By the time I was done posting a made-up sob story to Reddit, I was a tune away from a hit country song. That’s the tone I think of when I think of ridiculous amounts of mundane shit heaped on people. If it’s high school boyfriend drama, then my mind goes straight to Avril Lavigne. But if your wife leaves you and takes your dog, and your mom has a heart attack and gets caught with a bag of way too many percosets in the backseat, and then your brother accidentally breaks his foot right after he gets out of jail, chances are you’re thinking country.
And she never even called me by my name! Sorry, dear readers. It’s a line from a country song of exactly that sort of nonsense that I think of when that all piles up. While I’m at that, Medusa had to stop a new super from drowning Boston with water powers and the Titan is busy trying to put Australia out. Gorilla Awesome and Honky Tonk Hero got beat up by a guy in purple calling himself “The Lobe” and a power armored fellow called Battle Beast is putting a major beatdown on the Empyreal City gangs.
It’s a world of adventure, and I’m stuck waiting on this guy on Reddit to offer me money to pummel pooches. And she never even called me by my name!
I did a little more than that, to be honest. Did some thinking about a few problems, including the rather depressing idea that there’s overall very little I can do to solve one of the world’s biggest problems. That said, I can save a few canines. It’ll have to do.
I skipped out on talking with Medusa because it occurred to me because I needed a little bit of a break. I felt isolated, like she’d trapped me where I had to depend on her. That’s a technique I don’t like being on the receiving end of. It’s common in cults, for instance. Once you bring someone in, you isolate them from family and friends who aren’t in the cult. If at all possible, you teach them that other sources of knowledge are tainted in some way. She hasn’t done that part, but it’s part of the overall same step so it’s worth mentioning here. Isolating people in that bubble allows their views to be molded over time. Since that’s the only network of support they have and the only people they seek approval from, they gradually shift their attitudes to accept whatever the cult is trying to make them believe. They become more and more extreme.
Bleh. See, this is why I put on podcasts and ASMR. Talking to myself about cult methodology isn’t as interesting as other stories I learn that way. I just have to have something to occupy my mind while my body’s engaged with building stuff.
I’ve been using this quieter period in my life to not only relax, but also to get re-equipped. I got brand new holodiscs, with improvements allowing them to be smaller. I got plenty of exploding knives, including some of those useless ones with the hollow handles. I finally found a good use for those things by packing some incendiaries into the handle. I even cooked up some more of my rubber chicken grenades, with a couple of alternate types like flashbang and silent but deadly. All of it from the safety of my not-hijacked Psycho Flyer. I didn’t actually steal it or anything. I simply had a series of missions all over the place in between taking care of my kid.
I was all ready when the dog destroyer took the bait.
The name he contacted me under was different than the other one he used. At first, it looked like an advertisement for one of those pyramid schemes, except there was a janky email address made up of a string of numbers and letters. The account got shut down as a spammer after a little bit, but I had my lead. What he got in response was loaded with malware of my own making. It pinged a location for me and proceeded to spread to only a short distance away. Most malware don’t have an actual area of effect since infection has nothing to do with proximity except where a network is concerned. Mine did, making sure that even non-networked systems in the area will be disabled.
I threw on my armor, kicked the pilots awake, and gave them our destination. Texas, where it’s probably legal to kill any animal you want as long as you use a gun. The land of conspiracy theorists and folks who think the word “wash” has to include an “R” in it. Our target was in the suburbs of Houston, named after the guilty pleasure favorite singer named Whitney of everybody in the state. I faded to invisibility in anticipation of landing in a state where shooting someone is a form of greeting.
Our target was a pet shop. The Exemplars dropped me off at the rear loading dock. It turned out to be locked, so I had to tear that off. Storage didn’t have a whole lot in there. After the last time, I gave the area a thorough once over, which is why I even checked the rug under the water cooler they had back there. Sure enough, there was a seam. The water cooler was empty, but I tried flipping the switches. Nothing from hot, nothing from cold, but both together caused the trap door to open with the cooler and rug fixed onto the top of it.
“Keep an eye on any runners from out there, can you?” I asked the Exemplar pilots.
“Copy,” I heard back in response.
Swift but silent, like the majestic manatee, I practically floated down the stairs. In a refreshing break from most lairs, the stairs had handrails on both sides that I used. I didn’t know how well they’d take the weight of my armor, but stairs are one of the best areas to trap. Stairs, doorways, the area surrounding valuables… really, the best place to set a trap is anywhere a person has to be. That’s why you include a step that is actually a pressure plate plunging someone into a piranha tank. Or a doorway with a laser trip beam that closes it off behind you and unleashes a giant swarm of wasps. It was on my mind as I made my way downstairs because I’m thinking of home improvement projects for the house. After being broken into here recently, I think I need better home security. It’s a logistical nightmare, though, because you have to feed the piranhas enough to keep them alive, but not so much they don’t bother eating whoever you send them.
I missed any such traps on my way down to the well-lit basement. There were plenty of cold, tiring fluorescent lights on the ceiling to light my way toward a huge bank of monitors and screens next to a computer tower that looked more like a block. Someone who, from the sound of things, typed away furiously in an effort to get their computer unlocked. I rounded the monitor bank to find…
A Labrador retriever. I’d have thought the actual person left and this was odd timing but the dog tapped at the keyboard with its paws and even used the mouse. I checked the seals on my suit to make sure I hadn’t been drugged. Only way that was possible is if they got me inside the Flyer somehow. Which means I was indeed seeing a dog using a computer. I don’t think I have to run down a list of the crazy shit I’ve seen in my life to note how this one stacked up. I’ll just say it caught me off guard.
I grabbed it by the collar and lifted it out of the seat. It yelped as I appeared and tried to wiggle around to bite me. “What the fuck is going on here?”
It whimpered and tried to look all sad. I shook it, feeling crappy all the while. “Don’t you give me those puppy dog eyes. I’m onto you. Who are you and why are you hiring people to make dog-killing videos.”
The dog didn’t say anything. It reached for the computer instead. “Uh uh,” I told it. “You’re not touching that if I have anything to say about it.” I even thought to move him far enough away that his tail couldn’t smack into anything.
A burst of sonic force twisted me around and knocked me on my face. In my 360 degree HUD, I caught a glimpse of the collarless Labrador jumping up onto the chair and hitting a button on the desk with his paw. I twisted around and camouflaged myself again to get onto my feet and found I was still holding that collar. The room started to flood with featureless mannequins with barrels replacing their arms. Saw blades rose out of the floors to cut off a ground approach toward the monitor bank, which was falling apart as some sort of pointy thing rose from the floor. The dog disappeared into the hole.
“Clever human, but not clever enough. Nothing on two legs can catch Bad Dog!” declared a booming voice from the pit and the spike that rose up to reveal an aircraft.
I pulled out an exploding knife and tossed it. A gold glow appeared in midair, blocking the knife a foot away from the jet and refusing to yield to the subsequent explosion. I jumped for it too, right over the sawblades. The field knocked me back onto one of them, which didn’t even scratch that itch I had right in the middle of my back at the time. The ceiling opened up all the way through to the sky. I tried tossing a knife up there to close it off, but a red laser beam shot it out of the air thanks to the mannequins. The jet made liftoff, speeding out of there. Either because of the field around it or the world being far too prepared for me, but it didn’t have any way for me to connect to it from afar.
“Flyer, I need you to down that jet.” I got no response. No “copy” or anything.
When someone did get back to me, I could tell he had food in his mouth when he asked, “What jet?”
They dropped me off that night and I told them I’d call them back when I needed them. I’m not calling them back. That was a shit show. It was bad for me, and it was bad for them. I don’t want them hanging around if they’re not even going to help. It feels like every time I have a moment to relax, I lose a step to the easy life.
At least satellite imagery showed me where the jet set down at: Utah, the palest of pale wastelands.
I saw the face of my enemy, and it was Spot. See Spot run.
Run, Spot, run.
Now, it occurred to me that if every time I kill one of these guys they just replace them with more, it might pay to be less outright murdery. I don’t have official numbers on this, but there are a lot of people who’d be willing to take some money to kill other living beings. There’s real scum out there. Cops, soldiers, and whatever the Coast Guard are supposed to be. I suppose some of the less repentant violent criminals like myself might take the job as well. Regular folks, too. The world’s crap for enough folks. Might be they need the money. Not everyone can just steal the goods.
“So, really, it’s at least a little bit for ethical reasons that I’m not planning to kill anyone if I can help it,” I informed Medusa.
“I’m proud of you and surprised,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be that much of a surprised. I’ll proudly cop to not being a Kantian or Aristotelian, but it depends on your flavor of utilitarianism, egoism, or even care ethics. And while part of my dislike of the former is that they’re too rigid and uptight for most situations, the fact that you can use the latter three to justify pretty much anything makes them poor moral systems overall. I suppose I should add that’s my opinion, because there are plenty of people who would argue my head off for voicing it.”
“What’s going on right now? Did someone kidnap you? Since when do you know ethics?” Medusa asked.
I shrugged in my seat of the Psycho Flyer. The things are fast, but the United States is a large country. I was headed Florida, near . One of the guys was somehow managing to get a good stream out of the middle of nowhere, which had me instantly suspicious of the whole situation.
I missed chatting with Max, Sam, and Holly. It’s getting hold having no one to talk to but Qiang and Medusa. Qiang’s not old enough for this discussion. And as much as I like her, I need someone else to chat with in my life other than Medusa. I don’t think I could tip a bartender enough to explain to her that, “Well, it’s like laws or honor… laws against murder don’t exist for all the people who won’t murder. And codes of honor are for beings who need a code otherwise they wouldn’t act in an honorable way. Same for ethics. I didn’t look into it on my own Earth, but I’m sure there were at least as many hypocrites as there were ethical systems over there, too. In a way, that’s why egoism and care ethics seem like the closest to the actual mark. Doesn’t really matter, though. You can’t really know how you’re going to react until you’re in the situation.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed at that last point. “Try not to kill the person you’re after, even if they are a dog murderer. Shit, I’ve got to go. Someone just got their superpowers in Boston in a big way and they’ll need talking down. Tell me how it goes.”
Nice to know she still holds out hope, even for dog killers.
I didn’t jump out so eagerly when we got to the mangrove swamp on Florida. After coming down low, we rose again to keep from giving away our location on the environment. Or I hoped we did. They still didn’t want me connecting to the Flyer, and keeping its wireless footprint down is better for stealth anyway.
I headed up to the cockpit as we got close to the location. I could still do some GPS tracking on my own, but I wanted to see what we were dealing with. It looked like a compound with a bunch of cabins surrounding a central field with a bunch of chickens and goats wandering around. They were all penned in with a wood palisade. With all the wood around the place, the metal stood out more. They had some antennas sticking up and a few gas-powered generators.
I checked the satellites. We were a ways out of the nearest town, but less than a half hour. Even with the U.S.’s infrastructure problems, it was conceivable they had decent internet out here. If all those cabins were occupied, there might be enough money to make it worthwhile for the phone company to lay down a cable.
“No sign of armed defenses.” It was the middle of the day, too, so they were trying to avoid either the heat, or it was considered too cold for someone to be outside in in this part of Florida. Fuck, it was the 81 degrees out there. Australia would kill for the kind of moisture that keeps a place like this so hot but wet. They’ll have to settle for Cape Diem’s water manipulators and ice generators.
I dropped out next to the palisade, using it to soften my fall. The Flyer skedaddled and left me to my business. I checked the building with antennas and found an empty radio shack and a room full of people watching TV and playing around on desktops. It didn’t resemble the room from the stream. After that, I checked the biggest buildings. One seemed to be storage for food, packed pretty full of crates. I left a note to come back if the initial search didn’t turn up anything else. I did the same for the communal kitchen. The building that looked more like some sort of office was the smallest and last of the larger structures.
I went back through them, checking for hidden basements or anything. It’s unusual to see a basement in places like this, so close to a swamp, but it would make for a really good hiding place. I’m embarrassed to say I could have found it on the first pass if I’d given the storage building a better look. It was in the process of getting a better view of all the floor space that I found a hidden section walled off by boxes, with some wires sticking out of the wall and folding chair. There was a little bit of dried blood on the floor, I noticed. A look around and adjusting my armor’s vision to more closely resemble the conditions of the stream told me this was the spot. It just had to be set up with the camera over by this big taxidermied gator, and the lights had to be turned off.
Kinda like how the lights went off completely. Now, wary of having missed this spot in my first run-through of the place, my first instinct was to check and see if that gator was really dead. I was confident in that at first when thermal vision didn’t show anything special, then I remembered it was a reptile and decided I’d treat as alive. I could touch the thing to find out, but this seemed like the perfect time for it to snap and catch my arm, getting me into a fight that would expose that I was here.
I waited instead, and heard distant voices as someone moved the boxes aside. “They’re here because I did that stupid video.”
“I’ll take the fall. I might as well. It’s me who needs the surgery. Tell them it was me. I’ll get the surgery that way. Use the money to take care of everyone else.”
“I’ve got enough regrets on my conscience for now.” The boxes moved aside and I saw two guys, one of them on crutches.
The other, in a plaid button-up like a Bounty man runner-up, looked up at me just before the gator behind me hissed and lunged for me. I grabbed it in a headlock, appearing before them in armor that looked a slick green and black to make sure no one would recognize who I was. “I come in peace!” I said, before kicking down between the gator’s legs in case it had testicles. When it didn’t stop, I tossed it over the boxes. It landed somewhere else in an angry, hissing mess.
“I knew it wasn’t the police,” said the Bounty man, putting up his dukes. It was then I noticed his eyes were green and slitted, like a reptile’s.
“Nope. Not here to arrest you. Or to kill you. I could kill people all day, but that doesn’t solve the problem. The guy who hired you is who I want.” Which is an excuse that has the added benefit of being more honest. A little lying tip for those out there: the more grounded in truth it is, the better. It’s easier to keep track of in a pinch. More believable in this case. I didn’t look like a hero.
“I don’t know I can trust you, or you me,” the guy said.
His friend on the crutches moved between us. “He did it for me. We don’t have a lot of money out here. Just a lot of hurt people trying to leave the pain of the outside world behind.”
“Jonesy!” called Bounty man. Jonesy turned back toward him and would have said something if he didn’t cry out from being stuck with the syringe. Nanites flooded his body. He stumbled forward and fell into his friend’s arms. Plaid guy tried to get his friend situated, but then Jonesy started laughing and stood up on his own, tossing the crutches aside. They hugged, then Jonesy turned and hugged onto me.
That convinced them to trust me enough.
Turns out, they had themselves a small compound out here of various people who want to retreat from the world. Some are even still wanted by the government for antifascist activities. They just want to get away, even if some have some physical scars to go with the psychological ones. Jonesy was one of those, but it wasn’t until he took a bad fall and some shrapnel embedded further that their monetary needs got desperate.
The offer didn’t come in until after the guy with the gator pet got upset and posted on a part of Reddit where people talk about their monetary and health miseries. Perfect recruiting ground for someone like that. A good enough con man wouldn’t even have to have the money. Not when there’s an entire gaggle of desperate people online, looking for an ounce of hope. Dangers of the Information Age, eh?
Now I have the information. Time to set a trap.
I’d say the quality of my barmates has fallen off, but I wasn’t much of a drinking crowd person on account of people not trusting a person with no compunction about killing them. I’m giving social drinking a try here in Radium. It’s a way to establish ties to the community and find ideas I can finance or steal to launder my illegal money. The conversation a couple of these bleach snorting geniuses were having a couple stools down didn’t justify the idea.
“Going to the bathrooms, right?”
“Men cutting their dicks off just so they can go into a bathroom with women and fuck ’em. Calling themselves lesbians, going into bathrooms with women.”
“I love women as much as any man…”
“Love them bitches.”
“…but why would anyone want to be one, right?”
They paused there, but the guy who was more of the brains of the two finally said, “I gotta piss.”
“I’ll come with,” said his follower.
And off they went to the men’s room.
So here’s the two-sided sword of it. I’m not trying to start trouble, and I’d like to make fewer waves. I want a safe place for my daughter to grow up. At the same time, not making those waves might mean an unsafe place for my son to grow up if that turns out to be true of Qiang instead. So I headed into the bathroom.
“How you girls doin’?!” I asked as I walked in. The two guys hurried to try and stuff their junk back in their pants at the urinals. They’d left an open space between them, which is fairly normal, so I slipped into that space and put my arms around their shoulders. “I heard y’all don’t like trans people in the bathroom?”
“What do you mean?” asked the one on my right.
“Yeah, whatchu mean?” came from my left.
“I mean, if I shouldn’t go into the ladies room, I guess I gotta do my business in here, right out in the open.”
I crossed my legs, drawing attention down to my skirt. They both looked down, then up at me. “What are you doing?” asked Righty
I raised my eyebrows. “What are you more afraid of, that what I’ll whip out of this skirt will put you to shame? Or that what you see will make your pants shrink?” Considering I was lucky enough to have my body remade by tiny robots, they actually would like what I pack under the skirt, but they don’t know that. But I find that the kind of guy who doesn’t care for a lady with an unfortunate origin story has a very narrow set of preferences to make their soldier stand at attention.
I went in there under the assumption they’d throw a punch. And I kinda hoped they would because I didn’t like them. When it came time to put actions to words, they opted not to. I saw the lack of commitment in their eyes. Any hate they had was based on their own fear and ignorance rather than a burning passion. Poor choice of words for any witches out there, I suppose. They know all about burning passion. These guys didn’t even know. “I can see you’re both confused, so let me lay it out for you.”
That caused the one on my Left to look at the skirt again. I tipped his chin back up to me. “Eyes up here. I can’t brainwash you, but one thing I can point out is that if you get your way, I have to keep coming into this bathroom whenever I come to the bar. You want to let me use the right bathroom, or do you want to deal with someone so hardcore that I got these now?” I shoved their faces deep into my bust, where the chloroform cloth was hidden. The struggling didn’t take long until they were left unconscious but unhurt. They could sleep it off just fine in one of the stalls. I made sure to leave them a little present for when they woke up.
After settling all my affairs in the cockier version of the girls’ room, I left it to take my seat at the bar again.
“How you are you now’?” asked the bartender looking at me, then glancing over toward the bathrooms.
“Not so bad. You?” I asked. “I’d say give me your girliest drink, but I don’t like light American beer.”
The bartender’s cousin might have a business opportunity for me involving AirBNB and a food truck, so it was productive after all. I could really use that AirBNB for the digital currency, and having someone else’s name involved works even better.
But enough about money laundering my murder money and caper cash. As the anonymous but effective slayer of that puppy killer, I’m getting even more offers, along with some more of that hate mail. I’ve tried to make it clear that my range is a bit limited, but a little creativity helped out. Really, I just don’t intend to go around killing every Tom, Dick, and Harry someone can name and pay for.
An example of someone I will take on is, like, this war criminal. One of the presidents this country’s gone through in the past few years pardoned him. It was something where soldiers were called in to try and maintain order after a city got attacked by fascists and then liberated by antifascists. This piece of work was sniping gutshots into civilians who happened to be nearby so often, his unit sabotaged his rifle or fired warning shots to scare off targets.
It wasn’t hard to find him. He was selling t-shirts and mugs of the ultra-patriotic persuasion, made in China. The tough part was Medusa didn’t want to give me a ride or give me a Psycho Flyer. I even asked her what she’d sell one for. Not a peep of a price.
“I don’t think you should get into killing again,” she told me. “You got that psych appointment, don’t forget.”
I didn’t forget, I just hoped to “accidentally” get caught up in something that’d thwart those plans to keep my appointment. Some of it’s fear, both in the more logic-based worry about exposing my identity to someone who could make life harder for my daughter and I, and fear over this particular new thing to try. Besides, I’d probably be terrible about sharing my emotions and thoughts with other people.
I couldn’t get away to kill this one guy, though, which almost made accepting the contract feel like a waste. But, heck, I can’t just give up on a contract and leave his kids unorphaned. Won’t someone think of the children?
In a way, it’s lucky for me the guy had so many legit fans of how he worked. I’d like to comment on what that says about them, but that’s kinda like the black hole calling the kettle a wee on the dark side by now. It meant this fellow didn’t even question it when he got a pizza bought and paid for with a special message written on top. It was the middle of a school day, so he didn’t even have to share with any rugrats he happened to spawn. It was all him.
Bam. You know, the poison is a heck of a lot harder to trace when you look up someone and find out they have a simple peanut allergy. Pizza place didn’t know. It’s perfectly legit that a fan of the guy might not know. And it came during the day, so if he passed the nut allergy down via his nuts, the nuts that didn’t fall too far from the tree probably won’t try the pizza themselves. A scenario could arise where they do go ahead and eat the pizza that killed their dad, but I like to think that’s a situation requiring the kid to actively try to be a nincompoop. I couldn’t stop a kid from doing that anymore than I could stop them from eating glass to see what it tastes like.
And not to get too eugenicist here given pretty much everyone’s history with the negatives of that position, but I’m not sure I’d want to stop a kid like that. What if they grow up and have kids of their own? What would that raising be like? If anything, I’d be saving another generation from being killed due to negligence. Just think of the children!
Anyway, no need to sit around all day online talking about someone else’s kids.
That weird email decided to offer me work, too. Whatever his connection to the puppy puncher is, he’s trying to commission me to be a chicken choker. He was offering a lot of money if only I would “kill a cute pet bird and send us a video.”
I was going to ignore it, but I decided to send a message back. “You want me to ring a hominim’s neck, I’ll consider it if the money’s right and the reason pans out. I got no beef with poultry outside my desire to feast on dinosaurs to gain their power. You still want to call fowl on me putting your pet killer in a hole, you can keep on crying until the cow punchers come home.”
The response didn’t take too long. “I will find another and you will pay.”
I considered that to be a pretty weak threat, but I soon got word there was another guy popping up online to pop pets. He didn’t look like the other one, but he was streaming the same sort of videos on the same website. The same folks who paid me to take out the last one were willing to throw in money to go after the next guy. And then another guy started doing it. And a third. The first one looked like a guy in a hood. The second was dressed as a mime. The third one, now that guy wore a cheap plastic Halloween costume of my armor. I didn’t even know they did that. I’m assuming it’s my armor instead of some dark knight. I think it’s just a coincidence though. A useful one, though.
I called up Medusa afterward, “Excuse me, dear, might I be able to borrow a flyer? There’s more Fido finishers on the internet tubes, at least 3. One’s even dressing up as me.”
“Is it a cosplay or is it the Wal-Mart costume?” she asked.
“Oh, this is a store costume. You didn’t tell me they had a Halloween costume about me?”
“I don’t spend my entire life thinking about you,” she said, obviously lying. “I’ll free up a Flyer and pilots to chauffeur, but you have to promise me you won’t hijack the Flyer. Can you promise me that?”
As honestly as possible, I told her, “I can indeed promise you that.”
“Will you promise me that?” she asked. Damn, Medusa knows me too well.
“Is it the only way I’m getting a Flyer?” I asked.
“You’re a harsh one, babe. How’s a person supposed to save innocent animals without the aid of VTOL, stealth-capable war machine.”
“You don’t like it,” she said, “You can take your chances asking PETA for health.”
“Fine, I promise.”
I’ve made peace with my need for medication. I was reticent to take it at first. I don’t know about other people, but there was something about being told I need a pill to correct myself that didn’t sit well with me. And there’s something about interfering with a person’s brain that’s deeply personal. Like they have to make me less me to be ok. But I have to admit, it’s made it easier to get by, along with having figured out at least a few of my issues. Not hating myself as much is something I can attribute to both the medicine Mix N’Max was giving me, and figuring out that I hate being a dude.
That said, I’m gonna have to have words with those space opera aliens if I ever see them again. I think they did something to me, or maybe it was something weird related to this reindeer business. Near as I can tell, I’m getting by without my medicine or the effects of missing it. It’s like something went in and kicked my brain until it started working right. Probably won’t last, and it’s overall a good thing, but my mind’s been the village bicycle the past few years. Everybody’s had a turn to screw around with it, mixed metaphorically speaking.
Medusa hasn’t quite convinced me to see a psychiatrist about my other issues. She thinks it’s not quite that healthy to want to steal someone else’s body for my own. Hey, she was delighted when it turned out I used my deal with the Spirit of the Season to restore that mindless body back to prime working order. She’s just a bit disturbed by the way I’ve hurt her friend Dame in the past.
I told her I’d think about it, but I had a very lucrative contract to work on. She’s not happy to hear I’m back assassinating. Look, some people just need killing. Maybe fewer than I thought. Still, with the world still thinking I’m dead, some folks are desperate to take out the trash. Heck, look at all the stuff coming to light about the Roman Catholics without someone to tie up their loose ends. But this job is way better than protecting the church of St. R. Kelly. It’s more of a general bulletin someone put out about this asshole who killed puppies.
The Dark Web Dog Strangler. Flabby guy who runs some sort of website where he kills dogs, most frequently by choking them to death. Other methods include drowning, burning, and even once punting a puppy off the side of a building. Naturally, this has attracted ire from all quarters, including the ones that can’t openly put a bounty on someone’s head. Technically speaking, a lot of upstanding organizations want him brought in alive. All the right forums online hint that they’ll “settle” for dead.
It’s been awhile. It felt invigorating slipping the ol’ armor on. I’ve spent so long out of action, out of my armor. The specific armor changes, but the armor itself, my armor as a concept, is a part of me. I’ve integrated that bit of alien hood I was given, gotten all of it up to snuff, and added some holographic frills so I could head out as myself. I’m fairly certain a guy who has to murder 101 Dalmations isn’t going to be able to handle me, armor or no. The difficulty this time is finding him.
That onion browser they use to access those sites was specifically made to keep people from tracking where its users go online. I can’t say I care for it, since my online search history is probably the least criminal thing about me. I mean, I’m not into snuff or kids, so there are some things people need that browser for that just don’t concern me.
So I need to hunt this guy down. I must play detective. Medusa wasn’t confident in my skills. “He deserves it, but how are you going to find him? All your fake credentials have to be out of date.”
“Yes, I can’t exactly walk into the CIA or Interpol and pretend to be a renowned sleuth that can help them if they do certain extraordinary things for me. So I’ll resort to Plan B: copy someone else. A show, maybe.” I started browsing for episodes of Murder She Wrote.
“You think all it will take is copying a fictional detective? What next, you’ll put on a black rubber suit and adopt a deep voice..” Medusa drifted off into thought. “I think I’d be into that.”
“Even better, we steal from the Japanese,” I said, having a epiphany.
“I am not into that rope thing, sweetie,” she said in a voice designed to let me down gently.
I waved off that insinuation. “No, not that kind of Japanese thing. No tentacles either.” Instead, I threw together a little program similar to my infamous sonic-based ordinance, the F-Bomb. Utilizing the power of a really loud voice saying “Fuck!” it can do a lot of damage without resorting to those explosives. “I’ll tone it down so we don’t have to deal with shattering glass…”
Once I’d explained my plan to Medusa, she asked, “What if he’s uploading from somewhere too far out for it to be heard?”
I shrugged. “Could be, but it’s more likely he’s in a basement. Anywhere too isolated wouldn’t be able to stream this with that quality. It’d be shitty and full of lag. Now, we just have to wait until he decides to stream again.”
He didn’t provide such an opening until the next day, in early afternoon. He started up his stream, and I sent out the signal. Since I was in the U.S., I started there. The signal moved from city to city, taking over wireless networked devices with speakers in a rolling wave of “Fuck!” that zipped through the country. A speaker in the room as the man on the website unleashed a “Fuck!” at the same time the signal was passing through… Kingscrow. The exact time stamp narrowed the location down for me further. See, I didn’t just do that to the whole country at once. Everything was gradual, one state, one city, at a time.
“Bingo, you Beagle-breaking bastard…” I said, noting down the location. I called up Medusa. “Hey, I need to borrow a ride… really, if you have one to spare for me, that’d be great. They did used to be mine, after all.”
Medusa didn’t buy that argument, but I had to try. I tried to access my Dudebots, but they got pretty well destroyed in my last encounters with Omega. Or as Omega. It’s a bit of both. If I could only fly… if I had that power and the time to explore it… well, I’d probably still use it like a jackass instead of doing anything good with it. I miss the power, but have nothing to use it for but convenience. I need to work on my imagination. I’ll take Medusa up on the psychiatrist offer if she can get me one that’ll give me some acid.
Medusa’s Exemplars dropped me off, with explicit orders not to let me drive. The orders were so explicit, one of their guys kept reminding me of it. They had their wireless, bluetooth, and really anything else I could use to remotely access it shut off. “Ok, fine, but can I at least get your phone number so I can call you for a pickup when I need it?” I asked.
“Medusa also ordered us not to give you our numbers or any information that could personally identify us,” said what I realized was my guard. Not like a bodyguard. A guard in the sense that prisoners have guards.
I held out a hand to shake his. “Well, I’ll be sure to commend you to her, private… sergeant… lieutenant…” He never indicated which one was the correct rank, or tried to give me a name. “Well, fine, guess I’ll go throw myself out a plane or something.”
I walked over to the trapdoor, opened it, and jumped out. My armor flexed and took the impact from my landing on a bush five feet under the Psycho Flyer. It rose up, still cloaked, and zipped on out of there, leaving me to raise a middle finger to them. “Ya coulda warned me!”
I found the place pretty easily from there. There are a lot of bad parts to the city of Kingscrow. A lot of places have been left behind by an economy that shifted to the internet and service. This part of the outskirts wasn’t far enough out to be the suburbs, nor was it the worst section of Kingscrow. But the houses out here were old in the run-down way that poor houses get when no one wants to build or rebuild in the area, and people just try to keep the roof up for another few years. I think the porch of his house was made of cinderblocks that helped hold up the front part of the house.
I checked his phone. Yep, he was in the house. I even called him. “Hello?” he asked. He heard nothing but heavy breathing before he hung up.
I jumped through the front window and landed on a bear trap that snapped its jaws shut around my legs. People’s first instincts are to panic when they get their legs snapped in sharp iron jaws like that. The secret is to wear armor that doesn’t pierce easily. Also, there’s always a release in the things in case a person gets trapped. I noticed the tripwire connected to a shotgun aimed at the door while I helped myself out of the thing. It really felt like the feng shui of this living room was really hostile.
So he had notice I was there. I called him again and heard the distant sound of the ringer. He answered again, but hung up before I could breathe anymore. I called him again as I moved through the house, heading for the sound, through the kitchen and into a hallway. Another hang-up. I eased open a door leading to basement stairs. Another call. “Who the fuck are you?”
I heard the voice coming from below as well. I was tempted to tell him, “The call is coming from inside the house,” but I meant for him to discover that for himself. Which he did when the stairs creaked under me, then collapsed. Luckily, my armor protected me from the fall.
“Who the fuck are you?” asked the man standing there, wearing the usual executioner’s hood of the guy on the stream, but with a fat suit resting on a table beside him next to a box of ammo that I’m guessing went to the pistol in his hand.
I held up a gleaming chrome ball in one hand, as if that explained anything, then tossed it toward him. It was a distraction for when I unleashed the surprise whip under my left arm. It wrapped around his throat and I pulled him close, not flinching as his shots rang helplessly off me. The whip retracted into my armor’s left arm, bringing him with it until I held him firmly in hand. The colors shifted on my armor, giving me the look of something more like a shiny organic black monster.
The last video to go up on his little site was one of this monster-thing reaching its hands into the mouth of the man and splitting his head open. That last one was sent by me, by the way.
And soon after, the site was taken down. I collected quite a bit of money off that one, but also got an ominous warning in the form of an email. “You have killed the Hierophant. You must replace him.”
I sighed upon reading that and went out to go check to see how much space I had in the raised garden beds for more bodies.
Who can say what crossed the mind of War Man? The super soldier is strong as a bull, swift as an eagle, and stubborn as a badger. He’s also insistent about fighting for his country and hasn’t given us an interview, so we don’t know a lot about how he took the entire situation. On the day of the award ceremony, he’d arrived well enough in advance and wearing his formal costume. It’s known some heroes wear different costumes for different occasions. The more well-prepared might have costumes better suited to extreme temperatures. Some even maintain seasonal costumes, so that the insulation they wear during the winter does not overheat them in the summer. And right now, some of you listeners are kicking yourselves realizing that’s an option. Relax. We’ve all been there.
War Man keeps a formal costume the same as a soldier has a formal uniform. Luther Von Krieger got a pretty good look at it from afar, first with one of the pairs of binoculars he set up on the lower floor of the building. The event was being held inside city hall on account of the weather, but there were plenty of windows. Von Krieger set up binoculars at several, some inside, and some in buildings nearby. They didn’t cost much when compared to the value of a distraction. He had to scout the area anyway, to find out the best angle. He would not trap this prey, nor stalk it through the environment. This time, he meant to draw a bead on his prey from afar. So he watched, staying ready for when the ceremony was under way. Then, when the crowd settled down and the mayor commenced to prattle, he slung the back with the breakaway rifle in it over his shoulder and headed for the elevator he’d propped open.
A worker on the floor was inspecting the plank Von Krieger had placed in the doorway. Von Krieger looked down the other hallways of the intersection, then stepped behind the man and raised a pistol crossbow. Thwip! The worker fell forward, knocking the plank down. His shoes kept the door from closing now. Von Krieger stepped over him and pulled him in out of the way. The elevator door closed and, luckily for Von Krieger and those impatiently waiting below, it went up.
It was less lucky for the intern waiting at the elevator door the next floor up. He got a crossbow pointed at his head and froze. Von Krieger went “Shh,” and pulled the man in with him. The intern squeezed his eyes shut, shaking as the hunter helped himself to the latte meant for his boss. “Play your cards right, don’t scream, and you will survive.”
The door opened again. Von Krieger sighed and raised the pistol to a new face. “Don’t scream. Don’t run.”
By the time he reached the floor he was looking for, Von Krieger had a gaggle of five under his gun. He’d had to switch from a pistol crossbow to an Uzi. It wouldn’t be as quiet as a crossbow bolt, but his hostages could have realized at any moment that a crossbow has a drawn-out reload after every shot. So he forced them forward with the submachine gun. He should have brought zip-ties or handcuffs. He had cable he brought in case he needed to rappel. He used that to tie them up. “I don’t have any gags that aren’t made of lead. Don’t make me use those,” he warned his hostages, who nodded as one.
He turned his attention to assembling his rifle, peeking through the rifle. He arrived later than anticipated. If the medal presentation was over, he would need to readjust.
Ibram knew he’d attract a little extra scrutiny. That’s why he’d been careful about a costume that could fit underneath the hoodie and pants. It didn’t have any metal to set off the detectors. He set his chain necklace in a plastic tub as he walked through. He wasn’t surprised when they pulled him to the side for a patdown and found nothing, not even when the cop’s hands reached between his legs and felt hard wood.
Ibram looked over the man’s face when he stood back up, memorizing it. The cop squinted at him. Ibram smiled back and left walked into the crowd without a fuss.
He’d arrived fashionably late, but the Mayor liked to hear himself speak. We here at Outlaw X suspect someone’s planning to run for higher office. Ibram speculated much the same as he found a relatively quiet spot over by the bathrooms to wait. After a speech about great service and honoring soldiers that tried willpower of even the most determined and jingoistic, the Mayor finally invited War Man forward to present him with an award that would have to compete with the other gaudiness pinned to his chest
slip out of his hoodie and pants. His costume was loose, a mixture of emerald green and a black X across the front and back of the chest. A belt-thick, blood red line circled his waist, and formed a starburst pattern coming from the wrists and ankles of the costume. He reached down and pulled out a pair of batons. He joined them with the chain he’d worn in around his neck to form nunchuks. Finally, there was the mask he pulled over his face.
Master X stepped forward. He laid out the nearest cop, who was watching the proceedings. He started for the stage, where War Man had looked up. The hero reached for his hip and then a crack rang out. War Man stumbled back and fell over. The crowd cried out as panic set in. Master X rushed the stage, the police now too busy trying to contain the chaos caused by the gunshot. The martial artist paused long enough to slam his palm into the throat of one particular cop he saw along the way. An elbow messed up the nose on the face he’d memorized.
Before he could check and see if War Man had been killed, or at least get close enough to be associated with the hero’s death, the super soldier sat up. He groaned and brushed off the thick metal bullet that had lodged in the armor on his chest and stood up. He found Master X on stage before him, twirling the nunchuks as he moved forward.
Not distracted, War Man pulled out a gun of his own, a monstrosity of a revolver. Master X watched carefully, feeling like time slowed down. War Man’s arm jerked and he fired off into the crowd. A load of flaming pellets isn’t something that calms most crowds down, but War Man was probably more concerned about the blood blossoming from the new hole in his arm. That’s why, with a glance at a window with a pair of holes in it, he jumped down and took cover from that direction. The building the shooter had to be in was no longer in his view.
Master X followed instead, leaping off the stage to try and land a kick on the hero. And in most instances, that move might have backfired. Don’t anyone tell X I said that, folks. War Man had been shot twice by a gun meant to destroy vehicles less armored than tanks. Today, Master X was enough to knock him flat on his ass. He looked up to see if anyone had noticed and found a few people huddled against the wall with their phones trained on him. Master X smiled. “Remember the day Master X laid War Man out flat.”
En watched as Master X ran off. Careful of the windows, he snuck forward to see to War Man. Well, War Man soon sat up and jumped to his feet. Still, En pretended to help the hero up. “Are you alright?” he asked, looking for all the world like any other civilian. War Man brushed him off, then ran for the same exit Master X had taken.
En watched him go and smiled to himself, slipping the stolen medals into his pocket and making for the front entrance. He was pretty sure from the lack of additional gunshots that this wasn’t another mass shooting.
Luther Von Krieger grit his teeth and finished packing up his rifle. He’d had two good shots at the hero. He could have tried for the head or throat the second time, but he’d opted to help out the other villain confronting War Man. Then the hero had taken cover. Von Krieger didn’t get a good look at what had happened from there. After a few tense seconds, he started readying his escape. He grabbed his bag and headed for the elevator again. Thanks to the distraction the other villain caused, he didn’t need to worry about a fast escape, and so the hostages remained behind, tied up. They weren’t bothered about being left behind.
Von Krieger stopped a floor down and swapped elevators, as the one he’d kept still had a dead body in it. Indeed, at the ground floor, that was the elevator drawing all the attention not held by people looking at the commotion across the street, or at the superhero jogging over. Master X had escaped clean, but War Man decided to check on the sniper who tagged him a couple of times. When Von Krieger saw the hero’s approach, he thought the man might have realized who he was. That may have been true, as it were. Von Krieger wasn’t panicked, wasn’t gawking, and carried a bag on his shoulder that you could store a gun in.
He also had the pistol crossbow stuffed into the rear of his pants. He ignored that and whipped out a pistol concealed in his pocket. The concealed carry pistol did little to dissuade War Man from coming after Von Krieger.
War Man tackled the would-be hunter, knocking the pistol free. Von Krieger did two things at once on the ground: he tried to suck in air, and he tried to free the crossbow for a point blank shot at War Man’s face. Instead, all he pointed at War Man was the broken remains of the small crossbow. So instead, he grabbed the bolt and shoved that in the soldier’s eye. He reached wildly about for any other weapons, and found one in a holster on War Man’s belt.
War Man’s mask doesn’t cover his entire face, and so a white phosphorous shotgun shell, even one fired from a larger revolver, was quite unpleasant. It wasn’t fun when some of it got on Luther Von Krieger either, but the aristocrat was much more worried about the state of his pants as he watched part of the hero’s face burn off and the main with a bolt in his eye glared down at him and picked him up to be arrested.
Von Krieger sat in the back of that squad car for awhile. Cops and other emergency workers had to get the event under control and the man wasn’t expected to be able to escape on his own. They were keeping an eye out for Master X. What they didn’t notice was when a man in civilian clothes walked just a little too close to the rear of the car and one of the doors opened slightly. Luther Von Krieger certainly noticed. He had his handcuffs off in a second and eased out of the car. With everyone else trying to get chaos under control, he managed to slip into the crowd.
It was only later, at a hotel room he rented under another name, that he realized someone had slipped a card into his pocket, the sort meant to advertise a service. It got a chuckle out of him, in spite of the cock-up his plans had become:
“Feel like you haven’t gotten what’s rightly yours? Need to get away? Hungry for the finer things in life? N, the man who owns War Man’s medals.”
Well, rulebreakers and rebel kindred, while that’s not where the careers of any of these villains or heroes ended, that’s where this story ends. En is still out there, trading on the infamy stealing from War Man right in front of the hero. Master X is kicking ass and taking names for himself, on his terms. And Luther Von Krieger, like many a hunter, has to know when one lucky piece of game gets away. He didn’t wear a mask or choose any fancy name, and so not being a formal villain is probably what’s saving his life. Discretion isn’t; in getting his side of this tale, he’s made it clear he’s got more safaris in mind.
If you can’t be smart, at least you can hope to be lucky. One or the other, listeners, otherwise you’ll be staring down an ugly jumper and a vacation behind bars. Stay smart, listen to the X. Outlaw X, that is, not Master X. And try to avoid that hoosgow, folks.
Gents, ladies, and non-binaries, we here at Outlaw X would like to remind you that this program is funded by a generous grant from a Saudi millionaire who doesn’t know anybody broke into that mansion yet. The Saudis: they sure got nice stuff.
With that out of the way, I wanted to move on to a light-hearted story. Listeners know that super villains have never been the most orderly subset of society. Some might question the line between supervillain and quirky criminal. The recent organization of the criminal underworld has allowed us to address those concerns before a jealous newbie tries to pull a crazy scheme meant to secure their place as a supervillain. In the opinion of this humble host, the crazy schemes were part of the part of the fun. I think every villain should try one at least once, except those are the hot messes that get people shoved deep into the penal system.
What we have here is a story of what happens when criminals want to move up to the wild world of supervillainy.
Luther Von Krieger, whose family had once been the counts who ruled over this very castle, lounged in a wooden chair. He was bored. In front of him swung a spy who had been too easily. Von Krieger hoped that would mean a daring escape and a chase, but he’d been thus far disappointed. The man wrapped in ropes and swinging over a pit of wolves had made no miraculous escape. He didn’t seem to have any gadgetry hidden among his personal effects like an exploding hair comb or a shoe that turns into a laser sword.
He was boring, and so Von Krieger was bored. He sighed and raised the Czech handgun he held. “I expected better of spies.”
“Perhaps I should arrange an anonymous tip to MI6 and let them feed us one of theirs,” suggested a man in a butler outfit whose age hadn’t yet caught up to the head full of deep black hair.
“I don’t want to be fed, I want to hunt,” snapped Von Krieger. He adjusted his tiger-skin coat around himself, then pulled the tie out of his long blonde hair to release it. He stood up, stretched, and fired once at the spy. The rope snapped and dropped the screaming man into the pit where no more was heard of him but the sounds of wolves enjoying his final meal. “I’m going to bed.”
“Sir, might I suggest-” the butler began. He failed to finish the thought when Von Krieger, in his frustration, fired what he thought was a warning shot back behind him without looking. When he turned back and pulled the earplugs out, he found he’d fired a bit low for a warning.
Von Krieger blinked, then said, “I guess you might not.”
Though he seemed unbothered, Von Krieger’s dreams that night were unpleasant for him. He shot and stabbed at ninjas, at dashing secret agents, at musclebound commandos. He missed and instead struck tax auditors, land assessors, and drunken sailors. That didn’t stop him from trying, and his targets eventually changed to the likes of War Man, with his chest puffed out. Bullets bounced off his body armor, so Von Krieger pulled out an elephant rifle. War Man fell back with a hole blown in his chest.
Von Krieger almost didn’t remember the dream the next day. It only occurred to him when he was fixing himself a cup of coffee, his butler no longer available to bring it to him, and saw where he’d left his Howdah pistol. The double barrel handgun was designed for big game hunting, reminding him of the elephant gun and the part of the dream about War Man. Von Krieger smiled to himself and began the travel arrangements.
“This guy, eh?” Sal chuckled and stood up from the table he was seated at, holding his hands out toward the newcomer who approached the table. That man stood in a dark blue turtleneck and black slacks, carrying a newspaper he handed to Sal. Sal checked that a file folder had been stuffed inside, then dropped the paper on the table and reached out. The skinny mafioso grabbed the other man’s face and pulled him close to kiss him on the cheeks. “You’re a life saver, thank you.”
“That’s why I do it. That, and the money,” the man said.
“Hey, if money’s what you want, I can make the check out right now!” said an older, hefty guy who elbowed another of the crowd at the table while laughing. He got a few chuckles, then asked, “What does the letter stand for anyway? I keep trying to think of what to call you and I don’t think you want to go by the N-word.”
The bald white man who stood before them gave a little smile, despite his lack of amusement at the joke. He didn’t have the complexion to worry about being called that particular word, or the term used in place of it. He didn’t like the joke, still. “Just En. One letter. I like to leave people guessing.”
The older guy who’d joked nodded to a waiter, who approached. En saw an envelop laying underneath a napkin next to the drink on the tray. “Your friends thought you might want refreshment.”
En took the glass and the napkin, careful to grip the envelop. He tried the drink, finding it slightly too tart for his preference. He set it down and wiped at his mouth, counting out the bills inside the envelop. He didn’t like what he saw. “It’s good, but it’s doesn’t have enough kick for me. For what I can do, I should get a higher brand of liquor in my drinks.”
“What, you think you’re the Superman of what you do?” Sal asked, screwing up his face to look ridiculous on purpose. “If I wanted to pay those rates, I’d go dig up that Dame wherever she’s hiding.”
En smiled. “Well, I guess I better be happy with what I got. After all, I’m sure you’ll need me again in the future.”
“That’s a good attitude to have,” said the older mafioso.
En held out his hand for a shake from Sal and a few of the others. “I don’t want to bring down your meal anymore than I already have. You enjoy yourself. A weight’s been taken off your shoulders tonight.”
En left Sal laughing at that bit of humor and walked out the door. He slid into the car parked right out front and drove off, wondering when Sal’s driver would notice the keys missing from his pocket. “Superman…” En mused to himself, then checked the phone for any Super News he could capitalize on. War Man was going to be receiving an award from the city for his efforts putting down a subway strike that riot police had failed to quash with teargas and gunfire.
On the top of a skyscraper, a man in a green and white suit tried to fight off a pair of ninja. Tried was the operative word. He levitated swords around himself, but couldn’t keep up with the pair of agile opponents on his own. They got behind his guard and he felt a stab of pain as a blade slid into his gut. The villain fell, clinging to a bag of stolen artwork and artifacts like a life preserver after a shipwreck.
Out of nowhere, a black man in a tight athletic shirt and short athletic shorts sent one of the ninja face-first to the roof with a flying kick. The other turned and slashed downward at the newcomer’s head. Ibram Robinson brought his hands up in a double clap that caught the blade. He used its momentum to twist it to the side, then chopped the ninja’s throat with one hand. With a headbutt and backfist, he downed the ninja, then turned to the villain. “Maybe you should be working for me instead of the other way around.”
“Shut up and help me to the chopper,” the bleeding villain said. Ibram picked the other man up and helped him to the helicopter whose pilot had been watching the fight in anticipation of getting out of there if it looked like they’d nab him, too.
When they were safely onboard, the villain unzipped the bag and handed Ibram a burial mask. “Here. I am grateful. And sorry about that earlier, but someone who looks like me isn’t expected to work for someone who looks like you.”
Ibram took the mask, but raised an eyebrow along with his voice. “The hell you mean?”
The villain indicated the martial artist’s clothing. “You look like an MMA fighter or someone from the gym, not some kind of villain. The great ones have presence in this business. Spinetingler and Psycho Gecko don’t just scare people because they can kill ’em real easily. Spinetingler looks like some kind of overlord of evil, and Psycho’s got the armor and the craziness going on. You need something like that.”
Ibram narrowed his eyes, but he sat back, pondering along his route. Presence and a costume. He preferred functionality over flashiness when it came to his clothing. He had full range of motion. Still, there were ways he could maintain that practicality and wear a costume. He wasn’t about to go around acting crazy. Nobody liked working with the Psycho or Spinetingler. Maybe, he thought, if he makes a flashy debut. He heard War Man was in town, and he was pretty sure he could convince the super soldier to fight him hand to hand. Ibram knew what he could do and he was confident he could take the hero.
That would show the world, and soon, he wouldn’t have a peckerwood bleeding out saying he could never work for him. Ibram considered pushing the villain out of the helicopter, but he heard rumors about what happens if you kill a supervillain now. Psycho Gecko was supposed to be dead. Being dead never stopped him or her or they before.
So it was that three different individuals, with different motivations, all prepared themselves for an encounter with War Man, the Man of War, decorated super soldier superhero. Who will succeed? Who will get in one another’s way? Find out on Outlaw X.
This is Gecko, checking in. I’m feeling lazy and getting a bit of a medical work-up now that I’m no longer an herbivore. We’re also trying to figure out a way to check my brain chemistry. It’s not particularly interesting, and I don’t feel like pummeling drunks to make my life interesting. To that end, I figured I’d tune in to some of the stories crossing the radio waves of Outlaw X. I’m sure they’ll be particularly festive as villains try to take advantage of the holiday season for some festive fun.
So, without further ado:
You heard it, you heard it, you heard it on the X.
Today’s story involves the intersection of super crime and the more mundane variety. It’s about life, and the family you find to share it with along the way. And while we’re at it, folks, be careful the substances you abuse. I’m no stick in the mud, but when you’re not disciplined enough, those substances can abuse you right back. Not all prisons are made of metal and cement.
It was the day after Christmas, and Brandon Williams was still on house arrest. He hadn’t even picked it up in a particularly fun way. Rather than a spectacular blaze of criminal glory, like a bank robbery or a diamond heist, Brandon had been a lifelong petty criminal. The snobs might note that honest work left him with a damaged back and while surgery could have fixed it, he lacked the money to do anything but treat it with an ever-increasing number of pain pills. He had stolen a chainsaw from a neighbor and sold it. He once led Game Wardens on an hour-long chase after trespassing to hunt deer. The nefarious plot that stuck a GPS monitoring device on his ankle this time was grand theft gasoline, and the matter of a purloined slushie.
Now, before we go much further, it’s important to point out we don’t mind a lot of Brandon’s actions. If you want saints to judge from on high that it’s wrong to mess around with painkillers, you’ve tuned in to the wrong station. He is just a person who is getting by with a little help from his friends’ property. While we may disagree in heated moments, being a dickhead is not the height of evil. Neither is selling oxycontin for money.
That became more difficult when he returned home with a monitoring bracelet on. He needed money. Going to jail isn’t cheap, and neither is getting out on house arrest. He was sure his daughter had used some of his cash stash to feed herself while her mother had alternated between sleeping all day and staying out all night. Riley Williams hadn’t had the best life, but she had been an accomplice. An unwitting one at times, even one under duress. It didn’t help that she knew her dad got mean without his pills and worse if he didn’t have any money in exchange for them. She liked her dad to be either high or drunk because the alternative sometimes left bruises.
Riley’s limited interaction with her father’s “dayjob” was about to end. This Christmas, she graduated from accomplice to junior partner. The promotion included a motivational speech about Daddy not being able to go outside or he would be arrested, so he needed Riley to go hang out at his favorite corner store to sell pills and she better not come back without a lot of cash or some EBT cards. “And make sure to get the PIN for the EBT card.”
Riley was plenty motivated to eat after her father’s last stint in jail before going before the judge. She didn’t care as much about presents; those come from the dollar store. She wanted to help her dad and she wanted to eat. So she grabbed the bottle of oxy and a light jacket for the cold.
Despite what her father thought, she hadn’t had much to eat at all. Her stomach ached. It hurt so much. Her dad probably wouldn’t miss just one. Not as mad as he got without them or as sleepy as he got with a handful. She thought one would take the pain away. She was caught offguard when it worked so fast and the pain faded. The cold remained. But it was so easy to let her mind wander.
She wondered what it would have been like to believe Santa was real. To have presents delivered by him, under a tree, like the movies. The movies she saw looked so nice. All the food, presents, and a family that smiled at her.
It was still cold. Maybe another pill would help that. She was nearly to the corner store.
It began to rain.
She tried to hide from it in the store, but the clerk yelled at her. “Get out, and tell your papa to bring me the money he owes!”
She stood there, looking back outside at the roaring precipitation. The clerk raised a flyswatter as if he’d hit her. “Go on, git!”
“What if…?” she asked, raising the hand with the pill bottle.
“Out, before I call the cops, pillbilly,” the clerk responded, reaching for the phone.
Riley ran out of there, into the downpour.
Sewer Runner hated the rain himself. He didn’t mind the way it made his fur smell now. The man-rat had to be used to worse smells than that. He didn’t always hide in sewers, but he had enough experience in them to escape the hot blue fuzz. See, he hated the rain because it kept people indoors and at home. He burgled houses even before obtaining his unique gifts, and he knew the best way to get away with it was waiting until people were gone.
The trade-off had been how often it keeps people from shopping. He needed food, and what he could no longer obtain from residences, he picked up from a small store. He’d left a screaming cashier behind him, so he hadn’t meant to stop and enjoy the scenery. Regardless, seeing a young girl laying passed out on the wet sidewalk. For God’s sake, the only shelter she had was a little jacket and a newspaper. The soaked photo of the politician on the front page wasn’t doing much to help her out. He cursed under his breath and switched over the ham he’d absconded with to the claw holding the twelve pack of soft drinks. Picking her up, he tossed aside the newspaper where someone in the Senate vowed to address the most important issue of the day: immigration.
Sewer Runner didn’t want the cops after him for kidnapping some little girl. He didn’t think over the full implications of his decision to drop her off until he got near the church and saw a cop car parked out front. Cursing to himself, he hid in some bushes next to the sidewalk and scoped out the situation.
The preacher, with the help of the police, was evicting an old man in ratty clothes. Even an actual man-rat felt comfortable calling them that. He could almost smell the alcohol on the man from here. Runner wondered if he could get the cops’ attention. They could look after the girl and get her medical help, even if the church was no sanctuary. He changed his mind on the risk when the cop helping the homeless man into the back of the car turned off his own body camera and “accidentally” bumped his head into the roof of the car a couple of times.
Sewer Runner hated to keep the girl out in this weather any later than necessary, but he didn’t feel safe leaving her with anyone in this bunch. All of the bunch, except the banged-up homeless man, looked up when a bell began to ring.
“Crap,” Sewer Runner muttered to himself. He didn’t have time for odd jobs and sidequests. He was running late. “I hope you don’t tattle, girly.” The bushes rustled behind him as he ducked down a side street and opened a manhole. “You’re gonna wake up screaming, aren’t you?”
Sewer Runner’s destination wasn’t the sewers. He didn’t technically have to use the sewers to get around. In fact, the people he was meeting preferred if he didn’t. They were all meeting in the backroom of a derelict liquor store that served as their lair. As cramped as it was, the addition of two people and one stolen ham smelling of the sewers. The drinks were probably fine.
“You’re late!” announced the hairy, somewhat spherical man by the name of Varmint. He was human, if a bit furrier than normal. Then he saw the girl. “What are you doing with that?”
“She was passed out. Couldn’t get her help in time and I thought, shit, we have some of that nano-goo, right?” Sewer Runner explained. He set down the food and drinks, which Varmint snatched up.
Varmint sighed and shook his head as he adjusted his grip on the ham, but a voice from one of the small side closets called out, “Bring her here!”
“Sure thing, Panda,” Sewer Runner said, leaving Varmint to finish the delivery while he walked to the supply closet where Danger Panda tsked at him.
“I wish you didn’t shorten my name like that,” said the woman in the raccoon costume. The man-rat’s eyes traced the curves of her outfit down to where the heavy metal hammer blocked his view of her ass. She turned to him and handed over a mason jar of clear liquid. “Try this, and hurry. The Supreme is nearly here.”
“Now who’s shortening names?” he snarked. He set about his business, laying the girl down on the cot that served as the group’s attempt at an infirmary. They didn’t have a lot of the medical nanites. They weren’t as easy to find as they used to be. Sewer Runner tried a capful of the goo that contained countless of the little robots. In spite of the dinner he was now holding up, he waited.
Finally, the little girl coughed and retched up some water and phlegm. She looked up at him, then reached into her jacket and pulled out the bottle of pills. With a raspy voice, she asked, “Wanna buy some?”
“God no,” Sewer Runner said. “Is that what you were doing out? Jesus… hey, you in bad shape when I found you. You’re not going to say a big rat kidnapped you if I let you go, are you?”
Riley shook her head, then sniffed.
“Sorry for the smell. It was the quickest way here,” Sewer Runner tried to explain.
“No, not that…” Riley said. They both heard her stomach rumble in response to the scents wafting out of the room Varmint had disappeared into.
“Hey, you hungry?” Sewer Runner asked. “I think the Supreme will be fine with a guest just this once.”
“This dinner of the Order Of Vermin is officially begun! Dig in!” announced the old man with the wild grey beard at the head of the table. He sat down, adjusting the boot he wore on his head and motioned for his guests to eat. He even smiled at the little girl. He leaned over to the unpleasant, hairy villain next to him and whispered. “Varmint, I seem to remember you stole the contents of a delivery truck for a toy store. Do you have anything left?”
Varmint nodded between mouthfuls of a casserole made of corn, cheese, and rice.
“Good,” the old man said. “See to it that the girl picks out something fun for herself. And don’t be stingy.”
Varmint swallowed, then wiped his mouth and nodded again. “Yes, Vermin Supreme.”
Well, Brandon Williams ended up cussing up a storm without his pills or his beer. They caught him messing with the ankle bracelet, trying to get it off so he could go out and see what was keeping his daughter. Back he went into jail. The mother’s being investigated for neglect of her child from her own cell, after she ran off the road and wrapped her car around a pole on stage at a titty bar. And as for Riley, whose life was threatened with a cycle of abuse and crime? Well, for one Christmas, she got to live her dream. It stunk a little, but it was hers and she loved it.
As far as the regular people are concerned, Reindeer did what she had to do bringing a dangerous mass murderer to justice. In a way, that feels about as bad as when they celebrated me as a hero despite failing to save the people Conrad Thorne burned that first time. I wasn’t trying to defend myself or bring anybody to justice. I hunted him down specifically to kill him. I’d already been prejudged as a “good guy” in the public eye, and so the murder is justified.
I can at least rest easy knowing that none of what I did was to uphold an status quo. I stopped the Drillers because they were trying to steal the toy I wanted to steal. Conrad Thorne wasn’t tearing down the system by burning and shooting animal-people. The other way around, in fact. There’s nothing more American than the execution of someone who looks different. At the risk of sounding like a hardcore vegan here, his views about animal-people tie in to both some heavy racist tropes of the past, and into the somewhat twisted domination humanity sometimes exerts over other animals. So maybe this Verdant person had somewhat of an effect on my point of view.
As for the Spirit of the Season, Santa Claus himself, I haven’t seen him around since I fell out of the building. I’m a little paranoid about that last bit he said to me, but I think that’s pretty normal under the circumstances. It hasn’t escaped my notice that he turned me from a deer into a reindeer, then offered to give me flight. I love the idea of flying under my own power, but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I wasn’t even thinking so hard about what Santa was doing. But the guy is known for hitching flying reindeer to his sleigh to fly him around. I wonder how close I came to replacing a Donner or a Dancer.
After all that, I was happy to sit around the house with a batch of vegan cookies, chilling with my chinchilla child. She watched movies while I wrapped a few last presents for other folks. Citra, Silver Shark, Dr. Creeper, Mix N’Max, Sam, and Holly. I already sent off a gift for my former minions, Carl and Moai. If I’m drinking to absent friends, I’m going to end up hammered.
It’s a good thing alcoholic beverages are vegan.
But that wasn’t really the worst of my holiday experiences this time. Santa’s stopped showing up and my latest conflict is handled. I’m free and clear to celebrate. Then the TV had breaking news, courtesy of a hooded figure in green tights and a cape that looked like leaves sewn together.
“I am Verdant, and I am here to turn off the lights!” he announced. “In mere minutes, I will use my transformative powers to transform all the world’s polluting factories and power plants into greenery.”
I rolled my eyes and started to gather up some boxes of my nanomachine “health supplements,” for travel. If this guy was serious about turning off the power completely, there were some hospitals that were going to need to make some tough decisions. That’s why all the reasonable people along these lines speak of transitioning.
At some point, I saw Verdant raise want. I noticed him moving his thumb to press a button, though. Pain shot through my body, causing me to drop my boxes. I heard pained squeaks from my daughter’s room, but my body didn’t want to respond to go help her. It felt like when I first turned into a deer, all itchy and with my bones stretching under my skin. It either wasn’t as quick or I didn’t pass out this time, and I saw Verdant look around nervously, then begin to mess with his wand. I figured something went wrong, but that applied just as much to me when I held up a hand. What had been furry fingers with thick nails were becoming a bunch of small fingers and one oversized thumb where the nail was growing into a hoof. Meanwhile, Verdant doubled over in pain and held up a claw inside a shredded glove.
When I heard jingle bells, I thought the Spirit of the Season was back to offer me another deal. Maybe he wanted me to pull his sleigh after I finished becoming a full reindeer. Instead, I received a vision. I don’t think anyone else saw it, after all. In it, I sat assembling a device. No, I was painting a big, round ornament. Both seemed to be true at once. Then, I climbed a rocket with a satellite attached, careful to avoid security lights. Except then the security lights were decorative lights, bursting and flashing around me as I climbed a tree. Below, Krampus patrolled, keeping an eye out. That part seemed true in both iterations.
I watched as, sometime later, the rocket launched. A satellite with my device separated from it once they reached space. The satellite soon blew up, and a large shard of the satellite continued around the Earth in an orbit. It was a weird thing to watch and I started to feel a bit nauseous. Whatever vision quest I’m on should use less shaky cam. This isn’t an action movie.
Instead, it became a story about some satellite in the distance lighting up a brilliant green color. I saw a shimmering white and purple mass from the Earth, though. Like a cloud, or an aurora borealis. I didn’t think you could see those from space. The two opposing colors reached for one another, the shimmering pushing back toward the satellite. The wreckage was headed right for it. The two collided at the same moment the pain and strain on my body subsided. The last thing I saw as this jingle-belled vision ended was a green crystal with a streak of brown through its middle falling out of the second satellite toward Earth.
I was fine again. Not just fine, I was humanoid again. I had feet and my antlers were gone. A 12:00 kept blinking in my vision, confirming the existence of my cybernetic eyes and brain enhancements that gave me a heads-up display. Sadly, I lost a little badonkadonk. On TV, Verdant seemed to be experiencing the same relief. And no matter what he tried, the power didn’t go out. That’s why I felt fine leaving the room long enough to check on Qiang, who was once again a humanoid girl. A stinky little humanoid girl who looked just a little different to me than before. A little more mixed than before, but not with animals.
“Mommy, I’m normal again!” she said, excitedly. She ran toward me and I swept her up into a hug that twirled her around a bit. I had to stop for my sake, as I was having trouble with the balance. I’d basically spent most of the month running around on my big toenails. I’m so happy to have feet again though.
“Good, then you can get a bath again,” I told her. She tried to “aww” at me about it, but I added, “Don’t you argue with me, stinky. You want to be the smelly kid? Off, go hop in the tub.”
I realized from what it meant for my daughter to transform back that I hadn’t come back with Dame’s stolen face, either. I didn’t want to think about that at the moment for various reasons, so I deflected by trying to go see what was up on the news. I heard an explosion, then they switched away.
Instead, for the first time in awhile, I reached out wirelessly and connected to the world’s network of satellites to help me get a signal. I had to figure out where all this even was. Boom, Virginia. Turns out Verdant had decided to draw a crowd to him at the site of a natural gas plant construction site. I spied on the situation and found he had various minions in robes.
On the other side of this equation was Medusa, her own costume a bit torn up in places. Maybe I can find some footage later of what she was turning into. For now, the Exemplars were beating up the robed minions and trying to protect fleeing reporters from the wrath of Verdant. The environmentalist supervillain didn’t have his satellite on his side anymore, but had some sort of yellow ray he fired from his wand that turned a cameraman into a pile of ashes.
One of the Exemplars, a soldier in power armor, fired a burst that missed Verdant. It forced the villain from his perch on top of a concrete slab. Another Exemplar created a mass of smoke between Verdant and the civilians that obstructed his view. Whatever that energy weapon was, it did jack shit to smoke.
I looked around in all the chaos for something to help out with. Verdant owes me a pound of flesh for turning me into a deer. I don’t care if I take a bunch of blood with the flesh, either.
I found a bulldozer nearby. They put so many electronics in tractors and construction equipment nowadays that they might as well be cars. I cranked it remotely and, using what third-party cameras I could see, began to maneuver the thing. A stray ray that hit the bulldozer did nothing harmful to it, but it gave me an idea. I didn’t like the idea, but that was more because I realized it represented a shift in my thinking caused by goody-goodies like Medusa. Infecting me with her goodness. I should have worn protection.
The bulldozer was perfect for building a bulwark out of the clay and at the construction site. With a pile of dirt and a bulky bulldozer in the way, the reporters and Exemplars were safe enough from the rays that reached through the smoke. Unfortunately, so were the cops who had arrived, too. At least they had they good sense not to get in Medusa’s way.
If it had been me going after him with the bulldozer, Verdant’s capture would have been a messier affair. Instead, a hero with a jetpack rose into the air blasted the wand out of his hands. Verdant tried to grab his wand again, but it sparked and shocked him. He settled on trying to flee. That’s when he learned one of the downsides to running around in a cape when you don’t have any sort of super strength or superspeed. It slowed him way the fuck down. It’s not even a weight issue, though that can be part of it. Capes catch the wind real easily and the resistance slowed him down. Medusa caught up to him and punted his ass into the dirt like it was nothing.
When she walked through the door that night, she was dirty and exhausted. She walked right up to me on the couch and laid down with her head in my lap.
“You look tired,” I said.
“You look different,” she responded.
“So does Qiang, but at least she’s still pretty,” I said.
Medusa pouted. “Hush… don’t talk like that or you’ll end upon the naughty list.”
I laughed. With how the holidays went for me, I couldn’t help it. I certainly wasn’t going to forget Santa’s role in things when Medusa headed back to get ready for a bath and rushed out to ask, “Where’s the other you?”
I winked at her, then projected an online article about a young soldier waking up from a coma. The picture showed the redhead whose body I’d been so recently controlling as my own.
“What did you do?” asked Medusa. “You’re still controlling her?”
I shook my head. “Nope. She’s fully alive again. Brain and all.”
“How?’ Medusa asked
“A Christmas miracle, dear,” I told her. It makes a good line to end on, but I ended up pulling her onto my lap and telling the rest of the tale. I am a terrible hero, still. But a villain who even runs counter to the nature of life and death? Sometimes, it pays to have friends at the North Pole.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Happy Holidays.
It was night in the city of Detroit, and I stalked it. Clippity-cloppity. Perhaps it’s not the quietest stalking, but there’s not a lot of grass here unless you know a guy with a dimebag.
So I stalked, and ordered my daughter dinner using a food delivery app. Taking care of her is important to me. She requires a very special diet now that she’s been turned into a chinchilla-child. Plus, she’s admitted to me she stopped bathing. She says she feels like rolling around in dust instead. I grounded her at first, which is about useless to do while I’m out of town hunting down a killer. It was Medusa that talked me into letting her off the hook. I texted her about it and she sent me an article about chinchillas. She also included an article about reindeer and how the females grow antlers.
I can’t wait until we’re both back to normal. She’s going to be the stinky kid if she keeps not bathing, but chinchillas don’t bathe and have some problems sweating. If something goes wrong and she’s stuck as a chinchilla when summer rolls around, I’ll have to homeschool her again.
“Dont worry, :),” Medusa texted me.
“You ok?” I sent back to her.
“They blew up power plant,” she said. A clip came talking about how a coal-burning plant was partially transformed into a plant, causing a chain reaction that blew the whole place up. The place looked like Silent Hill with all the smoke and ash in the air. Then a text from Medusa came back informing me that, “lootenant who sees the pollution is talking. Almst got em.”
I hope so, for the sake of her text message spelling.
But back to my stalking. Clippity-cloppity. I had to track down Conrad Thorne. I’ve had issues holding onto the scent outside. I never really noticed just how stinky everything here is. Probably the most common scent is death. I’ve long been able to recognize that, but my enhanced reindeer senses allow me to smell death all over the place. Don’t mistake this for some sort of metaphorical or mystical thing. Even before they do a lot of rotting, which adds its own smell to the mix, dead things tend to have a certain hint of blood to them. It’s probably just a bunch of rats living among humanity, living and dying in the walls and under the floorboards.
So that’s been a challenge, one I had to fix by closing my eyes and focusing on sniffing. It was almost meditative. I focused on my breathing, but especially on the smells as they entered my nose. I found what I was looking for. Ever since then, there have been times I’ve lost him, but I was eventually able to pick him back up. Part of the problem early on was having so much to work with once I knew what to smell for. I’d follow his scent to a convenience store, or to a bus station. The bus station ended up leading me to where he worked, though. No one really batted an eye to see a red-coated reindeer walk into an insurance agency, especially since I was greeted by an assistant who was a bat man.
“Please tell me you can do a good impression,” I told him.
He squeaked out a laugh and shook his head. “No. I’m thinking of looking up if anyone got turned into a robin so we can meet up and do photos for a gag.”
“I hope you lucked into being a fruit bat,” I mentioned.
He sighed. “I’m so glad I’m not a vampire bat. People mistake me for one all the time. It’s hard enough switching to an all fruit diet. What about you? Don’t deer eat grass?”
“Some. Leaves, too,” I told him. “I’ve been able to make it work eating a lot of salad and otherwise going vegan with an emphasis on leafy greens. I can’t wait to get back to normal, though.”
“I hear you. Anyway, you said you were here about Conrad?” he asked, getting down to business at last.
“He’s done some pretty bad stuff, as you might have heard. And now he’s missing.” In the middle of my running around sniffing, I’ve been keeping an eye on his apartment. So have the cops. He still hasn’t come back to it.
Bat man was nice enough to give me a tip. Conrad had an ex he used to invite along to some of the office events.
I found her, and the smell of Thorne was pretty strong, but he wasn’t there anymore. “He’s not here, Detective Deer,” said the ex, who was nursing a bruise on her wrist. That wasn’t from me this time. “If I knew where the crazy son of a bitch went, I’d tell you. Douchenozzle said he needed a place to stay for a couple of days. He didn’t tell me he was on the run after killing people. I hope you find him, because he’s planning worse. He had some big backpacks and was cleaning his rifle.”
“Did he give you any clues? Was he looking up anywhere on his phone or your phone or a computer?” I asked.
She shook her head now. “He didn’t have his phone with him, but I wouldn’t let him use mine. I’m sorry. He gave off weird vibes. If I’da known it would help you catch him, I would have.”
I nodded. “It’s fine. Geez, he really has a heck of a scent here.”
She waved her hand. “Yeah. He hadn’t had a good shower and shave in days.”
I thought back to when I arrived. His scent was strong in the area, but it didn’t seem to lead away. Before, I’d been able to follow some of his route onto a bus. “Has he acquired a car? Borrowed one, maybe?”
“I think he took an Uber,” she informed me. Damn. A taxi would have given me more to go on. Uber drivers are easier to bribe, but taxis keep better records.
I had a couple of ideas to go off of then. The first was to find good sites to shoot up in the area, which was like finding one particular needle in a haystack full of needles. That’s why I opted for the second: look for anywhere nearby the guy could lay low and use some facilities. Having so recently admonished my daughter for not cleaning herself up, the idea of him catching a shower was on my mind.
First, I used my phone to look up gyms. Then I looked up YMCAs. I hear it’s fun to stay at them, and when you’re short on dough, you can stay there. Get yourself clean, have a good meal, do whatever you feel. It was a little further away to a YMCA than to a gym, but there were fewer of them. I planned to check the gyms along the way to the nearest YMCA, then the nearest after that, then the nearest unchecked one after that.
But I also knew he was packing at least a rifle, and then at least two packs worth of equipment. I smelled a lot of things at the ex’s and not all of them were legal. I thought I caught a scent I’ve worked with before when making things go boom. I decided I needed a little bit more to take him on then my own fists, hooves, and horns. So I managed to grab an Uber, who unfortunately wasn’t the one to pickup Thorne, and directed him to a couple of stores while I kept a window open for a sniff.
No such luck on the random sniffing, but I managed to throw together a wreath and a large candy cane that would help. I didn’t have much time. A gal’s gotta work with what’s available, and that means holiday decorations from time to time. In the case of the earbuds, those were already capable of filtering out gunshots but allowing speech to get through. The trick there was fitting them onto my inhuman ears.
It was the second YMCA where I finally found him. When I arrived, there were people waving us down, trying to warn us away. I threw cash at my driver and hopped out, armed to the antlers. “Get away, some dude’s shooting animals!” One guy told me.
I snorted. “That’s why I’m here.” Then a shot took off part of my antler as I ducked behind the Uber driver’s SUV. The guy who warned me pointed up to the roof of the YMCA, then ran for it. I couldn’t blame him, though I was a little annoyed the Uber driver sped out of there with my cover. I ran for the building, jumping over a bleeding birdman and stopping to grab a groaning gator to drag to safety. He snapped at me, so I finished by tossing him up against the wall. I heard more gunshots even though he shouldn’t have been able to get an angle on me. And more screams. And even a bit of glass breaking. Considering the guy’s targets, it’s not even metaphorical to point out there are plenty more fish in the sea.
He expected trouble. I noticed the tripwire shortly after inching the door open, and before it had enough tension to go off. I pulled a wreath off from around my arm and slid an inner ring into place so the blades poked out past the faux-pine needles. I had to be careful to cut without opening the door too wide, which wasn’t easy using a wreath. But I ended up cutting the tripwire. Then I came diving and rolling out, coming to my hooves to find a tripod set up and Conrad Thorne holding tight to a gizmo that began to carry him up a zipline to a shot-open window of a taller building across the street. That spoke to either some more professional contacts, or the guy being inventive. It also made things rougher for me.
I threw the wreath like a discus. It missed. Merry fucking Christmas.
I knew I couldn’t run up the line. Imagine walking a tightrope when you’re not trained. And the tightrope’s going uphill. And you have to do it on your big toenails. Nope. I took a running leap. Wonder deer powers, activate! They got me a little higher before I grabbed onto the line, but not enough to prevent the massive suckage to come as I had to climb the line hand over hand. To my credit, I think I got halfway up before Thorne got across the street. After that, I got the added difficult of him doing something to the line. I was distressingly far from the window when it went slack. I whipped out the candy cane I’d brought along.
Boom! The electronic ear buds I’d gotten selectively canceled such a loud nearby boom as the gunpowder propelled a grappling hook out one end of the hollow candy cane and into the window. I ended up swinging down and crashed through a lower window on the building.
People inside had enough sense to realize something was going down and to try and get out of the way. Many rushed down the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator to head up and reach them. As for me, I shoved a bunch of people out of the way and took the elevator when it arrived.
Five stories up, about where I figured the guy had landed, the door opened to an agitated Conrad Thorne aiming his gun into the elevator. I dropped and kicked back against the rear wall of the elevator, sliding toward his legs. He jumped to the side, but at least the shots he fired above me missed. He had the advantage of still standing while I had to get up, until I threw a pair of star ornaments and an orb.
They didn’t do anything to him when he shot and missed. They weren’t even sharpened. They were just there in case I needed to throw something as a distraction. And while he was distracted with them, I tossed a wooden chair at him and rolled to my hooves. I charged. He fired, then hit the magazine release and tried to pop a new one in. My antlers knocked his rifle aside. A punch to his gut sent him sprawling back on his backpack before he could whip out anything from that. He grabbed a knife out of his boot instead as he backed up toward a window.
“What’s the matter? The hunt not fun anymore? Personally, I always thought the idea of a sporting chance was nonsense until you gave the prey a weapon to fight back with,” I taunted as I stomped toward him, snorting.
“Fucking animal. I’m a man. The top of the food chain.” He gathered his feet up under him and lunged with the knife, getting to his feet but telegraphing what he was doing in the process. It didn’t stand a chance of hitting me. I grabbed a little table nearby in this office wonderland we were in and swung it at him. He backed up against the window. I threw the table at his chest. He ducked this time, but I was already running toward him and kicking.
The window shattered. Conrad fell back. And he gave me the finger through a ring attached to a pullstring on his backpack. A parachute. And my kick, and the skidding of my other hoof, brought me to the edge of the floor. But, dammit, I wasn’t letting him get away. I threw myself after him.
I’d barely left the safety of the building when time seemed to stand still. I thought it was just some weird mental thing, until I heard the jingling of bells and noticed the Spirit of the Season floating nearby in a sleigh. “Ho, ho, ho! How fairs the Psychopomp?” he asked.
“I’ve been better. This guy’s trying to get away,” I said.
“If only you could fly like the other reindeer,” the Spirit suggested. “I do not think you will survive this one.”
I looked to him and noticed the smile on his face. “What, another deal? More people to kill?”
He shook his head. “You would owe me in the future for flight today. It is nearly a gift, and it is your life.”
“Yeah, nearly a gift. But you don’t normally give gifts to naughty girls like me. Last time you and I made a deal, you changed me further. Nah, I’m fine. I can take this guy on my own.”
The Spirit’s smile changed then. Or, it’s more like it reached his eyes when it hadn’t before. “That was a smart decision to make so close to the solstice. The old powers are not playthings for mortals, and to treat them as such is to court disaster.” Well that was ominous. But then he let out a jovial laugh and said, “Happy holidays, Psychopomp.” Time started up again and gravity dragged me down past the floating man in the coat and sleigh.
I wanted to puzzle out what that had been, but I was too busy folding my arms and legs against my body to become as aerodynamic as possible. Thorn, on the other hand, was splayed out. The greater surface area gave me a chance to catch up to him. He threw his knife up at me, catching me in the shoulder briefly before wrenching away.
Thorne waited until I got closer before pulling the string and unfolding the chute. I was now underneath it at that range, but close enough that I could grab onto the straps of the thing and ram my antlers into his belly. I shook my head from side to side, goring him. Then I tore open the chute and clung to it for deer life as he dropped.
I managed a rough landing in a street some ways away from where Conrad Thorne made his final impression on the city, content to be a floating reindeer this time.
With everything that’s happened so far, I never got around to decorating the house. Qiang may not have grown up with the holidays they have around here, but she’s been seeing her friends’ houses and wondering when we were going to do stuff like that. So I bought a bunch of lights and decorations. She got to have a lot of fun being impatient while I had to untangle the lights right out of the box. But at least I got to talk to Medusa.
“Greetings, puny mortal!” I greeted her.
“Hey there, super deer,” she teased right back.
I fought back a desire to go into how I’m not a hero and all that stuff in a conversation where she mistakes my disappointment at failing to rescue the burn victims with my childish contrarianism where I view myself as a villain in comparison to society. Which isn’t always childish, by the way. Sometimes, society’s fucked up enough that the best thing a person can be is a villain.
Instead, I went with, “How goes stopping the person who’s supposedly trying to fight to fix climate change?”
“Ugh. So frustrating. Prisoners keep saying we’re a bunch of neoliberal corporatists. I hate activist theatre. If you had some sort of magic gem that lets you transform things with nature magic, and you wanted to fix a problem, would you settle on turning people into furries?” She asked.
“If it was me, I’d probably start sabotaging oil pipelines and power plants in a way that doesn’t spew even more chemicals into the environment. Transform anyone who tries to stop me to keep them off balance. Maybe turn a trained minion into a more formidable animal-person to go provide a distraction or fight supers who try to stop me. Why, what are they doing?”
“One of them turned a bunch of trash at a hockey game into meat-eating plants. I put on skates and fought the one who had the control remote on the ice. I don’t know if it was Verdant. He turned one of his henchmen into a polar bear man and got away while we fought it. Imagine being able to turn trash into plants.”
“Wow. I could fix that big plastic island with that kind of power,” I said.
“Yeah, see? That’s the most disappointing thing about people like you with all your plans.”
“Wait, me?” I asked, wondering how this became about me.
“Villains like you have powers that could revolutionize the world in a good way and you use them to rob banks or mess up hockey games. I’m going to do better than the rest of you when it’s time for me to clean up the world,” she declared.
“Geez, I’m the one running into burning buildings, and you’re declaring you’ll show the world when it’s your turn to pull off an evil plot,” I pointed out. “We’re bad influences on each other.”
She laughed at that, then I heard an alarm from her side of the phone. “Oh, I’ve got to go. I’m going to take a break for the weekend if I can. See you then, ok?”
Yep… she’s beating people up, I’m playing homemaker. I seem to recall being critical of this kind of turn of events when she tried to say I didn’t have to run around and be evil. Joke’s on her, though. I’m being lazy as fuck.
The artificial tree, for instance, was a breeze to put up. Pull out the box, roll it into position, hit the deployment button, and watch as it rises up into position with a fresh puff of patent pending New Tree Pine Scent. It was barely unfolded when Qiang rushed around it, throwing balls and other decorations on there.
Boring. Safe, too, but boring. I’m a sick deer, though. So while Medusa’s out there supposedly fighting the people who did this to me, I get to sit around figuring if I want to watch repetitive holiday movies or news coverage of the “Animalization Wave” that has finally completed its first run around the planet.
I’m wrapping presents, they’re hybridizing people with other animals, my girlfriend’s trying to stop them. Oh, wait, there is one more thing I’m doing. I’m plotting. It’s nothing so big as all the environmental stuff going on. I could probably pull off something if I had my nanites, but they’re still not communicating with me. Which I guess is what Medusa meant. If I was serious about it, I could have cleaned the oceans by now. The power cores I build, and then the dimensional tech that enabled us to power Ricca there at the end, could end every bit of pollution related to energy production on Earth.
Later, later, notes for later. I have something more important to worry about. See, I’ve been keeping track of that asshole I caught back there in Detroit. I’ve slept since I’ve been looking him up, too, so if any of that with Santa was real, he’s had an opportunity to tell me this is Naughty List stuff. The pyro tried to call himself Crosshair, but they found out his real name is Conrad Thorne. Damn, guy actually has a cool real name. And Conrad Thorne is having himself a bail hearing the next day. It would be a shame if no one was there to give him a warm welcome out of jail again.
After a productive day of decorating, I was almost disappointed when I sat up out of bed to see the Spirit again. He was skinnier this time, and the coat was more of a robe, but the beard’s a dead giveaway. “Hey there, big guy. Here to tell me I’m doing the wrong thing?” I asked.
“I am here because of a magic in the air that blinds me to what I seek. I need your help, again,” he answered. “I require the chill wind of a killer, the smoldering death of a fire. In return, you shall be ill no more.”
Killing someone to be done with this sickness? Eh, works for me. I hopped out bed and found myself immediately doubling over thanks to a pounding in my head. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, you said you’d cure me!”
This pair of velvety lumps appeared out of my head. They grew and grew, then burst to reveal sharpened bone. Fuck me, I got antlers. It hurt and itched and otherwise felt really uncomfortable to have my skull suddenly grow out a bunch of boney spears. I let out a low moan, then felt a hand on my shoulder. “Won’t you slay for me tonight, Reindeer?”
I don’t even remember how I got out of my room. It was that hazy, dream feeling you get where you skip stuff sometimes and don’t notice. I was flying through a foggy gloom, despite the weather having been clear of fog. I don’t know how long I flew, or what direction, but the guiding hand of the Spirit let me know when I’d reached my destination. It looked like a bar just outside of another small town. It was a squat cinderblock building with a number of trucks and motorcycles out front.
I charged the front door. I didn’t remember much of anything until I stepped into a cramped back room. It was some sort of office space, though most of the desk was taken up by cash, a broken gold menorah, and a large scroll. A bald man jumped up from behind the desk with a pump-action shotgun. I jumped over the desk and lowered my head, feeling the satisfying thud as he hit the back wall and my horns sank into him. With the top of my head pressed to his chest, I felt him breathe his last. I put a hand on his chest then, and held him there while I pulled them free.
Turning, I saw the Spirit had carefully gathered up the menorah and the scroll. He sounded gentle, like I was a child to comfort, when he said, “We have what we came for.” He turned to go. I snorted and followed him, mindful of oil that dropped from the menorah. I caught the smell of burning as the oil droplets ignited on their own. Nothing in the bar area looked familiar to me, but it was certainly brutal enough to be my handiwork. Like the guy bent over the table with a pool stick shoved up his ass and out his mouth, lined up for a shot with the cue ball.
We left it all to the flames, and I woke up. My ear infection and all the rest of the sickness I’d had was gone. But I was still a deer, and I had antlers still. And I’d overslept. Thorne had his bail hearing and, I soon learned, had made bail with the aid of a bondsman.
Money isn’t everything, but it’s a pretty good way to get information when you’re dealing with overworked court staff and a bail bondsman who is fully aware some of his clientele are going to skip out on him. That’s what bounty hunters are for usually. What bail bondsman wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a volunteer bounty hunter who is paying for the privilege of keeping an eye on a high-profile murderer who fancies himself a new villain.
He was significantly less enthused when I checked out the place Thorne was supposedly staying at and found no trace of the killer at his apartment. It looked like he’d thrown his dresser drawers open and grabbed what clothes he could before leaving. But my enhanced reindeer senses told me I wasn’t out of luck just because I couldn’t see the guy. I smelled fear. And pee. Not like he pissed himself out of fear, though. It smelled familiar, like when I pee every morning now as a deer. Listen, the smell is different, folks. Of course I noticed the difference.
I noticed the smell of gun cleaner, too. It’s normally hard to smell after too long, but this was around here quite a bit. Most of it led to a closet where some large hooks on the wall suggested the guy kept a really big rifle around.
I don’t know a lot about Detroit’s gun laws, but I figured the guy was a hunter. Maybe that was why he decided to flamebroil some animal-people, or maybe he’s going to hide out in the country with a rifle until he think things have blown over.
Funny thing though. I realized when I left the room that it had a certain oily odor to it that I could still smell wafting through the air. That’s when I knew I had the perfect excuse for one of the most over-used cliches of all time.
I said, to no one in particular, “It seems the hunter has become the hunted.”