A Whateley Academy Adventure
An Imperfect World
New York, Saturday, June 16th, 2007
It was Saturday morning, which meant that I should be home, dressed up in my favorite PJ’s and eating a bowl of sugary cereal while watching cartoons on TV. Of course, they didn’t make good Saturday morning cartoons like they used to, but that was beside the point. What I shouldn’t be doing was hanging around an empty parking garage and waiting for a superhero to show up.
My bike was currently parked off to the side, in an out of the way corner where it wouldn’t be noticed. I was hidden as well, using my aura to blend into my surroundings so that I was effectively invisible. As usual, I’d arrived early to the meeting, just to reduce the chance that Chickenhawk would be able screw me over.
But in spite of my precautions, I was worried. I didn’t know if Chickenhawk might have decided that he no longer needed me, and it would have been quite easy for him to warn the Shielders, the Empire City Guard, or even an army of cops that I’d be here. After all, he’d been trying to put me behind bars for years, and this was the perfect opportunity for him to come after me. He knew where I’d be, and I’d already told him about my invisibility so they could come prepared for that.
I knew that I’d made a mistake yesterday, telling Chickenhawk about my invisibility and my intentional image management. Those secrets had kept me ahead of the cops and heroes for thirty years. They were part of what had made me so successful as a thief, and I’d thrown them away. At the time, I hadn’t been able to think of any other way to convince Chickenhawk to trust me, and that was going to come back and bite me in the tail. Of course, I’d known it would when I made the decision.
Then, just as I was about to convince myself to turn tail and run, a single car drove into the parking lot. I let out a sigh of relief when it parked and only one person stepped it. It was Chickenhawk in his Ben guise. He hadn’t cut me out or turned me over to the cops. He’d actually come to meet me here, just like we’d agreed.
“Imp?” Ben called out, looking around the parking garage. “Are you here?”
I hesitated just a moment, long enough to glance around to make sure there wasn’t anyone else trying to sneak up on us, then I dropped my camouflage and stepped into view. “I’m here,” I answered, though I couldn’t resist teasing, “Did you miss me?”
“Like a hemorrhoid,” Ben responded. However, after a few seconds, he admitted, “I was a little worried that you’d changed your mind and wouldn’t be here.”
I nodded at that and looked over his car, a nice looking sedan. I noticed the tags on the plates and commented, “A rental.”
Ben nodded faintly. “I was afraid that if I left the transportation to you, you’d hotwire the next car you saw.”
“I would not,” I protested in mock offense. Then I grinned and pointed out, “I’m very picky about which cars I steal.” That earned me a disapproving look that had me chuckle in amusement.
With that, I adjusted the backpack I had slung over my shoulder. This wasn’t the thin pack I often wore almost as part of my costume, but a larger one that contained everything I’d need for a couple days of travel as well as pulling a job. I wasn’t sure what I’d need when we got there, so I tried to be as prepared as I could without bringing too much. It was a careful balance.
“I figured that I’d follow along on my bike,” I commented. “Or maybe scout ahead…”
“I don’t think so,” Ben quickly disagreed, gesturing to the car. “You’re riding in here with me. I want you in my sight at all times.”
“What?” I asked with a grin. “You’re starting to enjoy my company? I do tend to grow on people.”
Ben snorted at that. “I’m just afraid that you’ll just go robbing every convenience store and gas station we pass…”
I stiffened at that, actually feeling a little offended. Sure, I had no problem sneaking into a place and taking what I needed…or just really wanted…but I was not some cheap thug to go knocking over convenience stores. I’d never stolen anything at gunpoint in my life and I wasn’t about to start now. After all, any idiot with a gun could do that. It took skill, style, and panache to do what I did.
“Let’s get going,” Ben said impatiently. “I want to make sure we’re in Wisconsin and ready to go as soon as your contact narrows down Paradigm’s location.”
I didn’t bother arguing with him since I’d been thinking the same thing. So without a word, I threw my bag into the back of the car, then climbed into the passenger seat. I squirmed just a little uncomfortably, dreading the long trip, which would only be made worse by the fact that I only had Chickenhawk for company. However, I’d already paid a large price to help Melissa, so I could handle this as well.
For the first couple hours, we drove in near silence, with neither of us talking. I just looked out the window and tried to ignore the feeling of being trapped, as well as the knowledge that the man beside me had spent years trying to lock me up. I was pretty tense at the situation, and eventually I pulled the sketch pad out of my backpack. I’d known there would be some downtime on the trip, so I’d brought some paper and pencils, which were just what I needed to distract myself.
I began sketching a portrait of Melissa, which wasn’t easy in a moving vehicle and since I had to work from memory. However, those very difficulties were what made this a good distraction. Ben gave me a curious look, but he didn’t say anything. I didn’t show him what I was working on, and he didn’t ask, which was fine by me.
Eventually, I began to relax a little, and I could almost forget that the man driving the car was Chickenhawk and think of him as Ben instead. After all, Ben didn’t look like the Chickenhawk I knew, nor was he acting like him. For one thing, he was a lot more pleasant to deal with. Of course, I suspected that he had a similar perspective on me since I wasn’t acting the way he was used to either.
Then, as if reading my mind, Ben commented, “I’m not used to you being so quiet…” He hesitated a moment, then admitted, “I didn’t think you knew how…”
I just grinned, and in my best imitation of the Disney character Stitch, who was one of my all-time favorite Disney characters, I exclaimed, “BLUE PUNCH BUGGY,” and punched Ben in the arm. Then I made sure to point out the window at the blue VW Bug that we were passing.
“Forget I said anything,” Ben muttered.
I was briefly tempted to go into a nice round of The Song that Never Ends, just to really annoy him, but instead, I went back to my drawing. After all, I had a couple of days to drive Ben crazy, and I didn’t want to blow all my material at once. And besides, I wanted to work on my sketch without any interruptions.
It was around noon when we finally stopped for gas, and to my relief, I saw a burger joint next door. I was cramped, hungry, and going a bit squirrely from being stuck in the car so long, so I was more than happy to see food available. As soon as we stopped, I threw on my hat and oversized jacket and virtually jumped out of the car. Once I was out, I let out a long sigh of relief and began to stretch.
“Oh yeah,” I exclaimed, especially stretching out my tail, which I hadn’t tucked down my pants this time. I just hoped my coat managed to hide it well enough.
“You’ve been pretty tense,” Ben said, giving me a curious look. “Are you claustrophobic?”
“Of course not,” I quickly responded in a slightly defensive tone. “No one who spends as much time crawling through ventilation shafts and crawlspaces as I do could possibly be claustrophobic.” Then I paused, deflating just a little bit as I admitted, “I just don’t like riding in cars.”
Ben nodded at that, and for a moment, he looked amused. However, he deflated a little himself and then shook his head. “I think I understand,” he said carefully. “I really don’t like flying in airplanes.”
I blinked at that. “You’re afraid of heights?” That was certainly unexpected.
“Of course not,” he snapped defensively. “No one who flies around as much as I do could possibly be afraid of heights…” Then he gave me a wry smile as he added, “Flying under my own power is one thing. Flying inside a giant chunk of metal, with no control over where I’m going, is another.”
For several seconds, the two of us just stared at each other then we both started chuckling. I couldn’t believe that he’d actually admitted that he was afraid of flying in planes…nor could I believe I’d told him about my discomfort with cars. Then again, at that moment, we weren’t arch-enemies. We weren’t hero and villain. Right now, we were just two people who had something in common. We were both worried about Melissa.
I felt sad as I suddenly realized that once Melissa was safe and back home, there was no way Chickenhawk would let us hang out again. A hero, even one I was getting along with at the moment, would never let his daughter be friends with a villain…and his arch-enemy at that. However, I quickly reminded myself that I’d never let Chickenhawk stop me before, so why should now be any different. After all, I had a lot of experience sneaking past him, and I was sure I could use that to arrange an occasional visit with Melissa.
Once we’d finished gassing up the car, I gestured to the restaurant next door, then gave Ben my best puppy dog look…kitty cat look…and pleaded, “I can has cheeseburger?”
Ben stared at me for a moment, then he shook his head, though I saw a faint smile. “Melissa does the exact same thing,” he told me in a quiet voice. Then he cleared his throat and added, “I am getting hungry…”
A couple minutes later, we were at the burger joint. Ben went to order our food while I stayed outside, waiting in the outdoor seating area. I had my coat on with the collar up, and my hat hung low. In New York, most people didn’t pay much attention to anyone else on the streets, so I could get away with disguising myself this way. However, here I was drawing a few curious looks, though that was probably just because I was dressed up like this in June.
When Ben got back with the food, my Imp senses said that the smart move would be to go back to the car and eat on the road, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. After that long drive, I was happy to take any excuse I could to delay getting back in the car. Without saying a word to Ben, I sat down at one of the outside tables and began to eat. It seemed that he was happy to take a break from driving as well, because he didn’t complain at all as he sat down across from me.
We ate for a couple minutes before Ben abruptly said, “They make good shakes here.” I glanced at him, suspecting that he was just trying to make some kind of small talk in order to break the silence. “They use fresh fruit,” he continued. “The strawberry shake tastes like real strawberries…”
“And the snozzberries taste like snozzberries,” I agreed sagely, which earned a faint smile.
“I’ve been wondering this for three years,” Ben said, giving me a curious look. “On that Merkwood job…how in the world did you get that painting out of there? There was supposed to be a curse on the painting…one that would kill anyone who touched it…yet you walked right out the front door with the damn thing…”
I grinned, remembering the job he was talking about. An art collector named Felix Merkwood had ignored his head of security and had decided to forgo many of the normal security precautions, and he’d hired some finger wiggler to provide protection, then left the painting out in the open…daring anyone to risk the curse. It had actually worked quite well, killing three would-be thieves before I became involved. My little trick was something of a trade secret, or at least something that I might want to pull again someday, but I was in a somewhat good mood at the moment and couldn’t resist bragging a little.
“I never touched the painting,” I told Ben.
“Other people tried with gloves,” Ben pointed out, “with a robotic drone, and even with something that was supposed to break the curse first… None of that worked.”
“That’s because they aren’t me,” I said with a smirk. Then I chuckled at the memory before explaining, “I never touched the painting…or made any attempt to move it. The truth is, I put up a fake wall in front of the painting in order to hide it, then ran out the front door with a fake…making sure everyone saw me.”
“What?” Ben blurted out in surprise as well as confusion. “Why would you do that?”
“Sorry, but I can’t tell you more,” I told him with a shrug, actually disappointed that I couldn’t. “Client confidentiality.”
The truth was, I’d been hired by Merkwood’s head of security, who was less than pleased at having all of his security recommendations and professional experience ignored. He wanted me to ‘steal’ the painting, just to embarrass Merkwood, and then later on, he could ‘recover’ the painting and come off looking like a hero. It had worked pretty well too.
“I see,” Ben mused, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “Insurance fraud. Merkwood hired you to fake a theft so he could collect the insurance…then he changed his mind and happened to ‘find’ the painting before the insurance payout.”
“Something like that,” I agreed cheerfully, letting Ben keep his wrong guess.
Suddenly, someone came up from behind me and yanked the hat off my head. I jumped to my feet and saw a man in his early twenties, staring at me with a look of shock as he backed away. “Holy shit,” he exclaimed to his friends. “You were right… She is some kind of freak…”
“She’s a mutant,” blurted out a young woman who seemed to be with him, right before she turned and ran.
However, a middle-aged man, who didn’t seem to be part of their group, announced, “It’s a demon!”
“Everyone calm down,” Ben commanded as he got up, but no one seemed to be listening.
The middle-aged man grabbed his crucifix necklace and held it out at me as if it was some kind of weapon. “Begone foul demon,” he ordered. “Go back to the pit where you belong…”
“Great,” I said with a sneer and a roll of my eyes as I went to pick up my hat from where the man had dropped it. “Another exorcism.” I gave Ben a wry look and asked, “Why is it that everyone who ever saw the Exorcist thinks that they’re qualified to perform an exorcism?”
“I cast you out,” the man continued yelling at me. “In the name of the Lord, I banish you back to hell…”
Ben tried calling out, “Sir, this isn’t necessary… She isn’t…”
However, the man ignored Ben, and just as I was turning to walk away in disgust, he yelled, “Begone you grotesque whore of Satan…”
I froze at that and slowly turned around to face the man. I might be a beautiful, talented, and oh so fabulous thief, but even I had feelings that could be hurt. “Grotesque?” I demanded. “Whore?”
“Imp,” Ben warned me, once again sounding like the Chickenhawk I knew. “Don’t you dare touch him…”
I just sneered, not surprised that Chickenhawk would side with this jerk. Cops and heroes always sided with people like him over people like me. “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,” I taunted the man with a forced grin.
For some reason, the man seemed to get pissed off that I wasn’t taking him seriously, which actually amused me a little. I gave him an evil grin and his eyes widened and he took a step back. He tried holding the crucifix out even more firmly. “I am protected by the Lord,” he exclaimed. “Begone foul demon. You will not take my soul…”
“Why would I want to take that filthy thing?” I teased him. “It’s all black and rotten from all your sins…” He gasped at that, and the woman who stood a short distance back, and who I assumed was his wife, looked absolutely horrified. “Besides, we already have claim on your soul. We’re fixing up a nice spot in the pit…just for you.” Then I winked at him and turned to walk away, smirking as I said, “I’ll see you in a few months…”
“Imp,” Ben said, making me glance at him. He was staring at me with an odd expression, and I couldn’t tell if it was horror over what I’d told that man or pity at what he’d been yelling at me. I actually hoped that it was the former rather than the latter.
“Ain’t I a stinker?” I asked in my best Bugs Bunny voice, right before I turned and started walking back to the car as quickly as I could. “Come on. Let’s get out of here before the MCO and cops show up.”
We got into the car and took off again pretty quickly. Ben scowled and told me, “I doubt anyone there knows who you are…”
“It doesn’t matter if they know who I am or not,” I responded. “Someone is going to call and report that a vicious mutant was violently attacking a crowd of innocent people…and they’ll probably say that they saw me eating a baby or something too.”
Ben gave me a look of surprise, saying, “That’s pretty cynical…”
“No,” I responded in a flat tone, turning my attention back to my sketch paid. “That’s experience.”
We drove in silence for several minutes while I tried to focus on a new sketch. “Imp,” Ben finally said, sounding a bit hesitant. “About what happened back there… Does that kind of thing happen to you very often?”
“Only when I go out in public,” I answered evenly, not even bothering to look at him.
For the rest of the day, Ben and I barely spoke to each other, which suited me fine. I was perfectly happy to focus on my sketches, which reminded me of when I was younger and used to do this all the time. However, whenever we stopped for food and gas, I had to keep an even lower profile than I had been, which made me a bit irritable. It took all my willpower not to take my irritation out on Ben or any of the people we ran into. As fun as that might be, I couldn’t afford that kind of distraction, not when Melissa was still out there.
Eventually, we reached this place in Indiana that was right over the Ohio border and decided to stop for the night. We could switch out drivers and go through the night, but neither of us wanted to push it like that, not when it wouldn’t do any good. Until we knew exactly where to find Paradigm and Melissa, there was no point in wearing ourselves out.
We went into a hotel lobby, with me being dressed up in disguise and standing back so as to avoid attention. And to top it off, I coughed occasionally, which gave me an excuse to keep my head down and obscure the view of my features even more. However, in spite of the fact that I wanted to avoid attention, I was also bored and needed to release a little steam.
“I called ahead and reserved a room,” I told the woman at the registration desk, coughing and keeping my head down. “The honeymoon suite…”
“What?” Ben blurted out, snapping around to give me a look of shock, which only made me grin. He quickly turned back to the woman and said, “We’re not together like that. We need two separate rooms…”
As Ben started to pay for his room, I realized that I could easily take a peek and see what name he had on the credit card. Then again, I could easily pick his pocket and see his driver’s license, though I doubted either of those things would do any good, even if I was inclined to snoop. After all, anyone who was prepared enough to have a high quality skin mask would also be equipped with some good fake ID.
“I’ll cover my own room,” I said, coming over and coughing again as I slid my credit card across the desk.
A minute later, the woman told us, “It looks like you’re all set Mister Smith…Miss Montoya.”
“Montoya?” Ben asked me as we turned to walk towards our rooms.
“Indigo is my first name,” I told him with a smirk. “My name is Indigo Montoya…”
“I did NOT kill your father,” Ben quickly said, cutting me off. Then he gave me an amused look and asked, “Did you pick that identity just to set up a Princess Bride joke?”
“No,” I lied, disappointed that he’d ruined the punchline.
I pouted a little as I walked to my room, annoyed at the ruined joke, especially since I’d put a lot of money into creating a fake ID and debit card in that name. However, Ben had caught the reference, so I had to give him credit for that.
Sunday, June 17th, 2007
It’s official. I don’t care what all those buddy movies say. Road trips SUCK.
For the last two days, I’d been trapped inside a car, fighting the urges to both scream in frustration, and to climb out the window and simply ride on top. I didn’t like riding in cars at the best of times, because some part of me always felt trapped, and that if something went wrong, there was nowhere I could go. It wasn’t usually as bad when I was behind the wheel and in control, but on this trip, I hadn’t been. I’d been riding in the passenger seat while Chickenhawk drove. Not only was this situation ludicrous, it was like one of my worst nightmares come to life. About the only thing that could make this experience any more uncomfortable would be if it was also that time of the month.
Though I’d never admit it to Ben, the stress of the situation had slowly been growing worse, making me a bit grumpy and not at all like my usual happy-go-lucky self. Because of this, I’d been making Ben stop more and more frequently so that I could stretch my legs and release the stress. That was what we were doing now as we parked in front of a convenience store.
I climbed out of the car, dressed up in my usual disguise with my coat collar up and my hat down low. I adjusted my sunglasses, suspecting that if anyone saw me like this, they might think I was some kind of pervert. However, that was better than them seeing me for who I really was and making a scene. After what had happened yesterday, I didn’t need a repeat of it…or an angry mob with torches and pitchforks.
“How are you doing?” Ben asked me, looking a little concerned, though that could just be because all these stops had been slowing us down.
“I’m just peachy,” I responded, flashing him a fake grin. He didn’t buy that, but he was polite enough not to call me on it. I pointed to the store entrance and exclaimed, “Onwards…to energy drinks and chocolate…”
Ben just gave me a flat look and pointed out, “The last thing you need is sugar or caffeine…”
I just grinned at Ben and went inside, keeping my head down and looking for some snacks. I took my time as I did so though, wanting to delay my return to the confines of the car. At this rate, instead of sugar and caffeine, maybe I should look for some weed…not that it would do me any good. My regen burned drugs of just about any sort out of my system in no time at all, which unfortunately, included sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.
I was just picking up a jumbo sized bag of M&M’s when two men entered the store together. I spared them a glance and wouldn’t have given them any further attention of I hadn’t heard one of them say the words ‘gene filth.’ I immediately froze, then stepped into the corner, a blind spot where I couldn’t be seen by either the man at the register or the security cameras. A moment later, I adjusted my aura so that I blurred into my surroundings and became invisible.
“I tell you Jimmy,” a stocky man with a baseball cap said. I noticed that he wore a t-shirt with the Humanity First logo plastered on it, which immediately confirmed my suspicions of this man, even before I heard the rest of what he had to say. “Mutants are a threat to the human race. They pollute the gene pool…which is why they’re called gene filth. And if we don’t filter them out now while we still can, then in just a few generations, the gene pool will be totally corrupted…and there goes the human race.”
I snarled as I listened to him casually talk about something that sounded an awful lot like genocide against mutants. If it actually came down to it, I didn’t know if he was the kind of guy who actually could do something like that, or if he was fine with the idea but not the reality. Either way, I REALLY didn’t like that guy. People like him were the reason I had to wear a disguise just to go buy M&Ms.
“I’m not disagreeing with you, Mal,” Jimmy, the taller and skinnier of the two responded. “Not at all. But I’m a bit more worried about the short term problems… I know you don’t have any kids, but I do. I’ve got a daughter, and I’ll be damned if I want her to go to school with one of those freaks. I mean, you know what kind of crazy shit they can do…”
Mal and Jimmy continued talking about the ‘mutant threat,’ though I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying. Instead, I waited patiently until they walked past me, then once they had, I decided it was time to leave. I dropped my camouflage, then stepped out of the corner and quickly walked out of the store.
“Let’s see,” I mused as I stopped outside, right next to the garbage can. I quickly glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then I emptied the two wallets I’d pinched and dropped them into the garbage. “Only a few hundred cash…”
Though I doubted that I’d have any real opportunity to have fun with the credit cards before they were reported stolen, there were other things I could use. I looked at the drivers licenses, which I was keeping, as well as a card that I’d found in Mal’s wallet. It was a card with the phone number for the MCO hotline to report dangerous mutants. I just grinned evilly.
I quickly made the call, then tried to sound terrified as I exclaimed, “I’d like to report a dangerous mutant… He looked so normal, but then I saw him shoot some death rays from his eyes and kill my cat…” After that, I gave them Mal’s name and description, as well as the address I’d taken from his license. I had only just hung up and put my phone away when Ben came out of the store with a grim look on his face.
“I take it that you saw the clowns,” I commented cheerfully. Ben just grunted at that. “I thought it would be a good idea for me to remain out here…where they couldn’t see me.”
“Good idea,” he responded with a faint nod of approval.
“You know me, Boo Boo,” I said, shifting into a Yogi impression. “I’m smarter than the average Imp.”
Ben smiled faintly. “That’s debatable.”
We hurried back into the car, and for once, I didn’t hesitate about getting back in. I did NOT want to be hanging around when those guys realized that their wallets were missing, which was bound to be pretty soon.
As we drove off, Ben gave me a curious look and said, “I’m just surprised you didn’t do something crazy to them…” He almost sounded disappointed.
“I’m not crazy,” I stated in my best innocent look, which probably wasn’t very good considering my appearance. “My psychiatrist says I just have a few issues to work through.”
Ben snorted at that, though he smiled a little as he pointed out, “You have enough issues to fill a magazine stand.”
“Ooooh,” I exclaimed, grinning at Ben in approval. “Someone made a funny.”
I was in a much better mood after this, though I knew it wouldn’t last for too long. Messing with idiots who deserved it was something that always put a grin on my face, but even that couldn’t negate untold hours of being trapped inside a rolling death trap without any control. Still, it might at least hold me until we stopped for the night.
But while I was in a good mood, my thoughts turned to the fact that I actually knew someone who lived in Wisconsin, someone I hadn’t seen in several years. Out of curiosity, I looked up where he lived on the map and saw that it wasn’t quite on our route…but it wasn’t very far out of our way either.
While we drove through Illinois, getting closer to the Wisconsin border, I kept looking over the map, tracking our progress. My eyes kept darting to a specific spot that wasn’t on our route, and the closer we got, the more I itched to go see my old friend.
When we finally crossed the border into Wisconsin, Ben announced, “We’re here…” I could hear the anticipation in his voice…the impatience to find his daughter. I actually shared it.
I nodded at that, then hesitated a moment before saying, “I know a place where we can stop.”
“What?” Ben asked, giving me a curious look.
“I know a place where we can stay,” I explained, keeping my tone calm and relaxed, as though this was no big deal. “We’ll be safe there until we find out where we actually need to go now.”
Ben gave me a somewhat suspicious look, then after several seconds, he nodded. “Where to?”
I nodded and gave Ben directions, trying to remember the way to a place I hadn’t seen in about five years. However, it wasn’t too far and less than an hour later, we drove down a long driveway and pulled to a stop in front of an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
When Ben turned the car off, I put a hand on his arm and gave him a steady look, letting him see that I was actually serious. “Remember our deal.”
He looked a little startled at that, then a little worried. However, he nodded and said, “I remember.”
With that, I climbed out of the car, not bothering with the coat or hat. We were far away from any neighbors that there wasn’t a chance of any of them seeing me, and the man who lived here was well aware of what I looked like.
I didn’t have to wait long because a few seconds later, the door opened and an old man came out. He had white hair that was a bit thin on top, and he was leaning on a cane. He took several steps past the front door, then stopped. I watched him for a moment, knowing full well that with the way his body was angled away from us, with the further arm being held against his body, that he had a gun ready in case we were a threat.
Suddenly, he smiled and announced, “Well, if it isn’t my favorite little Imp.”
“Frank,” I exclaimed, running over and giving him a hug. While I hugged him, my tail cheerfully swung back and forth, almost as though it had a mind of its own. “How are you doing?”
“Same as always,” Frank responded gruffly. “I wasn’t expecting you…”
I just grinned and cheerfully told him, “I was in the area and thought I’d drop by.”
Frank nodded, then gave Ben a suspicious look and asked, “Who’s your friend?” Then he abruptly demanded, “Is he a cop?”
“Not a cop,” I assured Frank, neglecting to mention that Ben was a superhero instead. “This is my associate, Ben. We’re working together on something and we needed a place to hole up for a day or two while we wait for a little bird to get back to me with a juicy worm.”
“Gotcha,” Frank told me, gesturing to the house. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you want.”
I nodded at that, then turned to Ben and proudly announced, “This is Frank…the man who made me the Imp I am today.”
“Really?” Ben responded, keeping a carefully controlled expression.
“He’s the one who gave me my name,” I said with a grin, which earned Frank a curious look from Ben.
I just looked at Frank and grinned happily, knowing that most people who looked at him would never guess that this old man was Frank ‘Mad Cow’ Cowan, who at one time, had been one of the best jewel thieves in the country. Back in the day, he’d put together a crew of professionals, old fashioned thieves without a single paranormal ability among them, and they’d pulled off a few very impressive jobs.
But out of all of Frank’s accomplishments, the one I was most impressed with was that he’d taken in a lost and scared girl, gave her a home and family, then taught her a profession, and helped her to find a future. Frank was not only my mentor, but also my father in all ways but blood.
Frank had retired from the business nearly twenty years ago, and he’d settled down here in the middle of nowhere, in a place where no one could connect him to who he was or what he’d done. I didn’t get out to visit him very often at all, but Frank was getting up there in age and I knew that this might possibly be the last time I’d ever see him. That was why I hadn’t been able to resist the opportunity to stop by and see him again while I still could.
“Come on in,” Frank said as he turned to go inside, no longer bothering to hide the gun he was carrying. “I was about to get dinner going, so you got here just in time.”
“We’ll be safe here,” I assured Ben, who looked a little uncertain. And as a nice bonus, I could actually walk around without having to wear some stupid disguise.
“You’re in a good mood,” Ben said, giving me a curious look. “You really do trust him.”
“With my life,” I stated. Frank had proven that to me long ago.
I went to the car and grabbed my backpack, and once Ben had grabbed his bag as well, the two of us went inside. We put our bags in the guest bedrooms, then went to the living room where we sat and waited for dinner.
Ben glanced towards the kitchen, then leaned over and asked, “Is he a villain?”
“Hell no,” Frank exclaimed from the next room, proving that in spite of his age, his hearing was as sharp as ever. He stepped into the doorway and said, “I never needed some power or costume to do the job. I was a professional.”
I didn’t take Frank’s comments personally, since I knew that he didn’t mean it as an insult to me. He thought my costume was a bit too theatrical, but I knew he also found it amusing.
“Frank used to be a jewel thief,” I said with a grin.
“Best in the business,” he agreed before going back into the kitchen.
While we waited on Frank to finish dinner, Ben and I just sat there, neither of us really sure what to say. However, I could see the questions building up behind Ben’s mouth, and I knew that they’d burst out at any moment. I let out a sigh, expecting a few questions about Frank and my past, most of which I probably wouldn’t answer.
“When Melissa manifested,” Ben said quietly, catching me by surprise. He had a worried look on his face and I found myself wanting to comfort him a little and assure him that Melissa would be all right. He let out a sigh and said, “She didn’t tell me. She had her powers for several months, and she didn’t even tell me…”
I nodded at that, having heard the same thing from Melissa. “Did she tell you why she took so long?”
Ben was silent for a couple seconds, then he quietly answered, “Because she was afraid…”
“Afraid?” I asked.
“She said that she was afraid of how I’d react,” Ben admitted, looking ashamed. “She was afraid that I’d forbid her from using her powers…or that I’d force her to follow in my footsteps and become a hero…”
“Kind of contradictory fears,” I mused.
“She’s thirteen,” Ben reminded me. “Thirteen year old girls aren’t known for being logical.”
I stuck my tongue out at Ben and said, “As a former thirteen year old girl, I resent that remark. Or is that resemble it?”
Ben chuckled faintly at that, then stared at me with an odd expression. “Melissa,” he said carefully, still watching me. “She said a friend convinced her to finally tell me…convinced her to trust me.” He paused at that, then asked, “That was you…wasn’t it?”
“I might have told her something along those lines,” I admitted, feeling a little awkward and self-conscious, which wasn’t something I was used to feeling. I gave Ben a grin and joked, “But if I knew who her dad was, I might have told her to keep it a secret.”
“I never thought I’d say this to you,” Ben said, giving me a wry smile. “But thank you. Thank you for trying to look out for her…for everything you’ve done for her.”
“Even teaching her to pick locks?” I teased with a grin.
Ben chuckled. “Well, maybe not that.” Then he joked, “If I didn’t know better, I might almost think you were a responsible adult.”
“Then it’s a good thing you know better,” I responded. “I mean, you wouldn’t want to make that mistake.” Ben and I both chuckled at that.
A short time later, Frank announced that dinner was ready. He’d just made up a quick batch of spaghetti, which was perfectly fine. I could tell that Frank was happy to have some company for once, because he was actually fairly friendly with Ben as we sat down to eat.
“So,” Ben said to Frank as we ate. “You were a thief?”
Frank glanced to me, though I wasn’t sure why since he’d already told Ben as much a short time ago. “Ben promised to keep anything he hears here to himself,” I said, glancing to Ben for confirmation. “It’s part of a deal we made.”
“Yes,” Ben agreed.
“And you trust him?” Frank asked me curiously, though there was a hint of suspicion in his eyes. Then again, this was Frank, who’d spend most of his life as a professional criminal. Suspicion came naturally to anyone in the business.
I stared at Ben for a moment before nodding my head. “As far as this goes…yes.”
I was a little surprised to realize that I actually did trust Ben to keep his part of the deal, but then again, if I thought he would have broken his end, I never would have brought him here and put Frank at risk in the first place. It was strange, realizing that I actually trusted a hero, but then again, I’d known Chickenhawk for years, and we’d spent a lot of time together over the last couple days, outside of our normal roles.
“The name is Frank Cowan,” Frank told Ben, holding out his hand as he introduced himself.
After they shook hands, Ben gave him a curious look and then his eyes went wide. “You’re ‘Mad Cow’ Cowan…”
“I never liked that damn nickname,” Frank muttered. “It makes me sound like I was a crazy killer or something.”
Ben stared at Frank with a look of surprise, then said, “You’re the one who pulled the heist on the Hauptman jewels…” He paused, giving a wry look as he added, “I work in…security, so I’ve looked into how some of the most notorious heists were pulled… That one was before my time, but I’ve heard a few people in the business talking about it.”
Frank chuckled at that. “Yeah, that was my crew,” Frank admitted, looking rather pleased. “But the truth is, our old mascot was the one who came up with that one.”
“Your mascot?” Ben asked in surprise.
“Yeah,” Frank agreed, giving me a knowing look. “Some smartass kid we used to let tag along with us.”
Ben noticed the look, then blurted out, “That was one of your jobs? That was almost thirty years ago…”
“It was one of my first,” I admitted. I wasn’t really comfortable letting Ben know much about my past, but I was the one who’d told Frank that he could be trusted to keep his mouth shut, so I couldn’t very well complain now.
“You were what…eighteen?” Frank asked me. Before I could confirm that, he added, “It was the job where she proved she wasn’t just our mascot anymore but a full partner.”
“It was also the last big job before the crew fell apart,” I reminded Frank.
Frank nodded at that, and I could see the memories fogging his eyes. “After you went off to college, it wasn’t the same anymore…”
Ben gave me another look of surprise and asked, “You went to college?”
I could understand his confusion since he was obviously wondering how someone who looked like I did could have managed something as normal as going to college. “Correspondence courses,” I answered wryly. “And a lot of hours sitting in the back of a classroom, wrapped up in bandages and pretending to be a mummy…or burn victim. I keep getting them confused.”
I smiled faintly, remembering that I’d earned my degree under the alias of Irene Meredith Polk, which at the time, I’d thought was pretty clever. Then I thought of Darren Atwood, an arts professor who had a small gambling problem, and who ran a side business painting forgeries as a way to pay the bills. Frank had hooked me up with Professor Atwood, who took me on as his apprentice. However, Professor Atwood had been a big believer in education, so he not only taught me everything he knew about painting and forgery, he’d also arranged for me to get a real education as well.
Ben looked like he wanted to ask me more, but he seemed to realize that I didn’t want to talk about my past. Thankfully, the topic of conversation changed and Ben told us a couple humorous stories about some of the mischief his daughter had gotten into. I chuckled as I listened, easily envisioning her doing those things and appreciate the creativity. The entire time, Frank kept glancing at me, a clear reminder that I myself had done a few similar things.
After dinner, we all sat in the living room and chatted, mostly making small talk. I wanted to talk to Frank about the old days, but I wasn’t comfortable doing that with Ben present. Ben, however, seemed quite interested in talking to Frank, mostly to ask him about the business and some of the jobs he’d pulled. I suppose that this was one of the few occasions were Ben could just have a friendly conversation with a criminal. Most of the time, we probably weren’t people to him, just ‘bad guys’ that he had to stop. Admittedly, I didn’t get to have a lot of conversations with heroes, or at least not ones where I wasn’t just mocking them.
Eventually, Ben got up and began to look around the room, or more accurately, walked over to a painting that occupied a central position on the wall. “This is a beautiful piece,” he told Frank as he admired the painting. “Do you know who the artist is?”
Frank snorted at that. “She’s standing behind you.”
Ben turned around to give me a look of surprise. “You painted this?”
“Yeah,” I responded, getting just a little defensive. “Did you think I could only paint forgeries?”
“I guess I never really thought about it,” he admitted, looking embarrassed. He looked over the painting again before commenting, “Like I said, it’s a beautiful piece…”
“Thank you,” I said with a grin. There was almost nothing I liked better than someone honestly appreciating my work.
“There are a few elements in it that remind me of another artist I admire,” Ben mused as he continued staring at the painting. “Candice Kade. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her work.”
“I am,” I responded wryly, suddenly feeling a little nervous that he might actually connect the styles a little more. Then again, my style had evolved and changed a bit over time, so it was unlikely he’d connect this piece with my more recent works. In fact, I was amazed he’d seen any similarity at all.
“Imp gave this to me, damn near twenty years ago,” Frank told Ben. “Gave it to me as a housewarming present.” Then he hesitated a moment before volunteering, “I’ve got a few more of her paintings around here somewhere, if you want to see them.”
“I’ve love to,” Ben said, giving me another curious look.
While Frank led Ben away to dig up the paintings, I went to my backpack and pulled out the pack of cigarettes I’d brought with me, then went out to the back porch to have a smoke. It was getting dark out, so I just leaned up against the railing and watched the moon as I smoked my cigarette. This was relaxing, which was something I needed at the moment.
Chickenhawk was getting too close…seeing too many things that I should be keeping private. He was even in one of my most closely guarded sanctuaries, learning some of my greatest secrets. The fact that I’d invited him here didn’t make me feel much better. Intellectually, I knew that I should keep Chickenhawk away, that I should guard these secrets as tightly as I always had in the past, and that I never should have allowed him anywhere near Frank. However, I just hadn’t been able to ignore the opportunity to see Frank again.
Ever since I met Melissa, I’ve been getting sloppy. I’ve been dropping my guard and getting careless. And while it was one thing to do that around a teenage girl, it was quite another to do it around a superhero. I had no doubt that once this was all done and over with, it would come back to bite me in the tail. But strangely enough, as long as Melissa got out of this all right, I didn’t really care. I’d deal with the fallout when it came.
A short while later, the patio door opened and Ben came out to join me. He looked up against the railing a few feet away and stared up at the moon. Neither of us said anything for a minute, though he was the one who finally broke the silence.
“Frank showed me a couple of your paintings,” he said, finally looking at me. “They’re good. You’re really talented.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. A girl likes to be complimented.
“I especially like the one in the living room,” he continued. “Just a touch rough, but still very nice. Very potent.” I practically beamed at that.
“All the ones here are older pieces,” I found myself saying. “I think the most recent painting that Frank has here is over fifteen years old.”
“I think I’d like to see some of your newer works then,” Ben said, giving me a curious look.
I just chuckled at that, suddenly remembering that Melissa had told me they had one of my paintings on their own living room wall. “Who says you haven’t?”
Ben snorted at that. “Besides one of your forgeries. These may be some of your older pieces, but it’s easy to see that you’re a very talented painter.”
At this point, I was almost feeling a little giddy from all the praise. I wasn’t used to getting a lot of praise for my art, at least not as myself. In my Candice identity, I was able to get some nice compliments, but this was one of the very few times that someone had actually complimented me as the Imp. For some reason, that somehow made it mean more.
I suddenly became aware of just how close Ben was to me, and just how big. He was tall and strong, and from what I’d been able to see, he had a very nice body. At that moment, something inside me stirred and I found myself wondering what he looked like without the skin mask.
“So,” I asked in a half-purr. “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
“What?” Ben asked, looking confused.
I froze, suddenly realizing that I was flirting with Ben…with Chickenhawk. I cold knot began to form in my stomach at that. I’d always known that I was a sucker for a sincere compliment…but CHICKENHAWK.
Of course, I’d flirted with Chickenhawk before, but that had always been teasing. I’d been joking and we both knew it. This time… I gulped, wondering what the hell I’d been thinking. Then again, the problem was that I hadn’t been thinking.
“Nothing,” I said, flashing Ben a forced grin, as though I’d been teasing him the way I always had before.
With that, I quickly turned around and hurried back into the house, heading straight back to my guest bedroom. My heart was racing at just how close I’d come to kissing Chickenhawk, though fortunately, I’d caught myself in time. I just couldn’t wait until this whole thing was done and over with so everything could go back to normal and my life would make sense again.
Wisconsin, Monday morning, June 18th, 2007
I woke up bright and early, full of energy like I often was in the mornings. My thoughts immediately turned to last night, specifically, to the way I’d begun flirting with Ben. Of course, now that I’d slept on it, I realized that it was nothing at all. I’d just gotten caught up in the moment and had overreacted.
“I just need to get laid,” I mused to myself. “Eight years is too long.”
In spite of my unusual features, I’d never had much problem finding men who’d be willing to have sex with me. There were a lot of men, especially college students, who’d jump at the chance to have sex with a mutant or a villain…just for the bragging rights. I didn’t understand it, but I was sure it had something to do with a bonus point system involved with their dick measuring contests. And of course, there were a lot of guys in my business who were happy to look past my appearance. Unfortunately, I’d long ago discovered that most of the men who’d want to have sex with me were also ones that I wanted little to do with outside of the bedroom.
For several seconds, I just sat on the edge of the bed, thinking about how long it had been since I’d had anyone in my life and feeling lonely. Then I shook my head to clear it. I’d never been one for self-pity, especially over something like that. After all, I was the brilliant, talented, and oh so fabulous Imp. I didn’t need some idiot getting in my way and slowing me down.
“What I need is to liven things up,” I announced, already knowing just how to do that.
It was pretty early and neither Frank or Ben were up yet, so I made my way to Frank’s den. There was a bit more floor space than in my guest room, and even more importantly, there was a stereo. All I had on were the shorts and short crop top shirt that I’d slept in, but that was perfectly fine. I’d get dressed later. Right now, I just needed to move.
As soon as I turned the stereo on, the sound of Spice Girls came on, and I immediately began shaking my booty and tail along as I danced to the music. I even began singing along to, “Tell me what you want, what you really really want…”
After the Spice Girls came the Runaways singing Cherry Bomb, followed by the Macarena. I was in the middle of dancing to My Sharona and feeling much better for burning off some excess energy, when I suddenly noticed someone standing in the doorway watching. Ben.
I stopped, suddenly feeling extremely self-conscious, though I was careful not to show it. I wasn’t embarrassed at being caught dancing, but by the fact that with the way I was currently dressed, Ben had a good look at my body and the patches of tiny black scales which covered my shoulders and lower back.
Ben was staring at me, but to my surprise, it wasn’t with the look of disgust that I would have expected. Instead, he actually looked…interested. But after what happened after last night, I was probably just reading into it.
“Benji,” I exclaimed with a broad grin, noting that he’d put on the skin mask and wig when I hadn’t even bothered getting dressed yet. “Did you like the show?” I gave an exaggerated bow and added, “Feel free to throw money…”
Ben actually looked amused and he chuckled faintly. “Do you ever call anyone by their name?”
“Not if I can help it,” I responded cheerfully.
“And does anyone ever mock you?” Ben asked.
“No one dares to mock the great and powerful Imp,” I announced dramatically, wondering if I should point out that Heller liked to call me a horned bitch. Or was that horny bitch?
With that, I turned off the stereo and casually strolled out of the room, smirking as though I’d intended for him to catch me like the entire time. Once I was past Ben, I let out a sigh, shook my head, then decided it was time to go take a shower and get dressed.
I took my time getting washed and dressed, and when I was done, I went into the living room where I was immediately struck with the familiar scent of cooking bacon. I paused to take a deep sniff, listening as I could hear the sizzling from the kitchen. But then, I heard voices from the kitchen as well. Ben and Frank were having a conversation.
“Imp is quite a character,” Ben said from the other room.
“That she is,” Frank agreed. “She always has been.”
Since they were talking about me, I stayed where I was and just listened in. I didn’t feel the least bit guilty for giving into my curiosity and snooping, even on Frank.
“Most of the time, she seems completely insane,” Ben continued. “But over the last few days, I’ve seen another side… I just don’t understand that woman.” There was a long pause, then Ben abruptly asked, “How did you meet her anyway?”
There was an even longer pause and I didn’t think Frank was going to answer, but to my surprise, he slowly said, “The first time I ever saw the Imp, I was sitting in a diner and enjoying a cup of coffee. Then she came in. She was just a kid in her teens, looking hungry and obviously living on the street.”
“And let me guess,” Ben commented wryly. “She held the place up.”
However, Frank seemed to ignore Ben’s comment and he grimly said, “She asked the manager if she could get a job doing dishes or bussing tables…then he pulled a gun out from behind the counter and shot her.”
“Shit,” Ben exclaimed, which was one of the few times I’d ever really heard him swear.
“I kept the bastard from shooting her again,” Frank continued in his usual gruff tone. “But some cops heard the gunshot and came running. They burst in and saw the kid on the floor, unarmed and laying in a pool of her own blood. But after taking just one look at her, they decided that she’d obviously been trying to rob the place and that she’d been shot out of self-defense.” Frank paused for a moment, and though I couldn’t see him, I could picture the look on his face. “All she was trying to do was get a job, and she got shot for her efforts. Then to make it worse, the damn cops ignored the fact that she needed a doctor and started to cuff her right there instead…”
“My God,” Ben gasped, sounding horrified. “The poor kid.”
“Of course, even back then she was slippery,” Frank told him with a weak chuckle. “Even with a bullet in her, she was able to slip away from the cops and escape. A couple nights later, she broke in and emptied out the cash register. As far as I know, that was the first time she’d ever stolen anything…” There was another long pause before Frank said, “From what I’ve seen, Imp’s whole life has been like that. Every time she tries doing something legit, the world spits in her face.”
I scowled as I listened to Frank talking about my past, not happy to have those memories brought up. That hadn’t been a very good time in my life, and that incident had made me realize that no matter what I’d been raised to believe…the cops were NOT my friends. That incident had opened my eyes to a lot of things.
“I didn’t actually meet the kid until a couple weeks later,” Frank said. “After that thing in the diner, the local cops had a shoot on sight policy for her, and it seemed the local heroes decided to follow their lead. One day, I saw the kid running…being chased by one of the local heroes.”
“Let me guess,” Ben added, sounding somewhat amused. “She was mocking him the entire time…”
“She was screaming in terror,” Frank corrected him sharply. “She was just a kid…and some guy who could bench press a Buick was trying to beat the crap out of her. I really felt for the kid, so I helped her give him the slip, then I took her in and taught her everything I knew.”
“That’s…,” Ben started awkwardly. “It sounds like she had it rough…”
I definitely didn’t like this conversation, or at least not that Frank was spilling the beans about me. There were things about my past that were none of Chickenhawk’s business, and it surprised me that Frank would share them…especially with someone he barely knew.
“BACON,” I loudly exclaimed. Then I continued to manically quote an old dog food commercial that I only vaguely remembered as I rushed into the kitchen. “Bacon bacon where. It’s in the bag. I can’t read.” Then as I snatched up a few pieces of cooked bacon from the plate beside the stove and held them up in the air triumphantly, I finished, “It’s chewy, crispy, smoky BACON.”
Frank was standing in front of the stove, tending to the bacon that was still being cooked while Ben sat at the kitchen nook. Ben gave Frank an amused look and commented, “Now THAT is the Imp I know.”
Frank just snorted at that. “That is the Imp trying to distract us from our conversation.”
I stuck my tongue out at Frank. Of course he would have caught on to what I’d been doing. Frank had known me longer than just about anyone, and he knew me better than my own parents had. “And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.” I sat down at the breakfast nook and took a bite of my bacon before adding, “I didn’t bring him here so you could give him my life story.”
“What life story?” Frank asked with another snort. “I’ve known you for thirty years, and I still don’t know your real name.”
“Imp IS my real name,” I pointed out to him, not for the first time. “Anything else is just another alias.” Then I gave Frank a suspicious look and asked, “Whatever happened to the grumpy old bastard who used to say, I ain’t telling nobody nothing no how?”
“I’m seventy-two years old,” Frank told me with a snort. “My doctor says I can’t drink, smoke, or eat any of the foods I like anymore…” He looked directly at the bacon as he said that. “And I haven’t been able to get it up for longer than I care to think about. Talking is about the only pleasure I have left, so I’m damn well going to enjoy it.”
Ben just sat back, watching this exchange with a look of amusement. Then he turned his full attention to me, staring at me with a strange expression. He looked like he was about to say something when suddenly my phone began beeping. I immediately jumped up to go check it, seeing that a text message had come in.
“What is it?” Ben asked with an intense look that indicated he already had a good idea.
I met Ben’s eyes, giving him the answer we’d both been waiting for. “We know where Paradigm is holding Melissa.”