2.2 Bread Crumbs

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“Sorry, I haven’t seen anything.”

 

“I’m not here to help you get your fix, lady.”

 

“Thomas didn’t do nothing, why you beefing with a man on his grind?”

 

“Just call the cops.”

 

“Fuck you! Rebecca killed my dad, you clone bitch! Get out of my face!”

 

Jessica groaned loudly, about ready to throw her notepad down the storm drain and take a job at Burger King. She wasn’t getting anywhere with these people. This was Blackburn, alright. No one saw anything and if they did, they wouldn’t tell you. The fact that some ignorant jackasses thought she was an acceptable target for their rage against her mother wasn’t helping matters.

 

“Hey, Jay, you holding up alright?”

 

That deep, masculine voice. Alex? Down the block, her old friend was standing outside the Cachaça. How long had he been watching her?

 

“Alex!” She quickly stuffed her notepad away, running up to greet him. “Hi, hey! Long time no see. How’s uh, how’s work been treating you?”

 

“Fine enough. Keeping my head down, keeping the bills paid. How about you? You seem frustrated.”

 

“Yeah, it’s just – Blackburn. You know. I’m on the case.”

 

“What’re you looking for?”

 

“Oh, that? It can wait. You got a few minutes? You know, to catch up and stuff.”

 

Alex glanced back into the shop, corner of his mouth quirking down. “Sorry, I got a pile of dishes to take care of. Don’t wanna keep pops waiting.”

 

Jessica craned her neck slightly, getting a view of the kitchen from the clear glass storefront. It couldn’t have been that bad – she couldn’t see any piles over the counter, at least. It was her turn to frown.

 

“Oh. Okay. Um, I’m looking for a man named Thomas. Tall, African-American, silver tooth. Seen him?”

 

Alex shook his head.

 

“Alright. Well what about any drug dealers, have you seen any?”

 

“Oh, of course. Some down by Fisher Avenue, some at the intersection of Kingston and Blake -”

 

“Any groups that sell anything, you know, odd? Unusual, not coke or meth?”

 

Alex pursed his lips, looking off into the distance. “Hmm… Actually yeah. I’ve heard word of some guy named Mitchell dealing in exotic drugs around Locksley Avenue, but I haven’t gotten around to, you know, shadowing him, if you catch my drift.”

 

“Don’t. I’ll take care of it.” She jotted down the location before looking back up at him. “Catch coffee tomorrow morning, maybe?”

 

“Maybe,” he replied, scratching the back of his neck. “I gotta get back to it. Stay out of trouble, Jay.”

 

Jessica half-heartedly gave a smile and a wave. Great, he still thought she was a punk too. But could she blame him? The only reason she didn’t end up just like her mother was chance. No, it was because of him. He had every right to run from the hideous person she was inside.

 

I told you I’m no hero, Isabella…

 

Sighing, she tucked her notepad away again and began walking back to her office. If she was going to get anywhere with this Mitchell fellow, she was going to have to let that hideous person take over for a while.

 

***

 

“Are you totally sure about this, Ms. Napier? I mean, I’ve done this sorta thing before, but, like… I really don’t wanna mess up your face.” Having returned to her office and summoned Isabella, Jessica sat in a chair while her new assistant hesitantly applied a cold putty to her face. “Oops, hair, one sec… Okay. I mean, like, why aren’t you just busting up the place as Shade? This seems riskier. Not that I know better than you!” she corrected herself hastily with a nervous laugh.

 

“Who do you think Mitchell is more likely to open up to? A potential client, or a vigilante with a reputation for feeding guys like him their own arms?” She shivered a bit at Isabella’s touch. “What is this stuff anyhow?”

 

“That’s a good point… Uh, Mimi taught me this spell. She used it a lot to get in and out of parties she wasn’t invited to, back in the day. She called it Argilla dell’Infinito. I don’t speak Italian, so I dunno what it means, but yeah. Um, do you want a different eye color? Also what color do you want your hair to be? And, like, the length…”

 

Jessica had to rack her brain for a moment. For as much as she had been teased for her bright orange hair, she never considered dyeing it. Gingers had a notoriously hard time with dye as it was.

 

“Uh. Hmm… Let’s go with blonde, I guess. It’s disarming.” She stuck a hand halfway down her stomach. “Let’s go to here. No one will suspect I’m disguising my hair by making it longer. And as for eyes, do green.”

 

“Can do. Let’s just raise the cheeks a bit… Uh huh. More pronounced brow. Less crook to the nose. Okay, that part’s done. Hold still. Like… don’t even breathe for a couple seconds, seriously.” Isabella put a finger to her forehead and chanted more gibberish. “Okay, cool. Can you tilt your head back a bit?” She focused her gaze on Isabella’s first two fingers, which hung poised over her head. Two droplets of emerald liquid appeared on her fingertips, summoned by a quick phrase. “Keep your eyes open, please.”

 

The drops splashed into her eyes, stinging terribly, but her vision cleared in seconds. Isabella had already moved on to her hair, gathering it up and working her hands through it systematically. “Straight or curly?” asked her assistant distractedly.

 

“Curly,” Jessica answered, wiping at her eyes. “Where did you learn all this anyways? I’m sure scientists would pay good money to learn how you make the laws of physics your bitch.”

 

“Learned it from here and there. From what I understand, it’s sorta like how the whole anomaly thing works, but… not? Mimi didn’t really speak very good English and a lotta what she told me was superstitious mumbo jumbo. Some people can use magic, some can’t. Some people shoot light beams from their eyes, some don’t. Most of the time, though, us spooky guys end up with our heads blown off for trying something too ambitions and, like, karma smacking us a good one.” A long strand of curly, blonde hair fell in Jessica’s face, though Isabella’s arm reached around to grab it again. “My parents really don’t like that I practice. ‘Your Mimi turned herself inside out for being too ambitious, mia figlia. Leave that stuff alone!’ But I figure if I got the touch, like, I should be using it for good, right?”
“Yeesh.” It certainly didn’t sound like any anomalous ability she’d ever heard of. Perhaps the workings of such things were beyond the scope of human knowledge for now. “Sorry about that. Was she a friend of yours or something?”

 

Isabella moved around her, grasping her chin gently and pulling away a thin mask from her face. Just like that, the hair in her periphery was red again. “Whew, it came off… Uh, yeah, Mimi was my gramma. We were super close.” She gestured to the mask, holding it back to Jessica. “Okay, it’s done. Any time you wanna change identities, just, like, put it on. It should come off when you want, too. Go check it out, see if I did an okay job with the face sculpt.”

 

Jessica nodded and headed towards the bathroom, trying to avoid looking at the mask as she went. It was beyond uncanny, like Isabella was some deranged serial killer cutting people’s faces off. When she got to the mirror she pressed the mask back on. Just like that, she was a totally different person.

 

“Impressive. You think you could use your magic to fix the rest of my mommy issues?” she shouted into the office space, tilting her head at different angles.

 

“Not if you wanna stay out of an insane asylum when your mind turns to mush,” came Isabella’s response, not at all joking in tone. “What was she like anyways? Your mom, I mean. All anyone knows about her is the crazy that the news portrays. Who was she for real?”

 

Jessica let out a long sigh at that. “Complicated. Mother never saw the good in people, so all she ever saw was criminals rotating in and out the system. She punched people down but they got right back up. She wanted things to be handled permanently, wanted it to be done. And she never considered the fact she’d have to apply her totalitarian ideology to everyone. Even me. I don’t know, maybe Scott just took his axioms for granted and that set a bad example for Chiro. You have to make the choice to follow your own principles every day.” Jessica shook her head and wiped at her eyes. “She has the rest of her life to think about it in prison. I just hope she finds peace.”

 

No response came from the office for a time, but eventually Isabella sighed. “Man, that’s rough. So all that stuff she confessed at trial was true? You were a soldier as a kid?”

 

“Yeah, I – don’t like to talk about that.”

 

“I get it. Or… well, I get why. You want a hug, dude? I know you’re my boss and all, but, like, rough is rough.”

 

“Oh, goddammit…” Jessica shut the lights off, shuffled over to her assistant, and let her hug her. “You’re fucking diabetes, you know that right?”

 

“Hey, man, at least I’m not stabbing you right now, right? I hate shots.”

 

Jessica squirmed away. “Speaking of which, I need to go find out what our boy Carl was shooting up. I’ll be back, hopefully in one piece.”

 

Slapping her forehead, Isabella rushed over to her canvas shoulder bag and pulled out a beat up old Nokia. “Hey, hold up. Before you go, lemme, like, give you my number. Call me if you need anything, you know?”

***

 

If there were any rules in Blackburn, the first you learned was this: at night, Blackburn becomes a different beast. The blinding light of the Florida sun hurried away, replaced by blue and green and orange neon signs advertising cars and jewelry and drink and body. The working men had thinned out, replaced with gluttonous masses overstuffed by material greed. It was easy to lose yourself amongst the crowd. If there was a second rule of Blackburn, it was that no one cared who you were. A blessing and a curse. No one bothered you, even if you lay dying in the gutter, gasping for your last breaths but choking on sewage. She’d seen it more than once.

 

Locksley Avenue had some of the least foot traffic in Midtown, situated close to Dixon Park. Jessica slipped into her third narrow alley of the night, this one lit solely by a liquor store. Tellingly, there were even less people here. Six men loitered by a back entrance on the left side of the alley, all holding bottles wrapped in brown bags. It was immediately an odd group since there was only one white guy, and he looked like he was either in charge, or holding everyone’s interest. One of his compatriots nodded over his head in her direction, a tall man with a forehead scar. That must have been Thomas.

 

“Lost, sweetheart?” called the white guy, pushing off the brick wall and approaching her casually. He was middle aged, didn’t work out enough, and had a receding hairline. Typical white dealer build. Definitely Mitchell.

 

“Oh, sorry, Carl must have sent me the wrong address,” she said, feigning annoyance as she glanced down at her phone.

 

Blinking in surprise, the man tossed a glance over his shoulder. Through some unspoken signal, the others plodded away, leaving him alone with her. “He never was good with directions. That’s okay. He say who he was looking for? I know the area pretty well, could probably give you the correct address.”

 

Jessica blew up a non-existent text. “Uhhh… Mitchell? Says he wanted to introduce me to an old friend.”

 

“Yep, wrong address. The place you’re looking for is between Stillington and Haylock. The old tennis court behind Edgeline Apartments.” The dealer, for there was no doubt that’s what he was now, took another swig of his beer. “You should swing by there tomorrow evening, around ten.”

 

“Ten, got it.” Jessica pocketed her phone, glanced over her shoulder, and left. Mitchell had bought it hook, line and sinker. If she could just get her hands on Mitchell’s product, the case would be a wrap. Sketchy? Maybe. Illegal? Definitely. Necessary? Absolutely.

 

The following night, at nine fifty-five, she made her way to Edgeline Apartments. Even before she got to the court, Jessica could tell something was wrong. It was too quiet, for one. Not enough foot traffic in the area. For two, the apartment buildings all had their curtains drawn. Every room that faced the court. Three, the corpse itself.

 

It was a grisly murder, that much she could discern even at a distance. Splatters of blood flecked the dull green surface of the court itself, as well as the concrete around it and even a few places on the wall. Based on body shape, she was able to discern that the deceased was Mitchell, but his head was a ruined mess of pulped flesh and skull fragments. Notably, the blood was still wet. It couldn’t have happened more than an hour ago, then.

 

She took a breath to focus herself before really buckling down to find relevant clues. The murder weapon was one of the posts from the net, which meant this was impromptu. A hot blooded crime of passion. Judging by the bend in the aluminum pole, the assailant had really gone at it. Jessica crouched beside the corpse to take better stock of the injuries. Right arm broken in three places, right knee shattered, several ribs. By tilting her head, she could see that there were signs of more trauma on the back as well. Mitchell’s clothes were splattered with blood, both from his wounds as well as left behind from being struck by the murder weapon.

 

Wasn’t this just lovely? With her lead as dead as Mitchell, her investigation needed to take a different approach. Sighing, she peeled off her mask, tucked it into her jacket, and called 9-1-1. Homicides were always police matters, and though she could assist, she was going to be outside of whatever they learned about Mitchell.

 

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

 

“A homicide victim on the tennis courts behind Edgeline Apartments. Local drug dealer named Mitchell, looks like he got brained with a blunt object.”

 

“Are you or anyone else in any present danger?”

 

“No ma’am, not that I’m aware of.”

 

“Please stay nearby, officers will be responding to the scene shortly.”

 

And shortly it was. Not five minutes later a patrol car parked nearby, and two beat cops hopped out. Elliot and Lopez, their nametags read.

 

“Holy cow, Shade, is that you?” Lopez asked, adjusting his cap. “Wow, it’s such an honor to meet you! My father was on Vicio during the incident. You saved his life.”

 

“Hmph. Don’t mention it.” She gestured towards Mitchell – or what was left of him. “I didn’t witness the murder, but I know he was a bad dude. Might have been a hit.”

 

“Yeah, we heard. Major Cases are on their way. If you have anything, anything at all, talk to the responding detectives.” And with that, Elliot and Lopez began taping off the scene.

 

Five minutes after that, an unmarked police car rolled up beside the first. A 2018 Dodge Charger, from the looks of it.

 

Not as nice as my Lancer, but sheesh.

 

As chance would have it, the occupants were none other than Detectives Cardozo and Higgins, from the Incident. Dallas was dressed like he was straight out of Miami Vice, with a light jacket, hawaiian shirt and khakis. In stark contrast, Jeff wore a tan trench coat and matching fedora with suit pants.

 

“You boys get a promotion, huh?”

 

At the sight of her, Dallas stopped in his tracks, throwing up his arms.

 

“Aw, you’ve gotta be shitting me. We have to deal with the crazy redhead too?”

 

“Oh, come on, Dallas,” Jeff pleaded. “We’ve dealt with lots worse than this.”

 

“We’re not talking about the alligator rape case, Jeff.”

 

“I wasn’t even thinking of that. But that was a lot worse, you know, maybe we should both be thankful.”

 

Dallas fetched his own note pad, shaking his head. Never change, boys.

 

“So, you didn’t see anything, but you knew who this guy was. What are you doing around known drug dealers, Jessica?”

 

“It was for a client,” she insisted, putting her hands out. “Just keeping tabs on the guy.”

 

“Uh huh. You know how I can tell when you’re lying?”

 

Jessica frowned. “No.”

 

“When you do that. But, Jeff likes you, so I won’t inquire any further, de-tect-ive.” Dallas smirked when her frown deepened. “Blunt force trauma, Jeff?”

 

“Sure looks like it,” Jeff said with a nod, approaching the corpse. “Jeez, someone really wanted to kill that brain of his.”

 

“We got a murder weapon?” Dallas continued. Jessica gestured towards the pole. Dallas was taken slightly aback.

 

“Hey, uh, Jeff? Can you give me a guesstimate on how much that pole weighs?”

 

“Uh. A lot? Fifteen pounds?” Jeff suggested, gritting his teeth.

 

“And they just yanked it out, then beat this guy so hard it dented? We’re either dealing with someone really strong, or super strong.”

 

“I wouldn’t know about any of that,” Jessica remarked, “And I can’t disclose my client’s identity, but they may or may not be from South-East. And my case led me to finding out that Mitchell had clients of his own in South-East. If that makes a difference.”

 

Dallas raised an eyebrow before jotting it down. “So a bunch of brothers from the hood were buying from a middle-aged white guy in Midtown. You may be weird, but you’re not a liar. That’s… not a typical thing.” He snapped his fingers. “Let’s go see if we can’t find any witnesses, Jeff. And you.” He pointed a finger at Jessica. “Stay out of trouble.”

 

“That I can’t promise you, Cardozo.”

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2.1 The Hunch

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Midtown Blackburn

January 13th, 2020

 

In a modest, cozy office space in one of Midtown’s many apartment buildings, a woman was framing her college degree: Jessica Napier, Bachelor of Criminal Justice. When it hung on the wall just right, she took a step back, smiling. It was the final piece of Shadowed Eyes Investigation’s office, the project she’d been working on so hard for the last thirty months.

 

This was the first time she’d allowed herself to feel pride about the situation. She had no right to pride as she slugged through her classes, lying through her teeth to her classmates about the ‘superhero probation’ Quinn had placed her on after she came clean on… that incident. Her past never went away, whispering to her in lonely moments when all that accompanied her in the office was the sound of drafting air and haunting thoughts. But if she was ever going to be a better woman than her mother, her past needed to stay as such and let her move on.

 

BZZZT.

 

Someone was ringing the doorbell already? Who, and why? Approaching the door, Jessica glanced at the small video screen to her right. A women was there, dressed like a hipster, with a flannel buttondown shirt over a metal band tee, a slouchy beanie, ripped up jeans, and a pair of scuffed converse. Probably Italian-American, going by her tanned skin and sharp features. She seemed familiar. What was her name again? Priscella? Marcella? It was a face she had seen in her classes, but the name was escaping her.

 

“Uh, hey. Ms. Napier? Can I, like, come in?” called the woman, meeting her gaze even though she was a couple feet back from the steel-reinforced door.

 

On the bottom-left of the video screen was a green button. Jessica pressed it with her thumb.

 

“That, like, depends on why you’re here,” she replied in a miming tone.

 

Clearly not expecting that, the woman hunched her shoulders slightly. “Uh… I was hoping I could learn some stuff from you? ‘Cause you’re a superhero and all?”

 

Learn something from her? Jessica frowned before she thumbed the screen again. “Don’t use that word around me. I’m no hero. If you want to talk to a real hero, go find Chiroptera.”

 

“But… you’re the one who saved the city during the Phoenix Incident. And we went to class together. And, like, I bet it’s hard to start a thing as big as a detective agency all by yourself. I can help!”

 

Jessica thought about shooing the woman away. But, she had a point. If she was going to be getting this much publicity due to her Shade persona, she could use an extra hand to sort out her cases.

 

“Fucking… You’ve got no felonies on your record, right?”

 

“No?”

 

“And you don’t mind working pro bono?”

 

She snorted. “Yeah that’s cool with me. I’m not really concerned about cash. I just wanna learn from the best.”

 

Jessica pressed a second, red button. After a moment the screen beeped and flashed in warning.

 

“You’ve got metal objects on you, sweetheart. Let me see ‘em, for my safety.”

 

The woman fished out her keys, a necklace with several pendants and charms, a pendulum wrapped in silver wire, and a pocket watch. “That’s so cool…”

 

Jessica raised an eyebrow. “That’s so… weird. Are you into that Wicca shit?”

 

“I mean I wouldn’t call it ‘shit’, but yeah. I actually left most of my kit at home. Do you get a lotta people tryin’ to come into your place with knives or something?”

 

“Hey, I’m not judging, sister. All religion is equally bunk to me.” She opened the door and motioned her inside. “And no, not knives. Guns. Had a few gangbangers think they could fool me when I first moved in here.”

 

“Yikes. So does your door, like, shoot sleeping gas or taze people or anything?” inquired the woman, checking the inside of the doorframe over in mild awe.

 

“Tch. You remember the castle doctrine?” Jessica opened up a nearby closet. Inside, resting against the wall, was an AR-15. “I’ve got lead.” Staring in surprise and disbelief, the woman finally nodded.

 

“Right, okay. Remind me to be chill around you… So, like, do I get the job?”

 

“Yes, but don’t get too excited. Not until we start getting some cases.” She gestured towards a door in the right rear. “Don’t go in there, that’s my bedroom. It’s where I cry myself to sleep at night. You get this office, make it comfy. Just don’t like, put a hex on it or something.”

 

Laughing, the other woman nodded and gave herself a brief tour of the place. “No worries on that front, dude. I only hex people I don’t like.”

 

“Well I’m glad I haven’t driven someone off with my wry humor,” Jessica replied with a snort. Then, she folded her arms. “But I’m not sure you really like me. You haven’t even told me your name.”

 

“Huh? Oh, dang, I totally forgot. My bad. I’m Isabella. Isabella Fausti. But most of my friends call me Izzy.” She stuck out her hand with a big smile. “Super awesome to finally meet you for real, Ms. Napier. Like, seriously.”

 

Isabella didn’t seem so bad. A bit airheaded, but genial, and plenty patient enough to deal with her incessant sarcasm. She could live with this. Jessica returned the gesture before moving towards the door. “You can get set up now if you’d like. Computer’s new, no old porn on it or nothing. We can discuss hours after I come back from from Burger King.”

 

Snickering, Isabella circled the desk to look it over. “Not like I’d be able to find it. I barely know how to work these things. I don’t even have, like, a cell phone. You need me to write something down, though, I got you.”

 

That, she couldn’t live with.

 

“You’re buying a cell phone, then,” Jessica said, dead serious. “If I’m out and we get a good case, I need to know.”

 

“What, you don’t wanna do smoke signals?” With a little laugh, Isabella raised her hands in surrender. “I’ll talk to my uncle and see if he can get me something.” She ran her fingers over the surface of the desk for a moment before whipping her gaze up to Jessica, face going pale. “Oh dangit! I knew I was forgetting something! Hey, Miss Napier, I actually have a case already. Guy in my neighborhood got really messed up and his mom’s freakin’ out. Didn’t want the cops involved, so she wanted me to help her, but, like, I’m not gonna try and do that on my own. Who better to help out than the hero that saved Blackburn, right?”

 

Jessica let out a soft ‘hmph’, unsure whether to be annoyed at her forgetfulness or grateful for the case. “It’s just Jay, Izzy. Give me a name and location and let’s go,” she ordered, retrieving her ID lanyard and handgun from a desk drawer.

 

“Jada Wallace, son’s name is Carl. Umm… I don’t remember the address, but I can take you there. Or, guide you, I guess. I dunno how comfortable you are about heights.”

 

Heights? Jessica shot Isabella a confused glance as she slipped on her fleece jacket. “Uh, not particularly. Why?”

 

“‘Cause… well, I flew here. I guess I should sorta get that outta the way firsthand. I’m not an anomaly like Onyx or Prism, but I’ve got access to some, uh… kinda wild stuff. Magic.”

 

Jessica stopped pulling on her jacket. “You’re shitting me, Izzy. Stop shitting me.”

 

“I mean, not really… Umm, let’s see. Oh, I know. A dupe. You got anything around here you’re not afraid of maybe possibly getting turned into astral spaghetti?” Isabella patted herself down, frowning slightly.

 

“Uh huh.” Jessica tossed her a crumpled piece of paper, incredulous.

 

Chanting quietly under her breath, Isabella cupped the paper in both hands. The briefest sensation of static electricity washed through the apartment, and then she dumped six wads of paper out of her grasp. One had been fused into a mangled mess, but the others were exactly alike. “Whoops. Musta left out a syllable somewhere…”

 

Jessica’s hands dropped to her side. That was… unexpected. She cleared her throat and swallowed her skepticism. “I’m gonna have to hang up a crucifix in here, Izzy, goddamn.”

 

“Why?” Isabella gathered up the scraps of paper, smashing them together in her hands and muttering a couple more words. When she moved to tuck her hands into her pockets, the paper was gone. “Oh, oops. Did you need that?”

 

“I’m good,” she insisted, putting up her hands. “Let’s just go before you turn me into a toad or something.”

 

***

 

The South-East End was just a jog over the Crane Bridge away, parallel with Olympic City. The air grew danker as they drew near, and, as the slum came into view, the faster Jessica walked. If Olympic City was old news, then South-East was dead and buried. The area, and its predominately African-American community, had never recovered from the downward slide of urban decay that began with the race riots of the sixties. It was barely kept afloat by government assistance, and the public housing units were barely livable – if one was lucky. Some were simply left to rot until they could be declared unlivable and demolished.

 

“The good news for our client is, we stick out like a sore thumb. The bad news for us is, we stick out like a sore thumb,” Jessica remarked, making sure to keep on the cracked sidewalk as cars, blasting their music far louder than anyone had any business doing, zoomed by. “We almost there? If I knew we were going here, I would have grabbed my bulletproof vest…”

 

“Yup. It’s the third one in this row, second floor, unit 21B. Pretty choice spot, actually, right by the stairwell.” Tossing her an amused glance, Isabella chuckled. “You worried? This is a cool neighborhood. Tons of guys around here are cool to just chill and stuff. Cookouts. Community games of b-ball in the inner lots. I dig it here.”

 

Ah, an optimist. Seeing the best in everyone. A good quality if one wanted to keep sane in Blackburn, but perhaps not if someone wanted to keep safe.

 

“Hmph. That may be true, but unfortunately, the good guys are living in fear of guys that aren’t so chill.”

 

As they drew up to the door, Jessica’s eye caught a PIN box lying to the left.

 

“Shit. You got the code, Izzy?” Isabella shrugged unhelpfully. “Goddammit…”

 

As luck would have it though, a group of older men were hanging out a few yards nearby. The one leaning against the air conditioning unit was eyeing her between sips of beer. Jessica flashed a smile.

 

“Hey there gentlemen, could any of you help a lady out? It’s super secret hero stuff.”

 

The man looking at her laughed. “I dunno, beautiful. You plannin’ on arresting me?”

 

“Only if I have to.”

 

“It’s 3-0-2. And if I do something bad, well, you won’t be there to see it. Isn’t that a darn shame?”

 

“That’s right.” She punched in the code, gave a wave, and walked inside. The stairwell was cold and claustrophobic, blue paint peeling and rusting away. The only sounds were of a faint argument on the top floor. They had to step over a man passed out stone drunk to get to room 21B. Jessica rapped her knuckles on the door.

 

“Missus Wallace, it’s Detective Napier. I’ve been told you’d like to speak with me.”

 

The door cracked open, revealing a haggard woman in a dimly lit apartment. “Oh, thank heaven you made it. I was so worried Izzy wouldn’t find you in time… Come in, come in, lemme just unlock this dang chain.” She closed the door, removed the chain lock from its housing, and then allowed the two access. “My boy is over there in his room. Please help him, Miss Napier.”

 

Jessica slunk into the room. As soon as she did, she had to pinch her nose. Carl’s room was a mess, with dirty clothes and knick knacks strewn about haphazardly. He lay on his bed, skin ashy and sunken, staring at them with a listless expression. Every so often, he gave a wet cough that failed to clear up, no matter how violent it was. She narrowed her eyes at the boy. He barely returned the gesture.

 

“Your mother’s very worried about you Carl. Care to tell me what happened?”

 

“Food poisoning…” he grumbled.

 

Jessica felt his forehead with the back of his hand. Slightly warm. Carl recoiled, but with not nearly enough force to shake her off.

 

“Don’t touch me, man!” He coughed again, and she took a step back.

 

“Hmph. What’s he eaten lately, ma’am?”

 

His mother wrung her hands. “Almost nothin’. He’s been sick for four days now and I can hardly feed him anything. Some soup here, a little gatorade there. Anything too solid and it comes right back up.”

 

“Momma, I don’t need no damn superwhore up in my business,” Carl insisted. He attempted to lean up and shoot Jessica a dirty glance, but fell back down halfway up. “It was that old pizza, promise.”

 

“You shut your mouth, Carl! I am worried half to death about you and don’t you tell me it was no damn pizza! We haven’t had pizza in weeks!” The woman’s sharp tone cowed him immediately. “You were out with Thomas and Murphy again, weren’t you? You know I always told you those boys are bad influences! What’d they give you, huh?”

 

The stomach issues did match the symptoms of food poisoning, as did his temperature, but a length of four days was rare. And his skin? That was no bad pizza alright. Bad behavior… Perhaps it was drugs, then? Most drugs that caused adverse reactions were more likely to give him a bad trip, or kill him outright, but it was an angle worth pursuing.

 

“These boys, where does he hang out with them? Are you keeping eye on him in the neighborhood, or does he slip into back alleys, away from sight?”

 

“I don’t know where Murphy lives, but I know that Thomas likes to spend his days over on the corner of 12th and 13th Street, hustlin’ people out of their money so he can play his lotto. I also know that no good waste of a man has been told to get the hell out of our building for trying to pawn off that poison he and his friends like to put in themselves.” The mother glared at Carl pointedly, tilting her chin up as he looked away in shame.

 

Jessica, who had now retrieved her notepad and began jotting these facts down, nodded along. So the drugs idea wasn’t so farfetched. Now she just needed to know what was being sold in the area.

 

“Do you know where else Thomas spends his days since his eviction?”

 

She shook her head, but Isabella tapped her chin. “I might. Thomas, he’s the tall guy with the silver tooth and scar?” The mother confirmed it with a nod. “Yeah, he spends time up in Midtown with some scary guys. I don’t remember exactly where, though…”

 

Midtown? As a residential area in a high-crime city, there was always some drug dealing going on there, but nothing one couldn’t find in more abundance in South-East. Why would low-level hooligans make the trek across the bridge to get drugs there?

 

“That’s… odd. I’ll see if I can’t ascertain what’s being sold there. The sooner I find a likely culprit for your son’s ailment, the sooner I can get treatment. I know a guy.” She folded her notebook closed and tucked it into her jacket pocket. “If he gets suddenly worse, call 9-1-1. Otherwise, keep him hydrated and limit physical activity.”

 

“Yes, ma’am. And thank you. Thank you so much…” The woman escorted them out of the apartment, insisting they take some freshly baked banana bread with them for their troubles.

 

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1.17 A New Beginning

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“Get me a status report! Do we have them cut off?” Gilda demanded into her radio, taking cover behind her squad car. They’d done what they could to cordon off the bridge, but coordinating movements on two fronts, with chaos all around, proved to be difficult. With the apprehension of Rebecca, Cerberus had lost all authority, allowing SWAT to move on points previously controlled by the mercenary company, like the bridge. Unfortunately, while they were caught up in the logistics of it, these goons had snuck in and created a situation.

 

“Yes ma’am, they’re stuck on the bridge. We’re trying to get them to stand down, but they’re going ballistic over here. They keep demanding to talk to their boss,” came the reply, from a young sergeant. Damn it, Mouse was still causing trouble. She heaved a heavy sigh of exasperation, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“Pulowski, Weisshaupt, Simmons, you coordinate with the snipers. If we can avoid any more bloodshed, good, but not one more officer down, you hear me?” She reached into the passenger seat of her squad car to grab for her megaphone. “Listen up! This is the Chief of Police! We have you surrounded! Give yourselves up without violence!”

 

“Fuck you, bitch!” shouted one of the criminals, hunkered down by an overturned car. “What the fuck’d you do with Mouse? We ain’t goin’ anywhere til’ we hear from her!”

 

“You get us Mouse or we blow the whole goddamned bridge!” shouted another one. “Don’t fuckin’ try us!” She wanted to call their bluff, but the drug lord had already proven her ruthlessness and capacity to smuggle explosives into seemingly airtight locations. Who was to say she hadn’t wired the bridge? It was just the sort of petty, vengeful move that pasty bitch would pull, too.

 

“We don’t have your boss in custody,” Gilda finally responded. “If you can’t get in contact with her, why would we be able to?”

 

“You go fuckin’ find her then!”

 

“Goddamnit,” she hissed, tossing the megaphone back into the squad car. “I don’t have time for this.” Pulling out her cell phone, Gilda called her sister.

 

“Gilda,” Quinn said breathily. “Hey, how are you holding up?”

 

“Having tea with the President…”

 

“Ah, good ol’ sarcasm. You’re fine.”

 

“Look, we’ve got a situation. Mouse is AWOL and her goons are holding the bridge hostage. They claim they’ve got the capability to blow it and frankly, I believe them. Can you get your people to find her and bring her here? They’re demanding to see her.”

 

Quinn answered with a long sigh. “You’d think cuffing Rebecca would be the end of this, but of course not. Shade’s in bad shape but I think she’s got one last outing left in her.”

 

“Well this is important. If we lose this bridge, we’re hosed in more ways than one. Get her on it.”

 

“Consider it done. You just keep the city from tearing itself apart. Folks ain’t gonna be happy when all the beans start spilling…”

 

***

 

“What do you think is gonna happen, Shade?” Prism asked, as solemn in tone as she’d ever heard. “With- well, Rebecca and everything.”

 

“I don’t know. The government will lock her away forever… At best, but it won’t placate folks. Heads are going to roll and lawyers will play the part of Robespierre.”

 

“Hey, can’t say I blame them,” Prism said, shrugging. “And what about this Mouse chick?”

 

“That, we’re going to find out.” She motioned him and Onyx to follow her into the Poltergeist, one last time. “Mouse is a creature of habit. She needs familiar comforts, stability. My guess? She’s holed up in her office, high as kite and suffering from roid rage. I’ll see if I can’t talk her down.”

 

She took her seat with a soft plop. “But I’ll probably end up getting smacked around some more. I’m really starting to believe in karma, you know.”

 

“Good, it’ll keep you on the straight and narrow.” Onyx remarked cheerfully. She shot him a dirty glance.

 

“Um, not that I want you to get beaten up or anything.”

 

“Smooth, Alex,” Prism said, putting a hand over his face.

 

Shade’s grip on the steering wheel grew tighter the closer they game. The streets of Vicio had gone silent. Buildings, still soaked and battered from the hurricane, had been further damaged or outright demolished by machine guns and missiles. So many structures had been turned inside-out like the entrails of a hunted animal, it turned her stomach. She decided to keep her eyes forward until they arrived at Mouse’s apartment complex. Fittingly, the grand monument to Blackburn’s failure still stood, having shrugged off the fires of Cerberus. She yanked the keys from the ignition and tossed them to Onyx.

 

“You two, search for any caches of heavy ordnance. The machine guns are out, so just plow into them if you see any.”

 

“Oh, fun,” Onyx chuckled. “I know you’re a tough gal and all, but. Try not to die at the end now, okay?”

 

“Wouldn’t dream of it big guy.”

 

All the noise she hadn’t heard on the streets greeted her on her way up the manufacturing building. Banging, crashing, and screaming could be heard from the third floor. But there wasn’t a single mook in sight. Fear did not override loyalty with them. Mouse had sent them away. Had she known she was coming?

 

She wasted no time kicking down the door to Mouse’s lab. The drug lord spun around, eyes wild, and fired a haphazard shot from the shotgun in her hands, which shattered sheetrock a good six feet away from her. “You!” shrieked Mouse, actually raising the weapon to her shoulders. Rather than blasting her, the firearm simply clicked. Mouse was so far gone she hadn’t even loaded more than one shell in it.

 

“You traitorous bitch! Why are you doing this?!” Tossing the weapon aside, Mouse advanced towards her, trembling bodily. “Our family, gone… Slaughtered by that whore! I watched as she rained fire from above and reduced them to ash! Our brothers and sisters! And still you come in here, dressed in that fucking costume!” A pale finger levelled itself at her, backed by a tearful visage. “After all I gave you, all we did… You stab me in the back…”

 

“It’s over, Nisa. Rebecca’s in cuffs. Cerberus is in shambles. Give it up.”

 

“It’s not over! Not until every last one of those dogs of war lay dead! They’re a blight on the world! Infiltrating every level of society, corrupting everything they touch… The police, the government, it’s all tainted! It all has to be purged of their vile influence! You see, don’t you? You’ve seen them, working together? We’re gathering them in one place, where we can destroy them once and for all. Please, help me. Don’t walk away from me in my hour of need, sister…”

 

Shade stared at Mouse forlornly. That had been her, not that long ago. Tired, scared, distrusting, irrational, violent. No, it was still her, wasn’t it? But it was no longer who she resigned herself to be, and that was what really mattered.

 

“I have a family, Nisa. And we’re not like this. You don’t have to be either. Come with me, and forget this nonsense.”

 

It almost looked like she was going to, until Mouse’s twitching eyes darted to the door, then narrowed at her. “You’re working with her… You think that bitch still loves you? Will protect you? She doesn’t care about you! You’re just a means to an end! But if you think I’m going with you willingly, a lamb to the slaughter, then you’re too far gone.” Despite the rage in her expression, misery showed an equal presence. “Why? Why did it have to be this way?” And then there were no more words. Mouse lunged for her, her pink eyes shot through with cyan veins.

 

She silently thanked her mother and Quinn for her combat training. Without it, Mouse’s amped speed and strength would have been overwhelming. She was clearly high on Blueshift, and a lot of it. While the drug lord had never been particularly muscular or adept in physical violence, she fought like an animal possessed right then. Her feral strikes jarred Jessica with every block, and sent electric shockwaves of pain up her spine every time she successfully connected. To make matters worse, Mouse didn’t even seem to notice the hits she took herself, not even bothering to block them. They crashed back and forth through the room, destroying furniture and each other. At one point, Mouse hurled a desk at her. She did a front handspring to evade, but as soon as she was upright Mouse took her to the ground. Mouse slammed her head into the floor, but instead of trying to keep her pinned, continued to slam it repeatedly. Shade was dazed, but her legs moved on their own, snaking around the drug lord’s neck and throwing her back.

 

As the fight dragged on, Mouse’s arsenal ran dry of surprises, allowing her to dodge more and more of the blows directed at her. She managed to swell one of Mouse’s eyes, but Mouse was hardly using it anyways. When she began to hurl flasks of neon substances, Shade got her cape up just in time. They crackled and fizzed on the material, but her cape held fast.

 

Then, she broke a couple ribs and dislocated a shoulder. That too hardly registered, and Mouse sunk her teeth into her exposed shoulder. She had half a second to get Mouse off before her blood was flooded with chemicals. Her hands found a hotplate, and crashed it atop Mouse’s skull. Finally the drug lord showed a hint of pain, and Shade threw all her weight into a chop to the throat. Her former comrade dropped to the ground like a rock.

 

“I’m sorry, Nisa,” Shade said earnestly, clutching her shoulder. “But you’ve forced my hand.” With her free arm, she whipped out Higgins’ inhibitor cuffs. “The detective told me to try and use them this time. Be glad you’re not in the dirt with Martin.”

 

One last burst of energy flowed through Mouse, who kicked at her and scrambled away. The albino made a whimpering noise and whipped around, a gun in hand pointed at her. “No. Not like this…” she wheezed. Rather than shooting her, though, Mouse put the gun up to her own temple and squeezed the trigger. It clicked. Face falling, she dropped the gun and raised a pleading hand to her. “Jessica, please… Don’t put me in another cage… Kill me first. Please.”

 

“Hmph. You still don’t get it, do you?” She threw Mouse’s arms behind her back, muscling her into the cuffs. “I don’t want to live like an animal anymore.”

 

Hauling Mouse to her feet, she led her down the stairs and into the street, with only Mouse’s soft whimpers exchanged between them. The Poltergeist was waiting for them.

 

“Caches, crushed,” Onyx announced, clapping his hands. “So. It’s finally over, huh?”

 

“Yeah.” Shade seated Mouse next to her and strapped in. The weight of her efforts were finally catching up to her. The seat belt rubbing against her bare shoulder was excruciating. “Fucking Christ, I’m exhausted. Take us to the bridge, please.”

 

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” Onyx replied, gunning the accelerator.

 

***

 

“Hey, look at that!” Prism called, pointing up at a news helicopter passing over the bridge. “I’m gonna be famous! Chicks dig that.”

 

When the car came to a halt in sight of the cops, Shade bailed out. The SWAT officers were waiting expectantly, guns trained forward. Did she see Jeff peering out from behind? She wrested Mouse from her seat, and for the first time in awhile she spoke, her voice dripping with shame as she looked to her handcuffed men.

 

“Looks like it’s the big house for us, boys.” Mouse’s attempt at raising their spirits failed before it started as she choked herself up. “Tommy, you’re in charge in there. No one gets separated. Look out for Grant and Fremont. Grant, no contraband. I don’t want to hear you got shivved because you couldn’t keep your sticky fingers out of trouble.” The men kept their chins up, nodding at her.

 

“What about you, boss?” Grant blurted.

 

“I get the special treatment… Just like always. Don’t worry about me, I’ll have a chauffeur outside my private room 24/7.” Mouse glanced over her shoulder at her. “Isn’t that right, Shade?”

 

Five officers ran forward, securing Mouse and hauling her into an armored van. Shade wasn’t really paying them any mind. Her eyes were on the news helicopter circling above. Every citizen in Blackburn was watching them, wondering who their savior was. Wondering who would stop Rebecca while wearing the woman’s old costume. Wondering if they could trust her.

 

They had the right to know.

 

“You know what, fuck this mask,” she grumbled. And then, she tore it off.

 

“My name is Jessica Napier.”

 

 

So that’s it everyone! I hope you’ve enjoyed the opening arc of this series and will join us on many more. We’re taking some time off to edit this arc and plan for next, so if you have any comments, questions or feedback you’d like to provide, please feel free to do so. I’m always an email away. – Joker

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1.16 The End of Everything

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“Here comes another chopper! Benny, how many stingers do we have left?”

 

The remnants of Mouse’s forces had scattered, either dead or cut off from communication. None of them had anticipated how vicious Cerberus would be. Her largest remaining group managed to get ahold of a walkie talkie off a Cerberus corpse and contacted her. Mouse fed them orders as she attempted to navigate the chaotic streets, listening to the battle through her communication device. It didn’t sound good.

 

Just when all hope seemed lost, Mouse heard one of her scouts exclaim that he’d found a box of Blueshift. “Hell yeah! Everyone, dose up! We can still kick some ass. Here, you guys sort that out. Angela, Mike, Hoops, Jones, you’re on point. If we can nab that APC over there, we can beat it. Ms. Verion, what’s your location?”

 

“Viceroy Road, approaching Harris. I’m five minutes out, if I don’t run into any hangups,” she replied, hopping a totaled car that blocked the street. “Take no chances. We can still come out of this on top, but we need to keep our heads.” It was hard to keep the tremor out of her voice, but she had to stay strong for the men. They’d suffered so many casualties as it was, she was afraid to lose anyone else.

 

“Here comes another one! Taylor, drop it! Angela, come on, put some effort into that ice shield, we’re not playing kiddie games over here! Jones, what the hell do you call that? That’s no fuckin’ magnetism I’ve ever seen. Push it! We’ve got Blueshift, quit being babies!”

 

Mouse poured on the hustle, her nerves increasing by the second. Two of her men were cut down by aerial fire before the helicopter was forced to evade a bolt of lightning from Hoops. She rounded a corner, spotted her men, and broke into a sprint. Time slowed to a crawl as she watched one of her scouts raise their last stinger and fire it. The missile impacted the helicopter in the tail, sending it spiralling downwards. Mouse rushed forward, as did her men, and then the craft slammed into the alleyway behind them, cutting her off. She’d have to make a big loop around to get back to them at this rate.

 

And then, like the trumpets of doomsday, she heard it. Jet engines. “No. No no no. No! Aaron! Mike! Get out of there!” she screamed, trying to work her way through the wreckage. A jet whipped overhead, and then three seconds later, the world went white. When Mouse came to, she was lying much farther back into the alleyway, covered in minor shrapnel wounds, and her ears were filled with ringing. The helicopter wreckage had been shredded. Beyond it lay a crater where her men used to be. She had no words. Misery and rage boiled up within her in equal parts. Cerberus… Those fucking bastards would pay for what they did. They’d all pay.

 

***

 

Why didn’t I put it together?

 

The thought repeated itself in Shade’s mind over and over as she bore witness to the madness unfolding. All of Vicio was being set ablaze. Cerberus choppers filled the sky like a swarm of locusts, devouring everything in its path. The nearest chopper pulled up to a building, steadied twenty feet from the ground and strafed everything on the second floor. Only faintly could she make out dying screams.
This was mother’s plan all along, she realized in terror. The Cerberus occupation was nothing but a show, and the guns she had given the crime lords was the pretext she needed to pull back the curtains and reveal her ghastly nature.

 

Everything shook as more jets screamed by. It felt like the end of everything.

 

“SHADE! SHADE, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?! GET OFF THE STREET!”

 

A convoy of trucks rolled by. Was she imagining a few of them shuddering? They clutched their rifles, eyed her down…

 

And kept on rolling.

 

Someone yanked her back with a mighty tug. She blinked as they re-entered the metro tunnel. Prism was leaned up against a wall, steadying himself as he hyperventilated.

 

“We’re all gonna di-ie,” he gasped out, shaking his head.

 

Dawn wasn’t in as bad shape as Fritz, but her lip was quivering and she had her arms pulled up into herself.

 

“What’s happening, Alex?” she asked.

 

Onyx struggled for words. But somewhere in him he had the courage to pick his sister up and carry her further down the tunnel.

 

“I don’t know, but whatever happens I’ll be with you.”

 

“Jessica.” Shade grew cold. “I’m in my office, and so is Quinn. My men have orders not to harm you. Come here unarmed.”

 

Onyx shot a look over his shoulder. They exchanged a wordless understanding, and Shade marched back into the street.

 

***

 

Rebecca passed the minutes by listening to the radio chatter.

 

“This is Tartarus Five, thermal scans of the area are showing all targets are down. We have fifty-seven confirmed kills in Davis, over.”

 

“We got a guy moving down there, light ‘im up… Good kill, lots of itty bitty pieces.”

 

“Two hostiles taking cover in a church. Are we clear to engage?”

 

“That looks like my house down there…”

 

“Do not engage the armored car, I repeat, do not engage the armored car. Napier’s orders.”

 

“We have enemy forces scattering from the bookstore, strafe ‘em.”

 

“Uh, which one’s the bookstore?”

 

“Two klicks down the intersection, just south of the daycare.”

 

“Jesus, you don’t think there’s any kids in there, do you?”

 

“They’re long gone.”

 

“Air units check your fire, check your fire, someone’s dropping heat danger close!”

 

“Hahaha, must’ve been six guys in that truck!”

 

“Too bad, that was a nice truck.”

 

“Damn, they slipped into the sewer tunnels. You alright back there Thunder Three?”

 

“Sorry, just. Hands aren’t steady.”

 

“RPG fire, pull back, pull back!”

 

“Ground units this is Gold One, making another run. Mark your requested targets with smoke, over.”

 

“This is one hell of a way to win this op, isn’t it?”

 

***

 

Jessica stood at the door to her mother’s office for what felt like an eternity. No matter how long she waited, her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. But she knew she couldn’t keep running from her past. And so with a deep breath and all the courage she could muster, she entered the password and opened the door.

 

Quinn sat in Rebecca’s office chair, handcuffed to the desk. Rebecca herself stood behind, the gun in her hand shaking faintly. She was buzzed.

 

Jessica tore off her mask and hurled it to the floor.

 

“Why? Why are you doing this?”

 

Rebecca listlessly pushed herself away from the chair. Her eyes swam, but when they found Jessica they stopped, and she frowned.

 

“I should be asking that of you. What has your little escapade accomplished?”

 

“Martin’s dead.”

 

Rebecca tilted her head. How were those glossy eyes so piercing?

 

“But you didn’t do it, did you?”

 

“… Not exactly.”

 

“Hmph.”

 

“Grigori’s gone.”

 

“And he’ll just be back. This city has been choking on its own blood for decades. Over and over again I arrested the same scumbags, brought them before a judge. Over and over again they agreed to a plea bargain, or got off on a technicality, sued me for violating their so-called rights. Then they’d go back onto the streets to rape and pillage some more. The American system isn’t designed to deliver justice. It’s designed to allow spineless worms to pat themselves on the back for being ‘humanitarian’.” The desk shook under her fist. “What’s humanitarian about that?!”

 

Quinn drew her ire next. “And you. Scott’s perfect little princess. Self-righteous Quinn. Feeling bad for poor little Rebecca, white trash Rebecca.” She pounded for emphasis as she continued. “Gave me a stupid costume and a stupid codename and a stupid mission! Made me a soldier in your army! Well I’ve seen through your bullshit Quinn. You left scum alive so you could continue playing the hero. That’s all it was, moral grandstanding! You never cared about me!

 

“I loved you like a sister!” Quinn shouted. “You were just too myopic to notice!”

 

“More lies! No more! When americans see how clean I’ve made Blackburn, they’ll start to do things my way! And then your legacy will be gone, Quinn.”

 

Jessica had heard enough. “Yeah? At what cost? Look at what you’ve become. You’re holding your mentor at gunpoint and having your daughter tell you how insane you are! Innocent people could die because you got your fucking feelings hurt!

 

“How could you?! After everything I’ve done for you!”

 

“PUT DOWN THE FUCKING GUN!”

 

Jessica lunged for the weapon, grabbing ahold of her mother’s wrist. She twisted it just enough to palm it out. Her ears rang as Rebecca headbutted her to the ground. She tried to squirm away, but Rebecca was on top of her in an instant.

 

“I’M! NOT! INSANE! I! AM NOT! WORTHLESS!”

 

Jessica couldn’t see. Her mother’s fists were moving too fast, and her knee was crushing her stomach. She tried putting her hands up but her fingers were thrown into her mouth. A tooth came loose. It sunk into the blood trickling into her mouth, choking her.

 

Gack! I-I can’t… ulch… mom…

 

When all began to fade away, the agony stopped. As if she were casted into a statue, Rebecca froze. Her eyes drifted down to her reddened fists. That’s when Jessica heard the most anguished scream she’d ever heard. Rebecca howled like every one of her strings had been pulled taut and severed. Even after all she’d done, Jessica couldn’t bear the sight of it. She squirmed away and hurled out the blood.

 

Mercifully, the howling stopped, fading into choked, throbbing sobs.

 

“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry, I… Oh God, what have I done?”

 

Jessica staggered to her feet.

 

“Give me the key.”

 

Rebecca nodded repeatedly and turned it over. Quinn was listening without an expression. When Jessica went to her side, she whispered “I’m proud of you Jessica.”

 

Jessica’s heart stopped. She didn’t deserve that.

 

“I… I – thanks…” She freed her mentor and helped her up.

 

“The… The radio. Hand me the radio,” Rebecca pleaded. Jessica exchanged glances with Quinn before doing so.

 

“This… This is… Stop. Just, stop, all of you. There’s no need for any of this. Report to base, put down your guns. That’s an order.”

 

“On your feet Rebecca.”

 

Jessica looked at Quinn’s hands. She was holding the handcuffs. A powerful, unbidden sob escaped Jessica’s mouth, but she knew it had to be done.

 

“I’m sorry Jessica. I’m so sorry…”

 

Jessica averted her eyes. When they had left the room she fell next to her mask, clutched it tightly, and cried for the devil.

 

 

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1.15 Demons

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This chapter is rather short, so I’ll just post it now.

 

“You never mentioned that Martin was a psychic.”

 

“I didn’t tell you a lot of things about that creep.”

 

“Yeah, no kidding there,” Prism said, shaking his head. “So, he was pretty much your father?”

 

Shade had to scoff at that one. “I never really knew him. He was as much my father as the petri dish he grew my embryo in.”

 

“So, he was your father?” Prism repeated.

 

She groaned. Did this fool have no tact? “Will you just shut up?”

 

Prism shrugged. “If that’s what you really want.”

 

As they entered Cove Park, they spotted Detective Higgins running towards them for what felt like the thousandth time that week.

 

“What happened with you guys? What happened with Martin?” he asked.

 

“I may never know the answer to that,” Shade remarked, tossing his cuffs back to him. Jeff looked down as if she had tossed a baby. “But he’s dead.”

 

“Uh.” Jeff stood gaping for a good few seconds. “How’d that happen?”

 

“A flying bookshelf.” She put her hands on her hips. “Yes, really.”

 

“Oh. I’ll- I’ll put that down somewhere, I guess.”

 

Prism opened his mouth to speak again, but Quinn saved her in the nick of time.

 

“Uh, we have a situation here folks. Two, in fact.”

 

Shade’s head panged with pain. “Jesus, what now?”

 

“Cerberus radio feeds are reporting an engagement with that bug creature in Davis. Rebecca must be there, because it’s her second-in-command that’s using it as an excuse for the city council to authorize – something. I’m trying to follow their chatter and the council’s CCTV at the same time and believe me, it’s chaos.”

 

Shade turned skyward, grousing at God or fate or karma. “I’ll fucking… I’ll deal with Mantis, you keep your ears to the council.”

 

“Roger that.”

 

She turned to Onyx who, if she was reading him right, had not lost an ounce of enthusiasm. He was a better person than her, at least. “You’re with me. Prism, stay here and keep the civvies safe.”

 

“Always taking all the hard jobs,” Prism said, shaking his head. “Really, Shade, you don’t need to be so generous.”

 

She raced to where she had left the Poltergeist. Onyx materialized by the passenger’s door, but hesitated to enter.

 

“Do you… want me to man the guns or something? I handled a rifle when I was with Cerberus, but nothing like this.”

 

“Just target and destroy, big guy.” She climbed inside and pulled out a panel above the glove box. Onyx pulled up a joystick with a large button and stared at it. “It gets easier the more you do it.”

 

Shade couldn’t help but notice how sparse Mouse’s goons were on their home turf. They had left their dead to the animals and hunkered down in a few fortified positions. Unlike Martin’s men and the looters, they weren’t foolish enough to waste ammunition on taking pot shots at the Poltergeist. Knowing her luck, she’d likely have to deal with Mouse as well soon, but she pushed that thought out of her mind and pressed on.

 

As they neared the intersection at the center of the island she caught sight of a formation of Cerberus vehicles. Several tactical trucks, a helicopter and a swarm of drones were spewing fire at Mantis. The beast made a series of small jerking movements as he was buffeted, but stood his ground. The flippant air about him was gone, replaced with savage bloodlust. She traced his eyes to the original Poltergeist, lying mangled and roofless several yards away. Phantasm was struggling to get out.

 

“MOM!”

 

The Poltergeist zoomed forward, barrelling into Mantis, pushing, pushing…

 

And then nothing. Mantis had planted his feet, and his bulging arm muscles were holding the Poltergeist in place like a child’s toy. Then, with a hefty strain, he lifted every ton of the car straight up.

 

“Son of a-”

 

CRASH!

 

Shade’s heart jumped into her throat. She blinked her eyes open to see Onyx squeezing the trigger, pouring machine gun fire into the monster. His feet were taken out from under him, and Shade slammed on the gas. Mantis scurried out in the nick of time. She spun her tires to face him again. A large drone went flying onto the hood, sounding with a mighty thunk. Onyx was undeterred, retaliating with a missile that once again knocked Mantis onto his ass.

 

“YOU! YOU KILLED MY FATHER!” he uttered in something between a roar and a wail. He skittered out of the way of more machine gun blasts, then lept and buried his scythe in the front bumper of the car. The machine guns were torn away.

 

Shade took in her surroundings in a panic. They weren’t going to out-muscle Mantis, she had to think outside the box.

 

Her eyes found their way to an abandoned truck. That was it!

 

“Onyx, when he’s near the truck, blow it up!”

 

He turned to it. “Does it have people inside?”

 

“No, just do it!”

 

Shade hit the reverse, but not too fast. Mantis charged forward and at the right moment, Onyx’s missile hit its mark. The truck erupted into fire, singing the monster harshly. Much of his exoskeleton turned black. Mantis did not make a sound, and after a tense moment, toppled over. Was it dead?

 

No. With energy she had no clue from where it came, it shuffled away, disappearing into the slums. But it was gone. Her eyes sought her mother, but she too was gone, leaving the corpse of the original Poltergeist behind. She frowned.

 

Brrrrrrrrk!

 

A sole Cerberus truck had not fled, firing feebly at them. Firing at them after all of that. Those ungrateful slimeballs! Grinding her teeth, she shot a finger towards her own missile button. Onyx grabbed her wrist.

 

“What are you doing?!” There was an anger in his voice she hadn’t imagined him capable of. She fumbled for words.

 

“Those – those thankless bastards are shooting at us!”

 

“They might as well be shooting at us with a water gun!”

 

“We just saved their worthless hides!”

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” He threw her wrist aside, and she recoiled. “You do not get use that as an excuse! You’re stressed, I get it, but we’re all stressed. Me, Fritz, Quinn, Dallas and Jeff. But you know what? None of us use that as an excuse to kill people! That’s your problem, isn’t it Jessica? It’s always your genes, the way you were raised, someone mistreated you. It’s never your fault.”

 

“I get it! I’m an asshole! You think I don’t realize that?!” At that moment, something inside her broke. The stress had been stacked like a Jenga tower, and Onyx had pulled a bottom block. She had to pull off her mask and wipe her nose. “But you try living the life I’ve led! I never asked for any of it, the training, the weapons, the weight of the city on my bloody shoulders. I don’t want to be what I am! I didn’t ask to be made!

 

She buried her face in her hands. She listened to her sobs echo faintly off the windows, and had never felt so empty, so alone. Onyx was right. Her inner demons had defeated her. But now, they were silent. Now she had no scapegoat.

 

Onyx opened the glovebox and offered her a tissue.

 

“You don’t have to be what you were made.”

 

She wiped her nose. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m an asshole, and I’m sorry.”

 

They drove back in silence. Prism was waiting for them at Cove Park, eagerly awaiting an update. Onyx succinctly informed him Mantis was gone, and let her slip away into the dark corners of metro to ruminate.

 

***

 

Quinn could almost hear the dread in the council’s footsteps as the piled back into the room. One by one she heard them take their seats, until she counted only the mayor left standing.

 

“After thoughtful consideration, the city council of Blackburn has decided to authorize the Phoenix Initiative. But we would like to make it known that we are very, very disappointed in your inability to find another way.”

 

Empty words. Rebecca had already won that battle, and whatever was about to happen couldn’t have been any good. She was about to call the kids when she heard more footsteps. But they weren’t coming from the monitor.

 

And she knew those steps. Each one was taken with pride that only the sharpest of ears knew veiled fear. She swallowed her own fear, gripped the arms of her chair, and did not move.

 

“Quinn.” Rebecca staggered forward, breathing unevenly. “After all these years you still find ways to belittle me.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

Rebecca threw a table, yowling. Quinn didn’t budge.

 

“MY DAUGHTER! YOU TOOK HER AWAY FROM ME! FILLED HER HEAD WITH LIES! I SHOULD KILL YOU RIGHT NOW!”

 

“You know that’s not true. You pushed her away yourself.”

 

Rebecca pulled her from her chair. She tried to get a grip, but Rebecca slammed her head into the desk swiftly.

 

“No. You’re a manipulative fool with dead ideals. But I know Jessica knows that deep down, and I’ll prove it to you.”

 

“You’re… insane,” Quinn panted. Rebecca yanked her to her feet, placed her in a chokehold, and squeezed. She couldn’t help but let out a cry as her thoughts faded away.

 

 

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1.14 Smiling House of Horrors

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Sorry about the delay. Unfortunately, due to some unforeseen circumstances, London will have to leave the project. Rest assured, the project will continue on and I will take over the characters she wrote.

 

Alex woke up the following morning in a puddle of his own drool. Instinctively he recoiled, and his head reminded him that the effects of that godforsaken light grenade hadn’t gone away.

 

“Ungh, Jesus, why?”

 

Heavy banging came from just outside his door, followed immediately by the creak of it being shoved open.

 

“Get up, sleepyhead!” Dawn yelled at him. “You’re missing breakfast.”

 

He pushed himself up slowly. “Dawn, does the camp still even have food?”

 

“Well, I dunno, but dad made it my job to get you up every day for breakfast, so that’s what I’m gonna do.”

 

Alex half-smiled. “Alright, alright, whatever you say.”

 

Dawn led them out of the janitor’s closet and over to the metro platform, where dozens of civilians huddle together. Only a few were lucky enough to have jackets. Dallas and several other officers were distributing cans.

 

“We only have two more day’s worth of food left, so each person only gets one can. If you want more, you can fight to the death on the tracks.”

 

A few people laughed nervously. Alex molded the shadows on the upper half of his face into a mask and got in line.

 

Fritz, who’d strutted up to join Alex, gave him a look with narrowed eyes. “You going to a masquerade or something?”

 

“Something like that.” He stepped forward. “You certainly don’t seem to care about your identity.”

 

“Should I?” Fritz asked, shrugging. “Worst case scenario, my parents find out what I’m doing and gripe to their temple friends about it. Or maybe that’s best case, who really knows?”

 

“No, worst case is some two-bit thug or mercenary assassin breaks into your apartment and kills you in your sleep.”

 

“How could they break into my apartment and kill me if I’ve already broken into your room for the night?” Fritz asked, flashing Alex a cheeky smile.

 

“Ga-a-ay,” Dawn could be heard saying not far from them.

 

“He does this shit all the time!” Alex complained, throwing up his hands. “He does it just to annoy me. You don’t see him hitting on Shade, do you?”

 

“Hey, I’m a flirt, but I know when to back off,” Fritz said. “She’s preoccupied anyhow.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“You’ll figure it out, Alex.”

 

Alex glanced around the crowd. “I don’t see her anywhere. Hopefully she’s meditating somewhere or something.”

 

“Who even knows with her?” Fritz asked, rolling his eyes. “Chick’s an enigma.”

 

“Inside of a mystery. I mean, she doesn’t seem like she’s all bad, she’s just so mad all the time. I’m mad about all this Cerberus nonsense too, but I ain’t ready to kill everyone in Blackburn.” He shot a glance at Fritz. “Except maybe you.”

 

“Aw, I love you too, buddy, gimme a kiss.”

 

Alex pinched his lips shut.

 

“Hrrm,” came Fritz’s dull protest.

 

As they bickered, Jeff came running up to them.

 

“Guys, guys, guys!” he said, just about bouncing on his heels. “I found more of that bug thing’s tracks!”

 

“Glad you were doing something productive, because I ate your breakfast.” Dallas quickly put his hands up. “Kidding, kidding.”

 

“Don’t even joke about that, man!” Jeff urged, putting a hand over his heart. “But really, I found them down near Martin’s base on Calvin Ave. You need to look into it.” He extended out his hand, a pair of handcuffs dangling between his fingers. “And take my inhibitor cuffs if you find him.”

 

“Martin’s base?” Alex questioned. “How do you know that?”

 

“Lots of Hispanic thugs with big guns hanging out around there,” Jeff explained.

 

“Wonderful.” Alex slapped Fritz on the shoulder. “Go find the creepy one, looks like we have a bug to squish again.”

 

***

 

Martin’s base was indeed on Calvin Avenue, in a hulking seaside warehouse by the docks. It was one of the newer ones, the white paint on the corrugated metal siding still fresh. Nonetheless, extensive efforts had been made to fortify it. Sheets of metal had been bolted over the windows, and a helix of barbed wire that wasn’t there before ran along the top of the chain link fence. Guards in heavily padded armor patrolled the perimeter of the fence and waited along every wall of the warehouse, hugging rifles to their chests. A cluster of them, noticeably bigger than the others, stood at attention at the door. Shade swallowed down a twinge of apprehension – if there was an opening, she couldn’t see it.

 

“Hmph…”

 

She turned back and glanced down the adjacent rooftop they were staking out atop of. Onyx and Prism were waiting for her plan patiently.

 

“You two should stay outside and cover me. It doesn’t appear that the mantis creature went back inside, so we also need eyes out in case it returns.”

 

“Uh.” Onyx half-raised his hand. “Are you sure about this? Being alone with Martin?”

 

“Trust me, I know exactly how dangerous he is.”

 

“Okay, your call.”

 

She put out her hand. “I could use a teleport, big guy.”

 

Onyx did as he was told, dropping her near a stack of crates on the building’s back side.

 

“Good luck,” he said before fading away.

 

The rear wasn’t as heavily guarded. Two guards walked a horizontal path to the ends of the fence and back, and two more were having a smoke break near a backdoor.

 

“<You hear about Grigori? Bastard’s gone.>”

 

“<Ha! I got sick of his Mother Russia this, Mother Russia that. It’s obviously not as rough as Blackburn.>”

 

“<Now if we can just feed the Mouse to Mantis, we’ll have the city to ourselves. Say, did that rock just move by itself?>”

 

“<Jorge, rocks don’t just move by themselves.>”

 

“<But it did! I swear on my mother’s grave.>”

 

“<I hope it’s not made of stone or it might have moved itself.>”

 

“<You’re a prick, Miguel.>”

 

Shade had already slid through the door while the two bickered. Inside, she found herself in some sort of armory, the walls lined with racks of guns that were nearly empty. Judging by the height of the ceiling, she guessed that the warehouse was no longer a warehouse, but a three-story stronghold. Save for the one she’d just come through, there was one other door, and it was slightly ajar. Somewhere, she could hear rhythmic footsteps, and what sounded like claws scraping on the cement floor. She crept behind the door and stooped to peer through.

 

Down the dim hallway, someone in that same black body armor rounded the corner, dragging something along by a chain. Suddenly, he stopped. The unseen end of the chain was lagging behind him, resisting him. He scowled. “<Come on, you piece’a shit…>”

 

He gave the chain a jerk, and something that made bile rise in Shade’s throat came into view.

 

She didn’t see it for long – a second and a half, at best – but it was enough to make her skin crawl. The thing was by the loosest definition of the word a dog. At least, it had the vague shape of a dog, a quadruped with pointed ears and a snout. But it was nearly hairless, and its skin was the color of bare human flesh. In that split second, the man didn’t see her. The creature did. It looked her dead in the eye. There was nothing doglike about those eyes.

 

She let out an involuntary gasp and quickly hid behind the door. The guard stopped. “Miguel?” She didn’t respond, but she could hear him creeping closer, loading a gun, cursing under his breath at the thing on his chain.

 

She slid out of the way of the door as it swung open all the way, leaving her trapped in a slice of darkness. The guard stopped, but she could hear his chain jangling. Claws scraped on the floor. They were drawing near. Shade braced herself for the worst.

 

The thing loomed over her, and if nothing else, she was sure right then and there that it was human. It’s face had the bone structure of a dog’s, but its nose was that of human, nostrils set into a shallow impression of a normal nose. Its mouth hung open, rimmed by thin, drawn lips and full of human teeth. Its eyes, too, were unmistakably human. In lieu of paws, its too-short fingers were fused, and its nails were yellow and jagged.

 

Shade pulled her tranq gun, but the beast didn’t move. It gave her one long look, then went back to its master. The man just scoffed. “<You’re kidding.>” He shut the door, exposing her, but he didn’t have time to take note of her before he fell limp with a tranquilizer dart in his neck.

 

Immediately, Shade dragged a gun rack in front of the door and loaded it down with all the guns she could find. The dog person watched her, but didn’t move. For the first time, she noticed its metal collar. The skin around it was chafed and bloody, like it hadn’t been removed in a very long time. A remote control had fallen from the guard’s hand, too, a little plastic square with a single black button. Shade picked it up and inspected it. The only writing on it was in tiny white letters just above the button – administer shock.

 

When she looked up, the dog creature wasn’t where it had been. It was cowering in the corner, watching her with wary eyes and trembling so hard it could barely stand up. Administer shock.

 

“Hey,” she whispered unevenly. “It’s okay, I’m not gonna -” she trailed off. Did the thing know English like the mantis did? It was hard to say – it wasn’t a dog, after all, but it wasn’t human, either.

 

She could feel it watching her as she pulled a multi-tool from her belt and started to unscrew the flatheads from the back of the remote. The backing came away, and she shook the batteries out onto the floor. The dog person looked puzzled, but not quite convinced. The point hadn’t hit home.

 

She dropped the remote on the ground and stomped on it. It crunched under the heel of her boot. The dog person flinched, anticipating a shock, but it never came. She stomped on the remote again and again until it was nothing but plastic shards and bits of circuit board. The dog stopped shaking.

 

“See?” she said, knowing it probably didn’t understand her. It came forward to sniff the remote. Jessica shuddered to think what would happen to the poor creature when she left, but there were bigger things at stake. But as she made to leave, she turned and looked at the thing one last time. Its head was lowered, sagging, as though in grief or maybe relief. The sides of its face were wet with human tears. When it caught her looking at it, it slipped through the door ahead of her. The sound of the chain dragging on a concrete floor was too loud, and she thought of letting it go as a distraction for the guards, but it was going the way she wanted to go, down the west hall. She hurried after it, picking up the dragging chain. It felt wrong in her hands. To keep another human on a leash was wrong. But the creature only picked up its pace, knowingly leading her somewhere.

 

Through the wall of that long, narrow hallway, she could hear machinery – buzzsaws whirring, an industrial air conditioner humming, gruff-voiced men talking. That must have been where the garage door led, she thought, and the garage would take up two floors in height. That meant the second floor would have to be considerably smaller than the first. She wasn’t sure if that was good or bad – there might be less space to cover, but she could easily get trapped if there were too many guards up there.

 

Suddenly, the creature sped up and took a sharp left. She followed it into a dark stairwell – just in the nick of time. Two guards passed the stairwell, smoking cigarettes, each leading their own “dog.” The men didn’t see them. The dogs did. One stalled, if only for half a moment, and the other gave a strange yip, somewhere in between a growl and a human moan, as if to tell its friend off for lingering so long. They disappeared from view, but Jessica could still hear them – the guards, but the dogs, too, talking in a language of whines and not-at-all doglike barks.

 

The second floor was as she expected – the hallway straight ahead led to a wall with a window in it, where she could see gray shapes lit up orange by the glow of flying sparks and welding torches. She wanted to check it out and see how many men Martin had down there, and what kinds of machines they were packing. But the dog seemed anxious to turn the corner, and rightfully so – she slipped behind the wall just in time to see a man with a dog stop to look out that window.

 

She gripped the chain tight in her hands, but it wouldn’t stop rattling. The dog led her to a door and looked at her expectantly. Jessica braced herself as she turned the doorknob, but there weren’t any “experiments” inside. It was just a closet of some sort. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out collars like the one the dog was wearing, unlocked and hung on racks along the walls. There was a shelf with some random garbage on it – chunks of dried meat seemingly designed for the dogs, someone’s locked phone, and a box of batteries with a sign that read NEW batteries (do NOT put dead batteries in here) in Spanish. The dog led her to a corner of the room where a single key hung from a hook. Immediately, she understood, stooping to unlock the collar around the dog’s neck.

 

The hinges on the collar snapped open, and it hit the floor before she could stop it. The sound of metal striking stone reverberated through the floor and up into her legs, momentarily stopping her heart. The dog’s pupils dilated in terror – how much did this sorry creature know? The flesh under the collar smelled sour, maybe rotten, and it was making her sick. Choking down her pulse, Shade strained her ears.

 

Someone was coming. Her hand wandered to her smoke bombs, but it wouldn’t do her any good – the guard would just call in reinforcements, and she’d be cornered. Anything that would draw attention to her would kill her in the long run. She wrapped her hand around her tranq gun.

 

The footsteps tapered off right outside the door. Then, there was silence, followed by a bang. The door flew open, light pouring into the supply closet. Without a second thought, Shade fired.

 

No dice. The dart lodged in a thick black visor that shielded the guard’s face. She could only wonder what his face must have looked like. The hound beside him, smaller than hers, was trembling, like it knew what was coming. The man pressed the button on his remote.

 

Immediately, the creature arched its back and emitted a sound not unlike a strangled scream. Its legs convulsed, white tongue lolled, eyes rolled back in its head. After three seconds that felt like three hours, the man let go of the button, and the thing’s demeanor changed completely. Its human lips curled up in a snarl – not at the guard, but at her. Its eyes were full of a dangerous, feral hatred. She had only moments to wonder what Martin had done to this miserable thing, to the tens, possibly hundreds of barely-humanoid abominations in this facility to make them react in such a way to pain. She jumped out of the way as it leapt, stumbling as the creature grazed her hip and knocked her off balance. It recovered in no time flat, this time backing her into a corner.

 

She shot a tranq dart into it, and then another.  When it lunged at her, it wasn’t nearly as fast as the last time, but at this rate, the thing might have another shot before the tranquilizer took effect – would two tranq darts even be enough? She didn’t want to kill the poor thing. After narrowly dodging yet another lunge, she braced herself against the wall and kicked back with all her might. It barely moved an inch. She shot another dart into it, but it was already too close. The rush of adrenaline in her veins was turning to sick fear. She grabbed a collar from the wall and swung it around on its chain, building its momentum until the thing was close enough for her to smell its breath. Then, she swung it around and struck it across the face.

 

It reeled, staggered, then fell in a heap against a pile of chains. Its back rose and fell, but it didn’t move.

 

When the smell of blood filled the air, she quickly checked her body for wounds she hadn’t noticed – it wouldn’t be the first time she’d blocked out the pain of an injury that week. But aside from a few future bruises and scratches in her armor, she was fine. It  then that Shade realized that she hadn’t heard from the guard, or her own hound, in a bit.

 

The dog  was sitting across the room, laying on something black and bulky. Its pink skin was red with fresh blood – there was blood everywhere, creeping across the floor in a growing pool that originated from that black mass. She went to look at what her hound had done.

 

The guard had been completely eviscerated. The dog had torn through the thick body armor in places, tearing him apart, right down to the bone. His arm had been torn out of its socket and strewn across the room. His visor had been shattered, but a scrap of body armor mercifully covered his face, and Shade decided she didn’t want to see what was underneath.

 

She looked at the dog, and the dog looked at her, but that time, the dog wasn’t quite human enough for her to read it. She clenched her fist. “Come on,” she said, beckoning for it to follow as she laid a hand on the doorknob. When it was at her heels, she threw the door open and ran.

 

The late guard seemed to have been the only one on the small, evidently unimportant floor – or if there were others, they were few, and she never ran into them. The hound was faster than her. It led her to yet another stairwell, and she almost bounded up it. But as she reeled back to leap, she noticed that the dog was creeping up the stairs with such care that she had to wonder what was at the top – evidently, something that the hound was very afraid of. She crept a few paces behind it, until it stopped nearly at the top.

 

She didn’t hear a thing up there. But if she was putting money on it, she would have bet that the dog knew better than her. So she crawled past it and stole a look into the third floor.

 

The hound had been right again. Four guards stood watch over one door in a small chamber whose only purpose seemed to be to precede that door. They weren’t chatty like the other guards – they faced forward, two flanking the door, two up against the adjacent walls. They didn’t have hounds, though. They were armed with massive guns, held ready across their chests.

 

They only served to emphasize how important that door must have been, though, because they weren’t much of a threat to her. Taking them out was easy enough. One knock-out gas pellet, and they were gone. That wasn’t the issue. When one of their walkie-talkies hissed, and someone on the other side asked for what was apparently a routine check-in – that was an issue. The voice cut in again, asking if they copied. Reinforcements would arrive at any moment. Her time was short. She snatched a keycard from one of the guards’ sleeve pockets and swiped it. For good measure, she took all of the others’ key cards with her, hoping that they were the only ones with cards; that might buy her some time.

 

She took hold of the doorknob. The dog appeared beside her, and its eyes were full of – no, not fear. Sadness. The thought of passing through that door was suddenly making her sick. She opened it anyway.

 

Before she could even register what was in there, the dog bolted down the hall, anxious to pass through as quickly as possible. They were in a long, long hallway, not gray like the rest of the building, but clinical white. Doors lined the hall, at least twenty on either side, each with a reinforced window beside it.

 

This was a distraction, she decided, proceeding down the hall with her eyes downcast. But there were strange sounds all around her, and she could feel her curiosity stirring inside of her. She promised herself that she wouldn’t stop, no matter what she saw, and then looked.

 

And she didn’t stop, but what she saw nearly made her sick. In every room was some sort of abomination of human flesh, like the dog, but of many more unnatural shapes. She saw something nearly human with gigantic hands and a single eye for its entire face, something thin made of more membrane than flesh or bone, something lying on a table without arms or legs or eyes or ears or anything but a single mouth, one horrific thing after another. But the worst of them was at the end of the hall – a door. Just an office door, with gold letters on the frosted glass.

 

Dr. Martin Salazar

 

After all she’d seen, Shade was dying to get her hands on that freak. She could barely contain herself. But at the same time, she could barely bring herself to open that door.

 

The place was open and spacious, lavish quarters for someone important. An expensive-looking rug ran the whole length of the place, and the walls were lined with bookshelves. At the far end of the room, a gilded desk sat in front of a huge tapestry. Dr. Salazar himself stood admiring it with hands clasped behind his back, paying Shade no attention at all, and she wondered if he even knew she was there. She started to creep towards the desk.

 

“About time,” he said in that strange, distorted voice of his.

 

Shade stopped. “You knew I was coming,” she said, a statement of fact.

 

“Indeed.”

 

“How?”

 

“Simple. Things being the way that they are, the new Mavericks wouldn’t be anywhere but Vicio, and my base of operations is by far the most conspicuous on the island. From the outside, it’s low hanging fruit. Like most traps.”

 

“Some trap,” she scoffed. “Your guards are pathetic.”

 

“Indeed, I’ve been waiting to hear news of guards up to their gills in tranquilizer, but not two minutes ago, a guard called to tell me that someone had been absolutely maimed in the hound supply closet. Positively brutal. I didn’t think that such bloodshed was in the spirit of the Mavericks. Letting out some pent up rage?”

 

Shade was taken aback. “That wasn’t me.”

 

Martin looked over his shoulder, and his bespectacled eyes widened at the hound beside her. “Ah, it was you.”

 

He came around his desk to approach the hound. He looked down on the creature with some strange, synthetic affection. She didn’t dare attack him – not yet. “Where’s your training collar, little one?” he asked in a syrupy voice. “What about your handler? Surely he wasn’t the one we found unconscious in the first floor armory. What kind of dog would you be to let such a thing happen to your handler?”

 

Somewhere in the hound’s eyes,  it understood.

 

Martin reeled back with his cane. “It would make you -” He brought it down on the hound’s head. “A waste -” And again. “Of genetic -” Again. “Material.” Again. “A book – not worth – its paper…” He stopped, panting, brandishing his cane like a sword. “… is what…”

 

The poor creature was dead before she could make a move. The corners of her mouth twitched in rage.

 

Martin looked at her, then the hound. It was laying down now, blood pouring down the side of its face, but its eyes were wide open and terrified. “Kindling.” One more time, he beat the dog’s head with the cane. Its eyes closed. “Fuel for a fire. Bigger and better things than it. We’ll still use her genetic material, of course, but I think we ought to make her successors more obedient, tone down the intellect. This sort of insubordination has happened more times than I’d care to admit.”

 

He strolled back up to his desk, as though nothing had happened, and paused again at his tapestry with his hands clasped behind his back.

 

“What is all this about, Martin?”

 

He scoffed. “Don’t ask stupid questions. You know this is about power – power that is rightfully mine. There are no revelations to be had. I don’t regret the pain, suffering, and death I’ve caused in past. Blackburn’s pain is but a drop in the bucket, and it hasn’t changed me. You don’t realize how worthless human life is until you take it away – even just one human life. It’s really quite astounding. I think everyone should try it.” He paused, lost in thought. “There are no secrets here. My reasons are the same as they’ve always been.”

 

“Just confirming what I already knew. You’re sick.”

 

Martin made a small snort, then fell silent. “So. Are we ready to end this?”

 

But he hadn’t even finished speaking by the time Shade had drawn her tranq gun. She fired, aiming for the back of his neck. Inches away from his neck, it stopped – just stopped, hovering in the air, perfectly still. His bony, broken fingers were splayed, as if holding it there. “Poor form, Shade.”

 

At minute twirl of his fingers, the dart turned around. She had less than a moment to dodge it as it came flying back at her. Martin’s back was still turned. She started running at him, brandishing her fists. Then, something slid out from under her feet, and she was flat on her face. The rug had been pulled out from underneath her like a tablecloth, and was now piled at the far end of the room. Martin had turned around now, and was smiling a crooked smile at her.

 

Then, something flashed in the corner of her eye, and she had just enough sense in her to get out of the way. Two bookshelves from opposite walls smashed together, right where she’d been sitting. Before she even realized what had happened, her instincts told her to jump back, and she did, narrowly avoiding being smashed by yet another set of bookshelves. All four shelves rattled and returned to their positions on the walls, now unimpeded by the carpet.

 

Then, all of the bookshelves started to rattle, all at once. She shot her grappling gun into the ceiling and went airborne just in time – all of the bookshelves smashed together, making a sound like a thunderclap. She dropped straight towards Martin. He looked up, and for a moment, he looked surprised. Then, he held up a hand, and Shade was frozen in space, inches away from the ugliest, most contorted face she’d ever seen. His eyes were cataract blue. A smile crept up the corners of his displaced lips, and he flicked his fingers, sending her flying across the room.

 

She landed on the pile of rug, forcing herself to her feet. There were already bookshelves flying at her like gigantic rounds of ammunition. She broke into a run, dodging one, two, three, four of them in rapid succession. They exploded into broken wood and scattered books behind her. She was gaining ground again, but Martin had himself protected – three bookshelves orbited him like planets, ready at his disposal. He didn’t seem too keen on wasting any more bookshelves, for he’d stopped firing them at her, but at least three more were looming in the air, ready to strike. When she was within range, she chucked a smoke pellet at him, hoping to obscure his vision and get a shot in on him. It landed right at his feet, and he was immediately enveloped in a haze of gray smoke.

 

She could see the tops of his orbiting bookshelves where they stuck out of the cloud – if she could come in and attack him from above, he might not have seen it coming. Again she took to the air with her grappling gun and began to descend into the ring of shelves, bearing down hard upon the man inside of it.

 

But she never hit him – he wasn’t there, and she couldn’t say how. Realizing she’d been trapped, she ducked and rolled out of the circle and into the open air. She looked over her shoulder in time to catch the three unseen bookshelves smash together, throwing books and wooden shrapnel everywhere.

 

Martin was riding a bookshelf through the air, upright, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. However, as she dodged bookshelves that swooped down like hawks to the kill, she noticed something – Martin was leaning heavily on his cane. Panting. Pale. Was he getting tired?

 

In a maneuver she knew full well he could evade, she tried again to shoot her grapple into the ceiling and swing into him. He caught her again, but didn’t allow her to get so close this time. It wasn’t enough to hide the fact that he was sweating profusely, though, and his teeth were gritted in concentration. He threw her, but his throw was so feeble that she landed on her feet.

 

So she continued to dodge his attacks. She kept her maneuvers predictable, so Martin had something to do, something to waste his energy on. He tried to interrupt the regular patterns of her movements, but it was too late to do any real damage – the bookshelves moved sluggishly through the air now, still forceful, still capable of doing damage, but they’d lost their element of surprise, and she dodged them easily.

 

The bookshelf Martin rode was getting lower, the way a balloon sags as it runs out of helium. She was just biding her time, waiting until – without warning, she broke her maneuver to bounce off the wall and into the air, a leg outstretched to kick him off of his pedestal. Their eyes met, and he was no longer smug. His eyes were feral. With a final heave of effort, he sent a bookshelf sailing through the air, and she didn’t have time to dodge it. It knocked her right down, and she felt the breath leave her lungs as she hit the ground, splintered wood raining down her cloak.

 

But the effort had been too much for him, and she knew it. She looked up just in time to catch Martin stagger and fall ten, maybe fifteen feet. He crumpled on the floor, his bookshelves hanging perfectly still in the air. Without his telekinesis, he seemed so vulnerable, a heap of broken bones. Shade got to her feet and went to see if he was dead.

 

No. He hardly seemed perturbed by freshly broken bones – he’d probably broken so many of his own bones, it didn’t even matter to him. He was human, but just barely.

 

He tried to squirm away, but he was either too weak or too broken to manage it. He forced a laugh. “Well, then?” he choked out. “What are you going to do? Kill me?”

 

“Maybe I should.” A hundred ways to end him flashed through her mind. None gave him what he deserved.

 

“Really? Is that right?” he said, cackling. “Then by all means, dear, do it.”

 

Shade glared down at him. She was suspicious, but not enough to stop her from knocking that damn smile off. She reeled back and kicked him hard across the face. His head snapped to the floor and stayed there.

 

The bookshelves that hung in the air shook, filling the room with a strange rattle. Shade heard something overhead, looked up – one was hanging directly over Martin. Had that been there before?

 

One by one, they fell out of the air, eight in total. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven – eight. The bookshelf fell on top of him, flat side down, still full of heavy tomes. One rattling breath sounded from underneath the shelf, then ceased.

 

A pulse of energy hit her, first as a feeling, then as a force that knocked her flat on her ass. Below her, she could hear every window in the building shatter, every one of Martin’s men cry out in surprise and terror. The last of his energy was gone. Martin was dead.

 

Before she could let herself fully understand what she’d done, Shade called Quinn. “The asshole’s dead. When this is all over, they need to raze this place to the ground.”

 

“Good riddance,” Quinn said. Shade’s stare lingered on the fallen bookshelf, the tip of Martin’s leather shoe sticking out from underneath it, and his cane lying unused beside him. She turned and made a run for the nearest window.

 

 

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1.13 Don’t Stop Me Now

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Hey folks, we’ve finally been accepted on Topwebfiction! All I need is a simply one-click vote here weekly to keep the readers flowing in. The link is also on the front page. The more readers we get, the more bonus content we can put out in the future. Thank you for following thus far, we’ve got about half a dozen chapters to go in this arc.

 

Fritz would have been lying if he’d said this had been one of his better days. Sure, it wasn’t his worst either, but boy, vigilante work was tough and the people were even more nuts than usual. Somehow he’d never expected to fight a giant bug.

 

To his surprise, Prism had lived through the encounter and was now headed for the weapons cache on his own. Something about stealth. Onyx and Shade were supposed to meet him there.

 

On the way, however, Cerberus jerks had been making the journey a pain in the ass. It seemed like every corner he turned, there were some assholes blocking his path and slowing him down. Just as he thought he’d found a clear way, there were some more soldiers with assault rifles. It was getting old. They were all walking in the same direction, seemingly only interested in searching above for any threats. Not one of the men had any thought to look over his shoulder and catch Prism following.

 

It gave Prism more than enough time to gather light around himself, weaving and stretching it into an impossibly smooth yet flexible surface. He hesitated, whirling the light around himself like a potter’s wheel. Only once he had a wide enough surface area did Prism send it out, weaving it right under the goons’ boots.

 

The first cry alerted the rest of them, but not before the two furthest back had slipped and fallen right onto the frictionless light pooling around them. As the two of them desperately grappled for purchase and found none, the rest of them stepped on the almost icy trap that materialized just below their feet. In only a few seconds, the group was flopping around like fish out of water with only each other to hold onto. Their guns laid useless at their sides, and their bulky figures only served to pin them in place. No matter how hard they tried to squirm out of the trap, they went nowhere. It didn’t take long for all of them to give up and lay there, breathing hard.

 

With that done, Prism waltzed out from his hiding spot and jogged past them.

 

“Trust me, guys-” he called as he passed them, giving a little wave. “-working for Cerberus ain’t gonna work out for you.”

 

All he heard was a groan in response as he kept on towards the rendezvous point.

 

For a little while, it was smooth sailing. The only goons he saw were in the distance, well out of his way. Prism kept up a brisk pace and it seemed like he’d get where he was going on time. Of course, as luck would have it, there managed to be a bigass truck blocking his way. It was practically on top of his target location, for God’s sake, could Cerberus not have moved it one block over?

 

Prism pressed up flat against the truck’s front end. The doors were open, but the mooks were all out back. He peered out from behind it to watch them duck in and out of view, carrying corpses as they went. It was impossible to tell how many there were like that, but it sure looked like a good group.

 

Half of a plan formulated itself in Prism’s head. He glanced around at the ground before grabbing a chunk of concrete from the ground. With all the force he could muster, he brought it down on the truck’s nose. Immediately, he dropped it and hauled himself up onto the truck, scurrying up onto the roof and laying flat on it.

 

“The hell was that?” someone asked.

 

“Well, go find out.”

 

“I’m not going, I’m hauling bodies. You just been standing there, you go.”

 

“Fine, jeez, no respect for the sentry.”

 

Prism heard the unfortunate soldier plodding along, and, once he’d passed by, Prism leaned over the truck’s sides and formed frictionless sheets of light on either of them. With that done, he pulled himself back in, and started bringing light into both of his hands. Slowly, but surely, two solid batons formed from out of his fists and he held them in a solid grip. All the while, he drew himself up into a crouched posture.

 

“Ah, come the fuck on!” the goon whined from the front. “That was new paint! Fuckin’ looters got no-”

 

Prism exploded out of his crouch, pouncing on the soldier and delivering two solid whaps to his head. He went down just like that, and Prism landed on his feet.

 

“Leo?!” another of them called.

 

Prism ducked behind the truck’s front and couldn’t stifle a smirk as the cries of confused goons hitting the ground came flooding in. Funny as it was, he had no time to waste. Prism peeked out on one side to make sure none of them were still standing. They were collecting themselves fast, and, as Prism came close, one of them yelled for someone to grab a gun. No one ever did.

 

Three solid whacks on three very empty heads later and Prism was left with, hopefully, only a few left to deal with. Of course, how he was going to do that was the question, but he was sure he’d think of something. Prism made his way around the back of the truck and-

 

He froze at the open door. Inside was a seemingly endless pile of body bags and not all of them were zipped up all the way. The smell of rot hit Prism hard, and he brought a hand up to his mouth and nose, squeezing his eyes shut. The moisture in the air was not helping.

 

It was then that he felt something butt against his shoulder.

 

“No sudden moves, buddy,” one of the soldiers said from beside him.

 

Prism took a deep breath and opened his eyes again. Surrounding him were four of the Cerberus goons, all with their rifles trained on him. He brought his hands up and gave the best smile he could.

 

“Hey, guys,” he said. “How are you all doing today?”

 

No one even cracked a smile. Buncha jerks. Prism glanced to the side and began concentrating light into a small sphere just out of their peripheral views.

 

“Who are you?” the first of them demanded, prodding Prism with the nose of his gun. “What’s with the get-up?”

 

“We-ell,” Prism drawled. “You can call me Prism. It’s not my name, but you can call me that, if you get what I’m saying.”

 

Again, he was jabbed in the chest. They didn’t get it.

 

“You sure look familiar,” the guy said, squinting at him.

 

“Oh, well, you do too,” Prism said, giving him a saccharine smile. “Did I meet you at the bar? The one who wasn’t packing as much heat as advertised?”

 

Prism heard a snort from one of the other soldiers before he was punched right in the jaw. He faltered back, hunching a bit.

 

“Talk, asshole, or you’re gonna end up with the rest of them!” he snarled, like the overcompensating brute he was.

 

“Alright,” Prism said, raising one hand. “You’re a bunch of douchebags.”

 

On the final syllable, Prism fell to the ground in a ball and a blinding flash went off between the four of them. He heard a few rounds fired and some screaming, but nothing hit him. As quickly as he went down, Prism hopped up again and reformed his batons. Just like before, he whacked them all in the head and they went down like flies. Man, this hero work wasn’t so hard after all.

 

With that taken care of, Prism dared one last look into the truck before he took off running down the street. It would only take a minute to get to the rendezvous from there, assuming no more Cerberus soldiers got in his way. No problem at all.

 

***

 

“So there’s Cerberus soldiers everywhere, and it looks like some of them are gathering up bodies,” Prism explained. “Disgusting, let me tell you.”

 

“Bodies?” Shade questioned, but the answer didn’t take long to deduce. “Hmph. Some of Grigori’s men must have missed the boat. Makes our job easier.”

 

She gestured around the building they were standing before. “Cerberus is just around the corner, plundering the bastard’s stash. I’m going to see if I can’t find any explosives to rig. You two cover me.”

 

The boys nodded and zipped off, leaving her to slink around the building’s edge. The were a few squads worth of men scouring the warehouse, checking in and out of their vehicles. She’d love to have asked Grigori how they hidden so many weapons in Liberty, right under the public’s nose. Perhaps one day. Right then she needed to make sure those weapons didn’t end up the wrong hands.

 

“Hey, uh, Shade? I’m – I’m not sure if I’m not seeing things, but – you might want to check out who their commander is.”

 

She grumbled beneath her breath. Was the crypticism necessary?

 

“Just spit it out man.” She peered around a van, letting her eyes adjust to the warehouse’s lighting, and nearly jumped a mile.

 

“No! Fucking hell, not her!”

 

A few Cerberus troopers heard fear getting the better of her and turned around, taking a few tentative steps. Their parting fully revealed a woman in a tattered white cape.

 

“Screw this – fall back,” she commanded, making a break for the building they had come from – but a squad of Cerberus soldiers doubled around.

 

Fuck.” Holding her breath, she crawled under the nearest van. An agonizing minute passed, and every second she thought her heartbeat would give her away. When the sound of their boots faded away, she put a shaking finger to her ear.

 

“Onyx, Prism, they know I’m here. I’m trapped. I need a distraction.”

 

“Hold tight Shade, we’ll get them off your back,” came Onyx’s reply. After a moment she heard a whistle from the roofs. Evidently the mercs had too, and they hurried towards it. She began to crawl out when she was hauled to her feet by the scruff of her neck. There was no time to react before Phantasm spun her around and decked her in the nose.

 

Shade staggered back, clutching her face. The response was automatic, just as she practiced so many times – she blinked away the pain and threw a jab of her own. Phantasm parried the punch but missed the knee rocketing into her gut. Even through the goggles her surprise was evident. Shade punched downwards and Phantasm doubled over. As she went for a second blow she found herself staring up at the sky, clutching her shoulder, listening to the sounds of gunfire nearby. Even near fifty, was her mother still faster than her?

 

She spun around and kicked herself back to her feet, throwing a van door into Phantasm’s face. Phantasm slammed it shut, hovering a hand over her sidearm. Shade readied into a disarming stance, but the gun never came. Phantasm instead went for – bolas?

 

Shade struggled to free her ankles, but the wire held fast.

 

“Take off that mask,” Phantasm demanded, leveling her handgun. She gritted her teeth. Fine. At least she’d see what she’d done to her only child.

 

“Some hero you are, lady,” Onyx growled. They glanced up to see him crouching atop the van. Phantasm attempted to fire a round at him, but hit a block of shadow instead. He leapt on top of Shade and in an instant she found herself on the roof of the building.

 

“If you really wanted to get on top of me so bad, you just had to ask,” she teased.

 

“Let’s flirt when there’s not so many bullets flying around, okay?” He stuck a finger to his ear. “Prism, we gotta go.”

 

“Wa-ay ahead of you, buddy,” Prism said, a grin in his voice. Somewhere in the distance, a deep boom could be heard.

 

“I guess that’s our cue.” Onyx studied the bola wires for a moment before shrugging. “I’ll just brute force it.”

 

He cracked his neck before surrounding his hand in those befuddling shadows. The wires gave way with little resistance.

 

“Impressive. Wait, watch ou-”

 

Bang!

 

Shade managed to throw up her hands in time to guard her eyes from the flash grenade, but Onyx wasn’t so lucky. He howled in agony, clutching his forehead. His eyes were sensitive to strong light, weren’t they?

 

Balling her fists, she marched to the roof’s edge and threw a haymaker when Phantasm scaled over. Her mother’s eyes shot open. Before she could tumble over Shade grabbed her by the collar and slammed her to the ground. She went for a stomp before she caught the glint of a blade. They locked eyes for a moment.

 

Gritting her teeth, Shade threw down a smoke pellet and fell into the gas.

 

***

 

No no no no no.

 

Her belt and mask nearly toppled the whiskey.

 

No no no no no goddammit all no no.

 

Shaking hands pried the bottle open and she didn’t bother with a glass. After downing three – or was it four? – shots, Rebecca slumped down into her chair, forehead in her palms. She thought she was going to be sick. That couldn’t have been Jessica, her girl was in jail, she couldn’t have betrayed her, she wouldn’t.

 

The door to the diner clicked open. Rebecca stole a glance at her Field Commander and curled her lips.

 

“What?”

 

“It’s the mayor, ma’am,” he said, wagging a cell phone. “He wants to speak to you directly.”

 

“Give it.”

 

The man nodded and complied before slipping away.

 

“Rebecca? Why haven’t you reported in? What the hell is going on over there?”

 

“Chaos. I tried to warn you that these gangs had grown too powerful. We just seized over two tons of weaponry from the Russians.”

 

She could audibly hear the mayor leaning back in his seat.

 

“And that’s without mentioning Mouse has yet to truly deploy her latest drug, and God knows what Martin’s got planned… Mister Montana, I think we need to plan for the worst case scenario.”

 

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