Imp 6: A Very Imp-ortant Date part 4

Part 4

New York, Friday evening, Nov 2nd, 2007

It was Friday evening and the official school week had been over for a few hours. The moment the final bell rang, I was out the door and racing to the airport to catch a flight.

Lately, I’d been flying a lot more than I was comfortable with. I wasn’t one of those people who were afraid of heights, or worried that the plane would crash. My issues with flying tended to do more with security, and how I always had to slip past it and onto the plane without being seen. Fortunately, my magic amulet gave me another option, so today, I’d actually flown first class, as Candice Kade, rather than as the Imp.

After I landed in New York and got off the plane, I kept a close watch on my surroundings. After all, the Imp Revenge Squad was still out there, and I couldn’t take it for granted that they wouldn’t somehow figure out my other identity, or where I was.

It was only because I was watching for the IRS, that I noticed someone standing on the other side of security, outside of where my arrival gate let out. To my complete surprise, Ryan was there, holding up a sign that read ‘CHRISTINE’.

I froze, feeling a surge of worry. If he saw me now, there’d be questions about why Candice had just arrived on the flight where he was somehow expecting Christine. Those were questions that I was not about to answer.

A moment later, I changed direction and slipped around, using a couple other passengers as cover to keep Ryan from seeing me. I quickly made my way towards the exit, though instead of leaving, I ducked into a restroom and locked myself into a stall.

“I should be using a phone booth for this,” I mused as I removed the long jacket and hat from my luggage, and then took off my magic amulet. “But good luck finding a phone booth.”

When I left the restroom a couple minutes later, it was in my usual disguise, rather than in my Candice one. I had on my long coat, my wide-brimmed hat, and a pair of oversized sunglasses.

Then, once I was in the proper disguise, I pulled out my cell phone and made a call. “One ringy dingy,” I counted. “Two ringy dingy…” As soon as Ryan picked up, I exclaimed, “Hey, cutie. I just got back into town and was wondering if you were up for dinner?”

“What a coincidence,” Ryan responded from the other end, sounding rather smug. “Guess where I happen to be?”

“The bathroom?” I joked.

“Afraid not,” he responded with a faint chuckle. “I’m actually at the airport, waiting for you.”

“Really?” I asked in mock surprise. “Well, you can meet me by the exit. Oh, and can you grab me a Dr. Pepper from that soda machine behind you? I’m pretty thirsty…” Then, before Ryan could respond to that, I hung up and waited for him with a grin.

Ryan arrived a couple minutes later and gave me a curious look. “How in the world did you slip past me?” He paused and then shook his head. “Nevermind. Stupid question.”

“The real question is,” I responded, “how did you know I was going to be here?”

“A phone call from my daughter,” he answered with a wry smile. “She said that as soon as classes were over, you left to come back here. I just checked all the flights arriving from your neck of the woods, and decided on the best option.”

“Not bad,” I said, impressed with his detective work.

“Oh, by the way” Ryan told me, before suddenly switching into an obvious impression of a very specific cartoon bird. “I finally caught me a chicken.”

I stared at Ryan in momentary surprise, before I burst out laughing. For years, I thought my old enemy Chickenhawk had no sense of humor, but as I’d learned, under the mask he definitely had one. It was a bit more understated than my own, but still there.

“Ah say… Ah say boy, ya caught me,” I responded with a grin.

Ryan smiled at that, then after a few seconds, he asked, “So, do you have any leads on this Imp Revenge Squad that attacked you?”

“Not a lot, yet,” I admitted. “Or at least, not on where they’re at, but I do know just the person to ask.”

“Is this that Bob guy?” he asked, reminding me that I’d introduced Ryan to Bob Zabrowski, my best source of information.

I nodded at that. “I tried calling, but haven’t been able to reach him, which means, I have to go see him in person.”

“And you know where to find him?” Ryan asked.

With a nod and a wry smile, I answered, “Yep, but you won’t really be welcomed there. Superbad.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not in costume,” Ryan pointed out wryly. “And I do have my skin mask too.”

I nodded at that. “Sounds good to me then. We can stop and grab some dinner on the way.” Then I gave Ryan an evil grin. “Unless you want to eat dinner at a villain dive bar.”

Ryan looked almost pained at that. “I think it might be better if we didn’t.”

“Now who’s the chicken?” I teased him with a grin. “Bok bok bok.”

Ryan and I left the airport a few minutes later, taking his car since he’d been so generous as to volunteer himself to play taxi. We stopped off briefly at a fast food place to grab a couple burgers, then ate them in the car. It was easier than dealing with the hassle of going inside and risking an incident. Unfortunately, those happened far too often when I went out in public.

When we reached Superbad, I had Ryan park down the street, where his car wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable. Then, we waited another couple minutes while he put on his skin mask, and once again looked like ‘Ben’, the identity he’d used when we’d gone searching for Melissa together back in June.

“You ready, Ben?” I asked him.

“I’m ready when you are, Christine,” Ryan responded.

“Imp,” I corrected him wryly. “Nobody here knows me by Christine.”

As we climbed out of the car, I carefully scanned the area for any threats. The IRS had jumped me outside of the Black Mask, so it wasn’t out of character for them to set up an ambush here too. Fortunately, I saw no signs of an ambush, though I continued keeping watch until we’d stepped through the doors into Superbad.

“Welcome to this wretched hive of scum and villainy,” I commented as I looked around the bar, making sure there were no unpleasant surprises waiting for me.

It was Friday night, so Superbad was pretty busy compared to most times. I recognized a few of the other customers as being in the business, even though they were out of costume at the moment. Some of the other customers were completely unfamiliar, and I figured that they were walk in customers, probably from the neighborhood. Since I didn’t see anyone in obvious costumes, or any IRS members, I allowed myself to relax just a little.

“Do you want me to get the Falcon ready for takeoff?” Ryan asked in a wry tone.

With a chuckle, I responded, “I don’t think that will be necessary.”

One large man, who I suspected to be one of the walk-ins, gave me a look of surprise and concern, and started to stand up. I got the feeling that he didn’t like mutants, or at least not obvious ones like me. However, an even large man put a hand on his shoulder, and gently but firmly, pushed him back down into his seat.

I looked at the larger man, whom I recognized as Concrete. Or at least, he used to go by the name of Concrete, back when he’d been in the business, though he’d hung up his costume a couple years ago. He still showed up at Superbad on occasion, mostly to reminisce about old times. I gave him a nod of acknowledgement.

“Where, oh where, has my little Bob gone,” I quietly sang out. “Where, oh where, can he be?”

Bob Zabrowski wasn’t sitting at his usual table, which was a surprise, in and of itself. On Friday nights, Bob was almost a fixture of this place.

Spotting the Pink Piper, sitting at a nearby table, in civilian guise, I wandered over. “Hey Piper,” I greeted her. “Have you seen Bob around?”

She glanced back to his usual table, which was currently occupied by some unfamiliar faces, and shook her head. “Nope. I haven’t seen him in a couple weeks.”

“He said something about Jack Rabbit being back in town,” a man at the next table over said. “He said he was going to lay low for while…”

“Damn,” I muttered.

For a moment, I was tempted to go track Bob down, but I knew that it wouldn’t do much good. If there was anyone who was able to find himself a hiding spot where nobody could find him, it would be Bob Zabrowski. Unfortunately, I needed him to find me some information.

“Is this about those people who are looking for you?” Piper asked me.

“Yep,” I answered cheerfully. “I was hoping Bob might help me answer a few questions.”

“I heard they nearly killed you already,” the man with Piper added, giving me a curious look.

That annoyed me a little, because if people started to believe that I was that easy to kill, then that could encourage more to try. For someone in my career, even retired, developing a reputation for being a pushover was a serious problem, which could get me killed. That was one reason why I couldn’t allow this IRS nonsense to continue. Of course, the other reason was that they were trying to kill me, and that just simply had to be nipped in the bud.

“So, what now?” Ryan asked me quietly. He’d been standing back a little and letting me take the lead in this, while watching my back. It wasn’t really necessary here, but I appreciated the thought nonetheless.

“I’m not sure,” I admitted.

Just then, I noticed the bartender waving for my attention. I went up to the bar and announced, “I’ll have a sarsaparilla.”

“You know we don’t carry that here, Imp,” he told me.

“Did I forget to pay my tab?” I asked with a look of mock innocence.

The bartender snorted. “Yeah, I’m adding a new charge on it.” He scowled for a moment before continuing, “One of our customers just made a call, letting someone know that you’re here. Those people who are after you, are offering a reward for your whereabouts, so be careful.”

“I will,” I told him with a nod of appreciation. “And thanks.”

“You can thank me by paying off your tab,” he responded gruffly. As soon as I slapped a couple hundreds onto the bar, he snatched them up and said, “One more thing…”

“Oh?” I encouraged him to continue.

The bartender reached under the bar and pulled out an envelope. “Zabrowski said that if I see you, I should give you this.”

“Thank you,” I said, not bothering to look inside the envelope just yet. I gave him an exaggerated bow, before I turned and left Superbad with Ryan following close behind.

The second we were outside the bar, Ryan said, “I suggest we get out of here as quickly as possible. While we want to find this Imp Revenge Squad, it would probably be better to do so under our terms…”

“Agreed,” I said, glancing around me. I doubted that they’d be popping up on such short notice, but if they were waiting nearby, that could be a possibility.

We reached Ryan’s car and left without any trouble. It was only then that I opened the envelope to see what Bob left me. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that it was just a sheet of paper with an address on it. However, whether this was the address of where Bob was hiding out, of where the IRS was, or something else entirely, I couldn’t be sure.

“Shall we go check it out?” Ryan asked me.

I hesitated a moment at that, since I’d prefer to do that kind of scouting on my own. However, he was already involved, so I gave a reluctant nod. “We might as well.”

The address turned out to be for a building that was only a block or so from the Black Mask, or at least, from where the Black Mask usually had its door. Since the Black Mask’s door kept moving, appearing in different places in the same general area, no one was quite sure where the Black Mask itself was actually located.

At the moment, I was less interested in my favorite drinking spot, than I was in the building at the address Bob had supplied. It was old, three stories tall, and made of brick. Officially, it also happened to be vacant, being locked up with ‘FOR LEASE’ signs on the front.

“Now, that isn’t suspicious at all,” I commented wryly.

Ryan looked over the building, musing, “I can fly up for a better look…”

“And maybe get seen,” I pointed out. It was dark out, but he could still be spotted, which would give away any element of surprise. “I’ll sneak in and take a peek. Once we have a better idea what we’re dealing with, we can make a plan.”

Ryan chuckled at that. “It still surprises me to see that you aren’t quite as reckless and impulsive as I’d always thought…”

“Are you trying to imp-ly something, “I asked with a grin. “I’ll have you know, that I am very imp-ulsive. Imp-ressively so.”

“Go on already,” Ryan responded with a roll of his eyes.

I gave Ryan a look of mock offense. “You think I’m just a hot piece of tail…” Ryan began choking at that, so I winked at him, then hurried off before he could think of a comeback.

I slipped into the building with ease, and on first glance, it really did seem to be vacant. However, that didn’t explain the trip wires and motion detectors that I found scattered about. The place looked empty, but someone had taken the time to secure it. Because of that, I took my time and was careful to not only avoid the tripwires and motion detectors, but to look for other traps as well.

On the top floor, I found what I was looking for, evidence that people had actually been staying here. In one room, there was a stack of old pizza boxes, and a pile of various other takeout and fast food wrappers. Someone had left a nice little garbage pile, turning this entire room into a small dump. And then in other rooms, I found several cots and mattresses set up.

“Papa Bear said that someone has been sleeping in my bed,” I mused to myself as I looked over the sleeping arrangements. “And Mama Bear said that someone has been sleeping in my bed…” Then I shook my head and added, “But I’d bet my tail that none of these is just right.” I shuddered, imagining, fleas, bedbugs, and other things that I might catch if I even tried sitting on them.

In the largest open space, of what might once have been an office floor, a TV was set up along with a few chairs. There was also a table, which had a couple pictures of me spread out on the surface. Obviously, I’d found the right place. After making a quiet sweep of the building and making sure that nobody was actually there, I slipped back out and returned to Ryan.

“It looks like this was where the IRS was setup in a stakeout, waiting for me to show up at the Black Mask,” I explained, thinking about a pair of binoculars that I’d found next to one of the windows. “From the amount of trash, they’ve spent a lot of time here.”

Ryan scratched his chin, then said, “From your reaction, I assume that they’re gone now.”

“The lights are off and nobody’s home,” I agreed. “However, from how recent some of the trash is, they haven’t been gone very long. In fact, I saw a receipt with a time stamp from yesterday afternoon…”

“So, they’re still using this place,” Ryan said, giving me a look of surprise.

I grinned at that. “Yepperoonie. My guess is that since I’ve been out of town for the last two weeks, they got tired of waiting for me to show up again. They’re probably off doing their own thing, and sleeping in better accommodations. At most, they might be doing shifts, showing up to keep an eye on the neighborhood in case I make another appearance at the Black Mask. But since I was spotted at Superbad tonight, you can bet your patootie that they’re going to become a little more active now.”

“Since we know that sooner or later, they’re going to come back here,” Ryan mused, “this would be a good spot to set an ambush.”

“My thoughts exactly,” I responded with an evil grin. And since this was the spot from where the IRS had previously ambushed me, I found a certain sense of justice in using it against them.

Ryan stared at the building with a deep scowl. “So, for our next step…”

“I need to make a few phone calls,” I said thoughtfully, “and get a few things lined up for tomorrow. But if everything works out, then by tomorrow afternoon, the IRS will be out of business.”

“That sounds good to me,” Ryan said. He then turned and stared at me for several long seconds, with a strange expression. “I know that this isn’t a good time, not with what we have planned for tomorrow…”

I blinked at that, just a little confused about where Ryan was going with that. “What?”

“Would you care to have dinner with me tomorrow evening?” he asked, making it sound almost like some kind of formal invitation.

Ryan was right, in that considering what we had planned for tomorrow, this wouldn’t be very good timing. However, in spite of that, I gave him a broad smile and answered, “I’d love to.”

“Great,” Ryan responded, looking quite happy. After this, we kissed for nearly a minute, before he said, “And dress nice.”

--------------------

New York, Saturday late morning, Nov 3rd, 2007

“Barkeep,” I announced as I stepped into the Black Mask. I looked at Carl, my favorite bartender in the place and said, “I’ll have a cherry bomb, with extra BOOM.”

“I’ll have it out in a minute,” Carl told me, already going to work.

I took a seat at the bar and smiled in anticipation. It wasn’t in anticipation of the drink, but in what was going to happen afterwards. The last time I’d come to the Black Mask, the IRS had ambushed me and cut off my tail. Well, I was back at the Black Mask, making a clear statement that I wasn’t afraid of them, and that I wasn’t going to let them chase me away from my favorite drinking spot.

A minute later, Carl set my drink in front of me. I took a cautious sip, trying to decide whether or not I liked it. It tasted sort of like a good quality cherry cola, mixed with some strong booze that practically smacked me. For most normal people, a few sips of this would have them plastered. Lucky for me, I was a regenerator and could handle it. There was definitely a bite to it too, maybe from jalapeno vodka. I couldn’t be sure, since I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to Carl when he was making it, because I’d wanted to enjoy the surprise.

“Strong,” I told Carl with a grin and a nod of appreciation. “Impy like big boom.”

After finishing my drink, I ordered another, an old fashioned ice cream soda. I suddenly felt like I was a kid again, going to the old soda shop down on the corner. Of course, when I’d actually been a kid, I’d never gone to any soda shop, but I had seen them on TV, and they sounded awesome.

“Maybe that’s the next big thing,” I thought aloud. “Instead of just a supervillain bar, you guys should open up a supervillain soda shop too…”

“I’ll pass your suggestion to the management,” Carol told me with a look of amusement.

About the time I finished my ice cream soda, the Pink Piper came in and sat down beside me. She was wearing her costume, which was almost entirely pink, and included a cloak. I found myself humming the ‘Pink Panther’ tune.

“Wow, this place is a lot nicer than Superbad,” Piper said, looking around like a tourist.

“This is nothing,” I assured her. “You should see Moriarty’s. It’s like a really snooty, high end restaurant.”

“So, I’m guessing you aren’t welcome there,” Piper pointed out with a smirk. Then she quickly added, “Thanks for getting me in here…”

I nodded at that. “So, have the marks arrived?”

“Yes, they have,” Piper responded with a smirk. “The last one just showed up.”

“Good,” I responded, sliding a hundred over to Piper.

Last night, I’d hired her to help me deal with the IRS. She wasn’t very powerful, and her abilities were nearly useless in a fight, however, being able to have a rat or two spy on building that the IRS was using as a safehouse, was quite useful. Now, thanks to Piper, I knew that all five of them had arrived.

“That took less time than I expected,” I mused.

Earlier this morning, I’d been hidden nearby, keeping an eye on that building until I saw Crash Test Dummy arrive. After that, I’d made a show of walking into the Black Mask, where he’d be able to see me. Of course, he immediately called the rest of the IRS for backup.

The Black Mask was a great place to hang out, where I could get some nice drinks and talk business with others in my profession. However, this morning, I’d come here for another reason. I was here as bait.

“If they’re all in place,” I told Piper, “then begin phase two.”

“Ahem,” Piper responded, holding out her hand for the rest of her payment.

Without saying a word, I handed her a couple more hundred dollar bills. Piper was making five hundred bucks, and getting an introduction to the Black Mask, for very little work. It was a good deal for her.

Piper quickly slipped the money into her pocket and nodded in satisfaction. Then, she closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment, before saying, “Done.”

Even though I couldn’t see what was happening with the IRS, I could picture it clearly in my mind. A few rats would be crawling out of the woodwork, carrying small canisters that they were taking right up to the IRS, and then they’d detonate the canisters by gnawing off the caps.

“That should wake them all up,” I said with an evil laugh.

I waited a few minutes so that the contents of those vials would have their maximum effect, then I got up and walked out of the Black Mask. I stepped out into the sidewalk and looked around. The only person close by, was what appeared to be homeless man curled up in a door stop across the street.

“Come on,” I muttered impatiently. “Hurry up already. I don’t have all day.”

In spite of the overwhelming distraction that I’d already created, I didn’t have to wait long before my opponents arrived. Their opening attack came from Crash Test Dummy, who had some kind of energy rifle. A pulse of energy came at me, though I was expecting the ‘ambush’ and easily dodged the attack.

“IMP!” Heaven yelled from above.

“What…?” I started, looking up and being surprised to see Heaven flying. She had a pair of big feathery wings, that seemed to be made out of golden energy. In her hand, she held a broadsword made of the same energy as her wings. “Well, I guess that explains her name.”

Heaven swooped down, swinging her sword at me. I slipped back and dodged out of the way, and when she took another swing at me, I was able to concentrate my PK aura in one spot, so her sword hit my arm and bounced off, much to her surprise.

“Neener neener neener,” I called out, blowing her a raspberry.

Then, I caught a whiff of Heaven’s scent and began to choke and gag, just as she herself was doing. I scrambled to get back and out of her reach, as much to avoid the smell as the sword.

“Wow,” I gasped, my eyes stinging a bit. “Trixie really does make the best stink bombs.”

I’d brought a couple high quality stink bombs with me from Whateley, but didn’t have enough to reliably cover the entire top floor of that building. Because of that, I needed to rely on a more directed delivery method, which is where the Pink Piper and her rats came in.

“What did you do to us?” Heaven screamed. Her eyes were red and running, while she kept choking and gagging. It looked like the stink bombs were proving exactly the kind of distraction that I’d hoped they would.

“DIE YOU BITCH!” Crash Test Dummy yelled, opening fire with his energy blaster.

“I don’t see what you’re complaining about,” Jack Ass snarled bitterly. “Your helmet has a filter built in.”

“And it’s still getting in,” Crash Test Dummy exclaimed.

I burst out laughing at that, which seemed to piss my attackers off even more. “Today is a day that will live in infamy,” I called out. “Now, to punish you for the imp-udence of attacking me. If you think you can beat me now, you’re mistaken. It’s imp-ossible.”

The Crimson Kid charged at me with his glowing red aura, not saying a word. He was using one hand to hold his nose, which was pretty funny. When a smelly homeless guy has to plug his nose, you know it’s bad.

Suddenly, the homeless guy in the doorway stood up and began to grow larger. He tossed off his hat and oversized coat, revealing a large and muscular man in a dark blue costume.

“I think not,” Muscle announced as he ran forward and punched the Red Goat, sending him flying back.

Then, Muscle flexed his bulging muscles, and grew even larger. His already massive muscles swelled to twice their previous size, and at eight feet tall, he now towered over everyone present.

“Why are you helping her?” Crash Test Dummy demanded of Muscle. “We fought against that bitch together…”

“That was just business,” Muscle stated as he stepped forward. “And so is this. Imp hired me to be a bodyguard and leg breaker today. Specifically, I’m to guard her body and break your legs.”

“Attacking a poor defenseless little Imp, five to one,” I said, tsking Heaven. “Not fair. Not fair at all. So, I decided to improve those numbers…”

Suddenly, Hexagoner 2.0 began screaming, and I spared her a glance, to see several rats running up her legs. She was totally freaking out, and if Jack Ass wasn’t coming at me, I probably would have been rolling on the ground laughing.

“I’m going to kill you,” Jack Ass exclaimed, holding out his high tech gauntlet and firing a concussion blast at me. I dove to the side, then ran behind the Red Goat, so the next blast hit the other former hero, sending him flying.

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, Jack Ass,” I called back. Then, with an evil grin, I began singing, “Little Bunny Foo Foo, hopping through the forest…”

“SHUT UP!” Jack Ass yelled, firing another blast at me, though I leapt aside and blew him a raspberry, which seemed to piss him off even more.

Hexagoner 2.0 had knocked the rats away and had finally entered the fight. She held out a staff with a hexagon shaped symbol on top, and it fired a beam of red energy at me. I dove to the side, then dodged another blast.

“You took everything from me,” Jack Ass snarled. “I was a HERO!”

“You were a freaking psycho,” I responded. “Still are.”

Jack Ass came at me, swinging his gauntlet covered fist. From what I knew of the Green Gauntlet’s gear, I probably wouldn’t be able to survive a direct punch. It was a good thing that I had no intention of just standing there and taking the hit. After all, I wasn’t like Aegis.

But before I had a chance to deal with Jack Ass, he suddenly went flying back until he slammed into a nearby wall. It looked like a painful impact, even with the lightweight armor he was wearing. I hoped he broke something, though I doubted I was that lucky.

“Jack Rabbit,” a voice called out from above.

I looked up and saw Chickenhawk floating in the air, fully geared up and ready to go in his dark blue and white uniform. He was glaring down at Jack Ass, looking pretty damn fierce at the moment.

“You kidnapped my daughter,” Chickenhawk stated. “We have unfinished business…”

Muscle held the Red Goat over his head, and paused to give me a curious look. “You brought in Superhawk?” He sounded shocked, which was no surprise. Chickenhawk and I had a long history as adversaries, and Muscle wasn’t aware of the recent change in our relationship.

“Chickenhawk wants Jack Ass more than he does me,” I responded with an evil grin. “So, I decided to take advantage of that and tipped him off to where Jack Ass was gonna be. I figured, it’s a good way to get some unwitting and free backup.”

“Good idea,” Muscle responded with a laugh, right before he body slammed the Crimson Kid into the ground, hard enough that I actually winced. “These guys stink.”

I just grinned, knowing that Muscle wouldn’t be the only person who approved of my ‘tricking’ Chickenhawk into helping. Using hired minions and unwitting pawns were traditional and well-respected tactics of the villain set.

Chickenhawk fired a glowing blue ball at Jack Ass, just as the former hero was getting back to his feet. As soon as the ball of warped gravity hit Jack Ass, he flew up into the air, where Chickenhawk caught him, and then flew him down into the ground.

“Ooooh, that’s gotta hurt,” I said.

Chickenhawk turned to look at me, and said, “Once I’m done with this one, you and I have unfinished business too.”

“Only if you can catch me,” I called back.

Since Chickenhawk was dealing with Jack Ass, I scanned the rest of the fight. Heaven was frantically trying to knock a couple rats off herself, while Muscle had a good hold on the Crimson Kid. However, Crash Test Dummy and Hexagoner 2.0 were trying to position themselves for a ranged attack, that didn’t hit their teammates.

I dove to the side, flinging several throwing spikes, each getting a little extra ‘oomph’ from my power. One of them hit Crash Test Dummy’s shoulder hard enough to punch through his armor and at least an inch into his flesh. He let out a howl of pain.

My other spike was sent flying at Hexagoner 2.0. Suddenly, a shield of glowing red energy appeared in front of her, shaped like a hexagon, of course, and it blocked my spike. I was vaguely annoyed at that, so threw another spike, this time at Heaven. She was too distracted by the rats to dodge or block, and screamed as the spike went right into her thigh.

“I find it hard to believe that YOU managed to kill Miles,” Hexagoner 2.0 spat out in contempt.

“I didn’t,” I responded cheerfully. “A roof fell on him.”

“Regardless,” Little Miss Sequel responded in a flat tone. “I still have to kill you.”

“Really?” I asked with a grin. “First, you have to find me.”

With that, I threw a smoke bomb down at my feet, and when it exploded, I dropped flat to the ground, using my chameleon field to blend in. By the time the smoke had cleared, I was completely invisible, and appeared to have vanished.

“Where did that bitch go?” Crash Test Dummy demanded. “I HATE when she does that.”

There was a flash of red light, and Muscle was suddenly sent flying back, to where he slammed into a wall. The Crimson Kid got back to his feet with an angry snarl on his face, and charged right at Muscle, hitting him hard enough that he slumped over and twitched. It was easy to forget that, while Muscle was strong, he wasn’t invulnerable.

Jack Ass seemed to be down for the count, so Chickenhawk was turning his attention to the other members of the IRS. By this point, Heaven had shaken the rats loose and was floating up in the air so they couldn’t get to her again. And unfortunately for me, that also meant she wasn’t putting weight on her injured leg.

“I’m going to kill you, Imp,” Heaven yelled out, looking around and trying to find me.

I was still in hiding, until I saw an opportunity. Crash Test Dummy had wandered a little too close to me, so with another puff of smoke, I leapt out behind him, threw my hands over his eyes, and exclaimed, “Guess who…”

“Get off me,” Crash Test Dummy demanded, which only made me laugh. He tried swinging around to hit me with his gun, but I used my tail to knock it out of his hands.

“Come on, Crash Test Dummy,” I taunted. “We’re old friends.”

“My name is THE PROVOKER,” he exclaimed.

“The Provoker?” I asked with a laugh. “Wow, that’s totally lame. Crash Test Dummy is WAY better. I mean, you might as well have called yourself Poke it With a Stick Man. LAME.”

“I’m gonna kill you,” he snarled furiously.

I rolled my eyes at that. “You should THANK me for changing it for you. By the way, you’re welcome.”

Crash Test Dummy activated some kind of force field, and suddenly I was thrown off him. I hit the ground and rolled out of the way, only a moment before he swung the blade of his energy sword through the spot where I’d been.

“You cut off my hand,” he accused me. “You turned me into a laughingstock…”

“Well, you did that second part yourself,” I replied, sticking my tongue out at him.

He swung his sword at me again, spitting out, “I’m going to cut off your head, the same way I cut off your tail.”

I felt a flash of anger at the reminder of my pain and humiliation. “You shouldn’t have reminded me of that,” I responded in cold tone.

Crash Test Dummy had already pushed the limits of my patience, and since he was trying to kill me, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty over what I was about to do. I waited until he charged forward, swinging the blade again. This time, I simply dropped down and swung my tail, with my PK aura hardened into a blade around the end, so it sliced right through his leg, severing it just below the knee.

My opponent screamed and grabbed at the stump of his leg, even using the replacement hand from the last time we fought. “Ooops, I did it again,” I sang, kicking the sword away from Crash Test Dummy, and then giving him another swift kick, right in the face.

Before I could properly gloat over Crash Test Dummy, Hexagoner 2.0 and the Red Goat both came at me. I suddenly found myself trapped inside a glowing red hexagon on the ground, while the former hero charged right at me, clearly intending to hit me point blank.

I’d dealt with the first Hexagon, so already had a pretty good idea of how to work around his powers. However, his replacement had never really fought me, and she had no idea what she was getting into.

Reaching into a pouch on my belt, I pulled out a handful of iron shavings and threw them in front of me. The iron messed with the spell, creating an opening that I used to leap out of, right before the Crimson Kid would have hit me.

As I dove to the side, I began singing, “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more, the bloody red moron, was rolling up the score…”

“Do you ever shut up?” he demanded, taking a swing at me.

“Not really,” I responded in a cheerful tone. “You know, Monster Max was a good buddy of mine, and I’m really not happy with you for getting him killed. I had been willing to walk away and let you live the rest of your life in relative peace, but you had to turn around and pull this shit on me. Yep, you’re really rolling up the score on ways to piss me off.”

“Get out of my way so I can hit her,” Little Miss Sequel yelled out, holding up her staff. “I’m giving this one everything I have…”

She fired a blast of energy, but I grabbed the Red Goat and spun him around, so the blast hit him instead. He screamed as the blast hit is arm, which instantly blackened and crumbled away.

“No,” Hexagoner 2.0 cried out, realizing that she’d hit her ally instead of me.

“Yes,” I responded, kicking the Red Goat in the balls and dropping him the rest of the way to the ground.

Hexagoner 2.0 tried turning her attention back to me, but several rats ran towards her and she began screaming and firing blasts at them, seeming to forget all about me. I took advantage of the opportunity to pull another disappearing act, vanishing in a puff of smoke, with the hopes of sneaking up on her without being seen. I was a thief, not a fighter, and really didn’t like this kind of straight up fight. A few seconds later, Hexagoner 2.0 had created a glowing hexagon on the ground beneath her, similar to what she’d previously used to cage me. However, this time, she was using it to keep the rats out and away from her.

I’d only made it about halfway to Little Miss Sequel, who was still squealing like a frightened schoolgirl over the rats, when Heaven suddenly smashed into the ground, courtesy of Chickenhawk. She staggered and tried getting back to her feet, revealing that her golden energy wings were now flickering and fading away. She looked tired.

“Why are you defending this IMP?” she demanded of Chickenhawk.

“I’m not,” Chickenhawk answered. “As soon as I’m done dealing with you, I’m going to take her in too…”

I smirked at that. Chickenhawk was really playing the role, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, since he was just acting like he always had before, like a stuck up hero with a stick up his butt. Good thing that I now knew there was a lot more to him than that beneath the mask.

Heaven looked to Hexagoner 2.0 for help, and scowled when she saw that the other woman was too busy fighting off the rats to bother with a superhero. Then, she looked at the rest of the IRS, who had been taken out of action due to their injuries.

“I don’t know where you’re hiding, Imp,” Heaven snarled, looking around but not seeing me, thanks to my chameleon field. “But I’m going to destroy you for what you did to me. You can count on it…”

With that, Heaven held her hands out wide, and golden energy swept out, spreading over the battlefield in an eerie golden fog. Then, it all concentrated around the various members of the IRS, until each and every one of them was glowing with a golden aura. An instant later, Heaven and all four of her allies suddenly vanished. The only thing that remained of the IRS, was a severed leg and a lingering stench.

“Teleported,” I mused, dropping a smoke bomb and my chameleon field, so I could make a theatrical reappearance. I looked to where Heaven had been standing and commented, “You know, I still have no idea what she has against me.”

“Why am I not surprised,” Chickenhawk asked as he landed a short distance away, “that you’ve made so many enemies, that you can’t even remember them all?”

“I’m just imp-ossibly talented, I guess,” I responded with a broad grin. Then I cut loose with a maniacal laugh, which was my trademarked supervillain laugh number four, and smugly pointed out, “They paid a heavy price for coming after me.”

“Yeah,” Chickenhawk agreed in a wry tone. “They paid an arm and a leg.”

I gave him a look of mock offense. “You stole my line…”

Chickenhawk looked like he was about to burst out laughing, but he somehow contained it and stood there in self-righteous superhero pose number two, as he announced, “Now, you’re coming with me…”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to take a rain check,” I responded, taking several steps back. Then I gave a sweeping bow, and said, “Adieu,” before throwing a smoke bomb at the ground and pulling my vanishing trick.

Of course, Chickenhawk now knew how my trick worked, but he pretended that he didn’t. “The next time we meet,” he announced, looking around as though trying to spot me. “I will catch you.” And with that, he flew up into the air and left.

Once Chickenhawk was gone, I came out of hiding. The Pink Piper had also come out from where she’d been hiding, and had rushed over to check on Muscle, who was slowly getting to his feet.

“I’m getting too old for this,” Muscle grudgingly admitted. “Perhaps it is time for me to consider retiring.”

“Sipping mai tais on a Karedonia beach,” I commented. “Not a bad life.”

“That does sound pretty nice,” Muscle said.

“But you’re a local legend,” Piper exclaimed. “You can’t retire…”

I saw the way Piper was looking at him and smiled at that. And though I was tempted to play matchmaker, and give them a little push, I decided to keep my nose out of it for now.

“I’ve already sent your payment to your account,” I told Muscle. Then I looked to Piper. “And I’m going to double your payment, as a bonus for the good work.”

“Thanks,” Piper responded with a broad grin. “At this rate, I’ll be able to quit my crappy day job in no time…”

After this, I said some quick goodbye’s to my associates, and hurried away from the area. I didn’t think that the IRS were likely to come back, not for some time at least, but it was possible that all the noise might have attracted some cops or heroes, and that was trouble I wanted to avoid.

I felt a certainly satisfaction that I’d been able to hit the IRS back, and get a little revenge for their ambush a couple weeks ago. However, I was also disappointed that I hadn’t been able to resolve the situation with them a little more permanently. After all, they might have taken some good lumps, but they were bound to be back, even angrier than before. I once spent five years ducking professional assassins and hitmen, who were after a price on my head, so I wasn’t too worried about these jokers. When they did show up again, I’d be ready for them.

“But enough of that,” I mused, grinning to myself as I considered what I had next on my schedule. “A nice long soak in a hot bubble bath, and then, I have to get ready for my date.”

--------------------

The Imp Lair, Manhattan NY, Saturday evening, Nov 3rd, 2007

“I’m too sexy for my tail, too sexy for my tail, I’m too sexy to fail…,” I sang while dancing around my apartment, getting ready for my big date. “Bum, bum bum bum bum. Bum, bum bum bum bum…”

I was filled with a mixture of nervousness and excitement as I got ready. Ryan had asked me out on a real date, and not just for a casual dinner. He’d even told me to dress nicely. I hadn’t been on a dress-up date in over fifteen years, and I was trying hard not to think about how that relationship had ended.

At this point, I was already wearing a little black dress that showed a little more skin and scales than I was really comfortable with. However, if Ryan really was interested in me, then he’d have to deal with the fact that I had a few patches of scales on my body. This dress was as much a test as it was a treat, because if he couldn’t handle my GSD, if he couldn’t handle the real me, then this relationship couldn’t go any further.

Once I was dressed, which included a pair of low heeled black pumps, which would be easy for me to move in, if anything went wrong, I sat down at the makeup table in my bedroom. I rarely used the makeup table or the well-lit mirror on the back of it. After all, I rarely bothered with any kind of makeup.

I looked over my nails, which were naturally all black and clawlike, though it would probably have been more accurate to refer to them as talons. Since my nails had their own natural color, it seemed silly to put colored polish on them. However, I did buff and polish them, giving them a glossy appearance, so they looked almost like I’d put some kind of clear coat on them. While I was at that, I’d also buffed and polished my horns, so that they’d look nice too.

Then, I stared at my face in the mirror, looking right into my own slitted-yellow eyes. Tiny black scales covered most of my upper face, especially on my forehead and cheeks, so that from a distance, it almost looked like I might be wearing some kind of mask. Unfortunately, those scales made it pointless to try putting on any eyeshadow, mascara, or blush. In fact, the only kind of makeup that really worked well for me, was lipstick. I carefully applied some, which was a dark red, which could easily appear black in the shadows. It went well with the color of my horns, scales, and dress.

“Perfect,” I announced, blowing myself a kiss. “But I could use a little oomph…”

Next came the jewelry. I almost never wore any jewelry, other than a pair of stud earrings at most. In my line of work, dangling jewelry could be a serious problem, but tonight, I was making an exception. I put in a pair of earrings, which dangled just a little, though I had to punch new holes in my ears. The problem with being a regenerator was that every time I removed my earrings, the holes would close right up.

“Let’s see,” I mused, slipping on a pair of slender bracelets and a necklace, which were standard fare as jewelry went. Fortunately, I in my magnificence, was anything but standard.

A moment later, I opened the drawer that contained my special jewelry, items which would only work for someone with my more uncommon physical features. I pulled out a couple small bracelets, which were too small for my wrist, but the perfect size for my tail. If I put both of them on, I could snap my tail, and the bracelets would slide along its length, crashing into each other like little cymbals. That was always fun, but the constant jingling when I walked could be annoying. Because of that, I put both bracelets onto my tail, about six inches apart, and fixed them in place with a little spirit gum.

Finally, I pulled out a small collection of rings, which were sized to fit my horns rather than my fingers. I hesitated a moment, then put them back into the drawer. After all, I didn’t want to overdo it and come off as gaudy, like some overly decorated rich woman, who wanted to show off her wealth. Heaven knows, I’d robbed enough women like that, that I certainly didn’t want to be one.

“Dahling,” I said to the Imp in the mirror. “You look mahvalous.”

Once I was ready, I put on my overcoat and hat, covering up the fabulous sight that was me, then slipped out of the Imp Lair. I didn’t like driving, but an event like this demanded something much better than a bus or subway. After all, I couldn’t risk my hair getting messed up any worse than what my hat would do, nor would I risk ruining my dress. Before long, I parked near Ryan’s home, then went up to knock on the door.

The door opened and revealed Ryan, who was dressed in a nice suit. He looked distinguished and handsome, and as I gave him the once over, I smiled appreciatively. Very nice.

“Christine,” Ryan greeted me with a warm smile. He looked me over as well, then said, “I don’t think you’re going to need the disguise tonight…”

“Ooooh, dinner in,” I said with a smile, imagining a nice romantic dinner, with Ryan cooking just for me. I carefully took off my coat and hat, letting Ryan get a good look. “I can’t wait.”

However, instead of responding, Ryan just stared at me for several long seconds. From his expression, it seemed that he liked what he saw. “You look… Wow…”

“Thank you,” I responded with a blush. “You clean up pretty well yourself.”

I started to go into Ryan’s home, when he said, “Actually, I have reservations for us.”

“Reservations?” I asked, a little surprised at that.

I began to put my coat back on, but Ryan held up a hand. “I told you, you won’t need that tonight…” Then he held out his arm, indicating I should take it. “Shall we?”

Ryan led me out to his car, then we drove to the parking garage next to a high end restaurant. My eyes widened slightly at that and I reached for my coat again, but Ryan shook his head and said, “Trust me.” I gave him a wary look but nodded my agreement.

It was strange, leaving my hat and coat in the car, and walking into the restaurant, arm in arm with Ryan, with neither of us wearing a costume. I got a couple odd looks from other customers when we went inside, and a couple looks of obvious disapproval, but nobody actually said anything, at least not in my hearing.

“Someone told me that this place has a reputation for being mutant friendly,” Ryan told me. “The staff won’t allow anyone to harass us.”

“That’s good,” I said, still warily looking around. “I still kind of expect the cops to bust in…”

Ryan smiled faintly at that, then assured me, “I don’t want to bruise your ego, but most normal people have absolutely no idea that the Imp even exists, much less what she looks like.”

I just smiled politely at that, not pointing out that knowing who I was, wasn’t necessary. It was enough to know that I was a mutant with GSD, and that I looked like some kind of demon. Most people seemed to have a bad reaction to one or both of those things, and would often call the cops or MCO on me at first sight. And then, there were the times they decided to deal with the ‘threat’ themselves. I’ve had more than one encounter with a spontaneous lynch mob over the years.

“This is really nice,” I said, appreciating the fact that Ryan was taking me to a place like this, and without either of us being in disguise. While I was nervous about this, it was strangely exhilarating as well. “Thank you.”

“Last week,” Ryan said carefully, “you said you were worried that we might not have a future together, because we couldn’t even afford to be seen together in public. Well, I’ve thought about it, and think that it’s worth the risk.”

I just stared at Ryan in surprise, suddenly getting all teary-eyed. Obviously, I got something in my eyes. And since I wasn’t sure what to say to that, I didn’t say anything.

Dinner was both expensive and delicious, though to my delight, the company was even better. Ryan and I avoided talking business, or at least, the superhero and criminal kind. Instead, we talked about art, about our favorite styles and artists. It was a great conversation, and for awhile, I was able to pretend that I was a normal woman, out on a date with a handsome man.

By the time dessert arrived, nothing shocking or unexpected had happened, so I was feeling pretty relaxed. Somehow, my tail had ended up in Ryan’s lap, and since he didn’t seem to know what else to do with it, he began to pet the flat blade at the end. It felt nice, sort of tickling, but in the good sort of way.

“You know,” I teased Ryan with a mischievious grin, “The blade of my tail there is an erogenous zone.” Ryan suddenly yanked his hand away from my tail, and I burst out laughing. “Just kidding.” I wasn’t. Now, I wished I’d kept my mouth shut, because I’d been enjoying that.

When we were finally done and were starting to leave the restaurant, I noticed a man at one of the tables, who was staring at me with a look of recognition. He looked vaguely familiar, though it took a few seconds before I remembered where I knew him from. Charles Sorren was a former client, who’d hired me to acquire a specific piece of art for him. As I walked past, I gave him a polite nod.

Ryan and I went to a small park across the street from the restaurant and began to walk around. It was eerie being out in the open with Ryan like this, and also kind of romantic. But then, it began to rain.

“Sorry that didn’t work out,” Ryan told me as we rushed back to the car. “How about we just go back to my place and have a few drinks?”

“That sounds good to me,” I practically purred in his ear.

It didn’t take long for us to get back to Ryan’s place, where he promptly pulled out a nice bottle of wine, and we continued our conversation from the restaurant. The one about art, not my tail.

Sometime during the conversation, Ryan got up and went around behind me, and to my surprise, he put his hands on my shoulders. With the dress I was wearing, the tiny black scales that covered much of my neck and shoulders were visible, and he hadn’t hesitated to put his hands on them.

“Your scales,” Ryan said in a gentle tone, as he began to squeeze and massage my shoulders. They’re soft…and smooth.”

“Don’t stop,” I told Ryan with a purr, enjoying the massage. “I never knew that massage was one of your powers…”

Ryan chuckled at that. “Well, you aren’t the only one who keeps a trick or two in reserve.”

“Well,” I responded with a sigh. “If you’d pulled this one out earlier, you might have caught me years ago.”

“Better late than never,” Ryan told me, before bending over to give me a kiss. Our brief kiss ended up becoming a much longer and more passionate one, and I was eager for more. Unfortunately, he let out a sigh and said, “Please excuse my bad timing, but my bladder needs some attention.”

After Ryan went to the bathroom, I decided to do a little snooping. I didn’t have much time, so I went to the ipod that was hooked up into his stereo system. I thought that since I didn’t have time for any serious snooping, so I’d start with his play list. After all, if I discovered that he had a secret and abiding passion for polka, our relationship might be in serious jeopardy.

“Not bad,” I mused, appreciating the fact that a lot of the songs were 70’s and 80’s pop and classic rock. “I can definitely deal with this.”

Then, I noticed one song title that caught my attention, because that song happened to be a perfect match for what I was feeling at that moment. I glanced in the direction of the bathroom, then began to grin.

As soon as Ryan returned, I hit play, and Madonna’s voice began to fill the air. I immediately began to dance in the middle of the living room.

Get into the groove
Boy you've got to prove
Your love to me, yeah
Get up on your feet, yeah
Step to the beat
Boy what will it be.

Music can be such a revelation
Dancing around you feel the sweet sensation
We might be lovers if the rhythm's right
I hope this feeling never ends tonight

Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free
At night I lock the doors, where no one else can see
I'm tired of dancing here all by myself
Tonight I want to dance with someone else

Ryan stopped and stared at me as I danced, and from the look on his face, he definitely appreciated what he saw. I smiled at that, though by this time, I was really caught up in this music, which seemed to echo my own thoughts and feelings, announcing them in a way that I’d never be able to phrase on my own.

Get into the groove
Boy you've got to prove
Your love to me, yeah
Get up on your feet, yeah
Step to the beat
Boy what will it be

Gonna get to know you in a special way
This doesn't happen to me every day
Don't try to hide it love wears no disguise
I see the fire burning in your eyes

Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free
At night I lock the doors, where no one else can see
I'm tired of dancing here all by myself
Tonight I want to dance with someone else

I continued dancing, putting my heart out for Ryan to see. In a way, this was something that was extremely difficult for me, because I had a hard time trusting people, and an even harder time letting them in. But at that moment, it came out far more easily than I could have imagined.

When I looked Ryan in the eyes, I could see the passion burning there, and it filled me with more courage and confidence in what I was doing. I smiled and gestured for him to join me.

Ryan stepped forward, and a moment later, he was in my arms, dancing along with me.

Get into the groove
Boy you've got to prove
Your love to me, yeah
Get up on your feet, yeah
Step to the beat
Boy what will it be

Live out your fantasy here with me
Just let the music set you free
Touch my body, and move in time
Now I now you're mine

Ryan and I were arm in arm, dancing so close that I could feel his body pressed against me. I could feel his heart racing, the beat almost matching my own. At that moment, nothing else existed beyond the two of us.

Live out your fantasy here with me
Just let the music set you free
Touch my body, and move in time
Now I now you're mine

Now I know you're mine, now I know you're mine
Now I know you're mine, now I know you're mine

As the song came to an end, Ryan and I drew even closer, until we were holding each other firmly and kissing with a burning hunger. Without saying a word, we began moving back towards his bedroom, though neither of us took our hands off the other in the process.

Later, I was in was in bed with Ryan closely pressed up against me. I could feel his body heat, and hear the comforting sound of his breathing. My tail was wrapped possessively around his leg, making sure that he remained where he was.

At that moment, I felt a deep sense of contentment, perhaps more than I’d ever felt before in my life. I smiled in satisfaction, and whispered, “Mine.”

--------------------

Manhattan NY, Sunday morning, Nov 4th, 2007

I awoke with Ryan’s arm draped over my body, which was an oddly comfortable position to wake in, yet also a very strange one. It had been over fifteen years since the last time I’d woken up next to someone like this, so I wasn’t used to this kind of close contact with another person.

After remaining where I was for some time and simply enjoying the novelty of this, I carefully began to extract myself from Ryan’s gasp, trying not to wake him. Then, I made my way to the bathroom to relieve myself and get cleaned up.

The whole time I was doing this, I remembered last night, and grinned like an idiot. It wasn’t just the sex. That had been great, but it had just been the cherry on top of a perfect evening. Ryan had taken me out to a nice restaurant, and he’d treated me like a real lady for the evening. But even more important than that, was the fact that he’d been willing to actually be seen with me, without any disguises. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had taken me out on a date, and had been willing to do so that openly. In fact, I was pretty sure it had never happened before.

Last night had been fantastic, but in spite of that, and the fact that I was beautiful, talented, and fabulous, I still had a small niggling of doubt. What if he saw me this morning and regretted what we’d done? What if he had second thoughts? It wouldn’t be the first time that kind of thing had happened to me.

Once I was done with my shower, I dried myself off but didn’t bother getting dressed. I refused to be embarrassed or ashamed of who and what I was, so if Ryan had changed his mind about wanting to be with me, then I wanted to know it as soon as possible. It might not have been very fair to test him like this, but at least this way, I’d know for sure. In spite of all this, I remained in a good mood. After all, even if the worst case scenario did happen, I still got a great night out of it all.

Since I was up and hungry, I went to the kitchen and began looking around. I was amazed at just how much food was packed into the fridge and cupboards. For someone like me, who got so many of her meals from takeout or delivery, this was quite impressive. In fact, it was impressive enough that I actually felt inspired to make breakfast. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but that had never stopped me before.

“Let’s see,” I mused as I began pulling things out of the fridge and cupboards.

While I was getting everything out, I began dancing a little, and singing in mock Swedish. I didn’t speak a word of real Swedish, but I was fluent in the mock variety. I finally held up a pan and finished my song with, “Bork bork bork.”

Suddenly, Ryan burst out laughing from the entrance of the kitchen, where he also began to clap. “So,” he said with a grin, “you still do that kind of thing when you’re by yourself…”

“Of course,” I responded with a broad grin. “I am my own biggest fan after all.”

“I can believe it,” Ryan said as he came into the kitchen and looked over everything I’d set out. “I didn’t know you could cook…”

“I am a woman of many talents,” I bragged. But then, I paused and gave him a chagrinned look as I admitted, “But cooking isn’t one of them.”

Ryan seemed amused by that. “Then maybe I should help.”

“Please do,” I told him. “At least if you want anything edible for breakfast.”

However, instead of immediately rushing forward, Ryan remained where he was, giving me an appreciative look, which made me blush and smile at the same time. It seemed that my worries were for nothing, because he was obviously still interested. This was a fact that he proved by giving me another passionate kiss.

After this, Ryan took over the cooking duties, while I used my tail to give him a playful swat on his butt. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Can you shred some of that cheese?” Ryan asked me.

Before long, breakfast started to come together. Cheesy scrambled eggs were being finished up in one pan, while bacon sizzled away in another.

“Mmmmmm, bacon,” I said with a mock drool, in my best Homer Simpson voice.

I reached for a slice of the still sizzling bacon, but Ryan gently slapped my hand away. “Not yet…”

Ryan turned to the pan, then looked back at me and blinked in surprise. I took a bite from a slice of bacon and gave him a look of mock innocence. “What?”

“How did you…?” he started.

“Um…world famous thief,” I reminded him with a smirk. “Surely you didn’t think a piece of bacon would be a challenge.” Then, to rub in in a little, I took another bite. “Om, nom nom nom nom.”

Ryan shook his head at that. “I should have known better.”

“Yes, you should have,” I responded with broad grin.

The bacon was tasty, as were the scrambled eggs, which Ryan topped with chopped scallions. This was definitely a much better breakfast than I ever would have been able to make on my own, though not as good as what the Whateley chefs usually whipped up, not that I was going to tell Ryan that.

When we’d finished eating, we began to clean the kitchen and the dishes, which somehow led to a morning quickie, followed by another shower. By this point, I was ecstatic, since Ryan had convinced me that last night hadn’t just been a fluke, or some impulse on his part. He really was into me, in more ways than one.

Eventually, once we were both dressed, me courtesy of some spare clothes from my car, Ryan asked, “So, what are your plans for today?” He gave me a curious look. “Track down this Imp Revenge Squad?”

“Not today,” I responded with a languid smile. “Though I will put a few feelers out for them. I have a feeling that they’ll be licking their wounds for awhile, but they aren’t gone for good.”

“Too bad,” Ryan said with a sigh. “I’d really hoped that I’d seen the last of Jack Rabbit in Wisconsin.”

I nodded in agreement, sharing the feeling. “There is something I need to take care of today,” I said carefully. “You’re welcome to come along, if you’d like.”

“Sure,” Ryan told me with a smile. “I don’t have anything better going on.”

A short time later, I left Ryan’s place, though he was in the passenger seat of my car, so I didn’t have to say goodbye. Ryan and I had been in a car together on a couple occasions, but this was the first time that it was my car, or that I was the one driving. He had absolutely no idea where we were going, and though he was obviously curious, he didn’t bother asking. He probably figured that instead of giving him a straight answer, I’d make some kind of joke of it. He knew me so well.

I drove into a parking garage, and then parked my car on a back corner, where most people never went. It was near a service elevator, which was usually locked. That was no problem for me, nor were the security cameras, since I’d long since installed a devise, which would loop the footage for a few minutes. Because of that, Ryan and I had some privacy as we rode the elevator up.

“Where are we going?” Ryan finally asked, unable to contain the curiosity any longer.

“Crazy,” I answered with a grin.

The elevator stopped on the seventeenth floor, then I stepped out and looked around the open hallway, making sure that no one was watching. Since this was the back area of the floor, well away from the main elevators and stairs, very few people had reason to come back this far, which was a definite advantage, and one that I counted on.

After I was sure that the coast was clear, I went to the next door over and opened it with a key. However, I didn’t open the door very wide, only a few inches. I slipped my fingers inside the opening, felt for the hidden switch, and flipped it, deactivating the security and the other lock, which would prevent the door from opening any further than this.

“Come on in,” I told Ryan, as I stepped into the spacious and tastefully decorated condo, that was my home away from Whateley.

“Where are we?” Ryan asked, looking around curiously.

“This is the Imp Lair,” I proudly announced. “The Imp Cave. The Fortress of Sol-imp-tude…”

Ryan gave me a look of surprise. “This is where you live?”

“Yep,” I agreed. “Welcome to my home.”

“It’s…nice,” Ryan said carefully. “Not quite what I would have expected…”

“Why is that everyone’s first reaction?” I asked with a wry smile. “I do like nice things, you know…”

“Is that a real Monet?” Ryan gasped, pointing a beautiful painting that hung on the wall.

“A replica,” I answered. After Carson had found this place, I’d moved my stolen pieces to a safehouse as a precaution, including the original painting that this one had been copied from.

Ryan gave me a wry look. “You mean a forgery.”

“Po-tay-toh, po-tah-toh,” I responded cheerfully. “Besides, it’s only a forgery if I’m trying to pass it off as the original. In this case, I’m not, so it’s just a replica.”

“Very nice,” Ryan commented, still looking around. I stood back and let him explore my living room a bit, watching him with amusement. He stopped in front of a display case and asked, “Why do you have an empty scotch bottle here?”

“That,” I explained proudly, “is a special souvenir. I stole the unopened bottle from Bruce Goodkind’s office.” That earned me a look of surprise from Ryan. “And I finished the bottle with Elizabeth Carson, with Lady Astarte, the night she offered me a job at Whateley.”

Ryan gave me a curious look before smiling. “I imagine that you’ve probably collected a few interesting souvenirs.”

“A few,” I agreed. Then I winked at him and added, “Some of them were even obtained legally.” We both chuckled at that.

“I imagine you don’t get many visitors here,” he said, giving me another curious look.

“You’re only the fourth person I’ve ever invited here,” I admitted. “All within the last six months.” Then I paused for a moment before correcting those numbers. “Actually, one of them was uninvited, and just sort of showed up on my doorstep.” It had actually been at my window, but there was no need to nitpick. “And one of the others, was your daughter.”

“Melissa told me that she’d been to your home,” Ryan admitted.

Ryan stared at me for several seconds, and I could see the understanding in his eyes. I’d brought him back to my home, which was a great show of trust on my part. I didn’t show just anyone where I lived. In fact, he was the first person that I’d ever shown how to get here.

While Ryan stared at me, I stared back, until I made my decision. “I’ve collected a lot of souvenirs and treasures over the years,” I said, indicating my display case and a few other items around the room. “But this… This is my most prized possession…”

With those words, I opened a small box and revealed the magic amulet inside. I held it up enough so that Ryan could get a good look at it, though it was obvious from his expression that he had absolutely no idea why that would be my most prized possession.

“This was the payment for a job I did about two years ago,” I said, carefully holding the amulet up, though I made absolutely no move to put it on. “It’s magic.”

“Magic?” Ryan asked, now staring at the amulet with more interest.

“It has a masking charm on it,” I explained, giving him a wry smile. “Basically, it creates an illusion that hides my GSD. It…makes me look the way I would, if I didn’t have GSD. If I wear this, I can look normal.”

Ryan stared at me in surprise, as well as with a bit of confusion. “If you can hide your GSD, then why don’t you use it? I can only imagine how much easier this would make things…”

I was silent for several long seconds, trying to think of how to best explain this. “This is not only my greatest treasure,” I said carefully. “It’s also my greatest secret.” I held up the amulet. “This does more than just let me walk down the street without freaking people out, or let me go onto an airplane as a customer, without having to sneak on board… With this, I can sell my own original artwork, and actually be a legitimate artist instead of just a forger.”

“You…created an alias,” Ryan said in understanding. “You couldn’t risk blowing your cover…”

“I…I gave up a lot of my secrets when we were searching for Melissa,” I explained quietly. “Enough, so that I probably couldn’t have continued in my old career, even if I hadn’t decided to retire.”

“And this was your escape,” Ryan whispered.

“Something like that,” I responded with a forced smile. Then, I decided to change the subject. “So, do you want the nickel tour?”

Ryan blinked at that, then gave me a smile. “Sure.”

I led Ryan to the hallway, pointing to one door. “The guest bedroom, where Melissa stayed when she was my guest. And over here is my bedroom, which you might get an even more personal tour of later…”

“I can’t wait,” Ryan announced, giving me a suggestive look. “I’m definitely looking forward to that personal tour.”

“Me either,” I admitted. Then, I pointed to the third, which I opened up. “And this is my workshop, where all the magic happens…”

We went into the room and Ryan paused, looking around in surprise. I imagined that he’d been expecting a workshop for a professional thief, containing things like lock picks, safe cracking tools, and various other implements of larceny. What he probably hadn’t expected, and should have, was that this was an art studio, with various easels, paints, brushes, and even completed paintings.

“Over here are my finished replicas,” I said, pointing to a collection of paintings that were carefully placed against one wall. “Or forgeries, if you prefer.” Then I pointed to another collection of paintings that were leaning up against the opposite wall. “And these ones are my original pieces.”

“Your original pieces,” Ryan said, his eyes gleaming with interest. He immediately went over to those paintings and began looking over them. “I think you mixed in a few of your forgeries, because these look like Candice Kade works…”

“I should hope so,” I responded a little nervously.

Ryan turned to look at me and froze, his mouth dropping open. I was now wearing my magic amulet, which was hiding my GSD and making me look like a normal person.

“That is the name on my birth certificate,” I finished with a nervous smile.

“Candice,” Ryan gasped in stunned disbelief.

“Candice Christine Kade.” I said, putting a little extra emphasis on my middle name. Then I smiled a little more and exclaimed, “Surprise…”

“You’re…,” Ryan started, though he paused to stare at me and blink. “How…?”

I rested my hand on the amulet, and explained, “When I got this, and decided to create a new identity so I could sell my paintings, I knew that I needed a name. Well, I happened to know of one that hadn’t been used in nearly thirty years, and which had a birth certificate and other paperwork tied to it.” I gave Ryan a wry smile. “And, I figured that since I was going to look the way I would have if I hadn’t been a mutant, I might as well use the name I would have had. So, I used my original name as an alias…”

“Candice,” Ryan started.

“Christine,” I corrected him, perhaps a little sharply. “I haven’t thought of myself as Candice in a very long time. That might be my original name, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just an alias, not who I actually am.”

“You’re the Imp,” Ryan said in understanding.

“That or Christine,” I agreed.

I carefully reached out for Ryan’s hand, then raised it up so that he could feel my face. He could feel my scales and horns, and understand that I might look like Candice, but underneath, I was still the Imp. This was just an illusion, not who I really was.

“Last June,” I told him with a nervous chuckle. “We were at that art show, and I was showing you my new pieces…”

“I remember,” Ryan said after a few seconds. “You disappeared without warning, and nobody knew where you went…”

With a nod, I reminded him, “While we were talking, Melissa showed up, and you introduced her as your daughter…”

Ryan’s eyes widened at that. “So, that’s how you figured out my identity.”

“Yep,” I agreed, grinning at that. “And oddly enough, that was the same night that Carson came knocking at my door, to offer me a job at Whateley.”

“Oh my God,” Ryan gasped, staring at me with a strange expression. “When Melissa finds out that her favorite artist is also her favorite teacher…”

I burst out laughing. “She already knows.”

“What?” Ryan asked in surprise. “You already told her?”

“Not exactly,” I responded with a smirk. “She figured that out on her own. In fact, she figured out that Candice and the Imp were the same person, at the same time that I figured out that you were Chickenhawk.” I gestured to my original pieces, explaining, “Melissa saw the new pieces I was showing, when she was here as a guest, and figured it out.”

“So,” Ryan said, still looking a little stunned. “When Melissa invited you to her birthday party…and when you gave her that painting…”

“She knew,” I finished with a wry smile.

Since I’d already made my point, I carefully removed my amulet, breaking the illusion so I once looked like my usual, and fabulously attractive self. Then, I stared at Ryan, holding my breath, metaphorically if not physically.

I’d just revealed my original name to the man who’d once been one of my greatest opponents. I’d revealed one of my greatest secrets, and had made myself vulnerable in a way I’d very rarely dared. Ryan now knew that I was Candice Kade, and with a single word, he now had the power to completely destroy my art career and that part of my life. It wasn’t easy for me to give that kind of trust to anyone, but I knew that if I really wanted a relationship, I needed to take this step.

“So,” Ryan said, looking me straight into the eyes. “My favorite artist, and my favorite lady, happen to be the same person. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a surprise, but I think I can consider this a win win.”

Seconds later, Ryan and I were holding each other in a firm embrace, and kissing passionately. At that moment, I felt all warm and gooey, from my lips to the tip of my tail, and I was suddenly certain that I’d made the right decision.

--------------------

Manhattan NY, Sunday late afternoon, Nov 4th, 2007

Time was rapidly running out on my weekend, and in just a couple hours, I had to catch a flight so I could return to Whateley. Strangely enough, I actually had mixed feelings about that.

This weekend had been absolutely great so far. I was able to come back to my home stomping grounds, have fun messing with the IRS, and best of all, I’d spent some pretty intense time with Ryan. I was still a little stunned and amazed by how things had turned out, and that I’d actually told him my original name. My Candice identity was something that I’d never intended to share with anyone, but for some reason, it felt right to share it with him.

But as much as I loved being home and spending time with Ryan, I was also eager to get back to Whateley, where I could walk around in the open, forgoing disguises entirely. And even more importantly than that, I was looking forward to returning to my students.

My students needed me, some more than others, and I took a great deal of pride in helping them learn. Melissa was my apprentice, and I was teaching her the skills of a cat burglar and thief. Monkeywrench had a great sense of humor, and he needed someone to encourage and foster it. Darqueheart wasn’t officially one of my students, but it was still my personal mission to help her, so that she didn’t go into that dark and self-destructive place that I’d seen so many others go before. And then, there was even Aegis. There was no way I could simply abandon them or any of my other students, even for Ryan.

“It’s going to be quite a juggling act,” I mused to myself, wondering how I was going to balance my love life with my teaching responsibilities. It probably wouldn’t be easy, not when our relationship would have to remain long distance if I was going to continue teaching, but Ryan and I were both determined to try.

I still had a couple hours until I needed to catch my flight, but unfortunately, I couldn’t spend that time with Ryan. Whether I liked it or not, I still had some business that I needed to take care of before I could leave, and this was business that I wanted to keep Ryan out of. He might know about my Candice identity, but there were some things I still wasn’t ready to share.

At the moment, I was sitting in a nice restaurant, in my Candice guise. I had a small table, where I was currently sitting by myself. I took a sip of my wine while watching the entrance. I didn’t have to wait much longer before my dinner companion arrived.

“Danny Boy,” I greeted my brother as he sat down across from me.

“That’s Daniel,” he corrected me. Then he let out a sigh. “Hello, Candice.”

“That’s Christine,” I corrected him.

Danny merely nodded acknowledgement. He stared at me for a moment before saying, “Thank you for getting those…investors off my back.”

I took a sip of my wine, then commented, “I bought out their investment in the gallery, and then arranged for them to be too busy to worry about you.”

“Thank you,” Danny repeated quietly.

“You might not want to thank me just yet,” I told him, which earned me a nervous look. “I have no interest in owning a gallery, and I wanted to recoup the money I spent to buy out Richard Dunn, so I turned around and immediately sold the investment…”

“What?” Danny gasped, his eyes going wide with worry.

“Don’t worry so much,” I reassured him with a wry smile. “I spread it out among several legitimate investors, and they’ve promised to remain hands-off. You still own the largest share, and none of the new investors owns a large enough piece to have much leverage.”

Danny hesitated a moment before nodding his acceptance. “I can live with that. In fact, I can live quite well with that.”

“I thought you might,” I responded wryly.

What I didn’t tell Danny, was that each of these ‘investors’ was a fake identity or business, which was really controlled by a single individual. Me. The smart move would have been to get rid of the investment completely, to do exactly what I’d just told Danny that I’d done. In fact, that had been my intention. However, nostalgia over the Moonrise Gallery’s place in my past, and in sparking my love of art, made me reluctant to do this. So whether Danny Boy knew it or not, the gallery remained entirely in the family, with me as his silent and invisible partner.

After this, Danny and I both ordered, though we ate in an awkward silence. I would have thought that after thirty years, we’d have more to talk about than we did. We’d never had much in common, even as kids, and after so much time, we were now almost like strangers.

Still, we kept giving each other sidelong looks, staring while trying to seem as though we weren’t. My brother was probably trying to figure out how I made myself look normal, while I was marveling over how much he looked like our father. It was actually kind of eerie.

Finally, Danny looked me in the eyes, and quietly said, “For what it’s worth…I’m sorry.”

“What?” I asked in surprise.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t a very good brother,” Danny told me with a regretful look. “I’m sorry that I never even tried to understand what you were going through, and I’m even sorrier about the things I said. I was a dumb kid, not that this is any excuse.”

“That…was a long time ago,” I said, trying to sound as though it had been no big deal.

“At one time, I never would have thought it possible,” Danny continued quietly, “but I’ve missed your laugher and crazy antics.” At this point, it almost felt like he was giving a confession more than he was talking to me. “I don’t think I truly understood what I’d done, until I saw how my own daughter was treated for being different.”

That caught my full attention, and I gasped, “Your daughter is a mutant too?”

“No,” Danny responded with a faint smile and a shake of his head. “Lizzy has Down’s Syndrome.”

“Oh,” I responded, not sure what I could say to that. I was vaguely aware that Danny Boy had a family of his own, but I didn’t know any specifics. In fact, I’d intentionally avoided learning about them. It was strange, to suddenly realize that I had a niece, whom I’d never even known about.

“At first,” Danny admitted, looking ashamed, “I wondered if God gave her Down’s to punish me… But now, most of the time, I think he gave her to me, to give me another chance. A chance to be more understanding. I like to think that I’m a better father than I was a brother.”

My heart felt like it was jumping up into my throat, and I tasted an odd mixture of sympathy and old resentments. I felt sorry for the girl, for Lizzie, and I hoped that Danny really was a better father than he’d been a brother. And at the same time, the thought of Danny having a child, reminded me of that particular absence on my own life.

“How old is she?” I asked, not sure if I even had the right to ask.

Danny gave me a proud smile. “Seventeen. And Lizzy is the sweetest girl you’ll ever meet.”

We were silent for nearly a minute, as neither of us was sure where to go with the conversation. Then, Danny abruptly said, “The Asterisk came to see me.”

“Oh?” I responded, narrowing my eyes. “He promised me that he’d leave you alone.”

“He just asked if I’d be willing to testify against Dunn,” Danny said.

I gave him a curious look. “And?”

“And I told him I’d think about it,” Danny admitted. “But only if Dunn and his people couldn’t hurt me or my family.”

“I assured Dunn, that you wouldn’t be a problem,” I warned, “so don’t do anything to draw his attention back to you.”

Danny nodded his understanding. “While Asterisk and I were talking, he said that you told him, that I was paying you with a painting from my personal collection.”

“Well, I couldn’t tell him why I was really helping you,” I responded, giving Danny Boy a wry look.

“No,” he admitted. “You couldn’t.” Then, he stared at me for several seconds before adding, “But I suppose that story is rather appropriate, considering this…”

Danny Boy held up a cardboard tube that he’d brought into the restaurant with him, then handed it to me. I accepted the item, feeling a little confused.

“I’m sorry for how I behaved when I was younger,” Danny told me as he got up from the table, giving me a sad look. “And I’m even sorrier that I lost my sister because of it. I can’t really imagine what kind of life you must have lived, or what your life is like now. All I can do is wish you good luck.”

“Thank you,” I responded, giving a faint smile.

“Goodbye, Candice,” Danny said as he turned to leave.

“Goodbye, Danny Boy,” I responded quietly.

Once Danny was gone, I waited nearly a minute before my curiosity got the best of me and I opened the cardboard tube. It was a poster case, with some prints rolled up inside. No, just some posters.

When I rolled open the posters, I saw that the one on top was an old Led Zeppelin poster, which confused me a little as I couldn’t imagine why Danny Boy would give me something like that. Underneath that was a poster of David Cassidy. At this point, I was starting to get a sense of deja-vu, as both posters seemed real familiar.

Then, I looked to the third and final poster, and immediately let out a gasp of surprise. It was a poster of Ms. Might, which had only been offered to members of her fan club, which I had been at the time I’d first been given this poster. There on the bottom corner, was her autograph.

For a moment, I just sat there, staring at these posters. I remembered buying the first two along with my friend Suzie Q, and the last… At one time, this autographed poster of Ms. Might, had been my greatest and most valued treasure. However, I’d left it behind when I ran away from home, along with nearly everything else I’d owned.

I couldn’t believe that Danny Boy had somehow held onto these posters for all these years, or that my parents hadn’t thrown them out after I’d left. I felt a little teary eyes, though I wasn’t quite sure why. Then, I shook my head, rolled the posters back up, and carefully placed them back into the tube.

“Wow,” I said, my voice shaking just a little. “I never thought I’d see that thing again.”

After this, I quickly paid my bill, then got up to leave. I still had a plane to catch, but now I was going to have to make a stop back at the Imp Lair before going back to Whateley. I needed to put these posters in a safe place, and one where nobody at Whateley would ever see them.

“If Carson ever learns I have that poster,” I said with a sigh, “I’ll never live it down.”

--------------------

New York, Tuesday, Nov 6th, 2007

The woman called Heaven looked around the hotel room, where most of her allies were gathered. It had taken a great deal of time and effort to track down enough people with strong grudges against the Imp, and even more to convince them to join her in a mutual quest for revenge.

Heaven was furious, that after her work and preparation, the Imp still lived. And to make the situation even worse, was the fact that they’d suffered serious injuries, ones that would make further efforts against that hellspawn more difficult.

Mistress Hex had escaped from their last encounter unscathed, save for several rodent bites, which required tetanus shots and minor treatments. However, her pride had been damaged, and until Saturday, she alone had been without a personal grudge against the Imp. That had now changed.

The one called Crash Test Dummy was sitting down in a chair, with his helmet on the ground beside him, right next to his crutches. His leg, or what was left of it, was heavily bandaged, and served as a grim reminder of just how dangerous their prey could be.

“The Black Cross,” Crash Test Dummy told the Crimson Kid. “He’s one of the best medics you can find for the black hat set, and he can work wonders.” He held up his hand and said, “He’s the one who hooked me up with this prosthetic, and once I can get in to see him, he’ll take care of my leg.”

“Do you think he can do something about THIS?” the Crimson Kid demanded in an angry tone, holding up the stump of his arm and giving Mistress Hex a venomous glare.

“No problem,” Crash Test Dummy told him. “Just as long as you’re able to pay his fee. Trust me, you don’t want to screw him on his payment. The man is a miracle worker, but he doesn’t exactly follow the Hippocratic oath.”

“Where is Jack Rabbit?” Heaven demanded. “He knew we were supposed to meet here to discuss our next move.”

Seconds later, the door opened and Jack Rabbit entered the room, only to pause and look around. A look of disdain crossed his face when he saw Mistress Hex and Crash Test Dummy, both of whom were professional criminals. He actually seemed to like the Crimson Kid, because of their similar background as heroes, though he was undecided about her.

“Jack Rabbit,” Heaven said, fixing her gaze on him. “You were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.”

“Don’t call me that anymore,” Jack Rabbit responded bitterly. “Jack Rabbit was my hero name, and that ugly bitch took that away from me, along with my powers and everything else.”

“So, what do you want us to call you?” Crash Test Dummy asked. Of course, Heaven thought, he would be sensitive about using someone’s preferred name.

“Jackalope,” the former hero anwered. “From now on, I’m Jackalope.”

“Well…Jackalope,” Mistress Hex said. “Now that you’re here, we can begin.”

“Actually,” Jackalope said with a smirk. “I’ve got a good reason for being late.”

“And that is?” the Crimson Kid asked him.

Jackalope seemed to puff himself up a little as he began to explain. “I put word out to some of my old associates, that I’m looking for the Imp. I’m late, because I was talking to one of them.”

From Jackalope’s pleased expression, Heaven was sure that he had good news. “Yes?” she encouraged him, eager to hear what he’d learned. “You have something?”

“Yes,” Jackalope responded with a malicious smile. “Sureshock told me that we can find the Imp at Whateley Academy.”

THE END



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