Family Values, Pt. 1 – The Case of the Missing Singer 

I cleared the sleep from my eyes, stifling a yawn as I sized up the woman who stood on the other side of the door. Dark-skinned and toned, hair tied in Bantu knots, wearing some kind of military fatigues with a penchant for forest green. My eyes drifted to the sidearm holstered near her shoulder – a Colt, maybe? Either way, I didn’t blame her. This part of town had its share of dangers. 

“Sorry to wake you, mate,” the woman apologized, offering a half-smile. “I’m just starting to run out of options, and I could use your professional services.” 

Sighing, I gestured her inside, opening the door wider to allow her passage. She wandered into my office, absently examining my unflattering clutter. I closed the door, locking it behind me, and turned to her, hands on my hips. 

“So, how can I help you this evening?” 

She turned to me, offering her hand. “The name’s Piston. I’m a second-class SPI working under the Public Servants. I’ve come here about a missing persons case.” 

I crossed my arms in front of my chest suspiciously. “The Public Servants don’t usually reach out to me for help, and I’ve certainly never heard of you before. Fill in the blanks, please.” 

Piston hung her head for a moment, taking a step closer as she lowered her voice. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the explosion at The Living Mortar’s home last month?” 

“Yeah,” I replied. “Lots of people dead. Treble Clef is still in the hospital. Rumor in my circles is that The Living Mortar did it himself.” 

Piston grimaced. “What if I told you those rumors are true?” 

“Really?” I struggled to mask my surprise. “Why the hell would he do that?” 

She sat in the chair across from my desk, crossing one leg over her thigh. “Inspector, there’s a new villain in town. She’s been staying under the radar, using sonic technology to subliminally control minds. The Living Mortar was, unfortunately, one of her victims.” 

“Ah, I see.” I walked around the desk, sitting in my own chair to face her. “And what happened to our mind-controlled friend?” 

“He’s in a safe place,” she explained, “where he can’t be seen and he can’t hurt anyone.” 

“So, you’re, what, doing the Public Servants’ dirty work?” I asked. 

Piston chuckled. “Yeah, mate. I suppose that sums it up pretty well.” 

“Let me guess,” I continued. “You want me to find out who this mystery villain is?” 

She shook her head. “We’ve got that covered. At least, we know who she’s been pretending to be. Erica Leroux, the pop star.” 

“A celebrity supervillain,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “Now that’s never been done before.” 

“Yes, yes, it’s a bit cliché,” Piston admitted, “but we have bigger problems. Last week, she escaped our attempts to place her in custody. So, it’s not who she is that worries us, but where. We believe she’s attempting to leave the city.” 

“Well . . .” I plucked an ink pen from the surface of my desk, twirling it between my fingers. “If she wants to do that, there’s not many secure options nowadays. I have a hunch where she’d go first.” 

“I hear you have pretty good hunches,” Piston quipped, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a bit old to be a product of the Great War, aren’t you?” 

“First of all, that’s not very polite,” I chastised half-heartedly. “Second, I served in the Great War, as a saboteur for Western Europe. My powers predate the war.” 

“Interesting . . .” she cocked her head. “You know, my grandfather served on a special unit back during World War Two. He encountered some pretty strange shit, including what we believe to be Black Pharaoh’s first official sighting. In the aftermath of the Great War of 2022, the UN told us about lasting nuclear radiation from the bombs that were initially used, but my grandfather insisted they’d used something else. Something more . . . supernatural.” 

She leaned forward. 

“Is that what you are, Inspector? Something supernatural?” 

I smirked. “That’s what it says on the door, doesn’t it?” 

Standing up, I turned to a large trunk pressed against the wall, opening it to reveal a disheveled pile of tools, weapons, and electronics. I closed my eyes, honing in on The Call, and blindly reached into the box, letting my instincts guide me. My hand found an item in the box, then two, and I gently placed them on the floor, pausing at the sixth object as The Call faded. Opening my eyes, I glanced down to see what my precognitive instincts had chosen for me for this case. 

“Baby powder,” I muttered. “My Walther PPK handgun, of course. I assumed this would be dangerous. A strobe flashlight . . . an emergency glass-breaker . . . an MP3 player . . . ah, I knew it.” 

I picked up the last object, a small box of bullets hand-made from the foundations of Rouen’s Notre-Dame Cathedral.  

“The Midnight Gang,” I announced. 

“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” Piston commented. “They’re a vampire crime syndicate, right?” 

I began to pocket the tools I’d selected, shrugging a tan trench coat over my clothes. “More than that. The Midnight Gang were turned at the height of the Prohibition Era. 1930’s mobsters, thieves, smugglers and killers, turned immortal and set loose on the unsuspecting public. If Erica is trying to get out of the city, I’d bet all the dollars in my left pocket that she’s going to appeal to them.” 

“I’d be reassured,” responded Piston, “if I thought you had any dollars.” 

________________ 

We rattled up to the entrance of a lounge basked in crimson light, my Volkswagen Beetle rumbling to a stop near the entrance. I pulled out my Walther, and Piston and I met eyes, nodding to one another. I climbed out of the vehicle first, and she quickly followed, stepping in front of me so that my gun was visibly aimed at her back. We approached the guard at the door, who looked at me inquisitively. I gestured to Piston with my gun. 

“Juice delivery for the Midnight Gang.” 

The guard nodded, opening the door and letting us through. We entered a dimly-lit club, covered in red-and-black furniture and filled with a smoky haze. A bar stood against the wall to our left, but the liquor bottles seemed to all be filled with blood, each container labeled with a first and last name. As we stepped inside, a dozen yellow-eyed men in tweed suits and fedoras stepped out of the lounge’s shadowy corners, most of whom sported Tommy guns.  

“What do we have here, boys?” one of the vampires asked in a thick New York accent. 

A thin, weaselly man stepped up to the speaker, muttering in a low voice. “She said juice delivery.” 

“I think she’s a vampire, too, Boss,” a third mobster spoke up. “Look at her eyes. They’re yellow, like ours.” 

“That’s right,” I announced, shoving Piston forward a little. “I’m more of a loner, but I know a fellow enemy when I see it. This lady here is the one who killed off most of the Last Patriots.” 

The man they called “Boss” cocked his head a little. “No skin off our nose, really. They’re fellow vampires, sure, but they’re a little too hung up on skin color. We’re business professionals.” 

A wave of soft chuckles passed over the crowd before he continued. “So, what do you want?” 

I kicked Piston in the back, knocking her too her knees. “Take her off my hands. Make her suffer for what she did. We gotta send a message, right?” 

Boss narrowed his eyes. “Screech, Baby Doll, bring her over here.” 

The weaselly vampire, along with a tall, muscular one, approached Piston, lifting her by her arms and carrying her into the middle of the group. They dropped her to the carpeted floor, and two other vampires guarded her with Tommy guns closely aimed.  

“I sense you’re a business professional, too,” Boss said to me. “We got vampire revenge, yadda yadda. But what do you want?” 

“I want to find a friend of mine who’s gone missing,” I replied, lowering my Walther. “Erica Leroux.” 

“Ah.” Boss smiled. “The Phantom. We’ve been in touch lately. She claimed some people would come looking for her.” 

He tapped the side of his head. “I don’t suppose those eyes are yellow for some other reason, are they? Maybe you’re an SPI, hmm?” 

Piston glanced up at me quickly, before the others could notice. 

“Seems like an awful coincidence,” I responded curtly. “Besides, I brought you something nice. I’m asking for a simple reward.” 

Boss sighed, glancing at the weaselly vampire. “Screech, you talked to her last. Where were we sending her out?” 

“Eastern border, boss,” Screech said. “She wanted safe passage to the East Coast Wasteland. We have her waiting for our smuggler in an old meat-packing plant nearby.” 

“There,” Boss interrupted, nodding at me. “You got your reward. Now, leave us to enjoy our new juice.” 

“Oh, I think you have enough,” I retorted. “Let’s get out of here, Piston.” 

Piston smirked as she slowly rose to her feet. The pair of gunmen on either side of her took aim, but before they could fire, she back-kicked one of them across the room, simultaneously ripping the Tommy gun from the hands of the other. She swept the weapon back and forth as she backed away from the vampires, inching closer to me. As she did, I raised my Walther again, keeping an eye on the mobsters’ movements.  

“We’re going to leave,” I announced as Piston joined me. “And everyone gets to live to ruin lives another day.” 

“I don’t think so,” Boss angrily responded, snapping his fingers. “Screech, handle this.” 

“Him?” laughed Piston as the weaselly vampire stepped forward, opening his mouth.  

“Piston,” I whispered, readying my knees. “Get down.” 

Screech took a deep breath before emitting a sharp cry, one reminiscent of his namesake. The cry grew in pitch and volume, and the bottles of blood behind the bar shattered in a shimmering wave – a wave which rapidly approached us. I grabbed Piston’s shirt and pulled her to the ground as the distorted air passed over our heads, the vibrations rattling my teeth. After a few seconds, the cry ceased, and I looked up to see Screech taking another breath.  

“Nope,” I said, firing three shots from my Walther into the vampire’s torso. 

Blood almost immediately sprayed from Screech’s open mouth, and he clutched his chest, stumbling backwards. His eyes leaked red, his pain and fear shining past his yellow irises. As he staggered, the larger vampire – presumably Baby Doll – stomped toward us, fists clenched. Piston depressed the trigger of her stolen Tommy gun, spraying bullets at Baby Doll, but the rounds flattened against him, flaking away.  

Huffing, Piston tossed the gun aside, darting at the mobster and drill-kicking him in the chest with both legs. The blow sent him sliding back a few feet, but the wall of vampiric muscle maintained his balance, reaching into his suit jacket and retrieving a pair a brass knuckles. As Piston used some kind of kick-based combat to keep up with Baby Doll’s bone-rattling blows, I saw the other mobsters take aim at me with their guns, and I shifted into my cat form. 

The world stretched and grew around me as I shrank, the mysterious energy that powered me evaporating my clothes and gear and replacing them with a coat of black fur. My bones crackled as they shifted, and within a second, I was on all fours, my paws padding across the carpet. The gun-wielding mobsters opened fire, but I nimbly danced around the wave of bullets as they buried into the floor around me. Before the vampires could react to my transformation, I’d bridged the gap between us, and I shifted back, my sudden mass increase allowing me to plow through the crowd and collide into Boss. I slipped behind him, wrapping one arm around his neck as I pressed my Walther to the side of his skull. 

“Alright, that’s enough!” I yelled, placing Boss between the vampires’ Tommy guns and myself. “You saw what my bullets did to Screech. What do you think a headshot would do?” 

The Midnight Gang hesitated for a moment before lowering their weapons, and I quickly dragged Boss backwards, heading for the entrance of the lounge. Behind me, Piston and Baby Doll had paused their fight, the former wiping a little blood from the corner of her mouth. Baby Doll stepped to the side, allowing me through, and Piston nodded at me, following me to the front door. 

“You haven’t heard the last of the Midnight Gang, honey,” snarled Boss. “We’ll make sure you get yours.” 

As he threatened us, I saw Screech move to the front of the group, finally recovered from my bullets. “I don’t think so, Boss.” 

We’d almost cleared the doorway as Boss frowned at his comrade. “Don’t you think about it, Screech. This ain’t no time for a power play.” 

I saw Screech inhale, and my eyes widened. Piston, too, realized what was about to happen, and together, we huddled behind Boss as the weaselly vampire cried out once more. Another sonic wave rippled across the room, colliding with Boss. The vibrations channeled through his body, turning him into a blur, and he exploded into a fountain of blood, the force of it knocking Piston and myself through the door and into the street outside the lounge. Red warmth splattered over us like a grisly rainfall, and we scrambled to our feet, retching. 

“And stay out!” I heard Screech yell from within the lounge, and we hurried to my car, daring not look back. 

________________ 

“Alright,” Piston said, speaking into her watch as she wiped Boss’s blood from her face. “Meet you there in an hour.” 

She removed a small device from her ear, embedding it back into the side of her watch. Glancing at me, she smiled a little. “Great work in there, kitty cat. What do I owe you for your trouble?” 

“We can discuss my fee later,” I replied, merging my Volkswagen onto the highway. “There’s no guarantee that Erica, or The Phantom, is even at the meat-packing plant. The smuggler may have taken her, or she might have caught wind of our search and moved herself. I’m seeing this through to the end.” 

“Fair enough.” Piston leaned back in her seat, placing the sidearm she’d left in the car back into her shoulder holster. “Well, you’ll get to meet some of my friends at the border. They’re a fun bunch.” 

“If they’re anything like you, I can only expect more trouble,” I quipped, glancing at the woman. “I notice you haven’t skipped leg day. Are all your friends SPIs like yourself?” 

Piston turned to watch the empty highway pass by the window. “Of course. But I’ll keep their powers a surprise. I know you love a good mystery, anyway.” 

My ears picked up some kind of small whir rapidly growing louder behind us, and I looked in the rearview mirror to see something approaching on the road. “I hope one of your friends has super-speed, because otherwise, we may have undesirable company.” 

Groaning, Piston looked over her shoulder. “No such luck, mate. That’s Drive-By. Erica must have sent him to stop us.” 

“Shit,” I swore, stomping on the accelerator. “The assassin, right? I’ve heard about him from other cases. Uses some kind of rocket skates to zoom past targets and gun them down.” 

“Well, they’re more like propulsion gyroscopes,” Piston corrected me.  

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Rocket skates.” 

I heard the distinct chatter of machine-gun fire and swerved to the side as the rear window of my Volkswagen shattered, bullets bouncing around the interior. Piston drew her sidearm, returning Drive-By’s shots with a volley of her own. In the mirror, I saw the assassin gracefully glide around her bullets, drawing closer. The slide of Piston’s gun clacked as the weapon emptied, and she swore, ejecting her magazine.  

Now that Drive-By had closed his distance to us, I could make out the details of his attire: Yellow, plated armor atop a black bodysuit, his mask a vague simulacrum of a human face. On his chest sat a symbol – a circle split into four quadrants, two yellow and two black – and I realized he’d styled his suit after a crash test dummy.  

This city gets stranger every day, I thought to myself.  

Drive-By pivoted, revealing special black boots which produced a kind of blue energy signature that allowed him to hover an inch or two off the ground. He tilted to the side like a skier, leaning forward a little, and he accelerated, matching my car’s speed. As Piston finished reloading, he extended his arm, revealing a long, automatic pistol with a cylindrical magazine perched atop the barrel.  

As he squeezed the trigger, I slammed on the brakes, and he sped past us, spraying nothing but the night air with his bullets. The sudden deceleration caused me to lose control of the wheel, though, and my Volkswagen skidded at an angle across the road, crashing into the guard rail. The front of the car crumpled under the force, and I saw Piston’s head slam into the side window, knocking her unconscious. My vision blurred as I, too, was jerked around by the momentum, but my seat belt caught me, knocking the air from my lungs. 

I heard the strained whir of Drive-By changing course, and I struggled to unfasten my seat belt, releasing it so it retracted back into the side of the car. I reached for my door handle, but it didn’t budge, and I leaned closer to see that the metal had crumpled a little, wedging my exit shut. 

I’m a sitting duck.  

The Call tickled the back of my mind, and I instinctively reached into my pocket, retrieving the glass-breaking tool. The metal rod abruptly ended in a needle-point spike, and I pressed that point against my window, smacking the back of the rod with my palms. Shards of glass poured around me as the window instantly shattered, and I scrambled through the opening, rolling onto the asphalt beyond my car. 

Machine-gun fire erupted behind me, and I heard a wave of bullets smack into the other side of the vehicle, the thin metal shielding me from instant death. The Call struck me once more, and I morphed into my cat form, slipping under my totaled Volkswagen. Though the highway was largely unlit, my night vision made out Drive-By’s swift approach. He tilted his head as he scanned the car, gun raised, but he seemed unable to make out my small, black body. As he drew within a few yards, still moving at high speed, I darted out in front of him, shifting back into human form and activating my strobe flashlight.  

The flickering white rays, blinding under the night sky, washed across Drive-By, and he covered his eyes, losing control of his “propulsion gyroscopes” much like I’d lost control of my own vehicle. He sped past me, no more than a yellow blur, and collided with the side of my Volkswagen, denting the metal. The force of the crash knocked him onto his back with a heavy thud, and I heard him moan through his mask.  

Hurrying over to the prone man, I saw hairline cracks all along his armor, including his helmet. Drawing my Walther, I whipped it across his face, shattering the weakened mask and revealing the face of a young Chinese man. He winced, blood running down a gash in his forehead, and I aimed the Walther between his eyes.  

“Nice try, Speedy. Save it for the X Games.” 

He dropped his machine pistol, gently raising both hands in surrender. I heard my Volkswagen squeak and rattle, and glanced up in time to see Piston kick the passenger door from its hinges, stumbling out into the road. When she noticed Drive-By on the ground, she laughed, the sound weak and hoarse. 

“I don’t think he’s covered under your car insurance.” 

A giggle escaped my throat, and I gestured for Drive-By to roll onto his stomach as Piston retrieved a set of zip-ties. “I haven’t checked my policy in a while, but in this city? You never know.” 

________________ 

While Piston had her Public Servants benefactor sort out the car accident and take Drive-By into custody, we hailed a ride-share, and within the hour we found ourselves standing outside the meat-packing plant on the Eastern edge of New General City. I heard footsteps approach in the darkness, and turned to see three figures: A man in a red jacket and black baseball cap, another man in a black-and-yellow bodysuit and sporting a domino mask, and a young girl, whose features were mostly hidden beneath a hooded indigo cloak.  

“What a colorful group,” I joked, stretching my stiff muscles. “Did someone call the Power Rangers?” 

“Team, this is The Inspector,” Piston announced, gesturing to me. “She’s responsible for finding Ms. Leroux, and for helping me arrive safely to meet you here tonight.” 

The man in black and yellow raised his hand awkwardly. “Nice to meet you, ma’am. I’m Turbine.” 

“Cylinder,” the man in the red jacket added. 

“Crucible,” muttered the girl in the indigo cloak. 

I frowned at Crucible. “Aren’t you a little young to be doing something like this?” 

She glared at me. “Isn’t Avian? She’s my age, and she’s a Public Servant.” 

My heart fluttered at the mention of the young superhero, and I pressed my lips tightly together before responding. “Touché, dear.” 

Cylinder put a finger to his ear, waving to catching the others’ attention. “Silicon says that S.S.’s satellites are picking up a thermal signature. Only one person, no guards or henchmen.” 

Turbine closed his eyes for a few seconds before snapping them back open. “No suspicious electrical feeds. I’m not sensing any traps or advanced weapons. However . . .” 

He guided us to the front door of the plant, gesturing to a keypad installed on the outside. “There is an alarm system, which I suspect will bring in more trouble than we can handle. And this facility is too big for me to fry the whole place with an EMP, so I can’t kill the alarm. We need the code.” 

Cylinder leaned closer to the keypad. “Silicon says it’s a closed system. He can’t remotely hack into it. We’re flying blind.” 

The Call nudged me, and reached into my trench coat. “Not quite.” 

Lifting my hand, I revealed the bottle of baby powder. 

“Well shit, Inspector,” Cylinder chuckled. “I didn’t realize your last name was ‘Gadget.’” 

I opened the bottle, gently tapping the white powder across the keypad. Leaning close, I blew the excess away, leaving behind a thin coast. Amongst the powder, a series of fingerprints appeared, highlighting the numbers one, nine, and zero. 

“What do you think the code is?” mused Crucible, placing her hands on her hips. 

“Could be anything,” Piston replied thoughtfully. “Though, with only three numbers selected, it’s probably a short code. Most likely some kind of four-digit PIN.” 

Turbine frowned, looking at me. “You’re the detective. What do you think?” 

“Well, this isn’t her warehouse,” I said. “However, she’d probably want to set her own code. So, it wouldn’t be too personal, in case one of the Midnight Gang needs to come inside. More likely, it’s related to her secret identity.” 

Cylinder cocked his head, listening to the person in his earpiece. “Silicon is suggesting one-nine-one-zero.” 

Before anyone could respond, he reached out, entering the code. A light above the keypad turned green, and I heard the door unlatch from the other side. We all looked at Cylinder, who shrugged. 

“He said it’s the year The Phantom of the Opera was published.” 

We crept into the building, adhering to the walls and melting in and out of the shadows. The grey, concrete hallways stretched in multiple directions, but Turbine confidently led the way, as if guided by a Call of his own. Unease filled my stomach as we progressed, but neither I nor the others sensed any immediate danger. After a moment, we reached a wooden door at the end of our hallway, and Turbine paused, as if listening for something. 

“I don’t sense her. Could Black Pharaoh or Vampire King be helping her mask herself from me?” 

Cylinder put his finger to his ear. “Silicon says the thermal signature is still active. You might be right.” 

As Turbine’s grip tightened on the doorknob, I felt The Call wash over me; though I saw nothing, I felt the strong impulse to reach into my pocket and retrieve my final tool: the MP3 player. 

“Uh, what are you doing?” whispered Piston as I connected the machine to a set of earbuds and inserted them into my ears.  

I shrugged, scrolling through my music library. “I have no idea.” 

I moved my finger to the MP3 player’s center button and pressed PLAY. 

“I’m gonna make a change 

For once in my life 

It’s gonna feel real good 

Gonna make a difference 

Gonna make it right . . .” 

Michael Jackson’s voice filled my ears, drowning out the others’ whispers as we passed through the doorway. 

Ahead of us loomed a series of conveyors below rows and rows of meat hooks, all of which were thankfully devoid of animal carcasses. Still, the sight brough a chill to my spine, and I shivered, following the others around the equipment. They continued their hushed conversation, but all I heard was America’s twentieth-century pop legend. 

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror 

I’m asking him to change his ways 

And no message could have been any clearer 

If you want to make the world a better place . . .” 

Suddenly, the machines around us flared to life. Emergency lights flashed, conveyor belts rotated, and the meat hook chains began to raise and lower. I looked around, startled, as did the others, and shrill feedback blared through the facility, sharp enough to slightly penetrate my music. I removed one earbud to hear better, and I recognized Erica Leroux’s voice as a familiar song played over hidden speakers. 

“Mr. Mystery, you must’ve missed me! 

Mr. Mystery, you make me miserable lately. 

Mr. Mystery, maybe we could make some 

Magic, oh baby, sweet Mr. Mystery . . .” 

Around me, Piston and her team began to sway with the music, and I hurriedly re-inserted my earbud, drowning it out.  

Mind control, I thought. Piston said she uses sonic technology for mind control.  

As Erica’s song continued, I could hear muffled commands overlap it, though I was unable to make out the words. The gist became quite apparent, however, when Piston, Cylinder, Turbine, and Crucible turned to me, their faces contorting into expressions of anger. Simultaneously, they drew guns and blades from various compartments, approaching me.  

I reached out for The Call, and it overtook me, allowing me sight beyond time as I prepared to struggle for survival. 

The first to attack was Cylinder, who quickly drew a pair of revolvers and fired them like an old-timey gunslinger. I shifted into my cat form, allowing my supernatural instincts to guide me through the lethal barrage. From my Call, I understood that he posed the greatest long-term threat, so I barreled toward him as bullets kicked up flecks of concrete around my paws. I leapt at the marksman, returning to human form midair and curling into a tight ball. My body collided with his torso, sending him off his feet and rolling onto one of the conveyor belts. His revolvers clattered across the floor, alleviating a fraction of the danger I found myself in. 

More gunfire erupted behind me, and The Call blindly guided me through the maze of machines, shielding me from Piston’s attack. As I scrambled beneath the meat hooks, a circular blade whipped through the air, barely missing my head. At the last second, I shifted into cat form, and the death-frisbee banked in a tight circle, returning to Turbine’s hand. Piston paused to reload her gun, and Turbine and Crucible rushed at me. Returning back into my human body, I reached into my trench coat, retrieving a telescopic self-defense baton, and flicked my wrist, extending it.  

“Come on,” I yelled over the music. “Don’t make me hurt you too much.” 

Turbine twisted his body, hurling his blade at me, and I dove below it, executing a tight tumble before returning to my feet. I swung my baton, but he blocked it with his forearm; still, I saw him wince in pain, and I repeated the strike several times in succession, alternating between arms and head. He stumbled back, and I moved to hit him again, but a small foot kicked me in the spine, the force belying its size. 

I fell forward, morphing into cat form, and The Call alerted me to another impending attack from Crucible. Darting to the side, I barely avoided a heavy stomp, her strike sending vibrations through the concrete and running up my feline legs. She moved to kick me a third time, but I ran under her legs, shifting back to human form so that the change in mass knocked her onto her back. I sensed Piston taking aim with her handgun and spun around, hurling the baton at her. It collided with her wrist, knocking the weapon away from her. Ignoring it, she strode calmly toward me, quickly picking up speed into a superhuman sprint. 

I’m charging her extra for this. 

Returning her stride, I ran at Piston, preparing myself. As she transitioned into a flying kick, I shrank into my feline body to slip beneath her, quickly shifting back once behind her to wrap my arm around her neck, effectively clotheslining her midair and sending her tumbling across the meat-packing plant. Before I could catch my breath, The Call alerted me to something approaching to my left, and I instinctively curled my arms inwards to block a front-kick from Cylinder. Sharp pain rain along my body, and I spun to face the gunslinger. 

Too late, I felt arms from behind as Turbine grabbed me and pinned my arms around my back. 

Cylinder slid forward as I struggled to escape, upper-cutting me in the stomach. I wheezed as the wind knocked from my lungs, flecks of bright light sparkling before my eyes, but Cylinder gave me no chance to recover. He followed up with a spinning back-fist across my jaw, and I tasted blood, my vision darkening around the edges. To my right, I saw Crucible approach, carrying Turbine’s circular blade, and The Call itched in the back of my mind, yearning for me to act. 

As Cylinder reared back for a third strike, I shifted, my feline form slipping from Turbine’s arms. Cylinder’s attack continued unabated, and he punched Turbine in the face, sending the man sprawling backwards. Darting to Crucible, I followed The Call, aiming for a pocket sewn within her cloak. I burrowed into the folds of her outfit, my tiny teeth clasping around something before I emerged from the other side. Returning to human form, I dropped the object into my hand, revealing some kind of small medicine tablet.  

The Call pulled at me again, and I knew what to do. 

Crucible whirled around, lunging at me with Turbine’s weapon, but I managed to side-step the attack, elbowing her in the nose. As she grunted, opening her mouth to breathe past her restricted airways, I grabbed her jaw, forcing the tablet down her throat. She resisted, but I covered her mouth, pinning her to the ground at an angle where she couldn’t avoid swallowing. After a moment, she relaxed, and I sensed it was safe to release her. 

What happened next, though, I couldn’t have possibly predicted. 

The young girl stiffened, seizing on the ground, and I heard bones crack as she distorted, her body tearing itself apart from the inside. I backed away slowly, shivering at the scene, as she hunched over, her cloak obscuring her. Blood began to pour across the warehouse floor, and the cloak rose into the air, revealing a mass of green, spiky appendages within. 

And I thought my ability was weird. 

Crucible’s cloak peeled back, revealing a giant praying mantis. Piston, Cylinder, and Turbine ignored the creature, rushing at me, but the mantis clicked its mandibles together, skittering toward them in a blur. Before they could reach me, it intervened, lashing out with both arms and one leg simultaneously. All three appendages reached their targets, pinning my would-be attackers to the warehouse floor. Realization struck me, and I broke out into a grin. 

Her mantis form is immune to the music. Beautiful, chère. 

Leaving the massive insect to deal with its teammates, I shifted into cat form, following my enhanced senses and the pull of The Call through the chaotic meat-packing plant. I quickly found a set of stairs leading to a balcony floor, and I crept up to the new level, entering a series of administrative offices.  

Standing with her back to me, microphone in hand, hunched a young, blonde woman in a classic black-and-white suit. Upon my entrance, she turned to face me, smiling through perfect, pearl-white teeth. I returned to human form, drawing my Walther and taking aim. The woman said something, but I couldn’t hear her over the music in my ears. 

“Hands on your head!” I commanded. “On your knees. You’re under arrest.” 

She slowly turned off the microphone, and I heard the muffled music in the warehouse silence. Removing one earbud, I spoke again. “I said down. Now. No sudden moves, Erica.” 

Her eyes glanced past me, and I felt The Call warn me of sudden danger. I dropped into my cat body just in time to avoid a crossbow bolt, which whizzed over my head and struck Erica directly in the neck. She clutched her throat as blood spurted from her jugular, spraying across the floor, and dropped to her knees, panic in her eyes.  

I spun around to see a man in brown armor and a fur coat looming above me, only a few feet away. His covered face glanced down at me, and my eyes drifted to a large spider symbol on his chest. Lowering his crossbow, he turned away, fleeing down the hall. I took chase, sprinting around the corner on all fours, but he managed to stay ahead of me. At the end of the hall, he quickly scaled a ladder, which appeared to lead to the rooftop. As he punched open the door in the ceiling, climbing through, I returned to my human body, following him up the ladder. My head rose cautiously into the night air, and a gust of wind blew into my face. Clearing my eyes, I spun in a circle, scanning the rooftop. 

Erica’s assassin, however, had vanished. 

Grimacing, I returned to the hallway, turning to see Piston, Cylinder, Turbine and Crucible approaching from the other end. They all looked weary and disoriented, likely still recovering from the effects of Erica’s music. I nodded at them as I walked forward, meeting them in the middle. Raising my thumb, I gestured to the office on my right. 

“She’s in there. An assassin in a brown spider costume shot her.” 

Piston sighed. “Huntsman. We’ve met. Where did he go?” 

I looked back at the ladder. “No clue. He ghosted before I could catch him. At least Erica is–” 

My words froze in my throat as I opened the door to an empty room. 

Cylinder and Piston immediately drew their firearms, rushing into the office, but Erica was nowhere to be found. Where she’d fallen lay a blood-covered crossbow bolt and a dark stain in the carpet. I hurried to the projectile, leaning close to smell it. 

“Synthetic blood.” I returned to my feet, speaking through clenched teeth. “She used a fake assassination to distract me. Erica Leroux is gone . . . again.” 

________________ 

We searched for the rest of the night, but were unable to locate Erica, Huntsman, or the vampires who were supposed to smuggle Erica out of the city. Eventually, we gave up, and Piston told me she’d consult with her Public Servants benefactor for next steps. I agreed, and she paid me for my assistance, mentioning that they’d reach out to me again in the future. I did not, however, charge her extra for attacking me.  

Now, back home, I opened the front door to my office, rubbing my bleary eyes as the sun crept above the horizon behind me. I stumbled inside, shrugging off my trench coat and collapsing once more onto my cot. I sighed heavily, reflecting on the night, and lamented my failure to complete the case. Fatigue trickled through my body, and I felt my eyelids grow heavy . . . 

Then, a gentle knock on my door. 

I growled, rolling out of bed and stomping to the entrance. Reaching for the doorknob, I threw the barrier open, glaring past the sunlight.  

“Monet’s Super– . . .” 

My words faded to silence as I registered the girl outside. Pale skin, pink hair, and a school uniform with a cape attached to the back. A yellow canary sat on her shoulder, staring at me with beady eyes. I recognized the girl from the news, and from my own investigations. She was the Public Servants’ youngest member, Avian. That was not, however, the only reason I knew her. 

“Hey, mom,” she sheepishly muttered. “Can we talk?” 


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