Dealing with a nefarious super-villain organisation was one thing. Dealing with bad PR, our heroes discovered, was something else.
The Liverpool populace didn’t take Vomit Man to their hearts. In fact, in light of his vomit spreading ways, he was targeted with numerous death threats, slapped with an anti-social behaviour caution from the fuzz and ordered to go back to Runcorn where he belonged.
The Liver Birds were left to deal with the fall out.
It was a quiet day, crime-wise and so BOB had decided that it was a good time for their long-put off clean up exercise in Everton Valley. Nymph contacted the local press and the others loaded up the van with mops, buckets and a lot of cursing aimed at the much maligned Vomit Man.
They had heard nothing more about Hydra. Katherine had stayed on to become part of the team, operating under the code name Distortion; homage to the name of the secret nanite operation that had given her her powers. Her identity was secret and no one outside HQ suspected notorious party girl Katherine Knotts as being their latest member. She was currently busy with university assignments and had wheedled her way out of clean up duty, along with Joules, who was tackling potato blight on her farm. Oddly enough, neither of them seemed too upset to be missing out.
So it was that our heroes found themselves in deepest, darkest Everton Valley on a drizzly morning, armed with cleaning apparatus and piles of vomit to tackle. Devi got to work, conjuring a water spell to thin the vile stuff out. Vixen used her telepathy to push the watery sick down the street drains. Facade skulked near a tree, refusing to do anything. Nymph hung around near the three journalists and photographer who had showed up, batting her eyelashes and giving them positive ‘soundbites’ which everyone knew was a ruse to avoid work.
Cass and Devi got a couple of big sponges and began scrubbing graffiti off the brick wall off the abandoned community centre. Devi’s sponge had barely made contact with the brickwork when she stopped.
Something was wrong. She sensed a malign magical presence. Suppressing a shudder, she scanned the walls and spotted it. A rune, imbued with dark powers, sprayed onto the wall.
She grabbed Cass’s arm. ‘Don’t touch it,’ she whispered.
Cass frowned and on Devi’s nod, scanned her mind. She let the sponge fall to the ground and muttered, ‘BOB, can you hear me? We’ve got problems here.’
‘BOB recommends that you encourage the media to leave.’ His voice crackled through her phone.
Cass sent a psychic message to the Liver Birds making all of them collectively look up with interest, even Facade. Anything was better than mopping up Vomit Man’s spew, even dark magic.
Nymph turned to the press and smiled her most winsome smile.
‘Oh, by the way, did you guys know Psylocke has a new man?’ They visibly brightened at this piece of news worthy gossip. ‘Yeah, I saw them just before at the Costa on Tithebarn street, holding hands and giggling.’ Nymph frowned as if thinking. ‘At least I think she was with a man...’
The journalists practically ran back to their cars and took off, tyres screeching. Nymph giggled.
Devi explained the runes. ‘They’re like magical booby traps, activated by anyone who touches them. This one here,’ she pointed, ‘will give an electric shock. And that one will generate illusions.’
‘What does this one do?’ Asked Facade, whacking the next rune Devi pointed at with a clenched fist.
An enormous fire ball exploded, engulfing them in flames. Devi and Facade managed to jump out of the way but Vixen, who was stood right behind them, got the full blast. She was blown ten metres back and landed burned and bleeding as Nymph, Distortion and Cass nursed their own injuries, screaming obscenities at Facade.
‘When are you going to think before you punch stuff, you massive jerk?!’ Cass yelled. Facade shrugged.
Devi, choking back a sob, ran to Vixen’s aid, healing her with a spell. Vixen groaned and sat up. Her bloodshot gaze took in the scene of smoke and rubble, and then rested on Facade. She pointed a trembling finger at her team mate.
‘You jerk-off.’ She snarled. ‘As if I don’t have enough crap to deal with, you put me in the infirmary again? Well, I’ll tell you what,’ She gestured at the pool of scarlet that surrounded her as she hobbled to her feet. ‘You can clean this blood up. I’m not doing it.’
Facade apologised profusely and begged for forgiveness. Well, actually, no she didn’t. She just shrugged again.
There was blood now as well as vomit to deal with and runes or no runes; the team had a cleanup op to complete. Devi summoned some local rats and Distortion morphed into a rat herself, communicating her desire for them to eat the vomit. Being rats, and from Everton Valley, they weren’t fussy.
The others dealt with the runes by ganging up on Facade and pushing her into them to activate them. Foul green smoke emanated from one and custard pies from another. Facade leapt about a foot into the air when she got an electrical shock and was surprised when another rune caused her feet to swell up to three times their normal size.
‘Now I know how it feels to be you, Jumpsuit.’ She smirked at Cassandra.
Once all the runes were safely deactivated, the vomit cleaned up and their spleen fully vented on Facade, the team headed back to the van.
‘You know, for dark magic, a lot of that stuff was kind of...’ Vixen wracked her brains for the right description.
‘Infantile?’ Nymph suggested.
Devi nodded. ‘It struck me as the sort of dumb magic kids would do.’
Distortion cleared her throat and said, in a self-important manner, ‘Exposing the public to magic through runes in this way is illegal. It violates the Coven Act of 1998. We need to investigate this more thoroughly.’
‘Thanks, Bambi. Where would we be without your legal knowledge? Sorry. I mean Daddy’s legal knowledge.’ Facade smirked.
‘Everyone coven has to register with the government.’ Devi chipped in before another fight could kick off. ‘We could research local covens and see which ones have children or teenagers.’
‘BOB, scan city-wide CCTV for any more of these runes.’ Vixen commanded. ‘And stop the van off at Maccies. I don’t know about anyone else, but I need a Big Mac.’
No one argued with that.
Back at HQ, they studied the CCTV footage BOB had pulled together for them. Sure enough, the grainy footage shot a few days previously outside the abandoned community centre showed a small gang of hoodie-wearing youths. One was much taller than the others and presumably older.
‘That one must be the ringleader.’ Cass pointed at the gangly figure. ‘Devi, do you know these kids?’ Devi shook her head.
‘I don’t understand why anyone would do this.’ She murmured.
‘That’s what we need to find out.’ Nymph said.
‘There are three covens in Liverpool.’ BOB added. ‘Two contain members of the Abbott family.’
Devi sighed. ‘My dad’s coven split in two in the seventeen hundreds. The two halves haven’t spoken to each other since. As far as I know, they’re still based in Scotland.’
‘Maybe not.’ Vixen made a show of grimacing and putting her bruised leg up on a footstool, throwing a poisonous look at Facade. ‘They sound like just the sort of people to hold a grudge against the local covens. Maybe they want to cause trouble on their enemies’ patch.’
Devi’s brow creased with concern.
‘BOB,’ Nymph asked. ‘Is anybody registered as being in more than one coven?’
A whirr and pause.
‘Yes.’ BOB said. ‘Arun Abbott, eighteen years old.’
The team looked at the gangly youth on the CCTV footage and at each other.
‘Time to pay the Abbotts a visit.’ Vixen said.
It was decided via a game of paper, scissors, stones that Cass, Facade and Nymph should go to the Abbott elders while Vixen, Distortion and Devi called on the other clan, the Jahars.
Distortion rang the front door bell and was greeted by a wrinkled quartet of ladies, none of whom looked a day younger than eighty. They were ushered in. Distortion explained who they were and asked them about Arun and was promptly met with a shower of praise.
‘Such a lovely young man.’ One cooed.
‘The image of his father. So handsome.’ Another gushed.
‘He works hard at his studies. He’s training to be a doctor.’ One beamed proudly.
‘He just needs a good wife to look after him. Do you have a boyfriend, dear?’ The last old lady asked Distortion, who backed up so quickly she almost fell over.
‘Do you know where he was three days ago?’ Vixen asked, strictly business.
‘We’ve no idea what the young folk get up to. He was probably studying or spending time with his friends at university. Are you single, my dear?’
‘Can you give us his address?’ Vixen whipped a notebook and pencil out of her pocket, ignoring the question completely. As soon as she had scrawled it down, they swept out of the room before the ladies could ask them about their dowries.
Meanwhile, at the Abbott’s place, Cass, Facade and Nymph were given a decidedly frostier reception. They guessed that this had something to do with the vomit streaked walls that signalled that Vomit Man had recently passed by overhead. Cass started to explain that they hated that douchebag as much as anyone until Nymph shook her head.
She beamed at Mr and Mrs Abbott, complimenting them on their home, Mrs Abbott’s dress and saying what lovely children they had until her charm offensive thawed them out and they were admitted inside.
It turned out that Arun often took the younger kids under his wing. He talked to them, took them out places. The team raised their eyebrows at each other, a fact that went unnoticed by Mrs Abbott. Though she smiled as she spoke, it was clear from the tuts and dark looks from Mr Abbott that someone in the family at least didn’t think much of Arun Golden Balls.
Next, Vixen, Distortion and Devi visited Arun’s parents. As Vixen rang the doorbell, Distortion climbed out of Devi’s bra and onto her shoulder. Not as her usual self, obviously, but as a gerbil, which she had turned herself into in order to be able to hitch a ride with the two heroes with flying abilities. Funnily enough, she hadn’t suggested turning into a bird. She gave a gerbil-wink at Thelma the rat, sat on Devi’s other shoulder. Thelma seethed, if a rat could be said to do such a thing.
The door opened. Distortion had quickly regained her human form and was winningly dressed in a gaudy yellow dress that looked like a peeled banana. Vixen glanced at the plunging neckline and rolled her eyes, shaking her head. Distortion flipped her hair over her shoulder.
‘Hi.’ She greeted Arun’s mother brightly. ‘We’re here to chat to you about your son.’
Instantly, Arun’s mother, an Indian woman, gave them a huge smile and ushered them into the living room. She was more than happy to talk about Golden Balls. It turned out that, surprise, surprise; she was Arun’s number one fan. The team listened to her drivel on about how wonderful Arun was, all the while bringing them piles and piles of food from the kitchen – curry, naan breads, popadoms, bowls of rice. Soon the coffee table was groaning under the weight.
The Liver Birds were more accustomed to being told to piss off than being invited into people’s homes. Generally, they considered themselves lucky if they were offered a cup of tea. This was a treat so generous it instantly made Vixen suspicious. She sniffed the food, tasting it carefully with the tip of her tongue. As soon as she had chewed, swallowed and not keeled over, the other two tucked in with gusto.
The team ate happily, pretty much ignoring Arun’s mum wax lyrical until the front door opened and in strode Arun’s dad.
He took one look at our heroes and demanded, ‘what’s the little shit done now?’
They glanced at each other. Here was a turnaround. A pattern was emerging. The women in Arun’s family thought the sun shone out of his nethers. The men, perhaps being more wise to his ways, were not as easily impressed. Their reactions hinted at a darker side to Arun, which was all our heroes need to know.
‘Don’t call him that!’ His mum trilled. ‘You’re always so hard on him.’
‘He’s always in trouble. Who called the police this time?’
‘These women aren’t the police.’
‘So he’s knocked one of them up? I’m not paying out unless there’ a DNA test.’
Voices rose, our heroes grabbed the leftover naan breads for the road and slinked away, closing the front door behind them just as they heard the smash of crockery.
A quick phone call and the two teams met up at the rendezvous point – KFC. They ordered takeout from the drive through and held a brief meeting. BOB had narrowed down the names of some local coven kids and it was agreed that Vixen should lead the party that visited them. Devi and Nymph swapped teams and they headed in opposite directions once more, Devi heading up the team going to Arun’s digs.
‘You’re best talking to him.’ Vixen handed her the scrawled address. ‘This is your area.’
Devi tried not to panic.
Once at the halls of residence, Cass scanned the building and immediately sensed him. ‘Fourth floor.’
Devi conjured a key card to let them in before Facade could kick the door down and send their insurance premium to unmanageable heights. They ran up to the third floor and let themselves into the unlocked room without bothering to knock.
Facade was wearing her new costume; an armoured jumpsuit with a red ‘crying’ theatre mask and red taped knuckles to match. No wonder the bleary-eyed young man dressed only in his underpants leapt off his beanbag with a girlish cry of terror.
The two other men in the room also leapt back in alarm. No doubt due to Devi, whose eyes had blackened, as did the room itself.
‘What the...’ Cass gaped as the gangly man she assumed was Arun himself, rolled his eyes back in his head. They began to glow and the half of the room he was stood in grew brighter. Neither Cass nor Facade knew what was happening but unless their instincts were off, something bad was about to go down.
BOB patched a message through to Vixen, who was wondering why the weather had darkened so suddenly.
‘What is it, BOB? Is there a storm on the way?’
‘You could say that. I won’t because metaphors are not an intrinsic part of my programming.’
‘BOB, hurry up and tell me what I need to hear.’
‘You need to get to Arun’s halls of residence immediately.’
Vixen didn’t need to be asked twice. She abruptly changed direction, mid-flight and sped back the way they had come, Distortion wriggling uncomfortably in her bra in her guise as a gerbil.
Nymph was on the ground, travelling on foot. BOB rang her mobile phone and told her Devi was in trouble.
‘My information tells me that the phenomenon of light and shadow is not restricted to the halls but is happening the world over.’ He added.
‘Bollocks.’ Nymph swore, sticking her arm out to hail a cab.
Back at Arun’s place, Cass tried desperately to read Devi’s mind but had no joy. Devi twirled and rotated in the air, hidden in supernatural darkness.
BOB called Cass. ‘I have it on good authority that Dr Strange and the top mystics in Britain are aware of the situation and are working on a plan to contain it.’
‘Well tell them to bloody hurry up before this gets out of hand.’ Cass yelled, as she felt something like an invisible fist punch her. Across the room, Facade yelled out in pain, clutching her arm.
‘We need backup.’ She shouted above the roaring wind that swirled around them.
On cue, a large bat fluttered in through the open window. It was Distortion. As she swooped over Cass’s head, a pulse of white light shot out of Arun’s fingertips, sending her reeling away to the darkness. The floor began to shake and with a sickening groan, began to crumble underneath them.
Facade punched the glass covering the fire alarm and the wail filled the building. She grabbed one of the students – the clothed one – and dragged him out of the room and down the stairs.
She met Vixen outside.
‘What’s going on in there?’
‘Smurf’s gone to the dark side.’
‘What are you talking about? And who’s Briggsy?’
The student Facade had dragged with her was whimpering about Briggsy. Facade shrugged. ‘I dunno. The guy in the underpants?’
Vixen couldn’t be bothered to ask further. Using her greatly-honed telepathy skills, she sought the underdressed student and lifted him clean out of the building through the window and set him gently on the ground. He looked completely stunned.
‘Don’t worry.’ Vixen told him. ‘This is all a dream. Go back to sleep.’
Briggsy nodded gratefully, curled up on the floor and began to snore lightly as panicking students streamed, screaming from the building.
In her taxi, Nymph was yelling at the driver for taking her a roundabout way, threatening not to pay him, for which he threatened to throw her out of his cab.
Back in Arun’s room, Cass, being unable to communicate with Devi, did the next best thing, grabbed Thelma and ran.
‘BOB, what’s going on?’ She cried but all she heard in reply was the fizz of static. Cass yelled in pain as she was assailed once again with invisible punches. She burst out onto the street and nearly ran into Vixen.
‘Something’s hitting me!’ She raged, swinging her fists about. Thelma squeaked and scurried into Cass’s jumpsuit pocket.
Vixen grabbed her arm. ‘That’s not going to help.’ She said firmly. ‘I saw what hit you. It was your own shadow.’
Cass stared open-mouthed. ‘What the hell is going on?!’
‘I don’t know, but it doesn’t look good for Devi.’ Vixen looked up at the building, half cloaked in shadow, storm clouds, streaked with lightning raging overhead. ‘Or any of us.’
Distortion relaxed out of her bat form into a naked girl. It said something of the bizarre nature of the scenario that neither Devi nor Arun seemed to notice. She tried not to feel offended. She grabbed the rat cowering in the corner – Arun’s rat, Gerard, as it happened – and ran.
As she did so, Arun glowed dazzlingly bright and the floor gave way completely, plunging Distortion into an abyss of dust and chaos.
As the fourth floor disappeared and the smoke cleared, figures emerged from the wreckage. Facade limped into the sunshine, clutching her arm, Vixen her shoulder. Cass was unharmed and scanned the ruined building.
‘Distortion?’ She yelled. There was no answer.
The team looked at each other. Vixen tried to think of something comforting and ultimately pointless to say but was spared the job when Distortion emerged from the ruins with a cough, covered from head to toe in dust.
‘My hair is frigging ruined.’ She wailed.