“We deserve better than this,” I said between coughs. The lights were dim, but I could make out the faces of my companions perfectly. Mae certainly looked like she agreed, but she was too modest to say anything about it. Poor girl. Recent events seemed to have knocked the extroversion right out of her. Jan, though, she was in the mood to object. So, business as usual.
“We, or you?” Inhale. Exhale. Ignore the smell. It was hard to even follow my own directions. I had never been made to endure such a stench. To my left, Wendy was acting ever modest, but I could tell he agreed with me.
“No one should have to live like this. Not me, not you. Hell, I wouldn’t even wish all this tepid sewer water on Zane.” A moment passed. “No, that’s completely untrue.” Mae, attempting tact, changed the subject.
“That big guy said we had to wait to see the Priestess. I don’t mean to presume that our time is more important, but…what could anyone possibly have to do down here?” She made a wide gesture to the damp corridor around us. No one seemed able to come up with a good answer.
This little slice of heaven was the Milwaukee Derelict, located inside the city’s sewer. The place seemed designed to make navigation as hard as possible: we had taken at least ten turns since climbing down the manhole to get here. It also smelled so goddamn horrible I was surprised. Despite my protests, we had spent the better part of six hours waiting here for an audience with this Priestess I had been told so much about. In the time since we had left Moon Creek, I had begun to really start feeling the effects of the Formula-15 withdrawal, and they were less than pleasant. A cold sweat had permanently enveloped me, and according to everyone I could get to touch my forehead (just Wendy), I was running a high fever. My legs refused to work at full capacity, too, and it was all I could do to stand up straight. I would be assisted by no walls, though. The most powerful Alter in the world (by my admittedly subjective count) wasn’t going to pass out, and he certainly wasn’t going to need help standing.
I lit a cigarette to distract myself from the fever, the drowsiness, and the fact that the pain in my shoulder had only gotten worse in the last few hours. I could only imagine what Wendy had to feel like. Those tissue-growth supplements we had been given had likely kept the poor guy alive and me still with my arm, but it’s hard to count one’s blessings when the pain feels as fresh as it did.
“I suppose we’ll know when we talk to her. I thought she might recognize our names, though. Jan and I did a few odd jobs for her a couple years ago,” Wendy recounted, a mix of nostalgia and worry on his face. Jan scoffed, as Jan was wont to do.
“You forgot to mention how difficult it is to talk to her even after you manage to see the crazy bird face to face.” I gave a time out symbol.
“Hold up here. If there’s even a chance she doesn’t six this fucking dependency-”
“You’ll what? Start shouting? I’d advise against it, impotent though it may be. The bitch has no tolerance for demands.” I frowned, not wanting to admit that Jan was right. A pair of heavy footsteps broke the silence. Turning, I saw it was French, a very large Alter who had introduced himself to us as Priestess’s bodyguard. He went shirtless, probably to showcase the fact that he looked like a goddamn Hogarth drawing.
“The Priestess has decided that she will see you now. I’d advise you not take her generosity for granted,” he said with a voice that sounded like tar.
“Any rules we need to follow in her presence?” I like to think that this was a fair question, but French looked at me like a yippy little dog he wasn’t afraid to drop kick.
“If you break them, you’ll know.” Without even thinking, I put on a smile so saccharine it could turn tofu into taffy. French was not amused. The other three looked like they were going to choke if they held in their laughter any longer.
Without another word, French lead us down the corridor to a very large door that didn’t seem to have any way to open it. Taking a deep breath, he pressed both hands against it and closed his eyes. What followed was a horrible screeching noise that I thought might deafen me. However, I soon became distracted by what was creating the noise: there was a very small hole in the door that hadn’t been there a few seconds ago. After looking at it for a moment, I realized that it was getting bigger, if slowly. I then saw just how thick the door was: it had to have been two feet of solid steel. Mae’s eyes widened. When the hole was big enough to walk through, she spoke up.
“That’s….incredible.” French seemed to appreciate the compliment and ruffled her hair as if she was a small child.
“At my best, I can destroy cars with a thought.” He laughed. “Or with other implements. The hands-on approach is necessary for walls this thick, though.” Though I, too, was impressed, I kept my mouth shut. The goliath waved us in.
The room we walked into wasn’t big, really, but long. There was a single light hanging in front of the ‘door’ whose light only illuminated half of the room. I struggled to see what was on the other half. A voice preempted me.
“You…you are tainted with Zane’s poison,” it said slowly. It was a female voice, raspy. As if the speaker hadn’t drank in a week. I pointed to myself.
“Me? Yes. About a week ago, I-”
“Shut up. Any fool can guess why. The poison. It is a sacrilege. I will not have it in these walls. Every step you take with it still in your blood is an insult to me and to all of us. You will kneel, and I will free you from it. Then, we shall discuss payment.” I raised an eyebrow, confused.
“For your healing me? I thought you seemed pretty enthusiastic about getting rid of the Formula-15.”
“Not for that,” the voice snapped. “Payment for your services.” A question crawled to my lips but died there as I heard her footsteps draw close, an unsettling metallic noise accompanying them. It seemed like it took an hour for her to enter the light, but when she did, I was awed.
There was a line that I did not know existed, a line between breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying beyond all measure. Priestess didn’t just blur that line; she picked it up and twisted it into an infinity symbol before tossing it out with the rest of the garbage. She was garbed in what seemed to be heavy-duty trash bags; one wrapped tightly around the upper half of her torso and the other fashioned into a sort of long skirt that extended to her ankles. Her hair, the color of dark chocolate, was styled into what had to be hundreds of braids, each one ending in a shell casing kept in place by what seemed to be glue. As I traced the braids up to her face, I noticed that she had a massive scar, one that started at her forehead and extended down her face, forking out once it reached her chin. Both ends moved down her neck in different directions before finally fading at her collarbone.
Placing her age was difficult; she was covered in grime. As my rapidly increasing heartbeat confirmed, though, neither this nor her scar did anything to distract from her beauty. Her slender arm extended outwards towards me, and a single finger touched my forehead. She took a deep breath, and, instinctually, so did I.
The feeling that followed defied description. Was it painful? I couldn’t tell. All I can say is that I began to feel waves of energy moving through me and doubling back, finally converging on the bridge of my nose. Gravity’s pull on me seemed to weaken for a moment before increasing tenfold. I collapsed to the ground, and blood seeped out of my nose and mouth. Terrified, I ceased to breathe for a moment before the flow of blood suddenly ceased. Spitting out the last of it, I rose to my feet. I was clumsy, though, like a calf standing up for the first time. My knees wobbled almost uncontrollably until the Priestess grabbed hold of both my shoulders.
Looking into her eyes, I began to breathe again, and noticed that with every inhalation, the lights seemed to dim. This continued until the light at the doorway seemed to just sit there. Oh, it was still bright, but it gave off no more illumination. The light trapped within it was all that could be seen, now. The rest was pitch black.
“Calm yourself, shadow of humanity.” I took a sharp breath in, and the light in the room returned to normal.
“You’re the second person who’s called me that,” I said almost pointedly. The Priestess gave me a distant smile before letting me stand up on my own. She turned to Wendy and Jan.
“Familiar faces here. You’ll be making yourselves useful, I hope you know. Things are about to change.” As she walked by, she patted them both on the shoulder. Arriving at Mae, she frowned contemplatively. It was made clear to her, after awhile, that The Priestess wasn’t going to talk until she did.
“I don’t know what you want me to tell you.” The Priestess sighed, though I couldn’t tell if it was because she was frustrated or because she understood.
“Start with what you know.” This seemed to confuse Mae, and I didn’t blame her, because I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about either.
“What I know? I know I’m here because of a stupid mistake I made. Because I tried to be the good person God wants me to be.” Mae started breathing a bit heavier and continued. “I know that I’m probably going to die soon. I know I’ll never see my mom again. Worst of all, I don’t even think I’ll have made a difference when all is said and done. I’ll be on the run for the rest of my short life and so will the people I thought I was helping.” She began to cry. I politely turned away. Apparently, though, I was supposed to have gone and hugged her. That’s what the stink eye Jan was giving me likely meant as she and Wendy headed over to do so. The Priestess spoke up.
“I can solve none of your problems.” This, of course, did nothing to help Mae’s mood. She was sobbing now. I wanted to empathize with her. I really did. But, for some reason, I just felt embarrassed for her. And I think I hated myself for it. “But I believe our mutual friend here can,” she went on, pointing to me. I put my hands up.
“Wait, me? Look, the shit I’m in is just as deep as the shit she’s in. Yeah, I had a few ideas to maybe make our escape a little more permanent, but-”
“That’s not good enough!” At first, I thought it was just The Priestess who had yelled this at me, but I realized after a second that Mae had done so, too.
“One at a time, please.” The two of them descended upon me like birds of fucking prey. Wendy looked like he was going to intervene for a moment before Jan held him back and shook her head at him. Thanks, Jan. Mae started, screaming through tears. It was…a frightening sight.
“You promised! You promised you would make this worth my while! I won’t let you go back on it. Not after what you put me through. I had a life, Cal, and it evaporated in front of my eyes three hours after you showed up. Three hours! Now you’re trying to backpedal because you’re too afraid of some decrepit old man with a syringe to act! You can’t be afraid. I pray to God for resolve and still come up empty, so he obviously thinks it’s better off in your hands. Now use it!”
“I guess this is a bad time to bring up the fact that I’m an agnostic.” My answer was a telekinetic slap to the face that sent me spinning. Reflexively, I broke my fall with…I wasn’t sure what it was. All I know is that I stopped halfway to the floor and sprung back up. Only later did I realize that I had just willed a shadow into solidity to catch me. I didn’t have time to think about it then, though. No, it was The Priestess’s turn.
“Zane does not make mistakes. The fact that your escape was so easy troubles me. Ambivalence is a luxury none of us can afford when it is so obvious that the IAD plans to make a move against us soon.” Her words sent a shiver down my spine for at least two different reasons.
“Wait. How the hell do you know about what happened to me?” She brought her hand up to my cheek and looked straight through me with her pale blue eyes.
“They wanted me dead. Not in their captivity. Dead. My status as an Alter was documented. As were my gifts. I would be a great threat. My understanding reaches far, Calvin Mead, but I never did know why they considered me so dangerous until today. Until today I was just a nuisance. Now I know that it wasn’t my vision or my ability to destroy their poison that threatened them. It was a gift I had taken for granted. I have a memory like that of a library. With a thought, I can bring up any experience I’ve ever had, even those that happened before I learned to walk…and share it. Zane does not want someone as powerful as you to know the truth about our past…or his. Calvin, I was there on the day the heroes died. And I know too much.” It all began to make sense to me.
“Zane only let me go so he could kill us both. He knew I’d come to the one person who could cure my dependency to the Formula-15.” A thought occurred. “If that’s true, though, then why did he send that goon after us? He would have killed us if we had let him. There has to be more to this.” Wendy raised his hand.
“Do we even know that they’ve tracked us here, though? We’ve been pretty careful about staying off the grid.” I shook my head.
“We can’t afford to take that chance.” I pondered an idea for a moment. “But there are a couple chances I’m willing to take.” Mae, having regained her composure, crossed her arms, obviously skeptical.
“I hate to be a naysayer, Cal, but if this Zane is as dangerous as you say he is, I don’t think any risk will be worth it.” A look of dawning comprehension came upon Wendy’s face. He shook his head and spoke up.
“No, hold on. I think I know what he’s getting at. But Cal,” he said, looking to me, “how are you planning on making this work? We’re not sure of just how many men Zane will bring with him when he comes.” Scowling, I cracked my knuckles.
“Anyone who crosses us, who crosses me, is gambling his life. Zane knows how powerful I am, and probably knows that I’m free of the Formula-15. He also seems to have plenty of regard for human life, so he won’t put any more lives in danger than he has to. Which means that he’ll either bring as few as possible, ensuring that even a critical failure on his part would only result in a couple of casualties…or he’ll bring an army to remove any risk.”
“I can see,” Jan growled, “that you’re dead set on bloodshed. If I can’t convince you not to do this, then let me ask you how you plan on backing up that boast against the odds you’re talking about.”
“You’re mistaken, Jan,” I replied, smiling. “No one dies this time. Not if I can help it. Hell, I’m not even sure if I could take a life. Though, I’m certainly capable of everything up to that.” This seemed to placate Jan, who nodded in…well, not disapproval.
“Alright. That makes me feel…better? No, that’s too strong a word. Whatever. Just tell me what the idea is.” Wendy replied, quite proud of himself for figuring out what I was planning.
“Zane knows more about the world’s Alter population than we do. He has to. He’s been hunting them since V-M Day, or so he told me a few years ago. I say we kidnap him. Make him talk.” Jan dragged her hand down her face.
“That’s the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard. Were you not just listening to Cal? We’re outnumbered a hundred to one.” At first, Wendy threw his hands up in surrender, before a look of quite visible annoyance crossed his face.
“You know, I don’t see you coming up with any ideas. Damnit, I don’t even know where we plan on facing him down, or when. Cal, let me level with you,” he said, frustrated. “I don’t want to die. I want Zane’s hand around my throat even less. I’ve spent the better part of the last few years trying to keep myself and my sister safe, and nothing that’s been said so far has done anything to convince me that we aren’t going to either meet horrible ends soon or wind up in some sensory deprivation chamber five miles underground with a constant Formula-15 drip. Just like Mae’s been saying, I want this all to be worth something.” Exhaling loudly, I fell against the wall and ran my hands through my hair. A few moments passed before I shook it off.
“Give me an hour alone. I’ll think of something.” Walking off, I could feel the disbelief of my three companions. It was palpable. I wasn’t entirely sure, but it almost seemed like their doubt had a smell to it. Maybe it was just the sewers.
“Calvin, we still must discuss your payment,” the Priestess called. I turned around.
“For what? Chances are I’ve lead Zane right to your doorstep. This one’s on me, Priestess.” At the end of the room was a door, this one much easier to open than the last one. Deciding that it was as good as any other door, I stormed through it. It was a hallway in which I then found myself, this one much better lit than the corridor we had waited in or the Priestess’s ‘throne room,’ of sorts. There were a number of doors leading out of the hallway.
Picking one at random, I happened across a very large, dimly lit room. What appeared to be candles were strewn about the floor, and the scent of incense was heavy on the damp air. All that could be heard was the sound of water going through the pipes in the walls. Then, footsteps. Without looking, I knew it was the Priestess.
“I know I have a purpose,” I lamented, not waiting for her to kick me out or ask what I was doing there. “That’s not an issue. I’ve come to terms with what I think I’m meant to do. But where do I even start? Zane is coming, I know he is, and we’re four teenagers, a bouncer, and…” I gestured towards the Priestess, not knowing what to call her, “and you.” She smiled at me, sadly, making her way across the room like a cold breeze. Finding her place in the center, she sat herself down and closed her eyes.
“Calvin, please blacken the room for me.”
“Just Cal. And, alright, but I don’t know how that will help us.” Another smell. Grief? Why would you think that? Concentrating on the shadows, I took deep breaths. Reflexively, I motioned downwards with my hands while trying to will the light away. At first, there was no change. The four naked light bulbs on the ceiling were just as luminous as they had been a few minutes ago. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I clenched my fists. To my surprise, the light in the room responded in kind, almost crumpling back into the light bulbs, which, like before, remained bright but not luminous. My eyes were no longer drawn to them.
“Close your eyes, Cal. Focus on my voice and nothing else.” Knowing that this would take awhile, I sat down a few feet from where her voice was coming from and tried to let the stress roll off my shoulders. I had learned basic meditation when studying Hapkido, for all the good it was doing me now. My mind was filled with fifteen different thoughts every couple of seconds.
“If it is truly your wish to lead, then you must be made aware of what we are, and what we have gone through. Even I do not have all the answers, though. My knowledge is…frustratingly incomplete. But I shall tell you what I know.” Though the lights were gone and my eyes were closed, I felt as though I could almost see her in front of me, and knew that she had extended her hands out to grasp my shoulders. Was this my doing? Hers? I hadn’t the faintest idea, but my heart began to beat quickly as she ran her hands down my arms. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, so I played it safe and stayed silent.
“As near as I can tell, the first Alters appeared a hundred years ago. Much of what was recorded of that time, though, was lost after V-M Day. The IAD wished to wipe us from human history. But we are not human.”
“What separates us from them? Are we a new branch of evolution? Were we touched by some all-powerful force?”
“Many theorized. As I understand, the results of tests were never conclusive. No one could understand why we can do the things we can. Perhaps if they did, things would have ended differently.” Bitterly, I objected.
“As if they’d have cared about any explanation. Humans are so quick to cut down the tall poppy.”
“You are very quick to condemn them, Cal. Not but a month ago, you thought yourself to be one of them. Tell me, were you as quick to hate us?” This stopped me dead in my tracks for a second. She had a point. In my arrogance, though, I argued.
“I had reasons. My father was crippled for life during V-M Day. Because of what happened, I don’t have any extended family. My old man…he was a kid. He had a life ahead of him involving more than prosthetics and disability pay. When I was young, I’d have so much energy. There was so much I wanted to do with him but couldn’t because of those damned legs he didn’t have. Before I knew it, I was older. Things had changed. I felt like I had missed an opportunity. But it wasn’t even there! It was stolen from me. My whole damn life, everything’s been stolen from me.”
“And you blamed us?”
“Who else was there to blame? Since day one, I was told that the Alters were the greatest enemy mankind had ever faced. That all our ills were their fault somehow. They were emotionless, sociopathic monsters with a desire for either conquest or destruction. Lacking context, I had no way of knowing this wasn’t true.” The room around me grew darker somehow. Even with my eyes closed, I knew the inky blackness had become solid, almost.
“You’ve since gained context, I take it.”
“Well, of course. When I learned that I was an Alter, the lies I had been told suddenly had a gaping hole in them. I’m not a monster. Or a sociopath. I’m the same person I’ve been all my life.” In a sort of coy tone of voice, the Priestess responded, obviously working up to something.
“This is quite a bold assertion, Cal. Who is to say you are indeed the monster Zane thinks you to be, and just don’t realize it?”
“Because, Priestess, when Mae and Wendy begged me to make their struggle mean something…I want to. More than anything else. No one should be deprived of opportunities the way I was. I won’t let Zane do it to me, to them, and, fate willing, to anyone else.”
“Never lose sight of that,” she said, pleased with my answer. “But remember that good intentions alone do not a hero make. Nor do they keep you from becoming the very monster you insist you are not.” With newfound resolve, I crossed my arms, smiling confidently.
“I’ll bear that in mind. Right now, though, I need to get a handle on exactly what it is I can do before Zane shows. And he will show.” The Priestess found me in the darkness, gingerly taking my face in her hands and placing a kiss upon my forehead.
“You will save us, Calvin Mead. I know you will.” I stood up and willed the shadows back to where they were meant to be. The light returned, and I could see again, though something was telling me that my sight had never truly left. A few doors down, there was an empty room. This will do.
I bet you think you’re clever, I thought, enjoying a bag of garlic knots at a pizza place I had become fond of in the past three weeks. When Zane had not appeared after the first, I became anxious. A few days later, though, I realized what kind of game he was playing. He wanted to make me paranoid. I had only become vigilant. And hungry. Taking another bite, I saw Mae in the doorway. Once she noticed me, she sat down in the booth where I sat, idly toying with a saltshaker.
“You said you wanted to talk, right? I’m all ears,” I said, taking a sip of cola. She looked anxious; her lower lip had teeth marks in it.
“It’s Zane. A Military Policeman stopped me this morning and showed me your picture, asking if I’d seen you. He’s tracked us here.” Smirking, I cracked my neck. So I would end up doing something today.
“Good. I’m getting tired of waiting for the old bastard to show up for his ass kicking. You got a handle on things on your end? Can’t very well face him down if we aren’t all at one-hundred percent.” Mae fidgeted and played with her ebony hair, wrapping it around a finger.
“Cal, I’ve never used my abilities in a fight. The closest I’ve ever come is the day we met.” She stopped, and her eyes widened. “Wait. Have you?”
“Since we got here, I’ve been practicing. A week ago, I got bored and dragged a couple Military Policemen into an alley and put them out to pasture. Probably had the added bonus of getting Zane here quicker.” The look she then gave me still makes me laugh. Her head was tilted slightly to the side; her mouth hung open just a bit and both her eyes squinted in disbelief. There were, obviously, no words. Giggling, I offered her a garlic knot, which she politely declined.
“Are you…sure that was a smart move?” Calming myself, I grasped her hand and looked her straight in the eyes.
“Mae, listen to me. I made you a promise that I intent to keep. Don’t think for a second everything I do hasn’t been to get us closer to its fulfillment.” She still looked skeptical.
“If that’s the case, then why have we been waiting here for three weeks?”
“Can’t very well do this without the knowledge Zane has. Killing him after getting it would be a nice bonus.” Horrified, she recoiled into the back of her booth while I grinned.
“That seems a little excessive, Cal.”
“Relax, you can sit out if you want to. I’ll be the one who goes to Hell. Your position in Heaven is safe.” This got her all annoyed, as I knew it would.
“I’d thank you not to make light of such topics. Topics you will come to regret making light of when the good Lord beckons.”
“Dunno, Mae. Hell sounds like the party to end ‘em all. I’ll get to meet all those scientists that apparently end up there. The strippers, too. You can have all the fun you want with your stuck-up popes and Jerry Falwell. Yay.”
“Strippers?” I laughed.
“You sound jealous. Are you jealous? I think you’re jealous.” This got her all flustered (more than she already was) and got me giggling like a little bitch.
“I think you should know, Cal,” she said, trying to hide the fact that she was blushing, “that you wouldn’t get away with half of what comes out of your mouth if you weren’t so cute. There will come a day when you’re old and decrepit and wrinkled and I hope I’m there to see it.” I was about to respond when a voice interrupted me. It was…all too familiar.
“Look at you two. Already flirting at a post-college level.” There was the sound of a chair pulling up, and then Simon Zane was sitting down at the table with a pizza pie for us. He took a slice. “Seeing as you’ve been here in The Brew for a few weeks, I can only assume you’ve found the Priestess, Yvonne Mathis? I have to admit, this is the last place I’d have expected to find her.” Smiling politely, I grabbed a slice of pizza and downed half of it in one bite. Not bothering to swallow, I responded.
“She’s around.” Zane played with his tie a little before finishing off his slice and putting his cheek in his hand.
“Calvin, you’re going to have to do better than that for me. I’ve got an entire city’s worth of Alters to clean up, starting with you, so I really don’t have time for coyness.” I took his soda and gulped down half of it before belching loudly in his direction. Needless to say, he did not look particularly amused.
“Got a few questions first, if you’d be so kind. This whole chase has gotten me curious.”
“Oh?” This whole time, Mae had been sitting completely still, terrified out of her mind and looking, completely unblinking, at Zane. I had a hard time blaming her for it. Turning back to Zane, I nodded.
“Yeah. Now, I’ve got your game pretty much figured out. You had planned on my escape from the hospital in Portland because you knew I’d lead you to the Priestess. Now, what I’m wondering is why you sent Captain Fish and Chips after us as well. Had he captured us, we’d have never made it this far and the Priestess would have slipped through your fingers.”
“Smart lad. But I make it a habit never to tell an Alter anything unless he’s on the wrong side of a cell door.” Respecting this, I nodded and pulled out a cigarette. Zane’s façade broke for a moment and he scowled.
“I know, I know. Disgusting habit only for dregs like me. I beg your forgiveness, for this and for what I’m about to do.” Having regained his composure, Zane laughed mirthlessly.
“Now that’s comedy. Here, let me tell you what you’re about to do and make it easier for both of us. First,” he said, putting two fingers up in the air and beckoning, “you’re going to put your hands on your head.” Before I knew it I was surrounded by men with guns. Some of them had already been in the restaurant under cover. The waiter I had established a rapport with over the past few weeks now had a very large pistol aimed at my head. Others, wearing black combat armor that obscured every detail about them, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. And as if that wasn’t enough, now standing behind Zane was Hodes, who had a combat shotgun trained on me and a grin on his face wider than the Grand Canyon. At this point, all the civilians had run, most screaming, from the premises. Probably a smart move.
“Then,” he went on, “you’re going to stand up and start making all those demands you have, because I don’t get enough comedy in this line of work. After that, I’m going to fill you so full of Formula-15, it’ll become more important to your system than water. When we’re done, I’m taking you and Ms. Monaghan here to a very secure facility we have for Alters. Now, please…I’d like to hear your demands. I really would.” Trying to keep my hands from shaking, I stood up and nodded at Mae, who followed. Slowly, I walked out of the booth, making sure note to make any sudden movements. Now satisfied that I wasn’t going to get my ass shot, I relaxed, letting the stress roll off my shoulders. After a long drag on my cigarette, I spoke.
“As you wish. The first thing I want is a comprehensive list of every Alter whose existence you are aware of. Next, I want you to beg for my forgiveness, because you’re going to need it if you’d like to bargain for your life. Third, I want five minutes alone with Hodes. Fourth, and most importantly, I want you to tell your men why the Alter known as Jim French has been labeled ‘Kill on Sight’ by the IAD. You can do that one first.” For a moment, Zane was very, very silent. Mae took the opportunity to tiptoe over and wrap her arms around me. Zane’s men looked to him for his answer. They obviously had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. I decided to remind him to hurry up.
“Tick. Tick. Tick.” Not wasting another second, Zane bolted up from his chair and bounded over the counter and into the kitchen. Hodes followed, almost quickly enough.
Putting my left hand around Mae’s shoulder, I put my right up in a thumbs-up and closed my eyes. Then, there was a very loud boom. For a split second, the pizza parlor looked like the inside of the sun. In the fifteen seconds or so after that, there was dust so thick you’d think you had just been buried in concrete. When it cleared, the restaurant was no longer a restaurant. It was ground zero, and just about all of Zane’s men were buried in rubble. Some disembodied moaning here and there told me that a few of them were still alive. Inwardly, I sighed. This whole ordeal would start weighing on my conscience some day soon. This was not something I wanted Zane to know, though.
“All your limbs still intact?” I asked Mae. Letting go of me, she checked, finally nodding.
“Yep. The shared intangibility worked like we practiced. Made my hair go everywhere, though,” she said, trying to pat it down with her hands. I shrugged and raised my voice.
“For those of you who are still alive,” I said loudly, “I would be happy to explain to you what your boss didn’t. See, Jim French, real name Ajani Deka, is a Somalian bombsmith and Alter who escaped certain death at the hands of a few enemies there about ten years ago by coming over to the good ol’ US of A. When Zane first tried to catch him, French nearly blew him to Kingdom Come, along with half of a Manhattan city block. Zane’s been gunning for him ever since, but he knows to keep his distance. Doubt he knew that French was here in Milwaukee. Now, speaking of Zane…”
I walked over what was at one point the counter, where Hodes now lay, missing most of his left leg. Grinning like a madman, I took the gun from his holster and stepped on the bloody stump where his leg used to be. He screamed in agony and regained consciousness in record time. The first thing he saw was his gun leveled at his head.
“Please.” He didn’t seem to have the energy to say anything else. Kneeling, I got very close to him and put the pistol right up to his throat.
“Are you going to offer to pay me off? Because for ten grand, I might pretend to consider it.”
“You…you’ll pay for this, Mead. I swear you’ll pay for this.” There was no end to the satisfaction hearing that brought me. Just to let him know how little I cared about his threats, I took the barrel of the pistol in my hand and slammed the butt into his groin like I was hammering a nail. This elicited from him a squealing noise.
“In full, I’m sure.” Chuckling quietly, I picked myself up and kicked Hodes in the face with all the force I could muster. He lost consciousness. Mae returned to me with an assault rifle.
“This was the only one that was still intact. I think. I mean, I’m not going to shoot it.” She looked at Hodes. “Don’t you want to…you know….”
“How would that be fun? If he doesn’t die of blood loss, he’ll want revenge. It’ll make our next encounter a whole lot more entertaining, don’t you think? Now,” I said, cracking my knuckles, “let’s see if we can’t find Zane.” The two of us walked into the kitchen, which was still more-or-less intact. I had told French not to plant any bombs there, expecting civilians to use it as cover when the rest of the place turned to rubble. As it turned out, the only person it had protected was Zane. Who, after an inspection of the room, was nowhere to be found.
“He must have gone out the back door. Do you want to chase him?” I shook my head.
“No need. You got his PDA, right?” Smiling mischievously, Mae pulled out a small silver device from her pocket, shaking it proudly.
“Got it while he was explaining how he thought this was going to go down. I was worried, though. Thought he might have felt a telekinetic hand pick his pocket.”
“Apparently not,” I replied, taking the PDA from her. “Glad he actually had this. Our Plan B would have been for nothing had he not. Hopefully we can get some names off of it.” In the distance, I heard sirens. Lots of them.
“Later. Let’s get back to the Derelict,” Mae suggested. Reluctantly, I acquiesced. The rubble had me feeling like a proud papa. I hated to leave it.