Chen Liu clapped his hand over the pentagram tattooed on his neck. The pigment burned acidly under his skin. Somewhere, the Witch of Claremont was stabbing at her little black book with childish intensity. If she had been within five miles of him, Chen would have envied the dead. He knew that from experience. No matter what some of the Coven’s minions boasted, the tattoo didn’t indicate membership. The five’s skin was unmarked. It was a cattle brand.
Chen grit his teeth and kept walking, the tattoo pulsing almost in time with his steps. Jonna would get bored soon. She always did. He distracted himself by tossing gold pieces from his pockets to passing children. They caught the coins giddily. Some of them (especially Therese’s foreign foundlings) tried unwrapping them, taking them for chocolate. Kids threw the coins in the air, laughing at how they flashed as they spun. Others bent the soft metal between their fingers. A few adults tried to intercept the coins or grub for them in the dirt, but they fled from their hands like goldfinches. Or dinged them in the side of the head. There was something very pure about how kids appreciated gold, Chen thought. They knew its true worth.
Chen spied Arnold Barnes and Mabel Henderson picking up a coin. The girl bit it and nodded at her friend before pocketing it.
Most of them did, anyway.
The looks Chen got from passersby could be divided into four broad categories. First were the dirty looks. Those came from the civilian supers and those who loved them. The people whose lives Chen had helped ruin with his bloody-minded crusade.
Second were the suspicious looks, superficially similar to the first set but subtly distinct. Those were the domain of the superheroes, which was only to be expected. The other villains in town were known quantities; fixtures in rogues galleries. At the very least, they’d lived and worked with their old foes for months now. Many were so minor in their former lives as to not be counted as a threat. Chen had managed to go his whole “career” without tangling with any superheroes. He hadn’t socialized. And with one foolish exception, he hadn’t done team-ups.
Admittedly, some of those suspicious looks might’ve just been racism. It was hard to tell.
The third category were the ones Chen hated. The knowing smiles. The comradical nods. The supervillains and the wannabes. The folks who counted Chen as one of them. Even if they were right.
Worst were the fans.
A towheaded little girl bounced into Chen’s path, clearly drunk with excitement. There could’ve been springs in her heels. She was dressed in faded denim jeans covered in stars cut out of pink cardstock and a brown corduroy jacket, a shoddily glued fur ruff circling her neck like a wildcat mane. It must’ve been cooking her in that heat. Her face was hidden behind a dollar store tiger mask, but Chen could tell she was grinning. Any self respecting child in such an outfit would be. “Are you really AU, mister?”
Chen sighed. He’d not intended for strangers to call him by that name. He couldn’t even blame Lawrence now. “Chen, kid. Chen Liu.” He waited for her to go away, and when she didn’t, heaved a sigh. “Yeah. I’m AU.”
A delighted squeal. “I knew Billy was telling the truth! He never lies.”
“Good on him,” Chen half-muttered.
“I’ve read all the newspaper stories about you, AU!” the girl enthused. “Me and my parents are villains too!” She tilted her head, seeming to consider something. “Well, I’m gonna be once they take me on my first heist! Mum and Dad say they’re gonna start doing crimes and stuff again soon. Real soon!1 Dad helped me make a costume and everything.”
Chen hoped to God her parents were humouring her. Well, if they weren’t, he was. He forced a smile. “Really? You didn’t make that yourself?”
Fuck, Chen thought, that just sounded mean.
The girl didn’t seem to notice. “I cut out the stars!” She thrust out a journal and pen. “Um, do you mind… could I have your autograph?”
Chen’s smile grew a touch more genuine. That was too dumb not to appreciate. “Sure, kid.” He took the pen and book. “What’s your name?”
Chen laughed. “Hah! Nice one.” He started writing. “To Thunder Tiger, I look forward to our team-up, your mate AU.”
Chen handed the book back to Thunder-Tiger, who handled it like a hallowed relic. “Thank you,’ she said, almost whispering.
“You really should call me Chen. All my proper friends do.”
“Really?” asked Thunder-Tiger, eyes widening to fill the slits in her mask.
“Yeah. Quid pro quo, though. What’s your name?”
“…Thunder-Tiger,” she replied. “I already told you.”
“Nah, girl, I mean your real name. What your parents call ya.”
“They call me Thunder-Tiger.”
Chen frowned. “Wait, you’re telling me your actual mother and father named you Thunder-Tiger?”
“Yeah!” Thunder-Tiger planted her hands on her hips. “Great, isn’t it?”
Chen shook his head. “I swear to Christ, some people should be fixed like bloody cats…”
“How on Earth do they expect you to get through life being called ‘Thunder-Tiger’?” Chen’s voice started rising. “Who’s going to enrol you into school with a name like that? Or hire you? Or marry you?” He scowled. Fuck it, your name is ‘Amy’. You’ll thank me later.”
Thunder-Tiger pushed her mask up over her hair, revealing a scowl. “No it’s not! I don’t need a dumb normal job, or school, or getting married. I’m a villain! Just like my parents!”
“Your parents are fucking idiots.”
Thunder-Tiger eyes fluttered. Then she started bawling. Chen watched her run off, leaving her autograph book in the dust. People were staring reproachfully at him.
Chen glared about them, jabbing a thumb in Thunder-Tiger’s direction. “Is nobody looking into that family? Christ…”
Chen stalked down the street. People treated their kids like art projects. Parents and teachers.
It didn’t take long for Chen to find the house he was looking for. Drips of copper and platinum—no gold, to Chen’s complete non-surprise—ran down its rust-red facade like icing melting in the sun. Crystal cherubs danced around marble columns. The front door had panels of jade and sapphire. You could always tell where the matter-manipulators lived in Catalpa.
For Chen, walking up the veranda steps was like tunnelling through solid glass. Every step drove spikes through Chen’s muscles, as strong and real as any of the Fox’s geases. He stood still at the door for nearly two minutes. Chen took a deep breath and raised his hand. He needed to do this—
The door opened. The former Ex-Nihilo sighed scornfully. “What are you doing here, Chen?”
Chen staggered backwards like the young woman had greeted him with a shotgun. “Ah, morning, Lana.”
Lana was still a disorienting sight for Chen. When he’d first left the Institute, she’d been a little girl. Her hair had been as white-gold as “Thunder-Tiger’s”. Now she was a woman, or close to it. Her hair was honey, almost brown. She was tall as Chen. It made him feel like Rip Van Winkle. At least this time, her stomach was mercifully flat.
“I asked you a question. Hurry up. I just got the baby down to sleep.”
Chen hung his head, as though meeting Lana’s gaze might petrify him. “I need to talk to you.”
“Of course you do.”
“I mean—I want to apologize.”
Lana folded her arms. “Apologize for what?”
Chen frowned and shook his head. “You know—“
Lana raised her hand. “Of course I know. I want to hear you say it.”
It was a petty thing, but Chen deserved some pettiness.
“I… I…” Chen’s words kept trailing off. He felt like he was back in primary school, trying to force himself through the doors and face a dozen white little shits. How did you even put what he’d done into plain English? It’d sound like the blurb of a pulp novel. Or maybe those stalag2 books they had in Israel. Shameful and ugly.
Lana smirked mirthlessly. “What? Can’t bring yourself to say it?” she jeered. “Is that too hard for you? Maybe we can make up a pretty name for it.” She threw her head back in laughter. “Fuck’s sake, you really are Laurie’s—”
“I’m sorry!” Chen shouted. “I’m sorry I kidnapped you for a bunch of witch fucks.”
Lana had been living in a boarding house for young women of reduced circumstances when Chen found her, paying her way with strategic transactions at cash for gold joints around Perth.
She hadn’t put up much of a fight. She’d been pregnant, after all.
Chen stood there breathless. Empty.
“You feel better?” asked Lana.
She leaned forward and hissed, “How do you think I feel?”
“I am sorry, Lana.”
Lana pointed her thumb behind her. “You know the Witch delivered Jason? No gas and air3 by the way. I think they collected the shit that came out of my hands during. Guess there’s a reason they used to burn midwives.” She looked off to the side. “They talked about selling him. Right in front of me…”
“I couldn’t imagine.”
“You couldn’t,” said Lana. “Chen, could I ask you something?”
“When you left the Institute, when you left us, did you know what Alberto could do?”
Chen had no choice. If he didn’t answer honestly, he wouldn’t deserve to live:
Chen landed with a thud in the dirt, a cannonball of sand crumbling down his front. He sat up, sucking in a knocked out breath. “Look, I deserve—”
Lana ran forward and leapt from the veranda, gliding on twin streams of protoplasm. Her knees struck him in the chest:
Lana screamed, “You fucking think?” golden globes orbiting her hands. “Lawrence wanted you to rape Fran! What did you think he was going to do with us?”
“I never thought he’d—”
Lana punched him in the jaw. It was weak, inexpert. But it hurt. “Of course you didn’t! You never think, do you? You leave us with Lawrence, never write, never call! Just let him do whatever he wants because it didn’t affect you!”
People were gathering around the two now, some murmuring amongst themselves, others loudly egging Lana on.
“Get the bloody chink!”
To Chen’s disappointment, that fella had no fillings.
“…And then you go around getting the naturals riled up! It wasn’t just Circle’s End. Or the Flying Man! You’re why they opened the fucking asylums! You’re why Lawrence had his pick of girls!”
“I’m sorry but—”
Lana slapped him. “Stop saying that!”
“No—I mean—take it from a Chinaman, Lana, folks out there don’t need a reason to hate us. Me, my family, we tried not to give them any. Even Lawrence tried. They didn’t care. They never care.”
Lana brought her face up to Chen’s. He felt her spite against his skin:
“Is that why you joined a white slavery4 ring? Because people are mean?”
Allison Kinsey dropped down from the sky, executing a perfect three-point landing. The crowd parted for her.
“What the heck are you doing, Lana?”
Lana swung around to face the little girl. She jabbed her finger against Chen’s nose, making the man sneeze. “What is he doing here?”
Allison raised her hands. “Catalpa is for everyone, Lana.”
Lana growled, “He’s Coven. They buy and sell us like fucking cows. Would you let Lawrence just walk around here?”
The crowd murmured. Lawrence was already a folk-devil in Catalpa: both for the Canberra bombings and what he’d put their founding children through. Chen shouldn’t have been able to get angry at anything Lana said about him. God knew he deserved it. But beneath the earth, sleeping gold roused. A few onlookers suddenly developed toothaches…
“That includes Chen, too, Lana”—Allison wondered if she was saying Lana’s name too much—“You can see the brand.”
Lana spread her hands above Chen’s face. The globes sped and blurred into solid rings. “Oh, I’ll brand him alright!”
Chen screwed his eyes shut. He’d rather have his face torn up than be compared to Laurie any day.
Allison ran towards the two. “Don’t!—”
Lana pointed a haloed hand at her. “Don’t touch me! I know he’s inside you.”
Allison froze in her tracks.
At the same time, Therese Fletcher and Drina Kinsey rounded the corner, chatting and carrying takeaway coffees.
“So, I said to Mabel, I said—” Therese caught sight of the commotion down the street. “Oh dear.”
Drina spotted Allison and groaned, gesturing towards the scene. “Is my ten year old daughter really the only thing keeping these people from killing each other?”
Through the glint in Allison’s eyes, Therese saw who was involved and tutted. “Oh, Chen.” She handed Drina her coffee. “Hold this for me?”
Therese dissolved into white petals of light. An instant later, she was standing not far from Lana and Chen.
Therese dodged a blob of protoplasm.
“That’s not my name!”
Therese perceived water running down a window behind her, soda-lime glass melting like ice in her mind’s eye.
Still a good girl.
“No, it isn’t,” said Therese. “Slip of the tongue. Not that that’s any excuse.” She pointed between herself and Chen. “Neither of us have any.”
Lana shook her head. “You saved me.”
“Because I’m trying to be better. So’s Chen. He’s just well…” Even now, this sort of thing didn’t come easy to Therese. Her go-to responses to conflict were “queasy smile of acquiescence” or “deadly violence.” This was uncomfortably… well, not even in the middle, really. That’d be a left-hook and an apology. “…An idiot.” She gave the man a flat look. “And frankly very self-centred.”
Chen—eyes still shut tight—nodded vigorously.
Lana looked down at him for a moment. Then laughter began to escape her, first in short, jerking spasms, then in long, hysterical peals.
“It was wrong of Chen to impose on you like that,” said Therese. “You don’t owe anybody forgiveness.”
The laughter became tears. Lana’s halos extinguished. She sniffled, “My life is over…”
Therese regarded Lana. The girl was looking at her house. A quick glance at the reflections within…
A baby, asleep in a rust-framed crib.
“Oh, no, honey.” Therese stepped over and drew Lana up into her arms. She wasn’t even ten years older than the girl, but right then, nobody could’ve told you that. “Look, Lana. Plenty of young women have lives outside their kids. And you’ve got a whole town behind you. Takes a village and all.”
Therese wanted to tell Lana she didn’t have to keep Jason. She shouldn’t have to. But there weren’t many options for people like them, the world being what it was right then.
“Tell you what. Some time, I’ll sit for Jason, and you and the rest of the girls can have a night on the town.”
Chen surreptitiously got to his feet.
Lana muttered, “You mean get drunk at Libertalia…”
Therese scoffed. “Libertalia? Maude’s machines can make portals to anywhere. Paris! London! Sky’s the limit!” She twitched her finger from Allison to Chen, silently mouthing, “Go.”
They were quick to obey.
“Wow,” Chen said under his breath. “No wonder Lawrence hired her.”
Allison shook her head and grabbed the man’s hand. “We’re getting rid of the tattoo.”
“No objections here, little lady.”
Despite this assurance, Allison still insisted on dragging Chen over to her mother. “Wanna watch me work, Mum?” she asked with a pleading smile.
“Sure thing, love,” answered Drina. She looked at Chen. “Afternoon, Mr. Liu.”
If Chen still had his Akubra, he would’ve tipped it at the lady. “Afternoon, Mrs Kinsey.”
The two shared a smile. Allison spoke into her com-watch. “Blancheflor, open me a portal to the infirmary, please.”
“Of course, miss.”
An egg-portal bloomed. As the three of them stepped through, Drina called out, “It was nice talking, Therese!”
“Same,” said Therese absently, still comforting Lana.
Drina decided to file that away for later.
Liam Pittenweem dabbed a foul smelling ointment on Chen’s neck.
“You’re sure this’ll work?” he asked warily. Usually, messing with one of Jonna’s tattoos resulted in a small, but very inconveniently placed explosion.
“Oh sure,” replied the boy-wizard confidently. “Took a few goes to figure out the recipe, but it works.”
“Wait,” said Chen. “How many ‘goes’? Have you blown anyone-”
“And… done!” Liam withdrew his hand like a painter admiring his masterpiece. He picked up a bottle of whiskey from the table beside him and offered it to Chen. “You might want to take another gulp of this.”
Chen took the bottle and obeyed. The liquor burned a path down his throat. Chen gasped, waiting half a minute for the warmth to reach his fingers. “Right, let’s get this over with.”
Chen lay on his side across the metal bench. Liam moved aside for Allison, masked and gloved with a scalpel sterilized by the heat of her second (or was it third?) power. “Okay, hold still…”
Chen clutched the side of the bench as a thin line of pain was cut into his neck, meeting itself to form a small square. Previously, the actual tattoo removal was handled painlessly by Dr. Beaks. Witches got you coming and going in this business it seemed.
At least Lana got the robot treatment, Chen thought.
Allison peeled away the skin. “David?”
David waltzed up and sprinkled a couple of drops of water on the livid square of exposed neck.
Should he really be naked in the sick—
Chen gasped as he felt new nerve endings reach out to each other.
David handed him a mirror. “Did I get the colour right?”
Chen sat up and looked:
“Yeah, Dave. You did.”
He was free, of all chains except history.
1. At least they said that until they found a way to let her down easy. In truth, they were planning on opening a geological survey business. And questioning some of their parenting choices. ↩
2. A genre of exploitation pornography popular with Israeli adolescents in 1950s and early 1960s concerning the Holocaust, though typically avoiding direct depictions of Jewish suffering. Often marketed as translated English memoirs of Allied POWs, typical stalag plots involved highly sexualized brutality at the hands of female SS guards, or occasionally Imperial Japanese women, usually ending with gruesome revenge at the hands of their victims. The genre largely faded away after the Eichmann Trial, both due to censorship and an erosion of the culture of silence surrounding the Holocaust. ↩
3. A contemporary nickname for nitrous oxide, used during labour as pain relief. ↩
4. An antiquated term for sex trafficing. While the Coven were hardly above such things, prostitution and the like was far from the prime aim of their superhuman trafficking operations. Also—unless the one-drop rule was flowing in a different direction than usual— Thomas Long might object to the “white” half of the term. ↩