Adam Sinclair sat by a rack of sundresses in the women’s fashion section of Boans Department Store, while his mother tried on what felt like every scrap of fabric in the place. Tea-towels included, probably.
Sinclair family holidays were never grand affairs. Every January, with more regularity than the seasons themselves, they would hitch up their Carapark toaster1 to the Holden and park themselves over in Dunsborough or Margaret River for about a fortnight. Maybe even Rottnest, if Mr. Sinclair’s bonus was good that year.
Pleasant enough, in Adam’s eyes, except that at the end of the Great Eastern Highway lay the city of Perth. This might not have been a problem, or likely even been a plus… if his mother hadn’t used their annual getaways to stock up on new clothes.
Adam was running his hands through the hems of some cheap floral blouses, bored out of his mind, when he noticed the hush spreading through the store. It started on the ground floor, and infected the shoppers who peered over the bannister to see what was the matter, only to quickly back as far away from the precipice as they could. The boy tried to get a look for himself, but his father had his hand on his shoulder, pulling him in close. In the sudden quiet, the boy could even make out the faint ching of one of the teller machines being opened.
There were voices. Young ones, full of merriment, echoing through the petrified store. The shoppers might as well have been especially lifelike mannequins.
Adam heard cabinets being opened, and another voice, this one plaintive and appeasing. Then a snap, almost lost in the screams.
Mr Sinclair’s arms tightened around his son.
Someone was coming up the escalator. Four someones, in fact. The youngest might have been seventeen, the oldest less than thirty. One, an ivory blonde girl in a fur boa that shared an unfortunate resemblance to a swollen caterpillar, rode on the bannister. Next to her was someone Adam recognized immediately:
“That’s the Fox—” His father clapped a hand over his mouth before he could finish. If the bespeckled, bored looking man in the too-big, orange zoot suit and matching wide-brimmed hat heard his name being used, he didn’t react. Too occupied with the pound notes he was counting, perhaps.
“We don’t have time for this,” he grumbled. “Still have three shops left on the rounds.”
“Aww, don’t be like that,” a boy further up the moving stairs called back. He looked around eighteen, maybe older: it was hard to tell given how short he was. He wore a leather vest covered with unfortunately identifiable stains, the cleanest thing on him the red neckerchief that lay untied around his neck. He had an arm around a somewhat older, dark-haired lady with a pageboy cut and a white flapper dress. As he smiled at her, his flat face, framed by shaggy, lank black hair, scrunched up briefly. “You’re always talking about getting our name out there.”
If the Coven still needed to get their name out by this point, then in all odds nothing would help. The cabal had shared dominion over the headlines with AU for well over a year now. AU was definitely the more spectacular villain, but unlike him, they left bodies in their wake. When they made the papers, sometimes the Sinclairs wouldn’t even let their son look.
“We could call it a double date!” the woman in the flapper dress added.
The girl with the boa—Vixen, Adam wanted to say her name was—leaned in close to the Fox. “I want a new dress,” she cooed.
The Fox looked like he was considering pushing her off the escalator while he had the chance. “Fine,” he sighed, “but make it quick.”
Once upon the second floor, the Coven started circling towards women’s wear, wandering through motionless, terrified shoppers like a clutch of Gorgons. Now and then, the boy with the neckerchief would twig a nose or pull an ear, laughing whether their owners kept their composure or squeaked in fright.
The Fox rubbed his temples. “For God’s sake, Redcap.”
Adam couldn’t decide if he was excited or terrified when the quartet stopped near him and his father. His mother, hopefully feeling the change in the air, hadn’t stepped out from her changing booth.
Pageboy spun a dress carousel, watching the resulting blur of colour thoughtfully. She raised a hand, snapping her fingers. “Attendant!”
Silence. A few more insistent fingersnaps. “Attendant!”
A Boans girl emerged from behind the perfume counter, picking her way towards the supervillainess. Adam thought she had to be the bravest woman in the whole world. “Y-yes… ma’am?”
Pageboy removed a few dresses from the rack. “Which of these do you think would look best on me?” Her question sounded casual, like she was asking her sister on a normal Saturday shopping trip.
“…That one,” the Boans girl said, pointing to a white gown broken up by blue, swooping wrens. She screwed her eyes shut, clearly expecting a trick.
The woman thought about it for a second. “Interesting choice. I’m already wearing white.”
“…But you’re gonna wear white again, surely?”
The villain shrugged. “Fair cop.” She strode over to the row of changing rooms, and pulled aside one of their curtains.
Crouched low to the worn, well-trodden carpet, still in her underclothes, Mrs Sinclair stared up the other woman. Her eyes darted from the skull and crossbones tattoo on one shoulder to the skeletal hand clutching a heart on the other2 before settling on her bleached irises. “H-hello,” she stammered. Looking back, Adam could swear in the mirror behind her his mother was standing. Maybe it was the angle.
The tattooed woman smiled. “Recognised me, have you? Sorry to interrupt.”
From the linoleum walkway, Redcap and Vixen both laughed. The Fox just rolled his eyes. Their compatriot pointed back at the boy. “Don’t look too hard, Red. We all know how you like older women.”
He grinned. “Not that old.”
Turning back to Mrs. Sinclair, the villainess said, “Don’t worry, ma’am.” She uttered the last word like she was addressing a long mummified widow. “None of us mean you any trouble. That I know of.” She jabbed a thumb in the direction of the other Coven members. “My friends are their own people.”
The other woman smiled queasily. “I’m sure you don’t. I mean, all that stuff they print about you, it has to be lies—”
A grin. “Oh, it’s all true. But that’s business, just like all that stuff downstairs. Right now, I’m here to try on some dresses.” She raised her voice, addressing the whole store. “No different from any of you.” She quirked a shoulder, before adding at a more conversational volume “Well, I’m probably not paying for any of mine, to be honest.”
“Well how is that fair?” Redcap shouted. He glanced around at the other Covenanters, the Fox jerking back from him like he was infectious. “We don’t want these nice folks thinking we’re snobs, do we?” The young man ran towards the bannister, screaming “As of now, one time only, 100% percent off sale at Boans! Don’t bother the checkout lady on your way out, she’s nursing a broken arm!”
The Fox raised a hand. “No, no, absolutely not3.” His voice rang with an odd authority, like he was a septuagenarian judge handing down a doom, and not a twenty-something super-criminal of vague powers in a baggy suit. “Everyone is to remain in the store until ten minutes after I and my companions exit the premises. No one will remove anything from the store without paying—”
“No!” Redcap shouted. “You’re not going to spoil this for me!” He spun on his heels, pointing at a portly, bearded fellow trying to hide amongst a forest of trench coats. “You, garden gnome!”
The man gave up on his hiding place. “Yes?” he whimpered. No one held it against him, except, maybe, Redcap himself.
“Take something, and leave.”
The Fox sighed and pulled out a heavy, silver fob watch.
“I’m fine, really,” the object of Redcap’s attention said.
Redcap frowned while raising an eyebrow. “You won’t be if you don’t do as I say.”
As the unfortunate stood there and looked for something to shoplift, the white-eyed lady shot Mrs Sinclair a look of conspiratorial glee, as though sharing a joke only they of all the women in the world could hope to get.
Eventually, the fat man settled on one of the coats he had hoped would conceal him. Draping it over his left arm, he started making his way towards the escalator, glancing left and right at the other shoppers as he passed. His face looked apologetic, whether for leaving them to the Coven’s tender mercies, or for playing along with this mad child’s panto at all.
For a second, he made eye contact with Adam. The boy tried to nod encouragingly without moving his head.
As the man walked, he started to sweat. The perspiration was joined by tears. Then red started leaking into the saltwater.
As screams rose around him like a cresting wave, the man bled from every pore, blood spilling from his mouth like wine from a drunkard. Still, he kept walking, till he collapsed face down onto the escalator, the stairs carrying him away like a funeral barge.
“I love you,” Adam’s father whispered to him. “Me and your mum love you so much.”
The Fox looked disdainfully at the younger super. There was nothing like disgust in his eyes, Adam saw. Just the arrogant contempt of an older brother failing to be impressed. “And what was that for?” he asked, cooly.
Redcap grinned, saluting the other villain. “He didn’t do as you said, bossman.”
At the changing booths, his girlfriend asked Adam’s mother her name. Casually, as though the man she had just watched die had never been anything but an early, morbid Halloween decoration.
Shaking, she answered. “Jenny. Jennifer Sinclair.”
The woman extended a hand. “Fey,” she said. “Fey of Femurs4.”
The laughter that escaped Jenny was the kind you sometimes hear at funerals. There was a snap, and the laughter tapered off into a ragged scream.
It was then Adam saw him. Towering over Redcap, Vixen, and the Fox, there was a man.
Everything was all wrong. Wet bone was jutting from his mother’s arm. That poor man heaped at the bottom of the escalator was dead, all because he had done what those freaks had told him to. And didn’t Boans have a ceiling? And why was it night already?
The Coven had all turned to look at Adam. Fey of Femurs was wearing a smirk that spoke of angry, wounded pride. Adam was surprised. Did you really pick a name like that if you didn’t want people to laugh?
The bone-warper was saying something, but if any sound was coming out of her mouth, it didn’t reach Adam. Probably just a threat pretending to be a bad joke. What mattered to him right then was why the man with the starlit eyes wasn’t doing anything. Why wasn’t anyone stopping people like the Coven from going around doing whatever they wanted?
Adam stepped out from his father’s arms. It was surprisingly easy, like he was being held by a ghost.
“Ooh, we have a brave one here.”
The man made a shoving gesture. Adam followed suit.
“That’s not how you pray, kid.” Fey extended an arm, only to frown, seeming surprised to find her hand at the end of it.
Adam pushed his hands forward. For a second, he held the sun at his fingertips.
When the glare died away, you could see through Fey of Femurs’ chest. It didn’t bleed much. There was just the smell of charred meat. She blinked a few times, her mouth opening and shutting like a fish gasping for water, and then she fell.
“You little—” Someone knocked down Redcap before he could finish. The spell was broken; people were running for the exit, a few even leaping from the bannisters, some having to avoid the droplets running from the freshly melted hole in the store roof.
Adam wasn’t done yet, though. He ran at the prone Redcap, flipping him over and using one hand to pin him. The other was saved for punching him in the face.
“You. Hurt. My. Mum!”
His strikes were those of an angry amatuer. There shouldn’t have been any force behind them, yet every blow shattered a few more of Redcap’s teeth. One of them went through his cheek.
In a corner of men’s wear, the Fox was shouting into a makeup compact, a panicked Vixen hanging off his shoulder. “Super on the premises! Evac! Evac!”
Redcap winked away like a television being turned out, leaving Adam’s fist to crack into the floor. The solid wood gave way easily, while the lino covering it bent and wrapped around his hand.
The Fox followed not a second later, leaving Vixen clawing at the empty air. “Hey!” she shouted, realizing her predicament. “Heeeeeey!”
Adam felt hands around his waist lifting him up, holding him close to the chest of someone large. He pushed away, falling back to the floor. Someone yelled. His father.
He grabbed his son by the hand. His wife had her good hand wrapped around his forearm. “We have to go!”
They were gone before the DDHA arrived.
It was evening when Alberto had the vision. He had been sitting in his room, enjoying a private, liquid desert while rereading his childhood copy of Cuore5 for at least the sixtieth time. It was one of the only possessions he had managed to hold onto when Lawrence and the others had snuck him out of Bovegno.
By all rights, he should have hated the story: a sappy, patronizing, thinly veiled morality tale of an Italy almost thankfully wiped away by the War. But nostalgia was a hell of a drug, and as a grown man, Alberto could appreciate the irony of the work of an avowed socialist being devoured by little wolf cubs across the country. Still, not the most thrilling of tales.
Maybe the vision had come to save him from the book. They were never dramatic, unless they involved fairly immediate threats to his person. It was more like the low whine of tinnitus, or the flashing of scales just beneath the surface of a deep, black lake.
He rolled his eyes: yet another sneak preview of a possible future student. He got those a lot; new enrollments sadly being the main delta of change around the Institute. Before the DDHA had almost put Alberto out of a job, these visions had been the main source of new supers for Bertie’s collection. The psychic let the old man think it was some kind of power-focused clairvoyance, which he seemed to believe, despite knowing full well his usual range. Thus Alberto was allowed to curate the combination of students that aggravated him the least. It was how he had gotten Windshear for bugging Maelstrom, Metonymy for restocking his favourite vintages, and—not to mention—Phantasmagoria for bugging Lawrence.
Alberto wasn’t completely selfish, though. He had helped the Institute avoid some whoppers, too. Like the boy whose only power as far as he could tell was expelling porcupine like quills from his skin. And he thought he was tough! Or would have thought he was tough, Alberto wasn’t sure on the grammar. And then there was the girl who saw through all lies…
He shook his head, trying to dispel that never-memory. The esper didn’t particularly feel up to dealing with a new kid, but for want of anything better to do, he wandered down the hypothetical like a spelunker following a cave-line.
“Oh.” He grinned. Maybe he ought to give Lawrence a heads up after all.
When he felt like it.
1. So named due to their looking like the chrome appliances of a very chic giant. ↩
2. This being before we started tattooing even our most milquetoast pop-stars. ↩
3. The Fox would not have gotten as far as he had if hadn’t realized a protection racket required its targets to retain an income. ↩
4. Fey of Femurs, mid-20th century Perthite supervillain. First known member of the Coven to be killed in action.↩
5. Or Heart.↩