Imp 7: Imp-ervious to Reason part 1

The Village, Friday evening, Nov 9th 2007

I stood back and stared intently at the scene in front of me, scowling deeply as I did so. Drops of crimson were splattered all over, and I could see a lifeless face staring back from the shadows. It was like some kind of nightmare come to life.

“Drat, drat, and double drat,” I exclaimed in frustration.

A moment later, I raised my weapon, which was still coated in the crimson liquid. Maybe I’d gotten a little carried away this time. With a sigh, I set my paint brush down and stepped back to look over the painting from better view.

The painting that I was working on was NOT coming together the way I wanted. It was a simple landscape piece, showing a field of red flowers, below a cloudy sky. Of course, I’d also added a few hidden items into the picture, the way I always did. A small red devil was hidden among the flowers, a cute little devil that would have been right at home, sitting on someone’s shoulder. And then, I’d also hidden a cute little cherub among the clouds. From a distance, it didn’t look bad, but it still wasn’t right. ‘Not bad’ just wasn’t good enough.

After a little consideration, I began to get some ideas of how I could save this painting. I’d add a couple splashes of other colors in order to break up the sea of crimson, and then I’d have to tweak the shading a bit.

“That should work,” I mused.

I was just starting to mix up a couple new colors when my doorbell began to ring. I paused where I was and carefully set down my paints and brushes, not wanting to spill anything onto the floor.

“I’m coming,” I called out, hoping that whoever it was could hear me.

Unless of course, it was someone playing ding-dong-ditch. I’d always loved that game as a kid, and I’d had a lot of fun messing with random neighbors that way. However, the only person in the Village who was likely to play that game was me, and I was fairly confident that I wasn’t doing that this time.

When I looked through the peep hole, I was a little startled to see Amelia Hartford standing there. Hartford and I weren’t exactly BFFs, but we got along pretty well. We had a pretty good business relationship and understood each other on a professional level. And if she was here now, then it could only be for one thing.

“I don’t need any more encyclopedias,” I called out as I opened the door. Hartford didn’t look especially amused. However, she didn’t look pissed or anything either, which was probably a good thing. “Come on in,” I said, gesturing for her to enter.

“Thank you,” Hartford said a she came in. However, she did look me over and asked, “Am I disturbing you?”

“Nothing that can’t wait,” I responded, finally remembering to remove my paint splattered smock. It was absolutely invaluable for keeping my clothes clean while I worked. I certainly wasn’t a messy artist, but accidents did happen. “Can I get you something to drink?”

A couple minutes later, we were sitting in my living room with a couple glasses of wine. “Congratulations on your new business venture,” Hartford told me.

“Thank you,” I responded with an amused smile. I assumed that she was referring to my recent investment in the Moonrise Gallery, and didn’t bother asking how she’d learned about it. “The opportunity presented itself like a nice shiny gem, so of course, I just had to take it.”

“Of course,” Hartford responded with a faint smile. Then she took a sip of her wine and her expression turned all business. “I located the information that you asked me about.” She set a folder onto my coffee table. “Normally, I would simply have sent this to your e-mail, but I believe that in this case, a more personal touch is due.”

I nodded at that and opened the folder. The first thing I saw was a large photo of a woman. She was absolutely gorgeous, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and big boobs. I hated her immediately. Or more accurately, I would have hated her immediately, if I hadn’t already had a pretty strong dislike for the woman.

“Heaven,” I said, naming the woman who I recognized as the leader of the IRS. That was the Imp Revenge Squad, not the Infernal Revenue Service. Then I looked to the next page and grinned. “So, Blondie has a name…and it isn’t Debbie Harry.”

“Carolynn Northrop,” Hartford said. “She’s a moderate level exemplar and energizer, with some warper abilities that seem tied to her energizer ones”

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” I mused, flipping through the records that Hartford brought. “Does she have a history in the business?”

“Not as such,” Hartford explained. “The first record of her using any costume or codename was while she was recruiting her Imp revenge squad. However, she does have a history of legal and psychological issues under her real name.”

“Oh?” I asked with interest.

Hartford pulled couple pages out of the folder and opened them in front of me. “At the age of twelve, before she’d even manifested as a mutant, Carolynn was arrested for stalking one of her teachers. Her father kept her from being sent to juvenile hall, but she was sent to mandatory psychiatric counselling. Two years later, she repeated this with a famous rock star. She was arrested for stalking, breaking and entering, and assault. There are several more incidents like this, each becoming a little more…extreme. The psychiatric report that I acquired says that she has an obsessive personality, which is exacerbated by a case of Galahad Syndrome.”

“Okay,” I said, only growing more confused by this. “So, she’s a nutjob with a history of obsessive behavior and stalking. That’s fine and dandy, but what in the wide wide world of sports does she have against me?”

Hartford pulled out the second photo that was in the folder, one that I’d already looked over. It was a distinguished looking man in a nice suit.

“Arnold Northrop, Carolynn’s father,” Hartford told me, pausing to wait for a reaction.

“Still doesn’t ring a bell,” I replied. I didn’t recognize either the name or face.

“Five years ago, Arnold was arrested for possession of stolen artwork,” Hartford explained. Then she put another photo on the table in front of me, one of a painting that I immediately recognized.

“Ring-a-ding,” I said, putting some of the pieces together.

About eight years ago, I’d been hired to steal that painting from a museum. The contract had come through an agent, a paid middle-man who kept the actual client anonymous. Now, I suddenly had a very good idea of just who that client had been.

“While the police were investigating the stolen artwork,” Hartford continued, “they found evidence of extortion, fraud, and money laundering. Northrop was arrested on Carolynn’s wedding day, then died of a heart attack in prison.

“And she blames ME for that?” I blurted out in surprise.

I had a lot of people who hated me for one reason or another, and most of them even had a reason, even if it was hair-brained and stupid. But this was a new one on me.

“All I did was pull an acquisition job for an anonymous client,” I protested. “I had nothing to do with that crap…”

“Perhaps not,” Hartford told me with a frown. “But it was the discovery of that painting in Northrop’s possession that started the chain of events, so Carloynn seems to have focused on that painting…and the person who gave it to her father, as the source of these problems. It seems that she’s now fixated on you as her latest obsession.”

“Yay,” I cheered without much enthusiasm. “I have my very own stalker.”

Hartford smiled faintly at that. “And considering the fact that she’s adopted an angelic theme, it appears that she’s intentionally setting herself up as a counterpoint to you.”

I shrugged at that. “Sorry, I’ve already met my quota of arch-enemies. My punch card is just too full for another.”

“Of course,” Hartford responded wryly. “I’m sure that if you just explain that to her, she’ll go find someone else to fixate on.”

I flashed Hartford a grin. “Glad you agree.” Then I took a sip of my wine, and a little more seriously, said, “Thanks for the info. At least now I know who’s gunning for me, and why I didn’t recognize her.”

Hartford acknowledged that with a nod and took another sip of her wine. I flipped through the contents of the folder again, noting that there was a little more information there, mostly a few details that expanded on what Hartford had already told me.

“So, what do I owe you for this?” I asked. I was expecting a favor to be named later.

“This one is gratis,” Hartford answered with a dismissive gesture. “It would a bad precedent to simply stand by when an outsider attempts to kill one of our teachers.”

“Thank you,” I repeated.

“That being said,” Hartford added a few seconds later, with a faint smile. “If another faculty member ends up in a similar situation, I would expect you to pay this forward.”

“Of course,” I agreed with a smile. Unless of course it was Barney. He could kiss my shapely tookus.

“Now then,” Hartford said somewhat more pleasant smile, one that I doubted any student had ever seen, and very few faculty members. “Since we’re done with that business, I believe I heard something about you getting a new gallery showing in Boston soon?”

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

Boston MA, Saturday, Nov 10th 2007

I was standing out on a Boston sidewalk, pulling my large overcoat around me more tightly as protection from the cold and damp weather. At the moment, I was using my magic amulet to hide my GSD, so if anyone looked at me, they’d see the plain and ordinary looking Candice Kade, instead of the fabulous Imp.

While I waited, I kept a close watch on my surroundings, taking in every detail that could come in useful. Most of the buildings nearby were only a few stories tall, and close enough together that I wouldn’t have any problem leaping from one roof to another. There was an alley across the street, which I could run down if someone started chasing me. And conveniently enough, there was a fire hydrant, which if cut open, could create quite a nice distraction.

Whenever I went anywhere, I liked to take mental note of such things, just in case. Being aware of my environment and the opportunities available, had saved my life and freedom on countless occasions.

On the other side of the street, I noted a group of Whateley students walking down the sidewalk. One of them was a senior, who had actually been in my open art classroom a couple hours ago, while the others were mostly freshmen and sophomores. Whenever the younger students left campus like this, they needed either a faculty member or an older student to act as a chaperone, and theoretically keep them out of trouble.

“I wonder why nobody has ever asked me to chaperone one of these trips,” I mused to myself with a smirk. My tail, hidden by both the masking charm and my coat, swished back and forth behind me, unseen.

Then I noticed the boy who was trailing behind the group and looking rather annoyed, probably by the need for a chaperone. Aegis was another of my students, and undoubtedly the one who frustrated me the most. After all, he was a hero wannabe, and I was a retired villain, so our first meeting had actually been dislike at first sight. However, I did have to give the kid one thing. After I took him under my wing and began tutoring him how to use his powers, he began paying attention without giving me too much attitude.

For a moment, I was tempted to wave at Aegis and the other kids from Whateley, but I refrained from doing so. Since I had my magic amulet on, none of them would recognize me as a teacher, and would probably think I was some random crazy lady. Then again, that might almost be worth it.

Less than a minute later, I saw another student, one whom I’d been waiting for. Melissa was coming down the sidewalk, right towards me. However, she wasn’t alone. Her father, Ryan, was walking with her, as they went to have a nice father/daughter lunch.

“I guess that’s my cue,” I said, going into the restaurant behind me, before Melissa had a chance to notice me standing there.

I found a nice, out of the way spot, near the table that Ryan had reserved. From my hiding spot, and with my chameleon field on, neither of them was able to see me as they came in and took their seats. However, I could still see and hear them quite well.

At that moment, I was grinning in anticipation of the joke I was about to play, but to make it more interesting than my usual ones, was the fact that I wasn’t the one to come up with it. This one was all Ryan’s idea, and I’d been surprised when he’d actually asked me to play along. Of course, there was no way I could turn this down.

“I’m really really glad you came to visit,” Melissa exclaimed, nearly bouncing in her seat. She was grinning excitedly, obviously enjoying the opportunity to have lunch with her dad. “This is awesome... Is that a lobster tank? I saw a tank with crabs in it when we came in… Ooooh, why does a seafood restaurant have hamburgers on the menu?”

Ryan just laughed at his daughter’s antics. “Calm down,” he told her with a look of amusement. “You’re making me tired, just by watching you.”

“I bet I’m gonna have a way better lunch than Maxine,” Melissa continued cheerfully. “She said that she didn’t want to go to Boston with me, after what happened the last time we were in Berlin…”

“And what did happen in Berlin?” Ryan asked, suddenly looking curious.

Melissa put on her best innocent expression. “We just did some shopping…”

Ryan gave her a skeptical look but didn’t call her on it. “There’s a reason I brought you here for lunch,” Ryan said. “You see, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about…”

“Really?” Melissa asked.

Ryan nodded. “I thought that I should tell you this in person. You see, I’ve recently started dating someone, and I wanted you to meet my new girlfriend.”

Melissa’s eyes popped open wide at that. “You’ve got a girlfriend?”

“You’ve met her before,” Ryan told her in a pleasant tone. That was my cue, so I came out of hiding and walked over to their table. “You’ve met Candice.”

“Hello, Melissa,” I said with a friendly smile. “It’s been awhile…”

Melissa turned to stare at me, letting out a gasp of surprise as she did so. Her mouth even dropped open, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing. Then, she blinked and quickly looked back and forth between me and her dad.

“Wait,” Melissa blurted out. “You’re…? How…?” She looked like she was caught between squealing in delight and demanding to know what was going on.

“Candice and I met up at one of her gallery shows, and decided to go on a date,” Ryan said with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “We really hit it off, and now, we’ve kind of made it a regular thing.”

I could see the wheels turning in Melissa’s head, as she knew that Candice and the Imp were one and the same. However, as far as she knew, her dad still had no idea. That put her into an awkward position, or at least, so she thought.

“This is kind of a surprise,” Melissa said, giving me a questioning look, and probably wondering why I hadn’t said anything about this before. After all, she was my apprentice and we saw each other far more frequently than she saw her dad.

“I love surprises,” I responded with an evil grin.

“This is a big one,” Melissa said, though she quickly added, “But kind of cool too, in a weird sort of way…”

“What?” I teased Melissa. “Are my horns showing?

Melissa’s eyes immediately darted to her dad, to see how he’d react to that comment. Ryan was playing it calm, as though he still had no idea of who I was.

After this, we ordered lunch, and continued to talk while eating. The entire time, Melissa kept glancing between me and her dad, obviously caught between us. I could see that she wanted to tell Ryan who I really was, while also wanting to keep my secret. In the end, she kept silent for most of the meal. That was the longest I’d ever seen her go without talking nonstop.

As we were finishing up, I reached over with my fork and stabbed the last piece of Ryan’s fish. “Did you just steal my lunch?” he demanded with a look of mock offense.

“Did you expect anything else?” I asked him wryly.

Ryan hesitated a moment before shaking his head. “Not in the least…”

I just grinned at that. “Well, I am devilishly sneaky…and good looking.”

“So,” Ryan asked a few seconds later, while struggling to hold back a smile. “When do you have to be back at the school?”

Melissa let out a loud gasp of surprise, her eyes going wide as she finally realized that her father knew who I was. “What? How…?”

“When, where, and why,” I finished the collection of questions for her, swishing my tail back and forth as I did so.

“You KNEW,” Melissa accused her father with a look of betrayal.

Ryan couldn’t hold it in anymore and started to laugh, while I grinned in amusement. “Your old man is a little sharper on the uptake then you seem to realize.” I didn’t bother to point out, that the only reason he knew my secret, was that I’d straight out told him.

Melissa slumped down in her seat, crossing her arms and pouting. “So you were only pretending to date…”

“Oh no,” I assured her with a satisfied smile. “We really are dating.”

“We have been since, well, Parents Day,” Ryan admitted.

Melissa looked back and forth at us again, then began to grin. “You’re really going out? I mean, really?”

“Really really,” I assured her with a chuckle. “Just don’t expect that to mean I’m going to go easier on you in class.”

Melissa let out a loud ‘SQUEEE’ which hurt my ears a little. She seemed delighted by the idea that her dad and I were dating, which relieved me a little. I’d actually been concerned that she wouldn’t take it very well. After all, she might be my biggest fan, but my dating her father might have been a little too much for her. Most girls would freak out if their parents started dating a super villain, even a totally fabulous retired one. Fortunately for me, Melissa wasn’t most girls.

“Then I assume you don’t have a problem with this,” Ryan commented wryly while I just chuckled.

When we left the restaurant a short time later, Melissa was staring at me with an odd look. “How do you look like that?” she asked. “Are you a shifter?”

“Some people think so,” I answered cheerfully.

“I bet you’re wearing a mask, like in those cartoons,” she announced, while I just smiled, wondering how long it would take before she guessed magic or illusion.

We walked down the sidewalk, making a pleasant stroll of the city, when I suddenly heard a loud crashing sound from around the corner, along with the unmistakable sound of shattering glass. Ryan and I both froze at that noise, immediately recognizing the sound of trouble. But what kind of trouble, and how it related to us, I didn’t know, though I wanted to find out.

“Stay here,” Ryan told his daughter before running ahead and around the corner.

“Stay here,” I told Melissa as I ran after Ryan.

Then from behind me, Melissa exclaimed, “Wait here,” though I had absolutely no idea who she was talking to, only that she was now running along with us as well.

As soon as we turned the corner, we were met with the sight of a wrecked store front, a short distance down the street. The whole front of the shop had been smashed in, and there was even an upturned car about ten feet in front of it. As a professional criminal of many years, I immediately recognized the scene of a super powered smash and grab in progress.

“Let’s go the other way,” I suggested.

Seconds later, a massive figure emerged from the ruined shop front. The man was over seven feet tall, with a bulky, muscular body that practically screamed ‘BRICK’. His costume was blue and black, though he didn’t bother with a mask. With his physique, a mask would be nearly as pointless as it would be for me, when I was in my normal working outfit.

“Okay Missy, it’s time to go,” I told Melissa, hoping that she didn’t get any bright ideas like she had in Berlin.

“I don’t have my costume,” Ryan growled in frustration, obviously trying to decide if he should interfere anyway or not.

“Wow, he’s big,” Melissa exclaimed.

Ryan was still scowling, muttering, “Why couldn’t it have been Jersey Devil. I could have stopped her with my eyes closed.”

“Jersey Devil?” I asked, giving Ryan a suspicious look. “Don’t tell me that you’re cheating on me with some other devil…”

“It’s not like that,” Ryan protested.

Before I could tease Ryan further, a voice shouted out, “Stop right there, villain.”

“Oh no,” I gasped, turning to stare at Aegis, who seemed to have slipped away from his group, and was now standing there, challenging the villain. I face palmed, groaning, “That idiot is going to get himself killed…”

“AEGIS,” Melissa exclaimed in surprise.

“You know that boy?” Ryan asked, obviously about to go step in.

“Yeah,” I responded with a sigh. “He’s one of mine. I guess I’d better go save him, because it wouldn’t look very good for me if one of my students went and got himself killed right in front of me.”

With that, I removed my coat in a sweeping motion, turning off the amulet at the same time. A moment later, I was revealed to all the world as the fabulous Imp that I was. That probably would have been a nice and dramatic reveal, if anyone had actually been watching me instead of the big guy.

“You two stay out of this,” I warned Ryan and Melissa, not sure which one could be more problematic in this situation.

“Who the hell do you think you’re supposed to be, kid?” the big guy demanded in a deep voice. I could certainly understand his confusion, because not only was Aegis acting like an idiot, but he didn’t even have a costume. As far as the big guy knew, some random teenager had decided to pick a fight with him.

“I’m Aegis, and I’m going to stop you,” Aegis announced.

“Bug off kid,” the big guy said, holding up a large bag, which obviously contained his loot. A glance at the shop revealed that it was a jewelry shop, which gave me a pretty good idea of what kind of goodies he’d snatched. “I’m busy…”

The big guy started to walk away, but Aegis jumped in front of him. With that, the big man snarled, and I could see that Aegis was starting to annoy him. Before either of them could make another move, I let out a loud whistle to get their attention.

“Hello, boys,” I said in a sexy purr.

“Imp,” Aegis blurted out in surprise.

As soon as the big guy saw me, he gave me a much more serious look than he had Aegis, obviously because of my devilish good looks. I flashed him a grin, swishing my tail behind me.

“Are you some kind of hero?” he demanded.

I gasped at the insult. “Certainly not.” I shuddered at that. “I am the fabulous Imp, art thief extraordinaire…” I gave a sweeping bow.

“You’re the Imp?” the villain asked, now giving me a curious look. “Monster Max used to talk about you.”

That caught my attention. “You knew Max?”

The big man nodded. “We were buddies. I’m Adamant.”

“Up and at em, Adamant,” I responded cheerfully.

“What do you want?” Adamant asked me cautiously. His eyes narrowed, and he gave me a suspicious look, probably figuring that I was trying to cut in on his action.

“I’m not here to interfere with your job,” I told him, gesturing to Aegis. “I just want to keep the kid from getting squashed like a bug.”

“So, you want to fight me in his place?” Adamant asked, suddenly looking more threatening.

With a dismissive snort, I said, “Naw. Personally, I don’t give a hi-diddle-e-o about you walking away with your score. In fact, why don’t you just go ahead and continue on your way, and I’ll deal with the kid…”

“WHAT?” Aegis gasped, staring at me in surprise. “He just robbed a jewelry store. You can’t just let him leave…”

“Sure I can,” I told him cheerfully. Then, in a somewhat more serious tone, I added, “And so can you. You’re punching above your weight class here, Aegis. Way above.”

“Smart woman,” Adamant said which a chuckle.

Aegis was angry and looked like he was about to protest, but I held him back while Adamant simply walked off unimpeded.

“You let him get away,” Aegis snarled at me. “I knew you were still a villain.”

I smacked Aegis in the back of his head. “Are you nuckin futs? What in the world were you thinking, Bart? That guy isn’t like one of the bullies at school.”

“Someone has to stop him,” Aegis argued.

That just made me roll my eyes. “Look around,” I said, gesturing around us. “Do you see all these people here? Do you know what would have happened if you and Adamant got into a fight right here?”

Aegis hesitated a moment, then said, “I would have stopped him…” However, from his tone, he was starting to realize that he wouldn’t have been able to.

“Assuming he didn’t just stomp you,” I pointed out calmly, “then things would have gotten really messy for everyone else. Adamant was walking away, without hurting anyone. If you went and got him riled up, he could have started tossing cars around and knocking down walls. How many people do you think could have been killed?”

Aegis stared at me, looking surprised and confused. Then he gave me a hostile look. “So, I’m supposed to just stand back and let him get away with that?”

I let out an exasperated sigh. “First off, you aren’t a hero yet. You’re a high school student, and Carson would have skinned you alive if you’d actually fought Adamant. Secondly, if you want to be a hero, you need to learn how to do it smarter.”

“And how should I do that?” Aegis demanded.

I gestured in the direction that Adamant had walked off in, saying, “You follow him from a distance, find out where his hideout is, and then sneak in later and recover the goodies. Or, since you probably want to arrest him, you come back with your reinforcements, and get him when he’s not expecting it.”

Aegis gave me another look of surprise, as though he’d never considered this kind of thing. “That’s…not very heroic.”

“Nope,” I responded cheerfully. “But it is smart. Of course, going after someone at home could make it personal, which you usually want to avoid, but with someone like Adamant, it’s better than jumping him in the middle of a busy street and making things a lot worse.”

Suddenly, a loud voice called out, “Halt where you are, villains!”

I looked up and saw a man floating in the air, and wearing an old school Minuteman outfit, which included the trihorn hat. To complete this rather unusual image, the man was holding an old-fashioned lantern, and was glowing with golden flames.

“Who...?” Aegis blurted out in surprise.

“Lamplighter,” I answered in a flat tone.

This was the first time that I’d ever met Lamplighter, though I certainly knew who he was. I always researched the local heroes, whenever I did any traveling, and I’d passed through Boston a few times over the last three decades. And of course, after moving to Whateley, I’d given the local heroes an even more thorough look.

“You villains will regret causing trouble in MY city,” Lamplighter exclaimed.

“But I’m no villain,” Aegis blurted out in surprise and confusion.

Lamplighter fired a blast of golden energy right at us, and I shoved Aegis down and out of the way, knowing his habit of just standing there and taking hits he didn’t need to. The blast went right through the space we’d been occupying, and smashed into the sidewalk behind us, creating a small hole.

“I’m not a villain,” Aegis cried out, frantically pointing in the direction that Adamant had departed in. “I was trying to stop the villain…”

“Lampy doesn’t care,” I told Aegis grimly. “He’s already made up his mind, and isn’t the kind to change it because of something as trivial as the facts.”

By this point, Ryan was already running over to join us in dealing with Lampy. I could see from his expression, that he was taking this attack seriously, even if it was coming from another hero.

Normally, I liked it when two heroes fought over some cliché misunderstanding, especially when I could sit back with a nice bowl of popcorn. However, this wasn’t the time for that kind of entertainment.

“I’ll deal with Lamplighter,” Ryan said, completely ignoring the fact that he wasn’t even in costume.

“No,” I said, pushing Aegis towards him. “You get Aegis and Melissa out of here, and I’ll deal with Lumpy…”

“I’m the hero,” Ryan pointed out, which suddenly got a look of surprise and interest from Aegis.

“And I’m the expert on distracting heroes,” I reminded him with a smirk.

Then, before Ryan could argue, I ran towards Lamplighter, calling out, “Hey Lumpy, has anyone ever told you that your fashion sense is seriously dated?”

A giant hand made out of golden energy suddenly appeared in the air and tried to grab me, though I quickly dodged out of the way and blew Lumpy a raspberry. Then, to add further insult, I turned and waved my tail at him, before I began running.

“What next?” I called back, “An orange lounge lizard suit? Sequined bell bottoms? A mullet?”

“Shut up, villain,” Lumpy commanded, firing a blast of golden energy at me again.

“I do have a name,” I taunted Lumpy, pausing to buff my fingers against my shirt and then blow on them. “You have the honor of being mocked by the beautiful, talented, and fabulous Imp.”

“I don’t care what you call yourself,” Lumpy exclaimed as he launched another attack, which I easily avoided.

I blew Lump another raspberry. “Do you want me to find you the broad side of a barn to practice on?”

By this point, Lumpy was starting to get annoyed, which was the whole point. I ran for the nearest building and scrambled up the wall, going straight for the roof. Most of the time, when fighting flying opponents, going up high only made it easier for them to come after you, which was what I was aiming for.

Once I was on the roof, I dodged another of Lumpy’s attacks. “Yo, Lumpy, you’re gonna have to do better than that.”

“You will feel my wrath, Imp,” Lumpy threatened.

“Is that what you call it, you pervert?” I responded with a look of mock disgust. “Ewww… Do you proposition every woman you just met like that?”

Lumpy was already angry, and now he was getting a bit flustered. “That’s not what I meant…”

As I ran across the rooftop and leapt over to the next one, I grinned in delight. This was the kind of fun that I didn’t get enough of at Whateley. There was nothing quite as exciting as mocking heroes and leading them on a merry chase.

“Once I get to my submarine, you’ll never be able to catch me,” I exclaimed, jumping to another roof.

“I’ll catch you now, villain,” Lumpy responded, charging straight at me to try something a little more close and personal.

With barely any effort, I slipped away from his grip and commented, “You know, you aren’t very good at this hero thing. I think you just need a little more practice.”

Since I’d led Lumpy far enough away from Aegis, I decided that it was time to pull my disappearing act. I jumped to the next roof, then ran behind a large air flow unit, and turned on my chameleon field.

Lumpy flew past a second later, then paused to look around in surprise. “Where did she go?” He snarled in anger. “That villain won’t get away from me. She was going for her submarine, so I’ll just catch her there instead.”

With that, Lumpy took off, flying in the direction I’d been running, and going straight towards the water front. I remained where I was for half a minute, making sure he really was gone. Then, I turned around and hurried back the way I’d come.

I caught back up with Ryan, Melissa and Aegis a couple minutes later, and as soon as I arrived, Ryan wordlessly handed me my jacket. I slipped it on, and since I couldn’t use my amulet with Aegis there, I also pulled the hood up over my head to help hide my devilish good looks.

“Imp,” Melissa cried out, giving me a hug. “Are you all right? Did that guy hurt you?”

“I’m fine,” I assured her and Ryan both. “Lumpy shouldn’t be back here, but we should probably move on just in case.”

“Good idea,” Ryan said.

I glanced to Aegis, who had a dazed look on his face. “He thought I was a villain,” Aegis said, looking as though he couldn’t believe it. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and that hero attacked me…”

“Welcome to my life,” I muttered wryly. Then, I put an arm around his shoulder and said, “Well, he’s gone now, so let’s get you back to Whateley. I think you’ve had enough excitement for today.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Aegis muttered, talking to himself more than me.

That made me give Ryan a wry smile, though my boyfriend obviously didn’t know why. He wasn’t aware of the irony of the situation, or the fact that Aegis had a history of jumping to conclusions, and then attacking people without provocation. Maybe, since he’d just received a taste of his own medicine, he might learn something from this. Of course, the kid was pretty thick-headed at times, so I wouldn’t count on it.

“So,” Ryan started, giving me an amused look. “Did I hear you giving Aegis advice on how to be a hero?”

“No,” I protested, perhaps a little defensively. “I was just telling him how to avoid getting people killed. But if you want to give him lessons on how to be a hero, be my guest.”

Melissa grinned at the still shaken Aegis, bragging, “My dad knows all about hero stuff.”

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

Whateley Academy, Sunday, Nov 11th 2007

“Welcome to Larceny One Oh One,” I announced to the class in front of me. “Specifically, this is the seminar on lock picking.”

I paused at that to look around the classroom, my special classroom that I used when teaching my non-art classes. At the moment, there were only a dozen students present, which wasn’t a surprise. I didn’t usually get a lot of students for these seminars.

There were a couple members of the Teletubbies, specifically, Reach, Rez, and Interface. That surprised me a little since I’d previously had some trouble with their club. Of course, I also had Heartbreaker and Jello from the Masterminds, and a few random kids who just seemed interested in the subject.

That green haired elf girl, Absinthe, had signed up for this seminar last week, but she was still in Doyle after being ambushed a few days ago. That was too bad, because from what I’d heard about her, she might have been fun to teach.

“Lockpicking is a very useful skill,” I continued cheerfully. “I mean, after this class, you’ll be able to break into your parent’s liquor cabinets.” There were some chuckles at that. “But you already know that, or you probably wouldn’t have signed up for this class. After all, there are plenty of other things you could be doing on a Sunday morning instead.” That earned a few more chuckles.

“So,” someone called out. “Are you going to show us how to break into a safe?”

“I’m afraid not,” I said with an exaggerated sigh. “Safe cracking would take more than just a single seminar. No, this class is just for the basics on lockpicking. And with that in mind, my TA, Mischief, will pass out some materials. These all came from a locksmithing course, just so you know that there are legal applications and careers for the skills I am about to teach you.”

Melissa flashed me a grin and began passing out some pamphlets and booklets. I hadn’t been lying about getting these from a company that taught courses for locksmiths, so they were all pretty professional looking.

I gestured to several large posters and displays that were hanging from the wall. These were diagrams of the inside of a lock and how the pins and tumblers actually worked.

After this, I began the lecture, which was full of useful information, but still rather boring, so I tried to liven things up with a few jokes. Once I’d covered the theory, I demonstrated on a couple locks, then passed out some locks and pick sets for practice.

“Mischief and I will both be coming around to help you if you need it,” I said. “Once you’re able to open your locks a couple times, trade with someone else so you can practice on a different one.”

Of course, there were a number of other tricks and techniques that could be used in various situations, such as bump-keying or using master spacers. However, I’d save that kind of thing for later seminars.

The class only lasted for two hours, but it was pretty successful. By the time class was over, everyone had managed to open a lock at least once. I had no doubt that some of these kids would be back for the advanced class, which I had yet to schedule.

When all of the other students had departed, I turned to Melissa, who was still grinning and cheerful. She’d been like that all morning.

“You’re sure in a good mood this morning,” I pointed out.

“That’s because this is fun,” Melissa pointed out. “And I can’t believe you asked me to be your TA… I mean, there were seniors in this class…”

“And you’ve been picking locks longer than they have,” I pointed out cheerfully. “You must have had an awesome teacher.”

“Oh,” Melissa responded with an innocent look. “I guess she was okay…”

I gently punched her arm, only to have my hand go through her. Then Melissa jumped back, giggling and sticking her tongue out at me. I was so glad I’d picked her as my apprentice.

A couple seconds later, Melissa came back over, her expression a little more serious, and even a bit nervous. “Um…I have a question…”

“Oh?” I responded. “That’s convenient, because I have some answers. They might not match your question, but I do have answers.”

Melissa giggled a little nervously, before abruptly asking, “How do I get a boy to like me?”

“What?” I asked in surprise. I blinked, since that wasn’t the kind of question I was expecting. “Boys in general, or is there one specific one?”

Melissa hesitated a moment. “Rapier. He’s really cute, and brave, and nice…”

I just stared at Melissa, realizing that she was really crushing on Rapier. As far as I knew, this might even be her very first big crush, which meant that things could be sensitive.

“Are you two…dating?” I asked a little awkwardly.

This was one subject I was NOT all that confident about. The truth was, as brilliant and fabulous as I was, dating and romance had never really been a huge part of my life. On this subject, my experience was a bit limited.

It was still hard to believe that I actually had a boyfriend. A real boyfriend, and not just a one-night stand in order to scratch an itch. I still felt as giddy as a schoolgirl about that.

“No,” Melissa admitted with a bit of a pout. “He doesn’t even notice me…”

My heart ached a little in sympathy. “How could he not notice you?” I asked. “You’re a very noticeable girl. You’re cute, you’re talented, and you’re my apprentice. How could anyone not appreciate that?”

Melissa giggled, seeming a little happier. “So, you think he might like me?”

“He’d be an idiot not to,” I assured her.

Before Melissa and I could talk about this any further, there was a knock from my classroom door, right before Aegis came in. He was here for our private lessons, and he was still a bit nervous about them, especially since this time, I’d asked him to come here rather than my regular classroom.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to continue this another time,” I told Melissa apologetically. “Bart and I have an appointment.”

“Okay,” Melissa responded, surprising me with a quick hug before she left.

“Come on in,” I told Aegis, gesturing for him to come closer.

Before we began, I grabbed a small devise from my desk and used it to sweep the room for bugs. I found only one. With a couple Teletubbies, and a couple Masterminds, I would have been surprised if someone hadn’t tried to bug me. Once that was taken care of, I turned back to Aegis.

“Okay, let’s do your flexibility exercises,” I said.

I wasn’t talking about stretching or yoga, but about the exercises I’d been teaching Aegis, to help him control his PK shell a little better. We’d only had a couple sessions together, but he was starting to get the hang of it.

Aegis started on the exercises, and as he did them, his PK shell became visible, appearing as a golden glowing aura. I watched carefully as the glow dulled in in some places while becoming a little brighter in others. This was the visible indication that he was focusing the energy of his shell, rather than letting it all spread out evenly.

“Good,” I said, nodding in approval. I swished my tail back and forth behind me. “You’re really getting better with that.”

“Thank you,” Aegis said, looking pleased by the compliment though a little uncertain about getting it from a ‘villain’.

I nodded again and flashed him an evil grin. “I think you’re ready to try something new…” Aegis gave me a wary look, which only amused me further. “We’re going to try concentrating and focusing your energy a little more…and shaping it.”

Aegis’ eyes widened at that and he suddenly looked excited. “You think I’m ready?”

“That’s what we’re going to see,” I cheerfully responded. “But I’m pretty confident that you have the ability to focus your shell into a blade. It’s just a matter of whether or not you have the focus and fine control built yet. And if not, we’ll just know where we have to work.”

Aegis and I worked on this for the rest of our session together, and by the end, he was able to form a PK blade with his shell, though he couldn’t hold it for more than a couple seconds. Still, it was a good start and would only get better with practice.

Just as we were finishing up, Aegis gave me an odd look before cautiously asking, “Do you think that this would be enough to beat that guy from yesterday? Adamant?”

I stared at Aegis for a moment before answering honestly. “Nope.

“Oh,” Aegis responded, looking dejected.

“You might have been able to hurt him a little,” I admitted. “But he’s still got you beat with power and experience.”

“I just need to fight harder,” Aegis insisted.

“Don’t fight harder,” I told him. “Fight smarter.”

“But…,” he started to protest.

I held up my hand to stop him. “Look,” I said, trying to figure out how to pound this into his thick head. “Real fights aren’t like some movie, where wanting it more is enough to win.”

“Then how do you win?” Aegis demanded, clearly frustrated. He wasn’t arguing with me over this point though, probably because he’d been beaten enough that some common sense had been knocked into him, even though it didn’t usually show.

“You need power, skill, and experience,” I answered. “Your usual method is to just throw your power up against your opponents, making the fight all about power versus power. You aren’t especially powerful, which means that a lot of the time, you are going to be overmatched. However, what you lack in raw power, you make up for with flexibility. Once you learn to really use that, it gives you a lot more options than just matching power against power. Once you figure out the best option to use against any particular opponent, that will give you the advantage.”

Aegis just stared at me for several long seconds with a thoughtful expression. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that he was actually paying attention. I guessed that I’d find out for sure the next time he got into a fight.

“My job here is to help you develop your tools,” I told him with a smile. “If you can use the right tool for the right job, then you’ll start to win.”

“I want to win,” Aegis admitted, looking a bit ashamed. Then he stared at me again with an odd expression. “Could you beat Adamant?”

“I’m smart enough not to fight him,” I pointed out wryly. “Sometimes, your best option is not to fight someone directly.”

“What about that other guy?” Aegis asked. “That hero…”

“Lumpy?” I asked in surprise. “What about him?”

Aegis scowled for a moment. “You didn’t fight him. You ran away…”

“Yep,” I agreed cheerfully. “There was no reason for me to fight him. After all, my goal wasn’t to beat him, but to get him away from you.”

“Could you beat him?” Aegis asked me curiously. “If you tried to that is.”

I considered that for a moment. “Lumpy is a LOT more powerful than me,” I admitted. “But from what I’ve heard, he relies almost entirely on brute force and raw power.”

“So, you’d do something else,” Aegis mused, looking like he was actually considering what that something else might be. I smiled at that. Maybe he really was paying attention.

“I avoid fighting people directly, whenever possible,” I admitted. “In my old line of work, if I ran into a situation where I actually had to fight someone, it usually meant that I failed somewhere.”

Aegis nodded at that, then cautiously said, “When he showed up, he called me a villain. He was going to attack me when I didn’t even do anything.”

I saw the hurt and confusion in Aegis’ eyes and realized that the encounter with Lumpy had seriously damaged his faith in heroes. I could sympathize with that since I could remember the day I’d lost my own faith in heroes.

“That’s pretty common for a lot of heroes,” I told him. “They charge in with their fists swinging, making assumptions and then questioning them later…if ever.”

I didn’t bother to point out that this was exactly what Aegis had been doing since he’d arrived at Whateley. From the look on his face, I think he realized that on his own. Maybe there really was hope for the kid.

“Not all heroes are like that,” I grudgingly admitted. “There are some who are capable, competent, and professional. It might sound pretty ironic coming from someone like me, but I can respect those heroes. I’d never admit it to them of course, but there are times when heroes are needed, and I appreciate the good ones…even if they’re coming after me.”

Aegis chuckled a little at that. “That’s…surprising.”

I just shrugged. “I’ve been in the business for a long time, and one thing I’ve learned is that things aren’t as simple as black and white. Heroes aren’t always good and villains aren’t always evil. I know heroes who are the biggest assholes, and criminals who are the kindest and most generous people. I know law abiding citizens who are cruel and sadistic, who use the law to victimize innocent people, and I know criminals who ignore the law in order to help people. The simple fact is, most people aren’t all good or all bad. They’re a mixture of both. This goes for heroes and criminals both.”

I wasn’t sure why I was telling all this to Aegis, since I was confiding a little more than I’d usually tell anyone. Maybe it was just the simple fact that someone needed to explain things to him. Not everything was as simple as he’d believed, and he was just starting to see that. If I could help him to get a better perspective, then I’d only be helping him, and doing my part as his teacher.

“You’re getting better, Bart,” I said, flashing him a cheerful grin. “Now, it’s about time for lunch, so why don’t you go get yourself a Krusty Burger and a Squishy. We’ll keep working on your PK blade the next time.”

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

Whateley Academy, Sunday early afternoon, Nov 11th 2007

I was in a good mood as I walked back to the village. My tail swished back and forth behind me with a casual ease while I cheerfully hummed a tune from the Backstreet Boys. It was a good day.

First, I’d woken up beside Ryan, and even got to have breakfast with him before he had to go and catch a flight back to New York. Then I got to teach my lockpicking class, which was always fun, and I was even making some progress with Aegis. Yes, it was definitely a good day.

I’d just finished lunch a few minutes ago and had eaten a particularly tasty tuna melt. I had absolutely no idea how the Whateley chefs made it, only that it was way better than any tuna melt I’d ever had in a diner. Between that and the lunch conversation with Maria, I was definitely feeling contented.

“And I even have some free entertainment,” I mused to myself, thinking of the person who was trying to follow me.

A student had been following me for the last two minutes, trying to be sneaky about it and not be seen. However, she wasn’t very good. Geist was a freshman, a member of the Teletubbies, and I was pretty sure that she was also working for Barney.

For a moment, I seriously considered going back and messing with Geist, teaching her a lesson about coming after me. It would be free entertainment and the cherry on top of an already good day. But then again, she was just a student, and a freshman at that. It would be too easy. And besides, she and Melissa had a rivalry going on, and I didn’t want to interfere with that. Melissa needed a rival. Sure, Trixie might keep her on her toes, at least as far as pranking went, but she also needed a serious opponent of her own level. Someone like Geist.

“Well, I can still have a little fun,” I conceded with an evil grin.

With that, I went towards the nearest building, and as soon as I turned around the corner and was out of sight, I pulled my disappearing act. I stood flat up against the wall, mostly invisible because of my chameleon field, and waited. I didn’t have to wait long before Geist showed up.

About twenty feet away, I saw Geist, an auburn-haired girl with glasses. She was peeking around a corner, though there was no corner there for her to actually peek around. That was a clear indication that she was using her power, projecting her image away from where her real body was. And since I knew where the corner was, and could hear her moving, I knew exactly where she really was…invisible or not.

I patiently waited until Geist walked past me, then I dropped my own invisibility, tapped her on the shoulder from behind, and exclaimed, “BOO!” She jumped, dropped her power, and let out a loud shriek. She might even have filled her pants, but I couldn’t be sure of that.

After Geist ran away, I chuckled gleefully to myself. That had been fun. Too easy…but still fun.

“I’d better leave her to Melissa from now on,” I said with a grin. “After all, I wouldn’t want to deprive her of the opportunity to do this herself.”

Since I’d already had my bit of fun, I continued back towards the village, this time without anyone following me. I might have been finished with all my classes today, but I still had some lesson plans to work on. Teaching was a bit like pulling a heist. If you wanted everything to go smoothly, you had to do your research and plan things out. And if you did it right, you’d have enough room for a little fun and creativity as well.

One of the things I really wanted to work on today was my training plan for Melissa. She’d advanced enough that it was time to put her out in the field, having her tag along on some of my jobs while giving her some simple ones of her own. Of course, now that I’d retired from the business, that kind of training was a little more difficult to come by. Fortunately, I had the sims as a resource. I just needed to design some to suit my needs.

A short time later, I arrived at the Brown Moose Café with a small stack of papers. I’d already eaten lunch, but that wasn’t why I was there. I was there because it was a great place to work. I could get snacks and drinks while I made up my lesson plans, and I could even socialize with some of the other faculty in the process. I’d spent far too much time hidden inside my home, so I was taking advantage of the opportunity to be out in public now that I had it.

Unfortunately, as soon as I stepped into the Brown Moose, I saw Barney sitting at one of the tables. I might have turned right around and left, but he noticed me too, and glared with a look of disgust and hatred. Because of that, I decided to stay, just to spite Barney if nothing else. I took a seat at a table that was right in Barney’s line of view. If I was going to stick around just to annoy him, I might as well do it right.

“I’ll have a glass of grape juice and an order of onion rings,” I told Rick, one of the guys who ran the place. When the grape juice was placed in front of me a minute later, I took a long sip and exclaimed, “Ah, freshly squeezed dinosaur blood. My favorite.”

“I heard you were in another fight last week,” Barney commented with a growl. “A pity they did such a poor job.”

I responded with a shrug and a dismissive wave. “Idiots and incompetents are always trying to ambush me. Fortunately, they’re all too pathetic to matter.”

Barney caught the not so subtle reference to his own attack on me all those years ago, and I saw him tense up and become even angrier…if that was possible. That just brought a smile to my lips, though beneath the surface, my own anger was burning.

During my three decades in the business, I’d collected a lot of enemies, and people had tried killing me on countless occasions. Barney’s attempt had been one of the closest to actually succeeding, though that wasn’t the reason for my own long-standing grudge. Out of all my enemies, Barney was the one who’d caused me the most long-term pain.

“Carson can’t protect you forever,” Barney stated. “Sooner or later, you will pay for your crimes.”

I just smiled at that. “Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I’ve already been paid for my crimes, and paid well.”

There was a sudden cracking sound as Barney’s class shattered in his hand. He was now a foot taller than he’d been a few seconds ago, a clear indication that I was getting to him. Good.

“You know,” I commented in my best ‘innocent’ tone, “the Horner Crystal actually earned me more money than three years of your salary here.”

Barney snarled and stood up, growing another foot taller. He obviously didn’t like the reminder of our first encounter as hero and villain, and how I’d gotten away from him with my prize, making him look like a fool in the process. Of course, it hadn’t been difficult since he’d done most of the work himself.

The former hero looked like he was going to charge across the café and attack me. If he did, then he’d be breaking our truce and I’d be free to retaliate. Of course, it wasn’t like he was keeping the truce as it was. He’d already manipulated the Teletubbies and sent the whole group after me, using them as proxies in our feud.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” a new voice said.

Louis Geintz now stood in the middle of the Brown Moose, having appeared out of nowhere. Of course, he wasn’t actually here, and this was just a psychic projection. Still, it was hard to ignore his presence, even if I hadn’t considered him a friend.

“Have a seat,” I said, gesturing the empty seats at my table. “And help yourself to some of my onion rings.” Of course, since he wasn’t physically present, my onion rings were safe. It was easy to share when you knew the other person couldn’t accept.

“Thank you, Christine,” Louis responded with a smile. “But I’m afraid that I’m here on business rather than pleasure.”

“Oh?” I asked curiously. “You want to commission a FORGERY of the Mona Lisa for your tank?” I glanced over to Barney, who’d returned to his seat and normal size, though he was still glaring at me.

“As nice as that might be,” Louis told me with a chuckle, “I’m afraid not. Mrs. Carson requested to see you in her office.”

Louis had specifically referred to her as ‘Mrs. Carson’ rather than as ‘Liz’, which meant that this was indeed a business issue. I nodded at that. “You can tell her that I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Finally,” Barney announced triumphantly. “Your mockery of this school is at an end.”

“My mockery never ends,” I replied in a cheerful tone. “And on that note, I hope that your career is as long and satisfying as the drummers from Spinal Tap.”

With that, I got up, gave Barney a mocking one-finger salute, and then left the Brown Moose. I was just a little annoyed because I’d barely returned to the Village from the main campus, now I had to turn around and go right back.

I was curious about what Carson wanted with me on a Sunday afternoon, and admittedly, a little worried. What if Barney was right and she wanted to fire me? I would absolutely hate to give him that satisfaction.

When I arrived at Carson’s office, the door was open so I went on in. she was sitting at her desk, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. This was her weekend wear rather than her usual business attire, which meant that whatever this was, it had probably been short notice and unexpected.

“What’s up?” I asked curiously.

The look that Carson gave me was hard to read, but that wasn’t too surprising. She’d had a lot of time to practice her poker face.

After a few seconds, she answered, “There’s a problem with one of our students…”

I raised an eyebrow at that but didn’t respond. Was she referring to Aegis and the trouble from yesterday? I’d stepped in before he’d had a chance to actually fight Adamant, but the fact that he’d put himself in danger in the first place might be an issue. Or was she referring to Melissa? Melissa had played a few pranks lately, but I didn’t see Carson coming to me about that.

“Or more accurately,” Carson said with a sigh, “there is a problem with a future student…”

“Now I’m confused,” I admitted.

“Now you know how you make the rest of us feel,” a familiar voice said from the speaker phone.

I glanced at the phone for a moment, wondering why my boyfriend was on my boss’ phone. “I didn’t expect to hear from you again so soon,” I said.

“And I didn’t expect to call you again so soon,” Ryan admitted. “And certainly not like this. Unfortunately, this isn’t a personal call.”

“So I gathered,” I responded wryly, giving Carson a curious look and waiting for an explanation.

However, it wasn’t Carson who began the explanation, but Ryan. “I was at the airport this morning when I received a call a call from a hero group, who requested my help as backup on their current mission. From what I’ve been told, a villain called Fiddleback attacked a school bus and took all the children hostage.”

“Fiddleback?” I exclaimed.

“You’ve heard of him?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “I’ve never met the guy, but I heard he’s a real piece of work. A baseline with a private army, a taste for exotic weaponry, and a history of arms dealing and human trafficking. Is that why you called? You wanted to pick my brain about him?”

“Actually,” Carson said, reminding me that she was there. “One of the students on that bus is a mutant, who was scheduled to begin attending Whateley next semester.”

“Which explains your interest,” I said, nodding in acknowledgement. “You think our future student was the actual target.”

“Perhaps,” Carson explained with a scowl. “It does seem likely. But unfortunately, he hasn’t actually begun attending our school yet, so doesn’t fall under our normal protections. This limits our options.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’ve already got some heroes on the case,” I pointed out wryly. “But that does bring up the question as to why I’m here. I don’t know Fiddleback, but I’ll be happy to tell you what little I do know. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to call in a favor and see if I can find where he’s hiding these kids…”

“We already know where he is,” Ryan answered, his tone grim. He sounded more like the Chickenhawk I’d known for so long. “The problem is, he has the kids. He has seventeen hostages.”

My eyes widened a little at that. Seventeen kids. My heart ached for them.

“We…I need you to help rescue those kids,” Ryan said.

I nearly choked at that. “I’m not a hero,” I reminded Ryan, wondering if he’d lost his mind.

“Melissa might argue otherwise,” Ryan said in a gentle tone. “Besides, I don’t need another hero. I need a thief. I need someone sneaky enough to figure out how to get past Fiddleback’s guards and security so we can get those kids out safely, and you’re the best thief I know.”

“I’m also retired,” I protested, looking to Carson for help on this.

“Well, if this is too much of a challenge for you,” Carson said.

I gave her a flat look. Did she really think the whole reverse psychology thing was going to work on me? I’d used it too many times on too many people to not recognize the tactic.

“Superhawk Is right,” Carson said a few seconds later. She scowled deeply as she admitted, “This particular situation requires more of a subtle touch, one that understands how to bypass security. One of those kids is a future student at this school. He may not have begun classes yet, or even arrived on campus, but he is still one of our kids, and I will NOT just stand by and allow our students to be taken. If it wasn’t for the hostages, I’d fly over and deal with Fiddleback myself. And if it wouldn’t cause more problems than it would solve.”

Ryan jumped in a moment later, adding, “Christine… You’re the best chance these kids have at the moment.”

“But I’m not a hero,” I protested weakly, almost pouting. “And I’m retired…”

“I can’t make you do this,” Carson told me with a sigh. “But I am asking you to help recover our student.”

I leaned back into the chair and let out a sigh. “I’m not a hero,” I repeated yet again, looking back and forth between Carson and the phone. “If word gets out that I’m running around and saving people, it would ruin my reputation.” Then I paused for a moment before grinning. “Unless…”

“Unless what?” Ryan asked from the other end of the speaker. I could hear the wariness in his voice.

“The mercenary clause,” I explained cheerfully. My tail swished back and forth behind me. “The villain rule book clearly says that if you’re doing a job you’ve been paid for, regardless of who hires you, it’s just a business arrangement and nothing more. So, as long as this is a business arrangement, my reputation as a professional is safe.”

“How…mercenary,” Ryan responded in a wry tone. Carson stared at me with an expression I couldn’t quite read, then she let out an exasperated sigh.

“Well, I am a professional,” I responded with an evil grin, before leaning towards the speaker and saying, “Now, let’s talk business.”

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

New Jersey, Sunday late afternoon, Nov 11th 2007

I was crouched down in the corner, using my chameleon field to remain invisible and hidden. At the moment, I was wearing my working outfit, and not the slacks and blouse I used for teaching. My other working outfit, the red and black catsuit.

When I’d woken up this morning, this hadn’t been the way I’d expected my day to go. I’d expected some classes in the morning and a nice relaxing afternoon. Now, here I was, sneaking into the headquarters of a superhero group. This was a great day.

After I’d negotiated my payment with Ryan, I’d immediately rushed off to catch a plane. Now here I was, in New Jersey, sneaking into the Shielder’s headquarters…again.

The Shielders had a pretty nice war room. There was a huge table in the middle of the room, several monitors on the wall that were set to local news channels, and most importantly, a professional grade espresso machine. I was seriously tempted to go over and make myself a cup while I waited.

Of course, since this was the Shielders’ headquarters, it only made sense that they were all gathered around the table. I’d met these heroes before, which meant that this was going to be interesting.

Brandywine had short white hair and a violet costume that was made of lightweight armor in a very similar style to what Chickenhawk wore. This heroine was Ryan’s sister, which meant that she was also Melissa’s aunt. And of course, she also hated me, probably for good reason. I’d made fun of her name and inventions, not to mention the fact that I’d made her and her whole group look like fools when they’d gone back on a deal we made.

Standing beside Brandywine was Miss Magic, a woman with auburn hair and a blue sequined tuxedo. She looked like she should have been on a stage in Vegas rather than out in the field as a hero.

The Emerald Avenger wore a green and dark green costume, which included a hood and cowl that covered the top half of his face. His old costume had been pretty generic and almost cliché in style, though he’d changed it a bit since the last time I’d seen him.

And then there was Polarstorm, the last member of the Shielders. Polarstorm, or Fuzzy Wuzzy as I preferred to call him, was a nearly eight foot tall, anthropomorphic polar bear, wearing a pair of pants. His fur was coming back nicely and was almost as long as it had been before I’d decided to teach him a lesson.

The final person who was standing beside the table was Chickenhawk. Ryan was dressed up in his familiar costume, which was dark blue and white, and made of lightweight armor.

“We need to just go up to the front door and kick Fiddleback’s butt,” Fuzzy Wuzzy announced.

“He has hostages,” Miss Magic reminded him. I’d been watching them for the past ten minutes, and this was the third time she’d had to tell him.

“If we try anything, Fiddleback will kill the kids,” Brandywine repeated…again.

The Emerald Avenger looked to Chickenhawk. “You said that you found a…consultant to help us get these kids out safely.”

“Yes,” Chickenhawk agreed. “I hired an expert in security, the best one I know.”

“Are we supposed to pick him up or something?” Polarstorm asked.

“No,” Chickenhawk responded with a wry smile. “She’ll meet us here, and will probably even let herself in.”

Brandywine chuckled at that. “Let herself in... I designed the security myself. Nobody is getting in again…” She glanced to Polarstorm. “Not after the last time.”

“This place is impenetrable,” the Emerald Avenger assured Chickenhawk.

“Impenetrable?” I called out, recognizing my cue when I heard it. I dropped my chameleon field and suddenly ‘appeared’ in a puff of smoke, courtesy of a smoke bomb. “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

“IMP!” Polarstorm and Brandywine blurted out at once while the other two Shielders just stared at me with their mouths open.

“Maybe you meant to say Imp penetrable,” I suggested with a grin. “Then again, that could be taken the wrong way…”

Polarstorm snarled and began coming at me. The other Shielders readied themselves for a fight too.

“STOP!” Chickenhawk stepping forward and getting between me and the Shielders. “I asked her to come here. Imp is the one I hired.”

There were looks of shock and disbelief at that. Brandy glared at her brother, exclaiming, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Imp has agreed to help us,” Chickenhawk insisted. “She’s our best chance at getting past Fiddleback’s security in time.”

I calmly buffed my nails against my shirt. “If you don’t want me here, I’ll just collect my pay and go. My contract stipulated that I get paid regardless of whether or not you accept my help.”

“We need her,” Chickenhawk insisted. He looked over the Shielders, his eyes locking with those of his sister. “There are currently no active warrants out for her arrest, and her probation officer has signed off on this.”

“Probation officer?” the Emerald Avenger asked in surprise.

Technically, Carson wasn’t actually my probation officer, because I wasn’t under any kind of official probation. However, she had made it her personal mission to keep an eye on me and make sure that I didn’t go straying too far back into my old line of work. After all, she’d pulled a lot of strings so I could work for her as a teacher, and she didn’t want her investment to be wasted.

“I’m on double secret probation,” I announced cheerfully.

Four pairs of hostile eyes glared at me. I just remained where I was, smirking and silently daring them to attack. I could see that all of them were tempted, especially Fuzzy Wuzzy.

My eyes carefully swept each of the heroes, settling on the Emerald Avenger. “Hey, you’re wearing your underwear on the right side of your costume now,” I exclaimed. “You’ve learned how to dress yourself, just like a grown up. I’m so proud of you…”

“Imp,” Chickenhawk cautioned me. I gave him my best innocent look. Somehow, I don’t think it worked.

“I’m going to break her in half,” Fuzzy Wuzzy exclaimed, taking another step towards me.

“Inconcievable,” I exclaimed with my best Wallace Shawn impression.

Fuzzy Wuzzy snarled angrily and took another step towards me. He looked like he was about to give into a full-on charge, which might have been amusing, though problematic under the circumstances. I needed to distract him.

“Is that a bald spot?” I asked with another innocent look, immediately making him stop to look down at his furry hide.

“As much as I hate to admit it,” Brandywine grudgingly admitted. “Superhawk might be right. We might need her.”

Miss Magic, who looked a bit too much like a showgirl with all those sequins, gave me a skeptical look. “What do you know about Fiddleback?”

“His real name is Anton Brown,” I answered evenly. “He was a pretty small-time merc and acquisitions expert until he stumbled across one of Doctor Avarice’s stashes, where he picked up some exotic weaponry and enough resources to really finance his business. He expanded his operation after that, hired a small army, and began wheeling and dealing among the villain crowd. He’s a known Humanity First sympathizer, but he’s pragmatic and has no problem doing business with mutants. And if he’s kidnapped a bunch of teenagers, then he’s probably planning to sell them…maybe to some mad scientist types who are too lazy to kidnap their own guinea pigs. He’s done that kind of thing before.”

I got a couple looks of surprise at that, which made me thankful that I’d done a little research on the way here. From what I’d learned, Fiddleback was something of a professional, in his own way, and I could almost respect that. However, his business tended to cross some lines that should never be crossed, so I was actually happy to be part of taking him down.

“This is a waste of time,” Fuzzy Wuzzy growled. “What the hell would a villain like her know about rescuing people?”

“Nothing,” I answered, staring up at the furry hero. “But when it comes to sneaking into a high-security facility, grabbing some fragile valuables, and getting those valuables out intact…I’m an expert.”

“Imp helped me rescue my own daughter from a similar situation,” Chickenhawk said, which earned me a couple more looks of surprise.

I turned my attention away from the heroes and walked over to their table, where they had several maps and diagrams spread out. I glanced over it all, recognizing some building schematics for Fiddleback’s lair. I wasn’t impressed.

“Is this all you have?” I asked. But before anyone could answer, I said, “Good thing I came prepared.”

With that, I pulled the laptop out of my small backpack and opened it up. I checked my email and was glad that Hartford had already sent me everything I’d asked for, or else that would have been embarrassing. Fortunately, for a top-end hacker like her, getting more information on the blueprints and security systems was relatively easy.

While I looked over the information, both what they’d provided and what Hartford had given me, the Shielders all clustered around. Every time one of them was about to say something, Chickenhawk shushed them. I might have been amused by that, if I hadn’t been so caught up in what I was doing.

“Good up-front security,” I finally said. “Heavily reinforced structure, automated weaponry, and a couple squads of soldiers. And even if you were able to get through, Fiddleback would have plenty of time to get to the hostages. But of course, you already knew that.”

The fact that they’d actually recognized that problem was a point in their favor. A lot of heroes would simply have charged right in, not even considering how dangerous that could be for the hostages. I’d assumed they were the same way, especially after our previous encounters, though it seemed that they had at least one cooler head in the group.

“But the backdoor security sucks,” I commented. “Fiddleback has set everything up to deal with a direct assault and hasn’t really considered someone trying to sneak in through the back door or an unlocked window. I see three possible routes of entry for a sufficiently sneaky individual. Unfortunately, none of those works as an extraction route for seventeen kids…”

When I looked up, I saw that everyone was staring at me, though Chickenhawk looked almost smug. The others all looked surprised, maybe even a bit confused. Maybe it was because I’d dropped my fun-loving and wacky persona in front of them and let them see me in a more professional mode. Damn, I hated letting heroes get a glimpse behind the curtain.

“So,” Brandywine said. “You can get in, but you can’t get the kids out.”

“Nope,” I answered honestly. “But I don’t really need to.” Then I grinned evilly and asked, “Have you ever played three card monte?”

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

Berlin NH, Sunday evening, Nov 11th 2007

Five people sat in the large hotel room, warily watching each other. Though they were allies with a common purpose, they were not friends, and each knew better than to fully trust the others.

The beautiful blonde woman known as Heaven, stood up and began to pace back and forth impatiently. “She was in Boston,” she finally announced. “Yesterday. And we missed her…”

“How the hell were we supposed to know she was going to be in Boston?” the Crimson Kid demanded. “Berlin is closer to Whateley than Boston, so we all figured that she’d make an appearance here first…”

“The Imp isn’t predictable,” Jackalope snarled bitterly. “She’s chaos incarnate. A demon in the flesh.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Mistress Hex stated with a look of annoyance. She calmly adjusted her crimson cloak. “The Imp is just a woman, and soon enough, she’ll be a dead woman.”

“And that can’t happen soon enough,” the last member of Imp Revenge Squad said, absently rubbing his prosthetic hand.

The villain, once known as the Provoker, hated the Imp more than he could express. He’d once been a respected mercenary, at least in his own mind, but no more. Now he was a laughingstock. A joke to nearly everyone in the business, all because of her. That bitch had cut off his hand…and his leg. And then, adding insult to injury, she’d somehow convinced everyone to call him by that ridiculous name of Crash Test Dummy. He was going to kill her for that. He promised this to himself nearly every day.

“Why are we even here waiting for her?” Jackalope demanded. “We know where she lives. She’s at Whateley Academy. We should just go right over and kill her…”

“You know why,” Mistress Hex responded with a scowl. “Because she is on Whateley, and we’d all be stupid to attack her there. I am not certain about the rest of you, but I for one am not a fool.”

“Last year, that school repelled a Syndicate attack,” Crash Test Dummy reminded everyone. “Any place that has enough firepower to repel a Syndicate assault, isn’t one we want to march into.”

“How come I’d never even heard of this school until now?” Jackalope demanded. “Before last week, I had no idea it even existed…”

“Me either,” Mistress Hex reluctantly admitted. She scowled, obviously not happy about admitting any weakness or lack of knowledge.

Heaven scowled as she said, “I have. When I was younger, my father nearly sent me to that school, and I would have gone if not for some…legal problems arising.” She gave a dismissive gesture. “What I do know is that this school is protected by some very powerful people, and that attacking Imp there would be suicide. That’s obviously the reason she’s hiding there.”

“So, we simply have to wait until she leaves that place again,” Crash Test Dummy pointed out. “We know from her appearance yesterday, that she does leave…”

Mistress Hex nodded. “Yes, but we need to know when she leaves, so we can arrange a…meeting. Preferably one without anyone else interfering.”

Heaven stood back and mused, “We need someone inside…someone who can tell us when she’s leaving. Maybe we can bribe one of their guards…or even a student. That shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“I know someone who can help us,” the Crimson Kid abruptly said, suddenly getting everyone to look at him. He scowled deeply for a moment, before continuing, “Years ago, back before that demon bitch ruined me…I had an associate. We’d only worked together a couple times, but when I was looking into this school, I found out that he’s a teacher there now. If anyone in that place will help us deal with the Imp, its T Rex.”



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