“Hey, Charlie, what you got now?” Devin said as he glanced back at me.
I flicked my fingers. “I dunno. Something with-”
-a bell rings in the distance, shaking loose dust from the rafters-
“-Dust? And… sound, I think. The dust could mean anything.” I furrowed my brow. Not exactly helpful.
I snapped my fingers experimentally, and a swarm of tiny lights appeared around my hand, flitting around like fireflies before fading. “Huh,” I said. “Not actually sure what that does.”
“Not in my car,” Devin commented. “Don’t want you setting anything on fire.”
“That reminds me, how’s your sister?” I asked.
“All splinted up,” Devin replied. “And not particularly happy with it. Broke her leg in… I think two places, and her arm’s broke too.”
“At least it’ll keep her out of our hair for a few months,” Rey said from the back. “She really shouldn’t’ve been following us. That last guy.. What’s-his-name- Dr… Otomonopoea?”
“Onomatopoeia,” I supplied.
“Yeh, him. He could’a killed her.”
“Woah, respect the sister,” Devin retorted. “The day she gets powers and either whups or saves your sorry ass, you owe me ten bucks.”
“Yeah, yeah, fine. Oh, yeah, C-Dan, where we going?” Rey changed the subject.
“The police pinged me, said someone called ‘the Cleaner’ just out of town in Ptusket,” I said.
“You know what,” Devin continued over us. “Ten bucks every time she whups or saves your ass.”
“Now that’s a bit much!” protested Rey, leaning into the gap between the front seats. “Ten bucks the first time, one buck each successive time,” he proposed, then added, “and the reverse every time I save or beat her.”
“Nah, you pay me if you beat up my sister.”
“So I gotta pay if she wins, and I gotta pay if I win?”
“If you fight my little sister, you’ll pay.”
“Just stick to the saving,” I suggested to Devin. ” ‘Cause if she found out, she’d fight him every chance she got.”
“Yeah, I like that better,” Rey added.
“Fine,” Devin conceded. “Man, that was gonna be half the fun!”
“Back on topic?” I asked.
“Sure. Who’s that Cleaner guy?”
I tried to remember what the dispatch had said.
“He’s a mid-tier generator, I think. I…” I thought for a moment. “I don’t remember exactly what he does.”
“Useful,” Rey remarked.
“Shut up. People -rich people- hire him to hide evidence of crimes. For whatever reason, he showed up in Ptusket at some big old house and took hostages, but they got off a 911. The police aren’t equipped to take him on, and SWAT is still hours away.”
“Dang,” Rey said. “And you have no idea what he does?”
“I’ve got nothing,” I confessed sheepishly.
“Yo, we’re just about there,” Devin said. “I’m pulling off here.”
Devin turned the car onto a dirt road and parked in the bit of gravel that served as parking for a hiking trail.
“Right, masks and stuff in the back,” Devin said, kicking the lever that opened the trunk as he stepped out of the car.
We pulled on what served as our costumes. Unconventional, in the sense that they weren’t the ridiculous skintight bodysuits a lot of heroes favored, yet more normal when one considered that they were… basically just hoodies. After we’d registered, we’d been put in contact with a costume designer. He’d protested the designs initially, but had conceded in the face of our boisterous stubbornness. They were mostly bulletproof now, less warm, and with fewer inconvenient pockets and strings that could get caught in a fight, but they still looked pretty much the same as our original hoodie-and-jeans disguises.
We glanced at each other, Rey in his in his Basilisk persona: green hoodie, patterned with faint scales; Devin as Pitfall in his mottled grey, and myself in stark black and white.
“You ready?” I asked.
Basilisk and Pitfall nodded as one.
“Let’s do this!”
I felt the toes of my shoes sink into the ground slightly and knew Pitfall was doing his trick. I let myself fall forward, smashing into and through the ground, face-first. Gravity reversed in a queasy instant and I found myself rising back out of the ground 100 or so yards away. A moment later, Basilisk and then Pitfall sprang out of the ground beside me, rotating up to their feet in a kind of reverse trust-fall.
We traveled this way until we reached the police perimeter around the house.
“You weren’t kidding when you said it was big, were you?” said Basilisk as we approached.
“No, no I was not.”
The house was styled like a log cabin, fitting with the wooded surroundings, though no real log cabin was ever so large. I spotted a sign which hung by the side of the road proclaiming the house to be “Camp Carlton.”
“Tipping Point?” asked an officer.
“And company,” I confirmed.
“Thank god,” she replied, obviously relieved. “Get in there. Three people hostage- the couple that made the call, and the first officer who responded.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” I said. “Permission to enter the perimeter?”
“Granted. Go!” she directed. “SWAT will back you up when it gets here.”
“Got it. Basilisk, Pitfall, You ready?”
“All ready here, TP,” Basilisk replied.
We approached the outer wall of the house, and Pitfall reached out towards the wall, then grimaced.
“You know what’s funny?” said Pitfall. “It’s not flat enough. These stupid log things are in the way. We can’t get in through this wall.”
“Ceiling?” I asked.
“Could work. Don’t like doing that though. Sticking the landing is hard.”
“Wait, why not just put one in through a window?” Basilisk asked.
“I need line-of-sight or opposing surfaces, but it doesn’t work through glass,” explained Pitfall. “Dunno why. Just one of those things.”
“Hmm. Front door?” suggested Basilisk.
“I like it, I’m gonna change it a little. Back door,” Pitfall settled.
We portaled around the house and found the back door, which opened onto a broad slate patio with a chiminea and a shiny, new-looking grill.
“Damn, I want to live here,” commented Basilisk.
“Wait ’till you see the inside,” I said. “I have a hunch it’ll be even better.”
Pitfall walked to the door and started to knock, but his hand went right through the wood, or more specifically, through the portal just under the surface of the door.
“Whoops!” he said with a mockingly apologetic tone, then followed his fist through the door, which splintered as he passed through, then resealed behind him, leaving a faint silhouetted indentation on the door where the portal had been.
I walked through the door next once I felt my hand push through it, closely followed by Basilisk. I took a quick look around where we’d come out. It was a kitchen, with marble countertops and gleaming fixtures. A smear of- across the hardwood floor. Everything was spotless, except for the thin splinters of wood from the door where we’d come through.
“Hey, you were right,” said Basilisk as he looked around, taking in the lavish interior.
“Told you. Now let’s find this Cleaner guy.”
The next room was a thickly-carpeted, homely living room, with a fireplace, some vaguely vintage couches, and an assortment of family photographs mounted on the warmly-colored walls. One of them was-
I stepped carefully over the- then stopped confused. Was that-
“They have a pool?” Basilisk marveled, drawing my attention away from the-.
“And a sauna,” added Pitfall appreciatively.
“Nice,” I said, raising my eyebrows at the tiled pool room. “Can’t believe this is just a summer home.”
“Yeah. ‘Camp Carlton.’ Wouldn’t be a ‘Camp’ if they lived here full-time.”
“Daaaamn,” Basilisk said. “Remind me why we aren’t just robbing this place?”
“‘Cause it’s surrounded by cops.”
“And that’s pretty much the only reason,” Pitfall joked.
The next room we checked was a dining room, also attached to the kitchen. A big wooden table rested at the center, and the walls had cabinets of china and silverware. An elaborate chandelier sparkled above the table.
One room looked like a study, or a work room, and had a door leading into a library. We ignored the library and checked a few guest bedrooms, before we heard a-
“What was that?” I said, stopping the others.
“What was what?” asked Basilisk.
I heard the voice a-
“That,” I said, listening. “I think we’re missing something.”
“I’m not an hit man,” he explained in a patient, silky-smooth voice.
“I never said you were,” I replied, taken off guard by the non-sequitur.
“Uh, you losing it, TP?” Pitfall asked, concerned.
I didn’t respond for a moment, reviewing what had just happened in my head.
“No,” I concluded. “I think the Cleaner’s doing something weird.”
‘He is,’ confirmed the voice in my head. She’d appeared shortly after I first met her in a dream just after getting my powers. I wasn’t sure who she was, but she was useful at times. ‘Your current power looks like it has a sensory component, but another power, the Cleaner’s, must be, is mucking with it. Not sure why you’re interpreting it as Basilisk talking. The brain does weird things sometimes.’
Quit it, I thought back. You make me feel like I’m going crazy.
Says the voice in my head no one else can hear.
A- rang through the hall.
“Ugh,” I grunted. “I think I remember why I couldn’t remember what he does.”
“Why?” Basilisk asked. A
I explained. “He-”
“So, you going to tell us?” Pitfall asked after a moment.
“I just did,” I said, exasperated. “He-”
“You just said ‘he.’ Not really helpful,” said Basilisk.
“No I didn’t, you just-” I explained a third time.
They stared at me for a moment, and I could see realization dawning through Pitfall’s posture.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “He-”
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “Probably. I missed whatever that just was.”
“Ugh, that’s weird,” he said.
“You guys messing with me?” whined Basilisk.
“This is not the job you hired me for,” the Cleaner said, his voice muffled through the wall. I still reflexively turned to Basilisk, and afterwards I could’ve sworn it was him talking. I glanced at Basilisk, but there was no indication he had spoken, and Pitfall hadn’t reacted.
‘That’s weird,‘ commented the voice in my head.
Shut up, you, I snapped back.
‘I’m just trying to help! I know this is uncomfortable for you, but you need me.’
“No, but I don’t think we have time to explain,” I said speaking much more quietly. “I think he’s-”
A moment later, I cursed under my breath and tried again. “Someone is right through this wall.” I paused. “Did that work?” Pitfall nodded. “Oh good, we can be vague. The door must be around the corner.”
Basilisk looked back and forth between us, lost.
“Your memory sucks,” Pitfall explained to him. “I think that’s as close as I can get. Not completely right, because if it was, it would-”
“Hey! I don’t…” Basilisk trailed off. “Oh wait. I get it. He’s-”
“Yes,” Pitfall and I chorused.
“Probably,” I added. “It’s hard to tell when you can’t-”
“Yes it is,” Basilisk agreed. “Makes a lot of sense why this guy does… what he does, though.”
“Ah! There he is again!” I heard a woman cry.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Basilisk-not-Basilisk explained patiently.
‘That’s not Basilisk,’ the voice in my head chimed in. ‘He’s just the closest reference you have. Your brain is filling in the gaps between your power and your auditory cortex.’
Yeah, I know. Figured that one out myself, thanks.
‘Just trying to help,’ she grumbled back.
“So are you two hearing this?” I asked them, gesturing towards the wall.
“I don’t kill people, don’t worry,” the Cleaner/Basilisk continued. “That’s the issue at hand, actually.”
“Nope,” said Basilisk, interrupting himself, making my head swim.
“Me neither,” agreed Pitfall.
“Huh. Maybe part of my power.” I snapped my fingers and grabbed at one of the flecks of light that appeared. As the others faded, the one I’d caught remained. Flicking my fingers, it cast out a cobweb-thin line of light which stuck to the wall where it hit.
“We’ve been over this,” I heard the Cleaner say through it, his voice much clearer now, and much more distinctly not Basilisk.
“Yup, part of my power,” I said, confirming my suspicion. “Neat.”
I tugged on the faintly glowing string to see if I could dislodge it, and the wall around where it was stuck warped and buckled towards me in a spike of wallpapered plaster.
“Woah.” I let go of the string and the wall snapped back into shape with a *thump.* “Oops.”
“Uh, if he’s through the wall, he probably heard that,” Basilisk commented.
“I’ll call you back. I might have a situation,” I heard through the wall, now muffled again.
“Let’s go through,” I said. “Quick.”
I charged the wall, praying fervently that Pitfall had taken my cue, and tore through the wallpapered portal.
Pitfall and Basilisk came through behind me. I turned and knelt, then snapped my fingers and flicked out a string, sticking it to center of the patch that was now missing wallpaper.
Through the string, I heard a coffee pot clunking repeatedly.
Yeah? How so? I thought, trying to display my irritation in my mental tone. That’s definitely just a… Wait a minute, a coffee pot?
‘If you can’t- it stands to reason you can’t- either. Your power fills in the next best thing.’
I’ll just assume you know what you’re talking about.
‘You should. I taught this stuff for years.’
“Huh?” I was so surprised I almost missed when the… coffee pot was right in front of the string. I pulled the string back and then released it, letting the wall snap back into place.
There was a clatter of pots and pans and a car horn- or at least that’s what I heard. From what I’d figured out, it was almost definitely-
“Got him!” I said. “I think.”
I snapped my fingers and flicked a string at the floor under the door, then flicked the other end at the ceiling. Making a circle with the fingers of one hand, I pulled a loop of the string through, causing the ceiling and floor to pull together, blocking the door. I pinched off the loop and let it dissolve into the air.
It was only then that I bothered to take a look at where we were. It was a billiards room, dimly lit, decorated with dartboards and cue racks. Around the pool table were three people, a handsome black man, a short woman, and a man in a police uniform, all of whom appeared to be frozen in place. I watched them for a moment, then turned to Basilisk.
“Did you petrify them?” I accused him.
“I did,” he confessed. “She tried to hit me with a pool cue and I froze ’em reflexively.” He turned to them. “I am really sorry. It was a low dose, so it’ll wear off pretty quick, but I know how much it sucks.”
“Dang, that makes things a little harder,” I said. “I guess we can explain what’s going on while they thaw, though.”
“On second thought,” I said, turning to make sure the door was still shut. “We should probably move. Basilisk, grab the girl, I’ll get the cop.”
The police officer was really heavy, and I could tell from his build that it was not all muscle. We hefted the hostages and smashed through the opposite wall with help from Pitfall’s portals. We kept going through the next wall, and the one after that.
“Puh- Put me down,” the cop said.
“That’s enough,” I said to the others. We stopped in one of the guest bedrooms and dropped the hostages on the bed. They struggled stiffly to their knees.
“Let’s go back. I want to see if we can catch this guy,” I said before any of the hostages could talk. “Basilisk, stay here and make sure they stay safe. You froze ’em, you get to watch the hostages.”
Pitfall and I turned to go back through the wall and returned to the billiards room the same way we’d left. The door- I cut the cord which held the ceiling and floor together, allowing them to snap back into place. The door- and a muscular, bald man in a white t-shirt burst through.
‘Yeah. You’ve got what amounts to a blind spot right where that guy is,’ said the voice in my head. ‘I filled it in with the most convenient reference. This is how you imagined him subconsciously, apparently. Makes sense, given the name.’
‘Hey, I work with what I’m given.’
The Cleaner strode into the room, gait relaxed.
“Nobody there,” Pitfall said. “He must have gone around.”
‘He can’t see him.’
“Yeah,” I said, playing along. I forced my eyes not to track Cleaner as he inspected us, fixing my gaze on a dartboard across the room.
He walked a careful circle around us. I did my best to ignore him and walked on an intercept course, towards the billiards table. He stepped just out of my way as I neared, and I took that opening to spin and clock him in the face.
‘There’s a reason you aren’t supposed to punch the face. Lots of bones. Palm strikes are better. Or so I’m told. I don’t actually have much experience in that arena.’
My breath hissed between my teeth at the pain, but the Cleaner spun and stumbled back, surprised. For a moment, his concentration faltered and I saw who he really was.
So he actually is bald, I observed.
“Woah!” Pitfall threw out an arm and the floor opened up under the Cleaner. He-
I picked up a *crash!* with my power.
‘There he is,’ said the voice in my head. ‘Lost him for a moment.’
He appeared again, pulling himself to his feet. I flicked out a string, catching him in the chest.
‘Careful! I think you might-‘
“I will stop your heart if you move again.” I told him, interrupting the voice in my head. I could hear his heartbeat quicken.
‘Wow. Nice bluff. You’re bluffing, right?’
“Where is he?” asked Pitfall, eyes sweeping around the room.
He-I tugged on the string and he stopped whatever he was doing. I assumed.
“Get up,” I told him, and he- “Stop that.”
“I can’t,” he said. The string vibrated as he spoke.
“Hm. Well, come along then. Pitfall, go get Basilisk and the hostages. I’ve got-”
“You sure?” Pitfall kept scanning the room, looking for the Cleaner.
“Yeah. This power has some kind of perception effect. I’ve got him leashed.”
“Be right back.” He loped off through the wall in the direction we’d left the hostages and Basilisk.
“So you can hear me?” said the Cleaner once Pitfall was gone.
“Yeah, I can.” I hopped up and sat on the pool table. “So?”
“You shouldn’t be able to.” He sounded curious.
“Probably not,” I said. “But I don’t tend to care for that kind of rule.”
“Well, I guess you’ve got me.” He sighed. “Damn.”
“What happened here anyway?” I asked him.
He- I think it was a laugh.
“Sorry, can’t tell you that. What I can tell you is that those two were not supposed to be here.”
“You didn’t mean to take hostages?”
“No! I came here to cover up- something.”
“Good thing you don’t kill people,” I said.
Basilisk came through the wall, followed by the three hostages and Pitfall.
“One rule I never break. I’ll do a lot of things if the pay is good, but murder is simply not one of them. You want to kill someone? Fine. I’ll take care of the body, but you need to kill them yourself.”
“You all okay?” I asked the hostages.
“Yeah, um,” the woman scratched her head. “Me and Theo were playing pool and I kept seeing- there was-”
“She called the police. I couldn’t stop her,” the boyfriend, Theo, I assumed, said. “Janise hasn’t had a breakdown like that in a few years.”
“There was someone-” she turned to Theo, then froze. Her eyes widened as she looked behind him. “He’s-” she shrieked.
“I’ve got him,” I reassured her. “Invisible guy,” I told Theo. “Well, not actually invisible, but-”
“She can see me sometimes,” the Cleaner commented. “Damn my luck. Probably has some kind of brain damage, or a nervous condition. Or schizophrenia.”
“When she tried to tell me what she saw, I recognized the signs, since we have to memorize villain dossiers,” said the mustachioed officer. “Called for backup, but pretended to not believe her so he’d stay.” I nodded. From my experience, most of the officers didn’t bother to memorize the dossiers. That this one even played along… I liked this guy.
“Fuck, are you kidding me?” the Cleaner muttered. “No wonder. Twenty years and only now I run into an actually competent officer?”
“Do you always talk this much?” I asked him, kicking my feet.
“Since nobody can hear me, I kinda got into the habit of talking to myself, yeah,” he said.
Theo looked a bit shell-shocked, and more than a little confused. “Am so the only same one here, or am I the crazy one?” he said.
“Hey, don’t worry, I feel the same way sometimes,” Rey said, clapping Theo on the back. He leaned in towards Theo and whispered in his ear. I couldn’t hear him physically, but my power picked up, “Just play along.”
“If you could show us the way out, we’ll get this guy out of your home and into police custody in no time,” I said.
“Hey, do us a favor, don’t tell my parents,” Theo said, looking worried. “They don’t know we’re here.”
“Sure, kid. I won’t ruin your fun. You can get right back to your pool game.” The officer raised an eyebrow. Theo looked away, and Janise blushed. “Yeah, okay.” He turned to me. “You still got him?”
“Yup,” I said. “Right at the end of this string.”
“Mare sure he doesn’t try anything. I can’t- and he-” he paused. “My radio is gone,” he said, more successfully.
Janise lead us back through the halls to the front door. I walked backwards so I could see the Cleaner, who walked along after me, seemingly complacent. We reached the doorway, and Janise thanked us profusely. Theo did too, but I could tell he was still skeptical. He thought we were just there to cure Janise of a breakdown, probably.
Just pulling up outside was a SWAT Metahuman Transport Vehicle (VMT, to avoid trademark issues, though most people called them Boxcars, because they were so blocky.)
We loaded the Cleaner into the van and the SWAT agents tagged him, once I pointed out where he was.
“He’s- His-” I tried to tell the SWAT agents. “I- ugh. Some metahumans. Are classified incorrectly,” I managed to say. “I have to be vague, but you get my drift?” The helmeted head of the SWAT agent nodded. “There was not, in that house, before our arrival, a generator. Perception powers are fairly common. You following?” Another nod. “Records should be updated.”
“We know about the dossier issue,” said the SWAT agent. “We were briefed in a similar manner. Vague, and unspecific. The dossier reflects a power which would merit an appropriate response. Due to the nature of- some powers, records sometimes have to be inaccurate.”
“That’s really annoying.”
“Tell me about it.”
The SWAT agents loaded back into the van and roared off, followed closely by the Ptusket police cars.
“You know what the worst part about that guy was?” Pitfall said to me as we headed back to where we’d parked.
“What?” I asked.
“You can’t-” He sighed. “See? I hate people you can’t talk trash about.”