It was so cliché. That was all he could think. This was so ridiculous and over-the-top and stupid and cliché. And it rammed a machete through my gut. Son of a bitch.
Michael Grueson stared with self-hatred written all over his face at the ceiling. How could he have let this happen? Sure, he was doing his best to minimize casualties. Sure, he'd managed to fail protecting all but one of the poor teenaged idiots that had been trapped in this ancient house by this machete wielding amateur. And, yes, admittedly, he'd made what could be considered the mistake of making sure there was a light on in every room. In a house with mirrors all over the place.
And he could also admit that the amount of his own blood currently dripping all over the floor was probably not part of the plan. What the hell had been his plan? Did he even have a plan? This was supposed to be a simple assignment. Had he gotten lazy?
Oh well, no time for that now. Michael brought his head forward. At speed.
Skull met skull and the machete-swinging man crumbled like a house of cards, his grip on both Michael and the weapon melting away. Michael's feet hit the ground and a fresh wave of screaming, which the teenaged girl behind him had been doing almost unceasingly for the last ten minutes, hit the eardrums of every living thing for almost a mile. That was not a lot of things.
Michael's knees buckled due to blood loss and he went down as well. He swore as a red hot lance of pain shot across his vision and he summoned his strength to extract the blade from his stomach. There was an unpleasant scraping noise from his spine that drew another, more ancient and primal swear word from Michael's mouth. The machete clanged across the floor as he tried to get his feet back under him, but the psychopath was already back up.
"Oh fu-" Michael managed before the steel toe boot caught him across the face. He went in the opposite direction of the machete, and the boots clomped their way toward the weapon. The girl screamed in Michael's ear, providing little help, and he managed to get to his feet.
The psychopath picked up the machete and wheeled around. "Who are you?" he demanded.
Michael coughed and blood his the floor. "What?"
"Who ARE you?" the psychopath demanded again.
Michael rolled his eyes. He couldn't hear much over the screaming. He slapped a blood-stained hand over the girl's mouth and gave her a look. "Sorry, what?"
"WHO ARE YOU?
"Is all the shouting really necessary?" Michael grumbled. One of his shaking hands slipped into his pocket, clasped around the item that had been a part of the original plan. Before the stupid plan he'd tried that had obviously worked out so well.
"Mister, please help me!" the girl screamed in his ear.
"Good god, why did I even bother trying to save you?" Michael snapped at her as the psychopath charged.
Michael pressed a button on the device in his pocket. A mile and a half away, a shaped charge went off in a power junction. A half second later, lights all across the sparsely populated suburb died out. And in the darkness, wet things snapped and people screamed for all of a moment before silence set back in.
Backup relays for power re-lit the street a few minutes later. Out of an old, drafty, large and dark house, a blood stained, sullen Michael Grueson stepped. He walked out to the sidewalk, sighed, and looked back at the house.
"Dammit," he said with another sigh. He hung his head and composed himself. The gaping hole in his side was gone. So was the bruise that had been rapidly developing on his head. Behind him, a manhole cover slid aside, and something slimy crawled out of it. It stood up to a towering seven feet, and reached out a slimy, black, scaled and clawed hand.
And it tapped Michael on the shoulder.
Michael turned, nonplussed by the sight before him. "Lenny."
"Michael." The voice that came our of the sharp-toothed mouth was gurgled, like the last thrashing motions of a doomed mammal in a tar pit. "Your report?"
Michael's head hung again. "All dead."
"And the kids, too?"
The creature, or Lenny, looked him up and down. "Let me guess. Not all of them died because of the Slasher."
"Don't worry about it."
"No, Mike, stop it," Lenny cut him off. "A little bit of collateral damage is to be expected. You're not the Echelon's scalpel, you're the sledgehammer."
"That's great, Lenny, but I-"
"Discussion closed," Lenney told him. "I'm serious. This angsty crap has to stop. It was bad enough when Frank's software went glitchy and he started worrying about every little flower and bumblebee in his path, and Greg being almost a damn pacifist, and now this? The Echelon won't stand for it. They'll do the Rite and then you won't be able to save anyone."
Michael shook his head. "God, Lenny, I'm not a machine, and Greg's just a guy with a last name. None of you have a clue how I'm even alive, let alone how I came to be or how my power works, and I'm just supposed to suck it up? Maybe after the first thousand years it'll all get easier, but for now I'm not handling all of this that well, okay? Maybe a little sympathy instead of this tough love crap you're always pulling wouldn't be entirely out of line."
Lenny rolled his eyes. His eyes were two coal black slits in a face full of scales and gills. It was impossible to tell if they had rolled or not, so the gesture was meaningless, but he did it anyway. "Mike, I'm telling you, we don't have time for this. Your next job is in a week, and you obviously need a little RnR. Go get it, and then get back to work. Drink yourself stupid, find a girl you can pay for sex, do some drugs, I don't care. Get past this, and get back to work."
Lenny, the Accountant from the Black Lagoon, crawled back into the manhole and left Michael there in the street. Now alone, he looked around and sighed again, and then walked to his Jeep, parked a few blocks away. In the distance, sirens of fire fighters and police investigating a possible bombing at a power junction provided context for an orange glow and black smoke in the night sky.
Michael climbed into his Jeep, shut the door, and rubbed his eyes. He hadn't slept in a while. He growled and picked up the handset of a citizen's band radio he'd installed in the Jeep's dashboard.
"Greg, you up?" he asked.
He wait for a while, and started up his Jeep, turning on the internal lights. A voice crackled back over the CB.
"Mike. What's up?"
"You wanna grab a drink?" Mike replied.
"Sure. Where are you?"
"Podunk-ville nowhere town. I'll be hitting main street in a half hour."
"Madeline's Margaritas, then?"
"Greg, come on. Can we please go somewhere seedy for a change?" Michael asked, putting his Jeep into gear and getting it moving, driving carefully in a large semi-circle around the growing collection of sirens and hoses.
"Why do you want to go somewhere seedy?"
"I want to drink something heavy to help me forget."
"Tonight. Come on, there's Hank's. We used to go to Hank's all the time."
"Hank's burned down."
"What about Barryallen's?"
"Health code violations. The place got shut down."
"Oh come on!"
"Fine," Michael growled.
"Meet you there."
It was an hour later when Michael pulled into the parking lot. Madeline's Margaritas was an upscaled, somewhat metrosexual joint located on the Second Strip of the City. The Second Strip wasn't the Road To Hell, the City's most prestigious, both financially and socially, two and half miles of towering glass edifices, but it was, as might be suggested, a close second. The Second Strip was somewhere between the Miracle Mile and the Vegas Strip in both opulence, opportunity, and corruption. This meant that Madeline's, as fruity as it would seem, was also expensive.
There was a large man at the door that asked Michael for I.D. When he wasn't satisfied with the quick look at Michael's wallet, Michael instead growled. It was low, throaty, and totally inhuman. The large man at the door wisely decided he had other places to be. Michael entered the bar.
The theme of Madeline's was... confusing. It had palm trees, and a general tropic atmosphere, but it also was bedecked in neon trim and a sort of retro disco vibe. If that sounds like it would be headache inducing to look at, there aren't words to describe what it actually did to the human brain. Especially a human brain soaked in an amount of alcohol exceeding legal driving limits. Fortunately, Michael's brain wasn't entirely human.
"Mike," he heard a voice, and saw an arm waving by the bar. Michael pressed his way through the crowd to an empty stool by an average looking but grizzled individual. Gregory Van Helsing.
"Hey Greg, thanks for waking up."
"I was studying for finals."
Michael shrugged as he sat down. "Don't you already have a degree?"
"I have two," Greg smiled. "I have a doctorate in philosophy, and an associate's degree in applied mathematics."
Michael pushed past the immediate need to try and reconcile those two degrees into something that made even the simplest amount of sense. "So... what are you going for this time?"
"It's a fun brain exercise."
"You should try college, Mike. It'd be good for you." Greg's voice was slightly raised so he could be heard, but over the background noise of the bar, no one besides the two of them could hear what they were saying.
"Yeah," Michael sighed, placing a quick order with one of thirteen bartenders running around the massive circular bar in the center of the building. "Me in a whole bunch of frat parties, getting dragged into rooms with the lights turned off. That'll end well. You'd see it on the morning news."
"You HAVE had a bad night, haven't you?"
"It was... thanks," Michael nodded to the tender, and then lowered his voice, "it was a standard Slasher job. I tried to minimize the casualties, and... god, I really tried, Greg."
"Slasher jobs are always ugly," Greg nodded. "Why do you think I do negotiations these days? A lot less blood on my dry cleaning bills."
"Philosophy degree helps with that, I bet."
"Didn't say I wasn't qualified," Greg smiled, nodding at a bartender to refill his margarita.
"So what's with the engineering degree? They gonna have you field repair Frank next?" Michael asked wryly, taking a deep drink of his whiskey.
"Oh, the Doc would kill me if I even thought about it," Greg said with a smile.
"Well, no," Greg said after a moment. "He'd clone me first, and THEN kill me."
"Yeah," Michael grunted.
They sat in silence for a while, both staring into their drinks. Finally, Greg glanced over at Michael. "So what's it like?"
"In the darkness. What's it like?"
Michael stared into his whiskey. "I... it's impossible to describe. It's all... unfocused, tremendous indiscriminate hunger. Everything in the dark is frightened and small and just... asking to be eaten. Beating hearts and dilated eyes are bright, inviting lights of irresistible temptation in the darkness. I don't even know what I... what it looks like. Nobody does. Nobody survives it. I sleep in a studio apartment with an 80 watt night light with a backup battery because honest to god I'm scared of what might happen if I fall asleep and my subconscious takes over in the dark."
"That sounds depressing."
"Well put," Michael sighed.
"You dissociate yourself from it, then?"
"You said 'it'. You talk about it like it's something else. Something distinctly not Michael."
"So... what is it?"
Michael thought about this for a while. "I... I think it's the Grue."
"Mike, YOU'RE a Grue."
"No, I'm the SON of a Grue."
Greg stared blankly. "And...?"
"A Grue has one weakness, Greg, and it's light. They can't survive in it. But I can."
"Well, yeah, as a person."
"Grues aren't people. They're eating machines. The ultimate killer in the dark. Why do you think mankind has an inbuilt fear of deep darkness?"
"I thought you were the only one."
"I am... and my father was. Once."
Greg shook his head and drained his drink. "Look, Mike, I don't have all night, or even all millennium like you do. My family is bound to the service of the Echelon, whether we like it or not, and I don't get the benefits package that comes with being a formerly timeless evil. What the hell are you talking about?"
"The Echelon annihilated most of the Grues when they originally grabbed up most of the supernatural power on the block. There was no reasoning with a hoard of mindless murder machines, but one Grue was smart enough to realize that the Echelon could use its talents."
"So... what happened?"
"I don't know. All I know is that eventually, about five hundred years ago, my father disappeared. The moment he did? I showed up on the Echelon's doorstep. It didn't take long for them to figure out what I was in the dark, but they're still scratching their heads over what I am as a whole. Hell, I still am."
"So Grues don't normally take on a human shape in the light?"
"No," Michael said firmly. "They normally burst into flames faster than the speed of sound and are reduced to ashes in a matter of milliseconds."
"But not you."
"You just stop being a Grue and start being a... well, a Mike."
Gregory Van Helsing patted Michael Grueson on the back. "Man, I can imagine that if my life were like that, I'd be pretty screwed up."
"Thanks," Michael said flatly.
"One question, though."
"Why does it bother you now?"
Michael's face twisted in confusion. "What do you mean?"
Greg shrugged. "I've known you for a while. I mean, 15 years may not be much to you, but it's almost half my life. And this whole self-doubting afraid of the dark thing you've got going on right now is pretty recent. So, why?"
"I... I don't know."
"I mean, I think it started around the time they transferred you from Prevention to Extermination, right?"
"I don't know," Michael repeated. "Maybe? Why?"
"What was the last job you took as Prevention?"
Michael thought about it. "Uh... it was... Tops? Reginald Tops, I think?"
"That game show host thing?"
"Some pretty ugly stuff went down there, from what I heard."
"Sexual predator on the verge of becoming something a lot worse. Or being capable of becoming a lot worse. Pretty standard stuff for Prevention, Greg."
"There was a girl, though, right? She was found dead at the scene?"
"YOU killed her, didn't you?"
Michael took a deep breath. "I couldn't save her."
"And why not?"
"She was convinced she was in love with him," Michael snapped. "It was stupid, and I couldn't get her to understand what he was doing to her, what he HAD been doing to others. I tried for almost an hour to convince her that I could save her life, that her family would welcome her back with open arms, even after all of the dumb shit she'd pulled, and she didn't care because she loved that sick, psychotic waste of humanity!"
"So you killed her?"
"It was all I could do. It was a kindness."
"How many people have you killed, Mike?"
"I don't know. Thousands?"
"Not monsters, Mike, People."
"And how many of them did you actually kill yourself? Not in the dark?"
"A few," Michael shrugged. "What does it matter?"
"It matters, I think," Greg said, putting a hand on Michael's shoulder. "To you, at least, if not to anyone else." He sighed. "Look, man, I don't pretend to know what you're feeling, but I think I see what's bothering you, at least in part."
"And that is?"
"You're worried you're just as much of a monster outside of the dark as you are in it."
Michael nodded after a moment of thought. "Not an entirely unfounded fear, Greg."
"True, but you're demonstrating something a real monster never would."
"Same difference," Michael grumbled.
"I mean it," Greg said, "and it's an important distinction. There's a philosophical principal that the actions we take, even when we aren't being watched are what define who we are. A lot of people know it as 'What you are in the dark', which implies for most that when no one's watching and you can't be caught, what you do with a moment like that is a true look into your soul."
"Well, in the dark, I kill people in gruesome ways," Michael said. "So, y'know, thanks for that pick-me-up."
Greg shook his head. "You don't understand. I say for MOST people. I think in your case, the more important thing to consider is what you do in the light. I think the more important, defining moments of your life are what you, as Michael, do when given a choice. In the dark, you're this hungry, uncaring monster, but in the light, you're a man who tries to live in a way that lets him sleep at night."
"But I still kill people. I'm still pretty bad, Greg. If the Echelon didn't employ me, they would have tried to kill me by now."
"Mike, shut up a second. Tonight, with the Slasher. What happened?"
Michael rubbed his eyes. "I inserted myself into the situation. I did my best to calm down all of the victims after the first murder, I explained everything I could to them, and tried to formulate a plan to take down the Slasher with their help."
Greg stared at him for a moment. "Wow, man. That was dumb."
"I mean, forget the idea of trying to enlist an entity's preferred targets to fight said entity, but a group of Slasher victims? It must have been like trying to reason with a feral bobcat." Greg shook his head, and then added, "A RETARDED feral bobcat."
Michael smirked in spite of himself. "Yeah."
"So what happened, they screwed up your plan and got themselves killed anyway, right?"
"So how many were left when you killed the lights?"
"Just this one girl who wouldn't stop screaming in my ear."
"And you didn't have another option, did you?"
"Well, I had a hole in my side, and he was probably going to try and gut me like a turkey."
"So, there you go. You didn't have a choice at that point."
"That's no excuse. There should have been another way."
Greg smiled. "But there was, and you didn't do it."
"You could have killed the lights BEFORE you went in there. You could have been done with that assignment four hours ago, but you went in there to save those people, no matter how stupid they may have been."
"Well, yeah. It's what I'm supposed to do."
Greg shook his head. "I've been working for the Echelon long enough to know that 'save innocent bystanders' is not even remotely close to a requirement on Exterminations, Mike. You're not a scalpel, you're-"
"The sledgehammer, yeah," Mike nodded. "I got that speech from Lenny earlier."
"Yeah, and he's right. You tried to save those people, and in the end you had to go the other way, and as regrettable as that may be, you did manage to save the next group of people the Slasher would have targeted. And the group after that."
"So don't think of yourself as a guy with a monster inside him. Think of yourself as a guy who's trying to overcome his monstrous side."
"You make it sound almost noble," Michael scoffed.
"Dude, it kind of is. For this job, anyway."
"Bah," Michael said after a moment of silence. "Fine. So I may not be a good guy, but I'm trying to be. I guess that's good enough for now."
"It's good enough for a lot of people, Mike," Greg smiled. "Especially in this town."
"Yeah, I guess."
"What?" "Buy you another round?"
Michael looked into his empty glass. He waved a bartender over, and then turned to Greg. "Man, I swear, if you ever use one of your degrees on me ever again, I'm going to steal every light bulb in your house."
Greg laughed. "Fair enough." The bartender filled their orders and they both drank their way into a third round. Greg looked over at Michael. "So when's your next job?"
"Lenny's got something for me in a week, he said." Michael took a moment to feed himself a handful of bar nuts. "You?"
"Finals," Greg shrugged. "The Echelon paid for me to go to college, so they don't want me squandering their investment. I'll probably get something in a few weeks, after I've gotten settled into the next semester."
"Must be nice," Michael told him. "I got a weekend in Bermuda once."
"Yeah. Wasn't a vacation, mind you, but it was pretty close."
"What were you there for?"
"Get out of town."
"Hand to god."
They kept talking for a while, before Greg finally remembered he had more studying to do. He left Michael alone at the bar, and soon enough the place was emptying out. Michael eventually decide he should probably leave, if nothing else, and on his way out to his Jeep, he saw a man and a woman in the parking lot. They seemed to be arguing.
Michael sighed. Alcohol didn't have much of an effect on him. He knew it affected others, but personally he'd never experienced it. He blamed his heritage for that, but for now he was in a clear state of mind when he decided to walk over.
"What seems to be wrong, folks?" he asked.
"Get out of here," the man grunted. "This is personal."
"Max, let go of me!" the woman pleaded.
"Max, is it?"
"I told you to take a walk," Max said, pointing a finger in Michael's face.
"Ah, sorry Max. You caught me on a bad night," Michael said with a smile.
"Get out of here, you creepy motherf-"
Max's finger snapped. Almost in half, really. Michael twisted the digit further and Max dropped to his knees, wailing like a little girl.
"Sorry, Max, what was that? I didn't really hear you."
"Ohmygawdmyfinger-" he was sobbing. The woman, for her part, ran away, sobbing thank yous as she got into her car and drove off.
"So let me guess, Max: cheating on your wife? It's a pretty nice wedding ring you have. Platinum and all." Max's attempt at a response was unintelligible. "I'm also betting your name isn't Max, and you were going to sleep with that woman, but you got drunk and you got careless, and she noticed something distinctly un-sexy about you, didn't she?"
He pleaded and sobbed, and Michael got low to his face. "She noticed you were too stupid to take of your ring before you tried hitting on someone, didn't she? Guess what, Max? I noticed too."
"Wha...?" Max managed.
"I watched you for the last few hours. You bought several young ladies drinks, but only that one was drunk enough to go with you to your little hotel room. Business trip, right? Your wife is miles away, so what harm could there be? Well, Max, there's THIS harm," Michael said, twisting the finger again to emphasis the words, "and I'm sure you'll have to explain your very, very broken finger to your wife when you go home. And every time it hurts, because it WILL hurt, Max, you'll think of this moment, won't you?"
Max moaned a vaguely affirmative response.
"You should go home now, Max. And hug your wife and your kids, you have kids, right? And you should go home and be a family man, because some people don't get that chance, and also because if I thin you're ever going to try something like this again, Max? Your finger will be all they find of you."
"Who... are you...?" Max managed to ask.
Michael let go of the man's finger and stood up. "I'm trying to be a good guy, Max. You should try it too. It'll help you sleep better at night."
Michael got back in his Jeep after Max crawled into his car and drove away to the hospital. He took a deep breath and smiled to himself. "Good enough for now," he said out loud, before turning the key in the ignition and kicking his sound system up a few notches to blare Rush. He drove to the edge of the City to his apartment building with the windows down, singing along at the top of his lungs, seemingly without a care in the world.