The Wild Hunt
Charlotte savored the flushing noise the toilet made as her pills spiraled down the tubes. Charlotte stepped out of the women's restroom and right back into the lecture hall. Charlotte Sinclair was on the road to freedom. Her joy was cut short by the gravity of her situation.
Charlie was staggered by the onset of pain. It cascaded across her brain like a wildfire. Charlie hummed a few bars from an 80's song. Once upon a time, Charlie had karaoked the crap of out of this new wave standard. Now, she had forgotten all the words except one: "Relax."
Charlie knew there was no way in Heaven or Earth that this wouldn't hurt. This was just the world confirming her suspicion. The Noble Eightfold Path. Professor Linus Mendel made it sound so sexy. No wonder all the girls in the back sat in the front row during all of his classes.
Those girls devoured every word as they rolled off his tongue. It was sub-pathetic like watching alley cars wrestling over a dead bird. There were no university rules prohibiting students from realizing how hot their teachers were. She herself had indulged a fantasy or two.
It wasn't anything serious though. Some of those girls were already picking out curtains, cakes and wedding dresses as their future husband, Professor Tall, Dark And Handsome, filled the chalkboard with notes. Charlie Sinclair wasn't angry at them really. How could she be?
She was angry at the fact that she couldn't focus. No matter what she fixed her mind upon, a dozen items stole her attention away. Mendel's lesson plan was enthralling in its own right but not so much as the teacher and his burgeoning entourage of lady admirers in the front row.
"Ah." The first cry went unnoticed. "Ah." The second time caught Professor Mendel's ear. After a scan of the room and a chuckle from the class, he returned to his lecture. Charlie clamped down on her mouth with both hands, hoping to stifle the noise. It was no use. It just sounded like she was screaming into a pillow. Professor Linus Mendel gave the clock a sideways glance. He apparently knew this wouldn't resolve itself.
"It seems the natives are getting restless." That got a laugh from the class. "Might be as good a time as any to break into study groups and review today's reading." Charlie would have given Mendel the nose off her face not to have this awkward conversation again. She sighed.
No point in stalling. Professor Mendel had put up with Charlie's crazy for half a semester now. He knew how to play off her episodes whenever they happened during one of his lectures. Professor Mendel still hadn't figured out how to do the same during the study sessions.
"Some free advice?" Sure. Why not? "Take your medicine." She nodded in sad way that went down and stayed down. "Trust me, it's for the best, Miss Sinclair." Professor Mendel sighed. "You don't wanna mess around with your meds. My aunt did just that and it didn't end well for her."
It wasn't the most enlightened advice Mendel could offer but there it was. Mendel was a private sort. He wasn't rude about it but he wasn't one to volunteer personal stories. If he brought up his dementia-ridden aunt, it was to make a point about Charlie's sad situation.
"I'm sure whatever I have isn't as bad as what your aunt had." Professor Mendel stiffened up. "Between you and me, I think the drugs are making it worse." Nobody knew exactly what her condition was. The only thing everyone agreed on was how ineffective the drugs were becoming.
Professor Mendel was still looking at Charlie like she had handed him a bag of dead cockroaches. "Why you did say that?" Because it was true. She was taking more pills than ever and she had a decade of student loans to look forward to without factoring in medical expenses.
"No, not that." Mendel rubbed his chin. "How did you know about my aunt?" Their conversation veered into an awkward silence as she mentally backtracked to figure out what he was on about. By the time she regained her train of thought, the awkward silence had lasted over a minute.
"You mentioned her just now." He shook his head. "You did. Your Aunt Sally." Charlie tried to remember his exact words. "You said it did not end well, whatever that means." Jesus H. Christ. It happened again. This wasn't even the first time this month something like this had happened.
Professor Mendel had her retake her mid-term last week. It turned out her answers were identical to ones written by a student who used to sit next to her in class. The odd thing about that? Kendra Torres wasn't sitting anywhere near her on the day of the mid-terms. "Are you alright?"
Professor Mendel was starting to worry he had another stalker like he did last year. "I'm not stalking you." Her stomach contorted into knots. "I'm not." A study group or two looked over at them. Charlie might have said that last part a bit too loudly. "I'm so sorry. I need to go."
Charlotte made a beeline for the door. This had been a mistake. Charlie should have some of her pills. Now, she was about to go cold turkey without a safety net. Charlie couldn't keep the voices out of her head. She need to go to her dorm room and sleep off this nightmare.
Demetrio Argento loved the smell of charred corpse in the morning. Quentin could have waited until he got here to slide out the incinerated remains of Joseph Abraham Boyer. The only reason to have it out on the slab already was to prove some sort of a point to him.
"Never again," Quentin Norwood intoned. "You hear me? Never again." The vic had a close encounter with a car bomb. Judging by the condition of the corpse, Joey Boy was in the middle or regenerating from three-degrees when his brain flatlined. Solid metahuman wet job.
With other agents, taking out a regenerative was all about dick measuring. As if the Man Code required them to prove to themselves that there wasn't problem on Earth or Heaven that couldn't be solved with a liberal application of raw firepower. Ian Oldman was different though.
The car bomb had been a mousetrap and Joey had been the little cheese-eater Ian had been hoping to snare. The former agent knew better than to risk a direct confrontation with a regenerative. Back in the glory days, Special Agent Ian Henry Oldman had been the MAJI's Golden Boy.
Oldman had racked up more Reavers than any two agents and he did it without any paranormal abilities of his own. It was a shame that his second most notable achievement was the company record for most borderline psych evals. Ian was a ticking time bomb running out of fuse.
Back when the Majority Agency For Joint Intelligence was a bunch of suits chasing after UFOs, it was humans only. Nobody even knew metahumans existed back then. If Ian had been around during the blast baby boom, he'd have gone King Herod on those mutie infants.
Ian hated their kind and he wasn't alone in his hatred. There had been many attempts over the years to purge the MAJI of its metahuman assets. It never took. Their job was to stop the threats nobody else could. If this meant having to work with folk that made you uncomfortable, so be it.
The Agency's Board of Trustees were not exactly the Boy Scouts of America. They did business with dirty hands and dirty money. Unpopular political views of their agents were irrelevant as long they did not interfere with mission objectives. So, ticking time bombs like Oldman were tolerated.
That was the official stance. In practice, metahuman operatives like Quentin and Demetrio refused to work with him and every opportunity to throw him under the bus was a godsend. Years of that kind of shabby treatment would undercut even a saint's patience and Oldman was no saint.
Still, none of that would have even been an issue if they had not forced him to take orders from a freak. Demetrio Argento had worked his ass off for that promotion. Back when Demi was young and reckless, his attitude had been that the Agency was better off without that racist recluse.
It was not until the thrill of triumph had worn off years later did Demetrio learn a valuable lesson. A good leader had to see the issue from both sides before making a judgment call. Oldman wanted to make the Agency great again. With a freak job at the helm, that was no longer possible.
Administrator Richard Wilkins was a superb example of true neutral leadership. Sure, Tricky Dick could have tarred and feathered Ian for being a freak-hater. Interspecies cooperation was company policy after all. Dick could've paraded Ian's frequent debasement in the lobby for everybody to see.
Except, in the end, what good would that have done? "I know that look." Quentin tugged on his earlobe, a tell-tale sign of distress. "This wasn't your fault." Demi knew that already. "It was his." Maybe but Ian Oldman had been a regular guy before a pyro turned his family into a yule log.
Most people in his situation would have spent their remaining Christmases in a sanatorium. Ian watched his family burn before his eyes and, instead of backing down, he stepped up. It would be a cold enough day in Hell to go ice-skating before a freak got away with murder on his watch.
It was a determination was hard not to admire even as it racked up a body count worthy of Jason Voorhees. "He's sending us a message." Quentin's codename should be Captain Obvious. The charred corpse was a reminder of why he did what he did to begin with. Revenge in its purest form.
"If you had done your job, you might have gotten to him in time." Demetrio didn't mean that. How could he? Quentin Norquist was a living legend and, unlike Ian Oldman, he didn't bring a metric ton of baggage to the job. Demi was just getting tired of all this cat-and-mouse bullshit.
"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that, and save myself the trouble of breaking my foot off in your ass." Fair enough. "Do we have any leads to go on?" None whatsoever. Ian Oldman had been a sniper with the Army's Third Ranger Battalion. The man was a ghost in the field. "Oh, shit."
Demetrio inspected the banner on the autopsy reports. The two had been so busy with the trees, they had missed the forest. "No, it's impossible, it can't be." Demetrio had hidden her far too well and Quentin Norquist was one of only four people this side of life who even knew she existed.
"Get Bill on the phone now." The storm was headed her way. Hopefully, somebody would be there to protect his daughter when Hurricane Ian made landfall. Demetrio could only hope so.
Charlotte had gone to the library to clear her head. She had tried sleeping. It did not take. Whenever Charlotte would manage (by some miracle of God) to doze off, she would have dreams (nightmares, really). None of this was new for her and it was the cause for her current diet of pills.
The whole trouble had started at around the age of ten. The nightmares and the migraines were bad but nothing the Sinclairs could not handle. Then, the voices started. All hell broke loose.
After that, Charlie became the sole patient of the Sinclair Asylum. Her foster parents and a regular army of shrinks and nurses were her constant companions as her life went into lock-down. Halloween festivities, a favorite past-time, were first to get the axe, in the name of mental health.
Parental units feared that the occult iconography was aggravating her most unusual condition, even though All Hallows' Eve was the one time a year Charlie could play off her episodes as pranks.
Charlie had thrown a fit worthy of a rampaging kaiju. Before too long, Charlie realized that temper tantrums only fueled the fire. Whenever she overreacted or spoke out of turn, it convinced them that her condition was only getting worse. Therefore, Charlie went in the opposite direction.
She would nod and agree to their faces and then did her own thing. It was how she'd made friends at the last place they had lived. Charlie sighed. Those were good days. Better days. The irony of college was this: she had more personal freedom now than she'd ever have again, but no friends.
Most of her fellow classmates were normal and well-adjusted young adults with their own friends. They had lives to live. She had her life lived for her. The only bits and pieces of an ordinary childhood she had were gained at great personal risk. Making friends didn't come naturally for her.
This high premium Charlie placed on social interaction made her come off needy. Nobody wanted to be friends with a needy girl. Especially, if the needy girl had myriad mental health issues.
The library had kicked Charlie out. Hours had slipped away like pills down the drain. Charlie gazed at a trio of students hunkered down on a table, reviewing the assignment from class. It was a quiet moment that illustrated the type of human interaction she had hoped to indulge in at college.
A full-ride scholarship wasn't the kind of offer her parents could keep from her. The typical high school senior had better chances of seeing a Tasmanian devil galloping down the street than a full-ride scholarship with their name on it. Her parents could do nothing except give their blessing.
Parents were blowing up her phone. Not returning their calls in a nanosecond in they were received was a capital offense. Charlie would get no end of grief for that but their proprietary blend of fear and panic was the last thing Charlie needed right now. Charlie's mind was in full meltdown.
Charlie looked up to see a little girl in the middle of the lawn. "I am sorry; I did not see you there." The girl blinked. "Are you lost?" The mother appeared and scooped up the girl. Charlie took a long hard look at them. Something wasn't right here. Charlie just could not put her finger on it.
"I've been looking everywhere for you." Charlie wondered what a woman and her daughter could be doing on campus at this unearthly hour in their pajamas. Charlie blinked. Their faces. The faces looked like melted wax, disfigured clumps of burnt flesh where their facial features should be.
A geyser of dirt erupted at Charlie's feet. Charlie lost her bearings as her cell exploded in her hand. She was quivering all over. Charlie could hear two voices. Both of them were saying the same thing. "Get up." There was an emergency phone over by the East Asian Library. If she could just ...
"Can you hear me?" Charlie looked all around. Impossible. There was no one who could be talking to her at this moment. "Nod if you can hear this." She nodded. "Jolly good. Now get up."
Charlie got up. It was official. Charlotte Sinclair was losing her marbles. "Now, if you could kindly get your arse to the building to your right (your other right), we can get down to business."
Charlie shook her heads. Hearing voices in her head was one thing. Taking marching orders from them was a whole new level of crazy. "No worries, love. I'm not that sod with the sniper rifle pointed at you." Charlotte felt like curling up into a fetal position, and waiting for her turn to die.
"I've seen my share of noobs." Charlie was hyperventilating. "The dead ones had one thing in common." Charlie gripped the sides of her head. "A lack of trust." This could not be happening. "If you want to live through this mess, you have to trust me." Charlie needed a moment to think.
"We don't have all night." Charlie took a deep breath. "Are you going to trust me or are ya going to die?" Now or never. Charlotte made a run for Morrison Undergraduate Library. "Attagirl."
The muted noise of the ground exploding beneath her feet followed her. Charlie yelped as a tall brick wall of a man knocked her down. The man's billowing black coat flapped open as he took out a machete and armed himself. "Time to die." With red-hot coals for his eyes, he lunged at her.
A moment later, the man was on his toes as a pair of arms dove into his back. This woman with blood up to her elbows dropped red chunks of the man's lungs onto the green grass. "Sorry ya had to see that." The woman was wiping off the blood. "Some wankers don't know when to quit."
Demetrio Argento walked in on Beatrix Kingsley patting herself on the back. Bea smiled, a look of triumph sparkling in her eyes. "I think we can safely scratch one vigilante killer off our list of things to worry about. If there was a silver lining in all this, Ian Oldman's death was certainly it.
Bea stopped to take stock of his lack of enthusiasm. "Hey, Boss Man, I hate to break up the brooding you got going on, but Ian Oldman being out of the picture is cause for celebration." Bea had ransacked their observation deck in search of a vintage brandy she kept for just such occasions.
"Or did you forget about Joey Boyer, and how that sod served up his carcass well done with honey barbecue sauce?" Beatrix Kingsley continued in her endless search for this mythical libation.
Demetrio had not forgotten the laundry list of horrors Ian Oldman had visited upon their organization over the years. On the contrary, it was why his death was such a sore spot for Demi. Any intel Ian Oldman might have acquired out in the field might have been useful. Really useful.
"I'm debating the course of action we should take with our new mutual friend." Demetrio had her sedated. Bill and Barb had done their best to get a hold of her but she'd turned off her cell.
Ian had decided to get up close and close. A guardian angel must have been watching over Charlie. It was unheard of for Ian Oldman to make a job so personal. Boyer had been just another kill for him. A good means of spending a Saturday night and making his enemies crap their pants.
Charlotte had been different. Ian wanted to make it hurt bad. He wanted his old partner to know that he had gotten his only daughter killed. Bea looked up at him. "We should bring her in."
Demetrio shrugged. "That's strange coming from you." Beatrix smiled a crooked smile. "In most cases, you are the one who would be against taking in strays." Bea arched an eyebrow. "Your words, not mine." Demetrio had seen Bea's report. Charlotte was not the usual damsel-in-distress.
"Her power levels were off the charts." That meant something coming from this intangible woman who literally pulled somebody's lungs out. "Charlotte never learned to suppress her powers. So they just kept right on growing." He still was not buying it. Raw power did not an agent make.
"This girl was receiving my thoughts at a range I did not know was possible." Demetrio had hoped Beatrix would be more open to the idea of catch-and-release. Evidently, she was not. "Pills. They must be why she is so powerful. Strange chemicals acting on metahuman brain chemistry."
Bea decided to drop the bullshit flag on him. "Let's call a spade a spade." Bea sighed. "If you had no interest in taking her in, she wouldn't even be here. Quentin could've edited her memories hours ago." As Administrator, he could have ended this awkward line of inquiry with a few choice words.
"Listen, it's none of my business." Bea shrugged. "I suppose I've lasted this long because I'm good at not asking questions." Bea supposed correctly. "But, if you feel like telling me why you've taken such an interest in this girl, I'm all ears." Bea went off to be alone with her brandy. "Success."
He would've liked nothing better than to reinsert Charlie back into her regularly scheduled life but Ian Oldman was just the tip of the iceberg. If he could find her, the Reavers wouldn't be far behind. Until this whole thing blew over, the safest place in the world for her was in their custody.
Demetrio Argento wanted to lash out at the world with every fiber of his being. He'd done everything in his power to keep this from happening. And, lo and behold, it happened anyway. As Demi entertained the notion of putting the chair through the one-way mirror of the observation desk.
"I'm so sorry, Charlie." Administrator Richard Wilkins warned him there would be days like these. Being boss meant saddling a ton of grief. Sometimes, the simple satisfaction of knowing you made the right decision was out of reach. For all Demi knew, nothing like this would ever happen again.
Demetrio Argento could be dragging into poor Charlie into this world, for no reason at all. Tricky Dick's advice for dealing with the crazy was to do your best and deal with the consequences.
Tricky Dick also warned Demetrio that the hands-on approach would leave him bone tired beyond belief. Despite his misgivings, Demetrio never thought to do the job any other way. Sweat equity was the difference between those who were merely good at their jobs and the living legends.
Ten thousand hours of practice was what separated a novice and an expert at any given skill and Demetrio was not going to become an expert Administrator by sitting on his ass in his fancy office.
On top of that, Charlotte was more than just another executive responsibility. Putting her back into her old life would have been pure sadism. Charlie was a pill-popping recluse whose entire life was being slowly and steadily dismantled by the very people who claimed to love her the most.
Bill and Barb had been saints to take in Charlotte after her biological mother went foal. He held back the tears. The memories of what led to Charlie's adoption by the Sinclairs still hurt, after all these years. All the what-ifs played out in his head. What if this? What if that? It never stopped.
Demetrio looked around the observation desk. This was the spot a hand-off Administrator might call the shots from. It was loaded down with surveillance equipment, environmental controls and a next-gen intercom hook-up that would have had the CIA green with envy. It just wasn't for him.
Charlie's gaze darted around the room. The only door in or out of this closet space was to her far left. An able-bodied prisoner would have been able to get to that door in time before some guard dragged her back to her seat. That was assuming the door was unlocked and the prisoner had the use of their limbs. Neither could be further from the truth right now. These folks were insane.
Both hands were cuffed to the arms of a wheelchair. Both legs, zip-tied. Charlie felt like it was set to rotisserie chicken in here. Charlie needed to get her head straight. Charlie was at a library and then what? Charlie could hardly remember anything past that point? What the hell happened?
A bald man with a salt-and-pepper goatee entered the room. Charlie could tell a lot about an individual by giving them a once-over. Right now, Charlie wasn't getting anything off the guy except an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction. "Getting a read off me won't do you any good."
The man smiled. "Because, even if you could, I am far too disciplined to let a novice, even a remarkably gifted one such as yourself, perceive any relevant information." The man nodded at the one-way mirror. "You would, in all likelihood, just be listening my rendition of Pink Floyd songs." The man smirked. "Hello? Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there?" The guy was a certified creep.
"Quentin has blanked your memory of how you got here." The man shrugged. "For all you know, this isn't the first time we've had this conversation." Charlie growled at him. "I'm Demetrio Argento and if you wish to intimidate me, animal noises are not your best bet." The man laughed.
"I'm quite comfortable around animals, it's humans I don't trust." Demetrio Argento did a great impression of a hyena as he laughed at his own wit. "You're Charlotte Alessandra Sinclair. I've followed your case. It's quite the miracle you have never ended up in that wheelchair before today."
Charlie grinned. "I see what's going on here." Charlie winked at the camera. "You think this Gestapo crap will drive me insane." Charlie grinned. "That ship has sailed, Bright Eyes." Charlie gave Demetrio a long hard look. "But just 'cause I'm nuts doesn't mean I don't have any rights, Demi."
Demetrio rolled his eyes. "Let me guess, your father's a lawyer and a damn good one. So, if I let you go, you'll do us a solid and talk him out of suing my ass." Demetrio shrugged. "Is that it?" Charlie nodded weakly. "I have never heard that one before." Demetrio suppressed a yawn.
"Look around you. You are sitting in the middle of a torture dungeon talking about rights; so, you obviously have the survival instincts of a dead houseplant." Charlie slumped back in her seat and ceded defeat. It'd been a long shot and Demetrio here had been merciless in shooting it down.
Demetrio straightened up his suit. "By now, you're starting to suspect there's more to your condition that psychology can account for." Demetrio shrugged. "Traditional psychology, at least, but I digress." He took a moment to collect his thoughts. "What do you know about psychic powers?"
Other than the fact that they didn't exist, not much. No matter how convincing their act was, it always turned out to be smoke and mirrors. "Skeptic, huh?" Demetrio sighed. "Not a useful mindset for what you must face." What? What did she have to face? "The scariest thing. The truth."
This was beyond insanity. "Who are you?" Demetrio gave the obvious answer. "That is not who you are." Charlie shook her head. "That is just your name." Charlie looked around. "For all your talk about violating my civil rights, I'm betting you're supposed to be one of the good guys. FBI?"
That struck a nerve. "So, Agent Mulder, which branch of the X-Files do we report to?" If Mister Looney honestly believed he could blank her memories, a little exposition couldn't hurt.
"Officially, the organization I work with is a defunct Presidential taskforce created to investigate phenomena related to unidentified flying objects or UFOs." Mister Looney gave Charlie a straight answer. How novel. "It was in this official capacity we learned of the existence of metahumans." Say what?
"People of your persuasion." People of her persuasion? What the Hell did that mean? "They are not all telepaths like you but there is something they all have in common." Demetrio Argento sighed. "Power. In the wrong hands, this could be the difference between tomorrow and oblivion."
Demetrio looked up at Charlie. "Have you noticed anything unusual about my face?" That question came right out of left field. "Look closely." Suddenly, Charlie realized what was off about his face. His lips had stopped moving but the conversation continued unabated. "Pretty odd, huh?"
Charlie paused. "Your parents shielded you from this world after your symptoms emerged." Charlie felt that unease taking hold of her. "Like Siddhartha Gautama before you, the truth could be hidden from you for so long." Suddenly, Charlie did not want to listen to another word of this maniac.
"Deny it all you want but look at you; you have no social skills whatsoever." That was a bit of an exaggeration. "Even rudimentary social interactions should be beyond you, Charlie."
Demetrio nodded. "And yet you make deep lasting bonds with complete strangers apropos of nothing." That same anxiety continued working its way through her brain. How did Demi know about her old friends? Nobody knew about them. "Why do you suppose that is?" Charlie shrugged.
It didn't take a mind reader to know she was about to find out. "Those voices in your head aren't your own." The guy had officially gone off the reservation. "They are the thoughts of all the people around you." Demetrio smirked. "Like a radio. Everybody's broadcasting. You're tuning in."
Charlie chuckled. "So, in conclusion, I'm not crazy, I'm just a very misunderstood telepath and you're just a very misunderstood bureaucrat." Charlie was relieved somehow. "I believe I finally met someone who needs even more professional help than I do." Demetrio sighed. "Disappointed?"
Demetrio shrugged. "Not really." Demetrio wheeled Charlie to the door. "Denial is typical." Charlie got the distinct feeling she was not leaving this place, wherever it was, anytime soon. "I had hoped you would just take me at my word, but I suppose that had been asking too much of you."
Charlie struggled against her restraints. "Believe it or not, I'm only here to help." This man had a funny way of showing it. "You'll check in on you tomorrow and see if you've made any progress."
To Be Continued