I froze the moment I saw the two men step out of the alleyway. They didn’t look like much, not at first. They were hunched over and wrapped in thick coats that anyone would think was for the cold, but it was also to hide their features. Once they stood to full height, stepped out of their shelter from wind and prying eyes, it was clear who they were to anyone who knew how to look. They weren’t here to scare me or they’d only have one guy deliver a message, not two flexing muscle; they were going to hurt me.
Two on one? Fuck. They were enforcers, not soldiers, and it wasn’t a grudge. I didn’t think they were ready to kill; too much heat for a small fish like me. If I got a couple early surprise hits in, might have stood a chance. But I’ was not alone. I glanced back at Jake. Double fuck.
The one on the left moved his arm, allowing his coat to slip open just enough to show the glint of metal that could only be a gun, before closing it up again. His partner moved around my side, keeping his hands hidden in his coat pockets. This put Jake between him and me, which meant my son was in the crossfire if I caused trouble.
“We’d like a word with you.” The man in front spoke deeper than natural in order to hide his voice. Which meant they were hiding their identities from me, which meant I still had a way out that wasn’t a body bag. “Just a minute of your time.”
“Sure, I can spare a minute.” As long as we’re being polite, my son doesn’t get hurt. I put my hand on Jake’s hat, patting him to reassure both of us. “Jake, you go on upstairs, Daddy’s gonna talk to these guys. It won’t take long.” I put the keys in his hand.
He looked up at me, his six year old face too small, too innocent, to hide his uncertainty. “Okay, Daddy.”
I watched him run for the apartment complex, going out of his way to not get close to the big guy. He has good instincts. Better than his old man’s were at three times his age. If he was a few years older, maybe he would have called the cops to pull my ass out of the fire. Speaking of, the enforcers were more than happy to let the little boy go. What was going down here was business, and hurting children was not good for business.
“Good, I prefer doin’ this the easy way.” If I had to guess, the man was smirking behind his mask. He gestured at the alley with a tilt of his head. “How ’bout we talk about this where it’s quiet? Better that way.”
“Nah, it’s quiet enough right here.” I stayed crouched down, doing my best to look smaller than I was. I sent Jake away because I didn’t want my son to pay for my mistakes, not because I wanted to make these fuckers’ job any easier than I had to. “So, to what do I owe this visit from you fine gentlemen?”
I didn’t know if I was gonna make a break for it or not, but if I did I only had one chance, and that alley wasn’t it. In the open, where there was a chance they’d be seen and I had places to run, was better for me. I turned sideways, so I could track both him and his partner. I was gambling that they wanted to keep quiet more than they wanted to hurt me. Maybe, just maybe, I could get out of this without a beating or a bullet.
“Don’t play dumb,” the man in front said. “You know why.” He stepped closer while he spoke, as did his friend behind me. They didn’t look like they were gonna take the chance of coming at me one at a time.
I’m going to die out here. The certainty, the fear, grew by the minute. Yeah, I was a big guy who knew how to fight, but nobody was big enough to take on a gun. That sorta shit was only for action movies and Imbued. Even most Imbued didn’t fuck with guns. I probably wouldn’t even be lucky enough to take one of the fuckers with me when I go. I’ll never see my son again.
If forced to pick the worst part of knowing I was going to die, it was that I had no idea why, outside that I must have done something to piss somebody off. Which didn’t narrow it down near as much as I’d like. “Well, consider your job done then. Lesson learned, ain’t ever gonna do that again in my life.” Whatever ‘that’ is. I tried to smile, tried to laugh, while fear choked at my throat.
“Ain’t that simple, buddy.” He stopped back far enough out of my reach that I would end in hot lead before I even got to him. “We know you’ve been feeding info to your skank girlfriend. Guess if you’re gonna sell out, may as well be for tats and tits, right?”
What? “Hey, no, I ain’t told her shit.” Nothing important, anyway. “She don’t even like her brother. An’ he don’t need me for shit. He’s unkillible, has fuckin’ Anima on his crew, and some precog that’s even scarier than they are. Everyone knows that.”
In a way I was glad they were White-Hat. Sure, it made business harder, but this city didn’t stand a chance if their team went villain. I’d have to get out of state and take Jake with me.
“And you know that ain’t my problem,” he said. True enough; enforcers were hired to get results, not make decisions. I should know, I’d seen this in action enough. I’d just never been on the receiving end before. “But I promise not to do anything too- huh?”
I turned my head to look where he started looking. Some older black man in a tattered coat half-stumbled toward me. A whino, nothing unusual on this street, but the skin color was a bit of a surprise. This neighborhood wasn’t quite in Lightbringer territory, but it was too close for comfort, and it never took much of an excuse for some thug to target the homeless. That was always the problem when you had nobody who’d miss you or try to help you.
It wasn’t much longer before I noticed he smelled like shit. Now, when I say something smells like shit, I usually just mean it smells bad, but not this time. This guy reeked of cheap booze, rotting teeth, and the used diaper bin at an old folk’s home. I could smell him even before he got to arm’s length of me.
“Heh, buhy, spare some change?” he slurred right before stumbling face-first into my coat. If I lived through the night, I’d have to buy a new coat tomorrow. He looked up at me, his eyes glowing blacker than the darkest night. Don’t ask me how black glows, it just did. “Run the moment you get the chance.” All sign of slur and inebriation had left him, but the stench remained.
What? I stepped away from him, fear and revulsion making me forget for a moment that there was a man with a gun who might use it on me. Only then did I notice the crumpled up paper in my hand. “Uh, sure, lemme get my wallet.”
“God bwess ya.” The Imbued who pretended to be homeless stumbled away from me while I was reaching for my pocket. He headed straight for the gunman. “Hwabut you?”
“Get the fuck out of here!” The enforcer had less tolerance for the annoyance and stink, but then he wasn’t the one who needed a distraction.
“Fu you, too, buddy!” Faster than I’d have thought possible, the homeless man rushed forward, slamming his fist up into the the gut of the gunman. He drew his fist back and slammed up again, teaching me three things: this Imbued did not have super strength, but he did have a knife, and he knew how to use it.
“Kuh!” The gunman choked on what would have been a scream; if I had to guess, the first stab got him right in the lung. He struggled to fight the attacker off, but it’s hard enough to take someone who knows how to fight even when you don’t have two bleeding holes in your gut.
A muffled gunshot went off, blowing a shower of red from the back of the homeless man. He didn’t stop fighting, however, and the next knife strike was into the neck. I heard shouting and boots hitting the slush behind me. Time for me to get the fuck out of here.
I bolted for my door, praying the entire time they wouldn’t shoot me in the back. Now, there was supposed to be a keycard to punch in to open the front door, but it was vandalized whenever they tried to fix it. All the residents knew they had to rely on their door locks, and to be careful in the stair hall. I hadn’t wanted to send Jake in on his own, but he had a better chance in the hall than in the street.
A second and third gunshot rang out behind me, but I didn’t dare look back. I’d know if I got shot, and nothing else mattered.
I was halfway up the third flight of stairs when I stopped running and started laughing uncontrollably. Why? How? What is this?
“Sorry,” my own voice said without my control. “Still not entirely used to dying. Really fucks with your head, y’know?” My head and shoulders rolled, cracking my neck. “Damn, been a while since I’ve had a body this nice.” I felt every sensation, but couldn’t control any part of my body. “Don’t worry, they’re all dead and there’s no way to connect any of them to either of us.”
I began walking again, watching from my own eyes as I approached my door. I- It knocked on my door. “It’s safe, Jake, you can let me in.”
No! No it’s not safe! Stay away from my son! If you hurt him I will kill you! I struggled to get control of my body back, tried to will something, anything, to happen. Nothing I did made any difference, I wasn’t even given the satisfaction of a scream or to feel my muscles clench in rage.
“Daddy!” Jake reached his arms out to me, toward It.
This impostor, hijacker, stepped around my son into my house like he owned it, like he owned me.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” It said with my voice. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s fine.” No! I’m damn well not fine, you sack of shit! “You go watch cartoons for a while. I’ve gotta make a phone call, too.”
Jake was suspicious; he’d been expecting a hug, some sort of comfort, and then to be sent to bed because he knew I wouldn’t let him stay up late. His mother didn’t know how to teach him discipline, so it all came down to me. Still, he was just a child, and this Thing in control of me sounded and moved just like I did.
“Okay, Daddy.” My son went for the living room, while the monster turned and went for my bathroom like It knew everything I did.
Once the door to the bathroom was closed, I got to see my face in the mirror. It was mine, looked just like me, and then It spoke in my voice. “You know, I did save your life, and I did my best not to touch your son, or even lie to him. You could try to show some respect. I’m a ‘he’, by the way. Not an ‘it’.”
Oh shit, he can hear me?
“Every thought, every failed attempt to take control back. I even have access to your memories. Including all the things you think you’ve forgotten. It won’t work, by the way.”
What won’t work? This is so fucked up.
“Taking control back. Everyone tries, nobody’s so much as slowed me down, even while I was killing them with their own hands. Same deal with memories; harder you want to hide something, easier it is for me to know what you’re hiding. And it’s a one way street, you can’t read my mind, that’s why I’m talking to you in front of a mirror. That, and a bit of psychological warfare. I can’t actually control your mind, and I have a need for your cooperation. I can even reward you for your help.”
Reward is good. Better than being discarded like that poor homeless guy. This psycho killed three people right outside my home. He can do it again. What are you? What do you want? I’ll do anything you want. Don’t think about moving to Europe the moment… fuck!
My own voice chuckled in a way I never have. “Don’t worry, I won’t hold that little slip against you. Because we have something in common which means more than money ever could.” He reached my hand up to touch the still-tender skin of my fresh tattoo. Then he started to push his finger against it, sending pain through me while my face didn’t show any reaction at all. “Your little whore of an ex betrayed you to help her brother. I want him. You get her.”
My other hand came up, slamming the crumpled piece of paper against the wall of my bathroom. “This! This is a list of URLs with my notes. The ones I want you to know about, at any rate. I’ve got pictures of them working together, some video. You know how to use the internet, right?”
Of course, who doesn’t? Wait, if he can read my mind, why would he even need to ask-
“It’s called sarcasm.” He opened my medicine cabinet and put the paper inside. “Now, I won’t bore you with all the details, but I’ve been tracking that bastard for a while now. I know who his allies are, his friends, his enemies, and how his precog works. I even know Oracle’s blind spots. Or enough of them to do what I’m gonna do.”
W-what are you going to do? Is he lying to me? How can I tell? How can I keep him from- fuck me, I’m trapped, aren’t I?
“I’m not going to tell you the first part. Better if you don’t know.” He closed the medicine cabinet so I could see him speaking with my face again. “To the latter? I’ll let you go once you start listening to me. I bet you don’t know this, but Laura’s new boyfriend- if you can even call that thing human- is invisible. And another pal is a Gadgeteer. They put a bug in your cell phone while your little Delilah distracted you with your new tattoo.”
“Do you really think your dick’s so good that you can get a stripper to give you a thousand dollar discount? Especially one who shoots you down every time you beg for another fuck? Learn to take a hint. And people accuse me of having an ego.”
Well, when he puts it that way-
“Good, you’re not as stupid as I feared. Then there were those goons waiting for you tonight. The ones which, I remind you, your ‘Little Pixie’ was responsible for coming after you in the first place. They had a pretty damn good reason to think you were a snitch.”
I’m not… and they still have their precog… I barely bought my own argument, now. I knew I wasn’t a snitch, and so did this guy controlling my body if he had my memories. Using my pet name for Laura convinced me he really could read memories.
“Their precog works by detecting crimes!” My voice hissed in anger. “As they’re about to happen! With limitations! It doesn’t give them the names and addresses of criminals so they can bust into their safehouses! They get those by hacking cell phones!”
We stayed in silence for a while, quiet enough that I could hear the sirens of the cops and ambulance coming. A reminder of what this guy could do to me, if I didn’t cooperate with him. Yet here he was, inside my head, knowing my every doubt and every fear.
How do you know Oracle can’t do more? Precogs are-
“If Oracle was that powerful, they wouldn’t waste their time on street crime! They’d walk right into the supervillains’ bedrooms and win the easy way. You don’t think Anima could beat the shit out of everyone who dared try to stop them? Or, fuck, don’t even use Anima. Call the cops and give them all of the secret identities.” He leaned forward until my forehead touched the mirror, so I could look right into my eyes. “Problem. Solved. The reason they don’t is because they can’t. They had to steal information from people who do know. Like you. Hell, you know she used you so she could go after Kitten.”
Laura did get me to find out who killed her friend Erica, right before her brother went after them, that was true. But it was different, personal, and I knew she was gonna use that info the moment she got it. Everyone wanted that psychotic slut dead; in the end Lightbringer and Los Fieles teamed up with Anima and Crucible to make it happen. A special case, if ever there was one.
That didn’t mean Laura would hack my phone to go after some basic drug shit.
“I’ve been tracking them for months, remember? I know how to beat their precog, I know how they operate, and I have evidence. Not on me… body jumping makes that impractical… but on those websites I gave you. You can find everything you need to know on that sheet.”
He seemed so confident, but even if true-
“What would have happened if I didn’t show up?” My voice killed the argument before it began. “You could be dead right now, instead of some useless bum. Trust me, I did him a favor by giving him a chance to die for something that mattered instead of hypothermia. If you don’t care about that, then what could have happened to Jake?”
Don’t bring my son into this!
“I didn’t. They did. They used you, put a target on your back, and then when you were almost murdered in the street, they didn’t even jump in with that all-powerful precog of theirs and save you. They almost killed you. They almost killed your son!”
I wanted to choke, or scream, or better yet punch something- the face in the mirror looked like a great target- but even those comforts were denied to me. He’s right. He’s right! That fucking bitch!
“Thank you for seeing reason.” I don’t think I ever sounded as smug as he sounded using my voice. “The only question now is what you’re going to do about it. Or, more to the point, what we’re going to do about it. Your ‘Pixie’ isn’t my problem… Zach isn’t yours. But with your help, I can have my revenge, and you can have her.”
Have ‘her’? Is he saying he’ll-
“I’ll walk her body wherever you want me to. Lock her in a cage for you, or anyone else you like, to deal with however you like. Slit her throat, sell her to some cartel, or keep her around and get creative. It’s your revenge, do whatever you like. I want her traitor of a brother. Do we have a deal?”
I can’t believe I’m about to do this. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut so bad, but they kept staring at my face in the mirror. A face which showed no sign of the rage I felt. Wait, what about the enforcers, won’t they send-
“I wouldn’t worry about that.” I smiled, cruel and focused, in the mirror. “When I’m done with Zach, I’m going to turn my attention on the gangs. Whether as servants, puppets or examples, they will all serve me in the end. Congratulations, you’re the first person to meet the new ruler of this city and live.”
Oh, fuck. Well, if anyone could take control of a city, it’d be him. I wasn’t an expert on Imbued, but this guy was the strongest mind controller I hadn’t heard about in a history class.
“Precisely. Now, as my first… associate… I want you to go about like normal, give no hint that you’ve met me or anything is unusual. You never saw those thugs. When the time comes, I’ll let you know what to do. I don’t need much, and if you do it right, nobody will even know you were involved. Is that clear?”
Crystal. Wait, I don’t even know who this guy is.
“Me? I am everyone, and I am no one. I am the strangers you pass on the street. I am the fear that will gnaw at your heart until your last breath should you ever betray me, or the security of knowing you’re safe when you obey.” He ranted in my voice. “But, I suppose you need a simple name. I like the sound of Yuan Gui, how about you?”
What? “What does that m-” If I wasn’t pressed against the mirror, I would have smashed into it. He’s gone! I have control again! I touched my face, felt the wetness of the tears I could only now start to cry.
I did the first thing any man would do in this situation. I went straight to my son.
“Daddy? What’s wrong?”
He’s a good boy, he deserves everything I can do for him and so much more. I knelt down, hitting my knees on the floor harder than I wanted. “Nothing’s wrong, son.” I grabbed him, pulled him into my arms. “Nothing’s will ever be wrong as long as we have each other.” I won’t allow anyone the chance to take you from me again.