Tyrese Hilson didn't like the term goon. A goon sounded more like an animal than a human being. Tyrese was definitely human. The phrase hired muscle left him cold too. He had more to provide to an employer than a set of meat guns. He was an ordinary man starting out at the bottom. The very bottom.
Tyrese didn't have a rich uncle or a winning lottery ticket. Tyrese had only his wits to go on. That was what he had to provide to an employer. Wits from a lifelong education at the School of Hard Knocks. Tyrese had read that police in India had a network of a hundred well-built men who got paid to serve as hired muscle in the arrests of the also well-built Nigerian nationals. It was a simple fact of life for a cop, a criminal or just a regular nobody; the strong treaded on the weak.
So, the not-so-secret secret to not being treaded on was being the strongest. Tyrese tossed his cigarette away, sending it down a nearby storm drain. He hated it when his employers sweated him out like this. He had the simple courtesy of showing up on time. It was just part of their stupid mind games.
Tyrese looked at the ground. He must have taken his eye off the sidewalk for, at most, five seconds. He looked up to see his "handler," a gorgeous black-haired woman dressed in a skintight black-on-purple catsuit. "Mister Chirac will see you now." Tyrese looked around in all directions.
Tyrese couldn't remember the last time anyone snuck up on him. From what he knew, there wasn't much of a secret to the whole ninja routine. The right shoes, a lot of patience and a keen eye for detail and Tyrese could do the same. Natalie or Natasha or whatever her name was led the way.
Tyrese couldn't stop staring at this woman. Not just because of she was a hottie but because that fetish gear didn't look warm and Tyrese was in a hoodie and sweatpants and he was freezing his nuts off. "You must be cold." She looked at him as if confused by the question, then shrugged.
"I'm used to the cold." The lady who was definitely named Natasha hardly had an accent though he had heard her speaking fluent Russian a couple times. Tyrese only knew enough Russian to find a bathroom; he didn't even know how to hail a cab. "Please stop staring; you're making my boyfriend jealous."
Tyrese was about to ask who her boyfriend was when he felt a cold hand come down on his right shoulder. He looked over his shoulder to see a man behind him. He had a round head and eyes like an owl. "Keep moving," said the man or rather boyfriend without lifting his hand off of his shoulder.
The hand's grip tightened on Tyrese. Tyrese was no weakling but the hand's grip felt like metal bearing down on his flesh. "Piotr," Natasha spoke. "Enough." Piotr released his grip on Tyrese's shoulder. Natasha smiled. "He is our guest, my love. We must treat him as one."
Piotr had let go of him but he was still crowding Tyrese as if he would seriously run away from this much money. For what he was being offered, a little bruises here and there didn't hurt much. Tyrese rubbed his shoulder and rotated his right arm around just to make sure Piotr hadn't damaged the merchandise.
After walking a block through a deserted neighborhood, the three of them arrived in front of a classy upscale restaurant, a disparate locale considering the crappy location of it. The sign read in golden cursive letters in neon lights: J'Adore. Tyrese had never been inside a French restaurant before.
Through the glorious glass doors with cylindrical gold pull bars, Tyrese entered J'Adore, another legitimate business front for the legendary crime boss Victor Chirac. Tyrese was a bit starstruck to actually be meeting the man in person. Tyrese struggled not to let it show. It was business time.
"Hello, Mr. Hilson," Victor Chirac said without lifting his eyes from his meal. He was a gray-haired French gentleman. He was also the only one seated in a restaurant that should have been packed on a Saturday night.
"I'm glad you could make it." Victor nodded. "Please. Please. Don't be scared. Join me. Order whatever you wish but I personally recommend the basil salmon terrine. It is absolutely divine. My compliments to the chef."
Tyrese took his seat. He could see feel Piotr breathing down the back of his neck. "Piotr. Natasha." Victor dabbed his lips with his napkin. "You have work to do." With that, the two left. "There are a lot of rumors about me. And, before I engage your services, I want to make sure we put them to rest."
Tyrese Hilson was at ease in the presence of Victor Chirac and his grandfatherly ways. "First off, you should know that I am an equal opportunity employer. You're black." Victor nodded to Piotr and Natasha leaving the restaurant. "They're Russian." Victor pointed to himself. "I'm French." Victor nodded. "We all get along, right?" Tyrese nodded. As long as Piotr kept his distance from him, Tyrese could live with this arrangement.
Victor lifted a piece of salmon with his fork. "Secondly, you should know that I suffer from a rare medical condition. I won't bore you with the details but it has ... consequences. I don't respond well to direct sunlight. I spend more than a minute outside on a sunny day, I blister. In half an hour, I'm deep-fried and ready to serve. If that bothers you, I have no use for you."
Victor devoured the salmon morsel. "Thirdly, there is no 'thirdly.' You're hired. Meet me here in three nights and we'll get you squared away." Victor reached out and shook Tyrese's hand. "Welcome to the Dream Team."
Ian Rockwell was a monster. Not the kind of monster that would eat somebody. He was a monster by default. Calling him human would an indirect insult to every other human being on the planet. Noah Walker hated him with every fabric of his being. Last year, Ian had set his sadist sights on his best (and only) friend Jason Newton who was a freshman at the time.
Jason Newton had one advantage over Noah though. Jason ran with the drama crowd. He faked seizures that could fool doctors. He had faked a dozen or so such seizures to preempt any beatings from shaved apes like Ian Rockwell. Noah didn't know if he had the acting chops to fake a seizure.
Noah wouldn't even be considering this if he had stayed sick. On Sunday night, Game Night, everyone in his family, Mom, Dad, Alyssa and him, came down with a flu in the middle of the third game of Scrabble. Monday morning rolled right around and all four of them were cured.
Noah had contemplated acting sick to get out of class but that was a slippery slope. Besides, Ian would just make up for lost time whenever they crossed paths again. Worst-case scenario, Ian would find out where he lived and then Noah wouldn't even have weekends and holidays off from that psycho.
Noah was self-conscious about whatever factors had helped Ian decide to spend his second senior year tormenting him. Did his friendship with Jason draw his ire? Jason had other friends, mostly drama students and AniManga club members. Of Jason's friends, Noah wasn't even the weakest looking; Noah was no ideal of physical perfection but he wasn't that overly scrawny.
Noah sighed as another paper football hit his left ear. Of course, he was deceiving himself. To a hulk like Ian, a ninety-pound nothing like himself might as well as have had the words "Fresh Meat" stamped on his forehead. This was going to be a long year. Then, the sound Noah dreaded filled his ears. The bell. This was when Ian's bullying closed with its hallway act.
Ian's bullying had the structure of a vaudeville show. The first act established the tone of the piece. It involved a monologue about some flaw like Noah's dandruff-ridden brown hair or his girlish cheekbones or his skin-and-bones body, followed up by a chorus of laughter and high-fives from his cronies.
Then, the second act occurred to soften Noah up. Paper footballs, spit-wads and "overheard" threats were typical at this point. Ian Rockwell would keep it up until it was obvious Noah wasn't going to do anything about it. Then came the third act. This was where all the hard work paid off in the closer.
Thursday, Ian had walked right through Noah, knocked him down and then told him to watch where he was going. Wednesday, he shoved his head against a locker without even breaking his stride. The closer was all about the soft serve. The subtle yet devastating remainder that Ian owned him.
Noah could feel his stomach knotting up in fear of today's closer. He had gotten out of Friday's closer by staying late in Mr. Zacniewski's class. Ian always made up for lost time. Noah suddenly realized that something other than fear was knotting his stomach. Noah doubled over against a locker.
Jason came up behind Noah. "Jesus, Noah, get up. Ian's coming right around the corner and he looks pissed. So don't bother acting sick; it won't stop him." His eyes darted down the hall. "Good luck. Try not to die."
With that, Jason Newton left. Noah Walker winced as raw pain coursed through his veins. He could feel his heart beating in his toes. All the sounds around him echoed as if someone had cranked the volume all the way up.
Leftover pasta from lunch period waived in the breeze from a garbage can next to the library. Noah stood himself up and looked over at Ian flanked on both sides by his friends. Noah could hear his breathing growing steadier.
Ian crushed Noah's nose between his middle and index knuckle. Noah tasted blood. "That's what you get for ducking me Friday. If ever do that to me again, I'm going to kill you." A fat kid stopped to stare at the "fight." "What are you looking at?" Ian raised his hand, scaring the fat kid away. "Get up."
Noah Walker didn't know if he swallowed too much of his own blood or if the weeks of physical and verbal abuse had broken his brain and left his adrenal glands in charge but even a kid with a learning disability wouldn't said what he said next. "Make me," Noah said, not with a deep or gravelly voice but with a sense of purpose behind his words.
Noah Walker could feel Ian Rockwell's large meaty right hand on his orange hooded jacket. With the finesse of a lion tamer cracking a whip, Noah's arm rose up and came down on Ian's knuckles. The shock of pain loosened his grasp. "You. Are. Dead." Ian spoke those words in a matter-of-fact tone of voice as he circled Noah like a cobra circling a rhesus monkey.
Mom the secretary always said the violence never solved anything. Even Dad the cop only considered violence a last resort. Noah didn't want to solve anything and this was the last resort. Ian had given Noah no choice.
Besides, Noah was firing on all cylinders. He had never felt like this before. The closest he came to this feeling was when he thought Vivian Jacobsky was making eyes at him from across the cafeteria. It turned out her friends had dared her to do it. Noah let that bitter thought emerge onto his face. "Try it."
Ian must have thrown three or four punches at him. Each one of them missed, not by accident but by Noah's design. He curled around each blow until only the air was being punished by Ian's lightning-fast power strokes.
Noah shook his head his disbelief. It had taken a year for him to get his yellow belt. His sensei, a kindly old man by most accounts, told him that he was the closest thing to hopeless he had ever encountered in his thirty years teaching karate. Now, Noah was dodging blows like a black-belt super-star.
Noah caught the last punch in his hand. "My turn." In the same amount of time it took to speak those two words, Noah's leg had connected right under Ian's chin above his throat. Noah's legs were in a vertical splits. "Holy crap," Noah muttered as Ian fell onto the black-and-white checkered floor.
Ian was still conscious when Otis tackled Noah from behind. Otis, the security guard, must have hated fights at schools. They were annoying clichés. Too much of a spectacle among otherwise decent students. Rounds of applause rang out through the halls as Otis lifted Noah up onto his feet.
Otis held Ian at bay with one hand as he dragged Noah to the vice principal's office with the other. Noah couldn't repeat Ian's exact words but Noah had practically signed his death warrant with that display of wholesale kickassery. Noah didn't care. Ian's reign of terror had been rightly rebuked.
Bernard Walker would have loved to say he was in the middle of a high-speed pursuit of heavily-armed perps when the call came into the station. But that was the Hollywood version of Bernie's job. In fact, Bernard was in the middle of finishing the very last of the paperwork on a routine traffic stop from earlier this morning. No heart-racing car chases on this or any other afternoon.
Nobody had seemed too upset by him ending his shift a few hours early. Bernie wondered how many police officers had to leave work early because their sons had gotten into a fight at school. Bernie pulled his red Ford Ranger into the parking space. Bernie took a moment to shift from cop mode to dad mode.
While not the raucous collage of bullets, bloodstains and bruises from Hollywood folklore, being a cop demanded a different level of engagement with the world around him. It was not the right way to meet a vice principal. Bernie Walker exited the truck and walked to the front office of the high school. He almost felt like he was the one being suspended for two weeks.
Bernie looked as a gangly fellow with a crew cut and three-piece suit stepped out of the vice principal's office. Judging by the way he carried himself, this was the Vice Principal Quadland his kids were always making fun of. "Just the man I wanted to talk to." Mr. Quadland pulled Bernie aside.
"I'm Dexter Quadland, your son's vice principal. I know this must be very difficult for you, Mr. Walker. I know you must have a lot of questions for me but I have one for you. Is it possible that your boy Noah could be taking drugs?" Bernie took a step back. He was dumbfounded by the question.
Dexter Quadland paused. "Believe me, I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't for Otis, the school security guard, and what he described seeing." Bernie sighed. Otis must have witnessed a channeling. It was the only explanation.
Dexter sighed. "Listen, Mr. Walker, I know your son's not a troublemaker. He's a good kid. Between you and me, I would trade any hundred students here for a hundred more like him but what he did just isn't possible for someone of his size. Not without the wrong kind of help. Get it?"
Bernie nodded his head. "Yeah, I got it." Bernie could feel his heart racing as if in the middle of one of those fictionalized car chases. He could only hope and pray that the wrong people hadn't witnessed Noah's display of superhuman strength. "Would you mind if I had a minute alone with my son?"
Dexter shook his head rapidly from side to side. "No, no, by all means, we here at Creighton Chaney High School are here to help," the vice principal said in that phony tone of voice like he had read that part out of a school handbook.
Bernie walked into the vice principal's office. Inside was an elfin sixteen-year-old boy further dwarfed by the green foam chair he was seated in. "First off, young man," Bernie began. "I would just like to say how very disappointed I am with you." Bernie sighed. "But right now, you are the one who deserves an explanation." Bernie paused to collect his thoughts.
"I have spent hours in front of the mirror practicing this speech. I was hoping I would never have to deliver it." Noah maintained a quizzical look on his face. "Are you still channeling?" Noah shrugged. He probably didn't know what that meant. "Your vice principal is right outside that door. Can you hear him?" Noah shook his head. "Good." Bernie paced around. "That means you're coming down. That is very good, Noah."
Noah shook his head, frustrated. "Dad, what the hell are you talking about?" He had never heard him use such language before. He must still be riding on the adrenaline rush. "I just handed a school bully his ass. The guy was three of me put together and you are acting like that is the most normal thing in the world. How did you even know about the weird hearing thing?"
Bernie Walker sighed again. This was going to be tricky. "I can't explain everything right now. Not with your vice principal waiting outside that door, expecting me to give you a tongue lashing." Bernie had an idea.
"Noah, remember last Christmas when Wolfie died?" Wolfie was a dog that Noah had grown quite fond of. Wolfie had died from heartworms. "Right now, I need you think about Wolfie. Right now, I need you to cry." Bernie could pinpoint Noah's light bulb moment when he realized what he was up to. "Can you do that for me?" Noah nodded eagerly.
Bernie grabbed Noah by the arm as he worked up a good cry. Bernie took a deep breath and burst through the door. Noah was breaking down in tears so bad he had to drag him through the hallway. "Please, Dad, I'm sorry."
Bernie shook his head and shouted loud enough for everyone to hear. "Not as sorry as you're going to be." Vice Principal Quadland followed. "I'm sorry you had to see this. You're right; Noah's a good kid but even good kids can go bad." Bernie sneered at the VP. "If you'll excuse me, I'd like to finish this at home." Dexter cleared a path for the crying son and his irate father.
Bernie marched out of the front office with Noah still getting dragged along for the show. As soon as they were out of sight, Bernie dropped the act and, in spite of themselves, the two shared a laugh. Times like these he wished he had kept up with his drama classes and became an actor instead. "We're still telling Mom about this." Noah groaned. "She has a right to know."
Everyone had a right to know. Bernie should have noticed the signs that night when everyone got sick and the next morning when everyone got better. It had fit the pattern to a T. Bernard was too busy trying to get the family to enjoy their one night a week together that he had ignored them.
A normal parent would have been rightly pissed about their child getting into a fight at school. Bernie Walker was just happy that Noah hadn't turned during the fight. Channeling to fend off a human foe was like hunting a flock of butterflies with an elephant gun. It was overkill in the extreme.
Noah Walker looked over at Mom. She had entered her second trimester and he wondered what this kind of stress could be doing to the baby inside her. The fight that Noah had participated in and dominated was a hallucination to him.
At the time, fending off Ian Rockwell, a testosterone junkie and captain of the football team with over hundred pounds on him, felt perfectly natural. Now, with the adrenaline leveling off, Noah saw it for the anomaly it was.
Noah didn't even know how he did some of those moves. He had earned himself a D in gym last year owing to his lack of coordination and physical strength. Basically, he couldn't have kicked his own ass, let alone one belonging to a bona-fide meathead with anger issues and a mean right hook.
Alyssa, in keeping with her personality, was texting Erica Eastman with all the juicy details of the fight. It was baffling how quickly news spread in this modern day and age. By Wednesday, everyone at Chaney would know about the David-vs.-Goliath match in the hallway next to the front office.
Noah had gotten lucky. He had allowed Otis to take him down. He had half a mind to attack him. If he had done that, he'd have been expelled for sure and maybe even arrested. Besides, whatever kung fu magic had been bestowed upon him, it had worn off really fast. Noah felt like a mosquito bite could knock him out right now.
Noah looked around their three-bedroom two-bathroom one-story hacienda and wondered about the forthcoming announcement about to take place in this living room. Dad walked into the room wearing a full-length bathrobe.
Dad had this big news to reveal to Alyssa and Noah. "C'mon, Ali," Noah said, jostling her arm. "This is the part where you learn I'm from Krypton." Alyssa made a face. He had been joking when he said that but, as far as guesses went, he wasn't too far off the mark. "So, what's this news you have for us?"
Mom and Dad held hands. Noah recognized the nervous gravity of this situation. The parental units had acted the same way when they announced that Mom was pregnant. Since Mom couldn't very well be more pregnant, Noah was genuinely curious as to what Dad had to say. The long bushy brown bathrobe he was wearing in the living room only piqued his curiosity.
"You see," Mom started in. "We are the Benandanti." Beads of sweat formed on Dad's brow as his eyes rolled to the back of his head. "If you are not familiar with that term, that is okay. Not a lot of people are."
Noah was still confused about what any of this had to do with kicking Ian Rockwell's ass. Noah should have been in serious trouble right now. Instead, his parents were talking gibberish.
Noah watched as little hairs sprouted on Dad's bald head. Dad's face elongated into a snout. Alyssa climbed upon the couch, trying to keep her distance from their shape-shifting father. Noah just stared. "Mom," Noah said. "Are you trying to tell us that we're a bunch of werewolves?"
Mom sighed. "First off, we are not werewolves. Werewolves are the victims of an ancient curse. We are the descendants of Romulus. Our blood is fortified by the milk of the Wolf Goddess." Mom either didn't know or didn't care how weird that sounded.
"Being a Benandanti is no different from being human until you are summoned." Mom looked as Dad fell onto all fours and his bones began to crack and reform. "We have been summoned. Which brings us to the bad news." Dad had finished, now an adult white wolf crouching in the living room in front of their plasma screen TV.
"Bad news?" Alyssa asked, parroting Mom's word. "There's bad news? You just told us we're a family of freaks who turn into wolves. How is there worse news than that?" Noah was awestruck by Dad in his giant wolf body.
Noah couldn't entirely explain the feeling he got looking at Dad now in the form of a wolf. Noah had spent his entire life weaker than weak, the guy other nerds were ashamed of. A super-spaz supreme. Now, he was learning that he was from a family of superhuman badasses. It was like a dream come true.
This was why his parents weren't freaked out about him getting into a fight. They were just grateful he hadn't wolfed out on Ian. Regardless, Noah couldn't wait until Dad showed him how to do that.
Mom shook her head. "These powers are not a curse, nor are they a gift. They are a responsibility and one our families have upheld for generations." Mom looked at the two. "Kids, do you remember when I said there was no such thing as monsters?" Noah nodded. Alyssa nodded too. "I lied." Mom sighed. "There are monsters and we've been tasked with their destruction."
Tyrese Hilson arrived at the J'Adore at eight o'clock sharp. This time, he had the advantage of knowing the details of the meeting. He dressed in a tuxedo for the occasion of a fancy French restaurant run by the greatest crime lord in the city's history, Victor Chirac. Tyrese had a manila folder under one arm. He had a few choice questions for his future employer.
Tyrese had gone through a lot of job interviews in his time. People usually blew it in the post-interview phase. Contented by the sound of a "yes," the employee's attentiveness would drop off and then he would show his lazy side. Tyrese didn't have a lazy side and hoped to convey that to his boss.
"Hello, Tyrese." Tyrese looked around the restaurant at all the new faces. It was busy for a Tuesday night. Since everyone was wearing the same black tuxedo, Tyrese could only assume that these folks were going to be his co-workers. They all ignored him save for Victor. "It is good to see you again."
Tyrese took a moment to appreciate Victor's change of attire. He had on a get-up worthy of a medieval court. Tyrese wanted to make light of the peacock attire but he thought it way too soon to be getting cute with the boss.
"It is good to see you again as well." Tyrese didn't know why he had bothered with the formality. Victor had a way of quietly reinforcing the etiquette and decorum of old times among modern participants. Tyrese Hilson almost forgot about his questions. "Anyways, I have a few questions for you ... about my job."
Tyrese handed the manila folder to Victor. "It has come to my attention you are not the man I will be reporting to." Victor gave him a look as if he wanted to know how he knew that. "News travels quickly on the streets."
Victor smirked. "So do lies." Tyrese watched as Victor handed the file to Natasha to look at. "But it is true that I am bringing in outside help, much as I brought in you. I didn't want to mention it because of his ... situation." Victor looked down at the table. "You see, this special helper was part of a prison break last Friday."
The first appearance of frustration appeared on Victor's face. Tyrese had crossed a line with his new employer. "I cannot tell you much more about him than that until he arrives." The lights of the restaurant flickered. "Speak of the Devil."
Tyrese shook his head. He still had more questions. "There's something about your condition that bothers me." Victor offered Tyrese a seat. He preferred to stand. "You implied that you have a heightened sensitivity to UV radiation but I haven't figured out why you don't have any problem with neon lights and moonlight. All excellent sources of UV radiation."
Victor stirred in his seat. "My condition is complicated. Not one you would easily understand, Tyrese." Despite the tense nature of this conversation, Tyrese resented being condescended to by anyone. "Any other questions?"
Tyrese Hilson nodded. "Yes." Natasha opened the folder to the accompanying photo. "One more." Natasha handed the photo to Victor. "Who is that?" Tyrese paced around Victor. "My instinct is that you are the person in that picture but doesn't make any sense." Tyrese leaned in close. "If it were you, it would mean that you haven't aged a day in over four decades."
Victor Chirac looked up at Tyrese. "What if I haven't?" Tyrese laughed at his answer. Of course, it couldn't be him, regardless of what frightened superstitious thugs might think. He just wanted to know who it was. "Well?"
Tyrese ran his fingers over his shaved head. Tyrese could feel the blood squirming in his veins. "You promised to give me answers. I just want what you promised me." The waiter came by with his order. "Please."
Victor Chirac smiled. "You have very poor memory, Mr. Hilson. I didn't promise to give you answers. I said there were rumors and that I would put them to rest." Lights flickered again. "Which I fully intend to. Right. Now."
Piotr came up behind Tyrese. Victor caressed the tip of Natasha's chin. "He truly has Nergal's paranoia, doesn't he?" Victor handed the folder to Natasha. "See to these documents, my dear."
Natasha placed the manila folder in a nearby trash bin. Lighting a match, she leered in the majestic glow of the humble flame and tossed it onto the trash. Natasha bent down to breath in the thick aroma of the fire. Puffs of smoke from the tiny bonfire touched the ceiling. "Hold him." Piotr pinned Tyrese's arms behind his back.
The waiter lifted the polished metal cover on Victor's order. Tyrese stared at the raw bleeding thing on the plate. "Do you recognize what this is?" Tyrese nodded. He felt like he was going to vomit. "Of course, you do. It is a heart." Victor picked it up. "A human heart." Victor sucked on it like a fresh picked lemon. "And it is delicious."
"I have not been honest about your 'qualifications,' Tyrese." Victor paced around the incapacitated Tyrese. "Your true qualifications are not physical nor mental in nature. It is your soul, my boy. You are the rightful throne for a very powerful entity. Catch." The organ bounced off of Tyrese's suit, leaving a stain on his vest before landing on the velvet carpet.
Natasha continued to enjoy the incineration of Tyrese's evidence as Victor Chirac walked up to him. "His escape was the easy part. He could have done that anytime he wanted. Staying under the radar is the hard part. The trick is finding the right safehouse. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making this place." Victor cracked his neck. "Mostly blood. But I digress."
Piotr let Tyrese fall to his knees as a stabbing pain ripped through his chest. "It is pathetic how arrogant you blood bags have become." Tyrese stared at the piece of human meat lying on the floor next to him. "You think just because the blood of slaves flow through your veins that you know anything about oppression?" Tyrese couldn't breath.
Everyone in the J'Adore took on a sickly pallor. "Our kind was being hunted to extinction before the first slave ship set sail for Africa." Victor let Tyrese get a good long look at his bloodied fangs. "When I told you this was the Dream Team, I neglected to tell you what that dream was. Our dream is salvation and you are the key to that."