Stormbreaker changed costumes in my bathroom, still invisible to my computers. When he came out, he was in an outfit with just as much padding as his old costume, but this time in different places. He was wearing a casual outfit of jeans and a dark blue t-shirt that could have belonged on any woman in her mid twenties, and he had light makeup and a wig of shoulder length brown hair to match. <Seems Stormbreaker is playing at being a girl, now.>
<We can’t see anything,> Abernathy stated. <Visual and audio feeds were severed the moment he opened the door.>
How the actual fuck is that possible?
<We’re working on it,> Phoebe added. <But we still haven’t identified the cause, let alone a solution.>
“What?” Stormbreaker raised an eyebrow, and even shifted his hips into a sassy pose. There didn’t seem to be any loss of mobility or signs of pain or bruising from the beating I delivered. Although with Tanks, that wasn’t a surprise. “You know of a better way to hide your identity?” Behind the smirk was the appraising gaze of someone observing something new that was worth looking at for a few extra seconds.
More importantly, now that she’d spoken, I knew it was more than just a costume change. Her voice was different in ways that couldn’t be achieved through falsetto, and now I could smell her breath instead of the makeup and perfume which covered the scent of her skin. Amongst other things, there was no sign of the recent fight we just had. All together, the evidence was indisputable.
“Very convincing,” I said. “Would it be rude of me to accuse you of being a shapeshifter?” There was no sign of panic or fear in her expression, only a bit of smug satisfaction and amusement. “There’s no way you could have put that makeup on in the few minutes you spent in my bathroom.” There’s the tense of nervousness I was looking for. “What did you do, put on the makeup before putting on your costume?”
The fake-Stormbreaker walked by me to open the door to my apartment. As if I’d needed any other confirmation she was lying through her teeth, I got a good look at her scalp as she went by. There was no possibility her hair was anything other than natural. That didn’t rule out Stormbreaker having shoulder length brown hair, but there was also no sign of cowl-hair like so many other Imbued had to deal with. The light scent of some chemical concoction that shampoo companies liked to claim was strawberry clung to it as well, where before Stormbreaker had no such smell.
Only after she got the door open and could stand in it did she answer my question. “Girl’s gotta have her secrets, you know.” She turned and walked out the door into the communal hall.
I followed behind her. It is a work day, so most of the residents won’t be home, but someone should have heard the fighting and called the cops by now. <Were there any calls on the emergency bands about my apartment?>
<No, there hasn’t been a single incident report,> Abernathy said. <That doesn’t make sense, and we’re still blind to your environment. What’s going on?>
Despite my misgivings, I acted like I noticed nothing. “So, what should I call you?” <They swapped Stormbreaker out with a woman, for some reason. Betting any amount of money she’s also Imbued. Either that, or Stormbreaker is a weird kind of shapeshifter. I’m not discounting that possibility. Quick, I need to know a word used for crossdressers that compliments how good they look without being obviously flirty or creepy.> “I assume your costumed name is out.”
“I guess I’ll go by ‘Alice’ for the time being,” she said. “Sorry, but we’re not on a real name basis.”
You don’t know the half of it, lady. “Not on a real name basis? You punched me in the face, wrecked my home, zapped me with mind altering powers, and are now taking me to meet your mysterious friends that you refuse to describe in any detail.”
At this point, in mid conversation, Phoebe answered my question from before. <The word ‘passable’ is a slang term for a convincing crossdresser. Used as an adjective.>
“Not sure I want to know what it would take to be on a real name basis,” I continued speaking as Phoebe gave her answer. “A… friend of mine has some interest in cosmetics, and you’re extremely passable.”
“A friend, huh?” She didn’t hide the bit of smug amusement in her voice. In keeping with the theme, she managed a grin the Cheshire Cat would have been proud of.
“Yes, a friend,” I put unnecessary emphasis on the word. “Am I not allowed to be open minded and have friends?”
“After those jokes earlier, I have my suspicions.” I was less interested in what she said than the ease at which she said it.
<I now know they have a means of remote communication.> Big surprise. “Hey, I’m allowed to talk shit about people and not hate them. One of my best friends is a lousy Brit.” <She was listening into the conversation between me and Stormbreaker. Or she is Stormbreaker, still haven’t ruled that out entirely, though it seems unlikely. She’s trying to fake Stormbreaker’s personality, but she’s not good at it. Or he’s an Oscar worthy actor.> “So where are you taking me, anyway?”
Alice looked back at me, still wearing her smirk. “You’ll see.” I found myself wondering if that was her behavior, or something Stormbreaker did which she was imitating. In either case, I kept my own smug smile internal. Lacking another means to find answers, I followed her into the parking lot.
<You’re not seriously considering going with her while there are so many unknowns, right?> Abernathy didn’t sound like she held any hope that I’d back off.
“You know, horror movies start with plots like this one.” <Well, you see, there are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and right now the only known unknown is…> Okay, at some point, that joke got away from me. <Yes. Gotta take risks to get a job done. Especially one which is this time sensitive.>
Alice almost missed a step in her walk. “Pornos start with plots like this one.” It didn’t require powers like mine to recognize that was a coached line that she wasn’t comfortable using.
“I’d rather take my chances with the ax-wielding psychos, if that’s alright with you.” <Now I’m certain she’s a different person. Without my computer to scan her, I can’t know if they’re using some kind of wire, or if there’s a telepath involved.>
“No promises,” Alice deadpanned. Again there was that brief hesitation. Why is it now that she has to delay, rather than before? Did something I say make them worry about my observational skills? Is their telepath trying to access my mind and being slowed down? I pushed that thought out of my head, if only because that path led nowhere except crippling paranoia.
Alice stopped next to a ratty looking brown ’98 Cutlass. “Last chance to back out.”
<Given the disruption of your senses, I wouldn’t rule anything out,> Phoebe said. <How’s your battery look? That may be the most reliable mechanism we have to determine any attack on your mind.>
“And miss out on seeing your rabbit hole?” I said as I opened the passenger door. “Not like that.” <Lost some energy in the fight with Stormbreaker, but recharging at the expected rates. Whatever they’re doing, the power itself is subtle. They’re just wielding it like a cudgel rather than a scalpel.>
Turns out, the rabbit hole was an unpleasant smelling chunk of river not far from Brooklyn Bridge Park. Alice led me into a small bar and grill promising fresh caught fish as the highlight of its menu. My scanning tech still worked on the building itself, which confirmed there were no fresh fish in the building. Everything was either solid ice in the freezer, or being fried like expected of any fast food joint. The fish in the river behind the building weren’t too spry, either. They did have a cute patio facing the river, but no one seemed to be using it save for a flock of seagulls.
More troublesome; everything beneath the building was a blind spot to my scanners, much as Stormbreaker and Alice had proven to be. <You got my address? Run a check on the business if no one will notice. I have to go dark in case they have counter-surveillance.> Given the number of Espers who could detect someone using remote spying methods, I had little choice.
“Hey, Tony,” Alice said to the greeter whose nametag read ‘Paige’. “We’d like a private room, please. We’re not worried about the view.”
“Uh, I’ll get the manager to take care of you,” the young greeter said. She wasn’t a blind spot, and my scanner revealed her as a college age girl who had far more caffeine in her diet than could possible be healthy, but otherwise seemed ordinary. Her emotional jump indicated she knew something, but wasn’t an important figure. Her hand moved under the desk, pressing a button that was invisible to my technology.
Blocking some people but not others, some technology but not others. There is logic in the chaos, but I don’t have enough of the picture to recognize it. I made certain to gather all details I could for my report later.
The man who came out of the back was large, too large to be mistaken for human; an obvious Altered who looked much like artists depictions of Bigfoot. Unlike the greeter and wait staff, he had no name tag. I also noted several of the customers gawking at him. I couldn’t help but notice their clothes were nicer than one would expect in a dive such as this.
More conspicuous was the one who refused to look our way. He was the only customer my bioscan tech couldn’t see, which gave me good reason to memorize every detail about his features.
“You say you wanted a private room?” The Altered spoke in a voice deeper than any natural human’s could be. If he noticed the stares at all, he ignored it with an ease so practiced that even my senses didn’t notice.
“If there’s one available?” Alice didn’t quite sell her worry that there might not be an opening; this was something they were both accustomed to. I wondered how often it was they pulled stunts like this.
“Right this way,” the man turned with a smooth ease which defied his bulk. Little surprise there; the stereotype of lumbering brutes rarely applied even to human bodybuilders, and most bulky Imbued had muscle structure which resembled animals rather than human. Assuming he had no other powered enhancements, I estimated him to have the strength and speed of a large tiger.
“Thank you.” Alice followed like she’d done this a thousand times, and I pretended the same. Nothing in this world stood out more than someone who acted like they didn’t belong. It wasn’t long before we were in a room with a small table and low light, which I could believe was used by couples hoping for a romantic evening. My sense of smell confirmed I was correct, and the staff wasn’t thorough in their cleanup.
I thought back Paige’s reaction, and other details which started to add up about the location. The lack of concern over the food, the fact it was the male half of the customers who gawked at our host. For that matter, it seemed rather active given than it wasn’t even lunch yet. I waited for the big guy who hadn’t given us a name to leave before looking over at Alice. “Did you just bring me to a bordello?”
Her grin somehow managed to get even wider. “Took you long enough to figure it out. But that’s just a front.” She reached up to the light fixture and pushed one of the decorative bolts, then gave it a twist like one might a safety cap. Moments later, the wall slid up, revealing an elevator.
I let some surprise show, if only to throw off suspicion. “In general, people hide behind legal businesses.” Despite it being a blind spot to my tech, I stepped toward the elevator.
“What they do up top isn’t illegal,” she said. “Men and women can rent side rooms for private conversation, or other activities. The rooms are soundproof, there are no cameras, and as long as you don’t break anything the proprietor doesn’t ask questions. They make sure not encourage any crimes in a way that can be tried in a court of law. Funny thing is, this isn’t illegal, either.”
She stepped into the elevator, moved off to the side, and pushed five digits on the control panel. One six seven two seven. While she made sure to hide the code she entered, she failed to realize I could see light reflected off the metal shell of the elevator. From the angle I had, it wasn’t hard to tell where her fingers were on the panels, which allowed me to read the numbers.
Once inside, I noted that the first number on the panel was the zero, rather than one, so subtracted one from all my numbers. Zero five six one six. “I’ve never been inside a Shadow-Tube before. Impressive how they never seem to get banned.”
“There are a lot of wealthy individuals with a lot of political influence who rely on them,” Alice said. “You should see the network they’ve got in the D.C. region. Rumor has it that Muwth hasn’t left those tunnels since the seventies.”
Everyone had heard of Muwth, who predicted and thus prevented both the Kennedy and King assassinations, to say nothing of the hundreds of other political leaders whose lives she’d watched over for the last six decades. To say she had wealth and political influence was the understatement of the century. She was also a paranoid recluse who hadn’t been seen in person during my lifetime.
“Yet another example of ‘more power, more crazy’,” I said. I was doing my best to concentrate on the motion of the elevator through the tube. We dropped about ten meters, if my sense of motion was any indication, then sped off in what felt like a northeasterly direction before dropping another ten meters. Without the GPS or other scanning tech I was more than half blind, but my best guess was that we were under Roosevelt Island.
The door opened for us. “Welcome to the rabbit hole,” Alice said. She made no movement to step out into the dark hall. The message was clear; from this point forward, I was on my own.
“Well, at least we know when you get tired of capes and conspiracies and open your own gay bar, you’ll have the perfect name for it.” That final quip delivered, I stepped out of the elevator and into darkness even my eyes couldn’t pierce.