Super Born 2 : World On FIre by Keith Kornell

The first clue came the day I innocently jumped to get a bowl off of a high shelf. This was not a big leap, mind you, just a little hop. But I found myself chest deep through the ceiling and into my upstairs neighbor’s kitchen. Amazingly, my first reaction was to wonder how my neighbors got a new refrigerator and stove out of our cheapskate landlord. And was that a new dishwasher? Mine barely worked.
Super Born 2 : World On FIre
Super Born 2 : World On FIre by Keith Kornell
Until that moment, I was simply a single mom with a dead-end job and a sullen teenager, destined to remain in my hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, forever. But stuck halfway up through the neighbor’s floor, I began to suspect this had changed. I looked around their apartment and was glad to see no one was home to see me like this, except their small black poodle, who padded over and dropped his empty food dish for me to fill. Although he was cute as hell, it wasn’t going to work out between us, as my hands were still down the hole in my kitchen. When I failed to produce any dog chow for him, he found a little red bouncy ball and tossed it to me. It rolled right up against my chest. I looked into the little dog’s expectant face, sensing a sweet kinship to him. In that moment we seemed connected. I smiled at his pure acceptance and felt the weirdest sensation shoot like a bolt through my body. I saw a blinding flash of blue light, but it did not come from the room around me. Instead it felt like it was coming out of my eyes at the little dog. While I tried to figure out what was what, another flash blinded me, but this time it was a green, focused light. I saw it beam out of my eyes in my reflection in my neighbor’s new stainless steel refrigerator door, while the little dog barked with excitement. Even the flashes didn’t scare me. They just left me with a warm feeling that made the dog seem another piece of my new, expanded life. My face must have told the poodle I was sorry for being unable to move, being unable to play, and for flashing him with bright lights, so the little guy came over and licked me on the nose, just before gravity took over and I returned to my kitchen with a thud. I got a nine point five from the Russian judge for my Olympic performance My little four-legged friend peered down at me through the hole with beaming eyes and his tongue extended in an excited smile that said, Let’s do that again. The determined lil’ devil barked at me and then dropped his red ball through the hole—it bounced several times at my feet before landing in my lap. I sat on my butt, tossed the little ball back up through the hole, and listened to the clicking made by the nails of the dog’s frantic feet on the tile floor above as he ran off in hot pursuit. Gee, I wish I could meet a man who was so thrilled to have met me and equally as understanding of my little tiny teeny-weeny peculiarities, like making mystery holes in my ceiling. That hole took some explaining. I told the landlord my nephew’s rabid, over-filled basketball was responsible....Kids. That, and a heavy contribution from my renters insurance, seemed to make the cheapskate satisfied. Anyway, those nasty basketballs are a plague in my town, punching holes everywhere. Best be careful of those lil’ suckers. A few days later when I went out for my annual “I-should-really-start-exercising” jog, it happened again. As usual, I had tucked in my music player’s earphones. I began the jog down Henry Street. As usual, I was bored before I reached the corner, my mind drifting into the music and away from the pounding of my running shoes. I should have known something was wrong right then and there. There was none of the usual burning in my bum knee. In fact, there was no bum knee anymore. Beyond that, I wasn’t even breaking a sweat or breathing heavily. But instead of wondering what these clues meant, I was content to drift into the music. I guess ignorance is bliss, for a while. The next thing I knew, I was bumping into people in a crowded plaza that could only be Times Square in New York City, some hundred and forty miles from Henry Street. The mob of people seemed to be in a frantic hurry to get somewhere. I stood amongst the flashing billboards, loud music, and car horns that echoed down the concrete caverns, wondering how the hell I’d gotten there. I backed up against a storefront and tried to put it all together and figure out how to get home. But something made the sense of fear and uncertainty evaporate in a second. Suddenly, I was glad to be there. I looked into a nearby storefront, and there they were, the stilettos my little black dress had been missing its whole life. Are those shoes on sale? After that I got smarter. I realized I could use my newfound powers to my advantage and began testing and probing their limits…and expanding my shopping universe to find great shoes. Scranton was hardly the hub of the fashion shoe industry, and seeing those shoes at Times Square made me aware there was a big, bad world out there beyond my commitments to my family, my hometown, and my daughter. I waited for dark, until my daughter, Paige, was off at her friend’s house. I pulled on some black sweats and snuck out into the cool October night. A nearby high school athletic field seemed the perfect “roomy” place for the test; no rabid basketballs in sight. I stood on the track and began to stretch my thirty-something-year-old muscles before thinking, Why bother? I started running and finished my twentieth lap before the dust from the first had hit the ground. My bad knee was fine. I wasn’t even winded, so I laughed and ran fifty more laps. That should cover me for the whole year! It was more running than I’d done in the last year…okay, five years…okay, lifetime. The smile on my face must have been big enough to drive a dump truck through. I was having fun. Do you remember fun? I hadn’t felt that simple childish joy of “just doing” for years. With raising a kid alone and trying to keep everyone in my big family from killing one another, there was little room for fun or “just doing.” So for years I had hidden behind the limits of those responsibilities and built walls to protect Paige and everyone I knew. Thing is, when you build walls around you, they become a prison. I remembered the remodeling work I had done to my kitchen ceiling by jumping, so I decided to give it a try again, to see how high I could jump. I gave my creaky ol’ legs a bend to find they weren’t the least bit creaky anymore, and they propelled me up into the sky. I didn’t stop. I just kept rising until Scranton shrank into an irregular circle of lights. It was beautiful, but when I began to drop, it scared the shit out of me. I panicked as I plummeted. I held out my arms. I flapped them like a bird. But still the image of the ground below began to shoot up at me like a rocket. My arms and legs flailed as I struggled. I remember having the time to tell myself what an asshole I was for doing this. Then, as I neared the ground, I recalled all the skydivers I had seen in movies, how they always laid out and used their chests to slow their descent. I assumed the position and, just before reaching the treetops, prepared for the crash. I angled my body, and suddenly felt myself banking to the left and rising back up over the neighborhood. I continued the turn until I was back up in the air, high over Scranton. “Yahoooooo!” I screamed and proceeded to bank left and right, doing it for kicks. I soon learned even subtle tilts of my arms, legs, and torso would control my flight. After a few minutes of practice, I was spinning, doing barrel rolls, quick dives, and exhilarating climbs into the starry sky. I cut my flight short when I began to worry about someone seeing me in the moonlit sky. Hell, the “Barbies” at the PTA had finally just begun to accept me as a single mother in their midst. We do school fundraisers and volunteer work, not loop-the-loops. What if they found out I had a secret? Everything went fine until I contemplated landing. How? Pick somewhere soft—that was the clever advice I gave myself. I fooled with different body positions until I found one that seemed to slow me down. I came in over the football field, flew through the back side of the goalposts—It’s good! Three points!—then laid out my body in hopes of slowing. I slowed all right, cutting into the field with my chin, chest, and shoulder all the way from the end zone, down the field, and into the other end zone before stopping. I shook my head, dizzy and light-headed, amazed I felt no pain, and thought, Touch down. That was enough fun for the night. Other changes appeared. I began eating like a horse, or two—okay, maybe a team of horses. But here’s the good part: I just slowly continued to lose weight. I guessed that my powers sent my metabolism into high gear. I was rapidly eating my way down, dress size after dress size, my pre-baby body slowly returning. It was fun, until Paige caught me finishing off a half gallon of ice cream after dinner. Luckily, she didn’t see the bag of cookies beside me that would have been next. “Eeeew, Mom, that is soooo gross. No wonder you never have a date!” “I have dates!” “I mean with a real man, Mom.” “What do you call Jason, then?” She paused reflectively, “Farm animal, some sort of sub-species, pure booty call.” “Paige! That’s not true!” “Mom, he burped the alphabet for your birthday! And he takes pride in his farts.” I began to speak, then closed my mouth and reflected for a moment. “You know…you’re right. I don’t have dates.” I looked at the ice cream and dropped my spoon. From then on I had to become a closet eater. But my sixteen-year-old’s social schedule gave me plenty of time for snacks, as well as dinners number two and three. She wasn’t completely right about the dates. First of all, let me defend myself by saying that the men of Scranton my age are like children—okay, morons. We are not talking slim pickings, we are talking no pickings. Long ago I had given up on finding Mr. Right. With so much of my time dedicated to my daughter, all I had time for was Mr. Right Now. The new part of my problem was the fault of another change the powers brought on, this one…not so good. My current friend-with-benefits, Jason, decided to get frisky as we watched a reality show on TV and he drank my beer. We made a beeline for my bedroom. Just like I had drifted into the music while jogging, I let myself drift into a potent arousal. It’s all a bit foggy to me still. I wasn’t thinking or planning anything. I just began doing what felt good. I do remember being totally impatient with him and tossing him onto the bed. He bounced like a basketball for a few seconds before I pinned him to the bed and…climbed on board. I remember quickly changing positions, directions, and angles of attack without finding the one that would get me home. I’m afraid Jason’s equipment wasn’t made to handle many of the slants or twists I chose. When one try failed, I remember offering his tool various sorts of encouragement before trying again. Somehow I’m guessing his yelps meant I encouraged him a bit too much. And I don’t think my verbal encouragement worked either. (On second thought, “Can’t you do that?,” “Is that it?,” from a woman possessed weren’t the best choices if I wanted “firm” results.) I didn’t snap out of it until I heard Jason’s incoherent jumble of expletives followed by moans of pain. I tried to figure out what had happened. He yelled at me and struggled to get his clothes on as he made a slow escape from my bedroom. He stopped at the door. “What the hell is wrong with you, bitch?” “Excuse me? You’re calling me a bitch when you couldn’t even satisfy your own hand with that little thing? Sure, I’m a bitch and proud of it.” “You’re crazy!” “Yeah, I am. What’s your excuse?” As his feet heavily pounded the floor while he left, I imagined hooves hitting the ground. Maybe Paige was right about farm animals. Surprise, surprise, Jason doesn’t call anymore. I figure my new level of sexual desire was a teeny-tiny, itty-bitty, teeny-weeny bit too potent for the average male. And Jason had never even measured up to even an average sexual experience. I’m certain I did some damage to him, though, so I had a complex about that: being afraid to do it to anyone else. Thanks for the complex, Jason. I faked ’em all anyway. After that, I started dressing in black and practicing my new skills in the mountains surrounding town. I mastered flying, lifting boulders, and running at high speeds through a maze of obstacles. I soon learned that, at the speeds I traveled, it made no difference if I wore running shoes or my Times Square stilettos. So I ran with the most stylishly firm calves you can imagine and a good three inches of extra height. I did it all for that childish feeling of fun—until I was overtaken by the “adult” feeling that there had to be a purpose for this. I found that purpose while cruising through the sky on my way home one night. I noticed a truck fishtailing down a steep hill, apparently having lost its brakes. Ahead of it lay a hairpin curve above a steep drop into a valley. I had a decision to make—be safe and watch, or change the outcome. I was tired of being safe. I reached the truck just as it broke through the guardrail and began to plunge into the valley. I told myself that this was no different than catching a boulder, but this was an eighty-thousand-pound boulder traveling at sixty miles per hour that could easily carry me with it to the rocks below. I felt a serious instinct to flee as I approached, but fought it off, locked my arms under the trailer, and pushed as hard as I could, wondering how long I should try this before giving up. But after the initial jolt of impact, the truck responded, and felt no heavier than holding a basket of laundry over my head. I smiled, thinking, This is easy. Then the truck and I began to fall through the air toward the rocks below, and the hitch that coupled the cab to the trailer started to break apart when it realized, Hey, I wasn’t made to fly. The hitch that connected the cab to the trailer worked fine when everything was touching the ground, but up in the air…not so good. Now I had two pieces to support. Just at the final creak of the separating metal, I worked my way forward and took a desperate handhold of the cab as it started to drift away. My plan was to drop the trailer if I couldn’t manage both that and the cab, but I could, just barely. It wasn’t the weight, but the awkward shapes, angles, and poor handholds that made it really hard for me. (If you’ve ever lifted two laundry baskets over your head and held them out at arm’s length, you might know what I mean.) I lifted the truck beyond the lip of the cliff and then set it down. The tail of the trailer held in my right hand and nose of the cab in my left hit first, and then the other wheels came down to a bouncing halt. But there was no time to gloat. As I ducked out from under the truck, the wide-eyed driver saw me. Cars began to stop. I didn’t want to be recognized or have to explain what I had done—or how I had done it—so I flew away as quickly as I could, vowing to disguise myself from then on whenever I flew. Out came the sewing machine and a homemade outfit, lame by superhero standards. Hell, I was a single mom working forty hours a week in the accounting department of a wireless company and another twenty hours part time at a retail store for minimum wage, not Batman on a Hollywood budget. It was no high-tech suit, but it helped hide my identity. For me—and if there were any more like me, probably for them too—remaining unknown was critical, or these powers would run off with my life. And so it went, night after night. I would wear a mask and some black clothes and cruise the city. There was always pain or disaster to find. I was shocked how much went on during those “quiet” nights I never had taken notice of before. Once you knew the suffering and violence around you, your view of life was changed forever. Whether it was an accident, crime, or just the simple cruelty of mankind, I was a busy woman. But the more I changed the fates of the people of Scranton, the more it forced me to hide in the shadows. No one could find out, I knew, or they would find a selfish use for my powers. My life would no longer be mine. And worst of all, Paige and the rest of my family would no longer be safe. It was a horrible, helpless feeling that all my power couldn’t contain. I was torn between my two lives: the only one I had known, and the new, attractive one where I felt I mattered. It was hell living paycheck to paycheck working for small minds who I knew I could crush between my hands in a second. Sure, every single mom is already a superhero, considering the mountain of things we juggle daily, but for the first time I felt like I was making a difference. I was moving the world, and not it me. Batman wouldn’t last a day in my world, I thought bitterly, feeling the strain that these newly manifested superpowers had brought to my life. Gone was my known, controllable existence, quietly raising my daughter and making ends meet. Gone were the simple days of drinking, dancing, and partying with my friends. Being “real” and being a superhero made for a unique combination. Sometimes it was a real bitch. My new powers were confusing and frustrating, yet wildly seductive, opening my mind to a new world. They filled me with questions and challenges but, worst of all, forced me to face them all alone. I could trust no one with my secret. How should I use these powers? How to deal with all those who would search for me, wanting to share in or use my strength? Who to trust? What really was right and wrong when the laws of man no longer applied to you? Yet through the dangers and the challenges, more doors opened than closed. Perhaps there was a route to a new level of being—perhaps even a new level of romance. Oh, by the way, as you get to know me better, you’ll probably hear people call me a bunch of different names (or expletives) but for the record, my name is Allie, and Paige calls me Mom. (Call me Ishmael, but I won’t answer.) I’m known as the B.I.B.: the bitch in black. And please don’t say, “bib.” It’s “B-I-B.” Just say every letter and there won’t be any trouble. Remember that, and remember I can break you in half if you don’t. (First one I hear saying “bib” gets it. Don’t make me hurt you.) On my birthday, the big thirty-three, I just wanted to feel “normal” again. I was hoping some shopping and errands would help—those open-toed Italian shoes I had been wanting would be a good birthday gift to myself. But after I was told, at my first stop, that the phone Paige had dropped in the pool at swim club would not be covered under the warranty—and getting a new one drained my checking account down to nothing—the joy of being “normal” somehow felt pale. There would be no money left for a birthday celebration for me, and no one with whom to share it. As I stood outside the shoe store with Paige’s new phone, staring down at those open-toed beauties I could have worn Saturday night, I thought about my empty wallet and nonexistent checking balance. Then I thought of flying and catching that truck—and felt like two different women tearing away from each other: one so powerful, and one so powerless. As I left the store window, I was feeling alone and sorry for myself. It was my birthday. Not that I expected a national holiday or a parade, but someone who cared, other than my crazy sisters, would be nice. Maybe I would just go home. Maybe that black poodle from upstairs wasn’t busy. Instead, I walked into O’Malley’s Bar for a drink. CHAPTER 2 The Night My Life Changed Forever My name is Logan. This journal documents a quest that has transformed me from the disbeliever that I was to all that I’ve become….Okay, still working on the “all I’ve become” part, but you get the idea. Even now, just thinking of her absorbs every feeling and thought in my head and hardens my…resolve. There was the way the sun glistened in the various shades of blond of her hair, the way the moonlight shimmered off her lips before that kiss on the rooftop, the way her whole face smiled before she laughed, her sarcastic humor that always left me guessing, and the way her skin glowed wherever I touched her as we flew over the city that night. Yes, mine was the ol’ boy meets superwoman, boy loses superwoman, boy spends rest of his life (and money) searching for superwoman story. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times before. No? Well then, this is your lucky day. I should forewarn you. If you are the lucky one who finds this journal, just sit back, get a drink and a snack, and prepare to enjoy a stimulating tale of romance, adventure, and wild, unbridled sex. You can read about all those things after you finish my journal. It’s not that long. My tale begins on a cold, cloudy evening last January. I had contacted a budding young PhD professor and researcher in psychology from Pennsylvania State University, Rashid Patel Jones. Dr. Jones was the son of learned immigrants, his father a renowned environmental engineer, his mother a brilliant psychologist at Penn State, often seen on TV shows. Dr. Jones was hungry to eclipse the brilliance of his parents. I could sense that hunger in his energy on the phone, and in his determination to convince me of his theory. After years of effort, he had created a startling theory that encompassed cutting-edge research from both his father and his mother’s fields, and now he was trying—no, I should say was consumed by the need—to prove his theory to the world. Personally, I rated him a jack-off, but I thought there was a paycheck in his story. Boy, was that an understatement…the paycheck part, I mean…well, maybe the jack-off part too. After briefly flirting with success writing for magazines in New York after college, my career had dropped to writing for small newspapers and then to freelance articles to pay the bills. I wasn’t a lousy writer, just an unmotivated one. I sold the editor at the Times on the idea that Jones’ story had local appeal, and Jones granted me an immediate interview. Even after he found out I was only a freelance, rarely published writer and part-time bartender, he still honored the interview. Damn, he must be desperate, I thought. I know now that my not being born in Scranton allowed Jones to use me as Super Born Bait, but at that point I chalked it up to my magnetic personality, dynamic prose, keen intellect, and dazzling charm. Rather than spend hours on scientific mumbo jumbo that would probably shoot right over my aching head, Dr. Jones insisted that it would be much easier to demonstrate his theory in the field. He suggested that we meet at nine o’clock at a beat-up, fifty-year-old house converted into a bar and grill called O’Malley’s in the nearby city of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Scranton had once been the fourth-largest city in Pennsylvania, but it had been struggling through decades of economic and population decline. Jones had developed a radical theory to explain the downturn; Scranton was the center of his research, and had become his home away from home. On the phone Jones spoke of Scranton the way a man would speak of the woman he loved—or at least a good, inexpensive mistress. When I finally arrived at run-down O’Malley’s, I had to circle the block to find a parking space on the street. I slammed my car door, case in my hand and laptop bag over my shoulder, the consummate professional writer. (Is that what one looks like? I didn’t know, because the articles I wrote tended to end up lining the bottom of birdcages before they were read, if you know what I mean.) When I first saw the peeling white paint, blinking sign, and sagging gutters of O’Malley’s, I could see that its decline paralleled the slump of the city itself. I started the short walk to the front door, determined to make the project with Dr. Jones work. I needed some money from somewhere. The tank was empty, if you know what I mean. I needed to completely focus on Jones’ work. But instead of keeping my focus, I couldn’t help but notice this chick walking by. Whoa, look at the major-league yabbos on her, I thought as the long-haired brunette slithered by with her coat open, revealing a “Ravage Me” low-cut dress. Not that “Ravage Me” was a brand name or a designer or anything, but maybe it should be. I made a mental note to my Get Rich Quick List to start a line of women’s clothing with that name just before I ran head on into O’Malley’s hole-in-the-wall entrance. What made it worse was the fact that Miss Ravage Me laughed at me as she walked away, fully aware of what her slinky dress had done. Now where was I? Oh, yeah, focus. I pushed through the doors of O’Malley’s promptly at 9:27 to be greeted by the stale smell of yesterday’s beer. I found Dr. Jones immediately, despite the dim lighting in the bar. There was only one man there that could be him. He was a short, dark man in his late twenties, wore glasses with thick frames, and had a gigantic, endearing smile, like a lap dog ready to pounce. Compared to him, I felt like a giant with my six-foot-two-inch…okay, five-foot-ten-inch cyclist’s build…okay, working on the cyclist part. (Hey, I did own a bike…once.) He greeted me with an endlessly pumping handshake that proved tough to break. After a minute I pulled away, and we sat at a table in the middle of the bar. Jones gestured with open arms to the room around us. “There, do you see?” he asked. I looked around, not wanting to feel stupid or intimidated right away. I’d save that for later. “Just what am I looking at, Professor?” I asked, opening up my laptop and trying to look professional. “Just look, look my friend. Tell me what you see.” I looked around the bar. “Well, over there I see two young men. One is trying, to pull the push door to the backroom—with no success, I might add. The other guy is standing too close to the men’s room door and is repeatedly pulling it open into his face. Over there, I see a guy trying to get onto a bar stool, and every time he does, he slides off onto the floor. What assholes!” “Good, good,” said Jones excitedly. “And in the backroom, can you see what is happening there, my friend?” The lights were starting to come on in my head. “I see five more guys back there. Some are wearing leather helmets with antlers on them, and another has a rifle.” There was a loud roar as the rifle fired. “And that guy just shot at the guys with the antlers! Holy crap, let’s get out of here!” Behind the bar, the grizzled old barkeep just shook his head and continued rinsing out glasses, unfazed, as the gunshot rang out. “I assure you that we are quite safe, my friend. This curious male-only activity is called the Antler Game. They have been doing it for years and no one has ever hit anything…ever, not even a hit song…not even a.…” “Okay, I get it!” “The odds of one of them shooting and hitting a target is about the same as you winning the lottery…twice. Now tell me what else you see.” “Man, that guy is a lousy shot! He wasn’t even close!” Just then a different man took hold of the rifle and began the Antler Game over again. The men wearing the antlers scurried randomly around the backroom with beer bottles in hand, some hiding behind others while the rifleman tried to decide which end of the rifle to use and how you loaded the bullet, only succeeding on occasion. Most shots ended up lodged in the floor or ceiling, although the man in one of the beer posters on the wall seemed to have three nostrils and big zit on his cheek. “Holy shit! Somebody should call the cops!” “These men have been doing this a long time now. It’s tradition in this part of town. I doubt the police would even come. Would you say that is odd?” inquired Jones. “Odd? It’s freakin’ unbelievable!” “And, my friend, can you describe these men?” I looked around the bar. “Yeah, they’re all young men, maybe late twenties, early thirties.” “Good, good. And what would you say about the women?” I didn’t see any. I thought, There are no freakin’ women here. What kind of crappy dump is this? Jones could see my bewildered face as I panned across the bar. “No, no, look over here,” His finger directed me to a booth next to the front door. Kaboom! There sat a luscious, long-haired blond, early thirties, with shining gray eyes. “My God!” I was startled. “Where did she come from?” My eyes locked with hers, and I felt the strangest warmth of connection with her. The air between us felt balmy, fluid, and expectant. I had seen attractive women before, but this one made me feel something electric and special. Then, as the tension between us built, her eyes suddenly flashed right at me, blue, then green, like the rotating light of a lighthouse. I had never seen anything like it. Then her eyes flashed at me again. My jaw dropped a bit, and I remained speechless for a long, thrilling moment. Holy beaver balls! I thought. Did that really just happen, or was that another trick my imagination was playing on me, like the time I thought I actually paid my rent on time? She gave me a quick smile of acknowledgement, as if saying, “Hello, this way to heaven.” Instinctively, I turned toward her and stood up halfway, all the while feeling something growing and determinedly trying to escape from my pants. I looked over at Dr. Jones, who had also lost his cool—he too was half-standing and looking at her. “Did you see what her eyes just did? Did you?” I asked Jones full of amazement. Finally Jones responded, “Oh yes, her hazel eyes are lovely.” Hazel? Hazel, my ass. They’re gray and they flash like mofos, I thought before realizing how crazy that sounded. Sure, she was a lovely woman, and sure, she had five empty Miner’s Lite beer bottles on her table. Sure, those eyes melted me as she took a long, sensuous sip of beer—sure, she had an amazing effect going on in my shorts, and sure, her smile was like an angel’s. But those factors alone could not explain the dazzling effect she had on me. There was something else about her that drew me in like a discounted beer display. Jones, ever the man of science, regained his composure, began to sit down, and with his hand on my shoulder, gestured for me to sit as well. “Now, now, let’s not forget that we are here to promote a great discovery.” He turned his head to the side and said, “Excuse me a moment.” He mumbled “Think of sports…Hillary Clinton naked,” to himself. He turned back to me, but he might as well have been on the moon. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. “My friend! My friend!” he said loudly, shaking my arm. “You must be careful. A woman like that could fry you like an insect! Believe me, I know.” I gave him a smirk of disbelief, then began to wonder, Do they really fry insects in India? Flour, a little salt…Oh, yeah, focus. You’re a journalist; type something on the laptop. Finally there was enough blood in my brain to rejoin him at the table. “Okay, what’s the point? You give dating advice now too?” I asked while typing I’m fucked…I’m fucked…over and over on my laptop. “Do you see that woman? What is wrong with this picture?” Jones asked. “Not a thing, Doc, not one stinking thing.” “Wrong! Look again. Do you not find this woman attractive?” “Ohhh yeah.” “I do as well, but there she sits alone. A room full of drunken young men and a desirable female with five empty light beer bottles on her table, but there she sits alone. How can this be?” “I can fix that,” I said. “No, no, this is a scientific experiment, and you cannot alter the controlled conditions we have here. Sit there, my friend, and I will tell you what it is that you’re really seeing, the forces that are at work in this place.” Jones pulled a folded map out of his leather briefcase and unfolded it on our table. “Do you see all of these numbered locations on this map of Scranton?” I nodded. “The small numbers here,” Jones added, pointing to various locations on the map, “are radiation readings for each of these sampling locations I have taken. This is the radiation level of the soil sample on the epsilon ray scale.…I see you are puzzled, my friend.” Not really. The whole time he spoke, I was checking out the blond, and she was flirting back at me like we were getting it on from twenty feet apart. But I did get something about radiation, samples, and epsilon rays, whatever the heck those were. Focus was a distant memory. Had Jones said something? Whatever. Now I wish I had really been listening that night—but the view, oh the view of her shining gray eyes, lips that shimmered in the light of a Miner’s Lite beer sign, a glow of anticipation surrounding her. “Epsilon rays are a rarely monitored type of radiation whose properties and frequencies are largely unknown. They are nearly unmeasurable in nature, so contamination of this magnitude can only be man-made. Epsilon is particle radiation, so I suspect they learned how to make some sort of beam. Do you see that the radiation levels are highest in the center and slowly lower as you leave the city? Just where do you think the highest recorded level is, here at the center of the circle?” He dropped his little finger dramatically on the center of the map. “Here, the highest levels are right here…and here is O’Malley’s bar, where we sit at this very moment!” It was certain that something strange was going on. How or why it was happening, I still couldn’t say, but man, I was sure it was happening. As I looked around at the guy on the floor in front of the men’s room—who had literally knocked himself out by opening the bathroom door repeatedly into his own face—and another round of the Antler Game and idiotic laughing from the back room, I began to think that this funny little man had truly uncovered something. When two pairs of young men began a “Chair-idiot” race (a Scranton original, with one man on a wheeled bar stool and another pushing him around the room) that ended in a tragic crash of both the bar stools and a tableful of men, I was certain. Unfortunately for both of us, this type of story required a real journalist, not a little-published freelancer whose biggest breakthrough article had been on the health benefits of drinking beer (a subject near and dear to my heart). But, glancing over at the blond as she downed a light beer in one tilt of the bottle and then licked the bottle’s rim, I was in love, L-U-V, and convinced myself I could fake the journalism part. I’m fucked…I’m fucked…the laptop glowed. “What exactly do you think is happening here?” I asked, trying to seem professional while also halfheartedly beginning to take notes between quick glances over at the lovely blond. “Don’t you see? Isn’t it obvious, my friend?” asked Jones, frustrated that my intellect could not keep up with his. I began to smile and nod, then stopped and said, “Sort of,” stroking my goatee. “Sort of? Sort of?” He began digging through his case and pulled out page after page of calculations and graphs. “You can see from these figures that I have calculated the half-life of the epsilon radiation and thereby pinpointed the exact year this environmental tragedy took place. It began,” he said running his finger over a page, “in 1969 and continued through 1981, peaking in 1976. Do you see now?” All I could do was rumple my face, embarrassed, and try to listen while I ran my fingers through my long, dark, disheveled crop of hair, as if trying to stroke my brain to life. I began to wonder if Dr. Jones hadn’t been sniffing some of this epsilon radiation himself. Was it time to play my stupid/intimidated card already? “During that time, the area outlined on my map was exposed to massive amounts of epsilon radiation. This caused the soils to be contaminated for years. Obviously, all young men born in that time frame show reduced functionality disorder, or RFD.” “RFD?” “Yes, as you can see, they are morons!” He gestured to the men around us. A young man had fallen over the bar, and now just his legs were showing, dangling over the bar. We watched as the barkeep tried to pull him up. “Their judgment and ability to react to their environment is dramatically impaired. How else can you explain young men in the prime of their lives, incapable of even noticing a woman like that, let alone approaching her?” I glanced over at her as she texted on her phone and thought that approaching her sounded like a good idea, in fact the only idea I had in my head. But the men around me played like juveniles. “So, the radiation made all the men born in this town develop RFD?” “Yes, yes. But there is more, much more. The epsilon radiation has turned some of the women here into superwomen. It has had the opposite effect, based on the chemical makeup of estrogen. Their powers begin to emerge as they reach their sexual hormonal peak in their thirties, and their estrogen levels power them like nuclear reactors. So you end up with a woman like that one over there, at the other end of the scale, with heightened senses and abilities.” I nodded, but my thoughts were on a different track. “So you’re saying that she’s totally unsatisfied?” “Yes, yes, that may very well be true. How can she be, by such men as these?” said Jones, gesturing around the room. One man stuck between two bar stools moaned for help as another round of shots went off, and the old barkeep ducked behind the bar, shaking his head. Then the years of being a cynic crept up on me. “Superwomen? Come on, really?” “Proof is it you want? Well, try these shoes on for size, Mr. Doubting Thomas,” Jones said, digging for more papers and pulling out a picture. “Take a look at that, Mister!” he said excitedly, pointing at the picture. “What’s this?” I asked. Jones’ build up made me expect more than a photo of the 1972 Russian women’s Olympic team. “Do you see the year?” I nodded. “Do you see the medals around their necks? Those Russian women won 67.3 percent of all the medals that year. They are all gold!” When I failed to see the importance, he frantically found a video file on his laptop and played it. “The woman in this video is the most famous female celebrity of Russia from 1972 to 1976, Olga Settchuoff. She was their biggest model, their biggest movie star, their record-holding cosmonaut, and a world-class competitive cheese roller.” He played the video. It was a short film clip from one of Olga’s movies. She said a few lines in her native Russian, then turned to the camera for a close-up. When she did, her gray eyes suddenly flashed blue and then green like a lighthouse. “Holy crap,” I mumbled. Remembering the look I had received from the blond in the bar, I glanced back over at her, seeing her in a totally new light. “Did you see that?” “See what?” asked Jones “Olga’s eyes, did you see what her eyes did?” I exclaimed. “Oh, yes, my friend, her hazel eyes were her trademark. Lovely, don’t you agree?” “Hazel? Hazel eyes, my ass! She has gray eyes, and didn’t you see them explode blue, then green?” Jones was puzzled. “There was no explosion, my friend. Perhaps it is because this is a digitization of a very old film. Everyone knows about Olga’s hazel eyes.” I looked at the laptop and started to realize how crazy I was sounding. Then paranoia began to creep into my head. Maybe Mom was right about being too friendly with myself. The flashes were a sign that it was making me go blind. Then a thought hit me. I leaned in toward Jones and whispered, “What about her?” “What about who?” asked Jones, looking around uncertainly. “The woman over there.” “Where?” jumped Jones frightened. “What if she’s one of…them?” I said pointing a hesitant finger toward the blond. “One of who?” “You know…a superwoman.” Jones smirked and shook his head. With the mystery gone, he stopped whispering. “For a minute there I thought you had seen my mother following me again. Logan, I understand that you are new to this project, but do you see where we are?” Jones said holding is hands open to the whole room. “Do you see those guys running around with antlers on their heads? That one’s got a beer bottle in his ear for Christ’s sake. Do you honestly believe a superwoman would end up surrounded by morons in a dump like this? Besides, I have been…shall we say, researching the women of Scranton for some time now. While that woman may have heightened skills like advanced dwarf tossing ability or crushing you with her thighs until your eyes pop, I am afraid that if she is in a place like this, the benefits of epsilon radiation have…passed her by.” “You sure?” I whispered unconvinced. “Trust me. My intuition and scientific acumen tell me that she, while lovely…with dreamy hazel eyes,” he said seeming to get a bit lost in her, “is not the superwoman we are looking for.” I glanced over at her again. Just as I did, she looked up from her phone, smiled, and her eyes flashed a brilliant hypnotic blue then green. Maybe she’s not the superwoman you’re looking for but she looks pretty damn good to me, I thought. “No, Logan, the woman we are looking for will be very difficult to find. She will be well disguised and protecting her identity and that of her family like gold, not hanging around in bars watching men make silly faces with antlers on their heads. If she were that easy to find, believe me, I’d have found her already.” “I’m sure you’re right, Doc.” (What a freakin’ liar.) I had become so involved by then that Jones knew he had me. He nodded. “Yes. I can see you are intrigued. This video came from my friend and colleague Demitri in Moscow. Demitri was my professor at Oxford. We are working on this project together. As all information about Olga and the Russians’ experimentation with epsilon is veiled in secrecy, this movie is now restricted and stored in high security. That alone should tell you that the Russians are trying to cover up their experimentation with epsilon. But he managed to smuggle it into Germany and emailed me this footage.” “But how does this stuff in Russia go with what happened here in Scranton?” Jones smiled because he knew he had the answer. “Guess what building is located just behind this bar?” “I drove by; it’s a beer warehouse. What does that have to do with it?” “Yes, my friend, it is a beer warehouse today, but what do you think it was between 1967 and 1989, the year the Cold War ended?” I shook my head. How could I know? Was it a trick question? “It was the Miles Research Corporation, now known, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, to be a front for the CIA, their Behavioral Sciences Section!” Jones had become so excited he literally seemed to take on another personality for a second. “How’s that for your Cold War, mind-altering research shit?” “So you think this Miles Research, CIA, whatever, was trying to keep up with the Russians’ research on epsilon radiation?” “If they ever wanted to win another Olympic medal, they were.…Just think of it as Russia’s perfect weapon. They use epsilon radiation to make entire Western armies into morons who might just shoot themselves like these assholes,” he said, as an RFD wearing antlers ran along the top of the bar, chased by the barkeep, who was frantically attacking him with a towel from below, “who can’t reproduce because they can’t even see the women, let alone know what to say to them. “Worst of all, their superwomen would then be the best in every field. America loses its biggest export, Hollywood movies. Russian superwomen would rule the box office—not to mention the complete loss of the American porn industry! It would be an economic disaster! They would just walk through our defenses, and we would be powerless to stop them for at least two half-lives of epsilon radiation, or about thirty years. “Look what has happened to Scranton since the epsilon release—years of a slowing economy, the population drop, the birthrate drop, high alcoholism, the mafia moving in and taking control. This is the model of the plans Russia had for the entire economy of the U.S. First, they would strike Europe, and then the U.S. mainland. “But something went terribly wrong. Whereas the epsilon ray experimentation has only affected Scranton in the U.S., it seems to have had massive, wide-reaching effects in all of Russia. Look at what happened to Russia since their release of epsilon radiation—a bankrupt economy ends the Cold War, population and birthrates drop, alcoholism runs rampant, the mafia takes control of the country. Can’t you see the parallel connection? Do you still think a cowboy president like Ronald Reagan bankrupted Russia and ended the Cold War? Or was it the result of their years of research in epsilon radiation gone out of control, like Chernobyl?” I remember looking at him puzzled, blinking, and then mumbling something stupid like, “What was the third choice?” I’m fucked…I’m fucked…glowed my laptop. “I know this is a lot to absorb in a single sitting, but do you see the basis for my theory and the importance of it to us all?” I remember looking at the blond, looking at the RFD morons around me, and finally asking Jones to show me the Olga video again. I just wanted to be sure I wasn’t imagining those eyes. But when I saw it again, she flashed me a blue/green eye glance that about melted my shorts. To my surprise, Jones couldn’t see the change in eye color as I did. Maybe I did have something unique to offer, not that I knew what that meant. I knew then that Jones was on to something, maybe just something crazy, but maybe something big. But what I didn’t know was how it was going to take over my life. I glanced over at the blond to find her sense my gaze and give me the most welcoming smile I had ever seen…felt throughout my whole body. I smiled idiotically back, then like an eighth-grade boy caught looking, I snapped my head back to Jones, trying to pretend I had not been seen. “Yeah, I think you’re onto something here, Doc…but I can’t just write about the theory.” “No, no, of course not, my friend. This is just the introduction, the wetting of your whistle, so to speak. We have the RFDs as evidence,” he said, gesturing, as a young man wearing antlers plowed full speed into a pillar beside us and fell backward on to the floor. “We need to find proof of the other half of the equation, the superwomen, before we go public with this puppy. I could use your help in this. In Russia, Demitri is already trying to locate Olga Settchuoff and the women on that Olympic team. He’s also having a lot of luck with superwomen in the Russian personal ads, if you know what I mean,” said Jones with a wink and smile. When my unimpressed face didn’t find the idea of his friend getting lucky amusing, he continued, “Just yesterday, he said he had found the small town where he believes Olga has hidden herself. “You and I need to find the Olga Settchuoff of Scranton.” His eyes widened with every word, and he slowly leaned across the table until he was inches from me. “Once we find her and verify her powers, we go right to riches, fame, the Nobel Prize, and maybe even TV talk shows.” Maybe there was a story here, or maybe there was just a bunch of half-crocked men, an epsilon-sniffing professor, and an asshole in need of money. (I’m not saying which one was me.) But if I could write about the safety hazards of pigeon poop in the park system, then I was certain I could write about this, if the price was right. “Anything over twenty-five cents,” said my empty pockets. Then I glanced over again at the blond to see if she was looking my way. No such luck, but she did down another bottle of beer. Man, I loved the way she finished that last drop at the end. It meant she enjoyed her work.…Crap, where has my mind drifted off to? Focus, focus! I realized I was holding down a key on my laptop and had just made a page full of the letter q. It was time for Doc to put up or shut up. I didn’t want to lose him by being too greedy, but I sensed an opportunity here. “I also can’t write for free. This kind of journalistic research will take time, travel, and a lot of greased palms.” “Oh yes! This I know! I assure you, Logan, that you will be well paid for your time. Next time we meet I will have a retainer fee for you, and there is more where that’s coming from…trust fund, don’t you know.” Hearing those magic words was enough for me. “You got a deal, Doc,” I said, reaching for his little hand to shake, the image of a paycheck enabling me to date a beautiful blond in my mind. He took my hand and gave it a ferocious shake. “You won’t be sorry; I am promising you this! Just wait till we find this superwoman. Mom will be so proud…and she wanted me to be a surgeon!” We packed our cases, put on our coats, and started moving toward the door. I remember how excited Jones was to have converted someone to his theory. You could feel the energy oozing out of him—or maybe it was just the epsilon. I, too, felt the excitement of being part of something that transcended the day-to-day. I just hoped there really was a paycheck in it. Then there was the added excitement south of the border, brought on by the fact that Jones was leaving and this was my opportunity to introduce myself to the blond. I knew this was a scientific experiment, and I should listen and not interfere with the controlled conditions and that she could “fry me like an insect,” but man did you see the way she could lick a bottle? After a furious battle with myself, I decided to leave with Jones to keep him happy and then return to meet her. I began acting out in my head what I would say to her, searching for the always-illusive perfect line. It was a great plan, a great plan until she spoke. “How are you boys doing tonight?” she asked as we passed her. I felt like an ass, but all I could say, and all Jones could say, were a few slurred, senseless syllables—the SSS effect, as it later became known. I think Jones even drooled a little as well. Mr. Macho! I had wanted to approach her, but now I was reduced to Jell-O in her presence—lime Jell-O, the kind no one likes. We slowed as we passed but spoke nothing coherent while she stared at us in near disbelief, urging us to speak with encouraging gestures with her hands. We continued in silence out the two sets of doors to the street with stupid grins on our faces. Outside, I followed Jones across the street until he stopped in front of another bar, The Banshee. By then, we had regained use of our brains. He shook my hand. “Thank you again, Logan. I will be in touch with the details of our next course of action in finding the Scranton super female. I am sure the answer is somewhere in here,” he said, tapping his briefcase. “As you can see from that woman at the bar, there are exceptional women here in Scranton, but it is the queen bee, the one who benefited most from the epsilon release, that we are after. Now, if you will excuse me.” “Heading out for a little night on the town, Doc?” Jones chuckled. “You saw those buffoons in the bar. In a town like this, where men would not know a woman even if she was sitting right on their face, even a guy like me can get lucky,” he added, giving me a smile and a big thumbs-up. “Research, research, you know,” he said, before turning to go into the bar. “Oh, I get it, research. Lots of research, lots of fun,” I commented as I turned to go. “Lots of research,” I could hear him say as the door closed. I remember I was glad for him, able to move on with his night. But for me, I felt disturbed, like I was suddenly aware of a different world than the one I had known. I stood in front of The Banshee for a long moment as two RFDs walked by, one running head on into a lamppost that had suddenly jumped out in front of him; the other laughed, then tripped over the first’s legs and slid down the icy sidewalk on his belly into the base of a trash can. “He’s right, a city full of assholes!” I said to myself. That’s when the truth of Jones’ theory finally hit me. If the Epsilon had made these men this dumb, then it must have made the women…amazing. Then I thought about the blond with the flashing eyes, and everything became clear. After watching a few of my deep breaths turn to clouds in the night air, I decided I had to find her again. So I followed the compass in my pants back across the street to O’Malley’s. Luckily, I looked up in time to see a speeding beer truck appear around the corner and was able to stop before it flashed by and mashed me into the pavement. I was just about to reach for the door of O’Malley’s when it opened and a blond woman dressed all in black appeared quickly before me. I was taken aback. She paused a second as well. A black Zorro mask disguised her eyes. She gave me a look of surprise, then recognition, before hitting me with a flash of blue and then green from her eyes that left me frozen. Christ, does every woman’s eyes do that now? I wondered. Am I going blind? Then she disappeared into a fog that seemed to come out of nowhere and vanish with her. I wasn’t able to move until her image was completely gone. “Hey,” I said feebly when I was finally able to speak. I stormed back into O’Malley’s and soon found myself standing before the empty booth in which the blond had sat. Stupid as it may seem now, I expected her to be there. Like an ass, I hadn’t connected the woman in the mask to the woman in the bar. In my defense, it was a really good mask…okay, even a four year old would have known. I picked up one of her empty Miner’s Lite bottles and sniffed it like I was some sort of bloodhound or frickin’ DNA machine. She had left nothing else, except a twenty for a tip. I stood and looked at the twenty thinking how nice it would look in my empty wallet, which was waiting for Jones’ work to fill it. I knew taking it would be wrong, and it certainly was not a habit of mine, but I also remembered the glowing empty fuel light on the dashboard of my car as I had pulled into the parking lot of O’Malley’s, along with the $1.47 in my pocket. I was still debating when the old barkeep collected all five of her bottles off the table into a plastic pail with one sweep of his forearm. He gave me a Don’t even think about it look, then grabbed the twenty, gave the table a quick wipe, and said, “If you’re looking for a drink, I recommend someplace other than here.” I noticed that now, in addition to his dirty white apron, he was wearing an army helmet on his balding head. “One of those guys back there is getting pretty good; might actually hit something, if you know what I mean. I’m trapped in this dump with these assholes—they’re my only regular customers—but you should get out of here.” “Thanks for the tip.” Then I couldn’t resist asking, now that I had become a real investigative journalist, “The blond that was sitting here, know who she is? Is she a regular?” “Not hardly. I might be an ol’ fart, but my heart is still ticking. I think I’d remember a bird like her.” “Did you happen to see her eyes?” “Listen,” he said, “I already told ya I was old! But I ain’t dead…least not that they told me! I done brought her a table full of beers; think I didn’t notice them eyes?” My heart began to pound in my chest. “You—you saw them?” I was hoping I was the only one who saw the flashes and that I had some special connection to her. “Oh yeah, I ain’t seen hazel eyes sparkle like that since…since I was a young man.” I began to breathe again. Hazel eyes, my ass, I thought. “Thanks,” I said as I turned to leave. The old man grabbed my arm. I was expecting fatherly advice. Instead, what I got was, “And if I ever catch you tryin’ to cop one of my tips again, you’ll end up with a bottle up your ass.” I patted the old man on the shoulder, then tried to walk out of the bar as coolly as I could with my butt cheeks clenched shut. I hurried out the door with my mind stuck on thoughts of the blond. Where had she gone? I didn’t know how, but I needed to find her again. I looked left up the street, then right, but saw nothing that offered me a clue as to where she had gone. What an a-hole I had been to have her right in front of me, twice, and just walk away. I searched the street again, but this time, rounding the corner, came the wrong woman. Instead of the blond, it was the same woman that I had seen earlier in her “Ravage Me” dress. This time, another equally attractive “ravagette” accompanied her. She whispered to her friend and they both laughed, then lasered me with Look at us smiles. This time, though, I looked right past them both down the street. This time I had focus out the wing-wang. I could see that my lack of interest surprised the brunette, and the smile drained from her face as she stared at me. Her shock was so great that she plowed right into a couple that was walking toward her, despite her friend’s best efforts to steer her away. But in my quest to find Ms. Flashing Eyes, I barely noticed. I stood there for a moment feeling sorry for myself, sighed deeply, then lowered my head and sulked back toward my car. I did not find out till later, but had I only looked up to the roof of O’Malley’s, I would have seen a dark image crouched beside the chimney looking down, watching me. Instead, I watched my feet shuffle on the icy sidewalk as a Miner’s Beer truck flashed by at high speed, splashing a spray of slush over my shoes and pants. I deserve every drop of that for screwing up again, I thought. “Fuck” was what I said, what I thought, and what I felt. “You’re fucked,” is what my gas gauge said when I tried to start my car. “Hazel eyes, my ass.” CHAPTER 3 How to Get an RFD Killed When I woke up the next morning, I was convinced that I was being strangled and probed by aliens. To my relief, upon opening my eyes, I realized I had wrapped my mouth with a rolled-up coil of sheet and was only being probed by the empty beer bottles in my bed. I had apparently rolled around in my sleep, and one had wound up in my ear, one in my belly button, and one was somewhere I’d rather not mention. I found myself lying across the bed, sort of, with one leg dangling over the side. Looking around my messy bedroom in the dim, gray daylight of January, I felt like everything was back to normal…yuck. But then my morning glory made a small tent in my boxers, reminding me of the night before: Ms. Blue/Green Eyes. (And Dr. Jones and Olga Settchuoff too.) Without any need for my usual caffeine IV, I was instantly alert. Today I had a purpose. I turned on my computer and turned on the TV—to the news network, no less. Christ, I even took a shower and shaved. There was nothing like the image of a beautiful woman and promise of some real spending money to make a guy feel motivated. Carpe diem, I thought. I couldn’t believe I was putting myself out there…again. What an asshole. While I was trying to figure out what to use as a coffee filter, if one should not happen to have any more coffee filters, my attention was drawn to the TV. “Now reporting on these mysterious events live from Scranton, Pennsylvania, is correspondent Janelle Roote.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Janelle Roote? What kind of name is that? “Good morning, Sarah,” Janelle began, as I moved over in front of the TV. “I’m reporting to you from the scene here on Penn Avenue just outside O’Malley’s Bar, where last night three bosses of the reputed Garbonzo crime family were found locked in the back of a beer truck that witnesses said, ‘just dropped from the sky.’ Each alleged crime figure was found hog-tied with black ropes and pink gift-wrap bows on their heads, and each was covered with incriminating documents taped to their bodies. Police officials with whom I have spoken indicate that this could be quite a blow to organized crime in the city. Not only were documents found with the alleged mobsters, but two of them have outstanding warrants.” Janelle reached up to hold down her fur hat, which was being blown by the brisk January wind. “Sarah, witnesses claim it was quite a sight. As you can see behind me, workers are just now beginning to remove the truck, whose fall made quite an impression on Penn Avenue, I’ll tell you that!” “Not the kind of impression you want to make, hey, Janelle?” “That’s right, Sarah,” said Janelle, giving a very fake laugh. “Let me show you the tape of an interview I had with an eyewitness earlier this morning.” Janelle raised her eyebrows and raised her fingers to put quote marks around the word eyewitness. “Keep in mind these words are those of a thirty-year-old man in Scranton and, Sarah, you know what dealing with them can be like. Our viewers should keep in mind that the eyewitness’ views do not necessarily reflect those of the station.” The tape ran of a young man introducing himself as Ed, wearing a leather helmet with half-broken antlers on it. Despite his age, Ed had a pimply face and a poor excuse for a sparse beard: just a few random hairs, really. He was very thin. (There was a lot of running in the Antler Game—apparently he played a lot of it.) His voice was soft and uncertain as he described the events from his vantage point as he was leaving O’Malley’s Bar. “The sound made me look up, and that’s when she dropped the truck and it fell; scared the shit out of me. We heard the people inside the truck, but none of us could figure out how to open the doors. Finally, I figured out that you had to lift the door up by the handle, and there they were, all tied up.” There was a quick cut back to Janelle, who appeared to be silently mouthing, “Blah, blah, blah.” “Well, Janelle, that sure sounds like an ‘antler-raising’ experience,” said Sarah, brushing back her long red hair, which was shining brightly in the studio lights. Janelle just nodded. “Luckily, it isn’t deer season anymore!” She repeated her fake laugh. “This is Janelle Roote, reporting live from Penn Avenue, keeping you informed on the unusual arrests that are sure to strike a major blow to organized crime in Scranton. Back to you in that toasty warm studio, Sarah.” “Thank you, Janelle,” Sarah said before turning to her co-anchor. “Phil, did you get a load of those antlers? What is it with the men of Scranton?” Then she turned back to the camera. “After the break, we’ll tell you what items in your kitchen cupboard could kill you or your loved ones at any moment. Then at the top of the hour, Noreen Dunn gives us the third installment of her groundbreaking series, ‘The Dangers of Breathing.’ You can’t afford to miss it,” Sarah said, leading into the commercial. I couldn’t believe they had missed it. They didn’t believe a word Ed said, just because he was an RFD. But Ed had all the information I needed. Didn’t anyone else hear him say “she”—“She dropped the truck”? I pounded the internet in search of any more information on the event. No one seemed to know how the truck came to be in the middle of the street. As the only witnesses were young men from Scranton, no one took them seriously. It looked like Ed and I had a date with destiny coming up; not that I believed in Ed so much as I believed in my eye-flashing beauty. Wait a minute. Breathing is dangerous? I gotta see that. * * * That night to get into O’Malleys, I had to circle around disgruntled unionized city workers who toiled under work lamps to repair the damage from the previous night’s beer truck landing on Penn Avenue. It took two of them to do the work and another five to adequately convey their annoyance at being called in for double-overtime work, forced to drink coffee, eat donuts, and scratch their butts for hours. Somehow they managed. I returned to O’Malley’s with a sense of anticipation. Primarily, I was there to meet Ed, but I prepared myself, just in case she was there. This time, I vowed not to let the SSS effect keep me from speaking with her. The anticipation was like being six and coming downstairs on Christmas morning, hoping to find that toy you’d wanted all year. But she wasn’t there. Instead of finding that special toy, it was like the year I found Uncle Ernie drunk under the tree—only this time it was the grizzled ol’ barkeep I found. I turned my attention to him as he stood at a table nearby. When he recognized me, I saw his eyes go wide, and he quickly reached over and grabbed up a tip that lay on a table beside him. I walked up to him. “How are things tonight, my man?” “It’s been a horrible night trying to keep up with all these assholes,” he said as the sounds of rifle shots rang out from the back room followed by shuffling feet. “And now you’re just the cherry on my steaming pile of shit,” he said, shaking his head. “What can I do for you? Not thinkin’ of buyin’ a wee drink, are ya?” “Have you seen Ed here tonight?” I asked. The old man stroked his chin for a moment. “Well now, it seems to me that I ain’t served you a drink yet, and this here is what you call a bar, not an information booth.” “Got ya,” I said feeling in my pocket for any signs of money. I pulled out my last rumpled twenty and said, “Well, bartender, I’d like two beers, one for me and one for my friend Ed. Is he here?” The barkeep took the money, returned with two bottles of beer but no change, and pointed. “He’s around back…but if you wants to talk with ’im, I suggest you do it quick like. He’s next up wearing the antlers. That’ll be ’im putting them antlers on right now,” he said, pointing. I wasn’t sure why two beers cost $20. Either the barkeep was a greedy old soul or he was trying to make up for the drinks Jones and I had not bought the night before…maybe both. In the back of my mind I debated whether to sell a kidney or try male prostitution as a way to pay for dinner. But I needed to talk with Ed, so I let the barkeep keep the change. I slid into the back room with all the cool I could muster. Remembering his pimply face and thin body, I recognized Ed in the crowd of RFDs preparing for the Antler Game, some having trouble figuring out how to put on the leather helmets with the antlers attached. One had his over his face—despite the obvious problem breathing, it was a good look for him. I marched up behind Ed and tapped him on the left shoulder. He looked back around over his right, but then eventually found me. “Hey, aren’t you the guy from the news report this morning?” I asked. Ed shyly nodded. Beside us, Ed’s friend, Ken, was fumbling, trying to load the rifle, trying to figure out which end of the bullet went which way. A tall black RFD taunted him, fingers waving in his ears, calling “Ken can’t load a rif…rife…gun!” “Wow, it’s really cool to meet you, a TV star and all,” I fluffed. Ed smiled but didn’t say a word. I guess an RFD can get SSS with anyone. “It would blow my mind if you could sit down and tell me what you saw last night.” I pulled him away, and we both sat at the same table where Jones and I had been. “Hey, can I buy ya a beer?” I said, handing him one. “Thanks,” he said—still with the slurred single syllables, but it was an intelligible word. “So, dude, what happened out there?” It was slow and agonizing but, eventually, Ed told me the story of how he’d left the bar and heard a whistling sound like a plane flying overhead. Then he heard a cell phone ring in the sky. That made him look up, and he saw this beer truck hanging above him—a woman dressed in black was standing on top of O’Malley’s, holding it up with two fingers. With her other hand she answered a mobile phone, and he heard her say, “No, Mommy’s at work.” That’s when the truck slipped out of her fingers, and it fell straight to the ground with a loud crash. The woman said, “Crap,” and flew off. When I asked him for a description of the woman, he said she was dressed all in black with a black cape and a black mask over her eyes. When I confirmed his description, he said, “Yep, a flying bitch in black.” By then, the other RFDs were getting anxious to continue the Antler Game, and I had enough of the info I needed. So I thanked Ed and told him to enjoy his beer, and he quickly resumed his game. Bitch in black…I thought. How dare that mofo call my girl a…you know. Then again, wasn’t it better than “Ms. Blue/Green Eyes” or “the blond”? Maybe I could just shorten it to the B.I.B. No one needed to know what it meant anyway. I walked back into the front room to talk with the barkeep. I had to wait while he helped up an antler-wearing RFD who had somehow fallen while running along the edge of the bar. “What can I do for ya now?” he asked, knowing I wasn’t there for more drinks. “If you should see the blond that was here the other night come in again, can you give me a call?” I said, handing him a business card I’d printed on my computer. He took it but didn’t even look at it. “What’s in it for me?” he asked. I dug through my pockets again, but came up dry. “A hundred bucks,” I said boldly. “A hundred bucks?” “Yeah, a hundred bucks….You take a check?” Just then a shot rang out from the back room. It was not the usual-sounding rifle, and it was not followed by many other shots as usual, nor the usual idiotic laughter. Instead, we could hear the RFDs yelling at one another. The barkeep knew there was something wrong as well, and we both moved quickly to the back room. We found Ken and another RFD wrestling with the rifle, and on the floor across the bar from them lay Ed, shot in the head, antlers broken. “My god,” said the barkeep, “I never dreamed one of ’em would actually hit somebody.…Why did it have to be you, Ed?” Tears began to flow, and the barkeep shook with emotion. I lay my arm over his shoulders. “Were you close to Ed?” I said. “Not hardly, Ed was a flamin’ moron,” the barkeep sniveled, “but he owed me two hundred dollars for his bar tab!” Then he began sobbing again. I let my arm slide off his shoulders. Ken’s rifle was open, which made me doubt he had ever loaded it—I wasn’t so sure that Ken was the shooter. Somebody’s killing witnesses, I thought. Followed by, And maybe they’re killing journalists who talk to witnesses! My feet did their duty. The next morning the papers were calling it a terrible barroom accident, and the mayor was calling for the prohibition of the use of live ammo in the bars allowing the Antler Game. Duh. * * * That night, while I was licking my wounds with the last of the Miner’s Lites in my fridge, Jones called and asked me to meet him at his place. He had a job for me. So I headed on over. His apartment was more a messy research lab than an apartment, with papers and books stacked everywhere. Incense filled the air. I stepped through the mess sheepishly to take a seat in front of the desk where Jones sat. “Yes, yes, I have for you a very important job. I told you the answer to finding the super female was in my briefcase, and here it is,” he said, pointing to a blackboard filled with mathematical formulas that covered the entire wall of his apartment. Jones drew a big circle around the final computation. “Yes, there it is,” he said and then turned to his desk, which was full of papers. He gingerly plucked a pair of sheer purple thong panties off of a textbook, looked up at me with a self-conscious grin, and said, “Research, research, you know,” and then proceeded to look something up in the textbook. Part of me felt sorry for the sap. Here he thought the answer was in those numbers, and I already knew so much more about the real-life B.I.B. I would humor him anyway, but I was the guy with all the answers, not him. Unfortunately, I was also the guy who had gotten Ed killed, or so I had convinced myself. Should I tell Jones about the danger? No, he was happy in his little world with his formulas. He was safe. “Tomorrow, first thing, you must go to the Hall of Records. I have used the epsilon radiation readings, adjusted for half-life and periodic conversion, of course, to tell me the most likely time that a super female would have been born and where. According to my calculations, she would have been born in Scranton at one of these two hospitals during the Super Bowl of 1976. That would make it…January 18, 1976. The closer to halftime she was born, the more likely it is that she would develop into a super female.” I had a hard time keeping a straight face. Super Bowl? What does that have to do with anything? I began to doubt Jones right then and there. Christ, I knew more than he did. This was true crap. But I hid my smile and nodded—what a pro. “You must check for women born in Scranton on January 18, 1976. Make a list of them all. We will prioritize them by how close to halftime they were born. If my theory is correct, the one born closest to halftime will be the one with the greatest chance of having developed super powers.” Jones smiled and handed me a paper with all the date and time information. “So, can you do this tomorrow, Logan, my friend?” I saluted with a couple of fingers. “Can do. But this seems like chump work. Why would you need me when you’re such a great researcher yourself?” Jones was perplexed—clearly he felt always being the smartest person in the room was hell. “Because of this,” he said gesturing to his wall-sized blackboard filled with equations. “And these,” he said, gesturing to his ocean of books. “And my lab and class schedule at the university. But, most importantly, all my nights are full. Monday’s are Manic Mondays, Tuesdays are Two-For-Tuesdays, Ladies Night is generally Wednesday at most bars…do I have to go on? For God’s sake, man, can’t you think for yourself?” “Sounds to me like your ‘research’ every night at the bars has become more important than the Nobel prize.” “Must I tell you again? Okay, you have an entire generation of women in this town with increased abilities and desires—that includes sexual desires and abilities, huh? Get it now? And a generation of like-aged men who still think they have a ‘pee pee.’ The women in Scranton are an untapped goldmine of amazing, intelligent, potent, yet unsatisfied female nuggets with no one to mine them but me! After all, it’s not their fault all the men around them are idiots. I do my best to make as many of them happy as I can, but in a town like this, believe me, there is not enough of me to go around. I’m a goddamn public utility for these poor women. So you do the fucking legwork, it’s Two-For-Tuesday at Skelly’s bar tonight, and I’m up to my ass in research!” There was a crashing sound and a female voice from the other room. Jones glanced at the bedroom door and then turned nervously back to me. “Well, research calls, my friend. Just checking to see if that’s her, you see.” “And how’s that going for ya? Was she born January eighteenth?” I joked. “No, no, no, my friend, I don’t believe so. But if you will excuse me,” said Jones seeming embarrassed and made edgy by my discovery of the “research” he was doing in his bedroom. He turned away and then turned back to me. “You will be needing some funding by now, I am guessing.” He opened a drawer, pulled out a stack of bills with a wrapper that read $5,000, and tossed it to me. I caught it and felt its comforting crunch in my hand. Just what the doctor ordered, I thought, trying to contain the smile I felt inside. Then it hit me. All these strong, beautiful women want him? What am I, chopped bologna? “You can let yourself out.” Jones walked toward the bedroom mumbling, “Research, lots of research.” Again, I beat feet. It was beginning to become a habit. * * * The next day, I halfheartedly began work on the assignment Jones had given me. After all, there was nothing for me to do until she surfaced again, so I might as well keep busy with this. As it ended up, the information was mostly online, so assembling the list of births was easy. Of the nine thousand and some births that year in Scranton, only thirty-two were on January 18. Surprisingly, thirty-one of them were female, and twenty-seven of them were born during the Super Bowl. Those percentages defied all statistical logic; there should have been one or two more boys than girls born, and they should have been more spread out throughout the day. It all struck me as strange. Where the work became difficult was following what happened to these thirty-one women after that. With name changes from marriage, divorce, remarriage, death, movement around the country, unlisted phones, and phones in others’ names, it became hard to follow, and I often lost the trail. With only pizza and beer as my assistants, I continued diligently all day and into the night (not really, but you get the idea). Little did I know that while I toiled that night over a hot laptop, events were already in motion elsewhere in Scranton. CHAPTER 4 Miracle of Flight 118 (My Ass) When I first saw the jet climbing up to join me in the sky, it felt like a friend come to join my fun in the frigid night air. I closed in, thinking that maybe we could race into the clouds together. It was pretty to watch, with its flashing lights, but too slow to keep up with me. I stopped and watched it pass. As I watched its lights drift away in the night, I could sense the one hundred hearts beating inside, and it made me feel connected to them. As I later learned from watching the news reports, at the very instant I watched it glide by, there was trouble in the left engine of the two-engine jet, when dozens of turbine blades approached two thousand degrees after eighty-seven seconds of full throttle flight. One shattered from the strain, and a domino effect broke blade after blade, until the engine exploded, sending thousands of daggers of two-thousand-degree alloy through the engine cowling and into the wing and fuselage, cutting through flight controls and electrical circuits, shredding the tail. With the sudden drop of power on the left and the continuance of full power on the right, the plane twisted, and the right wing rose. The turbulence made the right engine stall and flame out, causing the plane to nose down to the left. That was when I saw the orange ball engulf the left engine and the poor thing almost roll over on its side. My heart stopped for a second when I thought of all those people on board, imagining what they must be feeling as they began to fall. Imagine was all I could do while watching it actually happen from the outside. It wasn’t until later when I read the flight transcripts and watched the news reports that I developed a full picture of what really happened inside the plane. Inside the cockpit, the alarm bells sounded as the pilots feverishly tried to figure out what had happened. With no power and some of the flight surface controls not responding, they had little control over the plane. They contacted the tower, declaring an emergency, and fought to restart the right engine. There were routines they had learned during their training for the loss of one engine, two engines, or flight controls, but with none working, they had few options. They needed to restart the right engine; the left was obviously gone. Flight attendants told of what they saw and said their training clicked on and they instructed the passengers to assume a “safe” crash position while one tried to reach the captain for instructions. Most telling for me were the stories of the passengers themselves. Their stories moved me to tears. In the back of the plane, a young mother sat between her seven-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. She pulled her children to her, unable to answer their repeated pleas: “What’s going on, Mommy?” A young college student and his girlfriend sat in the front right of the plane. The girl clutched the young man’s arm and sobbed. When interviewed, the young man talked about his sense of the “immortality of youth” beginning to fall away at that moment; his sense of life changed forever. A stewardess told how she struggled to hang on to the overhead and angle her body against the tilt in the plane while she tried to help a young mother strap her newborn into the car seat carrier beside her. “What’s going on?” the mother asked, without answer. Meanwhile, in the cabin, the captain fought the controls, while the copilot went through the restart sequence on the right engine. Ahead of them in the darkness, darker than the sky around it, loomed the peak of North Mountain. The events in the cockpit were amazing to read about, and the interviews with the pilots brought home the terror happening inside the plane. The pilot said he knew that if he had enough power, he could do just about anything with a jet. He spoke of having flown at the speed of sound down desert canyons when he was in the Air Force and never breaking a sweat. He was also confident they could start the right engine, if they had the time. “Nick! I need that engine now!” he shouted to the copilot. But looking at the switches he had set and those that were yet to go before he could try the engine, the pilot said he knew that they didn’t have the time. He looked at North Mountain’s rapid approach and settled back in his seat. “Nick!” “Just a minute, Skipper, I’m almost ready,” answered the copilot, committed to his work. The captain said that he glanced up to see North Mountain’s approach, and it triggered his thoughts. Although his hands and feet never faltered or left the controls, he said his mind began to race. He spoke of having lost both his parents in rapid succession two years before—the only family he had left was his wife and their two sons, who were already young men. His thoughts turned to them in the best of times: his wife’s smiling, laughing face, his sons as young boys, and their faces full of joy upon the arrival of Max, the family dog. Then he took another look at the face of North Mountain—it filled his windshield, only seconds away—and then felt himself reaching for his parents’ welcoming arms. I remember approaching the plane, not knowing if I could handle it. Not knowing if I would be helping the people inside or merely end up being a useless, close-up witness to their deaths. But when the plane responded to my will…it was amazing. It was at that moment that the pilot said he felt the nose of the plane rise as North Mountain disappeared beneath him. Then he felt the plane bank gently to the left, circling back to the airport, its airspeed increasing. The two pilots both said they looked at each other in disbelief. Both engines showed zero thrust, zero rpms. The alarms still rang. Their steering yokes turned by themselves. They both agreed that for those used to being in control of tons of metal and hundreds of lives, it was a baffling, disconcerting experience. The copilot tried to turn the wheel, only to find it violently push back. He continued to try to restart the engine, even as the plane flew under my control. He explained that their training was based on science, and he knew of no other way to function. The passengers cared not about the how or why. All they knew was that the jet was level and seemingly back in control. They all remembered cheering, crying, or hugging one another. The woman in the back with two children said she pulled them close and sobbed uncontrollably. Her daughter asked, “Why are you crying, Mommy?” The young college student remembered his girlfriend burying her head in his chest while he sat upright, staring forward, with tears watering in his eyes. In the cockpit, the captain said he was the first to let go of the controls, becoming aware that something out of the ordinary was at work. The radio crackled in his ear. The voice of the controller remained calm and professional, but in the background, the pilot could hear cheers. “Way to go one eighteen, we copy you level and on return course vector. We have you cleared for landing on runway one-niner west. Over.” “Copy that, one-niner, over.” The pilot answered without knowing how he could comply. He didn’t know right then how to tell them the truth of what was happening. “Whole lotta people down here are waiting to buy you a beer, one eighteen. Over.” “Take you up on that, control. Over.” By then, the copilot was unable to control himself. “Jim, what the hell is going on? How do we land this thing?” The pilot said he just shook his head slowly. “You tell me. All I know is that we’re not in pieces on that mountain; we’re slowly losing altitude on a perfect approach to the airport. I’m not flying. You’re not flying. We have no engines, yet we’re still here. What controls do we have that are working? If I try to turn the controls to bank right and level out the plane, it fights you back to keep banking left and go where it wants.” “It?” said the copilot perplexed. “Look at our airspeed. In theory, this plane can’t still be in the air at this slow speed, but we are!” It was then the radio crackled again. “One eighteen, we track you now off approach vector for one-niner. Are you able to make one-niner, over?” asked the tower. “One moment, control,” was all the pilot could think to answer. I continued carrying the plane through a slow, controlled descent, but now I was passing over the runway toward the terminal. The pilots were clearly trying to make heads or tails of their situation—I knocked on the pilot’s side window, then my head appeared. It was the head of a woman wearing a black mask, with a rat’s nest of blond hair blowing and tangling in the winds outside the cabin. If the pilot had not been belted in, I’ll bet he would have jumped into the copilot’s lap with surprise. I tried to mouth a request to the pilot. The pilot’s confused look told me that he could not understand what I wanted and he feared me more than he was trying to understand me. The copilot had a blank, first-year-of-calculus look on his face and was still trying to cling to logic. “Is that a passenger?” he asked, before short-circuiting. He was reduced to SSS, slurred single syllables, for the rest of the flight. I gestured, with my fingers starting out horizontal and then tipping down slowly to vertical. I did it over and over again, but he didn’t understand me. What did he think, I could hold on to his heavy jet with two fingers forever? “She wants me to drop the landing gear! Christ, what kind of pilots are we? Drop the gear! Prepare for landing!” And then finally he gave me an okay gesture and a smile. I responded with thumbs up and labored to climb back down the fuselage. The radio crackled frantically. “One eighteen, apply power and climb immediately! One eighteen, do you copy? Pull up! Pull up!” The pilot sat smiling, and then turned off all the alarms and began the checklist for landing. The copilot was still frantically trying to restart the engine when the pilot reached over and pulled his hands away from the controls. “It’s okay, Nick, just let go. Prepare for landing.” Nick gave the pilot a wary look from short-circuited eyes, then began preparing to shut the plane down. Within thirty seconds, the plane had stopped its forward motion and begun a short descent, as if it were a helicopter. I set it down gently just outside the gate. I read that the captain then unbuckled and leapt to the window where I had been. The copilot sat SSS-ing. Half of the passenger cabin leapt to their collective feet and began cheering. The other half remained in shock. A young man with two flash wands stood for twenty minutes waving the plane into the gate before realizing that the plane wasn’t moving. Several other men claimed to have seen a flash in black run out from under the plane after it landed, but who believes them? * * * I hid in the shadows on the concourse roof overlooking the jetway where I had landed Flight 118, all the while rubbing and stretching my sore arms and shoulders. They had been in an awkward position to keep that seventy-thousand-pound jet stable, and the idiots in the cockpit constantly trying to change course and start the second engine hadn’t been any help. It burned especially between my shoulder blades, where the fuselage had rested. I watched until all the passengers had left the plane—no one required assistance and no one was injured. I smiled with satisfaction when, finally, the flight crew walked out. Everyone looked good except the copilot, who didn’t look like he was ready to party any time soon. The airline and Federal Aviation Administration people began inspecting the mangled wing, engine, and tail section, which was shredded with holes. I let out a small laugh as I watched the officials rush onto the plane to retrieve the black box recorders. I could imagine the readings and cockpit voice recordings they would find. With my job done, I got ready to leave. I caught the image of my reflection in a window and saw the tangled mess of my hair. “Crap.” Then I was gone. * * * When I got home to my apartment, the adrenaline from the high-speed challenge of saving Flight 118 was coursing through my veins. The sheer joy of what I had done—saving all of those lives, seeing the passengers walking, smiling, breathing, seeing children safe in their mothers’ arms—made me want to laugh and dance, spin mindlessly. What a high I was feeling. Maybe all that was just a day’s work for a superhero, but I was new at this, and for me, this was a remarkable feeling. I just wanted to share it with the world, let everyone know there was hope. No one was alone anymore. They didn’t need to fear the random acts of man. I could even help them defy fate itself. I was still giddy and gleeful when I ditched my mask and cape in my car and headed through the front door. But there Paige awaited me, not smiling. “Mom,” she said. “I know you weren’t at work. I called there, like, a dozen times, and they said you left at five!” Immediately, glee was a faded memory. I crashed into reality, the way Flight 118 would have hit North Mountain if I hadn’t intervened. There was no way to share my triumph with her, and it hurt. I stopped and pointed my palm at Paige. “Honey, I don’t wanna hear this right now,” I said. “Where were you? Did you even think about answering your calls or texts? What if something happened and I needed to get in touch with you? Who’d have saved me from some creepy dude attacking me and Kelly at the mall or something?” she said. The thought hit me like a sucker punch. I hadn’t been there for her because I was there for the 137 people on Flight 118. Who was my priority and who was my real responsibility? For years, protecting Paige had been my only purpose. The image of some mob hit man finding her sent me into a mind-warping panic. I could feel it happening and sensed the sick, frantic guilt I would experience. I turned away and took some deep breaths to calm down and remind myself that it hadn’t happened. “What, some creepy dude like your boyfriend, Dylan? You two have another fight or something?” “Noooo, we didn’t have another fight!” she mocked right back at me. Then she stopped, suddenly calm and concerned. “Where were you, Mom?” “I did leave the office at five. But I had to deliver some papers to Mr. O’Brien, the office manager. The battery on my phone was dead. That’s all. I never got your calls.” “That was hours ago, Mom.” “I went for a walk in the park. I had a rough day.” That’s when she surveyed my ratty hair, torn clothes, and the smell of jet fuel that surrounded me. Her face changed. “The park at night? I warned you not to go back to The Banshee! The guys at that bar are losers!” I had had enough. I walked away down the hall toward my bedroom, “All the guys in this town are losers! And I wasn’t at The Banshee. That’s Thursday. They have Thirsty Thursdays, half-price drinks.” “Not funny! You never care what I have to say!” I stopped in the hallway and quieted Paige with a frosty glare. Would she ever understand how torn she made me feel? She had always been the most important thing in my life, but now there was something else that was also important to me. True, I wanted to protect her, but I was also feeling the seduction of a new life as a powerful person. I opened my mouth without a clue how to make that clear to her, but wishing I could. Instead I turned and continued down the hall. “And what’s with the black clothes all the time? Makes you look like a goth or something…not attractive!” she shouted after me. I slammed the door, making the hinges rattle, then leaned back against it. Sometimes, being Mom was a bitch. I stood against the door, while Paige, I knew, stood in the hall with her arms folded. There was no way I could tell her what I had just done, although my soul cried out to do so. Without knowing what I had just done, she had to feel that I was making mistakes, that she was the mom and I was the kid. Probably simultaneously, we both sighed and said to ourselves, “She’ll never understand.” * * * When I first heard about the incident, they were calling it the “miracle of Flight 118” and praising the captain’s incredible skills. As I read and saw more, I smelled a rat, or maybe spilled beer; anyway, it was something that didn’t smell right. I started by putting five hundred dollars in the palm of a man who had worked the airport tower that night. It was painful as hell to count out those five crisp hundreds—it felt like losing five hundred close friends—but I knew this money-grubbing turd knew something, and I needed to find out. He didn’t say everything he knew, but it was enough to confirm that I was on the right trail and off to a great start. I gathered the rest of my information about flight 118 from interviews, research of records, TV interviews and reports. Even though I wrote the article, you can believe it’s all true…really, no kidding. (Okay, that article I wrote about aliens living under the White House wasn’t true, but they made me write that.) When Dr. Jones heard my story, he danced around like a featherless chicken hip-hopping on a sun-baked asphalt road—not that I have ever seen such a thing, or that anyone else in the world has, for that matter. (That’s just how his image struck me at the time.) “My boy, I am telling you now, we are so close! It’s not a theory anymore! She is here, and we will be finding her soon, very soon, I’m telling you! What did I say? This will be the story of your lifetime!” Then he bent over for a second, tapped his butt, and said, “Mom and Dad, you will be kissing my professional ass! ‘Little man with a little mind,’ they said at grad school. They will be the ones bowing down to me!” Jones shook a finger at me, as if I were one of his tormentors. “We’ll see whose thesis is unimaginative crap!” Then he paced in a circle and calmed a bit before mumbling, “Little fuckers.” I had told him Ed’s story of the beer truck, just leaving out the minor detail of his death. I had told Jones about the airplane landing, how I had researched and interviewed my ass off to get the story, until I was certain the miracle of Flight 118 was just a pretty myth that even the FAA was starting to doubt (though I embellished on how much it had cost me to do so). I just could not bring myself to tell him about the blue/green eye flashes and that we had been within inches of our prey days before. Then, when I told him that I had tracked down the first of the women born during the Super Bowl and I would be meeting with her that evening, the dance started again. It made him so happy that he literally showered me with money. He grabbed a wrapped stack of bills each time he passed his desk and threw them up in an arc to me, mumbling and muttering joyfully to himself as he went. Whether he spoke English or an Indian dialect I could not say, only that I just kept waiting for him to pass that desk again. One thousand dollars…five hundred dollars…two thousand dollars—thank heaven for Mom, Dad, and that trust fund. I could tell money meant nothing to him…but it did to me. How about one more trip past that desk? Finally, he began to pant a little from his exertions and slowed down. “You have done well, my friend. This is true progress. Are you prepared for your meeting with this woman? Was she born near halftime?” I took my notebook out of my bag and fingered down the list. “Her name is Jennifer Lowe. She owns a flower shop. And she was born the closest to half time of them all.” “She has lived here her whole life?” he asked, patting the sweat on his forehead with a black bra he had lifted off of his desk. “Yes, her whole life. That’s what made her so easy to find. Never been married.” “In a town like this I can’t blame her. Nothing more notable in her background than a florist?” “No…but our B.I.B…that’s what I call her…” “B.I.B? What does it stand for?” I told him the story of how Ed had come up with the name, bitch in black. Jones shook his head. “Best we stay with just B.I.B., okay?” He said it again with musical tones, the I being the highest note. “I think I like it. Kind of catchy.” “Sure…what I was saying was our B.I.B. is undercover. She’s not like Olga Settchuoff—movie star, cosmonaut, and the whole nine yards. She doesn’t want to be known, so she will have a cover. She could be a florist, an accountant, anyone.” “Maybe we should have this Jennifer Lowe followed—a private investigator, perhaps?” Inside I thought, Fat friggin’ chance of my handing her over to you! This girl’s eyes glow, and you’ll never see either of us again! Outside I said, “If she looks like a good candidate after our meeting, it would be a good idea.” “You have all the papers from the university about the research project and survey?” “Yes,” I said. He was referring to the “real” Penn State Psychology Department survey that would be my cover to meet Jennifer. I’d told her that she fit a profile our researchers were looking for and that we would give her a whole twenty-five dollars just to meet with me and answer a few simple, confidential questions about her parents and her success later in life. “Good,” he said, then patted me on the shoulder and pushed me toward the door. “Good luck and good hunting, my friend. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s Ladies Night at The Banshee.” CHAPTER 5 Jennifer Lowe (Bitch): Not My Finest Hour I now know what a bug feels like just before it gets fried by a bug zapper. The exhilaration, heightened by anticipation and hope, totally overrides what should be an impending sense of risk and doom. As I approached the coffee shop where I was to meet Jennifer Lowe, the hope that she was the blond with flashing eyes made me ignore all else. Simple things, like how I was going to communicate in more than single slurred syllables, or what I would say to her, or what in heaven I could offer someone like her, or if I would end up like Ed if I got too close. “Hi, I’m a rarely published writer whose work you’ve probably seen in your cat’s litter box. Pardon me, but did you flash your eyes at me and save a hundred people on Flight 118, and do you have super powers? Do you want to go get a burger or something?” somehow just didn’t seem to cut it. I wondered what Jones said to attract all of his women. Or did he just open his wallet? I shook my head. Jones’ women were great, I’m sure, but she…she was a super woman. I concluded that the excitement I had felt since learning of her existence made any risk worth it. She had brought me back from a dull life that now seemed meaningless to one alive with the risky anticipation of what was around every corner. But in actuality, it wasn’t a logical choice at all; I was emotionally compelled to be there, and that was that; just a bug drawn to a light. I arrived way early to be certain I got there first and found a table near the window. I would see her before she saw me—that was for sure. What possible good that would do, I don’t know, but give me credit; it sounded good. Despite not needing the artificial energy, I sipped a coffee as I waited. For the next half hour, people came and went with their lattes and chai teas: some groups, some couples, and the occasional lone female. No one I saw fit the bill. I was just about ready to get a refill on my coffee when I heard a voice. “You must be Mr. Penn State,” a woman said in a cheery tone, suddenly standing beside me. I got through an instant of surprise and panic without showing much of it, then rose and offered my hand. “You must be Jennifer,” I said to the woman, who was obviously not the blond. “I’m Tom,” I lied—why, I don’t know. “Have a seat. Can I get you a…” “Latte, please, extra foam,” she answered, slipping off her coat to reveal a rack the guy in me couldn’t help but notice. I put my eyeballs back in my head and asked, “And?” “How about a cinnamon roll,” she said, sitting down, crossing her legs, revealing muscular skater’s thighs pushing the limits of her jeans. I went to the counter, placed her order and got my refill, then leaned back against it to try to figure her out while I waited. The hopeful anticipation had drained out of me faster than money through my checking account on a Friday. Jennifer had reddish-brown hair down to her shoulders and a sober, almost cocky look on her rather plain face. She wore jeans and a light-colored blouse, expensive but not flashy; but oh, the way she filled them. Oddly I noticed her feminine form but didn’t feel aroused by her in the least. With the guy part of my brain sleeping, I could tune into my journalistic reasoning. (It could happen.) This woman didn’t seem like the florist type. I could imagine her in Congress or on the board of a corporation. Self-confidence and assertiveness flowed out of her like the Amazon River. Her gaze was surgical. Although she acted very calm, you could feel the whirling of a keen intellect unnecessary in the floral trade. I grabbed our cups when the order arrived and made my way back to my chair, studying her face as I did. She had a very average face and young, smooth skin. I could barely see her eyes, as they were hidden behind glasses, the type that lighten or darken in the light. I knew she was not the one with the flashing eyes, but I was still curious to see those hidden peepers, “You need those dark glasses in here? I can barely read my survey,” I joked. She gave a little laugh and then pulled them off, folded them, and put them in her pocket. “No need for those in here,” she said. Her eyes looked almost colorless gray to me, but the only thing that mattered was that they didn’t flash blue and green at me. When she saw me staring at her, she added, “You like hazel eyes, Tom?” she said leaning in toward me, her gray eyes almost sucking me in with their lively, flirty glow. I looked away thinking, Hazel eyes, my ass! Does every woman in Scranton think she has hazel eyes? Is it a law? Then my eyes dropped, or should I say were pulled down, to notice that the top two buttons of her blouse had mysteriously become unbuttoned since I’d left the table, revealing echoing cleavage. Holy hot dogs, is she coming on to me? This sort of thing never happens to me. God, I was starting to love Scranton. Was this a woman starved for attention by RFDs, or something else? Exactly who was playing who here? But again, the consummate trooper, I recovered without too much embarrassment or drool. Actually it was surprising how well I kept my cool. Many women with far less to offer had turned me into testosterone jelly. Instead I pulled out the authentic Penn State Psychology Department survey and a very professional, expensive chrome pen Dr. Jones had given me. “Everything you said on the phone is true, right? You’re not trying sell me a time-share or something, are you?” She put her chin in her hands, her elbows spread on the table, leaning forward. I chuckled, as if such a thought was absurd, then pulled out a business card and Penn State ID Jones had prepared for me. “There, you can see it’s all legal. And we really appreciate your taking the time to participate in this research program. The relationship between women and their parents is so critical in the formation of self-esteem,” I BS’ed. Talking, trying to be cool, yet keeping my eyes from wandering, was peculiarly possible tonight. “That’s true. I loved my parents, especially my dad. They were murdered, you know. I assume that’s why you picked me for the survey.” That was all news to me, so I bluffed. “Oh, yes. That’s why we picked you. The difficult circumstances around their death and your success later in life put you right at the top of our list.” “It took me years to get my head around it. Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me to talk about it anymore…in fact, a man’s interest in little ol’ me is sort of comforting. I can just let all those feelings out. Do you know what I mean, Tom?” I swallowed hard enough to down a basketball. Whoever this Tom guy was, he was one lucky bastard. I started to read the questions on the survey form, all of which seemed pretty stupid to me, but I wasn’t the PhD. I wasn’t having much trouble speaking, but my handwriting was a little slow due to my anxiety level and unfamiliarity with the forms or the field of study for the survey…or maybe it was just the focused beam of her sexuality that was causing me to become nervous, sweat, and lose my cool. You choose. She slid into the chair next to me, in the process being certain to brush her chest against my side. “Why don’t I move over here? It’ll make it easier for me to see the form.” “Okay, sure,” I answered and pointed a shaking pen point at question number four. She ran her hand through my messy, hair, brushing it back into a look she preferred, and looked at me like I was a juicy steak—okay, hamburger, at least, and not fast food…. Jennifer used her thumb and forefinger to run an outline along my goatee. “My answer would have to be my father, definitely my father,” she said, not even looking at the form as her left hand began to roam my thigh. I wrote down her answer. When I moved on to question five, she moved up to my crotch. I couldn’t have felt less in control unless I was falling out of an airplane without a chute. I was surprised, yes, shocked, yes, but then totally dismayed. Never before had my little man failed to answer with a woman knocking on the door. But now, it had failed to rise to the occasion—nothing. Her hand stayed there a good while, but didn’t find anything firm. Without giving it much thought, as was my method, I stood up, began packing my things, and stammered, “Sorry, I just forgot that I was supposed to meet my boss. I have to be going. I’ll leave you the survey to fill out. There’s a stamped envelope—you can mail it back at your convenience.” (Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.) All was still in my pants, nothing. Just to be sure, I took a good long look at her chest as she rose…nothing, nothing but panic. “Are you…okay?” she asked, apparently never before having seen a genuine a-hole in action. I mumbled something, maybe in English. “You’ve been with her. Haven’t you?” said Jennifer, suddenly cold and incriminating. “How’d you find her? She fall for this little survey trick?” Luckily I had a clever response to her new, suddenly indicting attitude: “What?” “What color were her eyes when she marked you? She did mark you, didn’t she? You know, it’s a shame, too, because I’d have marked you and you’d have really liked that. Wouldn’t you?” She grabbed my lapels, looking at me fiercely. “Where is she? Tell me where she is!” But I was two steps ahead of her in our chess match, and my reply shocked her. “Who?” “You think pretending to be dumb can save you?” I thought yes, because dumb had always worked for me before. She held me at arm’s length and stared through me with those gray eyes for a long moment. Then it seemed like her eyes actually began to glow for a second before they faded back to gray. “Damn that bitch,” she said letting me go. “What’s so fucking special about you?” I mumbled an incoherent few syllables, which I’m sure cut her deeply, then took this as my opportunity to beat feet. She called after me as I left. “I’m the only one who can save her…and you too! When they come for you, remember that! Call me.” Being socially correct and totally confused, I fired back, “You too. Have a nice day.” * * * It took me a full day to recover from my meeting with Jennifer. Her words popped in my mind like the bubbles on the head of a good brew. What did she mean? Save the B.I.B.? From who? Exactly who was coming for her…and me too? Who gave a flying crap about me? And what the hell was marking? Was that the blue/green flash of her eyes, and was that a good thing or a bad thing…a very bad thing? During that time, I didn’t accomplish much of anything. I didn’t even return Dr. Jones’ phone calls. I supposed I had just been too overconfident, excited, or whatever. What if she had been the B.I.B.? I expected more from myself and my buddy in my pants, as far as managing the meeting. Many beers and long, meaningful conversations with my buddy failed to resolve anything. Christ, I had a lot more of these appointments to schedule, and I hoped they all wouldn’t end like that. I needed the break to get it back together. CHAPTER 6 She Reappears (Thank God) After a few days, these three articles in the local paper awoke me from the doldrums. They appeared in different sections of the newspaper a day apart, but I knew they were related: Mysterious woman saves cat twice (Scranton) Scranton native Billy O’Leary credits a mysterious woman dressed all in black for saving the life of his pet and best friend Mr. Jingles, not once but twice. The first event occurred at 10:00 a.m. on Feb. 19, when Mr. Jingles accidentally got out of the O’Leary Monroe Street home. Mr. O’Leary tells the story: “I blame myself. I brought in some groceries and didn’t quite close the door. Right then, Mr. Jingles shot through the door, out in the yard. He’s not what you would call an outdoor cat. By the time I put down my bags and headed after him, he was out in the road. I looked down the road, and here comes this beer truck, not slowing down a bit. There was no way I could reach him in time, and he wouldn’t come when I called to him. I was sure he was a goner, and I turned my head. “When I looked back, there she was. This woman dressed all in black from head to foot with a mask around her eyes, carrying Mr. Jingles like he was a baby. He was liking that. From the look of her, there was no way I could tell who she was. All I know is that she was dressed in this skintight black outfit and had long blond hair. “I tried to thank her, but she don’t say a word, just hands me Mr. Jingles. But he didn’t want to leave her and tries staying in her arms, purring, as it were. I never wanted to be a cat so much in my whole life. Finally, she gets him out of her arms, and then she’s gone, just like that.” Apparently, Mr. Jingles again escaped Mr. O’Leary’s home that afternoon. Luckily for him, the woman in black was there again to save him from yet another of the beer trucks that frequent Monroe Street. But the story didn’t end there. The next morning, Mr. Jingles apparently broke through a window and ran for the street in an apparent attempt to be “saved” yet again by the mystery woman. Unfortunately for Mr. Jingles, this time she was not there to scoop him up, and he was hit by yet another beer truck. He is in stable condition at a local veterinarian hospital. The vets expect him to make a complete recovery, although they are unable to stop him from purring, apparently an aftereffect of his contact with the mysterious woman in black. Mystery female weds twenty couples (Scranton) Twenty couples had planned, for over a year now, that Feb. 20 was to be the day they were married in a mass group wedding to benefit the Lackawanna Branch of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind. The event was to take place at the Lackawanna Station Hotel with the renowned Reverend Thomas Price presiding. Just before the event was to begin at 1:00 p.m., all gathered were informed by an unidentified woman that Reverend Price had been arrested for child abuse and that the clergyman had appointed her to take his place. The woman wore a black formal dress, but also wore a black mask to cover her eyes, and she sported a brightly colored bow in her blond hair that had been taken from one of the wedding gifts. Rather than disrupt plans made by friends and family members, the couples went ahead with the wedding ceremony. The mysterious woman in black disappeared promptly after pronouncing the final couple man and wife. Enigmatic woman corrals local reverend (Scranton) A lone woman, unknown to anyone, walked into Central Police Station in Scranton today pulling a duct-taped and embarrassed Reverend Thomas Price behind her on a dog leash. The young woman, described only as blond wearing dark clothing, did not stay to explain but, instead, merely handed the leash and a few assorted dog treats to the officer on duty. Taped to the reverend were several videotapes, the contents of which were not immediately released. At this hour, Reverend Price is still in custody. * * * I was beginning to love her sense of humor. Not only did she help people, she had a way of taking the seriousness out of things with her humor. Visualizing her exploits made me smile. Remembering her so close to me at the bar made my chest feel like a hollow pit of longing. Crap, was I pining? Is this what pining means? Who pines anymore, really? It was clear that the B.I.B. had surfaced again…and again. Luckily for me, writers on different beats handling what seemed to be minor oddball stories weren’t making the connections of these events. They weren’t looking for her the way I was. I remember being struck by the new way she was appearing. Before, she had remained hidden and mostly unseen, appearing only at night. Now, here she was out in open daylight, unconcerned about being noticed. She didn’t seem like someone who would shoot an antler-wearing RFD like poor Ed just because he was a witness to her flying around with a beer truck full of criminals. But as I’d learned during my brief, painful relationship with the Nelson twins, women can be unpredictable. They can just change their minds…take your TV or screw your best friend…friends…or worst of all, take your beer. But for some reason, the B.I.B. seemed different. Whatever dangers she might pose, the more I thought about her, the more I wanted to be that damn cat nestled against her breast, purring…forever. CHAPTER 7 Spinderella (Because It Deserves Its Own Chapter) Certain another brain would do me a great deal of good, I gathered everything up on the B.I.B. and headed for Dr. Jones’ apartment. Now I had some good news to counteract the bad news about Jennifer Lowe. When I reached Jones’ place, I soon found out why he hadn’t been concerned about my meeting with Lowe. He was a wreck, obviously not having cleaned up or changed his clothes in days. As I joined him at his desk, Jones quickly folded up some blueprints and circuitry drawings, slipped them in his desk. I’d seen the complicated scale drawings and had to wonder why he was trying to hide them from me and what they were all about, “Hey, Doc, you building something special there? Is that for our little project?” “Yes, it happens to be a new idea I’ve had,” he said as he locked the drawer and then backed against the desk. “Does that mean I get some James Bond electronic shit to work with?” “Something like that. It’s very technical. Not something I expect you’d be interested in.” Jones’ answer left me more than a little curious, perhaps even a bit insulted. But he was the one paying the bills, and I figured he knew what he was doing, so my concerns drifted away like a happy little bird. “Dr. Jones, what’s wrong? Something happened?” He stared at the ground and took a few deep breaths. “My friend,” he started, his voice breaking, “Demitri…I received an email relayed through my colleagues in Oxford that Demitri is dead.” He paused and shook his head. “He wrote me four days ago saying that he had found Olga Settchuoff, and that he hoped to meet with her any day. He was very excited that all his work had paid off; the proof was so close. The next thing I know, I received a second email saying that he was found dead by Russian authorities…an accident, they said. But I…I know better. “His body was sent to his relatives in Moscow, but now they have to delay the burial. It seems three teams of morticians have been working for days trying to get rid of the smile on his face. A dead man with a huge grin—can you imagine it? Too ghoulish. So then they decided on a closed-casket funeral. Now, they can’t close the lid…” Now Jones was really pushing himself to speak. “It seems that his penis is frozen erect, twisted into a corkscrew shape.…The morticians have never seen anything like it. They can’t get pants on him. They tried turning him on his side, to no avail. He was truly a dead stiff. What a tragic end for such a great man of science. Not to mention the best bocce player I have ever known.” “Wait! Does this mean…” “Exactly, my astute friend. Woe to us all, Olga has perfected the mythical Spinderella move, and it turns out to be deadly.” “How can that be? I thought it was just a story,” As a tale told by many a pervert and by many card-carrying penis-hating lesbians, Spinderella was both myth and legend, a story that lived in men’s wet dreams and nightmares. It’s on video if you want to rent it, but the short version is that a virginal young beauty’s fairy godmother blesses her with an unusual gift. She likes it on top and is able to spin around, pinwheel-like, while she does it, giving her wildly exciting orgasms and doing the same for her partners, if they don’t die in the process. It seemed innocent enough as a porno legend, but now, with Dimitri’s demise, it was a deadly reality. Then I thought for a moment. “Wait. Doesn’t that chick, Olga, have to be in her late sixties by now?” “I see you understand the import of this event. We have various birth dates for her, but they all put her in either her late or early sixties.” “An old broad tears him up like that?” “No, no, my friend, do not underestimate her as Demitri did. That old broad is lethal…obviously. If so, what is a younger version capable of? There is no way to control the Super Born. No, it is too dangerous to continue. We have opened Pandora’s box, or at least Olga’s. You must stop searching for your B.I.B. To find her would be certain death…maybe a happy one, but still a certain one.” It all was crashing in my head like waves going in opposite directions. I had arrived at Jones’ apartment excited to tell him about the new sightings, and now he’d hit me with this deadly news of Demitri. Jones was obviously resigned to the end of his research, but I could not bring myself to believe that a woman who saved cats and married people could also be a cold-hearted killer, accidental or not. I had almost convinced myself that she could not have killed Ed, but now this news reopened that can of worms. Then the worst fear hit. If he stops looking for her, he’ll stop giving me bundles of cash, and I’ll have to find a job—what a friggin’ nightmare! “Sorry, Doc, but we can’t stop now. We’re too close.” “That is what Demitri said.” “But we now have this information. We can be more careful.” Jones shook his head and threw his arm down at the ground in frustration. “I don’t know…Well, there is one thing that could make this work. If by chance you have had any contact with the B.I.B., if you have been with her and you are still alive, that might give us hope of continuing. Have you been with her, per chance?” he asked closing in on me with keen interest. I became trapped between the truth and my dreams of being with her. It made me stammer while trying to choose the right answer, the one that would make Jones want to keep up the search. My hesitation convinced him I had been with her or at least that I knew more than I was telling. “Ah ha! You have been with her! You old dog!” With that his attitude turned immediately 180 degrees. “I knew it! All I had to do was cast a little doubt and out pops the truth.” “No, I haven’t...I’ve only been with her in my dreams.” I sensed the tiniest of openings and pushed ahead. I showed him the newspaper articles and got worked up talking about them. “How can a woman who does these things be a killer? And look, she’s starting to do it in daylight, like she’s not afraid to be seen and known anymore.” “Or maybe she just has to be home at night to feed a sick mother or something.” I ignored him. “If she’s not afraid to be known, then she’ll have no reason to kill anyone who finds her out. Maybe she even wants to be recognized now. And if I know what she can do, I can stay away from those situations,” I lied. “You are both persuasive and brave,” he said. Boy, did I have him fooled. “It’s my job. We can’t stop now.” “You, you can’t stop now. I can stop anytime. Look, it’s Two-for-Tuesday at The Banshee, and I’m not going! Tomorrow is Ladies Night at Skelly’s, but they won’t see my boney ass!” he said proudly, pounding his chest. “Besides, Mom would kill me if I ended up dead in a coffin with a twisted flag pole in my pants and with no straight-A PhD grandchildren mourning me by her side. You go on. Maybe you feel safe. But if you must, I will be telling you over your grave that it’s your doing, not mine.” I considered it a victory and decided Jones (and his money) would jump back on board at the first sign of progress. On the way home, I thought about Ed, I thought about Demitri, but most of all, I thought about the B.I.B…and the Spinderella move. She wouldn’t kill me, would she? My brain said, “That light up ahead’s a bug zapper”; my heart said, “It’s the moon.” * * * I don’t think my karate teacher liked me very much. I don’t think he figured a working mom who only had time for one lesson a week and no time to kiss his butt (which was as big as his ego) made for a serious student. Sensei, as we called him—I think his wife did too, and probably even he did, when he looked in the mirror—didn’t spend a lot of time teaching me. What he spent a lot of time doing was making fun of any little thing I did wrong. They said sensei meant “teacher “ or “master” in Japanese, but I thought it meant a-hole. Sensei was an ex-Marine, built like a rock—a muscular, late-thirties guy with hair that had started to go bald, yet which he wore long in a ponytail behind him. He spent his time with me in the class of white belt six- to eight-year-olds teaching me kata, mock battles incorporating karate moves. It bugged him when I wanted to move on to advanced techniques and skip the basics. He’d say, “It takes time to reach that level. Perhaps in five years or so, if you work hard and come here more than one day a week, you can reach that level, Grasshopper.” I couldn’t believe he used lingo from an old TV show like that. Anyway I didn’t have the time. I needed advanced techniques today, so sit on this, Sensei Grasshopper. I came to class early most days and left late, learning from some of the other students who had black belts and seemed to live at the school 24/7. One in particular named Amy seemed to get a kick out of how fast I was picking up even the hardest techniques. She was a short, brown-haired fifteen-year-old girl who had been kicking and punching since she was four. You could tell I made her feel torn between helping me and following the sensei’s approach, but seeing an old lady like me learn so fast was clearly rewarding to her, so she bent the rules for me. Amy taught me the hammer fist blow and several types of kicks that I had seen her use to win a tournament and I thought would be useful when the B.I.B. was fighting hand-to-hand. Amy took the time to show me things Sensei would not, and she was always very patient with me. She was about Paige’s age, so I guess I turned a little motherly on her. We had just finished a session in a back corner of the dojo when she laughed and wiped the sweat off of her pimply adolescent face. “Wow, you sure picked that up quick. I’m gonna have to watch out for you.” “Yep, I’ll bet I’m really gonna be somethin’ when I grow up.” She snorted a little laugh. “You already are somethin’…for a mom anyway. My mom thinks I’m crazy to want to go to a karate tournament instead of homecoming. I can’t imagine her doing what you do.” “Your mom doesn’t know how good you are. She’ll see one day.” “I’m not good. That woman in black, she’s good. You hear about her? The lady in the mask? She knocked out that nasty old reverend and turned him in. I wish I could meet her, but she’d probably kick my ass.” So I did: I gave her a front kick right in the butt. “What was that for? “ Amy asked, with a little laugh. “I’m the Women in Black, and I’m kicking your ass!” Amy snorted again. “You’re funny. You wanna be my mom?” When I looked at Amy’s face, I saw every mistake I had ever made with Paige. The fact that her mom didn’t understand her daughter’s interests hit a little too close to home for me—I’d heard Paige tell me something along those lines too many times. “Listen, Amy,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulders, “Can I come to your next tournament? When is it, and where?” Then Sensei called her and she had to run, quickly. “I’ll text you,” she said, running to meet his command. Fifteen minutes later we lined up for our class. As I was only available this one day a week, due to my part-time job, my choice of classmates was limited. There was Robby, five years old and more interested in the lights than his teacher; James, sixty-seven months old (as his mother put it), with his runny nose; Megan, almost eight, with thick glasses and a weak defensive posture; Michael, not “Mike”—eight years old, the cocky leader of the group; and finally, at the end, Allie, thirty-three years old (or 397 months or so), who towered over the others in her class but tried to slouch to make the others feel more comfortable. Sensei—ex-Marine, current asshole—walked before us, inspecting our stances as we stood in white, loose-fitting karate jackets, pants, and white belts. He grunted something in Japanese, which I had learned meant Take a ready position, so I did. “Last week I promised you that we would be sparring in our next class, and that time is here. I want you to take everything I have taught you so far and use it. But remember, don’t hit one another. Show me that you could connect your punch or kick, and then I will give you a point. Actually hit someone, and you lose a point. First to three points wins. Got it?” Robby spun around for no particular reason. James picked his nose. Megan nodded. And Mike…Michael pumped his fist with excitement. “You two, get in position,” he said, gesturing to Michael and I. I pointed at myself in disbelief—me, fighting an eight-year-old? “Yes, you. Do your best. Michael is very aggressive.” I looked at the ground and then at little Megan’s unspoiled face and knew I couldn’t defy the sensei in front of his students. Even though I thought it was a bad idea, I assumed the sparring position. Sensei put a red flag on my belt and a white one on Michael in order to identify us for scoring. Then he told us to fight. Michael screamed “Hiiiyaaa!” and came running at me in a ball of flailing arms and legs. I couldn’t bring myself to hit the poor child, but he had no qualms about hitting me and landed a kick in my groin. Sensei threw up his arm and pointed at Michael. I was expecting him to lose a point for hitting me, but instead Sensei shouted, “Kick point white.” “What?” I asked. “I thought you said no contact!” “There was no contact, just a clean kick that could have hit you. Get back to position,” Sensei instructed me. Clean kick? It sure felt like contact. Let me give you a clean kick right in the…I thought. I got ready for the second point. Sensei lowered his arm and grunted to start the second round. This time I wasn’t going to let the little twerp have a clean shot, so I easily blocked all of his screaming attempts at kicks and punches with my forearms. I was trying to figure out how to tactfully get a point without breaking the poor kid’s spirit when Sensei threw up his arms and said, “Punch point white. White leads two,” he pointed at me, “to zero.” I wanted to yell, “What punch point white? Are you watching this match, the one right here? He never came close to hitting me!” I briefly glanced over at Amy, who had a surprised look on her face. She gestured a punch technique for me to try. I knew she wanted to shout, “Hit the little munchkin!” But she didn’t. Sensei readied us again and signaled for the fight to start. I knew Michael was a kid and I would eventually let him win, but my pride made me certain it would be hard for me to let him do so. Quickly, I slipped past his charge and delivered a hammer fist to within a inch of the back of Michael’s head and held it there, waiting for the sensei to call “Punch point red!” But I heard nothing. Michael began a wild attack, which I blocked while I maintained eye contact with Sensei. “How about punch to the head, point red?” I asked as I continued to defend myself against the little tornado. “I said, use everything I have taught you so far. Hammer fist is an advanced technique that I have not taught you. Therefore it does not count. Try something you know instead.” I turned to Sensei and was about to say “I don’t believe this!” when Michael gave me a front kick in the crotch and I heard the dreaded, “Kick point white! White wins three to zero.” Michael pumped his fist madly while his mother leapt to her feet and cheered. Amy sat with her mouth open, partially in shock at my defeat and partially stunned by Sensei’s treatment of me. “Beaten by an eight-year-old. See, you need to come more than once a week,” Sensei scolded me. I couldn’t contain myself any longer. Fire burned in my veins and my brain. “Maybe I just need to fight someone my own size, someone I wouldn’t mind hitting!” Sensei caught the implication and smiled. “I’m your size. Would you like to spar with me?” “Love too,” I said, pulling up my loose white karate jacket and pants, which badly needed tailoring, and tightening my white belt. Sensei put the white flag on his black belt. He gestured slightly to Amy to come and judge the fight. Amy stood beside us then signaled us to begin, her face full of concern for me. Sensei circled around me, changing his stance before yelling “Iceeeea!” and leaping a spinning roundhouse kick at the spot where I used to be. It was beautiful, athletic, quite majestic, really, just not very effective, as I was no longer where his foot had targeted. He found me suddenly behind him saying, “Hammer fist,” and tapping him lightly on the head. Amy erupted, “Punch point red!” When she saw the sensei’s reaction, she repeated meekly, “Punch point red, one to zero.” Sensei steamed. Robby stood on his head. James got knuckle-deep into his nose. Megan blinked. Michael said, “Ohhhh,” dejected. And Amy tried to contain her smile while signaling for round two. This time Sensei decided to use less flair and tried to overpower me. He came at me in aggressive, deliberate strides, throwing punches at a remarkable speed as he came, sort of like a bull on speed. I side-stepped him and delivered another tap to his head saying, “Hammer fist.” Again Amy erupted, “Punch point red! Two to zero.” The sensei pushed my arm away from his head with a bitter, powerful sweep of his arm and stormed away for a moment. He snorted and wiped his nose with the back of his hand as he circled around the mat. “You ready to quit?” I asked while Amy struggled to contain her all-out laughter. Sensei waved to her that he was ready. I checked my fingernails and the clock before taking a ready stance. Amy signaled us to begin round three. This time I shocked him by charging aggressively while punching, driving him back. Then I threw a spinning kick that placed me behind him and to the side, where I delivered another tapping blow to his head. “Hammer fist,” I said, finishing his humiliation. But this time it was not the bare touch of a tap I delivered, but a punch that sent his head jerking forward. “Punch point red! Red wins!” Surprise, surprise, I no longer attend classes with Sensei. Nor do I imagine us exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon. It’s okay, though. After all, I figured if I could easily defeat an ex-Marine black belt without using all my speed and strength, I already knew enough to handle the garden-variety street thug. I did go to Amy’s tournament a few days later. When I had called Amy’s house to confirm the time of the tournament, I got her mom, and actually convinced her to meet me there. We sat on bleachers in a crowded gym where sparring matches were going on simultaneously on four different mats. Amy won her age and rank class, defeating a number of young men and women along the way. When she stepped up to the presenter to accept her trophy, I could she her with uncertainty on her face scanning the crowd. Then she saw me, and a little smile came to her face. I pumped my arm in the air and cheered wildly for her. But then some people in front of us sat down and she saw her little mother standing beside me in tears of pride. A gigantic smile, unlike any I had seen from Amy, took over her entire face. I knew Amy’s mother was glad she had come. Seeing her cringe or cheer at every punch and kick her daughter made or received, I knew she had come to realize the extent of Amy’s skills and the importance of karate in her life. I just hoped I could do the same for Paige. CHAPTER 8 My Website Is Born: But No Seconds on Meat Loaf Looking back now, had I known that the B.I.B. had started showing herself during the day only because she needed to be home at night to keep peace with her daughter, I might have acted differently. But under the bold assumption of a shift in the B.I.B.’s attitude, I took a radical approach. I contacted all the fledgling beat writers who had each written a separate piece on the B.I.B. and offered them some of Jones’ cash to turn over any item to me that they might come across regarding a woman dressed in black doing any kind of unusual deed. I greased palms at any bar of consequence for any sighting of a woman in black, offering further grease if they notified me in time to get there before she left. I created a website, On the site, I placed copies of the articles about her, a blog, a bulletin board, an email exclusively for sightings, and propaganda I had written about “Scranton’s True Superhero.” As time went by, trying to keep the site updated with the latest events and respond to all the emails became a job in and of itself. The beat writers remained greedy, and they fed me like Jabba the Hutt. By the time I had posted a beat writer’s article about the arrest of Tony Turtulio, “The Tool,” on Valentine’s Day, the site was starting to get a lot of hits. A local news channel then picked up the article from the website. “Scranton police received a Valentine’s Day gift today as Tony Turtulio, also known as ‘The Tool,’ was escorted by a delivery woman to Third Precinct headquarters. To the amazement and delight of the officers, The Tool was delivered—as seen in this brief amateur video—unconscious, dressed as a strawberry, and wearing a floppy, leafy-green hat and red clothes, with his torso dipped in chocolate, apparently in keeping with the holiday,” read the female anchor. “Not just any chocolate, Maria. It was Gertrude Hall milk chocolate, made right here at their Scranton plant,” added the male anchor; apparently Gertrude Hall Candies was an advertiser. “Thanks, Tom. The Tool has several outstanding warrants for his arrest and is reputed to be the number four man in the Scranton mob. With some of the federal warrants carrying twenty-year sentences if he’s convicted, it looks like The Tool will be spending a number of Valentine’s Days to come behind bars, where chocolate-covered strawberries will be hard to find.” “Gertrude Hall chocolate strawberries, that is,” added Tom. The video was priceless. That, along with my commentary attributing The Tool’s capture to the B.I.B. and speculation on how she had done it—the chocolate-dipping, I mean—the site began to flourish. Sure, most of the people contacting the site were whackos, but the sheer volume of hits was building. By now, I was in love with her sense of humor; the giant strawberry on Valentine’s Day cracked me up. She was just doing it for fun and to embarrass the crime boys. Having all that power and hiding it in her day-to-day life had to be amazingly difficult. Everything she did was so remarkable and significant, yet humble. By now I had to confess I was in love with her, all of her…crap. Did I just say all that? What’s wrong with me? No way I’d let her read that, risk her saying something crushing like, “I’m sorry, I never thought of you that way.” Ouch! I remembered the six months of emotional energy I’d wasted on courting Karen, just to hear that one. When she got the flowers I sent to her office on her birthday, she told me how I’d embarrassed her in front of everyone. Or how about, “You’re just not my type.” That came from Mia, the bitch. For a full year I was her type. Three or four nights a week, she screamed I was her type. Then a doctor winks at her, and I’m no longer in the picture. Crap, if I wasn’t even Mia’s type, how could I be a superhero’s type? I was risking rejection by foolishly hanging out my feelings like that. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then rejection is a dish I just am not prepared to even order. In fact, I make a point of leaving any restaurant that has rejection on the menu….even as a side dish…even if I have a discount coupon. No way, Jose, she’ll never read this. * * * I stood fifth in line at my bank like a regular, everyday woman dressed in black. As the line moved slowly, I glanced at my watch, not wanting to be late for work and earn the wrath of Old Prune Face. She had already written me up once for being late. One of the tellers was busy counting rolls of pennies and dimes for an old man, while the other was arguing with a man over bounced check charges. I sighed. No lunch again today. That was when three men ran into the bank with ski masks, shouting, ordering everyone to the ground. One thug stood by the door and the other two moved toward the tellers. “Tellers, hands in the air where I can see them. Anyone touching a silent alarm is the first shot. Everyone else, get on the floor. Anyone who doesn’t get down right now is dead!” said the leader nearest the tellers. People screamed and dove to the ground. The tellers nervously held up their arms and looked at one another for a clue as to what to do. The leader seemed to be getting off on watching all those he commanded. When he saw me defying him, standing with my back to him in front of a fake potted palm tree, he was first surprised, then pissed off. I dropped my bag and my deposits. When I turned to face the leader, I had the black mask over my face and said, “You’re gonna make me late for work. Do you really have to do this today?” The leader’s eyes turned to fire. “You don’t wanna listen, do ya, bitch?” he said, determined to make an example of me. “Just who do you think you are? Maybe you think you’re that woman in black everybody’s talkin’ about…What da they call her?…The Bib. You the Bib lady?” “It’s not Bib. They call her B.I.B.,” the thug nearest us corrected. “My mistake,” the leader said sarcastically, moving in closer to me and raising his gun, “You the B.I.B. lady? If not, you’re in big trouble. Now, sit your ass down!” I moved slowly toward him. “Oh! This must be what they meant by ‘stupid is as stupid does.’” He aimed his gun at the center of my body. With his veins full of adrenaline and a sadistic grin on his face, he pulled the trigger of his 9 mm four times. His shots totally wasted the plastic palm tree and pot that had been behind me. As he felt his wrist break and watched his gun drop to the floor, his expression changed to shock and amazement. After I delivered a hammer fist blow to the back of his head, he slipped down to the floor. The thug by the door watched in horror. Seeing what I had done to his friends, he tore off his mask, pulled open the bank door, and was gone in a flash. The third thug looked at the limp body of the leader with his badly mangled wrist as he lay unmoving on the floor. He dropped his gun and put his hands out in front of him. “Hey, I don’t want no trouble!” “Then I guess you picked the wrong career, the wrong bank, and the wrong woman,” I said, moving in on him. He raised his arms to protect his face as I delivered another sharp blow. He fell limply to the ground. I stood behind him, looked around for any more of the gang, and then walked over to recover my bag and deposits. With the shots having been fired, no one else moved. They just whimpered or listened with hands over their heads. I grabbed my things and started toward the side door as the police stormed through the front. A commander saw me walking away and gestured to a patrolman beside him. “Go stop her and bring her back,” he said as he pointed at the side door. But I was long gone. * * * I don’t think my supervisor liked me much. She had seen me come back from lunch fifteen minutes late, then corralled me into her office. From behind her desk, she looked at me with her sour puss and tapped the end of her pen on the desktop. Then she pointed her evil wand at me. “I have warned you about this over and over. You’ve already been written up once for being late. Tell me, do you like your job here?” I had to think about it too long. “Yes, I do.” “Do you know the company policy regarding tardiness? We do not tolerate it!” she said, waving her wand in my face, not waiting for my response. “It really wasn’t my fault. You see, while I was at the bank…” “Tut, tut, tut! Don’t waste my time explaining. You are either here at the appropriate time or not. There are no excuses!” she said, waving her wand at me again. “Do you think you can do whatever you want like that Bib woman who’s running around all over town?” By now I’d decided that I liked the sound of being called B.I.B., but Bib twice in one day was irritating. In my mind I imagined holding her out the fourth floor window by my little finger, listening to her screams. But then I thought of how badly I needed this job, so I said, “I am sorry.” “Sorry doesn’t cut it, Missy! I have not missed a single day of work in twenty-two point three years!” I couldn’t help but imagine her dressed in colonial clothes lighting a pile of wood to set a witch on fire. “Tell me, what would you do if I were late and not here to lead you and the other lollygagging members of my staff?” Cheering was my instinctive reaction to that thought, but I knew that was the wrong answer. In my head I wondered what it would look like if I were to crush her between my hands down to the size of a talking head that I could just leave on her desk, bitching. “We would be totally lost if you were not here on time to lead us,” I said, trying to keep my mind on the fact that my rent payment was due. “That is correct. Finally, you are getting the point!” She stood up and creaked around her desk toward me. She peered at me through slitted, reptilian eyes. “I like you, Allie. You sometimes are perfectly adequate.” I held back my clenched hammer fist by thinking of rolling her up and bouncing her like a basketball, which I then tossed into the nearest trash can. “Thank you, ma’am.” “I am going to let you pass with a strenuous warning this time. But in return I expect you to make up your time and then some.” I wondered how loud her bones would crack if I snapped her in two and how many times I could fold her in half. Then she held up three fingers, thin rods with saggy, puckered skin. “Three write ups and you’re gone,” she said. “Remember that. Now, out of my office,” she said, pointing to the door and then creaking back behind her desk. “You’ve already wasted enough time with this foolishness.” As she turned her back to me, I wondered if I could kick her into orbit or just the next county with one swing of my leg. “I will try to do better.” She grumbled some sort of response as I turned and scooted out of the office back to my cubical. I sat and looked at the girls around me, knowing the fifteen minutes I had been late didn’t matter in the least. I could do the whole department’s work for the day in a few minutes, but my reward for doing so would be to see all my friends laid off and be given even more work to do. So I crawled at a snail’s pace and put up with Prune Face’s ancient little ego. * * * The security camera tapes were gold. I won’t tell you how much it cost or what laws I bent to have them anonymously emailed to the site, but it was worth it. Suddenly, the site was racking up thousands of hits. Advertisers were contacting the site for ad space. B.I.B. sightings were pouring in, most of them trash. The video turned the website into a real job. When the security tape first arrived, I was disappointed and almost deleted it in disgust. The beginning part was full of digital static; I could barely make out the fact that it was a bank, and the people were all foggy. But then, as the gunmen entered the bank and began the robbery, it all went suddenly clear. The image of the B.I.B. moved from the palm tree to the first gunman in just a frame or two—it was the same when she moved toward the last gunman. But that wasn’t what I loved most about the video. When I replayed it again and again, frame-by-frame, I discovered that there was one frame at the beginning just before the static started that showed a woman dressed in black entering the bank from the street. When I froze that frame, I saw a grainy image that I felt certain was the blond I had seen at O’Malley’s that night. Delusion can be fun. There was a growing sentiment among the people posting on the website that the city authorities should be embracing the B.I.B. and encouraging her efforts. Many said the mayor should invite her out of the shadows to work directly with police. A day later, as I was digging through the email leads people had sent in, in response to my reward program, I knew I was on the right track. A young man from Texas, on temporary assignment working the oil fields in the mountains above Scranton, sent in a picture of a woman dressed in black with blond hair. She wore a black mask over her eyes, a gigantic, decorative-only bit of bling on her finger, and she was smiling, proudly displaying a bottle of Miner’s Lite beer in her outstretched hand. Again, it was a very grainy picture, taken in a dark bar using a cell phone, but her image leaped out at me the second I saw it. The young man claimed to have taken the picture at a pub called Skelly’s several nights before. He said he had partied with the woman and her friends there. After a few beers, she had brought out the mask and worn it for a few minutes, saying she was the B.I.B. He took the picture, sure she was joking, and thought nothing of it until someone had introduced him to our website and told him to send the picture in for the reward. He said he also had some pictures of her later that night making a really good “fish face,” if I wanted those. I immediately contacted the young man, sent him the reward, and offered more for the fish face pictures. I asked him if he had her number or address or had seen her again, and he replied that they had parted ways just after the pictures were taken and he had no way of getting in touch with her again. Next, I put the picture of her wearing the mask and holding the beer front and center on the website home page with the title, “This is the B.I.B.!” Then I used my contacts at the Times Tribune to get me a meeting with the managing editor. It was a hard sell, back then, but I got him to agree to let me create a B.I.B. column in the paper. He balked a bit when I told him what the name meant, but he liked the amount of traffic the site was seeing, and that was, after all, the url: I gave him the picture and my first feature, which I had compiled from various things I had already written for the website. He buried it on page eight the next day. * * * Once or twice each week, Paige and I have dinner at my sister Lori’s house, which is located near our apartment. It was convenient, saved on the expense of cooking for only two, and allowed us some time with the family. On this night, I had worked late to make up for the time I had missed the previous day, trying for some brownie points with Ol’ Prune Face. By the time we arrived at Lori’s, her husband and kids had finished their dinners, so it was only Paige, Lori, and me at the table. We sat at the dining room table, digging into our reheated dinners, while Lori paged through the newspaper. “Can you believe these stories about this ‘Bib’ woman?” asked Lori, as she reached page eight. There it was again; someone saying ‘Bib,’ irritating me like cracker crumbs in my bed. I closed my eyes and tightened the muscles in my face, trying to remember that she was my sister and murder was out of the question…or was it? She was asking for it. I wrapped my arms around my stomach to keep them from striking. “It’s not Bib,” I began struggling to be calm, “Please don’t call her that. It’s B.I.B.” “No one calls her that,” added Paige, barely looking up. “Bib is just gross. It misses the whole point. She’s not a baby.” Lori gave us both a wave of her hand. “Bib Smib,” she declared, risking life and limbs again as my fingers clenched and shook. “Whateverrrrr,” added Paige. Oblivious to her near-death experience, Lori shook her head. “I don’t believe they call her by those initials, and right in the paper. A strong woman who wears black, you just know it means Bitch in Black.” “That’s what B.I.B. stands for?” I asked in naive surprise. “All this time everyone’s been calling her a bitch right to her face?” “Mom, please. You didn’t know that?” said Paige shaking her head. “You really need to get out more.” Now I knew why I hated being called ‘Bib.’ A Bitch in Black was a totally different thing. “I don’t know. I kind of like it. At least a bitch doesn’t take any shit, right?” I said, coming to my own defense, and I did like it. After years of being “just” a single mom, being bad ass seemed pretty good. “She’s amazing. Now they have a picture of her in the paper,” Lori continued, seeming to half agree with me. I stopped, a forkful of mashed potatoes just before my lips. “Picture?” “Yeah, look, there she is,” said Lori showing the paper to me. “But with that mask, what good is the picture? She could be anyone.” My fork continued to my mouth, relieved that even my own sister was unable to put the picture together with me. “Boy, she looks great,” I added, remembering the night the picture was taken. I smiled briefly, thinking about the bar and Mr. Texas that night. Then the smile drained. I’ve got to be more careful, I thought, remembering the number of beers I’d had. I didn’t really remember everything about that night, but I do remember going to Skelly’s with the girls from the office. After several rounds of beers, all of us girls sort of adopted the Texan when he dared stop by our table. You could tell by his body language that he was concentrating his charms on me, but having recently injured Jason, I was in no mood to humor him, or do him any damage. He bought us all some flaming shots, but gave me a couple extra, as I remember. Then the conversation turned to the news that day about the B.I.B. and what a bad-ass she was. So I whipped the black mask out of my purse and put it on, telling all that would hear that I was the B.A.B.I.B., the Bad Ass B.I.B. Every one howled and the friggin’ Texan took my picture as I saluted him with the Miner’s Lite bottle, dressed in my work clothes with the black mask over my eyes. That was dumb, and now it had come back to haunt me. “You wanna see the picture, Paige?” Lori asked my quiet and sullen daughter holding the paper out for her to see. Without looking up from her plate, Paige lifted her tablet computer from beside her and held it up for us to see. There was the same picture in glowing color and much better quality than the printed version. “You old people really need to get with the twenty-first century. I saw that picture this morning. Where have you been?” she said popping a bite of meat loaf in her mouth. Lori was taken aback. “I think Mom’s the B.I.B.” Paige said matter-of-factly, staring at her plate. My mashed potatoes came to a sudden halt halfway down my throat. Then Paige turned to us and said more lightly, “She appears mysteriously in the middle of the night. Her hair is all messed up and her clothes torn. You should have seen her when she came home from The Banshee!” Paige laughed, knowing she had gotten me into trouble with Lori. “The Banshee?” Lori asked me, like a mother to a child. “I thought you said you weren’t going there.” I was relieved that Paige was only joking and my mashed potatoes continued on their way. “Don’t worry; I’m not going there anymore. “Promise?” “Yes, I promise.” “You should have seen her…rat woman! Her hair was a mess! And the smell!” Paige continued, joking. “Now, that’s enough,” Lori said, coming to my defense. “She said she promised, and that’s good enough for me.…I gotta look at this website in the article,” “Catchy,” I said. “Yep, hard to forget a web address like that,” said Lori. “I think it sucks!” Paige added, just to be confrontational. Lori studied the picture in the paper more closely. “Allie, didn’t you have a ring like this? I remember you wore that tacky thing at Christmas,” she said, holding the paper toward me so that I could see the picture. My sister remembers everything. I wore that ring on occasion when I went out. It was a giant square cut of crystal I wore as an accessory. Most of the time I wore it on my ring finger just to mock myself—a personal reminder that there was no one putting a diamond there. The monstrous rock was my way of saying “Who needs you?” to the juvenile men of Scranton. “Nope, never had one like that…the cut is totally different on the one I wore at Christmas. Imagine me…having a ring like the B.I.B.” I laughed, knowing Lori was totally correct. “I noticed that too,” added Paige. She glanced at her tablet again. “See, Mom. Yours looks…” I knew I had to stop her before she could finish. I had the pepper shaker in my hand. With the superspeed of which I was now capable, I released a cloud of pepper with a few dozen shakes that only took a millisecond and then sent the cloud to Paige’s nose at the other end of the table with one powerful, high-velocity breath. It all happened too fast for anyone to notice, and it worked; a violent sneeze interrupted her words, then another, then another. “Eeww, what was that?” Paige exclaimed between sneezes, bringing her hand to cover her nose. The frequent sneezes began making it hard for Paige to catch her breath. Lori looked at Paige, puzzled, and then at me. I shrugged, and we both rose to comfort her. “Should we call 9-1-1?” Lori asked with her eyes growing wide. By now, Paige was out of her chair, hunched over, sneezing, wheezing a little, and beads of sweat had formed on her forehead. Lori hovered over her, trying to evaluate and console her, but Paige was barely able to talk. I played my part, knowing that Paige would be fine, but needing to show my concern. Lori, on the other hand, lost it, as was the way of her people. “It was my fucking meat loaf, wasn’t it!” Now I had two to calm down. I turned from Paige to grab Lori by the shoulders. “It wasn’t the meat loaf!” “She’s having an allergic reaction to the goddamn meatloaf! I’m killing your daughter!” “No one’s dying. She’ll be fine. Get her a cup of water. Do you have any nasal saline spray?” Her throat’s closing! We have to get her to the hospital! Can’t you see she’s having an allergic reaction? Don’t you ever watch the fucking news? I saw this on the ‘Dangers of Breathing!’” Lori was a bright shade of panicked red, and her breathing was worse than Paige’s. Consoling Lori was no use, so I turned my attention to Paige as Lori ran out of the room. I heard the eruption of voices in the next room as she tried to enlist her husband in the “save Paige” effort. I found some nasal saline in the cupboard of the little half-bath next to the kitchen and began the job of corralling Paige and rinsing out her nasal passages as best I could, while Lori flashed by, slipping her coat up over one arm and rattling her keys, heading for the car in the garage. “Never reheat meatloaf…” she muttered in passing. Even before the nasal spray, Paige was better. But now, with the added help of a few sips of water, her symptoms were subsiding. I sat her back down, and she took a few deep breaths. “You okay?” I asked. She nodded. It was now my turn to feel bad for putting her through that pain. What kind of a horrible mother would do something like that to her daughter just to cover up a stupid picture I never should have let be taken in the first place? But Paige did have to bring up the ring, and she did make those nasty comments about The Banshee. Heck, she was asking for it! And compared to the eighteen hours of labor she had put me through, it was nothing. Anyway, it had worked, and the cut of my goddamn ring was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Lori returned from pulling the car out of the garage as Michael, her husband, arrived having been pulled miraculously from his recliner. He stepped into the doorway at the other side of the kitchen and rubbed his belly with a Miner’s Lite in his other hand. I told them that everything was fine, and Paige even tried to smile to reassure them. That prompted Michael to disappear and Lori to grab the meat loaf platter and toss it into the trash on top of the folded newspaper I had already sent there. So ended the “Bling-Ring-Pepper Debate”…and any chance for seconds on meatloaf. Oh, and that ring was toast as soon as I got home. CHAPTER 9 “We Are No Longer Afraid” It was the next adventure of the B.I.B. that made me a true public figure. This occurred just a few days after the picture taken at Skelly’s was published. I sat on the couch and watched the evening news while Paige chatted with her friends on Facebook, texted on her phone, and listened to music on her iPod. We were both dressed for comfort only and planned on being in for the night. I lay on my side on the sofa, slowly munching and savoring a Gertrude Hall milk chocolate while beginning to unwrap another. The news article on the TV showed a brokenhearted, crying woman, Madalena Gonzalez, whose daughter Emilia had been abducted from their Scranton home. Madalena wailed for her daughter’s return in front of her run-down little home. I remembered the story of Francisco Gonzalez, a mid-level mob member who had disappeared a month earlier. On the streets, I had heard rumors that he swam with the fishes. Others said he was in witness protection. Either way, I was sure it was connected to the little girl’s abduction. I walked over to Paige, pulled out one of her ear-buds, and said, “I have to go out for a minute—you be okay by yourself?” Paige nodded, then thought about it and pulled out her earphones. “You’re not going to The Banshee, are you?” I laughed, as if that would never happen and I found her concern silly. I didn’t want to tell her that I had been to O’Malley’s a few nights before, the home of Scranton’s true morons—or that I was about to go out and face down the mafia. So I tried to seem cheery and calm. Me acting like that probably scared her even more. “Don’t worry.” (That was my job.) “I’m just going out to run a couple errands. I’ll be fine. Don’t go out or let anyone in.” “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not six anymore, Mom.” “I know you’re not, but it still bothers me to leave you alone.” “Mom!” she protested. She put the earbuds back in place and returned to her multitasking. * * * It wasn’t that hard to get a location on young Emilia’s whereabouts. A couple of mid-ranking thugs left unconscious in alleys later, and I was outside the rundown mob safe house, where they were holding Emilia. I doubted that Scranton’s finest had looked very hard for Emilia, since she was the daughter of a mobster. The windows were all covered, but through a crack I could see two thugs, and in the corner, the little girl, hands bound, on a long leash that allowed her to move a bit. Apparently they were planning to keep her here for a while. I guessed that there were probably more mobsters somewhere; I heard something on the second floor. I’ll start with the two down here on the first floor. Maybe I’ll get lucky, I thought. Slipping in through the dilapidated back door was easy. Merging into the shadows of the darkly lit living room was fun. The two thugs sat across from one another, one watching an old movie on TV with a gun on the arm of his chair. The other had placed his mobile phone and pistol on the small table beside his chair, apparently to begin cleaning the gun. Wrong time for that. The thug watching TV was relaxed, a song playing in his head no doubt, zoned out to the point where he barely saw the program he was watching. As he clearly wasn’t expecting any trouble on this cake job, it took him a few shocked seconds to realize that his gun hand had risen up. He watched in surprise as his hand pointed the gun at the thug across from him and fired—first, a hit to the knee, and then a second shot to the shoulder. The wounded thug screamed out, “Manny, what the hell are you doing?” before he fell over and went into shock. I had expected to feel bad. After all, this was the first person I had actually shot. But remembering Madalena’s anguish, imagining that it was my daughter trying to scream through her gagged mouth, struggling with the ropes that bound her, I had little doubt the wounded thug deserved it. And I decided I would gladly do it again. Any mother would. Besides, he would live to spend his time in jail. The TV thug was frozen in utter amazement. Then he became even more horrified when he saw his own gun turning and pointing at his face, the dim light finally revealing my black-clothed hand curling around from the back of his chair, guiding the 9 mm toward his eyes. At that point, the thug lost all bladder and bowel control, letting out a long fart and wetting his pants. My voice saying, “Manny, you stink,” was the last thing he heard before a hammer fist to the back of his neck made everything go black. Slipping into the safety of the shadows once again, I heard the footsteps on the stairway. The footsteps stopped, and all was quiet for some time. Finally, a figure of a man slipped into the darkness along the wall. I listened for more thugs coming, but heard none. It was just him and me. I liked those odds. I appeared out of the shadows a few feet away from the third thug, an Asian man standing in a defensive pose. His shirt was open, revealing a tight, muscular chest. The way he held his body told me he had practiced for this moment for years. He was not armed and didn’t feel the need to be. He glanced quickly about the room for any allies and found none, as I had decommissioned his two associates. He was making all the right moves. But when he saw that his attacker was a woman in a costume, he disregarded the evidence around him and got cocky. “What’s all this about? You’re a little late for Halloween.” “Maybe I’m just early. Trick or treat?” I taunted as I circled him. “Why don’t we just forget the treat and go right to the trick?” He circled away and looked for his opening to strike. “What the hell you supposed to be, some kind of witch?” I stopped moving. “Let’s get it stright. It’s not witch…it’s bitch,” I said, unleashing a front kick that easily powered through his attempt at a forearm block. The kick must have surprised the thug immensely. But the pain of being sent through the two-by-fours and siding of the old house must have been worse. By the time he landed in the snowy yard, he was unconscious. I looked at the hole in the wall—cold air and snowflakes were now swirling through it—and then to the window two feet away, wondering how I could have missed sending him through the window as planned. Then I dropped to the shadows again and listened intently. I turned on my supersensitive ears. Besides the girl’s whimpers, I heard the buzzing of lights, a TV, the mumble of a set of earphones for a personal music player on the second floor, and the sound of a mouse in the basement behind the furnace with a bad case of indigestion. All was clear. I turned my attention to Emilia. “Emilia, it’s okay. I’m a friend of your mother. You are safe with me.”As I untied the girl and took off her gag, she remained full of fear. I held on to her. “You’re safe now.” “Mama sent you?” “Yes.” “I knew she would. I knew Mama would never give up on me!” “I’m going to take you home, but you have to be quiet. There could be more of these bad men.” Emilia shook her head. “Just them.” “Are you sure? Just three?” Emilia looked at the two in the living room and one out in the yard, counting with her fingers. “Yes, just three.” “You okay?” I asked. Emilia nodded. “No one hurt you?” Emila shook her head. I grabbed the thug’s mobile phone off of the table, placed a “911 shots fired” call, gave the address, closed the phone, and dropped it at the thug’s feet. Making the call that would lead to his arrest from his own phone gave me a little satisfaction. “One more thing, Emilia. I need you to be brave. I hope you’re not afraid to fly.” “Fly?” questioned Emilia as I wrapped my arm around her waist, walked her through the front door, and shot into the night sky. At first she screamed, but within a few seconds she laughed with delight, and we were gone. * * * It was late when we reached Emilia’s house. Madalena was reluctant to open the door until she heard her daughter’s voice, then the door flew open. They combined in a tearful hug that went on for a long time. Finally, Madalena became aware of me. “Santa Maria!” she cried. “It is you! I saw you in the papers. I prayed for you to save my daughter, and now you are here!” Emilia joined in, clinging to her mother’s legs. “She brought me home, Mama. She fought all those bad men that took me away. She knocked them all down. Then we flew through the sky all the way home!” Madalena took my hand and kissed it. “You are an angel from heaven. I can never repay you.” I waited and tried to be gracious, but needed to express my concern. “Mrs. Gonzalez, perhaps you should leave town. The men that did this may come back again. You’re not safe here.” Madalena’s eyes pooled with tears. “We are safe as long as you are here. These men think that I know where Francisco has gone. They are afraid he will tell people what he knows about them. I told them I don’t know where he has gone, so they think if they take Emilia I will tell them, or that he will come back to save her. With you here, they will not come back. You are a gift from God, and I will tell everyone this.” I knew there was no use debating the subject with her. At any rate, it was a joy to see them back together, and I was happy for that moment. Still, that was the first time I began to feel the descent of a yoke of responsibility that I hadn’t asked for or wanted. I wasn’t a faceless mom anymore. This wasn’t a bake sale where everything was warm and fuzzy. I wasn’t using my powers for fun or profit. This was real life. I had chosen this course to make the world a better place, and it had made me responsible; responsible for the lives of real people, responsible for all I could do. Madalena thought I was her savior. Was I? Could I protect her from tomorrow? I thought about my little five-foot-five-inch frame and stacked it against all the evil in the world and sighed, thinking of Paige, soon to be out in that world, no longer my little girl riding a pony at a fair, eating macaroni and cheese, or calling me Mommy. I now felt responsible not just for Paige but for Madalena and Emilia and everyone else too. Tears began to flow. “Some superhero, bawling like a schoolgirl,” I sniveled. I took some deep breaths, then my natural sarcasm kicked in to help me. “If it’s me and the good in people against an evil world, evil had better watch its ass.” * * * When I slipped back home that evening, I found Paige exactly where I had left her, multitasking past her bedtime. I changed back into my comfy clothes and moved over behind Paige, enveloping her in a tight hug as she sat at the computer. Paige pulled her earbuds out and protested, “Mom!” I just hugged her tighter, not wanting to let go. I buried my face in her hair and suddenly felt the feeling begin in my toes and grow until a blue then green flash of light flared out of my eyes. “Mom!?” * * * The next morning, the foremost B.I.B. expert in the galaxy (that’s me, Logan, teller of tales) and the other media people crowded Madalena’s tiny front yard and porch. They stuck microphones in her face and shone camera lights in her and her daughter’s faces while I stood and soaked in the glorious media event. “My” girl had done a wonderful thing, and somehow I had attached myself to her success. Madalena spoke happily of her daughter’s return thanks to the B.I.B. She spoke in glowing terms of the angel that had saved her daughter and was here to save the city from evildoers and devils. Like someone in a single-minded trance, she told the audience that the mayor and police needed to set up communication with the B.I.B. and work with her for the good of the city. “Mr. Mayor, Mr. Policeman, you call this woman a puta, a puta who wears black. But I know that she is an angel, a saint sent from God!” Madalena shook her finger at the camera. “Not every angel is white.” She ended by saying that, with the B.I.B. to protect her, she was no longer afraid. When I uploaded that TV footage to the website, the response was a groundswell of support for bringing the B.I.B. out into the open and embracing her as a hero. “We are no longer afraid!” became the new slogan of B.I.B. fans everywhere. So when I wrote my latest article for the Times Tribune, I continued with that theme and used Madalena Gonzalez’s words to call for open communications between the B.I.B. and public authorities. In actuality, I thought making her more public would help me find her. I couldn’t have guessed where that would ultimately lead. It wasn’t like I had a plan. I just thought as long as there was a paycheck in it and it brought me closer to her, what the hell…Hey, “we’re no longer afraid” would make a great T-shirt. CHAPTER 10 The Mob Takes Note of the Black Angel My name is Carmine Camino. For today at least, I work for Gregorio Gambrelli, crime chief of Scranton. Gregorio’s an old fart, too set in the old ways of doin’ business, if you ask me. I’m one of the boys who gets things done for him, if you know what I mean. Today he wants me to lean on the mayor, bring him to a meeting with Gregorio, now. The mayor’s in Gambrelli’s pocket, who owns him for the union support that got him elected. I guess today Gambrelli wanted to cash in one of those chips. When I walked into his office, the mayor was leaning back in his chair with his shiny Italian shoes on the desk, admiring the view outside his large window. He was a dignified, well-dressed, sack of shit with neatly cut silver hair. When I appeared, his feet slipped off the desk, and he almost fell out of his chair. “Yes?” he said in a blank tone. “Giovanni’s, now,” I said, throwing him his coat. We walked into Giovanni’s restaurant precisely at 2:00 p.m., and I escorted the mayor back to a private booth in the corner, where Gregorio Gambrelli waited, eating a plate of linguine marinara with sausage. (They have the best sauce at Giovanni’s. It’s to die for.) Gregorio was long past his prime. Stress had whitened his hair and left his skin a blotchy gray. Two of the boys stood on each side of the booth in suits with their arms folded. Another large man—Vito the asshole, with fingers the size of saplings—sat across from Gregorio. When the mayor arrived, Gregorio gestured to Vito, and he left the booth and stood with the others. I joined them but kept my ears open. The mayor sat down anxiously, looking at the old-framed black-and-white photos of Gambrelli’s ancestors, generations of crime bosses, which looked down at him from the walls encirlcing the booth, and then turned his attention to Gambrelli. “You know about this…this…B.I.B. woman in the papers?” Gregorio asked. The mayor nodded. “She’s not good for business. She’s cost me some good men. She sent a busload of our girls one way to Vegas. Kinda hard for us to make money with no girls! And have you ever heard of anyone winning at the numbers? It happened last week. Now, in the paper I read today, they want you to ‘communicate, coordinate’ with her,” he said, picking up the paper and dropping it on the table. “Don’t worry,” began the mayor nervously, “I won’t let that happen.” Gregorio raised his hands in the air. “You see? This is why I have to do all the thinking for you politicians,” he said, pounding his head. “You don’t think. You don’t get it. Get this straight,” he said, looking the mayor deeply in the eye. “I want you to communicate with her. I want you to bring her out. I can’t kill what I can’t find, capisce?” The mayor stared, blinking in surprise, and then nodded. “You and your boys downtown come up with some way to make her show up, and my boys will take care of the rest. We’ll communicate with her real good. You got it?” “I can do that,” the mayor said. “Good, I’d hate to think I got you elected for nothing. My boy Carmine here will stick with you till it’s done.” “You can trust me.” “I hope so. For your sake, I hope so. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other business,” Gambrelli concluded as two of the boys pulled an unwilling man toward the table and a waiter refilled the chief’s water glass without blinking an eye. I took hold of the mayor’s arm and escorted him back to his office. The sleeve of his suit felt slimy to the touch. I hate those friggin’ politicians. * * * I stayed with the mayor in his conference room that night. I watched the little weasel while he paced and spoke with his advisers. “Somebody’s got to have some idea how we can contact this woman!” The room was full of blank stares from the six people surrounding the big table at the center of the room, including me. If that were Carmine’s meeting, I’d be busting some heads. The mayor asked, “Edwards, what did you find out about the B.I.B. website? There has to be some contact info there. Something?” Edwards was the mayor’s assistant, a real worm—you know, the young Ivy League type with glasses. He shook his head. “We had no trouble getting into the server, but it looks like there is nothing more there than you see on the site. We tracked the email of that picture they printed in the paper back to some guy’s laptop. We leaned on him pretty heavy, but all he could tell us was where he was that night. He didn’t know who she was or where to find her again. The site’s a mess, by the way; it’s like somebody’s attic.” The mayor threw up his hands, “Anybody, anybody got an idea?” Edwards added, “The site is already offering rewards. I don’t think that will work.” “How about a full-page ad in the paper?” offered Elizabeth, a young woman who worked with Edwards. The mayor thought about it. “Yeah, but if she’s under cover, why would she respond? Any other ideas…anybody?” There was quiet in the room, until one of these young hipster-type geekwads, a guy who called himself “Megabyte,” sitting away from the others against the back wall, chimed in. He was the mayor’s IT communications guru who, unlike the formal suits and ties of his coworkers, always dressed in a rock ’n’ roll T-shirt and jeans. “She’s, like, a superhero, dudes. You have to treat her with honor and respect. You have to acknowledge her.” “So, so?” asked the mayor, circling a finger for the geek to speed up and get to the point. “You gotta do somethin’ like Batman. They had this searchlight thing that they turned on whenever he was needed. It was a special thing. You know, like, ‘We need you, man. We need you right now.’ How could a superhero ignore that?” Megabyte asked. The mayor thought about it. “Dramatic, yes, but it might work.” Then Edwards chimed in. “You know, Mr. Mayor, the new Batman movie—Batman twenty-five or whatever it is—is opening next week. If we could time it with the release of the movie, perhaps my contacts at the movie distributor could comp us some air play and maybe even get us the searchlight prop they used at the world premiere. With the free publicity, we could make a big event out of it. How could she ignore Hollywood?” The mayor thought about it as he paced. “Yeah, women love Hollywood, the red carpet and all that. Can we get a red carpet? We’ll invite everybody who’s anybody in town. We’ll walk them down the red carpet like the Oscars—evening gowns, the whole nine yards! I’m a genius. Why can’t you lumps think outside the box like me? After all these years, you would think something would rub off on you. Okay, full media blitz! Take out the ads in the paper, use the radio, and get the TV guys to cover it. We have to make sure she knows about it and what kind of event it’s going to be. We’ll offer her overnight celebrity status….Get the art department to turn that picture in the paper into a silhouette that we can put on the searchlight.” “What kind of silhouette do you want?” asked Edwards. “God, do I have to think of everything? I don’t know, something…sexy. You know, her, but better. What woman could refuse?” To my way of thinking, a lot of women could refuse that. This B.I.B. seemed to be doing just fine without dealing with a turd like the mayor. What’d she need him for, anyway? Some women have to be the center of attention, some women don’t. Edwards didn’t seem to like the plan either. When he saw me shaking my head, he leaned over and whispered to me, “I don’t think the mayor’s three divorces qualify him as an expert on women, but if that what he wants, that’s what we’ll do.” The little fairy was separating himself from the mayor should this not go down as planned. He didn’t want Gambrelli as an enemy, and he wanted me to know it. Smart boy. CHAPTER 11 Rebecca Dupes the Simple Fellow That night I met the next woman on the list, Rebecca Sans, at the same coffee shop where I had met Jennifer Lowe. After some initial discomfort, I finally got used to being there, sitting at exactly the same table as I had with Jennifer, in fact. Rebecca was a lively, bright girl, but no superwoman. She was a graphic designer who wore up-to-date clothes, her brown hair short, and a pair of rose-colored glasses. Unlike Jennifer, she was petite all over—I remember how thin and frail her arms looked. But I also remembered how lively and excited about life she seemed to be. (I hate people like that.) We did the survey shtick, drank some coffee, and chatted. After a while, she talked about the website she was finishing up work on, and it dawned on me that a lot of web design people call themselves graphic designers. With my site becoming a cluttered mess as I tried to maintain and grow it, I spontaneously offered her the job of redoing my B.I.B. site. “What a coincidence. I run a website that really needs some work. I’ve been doing okay with it, but I’ll bet someone like you could really help update it. You know, fine-tune it. How soon are you available?” “How cool! What kind of site do you have?” “You ever hear about the B.I.B.?” “The B.I.B.? I love what she’s doing! What does your site have to do with her?” I proudly opened my laptop and used the coffee shop’s WiFi to bring up my site. I flipped the screen around to show it to Rebecca, smiling, ready for her to be impressed at my awesome work, even if I do say so myself. Instead, I watched her face sour and her head pull back as she clicked through the site. When her mouth dropped open I realized that maybe the site needed a little more work than I thought. It took a long time for her mouth to close and be able to form words. “Well…this picture of her is so cool. I love that. But do you really talk to people on your message boards with this kind of language?” “Well, some of them are true vulgarians. I’m not someone who sugarcoats shit!” “Has your webmaster ever heard of the terms layout, balance, and centering?” When she saw me run my hand through my hair instead of answering, she continued, “There are twenty links on this page in twenty different places. Five of the links go to the same article about the health benefits of drinking beer. That one of yours?” I gave her a blank stare for good measure. “Menu, template, navigation bar? Any of those sound familiar? Okay, is your webmaster a Labrador or a chimpanzee?” “Oh, him. Yeah, that guy who runs the site is a real loser. That’s why I wanna hire you,” I said, hoping she would not discover that I had created the crappy site myself. “What’s his name? Maybe I know him.” “Oh, his name is Webb.” She gestured with her hand rotating, asking for more information. “Webb Shite, his name is Webb Shite…German or something.” Rebecca laughed and put her hand over her mouth. “Well, that might have been his company’s name, not him personally. I’m sure I have his card here somewhere.” “Never mind,” she said, smiling. “I’m sure I can help you…a lot. And I’ll do it cheap, cause I love the B.I.B. I’d do anything to meet her.” Me too, I thought, thinking of the mountain of things I was doing to try to accomplish just that. “How about two thousand for setup and then fifteen hundred a month, flat rate? That will cover a new design, construction, and daily maintenance of the email and message boards. I’ll monitor the tip line, send out rewards, set up a searchable tip archive, build you an online store to sell B.I.B. stuff, and set up a daily blog for your articles, as well as organize the links and set up some ad space so you can get some advertising income.” The size of the fees made me blink…twice. That was telling to her. I wasn’t sure where the money would come from, but I knew I needed the help. “And I’ll need some juice.” “Juice? I just got you a coffee refill.” She laughed again. “You are so funny! You are just a trip!” I had no idea I was so entertaining. “No, silly! Not juice, juice. I mean some commission on the merchandising and advertising sales. That’s going to be a lot of work. I need to do designs, get suppliers, find people to buy ads…Miner’s Lite comes to mind immediately. She’s holding a bottle of their beer in that picture. It’s a natural.” I blinked one more time—you know, just to be certain I had covered all my “blink” bases. Then I extended my hand across the table for a handshake. “Done,” I said. “Great! Give me your contact info. I can start as soon as I finish this other site I’m working on.” I scribbled down my name, email, and cell phone number on a piece of notepaper and handed it to her. “Logan?” she asked, looking at the sheet. “I thought you said your name was Tom.” “What gave you that idea? No, it’s Logan. My boss was Tom. But he died…weird sexual accident. I don’t like to talk about it. Maybe that’s how you got confused.” “Your name’s not Webb Shite, either?” She said with a knowing grin. “Forget that loser. I already have. You’re my web designer from now on.” “Okay, then we’ll talk soon,” Rebecca said with a gigantic smile (I hate people who do that too), then she turned and was gone. As I packed my Penn State materials in my bag, I revealed a little hole gouged into the tabletop. I ran my finger over it, thinking it was an odd shape. A guy who was cleaning tables next to me saw what I was doing. “Yeah, that’s weird, huh? I had to dig that out. Somebody melted a pen, and it left that hole. It was a bitch getting it out.” “Melted a pen? How do you do that?” “Beats me. I saw a little smoke coming from the table. When I looked over I saw this really stacked chick blow out some flames and leave. Man, she really looked pissed, and there was this metal plug in the table. All I know is, if you look down in the center, you can see part of the clip of the pen with the brand name on it. I couldn’t get it all out. Somebody didn’t like that pen!” I looked in the center and saw what he was talking about. It was the same expensive brand of chrome pen I had left with Jennifer Lowe. Maybe somebody didn’t like the survey I left her, or maybe she didn’t like being left by the guy who gave her the pen. That was the first time I even began to wonder if there could be more than one. Jones’ focus had always been on finding the strongest one, but number two might not be too shabby. Through the shop window, I watched Rebecca reach for her mobile phone as she bounced toward her car with a big smile on her face. She speed dialed and waited beside her car door for it to answer. I was glad to see that my job offer had made her so happy, but I wondered who she was calling. At any rate, I was glad this survey interview had concluded without incident. CHAPTER 12 The Searchlight Event: Another Magical Night The buildup for the B.I.B. Searchlight Event was everything the mayor had promised, and it proved to be a boon for Dr. Jones and myself, being the only two bona fide B.I.B. experts available. He and I bounced from radio program to TV program, offering our opinions and knowledge of the B.I.B, sometimes even passing each other in the hall en route to one show or another. Jones was in heaven. From my first conversation with him at O’Malley’s, I’d suspected that being on TV was more important to him than winning the Nobel Prize. Everyone eventually asked me, “So, do you think she will show up after the searchlight goes on?” I thought the mayor was an ass and the B.I.B. was calling the shots, so it was tough for me to answer diplomatically. I finally developed a spiel about how well the mayor was going about the preparations for the event, and who would be there, and how much I hoped she would turn up. I focused on the event and not on answering the question. At any rate, it it gave me an opportunity to plug the website. Hits on the site grew. Advertisers came a running; my income grew. Rebecca had reworked the site just in time for the searchlight event. She had turned my hodgepodge of windows, buttons, and text into a sleek, mysterious, and feminine tribute to the B.I.B. The colors of the backgrounds and headers were dark and secretive but never black. She used purples and violets and some neon tones. From somewhere, she got B.I.B. silhouettes in various positions that appeared and disappeared around the screen. I remember thinking at the time what a genius she was, and what a lucky find for me. My favorite part of the site was the three video games visitors (and website owners) could play for free. With them, Rebecca definitely outdid herself. I didn’t even ask her to make them—that I can remember, anyway. The first game was B.I.B. Rescue. In that one, your custom-tuned character walked through the realistic, high-definition streets of Scranton, avoiding speeding beer trucks, mob drive-bys, road construction, bill collectors, bullies, and did I mention speeding beer trucks, in the hope of being “saved” by the B.I.B. Around the next corner could be a twenty-ton diesel or the rescuing arms of a digital B.I.B., flying you off to add fifty thousand points to your score. The second game was B.I.B. Pub Crawler. In that one, you went from Scranton pub to Scranton pub searching for the B.I.B. It was also done in fabulously detailed graphics. The graphics were so good we were able to customize each bar to its real appearance and sell ads on the game to the bars. The concept was simple; you only had so much money to spend buying drinks. The more drinks you bought, friends, the more clues you got as to her whereabouts. Unfortunately, the more drinks you bought, the more were bought for you to drink in return. If you found her drinking a Miner’s Lite before you got drunk or ran out of money, you won. The game was adjusted for body weight and constantly showed a meter of your blood alcohol level. You could lower your alcohol level with costly coffee stops and earn or lose points by picking up the right or wrong person in the bar—adjusted for sexual preference, naturally. A drop-down menu of pickup lines was available. Funny faces and playing drinking games could also earn you points and clues. The third was a real shoot ’em up version of the Antler Game. The user controlled the rifle and tried to shoot bar patrons wearing antlers. You got fifty points for each antler wearer you hit, but lost five hundred points for each person you hit without antlers. Hit the flying B.I.B. and you lost, for sure. With Rebecca’s success and my lazy-grasshopper nature, I turned more and more of the site over to her. Now she was the first to receive any email leads, sightings, or documents sent in for the reward program. I let her view just about everything and decide for me if it was something she should handle or if I needed to deal with it. She ran the site completely remotely. She texted, emailed, and called me by phone, but never really needed to meet with me. Like an RFD with an antler helmet on backward, I had handed her a bullet and a rifle and was hoping all would go well. Advertisers loved the site, and the local Miner’s Lite beer distributor not only advertised and linked to the site, but cocreated a B.I.B. Miner’s Lite T-shirt that we sold on the site, based on the photo with her holding the bottle at Skelly’s. Owning the copyrights for the terms B.I.B. and We’re Not Afraid Anymore, we had a piece of all the T-shirt action as the Miner’s Lite and “Not Afraid” shirts became the unofficial official attire for the Searchlight Event. That led Rebecca to create the B.I.B. online store for all the B.I.B. products people were coming up with. An Ohio company sold masks and capes. There were coffee cups, beer mugs, glasses, letter openers, and stickers, but most of all, there were T-shirts. Rebecca’s system directly referred all the orders to a subcontracted screen printer, but I knew they had a hard time keeping the orders filled. I still hadn’t been able to find the B.I.B., but she was already turning me into a surprising financial success. Nevertheless, more than the money and the notoriety, I hoped she would show up or, better yet, that I would somehow find her again on my own. The money and the celebrity were turning my head, but my heart and below were focused on finding her. The preparations at the event site were elaborate, in more ways than one. The event had been timed to coincide with the release of the latest Batman movie. The mayor had received the searchlight movie prop he had requested from the movie studio, and it had been placed on a high balcony outside of the mayor’s conference room using a helicopter. I covered the copter lift for the local news. The conference room had been turned into a media room, complete with refreshments. The mayor made certain everyone knew that he was the one promoting the event—with the public demand for the B.I.B. growing, he was clearly hoping to skyrocket his popularity. * * * Gregorio Gambrelli had his own version of how the Searchlight Event would go down, and, as his right hand man, I was in charge of it. Gregorio relayed the basic plan to me over dinner at Giovanni’s and left the particulars up to me. (The best lasagna I ever had; just the right amount of sauce.) I designed a gem of a hit. The buildings across from the searchlight would be kept dark on that night. I would place four teams of snipers and a central spotter on the buildings at different heights from the spot where the mayor and the chick would stand. This way, they would have a clear shot of the entire balcony. Where they put the searchlight and the podium was decided by me and the spotter to ensure our men would have the best possible shot. With the union crew in charge of setting things up, getting that arranged was a piece of cake. The spotter would control all four teams of snipers via a radio link, not only to keep one team from going crazy, but also to put a lot of lead in her face at the same second. Also, any cop with the nerve to raise his head after the shots were fired would be confused as to the number and direction of the shots, as they would echo off the buildings. I imported a team of snipers from Providence and Newark to go with my local guys that were supposed to be the best. The B.I.B. would be walking into the Searchlight Event, but they would be carrying her out in pieces—little baby superwoman pieces. Of course, the mayor was left in the dark. I told him that this first meeting would be to make contact with this “super broad,” B.I.B., whatever, and taking her out would happen later, when he was not around. I did this based on experience: If he knew that bullets would soon be hitting the person next to him, he’d be a nervous wreck, and the douche bag would mess up the plan. If a stray bullet or ricochet were to also hit the mayor, I wasn’t gonna lose any sleep. He could be easily replaced. Hell, my dog could do a better job, and he looks better…even walking backwards, if you know what I mean. Thirty seconds after the shots were fired, I would cue my guys to cut the power to the entire building, creating panic and chaos that would cover everyone’s escape. * * * There I was the night of the Searchlight Event, standing among the crowd on the balcony with my media badge on and a glass of champagne in my hand. I had even worn an all-black outfit as a personal joke to the B.I.B., should she arrive and see me. She wore black. I wore black. We were a match. I hoped she’d get it. We all stood in the cold night air, but no one was bothered by it. As I mingled, I could hear the greatest speculation was about how the B.I.B. would choose to arrive. Would she fly in, walk in, or just appear? Was she going to be a disguised member of the crowd, and then suddenly remove her street clothes to show her costume and reveal herself? Was she you? Was she me? Or, being that it was Batman premiere night, would she drive up in some high-tech car or motorcycle? Would one of those bat ropes suddenly raise her up to the balcony from the sidewalk below? My money was on what I had seen outside O’Malley’s the first time I had seen her. A fog would appear, and then she would appear from out of it. In my mind, she’d see me and I’d see her. We’d be drawn together, ignoring the madding crowd, while violins suddenly played. Then her eyes and lips would surrender to me and we’d fly off into the night and make passionate love…while all these losers stood on the balcony. (It could happen…right?) With all the potential and excitement in the air, I could not help but feel a pounding in my chest. I had no clue what was going to happen and, for the first time in my life, I was quite happy with that. I felt vibrantly alive with expectation, completely exhilarated. Right there I should have known the rug was about to be pulled out from under me. Finally, the mayor emerged from the media room to an enthusiastic round of applause. He walked over to the podium, accepted the applause, and opened his coat and jacket to expose a Miner’s Lite/B.I.B. T-shirt. After milking the renewed applause, he began, “Tonight is a historic time. It is a proud moment for me as your mayor as, with the lighting of this searchlight, we invite the woman known fondly to us all as the B.I.B. to become our partner in moving our city forward into better and safer times.” The applause spiked again. I stood and thought to myself, That T-shirt is mine. The B.I.B. name, that’s mine. It blew my mind; could this be happening? “So without further ado, let me say here and now to the B.I.B., the City of Scranton needs you, wants to be your partner, and is asking for your help. Please join us, whenever you see this light.” With that, the mayor nodded to a technician, who started the generator that ran the searchlight. When the generator had reached full power, the technician nodded back to the mayor, who dramatically raised a large lever on the electrical box that controlled the light. A huge beam burst forth several hundred feet into the sky, until the beam found enough cloud cover to support a gigantic, sexy silhouette of the B.I.B. surrounded in a white circle. Even though it was just a silhouette, there was something unexplainably magnetic about it, about her. It was the same thing I had felt at O’Malley’s when she left me speechless. At first I thought it was just me, but the silhouette drew everyone standing around me like bugs to a light. The men were drawn by her mystical beauty, the perception of which was a magnitude higher than its fact, and even the women were drawn by the strength, power, caring, and control she projected. As they say, women wanted to be her and men wanted to be with her. Everyone in the crowd screamed joyously, but you could barely hear them over the sound of the diesel generator. With the sound and the fact that we were all staring up at the light, we were unaware of the response to the beacon in the city at large, but it was immediate. From the streets below came the sounds of car horns and then the crashing of metal as drivers, whose attention had been drawn to the sky, plowed headlong into other cars and lampposts, ran up over curbs onto mailboxes, or into the windows of retail stores. There were shouts. There were screams. Virtually every dog in the city began to bark nonstop. Small fires erupted. City workers stepped straight into open manholes. The engineers of a freight train could not help but stare at the silhouette and ran a stop signal, derailing the engine and three cars. At the air traffic control center that covered Scranton, controllers put down their coffee cups and spread the alarm as dozens of small aircraft and a few larger aircraft inbound to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport suddenly abandoned their flight plans and began converging in the air space above the city. The controllers became frantic, watching the blips on their screens leave their nicely spaced order and begin a beeline for one another. A squadron of fighter jets was scrambled in fear that a mass highjacking was underway. The aircraft were the bugs and her silhouette was the light. On the balcony, I watched the mayor staring hopefully at the silhouette. When he noticed small orange and red explosions around it, he smiled and turned to his assistant, Edwards, and had to literally shout in his ear, loud enough for me to hear, “Good job. I think the fireworks are a great effect!” After a second, I heard Edwards shout back, “Sir, I did not contract for any fireworks.” I could see the mayor’s jaw drop as he realized the “fireworks” were aircraft colliding after being drawn like moths to the B.I.B.’s image. He ran to the railing of the balcony, looked down into the street, and cringed. Looking over his shoulder at the totally stopped zigzag pattern of the cars below and the image of a city bus driven halfway into a coffee shop, made me aware of his worst fears. As slowly and stately as an asshole can walk, he moved to the searchlight and pulled down the handle. He extinguished the generator and its beam, put his head against the searchlight, and pounded his forehead on the cold metal. A mobile phone rang; Edwards answered it and handed it to the mayor. “Sir, it’s the Federal Aviation Administration for you.” The mayor pounded his forehead again and again. Edwards stammered, trying to make sense of events. “I…I guess we hyped this a little too much.” I watched the mayor turn to Edwards, then come at him like an attacking wolf. “Ya think?” * * * While the Searchlight fiasco was in progress, Paige, her friend Kelly, and I were attending the Batman movie premiere; none of us were crazy about superhero action movies, least of all me, but the latest installment was supposed to be filled with hunks. We sat watching the movie, wearing the B.I.B. T-shirts we had purchased from a street vendor just before the searchlight was turned on. I wore the Miner’s Lite/B.I.B. version while the girls wore girly-colored versions of the “We’re Not Afraid Anymore” shirt. It was hilarious for me to be the B.I.B. and wear a B.I.B. T-shirt with no one the wiser. How they had expected their lame event would motivate me into the public eye was beyond me. I had a hard time containing myself during the movie, though. Every time Batman took a punch from a henchman or pulled some gadget off his belt, I sputtered, shook my head, and mumbled “wimp” or “pansy.” During the fight scenes, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Paige glared at me, embarrassed of her mother’s weird behavior in front of Kelly. Eventually, she gave up and just tried to distance herself with a tilted body lean. I tried to stop, but I mean, seriously, Batman wouldn’t last a day in my world. On the way out after the movie, Kelly asked me if I’d liked the movie. “It was okay,” I said, and sneezed. “I didn’t know it was a comedy.” Kelly looked at Paige, who just shook her head and shrugged. When we got to the lobby, it was as if we had entered a different world. The first set of doors to the theater was just so much broken glass, and a car with flat tires had crashed into the lobby. The second set of doors was blocked on the outside by a car that had struck one of the building’s exterior columns and turned broadside against the doors. Everyone was filing out slowly, uncertainly, through the third, undamaged set of doors. “What happened?” I asked a theater worker who had begun sweeping broken glass. “When the mayor’s searchlight went on downtown tonight, everybody was looking up, I guess. They say it was hypnotizing. Nobody was watching where they were going. I heard it’s like this all over town.” “Looking up at what? Did the B.I.B. show up?” asked Paige, excited. “I was behind the counter and didn’t see anything. I heard no one who saw it could take their eyes off it.” He shrugged and kept sweeping. I led the girls out into the street as a panic-stricken man ran by in the cold night air, tearing off his coat and shirt, and was gone. Out in the street, men from the bars had moved their Antler Game out into the street. They wore their leather helmets with antlers on them, and ran, beer bottles in hand, then ducked behind the cars that were parked on the sidewalk or had hit one another. Other morons chased them with rifles, shooting off blanks. They were all grinning hugely at having found an exciting new venue for their game. Drivers stood around arguing and trying to reach 911 or a tow truck on jammed mobile phone lines. Other drivers whose cars were not that badly damaged tried to maneuver with dangling bumpers or tires rubbing on crumpled fenders. What a bunch of assholes, I thought. “It may take awhile, but we’ll get home, girls. Don’t worry,” I said in a hoarse voice, feeling a sore throat coming on and my nose beginning to run. Kelly asked, “Did the B.I.B. show up or not?” “No, she didn’t,” I answered without any apparent way of knowing. “How do you know that, Mom? Mom?” I just kept walking. “This way, girls,” I said, wishing I had a tissue. “Mom?” * * * At the searchlight event, it took a long while for the crowd to understand that they were being told to leave, most having no idea what had happened on the streets below. What had happened wasn’t wasted on Megabyte, the mayor’s assistant who’d come up with the searchlight idea. He crept along the wall until he had passed the mayor, found the door, and then he was gone in a flash. I had dropped so quickly from a high to a low that I took it very hard. I hung my head and just stood as the crowd flowed by me. The mayor had escaped early on with all of his advisers. The news crews and their cameramen had run to cover the real story in the streets below. I remember taking no special notice of it at the time, but I saw Jennifer Lowe in the crowd of people as they filed by me. She wore a long, dark coat and a generic beret, but there was no mistaking her face, which was burned in my memory. Had my mind been working then, I would have questioned her presence and saved myself a lot of grief later. I might have remembered her mentioning the woman who’d marked me and the fact that she was looking for her. Why? I looked back to find her in the crowd, only to find her standing right in front of me. “Well, if it isn’t Mr. Penn State. What are you doing here, Tom?” My body remembered the panic I had felt at our last meeting, and I experienced instant “shrinkage” as she said the name Tom. I pretended not to remember her at first so she would not realize the effect she had had on me. I pointed at her. “Ms….I’m sorry; I can’t place your face, but I’m sure we’ve met.” “That’s cause it wasn’t my face you were looking at.” She held out her hand, and apparently decided to play along with my game. “Jennifer Lowe, I did the psychology department survey on women who lost their parents…at the coffee shop, remember?” “Oh, yes! We never did get your answers…or my pen. How’s that coming along?” “The B.I.B. doing the survey too?” I gave her a very fake laugh. “Nooo. I’m also a freelance writer. Thought this would be quite a story…guess not.” “Why’d you come if you knew she wouldn’t be here?” “What?” I said, reprising the same responses that had worked so well for me at our last conversation with her. “She told you she wasn’t falling for this, didn’t she?” “Who?” “God, I’m not going to stand here and play this game with you all night,” she said, turning to leave. “Call me when you figure out what’s good for both of you.” She looked back at me over her shoulder and walked away. Well, that went well. After a moment and some deep breaths, my little friend had the courage to return and together we watched the crowd leave. Finally, it was just me and a few workers in the cleanup crew. I stared up at the night sky. It had seemed so alive with anticipation, but now I just felt cold and dark as the wind blew discarded cocktail napkins around my head. * * * On the rooftops, my sniper teams tried to piece together what had happened. Everything was a blank for them, from the moment when the searchlight had been switched on until now. The whole crew was struggling to put together what had just happened. Why had they dropped their equipment on the ground? Why didn’t they remember the last few minutes? What had made them look up at the searchlight beam? The spotter hadn’t thought it through either, but clearly knew instinctively the mission was over. “This ain’t happening. Let’s get the hell out of here.” All I thought was, What a royal fuck-up. Gambrelli’s gonna have my ass. CHAPTER 13 The Mob Gets Even—or Odd…Whatever I didn’t know how Gregorio was going to take it. I’d seen him dunk guy’s faces into a boiling pot of pasta over crap like this. (Just a bit of advice—that ain’t the best way to eat pasta.) The only thing I, Carmine Camino, had going for me was the lesson learned from the mayor’s aide, Edwards. Just the way he had distanced himself from the mayor with his comments to me regarding the potential failure of the searchlight scheme, I had done the same with Gambrelli. I had made it clear that I would do my job but that I had doubts about that sack of shit’s plan. Even though he had learned of the Searchlight Event disaster immediately after it had happened, the reminder of it in the next morning’s paper stirred the embers of his anger. He sat in his booth at Giovanni’s scowling at the front page while I stood a safe distance away. “B.I.B. a No-show,” read the headline. “Emergency Services Overwhelmed by Hundreds of Accidents,” read a smaller heading, accompanied by: “FAA Searching Wreckage of Eight Aircraft for Cause of Crashes” “Insurance Institute Says It May Take Weeks to Total Last Night’s Damage” “Mayor Declines Comment on Night’s Events” “Ten Percent off Sale at Macy’s” Gregorio slammed down the paper, which fell to the floor in an unfolded mess. “Just ten percent? Such bullshit,” he muttered. He looked up at the faces of his crime-boss ancestors as they stared down at him from photographs that formed a ring around the booth. “Hey, Camino? You see all these assholes up here?” he said pointing to the circle of pictures over his head. I nodded, “Sure, boss. Aren’t those your people? “Yeah, yeah, my people. You know what they’re doing right now? Laughing. They’re laughing their asses off at what a fuck-up I am!” “Na, boss. They wouldn’t do that.” “They are, right now. Don’t you hear it?” Gambrelli glanced around at the pictures as if they were alive. I didn’t know if Gambrelli was joking or if he’d really lost it, so I kept quiet. “Go ahead and laugh…you old fucks! But you’re all dead!” Then he turned quickly to his grandmother, as if she had spoken to him. “Shut up, you old bitch!” He leaned over to her picture and pointed at it. “This one, you see this one, Camino? Did you see what she just did? Huh?” “No, boss.” “She just stuck her tongue out, put her thumbs in her ears, and stuck out her tongue! She always hated me. An old woman giving her grandson the raspberries, how dignified is that?” He turned away then turned back to the picture and stuck his tongue out at her right back. He lowered his head, a man defeated by his trust in a politician. He reflected for a long moment, and then raised his head back up as a mob leader who was in charge. He fumbled through the pockets of his suit and pulled out a mobile phone, but then pulled out another and another, until five of them were on the table before him. The sixth and last proved to be the one to call the mayor. “What’s up, boss?” “Calling the mayor. As much I hate that little prick, he can still be useful. I’ll give him a job he can handle this time. You, you go get the son of a bitch and bring him here.” With that he made the call, and I began breathing again, glad my head hadn’t taken a bath in a boiling pot of fettuccine. * * * I stormed passed the mayor’s receptionist and found him in the private bathroom of his office at city hall, taking a leak. The boss was right; he was a little prick. I escorted the mayor to Gregorio’s booth and then stood beside the table. The sheepish, neutered mayor slid into the booth like a dog with his tail between his legs. “I have a job for you, and this time don’t cock it up, putz,” Gregorio said, shaking a forkful of pasta at the mayor. With his head down, the mayor answered, “What do you want me to do?” “You talk to the DA and get the jurisdiction changed on Tony Turtulio’s indictment. Get him moved from city jail to county. Let all the details of the transfer leak to the media, and be sure all the right cops are driving escort for the transfer.” The mayor was quiet for a moment, most likely trying to measure his response to avoid sounding combative. “You’ve already made it clear that Tony will never serve a day of prison time. She’ll know you’re gonna spring him. She’ll be waiting for you.” Gregorio’s face soured with frustration. He could not reach the mayor over the long table, so he gestured to me. I smacked the mayor on the side of the head. “I don’t pay you to think anymore, understand? You just do it! Understand? Comprende? Capisce?” The mayor nodded. Gregorio nodded. I pulled the mayor out of the booth and sent him on his way, wiping my hands with a napkin afterward to remove the slime. After finishing the forkful in his hand, Gregorio wiped his mouth with his napkin and started making phone calls. “Boss, I know it’s none of my business but…what’s the plan here?” “You too, Camino?” Gambrelli shook his head and put down the phone. “It is a curse to be the only one in the room who can think! That black bitch can’t let us spring the Tool. We know she’ll be there to stop our guys.” “Yeah, she’ll be there with bells on.” “Exactly,” he said, smiling, clearly enjoying the image of her with bells on. “So we know where she will be. Understand?” “Yeah,” I said, getting it. “So when she stops our guys, we have more guys waiting to jump her. Like a trap!” “Like a trap.” Then Gambrelli returned to his phone. As he dialed, he suddenly turned to look up at his grandmother’s picture, as if it had spoken to him. “The same to you, puttana!” he yelled at the picture before flipping her off. * * * The sniffles that had come on after we left the Batman premiere had turned into a full-blown cold. I lay on my couch with a sore red nose and a tissue in hand, watching the evening news. I had been to work that day, but now realized I shouldn’t have. I sipped a Miner’s Lite beer for purely medicinal purposes, feeling that it would do wonders for the aches and pains. From the TV came the name Tony “The Tool” Turtulio, which caught my attention. “Tensions are running high over the transfer of The Tool, who has repeatedly stated that no jail can hold him and that he will never serve a day of his sentence. The transfer will take place tomorrow morning, accompanied by a heavily armed escort. Parts of several city streets will be closed during the transfer.…” I sniffled and sipped my beer. I reflected for a long moment, then said to myself in a very nasal tone, “If you boys wanna play, we’ll play.” And blew my nose. Just then, Paige came into the room. “Are we eating dinner, or are we gonna starve?” * * * Journalism. I’m quite proud of this story. I had to talk to at least a dozen people over a four- or five-day period to get the facts right. I wanted to tell the story of the transfer of Tony “The Tool,” but the witnesses to the event were unavailable. The official story regarding the transfer of Tony “The Tool” had the B.I.B’s prints all over it, but no one seemed to pick up on that. So I decided to get the lowdown on it myself. What follows here is the real story. Most of my info comes from Shaun Dugan and some cops I got to know while researching other stories. Shaun’s uncle, Jimmy, is a career cop. From what I could find out, Jimmy’s not the arrow you should shoot if you wanted it to fly straight, if you know what I mean. Over the years he had worked “special” details of mob-related events that, shall we say, didn’t always go by the book. From these events, he had gotten promotions, money to blow in Vegas, and contributions for his kid’s schooling. So no one in the know was surprised when he was tapped to be the driver of the prison transfer truck for Tony “The Tool.” Being a family guy, Jimmy lobbied for his nephew Shaun, a rookie cop, to ride shotgun in the van. Understandably, Shaun was nervous, as the truck carrying them and The Tool approached the abandoned parking lot, where they were to change escort cars. Shaun said to his uncle, “Jimmy, I don’t like the looks of this. Why are we stopping here? We’re sitting ducks.” “Don’t worry. Just follow orders,” his uncle told him. They stopped, and the escort cars drove away. “In a few minutes, it will be all over. It’s just to mislead anyone following us. Those cars will stay on this route, lead a dummy truck, and a new set of cars will take us on a different route. “ (In case you didn’t notice, that is what qualifies as Grade A bullshit. What was really going on was this: The escort cars were being switched to give Gambrelli’s crew the opportunity to spring The Tool from the truck.) Shaun trusted his uncle and kept quiet, but the whole procedure seemed high risk to him. After a couple of minutes, he heard the back door of the van open. Shaun started to get up out of his seat, but Jimmy put his hand on Shaun’s shoulder and pushed him back down. “Relax. Just relax. That’s standard procedure. Thompson’s verifying that everything’s clear. “ In reality, Jimmy knew that a group of Gambrelli’s men had shown up to spring The Tool and trap the B.I.B, who was sure to have shown up to try to stop them. Shaun remained nervous, but Jimmy sat back in his chair and sipped some coffee. “Just relax. We’re cool. Shaun, I should let you know that being a cop isn’t always by the book. Sometimes you need to follow orders that won’t seem to be the right thing to do, but in the long run, it’s better for everyone.” “Like what, Jimmy?” “Like this. You’re getting all nervous when you don’t have to be. Look at me, am I nervous? No, ’cause I’m following orders. I know if I do that, everything will be just fine.” When the truck rocked back and forth, then up and down, Jimmy reassured his nephew that it was just Thompson letting The Tool stretch his legs or something. Shaun later realized that his uncle knew that the boys had to work Thompson over a bit so that The Tool’s escape wouldn’t look too easy. What neither Shaun nor his uncle knew was that the remaining groups of Gambrelli’s men—around twenty-five—had shown up to take out the B.I.B. Several minutes later, they heard the back door slam shut, and someone slapped the side of the van to indicate all was ready.When the second set of police cars arrived as escorts, Jimmy said, “What’d I tell you? Okay, here we go. Home free.” As he put the truck in gear, he pulled in line behind the escorts. “Easy as pie.” None of these folksy phrases helped Shaun ignore his gut feeling of concern. But when they arrived at the county jail without further incident, Shaun had chilled—a little. He was up and out of the van while Jimmy took his time. The rookie unlocked the rear door and had begun to open it when the weight of something pushed the door open without effort. The unconscious body of a man dressed in a suit fell at his feet. Shaun instinctively unstrapped and raised his 9 mm. When the man didn’t move—but seemed to be breathing—Shaun looked up to find the van littered with unconscious men. He was bending to handcuff the man on the ground when Jimmy rounded the back of the truck and stopped in stark amazement. “Jimmy, look,” began Shaun, “This is ‘No Neck’ Nicky, and that’s Franky ‘The Fish.’ There are outstanding warrants on all of these guys! Give me your cuffs,” he said, taking them and clapping them on The Fish. “We’re gonna need a lot more cuffs.” Jimmy ran to the front of the van and returned with a box of plastic zip-tie restraints that would do for the time being. He and the rookie were busy cuffing, searching, and stacking the henchmen like logs on the garage floor when the other officers arrived, marveled at the sight, and began to help. When they reached the front of the van, under the pile they found The Tool with a major-league black eye, unconscious but well. Officer Thompson was there too, with a jaw that just didn’t look right. Shaun and Jimmy called the medics. After the “catch” had been revived and carted off to jail, Shaun stood tall and accepted handshakes and congratulations from anyone and everyone on a job well done, for a rookie. When everyone had moved on, he stood behind the van for a long while, admiring the scene. That’s when he noticed some plastic zip-tie restraints that hadn’t been used lying on the floor of the van where the pile of mobsters had been minutes before. He proudly picked up the unused cuffs, but then he noticed a used tissue that had been under the stack. He picked it up with the ends of two fingers and said to himself, “Someone’s got a cold.” I put together a picture of what had really happened for the readers of my website to counter the official line that the arrests were a result of a police sting operation. I knew, I friggin’ knew, the arrests and the disaster for the mob were the result of B.I.B. and her beauty, strength, and keen intellect. (There are so few of us with those qualities.) Those twenty-five thugs had been outnumbered by an army of one—my girl. She’d dispatched them so quickly that not one of them had a chance to fire a gun. In short order, she’d stacked them in the van and left, tapping the van to tell the drivers to go. The other escort cars had arrived and failed to notice anything amiss. I promoted this alternative view in my articles with great success, as people could sense that the official view was BS. Imported BS—you know, the kind that really stinks. * * * As Gregorio Gambrelli’s right-hand man, I was with him that morning. He was full of confidence and anticipation. As he walked around Giovanni’s, his steps were light, and he hadn’t put the hurt on anyone all morning—a prince compared to his usual self. I even heard him say, “Hey, it happens,” to a panicked waiter who had dropped his silverware. Even when Gregorio failed to hear reports of his men’s success in dealing with the B.I.B., he did not falter; after all, there were also no reports of failure. He was confident in his boys. Little did he know that there was no one left from the hit squad to report anything. The first hint of trouble, in fact disaster, came from a snitch at the police headquarters who regularly called when any of Gregorio’s boys found their way there. Gregorio sat down in his private booth to take the call and pressed the speaker phone button. “Who’s it this time?” he barked when he knew who was on the line. The man stammered, “Well, it’s everyone…Franky, Nicky, Topo…there must be twenty or thirty guys here!” Gregorio looked like the cannoli had gone bad in his stomach. Without any further information, he seemed to know exactly what had happened. “And Tony?” “Yeah, yeah, Tony’s here too. He don’t look good. What do you want me to do, boss…boss?” Gregorio sent the mobile phone flying. It missed Vito by inches, then flew through the kitchen door as it swung open, landing with a splat in a freshly prepared pot of pasta. Then he took the bowl of linguine with marinara sauce that Vito had been working on and sent it flying into the side of an unlucky waiter’s head. I had seen this before and knew to get clear and stay clear until Gambrelli’s anger had claimed enough victims to cool his wrath. Gambrelli’s head fell into his hands and he tried to calm himself, but that didn’t seem to work. He looked out the corner of his eye at the family pictures around the booth and said, “Don’t you turn your backs on me!” It always freaked me out when he started talking to the walls like that. * * * That morning I had been scheduled for a brief interview with the mayor—apparently he wanted to keep his options open with all of my B.I.B. fans after the searchlight fiasco. As I entered his office, the mayor was watching a special report on a large TV. “Today, police agents have captured twenty-seven alleged members of organized crime in the city. In what has been described as a massive sting operation, police used the transfer of Tony Turtulio to draw out the alleged gang members who allegedly tried to free him from a prison van. Never in the history of the city has there been such a large-scale apprehension of known criminals. Police predict that today’s sting will deal a major blow to criminal operations that will be felt for months or even years to come,” said Amanda James, the female reporter who had taken Janelle Roote’s spot on a live broadcast from police headquarters. “Thank you, Amanda. Great news. And finally, some good news for our beleaguered mayor,” concluded the smiling male newsroom anchor. As the anchor spoke, the mayor stood behind his desk and repeatedly pounded the back of his head into the wall before taking notice of my presence. He greeted me with a smile and firm handshake. * * * At the cellular phone company where I worked, I walked up to the old prune, supervisor of the customer service department, with a doctor’s note that explained why I had been late to work that morning. “Late again, are we?” “It’s all explained there in my doctor’s note. Sorry.” The old prune gave me a good look over. The puffy, watery eyes; the red, runny nose; the mouth breathing—all seemed to confirm that I was truly sick. I could sense the wheels turning in her head. Did she want me to get back to work, or get away and not infect her with my cold? The thought made her hold my doctor’s note with two limp fingers at arm’s length. “Go on, then. Get back to work, but I don’t want to see you in my office until you’re no longer contagious! Do you know I haven’t had a cold in seven point eight years? And even then, I didn’t miss a tick of work. You should learn something from that! Now, go,” she said, pulling a tube of hand sanitizer out of her desk and rubbing it over her hands, “go, get out of here.” What she didn’t see were the wounds I had suffered in the battle with Gambrelli’s men. There were abrasions on my arms and legs and a knife slice on my side that I had stitched shut myself. Not to mention how much my fist hurt from pounding those losers. There were so many of them. I’ll bet it took over fifty seconds to hit them all. Being a woman with superpowers and having to report to an asshole like this old prune for a paycheck could really be a bitch. But what was I supposed to do? Rob a bank? Hold up a convenience store? Even with superpowers, there was no way I would even let myself think about something like that. I’d gotten this far by swallowing my pride, putting up with idiots, and just doing my job. None of that seemed like it was going to change anytime soon * * * The next morning, I, Logan, the media mogul, sat on my beat-up-but-comfy sofa in my boxers, sipping a cup of joe and reading the paper. The front page carried a big picture of Jimmy and Shaun smiling. Above it was the headline, “Local Boys Take a Bite Out of Crime.” Amazingly, the department’s attempt to spin the van event as a planned sting seemed to be holding up. I thought they wouldn’t even have had the nerve to try it, but it was working. Anyone with common sense—no, even less than common sense, even an RFD—could see that two officers could not take down the Gambrelli family in a morning. Had the B.I.B. come out and taken credit for the arrests, everyone would have believed it in a second. But the fact that she hadn’t shown up at the Searchlight Event—and now, the fact that she’d failed to take credit for The Tool—meant that her window of opportunity for fame and fortune had passed. Worst of all, my T-shirt sales dipped…a lot. I had gotten used to having a little change to spend, and had no desire to go back to scraping for a living. I was so concerned about my business that I played only one round of B.I.B. Rescue and three rounds of B.I.B. Pub Crawler before lunch and only twice that many in the afternoon. Rebecca had really perfected the games by now, including all sorts of real people from my past. What I didn’t tell her, she somehow knew. She was amazing. In Pub Crawler, I thought I had located the B.I.B. at Skelly’s, but I ran into the Nelson twins, and you could guess what happened…again. Those two (four) can drink. I remember those two events, the searchlight and the twenty-seven arrests, as being a temporary climax for the B.I.B., at least from my point of view I didn’t see Dr. Jones for a while. The mayor had added him to his staff after realizing he needed something to rebuild his Swiss-cheesed image. His pollsters told him that the public would approve of further connection between him and the B.I.B. So he took on Jones. For organized crime in Scranton, it was a consolidation. For Gregorio Gambrelli it was the end of a crime family. There is a military adage that I would have learned while studying at Penn State before being forced to Scranton by a lousy economy. If you cut an army off from its leadership and reduce the fighting force by half, even with the large number of men remaining, the army will, in effect, cease to function. That is what occurred. With all of Gambrelli’s middle managers in jail, he became separated from his foot soldiers. Other members of his organization fled, fearing that those in prison would be cutting deals. Thanks to the B.I.B., it wasn’t a good day to be on the wrong side of the law. But it was a good day to be Carmine Camino. He had waited his turn, paid his dues, and here was his opportunity. Gambrelli was floundering, unable to control what was left of his organization, and the other crime families were like sharks smelling blood in the water. If it wasn’t Camino cutting his throat, it would have been somebody else, so…after Gambrelli’s second-in-command ended up swimming upside down in the Susquehanna, the Gambrelli foot soldiers, including Vito, jumped to get in line behind Camino. In a morning’s work, the B.I.B. had used Gambrelli’s overconfidence to bring him to his knees and lift Camino up into power. CHAPTER 14 Frustration, Road Trip, Beer—Did I Mention Frustration? For the B.I.B., it seemed to be a slow time as well, a time to reevaluate. There were far fewer sightings reported on my website. After the two days, I think she took a rest and began to evaluate what she was really doing. In the days that followed, I even took occasion to visit the old barkeep at O’Malley’s. Whether I wanted to get connected with the place where I had last seen her or I really expected her to be there—or hoped the barkeep had seen her—I don’t know. “Hey, how have you been?” I asked the old man. “Respectable, I guess,” he said, wiping dry some glasses. It seemed as if he wasn’t sure how to take me. “She been in lately?” “She…? Oh, you mean the blond bird…Ms. Twenty I call her. Always remember a good tipper. No, I ain’t had the pleasure since that night. Shame.” I handed him a hundred dollars and my new, fancy business card. “My offer is still good. She shows up, call me right away, and there’s another hundred in it for your trouble.” “Like I said, always remember a good tip…but you ain’t always been a good tipper now, have ya? Must be doin’ all right for yourself.” “Respectable,” I said, looking around and noting that the bar looked just as it did in the B.I.B. Pub Crawler game, right down to the tablecloths with stains and the RFD’s running headlong into pillars. * * * I sat drinking with my friends from work at Flanagan’s. Paige was at Kelly’s house for the weekend, so I felt I was due some fun, a break from the intensity of recent days. I didn’t get out all that often, but on the occasions when I was available, my colleagues welcomed the opportunity to “put the antlers on” with me. I would transform from a shy, quiet type into a wisecracking showboat. Even if the only men we met were RFDs, we still had a good time. On this night, I was feeling hemmed in with frustration. I knew I had helped, in fact, save the lives of hundreds of people recently. I had kept an airliner from crashing, brought a kidnapped little girl home to her mother, brought down a crime family, and exposed an inept and corrupt mayor, all within a matter of weeks. I had learned to use and focus my power. I had inspired the coolest video games, my fave being Pub Crawler. Yet through it all, I felt empty. Strange as it sounded, there it was. I did not feel joyous but, instead, frustrated and empty. Some crucial part of my life was missing. If I couldn’t even find myself on Pub Crawler, how would I ever find my purpose in the real world? While my friends laughed and blew off steam from work, I sat and brooded. I thought of Paige with her arms folded defensively, pouting about how little I understood her or satisfied her needs, while I had spent my entire life trying to do just that. And what about my needs? In recent months, it had begun to take more and more to get me off. Sexual release of any type began to seem like a distant train disappearing in the night. Then I remembered Old Prune Face and saw her stuffed in my beer bottle, her little head saying, “I have not been laid in sixty-seven point nine years!” I took a big sip from the bottle just to get rid of her. No way I could let myself end up like her. Despite the fact that I was surrounded by my friends, I felt totally alone. I had no one with whom I could share this mess. I’d become isolated. It was frustrating to be so powerful, yet feel so helpless. I concluded that I just needed some time to blow off some steam, not overanalyze, and just “be” for the next few days. I was going to have some fun—real fun. The kind that had become difficult for me recently. I downed the remaining half of my Miner’s Lite in one long drag. “I deserve some fun,” I said to myself and struck a perfect fish face, complete with moving mouth, for my friends, who roared their approval. * * * I sat at my kitchen table accompanied by a twelve-ounce, tasty bottled friend, checking out the news on my laptop when the first reports started coming in of Miner’s Lite beer trucks falling from the sky—minus their drivers and their cargo. The first couple of news reports came in time for the late night news and were covered the way one would cover an elaborate practical joke or an event like a charity domino fall. But when they continued all weekend, the tone of the coverage gained concern, and commentators began to discuss criminal charges. As the B.I.B. had dropped a beer truck before—and was forever bonded to Miner’s Lite in the public imagination by the picture from Skelly’s featured on the B.I.B. T-shirts—it became a foregone conclusion that the B.I.B. was responsible. In fact, there was no other suspect possible as far as most people were concerned. As the media loves to tarnish and bring down the image of actors charged with DUIs or caught in affairs with nannies, they loved to rip at the image of the B.I.B. When a truck fell in the playground of a then-closed day-care center, smashing the swings and teeter-totter, the local news outlets erupted in an uproar over what could have happened had the center been open. Over the weekend, more and more people were saying that the B.I.B. was not above the law and needed to be brought to justice. It was the random, unsuspecting appearance of the trucks that made their menace frightening, like walking into a minefield, where any step a person took could be their last, without warning; even while just sitting in their houses, no one felt safe. Sunday night’s news reported that the mayor would hold a news conference the next morning. Rebecca added falling beer trucks to the hazards on the B.I.B. Rescue game. * * * I awoke uncertainly, not feeling much like a superhero. My eyes were fogged and my head pounded. I felt my stomach rumbling. I knew I was lying in a dark, cluttered bedroom, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. Where it was, when it was, or how it had become so, I had no idea. Next, I put together that I was naked, lying on my stomach, and the heavy drapes had been drawn. Beyond them, I could see sunshine through the cracks. With effort, I righted myself and sat on the edge of the bed, resting my head in my hands, then pushing back a mop of hair. I sighed and then rose, with considerable effort. I staggered a few feet to the window, fingered back the drape, and saw a midday street in Las Vegas below. The row of theme hotels and casinos made it unmistakable. “Holy shit,” I mumbled to myself, sobering up some. I moved around the hotel room finding my clothes, yet somehow missed my panties. I decided to get dressed anyway and venture out to find whatever enlightening discoveries awaited me outside the door. I paused at the door and then pulled it open to reveal the living room of a hotel suite. Ten feet to my left stood a young, thin, college-aged man in his boxer shorts. When he looked over and saw me, panic ran over his face. He groaned, cupped his hands around his genitals, and slowly backed away from me, as if I were an enraged bear. He backed into the bathroom and closed and locked the door. To my right, another young man dropped from the sofa like a fish dropping to the deck of a boat. He grunted, dragging himself and a nonfunctioning leg behind the protection of the sofa. I stood in startled amazement, trying to figure out the scene. Then, from the kitchen, a third college boy wearing only sweatpants slid toward me and spoke. “Good afternoon,” was all he said. “Good afternoon,” I said, walking toward him slowly. “This may sound a bit silly, but maybe you can help me out here.” “Shoot.” “I’ve figured out that this is Las Vegas, but I have no idea what day it is, or who you are.” The young man took a couple of steps toward me, hunched over with dark circles surrounding his eyes. “I’m Kevin. The dude in the bathroom is Josh. Cory’s behind the sofa. And Matt was the guy we dropped off at the hospital.” “Hospital?” “Oh right, dude, you probably don’t remember him. That’s cool. Anyway, they say he should be able to walk again with some good old physical therapy.” I pointed at him and his hunched back. “Did I do this to you?” Kevin smiled, “Oh yeah, dude. You drained me…just got raisins down there now. But it’s cool.” “Sorry, I’m really sorry. Rough night, I guess.” “Rough? Oh yeah, rough.” He smiled again, nodding. “You know, rough doesn’t really cover it….awesome, it was awesome. I never saw a chick move like that.” Then he stared at the floor. “They’ll probably make us pay for those holes in the ceiling. My dad’s really gonna be pissed…But still, it was worth it.” “What day is this?” I asked, running my fingers through my hair. “It’s a righteous Sunday afternoon in Vegas, man.” He took a drink from a beer. “Can I get you one? You were downing them like a pro last night. Never seen a chick drink like that before, either.” He indicated the table, which was covered with empty Miner’s Lite bottles, and a few that were unopened as well. “Have you seen my coat, my bag?” “Over by the door.” “Well, thank you…Kevin. I best be going,” I said, backing away, red faced and awkward. When I reached the door, Kevin took a couple of steps forward and asked, “Hey, can I call you in a month if my back is up to it?” “Sweet…but I don’t think that’s ever gonna happen.” “It’s cool.” With that, I left the college boys and headed down the hotel hallway, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. It made sense that I, in my drunken logic, had picked Las Vegas, because no one knew me there; what happens in Vegas…you know. But why the college boys? Probably because of my recent problems with men—I had reasoned that maybe four or five healthy young men might get the job done. But by the looks of those boys that morning—and the general feeling of dissatisfaction I had from the night before—I could cross that theory off the list. When I reached the window and the elevators at the end of the hall, it was decision time. Paige would be home at 7:00 p.m. Should I fly home, or should I fly home? CHAPTER 15 Hazel Eyes, My Ass! As a website owner/media mogul, I was front and center at the mayor’s news conference the next morning wearing my laminated press pass. I had even worn a suit jacket and an expensive new dress shirt, but I hadn’t completely sold out, so I wasn’t to the tie stage just yet. I was armed with my briefcase, laptop, mobile phone, and a combative reporter’s attitude. I even had a digital recorder to turn on: scary. Christ, I was even forty minutes early. I’ve never been early for anything in my life, but there I was with my choice of front row seats. Part of me was proud of my newfound skills. The rest of me was just waiting for the crash. Over time, the room filled, the camera lights went on, and the room bustled with noise and activity. Then exactly at ten o’clock with no announcement or fanfare, the mayor and his team filed in and sat behind a long table with a podium and microphone at its center. Among the team members was Dr. Jones. Apparently, the mayor preferred his scientific mumbo jumbo to my streetwise expertise. “I would like to start by saying good morning to all the members of the media and to the people of Scranton,” the mayor said. “Thank you all for coming. “At nine o’clock last night, in a closed session of the City Council, using the emergency powers granted me, I signed an executive order that prohibits the manufacture, transportation, distribution, sale, and consumption of all Miner’s Lite beer products within city limits. I further ordered the confiscation of these same products, an endeavor that was carried out by law enforcement personnel throughout the evening. We have done this in the name of public safety in response to the series of incidents involving Miner’s Lite beer trucks that have fallen from the sky onto the property of the city’s landowners and threatened to harm residents who may be in the random path of these vehicles. I have further impounded all trucks in the Miner’s delivery fleet. This ordinance is temporary and will expire when conditions of public safety have been reinstated. Penalties for not complying with the new ordinance are outlined in the copy of the ordinance that will be made available to you all. I will now take your questions.” Hands went up all over the room. “Yes, here in the second row.” “Has your administration determined that the B.I.B is behind these falling beer trucks, and are there any plans to issue a warrant for her arrest?” asked a young reporter behind me. “Sorry, Bill. As you know, I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation. I can say, however, that she is a person of interest in the case,” BS’ed the mayor. Voices rang out from all over. “Have you made contact with her?” “Let’s do this one at a time. How about you, Colin?” he said, pointing across the room. “Is it safe to say that your administration is beginning to change its attitude toward the benevolence of the B.I.B.? And as a follow-up, what plans do you have to deal with her?” The mayor smiled and gave a short laugh. “Colin, let me start by saying that there have been a number of incidents that have shown the B.I.B. to have allegedly helped law enforcement. However, her refusal to communicate and these recent, highly dangerous events may force us to rethink our interpretation of past events.” “Are you saying that she is a danger to the community?” the reporter continued. The mayor smiled again. “I can only let you decide that for yourself once justice has taken its course.” Then the mayor pointed to me. “Mr. Mayor, haven’t you really instituted this Miner’s Beer embargo as an attempt to ‘starve out’ the B.I.B., knowing of her fondness for Miner’s Lite?” He simply ignored me and pointed to the chubby guy with glasses beside me, as if I had not been his choice in the first place. “Have you made any attempts to communicate with the B.I.B. over her possible involvement in the beer truck incidents?” the guy beside me drawled out slowly. “There has been no attempt to contact her at this point,” he answered, as if a sensitive nerve had been hit. There was uproar from all over the room. “Why don’t you just ask her? Couldn’t this be resolved easily by talking?” I have to admit I was one of them. “How do you contact someone who does not want to communicate?” said the mayor. Beads of sweat had formed on his forehead, and he held up his arms. It was becoming obvious that the reporter revolt had caused the mayor to lose his control. “You all know the lengths I have gone through to communicate with that woman, the B.I.B.,” he said, looking squarely at the audience but pointing his finger to the side. “I don’t have to remind you of the newspaper ads and the plans we made for the Searchlight Event. Heaven knows how I have tried to bring that woman to the table, and every time, she’s just screwed me over. “Whenever I’ve tried, did I get to speak with her? No. I’ll tell you what I get—crashing cars and train wrecks, and let’s not forget the planes…the goddamned planes. They’re crashing and crashing. And I’m just waiting like an asshole for someone who never shows…they just kept crashing….then the FAA’s got my ass!” At that point, Edwards, the mayor’s assistant, gestured to two large men in the wings who came out and escorted the mayor off the stage, still babbling. Edwards stepped to the podium and introduced Dr. Jones. “Perhaps questions about the B.I.B. could be better answered by the mayor’s expert on the subject.” Jones rose and took over the podium. He pointed to a female reporter in the back of the hall. “Dr. Jones, can you answer the question about communications with the B.I.B.?” “Certainly, I can try. We have, for some time now, been attempting to locate and communicate with the B.I.B. I began this process even before I joined the mayor’s staff. We feel that, with time, we can accomplish this.” “Do you have any idea who she is?” yelled out a reporter tired of waiting to be called upon. “We have little to go on beside the Skelly’s photo, which we believe is genuine. From this she appears to be a female, early thirties in age, about five-foot-five to five-foot-seven inches in height, blond hair, and very piercing hazel eyes that seem to glow when she smiles.” You could tell he was drifting away, describing his love and not just the B.I.B. “But with the extensive costume, it has been impossible to determine precisely who she is.” “You have no leads, then?” shouted a man in the front. “Oh, no, I did not say that. We have been working on a very scientific formula to determine her identity. We expect to find her…I certainly expect to find her,” he said, becoming more animated. “And when I do, I am confident that all will be just fine and that she will help our city.” A sarcastic middle-aged reporter held up a blown-up picture of the day-care center with the beer truck that had flattened the swing set. “Is this what you mean by ‘just fine,’ letting this animal run above the law, endangering our children?” Jones stammered something no one could hear. “We don’t need to ‘communicate’; we need to arrest her, and now, before someone gets hurt! Do you want your child under that truck, Dr. Jones?” the middle-aged reporter continued. “Do you?” Dr. Jones started mumbling in an Indian dialect, seemly enraged by the idea of the B.I.B. being anything but his perfect discovery. “Believe me!” he said, finally. “Believe me, my friends, we have nothing to fear from the B.I.B.! Settle yourselves! Once under my control, she will be the perfect public servant!” Then he began mumbling again and sweating profusely. He loosened his tie and then waved his arms from over his head down toward his feet. “Calm yourselves. She is perfect—a perfect being! Not like you assholes!” Clearly overheated, he loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top couple buttons of his shirt, revealing a B.I.B. Miner’s Lite T-shirt. Reporters in the first couple rows began to laugh and point. “What are you looking at? You…you…idiots!” was Jones’ response. “We have new methods at our disposal, and soon we will communicate with the B.I.B. directly.” No one was listening anymore. Finally, to get everyone’s attention, he ripped open his jacket and shirt to reveal his Miner’s Lite/B.I.B. T-shirt, now proud of it, and began shouting in the same dialect. Again, Edwards gestured to the two men who this time escorted Dr. Jones off the stage. I felt sorry for the sap. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d been going on about concerning these new methods. Clearly, Jones thought he could control the B.I.B. How? From the other side of the stage came a very large man wearing an expensive suit. He introduced himself as Vito and declared that the news conference was now over. I noticed that one of the men who had escorted Jones offstage had two Miner’s Lite bottles in the side pocket of his jacket. “With the embargo on, where’d you get the Miner’s Lite?” I shouted, as the crowd around me buzzed with the chaos surrounding the end of the meeting. “Hey, where’d you get the Miner’s Lite?” I screamed again. The man dropped his hand to cover the pocket where I’d seen the beer. “That guy’s got Miner’s Lite in his pocket! With an embargo on! Or is the embargo just for common a-holes like us?” From the stage, Vito pointed his sapling-sized finger at me. “Hey, buddy, you just made the list.” Another voice yelled, “Where’d you get the Miner’s?” And then another and another joined the outcry. Vito just turned and walked off the stage toward a set of doors, ignoring us all, but there was a Miner’s Lite in his back pocket as well. I raised my fist, shook it defiantly, and with frustration leaving me at a loss for words yelled at the top of my lungs, “Hazel eyes, my ass!” * * * The old prune sat looking at me like a cat with a mouse trapped in a corner, or an old woman who’d just had a good BM. I couldn’t tell which. She rose up and began to creak her way around me as I sat in the hot seat in front of her desk. My day just kept getting better. After my return flight from Vegas the night before, I had arrived to see all the news about beer trucks falling from the sky, a Miner’s Lite embargo, and the general public outcry to burn the B.I.B. Yeah, right, like I would waste a beer truck—one of my favorite public servants—just for shits and giggles. I decided they wanted me to come out and defend myself, so I didn’t. After getting all that cheery B.I.B. news and engaging in a little mother/daughter tiff with Paige, I’d hurried into work with an armful of files I had taken home to finish. (Took me five minutes, but don’t tell them that. I would spoil my illusion of diligence.) I had parked in the closest spot to the building’s entrance to save time, dropped off the files, then returned to move my car to the “Associates Parking Area.” Unfortunately for me, when I returned I found my path blocked by the old prune’s equally old car, built for her by Henry Ford personally, no doubt. Apparently it was her parking spot I had used for what…two minutes? So voilà! Here I was again in the hot seat in the old prune’s office, once again, for parking in an unauthorized area…blasphemer! She looked down at me with those squinty eyes—and was that moth balls I smelled? “Sooo, here we are again. You just can’t seem to learn, can you?” I began to stammer a defense, but she waved it off with the arc of a bony finger. “There is no defense for you now! I caught you red-handed. I know,” she said moving away from me, “that you’re sorry….You’re sorry you got caught!” “It was just a second, and it was because I had taken so much work home!” “Tut, tut, tut! I have had that parking space for ten point seven years, and in that time, no one has dared park there. But you…you’re special! Aren’t you? You think you can fly through the air and walk on water!” (Yes I can, I thought. With heels on.) “Who do you think you are, that ‘Bib’ woman who runs, gallivanting all over town?” There it was, again, “Bib.” It made my skin crawl to be referred to that way. I felt my hands involuntarily reaching out for her neck as she turned away—a quick snap and it would be over in a second. “It’s B.I.B. Her name is the B.I.B., not ‘Bib’,” I told her through tightly strained lips, attempting to regain control of my arms. “What?” The old prune seemed shocked that I had spoken. “Fiddlesticks! I don’t give a flaming rat’s ass what you call that loser showoff criminal! It’s B-I-B, and that spells ‘bib’ in every dictionary I’ve ever seen.” (She probably saw the first one—you know, the one they carved in stone.) It took a heroic effort to keep my hands off of her neck and get them back to my sides, still quaking with violent desire. She reached over her desk with a grunt of effort and picked up a piece of paper, which she handed to me. “This is to give you notice that I am formally writing you up for unauthorized parking. This is your second write up. One more, and that’s where you’re going,” she said pointing at the door. “You understand?” “Yes.” “Good! Then we understand each other.” She looked me over. Apparently there was something else she didn’t like. “What is it with you? You are always wearing something black. I will have to check our dress code on that. There must be something. Now get back to work and prove me wrong about you.” I stood up and left. Part of me was relieved to almost have been fired and the other half began to think about how bad the job market in Scranton was these days. I glanced back at the old prune as she hunched over a small trash basket and dug around with a pencil for something. Then I imagined her squashed down into the trash basket with just her pruney face showing as she continued to speak, “I’ve been in the trash basket for three point six minutes now.” She sensed my gaze, or maybe it was my hands about to crush her, and turned to give me a sour look. Of course, I gave her a big warm smile and again scooted through the door. In my head, I repeated the word paycheck over and over. CHAPTER 16 We Consider New Possibilities For me, the news conference was a frustration and a disappointment. It caused me to reconsider and take inventory of the things going on in my life. I realized I’d been spoiled by the rapid changes in the last few months. I thought everything had to just keep going up and up from here. Listening to myself say that now, I can see how deluded I’d been by a little taste of success. Being saved by the B.I.B. on B.I.B. Rescue wasn’t the same as in reality. I found myself drifting off into thoughts of her several times a day. At night while I waited to fall asleep, I would replay the time I had been so close to her at O’Malley’s and imagine it turning out differently, the two of us chatting and laughing together…Crap, was I pining again? When I got home, I started to take inventory just by noticing what was there. The apartment once strewn with dirty T-shirts and jeans was now strewn with silk shirts, expensive shoes, and underwear that had been worn only once. A new large-screen TV stood where old reliable had once been. When I checked the website, I now had a new site; and I was in for another surprise. When I took the time to check the online store sales, the advertising revenue, and the hit counts, the numbers were through the roof—I had no idea how successful the site had become. So there was a reason I was writing all those big checks to Rebecca! I had allowed myself to become separated from the site, trusting in Rebecca, and being lazy. It was like seeing it for the first time. It was a great-looking and popular site. Some of the same idiots were still posting trash, but ordinary people were adding their supportive comments. Everyone wanted to believe, so today, most of the comments were those refusing to believe the B.I.B. could have dropped beer trucks on us or, if she had, it was her idea of a practical joke. No one had been hurt was the catch phrase. I took off my silk shirt and dress pants, put on a B.I.B. T-shirt and jeans, popped the cap off of a Miner’s Lite, the last one in the fridge, and began to write a post for the blog I had not updated for days. The theme was that the B.I.B. was innocent of the truck drops and someone wanted her discredited. The mob and the mayor seemed prime suspects—or could they be one in the same? It started out mostly as an intuition based on what I had seen at the news conference and the presence of Vito there, who seemed to have become a permanent fixture in the mayor’s office. But then inspiration hit and the blog became quite convincing. Hell, even I believed myself. When I was done, my thoughts turned to where this whole thing had started. I needed to get back to my research on the women born during the Super Bowl. It was the only way I could think to find her. None of the glitz, none of the glamor, none of the fame had lured the B.I.B. to show herself. I was sure that Dr. Jones had not shared his Super Bowl theory with anyone else. It was the one connection he and I had left. The appearance of Jennifer Lowe at the Searchlight Event and her melted pen at the coffee shop made me feel certain Dr. Jones’ theory was correct. But at that time, I still didn’t know if Jennifer was there to help me or hurt me. * * * That night I purposely stayed late at work. First, to earn some brownie points and let the prune know how sorry I was (yeah right), and second, to watch her leave. She was almost always the last to go; vampires and witches travel best in the dark, I guess. I followed her out and watched from the lobby as she worked her slow, deliberate way out of the door, down the sidewalk, and around the small, treed corner to her car with her key remote in hand. Seeming to be on autopilot from having done it for some many years, she arrived at where her car should have been. She reached out with the remote to open the door, but there was no door. She paused, then looked up to see a Miner’s Lite beer truck standing on end, having squished her vintage Ford like an accordion. Somewhere below in the twisted metal was the lock the remote opened, and she bent over to try to find the door, apparently unable to conceive that anything such as this could have happened. The old biddy pushed the remote over and over, and the car gave off an occasional mournful beep of recognition. She began pacing to the front of the mess and then to the back of her ex-car, where she stood with a look of disbelief. That was when the Miner’s truck creaked and gravity dropped the front end down with a bouncing crash over her car. The old prune stared at it for a minute, looked at the key remote in hand, pushed it, and then collapsed to the ground as a security guard ran to investigate. He was quickly standing over her asking, “Ma’am, are you okay? Ma’am!” When he got no reply, he said to himself, “Man, she looks like she’s been dead for years.” Suddenly her eyes popped open, shocking the poor security guard, who must have thought she was rising from the dead. She looked at him and was instantly herself. “Young man, I have had this car for fourteen point two years, and never has my remote failed to open the door properly!” When I knew she was all right, I strolled over to her. “Oh my god! You okay?” She sat up and gave me a snarling look. I’ll bet that I was the last person she wanted to see her having a problem. “Boy, I’m glad you made me move my car, or that would have been my Ford under there… squashed like a bug…destroyed beyond recognition. I hear these beer truck are dropping everywhere. Glad you’re okay. .Maybe you should write that truck up for double parking.” Then I walked away with a cocky smile. “I believe I will do just that!” she yelled after me. “Help me up, you fool,” she yelled at the security guard. I got in my car and was home in seventeen point three minutes. * * * Being Jennifer Lowe had its advantages, my quiet penthouse being one of them. Rebecca and I sat across from each other on leather sofas before a small gas fireplace whose flicker and glow calmed me. I had my legs tucked up under me while I sipped from a long-stemmed wine glass. To anyone, I would seem the image of relaxation and comfort. Anyone would be wrong. “Gee, Jennifer, your place is great,” Rebecca said to break the silence. She sat hunched over a small coffee table between the sofas, not sure what to do with her glass. “I’m sorry about the wine. I know you like that Miner’s Lite beer, but you just can’t get it anymore. I even tried the black market for you. No one’s got any,” I apologized, trying to be the gracious host and calm Rebecca, who seemed nervous. “It’s okay. For me, it’s Miner’s or nothing. I never liked any other beer.” Rebecca spun the wine glass in her hands and looked around the condo with its large windows and view of the city. Nothing in Scranton was really tall, but this was about as high as it gets. “Your place is amazing,” she said, getting up and walking to the windows. “How do you afford a place like this being a florist? Your family have money?” That made me laugh out loud. Was she kidding? “Me? My family had nothing. You wouldn’t want to know where I came from.” “So, how’d you get all this?” Rebecca asked, sitting back down and drinking some of her wine. “Rebecca, I’m about as much ‘just’ a florist as you are ‘just’ a graphic designer.” Rebecca blinked, and she put down her wine. “Oh dear, you are just a graphic designer.” Rebecca’s face had become upset. “Yes, I am, and a damn good one!” “I’m sorry,” I said, sliding off my sofa. I sat down beside Rebecca and put my hand on her shoulder. “I know you are. I saw what you did on that B.I.B. website. It’s terrific.” “It is! Everyone likes it! I started from nothing, and now look at it. That was the first time in my career someone just let me take the ball and run with it. He’s really given me the freedom to be creative and not look over my shoulder all the time. He gives me a cut of all the money the site takes in, and I’m doing very well, thank you very much….I just wish I didn’t have to hide things and lie to him. When you told me that taking over his site and using him as a front would help us find her, I had no idea he would be such a good guy.” “Good guy? Please. Don’t make me ill. The little loser can’t even get it up.” “You know why. She’s marked him. That’s how we know they’ve been together…right?” “The man has no taste.” I sipped some wine, and memories of the coffee shop brought a flurry of heat energy to the ends of my fingers. I calmed my anger, and it flowed back into me. “I just hate lying to him.” “You know how important this is. That twerp knows where she is! Eventually he’ll go to her, or she’ll come to him.” Rebecca clearly began to run through a full circle of emotions and insecurity. “I told you I wasn’t a wine drinker,” she said and put down her glass, tears appearing in the corners of her eyes. I began to feel sorry for her. She was upset, and I decided to reroute the energy I was feeling myself. “Rebecca,” I began, “let’s forget about finding the B.I.B. and websites and everything for a while. Would that be okay?” Rebecca nodded. “Sure.” “This may sound a little out of nowhere, but do you find it hard to have sex now that you’re discovering your powers?” “Oh yeah, do I. The men I’ve met lately are like toys—five or six quick ones and they can barely move afterward, and there I am, without even getting my motor running.…I can’t even tell you how many batteries I buy a month.” I picked up Rebecca’s wine glass, put it to her lips, and tilted it. “Here, you’re gonna need this.” “What?” said Rebecca before drinking down the entire glass. Despite being with man after man, none had been able to quiet the erotic fires in me. With all the frustration I had experienced lately, I felt open to experimentation. It was a new concept to me, but I reasoned that, if even a bunch of men could not satisfy a superwoman, then maybe a superwoman could. I began to move slowly toward Rebecca until we were nose to nose. “What are you doing?” Rebecca asked. Then Rebecca began to feel the power in my hands as they roamed her shoulders, neck, and hair. I pulled off Rebecca’s glasses and removed my own. I slowly ran my hands down Rebecca’s chest, took hold of her sweater at the waist, and lifted it over her head. She sat motionless, stunned, while I tossed the sweater and her bra to the ground. I began a show of slowly unbuttoning my own silk shirt, all the while smiling and staring into Rebecca’s eyes. When I released the last button with flair, Rebecca looked down to see me bare to the navel. She trembled, waiting in anticipation and uncertainty. In a second, the slow dance was over and we were a combined mass of lips, arms, thighs, and hands. One minute and twenty-nine seconds later, we emerged from my bedroom and walked back toward the living room, searching for our clothes and straightening our hair. As we reached the living room, Rebecca said, “Well that really sucked! No offense.” I followed and shook my head. “Yeah, how do men do that? What the hell was I thinking? I’m really sorry about that, Rebecca. I hope you’re not mad.” “I understand. It was your frustration coming out. Believe me, I know what that’s like. “ “Now we know that’s not the answer either.” “But what is? Do you think she’s found the answer? Like, maybe that’s why you couldn’t break the mark she left on Logan.” I shrugged. “You wanna talk shop?” “Definitely,” Rebecca answered, bending for her sweater and glasses. “Good. I’ll get the ice cream.” I went to the freezer and then joined Rebecca at the granite island in my kitchen. We leaned on it and dug into a quart of premium peach ice cream with a couple spoons. There was a long silence, which I finally broke. “I’m really sorry, Rebecca. Not just for the sex; I mean everything. That website you made is amazing.” That made her smile. “You think so?” I nodded. “And you don’t know about me because I didn’t tell you. I should have. You deserve to know.” She turned toward me. “Yeah?” “Yeah. I’m a florist because my aunt was a florist. My aunt raised me. When cancer got her a few years ago, she gave the shop to me. It ended up probably saving my life. It was all I had left. But you’re right, that’s not where the money comes from for this whole B.I.B. search. All that has come since I got the powers.” “What happened to your mom and dad?” “They were murdered when I was fourteen.” “Oh my god.” “It messed me up for a long while. If it weren’t for my aunt…I don’t know. Then my aunt died, and it was like my parents all over again….I turned to drugs and drinking. All I had was a friggin’ floral shop.” “That had to have been so hard for you.” “It was, especially because I don’t know a carnation from a geranium. Lucky for me, my aunt had someone who ran the shop, Anna. She became the only friend I had. I would get so angry. We’d spend weekends up on her family’s farm. It settled me down.” “When did you get your powers?” I dug out a couple of spoonfuls of ice cream, and instantly they melted in my mouth. “I was at my apartment sitting in a Jacuzzi, believe it or not. I was thinking too much, I guess, about my parents, about my aunt—just feeling sorry for myself. Anyway, I got angry. It was just so unfair, you know?” Rebecca nodded, clearly sympathizing with me. “I closed my eyes and started to cry and let all the emotions out. When I opened my eyes I couldn’t see a thing. The room was filled with superheated steam streaming out the window and through the doorway. The water in the tub was gone, flash evaporated—like a drop of water on a red-hot coal. My arms and legs glowed with an energy that pulsed through them. I thought I was some kind of freak. “I had to get away, so I put my clothes back on and just left the apartment. I was walking down the middle of the empty street, my eyes full of tears, when a car came speeding over a hill weaving, with its tires squealing. It came right at me like a missile. I threw my arms up in defense. Then a cone of lava-red energy formed around me like a shield, and the car hit it. “The energy cone pulsed, then slowly faded, leaving the car squashed, like it had hit a wall.” “My god,” Rebecca said, “that’s amazing.” “And scary, and weird. I just fell to my knees and then passed out.” “You command energy with your thoughts?” “Hot, powerful, instant energy, with my emotions more than anything else. It scared the crap out of me at first, until I figured out the connection between the energy and my emotions. When I calm down, the energy goes away.” “Yeah, when you first stumble onto your power it’s scary. It was for me too, but nothing like what you went through. Go on.” I went to the fridge and pulled out another quart of ice cream to replace the one we had finished. “It took a while after that to understand what was going on, I mean, accept what was going on. I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. Who’d believe it, right?” “Amen to that. That’s why it’s great that we have each other, our own little support group.” “I’m glad we found each other, too.” “Well, it was you who found me, actually.” “Long story short, I was up one weekend at Anna’s family farm. Her dad’s pretty old, can’t work much. Even though he can’t work, he dresses everyday like a farmer in overalls and carries a cane to help him with his limp. He’s worn out by the years, but he’s good at storytelling and complaining.” “Know the type. My grandpa’s just like that.” “One weekend, he drove Anna and me around the farm, telling us about the good old days when all the oil and gas wells on the farm made him big money, but now they just sat rusting in the fields. He stopped at one of the well heads, got us out of the truck, and started telling us his story. “‘See, Jenny’—he always called me Jenny—‘this well’s like me. Plenty of life inside, down deep, but can’t get it out. See,’—he tapped a gauge that read near zero with his cane—‘no pressure. Plenty of oil down there, but there’s no pressure to bring it up. I’ll bet we only got out a tenth of what’s down there. It’s all trapped in the rock and such. These wells used to be productive, just like the old fart who owns ’em. Now they’re just sitting here doing nothing, rusting away, just like me.’ “The story made me feel bad for him, but it also made me think. If it was true and there was all this oil just sitting there, it seemed like a waste of a lot of money. I said to him, ‘You mean, all you need to do is force the gas out of the rock and these wells would flow again?’ “‘Flow like a goddamn river!’ he told me. ‘Some guys up in Tunkhannock are workin’ with something they call ‘fracking’ that’s supposed to work. They force high-pressure water into the well to free the gas from the rocks. Supposed to be like Viagra for your well, I hear.’ “But late that night I returned alone to the field and walked around the rusting green metal of the wellhead we had visited. I began walking in a big circle around it with my arms out. I thought about the old man feeling full of life but trapped in an aging body, just like the oil trapped in the rock below. Finally, red energy began to spark between my hands and then grow into a red-and-orange ball that hummed and flashed between my arms. Then I threw the energy ball at the well and it crashed, shaking the ground beneath me, as it spread out and was absorbed by the land. I repeated this over and over, each time lighting up the night sky with red flashes and feeling the earth quake beneath my feet. “The next morning I returned to the well before breakfast. The pressure gauge was pegged at the highest reading on its scale. That’s how I knew I had found a way to make money with my power.” “You got his wells going again? That’s amazing.” Rebecca had gone to the fridge for another quart of ice cream. “No, bring the chocolate in the half-gallon,” I suggested as she dug in the freezer. “As far as his wells go—sort of.” “Sort of?” “I offered to buy Anna’s dad’s mineral rights and distribution contract, and he was glad to sell. So were his neighbors and their neighbors. When we ran out of existing wells, we began drilling new ones.” “So you became an oil baroness?” said Rebecca, bringing back the ice cream. “One problem. I didn’t have any money to buy the first leases with. Later on, the money from the producing wells paid to buy more leases, but I had nothing for the first few, nada.” “So how’d you do it?” I grabbed the half-gallon and took a few bites, debating whether I should confess to Rebecca. “I stole it.” “Stole it! Oh my god.” “When you have powers like this, you have to wonder if the laws set up for the average person apply to you. I don’t know how you feel about that, but I think I have these powers for a reason. Anyhow, there was a bank next to the floral shop. Every Friday, like clockwork, they had money picked up by an armored car. I knew the drivers. They’d come into the shop for birthdays and anniversaries. In fact, Anna would remind them when their anniversary was. Saved their marriages.” I laughed, as did Rebecca. “They’d park in an alley next to my shop when they did the bank pickup. I checked it out, no security cameras.” “You didn’t!” I nodded. “What can I say? I tried doing it the right way, with a bank loan, and got laughed at. I almost melted that guy’s face off…literally. I really had to control my emotions when that little prick laughed at me. My flower shop wasn’t worth anywhere near enough for collateral. What choice did I have? “A few days before the lease payments were due, I watched the two guys from the back of the truck enter the bank, leaving the driver alone. I stepped around to the back of the truck and stayed out of the driver’s mirrors. I put my hands against the wall of the truck and thought about the money inside that I needed. The metal wall just melted and flowed to the ground like spilled water, steaming and hissing as it hit the pavement. It was great. I reached inside and grabbed some bags. I knew they had to be valuable, right? Or why else would they be in the truck? It happened so fast the driver never knew what happened. In a few seconds, I was back in the shop and the money was under the floorboards.” Rebecca’s mouth hung open with her ice cream spoon turned over against her tongue. Had I made a mistake in confiding in her? “Are you kidding me? I never would have guessed that you were a gangsta. All this,” she said, gesturing to the apartment, “came from that money?” “No, but it was enough to to get started. After that, my wells began to pay for more wells and more wells. The ‘fracking’ Anna’s dad talked about worked too, but my wells are twice as productive as theirs, so it’s easy for me to compete.” “It must be worth millions!” “Billions is the new millions.” “Holy crap!” “I have real estate all over the world. With the prices down from the recession, there are bargains everywhere. But I like living here in Scranton. I don’t know, it seems like my powers came from here. Who knows what would happen if I left?” “I never thought of that. It might be true. You know, maybe I should figure out a way to make some money from what I can do.” I smiled, already knowing I had led her to the right question. “Once we find the B.I.B., you won’t have to worry about money or anything else. She’s the key. Once we connect my finances and your technical knowhow to her pure little image, there will be no stopping us.” Rebecca remained thoughtful for minute, and I studied her face. Finally, she smiled, seeming totally content to continue trusting my vision of the big picture, unwavered by the story I had told. “Are you gonna hog all the ice cream, or can I have some?” “Did you see the butter pecan?” I ran to the freezer, glad that our jacked-up metabolisms required a lot of calories to satisfy—a lot of delicious calories. “Do you have any waffles?” “Always!” When the freezer was empty of ice cream and Rebecca had squeezed out the last drop of maple syrup onto her last bite of waffle, we began to discuss the reason of our meeting. “What about Victoria?” I asked. “I think she’s scared,” answered Rebecca. “But I think she’ll meet with you. I forwarded you her phone number in an email. She wants to meet somewhere safe, in public, Tuesday afternoon. She’s having a tough time. Her husband can’t take it anymore and left. She’s sick and alone. So I think we can get her.” “And did you ever hear back from Suzen?” “Not, a thing. It’s like she dropped off the earth. Last I heard she was off in Oregon somewhere trying to deny her powers and hide them from the world, teaching at some little college.” “God, we needed her!” I said pounding my fist on the counter with frustration. “She was the next closest born. I think she still might answer you. Do you think they found her too, or is she just afraid to join us?” Rebecca shook her head. “You know as well as I do, they’re easy to find, but it’s hard to convince them of the danger they’re in.” “Easy to find? What about the B.I.B.? She’s easy to find?” Rebecca hung her head. “Okay, okay, I will keep working on finding her. But she’s like…invisible.” “When’s the last time you heard from Suzen?” “When I call I just get that weird voice mail with the poetry on it. She ignores my emails. It’s been over a week now.” “Damn, just like Jessica!” I stared at the ground and wiped my palm over my face. “Text me the address of that college in Oregon. I think Suzen needs a visit and a talking to…maybe a little push.” “I doubt she’s still there. You know how she is. You did your best to warn Jessica. Let’s hope Suzen figures it out before she ends up the same way.” I ran my hand through my hair as I paced. “Let’s hope we don’t end up the same way ourselves….We have to make sure we get Victoria. We can’t afford to lose all of them.” “What if she just doesn’t want to join us?” I gave her a sober stare. “She’s joining us…one way or another, she’s joining, even if I have to whack her over the head. And find the fucking B.I.B. She’s the key…and her journalist boyfriend. Without them…” “Now you’re scaring me.” “Just find them, all of them! Before there’s no one left to find.” “All right. You’re the boss. But the B.I.B. won’t be easy….And Logan, if he knows, he’s protecting her like gold.” CHAPTER 17 Proud to Be Appreciated, but Not to Be Hunted When I got home from work, I called for Paige without results. She wasn’t at the computer chatting with friends, so I went down the hall to her bedroom, but she wasn’t there either. On the bed I noticed an opened box and a large envelope. I found a poster in the box and unrolled it. To my amazement, it was a six-foot poster of myself taken from the Skelly’s picture. I was on a poster, and my daughter had purchased one—it seemed bizarre. I went through the other items and found various B.I.B. trinkets: a coffee cup, a beer mug, and another T-shirt, all with some sort of B.I.B. picture or silhouette on them. I looked around the room at Paige’s clothes on the floor and saw three or four B.I.B. shirts next to black jeans—a complete B.I.B. outfit. How had I missed my daughter becoming a B.I.B. groupie? And how did I feel about it—proud or concerned? From behind me Paige appeared. “Mom!” she yelled as she grabbed the coffee mug out of my hand, “That was supposed to be a surprise gift for you. Now you’ve ruined it.” “What is all this stuff, honey?” “Nothing, it’s just my stuff,” she said, re-boxing the items I had disturbed. Then she came back to her speechless mother by the bed. “And Mom, I thought we agreed that’s you’d stay out of my room.” “Sorry, I just couldn’t find you. When did you get into the whole B.I.B. thing?” “She’s not a ‘thing,’ Mom, she’s a person. She’s a strong woman who does things that matter to the world…something I doubt you would know anything about.” “Oh really!” I said both angered and impressed that it was me she was talking about. “Yeah, really! When was the last time you did anything that mattered to anybody? All you do is work and go out drinking with your friends.” “That’s just about enough of that! I’m your mother! I keep a roof over our heads!” “Big deal. The B.I.B. saves people’s lives. Do you even know the slightest thing about her?” I wiped my face and looked down at my feet debating how much I should tell her, then looked her in the eye. “I know more than you think.” “She’s only the most important thing that’s ever happened in Scranton…maybe even the world.” “You believe that, huh?” “I know that. Did you hear about all the things she did before they knew her by name? There were dozens of articles on the internet about a mysterious woman pulling all these amazing life-saving stunts before anyone tied it all together.” “Oh, really?” “See? You don’t know the slightest thing about her.” “And you know all this because…” “I’m doing my English paper about her. There is a website dedicated to her. It’s all about her history and has a whole file of news links telling her story as it happened.” As she spoke, Paige began putting away the B.I.B. items, occasionally holding a new T-shirt up to her chest and checking out the look in the mirror of her dresser. “And they have the coolest games ever. On one, the B.I.B. saves you, and this other one is a drinking game you’d probably like. Then there are people who report sightings, all the latest news, and the webmaster writes a column about how he interprets what’s happening. Like he says, the B.I.B. is getting set up for dropping the beer trucks.” “How would he know?” I asked, amazed at her steadfast belief. “You have to read it for yourself. All I know is that my English paper is gonna write itself, thanks to that site. I know some other girls that are writing about her too.” I felt an uncontrollable pride building within me. I wanted to confess right then and there and admit that I was the B.I.B. But there was a reason I couldn’t, and a reason I didn’t: If anyone ever discovered who I really was, my whole family, but most of all Paige, would not be safe. So instead I said, “I’m not sure I like this idea, copying your paper from a website. Is that really what I send you to school for?” “No, you send me to school so I won’t end my sentences with prepositions like ‘for.’” “Touché.” “I get it. French, right? See, that’s another reason you send me to school.” “Smart ass.” “I learned from the best.” She made me crack a smile, but I had to stay her mom. “I don’t know. Shouldn’t you be writing about something serious, something that matters…global warming, or wind energy, or something?” “Boring! You know how many people are writing about that stuff? Besides what could matter more than a woman who’s a real-life superhero who can kick everyone’s ass? “ “Paige!” “It’s true! Who could be a better role model for a hot young teenager like me than a hot old superwoman?” “You really think the B.I.B. is old? And hot?” I said, frowning, then letting a little smile escape. “Try to stay on topic, Mom. Let’s just agree to disagree. After all, it’s my grade, not yours.” “Okay, but no more of this,” I said gesturing to the packages in the room, “stuff…for a while.” Paige stared at the floor and finally agreed. “Whatever. I’m out of money anyway. By the way, did Mrs. Brown call about babysitting the twins Friday?” “Keeping track of that is your job.” “I know. I know….You know the weirdest thing?” Paige asked, holding up her latest T-shirt purchase against her chest and checking it out in the mirror. “The guy who runs that website says he actually met the B.I.B.” “Really? Has he met Santa and the Easter Bunny too?” I said jokingly, but inside I was curious. “Mom, I’m not gonna talk unless you are going to take me seriously.” “Sorry, just a little joke. How did he say he met the B.I.B.?” “In one article he says he saw her once in a bar downtown and was standing right next to her. Man, I’d love to meet her. She is so awesome. You know, I understand now why you were laughing at the Batman movie. He’s a movie, but she’s real. You like how this looks?” “It looks great,” I said, relieved and happy. “I’ll go start dinner,” I added, turning to leave. “Ohhh, I thought we were going to Lori’s. I wanna see if she got her mask and stuff.” “Lori has this stuff too?” “Lori’s into the B.I.B. big time. You didn’t know? Don’t you chat on Facebook? Lori’s my friend, and she talks about it all the time.” I just shook my head in surprised-but-pleased amazement and left. In the kitchen I pulled a bottle of Miner’s Lite out of the fridge. With all of Paige’s purchases to go through, I knew she’d be tied up for a while. As I knew where they were impounding the Miner’s Lite, I had a little impounding myself, and now had an almost endless supply at my disposal. I turned to page 53 in my book 100 Ways to Make Chicken and began preparing some dinner. While it was cooking, I drifted over to the computer. I hadn’t told Paige about it, but I had been looking at the site ever since Lori had mentioned it at dinner. I had not spent much time on the news page, but I did like playing the games. I typed in the web address and then sat back, made curious by the content Paige had mentioned was available on the site. The parts written by someone who had actually met me were of particular interest. In one night, I had discovered that my daughter “got it,” and now there was a whole group of people that “got it” too. The whole site honored me as a hero—I was so much more here than a woman who spent all her time working and drinking beer with her friends.It was surprisingly easy to ignore the occasional garbage comments of some idiot or another for all the positive ones. I got a good laugh out of pictures that people had submitted, allegedly of the B.I.B. in action somewhere. None were real, except the Skelly’s photo. With so many people so anxious to prove that I existed, I felt like Big Foot. I did manage to get through four bars in Pub Crawler, got up to twelve hundred points in the Antler Game, and saved myself twice in B.I.B. Rescue before the oven was ready and the water was boiling. The video games rocked. I smiled and put the cursor over the “Add A Comment” button. I clicked it, and a window appeared for me to enter my comments. My fingers hovered over the keys as I debated entering this B.I.B. internet world, and then I closed the window. I had started one more game of Pub Crawler when Paige came in—she caught a glimpse of the computer screen before I could close it. “Aren’t those games awesome? I thought you’d like that one.” Then she saw the Miner’s Lite on the desk. “You know those are illegal, don’t you?” “Just be quiet,” I said, standing up and heading for the kitchen. Paige opened the fridge and pulled out a soda, but then stopped and stared at all the Miner’s Lites on the shelf. “No, Mom, seriously. Where did you get those? There weren’t any in here this morning, and now there are eight. You can’t buy ’em, right?” “Someone at the office knows I like them, and she had some her husband didn’t want,” I lied while I stared at the counter, anywhere but at her eyes, preparing some chicken. “Who? What man doesn’t like Miner’s Beer?” “Bobbie Jo. Her husband Frank doesn’t drink ’em.” “Frank the Tank? He and Bobbie Jo were at the Christmas party you gave in Grandpa’s basement a few weeks ago. He drank Miner’s all night. You were worried that we’d have enough. He spilled one on my red dress, you remember?” “No! I don’t. And I don’t like you questioning everything I do. I get enough of that crap at work. Can’t I just have a stinking beer in the privacy of my own home without triggering the Spanish Inquisition?” “Sorrr-yyy. I didn’t know I bugged you that much.” Then she left the kitchen, grabbed her coat, and stormed to the front door. “Paige? Where you going?” “Out. Maybe to Kelly’s house.” “What about dinner?” The slamming door was her only response. I covered my face with my hands for a long time before I wiped them down over my eyes and cheeks. Add Mother of the Year Award to my list of accomplishments—only I could take my pride in a daughter that thought the true me was “awesome” and turn it into a nasty fight. My whole body turned frustrated and sour. I slapped the chicken back into the fridge, pulled out the Miner’s Lites, tossed them in the trash bag, then carried the bag out to the Dumpster. I stopped for moment, went back, and liberated one bottle out of the trash. I left the opened bottle on the desk too. I was guilty and frustrated, not crazy. I dropped onto the sofa in the living room with a loud plop, as if I was a beer truck being dropped on a schoolyard. “Damn beer embargo,” I mumbled to myself. It hadn’t caused me even the slightest concern, until now. In the last few days, the rate of beer trucks dropping on the city had slowed. I figured they were slowly giving up. But if I ever wanted another Miner’s without my daughter giving me the third degree, I’d have to end it now. * * * Unlike Gambrelli, that fat fuck, who ran his business out of a restaurant, I ran my mob business out of the offices of a unionized and legitimate waste-removal company, Camino Waste Management. The building looked run down, pretty much the way you would imagine a company that handled the slime of trash would look. But on the second floor, my office was more like a palace. The differences didn’t stop there. Unlike Gambrelli, I’m fit, a vibrant thirty-eight, and mentally sharp as a knife. I sat behind my glossy black desk just staring off into space, thinking, which I like to do from time to time. On my mind was the rebuilding and expanding of my business. I would not let myself fall into the same trap as Gambrelli. After that Bitch in Black had cleaned out all my guys, I knew my organization was fragile, vulnerable, like a baby. I knew that Gambrelli’s plan to eliminate the B.I.B. with the power of force had caused his downfall. I had to keep her at arm’s length while my organization gained strength, or my time as boss would be over before it started. The mayor’s feeble beer embargo was having no effect and was now just pissing people off. His Searchlight Event had been a disaster. It was obvious to me that the B.I.B. did not want to join hands with the city or make herself known to the public. I had settled on the idea of trying to turn the public against her, to disgrace her in some way, so that she would be occupied defending herself or hiding, instead of standing in my way. I knew Gambrelli had started working along those lines by shooting the first witness to have actually seen her, Ed, and trying to blame the murder on the B.I.B., but that story had never taken off. The police had been content to deal with the death as an unfortunate barroom accident. My first attempt to make her public enemy number one had been dropping the beer trucks all over town. The plan was to make people assume that she was a powerful, unpredictable flake who had to be stopped. I had trucks moved by helicopter at high altitudes to different areas of town at times of day when there would be no witnesses—other than my own—and then dropped the trucks. I had thought the drop on the day care center would really get the sentiment going against the B.I.B., but it only moved the needle a little. I needed to turn up the heat. Tonight we had three beer truck drops planned. By morning there would be a beer truck on a church, on a school, and on an abandoned house. Six sets of witnesses would swear they saw a black figure drop the trucks. If that didn’t motivate some negative press, what would? But there had to be other ways to make everyone hate her. God, that woman was an itch I couldn’t scratch! Maybe I would find my answer by checking out that B.I.B. website. The thought gelled; I smiled like the cat that ate the cannoli and entered on my browser, totally committed to finding a way to hurt that flying black pain in my ass. I was going to turn this site into a battleground. I scanned the site and made a few anonymous, nasty posts about the B.I.B. But then I noticed the flashing button that invited you to play Pub Crawler. I clicked on it and before long was drawn into a two-hour search for the B.I.B. I was certain I had her cornered in The Banshee but, instead, ran into the Nelson Twins. “Crap!” I said, pounding my fist on the desk as my blood alcohol level in the video game spiked over the legal limit and my avatar crumbled to the floor with a big smile on its face. “Man, those two bitches can drink.” I started another game, looked at the clock, and tried to remember what made me come to the site in the first place. I shrugged and decided to start looking for her at Skelly’s, and maybe a new avatar might help. (This time, if I saw the Nelson twins, I’d run!) CHAPTER 18 Frustration and Hell Night for Scranton With Paige gone I was alone with my fantasies. I could feel the warm surge of blood in my abdomen, my muscles starting to convulse. My breaths became short, interrupted by short moans. I was almost there. I closed my eyes to concentrate on the feeling. I felt a tidal wave forming between my legs and a scream forming in my throat. My ass began to roll and my legs widened apart and lifted off the bed. I was right there, and I could feel the surging waves coming at long last. I had waited so many months, and was now finally ready to explode. Then the buzzing between my legs began to hesitate, stutter, then stalled and went suddenly silent. “No! No! Not now!” I shouted, “Not now! Crap!” Without the buzzing of my toy, all the feelings and sensations began to drop off. When the frustration kicked in and the fantasies turned to realities, the feelings dropped off the charts. I rocketed up to sit on the edge of the bed and threw my powerless toy on the floor—where it landed, crashing into a large pile of equally powerless batteries that I had gone through that evening. I slammed my fist into the mattress with frustration, over and over. “Son of a fucking goddamn bitch,” I said bitterly through gritted teeth. Then I took some deep breaths and pushed my hair back off my forehead. I sighed and stared blindly for a moment, then lifted my eyes to look at myself in the large dressing room mirror nearby. To anyone else, the naked woman in the mirror would have seemed quite attractive, a well-formed woman near her prime. There may have been something rounded here or there that should have been angled, but all in all, I had the hourglass look going on. With my new metabolism dropping me in dress sizes, the truth was, I looked good; I just didn’t feel that way. For years, I had battled the stigma of being a teenage mother, and then began viewing myself as a single mother who’d lost her dreams. Here I was going nowhere in a town going nowhere that was filled with childish, stupid men. Eventually, I had taken on the labels and restrictions and stopped trying to be anything more. The woman in the mirror was no longer me, but a leaf fluttering in the wind. I had accepted that for years. Now, as my powers had manifested themselves, I didn’t know what was true anymore. The powers were intriguing and enticing, yet still somewhat foreign to me. The new, powerful me couldn’t see the woman in the mirror either. All I could see were the limits and restrictions that these powers had brought: the need for secrecy, the fear of being found out, and the frustration of using up forty batteries and still not being able to get off. Which “her” was I? I brushed back my hair again, took a long look in the mirror, uncertain what I saw, looked down at the pile of batteries, and then sighed. The mom in me bent down, put the toy in the nightstand, and piled the batteries in a bag for the trash. But the B.I.B. in me was frustrated and angry—instead of taking the bag of dead batteries out to the trash, I threw it down on the bed and marched to my closet, opening a hidden panel behind a box that was behind another box and pulling out my B.I.B. clothes and mask. My frustration needed to be satisfied one way or another, and someone would pay. Tonight, I would go hunting. Before, I had always had a target, a plan in mind, before donning the outfit—but not tonight. Tonight, I would be on the prowl for a new way to use my powers. I didn’t feel like working in the shadows or being cautious anymore. Paige was at Kelly’s house—she would be fine. It was time for me to show how strong I could be. * * * When I awoke the next morning, my eyes slowly opened and began to focus. I had slept like a log, and it took a minute to become aware of my surroundings. When my eyes did focus, a shot of adrenaline made me leap to my feet. My hands—there was dried blood on my knuckles, and on the side of my hand below the little finger. In horror, I flipped my hands around, over and over, searching for the wound from which the blood had come. There was nothing. I inspected my bare arms and torso, but found no source for the blood. I ran to the dressing mirror to check my entire body. Then came another shot of adrenaline at the sight of lines of blood on my cheek and even in my hair. On the floor beside the mirror was the pile of my black B.I.B. clothes ripped and stained with crimson that varied from specks to small pools. My thoughts grew to panic—not only did I have no idea where the blood had come from, I had no recollection of what had happened last night. I remembered leaving the house; I remembered standing on a rooftop downtown with a strong breeze filling my hair and cape, then nothing else until waking up. In alarm and frustration, I pounded the frame of the mirror with my fists, rattling the glass until it almost broke. I had imagined showing everyone how powerful and potent I could be, yet I was powerless even to remember what I had done, and to whom. I slid down the mirror until I was a ball on the floor. Tears began to run down my cheek, drifting through the blood and ending up pink as they dropped to the floor. After a moment, I gained control and opened my eyes to look into the mirror. I didn’t know who this was either. I heard Paige’s voice calling from down the hall. “Mom? You better get up or you’ll be late for work…I’m leaving for school. Are you up?” she said, knocking on the door. In an instant I was composed. “Yeah, I’m up, honey. Have a good day,” I said, quickly donning a robe. “Okay, see you at Lori’s after work. I hope she’s not having meat loaf again….Mom, I’m sorry about the fight last night. I know you work really hard and you do your best for me. I was just being a jerk.” Now I felt doubly upset, I didn’t know where I’d been the night before and could think of little else while my daughter showed her concern for me. What kind of mom was I? “I’m really sorry too, honey. If anybody’s a jerk it’s me.” I quickly got to the door, one-eyed my face beyond the doorjamb, and waved. “Love you.” “Love you too. See you at Lori’s.” “Have a good day.” When I heard the door slam, I leapt to the bathroom and started the shower. How much water would it take to wash this blood down the drain? * * * All day at work, my mind was an unfocused maze of thoughts and fears. Occasionally, I would hear coworkers talking about the news, something that had happened the night before. Now and then, I would hear someone use the word B.I.B. I wanted to ask them what had happened or check for the news on my computer, but was afraid of what I might find. Finally, just before lunch, my friend Jan came by. “Some crazy night, huh?” “What? Something happen?” “Haven’t you heard?” Jan was obviously excited to find someone who hadn’t heard the news. “The B.I.B.—nobody sees her for a while and then, bam, sounds like she was in five places at once last night. Of course, nobody will confirm it was her, but who else could it be? There were a lot of witnesses. They’re talkin’ about the police going after her this time.” “Anybody hurt?” I finally had the courage to ask. “Oh yeah, lots of people. Hospitals and jail are full of ’em. Mostly lowlifes. I would think twice before committing a crime in Scranton after last night. She didn’t arrest ’em; she pummeled their asses first this time. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned, though. I heard she broke bones on two wife-beaters and nearly castrated some guy while he was having sex with his ten-year-old stepdaughter—sick shit. All in one night! She was, like, everywhere. Just goes to show you the amount of crap happening every day. It’s scary. Oh, and did you see the pictures of the beer trucks? You gotta see those!” Jan sat on the corner of my desk and stole my keyboard. She typed frantically, and up popped a slide show of pictures from the local news channel. “Watch this.” The first picture was of the mayor standing in his driveway with his hands on his hips and a sour look on his face. In the foreground, surrounded by police, was the massive Miner’s Lite beer truck that had crushed his black Cadillac. “Is that cool or what?” asked Jan. The second picture was a series of shots of the headquarters for Camino Waste Management. The first was a picture of the top of the building with just the tops of two Miner’s trucks showing, the rest of the trucks having landed inside the building. The second was a view of the same building from an aerial view showing the two trucks inside the building. The third was a picture of Carmine Camino standing in the parking lot of his headquarters with hands in the air, apparently yelling at a nearby policeman. Beside him sat the remains of a heavy-lift helicopter, with its tail section bent and nearly broken off, its rotor blades bent and tied into a big bow. As those pictures flashed I couldn’t help but laugh at a trickle of memories that was coming back to me. But it took me a while to remember intercepting the other trucks as they were dropped from the helicopter, intended to hit an innocent church, school, and home and redirecting them at the mayor and Camino. When I saw him and the mayor at the Miner’s truck impound lot, I’d put two and two together and thought, Camino’s a rat. I remember lifting the helicopter off the ground after it had returned to its field to make sure it was done playing beer truck catch with me for the night. I hoped bringing their little game to their home turf might make them realize the “discredit the B.I.B” game was not worth the price. The next picture brought back memories that weren’t so good. There was a picture of a man with blood pouring from his nose as he weakly supported an arm being bandaged by EMS staff. He looked like a pure victim. It didn’t show in that picture, but that guy’s next stop after the hospital was jail, for trying to jack a car from a couple of young women. Then there was a man sitting on a curb with blood streaming from his head. His pregnant wife, who he had just kicked in the stomach, wasn’t in the frame—she was being laid on a gurney—nor were the police that had surrounded the man. It seemed the media was intentionally trying to make me look like a villain, rather than a vigilante. Vigilante had a negative connotation, but it comes from the word for “someone who watches over,” and I was one in the purest sense of the word. Jan laughed. “She really beat the crap out of that guy.” In actuality I remembered only giving him a light tap that had knocked him over. The concrete road did the rest of the work. If I had beat the crap out of him, he wouldn’t have looked so good. As each picture slid by, I remembered more and more of the night before. But I’m not sure that was a good thing. I began to wonder what I was capable of. Moreover, what control did I have over it? I had certainly exerted a lot of force, but was it power? When Jan saw that I was not talking, she asked, “You okay?” “Didn’t sleep well. I’ll be fine.” “Can I buy you lunch?” I shook my head. “I’ve got to pick up something for Paige. I’ll take a rain check.” “Okay, see ya later.” Jan waved and nodded as she left. I took a deep breath, sighed, and then examined my reflection in the window for a long moment. Who was I? CHAPTER 19 Who Was I? When my lunch break came, I walked past the old prune out of the building into a sunny, windswept afternoon that was warm for this time of April. I buttoned my light coat and hurried off down the sidewalk. With only a short lunch break, I had to rush to pick up some clothes Paige wanted from a store near the office. We had picked them out a few days ago, but I didn’t have enough money at the time. Ahead, I could see the streetlight about to change, so I broke into a jog to cross the street in time. At the same time, a young man with a large bag draped over his shoulder emerged from an alleyway with his head down. Neither of us expected the other to be there, but in an instant we had collided and almost knocked each other over. The collision sent the man’s shoulder bag to the ground with a metallic clang and made me lean on him to keep from falling. No damage done—I laughed, apologized, and tried to make light of the incident. But the scrawny, dark-haired man seemed panicked. His dark eyes grew wide and he flailed his arms to get away from me. That was just rude. Quickly, I knew something was wrong. He pounced on his bag, but not before I saw that it was filled with five or six pipes, capped at both ends, a configuration I’d seen many times before on the news. He clutched it to his chest, gave me a threatening look, and then ran back down the alley from the same direction he had come. I had a quick choice to make. Should I let him go, knowing a bag full of pipe bombs might go with him—or grab him now, right now? I didn’t want to be the B.I.B. right now. The events of the previous night had made me frightened and uncertain of the course I was on. But I didn’t know if I could live with myself if he wound up hurting anyone. Who did I want to be? In that instant, I would have to decide. With my costume lying bloody in the closet, I had no cover for my actions. For a moment I felt my feet anchored in rebellion against the seduction of the powers that drew me into this unpredictable life. Then the cloak of responsibility fell. If I did not do something this instant, this guy would be on his way to somewhere with a bag of explosives. Before he had traveled twenty feet, I was on him. His collar jerked back in my hand and his feet left the ground. I swung my arm to the left, and he flew like a shot into the wall of a building and the dumpster that was beside it. He didn’t move, and his arm twisted unnaturally beneath him. I lifted the bag from the ground and held it at arm’s length as I heard the sound of voices coming down the alley. A burly biker dude, a middle-aged woman clutching her purse, and a young man and woman were coming my way. The biker walked up behind me and stopped. “You okay, lady? What’d this loser try to pull? I saw him hit you.” I stood with my back to him, not knowing what to do. Was I the B.I.B., a single mom from Scranton, or someone else? “Hey, lady?” he said, touching my shoulder. I hesitated for a long moment, turned, and handed the biker the bag, saying, “Call 911,” then assumed the best disguise I could muster—a deep, profoundly puckered fish face. The biker looked at the bag and saw the pipes, “Holy shit,” he said under his breath. But before he could look up, I had moved down the alley, away from the crowd as quickly as I dared, and turned a corner. “Hey, lady!” called the biker. * * * The events of the previous night were a gold mine for my website. I was like a friggin’ six-year-old on Christmas morning again. There were dozens and dozens of sightings, reports, comments, and even some pictures. It sounded like the B.I.B. had been everywhere that night—in so many places I had to assume most of them were fake reports. There was so much content posted that I had to call Rebecca and ask her to reorganize and expand it. Despite the fact that the B.I.B. had dished out her own sense of justice this time, the comments on the site were overwhelmingly positive. The newspaper had the same problem as I did with the sheer volume of content. Eventually, they chose to run all of the news reports in the same section of the paper under the headline, “The B.I.B.?” When I saw those four pages of short articles on alleged this and possible that, it brought a smile to my face. I was no closer to finding the B.I.B., but I had to marvel at what she had done…again. Imagining her dealing out all this justice, like some kind of karma machine, filled me with pride. Then my thoughts drifted to the image of her inches away from me at O’Malley’s….Damn, there was that pining again. For the first time since the Searchlight Event, the network news made mention of the B.I.B., calling her the “Scranton vigilante.” The network news and news magazine shows picked up on her for the first time, running spots that were somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It was pretty much like, “Those nuts in Scranton, here they go again…” but with somewhat more serious tones. I could tell many of the photos used were pimped from my site, despite the fact that I had paid good money for the rights and included my copyright in the captions. (I really needed to find an attorney.) There was a short cell phone video of some big guy in the street trying to mess with her. It ended rather abruptly when the big guy didn’t take the B.I.B. seriously, and she dropped him as easily as if she was brushing her hair. Then the video ended with a blowup of the Skelly’s photo; still my favorite and still my copyright, thank you very much. * * * I stood in what was left of my office at Camino Waste Management and watched as the riggers attached lift cables and chains to the Miner’s truck. Its rear end was still sticking up though my once-beautiful Italian marble floor, the truck itself lodged between floors after having fallen headfirst through the roof, through my office, and partially into the floor below. I could hear the sounds of hammering and cutting torches from below as workers tried to clear the scraps of steel that held the truck in place. I found the remains of my desk and computer in shards beside the back bumper of the truck, picked up the twisted keyboard, then shook my head and threw it to the ground. It occurred to me that if I had been at that desk when the truck hit, they would still be trying to collect all of my pieces. The riggers asked me to leave as they lowered a cable down through the expanded hole they had cut in the ceiling. The cable snaked down from a massive crane parked outside that would take the weight of the truck once the final bits supporting it were cut away. I reluctantly left my office and stepped into my reception area. When I closed the door, it was like moving into a different world—one where everything was still in its place, not having been turned upside down by some flying bitch. I would have to work out of the same space as my assistant, Larry, until my office was put back together. So I stepped in there and sat down in his squeaky, uncomfortable chair behind his plain metal desk. I spun around and took in the dump—tiny, compared to mine. His computer was old compared to mine. Hell, there wasn’t even a window. I sighed and noticed Larry had left his coffee cup on “my” desk. It was a B.I.B. mug bearing the picture of her at Skelly’s, just like the friggin’ T-shirts! I threw it through the open doorway and heard it smash against the wall. Larry ducked, saying, “Jesus!” The mug had flown just past his head as he came down the hall. I couldn’t help but remember observing Gambrelli feeling the same frustration at dealing with the B.I.B. That bitch is gonna pay for this! She is going to pay! I thought, slamming my fist on the desk. When I touched the keyboard on Larry’s desk, his computer blinked to life. On the screen was an unfinished game of B.I.B. Rescue. My first thought was, Wow, he’s got 27,500 points. Then the anger exploded in me. Even my own people idolized her! I yelled for everyone to hear, “Son of a bitch, is everyone around here crazy?” CHAPTER 20 Jones and I Regroup at O’Malley’s That entire day, I could not lose a nervous little feeling that someone was about to drop the hammer on poor, innocent me. I felt antsy and had a feeling of foreboding about who knew what. After all, the media attention was making my website ring like a cash register. While I sat, advertisers were paying for hit after hit. What did I have to worry about? Yet I paced in my apartment like a caged cat; actually, it was more like a kinda slow, meandering cat; okay, a large lap cat—a real nasty one after a full meal—but you get the picture. I decided that the publicity, the money, and the sense of what’s-gonna-happen-next had sidetracked my little voyage of discovery. Somewhere along the line, I had forgotten those blue/green-flashing eyes, the way she could drain a full beer bottle, and the fact that she left twenties as tips. Just the remembrance of which had suddenly created a feeling in my pants that hadn’t been there for what…weeks now. Holy shit! Weeks? What had I become, a friggin’ nun? No, nuns were women, so I took solace in that. At least I wasn’t becoming a nun, just somebody that wasn’t getting any very often. (But no one needs to know that, okay?) There was only one thing to do, and that was to get back to where I had been, my humble origins (keeping the money and celebrity of course; I wasn’t crazy). So I called Dr. Jones. “Yes, my friend, this has certainly been a crazy time, but I am glad that you are calling.” “Man, did you see the pictures of what happened?” “Yes,” said Jones, a bit dreamy. “We really need to find her before this thing gets out of hand. You know she didn’t make any friends last night, beating up the whole town.” “I am certain she had good reason…” He drifted off for a moment. “What is it that you have in mind?” he said, finally returning to planet Earth. Just like the first night I’d met Jones and struggled to understand his theory, I was back to stroking my hand through my hair (not a good sign). “I don’t really know, Doc. I thought maybe you and I could meet and hash something out.” “Sounds like a total non-plan to me; not even the beginning of an idea for a plan someday…but it works for me. Where and when, my friend?” So we decided to meet that night at eight—where else?—at O’Malley’s, where the whole thing had begun. I arrived promptly at 8:27, and Dr. Jones arrived promptly at 8:32. We sat in the same booth. Even though it was already summer, everything around us seemed the same as it had in January. The RFDs were pulling the restroom door in the wrong direction repeatedly, sliding off bar stools, and of course, there was the occasional sound of laughter and rifle shots from the back room, though it was blank rifle shots these days. The only thing missing was the luscious blond in the corner. The same old barkeep was there. He came over to take our order, but then, upon recognizing us, he hesitated and began to turn around. I called to him and assured him that we would order something more than just a beer this time, and he came reluctantly. “What’s it to be this time, gents? A wee bit of soda water? Cup of ice?” he asked. “No, my man, we will each have your finest beer, shaken not stirred.” The barkeep was not amused. “Will this be a cash transaction?” he asked sarcastically. I pulled out a wad of bills and laid them on the table. “Yes, my dear man, it will be cash, and there’s more where that came from,” I said, gesturing toward a reluctant Dr. Jones. “Does this fine establishment serve any varieties of food to go with your outstanding liquors?” The barkeep reached in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled black and white photocopy, straightened it a little, and then presented it over his forearm as if it were a menu from a five-star restaurant. “We do, my lord. Can I get you anything?” I quickly surveyed the four or five selections. “Do you recommend the chili fries?” “With me whole bleedin’ heart.” “I believe we will try some,” I said, looking at Jones for his agreement, but instead finding him baffled by every item on the short list. “Will that be one order, two plates, and a doggie bag, or are we blowin’ the wad on two orders?” I looked at Jones and said, “That will be two orders, my good man.” The old man looked up at the ceiling for a second, as if in thought, then grabbed at my pile of bills until he had extracted full payment, plus a generous tip of his choosing. That done, he turned to leave. “I see, my friend, that you come here often,” said Jones, noticing the warmth the barkeep and I had for each other. A minute later, the barkeep delivered our beers and the promise, “Your fries are on their way. I wanna make sure they’re good an fresh for ya.” It made me wonder what fresh ingredients or spit he might add to the potatoes. I took a long pull on my beer and fell back in the booth. Dr. Jones was uncharacteristically quiet, devoid of his usual energy. “I feel like we’re messin’ this up,” I said. “I thought we were so close to her and now…now, it’s just a mess.” Jones nodded without looking at me. “Yes, my friend, I am feeling this way too. It used to be so fun, so exciting. Not to mention that I was scoring like a pinball machine while I searched for her.…Ahhh Two-for-Tuesdays,” he said dreamily. “But now, I think she does not want to be found. We were so close. We were fools to get drawn into an alliance with the mayor.” “Oh yeah, that’s right, you and the mayor. I thought you had forgotten me totally there for a while.” “Yes, I am sorry for that. You know, power can make you crazy sometimes. I liked the media coverage and the limelights,” he said, a bit whimsically. “Did you know that this is my best side?” He turned to show me his left profile. “I never knew until the TV people told me.” “Didn’t you say something about having a plan to contact the B.I.B. at that news conference?” Jones seemed a bit embarrassed to be reminded of this. “Oh yes. Not a good day for me. No, I don’t remember saying anything like that.” “Don’t fuck with a fucker.” “I beg your pardon! I don’t play on that team!” said Jones, totally taken aback. I shook my head. “No, I mean don’t try to lie to a liar. That’s BS, and you know it. What was your stinking plan? Maybe we can use it.” “My plan? Oh yes, now I remember saying that. I believe I was referring to the Patagonian Algorithm, which is based on the atomic decay of epsilon particles, very complicated stuff. But it didn’t pan out, so I gave up on it.” “Isn’t Patagonia in South America? What does that have to do with mathematics?” “There was a famous mathematician, Estevan de Numero, who was from Patagonia. He was the one who came up with this algorithm.” “Doesn’t numero mean number?” “I wouldn’t know, my friend.” “He was from there and had a theory for atomic decay?” “Yes.” “In Patagonia?” “Yes,” said Jones. I knew he was lying. I couldn’t figure out why, but I was certain he was. Then I remembered the drawings for an electronic device I had seen in his apartment. “Hey, what about that thing you were building? You know, those drawings I saw at your place?” “Drawings?” “Yeah, they were on your desk, remember? Like a rod with a bunch of tubes sticking out of it.” Jones acted as if he was trying to remember, then finally smiled and nodded. “You mean the high-definition anal stimulator! Yes, yes it worked out very well. If you know what I mean,” he said, winking. “My research proved that it was not just a matter of stroke magnitude but finding the harmonic frequency that was the key.…I could let you borrow it if you’d like. I believe it’s not scheduled a week from Wednesday, say between eight and ten in the evening on the twenty-fifth?” “Think I’ll pass.” “Your choice. It’s quite an experience.” “Oh…sorry I asked. Anyway, we were fools to have drifted so far from our plan.” That was when a thought hit me hard, just like the chili fries would probably hit my stomach. The plan, the friggin’ plan! “You are so right!” Dr. Jones looked up at me, startled. “I am?” “The plan was working. We just got diverted. Your crazy…sorry…theory about the Super Bowl birth dates was correct.” “And how are you knowing this?” Jones asked, a bit affronted. “Okay, I haven’t told you everything. The first woman I interviewed with the Super Bowl birthday seemed like an ordinary chick when I meet her. I didn’t lie to you…not then, at least.” Jones leaned toward me, surprised. “But later, I learned that she melted my pen, and then I saw her at the Searchlight Event. Why would she be there?” “Melting your pen? She melts your pen, and you don’t think it’s important enough to tell good ol’ Dr. Jones? The same Dr. Jones that told you about the Super Born in the first place? Who paid you thousands of dollars for accomplishing diddley squat? I had no idea they had powers such as this. But why—why would she melt this pen of yours?” “All I know is that I left her with the pen and, when I came back a few days later, the busboy tells me about her melting a pen, and I find it embedded in the table. How’s that for your garden-variety weird?” I said, spinning my bottle of beer. Jones thought for a long moment. “So I was right! The Super Bowl calculations are right! Let’s go meet this woman!” “Hold on, Sherlock,” I said, pushing him back down in his seat. “That’s not all of it. I think there’s more than one. This woman melts pens and was the first-closest born to Super Bowl half time, but she’s not the B.I.B.” Now Jones was acting like a little kid who hadn’t been told the secret everyone else knew. “And what is telling you that there is more than one? Just how many are there?” I had to think a long time before answering that one. “Let’s just say there is more than one of them for sure. I think your Super Bowl theory is correct.” He smiled and gave out a little laugh. “I am, you know, right about this, about everything.” “You are a genius. Okay, I said it. You are…I’ve got to find the rest of those Super Bowl babies, get back to the plan, right? Is there anything else your calculations say that can help us?” “Yes,” he said folding his arms. “They say if you don’t share with me all your information again, you will be finding a black loafer deep up your ass!” “Fair enough. I think I’ve told you everything,” I lied. “Are there any other questions you’d like me to answer?” “Yes. What is a chili fry?” For a moment I wondered how Jones could spend so much time in Scranton bars and not know about bar food. Then it dawned on me that he didn’t come to the bars for a nosh. On cue, the barkeep brought our chili fries in paper baskets and dropped them abruptly on the table. “Bon appétit,” he said. “That there, my friend, is what they call a chili fry.” “How are you supposed to eat it? Why is it looking at me like that?” asked Jones, suspiciously examining the food. I explained to him the art of eating chili fries. Soon he had developed his own techniques, based on either licking off the chili or scraping it off by pulling one through a trough he made with his tongue. We stayed for a while, downing a few more beers, finishing our fries, and revisiting our partnership, unmindful of the thuds, clangs, bangs, and gunfire of the RFDs. We were home. Before long, Dr. Jones seemed his old self again. He smiled. “I think I shall be going now,” he said, rising. “It is Two-For-Tuesday at The Banshee across that very street,” he added, pointing out the door. I slapped him on the back as he put on his coat. “That’s what I like to hear, the old Dr. Jones getting back in the saddle. By the look of your new chili fry techniques, I can tell some girl is in for the time of her life.” “Girls, my friend, we are talking girls in the plural, as in many of them. I’ve some catching up to do.” “Go get ’em, Tiger.” With that, he quickly shuffled out of the bar and the barkeep closed in. “Another beer for you? No? How’d you like them fries?” “My compliments to the chef. Those were potatoes, right? No…extras?” “Nothing but the finest for our best customers.” I lifted my finger with a quizzical look on my face and hesitated, about to ask the barkeep a question. But he was two chapters ahead of me. “The blond bird? No, she ain’t been here since we last spoke. Heaven knows my wallet could sure use her visit. Like you said, two hundred dollars to call you if she shows…or was it three hundred? Good tipper too, that one…and them hazel eyes…” he said, drifting away a bit. “Yeah,” was all I said, dejected, thinking how far down the list of her assets and values good tipping was. “And I ain’t forgot, you owe me another hundred if she shows up here and I give you a call.” The barkeep could sense how much it mattered to me. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, friend, she’ll show up one day.” He seemed truly sincere, and he even squeezed my shoulder. “But you’ll have to get to her after me!” he said and walked away. I tried to chuckle. “Ha ha, very funny, you old fart,” I called after him. But then I slipped into self-pity. Where was she? With all my efforts to find her, all I had of her were dazzling but brief memories. Had I imagined that connection between us that seemed so real? Was I fated to find her again? Now that I knew what I was missing, why did it friggin’ hurt so bad? CHAPTER 21 The B.I.B. Is Dead With all my workers gone for the day, I was pulling another all-nighter at Camino Waste headquarters in my small, temporary office. Just as the workers were in the process of putting my office back together, I was in the process of putting together a plan to finish that devil in black who had dared to attack me—me!—in my very home. She was dead. She was still walking, but she was dead. I wasn’t content anymore to publicly disgrace her. I would dance on her grave. I picked up a bottle of Miner’s and slipped over to the doors to my real office. I snapped on the lights and looked inside to see the progress that had been made. The gaping wound in the floor was still there, but the roof and much of the support structures had been rebuilt. It made me feel good—as my office was being rebuilt, so was my confidence. I snapped off the lights in my soon-to-be office, and when I turned, heard a whirling fan running in the silence of the office. I turned to my left and tracked the sound to my secretary’s office. There I saw the tiny light that indicated my secretary’s computer was still on. When I brought its screen back to life, there was the B.I.B. Rescue on the screen with the game paused. “Son of a fucking bitch!” I yelled. “My own fucking people!” I looked in disgust at the image of the B.I.B. avatar swooping down to save a beer truck from hitting my secretary’s avatar. I hit play and the B.I.B. flew off with the beer truck. My secretary was awarded fifty points and her avatar smiled. Then inspiration hit me. (You never know when that little bastard will strike.) That’s it! That’s fucking it! “Ha!” I laughed. “We’ll let her kill herself! That’s fucking it!” From that moment on, I knew what I had to do. I had been in contact with every one of Gambrelli’s men, now in prison, who had taken part in the ill-fated attempt to liberate The Tool and finish off the B.I.B. When asked about going another round with her, they all shook their heads; some immediately began to pace nervously at just the thought of it. They all talked about her speed and her power, the way she’d put their lights out with one fist. Not one wanted a rematch. Not one except Dennis Mastrangelo. Mastrangelo was a cocky young thug. I had seen the type before and almost dismissed him. “Yeah, I’d love a rematch with the bitch,” he said. “I cut her, ya know. I cut her good right here.” He lifted his right arm, pointing to his ribs. “We’d have had her, too, if I’d had some help. While she was putting out Benny, I sneak in, catlike, and give her a slash. If someone had been there to help, I’d have cut her like a pig. Instead, her arm comes down and puts me out, like that. Hit me like a fuckin’ hammer, she did.” “You cut her?” I asked. “You saw blood?” “Hell, yeah. On her clothes and on my knife before she whacked me.” “You’re sure?” I insisted, leaning over the table in the visiting room and staring at him, deadly serious. Mastrangelo leaned back over the table at me and stared me in the eye. “On my dead grandmother’s grave.” Immediately, I made a mental note to cut a deal and spring Mastrangelo. Here was a man who had gone toe-to-toe with the B.I.B. and was willing to do it again. Also, he had seen her, and that could be very valuable with the B.I.B. now in hiding. If it bleeds, I can kill it, I thought. If it bleeds, I can kill it. If it bleeds, it can die. * * * Flying over the city at night in the rain had to be the worst. But crime didn’t stop just because the weather was crappy, and the world didn’t operate for my convenience. I first heard about the beer truck on the police frequency, but they seemed to be taking a really long time to respond. The first call was about a Miner’s truck out of the impound lot parked in a mostly commercial area, nothing dramatic. But then the second and third calls mentioned that there were sounds of people, mostly children, coming from inside the truck. Miner’s trucks being a special hobby of mine, I was immediately curious. How could kids have gotten trapped inside a beer truck? Concern for their safety overrode any questions I should have asked. When I flew over the truck, I could see a few curious bystanders observing on the streets around the truck or sheltered under nearby doorways. It was an old part of town with short brick buildings that renovation had passed over. I also saw police lights flashing a block away. I debated whether this was a job for me or not. There were police officers on the scene, but they were doing nothing. Then again, it was a beer truck, after all, and I wanted to make sure no more beer trucks were injured during the beer embargo. Heaven knows we would need as many as possible once it ended, and the fleet had taken a number of losses already. (What? I know it sounds silly, but I’ve grown attached to those lil’ suckers.) Oh, and I was worried about the kids too. That was when I heard the loud scream of a little girl come from the truck. The sound instantly triggered memories of Paige. I didn’t think, I just dove through a pelting rain and landed behind the truck. I heard the few people around cheer and call my name. I stood in the rain, looking more like a wet rat than a superhero, and listened for a moment. That was when I heard what sounded like a flock of birds flying past me and into the truck, one after the other. It took me a tragic second to change from concern for the people in the truck to concern for myself. But when I had done that, I realized that the birds flying past me were ultra-high-caliber sniper rounds penetrating deep into the aluminum walls of the truck. My movements had been slow, but luckily quick enough that all the rounds zipping passed me had missed by fractions of an inch—except for the last one, which sliced over my arm despite my diving away from the truck. I could feel the impact and the pain, but my arm still worked, and I was breathing. My breathing didn’t stop until the explosion reached me. The thunderous roar of the explosion of the truck sent a shock wave that caught me and threw me fifty feet down an alley. It collapsed parts of the three buildings closest to the blast and shattered windows for blocks around. Now the police responder had another call to place. Several of the people who witnessed the blast were down and not moving. Others cried in anguish for help. But I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t feel anything. It was like I was alive only in my mind. I felt myself calmly drifting away. I hovered up above the alley and saw the flames of the burning remains of the truck and watched those who had survived scurrying away in the rain. I looked down and saw my black form still lying facedown in the alley, but somehow I didn’t feel surprise or concern. Memories flashed as I watched my still body—it was just like any pile of inanimate material; like a rock or a cloud, my body was there, but it was no longer me. Then I thought of Paige, as a baby, as a child, and imagined her as the woman she would be. I remembered how the last few months had made me feel alive with a burning passion that was the opposite of the calm indifference of death. I stared at the black hulk that had once been me, and that was when my passivity changed to panic. “Come on, Allie!” I screamed, but just kept drifting away. “Please!” I cried. “Please, Allie, come on!” But then as I continued to float away, I calmed a bit. “Paige, I am so sorry…so sorry.” That was when a gasping, painful breath brought me back to the ground. I wheezed and heaved, struggling to move lungs that felt like stone. I rose up on my hands and thought of nothing but getting air into my lungs. After a minute the struggle eased, and I became aware of the alley around me, the screeching of sirens and moans for help. I knew they would be on me soon and that I couldn’t afford to be found. I crawled on my hands and knees under a stairwell nearby and sat huddled under it as the rain poured down around me, not knowing if it was the rain or my tears that poured down my face. Eventually I began to take deep breaths, which reminded me how precious and wonderful it was to be alive. My arm burned from the bullet that had grazed it, but compared to facing death, that seemed more like having a splinter in a finger than a real wound. I listened to the sounds of EMS and police cars arriving in the street outside the alley and the scurry and splashing of frantic boots for as long as I dared before staggering along the wall of the building beside me. I slipped and fell, even crawled a couple of times, but I was determined to be one victim of the blast they would never find. * * * I was sitting in my boxers watching the championship game of the women’s football Lingerie League—wondering what could possibly be the purpose of pizza crust when the toppings were so delicious—when the special report broke in. “Come on, it’s the championship, for crying out loud,” I complained to the TV. The local newswoman, Sarah Easton, had somber news, but delivered it with a smile. “We are interrupting our programming to share breaking news of unconfirmed reports that the B.I.B. is dead. Apparently she was killed in a massive explosion on the city’s west side. Our city bureau supplied us with this security camera video of the explosion. You are advised that this video contains an extreme act of violence and may be disturbing to some viewers.” In the video, a beer truck was approached by a figure in black. It was grainy but clear enough. I watched in horror as the truck turned into a giant fireball that consumed the black figure. I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped, my pizza dropped, and my heart stopped. This has to be a mistake, I thought. Sarah reappeared on the screen. “In addition to the B.I.B., six people have been injured in the blast, three listed in critical condition at local hospitals. Also, there is a confirmed report of one other fatality whose name has yet to be released. Police are investigating the cause of the blast, which damaged buildings and broke windows in a three-block radius. We will update you on this breaking story as we receive more information. This is Sarah Easton reporting. We now return you to your regular programming. Have a nice day.” I refused to believe it. I stood up and paced back and forth, wondering what to do and how to breathe past the lump in my throat. This can’t be, I thought. It’s a mistake. I had to believe that, ’cause if it was true and she was gone…I would have to face becoming a directionless pile of mush. Step-by-step, the search for her had absorbed more and more of my life. Now I had nothing else left. It had to be a mistake. My mind spun around wildly, frustrated. I wished I could pick up a phone and call her. “Hey, you’re not dead are you?” “Of course not, Logan, you stud. It’s all a mistake, and I’m as hot and luscious as ever. Come on over, big boy.” Or something like that. Then I remembered Sarah mentioning that these were “unconfirmed reports.” They didn’t know the B.I.B. like I did (or at least wished I did). She was okay. Yeah, she was okay. I knew it. I felt it. I pounded the internet and left my TV on. It was going to be long night. * * * I got the call just after the blast, with all my guys reporting the bitch was dead…trapped in a hail of bullets and finished by a few pounds of C4 exploding on cue. Man, I wished I had pressed the button on that detonator myself. When I saw the video for the twentieth time it was just as enjoyable as the first. She deserved it for messing with Carmine Camino. I knew goodie-two-shoes wouldn’t be able to resist a beer truck with the sounds of kids trapped inside blasting through speakers. Why don’t you “B.I.B. Rescue” that, bitch! Twenty thousand points for me; game over, I thought, imagining her avatar blowing up on the B.I.B. Rescue video game. My boys just had to wait with those new fifty-caliber sniper rifles and night scopes for her to show. The explosives were my idea; just a little insurance. But now the pain in my ass was gone. I was light as a feather as my bottle of beer and I whistled our way past my wife into my media room. I sat on my sofa, put up my feet on the coffee table, took a sip of Miner’s, and hit the remote to replay the explosion video a couple dozen more times. Before long they would find some pieces of her to identify, and everyone would know who ran this town. “Carmine!” shouted my wife, Maria. “How many times do I have to tell you to change the garbage bag under the sink?” When I didn’t answer, she marched over to where I sat. “Carmine!” “Okay, okay, I’ll do it in a minute.” “Get those feet off the table! And how many times do I have to ask you to use a coaster for your beer bottles?” Apparently Maria hadn’t gotten the memo on who ran this town. * * * I spent a totally sleepless night unable to think about anything but hearing that the B.I.B. was okay. I sat at the computer for hours pushing the refresh button on various local news sites for any kind of update while the TV blared in the background. Around midnight I couldn’t take the waiting anymore, so I stepped out into the rainy night to walk the streets—as if I would find her somewhere out there. I just felt like I had to do something, and moving seemed better than sitting. The rain fell as I splashed my feet through puddles. The dark, cold gloom outside matched my mood. Somewhere in there, I clung to the belief that she was fine. It had taken so long for me to believe in someone that I couldn’t accept anything else. I lost track of how far I had walked, but the blinking lights of familiar bars told me it was a really long way. The rain had let up when I saw a familiar face on the sidewalk across the street. Jones emerged from Flanagan’s with a gorgeous woman with long, dark hair. I shook my head in wonder at his success with the ladies. How did he do it, the horny little bastard? What am I, the plague? My first thought was to call out to him, but then the voyeur in me took over and I watched. I heard Jones mumble something like, “Oh, you’ll see. I’m sure it will be worth your while.” They began crossing the street, stepping away from me. I was about to ask him if he had heard about the B.I.B. when the side door of a parked white van slid open and four arms grabbed Jones’ companion. Her eyes flashed with panic, and she reached out and called for his help, but Jones just stood there and watched. After a moment, he too slipped into the van before it sped off into the night. I was stunned. In concern, I ran a few steps toward the van and tried to see the license number, only to watch it fade into the darkness. Then I began doubting what I had seen. It couldn’t have been Jones, and if it was, they were probably playing one of the perverse foreplay games that left panties littered all over his apartment. With my concern for the B.I.B., Jones’ kinky little sex games were the least of my worries. I let thoughts of Jones and his lady friend flitter away like a happy little bird. As the dawn was breaking, I returned home, wet, cold, and as anxious as when I had left. I put on a dry T-shirt and some sweat pants and drifted over to the fridge. Even my collection of cheap beer held no attraction for me. So I closed the door and sat down to search the computer for updates, but there were none. I closed my laptop and rested my arms and head down on it. After a minute I looked up to see the image of the B.I.B. in my bedroom hallway. She wore a long flowing white dress that was waving in a breeze I didn’t feel. In her hand was a Miner’s Lite bottle, which she lifted in a gesture to follow her as she slowly moved away down the hall. I rose as if hypnotized and followed. She smiled and said, “This way to heaven.” I was so happy she was okay. I’d known all along. I knew it. Just as I reached her and my arms surrounded her, my head slipped off the laptop and bumped on the table. I was back in the real world, and I didn’t like it. I looked up at my now B.I.B.-less hallway and said, “Crap.” By morning, I was blurry eyed and still hanging on to hope. (Twelve hours or so, that’s a lot of hanging on for me.) But they were still calling the reports unconfirmed. The mayor held a press conference, voiced his sadness at the loss of the B.I.B., and officially ended the Miner’s beer embargo—the only good news. I had spent a couple hours at the site of the explosion abusing my press pass and connections to try to get any information I could. The search went on, but no one I spoke with had any proof of the B.I.B., or parts of her, having been found at the site. Pundits on TV reviewed the video over and over, speculating on how anyone could have survived the blast and where her remains might be found. Eyewitnesses who had survived the blast talked about cheering her as she approached the truck but then losing sight of her in the blast. So I did a post on the website to emphasize the total lack of evidence that she was injured. By late morning, a local TV station interviewed me and my hopeful position grew legs. By that evening, the banner on my site read “She’s Alive!” But her silence still weighed heavily on me. Again, I wished I could just give her a call. “Babe, why aren’t you telling everyone you’re okay?” “Don’t you know anything about women? It’s just like in the fashion magazines. I’ve been too busy standing in an expensive gown on a windblown beach looking sexy and contemplating the meaning of life while I wait for you to ravish me. Why would you ask?” “Well, everyone thinks you’re dead. I’ve been telling everyone you’re not, but I could use a little help here.” “Anything for you, cowboy. And I do mean anything.” Or something like that. By the time I went to bed—not sleep, mind you, just bed—I felt better, but the frustration of not knowing was eating me alive. My mobile phone rang and somehow (bizarrely), I thought it was her. “Hello!” “Tell me, my friend, what have you heard?” asked Jones. I was disappointed, and it probably showed in my voice. “Oh…I think she’s okay. I think the report of her death is going to remain unconfirmed.” “You are knowing this how?” “All they have is the video. There’s no body—no indication of a body. Everyone else has been accounted for. It’s all bullshit.” “If that is true, it would be good news.” “She’ll show. I know it.” “That may be good enough for you, but I am a man of science. We may need to change our plan in case you are wrong.” “She’s alive! We don’t need a new plan! Go fuck yourself!” “Well, thank you for that wonderful suggestion, but you may need to prepare yourself.” “Prepare for what! Her kicking everyone’s ass who doubts her? She’s fine! You’ll see.” “I can see this is an emotional issue for you. I didn’t know you were so attached to this project of ours.” “Yeah, I’m very attached…to the project, I mean.” “Good, good. I hope you are right about the B.I.B. Have a good night, my friend.” “You too, Doc….Sorry if I got a little carried away.” “Yes, yes. A very difficult day for everyone.” It flashed in my mind to ask him about the woman I had seen him take away in the van, but thought better of it. It might not have been him, or if it was, I had no desire to hear him tell me tales of the High Definition Anal Stimulator or imagine him climaxing crosseyed. * * * The next morning the police held a news conference on the steps of City Hall regarding the explosion, and I was there front and center with my laptop in a case on my back and my video recorder in my hand. I don’t know why, but I was feeling good, and also highly combative. I guess a lack of sleep can do funny things to a person. Twenty minutes late, they rolled the reluctant press secretary out of the building to the top of the stairs. The pool of sharks below were waiting for his statement, his blood, and answers. He waved for silence while I lined him up in the sights of my camera. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a brief statement and then will take questions, a few questions.” As he pulled out some written notes, there came a screech, then a whoosh of wind that blew away his papers and rearranged his hair. When I looked up, papers were swirling all around me, and the crowd began to murmur en masse, wondering what had happened. Then someone at the back of the mob yelled, “Look!” A hundred heads turned at once to see a tiny speck grow out of the clouds and descend like a missile upon us. The image grew until it came screeching on by just over our heads, the image of a woman in black. I was so enthralled and happy to see her that I forgot to record any of it, hoping she would fly by again. Her image disappeared and then returned, this time higher in the sky. Now I filmed until she disappeared, then let my camera dangle from my wrist as I wrapped my arms around the person nearest to me, who happened to be a man I didn’t know, about my age, in a brown suit. We jumped for joy together. Then I picked up a petite young female reporter who I had never seen before and spun her in a circle before putting her down. Then I turned to the next person near me, a reporter who turned out to be a very large woman in a suit with buttons that were straining to stay closed. I knew I was in trouble if I tried to lift her, so I smiled, dropped my arms, and then yelled something up into the sky as I pumped my fist. The large reporter picked me up and buried her face in my chest as we spun joyfully together. * * * “Mom!” yelled Paige as she burst into our apartment. “Mom? Did you hear? The B.I.B. is okay!” She’d found me lying on the sofa in the living room with an unopened laptop on my belly. I sat up slowly, like an old woman, holding my ribs as I did. “That’s great. How’d you hear about it?” “It’s everywhere, the internet, the TV. I was really worried, but somehow, I knew she’d be okay.…By the way, you should really use that thing,” Paige said, referring to the laptop. “Anyway, she flew over the news conference this morning, so they had video of her coming out in the daytime, just so people would stop saying she was dead. Wanna see?” Paige asked. She pulled up the video on her phone of the B.I.B. that had been taken in the sky above City Hall that morning. “Oh yeah, isn’t she just somethin’?” I said a bit sarcastically as I watched myself on the video, remembering the extreme pain I felt as I flew. “She is just so awesome. She was in that big explosion and came out just fine. I am sooo glad she’s okay….Oh, and how you feeling? Is your flu any better?” I produced a little fake cough. “Yeah, I think I’m a lot better than yesterday….I got out for a little while today.” “I don’t know. You sure you should be going outside already? Maybe you should see a doctor.” I smiled. “I’m a lot better already. Don’t worry.” The ringtone of her phone rang the first verse of some pop song Paige liked. She looked at her phone. “Oh, it’s Kelly. I gotta take this.…What’d he say?” she said and then walked away, back into her little teenage world. It had taken an excruciating effort to fly that day, so I was glad to see that I had gotten my point across. Now everyone knew I was alive, and Camino probably thought I was indestructible. But I wasn’t. It was true that my powers had saved me. That explosion would have collapsed a normal person—for me, it just emptied my lungs of air. But had I been ten feet closer…who knows? I noticed I was healing faster too. Yesterday I could barely move, today I could fly, tomorrow or the next day I would be myself again…whatever that was. I knew Camino was behind the blast. The public embarrassment I’d caused him at his offices must have been too much for the little baby to bear. Amazingly, I wasn’t angry. He had taken his shot. If I were him, I probably would have done the same. The next shot would inevitably be mine, and I wouldn’t miss. I felt no motivation to strike at him right away, but I also felt no mercy. Those days of healing alone had left their mark, though. I had almost died. I had almost abandoned Paige to this uncertain world, and for what? Did anyone really care what I did? Did I matter? Was the risk worth the price? I thought back about how those questions had haunted me that morning. The doubt was like poison that crept through my veins. If I had wanted the B.I.B. to just stay dead, I could have left her that way. Everyone believed it. I’d had a chance to end it all, to change directions. Was helping the ungrateful a cause worth the price of someone trying to kill you? With my powers, I could have slipped away and become whomever I wanted. It would be so easy to just leave this all behind. I remember having walked slowly with an aching chest and head to where I kept the B.I.B. costume behind the panel in my closet. I took it out, fully intending to stuff it in the trash forever. I’d studied it for a second, seeing its rips and tears and spots of my own blood. Then I remember something clicking in my head. It was a choice to be normal or succumb to the seduction of being extraordinary. Paige had a mom, but to her, the B.I.B. was awesome. I had a gift, and I wasn’t going to waste it. That was when I struggled to slowly put on the costume and fly over the news conference to let them know the B.I.B. was back. The doubts would catch me one day, but it wouldn’t be today. Now I had to live with that decision. I opened the laptop and replayed the video taken outside City Hall. I watched the close-up reactions of the crowd as they cheered and danced around. Almost everyone I saw had a spontaneous reaction of happiness—people who were obviously strangers even hugged one another. It was great to see the love everyone had for the B.I.B. It made me smile. Then I laughed, seeing a familiar face. The TV news video showed the man I’d seen at O’Malley’s who’d made the googly eyes at me, the one I’d flashed my eyes at, for who knows what reason. I paused the video and replayed it. It was funny to see him again, cheering while some big woman picked him up and spun him around. CHAPTER 22 I Start the Wheels to Cataclysm The next morning, I was up at the crack of ten, or maybe elevenish, feeling renewed and full of purpose despite a serious hangover. Joy at the B.I.B.’s return had forced me into a night of celebrating, including a brief stop at O’Malleys. I hit the computer with a steaming mocha latte in hand (minus the mocha and the milk), and checked out the Scranton news before logging onto the B.I.B. website. Other than the “buy one get one” sale on Miner’s beer, only one item caught my eye. It was an article about the “City Hall Pipe Bomber.” Some stiff had confessed to intending to bomb the mayor’s office. (Sounded more like a civic service than a crime to me.) However, in the article, it mentioned that he was apprehended by a group of citizens after he had attacked a woman in an alleyway. There was an interview with each of the citizens, except the woman who had been attacked. Witnesses described her as having blond hair and being thirty or so, but then spoke of how she had left the scene with her face hard to describe because it was screwed up in what they could only describe as a “fish face.” Thirty and blond reminded me of the B.I.B. and immediately made my morning glory remind me of its presence. But the fish face struck my memory. I hit the keyboard and found the picture files I had bought when I purchased the picture of the B.I.B. taken at Skelly’s. The guy had sent me pictures of the same woman doing a fish face. I pulled them up, and there she was, the B.I.B., doing a fish face. The B.I.B. had stopped the bomber, not the citizen group, and she had used the fish face to escape without being ID’d. Sometimes she seemed like such an sweet, ordinary chick, and, at other times, so unapproachably powerful. I thought about the night with her at O’Malley’s, the flashing eyes, and tried to put that together with an ordinary woman. I tried to imagine what she would be like, what it would be like to stand beside her…and a few other things. But I was the only one who knew she had stopped the bomber. That would be the subject of my blog on the website. I broke the story on the site and published the fish face picture for the first time. Now that’s journalism…right? I hurried through it because my real goal for the morning (after sobriety) was to research the only leads I had—Jennifer Lowe and the other Super Bowl women. There had to be a connection. I needed to find the other women and learn more about Lowe. I did an internet search for Jennifer Lowe and found some artists and dog trainers, but found nothing about “my” Jennifer Lowe other than her little florist shop. I researched her name for real estate holdings and found nothing, not even a little bungalow somewhere. I was thinking about my next clever move, or at least a clever move, when I saw Lowe LLC on the real estate tax listings. The first listing matched the address of her florist shop. Hello, hello, I thought. But that was just the first of a dozen in the city. I crosschecked the listings to condos, office buildings, and restaurants. This chick had it going on. Then I checked other cities and found listings for Lowe LLC in New York City, Chicago, Orlando, Dallas, and on the island of Maui. If I had known how to do it, I’d have checked Europe and Asia and probably found more. Lowe was not a mere florist but a friggin’ conglomerate—who melts pens, by the way. So there was at least one other superwoman, and she wasn’t doing like “my” sweetie and fighting crime and injustice. Somehow Jennifer had found a way to turn her powers into millions. I didn’t remember seeing her in any of the latest porn or on a reality TV show like Melting Pens with the Stars. So for the moment her power remained a mystery. Now the question was, should I close in on Lowe or keep looking for the others? The memory of the pen clip melted into the tabletop made me think maybe the latter was a better idea. CHAPTER 23 First Contact, Getting What You Want, and Getting Sick When I saw my fish faced picture on home page, my hand flew up to cover my mouth, and my chair flew back a couple of inches, scratching across the tile floor. I moved in closer and covered the picture with my hand, as if that could block it from the world. I’m no IT wiz, but even I knew that wasn’t going to help. (I think you’d have to do that on every computer in the world to have any effect.) I looked around to see if Paige was near, nearing full-blown panic. So far, I had gotten lucky, but that fish face trick was well known to my friends and my family, anyone who really knew me. What would I tell Paige? What could I tell my family? All kinds of thoughts swirled in my head. Can I get the picture pulled from the site? Maybe I should admit it’s me, but say I’m not the B.I.B.? If I sue to get it off, I’ll draw all kinds of attention. What to do? Damn that guy from Texas, I thought. I put the cursor over the Add Your Comment button and clicked it. I sent this message to the site: “Hey asshole, that fish face picture isn’t the B.I.B., it’s me. Some guy from Texas took it a few months ago. How’d you get it? I’m gonna sue your ass if you don’t take it down immediately. No one should believe this site. That picture is not the B.I.B., just a middle-aged mom from Scranton who just likes to goof around and blow off steam at a local bar sometimes. And guess what? She’s pissed!” * * * Don’t ask me how, ’cause I’ll deny it in court, but I knew it was her. Not only her, but the fearful, vulnerable side of her; the asshole comment notwithstanding. Something about that fish face picture had made her scared; so scared that she was now risking being discovered to to get it removed. I stared at the picture and wondered, How could a fish face make me so horny? Suddenly, a shiver came over me. Not an “I ate too many chili fries” shiver, either—it was like my whole body was empty and frozen in place. I was just a pair of eyes and a brain reeling with a joyous, frightening, exhilarating, foreboding feeling that within my grasp was something that would change my life forever. I stared at the page, reread her words, and thought until the pixels of the screen were burnt into my brain. Without direction or plan, as usual, my hands began to move the cursor. I logged in to the back end of the website, found the code for the picture, clicked on it, clicked “delete,” and then updated the site. In an instant there was a gigantic hole on the page, but I had something far more valuable. Through the hit history, I could now track back and find her computer address. I fell back in my chair and felt the shivers come over me again in waves, like the surf on the north shore of Maui. (Hey, I was there once…okay, I read about it.) I watched my hands shaking, even worse than on St. Paddy’s Day last year. Little did I know that she was going through the same thing on her end, minus the shivers, joy, fear, exhilaration, or foreboding, and probably not the shakes or the profound sense of glory or connection. Let’s just say she was friggin’ surprised. I felt close to her. I can’t explain the feeling any more than I can explain the way her eyes flashed at me that night in the bar, or the fact that no one else could see it. But I felt the exhilaration of a warm pulsation flowing between us. The thought literally stunned me. * * * I stared in shock at the empty space on the screen where my fish face picture had been, my mind still racing in fear. I refreshed the page. I exited my browser and launched it again to be sure the picture was gone. I looked down at the hand that had covered the screen and laughed to myself, half-wondering if my powers could account for something like this. Good work! I thought, and then tried to make other parts of the site disappear with my hand, to no avail. After a moment, I was confident that my words and not my powers were the cause, and I smiled. With the fear of being discovered gone, my heart rate must have dropped by twenty beats per minute. I breathed a sigh of relief and shook my head. But as the fear subsided, it was replaced by a sudden warmth, like the arm of a friend suddenly being draped around my shoulders. It was weird, but it felt really good. * * * While I was feeling better, the north shore of Maui was hitting me again. When the true impact of being this close to finding her hit me, it was a Maui wipeout. How would I talk with her, for starters? The last time I was near her, I had babbled “SSS,” and Dr. Jones had drooled. How would I keep from screwing up? I had almost exposed her by posting her picture. That could have gotten her in trouble, or hurt. The mob surely would love to know who she was and where her family lived. The mayor had been nearly ruined by her. And Jennifer Lowe—what was she doing at the Searchlight Event? Did she have plans for the B.I.B. too? The reality and the responsibility crashed over me. The room suddenly got hot. Perspiration beaded on my forehead. Either my thoughts were making me terribly ill, or I was in the middle of an alien movie with something about to burst from my chest. I ran to the bathroom, afraid I was about to get violently ill. After I began to feel better, I stood up and put one hand on each side of the doorjamb. I reflected for a moment and sighed. Sometimes getting what you go after can be a bitch. “Damn chili fries,” I mumbled. Blaming innocent bar food made it easier to deal with the fact that getting what I wanted most in life had caused me to get sick. When the warm pulsations came again, they mellowed me. The memory of the gray eyes of the woman I’d met at O’Malley’s reassured me like deep, comforting breaths. CHAPTER 24 Jennifer Fondles Frustration Being Jennifer Lowe, superwoman, was no guarantee of an easy life. A day of dealing with the small minds that helped run my financial empire had left me with tight muscles, short breath, and full of racing thoughts. Them being unable to keep up with me was frustrating, like trying to herd kittens. Two hours of drinks and a half-hearted search for a man who could soothe my supersized libido at this upscale, mirror-filled lounge had brought me no more satisfaction than had waking up this morning. I sat at the bar without company, as I was often forced to. The time it took to run my business didn’t leave a lot of time for friendships, and I was pretty much the only one in my league anyway. I finished my drink and stood up to leave, gathering my purse and coat, then realized that my cleavage had attracted attention from a nearby booth. A tall, muscularly built oilman here from out of the state, by the look of him, took my leaving as the cue to make his move. He stood and brushed back his dark hair, then stepped to my side. “You can’t leave just yet,” he started. “Why the hell not?” I responded with disdain. He brushed his drunken erection against my thigh and whispered in my ear, “Cause you are just about the finest thing I’ve ever seen, darlin’.” “Oh, please. What kind of line is that?” I said. Great, another drunken Texan. Another fucker come to frack our oil and gas. Why couldn’t they leave my oil fields alone? I started to leave, but then a new thought made me turn back to him with a grin, much like a lioness might grin upon spotting an injured gazelle. There was no need to be coy or waste any time with a juvenile like this. I shocked him by taking a handful between his legs. “You know how to use this?” I asked, giving him a squeeze. “Yes, sweetness, I believe I do.” “Come with me,” I said, pulling him by his tie for a few feet before moving out in front of him. He followed me out, down the street, and into the lobby of the Maxim hotel. As I approached the front desk, the man behind it saw me, smiled, and straightened his coat. “Good evening, Ms. Gladstone.” “Good evening, Anthony.” Anthony was used to my generous tips in exchange for his discretion. He knew me solely as Ms. Gladstone, and he knew which security cameras would suddenly not be working whenever I visited as well. I could depend on him when one of my midnight sessions with a man went badly. “Will you want the same room this evening?” “I believe I will, Anthony. Is 411 available?” “Yes, it is,” he said. Anthony handed me a passkey whose origin had long been wiped from the computer. I took the key, handed Anthony a folded stack of bills, and then turned to my victim/companion. “They keep 411 for me when I’m in town.” “I’m impressed,” he said, staring down my dress. We walked to the elevator, pushed our floor, and when another couple tried to sneak in the lift with us, I pushed the button to close the door, held out my hand to stop them, and said, “Sorry, we’re full.” After the car had started to move, I pulled the stop button and slowly dropped the straps of my dress. “Is this what you want?” He was all over me with his hands and his mouth. When I heard him make a snarling moan and saw his nostrils flair, I knew he was done for, and pushed him away, lifted the straps to my dress, and released the stop button. “Be a good boy, or you won’t get your dessert,” I teased. He laughed and probably couldn’t believe his luck. When the lift opened, I led him to an unmarked door just to the right of the elevator. “Here we are, 411,” I said, sliding in the key and pushing open the door. It was an expensive but small room with a bath. I led him to the expensive, solidly built wood bed, then turned to face him. “My turn,” I said, and had his suit coat and shirt off in a flash. He tried to reach for me, but I pushed his hands to his sides. “Let me do the work,” I said, unbuckling his pants and letting them fall to the floor before I began running my hands over his chest and down his shorts. “Oh, baby,” he moaned. I knew my body temperature would feel like a furnace to him, and the warmth had its effect on him. He moaned again. They all did. I knew I was completely in control, and this made me laugh a wicked little laugh, “You are a big boy,” I teased. “Take those shoes off, and make yourself comfortable.” He greedily complied and lay back on the bed. “The socks too,” I instructed. (Why did they always leave their socks on? What woman has ever said, “Oooh, baby, those socks turn me on?”) I dropped my dress and bra and then returned to the bed. From the nightstand I pulled out a preplaced item and turned to sit on the bed beside him. When he reached for my breast, I gave him a long feel while I grabbed his wrist, wrapping it in a scarf and nimbly tying it to the bedpost. The Texan chuckled. “You’re kinky, huh?” “Oh, you have no idea.” Then I took his other wrist and likewise tied it to the bed. “Man, oh man, you are one sexy bitch.” I turned to look at him and smiled confidently. “I know.” I went to the foot of the bed and ran my fiery hands down his thighs to his ankles, making him moan again. I tied his ankles to the bed and laughed. That made him all the more excited. I walked to the dresser and took out another pre-staged item, a bottle of scotch, and a crystal tumbler. I poured a triple shot amount into the tumbler, turned to him, and took a long drink, giving him a good long show. The drink was mostly for me because I found his tiny brain and ease of conquest repulsive. Hopefully, he could provide me with at least a drop of pleasure, but even that had become less and less frequent from these men. He watched me greedily, the excitement of his anticipation clearly swirling his blood. When I got back to the bed, he moaned loudly and began to shudder. I loved when they did that, like little boys at Christmas. The fact that I already knew the outcome and he did not was the only thing that made this little game fun anymore. But I could see that he was a little too far gone already and needed to be calmed down if I were to get any further pleasure from him. I climbed over him and put my finger over his mouth. “Not yet, big boy. I’ve got plans for you.” I took another sip of the scotch, put the tumbler to his mouth, and tipped it up. He drank from it and then tried to stop. My free hand moved between his legs and squeezed until he opened his mouth again and finished the glass. “Good boy,” I said. I got up and let my thong drop to the floor before turning off the lights. I loved hearing the aching moan he made from the darkness at his weak-minded premonition of the events to come. But it was only I who knew the future, and the feeling was cold. I felt the sensation begin in my toes and build until my eyes began to glow. But I couldn’t even bring myself to make them flash—I’d tried and failed too many times, with too many men. There was no connection between us, no warmth. I looked at him the way a wolf looks at a rabbit. My body became engulfed in a dim moonlit glow caused by millions of tiny fingers of energy dancing from my skin in anticipation, eagerly searching for a connection that would allow the power to flow. “Whoaaa,” he said from the dark. Yeah, yeah, tell me something I haven’t heard before, I thought, trying to drown out the insignificant, irritating sound of his voice. When I got on the bed and straddled him, the moonlight glow instantly disappeared. “Don’t worry Tex; this won’t hurt a bit.” CHAPTER 25 The Trail Leads to the Eastern European Jungle My Pub Crawler avatar, a fellow built like Grecian god, was now staggering, then dropped to all fours, crawling toward Skelly’s. It was no use. I watched in horror as his blood alcohol level tripped the limit and he smiled and then rolled over into the gutter, with Skelly’s—and the B.I.B.—a mere two minutes’ stagger away. I had been playing Pub Crawler for an hour now, in a concerted effort to keep from doing anything that might better my life. But now the frustration of being so close to finding the B.I.B. in the video game and failing had turned me back to real work. It was time to recover my old notes on the other women born during the 1976 Super Bowl from my intricate filing system—I found them right where I had left them, beside a stack of unwashed jeans. It was already getting late at night, but I convinced myself, with a little help from a bottle of Miner’s Lite, that I did my best work late, drunk, and without the slightest clue as to how to proceed. I fumbled through the papers, trying to remember where I had left off before the website and celebrity status had caused me to drop them like a blind roofer. Jennifer Lowe’s name had an X beside it, which told me how perceptive I had been. Rebecca also had an X. Of the fourteen or so names, eight were either X’d or had moved away. So I began an internet search, just as I had done on Jennifer Lowe, checking public records. I chugged my Miner’s and got down to business. The next two searches opened even my blurry eyes. Both, including one that was the second closest born to Dr. Jones’ magical halftime, blinked up on my screen as deceased. When I began checking newspaper articles and obits, my eyes widened yet again. They had died accidental deaths within six days of one another; one died in a car crash and the other in a bizarre cycling accident. Could it have been a coincidence—two relatively young women, out of a group of just fourteen, dying within a few days of each other? I followed the leads as far as they would go, making notes and bookmarking sites where I had found pictures and other relevant info. It was a long, time-consuming effort. Of the final four women, three showed up married—one in Washington, another in California. The third married woman was living in town, though she had clearly made some efforts to conceal her contact information. But the final Super Born was not even trying to hide, as her listing showed an address and phone. By then, though, my mind was too unfocused to go on. The time at the bottom of my glowing computer screen read 5:32. At first, that seemed weird, but then the light coming in from the windows made it clear: 5:32 a.m. Shit, I was right. I did do my best work late and drunk. Who knew? But when I got to bed, I couldn’t sleep. I just stared at an empty spot on the wall, thinking of the blond from the bar. An hour later, the spot hadn’t moved, and I still felt my blood racing. No deep breathing or reasoning quieted the anxiety. All I had of her was the image of her at O’Malley’s and the photo of her at Skelly’s; both played over and over in my mind (minus the part where she had spoken to me and I’d been unable to respond, naturally). Then I thought of her words on the website the night before, how I had almost exposed her. I could feel the veins in my neck pumping rapidly, uncontrollably. Then a realization shot through me, causing me to sit up in bed. I had three things going for me: I knew how she looked, I knew she had a daughter, and I had the computer address from which she had contacted the B.I.B. site. I would check birth records for the B.I.B.’s child and have Rebecca Sans interpret the hit log to try to locate that computer. By then, it was 6:37 a.m. Hell, I should be up anyway. An hour later, I was cleaned and java-ed up, ready to go. It was just another beautiful Saturday morning, nothing special. Just any other day—like the day life had first crawled out of the slime, or the universe had burst into being with a big bang. Today was the day I would find the B.I.B. I was full of energy and anticipation, but, at the same time, my stomach was in knots. And you wouldn’t want to be standing behind me for any length of time, if you know what I mean. Call it anticipation and fear or whatever, but I had it—a bad case too. When I asked Rebecca for the computer trace, I had a detailed explanation of my request prepared, but didn’t get halfway through it. She had not only the IP address for me within a minute, but all the information tracked down to the subscriber’s home address. Damn, she’s good! I remember thinking, like a sap. But when it came time to give me the information, I could sense a hesitation in her voice. Later I would realize that she’d been battling the ethical dilemma of whether or not she owed it to me to give me the true information. I thanked Rebecca wholeheartedly, hung up, and stared at the address on the paper for a long moment, as if admiring a priceless prize—the Mona Lisa, perhaps, or a personal note from God concerning the meaning of life. I cleared my throat to drive down the acid from my nervous stomach, and then navigated a route to her house on the computer: trip time, thirty-seven minutes. Thirty-seven minutes, I thought, feeling like Neil Armstrong after being given the okay to start his descent for the lunar landing. Thirty-seven friggin’ minutes to the B.I.B. Thirty-seven minutes, my ass! It was almost a belching, farting, hour later before I coolly slid past her house, 007-like, and parked along the street a block or so down. I sat in the car watching the door for as long as the untrained could take it and then began nervously patrolling the sidewalk across the street from her house. My body’s reaction to the idea of seeing her again made me debate leaving and just giving her a call or writing her an email first. Maybe that was the way to go. Then I thought about those gray eyes as they had flashed at me in O’Malley’s. I could feel the warmth of our connection snapping us together like two magnets of opposite poles; billions of fingers of energy connecting with a great and comforting force. At least that’s the way it was in my mind. I just had to convince my stomach and feet of that. Frankly, the neighborhood was not what I had expected. It was an old, rundown part of Scranton—I mean even older and more rundown than the rest of Scranton. As I walked slowly down the street, I could see the local residents were either the very young who had no money or the very old who had no money. RFDs lived beside retirees. I walked past one RFD who wore his jacket backward. When he turned to say hello, he promptly ran into a small tree. His friend, working on his car in the driveway, laughed at him for a moment before the hood of his car closed on him. His neighbor, a little old man, just looked at the trapped RFD from his front porch and waved his hand in disgust. “I’m not getting you out of there again, Jimmy,” he said as he stepped inside. “I told you there’s a stick to hold that up. A stick, you moron!” The fourth inconspicuous time I belched my way past her house, I had finally built up the courage to knock on the door. As I started across the street, I heard the roar and saw the flash of a beer truck that had suddenly appeared around the corner and accelerated in front of me. I stepped back, and an RFD on a bicycle ran straight into a parked car. “I’m okay,” he said, holding up an arm from the other side of the car. When I got to the door, the veins in my neck were pounding like bongos, and I was glad I hadn’t tried to have anything solid for breakfast, if you know what I mean. It was early on a Saturday morning, so I thought my chances were good that she would be home. No answer. I tried a second ring and then heard an unintelligible voice drawing nearer. As the door swung open, I swear my heart stopped. In the doorway stood not the B.I.B., but a middle-aged, dark-haired woman dressed in a robe. I asked her if there was another woman living there, and she replied in an Eastern European language. I tried again to make it clear that I was looking for a blond woman. I doubt she understood half of what I said, but the “looking for” and “woman” part seemed to incite her. She grabbed my arm, pulled me in, and closed the door. She continued speaking in her language, but the tones became slower and she emphasized the parts that must have been significant to her. The fact that her words hadn’t sent me packing implied I was in agreement, bringing a smile to her face. How did I know what the hell she was saying? She got close and kept talking while she ran her hands over my shoulders and began squeezing my arms, each squeeze making her hiss a little. I looked around the house in the hope that someone else was there who spoke English. As I turned, she loosened her belt and her robe dropped off her shoulders, revealing a very hairy, very naked, very horny woman who spoke only some language that I didn’t. I gracefully tried to back away without insulting a woman whose cause, I had to admit, I supported wholeheartedly. If there were a “Horny Women Who Want to Use Me” committee, I would be certain to give…regularly. As I shook my head and began to apologize, the nimble old minx pulled my arm and swept my legs with her foot, leaving me to fall right on top of her, while she continued to speak and hiss in her language. She took hold of my hand and dragged it over her cheek, her breasts, down her stomach, and finally slipped it into the soaking wet jungle between her legs while trying to reach up to kiss me. The cavalry arrived in the form of a potbellied old man in pajamas who came waddling into the room—quickly, but still waddling. He yelled at her. She yelled back. I began my feverish escape while she tried to push my hand deeper into her steamy, excited jungle. As he neared us, she turned her attention to him. I pulled away, and then she got up. She and the man continued in loud tones and gestured toward one another while I backed away. The fact that Mr. Potbelly hadn’t paid me the slightest attention told me that she may have done this before. They spoke no English, but from the look of them and their gestures, I imagined that this woman had married a much older man whose potbelly had grown while something below it had not. By the time I closed the door behind me, their tones had already changed and I heard them begin to laugh amid a quieter conversation. I guessed the woman’s ready body had given Mr. Potbelly other ideas. Apparently, someone else had entered the jungle “d’amour.” I, on the other hand, was devastated. Not only had I failed to find the B.I.B., I knew I didn’t have any hand wipes in the glove compartment. How could that have been the wrong address? I looked back one last time to make certain it was the house Rebecca had given me. I shook my head as I opened the car door, but then heard a laugh. When I looked down, I heard another laugh and saw an RFD slide out from under the front of my car and run into a yard nearby. I shook my head, thinking, What the….Then two more appeared from under the back of my car and ran away, one tripping over a raised section of the sidewalk, while the other howled with laughter as he continued to run. “I could have killed you!” I screamed after them, shaking my fist. “Fuckin’ RFD’s!” I looked under the car and all around, but I didn’t see any more RFDs—except for the one across the street who had run his bicycle into the parked car. He remained on the ground behind the car. He was not holding his hand quite as high as before, and his “I’m okay” didn’t seem quite as believable anymore. After a minute, I watched his hand plummet, and he began to plea for water. I called Rebecca, and she insisted that the address was the house from which the site had been accessed. That was the first time I began to doubt anything Rebecca had done. Plus, she’d told me that she was at home, but I could hear the cars passing her on a street. Was it possible that she’d been lying to me—on both counts? I ended the call, and this time, I looked left, right, left, and right again, before pulling out; you never knew when a fast-moving beer truck would appear in this neighborhood. I started to crash from the lack of sleep and the overdose of adrenalin even before I got home in thirty-nine minutes (still not thirty-seven). I hit the couch and felt everything drain out of me. I still knew what she looked like, and I still had the Super Bowl information to research, but my “ace in the hole” computer trace had vanished. Could the B.I.B. know that strange woman I’d met, or have actually been at that house in RFD/retiree land? I doubted it. I doubted Rebecca and I doubted myself…again. Welcome home. CHAPTER 26 Finally I couldn’t tell who the woman was, but every time I passed the kitchen window, I saw her sitting in her car, and it seemed like she was looking right at me. She spoke on her cell phone now and again, but spent most of her time staring at my apartment. I crouched beneath my window, watching her, and waited her out, hoping she’d lost sight of me. She seemed to yell at someone on the phone, and then took a last glance—did she know she was looking right into my eyes?—before her car sped off with a squeal. It made my blood run cold. Had someone found me? I checked the window one more time to be certain that she was gone, thankful that Paige wasn’t home. Then I put my fingertips to my mouth as I thought and began pacing the living room like a caged animal. I hadn’t made any mistakes, right? Well, there was the picture from the bar with the mask on, thanks to too many Miner’s. But that was it. No, there was also the fish face picture. But that was it. No, there was the contact I’d just made with the website. But the picture was gone now, right? No, there were a million other things that could have gone wrong: security cameras, witnesses, fingerprints, DNA, my own daughter might have figured it out. I started to feel paranoid. If I kept at this, something was certain to go wrong eventually. Maybe it already had. I texted Paige; no reply. I panicked and called her as I mumbled, “Come on, pick up, pick up” with every ring of the phone. “Hi, Mom. What’s up?” Paige said, and then spoke to someone in the background. “You okay?” “Well, I just had one of Lori’s meat loaf sandwiches, so how good can I be?” she asked, and then laughed to whomever was with her. “Nothing weird going on over there?” “Other than Lori painting her bathroom green…again?” “There aren’t any creepy people hanging around over there, are there?” Paige burst out laughing. “Yeah, this house is full of them!” “Okay, just wanted to check in with you.” “Okay…oh, Mom? Is it okay if Kelly and I hit a movie tonight? Her mom’s taking us, so you don’t have to freak out or anything.” “Fine. That’s a good idea…love you.” “Love you? Mom, is something wrong?” “Can’t I say I love you?” “Sure, but that just sounded a little creepy.” “I don’t care how it sounded. I don’t say it enough.” “Well, okay…love you too.” I clicked off the phone and sighed, feeling relieved. Paige was okay, but it would just be a matter of time if I weren’t more careful. It seemed that time had come. * * * When I blinked and found that it was already dark in my stylishly sloppy apartment, I knew I had crashed badly. I didn’t even feel rested, just…nasty. My mobile phone was ringing merrily somewhere like a joyous bird, which I hated and wanted to kill. I dug around furiously and finally found it on the floor beside me. “Yeah,” I said, pushing my hair back out of my eyes. “She’s ’ere!” “What?” my bleary voice started. “Who’s this?” Smooth, ain’t I? “It’s me, you old sod. Martin from O’Malley’s. You told me ta call when she was ’ere, and I’m calling.” “Huh?” “Your blond bird, remember, the big tipper? She’s ’ere at her table as we speak!” My body found a new supply of adrenaline and shot into a panic. I leapt to my feet and started turning left and right trying to decide what to do next. “It’s still three hundred dollars, right? You said three hundred if she were ta show.” “Sure, sure, whatever.” I knew he had inflated the reward, but I didn’t care. (What, money didn’t matter anymore? Did I have a fever?) “You hold her there. I’m on my way!” “Sure, sure, I’ll just sit on her till you gets ’ere…If she leaves, it’s still three hundred!” “Give her free drinks,” I stammered as I fumbled for my shoes in the dark and ran my toe into the table leg instead. “The drinks will be on me—whatever, free food—just keep her there!” “It’ll be my pleasure. I’m sure she’ll love the lobster flambé special we’re havin’ tonight.” I remembered the greasy chili fries O’Malley’s served and knew the old man was just telling me that he was inflating the bill some more. “Just keep her there!” With that, I clicked the phone off and started through the door. I returned a few seconds later, remembering that a pair of pants would be a good idea….and a shirt. * * * When I walked into the bar and found her sitting at the same table where she’d been sitting in all my wet dreams, my heart changed neighborhoods and began bouncing around in my body. But I kept my composure and walked slowly toward her without a word in my head to say. Martin broke my cool when he came running over with an order pad, trying to collect his money up front. But I gave him a glare that put him in his place. He and I handled the quick negotiations in relative privacy and were done. I slid into the booth across from her like I owned the place and feasted my eyes on her, waiting for the blue/green flash, preparing the greatest opening line ever. * * * When he walked into the bar and stood staring at me, I thought that at first he was going to hurl. Then, when the old bartender nearly ran him over, I had no idea what to think. He slipped something into the old man’s hand, they exchanged some rough words, and then he zigzagged his way back toward me. For a minute, I thought he was going right back out the door, but then he zagged and stood over me. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked uncertainly, and was that a belch he muffled? I gestured for him to join me. He sat, looked at the table for a minute, and then looked up and said, “You come here often?” * * * She was obviously impressed. Apparently, I had made the same kind of impression on her that she had made on me a few months back, with the possible exception that she hadn’t created a website for me, been searching for me feverishly, or appeared to be under any sort of gaseous attack, as I was. Other than that, she felt the same as me. I was sure. Her eyes glowed and she smiled at me. “I remember you! You sat right over there,” she said, turning and pointing, “with that Dr. Jones I’ve read so much about in the paper. I saw him on TV. He’s the big B.I.B. expert, right?” I nodded. “Dr. Jones and I have both been…in the media a lot lately,” I said. “I have a website…” “I know. Pub Crawler and B.I.B. Rescue—love those games you have,” she interrupted in a milder tone, her eyes dropping to the table, which was littered with empty Miner’s Lite bottles and two barely touched orders of O’Malley’s finest. She offered me a basket of untouched chili fries. “No…thanks.” After an RFD slid past us on a chair pushed by two other RFDs, I felt the words escaping from my mouth without control; hey, at least it wasn’t another burp. “Look, it’s no accident that I ran into you tonight. I paid the bartender to call me if you showed up. Your feast here,” I said, gesturing sarcastically to the table, “was to keep you here until I arrived.” “Why?” she asked vaguely amused. “Most guys…” “No, that’s not it…I’m not most guys. You see…I just have to know…are you the woman who complained the other night about the fish face picture on my website?” She waited a long minute and stared off at a distant speck before answering. “Are you the one who took the picture off?” she said, turning to stare right through me. “Yes.” “I wanted to thank you. My friends and family know that face, and they were sure…” I held up my hand to stop her. “I know who you are.” “What do you mean?” “You were born January 18, 1976, during the Super Bowl, around halftime. You have growing powers you can’t understand and aren’t sure you want.” I lowered my voice. “You’re the B.I.B., and now it seems everyone is after you, me included.” “So that’s it. You think I am the B.I.B.?” My heart stopped flopping and I became deadly serious as I fixed my eyes on her. “I know you are…but don’t worry. I’m the one who took the picture off the site. Remember? I won’t tell anyone.” “Then what’s this all about? You’ve got your story, don’t you?” she grew angry. “Are you the one who’s got the dogs on me? Was that woman outside my apartment working for you?” “What woman? No one knows but me, not even Dr. Jones knows about you. And you might want to keep your voice down.” “She was sitting outside my window for an hour. I haven’t been able to go back home since. That’s why I’m hiding here. Everyone knows only morons come here.” I ignored this comment. “Describe this woman.” “Well, about my age, well dressed, short dark hair, rose-colored glasses…definitely not the mob or a cop. She could have been a reporter. She kept answering her cell phone. One time she was arguing with someone on the other end. She was alone…little economy car.” I began to match the description to all the reporters with whom I’d worked, no match. Clearly, this wasn’t Jennifer Lowe—even a woman couldn’t have failed to notice her looks. I drew a blank until I matched the rose-colored glasses to Rebecca. How could it be mild, sweet, efficient Rebecca? Then it hit me like a ton and a half of bricks. “Goddamn it!” “What? What is it?” the B.I.B. wondered, concerned at my extreme agitation. “God fuckin’ damn it.” I slammed my fist on the table. “I am such a friggin’ sap!” “You know her, I take it.” “Son of a bitch!” “Okay, you really do know her. Who is she?” I continued in my self-pitying rage, shaking my head and staring at the ceiling. “Okay, now. Let’s focus here,” said the B.I.B. trying to calm me. “I don’t believe that bitch set me up!” It all flashed through my mind and connected, like the last ten minutes of an old black-and-white detective movie. I’d thought I was hunting the Super Bowl- born with my little survey and list of women born on January 18, 1976, and all along, Rebecca had been playing me. It was too easy that I’d needed a graphic designer/computer geek for the website, and up pops Rebecca, the perfect candidate. She’d put the site together so well and so quickly, I was willing to bet it had already been planned and programmed. She’d taken over full control of the site and all its information, no problem, because she knew I was a lazy asshole, just counting my money and TV appearances. I was the front that kept her out of sight. All along, she’d been monitoring the website for a way to locate the B.I.B.—and, like the patsy I was, I handed her to Rebecca with the goddamn fish face picture. She had traced that contact from the B.I.B. even before I asked her to do it. She’d fed me the wrong address to try to dead-end my lead and to try to give me finger herpes, I guessed, but Rebecca? What would she want with the B.I.B.? She seemed so sweet and…and what? Then the mobile phone calls Rebecca was on while watching the B.I.B.’s apartment hit me. Sure, one may have been the call I’d made to her after almost being forced to get lucky in the Eastern European jungle—I’d known she wasn’t in her house; I’d heard the cars go by. But we hadn’t argued, and that was just one call. She was working with or for someone else. It had to be Jennifer Lowe. Hadn’t she told me point blank that she was looking for the B.I.B., not once, but twice? My god, were all the Super Bowl-born working together? Why? What did they want with the B.I.B.? How many of these “mothers” were there? Then I remembered the two Super Bowl-born that had died mysteriously, and, with a face frozen in fright, I looked across the table at the B.I.B.’s soft features and shimmering eyes, afraid of what they might have planned for her. “What?” she asked. “You have to tell me.” “I know who was at your house, and I know how she got your address. She’s the web designer who manages my website.” “So it was you,” she glared. “No, no, she only does the web design for me. She is working with another woman behind my back, using me, using my site to gather information about you. I didn’t realize it until just this second. To get to you, they used me and my website, and I fell for it like a one-legged Irish dancer. That’s why I’m so mad. I swear I didn’t know what they were doing, until you told me about the car outside your apartment. But it all makes sense now.” “Who are they? What do they want with me?” she asked. I sighed, realizing how big the answer was. “Dr. Jones’ theory is that women born the same day as you have a very high chance of developing superpowers. The others I’ve met seemed normal to me at first. I thought you were the only one. Now I see that you probably all have superpowers, but have just chosen different ways to use them. You stand up for the defenseless, the underdogs, for all-American morals. One of them is using her powers to make money; she’s a multimillionaire, at least, but acts like an everyday woman. The other is the one you saw outside your apartment, Rebecca. She’s somehow mixed up with the rich one, Jennifer Lowe. I didn’t think Rebecca had any powers, but now I have to wonder. She acts like any average woman you’d see anywhere.” “This rich bitch, Jennifer—what powers does she have?” the B.I.B. asked, seriously concerned, apparently believing my spiel. “Well, I’m not a hundred percent certain….She melted my pen.” “Melted your pen?” she almost laughed. “What kind of power is that?” I shook my head. “Tip of the iceberg. This woman owns real estate all over the world. Who knows where else she’s connected. I just know she’s not the kind of person you are.” “What would you know about the kind of person I am?” I dropped my gaze to the table, wanting to tell her how she made my body rebel against my control, how much I admired the things she had done, and how I could think of little other than her since the flashes of blue then green from her eyes had hit me. I looked up at her, wanting to tell her how beautiful she was, how her scent was driving me wild, how I wanted my mouth on her lips that instant, and how I had done all this just for this opportunity to see her again. I wanted to tell her how important this meeting was to me, explain how I had risked my life in the Eastern European jungle to find her. But it all sounded too childish to believe. I fumbled for the words. Her face slowly switched from a smile of warm anticipation to one of concern that I had a bomb to drop on her. Luckily, I didn’t have to answer. The barkeep came through the front door with a couple of plastic bags and plunked them down on our table without much regard for their contents. “There ya go,” he said, putting out his hand. I handed him some cash. When he started to walk away, I had to grab him. “Hey, hey!” He stopped. “What is it now, sire?” I started taking containers of food out of the bags, real food. “You have any plates, spoons, forks in this dump?” “Next you’ll be wantin’ a wee rose for the table, I suspect.” I snapped my fingers, as if to say, Give me back my cash. “Oh, bloody hell, I think I can find something.” “Good lad,” I said. He responded with a disgusted wave of his hand. “What’s this?” asked the B.I.B. “I felt bad about the chili fries and asked him to pop around the corner for some real food from Michael’s. Hope you like shrimp and chicken.” She looked taken aback at first, but then started checking out the food as I unpacked it. “That smells great.” (I soon learned that food was an easy sell to a Super Born.) The barkeep shuffled back with some old, unmatched plates and silverware and dropped them on the table as a small group of RFDs started gathering around, staring at the food, pointing at it and discussing it among themselves. I called to the barkeep, and he returned with some empty chili fry baskets and plastic forks. I made up four or five baskets with small amounts of the courses of our meal and handed them out to the RFDs, along with the cold chili fries. That seemed to satisfy them, and they drifted away, chuckling—except one that dumped out the chicken and shrimp on the floor, preferring the paper basket as a more valuable prize. When the barkeep returned again with a red plastic rose and a small candle and held his hand out again, I filled it again so he would leave us alone. What a romantic he is, I thought, as he walked away with a pocket full of my cash. When I looked back to the table, the B.I.B. was already into her meal. “I haven’t eaten all day,” she said, loading a forkful. “Well since lunch, I mean…and that snack.” “And yet you could somehow resist those chili fries,” I joked. “Well, they’re an acquired taste.” She only nodded as she chewed. It felt good to watch her doing something so normal and everyday as that. I smiled but couldn’t escape the thoughts that the meal had interrupted. Hopefully she would forget what we were talking about. I fought with myself to keep from getting too melancholy and overthinking things. I decided to throw off my analytical uncertainty and just enjoy my time with her. That’s when I realized, hell, she was eating everything! She was packing it away like a busload of tourists at an all-you-can-eat buffet! My first instinct was to start loading my plate too, but then I stopped, took only a few bites, and watched her smiling, enjoying her food. Eventually the chewing slowed and she began a light conversation with me. My stomach calmed, and I smiled in the back of my mind. Hell, was I doing something right for a change? With the RFDs as a constant sideshow, we were soon laughing together as we ate and downed Miner’s Lites. She ate everything in sight, including a few forkfuls off my meager plate. We bantered questions back and forth about our lives and ourselves. I was tactful to avoid questions about her as the B.I.B. She told me about her daughter and of the rigors of becoming a mother as a teenager. She talked about her job as if her superpowers didn’t exist. When the RFDs started a chair race—one young man being pushed around the bar on a chair, with another two as engines—I quickly grabbed her hand, found a chair, and entered her in the chariot (or should I say chair-idiot?) race. When the B.I.B. pushed over our nearest competition, we were home free for the win. Our prize? Miner’s Lite’s, presented to us with chili fry baskets as our crowns. We gave them both to the runners-up. What class! Two Miner’s Lites later found both of us wearing the antlers from the Antler Game in the back room. As an RFD struggled to load the rifle, the B.I.B. and I scurried around the bar. Sometimes she hid behind me, and other times I hid behind her, as we darted around the room, hiding behind chairs and tables. The B.I.B. cracked me up with a great fish face just before the RDF fired. There’s something about a woman doing a fish face while wearing antlers that hits a primal cord in every male; or is it just me? He missed us, of course, with the new law requiring blanks, but we dropped and rolled on the floor anyway as if hit by the same shot. We both laughed and rolled up on our sides facing each other. Even in an antler helmet, her gray eyes glistened and the shimmering smile on her lips was lovely to behold. The intimacy between our eyes was so intense that it awed me—you know, like the real meaning of awesome? I had to look away, and fast. Back at the table, she suddenly seemed to sober up. “I’ve got to get to my sister’s house. Thank you for the info on those two super bitches, the food, and a fun night. I needed it.” I panicked. “You can’t go.” “I’ll be okay. I know who they are now. I just need to find a new place to live, and make them start looking all over again. I’ll find a way to get my stuff without them following me.…Paige will be pissed, but what can you do?” I grabbed her arm. “You can’t go. How am I gonna find you again?” Before she could answer, I felt how warm her arm seemed, but then the feeling changed. She noticed it too. I could tell by the surprised look on her face as she looked down at our entwined arms. The intensity grew, and I soon learned why the cat in the news article had risked being run over by the beer truck just to get back to her. My entire arm began to feel like, well, like another part of my anatomy, let’s say. A casual brush didn’t seem to do it, but a solid contact for several seconds brought the feeling to life. She dropped my arm, took a step back, and let out a deep breath. I pushed lightly on her shoulder. “It’s just your sister. You can be a little late.” She hesitated for a moment as we traded glances, but this time I wouldn’t look away. Finally, she slowly sat back down. “Okay.” * * * Two hours later we were sitting on the toxic floor beneath the nasty plastic tablecloth of our booth at O’Malley’s with our backs to the wall. We’d literally drank ourselves under the table. Several Miner’s Lites to the good, we had both become quieter and subdued. Despite the alcohol running through her veins, she kept space between us, avoiding a repeat of the arm incident. Somehow our conversation had become more and more full of expletives as the night wore on. As she took a long sip from her beer, I had to ask, “You know…why haven’t you done that thing tonight…that thing you do with your eyes?” “What fuckin’ thing with my eyes?” she said, leering over at me. “You know…that thing! Like you did the first night I saw you.” “No, I don’t know. You wanna fuckin’ enlighten me?” “You know what a fuckin’ lighthouse is?” “Do you know what my fist is?” she said, putting up a low, unthreatening fist. “Okay, you know a lighthouse has a light on top that rotates around? You know how the light turns away and you don’t see it, then it gets brighter and brighter as it turns toward you, until it flashes right in your eyes? Then it spins around again?” She nodded. “When I first saw your beautiful gray eyes…” “My eyes aren’t fuckin’ gray! They’re hazel…everybody says they’re hazel.” “Get the fuck out! Hazel, my ass! They’re gray…gray with little specks of blue and sometimes green floatin’ around.” She shook her head. “No fuckin’ way. They’re hazel!” “Okay, okay…when I first saw your hazel eyes, they flashed blue then green, like a light on a lighthouse. It was fuckin’ amazing. Jones, he couldn’t see it. But I did…right in the old eyeballs,” I said, pointing two fingers at my eyes. She didn’t say a word, and her expression was hard to read. “You know what the weird thing was? No one else can see it but me. That’s how I knew that there was something special between us,” I added, pointing a finger at both of us repeatedly. She drank from her beer and stared at her feet. “What’s that shit all about? Why do you do that shit?” She was silent for a long moment, and then tried to take a drink from a bottle that was already empty. “I marked you.” “Marked me? What the fuck does that mean?” I asked. She looked up at me. “It means none of those other bitches can get to you. Jennifer fuckin’ whoever can’t have you…you’re mine,” she said in a low tone. I laughed, “What?” “No other woman can have you,” she said, “ ’cause I already have you marked. Even those super bitches. Have you met this Jennifer yet?” I nodded before taking a long sip. “Well, did she put any moves on you? Did she try to get you to do something you didn’t want to do?” I shook my head. She pushed the bottle in her hand forward. “That’s ’cause I marked you.” I laughed. “She did try to put some moves on me.” “And?” “And I walked the fuck out!” “What’d I tell you?” she said, again sucking on the empty bottle. I thought it was funny, until it dawned on me how nonexistent my sex life had been since being “marked.” I stared at my bottle and then took my last sip, uncertain about this “marked” thing. Even drunk I had to say, “Wait just a minute there, Missy.” She looked over her shoulder at the wall, as if I were talking to someone else behind her. “Who the hell is Missy?” I pointed an accusing finger at her. “You…you’re Missy, Missy.” “Oh,” she said, making a face like I was crazy. “How do you know about how this marking thing works?” She laughed like she had just told herself a joke. “Let’s just say…’cause I’ve fuckin’ tried it! I didn’t know that would work till you just told me. Good to know….But when I want something, the feelings…” she patted her chest. “…inside just project out of me through my eyes. The flash implants energy on whomever is willing to receive it. Engrains a connection,” she said, flipping a finger she pointed in the general vicinity of the two of us, “between us.” “Implant energy? I’m sorry, but—what?” “Oh, fuck it. You just think I’m crazy,” she said, shaking her upraised hands as if frightened. I felt sorry for turning her off. Then I thought about what she’d said, my thought process delayed by the beer. “Wait—you flashed me ’cause you wanted something?” She tapped my arm and almost knocked me out from under the table. “Go fuck yourself! You don’t wanna know! I’m not talkin’ about it anymore.…I fuckin’ marked you. Live with it.” I looked over at her for a moment, surprised at how real she was now. Drunk or not, it was obvious that she didn’t want to admit that she’d marked me because she liked me. She wouldn’t say it, but I felt better knowing. “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?” she said. “You know…for a conservative, moral superhero lady, you say ‘fuck’ a lot…fuck, fuckin’…” “Who said I was conservative, moral, or a fuckin’ lady?” she said, apparently not sure which word bothered her most. “You are…you’re not out making money or beating people up with your powers like Jennifer Fuckin’ Lowe or two-faced Rebecca. You’re helping people. Hell, you know how many people are alive today because of what you did to save that plane from crashing? And it’s not just them. It’s their kids, and their kids’ kids’ kids…” I paused, wondering if I had used too many “kids.” “Hell, it’s a goddamn army of people when you think about it—generations! Shit, you’re a fuckin’ saint!” She didn’t say anything. “You could really be out fuckin’ things up, but you don’t.” She gestured with her finger over her mouth, seeming more subdued. “Shhh, you shouldn’t say ‘fuck.’” “Shit, you say fuck all the time!” I protested. She gave me another “shhh” with a finger over her lips, and then dropped her empty bottle on the floor. “I think I’m fuckin’ wasted,” she said, as I gave her a “shhh” this time. “Sorry,” she said, putting a finger over her own lips. I looked over at her and found myself staring into her eyes. Hazel, my ass, I thought, studying her gray, almost colorless, peepers. She held my gaze with a smile growing on her face that made me feel connected with her, drawn into her. Then her face distorted, and she gave out a loud burp, covering her mouth with her hand. “Sorry…I’m not usually a pig…really.” Just then the tablecloth at the other end of the table lifted up and the face of the barkeep appeared. “So this is where you fuckin’ assholes went!” We both gave him a “shhh” in unison. “Get your asses out of there. It’s past closing time.” I stared blankly at him. “And why is your fine establishment closing so early this evening?” I asked, trying to sound sober and coherent. “ ’Cause its 3:00 a.m., numb nuts. Come on, let’s have a go,” he said, reaching for the B.I.B.’s hand to help her out. He pulled her up while I jealously watched their arms interlocked, wondering if he was feeling what I had. As he pulled, she sat up and halfway out smacked her head on the bottom of the table. She dropped to the filthy floor, laughing. The barkeep dragged her out on her back while she held her head and giggled. I followed on my hands and knees, but when I got to the end of the table, I stood up too soon and likewise cracked my head on the edge of the table, faking a fall to the floor, cracking up beside her. The barkeep straightened up and shook his head. “You can go ahead and be assholes, just do it elsewhere. I’ve got an appointment with my bleedin’ bed ta keep.” With that he walked away. Then the laughs faded and I helped her to her feet, again feeling the warmth of her skin beneath my hand. We tried to brush the floor grime off our clothes, to little effect. There was a tiny piece of a bar napkin in her hair, and I pulled it out, tugging gently, running my hand through her hair. She closed her eyes for a quick second. The look of pleasure on her face sent iron to my shorts. It felt dangerously sensuous and sobered both of us quickly. The barkeep came back with a coat on and shooed us out of the door. We stood on the sidewalk of a now quiet street, facing each other in air that was surprisingly cool for June. “I don’t think you’re in any condition to drive to your sister’s.” “Who’s gonna drive?” she asked, giving a little laugh. “I’m flyyying,” she said, spreading her arms and swaying side to side. “Flying…fuckin’ flying?” I asked. She gave me a “shhh.” “Now you? You’re in no condition to drive. Why don’t I fly you home?” I laughed. “I don’t think so!” “Afraid?” she asked, leaning into me. “I’d like to leave with at least an ounce of male dignity intact.” “Strong women who fly intimidate you?” “It’s more the possibility of a drunken crash and burn that worries me.” “Well, it’s been nice knowing you, and all the people who are gonna die when you crash into them on your way home tonight.” I laughed. “Gee, I didn’t think you knew those people.…I think an hour or two in that coffee shop over there should do the trick. Just need some fuckin’ caffeine.” She “shhhed” me and then slowly put her steamy finger over my lips and held it there while I melted. She looked deeply into my eyes, making me swallow hard. Then came what I had been expecting all night, a repeated blue/green flash of those gray eyes. Hazel eyes….you know the rest. When she pulled away and said, “See ya,” the trance broke, and I reached for her. “Wait! You can’t go! How will I find you again? You’ll have a new apartment, a new identity!” She turned to me over her shoulder as she walked away. She smiled, saying in a tone that was as solid as granite, “I’ll find you.” “But, I don’t even know your name!” I pleaded, trying to think of anything to make her stay. She stopped and put her hands on her hips, as if deciding whether or not this was something she wanted me to know. Then she gave in and smiled. “It’s Allie.” I smiled back, knowing how hard it must be for her to trust someone enough to let that personal information out. Me, she trusted me! Imagine that! Allie, I thought, as if the word were sweet, lyrical music, an entire song in just five letters. Then it occurred to me that there was no Allie on my list of woman born January 18,1976. Whether it was a clerical error or a smudge of a typewriter ribbon, I didn’t know. But somehow Allie wasn’t recorded as born the eighteenth. No wonder we couldn’t find her. Still, she had been right under my nose. Just the place I wanted her lips to be. With that, the fog I had seen before materialized around her, and then she was gone. But a couple of seconds later I heard a loud clang and someone in the distance saying, “Shit!” CHAPTER 27 Hung Over and Hung Out I have become accustomed in the last few months—okay, years—to waking up in unusual places and positions, but this one had me baffled. I found myself lying on my side in a cramped space, like a letter in an envelope. To my back, I felt the smooth firmness of a wall and, to my chest, I had a little room, but not much. At the end of the envelope, I could see the dim predawn light. My eyes were a little blurry still from the previous night’s Miner’s Lites, but I was certain I saw light, and made the decision to move toward it. That was a mistake. My shoulders and neck were tight and sore, screaming as I moved. My back and hip were twisted from a night sleeping on the edge, so to speak, and rebelling against any further attempts at movement. I managed to lift my arms from my sides and grab the rim of the envelope, which I discovered was the leg of my couch. Confident now, I pulled myself out and stood there in my boxers with my entire body tight, sore, and unhappy. I stared at the sofa, trying to figure how the hell I’d gotten back there. I soon found a trail of my clothes leading to and then onto the couch. My socks were on top of the back of the couch. Apparently, I had curled up there and then fallen down the crack between the couch and the wall. I shoved the couch against the wall to prevent further incidents, then was hit by panic. I tiptoed to the bedroom and peeked my head into the doorway to see if any unwelcome, or welcome, surprises were sleeping there. Relieved at the sight of my empty, unmade bed, I sighed in relief and began to try to piece back together the events of the previous night. * * * The little article on page three of section C of the newspaper caught my attention after the steaming mug of coffee had kicked in and opened my eyes. A man had been found unconscious and injured in the ritzy Maxim Hotel. He had been found naked, tied to a bed, with severe hip, back, and internal injuries. He claimed a beautiful young woman had raped him—right, that’ll get you a lot of sympathy, Charlie. Buried in the text was the description, “deformed genitals.” Oh, my God, I thought, that guy is lucky to be alive! Somehow he had survived the Spinderella move, unlike poor Demitri. But who had he been with? Jennifer, Rebecca, the B.I.B.—or were there more of them? After a brief mental vacation imagining them all naked and in action with me, I read the article again, thinking that if things had gone further last night, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. Then I had to face it again: what to do now? With her identity being changed as I sat, all the information I had was useless. I didn’t even know her old address, let alone her new one. The birth record game was a loser. Did I really have to wait and hope she meant what she said about contacting me? Crap. The one thing I knew to do was log onto the website and change all the access codes. Monday, I would find a security company to set up a new firewall and check to see if Rebecca had installed a back door. I thought of calling her to officially terminate our relationship, but chose my usual path of least resistance and did nothing but eat some toast. I turned my thoughts to Dr. Jones. Could he help? Should I tell him everything? No, she was mine, goddamn it. I couldn’t tell him about the B.I.B., but I did need his brain again. * * * I had never seen Jones quite like this before. His hair was unkempt, his clothes dirty, and it was clear he hadn’t shaved in days, as he was sporting a thin, spotty beard. But he was glad to see me and turned down his sitar music when I arrived. “What can I do for you, my friend?” he said. He returned to his desk, ostensibly to continue the work I had interrupted, but I could see B.I.B. Rescue running on his laptop. “What are you working on there? Is it about the Super Born?” “Ah, the Super Born! Is that what you’re calling them now?” He seemed to get irritated. He pounded the desk. “Yes, it is about the Super Born, everything is about the goddamn Super Born. I can’t sleep. I don’t eat. This mystery is ruining my life. I have been so close…” “We are close,” I volunteered. He looked up, eager to believe. “We are? You have good news?” I told him everything—well, everything less a lot of things. I updated him about Jennifer Lowe, her connection to Rebecca Sans, and how Rebecca had used my site to search for the B.I.B. I explained to him that I felt the B.I.B. was in serious danger. I made certain he understood that the B.I.B. would now have moved and assumed a new identity. I just forgot to mention my meeting with Allie or what it felt like to run my hands through her hair or look into her eyes…Anyway, I left out the good parts. I lied, trying to convince him that with Rebecca forcing the B.I.B. to take on a new identity, the birth record search would be useless, and that we needed a new plan to deal with them. The whole time, Jones remained calm and silent, nodding on occasion. “Well?” I asked. “I am just thinking. As it happens, what I am researching right now is a theory that may explain things.” “Is this the Patagonian Algorithm again?” “My lord, no. What is that? You see, my friend, I have come across indications that the social structure of the Super Born will probably be similar to that of bees.” “Bees? You mean like buzz, buzz bees?” Jones nodded. “It makes sense as far as my research goes and now is confirmed by the information you’ve supplied. There can be only one queen. These three, or however many there are, will naturally have to seek dominance. Only one will remain. We are all drones for them, my friend,” said Jones. I thought quickly back to the birth record search I had made and the unexplainable number of young women born during the Super Bowl who had died mysteriously. “Only one queen…” I muttered. “So it seems. The battle is going on right now, and here we sit. I am telling you the picture is sad, very sad indeed.” “What can we do? I have to warn her,” I slipped up. “Warn who?” Luckily, I knew how to recover quickly. “Just kiddin’.” “Kidding about what?” Jones demanded. “The B.I.B. I wish I could warn her about the others. But I can’t, ’cause I don’t know where she is.” Smooth, aren’t I? “How do you know which of these Super Born is good and which are the bad ones? The B.I.B. could be the one exterminating the others.” I opened my mouth in Allie’s defense, but then shut up. “Well, what do you think we should do? If you’re right and we’re the drones, we’ll end up like Demitri. There is no way to approach any of them safely,” I lied. Jones shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine. Why do you think I look like shit? This whole thing has gotten out of control. How could I be so right and be so unable to prove it? It is a dilemma,” he said, coming around the desk and putting his hand on my shoulder. Simultaneously, we both wrinkled our noses and gave a face that said of one another, He smells like shit. As I turned to leave, I heard the sound of a woman moaning from the bedroom down the hall. He gave a flimsy smile and said, “Guess she is starting without me.” “That’s not the one I saw you with the other night is it? The one you took home in the van?” Jones eyes went wide for a moment then his face turned quizzical. “Van? What are you talking about my friend?” “I saw you at Flanagan’s the other night with that hot number, and you got into a white van with her. It’s none of my business, but she did go willingly with you, right?” “I’m afraid you are mistaken, my friend. Me, in a white van? Please. Must have been some other hot Indian guy.…Well, if you will excuse me, research calls. “I will see you soon,” he said escorting me to the door. I shook my head as she moaned again. “What’s your secret? How do you fuckin’ do it?” “It’s a curse,” he said closing the door. CHAPTER 28 Three Superwomen in One Night: Not as Much Fun as It Sounds On the way back to my palatial two-bedroom, I stopped at a drive-through for some gourmet takeout (and fries). I was just digging through the bag, trying to figure out what the suckers had forgot to put in there, when my mobile phone vibrated on my belt. I answered, with a fry or two in my mouth. “Yeah?” The voice on the other end was rushed and near panic. It was a woman’s voice, but with a terrible amount of banging and crashing in the background. I couldn’t identify her. “Don’t talk to her! Whatever you do, don’t tell her anything! Please be careful! I’m sorry!” With that the call dropped. With a few more fries in my mouth I asked, “Hello? Hello, who is this?” There was nothing. You know, you used to at least get a dial tone when a call was cut off, but now all you get is nothing. It haunted me all the way home, through a whole bag of fries, imagining her in danger, battling with Jennifer Lowe: those two beauties tearing at one another, clothes ripping, hair flying around their heads, rolling on the floor, breasts pressed against one another, legs grinding. I almost wrecked the damn car and ruined a good pair of pants worrying about it. When the blood returned to my brain, I couldn’t think of anything to do. I didn’t know who had called, where she was, or where to even look. I was at a dead end. I opened the door to my chateau, wondering if I had any Miner’s Lites left to wash down my feast, and found her sitting with her arms stretched over the top of my lavish sofa. The bag containing my half-eaten burger slipped from my hands. She laughed. “Drop something?” I wasn’t certain if she was referring to the bag or my jaw. Jennifer Lowe looked at me with the eyes of a butcher ready to chop meat. Luckily, I was cool and had a snappy rejoinder ready. “What are you doing here?” Smooth as silk…on sandpaper. “That depends,” she said, uncrossing and spreading her legs until only the sides of her skirt stopped them. There wasn’t anything cool left in me after that. My heart decided it was a track star and tried to burst through my chest as if it was a finish line tape. My brain was full of so many thoughts, possibilities, and worries that it went into overload. Is this it? Am I about to buy the ranch right now, today? Dead as in D-E-A-D? Would she rip me in half or do the old Demitri Spinderella move on me? (I leaned toward the latter.) Generally, I wondered what the fuck was going on. “What is it you want?” I asked finally, circling around to the kitchen. “Can I get you something?” She laughed. “Something to drink?” “All you have are those fucking Miner’s Lites.” I opened the door to the fridge, then discovered she was right. “Well, I have two eggs in here as well,” I offered. She smirked at me, left the sofa, and moved to the kitchen, apparently tired of games. She picked up my laptop and shoved it into my arms. “That’s how you’re supposed to do it. She’s easy to find in the Pub Crawler game.” On the screen was a picture of the B.I.B. at Flanagan’s with a big text banner blinking, “You found the B.I.B. You Win!” This is fucking it! I panicked in my head. You’re a dead man! She rubbed her hand over my shoulder and down my arm. “I need a man.” Holy shit! Demitri, here I come! “I need a man to help me find someone,” she said, starting to rub my chest. “Are you that man?” Jennifer asked, reaching for my crotch. “How…how am I supposed to do that? Sounds like you…you need a private…” “Dick?” she said, diggin around my pants in search of her elusive prey. “I’ve tried private detectives, and they’ve just wasted my money. No, what I’m looking for has proven very hard to find,” she said, with her second hand joining the search. “But I know you know where it is.” “What…what makes you think that?” I asked, with my voice jumping on the last word. She stopped her digging, apparently realizing, for the second time, that she couldn’t overcome the B.I.B.’s mark. “You know where she is. Christ, you have a whole fucking website worshipping the bitch! I need to know where she is ’cause they’re gonna kill her. You want that to happen, lover boy? They can do it. She’s next. Only I can save her, and only you can get to her. Think it over and call me, before it’s too late,” she said, turning to leave. “Why should I trust you? How do I know you’re not the one who’s after her?” “Ah,” said Jennifer, turning back to me, “so you do know where she is!” Damn, I thought, What an ass! And by that, I meant me. There was no use denying it anymore. “How am I supposed to reach you?” She stopped and turned at the door. “My number’s burnt into that little excuse you have for a dick. Figured that’s the only place I could put it where you wouldn’t lose it,” she said, before slamming the door. Those numbers were going to become gigantic the next time I saw Allie, I feared. I sighed deeply and felt my heart returning to my chest. I began to think I might actually survive. I went to the fridge for a Miner’s, thinking, What the fuck? Then I became aware that my near-death encounter had given me a firm desire to go to the bathroom. Why not check out her number while I did? It should have bothered me that I had to open the bathroom door, which I hadn’t closed, but it didn’t. Waiting for me, cowering in the shower, I found Rebecca staring at me through her rose-colored glasses. “Is she gone?” she whispered. When I just stood in disbelief and didn’t respond, she said again, more emphatically, “Is she gone?” I nodded, and she came running at me like a bill collector. “You didn’t tell her anything, did you? Did you?” I shook my head, thinking, I’m not gonna get killed again, am I? She stuck her head through the doorway and looked down the hall in both directions. As she passed, I held my beer bottle over my crotch—irrationally, perhaps—to keep from being violated again. “You got my phone call, right? I tried to warn you she was coming.” Then she began to pace back and forth in the bathroom. “I’m sorry I lied to you. I really am. But if I’d told you where the B.I.B. was, you’d have led Jennifer right there.” I had even less of an idea what was going on now than I had before. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. How do you and Jennifer know each other?” She paced for a moment, then sat down on the edge of the tub, her elbows on her knees and her hands on her head. “You’re not going to believe me, but I have these special powers. I’m not like other people.” “You’re a Super Born, just like the B.I.B. and Jennifer.” “You know?” she said, looking up at me in relief. “I met Jennifer about a year ago. It was a rough time in my life. My powers were just coming on, and I thought something was wrong with me. I put my fiancée—my high school sweetheart!—in the hospital; I don’t even know how. He still won’t take my calls. I discovered I could make things happen with my mind, communicate with machines.” She glanced back at me, as if checking my credulity quotient. “I didn’t program your website, I just thought it, and there it was.” “So how’d you get hooked up with Jennifer?” “Jennifer came to my house and said she had been looking for me. She knew I had powers I didn’t understand, and she would help me. She said there were others and she needed my help to find them. It made me feel a lot better to know I wasn’t alone…you know? So, of course I agreed and, right away, using the internet, I found a woman named Victoria. She had just started having premonitions of things that were going to happen, and it was driving her crazy. Her husband left. She started to get sick over it. When we found her, she was thin and almost gray. “After a few days, she felt better too. She told Jennifer a number of things that were going to happen in the world financial markets: stocks, commodities. Jennifer made a lot of money. Even I invested a little, and it worked. Then, for some reason, Victoria started to get sick again, and her predictions turned sour. “Around that time, Jennifer told me about the B.I.B. and asked me to find her. But I couldn’t. She was like a ghost. That’s when you met Jennifer for that fake survey at the coffee shop. When she realized that you had been marked, she knew you would know where the B.I.B. was. When you called me for the survey, she already knew about your ugly website and knew you’d take the bait and hire me if I let it slip that that’s what I did for a living. That way, we could monitor your site, your communications, and your phone. She was sure you would lead us to her. “That’s when it all went wrong. Victoria disappeared. Jennifer started talking like she was glad to be rid of her. I started to suspect that Jennifer had her killed. Then she sent two men to my apartment with guns, guns like I had never seen before, to kill me.” “Kill you? What happened?” I asked. Rebecca stood up and turned away. “I don’t know. I saw them point the guns, and the next thing I remember, they were gone. The room was empty. There were just black burn marks on the floor. “That was right when you helped me find the B.I.B.’s home address. I didn’t know what to do. I thought if I told Jennifer the address, then she’d kill the B.I.B. too. I couldn’t let you lead her to the B.I.B. either. So I gave you the phony address and decided to go to the B.I.B. myself and warn her. But then I started to worry that Jennifer was having me followed. She called me and we had a fight. I’ve been running from her ever since.” “Quite a story,” I said. “It’s true,” she said, emphatically, turning to face me. “Do you really know where the B.I.B. is?” It was then I started feeling suspicious. Was I being scammed…again? “No, I have no idea where she is. She worked up a whole new identity after you closed in on her.” Rebecca looked at the ground. “Then we’re lost. Without her help, I don’t know what’s going to happen….Jennifer will turn on you too! She’ll kill us both! As soon as you are of no use to her. She has to believe you know how to find the B.I.B., or you’re not safe.” “Listen, you’ll be safe with me. She’s already been to the apartment, so she won’t expect you to be here. Stay here for now, until we figure this out. Don’t call or visit anyone you know—no friends no relatives. She’ll have my place watched, so don’t walk out in the open….Is your car here?” “Still at my apartment. I knew she could trace it.” “Good. You can use the back bedroom…stay away from the windows.” She nodded in agreement and then gave me a hug. Her body felt like a furnace against mine. “Jennifer didn’t unmark you, did she? You’re not working for her?” she asked, feeling my crotch. “What is it with you people?!” I exclaimed, pushing her away. “Sorry, I just had to be sure.” I waved her by me out the door. “I know. So if you don’t mind, I have to pee!” She walked by, then turned back. “Sorry.” “I know, I know! Get the hell out!” I slammed the door and hesitated before checking for Jennifer’s phone number.With Allie nowhere in sight, the digits weren’t as gigantic as I’d hoped. When I emerged from the bathroom, I found Rebecca in the living room, appearing distressed. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She turned to me with a burning stare. “Have you seen your back bedroom?” “What?” “Have you seen those nasty sheets, the stained pillows? Do you even own a vacuum?” “If it bugs you, take my bedroom.” “Do you really sleep in there? And do women actually have sex with you in there?” “Okay, I’ll get you new sheets and pillows. The vacuum’s…around here somewhere,” I said, scanning the room till I spied the vacuum in a distant corner. “Right there.” “And the blankets—whose horse did you take them from?” “Okay, blankets too.” She reluctantly stood up, crossed the room, and touched the vacuum with the tips of two fingers. “Eeewww, gross.” “You said you got along with machines.” “It’s the slime I’m worried about.” “I’ll be back. Don’t show yourself or answer the door or phone, okay?” “There will be someone watching you,” she warned. “I know,” I said, scooping up my keys and wallet from the kitchen counter as I passed. “And food. I love Miner’s Lite, but I can’t live on beer and eggs,” she added. Did everyone know the contents of my fridge? I nodded. “Got it, chick food.” I stopped as I passed her, trying to get a look behind her glasses. I slid them off her face and checked her eyes. “Something wrong with my eyes?” “No, they’re a pretty gray, very piercing,” I BS’ed. “Gray? I don’t think so! Try hazel.” Hazel, my ass, I thought to myself. Before she could speak again, I slipped out the door. Didn’t know I’d gotten married, I thought. All of the Super Born I knew had been at my apartment except the one I wanted to be there. Life is weird. As I walked to my car, I looked around checking my peripheral vision for a tail. I didn’t see a candidate, but knew someone had to be there. I hopped into in my car, slammed the door shut, and reached to put the key in the ignition. A forearm pinned my neck to the seat. “Do you want to tell me why the two people who are looking for me have both been at your apartment within minutes of one another?” asked the B.I.B., tightening her grip further. “Allie! Be careful. I’m being watched; they’ll see you,” I said with great difficulty. “The guy tailing you is over there,” she said, gesturing with her head to a group of cars nearby. “Caught him too busy playing B.I.B. Rescue on his mobile phone to notice me. I don’t think he’s in any condition to do much watching anymore. Now, answer my question.” “It’s so weird, you won’t even believe it.” “Try me.” “Take your arm off my throat, and I’ll tell you. Remember? I’m on your team.” Allie loosened her grip, then her arm disappeared into the backseat. I turned to look at her. The serious concern on her face was unlike anything I had seen before, which explained her aggressive attitude. “Well, hello, nice to see you too!” I said, rubbing my neck. “Jennifer was in my apartment when I got home from visiting Jones; I thought she was going to kill me. She wanted me to help her find you. She said ‘someone’ was going to kill you. She said you were next on their list, but that she could stop them if I let her know where you were.” “And?” “And that’s it.” “What did you tell her?” “I told her the truth. I didn’t know where you were and didn’t have a way to reach you.” “And?” “She left…after feeling me up pretty good.” “What about Rebecca? She was the one outside my old apartment.” I shook my head, not believing the words coming out of my mouth. “She was hiding from Jennifer in my bathroom. She is convinced Jennifer killed one of the other women like you and that she tried to kill her too. They had a fight. She wouldn’t give Jennifer your old address. She was trying to reach you herself to warn you but was afraid of leading Jennifer to you. She has nowhere else to go and thought I would understand. She’s hiding out at my place for a while. This all just happened. I didn’t ask for any of it.” “Yeah right, I’m sure you just hate these women throwing themselves at you. Where does Rebecca use her super powers? In the bedroom?” “Is that why you’re pissed? It’s not like that. So far, she’s like the pain-in-the-ass sister I never had. Besides, you marked me. ‘Live with it,’ remember?” “Right.” Allie looked concerned, staring past me through the windshield, her mind clearly racing. “Who do you believe?” I don’t know why, but the questions made me think of the image of Jennifer’s cleavage for a second. Focus, I told myself. I flashed on Rebecca’s panicked face, her questions about the B.I.B. “I don’t know. They could be still working together, you know, good cop/bad cop. Who besides them would be after you, anyway?” “Who indeed?” “Jones thinks you’re genetically like bees, queen bees. Only one of you can survive.” “So this Jennifer must think she’s the queen bee.” “Apparently so. Although it’s the little princess in my apartment who’s getting on my nerves right now.” I gestured to the apartment. “She wants new sheets, pillows, blankets, and she has this notion about having more than Miner’s Lite in the fridge.” “Some people,” she said shaking her head. “Sounds like she’s building a little hive of her own.” I nodded. She popped the car door and began to leave. “Allie, when will I see you again?” “I’ll find you, remember?” “No, I mean…like a date…the night at O’Malley’s, remember?” “Let me get this straight. There are people trying to kill me right now, and you’re worried about a date?” “Yes.” My answer was immediate and without question. After all, what else was there? She had become my obsession, my income, my purpose, and my passion in life, and also, with her mark, pretty much my only shot at getting laid. “O’Malley’s? That was just one night.” “No, it wasn’t. I spent months trying to make that night happen.” “It was an accident.” “So explain then why you marked me.” Allie’s face betrayed surprise, her mouth left open by my remarks. She couldn’t fight the logic of it. “You have no idea what you’re asking for.” She opened the door to leave, then stopped. She sighed, hesitating—I felt her breath on my ear. Finally she leaned around the seat, and I felt her warm hand slide over the waist of my shirt, under my belt, and slowly drop into my pants. As her fingers drifted over me, she ignited a full and rapid erection. I leaned back in my seat and let out a low moan, inviting her to continue. She ran her fingers over my full length, stopping for an instant over the numbers Jennifer had burnt in, then her thin fiery fingers coasted back out. “Just checking, to be sure,” she explained. “I’m new to this marking thing. I wanted to be sure neither of them had got to you.” “Anytime…twice on Sunday,” I answered in a mellow tone. “Feel free to check anytime you want. In fact, maybe you should check again…just to be sure.” “Nice try,” she said, turning to leave. Then she turned back. “Logan, the last guy I did that to had to go through weeks of physical therapy afterward. I wouldn’t want to hurt you.” “That’s a risk I’m prepared to take!” I said, still feeling the effects of her touch. I twisted around and reached for her only to find the seat behind me empty. “Maybe I should check you then!” I shouted after her. I took a little mental vacation, imagining the superwoman who dominated my life surrendering and being consumed by my touch. Instead, there she was walking away…again. “So you’re afraid of me, is that it? Let me check my mark on you!” I said getting out of the car. I debated whether to run after her and press my point or be patient with her. Was this my moment? Eventually, in the way of my people, I just stood there and hoped there would be a tomorrow. Allie stopped, looked over her shoulder, and came back toward me a couple of steps. “What’s with the numbers?” “Gift from Jennifer. That’s how you can reach her,” I said. Then, after a moment of thought, I asked, “Those will wear off, right?” Allie smirked and walked away from the car—for real this time. “Right?” I yelled after her. “Allie?” Watching her leave was hard. Feeling her absence again was cruel. Just sitting in the car with her had lifted me back to a lofty place with a lively feeling of purpose in my life. With her gone, I came crashing back down to a melancholy world of middle symptoms; not down in the gutter but far from the exalted place I wanted to be. She brought back me to life and had just proven it again. CHAPTER 29 Calm before the Storm—We All Have a Good Night With the guy who was tailing me out of commission, I saw no reason to rush while collecting all the items Rebecca could not live without. I even threw in some extras for her, and a gourmet treat for dinner—pizza. When I returned, my tail was still in La La Land—meaning Allie had really put him out there. I tried not to enjoy his unfortunate state, or the thought of the new asshole he would be given by his superiors, but I smiled anyway. It proved difficult to carry all the bags into my building in one trip, but the macho challenge was too strong; dropping one or breaking something by slamming a bag into a doorframe was of no consequence in comparison with the glory I would gain by succeeding. When I finally got all the bags into the apartment—in one trip I must add—I found myself encircled by activity. My laptop screen flashed frantically on the dining room table, the TV surfed channels, the dishwasher ran, and I heard the sound of my vacuum cleaner moving back and forth in my bedroom. Amid it all, Rebecca sat reading one of my old magazines, no remote controls in sight. Curiously, slowly, I paced to my bedroom, afraid I might step on something. I peeked around the doorframe to watch my vacuum round the bed, redo a spot it had missed, then retire to the corner and shut itself off. I crept back to the living room to find Rebecca digging through the bags. “Pizza? You got pizza for dinner?” she asked me. I quickly dug through another bag and pulled out a small container and displayed it. “And a salad,” I said, in my defense. “You really eat this stuff?” “You really like to bitch?” I responded, grabbing the food in question from her hand. Then she stopped, smiled, and turned to me, holding some basic female toiletries in her hand. “Someone either had a lot of sisters or…” Then she laughed. “Or someone had a live-in girlfriend.” When I began to blush, she knew she had hit a nerve and went in for the kill with a simple little song she made up just to irritate me: You had a girrrl friend, And you reallly liked her. But you’re a slobbbbbb, So she leffft you, Even when you bought her presennnts, And you bought her flowerrrs. You gave her pizzza, So she leffft you, ’Cause you’re a slobbbb. “Very funny,” I said. More and more she was starting to seem less like the sister I never had and more like every woman I had ever fallen for, and who’d made it clear I was a total ass. Great. “You want the pizza or not? And I’m not bringing you flowers, no matter how you beg, so forget it.” She turned toward the dishwasher, which stopped and popped its latch when she approached. She returned with plates, forks, and glasses for each of us. I looked down at them as if they were alien devices. “So, this is what goes in there?” I asked, pointing to the dishwasher. “In the civilized world, yes.” “You really eat your pizza on a plate? I thought there was a law or something.” Rebecca handed me a plate and glass, then set her own plate down on the counter and loaded a slice of pizza onto it. She cut a small piece with her fork, made a show of shoving it in her mouth, and turned away. “That’s just un-American,” I said to her back. “In fact, I think it’s French!” She did her best to ignore me and walked off toward the living room with her plate and a glass of water. Generally, my habit was to drink my dinner from a pull-top can or bottle. I held up my empty glass and asked, “Just what am I supposed to put in here?” She stopped in the living room, took a long, dramatic sip of water, and said, “Why don’t you try some water?” Then she settled herself on the sofa while the TV surfed channels on its own. “Why don’t you try some water!” I mocked to myself in a squeaky voice. “Why don’t I let Jennifer burn your ass? How’d you like that? I’m sure she has plenty of water for you,” I mumbled, stacking pizza slices on one another. I was still feeling the burn from her little song. A few minutes later, I joined her on the couch with four pieces of pizza stacked on my plate—no fork, no napkin, no water—and placed a sweaty Miner’s Lite bottle on the coffee table without a coaster, declaring my independence. “Nice,” she said, without looking at me. “Really nice.” I thought that deep inside it must have been killing her, but then I caught a little curl of a smile on her face. We chilled, watched TV, irritated each other, and she laughed at me while I struggled with B.I.B. Rescue and Pub Crawler. “Those are so easy,” she gloated. “I can’t believe you can’t find her!” She stole two of my pieces of pizza, encountering little resistance, and ate what was left in the box, plus the “healthy” salad. For a skinny chick, that girl could eat. And did I mention the four Miner’s Lites she drank? “You got any ice cream?” she asked, excited at the prospect. “I don’t recall that being on your grocery list,” I fired back, “Oh well, put it on…for tomorrow,” she said, fluffing some pillows. She lay across the sofa with her head on them. “I’ll just put that here, right under the side of beef and truckload of healthy fruit and vegetables—ten gallons of i-c-e c-r-e-a-m,” I said, pretending to write. But she wasn’t even paying attention to me. Instead, she watched the TV intently. “Good. That would be great.” Now that we had finished and the post-pizza burping on my part had begun, I was surprised when her petite hand drifted over and curled up in mine. At first it startled me, but there was nothing suggestive about it. However much she might have reminded me of some of my least favorite exes, Rebecca seemed a nice girl, and more than anything she seemed like family. Throughout the night we watched some shows and old movies, laughed, joked. It was nice…once you got past the nagging, bitching, demands, anal BS, irritating questions, and the general invasion of my man cave. * * * Being Carmine Camino isn’t as easy as you would think. There are all kinds of responsibilities, planning, and shit like that. I was pulling a late night alone in my newly remodeled office, sitting hunched over my new black desk. In one hand I had a half-empty bottle of beer, and in the other, a brochure on the Israeli assault rifles that had just arrived from overseas in crates marked Farm Implements. “These should do the trick,” I said to myself, dropping the brochure into the clutter on my desk. I forced out a satisfied belch, picked up my pen, and reviewed the handwritten list of the men I wanted for the job. I checked them one by one, paused, and then added two more names to the bottom of the list. Gotta have Ricky and Crazy Eyes, whatever the hell that putz’s real name is, I thought. I reviewed the satellite photo of the apartment building on my computer screen and checked it against the sketch I had made on my pad. Shoulda been a freakin’ artist, I thought. Content, I leaned back in my chair and took a long pull from my beer. I stared at the ceiling while I gently rocked in my chair. In my head, I reviewed the report I had received from the man who had been watching the apartment. He’d seen a blond woman outside the apartment assaulting a man in a car nearby. He then reported the same woman slipping into a car with the journalist just before he left, who’d returned with arms full of bags. The man reported how unusual that was. “Most of the time, this guy comes home with a bag of takeout and a twelve-pack of beer. The bags from a linens store tell me he’s got a guest.” Confident in the intelligence my guys had obtained, I finished my beer and played a game of B.I.B. Rescue—a sarcastic one, since rescuing the bitch was the last thing on my mind. I ended the game squashed by a beer truck—figures!—then typed in the address for my favorite porn site. * * * At 3:00 a.m. the droning of the TV can get annoying. I lay back in the corner of the sofa, barely hearing the commercial that was trying to sell me something or another. My hand still held the beer bottle I’d been holding when I fell asleep. I’d let it turn horizontal, spilling most of it. Rebecca lay asleep on my lap, her body feeling like the Sahara…at noon…in August…the fifteenth. The Super Born all seemed to run a lot hotter than the rest of us. Without giving my actions any thought, as I often did, I began lightly running my hands through her hair. I had become convinced that she was not a killer, a schemer, or a liar. Rebecca seemed like a genuinely frightened girl who just happened to be able to run machines with her thoughts and ate pizza with a fork. The more I was with her, the more I believed her story. If that were true, though, I had to face the fact that I could not protect her. How could I help her if armed men suddenly found her, if Jennifer Lowe suddenly walked through the door? What could I do, throw a beer bottle at them? (An empty one, of course.) No one who had ever counted on me had been rewarded for it. I took the last sip from my beer—which I’d somehow managed not to spill—and sighed, looking down at Rebecca. She seemed comfortable, contented. Yet, was she safe? Did she know the person in whom she had placed her confidence had managed to disappoint every woman he’d even been with, going back to Suzen in kindergarden? That was another question that I pondered for a minute, then dropped and decided to just get on with my life. Just then, Rebecca stirred but did not awaken. I felt a pulse of heat leave her body—the laptop and TV turned themselves off, and all the door locks and window latches in the apartment clicked shut. * * * Being Jennifer Lowe isn’t as easy as you would think. I was having a late night—a late, lonely, frustrating night. All my powers, all my money, all the planning, and still, I couldn’t find one stinking woman: the B.I.B. And now Rebecca would have to be dealt with, abandoning me when I needed her most, that little bitch. Dealing with all these small minds every day could really suck. Why couldn’t they just listen and keep up with me? Sometimes I hated these powers. Life had been so much easier before they came and screwed up my life. Of course, the depression, drugs, and suicidal tendencies hadn’t exactly been a picnic either. The lounge was nearly empty and slowly putting itself to bed. Recorded jazz played quietly in the background. In between glances at me, the bartender began cleaning up. Who could blame him for his quick looks? But I could tell there would be no satisfaction at all from him. He wouldn’t last a minute. I was after more challenging prey. I sat at the bar nursing a pink martini while the net of my tight, low-cut dress trawled the waters of the lounge around me. A few seconds later, two small fish took notice. The two young executives were clearly not far removed from college, but, by the look of their expensive new suits, now had high incomes to enjoy. I knew the type: These boys had outgrown their little co-ed girls, and were ready for a real woman now—a woman in her thirties, in her sexual prime. A woman who really knew what she was doing. The confident, blond-haired one stared at me, as if he were planning to test drive his first Ferrari. His dark-haired companion just whispered and giggled, not as far removed from his college antics. They spoke softly, knowing a normal woman would never be able to hear, but I had waved good-bye to normal a long time ago. “So? Are you gonna talk with her?” the dark haired one prodded his friend. The blond ignored his friend and watched as one shoulder strap of my dress began a slow, “accidental” slide down my shoulder. That did it. He finished his drink in one swallow then stood up. “Let’s go. You and me, numb nuts. Bet she does both of us.” “Hey, man, I ain’t no freak.” The blond thought for a moment, then a disgusted sneer came to his lips. “Oh, no, not a threesome. I’ll do her, then she’ll do you. Tits like that, I’ll bet she could do the entire Atlantic fleet.” The dark-haired one had no idea what that really meant, as it was devoid of any logic, but it contained the word tits and implied that he was about to get lucky, so he smiled. “Okay,” he said, rising and following his friend. But a few steps into my net, he stopped his blond friend with an arm on the shoulder. “What if she’s married, man? Then what?” The blond smiled and slid his friend’s hand off his shoulder. “Do I look like I give a fuck?” The blond smiled confidently, then turned and marched up to his new Ferrari, keys in hand, while his friend watched. When I turned and reeled the blond in with my usual smile, the other man smiled too and joined him on the line. I could feel the billions of fingers of energy hopefully beginning to form on the surface of my skin, eager to find a connection in this doubtful pair. I thought of Logan and the B.I.B. I could sense his connection to her in the way he acted—hell, the very way he lived and breathed. The friggin’ B.I.B. memorial website, I thought bitterly. I was twice the woman she was. I tried to imagine how it would feel to release all this energy inside of me. What connection did I lack that had turned me into this miserable, frustrated sexual predator? Maybe Logan was the answer. With the B.I.B. out of the way and her mark removed, he could free me. I thought about it; hell, I fantasized about it as I rubbed my hand down along the inside of my thigh as I led these two little fish off to my room. CHAPTER 30 We’re Blown When I woke up the next morning, I was still backed into the corner of the sofa, but Rebecca was gone, leaving only a warm pillow on my lap and a handwritten note on my chest. I widened, then squinted my eyes to focus on the letters she had penned. It was too short to be a recipe for world peace, too long for my mother’s lasagna. Finally, I put together that this was a shopping list for things Rebecca needed; it seemed she was planning to move in. I battled briefly with the thought of how this chick was suddenly dominating my life, but part of it felt right. It was good to be of value to someone and not just a fuck-up. Besides, the apartment looked great, and it’s easier to mess up something that’s clean. I leapt to my feet like a panther—a constipated one, or maybe an old one with a bad knee, but a panther nonetheless—to see my laptop on the dining room table flashing the B.I.B. website. The site appeared to be updating itself, but I knew it was Rebecca doing her thing. (So much for changing the site’s passwords.) Through the closed bathroom door came the sounds of water falling, then gurgling as it drained in the shower. Rebecca was the ideal of a multitasker: showering, updating the website, and probably fixing a communication satellite, all while she brushed her teeth and emailed the president. For a lifelong lecher, it was surprising that I had no desire to take a peek beyond the bathroom door. Even so, I could see the large amount of steam coming out from around the bathroom door. I guessed that Super Born heat made even a shower challenging. I ran my hand through my hopeless hair and pretended that would put it all in place. As I grabbed my keys, I found the vision of a plate of eggs, bacon, and toast on my kitchen counter. There was another note; apparently, Rebecca was a “noter.” It read, “For you, my hero. Coffee is in the pot.” I have a pot? I wondered. This chick thing’s not all bad. By the time I discovered a pot of freshly brewed coffee, right on my kitchen counter, the plate was empty save crumbs. I tossed it in the sink and found a cup, sugar bowl, and spoon awaiting me. Sweet. As I poured the cup and turned to leave, the garbage disposal came to life for a second, as did the dishwasher. After a quick “What the hell?” I realized the princess wanted to speak with me. I tapped on the bathroom door. “I’m gonna go get your stuff. Be back soon.” “Okay,” she yelled. “Thanks. Be careful.” “Don’t let anybody in.” “Duh!” * * * I hippity-hopped to my car, still enjoying the memory of breakfast. It was a different experience for me, as I usually started my day with nothing more than the hang-on taste of beer in my mouth. I pulled out into the road and smiled when I identified a dark-colored sedan pull out after me. That turned quickly to an open-mouthed frown when a second car with two men in it began following both of us. Who were these guys? Were they doubling up on me? Rebecca’s list was not long, so I made no attempt to hide from them and did my shopping, plus a donut—okay, two. I bought one for Rebecca as well (it just didn’t make it to Rebecca, that’s all). When I returned, I watched in the mirror as one, then two, cars parked down the road after me. Then a black SUV took its turn parking behind the first two. I hurried into the apartment. I set the bags down on the kitchen counter and snuck a peek around the closed drapes in the living room window. On the street on the other side of the apartment was another black SUV with tinted windows just like the first I had seen. Rebecca came in—by now, her hair and makeup were done, so she distracted my eye from the window for a moment. “What’s up?” she asked, moving up behind me. She smelled great, and the petite but noticeable cushions of her breasts teased into my back. I’m sure it was unintentional, but why do chicks always do that? Don’t they have any idea what string of thoughts and events that little maneuver starts in a guy? “I’m not sure. It looks like there’re three or four cars out there watching us.” “Think they know I’m here?” she said in a whisper. “Could be that. But it could be they’re after me to tell them where the B.I.B. is. Either way, something is going to happen. Is there anywhere else you can go?” “I have a friend…” “No friends, no relatives, no one they can trace.” Rebecca shook her head. “I don’t want to leave you alone. They could kill you.” “Killing both of us appeals to you more? No, I’m gonna get you out of here. We’ll wait till tonight. I’m gonna sneak you out through the basement.” “We both should go. You can’t do any good here anymore.” She didn’t convince me. “Pack your stuff. We’ll leave when it’s dark. And to think, I even bought new sheets.” CHAPTER 31 She’s Not the B.I.B. I watched the comings and goings through the windows all day. When the sun was gone, I gathered as much cash as I could find. (One bit of helpful advice: Don’t hide cash when you’re drunk. You’ll never remember where it is.) I dressed us both in the darkest clothes I could find and gathered her stuff in a bag I used whenever I went to the gym. (That being the case, the bag was new and unused.) The hall led to the basement, which had a door I’d never used—I wasn’t even sure it would open. It was hidden by brush outside, though, so if it did open, I figured it would give us a good escape portal. “Let’s go,” I said to Rebecca. I guess I should have kept an eye out the front window, because the instant I opened the door and stuck my head out, I was greeted by three men in black. Then three more appeared down the apartment hall behind them. Not one had a pleasant look on his face. Each slung a compact but mean-looking assault rifle slung over his shoulder, hanging down at his waist and pointing at me. “Going somewhere?” said Carmine Camino, fresh off the front page of the newspaper, the leading suspect in the beer truck explosion that had almost killed the B.I.B. He was the only one who didn’t have his gun at the ready. I backed into the apartment, holding Rebecca behind me. The six of them followed me in. “Nice shit hole you have here,” Carmine said, looking around at my place. When he caught me glancing at the windows, he added, “Don’t even think about it. There’s four more of us outside waiting. You’re not going anywhere…anywhere I don’t want you to go.” He moved toward Rebecca as the others surrounded her. “So this is her, huh? The ‘B’ fucking ‘I.B.’” “What? You think she’s the B.I.B.?” I asked, astonished and a bit relieved. “Don’t you look in the papers or at my website?” I turned to the laptop, which Rebecca turned on, and surfed to the picture of the B.I.B. “That look like her to you? If she was the B.I.B., you’d be splattered over the walls by now. This is my…girlfriend, Rebecca. Sorry to disappoint you.” Carmine checked the laptop picture and several others on the site. From beside him, Dennis Mastrangelo, the thug who had bragged to the paper about cutting the B.I.B. with a knife during the Tony “The Tool” escape attempt, chimed in. “It ain’t her, boss.” When Carmine was satisfied, he gave a mean look at one of his men, and the big thug shrugged apologetically. Carmine appeared to think for a moment as he paced. He stopped and nodded to the man nearest Rebecca, who then lowered his gun and took hold of her arms and pinned them behind her. Rebecca yelped. “You know,” began Carmine thoughtfully, “if she’s the B.I.B., I don’t think she’s gonna let me shoot her.” He gestured to another of his men who put his gun in Rebecca’s face. “And if she isn’t, I don’t think you’re gonna want me to be killing her. Care to test my theory?” he asked, getting in my face. “I’m gonna have them pull the trigger in a minute. If she’s the B.I.B., let’s see her outrun a bullet from an inch away.” “Don’t do that. She’s not the B.I.B.; she’s totally innocent!” I begged them. “Well then, my friend, I’m not leaving empty-handed. If she’s not the B.I.B., you, my friend, know where the B.I.B. is. Tell me, or we pull the trigger and find out for sure.” I hoped desperately that the B.I.B. was about to crash through the door and dispose of these mugs. Allie, where are you? I wondered. I wanted anyone to be in charge of saving us, anyone but myself. “No, no wait!” I pleaded. Carmine appeared disgusted. “What kind of man are you?” he asked, putting his gun to my head. “You’re gonna let me kill her when you could save her? Tell me, or we do you both, right now!” He gave me a minute to respond. When all I could do was stammer and plead, he nodded to his gunman. “Maybe watching her die will make you remember.” The gunman showed no hesitation and pulled the trigger—or should I say, tried to pull the trigger. Carmine’s gun wouldn’t budge either, or his gun would have gone off in my face. Thank goodness Rebecca had talked to her mechanical friends and told them to freeze. As Carmine ripped the strap off his shoulder and prepared to hit me with his gun—and I prepared to ward off the blow—Rebecca went limp in the thug’s arms, her eyes turned black, and translucent, vaporous clouds began to form around Carmine and the three thugs nearest him. An instant of surprise and awe flashed across their faces before they faded and disappeared with the clouds, leaving only black stains on the floor and a stench in the air. With no gunman left to hold her up, Rebecca fell to the ground as I caught Carmine’s falling gun, drew back the bolt, and pointed it in the direction of the remaining henchmen. It was my best, and only, James Bond move of the night, but I found the front door open and heard the sounds of the henchmen’s boots as they beat feet. As the escapees exited my apartment building, I heard more voices yelling and the sounds of fighting. Was another group outside waiting for us? Was it the B.I.B. come to stop them? I only had a second to wonder. I slammed and locked the door, then ran over to Rebecca. Her eyes began to clear, and she started to make erratic movements with her arms and legs. She seemed drained of all energy. When her eyes were bright again, I sat her up. “You okay?” She appeared dazed and uncertain of where she was. She looked around the room to the black marks and assault rifles that marked where men had been. “Where’d….what…” Then a look of terror covered her face. “I killed them, didn’t I? I killed them all!” I wrapped her in my arms. “No! You saved us! You saved me! They were going to kill us, whether you stopped their guns from working or not.” Rebecca’s lips began to quake and tears formed in her eyes. “There’s no time!” I tried to shake her. “There’s no time for this! We have to go!” I dragged her to her feet. “Come on,” I said, as I grabbed for her bag with one arm while cradling her in the other. She was still sobbing as we walked down the hall, down the stairs, and into the basement. Above us, I could hear the shuffling of feet running into my apartment. I quickly led her to the old door. I was right; it hadn’t been opened for some time. But I was wrong in thinking I was going to open it. Three pushes and a shoulder-butt later, I was convinced that it wasn’t going to move. I looked Rebecca in her tear-filled eyes. “Rebecca, Rebecca, focus. Can you open this door?” I shook her by the shoulders. “Open this door or we’re gonna die! There’s more of them! They’ll find us here!” She shook her head. “What does it matter who kills me? I’m a killer myself!” I shook her again until she looked up at me. “You’re no killer, you pizza-eating pain in the ass. You saved my butt, and now I’ve got to get you out of here. I need your help.” She sniffled, smiled, and seemed to settle down. “It was sweet the way you stroked my hair.” I was stunned and suddenly felt guilty, as I’d thought she was asleep. Then came the other surprise. Me? Sweet? Then she looked at the door. It shook and quivered, then popped open with a screech. The stairwell outside the door was full of debris and surrounded by bushes, offering perfect cover for us. I watched as two more men dressed in black ran toward the front door. It was our chance, and we hunched over as we ran into the darkness. CHAPTER 32 The Flight to Nirvana When I saw the mess of his apartment, I knew he’d be looking for a place where no one would find him. Either that or they already had taken him away, as his car was still in the lot. Something intuitive told me he had escaped. I just felt it. But what of Rebecca? Who had made this move on him? Where was that bitch Jennifer? Well, in this town, if you wanted to go where no one would find you or even think of looking, there was just one place to go: O’Malley’s. It’s where I had gone to disappear. I bet that he was there too. When I entered, I turned to the old barkeep, who was drying glasses behind the bar. With his towel, he gestured at the booth where Logan an I had had our dinner and drinks that night. The booth appeared empty, but when I lifted the plastic tablecloth, there he was, sitting on the floor, surrounded by empty bottles. “Logan, you look like shit,” I said. The barkeep just shook his head, shooing away an RFD who was climbing on the bar like it was a jungle gym. I dragged Logan out from under the table. We sat together in the booth, side by side, for greater privacy. “What happened?” I asked. Logan sighed. “It was the mob, the new guy, Camino. They thought Rebecca was you. When they realized the mistake, they tried to make me tell them where you were. They were going to kill us both.” I put my hands to my temples. “This is getting serious.” He nodded. “Oh, yeah, you can say that,” he said, taking a drink from the bottom of the bottle that climbed out from under the table with him. “Where’s Rebecca? How’d you get away?” He looked up at the ceiling for a long moment. “She’s on her way up into the mountains. There’s a little B and B I know about. Very private and untraceable. She’ll be safe,” he said, nodding, as if in agreement with himself. I put my hand on his shoulder. “What happened? Where’s Camino?” He laughed. “Gone! They’re just gone.” “How? What do you mean?” He finally noticed my hand on his shoulder. I let it drop. “Rebecca did it all. I was useless. She made their guns jam, then she vaporized them, poof, gone.” “What do you mean, gone?” Logan gave me a serious look, as if from the grave. “Her eyes went to black, and I watched Camino dissolve into the air. He had this shocked look on his face. He couldn’t believe what was happening to him. Then he and his men were gone. I’ll never forget the look on his face…or that smell.” “Now we know she’s a killer,” I said, lowering my head. “No, it’s not like that. She didn’t want to kill anyone. She only did it when they were about to kill us. It almost drained the life out of her. She fucking cried!” I put my finger over my lips as we had done that night before, “shhhing” him. He responded by nodding and putting his finger over his lips too, but it wasn’t amusing now. I thought for a moment. “They’re after you too. So, if you don’t think she’s in on this, why aren’t you up in the mountains with her?” Logan locked his eyes on mine. “Because of you.” He raised his hand and ran it over my cheek and down my neck, following it with his lips. My mind raced, even as my neck extended to invite him. Then he looked at me and ran his hands over my shoulders like I was a work of art. In a flash, his chest was against me, and his lips were pressing mine. It was a remarkable and intense kiss. If I had let him, it would have lasted all night long. But then thoughts of those searching for me, along with images of Paige and the college boys I’d left in the hotel in Vegas flashed in my head. Despite the warmth and excitement that his contact had stirred, I pushed him back. I sat without speaking for a long time. “Guess I know why you’re here and not up in the mountains,” I said with certainty. Finally I said, “If Camino is gone, who else is after you? Jennifer Lowe?” “At least,” Logan answered, “There were three, four, five cars following me at the end. Everyone thinks I know how to find you. Camino’s men were fighting with someone else as they ran away. It’s like sharks with blood in the water now.” “Sorry I got you into this mess.” He laughed out loud. “I’ve got no one to blame but myself. You didn’t ask for any of this. It was me. That’s right; it was me. I’m not proud of putting you at risk with my website, but other than that, you know, Allie, I wouldn’t change a thing, not a fucking thing!” I put my fingers to my lips, but it still wasn’t funny. Logan took my hands in his, and the electric warmth spread all over again. “Allie, I wanted to find you, and now I have. I wouldn’t change that for anything.” What a sweet…deluded, drunken man, I thought. Why was I giving Logan such a hard time, pushing him away every time he tried to get close? He seemed sincere, and after all, I was the one who had marked him in the first place. But what was the use if he was just another man I would break? His touch felt different, though, electric….And that kiss. * * * With my bravado and razor-sharp reasoning that night, I ultimately convinced the B.I.B. that I knew someone who we could trust, someone who could help us. We sat in the booth while the RFDs flew by in a tragic chair-idiot race. “His name is Dr. Jones. He lives nearby. You must have seen him on TV.” “Not really.” “I was with him the first night we met…right over there,” I said pointing to the Jones-and-Logan memorial table. “That creepy little guy?” “Yeah, that’s him.” “How is he going to help?” “He is the foremost expert on you Super Born women. He knows all about where you came from, and the epsilon particles that made you the way you are.” “Epsilon?” “It’s a long story. Let’s just say, he knows what’s going on, and he has the connections, money, and resources to protect us, all of us. He’s our best chance.” “I don’t know. I know you’re friends and everything, but I think there’s something weird about that guy.” “You can say that again. I’m not asking you to trust him, just trust me. He just lives a few miles away. I don’t know who’s watching my car. Why don’t you fly us over there. No one could follow us then.” Okay, maybe it wasn’t my razor-sharp reasoning, but eventually Allie agreed. She slipped into the ladies room and returned wearing the black jumpsuit and mask she always wore while flying. I was beginning to sober up by the time we reached the tiny parking lot behind O’Malley’s. Suddenly, the thought of being hundreds of feet in the air was overwhelming the sense of excitement I’d felt when I came up with the idea. The thought made me queasy—or maybe it was the chili fries I’d eaten earlier. “You sure you’re ready for this? You look sick,” Allie commented. I nodded, beginning to taste the chili fries for a second time in the back of my throat. I moved up beside her and prepared for the worst. Allie circled her arm around me and grabbed ahold of my shoulder, then launched us into the dark night sky. The initial jolt was a challenge, but after that—and some deep, deep breaths—I felt the sense of coolness take over. There was something like a magnetic force holding us together, so I had no fear of falling or being blown away by the air that rushed past us. After a dangerous day, the air was cool, and the vision of lights for miles around amazing. I couldn’t tell if it was the feeling of flying or warmth radiating from Allie that felt so good. Then it dawned on me how much I trusted her. I pointed out rough directions to Jones’ apartment, but found myself distracted by the same thrilling warmth I’d felt earlier, in the bar. It radiated from her touch, captivating my entire body in seconds. I remember looking at Allie—her body seemed radiant, like molten silver. Then I realized the glow had extended itself to me. It felt like warm, liquid electricity flowing back and forth over me. We were both bathed in the same moonlit glimmer and warm dizzying sensation. I smiled, thinking how amazing this was, and looked over at Allie’s face to see if she was feeling the same. Her eyes were closed, her mouth opened, and I thought I heard her moan as my hands began gliding over her. For certain we weren’t flying a beeline for Jones’ place anymore, maybe a S-line or something. And we weren’t always upright as we had been, whether that was intentional or not—she flew us in rolling turns, exhilarating climbs, and dizzying dives like a roller coaster. * * * One second we were flying to meet this friend of his, and the next I felt a serene sensation of warmth, a pulsation that sharpened my senses yet left me calm yet completely attentive to everything around me. Just the touch of his hands sent shivers radiating throughout my body. It was insane. Part of me welcomed it, and let it totally arouse me, but another part of me resisted the temptation, remembering Jason staggering away from me. I couldn’t let that happen. * * * The warm feeling of connection with Allie continued to grow, unrestrained. Her sighs became louder—she was clearly on the verge of surrendering to the feeling to which I had long before gleefully succumbed. But something in her made her resist. In an effort to remain in control, she set us down on top of a buildings more than once, making an excuse, and letting go of me to walk around the rooftop, shaking her arms until the molten silver glow disappeared from her skin. Only then would we renew our flight—until the radiance would again take over and make her land again. I realized she was afraid of hurting me, the way she had other men. But there was no reluctance in me. By the third rooftop, I knew her resistance was at its end. I watched her circle away from me, mumbling to herself. I felt no need to pressure her. The energy from her touch had me floating in a calm, sensuous high, unlike I’d ever felt before. * * * This wasn’t happening! The years of being a mother had taught me self-reliance and control. I lived my life for my daughter. No one had ever broken down and entered the walls I had taken years to build to protect us, to protect me. There had been men, and there had been sex, but there had never been an Allie that really opened herself up to a man, and certainly not like this. So how could I surrender to this feeling, to him? How could I let him control me like this, without knowing where he would take me? These feelings were so crazy, yet delicious. Part of me needed to just stop this right now, and part of me just wanted to throw open my arms and let all those defenses come tumbling down. * * * Finally, Allie walked back to stand before me, with tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “How are you doing this to me?” she said, then broke down and repeated in a soft, vulnerable tone of voice, “How are you doing this to me?” I moved in and put my hands on her shoulders. They began to glow, and our eyes locked in an intimate connection that put an end to any walls between us. “What I’d like to know is how are you doing this to me? Maybe we’re doing this to each other. I knew the first minute I saw you that there was something special between us. There’s a reason for all of this. I never felt anything like this. Have you?” She shook her head, too emotion-filled to speak. My response was to join our lips, sending both our faces into a molten glow. We kissed long, wet, and hard, a reward that was well worth the price of admission. As I ran my hands over her cheeks and then down along her sides, the molten silver glow intensified wherever my hands traveled. Her waist and hips became awash in it. When I moved my hands back up and over her breast, the glow followed. The feeling of being one with her was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I pulled away slightly, watching the intimacy between us play out in one another’s eyes. I held her gaze as I slowly lowered the zipper of her jumpsuit and slipped my hands inside. I watched her mouth open and moan as my glowing hands roamed below her waist, making her shiver, which sent a pulse of energy back into me. Her lips were too inviting and vulnerable to resist, so I maintained a soft control over them. She moaned several times in my mouth, ending with a long, loud one, just as her knees went weak. I held her tightly as her head dropped onto my shoulder with the scream of her release. It made me buckle in release myself, my head dropping onto her shoulder. We kept that moaning, heaving embrace of climax going for over a minute, probably longer—our sense of time was gone with that first convulsing, intertwined orgasm we shared. Finally it subsided, and we fell to the roof, struggling to breathe. It was an odd feeling—I had climaxed more powerfully than I ever had before, from just a touch and the connection we had. I knew then that no matter what happened, there would always be this intimate bond between us. “You okay?” I asked, after a long moment Allie nodded. “Forget about me. How are you?” “You haven’t broken me yet.” “No, but just give me a minute.” “Forget those other chumps you’ve been with. It’s just you and me, and this is how we are together.” “Oh really?” she laughed, breathing between words. Then she seemed to slip into thought. “Those superwomen are all hitting on you, and if it weren’t for my mark, who knows? What have you got that they’re after?” “I’ve got a connection with you. They’ve got a connection to no one. It’s something special between us. Do I have to show you again? I can go all night.” (At least I hoped I could.) After a moment I helped her up, and we stood together. I took her face in my hands and smiled. “I fantasized about this moment for weeks, but nothing I imagined felt anywhere near as good as this.” “How much farther to Dr. Jones’ place?” she asked, with a wicked smile on her face. “Just over there, maybe half a mile.” She wrapped her arms around me tightly, pressing me with a sharp, short kiss. “Let’s take the long way,” she said in a low animal tone that I had never heard before. “Yeah!” I shouted as we shot up into the sky. The energy between us was even stronger than it had felt before. It started with a kiss, but then surrounded us from head to toe. Our glowing bodies were filled with feelings of excitement, strength, and the sexual ecstasy you feel just before orgasm, but it went on for minutes, not seconds. There was no need for actual genital entry, as in normal sex. Supersex was all full body and mental contact. Somehow, the erratic flying compounded our feeling of togetherness by creating a sense of wild abandon. My favorite was spiraling up into the sky with my body wrapped around her and our lips pressed together. It was incredibly sensuous, and it made me realize that I had never experienced oneness with another human before that night. And then came the orgasms. They seemed to go on forever. The pleasure seemed to merge us together with the heat from her body. They were exhausting, but motivated us to quickly recover, craving them again. I don’t think we were flying in a straight line…at all. * * * Flying with Logan was totally liberating. Throwing off the walls I’d built and taking the risk to join another ended up giving me the strongest feeling of self imaginable. Ironically, giving into this feeling had put me more in control and feeling more secure than living behind a wall had ever done. Whether it lasted just another second or an entire lifetime, I let myself bathe in that feeling. Giving in to this sensation meant surrendering, finally, to who I really was—to the seduction of being. He guided me to ecstasy, and that made me fly him higher in the spirals he loved, only to roll us both over into an orgasmic plunge toward the ground. We brought each other to life. * * * I don’t want to say that Allie took the long way, exactly, but there were a lot of rooftops before we got to Jones’ apartment, and one of them looked like the Empire State Building in New York City, some 125 miles from Dr. Jones’ place. I vaguely remember people on an observation deck commenting and pointing at the sexy, luminous bubble of our bodies. I had no idea how many people along our route heard our moans and screams of ecstasy as we flew together in that glowing light, nor did I care. (Just a tip, this is the only way to fly.) After who knows how long, we were in flying back toward Scranton, both drained and exhausted. It began affecting the way we flew—soon we were slowing, drifting and swaying like a drunk driver. Allie sighed and asked me which way to Jones’ apartment. My first reaction was to begin kissing her again, but she said, in a serious tone, “No really, we need to land.” Dejected, I pointed again and again until I saw his building and pointed one last time. “There, that’s it.” When we finally made a rough landing on Jones’ rooftop, it was my turn to be weak in the knees. Time had condensed into pleasure. I couldn’t tell you if we had been flying for minutes or hours, and you guessed it, nor did I care. We both sat panting, then I fell back and lay on the hard tar-covered pebbles of the roof. My pants were a mess, and I had lost all sense of purpose. She wasn’t much better off. Allie sat puffing, trying to straighten out the tangled chaos of her hair and re-zip her jumpsuit. At first it was strange to see someone exhausted who could carry around jet planes, but then, when I remembered how she had become that way, I smiled a smile that would last me into the next century. Depleted as I was, I began crawling toward her. She smiled, but then dropped it and put out her hand. Unconvincingly, she puffed, “No, Jones, remember? We need to talk to Jones.” “Who the hell is this Jones fella? We have the stars,” I said, waving an arm up to the sky. “We have each other. Let’s go flying again.” I crept closer, dragging myself on forearms and elbows. She smiled again, clearly tempted, but then sighed. “Remember? Almost being killed? Rebecca? The whole city after your ass?” I had put my hand on her thigh; she pushed it away. “There’ll be time later,” she said, and then, in a lower voice, she added, “believe me.” “Fuck it,” I said, “I’ve got everything I need right here,” I said, kissing the back of her hand as I slid a hand over her inner thigh. “You can fly us anywhere. Let’s just get Paige and disappear. To hell with them all!” I said, waving broadly like a drunken man; no wait, I was a drunken man, high on the wild energy between us. Her look became serious. It was at that moment I realized the difference between her and me. She was a superhero, literally. She was super because she was strong physically and morally. But what made her a hero was choice. Without a free choice to do otherwise, there were no heroes. She could make millions with her powers, like Jennifer Lowe, or just take her daughter and disappear if she wanted to. Her life didn’t need to have any risks or concerns. But, instead, she stayed rooted in her hometown, risking her life and family to make the world a better place. Meanwhile, I just wanted her for myself and was ready to selfishly forget everything, everybody, now that we had found one another. If you had been up there flying with her, you would understand. I dropped my head to the hard rooftop, sighed, and took a deep breath or two. “Okay, you win. But then we fly home.” “Deal.” When she began to follow me down the stairway off the rooftop, I stopped and held her back with my hand. “You’re my little secret from Jones. Let me see what he has to say before I bring you in.” She nodded. “Being anonymous works for me. I’ll wait here.” I started down the stairs, then stopped, and turned back toward her. She knew I wanted more of her; her face became stern, and she pointed down the stairs. “Go!” CHAPTER 33 The Crash… Dr. Jones answered the door in Penn State pajamas and slippers. Obviously, I had woken him, yet he appeared glad to see me. “Come in, my friend. So late, you must have news of the B.I.B.” Late? We must have been flying a lot longer than I’d thought. I suggested that he had better sit for this one. We proceeded to his tiny living room, and, after clearing stacks of papers, sat on outdated chairs. My silent drama and windblown over-orgasmed appearance must have made him wonder what had happened to me. “What is it that can’t wait until tomorrow?” he asked. “Somebody beat the crap out of you?” I told him the story of Rebecca coming to my apartment, all the men and vehicles tailing me, and then the attack by the recently deceased Carmine Camino and his men. I filled him in on Rebecca’s powers over machines and her ability to vaporize men. Then I explained that I had sent her into hiding, and I was now laying low. The entire time, he listened attentively and nodded. His dark little eyes began to glow from the thoughts swirling in his head. “Where is Rebecca now? We must protect her from Jennifer…and the B.I.B.—do you know her whereabouts?” “Rebecca’s in a little B and B up in the mountains.” “What little B.I.B. in the mountains? What is the B.I.B. doing up in the mountains? I was asking you about Rebecca. They are together now?” “No, Rebecca’s at a B and B. The B and B is in the mountains.” “Yes, I understand. What are they doing there together? “No, no. I sent Rebecca to a bed and breakfast.” “Yes, I understand. So how did the B.I.B. find her?” “She didn’t,” I said, becoming irritated. “Let’s start at the beginning,” Jones said, sensing the lack of communication. “You sent Rebecca to a bed and breakfast to hide, yes?” “Correct.” “This bed and breakfast is in the mountains?” he asked. “Yes.” “Was the B.I.B. already there?” asked Jones, forking left. “No, it was just Rebecca at the B and B!” “Together?” “No! I don’t know where the B.I.B. is. Rebecca is alone at the bed and breakfast.” “They don’t serve lunch or dinner?” I lowered my head, took a breath, and explained, while I pointed my finger with each word. “It’s a bed and breakfast, and has nothing to do with the B.I.B. I don’t know their menu, but Rebecca is there and safe.” “Alone! You sent her there alone?” he said, full of emotion. I lowered my eyes to the floor. “I’m useless, Doc. I proved I couldn’t protect her already. That’s why I came here. I was hoping you could help.” He got up and started to pace. “Yes, and it is a good thing you did, my friend. I have contacts with the security people at the university…and I have contacts in the government. We will get protection for her. We cannot let Jennifer Lowe go around eliminating all her competition. We must protect Rebecca and the B.I.B. before we try to deal with that bitch!” He paced by the window, then turned back to me. “What about the B.I.B.? Do you have any idea where in the mountains she is? We must protect her too.” I paused, first trying to decide if it was worth the effort to explain again that the B.I.B. wasn’t in the mountains at all, and that I didn’t know where she was—trying to look believable as I answered, knowing full well the B.I.B. was on the roof. Despite all my practice at it, I wasn’t a good liar, so I lowered my eyes. “No, I have no idea where she could be.” Jones closed in on me slowly. “Then what the hell are you doing here, my friend? Why aren’t you hiding with Rebecca? Why aren’t you safe, with everyone else up in the mountains?” I shook my head. “I just thought I should be here, see this thing through.” “Very honorable…very honorable, indeed,” he said, but I knew he could tell I was lying. He grabbed a pad of paper. “Write down the name and address of the bed and breakfast, and the phone number, if you have it. I can have men there by morning. She will be safe.” I wrote down the address, then pulled out my mobile phone and looked up the number to the B and B. When I was done, Jones grabbed my phone. “No more of this. They will trace your phone.” He walked to the desk, put down my phone, and returned with another mobile phone and charger he had taken from a drawer. “This is your phone now. We can communicate safely. Jennifer will never be able to trace this.” I took the phone and nodded a thank you. “What about money? Are you okay there?” Jones asked. “I gave Rebecca everything I could get to before they hit us.” Jones threw me two piles of banded bills, and for the first time I wondered, Why does he always have so much cash on hand? “No credit cards, no touching your bank accounts, no checks, don’t go near your apartment—nothing until we have Jennifer under control. Understand?” I nodded sheepishly. “Getting her under control won’t be easy.” Jones’ eyes glowed. He held up a finger. “Oh, I have plans. I have big plans, you can be believing this,” he said. “Plans? What sort of plans? Not another High Definition Anal Stimulator I hope.” “No, of course not. Think bigger. Think much bigger. Relax, everything is coming together. The plan is working.” “I hope you’re right,” I said, getting up to leave. Jones came up to me, put an arm around my shoulder, and escorted me to the door. “Don’t you be worrying. This is all good news. We are nearing the end. I will call you when we have Rebecca safe and secure. Let us hope the B.I.B. is safe in the mountains as well. Perhaps the B.I.B. will find the same B and B. But, for now, my friend, you are the bait. We must find her, to keep her safe.” I thanked him, but the conversation had heavily dampened my beer buzz and B.I.B. high. Concerned about the situation with Rebecca and Jennifer, yet slowly regaining my excitement to be back with the B.I.B. and the flight home, I returned to the roof. But Allie wasn’t in the stairway or on the roof anymore. I searched for her, then waited for her, then searched again. She was gone. I was alone again. My trip down the stairway from the rooftop was incredibly slow as I paused constantly and took small steps, unable to believe she had left. What was I, some sort of “one-night fly”? Then I worried that something had happened to her. From there, I began to worry about what was going to happen to me. Where would I go? The trip from such an incredible high to this messed-up feeling was quick and devastating. I pushed open the door of Jones’ apartment building and stepped out into the night. Compared to the image I’d had flying with Allie, this vantage of Scranton was…not so good. Without knowing who was after me, I didn’t want to be in the streets for long, so I ambled down the street to a fleabag motel. No one would know me there, and I was sure cash payment would be eagerly accepted. I didn’t know it then, but my major question at that point would have been answered if I had just looked up at Jones’ apartment. On the ledge outside his window, the B.I.B. stood, or should I say hung or floated. She had listened to our entire conversation and remained still, listening to Jones though his open window. After getting my room key from a nearly toothless man, I bought a soda and went up a flight to my lavish room. The ice bucket looked nasty, so I unwrapped a glass and proceeded to the ice machine, mournfully humming down the hall, and filled the glass. I returned to my room, locked the door, and crashed onto the board-like bed, my head full of troubles and uncertainty. My beer high was turning into a hangover. My balls felt like raisins, my fluids gone as if vacuumed away. Despite my worries, I dropped off to sleep before I even had time to turn on the TV, while my icy soda bubbled and fizzed, dying a slow death beside the bed, untouched. CHAPTER 34 …And the Burn To say I slept late would be to minimize late. It was well into the afternoon when I awoke, refreshed and totally oblivious to the events of the night before or my current predicament. I felt a happy-but-I-don’t-know-why smile on my face. My little man was refreshed too, and greeted me with an eager, “How ya doing?” I showered to the sound of groaning pipes and pissing water pressure, cut myself twice with the high-quality razor supplied free by the fleabag, and left in search of food. For some reason, I was freakin’ starving. Luckily for me there was a small diner nearby. It may have been my hunger, but every morsel I ordered tasted just great. I ate like a starving man; no, wait, I was a starving man. I was attacking some burgers and fries after putting down a breakfast plate of eggs, bacon, and toast when Jones’ phone rang, and all my good feelings came crashing down. “Hello?” I said, disguising my voice a bit, for who knows what reason. “My friend, I have bad news, oh so bad,” Jones said in panic. I paused, not ready for bad news, and grunted a response. “When the security men reached the B and B, they did not find Rebecca. Her room was disturbed, and she was gone. The operators of the B and B said she left with two men in a dark SUV.” I swallowed hard, but was relieved that the news was not about Allie. “Is that it?” “No, there was a note. It is addressed to you, my friend, and reads: If you want to ever see Rebecca again, you will meet me on top of the Bank Towers Building at ten o’clock tonight. Bring with you the B.I.B. and no one else. Bring anyone else, and I cannot guarantee your safety. And she signs it, Your friend Jennifer—the sarcastic bitch!” I sighed and suddenly the taste of all the food I’d had eaten…not so good. “My friend, can you do this? Can you bring the B.I.B.? Should we risk herself for Rebecca? This is a puzzlement. I can contact the security people…” “No!” I said. “No offense, but your security people suck. You didn’t see those mobsters dissolve like I did. And that was Rebecca; who knows what Jennifer can do.” I was remembering the pen she had melted and imagined it being me melting slowly into the tabletop. “Then what to do? What to do?” he asked in near panic. “You are going to meet her, right?” “I’ll call you back,” I said. I turned off the phone, tossed it on the table, and brushed back my hair with both hands, ending with my elbows on the table. The image of Rebecca scared and afraid sent a dagger sliding into me. A second dagger followed when I was confronted by the fact that she was depending on me to keep her safe. Having been the one who sent her to the B and B in the first place planted a third dagger directly in my heart. “What to do, indeed.” It was my waitress’ lucky day, as I threw down twice the amount of my bill on the table and left. It was easy to throw around Jones’ money. But then I went back and retrieved a five. Heck, I hadn’t completely changed. On the way back to my room, I spotted a place to buy some clothes and toiletries before returning to lick my wounds in my luxury hotel room, feeling useless yet responsible. When I opened the door, I dropped my bags with my eyes downcast, just like my thoughts. But then the rollercoaster took another turn. The B.I.B. was sitting on the bed, her back to the headboard. “How’s the room service here?” she asked. My heart leapt to life and a smile high-jumped onto my face. In a second, I was bouncing onto the bed like a six-year-old. “Where did you go last night? I looked everywhere. And why didn’t you join me later?” She shook her head, and said, “Even a woman with superpowers needs a little rest. I do have a daughter, you know.” Then she stared at her feet and added, in a quiet tone, “Flying with you wore me out…in a good way.” “I thought you were gone,” I said. Then I sat next to her against the headboard. My quiet gave me away. “What is it? What happened? You look like someone punched you in the gut.” “It’s just the room service food.” She smiled briefly. “No, what is it?” I stared at my feet for a second. “Rebecca…Jennifer’s got Rebecca. Jones called and said she was taken away from the B and B I checked her into.” Allie showed no surprise. “And there was a note addressed to me.” Again her expression was plain. “Hello? Any of this sinking in to you?” “All of it. What did the note say?” “It said if I wanted to see Rebecca again, I need to meet her on top of the Bank Towers Building at ten o’clock tonight…and I have to bring you with me. It’s a trap,” I said at last. “Of course it’s a trap,” she answered. “Can you handle her?” She appeared agitated. “You tell me Rebecca can dissolve people, and she’s the weaker one. Who knows what the strong one can do?” She shook her head. “Let’s just take Paige and go. We can be in Rio or on the Mediterranean, away from all this.” She was angry now. “They knew you would think something like that, but they knew I couldn’t just leave once I heard about it. It’s a challenge with the cards stacked in her favor.” “I won’t risk you. It’s not worth it.” She turned to face me. “If you thought that, you never should have told me about this. The choice isn’t yours anymore.” She picked up her mobile phone and dialed. “Hi, Lori? It’s me….Remember when I asked if Paige could come over for a few hours?…Yeah….Well, can she stay with you all night?….Something’s come up….Yeah, put her on….Hi, Honey. You’re gonna stay with Lori tonight. Is that okay?...Something came up….No, it’s not Jason.…No, it has nothing to do with a bar or hormones….Yeah, go with them to the movies, that’d be great.…Love you. See you in the morning.” She threw the phone back into her bag, sighed, and ran her hand through her hair. “Maybe I’ll see you in the morning.” Then she returned to lie beside me. “You know dealing with my super powers isn’t the hardest thing about dating me. Wait till you run into the hormones of my teenage daughter. How are you with kids, by the way?” I remembered the horrible warnings my mother gave me about procreating, a few painful run-ins with my nephews and nieces, someone once saying to me, “The thought of you breeding scares me,” and one nasty summer coaching kid’s soccer….That kid had to be healed by now, don’t you think? Anyway he had it coming…little rat bastard. “I’m okay with kids,” I told her, somehow not laughing at the absurdity of the idea and even sounding convincing. It was time for me to man up. “Well then, we have about seven hours to come up with Plan A.” She sighed. “It better be a good one.” I slowly slid my hand over and found hers as it was sliding toward mine. We locked them together, felt the warmth begin, and then simultaneously let go and put our hands on our stomachs. We knew that we could not control the explosion of passion that any further contact would ignite. Soon today would be tomorrow, and there would be no one to save Rebecca. CHAPTER 35 Plan A By 9:30 p.m., Plan A was in action. Allie and I were in communication via both walkie-talkie and a mobile phone. I had debated getting some type of weapon, but remembering the fate of dozens of thugs and Carmine Camino’s fancy assault rifles, I’d decided it wasn’t worth the effort. What’s more, it definitely wasn’t my style; I might accidentally shoot myself in the foot, the head, or somewhere important. I felt an eerie sense of dread as I walked under the massive old clock held up by the fierce-looking stone eagles over the front door of the Bank Towers building. It was like the clock was tolling for me and the eagle’s wings were outstretched in warning. My fear and apprehension made the heavy gray granite exterior of the building feel like a giant tombstone. The sign under the clock read Bank Towers, but when I looked up, I could have sworn it flashed, Here Lies Logan—He Knows Not What He Does. While I entered through the front door, Allie used the darkness from her post on a nearby radio tower to cover the top of the building and the surrounding streets. She had changed into her B.I.B. clothes…sweet. My first fear was that I would never get past security. I was nervous when I approached the two guards, but then smiled when I saw that they were men from Scranton and in their thirties—RFDs. They looked at one another as I approached, saying, “It’s your turn.” “No, it’s your turn. I did it last time.” They played what looked like a quick game of rock, paper, halfwits, and the loser finally spoke to me. “Can I help you?” His partner patted him on the back saying, “Good job.” I had this one. “Yeah, dudes. I left my antlers upstairs, and I need to go get ’em before I can go to O’Malley’s. You think I could just run up there?” “Sure! I’m headed to O’Malley’s after work too. See ya there!” said the guard who had greeted me. The other guard tapped himself on the head with such force that he almost knocked himself over, saying, “Oh, man, I left my antlers at home too!” “Where are the elevators?” I asked. The RFD on the right pointed left while the one on the left pointed right. Confused by his friend’s left indication, the one on the left changed and pointed up. I found the elevators anyway. I checked out the elevators, stairways, and all the routes to and from the roof. As the time approached, there was still no sign of Jennifer or Rebecca. At 9:55 p.m., I radioed Allie for the final time. “I don’t see anyone,” I said. “You had still better get up there,” she answered back. “Logan? Good luck. Be careful.” “Right. Easy for you to say.” I sighed and marched to the elevator, a man totally unable to believe what he was about to do. After the elevator came another stairway, and then I unlatched the heavy door marked roof access. It was dark, breezy, overcast, with nothing but a few emergency lights for illumination. No one was there. I walked around, displaying myself to anyone who cared to see. Five minutes after 10:00 p.m., then a quarter after, and still I was alone. I was getting ready to ask the B.I.B. about Plan B when a golden ball of light appeared fifty feet away, illuminating the entire rooftop and quickly taking the shape of a fit, long-haired brunette dressed in military-type camouflage. I readied myself for yet another meeting with Jennifer, my hand protecting my crotch, when I realized this was not a woman I had ever seen. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. “Where’s the B.I.B.?” she said, walking toward me. “You were told to bring her.” Plan A was to get Jennifer to show me everything she had to fight us with before Allie became involved. If the battle looked hopeless, she was to run—plain and simple. Live to fight another day, another way. And I would have to get by as I usually did, by the skin of my teeth, wit, and charm. (Actually, the skin of my teeth never has done me much good—come to think of it, ditto for the wit and charm.) But of the many things Allie and I had imagined that might take place, a mean-looking woman appearing out of a ball of light was not topping the list, or actually even on the list. “Where’s your boss? And who are you, anyway? I don’t talk with the help.” The woman—she appeared to mean business, so I called her Toughy—raised her hand to strike me, but then stopped, as if instructed by a voice I could not hear. Another ball of golden light appeared, just like the first one. The shape of another woman in combat fatigues materialized, but this woman remained stationary, glowing in her pulsating aura—let’s call her Goldie. Attached to her by a beam of waving golden light was a third woman, cocooned in an auric glow with her arms and legs bound by the same sparkling bands of white energy that blindfolded her. The light waves crackled like high-tension power lines. Finally, I recognized someone: Rebecca. Then, Goldie launched another beam of light that pulsed like lightning, connecting her to Toughy. Toughy smiled and lifted her head joyously, as if being fed ice cream. “There is Rebecca,” Toughy said after a moment, pointing. “Now, your part of the bargain.” “I don’t see your boss. Let Rebecca go,” I insisted. “You are not in a position to dictate terms,” she said, bristling. “Where is the B.I.B.?” “Safe. Where’s your boss?” I said, trying to bristle back at her, nose to nose. “Wrong answer,” Toughy said, striking me in the left arm, sending me flying against a large metal utility box. I lay there for a moment trying to decide if my arm was broken or my shoulder separated or both. She was on me quickly, lifting me with enormous strength, her hand on my throat. “You have no choice, little man. Now tell us where she is!” she said, striking my jaw and sending me back to the ground. I stared at her defiantly and spit out some blood. I stood up, a bit groggy. “I do have a choice, and I’ve already made it!” I said. (What a glorious bastard.) The bitch was starting to get my adrenaline flowing—I swung my free forearm and pounded her up under the chin as hard as I could. She didn’t seem to notice, merely smiled, but it sure hurt me like hitting a rock. She was getting ready to swing again when another ball of light appeared next to Goldie, who hadn’t moved. Instead of pummeling me, Toughy just pushed me to the ground. Another figure emerged out of the light—this would be Jennifer, I imagined, not liking the way the deal was progressing. But then I was surprised to hear a familiar voice. “My friend, there is no need for this,” said Dr. Jones. “I have no need to hurt you. Just tell us where she is. Somewhere close, I imagine.” He scanned the night sky around us. Jones? I couldn’t have been more surprised if I found Santa, The Easter Bunny, and Tooth Fairy drinking beer and playing cards in their underwear. Jones being a villain seemed like your lovable family dog suddenly mauling little Timmy. Then I remembered the drawings I’d seen at his apartment that he locked away, which hadn’t looked like any anal stimulator I’d ever used…seen, I mean. There was the woman in his apartment who I had ignored—had she been moaning for help? Maybe she was Goldie or Toughy; or maybe one of the ones he had lost to the experiment. Suddenly I felt heavy with guilt for believing him about that woman in the van and angry with myself for being just a trusting schmuck. Patagonian Algorithm my ass! It was all starting to make sense. I laughed as best I could with my sore jaw. “You?” I laughed again. “You played me like a fiddle!” “I did, didn’t I!” he said, prancing. “And I played right into your hands. Told you right where to find Rebecca.” “And the B.I.B.,” he said, shaking a finger at me. “I could tell you knew where she was, but you never would tell me about her. And why was that, exactly? You could have made this much easier, but you protected her. Want to tell me why?” I figured he needed me alive…at least until he had Allie. Regardless, I preferred talking with him to being pummeled painfully by Toughy. It was time to change the subject. “Want to introduce me to your friends?” “Ah, yes,” said Jones, proudly turning to Toughy and Goldie. “Maybe you can guess who they are. Let’s see if you can.” “There aren’t three Super Born. I’m guessing there are five, and you’ve collected three for yourself so far.” “Oh, close, very close!” said Jones, pacing around me. “There are…were, eight. Three did not…work out, shall we say. These two, after some genetic modifications, are now totally loyal to me. Rebecca will be soon.” “You told me there was a queen bee. Are you saying that you’re the queen bee?” “You could say that. This one,” he said, tapping Toughy on the shoulder, “was my first find; the weakest of the Super Born, as you call them. She has strength, but was a disappointment until I found the second,” he said, pointing to Goldie. “She molds energy. She can move me from here to there, bend energy, shape it, and transmit it. She holds Rebecca prisoner in it. Thanks to your information, we knew to isolate Rebecca’s eyes to neutralize the power that vaporized poor Mr. Camino. My second one can also feed power to the first, increasing her strength at least ten times. That’s when I realized that one Super Born could build on the others’ powers. By getting them to work together, they could do anything. I could do anything.” “The next three didn’t want to join either, I take it.” Jones lowered his head. “Yes, not a complete success; there were objections to the idea. The genetic modification took some perfecting…all very unfortunate.” I sat, pretending to be too weak to stand. “So, you’re starting with the easiest and working your way up, hey?” I wanted to keep him talking while I tried to remember the layout of the mobile phone in my pocket without looking at it—I’d turned it on and was dialing the number I’d seen so many times lately whenever I went to the bathroom. “Yes, right again, my friend. I am not ready to take on Jennifer just yet. That bitch has fought me at every turn. But with Rebecca and the B.I.B. on my team, we will be more than a match for her. Then I will have Jennifer’s empire at my disposal. There will be no one more powerful on the earth. And they said I wouldn’t even complete my doctorate,” Jones said proudly, spinning a metallic stick in his hand. “What’s your little toy there, Doc?” I said, dialing the mobile number in my pocket again, on the odd chance I had screwed it up the first time. (Who, me?) Jones stopped and stared at the stick as if it were his true love. He had clearly been dying to tell his story to someone, and now he had a truly “captive” audience. “This,” he said, presenting the handle of his shiny chrome rod, which was surrounded by tubes of different sizes, “this is my creation. This is what makes it all work, you see,” he said, bending down to my level. “You should be asking yourself how I ever captured the first one. Naturally, I don’t expect this level of thought from you, so I will explain. An average-sized man…” “Small man, you mean?” “An average-sized man, such as me, could certainly not capture the first one here,” he said, rising and tapping Toughy on the shoulder, “without the aid of technology. You see, Demitri did not die in vain. His sacrifice made it clear to me that there was a need for an equalizer. I needed a way to approach the Super Born safely and make them cooperative. I call this the Interrupter. It gives off epsilon radiation of reverse polarity to the type that made them years ago,” he said, pointing the Interrupter at Toughy. “It temporarily interrupts their powers, makes them manageable.” Then he turned and pointed it at me. “As an added plus, it proved totally lethal to normal people. The military is going to love this—modified of course.” “Of course,” I said. I could see he was ready to get back to the B.I.B., so I decided to goad him a little further. “I hope you don’t mind my spoiling your little plan tonight.” “Spoiling?” he said with a laugh. “My friend, you are the plan, always have been from day one. You were perfect for the job; without attachments, without ethics, trusting, naïve, greedy, lazy, corruptible…and best of all,” he said, leaning down and looking in my eyes, “no one will miss you. You weren’t born in Scranton, so you looked like a juicy steak to superwomen supercharged with insatiable sexual needs. I knew it would just be a matter of time until they flocked around and battled one another for you. I just had to watch and wait for this moment for you to bring them all to me.” “Me? Superbait? Really?” “My friend, I could only handle so many. You brought me the one that matters. The B.I.B. is the key.” I stood up, pretending to be weaker than I was, though acting frightened wasn’t hard with the Interrupter in such close proximity. Jones paced around me. “There is just one thing that bothers me very dearly, my friend. You came to me with everything you ever learned, except things about the B.I.B. The great B.I.B. expert never mentioned her once. That was how I knew you were in contact with her, yes, but why didn’t you tell me? You still were trusting me then. What made the perfect ‘grasshopper’ to my ‘ant’ protect her so? I expected you to bound in excitedly one day and say you had found her. But no, you were her guardian, right from the start.” I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of an answer. “Let’s see then. What if I offer the grasshopper twenty million dollars, right now—twenty million for you to tell me where I can find her. Would that interest you? Fifty? You could be a lazy grasshopper for the rest of your life. We could work together again.” “Get fucked!” “Oh, I plan to repeatedly…all day long,” he said, doing a little pelvic dance. “So, my friend, there is nothing I can offer that will save you? No amount of money, no title or position, no pleasures, no comforts? Imagine the women and the beer, the pure freedom to do nothing of consequence. Is that not heaven for you?” “You’re a lifetime too late with that offer.” “Yes, I see now that my plans for you have only taken us so far.” “You set the whole thing up, didn’t you?” I said, disappointed with myself. “It was all too easy.” “If you knew that she was there that first night, why didn’t you grab her then?” Jones paused, looking a little bothered. “Who was there?” “The B.I.B. She was twenty feet away from you the night we met at O’Malley’s. You didn’t know?” Jones was silent, but I could hear his mind cranking, thinking, rewinding images. “You really didn’t know, did you? Ha…maybe you don’t know as much as you think you do. For instance, about marking?” “Marking?” “I thought not; there are a few things I could teach you about Super Born.” “This is ri-god-damn-diculous. I have done years of research! I’m a fucking PhD, goddamn it!” “Oh, but you don’t know about marking, do you? But I do,” I said, as annoyingly as I could. Jones was perplexed, his eye movements rapid. I figured any kind of confusion might help. “How about their amazing advanced sexual powers? Know about them, big guy?” Now I was on the offensive, staggering after him as he circled away. “They have nothing but sexual frustration! No man can satisfy them! Ask Demitri! They are totally sexually dysfunctional. Believe me, that is a power I have researched at length.” “I doubt anything about you is at length.” I smiled broadly, knowingly, certain it was frustrating the hell out of him. “When you catch up with me, let me know, and we can discuss it then.” “Discuss what?” he yelled, waving the Interrupter in annoyance. I beamed like the proverbial cat. “Super Born sex, it’s fucking amazing…it’s beyond sex.” Then I sobered a little. “It’s a connection beyond love.” “You are making no sense! What could be beyond sex, beyond love? These are man’s pinnacle states!” I slowly mouthed the words: “Fucking amazing.” Jones’ eyes glowed with anger and he lifted the Interrrupter and pointed it at me. Rather than confusing him, I was just pissing him off now. “One last time—where is she?” Jones said, more sinisterly than I thought possible. Toughy moved threateningly toward me. “Okay, okay,” I said holding up the one hand I could. “I’ll tell you.” Then when Jones straightened and relaxed a bit, even though it was frowned upon in the Etiquette of Dudes, I gave him a front kick in the ’nads, which made him double over and groan. Then I gave him the same forearm I had given Toughy, but to Jones it was a knockout. It sent him flying onto his back, out cold, while the Interrupter flew across the rooftop. I turned to follow the sliding Interrupter when the stern face and muscular shoulders of Toughy blocked my vision. I looked up just as she bitch-slapped me, sending me to the ground. When another blow didn’t follow, I looked up sheepishly, a little foggy, to see Allie side-kick Toughy and then follow through with a hammer fist to the face, sending Toughy down on her butt. I began crawling toward where I had seen the Interrupter sliding. Along the way, I crawled over Jones, who lay unconscious nearby with tweety birds circling his head. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Okay, Doc, I’ll take the fifty mil now. She’s right there,” I said, pointing to the B.I.B. Not so powerful now, eh, Doc? Toughy used her left hand to push her right shoulder back into its socket and wiped some blood away that had begun dripping from her nose. Then she looked up at the B.I.B. with a sneer and rose. Allie was clearly taken aback. When she hit someone, they went down and stayed down. This round-two thing was new to her. Toughy swung an arm and fired out a leg, but in superspeed. Allie was as quick as me picking out beer, and none of Toughy’s blows landed. Instead, Allie landed a roundhouse kick that put Toughy back on her butt again. “Stay down, bitch,” she commanded. “I don’t wanna hurt you.” Did that menacing voice come out of my little Allie? Whoa, that was kind of cool, I thought. I was starting to feel hopeful for the first time since Toughy and Goldie had arrived. Jones was down. Toughy was outmatched. There was hope, if I could just find the Interrupter. I tried to get up but felt the roof spinning. Crawling was good, I decided. Then the roller coaster turned again. Goldie sent out a beam of light that caught Allie as she was moving in for the kill. It held her in place and defeated her speed advantage. Toughy smiled as she stood up, reenergized, and kicked Allie into a group of ventilation pipes. Every time my girl got ready to fight, she was held in place by the beam from Goldie and ended up trading blows at best. The shining, crackling tractor beam had reversed the advantage. Now Allie was a stationary target. It was wearing her down. But she kept battling Toughy, giving as good as she got. Both of them stood determinedly, trading horrific blows that would have turned a T. rex into a vegetarian or laid him out quietly, waiting to become oil. In the distance, Goldie glowed with three sparkling beams streaming from her outstretched hands: one fed Toughy, one slowed Allie, and the other kept Rebecca housed in her cocoon. Then a lava-red light began to form beside the stairway door, revealing a humming, sparkling column of light surrounding Jennifer Lowe. No nifty costume for her. She was casually dressed, as if she was on her way to see a movie, but surrounded in dynamic red energy. She moved right to Goldie, who suddenly had a look of panic on her face. Jennifer’s column met Goldie’s aura and began to slowly shrink it. The humming and crashing of their powerful shields grew louder and louder, like two medieval warriors battling with swords. Jennifer’s column of red energy was growing larger and larger, closer and closer to Goldie. Eventually, she absorbed Rebecca’s cocoon. By now, Allie was a struggling heap on hands and knees unable to rise, and Toughy didn’t need help. So Goldie cut the tractor beam holding Allie in place, as well as the one powering Toughy, to concentrate on her battle with Jennifer. With the extra power, Goldie was able to push Jennifer back. At which point, Jennifer seemed to realize she was in a battle, not merely doing her nails or having tea. Her face glowed brighter, revealing her anger, and she pushed back harder. (Just a tip, you don’t want to see Jennifer angry.) Goldie responded by cutting the tractor beam to Rebecca and shoving Jennifer back once more. Now Jennifer was pissed. The anger on Jennifer’s face gave way to confidence as the whining and crashing of their power shields grew. As she felt Goldie beginning to yield, a smirk appeared at the corner of her mouth. But Goldie was not without skills herself. She reached out and pulled the energy from the buildings and homes nearby, sending them all into darkness, and transferred their energy into a powerful golden jolt that almost knocked Jennifer flat on her back…big mistake. As the two of them battled, I searched for the Interrupter, and Allie and Toughy stood off from one another, trying to catch enough breath to join in the fight. I began to walk, maybe stagger, after the Interrupter—it lay somewhere in the dark, and I had to find it. Toughy was not in good shape herself. She was clearly exhausted, injured, and decorated with blood, but mobile. And her vision apparently worked just fine, as she and I spotted the Interrupter at the same time, just to her left, under an air conditioning unit. She crept toward it as I dove across the roof, reaching for it. She took hold of it and lifted it away from my fingers, which had arrived a second too late. She turned to the immobile Allie and smiled. “Game over,” she said wickedly. No! was all I thought. That was when I leapt into the line of fire. Okay, maybe not leapt, but it was a good saunter or maybe a shuffle. You get the idea. It threw Toughy off for a minute. I was no challenge; she wanted the B.I.B. on her resume. “Get away, little man. She’ll just be drained, but this fucker will kill you,” she said, pointing the Interrupter at my face. “No,” was all I said, spreading my arms…arm, I mean, and legs, so that she could not shoot around me. Any way of prolonging what I still had of Allie was worthwhile, no matter how fleeting. Like a twig resting against a rock in a stream, I would cling to the rock until the stream washed me away. But I would not let go until I was forced to do so, and not a moment sooner. They would have to take her away over my defeated body. “Your choice. I guess it will just have to be a twofer,” said Toughy, smiling. She was no longer trying to shoot around me, but aiming squarely at me. “Glad I could make your day,” I said, flailing my arm feebly at her, reaching for the Interrupter. She stopped and laughed at me, prompting me to try again. Every time I reached for it, she pulled it away and laughed. Guess she laughed a little too long. I had seen that look of total astonishment before—the helpless disbelief on Toughy’s face as the vapors formed around her and she slowly faded from life. The Interrupter dropped to the rooftop, smoking, twisted, and never able to party again. The night breeze swirled the horrible smell in the air till I could taste it in my throat. Toughy tasted as mean as she had looked. Across the rooftop, Rebecca fell to the ground, bathed in lava light, liberated from her energy bondage, having sent Toughy into oblivion. Jennifer closed in relentlessly now on Goldie, whose light had turned from gold to white. Goldie raised her arms to ward off Jennifer as she neared, then tried to run, only to be held in the oncoming energy of the lava-red light. The crashing sounds from the energy fields were gone, leaving only a powerful humming that surged in volume like the soundtrack to the oncoming jaws of a shark. Goldie’s aura turned a cloudy blue, then she slumped over as her energy drained further. In her last seconds, her form crystallized into bluish ice, which then started melting into a fluid that drained across the rooftop or flew away as vapors. Jennifer continued her humming lava glow for a long victorious moment; then, in a flash, the red light was gone, leaving the rooftop in the silent dimness of the emergency lights. She turned to Rebecca and helped her stand. Rebecca looked horrible, as if the effort to dissolve Toughy had drained the life out of her. I made my way over to Allie, reached out my good arm, and helped her up. We leaned against each other, and I marveled at how the now quiet rooftop had been such a lethal, frightening war zone seconds earlier. At that point, the adrenaline was still working wonders, and I kept moving, unchecked by the pain. Jennifer and Rebecca approached, and the four of us stood facing one another. “Maybe you’ll believe me next time I tell you that your girlfriend is in danger,” Jennifer said to me. I nodded. “Maybe next time you could just put your number on a business card and hand it to me.” Bitch. “Poor baby. Those numbers not as big as you hoped?” “Wouldn’t you like to know.” Bitch. Rebecca was first to apologize. “Thank you guys for coming to help me. It was all my fault. I was convinced you were trying to kill me,” she said to Jennifer. “I’m sorry.” She coughed, slowly regaining her color. Jennifer shrugged. “That’s what they wanted you to believe. Divide and conquer. They had us targeted, one by one. I was really afraid for you when you left,” she said, giving Rebecca a hug. Then she let her go and turned toward Allie. “I couldn’t let them get you either. I’ve never had so much fun as I did watching you play with them—the mayor, the Mob. It was hysterical.” Then she turned to me. “And you? I couldn’t give two craps about you.” I probably had it coming, but even so, I knew she was jealous of Allie and me—or if she wasn’t, she would be. Then she added, “But thanks for calling me and helping us like you did. That took some balls. Where the hell did you get those from?” “Could we leave my balls out of this?” Bitch. “Yeah, Logan, you were amazing,” said Allie coming over and giving me a careful hug. “You stood up to them, took a beating to protect me, had the sense to call Jennifer, disarmed Jones, then held off that nasty bitch long enough for Jennifer to free Rebecca. I was almost useless, but without you, we never could have stopped Jones’ little team. You sure you’re not a superhero too?” All that sounded like the kind of bullshit I’d normally tell myself to make myself feel better. But this was Allie talking, and I realized that this bullshit was actually true. I had done all that. (What a friggin’ idiot.) Allie seemed to be recovering quickly. “Did you see the way those two worked together?” she said to the other women. “One was no match for me, but when they combined powers, they beat the crap out of me….Maybe there’s a lesson in that. If I had faced them alone, as they planned, Rebecca and I would be in Jones’ lab right now.” Rebecca nodded. “She’s right. Alone, we’ll still live in fear; together, who can hurt us?” Jennifer paced a little and said, almost to herself, “Together, who can hurt us?” It was clear that she liked being in charge, and that partners had never been her strong suit, but their close scrape with Jones was enough to sell her on the idea. Rebecca added, “And who knows how many more Joneses there are out there? It might not be over. We could be being stalked even now!” Like an idiot, I thought I saw an opening to be useful. “Yeah, there were a lot of people following me. I saw three, four, five cars at my place; could be anybody after us.” The three women simultaneously turned to me, as if to say, “Who asked you?” I held up my good arm and backed away from the girls, leaving them to their bitch session, cosmetic party, or whatever the hell it was. They continued to chat and plan while I staggered away. “Fine way to treat a hero wounded in action,” I bitched and moaned to myself. “See if I bail your ass out again!” Remembering Allie’s glowing eyes, though, I knew I would bail her ass out again and again. And did I mention again, twice on Sundays? What an ass to bail out…and those thighs in that skintight jumpsuit…maybe three times on Sundays. What was I talking about? Whatever. Just then, Allie glanced up at me, smiled, and flashed those blue-then-greens for me. I didn’t feel so bad anymore. Nearby, I saw the melting remains of Goldie. I sat next to “her,” and without giving it much thought, as was my method, I broke off a chunk of the cloudy blue ice from what had once been her arm and pressed it against my aching shoulder. The ice numbed my pain, but it also burned wherever it melted and hit my broken skin. Moments later, it dawned on me what an irreverent thing I had done. I looked at what was left of her and said, “My arm, it’s really starting to hurt…sorry. This must be terribly awkward and embarrassing for you, just sitting here melting. I mean, I’m sure you had your good side too, before Jones made you evil; parents and relatives that will miss you, maybe a dog or cat or something….I had a turtle once, so I know how you feel. He was afraid of water—or was it a newt? No, I remember now, it was a gerbil. That would explain why he didn’t like the water!” Of course, Goldie didn’t seem the least bit interested in this, so I went on. “I have to say, this blue ice thing you have going on looks great.” I patted what remained of her arm. “Not many women can pull off a look like that, but it works for you,” I said, nodding. “What you’ve done has melted inches off your waistline, it’s fabulous.…” We continued our one-sided conversation for a while. Before long, I had my aching arm and shoulder wrapped around her pain-relieving form. It turned out that Goldie was a really good listener. I was able to talk to her about anything, without fear of being judged. I looked deeply into what was left of her face and thought, Hazel eyes, my ass. “Well, it’s been great talking with you. Mind if I just get one more chunk to go?” I said, breaking off another piece of her arm. Meanwhile, Allie had put her hand out in the air in front of her. Rebecca placed hers on top, then came Jennifer’s. “From now on, we work together, protect each other, learn from each other. Together, we can accomplish anything,” chimed in the B.I.B. “We are in charge!” added Rebecca. “I like the sound of that,” Jennifer stated firmly, smiling. That was when we heard Jones beginning to stir. All four of us moved over and stood in a circle around him. Just a tip—you do not ever want to confront the searing anger that burned on each of these women’s faces. One woman with that look would be challenge enough, but three? And these women had both superpowers and super hormones, I suspected. Good luck, Jonesy. Nice knowing ya. For me, that was the way of war. Jones and I had had our moments. I couldn’t hate him. Sure, he’d threatened Allie and Rebecca, and apparently killed some superwomen I didn’t know, but who was I to judge? Then again he had lied to me, kidnapped women, tried to take over the world, but still he’d been my friend…sort of. Come to think of it, he had that freak Toughy pummel my ass…and there were those beers he never paid me for. Freakin’ little bastard! Maybe I’ll give him a kick, just one kick right in the ribs. But tell me, Jonesy, who was still standing and who was laying on the ground about to become pummeled-vaporized-energy-less ice…after having been kicked once in the ribs? When Jones’ eyes opened and could focus on us, they widened to full-moon size, and he let out a horrifying little-girl scream. CHAPTER 36 We Begin with Donuts The golden early morning sun was so comfortable it betrayed the scorching heat it would deliver later in the day. As I bounded my way along the sidewalk back to the apartment with my usual bag of donuts and coffee, it left me in a whistling, happy-to-be-alive mood. Don’t you hate people like that? I know I do. Contemptibly, I smiled and said “Good morning” to every asshole that passed. I was like some dipstick escaped from a happy-happy TV commercial who had just saved a bunch of money on his car insurance or tasted the world’s greatest frozen waffle. I couldn’t help but spread the happy. I saw a couple of kids sitting at a lemonade stand by the side of the street and paid them a hundred bucks for the most horrible cup of yellow water I’d ever tasted. You should have seen how their mouths hung open—they must have thought I was Bill Gates. I passed a homeless man with a long gray beard and a long gray coat, despite the heat. I greeted him as Gandalf the Gray, stuffed a few crumbled bills into the breast pocket of his coat, and continued on my merry way. Finally I reached the apartment, feeling way too alive for this early in the day. Heck, it wasn’t even noon! I opened the door to be greeted by the usual. The living room and kitchen table were littered with Miner’s Lite bottles—empty ones, I thank you very much. I stopped at the dining room table, set down the donut bag next to the five empty pizza boxes, and headed into the bedroom. I felt my heart leave its state of afterglow and begin to race with anticipation as I scanned the room for her. “I don’t know if the ceilings are high enough in here for me,” Allie said. She slowly drifted down from the ceiling onto the bed and lay there naked on her side amongst my rumpled sheets. I drank in the sight of the curving hip of the most wanted woman in the city lying in my bed. Who’d believe it? “I guess we’ll just have to do something about that,” I said, joining her on the bed. We entered into an embrace and long kiss. Our hands began to wander, but then she stopped, as if a sudden thought had occurred to her. “Donuts. Did you get the donuts? That pizza last night just wasn’t enough… Why do they bother with crust anyway? I mean, like, what’s the purpose?” I stared in awe at her as if I had just heard the echoing voice of God in the genius of her words. Until that very moment I had struggled to know if I was obsessed with Allie or truly in love. Now I realized she was the perfect match for me, and it released all the love I felt for her like a dam that had stood for years suddenly breaking. “I’ve often wondered the exact same thing,” I said pulling away until my face was few inches from hers, a tear welling up in the corner of my eye. “I didn’t know you got so emotional about pizza,” she joked, noticing my state. “It’s not the pizza,” I said before giving her a long soft kiss. “Umm…it’s the donuts, isn’t it? Wait, you didn’t eat my cream-filled one again, did you?” “Maybe.” “There had better be two cream filled in that bag.” “Fuck the donuts,” I said, returning for a longer, more passionate kiss. “Yeah, fuck the donuts,” she panted softly the moment the kiss ended and before the next one started. Allie wrapped her arms around me, lifting us up to float horizontally over the bed. She began a slow lateral axis rotation. I gazed into her glowing eyes, feeling totally connected with her as and the room spun around us. “I think I left off here,” I said, lightly kissing her shoulder. “Or maybe it was here,” I said moving up to her neck. I could tell the tease was working by her low moan and the tingle that raised goose bumps on her arms. “Or maybe it was here,” I said, and pressed her lips. She moaned a reply of agreement, and we began to spin faster over the bed. The glow of our bodies merging grew more and more intense until, an hour later, it flashed with a blinding flare.


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