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Chapter One

Here for the Money

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"You'll never get away this, you vile fiend." Donald paced around the combined rosters of the Champions Circle and the Quantum Quartet. The electro-grid closed in on them.

The grin on Donald's face slipped. It couldn't be but it was.

Hearing that phrase told him that this was all just a dream. Nobody ever said those words in that order anymore. There was only so many times a hero could listen to "I already have," before losing his/her mind. Donald sighed. "I guess I won't."

With that, Donald Ellis awoke atop a shabby futon. Donald Ellis hated mornings, despised afternoons and had nothing but contempt for evenings. In truth, no part of the day really did it for him. Don stared up at the ceiling of his alleged apartment. The architect of this place should be arrested.

"I hate my life." A casual glance revealed a number of building code violations. He could easily fix up the place or drop the hammer on his landlord but those would be amateur mistakes. The point of going to ground was to blend into one's surroundings. Don only wished he had picked better surroundings to blend into.

Donald rolled over onto the floor and stared doing push-ups. All his "talents" might be mental in nature but that was no excuse to let his body go to seed. Besides, someday, when he got into a buster with the All-American, he would appreciate having a wall of muscle to keep that discus/shield of his from breaking his ribs.

Fighting the All-American. Wishful thinking at its most self-indulgent. The business had changed. People didn't scare as easily as they used to. In the beginning, a bruiser in an old Halloween costume could get a B-list hero on his tail during his first outing. Nowadays, folks tended to just call the cops when menaced by some new freak-job in a leotard. It could take months, sometimes even years, to gain enough street cred to get the attention of the hero crowd.

As far as hierarchy was concerned, Donald Ellis wasn't even a C-lister in the business. Donald ranked somewhere between Pigeon Piper and the Dime Lord. Donald would be lucky to mix it up with the Kangaroo Kid, let alone a bona fide Champion.

The days when Donald Ellis thought that he'd be running the show here in Bigg City had come and gone. The show went on without him, hardly stopping to notice the loss of its supposed "star." Three years. If his big break was coming, it sure was taking its sweet time.

Donald Ellis let loose a high-pitched whistle. Guy scrambled across the floor as Don poured his food. If the landlord ever figured out that he had a pet in here, he would be in serious trouble.

Of course, if Mr. Essex found Guy, eviction would be the least of his troubles. Guy devoured his chunks at record speed, all the time muttering about his good friend Donnie.

"Don't talk with your mouth full."

Donald had fished the little guy out of the rubble of one of his father's abandoned lairs. By his standards, Guy was a mistake. By anyone else's standards, he was a modern miracle of transgenics.

"What do we have on tap for today?" Guy asked with the characteristic liveliness of a grateful freak. How much anyone enjoyed being a freak was directly proportional to their level of gratitude. Guy was living on borrowed time and he knew it.

The DNA of the creature named Guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and deep-fried in a puzzle. Guy could develop an allergic reaction to asparagus and Donald would unknowingly endanger his life the next time he brought home vegetables from the grocery.

"Well?" Guy asked again.

"Well," Donnie thought aloud. "I've given this a lot of thought." Donald pulled out one of his Colt .45s. "If I put this pistol to my head and pull the trigger, I will have a ninety-seven chance of dying and a three percent chance of severe brain trauma. Either way, I would still have a zero percent chance of going to work today."

Don smiled at his own wit as Guy cocked an eyebrow at him. "Actually, I was going to visit the office to see if I got any potential clients. Sound good?" Guy crawled up onto his right shoulder with animal agility. "Okay, then. Let's get to work."

#

Weaving his custom motorcycle in and around morning commuters, Donald Ellis spotted the off ramp to his office. Guy's claws dug into his leather jacket as the motorcycle blazed on at 70 MPH. The "gunshot wound to the head" speech had unnerved Guy but Donald needed the practice. Knowing how to intimidate via monologues separated the beginners from the experts.

The engine sputtered. Building a motorcycle from scratch was child's play for Donald. Back when he had the money and the resources, he could have built something that could have flown over this upcoming traffic jam.

Donnie braced his bike as the Black Blur blazed down the street and up the side of a corporate building. In a little while, the police would arrive to round up the leftovers from the conflict about to unfold. Just another Monday morning in Bigg City.

Activated by Technoir's arrest last Thursday in San Dimas, a flock of sapient predator drones chased down the Black Blur and surrounded him at the top of the Bigg City First National Bank. Donald could hear the innocent bystanders placing bets. Most had their money on the Black Blur since popular wisdom dictated that heroes usually managed to weasel out of tight spots like this one.

Forgetting the fact that even a really fast speedster could not dodge laser beams, Donald plotted a trajectory. Even if he could not dodge their attacks, the heroes always won. Don looked up at the spectacle with a pair of (homemade) binoculars. "Oh, crap."

Donald Ellis always thought of the Black Blur as something of a thug. It wasn't because he was black. It was because he was that rare blend of stupidity and intelligence that could get into trouble and get out. His solutions were always clever in the stupidest possible way.

And this solution was no exception. Donald took cover behind his motorcycle, punching up the vehicle's sonic defense grid. Nothing too loud. Just enough noise to match the resonant frequency of the incoming shock-wave. Guy hid behind him. If the Black Blur could not outmaneuver them, he would disable them instead. Spinning in circles at Mach speed, the sonic book blasted outward from the Black Blur.

The glass on nearby cars and buildings shattered as the soundwaves coming from his motorcycle canceled out the "boom" of the sonic boom within a three-meter radius. It might have been a moment of glory for him if not for that familiar crackle of electricity and hiss of steam telling him that he had, once again, burnt out another one of Dad's inventions.

As usual, the fancy of a few heroes with good public relations held the city hostage. If a speed villain had done that little stunt against a machine hero, there would be a warrant out for his arrest. Hell, he'd probably end up having to pay out of pocket for the damages to the hero's toys. It was the double standard and guess who got the better half?

After overcoming that little melodrama, Donald climbed onto his bike and Guy climbed onto his shoulder.

#

The office was a mess. If it ever got robbed, Donald would be the last one to notice.

Guy scampered into the backroom. If fate had blessed his business with employees, the backroom would have been their break room. Right now, it was converted walk-in closet. On the far wall of the backroom was a dartboard with Charles Darwin's face on it. From what Donald understood, Guy never missed. The dartboard's banner read: Darwin Sucks.

For the first time all day, Donald pulled out his earplugs. He had fallen asleep with them on. The earplugs did not impede his hearing. They were designed to filter out a different kind of noise.

The thoughts of his neighbors crashed against his mind as he took a moment through the contents. The drug dealer upstairs was worried about his seventy-two-year-old mother. She had stopped taking money from him when she found some of his product in her house. She didn't call the police but, without his money, how would she pay for the surgery? Her insurance didn't cover the whole amount and she couldn't pay the difference...

"No, no, no!" This was the reason he wore these earplugs in the first place. Reading minds was addictive. A telepath could lose himself in someone else's story, never to return to his own. Donald sprayed the neural coolant into his brain through his nose. He was overheating faster these days. A sign that he was thinking way too much, even for a super-genius.

Donald's eyes fluttered as the chill washed over his brain. In the midst of this necessary euphoria, he didn't hear the sound of the door opening. He opened his eyes to see an elderly woman, standing over him. "Goodness gracious, are you alright, child?"

In a traditional noir setting, Martha Wyndham would have been a lot younger and a lot hotter and her name wouldn't have been Martha Wyndham. It would have been something improbable yet dangerous-sounding like Ravena Darkholm or Lara Devlin.

But this wasn't that. Martha Wyndham could have been anyone's grandmother. Martha introduced herself. Donald went along with the introductions. Some clients get freaked out by the mind-reading. Donald didn't mind. If the clients didn't want to see how the cow got slaughtered, he would still serve them up some prime cuts of sirloin steak.

Donald waited patiently for Martha to explain to him what he already knew. Herbert Wyndham had inherited a large sum of money from his uncle Murray. Fifty-thousand dollars to be exact and it was missing. Herbert was in a car accident and currently comatose.

"Room 616 at the Marvel Street Hospital?" Martha nodded. "I'll see what I can do but first I would like to see your home." Donald wrote down the information she had given him. Another token gesture to avoid any awkwardness. "Perhaps, your dear husband left some clues behind."

This might have been the big break Donald Ellis had been looking for all these years. A grieving semi-widow with a large missing sum of money. Perhaps, she would not be averse to agreeing to a generous finder's fee. If so, he would no longer be working at this subsistence level grind. With enough money, Donald could ditch the office and begin his true calling.

Donald Ellis knew that Herbert didn't leave any clues. He embarrassed everyone, including himself, by this desperate bid for self-deception. The only thing Donald discovered was that Herbert was not good with money. Final notices from the IRS intermingled with unpaid utility bills. This man did not run a tight ship. Whatever Herbie had done with that money, it hadn't gone to this mountain of scorned financial responsibilities.

Martha Wyndham's every thought about Herbert magically glossed over these failings. In her mind, Herbert was her White Knight. He could do no wrong and assumed that the money would be found eventually. Donald Ellis was a necessary evil to reaching that simple goal in a timely fashion.

Donald was avoiding the obvious. The one person who would definitely know where to find the money was Herbert Edgar Wyndham himself. If he were conscious, he could skim his surface thoughts and piece together the narrative on his own. But his coma was a game changer. That meant deep mind probing inside of unstable neural pathways. Fun.

#

"Lasagna! Again!" Donald shook his head. "Listen. I'm not made of lasagna." Donald rolled his eyes. "Okay, Guy, you win. But this is the last time." Donald promised to stop by the grocery and pick up some lasagna. Guy was going to have a big dinner because Don could already tell he wouldn't be hungry after this.

The Marvel Street Hospital was a quaint herd of rectangles. The place managed to make a helipad look commonplace. If putting people at ease was its goal, it had succeeded with flying colors. It looked very peaceful for a butcher shop of human body parts.

Hospitals were, in Donald's opinion, relics from a bygone era. The same way a surgeon would bulk at the thought of removing a neck tumor with a straight razor, Donald would be horrified at the thought of letting these knife-happy barbarians cut him up.

Virgil Valentine AKA Professor Quantum had promised huge advances in the field of medicine. Fast-forward a decade and still bupkis. Too busy running around saving the lost colonies of Atlantis or whatever banana republic was falling apart this month to share his toys with the rest of the class.

The Champions Circle was even worse than the good doctor. They had a healer. A powerful one too. She had healed the All-American after that failed assassination attempt by the Black Sun. When was the last time those glory-hounds bothered to visit a hospital when there wasn't a million cameras to witness their "magnanimous benevolence?"

Linda at reception thought Donald was handsome, a fact he used to its full advantage. "I know." Linda blinked a couple times. "You think I'm handsome and, yes, I do work out." Linda started to blush. "I'm Rupert Wyndham. I'm a nephew of the patient in Room 616." Linda nodded absently and waved him in. "You're too kind, Miss Hamilton."

A scruffy-looking orderly brushed up beside him. "Wow, how did you do that?" The orderly who apparently attended BCU against his father's wishes, was floored by his performance. "How did you know she was checking you out?"

"I read her mind." The two shared a laugh, the orderly too much of a tool to realize that he wasn't kidding. The orderly excused himself, his mind focused on the last time he got laid (with a fat chick named Vanessa back in April). He was always amazed at how few people recognized this face. Even if it had been under a mask most of the time, this face had belonged to the man who made costumed villainy into a fine art.

#

Waiting for nurse Doris Detz to leave, Donald Ellis entered Room 616. Doris was stealing hospital supplies and cheating on her boyfriend Rick with his stepbrother Jake. Neither of these soap-opera revelations had anything to do with Donald's current mission.

The old man in the hospital bed was wired up. IV drips. Breathing machines. The whole works. "I really hate you right now, Herbert." Donald cracked his neck. "Well, let's get this over with." Donald placed his hands on his temples. "Let's get one thing straight, Herbie. I'm not here for your sob story. I'm here for the money."

Donald steadied his breathing and lapsed into a meditative state. The entrance into the psyche always felt like falling. When he hit the bottom, he usually found himself somewhere unpleasant.

#

"You're a bum, son." A gorilla of a man towered over Donald Ellis. "Look, look." The gigantic man pointed at an accusing finger down at him. "You're making your mother cry." Donald looked over at a woman who was definitely not his mother. "You happy, you little crap?"

An open hand smashed against his face before Donald could answer him. So much for no sob story. "Get the hell out of my house!" The woman, apparently Herbert's mother, struggled to reason with the man, apparently Herbert's pissed-off father. Donald looked in the bathroom mirror and saw a sixteen-year-old boy. In his room, his precious sanctuary from the beatings, were photos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

"Someday," Donald heard the words coming out of his mouth. "Someday." The curtain came down again and Donald found himself at a craps table. He was up a lot of money. The other guests, handsome folks dressed like supermodels, gave his outfit a once-over.

Donald Ellis looked like a bum. He smelled like one too. His hair was disheveled. His clothes had not seen the inside of a washing machine in days. Regardless, Donald just smiled and kept on going. He looked up from his table and saw the most beautiful thing in the world. Martha Anne Richards, only daughter of L. Stanley Richards, one of the high-rollers here at the Silver Age Casino. A rare beauty even among the beautiful people.

Donald (or rather Herbert) was suddenly self-conscious. He didn't want to look like (or smell like) a bum in front of this angel. She was the One. He knew it and he could only hope to God that she knew it too. Hours turned to days as Herbert made himself decent for the fair lady.

The courtship was the stuff of romantic fiction. He out-charmed a rival or two with his down-to-earth ways. Herbert introduced Martha to the lighter side of his low station in life.

They were happy together and it was only a matter of time before something tried to take that away. "This man is a bum." Martha's father glared at them as Herbert and Martha held hands. "I will not support this bum. If you leave this room with him, don't ever come back." Sadly, Martha called his bluff and was promptly written out of the will.

Herbert's thoughts were an ocean and Donald was being away in the riptide. Donald needed to regain control of himself. He began clapping. "Bravo. Well done. I loved the production values."

Donald had a plan. Hopefully, the fish would take the bait. "It is the story that needed to be told about a pathetic loser daydreamer who thought falling in love would mean that he would never have to grow up."

Herbert appeared, his face animated by the fury anyone would feel upon having the facts of their lives mocked and ridiculed. "Hook, line and sinker." Don bared his teeth. "I'm sick of this crap. Where's the money?"

A smirk crossed the arrogant half-dead bastard's face. "If I had a dime for every time I heard that question ..." Herbert turned his attention to his frozen father-in-law. "Keep watching, Don. We're getting to that part."

The next place Donald appeared in was a poorly-lit room. The muffled noises of men punching each other penetrated through the thin walls. A round man smoking a Cuban cigar was staring at Herbert from behind a pair of beady sunglasses. "You look like a fighter, Mr. Wyndham."

The man signaled one of his guards to open the briefcase. "So if I give you this money, you better fight to get it back." Herbert nodded nervously. "Remember, this is still my money. You're just borrowing it." The guard closed the case. "Keep that in mind and you'll be just fine." The man's wide-brimmed hat made it hard to see his face but he could make out a smile.

Scene change. The same guard from before stood in front of Donald Ellis in the kind of dark alley where things of this sort happened. Donald was blubbering about his bad luck. The guard stood him up. "I'm not here for your sob story. I'm here for the money." The guard's blows were hard but he was careful not to leave a mark. "Get that money or else."

Amidst the tears of sorrow and the pangs of pain, Donald lifted his head and saw Murray Williams, Herbert's beloved maternal uncle. "That's a raw deal, Herb, but I can't help you. I got no money."

Herbert look at his uncle's life insurance statement crumpled in the wastebasket. "Imagine that," Uncle Murray said. "I'm worth more to you dead than alive." An evil smirk crawled across his face as he said that.

Herbert Wyndham appeared again. This time, he swore the shock on his face like a cheap pair of sunglasses. "I guess you never expected anyone to see that last part." Don had felt his mind trying to block him out.

A spirited effort for someone who had never squared off against a telepath before. Don held his head in his hands. Herbert was one screwed-up fellow. "You killed him, didn't you?" Herbert nodded, defeated.

"You promised Martha the world but you couldn't deliver. But you found some people and you thought they could." Donald circled Herbert. "When you couldn't make the payments, they threatened her. You wanted to go to the police but you weren't sure if they could protect her. And, let's face it, you couldn't admit to her what you had done. Not without also admitting something that you have known all along. You are a bum."

Donald didn't even need Herbert to confirm any of that. It was written all over his face. "I should be horrified but I've known people who had done far worse than kill their beloved uncles. Plus, I know what it feels like to have big dreams that never really went anywhere."

Donald Ellis prepared to leave. Herbert Wyndham tried to stop him. "I'm not going to tell Martha what happened to the money. That would be the easy way out for a bum like you." An evil grin emerged onto Donald's face. "Instead, you will have to make that choice yourself. When (or if) you wake up, we'll see if you add 'cowardice' to your laundry list of character defects. And if she is the One, you better pray to God she knows that."

#

The mind of Donald Ellis returned to Room 616, fully extracted from the comatose psyche of Herbert Edgar Wyndham. Donald walked out of the room and down the hallway. He reached for his spray bottle. In a few moments, he was, at least, physically okay. As he shambled down the stairs, a terrible thought darted back and forth through his psyche.

Herbert Edgar Wyndham was Donald Ellis in miniature. Herbert longed to be the hero in Martha's story just as much as Donald longed to be the villain in everyone else's. The best either of them could hope for, in the end, was to break even. And with the deck stacked so heavily against them, breaking even was a lot harder than it sounded.

#

Donald Ellis picked up the lasagna on the way home. Guy, instead of chomping away, stopped to take note of Donnie's frown.

"Rough day at work?" One of Dad's inventions was scrapped by a freak encounter with a hero who didn't even realize what he had done to him. That would have been bad enough but then he went on a journey to a center of a fellow bum's mind. "Rough" barely scratched the surface of what "work" had done to him. "Work" had hanged him out to dry.

Nonetheless, Donnie nodded. "I know what will cheer you up." Guy produced a box from the closet. "A little something I whipped up in my spare time." Donnie opened the box. "I hope you like it."

It was a dartboard with a group picture of the Champions Circle in the middle. Above it was a black banner with white letters on it. Heroes Suck. Don smiled. "It's … actually rather touching. Thanks, Guy."

Guy shrugged. "Por nada. I figure that somebody owes you an apology for frying your dad's stuff. And since that dick, the Black Blur, is too busy to say sorry, I have decided to say it for him… with a thoughtful gift." Guy laughed. "That and I thought you might want to blow off some steam."

Guy showed him the darts in his hands. "Care for a game?"

#