New York, Tuesday April 10th, 2007
I've always been fond of mornings, the calm and quiet period where the world was waking up and most people were still too sleepy to be the obnoxious assholes they were the rest of the day. For me, mornings usually meant that I'd either returned home safely from being out all night on a job, or that I'd had the night off, both of which were good things. At the moment, I was enjoying my morning by sitting around in my underwear, eating a bowl of Fruit Loops, and watching TV.
The TV was on a local news channel, which was showing footage of a couple of teenage girls who suddenly caught the media's attention, which normally wouldn't have interested me in the least. However, these girls had pointed ears, solid black skin, and silvery white hair, so they definitely weren't the typical blonde haired bimbos I usually saw on TV. I was amazed, and admittedly, a little jealous over the fact that the reporter was going on about these Drow being the latest thing. From my personal experience, such unusual looking women were rarely called 'exotic beauties' and were more frequently referred to as 'freaks'.
"Lucky them," I said with a sigh, using my tail to reach over and pick up the remote. Once I had the remote in hand, I changed the channel to something a little more distracting...like cartoons. "Much better."
Still, even as I ate my sugary breakfast cereal and watched Jerry lead Tom on a wild chase, my mood was still a little shaken. For most of my life, I've had to be careful about going out in public, spending most of my time laying low and avoiding attention. This meant I've spent countless hours indoors, watching a TV and rotting my brain, or as I preferred to think of it, doing pop culture research. But those Drow girls didn't seem to have that problem at all, so I wasn't sure whether I should resent them for their good fortune or be happy that things were changing.
Just then, I heard a noise from my bedroom, reminding me that I had a guest over...as if waking up on the couch hadn't been reminder enough. After I'd rescued Alicia last night, I'd brought her home, not knowing anywhere else I could take her. I'd bandaged her arm, which had only been nicked by a bullet so wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared, and then I put her up for the night in my room.
"I really need a secret lair," I said, feeling worried that I'd given away too much of my other identity. I was pretty sure that she had no idea where I'd brought her, and while she was out I'd hidden all of my mail, as well as anything else that might have my address or the name Candice Kade on it. I'd done about all I could to protect my dual identity, though I was a little worried it wouldn't be enough. "But it's not like I could have just dumped her on the side of the road."
A minute later, Alicia came out of my room, dressed in her dirty clothes but with a bandage wrapped around her arm where the bullet had grazed her. I was still sitting there in my panties and ratty old t-shirt, not having bothered to get dressed yet. When I was younger, I'd been extremely self-conscious about my oddities...my tail, horns, and the small black scales which were quite noticeable on my shoulders and lower back. However, I refused to be ashamed of what I was in my own home, which may have been why I hadn't bothered getting dressed before now. A part of me was kind of hoping that she'd react in shock or disgust so I could wash my hands of this whole mess without having to feel guilty.
Alicia looked around with a wary expression, and when her eyes settled on me, there was a look of caution but not shock or disgust. Of course, she didn't seem to have had any problems with me yesterday or at the museum either, but it wouldn't have been the first time I've seen people have a delayed reaction. I was relieved that I wouldn't have to deal with that this time.
"Good mornin," she greeted me politely, those two words clearly conveying her accent. "Thanks again for savin mah life. If it wasn't for you, ah'd be toast."
"No problem," I responded, getting back to my feet. I held up my empty cereal bowl and gestured towards the kitchen. "Help yourself to breakfast."
Alicia nodded at that and went to the kitchen. After a minute, she called out, "Where are yer grits at?"
"Grits?" I asked blankly.
"You know," she responded. "Grits." At my continued blank look she let out an exasperated sigh. "For breakfast?"
"You eat something called grit?" I asked in surprise. "It sounds disgusting..."
Alicia gave me an odd look and muttered something that sounded like "Yankees," before asking, "What do y'all have to eat?"
I chuckled at that as I put my bowl into the sink and refilled my coffee mug. "Milk, cereal, coffee...and whatever you can find."
Admittedly, Alicia wouldn't find much in my kitchen since I wasn't exactly big on cooking. Though I might be an incredibly talented...and modest woman...cooking wasn't exactly one of my gifts. In fact, my microwave got more use than my oven and stove combined. Alicia gave me a sour look, then began digging through my fridge and cupboards. A short time later, she'd mixed up a batch of scrambled eggs with cheese and a few things I hadn't even realized I had.
"It looks like you know how to cook," I commented with some amusement.
"Of course ah can," Alicia responded rather proudly. "Ah'm from the South."
While she ate, I went and changed, getting dressed in some comfortable civilian clothes. Of course, I suspected that I'd have to change into my working outfit later on, but for now this would do. By the time I came back out, Alicia had finished eating and was actually washing dishes. I was a little surprised at that, but I certainly wasn't about to complain.
Once Alicia was finished, she gave me a cautious look, then asked, "When can ah go home? Mah folks must be worried sick about me..."
"You can leave anytime you want," I told her with a shrug. "In fact, if you want, I'll drop you off anywhere you want to go. Well, anywhere but the police station." I paused to grin, my tail waving back and forth. "I'm afraid they just don't respect my life choices."
"Stealing stuff is a life choice?" she asked skeptically.
"Yep," I agreed cheerfully. Then I stared at her for a moment and frowned, realizing that she was putting up a pretty good face but she was still just a scared kid. "Look, you can go home anytime you want, but you are in danger. Hexagoner wants you, and I don't know whether or not he knows where you live...or if he can track you down. What I do know is that I'm pretty damn good at flying under the radar, and I'm offering you a place to lay low for awhile."
Alicia hesitated a moment, then said, "Ah'll be safe once ah'm back at school...but...maybe for just a day or two." Then she paused again, looking uncertain before hopefully asking, "Can ah at least call and let mah folks know ah'm all right?"
I nodded at that and picked up my cell phone, made by a devisor who specialized in communication security. His phones were supposedly impossible to hack or trace, which made them quite popular among people in my line of work. I handed the phone to Alicia, then made sure to listen in as she called her parents, just in case she tried telling them where I was. I might have lost my mind enough to rescue her, but I didn't avoid capture by being careless.
"Ah'm fine Mama... Really," Alicia said on the phone. "Ah'm with the lady who rescued me... No Mama, that jerk is still after me, so ah'm keeping mah head down... As Daddy says, if ye've got a gator chasin ya on the ground, ye'd best stay up in the tree."
The girl talked on the phone for half an hour, assuring her parents over and over that she was fine and could take care of herself. I smirked faintly as I listened in, wondering just how comforted they'd be if they knew she was staying with a wanted criminal. I noticed that she hadn't said a thing about who it was who'd rescued her, nor about what I did for a living. Obviously, she didn't think that they'd find it very comforting either.
After Alicia was done with the phone, she began to explore my condo, probably out of a mixture of boredom and curiosity. I just sat back and played on my computer, doing a little more research on Hexagon and Alistaire Duccard. Now that I knew the two of them were related, that made it pretty easy to track down Hexagon's real identity, not that it really changed anything. Whether I called him Miles Ragland or Hexagon, he was still going to come after Alicia. The painting I'd taken might help him become more powerful, but he seemed pretty sure that without her, he'd end up dead. That little fact just made keeping her out of his hands all the more satisfying.
"Ya'll sure have a lot of art," Alicia finally announced. I looked up and saw that she was looking at the Monet. "This one looks like it should be in a museum..."
I just smirked at that since that was exactly where I'd found it. And once I got tired of it, there was a good chance that it might end up back in the museum. Of course, I'd have to replace it first, and the replacement might very well come from the same museum. After all, I did have my eyes on this beautiful little piece from Renoir
"That one is from Monet," I said, standing up and smiling as I went over to where she was standing. I admired the painting in silence for several seconds, then began telling her a little about it as well as about the artist. "Oscar-Claude Monet was one of the founders of the impressionist movement, and he's probably best known for all his landscapes..."
When I was finished talking about Monet, Alicia stared at the painting for a moment, then asked, "What was that impressionist thing ya said he invented?"
I just smiled at that, then began to describe the impressionist art movement and what it meant. At first, Alicia gave me a blank look, that was probably similar to what I'd given her when she was talking about that gritty breakfast stuff, so I tried to change my description a little. I wasn't sure, but I thought she got the basic idea.
"I have an idea," I suddenly announced, giving her my best evil grin, which was pretty damn good. After all, I've practiced it professionally for three decades. "Now come child...come to my evil sanctum..."
Alicia gave me a wary look, but followed me to the spare bedroom, the one that I'd converted into my studio. There were several painting easels set up, a shelf containing my various paints and brushes, and there were some finished and half-finished paintings scattered about the room. The entire floor was covered with canvas to prevent drippings that would stain and ruin the carper.
"Instead of talking about other people's art," I told Alicia with a grin. "I thought you'd prefer the chance to try a little of your own."
"But ah don't know how to do that kind of paintin," Alicia protested, looking just a bit nervous.
"That's okay," I responded wryly. "I know professionals who don't really know how to paint either. The best way to learn is to do."
I set a couple of blank canvases onto easels, then got some paint and brushes ready. In just a few minutes, Alicia was painting on her canvas, making a mess more than anything, but she was getting into it which was the first step. While Alicia played around, I went to work on my own canvas, noticing that she kept stopping to watch me.
"There are all sorts of brush strokes and tricks you can use to get the effect you want," I explained, demonstrating a few of them for her. "Just play around and see what works for you."
"This is kinda fun," Alicia announced after awhile, giving me a curious look. "Are ya really a villain? Ah mean, ya don't act like one..."
"My union card says so," I responded cheerfully, giving her a grin. "But what do you expect a villain to act like?"
"Ah don't know," she answered a little awkwardly. "Ah guess...ah figured a villain would be mean..."
I just chuckled at that. "Only when I haven't had my coffee." Then I shook my head and mused, "Some of the best people I know are criminals...and some of the biggest assholes I've ever met call themselves heroes. I've never liked that term...super villain. I mean, it's so broad sweeping and prejudicial."
"Prejudicial?" Alicia asked with a confused look. "What'cha mean?"
I scowled for a moment, trying to think about how to phrase this. "It sets the assumption that you are a bad person...that you are evil. Now, I am a thief...and a very good one, but I certainly don't think of myself as evil. Sure, I won't hesitate to take something I want, but I don't rob people at gunpoint, I've never taken hostages, and I usually try to avoid hurting anyone. But grouping every costumed criminal under the label of villain sort of assumes that there's no difference between me and a mass murderer like Deathlist."
"Ah guess ah can see how that would be annoying," Alicia agreed, giving me a curious look.
"Not just annoying," I responded with a shrug. "About ten...maybe twelve years ago, a so-called hero named the Crimson Kid was chasing after a guy called Monster Max, who was basically just a thug who liked smashing things. The Kid accidentally killed a bystander, then because he was afraid of the consequences, he went and killed a guy who'd witnessed the whole thing. After everything was over, the Kid accused Max of murdering them, and because Max was a villain..." I made air quotes with my fingers, "everyone bought it. The Kid got away with murder, and Max, who wasn't really guilty of anything more than property damage...was executed."
"Merde," Alicia gasped, giving me a look of surprise. "And what happened to this Crimson Kid?"
I just gave the girl an evil grin, answering, "Max had a few friends who weren't happy about how things went down. Let's just say, no one has seen the Kid since."
Alicia shuddered at that, then said, "Merde," again. "Ah guess it ain't a good idea to frame someone who's got friends like that."
I nodded, annoyed that the good mood from painting had been ruined. "Help me clean up the brushes," I told Alicia, giving her another evil grin. "I'm going to need your help with a heist..."
"What?" Alicia exclaimed, giving me a look of shock. "Are ya out of yer damned mind? Ah'm not gonna help ya do something like that..."
The look on her face made me burst out laughing. "Don't worry, I'm not really going to make you an accomplice to anything." And though I didn't say it, there was absolutely no way I was going to bring an amateur along for a job. That would just be stupid.
Once everything was cleaned up and put away, I scrounged around and found some clean clothes for Alicia to wear. My clothes didn't exactly fit her well, but I had a few things that would work for the time being. Then I reached for my magic medallion, hesitating a moment before putting it on. I was concerned that I'd already revealed too much about my other life to her, but then I remembered that she'd already seen my other face at the museum. With a sigh, I activated the medallion and the illusion slipped into place.
"So much easier than the old way," I mused with a smirk.
Before I had this medallion, going out in public without drawing a lot of attention had been quite a pain. I had to stuff my tail down my pant leg, wear a long coat that would help hide the bulge from my tail, wear a wide brimmed hat that concealed my horns and the scales on my forehead, and then I'd finish it off with a pair of oversized sunglasses. And then, even after all that, anyone who got a good look at me was still likely to notice something odd.
"Miss Imp," Alicia asked me, giving me a wary look. "Where are we goin? Ah thought ah were supposed to lay low."
"Call me Christine when I look like this," I said with a grin, knowing that I must be confusing the poor girl with the way I kept changing what name she was supposed to use. "It wouldn't do to have someone overhear you calling me the Imp in public, not when we're trying to avoid attention. As for laying low, unless you stick out like sore thumb like yours truly usually does...one of the best places to hide is in the middle of a crowd. Unless Hexagon and his goobers can use magic to track you, you'll be perfectly safe out there with me. And if they can track us with magic...well...staying in here won't be much safer."
"Well, ah didn't much like the idea of hidin anyways," Alicia announced with a grin. "But where are we goin?"
"Lunch," I announced with a maniacal laugh, though a moment later, I let out a sigh and admitted, "In case you hadn't noticed it, my cupboards are about as bare as a baby's bottom. Now come on...I'll introduce you to a real New York delicacy...pizza."
"Y'all know, we do have pizza in Loosiana," Alicia responded, giving me a look as though she was questioning my intelligence.
I just grinned in response and half dragged her to the door. "Maybe, but you don't have real, authentic, New York style, thin crust pizza... Three out of four ninja turtles prefer it."
New York, Wednesday April 11th, 2007
I stood back and watched as Alicia cleaned dishes, feeling amused since my kitchen had seen more use in the last two days than it had in the previous month. Yesterday while we'd been out, Alicia had insisted we get some real food for my cupboards, in spite of the fact that she knew she wouldn't be staying with me for long. Still, she'd made grits for breakfast this morning, and they weren't nearly as bad as I'd imagined. Instead of gritty sand, which is what the name made me think of, they were a little more like Cream of Wheat.
"If ah'm still here for supper tonight," Alicia called out cheerfully, "ah'll make up some of mah daddy's gumbo..." She paused at that, frowning in annoyance as she continued, "Ah don't think ah can get any good bugs around here, but ah'm pretty sure ah can find some good shrimp..."
"Bugs?" I asked, suddenly having visions of her cooking up a cockroach stew. I shuddered at that, deciding that it would probably be a good night for delivery.
Alicia didn't seem to hear me and just began looking through my cupboards, calling out, "Don'tcha have a gumbo pot?" When I gave her a blank look, she shook her head and muttered something that sounded like, "Yankees..."
I continued watching Alicia, who to my amazement, had been kidnapped by a magical nutjob with a geometry obsession, was being chased by said nutjob who wanted to use her for a human sacrifice, and was now hiding out with beautiful and talented moi...and she still somehow managed to be cheerful. As strange as it was, Alicia almost seemed to be treating this whole thing as some kind of grand adventure, or at least she was at the moment.
"I bet you're looking forward to going home," I commented, taking a throwing spike and tossing it across the room at the dart board. It caught Chickenhawk right in the cheek. "Damn," I muttered. "I was aiming for the nostril..."
"Yeah," Alicia admitted, giving me a bit of a grin. "But ah won't be able to go home till summer..."
I nodded at that, remembering that she'd said she'd come to New York with her family for spring break. "Your family is staying here for that long?"
Alicia shrugged, "Naw. Mah folks are going back home soon, but ah've gotta go back ta school." She hesitated a moment, then admitted, "Ah kinda go to a private school..."
"Really?" I asked, a little surprised since that kind of thing took money.
"Ever since mah daddy got some money, Mama's been tryin to culture me," Alicia explained with a roll of her eyes. "That's why we came to New York for spring break instead of lettin me go home to Loosiana. If ah wasn't here with y'all, ah'd be goin to some kinda Broadway play, so this is a lot more fun..."
I made a show of buffing my nails on my shirt and then blowing on them. "Well, I am an entertaining woman."
"And modest too," Alicia pointed out with a smirk.
I just grinned at that. "Thank you for noticing."
After that, I went and turned on my stereo, filling my condo with the sweet sounds MMMBop...much to Alicia's look of annoyance. "Don'tcha have anything better?" she asked me hopefully. "Maybe some zydeco?"
"Zydewhat?" I asked blankly.
Alicia played around with my radio dial and got annoyed when she couldn't find what she was looking for. We ended up settling on some classic rock station, which was something we could both listen to as I put her back to work on her painting. Not only did it keep her too occupied to worry about the fact that Hexagon wanted to kill her, but it also kept her out of my hair while I did some research and checked with my contacts.
I confirmed that the police did raid Hexagon's home and had recovered the paintings, all of them except the one I was holding onto. I couldn't help but grinning at that, though I was a little disappointed at the same time. After all, it would have been nice to have been able to keep a souvenir...one other than this ugly picture of Alistaire Duccard. But then again, I could always snatch one of the paintings from the museum later on. Unfortunately, there was one more disappointment, though not one that surprised me. Hexagon had managed to get away.
"I never thought I'd be bothered by someone getting away from the cops," I said with a sigh, silently cursing Hexagon for putting me in such an awkward position.
When I was done checking with several of my other contacts, I decided to call Bob, though I was a little hesitant to do that. Bob had a knack of knowing what was going on and who the players were, but he didn't help for free. The price of his help was rarely simple cash and usually came in the form of a favor, sometimes one to be paid right away and sometimes an unnamed one to be called in sometime in the future.
"I need up an update on Hexagoner," I immediately told Bob. "Somehow, I doubt the weasel is still hanging around his old crib..."
"Yeah, I heard about that raid," Bob responded, his voice carrying a note of disapproval. "You the one who snitched on him to the cops?"
"Do you really think I'd do something like that?" I asked with a grin, though I tried to sound offended at the suggestion. "Unfortunately, now that they've recovered the paintings, it makes it a little more difficult for me to swipe them... But as annoying as that as, the greater complication is that Hexagon and I still have some unfinished business, and I have reason to believe he's coming after me."
"And you're right about that," Bob responded with a loud sigh. "He put word out yesterday that he's looking to hire some muscle...powered muscle. He's also been asking questions about you."
"Oh joy," I responded flatly.
"Tell ya what," Bob told me. "Meet me at the bar in a few hours and I'll have more for you..."
I hesitated a moment at that, glancing back in the direction of my workshop, where Alicia was still occupied. I didn't want to leave her here alone while I went out so I said, "No can do. I'll have a teddy bear with me."
If Bob was surprised that I was bringing a kid with me, he didn't indicate it. Instead, he merely said, "Fine. We can meet at that deli with the great pastrami sandwiches."
"Gotcha," I responded, knowing exactly which deli he was referring to. I've had to butter Bob up a few times before with food from the place. "And after this...I'll owe you one."
Once I was done with all my phone calls, I went back to my workshop and checked on my houseguest, who was still busy painting. "Not bad," I told her, not wanting to discourage the girl.
"Thanks," Alicia told me, gesturing to one of my finished pieces that was sitting off to the side. "But Ah'll never be as good as you."
I just shrugged at that. "That one isn't really art," I told her with a chuckle. "At least not mine. This is a forgery...a copy of someone else's work. It's a pretty damn good forgery, but there isn't really anything of me in it. Not this one... This one is mine." I gestured to another painting, one that I was particularly proud of. I was pretty sure that if I had another art show at the gallery, that one would be a hit. And even if it wasn't...it deserved to be.
Alicia looked the painting over before saying, "That one's pretty nice... Ah like it better than that other one..."
"Thank you," I responded, not sure why I was pleased about being complimented from someone who knew absolutely nothing about art. Maybe it was because she didn't know much about art. She didn't know anything about style or technique, only if she liked it or not.
"Once you finish up here," I told her with a grin, "we have an appointment to get to." Then as I turned to leave, I gave her a gentle swat with my tail, which caught her by surprise and make her jump with an 'eep'.
I went back to my room and got dressed in my working clothes, the black and red leather outfit that looked oh so sexy on me. Then I had to get ready to go out in public without causing a scene, which meant hiding my features. Since I didn't want Bob to know about my other identity, or about my being able to hide my features with illusion, that meant I had to go out the old fashioned way.
I threw on a long trenchcoat which hid both my outfit and my tail, and then I put on the wide brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses. Of course, anyone who looked closely at my face would still see the small scales on my cheeks, but I had a lot of experience in avoiding that kind of scrutiny. Besides, this was New York, and most people would go out of their way to avoid paying that much attention to me.
If Alicia was surprised to see me dressed up and disguised like that instead of with illusion, she didn't say anything about it. I was actually a little disappointed since I had a couple of great smartass comments lined up and ready, and now I wouldn't be able to use them. Oh well, maybe later.
"Come on," I told Alicia. "I'm gonna show you the New York subway. Trust me, you can't get more authentic New York culture than that."
An hour later, Alicia and I arrived at the deli where Bob was already waiting for us. He had a thick meaty sandwich in front of him, which meant he was in a good mood. I scowled slightly as I sat down, gesturing for Alicia to do the same. Bob gave her a quick glance before proceeding to ignore her completely.
"Get something to eat," Bob told me. "You won't find better pastrami within ten blocks."
I nodded at that, though it wasn't exactly comfortable to eat while dressed up like an extra from some old spy movie. Still, I kept everything on since I didn't want to freak out the locals. Even the most jaded New Yorker tended to get nervous when they say a devil woman, though admittedly, their reactions did vary. Not only did I get the people quoting scriptures or calling the MCO on me, but occasionally, I even got people offering to sell me their souls in exchange for wealth or immortality. I chuckled faintly as I remembered the last time that had happened, and how I'd played along. I wonder how many lottery tickets that idiot bought before realizing he wasn't going to win big like I'd promised.
"One pastrami for the kid," I told the waitress before explaining to Alicia, "It's the best thing on the menu."
Alicia nodded at that, then asked, "What's pastrami?" But once her sandwich arrived and she looked it over, she exclaimed, "Oh, this is just brisket..."
"Just brisket?" Bob gasped, staring at Alicia as though she'd just grown a second head.
Alicia seemed oblivious to Bob's reaction and asked the waitress, "Hey, do y'all have any barbeque sauce for this?" Bob, the waitress, and I all stared at Alicia in horror.
A short time later, Alicia had smothered her pastrami with hot sauce and seemed satisfied while eating it. Bob just shook his head, muttering something about the state of today's youth. It was all I could do not to laugh, though I did take mental notes as this was a great way to mess with him. The next time he wanted me to pick up a sandwich for him, I was going to make sure I brought him a bottle of hot sauce to go with it.
"So, what's with the kid?" Bob finally asked me. "You decided to take an apprentice?"
"Nothing like that," I assured him with a snort. "But never mind her. What do you have for me on Hexagon?"
"Like I said on the phone," Bob told me. "He's been picking up some powered muscle." He slid a folder across the table at me and when I glanced through it, there were pictures of three people. They were all low level villains, a bit more successful than the usual Superbad crowd...but not by much. I knew all three of them by reputation, though one of them was a guy I'd worked with in the past.
"That shouldn't be too difficult to handle," I mused.
Bob glanced to Alicia and frowned, obviously annoyed by her presence since it meant we couldn't talk quite as openly about our business as we might otherwise. "My anniversary is coming up soon," he finally said, giving me a flat look. "I'm gonna need a present for my wife."
"I'll pick out something appropriate," I assured him.
Bob and I talked for a few more minutes, avoiding anything that was too sensitive and that we didn't want Alicia to hear. Fortunately, most of what I needed to talk to Bob about was no surprise to Alicia since she was already well aware of the fact that Hexagon wanted to kill her. And thankfully, she'd listened to the warnings I'd given her on the trip over and remained mostly silent.
When we were done, Bob told me, "Take care, Imp. And don't forget the favor."
"I won't," I responded, gesturing to Alicia that it was time to go.
As we stepped out the door, Alicia said, "Well, that was interestin." She looked a little worried, though she was obviously trying to cover it up. "Ah think that maybe ah I should just go to the airport and fly back to mah school. Ah mean, ah'll be safe from Hexagon and his goons there. Ah just hate the idea of cutting mah vacation short because of them..."
"That might not be a bad idea," I said carefully, though I doubted that Alicia would be safe at any school. At best, it would put her out of Hexagon's immediate reach and it might take him awhile to track her down, possibly long enough for that demon he was trying to summon to foreclose on him for not paying up.
Just then, I noticed something from the corner of my eye, a man who was dressed very much like I currently was. I was instantly at full alert and looked around, only to see several more suspicious looking people, all coming in my direction.
"Run," I ordered Alicia, already turning to take off, but then hitting an invisible wall. It was only then that I noticed the glowing hexagon shape on the ground beneath us. "Ah shit. I've got a bad feeling about this..."
"Ya think?" Alicia responded with a snort, looking around with a fearful but defiant expression.
"Frequently," I agreed with a smirk, still watching my approaching enemies, who'd obviously decided that it was time to stop hiding. Hexagon stepped into the open first, looking quite smug. I really wanted to slap that smirk off his face.
Then the man in the hat and trenchcoat suddenly started to grow, bursting right out of the coat and revealing a very large and muscular man in a dark blue costume. I immediately recognized Muscle, who was a shifter who could add mass to his body, increasing his height, musculature, and density a great deal. Once he reached seven feet...and he was so bulging with muscles that a world champion bodybuilder would be puny in comparison, he stopped growing, though I knew from personal experience that he could grow another foot if he wanted.
I knew Muscle, though not nearly as well as he would have liked. He was...appropriately enough...professional hired muscle. He'd made an entire career of working for one would-be mastermind after another, playing bodyguard, breaking legs, and generally just standing around and looking intimidating. Rumor had it that he'd once fought Mimeo, back when they were both young and just getting started in the business. Of course, Mimeo had come a long way since then while Muscle was still doing the exact same thing.
"Imp," Muscle said with a scowl.
"Musclehead," I responded with a grin. "Last time I saw you, you nearly begged me let you be my lackey. Don't tell me you've had a change of heart."
"Sorry I've gotta do this," Muscle told me apologetically. "But a jobs a job."
"Times are hard all over," I agreed with in mock sympathy. Then I turned my attention to the next man and exclaimed, "Crash Test Dummy..."
Crash Test Dummy was about six feet tall and slender, wearing a costume that was lightweight body armor that had been put together from several mismatched sets so that even the colors didn't match. One shoulder pad was flat gray, as though it had been sprayed with primer, while the other shoulder pad was dark green. There was a helmet on his head, though the entire front was covered with a completely transparent faceplate which allowed everyone to see his face, and which I thought defeated half the purpose of wearing one of those things. He also had several weapons on his belt and slung over his back, though none of them were in the same style either.
As far as I knew, Crash Test Dummy had no actual powers, just a lot of borrowed weapons and tech. And though he was known for robbing banks and generally just causing mayhem and destruction of property, he made most of his money by field testing equipment for local gadgeteers and devisors.
"Don't call me that," he exclaimed in an offended tone. He stood up straight and proudly announced, "I am called..."
"I don't care," I cut him off. "You can call yourself Mister Poodlepants if you want, but your name is Crash Test Dummy."
"It is not," he protested.
"It is now," I returned with a grin, noticing that while Crash Test Dummy was getting frustrated, Muscle was snickering. "I changed it."
Crash Test Dummy glared at me and argued, "You can't just change someone else's name..."
"Sure I can," I told him with a smirk. "I've already hacked into the DPA records and had your name officially changed to Crash Test Dummy."
For a moment, he just stared at me with a blank look, then he blurted out, "You're lying..."
I just shrugged and grinned at him before admitting, "Yeah, but it's a great idea. In fact, once we're done here, I think I will go do that..."
"Enough with this comedy routine," Hexagon exclaimed, obviously annoyed.
"What's the matter Hexagoner?" I asked. "Feeling left out?"
And with that, I threw a handful of iron shavings at the invisible wall, having pulled them out while I'd been keeping everyone distracted. The sparks exploded around me, letting me know that it was working on the magic. Now I just had to haul my cute little ass out of here before Hexagon's third lackey showed.
Just then, I suddenly felt extremely dizzy and staggered, bumping into the invisible wall and falling to the ground. I looked around but everything was blurry, with the colors shifting and moving. I grimaced, silently cursing the woman who was causing this.
"Deliria," I spat out, looking around until I saw the woman in the garish pink costume.
I'd never met Deliria, but I had heard of her, even before Bob gave me the folder. Apparently, she'd gone through some kind of origin event and gained the power to instantly make people feel like they were totally plastered. She messed with their vision, their balance, and even their thinking process. And according to one guy whom I'd overheard talking about her, she was really bad in the sack.
"Ah shit," I muttered while Alicia said something similar beside me.
"Merde," she gasped, down on her knees and holding her head. "Is this what it feels like what ah use mah power?"
I was trying to think of a way out of this, and not having much luck, when I heard a familiar voice from behind me. "Okay," Bob stated, "I've done my part and brought them to you. Don't forget that favor you owe me..."
"Of course," Hexagon responded in an arrogant tone. "I am a man of my word."
"Bob," I snarled, trying to glare at the traitor, though I was seeing three of him and didn't know which one to focus on.
"Sorry Imp," he told me gruffly. "This isn't personal, but Hexagon promised to take care of the guy who did this..." He ran a finger along the nasty scar that ran across his face. I knew that it was only the most visible remnant from the incident that led him to retire his spandex, though certainly not the only one.
"And I will," Hexagon assured him. "Once I've completed my ritual and have the demon under my control, I'll send him to eliminate your enemy."
Bob nodded at that, then paused to light a cigarette. "And if you get out of this...I consider us square."
"Well, I don't," I stated, giving him an evil smile. "After this...I definitely owe you one."
I got back to my feet, but I was pretty wobbly and uncoordinated. Suddenly, the effect got even worse and I began having the dry heaves, being thankful at the same time that I hadn't actually eaten at the deli. Alicia, on the other hand, just lost her lunch.
After this, Alicia and I were quickly tied up, thrown into the back of a van, and hauled off. I couldn't see where we were going, but it was a rough ride with me bouncing around in the back. Deliria and a somewhat deflated Muscle remained in back with us, making sure that neither of us had the opportunity to escape.
Eventually, I was kicked out of the van and found myself on a hard concrete floor. While we'd been traveling, Crash Test Dummy had slapped some kind of manacles on me...heavy ones that forced both of my hands into fists and covered them entirely. I might as well have stuck my hands into a bucket of wet concrete and let it set. Similar manacles were forced over my feet, meaning that I wouldn't even be able to run away.
I looked around and saw that I was in a warehouse, one that looked like it was still in use. "Let me guess," I commented wryly. "Warehouse lair number five. A classic, but a little too cliche. I mean, I'd expect some brooding vigilante to drop through the skylight at any moment...or maybe a gaggle of ninjas...."
"There ain't no skylight," Muscle commented, swelling up and becoming larger again.
I ignored Muscle and continued, "Personally, I've always preferred penthouse lair number two. Much more elegant." Then I looked at Hexagon and smirked, "You really should look into something a little more upscale... Maybe a mansion... Oh wait...didn't you have one of those?"
Hexagon snarled and kicked me in the side, and with the manacles I couldn't do much to move out of the way. The kick hurt, but I just grinned...mostly to hide my worry. I was afraid...or at least concerned that I was in deep trouble.
"All y'all had better let us go," Alicia demanded, desperately trying to hide her fear, though she wasn't doing a very good job. "If ya don't...Lady Astarte will come rescue me...and then all y'all will really be in trouble..."
"Lady Astarte," Crash Test Dummy responded with a chuckle. "Good one kid."
"Gag her," Hexagon ordered, looking annoyed. "Take her to the back room and lock her up tight. I don't want there to be any chance we lose her again."
I was a bit surprised that they'd gagged Alicia instead of me, but then again, they needed Alicia for a bit longer. The question was, why hadn't they killed me already? Then again, Hexagon might simply be planning on killing me slowly and painfully for the way I'd messed with his plans.
Deliria and Crash Test Dummy grabbed Alicia and began hauling her away while she tried to struggle in vain. I felt worried about the girl, but admittedly, I was even more concerned about myself. Then I noticed that even as those two left, someone else was walking in our direction.
"Okay, we've got the girl back," Scott said as he came over.
The large man might have been intimidating in most places, but he looked scrawny compared to Muscle. He even gave Muscle a quick glare before hiding it. Obviously, he didn't like the fact that he was no longer the big guy in the room.
"Are you going to complete the spell tonight?" Scott asked Hexagon.
"Unfortunately, there is one more complication," Hexagon stated. He glared at me, his voice filled with venom as he continued, "I merely need to sacrifice the girl and then seal the ritual as complete."
"So, what's the big deal?" Muscle asked. "You said you just needed the girl..."
There was a long moment of silence before Hexagon reluctantly admitted, "The final words I require to complete the ritual are complicated and require preparation..."
Scott let out a sigh, then asked, "You forgot the words, didn't you?"
"A minor inconvenience," Hexagon snapped, kicking me in the side again. "I merely need to recover the painting... And you are going to tell me where you put it..."
"Whatchu talkin bout Willis?" I responded, earning another kick in the side. That was REALLY getting old.
"You are going to tell me where you hid my painting," Hexagon demanded.
"Je ne comprends pas l'Anglais," I answered. There was another kick, but I saw this one coming and flexed my PK aura so that it created a small shield in that spot. "You know, you can attract a lot more flies with honey than vinegar..."
"I'll take care of this," Scott told Hexagon, his expression turning grim. He came over and bent down beside me, grabbing my face in his hands and staring me straight in the eyes. "You're going to tell us what we need to know. Whether it's easy on you or painful is entirely up to you. Now, save yourself a lot of pain and tell us where you hid that painting..."
"I destroyed it," I lied. "I threw it in the fireplace..."
"She's an art freak," Muscle announced, getting Hexagon and Scott to both look at him. "She'd rather cut off her arm than burn a painting..."
I glared at Muscle, definitely not happy with him. I wondered if this was because I turned him down when he asked me out on a date. It was possible, but in spite of being a dumb thug, he was a professional. Once he sold his loyalty to someone...or at least once he leased it...he remained loyal until their contract was over. And at the moment, he owed his loyalty to Hexagon, not me.
Scott pulled out a large knife and simply said, "Let's try this again..." He bent down beside me, and just as I expected to face another threat, he drove the knife into my thigh. I hadn't seen it coming quickly enough to shield myself, so I ended yelling in pain. "Now...where is that painting?"
I grimaced as I glared at Scott, knowing that the smart thing to do would be to simply tell him what he wanted to know. It wasn't my painting and I didn't really care if Hexagon used magic to off his enemies...or at least not his other enemies. However, I also knew that the moment they had that painting, they'd kill me and then sacrifice Alicia...just like they'd tried to do the other day.
"Talk," Scott demanded, punching me in the stomach, then grabbing my leg where he'd stabbed me and squeezing me.
"That's funny," I said, forcing out the words through my pain. "Most of the time people are telling me to shut up..."
I felt a strong temptation to offer them a deal...my freedom for the painting. I didn't owe any loyalty to Alicia. I barely even knew the girl. But at the same time, I knew I couldn't do it. I might not have known the girl for very long, but I kind of liked her. I couldn't trade her life for mine. I might be a thief and a super villain, but I wasn't a monster.
Scott suddenly drove the knife into my other thigh, and this time he twisted it. While I screamed in pain, he punched me in the face. I felt an explosion of more pain as he broke my nose. More punches followed, hitting my face and stomach.
"She doesn't seem so tough for a mutant super villain," Scott commented almost absently.
Muscle didn't look happy about my being tortured, but he made no move to help me. "She's a thief," he said in my defense, "Not a fighter."
"Yes, she is a thief," Hexagon stated, looking down at me with a look of satisfaction. "And she made the mistake of stealing from me..."
"You stole my painting first," I muttered defiantly, though it hurt to say anything. That earned me another kick, this one aimed at my thigh where I'd been stabbed. I couldn't focus enough to shield the impact.
"I NEED that painting," Hexagon told Scott. "I need to complete the ritual before the demon comes...otherwise...even with the right sacrifice...it will be able to alter the terms of our agreement as it sees fit."
"And that won't be good," Scott nodded agreement. "Don't worry Hexagon. She'll tell us where it is."
With that, Hexagon and Muscle walked awhile while Scott leaned over me again. He didn't repeat the question or even say a word. Instead, he just went to work with the knife.
"Now then," Scott announced several minutes later. "I hope you'll be more cooperative..."
I was spread out in the middle of the warehouse floor, a broken and bloody mess. I was sure that a couple of my ribs were broken, and I thought my arm might be as well. And then there were the various cuts he'd given me, all of which hurt like hell.
"No more," I whispered, ashamed of myself for talking like that.
I was a professional thief...a career criminal...a super villain... There was no way in hell that I was going to be taken down by these second rate thugs...and especially not by some sadistic baseline who didn't even have power. After everything I'd gone through and survived, I absolutely refused to go down like that.
"No more," I stated, trying to gather every ounce of my willpower. Then I began whispering my home address. Scott crouched down beside me, bending over so he could hear what I was whispering. I just grinned evilly and said, "Gotcha."
With that, I swung my tail up and across his side...with my PK aura concentrated around the tip the same way I did with my claws. An invisible PK blade sliced right through his side, then I cut him again. Scott fell backwards, gurgling as he bled out on the floor beside me.
"Sucks to be you," I whispered, knowing that I couldn't just go to sleep like I wanted.
I remained where I was for several minutes, letting my regeneration do what it could for me. And though I would have loved to stay there longer...a lot longer...I didn't dare. I didn't know when Hexagon or one of his goons would come back to check on us. So with some effort, I positioned myself so I could use my tail to cut through the manacles on my hands. With those free, it was fairly easy to free my feet as well, though at the moment, easy was a relative term. Once my restraints were gone, I slowly pulled myself along the floor towards the nearest exit. It hurt like hell, but I knew it would hurt more if I stayed. I silently reminded myself that the soft tissue damage would heal in no time at all, though the broken bones would take a bit longer.
By the time I'd made it out of the warehouse, I felt strong enough to stand, though just barely. But even though I was able to get to my feet, I still hurt like hell and was in no shape to fight Hexagon or his hired thugs. I grimaced at that, knowing that there was absolutely no way I could get past them and get Alicia out. None. At the moment, it was taking everything I had just to get myself out.
For a moment, I just stood there, letting the fear fade and the anger grow. I was pissed...really pissed. The last time I'd been this angry had been when the Crimson Kid set up my buddy Max and sent him to his death. Back then, I'd dealt with the Kid, so now it seemed that I'd have to do the same to Hexagon.
Then as I turned to walk away, I stated, "Of course you know, this means war."