I have an early appointment, and despite wanting to rest from last night’s
misadventures, I cannot afford the luxury of even a day’s vacation. More asleep than awake, I struggle out of bed and stagger into the bathroom to wash. There is a large, misshapen bruise on the left side of my chest. It’s purplish-black and green at the edges. It looks almost exactly like an overly romantic rendition of the crab nebula I saw in an outdated astronomy book once. I palpate the region and wince. The area is tender and sore, but my ribs do not appear to be broken. There are several minor lacerations on my forearm. I have a scratch across the bridge of my nose. My right eye is bloodshot and there’s a swollen, eggplant colored lump just beneath it.
I dress cautiously, foregoing a Kevlar vest because it seems unlikely that this morning’s negotiations will degenerate to the point where firearms become a tool in reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement. I want to give the impression of wealth without giving the impression that I am conscious of that wealth. Oxfords. A new white shirt with French cuffs and elegant embroidery. Antique cufflinks. A pair of well-tailored slacks with an ever-so-slightly frayed hem. No tie. To paraphrase Epictetus: I have dressed myself as whom I wish to appear as.
I sigh wistfully at the cushions atop my unmade bed, then unlock and open the bedroom door into the hallway. A metallic glint catches my eye. On the floor outside my bedroom door a rapier and main gauche lie on a black velvet cushion. A lump rises in my throat. This implies that I may very well be late for my morning appointment. I pick up the weapons, feel the reassuring weight and heft of them, and make my way down the hallway to the grand staircase that terminates in the foyer.
The morning sun dapples the terrazzo in candy colors as it streams through the lites of the double doors. My mother stands across the foyer from me with a rapier in her right hand. She blocks my egress. My mother paces back and forth, like a great cat. Her stance communicates challenge. She tosses her head, glossy black hair streams down in rivulets. Her dark eyes flash, and her lip curls back, revealing even white teeth. “No quarter given!” she cries, whirling her rapier in lazy figure eights.
“None asked for,” I reply, and bring my main gauche up just in time to parry a viciously fast lunge. I slash down at her kneecaps with my own rapier, but she nimbly jumps over my blade and I have to sidestep clumsily to avoid being pierced by the tip of her sword. I bump into an end table and wince as a Sevres vase full of irises crashes to the floor. For an important half-second, my mother has difficulty balancing on the now wet and slippery marble, and I take the opportunity to jab at her throat and belly with my weapons. Her recovery is much quicker than I had anticipated, however, and she pivots her hip to send her right leg flying up in a roundhouse kick. I stumble backwards after a stiletto-heeled boot thunks soundly into my chest. It stings, and I can very well imagine my own personal crab nebula expanding. My heels catch on the nosing of the first stair on the grand staircase. I fall backwards. My teeth crash together as my head cracks against an ornamental rose on the newell-post.
There is no time for recovery; my mother is upon me, all wild black hair and whirling blades. It is all I can do to deflect her well-aimed slashes with my main gauche. I scrabble up the staircase on my back, constantly defending an onslaught of blows that prevent me from rising to my feet and gaining the higher ground. I drop my rapier and grab onto the steps with my right hand. I parry with my left hand and scoot upwards towards the landing. My mother is relentless. The point of her blade slices through the linen of my shirt just as I reach the top of the stairs. The edge of my collar flutters down. I glance over to see red spreading out in a rough circle around my clavicle. I curse under my breath. That woman keeps her blades sharp.
At last, I reach the landing. I tuck my legs in and roll away, quickly enough to avoid further lacerations. I rise to my feet and run towards the other banister. My mother is only a few steps behind me, but it’s enough. I hoist myself up onto the railing and slide down the banister. The front doors are unguarded, and only a short sprint prevents me from leaving the house free and clear. I hear a cry and look up.
My mother is perched on her toes on the top of the railing at the height of the landing. Her rapier is above her head, her left arm held outwards in a balletic gesture. She tenses and then falls from a story above, spiraling downwards in a lethal arc. I roll across the floor, crashing into a Louis Cinque chaise longue. Sparks shoot up from the terrazzo where my mother’s rapier bites into the floor, in the space where I had just been standing. I grab an ottoman and thrust it up over my head and down onto her wrist. Her rapier clatters to the floor. I kick it away. I spin around her, grab her right arm and wrench it up behind her back. I press my main gauche up against the soft flesh of her throat.
“Yield,” I growl.
“Look down,” she whispers sotto voce.
I see the glitter of metal. A hypodermic needle has extended from a hiding place in her sleeve. It lies against my chest. A fat green drop glistens at its tip. There’s no way that I could slit my mother’s throat in enough time to prevent my own death. I’m not a fan of Pyrrhic victories. I release my mother’s wrist and push her away from me. She clucks her tongue, “You’re distracted, Mijo. A cheap trick like that never should have worked on you.”
I sigh. “I am distracted.”
She tousles my hair. “Your mind is on that boy. I can tell your heart is heavy.”
“I’m just rusty. I need more practice. With the elections in San Pablo next week, and starting freshman classes, I’m overwhelmed, and I haven’t made time for training.”
My mother shakes her head and gives me a sad smile. “Just because I’ve been gone for a few years, don’t think I don’t know my own son. You always shift your weight from one foot to the other when you lie."
I scowl. I need to be more mindful of betraying my thoughts through physical expression. “There are many, many aspects of my life that do not involve Erik Jones-Nakata in any shape or form whatsoever. And he is the last thing on my mind right now.”
She shakes her head again. “It’s that boy. Until you fix things with him, you are going to be distracted and not at the top of your game. And at the stakes you like playing for you cannot afford to lose or draw.”
She has an irritating habit of being right entirely too often.
My mother looks over at my shoulder and sighs. “That lovely shirt of yours is ruined. Let’s get you bandaged up and into something almost as presentable. You know, French cuffs really do suit you.”
I sometimes wish it wasn’t socially unacceptable to show up in public in a bloodstained Ungaro
shirt. The friendly sparring this morning and its unintended consequences has thrown off my schedule. I arrive at our meeting place thirteen minutes late. I’m in the parking lot of a family restaurant; the type I find particularly distasteful. A leering cartoon chef with a ridiculous mustache and a plate piled high with spaghetti and meatballs is painted artlessly onto the plate glass door. I push through the door. Before the bored middle aged hostess with the unfortunate home perm
can address me, I smile and inform her, “I’m meeting someone for brunch.”
My contact is sitting under the window at table covered with red-checked oilcloth. He picks at the raffia covering of a wine bottle turned into a candle holder. The direct light streaming over him seems to linger on irregular stains on the sleeves and lapels of his cheap grey suit. His tie is a clip-on. He looks up from his laminated menu and waves me over to the table. I slide into the seat across from him and flash an insincere smile. “Martin! How are you? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
He grunts. “Figured your employers didn’t want my business. Price has gone up since you bought from me.”
My affairs bring me in contact with all types of unsavory personalities. To gather as much information as I do and as thoroughly requires close contact with people who are not deemed polite company. Martin Vellsworth was my least favorite sort of informant: a disgruntled civil servant. Arrogant and greedy, Martin’s lack of caution was likely to lead to him being imprisoned or worse. He had never developed the healthy paranoia that liars, thieves and spies all cultivate, and as a result, could only ever be viewed as a temporary source of information. But the information he provided! He regularly handed over sensitive documents to me at prices I found trivial. His piggish eyes would take on a savage gleam as he relished the prospect of cheating my “employer” without ever realizing that I would pay ten times his asking price without wincing. He also had never developed something else that successful liars, thieves, and spies all cultivate; a notion of value. I suck at my bottom lip. “Well, these are trying times economically. I suppose my employer would understand an increase. How much are you asking?”
The waitress comes over to our table and asks if we’re ready to order. Martin dismisses her with a wave. He smiles at me. It is not a pleasant smile. “Three thousand each.”
I whistle and let my eyes widen. His jowls quiver with pleasure. He thinks he’s gouging me. I mop non-existent sweat from my brow with a paper napkin. “Martin? Are you serious? That’s 50% higher than last—“
He smirks. “Look kid, I don’t know who you work for—KGB, the Mafia, Hamas, Empire of Destruction—but there ain’t nowhere you can get the kind of stuff you’re asking for. Nowhere but out of my hot hands.”
He’s wrong. There are other places I could get this information. Just not as cheaply, or with such little personal risk. I shake my head. “Martin, we appreciate the quality of work that you have done for us in the past, and we would like to keep our business relationship cordial. You certainly are entitled to certain monetary considerations. But a fifty percent increase? That’s just—“
Martin clenches his fists and narrows his tiny eyes in an attempt to look tough. I have to disguise a laugh as a cough. He slams a fist on the table. The candle holder and cheap stemware rattle. “You little punk, you and your bosses leave me dry for six months and you wanna talk about relationships? The price is three thousand each. Take it or leave it.”
I sigh deeply. “What do you have for us?”
Martin opens a brown shopping bag and slides out three manila folders thick with papers. His hand covers the names. “I’ve got a guy who can teleport objects, a girl who can bench press a Volkswagen, and an empath.”
“An empath?” I raise an eyebrow, genuinely curious.
“Yeah, this guy can control emotions. Claims to sense them too.”
“And all three are in the city?”
“Or a short drive away. You interested or what?”
“I think we can arrange something.”
I’m standing in front of an American Craftsman-style bungalow. I check the address twice. This must be the place. The house is in bad repair. Its yellow paint is chipped and fading. The mortar between the bricks on the narrow front porch is crumbling, and several bricks appear to be missing. A jagged crack bisects the large front window diagonally. Roots from an evergreen oak have buckled the sidewalk in front of the house.
I make my way up the path, carefully navigating the uneven concrete. It’s not too late to turn back. This Joseph knows nothing about me, yet. My phone call to him could have just been a malicious prank. I hesitate in front of the porch. I could just turn around and go home. Then I hear my mother. Distracted. I climb the creaking front stairs and walk over to the door and knock twice.
Heavy purple curtains behind the cracked front window flutter like restless bats. I hear clinking and jingling and then the front door is thrown wide open. In the doorway stands a tall, thin man who blinks twice in the light and smiles at me. He’s a few years older than me. Handsome in a romantic poet sort of way. Pale skin. Dark, unruly hair that curls at his shoulders and falls over his brow. Green eyes the color of old glass. Aristocratic nose. He looks like he should be brooding and reciting Rilke in German. His smile is unnerving. It’s warm and at the same time mocking; as if he knew a secret he was planning to keep from humanity. My heart beats faster. My palms sweat. His smile broadens. He thrusts a hand in my direction. “Ah, you must be the mystery man I spoke to over the phone. “ He licks his lips. “I’m intrigued.”
I shake his hand. It’s warm and dry. Goosebumps rise on my arm. “My name’s Julian. I wanted to discuss something with you.”
He doesn’t let go of my hand. “Something of a personal nature?” He brushes the hair off his forehead with his other hand. “I can only hope.” His smile broadens again.
I find myself unable to meet his gaze. I shiver. He lets go of my hand. I want him to touch me again. I realize this means that I may have to kill him. There’s piano wire the false heel of my shoe, and a dagger in my left sleeve. He beckons at me. “Please, come in.”
I follow him inside the house. The front room is cool and dark and smells like dust, sweat and old books. Various pieces of clothing litter the room. An elegant cashmere sweater lies unceremoniously on the pitted hardwood floor. Joseph closes the door behind me and gestures for me to sit down. I sit on a blue armchair with a leather jacket thrown haphazardly over one of its wings.
He stands over me, close enough that I can feel how warm he is. His smell reminds me of nutmeg and old leaves. His voice drops low as if we two were the sole members of a conspiracy. “Can I offer you something to drink? I have good Scotch Whiskey and passable Cognac. And barely more than a drop of Calvados.”
“I’m only eighteen.” My voice sounds unforgivably prim.
He tosses his hair. “I’ve never let the silly laws of man get in the way of my enjoyment. I had a thought that you don’t much either. Maybe I’m wrong. But you don’t strike me as a good boy.”
My face feels hot. I place a hand over my cheek. My pinky rests just beneath my left eye. “I’m here to make a business proposition.”
He sits cross-legged on a plaid couch across from me. He turns his head to one side and rests it on his right palm. He stares at me appraisingly. “You’re not from the government. I could tell that much just talking to you over the phone. But you hinted that you knew what I could do, which means you’re pretty savvy about information gathering. And you’re cute and barely legal.”
“I assure you my reasons for contacting you are purely—“
He wrinkles his nose. “Pure is a word I’m not too fond of, and I’m guessing it’s not one that’s applied to you too often. You’re obviously not a Council member.”
I feel uneasy. He’s watching my every movement and gesture and I will myself to be calm and still.
“Which makes me think you’re from the other side. But there haven’t really been any notable teen villains since the early eighties when the Sinister Squadron were all sent to Juvie. Unless—“ His brow furrows. His stare intensifies. He does not blink. Then, he slaps his forehead. “You’re the Contessa’s son?!"
“What are you talking about?!” I snap the elastic band in my sleeve.
“Hmm, and a pretty good liar too.” He stares at my forearm. “Uh, you don’t have to kill me. I’m not going to call the news. This is amazing. That was a total guess, but it really does make sense. You have your mother’s eyes and haughty demeanor. The Von Wickeds have a son! Awesome, any brothers or sisters?”
I frown. “I don’t see what this has to do with—“
He shrugs. “I just like to know who I’m dealing with. I figured you had to be pretty well connected to find me and have an idea of what sort of voodoo that I do. And since the government has already come and gone, I looked up important outlaws from the past thirty years. Your parents are tops among them!”
I sighed. “I really should kill you right now, you know.”
He nods. “Fortunately for me, I’ve increased the amount of oxytocin and vasopressin in your system and you really don’t want to. Which is good, because I’m sure I can be an enormous help to you.” He rubs his hands together. “So, young Von Wicked, what’s your evil-doing moniker?”
“I’m just Julian.”
“Just Julian, you can call me Killjoy. I’m so excited! Tell me, what acts of outrageous daring are we going to commit first? Are you going to amplify my powers with a giant lovegun and create an army of worshipping slaves? Are we going to get the UN to name you their leader?”
I put my head into my hands and sigh deeply. Perhaps this was a huge mistake. “I want to break up with my boyfriend.”
Killjoy bounds across the room to me and places a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
I look up at him. He seems genuinely concerned. That makes it worse. I find myself crying. I should kill him now.
He strokes my hair. “Love is complicated. It’s a whole stew of different hormones, chemicals and things I don’t even really understand. I think I can help you. But I’m going to need to be with you.”
I sigh, and realize that the sudden trust that I’ve developed in Killjoy is entirely manufactured.
I’ve never been to a bowling alley
, but I’m certain that Bowl-shoi Lanes is not a prime specimen. The sign is lurid orange and red, with an incongruous animated neon ballerina who rolls a bowling ball en pointe
and winks. The building itself is squat and unlovely, with a sloping roof and a faux rock façade riddled with cracks and fissures. I stand before the doors and pause to look up at the sky. It’s starless from light pollution and on the horizon colors of bronze and gold eat away at the black. Killjoy puts a hand on my shoulder, near my neck. I shrug it off. I do not need artificial courage.
I pull open the door. Dry, chill air wafts over me. It carries scents of hot dogs and stale popcorn. Tinny, two decades old pop music blares from hidden speakers. Underneath there is a constant rumbling sound, like thunder. I walk past a counter where one can rent shoes and suppress a shudder. Killjoy walks half a step behind me, whistling with his hands thrust into his front pockets. I descend a half-flight of stairs down to the bowling lanes. The lanes stretch out to a wall painted over with a bad reproduction of Degas’ The Dance Class. About a third of the lanes have bowlers sitting in clusters around electronic screens. The rumble-crash of the balls rolling and knocking over pins drowns out the song about love being an abattoir.
I scan over the clusters of bowlers and look for Erik. There. Two lanes from the end of the alley. He is sitting alone, staring down at something. I make my way over to him, threading through throngs of scowling, pot-bellied, middle-aged men and women who have used far too much hairspray. I nearly trip over the splayed out legs of a slouching, sullen teenage boy before standing a few inches behind Erik.
He’s reading something in a manila folder intently and doesn’t notice my shadow falling across his back. His curls corkscrew into crazy angles on his head; he resembles something wild and dangerous rather than perfectly put-together, sweet, chivalrous Erik. I am reminded of him in the morning, upon waking. His arms around me. His smile relaxed. My heart pounds. My mouth goes dry. I start rubbing my chin. Killjoy lays a hand on my shoulder and I feel detached and cool, although my hands still are sweating. I clear my throat. “Erik. It’s good to see you. I--”
He looks up from the folder and quickly flips it close. The look he gives me is not one of pleasant surprise. His eyes scan the area and his lips tighten. “Julian? What are you doing here?”
“You invited me. Weeks ago. I said I’d never been bowling and you said—“
“That was before--” Erik looks up at Killjoy, whose hand is still firmly on my shoulder, and scowls. “Who’s this guy?”
The question seems impertinent. My fingers curl into fists. I wonder how he dares question me when he’s the one who ran away. I realize that Killjoy’s hand is still on my shoulder. I inhale sharply. “He’s just a friend. Look, we need to talk.”
Erik sighs. “We need to talk about a number of things, starting with how I’m going to pay for damaging the roof of your house. And it needs to be soon. But trust me when I say that it can’t be now, and you need to leave here as soon as possible.”
I wonder how much of the rage I feel at this command is my own, and brush Killjoy’s hand off my shoulder. “Erik, I love you. But I don’t think we can go on this way.”
Erik’s voice is a hiss in reply. “Can we talk about this later? Not in front of him? And you have to go before--”
“Before what? Before your piece on the side comes back?” Killjoy’s voice is silky. My fingernails bite into my palms.
Erik’s voice drops to a growl. “You stay out of this!”
I look down at the floor. I hear a scream from behind me. Erik is glowing. I ignore the murmurs of the bowlers. I bite my lip. “Erik, you can’t just keep running away from--”
I’m interrupted by an unkempt blond woman in a faded black suit. She shouts at Erik. “Hey, tamp down, Roman Candle!”
Erik puts his head in his hands. He stops glowing.
The blond walks over to us and says to Erik, “What are you trying to do, get channel 4 news coverage? This isn’t--” She stops and stares at me. A slow smile spreads over her face. “You work fast, sparkplug.”
Clumsily, she whips a gun out of a holster in her jacket and points it at me. With her other hand she fumbles in her lapel pocket and produces a badge. Her voice towers over the pop music, which suddenly seems muted and far away. “Ladies and Gentleman, this is Federal Business. I would appreciate your cooperation. Please evacuate the premises in an orderly fashion.”
Most of the people inside grumble, but move towards the exit in a slovenly stream. One skinny, unshaven man puts his hands on narrow hips and shouts over to the woman, “Look lady, I don’t care if you’re from the Pope. I got six more frames that I already paid for, and I’m playin’ em.”
The woman shrugs as if to say “suit yourself”.
Erik interjects, “Wait, wait. This isn’t exactly working to plan.”
Her attention is split between Erik and the skinny man. Her grip on her gun isn’t good. I consider disarming her and counting this confrontation as a wash when Killjoy moves jerkily forward and splays his fingers wide her in her direction. The woman shrieks and her gun falls out of trembling fingers and clatters on the hardwood floor. She bends over double, then sits on the floor, pulling her knees in tight. Her eyes are wide open and look huge in her fine-boned face. She trembles uncontrollably and stares at Killjoy.
Her teeth chatter, and she continues to tremble, but there’s a sly look in her eyes behind the terror. “An empath? You want me to be scared? Okay.” She inhales deeply and screams.
The scream is focused on Killjoy, but it feels as if it is going through my bones. Nausea overtakes me as I clap my hands over my ears hoping to drown out some of that terrible sound. It is both high-pitched and rumbling, and its sheer awfulness is unequaled in my experience. The glass monitors overhanging each lane began to crack. Dust rains down as the acoustic drop tiles above quiver in their casings. Killjoy slumps to the ground, mercifully unconscious. But the wail goes on. She is going to focus on me next. I launch myself forward and jab her hard in the solar plexus with my right hand. My left hand chops viciously at her larynx and the world is silent for a few precious moments. She stumbles backwards and falls to the ground with a muted thump. I fumble in my sleeve for my dagger and pull it out, gleaming and sharp. Her hands contort and the pop music roars up, distorted and strange. Its pitch increases to a cartoonish wail. This must stop. I bring the dagger up and prepare to plunge it down into her breast.
“Julian?! No!” Erik shouts. A bright, searing pain flares in my palm, and I reflexively drop my dagger. I look down. The blade glows white hot and the floor is charred where it lies. Plumes of black smoke waft up from below. The smell of burning plastic and wood fills my nostrils.
Erik runs over to the woman, who closes her eyes. The music returns to normal. She breathes in ragged, uneven gasps. Erik looks up at me. For a moment his glow is so bright that I must shield my eyes. But it dims as soon as he begins to speak. “I can’t believe you’d do that. I can’t believe you almost killed her.” His voice sounds choked. He is crying.
I look down at my hand. The flesh in the middle is pink and has angry, raised edges. There will be blisters. Perhaps a scar. Something terrible wells up inside me. I toss my head back. The look I give Erik is cold and measured. “You think everyone’s noble or misunderstood or can be saved. I’m not one of your projects. You can’t love me and not love all of me."
He stops to pick up the blond woman. He is glowing again, but it’s a soft light. “I don’t know where we went wrong. I love you.”
“You weren’t there when I needed you.” It’s an accusation I regret before I finish saying it. It’s an admission of need. I can’t think of how to amend it, or how to soften its harshness and just stand there. Tears sting the corners of my eyes.
He sweeps past me, blond woman cradled in his arms and heads toward the door. He stands on the stair and looks back at me. He says, “I know.” And then turns and walks out.
I walk over to Killjoy who is moaning on the floor half-conscious. I kick him gently in the ribs and say, “Come on. Get up. We’ve got work to do.”
The Von Wicked Chronicles
by Excalibre and Evil Catullus
I remember when it was me who made you want to take over the world and enslave humanity
Latex. High heels. Knives. (Excalibre's writeup)
It's not my fault that I'm so evil
I was a teenage Overlord
Lady Deathblast's Lover
This little light of mine
The Thanksgiving battle
My funny villaintine
Robots and comic books
This wicked life
The education of little overlords
all things truly wicked
Darkness lights its own way
How it all began
Sometimes I think you love that doomsday machine more than you love me.
They are dead. They are mine.
There is a crack in everything