“Ah, Mrs Stamp, sir.”
Menagerie looked over his clipboard at the old woman standing before him. Her blue, floral mumu was almost the same colour as her hair. A “Mrs”, but no husband in sight. She practically had “widow” stamped on her forehead. Hopefully that meant a pension not split between two mouths, unless Mr. Stamp was a good-for-nothing or his wife was the sort to spoil their grandkids. Also, pearls.
He scribbled down her name. “Do you have any pets, Mrs Stamp?” He concluded the question with a smack of his lips.
The old lady attempted a watery smile, trying not to look at the wild dogs that flanked Menagerie. It always confused him when folks did that. Did they think the smile would appease him somehow? “I do, yes: a little pitbull. He’s a right feisty old—”
“Yes, I’m sure.” Menagerie resisted the urge to lecture the woman about the unethicality of dog-breeding and the genetic sturdiness of mutts. “What name does he answer to?”
He never asked “What’s their name?” Implying animals actually called themselves the sounds people cooed at them was an insult.
Scratch. “And does Bigsby have a collar?”
The woman’s smile drooped. “He-he lost it. I haven’t had time to replace it.”
“That’s horribly irresponsible, ma’am. Didn’t you think about what might’ve happened if he got lost?”
“A little bit,” Mrs Stamp admitted. “Honestly this didn’t occur to me.”
Menagerie shook his head. “Dump your money and those pearls in the truck behind me. Does Bigsby have any distinguishing marks?”
He was going to try and return the dog, of course. He wasn’t a monster.
As Mrs Stamp shuffled away, fifteen pounds and an heirloom necklace poorer, Menagerie looked out at the line that stretched the entire length of the street and beyond: townsfolk waiting to pay their tribute. Under the watchful eyes of the lorikeets and kookaburras he had perched on the roofs of the surrounding shops and restaurants, they were slowly shepherded by canine sentries patrolling the pavements. Men and women clutched wallets and purses, while some of their children even carried their money-boxes and piggy-banks. Good, Menagerie thought. Teach kids to cooperate with the friendly supervillain early, and it goes smoother for everyone.
Still, God, so many people to get through. “Next!”
A family of four walked up to Menagerie. The father looked like he thought he was the hero of the story. His wife looked like she wished he didn’t.
“No,” the father grunted.
“But Daddy,” one of his sons protested, “Miss Jezebel!”
“You still have to pay either way, sir. Throwing your bloody cat under the bus won’t change that.”
“How did you know she’s a cat?” Harry asked.
“Because I remember your dad here screaming like a little girl when she jumped him.”
The man looked the supervillain dead in the domino mask.“You’ve got some nerve, you know, robbing decent, hardworking folks. Are demis too good for jobs?”
Menagerie didn’t know who annoyed him more: the odd attempted sycophant, or the folks who thought he needed reminding that he was committing a crime. “Mate, superpowers have been grounds for termination for three years1. So yes, we are.”
“Flying Man! Flying Man help us—”
One of Mengarie’s dogs clamped its jaws around the mother’s pantyhoused thigh. She screamed, despite the lack of any real pressure.
“You stupid, selfish bint,” Menagerie hissed in her face.
Her husband made to slug the supervillain, but Menagerie’s other dog bared its teeth and growled.
“Try anything and she’ll need a surgeon, mate. All the horrible things in the world, and you think the Flying Man’s going to give a shit about your pets? Or your money? When’s there’s babies drowning in China or some place. Get real.”
The dog released the woman’s leg.
“Now pay the toll and piss off.”
Half an hour of shakedowns later, a mass of pound notes and coins lurched through the air towards the truck. Menagerie’s comrade Fo-Fum floated alongside the haul, his right arm hooked around empty air like he was embracing a friend. As they approached, low booms echoed down the street. Patches of road cracked like glass.
His voice boomed like a craggy giant’s, “Get out of the way!”
The Northamites scurried away in every direction, not even knowing what they were trying to keep clear off. A few found themselves knocked to the ground by nothing at all. Some tried catching stray notes and coins that dropped from the flying pile. It never occurred to them the Fearsome Three could just make them fork that over, too.
Fo-Fum and the money stopped in front of Menagerie, the former gingerly descending to the ground.
“Just hit the bank,” he said in his unamplified, cigarette-shredded voice as he scratched the ear of one of the guard-dogs. The money started shovelling itself into the truck-bed in great bushels. “What’s the take here so far?”
Menagerie shrugged, setting his clipboard on the edge of the truck. “Haven’t really been keeping count. Coming up on ten grand, I think?”
Fo-Fum whistled through his grey beard. “Bloody Nora. That’s more than I made in a year.”
Menagerie smiled. His high-school homeroom teacher—trying to impress upon his students the sheer size of mankind—had said that if someone could extract just a single pound from every person on Earth, they would be the richest man alive. Sure, Northam wasn’t exactly the world, but it was a start.
Fo-Fum looked around. “Where’s Chisel got to?”
“In the diner—ah, there she is now.”
The woman called Chisel walked out of the restaurant, sipping from a milkshake held in rough hands. Her polished grey concrete skin was powdered by a thin layer of dust—Menagerie and Fo-Fum had gathered that was how she sweated. The amethyst crystals that sprouted from her head and trailed down her neck glinted in the December sun. She would need to grind them down into something manageable again soon.
She nodded at the men in turn. “Pete, Barry.”
The pair shared a look. Menagerie shook his head at the stone lady. “Codenames, Chisel.”
“Right, right. But I’m sure first names won’t give us away.”
“Consistency is important if we want a reputation. Wouldn’t you rather not have to scare people so much first?”
Chisel rubbed her mane, pale violet dust coming away on her fingers. “…I would.”
“And better be safe than sorry. Me and Fo have secret identities to consider. We do want to retire someday.”
Chisel put a hand over her breast.
“Aww, Hettie,” said Fo-Fum. “The boss didn’t mean it that way.”
Menagerie shook his head at himself. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I understand.” Chisel eyed the pile of money still being fed into the truck. “Good haul, Fo.”
“Yeah, it is.” Fo-Fum pulled a packet of Winnie Blues from his jacket pocket. “Smoko, boss? Just while I get it all in the truck?”
Menagerie shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
Fo-Fum turned to the crowd of waiting supplicants “Alright, puny mortals!” he shouted, voice amplified again. “The Fearsome Three are taking a fifteen minute break! If any of you try anything stupid…” Fo-Fum pounded his fist against his leather-wrapped palm. The echo rolled over the townsfolk like storm clouds.
Menagerie continued, “And if that doesn’t convince you, a lot of the dogs are getting hungry.” He jabbed a thumb at Chisel. “Maybe our lady-friend here could grind some bones to make their bread.”
Chisel didn’t look up from her milkshake.
The crowd cautioned, Menagerie and Fo-Fum both lit up, the latter offering their teammate a cigarette.
She shook her head. “Might as well suck air through a straw.” She sipped her milkshake. “I still don’t like my name. Chisels break stone. It’d be like calling you two ‘Gun’ or “Hatchet’2.”
“Well, too late to change it now,” said Menagerie. “Again, reputation’s no good if people don’t know who you are.”
“Yeah,” said Fo-Fum. “Bad enough we had to change our name when Primadonna ran off.”
Chisel shrugged. “She was a cow.”
Fo-Fum gave her a sideways look. “You broke her jaw.”
“Exactly. Let the Coven keep her. I heard she’s the Fox’s new moll.”
“Serves her right,” said Menagerie. “I mean…” He suddenly became aware of the eyes of Northam staring at the three of them, watching and waiting. He felt like he was on exhibition back at Perth Zoo. “…Did you two ever see your lives turning out like this?”
Peter Frum certainly hadn’t. Peter Frum couldn’t have expected to have been fired for being too good with the animals. Or for his boss to act like he was doing him a favour not calling the freak-finders while he was at it.
Although, his boss couldn’t have expected to have been trampled by Tricia the elephant, either3.
Chisel shook her head, crystal grinding against stone. “Never. I always imagined me and Paul would’ve had another kid or two by now. Maybe have paid off the house. Grown old.” She looked at her concrete hands. “I don’t even know if I can do that anymore.”
Fo-Fum nodded. “I always thought being a supervillain would be more glamorous, you know? But we don’t even got a decent lair. Did you ever hear about Jack Jupiter sleepin’ in the back of a truck?
Menagerie waggled his eyebrows. “Tonight we’re sleeping on a pile of money, like Scrooge McDuck!”
Chisel tried to smile. Her lips always obeyed her slowly. “Cheer up, Fo. After this job maybe we can establish ourselves properly. Set up shop somewhere.”
“We should hit a zoo,” mused Menagerie. “Dogs are great and all, but variety is nice. And not having to scrounge the bush every job.”
He smiled to himself. Images of war-elephants and lions filled Menagerie’s head. And gorilla henchmen. With machine guns.
Fo-Fum sighed. “Me and the Crimson Comet are the same age ya know. If Ma hadn’t told me to go into construction…”
“…The hell is this?” Menagerie interrupted him, clutching his forehead.
Chisel grabbed her teammate’s shoulder. “What’s the matter?” She shook him. “Pete!”
Dozens, maybe hundreds of eyes and ears, and just as many vantage points. Muted glimpses of streets where the colour red and all its children were myths, but scent was the language of everything. Something zooming through them like an intruder in a row of paintings…
“There’s a bloody flying carpet.”
Menagerie winced. Dogs went green and were suddenly somewhere else, if reappeared at all. They were struck by fists and clubs or some new, unfamiliar pain. “There’s some kids riding on it. They’ve got these crazy guns and swords and shit—”
The supervillain felt teeth breaking against soft, youthful skin.
“—And a flying girl. Fuck, we’ve got supers.”
Chisel’s mouth was agape, revealing teeth like carefully arranged stone-chips. “Where did they come from?”
“Probably the New Human Institute,” said Fo-Fum.
His teammates both stared at him like he had personally invited the interlopers. “The New What Institute?” Menagerie asked.
“The New Human Institute,” answered Fo-Fum. “It’s this school for supers. Those little kids who danced in front of Parliament a while back live there. Sounded beautiful.”
Menagerie shouted, “And you didn’t think to tell us?”
Fo-Fum threw his hands up. It sounded like the wind was picking up. “Come on, that place is miles away. I figured if they were even around they’d be on our side.”
“Was the Crimson bloody Comet on our fucking side?”
“Boys, boys,” Chisel cooed. She was becoming aware of murmurs running through the crowd, peppered with rare, brave insults. “Not in front of the hostages.”
Menagerie sputtered and growled, before taking a deep breath. “Chisel, take one of the walkie-talkies and check these people out. Fo-Fum, I want you to stay here in case the naturals get ideas. Got it?”
Chisel and Fo-Fum both nodded.
Their leader fished a walkie-talkie from the truck, tossing it to the living statue. “Take this. I’ll give ya directions.”
Catching the little radio, Chisel set off.
The crowd parted for her. People stared. Others averted their eyes, or had them covered by their mothers and fathers.
The children stung the most.
Chisel couldn’t blame the locals for being scared of her, though she doubted that could be helped. She remembered how people had looked at her back in Broome when the scream first overtook her. The look on her family’s faces, when she stopped being her.
Once she was clear, Chisel began to run. She didn’t think of herself as having super-speed, exactly, but she could definitely build up a lot of momentum. As she weaved through the streets, she noticed a dingo keeping apace with her, and a little cockatiel gliding above them both: Menagerie’s eyes.
She kept having to vault over cats and dogs as they crossed the road and slipped between houses; over fences and under hedges. It was like watching the animals hike to the ark before the flood.
Without stopping, Chisel asked her walkie-talkie, “What are you doing, Menagerie?”
“Consolidating our forces, honey. The supers are just sort of floating a couple a’ streets—shit!”
Chisel ground to a stop, her feet tearing up the road. In the distance, there was a sound like thunder laughing, and the flashing haze of a green sunset. It went on like that for two minutes, before the light died away and silence took its place, bar the distant sound of young voices.
Meangerie’s voice crackled shakily. “They—they’re all gone. Just gone…”
“Breathe, Pete, breathe. What are they doing now?”
“Wait a sec, I’m getting a bird over. Okay, they’ve landed. I think they’re heading for one of the houses. Number 7 it looks like.”
“I’m going to check it out.”
“Hettie… are you sure? Maybe we should cut our losses and get out now?”
Chisel thought about it. She pushed the PTT button again. “No. If we’re doing this, we might as well be good at it. And what kind of supervillain can’t deal with the other team?”
She waited for his answer.
A staticy sigh. “Alright. But please, be careful.”
“I’m made of stone, Pete. What could do they do?”
Cutting through to Gregory Street was easy enough. Chisel tore through gates and fences like they were made of spun sugar. She emerged onto the road just in time to see someone slipping through the door of Number 7, shutting it behind them.
“Shit, my bird’s gone—”
Chisel switched off the reciever.
She sprinted over. Through the red-painted wood, she could hear a young man saying:
“Today Jen, we’re superheroes.”
As ladylike as possible, Chisel battered the door down with one closed fist.
The boys and girls crowded behind it backed away, staring at her. She tried to think of what a proper supervillain would say:
“I hope for your sake that’s true, young man.”
Well, that was crap.
The speaker was a little boy covered in tiger-striped fur, being pet nervously by a girl in torn jeans. A tail swayed behind his head.
Chisel had never seen a super as physically divergent as herself. She wanted to say something—an expression of solidarity, a question, anything—but the boy beat her to it.
“You’re like me.” He stepped toward, holding out a clawed hand. One of the others, a chiseled, golden haired teen tried to stop him, but the child brushed him off. “I’m Billy. Growltiger sometimes. What’s your name?”
Chisel couldn’t answer. Instead, she hissed into her walkie-talkie, “You didn’t tell me there were children!”
“I said they were kids!”
“Kids are not children!” She looked back at the cat-boy, and the two other little kids now at his side. “Some of them aren’t even ten years old!”
“Almost,” said a fox-faced boy sourly.
“Not the time, Arnold,” said a tall, auburn haired girl with thick, dark eyebrows.
Chisel stared at her. “One of them’s pregnant! I’m not fighting a—”
Sadie Owens punched the stone woman square in the face. She sailed out the door, clear across the street. Glass shattered against Chisel’s back, before she landed in thick shag carpeting.
She groaned. She could feel cracks in her skin.
The pregnant girl floated into the new living room through the destroyed window, eyes cast down contemptuously at the prone supervillain.
“I stay cooped up on the freak-farm for months, and the one day I get to do some shopping, some arseholes come and wreck up the place!” She stopped just in front of Chisel. “What the fuck, lady?”
The smooth finish of Chisel’s skin broke apart, shifting and churning like broken brick in a cement mixer.
God forgive me.
She slammed her heel against the floor. A jagged grey fang bust out of the carpet, right under the flying girl’s chin.
Sadie shot through the ceiling, plaster dust and splinters raining down on Chisel.
She ran back outside, just as her opponent landed in the middle of the road. The impact punched a shallow crater in the asphalt.
“Are you alright?” Chisel called out instinctively.
Sadie sat up. Aside from some very mussed hair, she looked more annoyed than anything else. “This how you treat every pregnant lady you meet?”
“I’m sorry. But you started it.”
Did she really just say that? Was she twelve?
Sadie screamed. Rising from the ground like an angry ghost, she lunged at Chisel.
The supervillain doged and stamped her foot against the road. It reared up like a wave and wrapped around her assailant like a child in a sleeping bag. She struggled to keep aloft, before a shard of green lightning zapped her a few feet to the left.
“No problem,” said Arnold, blowing on his finger like a gun.
Sadie was upon Chisel in a flash, striking her carved face with angry, inexpert, titanic blows. Cracks and fissures spread across her face.
She’s not going to stop until I do.
The road rippled up under Sadie’s feet, flinging her skywards.
Chisel knew she only had a moment. She ran towards Number 7, towards the children standing out front.
Arnold became fluorescent, but she was expecting that. The supervillain dodged a blast of lightning that stripped the road behind her naked.
Mabel was flicking frantically through her scrapbook. Billy screamed. More cracks opened in Chisel’s skin, but that didn’t stop her from scooping him up.
“Stay back!” she shouted, holding the boy close and glancing around wildly at his friends. “Just leave quietly, and we’ll all be fine!”
Billy struggled and squirmed. His silver mist plumed from his hands and flowed over his captors arms.
He screamed. It was like trying to taste fire.
“Let him go!” shouted Mabel. The astronaut in red stood behind her, aiming her gun at Chisel. “She’ll fire!”
“No she won’t,” retorted Chisel. “Not if she doesn’t want to hit the boy.” She looked at Arnold. “Same for you, boy.”
“She’s right,” the astronaut muttered out the corner of her mouth. “Bad shot.”
Billy was crying now. “Why are you doing this?” he sobbed. “We’re the same…”
“I’m a statue, you’re a tiger,” she snapped.
The world went green, and she was empty handed.
Arnold hugged Billy, glaring at Chisel. “I aimed for him, idiot.”
Linus hoisted his guitar. “Sorry about this, Ma’am.”
The notes hit Chisel like a dust storm. It was a dust storm. It blew away the world. When she could see again, the world was grey and wind-blown, like colour couldn’t cling to anything in the face of this front of sound.
The music pierced Chisel—no, Hettie. Chisel was a lie she kept telling herself, and lies withered when Linus sang.
He stood there, at the centre of it, spinning sound into gold and straining music from base air through his guitar strings. His voice was the only thing that had any colour.
Hettie tried to approach the young man, to embrace him or snap his neck she didn’t know.
Linus struck a power chord, and a thin, shining line shot from the soundboard and pierced Hettie through the heart.
It didn’t stop there. It branched and split, silver strings weaving through Bily and Mabel and all the other children, snaking inside the house to intwine the baselines, too.
Hettie felt them. Felt them all. Their fears, their memories. She felt the poison sun clawing at her back in a dead desert town. She felt hot, indifferent flesh invading her own. She felt alone on cold streets, abandoned by her (or was it his?) father.
And she felt lonely. Oh, God, so lonely. For so long.
She found Billy in the storm of notes. She didn’t try to speak. She didn’t need to.
How did you live like that? I got thirty-one years, you…
Betty was good. I miss her, but it’s over now.
Hettie felt herself flowing outwards, out of her. Her first kiss. Meeting Paul. Her first time. Pain. Real, longed for pain. The blood and slime in her daughter’s hair…
“Stop!” she shouted. “Give them back! Please, I need them! They’re all I have—”
The music died. The world became muddled and bearable again.
Hettie was on her knees, heaving as though she were trying to draw herself back inside. Bazza and the rest of the baselines staggered out of the house.
Jen was clinging to her brother’s side like a limpet. The man himself was rubbing his head. “Wild, man…”
Aleister was shaking. Eddie and Belinda were making out.
“Marry me,” Eddie said, tearing himself away from his girlfriend’s neck for just a moment.
“I’m serious, the ring’s in my back pocket.”
“Ask me again once the demi-magic wears off.”
Aleister regarded Hettie warily. “Is she safe?”
She looked up at the lad, tears running down her face like rain down stone. Her brown eyes were the only organic part of her left. “I’m done, Al. You are Al, right?”
“I am sorry for that, Mrs Shaw,” Linus said. “I know it’s a bit… intense.”
Hettie shook her head. “No. I needed that. Put things in perspective.” She looked around the Institute students. “The things you kids have been through… who does that?”
“Arseholes,” said Sadie.
Hettie nodded. “You’re not wrong. Excuse me, Arnold? You’re the one with the lightning, right?”
“Could you send me somewhere? Back to my family?”
Arnold searched his companions’ faces for approval. He got shrugs and nods.
“Yeah,” said Aleister. “Probably best you don’t stick around.”
To Arnold’s mild surprise, it didn’t take much to get his power to spark. Normally he’d at least have had to ask Hettie where her family were. Not this time. Not after what Linus did.
“Try not to be too hard on Pete and Barry. I know it’s a hard ask, but they’re desperate and stupid. Just like all of us.”
There was an electric cry, and Hettie Shaw was gone.
“I hope she finds them,” said Billy.
“So,” said Aleister. “What do we do now?”
Before anyone could answer, they heard a loud hocket of caws and shrieks. Birds were rising in the distance. Hundreds of them. Enough to fast forward the sky and darken the day. And they were heading right for Gregory Street.
Bazza gulped. “Anyone else remember that Tippi Hedren movie?”
Arnold went bright again. Billy prepared to scream, but Sadie held up a hand. “I’ll handle this.”
She floated gently up towards the sky, waiting for the flock to hit her. “Idiots,” she muttered to herself.
The birds whirled around Sadie, pale pinks, whites, and yellows blurring together until they resembled a solid shell around the girl—a conversation of whistles and beating wings. They were rejoicing. And grateful.
“One down, two to go.”
1. The result of a sweeping set of legislation passed after the Cuban Crisis, which made it nearly impossible for Australian superhumans to hold down jobs, rent or own property, or participate in any level of education and training. ↩
2. Both would see use as superhero aliases in the 1990s. ↩
3. Tricia escaped euthanasia by reason of demi-human interference, and in 2019 was the longest lived elephant in captivity. ↩
4. An Aboriginal Australian supervillain named after the famous indigenous guerilla fighter. ↩
5. A move which did not please the local Pitjantjatjara. ↩