“Hello, Agent 09,” I said, looking at Mom’s image on the TV screen.
“Hello,” she said, her eyes glued to a computer screen. She typed furiously. “Apologies, but I can’t give you my undivided attention right now. Some nutjob infected members of the agency with an ideavirus, so I have to–”
“Mom,” I said. “I think someone’s following me.”
She paused at the keyboard.
“Tell me more,” she said.
“Girl with a black cloak. Sotto Voce. You know her?”
I saw something in Agent 09’s eyes. She knew something. I knew she knew something.
“No,” she said. “But I can look into it.”
“I’d really appreciate that,” I said. “Thanks.”
“I have to go,” she said, moving to turn off the camera on her end. “Figure out this virus.”
Static littered the TV screen.
Hellfire, who’d been standing beside the TV the whole time, looked at me.
“She’s lying,” he said.
“I thought the same thing.”
“Do you need me to talk to her?” Hellfire asked.
“She’s my mother. What would she admit to you that she wouldn’t admit to me?”
“I’m persuasive,” he said.
“Oh my god. I can’t believe you said that. Jesus, stop with the vigilante stuff. She’s my mother. My mother! It’s not the most loving relationship ever, and like sometimes it doesn’t even seem like she’s my mom, but she is. So, no. I won’t have you doing demon stuff to her.”
“Alright,” he said. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Cathect walked into the room, swinging his keys around his finger. I couldn’t believe I was glad to see him.
“We ready to go?” he asked.
“Wait,” I said, grabbing the last bite of a waffle and leaving the plate on the coffee table. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
“Where are you guys going?” Hellfire asked.
“Book shop,” Cathect said. “Nano couldn’t find anything interesting about Sotto Voce on the Internet, because obviously books are superior and they’re never going away.”
“Really?” Hellfire asked, looking at me.
“I found a lot of cool stuff,” I said. “I just want to get out of the house.”
“Admit it,” Cathect said. “The Internet is for nerds.”
“Like you’re not a nerd,” I said.
“I’m not a nerd!” he said.
“What do you think?” I asked Hellfire.
“He’s a nerd,” Hellfire said.
Cathect asked, “Has anyone talked to Blue lately?”
“No,” I said.
“Haven’t seen her here much,” he said. “Like this place is a bed to her and nothing else. Do you think she even wants to be part of this team?”
It was my fault. It was all my fault. It wasn’t even the gay thing. It was the asking-the-team-member-out thing. Metahumans weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing. And it hadn’t taken me much time at all to mess this team up.
“I don’t know,” Hellfire said.
“Me neither,” I said. “Maybe she’s just been busy with other stuff?”
“Last I saw her, she was trying to take down that ninja clan,” Cathect said, rubbing his forehead. “Whatever. Let’s get out of here.”
— — —
I stood in the Metahuman section of the bookshop, looking to see if I could find anything interesting.
Titles flashed before my eyes: A Man Like God; Borrowing Powers; and Boy Wonder: My Life on the Pole. I skipped to the S’s, where I found Sorting Cloth: a Guide to Figuring out Your Costume; So I Killed Capes, So What?; and the book I was looking for, Sotto Voce.
I didn’t have the heart to tell Cathect, but I’d found the title on Google Books yesterday. The whole thing wasn’t available to be read on Google Books, but it totally was available on a torrenting site. Then I decided I didn’t have the heart to pirate it, so I decided to come here with Cathect, instead.
I walked over to the Fairy Tale section and found him. He crouched down next to a big stack of books.
“This place has a lot of cool sections,” I said. “Fairy tales?”
“The owner’s a cool lady,” Cathect said. “Particular interests.”
“I have what we need,” I said, holding up Sotto Voce. Cathect was too busy scouring the shelves to notice.
“I have some good stuff, too. A couple of fairy tale books. If we can find any shadow-y creatures, we can extrapolate and–”
“My book is called Sotto Voce,” I said.
He looked up and saw the book.
“That,” he said, searching for the right words and looking pretty surprised, “is a good start.”
“You two need any help?” a voice from behind me asked. I turned around and saw that it was an old lady–like, really old. She looked like the grandmothers I never had (reality warp; don’t ask).
“We’re good, thanks,” I said.
The lady smiled, nodded her head, and said, “Well, if you need anything, I’ll be at the front.” She left.
I turned to Cathect. Crouching down, I whispered, “Really?”
“You stole from that lady? That’s actually probably as bad as stealing candy from a baby. I mean really. Do you think about things before you do them?”
“In my defense, the cards are pretty bad-ass.”
“Ugh,” I said, “Let’s see what this book has to say. Then maybe I can try and convince you to not be such a jerk.”
I opened up Sotto Voce. The Table of Contents listed 20 chapters, one for each century.
I flipped to the 20th century.
“As we’ve seen thus far in this book, each era’s Sotto Voce represents the feminine spirit of its time. So what are we to make of the twentieth century Sotto Voce’s scandalous career? Allow me to put forth a thesis: Sotto Voce’s dreamlike rampage was not a fluke in the system. It wasn’t the act of an egregoric spirit gone haywire. It was, instead, a rational response to the more general zeitgeist of the time.
“To start with, it is important to note that Becky Gale, this Sotto Voce’s civilian identity, was completely disassociated from the Sotto Voce personality. Dissociative Identity Disorder, or Multiple Personality Disorder, as it was known back then, is relatively rare. But the fact that Becky Gale described her superheroic exploits as dream-like seems to suggest a sort of unconscious dichotomy between where Sotto Voce’s civilian identity was and where she wanted to be. This is unlike any other era, where the desire of Sotto Voce’s civilian host to be someone else might take the form of cross-dressing, but wouldn’t be so strong and strange as to mentally separate Sotto Voce from the civilian counterpart.
“But if Sotto Voce’s exploits are to be considered a sort of bubbling-up of the feminine Id, what then are we to make of the extreme violence Sotto Voce committed fighting organized crime in the Forties? The Sotto Voce spirit has always been something of an outlaw figure–its role in female empowerment made that fact something of a given for all too many centuries–but never before had it taken so much life.
“This bloodlust can be reflected in the more general zeitgeist of the era. With the coming of World War I, mankind suddenly re-realized that it had the ability to not just kill, but slaughter. Yet most women were left off the battlefield. Thus Sotto Voce represented this frustration. She did fight the Nazis in World War II, to be sure. But even before then she was fighting a war on the streets, or rather for the streets.
“Her street war came to a climax on August 18, 1935, more famously known as The Bloody Whisper. It was on this day that Sotto Voce killed 118 criminals, metahuman and human, organized and non-affiliated. She beat, strangled, stabbed, and immolated they myriad thugs, in an unprecedented act of carnage. And it was all because the 20th century was an era saturated in madness.
“The prevailing theory has supposed that The Bloody Whisper was brought about by events in Becky Gale’s personal life. She had, after all, just been fired from the newspaper she’d dedicated her life to. As well, she’d found the husband she supposedly never loved in bed with another woman. But the truth is that Becky’s feelings were near-irrelevant to Sotto Voce. After all, it was the spirit that had possessed Becky, not the other way around.”
I closed the book. Cathect was reading one of the fairy tale books.
“Find anything interesting?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I lied, “Academic jargon. You know how it is. Sometimes I just want to find the author and show them Urban Dictionary or something, you know?”
“No,” Cathect said. “I really don’t.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m going to pay for this at the register. You want to keep reading?”
“Yeah,” Cathect said, his eyes moving back towards the page, “I’ll do that.”
I walked up to the register.
“You find everything you needed?” the bookshop lady asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You don’t need help with anything else?”
“Nope,” I said.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“Sorry about all the questions. It’s my nature, you know. And I just want to make sure you have a good time while you’re in my shop. You wouldn’t happen to have the time, would you?”
I took my phone out.
“10:38 AM.” The clock behind her said 11:30. Something was wrong. I felt it in my chest: that sort of ‘ohmygod’ rapid heart beating that came whenever something didn’t feel right. Of course, I never felt like everything was alright, but this was different. Specific.
With my heart about ready to explode, I leaned in.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I asked.
The old lady let out a long, malicious sort of laugh. “No. I’m not.”
“Super evil question-y creature. You’re a sphinx, aren’t you?”
“I ask the questions. I don’t answer them. And if you don’t answer my next question, if you don’t answer it correctly, I’ll slaughter you where you stand.”
She turned to look at me, those cold eyes of her looking ancient, inhuman. They were confident, too.
“I end up on your face, even though you never want me there,” she said. “I urge you to do things that you really shouldn’t do. Worst of all is my attitude, which is worthy of a detective. What am I?”
I knew the answer to this. It was easy, because I’d heard the answer a couple weeks ago at the police station. But still I was nervous. I mean, this lady had threatened to kill me if I gave the wrong answer! If you’d asked me what my name was in these conditions, there’s a chance I would’ve buckled under the pressure.
“Egg,” I said. The Sphinx didn’t look too happy about that.
“You have smart friends, Cathect,” the Sphinx yelled.
He walked towards the front desk, saying, “I wouldn’t go that far.” He was completely oblivious to what had just happened.
“You’ll pay for stealing those cards from me,” the old lady spat out. “You or someone you know will feel the pain you made me feel.”
“Oh,” Cathect said, “You figured out that I stole the cards. Whatever. Let’s go, Nano.”
— — —
“That’s weird,” Hellfire said, after I’d explained everything to him.
“Sphinxes are weird,” I said. “And stupid.”
He let out a bit of a sound, and I swear it almost sounded like a laugh. A laugh! Imagine that.
Hellfire and I sat on the couch. Cathect had gone to the library to look up information on Sphinxes and Blue was out doing whatever it was she did. So it was Hellfire. And me.
I could be bisexual.
He looked at me with those steely red eyes of his that screamed, ‘I’m dangerous but sexy. Like a volcano.’ Actually my idea of volcanoes as sexy felt a lot weirder now that I realized I was–
“You laughed,” I said. “I thought demons weren’t allowed to laugh.”
“We laugh,” he said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Not human laughter. Not warm laughter. But we laugh.”
“Like, at what?”
“Eternal damnation, usually,” he said.
“You laugh at someone having to suffer for, like, a really long time?”
“Only sometimes,” he explained. “Attila the Hun is at a neverending tea party.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“That’s a joke.”
“It’s not,” he said.
“It has to be!”
“It’s not,” he said.
“What else do demons laugh at?”
“Each other,” he said.
“Demons do dumb shit. Jab themselves with a trident. Fall into a flaming Hell pit. That stuff.”
“Highbrow stuff,” I said. I couldn’t even say the full phrase before I broke into a laugh.
“We live in Hell,” he said. “It’s about the little things.”
That almost seemed like an invitation to enjoy the little things, so I did. We both got quiet, and I thought about my life. There were plenty of downsides, to be sure. I had to get into a bunch of fights with sphinxes, patriots, and neckbeards, which was awkward. That sucked. Agent 09 barely cared about me now, and would probably care even less when she found out that I was gay. And then I’d gone and asked out my teammate, my Christian teammate, who would probably go on avoiding me forever.
“I asked Blue out,” I said. Honestly, I didn’t fully realize that I’d said it out loud until I saw Hellfire react. It wasn’t anything too dramatic, but his eyes widened a little bit.
“On a date?” he asked.
“What’d she say?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the floor. His eyes avoided mine.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think that’s why she hasn’t been around lately. I think she’s avoiding me.”
“That’s not it,” he said. “She’s going after a ninja clan.”
“I mean, she can be doing work while she avoids me. The one doesn’t exclude the other.”
“She got a check in the mail from Sum Industries,” he said, “If she’s avoiding us, it’s not because you asked her out.”
“How do you know she got a check in the mail?” I asked, “Do you read our mail?”
“Not usually,” he said. “Saw the Sum Industries logo. Figured it was significant. So I opened it. I like knowing about my teammates. It’s important to understand your surroundings. It’s important to know who you call a friend.”
“Ohmygod. You’re not one of those vigilantes who has plans laid out to take down all your teammates, are you?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Oh my god,” I said. “If I wasn’t sitting down right now, I would really need to sit down.”
“Because you’re such a stereotype. You’re such a dark and angsty stereotype. I don’t even know why I hang out with you.”
When I said that, he looked at me real seriously. But it wasn’t the dark and angsty ‘I’ll drop you off a roof’ sort of serious. It was the emotional ‘I feel things too’ sort of serious.
“Why do you hang out with me?” he asked.
“I hang out with you because I like you. I mean, the broody stuff is just kind of funny, but the stuff I like about you is important. I like that you only say what you mean. I like that you want everyone to be safe. And of course I like that you act tough, but deep down you’re totally a dork.”
“The leather jacket didn’t make the list,” he said.
“Wouldn’t make the Top 100.”
“Top 100. That’s a lot of things to like.”
“I haven’t counted,” I said. “But seriously, why do you wear that leather jacket all the time?”
“I like it.”
“Do you just like that it makes you look cool?”
He really thought about that question for a bit. Then he said, “Yeah.”
“No matter how many times you surprise me, you’re still so predictable.”
“Predictable?” I asked. His breath was hot, and I suddenly realized his face was only a couple inches from mine. “Do you know what I want to do now?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Would you like that? You’re into women. But are you into men, too?”
“You’re only half man,” I said.
“Are you into half men?” he asked.
My heart beat really fast, which I guess is a good thing to feel.
“Only one way to find out,” I said. I kissed him. The moment seemed to last forever, but not in the romantic way. After a couple seconds, I pulled away. “Pretty sure I’m a lesbian.”
“It was bad?”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t bad. I just–”
The front door busted open. I turned around and saw Blue, looking ragged as ever. She and a ninja tumbled past the now-broken door.
I can’t say I ever wanted a ninja to break through the front door. But I’ve gotta admit, if that ninja had to break down my door, he chose a pretty good time to do it.