Category Archives: 33. Down to Business

Double Cross: a name you trust because we know where you live.

Down to Business 10

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“…and that’s where we’re at. We have no security, no trust from superheroes, we need to move or hide our special research projects, and we have a lot of people in jail who could talk at a moment’s notice. How are we doing on hiring supervillains to beat up Stang and maybe bust some people out of jail?” I glanced around the conference table over the pair of tiny glasses I’d started wearing because of how they made me look. Seriously, these glasses with this jacket and skirt make me look damn sexy. It projects an air of pissed-off inaccessibility that I’d find hot if it wasn’t me.

Then again, I don’t need a lot of help to appear pissed off. I’ve amassed a pair of piles in my office. The one beside the desk is made up ov various heavy objects I bring in with me. The one beside the door is made of the heavy objects I’ve thrown at people. At this point, nobody walks through my door who isn’t Crash or Carl.

Nobody answered me on the supervillain question. Just awkward coughing and in, Pom’s case, sniffling. If no one else wanted the floor, I figured I’d keep it. “We have a serious street rep problem, it seems. Right now, we’re the kid who gets crowded up on by people who make jokes about our momma. I, for one, am not gonna take it anymore! My fat, alcoholic momma deserves better than to have a bunch of people lay into her like they do with y’all’s mommas. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.”

I started to storm out of there, but stopped as I passed Shasta Jackson to eye her metal coffee thermos. I grabbed it and continued stomping out.

Crash followed after, but I whirled around and held up the thermos as I got to my desk. She took the hint and skedaddled. I sat down then to grab my phone and call her up immediately. “Crash, be a dear and get a store on the phone for me. Lessandro’s on Broadway and 13th. Oh, and call down to Hibachi Yum Yum and order me the steak and chicken to be delivered.” I took a moment, an evil grin spreading over my face. “And when the delivery person gets here, go ahead and send them in.”

Lessandro’s. I haven’t mentioned them to y’all before. They make costumes, so I rarely have any reason to bring them up. I build my own armor and even made my own costume for that Missile Patriot persona I’ve used before.

Well, time to add a new one to the bunch, though some might suggest it was a bad idea to get measured for a costume right after devouring a meal of tasty hibachi, some can also kiss my ass. The man who took my measurements muttered something about “prima donna rich kids” as he left. I didn’t think I looked that young, but that’s the second time somebody brought it up. Still, as Her Highness, the Trust Fund Queen of Double Cross, my money was still good enough to earn next-day completion and delivery.

From there, it was a simple thing to find out where Stang conducted business. Lucky me, I thought as I stepped into the strip club, the Mask and Garter. A couple in masks and extremely tiny outfits paid my way in, not that I needed the cover charge. They looked a bit older, late forties maybe, and I didn’t recognize them. Then again, I don’t recognize a lot of people. There’s not a whole lot of reason to keep track of people other than myself. For one thing, if I do that, who knows where my body will get to. I graciously accepted the offer of the pair, who both looked like bodybuilders, and walked in between their arms. The man whispered something in my ear that I couldn’t make out over the sound of loud music, while his wife winked at me.

Honestly, you’d think they wouldn’t even need to get in like that. Still, they probably wanted to see more. I didn’t show a lot of skin. Not in that coat and hat. Yeah, I wore leopard-spotted coat with a wide brim purple hat. A pair of giant gold sunglasses with purple lenses hid what parts of my face the hat didn’t. I strutted in with a cane in hand, the top of which resembled a silver-plated rooster in mid-crow. The body looked zebra-stripped the rest of the way down. I probably could have paid the cover charge with nothing but the gold chains and medallions hanging around my neck, though I somewhat enjoyed the jangling noise I made with each step of my pimpwalk. I had the coat pulled up tight enough to keep me warm and ward off any attempts to gaze upon the wonderful form of Psycho Gecko as I bopped my head to my own beat.

Everyone else bopped along to “Porn Star Dancing,” which no doubt became a hit strip club song ever since release.

Looking around, I realized my shoes looked more at home on some of the masked strippers than on their masked patrons. Then again, I think that’s because the club catered more towards those with a taste for a big pair of perky X chromosomes than a dangly Y. I held out my cane to stop a passing waitress. “Tell me, sugar baby, where the main man in the happy hap is?”

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“What it is, big momma, my momma ain’t raise no dummies. Tell me what it is, what it could be.” I could practically hear the unspoken uproar. Then again, that could have been the real uproar. Between the music and catcalls, the woman may not have been able to hear me. If so, there’s no guarantee she had a translator handy who could speak jive.

In the defense of everyone else, the woman on stage had just done an impressive flip from a pole that stood crosswise on top of two of the bar’s vertical poles and landed on her feet in a pair of high-heeled boots. I stopped and gave her a golf clap for that one. That’s a level of dedication you just don’t see in every stripper. Good for her. I’d need a lot more practice to pull off the same thing.

Not that I intended to pull off anything until Stang showed himself. I cupped my hands around my mouth, poking a passing customer in the eye with my cane in the process. “Where. Is. Stang?!”

“No touching,” said someone from behind me. I glanced back over my shoulder, past the muscle man on my left arm. My hopeful escort looked bigger than the bouncer, whose eye had been replaced by a red lens. A tattoo of cogwheels and circuit boards covered part of his head. Just a tattoo. The bouncer tilted his head as if listening to something, then put his hand on the center of my back. “You’re wanted in the manager’s office.”

I slipped out of the arms of my swinging companions. “Sorry, dears. You’ll have to wait for me while I go see a man about a whore.”

The bouncer led me up a set of stairs off to the side to an office off in a dark corner. It didn’t stand out. I thought we were headed in, but the door opened and Stang stepped out on his own, smiling like the cat who ate the canary. Then again, you ever seen the legs on the Canary? Rawr.

“Welcome to my establishment. My doorman says your ID is one of the worst fakes he’s ever seen, you know. Here to apologize?” He spread his jacket open just a little as he settled his hands on his hips.

I settled both my hands on the cane that I pressed down on the floor between my legs. “I have nothing to apologize for. You were a dick. You’re still a dick.” I pointed the cane right at him. “I proclaim this man a dick!”

“Proclaim away. You still couldn’t get anybody on your side after you blew yourself up to frame me. Next time, blow someone besides yourself.” He giggled at his own joke.

I pushed up the volume on my voice. Ah, the joys of a prosthetic voice box. “Listen all you motherfuckers!” I yelled.

I could almost hear the record scratch from the DJ’s booth when the music stopped. I thought that was all digital now?

“You’re right,” I told Stang at a lower volume level while he rubbed his ear. “I should work on being taken more seriously among this community.” I tossed away the hat and coat.

I certainly had a tight enough costume. I was pearl white on my legs, arms, neck, and a portion of my torso. From there, it faded from pearl to purple that covered by belly and thighs. Near my belly button, I had a black diamond. The mask was a fairly standard setup: it left my nostrils open to breathe and exposed the area around my mouth down to just under my chin. My ears were covered, though it was difficult to tell that with my hair cascading down from the opening in the top of the mask. The suit looked like a solid piece, connecting to gloves and ending on bottom with a pair of platforms with a slight heel to them. Enough to make it seem like I could walk without trouble.

“What do we call you, Prima Donna?” Stang asked with a chuckle.

I rolled my eyes. “There’s that term again. But no. I am Banshee. When I sing, death follows.”

Stang snorted and pointed to the bouncer who had shown me to him. The bouncer’s eye glowed and he stepped forward.

“Hear me roar,” I said, then unleashed the paralysis scream. Starting at the ears, the white of my costume began to change colors to black. The purple was unaffected, but the black diamond turned white. When I heard Lessandro’s had this color-changing material, I thought it was pretty hot shit. I just had to make it work in sync with the ear protection.

When I stopped screaming, my costume reverted to its original coloration and I found myself the last woman standing.

I stepped over to the downed Stang. I wanted to kill him. Instead, I tapped him on the nose. “Boop. Think of it as counting coup. Congratulations, you get to survive another day.” I had to settle for humiliation, and the proliferation of the knowledge that I could incapacitate an entire club full of superhumans, strippers, and superhuman strippers that damn easily.

Carl’s interim security force informed me the next morning that some of the villains had approached our businesses dropping hints that they wanted to deal with us about safehouses, getaways, and so on. Asking what services we provide.

It turned out even better when Venus knocked on my terrace door. I slipped into my sling and fake bandage before opening it. “Hello Venus, my dear! What brings you to my neck of the woods? Here to not save me from more assassins?”

I didn’t show her in, so she tapped her toe on the ground. “You need to come with me.”

“Oh baby, I need more foreplay first,” I told her.

I noticed her jaw clench below the face visor. “You are a supervillain.”

“I’m a super something. What have I done that’s villainous?”

“You know what you’ve done.”

“No, I don’t. I’ve been attacked and undermined repeatedly, but I haven’t done a single provable piece of evil since I’ve been here.” I smiled at her. “I think there’s been a big misunderstanding.”

“Last night, reports say you went to the Mask and Garter strip club in costume and attacked the owner.” She folded her arms in front of her, no mean feat considering the exoskeleton.

“I went there to negotiate with the man who attacked me. Or maybe it was the disreputable Rayman that attacked me. Either way, I only sought peace. It was Stang who disrespected me and called for his bouncer to lay hands on me. You can hardly fault me for self defense, can you?”

“You went where you knew there’d be conflict to get yourself in a fight,” she said, sounding awfully frustrated.

I raised my pointer finger. “Hold up, I’m getting a call.” I retrieved my phone and held it to my ear. Then I offered it to her, “It’s for you. It’s the kettle calling. He says he prefers the term ‘African American’.” I hung up. “Listen, I’m sorry you think so much is wrong with me. I know there’s a lot of resentment there, because I have powers and you don’t, but that’s no reason to assume that every bad thing that happens to me is my own making. Can’t we just be friends?” I held out my hand for a handshake.

Rude hero that she is, Venus fired another rod into my terrace and swung away. I looked down at it, then called out to her, “I’ll bill you for that!”

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Down to Business 9

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It’s been a bad week. See if you can keep up.

Wednesday, I drank a lot. That’s not the bad part. The bad part is when I realized I should probably get away from my penthouse. It’s almost October and I had an assassin disappear in my building. I must be spending too much time thinking about business, because it took me way too long to realize she was still in the building. I swear, I’d lose my own mind if it wasn’t attached.

She could have been just waiting to sneak into my bathroom while I was in the shower, dressed as Norman Bates’ mother. What, you don’t shower in a wig? How do you think George Washington stayed so pasty before the invention of computers?

…and showers, come to think of it. So now, the question remains…what was George Washington spending all his time doing in the dark? I accessed my list of “Suspected Historical Vampires” and added Washington to the list. The bastard’s been hiding under my nose this entire time! He’s even known for crossing the Delaware…a famous night attack.

So yeah, I figured out that the telepath didn’t leave the building, so she probably has someone mind controlled. It could be anybody who has access to an area she could sleep in and provide food for her. Anyone could be a spy.

…so it’s probably security. They were the ones I specifically asked to look for her, so they’re subverted.

Yep, I got a hold of Carl and had him assemble a team of rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers, “…and Methodists!”

“Sure thing, boss. What for?” he asked.

“The security force has been compromised. Trust none of them but Vasquez. And even then, keep an eye out. Anyone with an allergy could tell you vegetables are plenty dangerous. I once de-nosed a man with nothing but a sharpened stalk of broccoli.”

“Ew.”

“And you don’t even want to know what I did to the President of Oman using nothing but a handful of sweaty nuts!”

Carl got the picture, which is good because I have my doubts about nuts counting as vegetables. As little as I trust veggies, I trust them even less when they have their own protein. It’s like trusting a human with their own chlorophyll…which brings us to Sigma Labs and Technolutionary. Perhaps he can study why I’m using so many ellipses today.

Just as soon as he finds me my T-Rex! Fortune Cookie called me up Thursday and informed me the labs had been attacked. After that, I figured I’d get Technolutionary on the phone and get the news straight from the horse’s mouth. I don’t know where he got the horse, but somehow he’d converted its head into a mechanical secretary.

I should have told Technolutionary not to abduct and robotify people around the labs in case he drew attention to it. I just didn’t expect that helmet of his to press so hard in on his head that it squeezed his brain out his ass. So he picked up one too many of the homeless, he thinks. Wildflower stopped by, getting past the robot barracks and down into the cloning lab. That’s just fine with me. Robots shouldn’t need their own barracks, especially robots that can’t even beat up a plant girl.

That’s not even that bad of news, actually. Fuck his robots. I don’t want Technolutionary’s robots except as cannon fodder. No, Wildflower did something much worse than that.

Bitch stole my T-rex!

Dr. Horrible just wanted a working freeze ray, Dr. Evil just wanted frickin’ sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their frickin’ heads, and I just wanted to ride my own personal fire-breathing T-rex with laser eyes and a morning-star attached to its tail. But noooooooooo! Apparently the thought of a madman riding around a city with his own pet T-rex is just too much for protectors of all that is good and decent, so I get the shaft of justice again!

That damn hero rammed her way inside and shoved her meaty justice down my throat in the hope that I would taste only defeat! Well, that’s not how I roll. I’d sooner spit it all back in her face than swallow what she’s done to me!

Easier said than done. I got ninety-nine problems and a bitch for each one.

To top it all off, Friday happened. Oh, Friday. Not my girl Friday, that’s for sure. Technically, Crash would be my girl Friday. She’s out of commission now, too.

I’d found my office and Crash was updating me on all the various things I’ve missed, both because of my lack of time and giveable shits. Suddenly, the door blew open from a breaching charge, almost deafening me. Crash ducked behind her chair but I stood up and pulled her over the desk just before someone opened up from the outside of the smoke-filled portal. With Crash safely behind a very solid mahogany desk, I poked my head up. “Ok, I’ll play along. Who’s there?”

The first one through the gap wore the black and blue jumpsuit of Double Cross security and carried a submachine gun. I powered up my laser eye and lobotomized him even as more shoved past him into the room. Three more opened up with suppressing fire on the desk.

Unlike the incessantly-screaming Crash, I noticed I was laughing. Well, yeah. This was right up my alley. I knew this. This was easy. I grabbed a sharpened pencil that had fallen off the desk in preparation for a magic trick. If only I had a set of those little balls that knock back and forth…

Before I could go to work, the firing stopped. “Still alive, Miss Mortenson?” asked a voice I’d started to become familiar with.

A quick glance confirmed it. “Suffering a wee bit of mind control are we, Ben?” My chief of security dressed more tactically than the others, wearing a vest and wielding a shotgun with a revolver-style drum.

He glanced back out the door. “You’ve got this all wrong. She’s working for me. You should be careful how you treat a man’s friends. Paul and I went way back. So did some of those men you let that T-rex son of a bitch carry off to jail for kidnapping.”

I blackened the tip of the pencil with my laser. “Is that just the justification you’re using for whatever mind mojo the telepath did to you? Did she get you when you picked her up, or some time after that?”

“No. I staged the fracas down at the lab to get her out, and held up attempts to warn you, but she failed. Still, she is handy to have around. Isn’t that right?” he sounded like he’d called back out of the room. Instead of getting an answer, I heard someone hit the ground hard.

So did they. Ben and the three men in his office turned on the doorway. Before I could sneak up on them and practice my stabbing, another of my security team flew into the room and thumbed on the floor, skidding and no doubt gaining an awful rug burn. Venus soon bounded into the room, a picture of ferocious grace as she entered a melee with two of the guards in my office. Ben and the third guard slipped through the doorway while she was occupied.

Great, Venus has arrived to stop me from killing these motherfuckers. My hero. And, since I’m supposed to be rich and/or entitled, I have to sit back and let her do all the fighting.

When she finished disabling the last guard in the room with what I can only describe as a blunt piledriver gauntlet to the balls, she put her back to the wall beside the door and asked us, “Are you alright?”

I checked on my assistant “You good, Crash?” Wide-eyed, she nodded. “We’re good!” I called out to Venus. “Ben’s attempting a coup and the assassin from last time is working with him! She’s a telepath and extremely dangerous. I recommend shooting first and asking questions later.”

“That’s not how I work. I’m going to go out and bring them down. I recommend staying here until this entire situation is locked down.” She didn’t even wait before running out the doorway.

“Well, fuck that shit,” I said, though it was a bad idea. Crash grabbed hold of my arm to keep me down. When I didn’t stay, she stood up with me, still holding onto my arm as I stepped out past groaning guards more concerned with nursing broken bones and balls or getting their wind back.

I was oh so tempted to finish them off, but Venus would probably try to keep track of all of them. You can’t just murder someone who’s disarmed and helpless. You have to go to Florida first and shout “Ned, they’re coming right for us!”

See? This secret identity stuff is bullshit.

I didn’t have the entire floor for my office. Other senior offices were spread out over the floor too, each one having quite a bit of room. We caught up to Venus squaring off with the telepath in one of them and waited by a nearby corner behind Venus’s back. The assassin looked to be in even worse shape than I last saw her. I don’t think Ben Rayman has been quite so accommodating an ally as she hoped for, and I saw desperation in her eyes.

She fired wildly at Venus, hardly aiming between cocking the gun and squeezing the trigger. Venus tried to keep the armor on the exoskeleton between her and the other woman as much as possible, until the gun cocked one last time and fired no more. The woman reversed her grip, holding it like a club. “I don’t want to do this,” she said, voice trembling.

“Then don’t,” Venus told her, straightening up so as to not look threatening.

Well, that wouldn’t be good. Just surrendering? Then again, it’s not like Venus would kill her anyway, and it’s problematic for me to arrange a death at the time. I realized I needed to work on a cover story.

Well, hell, Ben being behind it solved all that. I could blame it all on him and his rogue elements. They kidnapped her, tried to use her to kill me without being connected to it, and finally resorted to doing the deed themselves when she failed and I began to suspect something.

“No, no, no, no, no. You don’t know what they did, they did to ME!” Wow, that telepath’s really been under a lot of stress. That’s why it pays to sedate your kidnapped human experimental subjects, folks. You never know when a mental breakdown is going to throw off your results.

Venus held up her hands. “I won’t hurt you. I’m not one of them. I’m one of the good guys.”

I poked my head out behind Venus far enough where I hoped the telepath would see it. She gritted her teeth and tried to shoot in Venus’s direction again, then held a hand to her head. “Get out of my way!” she screamed. Venus held her own head and leaned against the wall to keep her balance.

The assassin bolted for me. Just as she passed Venus, the heroine held out her arm and clotheslined her. The telepath went down hard and lost her concentration. Venus recovered enough to grab hold of her before she could recover her, wrapping her arms around the telepath’s neck from behind in a rear naked choke.

Ah, the sleeper hold. If done properly, pressure on the carotid reduces blood flow to the brain and induces unconsciousness within a few seconds. Do it too long and it causes death instead.

I had an idea. I grabbed my head and stumbled out into the hall, screaming. Crash tried to steady me as she asked what was wrong. A bit unintentionally, I stepped wrong with a heel and crashed into a wall before sliding down the wall.

“Stop it!” Venus growled at the telepath. “Stop it now!”

I thought it was going to work. I thought she’d hold the choke longer if she thought the telepath was still conscious and attacking me. And she did lag, just a bit. Long enough? Time will have to tell. She let go a little late, but she did let go and glanced at me. “You cut it out, too.”

I eased off, keeping up the act of having been telepathically attacked. Venus whipped out some plastic ties and secured the assassin. “You and I need to talk once this is over. About Sigma Labs, about Double Cross Chemical Research Laboratory, and about Stang.”

“You’re right,” I gasped. “Ben Rayman has been busy. I never even noticed what’s been going on.”

“Right,” Venus said. I don’t think she believed me.

“Liar!” yelled Ben from back the way I came. Crash took one look and curled up in a ball next to me. He had me dead to rights, but at least he only had a handgun. The relative inaccuracy of a one-handed grip weapon versus a two-hander is a minor advantage at best at such close range, but it’s one I’d gladly take, especially since the gun he’d had before was a shotgun.

Time doesn’t usually stand quite so still for me when I’m staring down death, but this time it did. Or maybe he just took a shitload of time. I think I caught a smile on his face out of the corner of my view of his gun. Unfortunately for Ben, it was time enough either way. I dialed the power on my eye laser down. Waaaaaay down. Down to the range of laser pointers, which don’t show a visible beam but do create a red dot at their endpoint that can affect the human eye. In Ben’s case, it forced him to flinch and close his eye. I grabbed Crash and threw myself at the other end of the hall, pulling at least her upper body to safety too. I stood up, waiting for him to come around the corner so I could take him out at close range.

Professional that he was, Ben shot me through the wall, putting a nice blossom of red on my blouse around the hole in both the fabric and my midsection. I pushed on the wound immediately, and gave a belated cry at the pain. Not acting, it just took me a moment to get around to it. Pain’s inconvenient like that. Another caught me higher up and knocked the air out of me. I couldn’t find enough air to say anything smart. Or even anything dumb.

This time, when Ben came around the corner and I looked down the barrel, I was already sliding down the wall. And, like many a bleeding woman before me, I was pissed. I reached out and dug my nails into his wrist and pressed it against the wall so he couldn’t adjust his aim. I threw my head at his nose as hard as I could, hearing the break as more pain erupted in my skull. Join the club.

I reached into my suit pocket and pulled out the pencil. I slammed it into his jugular with enough force to send us both sprawling.

I rolled off has his hot blood spurted out, gasping but still breathing. After a second, I saw Crash and Venus both standing overhead. Ignoring Venus, I said, “Crash, hold my calls.”

When I awoke, it was in my penthouse and feeling good as new, though still in the same bloody clothes. Carl, Crash, and Moai stood nearby. “Shit, Carl, tell me you didn’t bring Venus up here.”

“I told you it would work,” Carl said to Crash.

Crash sighed, her whole body relaxing. “That’s amazing! Oh my god, when he said to send Venus away and help bring you up here, I thought he was off his rocker. Don’t worry, she’s not around. Emergency services are below, collecting her prisoners.”

And that’s where I stand currently. Venus is keeping an eye on me and knows something is up at my labs. I don’t know what she meant about Stang, but I’m better off assuming she knows he didn’t attack me. Until I can arrange for an accidental sword through the gut, she’s even got access to my former security team and the telepath. She might even know I’m not a baseline human. I have a cover story, but that’s not immunity from suspicion.

I’d better bone up on my mud wrestling, because I think this one’s going to turn into a girl fight.

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Down to Business 8

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I had to answer to the board for that little business with Stang. Some on there knew about the bombings being our business, specifically whats-her-name with Research and Development. They all tactfully kept their mouths shut and I framed it as an attempted extortion from a local crime leader.

Extortion, for those less well-versed in crime, is when you threaten someone with force if they don’t pay you. Protection rackets are a form of extortion, for example. They claim it’s a way to protect a business from any burglars or organized crime types causing trouble, but the implication is that if they don’t pay money, they’ll come back and wreck the place. This is not to be confused with blackmail, which is very similar but involves the release of damaging info rather than physical force. Though, technically blackmail is just a subgenre of extortion.

Oh, I know an example. Not sure if he’s over in your world, but there’s this fellow here named Charles Rodrick. If anyone in the United States is arrested for any kind of sex offense, this guy goes and puts them on his sex offender website. Not authorized by any government agency or anything. He doesn’t bother differentiating, either. Now, I’m not saying anyone who raped an adult didn’t do anything wrong, but there’s no reason one should be kept from coaching his kid’s tee ball team. But the part where this guy really gets insidious is that he never takes a person off. So if a person turns out innocent, or if they’re convicted but win an appeal and have their record expunged, he keeps it up there. People can only get it taken down with the help of a lawyer

The guy makes so much money off the racket, he keeps operating it even after losing millions of dollars in lawsuits. Nobody’s making him legally take it down, but the fact that he requires people to pay money to remove the information is enough to lose him time and time again. Hell, he could put anyone he wants to in that database since he doesn’t even claim to be providing current factual information. Maybe I could get the guy to put Venus in there.

And to think, y’all thought evil was the purview of supervillains like me.

Hell, if there’s anything you should have noticed by now, it’s that it takes someone as rare as Spinetingler or myself to even approach the kind of shit regular humans do to each other.

Like this mess with Stang. It’d be good business to work with him. It’d be good business to make his allies my allies. It might even help my overall cause somehow to work with him. But if I’m going to die for this fucking planet, I’m at least going to make sure that I’m dying for a better class of people than that.

That’s why the meeting didn’t last long. I believe I projected a certain air of disapproval, looking over them all. For so many, many reasons. “Sir,” started Festus, “I’ve also been, I mean, I meant to address the firing of Mr. Mazzo. I know you’re the boss, but I’m head of Human Resources and if you had a complaint…” He let it drift off rather than say what he was uncomfortable saying, all while glancing over at Ben Rayman, Security Chief. Or whatever title Ben has. Might have to ask Crash that one.

“Didn’t care about his general sexism, Festus,” I said, not bothering to look at him. I looked over the table in general. “Nobody’s perfect. We are, as we’re all mostly aware, the bad guys. It’d be unusual if there wasn’t a racist or a misogynist in this bunch, which doesn’t even count how normal it’d be in most companies. After all, such a backwards species as yours can hardly be held to the same standards as superior beings like myself. I do ask, however, that you don’t indulge your individual vices and obsessions in a way that’s going to hurt Double Cross or in a way that goes against me. I expected him to embezzle a little, but rather than admit to it with me there, he decided to treat me like an idiot. He thought he could be in complete control of the money because I had no way to trace it. He was wrong on so many points and so I fired him personally.” I waited a beat before adding, “Out of a cannon from the roof.”

Both Crash and Genae glanced at their phones at the same time.

Seeing as everyone had been such nice sports about me going ballistic on their comrade.“Ok, folks. Now I have an idea about this little war we’ve gotten into. Let all your friends know that we’re willing to pay good money for superhumans to lend us a hand in this business. Feel free to take them out to a nice dinner or lunch while you let them know, on me. In fact, everybody can go get started on that right now if you don’t have anything to do. Meeting over. Ta ta! Bye! Have a good day.” I beckoned them to the doors.

Crash and Genae lingered which prompted me to ask what part of “Bye” didn’t they understand. Genae and Crash looked at each other. “Something I should know about, you two?” I asked to circumvent the growing pointing war while they each suggested the other tell me something.

“Sir,” Crash said. “A superhero stopped by. She wants to talk to you about what happened.

I raised an eyebrow. “Just which hero are we talkin’ about here?”

“Venus,” Genae answered.

“Don’t be silly! I can handle a quick chat with a hero! There’s no need to make a big deal over any of this. Just send her on up to my penthouse.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather meet her in your office?” Crash asked.

I blinked. “I have an office?”

I went ahead on up to my penthouse without Crash or Genae, even though Genae suggested we get a spokesman or possibly even a lawyer. Lawyers? I know we employed crooks, but I didn’t think I had any of that scum on the payroll.

Up at the penthouse, I made sure to call out for Moai to hide. He took his special chute down to the art gallery made to impress investors. The reinforced floor is, of course, a security measure, while the emphasis on sculptures of nude women is just artistic taste and not indicative of the personal preferences of an animate Moai statue.

I wanted to put in a pole, but it took up too much room in the shaft and one of the construction guys made a comment about how good I would look on a pole. You know, you’d be surprised how far a stiletto heel can stab into a person even without a stiletto blade hidden in them. He probably didn’t need those nuts anyway.

With Moai out of the way, I sat facing the elevator, all ready to see Venus again, though with no idea what to say. I double-checked the color of my eyes. Can’t afford any mistakes.

Just when I thought she was taking her sweet time, I heard a knock off to the side. She stood out on the terrace to the helipad, having scaled the outside of the building in her…new armor? It looked a lot less bulky and armored than the last set, more like an exoskeleton over a padded vest and cargo pants, all with white, gold, and pink. I couldn’t see much of her face behind a gold visor now built into her mask.

At least my surprise appeared genuine as I got up to let her in. I even did those air kisses things in front of her cheek like I was fancy or something. “Hello there, come in, come in. I don’t meet many heroes.”

Technically that could be true, depending on if meeting someone requires them to be alive. It should be noted that I also have no problem lying if it turns out to be untrue.

“That should be a good thing. It means you don’t get into a lot of trouble,” Venus said. “If you remember, I’m Venus.”

I led her into the penthouse. “Yes, you’re something of a big deal around here. Would you care for any refreshment? A drink, perhaps?” While I offered, I had my eyes switching through vision modes to analyze Venus’s new gear.

“No, ma’am. I wanted to ask you a few questions about the attack. You look much better, by the by.” I took a seat, inviting her to join me on the sofa. I wanted to ask her to feel free to make herself at home. Kick off her shoes. Maybe join me for a bubble bath.

Only, I winced when she brought up the injury. “Oh, you know. We’re a medical company, and I didn’t get hurt that badly. More shock than anything, you know. It’s really my body man, Vasquez, who took the brunt of the explosion for me. I believe we can bring him out of the coma. He deserves no less for saving my life.”

Venus cocked her head to the side. “Are you aware there’s a cannon on the roof hidden behind a retractable shed?”

I raised an eyebrow. “We had that installed purely for self defense. You can never be too careful with all these supers flying around. I am well within my Second Amendment rights to own a cannon on my roof, just as the Framers envisioned when they wrote those famous words ‘A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a-.”

The elevator dinged to let me know someone was coming up. I glanced over, not bothering to finish. “That might be my assistant coming to tell me you disappeared from what I assume was the ground floor?”

“It saved time,” Venus said.

The door opened, revealing an unkempt woman in a t-shirt and torn lab coat. She had pants on, too, but I didn’t focus on that so much because she held a handgun in one hand and her forehead in the other. It wasn’t removed or anything, she just held it to her head. Venus and I stood up, except Venus wobbled and fell back to her butt. Aside from a twitching in my eyebrow that made me want to close one eye, I didn’t feel a thing.

That must have caught her off guard, because she said, “What the?” and took her hand away from her head. Well, she still had a gun. I grabbed Venus and held her and her presumably-bulletproof suit in front of me while the assassin emptied her gun uselessly against Venus and my sofa.

When that didn’t work, she smacked the button on the elevator to head down. I called down to the security office, then remembered to pull out my cell phone because Venus was around. “We have a hostile intruder in the building. Armed. Superpowered, and, ugh, horrible split ends. Take her alive if reasonably possible.” To Venus, I asked, “Are you ok? She did something to you.”

“I’m fine. You…” She stood up, shaking her head. “You didn’t feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“She was in my head,” Venus explained. “She’s a telepath. I’ve felt what that’s like. You seriously didn’t feel that?”

I shook my head.

“I’d better get down there,” she checked her suit. “Smart move, hiding behind me.” She turned back to me for a moment. “Do you know you were laughing?”

“Really? Wow. I didn’t even realize, heh. I guess I’m one of those people who have unusual reactions. Really, shouldn’t you be going after the person who tried to take my laugh?” I pointed over to the elevator.

Venus nodded and ran instead for the helipad door, firing a metal rod into the terrace and jumping off, a cable trailing behind her to the rod.

In the end, we didn’t get the assassin. Somehow, she eluded both my elite team of criminals and the excellent superhero and got out of my building. I also had to deal with R&D getting a memo to me awfully late that our captured telepath broke out somehow and they suspected she was on the way to HQ. I informed them that I’d take that under advisement, and that perhaps they’d like to invest in these fancy new telegrams that will be all the rage in the upcoming century.

Idiots! I’m surrounded by idiots! Oh, yes, I threw the classic evil mastermind shitstorm, complete with tearing my Security Chief a new one. They’ll get out there and they’ll find that telepath, or they’ll be lucky if anyone finds all of their own bodies! But I’m not all bad. If they succeed, they’ll get a vacation. If they fail, certain parts of them will get a vacation. The good thing about using both a carrot and stick is that they can both be shoved such a wide variety of places.

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Down to Business 7

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“We’re happy Empyreal City has welcomed us with open arms, and so it was an easy decision to pick up where the Mr. McLanahan and the Heel Cafes left off. Mastermind Cafe will now be sponsoring the school lunch program. I hope you don’t mind that we renamed it, but you know us mischievous rogues, always stealing something and giving it a new name. We’ll still be laying the smack down on hunger with our new Future Hostages Program. Because children are our future…hostages.” I winked and gave the assembled crowd of reporters a chuckle. Considering the hundreds pressed into the back of their press passes, they made sure to take it up and make it clear to everyone watching at home that this was all a little joke.

“Now, I know you all must be brimming with questions. Normally, I would love to stay and open myself up to your interrogations, but I have other matters to see to. Please, allow my associate to answer your questions.” I held out a hand for the talker Genae had sent with me. Since she had the sales experience, I figured she’d have hired people to help do announcements. I figured right. If this fellow is any good at smooth-talking the reporters using the bundle of buzzwords and lies we fed him, I might have to learn his name.

But maybe not. That’s what I have Crash for. Normally, I neglect people because I don’t care enough to remember anything about them. With Crash around, though, I still don’t give a crap, but she remembers stuff for me, so now there are no consequences to me forgetting people.

We had curtailed any challenge from McLanahan’s businesses, even if they only threatened one smaller aspect of our operations. I know, coffeehouses don’t sound like a big deal, but you have to be ruthless in business. Notice how nobody in the company is named Ruth? Because we’re ruthless, baby.

The announcement had a couple other effects. For one, it’s now established Norma Mortenson as the publicly-known head of Double Cross. For another, it also showed that we were playing up villainy as a gimmick. Perhaps a gimmick in bad taste, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s not that unusual at all with all the influence superheroes and villains have had on the public.

A third odd happening is that Crash, my assistant, ushered me past a few VIPs on my way to the car and I had to kiss some hands and shake some babies. Looking back, I don’t think I lingered longer than usual when I greeted Venus, but who knows? My nemesis holds a special place in my heart that often has unfortunate consequences. Half the time I want to kill her, and the other half I don’t. Really, if any feeling is more unusual for me, it’s the desire to not kill her. It’s certainly the more frustrating desire, especially in light of how much of my own secrets she’s uncovered. Perhaps that’s too generous a term for her asking the right questions while I was under the influence of magical truth serum. Kiddos, just say no to magic wands.

At least Crash got me to the car. I’d barely got in and got settled before asking her how I looked up there. “Friendly, but a little stiff. You had…um..menace, but hidden in there. Inwardly. Hidden. Buried. Latent, that’s the word. Latent menace.”

“Shit, that’s just what I need. Show off to a superhero that I’ve got hidden depths of evil. I bet people feel safe about letting me help their kids now.”

Crash concentrated on her tablet as she told me, “It’s not all bad. It may be I saw it because I’m used to you.”

I get the feeling there are still some hard feelings from making her drive down that subway tunnel and wreck her car to help me escape from a bank heist. “No offense taken, hon. By the way, how’d I look makeup-wise? You looked uneasy before I went on.”

She looked up at me, a hint of fear in her eyes. No, that’s bullshit. Saying that’s an easy way to have someone tell you an emotion without describing how they know it. Seeing as this is rather educational villainy, y’all want to know how I detected a hint of fear? She widened them a little bit. People tend to widen their eyes when startled, often by encountering something they don’t want to encounter. I think it has to do with the body’s process of determining whether a person should fight or fly by doing its best to be able to see the whole situation. In contrast, more hostile reactions involve narrowing the eyes and focusing on the target at the exclusion of everything else around.

I sighed and didn’t bother waiting for an answer. “I’ll just have to practice some more. Did I at least avoid looking like a whore?”

“There are hints of Bozo and Ronald McDonald in the eye shadow.”

“Always the damn eye shadow!” I threw up my hands. “You know how hard it is to find a color that works or just the correct amount of darker shadowing?”

She blinked at me.

“Ok, so I guess you do.”

“Did you used to-?” she started.

“-juggle? Only to pay my way through college,” I finished for her. “It’s safe to say I don’t have any balls on me to demonstrate, though. What about you? You juggle any? It can be tough. Sometimes you miscalculate and they slap you in the face. Whap!”

Crash just shook her head, which is admittedly a normal response to me. Something beeped on her tablet and she punched it up. “Ms. Kilgore still wants to talk with you. She said Mr. Rayman came to her with a problem about the shipping container. I think it’s about the sex slaves they found.”

“Good. Check in on Accounting. Make sure they’re honest. Have Carl the VP help you with that. He’s trustworthy, and he knows some guys who can rough up suits on his own. Security’s getting kinda low on manpower is why I say that. Did they ever say what happened at the labs the other day? I heard there was a bit of a fracas.”

“A fracas?” She raised an eyebrow.

“It’s like a hoedown with a brawl mixed in. Not as extreme as a skirmish, but stronger than a tussle. More like a scuffle or even a scrap with a hint of donnybrook.”

“You…are those…you know a lot of words.” Crash sounded rather surprised at that. As if I can’t know words. I know words very well. Anyone who has been paying attention to what I do to the English language should be aware that I know them Biblically as well. That is, I cursed them for what their ancient Anglo-Saxon roots did and have been treating them as my meaningless playthings while I think up new ways to destroy them.

Bible gets kinda dark in places. Not a book you’d want to expose children or little old ladies to.

I gave Kilgore a call. She said Rayman said that some guy came and delivered a message, and it said that I’m tired of fucking playing he-said-she-said. The last bit was my frustration. Some fellow calling himself Stang wanted to meet with me and negotiate repayment for our interception of the shipment of his girls. He’d send around a car to the front of Double Cross HQ, and permit me to bring along a bodyguard.

They’d permit me, would they? Well, I hope I have their permission to kick ass and breathe, because both of those come naturally to me.

I called up Ben after that so he’d have a team ready in case I had to push a panic button. “Any squad waiting close enough to be helpful would sour the deal. That’s not me being a downer, that’s just experience my experience with these talks.”

“Keep them around just in case and just send along your most expendable person.”

I met the sacrificial lamb security man five minutes before the car got to Double Cross Tower. “I’m Vasquez, ma’am,” he offered his hand.

I shook it. “Vasquez, huh?”

“Yes ma’am. My father has a proud tradition going back to the Aztecs themselves, he says.”

I looked him over. After a moment, he got the point, “My mother was black. If you have any reservations about me, I can contact Mr. Rayman about a replacement.”

I shook my head. “No, that’s not it. You just have a comfortingly familiar presence to you. Like I’d feel assured going into battle against aliens with you around, or having you take point in an abandoned building late at night.” After all, he’s a black guy named Vasquez. If he pulled out a flask and started trying to hit on me, he’d be guaranteed to attract any attack thrown at me. Shoot at me and the bullets would curve to hit him right in the ass. Ben might as well have sent along someone with a suit that had “Shoot me first” written on the back.

So the car pulls up, and it’s dark. All black, with windows too dark to see through. Even the rims are black. A nice, solid Cadillac car. Nothing that stands out too much aside from the overwhelming blackness. Which, combined with what I had to say about Vasquez, is starting to make me wonder about myself.

The car rested there for a couple of seconds before someone inside pushed the door open. Vasquez went first, poking his head in, then waved me over. I slid into the seat opposite a lone Asian-looking guy in a pinstriped suit and green vest. He smiled and motioned to the seat. “Hello Mrs. Mortenson. I’m Stang, the man behind the Empyreal City’s sex trade post-Spinetingler, aight?” He held his arms out all like “look at me!”

I smacked him in the chest and face with my purse. “Bitch, ain’t anybody ever told you to get out and hold open a motherfucking door? I’m a fucking lady, you wannabe pimp with a name like a wrestler-wannabe.”

He covered up, “Ah, ah! Lady! Stop! Geez!”

After I calmed down and returned to being more normal, delicate little self, Vasquez slid in next to me. “Everything OK in here?”

“Just teaching our host some manners. Stang, is it?”

Stang straightened out his jacket, trying to recollect his cool. “That’s right. You won’t look forward to a sting. It’ll already have happened.”

Who the fuck is this guy and where’d his brain go? This guy doesn’t act like he could be a head of lettuce.

“If you’re not here to talk seriously, we can just leave now,” I told him.

“You want to talk seriously? Fine. You stole my shipment. Worse you got the cops involved. You didn’t lead them to me or my friends, but I had plans for those girls. Now, they were worth a lot of money for me. You’re new in town,” As if you aren’t? “So I’ll take it easy on you. Make recompense. The full value of that container and half again.”

“Or what, you’ll call the cops on me?” I asked.

Stang’s grin disappeared. “I have friends and clients. There’s no reason we can’t make an arrangement and work this out. Wars are bad for business.”

“Yes, they are.” I checked around for connections, cameras, and whatnot. “Let us out here. We’ll be in touch. Perhaps this will work out well for us.” I smiled.

Stang looked confused as Vasquez and I got out. I began walking in the general direction of Double Cross. To Vasquez, I mentioned, “You know, I don’t really have what people would call morals, but there is something particularly unsettling to me about enslaving people and forcing them into prostitution. It’s not so much the prostitution part on its own as the bit where they’re forced into it. People do stuff like that, it reaffirms my stance on people.”

“Ma’am?”

“There hasn’t been a villain or monster yet that wasn’t created by humans.” I stopped. “Here, stand right here.” I had Vasquez stand between me and a lamppost. “Then again, I doubt you deserved this, so it doesn’t make me look too much better.”

The lamp post exploded. Vasquez, the person picked specifically as the most expendable, bravely if inadvertently shielded me from the blast. Though my ears rang and I had a few minor burns, I escaped from this perfidious attempt to assassinate me mostly unharmed to give Rayman a call.

I also promised the best medical treatment for Vasquez, who might pull through just after Stang gets stung.

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Down to Business 6

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You know what’s a good way to wake up when you’ve spent the night drinking cheap wine? Explosions. I don’t recommend trying it at home, however, since explosions are notoriously hard on architecture. The sporadic bombings had kept up, a couple every week, only now they managed to destroy a very well-insured empty store that belonged to Double Cross.

Sad thing, too. It was just getting equipped to sell expensive home medical equipment, but every single piece was destroyed in the explosion. If these bombings keep up, who knows what else might be destroyed? An entire warehouse full of prosthetics? A lab full of expensive equipment?

And we are rushing out the prosthetics. I never got a hold of a factory around here, so I’m trying to get a few places that can work on production in-house. Until then, I have to rely on Chinese sweatshop labor. Trying to save the world and, more importantly, my own life from alien invasion, but I have to rely on assholes in another country. Nice to know that if some advance force finds out what I’m doing, all they have to do to trip me up is mess with China. It’ll have to do until I can get things handled locally.

That was yet another headache for Genae Kilgore. Which reminds me, I need to look up her background. It’s just that a name like Kilgore is too awesome to be used by just anybody. Think about it. You go to a church, sit through a boring sermon, listen to people singing songs written before anyone invented rhyming or English, you go up to the little old lady playing the piano afterward, and she tells you her name is “Kilgore, motherfucker.”

That’s just not how it works.

So I checked in on her next. We had lunch, opting for a casual meal of pizza at some spot she knew nearby. She used to legitimately work in importing and exporting, specifically. Except that was a Canadian clothing company instead of a cartel, mafia, gang, regime, troupe, or league. Hell, at least a background in clothing means she already knew people in China to talk to.

She stopped shoveling a slice of pepperoni pizza between her lips at one point to inform me, “So we’re clear as crystal, I know Double Cross isn’t legal. My old employers dabbled on the side so I cover my tracks well.”

“Dabbled? What did they do that required you to pick up that kind of caution?” I raised an eyebrow, then went to sip on my drink, wishing I’d thought of some innuendo. She’s a little older, but can’t a gal like gingers? I mean, she’s got a ring on her finger, but accidents happen. Accidents especially happen when a homicidal maniac’s involved. Brakes fail, kitchen knives go flying, and guns accidentally discharge. You don’t even want to know everything people can slip and fall on. We sure are prone to mishaps, us lovable homicidal rogues.

We just don’t like to mention it to the objects of our affection because then they get freaked out. Then the mishaps start up again and I have to go find a banana to eat that hasn’t been used in a lobotomy.

But back to the question at hand. According to Genae, those clothiers from Canuckistan made some money on the side allowing a gang in town to hitch a ride on their shipments with a container or two of their own. “I reported it. Yeah, I reported it because I thought, I really did, that it didn’t go further than my office. You bet I was surprised when that same day my boss and the head of Personnel pulled me aside. They told me, well, they made it clear I should shut my trap and make sure nothing stopped what happened. What could I do, I mean, if I talked I’d be fired or worse? I took a cut and didn’t say anything. I don’t even know what the big deal was about.”

Huh. I realized I could get in on that, too. Maybe make the same deal with whoever was moving whatever. If push comes to shove, take over completely. Hell, it was probably counterfeit purses or clothes. Fits right in alongside a clothing company’s merchandise and our business philosophy at Double Cross.

“I don’t suppose that company’s still around EC, are they?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “They abandoned us to Spinetingler and laid off the survivors. They turned their temporary U.S. Headquarters in Boston into a permanent one, the jackasses. Can you believe that?”

Yeah.

“Aww, that sounds horrible. I was just wondering in case you ever wanted me to look into those shipments. Could be an opportunity for us.”

She perked up and pointed at me. “I remember how they always marked the containers. I speak Mandarin so I know Chinese characters and I always thought it was strange how they were Chinese but wrote Thailand as the source on the containers in Mandarin and had a logo of a katana sword. I think they had a low opinion of customs.”

“Sounds like they had it for a good reason. I’ll call up Bob and see about an escort down to the docks. Wait, did they tend to come in at the same place?”

She nodded.

“Good, you can come with me, and we’ll hunt them down.”

She grimaced. “Can I draw the logo for you and not go?”

Uh oh. A woman with a survival instinct. I hate that in a potential relationship. It just complicates things. Normal relationships, you get in a fight, you apologize, there’s some tension, then everything gradually goes back to normal. That’s how it plays out with a survival instinct. Without it, like if you’re seeing a hooker, dealing with the aftermath of a fight is as simple as finding a dark alley to dump the body. And they’re so easy to get back together with, because the next one you find will probably let you call her by the old one’s name.

It’s the circle of hooker, and it’s magical.

Now, I wanted to be there in person when my guys swept the place and checked these things out, but I was accosted by Prince Pomerania, my head of Marketing. Pom, the preferred name of the former wrestler, was dealing with things as best he could despite the considerable problems associated with a new company and loads of new brands. That said, he also knew quite a bit about playing up the villainous connotations of our business to get the right kind of attention, as became evidence when he showed off a new billboard idea in his office.

It was purple, with skyscrapers and searchlights shooting into the air. Underneath a gold-edged black domino mask were the words “This city needs a better class of criminal. Mastermind Cafe.”

I liked the design, mostly, but wondered thought it seemed a little off. “It’s more like a poster, I think. And maybe say a ‘better class of cocoa,’ or some short name for coffee. A better class of cappuccino, maybe?”

“That’s an idea, bucko,” he said through his lisp. “I can focus group it and get back to you, but I’m not going with your idea just because it’s your idea. I seen that too much and it’s about doing what’s good for business.”

“I don’t mind, and I’m glad you told me. We haven’t really been able to sit down and have a talk about that. I don’t want a Yes Man. I want someone who gets things done.”

“Good. Here’s two more ideas we had, because I like my guys to bring me a handful of ways to proceed. This one, we went for old school black and white photos of mobsters. We could also go with a Western bandit gang if we need to. One guy joked around and had one of Hitler, but I told him that was X-Pac Heat. That’s slang for when people hate a wrestler more than they hate his character, and it’s the wrong heat, Jack.”

They weren’t bad either, and I briefly wondered what the graffiti artists would do with the guys in the ads. Then I shot off a note to the labs to find out what sort of paint the graffiti artists use around Empyreal City and devise a glaze or other surface material that explodes when exposed to it.

Still, I remembered he actually had a concern at that big meeting awhile back. “You said your old boss was trying to expand to fill the same gap with coffee?”

“Ah, I mighta misread that situation. McLanahan has that restaurant in Empyreal City. It’s a pro wrestling-themed sports bar, essentially. The Heel Cafes are an expansion of that, just under a different name. He’s buying good publicity with a program to help public schools with meals for kids who can’t afford school lunches called ‘Smack Down Hunger’. He’s a narcissist, but it seems wrong to go after the guy right now with that going on. The city’s getting its feet under itself, an’ it hasn’t cost anything for us but real estate. I just don’t feel it’s worth it, with EC getting its second wind.”

Bah. As if I’d let basic human decency get in the way of anything I wanted. I had half a mind to send people around to steal school lunches just to make up for this son of a bitch daring to challenge me. No…no, wait. I have a better idea. Perhaps there’s a way to teleport food out of their stomachs just after they eat it.

I haven’t thought of something that evilly and petty since the automated cat-kicker.

He stopped about when my eyes glazed over because I was taking a call from Ben from Security. “Miss Mortenson, we found the shipping container and cracked it open for a look. What exactly do you want us to do with this load of people?”

I blinked. Only Ben heard my reply. “People?”

“Eastern European, I think. Czechs and all. Mostly OK women. Young, some of them are teenagers. Goddamn, let me get clear of that godawful smell. Human trafficking, ma’am. If you want to take them, we’ll need accommodations and food for them. It’s your call if you want to get into pimping.”

With Pom looking at me funny, I pulled out my phone and said “Ring, ring,” then put it to my ear and went back to not saying anything out loud. “Pimping? So they look that good, huh?”

“That’s what I think is going on here.”

I shrugged. “Well, pimping ain’t easy…hey, hold up…I have an idea.” My asshole sense tingled.

Pom got up to leave. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re smiling like the fucking Grinch and I wonder if I need an adult.”

I grabbed him by the wrist. “Not just yet. Think any of your old friends can get you some uniforms for Heel Cafe workers? I know some people who could use the clothes and I’m sure it’ll be great advertising.”

Fa la la, it’s off to hell we go! Cross your heart and hope to die, it’s off to hell we go! Maybe I can get the front steps to Double Cross headquarters engraved with phrases like “I thought I was helping,” or “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

But hey, the smuggled sex people were found in their new uniforms thanks to an anonymous tip to the police, so at least we’re not taking the highway to hell. And the best part is, I’m sure this will have absolutely no negative ramifications on my plans whatsoever.

Hello, Fate. Don’t mind me bending over, I just dropped my pencil.

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Down to Business 5

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Turns out there’s a perfectly good reason why I pay money to Ben Rayman, head of security. I hadn’t really spent any time managing his end of things, so he assembled his own group of armed security experts on his own discretion. I guess you could also call them Loss Prevention Experts. And I sent them out to prevent the loss of my life by kidnapping that telepath.

Fortune Cookie didn’t want me personally involved, so I went and visited his friend, Paul Mazzo. The guy heading up our accounting had an amazing office, I’ll give him that. It was like a big pen with a ring of TV screens and computer monitors around the central desk area. I expected to see people rushing around making a big hub bub, but the noise level wasn’t quite as loud as movie cliches led me to expect. Along with keeping track of the stock market and other companies, several of the screens showed sporting events. I guess they needed quiet to keep up with commentary.

Paul sat in a comfy-looking padded chair, facing a screen that showed sumo wrestlers colliding. He typed away at a laptop that sat on platform swivel-mounted to one arm. Without looking at me, he said, “I didn’t expect to see you here. You chose a hell of a time. Couldn’t you come during the week when nobody’s playing anything? I got a lot riding on this weekend.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure it’s just you? It’s awfully hard to find any information about the corporate accounts in the network, except for it drawing a steady stream from the main account. I know you’ve been involved in organized crime, but come on, you aren’t hiding anything from me, are you?”

I tapped a finger on the TV, wondering how much a disarming personalty and pair of boobs would get me.

“Nah, don’t bother. It’s numbers. It’s too much for you to keep track of, princess.” The match ended and he sent the TV off to another channel with a tap of the keyboard. Smart TV. I checked around to find they all were. He continued, “I got money in a lot of places, and I know what I’m doing. That’s all you need to be concerned with.”

Geez, girls. I went to all the trouble to design these things jiggling around on my chest and this is how they repay me? This boobtrayal cannot stand!

I nodded and crossed my arms. “Really now? That’s how you’re going to answer the boss?”

Mazzo looked up from his laptop. “You don’t like it, sweety, you go ahead and fire me and try to find your money that way.” He laughed. Meanwhile, the only noise to be heard on the entire floor seemed to be the monitors. Everyone watched to see how this would play out. I even noticed that many of the men and women around slowly sliding away from us.

I smiled. “I already know where my money’s at. It’s being bet on horses and dogs. You lost some of it in Atlantic City the other day. It disappears and reappears after a few days when you’ve collected on the winnings. Or it buys some new place for your sister out in Flushing and another bet pays off. You know, you’re going to look back on this conversation and laugh hysterically. And pee yourself.”

“Oh honey, don’t threaten me. I go to the cops, I could send you away until you’re an old hag.”

I stepped over in front of his TV and turned it off. “So much for Sicilian honor about squealing.”

Paul pushed the platform aside and stood up, showing off his bulky physique. “You’re not Sicilian. You’re some crime lord’s trust fund princess who thinks she can run a company. ‘Cept you spent months traveling the world, buying up coffee shops and garage an’, an’, an’ old labs nobody gives a fuck about! You want to sell peg legs but you don’t got anything but frappucino. You don’t know what you’re doing and you’re going to fail. This is ridiculous, so I’m going to make what money I can before the ship sinks. Be thankful I’m bringing in enough to keep you going while you spend money on exploding Post-Its.” He threw his hands up and turned around, as if expecting a cheer from his compatriots.

Every monitor flickered off around us, computers included. The lights all went off as well, bathing us in darkness despite the bright day outside. Paul started to say something, but I was louder. Much louder. I opened my mouth wide and let out a wail that pierced the brain of everyone around and shut down motor control temporarily. Everyone collapsed as one. Everyone but me. “Whew,” I said afterward, coughing a little, “That really does take it out of me. Well, not as much as it takes out of y’all, huh? I installed my safeguards myself. Well, I had some help. Speaking of.”

I took a moment to reach out to the secondary phone line in my penthouse. After a few rings, it picked up. Without talking where the accountants could hear, I spoke to Moai, “I need you down in accounting. Bring a bag of some sort. A big, strong one. This guy’s a little hefty. I have to sack someone.”

I sat down on a nearby desk in the darkness. “I didn’t mind a little bit of embezzling, but you were really committed to it. Hey, even the bit about betting on fixed sporting events wasn’t too bad. When I came down here, the main way I would have handled your backtalk was just to find out what you were betting on, bet against you, and then rig things the other way. But I’m afraid I don’t like you. I don’t know who I’ll get to replace you, but I don’t like you and that’s enough for me. Neat trick with the scream, huh? Couldn’t always do that, either. I know, a woman with the ability to scream until she gets her way. The implications are about as bad as a Sicilian named Paulie or the fat guy being the bad guy. Well, a bad guy. But it wouldn’t be real life if something didn’t happen to make you go ‘Who writes this shit?’ right?”

Silence.

“No, don’t worry. You’ll all recover. It’s just that our friend Mr. Mazzo here is going to be fired. See? I’m not that bad of a boss. Taking a bit for the help to get here, though. I’d have asked for security, but they’re busy right now. Anyone mind if I listen to a bit of music while we wait?”

Nobody objected, so I turned on the monitor ring and put on “Bathory Erzsebet” by Sunn O))). Yes, that’s a band name. I kinda felt more like some Brocas Helm instead, but their music is faster and better for pumping someone up. But when you’re sitting in the dark surrounded by the paralyzed bodies of people who need to be shown their place, it’s fun to mess with them a bit.

“Are you about ready to laugh hysterically yet, Paul?” I asked loud enough to be heard over the droning guitars and sound of a claustrophobic singer yelling from inside a locked coffin.

They had begun stirring when the elevator dinged.

We took Paul up to a section of the roof not quite to where it ended. One of the roofs before you get to the very top. I had a very special side project there to show him. Well, I couldn’t really show him, since he Moai carried him along in a large trash bag. “Ta da! Here is just one of the new things I’m working on! A roof cannon! Just think of the possibilities, Paul. Annoying superheroes flying too close? Frustrating day at the office? Annoyed that the CEO across the street has a better naked woman statue than you?” Moai nodded at that one, but I don’t think Paul was listening, not with all that squirming.

“Moai, get his attention for me?”

Moai dropped the bag, eliciting a groan from Paul.

“Good job,” I said with a nod.

“A cannon? What are you doing? You said you were firing me!” Paul asked, muffled by the bag.

I reached over and checked the firing console to confirm everything was loaded and ready to fire. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do, Paul.”

He tried to fight as Moai loaded him in the barrel, but that didn’t get him anywhere. He might as well have banged his head against a brick wall. I aimed for the water. We were a long way from water. “I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors, Paul.” With a boom, Paul and the shell he’d been stuffed in after flew through the air. I did indeed hope Paul did well since I hoped to see if I could get him to skip.

I missed, instead hitting a bus that had something about an orphanage written on the side. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing because it was passing over a bridge at the time and the hit from Paul knocked it into the water.

But, ya know, I’m cool with that. It’s got a nice symmetry to it. First the parents, then the kids. No loose ends. Besides, you know how often orphans grow up to be superheroes? I probably saved myself a buttload of trouble a decade or two in the future. Fucking orphans. Lucky bastards with no families singing embarrassing birthday songs and no need to buy Mother’s Day presents. They shouldn’t get all the easy breaks in life!

Except me, of course. It’s not hypocrisy when I do it, remember?

“Okily dokily, Moai. Let’s go figure out who is the new CFO and have them check on our insurance policies. Paul didn’t give me a chance to explain that some of them might get by these ‘random’ bombings that are happening. And let’s see about getting a fake shed or greenhouse out here. Something to hide this thing.”

Not only did I indeed convince my new CFO, Chain Kavin, or K. Chain. It’s an awesome name, but the fellow is surprisingly not a badass biker. Just a balding Indian-looking fellow with a mortgage, a wife, and, until recently, a pretty big debt to some Paul Mazzo.

In more good news, it turns out my guys got their telepath, though it looks like Fortune Cookie may not have been completely accurate on that body count business. A very irate Ben the Head of Security called me up to inform me he thinks four of his guys got pinched or worse when The Saurus showed up, fully healed. I’m not sure how a T-rex just suddenly shows up out of nowhere and gets the drop on people, but he only managed to get away with half the van they were driving. He saw one of the hidey hole garages and knew he could go to ground there.

That’s something to keep an eye on. It wouldn’t do to have a mole in my organization. Because then, I’d have to play Whack-A-Mole. And trust me, y’all don’t want to see me whacking animals. For starters, I’d have to charge y’all a subscription.

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Down to Business 4

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I’m going to be honest, I miss running around in my armor and killing people. This secret identity shit gets old. I don’t see how so many supers do it. How does someone go from soaring through the sky or punching heads off to sitting at a desk, taking shit from someone who only cares about the bottom line?

Think about the most famous superheroes in comics, for example. Bruce Wayne’s a billionaire, and so is Tony Stark. Captain America doesn’t have a secret identity. Clark Kent’s gives him a certain amount of freedom, though Peter Parker takes a lot of shit. Then again, Spider-man always takes a lot of shit. Seriously, they treat him like an ant under a magnifying glass.

In real world terms, Captain Lightning keeps his secret identity to himself, but I don’t think Venus really has one. She has a real name and all, but she’s an orphan who has been raised at the Master Academy for some reason. I don’t know, maybe they got her when they failed to save her parents or something.

I bring all this up, because I strained against my own secret identity. I’d decided to go out to lunch and dragged Crash along too. That’s what I’ve shortened Crash Test Dummy to. She doesn’t seem to mind, but that’s not surprising after everything else she’s put up with from me. On our way back, some guy in a flight-suit looking costume flew this glider through the intersection ahead of us, followed soon after by The Saurus. The T-rex wouldn’t catch him, I’m pretty certain. Not with that many cars in the way and his monocle threatening to fall off.

I wish I had a T-rex.

Sadly, I couldn’t just pop on the armor and chase it down.

I did slip into it to deal with Technolutionary and Fortune Cookie, however. I had to modify it a little bit to account for the new curves on the inside being hidden on the outside. I didn’t really feel like letting Technolutionary know about my makeover either.

I called him up with the place he absolutely needed to meet me at. Lab Sigma, aka the one of the places I bought after everyone, or almost everyone, had jumped ship. Miss Jackson had shut it down rather than use the place. It had originally been part of agricultural research. Genetic modification of plants. Trying to make bigger ears of corn or bananas that are more resistant to viruses and fungal infections. It used to have protesters, but they stopped. Not because they realized they were wrong; because they thought they won when the place closed up.

They then presumably went home and enjoyed a heaping helping of aurochs, Mexican grasses, and small Peruvian tubers, just as they used to exist during the stone age back before cattle, corn, and potatoes were a thing.

It’s not like there weren’t good reasons to protest Sigma Labs. I read the files on this place. It started with good intentions. Who doesn’t want to create plants with all the amino acids necessary to make vegetarianism or veganism viable for most people? That’s a fine and dandy goal for anyone who doesn’t care about taste, but then you start mixing animal DNA with plants and before long people start trying to think up cattle that get all their energy through photosynthesis or nutrient-fixing wiener dogs. Even making it where endangered species can reproduce using spores or flowers. Which are also perfectly noble goals if someone wants to help the world.

I’m sure y’all can imagine where they went next. Of course there’s going to end up being a human affected by it all. The initially theorized ways to improve humanity. Make people hardier, stronger. Able to produce their own food, able to regrow their own limbs. Funny how everyone’s ideas on how to make humans better pretty much means making humans less human and more something else. More robotic, more plant, more animal.

Even when they aren’t as blatant about it as Hephaestus/Faustus organization, everyone’s trying to become superhuman.

Sigma Labs started on the simulations, which showed hypothetical success with embryos. Real life didn’t quite match these best-case models. They turned to improving already-existing people instead, with homeless subjects. Warm housing, three square meals a day, medical treatment, and a litttle spending money at the end of everything? They didn’t need a single involuntary subject. Then Spinetingler did what he did to the city. Staff went into comas, died, or just didn’t feel like coming into work with monsters roaming around the city.

Without anyone around to manage the food or the delicate ecosystem involved with having lots of people on immunosuppressants, things got a bit…nasty. One of the reasons they were so willing to sell out to us was our willingness to clean the place up as quietly as possible.

The one thing we couldn’t clean up was Wildflower. Or is it Wild Flower? I’ll go with the first one. Super names are one of those areas where punctuation is a big deal. From what I hear, the young woman appeared in the city after I helped run off Spinetingler. The catgirl with the tail of vine and thorns. I wonder what kind of secret identity she might have?

“You love the sound of your own voice,” Technolutionary said, leaning against the lobby desk. He patted the coat he’d arrived in, which served the purpose of hiding the armor he now proudly showed off. Fortune Cookie paced as if she heard the story before. With her powers, it’s possible.

“You do too,” I told him. Fortune Cookie cocked her head to the side and nodded. “And I like stories. That one could be important since this is your lab now.”

I led him through the place. “Some things got wrecked or stolen, but most of it should be here and in good order. You can choose whether you want to operate this place in the open or not, but you have no official connection to me at all.”

“This is great! I’ll move my stuff in immediately. Do you care if I work in the area until I have anything else I need?”

I shrugged. “Go ahead. I’m still on the down low here. Don’t drag me into it.”

He nodded, then brought his wrist up. A holographic display appeared and he punched a few buttons. “There’s one more thing I need from you.” He opened his hand on the wrist with the display and a metal needle extended from the tip of his ring finger. “A sample.”

Muttering, I unsealed one gauntlet and showed just enough skin. “Yeah, yeah, you get yours. But I want mine. An army of cyborg warriors to back up any other forces I’ve acquired.” I wondered briefly if the Buzzkills, the bee-humanoid warriors I’d taken from Japan, could be cyberized and improved as well. Then I decided against it. I need Technolutionary, but I don’t trust him. But I did have an idea. “And if I got you some other DNA, do you think you could quickly clone me something a bit nonhuman…like a dinosaur?”

“The Saurus,” he realized, eyes lighting up. Not a good expression in someone who is about to stick a needle into you. He found a vein easily and drove it in. Better a blood sample than a semen sample at this point.

I nodded. “Preferably with the ability to shoot lasers, and a willingness to have me ride around on his back. Think you can do it?”

“Ahahah! Yes, and it will be glorious. It’s not on mission, however. I’m not getting that DNA sample.” He pulled the needle out.

I covered the arm up and told him, “It’s on my mission. I’ll get it.” Then I looked around for Fortune Cookie.

“In here!” she called from back toward the lobby.

“If you have everything you need, I need to go have a chat with our mutual friend out there,” I told Technolutionary, who pulled a small capsule of blood out from a slot on his forearm. He didn’t pay me any attention and went to pull out one of the machines up against the wall.

Fortune Cookie waited against the door, head cocked toward it. I covered myself in a holographic civilian disguise and stepped out with her. She had a taxi waiting by the curb. Both of us stayed silent until we got in there, and I told the driver to drop me off at Double Cross Tower.

She spoke first, “You need something?”

“You hardly need to ask, do you?” I responded. “A telepath.”

She looked down, shaking her head. Below the view from the front, I pulled off my gauntlet enough to show the hole where Technolutionary took his sample. She sighed, then looked up. Her eyes went blank white for a moment, like a cloud flowed over them. When the clouds cleared, she leaned over and whispered a name, a place, and a time to me.

“What can I do for you, o Fortuna?” I asked her.

“Don’t go yourself,” she said. When I just looked at her, she followed up with, “It minimizes the body count.”

“If that’s your price…I am glad you’re helping me. Is there anything else I can do? I can arrange for a better hotel, shopping, fine dining.” The multi-directional view of my helmet showed me the taxi driver raising an eyebrow at that.

Fortune Cookie shook her head. “I don’t need more gifts from you, devil. I know what this is about and I’ll help you. I helped him.” She nodded back toward Sigma Labs with a screwed up look of disgust on her face. “Just do what you always do. Don’t give up. Fight them.”

When we stopped, she stayed behind, wanting no part of what she saw before her.

That was the evening before the first of the mysterious bombings began in Empyreal City. The Saurus once again chased after his latest foe, Free Radical, as the villain graffitied an art show and flew out of there on his glider. He earned his money. Free Radical escaped when a sidewalk tree exploded and knocked The Saurus down. Aside from the hero, several civilians were wounded.

In the middle of all this confusion, an individual stepped up. “Croikey!” she said, planting a khaki short-clad leg on The Saurus’s tail. “Now this is a big’un. I’m gonna have to be real careful stickin’ me hand up its bum, ’cause it’s huuuuuge!”

The Saurus’s tail lifted lazily before settling back down. “I feel you back there! Stay back, mammal. The pain…” He kicked his rear leg out, taking splashing me, the T-rex hunter, with water from a spray of water from a hydrant that had been knocked off. I wiped it over my eyes to relieve the feeling of smokiness over my face caused by a post-bombing haze that stunk of burnt meat and rubber.

I turned a doggy doo bag inside out around my hand and approached the downed dino. “Now, don’t be afraid. Tensing up will just make this mo’ difficult. Relax, and this’ll all be sphincterific!”

He did not find it very sphincterific, nor did Technolutionary enjoy finding a bag full of T-rex crap in front of his door at Sigma Labs. I would have lit it on fire, but that would have burnt up the note I left there explaining that I’d left his DNA sample in the bag. A container of blood. He just has to reach through the pile to get it.

Just because I’m working with Technolutionary doesn’t mean I’m above giving him crap.

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Down to Business 3

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With an assistant capable of surviving the interview process and willing to deal with a lot of risk for a lot of money, I knew it was time to get on with the troubleshooting. Each of my department heads had some issues to deal with. This was further emphasized at one more of these meeting things, which I missed because it sounded stupid and I was still asleep.

My new assistant, who I’m temporarily calling Crash Test Dummy, shook me awake at my desk. “Working hard, ma’am.”

“Who you callin’ ma’am?” I asked, wondering how long my mouth had been open on the wood. I’m sure a lot of people would like to know that. See? I’m a woman and I can’t even stop the innuendo.

“Sorry, Miss Mortenson. If you don’t mind me asking, would you like me to send flowers to…” Here she looked down at her notepad. “Felicia?”

I shook my head. Feeling my hair swinging around there, I then swung my head back like out of a commercial. Then I focused my gaze on my new assistant. “I would, but why do you ask?”

“You were talking in your sleep ma-, Miss. I took notes in case it was important. You said, ‘Yes, Felicia. I’d love to hear you play violin. Talk to me in your sexy Jamaican accent.’ It’s not a problem if you’re gay, ma’am. Miss Mortenson. Miss. Can’t I just call you ma’am?”

Ah, THAT Felicia. Felicia Day again. If she read this, she’d probably start getting creeped out right about the first time around. This would be the time she filed the restraining order. As to the ma’am thing, she’d mistaken my waking gender confusion with disliking the term itself. “Ma’am is fine. You caught me off guard waking me up. No flowers necessary. I wish, but no. Did I miss anything important?”

She flipped back through her notes. “Miss Jackson with R&D wants you to know they don’t have they’ve had a brain drain since Spinetingler attacked so she doesn’t think they can do what you asked. The Mechanical division is far behind…behind…oh, behind Chemical. There it is. She wasn’t happy, but she liked that I was there. That’s what she said. I’m not bragging…much.” She beamed, practically giving off her own light.

I figured I’d check on the Shasta Jackson. As the head of our research and development, she’d be the one to actually make us stuff. While that might occasionally mean pushing new and exotic beans on the coffeehouses, I’d originally put down this company as a medical supply company. Prosthetics. Much as I hate to hide the wondrous glory that is Psycho Gecko, I’d look suspicious putting the nanites out on the market.

If there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about cybernetics, it’s me. If there’s two people, it’s me and Technolutionary. That’s part of what he’ll be doing. In contrast to CTD’s smile, I yawned and asked, “How do I look?”

My assistant’s smile faltered. “You could stand to freshen up.”

After a break to maintain appearances, a concern that was increasingly annoying me with all the time it takes, we headed over to the main laboratory complex in the suburbs, close to the suburbs of Empyreal City. It felt weird to not have to sneak over the wall or past the guard to get a glimpse of that blocky white building with barely any windows.

Ms. Jackson met us in the lobby, greeting my assistant with a bit more of a smile than she had for me. “It’s nice to see you again. Ms. Mortenson, it’s always a pleasure to have you attend to business as well.”

I held my hand against my chest. “Argh! They got me. Call security. We got a sniper.” I winked at Jackson, then pulled out a flash drive. “You might find these helpful. Boom. Job done. Products thought up.”

I tossed it to her. She caught it and glanced at it. “What’s in here?”

“Prosthetics. Prosthetics for the whole body. Prosthetic arms, legs, dicks. Hell, I even got prosthetic heads in there. All of it’s good stuff.”

She held her mouth partially open, tongue settling on the right side of it. “We’ll check this over. Make sure you didn’t make any mistakes. In the meantime, let me show you around. You should see what we’ve been working on up to now. I think you’ll agree we need strong leadership in this time of transition.”

For all they said about Mechanical division lagging behind, they did have a pretty good product for any arm amputees who get pissed off. They called it the Finger Gun. It’s easily installable in either the pointer or middle fingers of most standard prosthetic limbs. And here I thought R&D was trying too hard to stay on the straight and narrow. If these are the kinds of surprises they have in store for me, maybe I need to actually read some of those memos they send my way every now and then.

Next, we took a trip to Chemical, the domain of Winston “Wonder” Harrison. Crash Test handed me his police file. This guy has done a shitload of drugs. But they didn’t just get him for being a user. You know what they say about cocaine: he who smelt it, dealt it. It’s said that when the cops came to arrest him,a taser caught his hair on fire and the fumes got a few of the arresting officers high.

He didn’t start his career making drugs until he got to prison. Not being a super, he worked his way up to trustee and made good use of whatever he could find to cook up jailhouse drugs. Carl really went for a loose definition of chemist hiring this guy, but he sounded like a decent enough choice to make Mastermind Cafe’s coffee extra-addictive. We’ll have the scones that’ll make you stoned. We’ll have the muffins that’ll make you see puffins. We’ll have cookies that…well, we’ll have cookies.

I don’t see much call for him to aid with the prosthetics, though. What are we going to do, make someone who depends on our products to walk really, really feel attached to that fake leg?

I had other plans in mind. The trip is about problem solving, but it’s also about preparing for the coming alien invasion.

Before going in, Jackson had us put on some masks with filters. “Biohazard concerns?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” she helpfully explained.

So we walked in his lab to find the fire alarms all piled up in one corner. Which is good, because the massive amount of smoke in the air might have set them off. The masks protected us from exposure to the smoke, though it didn’t do anything for Wonder Harrison and the rest of his research team who sat around watching some reality show and laughing their asses off.

Maybe it’s not too late to call up Mix N’Max instead.

I crossed my arm and tapped a shoe loudly on the floor. “Ahem.”

They stayed glued to the TV. I looked around for something to get their attention. Ah, a hookah. That’s hookah, not hooker. Hookers complain when you throw them through a TV to get someone’s attention. Well, if you throw them hard enough, they don’t, but that’s not always an easy toss.

“The fuck, man, you fucking crazy, the fuck you want, fuck!” They shot to their feet, including Wonder who unleashed that fucking tirade.

I walked forward, slipping a bracelet off my wrist so I could freely bitchslap the alleged researches between me and Wonder. When I got to him, I put the bracelet back on. “Do I have your attention yet?” With him distracted by that hand, I smacked him upside the face with the other, surprising the tall, skinny, pasty guy. “Wake up, dammit!”

He turned and poked me in the chest with one finger. “I don’t have to take this! Who do you think you are, bitch!”

I grabbed the finger and twisted it around. I didn’t break it, but I did come close and put him in a lot of pain in the process. “I’m the boss, you scrawny bastard. Now show me what I pay you for.”

I find that these difficult employees need a firm pimp hand to keep them in line. Case in point: they had almost nothing I could immediately use. The new strain of pot could be sold out of the cafes, and so could the watered-down Sexahol knockoff, but I needed something hallucinogenic.

“Acid, man? You want to do that?” Wonder asked, running a hand through curly hair.

I nodded. “Time release. Or it responds to a subliminal signal. I want to make people see things. Shocking, inhuman things. Less monster, more alien, if you can. And while we’re at it, I’ll forward you what I can from the military’s old Stargate Project. This seems a bit odd, but I want to see if we can mess around with people’s psychic defenses. Strengthening them if need be, weakening them if need be. Play around and see what you can do.”

“We’re going to need a psychic for tests,” he said, holding his chin in his hand.

“I’ll see what I can do about that,” I told him. I don’t know if the aliens are psychic, but I’m not blind to the possibility. It’s all over the place where advanced civilizations embrace superior mental powers. One more tool in the bag can’t hurt. Well, it can’t hurt me. I love to take tools out and bash people in the face with them.

Now, I just have to bash a psychic in the face and drag them back here…

“Alright! You heard the lady, let’s work, let’s work. Munchy time later, Cassandra!” Wonder Harrison yelled at his team as we left.

“I’d like to apologize, ma’am,” said Ms. Jackson. “It’s good to have leadership giving us a goal.”

Crash Test Dummy walked up beside me to show some email that had been forwarded up the chain of command from some district manager who heard rumors some of the men at the car garages were letting friends lay low. “I understand. Having a goal helps me be a good leader.” I responded to the email that we should expand that concept to the rest of our commercial locations in the city in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. No, wait. A flat rate. Let the muggers complain how we’re robbing them if they don’t like it. “Next is the bombmaker, right?”

Ms. Jackson led us down an elevator ride to a reinforced basement. “We used to do more rigorous product testing down here.”

We arrived just in time for some rigorous product-testing, actually. Almost as soon as the door opened, one far at the end of the hall slammed open and a small squad of people rushed out, waving their hands wildly and screaming. I pushed the door close button, but Crash Test and Jackson stubbornly held their hands out to keep the elevator door open. Who would make it that easy to keep an elevator open in a laboratory?

I yanked their hands away even as the lab blew. The shockwave threw the runners to the ground, the rearmost one looking a bit worse for wear. It didn’t knock us over, at least, but it sounded like Cthulhu with a bad case of constipation. The lead stood up, a pale man with natural blond hair that made it look like he lacked eyebrows.

“Everyone make it?!” He yelled. He turned to us. “The new mailboxes are still unstable! I think I’m going to cut back to a potassium glaze!” He squinted at me. “You’re new!”

“I’m the boss,” I mouthed at him. “And I think we need to get some of your ideas out into the city as soon as possible.”

“This is going to suck,” Crash Test muttered to herself.

“No, my dear,” I said, turning toward her. “This is going to blow.”

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Down to Business 2

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I had a lot of new things to get used to, and what’s what I spent a few days doing.

Like my body. I know you do, but I didn’t mean it in that sense. I’d strayed further from the shape I had been most comfortable in, and that caused some problems. For starters, I didn’t really move like a woman. I started to pick up on that.

I’ve been a woman before, but it’s been awhile. I just had to get back in the groove. Simply walking helped some; dancing did even more. I think poor Festus nearly exploded in his slacks when he walked in and saw me dancing around in a leotard. At least until he noticed the sickle in my hand and he dodged away from the metal weight flying toward his head, papers flying everywhere. He dove behind a tasteful sculpture of a nude woman that stood on a little stand by the door, knocking it over shattering off a staff the woman held in both hands.

“I’m sorry!” he yelled out.

I tugged on the chain and pulled the weight close, then tapped on the power button to the sound system remote. With Kaleida’s “Think,” no longer making it difficult to hear, he really should have stopped screaming like that. I walked over to the poor guy and tapped him on the shoulder with the flat of the sickle blade. “Hey, you ok down there? Because if you don’t stop soon- oh, nevermind. I see it. I hope you brought spare underwear to work today.”

He turned forehead-blood red. “You aren’t trying to kill me?”

I rolled my eyes, which looked almost normal. While I’m supposed to be blending in, I did make a concession to my nature and settled on blue-grey eyes clear as the waters off Paradise City. “Do I look like I’m trying to kill you?” I asked, kusarigama in my hands. Figuring I knew the answer already, I tossed the Japanese chain-sickle away. “You’re ok. I was just exercising. Getting properly settled in.”

“You were waving a knife around. Settled in? You had a knife. And, and, and, and a thing you threw at my head.”

“I didn’t throw it at you. I threw it near you. And I happen to like waving weapons around when I get to a new place. It makes me feel safe instead of alone and… vulnerable.” I lowered my voice at that word, overriding some of his panic with the idea that a woman felt vulnerable and lonely.

After a couple minutes, Festus calmed down enough to phone his assistant to bring him some new pants, boxers, socks, and shoes. “Nifty,” I said. “It’s nice to have a minion to do your bidding.” Carl’s no longer fit for that job now that he’s got a public persona unconnected to me, and I can’t have Moai fetching me things.

“That’s why I came here. I brought resumes.” He began gathering up his files, organizing them with only a quick glance. Well, there had to be some reason this guy got the job. That, and I guess Carl couldn’t find too many people in Human Resources with criminal records and the inclination to get back to HR. However he got him, at least Festus was on his game as I took a seat at the bar in my penthouse and he gave me a quick rundown of the candidates.

“My office went looking for the most desperate people we could find with quick job interviews. We cut those who We eliminated anyone with enough resources to pay their own way. These are the best of the most desperate.” Damn. They work fast, don’t they? He handed over five files. I grabbed one at random. “Let’s give this one a shot. It’ll help me get acquainted with the city, too.”

Hours later, as the sun painted the sky red in its departing throes, I stood outside a liquor store with Festus and a religious studies major. The applicant made idle chitchat with Festus about the latest Lootcrate, which made me wonder how easily I could throw together a similar service. Hero and villain memorabilia. T-shirts. Masks. Autographs. As long as I worked on my handwriting, I could probably handle at least twenty different people’s autographs myself.

Finally, Carl showed up with the masks. “I can’t believe you forgot them,” he said as he passed ski masks to Festus and the applicant. Then he picked up his baseball bat where it leaned against the wall next to us. “Are we ready?”

The applicant looked down at the pump-action shotgun he held in his hands. “I thought this was a test. I thought, like, you know, like Abraham and Isaac.”

I shook my head and pulled my balaclava down over my face, ignoring Carl’s stare. In order to further protect my identity, I padded the girls. My chest stuck out quite a bit more, and so did Carl’s eyes. He and Festus pulled on their own masks, leaving the student the odd man out. I told him, “The moral of that story wasn’t that he knew it was a test and everything would work out. Put your face on and let’s do this.”

He reluctantly donned the mask. “Now what?”

“Now, if we need them, code names.”

“Like Steve?” asked Festus.

I nodded, “That’s good. I’ll be Steve.” I nodded toward Carl, “He’ll be Nadia.” I pointed to Festus, “You can be Penetrode.” He opened his mouth to object, but I’d moved on to the other guy, “I don’t know your name. You’ll go by Festus.”

“That’s my name!”

“Not now, Festus,” I said to my head of HR. To the fake Festus, I said, “Ready?”

“No,” he looked over the gun, unfamiliar with it. I’d provided it to him, though it looked out of place with the weapons the rest of us had. Carl had a baseball bat, Festus a Swiss army knife, and I had a pair of cast iron skillets chained together at the handles.

“Do you want this job or not?” I demanded.

He shook his head. “I need the money, but…”

“But? Then kick some butt! This is the beginning of the school year, but you know what? It’ll go quick. Soon, you’ll be just another senior dumped off at your parents house with a degree qualifying you for the same kind of jobs a high school dropout can get, only with an extra forty grand in debt. You will die hungry, poor, alone, and unloved at the bottom of a ditch somewhere if you don’t become the success they all said you would inevitably be if only you got a degree. Is that what you want, or are you going to spend the rest of your life as some bank’s bottom bitch?”

“YAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!” he yelled, charging into the liquor store like a berserk madman. No booming shotgun blasts followed, just the three of us. Fake Festus had the elderly Asian cashier on the ground, holding him down with his plastic toy shotgun.

“Penetrode, get the money from the til. Just pull the drawer if you have to, and look for a change bag or something under the counter,” I ordered. Real Festus hesitated, wary of the struggle taking place at his feet, before getting to his duties behind the counter.

To Carl, I said, “Nadia, get yourself some beer, and me some of that Irish cream stuff I like. Oh, and check if they have any brandy.” He nodded and got to it.

“Oh my god!” Penetrode said, then lifted up an AK-style rifle the cashier had been reaching for.

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” I advised him. He looked at me. “Toss the bullets and leave it. Grab the money instead.” He popped the magazine out and threw it out the open door before opening the register drawer.

I checked the front door, then the back. There, I saw a little old Korean lady sneaking up on the front with another AK. I stood by the door so that when she stepped out, her performance as an ambusher was widely panned. With a crack of cast iron on wrist bones, the rifle dropped and I kicked it away. Then I grabbed the handle of one pan and spun the other into her face, knocking her back through the door with a wet crack. Both Festuses looked at me. “She tried to catch us offguard, but it just didn’t pan out,” I told them.

I swear, with guns like that, I wonder if we robbed a North Korean liquor store.

Nonetheless, we’d done about all we came there to do. Carl grabbed the booze and Festus the got most of the money. I followed them out. Fake Festus was a bit slower, heading up the rear. Then a shot rang out and his mask looked like his face just shat his brains into it. Behind him, the old Korean man held his AK. Without the mag, it clicked impotently, having used its one chambered round.

I held out my hand to Festus, “Gonna need that knife. Swap it to corkscrew.”

Later, back at the penthouse, the entire enterprise had upset Festus enough to seek out fresh pants from his assistant. I feel this is going to become something of a thing the more I work with him. “I don’t think I can go on these for you anymore, Miss Mortenson,” he told me, head in his hands. “He died.” He dropped the other Festus’s file into a trashcan.

“Uhhh, people do that,” Carl said.

“Yep. Just make sure you right that he didn’t get the job before his mysterious death by natural causes,” I advised Festus.

“Natural causes?”

I pantomimed shooting myself in the head with a gun, “It’s natural to die when shot in the head.” Carl nodded along as I continued, “If anything, it’d be unnatural to get shot in the head and not die. Oh, that reminds me. Nobody with powers.”

Festus looked down at the remaining files in front of him and tossed another in the can. “Noted.”

Yeah, the remaining two didn’t do quite so well on their tests. In fact, the review process turned out to be quite hilarious and fatal for both of them. Well, hilarious to me. The second guy got a bit overzealous at the armored car. I’d have given him an “A” for effort, except he tried to run off on his own with all the money and died when a passerby got him in the head hard with a cast iron skillet. Yes, a passerby. I promise. I told the third guy to steal a toy from a baby and a nearby cop mistook him for a molester.

By process of elimination, the fourth person would have been the natural selection for the job, but I still gave her a test. I didn’t take Carl with me, either. These little things were just as much about getting comfortable as the dancing. Except this one involved making sure I could still carry bags of cash out of a bank, and testing my new assistant’s driving skill.

Alarms screaming behind me, I ran out of the small credit union, duffel bags hanging on my shoulders. I’d asked the last applicant to pick me up in front there for her interview. Remember, you’re only insane if you’re poor. If you’re rich, you’re eccentric.

I pulled open the passenger door of her cheap two-door and tossed the bags in the back. She screamed when I forced my way in, which is only natural your first crime. I pulled off the mask and smiled, “Hey there, sugar. I’m Ms. Mortenson. If you want to be my assistant, you’d better drive NOW!”

She stomped on the gas, sending us squealing down the street with sirens approaching. I pointed to the side, “Take this next right so they don’t spot us.”

“That’s-!” she started to say. I grabbed the wheel and spun it to the right, sending us down the stairs into a subway station, flying over the turnstiles. Frantically trying to control the machine, she put on the brakes and wound up skidding, just stopping us from smacking into a train departing the station.

“So, where do you see yourself in five years?” I asked her. She didn’t give me an answer, instead spinning out and sending us out onto the tracks after the subway left.

“Alive!”

I pulled a clipboard and pen out from one duffel bag. “Good answer. What drew you to our company?”

“Money!” She yelled, speeding down the tracks, surrounded by roaring. We bumped along there in ways that had to be bad for the car.

“Hmm, interesting answer…how do you feel about that train coming up behind us?”

“SHIT!” she yelled. Then we were out of the dark and next to a platform. That was fast.

“Good news, this is our stop. Be a dear and grab the bags?”

“This is my car!” she complained, turning to look at me as the car slowed to a bumpy stop. She caught a glance of the lights behind us on their approach and grabbed the bags. I followed, scribbling on the clipboard, as we climbed onto the subway platform. She didn’t seem to catch that I kept on going while she stayed behind to watch. Passing the last part of the test, she finally realized that it would be bad idea to be too close when one giant piece of metal crashed into a smaller piece of metal. I was waiting for her at the top of the stairs as metal screeched and people screamed.

“Are you insane?!” she yelled. That’ll be something to work on. That volume level is not conducive to a corporate structure.

Still, I turned around the clipboard, revealing a number that would more cover student loans for pretty much every college but the Ivy League. “I’m eccentric. Want the job?”

…Yeah, I told Festus to keep the applications coming.

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Down to Business 1

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Almost six months away, and I must say that Empyreal City looks almost good as new. Even the graffiti looks like it’s been redone, though that could be from recent gang shenanigans. You know those wacky gangs, with their crazy get rich quick schemes revolving around crack and meth. The gentrification programs probably forced a shakeup in territories. I intended to ask about that.

Ask who? My board, or at least the closest I have of a bunch of advisers for this phony business I cooked up. Except, seeing as I was looking out over the shiny new Empyreal City from a skyscraper I fucking own. I surveyed my domain from behind glass so thick, you’d think they cut it from a dumbass tree. Why would a dumbass tree naturally grow a substance made out of molten sand? Probably because it’s a dumbass tree. Tinted glass, too. No one needs to see me, and no one needs to snipe me.

I turned away from a view that included a few new and partially constructed buildings on the skyline to look back at the folks sitting around the conference table. I didn’t look anything like who they thought. I made a very pretty President, CEO, or whatever my official title was. “Ok, folks. I’m the boss. My name’s Norma Mortenson. I’ve been busy out of the country for some time now, but I’m back and it’s about time we get down to business. Carl here’s done an excellent job assembling y’all, so let’s go down the table and introduce ourselves.”

I took my hand off Carl’s shoulder and took my seat at the head of the place. He oggled me a little. It’s the female disguise. I know I’ve used it a bit lately, but those times in Europe were a bit more shallow.

I realized on my way back in town that I needed a way to hide that I was back. I’m going to be here for awhile, so I need to try and stay on the down low. I know, like that’ll happen, but at least I can try. Out of all the various guises, I realized my options were fairly limited as a civilian precisely because I’d shown up in a variety of shapes and colors. So this time, getting in touch with my feminine side serves a deeper purpose. It gives me a female alias that, if all goes well, heroes like Venus or Captain Lightning won’t think to trace back to me.

This is also why I didn’t bring Moai to the meeting.

Anyway, back to the board meeting. Carl introduced himself, of course. He’d settled on some sort of Vice President of Operations title, so I guess he’s been getting good advice from these people. Still, he didn’t quite fit in. The rest of us wore business attire. He had on a tie, white shirts, and slacks.

Next up came Ben, a Jewish man in a suit with curls hanging down on each side of his face like those more religious Jews use. He chewed a toothpick.“The Mafia accountant, right?” I asked, remembering Carl had mentioned that. I got awkward silence in return. Ben just sat there, hand stopped in the middle of stroking his graying soul patch

Finally, the hefty Italian man on the other side of Ben raised a hand over his head and its closely shaved dark hair, “Ahhhhh, that’s me. I’m Paul. This is ah, I guess you say, awkward. I ah worked with Ben in the Jewish Mafia.”

I nodded. “Nice to meet you Paul, sorry for the assumption Ben. What do you provide for our outfit, Ben?”

I overheard him mutter “Schmuck,” under his breath, just loud enough to be heard before he got around to the proper answer. “I’m ya head of security. I used to enforce in the Jewish Mafia.”

“I feel I need to ask what happened to this Jewish Mafia in case there’s a conflict of interest in town,” I spoke up.

Ben shook his head. “Oy, the Jewish Mafia isn’t around no more. Spinetingler cut us off at the head.” He pantomimed a throat slice.

Imagine that. A bunch of Jewish gangsters get cut off at the head. “We’ll get around to the force you’ll be working with in a moment, but only after we get around the table.”

Paul was indeed our accountant/CFO/bookkeeper, and he mentioned he knew a number of ways to help reinvest company funds to raise capital. He even had the name of this sure thing from a second cousin of his. I made a mental note to keep an eye on him for embezzlement and illegal gambling. If he keeps the gambling small-time, I shouldn’t have a problem. It’ll keep his embezzling under control. Though, if I also purchase his debt from his bookie, that’d be a handy way to turn it around and gain a profit.

I reckoned I’d need a lot of mental notes here. I wouldn’t have to try and find as much for them to do as happened with the Rejects, but I’d still need to keep track of their various quirks and how that relates to their jobs. Shasta turned out to be the head of our R&D, which she informed me meant she’d been babysitting a primadonna drug entrepreneur and a former IRA explosives expert who kept inventing innocuous-looking bombs. I let her know I’d be expanding her division in particular with the help of an outside contractor.

Marketing turned out to be a tanned, bleach blonde old wrestler who looked way too fit for his age. He said to call him Pom, short for Prince Pomerania. Now I remember the guy. I’ve seen some of his older matches where he used to come out with a robe and that same hair. Then, in the ’90s, they gave him a new look with long blonde hair and a snooty, aristocratic gimmick. He winced when I brought that up, apparently not a big fan of them calling him Double-P at the time. I can see why. Who, aside from an overly-amorous French skunk, wants to be known as PP?

His ad campaign ran into something of a snafu when it went up against another hungry rival for Empyreal City. Russ McLanahan, a former boss of Pom’s, has decided to expand his business again with his own Heel Cafes. Heel Cafe: have a good day being bad. McLanahan was an inconsistent man with what ideas he pushed, but always dangerous with us trying to grow in Empyreal City. We had no name recognition, but he had an international army of wrestling fans primed and ready to give anything he tried a shot.

The head of our Human Resources department appeared to be a nervous young man with a tie not on quite straight. He looked pale and freckled, like a ginger with black hair. When he told me his name was Festus, I immediately realized that he hadn’t spent even an hour in jail. Which is just wrong. At the very least, he should have murdered his parents for call him Festus and then gotten some experience in the big house.

He was more of a figurehead anyway, because it sounds like Carl had been doing his job for him.

Rounding out our group was another woman, who kept checking her phone and tablet for new messages. She had stunning bright orange hair to go with the pale skin and freckles of a ginger. It’s a lovely look. Genae, which is pronounced like Jenny but spelled like Forrest Gump wrote it, had been placed in charge of our sales department, marketing our products to other stores and the internet. She didn’t have a lot to do, but she was frantically scrambling around to do what she did have. It mostly involved electronics, car parts, and overpriced coffee beans. Nobody wanted too much of what we got, so she was trying to bust some skulls metaphorically.

The thing about skulls is they bust much easier literally than metaphorically. That might be something to put Paul’s crew on, though it would be a delicate matter. Teddy Roosevelt once said a man should talk softly but carry a big stick. This is, of course, for shoving the stick right up the ass of anyone who doesn’t want to talk softly. Most people prefer talking, and while words can never hurt anyone, I’m fully prepared to use the sticks and stones if needed to make us popular nationwide, and perhaps overseas. Chances are I could swing something in Isla Tropica, Australia, and a few places in Europe.

Japan probably isn’t going to like me enough at this point. That just goes to show that even I can’t get a happy ending in Japan.

“Well, this has been an extremely informative meeting,” I told them all once they introduced themselves. “I am Norma Mortenson, like I said. Some of you may suspect I’m not what I appear to be, and that’s fine. Try not to upset the ones who don’t suspect anything. For the ones who don’t suspect anything…good job.” I gave them all a smile and wink.

I continued, “I’m the owner, president, CEO, and so on. I’m the money, and I’ve got a direction for us now that I’m in town. Over the next month or so, I’ll be meeting with your various departments to get to know them and see what I can do to solve the problems you’re all facing at the moment. Carl did a good job while I was away, but I may be shaking up the current departments when I have a better idea what things are like. Suffice it to say, we’re all here to make money by hook or by crook, and that’s all this is about. I also welcome all suggestions,” here I noticed nervous little Festus glance at my chest area, “…provided they don’t involve me without my clothes. Anyone have a suggestion?”

Genae spoke up. “You need an assistant.”

I glanced at Carl, but she spoke again before I said anything. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but not the Veep. You need someone to take your calls, schedule your appointments, and help you keep up with the going-ons.”

Amidst the repetition of the words “Sell out,” running through my head and a sudden disappointment that I’d made the windows too unbreakable to throw myself, or perhaps someone else, out them, I realized it made a certain amount of sense.

I glanced at Festus. “I’m on it!” he blurted out.

“Easy there. Let’s keep the seat dry, fella. See what you can do for me. Preferably someone who doesn’t mind being involved in criminal endeavors. Like someone who is so desperate for a job, they’ll take anything.”

He pulled out his phone and tapped the screen a few times. “I think I know some philosophy majors…”

I waited to leave last, along with Carl. I had a few ideas brewing already on how to use them all. “Ahem…Carl.” I glanced over at him. He’d reached over and put his hand on my chest.

“I thought you were a hologram, but I didn’t feel any metal,” he sheepishly responded.

I raised an eyebrow and flicked my dark chocolate hair back over my shoulder. “I’m still the same bastard you know, in a prettier package. This time, they’ll never see me coming.” I jutted my chest forward and pointed into the sky. With my hand, perverts. “Breast. Disguise. Ever!”

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