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I wound up sleeping far less than I needed to. The nightmare prospect of what was now breeding in my home town seemed to creep into every dream I had. Though I wasn’t an expert on pathogens or diseases, I had more than enough medical training to do the basic math. Unchecked, a vampiric plague could spread quickly, especially if the vampires didn’t need to kill to breed. The specifics of their breeding process depended on the mythology you drew them from; almost every culture had a vampire equivalent. Even with those grim dreams, I forced myself to get at least a few hours of rest.

Maybe an hour before sundown, I crawled out of bed and into the bathroom. The sharp pains in my back and arm had turned into dull, throbbing aches. Far worse was the gnawing hunger in my stomach as my body eagerly went about rebuilding itself with no mind as to whether there was anything in the tank to build with. As I cleaned myself up, I glanced through the cornucopia of medications in the drug cabinet. If the “me” of three months ago had seen this, she never would have believed it.

Pills for muscle pain, nerve pain, antibiotics by the bucket, muscle relaxers, multivitamins of every shape and color, and let’s not forget the hunger suppressants! Most of the pain relievers and hunger managers were close to empty. I had taken to some creative combinations to deal with my needs. What struck me, in the context of the day, was that I hadn’t believed the degree to which this had happened. I just kept doing what I thought needed to be done, damn the consequences.

I touched a bottle of oxycodone with my fingertip. I really could use help today, what with the prospect of a den of vampires to deal with. The gouge in my back sent up a flare of pain so as not to be forgotten. I flipped the bottle forward into my hand and brought it close, reading the label, as if I hadn’t already memorized it. Who would know? And if they did, what right did they have to judge?

I let out a cry of rage and turned, hurling the bottle with all my strength. The plastic cracked and splintered against the wall, sending the last few pills scattering across the tiny room. I knew and I had every right to judge myself.

My body tried to rebel against me as I tried to get myself ready. It was as if it acted on its own volition and, since it wasn’t getting what it felt it needed, turned every pain, weakness, and twitch up to eleven. Somehow, though, I managed, putting on a pristine uniform. I stared in my dresser mirror for a few moments, strangely entranced by the bloodshot eyes, the early wrinkles, the dark circles around the eyes, and the wet, limp, brown hair. I forced myself to reach for the mask and the spirit gum.

* * *

The Brooks-Choi Foundation only had offices and work space in the bottom two floors of the building; the rest of the space was rented out to a variety of other small businesses and private interests. The elevator ride from my fourth-floor apartment to the main lobby seemed to take forever. Finally, thankfully, the doors slid open and I strode quickly across the lobby into the offices. I patently ignored, as I usually did, the perpetually camped paparazzi outside the door. They, like so many other things, were a fact of life in our new reality.

The conference room where everyone was discussing our next course of action was divided by a series of invisible axes. There was the line that split Rachel and Duane from the Pushed in the room. That one at least had a name: the Pulse, the something that drew the Pushed together, Hero or Crook, and made the common man worship or shun them. There was the wall that had instantly sprouted between Argent Archer and Extinguisher. It wasn’t just the fact they were on opposite sides of an impending conflict; something else was going on.

Another subtle divide split the Five. Medusa and Hexagon, our resident six-armed strongman, seemed at ease with a Crusader in the room and chatted freely with our ally du jour, while Mind’s Eye, the blind Indian psychic, and the normally gregarious Human Tank kept a certain distance with Ex. Of course, to top it off, there was the wall that always existed between me and them all, Pushed and normal alike.

The multiple discussions stopped almost at once as my entrance was noticed. An involuntary trickle of sweat rolled down the back of my neck.

I deliberately cleared my throat. “So, where are we, folks?”

“Uh, Indy—” Medusa began, but Rachel finished.

“—you should still be resting,” she advised. “There is still a bit of time before sundown.”

“’Twould be best if we stormed the miscreant’s lair before then, methinks,” the Crusader announced.

Ex rolled his eyes. “We don’t even know if they are still there. We’ve been over this a thousand times. We don’t break down doors and bust heads without reason in this town.”

“Take note, Mr. Archer, even my third eye cannot predict the future in this case,” Mind’s Eye said in her clear, precise tones. “These creatures are no longer living. They muddle the threads of destiny around them. It is a fool’s errand to barge in with no plan or no information.”

Hexagon, ever the Southern gentleman, stepped out of the renewed argument and walked up beside me in the doorway. “Shoot, Indy, sorry to say this is how it’s been all afternoon,” he said, patting me on the shoulder with one of his real arms. Hex never asked why he couldn’t touch me with his other four arms, but he avoided doing so with all his power. “I may be a mighty fine speaker, but it’s one thing to keep an accounting conference on track. It’s a whole ’nother thing to keep a room of disagreeing Push Heroes on task.”

“No, it’s okay, Hex.” I wiped at my brow. Someone really needed to adjust the AC in here.

“I don’t want to seem nit-picky either but …” He looked embarrassed as he paused.

“Spit it out.”

“You really don’t look so good. Are you sure you don’t want to sit this one out?”

As my mother always advised me, I closed my eyes and counted backwards from ten. It usually kept my temper in check, assuming I caught myself in time. I opened them again and nodded. “I’m sure.”

I stepped around the table and the argument itself, stepping up to the speaker’s podium. As the microphone hummed to life, I waited to see if the discussion would settle itself out. Five minutes passed with little resolution, despite Rachel and Duane trying to get things into some semblance of control. With that fact established, I whistled loudly straight into the mic.

Understandably, that got me the silence I wanted.

“Do I have your undivided attention?” I said needlessly. Without waiting for a response, I continued, though Tank was already starting to say something. “Let me address the elephants in the room. First, you’ve all met the Argent Archer, our ‘loaner’ from Epic’s Crusaders.” I gestured to the Archer who felt the need to make a flourishing bow.

“He’s still here because I decided to let him stay. It doesn’t matter what side of the debate he’s on right now; Archer’s heart is in the right place for this job. Let me say, though, that you all have my personal permission to dog pile him if he goes out of line.” I nodded to the Five. “Don’t use that as a reason to keep him out of the loop. This is serious business tonight, not just your typical Pushcrook crime spree.”

To the silver-armored Crusader, I said, “Just think of that as incentive to play by the rules.”

Laying things out plainly seemed to settle the room’s discontent, but I could hardly credit my rhetoric. Just as I could usually resist the Whiteout’s influence on my actions, I had some luck with being able to help others do the same.

“Finally,” Duane said, “this is the exact same shit we’ve been trying to get through to you guys this whole time.”

Rachel nodded in agreement with her partner. “Now, if you would all please pay attention,” she noted crisply, producing her signature notepad from a pocket, “Duane and I performed some basic reconnaissance of the area while you were ‘discussing’ our options.” She flipped a page. “Paul’s Pub is a local establishment with a colorful reputation. I believe you would commonly call it a ‘dive.’” She actually made the air quotes for emphasis.

“It is part of a block of older businesses in the heart of Downtown. The owner, Paul Blanchard, lives in the rooms over the bar and has a history of being a sympathizer to various ‘White Power’ hate groups.”

“In other words, the guy’s a classic profile for a Hog, either a member or someone willing to help them out,” Duane noted with a look of disgust. “That’s not ironclad proof though.”

“The curious thing is that, last week sometime, Paul’s hours of operation changed,” Choi read off from another page of her book. “Formerly opening at 1:00 pm in the afternoon and staying open until 2:00 am, the establishment now opens at 7:00 pm and is open all night, closing at 5:00 am.”

“Verily, that dost show the nocturnal proclivities of the monsters we hunt,” Archer noted. “Is that not sufficient cause to swoop in like the hawks of justice that we are?”

It was no surprise that Extinguisher was the first to answer that. “No, it’s not,” he was quick to point out. “It might be in your neck of the woods but, in this town, law and order are still important concepts.”

“Shush, the both of you,” I interjected. I looked to Rachel and Duane. “You passed this along to PART, right?”

The Pushed Action Response Team was the Atlanta Police Department’s hastily assembled answer to the Push problem. They were well-meaning but hopelessly out-matched and under-funded, but that didn’t mean ignoring PART was the best move. Sometimes just having official backing could make something go easy instead of hard.

“The boys in blue are setting up observation on the place but I don’t think we can expect any real back-up on this,” Duane noted. “We do have the official nod to keep looking into it on our own, though.”

“Well, boysss and girlsss, if Mind’sss Eye’sss third eye can’t get a clear look inssside, then sssomeone hasss to go in, right?” Medusa said. “We don’t have that many choicesss as to who play’sss that role.”

“Very true,” Rachel nodded. “The five of you are obviously out. Even if you weren’t locally famous, you’re still quite obviously Pushed.”

“I could remove mine armor and cleave into this den of iniquity undiscovered, Ms. Choi,” Archer suggested, tapping his helmet. “None outside my compatriots in the Crusaders know the face behind this helmet.”

“Assuming you could stop the Ren Fest speech for a bit,” Extinguisher couldn’t help but point out.

Before Archer could take affront, I jumped in. “That’s not even the issue. The Pulse would make you before anyone gave a crap about your voice.”

Rachel nodded in agreement. “Indomitable is absolutely correct, Mr. Archer,” she said. “I am certain you could pass as ‘normal’ visually without your Pushtech, but it remains that you are, elementally, Pushed.” She flipped to an early part of her notepad. “As we have seen many times in the past few months, the impact of the Pulse cannot be hidden and it cannot be controlled.”

The Crusader let out a brief sigh of disappointment and settled in his chair. “Very well,” he said. “I will simply remain content keeping a watchful vigil from the skies. Mine sensory gear can keep sharp watch on any brewing danger from within the public house.”

Duane looked at Rachel a moment. She nodded at him in response to some unspoken communication, which caused him to frown.

The bald-headed detective turned back to the room in general. “Hate to say it, but there are only three possible candidates; me, Rachel, and Indy.”

“You two in the literal vampire’s den?” I gave the pair a frank look. “I know you aren’t glass sculptures but—”

“Exactly, Indy,” Rachel confirmed. “This is still technically an information-gathering assignment. The more trained eyes in the building, the better.”

“Don’t worry,” Duane said, “we’ll make an exit stage right the moment things seem fishy. The FBI didn’t train us to be heroes; it trained us to be cops.”

The unspoken vibe they gave off though, was that they were both worried about me being on my own. When did I ever give anyone in this room reason to doubt me? I wasn’t sure, but maybe I just looked worse than I thought I did.

“Okay,” I relented. “You’re right.” I wiped at my brow again. I had to get myself together and focused. I thought to myself that familiar mantra: “Lives are at stake.” Irrationally, it helped.

“That’s settled then,” Ex said. “What’s left is to figure out the observation assignments. Huddle up, people.” He paused a moment, then looked at Archer, who had remained hesitant. “Yes, you too, Robin Hood. Indy’s right, we’re all in this together.”

At least that was one thing I had gotten right this afternoon.

* * *

“When you said this was a dive, you weren’t kidding, Rachel,” I whispered as I sat down at the bar. I was starting to feel better than I had but the pain was still there, coming in fits and flare-ups. Settling on my bar stool, I cast a glance around.

Like me, Paul’s Pub had certainly seen better days. A few generations ago it might have been a respectable, neighborhood watering hole. You could see glimpses of old glories: framed photographs of Atlanta luminaries yellowed with age, the battered but still exquisite carving on the wooden bar, and the lingering, rich smell of hard woods and fragrant liquors.

It was the more recent decorations that brought the atmosphere down. Cheap electronic gambling machines lined one wall where a second bar had once been, blocking the window to the street. Blue aluminum box fans had been jammed into what few free windows remained instead of an air conditioning system. To top it all off, there was the more discreet but patently obvious neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan logos, photos, and memorabilia. The South will rise again? Seriously?

“I was not,” Rachel replied in my earpiece. “Duane astutely noted that his appearance will cause the most stir, so I will be entering next in about five minutes.”

“I’ll be in about thirty after that,” Brooks added. “That should give you guys time to scope things out before the rednecks start to throw bottles at the black man.” Extinguisher added a grunt of sympathy to Brooks’s statement.

“Understood.” I flashed a smile at the bartender. From the description, that certainly wasn’t Paul. “Can I get a beer please?”

“Anything for a pretty lady like yew,” he smiled toothily.

As he slid down the bar to pour, there was a twist in my gut. It hadn’t been there a moment ago, but now the churning ripple of Push energy had come to life somewhere below me.

The bartender set the glass of beer in front of me with a loud clank, sending froth splattering on the bar. There was a faint reddish tint to the amber liquid.

“Hey,” I said, pointing at the glass, “I think there’s something in the beer.”

The barkeep, who hadn’t moved, kept the same smile plastered on his face. “It’s a house specialty,” he noted. “Drink up, it’s good fer yew.”

I glanced sidelong at what little window wasn’t covered in poster or blocked by furniture. What little sunlight remained was now gone. “You know, on second thought,” I smiled disarmingly, “I forgot I was supposed to meet a friend uptown so let me just—”

Big And Ugly moved to grab me by both wrists before I could stand. I think he was about to bring out the old hackneyed “You’re not going anywhere” line when I slipped into focus.

Instead of lunging at my arms, the bartender was lazily reaching at them. I could even pick out the swirl of red in the beer, refusing to mix no matter how it tried. I slapped both of the brute’s hands away and grabbed him by the lapel, dragging him easily over the bar top. By the time the few other patrons could protest, I had already slammed him against the opposite wall.

I wanted to question him, ask him to confirm what I thought was in the beer, but there was no time. The door that led downstairs into the cellar exploded off its hinges. Through the cloud of splinters and dust, malignant shapes moved in the darkness.

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