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My name is Heather Van Ness, and I'm a superhero.

Of course, for the moment, what I am is a deeply angered daughter whose parents are in the midst of welshing on a charitable donation.

"Mother, I simply cannot believe you'd embarrass me this way!"

"Now Heather, I'm willing to indulge these little philanthropic whims of yours, but you can't ask me to give money to Catholics."

"You made a pledge, Mother," I say. "You got your photo in the paper. You took all that adulation and praise, and now you want to break a promise to the soup kitchen because Grandmama found out you weren't being suitably bigoted."

"Heather, dearest, you know your grandmother still has her preferences about how the family's money should be spent," says my mother, Penelope Van Ness (née Rotherton) as she fills out the monthly allotment of (generally much too small) charitable write-offs. "I'm sure they can make do with whatever they normally eat."

"Mother, you're impossible!" I shout and go tearing off to find Father, who is away in the garden overseeing the illegal immigrants who trim the topiary.

"Father, you've got to do something about Mother," I say. "You can't let her back out of that pledge to the soup kitchen!"

"Heather, you know I don't have anything to do with the charity nonsense," says my father, Oscar Van Ness, financier, golddigger, and unrepentant moocher. "You care about that so much, go haggle it out with your mother. Besides, no one donates to charities on Halloween. Don't you have your usual parties to go to this year?"

"It's hardly a matter of charities on Halloween, Father," I tell him. "The sooner the soup kitchen gets donations, the sooner they can start planning for their Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. We can send a check after Halloween if you prefer, but it just wouldn't do to let so many people go hungry. Don't you agree, Father?"

"It hardly matters to me," Father says. "If they're so keen to get nice holiday dinners, they should've planned better and gotten jobs like the rest of us."

And that, my dears, is the way my life looks right now -- the only socially-conscious member of a family full of gleeful one-percenters. I can't even look for support from my own siblings. Older brother Oscar Jr. and his wife have taken father's money-leeching lessons to heart off in New York, and little sister Anna is coasting through UCLA solely on the strength of Mother's embarrassingly large donations to whatever her major is this month -- which is, I suppose, the way I made it through college, too, so perhaps it's wrong to expect more from her.

So what turned me into the black sheep of the Van Ness family dynasty? I was actually on track to become a clone of my mother until I took an "adventure vacation" in South America that turned out a lot more adventuresome than advertised. To make a long story short, there was a kidnapping, a flight to an underworld hideout in the rain forest, and a daring escape attempt that ended with me taking a bullet in the shoulder, falling into a river, washing down the rapids, and tumbling down two different waterfalls.

And after that, almost three months of living quietly with a remote tribe, waiting for one of the tribesmen to walk out of the jungle to get help, slowly recovering from my injuries, and learning not to be such a privileged bitch.

In a way, it didn't even take that long. I was no stereotyped movie heiress -- it was obvious that playing the spoiled diva would do me no good in a village where food and shelter were already in short supply. When I was recovered enough to move (and when I was convinced that the kidnappers weren't going to come looking for me), I started working on learning their language, learning some low-tech skills, meeting the people who'd saved me. I played with the kids, I learned to cook, I learned how to take care of people who were sick or wounded, and I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow. I was dreadful at it, and everyone had a good laugh at my expense.

When a rescue party finally arrived, I made sure someone took lots of photos of me with my new friends. I was filthy, wearing rags, and breaking every possible rule of good grooming, and I was as happy as I'd ever been in my entire life.

And as soon as I got back to the U.S. consulate, I took a bath, brushed my teeth, shaved my legs and pits, got a haircut, and bought a whole new wardrobe. Because again, I was filthy, wearing rags, and breaking every possible rule of good grooming. I'm a Van Ness, and a Van Ness is never a slob.

Nevertheless, my eyes had been opened to how things were for the have-nots. We weren't the richest family in the world, but I knew we could do a lot of good. Mother and Father needed no persuading to send money to the tribe who rescued me, and I was able to direct the donation through an organization that would make sure they got things they really needed -- food, medicine, resources, and protection.

But I could also see how much poverty and sickness there were here at home, too. And the family was a bit more hesitant about helping people here in Metro City. Thus was born the tug-of-war -- me trying to get the Van Ness pocketbook opened for more charities, and the rest of the family struggling to keep the purse strings nice and tight.

Not that I've become a complete granola girl. I am my parents' daughter, after all, and I still love socializing and clubbing and being scandalous and calling people "darling!" One must have some fun in life, shouldn't one?

So what to do about the soup kitchen? The publicity about reneging on a charitable donation would be entirely appalling, but I do have some options. I've got my own discretionary funds I can raid, but it wouldn't do to completely drain my accounts. Luckily, Mother and Father are both unable to resist when I tell them, "I'd love to go to that soiree by Baltazar Bay, but I must have a new dress to wear!" It's not like anyone will notice if I don't actually buy a new dress. I mean, do you have any idea how many dresses I already own? Like anyone would notice if I wear something I've worn only twice before.

Of course, I can't pull that too quickly without Mother catching on to the scam. Luckily, I get an excellent excuse to vanish from the house for a few hours so Mother can forget about the soup kitchen when I get a call that the Metro City Police Department needs my help with a hostage situation.

Oh my, all this chit-chat, and I haven't even gotten around to talking about superhero business, have I?

Well, let's see, it all basically started several months after I'd gotten back to Metro City after that incident in South America. I was heading off for a ski trip in Colorado -- and not just a ski trip, thank you very much, I was making some visits to environmental organizations I was considering donating to -- when I suffered another travel disruption.

Simply put, I was abducted by a UFO.

And after that, I kicked a Perseidian officer of the Intergalactic Defense Patrol in his testicular cluster. Well, honestly, that's what I always felt one should do when abducted by aliens. I prefer to arrange for my own probing, thank you very much. That little act of self-defense almost got me kicked off the ship somewhere around lunar orbit. It's a good thing no one is able to resist my natural charm and charisma.

It turns out I had the perfect mixture of compassion, courage, and intelligence that the IDP looks for in new patrol officers, and they'd been considering inducting an Earthling into the organization for years. I got several important internal organs scooped out and replaced with biomechanical replacements, had a quart of computerized bonding goo poured into my brain, and had my official IDP armor and weapons systems injected into my circulatory system.

It hurt like hell, and I kicked the Perseidian officer in his testicular cluster again when it was all finished.

Once all that was finished, there was a week's worth of training -- these things apparently go quite quickly when you've had a quart of computerized bonding goo poured into your brain -- and then I was returned to Earth.

No one had particularly noticed I was gone. My family assumed I was on some sort of drunken bender in Vail.

I picked the superhero name "Defender" partly out of laziness and partly because I assumed the IDP would have a crack legal team available to help me defend myself in court if anyone sued me about using their name. I was lucky -- no one in the superhero community had been unoriginal enough to choose a name like "Defender" in over 70 years.

I don't call for backup from the IDP very often -- they are generally of the opinion that any planet that has as many metahumans as Earth should be more than capable of handling any crisis without requiring assistance from the IDP.

I called them a few times soon after I'd been issued my suit, but usually got told that I'd been inducted as an officer on the assumption that I could handle any emergencies by myself or with the aid of Earth superheroes. In fact, I've been told that every time I've called them, including for actual heavyweight emergencies like alien invasions and infestations of Time Flies. At this point, I doubt Earth will ever see an IDP officer other than me.

So what can I do? All I have to do is think of a specific sequence of code numbers, unique for each member of the Patrol -- and no, dear, I'm not telling something that important to anyone -- and my liquid-metal biomechanical alien blood substitute will ooze out of my skin and form itself into a solid, durable suit of powered armor. It gives me a minor shot of superstrength, increases my ability to heal myself, lets me listen in on everything from radio communications to cell phone signals, and enables me to fly. The armor has a full set of nonlethal weaponry, including an energy net, neural stun pulses, molecular glue traps, and subliminal pacification burstcasts. And I can produce a regenerative gel that I can use for first aid and healing.

Trust me, dears, I'm entirely beyond awesome.

So as I was saying, the Metro City PD gives me a call about a hostage situation. It comes via my internal cell phone system, so I'm able to pick up the call and chat with the dispatcher without giving anyone else a clue anything is going on. I excuse myself from Father's presence and head for the stables -- they haven't been used in the past decade, and they're a great place for me to get into costume and fly away unobserved.

I suppose I'm a great deal more fortunate than other Metro City heroes when it comes to dealing with the police. While the rank-and-file police officers tend to classify me as a "credit-hogging glory-hound" like the rest of them, the SWAT team and hostage negotiators have never hesitated to call on me when they think I can help out. Not too surprising for the negotiators, since they tend to prioritize getting situations resolved quickly, quietly, and safely much more than they do getting the chance to go shoot random people, it has always seemed odd that the SWAT guys are willing to let me use my usual non-violent methods rather than going gung-ho with the military-grade equipment.

Once I make it to the incident coordinates (4200 block of Jimenez Avenue, a residential neighborhood), the PD gives me a few more details -- unemployed man, marriage trouble, holding wife and two kids hostage. I've seen this much more often than I'd prefer, and it often ends very badly. Some men get very attached to being the Man of the House, and when that looks like it'll be taken away, they kill themselves and their families in some sort of warped desperation. Doesn't work like that all the time, but it's certainly something I've seen happen more than I'd like.

I'm not even that surprised that we've got problems cropping up this early today. Halloween is always a bit chaotic in Metro City, and the local superheroes always seem to be busy all evening. I haven't actually managed to attend a Halloween party for the past several years. Doesn't seem any point when you know you'll spend the whole night fighting supervillains. And tonight may end up even more epic than normal -- Halloween on a Friday and a full moon?  Tonight may be one for the record books, darling.

I tap into the police band and give the officers a heads-up that I'll be landing in the home's backyard and ask them if they'll be able to keep press photographers or choppers away from the area. I always welcome press attention, but I'd rather not worry that the hostage-taker may be watching TV and see me landing behind his house. Knowing that superheroes are closing in is exactly the type of thing that will make these situations much worse than they have to be.

The Metro City police and I actually have this worked out to a nice little system. The police hit the lights in front of the house and start talking to the dad through a top-volume loudspeaker just in time for me to blow apart the lock on the back door -- the neural stunner does its best work by knocking people out, but tuned just the right way, it'll do a wonderful job on a mechanical lock -- and slip into the house.

Once I'm inside, I amp up the pacification burstcasts. They won't work through exterior walls, but inside a home, the walls and doors are generally too thin to block them. And since they're subliminal, no one exposed to them is really aware that they're hearing them until they're fast asleep.

I normally prefer to direct burstcasts at one or two specific people, but since I'm not even sure where the family even is right now, or where the dad is, or how he's armed, it's better to be safe than sorry and just put everyone in the house into slumberland.

So I spend a couple of minutes running the burstcasts. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but they're not supposed to be. They're supposed to pacify people and ultimately to get them to fall quietly asleep. I can run burstcasts while I engage in a more traditional superhero-supervillain punch-up -- which I've done plenty of times, darlings -- but sometimes it's best to get this done without excess fuss.

So once I've run the burstcasts long enough to put a bull elephant safely to beddy-bye, I set off to find the family. Doesn't take long, of course. I make it through the empty living room, dining room, and laundry room downstairs, then head up the stairs and quickly find one of the kids' bedrooms, where the mom and dad are tied up, sound asleep, in a couple of folding chairs.

Wait. Why is the father tied up?

That's when the closet door bursts open, and these two adorable little blond-haired moppets come at me with butcher knives.

I've been a superhero for a while, darlings, and my reflexes are quite impeccable. But my surprise allows them more than enough time to stab me in the leg and the stomach.

Don't be too worried now. My armor is more than strong enough to fend off a couple of butcher knives. I open up with full-power pacification burstcasts on both of the children... and it accomplishes absolutely nothing. The little dears just keep right on stabbing.

This is really quite unprecedented. Full-power burstcasts at close range are difficult for even experienced supervillains to shrug off. Very angry villains can outlast them for about 20 seconds. Normal people -- especially normal children -- should've been asleep during my wide-range burstcasts, and should definitely be unconscious now.

The kids are starting to chip away a little at the armor. I don't particularly feel like I want to become known as the superhero who beats up small children... so I hit them with the neural pulses.

It takes three apiece to knock them out. And I apply a double helping of the energy nets to make sure they don't get back on their feet. How on earth were they able to keep going?

When the police officers finally make it up their stairs, they come very close to plugging the father full of holes before I point out that he was already secured and wasn't really the bad guy anyway. I also give them plenty of warnings about the danger the children may pose. I wonder if they need to be tested for metahuman powers, but those rarely manifest in children that young.

Once the kids are taken away to a hospital for treatment (the officers may be freaked out about this, but they're not quite crazy enough to charge them with a crime) and the understandably-terrified parents follow the ambulance in their own car, I finally get to take my leave of the whole situation.

On the flight back to the house, I call the Chrome Cobra up and fill her in on what happened.

"I've never seen anything like it, Cobra dear," I tell her. "I've used the burstcasts to subdue Rageface and the Grouch and dozens of others. And the neural stunners are hard for anyone to shrug off. I don't know if the kids were showing signs of powers or whether they were keyed up to an extreme emotional state. And that doesn't even begin to cover the question of why they turned into hostage-takers."

"Sounds weird," Cobra says. "Tense, too. There's... something I don't like about it."

"There's a lot not to like about it, darling," I say. "Are you alright, Cobra? Being hesitant doesn't suit you."

"I'm fine," she says. "Didn't sleep well. Nightmares."

"I'd suggest you skip patrols and get some rest," I say. "But I'm not sure we can handle a Halloween night without your guidance. Surely you can take tomorrow night off. Even you need some R&R occasionally, dear."

"Don't tempt me," she says. And we laugh, her because she's trying to seem warm and human, and me because I can tell she's trying to seem warm and human.

Metro City has been quite interesting lately. Yes, even more than the usual crazy-scandals-in-government, entirely-amazing-society-parties, superheroes-fighting-supervillains stuff. You see, there have been quite a few changes on the superhuman front here. There have been three new superheroes in the city. First on the scene was, of course, our delightful young Calypso, who's strong as an ox, or at least a dozen or two oxen, and who is now in direct competition with Iota to see who can throw themselves into the most dangerous situations in which they're likely to get seriously injured.

I've mostly decided Calypso is Atlas' daughter, primarily because they seem to be trying very hard to never talk to each other in public, but always seem to be found looking very concerned on the periphery of any scene where the other has gotten hurt in a fight. I don't know if anyone else has noticed it yet, and I don't know if I should even mention it to anyone else. But my word, it really is so adorable.

A few weeks after Calypso made her debut, it was announced that Silver Protector Kumiko would be taking up residence in Metro City. She's a bit of a high-profile "get," as they say -- she has a lot of media recognition, thanks to the television cartoon from a few years back. Even more importantly for those of us on the crimefighting side of things, she's the first actual spellcasting hero we've had here. We've had more than enough evil wizards blow through the city, and it'll be nice to have a magic user on our side for a change.

On the other hand, dears, I'm afraid she has some attitude issues. From what I gather, she's not a particular fan of our fair city. Just a few dropped clues here and there, like during our first meeting when she referred to Metro City as "a cultural and magical backwater" and "less a city and more a collection of random skyscrapers built by nouveau riche assholes" and "a bland, beige city so desperate for some sort of flavor that wasn't stolen from better cities that they have to resort to inventing some fake 'food tourism' with those vile Sloppy Metro sandwiches."

And at our second meeting, when she said Metro City's superheroes were "a bunch of has-beens and never-weres and wannabes and flakes and walking disaster-zones." That one was fun because she immediately added, "Not you, of course, Ms. Cobra," and the Cobra still punched her in the face.

Kumiko hasn't even moved here full-time yet. I understand the Council of Thaumaturges is losing patience with her a bit, but she insisted that she wanted to spend Halloween weekend in Portland "where my real friends are." Normally, I doubt I'd care, but again, this is Halloween, on a Friday, with a full moon, and I'm sure we'll eventually have an "all hands on deck" situation, and not a "most hands on deck, one hand drinking margaritas in the Northwest" situation.

Which isn't to suggest that Kumiko is useless to us. El Phantasmo is very happy she's in town, because it means he won't have to keep doing stopgap maintenance on the various magical artifacts in the city. No more fiddling with the Quasmaux Configuration built into the radio antenna atop Bissette Tower without worrying that he'll break it and awaken the Worm Tyrants again. And in fact, she seems quite effective as a crimefighter, too. She'll take on street crime and supervillains alike with a great deal of enthusiasm, so I really can't question her dedication.

I must say, though, even for a city that includes such superhero weirdoes as a zombie weapons-master, the world's greatest driver, an indestructible private eye, a ghost-wielding teenager, and a radioactive housewife who talks to herself, Silver Protector Kumiko may very well be the strangest. I mean, she's a six-foot-tall Japanese girl with pink hair and a Sailor Moon costume whose magic powers seem to require her to shout the names of her spells. Really, darlings, I have to suppress the giggles every time she shouts "Crimson Lightning STRIKE!" or "Divine Dragon FLAMES!"

But for all of Kumiko's difficulties, she's a fresh spring rain compared to the third new superhero in town. Professor Bertram McKenzie had the bad luck to get in the way of one of Mad Doctor Gevaudan's schemes and ended up with a twelve-foot-tall, yellow-skinned, eyeless, superstrong monster body. We went to quite a bit of effort to help him out -- I paid for a new wardrobe, the Cobra arranged renovations to his house, Calypso herself was quite instrumental in making sure he was able to continue teaching English at Goodwin College. And he's repaid our kindness by being a truly spectacular asshole.

He's rude, he's a grouch, he's arrogant, he's insanely class-conscious, he's an elitist in all things, but particularly in literature, he's conservative on a level that I very rarely see -- and I socialize with the richest people in town. And he whines. Dear lord, how the old bastard whines. Every time we tell him he should patrol more often, he starts whining. Oh, yes, we have to pressure him to patrol, because he doesn't like to do it. And even with a massive, superstrong, super-healthy body, he comes across as the cranky, bitter, 84-year-old sourpuss he is on the inside.

The Cobra and Calypso apparently talked him into being a superhero, though it's clear he'd usually prefer to teach his classes. There were serious concerns that he'd not be careful with his new strength and accidentally injure or kill a criminal or even an innocent, but I believe Cobra impressed upon him how long he'd spend in prison if that happened. And it may help that he's only as strong as Atlas -- which is, obviously, very, very strong -- but if he gets out of line, he'd have to deal with Miss Mega, who is much more powerful.

Dr. McKenzie has chosen Polyphemus as his codename. This makes Squid Kid laugh and laugh and laugh.

Perhaps more significant than our new heroes is the fact that several new villains have moved into the city. The international crime organizations S.K.U.L.L. and le Conservatoire Malefique have both opened new bases somewhere in the city and have been busy trying to run their usual conquer-the-world schemes from here. And Daphne Diller has been hearing rumors that the Hellraisers and the Scumdogs of the Universe are both considering setting up shop in Metro City.

So like I said, lots of changes for all of us to adapt to, in a fairly short period of time. It's been strange to have to get used to new heroes and how they operate -- I just hope we can rely on everyone to keep their heads on straight if this evening turns chaotic.

When I finally get home and changed out of my costume, it seems like the grounds around the house are a bit bare, and I wonder if Father sent the gardeners home early -- which seems unlikely, considering my father and his obsession with getting the topiary to look right.

I almost run into a group of the grounds crew members near the back of the house. They're huddling underneath some of the shrubbery next to the house.

"Gentlemen?" I say. "Que pasa?"

There's a moment of complete silence, then one of them whispers hoarsely, "La Migra! They're coming for us!"

Well, that would be something to be concerned about. I consider illegal immigration a bit of a necessary evil. It's not like Father would care to pay a living wage to American citizens to mow the lawns and trim the hedges, and I've actually managed to get him to pay them a bit more than he normally would. Frankly, I don't like the idea of Immigration penalizing poor people for believing our politicians' marketing about the Land of Opportunity. So I've always done my best to help our less-than-legal staff avoid Immigration.

But I can listen in on police band radio. And la Migra isn't running any raids today.

"La Migra is nowhere near," I tell them. "I've seen no trucks and no police. I wouldn't lie to you -- you don't need to hide."

It takes a few minutes to coax them out of hiding. They won't say where they got the impression that Immigration officials were staging a raid, but they don't hang around the property for very long either. They all decide they want to leave. And if they're still afraid Immigration may be near, I suppose it's hard to blame them.

At this point, I'm suspecting the worst about Father -- that he decided he didn't want to pay his workers, so he tried to scare them off. Not a smart move, Daddy Dearest -- if word gets around that the Van Ness family calls La Migra on employees, we'll never get anyone to work on the gardens again. Time to go search him out and tell him to stop the short-sighted stunts.

I find him in his office. He's cringing against the back wall, staring at the computer.

"Father? Whatever is the matter?"

"Heather," he croaks. "We're broke. We're destitute. There's not a dime left."

"What? Like hell we are."

I head over to the computer. He's been checking the bank account, and it shows a balance of... negative fourteen cents.

Well, that can't be good news.

I'm just about to call the bank to try to clear this up (Father's still huddled against the wall like the Visigoths are at the door) when I notice something odd about the computer monitor. The screen seems to be covered completely in fine, black-colored, vibrating dust motes.

I tap the side of the monitor, and a ripple cascades across the screen. I grab a tissue and wipe it across the screen, and the words and numbers and graphics smear and flow off of the monitor, splash onto the desk, and drip down onto the floor, creeping into the cracks in the hardwood floor.

Now the computer screen still shows the bank website, but the balance looks much more like what you'd expect for one of the city's richest families.

Clearly, something very odd is going on here.

"Father, don't worry -- we're still insanely wealthy," I say. "Now do be a dear and stay far away from the computer, alright? I'm going to go find Mother."

I'm entirely in the dark about what's happening. And I'm not yet willing to call in any superheroes -- this may have a simple or fairly mundane explanation. It may be some sort of strange computer issue, or something we can let the bank or the police handle. But something very strange is going on, and I'm going to make sure Mother is alright before I make any calls to anyone.

I wish I could say I search all over the house and finally find her supervising dinner in the kitchen. Of course, superhero luck never turns out that nicely. She's in the living room being menaced by Grandmama.

Oh, I should mention that Grandmama is nowhere near Metro City. She hasn't left Boston in six months.

I should also mention that Grandmama is definitely not nine feet tall, nor does she have fangs, claws, or bony plates. And while she's quite the terrible woman, I don't recall ever seeing her hold Mother off the floor while shrieking bizarre and nonsensical epithets at her.

In other words, it's not Grandmama. It's some kind of nine-foot-tall monster that looks vaguely like Grandmama, but it definitely isn't Grandmama.

Well, neither Mother nor Fake Monster Grandmama are looking at me, so I step back around the corner, repeat my special number sequence to myself, wait the usual five seconds for my armor to ooze out of my pores and solidify, and then step back around the corner.

"Oh, Mother, please let me go!" my mother was weeping. "I'll be a better girl! I won't spill juice! I won't ruin the carpet! I'll be proper!"


"Well, there's one thing I'm quite sure of," I say loudly enough to get the attention of both of them. "You couldn't possibly be Barbara Rotherton of the Boston, Massachusetts Rothertons. She'd never be seen in bone armor this late after Labor Day, darling."

Fake Monster Grandmama glares at me, tosses Mother aside (she lands on a sofa and seems uninjured), and unleashes a wordless bellow at me. For a couple of seconds, her form ripples -- she looks like a cockroach for a moment, then like Madame Chaplaine, my old piano tutor, then like... social isolation? And then she's back again as Fake Monster Grandmama, and she charges at me screaming.

I hit her with a double-dose of stunner pulse and... she vanishes. No, wait, she turns into a bunch of fine, black-colored, vibrating dust motes that spill onto the floor and then creep into the carpet, into the heater vents, out the nearest doors and windows.

Sweet mercy, I've not a single clue what's going on here.

Almost immediately after Fake Monster Grandmama disappears, Mother has wrapped me up in an entirely unexpected and uncharacteristically enthusiastic bearhug.

"Oh, thank you, thank you," she cries. "You've killed her! She's finally gone, I never really thought she'd finally die! All those years of hell, and she's finally, finally... Wait, that couldn't have been my mother. She doesn't look anything like... Well, whoever it was, you've just repelled some terrible criminal from my home. You're Defender, right? My most heartfelt thanks, young lady."

This is actually the only time I've been close to my mother while in my costume, and I'm suddenly self-conscious that she's going to recognize me or my voice.

"All part of a hero's job, Moth -- ma'am," I shout, snapping her a crisp salute. "Please contact the police if there are other disturbances! Now I must be on my way!"

And there we go! The most awkward exit I've made from my own home since I was 16 years old.

Once I'm safely out of the house, I'm able to take an extra few moments to think about what's going on. Something very strange is going on in my home -- Father was made to believe we'd gone broke, and a monster version of my Grandmama attacked Mother. Both were dispelled into little dust motes. And the gardeners fervently believed that Immigration was coming after them.

I'd suspect this was all some sort of attack on our family if the incidents made any sort of sense.

And on top of all that, my neural stunners easily blew Monster Grandmama apart, while they were barely effective against the children in that hostage situation earlier today.

I click on my in-helmet cell phone and ring the SWAT commander who's my regular contact at the police department. After a couple of rings, he picks up and whispers, "SWAT."

"Inspector Giddings, this is Defender," I say. "Is there anything you can tell me about the two children who were involved in that incident earlier this afternoon? Any indication that they're metahuman or in some way not normal kids?"

"I don't know," he whispered. "I haven't heard anything about them lately. This may not be a good time to talk."

"I'm sorry, Inspector, were you in the middle of an operation? I'd be glad to assist, if you need me."

"It's not that," whispers Giddings. "Jason Voorhees is in the building."

"I'm sorry, Inspector," I say. "I don't think I know him. Is he with the police department, the mayor's office, the FBI, something like that?"

"No," he whispers. "Jason Voorhees. From Camp Crystal Lake."

"You mean the movie serial killer?" I say. "The one from that old Halloween slasher movie? Are you having a movie marathon? Is it wise to do that when you're on duty?"

"No, not Halloween, Jason's the one from Friday the 13th," Giddings whispers back. "I always knew he was real, I always knew it..."

"Inspector, what the hell is going on? You're not making any sense."

But he's already hung up his phone.

I think the day has officially gotten too weird for me to handle solo, so I click over and dial up the Cobra again.

"Cobra, darling, what sort of reports are you getting about the city tonight?" I ask as she picks up. "I'm getting the impression that things have gone completely Halloween-Friday-Night-Full-Moon out there."

"I don't have time to deal with you!" Cobra screams at me. "Everything is going to pieces! I can't control any of this! I can't control any of it!"

"Okay, Cobra, I'm gonna ask you to let me have your coordinates," I say as calmly as I can. "I can set my onboard computer to help with any electronic problems, and I can help organize some stuff if you need it. Just let me know where I can find your lab."

She doesn't really reply. She just starts screaming.

The Chrome Cobra doesn't scream.

To hell with it. I know her real name. I can find her home address in the phone book, and I can triangulate her phone signals to find where she has her base located. But once I tap into the city's grid, I realize what I'm hearing isn't just the Cobra screaming.

The whole city is screaming.

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