On the Lamb
by John R. Plunkett
"United Airlines flight 890 from Singapore, Tokyo, and Los Angeles is now arriving at Gate 2," the PA announced. The announcement continued but couldn't be heard over an eruption of yells and whistles. A row of security guards kept the shrieking fans from swamping the arrival area.
"Exactly who is this guy?" one of the guards asked his companion.
"Some big movie star from New Zealand," the other replied.
The first furrowed his brow. "What kind of movie star flies on a commercial airline?"
Just then the person in question emerged from the jetway. He looked handsome enough to be a movie star; not exceptionally tall or massive but having a firm, sculpted body. He kissed his hands and raised them to the crowd. He wore only a vented tank top- that left his midriff bare- and denim trousers that fit him like a second skin. He did a quick bump-and-grind, giving the assembled fans- almost all female- a good look at his buttocks, thighs, and the prominent bulge at his crotch that actually ran a ways down his left leg. The crowd shrieked so loudly they drowned out the sounds of jets taking off and landing.
"From New Zealand, you say?" the first guard commented once the noise abated some. "I guess that explains why he's a sheep."
The man was indeed a sheep, or to be technically accurate, a ram. A short, dun colored fleece covered his entire body except for his face, hands, and feet. His skin looked lighter, almost but not quite white. A pair of well developed horns adorned his head. Fans reached through the barricade; he moved along the line, shaking hands and occasionally kissing them. Three others- a short, pudgy rat and two grim looking Dobermans in suits- followed him. An electric cart whisked them away while screaming fans pursued on foot. In due course the cart arrived at a passenger loading and unloading area where there waited a long, black limousine with tinted windows. The driver opened the door so the four could enter, then got in and pulled out.
One person waited in the back. She was a large and voluptuously constructed German shepherd; sitting down she seemed to be as tall as the ram, if not the two bodyguards. Her gargantuan mammaries strained at the material of her tank top as if yearning to be free and her very short mini skirt looked as if only a liberal quantity of grease could have gotten it over her ample hips. "Did you have a good flight, darling?" she inquired in a strongly German accent.
"It was Hell," the ram announced cheerfully, leaning back and stretching. He spoke with an accent that an inexperienced listener might have called Australian. "Wellington to Auckland, Auckland to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to here. And y'know what's funny? 'Cause of the Date Line, I get to LA before I left Auckland." He shook his head sadly. "I know the calendar says it's the same day I left but after twenty hours in the air I'm completely knackered." He heaved a deep sigh and laid a hand on his face to emphasize his condition but managed to give the woman a friendly squeeze on the leg.
"Don't worry, Jaleel, we've got a hotel right here at the airport," the rat declared. He sounded American. "And we don't have to be in the studio 'till the day after tomorrow."
"That's a relief," Jaleel declared. If the rat noticed an overtone of irony in the comment he didn't let on.
"You'll be ready to perform, won't you darling?" the woman asked, laying a hand on Jaleel's crotch.
"For you, Fredrika dear, I'm always ready to perform." Jaleel gave her a more serious kiss.
"Now now, let's wait until we get to the hotel," the rat cut in hastily, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Ah, don't get your knickers in a twist, Ronald." Jaleel leaned across and ruffled the rat's hair.
The driver screamed and slammed on the brakes. All four wheels locked and the limousine's rear end slewed violently to the left. Something hit the left rear door, dishing it in and shattering the window; the car recoiled violently the other way. Jaleel's torso whipped back and forth; he'd only secured his lap belt, putting the shoulder belt behind him. His head struck the door frame, opening a pressure cut on his scalp and rendering him unconscious. The car's nose struck a concrete barrier lining the roadway and came to an abrupt halt, half on the shoulder and half in the rightmost traffic lane. When Fredrika recovered from the shock and noise she saw Jaleel slumped over, insensible, blood staining one side of his face. She let out a shriek and lunged for him, only to be jerked back by her lap and shoulder belts.
Fredrika shrieked again when the smashed door departed suddenly with a scream of tortured metal and a shock that rocked the car on its suspension. She screamed even louder when a pair of- of things reached in. They rippled through the air like snakes, though the skin on them was smooth, black, and leathery rather than pebbly scales. At the tip of each was a chitinous cap that tapered to a sharp point, like a beak of some sort. A sharp ridge ran back from the point, forming an edge like an axe blade and extending into a wicked, backward-facing spur. The lower, hinged part had a hooked tip and a sharpened edge like a pair of scissors. One coiled around Jaleel's torso, lifting him up; as that happened Fredrika saw a double row of octopus-like suckers, running along the underside of the limb. Paired with each individual sucker, outboard of it, was a small, finger-like polyp with a wicked, curved claw growing from it. The other limb snipped Jaleel's seatbelt with a single quick bite and gathered his legs; in a trice they had him out the door and gone, while Fredrika screamed, and screamed, and screamed...
A young man who looked like a coyote in a nondescript business suit stood by Gate 2. As passengers de-planed he held of a sign that said "Super Collie." In due course two of the passengers took more than quizzical notice and approached. The first wasn't a collie but rather a short, powerfully built bulldog. He wore a light blue shirt with shoulder boards, a dark blue tie and matching trousers. On his head rested a billed cap with a black and white checkered band. Behind him came a collie, a woman who looked significantly younger and prettier as well as taller. She wore a long, dark blue cloak secured by a gold clasp, which seemed to be her most substantial article of clothing. Blue calf boots with gold trim covered her feet and the lower parts of her legs; only a blue bikini, trimmed in gold like the boots, covered her amply built body. Gold bracelets circled her wrists and a larger one her left thigh. A wavy, nut brown mane spilled loose down to the level of her shoulder blades. She carried a short baton with a hooked head.
"Good day," the bulldog said, offering his hand. An Antipodean twang marked his speech but hadn't wiped away the sound of southern England in his voice. "You must be that chap from the embassy."
"Yes sir," the young man replied, tucking the sign under his arm. "Arlo Benjamin of the New Zealand consulate. On behalf of the ambassador and everyone else, welcome to New York."
"If I'm here to help rescue a famous movie star, why didn't the ambassador come in person?" the collie woman asked, looking up and down the concourse. People stared at her, in part for being a pretty woman in a revealing costume and in part for being an oddly dressed weirdo. Obviously no one else but Arlo had come to meet her and her companion.
"Well-" Arlo shifted uncomfortably. "You see... um... there was a bit of a mix up..."
"Are you saying there isn't anyone to rescue?" the woman demanded sharply.
"Not at all," Arlo assured hurriedly. "It's just that... well, it's just that when Mr. Bronson's agent contacted the embassy he, um, wasn't very coherent."
"Bronson?" the woman frowned. "That name doesn't sound familiar. Is he not actually a movie star?"
"Um..." Arlo looked desperate. "Actually yes, Jaleel Bronson is a movie star... but his films are usually released directly to video."
"What sort of movies does he make, exactly?" the collie woman demanded suspiciously.
"Ah..." Arlo swallowed nervously. "Pornographic ones."
The collie opened her mouth, then shut it with a click. "You mean to tell me," she began, "That I flew halfway around the bleeding world- and sat through no less that four lousy in-flight movies- to rescue a porn star?"
"Even people who make blue movies occasionally need the services of a super hero," the bulldog pointed out.
The woman sighed, rubbing her forehead. "Yes, George, you're right. I'm sorry." She lay her other hand on the bulldog' shoulder. "Please accept my apologies, Mr. Benjamin. It's been... a very long flight."
"I understand," Arlo said quickly. "Let me get you through customs and I'll introduce you to your liaison from the Department of Super-Hero Affairs."
At the inbound customs counter the collie woman stepped forward. "My name is Super Collie," she announced. "I am here on business at the behest of the New Zealand government to investigate the kidnapping of a New Zealand national by possibly super agencies. I plan on staying between two weeks and a month. My luggage contains only personal effects."
Considering how he looked at Super Collie the inspector might have processed visiting super heroes every day. "May I see some ID, Ms. Collie?"
Super Collie blinked. She started to speak but let it drop. Instead she pulled a card from the top of her right boot and presented it. The inspector took it, carefully comparing the picture to Super Collie's face. "This says you usually carry a shepherd's crook," he said in a tone that bordered on accusatory.
"I shrunk it so it would fit on the plane," Super Collie said, twirling her baton. It extended into a staff slightly longer than her height.
"Ah." The inspector nodded. "Now if I could just have you complete this form-" he presented a clip board with a printed sheet attached to it.
The bulldog set a briefcase on the counter and opened it. "We have our paperwork right here." He presented two stacks, one significantly thicker than the other.
The inspector flipped through the forms. He looked almost disappointed to find them in order. "And you are?" he asked.
"George Kremmin, Wellington Constabulary." He produced an ID.
Despite their careful preparations Super Collie and Constable Kremmin waited for some time while their and several inspectors conferred over the paperwork and referred repeatedly to their computer terminals. Finally- reluctantly, it seemed- the inspectors waved them through.
"Are US customs always this... complicated?" Super Collie asked as they headed for the parking lot.
Arlo shrugged. "Actually, this went pretty smoothly. How did you get all that paperwork done in advance?"
"I visited the American embassy in Wellington," Super Collie said.
Constable Kremmin chuckled. "Super Collie's too modest. She sat down with the embassy secretary and went over the immigration manual in detail."
Arlo's eyes widened. "How long did that take?"
"Ten hours, forty-seven minutes," Super Collie replied as if it were nothing at all.
Arlo shook his head. "I'm surprised they put up with it."
"If I have to play bureaucratic games then by God I'll play to win," Super Collie said shortly.
Arlo shuddered. "I'd hate to see you in the DMV."
"Yes, you would," George agreed.
An unremarkable government issue sedan with diplomatic plates waited in the passenger loading and unloading area. A policeman stared at it hatefully, longing to give it a ticket but stymied by its immune status. Arlo helped George and Super Collie load their luggage into the boot, then seated them in the back. He climbed into the driver's seat himself.
"Feels strange to see people driving on the wrong side of the road," Super Collie commented as the car pulled out.
Arlo shrugged. "You get used to it. Though when I go home for vacation I let a mate drive for a couple days until I get back in sync."
Super Collie looked out the window. Dense urban development marched right up to the motorway, which spanned eight lanes. Nevertheless traffic crept along bumper-to-bumper even though, according to the car's dashboard clock, local time was after ten in the evening. The air conditioner did little to control the hot, muggy air or keep out the cloying smell of vehicle exhaust. "You know," she commented, "I bet I could run to the hotel faster than this."
"Probably," Arlo agreed with a sigh. "The only practical ways to get around in New York are to fly or take the train. Driving... well, you can see what that's like."
"Where are we staying?" George asked.
"We have an apartment for you in Queens," Arlo replied. "It's not the best neighborhood but it's right near the F line."
"A flat?" Super Collie frowned.
Arlo looked stricken. "Well... you have to understand, hotels are awfully expensive in New York. What with exchange rates as they are it's actually cheaper for the consulate to put you up in an apartment, especially if you end up staying for a while."
In due course they abandoned creeping progress on the motorway and took to creeping progress on city streets. The numbers on the dashboard clock counted up; with the coming of midnight traffic thinned a little. Super Collie stared at the passing buildings without really seeing them; she didn't particularly want to and jet lag made it easy. What struck her was the shabbiness of it all. Buildings looked old, dirty, and poorly maintained. Trash blew in the streets or piled up in alleys. Graffiti, or where it had been painted over, marked a great many walls. Every documentary about urban decay she'd ever seen could have been shot right here. As such she didn't pay attention to a shabby, nondescript individual in a long coat who lagged behind while Arlo waited at a stop light. She did notice when he produced a shotgun and aimed it at Arlo's head.
"Getoutadacar!" the man screamed, charging his weapon. "Fucking now, shitheads!"
Arlo emitted a mewling sound. His eyes bulged. He threw his hands up, quivering violently.
"Better do what he says," George suggested, calm as ever. He opened his door and slid out. Super Collie followed him instead of getting out on her side, which placed them all on the same side of the car as the hijacker.
"Back, pig!" the hijacker shouted, swinging his gun to cover George. "What the Hell kinda cop don't carry a gun?" he demanded after a moment.
"In New Zealand the police don't carry weapons," George replied.
"Then they're fucking idiots!" the hijacker screamed. "On yer face, pig!"
George stepped back and lay, face down, on the street. The muzzle of the shotgun followed him and the hijacker kept his eyes on him, ignoring Super Collie. As the hijacker's attention swung away from her she flicked her wrist. The head of her staff shot out, smacking the shotgun up and away. It fired into the air; the hijacker stumbled back and Arlo screamed. Super Collie closed the distance in a blur and landed a vicious uppercut that knocked the hijacker back into the cross walk. She caught the shotgun before it hit the ground.
"Unfortunately for you, my friend, I have something much better than a weapon," George said, rising to his feet. "I have Super Collie." He frisked the hijacker, producing a box of shotgun shells and several knives.
Super Collie looked around. The attempted carjacking seemed to have attracted no attention whatsoever. Several drivers queued up behind Arlo's sedan honked their horns and shouted curses. George took the shotgun and, with it slanted across his arm, gestured peremptorily for them to go around. Seeing the weapon- and the expression on his face- they complied hastily.
"Where are the police?" Super Collie demanded.
"They probably aren't coming unless you call them," Arlo replied. "Around here people don't pay much attention to gun shots."
Super Collie sighed heavily. In light of her experience at Customs she didn't relish the prospect of explaining her situation to the police. She grabbed the hijacker by the scruff of the neck but found herself trapped by vehicles roaring by in both directions. George solved that problem by stepping into the oncoming lane and gesturing sharply. Maybe he looked enough like a local policeman or maybe no one cared to argue with a man carrying a shotgun. Either way traffic came to a screeching halt. Super Collie dragged the hijacker to the sidewalk and left him. Back at the car George handed the weapon to Super Collie, then scooted Arlo over and took over driving himself. Eventually they reached the apartment.
"Here's the keys," Arlo said dully. "There's a security door at the lobby. Don't open it if there's anyone hovering around nearby. The apartment itself has three locks, each with its own key. You should set them all when you go out and probably when you're home, too."
"Are you all right, Arlo?" Super Collie asked. "Would you like to stay with us for the night?"
Arlo shook himself. He looked up- and straightened up. "No," he announced firmly. "Thanks all the same, though. And... Super Collie, if you need something... anything at all... just let me know. I'll get it, one way or another."
"Are you sure about that, Arlo?" Super Collie asked quietly.
Arlo nodded. "Yes ma'am. You... you reminded me why I'm here."
Super Collie smiled. Then she enfolded Arlo in her arms and gave him a hug. "I'm glad I could help," she said. "And I do need something. Could you help us get our luggage up to the flat?"
"Gladly!" Arlo grinned broadly.
"Oh," Jaleel moaned, stirring weakly. He lay on a bare single bed mattress lacking a box spring. Over the years he'd become something of an expert on mattresses, in both senses of the term. He opened his eyes... then blinked several times because he couldn't tell the difference. Either he'd gone blind or he occupied a place with no light whatsoever. He sat up, intending to rise, but didn't. His head ached.
"You're better off staying on the mattress for now," a voice said. "There's a lot of junk on the floor. You'll trip over something and hurt yourself."
Jaleel froze. The voice sounded deep and resonant but with a decidedly feminine cast. It spoke English with a Slavic accent. "Where am I?" he demanded.
"A bomb shelter," the voice replied. "Built back in the fifties but abandoned since the eighties. I found it and made it my home."
"Who are you?" Jaleel asked.
"Kratinka. You can call me Tinka if you like."
Jaleel licked his lips. He recognized that tone of voice. "Why am I here?" he asked cautiously.
"Because you're the Ram," Tinka replied. "The man with the fifty centimeter cock."
Jaleel swallowed. It sounded like one of Ronald's crazy movie ideas.
"I've been living down here by myself for... rather a long time," Tinka continued. "Recently I've... I don't know. Maybe I'm going into heat or something. Being alone... isn't enough. I stumbled across that warehouse complex your pal Ronald lined up for the movie. I heard your lady friend- Fredrika- talking about you. She mentioned when you'd be in and on what flight. When she went around to pick you up I followed."
"You- you didn't-" Jaleel stammered.
"Fredrika's fine," Tinka replied. "The limo's not in good shape, though."
"Well, then... what happens now?"
Tinka snorted. "I'm surprised you even have to ask."
"Bugger me," Jaleel breathed. If not for the darkness he'd be looking for a hidden camera. It was just the sort of prank Ronald would love.
"You got that backwards, I think," Tinka put in.
"Do we have to do it in the dark?" Jaleel asked.
"Not if you don't like," Tinka replied. "There's a box of matches by your right hand. Farther... farther... there. To the left of you- no, don't grab for it! If you knock it over and break it you'll have to sit here in the dark until tonight when I can find a replacement. If you're thinking you can escape while I fetch a new lantern I suggest you reconsider. The door to this room weighs a ton- literally- and the hinges are broken. It's like a vault door. Only way to open it is to pick it up and I doubt you're strong enough. Assuming you did get out you'd end up stumbling around through a maze of dark, partially collapsed passageways that open into all sorts of nasty places. There aren't any alligators living in the sewers of New York- it's too cold for them- but there's plenty of other unpleasant types."
"Like you?" Jaleel ventured.
"Yes," Tinka replied. "And I'm far from the worst. I don't hunt and kill for the fun of it. To continue, there's a Coleman lantern and a can of fuel to your left. You'll need to fill it, install the mantles, and light it yourself."
"Why didn't you do all that?" Jaleel wanted to know.
"My fingers are too big. I was afraid I'd break it accidentally."
Jaleel found the lantern and the can of fuel. He struck a match, revealing an expanse of dirty, cracked, concrete floor. Nearby he saw a pile of rubble and a stack of boxes. He seemed to be at the end of a long room with an arched ceiling; he couldn't tell how long or how high because the match's feeble glow didn't penetrate any meaningful distance. Fueling a lantern by match light didn't seem like a particularly good idea but he knew he couldn't possibly do it by touch alone. That consumed several matches. Getting the mantles properly installed left a dozen burned out matches on the floor and Jaleel's lips painfully singed as a result of holding matches in his teeth so he could use both hands. Pressurizing the lantern also required two hands but could be done in the dark. At long last he struck yet another match... and the mantles lit. As a bright, cheery glow sprang forth Jaleel finally realized the dimensions of the shelter. The ceiling peaked about six meters above the floor, which spanned about twice that distance. The walls were partially vertical, partially sloped, like those of a finished attic. The far end of the chamber lay around thirty meters distant. Cracks marred the roughly finished concrete; in places it had scaled off, exposing badly corroded reinforcing rods. Water and rust stains marred the walls. Lugs and sockets, some with pipes or wires still trailing from them, suggested where fixtures of various sorts had once been. Barrels, crates, and bits of unidentifiable machinery stood about, though mostly it had been shoved into the corners or against the long walls, leaving the center floor and end walls open. Jaleel's mattress occupied an alcove of sorts formed by a number of such items.
"You know," Jaleel observed, "For a place where people're supposed to hole up during a nuclear attack, it hasn't held together very well."
"There's been a lot of construction around here which wouldn't have been permitted were the shelter still in use," Tinka replied. "Besides, it really doesn't matter. No one in the know seriously expected the public to survive. These shelters were just a sop to prevent general panic."
Jaleel opened his mouth to respond, but in so doing turned his face toward the voice... and for the first time actually saw his shelter mate. He screamed and almost kicked over the lantern.
Tinka sat with her back against the end wall, because sitting against the side wall would have forced her to hunch forward. She resembled a panther; silky black fur covered every part of her and a long, black mane hung down past the middle of her back. The ample swell of her breasts and the sharp flare of her hips left no doubt as to her sex but thick slabs of muscle covered her arms, shoulders, belly, and legs. Her feet were cat's paws, complete with retractable claws. Her fingernails came to sharp points and dagger-like fangs a Smilodon might have envied protruded from her mouth. A long tail curled around from behind her, the tip of which flicked idly.
None of that particularly bothered Jaleel; he'd starred opposite a number of feline leading ladies and many of them had been tigers, lions, and jaguars. More than a few had been taller than him; he wasn't especially large, except in one particular way. Tinka, on the other hand, loomed over him even while sitting. Standing, he guessed her height at around three and three quarters meters. On top of that two long, muscular tentacles sprang from either side of her belly at waist level, for a total of four. Each tentacle measured a bit more than her height in total length, say four meters. Normal fur covered the first quarter of that length; from there on out was only smooth, supple hide, like a gorilla's palm. A double row of octopus-like suckers lined the underside of each tentacle for the other two thirds of its length; outboard of that ran a second double row of small pseudopods, like the last joint of a finger, each with a curved, retractable claw growing from it. A bony, cone-shaped cap terminated each tentacle; a sharp ridge along the top of each cap formed a sharp, forward facing point, a backward-pointing spur, and a blade-like edge in between. Opposite that was a hinged dactylus like the lower half of a bird's beak or the movable part of a lobster's claw; as in both cases the tip hooked upward, mating to a socket. The edges looked sharp enough to cut.
"W- w- w-" Jaleel stammered. The tentacles by themselves discomfited him more than everything else combined. While he watched the hooks on one tentacle extended and retracted in a wave running from base to tip, then the claw end opened and shut with a snap.
"The fellows at the lab called me a Darkstalker," Tinka replied, rolling onto her hands and knees and starting in Jaleel's direction. She stopped right next to Jaleel's mattress, sitting back on her heels.
Jaleel gulped. Despite everything he couldn't help staring at Tinka's nipples, which were large, clearly defined, and attached to a pair of exceptionally well formed breasts. Exceptionally large, too; when Tinka got on hands and knees her nipples pointed straight at the floor and hung about even with her elbows.
"Are you a tit man, Mr. Bronson?" Tinka asked, cupping her own and pointing them at him, arching her back to increase the effect.
"Ah..." Jaleel managed. His gaze dropped to Tinka's belly, then her crotch. She had a broad, heavy pelvis, as her size and build would require, and ample but nicely smooth thighs. Though he couldn't see them directly he'd bet his pension that her buttocks were big but firm and attractively curved, what the Greeks called callipygian.
"You must be, if that lady friend of yours is any indication," Tinka continued, leaning her torso forward and massaging her breasts. "What do they call her?"
"B- Blitz Knockers," Jaleel managed. He decided that if Tinka and Fredrika had been the same height then Fredrika's breasts would be bigger, but not by a whole lot. Which brought to mind the realization that if Fredrika had been before him, doing what Tinka was, he wouldn't be cowering away from her. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Fredrika wasn't built like a Russian shot-putter; Tinka might have pleasantly soft hips, breasts, and thighs but the rest of her body looked about as hard as tool steel. Her wrists and hands in particular were thick, powerful, and conspicuously lacking in feminine delicacy. Tinka at normal size would still be more than strong enough to break him into tiny pieces without so much as breathing hard.
Most importantly, Fredrika didn't have tentacles. The rest Jaleel could handle; over the years he'd performed with quite a few partners chosen to suit the audience's interests rather than his. He'd taught himself to find the beauty in any person, and Tinka actually had quite a bit going for her. Even her size might be considered an advantage; on more than one occasion he'd fantasized about making love to a woman considerably larger than himself. From the look of things she might even be able to fully accommodate him, which no normal sized woman could do. But he simply could not get past the tentacles; even as he stared at Tinka's admittedly fascinating body he saw the tentacles in the corners of his eyes, curling and swaying like snakes. Completely aside from finding himself held prisoner in a dank, dark, underground cave, even a fleeting glimpse of the tentacles killed off his desire as effectively as imagining Margaret Thatcher in the nude.
"You'd better undress yourself," Tinka suggested. "If I try taking off your clothes I'll rip them."
"Uh, okay." Jaleel fumbled with his boots. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on him; here he was with a woman who wanted him in the worst possible way and he- the porn star- was dragging his heels. "Look," he exclaimed, "I- I don't mean to be a wowser but all this-" he waved his hand at the chamber- "It don't do much for the mood, y'know?"
Tinka leaned forward. Her eyelids hung about half open, one slightly higher than the other. The eyes underneath were a strange, mottled white, devoid of irises or pupils. "Do you mean this place or me?" she asked.
"Well-" Jaleel found himself reluctant to offend a woman who looked like she could crush him to death simply by laying on him. Which, he realized belatedly, was an answer in itself.
"There isn't much I can do about the tentacles and all," Tinka commented. "Even if I cut them off they'd grow back." Two of them coiled around Jaleel's arms, hoisting him into the air; the other two cut the shirt off his back, snipping through the material like scissors. The cutting tentacles then seized his ankles while the other pair snipped away his trousers. "As for the rest of it... I'm sorry, I really am," Tinka continued. "But I'm in something of a desperate situation. I expended a lot of time and effort getting you here and took some dangerous chances." Jaleel wore no under things; he'd given that up at puberty when his male organ grew too large for them. Tinka coiled the tip of one of her tentacles around it, squeezing gently. Jaleel hissed; the suckers felt like a dozen pairs of teasing lips. "I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this but the situation's really very simple. If you won't satisfy one of my appetites, you can satisfy another." She licked her muzzle, in the process giving Jaleel a close up look at her dental equipment. "Sharp hole or soft, your choice."
Jaleel grimaced. If he went in the sharp hole he'd come out a soft one in due course, after a day or so. "I... don't think I'd care to be digested," he said.
"Smart boy." Tinka lay Jaleel down on the mattress, then leaned forward and licked his crotch. He closed his eyes; if he focused only on the sensation and didn't think intellectually about his situation he could allow himself to get excited. It occurred to him also that he'd never really believed that a man could be raped, at least not by a woman. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was about to discover otherwise.
When he entered the bathroom the next morning to shower Constable Kremmin found that the room appeared to have been recently and thoroughly cleaned. The aged tile work gleamed as much as it possibly could and the grouting had not only been carefully cleaned but, in places, repaired. In fact the whole flat seemed to have been recently scrubbed, dusted, and vacuumed- which, in fact, it had. Twenty-two hours in the air and two connections weren't nearly enough to make Super Collie willing to spend the night a place that hadn't been cleaned in, oh, probably five or six days. That no one had occupied the place in the meantime mattered not at all, at least not to Super Collie. George wondered briefly how often she must clean her own home and quickly decided that he'd rather not know. After bathing he took the brush by the sink and gave the tub a quick going over. It didn't look any different to his eyes and Super Collie wouldn't say anything... but she'd clean it anyway. She might have more energy than a Pomeranian on amphetamines but he didn't. Just watching her work exhausted him. He struggled briefly with his chivalrous instincts as he prepared himself breakfast from the generously stocked pantry and ice box. He had, however, been specifically warned against trying to fix meals for Super Collie. The only thing she obsessed about more than cleanliness was food.
The doorbell rang as George finished cleaning and putting away his dishes. He undid the multiple locks and opened it to find two very official looking individuals of indeterminate age waiting for him. One was a black dog, the other a white cat. Other than that- and the fact that the dog stood a couple centimeters taller- their identical dark suits and glasses concealed pretty much everything about them.
"Good morning Constable," the cat began briskly.
"You should be careful about opening your door to strangers, by the way," the dog suggested.
"I'm Agent William Jones and this is my partner, Agent Tommy Smith," the cat continued, indicating first himself, then his companion. "We're your liaisons with the Department of Super-Hero Affairs."
"Ah, you're here!" Super Collie exclaimed, appearing suddenly at George's shoulder. "Can we get started with the investigation now?"
"That's why we're here," Agent Smith said. "On behalf of the Department, welcome to America, Super Collie. Constable."
"One moment, please," George interjected gently. "May I see your identification, gentlemen?"
"Of course." Agent Jones produced a badge folder. He didn't try to flash it; he held it open until George had examined it and nodded. Agent Smith did the same.
"Ah, have you eaten, Super Collie?" George asked.
"Oh yes," Super Collie replied brightly. "I was up hours ago."
George suppressed a grimace. He'd slept in and he still felt logy.
"We'll show you the evidence we've collected so far," Agent Jones said. "We have a car downstairs."
You mean you didn't park it in the hall? George thought. He gestured for Super Collie to precede him, then closed and locked the flat's front door.
A sedan that exactly matched the color of the agents' suits sat, double-parked, in the street. A line of honking cars with screaming, cursing drivers stretched out behind it. Agent Smith and Agent Jones ignored them completely as they installed Super Collie and Constable Kremmin in the back seat, taking the front themselves.
"What information do you have so far?" Super Collie asked. Though almost bumper-to-bumper the traffic moved along briskly, if not rapidly. When drivers wanted to turn or merge they just did it, apparently irrespective of other vehicles. Agent Smith, who drove, did the same.
"Mr. Jaleel Bronson, under a screen name 'The Ram,' came to New York to star in a film being shot by Cinema Perversio, a local production company," Agent Jones reported. "He arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport with his agent, Mr. Ronald Abbot, and two bodyguards, Mr. Reginald Pearson and Mr. Carter Stevens. His co-star, Ms. Fredrika Von Braun, who uses the screen name 'Blitz Knockers,' met them in a rented Cadillac Fleetwood limousine at approximately twenty-three hundred hours. As they left the airport's grounds and approached the Belt Parkway interchange something appeared in the roadway directly ahead. The driver applied full brake and swerved, which caused the car to depart into a spin. It sideswiped the object, sustaining heavy damage to the left rear door. After the car stopped the door was torn from its hinges and a pair of what Ms. Von Braun described as 'enormous black tentacles-'" he annunciated the phrase clearly and precisely- "removed Mr. Bronson from the vehicle. Mr. Abbot used his cell phone to notify the police."
"Did anyone see anything but the tentacle?" George asked.
"No," Agent Smith replied. "The passengers didn't notice anything out of the ordinary before the incident. The chauffeur only said that something huge and black appeared suddenly in the roadway. After that he was stunned by the airbag, which also blocked his sight line. No one left the vehicle afterward, not until removed by rescue personnel."
"Where's the car?" Super Collie asked.
"We're taking you to it now, ma'am," Agent Smith assured. "It's being held in a police garage in Queens."
"We haven't received any messages from the kidnappers, nor has our investigation to date revealed any likely suspects," Agent Jones added.
George cleared his throat to conceal a snort. What did you do, inspect the staff to see if any of them had tentacles? His levity vanished almost at once. People who looked normal most of the time but transformed into monsters weren't unknown in super heroing circles.
An hour and a half later- during which George didn't think they'd gone more than thirty kilometers- the car arrived at a bulky, stone faced building that looked as if it might have stood since before the turn of the century. The previous century, that was, George amended hastily. Being somewhat more than middle aged he still had some difficulty with the idea of living in the twenty-first, as opposed to the twentieth, century. Agent Smith pulled into the entrance to an underground parking garage; a guard in an armored booth inspected his credentials then pressed a button. A heavy barrier lifted, allowing the car to proceed. Three levels down another guard inspected Agent Smith's ID, then unlocked a gate and waved the car through. The entire floor seemed to be filled with motor vehicles of various sorts that had suffered violent catastrophes. "Here it is," Agent Smith announced, stopping the car.
"Blimey," Super Collie breathed as she exited the sedan. Force of impact had not only dished in the limo's side but kinked the frame so that the nose and tail were no longer aligned.
"It looks like it ran into a bridge pier," George commented. He'd seen his share of motorway accidents during his time as a police officer.
"The object was plastic," Agent Jones said. "That is to say stiff but flexible, like plastic, as opposed to hard like metal or concrete. It appears to have fur, too; our forensics people recovered several hairs from the wreckage. The hairs are currently undergoing analysis but our experts tentatively classify them as feline."
"Unfortunately, the combination of cat hairs and tentacles doesn't match anything in our database of super entities," Agent Smith added.
"Where's the door?" George asked, walking slowly around the wreck.
"It wasn't recovered," Agent Smith replied. "We theorize that the perpetrator carried it away, probably with the intent to confuse the trail."
"How big were the tentacles?" Super Collie asked, approaching the side of the limo and inspecting the damage up close.
Agent Smith checked his notebook. "Ms. Von Braun said they were bigger around than her arm, but smaller than her thigh. But then her thighs are- ah-"
"Generous?" George suggested.
"Did the tentacles reach or slither into the car?" Super Collie asked, ducking her head through the doorway and surveying the interior. She picked up what had been Jaleel's seatbelt, rubbing the frayed end with her thumb and forefinger. It had clearly been cut; not as neatly as a sharp pair of scissors might have done, but fairly cleanly nonetheless. Say, a pair of blunt scissors wielded by someone immensely strong.
"I.. didn't think to ask," Agent Smith admitted. "Ms. Von Braun said reach, though."
"Did the tentacles touch anyone else?" Super Collie inquired. She ran her fingers along the door frame, not quite touching the metal.
"No," Agent Jones said. "That we did ask. Everyone agreed: the tentacles moved in a very determined fashion, directly to Mr. Bronson. They did not hesitate or grope."
"How was the seatbelt cut?"
"The tentacles apparently had some kind of bony grabber on the ends," Agent Smith explained. "Ms. Von Braun called them beaks; Mr. Abbot called them claws. I'm afraid we don't have a very detailed or consistent description."
"So." Super Collie straightened up. "We have a cat. It was large enough that the chauffeur called it huge, and strong enough that it survived the collision without injury. It left its hairs in the wreckage, but no trace of blood. Unless some was found elsewhere at the scene?"
"There was not," Agent Smith put in.
"It's heavy enough that it wasn't knocked flying," Super Collie continued. "It recovered from the crash quickly enough to rip the door off almost immediately."
"We think it pounced from about thirty feet- ten meters- short of the point of contact," Agent Jones said.
"Nine point one meters," Super Collie corrected.
"Anyway, we found marks in the pavement that might have been left by the creature's claws when it leapt," Agent Jones continued, a bit testily. "They were-"
"Sketch them for me, please," Super Collie interrupted.
Agent Jones knelt, drew a pen from his breast pocket, and used it as a pointer to describe four parallel lines, each about forty centimeters in length.
"That's the actual spacing?" Super Collie asked.
"Give or take a bit," Agent Jones allowed.
Super Collie rubbed her chin. Assuming that each furrow had been cut by a single claw, the lines indicated a foot more than twice the width of her own. "One set or two?"
"One," Agent Smith said.
"Then I theorize that our cat monster is a biped," Super Collie announced. "He launched himself from a set." She dropped to a crouch, as if readying for the start of a sprint race. "A quadruped would have taken off with both hind legs at once."
"It would have to be an awfully large cat monster," George observed.
"Something on the order of three and a half to four meters in height, eight hundred kilograms mass," Agent Jones put in.
"Forgive me if I seem obtuse, but I'm having difficulty imagining how a giant black cat monster with tentacles could toddle up to the scene of the crime, then toddle off with Mr. Bronson tucked under its arm without anyone remarking it."
Agent Smith scrubbed his face. "I'm afraid you've hit right on the most annoying part of this whole case, Constable. As far as we can tell, that's exactly what happened. We have absolutely no idea how the perp arrived at or departed the scene."
"Surely there were witnesses?" George ventured. "In an area this built up I shouldn't think the motorway would be that dark, even at night."
Agent Smith cleared his throat. George looked at him quizzically- then realized suddenly that the man looked embarrassed. It took George aback because, to best of his knowledge, this was the first time he'd seen Agent Smith exhibit any emotion whatsoever. "I'm afraid in New York people have a history of not seeing things," he said.
Super Collie blinked. "I'm sorry, I don't follow."
Agent Smith sighed. "Living in New York City is known to be... hard on people," he said. "Some years ago a woman was mugged, in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses. People watched the attack from the street and their apartment windows but no one moved to intervene and none of the witnesses came forward until contacted by police. That, what with the number of super beings operating in and around the greater New York area..." He shrugged. "I'm afraid people have become rather jaded about the whole thing. These days no one comes forward unless there's a reward or they get on television."
Super Collie's jaw dropped. The notion that people would ignore human suffering unless it somehow profited them shocked her to the core. Then, with an air of determination, she turned to the limo and started sniffing it. She began around the missing door, worked her way through the rear compartment, the front seat, and all around the outside.
"Find anything?" Agent Jones inquired, somewhat facetiously.
"Indeed I did," Super Collie pronounced firmly. "There's a scent, right here at the impact site." With a fingertip she circumscribed an area including the front post of the rear door. "It's definitely feline, but there's... something odd about it. It's distinct enough that I'm sure I could track it if I could examine the wreck site."
"That can be arranged," Agent Smith said. "In the meantime we'll provide you with all the crime scene data we have to date and introduce you to your associate."
Super Collie began to answer but caught herself. "Associate?" she inquired suspiciously.
"Yes," Agent Jones said. "In addition to ourselves the Department has selected a super hero who will assist you with the investigation and lend aid during encounters between yourself and other super entities."
"I... see," Super Collie replied, slowly and with more than a little trepidation. "Is my... associate here, now?"
"Yes," Agent Smith replied. "If you'll come this way we'll introduce you."
"Yes," Super Collie agreed. "Let's get... introduced. Yes." George strongly suspected that she might have meant to say let's get this over with.
An elevator whisked the four to a higher level of the building and opened onto an office bustling with activity. Agents Smith and Jones led their charges through a maze of partitions and cubicles to a small room separated from its neighbors by frosted glass walls. Agent Smith opened the door and gestured for Super Collie and Constable Kremmin to precede him. Inside they encountered a tall, trim, and reasonably muscular young man wearing a bulky suit that resembled nothing so much as a knight's mail. The metal had even been buffed to a high finish. A massive backpack attached to the rear of the suit and stuck up above the top of his head. A pair of short fins jutted out to either side; at the end of each was a fat, open cylinder like a miniature jet engine. A selection of smaller fins, on his shoulders and hips, presumably enhanced the suit's stability. A short, wide-barreled weapon attached to the top of his right forearm. The man himself appeared to be some sort of deer; light brown fur covered most his long, narrow face, with touches of white around his eyes and on his chin and throat. A pair of slender, black, ribbed horns corkscrewed up and back from the top of his head.
"Oh, Super Collie, it's such an honor to meet you!" he gushed, rushing forward and offering his hand. As he moved one of his jets knocked over a chair. When he spun to catch it he slammed his other jet into Agent Smith's belly. When he spun back the other way, apologizing profusely, he would have smacked Constable Kremmin had not that individual set himself against the impact. The armored man bounced away, looking quite surprised. Though well into his fifties Constable Kremmin's squat body was every bit as solid and powerful as it looked.
"Super Collie, allow me to present Jato Impala, who will be your associate for the duration of your stay here," Agent Jones said, grabbing the fallen chair and freezing the hapless super hero with a hard look.
"Jato Impala," Super Collie responded with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm. "It's always an honor to meet a fellow crime fighter," she added, stepping forward and offering her hand with the air of a person determined to be pleasant no matter how trying the circumstances.
"It's my pleasure, ma'am," Jato Impala replied, grinning happily. "I can't say what a delight it is to be working alongside such a famous super hero for my first case!"
"Charmed," Super Collie replied. Her smile, which had seemed rather forced, now looked more like the rictus of a person being strangled.
"How did you happen to become a super hero, Jato?" George asked.
"I won a contest," Jato Impala replied proudly.
"A group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built the suit as part of an Advanced Science contest sponsored by the Department," Agent Smith said. "With the suit in hand the Department decided to look for a suitable candidate to use it. Jato here was selected out of a hundred and fifty applicants on the basis of his physical fitness and his responses to the essay questions."
"Very commendable, son," George said, seizing Jato Impala's gauntleted hand and shaking it heartily. "Can you tell us a bit about your powers?"
"The jet pack allows me to fly," Jato announced, turning back and forth. Agent Jones leapt out of the way. "The armor itself is a special light-weight alloy with active shock cancellation. Conventional armor can stop a bullet, say, but force of impact goes right into your body and bruises the heck out of it. Better than being dead, sure, but after a round or two you're out of the fight anyway 'cause you've been pounded silly. The lining of this suit contains special gel packs that absorb and dissipate the shock wave generated by high-velocity impacts with the outer shell. I can take a dozen hits and stay on my feet." He grinned. "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking." No one laughed; his grin slipped a little. "Anyway, my primary weapon is the grenade launcher, here." He raised his right arm. "It's a clip fed semi-automatic that holds three rounds. I have four spare clips here on my belt." He tapped his midriff. "The grenades are the latest in non-lethal incapacitating ordinance. Instead of using a traditional explosive they're charged coils of room-temperature superconductor. The triggering mechanism shorts the coil and the flux released vaporizes it. That generates an extremely powerful shock wave but no shrapnel to speak of. Having one of these babies go off near you is like getting clocked by the toughest boxer that ever lived. Regular body armor doesn't help, either. You need shock canceling armor, like I have." He thumped his chest. "Last but not least, the helmet includes millimeter radar and a two-way radio." He lowered his face shield. "It's better than infra-red, even, because it works regardless of light conditions, as well as in smoke and even rain."
"How's the resolution?" George asked.
"So so." Jato wiggled his hand. "It's no good for reading, for instance, but I don't have any trouble seeing where anything is. In fact, I can even blank the visor completely and use only radar imaging." He touched a control on the side of his helmet; the visor over his face turned silver. "Even with only that I can see just fine." He reached out and put a hand on George's shoulder. Unfortunately, in so doing, he almost clipped Super Collie with one of his jets. She hopped back just in time. "Oh, I'm so sorry!" he exclaimed, spinning to face her. That swept the other jet straight at George, who this time didn't merely brace to receive it, he shoved back. Jato stumbled backwards and almost fell; Agent Jones leapt clear and dragged a chair out of the way so Jato wouldn't trip over it.
"I gather the suit doesn't enhance your strength any," George commented, rubbing his forearm.
"Ah, no," Jato admitted. "I understand there were plans for a servo-boost mechanism but it went over budget."
"How did you end up with the name Jato Impala?" Super Collie inquired.
"Um-" Jato shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Well... I wanted to be the Rocket Deer but apparently that's taken. One of the students on the design team suggested Jato Impala as an alternative."
"We checked our database and found that it wasn't in use by any registered super being," Agent Smith put in. "So our boy got it free and clear." George had to say that Jato himself didn't seem entirely thrilled, however.
"Can you carry someone when you fly, Jato?" Super Collie asked.
"Ah, up to a point," Jato qualified, raising his visor. "The suit jets are pretty powerful but I can only hold what I can lift."
"Won't be a problem," Super Collie replied briskly. "I can hold on plenty tight. I want you to fly me to where the accident happened. Do you know where it is?"
"Yes!" Jato replied excitedly. "My visor has a GPS-"
"Good," Super Collie cut in. "Let's be off, then."
"Ah, Super Collie-" Agent Jones began.
"What?" Super Collie cut in, more sharply than before. "I'm here to investigate this case. Jato here is my associate, which I assume to mean that he's here to assist me. If he gets me to the wreck site in less than three hours he'll be assisting me to no end."
"My pleasure, ma'am!" Jato exclaimed, saluting smartly and grinning hugely.
Agents Smith and Jones looked at one another. Agent Jones shrugged. "As you wish," Agent Smith said. "I'd suggest using the roof exit."
"Right this way, ma'am!" Jato exclaimed, moving to the door. He caught one of his jet pods on it and staggered into the jamb. In the end Super Collie was forced to twist him sideways and shove him through. A chorus of shouts and curses followed them across the office as Jato bumped into people, swept papers off desks, and knocked over waste baskets. He apologized profusely and would have stopped to help clean up the disturbances had not Super Collie kept him moving with a firm hand on the shoulder. At the elevator Super Collie found herself once again forced to steer Jato Impala through the doorway to keep him from bashing into things.
"Please, Super Collie, let me say what an honor it is-" Jato began as the car rose toward the roof.
"Yes, thank you," Super Collie cut in. "I really can't say what an honor it is to be given an associate of your caliber."
George frowned briefly. It occurred to him that Super Collie's comment seemed rather deliberately ambiguous. Jato Impala took it as a compliment and beamed happily.
"So, ah, how do we do this?" Jato asked as the party emerged onto the building's roof. He practically slavered as he contemplated putting his arms, even armored, around Super Collie.
"Not a problem," Super Collie said briskly. She spun Jato Impala around and leapt onto his back, wrapping her legs around his jet pack and gripping his shoulders with her arms. Jato grunted and staggered, almost loosing his balance. He triggered his jets; they came on with a piercing scream and a cloud of debris kicked up from the roof. He converted his stumble into a shambling run; just at the point he seemed about to go off the roof edge and plunge into the street he achieved liftoff. The suit seemed capable of carrying the weight but Jato had trouble balancing it; he wobbled erratically through the canyons between buildings until lost from sight. The scream of his suit jets remained somewhat longer.
Constable Kremmin remained on the roof, distractedly picking at his lower lip, long after the newly paired super hero team disappeared. "You know," he commented to no one in particular, "I get the feeling this is going to be a very interesting case."
Agent Jones took off his glasses and buffed them with a handkerchief. His blue-green eyes were narrowed, his face set in hard lines. "That is for damn sure," he muttered.
"Thank you, Mr. Apple," the pretty young customs inspector said, returning his passport. "Welcome to America and we hope you enjoy your stay in New York City."
Albert Algernon Apple grunted noncommittally and took his passport carefully from the young woman instead of snatching it. A liter of Vodka from the duty free shop in Auckland helped ameliorate the fact that he'd been forced to fly to bloody Sydney before catching a connecting flight to Los Angeles. Distributed more or less evenly through his twenty-six hour journey the alcohol left him more or less functional. Somewhat less than more, it seems, he thought darkly, successfully returning his passport to its place in the vest pocket of his ratty brown sports coat on the second try. With his camera- an ancient, battered, 35mm Pentax SLR- around his neck and an equally battered briefcase in hand he shambled off toward baggage claim. Physical activity- and sea level atmospheric pressure- helped clear the cobwebs from his mind. At the baggage carousel he pushed through the crowd in a fashion befitting a man of his height and prodigious girth. People cursed and elbowed him as he forged stolidly ahead like an ice breaker moving through a field of growlers. He ignored the abuse; he was used to it. If anything he was rather disappointed; New Yorkers were supposed to be some of the surliest people in the world but the vitriol around him felt lukewarm at best and the curses yawningly mundane. At least by Albert's standards they were. He had, after all, been cursed and vilified all over the world.
The press in the passenger loading area in front of the terminal made the crowd at baggage claim seem downright civil. Albert waded in, using the added mass of his suitcases to aid his progress. Now the curses came hot and heavy. He stopped a cab through the simple expedient of stepping in front of it. His mass- over a hundred and sixty kilos- probably halted it as much as the look in his small, bloodshot eyes. "Take me to the Carlton House Best Western," he ordered in a naturally gruff voice made even harsher by fatigue and alcohol as he loaded his bags into the cab's trunk. The camera, of course, stayed with him. The cabby gabbled back in something that might charitably be called English.
"This is so much better," Albert sighed, settling into the cab's rear seat. Cramming his ample behind into what airlines laughingly called seats was pure Hell, made worse by the fact that he was fundamentally too cheap to spring for first class. The cab smelled like sweat and exhaust fumes with a touch of vomit for flavor but Albert cared not, luxuriating in the sensation of being able to spread out. Thus he was intensely annoyed when he cab screeched to a halt on the motorway leading into town. He sat up, looking around quickly. Traffic on the outbound side inched along while the inbound side moved along normally. "What the Hell?" he exclaimed.
"Some super dickweed holding up traffic!" the cabby exclaimed, adding a string of vile curses in what was no doubt his native language.
"Super-" Albert grabbed up his camera, peering over it as he looked around like a sniper hunting for a target. Super folk were what had brought him to New York in the first place. On the other hand, the city was lousy with them. What were the chances that the one super hero Albert so desperately longed to see would be here?
A deer in a suit resembling nothing so much as a knight's mail attempted to direct traffic. A bulky backpack with fins and jets jutting from it made him look somewhat hunchbacked. Despite his reasonably imposing presence and imperious gestures he had little luck in his self-appointed mission- because of the other costumed individual casting about on hands and knees on the highway's concrete verge.
"Oh dear God," Albert breathed, probably the closest he'd come to an honest prayer in years. He tried to roll down the window but there wasn't a handle. "Stop the cab!" he bellowed. The cabby shouted back in his native tongue. "Because I said so!" Albert slapped a fifty- American- against the partition separating back from front. The cabby stared at it- instead of the road- for a long time, then swerved off onto the shoulder. Albert kicked his door open, snapping the Pentax's shutter even as he rose from his seat. From long practice he could shoot almost as fast with the old manual winder as another photographer could do with a power winder.
"Sir! Sir!" the deer hurried over. Albert side-stepped quickly so the idiot wouldn't block his view. "Sir, this is an official crime scene investigation-"
"Shove off!" Albert snarled. "I happen to be an official member of the press, bullet-head!"
Super Collie heard the voice and glanced back over her shoulder. Her jaw dropped, her eyes widening in shock and horror. She'd turned almost directly away from Albert as she sniffed the concrete, giving him a beautiful view of her buttocks. That, combined with her absolutely astounding expression, was more than Albert could have dared hope for. The deer reached for the camera, either to grab it or block the shot. Albert swung it down and to the side before tripping the shutter, firing almost from arm's length. He felt something like the sense of giddy excitement and transcendent joy he'd experienced that fateful day in Nagasaki. This wasn't anywhere near that good... but it was enough to make Albert believe, at least for a moment, that there was a God and He loved his son Albert. A photo of Super Collie on hands and knees with her ass in the air- and that expression on her face- was front page material for sure.
"Just what the bloody Hell are you doing here, Squid?" Super Collie demanded. In an instant- literally, a blur- she'd gained her feet and closed the distance between them. Albert recoiled; he couldn't help it. He knew that super running was one of her powers but intellectual appreciation did nothing to prepare him for the reality of her practically materializing in his face. Especially not when she looked angry enough to chew nails and spit tacks.
"Is this person bothering you, Super Collie?" the deer demanded icily.
Super Collie turned the full force of her gaze upon the deer. "Jato, will you please can the 'gallant gentleman' routine?" she thundered. He wilted like a flower in a blast furnace.
"Who's you're boyfriend, Super Collie?" Albert asked, unable to keep a smirk off his face.
"He is not my boyfriend, you overweight glob of suet!" Super Collie shrieked, grabbing Albert by the lapels and shaking him violently. "By God I'd rather-" she faltered, perhaps realizing suddenly what she was about to say. "Ah, Jato, I-" she began, glancing somewhat fearfully at the deer.
A mirrored visor hid the deer's face but Albert could imagine his eyes brimming with tears behind it. His lip quivered.
"Look, Jato, it's not like that," Super Collie said hurriedly, dropping Albert and taking one of the deer's hands in both of hers. As she opened her mouth to continue Albert stepped back and snapped a picture of the touching scene.
"You motherless bastard!" Super Collie shrilled. Her staff came around-
Albert cringed. Once again he couldn't help it. The head of Super Collie's staff had stopped only a few centimeters short of smashing the camera out of his hands. It vibrated as her hands quivered. She bared her teeth. "Aarhh!" she snarled, spinning away. "Go away, Squid," she said shortly.
"Yes, your cab is holding up traffic," the deer interjected. He extended a hand to Albert's shoulder.
"And just who are you?" Albert demanded, pulling back and raising the camera.
"I happen to be Jato Impala, officially accredited super hero," the deer replied archly. "Who might you be?"
"He calls himself Squid Vicious," Super Collie replied before Albert could speak. "He writes stories for gossip rags and takes embarrassing photos to go with them." She glanced over her shoulder; if looks could have inflicted wounds Albert would have died a gruesome, horrible death. "He seems to have made me a special project of his, too."
"Oh, my!" Jato Impala's mouth dropped open. Despite his nom de plume the man was a walrus, not a squid; rough, ruddy skin as rumpled as his clothes enclosed his thick, corpulent body. Coarse, scraggly hair sprouted from every visible part of him except his hands, which were smooth and webbed. The stiff, bristly whiskers jutting from his fleshy cheek pads drooped in the characteristic "walrus moustache" pattern. His head, with its low, sloped forehead and small, piggy eyes, sat on his rounded shoulders apparently without the benefit of a neck. "You're the one who took that picture of Super Collie in Nagasaki!" Jato exclaimed, glancing at Super Collie- and even with his visor lowered Albert had no trouble reading Jato's face. He was imagining Super Collie in a skimpy sailor suit of the type Japanese schoolgirls are known to wear, after she'd slid a dozen meters on her face. The Mystic Power of the Shepherd saved her from injury... but it didn't prevent the pavement from stripping off the front of the suit, so when she picked herself up-
Super Collie's face lost all expression. She read Jato's face as clearly as Albert did. Without a word she turned about and ran off along the highway's shoulder.
"Wait!" Jato shouted, but by the time he got the word out noting remained of Super collie but a blue-gold streak vanishing in the distance. Jato spun around- and one of his jets smacked Albert right in the back. He pitched forward from the unexpected impact- and the camera flew from around his neck as he fell headlong on his face. For an eternal instant the Pentax spun through the air- then smashed on the pavement, the lens shattering and breaking off, the film compartment flying open. "Terribly sorry, sir!" Jato called as he ran after Super Collie, triggering his suit jets. But as he roared away into the sky he giggled.
"Bugger me," Super Collie muttered, coasting to a stop. She'd left the motorway some time ago; for a while she'd been running on city streets, turning randomly this way and that. Now, on top of being saddled with a useless sidekick and having to cope with an annoying reporter she was thoroughly lost in this filthy, stinking Hell hole of a city. "Bugger me!" she repeated, with more feeling. Yeah, and wouldn't Jato Impala just love to do that, she thought darkly.
Reflections on buggery turned Super Collie's thoughts in the direction of her boyfriend, John. she couldn't help imagining the sensation of his hand upon her hip, while his fingers gently spread KY jelly between her buttocks. Then he'd lean his hips against hers, guiding his penis into her anus with one hand while reaching around with the other and stroking her vulva-
John's imaginary touch was sufficiently vivid that Super Collie shivered in reaction. She drooped her head in embarrassment as if the people nearby might have seen her thoughts. She leapt onto the roof of a market because she didn't want to deal with them. Sitting on a ventilator with her chin on her palm and her staff across her lap wasn't exactly comfortable but it was comparatively private. Before John she'd never even thought of anal sex, much less actually considered it. John never suggested it until Daughter Night got ahold of him. Now... when she thought about it Super Collie wasn't sure she cared for it but somehow every time John made an overture- he never asked in so many words- she ended up giving in. She couldn't honestly say she didn't enjoy it, either; somehow his just being himself made everything she and he did together exciting and pleasurable- even when, viewed in the cold light of reason, it was shockingly unconventional. She dabbed at her face, wiping away the tears brimming in her eyes. She wished John were here with her instead of far away in Wellington. His gentle touch never failed to wipe away her sorrows. His warm smile made all her travails worthwhile. But if people found out he was Super Collie's boyfriend-
A high-pitched scream broke into Super Collie's thoughts. She looked up as saw Jato Impala zooming over the buildings. Reluctantly she admitted to herself that, without her weight to upset him, he handled himself fairly well. He lacked experience, sure... but who was she to cast aspersions? He, at least, had training and the guidance of the Department of Super Hero Affairs. She'd started super heroing completely cold, without even knowing the full extent of her powers. She'd learned the hard way- and made no small number of mistakes in the process. Sure he was naive, annoying, and clumsy- at least on the ground- but underneath it all he seemed genuinely dedicated to being a super hero. Perhaps their pairing was more fortuitous than it appeared. If her influence turned Jato into a real hero then she would have accomplished something significant even if she did nothing else.
Jato's suit jets blasted up a storm of dust and gravel as he dropped onto the rooftop. "Thank goodness you stopped," he said. "Even with being able to fly straight instead of going around things like you had to I could barely keep up."
"I'm sorry, Jato," Super Collie sighed, rising to her feet. "It's just... Squid's been a thorn in my side for a long time. It seems like every time something embarrassing happens he's there to turn it into a fiasco."
"Ah." Jato nodded. "Like taking pictures of your butt."
"For example." Super Collie clenched her teeth to avoid snarling.
"Well, then I guess it's lucky he dropped his camera," Jato said. "Though of course as an accredited super hero I regard any injury to the public as unfortunate, no matter how minor."
"He dropped his camera?" Super Collie asked, eyes narrowing.
"Yep. Terrible thing. Lens broke, film everywhere. Terrible." Jato shook his head but a huge grin split his face.
"The film was exposed?" Super Collie asked breathlessly. "You mean he lost all his pictures?" Suddenly the world seemed like a brighter, happier place.
"Yeah." Jato repressed a giggle. "I'm afraid I, I sorta bumped into him. Knocked him right on his mug, in fact." He clasped his hands over his mouth, his shoulders heaving. "I mean- you know I wouldn't do anything like that on purpose!" he snorted several times. "But- you know- how clumsy I am!" He couldn't contain himself any longer and broke down, howling with laughter.
For a long moment Super Collie stared at Jato in mute wonder. Then she grabbed is face and gave him what was probably the longest, most passionate kiss he'd ever received in his life. When she finally let him go he almost collapsed. "Take me back to the crash site," she directed, shaking him gently. "There's something I still need to check." She even let him put his arms around her instead of riding on his back. When they arrived she leapt over the concrete barrier lining the shoulder of the motorway and surveyed the patch of ground between the two roads and the various ramps connecting them. Somewhere else this area might have been landscaped with grass and shrubs but here was nothing but slabs of dingy concrete- with a storm drain in the middle to collect runoff. Dropping to hands and knees Super Collie sniffed carefully, continuing what she'd started earlier: that is, looking for the scent she'd detected on the wrecked limo.
Unfortunately, big cities in general and this one in particular were bad places for scent tracking. Motorways always stank: of motor fuels, lubricant oils, hot rubber, tar, and exhaust fumes. In a place with lots of roads, and heavily traveled ones at that, the effluvia would overwhelm noses considerably less sensitive than Super Collie's. But even so there was always the chance that she'd get lucky-
"Bingo," Super Collie whispered, crouching to bring her face right up against the grate without actually touching it. Over the years a certain amount of mud and debris had collected in the gap between the grating and the frame in which it sat. Some of that mud and debris had been lifted out of the gap and left in little piles on top of the outer rim. Sometime, not too long ago- recent enough that runoff hadn't washed away the evidence- the grate had been removed from its frame, then replaced. And indeed there were a couple fine, black hairs caught in the rusty metal. Super Collie would bet her eye teeth that, once analyzed, they'd match the ones taken from the limo.
Jato perked up. He'd been watching closely- or, at least, watching Super Collie's buttocks closely. When she made her discovery she hiked up her tail, wagging excitedly, at the same time raising her hips, lowering her shoulders, and shifting her knees apart. Jato's suit wasn't very comfortable to stand around it, being heavy and bulky, but just then he was profoundly glad of it; the rigid mail- especially in the area just below his midriff- saved him from doing something that would be shockingly improper as the official liaison to visiting super being. "Have you found something?" he asked.
When Super Collie glanced over her shoulder to respond Jato was still looking at her rear end. It struck her rather forcefully that her current position could be considered... suggestive, to say the least. It also It also occurred to her that despite his shortcomings Jato was a quite pleasingly fit and handsome young fellow. His handy disposal of Squid, accidental or otherwise, had gone a very long way to mitigating his shortcomings; so far, in fact, that she didn't begrudge him his free look. In fact, she wondered fleetingly what he'd look like without his armor. If only he wore spandex instead. That brought on a sharp pang of guilt; John wouldn't go chasing after other women while she was away. She sat back on her heels, shaking her head to clear her mind. "Yes," she pronounced, rising smoothly to her feet. "This grate was opened recently." She inverted her staff, fed it through the grate, hooked one of the crosspieces, and, after bracing herself carefully, lifted the grate out of its frame. Despite that the grate was cast steel and must weigh a good hundred kilos she lifted it easily, needing care only to insure that she didn't overbalance. She shuffled backwards, pulling the grate behind her, then peered down into the hole.
The grate capped a narrow concrete tube with metal rungs set in one side. A ways down it opened into a much larger horizontal passage. Super Collie gathered her cape, held her staff against her body, and jumped. She landed with a splash in a few centimeters of water; a large, rectangular storm sewer- easily enough to accommodate five or six people walking abreast- stretched away into the distance, running approximately diagonal to both motorways. Dirt washed down the drains formed swirling patterns on the floor and trapped small pools of stagnant water, whose smell masked the odor she sought. Heavy darkness concealed everything but a small patch of floor illuminated by sunlight coming through the drain opening.
"Jato!" Super Collie shouted. Her voice echoed along the sewer. "Do you have a torch?"
Super Collie grimaced. Separated by a common language, she thought sourly. "I mean a- a-" She struggled for the word. What did the Yanks call it? Oh yes: "A flash. Flashlight."
"Oh. No, but my helmet has a light. I'll be right down."
"But-" Super Collie began. Yet here came Jato's armored boots down the ladder. He hove into view- without his jet pack, which clearly would not have fit down the hole. "Oh. I didn't realize you could take it off."
"Yeah." Jato pointed out lugs on the side of his chest and waist. "The jet pack locks to the armor suit so I don't flop around while in flight. The pack doesn't have any control surfaces, I aim it by shifting my balance, and even tight straps would have too much slop, especially during hovers. But there's a quick release so I can take it off and put it on without too much trouble." He indicated what Super Collie had thought to be a decorative belt buckle, though she had wondered why it was red instead of bright metal like the rest of his suit. Now that she looked closely she saw the words "Emergency Release" stenciled on it.
"Cracking." Super Collie pulled Jato to her side. "Now here's what I need you to do. Switch on your light. Aim it straight down, then move it along the floor out that way." She pointed down the sewer.
"If you need to find something, it might be easier for me to use my radar vision," Jato suggested.
Super Collie licked her lips. "That's a good idea but I'm not sure you'd recognize what I wanted to see."
"No problem." Jato pressed a latch at his throat. The helmet of his suit detached from the plastron. He reached up- then hesitated. "Um... Super Collie, I hope you won't take this wrong but-"
"No, I understand," Super Collie cut in gently. "You have a secret identity, don't you?"
Super Collie giggled. "I won't tell if you won't."
"Aw, what the heck. If you can't trust your partner, who can you trust?" Jato lifted off his helmet and for the first time Super Collie gazed upon his face. She resisted the urge to sigh; from the neck up at least he was quite handsome. Definitely super hero material, she decided. Unfortunately he also seemed also to be about a decade younger than her. "I've already set it to radar mode," he continued. "All you have to do is look." He reversed the helmet and set it on Super Collie's head.
Super Collie turned slowly and looked down the tunnel. The helmet didn't fit well; her face seemed to be shorter and wider than Jato's. For present purposes, she decided, it really didn't matter. The visor showed her a strange scene painted in eerie, slightly hazy electronic green. Surfaces lacked color, texture, and shading. The floor looked strange until she realized that the swirls of dirt weren't distinguished from the concrete on which they lay. Seeing nothing of interest she turned about and looked the other way. Just as she opened her mouth, intending to ask Jato to switch on the helmet lamp, something did catch her attention. In fact, if the soil were as dark and murky down the way as it was right under the drain she might have overlooked it.
"See something?" Jato asked, sensing Super Collie's excitement.
"Yes," Super Collie replied. She took a step-
And jumped back with a ragged gasp that was almost a scream. The feeling had been like a cold draft ruffling her fur, and icy fingers tripping down her spine. Except that it couldn't have been a draft, because she felt it through her clothes as if she'd been naked. She whirled, convinced that there was someone behind her. There was, but it was Jato, not the nightmare phantasm she'd expected. She tore off the helmet, even though doing so plunged her into darkness, because it seemed to be hampering her senses rather than enhancing them.
"Super?" Jato asked, stepping forward quickly. He looked worried. "Are you all right?"
Super Collie took several deep breaths to calm her nerves and slow her pounding heart. It's just a sewer, she told herself. There are no ghosts down here. "Step here," she commanded, putting a hand between Jato's shoulder blades and pushing him forward.
"Yes?" Jato waited expectantly.
"Don't you... feel it?" Super Collie asked, struggling to keep her voice level. It was all she could do to keep from running; whatever she'd felt had gone straight to the dark basement of her mind, where monsters lurked in closets, under the bed, and crept from the shadows when the lights went out. Reminding herself that she was an adult, and thus above such childish fears, didn't help in the least.
"Apparently not," Jato replied. "Or if so, it seems perfectly ordinary. There's nothing about standing here that's different from standing over there."
Super Collie grimaced. She hated admitting it, even to herself, but Jato's presence went a very long way to helping her conquer her fear. Gritting her teeth tightly, she reached out a hand and put it on his shoulder.
The feeling came back... but only in a very local area. Super Collie moved sideways, groping along; the chill seemed to occupy a region of precise boundaries, as if she were putting her hand into cold water, except that the surface was vertical and there wasn't any water, only air. She managed to edge around the zone by pressing against the opposite wall of the tunnel. "Turn on your light and point it here, at the floor," she said.
Jato came up beside Super Collie, put his helmet back on, locked it down, and operated some controls on his left forearm. A pair of small but intense lamps, one on either side of his head, came on and cast pools of light on the floor of the tunnel. "See this?" Super Collie asked, pointing to a shallow ridge in the greasy, dark soil. "This is a footprint."
Jato cocked his head. "I'm sorry, I don't see it."
"The foot was here." Super Collie traced a circle just above a patch of bare concrete next to the disturbed soil. "When it came down the dirt oozed out from under it, forming this ridge. The side of the ridge is curved instead of sharp, meaning the foot was bare. Unshod. These brush marks along the top were made by dragging hairs. Now, here's the clincher." Super Collie placed her foot on the opposite side of the dirt patch and bore down. Her boot left a sharp edged mark considerably shallower than the other. "Notice how little the dirt moved when I stepped on it. Whatever made this mark weighed a lot more than I do."
Jato's jaw dropped. "You mean... like a giant cat!"
"I mean exactly that."
"But-" Jato looked behind and up at the tube leading to the drain. "It couldn't possibly have fit down that hole."
Super Collie straightened up, brushing the dirt from her knee. Unfortunately the force field which protected her from harm didn't protect her from soiling. "As to that... I know this may sound a little crazy but I think it somehow turned insubstantial and passed through the concrete."
Jato frowned. "You're right," he said flatly. "It does sound crazy."
"Jato, not too long ago back in New Zealand I dealt with a... being who could do that. Whenever she passed through a solid object it left... a creepy feeling. Like a chill. I felt that same thing here." Does that mean this monster is somehow connected to Daughter Night? she wondered. It wasn't a pleasant thought. "Come on," she said, turning and starting down the tunnel, extending the line from the entrance to the footprint. "Let's see if we can find any more evidence."
Jato followed, keeping his light aimed at the floor, widening the beam from a spot to a flood. "You're sure he came this way?" he asked.
"I am," Super Collie replied. "This tunnels' big enough for him, though he'd have to stoop. But why use it, if he can pass through the ground?"
"Why, then?" Jato countered.
"Because he can't carry Mr. Bronson with him. If so, it would have been easier and safer to grab him out of his hotel room. Our cat critter staged the grab here because it lets him get himself and Jaleel underground, and out of sight, as quickly as possible. If he used this tunnel on the way to the snatch he would have stopped directly under the road; there'd be no reason to walk all the way to the grate."
Super Collie's exposition took long enough that at its conclusion she and Jato were in fact under the motorway; traffic noise came down to them, muted by earth and concrete but still distinct. Jato looked up, panning his light across the ceiling, but there wasn't anything of interest to see. For her own part Super Collie looked down; any evidence to be found would be on the floor. Concrete wouldn't take tracks but the dirt covering it might, especially if the perp had stood in one place for a while. Holding perfectly still was very difficult; most likely there'd be scuff marks in the dirt-
As she bent over to look closely at the floor Super Collie did in fact discover markings, though not the kind she'd expected. Her nose found it, not her eyes; not too long ago someone had let a fairly generous quantity of vaginal fluid drip on the concrete. The odor was strong enough that it easily overcame the musty, stagnant smell of the sewer itself, at least in Super Collie's nostrils. A vision flashed into her mind: of the kidnapper, caressing his lady friend's vulva with one hand, holding a bottle with the other to collect her passion sweat. A patently absurd notion, to be sure, but it brought to mind another vision, one not so easily banished: of John doing the caressing and holding the bottle to collect Super Collie's love juice. Surely just as absurd a notion, since she couldn't imagine John doing such a thing... but she couldn't stop thinking about it. In particular, what it would feel like as John's fingers stimulated her labia. The ugly truth was that if by some happenstance John did ask, she'd almost certainly let him. Simply as an excuse to have him touch her, if nothing else. She gritted her teeth, shaking her head to clear it. If she'd understood that taking the spirit of Bast into herself would turn her into such little horn dog-
Super Collie heaved a sigh and let her head droop. If she'd known she would have done it anyway. It was the only hope she'd had of stopping Daughter Night without a terrible loss of life. Nor had she been a nun, or anything like one, beforehand. The spirit might have sharpened her desire and deepened her passion, but both had already existed in a well developed form.
The second thought which came to Super Collie regarding the fluid stain was nearly as disturbing as the first, for all that it was much more carefully thought out. That a man would bring the fluid and deliberately dump it made no sense at all; it was far more reasonable to suppose that the stain had been left by someone equipped to do so: that is, a woman. Moreover, it made more sense to suppose that the woman in question was the kidnapper, rather that some random individual who just happened to wander down into the sewers to masturbate. But that led to a rather unfortunate conclusion: that the kidnapper, a woman, had lingered down here pleasuring herself for some time before rising up to kidnap a fellow with a gigantic tonker. The thought of trying to explain that hypothesis to Agents Smith and Jones made her want to curl up into fetal position and suck her thumb.
Fortunately Jato had spent his time looking at the tunnel walls and ceiling so he didn't notice Super Collie struggling with her inner demons. He did eventually notice her apparently staring intently at the tunnel floor. "Found something?" he asked.
Super Collie bounced to her feet. "Yes," she announced briskly. "An important clue. Our kidnapper is female."
"Really? How do you know?"
"The scent," Super Collie replied. Not a lie, since Jato hadn't asked which scent.
"Can you track it?"
"I believe I can. We'll want a map of the tunnels and a professional guide before continuing, though." She returned to the entrance and mounted the ladder. As she emerged into sunlight she blinked and looked around. "Say, Jato, where'd you leave your jet pack? I don't see-"
The roar of an over-revved engine and the squeal of spinning tires cut off the rest of Super Collie's question. A battered Ford pickup fishtailed slightly as it pulled away in a cloud of rubber smoke. Two young men, both birds of some sort, rode in the truck. One, in a denim jacket, drove; the other, in leather, rode in the bed- along with Jato's jet pack.
"Shit a brick!" Super Collie exclaimed, scrambling out of the hole and breaking into a run. By the time she reached the motorway's shoulder the pickup had rejoined traffic, by the simple expedient of swerving into it. Several vehicles dodged or braked, laying on the horns. Despite this Super Collie closed range quickly; heavy traffic trapped the pickup but Super Collie ran between the cars. As she came up astern of the pickup the fellow in back picked up a rim and prepared to heave it. "No you don't!" Super Collie shouted and leapt. The driver swerved, sideswiping a sedan and driving it into the barrier lining the roadway. The guy in back toppled; fortunately for him the rim didn't land on any part of his body when he dropped it. Instead it fell into the truck bed with a horrendous crash. Super Collie came within a hair's breadth of eating pavement but managed to catch the edge of the bed with the fingers of one hand. The guy in back leapt forward, perhaps thinking he might break Super Collie's grip. She swung her staff- and hooked it around his neck. He shrieked in terror as she jerked him forward but all she did was pin him against the side of the truck while she swung her leg up and scrambled on board. The driver let out a yelp and stomped the accelerator as if he might outrun her. Super Collie glanced forward in alarm- and saw the truck closing rapidly on the vehicle in front. She grabbed the guy in back and leapt. While she hung in the air the pickup collided with a low rider Cadillac Eldorado, a vehicle nearly as big and massive as the truck. With the majestic, terrifying grace of an ocean liner hitting an iceberg the Ford and the Cadillac each broke away, spinning in opposite directions. Drivers around them dodged frantically but with traffic so tight there wasn't anywhere to go. Super Collie landed just ahead of the shock wave, ducked onto the shoulder, and stopped. As she turned about a cacophony of tearing metal, howling rubber, shattering glass, and blaring horns erupted forth as more than a dozen vehicles briefly demonstrated Brownian motion. Super Collie could only watch as the entire mass slid to a halt. A dozen more vehicles collided with the already stopped ones before traffic came to a complete halt. In the blink of an eye a hundred meter stretch of pavement had turned from a motorway into a wrecking yard.
At long last Super Collie actually looked at the man she held. His head and shoulders were black, his chest and belly white. "Bloody magpies," she growled, heading off toward the mess with the hapless fellow dragging behind. "It'd be just my bloody luck for Squid to figure out some way to make all this my fault too," she continued. "Welcome to bloody America, land of the hoon and home of the loopy. Revolution my hairy backside, I bet King George was glad to be quit of the lot of you." She released the magpie and dropped to one knee over him. "I'm going to help clean up this mess you and your mate caused," she said, jabbing her finger so close to his face his eyes crossed trying to follow it. "If you even think of running off I will track you down even if it takes a hundred years. I will track down all your descendants. If you die I'll dig up your lifeless corpse! By the time I get through with you you'll be begging to have the Terminator chewing on your arse! Do you understand me?" He nodded frantically. "Good!" She spun away, her cape billowing out behind, and started pulling people out of the wreckage.
Tinka lay on her belly, purring contentedly, her head cradled on her arms. Jaleel lay on his belly also, draped across her buttocks, gasping for breath. He guessed that Tinka weighed as much as nine or ten normal sized women. He felt like he'd just slept with nine or ten normal sized women.
Jaleel kept running into men- who weren't in the business, that is- who go got all gooey at the notion of being the only man at an orgy. He always wanted to throw them in with, say, a dozen of the women he knew, then see what they thought. For one, making love to porn stars was likely not what the average person thought it would be. Being in the business radically changed one's attitudes and perceptions about sex. For another, making love to many women was a Hell of a lot of work. In Jaleel's experience one was nice, two excellent, and three about the practical limit. A bloke with lots of stamina might successfully handle four. Beyond that you'd have to be Superman, or take periodic rest breaks.
Tinka hadn't permitted any rest breaks. Jaleel got the feeling she'd been saving up sexual frustration for a long time. He'd used his mouth, his dick, both his arms- fingers meant nothing to her; she was, after all, as big as a horse- until he felt like he'd completed a Decathlon. What annoyed him the most was that he liked fisting- and here was a woman who could take his arm up to the elbow. If only she didn't make him keep at it until his shoulders felt like they were on fire inside. He liked busty women, too... and he wasn't likely to ever see breasts larger than Tinka's, not in real life. There was a rack he could really tit fuck. Straddling her torso, with one arm around each breast, the entire length of his shaft lay within her warm, furry cleavage. A foretaste of Heaven, surely. But while she allowed him to do it she didn't share his enthusiasm. Instead she wanted him to massage her breasts and suck on her nipples. Providing her with adequate stimulation required him to press- and suck- hard. His lips felt as if someone had smacked him in the face with a mallet. That's not to say there wasn't plenty of more conventional intercourse. Tinka on her back, Tinka on her belly, Tinka on her knees- for which Jaleel had to stand- and finally, Tinka standing up. That seemed to be her favorite position, which she accomplished by supporting Jaleel under the shoulders and buttocks with her hands. That bothered him because it basically reduced him to nothing but a human dildo, existing only for her pleasure. That not so few men he knew regarded women exactly that way only made the situation more uncomfortably ironic. If his erection gave out before she was finished she stimulated it either orally or with her tentacles. Like any man he couldn't bring himself to object outright to fellatio but the proximity of her enormous fangs to a particularly tender, delicate, and intimate part of his anatomy gave him the willies, especially in light of her initial threat. The tentacles weren't too bad purely on the basis of physical stimulation but they were shockingly alien- and the suckers could suck hard. Even through his fleece he ended up with hickeys all over his body. Last, and far from least, was the purring. Felines did that, Jaleel understood, as a comfort mechanism: when they felt happy, wanted to feel happy, or wanted others to feel happy. Tinka might feel happy but Jaleel didn't- and the sound didn't make him want to, either. It wasn't the gentle sound one usually thought of; Tinka's purr was a basso profundo rumble that reminded him of an idling dump truck. It only served to reinforce how terrifyingly big and powerful she was. Against all that, she was the only female he'd ever met who took him all the way in, not counting a horse he'd done once on a drunken dare. That fact complicated the issue more than he cared to admit. He felt like God was punishing him for his lewd and lascivious lifestyle by taking what he claimed to like and throwing it back in his face.
Tinka stirred, rising to hands and knees. Jaleel remained where he was even as his feet left the floor, lacking either the strength or will to move. Her buttocks felt soft but supportive, like a nicely stuffed- but not overstuffed- couch. Nothing at all like the rippling sheets of muscle on her back, shoulders, and belly. And chest, beneath her breasts. Probably on her hips and thighs too, though far enough beneath the fat to keep her from being too firm. She plucked him off with a tentacle and lay him gently on the mattress. They hadn't used it for sex; she would have smashed it flat. "Hungry?" she asked.
"Yes," Jaleel replied, staring blankly up at the ceiling. The lantern still burned; he wondered how long it would last before he had to refuel it.
"There's a gas stove in a box next to where you found the lantern," Tinka replied. "Next to it you'll find another box full of MREs."
"Sorry?" Jaleel frowned. "Emarees?"
"Meals, Ready to Eat," Tinka explained. "Civilian version of military rations. They have the advantage of being fairly compact, easy to store, quick to prepare, and reasonably tasty. Down at the other end of the room you'll find a tank full of water you can use for drinking or bathing. There's no bathtub but there is a bucket; you can heat water on the stove and pour it over yourself. You'll find soap and shampoo in one of these boxes. There's a bed pan sitting next to some pipes coming out of the floor; make sure the waste water goes down them. Bodily waste goes in there too; if you take a dump made sure to sprinkle some of the white powder down on top of it. Use the scoop and keep it covered; if you get it on your bare skin it'll burn you up right quick. Enjoy." She rose to her feet.
"W- where are you going?" Jaleel stammered.
"Out to get my dinner," Tinka replied.
"Can- can I come with you?" Jaleel asked. "I- I won't try to escape, I promise ." He didn't at all like the idea of being alone in this dank, dark cavern.
"Hm." Tinka rubbed her chin. "I'm not sure you want to do that, Jaleel."
"What do you think I eat?"
"Well, meat, obviously."
"Considering my mass and metabolism, about thirty kilograms per day," Tinka responded. "That amounts to approximately an entire cow every three weeks. Where do you suppose I'll find that in the middle of Manhattan?"
"Ah... there's got to be meat lockers around."
"There are. Quite a few, as a matter of fact. The citizens of Greater New York consume an ungodly amount of food. So every three days or so I sneak into one and carry off a side of beef. Let's say I'm careful and spread my raids all over the city so each warehouse only loses, say, one or two a month."
"Oh," Jaleel said hollowly. "That's... still an awful lot of meat to go missing, especially on a regular basis."
"Quite," Tinka agreed. "First they tighten up security. Which, if it drives me off, means I go hungry. If it doesn't they call in the police, private investigators, the FBI, super heroes, and all sorts of people I'd rather not meet."
"But-" Jaleel frowned. "Then where do you find food?"
Tinka seemed to stare at Jaleel. Her deformed, half open eyes made the expression disconcerting, to say the least. "There's so much meat in this city no one can keep track of it all. What I take... that's not to say it isn't missed, but usually only by a few and not in any organized way. The authorities don't notice because my portion blends in with what turns up missing every day. So, you might say, I get to eat as much as I can stomach." The corners of her mouth turned up in a way that might be called a smile but which Jaleel found horrifying.
"But..." Jaleel still couldn't see what Tinka was getting at but suddenly wondered if he really wanted to know. The only meat he could imagine that wouldn't be tracked was pigeons. He tried to imagine thirty kilograms of pigeon carcasses. It would be a veritable mountain. In his mind's eye he saw Tinka eating them by the handful, like popcorn. Thirty kilograms a day. Leaving aside for the moment the question of how she'd catch them he wasn't sure there were that many pigeons, even in all of New York.
"You still don't get it." Tinka shook her head. "I'll leave you to think about it. Don't worry, I'll be back early tonight."
"What's so special about tonight?" Jaleel wanted to know.
Tinka stepped up to the wall. "I'm having Italian," she replied. "Delivered." Suddenly an oily, inky blackness seemed to ooze from her, swallowing up her fur and all the other details of her body, leaving nothing but an impenetrable shadow, a hazy outline of her form- but one that stood by itself away from the wall. Jaleel swallowed convulsively; one feature of hers remained. Her eyes, now pale, bloody red, gazed at him from the darkness. Then she stepped into the wall. The shadow flowed into the cracks and angles like water running down a drain. For a very long time after Jaleel sat on the mattress, his arms wrapped around his knees, shivering violently even though it wasn't particularly cold.
Barry "The Blade" Muldano drove a green-gray 1992 Chevy Lumina. He wore a Navy blue Sears mail order suit, which rather offended his sense of style but it, like the car, was anonymous. In fact, Barry the Blade himself was pretty nondescript. A victim of the Great American Melting Pot, despite his name he didn't look particularly Italian or anything else. That was, in point of fact, his greatest asset to the Family. (Only outsiders ever called it the Mob or any of those other popular names.) Barry could knife someone in the middle of a crowded street and no one would notice a thing, other than that some apparently random individual suddenly collapsed.
Tonight Barry was driving to yet another execution. Roger Tadesky arranged exchanges between dealers and suppliers of various illegal substances. When one of Roger's dealers ratted him out to dodge a mandatory minimum sentence Roger, in turn, fingered a highly placed member of the Family. Completely aside from the disruption it would cause to Family business it was an act of shocking disloyalty that could not be tolerated. A few judiciously placed bribes revealed where Roger was hiding out. Protective custody was, in Barry's opinion, a joke. The Witness Protection Program- which he thought of as the Witless Protection Program- was even more a joke. Bribes and influence, properly applied, penetrated it every time. With an endless supply of narcodollars backing the Family's efforts no bribe could be too much to pay- and Family honor was something upon which no price could be placed. These days, what else was there? Without it a person wasn't any better than the teenage punks roaming the streets, blowing each other way for what the Family regarded as table scraps or just for the Hell of it. They weren't even smart enough to see that the Family got rich while they ended up doing time or, more often, slabed.
In time Barry reached his destination. He pulled off the street and parked in an alley. Manhattan's Upper East Side wasn't a nice place, not even close, but Barry didn't worry. He carried his knives- one in his shoe, one in his waistband, and a third in his sleeve- plus a holdout pistol in a shoulder holster. The local punks knew him, knew why he came, and stayed away- which was the only intelligent thing they ever did, in his opinion. He got out of the car, walked around to the trunk, and opened it. Inside lay Mr. Tadesky, bound, gagged, naked, and very much alive, at least for the moment. He looked up at Barry in wide-eyed terror. He thought he knew what was coming. He didn't; assuming all went as planned none of Barry's weapons would leave their holsters. "Hey Tinka," Barry called quietly into the deserted alley. "Dinner is served."
Inky, impenetrable blackness oozed from the cracked, worn brickwork at the end of the alley. It flowed together into a pool of shadow so thick it masked everything behind it. Then it separated from the wall, freestanding in the air like a miasmic cloud. Barry struggled to keep his face impassive, tried to ignore the icy feeling in his gut, telling himself over and over that he didn't believe in all that metaphysical crap. Tinka was merely something that had escaped from a mad scientist's lab, or perhaps even been deliberately inflicted on an unsuspecting world. She wasn't a demon from the blackest pits of Hell. Surely not.
Tinka turned solid. "Evening, Barry," she said.
"Evening." Barry nodded and stepped aside. In this form she bothered him less. Physical threats- even overwhelming ones- were something he could understand.
When he saw Tinka looking down at him Roger tried to scream. Through his gag he only managed a muffled whine. Barry turned away; he'd performed dozens of executions and assisted with many more but this bothered him in a way he didn't care to articulate. Getting shot or knifed- even at an execution- seemed at least like an honest, even decent, way to go. This-
Roger's feeble screams- which never wavered in tone or intensity- ended suddenly with a wet crunching sound. The crunching continued for a few minutes. When it stopped Barry turned back. Tinka licked her muzzle and dropped a tangle of bloody rope into the Chevy's trunk. Her powerful jaws and sharp teeth sheared through bone as easily as flesh, allowing her to consume the entire body. No waste- and no evidence. A liner in the trunk made of plastic bags caught the ropes and any spillage- of which there wasn't much; Tinka was a fastidious eater, only to be expected from a cat. The plastic and the ropes would go into an incinerator.
"See you next time." Tinka waved, turned to shadow, and melted back into the wall.
"Yeah." Barry forced down a lump in his throat, closed the Chevy's trunk, and drove away. Intellectually it was a beautiful arrangement; the Family disposed of embarrassing corpses and Tinka got a free meal, delivered. Barry couldn't help wondering what would happen if someone talked. Tinka dealt with him only because he'd managed to convince her that the Family understood her desire to remain hidden. He told her about omertà, the Silence. In the Family you never talked to outsiders, no matter what. If you had a problem the Family dealt with it.
But the Silence wasn't perfect. For a variety of reasons people broke it: greed, revenge, fear, or even as a calculated ploy to defeat a rival. Barry decided that if anyone ever questioned him about Tinka he'd deny everything. Even if he went to prison, even if he were sentenced to death. He and Tinka worked together so well precisely because she understood the Family's take on betrayal- and revenge. She could walk through walls, even prison walls. If he broke the Silence she'd find him, no matter where he ran. He believed that in a way he professed not to believe in God. Dying by lethal injection would be a blessing compared to following Roger Tadesky and the many others who'd gone down that road.
Because of his preoccupation- and because he'd done this so many times without a hitch- Barry wasn't paying as much attention to his surroundings as perhaps he should have been. When a small caliber bullet shattered the driver's side window of his car it caught him completely by surprise. Breaking glass slashed up the side his head- and deflected the .22 hollow point just enough that it creased his skull instead of punching into it. He slumped over, insensible and bleeding profusely but not dead.
"Barry, Barry, Barry," Tinka muttered, shaking her head, watching from the roof of a tenement. She wasn't the trusting sort; she doubted Barry realized it but she always followed him a ways to make sure he got away all right. Her eyes weren't completely useless; she could tell if it was night or day though nothing much else. Her incredibly sharp ears painted an image in her mind as clear as if her vision were perfect and the scene lit by full daylight. Thus as two crows in gang colors ran out, tossed Barry into the street, and prepared to drive away in his car she knew exactly what was happening. She also knew that the crows probably wanted the car for a robbery, a drive-by shooting, a drug delivery, or some other idiocy that would bring them into intimate contact with New York's Finest. That wouldn't bother her in the least except that the car might be connected to Barry and the mess in the trunk would certainly attract unwanted attention. These brain-dead gang-bangers couldn't be trusted to dispose of the car properly even if they found the mess and understood what it meant, a very unlikely occurrence. She didn't think Barry would talk but it wasn't fair of her to leave him hanging. Bracing herself carefully on the stone facing- the only part of the roof that would carry her weight- she leapt. Her seven hundred and sixty kilogram mass arced through the air, fell five stories, and came down on the car's roof like the hammer of a drop forge. The gang morons never knew what hit them; the force of impact converted them to paste and flattened the car like a squashed bug. Tinka jumped up, folded the car in half, threw it to her shoulder, dashed to where Barry lay, scooped him up as she passed, and leapt to the roof of a nearby building. Getting out of sight quickly was essential; even at night in a cruddy neighborhood there were people out and about. Being careful to step only on copings, beams, and other load bearing structures she dashed across the rooftops, leaping over streets and alleys. Her padded feet made relatively little noise but structures reverberated with the force of her steps. To the people sleeping below it probably sounded like an earthquake, a train wreck, or some other calamity, but in New York weird shit happened all the time. Besides, she needed to ditch Barry and the car as quickly as possible and get underground; the night sky over Manhattan was full of unfriendly eyes. Wouldn't it be great if she had to fight some idiot super hero now?
Fortunately the East River wasn't far. Tinka ducked under the expressway, tearing aside the fencing with a casual swipe of her hand, and lobbed the car like a giant shot-put. It sailed through the air, hit with a tremendous splash, and vanished into the dark water. With luck the police wouldn't find it any time soon. Still hidden under the road she turned to shadow and put her hand through Barry's head. In that state she could actually feel inside his body; she sensed that the bullet hadn't penetrated his skull but he bled profusely from a badly lacerated scalp. He wasn't in immediate danger but wouldn't last without treatment.
For a moment Tinka dithered. What did she really owe Barry Muldano? She'd come across him one evening while he prepared to dispose of a soon-to-be corpse. She'd planned to eat him and the victim both but he talked her out of it. Since then... well, it wouldn't be fair to say she hadn't profited by the arrangement. Barry provided her with goods and information as well as the occasional meal. He'd obtained everything she needed for the abduction of Mr. Bronson, from the camping gear to the license number of his limo, no questions asked. He directed her to good hunting grounds and away from official scrutiny. In short, having a Mob contact was extremely useful. (Though she and Barry were relatively close she wasn't by any stretch a part of the Family.)
When it came right down to it Barry was probably the closest thing Tinka had to a real friend in this bitter, urban jungle. Without him... as bad as things were she wouldn't care to contemplate how they might be worse. Turning solid she scooped him up- gently- and moved as briskly as possible along the waterfront. She didn't know any of his contacts, for his, her, and their protection. That wasn't to say she didn't know where to find help. After several years of watching mobsters, drug runners, gang bangers, burglars, murderers, muggers, rapists, and taggers ply their respective trades she probably knew the New York underworld as well as anyone. She knew, for example, where many of the street doctors did their work. (Family men didn't use street doctors; the Families kept real physicians on retainer.) North of Central Park Tinka cut west, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and occasionally ducking into alleys when choppers or patrolling super heroes ventured too close. Not for the first time she wished she could take people when she turned to shadow. Finally she reached a particularly dilapidated tenement; she left Barry on the roof, turned to shadow, and dropped down inside. The apartment she wanted was on the second to the topmost floor. By laying down on her belly she was able to materialize inside it and distribute her weight enough not to fall through the floor. She tapped the bedroom door with her finger. On the third try someone started awake and scrambled for something, probably a gun. No lights came on; her eyes wouldn't detect anything that dim but she'd hear the switch being thrown.
"Doctor Frost," Tinka called softly. "Come out. I have a job for you."
"I don't know what you're talking about!" a voice exclaimed from within.
"Don't play games with me, Doctor," Tinka replied. "I'm not going away. My friend needs help and you will provide it. For which you will of course be handsomely compensated."
The bedroom door opened hesitantly. Tinka sniffed; no alcohol, thank goodness. The doctor appeared to be clean this evening. Chances were in her favor, around three out of four, but it would be just her luck to find him smashed. The doctor- a basset hound and a reasonably attractive fellow discounting the ravages of alcoholism- stood in the doorway, blinking in perplexity at what probably seemed to be an inexplicable dark mass in his living room. A pistol- a .38 revolver- dangled from his right hand.
Tinka twined a tentacle around the doctor's torso, clapping the tip over his mouth. "Don't shoot," she commanded. "Don't scream. If you do I'll have to kill you. Do you understand?"
The doctor tried screaming anyway. He beat at Tinka's tentacle with his fist and the revolver, it apparently never occurring to him to fire it. Which was perhaps just as well; the slug wouldn't hurt Tinka- unless he hit her in the eye, say- and with his arms trapped at his sides he'd most likely shoot himself in the leg. After a while he relaxed.
"Are you finished?" Tinka asked. He nodded. "Do you believe that whether or not you live through the next few minutes depends entirely on whether or not you do what I say?" He nodded again. "Good." She released him, propping him up when he started to fall. "Get your tools and go up to the roof. You will find there a man who has suffered lacerations on the left side of his head as a result of flying glass and a bullet wound inflicted by a small caliber handgun. You will clean and dress his injures so he doesn't bleed to death. Understood?" The doctor nodded. Tinka turned to shadow and moved into a neighboring apartment. So long as no one got up and walked through her everything would be fine. In shadow form she made no sound but her touch felt like ice. A advantageous side effect was that she could "hear" through walls as well as moving through them. Thus she sensed the doctor gather his equipment, leave his apartment, and head up to the roof. He found Barry easily enough, laid out a clean cloth, set up a small light, and set to work. With reasonable skill he picked hair, glass, and bullet fragments out of the cuts, cleaned them, stitched a few particularly bad ones, and finished up with bandages. By the end of it Barry looked like a mummy from the neck up.
While the doctor worked Tinka rose through the roof and solidified behind him, kneeling. Once he finished and put away his tools she grabbed his head and twisted. His spine snapped like a dry twig. His body spasmed once and went limp. For a time afterward she held the corpse, convincing herself that the doctor's death was necessary. He was an alcoholic; he'd lost his medical license because he couldn't stay off the sauce and lost his driver's license after killing a little girl in a DUI accident. Now he earned a living collecting welfare and patching up gang bangers. Every so often he maimed or killed one because he was bombed. Through it all he resolutely insisted that he had everything under control. No matter what Tinka said to him, sooner or later he'd blab: either while drunk or for the promise of a drink. There were people who'd take great interest in stories of a giant black cat-monster with tentacles. Only by killing him could Tinka be absolutely sure that Doctor Frost wouldn't reveal her existence to people she'd really rather not meet.
Now Tinka had to dispose of the evidence. Stripping the doctor's corpse wasn't hard; he wore only a robe, underwear, and slippers. Out of habit she started with the head and worked her way down. He wasn't very satisfactory as a meal, being little more than skin and bones and awful damn stringy to boot. Decades of alcohol left his flesh with an unpleasant aftertaste. Having begun, though, she forced herself to finish. His robe caught the spilled blood; she bundled up his bag and the rest of his clothing in it. Taking the bundle in one hand she picked up Barry in the other, cradling him in the crook of her arm like a baby, and headed south. In an alley she lifted a sewer grate, feeding Barry and the bundle down the hole. After replacing the grate she turned to shadow and slipped through the ground. She couldn't stand in the storm sewer but her tentacles made crawling relatively easy. Working her way south through a maze of tunnels under the city she finally reached the abandoned bomb shelter. The massive steel door, now badly rusted, stood propped in its frame. She moved it just enough to feed Barry and the bundle through, then put it back and passed through in shadow form. She found Jaleel not on the mattress but sitting against the wall, a MAC-10 submachine gun laying across his lap.
"After washing up I noticed these boxes along the wall here," Jaleel said, raising the weapon. "They're full of interesting stuff. Like this. With a full clip, even. I don't suppose if I emptied it into you it would make any difference."
Tinka shrugged. "It might sting a bit," she allowed. "You'd really need something bigger. A fifty caliber, say, with armor piercing bullets."
"Figures." Jaleel set the gun down. "It didn't help the bloke who owned it, did it?"
Tinka shook her head. "No." She walked over to the boxes and dropped the doctor's things into one atop a pile of clothing.
"I finally figured out what you meant by there being so much meat what you took wouldn't be noticed," Jaleel continued. "You were talking about people."
Tinka sat down against the opposite wall. Somehow Jaleel's calm delivery was far more damming than open anger.
"So who's that?" Jaleel pointed at Barry. "A snack for later?"
"No." Tinka looked up sharply. "He's my- my friend." She realized suddenly that this was the first time she'd ever articulated that thought out loud, even after knowing Barry for more than two years. It struck her so profoundly she felt like the world had gone over a speed bump. "He got into trouble because of me. I brought him here so he'd be safe until things calm down." Her eyes narrowed; Jaleel's accusation banished the melancholy which had hung over her since killing the doctor. "You think I'm some kind of vicious monster. Worse, a cannibal and a murderer. Well, let me tell you something, mister high-and-mighty. I only kill to survive. I only hunt as much as I need to eat. I don't go around blowing away every animal in sight and leaving their carcasses to rot in because I'm only doing it for the fun of the kill. That's one reason I'm here. There isn't enough wild game anywhere within a thousand kilometers to support me... unless you count people. So I kill a few. I kill a man who beat his wife to death with a baseball bat. I kill a fellow who pounded a little old lady's skull into paste for twenty bucks and a cheap watch. I kill a woman who drowned her baby in boiling water then left the corpse in a dumpster to be devoured by rats. I kill a man who chopped a woman's arms and legs off with a fire axe, then raped her and left her for dead. She didn't die, by the way. I checked. I kill a teenager who sells cocaine laced with rat poison. I kill a bunch of young men who drive down the street shooting random people and video taping it. I kill a guy who kidnaps children, butchers them, and eats them." She leaned back, placing her hands on her knees. "All that and I'm the bad guy."
Jaleel stared at Tinka for a moment, then once again picked up the MAC-10. He lay it across his lap, running his hand over the smooth metal of the receiver. He had to admit Tinka's words put the weapon's presence here in a new light.
"The fellow who owned that had just used it to gun down three rival gang members and five random bystanders," Tinka said. "I grabbed his head and broke his neck with a flick of the wrist. He never felt a thing. Unlike the people he shot, who lay screaming in pools of their own blood."
"Is there so little evil in the world that you have to add to it?" Jaleel demanded.
"Am I?" Tinka demanded icily. "Maybe all I'm doing is cleaning the slime out of the gene pool."
"That justifies it, then?" Jaleel countered.
Tinka sat for a long time without speaking. "No," she finally replied. "It doesn't. And thank you, because it's better that I don't start thinking that way. I might... I might stop regretting that I kill them and that... would be unfortunate. For them and me." She went to the boxes, turned to shadow, and walked along the line, trailing her hand through them. Finally she stopped, turned solid, and pulled a blanket out of one. Carefully she wrapped Barry in it and lay him on the mattress.
"I do wish she wouldn't do that," Jaleel whispered, lowering his head.
"What else can I do?" Tinka inquired. "I can't see in the boxes and the stuff in them doesn't make any noise. The alternative is to go through unpacking each and every one."
"What are you, Tinka?" Jaleel asked. "And don't tell me you're a Darkstalker. I know that already."
Tinka sat by Barry, stroking him gently. "I was created in a secret lab, by people wanting to learn how to create... super creatures. I don't know who or why. I know I'm not what they wanted. I'm not supposed to be blind or have tentacles. They were going to, to kill me. I escaped, stowed away on board a ship, and ended up here in New York."
"That's why you stay here," Jaleel stated. "The city hides you."
"Uh huh." Tinka lifted her hand from Barry; her fingers clenched and opened. "And now, Jaleel, it's been a short but stressful evening for me. I have a lot of tension I need to work off."
Jaleel sighed. In one of the boxes he'd found a pair of trousers that fit reasonably well and weren't in too bad a shape. He took them off and walked over to where Tinka sat. It wasn't as if he had a choice... it wasn't as if there was anything else to do... and though it annoyed him to no end to feel that way he wanted to feel his penis sliding into Tinka's vagina. Before now he'd managed to convince himself it didn't matter that he couldn't ever really penetrate a woman. (The horse didn't count; technically it was only female, not a woman. He'd decided he wasn't into that. More to the point, he'd decided he didn't want to be into it.) But, he found, that resolve came from the same place as a person who'd never tried sex- or a particular sexual practice- loudly insisting that they knew they wouldn't like it. The reality of the experience made a liar out of his convictions. Worse yet, aside from simple physical capacity, the strength of her vaginal muscles were, like those on the rest of her, tremendous. The degree of stimulation she could give him was- to say the least- astounding. But the more he thought about it the more convinced he became that this little tryst could only end in tragedy. What could he do, take her home and marry her? Stay here for the rest of his life?
Before he'd crossed half the floor Jaleel's penis had stiffened to more than half erect. He found it disturbingly easy to put the whole matter off. Until after his next sexual encounter, for instance. Only when he sat alone in this gloomy man-made cave could he think about his family and friends. Fredrika, mainly. The skin business was notorious for treating performers like hunks of meat though, in his experience, no worse than any other entertainment industry. In the face of all that Fredrika at least treated him like a human being. That he found himself seriously considering turning away from her- probably never seeing her again- bothered him worst of all. As Tinka picked him up and guided him into her he squeezed his eyes shut. If she noticed he hoped she thought him overcome by pleasure and not self-loathing.
"He was such a kind and gentle soul. I mean- how could something like this happen? You read about it in the papers, sure, but you never think it'll happen to someone you know!"
"There there, darling." Fredrika patted Ronald on the shoulder while he sobbed noisily into an already sodden handkerchief.
"I do think it's a little premature to start referring to him in the past tense," the woman seated to Ronald's left rather pointedly commented. She seemed to be a skunk, though only physiologically. Her base fur color was white, with black tiger stripes on all visible portions of her body- which amounted to quite a bit; she wore only a halter and shorts. She lacked Fredrika's awesome mammaral development but not by much. A black blaze covered the bridge of her nose and ran up onto her forehead, where it vanished under her voluminous white mane. A pair of thin white lines ran up from her nose, zigzagging apart over her expressive, intensely blue eyes into a curious double lightning bolt pattern. Her tail looked like a skunk's but reversed, white with a wide black stripe on top. Diagonal white lines broke the black into slightly S-shaped chevrons. Furthermore, she enhanced this already striking appearance with lavender eye shadow and cherry red polish on her long, impeccably sculpted nails. "I mean, that is so, isn't it, Super Collie?" she added, perhaps just a tad worriedly.
"It is," Super Collie declared, with more assurance than she felt. "I've found absolutely no evidence that she's harmed him in any way." So far.
"She?" Fredrika cocked her head. "You're sure it's a woman?"
"You are?" Agent Jones chimed in, raising an eyebrow.
"I am," Super Collie replied, more vehemently than she'd originally intended. Agent Jones' remark sounded not so much like a request for clarification as a snide comment on her professional competence. "I discovered scent marks in the vicinity of the abduction that were clearly female in character."
"What did she do, drop a load of spunk?" inquired a third woman, an attractively built vixen with traditional red fox fur patterning, seated to the left of the tiger striped skunk. Her eyes widened when Super Collie flinched visibly. "You mean she did?"
Fredrika started upright. "Do you mean to tell me this- this person grabbed Jaleel and then stopped to- to-"
"Tickle her taco?" the vixen suggested. "Go clam digging? Do a few one-finger pushups?"
"Heel, Wanda," the skunk commanded sharply, gently drawing Fredrika back down. "Let's hear what they have to say first."
"A number of important clues have surfaced," George began, speaking with a calm, unwavering certainty that commanded attention even though he kept his voice at a conversational volume. "Hairs taken from the wrecked limousine, claw marks in the pavement near the accident site, and footprints in the storm drain suggest that our kidnapper is a black furred feline, and quite large: we estimate around three and a half to four meters in height, seven hundred and sixty to eight hundred kilograms mass. She stopped the car by pouncing on it."
"Holy crap," Wanda breathed.
"She walked away," Fredrika said quietly. "The limo didn't."
"But what could someone like that possibly want with Jaleel?" Ronald wailed.
"A giant cat woman," the vixen said, "And a porn star with a huge cock." She rolled her eyes. "I'd say you just answered your own question." She giggled.
"Yes, but not everyone thinks with their crotch, dear heart." The skunk smiled, patting the vixen on the head. The vixen stuck out her tongue and made a face.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch your names," Super Collie said. Agent Jones' briefing for the interview hadn't mentioned these two. The agent himself didn't look entirely pleased to see them.
"ZigZag." The skunk rose, leaning forward to offer her hand. Super Collie found herself presented not only with a hand but an up close and personal view of ZigZag's cleavage, enough to see that ZigZag's breasts seemed to be entirely natural and, despite their size, unconstrained by support garments. Super Collie took the hand; ZigZag shook firmly and confidently. "Wanda, here-" ZigZag gestured to the vixen with her free hand- "is one of my performers." Wanda grinned and waved.
"May I ask how you came to be involved in this affair, Ms. ZigZag?" George inquired in a polite and friendly but nonetheless firm tone.
"Just ZigZag, please. Though if we're close you may call me Zig." The look she gave George definitely suggested the possibility of physical as well as emotional closeness.
Super Collie kept her expression carefully neutral. She couldn't easily tell ZigZag's age; not so young as Wanda, clearly in her early twenties, but not so terribly old either. If the numbers broke right George might very well be old enough to be her father.
"Double Z Studious is collaborating with Cinema Perversio on this film," Wanda amplified.
Agent Jones glanced at a notebook. "Rocket Man part three," he said. "Starring Jaleel Bronson as Commander Ramrod, ZigZag as Zada the Spider Queen, Fredrika Von Braun as Dr. Luna Von Schtupp, and Wanda Vickson as Weapon O, the Sexual Assassin." He flipped the notebook shut and tucked it back into the vest pocket of his coat.
"This is a big budget feature!" Ronald wailed. "If production gets held up we'll loose a fortune!"
"I think we should worry first about getting Jaleel back safe," Fredrika suggested icily, her eyes narrowing. Ronald, however, either didn't notice or didn't care.
"Hey, if you catch this cat woman maybe we can write her into the script," Wanda suggested. ZigZag glared at her. "It's a joke," Wanda protested.
Super Collie scratched her chin so she could avoid looking at anyone for a moment. She envied Agent Jones' studied calm; she felt like she'd fallen into a nightmare and couldn't wake up. From the corner of her eye she glanced at Jato, seated to her left. His visor covered his eyes but his mouth hung slightly open. To the best of her knowledge he hadn't said a word- or even moved- since coming in and sitting down. I should have known better than to bring a twenty year old male to interview a bevy of porn actresses, she thought darkly. Though in fact she hadn't known there'd be a bevy of them until she arrived.
"How far along in the film are you?" George asked.
"Pre-production, still," Ronald replied, wiping his nose. Several soiled handkerchiefs lay on the floor near him. "Rehearsals, set and model building, costumes, all that." He dismissed it with a wave. "We had Jaleel working at a studio in Wellington. We were supposed to begin shooting two days ago." He blew his nose, inspecting the ejecta briefly before folding it into the handkerchief.
"Who knew that Mr. Bronson was involved in the project?" George asked.
Fredrika shrugged. "Everyone. We had it in press releases and everything. Jaleel's one of our big selling points for the franchise."
"Without Jaleel there wouldn't be a franchise," Ronald put in morosely. "Where else could we possibly find someone with the qualifications to play Captain Ramrod?"
"How was the project discussed?" George wanted to know. "Was it mentioned in the papers or on TV? Did you disseminate e-mails, faxes, phone calls, or talk about it amongst yourselves?"
Fredrika shrugged. "All of the above, I'm afraid. Making a movie involves lots of people and lots of correspondence. We fired stuff off every which way."
Super Collie frowned in concentration. Pieces of the puzzle were falling into place but the overall picture was still nothing but gibberish. "Agent Jones," she began, "I assume you've been going through police records. Have you found any other incidents involving a giant cat monster with tentacles?"
"Yes and no, in that order," Agent Jones replied. "I do have people going over police reports. They have not discovered anything of statistical significance."
"What do you mean, statistically significant?" Fredrika demanded sharply.
"Every day the NYPD receives thousands of reports," Agent Jones replied. "Break ins, robberies, muggings, arsons, vandalism..." he fixed Fredrika with a meaningful look. "Elvis sightings, alien invasions, the Second Coming, black helicopters-"
"You mean you aren't the Men in Black?" Wanda asked, grinning hugely.
"If we were," Agent Jones replied archly, "We'd deny it, wouldn't we?" he adjusted his glasses. "Point being that if there is a giant cat monster prowling the streets of New York she's managed to do so without attracting official scrutiny. The wheat we seek, if it exists, is buried under a mountain of chaff."
"Then why reveal herself now?" ZigZag wanted to know. "What's so important about Jaleel?" She frowned- then glanced sharply at Wanda, who recoiled with an affronted expression, as if to say what did I do this time?
"Too many assumptions," Agent Jones interjected. "We don't know that this cat woman was in town before grabbing Mr. Bronson. We don't know if she's still in town. We don't even know if she was a cat monster when she planned this. Transforming super villains are distressingly common in this business. Unwarranted speculation at this stage in the game is dangerous."
"It seems to me," ZigZag commented, "That what you need is a motive."
"You have a suggestion, Ms. Zumbrowski?" Agent Jones inquired in a tone that suggested he very much doubted it.
"I do." ZigZag's eyes flashed angrily but otherwise she remained calm. "Wanda suggested it, though she was joking at the time."
Agent Jones' brows drew together. "You think this is a sex crime?"
"Why not?" ZigZag rose fluidly to her feet. She turned around, arching her back and sliding her hands down the sides of her torso onto her buttocks and thighs. She looked over her shoulder, letting her eyelids droop. "People do everything for sex they do for money," she pointed out in a purring, sultry voice. "They steal, assault, even kill for it." She turned about again, moving her feet apart and sliding her hands up the front of her body to her breasts, which she cupped. "If I lived in a world where the men only came up to my belly button and their tadgers, for the most part, not even the size of my little finger, I'd be very interested in meeting a fellow whose tool I could at least wrap my hand around." She let her right hand fall away from her chest then curled the fingers one at a time. An eager, lustful expression spread across her features as if she were indeed gripping the tool in question and contemplating what she might do with it. Then, as suddenly as a light going out, she dropped the performance. She sat, crossing her right leg over her left. "It's not much of a theory, I admit, but with a little investigation it should be easy enough to prove- or disprove. Either way you learn something useful and you've got what this case desperately seems to need: a start."
"Ah-hem." Agent Jones cleared his throat. He fiddled with his glasses- one handed, while surreptitiously tugging at his trousers. Not made of wood after all, are we? Super Collie wanted to crow, but kept her expression composed. Even George, she noticed, looked a bit flushed. With great trepidation she risked a glance at Jato. He looked the same as before- but with a bead of spittle collected at one corner of his mouth. Good thing I'm a woman, she observed with a mental snort of derision- realizing, even as the thought came to her, that it wasn't so true as perhaps she'd like. ZigZag radiated the same aura of sexual power that Daughter Night did, though a bit less intense and without the supernatural overtones. She was, Super Collie decided, an intelligent, resourceful, and dedicated woman who embraced her sexuality, wielding it with skill and confidence. Failing to look past her outward appearance would be a dangerous mistake.
"What's the studio like?" Super Collie asked suddenly, turning to Ronald. "Are the business offices and the sound stages all together or in separate places?"
"It's all in an old warehouse complex in Hoboken," Fredrika replied. "The offices are in a section partitioned out of a larger structure."
"You have an idea, Super Collie?" Agent Jones inquired.
"I'm not sure yet," Super Collie replied, stroking her chin. "More like a collection of hunches."
"I'd be glad to show you around the studio," ZigZag declared, bouncing to her feet. Inertia, coupled with a lack of restraint, caused her breasts to keep moving for an instant after the rest of her had stopped. Jato emitted a faint mewling sound. "We'd best get moving, then," ZigZag continued. "Traffic turns ugly real fast around here, not that it isn't ugly the rest of the time. Unless you'd rather take the train?"
"I'll be glad to drive you," Agent Jones offered.
Super Collie noticed ZigZag's eyes narrow slightly. Agent Jones either didn't notice or pretended he hadn't. Super Collie glanced at Jato just in time to see the spittle glob drip down his cheek. He whipped up a hand to wipe it away and ended up smacking himself in the jaw with his armored gauntlet. He tumbled out of his chair with a howl of pain. "Come here, ZigZag," Super Collie said, stepping hastily aside as Fredrika, Wanda, and Agent Jones rushed to Jato's aid. "Let's try another way."
Super Collie coasted to a stop before the gate of a warehouse complex that looked like it should have been torn down twenty years ago. It sat in the middle of an old industrial park that reminded Super Collie of a malignant cancer. She released ZigZag's thighs; ZigZag released Super Collie's shoulders and dropped to the ground. "Dang me if I don't think that really was the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on," ZigZag exclaimed. "And I should know." She flashed a mischievous grin.
"Remind me why they call this 'The Garden State,'" Super Collie said. Her staff, shrunk down to a hooked baton, hung around her neck. She took it off and twirled it, restoring it to full length.
"It sounds better than 'The Armpit of the Nation,'" ZigZag replied. "Though frankly I don't care for that name. It creates an unfairly prejudicial impression of the armpit."
"Oh?" Super Collie asked, about half facetiously. "What's the armpit good for?"
"You apply a dab of KY," ZigZag replied, lifting her right arm and stroking the pit with her left. "Then you get on your knees, with your gentleman standing. You put your hand on his buttocks to guide his stroke but keep your elbow down." She demonstrated, crooking her arm and moving her hand in and out. "Move your elbow-" she waggled hers- "to adjust pressure. With a little practice you can use both arms at once." She set her left arm in a mirror image of her right. "For him, it's the next best thing to a blow job. For you.... you might be surprised. Major blood vessels run close to the skin in the armpit. Same for the inside of the elbow and wrist, the throat, ankle, back of the knee, and the inside of the thigh." She touched each named region in turn, balancing easily on one leg as she lifted the other to display. "The blood vessels make all these regions very sensitive to physical stimulation. Does your gentleman rub your feet? Nuzzle your throat? Caress your thighs? Ever wondered why it feels so good?" ZigZag arched an eyebrow. "You're missing out on a great sexual experience if you ignore the arms." She cast Super Collie a meaningful look and strolled up to a locked gate. "Abadacus, are you in there?" she asked, pressing the button on a rusty, battered call box. "Hurry out to the front gate and let us in. I have a celebrity with me who wants to see the studio."
The call box emitted a gush of static. "Be right there, Miss ZigZag," responded a deep, growly voice distorted almost to unintelligibility. Not long afterward a sedan that might have been a police car about a decade ago appeared from behind one of the buildings. All official emblems had been removed and "SECURITY" replaced the word "POLICE" on its sides and rear. Moreover, the front left fender had been replaced with one whose color did not match the scheme on the rest of the vehicle. It pulled up to the gate and the driver got out. Super Collie gasped; he was easily the most horrifying creature she'd ever seen. For one he was a warthog; for another she didn't quite come up to his chin. His shoulders, sitting atop a deep chest sheeted with slabs of rock hard muscle, spanned a positively ungodly distance. From them hung a pair of incredibly long arms that looked as thick and solid as the limbs of an ancient oak. To top it all off scar tissue coated not only the knuckles of his gargantuan hands but his craggy face as well, making it seem as if his head had been shattered and inexpertly reassembled. At some time in the past the tip of his right tusk had broken off, leaving a jagged stump. He unlocked the gate and swung it open.
"Super Collie, I'd like you to meet Abadacus McSweeny, loyal guardian of our virtue," ZigZag declared, snaking an arm around his neck and using it to lift herself so she could plant a kiss on his cheek. "And other assets," she added with a giggle. Abadacus flushed like a schoolboy and grinned, which if anything only made him look more fearsome. "Super Collie here is a super hero from New Zealand," ZigZag continued, stroking Abadacus' cheek and jaw. She remained pressed up against him, her breasts flattened against his chest. "She's come to help us find Jaleel."
Abadacus slipped his left arm around ZigZag's waist and gently set her aside as if she weighed nothing at all. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Collie," he rumbled in a voice like a volcano about to erupt. The call box hadn't distorted it much at all, it turned out. Several missing or broken teeth- at least five- had been replaced with gold crowns.
"Ah," Super Collie said, because a response was clearly required but she couldn't think of anything else. She felt her hand engulfed in Abadacus' but he shook gently, if firmly.
"I do hope you can find Jaleel, Miss Collie," Abadacus said as he opened the rear doors of the security car for her and ZigZag. "Miss Fredrika's terribly broke up about loosing him."
"I hope I can too," Super Collie replied, attempting to settle herself on the hard, fiberglass seat. A metal mesh barrier separated the car's rear compartment from the front.
"What would you like to see first, Miss Collie?" Abadacus inquired as he put the car in motion.
"The business offices," Super Collie declared.
Abadacus brought the car up to a door in the side of one of the buildings. After handing ZigZag and Super Collie out of the car he unlocked the door with a key from a huge ring attached to his belt. Inside, rather to her surprise, Super Collie found herself in a collection of reasonably well appointed offices. Linoleum covered the floor and the walls, while painted, were mostly bare. The furnishings, while not the newest or most stylish, appeared sturdy, comfortable, and well kept. The ceilings weren't very high, only two and half or so meters. Super Collie moved through the cluster, brushing her hands along the walls without actually touching them. She didn't feel any unusual sensations. "Where's the studio?" she asked.
"Through this door, Miss Collie." Abadacus opened it for her.
"What the-" Super Collie exclaimed, stopping halfway through the doorway. What she saw was uniform bright greenness punctuated by camera dollies, light stands, microphone cranes, and other film making apparatuses apparently hanging in space. After a second she realized that the green was created by panels laid on the floor and attached to the walls and ceiling. Looking carefully she could just make out the borders between them. "What's with all the green?" she demanded in perplexity. "Where are the sets?"
"With a few exceptions the sets are all computer generated," ZigZag replied. "We shoot the actors with digital cameras, scan the footage into our workstations, composit it with the CG backgrounds, apply all the special effects, then print it out to video tape. With good art direction and animators you can produce a bang-up movie for a fraction the price of conventional sets and location shots."
"Wow." Super Collie stepped into the studio and looked around. The room's walls went up two or three levels, nearly to the roof of the warehouse probably. Lights, cables, and other equipment hung from a frame suspended by rods and cables just below the ceiling. "I must say this is more than I expected," Super Collie admitted.
ZigZag laughed. "Figured you'd see a bunch of beds and couches and a big plastic sheet on the floor?" Her expression turned more serious. "Though its not like I never shot a film with a camcorder in someone's back yard. But even then-" she frowned, searching for words. "I am a businesswoman, yes. I keep my eye on the bottom line... but for me it's not about the money. There are simpler and quicker ways if I just wanted to get rich. I happen to like sex." She grinned wickedly. "And maybe I'm something of an exhibitionist, too. I love performing in front of an audience. When you're on stage, and the audience is hanging on your every little move..." she lifted her chin, stroking the sides of her torso, rolling her hips sinuously. "It's a rush like you can't possibly imagine." She straightened up. "Or maybe you can," she added, stroking her chin and letting a smile creep across her face. "Considering that you've made a career of fighting crime in that oh-so-revealing costume."
"I didn't choose this costume, it just... happened," Super Collie insisted hastily.
"Ah." ZigZag nodded knowingly. "Let me guess: you were a prim and proper little girl, weren't you? All 'yes sir' and 'thank you ma'am.'"
"Ah, this studio is a lot smaller than the warehouse," Super Collie pointed out, turning and gesturing. It gave her an excuse to break eye contact. ZigZag's guess had landed disturbingly close to the truth; Super Collie found she didn't care to know what else ZigZag might divine.
"We use the rest of the building for storing gear and supplies," ZigZag replied. "Besides, this building moans and groans like an old lady. We had to build the studio box to keep the noise out."
"Then someone could move around outside without being noticed?" Super Collie inquired.
"If they got inside, I guess," Abadacus allowed. "There's cameras, and I watch 'em when I'm not patrolling."
"Is it well lit?" Super Collie continued.
"Well enough, I think," Abadacus decided.
Super Collie looked up at the wall. "What's over the offices?"
"Used to be a workshop or something." Abadacus looked up, following Super Collie's gaze. "Lotta junk when we moved in. Fire Marshal made us toss it. Now..." he shrugged, a lifting of his massive shoulders that made Super Collie think of mountains being thrust up by colliding plates. "Nothing much."
"I'd like to see it all," Super Collie declared. "Take me through the warehouse and up to the loft."
"Sure thing, Miss Collie." Abadacus opened a door set flush into the green wall and waved the ladies through. Super Collie found herself in a space about three meters wide between the outside of the studio and the inside of the warehouse. Bulbs in metal cages supplemented the meagre sunlight entering through dirt-encrusted windows set high on the outer wall. As she walked Super Collie held her arms out, occasionally stepping to one side or the other to pass near prominent fixtures. They made a right-angle turn and proceeded down another corridor along the studio's rear wall. Finally they emerged into the rest of the warehouse; crates, cases, stands, spools of wire, and other gear stood in neat rows. Super Collie went through it all, then checked along the warehouse wall. Every door she found was either securely locked or barred shut. Still she felt no traces. Finally Abadacus led her to a narrow wooden stairway. At its top she found herself on a floor of stained and worn wooden planks laid across the joists holding up the office ceilings. Walls made of planks screened the area from the rest of the warehouse but only went up two, maybe two and a half meters. A couple boxes stood by the stairway and at the opposite corner stood what appeared to be an industrial sewing machine from about fifty years ago, still bolted to the floor. Three or four meters above were the trusses supporting the warehouse roof. As she walked Super Collie's footfalls echoed loudly but the thick boards held her weight without flexing or creaking. At one location she got down on all fours and peered through a crack. Layers of insulation blocked any view of the offices below.
"What are you looking for, Super Collie?" ZigZag inquired, walking up and dropping to one knee.
Super Collie sat back on her heels. ZigZag obviously didn't like Agent Jones so it didn't seem like she'd mention anything to him out of hand... and besides, Super Collie felt she owed the woman some explanation. "I... I think our cat woman can somehow pass through solid objects."
ZigZag frowned, tapping her lips. Suddenly her eyes widened. "You mean like Daughter Night."
Super Collie blinked in surprise. "My word!" she exclaimed. "I mean yes. It's... rather a surprise to meet someone so well informed about my exploits." Especially when the DSA doesn't seem to give a hoot, she thought darkly.
ZigZag grinned. "I follow your exploits closely, Super Collie. In fact, I even have one of those life sized poseable Daughter Night dolls."
"I see," Super Collie replied, struggling to keep her face composed. Now why doesn't that surprise me, she thought wryly. "Ah... Zigzag, do you mind if I ask a personal question?"
"Not at all," ZigZag replied. "But only if you allow me to ask one in return."
"I won't divulge any privileged information," Super Collie cautioned.
"Oh, I won't ask for names or dates," ZigZag assured, her grin relaxing into a knowing smile.
"Well... all right then."
"Ask away," ZigZag prompted with a casual flip of the hand.
"How did you- I mean-"
"How did I happen to become matriarch of a porn empire?" ZigZag suggested, a mischievous twinkle coming into her eye.
ZigZag chuckled. "It's not like when your kindergarten teacher asks you what you'll be when you grow up you jump up and say 'oh, I'm gonna be a porn star!'" She clasped her hands over her chest, her eyes and mouth wide, bouncing excitedly on her toes. She let her arms drop; the happy expression drained away from her face, leaving something almost disturbingly somber. "I always wanted to be an actress, Super Collie." She paced in a circle, swinging her arms back and forth. "My mother never understood it... and I never really knew my father. He wasn't around. I worked my ass off... and no one would hire me because of my odd appearance." Her voice remained even but her eyes narrowed momentarily. "Finally I landed a part... in a porno flick. And, y'know, it wasn't nearly so terrible as I'd feared. In fact, I found that it suited my... predilections quite nicely." She glanced at Super Collie out of the corners of her eyes and flashed an enigmatic smile. "I found a place that suited me and I surrounded myself with dedicated people who shared my love of the craft. And, incidentally, we've all become quite successful. There's always a demand for quality adult entertainment and the Internet is causing the market to expand at the speed of light. In fact, for the first time in history, adult entertainment companies are being traded on the New York Stock Exchange. That's how big it is. Meaning one day I might be the CEO of the world's first blue chip porn company." She halted, turning to face Super Collie squarely. "My turn," she announced. "Where did your costume come from?"
"Ah..." Super Collie fingered her staff. I suppose I should have expected that. "I... I'm not really sure. When- my power came to me, and I became Super Collie the first time, it... transformed my clothes. Into this." She gestured at herself. "I... never really thought about it."
"Indeed." ZigZag smiled knowingly. "Back to the case then. What makes you think this monster can pass through things?"
"Near the accident site I found a storm drain," Super Collie replied. "I tracked the cat to it. She lifted the cover, then replaced it. I went down and found a foot print. She'd gotten into the sewer even though the drain was clearly much too small for her. I thought I might feel... traces of her passage, like I did at the drain. But so far nothing." She shrugged. "Of course I wouldn't unless she came above ground at a point I passed. Or maybe I'm just chasing a red herring."
"Hmm." ZigZag stroked her lips with a fingertip. "Abadacus!" she called. "Is there a storm sewer near here?"
"Yes, Miss ZigZag. Right out back."
"Does he call everyone 'Miss?'" Super Collie whispered.
"Not the men, obviously, but otherwise yes," ZigZag replied. "It's rather charming, actually." She chuckled.
"Let's take a look at that drain," Super Collie prompted.
Abadacus led them to a door on the warehouse's rear wall. The lock opened easily but the door itself took some persuading, which Abadacus administered with casual ease. Thinking of the scarring on his hands Super Collie speculated that he'd applied similar persuasion to any number of faces over the years. "Right here, Miss Collie," he said, pointing.
A rectangular grate about a meter across lay in the pavement about three meters from the building's wall. Large pipes from the building's gutters entered the ground nearby, probably terminating in the sewer. Super Collie inspected the grate; greasy dirt clogged the crack between it and its frame. Quite obviously it hadn't moved in a very long time. She waved her hand over it and felt no psychic traces. She squatted beside it, set her fingers carefully, and heaved. With a ponderous groan the grate came reluctantly out of its frame. Dislodged rust and bits of dirt showered into the darkness below. Instead of dragging it aside Super Collie merely pushed it over, letting it fall face down beside the hole. Beneath where it had been a rectangular chute lined with crumbling brick led downward. A badly corroded ladder clung to one wall. Super Collie gazed downward, then took her staff by the head and lowered it. The shaft extended; the butt touched bottom with a muted splash. Super Collie probed around a little, then straightened up. The staff contracted to normal length and she inspected the butt. It had come down in mud and a few centimeters of dirty water. "Abadacus," she said, "May I borrow your flashlight?"
"Surely you're not thinking of going down there, are you, Miss Collie?" Abadacus asked worriedly but handed over an enormous, four battery Mag light.
"I think that whoever took Jaleel came here first," Super Collie replied. "If she did- and came through this passage- I may be able to find some traces of it. Hold these, would you please?" She took off her cape, handing it and her staff to ZigZag, who took them. Then she started down the rusted ladder, placing her feet as close to the uprights as possible. Nevertheless it groaned alarmingly even under her relatively modest weight. About a meter above the floor the ladder ceased entirely. Super Collie dropped the rest of the way; her landing threw up a spray of filthy black water that splashed her legs and tail. She stood a moment, shuddering with distaste. When I get back to the flat I'm having a long bath, she promised herself. At least the muddy floor would take prints well. As she aimed the Mag light down the tunnel she suddenly felt an uncomfortable sensation on her back, as if someone had lightly brushed the fur. She spun around; distance drank the Mag light's beam and standing water cast eerie, dancing reflections. She spun around again; this time the dancing reflections were worse because her hand shook. She swallowed convulsively, backing against the tunnel wall, unmindful of the dirt and grime. The flickering shadows seemed to be a malevolent force reaching out with skeletal fingers to freeze her frantically beating heart. With a cry she leapt out of the dank hole and into the warm sunlight above.
"Miss Collie, are you all right?" Abadacus cried, stepping forward to take her arm.
"No, no, I'm okay." Super Collie shook her head. She rubbed her shoulders; memory of the chill sensation stayed with her even in daylight. Suddenly her eyes widened. "I'm such a doofus!" She exclaimed, starting down the ladder once again. This time she paused before each step. About a third of the way down she felt a chill sensation in her calf, as if a draft had blown across it. By probing with her foot she determined that the sensation began at a fairly sharp boundary. Below that it seemed to fill the entire tunnel, like morning mist settling into dells and hollows. It lacked the intensity of what she'd felt at the crash site but seemed very much the same in character. She nodded and climbed out. "Unless there's another creature in New York that leaves the same traces, our cat woman definitely came through here," she announced. She tipped the grate back into its frame, dusted off her hands, rose- and started violently. ZigZag had donned her cape and held the staff in one hand. An image of ZigZag in the whole costume flashed into her mind. Gold didn't suit ZigZag's base color, she decided, but the blue worked. Silver trim, maybe-
ZigZag struck a heroic pose, leveling the staff with her right hand while throwing back the cloak with her left so it snapped. "Evildoers beware, or by the power of the Shepherd I shall punish you!" She tossed her head, glaring haughtily down her nose.
Super Collie took a step back, her fingers unconsciously trying to close around the staff she wasn't carrying. She had to remind herself that merely picking up the staff didn't automatically confer upon one the Mystic Power of the Shepherd. It occurred to her that being a professional actress equipped ZigZag to handle an important- if not critical- aspect of super heroing. Public relations- and public perception, as Super Collie had learned, sometimes to her detriment- mattered far more in the business of heroing than in any other except perhaps for celebrities and politicians.
"Think I'd make a good hero?" ZigZag inquired, twirling the staff, then tucking it under her arm.
"You could play one," Super Collie replied. "Being one is something else entirely."
ZigZag nodded approvingly. "You're absolutely right about that." She took off the cloak, handing it and the staff to Super Collie. "Acting is a tricky profession. To make a role convincing something of the character you're portraying has to already exist within you. If not your performance is a charade. At best you're someone else, a character who doesn't serve the needs of the story. At worst you're a marionette, an empty body without a heart or soul."
"What if you think you are your character?" Super Collie found herself asking.
"If you're sufficiently wealthy and or famous you're considered eccentric," ZigZag replied. "If not, you're just plain nuts."
"You say a cat woman took Jaleel, Miss Collie?" Abadacus inquired, scratching the side of his head.
"A giant cat woman, around nine to fourteen feet tall," ZigZag clarified.
Abadacus looked down at the grate. "How'd she get through that little hole, then?"
"She didn't," Super Collie replied. "She just came by, she didn't come up to the surface. At least not right here." She looked around; grass grew along the perimeter fence and in scraggly clumps against some of the buildings but not here. The oily soil probably killed it off. There didn't seem to be any cover except the buildings themselves. "Abadacus, have you ever seen..." What would she look like? Super Collie wondered. Big, black- "Ghosts? Shadows that moved?"
"No, Miss Collie." Abadacus shook his head. "Though I suppose I should. Before we moved in the Mob used to dump bodies here."
"Wonderful," Super Collie muttered. Suddenly another piece of the puzzle snapped into place. Or at least she saw the shape where a piece would go. "ZigZag," she said, "What does a cat woman who's three and a half meters tall and weighs three quarters of a ton eat?"
"Probably the same as a regular cat, just a lot more of it," ZigZag replied.
"Exactly." Super Collie turned. "And where does our cat woman get all that food without anyone seeing her?"
ZigZag opened her mouth, then closed it. "I think we're straying into what Agent Jones called unwarranted speculation," she said after a short pause. "She could have food stockpiled, or maybe a gang that keeps her supplied."
"Maybe she collects meat that people left laying around and no one misses," Super Collie speculated.
ZigZag grimaced. "That's... absolutely gross, Super Collie. I mean, I know I do things some people would call dubious but eating corpses is in another category all together."
"She eats bodies?" Abadacus exclaimed, horrified.
Super Collie shrugged. "In truth I really don't know. It's just speculation right now. But it would explain why she came here so she could overhear someone talking about Jaleel."
"But surely there aren't that many bodies laying around," ZigZag protested.
"I hear there's detailers where all they do is clean up cars that had bodies dumped in them, Miss ZigZag," Abadacus commented.
"Ew." ZigZag grimaced, then turned serious. "You think there may be something to this, Super Collie?"
"I'd say it's about as likely as Wanda's idea that she kidnapped Jaleel merely to entertain herself," Super Collie replied. "At least it'll give Agents Smith and Jones something to do."
"But not us?" ZigZag inquired.
Super Collie found ZigZag's use of the word us highly suspect. "Abadacus, could you show me where the bodies were left?" she asked to avoid responding directly.
"Right this way, Miss Collie." Abadacus started off. He led the way to one of the other buildings, then circled around it to a roll down garage style door. "Twice they left cars parked out here," he said, indicating the empty space behind the building. "Then the owners hired a guard. After that they cut the lock off this door and parked the cars inside. Did that... oh, three times, I think."
"Lovely neighborhood you have here," Super Collie commented.
"That's what I thought," ZigZag replied. "But the rent's cheap and so far Abadacus has managed to keep the scavengers at bay."
Super Collie paced slowly back and forth across the paved area between the warehouse and the rusted perimeter fence. She felt nothing, not even a twinge. "Can we look inside?" she asked.
"Sure, Miss Collie." With one of his many keys Abadacus removed a heavy padlock from a badly rusted metal door and forced it open.
Dust, debris, and the bodies of dead insects covered the floor of this building. Old machines, piles of scrap, barrels, and crates stood in clumps here and there. Even in the dim light Super Collie could see where the dust had been disturbed by vehicles and people walking. Again she carefully paced off the area; again she felt nothing. "When was the last body left?" she asked.
"About eight months ago, Miss Collie," Abadacus replied. "I patrol in here now. Keeps the kids out too."
"Feel anything?" ZigZag asked.
"Nope." Super Collie shook her head. "If she did come here it's probably been too-" She stopped suddenly, staring at the floor around her foot. She eased backward; her boot left a distinct mark. Not a footprint exactly but sort of a vague outline of one. She paced off the area again, stepping carefully on her own tracks, this time looking at the floor. She could see where two vehicles had been parked; the third must have gone in one of those spots. A welter of prints around each location made identification of any individual markings impossible. But surely the police would have noticed... wouldn't they? she thought. Another question for the Agents. She stood in the center of one of the parking areas and looked around. A collection of barrels, a pile of rotting wooden freight pallets, and a bulky machine covered by a tarpaulin masked it from three sides; a person merely glancing in might not even notice if the car wasn't especially large. She found her eye drawn to the machine; it would have lay alongside the car and its top was above eye level. Its frame seemed to be made of thick metal castings, now streaked with rust in spite of the tarp. Super Collie looked down, tapping the floor with her foot, watching dust puff out from under her boot sole. She felt a hunch forming but feared to examine it too closely lest she damage it. "Abadacus," she said, "Would you come over here, please? I'd like you to lift me up so I can look at the top of this machine." She could have leapt easily enough but that would disturb the dust.
"Sure, Miss Collie." Abadacus came up behind Super Collie, crouched, wrapped his arms around her thighs, and straightened up. As with ZigZag he did so without the slightest visible effort. In spite of which Super Collie found herself held firmly but gently; his hands, despite their fearsome appearance, felt... not soft exactly but not nearly so hard as she'd expected. Suddenly she glimpsed an entirely new aspect of Abadacus' character; those, huge, powerful, yet smooth hands, wielded with the gentleness she felt now, suggested possibilities far different from merely smashing heads. In fact, in contemplating that she almost forgot what she'd come for. She leaned forward- Abadacus shifted his weight slightly to compensate such that Super Collie never felt her base of support waver in the slightest- and examined the top of the machine, not visible to someone standing on the floor. Water dripping from above had stained the tarp and washed the dust into little rivulets... but there was a mark. Had she not know what to look for she might have easily overlooked it; as in the storm sewer it was only a partial mark. Super Collie imagined a giant cat woman standing up here. She'd have to bend over to reach the car; Super Collie imagined her crouching forward on one leg, knee bent up against her chest, her other leg extended out behind for balance. Yes; there was a scuff mark where she might have rested her toes. Then she could reach out with a hand- or a tentacle- and pull open the car's trunk.
"Thank you, I'm done," Super Collie announced. Abadacus set her down. "Abadacus," she said, turning around, "Were the bodies in the cars when the police found them?"
Abadacus frowned. "Don't rightly know, Miss Collie. All that happened before I came."
Super Collie nodded. "That's all right. Agent Jones can find out."
"Did you find something?" ZigZag asked.
"I think I did, yes," Super Collie replied. "I think our cat woman stood atop this machine right here, looking down at this car." She pointed to each location in turn. "I saw a mark up there that I'm almost positive was a footprint."
ZigZag shook her head wonderingly. "The police run around in circles for days but you show up and now the investigation's trucking along like greased lightning."
"In all fairness, I know things the local police don't," Super Collie temporized. "And if I couldn't sense the psychic traces I'd be just as stumped as everyone else."
"Then what's our next move, Super Collie?" ZigZag asked.
There's that word again, Super Collie thought. "We talk to Smith and Jones about what we've found," she said aloud. "Maybe they can correlate this with other incidents. Even if no one's actually seen our cat monster, maybe we can identify a modus operandi that tells us where she's been. And then-" in spite of herself she couldn't repress a shudder- "We go down into the sewer here and see where it leads us."
If Super Collie thought that the idea of crawling around in dank, filthy sewers would put ZigZag off she found herself sadly mistaken. "Great!" ZigZag exclaimed. "Let's get rolling!" She leapt onto Super Collie's back, practically bowling her over on the process. "Yee-haw! Giddyap! Ride 'em cowboy!"
"Stop that or I'll drop you!" Super Collie shouted. "Abadacus, thank you ever so much for your assistance. Hey!" she added as ZigZag snatched her staff.
"My pleasure, Miss Collie," Abadacus replied, knuckling his forehead. "I hope you find Jaleel. He was a nice fellow."
"I'll do my best," Super Collie replied. "Could you show us out?"
"Oh, no need for that," ZigZag cut in, brandishing the staff. "You can clear the fence, can't you?"
Super Collie's lips tightened. So that's how you want it, eh? Happy to oblige. "Sure," she replied breezily.
The last Abadacus saw of the two women was a blue, gold, black, and white streak punctuated by ZigZag's fading shriek.
"Suck harder," Tinka commanded.
Jaleel grunted, as much as he could manage with his mouth full. His lips and cheeks ached. Now more than ever he was convinced that God was punishing him. That morning- if it really was morning- Tinka had got him up early and set him to sucking on her nipples. Not gently, as in foreplay, but hard, as in nursing. Excepting occasional bathroom and meal breaks he'd been at it all day. Never in his life could he have possibly imagined that he might get tired of sucking on a woman's tits!
Suddenly Tinka leapt up and rushed to her friend's side. Jaleel lay where he'd fallen, massaging his cheeks. To the best of his knowledge the man hadn't moved since Tinka lay him down. He appeared to be a canine of some type, though with most of his head swathed in bandages it wasn't possible to tell much more. He wore a cheap, ill-fitting suit that looked quite the worse for wear. "What happened to him?" Jaleel asked, partially out of curiosity and partially to delay the time he'd have to start sucking again.
"Shot in the head," Tinka replied.
"And he's still alive?" Jaleel made a series of comic faces, stretching his lips.
"The bullet just grazed him, it didn't penetrate," Tinka explained.
"That's not much better," Jaleel commented. "If the brain gets bruised it swells. The pressure can cause permanent damage. Or he could develop a blood clot and have a stroke. He needs to be in a hospital."
"Right." Tinka sat back on her heels. "I'll just drop him off at the emergency room." She flicked her tail in irritation.
"You could leave him where he'd be found."
"They'd ask him what he was doing when he got shot," Tinka pointed out.
"Why, what was he doing?"
"Delivering my dinner."
"Oh." Jaleel sat up, wrapping his arms around his knees. Wouldn't it just be the cat's pajamas if the bloke died? As if the mood could possibly be any worse.
Tinka stood. She spent a moment exploring her breasts before returning and sitting against the wall. "I think it's almost time," she said. "Then I'll be able to help him."
"How?" Jaleel inquired.
"With the milk of human kindness," Tinka replied. "Suck."
Jaleel sighed and got to work. He thought longingly of Fredrika's huge but merely human sized mammaries. Now there was a pair of breasts that was fun to suck. So big it took both hands to grab one and nipples you could hang your coat on. Even better, she liked having her boobs played with and could be incredibly grateful for a job well done.
"Harder," Tinka said.
Jaleel resisted the urge to curse. As if being Tinka's sex slave wasn't bad enough, now she made sex into work. He was still dwelling on that thought when her nipple suddenly ejected a glob of bitter tasting glop into his mouth. He tumbled backwards, gagging, and inadvertently swallowed it.
"What happened?" Tinka demanded as Jaleel sprawled on hands and knees coughing. She lifted her breast, studying the nipple. A trail of syrupy liquid dribbled from it. She wiped up the fluid with a finger and tasted it. "Finally," she muttered, settling forward on hands and knees. "Jaleel, get the pan from the mess kit. You need to milk me now."
"What?" Jaleel sat up suddenly. He'd heard the words but his brain refused to believe them.
"Get the pan from the mess kit and start milking me," Tinka replied impatiently.
"So we can feed him the milk," Tinka explained, nodding toward her unconscious friend. "And because if you don't I'll bite your legs off."
"I won't be much good in bed then," Jaleel pointed out.
"Only until your stumps heal," Tinka replied. "Now that you've got my milk started that'll only take a week or two."
Jaleel picked up the pan. He didn't care to find out if Tinka would follow through on her threat. He knelt beside her and placed the pan under her near side breast. "What do I do now?" he asked.
For a moment Tinka said nothing. "You're the porn star. You saying you never did anything like this before?"
"Not without... ah... mechanical assistance," Jaleel replied.
"I don't think I want to know," Tinka finally said after an even longer pause. "I guess we'll just have to make it up as we go."
"Then why do I have to do it?" Jaleel demanded.
"If you don't it makes you that much less useful to me," Tinka pointed out, baring her teeth.
"Well then, since you put it that way," Jaleel muttered, and set to work. He found that persuading a nipple to eject milk wasn't nearly so easy as it seemed. At least Tinka left him to it with a minimum of interruptions. Eventually he developed a technique of sorts and the pan started filling. He didn't get much before it petered out. "What do we do with this now?" he asked, swirling the milk around in the pan.
"Feed it to Blade," Tinka replied. "I know a place I can get baby bottles."
"Pick up a breast pump while you're at it," Jaleel added. "It'll make this a lot easier. Oh, and you'll probably want jars to store the milk in and a chilly bin to keep them cold."
"Chilly bin?" Tinka asked.
"Um... a box you put ice in so when you go to the beach your beer stays cold," Jaleel explained.
"Oh. A cooler." Tinka rose, rubbing her breast. "Good idea. I'll be back in... oh, forty minutes or so." She turned to shadow and melted into the wall.
Jaleel looked at the pan. The fluid within looked more like condensed cow's milk than it did like that which came from the breasts of regular women. He sniffed, then took a sip. It tasted rather like condensed milk as well, or perhaps an energy shake made with whole milk. Very thick, almost goopy. But quite tasty, in an odd way. He took another mouthful... then put down the pan before he was tempted to drink it all. Tinka would probably be upset if there wasn't any left when she came back. To take his mind off it he had a look at her unconscious friend. Only by putting his cheek in front of the man's face could Jaleel tell that the fellow was breathing. Fresh and old blood stained the bandages; either his wounds were extensive or hadn't been treated properly. The bandaging job looked professional, though Jaleel hardly considered himself an expert. Scalp wounds bled badly, he knew, even minor ones. What would getting shot do?
Quickly Jaleel went through the man's clothes and pockets. He came up with three knives, a .22 caliber automatic pistol, and a wallet containing $175 in cash and a driver's license proclaiming the holder to be Mr. James Aldershaw of New Haven, Connecticut. No keys, credit cards, or anything else. Jaleel sat back on his heels. Too much to hope that the fellow might have a cell phone. Not that there was any guarantee it would work so far underground. He put the wallet back but kept the weapons. After all, he had no idea what sort of a person Tinka's friend was. That done he relieved himself at the waste pipe, washed his face and hands, and set up the stove to cook dinner. The MRE's weren't half bad... but contemplating the enormous carton of them Tinka had provided it occurred to him that one might, in time, grow quite tired of them. Which brought him back to the number one question of his existence at the moment: how could he arrange an end to his imprisonment that didn't involve becoming Tinka's next meal? As he waited for the water to boil he considered taking the stranger hostage but discarded the idea at once. He didn't feel nearly desperate enough to murder an unconscious man in cold blood... and imagining what Tinka might do in reprisal nearly made him wet his trousers. She could just leave him until the fuel for the lantern ran out and he starved to death in the darkness. He ate his meal, cleaned up, and put all the trash in a box he'd scrounged. Truth was, aside from keeping him against his will Tinka wasn't treating him badly at all. That blunted his will to escape more than he cared to think about. To pass the time- and to get away from the man he was sure would die- he went to the boxes stacked along one wall of the shelter.
Thirty kilograms per day amounted to a kill every other night or thereabouts, Jaleel estimated, depending on how much of the victim Tinka ate. That added up to a veritable mountain of corpses in no more than a few months and he got the feeling she'd been here longer than that. The boxes contained a lot of stuff. As Jaleel went through them he discovered something else: they gave faces to the otherwise unknown dead. He pulled out blouses, shirts, skirts, jackets, trousers, sweats, shorts, pantaloons, and knickers, sometimes- but not even mostly- torn and blood stained. Pair after pair of sneakers, dress shoes, boots, and togs. Often as not he found wallets, keys, credit cards, glasses, pocket knives, passports, pagers, cell phones, PDA's, and all the other accoutrements of modern life still tucked into pockets. One phone had fresh batteries; when he switched it on it informed him that no service was available. Obviously the signals wouldn't penetrate how ever many meters of steel, concrete, and earth lay above him. He slipped it into his pocket, judging that it might come in handy later. Driven by morbid curiosity he opened the wallets and purses. He found cash- quite a lot of it in some cases- but he also found pictures. Wives, husbands, lovers, friends, children, parents... all wondering, no doubt, what had become of the person whose effects Jaleel now handled. Very quickly he stopped going through wallets and purses.
A great many of the people Tinka waylaid seemed to be criminals. Jaleel found cases full of drugs, jewelry, silverware, watches, cash, and even gold coins he thought might be Kugerands. Other cases contained tools, some of them obviously home made, whose purpose he could only guess. And of course weapons of every description: brass knuckles, saps, blackjacks, nightsticks, tonfas, knives ranging from tiny things no larger than his thumb to veritable swords as long as his forearm, and firearms running all the way from home made zip guns and Sa6turday night specials to what looked like the latest military issue. At one point he encountered a web belt loaded with hand grenades.
Jaleel stopped and sat down. Tinka hadn't made any effort to sort the stuff but clearly she'd placed items more or less in the order she found them. Then she'd gone back and rooted through the stores. As a result Jaleel felt sort of like an archeologist: the debris he excavated was obviously related but it wasn't so obvious how. Did the wallet containing a picture of four smiling children really go with the attache case full of cocaine? He wanted to see the weapons, drugs, and gang paraphernalia as separate from the family photos and personal effects but the arrangement of items didn't support that hypothesis. To all appearances the loving fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters were the burglars, pushers, and gang bangers. That didn't sit well with Jaleel's middle class world view. Criminals should be bad people.
In due course Tinka returned. She stepped past the lantern and Jaleel noticed that even as a shadow she still cast one, a shapeless zone of darkness with fuzzy, vaporous edges. She solidified with a large cooler in her hands, which she set by Blade, A.K.A. James Aldershaw. Jaleel bounced to his feet. "Hey," he called. "You can carry stuff when you go- go- through things?"
"Yes," Tinka replied. "But only small stuff and nothing alive. Now come here and help me with this." The cooler held a bag of ice, a dozen plastic baby bottles and as many more spare nipples, half a dozen Mason jars with lids, and a breast pump still in its box. "Put together how ever many bottles it takes to hold all the milk in the pan, then the breast pump. You have to do it because I can't read the instructions."
Jaleel didn't need instructions to assemble a breast pump; he'd used them in various film projects. This was the manual variety: a thing like a suction cup fit over the nipple, a large squeeze bulb did the pumping, and a jar attached underneath collected the fluid. Out of curiosity he read the directions and found that they contained, complete with diagrams, an explanation of the proper technique for expressing milk, both with a pump and bare hands. Meanwhile, Tinka took the filled baby bottles and tried feeding them to Blade. She didn't pick him up or move him, which struck Jaleel as prudent, but he didn't see how an unconscious person could be induced to drink without choking. Watching her, Jaleel found himself unaccountably nervous. He fidgeted, then paced, and finally took to jogging up and down the room. After eight laps he devoured two entire MRE's.
"I think Blade's taken as much as he can," Tinka commented. "Empty these into the jars and wash them out." She handed Jaleel the filled baby bottles. Blade had only consumed a bit more than half of one. Jaleel drank what remained in the partially empty one and poured the rest of the milk into jars. With the jars packed in the ice chest he washed out the bottles and put them away in another box he found.
"Don't get too comfortable," Tinka cautioned. "There's more sucking to do, I'm afraid. When I first started lactating there was a spurt of gooey stuff before the milk, right?"
"Yeah," Jaleel replied, grimacing at the memory of the flavor.
"My other breast should have one too," Tinka explained. "We need to get it out and save it for Blade."
"What is it?" Jaleel inquired.
"Colostrum," Tinka said. "It's... antibodies and things, a package to kick start the kid's immune system. It's the main thing that'll help Blade heal faster."
Jaleel wondered suddenly at the implications of swallowing the first batch. Did that explain his sudden spurt of energy? Tinka seemed to have a super-powered metabolism; was that why her milk tasted like concentrate, because it was hyper-enhanced as well? He decided to worry about it later; he couldn't imagine the milk doing anything to him. Besides, it was a nice change from MRE's and the prospect of collecting it excited him. It did not occur to him that only a short time ago he'd been gloomy and depressed about that very thing. He fastened his mouth to Tinka's other nipple and set lustily to work. Only two hours later, give or take a few minutes, she produced a spurt of goo. Expecting it, this time, Jaleel managed to catch it on his tongue and spit it into a jar. With one of the breast pumps he managed to coax out the rest and a generous quantity of milk. Watching through the pump's clear body as fluid spurted from her nipple excited him like nothing he could recently recall. His donger stiffened to erection.
"Mmm, I'm not so terrible, am I?" Tinka mused, stroking Jaleel's member with a finger.
"I'm not sure," Jaleel replied. "You say you eat a lot of meat-"
"Ah." Tinka shifted. "You've done a lot of sucking for me, so I suppose it's only fair I should do some for you."
"You took the words- ahh-"
Jaleel never completed his statement. In fact, he said nothing articulate for quite a while.
After the door to his office closed Agent Jones looked down at the notes he'd written on a yellow pad. He sighed, scrubbed his forehead, and picked up his phone. "Tommy," he said, "I'm sorry to barge in on you like this but I need you to come up right now."
A few minutes later Agent Smith entered. "Did Super Collie find something at Cinema Perversio?" he asked.
"You might say that," Agent Jones replied. "She claims that our cat woman can pass through solid objects. She further claims that she found... psychic traces of this both at the crash site and in a sewer on the Cinema Perversio lot. Finally, she discovered what she claims to be partial footprints, left by our cat woman, at both locations."
"You mean actual tracks?" Agent Smith inquired, frowning.
"So Super Collie says," Agent Jones replied. "I've sent investigation teams to both locations."
"Why didn't this come to light before?" Agent Smith asked.
"The first print, in a storm sewer below the crash site, was not in a place one would think to look unless one knew beforehand that the perpetrator could walk through walls," Agent Jones replied. "The second was at a scene not previously associated with our cat woman and also in a not readily accessible location. That second location happened to be on the Cinema Perversio lot where, before the studio moved in, a body had been dumped after a Mob style execution. Super Collie theorizes that our cat woman has been searching out these locations where bodies are dumped and eating them. This, Super Collie says, might explains why our kidnapper happened to be at the Cinema Perversio lot to hear about Mr. Bronson. Now Super Collie intends to enter the sewer system and attempt to follow these psychic traces she purports to feel in the hopes that it will lead her to the beast's lair."
Agent Smith said nothing as he digested all that information. "She's accomplished quite a lot for only having been on the case three days."
"She has." Agent Jones nodded. "And the implications of what she's uncovered are... significant, to say the least. Enough so, in fact, that I'm afraid we've gone out of our depth. Much as it pains me, I'm afraid we've no choice but to notify Washington."
Agent Smith looked thoughtful. "Do you really think things are that bad?"
"No," Agent Jones replied. "And I intend to make sure they don't get that way."
"Here youse go, pal," Lawrence- who preferred to be called Larry- declared, thrusting into Constable Kremmin's hands a yellow plastic helmet such as what a miner might wear, complete with a light mounted above the brim. George adjusted the band and set it upon his head. He already wore a pair of yellow Sanitation Department coveralls, rubber boots, and an orange vest with reflective stripes such as are usually seen on highway workers.
"What's the tank for?" Super Collie inquired. The helmet and vest were required; after her previous experience in the sewer she'd elected to wear an coverall as well. The garment fit poorly- apparently there weren't many female sanitation workers her size- and smelled rather strongly of its previous occupant.
"Dis?" Larry picked up a metal gas cylinder attached to a harness. "It's for breathing, same as what da firemen use. Dem sewers can get pretty rank. Pee-yew." He pinched his nose with one hand and fanned his face with the other. "Youse walk into a gas pocket and bam-" he slapped the heel of his hand against the opposite palm- "out youse go, like a light. But don'cha worry none, I got dis here gas detector thingy." He presented a palm sized electronic device. "It'll warn us in plenty of time to get our masks on." He flashed a rather crooked grin. "Ready ta see what we don't show da tourists?"
"Absolutely," Jato declared. As usual he wore his armor. This time he'd left his backpack in Larry's truck. He sound so bright and eager Super Collie wanted to pound his head in with a brick.
"Sure you want to bring that, son?" George inquired, eyeing the grenade launcher.
"Absolutely," Jato replied, as if the very notion of leaving it behind shocked him to the core. "What if we meet the cat monster down in the sewers?"
Then we are all, as they say, in deep shit, Super Collie thought darkly. She suspected that Jato's bravado was for the benefit of the audience, which included ZigZag, Fredrika, and Wanda. She knew it when he glanced surreptitiously their direction.
"A grenade launcher doesn't seem like the sort of weapon to use in an enclosed space," George tried.
"It's completely non-lethal," Jato assured.
"Oh, let's just get on with it!" Super Collie snapped. The coveralls made her skin crawl; standing around in them while George and Jato argued was the last thing she wanted to do.
"All right, den." Larry picked up a long metal pole with a hooked tip and used it to lift the manhole cover and drag it aside. "Lights on," he added over his shoulder, activating his own.
The hole lay at the very edge of the Cinema Perversio lot. It accessed the same drain Super Collie had entered before, at least according to Larry's maps. Now they'd find out if that were so, and also if Super Collie could follow the trail of psychic traces as she hoped she could. Larry led the way, then George, Super Collie, and finally Jato. Jato had tried to go first but Super Collie flatly refused. She would not have him looking up at her while she climbed down. Watching him strut and preen in front of ZigZag and the others more than used up any good feeling she might have had for him. Halfway down she felt a chill; she gritted her teeth and continued. So far so good.
"How old is this?" George asked, inspecting the walls. The drain running under Cinema Perversio's lot wasn't nearly so large as the one by the motorway. Two people could walk abreast if they stayed close and a particularly tall person would have trouble with overhead clearance.
"Early thirties," Larry replied. "Youse can tell by da brickwork."
"You've got seventy year old sewers here?" Super Collie asked, frowning.
"We got hundred and twenty year old sewers in places," Larry declared. "Some of 'em go back to da eighteen eighties."
The party slogged along. At the first intersection Super Collie checked each branch; to her relief the chill sensation guided her unequivocally. Through twists, turns, intersections, tunnels of varying ages, and underground galleries the trail led on- until it dead ended suddenly. Super Collie moved back and forth, going so far as to check intersections ahead and behind the stop point, but to no avail.
"What happened?" George asked as Super Collie backtracked yet again.
"I lost the trail," Super Collie replied. "She left the sewer right here." She indicated the area with a gesture. "I can't tell which way she went. Maybe right, maybe left, even up or down. Larry, are there other tunnels near here?"
"Lesse." Larry dug out several maps. "We're right on da border between two systems. Ya, dere's tunnels every way but dat way." he pointed.
"What's that way?" Super Collie asked.
"Hudson River," Larry replied.
"Let me see the map, please," Super Collie asked.
"Hold dis, please." Larry gave George one end of the map and held the other himself. "We're here." He pointed.
Super Collie scanned the area around where Larry had indicated. "Doesn't look too bad," she ventured. "Shouldn't take us more than a day or two to search out these other tunnels."
"Hold on dere." Larry dug out some other maps. "See, dis here's only de storm sewer overlay. Dere's the sanitary sewer overlay, de utility overlay, and de highway and railway overlay." He opened up a succession of new maps.
"Cor stone the bleeding cows," Super Collie muttered, suddenly appreciating the enormity of the task before her. She'd expected that a city the size of Greater New York would have a colossal sewer system. What's she'd failed to realize was that the storm sewers were merely one layer in a complex, intertwining, three dimensional network of tunnels and pipes. Even worse, since she could pass through things, Cat Woman could use any of them- or none- and shift from one network to another as she saw fit. Super Collie could spend the rest of her life searching tunnels and not find the right one. "Well, I should have known this was too easy," she sighed. "Let's head back. Since none of us can walk through walls, following the trail from this end isn't practical."
"What do we try next?" Jato asked.
"Take up pursuit from the other end," George replied. "Our cat woman had to remain solid along that route. Or, at the very least, she couldn't pass any obstacle she couldn't hand Jaleel through."
"You really tink dere's a giant cat woman down here?" Larry asked in a conversational tone, as if he were discussing the weather or the latest baseball scores.
"At least there's something," Super Collie replied. "I feel it."
"I know what youse means," Larry replied. "A chilly kinda ding, likes a draft up the backside."
Super Collie stopped so suddenly Jato ran into her and almost fell down. "You feel it too?" she exclaimed.
Larry nodded. "Never knew what it was, dough."
"You've felt it before?" Super Collie demanded.
"When I worked Lower Manhattan it got real bad," Larry replied. "Dat's why I transferred out here. Stared gettin' ta me, ya know?"
"Well I'll be God damned," Super Collie breathed. "It really is better to be lucky than good."
"Youse shouldn't say stuff like dat," Larry replied, his eyes widening. "Youse never know when da Big Guy might be listenin, right?" He glanced upward.
"Sorry," Super Collie replied contritely. "You may be assured the Big Guy has my heartfelt gratitude. I'm sure it was His provenience that brought us together, Larry. I think you're just the break this case needs."
Larry grinned happily. "I can't tell you what dis means to me Super Collie. Tanks. Whatever I can do, just name it."
"First, lead us out," Super Collie replied. "Then, if you can, show us on the map where you felt this... chill. It may help us narrow down where to find Mr. Bronson."
"Sure ting, Super Collie!" Larry led the way at a jaunty pace.
"Did you ever tell anyone else about this?" George asked.
"Nahh," Larry replied. "Who'd believe it?"
In due course they returned to the open manhole where they'd come down.
"Find anything?" ZigZag asked as the party ascended.
"Yes and no," Super Collie replied, blinking at the sky. Even the smog-diluted sunlight felt good after so long in the dank, dark sewers. "We followed the trail but hit a dead end. Fortunately Larry noticed some things that might help us out. If it's not too late-" she frowned; it hadn't seemed like they'd been down long but morning had already given way to afternoon. "I'd like to head back to the airport and check the sewer over there."
"No problem for me," Larry replied brightly. "I get overtime." He grinned.
Super Collie shed her coveralls as if they were on fire. Wearing them beat the alternative but that didn't mean she planned to endure them any longer than absolutely necessary.
"Does this mean you're closer to finding Jaleel?" Fredrika asked.
Super Collie hesitated before answering. "I think so, yes," she finally said. "But... I'm not sure by how much."
"I... see." Fredrika looked down. Her expression of dismay was heart rending. Jato opened his mouth but George elbowed him sharply, for which Super Collie was grateful. Now wasn't the time for false bravado.
ZigZag didn't miss the byplay nor, Super Collie suspected, its significance. "Good luck," ZigZag said. "You've brought Jaleel closer to us than any one else so far." She slipped an arm around Fredrika's waist and gave her a squeeze. Fredrika returned the gesture and lay her head on ZigZag's shoulder.
Super Collie decided there and then that whatever the DSA, the INS, or the New Zealand government had to say she'd stay in America as long as necessary to find Jaleel. These were good people... better, in fact, than not a few of the "upstanding citizens" with whom Super Collie had dealt over the years. With more than just a twinge of conscience she realized that because they were in the porn business she'd assumed them to be dodgy sorts... and she'd worried what effect associating with them might have on her own not exactly stellar reputation. That wasn't merely unfair, it was selfish. Not at all appropriate behavior for a super hero.
"Do you have time to have lunch with us before running off to slog through the sewers?" ZigZag inquired.
Super Collie wanted to pick up the trail as quickly as possible but thinking about Fredrika she changed her mind. These people have given up a lot to make themselves available to me. The least I can do is a bit of the same for them. "Sure," she said.
"Great!" ZigZag grinned. "There's a wonderful Italian place near here. We go there for power lunches. Heavenly." She rolled her eyes and sighed dreamily.
"Is there a place I can shower first?" Super Collie asked. Her skin crawled merely from the memory of the unpleasant coverall.
"Sure," ZigZag replied. "We have facilities in the studio. I'll call the restaurant and make reservations."
After a thorough scrubbing Super Collie felt much better. She emerged to find that George and Larry had also availed themselves of the facilities. George of course wore his uniform but Larry had exchanged his coveralls, helmet, and boots for black shoes, brown slacks, a matching blazer, and a white shirt. He cleaned up quite well, Super Collie had to admit. Ferrying everyone to the restaurant required only two vehicles because Jato elected to fly rather than leave his jet back behind. Super Collie sat in the front passenger seat while ZigZag drove; Fredrika and George rode in back.
Leonardo's occupied one of a block of storefronts that had seen better days. Still, the restaurant itself looked well appointed, though not flashy. People stared as ZigZag and party entered but what was one to expect? Fredrika and ZigZag would draw attention all by themselves. Super Collie and Jato Impala brought outlandish costumes to the mix. Super Collie noticed the attention but thought nothing of it; as a super hero one got used to it. It did feel strange not to have people asking her for autographs. Apparently in the United States she wasn't so well known as in New Zealand.
At one point Super Collie found herself returning the stares. At one table against the wall she observed a lanky, pale furred bat- a vampire bat, no less- seated across from an enormous brown bear. It wasn't like she'd never seen a bat or a bear before but something about these two... especially the bat. Almost as if-
"Don't worry, he only sucks on film," ZigZag said.
"Sorry?" Super Collie blinked.
"Marko over there." ZigZag pointed with her chin, clearly indicating the bat. "Some years ago he played a vampire in a bunch of cheap horror flicks. If he looks familiar that's probably why. He's retired now."
Super Collie blinked again. "You know him?"
"He's a regular," ZigZag replied. "Though I've never seen him in for lunch before. I recognized him from the films and chatted him up one evening."
Marko watched as ZigZag's party took their seats. Super Collie kept glancing furtively over her shoulder, a mildly worried expression on her face. "She knows," Marko said, picking up his ginger ale and taking a sip. He sounded like Bela Leugosi playing Dracula, complete with accent.
"Surely not," the bear rumbled. "You're getting paranoid in your old age." He spoke flawless American English.
"She's a super hero who's fought Daughter Night," Marko replied. "I read about her in the paper after that big smashup near JFK a few days back. Besides, you know perfectly well that paranoia's part of the job description for the likes of us."
"We're retired," the bear pointed out.
"In our line of work you're never retired," Marko countered. "That's why you brought me here at this ungodly hour in the first place." He stroked his face with two long, bony digits that sprouted from the wrist of his right wing. "You just told me that Company people were poking around."
The bear sighed, pouring himself two fingers of vodka- three fingers for anyone else- and downing it in one gulp. "There are a lot of Company men in New York these days. And... ex-employees, like us. Almost like the old days." He poured himself another glass but swirled it slowly instead of drinking. "I noticed it right after the Ram disappeared but I see now that it had been going on before." He shook his head. "I must be getting old."
"Living in the land of milk and honey has made you soft, Cheslav." Marko reached across the table to poke his companion in the ample belly. "You've become fat and lazy, just like an American."
Cheslav chuckled. "You're right, Marko. And what about you? A movie star with three teenage daughters and a decadent American wife-"
"Ex-wife," Marko interrupted.
"Right. Ex-wife." Cheslav frowned; Doroteya had married Marko because he was a famous movie star. He'd married her because she was gorgeous. It ended as such unions often did; Doroteya sued for divorce when she found that Marko didn't have any money after all. Marko let her go because she'd never been anything but a trophy wife in any case but he sued for- and won- custody of the children. "Have you told them?" Cheslav inquired
"Told them what?" Marko demanded suspiciously.
Cheslav rolled his eyes. "Don't play dense with me, Marko. They're your children and Doroteya came from an old family too. It's not unlikely that one- or more- of them will find out about your past when it leaps upon them from behind."
Marko's eyes unfocused as he stared off into space. He hadn't told the girls. How could he? They were thoroughly American, with cell phones, pagers, and body piercings. They painted their fur garish colors- to mask the paleness they'd inherited from him, no doubt- and trolled the malls with their girlfriends, listening to stuff Marko couldn't even charitably call music and reading women's magazines that seemed, to him, only one step removed from pornography. The Old Country couldn't be more alien to them if they'd come from another planet. "Why did you call me here?" he demanded.
"These Company men, and ex-Company men, are looking for something," Cheslav replied. "It is... something relevant to what you do. They may come asking about it."
"What do you expect me to do?" Marko demanded shortly. "This isn't the old days. I can't just pack up and vanish into the woodwork. The girls would scream."
Cheslav shrugged. "I didn't come to tell you what to do, Marko, just to inform you."
Marko sighed. "I'm sorry. I, more than anyone I think, understand what a precarious position the girls are in. It preys on me." He finished his ginger ale. "I should tell them but I don't know how. They won't believe it. If they do... they're likely to act rashly." Moving only his eyes he studied the super hero from New Zealand, who listened attentively while ZigZag talked. She seemed much too young, hardly older than his own children, but at his age everyone looked young. "Does she have a place in all this?"
Cheslav followed Marko's glance. "She's looking for Mr. Bronson," he said. "She's being controlled by two of the Company men. But I wonder if they've told her the whole story. I wonder if they know the whole story."
"Do you?" Marko inquired.
"Some people are hiding something," Cheslav replied. "Others are looking for something. These somethings are of great value, justifying great efforts on their behalves. Neither side wants themselves, or their somethings, to be noticed by the general public."
"Are these somethings the same, by any chance?" Marko asked.
"That, my friend, is the proverbial sixty-four thousand dollar question," Cheslav responded. "If I knew that..." he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "But perhaps it's better that I don't."
Marko said nothing. In Cheslav's business the words valuable and dangerous were synonymous. "This is like the old days," he commented. "One thing happens on the surface while another happens just below. What's seen is meant to divert attention away from what's hidden."
"But sometimes the best place to hide something is in plain sight," Cheslav pointed out.
"The Purloined Letter," Marko replied. Now he understood what Cheslav wanted. He wanted to know what was going on. He wanted Marko to question people he could not himself approach without attracting unwanted attention. Indeed we never retire, Marko thought. Cheslav could have just come out and asked but that would be incriminating. As it was he and an old friend were merely having lunch together, making small talk. I should tell him to go straight to Hell. But Cheslav had piqued his curiosity... and managed to weave in a thread of self interest as well. "The girls are getting to about that age," he said aloud. "They're filling out-" he waved his fingers in an hourglass pattern- "and think only of dating and boys."
"Were we any different?" Cheslav inquired. "At that age we thought only of dating and girls."
"Indeed," Marko mused. "I'm worried, though. That they might... pick up some awful disease. What with everything that's going around these days..." he shrugged.
"A blood test," Cheslav said.
"Yes." Marko nodded. "A blood test. Handled discreetly, of course. I wouldn't wish to embarrass them."
"Indeed." Cheslav stroked his chin. "I'll ask around. Perhaps I can suggest someone."
"Thank you." Marko nodded. The bargain was made; Marko would inquire about these goings on and Cheslav would test the girls to find out which ones Marko needed to talk to... or if he needed to talk to them at all. That would be a relief, though it would also condemn him to continuing on alone. His secret wasn't an easy thing to bear and he'd rather not burden the girls with it if he didn't have to. But if one- or more- of them had inherited his condition it would, as Cheslav pointed out, steal upon then unawares if Marko didn't preempt the matter by telling them. That would be much worse than the shock of learning the truth. Though it had been a long time ago Marko recalled all too well his own youth. He'd struggled through it without help and suffered terribly because of it.
A panel truck came roaring down the street. In front of the restaurant it lost control, sideswiping three cars including ZigZag's, and crashed over onto its side. Several police cars, obviously in pursuit, screeched to a halt and blocked off the end of the street. Officers leapt out, drawing weapons and taking cover behind their vehicles.
Marko got to his feet and left the table. Cheslav, like everyone else in the restaurant, watched the developing standoff. ZigZag cursed loudly, rushed to the door, and threw it open, gazing in dismay at her damaged car. Marko slipped past her and hurried away. Now that he'd decided to act wasn't the time to be noticed, especially not in Cheslav's company.
"I don't think we want to be out there right now," Super Collie said, grabbing ZigZag's arm and pulling her back inside. Suddenly she felt... something. She glanced around and saw the bear sitting by himself. She noticed Marko's empty glass on the table and his chair pushed back as if he'd just got up. The man himself, however, was nowhere to be seen.
The rear doors of the panel truck burst open. An incredibly obese ginger tabby struggled out; he wore a black swallowtail jacket, pinstripe trousers, topper, monocle, a white shirt with a starched collar, and a crushed velvet waistcoat. The police opened fire without hesitation and he raised an arm to shield his face. The bullets tore his clothes but otherwise bounced off harmlessly. With a yell he charged, moving much faster than any ordinary person, to say nothing of one so bulky, could have done. He put his shoulder down and slammed headlong into one of the police cars; it skittered away from the impact, knocking several officers flying.
"Omigod!" Jato exclaimed, jumping to his feet. In the process he knocked over two chairs and tripped Larry, who sprawled on his face. "It's Fat Cat!" His jets lit with a roar; he sailed right through the restaurant's front window, streaking at the garishly clad feline like a guided missile.
"Wait!" Super Collie shouted but it was already too late. She leapt through the shattered window just as Jato struck. Fat Cat reeled back into the police car he'd already damaged; Jato bounced off, whirled through the air, and fell to the street like a sack of potatoes. As Fat Cat struggled to rise Super Collie rushed up to him, drew a breath, and barked. The sound echoed down the street like a bomb blast; it shattered the near side windows of the police car behind Fat Cat and tore open his jacket and waistcoat. But he merely laughed, leapt to his feet, and tried to envelop Super Collie in a bear hug. She deftly- but narrowly- blocked his grab with her staff and came back with a sharp blow to his neck, her fingers held rigidly together. But that seemed to have no effect either.
Jato shook his head and sat up. Apparently he'd merely been dazed. Fat Cat let out a whoop and charged him. Jato whipped up his grenade launcher and fired; the round struck Fat Cat right in the chest. It exploded with a deafeningly sharp crack and a dazzling flash of electric blue light. Fat Cat faltered but didn't stop; he fell upon Jato and engulfed him in a crushing grip. Jato yelped, more in fear than in pain Super Collie decided, but she heard his armor groan under the strain. The police kept up a steady stream of fire but it seemed to have no more effect than anything else for far.
Super Collie hesitated. She hadn't barked at full strength before; if she did now Jato would be caught in the blast as well. But he looked plenty tough and besides, what else could she do? She took a breath- deeper this time- and let fly. It burst the back of Fat Cat's jacket; he didn't seem unduly injured but he dropped Jato and ran.
"Hey!" one of the cops shouted. "Take this!" Super Collie glanced. The officer lobbed something; she caught it, then took off after Fat Cat. She caught him by the panel truck; he'd stopped to grab a cloth sack. The object in her hand was a black plastic box with a textured grip, a large thumb trigger, and two metal prongs projecting from its face. Super Collie jammed it into Fat Cat's back and hit the trigger. It snapped loudly and he bellowed in pain but didn't fall down. He whirled and struck at her with his fist. She blocked hastily and managed to deflect the attack. He started to move away but Super Collie moved faster, striking him again with the stun gun. Jato fired his grenade launcher; once again his round struck squarely. This time Fat Cat fell down. Unfortunately the blast caught Super Collie as well; she fell, screaming, dropping the stun gun and her staff. Bright gold and purple flashes exploded before her eyes and her nervous system felt like it was on fire.
"Shoot him again!" one of the cops screamed.
"But-" Jato protested. At that moment Fat Cat blinked and sat up. Jato leapt into the air and fired; Super Collie, who'd only just shaken off the effect of the last one, dove out of the way. Fat Cat reeled but didn't go down; he struggled to his feet and started running. Super Collie jumped to her feet and barked, dismayed at how far Fat Cat had managed to go. Her super bark attenuated with range. From the way things had gone she hoped he was on the verge of going down and it wouldn't take much to put him over the edge. Her bark tore his jacket off and he fell, dropping the bag. A few loose bills spilled out. She ran up to him, stopping close enough that her bark would have maximum effect but out of range should he try grabbing or hitting her. His eyes were fluttering open as she barked again. She couldn't hardly miss with him laying on the ground like that. He fell back down but she continued barking, again and again.
"What are you doing?" Jato demanded, grabbing Super Collie's shoulder as she drew her breath to bark once more. She spun, smashing the grenade launcher out of his hands with her staff. He yelped and jumped back, eyeing her fearfully; the grenade launcher spun across the pavement and stopped near the curb. George, who'd come out of the restaurant, moved to it and picked it up before any of the local policemen could. He held it comfortably, obviously familiar with such weapons.
Super Collie clenched her teeth to keep from screaming in Jato's face. "Listen to me, you tin plated moron," she hissed, grabbing him by the neck and shaking him violently. "He fell down three times, only to get up again a moment later. How long do you want this to go on?" She shoved Jato away and barked twice more. Fat's Cat's clothes hung in tatters and the pavement beneath him had crazed like broken glass. Super Collie heaved a shuddering sigh and leaned heavily on her staff.
The police came hurrying up. "Excuse me, miss," one of them said to Super Collie. "Are you an accredited super hero?"
"Oh, give her a break, Willie," the one who'd tossed the stun gun interrupted. "She saved our bacon. Fat Cat would have pounded us all into paste if Miss Collie here and her sidekick hadn't shown up."
"I am Jato Impala, accredited super hero-" Jato produced his ID- "and Super Collie here is a Foreign Guest Super Person under the provisions of the United Nations Charter on International Super Hero Relations, Article Seventeen, sub-clause one-A."
"Ah," the first cop said. He seemed almost disappointed. "We'll still have to take statements and check your credentials. If you'll come with us-"
"Officer, I'm on an investigation!" Super Collie interrupted. "I don't have time for this!"
"Super Collie, in the United States the unlicensed use of super abilities is a crime," Willie replied. "Furthermore, engaging in heroic activity without first posting an insurance bond against accidental injury and property damage is also a crime. If everything's in order you get in with your investigation. If not we deal with it."
Super Collie drew her lips back and growled, reflecting that it seemed very appropriate that Willie happened to be a pig. "All right," she sighed. There goes the afternoon, shot to Hell, she thought bitterly. No wonder everybody hates Americans. You try to do them a favor and they ream you. She glanced down at Fat Cat, who still lay unconscious. It took four officers to roll him onto his face so they could cuff him.
"Don't worry, we'll get this straightened out," Jato assured.
Super Collie glared at Jato so venomously he shrank away. "While we're waiting, sidekick, you and I are going to have a friendly little chat about teamwork."
The alarm was set to go off at six o'clock. As he always did Marko switched it off at five fifty-nine. He couldn't remember what the alarm actually sounded like because it had been so long since he'd actually heard it. He yawned; going to see Cheslav had taken a bite out of his sleep time. He spread his wings to their full extent and let go of his sleeping perch, somersaulting lightly to the floor. The girls thought him crazy for continuing to sleep during the day and hanging upside down to boot. They saw it as evidence of how hopelessly backward and reactionary he was. They all had beds and slept at night. Marko shook his head sadly as he shuffled off to the bathroom, his wings gathered around him like a cloak. He couldn't get comfortable in a bed and they took up a tremendous amount of floor space. As for the rest of it, bats were supposed to be nocturnal. Going against nature like that couldn't be a good thing.
In the bathroom Marko studied himself in the mirror. His nose turned up, rather like a pig's snout. He lowered his head, glowering fiercely, hunching his shoulders and slowly unfurling his wings, extending them upwards. Fortunately his loft, being a converted industrial space, had very high ceilings. Abruptly he lunged forward, mouth opening, hissing venomously. "Funny how I had to star in a movie to learn how to be a vampire," he commented, relaxing. "But if I were a real vampire I wouldn't show up in the mirror, now, would I?" He chuckled, settling himself on a bench installed beside the sink. He used his feet to brush his teeth instead of his wing claws; they were a lot more facile for delicate work. In fact his lower extremities resembled nothing so much as attenuated, skeletal hands with long, wickedly sharp talons. Contrary to what some thought about vampire bats his teeth weren't very large but quite sharp. They weren't there to rip off hunks of flesh the way canine or feline teeth were; they needed only to make punctures through which an adequate quantity of blood could flow. Which was another thing: how long had it been since the girls tasted fresh blood? He was afraid to mention it to them now; they'd probably think he was crazy.
After a leisurely shower Marko dried off and pulled on his body suit, basically a loop of cloth that ran over his shoulders and through his crotch. His wing membranes went too far down his body to permit the wearing of conventional clothing. Out in the front room he found the girls engrossed in the Playstation 2 they'd wheedled him into buying. It was, in his mind, the most bizarre and incomprehensible aspect of a bizarre and incomprehensible existence. He simply could not see the point to the games they played. They seemed to be nothing but garish visual spectacles devoid of substance. But at least they weren't watching television. "Good evening, my darlings," he called.
"Good evening, Daddy!" the girls chorused, flashing bright smiles before turning back to their game.
Marko couldn't help smiling in return. They were beautiful young ladies; where his coat was merely pale gray theirs gleamed like silk. For bats they were remarkably full figured; in that they took after their mother, thank goodness, instead of their lean, gangly father. Likewise they'd inherited Doroteya's fine features instead of his own sharp, angular ones. Now if only he could convince them how beautiful they were without the garishly colored, spiked fur and multiple piercing in their ears and eyebrows. Ah, well. He came up behind Agnessa, wrapped his wings around her and gave her a peck on the cheek. She giggled. Antonina protested and tried to fend him off but only halfheartedly. Ekaterina actually turned her head and nuzzled his cheek in return.
"Going out early tonight?" Antonina asked, her eyes on the game in progress.
"Yes, I have a few errands to run," Marko replied. "I trust you can take care of yourselves while I'm away?"
"Sure thing, Dad," Ekaterina replied. "Want us to leave some dinner for you?"
"No, thank you," Marko replied. "I'll grab something while I'm out and about. Make sure you tidy up and do your homework before going to bed."
"We will," Agnessa said with a sigh of long suffering.
"Of course." Marko climbed a ladder set against the living room's far wall. It led to a trapdoor in the roof, which he opened. His friends and neighbors thought him crazy to leave three teenage girls alone in the evening but they never got into serious trouble. He attributed it to his excellent parenting skills. From the roof he spread his wings and leapt off. Several people waved from the street as he swept by; he waggled his wing tips in reply. Since he'd taken his time with his libations it was now around seven, leaving him a bit more than an hour until sunset. In no particular hurry he headed toward the old industrial belt near the Hudson. Jersey was not, in his considered opinion, a particularly nice place to live. But then nowhere in New York was particularly nice unless you were filthy rich.
Marko found old memories coming up. He'd been filthy rich once. Several times, in fact. He could be now if he so chose... but over the years he'd dealt so often with the problems of conspicuous wealth that he knew them by heart. In the modern world he'd discovered a place between wealth and poverty, below the yuppies but above the secretaries and administrative assistants. Middle middle class, one might say. At that level one could maintain a comfortable lifestyle, avoiding both the privation of poverty and the stress of fortune.
But as much as he hated to admit it Marko was beginning to see an unchallenging life as fundamentally uninteresting as well. Maybe that's why he'd agreed to Cheslav's request. He'd thought himself long past the stage of doing things merely for excitement... but taken against the whole span of his existence, what else was there? He'd seen too many things, too many people, come and go. If he didn't enjoy life what was the point of having it? And maybe, just maybe, that meant taking a foolish risk every now and then, just for the Hell of it.
The old water tower hadn't been used for years. Ulcers of corrosion burst through the paint, which was already faded and stained by decades of sun, wind, and rain. To keep people from climbing it the ladders had been cut away but that hardly mattered to one who could fly. Marko came in for a landing on the walkway running around the tank's foot then slithered over the edge, clinging to a girder with his powerful feet. From here he could look out over Newark and even across the river to Manhattan. Better yet, he had the perch to himself; it was too open and exposed a place for bats- even traditionally minded ones- to hang out. Of course Marko didn't intend to stay here; it was just a place to wait and watch the sun go down. And it happened to lay near his intended destination.
The flight up had taken almost long enough. The sun hung low on the western horizon, blurred and stained muddy brown and garish pink by pollution. Marko sighed; that was one thing about the United States he didn't particularly like. But these days eastern Europe was much worse. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire he could have gone back any time he wanted. He hadn't because there wasn't any point. A gulf of time as well as space separated him from the place he remembered and besides it hadn't been nearly so wonderful as he liked to think. For all that he poked fun at Cheslav, Marko found himself much enamored of the abundant consumer wealth America offered.
As the sun deformed against the horizon like a deflating balloon Marko shivered with giddy excitement. Already he felt the stirrings within him, something awakening and reaching out just as long fingers of shadow reached across the city. To Marko it seemed less as if the sun were shrinking away than some great blackness were welling up from the earth, swallowing the light the way Fenris was said to swallow the sun. But where others might fear the coming night and fortify their dwellings with bulwarks of illumination to drive it away Marko welcomed it. As Mother Night caressed him with her cold fingers he gasped with almost orgiastic joy. During the day he was a shadow, an intruder in a world of blazing light. During the night he was king, the Lord of the Dark. With an exultant shout he let go of his perch and whirled casually through the tower's support beams and reinforcing struts even though eyes better than his couldn't have seen them. With the weight of sunlight lifted from him he felt strong. Agile. Young.
But as with any orgasm the joy passed quickly. Marko had work to do, only so many hours in which to do it... and his eyes weren't the only ones abroad in the darkness. He swooped low over the roofs of abandoned factories and warehouses, becoming one more of the deep, reaching shadows. At one point he surprised a group of gang members doing a drug sale but passed them by without hardly a glance. They weren't his concern right now.
As he approached the Cinema Perversio lot Marko glided silently to the ground and pressed himself up against the side of the building, listening carefully. This was not the Old Country, where he could act with impunity. Confident that he wasn't being observed from above he crept along the wall. During their occasional conversations ZigZag had told him quite a bit. More than she realized, most likely. Marko had been trained to listen carefully, to note what was implied and what was not said as much as what was. She probably hadn't meant to say that the studio was full of expensive computer equipment and watched by only a single security guard but she had, once one picked through an assortment of apparently incidental comments. Marko could have arranged to burglarize it; taking out the security guard would be child's play- for him, at least- and he knew people who could crack the doors, load the gear, and fence it. Fortunately for ZigZag he'd never consider such a thing; if he wanted money or power he'd undertake an activity with better returns. Besides, he considered burglary a working class pastime. Members of the upper class- which he considered himself, despite his modest economic station- engaged in more genteel crimes.
Marko's sharp ears detected the sound of Abadacus' footsteps. He listened carefully... and realized that the sound came from inside the building. Abadacus walked right by where Marko waited and continued on. Marko frowned; if Abadacus didn't come outside that would make his job more difficult. But not impossible. He moved along the wall until he found a door. It was metal, with both lock and hinges on the inside. Once there had been a window in it; now the glass was gone but a metal grating closed the hole. Marko chuckled; that might stop your average burglar or vandal but not him. Nevertheless he had to spend a moment psyching himself up. All that about having to be invited in, it's just an old wives's tale, he reminded himself firmly. Besides, nobody lives here. It's just a warehouse.
Suddenly everything changed. Marko felt his body seem to... evaporate. He became something like a zone of sensation; he felt the rough wall of the building, the rusted door, and the even more badly rusted grating, but he didn't seem to be touching them. He would have taken a deep breath except that his lungs had gone with the rest of his body. He pressed himself against the door, a process he couldn't really explain since he lacked physical form, and felt himself spilling through the grating. Once inside he concentrated once more and felt his body coming back together. His nose told him which way Abadacus had gone; though hardly a slovenly fellow warthog scent was not easily banished. In any case Marko had an excellent sense of smell. He set off, moving briskly but quietly. Things would go much more smoothly if he could steal upon his target unawares.
Warthogs, or at least Abadacus, seemed to have excellent hearing. Or maybe he felt something in some other fashion. As Marko crept up behind him Abadacus turned suddenly, shining the beam of his Mag light right in Marko's face. It took a goodly part of Marko's self control not to cry out; focused light from the Halogen bulb seemed to burn in his mind like fire. But he managed- narrowly- neither to make a sound nor loose concentration. Which was just as well; Abadacus was big and tough. Fighting him hand to hand would be tricky and dangerous. After a moment Abadacus lowered the flashlight and turned around. Nevertheless it took Marko a moment to recover. Idiot, he admonished himself sharply. Just because you haven't been chased recently by a mob of peasants armed with torches and wooden stakes isn't an excuse to get careless. He drew a breath, keeping his mouth wide open so it wouldn't make noise. "Abadacus," he said, "Turn around."
Abadacus froze in his tracks. He looked back over his shoulder. He couldn't help looking into Marko's eyes because they seemed to glow like the coals of a banked fire. His arm quivered, longing to swung the Mag light like a club and smash those terrible eyes but the intensity of their gaze melted his will. His arm fell to his side and he turned around.
"Tell me what Super Collie was doing here," Marko demanded. He couldn't help using his vampire voice and gesturing eerily with his wing claws even though it had no actual effect on what he did. But it looked creepy and dramatic on camera, which was the desired result so far as the film producers were concerned.
Abadacus' mouth quivered. Despite his appearance he had a strong, agile mind; Marko applied pressure firmly but carefully. After a moment Abadacus began speaking. With a minimum of prompting he related what he knew about both of Super Collie's visits.
"Who knows about this, other than yourself and Super Collie?" Marko asked.
"Miss ZigZag," Abadacus replied. "Other than that I don't know. Miss Collie said I shouldn't talk about it and I haven't."
"Where is ZigZag staying?" Marko asked.
"She, Miss Wanda, and Miss Fredrika are staying at a long-term rental unit in Brooklyn."
"Give me the address." Abadacus rattled it off. Marko pulled out a notepad and wrote it down. "Continue on your rounds," he directed. "Forget that you met me."
Abadacus blinked. His body quivered, then he turned away and continued on. Marko let him get out of sight then set to finding a way out. As a matter of habit never used the same entrance twice if he could help it. He didn't think anyone was after him at the moment but that didn't mean they weren't. His powers didn't make him invincible, not by a long shot. In fact, he wasn't even particularly powerful on the scale of modern super beings and his weaknesses too well known. His greatest strengths had always been stealth and reputation but these days he didn't dare go around terrorizing people just for the sake of building a name. That left stealth. Which was why he'd been recruited instead of liquidated. There were still times when he wondered if going out in a blaze of glory wouldn't have been preferable but they came less and less often. It might be said that he'd gotten used to living and didn't care to stop.
After leaving the studio through a roof vent Marko flew to downtown Jersey City and took the train across to Manhattan. At night he could have flown all the way from Hoboken to south Brooklyn but why bother? In New York the trains never stopped. From the PATH terminal at the World Trade Center he took the 8th Avenue Local to 14th Street and caught the Canarsie Local to Union Square. A short time later he boarded a Broadway Express headed for Brooklyn. Up until a short time ago he would have avoided all the rigamarole by leaving the 8th Avenue Local at West 4th Street / Washington Square and transferring to the 6th Avenue Local, but with the Manhattan Bridge down for repairs the 6th Avenue Local didn't go to Brooklyn any more.
Some of Marko's neighbors worried about him, a frail old man riding the subways alone at night. Marko wanted to laugh; he wasn't afraid of muggers. In fact, as he took his seat other passengers- even the very disturbing looking ones- edged away from him.
As the train rolled into 36th Street Station Marko caught sight of a fellow leaning against a post. A number of people got off... including a youngish woman carrying a double armload of groceries. No one else may have noticed- or cared- but Marko observed the fellow studying the woman with an intensity that belied his lackadaisical appearance. Marko found himself torn. It wasn't any of his business. In any case, the number of muggings, rapes, and assaults that happened in New York merely on an average evening would positively boggle the mind. Even if he devoted himself full time he couldn't even begin to put a dent in the numbers. In any case, heroing wasn't in his nature. But this was like watching someone deliberately stick their foot into a bear trap. You'd think that someone who lived in New York would know better. As the door started to close Marko darted out. The woman struggled up the stairs with her packages. The man covered his mouth with his hand, coughed, and turned after her. Marko fell in behind.
What happened conformed to Marko's expectations so precisely that it gave him a giddy sense of déja vu. The woman left the station and shambled off down the street. The man followed, slipping a hand into his pocket and gripping something bulky. The woman, sensing herself pursued, sped up. The hunter closed in for the kill. So taken by the dance was he that Marko almost failed to act. As the mugger drew his knife Marko stepped up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. The mugger whirled, slashing out. Since Marko had already taken a step back the blade flashed harmlessly by. With the preliminaries out of the way Marko stared at the mugger, subsuming his will as he'd done to Abadacus. The mugger lacked Abadacus' strength of mind; he surrendered without so much as quiver.
The victim saw Marko for the first time. She dropped her bags and screamed in soul-wrenching terror. She tried to run, tripped, and fell flat on her face. Marko wasn't worried that her noise would attract attention- not in New York- but it bothered him. "Wait," he commanded the mugger, then went to the woman. He grabbed her chin, forcing her to look into his eyes. "I'm not here for you," he said. "Take your groceries, go home, and forget about me."
The woman struggled to her feet and hesitantly gathered up her packages. She couldn't tear her eyes away from Marko even as she shuffled off into the night. Marko watched to make sure nothing else happened, then turned back to the mugger. "Come with me," he said, beckoning with his wing claws. The man lurched forward like a sleepwalker, which in a sense he was. "You know what comes next, don't you?" Marko purred, leading the fellow into a nearby alley. He slipped his wings around the man as if he were a lover. "Lean your head back."
The mugger's head came up, baring his neck. Marko flicked out his tongue- which was quite long- and slowly licked the man's throat. Vampire bat saliva contained a topical anesthetic that numbed the victim's skin for when the bite came, a fact that those craving a little oral stimulation from their bat lovers would do well to bear in mind. Marko had discovered a mouthwash that neutralized the anesthetic for a time and used it whenever he visited a lady friend. It didn't even matter to him whether or not she reciprocated; he did it because... well, why not admit it? The flavor of a woman's passion sweat, the way she quivered when he stroked her with his tongue, it reminded him of this.
The mugger whined and quivered, white showing all around his eyes. Yes, he knew what was coming and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Terror radiated from him like a miasmic cloud; in Marko's nostrils it was sweet ambrosia. But even this alley was too open a place for extending toying. Marko chuckled, recalling how he'd told the girls not to play with their food and here he was. He positioned his teeth over the jugular and bit down. The mugger groaned; he wouldn't feel much pain but he'd know the end was near. Marko himself groaned and snarled; the sensation of hot blood spurting into his mouth was like no experience other than orgasm... and it lasted a lot longer. Finally the mugger's eyes rolled back, his knees folded, and he went down in a heap.
Marko sighed, licking the blood from his muzzle. He regretted killing the mugger only so far as it left him with the problem of how to dispose of the corpse. In the Old Country he could have left it in the woods for the wolves to find. In New York there weren't any wolves, except for the two legged variety, and they'd demand exorbitant fees for their assistance. Not that Marko couldn't pay... but at heart he was a loner. He picked up the mugger's knife and attacked the neck as if trying to cut his head off. The knife wasn't really a suitable weapon for that task and necks a lot tougher than most people realized. Nevertheless Marko could have done it if he chose but it wasn't necessary. In the mess he'd made of the neck the bite marks wouldn't show. Let the police make what they would of the crime; considering that hundreds of corpses turned up every day the death of one mugger wouldn't arouse great interest. That done he drove the blade into the mugger's chest, mostly so it would stand up on its own. In anticipation of such incidents he always carried certain basic supplies with him. Some nail polish remover on a handkerchief took care of any incriminating fingerprints on the knife hilt. Next came a perfume atomizer filled with clear liquid; Marko turned his face away and held his breath while spraying the corpse and the surrounding area. Even so it made him queasy. But it would destroy any hairs or skin flakes he'd shed during the attack. As he put it away Marko chuckled. Who would expect a vampire to use holy water, especially that blessed by a rabbi?
In the interest of saving time Marko flew back to 36th Street. As he hurried up the stairs to the station people glanced at him nervously and edged away. He could prevent them from noticing the few remaining flecks of blood on his face but not the powerful aura that always surrounded him after a feeding. The stink of fear it created was intoxicating; Marko could practically hear the blood surging in all those veins. It took firm self-control not to let out a banshee shriek and start tearing at everything near him just to see all that blood running free down the steps, filling his nostrils with the glorious perfume of terror and death. He couldn't resist jumping the turnstiles even though two transit cops were staring right at him. He froze them in their tracks with a glance.
As his train rolled onward through Brooklyn Marko's elation slowly faded. One less criminal in New York could hardly be called a bad thing but he'd come close to killing a number of people simply for the fun of it. That's why he couldn't bring himself to warn he girls; unless they actually felt the bloodlust burning inside them he didn't think they'd understand. They'd probably think their daddy was some sort of homicidal maniac. That his own daughters might come to fear and hate him was a thing he could not endure. But if he waited for the factor to manifest they'd suffer as he'd suffered. They'd ask why he hadn't warned them or tried to prepare them. He hunched forward in his seat, his wings wrapped tightly around his body, staring morosely at the floor. He could hope that the girls wouldn't manifest but he couldn't believe things would turn out that way. Whether one called it divine providence, fate, karma, or simply dumb luck, the universe seemed to have a way of evening things out. He just knew that at least one of the girls would manifest. That would be his punishment for the hubris of thinking that he could have an ordinary life without regard to his condition.
At 79th Street Marko got off the train and flew several blocks to the address Abadacus had given him. It turned out to be a relatively new and very well kept building. A security guard sat at a desk in the lobby. Marko didn't doubt that he could have persuaded the guard to let him in but there would undoubtedly be cameras. He did not care to allow his likeness to be recorded. He glided over the roof, turning to mist as he did so, letting his momentum carry him down and across. As expected he found a number of exhaust vents. There weren't enough for every unit in the building so Marko guessed that the ducts ran vertically, serving each floor through which they passed. Fortunately Abadacus had said that ZigZag occupied a top floor unit so Marko shouldn't have to go far. He'd gotten the apartment number, of course, but that didn't help when approaching from the outside. He oozed down the nearest pipe and took the first horizontal turnoff; he found himself emerging into a kitchen through the exhaust hood over the stove. A peek through a window confirmed that he'd reached the correct floor but the apartment was empty. He tried the front door but found it too well sealed; he couldn't pass through airtight barriers. He returned to the roof and tried the next vent. That unit proved to be occupied but by a couple with young children. His fourth attempt looked promising; even from the kitchen he detected the scent of females in the proper age bracket. In the first bedroom he found a German shepherd woman who could only be Ms. Von Braun, considering how her chest swelled the bedclothes. In the next he encountered a curvaceous vixen who must be Wanda. In the last he met none other than ZigZag herself. She'd kicked off her blankets and lay on her belly, legs apart, both arms tightly around her pillow. She seemed to be having a very exciting dream; her breath came in quiet gasps and her hips twitched rhythmically up and down. Her voluminous tail stood straight up in the air, wafting back and forth with the motion of her hips like a sultan's fan. As an added bonus she slept in the nude, or at least had this particular evening.
Marko turned solid, his eyes upon those incredible buttocks, stunning thighs, and the delicious prize laying between them. He licked his lips and his hand stole to the pocket where he kept his mouthwash but he forced it down. Mixing business with pleasure got people in trouble. It had gotten Marko in trouble more than once over the years. Certainly he could use his powers of compulsion to make ZigZag do absolutely anything he wanted. Certainly too she was a woman with whom he'd like to do a great many things. But all too often he'd seen such adventures end in tragedy, for himself or, more often, for others. Besides, there was Super Collie to consider. Let Cheslav make snide comments about paranoia all he wanted; Marko knew beyond any possible shadow of a doubt that she'd felt something... which turned her attention straight to him. There were individuals who sensed... more than was typical. In the past they'd been called seers, oracles, or witches. Now they were called psychics, extraordinarily lucky, or mentally deranged. Every so often one came along who could pierce the veil of deception Marko drew around himself. If Super Collie happened to be such a one she might notice the trace of his influence on ZigZag's mind. He walked around the bed, crouching down so he could look directly at ZigZag's face from the closest possible distance. He spent a moment mentally composing himself then reached out and flicked her nose.
ZigZag's eyes snapped open. Her whole body tensed and she drew a sharp breath. "Be still," Marko whispered, gesturing with his right wing claw. Instead of subsiding, however, she let out a snarl and lunged. Marko managed to catch her jaws before they closed on his neck but she bore him to the floor. "Be still!" he shouted as she brought an arm back to punch him in the solar plexus. This time the compulsion took; her whole body shuddered as she struggled. After what felt like an eternity she relaxed, bit by bit. Her arm fell to her side and Marko was able to push her back. Even then she glared at him through narrowed eyes. Marko scrambled out from under her and got to his feet. His fingers hurt; with a shock he realized that her teeth had opened wounds. He licked them to staunch the bleeding.
Someone knocked on the door. "Zig?" a voice asked. "You okay?"
"Be still!" Marko hissed as ZigZag's eyes flicked toward the door. After waiting a second to see that ZigZag would obey he moved to the door and opened it.
The vixen stood outside in a slinky, low-cut nightgown. She gasped and her eyes widened when she saw Marko. "Be quiet!" he hissed. Her mouth trembled and her eyelids fluttered, then she relaxed. "Forget," Marko added. "Go to bed. Nothing happened." She turned away and returned to her room. Marko closed the door and looked at ZigZag. Her breath came in short gasps, her body shook, and her lips drew back from her teeth as she fought against the compulsion. Marko grimaced, rushing back to her. The last person he'd met with such incredible strength of will had been a Tibetan monk; fortunately ZigZag lacked the monk's discipline and training or he doubted he'd be able to command her at all. "Answer my questions," he commanded, then had to wait almost a minute before she nodded. The interrogation took much longer than with Abadacus because, unlike him, ZigZag would not offer information; Marko had to tease the answers out of her. After almost an hour he finally assembled a fairly complete picture of ZigZag's experiences with Super Collie. He ordered her to lay down on the bed while he used the holy water atomizer on the carpet, bed, and her. A few stray drops felt like acid on his damaged fingers; he clenched his teeth and ignored the pain. After putting the atomizer away he backed up against the door and leveled a finger at ZigZag. "Forget," he commanded. "Go to sleep." Her lip curled but her eyelids fluttered, then closed. Marko turned to mist and exited quickly. While he returned to the kitchen and oozed out through the exhaust hood she lay quivering and whimpering. Not a minute later she woke up, snapping upright and looking around frantically, her expression wild. But the room was empty, bearing no evidence of intrusion.
Maybe it was just a nightmare, ZigZag thought, clasping her hands together to stop their shaking. She couldn't remember what woke her but the sense of terrible danger still clung to her mind. She rushed to the bathroom and splashed water on her face. Halfway through stroking down the damp fur on her muzzle she stopped. She probed with her tongue and found the places where Marko's fingers had bruised her lips. In her current state of mind that was too much. She did something she hadn't done since she was a very little girl: she screamed.
Super Collie lay awake on her bed. Her ears picked up sounds from the city outside, her nose detected strange odors, and she saw a network of fine cracks in the plaster on the ceiling. Never before had she spent so long as Super Collie without changing back to her secret identity. She and George had discussed it and he convinced her that staying Super Collie would be the best way to protect her true identity while abroad. She agreed with his arguments but the reality of the experience was... unsettling. The Mystic Power of the Shepherd didn't merely give her super powers; it sharpened her senses, enhanced her perceptions, and quickened her reflexes. By so doing it drastically altered the experience of ordinary activities like eating, brushing her teeth, and showering, especially since her super strength stayed on all the time. She could rip or break things with what were, to her, casual motions. On the other hand, it all became easier and more natural the more she did it... but that too disturbed her. With every new day it seemed like the Mystic Power became more and more a part of her. Did that mean she might reach a place where she wouldn't want to turn back?
When the phone rang Super Collie jumped and tore her blanket. "Bloody Hell," she muttered, climbing out of bed. She reached for her sewing kit but the phone kept ringing. She flipped the blanket over her arm, scooped up the sewing kit, and dashed into the front room. Only as she lifted the receiver did she realize that she'd used her super speed; she'd covered the distance from her room to the phone between rings with time to spare. "Hello?" she asked, putting the receiver to her ear.
"Is that you, Super Collie?" a voice which Super Collie recognized as ZigZag's inquired.
"Yes," Super Collie replied, frowning. It was three twenty-eight in the morning yet she heard Fredrika and Wanda talking in the background. The conversation sounded strained.
"I'm really sorry to wake you but something's happened," ZigZag explained. "Someone came into my room."
Super Collie gasped. "I'll be right over. What's the address?" She jotted it on the pad by the phone. "Thanks. And don't worry. 'Bye." She hung up, scribbled a note for George, returned to her room, dressed, and departed. By the time George got up, pulled on a robe, and came out into the front room she was gone.
For a person who could run as fast as an automobile getting around in New York wasn't very difficult at all. Even at this ungodly hour an awful lot of traffic filled the roads but it did not impede Super Collie; when cars slowed down she darted between them or jumped over them if she couldn't evade them any other way. She reached ZigZag's apartment building at one minute to four. She half expected to see police cars out front but didn't. The guard in the lobby buzzed her in when she announced herself and directed her to ZigZag's unit. Fredrika, dressed in a pink robe with ruffled trim, opened the door. Somewhere in the background ZigZag and Wanda argued. Or perhaps that was too strong a word... but there was a definite edge to the conversation.
"Come in, come in," Fredrika said. She looked worried; she practically shoved Super Collie into the front room, then stood nervously behind and beside her.
ZigZag paced back and forth like a caged animal. She wore a diaphanous royal purple shift that hardly covered anything worth mentioning. Her expression looked frighteningly intense. "Hello, Super Collie," she said, "Sorry to get you up. We hoped you could... settle something for us."
"I'll do my best," Super Collie replied. "What happened?"
"ZigZag had a dream," Wanda interjected. She stood with her arms folded, watching ZigZag pace, dressed only in an extra large ZZ Studios tee shirt. She frowned ever so slightly.
"I dreamed that a man came into my room," ZigZag said. Her voice remained level but she radiated such intense hostility that Super Collie suppressed a gasp. "I tried to bite him. He grabbed my muzzle to stop me." She demonstrated on herself. "Then I woke up. I thought it was a nightmare. I went to the bathroom... and found that my lips were bruised. Right were he'd grabbed me." She pointed out the locations with her index finger.
"It was a dream, ZigZag," Wanda insisted, a despairing note in her voice. "A nightmare. Nothing else." She glanced Super Collie.
"Don't tell me it was just a dream!" ZigZag snapped, rounding suddenly on Wanda. "I've had dreams before. I've had nightmares before." She hesitated fractionally, her expression quavering. "Never like this," she continued, as if nothing had happened.
"Well, let's take a look, then," Super Collie said.
"But-" Wanda began.
"Wanda-" ZigZag interrupted hotly.
"Please, let's not argue," Super Collie interrupted, raising a hand placatingly. "Show me where it happened and I'll see what I can do."
"This way." ZigZag turned sharply and marched out.
"You don't believe this, do you?" Wanda whispered, stepping up to Super Collie's side.
"No," Super Collie replied. "And I don't not believe ether. I'll see what there is to see, then decide." Super heroing, she'd discovered. amounted as much- or more- to reassuring people than daring-do. Sometimes all one could do was offer comfort at a time of need. In this particular case, helping ZigZag- in whatever capacity- took Super Collie's mind off her own problems.
The condition of ZigZag's bedroom appeared to support Wanda's hypothesis. Super Collie detected no sign of break-in, here or in any other part of the unit she'd passed through so far. Sheets, blankets, and pillows lay in tangled heaps on the bed or the floor around it. There seemed to be a strange discoloration on the mattress; only when she looked closely did Super Collie realize that it was caused by a layer of fine hairs, white and black. She glanced at ZigZag and saw her rubbing her thighs. Her hands came away with clumps of loose fur between the fingers. Super Collie frowned; excessive shedding was a sign of stress.
"He was there, by the bed," ZigZag said, pointing.
Super Collie nodded, moving to the indicated place. She glanced over her shoulder, noting a window nearby. The curtains were closed; she lifted them and inspected the sash. It hadn't been opened in a long time and a backstop prevented it from moving more than a hand's breadth. She crouched, sniffing the bed. ZigZag's scent, definitely... and not just body odor. Either ZigZag had very interesting dreams or she masturbated in bed. No other identifiable scents emerged; no one else had used the mattress recently. Super Collie turned her attention to the carpet. After snuffling along the floor she sat up, thoughtfully stroking her face. She almost gave it up right there... but seeing ZigZag in this state upset her. She decided to give it one last shot and went over the carpet again, slowly and carefully.
Something did emerge, something so faint Super Collie wasn't surprised to have missed it the first time. It smelled... musty, somehow, in a way that made her think of mummies, rotting leaves, driftwood, and other things that had been dead for a long, long time. She got to her feet. "ZigZag, I'm sorry for the imposition but I need to register your scent."
"Sure," ZigZag replied. "What do you need?"
"Would you mind taking off your shift?"
By way of reply ZigZag did so, without the slightest hesitation, and stood naked, awaiting Super Collie's inspection. Super Collie approached, a little hesitantly; then again, surely a professional adult actress couldn't do her job if she were uncomfortable stripping in front of strangers. Super Collie started with ZigZag's face and worked down.
ZigZag's natural scent came through strongly, no doubt as a result of the evening's stresses. A hint of perfume lay over it; thankfully ZigZag believed in subtle accents, sparingly applied. Around hip level Super Collie couldn't help noticing evidence of recent arousal. That brought up memories of steamy evenings with John; she moved on quickly. Unfortunately ZigZag's legs and feet told Super Collie nothing the rest of her hadn't. As with the floor, though, she decided to give it one more try. She started up, this time along ZigZag's back. Once again the second try turned up a winner; around ZigZag's head seemed to cling a faint trace of the same musty smell.
"Did you find something?" ZigZag asked.
"Yes," Super Collie replied. "But I'm not sure what."
"You mean there really was someone here?" Wanda gasped.
"I don't know," Super Collie amplified. "But something happened." She returned her attention to ZigZag. "What did he look like?"
"Dark," ZigZag replied. "But pale. Big-" ZigZag frowned- "but short. All I remember clearly are his eyes." Her own unfocused momentarily. "Bright and terrible."
"Lay down on the bed," Super Collie suggested. "Point your arm at the wall where you saw his face."
ZigZag did so. "He was right there," she said, pointing straight at the wall. "His face so near mine I fell his breath. "His eyes..." she trailed off, suddenly shivering. An instant later she shook it off. "I lunged at him." She demonstrated, her jaws opening and snapping shut. "He grabbed my mouth-" she caught her own jaw and muzzle, then frowned. She groped around on her face, sometimes using all her fingers and sometimes only thumb and index. "He only used two fingers," she concluded. "There's only four bruises on my lips." She licked them. "I must have got him a little. I tasted blood." She frowned. "It was... fusty."
"What do you mean?"
ZigZag struggled for words. "I don't know. I can't describe it. Yes, I've bitten people before." She gave Super Collie an enigmatic look. "I know what fresh blood tastes like. This was like- like-" she grimaced with effort. "Mostly okay but a touch off. As if- as if it had sat in the 'fridge too long. But it wasn't cold."
"Musty," Super Collie said, thinking of the scent.
"Yeah," ZigZag exclaimed. "That's a good word for it."
"How was he dressed?" Super Collie asked. Extracting information, even from a willing subject, wasn't a trivial matter. The mind didn't store memories in a straightforward, linear way; sometimes- often- details had to be approached obliquely.
Again ZigZag struggled. "He seemed to be wearing something that covered him, like a cloak. After biting I went off the bed and managed to push him down. I felt... hard things against my chest." She fell silent for a moment. "Yes. He wore something like a vest with pockets. The pockets were... full of things."
"Did he have a tail?"
"No," ZigZag replied promptly. "His hips were narrow and bony. So were his hands. Very long, very skinny, but strong." She made clawing motions with her hands. "His nails were very long and sharp."
"What color was his fur?"
"Sort of..." ZigZag stared off into space. "Like moonlight through clouds. Pale.. but not white or black." She frowned. "The.. cloak or whatever it was. It didn't hang loose. It pulled tight against his legs."
"What color was it?"
For a long moment ZigZag said nothing. "The same as his fur. Or- was that what I saw and not his fur?" She concentrated. "While I lay on him it felt... leathery. But not like leather. More like..." She stroked her palms, one against the other. "Skin," she exclaimed suddenly.
"What species was he?"
ZigZag opened her mouth but nothing came out. Several times she drew a breath as if to begin speaking but never did. "I don't know," she concluded helplessly.
Super Collie did not immediately press for more answers. The course of the interview disturbed her profoundly. If not for the musty smell she would have called it a vivid dream. Then there was the way ZigZag could pick out and elaborate upon specific details but couldn't seem to grasp the whole picture. Dreams tended to be exactly the opposite: easy to draw generalizations but difficult or impossible to pin down specifics. She stared at her left hand, extending her thumb and index finger but curling the others against her palm. Two fingers. A voluminous covering over his body like a cloak but like skin instead of cloth and tight or attached at his legs. She found herself crossing her arms over her chest. No tail. Pale fur. Long, bony limbs-
Inspiration struck like a bolt of lighting. All it once the various details snapped together. "He was a bat," Super Collie said aloud.
ZigZag drew a sharp breath, somewhere between a gasp and a gulp. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "He was a bat!"
"But how'd he get in?" Wanda demanded. "And if you knew he was a bat, why didn't you just say so?" She sounded worried.
ZigZag's mouth worked. "When I thought of what he looked like there wasn't anything here. But when I bit him I tasted his blood. I felt his fingers gripping my muzzle. I felt the little things in his vest poking me."
"Like you could see around him, not him," Super Collie put in.
"Exactly!" ZigZag exclaimed.
"But... what does that mean?" Wanda wanted to know.
Super Collie found herself not wanting to answer. Daughter Night could have done this, entering the apartment without leaving traces and expunging the memory of it from ZigZag's mind. Come to think of it her scent had that same, slightly musty overtone to it. But if she'd done this, surely ZigZag wouldn't have remembered anything at all. Also, Super Collie would have felt the traces of her power. All of Daughter Night's special powers, not just walking through walls, left Super Collie with a creepy feeling that made her fur stand up and gave her goose bumps. Once again Super Collie's mind made the leap of faith, assembling disparate bits of information into a complete picture. "Oh my God," she breathed. She'd felt that very thing at the restaurant when she pulled ZigZag back... and noticed that the bat had disappeared. A bat who played a vampire in the movies, no less.
"What is it?" ZigZag asked.
"I... I'm not sure," Super Collie temporized, unwilling to unveil her thoughts as yet. It sounded outrageously farfetched even in her own mind. Not to mention that ZigZag looked about ready to explode. Super Collie feared that giving her a name- or even the hint of one- would send her off baying for blood. Now definitely wasn't the time to go off half cocked.
"Super Collie, if you have something I want you to act on it," ZigZag said shortly, moving up suddenly and grabbing Super Collie's biceps. "Call the police, the DSA, Interpol, whatever it takes. He-" Emotions warred on her face.
"He what?" Super Collie prompted gently.
ZigZag looked suddenly over her shoulder. Fredrika and Wanda stood in the doorway. "Get out!" she shrieked. Wanda let out a yelp at the unexpectedly vitriolic command and would have stumbled had not Fredrika caught her. She helped Wanda out then closed the door, her expression worried.
"ZigZag-" Super Collie began. The rage in ZigZag's expression alarmed her, too.
"Listen to me, Super Collie!" ZigZag's grip would have been painful if not for the Power of the Shepherd protecting Super Collie from harm. "He-" ZigZag swallowed. "He-" She looked away, her while body shaking. "He r- r... raped me." The word came out in an agonizing rush as if it had been ripped bodily from her flesh.
Super Collie felt an icy knot of dread forming in the pit of her stomach. Suddenly some things about ZigZag began to make sense. She hadn't exactly held forth about herself but recalling what she had said about her early life- and tone in which she said it- suggested that things hadn't exactly gone well. "I'll take care of it," Super Collie said, because it was clearly the right thing under the circumstances. She put her hands on ZigZag' arms and squeezed reassuringly.
ZigZag stepped back suddenly. A storm of emotion brewed in her face. Then, like a pond icing over, her expression cleared. "Thanks," she said in an entirely normal tone. "I knew I could count on you."
Super Collie said nothing. If anything, watching ZigZag freeze up was more alarming that seeing her cut loose in the first place. Great, she thought darkly. As if giant cats with tentacles, kidnapped porn stars, incompetent sidekicks, uncommunicative government agents, and thick-headed police weren't enough, now we have a vampire vampire bat and another porn star with serious issues. She resisted, barely, the urge to rub her temples and glance heavenward. Is there any way this case could get more complicated?
"Yes?" Zalika looked up from the stack of service requests and financial reports on her desk.
Eric stepped into the office, a folder in hand. He was only twenty-six years old, recently graduated from college in New Zealand with a degree in computer science. It might be said that he conspicuously lacked the qualifications to be personal secretary to the president of the Isis Consortium, a company which operated escort services, brothels, strip clubs, and hotels scattered all across southeast Asia. He was a black backed jackal, with beautiful, golden yellow fur on most of his body except for a white patch on his front and a black one shot with white on his back. His construction stood somewhere between a fox's slender delicacy and a wolf's robust solidity; his tail looked more like a fox's, though mostly black shot with white like his back. His muzzle came to a point, not so long and sharp as a fox's but not so blunt as a wolf's. In traditional jackal fashion his ears stood up, much longer than a fox's or a wolf's and sharply pointed. Working as a delivery driver for a shipping company in Wellington had toned him up nicely, keeping him lean and giving him a sculpted, well developed physique without making him bulky. Yes indeed; Zalika's eyes found him superbly qualified as a personal assistant, and the more personal the better.
"This just came in," Eric said, offering the folder. "It fits the criteria you specified for demanding your immediate attention."
"Thank you." Zalika took the folder and opened it. It contained several reports concerning the production of Rocket Man III. On the last page her eyes narrowed. The Isis Consortium had invested a goodly amount of money in the film itself as well as securing a lucrative distribution and marketing deal. That income was critical to firming up the company's bottom line and especially necessary right now. As a corporate entity the Isis Consortium had existed for only a bit more than a year; a number of Zalika's business partners had reservations about the company's long term staying power. Losing the distribution deal would cause a lot of them to bail, which in turn would set Zalika's plans back by years. That alone would warrant her personal attention to the matter... and from the look of things it seemed that her unique talents might encourage a speedy resolution. "Eric," she said, glancing at him over the edge of the folder, "Please put together my luggage for an extended trip. Two weeks, perhaps a month. This matter-" she wiggled the folder- "requires immediate attention. I'll need you to come with me but that should suffice."
"Shall I call the travel office?" Eric inquired.
"No, thank you," Zalika replied. "I'll take care of that myself."
"Very good. I'll see to it at once." Eric nodded and withdrew.
Zalika sighed. Eric was smart and capable as well as incredibly sexy. What more could a person want? She pulled a laptop computer from a desk drawer and switched it on. It might have been simpler to use a regular workstation but for all that she appreciated their utility desktop computers were ugly. Having one sitting on her cherry wood framed, rose marble topped desk would have looked as shockingly out of place as a beggar at a banquet. The laptop, with its black case and modest decorations, didn't look too bad- and she could put it away when not in use. Once it booted Zalika looked through her contact database. Finding an entry she liked she picked up the phone and dialed. "Hello, Yoshi darling," she purred in a voice that would have made the walls blush had they not already been papered in dark crimson. "Sorry to interrupt but I wondered if you could do me a big favor." She giggled girlishly. "But of course I'll make it worth your while. I know what you like." She growled playfully, then laughed. "Oh, Yoshi, you're such a card. I'd love to spend a weekend with you in Singapore as soon as I get back from New York." She sighed heavily. "Yes, yes... you know how it is. The locals get themselves in a fix and come crying to the home office. Oh, don't think I haven't tried. Yes, indeed. They let it boil up into a real emergency. So I wondered if you'd mind lending me the Gulfstream for a bit. I'd be so grateful. Mmm, yes. Thank you ever so much. I'll call you and let you know. Bye." She hung up. That took care of travel. Now all she needed was to scare up a place to stay in New York.
On paper Ms. Corby was quite wealthy. In practice she wasn't very liquid; she plowed most of her assets back into the company to maximize its growth. But she did have friends. Powerful, influential friends... whose favor she gained and held by offering them things even their tremendous wealth and power couldn't purchase. Thus when she needed something it was almost always available... and rarely did she ever have to pay cash for it. She didn't doubt for a minute that she'd be able to wangle a place for her and Eric to stay in New York, even on such short notice. She planned to arrive in no more than three days.
Reaching the second contact took longer, going through several secretaries and answering services. At one point while she waited Zalika looked over the last page and chuckled. "So Super Collie is in New York, looking for Mr. Bronson," she mused, then chuckled. "This ought to be interesting."
Marko came up to the temple shortly after dawn. As always he felt tired, haggard... and old. With the first rays of sunlight the weight of years seemed to crush down upon him. That's why he continued to sleep during the day even though most bats in the modern world adapted to a daytime schedule. The feeling of helplessness that overtook him in daylight depressed him. No one answered when he knocked so he admitted himself with a key. He bypassed the sanctuary- averting his eyes from the Star of David over the alter- and went around to the library. There, as expected, he found an aged mouse in a yarmulke reading a heavy tome. "Shalom," Marko said, bowing.
"Ah, good morning, Marko." The mouse, once gray but now almost white, looked up and adjusted his spectacles. "Need some more holy water?" He noticed Marko's fingers and frowned. The holy water mist, settling on the wounds inflicted by ZigZag's teeth, had left ugly black scars. "What happened?"
"Yes, I do need some more holy water- I used more than I expected- but I need some other things as well, if it's not too much trouble," Marko said, pulling up a stool and sitting down.
"Of course," the mouse replied, putting down his book. "What happened, Marko?" he demanded sternly.
"An old friend asked me some questions," Marko replied. "They got me to thinking. When I went in pursuit of answers a young lady bit me."
The mouse glowered. "You shouldn't listen to Cheslav. He was trouble back then and he's trouble now."
Marko sighed. "You're right, of course. But I learned some interesting things. Which led me to you, Joseph."
Joseph raised an eyebrow.
"You've heard about the porn star from New Zealand being kidnapped?" Marko asked.
Joseph nodded. "I read about it in the paper."
"Then you know a young super heroine, also from New Zealand, is looking for him?"
"Ah, yes." Joseph nodded. "Super Collie."
"Right. Cheslav wanted to know what she was doing. The young lady I spoke to last night told me."
"The one who bit you?"
"She wasn't Super Collie by any chance, was she?" Joseph inquired.
"No." Marko shook his head emphatically. He did not want to run afoul of Super Collie, or any other super hero for that matter. "Just someone who's been with Super Collie from time to time."
"Ah." Joseph nodded. "ZigZag."
Marko frowned. "How very perceptive of you, Joseph."
Joseph chuckled. "Lucky guess. ZigZag's been mentioned in the papers as well. The Porn Queen of the Midwest, they call her."
Marko couldn't help smiling. "As one of those stolid religious types, Joseph, aren't you suppose to frown on that sort of thing?"
Joseph's brows drew together. "Perhaps," he allowed. "I should probably frown on having a vampire for a friend too. But you did shelter us from the Nazis- at no small risk to yourself- when you could very easily have turned us in."
Marko frowned. "I confess I had no great love of Jews, Joseph, but the Germans came into my country- uninvited, I might add- and paraded around like they owned the place. I liked that even less."
"I prefer to think that, even then, there was a spark of decency in you," Joseph commented. "That's why I invited you into my home. Not so much because you invited me and my family into your home when we desperately needed it, though there is that as well. I wanted to nurture that spark."
Marko lay his fingers on Joseph's hand. "You're kinder to me than I deserve, Joseph."
"Ah, I do it for entirely selfish reasons," Joseph replied. His gray eyes twinkled merrily. "Anyone who'd do a body favors is a relationship to be cultivated, not so?"
Marko chuckled. "Quite so," he agreed. "Which brings me back to my original point. What I'm mostly interested in right now is what you might have heard from the street people."
"I hear lots of things," Joseph replied. "What did you have in mind?"
"ZigZag spoke of a giant cat woman with tentacles."
Joseph's brows arched. "Now that's something you don't hear about every day." He stroked his chin, frowning in thought. "Come to think of it... I do remember something a fellow told me once. While relaxing in Central Park one evening he says he saw a giant cat woman come up out of the ground like a ghost." He shrugged. "But of course they tell me lots of things, and quite a few of them are hallucinations brought on by alcohol or other drugs."
"I think this particular one might not have been a hallucination," Marko said. "The creature ZigZag described to me would be capable of doing such a thing."
For a long while Joseph said nothing. "It seems incredible that something like that could exist in New York and we've never heard of it."
"Cheslav told me that there are a lot of Company men around right now," Marko said. "And ex-Company men. Some are searching for something... and others are hiding something."
Joseph frowned. "Are you saying this might be... a business operation?"
"From the look of things I'd say that's likely," Marko replied. "The only thing I don't know yet is which side is which."
"Did you ever?" Joseph inquired.
"Point," Marko sighed.
"Are you sure you want to get involved with this?" Joseph asked.
"I already am." Marko wiggled his fingers. "Unfortunately I'm known, among certain circles, as a former Company man. Whomever's behind this current operation may come looking for me. In that case I may need to hide."
"What about your daughters?" Joseph wanted to know.
"They'll be all right on their own for a while," Marko replied. "In any case, I don't think they're in danger. Acting against them would bring unwanted attention to whole affair."
"I see." Joseph sat back. "What are your immediate plans?"
"If you don't mind, I'd like to spend the day here, or at some other place you deem fit."
"Here is fine, I should think," Joseph replied. "Then what?"
Marko stroked his chin. "Then I speak to Cheslav. He knew more about this than he told me."
"Surprise, surprise," Joseph said drolly.
"Indeed." Marko nodded. "But I shall wait until nightfall so that I may greet him properly." He grinned, flashing his mouthful of small but very sharp teeth.
Super Collie attempted, with only partial success, to stifle a yawn as Larry drove them across town toward JFK. She'd ended up spending the rest of the night at ZigZag's place. It started with a simple brushing; it didn't take a genius to see that the flat would quickly turn into a horrible mess if ZigZag kept shedding like that. On the heels of that came the realization that ZigZag desperately needed comforting. Not intellectual friendship comfort but deeply emotional mother-child type comforting. Furthermore, it was obvious at a glance that ZigZag was much too strong and proud a person to easily admit that. So Super Collie had merely done what seemed necessary, turning the brushing into a sensual massage, all the while nattering on about inconsequential things so ZigZag would be comforted by the sound. Frederika had sensed at once what was happening and deftly stepped in, taking over the brushing of ZigZag's tail while Wanda worked on ZigZag's nails and toes. ZigZag never said a word, but she went along with it readily. When she started to yawn Frederika and Super Collie put her to bed, then snuggled in with her, Frederika in front and Super Collie behind.
Thinking back on that made Super Collie uneasy. She had taken off her clothes and climbed into bed with bed with two other females, both of whom were also completely naked. She'd put her arms around ZigZag and pressed the length of her body up against ZigZag's back. She'd put her hand on Frederika's breast. Purely by accident, to be sure; she hadn't considered the implications of Frederika snuggling up so close on ZigZag's other side. And, to be brutally honest, Frederika's bosom was... rather difficult to miss.
In truth, it hadn't been until Super Collie awoke- at her customary time, by then only a few hours later- that anything had felt amiss. Last night it had been so simple: ZigZag needed comfort and Super Collie gave it. In the cold light of dawn, there were troubling complications. It could be argued that Super Collie had taken advantage of ZigZag's condition. Never before in her life had Super Collie taken such a... directly personal interpretation of her duty as a super hero. She couldn't help wonder: would she have done it if ZigZag had been a man? Would she have done it if ZigZag hadn't been so incredibly sexy?
That was the crux of the matter, when Super Collie allowed herself to admit it. She had really, really enjoyed being naked with ZigZag and Frederika. There was a part of her mind, deep, deep down, that wondered: what would it have been like to... explore?
The notion filled Super Collie with a hot, giddy excitement. It was the same sort of thing she'd felt as a teenager upon realizing that she really, really liked watching the boys play sports. It didn't matter what sport, nor even if they were particularly good at it. The important thing was getting to see athletic young males in appealingly abbreviated outfits delighting in their own physical prowess. that she found very unbecoming: not merely of a super hero but of a person in a committed, monogamous, and above all heterosexual relationship. She could say that she was in a committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationship, and that was not only proper but entirely sufficient.
Jato looked at her quizzically; she ignored him. Only George knew about what had happened last night. For that matter she hadn't told the Agents either, which left her feeling paradoxically guilty. But what could she do? Go to the Agents and tell them she wanted Marko arrested on the basis of an odd scent, a creepy feeling, and an experience even ZigZag's own close friends thought to be a dream? Even if they didn't laugh in her face they'd tell her they needed something more definitive: such as even the tiniest, most insignificant scrap of real, physical evidence.
Of course Super Collie could pursue the investigation on her own. If ZigZag knew Marko as well as all that she might know where he lived, or at least be able to find out. That notion made Super Collie uncomfortable; it sounded suspiciously like vigilantism.
"Here we is, folkes," Larry announced, bringing the van to a stop.
With a grimace of distaste Super Collie forced herself to don the unpleasant coverall, which didn't seem any cleaner than before even though Larry insisted that it had been laundered. She set her helmet on her head and switched on the light. Jato trusted in his armor, which included a built-in light, but even he put on a tank and mask. Larry set up orange traffic cones around a nearby manhole and pried off the cover.
"What are you doing?" Super Collie asked as Larry hoisted the cover into the truck.
"So nobody steals it," Larry replied.
Super Collie started to ask who would steal a manhole cover but Jato cleared his throat. She glanced at him, then nodded.
"Down da hatch, boys 'n girls," Larry announced, starting down the ladder.
George gestured for Super Collie to precede him, which she did. Not even halfway down she realized that something was terribly wrong. She dropped the rest of the way, startling Larry. Her feet landed on dry pavement. This looked like the same type of sewer as the one under the highway; according to Larry it was a different section of the same one. But the air smelled markedly different. No swirls of mud lay on the floor. She looked around in shock. "What happened here?" she asked.
"Been cleaned recently," Larry replied. "Probably in da last day or so."
"Cleaned?" Super Collie shrieked, grabbing Larry by the shoulders. "What about the tracks? Any trace of a trail there might have been is gone now!"
"Sorry," Larry replied, shrugging helplessly. "Da sewers get cleaned every now and den. Keeps gunk from plugging dem up. It's scheduled by Da Department of Public Works."
Super Collie released Larry and looked along the tunnel. "Where's the motorway?"
"Dat way." Larry pointed.
Super Collie took off at a run. Soon she heard traffic; at its loudest point she stopped and looked up. There was a grate. She climbed the ladder and waved her hand; the chill was still there. She walked along to where she'd found the track. It, and the dirt pile that had registered it, were both gone. "Bugger me," she growled, then took off back down the tunnel. She met the rest of the party only a short distance from where they'd started. "The trail's gone," she said flatly.
George frowned. "All of it?"
"I aim to see," Super Collie replied. "Come with me." She grabbed Larry up, tucked him under her arm, and took off again. After running for what must have been kilometers, passing numerous intersections, Super Collie stopped. The tunnel remained spotless. The cat woman could have turned off anywhere but unless she turned insubstantial Super Collie hadn't any way to tell where. She cursed in bitter frustration.
"S'okay." Larry patted her shoulder. "I made dat map."
"Map?" Super Collie looked up.
"Of all da places I felt da chill." Larry shivered dramatically.
"Thank goodness." Super Collie sighed heavily, scrubbing her face. "Let's go back. I'm sorry for dragging you along like this. You've done your best to be helpful. It's not your fault this happened." Her eyes narrowed, her lips drawing back from her teeth. "Before we check out your map, though, I need to have a few choice words with Agents Smith and Jones."
"I'm sorry." Agent Jones shrugged helplessly. "I only heard about it this morning myself."
"How did it happen?" Super Collie demanded.
"Scheduled months ago," Agent Smith said. "We sent a notice to the Department of Public Works closing that section but somehow it got lost."
Super Collie gritted her teeth. George lay a hand on her arm. She exhaled a loud sigh and slumped. "Now we're back to bloody square one," she growled.
"For what it's worth, we have that other information you asked for," Agent Jones put in. "Of the three bodies dumped at what is now the Cinema Perversio lot only one- the first- was discovered. In the second two cases no bodies were found though police discovered evidence that they'd been left. The cars' trunks had been jimmied open with a blunt tool, like a crowbar. We've also tried to guess how much a seven to eight hundred kilo cat woman would eat and searched our databases for anything that might indicate her pilfering food. So far we haven't found anything."
"Could she subsist entirely on found bodies?" George inquired.
"Unlikely, unless she has arrangements with a lot of killers," Agent Jones replied. "There's plenty of corpses in New York at any given moment but they tend to be scattered all over. The chances of happening upon one- regularly- would be small."
"If she had a network of informants it might make sense but it would have to be pretty wide," Agent Smith commented. "If that were the case somebody would've talked by now. These criminals can't keep their mouths shut."
"Except the Sicilians," Agent Jones pointed out.
"Yeah." Agent Smith nodded. "They're pretty good at keeping their traps shut."
"And if they don't," Agent Jones concluded, "The Families shut it for 'em."
"Yeah, I know," Super Collie said gloomily. "We have organized crime in New Zealand, though it's mostly Japanese or Chinese."
"And Australians," George put in.
"Yeah." Super Collie nodded.
"What do we do now?" Jato asked.
Super Collie scrubbed her face. "Continue searching the sewers."
"How will you know where to search?" Agent Jones inquired.
Super Collie shrugged helplessly. "Just have to trust luck, I suppose. At the moment we've nothing else to do. All the remaining leads in the case involve legwork or number crunching that only you gents can do."
"And you may rest assured that we're doing it," Agent Smith declared. "Good luck with your search. You'll tell us if you find anything?"
"Absolutely," Super Collie replied. "Now let's get moving."
Downstairs, while Jato loaded is jet pack into Larry's truck, Super Collie pulled George aside. "I didn't mention the map because I wasn't sure they'd believe it," she whispered. "Now I'm glad I didn't."
"Why?" George inquired.
"They were lying," Super Collie replied. "When Agent Smith said the cleaning had been scheduled months ago and the notice got lost."
"Hmm."George's eyes narrowed. "Why would he do that?"
Super Collie glanced at Jato, still struggling with his jet pack. "I don't think they really want us to find this cat woman. Why else would they give me him?" She hooked a thumb at her erstwhile partner.
"Good point," George admitted. "I would think, too, that a giant cat woman who can walk through walls would stir up more excitement at the Department of Super Hero Affairs." He raised an eyebrow. "The plot thickens."
"It's already past pea soup and headed for cold porridge," Super Collie grumbled. "How much thicker can it get?"
"Hmm." George rubbed his chin. "I suspect we really don't want to know the answer to that."
Barry woke up. He tried to open his eyes but couldn't. He groped for his face but couldn't find it. Eventually he located it by sliding a hand up his chest. He felt the crusty bandages on his head but not over his eyes. He pried the lids open. They'd merely been gummed shut. With one eye open he saw pale, yellow fuzziness. The effort of getting that far left him exhausted, his head pounding like a drum, so he decided to lay still for a while. Unfortunately his body ached terribly. He felt like he'd slept in the same position for way too long, like several nights running.
"Barry?" Something fuzzy and black blocked out the yellow.
"Uhh," Barry managed. "Tinka?" His throat felt like mice had nested in it. His voice sounded like a transmission running without oil.
"Yes, it's me," Tinka said. "How are you?"
"Let me help you up." Tinka's enormous hand slipped beneath Barry's head and torso, slowly and gently levering him upright. Even so he gagged; the room spun crazily.
"Are you dizzy? Feel like chundering?" another voice asked. It sounded Australian.
"Huh?" Barry blinked his eye muzzily.
"Puking," Tinka translated.
"Yeah," Barry replied.
"That means his brain's still messed up," the voice said.
"Here," Tinka said. Barry felt something pressed against his lips. It was a baby bottle. He took the nipple into his mouth because sucking it was about all he could manage. Thick, strong flavored milk spurted into his mouth. He wasn't a milk fan- he hadn't consumed it since childhood- but he wasn't in a position to refuse. He slurped it down until Tinka took the bottle away. "We'd better stop there," she cautioned. "You've been out a while. Wouldn't want to overtax your system."
"How long?" Barry managed to croak.
Barry didn't cry out because there mere thought of it made his head ache. He peeled his other eye open. By then the first had begun to focus; now he still couldn't see because his brain blended the clear and blurry images. "Wha... happened?" He remembered Roger Tadesky. He remembered one of the Family's brugliones giving him the assignment. He remembered driving the car... and nothing else except disjointed, nightmarish things.
"Some gang bangers shot you in the head," Tinka replied.
Barry cursed venomously in Italian until his strength gave out, which didn't take long. "I need to... get to... a hospital."
"Told you," the strange voice said.
"Where do I take you?" Tinka asked.
"Where are we?"
"Lower Manhattan, near New York University," Tinka replied.
Barry struggled to think. His head ached from the effort. "There's... a safe house in... east Harlem. Around... 104th street."
"How far's that?" the strange voice asked.
"A hundred blocks," Tinka replied.
"How do we get him there?"
"Lexington Avenue Local," Barry gasped.
"Subway," Tinka explained.
The other voice spoke but Barry didn't register it. He slipped back into unconsciousness.
"How do we get to the subway?" Jaleel asked.
"There's tunnels," Tinka replied. She laid a hand on Jaleel's shoulder, pinching gently as of to test its firmness. "You'll have to carry him."
"Me?" Jaleel exclaimed.
"Yes, you. He can't make it on his own, can he? I can direct you but I can't exactly ride on the subway with you."
"Oh." After a moment the implications of that sank in. "Oh," he repeated.
"Clean him, dress him, and we'll get moving," Tinka ordered.
"Euh. Okay." Jaleel grimaced but complied.
Tinka had removed Barry's trousers and diapered him with clothes taken from the boxes. Jaleel peeled off the filthy clothes, washed Barry with water from the tank, and dressed him in fresh garments. He still looked like Hell but at least he didn't stink.
"Wake up, Barry." Tinka flipped water in his face and gently pinched him. Barry groaned and his eyes opened. "We have to go now, while it's still dark," Tinka said. "Get up. Jaleel will help you stand."
Barry moaned and twitched a bit. Jaleel ended up hauling him upright and pretty much carrying him. Tinka walked to the door, which did indeed resemble that of a bank vault. It opened inward- or had, originally. Tinka gripped it by the edges, lifted it out of the frame, and set it aside. It touched with a ponderous boom. Though streaked with rust Jaleel readily believed that it weighed a ton. "Can we take the lantern?" he asked as Tinka stared out.
"Oh, sure." Tinka scooped it up with one of her tentacles and held it behind her. "Stay close," she warned. "There's lot of rubble down here."
Jaleel stepped out into a small foyer made of concrete. A stairway, blocked with metal panels, led upward. Two horizontal passages led off in different directions; Tinka went down one, crouching to fit under what was, for her, a very low ceiling. Jaleel shuffled along behind, carrying Barry. Several times he stepped over cracks, at least two wide enough to take his leg all the way up to the hip. Then he scrambled over two piles of rubble while Tinka lifted Barry through, then turned to shadow and went around. Jaleel found himself thinking that even if he'd somehow made it this far on his own he would have fallen and broken his leg for sure, even with the lantern. Worse yet the tunnel twisted and turned several times. Tinka removed several rusted metal barriers by the simple expedient of tearing them out of their frames. One of the barriers she couldn't get her fingers around; it was sheet metal, inset in a place she couldn't fit. With an impatient flick of the tail she punched it. The sheet boomed like a cannon and crumpled like tinfoil even though it looked like three or four millimeter thick steel. Tinka plucked it out of its frame- casually tearing lag bolts from the rotted concrete- and tossed it away. "Through there," she said, pointing down the tunnel. "I'll meet you on the other side." She left the lantern and faded away into the wall.
For an instant Jaleel considered dropping Barry and running. He put that idea out of his mind. Where could he run before Tinka caught him? The only way out he knew was the one she showed him. He picked up the lantern and struggled along with Barry draped across his shoulders. At the end of the passage he found a heavy, metal door. Behind it came a distant rumble that grew rapidly to an ear-shattering roar, then faded out. A moment later the door shuddered; behind it somewhere metal let out a sharp scream then parted with a snap. The door opened; Tinka tossed a twisted padlock into the corridor, the broken hasp still dangling.
"Leave the lantern here, you won't need it anymore," Tinka said. "And be careful."
In this tunnel Tinka could stand. Tracks lay on the floor. "Is this the subway?" Jaleel asked.
"Yes," Tinka replied. "And we need to move along before another train comes by. Don't touch that."
"Huh?" Jaleel paused, stepping down from the top of a low barrier between the side passage and the tracks.
"That." Tinka pointed at the barrier Jaleel had just stepped over. "It's the third rail, which supplies power to the trains. It's charged with six hundred and twenty-five volts DC and can deliver more than ten thousand amps. The top's protected by that board but the sides aren't. Touch it and you'll cook like a Christmas turkey."
"Oh." Jaleel glanced nervously at the innocent looking rail, much smaller than the running ones and hanging around twenty-five or thirty centimeters above them on one side. He edged away from it but found that the only place he could easily walk was down the center of the track. He hurried along behind Tinka, glancing nervously backwards every now and then. "What happens if a train comes?" he asked.
"We step onto the next track." Tinka pointed to her right. "And don't bother looking behind you; we're on the southbound local track. Any trains on this track or the next will be coming from in front of us."
Jaleel looked. Through a forest of columns he could make out three more tracks, all running parallel to the first. "What if someone sees us?" he wanted to know. Safety lights kept the tunnel from being completely dark but didn't really illuminate it; to some it might seem gloomy but to Jaleel it seemed positively brilliant.
"Lay down between the rails," Tinka said. "I'll take care of keeping you hidden."
"Shouldn't I lay outside the rails?" Jaleel demanded caustically. There seemed to be adequate room on the side opposite the third rail.
"I wouldn't bother," Tinka replied. "The trains have third rail pickups on both sides and they're cross-connected. If you get caught between trains, stand between the pillars between the tracks."
Jaleel grimaced. Imagining a third rail on both sides of the track, he could see that the offside pickups would pass very near the space in which he'd thought of lying. He didn't suppose it would matter much whether one from a train at speed merely clipped him or also shocked him with six hundred and twenty-five volts. One would merely be the coup de grace for the other.
A distant rumble brought Jaleel to a sudden stop. "A train!" he squeaked.
"It's going the other way," Tinka replied.
The noise grew. Jaleel felt a warm breeze which grew into a stiff wind. A train thundered by. Jaleel clapped his hands over his ears. The noise was unbelievable, especially after having spent so long in the shelter, into which very little sound penetrated. "How much farther?" he asked.
"Just a bit, there's a station right up ahead," Tinka replied. She seemed to glance forward, ears twitching. "Let's cross over," she suggested, turning to shadow and passing through the support columns onto the next track. Jaleel followed as quickly as he could but stopped when confronted with another third rail. It was low enough that he might manage stepping over it if he was careful, but with Barry on his back that simply wouldn't be possible. He glanced up the tunnel, grimaced, and set his foot on the safety board. It creaked but held under his and Barry's combined weight. Coming down he stumbled on the near side running rail and would have fallen except that Tinka steadied him. Then he had to do it again when Tinka demanded that he cross onto the third track. Not long after a train went by on the first one. They crossed back and forth several times, dodging trains in both directions. Each time Tinka sank into the floor but left part of herself out, hiding Jaleel and Barry from view with her shadow. Which was fine except that, every so often, Jaleel felt it touch him. Or, rather, he didn't feel it, which was infinitely worse. Every time Tinka's shadow brushed him the afflicted area broke out in goose bumps and he felt exactly like he did when he woke up in the middle of the night convinced that there was someone in his room. Or when he walked down a dark alley and thought someone might be following him. Or when he sat up late at night, by himself, reading a scary book, and felt icy fingers reaching for his throat from behind. But this time the bogey man wasn't a figment of his imagination.
"Huh?" Jaleel stopped, looked up, and saw a station almost right in front of him. The center tracks went straight through while a pair of outside platforms served the other two.
"I don't dare get any closer, someone might see me," Tinka continued. "You'll have to go on alone from here. But don't worry; I'll be watching." She stepped up against the wall. "Now listen closely. This is the BMT Broadway line we're on right now. The station you see up ahead is 8th Street. Go to the northbound platform- that's the one on the right- and take any train that comes along. Get off at the next station, Union Square. Head east-" she pointed at the right hand wall- "until you reach the IRT East Side line, which is right next door. Look for round green signs with numbers on them. You want the six, the Lexington Avenue Local. When you get to the platform make sure you're headed north, or uptown; the train should be going to Pelham Bay Park or East 177th Street. If it says Brooklyn Bridge, you're going the wrong way. There's a whole bunch of other lines and trains but you don't need to worry about them. Once you're on board keep going until you reach 103rd Street. Got it?"
"Uh..." Jaleel thought a moment. "Ride one stop north to Union Square. Go across to the green trains with numbers, get on a green six, and keep going north to 103rd street?"
"Dead on." Tinka turned to shadow and vanished into the wall.
Only after Tinka had gone did Jaleel think to ask how he was supposed to get up onto the platform. He stood considering the question until he heard a train in the distance, at which point he scurried forward as quickly as he could. In a near panic from the growing noise, he threw Barry onto the platform and scrambled up behind him. Just as he got up a train arrived, going the other way. He heaved a sigh of relief, then picked Barry up and tried to hold him as if he were merely helping him along, rather than carrying him. It didn't work; Barry sagged until he slipped right out of Jaleel's arms. Having no choice, Jaleel picked him up again.
With nothing to do but wait Jaleel wondered what time it was. There didn't seem to be many people about but those who were made Jaleel wish he'd brought a weapon. Suddenly he felt naked and very much alone in a strange, hostile place. He'd heard stories about how New York's subways were a haven for rapists and muggers. Staggering along with a semiconscious person draped across his shoulder he couldn't help attracting attention. He felt unfriendly eyes upon him. Wouldn't it be just ducky if he got knifed and killed right here?
Fortunately a train arrived before long. Jaleel hurried on board and sank gratefully into a seat. It wasn't until the train got moving that he realized he, Barry, and five rather tough looking canines in leather jackets and blue bandannas were the only passengers. "Something wrong with your pal?" one of them asked.
"He hurt his head," Jaleel replied. "I'm taking him home."
"How'd he hurt himself?" another asked.
"Ah... got shot," Jaleel said. He couldn't think of a lie, convincing or otherwise.
"Ew. Nasty." The fellow peered at Barry's bandaged head. "I think he's worm food, man."
"Yeah," another agreed. "Remember Roscoe?"
"Yuck." Another one of them grimaced. "That was sick, man. He had this shit drippin' outta the side of his head."
A few minutes passed while the gang members discussed Roscoe's gruesome fate in excruciating detail. Jaleel's stomach churned, as much from the horrific scenes they described as the threat they represented. Then the train pulled to a stop at the next station. Jaleel threw Barry over his shoulder and hurried out. "Later," he called.
"Later," one of the gang members replied making a gesture by extending his thumb, index finger, and pinky, but keeping his ring and middle finger curled under his palm. Jaleel smiled fleetingly and threw a quick wave over his shoulder.
Union Square proved more complex than Jaleel had anticipated. In addition to gold signs with letters and green ones with numbers there was also a gray sign bearing the letter L. After wandering around for a bit- and getting quite a few odd looks- he managed to locate the correct platform. But as he looked from one side to the other he couldn't remember which way he was facing. "Which side's northbound?" he asked.
"That way," Barry said, pointing. "You're on the right platform."
Jaleel started, really looking at Barry for the first time. He still looked about an hour late for his own funeral but even that was an improvement. His eyes were open and nominally lucid. "Oh," Jaleel said after a long pause. "It must be the milk."
"Milk?" Barry asked.
"Yeah," Jaleel concurred. "I don't know what's in it but it's a real kick in the ass."
"Where's it from?" Barry wanted to know.
"Tinka. It's her milk. Out of her- you know-" Jaleel faltered, oddly embarrassed to say it aloud.
"Breasts?" Barry suggested.
"Yeah," Jaleel mumbled.
A train arrived. It bore a round green sign with the number 6. "Is this the right one?" Jaleel asked.
"Yes, it's the one you want," Barry replied, so Jaleel boarded. This train had more people on board- about a dozen- and none looked obviously like gang members. Barry sat by himself instead of merely slumping bonelessly.
"How far from here?" Jaleel asked as the train pulled out.
"Long way," Barry replied. "Kick back and chill."
A couple stations passed. Suddenly Barry clutched his gut and moaned.
"What's wrong?" Jaleel asked nervously.
"I gotta blast a dookie something fierce," Barry moaned.
"Take a crap," Barry translated.
"We'll get off at the next station," Barry continued.
"But-" Jaleel protested. He feared how Tinka might react if they got off course.
"You want me to shit on the seat?" Barry countered.
"No!" several passengers shouted.
"See?" Barry nodded. "Next stop- Next stop-" he frowned in concentration.
"Grand Central," someone offered.
"Thanks." Barry waved. "We'll get off there and use the restroom."
Barry moaned and groaned all the way to Grand Central. Jaleel- and some of the other passengers- became quite alarmed. Finally the train stopped; Barry staggered off- under his own power- and went in search of restroom. Jaleel followed, looking in bewilderment at the route signs. Grand Central was another three line intersection; all the green trains stopped there, along with the purple seven- Flushing Local- and black S, the 42nd Street Shuttle. "I never realized the system here was so extensive," Jaleel commented.
"Second biggest in the world, after Tokyo," Barry replied. He walked upright now without staggering. "Eight hundred some miles of track." He glanced at Jaleel thoughtfully, who at the moment wore denim jeans and a mauve shirt. "You must be Jaleel."
"Yes," Jaleel exclaimed in surprise. "How did you know?"
Now didn't seem like the time to mention that he, Barry, had arranged Jaleel's kidnapping. "Tinka tells me things sometimes."
"Huh." Then why didn't you tell anyone about me? Jaleel wanted to ask. Now didn't seem like the time; not while lost somewhere under New York City in the company of a man who delivered people for Tinka to eat.
Finally an open restroom appeared. Barry rushed inside and grabbed a seat. Jaleel walked along, marvelling at the sinks and urinals, trying to ignore the sounds- and odors- emanting from Barry's stall. It felt like forever since he'd seen a real toilet. Funny how it's the things you don't think about that you miss the most, he mused. "You okay in there?" he called.
Barry groaned. "Musta been all that milk. Or maybe my gut's messed up."
"Gonna be long?" Jaleel inquired.
"Dunno, man. I gotta wicked case of the green apple splatters."
Jaleel decided he didn't want to know what that meant. Besides, he could all too easily guess. He leaned against a sink to wait. After a bit, feeling some need himself, he entered a stall and took a seat. There was even toilet paper! He found himself fingering a sheet and let it drop. Who would ever have thought that using a public loo would be a high point in a person's life? Even after finishing he sat for a while, reveling the sensation of it. The disgusting noises from Barry tapered off, so perhaps he was nearly done. Jaleel rose, secured his trousers, and opened the stall door.
Just outside stood a transit policeman.
Officer Derek Connoly frowned. Two scruffy looking individuals entering a restroom late at night was a sure sign of trouble; most likely they meant to deal, shoot up, or camp out. These two didn't look dangerous but he called it in just in case. High rates of crime, combined with a lack of funding for maintenance, had led to the Transit Authority's subway restrooms being closed in the '70's; only in the early '90's had they finally reopened. Derek had no personal experience of the '70's, having been born in 1980, but he'd heard stories. He had no intention of letting things get so far out of hand if there was anything he could do about it.
For the sake of fairness Derek gave the pair a reasonable amount of time to do their business. Then he entered the restroom. He didn't see either of the two but they had to still be there, considering the outrageous noises- and smells- coming from the stalls. As he started back one of the stall doors opened and one of the two- the sheep- emerged. Upon seeing Derek he froze, eyes wide and mouth gaping. Derek didn't think it physically possible for any person to look more guilty. "Good evening, sir," Derek began, using his courteous, professional voice. "May I ask where you're headed this evening?"
"I- I- I-" Jaleel stammered. It wasn't that he had nothing to say but rather too much, and a lot of it self-contradictory. He wanted to tell the officer that he was being held against his will by a giant cat woman with tentacles who walked through walls. But even with the words lined up in his mind he couldn't say them. Just rehearsing them in his own mind they sounded absolutely crazy. And, all too easily, he could imagine Tinka hovering just below the floor or above the ceiling. Ending up in a room with floor-to-ceiling carpeting would get him away, yes. Tinka had already admitted that she couldn't carry him through the walls... but she didn't have to take him anywhere to rip his head off and eat it. In his mind's eye he saw her rippers glinting in the semi-darkness, and couldn't help wondering if his brain would remain conscious while it slid down her throat into her stomach. He emitted a mewling squeak and slumped against one of the stall partitions, his whole body quivering.
Derek frowned. It had to be drugs; with this erratic behavior and dilated pupils, what else could it be? "I'm terribly sorry, sir, but I can't let you sleep it off here," he said, taking the sheep's arm. "The precinct drunk tank may not be the Ritz-Carlton but at least it's warm and dry. Come along." He keyed his lapel mike to summon assistance-
Jaleel didn't hear a word the cop said. His eyes were fixed on a point behind the policeman, where pools of shadow seemed to boil up out of the floor. Tentacles rose from the pool, like primordial monsters from a dark lake. Tinka's body followed, a black mountain born from a sea of night. Obviously she couldn't stand under the low ceiling; she came in on her belly, arms and legs tucked beneath her. She filled so much of the available volume that when she turned solid Jaleel felt a rush of displaced air. Time, for Jaleel, slowed to a crawl. The tentacles, rippers extended, reached forward in a leisurely fashion. The cop didn't seem to move at all. Suddenly Jaleel's fist leapt out, slamming in the cop's midriff. As he doubled Jaleel unwound like a striking snake, surging to his feet with his knee coming up. Knee and chin intersected with a meaty crack; the cop went over on his back, blood spewing from his mouth. Jaleel fell on him, landing a vicious one-two on the cop's jaw to make sure he stayed out. Then he winced; his hands and knee felt like he'd broken them. Grimacing in pain but making no sound he forced himself upright. "Barry," he said, "We gotta get outa here. Now."
Barry opened the door to his stall, looking first at Tinka, then down at the cop, and finally at Jaleel, noting the pressure cuts on his knuckles. "Yes, I agree," he responded, securing his pants. Without a word he grabbed Jaleel's arm, pulled him past Tinka, and out of the restroom. When Jaleel started to run Barry restrained him, tightening his grip until his fingers bit into Jaleel's arm. "Just walk," he hissed out of the corner of his mouth. "We're in a hurry but nothing's wrong. Understand?"
Jaleel didn't respond. Barry didn't press. They returned to the Lexington Avenue platform and waited for a train. It seemed to take forever and Jaleel spent the entire time cringing, waiting for a mob of police officers to come storming through one of the entrances, truncheons at the ready. But no such thing happened; Barry and Jaleel boarded their train and rode on without incident.
"How long?" Jaleel asked.
"Not too much," Barry replied. "Ten minutes or so."
A great many questions roiled in Jaleel's mind, but at the moment he didn't feel like talking. On the other hand, all that time spent alone in Tinka's lair wore on him; Barry was the only new conversation partner who'd presented himself since Jaleel's capture. Unfortunately, by the time he made up his mind the train arrived at 103rd Street. They debarked, exited the station, and emerged onto the street.
Jaleel stopped and turned slowly in a circle, looking up at the buildings around him. The weren't nearly so large as the ones downtown but they went on and on, as far as the eye could see. Which happened to be quite a ways; the street ran arrow-straight. It occurred to him that this was the first time he'd actually seen New York City. The sun had already set by the time his plane landed and he hadn't looked out the windows in any case. The limo's windows had been tinted and he hadn't looked through them either. It wasn't as though he'd never visited a large city before; Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, and Los Angeles had introduced him to the concept. And yet... as he thought about it, Jaleel realized that he'd merely rushed through those places on his way to somewhere else, without ever really paying them any mind. Even New York hadn't been anything to him other than a place the studio happened to be.
"Thanks for helping me out," Barry said, taking Jaleel's hand and shaking it. "And... good luck with... everything." He gave Jaleel's hand one last friendly squeeze, then let go and turned away.
"Waitasec!" Jaleel yelped, leaping after Barry and spinning him around. "You- you- you're just leaving me here?"
"I'm sorry, I really am," Barry replied. "You know how things are, Jaleel. I don't dare go against her, for reasons that oughta be pretty obvious."
"But- but- what do I do now?" Jaleel wailed.
"Head that way," Barry said, pointing down the street. "She'll be along to pick you up. Just try not to look too much like a lost tourist, okay?" He gave Jaleel a clap on the shoulder and vanished into the night.
Jaleel thrust his hands into his pocket and started walking, glaring at the sidewalk. He'd hoped to see the sun, at least. Now, after all he'd done for Barry- and her!- she'd left him stranded somewhere at least a hundred blocks from her lair. Not that he'd have any chance of finding it even if he did walk all that way-
It suddenly struck Jaleel that here he was, free and clear on the surface, yet he was hurrying back to Tinka. He stopped, resolved to head off in any other direction, but didn't. Was he really free and clear? Tinka's performance in the lavatory suggested otherwise. Clearly she'd managed not only to keep up with the train, but knew that Barry and Jaleel had left it and was able to keep track of them. She could be under his feet right now.
Then another image forced its way into Jaleel's mind. Tinka, on her belly, legs apart, her labia glistening wetly and pouted invitingly. His dick stiffened, shifting in his trouser leg. I always knew my dick would get me killed some day, he grumbled to himself and started walking.
No one had ever told Jaleel to be careful while walking alone on city streets late at night. Not counting this particular evening, the only other time in his life when such things might have mattered was in his youth, before he became an actor. Even then the darkened streets of Christchurch really couldn't be likened in any meaningful way to the ones of upper east side Manhattan. Between then and the present he'd mostly driven or rode from place to place, and when he did take to foot it was always in upper class, or at least decently middle class, areas. To Jaleel Bronson street crime was an abstraction, statistics cited by sober-faced commentators on the evening news, not anything that impacted him personally. Needless to say that was about to change.
Jaleel never noticed the person who came up behind him and kicked his legs out from under him. After he went down two others grabbed Jaleel's feet and hauled him into an alley. The kicker clamped a hand around Jaleel's muzzle, drawing a knife with the other. The entire evolution took maybe three or four seconds. "Gimmie your wallet and there don't need to be no nasty stuff," the knife wielder declared, brandishing the weapon threateningly.
Jaleel's hands moved to his pockets. They hesitated when he remembered that he didn't have a wallet anymore, but a prod from the knife set them in motion. He turned his pockets inside out, showing their emptiness for all to see.
"Shit," one of the other muggers growled. "You tryn' to tell us you ain't got nothing?" He let go of Jaleel's leg. "What the fuck is this, then?" He grabbed Jaleel's partial erection.
Jaleel yelped. So did the mugger, who suddenly realized what it was he'd grabbed. He jumped back, frantically wiping his hand on his trousers. "Shit!" he repeated, more vehemently. "That ain't no roll! It's his fucking dick!"
"Fuck!" the third mugger exclaimed. "If that's his dick, then he's gotta be hung like fucking Long John Silver!"
Three centimeters longer, Jaleel thought proudly. At an industry show in Las Vegas he and Long John had agreed to a measure-off. Thanks to Fredrika's efforts on his behalf, Jaleel came out ahead.
"I don't fucking believe it," knife wielder muttered. "If it's that big I wanna see it." He reached for Jaleel's trouser button.
Because he happened to be laying on his back Jaleel saw the enormous, shadow tentacles reaching up behind the muggers. He grinned, then started to giggle.
"The fuck you laughin' at?" knife-man snarled, cuffing Jaleel's face. That only made him laugh harder.
Knife-man drew back his arm for an angry jab. The shadow tentacle hovering above him turned solid and dropped around his neck like a fat noose, plucking him into the air. His two friends suffered similar fates. None of them even got a chance to scream; the tentacles covered their faces as well as crushing their throats. Knife-man at least showed some presence of mind, driving his blade as hard as he could into the fleshy appendage engulfing his head, never mind that if he missed he'd do himself a grievous injury. For all the good it did he needn't have bothered; so far as Jaleel could tell the knife didn't even inflict superficial wounds. Refraining might also have made his end somewhat less messy, though it hardly could have been any quicker. For the other two muggers it came with a sharp crack as Tinka snapped their necks. For knife-man it arrived with a wet crunch as Tinka drove one of her nippers straight down into the top of his skull. His whole body spasmed; the nipper withdrew, gleaming with a coating of fresh blood and flecks of brain tissue. All three bodies fell limply to the ground when Tinka dropped them; for a time blood pulsed from the gaping cavity in the top of knife-man's head.
Jaleel stared. He didn't have an erection anymore. In fact, his genitalia seemed to have completely withdrawn and were hiding somewhere near the middle of his abdomen. With knife-man's blood pouring across the ground in a miniature flood, thoughts of Tinka's pouty labia came in a long second behind thoughts of her terrible, ripping talons. True, those talons had saved Jaleel from victimization with extreme prejudice, but just then that seemed like using a hand grenade to kill a mosquito.
"Dang it," Tinka muttered, inspecting her tentacle. She cleaned it by the simple expedient of licking it.
Now I know why her tentacles are hairless, Jaleel heard himself thinking. If tonight were any indication, fur there would quickly be reduced to a sodden, stinking mess; keeping it clean would take an excessive amount of grooming.
"I'm sorry," Tinka added, snaking a different tentacle around Jaleel and lifting him to his feet. "I... really didn't need to do that."
Jaleel said nothing. He did notice that Tinka had saved him from the pool of blood spreading from the body of the knife wielder. He'd never imagined that a single body could contain so very, very much.
"This isn't a good place for it, either," Tinka added. "I need to clean up, and I..." She lifted her head so her ears could aim straight up. Staying underground wasn't only a matter of prudence; she didn't like admitting it but the open sky frightened her. Her ears did as well as- and better than- eyes in the places she frequented, but up there was nothing but undefinable emptiness. Underground, in the dark, she was the master; all others moved cautiously, fearfully, in that domain. Out here she felt as they did underground: naked, helpless, exposed. There could be unfriendly eyes up there and she'd never know until too late. She wanted to take the muggers underground and deal with them, but that left Jaleel on his own. The muggers might have money, but after that incident in the bathroom sending him home on the subway didn't seem prudent. Even if she dared, why would he want to come back to her? If she put him on the subway and stayed behind to deal with the muggers he could ride off and she'd never find him again. She sank onto her haunches. "I hate my life," she mumbled, scrubbing her face with her hands. Her shoulders twitched as she cried silently.
Later Jaleel would say the sight of Tinka crying shocked him more than anything else that had happened so far, up to and including seeing three muggers killed right before his eyes. He'd thought of Tinka as female but never, precisely, as a woman. And yet her tears, streaming from her ruined eyes, looked much the same as those of other women Jaleel had known. He glanced at the alley mouth, wondering if he could run far enough before she recovered. Then he moved up to Tinka's side and tentatively stroked her. "There there," he said. "I... I'm sure it's not that bad." He winced; the irony of saying that to a giant cat monster surrounded by fresh corpses, in a dark alley in the middle of the night, wasn't lost on him, not in the least.
"Isn't it?" Tinka demanded without looking up. "Do you think I want to live this way? I'm nothing but an animal." She drew her knees up, propping her crossed arms on them. "I can't even see," she added, clenching her fists. "What good is art school now?"
Jaleel blinked. The mental image of Tinka sitting in a classroom was so utterly ludicrous that he almost laughed, but caught himself in the nick of time. Even if he hadn't seen her just rip a mugger's head open he would have known that laughing, right then, was not the right thing to do. But the thought which prompted his mirth also spawned a very serious question. Clearly Tinka was not only intelligent but well educated; how had that come about if not in a classroom? Another vision, of Tinka as a little cat-monster girl, in pigtails and a pretty pink dress, skipping off to school with books clutched in her tentacles, flashed into his mind. Unlikely, he decided- but that image too brought forth a serious question. A little cat-monster girl implied the existence of a cat-monster mommy and daddy. That image was surely no less ludicrous than the others... but if so, where had Tinka come from? Jaleel, of all people, knew better than to believe that she'd been delivered by a stork. In any case it would have to be an awfully damn big stork, or a whole squadron of them. Even scaled down to infant size she'd be frightfully large.
Suddenly, and for reasons that weren't entirely clear, Jaleel found it very important to know the answer to that question. Which meant that he had to make her want to tell him... and doing that meant presenting himself as the sensitive, caring type, who really was concerned about her feelings and problems. "You could sculpt," he said.
Tinka's head snapped up. The expression on her face made Jaleel swallow convulsively. He realized that he might have gone too far in the other direction, thinking of her only as an emotionally disturbed woman and forgetting her other qualities. "Well... I mean... like clay or something," he continued gamely. "You could... work it with your fingers. You don't have to see it." He made squeezing motions with his fingers that he hoped suggested clay sculpting, or something similar.
Tinka wiped her face with one hand. "Thank you, Jaleel," she said quietly. "For that, and for... making it so that I didn't have to kill that transit cop."
Jaleel swallowed. What he hadn't wanted to see was what lay at his feet right now. In looking at the bodies, though, his eyes fell upon the knife. It lay in the pool of blood; Jaleel crouched and picked it up, wiping it clean on its former owner's clothing. It was a classic switchblade; Jaleel closed it then pressed the release with his thumb. The blade deployed with a quiet snick. "Why is the blade all... blotchy?" he asked, turning the weapon back and forth in the dim light.
"Dark patches on the metal?" Tinka ventured.
"Yes, like grease stains, except they don't rub off," Jaleel replied.
"Those are bloodstains," Tinka said. "Knife boy didn't take good care of his tools."
Jaleel closed the knife and slipped it into his back pocket, looking once again at the corpse. The sight of it still shocked him deeply... but not quite in the same way anymore. He doubted that the knife had gotten bloody by cutting raw steak. How many lives had ended, let out on the filthy, cracked pavement of dark alleys, to give the blade its stain? What would have happened to Jaleel if Tinka hadn't arrived when she did?
Slowly Jaleel rose, distractedly caressing the ridge on his hip formed by the knife handle. His personal philosophy could be best described as live and let live; he didn't consider himself qualified to pass judgment on how others lived conducted lives. Not to mention that his own wasn't exactly above reproach. Nevertheless, he found himself feeling decidedly less egalitarian about the muggers. He appreciated that being personally involved slanted his perceptions and frankly he didn't give a damn. At least Tinka didn't toy with her victims. Nor did she prey upon the helpless; she only took those who'd already chosen the path of blood. The frightful array of weaponry in her boxes proved it clearly enough. He wouldn't go so far as to say that made it right... but neither would he call it unequivocally wrong.
In that instant Jaleel made a decision. He still didn't appreciate the fact that Tinka had kidnapped him, but neither was he willing to walk away without a second thought. "What do we need to do about... this?" he asked, gesturing vaguely downward. Despite his new found worldliness, he wasn't nearly ready to speak casually about the results of violent murder.
"Normally I strip them and eat the bodies," Tinka replied. "But for that I need someplace private. Usually I go underground. Under the circumstances... I'm not sure I should leave you alone up here."
Jaleel's face twitched. That one could take Tinka's comment two very different ways wasn't lost on him. He'd already decided to stay, and more urgent questions needed answers. "Why not just leave them?" he asked. "Would a few more dead muggers really make a difference?"
"Not in an absolute sense, no," Tinka replied. "The problem is- look here." Her tentacle scooped up one of the dead bodies. "Look at the neck, here. Notice the bruise patterns."
"Wow." Jaleel peered. "You can even see the sucker marks."
"Exactly." Tinka dropped the body. "Someone's gonna look at that and start asking impertinent questions, such as how did a fellow on the upper east side of Manhattan manage to get choked to death by a giant octopus. He'll start poking around the crime scene, and maybe find a few hairs. He'll have them analyzed, and wonder why there happened to be a giant cat on the scene."
"How will he know it's a giant cat?" Jaleel challenged.
"The size and thickness of the hairs," Tinka replied. "The individual hairs in my coat aren't merely longer, they're also bigger around. Then there's our friend here with the hole in his head. It may look like a mess but a reasonably competent coroner will eventually identify the size and shape of the blade that inflicted the wound. Which begs the question of where you find a giant octopus with claws."
"Oh." Jaleel scratched his cheek distractedly. "Then maybe he starts wondering how the cat hairs fit in."
"Either way, he know's something's up," Tinka concluded. "Which puts me in an unfortunate place."
A question leaped into Jaleel's mouth but he bit it back. Not here, not now. "Is there somewhere near here we can do it? That, um, I, anyway, can get to above ground?"
Tinka thought for a moment. "As a matter of fact there is. Head west. That way." She pointed. "In a few blocks you'll hit Central Park. I'll meet you there."
"All right." Driven by an some impulse Jaleel put a hand on Tinka's arm and squeezed gently. She quivered... then suddenly scooped him up in a bone-crushing hug. Not literally so, thank goodness, but Jaleel was nonetheless relieved when she released him, so he could breathe again. "See you soon," he called, and set out.
This time the city seemed like a very different place. Jaleel walked briskly and boldly, shoulders back and chin up, calmly meeting the gaze of everyone he encountered. What was there to be afraid of, with Tinka watching over him?
For his own part Jaleel merely felt secure. He didn't really notice people skittering out of his way, and had no idea whatsoever that two potential assailants let him pass unmolested. It would have shocked him to his very core to learn that all these people were, at the heart of it, afraid of him. His easy confidence helped immensely; he no longer had the look of a victim. More importantly, though, his confidence wasn't empty: he had the air of one who'd seen what the streets could do and still wasn't afraid. Testing that confidence took more courage than the average person possessed.
Eventually the street ended at a T intersection. On the other side Jaleel saw a low, ornamental wall with trees beyond it. The neighborhood, he noticed, had improved markedly in quality. He started across the street but paused, realizing suddenly that it was the famous 5th Avenue. He looked up and down, marvelling at the sights. Then he crossed, recalling that Tinka was waiting. He saw an entrance to his left so he went that way. Once inside he stood marvelling again. He'd read a bit about Central Park but no literature could possibly prepare him for the sheer scale of it. Not to mention that going from high rise buildings to open countryside simply by crossing a street was quite a bit of a shock. The road ran straight in but walking trails ran off to the left and right. The left seemed more heavily forested, so he went that way.
As he strolled along the path Jaleel almost forgot his situation. It would have been nice to come in daylight but the nighttime view certainly didn't lack for beauty and drama. The trees occluded the city glow without cutting it very much. It wasn't even dark, really. Jaleel guessed that he could have read a newspaper, albeit with some difficulty. Nothing at all like nights in the wilds of South Island. He left the trail and sat down against a tree, recalling some camping trips he'd taken in his youth. Nights there were dark. So dark the landscape disappeared completely; all you could see were the stars, blazing so bright it seemed like you could reach up and touch them.
"Christ!" Jaleel tried to stand and spin around at the same time, which only left him sprawled in the grass. "Don't do that! You scared the shit outa me!"
"Sorry." Tinka lay on her side, one arm stretched out and the other laid below her breasts. Her tentacles lay draped artistically across her torso and hips. She didn't sound especially contrite.
Jaleel made a face but said nothing. He was struck by how beautiful Tinka looked, in a wild sort of way. Somehow the arboreal background changed profoundly the character of her appearance. In dark tunnels underground she was a monster, a nightmare terror. Here, she was... still wild and dangerous, yes, but... something else, too. Jaleel couldn't put it in words, but it was like the difference between seeing a tiger in a cage and seeing one sunning itself on a rock in some distant jungle. The jungle was the right place for a tiger to be; in a cage was not. Then, suddenly, a thought struck him. "What happened to the muggers?"
"I took care of them," Tinka replied. "This city's older than the United States, Jaleel. There's more abandoned cellars, forgotten tunnels, and secret holes down there than you could possibly imagine." One of her tentacles uncurled, dropping a package at Jaleel's side. "Here's your share."
"My share of what?" Jaleel picked the thing up. It seemed to be a pocket liner torn from a pair of trousers. Inside he found a gold clip holding a wad of bills. In a state of mild shock he counted it out, coming up with seventy-two dollars in various denominations. "Wow," he breathed. "Thanks." He fit the money back into its clip and started to put it in his pocket but froze. A image of the boxes in Tinka's lair flashed through his mind. It didn't take a genius to guess where she'd obtained this money. Despite the fact that his role in the affair had been minimal at best, he couldn't help thinking that, by accepting this money, he stopped being a victim of Tinka's activities and became an accessory. His status would change, in a small but very important way, from that of prisoner to accomplice.
Jaleel shifted uneasily. As he did he felt the knife in his pocket and another, even less pleasant thought came to him. To wit, that he'd already accepted Tinka's largesse. He stared at the money a little longer... then put it in his pocket, opposite the knife. There wasn't anything he could do for the muggers' other victims... and he felt no sympathy whatsoever for the muggers themselves. Maybe they hadn't meant to cross Tinka, but they had. Maybe they could have changed their ways, given a chance... but as he thought about the bloodstained blade of his knife, Jaleel couldn't help wondering how much of a chance they'd have given him. Yes, he was sorry things had turned out as they did. He wasn't sorry that he'd survived, given that the choice was him or them.
"The night's still young," Tinka said quietly, shifting her leg slightly. "There's no need to hurry back just yet."
Jaleel glanced around, somewhat guiltily rubbing the roll in his pocket. "Is it safe?"
"As safe as anywhere above ground," Tinka replied. "You have to watch for the police; they patrol pretty thoroughly. There's a precinct just for it. Beyond that... there isn't a whole lot to worry about if you're careful."
With the tips of his fingers Jaleel rubbed the money in his left pocket and the knife in his right. He wasn't thinking about either; it was just an unconscious gesture while his mind worked. He turned his head slightly and gazed across the park. The trees weren't that dense and there wasn't much undergrowth, not like in a real forest. He didn't feel especially well hidden, not with the ambient city light so bright. On the other hand, as he looked toward other clusters of trees, he couldn't see much of anything beneath them. Even though it wasn't dark, the subtly shifting patterns of light and shadow broke up any patterns upon which his eye would naturally settle. Even with his white fleece, Jaleel decided, he'd be difficult to pick out. And Tinka... she might as well be invisible. Underground, in poor light, she'd looked pure black. Now she seemed more like a very deep gray that somehow picked up subtle shades of the colors around her. Even sitting right next to her he had difficulty picking out the lines of her body. Which addressed a question of his, actually. He'd wondered how it was that a giant cat-monster could move around with such freedom in a city like this, even given that she could pass through walls and only came out at night. In all likelihood any number of people had caught glimpses of her at various times, but unless she happened to be in a well lit area, or held still, the observer would go away unsure of exactly what he'd seen. That being so, it made a perverted sort of sense: if a reasonable doubt existed, why would anyone think they had seen a giant cat-monster? Much more sensible to call it a strange shadow, or just about anything else that seemed plausible.
"It's a beautiful place," Jaleel said quietly, kneeling by Tinka's head. With one hand he stroked her mane; with the other he caressed her throat. She rolled onto her back and lifted her chin. The corners of Jaleel's mouth quirked up; he'd found that whether they walked on two legs or four, cats were cats. He continued his ministrations until Tinka started purring. "Tinka?" he asked.
"Mmm?" Tinka's response was little more than an accented purr.
"Why are you here?"
Some time passed before Tinka spoke. "When I come here... I can pretend... for a short time, at least... that I'm just a regular person... visiting the park."
Jaleel paused even longer before replying. "Then why stay?" he asked. "With your powers, you could... I don't know. Stow away on a train, or a ship. Why stay here, when it makes you so sad?"
Tinka stopped purring. Jaleel felt her muscles tensing, but continued stroking. "Where would I go?" she asked, barely loud enough even for Jaleel to hear. "Who would invite a giant cat-monster with tentacles into their home, Jaleel?"
Jaleel bit his lip. Despite everything, the longing in Tinka's voice tore at his heart. Besides, he saw a glimmer of hope: if he could persuade her to run away, then maybe she'd let him go. And though loathe to admit it, he'd feel better knowing she was safe somewhere else, not having to live like this. "America's a big country," he said. "There have to be some forests left somewhere, don't there?"
"This country isn't friendly to other predators," Tinka replied. "Look at what they've done to the wolves, the mountain lions, the eagles, the hawks, and the owls. I need a heck of a lot more to eat than any of them."
"What about Canada?" Jaleel asked. "Mexico? South America?"
"How would I get there?"
"Stow away on a ship. Or a train. Whatever."
A long time passed. A dozen times Jaleel though of saying something to start the conversation again, but couldn't think of the right thing to say. Or rather- if he let himself admit it- never worked up the courage.
"I've already done that," Tinka said. "I stowed away on a ship that carried me from Sevastapol to Salerno. But I had to leave, so I stowed away on another ship that brought me here."
"Why'd you have to leave Salerno?"
"I don't speak Italian."
"What do you speak?" Jaleel had only ever heard Tinka speak English, but her accent was definitely Slavic. Which tallied with her coming from the Ukraine, at least.
"Ukranian, Russian, Polish, German, French, English, and Arabic," Tinka replied.
Jaleel blinked, his mouth falling open. He spoke Kiwi English and that was all. He'd taken Japanese in school and done abysmally; he'd long since forgotten it all. "My word," he exclaimed. "Quite the linguist, aren't we?"
"That's what you need in a spy," Tinka responded.
Jaleel's hands stopped. After several seconds he started again, rather hastily.
"That's what I'm meant to do, you see," Tinka explained. "As supers go, I'm not especially strong or tough. But I'm really good at hiding and sneaking. Not to mention jumping out and pouncing on people." She chuckled. "I was made to be a kind of super-ninja. To sneak in, steal things, gather information, and, if necessary, perform assassinations."
Jaleel gulped. With her powers, he had to say that Tinka would be a very good assassin. What use was security when a killer could walk right through walls? But it was another facet of what she'd said that drew his mind like a magnet. "You were made," he pronounced. "By the people in the lab, who called you a Darkstalker."
For a heart-stopping instant Jaleel feared that he'd pushed too far. Tinka's whole body tensed; her lips drew back in a snarl, her ears lay flat, and every one of her rippers popped out of its sheath. "Do not ever talk about that again," she hissed. Then, slowly, she relaxed. Her tentacles sank back to her sides, the rippers retracting. Her ears came back up. Her hands clenched, but it was in the way one does to loosen them, not to make fists. "They're why I'm here, Jaleel," she continued in a more normal tone. "New York hides me. There's too many people, too much happening. If I went into the wild... they'd find me. They could hunt me at their leisure. First there'd be odd stories told by hunters. Eventually, that would attract attention. Because it's exactly what they're looking for. Then they bring in the trackers... and once they had my range pinned down, the big guns would follow."
"But-" Jaleel blurted. He couldn't imagine what sort of monster Tinka might be afraid of. He didn't want to know.
"I'm not the only monster they made," Tinka supplied. "In fact, I'm one of the smaller and weaker ones. The only reason I'm an ultra-beast is because I can walk through walls."
Jaleel didn't gulp or cringe. He'd gone way beyond such things. The implications of what Tinka said were so horrific he couldn't even grasp them enough to be properly afraid. He wasn't sure it would even be physically possible for him to be sufficiently afraid. It was because of that, how everything had become so nightmarishly surreal, that he was able to think the thoughts he now did, or say the things he was about to. "How did you get away?" he asked. "If they made you, they had to know what you could do. How did they plan to keep you loyal, if you can walk through walls?"
"They implanted a cybernetic control link in my brain." Tinka tapped her forehead. "It's standard equipment on all their monsters. It keeps you in touch, lets them track you... punish you if necessary... or kill you, in extreme cases. But it's more than that. It... blocks out all the things that don't matter. Like... family. Friends. Everything you were before they gave you the mutation shot. Anything that isn't relevant to the mission. It's not that you forget, exactly. More like... you don't care. It isn't important." She sighed. "Then, one day, while I was doing some test exercises, I turned desolid to pass through an obstacle and my slave rig fell out. Landed on the floor by my feet with a little plop. It surprised me as much as it did them, I think. All of us just stood there for a handful of seconds. They didn't understand how this could have happened. And I... I was remembering. All the things the slave rig had banished from my mind came flooding back. But everything they'd taught me was there too. It was... too much. I couldn't understand what was happening." She chuckled ruefully. "Truth is, I would have stood there until they'd locked me down... but you know what they did? They frightened me. The sight of a puny human in a lab coat and carrying a hypo-injector scared me so badly I almost wet myself. So I ran." She pantomimed walking with her index and middle finger. "And here I am."
Jaleel continued his caresses while trying to think of something appropriate to say. He couldn't. "You know," he began, "I could-" He'd been about to say I could kill for a hot dog, but stopped himself because he didn't mean it. Before, it had only been words. Now he understood what killing really meant. It meant taking the knife out of his pocket, deploying the blade, and jamming it into the back of some hapless stranger. It meant watching while his victim doubled up and fell in a heap, blowing bloody froth from his mouth and nose. It meant Jaleel wiping fresh blood from the blade of his knife, while more poured from the wound and pooled on the ground, and its cloying, metallic smell filled his nostrils. He wasn't ready to go through all that just for a snack.
"There's some reasonably nice all night places down south of here," Tinka commented, as if reading Jaleel's mind.
Jaleel blinked. "But I-" his hand flew to his pocket, caressing the roll of cash. He frowned... then grinned. In some strange way it seemed quite proper to live it up on money taken from someone who'd threatened him with grievous bodily harm. Then he frowned again. "How do we get there? Take the train?"
Tinka snorted. "Hell no. We travel in style, sonny boy." She scooped Jaleel up and planted him on her shoulders. "Hang on tight." Just to make sure, she wrapped two tentacles around him. "One Midtown Express, coming up." She loped through the trees, paused short of a path, then stepped out and leapt.
For Jaleel, it felt like getting shot out of a cannon. Crushing acceleration left him breathless, then he was sailing through the sky. He tried to scream but couldn't; all that came out of his mouth was a terrified squeak. He clutched so hard at Tinka's head that he bruised his fingers. Then, before he could even begin to adjust, she came down on top of a building and took off again. It felt like getting into a head-on car crash, then immediately being rear-ended by someone else. After the fourth or fifth leap Jaleel found himself noticing the city lights spread out below him as he soared through the sky. The grandeur of the spectacle stuck him all at once; for once complete cycle he marvelled, then he bust out laughing, shrieking and whooping like a madman.
Until Tinka missed a step and plunged right through the roof of a tenement.
When the proximity alarm went off Joe blinked and straightened up, realizing that he'd been dozing. Working by day and super heroing by night sounded really cool until one actually tried it. The need to fit sleep somewhere into the schedule put something of a crimp on things. He looked around, scanning the rooftop upon which he perched and the street below. Odd; there wasn't anything-
Suddenly Joe Hooper, who called himself the Steel Toad Boot, found himself spinning through the air. He came down in a heap of rubble, which would have gone quite hard for him if not for his armor. Even with it he felt dazed and disoriented. What the Hell had happened? Looking around, one would think a bomb had gone off. One whole section of the roof he'd perched on had caved in. Then it struck him: all the rubble had gone down. In an explosion, some of it should have gone up and out. Then he remembered the proximity alarm. Something had fallen from above, something very big and heavy. Even as that thought crossed his mind, Joe felt the rubble shift and heave up. He scrambled over a section of shattered roofing and caught the protruding end of a broken roof truss. And then... something emerged.
Joe considered himself at least reasonably worldly. Being a super hero- though an un-accredited one, admittedly- he'd seen strange things in his life, the likes of which would make ordinary people quail in terror. Yet he'd emerged victorious in battles with common criminals and even super villains. (If pressed he might- reluctantly- admit that fighting Dark Chocolate and the Iron Rack didn't exactly put him in the same class as Major America or Wonder Whippet, but one did the best one could.) Nevertheless, seeing an immense black thing rise up right in front of him put a serious strain on his psyche. Enormous tentacles waved in the air like giant anacondas, the blades on their tips and the hooks on their undersides gleaming malevolently. The monster's eyes shone in the dark like a pair of half moons, white and faintly mottled but otherwise completely blank. And the teeth, like a set of ivory daggers. But for his helmet, Joe was sure he'd have felt its breath on his face.
Still and all, Joe was a super hero, though perhaps not one of great renown. He had fought villains, though perhaps not the most infamous, and defeated them. He had his armor, which gave him strength and speed as well as protecting him from harm. Thus he did what seemed most sensible right then and there: he kicked, as hard as he could. He wasn't called the Steel Toad Boot for nothing, after all; his suit's footgear were specially reinforced and equipped with spikes for added punch. At this range he couldn't possibly miss.
The monster twisted its head aside and brought up an arm as thick as a tree trunk and bulging with muscle, moving at a speed Joe wouldn't have thought possible for something so big. He would have missed, but for that the creature was still half mired in rubble. His boot scored its cheek instead of landing squarely. He'd already begun his evasive roll; his kick had only been to delay it while he got clear of the wreckage. Close quarters combat with something so big and powerful would be pure suicide. Fast as he was, it wasn't fast enough. One of the tentacles hit like a demon's whip, smashing him right through a wall. Fortunately it had been weakened in the collapse, and actually cushioned his fall somewhat. Quick as he could, Joe jumped to his feet and switched his helmet to thermal imaging. It didn't take a genius to see how things would go from here. The building's interior walls would impede the monster about as much as a stalled Pinto would impede a runaway freight train. Even better, the structural integrity of the roof and top floor had been destroyed by the initial collapse. He could feel the floor shifting beneath him-
A sound drew Joe's attention. Glancing to one side, he saw a late middle aged woman, sitting up in bead and screaming like a punctured boiler. That added a new and most unwelcome dimension to things, but didn't change the basic situation. He had to get the beast outside, and quickly.
With a tremendous roar and crash, the wall Joe had burst through was torn away. On infra-red the monster wasn't merely a dark blot, but had a definite outline. Humanoid and catlike, except for the tentacles. Female, too; that bosom would have been impressive enough on a normal sized woman, to say nothing of one somewhere around three and a half meters tall. He didn't stick around to admire it, though. The rest of her appeared dead set on ripping him into little pieces. He dove through a window. There wasn't a fire escape and he was a good five stories up, but that didn't matter. He rolled, then used his boot jets to bring him to a soft landing. Once on the ground he dashed into the street, then turned back. A part of him- a pretty large one, as a matter of fact- wanted to keep running, but he suppressed it. Super heroes didn't do that, especially with innocent bystanders in danger. If this were the Steel Toad Boot's last battle, let it be one for the record books.
At first Jaleel was certain that he'd died, but decided that if so he shouldn't hurt so much. After pulling a sheet of tar paper off his face and seeing the gaping hole Tinka had torn in the roof he almost passed out. It looked big enough to drive a semi through. Sure, he knew that Tinka was not merely large but quite heavy, too. What he hadn't appreciated was how much kinetic energy that mass could accumulate, moving at speed.
The very next thing Jaleel found that he hadn't properly appreciated was Tinka's strength. In retrospect he supposed that leaping through the sky like that should have clued him in, but watching her tear out a wall with a casual swipe of her hand brought it home is a particularly visceral way. Then he heard the screaming.
"Tinka, no!" Jaleel leapt to his feet and ran. Unfortunately, his noble intentions overlooked the fact that he was running, in near darkness, across a pile of loose debris balanced precariously on the edge of a gaping pit. He let out an ear-piercing shriek as the pile tipped and slid. Then he watched it fall, crashing into the dark depths. Somehow Tinka had turned, bent over, and snatched him right out of the air, all in the blink of an eye and without loosing her own footing.
"You need to change your strides, Guv," Tinka commented, wrinkling her nose.
Jaleel made a whimpering noise. At some point he'd wet himself. Right then it seemed like the very least of his worries. Which was amply confirmed when Tina coiled a tentacle around him and scrambled up to the roof. Her hands and feet tore down an avalanche of rubble as the damaged structure gave way under her weight. Finally she managed to haul herself up on a truss, which creaked ominously. Without the slightest hesitation she stepped onto the roof coping and leapt to the next building. This time there wasn't any element of fun to it; she was running for her life. Jaleel, mashed against her side, saw everything sideways or upside down when he saw anything at all. He retched, but there wasn't anything in his stomach but mucous. Even when Tinka dropped into an alley and stopped, to Jaleel the buildings around them seemed to keep bouncing up and down. She lifted a manhole cover and fed Jaleel down, then replaced he cover with hardly a sound. Jaleel lay in a heap until she'd passed through the ceiling and turned solid beside him. "I'm sorry," she said quietly, cradling him gently in her arms like a baby.
"Take me home," Jaleel said bluntly. Tinka set out. Only later did it occur to him that he'd actually been thinking about the underground shelter when he said it.
Joe stopped because an indicator on his suit's heads-ups display warned him that his jump jets were at red line overload. He hardly needed it; he could feel the heat, trying to bake his feet, and the tar in the roof upon which he stood began to melt. When he looked down his boots seemed to blaze like torches. In the distance he could still see the cat monster, bouncing from rooftop to rooftop. He'd given it all he had and still she won pulling away.
Thermal imaging had revealed two other things about the chase. One, the cat creature had been throwing off a goodly amount of waste heat. Joe guessed that she'd been running pretty close to redline herself, though she must have a metabolism like a gas turbine. Two, she'd been carrying something. Someone, specifically. The thing clasped in her tentacle had unquestionably been a body, and a living one too: it maintained its body heat, and at one point Joe was almost sure he'd seen it throw up. He didn't at all like the implications when he put those two facts together. The cat monster might be a robot, but Joe doubted it. He knew something about mechanoids, and this critter didn't look like one. But, if organic, it would have to eat. Quite a bit, too, given its size and energy output. Which didn't bode at all well for the poor bastard clutched in its grip.
Joe sat on the edge of the roof, letting his legs hang over. Night breezes would help them cool faster. The chase might be over, but only for now. Steel Toad Boot wasn't about to let this offense go unanswered.
When the clock by her bed hit seven AM Super Collie rose and walked slowly into the living room. She was already cleaned and dressed; she'd been awake for more than an hour. The delay was occasioned by waiting a reasonable amount of time for the people she meant to call... and ambivalence on her own part about what she meant to do. Her hand reached out, stopping just before touching the phone. Surely it wasn't really necessary?
With a deep sigh, and very deliberately, Super Collie picked up the phone. The situation this morning was exactly the same as the one yesterday which had prompted her to consider this desperate act in the first place. Further delay could accomplish nothing but wasting even more precious time. She tapped out the number of ZigZag's apartment.
"Guten morgen," Fredrika's voice announced, a touch blearily, after four rings.
"Good morning," Super Collie replied. "I'm sorry to disturb you this early. It's me, Super Collie. I..." she swallowed. She'd come this far; she might as well see it through. "I need a favor."
"I'm sure we'd be happy to do anything we could to help out," Fredrika replied, sounding considerably more alert now.
"I... I'd be terribly grateful if you could arrange to entertain Jato for a while," Super Collie blurted.
"Well... I suppose," Fredrika said, sounding somewhat confused. "May I ask why?" She didn't appear suspicious, merely curious.
Super Collie's mouth worked. A number of possible answers flitted through her mind but none of them came to her lips. Duplicitousness was not in her nature. Telling a narrow version of the truth and letting another deliberately misinterpret it, well, she could at least mostly convince herself that it wasn't her fault. Telling and outright falsehood, though... that was too much. Much too much. Especially to people she'd come to like. "I just want to get away from him for a while," she said in a rush.
"Oh. I see." Fredrika's tone suggested that she did indeed, and much more than Super Collie felt comfortable revealing. "Ah, don't worry. It'll be our pleasure to take him off your hands for a spell." She turned away from the phone and covered it with her hand, but Super Collie heard what came next clearly enough. "Hey, Wanda! Haul your tail out of bed! We've got work to do!"
"What?" came Wanda's querulous reply.
"We need to keep young Jato Impala occupied for the day."
Wanda's response was a squeal of delight. "Oh, goody! I'll get the can opener!"
Super Collie concluded the call with appropriate pleasantries, but wasn't really conscious of them. It had been just as bad as she'd feared. Worse, even. Jato might be klutzy and painfully naive, but he was earnest. There could be no question that he believed, with all his heart and all his soul, in the honor and duty of the super hero. Now, cold-bloodedly and with malice aforethought, she'd thrown him to the wolves. Or the dog and fox, at any rate. Skunk too, if ZigZag decided to get in on the fun. Even without Zig's help, Wanda and Fredrika were more than capable of eating him alive. There wouldn't even be scraps of fur left by the time they finished with him. Super Collie had a momentary vision of Wanda and Fredrika licking out the inside of Jato's empty armor, patting their bloated tummies.
As she went to get George, Super Collie's expression became cold, hard, and terrible. Her only consolation was that Smith and Jones and forced her into this. If in any way possible she'd make them pay for it, and dearly too.
"Here youse go," Larry announced, stopping his truck in a no parking zone. "Suit up and I'll show youse da beautiful sewer."
The prospect of once again donning those awful overalls filled Super Collie with about as much enthusiasm as that of amputating one of her own limbs with a hacksaw. But she put it on nonetheless. Just as, should the occasion arise, she would amputate one of her own limbs with a hacksaw. Being onerous did not in any way diminish the necessity of doing a job. While George and Super Collie put on their gear Larry set out traffic cones and removed the cover from the manhole they were to enter. Before going down he checked everyone's air bottles and masks, then led the way. Super Collie gritted her teeth and followed.
"Right dis way," Larry announced, setting off jauntily, his helmet lantern dancing gaily. Still gritting her teeth, Super Collie followed. After a few twists and turns, Larry stopped. "Here," he announced.
Super Collie wanted to sigh, but restrained herself. There was too much chance of air leaking around her mask. She began inspecting the walls, ceiling, and floor, probing carefully for any trace of chill. "How long ago was this?"
"'Bout two, maybe three weeks," Larry replied. "I don't feel nuttin' now, dough."
While Super Collie investigated, George looked around. Sewers had never been a great interest of his; since coming to New York he'd seen more of them, and learned more, than in all the rest of his life combined. To pass the time he examined what was to him a confusing tangle of pipes, wires, and conduits. Most fascinating was the juxtaposition of new and old: some of it looked like it might have been installed just days ago, and other bits might have been there for a century or more. Rising up on tip-toes, he peered past a collection of pipes. And stared for a moment. "Hello there," he mused, cocking his head back and forth. "Say, Larry," he called. "What's this thing here?"
Larry came over and peeked. "Looks like one o' dem tings dey puts in public crappers to spray perfume," he replied.
George frowned. "Why would anyone put such a thing in a sewer?"
"Beats da heck outa me. Be like putting up a sign that says 'quiet please' at a roller derby rink."
"My thoughts exactly," George replied. His hand moved up to tap his chin but he restrained it. It had recently been places he'd rather not think about. Nevertheless, his mind worked hard. Being a policeman had trained him to notice every little thing about a crime scene. Or a potential crime scene. It also gave him a nasty, suspicious nature. A perfume dispenser simply did not belong in a sewer. Sure, there were likely any number of innocent explanations. But he didn't believe it, not in his heart. In his experience, the only thing greater than the human animal's capacity for wickedness was its capacity for stupidity. On that scale, benevolence ranked way down the list. He reached in and picked the object up, trying to touch it as little as possible. It was made of white plastic, with a spray nozzle on its top. It sat like a cap atop an olive drab colored can. Turning the can, he could just make out a collection of cryptic, stenciled letters and numbers.
"What's that?" Super Collie asked.
"It looks like a perfume dispenser one might find in a public loo," George replied, turning the object back and forth. "I find it highly suspicious. What do you think?"
Super Collie frowned, studying the object. Then her eyes flicked to the place where it had been. "It's clean," she said. "That little shelf back there is filthy."
"So it came down here fairly recently," George concluded. "There hasn't been time for it to pick up a layer of grime. What else?"
"The place where it was is clean," Super Collie replied. "This might have come down recently, but it replaced something else that had been there for a while."
George's eyes widened, then he nodded in approval. He hadn't noticed that himself. "Anything else?"
"This looks like an ordinary spray can," Super Collie continued. "But this green is strange."
"It's military green," George replied. "The stenciling looks military too."
Super Collie raised an eyebrow. "The army put a perfume dispenser here?"
"In a place where casual observers wouldn't notice it, even here were casual visitors would be few indeed," George concluded. "I think we should take this with us and inspect it more thoroughly."
"I wonder if it's a coincidence that we found this at a place where Larry felt the chill," Super Collie commented.
"Good question," George replied. "I couldn't help wondering that myself. Did you find anything?"
Super Collie shook her head. "Not a thing. If Larry did feel something here it's long gone now."
"Let's go up then," George decided. "You and Larry can go check out other places. I, on the other hand, shall go chat up some of the boys in blue. It's amazing what goes missing in a big department like this."
"Like, say, a fingerprint kit?" Super Collie suggested.
"For example," George concurred.
"Indeed." Super Collie grinned. "I'm sure I would be. Amazed, that is."
"Quite." George nodded.
Back in the truck George stripped off his overalls and gear. After peering closely at the dispenser for a moment, he glanced up. "Larry, old chap, would happen to have a plastic-"
Just then the dispenser discharged a cloud of mist, right into George's face. "Good Christ!" he roared, rearing back and fanning his face.
"George?" Super Collie rushed forward, her tone and expression deeply concerned.
"Phew!" George grimaces. "That crap reeks! At least I see why they put it in a sewer! That's the only place you could stand it!"
Super Collie frowned. "I don't smell anything, George."
"What do you mean?" George demanded crossly. "It smells like piss!" George's angry expression suddenly turned thoughtful. "Larry, do you smell it?"
"I can smell it up here," Larry replied from the cab. "Phe-yew."
George's eyes flicked to Super Collie. "You don't smell anything?" She shrugged. George's frown deepened. "I think I should have this looked at just as soon as I can," he muttered.
"Maybe youse better take a shower first," Larry put in.
"I agree." George picked up an empty tool box and placed the dispenser in it. "You two go on. I'll make my own way back." He got out of the truck and started walking.
On the way in George had seen a subway station, so he decided to make for it instead of calling a cab. He'd been warned about the cost of hiring a car in New York, and he didn't figure it would get him home any more quickly in any case. He noticed, as he walked, that men grimaced and moved away as he passed. Women, on the other had, completely ignored him. Until such time as he encountered an matronly woman of about his own age or perhaps a bit more, with a shawl across her substantial shoulders and shopping bags in either hand. George tipped his cap and stepped carefully around to avoid jostling her, then continued on his way. As such he didn't see her stop suddenly, blink twice, and look over her shoulder with a rather odd expression on her face. Then her tail twitched and a new expression came to her, one George would have been quite shocked to see directed at him. She turned about and hurried to catch up. Close up she schooled her expression into one of polite friendliness. "Why, thank you, Officer," she said, smiling warmly. "It's such a rare thing to meet a real gentleman these days."
"I do my best, ma'am," George replied, returning the smile. "A little courtesy does wonders to move the world smoothly along."
"And this is surely one place that could use a little more of it," the woman sighed. "This whole city is full of nothing but ruffians who'd knock you down just as soon as look at you." As if to prove the point, another pedestrian jostled her as he sped past. She staggered against George. "See what I mean?" she demanded, gesturing with a bag.
"I must say, I prefer Wellington," George replied. "Smaller it may be, but it's also a world more comfortable and friendly."
"Wellington?" The woman's eyes widened. "Are you an Aussie?" She said it in the American way, with a sibilant S.
"Kiwi," George corrected. "Though I was born in Southampton."
The woman giggled. "I should have known. You sound just like those announcers on the BBC."
George started to say that he'd spent a great many years driving the southern twang from his speech but another thought interrupted him. Is this woman flirting with me? The whole notion was so utterly ludicrous he almost laughed, but restrained the impulse. She might take it as an insult.
"What brings you to the Big Apple, officer?" the woman asked. There could be no mistaking the eager twinkle in her eyes.
"Business, I'm afraid," George replied, watching with a sort of horrid fascination. He considered himself a nice enough chap, but he had no illusions about his attractiveness. He wasn't the sort strange women swooned over in the middle of a busy street. Yet it was happening, right before his eyes. By default his police perception engaged and he studied the woman's face. She was a feline, perhaps a leopard given the structure of her head. Her fur had probably once been glossy black but was now dulled to a dark, flat gray, accented by streaks of lighter gray and white around the end of her muzzle. Her eyes might once have been gold but now looked somewhat coppery. She did not have a mane and there was a distortion in the fur across her scalp, as if from an old scar. Her figure could best be described as dough-like, a tendency which had invaded her bosom as well. Under her shawl she wore a modest, dark green dress with a long skirt. Her accent sounded... American. With just a touch of something else George couldn't identify. She didn't strike George as the sort to go picking up strange men on the street any more than he'd call himself the sort to be picked up.
"Can I help you get somewhere, Officer?" the woman asked.
"Hmm?" George noticed that they'd reached the subway station. "Yes, actually. Could you tell me how to reach Jamaica station? It's the end of the line, I know."
"Why, certainly," the woman replied with a giggle. "Take the Queens Boulevard Express. Just stick with me; I'll get you pointed in the right direction. She shifted one of her shopping bags and put a proprietary hand on George's arm.
On the subway George and his new friend chatted amiably. Or, to be technically accurate, the woman nattered away while George smiled, nodded, and occasionally made encouraging sounds. He wasn't paying much attention to the conversation in any case; he was too busy watching her hands. She's going to fondle my leg now, he thought, and sure enough she rested her hand upon his thigh and gave it a friendly squeeze. Completely incidental it might appear, unless one happened to be watching closely. Bit by bit, as the journey continued, she crept closer until their bodies were in contact from shoulder to knee. On top of that, with every "casual" contact her hand took greater and greater liberty. At the current rate of progress, he estimated that she'd be jacking him off by the time they reached Roosevelt Avenue.
Just as compelling was the behavior of the other passengers. Though not packed, the car was sufficiently full that George and his would-be paramour couldn't sit by themselves. Men passing by reacted as George had come to expect: grimaces, pointed sniffs, and occasionally muttered comments as they hurried quickly away. Women, on the other hand, didn't seem to care; in time George found himself at the center of a small zone of exclusively female riders. Then he noticed a tigress- clearly a professional woman in her middle thirties- regarding him with a suspiciously intense gaze. When she noticed George returning her attention she ever so casually brought her hand up to her face and licked her middle finger. A very slender seval in her mid twenties uncrossed her legs and turned slightly, giving George a clear look at her panties as her miniskirt rode up. Across from her a twenty something tortoiseshell calico- with a baby, no less- had borrowed one of her son's lollipops and was sucking it in a most suggestive fashion. If the smell bothered her son, he gave no indication of it.
George's body kept up the appearance of polite interest, though his expression might have taken on something of a strained aspect. Behind that bland exterior his mind worked feverishly. He wasn't hallucinating; he had some experience with such tings, stemming from a series of what were politely referred to as "youthful indiscretions." Nor did any of the other passengers exhibit any behavior he'd consider as indicative of altered consciousness. But what were the chances that he'd just happen to get on a train full of wild nymphomaniacs? He'd faced a lot of things in his life, but the predatory expressions in all those eyes-
Realization struck like lightning. George actually gasped and stiffened. A great many of the eyes focused on him were green, gold, or slit pupiled. Cat's eyes, in other words. All the women congregated around him were felines. His hand moved to the tool box, resting close up against his thigh. Super Collie hadn't smelled anything, but he and Larry did. Only to men did it smell like rancid urine. Super Collie didn't act strange, but she'd only been around it a short time... and she was a canine. There were canid females in the car: a couple generic dogs, a fox, and a wolf. Plus two ferrets and a cow. None of them were acting strange. If anything, they regarded the activities at George's end of the car with varying levels of disgust.
Another thought forced its way into the front of George's mind. The creature who'd taken Jaleel was a cat. A female cat. Who'd grabbed a fellow with the biggest John Thomas this side of the Bronx Zoo. George didn't know just then what it meant, but he did know, with a horrid, instinctual certainty, that finding out was very, very important. The other thing he knew was that he needed to get off this train right now. Getting gang raped on the subway would only raise a lot of questions he'd really rather not answer.
Feeling the brakes grab was almost enough to make George shout hallelujah. "What's this station coming up?" he inquired of his companion.
"Queensbridge and 21st street," the woman replied.
"I'm terribly sorry, but I need to visit the little boy's," George apologized, gently but firmly detaching the woman's hand from his crotch.
"But you aren't a little boy, Officer," the woman simpered.
You oughta know, George thought, but through force of will kept from his face. He further forced himself to chuckle politely. "Oh, don't mind me," he said. "I won't be but a moment."
"Sure you don't need any help?" the woman asked, giving the most lascivious wink George had ever seen in his life.
The tigress snorted, quite pointedly.
"Hey, Grandma, he doesn't need some dried up old prune showing him how to swing his club," the serval put in. Her tone and expression clearly suggested that someone younger- like herself, for instance- would be much better suited to that role.
"I suppose you think you know all about it, you shameless hussy!" the old woman shouted, her ears laid back.
"At least she doesn't have to worry about getting his cock stuck in her dentures," the tigress put in.
"You slut!" the old woman surged to her feet with an energy George would not have imagined she possessed and brained the tigress with one of her shopping bags. From there things went downhill rapidly, if such a thing could be imagined.
George wondered frantically if there was anything he could say, but decided that there wasn't. It was quite apparent that whatever was happening bypassed the brain entirely and went straight for the crotch. All he could do was hope to slip away in the confusion.
The train stopped. Other passengers bolted hastily, fleeing the melee. George followed, dodging through the light crowd with a speed and agility born of desperation. He managed to escape the station and reach the street without any sign of pursuit. Just to make sure he dodged along for a couple blocks. Then, pausing to catch his breath, he hailed a cab. Regardless of the cost, he would ride home in an enclosed, private vehicle. Driven by a man, and be damned what he thought of the smell.
As he stepped up to the front of ZigZag's apartment building George dabbed at his cheek. His whole face looked oddly frizzy, because he'd scrubbed it raw. It was also set in a rather grim expression. He'd discussed the matter with Super Collie at length and they'd both agreed that, under the circumstances, this was the most prudent course of action. Nevertheless, he didn't like it one bit. However he sliced it, he was performing a medical experiment on human subjects for which there might be serious consequences. That the subjects had volunteered didn't help much. If he didn't know what would happen, how could they?
George sighed. He was here and the job needed doing. He squared his shoulders and went inside.
"Hello there, Constable, come on in!" Wanda exclaimed, flinging open the apartment door in response to George's knock. She wore a Hooters tee-shirt that was a size too small, and from which the hem had been cut to leave her midriff bare. Below that, a pair of denim shorts nominally clothes her pelvis. The garment had been cut down so much it looked like a pair of panties, and the pocket liners stuck out.
George followed, keeping his expression carefully neutral. He'd be the first to admit that he wasn't made of wood, proverbially speaking, but the experience on the subway was still too fresh in his mind to let him properly appreciate the sight of Wanda's buttocks bouncing along ahead of him. He did notice that Wanda's pelt looked especially bright and fluffy, as if she'd bathed recently. "I trust Jato is doing well?" George ventured.
"He was," Wanda replied with a leer that should have made the walls blush. Then she frowned. "Things were going just fine until his helmet starts beeping. He sits up like someone had shoved a hot poker up his ass, then says he has to go and lights out like his butt was on fire."
George's mouth twitched. He probably shouldn't ask, but he couldn't help it. "You mean to say he wore his helmet the whole time?"
"He wouldn't take it off. Something about preserving his secret identity."
George's whole face twitched. In his mind's eye he saw a lineup of men with their faces covered but their bodies revealed. Completely revealed, that is. Wanda, walking along, inspecting them. She stops and points. Yes, that's him, I'm pretty certain. Just let me taste it to make sure. By a Herculean effort of will he kept his expression bland, or at least inscrutable. There was work to be done.
ZigZag waited in the living room. She wore a pretty pink blouse and full length jeans. Beside her sat a lynx woman of about the same age, dressed in a short sleeved button up shirt and dark gray slacks. A moment later Fredrika entered, wearing a honey colored knee length dress that could have been called modest on anyone else. On Fredrika, George surmised, even a used potato sack would look provocative.
"Hello again, Constable," ZigZag said, rising and shaking hands. "This is Tina," she added, indicating the lynx. "She's our live action director. Tina, this is Constable George Kremmin. He's helping us find Jaleel."
"Any luck?" Tina asked, rising and offering her hand.
George took Tina's hand, but hesitated briefly before speaking. After a short internal debate he decided he'd rather tell them the truth than offer vague assurances. Besides, they were going far above and beyond the call by agreeing to this experiment. And, if it turned out as George expected, Tina would bear the brunt of it. "Yes and no," he said. "We've found some interesting leads, but we don't know how, or if, they relate. We've experienced some setbacks, too. I'm afraid I can't say we've made any definitive progress since our last official meeting."
"Can't you be a little more specific?" ZigZag wanted to know.
Again George debated with himself and again decided to tell the truth. "I think that might be dangerous, to you and us. I'm beginning to get the feeling that there are some who don't want this investigation to succeed."
ZigZag's eyes narrowed. "That's why you're here instead of going to the DSA."
"I'm afraid so." George nodded.
"Then we'll just have to be content for now," Zig declared. "What would you like us to do?"
"I have here a bottle." George removed it from his breast pocket; it was further secured inside a ziploc bag. "What I'd like is for each of you in turn to take a sniff and tell me what you smell."
"Is there any particular reason you wanted Tina here?" Zig inquired.
"I wanted a cross section of phenotypes," George replied. "We already have skunk, a fox, and a dog. Adding a cat gives a little more variety."
"Maybe not so much as all that," Tina cautioned. "Zig's part tiger."
George blinked. "Indeed?"
"That's where I get the stripes," Zig supplied.
"Well." George rubbed his chin. "We'll just have to see what happens."
"Can you tell us what to expect?" Tina asked.
George kept his face composed but the jolt of conscience he felt was an almost physical pain. "I would, but I'm afraid that would skew the results."
"Will it be dangerous?" Wanda put in.
"I... don't think so, but I don't know for certain," George admitted.
"Will it help us find Jaleel?" Fredrika asked.
"Yes," George declared. "I don't know exactly how, but my instincts tell me this is very, very important."
"Then we'll do it," Zig announced.
George sighed. "All right. I'd like to do it in the kitchen. I'll ask you in one at a time. Please wait here until I call you." In the kitchen George turned on the exhaust fan over the stove and donned a pair of latex gloves, which he'd stored in his back pocket. With his hands thus protected he removed the bottle from its bag, holding it well back under the hood. "Wanda," he called. A moment later Wanda arrived. George un-stoppered the bottle. "Take a sniff," he said. "Don't put your nose directly over it. Use your hand to waft it to you."
"Okay." Wanda leaned forward, waving her hand and taking a few sniffs. "And?"
"What did it smell like?"
"I didn't smell anything."
George nodded. "Go back to your bedroom. I'll call you out when we're done. Please don't say anything until then."
"Okay." Wanda departed.
Fredrika came next, and her experience was the same: she smelled nothing. George sent her on and called ZigZag.
As soon as ZigZag drew her first breath George knew that something was happening. Her whole body quivered, her eyelids fluttered, and her mouth fell slightly open. She reached for the bottle but George grabbed her wrist, gently but firmly. "Zig?" he said, enunciating clearly.
Zig struggled briefly then relaxed, shaking her head. "Jesus H. Christ," she said, rather hoarsely. "Constable, that shit is pure liquid orgasm. If you found a way to mass produce it you'd be set for life, I guarantee it."
"Except that to men it smells like rancid cat piss," Gorge put in.
Zig dismissed that consideration with a flick of the wrist. "That makes no difference and you know it. A dab of this on your neck and you'd have to beat the women off with a stick."
"Yes," George said, rather woodenly. "I know."
"And all you have to do is smell like an outhouse?" Zig continued. "No contest. No contest at all."
George looked at the bottle. It was all true. There were men- he knew some personally- who would do anything, absolutely anything, for the promise of what this scent could offer. "Yes," he said. "I could make money. All I'd have to do is learn to ignore the marriages destroyed, reputations trashed, and lives shattered."
For a moment Zig said nothing. "There's some who say the same about what I do," she commented, as if apropos of nothing.
"People can choose what you make, or not, as they see fit," George replied. "This doesn't give you the chance."
Zig's eyes moved from George's to the bottle. "There is that," she said quietly.
"Wait in your room please. I'll call everyone back when I'm done, which'll be just a moment."
Zig left. George called Tina in. She took two sniffs, then her eyes glazed. She seized the front of George's shirt, slammed herself against him, and kissed him fiercely on the lips. Finally she let him go; he staggered back, gasping for breath, hastily stoppering the bottle. "Oh my," she said in a faint voice. "Did I really do that?"
"I'm afraid so," George replied, slipping the bottle back into its bag. He washed the outside of the baggie with detergent, then removed his gloves. They went into another baggie. With the bottle safely back in his pocket he returned to the living room. "Everyone come out, please."
ZigZag, Wanda, and Fredrika came out and took their seats. "What exactly is this?" Fredrika asked.
"Incredible, that's what it is," Zig put in. Tina nodded sagely.
Wanda looked baffled. "What you talking about?"
"She doesn't know," George said before ZigZag or Tina spoke. "It only works on cats. Female ones, specifically."
ZigZag had struck George as being very intelligent, and now he was sure of it. While Wanda, Fredrika, and Tina merely looked increasingly confused, George could see the wheels turning in ZigZag's mind. "Now ain't that interesting," she mused.
"What are you talking about?" Wanda pouted.
"The thing about this case that no one could ever figure out is why a giant cat woman who can walk through walls wants a guy with a dick as long as your arm," ZigZag pronounced. She glanced at Wanda, her face splitting in a maniacal grin. "I think you were right about that."
Wanda blinked. "Me? Right about what?"
ZigZag's eyes locked back on George's. "You found this underground," she said. "In the sewer somewhere, while looking for Jaleel."
George nodded. "In a place we strongly suspect our cat woman might have been."
"Wait a minute," Wanda exclaimed. "Zig, are saying she took Jaleel to get her tube packed?"
"If she'd been snorting that perfume, I'd guarantee it," Tina put in.
"Tell me about how you found this stuff," Zig demanded, leaning forward.
"While down in the sewers I noticed something odd," George said. "It looked like one of those things you see in restrooms, that spray deodorant every so often. I examined it, and found that it had a battery and a timer. It was mounted on an aerosol can."
"How big?" Zig wanted to know.
"Standard size," George replied, holding his hands about 15 centimeters apart.
"Holy crap," Zig breathed, her eyes glazing slightly. "That would be enough to have half the city screaming."
"Wait, wait," Fredrika interjected. "I'm sorry, it doesn't make sense. Wouldn't this stuff leak out, cause trouble on the surface? What if there were female feline sewer workers?"
"Unlikely, in either case," George responded. "The sewers aren't well ventilated, and temperature inversion keeps the air trapped. When workers go down, they flush the atmosphere with fans. If that isn't practical, they carry self-contained breathing apparatus."
"It still doesn't make sense," Fredrika insisted. "What's the point? Assuming there is a cat monster under the city somewhere, what's accomplished by making her horny?"
"Maybe they're shooting a movie," Wanda quipped. Tina glared at her; Wanda wilted.
ZigZag's mind was hard at work. George half expected to see smoke spurting out of her ears. "I'm not so sure," she said quietly. "It's the classic thing."
"What thing?" George prompted.
ZigZag looked at the other women. "Think about it. When you're young and single you're free. You go where you want, do what you want, fuck whomever you want. Then one day you decide to get married."
"What's that got to do with it?" Wanda asked, puzzled. Fredrika shushed her.
"Once you're hitched up, you have to settle down. Get a steady job, budget your money..." Zig's gaze locked onto Fredrika. "You need a place to keep your hubby and the darling littles when they arrive. A safe, permanent place. One you might loose or get evicted from is no good at all."
"Yes, that's true." Fredrika's brow was furrowed in concentration. "How does that relate to this?"
George grinned. The answer had come to him during ZigZag's exposition, but he kept silent. He figured she deserved the honor of delivering the zinger.
"How do you make a woman who can walk through walls stay in once place?" ZigZag inquired. "Answer: you make her want to stay in one place."
"I... suppose so," Fredrika allowed, stroking her jaw. "But why do it in the first place?"
"I can imagine any number of plausible reasons," George said. "Let us say you've found or created this creature. You want her at your disposal, but she can walk through walls. No prison, cell, or cage could hold her. If so, it would have to be something extraordinary. Something big and fancy, certain to draw the wrong sort of attention. Instead of building some ultra-tech lab, which would be extremely difficult to hide, you don't build anything at all. You merely keep her environment full of pheromones that make her feel inclined to lair up."
"What about all the men she uses up?" Fredrika demanded. Her eyes gleamed, hard and merciless.
"I wouldn't worry about it," George said, taking Fredrika's hand and squeezing it tenderly. "She has every reason to take care of him."
Fredrika licked her lips. Now she looked worried and frightened. "But... he's just a man, Constable. She... she's strong enough to stop a car. How could he ever be enough?"
"Jaleel isn't beyond our reach, Fredrika," George said, softly but with utter conviction, holding Fredrika's hand and stroking it. "We'll see him again. I know it."
Fredrika bit her lip. Tears leaked from her eyes. Suddenly she flung herself into George's arms, clinging to him and crying. George held her, though a part of him despised himself even more. So far there was no evidence at all to suggest that Jaleel was still alive, and George could imagine far more ways that things could end badly than happily. On the other hand, being a police officer had taught him that sometimes you had to say things like that, even when you didn't really believe them in your heart. He couldn't quite convince himself that he wouldn't need to hear exactly the same thing, were his and Fredrika's positions reversed, even knowing what he did now. Hope might be vanishingly slim, but for that reason one clung to it all the more desperately.
"What are you going to do now, Constable?" ZigZag asked. She spoke quietly but her eyes burned.
"Try to find out where this sex spray came from," George said. "Continue our ongoing investigations. And... pray for a little luck." His own expression turned hard, like a mask of stone. "It would be prudent if you didn't talk to anyone about this."
"Anyone?" ZigZag asked.
"Anyone," George repeated, firmly. ZigZag nodded. George nodded in return; he was sure he could count on her to understand that anyone, in this case, included- especially- Agents Smith and Jones.
"Why not?" Wanda asked.
"What we don't know we can't give away," ZigZag explained.
"Drop it," Zig interrupted, turning her burning gaze on Wanda, who melted under it. She sat in silence, hunched up in her seat, staring at her knees.
"Be careful," George admonished.
"You too, Constable," Zig returned.
George nodded. "I'll do my best."
Outside, George surreptitiously examined his environment. He didn't think he was being tailed but that didn't preclude the possibility. He was sure that he'd get to the bottom of this, and if Smith and Jones got in the way, well, that was just to damn bad.
The Gulfstream's wheels hit the runway at John F. Kennedy International at the very instant that Eric reached orgasm. Zalika threw her head back and clawed at his shoulders while his penis discharged its load of semen into her vagina. Deceleration caused by the aircraft's brakes and reverse thrusters pressed their bodies together. Eric sighed as the energy of copulation drained out of him; his penis softened and contracted, drawing out of Zalika's body. As the aircraft taxied off the runway and into the parking area they lay comfortably entwined.
The plane stopped. Zalika sat up, looking out the side windows. They were still out in the middle of the field. She pressed a button next to the bed. "What's the delay?" she asked. Scanning the pilots' minds would have been quicker and easier than using the intercom, but she made a point to never use her powers except when it really mattered. Especially here, where unfriendly eyes would be watching for just such a slip. Besides, a situation might very well arise when she couldn't use them, and then she'd best be ready to try something else.
"Waiting in line to get to the terminal, ma'am," the pilot replied. "Probably twenty minutes or so."
"Very good. Thank you." Zalika lay down and, in a positively astounding feat of flexibility for one so robustly built, brought her legs right up over her head, bending herself in half until she found herself staring at her own vulva. She couldn't quite bring the opposite ends of her body into contact- her breasts and belly were too large- but her tongue was quite long enough to make up the lack. Slowly and methodically she cleaned crusted fluid and spattered semen from the surface, then delved inside. This second phase took much longer: there was a lot more to clean up... and she saw no reason to rush. With that complete she rolled Eric onto his back, parted his legs, and lay down between them. Sticky, partially dried fluid matted the fur around his crotch; just as thoroughly and carefully as she had on herself, Zalika licked it up. He closed his eyes and lay back, surrendering to the ministrations.
Eric's manhood did not respond in any way to Zalika's touch. Even taking his testicles in hand and fondling them gently didn't help. No surprise, really; the leg from Seattle had taken about five hours, and they'd spent a goodly portion of that time making love. This had been his tenth orgasm in that period. It was surely a miracle that he'd lasted this long.
Zalika grinned. It was indeed a miracle. Her miracle, specifically. As an avatar of Bast, Tameran goddess of sex, all matters of loveplay were hers to command. If she but willed it, Eric's limp member would spring instantly to attention. If she wanted him to shoot ten liters of semen, or for his orgasm to last three hours, a thought was all it took to make it happen. Infinite multiple orgasms were such a trivial matter as to hardly bear mentioning.
But there was a price, of course. Zalika's flesh was human, but at the center of her being where an ordinary person would have a soul, in Zalika there burned the ancient, eternal power of the goddess. Because of that, she could channel however much of it she wished. Eric, on the other hand, was only mortal. If she poured too much of the goddess' essence into him it would burn him out, like using nitro in an engine not designed for it. Besides, there probably wasn't time for another round. Zalika needed to shower and change before presenting herself to inbound customs.
The aircraft's shower was barely large enough for one, let alone two, which Zalika regarded as terrible pity. Eric's help would have made the job quicker and easier as well as more fun. Still, Zalika managed well enough. Waiting for customs left enough time for brushing and drying, with Eric's able assistance. That done, Zalika took a seat on the edge of the bed while Eric laid out fresh clothes. It was time to change.
Changing took only a few seconds. Zalika concentrated, and her jet black pelt morphed to a rich, coppery red with a white underbelly. Her extremities remained black, but a softer, less inky shade. Her muzzle lengthened a bit, her ears shortened slightly, and a mane of firey red sprang from her crown. A white tag appeared at the tip of her tail. Her eyes retained their brilliant gold color, but in her now vulpine face they looked normal enough. Her figure also remained as it had been, which could only be described as voluptuous: broad, sharply flaring hips, prominent, moonlike buttocks, meaty thighs, a belly that protruded slightly, colossal yet captivatingly round breasts with large, prominent nipples, and a torso that was everywhere smoothed by fetching, feminine curves.
Zalika's outfit consisted of a sheath dress made of canary yellow silk. It clung like a second skin to her bosom and midriff; a pleated skirt hung down to just short of her knees. In the front and back it was gathered up, revealing tantalizing glimpses of her inner thighs and crotch. She wore no panties, but a strip running between her legs met the requirements of propriety, at least as much as a bikini bottom would have. Shoulder straps sporting pleated, layered sleeves held up the gown's front. There was no back. Nor was there much of a bodice; the neckline started just above her nipples. Not that covering them made much difference, since she wore no bra. On her feet went a pair of high heel shoes, coordinated to match the outfit. Accessories included a necklace with an enormous diamond pendant, a matching ring, a Rolex watch, and a sequined purse. For the crowning touch she donned a lustrous mink stole.
"You look lovely, Zora," Eric said, looking her up and down appreciatively. He'd just finished his own shower.
"Why thank you, Eric." Zalika opened her purse and removed a passport. According to it she was now Zora LeBroy, citizen of Taiwan. "Are you ready to change?"
Zalika cupped Eric's genitals in her hand. She could have touched him anywhere, but why not in the location most entertaining for them both? Energy, like silver lightning, crackled around her fingers; Eric gasped as it flowed into his body. The change began: his testicles and scrotum withdrew completely into his body, leaving a hole. His penis shrank to a tiny nub and a flap of tissue enveloped it. His chest and shoulders contracted, loosing their depth. His arms and head lost their sharp definition, becoming soft and smooth. His hips broadened, they and his thighs filling out. Lastly, his nipples became more pronounced and bulged away from his chest as breasts formed beneath them.
Zalika smiled, pausing briefly to admire Eric's new form. As a woman he remained every bit as deliciously sexy as he'd been male. But, alas, that by itself wouldn't do for present needs. She concentrated and the transformation continued. Eric's fur became soft and downy, light gray on top and snowy white underneath. His ears lengthened, becoming rounded at the tips; his muzzle contracted, also becoming rounded at the tip. His canines vanished, replaced by prominent incisors. His tail shrank down to a fluffy little nub. He also lost some height, going from a couple finger widths taller than Zalika to a hand's breadth shorter. Since his mass remained the same his body thickened, taking on a decidedly plumpish aspect.
When the transformation concluded Zalika caressed Eric's genitals. The labia minor were open and slick with fluid, and his- now her- clitoris firmly erect. Eric was panting, her eyes partially closed. Some described the process as painful, and even screamed during the change. Those who did it regularly generally came to enjoy it, as Eric obviously was. Zalika found this interesting because, so far as she could tell, the physical experience was exactly the same. What changed was the person's relationship to it. Not unlike racing cars, white water rafting, or sky diving, Zalika supposed. Terrifying to some, delightful to others, but just as exciting either way. Likewise, the distinction between pleasure and pain could blur to non-existence. In Zalika's experience it wasn't so great to begin with. "You look quite tasty yourself, Uschi," she said, licking fluid from her middle finger.
Eric, now Uschi, grinned. "Thank you. Does Mr. Batrich like cuddly bunnies?"
"No," Zalika replied. "He likes svelte, aerobicized super-models."
"Forgive me, but neither of us exactly fits that criteria, Uschi pointed out.
Zalika grinned. It was a wicked, predatory expression, without the slightest trace of warmth of humor. "Mr. Batrich is a greedy, hypocritical bastard. He'd drink my piss if he thought it would keep me funneling lucrative business opportunities his way."
"Do you need me to do anything once I get the luggage through customs and to the suite?" Uschi inquired.
"No, thank you," Zalika replied. "You may consider yourself at liberty until I call you. I expect to be out with Mr. Batrich until very late."
"Very good." Uschi unpacked her own outfit, which consisted of a white blouse, jacket, knee length skirt, and conservative shoes. Zalika entered the forward cabin, waited for the copilot to lower the airstair, then went forth to meet the customs inspectors. Processing didn't take long; she didn't have any luggage that needed to be searched- Uschi would bring all that through later- and her paperwork was all in order. It was even authentic: there really was a Zora LeBroy living in Taiwan. Or there had been, until she'd sold her identity for a hefty commission.
"Zora!" Stephen Batrich waited just past customs, wearing an impeccably tailored Brooks Brothers suit. He was a tall, lanky, gray pelted jackrabbit, and considered himself quite the ladies' man. "Let me take you away from all this," he said, taking Zalika's hand and kissing her knuckles.
"Stephan, darling, you are a Godsend," Zalika replied, giving him a passionate kiss. "Please tell me you have a car waiting."
"But of course." Stephan offered his arm. Zalika took it, gazing deep into his beautiful brown eyes. He acted as Zalika's agent in North America, rounding up investment capital for the Consortium. In which he had done an excellent job, except that he couldn't resist skimming the fund for his own personal profit. Furthermore, he planned to use the money to force a takeover and acquire the Consortium's American assets for himself, after Zalika had done all the work of making them profitable. She'd planned on letting him go a while longer- he was good at getting money- but since she happened to be here anyway, she'd decided to go ahead and address the problem.
A Mercedes limousine waited at the curb. The driver was a gorilla, and somehow managed to look reasonably stylish in his uniform, despite that his arms hung down past his knees. If nothing else he knew his job, opening the door with a flourish and bow, so Stephan could hand Zalika in.
"I presume you'd like to rest up?" Stephan offered as the limo pulled out.
"Certainly not." Zalika tossed her head melodramatically. "I've been cooped up on that beastly airplane for much too long. Take me clubbing and I'll love you forever."
Stephan grinned fit to split his face. "Your wish is my command, Zora dear." He pressed a button on his door, activating an intercom and giving instructions to the driver.
As the limo worked its way through traffic Stephan chatted amiably. Zalika smiled, nodded, and occasionally interjected comments where appropriate, but for the most part didn't pay much attention to what was said. What Stephan really wanted was to strip her naked and fuck her raw; everything he said was designed to move her in that direction. Since she'd already decided to go to bed with him it didn't make any difference. They visited coffee houses, restaurants, and finally night clubs, as the hours of the day moved on. They played footsie under the table and gave one another playful gropes. Zalika drank quite a bit and became somewhat tipsy. Stephan drank more than he thought he did.
"Stephan, darling?" Zalika asked as the limo rolled through darkened streets. She lay snuggled against his side, her hand in his lap.
"Yes dear?" Stephan had an arm around Zalika's shoulders, his hand ever so casually resting on the side of her breast.
"I'm ready for bed." The tone itself would have scorched paint, but just to make sure the point got across Zalika caressed Stephan's penis through the front of his pants. It was already more than half erect.
Stephan grinned wolfishly. "What a delightful suggestion. I must confess, I'm feeling a bit piqued myself." His hand shifted under Zalika's breast, lifting and squeezing it.
"Oh, is that what you call it," Zalika purred, giving Stephan's penis a firm squeeze, then unzipping his pants and drawing it out. His male organ was most impressive: long and thick, ribbed with prominent veins. As it should be, since Zalika had crafted it herself. As a perk for being her employee, she'd given him a free bodydo. She stroked the underside from base to tip, first with her finger and then with the tip of her tongue. Slowly, tenderly, she caressed every part of the glans with her tongue, then took the whole thing into her mouth. Stephan sighed, leaning backwards, closing his eyes. But not for long; as Zalika's lips and tongue did their work he began to twitch and moan. With one hand he clawed at the edge of the seat; with the other he grabbed the back of Zalika's head. When he came- not more than twenty minutes later- he screamed aloud, smacking the partition between passenger and driver compartments with his hand. Given the quantity of semen he discharged, he might have been saving it up for months beforehand. Zalika caught and swallowed every last drop, licking her muzzle and his crotch to make sure she didn't miss any.
The limo stopped. They'd arrived. The timing wasn't accidental; Zalika could have made Stephan come whenever she wanted. Having it happen just now put him in a frame of mind that better suited her needs. He let her lead him out of the car and up the steps of his East Village brownstone. He unlocked the door and held it for her.
Stephan's bed was a genuine antique four poster with a canopy. Plenty big enough for two generously sized people, in other words. Zalika grinned, licked her lips, and unbuttoned Stephan's shirt. He growled, grabbed the front of his shirt and ripped it open, sending buttons flying everywhere. In mere seconds he'd divested himself of his clothing, which ended up flung haphazardly on the floor. He threw Zalika onto the bed and literally tore her dress off. He didn't even give her time to kick off her shoes before he was on her, pounding like a jackhammer.
The first round of copulation was fast and violent. Stephan cursed and spat, driving into Zalika so hard he bruised her thighs. If she resisted- if he thought she was resisting- he slapped her. Not playfully, either, but hard enough to bloody her lips. He grabbed her breasts and twisted them cruelly, grinning when she whimpered in pain.
Zalika let it happen. She encouraged it, in fact, applying subtle pressure to Stephan's mind so that his deep, dark desires would rise more readily to the surface. She wanted him to fuck her like a wild animal. That way he wouldn't notice that as he poured his sexual energy into her she grew stronger, while diminishing himself. Moreover, the basal compulsion would drive him forward until he'd given up every last iota.
Stephan Batrich played the suave ladies' man to perfection but inside he hated women. He had a trophy wife whom he'd never slept with since their wedding night and whom he abused, both mentally and physically, just enough to keep her miserable but not quite enough to drive her away. In his youth he's committed several carefully planned rapes, but gave it up with the advent of DNA testing. And yet he was never anything short of a perfect gentleman with his girlfriends; even when the inevitable breakup came he tried to let them down as gently as possible. It excited him to no end that women trusted him- loved him, even- when inside he dreamed about hurting, even killing, them. While out clubbing with Zora he'd done nothing but dream of all the horrific and brutal ways in which he could torture and ultimately kill her.
Zalika sighed to herself. She'd done everything she could, arranging for him to become rich and even offering him the chance to live out his fantasy in a safe, controlled environment, but none of it helped. It didn't make the slightest difference how much reward she heaped upon him; he could not abide the thought of being subservient to a woman. As with his wife he'd never leave, but he'd turn the relationship into a thing of endless pain and sorrow.
In light of all that Zalika reached a decision on how to handle the situation. Obviously she couldn't let him keep bleeding her. Nor could she merely cast him loose, to inflict himself on other women. No, it had to end... and she knew just how. She would give him exactly what he wanted. The thought gave her such a rush of pleasure that she grinned. Fortunately Stephan was lost in his own experience to notice, or he would have been very, very alarmed.
When orgasm came upon him Stephan threw back his head and howled. For an instant he was terrible to behold, his face twisted in a rictus of anger and hate. Then it softened into something gentle, almost childlike. His eyes rolled back and he collapsed on Zalika's chest. A moment later he started snoring gently.
"My dear boy, don't you realize that the mind is in its most suggestible state while asleep?" Zalika whispered, tenderly stroking Stephan's head and back. "And where the mind goes, the body must necessarily follow." She put a hand under his shoulder and rolled him off as casually as throwing off a sheet. As she slid off the bed and rose to her feet Zora LeBroy melted away and Zalika Corby- also known as Daughter Night- returned.
The bedroom door opened and Uschi entered. She'd arrived with the luggage while Zalika and Stephan were out clubbing; Stephan didn't know that she'd remained- and intended to stay- instead of merely dropping off Zalika's things. Zalika appreciated that she'd presumed on Stephan's hospitality but the imposition didn't concern her unduly. Stephan had acquired the townhouse through the use of funds embezzled from the Consortium, so it could be argued that Zalika had an interest in it.
"Now?" Uschi asked. She wore only panties; she'd been in bed when Zalika's mental summons had reached her.
"Yes." Zalika nodded, waving Uschi over. She removed her panties and lay down with Stephan, snuggled up against him. Zalika placed one hand on Uschi's shoulder and the other on Stephan's hip. Silver light flashed around her fingers as her power entered them; Uschi gasped and Stephan twitched. Their bellies flowed together, like melting wax. And then... it could best be said that they switched places. Uschi grew, morphing into Stephan. Stephan shrank, morphing into Uschi. At the end their bellies detached; to look, one would think they'd simply rolled over, exchanging sides on the bed.
"His wallet's in his pants pocket," Zalika said, pointing. "He keeps his account data in a safe, there." she pointed at the wall, then rattled off the combination. "I'd like a complete report on all of his assets."
The new Stephan, formerly Uschi, nodded. "I'll get right on it. Do I need to worry about Sleeping Beauty there?"
"No, she'll take care of herself," Zalika replied. "If anyone comes by, you're fucking her while Zora's out. If you need to keep up appearances, don't hesitate. She might be asleep, but she'll be fully responsive. Like a sleepwalker, but you won't accidentally wake her up." Zalika gestured with her right hand and spoke a few words in ancient Egyptian. Her fur crackled as if with static electricity, then lay down once more. It was now clean and shiny, as if she'd bathed, dried, and brushed.
"I wish you'd teach me how to do that."
"The power comes with a steep price," Zalika replied. "More than you'd really want to pay just to magic yourself clean."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I wouldn't have paid it if I'd understood it beforehand." Zalika closed her eyes and concentrated; jets of electric blue flame shot from her fingertips then collapsed back, racing up her arms and across her body. They concentrated on her back at the bottom edge of her ribcage, which suddenly sprouted a pair of long, graceful wings, not unlike those of an ibis. But only in structure; in appearance they were completely fantastic: on the leading edges the feathers were bright red, bordered by thick bands of gold. The trailing edge feathers were blue, with only a light dusting of gold on their edges, while in between the feathers were green, with medium sized borders. Her tail also changed, losing its fur and growing feathers in its place. The individual feathers were quite long, after the fashion of a peacock, but not that long, nor so extravagantly decorated unless one counted the color pattern, which matched that on the wings.
New Stephan picked up Zora's purse and pulled out a money belt whose pouches bulged. "Thank you, dear," Zalika said, taking the belt and securing it around her waist. Since she wore no clothing the belt's presence was pretty obvious, but new Stephan wasn't concerned about that. Zalika had ways of not being seen if she chose to remain hidden... and the idea of a mugger threatening her was so ludicrous he nearly laughed aloud.
Zalika opened one of the bedroom windows, climbed up onto the sash, and leapt off. She didn't fall into flight but soared upward even as her wings unfurled. The power of flight they granted wasn't aerodynamic in nature. New Stephan leaned out the window; the brightly colored wings should have been easy to spot even in the relative darkness but he saw nothing. He shrugged, closed the window, and returned to bed.
Marko's eyes snapped open. It seemed like he'd only just closed them, but long shadows reached across the floor below and the rafters in which he hung were already dark. He'd overslept, too; sunset was almost upon him. With a sigh he let go, somersaulting to the floor. He always slept heavily after feeding. Like the dead, Doroteya had said, and only half jokingly, if even that much. She knew the stories- her family had the Blood in it as well- but she didn't really believe them. Such dark and superstitious things looked silly and parochial in the busy, ultra-modern, fast-paced, profit-driven world of modern America. They weren't even any good for scaring children; what with Aliens, Predators, Terminators, and Jasons, who gave a fig about vampires?
While engaged in his evening stretches Marko noticed the shadow he cast on the wall behind him. He raised his wing and crooked his fingers; the shadow became a wicked claw, reaching ominously. That was another trick he'd learned in the studio. And one that had proven most useful in his other work as well. He was still doing shadow pantomimes as the sun vanished and the dark power surged back into him. Now he was ready to see Cheslav.
First, Marko checked the loft carefully to make sure no one else had visited during the day. He was pretty sure no one knew about it except him and Joseph. Technically, this room didn't belong to Joseph or the synagogue, but they'd been using it for years and no one had ever complained. That might change, with the recent trend of gentrifying old neighborhoods, but Marko doubted that such a thing would happen here any time soon. In any case, so far as he could tell there'd been no intruders, so he turned to mist and oozed out through a loose window. On the street he drifted with the evening breeze for a while before finding a dark doorway and becoming solid. There might be people watching the loft and there might not. A healthy feeling of paranoia had kept him alive long before becoming a professional spy.
That sense of paranoia also induced Marko to seek out a pay phone- many blocks from his hiding place, naturally- and call home. It definitely engendered the sense of dread he felt when the answering machine picked up. Yes, there were any number of innocent explanations for why the girls might be out this late in the evening. But their absence, combined with Marko's conversation yesterday, created a suspicious convergence. Others might believe in coincidence; in Marko's world it was the surest possible sign of enemy action.
Cheslav lived way out in Queens, so Marko decided to take the train. He flew to a nearby station- not the closest and not the same one he'd used last time he'd stayed in the loft, though it had been years and years ago. Paying cash cost more per trip that using a MetroCard but cash couldn't be traced. The line ended at Lefferts Boulevard; he walked a few blocks, then took the air once more. He wouldn't reach Cheslav's place until late- the wee hours, in fact- but that hardly mattered. Cheslav would be there. He'd be waiting up, as a matter of fact. As surely as the sun rose.
In due course Marko came upon an attractive bungalow with a small but well kept yard. That such a thing lay within flying distance of Lefferts Boulevard, even given Marko's greater than typical stamina, spoke well of Cheslav's economic status. In fact, Cheslav had done very well for himself since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. Marko had abandoned the life when it abandoned him, but Cheslav went freelance. Corporate espionage might not carry the glamour of the international variety, but it paid a lot more and the risks generally weren't nearly so severe.
Which didn't mean that Cheslav had forgotten how the game was played. Marko landed a few blocks away and continued on foot. He assumed there'd be guards, and there were. The first sat in a car at the end of the street. Another occupied a vehicle two doors past the house on the other side of the street. A van, directly across the street, contained two or three people. In addition, he found one watching the next street over. No doubt there were more inside the house; if anything happened to the watchmen the guards inside would be alerted.
And yet... as he watched from the roof of a nearby house Marko couldn't help feeling that it was all wrong. He and Cheslav had worked together for years; Cheslav knew full well the scope of Marko's powers. But he could see nothing here to suggest that these agents had been equipped to deal with them. There might be a suit of power armor in the van but he doubted it. The suspension wasn't compressed enough. They could still be carrying Garlic Guns, but those only worked if Marko remained solid. Without some sort of armor, even the Garlic Guns wouldn't be enough.
Realization struck like lightning, and Marko cursed himself for a fool. Cheslav wasn't here; these goons were only because Cheslav knew that Marko would come. For a moment Marko considered his options. Likely if he called Cheslav on the phone, he'd be directed to a rendezvous. But Cheslav's presumption annoyed Marko greatly, and finding these ill-equipped children waiting for him even more so. He raised his right wing slightly, extending his fingers. The shadow cast by the digits slid across the rooftop, down the side of the house, over the lawn, into the street, and up the side of the car in which the first agent waited. He didn't appear to notice, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway; there wasn't anything useful he could have done before the shadow fingers closed around his throat. He arched backwards, grasping for his radio, but the shadow hand hauled him into the back seat and held him there until he stopped struggling.
If the controllers in the van had any sense at all they'd be monitoring their agents somehow, and know that something had happened. Marko chose to assume that this was so; he leapt into the air, not flying but changing, transforming into a great, gray wolf. In that form he covered about two thirds of the distance to the van before his self-imposed time limit expired. He changed to mist. A fraction of a second later the side door of the van flew open; an agent in Kevlar body armor and equipped with night vision goggles opened fire with a carbine. Feathered darts slapped into the pavement on either side of Marko. They wouldn't have hit but they justified his caution; the agents were indeed using Garlic Guns. Marko turned solid and gestured; a shadow claw threw the agent back, knocking him down and fouling one of his buddies. There wasn't time for Marko to become mist before a third fired a snap shot, but Marko managed to dodge it without undue difficulty. Then he was in the van; the body armor looked solid enough but it didn't shield the neck. Marko's talons opened the third agent's throat as he passed; the two on the floor managed to clear their guns and fire, but the darts only struck their compatriot in the chest as Marko took cover behind him. The darts didn't penetrate, though even so they wouldn't have done any great damage. The serum in the darts was not actually garlic or any garlic product; it was instead a solution containing a mutated strain of meningococcus bacteria. In the living it had no effect, but in a vampire it would cause a sudden and catastrophic breakdown of the cardiovascular system. Strictly speaking this wouldn't kill a vampire, but it would leave the target helpless, drained of blood and writhing in agony, so that more permanent disposal methods could then be taken. Marko hurled the third agent's body at the first, knocking him down yet again. A quick lunge, with his finger outstretched, drove Marko's talon through the second agent's eye and into his brain, killing him instantly. As the first tried to throw off the third agent's body and bring his gun up, Marko stamped on his arm, breaking it and knocking the gun out of his grip. "Lay still," Marko commanded, and the agent subsided.
The van contained a full featured surveillance suite. On the monitors Marko noted that the two remaining agents were coming. Marko searched hurriedly; surely there must be some regular weapons. There were; he selected a silenced automatic pistol, turned to mist, and oozed under the van.
The agents parked a ways off and came in on foot, covering one another, watching carefully. They didn't waste time; they came to the van, tore open the door, and sprayed the interior with darts. In short, they did everything right. It wouldn't help them in the least. Marko oozed from under the side of the van, circled around behind them, and turned solid. These agents wore jackets over their armor, giving them an oddly bulky appearance, and for this they'd donned helmets as well. Marko shot them in the back of the neck. Then he dragged them inside, closed the doors... and fed.
Live victims were far and away the best, but a freshly dead one was almost as good. By the time he finished Marko practically tingled with power; he hadn't felt this charged in a long, long time. The temptation to continue feeding, just to feel the rush, was almost irresistible; he fought it down with an effort. This was another reason he fed only rarely; feeding more often increased the craving, rather than diminishing it. Along that path all other concerns would gradually drop away until he existed only to serve his addiction. All too easily he could imagine himself feeding from his own daughters, or raising them as his spawn. Then the vampire hunters would come, because he wouldn't be able to hide his depredations. He wouldn't care. Then he, Marko, would end as had so many of his brethren.
There was also an immediate, practical consideration. If Marko accumulated too much dark energy, it wouldn't leave him when the sun rose. Then he'd be vulnerable to sunlight and wouldn't be able to function during the day. He valued that flexibility too much to cast it aside lightly; it had saved his life on quite a number of occasions.
Marko started the van and drove off. A more leisurely search had turned up a portable phone; He dialed a number he'd extracted from the mind of the agent he'd subdued. It connected on the first ring. "Yes?" inquired an electronically distorted voice.
"Sorry I'm late, I stopped off for a bite," Marko replied. "Where should I meet you?" If Cheslav wasn't speaking himself he'd be listening.
"Come downtown," the voice directed. "I'll call you with the address."
In due course Marko found himself in the East Village. He stopped in front of a nicely kept but otherwise nondescript town house; an agent met him at the curb, explaining that he'd take care of the van. Marko left him to it; the fellow winced when he saw the mess in back but otherwise forbore to comment, and drove off. Marko went up to the front door and rang the bell.
Cheslav himself opened the door. He carried a Garlic Gun in his shoulder holster- Marko could see the bulge in his jacket and smell the toxin- but his hands were empty. And though he suppressed it carefully, Marko could tell that he was surprised. Marko grinned; he knew full well how much he'd changed. For one, a good thirty years of apparent age had fallen away; where, at their last meeting, Marko had been a bent old man, he was now a distinguished figure of upper middle age. It could be seen too that his daughters' beauty hadn't only come from their mother; though still lean he was quite rakish. On top of that, he exuded a raw, overpowering sex appeal to which even Cheslav couldn't help but respond. Because of it Cheslav waited a half beat too long before shaking Marko's hand and inviting him inside. He should have known- he should have expected this- but he'd let himself forget.
In the front room Marko encountered a trim gray fox gentleman who looked to be in his early or middle fifties, dressed in an impeccably tailored charcoal gray suit. "Allow me to present Dr. Matarou Yamane, who represents the Imaginos Corporation," Cheslav said. "He'll be performing the blood analysis on your daughters, Marko."
Marko bowed. "Ohayo gozimas, Yamane-san," he said.
Dr. Yamane returned the bow. "And the same to you, your excellency."
Marko's ear twitched as he straightened up. He hadn't been addressed by his title since... since leaving the Old Country.
"Please accept my apologies for your shabby treatment in this affair," Dr. Yamane continued, bowing once more. "Colonel Rodchenko's claims about you seemed much too fantastic to believe, and I did not, much to my chagrin."
Marko gestured graciously. "It is no matter, Yamane-san. An innocent mistake, I'm sure."
Dr. Yamane smiled sadly. "It was foolish of me to doubt the colonel's word, and even more so to question your inestimable reputation, Count Slavych. Please allow me to offer you a small boon as a gesture of my sincerity."
Marko should have graciously accepted, as if it were merely a trifle, but he said nothing. Despite the honeyed words they were bargaining. There hadn't been anything accidental about Marko's treatment; Dr. Yamane wanted to know if Marko still had the touch, or was he nothing but a washed up old has-been? Now he was about to offer an inducement, something to encourage Marko's acceptance of whatever scheme he had in mind. "Yes?" Marko said curtly.
"I've already performed an analysis on your daughters," Dr. Yamane said.
"And?" Marko prompted. First the carrot, now the stick.
"It pains me to have to say that all three of them have the... unfortunate genetic factor."
"But?" Marko continued, his tone and features utterly devoid of expression.
Dr. Yamane seemed faintly amused by the proceedings. A twinkle came into his eyes, and the corners of his mouth turned up, ever so slightly. "I'm confident that my research team could devise a way to remove it."
"In return for?"
Now Dr. Yamane hesitated. "He won't agree unless you tell him the whole story, Doctor," Cheslav announced. "Count on it."
Dr. Yamane nodded. "Very well. You see, your excellency, I'm afraid we've mislaid something-"
"A giant female cat monster, with tentacles," Marko cut in. "Who can walk through walls. After you 'mislaid' her, the Americans snapped her up. You don't dare go after her yourself, for fear of exposing even more of your organization. Thus you need a proxy, someone to do your legwork for you. What better choice than a couple of Cold War dinosaurs no one's heard of or given a crap about for the last twenty years?"
"I told you, Doctor," Cheslav said, grinning broadly.
Dr. Yamane nodded. "That you did, Colonel Rodchenko." He returned his attention to Marko. "It is exactly as you say, Count Slavych. All I need from you is where we can find our stray kitten; my people will do the rest. In return, my scientists will remove from your daughters the genetic factor that predisposes them to vampirism, and cure Colonel Rodchenko of the malignant, inoperable cancer which is, even as we speak, taking root in his prostate, liver, lungs, and brain."
Marko started in surprise, gaping in shock at Cheslav. "What-" he began. He hadn't known. He hadn't seen the slightest indication that Cheslav was anything but hale and hearty. Or, at least, as hale and hearty as one could expect from a sixty-three year old man who drank Vodka the way American teenagers drank soda.
Cheslav couldn't meet Marko's eyes. "You know what happened to Captain Courageous," Cheslav muttered. "By the time he finally died, the cancer had invaded every part of his body. There wasn't anything left of him but cancer. That, after three years of surgery, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy." Cheslav knuckled his face. "I heard the whole story," he whispered. "About how he was completely paralyzed because of tumors pinching his spine... they had him on a ventilator because he couldn't inhale on his own... They fed him through a tube because he couldn't swallow... and even giving him nearly lethal doses of painkillers wouldn't stop him from trying to scream." He drew a shuddering breath. "I... I don't want to end like that, Marko. I... I couldn't take it."
Marko lay a hand on Cheslav's shoulder, rubbing it gently. Then he turned, fixing the full weight of his baleful gaze on Dr. Yamane, a gaze that had made otherwise brave men wet themselves and fall gibbering to the ground. "What makes you sure you can treat him?" he demanded in a voice that, in a wetter environment, would have had icicles growing from the ceiling.
"The Imaginos Corporation took over the Crimean research facility where Colonel Rodchenko's super soldier serum was developed," Dr. Yamane replied, apparently unaffected by Marko's glowering displeasure. "We have all the original project notes, and even a few of the original scientists. We also have the advantage of thirty years' progress in research and technology."
For an instant Marko vacillated, then he made up his mind. Cheslav wasn't dissembling; he really was afraid. Dr. Yamane might be lying about the incipient cancer, but Marko doubted it. Cheslav's serum had been more extensively tested- on political prisoners, naturally- but it was, essentially, the same formula. In 1963, no one could imagine the side effects twenty or thirty years later. No one cared. All that mattered was getting bio-enhanced agents into the field before the other side. The Soviets won, introducing to the world Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The Americans responded by stealing and reverse-engineering the Russian serum, since their own project wasn't going well. With Ursa Major capturing so much attention they rushed to production, cutting corners to save time. Twenty odd years later Captain Frederick Chee (who'd changed his name to Jimmy Rush in order to sound more "American") paid the price for that haste... which those same twenty years had rendered entirely irrelevant. Marko didn't think for an instant that Cheslav's former masters cared one whit about his health. They'd simply had more time to work things out.
There was one way to find out for sure. "Are you telling us the truth?" Marko demanded, putting the full weight of his will behind the question.
"I swear it," Dr. Yamane replied.
Marko made no immediate reply. He read none of the indications which would tell him that the compulsion had, or hadn't, taken hold. With enough blood in him he could actually sense a person's thoughts; he could feel Cheslav's, but from Dr. Yamane he sensed nothing at all. Nor was it a matter of will; Marko would know if the doctor were defeating his attempts at intrusion. It was as if the doctor simply had no mind... or that it was somehow armored against this type of intrusion, though Marko couldn't imagine how. When he'd served as a special agent for the KGB, the only known methods of defeating psionic attack was through psionic defenses or sorcery. But that had been thirty years ago and more. Who knew what secret technology had come to exist in the meantime? "Tell me about this creature," he said, taking a seat. "If you expect me to hunt it, I want to know everything."
Dr. Yamane took a seat, arranging himself comfortably before beginning. "Kratinka is an ultra class fell beast, code named Darkstalker," he began in a lecture hall voice. "She's approximately three and a half meters tall, massing around seven hundred and sixty kilograms. Her strength is class nine; she can dead lift approximately twelve and a half tons. For short periods she can boost to class ten, nearly twice as much. Her subcutaneous dermal plating renders her effectively immune to handheld piercing and slashing weapons. In short, don't bother with any weapon you wouldn't consider using against an armored personnel carrier. Teflon coated bullets fired from a high powered rifle might penetrate her outer armor but her tissue is dense enough that the bullet won't reach her vitals unless you strike her in the eyes, mouth, or ears. In any case, the wound would heal in minute or two. Be aware also that her endocrine system is enormously enhanced, particularly in the area of shock control. Injuries that would incapacitate a normal person won't even slow her down."
"It sounds like you've made profitable use of the super soldier research," Cheslav put in.
"We have indeed," Dr. Yamane replied. "The fallacy of the super soldier projects was that a normal human body can't endure the loads placed on it by using the serum. Nor can most people survive the genetic modifications needed to adapt. The cornerstone of the fell beast program is that they are genetically engineered from the beginning to operate at boosted metabolic levels. In fact, their adrenal glands secrete a modified version of the serum, keeping them boosted at all times."
"Dr. Jekyll would be proud," Marko commented dryly.
"Historical records suggest that Dr. Jekyll's serum was better formulated than any of the 20th century versions derived from it," Dr. Yamane said, ignoring Marko's ironic tone. "It's a pity his research notes were lost."
Marko said nothing. He didn't see any point in mentioning that Dr. Jekyll's formula turned one into a raving madman. No doubt Dr. Yamane would dismiss that as a mere technicality.
"To continue, Tinka's size and strength allow her to run at great speed, but she can leap much farther and faster," Dr. Yamane resumed. "Her teeth and claws are laced with metalized composite, making them as hard as tool steel. Special note should be paid to her tentacles, of which she has four, in addition to her arms and legs. They are equipped with suckers, that allow her to cling to relatively smooth surfaces, and claws, which can be used as weapons or to cling to rough surfaces. Her senses of smell, touch, and taste are highly acute, but due to a defect in her genes which we haven't yet identified her eyes are malformed. Functionally she's completely blind, though she can distinguish very bright light."
"What about the walking through walls part?" Marko demanded.
"She has the ability to... adjust the atomic structure of her body in some way that allows her to pass through solid objects, then reconstitute herself on the other side," Dr. Yamane said.
"I don't recall any of the super soldier projects giving one the ability to do that," Cheslav observed.
"We strive constantly to expand the quality and capability of the fell beast line through the introduction of new genetic material," Dr. Yamane responded.
"What sort of material would that be, in this particular case?" Marko asked.
"That would be telling," Dr. Yamane replied.
Cheslav made a sound that might be a chuckle or merely a grunt. Marko didn't press; he hadn't seriously expected an answer in any case. If he'd considered it relevant, Dr. Yamane surely would have mentioned it. Since he hadn't, it seemed unlikely that he'd be persuaded. Still, it left him with a question that he considered germane. "If she can do this, how do you expect to make her go back with you?"
"Other agents will handle that phase of the operation," Dr. Yamane said.
Translation: none of your business, Marko thought to himself. "What does she eat?"
"Her digestive system is capable or processing just about any organic material but her dental formula is that of a carnivore. Her psychological profile suggests that she will confine herself to a diet of meat."
"Besides, grazing in Central Park might attract attention," Cheslav commented.
"With a metabolism like that I expect she'd need a lot of meat," Marko observed.
"Thirty kilograms per day, more or less."
Marko's brow furrowed. "That is a lot of meat," he commented. "You haven't found her by tracking large amounts of meat going to suspicious places?"
"We have not," Dr. Yamane replied. "Nor have we found any indiciation of a facility in the New York area that could hold her."
"What makes you think she isn't with the Americans willingly?" Cheslav wanted to know.
"Her psychological profile indicates that she would not allow herself to be imprisoned or examined. She's far too dangerous to be let loose and far too valuable a specimen not to be studied. If she can't be contained or studied she's worthless to them."
"You don't think they've granted her asylum?" Marko inquired.
Dr. Yamane sniffed. "Don't be ridiculous. To profit from
"How do I contact you?"
"Call my answering service." Dr. Yamane offered a card. "Say that you wish to report on the Haltsin pet food account. If directed to an address, visit the one printed on the card. You will never be asked to meet with anyone or call a phone number."
Marko took the card, memorized the address, and returned it. "How much time do I have?"
"Call me in a week's time, if you haven't already," Dr. Yamane replied. "Currently, the situation is very fluid."
"I have to stay ahead of Super Collie," Marko ventured.
"Yes." Dr. Yamane nodded. "Our business needs to be concluded before she stumbles upon something that might prove embarrassing."
"I see." Marko nodded. "Very well. Good evening, Doctor." He bowed stiffly. "No need to get up. The colonel and I will show ourselves out."
A short time later Marko and Cheslav were in Cheslav's car, headed for New Jersey. "Cheslav," Marko said, "This is a fool's errand. Dr. Yamane's going to kill us once we give him what he wants." And you dragged not only me, but also my daughters into it, he thought but didn't say. Voicing that aloud might have forced him to admit that he'd fallen for the trick, which annoyed him immensely.
"Yes." Cheslav nodded.
Marko's eyes narrowed. "Why, Cheslav?"
"Why did you agree?" Cheslav countered.
Marko snarled wordlessly, staring fixedly ahead. He'd done it because it was the only chance he'd yet seen for helping his daughters escape the curse he'd bestowed upon them by bringing them into the world. As Cheslav had known he would. "Cheslav," he growled, "You are an absolute bastard."
"Yes." Cheslav nodded. He didn't sound sorry just... sad. Very, very sad.
"Do you know how frustrating it is to fight with someone who won't fight back?" Marko demanded.
"Yes." Cheslav nodded.
Jaleel sat in the dark. He hadn't bothered lighting the lantern; the darkness didn't bother him so much anymore. What chance did imaginary monsters have when he'd seen so may real ones? Besides, he was actually becoming handy at getting around without sight. He could find his way to the toilet hole and back without getting lost. He even knew when Tinka returned. In shadow form she made no sound, but nevertheless the ambience of the room changed, in a distinct but undefinable way. Whenever it happened every hair on his body tried to stand on end and he remembered with uncomfortable clarity that sheep were a prey species...
There was a sound when Tinka turned solid, something like a pop in slow motion. Her footfalls made almost no noise, even when she wasn't trying to be stealthy, but Jaleel felt the shocks, transmitted through the floor. Her broad feet, soft pads, and well sprung legs might be extremely efficient but none of that changed the fact that she weighed three quarters of a ton.
"Hey, Jaleel," Tinka said softly, dropping to one knee. "I brought you something." She placed a paper bag beside him.
Jaleel said nothing. He continued staring into the darkness.
"I... thought you might like a change from the MREs," Tinka continued. The bag rustled as she reached inside. "I picked up some hot dogs... and chili... and cheese... and onions..." she trailed off when her words failed to elicit any reaction. Then, after a moment of silence, she got to her feet. "I... I'm sorry," she whispered, turning away and heading for her own sleeping place. "I didn't- I-"
Jaleel bit his lip. A pang of conscience caused him to shift uncomfortably. The trouble they'd gotten into stemmed directly from her trying to help someone, first Barry and then Jaleel. Besides, he didn't think he'd like the alternative very much at all. "Hot dogs?" he asked, groping beside him. His hand fell upon the package she'd placed there. "That's wonderful. Thank you, Tinka. I... couldn't come to New York and not have a chili dog, could I?"
"No, of course not." Tinka still spoke softly, but Jaleel could practically feel the warmth of her expression.
Cooking the hot dogs meant lighting the stove, something Jaleel didn't feel comfortable attempting in the dark, so he fired up the lantern. Fortunately Tinka had, since that first night, brought several battery powered lights, which made that process much easier. Shortly thereafter the hot dogs were plumping up on the grill, and the savory aroma as they cooked went a long way to banishing Jaleel's melancholy. "My word, quite the picnic here," he declared, rooting through the bag. Tinka had brought relish, ketchup, and three varieties of mustard as well as bottles of soda, a tub of potato salad, and several bags of chips (the American variety).
"I'd rather have done it in the park, but if we have to stay here we might as well make the best of it," Tinka replied.
"True enough." Jaleel lay a hand on Tinka's and stroked it gently.
"J-" Tinka began, then stiffened suddenly.
"Tinka?" Jaleel plucked his hand away.
Tinka gasped, her hands quivering. "I- I..." she stammered. Suddenly she leapt to her feet and dashed to the sewer pipe. No sooner had she arrived that Jaleel heard a wet splashing sound. He grimaced; if she'd come down with a case of the runs-
"Jaleel!" Tinka called. "Come here!"
"Please! I need your help!"
Jaleel turned down the fire under the hot dogs and approached Tinka with much trepidation. She squatted over the waste pipe and there was a dark splash of fluid on the floor, but it didn't smell like waste. "What-" he began.
"Put your hands between my legs," Tinka interrupted.
"Okay!" Jaleel knelt, reaching hesitantly under Tinka's pelvis from behind. She groaned; he could see her quivering. Hot, slimy fluid dribbled from her vaginal opening... which was prominently distended, now that Jaleel took the time to look. He drew a breath to ask another question but bit it off. Tinka groaned again, clutching at her belly. Her labia opened wider... and something slid out, dropping into Jaleel's hands.
It was a baby.
"Holy crap!" Jaleel exclaimed, nearly dropping the infant in surprise. His first thought was that he should have used a condom. But surely he hadn't been here that long... and anyway, the baby was a kitten, not a lamb. And remarkably well developed, too. It had all its fur- white from the waist up and particolored from there down- and its eyes opened almost at once. Followed by its mouth, which emitted a strikingly loud noise for such a tiny creature.
Tinka delivered the afterbirth and turned around. Had Jaleel bothered to look, he would have said she looked every bit as stunned as he did. "J- Jaleel?" she asked, sounding on the verge of panic. "W- what do I do?"
"Well-" Jaleel licked his lips. Why are you asking me? he wanted to shriek, but fought it down. Hysterics wouldn't help anyone at this point. Besides, he wasn't completely at a loss. He'd come from a large family, and been exposed to a number of babies. "We need to dry him off, wrap him up, and feed him," Jaleel declared. "Find some clean, dry towels."
"Okay." Tinka went to the boxes, and came up with some suitable materials by the time Jaleel had returned to his mat. Jaleel wrapped the baby and nestled it in the crook of his arm. "Now..." he looked around. "We'll need to warm some bath water... but we'll start with the feeding first. Here, sit down. Hold your arm like this." He moved Tinka into position. "Use your... uh..." He'd been about to say use your other hand to support the baby's head, but he wasn't sure it mattered. Tinka's forearm was so comparatively large that it provided all the necessary support by itself. "Put your hand up to make sure he doesn't roll off," Jaleel said. "The little tykes can be surprisingly wiggly."
"How do I get him to- to start feeding?" Tinka asked.
"You don't," Jaleel replied. "You just- put the nipple in his mouth. He'll figure the rest out by himself."
The infant had his mouth wide open, so getting the nipple in wasn't difficult. He clamped down on it at once and started sucking vigorously.
"Ah, Jaleel?" Tinka began.
"Are you... I mean... you're sure he's a boy?"
"Ah-" Jaleel bit his lip. In truth, he hadn't checked. "Um, no," he admitted. "I get my baby experience second hand, I'm afraid. Mom would come home and say, 'look Jaleel, you've got a baby brother.' Or sister." He shrugged "I never had to figure it out for myself."
"It shouldn't be that hard, should it?" Tinka inquired.
"We can check when we wash him," Jaleel decided, and went to fill a pan with water. Along the way, though, his thoughts were elsewhere. "Tinka?" he asked. "Didn't you... notice anything? Mom always got morning sickness, strange cravings, cramps, things like that."
"No." Tinka shook her head. "Though... I did have some cramps a while back, but I didn't think anything of it."
"Oh." Jaleel shrugged. Not all women experienced significant hormonal disruptions while pregnant. Some, it was said, never felt a thing. He could even believe that Tinka hadn't noticed the baby's physical presence. Given the presumable size of her uterus, a normal sized baby would be a drop in the proverbial bucket. He certainly hadn't seen anything; Tinka's belly looked the same now as it had before.
Secondary realization struck Jaleel hard enough that he stumbled. The baby was normal sized. Normal in every respect, in point of fact. A calico pelt, for instance, instead of a black one... and no tentacles. There was only one possible conclusion: the baby's father hadn't been an ultra-beast. He'd been- he'd been-
Jaleel's gaze shifted to the row of boxes. The father of Tinka's baby had been an ordinary, generic cat guy, such as Tinka could easily find wandering the streets above. But if so... where was he now? Jaleel tried looking away from the boxes but couldn't. At the water tank he almost dropped the pan he'd brought because his hands were shaking. Tinka, thankfully, didn't notice; her baby occupied all her attention. He filled the pan and returned, heating it on the stove in place of the hot dogs. He forced himself to eat a couple, though they tasted like ash in his mouth and sat like lead in his stomach.
The honeymoon was- quite literally- over. When Jaleel looked at it through eyes no longer clouded by lust he saw a future that was terrifyingly bleak, bare, and above all, short. Tinka's previous paramour hadn't lasted long enough to see the birth of his child. Jaleel couldn't see the boxes from here but they loomed large in his mind. They suggested all too poignantly the likely fate of his predecessor. Hadn't she said on day one that if he didn't satisfy one of her appetites he could satisfy another?
The truth of the situation burned in Jaleel's mind as if in letters of fire. No matter what the risk, he had to get out of here, as soon as humanly possible if not before.
Zalika landed on the roof of ZigZag's apartment building and lay down on her back, arms folded across her chest. The immediate world faded out as she left her body and quested among the mostly sleeping minds in the building below. Two of them she recognized, because she'd encountered them before at an industry trade show in Las Vegas. Of course neither ZigZag nor Fredrika knew that they'd rubbed elbows with Daughter Night, internationally wanted super-villainess. In fact, they didn't even realize that they'd met the same person; Zalika had gone in a different guise each time. Still, a single encounter wasn't much to go on when attempting to enter a mind and sift through its memories without either alerting the target or leaving traces another telepath might identify. In such a case body-to-body contact or at least a direct line of sight was needed to insure a reasonable chance of success. But that would require Zalika to physically enter the apartment. Which she could do easily enough, either by turning to shadow and walking through the walls or coming through the front door in the guise of Zora LeBroy. Since Zora was in fact an officer of the Consortium, it would be entirely reasonable and appropriate for her to show up and want to chat about the current situation.
If not for Super Collie, Zalika would have done just that. Unfortunately, if Zora entered the scene that way it would only be a matter of time before Super Collie arranged to meet her. At which point Zalika's cover would be blown for sure; Super Collie wasn't a telepath but she could sense the mystic power that suffused Zalika's being. Whatever guise Zalika assumed, Super Collie would see through it at once. Completely aside from the implications of being 'outed' as a super villain, such an encounter would raise ugly personal questions. For example, why Zalika wasn't dead even though Super Collie had watched her expire on the passenger deck of the Lynx fast ferry. Walking through the walls was out for the same reason: Super Collie would not only sense the traces left by the exercise of power but in all likelihood recognize them as well. It was even remotely possible that Super Collie would notice if Zalika exerted overt mental control over any of the three women here. Since Super Collie wasn't a telepath she'd have to spend a goodly amount of time in conversation with the subjects, but Zalika didn't doubt for a second that ample opportunities would arise. Super Collie would already have interviewed the three, and she'd follow up on every little thing. As such, the only mind Zalika could reasonably hope to enter was ZigZag's, since not only had they spent quite some time haggling over the details of the contract between ZZ Studios and the Consortium, they'd met and conversed at various other times as well. (With Zalika assuming a variety of different identities, of course.)
As she ever so carefully entered ZigZag's unconscious mind Zalika realized, much to her surprise, that someone had been there before her. Curious, she examined the traces and meticulously reconstructed his path. Along the way she learned what she could about the intruder himself.
Marko would have been shocked and horrified to know exactly how much Zalika uncovered. Not only did she learn everything he'd learned, she identified him as male, a bat, a vampire, and someone at least casually known to ZigZag. If she'd wanted to, she could have learned what ZigZag knew of him by comparing memories in the blocked portion of her mind to those in the unblocked portion.
At this point Zalika paused to consider her options. The safest course would be to pull out now, leaving the block untouched, and pursue the previous intruder through other means. But that meant she might have to come back; entering a sleeping mind might be easier but interrogating it was harder, requiring great skill and, above all, patience. Furthermore, the information gained tended to be less reliable. If Zalika left without double checking she might have to return later and spend a few more hours sifting though ZigZag's thoughts while her body lay helpless and exposed on the roof. Bypassing the block, however, necessarily meant removing it, so ZigZag would remember everything when she awoke. On top of that, such an overt act on Zalika's part would leave traces that a sufficiently skilled telepath could locate and identify, just as Zalika read Marko's work. Of course Zalika could always restore the block afterward; doing so would impose only minimal risk above and beyond breaking it in the first place. But-
Zalika's body sighed. The nature of dream interrogation was such that one invariably picked up a lot of extraneous material. In this particular case, Marko's questioning of ZigZag had become closely associated with other, older memories, and Zalika had seen them, again and again, as she moved through ZigZag's mind. She'd experienced them: sitting on her bed, alone, in the dark, listening for her father's footsteps in the hall. Knowing that, sooner or later, he'd come. He'd open he door... take off his night shirt... and it would begin, yet again...
Zalika knew the memories weren't her own, for all that dream state gave them a first person immediacy they wouldn't have had if read from a conscious mind. It wasn't her concern that ZigZag had been sexually molested by her father. But Marko's intrusion, combined with how he blocked recollection of it, left ZigZag's mind haunted by shadows of half-remembered terror. Counseling and therapy would eventually take care of it, though it might take months or years. Removing the block would bring all the nastiness flooding back along with the memories that had been explicitly hidden. Even more therapy and counseling, in other words. All for something ZigZag had spent years struggling with already... and because a person who could do something about it couldn't be bothered.
Another memory Zalika had lived through again and again was that of Super Collie comforting ZigZag and calming her down in the immediate aftermath of her ordeal. Super Collie, who came with no regard to her personal comfort, who offered succor even when it appeared that what had raised the alarm was nothing more than nightmare phantasms. She wouldn't have left this mess, had she the power to do anything about it. That it didn't bear on her prime purpose wouldn't signify in the least. Super Collie- Esmerelda- gave love because it was needed, with no regard for the circumstances or the character of the recipient.
Zalika knew the touch of that love, as pure as new fallen snow and as bright as sunshine. She'd felt it, shining into her soul, quenching the fires of rage and hate, reaching down through layers of dark despair to a tiny spark that was still human, that only wanted to be loved. The supreme irony was that her ability to control and affect minds would let her banish her own fear as easily as someone else's. All she'd have to do was give up caring about being worthy of Esmerelda's love. Which meant that, realistically speaking, there was only one possible course of action.
ZigZag moaned in her sleep. She'd been dreaming about the intrusion every night since it happened, though she concealed from Wanda and Fredrika how much it affected her. In her dreams she relived the scene over and over: laying in her bed while the stranger approached and entered. Sometimes it was her apartment in New York, sometimes her old family home in Ohio. The man who came was sometimes her father, sometimes Count Dracula- as played by Bela Lugosi, Marko, or Gary Oldman- and sometimes Graf Orlock, as played by Max Shreck in Nosferatu. Sometimes the intruder would rape her. Sometimes he asked questions. ZigZag couldn't understand the questions and didn't know the answers but it didn't seem to matter. She couldn't answer anyway; in every case she was completely paralyzed. All she could do was lay there while being assailed, either sexually or verbally.
It was happening again. ZigZag heard the footsteps in the hall. Saw the door open.
A man entered. It was Marko. Not in any movie role but as himself, wearing a curious vest-like garment with dozens of pockets, many of which were clearly full. He admired her for a moment, then came over and flicked her on the nose. From then on she watched, a spectator in her own body, while he interrogated her. After it ended and he withdrew she awoke with a start. She jumped to her feet and threw open her bedroom door, expecting to see him in the hallway. She didn't; it was just a dream.
But it wasn't just a dream. ZigZag fingered her muzzle where Marko's fingers had bruised her lips. "That son of a bitch," she whispered. She listened carefully but neither Wanda nor Fredrika stirred. Hardly a surprise; they were used to ZigZag stumping around in the middle of the night. She returned to her room and dressed hurriedly, donning a pair of denim shorts, a tank top, and sneakers. With her keys in hand so they wouldn't clink and her wallet in her pocket she tiptoed out, opening and relocking the front door as quietly as possible, then taking the elevator down to the basement. She started their rented car, a distressingly mundane Chevrolet sedan, and drove to the exit. The guard passed her out and she set off in a very determined fashion for New Jersey.
The drive across town afforded enough cool-down time that ZigZag gave some serious thought to confronting a vampire in the dark of night. Instead of going directly to his house she went to the studio. She told Abadacus the script team in Columbus had called up with a panic question; she had to check the prop room and get the necessary materials overnighted if they weren't present. If she told him the truth she was sure he'd either try to stop her or want to come along.
The Spider Queen armor was right where ZigZag had left it. She quickly shucked off her clothes and pulled it on. Studying herself in the mirror, she had to admit it wasn't very practical; the black enameled metal with silver chasing looked fantastic but covered very little. A gauntlet, arm pieces, and shoulder guard covered her right arm completely, but on the left she had only a bracer. The breastplate was little more than a metal halter. Metal pieces protected her calves and thighs but stopped short of her hips, which made do with a skimpy loincloth. Nothing at all covered her midriff.
The sword, though, was real. ZigZag secured the belt, then drew the weapon; it slid from its scabbard with barely a hiss. Strictly speaking it was a rapier with a hilt that made it look like a broadsword; it had been reasoned that a true broadsword would be too heavy for her. Whatever the reasons the results couldn't be argued; it had a spring steel blade with a hardened edge, balanced perfectly to her hand. She knew how to use it, too; she'd spent months training in preparation for the role. In fact, she'd gone well past the point necessary for fighting in front of the camera. Sure, it was a Hell of a lot of work, but it was incredibly fun, too.
As she regarded herself in the dressing room's full length mirror it occurred to ZigZag that what she contemplated wasn't fun at all: if things went as she expected, she'd be using this very sword and the skill spent all those months developing to rearrange someone's anatomy with extreme prejudice.
Without having to look or guide it with her fingers ZigZag shot the blade back into its scabbard. She turned away from the mirror, her face set grimly. She'd never shied away from what needed doing, however unpleasant it might be. Marko owed her some answers, and if she had to cut them out of his hide then so be it. At the dressing room door she listened carefully to make sure Abadacus wasn't hanging about, then tiptoed into the office block. Even with the lights out the room wasn't completely dark; various electronic gadgets left running chuckled to themselves and blinked their lights. Moving carefully so as not to upset anything ZigZag moved to Athena's desk.
How a devout Catholic girl had come to be a script editor for a pornographic movie company was one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that ZigZag had always felt would make one Hell of a docudrama. At present the details didn't matter; all ZigZag cared about was that Athena decorated her workspace with a big old pewter crucifix. It was nearly a foot tall and pretty hefty; if it didn't scare Marko she could always club him with it-
"That won't work."
ZigZag's fencing teacher would have been amazed, and probably a bit alarmed, at the way her sword leapt into her hand as if teleported. She didn't scream but she did drop the crucifix, narrowly missing her foot, and the tip of the blade wavered just a bit.
At the far end of ZigZag's weapon stood a canid woman: a jackal, specifically, with fur as black as a loan shark's heart and eyes that were a bright, luminous gold. Her figure could only be described as voluptuous, and then some: her hips and bust exceeded even ZigZag's impressive dimensions, with the rest of her characterized by a lush fullness that could have been called plump if not for an apparently gravity-defying firmness. Such an effect could have been easily achieved with cleverly designed support garments, but the woman wore not so much as a single stitch.
"You're Daughter Night," ZigZag said, in a voice with no particular inflection.
"Yes, I know," Zalika replied.
Several long seconds ticked by. "Why won't the cross work?" ZigZag asked.
"You don't really believe," Zalika replied. "To project real power you need real faith. You go through the motions of being a Christian but there's no real commitment underlying it."
"What about this?" ZigZag wiggled the sword by rotating her wrist slightly. That way the point didn't move from where it threatened Zalika's vitals.
"If you stabbed him through the heart or cut his head off, yes," Zalika responded. "Otherwise, you'd only make him angry."
"What would you suggest?" ZigZag inquired.
"Holy water in a squirt bottle," Zalika replied. "Make sure it's blessed by a real cleric, one that truly believes. Doesn't matter what religion or denomination; what's important is the faith. A sign of protection: a cross, an Elder Sign, the Eye of Horus, whatever, so long as it's inscribed by someone with real power. Crush a pound or so of garlic and rub it into your fur, especially around the throat, the insides of your knees, armpits, the backs of your knees, and your crotch."
ZigZag winced, her eyes watering merely at the thought of so much garlic. "That would keep everyone away," she muttered. "Hey, wait. You mean garlic really works?"
"Vampires are allergic to the oil that makes it spicy," Zalika explained. "It's like mace to them, only worse. Just remember that it's only a deterrent; it won't permanently harm or incapacitate him."
"Just a moment," ZigZag demanded, frowning. "If Marko's a vampire, how do you explain him eating at Leonardo's? How could a vampire who's allergic to garlic go to an Italian restaurant?"
"Ever seen him there at night?"
"Sure," ZigZag responded promptly. "He comes in for dinner all the time. Calls it breakfast, of course."
"You misunderstand," Zalika pointed out. "I don't mean in the evening. I mean after dark."
ZigZag opened her mouth but caught herself before speaking. Two more times she tried but nothing came out. "No, wait," she exclaimed. "There was that time-" she stopped, frowning.
"He ran out, suddenly, just before dark," Zalika suggested.
ZigZag's frown deepened. "Yes, he did. How did you know?"
"I theorized," Zalika responded. "Not all vampires sleep in coffins during the day. Some of them revert to being ordinary people."
ZigZag's face underwent a comical series of contortions. "A vampire, who plays a vampire in vampire movies," she breathed. "Well, I'll be G-"
"Don't say that!" Zalika interjected sharply.
ZigZag blinked in surprise. "I hope you'll forgive me for saying that you never struck me as the holy roller type."
Zalika's eyes narrowed. The golden glow seemed to intensify, as if ZigZag were looking through two windows into the heart of a furnace. "There is no God in the sense of a literal, anthropomorphic being," Zalika stated flatly. "But there are... powers. People call on those powers as if they were gods... and over time both the people who call them and the powers themselves are changed by the interaction. When you say things like that you're flinging an invocation into the air, with no idea or regard for where it might land."
"I hear people swear all the time and I've never seen one struck by lighting," ZigZag riposted, but Zalika's reaction alarmed her more than she cared to admit.
"People toss pebbles off mountains and lit cigarettes out of car windows all the time too," Zalika pointed out. "And most of the time nothing happens. Frankly, I don't care if you believe me or not, but I will not allow you, or anyone else, to use language like that in my presence. I don't want to be standing beside you when you do get struck by lighting. Or something worse happens. I've been there, done that, and I don't care for it one bit."
What happened? ZigZag wanted to ask, but the words caught in her throat. Looking at Zalika's eyes, she had the feeling they were windows, and if she got close enough she'd be able to look through them into another world. And she wouldn't like what she saw, not one bit.
"You wouldn't," Zalika said. "For me, Hellfire and damnation are not abstract concepts."
"What are you doing here?" ZigZag demanded, partially to change the subject and partially an attempt to take control of the conversation.
"I followed you," Zalika replied. "I decided to come see you to find out if you could tell me anything that might help me find Jaleel. I touched your mind, to see if you were available, and you were dreaming about Marko. It looked suspicious, so I investigated. I found that he'd put a block on your memory. I removed it."
"Why?" ZigZag demanded bluntly.
"Because it was hurting you. And I wanted to find out what it was he didn't want you to remember."
"I suppose I should be grateful for that," ZigZag allowed. "I'm not too pleased at the idea of anyone mucking around in my head, though. Couldn't you just call?"
"I didn't think you'd appreciate having to explain to Agents Smith and Jones why you're in contact with a super villain on the DSA's Most Wanted list."
"How would they find out?"
"If I call you, they have a recording of the conversation. If I walk in, they have witnesses. Wanda, Fredrika, and the lobby guard to start, and likely others too."
"Recording?" ZigZag exclaimed. "You mean they're tapping my phone?"
"Should I assume they aren't?" Zalika countered.
ZigZag didn't have an immediate answer to that. "What bout this? We're in contact right now."
"Yes, but there's no witnesses and no evidence. You deciding to play dress-up in the middle of the night might be odd but it isn't actionable and the DSA can't prove otherwise."
"What about Abadacus?"
"He won't remember a thing," Zalika pronounced. "I'm much better at this than Marko."
"Then why do I remember?" ZigZag inquired. "Or did you plan to wipe my mind afterward?"
"That would be rude," Zalika responded. "Besides-" she hesitated.
"What?" ZigZag pressed.
"If I went tromping through your mind the way Marko did, Super Collie would know," Zalika said, dropping her gaze. "I... couldn't bear having her think I'd be willing to do something like that." She looked up. "Besides, we're on the same side, at least in this. We both want to find Jaleel as quickly as possible. I sank a crap load of money into this flick, and if it goes bust so do I. Anyway, I couldn't let you go bursting into Marko's lair all by your lonesome, could I?" She cracked a smile.
ZigZag slowly lowered the sword. "I though you didn't approve of swearing."
"Blasphemy," Zalika corrected. "I don't approve of blasphemy. If I couldn't swear, I'd fucking explode. After sitting through an all-day script session, listening to Ronald's interminable whining, it's either that or kill something."
"Ain't that the truth," ZigZag muttered. "Wait a moment. Our only other big investor is- you're behind the Isis Consortium?"
"I created it."
"What, as a front for your bid for world domination?" ZigZag inquired, only half jokingly.
Zalika grimaced. "You know what it's like, ZigZag. Every freaking day is a code red disaster, with everyone running around in a blind panic. And that's just with one small studio. Now multiply that by the whole world." She shuddered. "Who needs the aggravation?" Her expression softened, her eyes focused on something far away. "I don't like who I become when I do the villain thing," she added softly. "This way... I can do something I enjoy and still look at myself in the mirror without throwing up."
For a time ZigZag said nothing. Her own soul wasn't exactly without stain; she'd done some pretty despicable things in the period after leaving home and before making it big. Nothing on the scale of Daughter Night's activities- ZigZag had never tried to level a whole city- but did that somehow mean that she could feel remorse but Daughter Night couldn't?
Then, in a flash, another thought came into ZigZag's mind, about how Daughter Night's air of confidence slipped when she spoke of Super Collie. Could it be that Daughter Night sought to change for the sake of someone she cared about? ZigZag knew that feeling intimately well. Merely thinking about James made her feel warm inside, as if the sun were shining in her heart. He didn't make demands- he claimed to like her just as she was- but she knew in her heart that she'd do anything, anything at all, to keep him liking her. No price could be too high, no risk to great, for the sake of his love.
Slowly, ZigZag sheathed her blade. Daughter Night was trying very hard to be friendly. She hadn't needed to reveal herself to ZigZag but she had, at no small risk to herself. Not to mention- ZigZag grimaced at the thought- that she'd stopped ZigZag from doing something rather foolish in a fit of pique. ZigZag wasn't ready to call her bosom buddy, but figured she at least owed Daughter Night some forbearance. "Do you have a real name?" she asked.
"Do you?" Zalika countered.
"ZigZag is my name," ZigZag replied.
A smile creased the corners of Zalika's mouth. "Then call me Zalika. Daughter Night sounds terribly pretentious, don't you think?"
"Indubitably," ZigZag replied. "What happens now?"
"Let's drop in on Graf Von Slayvich," Zalika suggested. "He has some questions to answer for both of us, does he not?"
"D-" ZigZag began, but caught herself even as Zalika began to interject. "Fuck right," ZigZag said with a grin.
"Ditto that," Zalika responded, with a grin of her own.
"Don't you get cold, going out at night dressed like that?" ZigZag inquired as she guided the rental car toward Marko's domicile. Zalika sat in the passenger's seat, still wearing naught but her birthday suit.
"I could ask you the same," Zalika responded. ZigZag still wore her armor; she'd taken off the sword and propped it between the seats.
"Touche," ZigZag admitted. "So how is it you can run a multinational company while being a super villain?"
"I'm not a super villain in Malaysia, where my company's headquartered," Zalika replied. "Furthermore, there's no evidence that Zalika Corby, CEO of the Isis Consortium, is in fact the wanted villain Daughter Night. After all, Daughter Night was observed to have expired on the Lynx Fast Ferry, at sea between Wellington and Picton, in front of multiple and unimpeachable witnesses."
"You expired after trashing Wellington the first time, also in front of multiple and unimpeachable witnesses," ZigZag pointed out. "It doesn't appear to have slowed you down unduly."
"One does one's humble best," Zalika replied primly.
"Your company could be listed as a terrorist organization," ZigZag commented.
Zalika snorted. "It would almost be worth it to see Colin Powell appearing on national television, gravely informing the world that America is under threat from foreign porn. But I'm confident it won't happen."
"Why not?" ZigZag wanted to know, once she'd mastered her fit of giggles.
"It just so happens that several major investors in my company are also major contributors to the Republican National Convention," Zalika said. "If there's any sort of investigation, naturally there'll have to be a full disclosure of the extent of the plot."
ZigZag grinned. "That is deliciously evil."
"If they want to play hardball I'll play right back," Zalika declared. "So long as I don't try to openly enter the United States they can ignore me in good conscience without risking a scandal. I don't make trouble for them and they don't make trouble for me."
"How did you manage to get it all going so quickly?" ZigZag wanted to know. "The Isis Consortium's only existed for, what, a year and a half now, and it's already freaking huge."
"I beguile people with my feminine charms," Zalika replied.
"Bullshit," ZigZag countered. "You use your funky mind powers."
"Yes, but not how you think. I use them to find people who'll go along with me, and how to best persuade them. If they're hesitant, I might lean on 'em just a teeny bit. I don't command people, because then they only do what they're told. To make this work I need an army of people, not robots. Once it's on solid footing I sell out and retire, filthy rich, to my private South Seas island."
"Fuck me," ZigZag exclaimed. "For that, I'd become a super villain." She shook her head. "It's true. Honest people never get shit. It's the crooks who clean up."
"You've been in the porn business for this long and only just realized that?" Zalika inquired, arching an eyebrow.
ZigZag snarled something unintelligible and certainly unprintable. Zalika laughed.
Shortly thereafter Marko's loft hove into view. At Zalika's direction ZigZag drove past and parked around the corner. "Curious," Zalika commented.
"What?" ZigZag switched off the car's engine then sat there, holding the keys. Her armor suit didn't have any pockets.
"Marko makes such a point of maintaining nocturnal habits, but there's no lights on," Zalika responded. "Here, allow me." She reached across, laying a hand on ZigZag's belly. ZigZag grimaced; she felt a curious oozing sensation, as if worms were crawling around under her skin. When Zalika took her hand away ZigZag had grown a belly pouch, like a kangaroo. Zalika took the keys and dropped them in.
"Well, I'll be-"
"-fucked raw," ZigZag concluded after a short pause. "That's a- um- incredibly cool trick."
"Ain't it, though?" Zalika exited the car. She didn't open the door; her body blurred, it's definition but not its shape vanishing in inky darkness, then she stepped right through the side of the car.
"And that is another incredibly cool trick," ZigZag marveled, exiting in a more traditional fashion. "You're making me jealous, girl." She picked up her sword and belted it on.
Zalika's expression turned somber as she glanced in ZigZag's direction. "I paid a steep price for these abilities. I might as well enjoy them, now that I can." When ZigZag came around the car Zalika took her hand. "Stay close."
"Aren't we kind of... conspicuous?" ZigZag inquired, glancing about. At the very least, coming in the dead of night meant there weren't many people about.
"Not at all," Zalika replied. "No one sees us." She tapped her forehead. "More of those funky mind powers, y'see."
ZigZag merely nodded. She kept a hold of Zalika's hand; her other hand remained near the hilt of her sword. Now that she was here she couldn't see what good it would do, but if she went down she'd do it with her weapon in hand, at the very least.
"There doesn't appear to be anyone home," Zalika commented, looking up at the dark second story windows as they walked along the street. "Let's have a look around."
"Can we walk in through the walls?" ZigZag asked.
"I can, but you can't," Zalika responded. "I'd have to kill you, and I mean that literally." She stopped by the front door. "Besides, there's easier ways." She traced a symbol in the air with her fingertip, which left a glowing trail hanging there. After completing the design she spoke a word; the design collapsed into the door. All the locks opened with a series of clicks. Zalika beckoned and the door opened, all by itself. She led the way up the stairs; the door closed and locked itself behind them.
"Don't turn on the lights," Zalika said, catching ZigZag's hand as it reached for the switch. "We are breaking and entering, after all."
"Then how do we see?" ZigZag wanted to know. With the door shut the stairwell fell into complete and utter darkness.
"You shoulda eaten your carrots," Zalika replied, grabbing ZigZag's face. ZigZag gasped; the creepy-crawly sensation came again, this time in her eyes. When Zalika took her hand away, ZigZag found that she could see: not very clearly, and only in black and white, but nevertheless well enough to walk safely and confidently up the stairs. "Don't turn on the lights and don't open the curtains," Zalika warned. "As you are, normal light levels will blind you."
"What about you?" ZigZag inquired.
"I can turn off my low-light vision any time I want," Zalika responded. "Plus, I have other senses than sight."
When Zalika opened the upper door, again without touching it, light flooded the stairwell. At first ZigZag thought someone had left the lights on, then realized that couldn't be: they would have seen illuminated windows when they drove past. And yet the front room looked nearly as bright as day, though still a tad bit blurry and with very muted colors.
"He's done better for himself than Bela Leugosi did," ZigZag commented, looking around. Marko's loft, a former industrial space converted to residential use, looked plain but well kept: everything clean and in good repair. The furniture, though not new or particularly stylish, was in good shape. He'd left the original hardwood floors, except for a couple small carpets in the front room and linoleum in the kitchen, decorated with an attractive but modest tile pattern.
"Good gravy!" ZigZag exclaimed, doing a double-take. "Is that a Betamax?"
"Sure is," Zalika agreed, examining the entertainment center. The Beta shared an alcove with a very modern DVD player, and slightly less modern VHS VCR, an even older but quite serviceable tuner, and a Playstation Two. The TV was a 27 inch Sony low-def, of uncertain vintage, neither very new nor very old. Two small cabinets, one on either side, contained movies. The left was dominated by westerns, monster movies, and action flicks, some modern but many from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Comedies and romances dominated the right cabinet, with only a very few more than ten years old.
"How old are Marko's daughters?" Zalika asked.
"They're teenagers," ZigZag replies, looking over the films. "fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, something like that." She frowned. "How can a vampire have kids?"
"He's only a part-time vampire," Zalika pointed out. She leaned close; she seemed to be inspecting the movies but in fact she was sniffing them. "He might have adopted them, too."
"They sure look like him," ZigZag mused. "They have that same pale fur, just like his. Fortunately they got their figures from their mom. She was quite a buxom lady, for a bat. Positively zaftig."
Zalika didn't comment; she'd gone to the couch. After going over it carefully- even lifting the cushions- she stepped back and gave the overall room another look. "No one's been here for at least a whole day," she pronounced. "Neither Marko nor his daughters." She headed for the master bedroom.
"What are we looking for?" ZigZag asked, glancing about. It felt strange to be in a bedroom with no bed. Somehow that was the eeriest part of the whole experience.
"I'll tell you when I find it," Zalika replied, entering the bathroom and opening the medicine cabinet.
ZigZag said nothing. Her hand drifted to her sword, fingering the wrapping on the hilt. She'd come to fight a vampire while armed with a sword, wearing a suit of decorative but impractical armor, in the company of a super-villainess who'd carved a swath of destruction through the city of Wellington, New Zealand, not once but twice. Viewed in the cold light of reason it seemed... well, rather foolish, not too fine a point on it. Briefly, ZigZag wondered what would happen if she simply walked out. It seemed unlikely that Zalika let her run off without a word. Even if she did, what then? The belly pouch she could see as having some uses, but she didn't at all like the idea of having to wear snow goggles for the rest of her life. Another fine mess you've gotten yourself into, she thought sourly.
A patch of wall, just to the right of the heavily curtained window, shimmered. Something like the alien hunters from the Predator movies, ZigZag found herself thinking. A distortion, sort of like heat haze, but with sharply defined borders. ZigZag was certain that if not for her enhanced vision she never would have noticed.
ZigZag considered herself a good actress, and not without justification. It took all her skill not to react, merely to turn about with a sigh as if she had nothing better to do. Looking straight at where the disturbance had been she saw nothing; the room was empty once again. She kept turning until she faced the bathroom. "Found anything?"
"Not yet," Zalika responded.
As she turned directly away from the spot ZigZag's hand gripped the hilt of her sword. Then, in one smooth, fluid motion, she whirled, drew, and lunged. It all happened much too quickly for her conscious mind to follow; it didn't catch up until she felt the sword strike home in what should have been empty air. Someone coughed violently, spewing bright, pulmonary blood. ZigZag leapt back with a shriek, unconsciously twisting the blade and slipping it free.
A brown furred rat shimmered into view. He wasn't very tall; five foot five at most, ZigZag estimated. Blood frothed on his lips and from a wound in his chest, just to the right of his sternum. He wore nothing but a shoulder holster; he'd drawn his pistol and even as he appeared it discharged, not with a thunderous bang but rather a soft phut. ZigZag twisted aside but it didn't matter; the rat flung his arm up as if someone had jerked it back and the projectile went harmlessly into the ceiling. He struggled violently but remained fixed, as if bound hand and foot. If so his bonds were completely invisible, even to ZigZag's enhanced vision. Abruptly, and for no apparent reason, he went limp. The blood on his muzzle turned black. His skin ulcerated and sloughed off, the flesh underneath putrefying and running like molten wax.
Zalika shoved past ZigZag and grabbed the rat's face, apparently trying to kiss him, but the whole front of his skull fell to pieces in her hands. She made a sharp stabbing motion, as if poking him in the eye; ZigZag clearly saw Zalika's fingers pass through the remainder of his skull, as if one or the other were naught but an illusion, and come out grasping a mesh of fine, silvery wire, which turned black and disintegrated even as she and ZigZag looked at it. The remainder of the rat soon followed; his belly sagged, then burst, spilling its contents onto the floor. His arms and legs dropped off, followed a moment later by his pelvis. The contents of his chest dripped out, then the ribs themselves clattered to the floor in a heap. All his flesh and organs melted down into a spreading puddle of vile-smelling goop; shortly thereafter even his bones crumbled away to nothing.
"Holy Christ!" ZigZag shrieked, heedless of who might be offended, scrambling backwards to avoid the flood of corruption.
"He self-destructed," Zalika said. "That wiry thing I pulled out of his head released something into his blood that made his tissue break down."
"I thought you said there wasn't anyone here!" ZigZag almost screamed.
"I didn't think there was," Zalika replied, remaining insouciantly calm. "I couldn't sense his mind, nor affect it telepathically in any way." She grabbed ZigZag's shoulder and propelled her out of the room. "Come on. We need to leave. Quickly."
"Why?" ZigZag wanted to know. Right now she was more angry than terrified, but she could feel terror waiting in the wings. She probably didn't want to know, but wondering would be infinitely worse.
"That man was an agent." Zalika gestured; the ladder leading to the roof hatch unfolded and dropped down of its own accord. With one hand Zalika pointed at the hatch itself; the bolt withdrew and it flew open. With the other she clasped ZigZag's shoulder; her world plunged into semi-darkness, what she would have expected to find the curtained apartment, at night, with the lights off. Then she found herself propelled upward; she flew through the hatch and landed on the roof. A moment later Zalika appeared. The hatch closed and locked itself behind them.
"What are we doing here?" ZigZag wanted to know.
"Leaving," Zalika replied. She bent forward slightly and a pair of limbs sprouted from her back, just above her waist, quickly lengthening and growing into brightly colored wings that reminded ZigZag of a parrot's. Zalika's tail transformed into that of a bird. She grabbed ZigZag's hand and leapt. Suddenly they were soaring through the sky.
"Holy shit!" ZigZag exclaimed, half in shock and half in exhilaration. The only experience she'd ever had in her life even close to this was once, some years ago, when she'd attended an industry conference in Los Angeles and another producer had persuaded her to go riding with him on a pair of Kawasaki Ninja motorcycles. Tearing through the hills above L.A. at a hundred and forty miles an hour had been the most exciting thing she'd ever done with her clothes on, right up to the point where she'd shed everything but her helmet and raced in the nude. She suspected that her companion had let her win, so he could look at her bottom, but it could be said he'd scored a bigger victory when ZigZag rewarded him for the experience. This time there wasn't the sense of frenetic speed and exciting danger, but the lack of visible support, except for Zalika's hand, more than made up for it. Even if the motorcycle could have flown it wouldn't have been like this. She wasn't riding a flying machine, she was flying, as if in a dream, but it was real.
The experience was so incredible that not until the black expanse of the Hudson River opened below them did ZigZag recall an important question. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "What about my car?"
"Forget it," Zalika replied. "The people watching Marko's place had all the time we were inside to mess with it. We got out of there because they weren't expecting me. Giving them a chance to prepare an ambush would be the height of foolishness."
"But it's a rental!" ZigZag wailed. "I have a deposit!"
"Report the car stolen," Zalika replied. "I'll reimburse you for the deposit."
ZigZag made an exasperated noise. Then, quite suddenly, all expression left her. "That car will lead them straight to Wanda and Fredrika," she said in a perfectly toneless voice.
"Yes," Zalika replied in an equally toneless voice. "I know."
Dr. Yamane sat bolt upright in bed. In his mind's eye he saw a picture: an exceedingly Reubenesque jackal woman with humongous tits, standing with her hand out as if grabbing something. Her fur was solid black, her eyes a bright, metallic gold. Dr. Yamane only saw her from the waist up but on that part of her she wore not a stitch.
"Daughter Night!" Dr, Yamane snarled, then cursed venomously. The agents in place weren't equipped to handle Daughter Night. Nor had there been any indication that they should have been. Of course it might be pointed out that Daughter Night was dead: she'd expired quite dramatically on the passenger deck of the Lynx fast ferry, before dozens of witnesses. Experts galore had pored over her corpse, which had ultimately been mummified and put on display- behind ten centimeters of bulletproof glass- in Te Papa Tongarewa's fantastically popular Egyptian artifacts exhibit. All of which would have mattered more to Dr. Yamane had not this been the second time Daughter Night was known to have died. She had a disturbing habit of coming back to life at inconvenient moments.
Sadly, Dr. Yamane ordered the remaining agents watching Marko's home to withdraw. He couldn't take the chance that Daughter Night might capture and interrogate one. Even if the agent successfully self-destructed, that might not be enough; Daughter Night reputedly had the power to bring the dead back to life.
With the orders passed Dr. Yamane sat and thought furiously. This development could put the whole plan in jeopardy. The resources needed to deal with Daughter Night couldn't be engaged discreetly; the chances of a gruesome public confrontation were simply too high. More to the point, why the Devil was she poking around Marko's place in the company of Miss Elzibeta Zumbrowski, a.k.a. ZigZag?
One answer sprang immediately to mind: Daughter Night was also looking for Mr. Bronson. Rumor had her behind a big adult entertainment company headquartered in Malaysia. If she'd invested heavily in the Rocket Man project, a serious delay could end up costing her dearly.
Still, it seemed somewhat tenuous a reason for someone on the DSA's Most Wanted list to risk visiting New York. On the other hand, Super Collie was here. She and Daughter night had a short but tumultuous history; quite possibly Daughter Night had been motivated by more than simply monetary considerations.
Which left the question of why Daughter Night had appeared at Marko's place. Dr. Yamane didn't have an answer but he did have suspicions. Marko had done something to ZigZag; Daughter Night had discovered it while conducting her own investigation and somehow followed it back to Marko. Which put Dr. Yamane in a very, very difficult position, because the Imaginos Corporation's involvement in this matter had very nearly been exposed.
A map appeared in Dr. Yamane's mind, showing all the Corporation's agents in New York. He could have a kill team at ZigZag's apartment in a matter of minutes. But no; that would be as good as hanging out a neon sign for Daughter Night, not to mention the DSA. The person who really needed to be liquidated was Marko. Which shouldn't be too difficult, considering that Dr. Yamane held Marko's three daughters, and agents were in place who could attack his ex-wife and Colonel Rodchenko. Which would leave the Corporation right back where it started: trying to get Darkstalker away from the Americans.
Dr. Yamane leapt out of bed and paced around his bedroom, scowling. If only those idiots in Crimea hadn't let her get away in the first place. Though, in all fairness, the Corporation had known it was taking a risk when it constructed her. That's why the Ukrainian satellite office had been used and not the main one. The gamble had seemed to pay off: she'd developed amazing and incredibly useful powers. Until her slave rig had malfunctioned, at which point they all became useless, at least to the Corporation.
The good doctor had personally examined the discarded slave rig and found it remarkable that Darkstalker had managed to shed only that part of the slave rig which kept her under control, while keeping the part that prevented her from being tracked or scanned. Which made it all the more imperative that she be captured alive. It might be that the taps on the whole rig had been encysted, just as they'd been on the part he'd examined. It might only be coincidence that she'd shed those parts of the rig that let her escape. It might also be coincidence that she'd wound up in New York, and that Daughter Night was here too.
Dr. Yamane gritted his teeth. That left a pile of coincidences much too large for his comfort. He felt a jolt of real fear: could Daughter Night possibly know? Surely not; she'd been dead at the time. But did that really mean what everyone thought it did?
It was too late in the game, with too much at stake, to rely on cautious analysis. The Imaginos Corporation, like any other, existed to make a profit for its investors. A number of those investors thought the Darkstalker affair to be a colossal screw up, not merely a temporary setback. Another fiasco and they'd pull out, which would have dire consequences indeed. Dr. Yamane picked up the special phone and dialed the special number. The situation wasn't critical yet but headed that way very quickly. It was time to call in the big guns from the head office.
Jaleel rolled a grenade from one hand to the other, back and forth, back and forth. He'd never been in the military; he had no idea if they were real or not. They felt solid enough, but what if they were replicas, without actual fuses or charges? An underground bunker with only cardboard boxes for cover wasn't a good place to try a test firing.
"Enough of that," Jaleel muttered, putting the grenades aside and returning his attention to the firearms. Tinka had amassed quite a collection; a determined search had turned up a positive arsenal. Pistols mainly, of which most were revolvers, but plenty of automatics, too. Not to mention sub-machine guns and more than a few assault rifles. Jaleel had of course heard that Americans were gun crazy but he'd never really believed it. If this were any indication, the people of New York were carting around hardware the army might envy.
"Which one, now?" Jaleel mused. A great many of the pistols looked rather scruffy, even to his untrained eyes. Not a few were gummed with dried blood. Which didn't look anything like what the movies had led him to expect: brown rather than red, more like spatters of mud. He put those aside; he had no idea how to clean them and carrying a weapon that didn't work would be worse than not having one at all.
The assault rifles looked impressive but were much too large; they couldn't be hidden under anything less than a poncho. Which drove Jaleel to the middle ground. The sub-machine guns covered more range than he would have imagined, from nearly the size of assault rifles down to hardly larger than pistols. But which one?
If pressed, Jaleel would have to admit that considerations of style informed his choice more than any technical understanding. He couldn't have named the Heckler und Koch MP-5k but he'd seen them in movies. Somehow it looked deadly and murderously efficient, despite being not very much larger than a pistol. The fore-grip let it be held firmly with both hands, a big plus for someone- like Jaleel- who only just knew enough about guns to tell where the bullets came out. Finally, it would carry thirty rounds in its detachable magazine. There had only been six originally; Jaleel had topped it off by emptying several pistols after carefully comparing the bullets to make sure they were the same.
The baby woke up and started mewling. Jaleel checked the stove, upon which he already had some milk warming. The little fellow was quite regular in his habits, almost like clockwork. Jaleel filled the bottle, set the little tyke comfortably in the crook of his arm, and started feeding him. While the boy- as yet unnamed- slurped down his milk Jaleel's eyes wandered to the shelter door. It stood, as always, propped against its frame. It was now or never. It would be night up above but he had no choice. He had to try when Tinka was away. Yes, she could happen to be waiting just outside. That didn't change a thing.
Jaleel grabbed a jar of milk and hastily gulped it down. It wasn't Scotch but it did calm his nerves, and of late his nerves needed a lot of calming. What the Hell; Tinka produced far more than a normal baby could possibly drink. One could think of it as just payment for being her babysitter when she went out to hunt.
You're prevaricating, Jaleel told himself sternly. Everything was ready: he had a backpack stuffed with baby supplies, a machine gun with two extra clips, and a satchel of sorts in which to carry the baby. Not, he had to say, a very suitable baby carrier but it was the best he could do with what he had. Fortunately, the little fellow seemed pretty hardy. Not really like a newborn at all, in fact; his eyes were open, his pelt fully developed, and he could- and did- crawl around quite energetically. He could grip pretty hard, too; he must have inherited some of Tinka's strength.
Jaleel felt more than just a twinge of guilt. The little darling looked normal enough on the outside, but inside he was half ultra-beast. Was Jaleel really doing the right thing by taking him away from his mother? How could an ordinary family hope to deal with him? How could they meet his special needs? How could they even know what his special needs were?
No. Jaleel's expression hardened. That wasn't the real problem. Sure, he couldn't imagine what a normal family would find itself suffering through in five, ten, or twenty years... but the idea of this baby staying here for five, ten, or twenty years was even more absurd. What could he possibly become? Tarzan of the Ultra-Beasts, lord of the urban jungle?
"Tarzan" finished eating. Jaleel burped him and laid him down; he drifted off to sleep. Jaleel finished off the milk himself, cleaned the bottle, and put it away. Then he drank down two more jars full. His stomach felt as if a couple tomcats were having a fight in it. The thought of food made him sick but the milk settled it, at least some.
Now came the hard part: getting the door open.
With little to do but sit and think, Jaleel had studied the door closely. Like the door of a vault, it was very thick and designed to fit flush with the frame. The hinges had been removed but for some reason the door itself remained; Jaleel theorized that it had been dismounted and propped against the wall when the shelter's fixtures were stripped out, then left behind as too difficult to move. There were rust stains on the floor where it had stood for however many years. Tinka, when she took possession, had simply picked it up and set back in place. But the locking bolts, for whatever reason, had been left in the extended position and were now rusted in place; they kept it from fitting back into the frame. Which didn't really matter to Tinka's needs; she simply leaned it against the frame and let it go at that. If anything, it helped her: if the door had fit flush she wouldn't have been able to get her hands around it to lift it away. It suited Jaleel's purpose to a tee: to get the door open all he had to do was tip it over. The protruding studs gave him abundant handholds.
"If only doing were as easy as saying," Jaleel muttered. He could grab the edge of the door. He could heave with all his strength. He could contemplate how to get out of the way before it fell over on him, knowing that if he failed he'd be killed instantly. Or worse, alive but pinned, with one or more of his limbs trapped and crushed. Not a pleasant thought.
Jaleel turned to the boxes. A pry-bar, a jack, or a come-along would have served admirably, but if Tinka had ever eaten someone in possession of such things she'd left them behind. Criminals in New York seemed exceptionally well equipped to commit mayhem and murder but not for escaping underground bunkers.
An idea lit up Jaleel's mind like a sunburst. He leapt to his feet and rushed to the arrayed weapons. After a moment's thought he selected an AK-47, because it looked sturdiest. He planted the butt between the door and frame, then pressed against the barrel. The receiver groaned alarmingly but held; the door moved a centimeter or so. Jaleel inspected the slightly widened gap; if only he had something-
Of course. Jaleel let the door back, then fetched an assortment of pistols. A gun enthusiast would have wept to see him use an almost new Glock 17 as a door stop but under the circumstances perhaps allowances could be made. By levering the door, wedging it, then moving his improvised pry-bar upward and levering again, Jaleel managed to shift the door much closer to vertical. Then he hit a plateau: having moved the door that far, there wasn't anywhere he could set the rifle to lever it further; the gap was either too wide or too narrow. He reversed the rifle; that gained him a little but now the pistol was too thin one way and too thick the other. After some investigation he substituted it for a grenade.
The thought passed fleetingly through Jaleel's mind that if the grenade exploded it would blow him in half. He shrugged it off; at least it would be quick and relatively painless. He felt as if his soul had already left his body and was floating somewhere nearby, watching the proceedings but untouched by them. If he let himself think about all the horrible ways he could die he'd go mad. By focusing exclusively on immediate concerns he could keep himself moving. He'd either win free or die, and at the moment that was the best he could possibly hope for.
The levering stopped when the AK-47's flash suppressor broke off. Turning it around didn't help; something in the receiver had sprung. When Jaleel set the butt and leaned on the remaining barrel there was a loud crack and the weapon bent sharply. "Oh well," Jaleel commented, stepping back to admire his handiwork. The door was almost vertical. Unfortunately, that didn't make it balanced; being trapezoidal in cross-section it still leaned against the frame. Even so, the force needed to tip it had been reduced.
Jaleel rubbed his hands together and gulped down another jar of milk because he couldn't afford to be doing nothing, not even for a second. Yes, he could see one thing he might try. He'd dragged a box over so he could lever at the very top of the door; standing on it put his shoulders about even with the top edge. The gap was wide enough that he could brace his back against the wall and get his hand on the lip on the inner face. After positioning himself he took several deep breaths and heaved.
Nothing happened. Jaleel might have been trying to shift a building. He rested a moment, then tried again. This was it: do or die. If he gave up he didn't see how he could possibly hide the evidence of what he'd been doing and he knew he'd never work up the nerve to try again.
Jaleel heaved and heaved. His face turned beet red and his screamed with the force of his exertion. His shirt split open as his muscles bunched beneath it.
The door moved. The grenade fell out. Now it was only Jaleel's strength holding it. If he slipped his hand would be crushed. He summoned reserves of effort he'd never imagined he could have possessed and pushed harder.
The resistance diminished so rapidly Jaleel almost fell over with the door. He saw it topple, then hit the floor. Great whorls of dust exploded out from beneath it. There was a sound, too, but afterward Jaleel couldn't consciously remember hearing it. He came to his senses some time later, sprawled beside the box he'd been standing on, his whole body ringing with the echoes of a sound so devastatingly loud it had completely overwhelmed his senses. The concussion alone left him feeling as if he'd been pummeled by a giant. But the door was open.
Jaleel forced himself to get up. His hand slipped; he'd stripped the skin off his palm and now it was slick with blood. He staggered to the water pail and washed himself, then bound up his hands with the remains of his shirt, which he tore up without really noticing what he was doing. Mechanically he donned his backpack and slung the SMG over his shoulder. Only as he put the baby into his improvised carrier did Jaleel realize that he was screaming at the top of his lungs. The sound had always been there but Jaleel's shocked mind had failed to register it. Even now it didn't concern him. He'd deal with it later. He picked up the lantern and started walking.
Navigating the labyrinth beyond the bunker hadn't seemed at all difficult while carrying Barry, but it proved tricky without Tinka's guidance. Jaleel couldn't hear the subway trains rumbling past, which he had before. Did that mean he was going the wrong direction or that service had stopped for the night? No way to know. Icy panic clawed at Jaleel's guts. He had to get out of here. He'd swear the door's fall could have been heard halfway across the city; if Tinka had been anywhere nearby-
Jaleel found himself at the foot of a ladder. He set the lantern down and climbed. Or tried to; his bandaged hands wouldn't properly grip the rungs. He stripped off his improvised dressings and threw them away, not noticing that while his hands were bloody they weren't bleeding. His palms stung like crazy when he put his weight on them; he gritted his teeth and kept going.
A round metal lid blocked the top of the shaft. A manhole cover, Jaleel reasoned, considering the sounds of traffic and the smell of exhaust that filtered down from above. He hooked an elbow through the ladder, planted his other hand on the cover, and heaved it aside. A car swerved to avoid driving into the hole; two vehicles came into violent contact. A third, following too close, stopped with a squeal of rubber but hit anyway. A chorus of horns split the night. Angry voices shouted imprecations.
"Hey, you!" someone shouted as Jaleel heaved himself up. A large, hairy form, a big dog of some kind or possibly a bear, came looming out of the darkness. "Just what the fuck do you-"
I wouldn't have been accurate to say that something in Jaleel snapped. The thing that would have snapped had failed long before, crushed into dust by the unrelenting tension of living from second to second for the past several hours. If anything, he felt only a minor, fleeting annoyance. Jaleel's soul fled through darkness, with Death pressed in close all around and not more than half a step behind. He couldn't see where he was going but didn't dare slow down to look, even knowing that but a single misstep would send him down a blind alley: literally a dead end. And here was this fellow, ranting about- well, it didn't matter. Only that if allowed to continue he'd waste away the remaining moments of Jaleel's life expounding upon it.
Jaleel took two long steps and threw a punch into the bear's (or dog's) bulging abdomen. The verbal assault ended abruptly with an explosive exhalation of breath; the fellow doubled over and fell to his knees, wheezing painfully as he struggled to breathe. With his left hand Jaleel grabbed the fellow by his mane and forced his head up; with his right Jaleel un-slung the MP-5 and socketed the muzzle against the fellow's face, just below his eye. "All I want to know from you is if one of those cars over there is yours," Jaleel said. "Answer yes or no. If you say anything else, anything at all, I blow your fucking head off."
"Yes!" the bear (or dog) screamed, nodding furiously.
"Then get up and take me to it," Jaleel replied, hauling the fellow to his feet by the mane.
"You! Drop the gun and let him go, now!"
Jaleel turned. One of the bystanders- a craggy, middle-aged bull- had produced a small pistol and held it leveled, aimed at Jaleel's head.
It's said that the prospect of imminent death will sharpen a person's wits tremendously. Jaleel would certainly agree; since deciding to leave Tinka's bunker he'd experienced a clarity of thought and intensity of focus that he wouldn't have believed possible beforehand. Here and now, it allowed Jaleel to identify and itemize the key points of the situation with only a quick glance. For starters, the bull held his weapon with a firm confidence that spoke of much experience. Second, he'd engaged on Jaleel's offhand side, where the hostage's body prevented Jaleel from bringing his own weapon to bear. Third, though Jaleel and his hostage stood close, relative to the bull's sight line they were side by side: the hostage did not offer Jaleel any cover whatsoever. Fourth, Jaleel had taken his weapon away from his hostage's face and now it pointed uselessly at the sky. Fifth, and perhaps most significant, Jaleel hadn't taken the safety off. (Jaleel knew this because Heckler und Koch had obligingly marked the fire selection lever with brightly painted icons whose purpose were readily apparent to the discerning mind: a red X, a white singe bullet, three white bullets, and finally five white bullets. To Jaleel's mind that suggested that at the second setting the gun would fire one bullet, three at the third, and none at the first. He didn't see the meaningful distinction between firing three bullets and five, but suspected that he was missing some important aspect of the weapon's proper operation.)
In short, Jaleel concluded, the bull had- as the Americans said- the drop on him. Anything Jaleel might do would require several actions and a certain amount of time, while all the bull had to do was flex his trigger finger. The sensible thing would be to give up. Getting shot would only leave Jaleel incapacitated while Tinka hunted him down. On the other hand, by giving up he was betting his life on the fact that a great many people, such as the police, would not only believe him but react in a swift, expeditious fashion.
Jaleel moved. He stepped behind his hostage, swung his weapon down, and flicked off the safety with his thumb. The bull fired.
Had there been any justice in the world, Jaleel's life would have ended then and there, with the bull's bullet punching into his left eye and out the back of his head. Jaleel would have been fine with that: he'd die instantly, without even time to feel it, and whatever happened afterward wouldn't bother him. Which, of course, meant that it didn't happen that way. The bull knew he was taking a chance, but deemed the risks acceptable: the MP-5 looked impressive but it was patently obvious that the ram hadn't the faintest idea what to do with it. Nor did he show any familiarity with this type of business: he should have been watching the crowd instead of focusing on his victim to the exclusion of all else.
All well and good, but the bull might have done better to wonder how it was that selfsame ram had successfully incapacitated an opponent more than half again his size with only a single, inexpertly thrown punch. Jaleel dodged with super-human speed; the bull fired reflexively but missed; his bullet creased Jaleel's cheek and vanished into the night. Then Jaleel was safely behind his hostage, his own weapon swinging on target. He mashed the trigger.
In his haste Jaleel had thrown the fire select lever all the way up, to the five bullet position. Now he discovered what that meant: full auto. It would be fair to say that he was as much, or more, surprised by what happened than anyone else. The MP5 was a very well balanced weapon with a recoil damper, but it still jumped around like crazy and Jaleel held it with only one hand. Purely by accident a bullet hit the bull's right bicep, tearing a nasty gash but failing to shatter the bone or open any arteries. On the scale of such things it was a relatively minor wound; the bull could have remained standing but elected instead to dive for cover behind a parked car.
Jaleel managed to release the trigger before shooting off the whole clip. The bear (or dog) was screaming, and judging by the smell had messed himself. Jaleel's hand shook; shock at what he'd just done penetrated the armor of icy reserve he'd built around himself... but only for a second. With one arm around his hostage's neck he retreated, keeping his weapon aimed at the bull's hiding place. He'd learned his lesson, too: he kept his eyes moving, scanning the crowd for signs of danger. The people with whom he made eye contact ducked away.
For the first time since launching his escape, Jaleel allowed himself a flicker of hope. Maybe this was going to work after all.
Joe lifted his visor and scrubbed his face. Despite the impression one got from the mass media, sensational battles were far and away the smallest component of super-heroing. The rest was more like routine police work, or private detecting: a long, incredibly tedious slog, looking for leads and then following up the very few that ever appeared, most of which turned out to be dead ends.
Such was the case now. Night after night Joe had gone out on patrol, searching for his mysterious tentacled monster. One would think that a giant cat leaping from rooftop to rooftop would be easy to track, but it wasn't. He couldn't pelt heedlessly along as his quarry had done, at least if he wanted to spend his time looking for clues instead of fighting running battles with the police, other supers, or whomever else came along. Also, the cat monster tended to change course erratically and could jump a long way in a single bound, so it wasn't always obvious where she'd gone from one leap to the next. Having to cast about when he lost the trail, combined with the need for discretion, had eaten up most of the time.
Most significantly, giant cat monsters with tentacles weren't the only people out on the rooftops at night. New York City was positively crawling with supers, ranging from fully accredited heroes to freelancers- like Joe- to the usual run of wannabes. The villain side wasn't any better; the big names might not be officially accredited but they still had to deal with hordes of small fry. Sometimes it seemed like everyone and his freaking dog was out, running, jumping, swinging, flying, or otherwise locomotoring. And people thought the streets were crowded. As if that weren't enough, all those rooftop travelers left a truly astounding quantity of litter behind: cables, webbing, clamps, crampons, and grapnels, plus things Joe couldn't identify and probably didn't want to, either.
A distant popping sound, like someone letting off a string of firecrackers, reached Joe's ears. He snapped his visor shut; his suit had also noted the sound and placed a bearing marker on his heads-up display. He turned toward it, took a short run-up, and leapt. His jump jets carried him across the street to the next block; as soon as he touched down he leapt again, flying across the rooftops in a series of prodigious bounds. Shortly thereafter Joe found himself peering over the edge of a roof at a curious scene.
Several cars had piled up in a chain-reaction accident. The cause wasn't clear until Joe noticed the open manhole. In the midst of it stood a male sheep, dressed in dirty, mismatched clothing that looked like it might have come from the Salvation Army. More to the point, he held a sub-machine gun to the head of a bulky, overweight fellow who looked to be a terrier / Newfoundland mix. A bull lay behind a stopped car, pistol in one hand, his other clutched to a wound in his upper arm. Bystanders fled or hid, as was their wont.
Joe worked his fingers to loosen them. He needed a break after a night of mostly fruitless searching. This would do nicely.
The car belonging to Jaleel's hostage was the first, the one that had initially swerved to miss the open manhole. It had suffered damage to the front right quarter panel as a result of side-swiping another vehicle and more damage to the rear when struck from behind by a vehicle unable to stop in time. But it wasn't trapped, either by the accident itself of the traffic which had piled up behind it
If he'd ever thought about it- which he hadn't- Jaleel would have said that knowing how to get a hostage and himself into a car without giving the hostage an opportunity to escape was something he'd never need to know. So he improvised: he took the hostage's keys and unlocked the passenger side door. Retaining the keys he stood outside the car with the door open, where his line of fire and freedom of movement wouldn't be constrained, and set the hostage around to get in on the other side. Then Jaleel got in himself.
As Jaleel crouched to swing himself into the passenger seat something came flying out of the sky with a roar. It slammed the car door shut, pitching Jaleel headlong into his hostage's lap and crushing Jaleel's ankle. While Jaleel struggled against shock and pain the door was flung open. Something hard grabbed his injured ankle and hauled him out.
Standing over Jaleel as he lay sprawled on the pavement was a hulking figure in a suit of silver-gray metal, like polished steel. The head was curiously flattened, with large, curiously bulging eye lenses. Embossed on the plastron was a design that looks just like a hobnailed boot print. Jaleel twisted, swinging the MP5 up with a speed and precision that would have shocked him if he'd had time to think of it. But nothing happened when he mashed the trigger: dismay over the incident with the bull had caused him to put the weapon back on safe, counting that his hostage wouldn't notice, and he'd forgotten to take it off again. The figure swatted the weapon away with a casual swipe of the hand that sent it skittering across the pavement and left Jaleel's fingers stinging. He drew back his free leg to kick, but aborted the effort mid-motion.
"You!" Jaleel shouted. He'd suddenly recognized the figure: it was the same person Tinka had fought that evening they'd delivered Barry, after she'd fallen through a roof on the way home from Central Park.
Joe also froze. In the very same instant he recognized the person he'd just collared: it was the individual the cat monster had been carrying while Joe pursued her across the rooftops.
Then Joe noticed something else. The ram's satchel was squirming and wailing in a most distressing fashion. "What are you doing with a baby?" he demanded harshly, grabbing the man by the remains of his shirt and hauling him upright.
"It's hers," Jaleel replied. "When she finds out we're gone, she going to kill me."
The calm, quiet way Jaleel delivered that statement was chilling. When Joe thought of the monster- specifically, her teeth, her claws, the blades on the ends of her tentacles, and the hooks along the underside, he decided that this person wasn't being facetious: he was stating a simple truth.
A tone sounded in Joe's ears and an information sidebar appeared on his HUD. The AI in his suit had intercepted a 911 call being made by someone in the immediate vicinity. It would take time for police or supers to respond, but the clock was definitely running and Joe, being not in any way accredited, was himself breaking the law. It was time to go: now, before the cops- or other supers- had a chance to engage him.
Usually, in these cases, Joe left the people he captured for the police to handle. If he did that now he could imagine what would happen: the cops would arrive, in due course. The ram would be arrested. Then there would be a lengthy investigation while bystanders were interviewed, photos of the crime scene taken, and evidence collected. Since there'd been a shooting it would probably take hours. The ram would be spared most of it but might spend quite some time cooling his heels in the back of a patrol car. Then it would be off to the local precinct station for processing and questioning.
None of which was a problem in itself. The wheels of justice might turn slowly but they turned nonetheless. Except-
Joe glanced at the open manhole. The ram claimed to be on the run from the cat monster. He seemed to be in an awful tearing hurry, too: enough to try a car-jacking. No surprise, really: the cat monster might say good riddance to the ram himself, but would she feel the same about losing her baby? Presumably she wasn't around or the ram wouldn't have been able to escape, but how long would it be before she returned? When she did return and found her baby gone, what would she do?
All too easily Joe could imagine the monster tearing off after her baby, heedless of any danger. If the trail led her this far- and there was no reason to think it wouldn't, especially if the ram had come this far on foot, as the evidence tended to suggest- would the police still be here when she arrived?
Joe couldn't help cringing. The cat monster had dropped through the roof and two floors of a tenement without any evident injury; the fall hadn't even stunned her for any meaningful amount of time. With the servo boosting in his armor Joe could kick through a wall, but such a kick square in her face hadn't even slowed her down. All the police had were 9mm automatics and nightsticks, with only their uniforms or maybe light body armor for protection. Even assuming the police weapons could hurt her- which wasn't at all certain- it would be like trying to bring down a charging bull elephant with handguns and clubs. Possible, yes, but a lot of hunters would die in the process. And an elephant couldn't jump and dodge with super-human speed despite its ponderous mass. Nor was it equipped with teeth and claws worthy of a smilodon, not to mention hundreds of ripping hooks and blades like swords.
To Be Continued
SCA #04: Electro-Bastard