Joey was not nervous- seven feet from his cropped brown hair to the soles of his battered combat boots, two hundred fifty pounds of steroid-enhanced muscle. In his twenty-seven years he had found little that he couldn’t beat into submission with his bare hands. His evening’s plans for a mugging with a side of what he liked to think of as, ”ambush romance,” were not built around worry. He was spoiled for choice- despite its reputation, Seattle had produced a balmy evening, and it insured that as the bars emptied, people who should have known better took long, staggering walks along the streets.
He selected his prey, wandering down an alleyway toward a parking garage, yakking into her smartphone. She had dressed in a red vinyl dress, and was exactly his type physically- long blonde hair, big green eyes, legs that went all the way up… ideal, assuming she had any cash left… and good for some fun if she didn’t. This was his favorite part: closing the distance, a good hard grab, maybe a brief struggle, but nothing he couldn’t handle. He was almost on her when the damnedest thing happened… he tripped. He went sprawling with an undignified curse which gave away his presence. When he looked up, the woman was staring with wide eyes. At first he thought she was just gawping at him. Then he realized she was looking past him, and he turned to take a look.
The figure crouched behind him was slight and largely nondescript. A ragged grey hoodie, ratty bluejeans faded until they nearly matched, and a pair of beat-up sneakers. Pretty nonthreatening until one got to the face, covered by a goalie mask of the sort that saw more use in slasher flicks than on any rink. The figure raised its right hand and leveled an aluminum youth baseball bat at him. Mancuso was almost embarrassed when his intended victim beat him to the punch, uttering a breathless, “What the hell is THAT?!”
The hooded figure sagged slightly, and then responded in a voice that was both youthful, and, gallingly to Joey, female. “You ought to get out of here and call the cops, lady, this guy was after you.”
“No, really, run.” She shouldn’t have bothered. Joey had other priorities now.
“I’m gonna enjoy caving that goofy mask in, you stupid bitch!” He closed the distance rapidly, hauling off for a brutal haymaker which went right through her head. Which was what he’d had in mind, only he’d hoped she’d feel it when he did. Instead, his fist described a graceful path through the girl’s masked face with as much impact as if he’d swung through a sunbeam. Then she disappeared- she didn’t run away or duck down a trap door- she simply vanished from sight. Joey got nervous.
Ahead of him and slightly to the left, Jenny Price invisibly lined up her shot, then swung her bat at his stomach with a remarkable lack of style. Luckily no one saw how awkward her swing was- although Joey certainly felt it. He gave a gagging cry and dropped to the ground, dry-heaving. Jenny turned and realized the woman was still standing there, gawping.
“No, really, lady… call 911. Or run. SOMETHING.”
It wasn’t until the woman shrieked that Jenny realized she was still invisible. Story of my life. Disgusted with the entire situation, she made tracks, leaving Joey on the ground trying to puke, and his would-be victim finally calling the police. What a mess.
“What a mess.” Jenny sighed. She heard the joke in her mother’s voice, but she also knew Mom didn’t make those kinds of jokes unless she meant them.
“Mom, I told you, I’ve been busy… cleaning my room takes a back seat to just about everything else in my life.”
“Like your homework?” Her father’s tone was less jocular. Presumably he’d been on the phone with Mister Hastings, the Vice-Principal. Peachy. “’Cause if that’s taking a back seat to anything, I gotta say, your teachers would be surprised.” Jenny crossed her arms defensively at that. In the process, she enhanced her resemblance to her mother-although she’d dyed her auburn hair a striking purple, the green eyes and pretty face were very similar. Of course, Mary Price wouldn’t have been caught dead in the unfashionable skater garb her seventeen year old daughter favored.
“I’ve just been having trouble sleeping. Don’t worry, I still have time to catch up on anything I’ve missed so far…”
Mom piped up then. Of course. “But that’s not like you, sweetie. Is it… well, I like to think you’d tell us if it were drugs, so…is it a boy?”
“A girl, then?”
“Then what is it?” Dear old Dad. Performing a flanking maneuver like one of those generals he enjoyed reading about.
“Oh? Try us.”
“I just… I have to work some things out. Don’t worry, I’ll get back on track.” She tried not to cringe at the worry in her parents’ eyes as they exchanged a look. “I’ll get it sorted out… and if I can’t, you’ll be the first people to know.”
She’d locked the door and laid out her gear. It wasn’t impressive. One hockey mask, spray painted black. One aluminum youth baseball bat. One grey hoodie. One pair ragged bluejeans. No style. No class. Not even any finesse… she’d swatted that guy in the gut the night before because she hadn’t had any other way to stop him. Stay in tonight. Get some sleep. Do. Not. Flunk. English. She fired up her laptop and got to work. She lasted an hour, making some headway on her analysis of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath… and then she heard the sirens. She ran to her window and watched as several fire trucks roared down her street, cruising toward a house a few streets over. Get some sleep. Do. Not. Flunk. English. The fire department is on the job, you can... No. You can save people they can’t even get to. She had her hoodie on and her mask in place before her computer had even powered down. Turning invisible and intangible with a thought, she slipped through her window and then climbed down the wall of her house- turning solid to do so. Her face was to the wall when the explosion hit- a flash of light, a push of warm air, and then an earth-shaking boom. She gave a yelp and fell to the lawn. Where the fire trucks had headed, an inferno raged… several houses near the epicenter had been leveled, others a little farther away were blazing merrily, and the fire trucks of Seattle’s finest fire department were twisted piles of glowing scrap, their gas tanks exploded from the sudden rush of heat. What in all hell?! She heard her parents’ alarmed voices, and knew she’d be in for it when they found out she wasn't in her room, but… she had to do something. She trotted toward the fire, her concentration rattled by the sheer scope of the disaster. Then she saw him. A lone figure, standing in the heart of the destruction, laughing. And as weird as that was, it got worse…she knew him. Richard Garvin was in her Econ class, and while he’d always been a bit of a creep, he hadn’t seemed capable of worse than trying his best to look down the shirt of any girl he could. He definitely didn’t seem the type to, say, blow up his own house with everyone in it. Then she realized she was visible and that he was looking at her. “Why didn’t you burn?!”
The raw fury in the question nearly matched the jet of flame he shot at her… and then through her. Jenny set her jaw. He’d just killed several people, maybe as many as thirty, and it looked like stopping him was up to her. Somehow. She dimly registered that she’d left her bat back in her room. Where her parents were no doubt frantic with worry. Oh well. She started walking toward him. “You have to answer for this, Richard.”
“Who the fuck are you?!” His question gave her a moment’s annoyance, even in the midst of the carnage. She really, really needed to get her Cape name sorted out so she could offer a snappy comeback. But in the meantime…
“Who I am doesn’t matter one bit, Richie-boy.” She walked through the twisted wreckage of a fire truck as if it were no more substantial than mist. “What matters is, you’re in a whole world of trouble. You can stand down, or I can put you down.” Ooo, very badass, quite butch. Of course I have no friggin’ idea how I’d go about doing that. Luckily, it seemed to be working… pyrokinesis or not, Richard still seemed to be more or less the same boy who’d paled and backed down when one of the football players had called him on his behavior.
“Or what?” She faded from view, but kept talking. “You won’t even see me coming unless I let you.” He gave a panicked yelp and sent out a jet of flame, which was not only wide of the mark, it was wide of the ground. “I’m giving you a chance to do the right thing, Richard. If you don’t take it, well…guess that means you’re mine.” He paled, lowered his hands and started backpedaling into what had been his house. “Smart boy. Just hold that thought…” She never saw them coming. Neither did Richard. Teleports were tricky like that. One minute it was the two of them in the middle of a circle of devastation, and the next, Apex and Skadi were there in all of their glory, Apex telekinetically holding Richard aloft while Skadi worked on snuffing the fires with her cryokinetic powers. Jenny felt a pang watching the A-listers work. Guardians. The best of the best. No crappy getups made from the bargain bin here. And holy crap, I thought she was photoshopped, but no, Skadi really DOES have a body that amazing.
The Icelandic heroine called over her shoulder, “Another one, Apex?” The wind from the temperature differential her powers were wreaking on the superheated surroundings whipped her hair dramatically. She looked like a cover shot.
“Seems so. Hopped up on Blood, just like the others…” He paused. “There’s someone else here.”
Ohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrap. She faded into visibility and gave a guilty half-wave. ”Uhm… hi?” Skadi started a bit-making even that look amazing- while Apex simply nodded.
Jenny only stayed visible through an act of will as Skadi looked her over. “Nice outfit, kid. New at this?”
“Well, you seemed to be keeping this joker too busy to move on and do worse-“
“You guys saw that?”
“Oh yeah. Not bad, considering you seem pretty light on offense.” Skadi’s ice-blue eyes gave Jenny another once-over. “What do you call yourself?”
“I… ah. See, something like ‘Ghost Girl’ would just be stupid, and I’d hate to be stuck with a crappy name, so-“
“So you haven’t picked yet.” Skadi smiled… while Apex rolled his eyes and gave Richard a look which mixed pity and contempt in even measure.
“Skadi, we really have bigger fish to fry… this is the fifth one this week.” He turned a bland stare on Jenny. “And I’m pretty sure she’s up past her bedtime.”
“Ignore him, he’s just pissy because this whole mess is proving a lot harder to crack than he’d like-“
“But he does have a point, we really need to get on this.“
“Wait! Earlier you said something about blood? Something about others, and being hopped up on it?”
Skadi shrugged, clearly using her good humor to mask a frustration as deep as Apex’s. “He’s one of several cases like this. Blood’s the street name for something nasty that just turned up this past month. It’s an injected drug, which besides an intense high provides temporary superpowers and what looks like the beginning of long-term neurological damage.”
“And you guys are tracking it down?”
Apex frowned. “We will, when we get a minute. I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up on current events, but we’re spread a little thin. Right now we’re just on clean-up detail. We haven’t even brought in a dealer yet.” Man, he sounds pissed.
Jenny shifted her weight. “You want me to try and look into it? I go to school where this guy did…”
Apex’s eyes narrowed…and then he nodded. “Knock yourself out, kid. Skadi, give her a contact beacon. I’m gonna haul laughing boy here someplace where he can’t burn his way out.” He took to the air, carrying the stunned, gibbering Richard with him, then vanished in a flash of light.
“He’s such a showoff. Anyway…” Skadi fished something that looked a bit like a bath bead out of her belt. “You ever see one of these?” Jenny shook her head, and Skadi smiled and continued. “Well, as Apex says, we call them contact beacons… just give this thing a twist and it’ll signal us your location. You set this off, someone will come running.” A pause. “Of course, they’re hardly cheap, so you’d better be sure before you set this one off… we don’t do birthday parties.”
“So I set this off when I have a line on the dealer or supplier?”
“Got it in one, as Britannia has been known to say.” She handed the small device over to Jenny who tucked it into her hoodie’s pocket. Carefully. “And, uh… kid? I dunno what you’re gonna name yourself, but if you want a better get-up, I know a guy…”
Two days later, having finally persuaded her parents she’d just slipped out for a late-night cup of coffee on the night of the fire, Jenny found herself standing outside of a dingy hole in the wall in Pike Street Market. Tourist central, and yet it seemed everybody else had no interest whatsoever. She seemed to be the only one aware the place was there.
The inside was every bit as dingy as the exterior- a cobwebbed mess of dusty fabric in bolts, haphazardly piled up everywhere. Behind a sales counter which looked like it might have been new shortly before the Great Depression, a heavyset man with a blandly murderous expression regarded her as he might an ant crawling across his sandwich. “Help ya, Miss?”
“I… someone gave me this card?” Somehow it looked less impressive fished out of her pocket than when Skadi had handed it to her. The man certainly didn’t look impressed.
“I was told I could get… a suit made here?”
“I don’t do prom dresses. Or suits.”
“No, not that, it’s…” She sighed. It always sounded so stupid to say out loud. “A superhero getup?” She waited for the laughter or the scorn
“Oh, one’a those. Well. Might be able to help you out there. Maybe. What’s your handle, Miss?”
“I…haven’t picked one yet.”
He seemed unfazed. “Then what’s your gimmick? You punch through walls, you fly, whaddya do?” As he spoke, she heard a faint mechanical whine. It sounded like it was coming from his head.
“I, ah… turn invisible. Walk through walls? That kind of….thing?”
That actually changed his tone. Slightly. “Never seen one like that before. Lemme ask, then… this suit, you want a tight one, a cape, billowy, what are you after?”
“Well, uhm…” Just say no to spandex. “Not too tight, and it needs to look… intimidating. I’ve been using a hockey mask and a hoodie so far.”
“No wonder Skadi sent you here.”
“She TOLD you?!”
“No, but she’s the only one who hands out cards for this place.” He tapped an index finger on the countertop. “Yeah, I think I might be able to whip something up for ya.” He stopped tapping, and fixed her with a level stare. “And your name is?”
“Jenny Price.” Now here it comes, the “I don’t work cheap” speech. Good thing I still have the hoodie and hockey mask…
“Very good. I’ll have something for you by Tuesday afternoon.” He tilted his head slightly. “Unless you have any further requests.”
“It’s free? You don’t need to measure me or anything?”
He responded by tapping his index finger against his right eye, with a metallic clink. “Got your measurements as soon as you walked in. As for free…no. But let’s say you’re a scholarship case. You wanna pay for the suit, you get after whatever had Skadi and Apex in my town and find out what you can. Those two don’t show up for penny-ante crap.” He shrugged. “And pick out a cape name, for God’s sake, it’s not that hard.”
“Oh yeah? And what’s your name that wasn’t so hard to pick out?”
“Back in 1987 or so I went by Steeleye.”
“Point is, if I could wear that ridiculous tag, you oughtta be able to live with whatever you come up with.”
It had been a frustrating weekend. The problem with Richard being a creep was that the only people who hung out with him enough to ask about where he might have gotten into “stuff” were also creeps. She was hardly the prom queen, but Jenny wasn’t used to moving in circles quite so… oily. After a couple of days where she wanted to shower after every conversation, she had a lucky break. Charley Whitmore managed to drag his fish-eye stare off of her chest long enough to say that Richard had gotten into “some truly primo shit” from a guy out in Magnolia.
“He said it made him feel like a fuckin’ GOD, man…”
“Uh-huh… and this ‘guy out in Magnolia,’ he have a name?”
“Why? I can hook you up.” Charley’s eyes had moved back down. What the hell is he looking at? This hoodie is baggy enough to lose a cat in! “Be my pleasure…”
“It’s not about that… Richard’s house fire wasn’t an accident, and I need a name.”
Charley blinked and looked back at her face. “You’re not gonna get hurt, are ya?”
“Not likely. But you need to tell me this guy’s name, if Richard told you.”
“Richie just called him ‘the Turk.’ I think he was trying to be funny.” A shrug.
“Thanks, Charley.” She sighed. She was going to regret this. “So, if you need a favor…”
“Well, seeing as how Richie’s house got burned down?” Charley brushed his greasy hair back from his face. “He had my copy of Sex Taxi when the place went up, so… you get me a new copy and we’re good.”
I have never wanted to bathe in lava more fervently than I do at this moment.
Sunday night, and Seattle was putting on its most stereotypically rainy face. Which suited Jenny just fine, since she was still two days out from getting her “proper” suit. Still, there were some advantages to her ghetto fabulous getup… with the hockey mask in her backpack, she looked perfectly normal as she cruised through the streets of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. This place seems a little highbrow for a guy pushing drugs that turn people into time bombs… Magnolia didn’t seem to have a lot of families, and most of the people living there didn’t look much older than Jenny herself. A greasy guy like Richard meets some dude called ‘the Turk’ around here and nobody finds it suspicious? She heard them before she saw them- no mistaking the sound of a skateboard once you’ve had the experience. They were coming up fast from behind her, so she just moved over to let them go by. They did nothing of the sort. The two teenaged boys slowed up.
“Hey, nice board… and cool hair! You new here?”
“Actually, I live over in Madrona, I’m just looking someone up for a friend.”
“Hey, maybe we know ‘em! I’m Jason, that’s my cousin Mike.” The latter gave a weary wave that signified that he was aware of how his cousin was shunting him out of the conversation. “We know everybody around here… well, except you.”
She smiled at that. His approach wasn’t subtle, but not without a certain charm. “My name’s Jenny. Richie Garvin wanted me to look up somebody for him…the Turk?” Mike’s wheels stopped and he picked up his skateboard and started walking away. Jason, on the other hand, seemed to think his odds had improved.
“Might be I know where you can find him. But if you’re looking for a fix for Richie, well, that’s one thing. But if it’s for you, I can help you out, no need for the Turk to be bothered…”
“Oh, it’s for Richie.” Jesus. No need to sound so nervous and brittle! “I’m on probation right now. Gotta make sure everything comes up clean.” Well, that lie certainly leapt up easily enough. Jason was nodding sympathetically.
“Damn shame… well, listen, I’d still like to help you out. You wanna meet the Turk, just follow me!” He picked up a little speed. “And we can work out how you thank me later!” I am starting to get insanely sick of being hit on by teenaged creeps. Well. Could be worse. They could be OLD creeps.
The home of the Turk was a disappointment. A clean, well-kept house nestled between two other properties, with nothing sketchy to be seen. Jason rang the doorbell and waited. And talked. ”No, really, you oughtta come out one of these Saturdays, Mike’s family throws killer pool parties…” The door opened and Jason’s stream of “I want to see you in a bikini and this is as subtle as I get” patter dried up. The man at the door was tall, grey-eyed, and intense.
“Jason. Who’s this?”
“Oh, her name’s Jenny- she’s a friend of Richie’s says she’s here to look you up for him?” Jason’s smile started to curdle as the Turk’s expression remained blank. Jenny braced herself to run.
“Haven’t seen Richie lately… he break a leg or something, he can’t come by himself?”
Once again, the words came up easily. “Family emergency.” Which was true, since he’d barbecued his family. ”He’s got his hands full, but I owed him a solid, so he asked me to swing by.”
“Huh. Never had Richie pegged as a guy with a lot of lady friends. What’d he do for you that you trooped all the way out here?”
Thinkfastthinkfastohdamnit… “He took the rap for my stash last year. Didn’t help when I got caught again, but…”
“And what’re you into, Jenny? You don’t look like you’re into meth... Lemme guess, going by the hair and the skateboard… you’re into weed, maybe a side of shrooms, am I right?”
“Yeah, pretty much…”
“Might be I can help you out while you’re helping Richie out. Jason, I’ll get yours later. Right now I think this lady and I have business to transact.” He stepped back from the door and held it open. “Come on in.” If I couldn’t run through walls I’d be screaming for the cops right about now. She stepped inside… into a prosaic living room. She winced as the door clicked shut behind her. “So. Now that Jason’s out of the way… what could Richie POSSIBLY want in his shiny new jail cell, hm?” The Turk strode toward her, keeping his hands down by his sides. “Richie didn’t send you. Who did?”
“I…. I just heard from Richie that you had really good stuff… and I figured dropping his name would open more doors than-“
“Ah, so you just wanted a taste of what he got, huh?” The Turk’s smile was all the worse for the fact that he seemed to be trying to set her at ease. “I gotta warn you, Jenny, Blood’s a lot heavier duty than pot or shrooms… the high is more intense, and the side effects can be surprising. But if you want a sample, I can let you try a light dose. See if you like it.” And I thought Richie was a creep?! She slipped a hand into the pocket of her hoodie and activated the contact beacon, but no Guardian cavalry came swooping in. Looks like it’s just me.
“I was hoping you could tell me a bit more about it before I go taking any…”
“Cautious, aren’t you? But probably wise… you wouldn’t believe how eager many people your age are to just shoot up without a second thought…” He sighed. “But now you’ve gone and tipped your hand. Who told you about me? You cough it up quick and maybe you walk out of here, ‘cause it’s plain you’re not here as a customer. You drag your feet, and Jason’s gonna lose interest after he sees what I do to your face.”
Well, that escalated quickly. “Richie told me after he burned his house and the surrounding ones down. That stuff you’re selling killed thirty-five people in the span of ten seconds. People who lived near me.”
“And what the hell are you gonna do about it? You’re a brave kid, but stupid in the bargain.” He had a gun in his hand and an unfriendly smile on his face. Fast hands. Where was he keeping that? Jenny held her hands up and went intangible. He shot at her, the sound of the pistol deafening in the living room. The bullet whistled through her and smacked into the wall. He fired three more times, his expression growing fearful when he realized that he wasn’t missing. “What…what the hell are you?!”
Jenny’s own smile was Gothic in its blood-curdling coldness. “Me? I’m dead, Turk. I died in Richie’s fire. I’m just a ghost, a phantasm of one of your victims. And I want justice.” She stuck her intangible hand into his face and tried not to enjoy his scream as he dropped his gun. “You have one chance. You tell me where you get your supplies from, and help bring down the entire chain of events that killed me, and I will leave my retribution to mortal law. You drag your feet, and might be no one can look at your face without vomiting.”
“I’ll talk! I’ll talk!”
She went invisible after getting his information. So she didn’t let him see her own shocked expression when Skadi teleported into the room in a blinding flash, surrounded by a halo of icy energy, her expression incandescent with fury. “What did you do to her, you son of a bitch?!” The room grew colder, and as the Turk turned to run he simply froze to the floor. “What did you do?!”
“Jesus jumping Christ, I’m sorry! I sold some Blood and that asshole Garvin torched her and her whole neighborhood, oh God, don’t let her get me!”
Jenny had heard the confession before, so she spent this second iteration going through the man’s house. Besides what she assumed to be Blood, he had an impressive selection of more conventional wares. As soon as the police had hauled the Turk off, she faded into view and gave the startled Skadi a thumbs-up. “Sorry if I went off-script or played a little too hardball with the guy, but-“
“That was awesome.” Skadi’s smile was radiant. “Trust me, any guy who’d shoot you for finding out about him deserved every bit of that…I mean, you didn’t even mess him up!” She shook her head and chuckled. “And I think you found your name in the bargain. ‘Phantasm.’ Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
It really did.
It had been a challenging two months- and she was nowhere near full proficiency in her MMA. Fortunately, she had other ways to make up for it. Her grades were back up after some Herculean effort. She was set to graduate in May. But more gratifying by far was that she had a line on them now. EC Unlimited. A secretive bunch- even Apex had only a hazy notion of what they were about. But then, he couldn’t invisibly walk through walls to eavesdrop. Whoever they were, they were the ones pushing Blood.
And tonight, she was going to ruin their plans for Seattle. She spotted Jason supervising the unloading. Figures. His former boss goes down and he moves into the spot. Not bad for a guy who’s not out of high school yet. She faded into view behind him and enjoyed the panic. She wasn’t any taller than she had been, but Steeleye had done good work. The dockworkers didn’t see a seventeen year old girl wearing bargain bin sports equipment.
“Oh shit, Phantasm!”
“Fuck this, I’m outta here-“
The thing behind their boss had a matte black death’s head for a face, with glowing green eyes. A hood surmounted the death’s head, attached to light body armor. The figure’s black-clad arms terminated in heavy leather gloves, and what the black BDU pants lacked in flair they made up for by making her look a bit bulkier. As Jason turned, he yelped and fell backwards, crawling away from her.
As he fumbled out a pistol, she marveled at how little any of them had learned in the last two months. She knew their names, their home addresses, where they kept their money. She had learned how to take down men twice her body weight. They, on the other hand, still seemed to think bullets would somehow stop her. She didn’t say a word as she set about taking them down. A pity, since Steeleye had taken pains with the voice modulator, but she’d discovered that menacing silence worked far better.
Later, when the police had arrived to collect the battered, demoralized dockworkers, there was some amusement at Jason’s expense- every time he looked over his shoulder, he screamed. The cops got a good laugh out of it. After all, there was nothing there.