Alex closed the lid on the last trunk that was to head for the States. Most of what was packed was his heavier clothing and formal wear. By the time Spring rolled around, he would likely have to buy new clothing again anyway. He had grown to a height of two meters and seemed to have leveled off for the moment. His mother had stated her certainty that Alex alone was responsible for keeping the clothing industry going this season.
Humming something by Mozart, he carried the trunk to his sitting room to wait with the others for the delivery men to come and pick them up. Most of these were actually clothes, his instruments and musical equipment having gone ahead. He had yet to see his new residence but he was assured that it would suit his needs nicely.
Having finished packing, Alex turned to the thin, silver briefcase sitting on his desk. It had arrived by courier earlier that afternoon. The surface of the case was unremarkable save for a small keypad on the cover. Alex punched in his access code and was rewarded by a soft clicking noise as the lock opened. Opening the case, he found two file folders and a note written on a small slip of paper. The note read:
Requested Information Enclosed
Sensitive -- Return within 24 hours
Alex grimaced once more at the codename the Ministry had assigned him and turned his attention to the file folders. The first contained information on the Yeomen. The second and much thicker folder held information on Autocrat. Scanning through both folders, Alex found a series of hardcopy photos as well as a written summaries. Each folder also held a small disc, presumably with more in depth information.
Alex sat down in his chair and began reading, starting with the Yeomen’s folder.
The Yeomen are an arm of the Royal Elite (cf.). Each has powers and abilities either inspired by or extrapolated from Arthurian myths. Likewise, they draw their names from significant personalities from Arthurian legend, Constantine and Pendragon being the most obvious. While not true members of the Royal elite, not having aristocratic backgrounds, it is obvious that they do believe in Autocrat (cf.) and his philosophy of world domination by metahuman elitists of aristocratic descent.Known abilities of the members of the Yeomen are listed below, with suggested strategies for handling them. As always, caution is advised.Constantine is the powerhouse of the group...
The sound of Autocrat’s voice thundered as loudly in his memory as it had when Alex had first heard it.
“Do not harm him!”
Why? What possible reason could Autocrat have to spare the life of someone who was trying to stop his underlings?
“Yes, Liege Autocrat !”
Alex marveled at the memory. They had all responded in near perfect unison, as though the response had been drilled into them so often that it was the only way they knew to address him. The devotion they had demonstrated was frightening.
"Pellinore. Do not make it permanent..."
Do not make it permanent. Again, why?... Unless Autocrat had other plans for him. Which would mean that he knew who Alex was and likely a good deal more. Alex heard the water sloshing in his glass and discovered that his hand was shaking. He took a deep breath to calm himself and turned back to the file.
As Alex read, it became quickly obvious that there was no completely accepted answer to who or even what Autocrat was. The only definite fact to be garnered from the file was that Autocrat had been a part of metahuman interactions since before the term metahuman had been coined.
The rumors and conjecture regarding his identity and his past were too numerous for any of them to be completely true. Some had him as being a powerful entity who is said to live between worlds. Others said that he might have been a Spartan General who had uncovered and somehow taken control of a marooned UFO. Still others said he had been born with his powers and used them to become a powerful Teutonic ruler -- the Teutons believing him to be an incarnation of the gods and hence subservient to his demands. There was even and argument that Autocrat was a metahuman from an alternate timeline or parallel universe who had claimed sovereignty over one or more worlds and had now turned his attention to our own.
The theory that disturbed Alex the most was that Autocrat might actually be a personification, a concept given form, of "Dominance" and/or "Conflict." If this was so, there could be no defeating him as long as these concepts existed.
Autocrat’s primary beliefs centered around evolution and natural selection. He applied this philosophy to the advent of metahumanity and the aristocracy putting forth the belief that the "Highborn," those metahumans with aristocratic backgrounds, were the ultimate ruling class. He claimed that he would lead them to a new era, a world of superior inhabitants brought into existence by his leadership and the evolutionary process. Those who agreed with him were welcome to join his cause. Those who didn’t would meet his wrath.
The portion of the file that outlined Autocrat’s powers was rather sparse. While there was no question that he was powerful, the demonstrations of that power were rare. He most often worked through his minions, only rarely taking a hand in matters himself. Those few times that he did often led to widespread devastation.
This puzzled Alex even more considering that it was Autocrat that had intervened in his fight with the Yeomen. Even though he had been on the scene, Autocrat had not added to the damage that the Yeomen had already done.
As Alex pondered this, he was interrupted by a knock on the door. Maurice was standing at the door, waiting patiently with a covered, and evidently heavy, tray.
“Pardon the intrusion, Master Alex, but when you didn’t appear downstairs for tea, I assumed that you would want to have something sent up,” said the butler in his customary measured tones
“Thank you very much, Maurice. I hadn’t realized the time.” Alex stepped aside as the older man brought a heavy tray into the room. Alex had once tried to help him with the load and Maurice had indignantly refused his offer. It was a week before Alex had dared speak to him again.
Maurice set his burden down on the small oak table that Alex often used when eating in his room. As the butler laid the meal out on the table, Alex sat back down in his chair, deep in thought.
Maurice glanced briefly in his direction and said, “If you don’t mind my saying so, Master Alex, brooding does not become you.”
Alex looked up and smiled sheepishly at the butler. “I’m sorry. I had an experience recently that I’ve yet to understand and it bothers me.”
“Ah, I see. Would it have anything to do with the recent affair at the medical building?”
“Hmm,” replied the butler. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I don’t know,” replied Alex. He then smiled and asked, “How are you at abnormal or criminal psychology?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know much about criminal psychology,” Maurice began then he added with a touch of amusement, “but practical experience garnered over the years has lent me some insights into abnormal psychology. Why do you ask?”
Alex smiled briefly at the implied statement then continued in a more serious tone. “A couple of weeks ago, a very powerful villain not known for his mercy stopped one of his henchmen from bisecting me. So far, the only reason as to why that I can determine is that he has plans for me. What those plans are and when he is going to implement them are beyond me.”
“I see. A very weighty problem indeed. I presume you are speaking of Autocrat.”
Again, Alex nodded.
“From what I’ve learned from the media, Autocrat tends to recruit his associates from the aristocracy. It may well be that he is planning to extend an invitation to you for lack of a better word,” he concluded.
A shiver ran the length of Alex’s spine. He had been thinking the same thing and to hear it come from someone else did little to reassure him.
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Master Alex,” Maurice continued. “It wouldn’t surprise me if such an invitation was still years away. It also seems that he rarely recruits anyone who has not come into their full powers or demonstrated a willingness to use them for personal gain. It is also possible that my assumptions are incorrect.”
Alex had an intense urge to shout "WHY ME?" and dive under his bed. Instead, he turned to the butler and asked, “would you mind if I asked you a question of a somewhat personal nature?”
“You may always ask, sir. The worst thing that could happen is that I refuse to answer.”
“Have you ever regretted your choice of profession?”
Maurice paused for a moment and regarded the younger man. “I can’t say that I have ever actually regretted my choice. When I was much younger, I often thought that I should have gone into medicine but that was due more to a dream of ‘what might have been’ rather than a regret over my current station. Why do you ask?”
“I’m not certain,” began Alex. “You’ve always struck me as one of the most cultured and competent people I’ve ever known. Perhaps all the thoughts of Autocrat and his rubbish about ‘highborn superiority’ just had me wondering if you ever regretted having to ‘tidy up’ after people whose only real advantage had to do with an accident of birth.”
Maurice first looked mildly surprised and then faintly amused, even pleased. “I assure you that the ‘tidying up’ isn’t such a terrible thing. I actually feel rather fortunate to be in this profession.”
Alex looked somewhat shocked at the butler's response.
“In my life," Maurice continued, “I have gotten to meet and even converse with personages that most people only get to read about in the Times. In fact, I’d dare say that, if I ,and all the members of my profession, were to vanish, nearly every member of the aristocracy would be totally unable to function.”
“And you don't feel somewhat humbled by perhaps being regarded as a servant?” asked Alex.
Maurice smiled. “I think it is far more important to enjoy what you do and to do it to the best of your ability than to worry about comparing yourself to anyone else. There are few who have the courage to be the sole proprietors of their own self worth.” Maurice paused and continued with a rather intense sincerity. “I believe that you are one of those few.
“If you can remember this,” Maurice concluded with a rare smile, “then you need not fear that you will make the wrong choice regarding your life’s direction.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Alex smiled back at the butler.
“Thank you, Maurice.”
As the butler turned to head toward the door, Alex said, “For the record--” Maurice paused, his hand on the doorknob. “--I count myself extremely fortunate to be one of those ‘totally unable to function’ without you.”
“Thank you, Master Alex.” Maurice gave a slight bow and left the room.
Captain Timothy Andrews sat at his desk, reading over the latest transcripts of the surveillance tapes of Alexander St. John-Smythe, codename: Maestro. He couldn’t remember the name of the minor functionary who had given the young man that particular codename but, as it turned out, it had been a better fit than had been initially believed.
The transcript had ended with a conversation between Alex and another individual known only as "Weaver." The details of the conversation were unimportant, apparently dealing with whatever teenage angst Alex was feeling over the apparent dissolution of his ‘romance’ with a young woman by the name of Jessica. What concerned Andrews the most was the last paragraph of the accompanying report. The last paragraph in the report read:
Subject spent several hours in the garden apparently eating lunch and having a discussion with an unknown individual. Despite the best efforts of the team, the identity of the other individual remains a mystery. Request further instructions as to procedure should similar activity be observed in the future...
Andrews was not happy with the scarcity of information and did not like the fact that his prize was being influenced by someone beyond his control. He turned to his keyboard and typed out a response to the request for further instructions.
Re: unknown associate of MaestroTeams are to intensify efforts to identify subject should he make another appearance. If possible, capture and detain individual for further questioning. If unable to detain, subject is to be neutralized.
The next morning, Alex was scheduled to go the Ministry’s training facility for one final training session before leaving for the United States. As Alex was heading to change clothes, he encountered Captain Andrews in the hallway.
“Good Morning Alex,” said Andrews. “I’m glad I caught you before you changed. We’re going to do something a little different today so you won’t need to change into your work out gear.”
“Oh? Well, I suppose a change of pace wouldn’t be so bad. What do you have in mind?” Alex was a little disappointed. He had been looking forward to working off some of the tension that had built up in the last couple of weeks.
“We were fortunate enough to get some video footage of your scuffle with the Yeomen and it was suggested that you might benefit from an analysis of the fight.”
Alex gave an inward groan. “I don’t suppose that the suggestion was thrown out as a bad idea...”
“You should be so lucky,” replied Andrews with a broad smile. “Actually, though you might think otherwise, it will be a good exercise for you. As I’m certain you’ve heard before, physical ability is a prime requisite to winning in hand to hand, but you also need to use your head. If you can out think your opponent, the chances are good that you’ll win even if he is physically superior.”
Alex sighed and followed Andrews to a small conference room with a large view screen at one end. Also in the room were Lieutenant Johnson, Dr. Pewitt and one of the newer lab techs, Xavier Kingston. Andrews motioned for Alex to have a seat and took another chair for himself at the head of the table.
After the initial greetings died away, Andrews nodded and the lights dimmed. The video began at a point just before Alex attacked Pellinore, jamming the Yeoman’s visor shut. Alex marveled at the clarity of the video and commented on it.
“This is amazingly -- clear. Where did this footage come from?” The question was met by a nearly imperceptible silence before Kingston answered.
“It was a stroke of luck, really. In fact, it’s from a compact disc seized from a nearby Automated Teller Machine's security camera. The fact that its a disc allows for footage to be enlarged, tweaked, and highlighted by our software, without risk of losing the clarity of image. Fascinating stuff if you’d like to see it in action --”
“Perhaps later, Mr. Kingston,” interjected Dr. Pewitt. Alex suddenly had no doubts as to who suggested this little critique.
The lab tech’s faint accent identified him as being from Jamaica or at least near to it. Alex nodded and turned back to the screen. Once it had played all the way through, Captain Andrews cleared his throat and said, “That was very nearly a close shave at the end there, son. I’m sure that Lieutenant Johnson will have a few pointers on how you could improve. Lieutenant Johnson?”
Over the next two and a half hours, Lieutenant Johnson did indeed give a number of criticisms and suggestions, finally finishing with, “Overall, you did fairly well considering that you were outmatched and hampered by the lack of musical augmentation to your already metahuman level physical abilities.
“I do have some concerns about your decision to intervene in the first place. It certainly wasn’t the wisest thing you could have done. Attacking four metahuman opponents without backup – Well, If we didn’t already know your psych profile, I might actually suggest you be kept under observation. I suppose, though, we can chalk it up to the exuberance of Youth and let it go”
“Trust me Lieutenant Johnson, exuberance is not the emotion that I would describe feeling at that point,” replied Alex dryly.
At that moment, Kingston spoke up. “Has anyone tried rigging up some sort of remodifed form of Discman? It could be useful in allowing him to play whatever music he requires in a situation such as with the Yeomen.”
“That might work if the music I heard produced the same effect every time I heard it. But as Dr. Pewitt will tell you, that isn’t the case. The powers that I derived might be more harmful than beneficial. Besides, the first good punch to land would knock the headphones off anyway”, Alex responded, trying not to sound too negative. Kingston’s enthusiasm was evident but it seemed that he was unaware that he was stepping on Pewitt’s toes. Alex found himself liking the new lab tech.
“Well, if that doesn’t appeal, I have an idea about how to make your combat training more effective. Have y--”
“I think you’ll find”, interrupted Pewitt, “that Maestro’s combat training is in very capable hands, Mr. Kingston. Lieutenant Johnson is more than qualified.”
“Let the man speak, Dr. Pewitt. I’m always willing to consider something new”, replied the lieutenant.
“Thank you Lieutenant Johnson. I was about to ask -- has anyone tried seeing how he does with a martial art called Capoeira?”
The lieutenant shook his head.
Alex nodded, saying. “Well, I’ve heard of a dance form by the same name but I’ve never heard it in the context of a martial art. Why do you ask?”
“It’s not surprising. As a martial art, it’s only been around for a couple hundred years, give or take. It was developed by Brazilian slaves as a way for them to defend themselves. Since this kind of behavior wasn’t allowed by the slave owners, they disguised it as a form of dance to keep from being discovered -- sort of hiding in plain sight.”
“That’s all well and good, but what has this to do with Maestro’s training”, interjected Pewitt, clearly annoyed with his new assistant.
“I was getting to that. The training and practice of Capoeira is usually done to various songs and drum rhythms”, stated the lab tech. “Since music is the source of his abilities, doesn’t it make sense use it in his training as well?”
“Interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that – most of my martial arts training has been of eastern origin”, said the lieutenant. “I have to admit there is a certain logic to it.”
“Then we’ll have to see what we can come up with”,
said Andrews. “I think we’ve taken up enough of your time, Alex. Are you
about ready for your big trip?”
“I think so”, answered Alex. “All of my things are packed and a lot of it has been shipped off already. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m told that my new flat is quite nice.”
“Oh, I’m certain that you’ll find that it meets your needs”, said Andrews. ”At your mother’s request, we’ve also added a few pieces of equipment to help you stay in shape, a sort of miniature gymnasium. Nothing too elaborate but it should do quite nicely. All in all, It’s quite a nice little flat.”
“I hope it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.” Alex tried to keep the grimace off of his face. All that he’d really wanted was an area that he could use as a studio of sorts when he was at home. He really hadn’t planned on using his new home as a place to work out.
“Not at all. Besides, we wouldn’t want all of Lieutenant Johnson’s hard work to go to waste now, would we?” Andrews was smiling slightly, apparently having guessed what was going through Alex’s mind.
“No, I suppose not,” Alex replied.
After a brief pause, Alex said his farewells, shaking each hand in turn. “Well then. Captain Andrews, I appreciate your efforts on my behalf. I know that being my ‘keeper’ likely took more of your time than it really warranted.”
“Less time than you might think, lad,” replied Andrews smiling.
“Lieutenant Johnson, I’ll try not to be too much of an embarrassment should I end up in another scrap in the States.”
“I’m sure you won’t be”, said the lieutenant. Rubbing his jaw, he added. “Just mind who you’re throwing lightning bolts at and you should be okay.”
Alex grimaced. He had forgotten the first time his powers had manifested. He had been sparring with the lieutenant when a song, Thunderstruck by AC/DC had started playing on someone’s portable stereo. He had flattened the man with a punch that had been charged by a lightning bolt.
“Dr. Pewitt. I know we didn’t get off to the best start, but I do appreciate the efforts you’ve made.”
“Thank you. Perhaps we’ll have another opportunity in the future.” The expression on Pewitt’s face made it difficult to determine if he was being sincere.
“Mr. Kingston, if you can, I’d appreciate it if you could find out if there are any Capoeira instructors in New York. I’d be interested in checking it out.”
“I’ll have the information for you by the end of the day. It’s been a pleasure meeting you.” Kingston’s enthusiasm was unabated even considering the fact there was no chance they’d get to work together.
Alex bade everyone farewell and left for home.
Once they were alone, Pewitt turned to Andrews and asked, “Were you able to get the sensors placed? I don’t want to lose any chance of gathering more data if I can help it.”
”Don’t worry, Benton. The last of them are being installed as we speak,” replied Andrews. “You’ll be able to conduct your research on the boy with little interruption. For your sake, I hope that you’ll be able to make use of it once the data starts coming in.”
At 2:33 pm, Alex’s flight landed at JFK International Airport. After about two hours, he had collected his bags, gone through customs and had met the driver who was to take him to his new flat. That should be apartment, thought Alex. When in Rome
His mother had insisted on a limousine but Alex had balked at the idea. He thought taking a taxi would have been sufficient but his mother had not wanted him to take “unnecessary risks.”
I’ve heard far too many stories about unscrupulous drivers and unwary travelers
Alex didn’t have the heart to argue that he could likely do a great deal more damage to any “unscrupulous driver” than they’d be able to do to him. In the end, they compromised by having a driver collect Alex in a full sized sedan.
The driver took Alex to a part of town that wasn’t too far from Juilliard and helped him up to the flat -- apartment. The neighborhood looked a little on the rundown side. None of the surrounding buildings were in stark disrepair, the area had just seen better days. The building in which his new apartment was located blended well with the other buildings. The bricks were stained in various places and many of the windows on the lower stories were blackened, presumably to prevent people from peering in. Apparently it had, at some point, been a small factory or manufacturing facility of some sort.
Alex had the driver set his bags down at the door and gave him a tip that he hoped wasn’t too large or too small. The door itself was a large, metal thing that slid sideways on a track instead of opening on hinges. Alex put his key into the lock and turned it. There was almost no resistance as he turned the key and he was rewarded with a faint click as the bolt slid back. Alex picked up his bags as he pulled the door back and stepped in. He dropped his bags to the floor and his jaw very nearly went with them.
The only word that came immediately to mind was “large.” The ceiling was a good eight meters up and the feeling of space was immense. The door opened onto a small entry hall, which in turn opened onto the living room. The kitchen/dining area was completely open to the rest of the room and located off to the left. On the right as you entered the main room was an enclosed space that turned out to be a recording studio that was large enough to contain a piano and storage for most of his instruments.
Further into the flat, sharing the wall with the kitchen, he found his bedroom with a small bath attached. The remaining space was devoted to various pieces of workout equipment ranging from as simple as an exercise mat to a small weight machine that seemed to use hydraulics for resistance.
The finishing touch to the whole dwelling was the sound system. The entire place was wired for sound and there was no room in the place that didn’t have state-of-the-art speakers mounted somewhere unobtrusively.
He’d expected a fairly small flat, probably tastefully decorated, but only just large enough to accommodate his basic needs. Instead he found he was living in a small warehouse, tastefully decorated to be sure, but far exceeding anything he might have designed for himself.
Just as Alex was beginning to get a grip on himself, the phone rang. Alex was able to locate it on the second ring and picked it up by the third.
“Oh good, you’re there!” It was his mother.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” replied Alex, still a bit stunned at his new home.
“Well, what do you think? I know it isn’t the Albert Hall, but”
”No it -- it’s... Big! Mother, this is -- I mean, how long have you been planning this? This must have taken months. You shouldn’t have -- I don’t know what to say“
“I believe the words you’re looking for are ‘Thank you, mother. This is perfect,’” replied Allyson St. John-Smythe, sounding very amused.
“I’m sorry, mother. This is Wonderful. It just seems a bit much. Not that I’m complaining,” he added quickly. “It’s just a bit overwhelming.”
“I’m glad you like it. So how was your flight”
Alex talked with his mother for another twenty minutes before she let him go to settle in. By 6:00 pm he was unpacked and went into the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, he was only slightly surprised to find it fully stocked. He made himself a quick bit to eat and sat down to relax. His body was still on London time and he was beginning to wind down a bit. Besides, he didn’t really know anyone in town. Except Sarah Steiner. After pacing about a bit, Alex worked up enough courage to pick up the phone and dial the number that he had for her. After a few rings, the phone was picked up.
It wasn’t Sarah’s voice. The accent was different and the pitch and timbre of the voice was a bit off. For a moment Alex thought he might have dialed the wrong number.
“Hello? Anyone there?” said the voice on the other end.
“I’m sorry, I thought I might have dialed the wrong number for a moment. Is Sarah Steiner in?” said Alex, trying not to sound like a total idiot.
“Oh, no she’s not here right now. She’s going to be in Philadelphia for the next couple of days. I’m her roommate, Paula Glasse. Would you like to leave a message for her?”
“That would be fine. Could you tell her that Alex St. John-Smythe called? We met a couple of months ago when a couple of the Matrons showed up at a night club called the Boom Room--”
“Oh Yeah! Sarah told me about all that. Hang on, I need to get something to write with”. There was a short pause before Paula came back to the phone. “Sorry about that. Okay, ‘Alex Sinjun Smythe...’ ‘Boom Room.’ Okay, what’s your number?”
“It’s,” Alex panicked for a moment before he discovering that the number had been neatly written on the receiver, “...555-8663.”
“Okay, got it. You’re not from around here, are you?”, she asked a little playfully.
“The accent’s a dead giveaway, isn’t it? Maybe I should start talking like this--” Alex cleared his throat a bit and then started speaking with the voice of one of the police officers he’d talked to the last time he was in New York, slightly deeper, but with a more nasal quality and with a slight Bronx accent.
“--Maybe if I talked like this, I wouldn’t have tourist stamped all over me...”
“Oooo. That’s weird. I think you should stick with your own voice. The accent’s cuter.”
“Uh, thank you,” said Alex in his own voice. “I’ll try to remember that.”
“You do that. I’ll let Sarah know you called as soon as she gets back.”
“Thanks. I’d appreciate it.
“Good night.” Alex set the phone down on its base and let out a slow breath. “I’m feeling a little tired anyway. May as well turn in.”
Alex got ready for bed and spotted a book on the night stand entitled The Guide to New York City. He picked it up and leafed through it. Since it would be a few days before he would get to talk to Sarah again, he decided to go out tomorrow and see a few sights.
“Might as well read up on what there was to see.”
Alex also found the information that Xavier Kingston had provided him regarding Capoeira instructors in the New York City area. It appeared that there were actually several and at least one of them wasn’t too far away to be inconvenient. He decided that he would check these tomorrow as well...
Captain Andrews watched over Pewitt’s shoulder as the bank of monitors came to life in front of them. Pewitt made a few adjustments to several of the screens and then turned his attention to the monitor directly in front of him. This one gave readouts of Alex’s physical condition: heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, brain activity, etc.
Speaking into a microphone, the scientist reeled off the statistics as well as the time even though they were being recorded on the video display.
“It would appear that all of the sensors are in good working order. Once he begins to use the equipment, we’ll be able to continue our study of his development.”
“Good, Benton. Let me know when he begins his exercises. I’m curious to see how he’ll progress away from our direct supervision”
Alex tried the phone number of the Capoeira instructor and was rewarded by a recording stating that the facility was closed but that there would be a demonstration held that day in Central Park. Alex had already decided on a walk in Central Park, and this merely confirmed the decision.
He had been there once before but hadn’t really wandered through it. In fact, the only thing that he really remembered about it from his last visit was meeting Weaver. Alex thought about the man for a moment and then just shook his head.
“A puzzle for another day...”
The weather was a bit cool so he put on his overcoat and went outside, remembering to grab his keys on the way out. He also noticed a cell phone sitting in a charger located on a small table by the door. He picked it up and thumbed through the numbers that were stored in memory. There were numbers for the various residences that the family maintained as well as for the Ministry. There were also a couple of numbers for Juilliard. Someone had even put in a number for a pizza delivery place. Alex smiled making a mental note to thank the person who had thought of this. He had a feeling he would be finding little ‘surprises like this over the next couple of weeks. Putting the phone in his pocket, he headed out the door.
As he headed east, toward Central Park, he passed by a newsstand. Just before he had passed it by completely, an issue of People magazine caught his eye. The cover of the issue featured Sarah, better known to the world as Knock Out and another fellow going by the name Omega. Alex picked up the copy and handed the news dealer a twenty-dollar bill. Alex almost forgot to get his change as he quickly scanned through the magazine.
As it turned out, the article wasn’t really about them but was rather a story on how metahumans made for an excellent media draw. The story itself would have been unremarkable were it not for the photos. There was a veritable gallery of them featuring Knock-out and Omega in locations such as Venice Beach in California, The Grand Canyon and even at the Golden Gate Bridge. The photo that caused Alex’s heart to dip a little was the one that featured the two kissing.
“Typical,” Alex said as he sighed, and put the folded magazine in a pocket of his overcoat.
Alex spent the remainder of the day wandering through Central Park, frequently humming to himself, either a snippet of Mozart or a few bars of a piece he had been working on lately. He made a note to himself to check out some of the sound equipment that had been set up in his apartment.
He had been a little annoyed when he had discovered all of his things had been unpacked by someone else. It wasn’t that he couldn’t stand the thought of someone rifling through his things, He was just a little particular about how his equipment was set up. The chance that he might have to undo the ‘damage’ wrought by someone else irked him a little.
As the day progressed, the weather grew somewhat warmer so he took off the overcoat and draped it over his arm. He wandered a bit more, trying to work out a few of the rhythms that he wanted to use. As he drew near to the North Meadow, he found heard another rhythm being played that was at odds with what he was trying to work out.
Initially, he was annoyed. Once he let his own efforts go, however, he found that the beat that he had heard was actually kind of interesting. After a few moments, the drum beat was joined by an odd sounding instrument and then by vocals. He rounded the end of a hedge and discovered the source of the sound.
There were about half a dozen men forming a rough circle, one of which -- older by appearances, maybe in his forties, with dreadlocks and apparently the teacher -- was playing the instrument that made the odd sounds. It was essentially a thin, single stringed bow to which a gourd was attached at one end providing the resonance. One of the others, presumably a student, was beating a rhythm on a drum and the rest were clapping a similar rhythm.
Inside the circle were two other young men. At first glance, they seemed to be sparring but as Alex watched, he saw that there was a rhythm to their movements. They seemed to be trying to time their movements not only with each other but with the music as well. Their movements ranged from simple kicks to more acrobatic maneuvers like cartwheels and handstands that also had the elements of attacks or blocks.
Alex found himself clapping along with the other young men in the circle. The older man playing the bow shaped instrument noticed Alex a few minutes later and handed the instrument to another student. Picking up the rhythm of the clapping, he waved the two “combatants” inside the circle to move to the edge. The older man then stepped into the ring, clapping his hands and then motioned to Alex to join him inside the circle.
Alex was a little taken aback and, smiling, politely declined. However, the other man was a little more persistent than Alex had expected. Suddenly the man did a short run, executed a cartwheel and vaulted over the men in the circle nearest him. The man continued to tumble toward Alex and the circle quickly moved to envelop the both of them.
The man broke into a wide grin as Alex realized what had just happened. He performed some spinning kicks that were aimed at Alex but were clearly not meant to connect. Settling down a bit, the man began repetitive movement that involved constantly shifting his weight from one leg to the other in time with the music.
“This is the ginga,” he said with a strong Jamaican accent. “This is the starting point for every other movement in Capoeira. Come, try it, mon.”
Alex suddenly remembered the demonstration that was supposed to take place in Central Park. The other men in the circle were all smiling at him, waiting to see what he would do. Alex sighed and set his coat down on the grass near the edge of the circle then moved back into the center. After a few moments and a couple of false starts, Alex got into the rhythm of the music and managed to duplicate the movements of the other man.
Once he had done that, the older man did a spinning kick that flowed smoothly from the basic form, the ginga. He did it again and motioned for Alex to try. Matching the rhythm of the music, Alex performed the same kick.
The instructor nodded in appreciation and did it again, this time adding another punching movement to make it a combination. Again he motioned for Alex to try it. Alex did and it felt somehow easier this time. The interchange between Alex and the instructor continued to build in this way for another five minutes. Another kick followed by a dodge and a cartwheel, then another kick, a somersault and an elbow smash. Each time Alex managed to duplicate the movement of the other.
Suddenly, the instructor leapt at Alex. Alex barely had time to realize what was happening before he realized the instructor had leapt over him instead. He felt a slight tug on the top of his head and then felt a kick to his backside as he was knocked forward. He managed to turn his forward momentum into a somersault but only barely. He came to his feet and spun around, expecting another attack. Instead the music stopped. Then the laughter started.
The circle broke and the other men came over to him, some clapping him on the back, others shaking his hand. Among them was the instructor who, Alex now realized, was actually about a head shorter than he was.
“They told me I should keep an eye out for you”, he began, “but from the way they spoke, I expected someone a little shorter. You’re name is Alex, yes?”
“Yes,” replied Alex, not quite sure what was going on. “You say you were expecting me?”
“Oh yes. I wasn’t sure when but they were pretty sure that you’d come see me.” The other man picked up Alex’s coat and handed it to him. “Funny thing is, they said you wouldn’t have had any training yet. Apparently they were mistaken.”
“Well, no they weren’t, not really. I mean I’ve had some basic hand to hand stuff but nothing like that Who are ‘they?’” Alex asked, trying to follow the conversation.
The other man chuckled. “It’s good to know I’m not the only one in the dark. ‘They’ would be your Ministry of Metahuman Affairs or more specifically, my nephew Xavier. He was pretty sure that you would try to get in touch with me in the next couple of days. I didn’t think it would be so quickly.”
“What was all that for, getting me into the circle?”
“The Roda? That is traditionally how capoeira is taught and practiced. Why break tradition I you don’ have to?” the man said. “Besides, if I am going to teach you, I thought it best to see what you could do.”
“Why not just wait until I met you at your school?” asked Alex.
The older man shook his head, dreadlocks briefly falling into his face. “Already the questions begin. If I had waited, I wouldn’t have learned as much.”
Alex looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“In addition to your physical abilities, I also learned that you will not willingly get into a situation you are unfamiliar with. I also learned that once you are in such a situation, you will try to make the best of it,” then he added with a smile, “even if you do end up getting your ass kicked at the end of it. Come to the academia tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 and we can get all the paper work out of the way.” The instructor picked up his own belongings and started back to where his other students were gathered.
“Wait! Who are you? What is your name?”
“I,” he said pausing slightly, “am Mestre Juca. Don’t be late.” With that, he turned and headed over to his other students.
Alex smiled briefly and headed home. He wanted to do a little more research before his new training began. He was also reminded by his stomach that he hadn’t eaten for a while and decided to make a brief detour to a restaurant he had spotted on the way to the park
Captain Andrews sifted through the daily reports on his computer, stopping at the one with the subject “Maestro weekly update.”
Alex had apparently made contact with a capoeira instructor and had begun training with him in earnest. The video footage included with the report showed clips of Alex practicing in his apartment. Andrews was impressed at how much the boy had learned already, noting the apparent ease with which he performed some seemingly difficult moves.
It may be that he would be ready ahead of schedule.
Andrews turned off the monitor and began thinking of contingency plans should that prove true...
It was Friday night, nearly a week since he had begun training, and Alex had stayed late at the academia to practice. A few of the other students had complained of having a rough day, it being "Friday the 13th." As Alex headed down the street looking for a cab, he couldn’t help but notice the brightness of the evening’s full moon. It seemed to be a bit larger tonight and it’s glow lent a somewhat surreal quality to the streets.
Alex spotted a cab a couple of blocks away and he started jogging lightly toward it when he heard the sound of a crowbar hitting the pavement. Turning toward the sound, he decided to investigate. As he approached the next intersection, he spotted some movement down an alley next to a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank.
The light of the moon was sufficient to light his way as he stopped at the entrance to the alley, not unexpected since the moon was mostly visible at the other end. What was unexpected was the shadowy, wraith-like figure that hovered in front of the moon. It had a translucence that nearly obscured any identifying details.
Alex’s study of the figure was interrupted by the sound of a door opening onto the alley. He saw four men wearing black jumpsuits and ski masks. Each was carrying a silvery case bearing the logo of Chase Manhattan. The ghost-like form began to float away down the alley and the four men followed suit.
Perfect. I’m not in New York for a full week and this sort of thing starts... Alex briefly considered letting the thieves get away then quickly discarded the idea. No sense in getting off to a bad start.
“It’s a little late to be making a withdrawal, isn’t it gentlemen?”
Almost as a single organism, the four men stopped in their tracks.
“I thought you said there was no one out here,” said one of the thugs.
“There wasn’t, idiot!” said another. “Bennie. Take care of the nosy bastard before the boss notices we ain’t followin’ him.”
A third, larger man started walking toward Alex. “You talk funny. Ya ain’t from around here, are ya?”
Alex wasn’t in the mood to discuss matters of diction. “Be a good chap, return the cases and I’ll put in a good word with the police.”
“Yer a funny guy. It almost makes me wanna let you go. But I gotta rep to keep up...”
The thug, Bennie, threw a punch at Alex that might have hurt the average passerby. Of course Alex was not quite average. Alex easily blocked Bennie’s punch and delivered a blow to the big man’s midsection. Bennie doubled over, gasping for air. Alex picked him up and threw him into the other three, all of them falling down in a heap.
Bennie was clearly down for the count but the other three managed to untangle themselves. They stood up and spread out a bit, the second goon producing the crowbar that had drawn Alex’s attention earlier. Their tactical sense ended at that point. All three of the men decided to attack at once, and very nearly collided with each other in the attempt. Alex took two men out with a single spinning kick and took out the last with an old fashioned right cross. Alex dialed 911 and reported the failed robbery attempt. Halfway through the call, he was lifted up and thrown against the alley wall.
The translucent figure Alex had spotted earlier was floating just above the ground where he was just standing. Alex stood up and charged at the figure, using his momentum to add power to the punch he aimed at the thing’s mid-section. He nearly dislocated his shoulder as his fist traveled through his intended target. The apparition’s answering backhand certainly felt solid enough. Alex went flying another ten feet down the alley.
He looked for something to throw at the figure. As he reached for a trashcan, he found himself flying toward the other end of the alley. Alex landed hard on the pavement and it took a moment to get his bearings. There had been a sharp pain in his side but he was pretty certain there were no broken bones. His hand came to rest on a small piece of rebar. He picked it up and threw it at the ghostly figure, and it sailed right through the apparition without causing it any harm.
The figure gestured again and Alex felt a jarring blow to his jaw. He was only faintly aware of the floating sensation as he landed another twenty feet further down the alley. This time, as he slowly stood up, he caught the sounds of a nightclub from the other end of the alley. The music was actually pretty loud.
The club probably shares a wall with the bank, he thought. Kind of an odd place for a club.
But odd or not, he couldn’t complain about the music’s effect on him. He couldn’t hear the words clearly enough to garner what he often thought of as a “special effect,” some kind of energy blast or defensive power. But the sounds and the rhythms were more than enough to charge him up.
He saw the figure once more floating toward him, like some ghostly predator moving in for the kill. This time, when it gestured, he dove to one side, rolling to his feet. The section of pavement he had just occupied buckled slightly as though it had sustained a crushing blow. Grabbing a small crate of bottles that was sitting next to a door, he hurled the crate at the figure. Alex dashed toward the end of the alley. As he heard the bottles shatter on the ground, he turned to look back over his shoulder. The figure appeared unharmed.
Just as he was about to make another attempt at attacking the ghost, Alex noticed a man across the street wearing some kind of techno-headdress. As he watched the ghostly figure advance, he noticed that the wraith mimicked some of the motions made by the man across the street. He barely ducked in time as the apparition attacked again, this time taking a chunk out of the bricks that had been behind his head.
Ignoring the pain in his side, Alex dashed across the street toward the man. He sincerely hoped that he was correct in his assumption that the man was responsible for the attacking apparition. As if summoned by the thought of it, the wraith slammed into his back, sending him to the pavement. The pain was certainly noticeable, but due to the music spilling out of the nightclub, it was no longer as insistent.
Knowing now that his assumption had been correct, he left off attacking the ghostly figure and continued his charge on the man with the circuitry on his head. Ducking and weaving a few more attacks from the apparition, Alex slammed into the man. Wrestling him to the ground, Alex removed the headgear from his true assailant and the ghostly form vanished.
Alex hauled the struggling man to his feet and lifted him from the ground. He then headed back toward the rear entrance to the bank building to await the authorities. As he re-entered the alleyway, he could still feel and hear the thrum of the music from the club. But even with the noise, he was able to make out an odd sound, like a large animal scratching at a concrete wall.
Looking up, Alex saw perhaps the most revolting thing he’d ever seen in his life. From the shadows cast by the full moon, he saw an impossibly gaunt figure creeping down from a ledge above the alley. To call it a man might have been a gross error in identification. It looked more like a living skeleton, rotting flesh barely clinging to its bones. The creature’s gauntness only accentuated the claws on its gnarled hands and the sharp teeth protruding from its mouth at odd angles.
Alex could just make out the thing speaking under its breath.
“We hunger tonight, yess. But We will feast well, yessssss. Smell their sins, we can. Deliciousss, murderous thievesss. Mussst hurrry , yess. They waken. Sssoooo h-u-u-u-n-g-r-y-y-y...”
Chills ran down Alex’s spine as he realized what the creature meant to do. He paused, uncertain what to do. He had no way to bind the man he had captured. If he went after the ghoulish creature, the man responsible for the robbery would escape. If he didn’t do something, the four men who were stirring to consciousness would likely meet a grisly end.
Alex dropped the man on the ground and sprinted to intercept the fiend advancing on the goons. Bennie had just regained his feet when he saw the thing advancing on them. He managed to let out a high-pitched scream before he fainted dead away.
Just before the thing was able to grab the nearest thug, Alex slammed into it from behind. The creature hit the ground several yards away and Alex rolled to his feet. The thing regained its feet as quickly and whirled to face Alex.
“Who daresss?!! My feast awaits! Ssooo hungry...” The things voice was a mixture of outrage and piteous whining. Coupled with the smell of rotting flesh, Alex had to resist a strong urge to empty his stomach.
“These are not for you!” Alex declared, placing himself between the men and the creature. “You’d best leave while you’re in one piece!”
“Nooo! Miiiine! They were promised to Meee!” The creature lunged at Alex much faster than he would have believed and slashed at Alex. The creature’s claws raked across his chest, tearing his sweatshirt and leaving a burning sensation. Alex managed to catch the creatures arms at the wrist before it could attack again.
Alex was stronger but the creature was nothing if not persistent. Wriggling to get free of his grasp, it began to bite at him. The stench of its breath was incredible, carrying all of the worst odors of a slaughterhouse. Alex threw the creature against the wall and, as it hit the ground already prepared to leap at him again, it froze.
Alex could clearly hear the sound of approaching sirens. The result of his earlier 911 call!
“Not fair! Not Faaiiirrr!”, the thing whined as it scrambled back down the alley, fleeing from the approaching sound. Alex could faintly hear it as it disappeared into the shadows, half-wailing, half-screaming, “Ssssoooo huuungryy”
The next day, Alex read in the Times about the robbery attempt. The reporters had arrived almost as quickly as the police. Alex had spent several hours giving his statement to the investigating detectives and learned from them that the mastermind had likely been a criminal called Wraith. As Alex had expected, Wraith had escaped during his scuffle with the creature that the media had already dubbed "Ghoul." It seemed that, after the police had taken the four henchmen into custody, one of them had been attacked. As police were dropping off the prisoners at a nearby precinct, the transport van was attacked. The cop described the attacker as "a frail, skeleton-thin, hermit -- almost like a zombie." The article also mentioned that one of the robbers, a Benjamin "Bennie" Terelli, was carried off into the night by the "hermit," screaming as he disappeared from sight. The screaming was said to have stopped a short time later...
From Ghoulie and GhostiesAnd Long Leggedy BeastiesAnd Things That Go Bump in the NightGood Lord preserve us...
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