Friday, August 26, 2011

Issue 2.7 - Dealing with Nova

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"What the hell were you thinking?"

I'm in the passenger seat of Agent Duncan's car, checking Marlowe's gun to see how much ammo I've got. Turns out it was fully loaded.


"You didn't give me a lot of room to improvise," I tell her.

"You blew up your apartment," she says, and then she gets angry. "You laced your own apartment with explosives. Are you fucking insane?! What if--the fire--"

"Taken care of. I've been setting up bombs since I was 12. With the right explosives, I could scramble an egg without cracking the shell."

"Thought you said you don't remember anything back from when you were a killer."

"I still remember the trade." I look back behind us, down the street. Fire engines in the distance. They won't find much to clean up; just the charred, thoroughly drenched remains of my apartment. "You can slow down now. Unless he bugged your car, Marlowe won't find us."

She struggles between staring at me and keeping her eyes on the road. "How do you live like this?"

"I make time between explosions. I need your Agency badge."

"Excuse me?"

"I need it to fix this."

"Just because you saved my life doesn't make us friends."

"You blew my cover. Now I've got to come at this from a different angle. Give me your Agency badge."

"Goddamn it, no. I'm not part of this--this thing you're doing," she says. "I'm just the woman who's turning you in."

"You made yourself part of it when you decided to snoop around my place to see what I was really up to. If it comes up later, tell them I stole it from you."

"I need to report a missing badge immediately."

"I've still got 24 hours before you report me to the Agency, right? Do it then."

"Goddamn it."

Before she can make a decision, my phone starts ringing. Probably Marlowe. I flip it open and bring it to my ear.

"Hello, Marlowe. Liking my place so far?"

A woman laughs on the other end. "Did I interrupt something?"

That's not Marlowe.

"Who is this?" I look at Agent Duncan, then do a quick scan of the road. Is someone following us?

"I'm hurt. You've already forgotten what my voice sounds like?"

Every muscle in my body seizes up all at once. Nerve endings fire up warning flares. A flock of goosebumps flutter down my back.

"Miss July," I say.

Agent Duncan stiffens besides me. "What?" she asks.

"I've been observing your little situation from afar. I hope you don't mind; we like to keep an eye on our valued assets," July says.

"The Miss July? As in, 'member of the Administration' Miss July?" Agent Duncan asks.

I ignore Agent Duncan and focus on the phone. "I'm not an asset anymore."

"Come on, Jack. We both know better," July says. "It's only a matter of time before you get over this whole 'mid-life crisis' of yours and come back in out of the cold."

"Not interested."

"Then I'll make it interesting," she says. "All it takes is one phone-call, and Marlowe will know exactly where to find Jessica. I wouldn't even have to call--a text message would do."

I'm good when it comes to picking up survelliance, but the Administration's got a network of informants that outnumbers the population of some small countries. On top of that, they've got entire satellites on their side.

"This isn't your business," I tell her.

"You're always our business. We want you to do a job."

"I'm not killing anyone."

"This one's easy," she says. "In fact, I'm doing you a favor. It's related to your current case. We want you to kill the man responsible for hiring Marlowe to take out Nova."

Alright. That's different.

"And who would that be?" I ask.

"You already know."

"What, Jimmy Rico?"



"He has his reasons."

"So," I say, trying to get a grasp on all of this. "You want me to kill the guy who's trying to kill Nova. If I don't do it, you'll let his people kill Nova. If I do do it, you'll let Nova live. Is that about the size of it?"


If Jim Rico is responsible for this--for trying to kill Nova, for the hotel bombing, for everything--then he's one slimey son of a bitch, and killing him is very tempting. But that's not my style, not anymore.

"So what's your gameplan here?" I ask. "Going to keep feeding me morally reasonable targets to kill?"

"Oh, no," she says. "Eventually, I'll work you back up to the puppy-stomping."

"You know, when you're trying to seduce someone to the dark side, it helps if you don't actually tell them."

"That's boring," she says. "Besides, we both know you're an addict."

Agent Duncan spares another glance at me. She's been quiet since the beginning of this exchange, just listening. I'm thankful for that, but I'm also worried she's mulling over the wisdom of turning me in right now.

"I'm done with that," I tell July.

"Tell it to your therapist," she says. "What was the line you fed Agent Duncan, again? 'I don't remember any of it'? But you do, don't you? You remember every glorious moment. After our little experiment, you just had a... 'moral lapse'."

My grip on the phone tightens. July doesn't let up.

"It's hard, isn't it? Not killing. Particularly when you're surrounded by so many amateurs. Like whoever did that hotel bombing. Sloppy. Stupid. Unprofessional. That sort of incompetence--it makes you want to hurt someone, doesn't it, Jack?"

"I'm done with that," I repeat. Like a mantra.

"The world's full of morons," she says. "All of them dousing themselves with gasoline. And you? You've got yourself a pack of matches. What's one more sociopath to the fire?"

"Shut up."

"You've got a day to take out the trash. We'll be in touch."

She hangs up. I suck in a long breath, then turn to Agent Duncan.

"I need your badge," I tell her. "And some explosives."


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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Issue 2.6 - Dealing with Nova

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A guy like Marlowe doesn't trust easy, so, all things being equal, I'd give 9 out of 10 odds of the gun being empty. He just wants to see if I'm willing to blow a government official's brains out. Like a trust-building exercise, except for sociopaths.

Unless Marlowe's smart enough to realize I'm that smart. Then the gun is almost certainly loaded with just one bullet. I pull the trigger, blow Agent Duncan's brains out, look shocked, and Marlowe knows I'm not not on the level. Then I'm alone in a room with an unloaded gun, a dead agent, and a five hundred pound rock man.

But if I've got one bullet in the gun, I've got leverage--I can use it to take Marlowe hostage and get us out of here. But if there aren't any bullets in the gun, then I'm going to look pretty stupid.

Either way, it's a game. Either Marlowe trusts me, or he doesn't. Either Marlowe's smart enough to know I know, or he isn't. It's like that scene in the Princess Bride with Vizzini and the drinks--is the poison in my cup, or in yours?

One thing about that scene: I always wondered why Vizzini didn't just stab the guy when he wasn't looking.

In one practiced motion, I turn and swing Marlowe's gun down pommel first into the arms-dealer's cranium. It makes a satisfying crack that sends him stumbling backward; I step behind him, grab him by the shoulder with the gun in hand, then snatch up a nasty looking kitchen knife and bring it to his throat.

Games of chance are for chumps.

"New game," I say. "First rule: Block, pull out your piece, drop the mag, pop the chamber, throw it away."

Agent Duncan blinks. Blockhead stares. Marlowe squirms.

"What the fuck are you doing, Burroughs?" Marlowe says, dazed and bleeding.

"Five seconds. If he doesn't start doing what I told him, then you get a new mouth," I tell Marlowe. "Five. Four. Three."

"Do it!" Marlowe shouts.

Slowly, Blockhead pulls out his piece and snaps out the clip. Just as he's moving to toss it to the floor, I growl.

"Hey, hey! This is my goddamn apartment," I tell him. "Show some fucking decency. Wastebin, asshole."

He throws it in the wastebin. Followed by the bullet in the chamber, then by the whole gun. Once it's in, I take a step back with Marlowe, giving Blockhead some room.

"Now," I tell him, "untie Agent Duncan."

"You're a dead man, Burroughs," Marlowe says.

"Not exactly the words I'd use on the guy with a steak knife at my throat," I tell him. "Tell your boy to do what I said."

Marlowe nods. Blockhead does as he's supposed to, like a good boy. Agent Duncan gets to her feet, rubbing at her wrists. She looks back at Blockhead--who glares--then back at me. Hesitantly, she makes her way to step behind me.

"What--what the hell is the plan?" she asks me.

"Working on it." I shift my grip, reaching for my cell phone while keeping the knife at Marlowe's throat. As I do, he starts to laugh.

"Plan? You have no plan," he says. "You're fucked, Mr. Burroughs. I like your loft. Do you think they'll let me keep it after I kill you?"

"You wouldn't like it," I say, punching in the numbers on the phone. "Rent's shit, neighbors are a pain, the AC's busted. " I hit send. "Plus, it's on fire."

Several pounds of high-end explosives detonate with enough force to shatter every piece of glass in the room. The destruction is contained--shaped charges designed to decimate the apartment, but nothing else. Fire will take care of the evidence, with foam bombs going off to take care of the fire.

The concussive force is enough to send Blockhead to his knees. Marlowe yelps as I kick him into the center of the loft, then grab Agent Duncan's waist and jump out the window onto the fire escape.

As we land, smoke and flame following us, Agent Duncan looks up to me, her eyes brimming with fury.

"Do you own anything that doesn't explode!?" she shouts.

"I had a cat, once."

We run.


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Friday, August 19, 2011

Issue 2.5 - Dealing with Nova

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By the time I get back to the car, I find Nova clutching a blanket to her chest in the front seat. The radio's on, with two DJs speculating about who might have blown up the hotel. It's a toss up between terrorists or the Nefarium.

"They're really trying to kill me."

The snarker in me wants to respond with 'yes, the guy dressed like a dog who tried to tear out your heart earlier today would be a clue'. But between the wetness in her eyes and the fear in her face, some part of me manages to figure out that's the wrong response.

"They're not going to succeed."

"Maybe I could have gone somewhere else, or stayed at my old house. Maybe--"

I get into the seat besides her and close the door. "Wherever you were, it wouldn't have mattered. This guy would have followed you."

She starts to cry. I search for something to stare at while she tears up. I don't know what to do. I fix problems, usually with well-timed explosives. But fixing grief? Sorrow? Pain? Not my department.

She pushes her head up against my chest, sobbing into my coat. I fumble awkwardly for some place to put my arm and finally settle on her shoulder.

"I'll get these guys, alright?"

She starts sobbing harder.

Okay. Wrong response.

"They're dead," she says in-between wet heaves. "Henry, Jacob--the family that was downstairs. They're all dead, and it's my fault, because I didn't want to stay at our old place."

I gently peel her face off my jacket and stare down at her. She's an absolute mess; eyes rimmed with pink, jaw quivering, snot leaking out of her nose.

"Jessica. All you did was be in a place. Someone took that as an opportunity to blow that place up. This is not your fault."

"My mother could have died," she says. "She could have been there--"

"She's safe. No one knows she's at the clinic but us." And Vigil, but I trust him. "We put her under a fake name. Don't worry."

"Why would someone want to kill me? Why would they do all this?"

"I don't know, but I'm going to find out. And when I do, I'm going to make sure they pay. Alright?"

She weakly nods, then sniffles. I yank out a napkin from the glove compartment then start up the car.


Thirty minutes later and I've dropped her off at Cassidy's apartment. Cassidy and I talk once Nova's inside and out of earshot.

"They haven't found her body. People are getting suspicious," she says. "Half the city is looking for her."

"Let them keep looking. I took her cell. She might want to call her mom or dad on yours, make sure they know she's okay."

"Jack, maybe you should step back, let Vanguard handle this. Even if they're compromised, they might be able to--"

"Too risky. Vanguard's unreliable. I can handle this."

"You're not like us, Jack. You don't have any powers," she reminds me. "You're only as good as your plan. And I'm pretty sure that, as of now, you don't have one."

I throw on my trademark grin. "Oh ye of little faith. I've always got a plan."

She smiles, turns, closes the door. I head to the car, ready to meet with Marlowe.

I have absolutely no plan.


Takes me fifteen minutes to get back home. I run through my mental checklist of what to expect, go over what resources I have available--their placement in my apartment--then fiddle with my phone for a while. Once I get back, I quickly check the area for signs of surveillance, then head upstairs to my room.

When I finally open the door, I'm ready for anything. Ninja SWAT team? Yes. Killer robots? Absolutely. Agent Duncan tied to a chair?

Okay, not that one.

She's gagged and bound; Blockhead's standing besides her with a gun strapped to his side. Marlowe's in my kitchen, mixing himself a drink.

"Mr. Burroughs," Marlowe says. "Glad to see you managed to get back."

My mind moves fast to put the pieces of this puzzle together. Meanwhile, my mouth does some faster talking. "Hey. There's some Daniels on the top shelf, if that's more to your taste."

"I'm quite fine with this," Marlowe says, and then he gestures to Agent Duncan. "Do you know her?"

The problem with conversations like these is that you never know what you're supposed to know until it's too late. By then, your cover is blown and you're staring down the business end of a barrel. The key to surviving these conversations is to stall for time.

"Should I?" I ask.

"Perhaps. We found her snooping around your apartment. Found this on her," he says, and then he produces her Agency badge.


Okay. I can work with this.

"Seems like you found my tail," I tell him, making my way around the loft, toward the fridge. I make like I'm going for a sandwich, but really, I just want to see how Blockhead reacts. If he lets me by, I know Marlowe still trusts me. If not...

Well, hopefully I can make it to the grenade I've got stashed next to the eggs.

Rather than Blockhead, it's Marlowe who steps in my way. He puts the badge in my hand. "A tail isn't good, Mr. Burroughs. This is something that needs to be addressed. Does she have a partner?"

I look to Agent Duncan, then back to Marlowe. "No. She's been stalking me on her own. Agency thinks she's on vacation."

Marlowe smiles. "How fortunate." And then he produces a gun, holding it out to me. "Would you care to do the honors, then?"

When a criminal offers you a gun, one of two things is happening. Either he trusts you with his life, or he's testing you.

"Me?" I say.

"This is your problem, Mr. Burroughs."

I snort. "Yeah, fine." I pick up the gun and turn toward Agent Duncan. "But I'm not cleaning up the mess."

She stares up at me with wild, bewildered eyes--somewhere between terror and confusion.

"Sorry, girl," I tell her. "Game over."

I lift the barrel and bring it to her temple.

I still have no plan.


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Monday, August 15, 2011

Issue 2.4 - Dealing with Nova

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Before I get out of the car, I hand Nova my cell.

"Anyone you don't recognize comes toward this car, you start it, and you drive," I tell her. "Then you hit the 'send' button right here. It'll call the police."

"Where would I go?" she asks.

"Doesn't matter. Just tell the police where you are, let them track you down."

"I don't have a driver's license."

"Then drive slow." I leave the keys in the ignition and step out.

We've stopped in a parking lot about six blocks away from her apartment. She's given me a list of things she'll need, and I've got a duffel bag to put them in. Not the most ideal arrangement, but it'll do.

I'm not looking forward to explaining this to Henry and Jacob.

I don't get three blocks closer before I smell the smoke and hear the sirens. Suddenly, I'm running toward the sound--not just because I need to find out what's going on fast.

Vigil was looking after this place. What if someone else was looking after Vigil? And what if, when he left, they took that as an opportunity?

There are a lot of ways to assassinate a target, but inevitably, they boil down to two basic methods: Precision versus overwhelming force. Both will, with luck, get the job done. Professionals prefer precision. Thugs prefer force.

When I round the corner, it's made clear to me precisely which school of thought we're dealing with. Several floors around the sixteenth floor of Nova's hotel have been gouged open, with flaming debris dangling from the hole like a lulling tongue. Fire engines and police cars have sectioned the entire area off. In the distance, I can see the soot-plastered faces of emergency response teams and the people they're desperately trying to save.

Suddenly, I don't think Henry or Jacob are going to be much of a problem for me at all.

I pull out my spare cell phone and call Cassidy.

"Jack? It's kind of late," she says. "You change your mind?"

"Need a favor."

It's hard to hide my anger from the people I know. I try, but Cassidy picks up on the rage in an instant. That, and I wouldn't call her unless shit just met fan.

"Fuck. What's wrong?"

"Turn on the news. Hotel explosion."

I hear her rustle around her apartment for a moment. A few seconds later, and I catch her sigh. "Shit. Is that where--?"

"She's safe. I took her out on an errand. Her guardian followed. Think whoever did it was watching him, not her. Probably didn't realize that she wasn't still there."

"Fucking amateur hour. What do you need?"

"I need you to look after her for a bit."

"Jack..." Her voice is tense. She knows me. She knows what I might do.

Who knows how many people this explosion killed?

"Just look after her. Only for a bit. Need to follow a few leads." My phone beeps as I get another call. "I'll drop her by your place in a little bit." I hang up on her, then switch over to the other line.

"Hello, Jack." It's Marlowe. Not someone I'm in the perfect mood to talk to right now.

"Bad timing," I tell him, and I mean it. When you're undercover, the wrong emotion is your greatest enemy. Either find the right place to put it or get rid of it. Not sure if I can do either.

"I'm sorry to hear that. But this is important. We need to meet."

"Right now? I'm in the middle of something," I tell him.

"Yes. We're waiting for you at your apartment. Come as soon as possible."

"I'll be there in under an hour."


After he hangs up, I start back where I left Nova. I've got to tell her that her hotel blew up. And then I've got to drop her off at Cassidy's. And then...

Then, I've got a meeting with Marlowe, the man who arranged the hit that ended up in an explosion that might have killed dozens, if not more.

I've got to keep myself centered. As tempting as it is to just beat the name of whoever did this out of Marlowe, it'll be far more useful to keep in his good graces. If he hired one thug willing to blow up several floors of uninvolved civilians, who's to say he hasn't hired more?

I need all their names. More than that, I need the name of the person who hired Marlowe, too.

Still. It's going to be hard as hell not to shoot him in the face.

Maybe I'll just settle for the kneecaps.


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Friday, August 12, 2011

Issue 2.3 - Dealing with Nova

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By the time we're reaching the clinic, I realize we're being followed.

Good tails are hard to notice. They'll work in teams, following you for a few miles before switching out with another car so not to lift your suspicion. But with a little forethought and a lot of luck, even a lone professional can tail you half-way across the city without ever so much as raising your goosebumps.

Things get trickier when the tail is following you on foot.

I catch him purely by luck. It's night, but the sky is clear; as we round the next city corner, I see a figure blot out several stars as he jumps from one rooftop to the next.

"Fuck," I say.

"What?" Nova asks.

"Nothing. Just realized I forgot something." For me, lies are second nature. Sometimes I do it without even thinking. Might be a better call, anyway. No reason to make them nervous. "I'll pull into the parking lot here. You two talk, say whatever it is you gotta say. Gonna grab a smoke."

I shift the car into park, leave Jessica with her mother, and step out into the night air. I walk a bit of ways from the car--but I keep it in sight. While I pull a fresh cigarette out of my pocket, I let my hand slowly creep toward the hilt of my holster.

"That won't be necessary."

There aren't a lot of people who can sneak up on me. To pull it off, you either need serious tech, serious magic, or serious skill.

Pretty sure this guy's got all three.

I pull the gun and spin, but he's already caught my wrist and twisted. I drop the gun, crumple to the ground, then catch the weapon with my other hand as I fall. Before I can lift it, he brings his other hand to grasp the barrel.

The metal sizzles as it melts, wisps of smoke swelling out from between his knuckles.


"I'm not here to fight you," he says.

Well, that's good, because I'm pretty sure if he was, I'd have just lost.

I drop what's left of the gun and wait for him to let go of my other hand. When he does, I spring to my feet and back up, getting a good look at him. Doesn't take long for me to put a name to the face.

A long black wool coat. Salt-and-pepper hair, combed back; a face so harsh and hard that it looks like you could wrap an iron girder around it without so much as disturbing an eyelash. And his eyes--pure white, without any sight of pupils or irises.

"Vigil," I say.

"You're investigating Vanguard," he tells me. "Why?"

I rack my brain for what I remember about Vigil. One of the oldest members of the Vanguard Society; some folks peg his age at a couple of centuries. Lot of people don't even think he's real. Apparently, he's not only a brilliant detective, but a pretty well-trained sorcerer, too. I think Bill once described him as 'Batman, but with magic'.

"I think you've been compromised," I tell him. No use in lying. If he's the leak, I'm pretty much screwed. "One of you is out to kill Nova."

"I know."

I do a double-take. Then I grimace. "You were watching her, weren't you?" And I didn't even notice it. "You're part of her security detail, from Vanguard."


"And you didn't make a move when I took out her guards?"

"I knew you wouldn't hurt her."

Now I do a triple-take. "What? How?"

"I've been watching you."

"Okay. That's not creepy at all."

"I'm putting Nova temporarily under your care. Make sure she stays safe."

At this point, I decide that a quadruple take would be a little over-the-top. "Wait, you want me to look after her? The ex-killer with no powers?"

"You're capable. You're also not part of Vanguard, which makes it harder for the killer to find you."

I glance back to the car where I assume Nova is still talking with her mom. Then I turn back to Vigil. "What are you going to do?"

"Turn my eyes to Vanguard and discover the source of this corruption. Then cut it out at the root."

"Okay. So, uh, should we, like--exchange numbers or something? Emails? Facebook profiles?"

Those pure-white eyes stare at me. Feels like he's stripping me bare--tearing through flesh and bone.

"Right," I say. "So I guess it's some sort of 'I'll-Call-You' deal?"

"I also want to give you a warning. The Administration wants to bring you back in."

"Fuck them." The words pop out without thought. Pure, raw instinct.

He turns, then jumps up on top of a nearby fence. There's something cat-like about the way he moves--impossible agility, effortless grace. Just as he's crouching down for the next jump, I step forward and speak.

"I think your guy might be Rico," I tell him. "I'm still looking into it, though."

"Look after Jessica," he tells me. "I'm depending on you."

His next jump clears three stories, bringing him to an office building's rooftop. In the next second, he's out of sight.

I head back to the car. When I get inside, both Jessica and Julia have wet eyes. They're talking in hushed whispers.

"You need any more time?" I ask.

They look at each other, then they both shake their heads. When Julia gets out of the car, Jessica follows. They hug each other at the gate.

I watch, waiting patiently. Once Jessica comes back, I fumble with the keys.

"Are you alright?" she asks.


"Your hands are shaking."

"Just a long night."

"I can relate." Her eyes wander back to the gate her mother went through. "Do you think she'll be okay?"

"Yeah. I think so. For now, we've got to concentrate on you."

I start the car and head back to her apartment.


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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Issue 2.2 - Dealing with Nova

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When charging in blind, I like to start by blinding everyone else first. You might not be able to buy a flash grenade at your local grocery mart, but the basic ingredients are easy enough to find--break open an etch-a-sketch for the aluminum, shavings from a magnesium fire-starter for the flash, and a model rocket engine's propellant for the oxydizer.

The address Nova sent me is a studio flat on the sixteenth level of some high-end condo. By the look of things, she's bought up the entire floor. There's two goons outside the door to her room--I start things up by lobbing my home-made flash grenade out in front of them.

While they're busy squawking and rubbing their eyes, I come in low--taser the first, headlock the second. In fifteen seconds, they're out cold.

I pull one of their guns out of its holster, kick the door down, and prepare to unleash All Hell into the faces of whatever supervillain is making his move.

I am instead confronted by the sight of Nova, head in her hands, crying on a couch.

"How many?" I ask her, sweeping the apartment for signs of other aggressors.

"How many what?" she asks, sniffling.



"Assassins," I tell her. "How many in the apartment?"

"There--there aren't any," she says, trying to strangle back a sob. "I just needed your help."

I stop. Look back at the two unconscious thugs. Then back to her. "What about them?"

She looks past me, catching sight of the two for the first time. At once, she leaps to her feet, panicking. "Oh--Oh God! Henry and Jacob! You didn't kill them, did you?"

Oh, right. Her security detail.


"They're unconscious," I tell her as I holster my new gun. "Okay, I think we have a misunderstanding here as to what constitutes an emergency."

"I didn't know who else to call," she says. "My mom--she's in the bathroom, with her dealer."


She makes a sidelong glance at the bathroom, not saying anything else. She doesn't have to.

The only problem money solves is not having enough money. You're still left with the same issues--and now you've got the cash to flaunt them.

Thing is, these sorts of problems aren't my specialty. Give me a house full of cleaning supplies and I can whip up a grade A bomb. Toss me into a room full of sociopaths and I'll convince them that I'm their best friend in five minutes flat. But shove me into the middle of a dysfunctional family, and all you're gonna get is more dysfunction.

"Look, kid," I tell her. "You've got Vanguard's number, right? Can't you call--"

"If I call the police or Vanguard, they'll just arrest her," she tells me, and now she's starting to tear up again.

I scratch the back of my head. "You got, uh, an uncle or something? Family? Maybe--"

"My dad," she says. "But I can't get in contact with him right now. They're divorced."

For fuck's sake. I'm a goddamn operative, not some sort of therapist. But one look at those tears and I feel something I haven't felt in a long time.

Out of everyone she knows--her family, her friends, her agent, her fans--the only person she trusts enough to call when her mom starts snorting blow is the guy she met in a parking lot during a shootout.

That's some sort of lonely.

I sigh, shake my head, and pull out my wallet. I start searching for the right card--when I find it, I put it in the wallet's ID frame. "Tell me your mother's name."

"Julia. What are you going to do?" she asks.

"Her dealer. What's his name? He got a gun?"

"Terrence. I--I don't think so. I don't know. He's just some jerk," she says. "What are you going to do?"

"You asked me that already."

"You didn't answer."

"I'm going to fix the problem."

I walk toward the bathroom and kick down the door.

Terrence and Julia are hunched over the bathtub with the mirror laid flat, lines of coke laid out across it.

"Who the fuck are you?" Terrence says, standing up.

Good fake IDs are expensive as fuck. Bad ones are a dime a dozen--and most idiots won't know the difference. Not to imply that all drug-dealers are idiots, but the two groups have been known to occasionally overlap.

I flash him my cheap FBI ID, pull back my coat to show off my new shiny gun, then nod my head at the door. "Beat it."

Terrence runs.

Julia turns toward me with her eyes burning full of rage and hate. But when she sees the badge, she pulls back. I flip it closed before she can get a better look at it, shut the door, then kick the mirror. It shatters into the tub, scattering powder among razor-sharp shards of silver and glass.

"No! You--you fuck!" she screams.

"Julia. You're standing in front of a Federal Officer with enough blow to trigger a cartel war. Stop worrying about the drugs, start worrying about me."

She shudders, shakes her head, then drops down to the toilet. Looks up to me with a dull, confused expression. "What are you doing here?" she says. "You--you can't come in here. Not without a search warrant, or--"

"Your daughter is in danger. I'm here to make sure she doesn't get killed," I tell her.

"She--wait, what?" Something almost akin to clarity enters those eyes.

So she didn't know.

I clear some glass off the side of the tub and sit down besides her. "Long story short. Bad people want your daughter dead. Right now, she needs a mother, not a headcase. You up for that job?"

We're all junkies when it comes to hope. Dangle a scrap of it in front of us and we'll swear off food, water, and air just to get there. When I ask her if she's up for the job, what she's hearing is an FBI agent who's caught her with blow talking about something other than how long she's going to prison.

"What do you want me to do?" she asks, her voice tiny.

"You're going into rehab. I know a place, they owe me a favor."

Shock registers on her face. "When?"

"Right now. You've got thirty minutes to pack your things. You can say goodbye to your daughter on the way."

"I--I can't just up and leave!" she says. "Who will take care of Jessica?"

"We'll handle it," I tell her, thinking of Jessica's dad. "But as long as you're using, you're a danger to her--emotionally and physically. So you've got one of two choices--either you go into rehab tonight, or you go to prison."


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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Issue 2.1 - Dealing With Nova

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The list of people I will do everything in my power to avoid pissing off is relatively short. Bill's mother is close to the top.

The gray-haired brickhouse of a woman is standing out front of the garage when I pull in. She's got a patchwork nightgown that looks like it devoured and digested several other dresses on its way to her closet.

"Jack," she says as I approach. "You getting my boy into trouble?"

"No ma'am," I tell her.

"You realize that the only reason I'm not shoving my boot up your ass is because you helped him a while back."

"Yes ma'am."

"But my gratitude's wearing awfully thin. Particularly when you keep stopping by here with stolen cars."

"Sorry, ma'am. I'll make sure to return it when I'm done."

"Alright. Go do whatever it is you gotta do. Just don't make a mess."

"Yes, ma'am." I step into the garage. Bill is waiting for me.

"There's only one guy in Vanguard that the forums figured would go after Nova," he says.

"Wait. Hold on one second." I lift my hand. "You posted this on your goddamn forums?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, it's important, right? Some of the people there--"

"Bill, Vanguard's members read your forums."

"I did it in a subforum where only administrators like me have access," Bill said.

I rub my temples. "Okay. Fine. Just--what do you got?"

"Jim Rico, aka Jimmy Blaze."

"The singer?"

"Yeah. He got into Vanguard under the same circumstances that Nova did--more of a publicity stunt than anything. On top of that, she's been regularly outselling him since she became a member."

"You're thinking this is some sort of jealousy thing, or an attempt to regrab the spotlight?"


"That's... pretty thin, Bill."

"It's all we could come up with."

"Alright. We'll work with it." I scan the garage for things to use. "That model rocket--ever been used?"

"Huh? Oh, no. My dad and I were gonna put it together, back when I was a teenager. Never got around to it. Why--?"

I take the box off the upper shelf and put it on the bench. "You got an etch-a-sketch?"

Thirty minutes later and I'm putting the finishing touches on my latest creation. Three plastic water-bottles, each filled up with a chemical concoction of my own devising.

I'm just figuring out the fuses when Bill steps into the garage, looking sorrier than a dog who just pissed all over his Master's curtains.


"I didn't call her," he says. "She called me."

And then Cassidy steps in from behind him.

I've always had a thing for women who send out warning signs, and Cassidy transmits them clear enough to knock out satellites. Everything about her says 'Fuck-Off'--from the circles under her eyes to the piercings in her face. She's short and thick--the sort of build you'd expect from a biker chick. Fat curves and hard edges--all in the wrong places.

She takes one look at my science project and throws on a crooked grin. "You've been a bad boy, Jackie."

"Nothing to concern yourself about, Cassidy. This ain't one of those kind of jobs."

"Heard about your run-in with Jackal. Looks like you're back on the beat, huh?"

"How you figure that was me?"

She sniffs. "Some teenage punk takes him down all by herself? No. Anyone else, they'd have stuck around for the press, but whoever helped her didn't want the spotlight. And there's talk underground about a contract on her little ass. Sounds like your kind of gig."

I snort, but don't say anything. She circles me like a shark nosing her way through bloody water. "You sure you don't need a little extra help, Jack? You gotta admit, we make a pretty good team."

The fact is, we do. But Cassidy's dangerous. Not just because she rings all the right bells in my head, but because when she works, she's a perfect storm of violence--a destructive force of nature. And there's still some small part of me that loves it. The part that I've been trying to bury.

She's radioactive. And I'm Marie Curie.

"Appreciate the offer, but I'm good," I tell her. "If I do need your help, I've got your number."

She laughs. She's got a voice that's somewhere between a smoke-choked growl and the husky rumble of someone who's spent the past hour gargling hydrochloric acid. It's got a way of seizing you by the throat and throttling you against the nearest wall.

"Right, then. You change your mind, you give me a whistle." She glances at Billy. "You keep him out of trouble, hm?"

"Yes, ma'am," Billy says, then he swallows. She elbows past him, leaving us alone.

Billy lets out a breath. "Sometimes, that woman scares me."

"Yeah. She's a pretty scary character," I tell him, adjusting the fuses on one of the bottles.

"She isn't like, a supervillain or something, right?"

"No. She's one of the good guys. Kind of."

"Oh." Silence. Then: "So why don't you work with her, then?"

"It's complicated."


My phone rings. I pull it out and flip it open.

Nothing but a text. Someone's forwarded me an address, along with a message:


I grab the bottles and run.


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