Copyright © 2014 by D.R. Rosensteel. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
My life changed forever the night the stalker came to town, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I say came to town, but I know now it was someone who had been there all along. I actually had no intention of getting involved. I thought the cops had it covered. They spotted some guy all over the city dressed up in funny costumes. Clowns, rock stars, flamboyant dinosaurs. People thought it was an advertising stunt until he tried to pull a little girl into his creeper van. Luckily, she screamed and the neighbors came running. Squad cars showed up, but he disappeared without a trace. It was all over the news, and the whole town was put on alert. Police patrols were everywhere. Even that didn’t stop him. He showed up a few days later at my little sister’s elementary school.
That’s where I drew the line. Little sisters, especially mine, were off limits for creeps. The police were in over their heads, so I decided they needed a specialist to step in. The guy was obviously no ordinary stalker.
Fortunately, I’m no ordinary teenager. My name is Rinnie Noelle. I’m a Psi Fighter. We protect the innocent, kind of like Batman. But we don’t do capes. Capes are for weirdos.
Andy and the Kilodan said I wasn’t ready. Andy is my mentor and favorite sparring partner. He’s like a big brother to me—overprotective and annoying, but in a sweet way. The Kilodan is the Psi Fighters’ leader, you know, like Captain America is the Avengers’ leader? Except that the Kilodan doesn’t actually have a name. He’s just “the Kilodan.” And he’s always masked. I’ve known him since I was six, but I’ve never seen his face. He’s really big on secret identities.
They wanted me to fix the problems at my high school instead of taking down the stalker. Major, fly-catching yawn. Don’t get me wrong. The drugs and violence at school are beyond annoying. But what crime fighter wants to put bullies in detention when she can save the world from nefarious villains? I wanted to test my skills on bigger trouble.
Long story short, I got permission to be Andy’s backup on this mission. Something told me there was more to this stalker than there appeared to be. I had no evidence, just a feeling. Turns out, I was right. Feelings are my specialty.
I slipped through Sinclair Park, masked and armored, and feeling a little freaky. Not from the outfit. That was awesome. The high-tech mask, midnight blue hood with matching tabard, and formfitting body armor made me all but indestructible. But Sinclair Park was an eerie place. It started out as a cemetery during the Revolutionary War. All sorts of famous dead people were buried there. Then, some rich family bought it in the 1950s and built a playground in the middle of it. They apparently didn’t see a problem mixing toys with tombs. Monkey bars, sandbox, freshly dug grave…maybe I’m weird, but that creeped me out. A little too much Mr. Rogers meets Stephen King for my taste. The Kilodan insisted we’d find the stalker there. How he knew, I didn’t have a clue, but he had this annoying way of always being right.
As the twilight sky darkened, I reached my observation point, a high-tech mausoleum at the edge of the woods. Yes, I said mausoleum. Andy took some poor soul’s gateway to the Great Beyond and turned it into a surveillance center. I love Andy, but seriously, normal was not his style.
Floodlights clicked on with a low hum down by the playground, startling me. I quickly touched the bronze nameplate, calmed my mind, and concentrated. The door slid open and I slipped through. It closed silently behind me the moment I cleared the opening. The inside was about ten by twelve, and well lit for a final resting place. Reminded me of something out of Dark Shadows. The granite bench where the coffin was supposed to go sat in the center. It had been converted to a sofa. No way was I sitting there. A pinball machine with a picture of Elvis Presley in a black leather jacket with black leather wristbands, playing a brown and gold guitar, sat in the far corner. Four bronze doors were bolted to the long marble wall behind the couch. They were labeled, from left to right, “1956—Got Famous,” “1959—Made Fried Squirrel Famous,” “1973—Made Hawaii Famous,” “1977—Left the Building.” They had Andy written all over them.
I hit a button on my armor. All four bronze doors slid upward and disappeared into the ceiling, revealing high-resolution monitors. They flashed to life, displaying the woods and playground across the long back wall like a mural.
If you’ve never hunted a ferocious stalker from inside a high-tech tomb, I don’t recommend it. There were no rotting corpses or rattling skeletons, but there were spiders. I hate spiders. I was covered from head to toe in a space age fabric so strong it made Kevlar look like cheap aluminum foil, but I’d have gladly traded it for a good old-fashioned can of Raid.
I stared through the mausoleum’s monitors out onto a scene that made my spider-infested sepulcher seem even spookier. Sinclair Park is built on a wooded hillside, with a little valley slashed right down the middle. The cemetery lies at the top of the valley, and the playground is at the bottom. When the sun goes down, it looks like something out of a horror movie. Not the new kind, where the vampires are hot. The old kind, where they have bloodstained fangs and smell like road kill on an August afternoon. Mist flowed down from the trees like a shadowy stream, washing eeriness from the tombstones and depositing it on the playground in the hollow below. If a werewolf (again, the scary kind, not the kind that looks awesome with no shirt) had stalked across the lawn, it totally wouldn’t have surprised me.
In the midst of that Tim Burton-ish setting, a small group of children played. Sans parents. What was up with that? You’d think after a series of creeper sightings, there would be parents. And even if the whole town hadn’t been freaked out by a rampant stalker, what kind of mother lets her child play alone in a cemetery after dark? Even birds guard their young. And they have smooth brains.
“Sound,” I said. Instantly, the clamor of children laughing and playing came across the mausoleum’s hypersensitive audio receivers. The floodlights cast an eerie yellow glow around the children. I scanned the tree line for what seemed an eternity. Nothing. No vampires, no werewolves, no stalkers. As first missions went, this one was rating a low five. If there had been a full moon, I might have given it a six. Andy’s voice echoed over my mask’s radio. “This could get very dangerous, very quickly.”
“Hey, ‘Danger’ is my middle name. Grave danger. Get it?”
“This isn’t practice, sweetheart.”
I scanned the monitors, but couldn’t find Andy. Trees, swings, monkey bars, kids. No masked vigilante. “What good is all this high-tech bad guy hunting gadgetry if I can’t see you on it?”
“Hold on,” Andy’s voice came back. “Look now.”
An orange-ish glow appeared on the monitor. It took the shape of a stick figure waving. I said, “Enhance,” into my mask’s microphone. The stick figure blurred and refocused. Andy popped onto the screen with amazing clarity, dressed in his bone-white mask and black armor. “Where were you?”
“I came out of Shimmer.”
Shimmer is like stealth mode. A nice feature Andy built into our armor.
“Forgot your cloak of invisibility?”
“Get serious. This guy is deadly.”
Normally, Andy is a total goof, so his uncharacteristically somber mood caught me off guard. This was my first real mission, but it’s not like I’m a total newb. I pressed a button on the side of my mask. Low voltage current tickled my throat, and I felt my vocal cords thicken. “So am I,” I said, pleased with the venomous sound of my electronically altered voice.
“This is not a game!” Andy’s voice was stern. “Children’s lives are at stake. Stick to the plan.”
The plan was for Andy to capture the stalker without any witnesses. My job was to watch him while Andy took him down. Okay, sticking to the plan. Slight problem, though. “I don’t see him.”
I tapped my mask. “Do you see him?”
“You’re breaking up. Switch to infrared. Look along the tree line. By the big oak.”
“Red,” I said. The monitors instantly glowed with night vision. I scanned the trees above the playground. There he was, just like Andy said. He lurked about fifty yards from the children, outside the range of the floodlights, hiding himself in the shadows of a massive oak. “Enhance. Zoom.” Wow. The ghoulish night vision didn’t do the stalker justice. Once the high res color enhancers zoomed in on him, I got a close-up I wasn’t quite ready for. I only saw the back of his head, but that guy had some serious fashion issues. His hair was huge, bright red, and looked like he had used a ten million volt Taser for a straightener. Had to be a mask. “What’s he dressed like this time?”
“Not close enough to tell.” Andy’s figure moved swiftly across the monitor. “I’m switching back to Shimmer. Keep your eyes open. He’ll be out of my line of sight for two minutes. I’m coming in from the north. Warn me if anyone heads his way. And don’t move. No matter what. Got it?” Andy vanished from the screen.
“Got it.” Suddenly, I couldn’t see the stalker. I quickly scanned the monitors, but found nothing with weird hair. “Wide,” I said, switching out of night vision into wide mode. Only trees. “Red,” I said, as panic started to set in. The screen went back to night vision, and I saw movement. “Enhance. Zoom.” The sicko was back in view, slinking nearer to the children, careful to stay in the shadows. He settled into a small recess in the landscape surrounded by heavy brush and trees. The perfect hiding spot—impossible to see from the playground. This guy was good.
“He moved,” I said.
Andy didn’t respond.
The red-haired creeper stooped behind another huge tree and set something on the ground at the edge of the recess. Suddenly, an eerie children’s song I only half-recognized piped across the mausoleum’s speakers. A little girl looked up from the sandbox. Not good.
“Andy, you gotta move now!” Static crackled and died, and fresh panic hit me like an avalanche. I scanned the tree line, but Andy was nowhere to be seen. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me. Andy practically invented the art of stealth. Nobody could see him if he didn’t want them to, even without his uniform’s Shimmer mode. But he was relying on me, and I was not going to let a single one of those children disappear.
“Andy, if you can hear me, I’m going in.”
I touched the hidden latch on the mausoleum’s marble wall. It rolled open, and the smell of wet leaves gushed in. The evening had a slight chill, moist with the drifting fog.
As I bolted from my hideout toward the red-haired freak, darting silently between the trees, panic gave way to excitement. This was almost too easy. The Kilodan was wrong—I was ready. I had trained ten years for this. I grinned beneath my mask. That freak’s stalking days were officially over. I moved in behind him like the mist. Slowing my pace, I eased myself so close I could smell him. Gross. Just to be safe, I drew my Amplifier.
The weirdo stood icily still, watching the little girl on the playground, unaware that if he backed up, he’d trip over me. His breathing was slow and calculating. Head and shoulders taller than me, he wore a classy designer jacket and matching jeans. Nice outfit, but it clashed with his scent. Rancid Gym Sock, by Estee Stalker. Soap was apparently not part of his repertoire.
Neither were scruples. The creep wore an Elmo mask. That was just wrong. The scratchy music came from some sort of old tape recorder, and I realized it was the theme song to Sesame Street. Using a beloved childhood character to lure innocent rug rats gave a whole new meaning to the word “scum.” Brought to you by the letters P-U.
I thought about dropping him by pinching a nerve on his neck. Nice and clean. He’d never know what hit him. In hindsight, that would have been a better approach. Yeah. Instead, I grabbed his mask by the red fur and plucked it off. A grimy mop of dark, unwashed hair lay plastered against his head, and its stench hit me like a nuclear blast, obliterating the sweet green smell of the woods. I almost threw the mask back on him to save what remained of my sinuses. He grabbed at his head, then spun around in confusion, his face scrunched up with anger.
“Shhhh.” I held a gauntleted finger to my masked lips.
The creeper’s expression changed like he had flipped a light switch, and his breathing accelerated. He smiled down at me, and his face became so adorable I almost overlooked his stench.
“Do you want to play with me?” he whispered. His eyes were deep brown, sparkling. I put him at about forty, but he seemed very childlike. My first impression was that he’d probably clean up pretty well with the right combination of soap, love, and an industrial pressure washer. His sweet voice made me wonder whether we had the right guy.
Then he balled up his fist and tried to take my head off. Definitely the right guy.
I slapped his punch aside with a quick wave of my armored hand and slammed my fist into his stomach. It was soft. The creep had zero abs. Lucky for him I pulled the punch. He doubled over, gagged once, and tried unsuccessfully to breathe. I dropped to the ground and swept his feet out from under him. He landed hard and lay unmoving.
I hit the button on my mask.
“This is not a game.” My transformed voice thundered like an avenging angel, more horrifying than I had intended, and chills ran down my spine. Thankfully, it had the same effect on him. The Elmo-wannabe crawled to his knees, cringing. He wiped his mouth with his hand, then raised it as though he thought I would hit him again. I planned to, but not the way he expected. I had to hold him until Andy found us.
Fear me, I thought, and clamped my hand around his wrist. My body tingled as my mask filled with mental static. Psychic force rushed down my arm and ripped into him. His eyes bulged with terror.
“You’re not real!” he gasped, wildly shaking his head, struggling to pull away. His filthy hair stuck out like a scarecrow’s. I focused hard, pounding the cruelest delusions I could imagine into his mind. I felt his fear growing. That was good. That was how it worked during practice. In moments, he would be in a fetal position, too terrified to move.
“Get away!” he panted. The man recoiled, tearing out of my grip. He leapt to his feet, backpedaled and tripped, but caught himself. I moved in to end it. Fumbling at the zipper on his jacket, he ripped out a pistol and pointed it at my chest.
That was not good. That never happened during practice.
Without thinking, I flicked my wrist, and the word “sorrow” echoed through my mind. Masters of the Mental Arts form psionic weapons from thoughts and emotions. Unfortunately, I am not a Master. I didn’t mean to draw the emotion that triggered the Psi Fighter’s most powerful Psi Weapon, but Andy and I had just practiced the technique in training, and I couldn’t think of anything else. A ghostlike whip of psychogenic mist exploded from my Amplifier and solidified around the stalker’s arm. I yanked and held tight. His gun spiraled through the air, and he fell to the grass, shaking violently. My Memory Lash slithered up his arm, coiling around him like a misty python.
Please! The stalker’s terrified thoughts filled my brain before his voice reached my ears. He sobbed like a little girl, thrashing as the Memory Lash tightened. His memories flooded my mind like a blast of putrid wind, siphoned by the Lash…tiny faces in a wire cage, little girls crying for their mothers. A hideous skull surfaced and disappeared. A little blond face flashed into my head, dirty and crying, screaming that she would tell his mommy. Horror gripped him, fear that his mother would find out—
His terror filled me in a way I had never experienced in practice. I became him, horrified of my mother, paralyzed by what she’d done to me in the past. Her enormous face came at me from all directions. The little girl wouldn’t stop screaming. I ripped open the cage door, picked up a claw hammer, and hurled it with all my strength. The claw lodged in the wooden frame beside her head. Terror filled the girl’s eyes, and she clamped her hands over her screaming mouth. An overwhelming sense of glee flooded into my mind, and I slammed the cage door shut.
That twisted feeling jolted me like high voltage electricity, and I fought to become me again. I threw my Amplifier to the ground, trying to escape the horrible images, but I couldn’t push the stalker’s memories out of my head. My legs shook, the world spun, and I dropped to my knees, trying not to vomit in my mask.
“Get up!” Andy’s irritated voice snapped me from the trance. His mask, a bright angelic face with laughing eyes, peered down at me, cocked at a furious angle.
I knew without looking that the smelly creeper was gone.
“Andy, I’m sorry.”
He jerked me to my feet. “You ignored my orders. Why?”
“But my radio—”
“I told you to check the charge,” he spat, towering over me. “Why would you use a Memory Lash? You know you can’t handle it!”
“It was all I could think of.” My whole body quivered. “He had a gun. I’m sorry, Andy, I…”
Andy sighed. His big body relaxed, and he rested his gauntleted fist on my shoulder. “It’s okay. Did the Lash change him?”
“No sorrow, no remorse,” I said. “He enjoys terrorizing. I think he likes being afraid. Andy, I saw his face.”
“I know.” Andy picked up the dropped Elmo mask. “That thing smells awful. Who is this Jim Henson reject?”
“Didn’t recognize him. But Elmo isn’t his only disguise.”
“Yeah, I know. Clowns, purple dinosaurs.”
“I saw a skull mask in one of his memories. Like a pirate’s Jolly Roger. Probably wears it to frighten the children.”
Andy’s body went rigid. “A death’s head? Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. Now that I was released from the effects of my backfired attack, I tried to remember what I had seen. I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help it. Children were caged, and I had just let their kidnapper escape. “Idiot!” I said under my breath. “Andy, he’s holding little girls captive. If they die, it’s my fault.” I picked my broken Amplifier out of the grass and pulled at it with my mind, hoping that some memory fragments remained.
How could I have let him get away? How could I have been so stupid? That poor child, the way her eyes bulged when the hammer nearly killed her, the sickening joy the stalker felt, the horror of his mother…suddenly, a gateway opened and the terrible things I had seen in the stalker’s mind flooded out. My legs buckled, my hands shook… Instantly, the memories became too vivid—the hammer felt deadly in my hand—I was there again, enjoying it, and it terrified me—and I struggled to separate myself from him. “Andy, the little girls—please stop it! I can’t keep him out—Andy, help me! Andy—”
Andy was on me in an instant, arms around me, masked forehead pressed against my own, whispering into my mind, “Every mission has its own horror. Don’t dwell there. You know how to push it away. Now push. Like we practiced.”
Calmness flowed through me, but I knew it wasn’t of my own doing. I concentrated, filling myself with thoughts of home, the Academy, my family, until I regained control. My storm of emotions calmed. I forced the memories out, and I was me again.
“Thank you,” I muttered. “The Kilodan was right. I wasn’t ready. Why is he always right?”
“Benefits of being our glorious leader,” Andy said. “You were lucky this time. Rinnie, you don’t realize how powerful you are. You have got to stay in control. You could hurt somebody.”
I smiled, knowing Andy couldn’t see it under my mask. “I’m okay now. I guess I never took that part of the training seriously.”
“I know. You never had a reason. Now you do.” He lifted my chin with his finger. “You know, the Kilodan is also right about your school. You could stop it all. Make the high school safe.”
“Smooth change of subject.”
Andy folded his hands. “It’s what I do.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, not interested. I’ve got a stalker to pummel. It’s personal now.”
“And being bullied every day isn’t?”
I thought about a typical day at school. Name-calling, humiliation, the joy of being a total outcast. Algebra. “Life can’t always be a box of chocolates. Anyway, that’s different. Out here, I’m masked.”
Andy laughed. “Our masks are just tools.”
“This tool”—I jabbed a finger at my mask—“is the only thing that hides my identity. In case you’re forgetting, I don’t dress like this at school.”
“There are ways to stay hidden without wearing a mask. Underdog didn’t wear a mask. Nobody knew his identity.”
“Underdog had it easy. He had a telephone booth to duck into. I have a cell phone. It’s a little tight.”
“Duck into your locker,” Andy said.
I did a finger wag at him. “Somebody would notice a blond girl going in and a masked vigilante coming out. I’d be captured and interrogated by the Knights until I told them your name. They would hunt you down, torture you for days, and finally kill you and hang your rotting corpse in the streets as a reminder to us all. Worse yet, I’d get detention. You know we aren’t allowed to fight in school.”
Walpurgis Knights, our fiercest enemy. Their leader is very likely the deadliest human alive. They call him Nicolaitan. Like us, the Knights also create weapons from thoughts and emotions, but they prefer jealousy, hatred, and guile, the darkest of emotions. They are especially sensitive to the use of Psi Weapons, which is why the Psi Fighters never use them while unmasked.
“Your concern for my safety overwhelms me,” Andy said. “As does your cluelessness about your school.”
“I know enough to keep my mask on. The Kilodan is never unmasked. I’ve known him for ten years, and I’ve never seen his face. Or heard his real voice. He knows how to keep his identity hidden. I’m just following his example.”
“The rest of your classmates would love to fight back,” Andy said. “They just need a leader.”
“The rest of my classmates aren’t in danger of being murdered in their sleep.”
“I thought ‘Danger’ was your middle name.”
“Not according to the jerks at school.”
“So you’ll take the assignment?”
“Do I have a choice?”