’re seriously considering Shane’s offer of a summer job?]
Normally, I’d applaud Belphy first stumbling steps into humor, but I had better things to do. I drew the GizJam pistol and squirted a shot at one of the Mecha-Mohicans and a Hench-wench who were squabbling over basket of techno-goodies. I hit the basket, and all the cyber-bling let out that magical blue smoke that meant that that stuff would never work again. “HEY!” one of the Injuns yelped, “You almost HIT me!”
“Yer right,” I drawled, “Looks like I’ll have to aim better…” and took another shot at him. “Belphy! Cover the escape exit that they came in through!”
[You’re ruining the merchandise!]
“Strategy of Denial. If they don’t have it, then they can’t USE it.” Belphy grumbled over the link, but clumped over to where the sliding panel was. But just as the frame stepped into position, a thick metal door, probably intended to stop anyone trying to follow, came sliding down, sealing it off. “Shane, you chickenshit idiot!”
One of the ‘Injuns’ came right at me, screaming bloody murder – or what he thought an Indian War Cry sounded like – with a hatchet in his hand. I guess that he either couldn’t find or afford a real tomahawk. I put up my beast-skin, caught him and threw him across the room. He should, have just laid there and gone ‘owie’ for a bit. Or, at the very least, reconsidered his tactic. He didn’t. He kipped right back up and came right at me again, screeching the same scream. Replay it from ‘One of the Injuns came right at me’. Then repeat it again. And then he came screaming at me again. Okay, I didn’t want to do this. I really didn’t want to do this. Getting EMPed has got to be downright horrific for cyborgs. But he was chewing up valuable time, and Belphy needed to be save from Anti-Chump’s hench-chicks who were giving her the Busby Berkeley business. I set the power down to minimum (hoping that it wouldn’t give him a heart attack or anything like that), and squirted him.
With God as my witness, he gave a hopeless gleep and bounced all around that showroom like a superball in a cement mixer.
At some point, it occurred to one of the female Injuns (she had ‘Scalper’ written in studs across the back of her suede vest) that she had a bag full of high-tech weaponry that she was lugging around, and that she might as well find out what it did. On ME. She pulled out a rectangular thing that looked weaponish, telescoped it out so that it looked uncomfortably like a rocket launcher, figured out which end to point, shouldered it, and fired away. The room exploded in a shower of plastic balls in the primary and secondary colors, pelting Injun and pseudo-ninja alike. I found out later that it was a non-lethal anti-personnel devise that consisted of pellets of memory plastic that expanded into hollow plastic balls three inches across that hit people, tripped ‘em up and generally got in their way. Me? I didn’t even feel it.
Does it count as a victory for Women’s Rights, that Men aren’t the only ones who can’t be bothered anymore to read the fucking manual?
Despite the resounding lack of success with that move, one of the ninjettes decided to get in on the action. She pulled something that looked like a really cheesy movie prop flying saucer, flipped a switch and threw it. It was a vortex mine, a smaller, omnidirectional version of the Vortex Cannon that I had them put on Gryphon’s frame. In other words, a tornado popped up inside the showroom, sending the balls, Injuns, ninjettes, and everything that wasn’t nailed down – except for Belphy and me – flying around. Two of the ninjettes went splat on the walls, and made a gooey mess.
Oh well… It’s not MY inventory….
Belphy turned on her vortex cannon, and showing that she does have something between those pointy ears besides Belphegor’s neuroses, she managed to counter-act the vortex mine long enough for me to get to it and defuse it in the best Whateley tradition (I scrunched it).
Both the ninjettes and Injuns showed their appreciation for this by both scrambling for the exit, before I could get back to block it.
[You’re letting them GET AWAY!!] Belphy wailed through the frame’s PA system.
*Belphy! *I yelled, *Get over here!*
[You let them get away!]
*I’m working on it!*
[How am I supposed to get this rig up those stairs? They’ll never hold this weight and the lift is jammed!] I hefted her frame with my beast-skin, and levitated us back up to the main showcase. And, to my surprise, Brainstorm and his crew had actually showed up, and were pulling off a reasonably professional holding action.
In a move that has put ‘Cyber-Tribe’ on my ‘Do not hire these fuckheads Ever ‘list, ‘Scalper’ had used the ping-pong ball gun AGAIN. The place looked like a Chuck E. Cheese ball-pit; only without the burnt pizza smell.
Dave was wading through a storm of other misused gadgets; it was like the Acme® truck with Wile E. Coyote’s orders for the month had crashed in through the wall, and everything went off at once. Dave was stepping manfully across a floor that had more gum and stickum than a NCY cab at Two in the morning. Some idiot had deployed something that I guess was an anti-energy weapon defense that took the form of glittering flakes that floated in the air. Mind you, it still looked like Chuck E. Cheese’s; it just looked like Chuck E. Cheese’s on New Year’s Eve. Starstone trying to blast her way through the crap didn’t help, as her blasts are light-based, and they just twinkled up the place.
Having had his trademark weapon gotten away from him (again), Gravity Gun pulled something out of one of his many pouches, which unfolded into a dish of sorts. He flashed it at one of the Injun ‘squaws’, and she sort of locked up. “HAH! I knew that I’d find the proper sequence eventually!” Then he managed to get one of the hench-girls and flashed her as well. She reacted by executing a sharp, nasty little array of moves that wound up with G-Gun face down on the floor, hurting like all get out, and the flash-device way on the other side of the room.
Gravity Gun crawled painfully to his knees and pulled something gauntlet-ish, which he strapped onto his left hand, and then he sort of blurred. Then he jumped one of the Injuns, grabbing onto his leg, making it shake as well. The Injun yelped, and tried to shake Gravity Gun off, but it wasn’t any good. The Injun fell, shaking, but Gravity Gun was just sitting there, sort of stunned himself.
“Dammit, G-Gun!” Brainstorm yelled as he dragged Gravity Gun off to the side, “You know that that thing hurts you as much as it does the guys you use it on!” G-Gun only let out a scatter-witted garble in reply. Brainstorm gave a disgusted sigh, shoved the gun into G-Gun’s hands, and went back into the fight as G-Gun got his wits back.
“WILL YOU PEOPLE STOP DESTROYING MY STORE?” Shane shrilled at the top of his lungs. But all this did was cause three of the Ninjettes to jump him. Now, I sort of get them impression that this is one of Shane’s regular lonely-night fantasies, but instead, he let out a yelp like they’d bit him. As the Ninjettes pulled away, Shane was looking at his hand, which was red. He let out another yelp, but this one of anger. “OH! So THAT’S how you wanna play it, huh?” He ran over to one section, pointing his cell phone at it as he ran. When he got to that section, the entire panel sort of folded around him for a second, and when it folded back into the wall, Shane was encased in a rather bare-bones, but still formidable-looking battle frame. “Okay, you wanna play it that way? Now it’s ON, like Donkey Kong!”
I get the impression that Shane has had to deal with unruly clients before. He tore into both the Injuns and the Henchgirls with an impressive blend of effectiveness and viciousness, keeping up a rant about providing quality SOTA merchandise at reasonable prices all the time. He reduced three of the henchgirls to smears on the walls, and it actually looked like we were getting a handle on things, when there was shriek that cut through the whole din that came from the door. The metal of the roll-down shutter buckled and raised, and then, standing in the arch that he’d created was…
“Enough of this shit! Just give me the money, and… nobody… gets… hurt…” he trailed off as everyone turned their weapons – or whatever – on HIM. His doing this struck me as odd. From what I understood, ol’ Mikey had some sort of psychic sense that told him when there was Action going on, but it also told him when he was out of his league. Which he was, most severely. So, why did he pull this boner? Then again, he won’t be the first asshole to let his greed run roughshod over his better judgment, and God knows, he won’t be the last.
A roughly coordinated volley of various blasts took Mikey square in the middle, sending him reeling. Then he was trampled by a herd of escaping hench-girls, Injuns, and the rest of us came pouring out of the hole, into the street. “Keep them from getting away!” Shane shrilled. Okay, decent tactics, I’ll give him that. And I was a little busy squeezing Belphy’s frame through that arch in the shutter. So Brainstorm and his gang beat both the Injuns and the Ninjettes to the punch, forming a horseshoe cordon, blocking any escape.
Iron Mike lashed out, more or less on reflex, and grabbed one of the hench girls. But he wasn’t watching his strength and she sort of melted into his arms. Literally. She just turned into bubbling goo that ran all over him. “Oh, GROSS!” I think that it says something, that he was squicked, but he was more upset about the mess on his clothes than he was over the possibility that he’d just killed someone.
Then he looked up , saw the power frame and asked, “Gryphon? What the fuck are the Cadets doing in all this? Shouldn’t you be out selling Girl Scout cookies or something?”
Okay, looking back, I admit that I could have handled this part better. But I was really distracted, looking for Anti-Champion and his sidekick (or, more likely, handler), and, besides, it’s not as though I like this buttwipe, so after getting Belphy all the way through that arch, I decided to take control of the situation. “You FUCKING idiot! We had them contained! We had the situation under CONTROL! So, tell me, HERO, what are you going to do to FIX this mess that you’ve created?” Hey, I figured that for a guy like Iron Mike, being held responsible for anything would be like asking a lothario to talk about where your relationship is going; instant exit line.
Instead, he glared at me and grinned widely, “I got you now, you scrawny little bitch! I dunno what yer up to, and to be honest, I don’t really CARE. But if you don’t fork over, oh, say TEN GRAND, right now, not only am I gonna cram you inside that armor and tote you to the nearest Cop Shop, where I’ll probably get a HUNDRED grand for bringing you in!”
I gave a loud sigh, dug into my purse and brought out an envelope and griped, “ooohhh, big HERO, out there with his hand out for a payoff…”
“Hey, I still gotta pay off replacing the boots that yo-oooAAAGGGHHH!!! “ he screamed at the pepper spray from the GizSpritz333© on my wrist hit him right in the eyes. As Iron Mug reacted, I put up my beast skin and used Mike as a bowling ball to scatter the Ninjettes who were about to break through their cordon. The Ninjettes did their ‘Rockettes of DOOM’ number on Iron Moron, and he bounced around for a bit, until Shane had the bad luck to be trying to potshot Ninjettes when he should have been watching where his feet were. Mike was seriously pissed, but he smelled money, and he was bound and determined to get his slice of the pie, no matter what it was. Mike pulled Shane’s feet out from under him and got the weasel in a can in a classic sleeper hold – or as close as he could get with that armored glass canopy that Shane’s rig had. “Okay, everybody stop screwing around!” Mike yelled, “Just gimme the money and nobody gets hurt!”
“This is a Superhero?” Shane wondered aloud.
“No, it’s Iron Mike,” Brainstorm sniped. “Hey Crew! Looks like a change in the weather!” Brainstorm’s crew seemed to know what he was talking about, because Starstone and Gravity Gun went high, and Dave set for something. Brainstorm did the ‘psychic placing his fingers on his temples’ thing, and suddenly a wind whipped up out of nowhere, lifting everyone and everything up and throwing them around in a counter-clockwise direction. Well, except for Dave, Belphy and me. Dave was set, I was clinging to the ground with my PK, and Belphy’s frame was simply too heavy for Brainstorm’s PK to lift. Everyone else was being thrown around like chickens in a cyclone.
“Belphy! Hit the Vortex Cannon! Brainstorm can’t keep this up very long!”
Belphy hit the Vortex, and Brainstorm slumped to the ground. “MAN, I hate doing that,” he groaned.
“Yeah, but it did the trick!” Gravity Gun said as he lowered to the ground. “Hey, Diabolik! Is there a bonus for speedy completion of the job?”
“WHAT completion?” I shot back, as I waded into the maelstrom to try and fish Shane out of it before he hit something that his suit’s force field couldn’t handle. “Anti-Champion and his sweetheart, God alone knows how many more of these minions, and a shitload of Daleks are still out there! Anti-Chucklehead wouldn’t send these ones out without some sort of supervision or backup. Keep your eyes-” Crash! *XXXaaaXXX!!!* Something dropped out of nowhere onto Belphy’s power frame and did something that shorted out the vortex cannon! Thud! Kick! Something else, darker, dropped out of the darkness, and kicked Brainstorm into a wall. “Well, that was quick,” I muttered disgustedly.
A guy in a black-and-neon-blue flex suit with a rigid helmet and a backpack that had four spider-like ‘legs’ was trying to hold onto Belphy’s frame as Belphy was doing the Hokey-Pokey to get him off. I guess that the ACLU decided to defend the Electric Spider against Marvel’s Cease and Desist order. And I recognized the tall, strapping chica in Zorro blacks with cleavage that somehow managed to show off that she was at least a C cup (WHY is it that every female I run into these days has ‘the most common superpower’- but ME?) as Brava, another of New York’s ‘Street Heroes’. Hmmm… Brava’s working the whip angle these days. Well, it’s safer than going for a sword. And it has a better TVQ. She was using it well, too. She got Gravity Gun’s G-gun away from him (again), as she did a jump-kick to Brainstorm’s chest.
Starstone tried to blast the Electric Spider off of Belphy, but his legs formed one of those weird web/shields of his, and the blast bounced off of it and hit a parked car. And, while Dave was slow, I have to give it to him that he didn’t let Brava call the shots in the fight between them, he held his ground and made her come to him. Iron Mike shook his head and got up. After a brief spat with Brava, where he told her to ‘peddle her enchiladas somewhere else’, he charged right at Belphy. Belphy managed to flash him with what I’m guessing was the large vehicle-grade version of her Neuralizer, and Mike was stuck there in mid-charge. The Electric Spider did something to the Neuralizer that sort of put the kibosh on any hopes of her using it again soon.
Figuring that the Electric Spider was the greater threat, as he was doing things to Gryphon’s frame that we couldn’t afford at the moment, I gave him a shot with the GizJam. He tried to block that with his web/shield too, but it interfered with the shield, and he went loco too. He bounced all over the place, and that web thing went everywhere, and Brava and Brainstorm and Dave got all tangled up in it. I’ve got to have a word with Gizmatic about his product. It’s supposed to JAM systems, not send them crazy. I am definitely going to
Suddenly, all the (surviving) Ninjettes all sprang to their feet as one, grabbed the nearest bundle of goodies and lit out in every direction. One moment they’re on the ground, the next, they’re gone, and we had no idea which ones to follow. Knowing a good idea when they saw it (miracle of miracles) Cyber-Tribe did likewise, but they left in a group, going for the roofs. “GET THEM!” Shane yelled at the top of his lungs, “Get my INVENTORY back!”
Dave got his crew out of the Spider’s electric web. “Right!” Gravity Gun gave Dave a ride, and the rest lit off after Cyber-Tribe.
“Hey!” Brava said, cocking her whip.
But Shane blasted her in the back. “Mind yer own bizness!” he snarled.
I rapped Gryphon’s frame. “You okay in there, Belphy?”
[I’ve been better. Stupid Spider played absolute HOB on my peripheral systems!]
“Well, it’s no use staying around here. Let’s head for the Bronx, and see if we have any better luck at Cousin Larry’s.” I hopped onto the back of Gryphon’s frame, and Belphy hit the thrusters to get us up to the rooftops.
As we left, I heard Shane screaming, “HEY! WHAT ABOUT MY STORE?”
* * * * * *
Brava and the Electric Spider came to at about the same time, to the sound of loud bickering. Looking over, Brava saw Shane Wilkins, wearing a power frame, arguing loudly with someone that she took for a local neighbor. Only in New York would someone argue with a guy wearing a battle frame. Shane broke off, and glared at Brava and the Spider. “Aaaahhh… what’er YOU lookin’ at?” With that, Wilkins stalked into his store through the arch in the shutter, and another shutter lowered, sealing the storefront off from the street. And the neighbors.
“What…? Was THAT all about?” Brava asked, confused.
“I dunno,” the Spider admitted. “I got here the same time you did, remember? Moron Mike here,” he jerked a thumb at Iron Mike, frozen in mid-step, “might have an idea, but he seems to be paralyzed or something.”
“Yeah?” Brava growled, “What am I supposed to do? Kiss him and wake him up?”
“Well, Goodness knows that would wake ME up,” the Spider paused in mid-wisecrack as Brava snarled at him, “but as we’re talking ‘Iron Mike’ here, what say we resort to the old reliable: douse him with cold water?” Brava sulked. “Like… in the East River?”
Brava perked right up. “GOOD IDEA!” Brava picked Mike up and braced to leap up to the rooftops.
“We might wanna go that way,” the Spider suggested.
“Well, there are a lot of restaurants, with dumpsters behind them that should be full of all sorts of nice squishy, juicy trash, if you happen to, y’know, DROP him, should he wake up before we get to the river.”
“Spidey,” Brava said with a wide smile, “I LIKE the way you think!”
Even through his rigid full-face mask, you could just SEE the Electric Spider beam.
BRAINSTORM AND CREW
Comanche and Scalper ran from rooftop to rooftop, cybernetic speed guided by a childhood spent doing just such things. Brainstorm and his crew weren’t particularly impressed; they’d grown up in the same turf, and they could fly (G-Gun was giving Dave a lift on his flying disc). The Crew didn’t attack, though the two Cyber-Tribers were well within shot range. Rather, they were taking advantage of the ‘Injuns’ lack of discipline; they were herding these two with occasional shots, encouraging them to drop the hefty packs of stolen GizTek. True to type, each of them had grabbed as many of the large, backpack like bundles that Anti-Champion’s henchwomen had shove the gear into and run with it, shedding the stuff as they ran. Brainstorm’s crew had been picking up bundles. Comanche and Scalper each had one bundle each left, and G-Gun wasn’t about to let them get away with either of them.
Comanche and Scalper made vaulting leaps over the alleyway, but G-Gun hit Scalper with an anti-grav burst as she set off, and then switched to Comanche, getting him with a gravitic burst that increased his weight eightfold, causing his foot to go through the roof up to his knee. Starstone potted Scalper in mid-arc, bringing her down to the rooftop with a thud. Dave jumped off G-Gun’s disk and wrestled Comanche for his bundle. Brainstorm set down, and TK’ed the last bundle away from Scalper. Scalper had her trademark blades out in a second, but all she really did was set herself up for a massive blast from Starstone that knocked her off the roof. As Dave started to lose the wrassle with Comanche, G-Gun strapped on a gauntlet and grabbed Comanche’s bionic limb. They both blurred for a bit, but after a few seconds, Comanche broke off and headed for the edge of the roof, dropping to the alley below. “Dammit, G-Gun,” Brainstorm said, looking around to see if anyone was coming up on them, “you KNOW that that stupid vibrating gauntlet thing does as much damage to you as it does to the guys you use it on!”
“n-n-n-Not necessarily…” G-Gun said as he turned off the gauntlet and tried to get his inner ear working right again. “It kicks ASS on cyborgs! Rigid materials set into squishy flesh? Hits ‘em right where they live.” Then he exhaled gustily and tried to see right again. Then he snapped out of it and looked at the bundles that Dave was carrying like a kid on Christmas morning. “SO! What did they have?”
“EDDIE, we were hired to get this stuff back, not cop it for ourselves!” Brainstorm snapped. “And that Diabolik chick slapped us with that spell slip; if we try to run off with this stuff, we’re looking at a streak of bad luck that we really DON’T NEED!”
“Not necessarily,” Starstone demurred, “we were hired by Jadis Diabolik, who’s working for Gizmatic, to stop Anti-Champion and whoever he’s working for.”
“Yeah, but Shane is part of Gizmatic’s family, so-”
“No, remember the wording of Diabolik’s contract? ‘to obey my instructions, back up myself and my companions as it was called for, not to sell us out, not to run if the going got rough, and generally to stick around and to as they were told until the contract was finished’. There’s NOTHING in there about following orders from a third party. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing in our contract that says that we gotta return ANY of this.” And Starstone was doing the supervillain thing to pay for Law School, so she should know what she was talking about.
“Besides!” G-Gun insisted, “Check this OUT!” He rummaged around in one of the bundles and fished something small out. “This is a Gizstop 301©. This retails at Cutting Edge for 30 GRAND! This bundle is worth an easy half-to-three quarters of a million by itself! And that’s if we sell it! C’mon, Marko, wouldn’t you like to be able to have a force-field, so you can use your PK for somethin’ other’n keeping yer ass from getting shot off?” G-Gun raised the GizStop in its package suggestively.
Brainstorm took the package and considered it. The thought about it and finally he said, “Okay! But this is a simple four-way split! We pick out a few bits that we think we can use, and then we sell the rest of it and split it four ways. We keep it simple.”
“But how do we say who gets what gizmo?” Dave asked.
“Simple,” Starstone said clinically. “Retail cash value. They all have price tags, so that’s what we use as a standard.”
“Guys, guys, guys,” Dave tutted, “we are juggling with dynamite here! Remember that spell that Diabolik slapped on us? Do you honestly thing that MAGIC gives a shit about lawyer weasel-talk?”
Marla was about to defend her position (and prospective profession) when Brainstorm’s cell phone went off. He shut down the debate with a wave and opened it. “Speak of the She-Devil… Yo, Miss Diabolik! What’s up?”
[Where are you guys?]
“Remember? We went off after those cyborg redskins who ripped off-”
[Okay, fair cop, but drop it; if you haven’t caught any of them yet, then they’re long gone. Besides, your contract wasn’t to retrieve Shane’s junk, it’s to back us up. We’re at Cousin Larry’s body shop in the Bronx. You know where it is?]
Dave nodded. “Yeah, we can get there, no problem,” Brainstorm fudged. “It’ll take a bit, but we’ll get there.”
[Put some pepper on in, Brainstorm; this is the last stand. Anti-Champion WILL attack here. We need you here, if this entire night isn’t going to be a colossal waste of time. So get over here, we’re not paying you to chase Indians]
“It, ah, make take some time getting over there… you ARE in the Bronx, y’know.”
[Take a cab and keep the receipt] with that, Jadis hung up.
Brainstorm shut his own phone and tucked it into its armored sheath. “According to our Principal, all the GizTech is considered a loss, and we’re supposed to call a cab and bill her.” Even through his ‘Rocketeer’ type helmet, you could tell the gloating grin. “I think that we’re good, Dave, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but where are we gonna leave all this?” He gestured at the nine bundles of pricey gear. “I mean, if we just leave it here, it’ll be long gone by the time we get back.”
“He’s right, the world is full of thieves,” G-Gun murmured. Then he snapped his fingers. “Call the cab company, tell them to pick us up at Superbad. We take the stuff there, and pay George to stash it for us. Superbad’s only a few blocks, we should get there in plenty of time and not have the cab waiting for us.”
* * * * *
“You got a New York Superior Court Judge to do all that at TWO O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING?”
[Jadis, Two o’clock in the morning is the best time to get a judge to do something] Parky said. [If you pitch it to them right, they’ll do anything to get back to sleep.]
“And the other matter?”
[It took a little doing, but one of my paralegals found the Executor of the estate, and while I don’t think that he quite understands exactly what he sold, it’s quite valid. We even back-dated the terms of sale, ‘for tax purposes’. Even if the Executor goes back on the sale when he learns what he sold, it will still have served its purpose]
“RIGHTEOUS!” I exulted (and I don’t exult a lot) “It won’t solve everything, but at least the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train.”
As I shut my phone, Gloriana said sulkily, “I realize that asking you to explain what all that was about would be a waste of time, but would you at least explain to me why you didn’t call us for backup when Anti-Champion attacked?”
“Because Anti-Champion didn’t attack,” I said, trying to be as reasonable as I could; hey, she did have a point. “Anti-Chimp didn’t show up; neither did his little gal-pal. I couldn’t take the risk that Philo and Friend weren’t playing tactical games, waiting somewhere out there for you to leave, so they could grab Larry’s stuff with only his usual defenses to deal with.”
Glor scowled and said, “Don’t you just hate it when the bad guys have decent tactical training?”
“Especially when they have such a sweet tactical setup,” I agreed, looking around the body shop’s yard. Larry’s body shop was in a part of the Bronx that used to be called ‘Fort Apache’, and while the Bronx has been enjoying an upswing of recovery and restoration, most of that action was about ten blocks in that direction (whichever you’re pointing), and I estimated that the local (legal) employment rate hovered at about 50%.
Misty joined Glor and me in taking in the wide-open opportunities for a sneak attack. “Why would Larry put his workshop out here?” she wondered. “I mean, this looks like something out of a gangster movie or something! He must have guys breaking in here and trying to rip off stuff all the time!”
“He does,” Kate said, rising up out of one of her pools of darkness. “It gives him a chance to test out a vehicle’s weapons systems in live-fire tests.”
“And the Cops LET him?” Misty squeaked.
“Hey, according to Larry, he makes custom vehicles for movies, TV shows, special events and publicity stunts,” I pointed out. “He says that those were ‘special effects’ tests; that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.”
“What are the chances that Anti-Klutz and his forces will attack through Larry’s escape tunnel?”
“Nada,” Larry snarled as he took the cigarette from his mouth and tossed it. “I don’t have an escape tunnel. Why should I?” He hitched his jeans up and went back to work. Larry apparently viewed himself as some sort of successor to Elvis. Or James Dean. Or Marlon Brando. Or Fonzi. His mousy brown hair was greased up into a pompadour, he wore blue jeans, and the only reason that he wasn’t wearing a T-shirt with a pack of Luckies rolled up into the sleeve was that it was February in New York. He lit another cigarette, shoved his hands into his thick plaid jacket and asked, “So, what makes you think that they’re going to attack me, and why tonight? I mean, they been real busy, y’know?”
“They’re on a tight schedule,” I explained. “They have to hit the exact sweet spot, where the oldest quick clones aren’t breaking down, but the newest ones are ripe enough to be an asset, for the optimum number of boots on the ground when they attack. It won’t matter if the old ones dissolve at the first hit, the quick clones are all by definition expendable; it’s just a question of when they turn to goop. And as for coming for you, well, Larry, what exactly are those?” I jerked a thumb at a group of six forms covered by tarps among the random stuff strewn across the large yard.
“Those’re prototype off-road Arr-Vees,” Larry said around his cigarette. I gave him the ‘You’re wasting my time’ glower. He let out a groan, “Okay, they’re a bunch of experimental suspension field APCs. Uncle Joe is trying to re-invent the Bradley IRV. Those units are havin’ problems, and he wants me to look at ‘em and poke at ‘em until I can come up with a fix for ‘em.”
“How bad is whatever’s wrong with ‘em?”
“Not much. Mostly overheating problems. Just needs better heat dispersal systems. But try and tell Uncle Joe that.”
Cousin Larry opened his mouth and I could tell that he was about to go into a typical Wilkins spiel, so I cut him off. “So, that’s most likely what Anti-Champion will come for, transport for his quick-clone troops, while he moves the Daleks, and other mechanicals with more conventional vehicles.”
“Why not that Vanderblinken transporter?” Misty asked. “Have some of his clone-ninjas sneak it in, set up a cage and beam a squad inside wherever he’s attacking?”
“Nice thought, Misty,” I allowed, “but the Vandervecken rig doesn’t work that way. It only transports TO the teleportion engine, not FROM it. Vandervecken was working on that, but he never managed to get it right.” I let out a gusty sigh, and looked around at the urban blight that surrounded the yard. “Okay, Glor, you’ve had Group Tactics and Advanced Strategy & Tactics… Given the assets that Anti-Champion has, how would you try to take this place?”
Glor took a centering breath, crossed her arms and took in the situation. “Stealth. Send in some of those ninjas first, have them find this place’s installed weaponry, and either sabotage them or place demolitions packs for later. Find the ACPs, disable any security systems or traps, and quietly warm them up for immediate evacuation. Put a demo pack on the gate that the APCs will be going out, and blow it just before they get there. Also, send ninjas to locate any vehicles weapons that Larry here has laying about, and quietly move them so that they can be collected and loaded onto the vehicles quickly. They will try to come at us from out of nowhere, strike like lightning, and be gone before we can react. But they’ll come in quietly first. Only an idiot would just come barging in, trusting to the element of surprise.”
“You mean, like THEM?” Misty asked, pointing at where the Cadet Crusaders had just blasted down the front gate, and were coming down the front path at a charge.
I swear, I was right in the middle of saying, “Oh, gimme a freaking break,” when the Cadet Crusaders pulled off some combo that resulted in a big BOOM, that sent us flying.
* * * * *
As the Diabolik creeps reeled from the ‘Big Bang’ maneuver, Ultramax zipped past them and dropped Griff off at her power armor. As she unlocked the hatch, Griff ordered, “Remember, stay on Aurora’s flank; we need to know what Diabolik’s up to here, and Diabolik’s sharp enough to realize that and target her.”
“Just get IN there and hold up your end of this,” Ultramax snarled. Then he stalked over to where Belphy was groggily picking herself up. He took her by the wrists and pulled her up off her feet. “Okay, Griff says that yer some kind of tech-head. So what? If you can’t use a gizmo, then yer fuckin’ useless. So, don’t give me any-”
“Go-go: Gardner, DEFEND,” the black elf said in a clear, carrying voice. A mass of gelatinous snakes with suckers along their underside came slithering out of Belphy’s purse and latched itself onto Ultramax. U-Max tried to pry them off of him, but they just kept stretching, giving with his strength, and then retracting when he let go. He struggled, but all that did was cost him leverage. The snakes kept growing, and U-Max kept fighting with everything he had, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. “Well,” Belphy breathed with satisfaction, “Trained engineering logic: FOUR; sloppy American- OI!” before Belphy could put another notch on her new catchphrase, UltraMax reached out of the mass of animated gelatin and dragged her in, effectively making his problem her problem.
‘Where IS UltraMax?’ Aurora wondered silently as she looked around for any sign of a red-and-white suit, ‘He’s supposed to be covering me in this gambit.’ Rory really wasn’t used to operating all alone (such as she was) like this. But Nightchylde claimed that the drab little goth-chick was the most dangerous of the whole lot, and Jill usually knew what she was talking about. Well, not when she was talking about New York, but usually. And Splendor said that this move would take the little bitch right out of the picture, and it worked when they tested it on Linda, so maybe for once Geneva wasn’t talking out of her ass. Oh God, she was so glad that Geneva couldn’t read minds. AH! There was ‘Nacht’ – and what kind of name was ‘Nacht’ anyway? – so it was all on her… God she hated being the one that everything depended on… “HALT!” she said in the best authoritative voice that Dr. Bernwyn had taught her. “Surrender, as you have no choice!” she made like she was using her ‘Submission Reflex’ move, with the red-tinted aura that played around her head.
“This is either too much fun or child abuse,” Nacht droned, letting the slighted smile play on her lips; “I wish that I was sure which.” She allowed her shadows to close on the pink-dressed redhead. But just as the chthonic gloom was almost on her, Aurora threw the packet of herbs into Nacht’s face, using her PK to rip the packet apart and push it in a clump into Nacht’s face.
Nacht immediately reacted. “What do you know?” Aurora said, mostly to herself, “It really WAS Moly! Splendor didn’t get ripped off for a change! YEEP!” Aurora’s cheer was short-lived as the strange shadows around the dark girl started thrashing about like wild animals.
* * * * *
Rubberboy knew that this trick had to work. It was a simple application of the principles of Physics as Dr. Berwyn had taught them, and the principles of Tactics, as Sgt. Maj. Seager had taught them. The blonde chick did something with gravity, that was how she was able to mess up Tower and Gryphon. But the Sgt. Major taught them that seeming trump-card powers like gravity manipulation could be used against their users. Heck, the Sgt. Major had even used gravity manipulation as an example. Let’s see if the Sgt. Major’s tactics worked. The blonde girl was lifting an engine block, probably looking to chuck it at Splendor, who was just hanging there in midair as she blasted again (the Sgt. Major would have ripped Geneva a new one, if she’d been in the program). But that meant that she was using her gravity-whatever to make the block lighter. The Sgt. Major would say that she was handing RB a primo opportunity on a silver platter. Arr-Bee stretched up, hooked one hand on an overhead light and reached down as the blonde was just about to throw the engine block, and snagged her by the back of the jacket. Arr-Bee yanked, trusting that the trajectory that he’d throw the blonde and the engine block would clobber the big demon-thing that was duking it out with PowerJack, taking care of two threats at once.
Instead, Arr-Bee’s hand got stuck in the collar of the girl’s jacket, and he was carried along with her, and they got all tangled up in each other, and they awkwardly rolled in a wobble through Nightchyld’s fight with the glowing light chick and Tower’s fight with the Asian chick. As the blonde furiously tried to disentangle herself from him, Arr-Bee had the traitorous (if groggy) thought that maybe the Sergeant Major had been talking out of his ass.
* * * * *
Nightchylde let the ball roll past, but immediately saw that the glowing ‘all-that’ blonde hadn’t gotten out of her darkness field. “Come on!” Nightchylde heckled Gloriana, “Give me your best shot! Give me the works!”
“Well, if you insist…” the response came in a silky Posh British accent, “but before we get to that, would you mind answering a question?”
“Let’s take that as a ‘yes’… How did you know we were here?”
“Why would I tell you how you screwed up, so’s you could remember not to do it again?”
“How shrewd of you. But then, how did you even know that we were at large? The last you knew, we’d been sent off with the MCO.”
Nightchyld paused. “aaahhh… yeah. Hey, how DID you bust out? I mean, getting away from the MCO is supposed to be MAJOR hard…”
“Simple. They released us. They had no evidence of any wrongdoing to hold us with, and as they had no legal authority to hold us in the first place, we were released less than an hour after you shoved us into that transport. So, what exactly are you supposed to be doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
“You DO realize that you’ve just Broke and Entered and committed Assault with Paranormal Abilities?”
“Oh, NO y’don’t! You guys attacked that truck and ripped off Griff’s power frame! That’s a major felony right there! You’re trying to convince me that we’re in the wrong here, so that I’ll stop trying to stop you!”
“No, that sort of lawyering is more up Jadis’ street than mine.”
“Then what was with all that talk about just now?”
“THIS.” Gloriana, who had been following Nightchylde’s voice out of the darkness, drove her fist into the Cadet’s solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her. While she wasn’t a big martial arts buff, Glor remembered enough from Ito-senseis classes to follow it up immediately with a barrage of blows that kept Nightchylde rattled and off-balance, until she fell to the ground in a heap. “Tough,” Glor said with a huff, “but not terribly bright. Let’s see if she brought any binders with her, so I don’t have to do a replay of this. Those shadows just sucked the light right out of me!”
* * * * *
PowerJack adjusted his liquid-metal power array into a sheath of spikes, which did penetrate the She-Beast’s force field, and then ran a current through them. She-Beast snarled and fell from him, hitting hard. But the hard landing didn’t seem to slow her down any. She immediately started picking up small bits of metallic bric-a-brac and heaving it at him with the force of small cannonballs. Not that PowerJack thought that that was her real plan, not by a long shot. According to Aurora, who should know, as she’d gone through a little patch of hell just touching the girl’s mind, Jadis Diabolik was utterly and irredeemably evil. She was the core of whatever was going on tonight, and from what Griff and the other Cadets said, she was as slippery as a buttered eel and three times as nasty. He had to take her down quickly and very hard, or she’d just unleash whatever she had up her sleeve; not as smooth or slick as she’d like, but just as deadly.
Figuring out a trump card to use against her was playing to her strength: that stupid force field of hers. It wasn’t invulnerable by any means, but it covered all the bases somehow. That meant that the best way through it was simple brute force. PowerJack shifted his array into the ‘piledriver’ mode and went in to take it to hand-to-hand. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. She-Beast was inside his strike-area almost immediately, rolling inside his punch and delivering punches that seemed to flow right through him armor. Finally, after taking more damage than he had in that fight with the Crippler, PowerJack managed to get a good punch in that sent the She-Beast flying into some gear. He jetted in to keep the pressure on her, but She-Beast used his own momentum against him, wrapping him up in chain. She grounded one end of the chain with a spike, and reached over with one finger to punch a button on a generator. Suddenly kilowatts of electricity were sent through the chain, and flowed through PowerJack’s nanite array, scrambling their settings temporarily and locking them into ‘safety’ mode until the settings had been reset. The electricity didn’t get through Jack’s insulated undercoat, but the ‘safety lock’ turned the array into an effective straightjacket. The reset would only take a few minutes, but in a superhero fight, a few minutes meant that he was effectively out of the fight.
She-Beast shed her ‘beast skin’ and stood over him. “Interesting… some sort of liquid metal scheme that flows to create different technical configurations. A sort of tame T-2000. Well, Mal would kick and scream and cry like a little baby if I didn’t bring him back at least a sample of something like this. Come to think of it, Doctor Dad wouldn’t mind a look either…” a dark claw formed over her hand and she reached forward with a claw to scratch at the nanite array, at just the moment when it was powerless to protect its secrets.
But, just as She-Beast scratched PowerJack and got her sample, there was a mottled pinkish blur, UltraMax slammed into Jadis with his shoulder into his shield. She-Beast was concentrating on extracting the sample, but then U-Max was putting his power into his speed, not his strength or defense, so he didn’t hit hard enough to do Jadis any real damage. Still, it sent her flying, and despite her innate toughness, she was badly stunned by the move. “Gee, Mister ‘I can do ANYTHING’ needs his high-tech ass saved – AGAIN,” UltraMax sneered. “What’s that?” U-Max asked cocking an ear near PowerJack’s helmet. “You’re a big sissy and you need help? Why didn’t you just SAY so?”
But before UltraMax could actually do anything, a metallic ‘lariat’ looped around him and wrapped itself around him from head down to his knees. Looking up, he saw the black-skinned, white-haired elf-girl, who was holding onto a caster and reel. “Oh, that’s where you got to. Y’know, I could just bust out of this, no problem,” U-Max said. But instead, he spun at high speed, unwrapping himself and pulling the elf-girl to him with a snap. “But that would be boring, now wouldn’t it, sweet-cakes?”
Belphy smiled, stroked his cheek and said, “I’m never boring.” Then she scratched the side of his neck, missing the carotid artery by millimeters. “Vicious occasionally, but never boring.”
UltraMax pulled away, hand to neck, and started to say something fatuous, but the icy tingle of paralysis was already spreading across his face, and speeding towards his head. He started to lurch a bit, and while he wasn’t put down by Belphy’s toxin, he was perfectly set up for a retaliatory charge from She-Beast. Jadis sent UltraMax flying with grim satisfaction. When UltraMax landed with a gratifying crash on top of a parted-out wreck, Jadis straightened herself and turned to Belphy. “Not that I’m complaining, but how’d you pull that one off?”
Belphy held up one hand and extended the retractable claws. “I, ah, took the opportunity to load up on some of those venoms that Jobe uses. Only one; I haven’t Jobe’s feel for the finer points. And it’s just a paralytic, as well… ah, Jadis? When we get her back, would you not tell Jobe that I, ah, borrowed some of her venoms? She does get very fussy about her materials and-”
“Belphy,” Jadis interrupted her, “There are times when I worry that you won’t fit in with the Wilkinses. And then there are times when I worry that you’ll fit in too well.”
Belphy drew herself up straight and began to defend herself, when Sizzle zipped past, barely outracing a strafing line of blasts from above.
* * * * *
High up in the air, Geneva Tipton (aka ‘Splendor’) was – yet again – having serious second thoughts as to the whole ‘superheroine’ thing. It hadn’t been living up to her expectations, even before the fucking daughter of Doctor fucking Diabolik had figured out who she was. Now, she was stuck between standing up for the rest of the Cadets (who were a bunch of losers in her book) and not pissing off Jadis fucking Diabolik (whom she absolutely loathed). And now she owed Jadis a favor! She absently wondered who gave Jadis the nickname ‘She-Beast’; a more perfect name, she couldn’t imagine. Before, she would have used a nickname like that like a club. Now, she was reduced to making out like she was holding up her end the fight, while not actually doing anything that might set off Diabolik. So, she was sniping at that skeezy speedster; she could argue that she was keeping the most dangerous one of the lot busy, and it wasn’t like Genny had a really good chance of hitting the little bitch, so Diabolik wouldn’t have anything to complain about. Of course, there was the nasty issue of what she’d do if the Cadets actually managed to catch these assholes. Jadis might have bigger things to worry about, but she might just play the Secret Identity card, just to be vicious. Geneva didn’t see any reason why she wouldn’t.
* * * * *
The Asian chick did a ridiculous carom off a loading boom and nailed Tower in the nose with a kick. Tower reacted, but just barely managed to rein in his counter-swat as Tiger Girl came bounding in. He managed to avoid splatting Tigs, but he spoiled her pursuit, and he couldn’t escape the impression that the Asian chick was laughing at them. “You okay, Tigs?” he asked, when he got the impression that Tiger Girl had lost her prey’s track.
“Yeah,” she panted. “I SWEAR that I almost had her!”
“Tigs, I think that you’re trying too hard,” Tower suggested. “Look, the harder that you try to make up for the time last Christmas at the Whittier, the more you’re gonna screw up. Okay, that one’s too slippery, Griff’s not holding up her end again, and I’m not doing much real good just standing here, ‘being a focus point’. And the rest of Griff’s plan looks like it’s a wash, too. So, if YOU were planning this, what would you have us do?”
Tiger Girl settled, focused for a moment, and said, “Jadis Diabolik. She’s the key to this whole thing. She knows what’s going on. Hell, it’s probably her operation. This ‘one on one’ thing of Griff’s ain’t working. We team up and focus on Diabolik, take her down, and instead of scrambling around the place, the others will come and try to help her. We take them down one at a time. It doesn’t matter if one or two of ‘em get away, the important thing is to keep Diabolik from pulling whatever she’s got up her sleeve. Tower, get everyone standing on the horn and spell it out for them. Not Griff; we don’t need the tsuris.”
“PowerJack isn’t responding.”
“Splendor’s ignoring me.”
“I saw Aurora and Rubberboy go down, but they took their bunnies with them.”
“And Yew-Max isn’t answering either.”
“WELL! Some good news at last!” Tiger Girl said with some enthusiasm. “Okay, that just means that we don’t have to worry about coordinating everyone. Let’s keep it simple. You shrink down, and I throw you at her. You get big just before you hit, you know the drill. I come in see if I can find a way through her force field, while you keep her busy. We make it fast, hard, down and dirty; maybe, when the rest of our team sees what we’re doing, they’ll join in without us having to spell it out for them. Remember, fast, no fancy crap, just get the bitch on the ground and SIT on her! Maybe this will work, unlike most of Griff’s ‘Strategy 101’ tricks.” Tiger Girl paused. “Did I say that out loud?”
“Say WHAT out loud?”
“You’re a good man, Tower.”
“Yeah, you say that NOW.”
* * * * *
“What? Is? THAT?” Sizzle asked, utterly croggled, pointing at the furiously thrashing patch of darkness that was tearing at the used parts yard.
“Awww… Nertz!” Jadis cussed as she fished around in her wallet. “How did that happen? I thought that Kate had a handle on that!”
“What IS it?” Misty asked in a terrified whisper. “And what does Katie have to do with it? Did it EAT her?”
“Kinda-sorta not really,” Jadis sighed as she pulled out three of her spell slips. “This is what happens when Kate loses control of her shadows. It looks a lot worse than it is. Though, it can get pretty dang nasty if you don’t catch it in time.”
“What’s THAT?” Hazard asked as she walked up, carrying Rubberboy, all tied up into a very uncomfortable looking ball, in her arms. “Is this one of your fancy moves, Jadis?”
“No, it’s one of Kate’s moves,” Jadis sighed. “And not one of her favorites. I’m going to have to go in and get her out of there. She used to do this a lot more, last year. Still, I carry these around, just in case.” Jadis attached one of the spell slips to her forehead and then erected her ‘beast-skin’. “#Misty, latch onto me with your gravity and just hold on. When you see me coming out, give me a hand. I’ll need it. #” Then she charged at the whirling vortex of primordial darkness and dived in. The vortex continued on as before for a moment, and then it started contracting and spasming. After that went on for a bit, Jadis crawled with obvious effort out of the whirlpool, carrying Aurora out with her. Aurora was curled up into a fetal position, her eyes wide but blank, and shivering with terror. Jadis dropped her ‘beast-skin’ and said to Aurora, “Sweetheart, I know that you were created to be the next generation of superhero and all that, but if I were you, I’d look into another line of work. ‘Cause you don’t seem to be having a lot of luck with this one.”
Jadis started to hand Aurora over to Belphy and started, “Here, Belphy, see if you can get her to snap out of it. She’s a telepath, so think soothing thoughts, try to – oh, hell, look who I’m talking to. Ah, Misty? No, telepathic contact with YOU would probably scramble her programming… Besides, I gotta go back in for Kate, and I’ll need you… Lessee… Ah! GLOR! Gloriana! (oh Gawd, I just yelled ‘Gloriana’, I feel like I’m at a RenFaire…)”
“What’s the matter, Jadis?” Glor said as she trotted up, vaulting cinematically over a pile of debris as she did so.
Explanations were exchanged, and Jadis finished with, “Anyway, she’s a telepath, and I figure that you’re the best one to coax her out of whatever little mental closet she’s shut herself into.”
“Yes, I can see that, but why not Belphy? I mean, they’re both genetic constr-eerrr… yes, I see your point there. But Misty is just the… ah… oh, dear I DO see your problem.”
“We’re both right HERE, you know,” Belphy grated, as Misty wondered what the problem was.
Jadis handed Aurora off to Gloriana and dived back into the maelstrom. “How does she know to do that?” Misty asked.
“You’re asking ME?” Glor gasped, “I barely know them!” Then there was an orange-and-black blur that slammed into Misty squarely in the midsection, knocking the wind out of her. Tiger Girl rolled with the momentum and pulled Misty with the roll. Misty’s knee-jerk reflex was to lighten everything in the immediate vicinity, which only worked to Tiger Girl’s advantage. She lifted Misty over her head and chucked her into Belphy. Then she reached over and took Aurora from Gloriana’s arms. Glor paused for a moment, puzzled. And then, Tower landed on top of her, squashing her under him. Misty managed to disentangle herself from Belphy’s arms, but as she staggered a bit, trying to orient herself to the new situation, she got blindsided by PowerJack, who was moving stiff and slow, but moving. After clocking her one, PowerJack grappled with Misty, which seemed to be the most that his nanite harness was up to at the moment. On the other hand, Misty hadn’t quite gotten her wits together, so she reacted reflexively by reducing the gravity around her to zero again.
Gloriana made the most of that by lifting Tower up and throwing him off of her and scrounging up as much light power as she’d recovered to blast Tiger Girl. Tiger Girl was concentrating on Gloriana, so Belphy caught her off guard and was trying to wrestle the fabulous feline fille into a Full Nelson hold. Belphy managed to get Tiger Girl into the proper hold and presented her as a target for Gloriana. But just as Glor was about to fire away, UltraMax staggered up and clocked her from behind. Glaring through his mask, U-Max snarled, “You just hold that little bitch right there, Tigs… I got a score to settle with her.” UltraMax spoke with a slight slur, and he wasn’t moving as smoothly as he normally did, but he was obviously recovering very quickly from Belphy’s venom. Belphy tried a last minute scrape at Tiger Girl’s neck, but her claws didn’t penetrate the heroine’s neck-guard let alone her skin. Tiger Girl on the other hand, used Belphy’s attempt to reverse the hold and throw her into UltraMax.
Sizzle zipped around the yard, desperately looking for, if not something that she could use, then at least a way OUT of this shityard. That bitch ‘Splendor’ was herding her into something, but Darcy knew that she was too smart to fall into anything that THAT ditz could…
Suddenly, Belphy’s rig lurched into Sizzle’s path, and Darcy couldn’t veer quickly enough, let alone stop. Sizzle hit hard, and despite her innate force field (one of the reasons that Speedsters as a group manage to survive) she was knocked for a loop. Gryphon danced mincingly for a moment, trying to deal with the impact. Then, seeing what she’d done, she leaned over and picked Sizzle up with one of the waldoes. [See?] she announced on the loudspeaker [Planning and cooperation WORK! Good job, Splendor!] High up in the air, Splendor moaned to herself, ‘Typical. Another Griff ‘Oh, I MEANT to do that!’ luckout. Well, at least she’s the one that Diabolik will be pissed at when the dust settles, not me.’
Griffin lugged Sizzle to where the others were gathered. [Where’s Diabolik and the creepy little one?]
“She’s in there,” Nightchylde, who was still favoring her side, answered. “It has something to do with Erebreal energy, but don’t ask me what it is.”
Rubberboy managed to untangle himself. “Maybe Rory hit the goth-chick with that Moly that Nightchylde was talking about.”
Nightchylde gnawed at her lower lip. “Well… she IS a lot more powerful than I am. And he said that Moly was ‘reserved for the Gods’ and somethin’ like that, and it had ‘virtue to turn aside dark magics’, and when I Googled it, Wikipedia said that Hermes gave some to Ulysses to help him against Circe, so-”
“So WHAT?” UltraMax snapped, “What does all that have to do with THAT?”
“Well, if that friend of Diabolik’s got a face full of that Moly, and it affects her the way it affects me, I think that what would happen would look a lot like THAT,” Nightchylde said with more conviction.
“So, Diabolik’s gone in to get her buddy out,” Gryphon said evenly. “Splendor, Jack, Max – when Diabolik comes out, I’ll give a three-mark, and then, on Three, we all blast her. She’ll have that freaky demon-thing up, so we don’t have to worry about killing her. Jill, if the Goth-chick reacts to the Moly anything like you did, she should be out of it. Try to take control of those shadows, and use them to grab onto her and Diabolik. Tower, Tigs, pick up something heavy and throw it right after ‘three’, while she’s coping with our blasts.”
“What about that speedster and that acrobat chick?” Tower asked.
“Not important – the speedster’s out of the count, and the acrobat isn’t anyone important. Diabolik? She’s the important one. She knows what’s really going on. And, if we bust her, we get all the credit.”
Then there was a change in the vortex, and on Gryphon’s orders, the Cadets assumed a semi-circle around it, with Rubberboy taking charge of Aurora. Two shapes began to emerge from the whirlpool. “ONE,” Gryphon said quietly but firmly.
The forms resolved into Diabolik’s demonic form, and she was carrying the smaller girl out of the void. “Two,” Grypon said more quietly.
#Misty!# Diabolik grated, #I could use a little-# then she spotted the ambush. #oh fuck…#
“THREE!” For once, one of Griff’s ‘we’re all in this together’ tactics actually worked. The blasts hit Diabolik square in the chest, sending her reeling. Diabolik might have been able to handle the bits of concrete that Tower and Tiger Girl threw at her, but she was too dazed. They slammed into her with only her PK shell protecting her, knocking her off her feet. Nightchylde tried to take control of the furiously thrashing shadows, but only succeeded in dispelling them.
Nacht just looked blurrily at them and gurgled, “Blarg…”
“HAH!” Gryphon exulted as she pinned Diabolik’s head to the ground with one of her guns, “GOT YOU! Not so smart and snotty NOW, are you? The Cadet Crusaders may not win every fight, but we always come up Aces in the end! Okay, let’s see you bullshit your way out of THIS! Let’s see you get away NOW!”
As though she was waiting for just that cue, Hazard dropped a case of motor oil that set off a long chain of reactions that wound up with Tower tripping and falling on Splendor, Splendor letting off a reflexive zap that hit Nacht, that case of motor oil crashing on top of Tiger Girl and UltraMax being buried under a pile of scrap metal, letting go of Belphy. As Gryphon tried to react intelligently to the onslaught of chaos, balancing unsteadily on over-sensitive pedals, Hazard finished off her move by landing on the power armor’s back pushing it down on its face. She banged on the hatch, causing it to pop open, and dragged an overwhelmed Gryphon out of the saddle. “Get IN!” Hazard hissed at Belphy, who wasted no time in taking over the frame.
UltraMax quickly gauged the two girls he had available for taking hostage – Gloriana and Nacht – and immediately decided that the little goth girl was still way too groggy to be any threat. But as he went for her, Nacht lurched forward and spewed most of that half-digested Salvadorian dinner all over U-Max. *blarg!* UltraMax froze in utter disgust, and looked down at his despoiled costume in horror. Unfortunately for him, he was so revolted by what Kate had done that he let his guard (and his power) down, which gave Gloriana her opening. She came up behind him, grabbed him by the shoulders, lifted him over her head and threw him a good twenty feet.
“KATE!” I yelled, getting to my feet to see how she was doing.
“Moly…” she groaned pathetically, looking like she’d eaten some green eggs and ham.
“Yeah, I thought so,” I said as comfortingly as I could as I prepped the spell slip that should get her back on her feet. I started to wonder aloud how they’d know that Moly would have that affect on Kate, when I remembered that I’d told ‘Splendor’ that she should be more aware of how her teammate, Nightchylde’s, powers worked. Apparently she did, and they turned that around on us. Wouldn’t you know it? The ONE time Geneva Tipton actually listens to me, and this is IT? Figuring that this was not the time to give Glor (or Kate) a club to beat me with, I asked, “So, what’s the situation like?”
“Significantly better than a moment ago, but still not good,” Glor summed it up. “But the Cadets are such goofs! How can they be putting up such a fight?” She jerked a thumb up into the air, where PowerJack was tussling with Misty in midair. Tower was climbing to his feet, but give the big guy his due, he didn’t come charging at us, he made sure that Splendor was okay, and helped Tiger Girl out from under the junk she was under. I’m not sure whether he was being tactically savvy, or just a gentleman.
“As much as I hate to agree with Gryphon, the Cadets are very good about learning from their fights and adapting their tactics; the best way to handle them is to confuse them. Unfortunately, I think that I’ve played the confusion card one time too many with them. They won’t listen to anything we say, I think. They want us in the Jug and they’re going to get us there no matter what it takes.” I checked Kate. “Kate’s gonna be a little woozy for a bit. How’re you?”
“I’ve been better,” Glor admitted. “That girl in black really sucked the juice out of my reserves, but I’m recharging. I can fight, but I doubt that I could both fly and blast at the same time, while holding up my force field.”
Then Hazard joined them, carrying a still-logy Sizzle in her arms. Belphy clumped up and asked, “So, Jadis, what’s the plan?”
“The plan is, we gotta come up with a plan before they pull themselves together again,” I said, regretting that I couldn’t repay the faith these girls were putting in me. “I can’t see that ‘Nightchylde’ chick, and without Kate to counter her, she scares me more than any two of them put together. Kate needs a minute or two to shake the effect of that Moly. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I can tell you that we can’t assume that the cavalry is going to ride to the rescue at the last minute.”
“Oh fuck, here they come,” Hazard grunted. The Cadets had collected themselves, and except for Rubberboy who was cradling Aurora in his arms and running her through some sort of one-on-one pep session (probably to snap her out of it), and PowerJack who was still tussling with Misty, and they headed in our direction with a clear intent to kick our asses. At least I knew where Nightchylde was. The problem was, they were in a very good, very tight position, each of them covering each other. Belphy set her frame and we braced ourselves for what looked like a very nasty fight.
Then Tower’s pants dropped around his ankles.
Then a burst of bright, cheerfully colored plastic balls exploded in their midst, and they lost their group cohesion. Then Starstone zipped in and blasted Tower, who was WAY off-balance, sending him toppling onto Nightchylde and UltraMax. Y’know, it strikes me that they really need to work on keeping their enemies from using Tower’s mass against them. (memo to self: stop critiquing the opposition and making suggestions; the idiots just might USE it!). Splendor was just hanging there in the air, looking like she was trying to figure out what to do, when Starstone turned her attention to her. But instead of a classic blaster-vs.-blaster dogfight, Starstone zipped up and just popped her one in the kisser. Starstone obviously had Geneva pegged as a prissy rich girl who’d never been in a real dustup in her life. Good Call, Starstone.
UltraMax pushed Tower off of him with a lot of effort, as he had to keep his protection up from being crushed. Still, he managed to get himself and Nightchylde free. He looked around, and flinched as he saw Dave, a big, heavyset guy in ‘I’m a serious asskicker’ duds, charging at him. Dave yelled, “I hope you brought a bag for your TEETH, punk!” and swung at him. Yew-Max reflexively put up his shield and probably shifted to his protective mode. But instead of slamming into Max, Dave used his haymaker swing to over-swing, wrapped his arm around Max and lifted the yutz over his head. Brainstorm wafted over and lifted UltraMax up onto a derrick hook, which was normally used for lifting engine blocks and such. Nightchylde was up and looked like she was gathering power, when Sizzle zoomed out of left field, snagged NC off her feet and slammed her one of the many piles of gear and/or materials that littered the yard. As Nightchylde reacted to that, Belphy plastered her to the pile with a couple of snare-gel rounds. Tiger Girl tried to come to Nightchylde’s rescue, but Belphy splatted her as well.
I trotted up to Brainstorm and Dave and said, “It’s about TIME you guys got here! We were getting our asses handed to us!”
“Hey, you ever try to get a New York cabbie to drive four people in costumes from Manhattan to THIS neighborhood?” Brainstorm demanded. Well, he did have a point there.
“Not that I’m complaining, Dave,” I said, “that was a very nice move. But why didn’t you just use your super-strength?” He held up his gauntlet and pointed at his time indicator, which said that he had about seven more minutes to go on his recharge. “Whew! Gutsy move there, Dave.”
“I need that ‘star turn’ money,” he shot back.
“He’s going through a really nasty divorce right now,” Brainstorm explained, sotto voce.
Then I heard Misty yell, “JADIS!” Looks like Misty’s getting the dirty end of the stick in her fight with PowerJack, and it hadn’t occurred to her to get heavy on him.
“Hold on, Misty!” I yelled, and put up my beast-skin again, pumping the power into the ‘wings’ (which are, I have to admit, not my personal best asset) and flew up to help her. They were squirming around in midair so much that it was hard to get a grip on them. But I finally got my claws into PowerJack’s harness again and was about to scramble them again, when a harsh blinding light came down on us from above.
I heard Brainstorm yell, “SHIT! It’s the War Wagon!” Fnark. The Empire City Guard had come to back up their sidekicks again.
I was hoping that the Guard would do the stock ‘Halt Evildoer!’ bit, so I could talk some reason into them. Well, at least if Dr. Thunder is still calling the shots; that Whateley alumni connection’s got to mean something. But NO, they’ve got to compound their protégés mistakes by coming in like gangbusters too. They piled out of the War Wagon at fifty feet, with Junkyard doing her trademark ‘earthshaking landing’ bit. Gloriana lifted off and tried to intercept Dr. Thunder, but the good doctor wasn’t listening, and opened up with that freaky huge gun of hers. Glor was spending energy on flying and keeping up her force field, so she wasn’t able to return fire. Not that I think she would; it would look terrible on her resume to say that she pounded the crap out of a respected superheroine.
Captain Quantum (‘the generic superhero’) zipped over to where Starstone was pounding the crap out of Splendor, and Starstone found herself in a real fight. Of course, Cap would have had much easier going, if Geneva hadn’t crawled up on his back, putting him between her and the nasty chick from Brooklyn who could actually fight.
Dynamo dropped down and pulled UltraMax off the derrick hook he was dangling from. They conferred for a second, and Max sped off as Dynamo took to the air. In less time than it takes to tell it, Max had herded Sizzle into Dynamo’s range, where he trapped her in a force bubble. Mentor/Sidekick teams suck (at least when you’re on the receiving end). Speaking of Hero/Sidekick teams, Lioness came down and hooked up with Tiger Girl to go chasing off after Hazard. Hazard did a much better job than Sizzle, but she had her hands full, getting her Spiderman on all over the field, to be much help to anyone else.
Unlike Junkyard, Heavyweight landed with ballerina-like grace, a move that really was at odds with her female-bodybuilder physique. Then, light as a gazelle, she loped toward Dave, who had a ‘Wyle Coyote looking at the oncoming train’ moment. Then he looked around frantically and clambered up on one of the many piles of gear and/or scrap (apparently Larry is one of those ‘never throw anything away, it might come in handy later’ type pistonheads). Heavyweight skipped up lightly and came down heavy on Dave. Which, to give the big guy his due, seemed to be what Dave was expecting, ‘cause he dodged at the last minute, and Heavyweight came down hard and sank into the scrap. Dave helped it along by pushing some more junk on top of her. Heavyweight’s intense personal gravity worked against her, bringing it down with a big crash. But Dave was sharp enough to take to his heels, looking at his timer like a school kid watching at the clock at 2:55.
Magno-Man, who, given the terrain we were operating in, was the Guard who really worried me, pulled the stunt that I was really hoping he wouldn’t: he used his magnetism to create a ‘metalstorm’ of scrap and gear, filling the air with flying pieces of magnetizable hazards and whirling them around. But the battle was so close and moving so quickly that he couldn’t reliably drop that on any of us, so he just created an area denial affect with it. But if he ever got an open target- WHAM!
Paladin was chasing after Gravity Gun, who was furiously pulling gimmicks out of his pouches as he flew away on his disk, and not having any luck with any of ‘em. Not that I was on a lucky streak myself. I’d just managed to pry PowerJack off of Misty, who was wrapping her head around the notion that going light wasn’t helping her much. She went heavy and dropped PJ and me down to the ground hard, but I managed to pull free just as she twisted so she landed on top of PJ. But then there was a blood-curdling war cry and I looked up right into the face of Legionnaire as he powered down at me, that freaky shield and gladius combo of his glowing. He slammed into me with the shield doing maybe 50 mph, and slashed at me with the gladius. OW. More than ‘Ow’, more like ‘FUCK! THAT HURT!’
Legionnaire claims to be some minor Roman god or another, and from the way that that gladius of his slips through my PK ‘skin’, there may just be something to it. Mind you, it doesn’t seem to be doing me that much actual trauma, (Thank You, God!) but MAN that thing hurt! Worse, when I tried to use my Krav Maga moves on him, it turned out that he was a lot better at this stand-up fight crap than I was. He was hitting me pretty regular, and pushing most of my strikes aside with that Roman shield. Now, I admit it; I’ve developed something of an attitude, what with not really having to worry about most of the asshats back at Whateley. But, on my side, I’ve made a study of most of the badasses, and I have a pretty good idea who do and don’t have to worry about, and I’ve taken detailed and tested measures to deal with the ones I do have to worry about.
Pity I never took those steps with the Guard, especially Legionnaire.
Then Legionnaire let up on me, but not out of mercy; Legionnaire isn’t really into the whole ‘mercy’ thing. No, he was maneuvering me… Then I got it: the Guard as a whole was trying to maneuver us into a single central location. Oh God, they’re going to have Magno-Man drop that metalstorm on us. Oh man, this is gonna HURT…
But what both I and the Guard had sort of spaced on – reasonably for them, but I’m putting a quarter in my ‘saving up for a dunce cap’ jar – was that Belphy was still in Gryphon’s power frame. As the Guard gathered together to get out of the way of Magno-Man’s mega-metal-mash, and I was having visions of massive contusions (not to mention getting dragged off to jail), Belphy waited until Magno-Man was just about to lay down the big hurt, and then hit them with a wide-angle assault from her Nausea Projector, combined with the suit’s sonic weapon (which I have since learned she and Shawn tweaked so that it affected the inner ear); the combo was killer. It hit Magno-Man just as he was about to let go, and it totally screwed up his aim. We are talking the wipeout from aitch-ee-dubble-hockeysticks here. He nailed Legionnaire, Paladin and Dynamo, and he didn’t do Tower a bit of good. Honestly, that boy needs to – no, no, I promised myself I’d stop critiquing the opposition.
Most of the Guard were rattled but hanging tough; hey, they’ve been through worse. But Belphy’s one-two punch really seemed to get Heavyweight where she lived. She clutched her middle, did a mincing little dance, bent over and gave a big ol’ Technicolor yawn. Misty must have picked up on something, because despite the fact that Power Jack (who must be a tough cuss, after Misty landing on him like that), was trying to get her down on the ground, sent a gravity pulse at Heavyweight. HW went down, and the rest of the Guard immediately added at least 6 Gs to their worries. Dr. Thunder, Paladin, Legionnaire, Captain Quantum and Magno-Man all hit the ground hard. Gravity Gun knew an opening when he saw it, and used his G-gun on Heavyweight, adding a couple of Gs to the mix. Lioness, and Tiger Girl were all flat on the ground. UltraMax was obviously using all of his power just keeping on his feet, which was only doing his ego any good. Even Junkyard was beginning to fall apart some. Only Dynamo, the most powerful of the Guard, was still standing.
Unfortunately, it was Dynamo, and he WAS the most powerful of the Empire City Guard, and he was still up and kicking some serious ass. His black-and-gold power armor wasn’t the problem; the problem was what he used to power the armor and his various powers. Just my luck, there are four Forces in freaking existence, and Dynamo over there had one of them, and he was trying to blast Gravity Gun with it. I guess he figures that the guy in the supersuit with all the pockets is more dangerous than Misty. Is that Chivalry or Chauvinism?
Glor and Starstone tried to give Gravity Gun some slack by blasting Dynamo from outside that gravity well, but Dynamo knows that he’s a natural-born target, which is why he wears that hardsuit. It was soaking up their blasts, and Dynamo managed to harry Gravity Gun enough that G-Gun had to break off, easing up on the rest of the Guard. Just what we don’t want, and the kid is coming up dry regarding ‘save the day’ plans. Then I spotted Dave. He was hustling over to one of Larry’s WIP vehicles, a real ‘signature’ ride working a serious scorpion theme, with claws and a big-ass scorpion tail rising up from the rear.
You really have to wonder about some of the people in the supervillain business.
Dave got in, and to my surprise, actually managed to get the damn thing to start and up in the air. I saw what he was up to, when the tip of the tail started to glow, and then let out a whoop-ass energy blast that actually knocked Dynamo off his pins. Yeah! Vehicular weaponry!
Then Larry popped out of a hatch about twenty feet away from me and yelled in his reedy whine, “HEY! Stop that! The Steel Scorpion hasn’t finished paying me for customizing that!”
“What are you doing?” Hazard demanded, saving me the bother. “Why haven’t you turned on this place’s defense grid?”
“What do you think I’ve been DOING?” he demanded right back, “The damned systems are locked up for some reason!”
But then Dr. Thunder finally managed to get her thunder gun up and took a shot at the Scorpion Sledge (or wtf it’s called), and Larry let off a howl as his project got a nasty ding in its paint job. At the almost the same time, PowerJack managed to throw Misty, cutting off the gravity well effect, and it looked like the tide had turned in the Guard and the Cadets’ favor again. But never count Kate out completely. She’d recovered a lot, and now that she wasn’t being mashed down by 5 Gs, she had a card to play. She sent a lance of Erebeal darkness into Junkyard’s mass, and Junkyard shook like a washing machine that really needs a tune-up and started to fall apart. Kate freed herself from the collection of stuff that Junkyard was using for an arm. She looked at me and yelled, “JADIS!” Before any of the Guard or Cadets could react, she threw something to me, guided by her magic.
I caught it on reflex and looked at it. It was a large, slightly outdated-looking CPU chip. Oh, of course. We’d discussed this in our Relics and Cursed Items class. Nice move, Kate! And, well, it wasn’t like we weren’t playing hardball already… I speed dialed Belphy in her frame. “Belphy! Shut it off, and patch me into the suit’s PA system. We just won.”
Once I had the link, I gave them a moment to get the ringing out of their ears and then shouted, [Everybody FREEZE! Nobody Move, or I crush Junkyard’s Chip! One wrong move, and the Guard has another display in its ‘Hall of Remembrance’! Everyone, STAND DOWN!]
Paladin copped a ‘Stern Sentinel of Justice’ pose and said, “That’s MURDER, Diabolik!”
[WRONG! As I recall, Junkyard is a ghost that was empowered by contact with the Fred Force, so that it could possess and animate technology. But, it’s still a Ghost! According to New York v. Topper, the ‘Ghostbuster Decision’, the United States does not recognize posthumous survival, and all such phenomena are categorized as ‘various paranormal influences’, and as such are disregarded by the Courts, with the exception of Persuasive Evidence to investigators. New York v. Topper has been challenged and upheld; according to the Supreme Court, Ghosts Have No Legal Rights. PERIOD.] I held Junkyard’s chip between my thumb and forefinger. [This chip is Junkyard’s hallow, the physical object that binds her to this plane. If I break this, then it’s goodbye, Junkyard, forever.] A couple of the Cadets (UltraMax and Tiger Girl, to be precise) started to make moves, but their mentors kept a rein on them.
Looking into their snarling faces of defiance, I said, [Chill Out! I’m not asking you to surrender. I’m just asking you to stop trying to kill us long enough to look at this:] I pulled out the Diplomatic Status card that the Embassy had given us, [and this] I pulled the notarized copy of the MCO release papers that I’d paid so much for. I shoved them in the direction of Dr. Thunder, who put up her gun and carefully walked over to examine the papers.
“Oh, I don’t believe this…” she groaned, “Look, Diplomatic Immunity doesn’t-”
“It does, when you’re on Karedonian soil, which, legally, we ARE at the moment.”
“Damn Skippy!” Larry sniffed as he hitched up his pants irritably, “What d’you think yer doin’, busting into my place?”
“Do you expect us to believe that these are real?” Dr. T waved the MCO release papers at me.
“Hey, phone it in,” I grinned back at her. “Though, if I know the MCO, they’ll just deny that we were ever in custody in the first place.”
Dr. T did something, and I saw some flashing on her visor; she was calling it in. Then she slumped, holstered her gun and scrunched that ‘nertz’ look on her face. “They’re clean.”
“Great!” Misty enthused. “Now, tell Mister Grabby here to get his hands off of me!” she pulled herself away from PowerJack and shot him an icy glare. PowerJack looked offended, but didn’t really have any position to defend himself with.
“NO!” Gryphon screamed as she bustled out from wherever she’d been laying low in the scuffle. “NO! No, they… they stole my power frame! That’s worth a cool quarter million right there, that’s Grand Larceny, no matter where we are! They stole it on American territory, so-”
“WRONG!” I said with more satisfaction than I’m really comfortable with, “That frame is NOT your property, nor the Cadet Crusaders, nor the Empire City Guard’s nor even the City of New York’s! It is the property of the estate of the late Wayne Starkey, aka ‘The Gargoyle’. When Gargoyle died, you never got around to returning his property, did you, Griff? Heck, you never even told his relatives that he was The Gargoyle, did you?”
“So? You still STOLE-”
“Wrong again!” God, I am enjoying this too much. “We repossessed it! We have been retained by Starkey’s estate to recover this incredibly valuable prototype.”
“HOW? How would Wayne relatives even KNOW about it?” Griff demanded, “Wayne hated his relatives, all they ever wanted from him was money?”
“Three guesses,” I grinned.
“I suppose you have a Writ of Replevin?” Paladin asked, arms crossed like he was still trying to be the big hero.
“My lawyer’s bringing it, even as we speak.”
“And you think that that’s going to fly-” he started to scoff.
“With MY lawyer, it will,” I cut him off.
“Paladin?” Gloriana cut in, “Sir? Believe me, with HER lawyer, it WILL fly. Trust me, you do not want to mess with her lawyer. Better that you should tackle the all of the Savage Six by yourself than go two rounds with her lawyer on a legal issue.”
“Yeah,” Tiger Girl agreed with a wistful voice, “From what we saw at Foley Square, he’s a real shark. Just the sort of lawyer Dr. Diabolik WOULD have for his daughter.”
“What?” Griff yelped, “You mean you’re giving Wayne’s armor to those vultures, Laura, Marvin and Horton?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I breezed. “We’re repossessing this frame – and the Gargoyle armor – on condition of their immediate resale to the Empire of Karedonia, through their UN embassy in New York.”
“Really?” Belphy peeped as she popped out the back hatch, “Do you think they’ll let me examine the power plant?”
I overrode Gryphon’s screech of dismay and looked Dr. Thunder square in the eye, “Enough of that. Now, I have some questions for YOU: namely, what do you think you were doing with that blitzkrieg attack? Just now and last afternoon? I can see the Kiddies pulling that kind of crap, but you guys? You’re supposed to be professionals; you’re supposed to be better than that! This whole fight wouldn’t have happened, you hadn’t just charged in that way!”
“Don’t yell at me,” Dr. T griped, “yell at Mister ‘I’m in charge now’,” she finished by jerking a thumb at Paladin, who went all pucker-mouthed at being singled out. “Thanks to some commitments that HE made with that putz Garfield at the DA’s office, Sir Lack-a-lot is in charge of this debacle.”
“Wait a minute…” Glor said, “HE makes the commitment, but you all have to make good on it, and it settles out that HE’S in charge?”
“TELL me about it,” Dr. T grumped.
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Paladin said defensively. “Garfield and I simply agreed that both the Guard and the DA’s office need to make a show of competence, demonstrating in a clear, incontrovertible way that we’re able to cooperate effectively and deal dangerous threats. The DA has been taking a lot of flack from Humanity First!™ about the Guard being some kind of ‘mutant mafia’, and-”
“Humanity First!?” Heavyweight snapped, not too queasy from the grav-mauling she’d taken to have her buttons pushed, “You mean we’ve been busting our chops all day and NIGHT, just so’s you can suck up to Aitch-fucking-ONE!?” While I haven’t exactly studied the Guard’s tactics (memo to self: compile a dossier on the ECG, and analyze their tactics and strategy. Odds are, I’ll have to mix it up with them again, eventually. Put Ringo on the computer search, share out the analysis with the other Seeds, esp. Render and Silver Serpent. Try and keep Nephandus out of the loop. Put the touch on Trevor, see if he has any insights regarding their financial weaknesses), I do recollect that Heavyweight is tight with Dr. Thunder, which may be part of that ‘mutant mafia’ conspiracy theory.
“WHAT?” Captain Quantum yelped, “Dammit, Roy, don’t you remember what happened when we tried to appease H1! by letting that scumbag Adaptor on the team?”
“I do,” Magno-Man grumbled with the voice of a classically trained stage actor. “That slanderous ‘tell-all’ book of his almost cost me my marriage! My daughter Jody still gives me the odd hard look.”
“Yeah, and then Adaptor ups and quits the team, trashes us in the press, hires on with the Knights of Purity, and takes seven of my ideas and PATENTS them!” Dr. T snarled.
Seeing an opening, and, well, it’s not like I don’t owe this Paladin creep (or his buddy Garfield) a little grief, I kicked in, “Then of course, there’s what Garfield’s really after…”
“‘Really after’?” Dr. T echoed, giving me a wary look.
“Hey, when you’re the daughter of a supervillain, you learn to look for these things,” I purred. “Garfield is a political shark; I know this, ‘cause he’s tight buds with the dickwad who tried to use my brother Mal and me as bait for my father, and stuck us in the foster home from HELL. Garfield doesn’t go to the toilet unless there’s something in it for him. This move is a win-win gambit for Garfield. If the Guard or the Cadets bring us in, then the DA’s office gets props by having it understood that their office ordered the action; if you guys DON’T bring us in, well, that just means that superheroes aren’t up to it, and they need to be brought under the control of either the DA’s office or the NYPD. Either way, Garfield does his best to muscle Paladin over there into the leader’s spot. That way, Paladin will owe Garfield his job, making Paladin, and therefore the entire Guard, subordinate to the DA’s office – in other words, to Garfield. Then, knowing that he can, Garfield will pressure Paladin into making one seemingly reasonable, minor concession after another, using-”
“Using each concession as leverage for another, more compromising concession,” Dr. T snarked, “Yeah, Politics 101, welcome to the Big Apple, kid. What makes you think that Garfield’s trying to pull this?”
I jerked a thumb at Gryphon. “Because he’s already tried it and succeeded, and success breeds repetition.”
“WHAT?” Gryphon yelped again, “What are you talking about?”
“Tiger Girl, when Wonder Boy stepped down a couple of years ago, you were the hands-on favorite to become the team leader; instead, Gryphon here gets the nod, despite the fact that there’s some debate as to whether she should be on the team AT ALL in the first place. The Cadet Crusaders is supposed to be a setting where young paranormals can learn how to control their powers in a safe and constructive yada-yada-yada… point being, that Griff here isn’t a paranormal, she’s a power frame pilot.”
“And from the control scheme in this rig, not a very skilled one, either,” Belphy drawled.
Griff blustered that she was chosen for her discipline and skills, which were just as useful as fancy super powers. “That’s nice, Griff,” I drawled dismissively. “Tiger Girl, what was the vote on that? I noticed that IronJack left the team for Sentinel over in Brooklyn a couple of months after that, so the vote must have been very intense.”
“Vote?” Tiger Girl peeped, “What vote? Garfield just came and said that Griff was the leader, and if we didn’t like it, we could get the fuck out.”
“WHAT?” Lioness growled, sounding way too much like a Soccer mom whose kid got benched so the coach’s kid could play.
Fighting a smirk, I told Tiger Girl, “If you’d read your team’s charter with the DA’s office, the leader is clearly stated to be chosen by the membership of the team and only by the membership. Even the DA proper can’t dictate who the leader is, let alone a stinkin’ Assistant DA. But you knew that, didn’t you Griff? You strike me as the sort who needs to be taken seriously like she needs to breathe; being the leader meant that all these paranormals had to take you seriously. But you owed all that to Garfield, so you did whatever he told you to do. Garfield staged a putch on the Cadets, and nobody even noticed.”
“Civil Rights,” Kate droned, “Use ‘em or lose ‘em.”
“WAIT A BLOODY MINNIT!” Hazard snapped, cutting off the riveting political discourse, “Summat smells like a wet dog here!” Lioness tried to convince her that the Guard wasn’t trying anything, but then the penny dropped for Haz, who’d been all but slamming her head against a pylon to get her brain to figure out what she was trying to get. “How’d you all know where we were? Okay, you Guard types followed the Kiddies, but how’d the Cads know where we were?”
Everyone turned to Griff, who said in a small voice, “Well, we got an anonymous tip, and the details were right and-”
“SHIT!” I blurted out, it all coming together too well. I should have seen it, but I was too fucking busy being clever! “Everybody, search the perimeter! Starstone, Splendor, Dr. Thunder, Dynamo, fly Overwatch! Magno-Man, gear up for cybernetic attack units! Dave, park that thing near the, ah, RVs; that’s their prime target! Tower, Heavyweight, back up Dave! He’s the guy in the Scorpion Tank!”
‘What?’ was the general reaction.
“We came here to prevent Larry here from being ripped off by Anti-Champion, looking for weapons and war vehicles,” I snarled as I jumped to the top of one of the loading booms for a better view. They just sort of looked at me blankly.
But Dr. T got my point. “And, with a single phone call, someone arranged for us to spend the last ten minutes beating the crap out of each other.”
“BINGO. So MOVE!”
They started moving, but even so, I heard Dr. T ask Gloriana, “Is she always this pushy?”
“ALWAYS,” Glor answered with a martyred sigh. Glor flew up and lit the scene with one of her light displays.
Aurora levitated up into the air, fingers to her temples in the classic ‘psychic concentration’ pose as her namesake light display danced around her head. Y’know, she really should – no, no, I’m not going to critique her; it’s none of my business, and I might need the edge later. “I’m getting something,” she said… “Over THERE…” she pointed off to the west.
Of course, those in the immediate area all looked, and as if on cue, lights clicked on, and a chorus of electronic voices started croaking ‘EX-TER-MIN-ATE! EX-TER-MIN-ATE! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!’ and Flying Eyes and Nomad Enforcers started swarming in the air.
“Don’t fall for it!” Paladin roared, “That’s just the first feint!” Well, Duh! He must still be stumping after the leadership post.
Looking around for the thrust that the Daleks must be feinting for, I noticed Cousin Larry scrambling for his hatch. Perfect. Putting up my beast-skin, I loped over to the hatch, beating Larry to it by a hair’s breadth. “HEY!” he yelped, clutching at his chest from his reaction to my showing up so suddenly. “Don’t DO that! Now lemme in there, it’s not safe out here!”
“Not to worry, Larry, I’ll protect you,” I assured him, dropping my beast-skin. “I need you out there. I have a theory that I’ve been operating under all night; I’m 90 percent sure, but with something like this, I need to be 100%.”
“Well, if I’m right, Anti-Champion will send units in to get you.”
“ME?” Larry goggled, “WHY?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Sizzle zipped up and sniped, “She does that a lot.”
“Let me OUT of here!” Larry whined.
“Sorry,” I said, not sorry in the least, and not particularly worried that it showed, “But I need you here. If I keep you out of Anti-Champion’s reach, then he’ll keep sending better units to get you, until he and his little buddy come themselves. He’s called all the shots so far; it’s time WE dictated the terms of combat.”
“We?” Sizzle sneered, “Don’t you mean, ‘you’?”
“BELPHY! MISTY! KATE!” I yelled, “I need backup here!”
“Why’s he so important?” Misty asked, “I mean, Anti-Champion’s here for the rides, right? Why not just trash all the cars, so’s there’s nothing for him to steal?”
Cousin Larry went pale around the gills, and gabbled, “Have you no SOUL?”
“Normally, I’d say that that was a great idea, Misty,” I allowed. “But not right now. We need to end this. We need to get Jobe back, safe, sound and in one piece for Gizmatic to pull whatever he’s got up his stainless steel sleeve. If we trash the vehicles, Anti-Champion might just cut his losses and pull back with as much of his war stock as he already has, and concentrate on growing more drow minions.”
I’ll give the opposition this, the meccha-swarm didn’t just plow in, the way that most robotic troops do. Nomad Enforcers flew in reinforcing wings, laying down a path of destruction that herded the acrobats into Dalek formations. Flying Eye units turned on their brights and flew in dizzying patterns that created a visual distorting effect. Spider-like robots (don’t ask me where they came from, I didn’t see anything like them in Shane’s inventory), were jumping around leaving trails of mono-wire, creating denied areas and choking off pathways. Small units of Daleks would coordinate their big blasts to create even bigger concussive blasts, which really played hob with the acrobats. Waves of Flying Eyes and Nomad Enforcers would occasionally spray chemicals that gelled into very sticky adhesives. Occasionally, waves of Daleks and Nomad Enforcers would beam a pile of metal with lasers, not to blast it, but to heat it up to white hot. And that was just the mechanical units.
There were ninja-chicks all over the place, leaping and dodging and planting explosive charges and generally making a mess. One crew of them jumped Rubberboy and tried to use him as another area-denial barrier, and another crew jumped Gryphon to use as a hostage. Bad move on their parts, both times. Rubberboy waited until they were wrapping his arms around some posts, and then he used the ‘snap-back’ factor of his elasticity to throw them around and generally kick some ninja booty. And Griff took out the ninjas holding her with a combination of a hidden booby-trap in her body armor and good old-fashioned dirty fighting. I’m guessing that Griff’s got a lot of experience with being held hostage.
Mind you, our side wasn’t just kicking back and taking this; the Whateley girls, Brainstorm’s crew, the Cadets and the Guard were all dishing it right back at them. But, as the fighting continued, I became increasingly aware that all those area-denial moves that they were using were denying my team, the girls who were helping me guard Larry, any backup. Then the Spider-bots completely isolated our area by creating a completely circular wall that hedged us in. Larry was looking with pathetic longing at the armored hatch to his hideyhole, but I held on tight to him; I needed him right where he was. Then the ninjas came.
Belphy opened up with the Vortex cannon without having to be told (which suggests the unhappy possibility that Belphegor might just have some decent tactical instincts of his own), scattering the ninjas with Misty’s low-G help. But a few ninjas still managed to get through. A few ninjas always manage to get through, that’s just the way it is. They’d have been luckier if they’d been blown away by Belphy. I turned that razor-wire enclosure against them, and used it to turn them into puddles of goo and nibelcamo. Knowing that they’re quick-clones, who’d be dead tomorrow anyway, makes doing that weigh a lot more lightly on my over-burdened conscience.
Thank God, none of the Cadets or Guard saw that, or I’d never hear the end of it, dodgy Diplomatic Immunity or not.
I shredded the razor-wire enclosure, and looked around. The others had done a pretty good job. The place was a wreck, but it was also littered with the wreckage of the Daleks and Nomad Enforcers and Spider-bots. Junkyard had completely reassembled himself (herself? Itself?), and his(?) body was studded with cannons from the Daleks and eyes from the Flying Eyes. Then Junkyard squawked through a commandeered Dalek speaker, *Looks like they liked havin’ their asses kicked; here some of ‘em come for seconds!*
Sure enough, a formation of Daleks was trundling up. “Heads up, people!” Dr. Thunder said, “These things are carrying something! I don’t think that it’s flowers and candy!”
I craned my eyes to get a good look at them, and my normally temperate spine ran chill as I recognized pressurized tanks. “BRAINSTORM!” I yelled, “Surround those things with a PK bubble!”
“What’s in them?”
“I have NO IDEA, and that scares the Hell out of me!”
Dynamo beat Brainstorm to the punch and slammed a hard-light dome over the Daleks, just as they started spraying something straight up. “Okay, Diabolik, you seem to know what that is: what IS it?” Dynamo asked.
“Like I said, I don’t know! But Anti-Champion has Jobe Wilkins on tap, so whatever that is could do anything from make us glow pink to wipe out the entire Atlantic Seaboard!”
“That makes far too much sense,” Dr. T sighed, “Okay Crew, we have a field detox situation. Dynamo, Magno, you know what to do.”
“Excuse me?” Paladin said tetchily, “But, in case you’ve forgotten, _I’m_ in charge here?”
“Dammit, Roy, this is an emergency, we don’t have TIME for your stupid politicking!”
“Oh, this is simply classic! You’re avoiding the issue AGAIN, using an emergency to cover up-”
“Are you still on THAT?”
“‘Still on that’? Do you know how dismissive that is?”
“‘Dismissive’?” Heavyweight snarled, “Oh, that’s Rich, coming from Aitch-One’s new bestest buddy!”
“I was trying to address some very valid concerns by a group of-”
“By a group of fucking Klansmen, dressed up as the PTA!”
“Boon Companions,” Magno-Man tried to calm them down, “yes, we have to work this through, but not in front of the children!”
“LOOK,” Paladin said loudly, completely overriding Magno-Man’s plea for reason, “just because Humanity First! doesn’t like mutants, doesn’t mean that they don’t have valid points-”
*Oh, here it comes again…* Junkyard groaned.
“That ‘Fool’s Fight’ debacle should have been a wake-up call for the superhero community, but instead we’ve just been doing the same things that set the public against us! We’ve blithely ignored the concerns of citizen groups-”
“Citizen groups that bring up the Fool’s Fight and use it like a club, because they’re either Humanity First! fronts or flat-out Knights of Purity shills!” Dr. T overrode him.
“HEY!” Brainstorm yelled, “Can we keep our eyes on the prize here? Like, we got a toxic cloud of whatever it is under glass, and we need to get RID of it? Before it escapes and wipes out everyone for six blocks? Not that anyone would notice, in this neighborhood, but-”
Magno-Man was closely scrutinizing Brainstorm. “Don’t I know you?”
“Look,” I interrupted a potentially very nasty exchange, “we still have a potential toxic chemic incident going down, remember?”
“We’re being lectured on Civic Responsibility by supervillains,” Legionnaire groaned, palming his face. “We’re never gonna live this down…”
*I could kludge together a containment tank,* Junkyard offered.
“No, having it here would only make it a target when Anti-Champion attacks again,” Dr. T said, giving Paladin a ‘don’t make me hurt you’ glare. She adjusted her Thundergun and said, “You gravity manipulators: I want as many Gs on that as you can. Magno-Man, you know what to do. Energy projectors, when I give you the cue, I want you to heat that dome up as much as possible.” That went off pretty much as said, and as the Daleks inside Dynamo’s force bubble glowed white-hot, Dr. T pointed her gun at them, and they suddenly exploded. But Dynamo’s bubble held the explosion in, and he contracted it to something about the size of a bowling ball. The he lifted off, shooting straight up at maybe Mach 4, taking the ball of chemical hurt with him. “Most chemical weapons have a built-in dispersal and neutralization factor,” Dr. T explained. “Between the ionization, the high pressure, the intense heat, the pollution with metal vapors from the Daleks, and the low pressure and cold at the altitudes that Dynamo will release that at, whatever that was should be rendered inert and dispersed over such a wide area that it won’t be any worse than normal New York smog. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best that we can do given the circumstances.”
“LOOK, I am still in charge here,” Paladin insisted, “and I say that we run them in on general principles! They’ve done too much tonight to just-”
“SHUT IT!” Dr. T snapped, “Look, the second thing Diabolik would do, right after calling that lawyer she was talking about, is call the Whateley Alumni Association and lodge a complaint. I take my 401(k) and vacation package through the WWA; I have vacation time coming up soon, and if you think that I’m giving up three weeks in Cabo, just so that you can play the big leader, then you are NUTS!”
“Hey, Feebs,” Legionnaire jeered, “as much fun – or whatever – this exercise in Democracy – or whatever – is, we actually have real problems to deal with?” He pointed off in one direction, and sure enough, there was a procession headed our way. And, No, I don’t mean charge, I mean procession. Like, it was coming at us at a slow pace, like they weren’t hiding, but they didn’t want to set us off by coming too quickly either. Daleks formed a reinforcing chevron as they advanced, and Flying Eyes and Nomad Enforcers were flying overwatch as they spotlighted the real stars of the procession at the very vanguard. Anti-Champion and his female sidekick (read: minder) marched forward, with Anti-Cheesehead holding their trump card in front of him by her wrists: Jobe with her mouth duct-taped shut.
Kate pulled out a digital camera and took a snap of the scene. “What?” she peeped as Gloriana shot her a nasty look. “There are a lot of people who’d pay good money to see a picture of Jobe like that!”
The procession advanced until they were about ten yards away, and then they stopped. “My, I wonder what they want in exchange for Jobe,” Hazard drawled, giving Larry the wolf’s eye. “They’re pulling something; I can feel it in my bones.”
“Of course they are,” I said.
“And you know what it is, and you’re not going to tell us, are you?” Glor said in a flat voice.
Ignoring that snipe, I told Dr. T, “Let me confirm that that IS Jobe, first.” Warily I stepped forward and with an eye towards the wall of high-tech weaponry, I crossed the instant No Man’s Land. As I approached, Anti-Champion held Jobe forward. Jobe was dangling by her wrists, which were cuffed by some very serious shackles, and she had two lengths of duct tape crossed against her mouth. Her hair was a mess, and the Paco Raban outfit she was wearing would never be the same. Jobe struggled against Philo, but she couldn’t get any leverage. She looked at me with big pleading eyes and whimpered pathetically. I reached out and touched her cheek.
As I looked into her eyes, I knew what I had to do. It made me want to yark, just thinking about it, but there was nothing else that I could do. I steeled myself, and did what I had to do. I pulled up my beast-skin and snapped her neck.
You could have heard a pin drop in that yard.
I caught everyone, and I do mean everyone off guard with that one, especially Anti-Champion. I pulled the body from his stunned hands and threw it up in the air. “BRAINSTORM! PK BUBBLE!” The body was almost on the ground before Brainstorm snapped out of it and followed orders, but still, he managed to pull it off.
“JADIS!” Glor screamed, horrified, “What have you DONE?”
Then the corpse started puffing out as though she’d swallowed a ton of popcorn that was just now popping, and it quickly deformed beyond recognition before exploding in a sickening ball of goop. Brainstorm managed to keep it contained, but he asked, “Okay, what’s THAT?”
“Not the point,” I said, “DOGPILE ON THE BAD GUYS!” I used the opening to sucker punch the chick in power armor out of AC’s reach. Philo was caught flat-footed (again) and he was barely able to get in that last ‘Wyle Coyote’ pathetic look before he was buried under a small mountain of multi-colored forms. But ‘Miss Anti-Champion’ was a lot quicker on the uptake and took up into the air as quickly as whatever it was that she was using as propulsion system would take her.
Most of the energy projectors went right after her, but Dr. Thunder came up to me and demanded, “What was THAT?”
“A quick-clone, with some sort of biological weapon trap implanted,” I explained. “I think that the idea was that they’d let us ‘rescue’ Jobe, and when ‘she’ was safely among us, she’d blow, splattering that all over those among us without chemical protection, forcing a mass hostage situation on us.”
“Wanda!” she yelled at Junkyard, “Make that containment tank you were talking about earlier. That ‘Brainstorm’ guy is having problems keeping that from leaking.” Then she turned her attentions back to me. “And how did you figure that out?”
I smirked, “You’ve never had to deal with Jobe for any length of time. Their hostage was frightened and passive; just the thing to inspire protective reactions and an urge to rescue her. If they’d had the real Jobe, she’d have been giving me shit about taking my time in freeing her, even through the tape. I figure that the ninja clones are force-grown genetic copies of Jobe, so it wasn’t that hard to figure out that they’d never expose their trump card that way.”
Now that the battle lines were clearer, and AC’s mechanical forces didn’t have us surrounded and off guard, our ad hoc alliance had the tactical advantage. Magno-Man alone was wiping up the place with them. Anti-Champion was putting up a damned good fight, but even as beaten up as we were, we had the numbers on him, and he was taking a pounding in return. ‘Miss Anti-Champion’ was zipping around, trying to find some way of turning the tide again, but between Glor, Splendor, Starstone and Captain Quantum, she was outnumbered, outgunned and outclassed. Brainstorm and Junkyard were getting that biowar goop put away safely. “What do you know?” I said, relieved, “It looks like we’re finally putting the last nails in this coffin.”
Yes, Dear Reader, I actually SAID that. I don’t know why; normally, I know better than to tempt fate that way.
It looked like Anti-Champion had had enough of getting whaled on; he’d broken away and he was flying away with all due haste. Unfortunately, that was at just precisely the moment that Dynamo got back from lifting that first bioweapon up into the outer stratosphere, and Dynamo got the, admitted perfectly reasonable, notion of jumping AC before he got the fuck away.
NOT Dynamo’s brightest move ever.
Dynamo tackled AC in midair and knocked him down to the ground. They started mixing it up, and it was shaping up to be Philo’s last stand. Then Philo got Dynamo in a grapple, and a bunch of cables erupted from Philo’s harness and wrapped around Dynamo. AC and Dynamo crackled with energy for a moment, and then Dynamo slumped into Anti-Champion’s arms. The cables zipped back into his harness, and Philo started giving out with Standard Supervillain Laugh #2 (the roar of vicious triumph) “AT LAST!” he bellowed, “FINALLY! FINALLY, I have the POWER!”
“Oh crap,” I bleeped.
“What just happened?”
“Gizmatic designed a bunch of Anti-Champion’s gear with the purpose of draining the Champion Force from Champion, so he could study it,” I explained. “But Philo was never able to pull it off – I think he finally pulled it off. He’s got the Dynamo Force. Either that, or he tapped into the Power of Greyskull.”
“Okay, how do we get it BACK from him?”
“You’re asking ME?”
‘Miss Anti-Champion’ swooped down and said something to him that I couldn’t catch, probably she was trying to get him to calm down and get down to business or something. But Philo, who apparently was one of those ‘gets drunk on power’ type losers, yelled, “NO! I don’t NEED you anymore! I don’t need Gizmatic! I don’t need Anyone!” and backhanded her into a pylon, knocking her out.
Now, I’d love to describe the battle in detail, with every cool move and desperate ploy set out for maximum drama. But I can’t; it was all sort of one big ‘HULK SMASH!’ scene with everyone sort of throwing themselves at him and just bouncing off like ping-pong balls. Heck, the best that I was able to do was squirt him with the Pepper Spray option from the GizSpritz, and I did better than most. The only ones who were really affecting him were Kate and Nightchylde, who were trying to bind him with chains of Erebeal force, but he was tearing through those like they were twine. And I’d love to say that I was calm and resolute in the face of all this, taking it all in with cool calculation, putting my remarkable intellect to the task and not being found wanting.
Right. As if.
To be honest, it was Belphy who came trotting up to me in her power frame and asked, “So, how do we get that bloody plate onto Philo?”
Plate? What plate? Oh, the PLATE!
“Doctor Thunder?” I rushed up to her, “We’ve got something that will put Anti-Champion down, but we’ve got to immobilize him for a minute or so! Tell Junkyard to-” I stopped as I saw Anti-Champion reduce Junkyard to… well… junk… with a single backhand. “Okaaayyy… let’s coordinate Heavyweight, Misty and Gravity Gun-” that was ditched as Anti-Champion threw Heavyweight (at her heaviest, from the way she hit) into Tower, taking them both down. I pulled out my phone and got in touch with Dave. “Dave? Dave? Here’s what I need you to do – land that thing right on top of Anti- Dave? Dave, what are you doing?” the Scorpion Tank lifted off and headed for Manhattan at Warp 2. “DAVE, YOU GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW!” Fnark, no use, all I could see of the Scorpion Tank was its afterburners in the dark.
“Well, that’s what you get for hiring supervillains to do a superhero’s job,” Dr. T said, not helping in the slightest. “Okay, so there’s no slick trick to put him down easy. So, we do it the hard way. EN GARDE! Okay, people, on Three, we all rush as one, somebody should get him down! One… Two…”
Anti-Champion was crouched, ready for our charge. Not that he was presenting a low target; he was all pumped up and Hulked out with the power. But our charge was pre-empted by the loud sound of an air horn. There was a flash of bright light moving from behind us, and the Scorpion Tank came roaring past us at Mach Five. Dave punched out with the emergency ejector seat at the last second, and the tank caught Philo flat-footed (again), hitting him at at least a hundred miles per hour. Even with the Dynamo Force, getting hit by a ten-ton tank doing 100 mph plus has got to hurt. The tank plowed Philo into another of Larry’s projects, something that looked like that Jawa transport from the first Star Wars movie, and they both went up in a classic Hollywood explosion.
Dave hit his power belt at the very arc of the ejector seat’s trajectory and landed powered up. Just as Anti-Champion did the ‘walk out of the explosion’ trope, Dave charged at him and it was clobberin’ time. Dave put Philo down, and then the rest of us were all over the big goon like a heavy sweat. “Belphy! I need you to patch the plate into Anti-Creep’s Force Extraction doo-hickey! It’s the thing with the cables! Dr. T! Get Dynamo over here!”
“What are you doing?” Paladin demanded.
“We’re going to try to reverse what Philo did to Dynamo, and get the Force back with him.”
“How do we know-”
“If she was going to hijack the Dynamo Force, she wouldn’t have let us know that she could extract it,” Dr. T growled, with ‘idiot’, unsaid but universally understood.
Collectively, we had Philo down on his face and his cape pulled up in a rather suspect looking fashion. Belphy had the plate open and was furiously fiddling with it. Philo had regained consciousness and was fighting us with everything that he had – which, lucky for us, didn’t include leverage. After five unsuccessful attempts, Belphy finally slammed the plate home into the receptacle at the back of Philo’s power belt, and it kicked in. There was the crackling of energy, the buzz of power, and Philo sagged in our grips, even as Dynamo jerked to alertness, like someone had thrown his ‘On’ switch.
As Junkyard assembled a full-body restraint for Philo, Starstone frog-marched ‘Miss Anti-Champion’ up, holding her with her arm up behind her back in a very uncomfortable looking position. “I caught little miss sneaky-pants here trying to get away,” she explained. She held up what appeared to be some sort of jeweled bracelet. “She gave me a real nasty fight, until I got this off of her. She uses it to power that suit.”
“Thanks, Starstone,” I said, quickly taking the bracelet before it could become an issue.
Starstone started to complain, but Gryphon, thankfully (never thought I’d thank Gryphon for anything) stepped in and said, “Finally! Now we can see who the real villain behind of all this is!” Then she pulled the helmet off…
…revealing an angular face of Elven beauty with black skin, white hair and large falsely-innocent lavender eyes.
“JOBE?” Belphy, Gloriana, Hazard, Misty and Sizzle echoed.
“Sure!” I breezed.
“You were expecting maybe Old Man Jenkins?” Kate droned.
“And she would have gotten away with it too, if not for you meddling kids,” Dr. T said with a lopsided smirk.
Jobe opened her mouth and started to say something, but I cut her off. “OF COURSE, there’s more to it than that.” I shooed Starstone away and felt around the back of the collar of Jobe’s suit. As I rummaged, I whispered in a sharp ear, “Dummy up and play along.” With a sleight of hand, I made like I was undoing a clasp and produced that Obedience Collar that I’d gotten from Shane. “One Electro-magnetic Induction Cerebral Obedience Inducement Collar. Designed to stimulate an ‘unquestioning obedience’ response in the wearer.”
“And… you already knew that?” Dr. T said with her arms crossed and a ‘give me a screaming break’ look on her face.
“More like I had a really good hunch, and I didn’t want to muddy the waters with what was, after all, just a guess. Hey, it was obvious that Anti-Champion was using Jobe’s DNA for his ninjas, and very sophisticated chemical and biological agents; that meant that Jobe was on the job. And the only way that Jobe would follow the orders of a yutz like Anti-Champion, was that she had no choice.” I nudged Jobe.
“Oh, it was horrible!” she offered lamely.
“Are we really supposed to be taken in by this shabby-”
“What you’re supposed to do is recognize Karedonian sovereignty, which has been extended to this annex,” a voice said from the side.
En masse, we turned to face a short, stocky, yet very well-dressed and familiar figure. “PARKY!”
“Well, Jadis, I’m glad to see that you’ve managed to complete your brief with Emperor Wilkins. Well, almost, anyway. You still have to get the young lady in question to the Embassy.”
“WHAT?” Gryphon yelped and she started to complain that we were supervillains, but she realized that she’d played that card too often and it wasn’t working. So, she tried to cover it by asking, “What about my frame? Hey, that is MY power frame, and-”
“That frame isn’t your property, and it never was,” Parky said frostily. “It is to remain here until bonded agents from the Escrow service arrive to take custody of it. Oh, and you can expect them to show up at your headquarters with the proper writs for the Gargoyle power frame as well. Jadis, why don’t you and your friends get to your limousine? We may be here for a while. Now,” he glowered in the general direction of the Guard, “which one of you is in charge of this moveable Civil Rights violation?”
With a vengeful smirk, Dr. T pointed at Paladin, who had that ‘oh shit, here comes a train’ look on his face.
There was the expected amount of shit when I told Brainstorm and his crew to get into the limo, them being wanted supervillains and all. Parky paved that over with such little effort that it barely warrants mentioning it. The last we heard of that whole scene as we drove off was Cousin Larry screaming about the state of his yard.
What with the eight of us Whateley girls plus the four adult supervils, we were packed in pretty tight. We rode in awkward silence for a while, until Jobe whined petulantly, “So. This is how it ends, Jadis. After all we’ve been through together, you turn on me and hand me over to my father.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Brainstorm said, all but blurting out ‘Objection!’ “You hired us to help you find this girl, as in ‘rescue’. We may be supervillains, but I thought that I made it clear that we don’t do wetwork!” and his compadres pretty much backed him up. There was a pretty strong support on this from the girls, too.
“Chill out, everybody,” I said as confidently as I could, stuck in a small enclosed place with eleven super-powered people who were suddenly getting nasty on me. “You didn’t hire on for wetwork, and neither did we. Jobe, the rest of your family is probably pretty pissed at you, but your father wants you alive for some reason. I think that this whole ‘disownment’ thing was just some sort of psycho-Darwinian shtick to see whether turning into a girl has dulled your edge or something like that. He’s the sort of dim-witted chauvinist who would think something like that.”
“Changed into a girl?” Dave asked, uncomfortable.
“Long story, you don’t really want to know,” I said with authority. “Anyway, I’m reasonably sure that your nice double-play will impress on him that down where it counts, you’re still the vicious little rattlesnake that you’ve always been. Given the tsuris that Philo’s given your dad over the years, he’s got to be impressed by you taking over Anti-Champion the way you did.”
“Yes, how did you manage that, Jobe?” Glor asked with a touch of morbid curiosity.
Jobe started to answer, but to spare the assembled one of her prolonged self-glorifying spiels, I cut her off. “My guess is that she tapped into Philo’s hypochondria and convinced him that his cybernetics were malfunctioning. Once she got her hot little hands on his wiring, Jobe pretty much had Anti-Champion by the, ah, what he thinks with.”
“His balls,” Kate droned.
“How did you figure that out?” Starstone asked.
“Don’t ask,” Sizzle groaned, “we only have so much time on this trip.”
“Jobe’s ninja clones,” I continued, ignoring the peanut gallery. “Jobe probably subverted their natural healing factor to help them grow more quickly, but there was no way that she could actually train them, so she simply did a quickie brain template transfer; nothing too complex, just basic reflexes and training. But there was nothing to give them actual tactical awareness. So, she implanted them with cheapo interface chips – which she probably got on that first raid on Cousin Gladys’ place – and patched them into a central computer via wireless, had that run macros for them. Which explains their well-coordinated but otherwise rather lackluster overall performance. But every so often, they’d whip out some really killer moves. And so did Anti-Chimp. Remember? Mostly he was just Philo, trying to power his way through the fight, but then, every so often, he goes totally badass. During those actions, they were being directly controlled by Jobe; she was playing them like video game characters.”
Belphy shot Jobe a very dirty look. “I thought that you had this big bugaboo about ‘Free Will’, and how you loathed the idea of suppressing another’s mind?”
“I didn’t suppress Anti-Clod’s free will,” Jobe said mulishly. “I just overrode his motor-control.” We all just gave her THAT look. “WHAT?”
“What was this ‘double-play’ that you were talking about?” Gravity Gun asked me.
“Oh, the whole ‘assault on the Embassy’ bit was a cover for Jobe’s real plan. I wondered why Anti-Champion was so intent on getting it all done in one night. He had no reason to, and it was a major tactical risk, trying to get everything they needed in one night. But when I heard about the attacks on the various family members, it all made sense; the only reason to blood those family members, without actually hurting them, was that it was the whole point of the entire exercise; I mean, we’re talking about Jobe Wilkins, the master of biological warfare!”
“Bio warfare?” Brainstorm asked, a little squicked at the idea. “What’s that got to do with doing all in one night?”
“Jobe wanted to do it all in one night, so that she could ‘escape’ and return to Whateley. The raids were just something to get the Wilkinses out of their homes and into places where Jobe could get at them without getting the Cops involved. So Jobe could infect them with a Hostage Virus.”
“How… do you hold a virus hostage?” Misty asked, eyes crossed in confusion at trying to visualize it.
“You don’t hold the virus hostage, Misty,” I explained. “Quite the opposite. You infect someone with a disease that you have a cure for – or more likely, just a treatment, something that will deal with the symptoms while not getting rid of the cause. Then you threaten to not give them the treatment when they’re puking up their guts. With hostage viruses, the first symptoms are usually very spectacular and uncomfortable – upchucking, rashes, fevers, chills, spasms, like that – but not actually dangerous. They’re just to get your hostage’s attention. When they’re worried, really worried, then you start turning the screws. People will do almost anything, when they’re sick. My guess is that Gladys, Millie, Stephanie and Shawn have all been infected, and when she has her plans ready, Jobe was going to use them against her father. Exactly HOW, I don’t know.” I turned to Jobe. “But Jobe would need a place to brew up the treatment, a place where she had the equipment and notes for the treatment, and security; in other words, the Bio-Devisor Lab in the Workshop, back at Whateley.”
“Why not just stay with Anti-Champion at his lair?” Glor asked.
“And stay with PHILO?” Jobe bleated, “He’s even more pathetic in private, if that’s humanly possible!”
“Jobe,” Glor said like a severe mother, “you’d better have the cure for that virus, and before the symptoms begin to surface! You’re in enough trouble as it is, young lady!”
“Why?” Jobe grumped, “I didn’t infect anyone.”
“What?” I peeped.
“Really, Sherlock Homely,” Jobe sneered, “did you honestly think that I’d have to scratch someone to infect them? I am JOBE WILKINS! If I’d gone with the Hostage Virus idea, I could have infected my entire family with any of a dozen vectors, with sixteen degrees of separation, without infecting anyone else, from the back of a Seven-Eleven! To THINK that I’d try anything that crude!” <humph!>
“Okay…” I said to cover my embarrassment, “Then why were you so hot to get your hands on Cousin Larry? My tactic only worked because I thought that you your plans depended on getting at Larry; and it worked. So why were you hot to get Larry?”
“I…” Jobe faultered. “I was going to clone him.”
“I needed a fresh, viable sample of Larry’s DNA,” Jobe grated out through clenched teeth. “I was going to clone him and the others, and through them, gain access to the other members of the family, to arrange a nice quiet coup d’état, at the next family gathering. Or… something like that. I was going to grown them to maturity in the Lab at Whateley, and… To be honest, the ‘Hostage Virus’ idea just… never occurred to me.” Then she reached into some sort of cache in her armor, pulled out her PDA and started making notes.
“WHAT?” I rattled the interior of the limo with my outrage, “Do you mean to tell me THAT was your big brilliant plan? That… mess? Mal could come up with a better plan than that! Lindsay could come up with a better plan! Hell, Jay-Arm could come up with a better plan!” That last one really stung.
“Hey!” Jobe blurted out, “I’d just been disowned and thrown in JAIL, and then kidnapped by a barely functional sub-moron! I was UPSET!”
“You were upset…” Kate droned. “Jobe, you’d better tear up your membership card in the Boys’ Club, because after citing the ‘I was upset’ excuse, they’re never letting you in the boys’ locker room again.”
Misty managed to cut through the pretty universal disdain that was gunking up the air in that compartment by asking, “Hey Jobe, where’d you get that power bracelet thingie anyway?”
“I’d say that she got it from Anti-Champion,” Hazard answered for her. “I remember Jobe saying that Philo was always on the lookout for some new implant or gadget or trinket to put himself over the mark. I’d say that he probably has a rather impressive collection of nasty gimcracks and what all. Like that Vandervecken engine they used.”
“Yes, and speaking of that bracelet-” Starstone started to say.
But Sizzle cut her off with a snicker, “It’s a good thing that it was only a bracelet, Jobe. If he’d given you a power ring, he might claim that you two were engaged!”
Starstone tried to say something again, but this time Gravity Gun cut her off, “Okay, but how did you manage to adjust that power armor to fit you? I mean, it takes months and a lot of precision work to get those things trimmed down from a pre-set size.”
“What work? He had this suit in my size, just hanging around that shabby dump he uses for a lair!” Jobe insisted.
“He had a suit of power armor?” Glor honked, “In a size Two Junior? For a female? In his colors?”
We looked around at each other, absorbing the implications of it, and Misty summed it up for all of us with a pained, “eww!”
“Please!” Sizzle snapped, “You’re all forgetting the important question: Jobe, do you have your AMEX card in there anywhere?”
Jobe shot Darcy a frigid look, and as if to cleanse her mind of that crass comment, she turned to me and asked, “So, what was it?” Huh? “You obviously knew that it was me all the time. What tripped me up? It was the PK cocoon trap that I used on you at Aunt Millie’s wasn’t it? It was the same thing that I whipped up with Cheese, when I had to take out that bloody-minded gorilla Counterpoint. That’s what tipped you off, right?”
“No,” I sighed, “I admit that I was still in the dark at that point.”
“It was when I couldn’t bring myself to blast Belphy, when she chased us out of Shane’s place, wasn’t it?”
“You did? I didn’t know about that.”
“Really?” Belphy peeped, incredulous and delighted. “You couldn’t bring yourself to blast me, despite the fact that I was trying to catch you in a full power frame?”
“Blast my perfect drow girl?” Jobe replied, with what I think passes for a romantic look in her eye, “How could I?” Despite her Belphegor mental programming, apparently Belphy was female enough to completely melt over that, and she reached over and hugged Jobe, and it got kind of sticky there for a bit. Then Jobe broke the embrace and asked, “So, what DID tip you off?”
I glared icily at Jobe and said in my most withering tones, “It was just after you got away from the Brooklyn Sentinels. You left a red satin pair of bib overall short-shorts behind. Jobe, they were red satin bib overall short-shorts! Jobe, only YOU would pick something THAT tacky in the first place, only to leave them behind when you read the label and saw that they were 30% Dacron!”
By this time, the limo had pulled up in front of the Karedonian embassy. I got out, reached back in, grabbed Jobe by her handle, and dragged her up the stairs by it. “Ow-ow-ow-ow!” Jobe yipped as she tripped along, wide-eyed, after me. I managed to keep her off-balance until we got up the stairs. “HEY! That HURT!” she sulked, cradling her offended lobe.
“Good,” Sizzle grumped.
The rest of the crew followed me up the stairs, and the Embassy guards let us through the Security measures when I showed them my Diplomatic Credentials. The Embassy Charge d’Affairs took us to the huge double doors of a room and told us to wait, as the family was assembling.
“Ah howcum you insisted that we come?” Brainstorm asked. “Just pay us the back half, and we’ll be on our merry way.”
“I don’t have enough cash on me to pay you the amounts I promised, and my family has a tradition of treating our people right,” I lied. Okay, my father has a reputation for treating his people right, and I’d like for it to become a tradition. And I did have enough cash (Dr. Venus had about a hundred grand in her ‘oh shit’ stash, and Parky gave me that fifty grand), I just wanted the Wilkinses to pay for it. “Normally, I’d just write out our agreed price and point you at the Charge d’Affairs, but the Total Dick gene is double-dominant in the Wilkins DNA, so I’m going to have to call Gizmatic on it.”
“Hello?” Jobe pouted, still fondling her ear, “I AM right here, you know?”
“Of course I know; you’re my point-making example, going both ways.”
Then, finally, the double doors opened and we were invited in. I was expecting to face Uncle Ralph and Aunt Millie and Cousin Shane and maybe a few of the other Wilkinses, face-to-face. Instead, it was the ‘Trial of Zod’ scene from the first Superman movie. Gizmatic, Jobe’s mother, Uncle Ralph, Aunt Millie, Shane and about twelve other Wilkinses glowered down at us from screens lining the walls of the chamber. It was like being judged by a tribunal of ferrets.
I was hit by a spotlight from above, and Gizmatic (still rocking that bow tie) shrilled, [Agent Diabolik, give your report!]
I stepped forward two steps and said, “First of all, I’m NOT your agent; I’m just doing this as a favor, and to keep the collateral damage to a minimum.” That being settled, (hey, I do not want Joe Wilkins thinking that I’m an asset that he can call on any time that he wants!), I ran down the events after Jobe was taken by the Empire City Guard, and leading up to the big fracas at Cousin Larry’s. I upped the drama quotient by about 30%, because nobody wants to be woken up at 4 in the morning for trivial matters, and, hey, in front of this crowd, we all needed to look good. Even Jobe, for being crafty and dangerous. Hell, especially Jobe.
Gizmatic took this in with judicial gravitas, and then spot-lit Brainstorm and his crew. [And who are these, and what are they doing here, intruding on Imperial affairs?]
“Ralph gave me the authority to hire support. I promised them pay, and Wilkins, you’d better damn well cough up the scratch, like NOW,” I quoted a sum double what I’d settled with Brainstorm and his crew, and shot Gizmatic a glare that dared him to quibble over it. (Hey, it’s not MY money, and, like I said, I don’t want Gizmatic thinking of me as a minion)
[What?] Gizmatic bleated. Then he scowled at Ralph and demanded, [You authorized that much?]
As the Wilkines proper nattered at each other over the cost and other matters, Mrs. Wilkins leaned forward and spotlit Belphy. [Are you Belphoebe? Oh, you are just so cute! I’m Jobe’s mother, and I’ve been hearing about my new daughter – or granddaughter – or whatever it is you are to Jobe. We have got to get together and know each other better! And where did you get those cute shoes?]
“CAN WE GET TO THE FRICKIN’ POINT HERE?” Jobe yelled, patience shot.
[The POINT being your wanton attacks on Wilkins family properties!] A middle-aged Wilkins female (I think it was Gladys) shrilled. [You are a THREAT to everyone in the family!]
“You got that right,” I said in a flat voice. Then I spelled out my ‘Hostage Virus’ theory (hey, the Wilkinses respect effectiveness, if nothing else, and Jobe’s clone plot was the product of desperation. Nobody respects desperate), with the implication that if concessions were made, Jobe would give them the cure.”
[So, Gladys, Millie and Shane got bit by one of Jobe’s bugs,] another Wilkins said in a flat voice. [Why should the rest of us care? None of the rest of us got infected.]
“That you KNOW about,” I said with a Diabolik grin on my face. “Remember, this is Jobe we’re talking about; she could infect any one or ALL of you, and you’d never know it until you started coughing up blood.”
“Nice Try, Beast,” Jobe whispered into my ear, “but it’s not working. I hope that’s not your ace up your sleeve?”
“Nope, but here goes,” I whispered back. “But that’s not the thing that you all should be worried about,” I said in a louder voice. “And you really should be worried. You really DO want to recognize that the young lady here IS indeed Jobe Wilkins, Joe Wilkins son and heir to the throne and all that. What you should be worrying about…” pause for dramatic effect, “is that Jobe knows how Karedonia’s Magma Management system works.”
“What does THAT have to do with-” Jobe hissed before stopping, her blank expression and wide eyes signaling that the penny had dropped. She knew the secrets of Gizmatic’s doomsday weapon. She could use that against him.
Oh Fuck, I just gave Jobe Wilkins the key to possibly killing millions of people. After going through all this, I may wind up having to kill the little monster, to keep her from destroying the Caribbean. Somebody just shoot me.
That revelation took the wind out of the rest of Clan Wilkins’ sails, except for Mrs. Wilkins who had an ‘and your point IS?’ look on her face and Gizmatic himself, who was leering like a wolf. [Yes, yes, a masterful point… if he… I mean SHE survives. But how can you be so BLIND as to call this my SON? This person doesn’t have the Wilkins face or features. Jobe, you admitted that your genetic alteration means that you no longer have any Wilkins genes. You aren’t a son, and being a drow-elf-whatever, you aren’t even human anymore! How can you POSSIBLY be Prince Jobe? The only possible answer is: you cannot!] WHY do I keep expecting Wilkinses to react like sane, normal people?
“THAT was your Ace up your sleeve?” Jobe whisper-hissed into my ear.
“He trumped my Ace. Hey, they can’t ALL be gems. I never thought that he’d be that ruthless, not in front of all the relations.”
“Why not?” Jobe sneered, “Those are the people you really WANT to know how ruthless you can be!” then she turned to face her father’s image, “You LIED to me! You told me my place in the succession was secure!”
“Are you sure about that?” I asked in a whisper, “I mean, do you remember the exact wording of what he said?”
“No, why would I do that?” she whispered back, “I don’t have your anal, obsessive-compulsive need to play hair-splitting lawyer games.”
[No, as I recall,] Gizmatic said with the air of a cat playing with a mouse, [I said that we’d stand behind you. Not that your place in the succession to the Throne was secure.]
“THAT’S why you should pay attention to the exact wording.”
[And We ARE standing behind you, Jobe!] Gizmatic said with what I think he thought was a look of paternal affection. Hard to say with an anthroform stoat. [Now I understand we all have our little setbacks, so I think I’ve come up with the perfect way to solve your problems. You need diplomatic immunity, Karedonian funding, identity, recognition, all the things that come with the Wilkins name. Well… there’s an easy way to gain that name once more, and you’re now perfectly suited for it. The easiest way for any girl to become part of the fabulous Wilkins family is through marriage! You should know that arranged marriages are very common in royal families. We’ll just marry you to the next in succession. And I’m sure you’ll be compatible! After all, you’ve got so much in common! We’ll be just one big happy family again, now that I’ve got your mother repaired.]
Jobe’s face dropped and she looked around at the male faces. “Ah, Dad? Exactly WHO is the next in succession? I, ah, don’t recall that ever being an issue?”
[Oh, isn’t it obvious? He’s like a SON to me! Not to worry, Jobe Ann-]
“Jobe Ann? My name’s Jobe Arthur.”
[Not anymore it’s not! Don’t worry, we’ll sort out all the little details when you come down to Karedonia for the Betrothal Party. And, now that we’ve got that settled, there’s some tedious paperwork to take care of.] The Charge d’affaires came in and handed Jobe a clipboard.
[Oh, just the nuisancey details. When you sign that, you agree to the marriage and all attendant terms, you agree to the pre-nuptial agreement-]
[-and the Security Agreement, and all like that. In return, you’re recognized as being the Imperial Fiancée, as a member in standing of the Imperial Family pro tem – I think that’s the term – with the restoration of your Diplomatic status, your allowance, backing at dear old Whateley, and all like that.]
“What about my patents?” Jobe said sharply.
[Meh,] the Imperial PITA grumped, [Why not? Consider it a pre-Marriage gift. But you DO have to agree to produce at least one heir to the throne. And by ‘produce at least one heir’, I mean GIVE BIRTH! I don’t want you trying to foist another of your genetic constructs off as my grandchild. You were always so interested in Biology,” he sniffed, “let’s see how you handle it without a test tube. And I know that once you start dropping kids, you’ll want ‘em grown from 100% genuine Wilkins sperm. It’s the richest kind!] All geniality left Joe Wilkins’ face. [Sign, and you’re an Imperial Princess, with everything that comes with that; don’t sign, and you’re homeless, penniless mutant criminal who’ll be handed over to the MCO as a matter of routine. This deal is on the table for ten seconds.]
Gizmatic started to count down, but Jobe held up a restraining hand and bolted over to one wall, where she promptly yarked up all over Cousin Stephanie’s revulsed image. Then she staggered back to the Charge and said in a groggy voice, “Just… gimme the damned contract, I’ll sign…” The Charge handed her the clipboard, and with the air of someone doing gastrointestinal surgery on herself, she started to sign the marriage contract.
[Remember to use your proper middle name, Jobe Ann,] Gizmatic reminded her. Jobe silently scowled, crossed something out and finished signing.
As Jobe finished that, Belphy stepped forward very unsurely, and asked, “uhmmm… If Jobe’s a princess again… what does that make me? Where do I fit into all of this?”
“Oh right,” Jobe said disgustedly as she affixed her thumbprint to the contract, “it’s all about YOU.”
[That IS a good question,] Mrs. Wilkins allowed, [Joe, what ARE we going to do about her? I mean, her DNA is identical to Jobe’s. That’s mean something, doesn’t it?]
But Gizmatic already looked bored. [Yeah, whatever, there IS some kind of connection, I guess. We’ll call her an Imperial Princess, too, I guess. Whatever. We’ll thrash it out when they come down for the Betrothal thing.]
[WHAT?] Stephanie shrilled, [You’re letting THAT runamuck pile of laboratory spilloff into the succession? You’ve never even considered letting ME into the succession!]
That set the various Wilkinses off on a weasel-storm of whining, wheedling, recriminations, accusations, finger-pointing and general all-around poor behavior that filled the chamber with the sort of language that you’d never hear on Krypton. With a compassion that I don’t really associate that much with Karedonia, the Charge d’affaires took pity on us and escorted us out of the chamber. But once we were safely outside the natter-zone, I said, “Hold on, we still need to talk directly to the Ambassador; there’s the none-too-minor matter of getting these four guys paid?”
The Charge reached into his jacket and pulled out a thick envelope. He handed me the envelope. YOU handle that. This is with the understanding that this night’s developments won’t turn up on Twitter or Facebook or MySpace?”
“These guys are Pros,” I said, taking the envelope.
“I wasn’t talking about THEM.” He held onto the envelope and stared me straight in the eyes.
“We can’t afford to have our affairs out on the internet, anymore than you can,” I said firmly. He nodded, and released the envelope. As we were escorted out, I did a quick-count of the bills in the envelope, and estimated that there was roughly a hundred thousand dollars. Well, nice to see that this won’t be coming out of my purse.
We squeezed back into the limo, and I had Javier drive us back to where we picked up Brainstorm and his people. I paid out forty grand to each of them, which ate up both the hundred grand I’d just been given and all of the fifty that Parky had given me. Fortunately, I still had Dr. Venus’ ‘oh shit’ money. Then I peeled off another forty. “Dave? Star turn, all the way. The rest of you earned your money and more, but ramming that Scorpion Tank into Anti-Champion? You earned this.” I handed him the last forty. “If my name means anything as a reference for another job, use it.”
They got out and we drove off, leaving them to their lives. Javier drove us home (well, at least MY home). As the girls staggered out of the limo (hey, it was going on three in the morning, we’d been running hard all night, and we’d all been in multiple fights. Teenagers or not, mutants or not, beat doesn’t begin to describe it), I pulled 30 grand out of the last envelope of money. Then I handed the rest to Javier. “Here’s your tip.”
As Javier drove off, Hazard asked me, slightly dazed, “Did you just?”
“Give the driver a tip of at least thirty thousand dollars? Yes.”
“Because he knows that he tells anyone about any of this, the amount of that tip will come out, that they’ll tell the IRS, or his boss, possibly his wife, and then he’ll have to share it with at least one of them.”
“Beast, you do know that there are girls right here who did a lot more than that driver did, who need money. Not all of us have multi-millionaire supervillain fathers. Some of us have fathers who can barely make the bleedin’ RENT.”
“I know Haz,” I yawned as I divided out the thirty grand into six bundles of five grand and doled it out to her, Belphy, Glor, Kate, Misty and Sizzle, “but we’re high school kids; having much more cash on hand than this will only cause problems.”
I was starting to droop, right along with everyone else, so let’s fast-forward through Nanny Pierson’s ‘where were you all night’ lecture, to the next day.
* * * * *
It was well past closing time, but Superbad’s clientele had a habit of coming in for ‘one last drink’, either in celebration or commiseration, at very late hours. Grace served Brainstorm, Starstone, Gravity Gun and Dave beers in one of the security shielded back rooms that George rented out. Gravity Gun was digging through the packets GizTech with the enthusiasm of a kid opening Christmas presents.
“And you wanted to stay home and watch the Rangers game,” Brainstorm scoffed as he paused in knocking back a celebratory beer. He took a deep swig, cleared his mouth and continued. “Let’s see: we bargained for twenty-five grand each, but we wound up getting FORTY-five grand each, except for the guy who got EIGHTY-five grand,” he hefted his glass to Dave, who returned the toast by raising his own. Brainstorm paused. “I wonder why she doubled the money? I mean, we’d done the job; there was nothing in it for her.”
“Hey, it wasn’t HER money,” G-Gun pointed out. “People get very generous – with other people’s money.”
“I think she was sticking it to Gizmatic,” Starstone said. “I mean, she was pretty cheesed off at the entire Wilkins family. And can you blame her?” Starstone shuddered.
“I hear that,” G-Gun agreed. “But it’s hard to completely hate someone who produces such great gear! I mean, look at this! A GizRust122! Guaranteed to cause any iron-based object of less than three tons’ mass to a pile of RUST in less than four minutes!”
“AND, on top of getting more than I’d earn in two years at Kinko’s© that nobody knows about, not the IRS, not Iron Mike, not the Cops, not our agents,” Brainstorm breezed, “we got bags full of uber-tech that’s got to be worth at least four MIL – if we decided to sell it.”
“Sell it?” G-Gun bleated.
“Actually, Marco, it might be a good idea to pass along a few grand to the cops,” Starstone said.
“True that,” Dave said. “You just know they’re gonna hear about it one way or another, and the boys on the pad are gonna want a slice.”
Marco grunted with annoyance, pulled out the wad of cash, peeled off five grand from the roll, and threw it on the table. The others grudgingly followed suit, and Starstone picked up the wad, as it was understood that she’d handle paying off the boys who handled the pickups for the pad. “Hey Marla,” Brainstorm said, “What’s that on your wrist?”
“Isn’t that that powerstone bracelet that you took off the Wilkins babe?” G-Gun said in the voice of dread. “How did you get that?”
“I took it from Dr. Thunder when she was distracted by Diabolik’s bullshit ‘obedience collar’ ploy. Hell I could’a walked off with her Thunder Gun, if I’d had a place to stash it.”
Brainstorm let out a groan, “Oh, Come ON, Marla! You know better than that! We’re not Crooks, we’re Supervillains! We have a Code, we have standards, we have Ethics! Y’know, ‘to live outside the Law, you must be honest’? Yeah, we’re in it for the money, but there are things you just don’t DO for money! The reason we can hang out like this is that we know we can trust each other, because we have a Code. And one of the big things on that code is ‘you don’t screw your Principal, unless he screws you FIRST’.”
“Oh come ON yourself, Marco!” Marla snapped back. “Hey, check out the line of custody: I got it from Dr. Thunder. She got it from Jadis Diabolik. Diabolik got it from Me. I got it from that Jobe chick. The Jobe chick most likely got it from Anti-Champion. Where the HELL Anti-Champion got it, who knows? So, with a chain of possession like that WHO actually has any real claim to it?” G-Gun, Brainstorm and Dave still looked a tad dubious. “AND, I didn’t take it from Jadis Diabolik, I took it from Dr. Thunder, who is NOT our principal.” The guys were still a little unsure. “AND, I have a lot better claim to ownership than any of ‘em.”
“How d’you figure that?”
“It’s one of the original Starstone’s seven powerstones.”
“That’s a little convenient, isn’t it?” G-Gun drawled.
“How do you know?” Dave asked, giving Marla a little more credit.
“Here,” she tossed the bracelet to Dave. Dave caught it and held it, but a moment later, it went fuzzy and reappeared in Marla’s hand. “The stones interact and increase in power when they’re in synch with each other. But they don’t just stack power on top of itself; it increases synergistically. I noticed the interaction when I was mixing it up with the Wilkins chick, and when I took the bracelet from her, I was sure. Just holding onto it for a few minutes was enough to create a connection, and I was able to call it to me from Dr. T’s pocket.”
“You can do that?”
“Sure! I can’t do the ‘instant costume change’ bit. Yet. But I’m working on it.” The guys looked around at each other and came to a silent consensus. Brainstorm nodded his head in acknowledgement. Marla gave out a schoolgirl squeal and kissed Marco on the forehead. “Oh, this is just SO COOL!” she gushed as she closely examined the bracelet. “It’s not just one of the starstones; there are two lesser powerstones, and the rest of these little sparklers are those ‘cultured power stones’ that mad scientists made when they try to create artificial power stones.”
“You can tell that?”
“Sure! Check this out!” she slipped the bracelet on and pointed it at the pitcher of beer on the table. The pitcher was instantly wrapped in a sphere of transparent force. “Ta-DAH!”
“Whoa. ‘In the brightest day, in the darkest night…’”
“I think that the cultured stones work to refine the starstone’s power,” Marla said with a grin. “It’s like… some sort of weird circuitry. I wonder who designed it.”
“Okay, we each made a year’s pay in a night,” Marco summed up, “we walked away with a massive gear upgrade, Marla got a power upgrade, and we now have the bragging rights to facing off against the Empire City Guard and winning.”
“But… we didn’t beat them,” G-Gun argued.
“I didn’t say that we beat them. We fought them, and in the end, our side was victorious. Therefore, we WON.”
“You’re splitting hairs,” Marla said with a wry smile, “but it works. My Law School professor would be proud, Marco.” She raised her glass in a toast. “To Crime.”
* * * * *
We woke at the crack of Noon, had a breakfast that would have satisfied the New York Jets training camp, and we spent most of the afternoon running around picking up those purchases that Belphy had made for Jobe. And listening to Jobe bitch about them. And then we had to get back to Whateley. Man, at this rate, they’re not gonna let me back in New York for the Easter break!
Even with eight hours sleep, we were still pretty dang exhausted from all the running around and fighting, and given the exhilarating nature of train travel (sarcasm there, btw) most of us grabbed the chance to bag a few Zs to make up for last night. When I woke up from my own nap, somewhere in Massachusetts, Glor was typing away at her laptop. “Writing the incident report?” I asked.
“Yes,” she drawled. “You know She-Beast, as educational as these trips have been – and the wonders they’ve done for my wardrobe – I think that I’ll have to give a respectful pass on any future field trips that you might have in store.”
“Oh?” I said, not able to keep a smirk off my face. “Has your walk on the other side of the street given you second thoughts about your career as a ‘stern sentinel of Justice’?”
“Quite the opposite,” she said crisply. “If anything, I’m more committed to a career as a superhero than ever. Better informed and more enlightened than before, I’ll admit, but still committed.”
“Oh? And what brought about this great enlightenment?”
Glor stopped typing and looked at me strangely. “Jadis, I admit that I managed to go almost four years at Whateley taking the whole Supervillain phenomenon more or less for granted. I accepted that there were bizarre individuals who went about in strange outfits and did horrid things, and took that on face value. That was, I admit, my fault. I should have looked at the whole thing more carefully, while I had such a prime viewing opportunity at Whateley. I thought that supervillains were these loners who occasionally banded together to deal with a common enemy, and that all the costumes, equipment, weapons, bases were purchased through stolen loot. Or just came out of thin air, because, well, they’re supervillains, they just HAVE all these things. Jadis, Super-crime is a business. There’s financing, supply, personnel-”
“Research & Development, Housing-” I reeled off.
Glor silenced me with a glacial glower. “Jadis, Super-crime is a business, by all evidence a very profitable business, with social, economic and political agendas being served. But this business is still crime! Money is stolen, not made, property is destroyed, people are traumatized, people are killed-”
“Oh really?” I said airily, “I had no idea…”
She gave me another glacial glare, but relented when the penny dropped. “Oh, of course. You’d know all about that. Still, it’s WRONG.” She sighed and sort sank into herself. “I admit it; when I got my powers, I rather viewed being a superhero as being like… in a comic book or a cartoon, a great rousing adventure, where no one really got hurt… but there’s more to it.” She stopped and went quiet, wrapped up in thought.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted in a low voice. “I guess that I’ll have to figure out… what I don’t know, and how to go about finding out what there IS to find out, before I make any decisions.”
“If it means anything to you, Glor, that’s one of the smartest things I’ve heard since I got to Whateley.”
Glor looked over at me and gave me a wry grin. “And what about you? What will you do, once you leave Whateley? Go to Law School?”
I let out a bitter snort. “God, No. Not that I wouldn’t like it. Or that I wouldn’t be good at it.” Glor gave me an encouraging nod. “But it doesn’t matter what kind of Law I practiced, Defense, Prosecution, Corporate, Advocacy, even freakin’ TAX law, the opposition would always drag my father’s name into it and use it like a club. Even if I changed my name, the odds are that it would come out somehow, and I’d just have wasted years building up a practice that would disappear like a snowflake in a firestorm. No, I haven’t figured that out, either. But I have a few good years before I have to make any real commitments.”
Glor was about to say something else, when we were cut off by the sound of one of Jobe’s louder snores. She shot Jobe a withering glare and said, “I wonder how much of all that ‘Princess Bride’ drivel is real, and how much of it’s just Gizmatic pulling Jobe’s chain? It’s far too much like Justice to be anything that Jobe will ever have to deal with.”
“Oh, I think that Jobe’s ‘Karma Houdini’ license is running out,” I said. I pulled out my phone and started texting. “And, speaking of that, Glor, why don’t you join us at Melville, when we get back to school? I think I might have something that will perk you right up.”
* * * * *
“And, remember, all of you, this whole ‘Betrothal’ thing is simply another one of my father’s inane little tests to see how I’m adjusting to my female state,” Jobe instructed us as we climbed the stairs in Melville cottage.
“Yes, obviously one screaming hysterical fit wasn’t enough,” Kate droned.
“Still, it IS strictly a matter within the Imperial Family, and as such, a Top Imperial Secret,” Jobe continued without missing a beat. “So, not a word to anyone about this! Why if it got out, the diplomatic repercussions would be disastrous! The news could politically and economically destabilize the entire Lesser Antilles!”
“Oh sure,” Hazard sneered, “Trinidad is just looking for any excuse to invade…”
“Please, I’m serious!” Jobe bleated as we got to the mezzanine. “Not a word to ANYONE!”
“Not to worry, Jobe,” I reassured her, “no one who doesn’t already know will find out.”
“Prince Jobe?” Mrs. Boyce, one of the Melville housemothers, walked up to us, “We need you for something?”
“Can it wait? We have a lot of packages to get up to our rooms, and-”
“Please, this is very urgent. Come.” Well, Mrs. Boyce always did have a way of getting people to do what they should. Even Jobe. She led us to the double doors of one of the main event rooms. “After all, no girl should miss…” she threw open the doors, revealing most of the Freshman, Sophomore and Junior Melville girls, as well as delegations from Poe, Whitman and Dickinson, with the Fury Twins clearly not minding being set aside by themselves, “her own ENGAGEMENT PARTY!”
“CONGRATULATIONS, JOBE!” the gathered throng chorused, and Aztecka, one of the more brickish girls on the Soph floor, dragged Jobe into the room to endure the traditional torments of the newly affianced. The smiles on the Fury Twins’ faces was worth everything we’d been through that weekend.
Belphy, Darcy, Kate, Misty and Haz all hurried into watch the fun, but Glor held back with me. “You know, She-Beast? I’m going to talk to Iron Star about rushing you for the FSHA.”
“Because, to be honest, the idea of you on the other side scares the besnoogers out of me.”