Authors: Al Ewing
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General
Johann licked dry lips. "What of it? The schooling here - they need to learn! I teach them!" His voice sounded hollow in his ears, like a murderer pleading for clemency.
Oh God, how had it come to this?
"Mathematics, and sciences..."
The masked man hissed slowly, dangerously, like a snake about to strike. The blank, emotionless lenses seemed to bore into Johann's soul, uncovering his every secret.
I know exactly what you teach them.
" The voice was cold, mocking, deadly. "
You take pleasure in small things, don't you, Rabbi Labinowicz?
Johann cried out as if he'd been struck, trying to struggle free again. "Please," he begged, his voice hoarse, "whatever I've... whatever you
I've done, please. You don't have to do this. I'll do what you want, I'll, I'll go to the police-"
The man in the mask laughed again, a low, throaty cackle, redolent of cobwebs and deep graves. He raised his pistol to Johann's face. "
I have a surer way of dealing with your kind. Open your mouth, Rabbi. I have another small thing for you, but this time I doubt you will take much pleasure in it at all.
"Please-" begged Johann, but he got no further. The bullet entered his mouth and blew the back of his head out across the brickwork. He slumped to the floor and the man in the mask put another into his head for good measure.
In the street beyond, the men and women still walked to and fro. They paid no heed to the sound of gunfire, nor did they notice the trickle of blood running from the alley across the sidewalk and into the gutter. They knew better.
In the alley, Johann's corpse, and the others, began to stiffen, the pouring rain pooling in the bullet-wounds and the sockets of their eyes. Sitting atop each of them was a small white business card with a red spider motif on the back, and a short haiku on the front:
Where all inhuman
Devils revel in their sins -
The Blood-Spider spins!
Of the Blood-Spider himself, there was no sign.
Doc Thunder and The Queen of the Leopard Men
As a rule, Maya Zor-Tura woke late.
Each morning, she floated slowly to awareness like a bubble of air rising up from some bottomless ocean trench, the half-remembered fancies of her dream breaking apart and dissipating into the morning sun as it poured through the skylight and splashed onto the silk sheets. Her eyes fluttered open, blinking away the last crumbs of sleep, and she stretched like a cat, arching her back and opening her mouth into a wide, luxurious yawn. And straight after that, on most mornings, she went back to a light doze, finally deigning to grace the household with her presence at eleven, or noon, or perhaps a little after lunch.
At the appointed hour, she'd appear in a gown of translucent yellow silk, or a sharply-cut suit, or her 'adventuring clothes' - black leather corset, boots and coat, with a royal purple skirt in a ragged style on the cutting edge of current fashion - or, quite often, nothing at all. On Maya, nudity seemed as elegant and refined as the evening clothes of British royalty.
She was tall, with flowing dark hair, skin the colour of rich, dark coffee and cat-like green eyes that seemed to constantly radiate a kind of amused superiority, and none of these traits had faded in several thousand years of existence.
For Maya Zor-Tura, time was something that happened to other people.
This morning, she paused in mid-stretch and for just the smallest moment she tried to recall exactly what the dream had been about. Dreams were important, despite Doc's occasional and somewhat half-hearted insistence that they were only a natural function of the brain. He'd learned a more unscientific and unpalatable truth in their time together - that dreams, and especially Maya Zor-Tura's, contained messages. Soundings from the past, and the future, and places beyond human understanding, often all at once. Warnings that should not be ignored.
And this dream seemed especially potent and vivid.
A dream of murder.
Murder, and a man in a mask the colour of blood.
She shook her head, brow furrowed. Did the mask cover his whole face, or just his eyes? She frowned, marring her beauty with her frustration for a single instant. Trying to catch a dream and remember it was like trying to hold smoke in your hands. This one was gone.
She dismissed the remnants of it from her mind for the moment and stretched idly, enjoying the emptiness of the bed. There was something rather decadent about having it all to herself, lounging in that vast, warm space, with the scents of the linen and the bodies that had lain there mixing as she breathed in. It made her almost feel like a goddess again. Maya wondered occasionally about going back to that life, to the forbidden kingdom of Zor-Ek-Narr and the half-human, half-leopard men who'd been her concubines and worshippers. It had been luxurious in a way that the townhouse in New York could never be, even on a morning like this. But it had been so very dull, at the end.
That's why she'd gone with the Doc, when he'd come bursting into her serene existence. The excitement, and the thought of a new world to explore.
She purred, remembering the first thing he'd ever said to her. He'd been chained to the wall of the Temple Of Serpents, and she had just drawn the tip of a red-hot iron across his bare chest - the scar had long vanished, as scars did with him, but occasionally she traced her finger along where it had been. She remembered that she'd paused, admiring the way he endured without flinching, and then he'd looked at her with those icy blue eyes.
"I never knew evil could be so beautiful." he'd said.
That was the English translation, of course. It wasn't quite so impressive unless you knew that in the secret tongue of the Leopard Men of Zor-Ek-Narr a particular synonym for 'evil' and the most common word for 'beautiful' sounded almost exactly alike, depending on how you rolled your tongue around the 'r'.
So in that one single moment, he'd shown how little pain or fear meant to him; he'd paid her a compliment, albeit a backhanded one; and, most importantly, he'd made a pun in a language he'd first heard spoken perhaps forty hours previously.
After that, Maya had to admit, she'd been intrigued. She'd allowed him to escape, had him recaptured and ordered him to fight in her personal arena against a cadre of Jaguar Warriors armed with poisoned spears, and all the time the flirting had continued. Once he'd saved her from the giant roc her treacherous high priest had attempted to feed her to, they'd both known exactly where things were leading.
It wasn't forever. He'd age, over the centuries, and she wouldn't. Eventually, he'd die, or she'd simply grow tired of him and walk away, and she knew herself well enough to realise that it was going to be the latter. Lately, she'd found herself thinking more and more about home, feeling an ache that was partly homesickness and partly a feeling of being stifled, of playing a role instead of living a life.
But for now, she was here and it was now and it was more exciting to spend her limitless time this way, in this wonderful city, in this wonderful life of science and adventure and danger, than any other way she could think of. Perhaps in a hundred days or a hundred years she'd think differently, and return to the forgotten temples and palaces of Zor-Ek-Narr to reclaim her queendom and become once again embroiled in the endless intrigues of her people. Or perhaps she wouldn't.
Right now, she decided, it was time to get up and have Marcel prepare her a strong coffee and a croissant. Opening the spacious walk-in closet, she combed through her wardrobe, settling on a simple light blue kimono, and then padded down the stairs to greet the rest of the household.
Passing the gym on the second floor, she heard the soft creak of the chain supporting the heavy bag as it swung. If Monk was doing his morning workout, that made it a little after ten - earlier than she was used to. It was the dream that had woken her so early, the killer in the red mask. In the dream, was he standing over a body?
Yes. Someone she cared for, dead or about to be.
She swung open the door to the gym and looked upwards. As usual, Monk was hanging by his toes from the ceiling rings, aiming fists big as hams into the big leather punch bag, his grotesque, simian face twisted in familiar effort.
Monk Olsen could best be described as a curiosity.
At the age of six months, he had been found on the doorstep of the Clark Olsen Orphanage in New Jersey, where presumably his parents had been unable to bear the thought of caring for such a monstrous child. Even at that tender age, his face bore the simian cast that would mark him for the rest of his life, while his arms were elongated, with a light coating of fur and already some muscular development, and his toes were large and long, bending and clutching instinctively at the end of his too-big feet. A doctor, called to minister to the baby, suggested that he be put down on the spot; Clark Olsen politely showed him the door.
Clark named him Eustace, after an uncle, but the child never did take to that, choosing instead to repurpose the cruel nickname the other boys taunted him with - Monk.
"If folks shout a word at you in the street, that's an insult. If they shout your name, it's like they're cheerin'. That's the way I figure it, anyhow."
He was five years old when he came up with that little bit of homespun wisdom, but Monk was far ahead of the curve as far as intelligence went. He had a keen eye and an analytical mind to go with his ape-like strength and gait, and on leaving the orphanage found himself a job as a photojournalist with a great metropolitan newspaper, where he showed a penchant for investigating the unusual. The paper touted him as the Gorilla Reporter, a nickname he accepted with a graceful shrug of his sloped shoulders.
Monk found himself used by the paper as a sort of in-house freak, a news story in his own right, and he allowed the editors to exploit him in that manner purely because it gave him access to the strangest, most bizarre stories in the city - impossible crimes, unbelievable inventions, crazed geniuses and the occasional dash of sexual oddity to add spice to the broth. With such a mandate it was only a matter of time before his path crossed with Doc Thunder's, and the outwardly unlikely friendship between the City Of Tomorrow's greatest hero and its ugliest citizen continued to fill untold column inches until Monk finally got bored of the daily grind and went freelance, mailing in the occasional story as Doc's assistant and sidekick.
Together, Maya and Monk were Doc's most trusted associates; 'the beauty and the beast', according to the papers. Rumour had it that the three of them formed a polyamorous triangle. Like all the best gossip, it was both difficult to believe and completely true.
"Hey, Princess!" grinned Monk, waving to Maya from his high perch, before swinging off the rings and somersaulting down to the floor, landing on the pads of his feet. "What happened, did the bed burn down? When have you ever been up so early?"
Maya laughed, kissing him and enjoying the feel of those strong simian arms thrown about her slim waist. "I think around 1647, by the Roman calendar. What can I say? It's a beautiful day and for some reason I didn't feel like wasting it." She kept the dream to herself, for the moment. She had hardly any clear details beyond that blood-red mask and the smell of death, and it didn't seem worth troubling Monk with it - not until she had some clear sign of what it meant. "Have you seen the Doc?"
"Doc?" Monk nodded, scratching his chin. "Down in the lab, last I saw. Looking over some forensic work. You remember Easton West over in Japantown?" Without pausing, Monk did a standing jump, leaping up in a backflip and stretching his thick legs so the long toes could grasp the ring, all with as much forethought as another man would spend in stepping onto a kerb. "He sent some paperwork and a little physical evidence over this morning from some vigilante killing - that spider guy, the one Doc doesn't like much..." Monk let the sentence trail off as he aimed a combination of punches at the heavy bag. Visitors to the brownstone often wondered why Monk Olsen might need a gym at all. He could break a man's skull like another man could crack open a fortune cookie, and there'd been times when he'd done exactly that. When asked about this, he would gently change the subject, not letting these curious souls know that the reason for his continuous training wasn't to practice throwing punches, but rather pulling them.
"I might be a monster," he'd say, "but I'm not a murderer. Not by choice."
The rain of blows landed on the bag with soft, agreeable thuds, sending it swinging back and forth on the sturdy chain but not bursting it asunder as he once had. These blows might break a man's neck, or flatten his nose, or crack his jaw down the middle. But they wouldn't kill. That was the important thing.
"I'll see you later," Maya called, and then left him to his work.
"Oh, and check
. I've not read it yet, but there's a howler of a headline on the front page." yelled Monk, and then unleashed another volley of restrained punches against the leather.
When Marcel Benoit looked in the mirror, the Devil looked back.
The Devil used to smile, or laugh, or wink, but these days he assumed a contrite expression, looking over the top of his glasses as if to say -
. It seemed like a fun idea at the time, but let's face it, it's starting to get a little tired.