As Told by Dakota Sue
I opened the door to my apartment wearily, walked in, and stood stunned, blinking stupidly. For a moment I thought I’d walked into someone else’s place by mistake, but then I noticed Natori and Todd sitting at the kitchen table.
“Do you like it?” Natori asked nervously.
I looked around again. The place was spotless and everything, including the carpet, had been replaced. Even the walls were a different color and imbued with subtle patterns. Todd turned in his chair to look at me, still trying to ferry food to his mouth. I seized on the distraction to cover my discomfiture.
“Are those vegetables?”
Natori stepped back, confused. “Um, yes.”
“And he’s eating them?”
“It would appear so. Now, do you like it?”
“It looks great. Where did you get all this?”
“I believe that would be my responsibility.” I jumped and looked over into the living room. I hadn’t realized we had company. Then I saw who it was and groaned.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded, stomping over to glare at him. Herthagon leaned back in his chair nonchalantly and crossed his outstretched ankles. He was wearing black leather pants and a loose silk shirt of an excessively pure blue that reminded me of the sky after the sun has set but before the light has fled. A diamond stud in his left earlobe flashed matching blue fire whenever he moved, that single stone likely costing more than I made in a year.
He laughed. “City life hasn’t changed you, I see. Still full of vinegar.”
“More like turpentine. So what do you want?”
“I want to do you a favor.”
“By redecorating my apartment?”
He rolled his eyes. “I did that to avoid enduring the assault on my senses while I waited. Get dressed, I’m taking you out to dinner.”
Natori must have seen my expression, because she hustled me into my bedroom, where I sputtered incoherently for a long moment.
“Taking me out to dinner?! The . . . the nerve of that man! I’m going nowhere!”
“Oh,” Natori said, sounding crestfallen.
“What?” I asked.
“Well . . .” she abruptly stood very straight and scowled at me. “It wouldn’t hurt you to get out of the house for a while. And it’s a really lovely dress.”
She pointed over to my closet door. I bit my lip, having difficulty remaining furious. Even I am prey to feminine vanity, although I’m loath to admit it.
Natori grinned. “Are you going to let a little dinner intimidate you?”
“I’m thinking . . .”
“Get in the shower already.”
“Impressive,” Herthagon remarked when Natori shoved me out the door twenty minutes later. I shook my head, amused.
“She really did a number on me. I can’t feel my face.”
“You even sound different.”
“I’m trying to live up to these clothes.”
“They suit you. You know, that girl seems quite taken with you.”
“I suppose. I’m not really sure why, but I’m not complaining.”
He stood up and took my arm, pulling me outside. “You’re her role model. Everyone needs to feel like they’re part of something bigger than their little lives.”
I frowned at him, then stopped, worried that my face might crack. “That’s exactly opposite.”
“What people need is to be reminded that their lives aren’t little. So where are you taking me?” I asked as he inserted me deftly into a sedan.
He sat down in the driver’s seat, smiling faintly. “The Cape and Cowl.”
“Sounds snobby,” I remarked.
“Oh, it is.”
“Good. I’ve been practicing my sneer.”
He drove us into a dark, narrow alley and parked; I wasn’t even certain I’d be able to get my door open to get out. I turned to look at him and was just about to frame a question when I felt a hideously familiar sensation, like spiders crawling around on my brain. I must have made some kind of face because Herthagon touched my shoulder reassuringly.
“Greetings, sir and madam, I am Belarii Nalstrom. How may I serve you this evening?” The soundless voice filled my mind. I winced in preparation for some kind of assault, but there was nothing in it but the most excruciatingly reserved politeness.
“We’ll be dining with you this evening, Nalstrom,” Herthagon explained.
I felt the mentalist’s gently approving recognition in my eyelids and shoulders and twitched angrily. He was projecting too much. “Of course, Mr. Barbaropoulos. Madam has not visited with us before?”
“No,” I said shortly.
“Ah, I fear then I must request that madam permit me a brief examination. It is a security measure we have installed for all our patrons.”
I swallowed and took a few deep breaths to steady myself. “All right.” The crawling-spiders sensation intensified for several seconds and then receded once more.
“Thank you, Miss Page, do enjoy your evening.” There was a slight bump and the car began slowly descending.
“Are you all right?” Herthagon asked. Not a question I wanted to answer, so I changed the subject.
He chuckled. “My real name. You can’t hide them from Nalstrom, he keeps everyone honest.”
“Is that what he was looking for in my head?”
“Among other things. He checked to be certain that you’re a meta-human, that you’re over twenty-one, that you’re in control of your own mind . . . he’s a powerful telepath.”
“I’ve known worse,” I murmured reflectively. Herthagon glanced at me sideways.
“So is there a first name to go with that?”
“Really? Does that make me . . .”
“Please don’t make the Cleopatra joke. For one thing, she might actually be here . . .”
“And for another, I don’t like her at all.”
“Sorry.” A valet appeared and opened my door, so I stepped out and looked around. Instead of the concrete pit of an underground parking garage, we’d descended into a beautiful reception hall. The walls, floor, and nouveau block pillars were of gold-flecked black granite, polished to a deep, lustrous shine that was accented here and there by a sheen of glistening movement; water fell endlessly from the ceiling and, dripping down the walls, disappeared somewhere below.
Herthagon stepped around the car and offered me his arm again; so efficient was the service that we were ensconced at a table less than five minutes later. Our waiter appeared instantly and I was very slightly annoyed to discover that I did not have my own menu. Then I shrugged and decided to ignore it.
The waiter vanished again and I fidgeted awkwardly, not really certain how to go about starting a conversation. The waiter came and went, I sipped my drink nervously, knowing the moment was fast approaching when I would have to say something.
Then, at the last moment, I was saved by a cheerful bellow. “Sue, lass!” I jumped violently and turned to see who was hailing me so loudly in the quiet restaurant. “It is you! I wasn’t sure, you look different all dressed up!”
“Oh, Mick,” I half-groaned, recognizing the speaker finally from his Irish accent.
“I thought you might be a super!” he continued, blithely ignoring the stir he was producing. The woman leaning on his arm looked increasingly mortified as he continued to chatter, oblivious to the traffic jam coalescing around them. “It’s good to see you here! I thought, now there’s a young lady that could use some relaxation!”
How do people with actual manners handle these situations? I wondered desperately.
“Um, it’s good to see you too, Mick. Have you met Antony? He’s introducing me around.”
Mick thrust one gnarled hand in Herthagon’s direction. “I’ve seen him around a time or two, but I can’t say as to how we’ve met.”
“I know you by reputation, of course,” Herthagon replied. “Won’t you and your lady friend join us?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Two more chairs were instantly conjured by the accumulated waiters. “This is Nancy, but around here she’s known as the Irish Setter.”
“They named you after a dog?!” I blurted. She burst out laughing.
“Yes! Appropriate, isn’t it!”
“I don’t know, I haven’t seen you scratch and lick yourself yet.”
Herthagon choked on his drink and Mick slapped his back a few times helpfully. “Have you gotten yourself into an outfit yet?” the Irishman asked me.
“In a sense. It’s more that they found me.”
His bushy eyebrows contracted tectonically. “Really? I’m surprised I haven’t seen you on the news more, then. Ah, it’s always hard getting started. I could probably throw a few tips your way if you’re interested . . .”
“You sure? Really, we’ve got more work than we can handle.”
“Oh, Mick, stop badgering her, it’s obvious she can’t accept. Let me guess”—Nancy winked sagely—“You could tell us, but then you’d have to kill us?”
“Something like that,” I replied weakly, overpowered by the sheer quantity of personality these two exuded.
“Hah!” Mick barked happily. “That’s my Nancy, she can always sniff it out!”
The waiter returned, bearing out plates and stopped dead, clearly unsure how to continue with new people at the table. Nancy spotted him and nudged Mick, tapping her wrist.
“Well, sorry to cut this short, but we’ve got to be going,” he stood and Nancy followed, collecting her bag. “Sue, don’t worry, I’m going to tell everyone about you, so you won’t be hanging on the fringes much longer!” They swept away in much the same fashion as they’d arrived.
“Oh dear,” I murmured.
Herthagon put his head in his hands and began making strangled snorting noises, his shoulders shaking. “What a . . . a character,” he managed after a minute.
“Who is he?” I demanded.
That set him off again. “You don’t know?”
“He’s the Pugilist!”
“Um, excuse me, can I set these down now?” The waiter asked, somewhat offended. Herthagon sat up so he could deposit our plates, wiping his eyes.
“Oh, I needed that,” he said cheerfully.
I grinned. “Yes, I could tell that you were brooding over dark and tragic events. So what have you been doing with yourself?”
He smiled, and I figured that it wasn’t such a bad thing that he was so good-looking, after all.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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- The Brothers Grimm
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