Silent Nacht (Chapter 1)
A Whateley Christmas Story
by Bek D. Corbin
December 18, 2006
Katrina ‘Nacht’ Tvardovski stepped off the Lear jet and looked around at the barren landscape of the Sierra Nevada foothills that surrounded the *ahem!* ‘airport’ of the dinky little desert town. “Ah, exotic, alluring, fascinating, dynamic Barrows Wells,” she droned in her trademark monotone. “Thank God I missed the crowds.”
Seeing that there was no use in putting it off, she stepped down the embarkation stairs to the tarmac, her luggage following her obediently on the ‘train’ that dragged behind her. She looked dyspeptically at the shabby ‘Jet Age’ poured concrete ‘airport’ that was at least a quarter mile away from where the jet had put down. She was about to trudge towards it, when she saw a SUV driving in her direction.
The SUV pulled over about ten yards away from Katrina, and a paunchy, middle-aged TSA officer got out and looked at her. Ted Farnell, the TSA goon, pulled out his walky-talky and said quietly, “It’s just one damn mutie kid. Nuthin’ to worry about. But you just listen in, I’m gonna have a little fun with her.” He holstered the walky-talky and swaggered in her direction, picking which of his tried-and-true harassment tricks to use.
* * * * *
FIVE MINUTES LATER
“PLEASE!” Ted blubbered, “What do you WANT?” Katrina hadn’t said a word or batted an eye. “Please, just don’t hurt my children!”
“You have children?” Katrina asked, a touch of interest finally in her voice.
As Ted looked at her in shock, a silver-gray Porsche Boxster 987 convertible with the top down roared up and screeched to a halt. “KAY-TEEE!” squealed the driver. She popped up and jumped out of the car without bothering to open the door, and ran the short distance with a huge beaming smile on her face. Ted had a brief flash of ‘Charlie’s Angels’. The curvy yet athletic woman in the sky blue halter-topped bodysuit was the California Blonde that Farah Fawcett-Majors wanted to be, but couldn’t quite pull off. She galloped over and scooped up the small dark girl and gave her a big hug.
Kate accepted the embrace with the grudging ‘grace’ of a sulky cat. “Hello, Sunny,” she groaned.
Sunburst burbled for a bit, and then noticed Ted, who was on his knees on the tarmac. “Oh! You’re the Tee-Ess-Ay guy, right? Oh, it’s cool Katie is my ward and I’m her guardian wait that sort of follows doesn’t it well anyway she’s here on vacay from school but she’s on probation so she’s gotta wear that Lojack ankle-thingie when she’s not at school so I decided that it would be best if she landed out here instead of El-Ay-Ex so she wouldn’t get hassled by the Em-Cee-Oh-” Sunny’s spiel washed over Ted in a flood, and it was only when she said, “Cool! Well, thanks, you’re a brick!” that he realized that he’d signed off on over a dozen forms that he had absolutely NO idea what they contained.
As the Boxster zoomed off, Ted, still on his knees, said weakly, “You’re welcome…”
“Oh, don’t bundle up like that, Katie!” Sunburst burbled, “The whole point of convertibles is letting the wind blow through your hair!”
“That, and encouraging head and neck trauma,” Nacht grumped.
“Oh, we are going to have so much FUN!” Sunny insisted, blithely ignoring Kate’s sarcasm. “I have all kinds of really cool stuff planned…” As Sunny went on and on, Kate sighed and settled into the butter-soft leather seats of the speedster.
If it had been anyone other than Sunburst, they would have gotten pulled over a dozen times during the hundred-plus mile journey from Barrows Wells on the very edge of the California-Nevada border to the California Crusaders’ headquarters in Venice. But Sunny somehow managed to breeze right past every speed trap and traffic snarl.
As she looked at the CC’s ultra-ultra-modern Frank Lloyd Wright-esque HQ, Nacht muttered, “Why couldn’t Mom have gotten busted by a superhero with a headquarters in cave under a haunted mansion or a tower on a deserted moor, or something COOL?”
“Oh, come on Katie, don’t be SHY!”
“Says the woman in the bathing suit,” Nacht grumped as she allowed Sunburst to shoo her through the unobtrusively comprehensive security screening measures of the front door.
There were several fans waiting in the lobby who flocked around Sunburst, who accepted their adoration with her trademark equanimity. Interestingly, there were as many teenage girls gathered around her as there were males. One such teenybopper squealed and chattered at Kate, “Omigawd, sheisjustlikeSOtotallyawesome Icantstandit! You came in with her, like, who ARE you, are you someone special?” Kate just slowly turned her head and looked the chittering airhead straight in the eye. The bimbette paused, wilted, and then slowly inched away from Kate.
Kate walked up to the Security Desk and pointedly lifted up her leg, placing her foot on the desk and displaying the lowjack anklet for the Desk Goon. She waited in the security elevator until Sunny was done accommodating her fans. As the doors to the elevator closed, Kate asked Sunny, “So, did you actually read what you signed?”
When Kate and Sunny stepped out of the elevator, they walked into a large, high-tech situation room dominated by several large monitors, some displaying the greater Los Angeles area, from Ventura county down through Orange county, others highlighting hi-incident probability locales, and others showing profiles of known ‘troublemakers’ believed to be in the area. One screen mapped out fastest possible deployment routes to areas, rotating through different locales, and constantly being updated with new input as to conditions. Seated at a curving table that faced the SitRep display were four women and a man. One of the women was clearly Hispanic with a lot of Indio blood, wearing an off-white sleeveless bodysuit with an elaborate golden Aztec-style helmet with long draping green feathers cascading down her back, a matching green loincloth, a wide ornate golden collar, matching belt, bracers and greaves. She carried a tall wooden staff with a golden tip that bore a large roughhewn green stone. The two other women were negative mirror images of each other; a white woman with long black hair wearing a one shouldered black body-stocking with a long opera glove on the arm that wasn’t covered by the stocking, and a black woman with long straight white hair and a matching white body-stocking, though the uncovered arm was the opposite of that on her ‘twin’. The man seemed to have stepped out of an Errol Flynn movie, wearing a black leather waistcoat over a white linen shirt, over-the-knee long boots, leather gauntlets, a flamboyant red cape, and a red scarf over the top of his head that covered most of his face as a mask. The lower half of his face completed the swashbuckler image with a jaunty dark mustache, a goatee, and the requisite confident smirk.
The fourth woman wasn’t dressed in a uniform. Well, at least, not a superhero uniform. She was wearing an executive ‘power suit’ with a red silk blouse that set off her dark complexion, in a severe cut that contrasted interestingly with her angular ‘African-American beauty’ features. She wasn’t wearing glasses, but she still managed to project an all-business impression.
Between the table and the display was the object of their immediate concern: a pile of containers of donated toys.
“Hey guys!” Sunburst bubbled, “Oh good, the donations are in! Wow, just LOOK at the haul this year!”
“Well, it looks like the shipment of lead paint poisoning is here from China.” Kate added.
“I see you brought along the cheerleader,” Bruja, the Latina mystic, said just as dryly as Kate.
Sunburst glossed over both comments with her usual effusive good cheer. After burbling on for a bit, she asked, “So, where are Sky and Bee-Dee?”
“Sky is following Air Control protocols-” Daybreak (the black chick in white) started.
“-for once,” Nightfall (the white chick in black) finished. “And Big Dawg is-”
“-in route, and he said that he’s bringing a guest, and wants a change of clothes,” Daybreak ended it. The woman in the business suit let out a martyred sigh, and walked out of the room.
Sunburst was going over the crucial Barbie™ vs. Bratz™ friction, somehow managing to slip in minor mentions of the labor conditions in China (where the Bratz dolls were made) without harshing out the fashion issues, when the roof of the chamber slid open. A male figure wearing a royal blue sleeveless ‘wetsuit’ with silver traces of ‘circuitry’ all over it with a mirrored wrap around visor and feature-laded metal bracers floated down on a brushed-metal ‘surfboard’. He wore a red Santa cap over his long sun-bleached hair, and he had a large black sack draped over his athletic shoulder. “Ho, ho, ho, ever-budday! I popped down to Tee-Jay and picked up a SWEET stash of hand carved wooden stuff from Oaxaca!”
“So, instead of being tainted with lead, this stuff will be laced with anti-marijuana herbicide,” Kate guessed.
“Oh, Little Mary Sunshine’s back, hunh? Well, I guess that it wouldn’t be Christmas, without a Grinch,” he said with only a touch less of his good humor. “Yo, Swash! Ladies…”
As he settled his sack of wooden playthings in with the others, the woman in the natty business suit returned with a suit bag draped over her shoulder. “Oh. Skyrider. I have something for you.” She handed him an envelope.
“Skyrider, I HAVE to hand this to you, I signed for it. Complaining like a little boy won’t help.”
“Awww… who is it THIS time? Marvel? I already shucked the silver body suit, but I am NOT getting rid of the BOARD, man!”
“It’s not Marvel comics,” the woman said, checking the condition of the suit in the bag. “Well, at least, not this time. It’s from Union Carbide™. They say that your plastics de-polymerization/ resin reversal method conflicts with several of their pre-existing patents.”
“WHAT? Bullshit! There are at least five separate and distinct improvements and developments from any existing patents, I already checked and double-checked that!” Skyrider read over the document and snarled. “This is whack, man! They just wanna tie my plastics recycling process up in the courts for ten years, until their pet test tube monkeys can come up with something that does the same thing, only half as well, which they can ram down peoples’ throats with big PR campaigns and bribes! Just like the last time! Of course Reed Richards is useless! If you were shackled hand and foot, bound and gagged in a straitjacket, you’d be useless TOO!” Sky plopped down in a chair, his good mood almost totally spent.
“So, you’ll accept their $15 million dollar purchase alternative?” the woman asked.
“Well YEAH… I mean, at least I can do some good with 15 Mil… and it’ll be better than putting the next generation of lawyers through college- But I WON’T LIKE IT!”
Then the elevator opened, and a large, very muscular African American man, dressed in shreds of cloth, walked in, carrying a frantically struggling Black kid, maybe 15 or 16, by the back of his pants. “Hey, Miz Biz!” the big man called out cheerily. “You got the spare suit?”
Keshawna Polk, a.k.a. ‘Miz Biz’, held up the suit bag.
“Perfect, as always,” Big Dawg said with a smile. Then he saw Kate. “Oh. Gloomylocks is here. Oh well, it wouldn’t-”
“I already did the Grinch joke, Brah,” Skyrider cut him off.
“Oh well…” Big Dawg sighed. “Anyway! People, this is Chiller. He just got a bunch of ice powers a few weeks ago, and already he’s got a killer GTA outfit running, complete with a chop-shop that can take a late model sedan and have it in a 100 different appropriately-marked car parts boxes inside an hour.” He dumped Chiller into a chair.
“Yeah?” Chiller snapped. “PROVE IT!”
“I can,” Big Dawg said calmly. “Slam-dunk, no question, witnesses, photographs, video footage, documents, physical evidence, the whole nine yards, and your fingerprints all over everything. I drop you into the GTA squad’s lap, and you’re looking at doing Ten in Hermetic Lockdown at Atascadero, with no chance of bail, let alone parole.”
“Yeah? Then howcome I ain’t bein’ fingerprinted, hunh?”
Big Dawg cast a calculating look at Kate. “Tell you what: if you can get this key to that punishment collar that I slapped on you from her before I get back from changing clothes, I’ll let you walk.” He looked at the other Crusaders. “None a’ you get in between this, ‘Kay? Let the Playa play. Me? I gotta change. I hadda get Big to handle ol’ Chilla here, and I wasn’t wearing my butt-whuppin’ vines. Here y’go Bubbles,” he tossed Kate the keys. “Keshawna?” ‘Miz Biz’ handed him the suit, and he strolled through a door.
Giving the Crusaders a wary look, Chiller steeled himself and strolled over to Kate. “Gimme the keys, and there’s no reason for this to get nasty, Bitch.”
* * * * *
FIVE MINUTES LATER
“OH, C’MAAAWWNNN! Cut a nigga a BREAK, willya?” Chiller wailed, almost in tears. “I mean, what do you WANT from me?” Kate hadn’t moved an inch, said a word, or so much as blinked an eye.
Big Dawg came back, looking like a page out of GQ in an immaculately Italian cut suit. “Ah! You’re still here,” he said ingenuously to Chiller as he adjusted the fit of his tie. He strolled over to Kate and stuck out his open hand. “Keys?”
“He offered me a Mercedes-Benz with AC, power windows and real leather upholstery, in my choice of colors,” Kate replied. “What are YOU offering?”
“My Thanks.” Kate dropped the keys in his hand. Big Dawg strolled over to Chiller. “Okay, here’s how it’s gonna go down. You can go downtown, get processed, and be put in *heh* ‘cold storage’ for ten years. Sorry about that, Bro, but with your MO, yer gonna have to get used to ice puns. They’re just too good to avoid. OR, you can do something for ME.”
“I ain’t gonna be your snitch,” Chiller snarled, obviously terrified of going to jail, but rather willing to cut his own throat than admit it.
“Good. I don’t want a snitch. I’ve got snitches. I’ve got snitches I don’t even want. What I want from you… is to be my apprentice.”
“Look, Chiller,” Big Dawg said evenly, “being a superhero isn’t my main gig. I do it largely to keep my cred. People like doing business with superheroes who make the papers, y’know? My MAIN gig is I’m a businessman. I started with the usual: posters, action figures, memorabilia, all that crap. Then I got smart, and diversified. Now, I own seven apartment buildings, five gas stations, three Burger Clown franchises, nine laundromats, two car dealerships- one of which you’ve been ripping off-, a produce distributor, a building supply firm, a cement and asphalt contractor, and a recycling outfit. I’m a silent partner in two record labels, a radio station, and I’m bankrolling three movies, including a horror movie franchise in its fifth installment. My business is retooling and refurbishing ailing businesses, and getting them profitable again. My specialty is getting obnoxious parasites that are driving the business into the ground to bug off, because they know if they fuck with me, I’ll feed them their own kneecaps.”
“Then what do you want with ME?”
“Look, Chiller - if I send you to jail, then you’re just another convict. Los Angeles doesn’t NEED another convict. We got so many that we’re sending our surplus to Arizona. What Los Angeles - especially the Black Community - needs, is businessmen… and businesswomen,” Big Dawg added with a look in Keshawna’s direction. “People who make things happen. Big business? The Government? They’re all so bogged down in red tape and paperwork that nothing gets done! So, we need people of business, who make it their business that things get done.”
“What’s that got to do with me? I’m just a kid.”
“Yo, Chiller - why’d you set up your car theft ring that way? For instance: why’d you choose hotwire artists for your collectors, and not carjackers?”
“Cause carjackers cut people, man! They get people all riled, up, who call the cops, who turn up the heat, and then you can’t DO nothing, that’s why!”
“Very Good. And why’d you go to so much trouble to make sure that your packaging and paper trail looked right?”
“’Cause the easier it is for my buyers to move, the more they’ll want my product!” <tsk!>
Big Dawg nodded. “And why’d you arrange for your boy Ferrante’s mother to get that liver operation that went down last week?”
“’Cause Ferrante’s my BOY! He’s been SOLID with me! I stand BY my people!” Chiller looked indignant.
“And THAT is why I want you as my apprentice. You’ve got brains, the right instincts, the right head space and you got heart. Now, all that I have to do is get you wheeling and dealing in ways that don’t break any laws. If you’re in jail, then you’re just one more drain on the economy, dipping into my taxes to keep you in a reinforced steel BOX, and in ten years, you’ll be out, do a lot of damage and go right back into the box for another fifteen years. BUT, if you become my apprentice, then you’re making money, getting rich, and you’re paying money INTO the tax base, right along with me. Everyone profits.” Big Dawg gave Chiller a steely smile. “So. Here’s the deal: you can either give me attitude and get a guaranteed one-way ticket to Atascadero, OR you can become my apprentice, and maybe finally get your slice of the American Pie. What’s it gonna be? This deal’s on the table for ten seconds.”
“What about the GTA and the chop shop?”
“The DA doesn’t want YOU, he wants the people whose business you’ve been cutting into; they’re a lot better connected than you are, and they can roll over on some real players. I can use everything that I have on you to make those people sweat. You being seen as my apprentice will turn up the heat a few notches, without you actually having to roll over on anybody. I can make a few noises about you doing the undercover thing, and make it stick. BUT it all requires that you widely be known as working - after school - for ME.”
“Yeah?” Chiller said, eyeing Big Dawg suspiciously. “And what’s in it for YOU?”
“First, you’ll be wheeling and dealing for ME. I love a good dicker as much as you do, but even I can only do so much at one time. You’ll get paid - and I’ll front you the money to get some clothes so that don’t look like you went dumpster diving - but the money you’ll be working with will be mine, so the profits will be MINE. Second, you’re a fresh pair of eyes; you might spot things that I’ve started to take for granted. Third, when you finally go onto your own projects, maybe every now and again you’ll think to include that decrepit old fossil who gave you your first real break. And lastly, if I take you on, your mother won’t break a skillet over my head. I’m warning you, Tyrell, do NOT mess with that woman, she is 140 pounds of pure MEAN.”
“My mom knows about this?” Now Chiller looked nervous.
“Uuuhhh… Okay, but I ain’t doin’ the ‘kid sidekick’ bit. I don’t DO ‘holy smokes’ or any of that shit!”
“And thank God for that.” BD stuck out a hand. “So. We got a deal?”
“Yeah.” Chiller took Big Dawg’s hand and pumped it.
Big Dawg took a hold of Chiller’s hand and pulled the young man close and snarled into his face, “Okay, but understand THIS. With me, a deal is a DEAL. You do right by me, I do right by you. You fuck with me, ONCE, and you’ll do those ten years in INTENSIVE CARE!” Big Dawg let go and was suddenly all charm again. “So! Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me introduce the gang. The stone fox in Armani is Miz Biz, a.k.a. Keshawna Polk. YOU will refer to her as ‘Miss Polk’. She is what’s called my ‘Business Manager’. That means that she handles the fine print and all the finicky little details of my various projects, leaving me free to wheel and deal - and when necessary, kick ass. The bodacious blonde babe in blue is Sunburst - don’t let the ‘Malibu Barbie’ act fool you, Chill; she’s smarter than you are. The chica in the Aztec revival outfit is Brujah, our resident Miss Mojo. The two bookends are Sunrise and Nightfall - I can never quite remember which one is which… The guy in Errol Flynn drag is Swashbuckler. And the surf bum is Skyrider. Ignore him.”
“Yeah, we love you too, Dawg” Skyrider jeered back. “Hey, Chiller! Howdja get yer ice powers? You a mutant, or did you get bit by a radioactive snow cone?”
Chiller started to reply, but Big Dawg cut him off. “He and a bunch of his buddies tried to break into a R&D lab over in Costa Mesa. His buddy Clarvon set him up to trip an ultra-cold cryonic vent, so Clear and the rest could get at the swag. But, instead of being turned into a chumpsickle, Tyrell here got ice powers. Your classic ‘origin’ story.”
“WHAT?” Chiller bleated. “How’d you know that? And what do you mean, Clear set me up?”
“Simple. Clear told me. How d’you think I knew all about your operation, huh? Clear ratted you out, so’s he could take over your operation, now that you had it up and running so well.”
“What?” Chiller bleated, “That can’t BE! Clear’n me been tight since PRE-KAY!”
“Yeah, and according to your mom, he’s been playing you for a chump since First Grade,” Big Dawg sneered. “Don’t let it get you down, it happens. Ask me about Hard Knox some time. But don’t worry about your boy Clear - I ain’t quite got it all laid out yet, but Clarvon Mason is going to do a star turn on the witness stand against the Kadillak Krew. Better him than you.”
“Now that we’ve that taken care of,” Brujah said, “before we get to the Christmas projects, there are some things that we should discuss.”
“The ‘Hollywood Headhunter’?” Nacht droned.
“How’d you know?”
“You’ve had updates, profiles and reports running on that monitor since I got here,” Kate pointed at one display.
Brujah nodded. “So. Do you have any insights?”
“A few,” Kate admitted. “First of all, it’s unlikely that the Headhunter is a mundane baseline human. According to that LA County Coroner’s Office report, the heads were not cut off, or sawed off, or torn off, but were burned off by concentrated chemical action. But the heads were discovered only a couple of hours after the victims’ disappearances were noted. Neural tissue samples from the victim’s brains showed massive concentrations of taraxin-analogues and other neuro-transmitters that are associated with pain and intense psychotic mind-states. Those people died in states of pain and/or severe insanity. The ME points out that being chemically burned to death would kill someone well before the tissue connecting the neck to the body dissolved, but cell analysis of neck tissue shows that the head was alive and seeping trace chemicals into the tissue until just before the head separated. The head was literally the very last thing to die, without assistance from the heart or lungs. That’s physically impossible without either heavy duty technological - or magical - assistance.
“There’s no reason that I’ve heard of for a Scientist to go to all that effort to keep a head alive that way, just to throw it away. The ME also reports that there’s no trace of any kind of Suspension fluid in the tissue or on the skin, but there are some traces of ‘environmental debris’- grass, concrete dust, gunk- that are embedded in the flesh in a way that suggests a near-immediate post-death intrusion. Like a head falling to the ground, right after falling from its shoulders. So, it’s not some mad scientist scenario.”
“Why would a magician want to keep someone’s head alive?” Big Dawg asked.
“Magician, Undead, Demon - they’d all have some reason. The most likely reason for a mage or Undead would be that these people had some information that they wanted. But since we’re talking about housewives, a cable guy, and high school girls, I’d say that’s not really likely. And then, once they had the information, they wouldn’t just chuck the head. They’d get rid it a lot more discreetly, like in a trash compactor or something like that. These heads were tossed aside, like they’d done their job, and the killer couldn’t be bothered with them anymore. I think that your Headhunter is some sort of Demon.”
“Demons don’t know that much about human culture or society, and those that do, don’t really care, any more than a wolf cares about the social dynamics of rabbits. Your Headhunter is kicking up a lot of dust with these killings. Mages and most Undead know better than to get the peasants all riled up. Aside from a considerable skill in going unnoticed on the immediate level, your Headhunter is way too overt, leaving the most headline-grabbing bits out where they can be found. Demons are mostly defined by their arrogance; it simply doesn’t care that it’s upsetting the sheep, as long as it can hunt effectively.”
“So, maybe it’s a mortal serial killer with a gimmick,” Nightfall opined.
“David Berkowitz, ‘the Son of Sam’, actively enjoyed seeing and hearing the impact that his killings were having on New York,” Daybreak continued.
“It could be that the Headhunter is leaving the heads where they were deliberately, to stir up as much fuss as he can,” Nightfall finished.
“Berkowitz’s killings were ridiculously simple,” Kate disagreed. “He walked up behind people and put a .44 slug into the backs of their heads and walked away. Quick, simple, and he had plenty of time to get away, while everyone was reacting to the fact that someone had been shot. Even in New York, when something like that comes out of the blue, people’s first reaction is to duck for cover. These killings involve chemicals, moving disabled bodies around and keeping the heads attached to those bodies alive. That’s very involved, and if done with technology, would be noticed.”
“Why leave the heads alive until the very last?” Swashbuckler asked.
“Demons feed on magical energies. Intense emotions create magical reactions within human beings without magical training. By their infernal origins, Demons are most closely attuned to suffering, pain and insanity; it’s what they understand. Letting the head live as the rest of the body is destroyed leaves the victim in anguish, despair and insanity, which are like food, water and air to demons.” Kate looked at Brujah. “Demons come from outside this world; they displace mundane energies in predictable ways. Have there been any signs in the Los Angeles area that could be associated with such a being disrupting the normal mystic patterns by crossing them? Birds dying in mid-flight, statues weeping, walls bleeding, mirrors shattering for no visible reason, animals suddenly panicking for no visible reason, politicians turning down bribes?”
“The only unholy things that came to my attention told me that YOU were coming,” Brujah grumped.
“Then we can assume that the demon has found a way of masking its presence, possibly muting its effect on the ley lines by hiding itself within something. It may be hunting using a surrogate of some sort.”
“What about Possession?” Sunburst asked.
“Quite likely, but too obvious,” Kate opined. “There are too many mystics, even third or fourth-rank ones, in the Southland, for a demon to possess a body for very long without someone getting wise to it.”
“Any ideas as to what its motives might be?” Swashbucker asked in his trademark bad Ronald Colman impression.
“Well, the obvious ones are simple survival and, given the nature of some of the victims, possibly completing its translation to this plane of existence.”
“Excuse me?” Daybreak and Nightfall asked in unison. “Complete its translation?”
“It may not be completely within this dimension, in which case, its prime priority, after feeding and remaining at large, would be to bring the entirety of its being into this domain.”
“How could it be only part-way in this dimension?” Skyrider asked. “I mean, from what you’re sayin’, it’s gettin’ around real good for someone who’s stuck half-way.”
“You’re right,” Kate admitted. “IF it’s a minor or even merely low-level demon, then being only partially within this dimension would be a major handicap. But then, it wouldn’t be able to pull off the things that it is. However, a common trick by conjurers is to summon a major demon, but only allow a fraction of its being into this world, giving them access to a lot of power for a fraction of the risk. But, once the fragment was free of control, it would do everything that it could to bring the rest of the demon into this world.”
“Why?” Nightfall started. “It wouldn’t be any more powerful than a smaller demon, and it would be a lot harder to summon,” Daybreak finished.
Kate paused and mused. “Imagine that you’re in a boat and you see some fish in the water. You reach your hand into the water to grab one of the fish. From the fish’s point of view, this weird thing with a flat body and five tentacles and a weird thick tail that reaches out into nowhere, but no eyes, mouth or fins, just appeared in a shower of bubbles. It moves around in ways that have nothing to do with swishing its tail or moving fins in any way. Then this thing which shouldn’t be any stronger than the fish is, and has no eyes with which to see, wraps itself around one of the other fish, and suddenly that fish disappears from the first fish’s plane of reference. The hand is utterly alien to the fish, and it operates in ways that would seem magical to it, if fish had the brains to encompass the notion of magic. I think that your Headhunter is like that: it has much, but not all of the power of the demon at its disposal, and it has a perspective that most mortals can’t have, and it operates on very different principles and motives.”
“Okay, that’s pretty… Twilight Zone…” Big Dawg allowed. “And what do you think that it’s going to do next?”
“Same as it’s been doing. Kill as many fertile yet sexually uncompromised females at the height of their fertility as it can.”
“Okay, beyond that?”
“It may start killing them in groups.”
“In what way?”
“I’d have to know the exact demon in question. Demons, especially powerful, titled demons, have a wide range of powers, drives, agendas, taboos, banes and obligations, any or all of which would have a major impact on how it would go about coming into this plane.”
Brujah, who had been silent up to this point, finally spoke. “And DO you know who this demon is?”
“Hey, I don’t know every infernal refugee from the pit! And I’m pretty sure that it’s not Uncle Vlarg…”
“And does it really matter, Bru?” Big Dawg asked. “In the face of the same facts that Grimbellina here just ran down, the LAPD has decided that it’s some sort of psycho mutant doing this with some as-yet undiscovered power, and they’ve called in the MCO to handle it. And they’ve very pointedly asked us to NOT step in and deal with it, thank you very much.”
“Well, that’s a few less MCO goons in the world, at least,” Kate mused.
“The MCO isn’t geared to handle supernatural threats,” Brujah stated, ignoring Kate’s jibe. “And in case they call in the West Coast League first, Dr. Arcturus may not be up to handling the demon either. And I doubt that the Hollywood All-Stars have any magical talent on their team, either.”
“Do they have any talent, whatsoever on their team?” Swashbuckler asked everyone and no one.
“Lady Nocturne is a respectable mystic - well, for a vampire, anyway - but she’s not exactly reliable.”
“Especially between Daybreak and Nightfall,” Skyrider quipped.
“Watch it,” Daybreak and Nightfall said in unison.
“The Midnight Wardens have been reported in the area, but I think that this is out of their league. The Golden Mandarin could probably handle it, but he’s up in San Francisco, and he seems to think that anything south of San Jose is terra incognita. So, given all that, the best chances that we have of actually dealing with this demon are myself-” Brujah paused and continued in a disgusted tone, “-and HER,” pointing in Kate’s direction.
“Does Allstate sell demon insurance?” Big Dawg asked. “’Cause getting eaten by a demon can’t be listed as an Act of God.”
“Complicating things is the fact that there are reports that the Monster Maker is in town,” Bruja said.
“The Monster Maker?” Chiller asked incredulously.
“Dr. Fitzroy J. Cobb, Ph.D., M.D.,” Swashbuckler said, cueing another monitor with a remote control. A picture of a rather dyspeptic looking Anglo male in a very sour late forties, with thinning hair, a knife of a nose and a perpetual scowl glowered back at them. “aka ‘Dr. Macabre’, aka ‘the Monster Maker’. A textbook example of a Schimmelhorn Engineer; that’s lawyer-speak for a Mad Scientist,” he paused to inform Chiller, “with an obsession with for finding a mundane explanation for various ‘monster’ types, such as werewolves, witches, vampires, and like that. He has a nasty habit of kidnapping teenagers and experimenting on them. He then covers his expenses by pretty much selling said experiments - at least the ones who live - to various criminal groups.” Swashbuckler paused. “People, this man has over five HUNDRED specific First Degree Murder warrants out for him.”
“Any chance that Macabre is responsible for the Headhunter killings?” Brujah asked.
“Nah,” Skyrider said with authority. “Way too big and noisy. Obsessive creeps like Macabre are all about staying under the radar. They only make big noises when something goes really WRONG in their lab, or someone gets ahold of their project and does stupid stuff with it. Still, the Headhunter could be one of his projects that got away from him.”
“Are we through with the icky stuff?” Sunny asked. Not waiting for an answer, she went on chipperly, “GOOD! Okay, gloom ’n doom time is over, we’ll deal with Mr. Ickypants when we find him! But now, with all the media attention on someone going around whacking people’s heads off, people need to be reminded that it’s CHRISTMAS! The time of love, happiness, hope-”
“Barf,” Kate cut in.
“No, the barf comes on New Year’s Day. No, now we decide who gets what Christmas event! C’mon people we gotta show Los Angeles that the Crusaders are all in the Christmas spirit tidings of comfort and joy to the world! Jingle bells and all like that, oh c’mon it’ll be FUN there’s making ornaments - no, I’m saving that one for Katie and me - there’s trimming trees both ours and others - Nite, Day, I think that you’d be best for the Pershing Square tree trimming - Bru, you’ll be doing Las Posada on Olvera Street? Kewl! We have a bunch of invites to Christmas pageants and school visits-”
“Couldn’t I just volunteer at a Suicide Hotline?” Kate asked
“NO!” Everybody but Sunny shouted at once.
“-and this is a chance to really make some kids’ Christmases special and get people to realize that they can make a difference…” Five minutes later, Sky, Swash, Big Dawg and Chiller were outside the HQ, wearing Santa caps, holding boxes of toys to be delivered, and watching as Sunburst and Nacht drove off in the Boxster.
“How does she DO that?” Chiller gawped, realizing that she’d left them with the lion’s share of the grunt work.
“Chiller,” Big Dawg sighed, realizing that there was no way that he’d manage to slough this off on ‘Miz Biz’, “if I knew that, I’d own this state.”
* * * * *
Sunburst kept bubbling along all the way down from Venice to Malibu. “-and making your own tree decorations is SO MUCH more in the Christmas Spirit than just buying boxes of pre-assembled junk that looks like crap on the tree-”
“So, you buy boxes of unassembled junk that you waste hours putting together, and still looks like crap on the tree.” As the Boxster took the cutoff to Malibu, Kate said, “I thought that we were going home.”
“I thought that ‘home’ was in Beverly Hills.”
“Not anymore!” Sunny caroled, “That was SO Spring-through-Autumn! Now we’re bunking in Malibu, right on the beach!”
“So, did Mrs. Lefkowitz kick you out, or did the person who owns this Malibu place offer you a better deal? Like, maybe this Porsche?”
“Hey, it’s a WONDERFUL house, right there on the beach and everything, with the sound of the surf and the smell of the ocean-”
“The stink of the rotting seaweed.”
“The real California experience!”
“Yeah, nothing says ‘Christmas’ like electric lights in a palm tree.”
“But don’t you worry, Katie: we’re going up to Tahoe for a real good, old-fashioned Christmas with snow and everything!”
“You DO remember that I just flew in from New Hampshire, where the snow was eight feet thick on the ground?”
Sunny spotted the Malibu enclave security gate in the distance, so she pulled the Porsche over, took the blue half-mask that covered her face off, and pulled on a windbreaker over her bodysuit. Then she zoomed up to the security gate, gave the rent-a-cop a big sunny smile and zipped through.
“Why do you do that?”
“Hey, it must suck, being stuck in one of those little boxes all day, just logging people in and out and having to be an asshole every so often-”
“I wasn’t talking about being nice to the guard. Why do you bother with the mask and the secret identity and all that? I mean, it’s not like you have a second life outside being a superhero, with friends and family who you have to protect. Besides, every halfway sane super villain knows that the surest way to get ‘shot resisting arrest’ is to kill a cop’s family, and most Blues extend that to the more reasonable Capes.” Sunny zoomed down the exquisitely manicured lawns and gates of the various Malibu estates. As she pulled up to one of them, one of the other residents, who was pulling out in a Corvette shouted a cheery greeting. “And let’s face it: back in Beverly Hills, everyone in the neighborhood knew that you were Sunburst the superheroine, and it’s obvious that everyone here knows that as well.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Katie!” Sunny said as she got out, the bottom part of her supersuit clearly visible without the cover provided by the windbreaker, and her superhero boots hit the driveway. “Why would anyone suspect that I’m a superhero?” Then she wiggled over to the trunk of the Boxter, lifted all 350 lbs. of Kate’s luggage and carried it into the house. The house was built in the classic Malibu open and airy manner, and decorated in the ‘Look! I hired a decorator and paid someone else to have taste!’ style. Sunny pulled back the curtains to reveal a magnificent view of the beach and the Pacific. “Just look at that! What do you say?”
“It’s the finest view in Omaha.”
“We are going to have so much FUN this year, Katie!”
“You mean that this house is built over a graveyard?”
Sunny just laughed and said, “You know, you don’t always have to put on that gloomy grumpypuss act! You’re not with any of your mother’s creepy friends, all waiting to pounce on you if you show the slightest weakness.”
“Pity. I enjoyed it when they pounced. They always had the most entertaining excuses…”
Sunny shook her head with a smile and an amused sigh. “Very well, have your fun, if you call grousing all over the place fun. But will I have to drag you over to Laguna for some Kiteboarding, and lash you to the kite?” Kate said nothing, and nothing snide coming from Kate was a victory. “Orrrr… maybe over to Rock Around The Clock for a scamper up the Rock Wall?” There was the slightest twitch in Kate’s glacial composure. “And of course there’s bun-”
”No!” Kate snapped in desperation, “Not Bungee Jumping!”
“Very well, Katie,” Sunny purred in triumph, “NO bungee jumping…”
Kate gave a low annoyed-cat growl of surrender. “Okaaayy… bungee jumping…” Sunny glowed in triumph. Getting Katie to admit that she adored extreme sports was like pulling teeth, but it was worth it to pry the gloomy girl out of her shell. Even if she did insist on staying absolutely silent as she dropped, Kate’s silence afterwards had more of a glow than a snarl about it.
“Don’t worry, you won’t have to sleep on the couch, you have your own room and everything,” Sunny said as she picked up the luggage and headed up the free-form stairs to one of the bedrooms. “Here you go! I’ll get down to the kitchen and pull together something to eat. Now, make yourself at home!”
As Sunny left, Kate looked around at the bedroom, which looked like it had been taken out as a unit from an IKEA display. “Okay… first thing… a coat of black paint over EVERYTHING.”
* * * * *
The creaking noises didn’t wake Kate up; the late night raid on the refrigerator did that. As Kate stalked toward the bathroom, she ignored the groaning noises and the creepy shapes in the shadows; she’d seen more terrifying things when she was four. Hell, she’d done more terrifying things when she was seven. She went in, and when she’d finished her business, she opened the door. There, standing in the doorway, lidless eyes blazing in a desiccated, half-rotted face, claw-like hands reaching for her, was a figure out of most people’s nightmares. “Look,” Kate droned, “if you needed to use the head, why didn’t you knock, so I could hurry up?”
* * * * *
The next morning, Kate trudged into the kitchen, snagged some Goodie-Ohs™ and milk, pointedly ignoring Sunny as she was preparing a fuller, more wholesome and nutritious breakfast. “Morning.”
“And a Good Morning to you, too!”
“I didn’t say ‘good’, I merely acknowledged that the sun had risen.”
“You’re not going to eat just that, are you?”
“Why not? It has my minimum daily requirement of sawdust.”
“You had good dreams, I hope?”
“Sunny, did you know that there’s a Deimophagic Empathic Parasite residing in this house?”
“A bogeyman, a manifesting emotion-feeding demi-spirit that feeds on feelings of fear, discomfort, anxiety and terror. It was the most powerful one I’d ever seen outside a dentist’s office.”
“Oh, you mean Morris? Oh, Morris and I are old friends! Morris likes to play this really fun game where he pretends that he’s trying to scare me, and he comes up with the silliest things! Did he try something with you?”
“I’m not sure. I may have missed it.”
“You didn’t do anything to him, did you?”
“That depends on your definition of ‘do anything’.”
“Where IS Morris, right now?”
“Last I saw, he was cowering under the basement stairs, behind the trash cans. Just listen for the sniveling.”
* * * * *
Sunny tried to coax Morris out of the basement, but it refused to budge until the horrible creature left. Sunny gave a sigh and walked up the stairs. “Well, there’s nothing more I can do. I just hope that you haven’t scared him off for good.”
“I understand completely. He’s an unclean spirit that revels in the pain and misery of mortals, especially children. Definitely something that you’d want hanging around the house.”
“But if Morris goes away, he’ll just go somewhere where he’ll actually be a problem!”
“And Mrs. Jordan will want to live in her house again.”
“Yeah! And the Porsche! And I don’t have anything lined up yet!” But, true to her nature, Sunny put that aside and said, “Well, Marika will be in Palm Springs at least until March, so it’s not really a problem! Something will turn up. In the meantime… CHRISTMAS!”
For Sunny, ‘Christmas’ seemed to involve heading for Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills for shopping. As they headed onto the freeway, Sunny asked, “So, Katie, what’s the word back at Whateley about this ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ that they’re all so worked up about in New York?”
“The bookmakers are giving 7:3 odds that she’s a mutant, 7:5 that she’s the product of some sort of weird science experiment, 3:2 that she’s the creation of some strange cult, 5:4 that she’s an Origin, 2:5 that she’s a Dyna-host, and 9:2 that it’s just a big hoax. I personally have five dollars riding on her being Imbued by some supernatural entity with a really sick sense of humor.”
“So, what do the kids think will happen to her?”
“Well, the MCO has tried to take her in and failed, the Courts showed more spine than they usually do and refused to let the MCO just haul her off, and both the City of New York and the Roman Catholic church are making way too much money off the whole thing, so the chances of her simply being vanished are pretty much zero now. Currently, the favorite theories are pretty much tied at a flat-out assassination, her being evacuated to some remote monastery where the Church will continue the healing scam under closer supervision, and her being removed to Whateley. And there’s a close runner-up theory that says that there will be a three-block radius crater where St. Gregory’s used to be by New Years. So, do you want to put some money down? I can get you great odds on the crater.”
Sunny pulled into the parking garage, shimmied into a pair of very tight designer jeans, a hoodie, took off her mask, and announced that she was in her secret identity.
Kate peered at her. “So. That’s who you really are. No wonder I never saw the two of you together at the same time.”
Entering into the mall proper, Kate looked around and wondered, “Why are these places always so brightly lit? You’d think with selection this crappy, they’d try keep the lights down, and make everyone guess…”
“Oh, come off of it, Katie!” Sunny bubbled, “We’re going to get you out of those drab things you insist on wearing, and get you something with a little color!”
“Colors? What are these ‘colors’ you speak of, strange person?”
“Now, young lady, you are NOT going to just sit in your room and sulk and play video games and read strange books with weird titles. You’re going to go out and mingle with real people and discover the true meaning of Christmas!”
“Sunny, sitting in my room, sulking, playing video games and reading strange books with weird titles IS the true meaning of Christmas. You just haven’t figured that out yet.”
“Katie, this is Christmas, the time of year when people are allowed to smile at each other and enjoy themselves! Wearing bright colors says, ‘Joy to the World!’”
“Really? From the quality on this rack, I thought that it said, ‘Away in a Manger’.”
“Look, this sweater has Jingle Bells!”
“So much for my hopes of a Silent Night.”
Sunny held up another festive sweater. “Now who doesn’t love Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer?”
“Someone whose grandma got run over by a reindeer.”
“Well, what about THIS ONE?”
“This has a cheery toy-making elf knitted into the pattern. Sunny, I’ve met members of both the Alfar and the Trow, and neither group looks anything like this. As a matter of fact, I’d say that both groups would probably be hideously offended by it. Come to think of it, what IS Jay-Arm’s size?”
Then Sunny’s cell phone went off. “Ah, Silver Bells,” Kate sighed, putting the offending elf-themed sweater back on the rack, hiding it among the other selections as best she could.
“Kate, we have to go,” Sunny said severely. “Some Grinch has decided to violate the sacred Christmas truce and is raiding a chemical warehouse!”
“It’s a Christmas miracle.”
“Now, Katie, this is could get very ugly, very violent-”
“Now THAT’S Christmas!”
“So, I want you to stay right here until I get back.”
“Why would I want to leave here? It has everything that a teenage girl could want: shoddy mass-market merchandise, bland Top 40 store music, Christmas carols on their 1,000th play, over-powered overhead lighting, overbearing Seasonal decorations, screaming kids-”
“GREAT!” Sunny blurted, and scampered towards a stairwell, tugging at the carryall that had the remaining parts of her superheroine outfit.
Kate stood there in mid-snark, and then looked around. Shoddy mass-market merchandise. Bland Top 40 store music. Christmas carols on their 1,000th play. Overpowered overhead lighting. Overbearing Seasonal decorations. Screaming kids. Disaffected affluent teenagers milling about. And then it occurred to her that she’d smart-assed her way into staying there until Sunny got back. “Fnark,” she summed it up flatly.
* * * * *
Sunburst flew like an arrow to a part of Beverly Hills that most people don’t think exists: the Service sector. Within the enclave’s protective walls, but discreetly hidden from the posh residential and shopping areas, are the warehouses and equipment depots and workshops that make Beverly Hills’ world-famous level of luxury possible. At the loading dock of one of those warehouses, two vectored thrust vehicles were parked, their cargo bays open, and large, muscular men with male model features worked with exoskeletons, hurriedly loading pallets from delivering forklifts into the bays. As they worked, a woman in a trench-coat that couldn’t completely conceal a magnificent figure supervised the loading. “Hurry it up, Sweeties!” she snapped, tense concern written all over her fashion-model features, “We only have another six minutes before a reasonable response arrives!”
“Beverly Hills PD has requested assistance from LA County SWAT, and sent out a Code Kent, Dr. Venus,” one of the handsome men, who was working at a laptop, announced.
“Make that THREE minutes!” Dr. Venus corrected herself.
“Hon- er, Dr. Venus, I have an energy signature approaching from the west-by-southwest!” the man on the laptop barked.
“West-by-southwest?” Dr. Venus said uncertainly.
“Oh, FUDGE,” Dr. Venus pouted. “Any idea who it is?”
“I just heard a LAPD announcement that Sunburst was answering the call, and for all units to provide backup, assistance and crowd control.”
“Sunburst?” Dr. Venus peeped, her large green eyes open wide, and a smirk playing on her full lips. “Giiinncheeee… Okay, babes, change of plan! Harvey, break out Case D and Trunks C and E. Leland, Harbie, break out the goop guns. Doogie, if Skyrider or Nightfall and Daybreak show up, zap them with the combat maser in Trunk E at setting 12 for Skyrider and 15 for Daybreak. DON’T shoot Nightfall, it would only encourage the bitch. Her, you glop.” As she spoke, she shed the trench coat displaying her spectacularly curvaceous physique in a form-fitting near-mirror reflective body suit. She opened Case D, revealing a selection of hi-tech gimmicks. Starting with a mirrored visor. As the Tac/Ops software booted up and started displaying the strategic details of the immediate situation on the inside of the visor, Dr. Venus picked and chose from the remaining selection, assembling her combat gear on her belt and cuff slots. “Jimmy, lift off NOW, and get the aitch-ee-dubble-hockey-sticks out of here. Roy, stay here and keep loading. If Big Dawg or Swashbuckler or Bruja show up, glop them, drop everything and RUN with what we got. Harvey, set up the dynamorph capture unit in Trunk C in conformation 7.” She slapped together a unit with a wide open shackle at the end. “Be vewwy, vewwy kwiet- I’m huntin’ wabbits! A dumb bunny with a dynamorph! Sweeties, if I can get that glowing skank into that capture unit, then our money worries are OVER! No more penny-ante rip-offs!”
“What if the West Coast League or the All-Stars show up?”
“Not to worry, Binky. Superhero teams can barely coordinate with their own members; they can’t cooperate worth doodly with other teams. The Cops always tell other superhero teams to back off once one team has taken a call, to keep the property damage to a minimum. And after that Century City foul-up last year, I’d be amazed if the CCs, WCL and All-Stars were even talking to each other. Just let me get this collar on little Miss ‘Oh, Look at me, I’m so POPULAR!’ and hit the switch on Trunk C. Then give me a reading on whether we can pull off an on-the-spot extraction or not. If not, let me know, get one more load on the second shuttle and make tracks. We’ll meet up at the El Segundo location. Babies, if we pull this off, it’s a hot chocolate special tonight!”
“With whipped cream?” Harbin asked with a hopeful grin.
“And EXTRA CHERRIES!” A cheer went up among the strapping young henchmen. While Dr. Venus had heard that Dr. Diabolik got some really great results by grooming his support staff and earning their trust with fair treatment and shows of loyalty, she’d found that she got the same results by simply manipulating her goons’ lust. It was quicker, just as sure, and it was a lot more fun. Come to think of it, she hadn’t had a good hot chocolate special in a while…
Dr. Venus lifted off and followed her visor’s input to intercept Sunburst.
* * * * *
Sunny was scanning the break-in site for any sight of stealth artillery as she approached, so she didn’t see Dr. Venus rising up to meet her. She’d spotted two vectored thrust raiders, but nothing with the power cables to suggest anything nasty enough to reach her up there. She was so busy checking out the scene on the ground that the shiny over-inflated bitch in the mirror-suit managed to nail her.
Of course, getting nailed by an electromagnetic blast is all a part of the superheroine business, right along with sleazy promoters trying to get you to endorse some bullshit product that you’ve never heard of. Sunny just rolled with the punches, gave herself fifty feet to recover and powered up to take the fight to the bitch in Sixties retro-silver lame. Not lamé, lame. “So, who are you? Don’t tell me that Hugh Hefner has turned to CRIME, has he?” Sunny sniped as she fired up at the bimbo. Always fire up when you’re in a dogfight; most supervils think that they get the advantage by having the elevation, but real advantage is not having to worry about hitting things with a downwards bolt.
“ooohh… a Hugh Hefner joke!” the bitch sneered as the sunbolt hit her dead center, but dispersed on a force field that created large fleeting hexagons of light as it flared. “You’re showing your AGE, old woman! That reference is as dated as that 1970s Farrah Fawcett-Majors rip-off do that you’re wearing!”
“If your fighting is as feeble as that remark, then you’d better give up before I burst one of those implants,” Sunny shot back.
* * * * *
Dr. Venus’ henchmen - those that weren’t setting up the energy cannon or analyzing the incoming energy signature data - were furiously loading a few more last stacks of crates onto the first VTV before it lifted off. “One more!”
“But Sweetc- I mean, Doctor Venus said-”
“Oh,” cut in a cold droning voice, “so that’s who you guys work for.” They all stopped dead in their tracks and turned to see a short, slender girl of maybe sixteen or so, wearing a black T-shirt with a silkscreened image of a tombstone with ‘Hope’ written on it, matching jeans, and what appeared to be a cloak of darkness around her. As one they spun to face her, energy weapons drawn and aimed at her. The blank expression of frigid disdain on the girl’s face never wavered. “I should have guessed. You guys are her ‘Super-Hunks’, right? You were all either skinny little geeks or flabby nerds that she picked up at comic book stores, and offered to turn you into fitness models, right? I didn’t recognize you without the Chippendales outfits.”
“How do you know that?” Kip barked.
“I know Jobe Wilkins. He talks about her every now and again. In disparaging terms.”
“Jobe Wilkins?” That seemed to ring a bell with them. Apparently the disparaging remarks weren’t all one-sided. “You’re friends with Jobe Wilkins?”
“I said that I know Jobe Wilkins. I didn’t say that we were friends.”
“But you talk with him.”
“HE talks. Like anyone could stop him. I suffer.”
“We’re leaving here with these! Don’t try to stop us!”
Kate gazed with marginal interest at the crates. “Pharmaceutical materials. Why would I stop you? I’m not a superhero. And I’d say that you guys need those a lot more than the nose-job doctors of Beverly Hills do.”
“Okay, load ‘em up! And… hey, why would WE need these?”
* * * * *
“Frosted lipstick? Only HOOKERS still use frosted lipstick! That is, the ones who don’t have any TASTE!” Sunny wondered why Dr. Venus, who had introduced herself (at great length), was keeping the fight in one place. She was obviously keeping Sunny away from the warehouse, so her henchmen could get away with as much as they could while they fought. But Sunny’s tactical sense was that Dr. Venus should be trying to move the fight further afield, to get them both as far away from the warehouse as possible, while staying close enough to provide backup for her men in case Sunny’s backup showed. Yet, Dr. Venus was staying in one place, well in view of the warehouse. Why?
“Hey, Gramma, don’t blame ME, just because you’re getting too old to run with a kicking look!” Dr. Venus’ force field erupted in another show of slightly smaller hexagons.
* * * * *
Erlotinib hydrochloride? Doctor Venus has you guys on Erlotinib hydrochloride?”
Weellll… not anymore… Is that a good thing?”
* * * * *
“Oh, RIGHT and the ‘sunburst keyhole’ is SO DEMURE!” Dr. Venus let off another blast that Sunny managed to dodge easily.
Now Sunny definitely smelled something fishy, and it wasn’t Dr. Venus’ perfume. Dr. Venus was blasting away but never quite managing to hit. Not that Sunny was complaining, but her sense of how super-fights went said that even an airheaded rookie lab rat like Dr. Venus would have pegged her at least ONCE. And Sunny was hitting way too often. The only time that she hit this much was with power absorbers who were trying to sucker her into supercharging them. But she didn’t seem to be sucking in Sunny’s blasts. Sunny gave her a quick zot, just to see what happened. The hexagons in her force field flared up again, but there were more of them. And smaller.
Was Dr. Venus’ force field de-rezzing? No, from Sunny’s experience, an artificial force field, which were the ones that flared structuring patterns, that were losing definitions, the patterns got larger, not smaller. Smaller meant tighter, more closely cohered. Which meant that more and smaller hexagons meant a stronger force field. The hexagons were getting smaller.
Of course, Dr. Venus was just sitting still for her blasts! Her PFG was analyzing the blasts!
Analyzing. Oh, that was SO not good.
* * * * *
“So, what exactly IS a tyrphostin, anyway?”
“Later, Leland. Now, try to remember - do you recall anything weird, the last time that you took a whizz?”
* * * * *
Sunburst let out a big dazzling flare. HAH! Dr. Venus’ visor auto-corrected so that neither she nor the visor would be damaged. But Sunburst’s flare went so high into the ultraviolet that the visor overcorrected and went black. Dr. V furiously worked the controls to balance out the signal. She got her visor back again, just in time to see a sky-blue clad fist coming right for her pert little nose.
Dr. Venus stopped short, flabbergasted. “You HIT me!”
“Oh? Really?” *POW!* “Yep, you’re right!”
“But I’m a girl!”
“Really? Are you sure? ‘Cause you dress like a Drag Queen!” *POW!*
* * * * *
“Ifosfamide? You’re sure about that, Larry?”
“Yeah, well, she said that it was a derivative that she was working on. I wasn’t really sure, she was just, y’know, rambling on, not really caring if we were following it, just to hear the sound of her own voice? She loves doing that.”
“Larry, could I tell YOU stories.”
* * * * *
The KWTT TV news helicopter hovered as close to the aerial combat as it dared. The camera dog grinned maniacally as he focused his most powerful telescopic lens on Sunburst and Dr. Venus. Two hot blondes with killer bodies, one stuffed into a bathing suit, the other into a silver skin-suit; this was the kind of footage that AV nerds dream about! The odds were that the weenie editors at the station would only air maybe ten or fifteen seconds of it, but that just meant that he’d have offers for the rest of it (under the table, of course). C’mon, c’mon, c’mon! Equipment failure!
* * * * *
Dr. Venus grappled with Sunburst, taking a much worse beating than she was really prepared for. She was taking a beating, since the bleached blonde bitch seemed to be sharp enough to concentrate on her face, instead of on her armored body. Who knew that that comment about saddlebags would piss her off THAT much?
Okay, fun was fun, but it was time to get this over with before this psycho bitch ruined her face! She pulled at Sunburst’s top, trying to cause her to pop out. It didn’t work, but she did manage to crawl around to Sunburst’s back, and she finally managed to clamp the shackle on the bitch’s neck. Sunburst went into a fast spin that threw Dr. Venus off of her, but Dr. V just exulted, “HAH! You can spin yourself even dizzier than you already ARE! It won’t matter! Harvey, turn on the Capture unit NOW!”
“What?” Sunburst felt at the collar around her neck, “Aw MAN, not another one of THESE! Not AGAIN!”
Dr. Venus hung there in the air, her grin of triumphant expectation only marred by the trickle of blood from her nose. Then her grin went stiff and strained, as nothing happened. “Harvey? Harvey, sweetie, any time now… Harvey? Harvey?”
“Harvey?” she looked down at the warehouse, and saw that neither of the VTVs had lifted off, and the loading dock was surrounded by LA Sheriff’s Department vans, and a bunch of DPH EMT vans as well, with lights flashing. “Oh, Poo…”
Then Dr. Venus burned out every component in her accessory belt accelerating herself over the horizon. Though not in the direction of El Segundo.
Sunny floated there for a moment, tugging at the capture collar. Then she gave up with a snort. Looking down at the scene below, she muttered, “Maybe one of them will have a hacksaw,” and floated down to the warehouse.
As she landed on the dock, Sunny found a very different scene than she expected. She’d expected to find the place all shot up, with SWAT cops and Dr. Venus’ henchmen in various states of traumatic shock. Instead, there wasn’t any blood. There were big, buff, very hunky guys who looked like Chippendales dancers in mufti standing around, but they were talking to the cops and paramedics very intently, and there was a remarkable vibe of cooperation going on. She wandered around looking for an EMT who looked like he might have a hacksaw or cold laser or something, but then she spotted a short dark, pale figure leaning over one of the studmuffins, offering what looked suspiciously like moral support to a man who was very frightened about something. “Katie?”
“Oh, Hi, Sunny. Hey, maybe he’ll believe it, coming from you. Does the LA County DA still offer those deals for henchmen who turn State’s Evidence on supervillains?”
“Ahhh… yeah, I think so. At least, they’ll reduce the charges. I think.”
“See, Harvey? All they really have on you is conspiracy to commit B&E and an Attempt, and you gave up even before the Cops showed up. With that, States’ Evidence, consideration for your condition, and a plea of Coercion-”
“Coercion?” Sunny asked, trying to catch up.
“Harvey and the rest of the guys are Dr. Venus’ henchmen and sex puppies. Y’see, she recruits her minions by trolling comic book stores, Role-Playing groups, video game outlets, Science Fiction conventions, and other natural gathering places for runty nerds and flabby, overweight geeks and like that. She offers to turn them into buff and ripped studmuffins, oh, and a chance to sample her goodies as well. So, they get to live out the opportunity of a lifetime, and Dr. Venus gets a cadre of intelligent, educated, physically enhanced and motivated henchmen, oh, and the opportunity to live out a few beefcake fantasies of her own. The problem is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even in super-science. Dr. Venus’ process is unstable, and after about a year and a half, give or take a few weeks, her stabilization drugs stop working, and the guys either get hypertrophy or dystrophy or just start wasting away. And then Dr. Venus has to go trolling for more chumps.”
“But if you know this, WHY are you working for her?” Sunny asked.
“We didn’t,” Harvey admitted. “SHE told us.”
Sunny raised an enquiring eyebrow at Kate.
“I know Jobe Wilkins,” was her only reply.
“But we knew that she was right, the second that she told us that,” Harvey said after breathing into a paper bag. “It was too good to be true. She always needs money; if she had a stable super-soldier process, she’d market it somehow. And none of the guys who were on the team when I signed on are still with us. I’m the oldest guy on the team. I don’t know why we didn’t put it together before that.”
“Harvey, they’re called ‘boobs’,” Kate put it simply. Then she turned to Sunny. “Harvey here has information that I think you need to hear, but he wants some assurances that he won’t get too badly reamed by the courts.”
Sunny tugged at the collar around her neck. “Harvey, if you can get this thing off my neck, I’ll testify for you at your trial. That ought to knock off some time.”
“It’s a dynamorph remote extraction-”
“I know that! How do I get it off?” Harvey told her which switch on the trunk disengaged the collar. Pulling the collar off, Sunny beamed, “Cool! So, you said that you had some information for us?”
“Yeah. Dr. Venus wasn’t ripping this stuff off for herself. She’s always hurting for cash, and most of us have loaned her money at some time or another-”
“And the Academy Award for Supervillainess with more nerve than a bum tooth goes TO…” Kate said far more brightly than she was usually wont to.
“So, she does ‘chores’ for other supervillains. Like rip off stuff that they need, so no one can figure out what they’re up to by their loot trail,” Harvey finished.
“Okay, I’m listening. So, who was she fronting for?”
“The Monster Maker. Dr. Macabre. Hey, I wasn’t happy with it!” Harvey was suddenly very defensive. “But we were strapped for cash, and there was this bustier that Dr. V had her eyes on, and she was-”
“Stacked,” Kate summed it up.
“Aaahhh… YEAH,” Harvey admitted.
“So, where is Macabre hiding out?” Sunny asked.
“No good,” Kate droned. “If Macabre has a brain in his head, he’d know better than to trust a ditz like Dr. Venus with the location of his hideout.”
“He didn’t,” Harvey agreed. “I mean, he did have a brain in his head, and he didn’t tell Sweetc- er, Dr. Venus. She had us place a transponder in one of the shipments we delivered, and we tracked them to his current lair.”
“Well, she was gonna wait until he was about to make a big move, rat him out to the Cops, and then raid his lab and rip off everything that he had.”
“Hmph,” Kate grumped. “Professionalism.”
Then two large plainclothes detectives walked up. “Okay, Beefcake, time to go.”
“Hold on,” Kate interrupted, not liking the tone that these two were taking with Harvey. “He IS going into Protective Custody, right?”
“Don’t give me any guff, kid. He’s a big buff boy. He can take his chances in General Population.”
Kate walked up and glared into the detective’s eyes. “He’s going into Protective Custody.”
THREE MINUTES LATER
“Okay, okay, OKAY!” the detective caved in, “He can GO into Protective Custody! Mierda! Just… back off okay?”
“ALL of them?”
“Okay, okay… all of them.” She hadn’t moved an inch or said a word. The detective led Harvey and the rest of the Superhunks off without the handcuffs. As they disappeared out the door, Kate could just make out the sounds of them comparing imaginary aches and twinges. Kate silently looked around her, and there were many policemen, CSI workers and Insurance adjusters around, but Sunburst was nowhere to be seen. Without a word, Kate wrapped herself in Erebeal darkness and was gone as well.
* * * * *
Sunny was scrambling around the stairwell of the mall on her hands and knees, searching for something, cursing under her breath. Kate emerged from a shadow. “Looking for something?” she asked almost puckishly.
“My shopping bags,” Sunny grunted, looking under the stairwell the seventeenth time, just in case she’d missed it the first sixteen times. “I left them here before I flew off. And my clothes for my secret ID are in them!”
“What about your keys, credit cards and ID?”
“Oh, I still have them on me. But I can’t go shopping like THIS!”
“Oh, dang it all to heck. We’ll just have to go home then. Pity that you didn’t just check the bags at the customer service desk of one of the stores.”
“Yeah,” Sunny admitted. “Pity I didn’t think of it. Well, there’s nothing for it-”
“I think that the Porsche is in this direction.
“-you’ll just have to buy some shopping clothes for me. But, we’ll have the fun of buying everything all over again!”
“Oh, did you mean THESE shopping bags?” Kate produced from a shadow three shopping bags, with Sunny’s civvies tucked in one of them .
“KATIE!” Sunny gleeped joyfully. She dug around in the bags and pulled out her hoodie and jeans. Then she looked in both bags. “Katie, where’s the bag with the sweaters that I bought for you?”
“What do you mean? Those are the only bags that were still here when I found them.”
“Oh, nuts.” Sunny pouted a bit at that, but as it was getting along, she picked up her bags and headed for the Porsche. She was rattling along so animatedly about the selection at another store that she didn't notice Kate stopping by the Goodwill bin and discreetly dropping a shopping bag of festive holiday sweaters into it.
* * * * *
“Ooo… this is PERFECT!” Sunny squealed as she examined the tall conifer in the Christmas tree ‘ranch’ up in the San Bernardino hills. “This will look perfect in the living room!”
“And God knows, it’ll be better off, rotting on the side of the street, waiting for the garbage truck, come New Year’s Day.”
Sunny ‘cut’ down the tree with a blast of light, and Kate damped out the flames with her darkness. As Kate dragged the tree behind her on her train of darkness, Sunny asked, “So, do you think that we should spray artificial snow on him, or do you think that Doug is an au natural kind of tree?”
“You know: Douglas Fir?”
“So… I saw you getting all chummy with those yummy hench-hunks of Dr. Venus’…” Sunny grinned. “Soooo… you like ‘em big an’ beefy?” she asked with a leer.
“Oh sure, I’m all hot and bothered by guys who are so stupid and shallow that they’re willing to risk their health and even their lives to twist themselves into an artificial version of an innately unhealthy male stereotype.”
“So, you DO like ‘em buff and brawny!”
“Sunny, they’re such horndogs that they let themselves be experimented on, and went into a life of crime, all for the sake of an over-inflated airhead like Dr. Venus. They were willing to cripple themselves, just for some hot sweaty SEX!”
“YEP! Sounds like primo boyfriend material to me!” Kate glowered at her. “Okay then, you were being pretty dang supportive and nurturing to a bunch of horndogs for the hard, cold-hearted woman that you keep insisting that you are.”
“Doctor Venus led them around by the nose - or something - and played with their emotions - or something - and pretty much used them like Kleenex. I can relate.”
“So you DID meet a boy at school this year!” Kate scowled at her again. “So, at the very least, you wouldn’t be hurt if I got one or two of their phone numbers? Hey, they’re buff, they’re cute, they probably have good jobs, and most of them know how to program computers! Hey, if they have rich parents, we are talking PRIME Beefcake here!”
“Sunny, the odds are that most of them will have devolved back to their flabby old selves - IF they’re lucky - inside nine months.”
“SO? That’s three months longer than most of my boyfriends last!”
By this time, Sunny and Kate had made their way to the tree-ranch office, and they paid for the tree. When they got to the Porsche, Sunny checked her messages out of sheer reflexes. Spotting one from California Crusaders HQ, she called in immediately.
[Sunny! Do you have any idea where that little menace to society you took in is at the moment?]
“Ah, sure, Bru. She’s right here, right next to me. Why?”
[Her ankle monitor went off, and we can’t locate her.]
“Like I said, Bru, she’s right here. We went up into the San Bernardino hills, to a Christmas tree ranch, and we’re bringing the coolest Christmas tree home to decorate!” Sunny got serious. “Oh C’mon, Bru! Katie already apologized for the pudding thing!”
[Sunny, I was scrying, trying to find that Headhunter thing, and I got some very nasty signals. I was narrowing down the possibilities. If Kate wasn’t doing anything magical… then something nasty has moved into the Southland. It’s not the Headhunter, and Dr. Macabre wouldn’t leave traces like this. If another player has come onto the scene, this could get REAL nasty, with Christmas coming up.]
* * * * *
He arrived at LAX, just another tourist or business traveler among the thousands that pass through that terminal every day, though his sour expression favored the latter. He passed through the TSA check without any hitches. But then, getting on an air flight was hard; getting off was easy. Well, with the exception of collecting the luggage. His cab ride to a mid-range hotel was just as unremarkable. Slightly less drab, though still quite mundane were the four express delivery packages waiting for him at the hotel lobby. He took the packages straightaway up to his room, and paid off the bellhop.
As soon as the bellhop left the room, he opened the packages and got immediately to work. When trying to move contraband through the mails or direct delivery services, most people break the items up, hoping to confuse the x-ray scanning. But he knew that the delivery services were on to that, and they checked packages that had signatures that didn’t match the registered contents. He respected that, even as he worked around it. So, the contents of the boxes were arranged to match the signatures of photography gear, a jewelry consignment, and precision tools. Disassembling the contents and re-arranging the parts, he assembled a six-shot revolver, a cavalry saber, a selection of throwing knives and a few other items. One of those items was a small butane stove that he melted pellets of jeweler’s silver into a liquid mass, which he poured first into runes carved into the blade of the saber, and then into a mold for bullets. Later, he would have them all blessed at one of the several Roman Catholic churches in the Los Angeles area that were on his list as being helpful in the struggle. He wasn’t a Catholic, but he respected the potency of their rituals, which had the power of millions of devout believers behind them. And while his crusade was fueled by his own faith, he was too pragmatic to let mere dogma schisms among the faithful blind him to the virtues of others.
As the silver cooled, he checked out his hunting outfit. It was carefully designed so that in one mode, it would blend in seamlessly with most surroundings, and be utterly inconspicuous. It would be more effective in a cooler climate, but he went where his prey did. Then, with a single swirling change of his coat, his appearance would change in a way that would both dominate the recollections of bystanders, and send an unmistakable message to his targets. He stood in front of the mirror, the very image of an 18th Century Puritan, grim, relentless, and righteous, in all ways, a Witch Hunter.
to be continued