By Robert Weinberg
Prologue and Chapter One
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Weinberg
aut viam invenia
m aut faciam
(where there's a will there's a way)
aureo hamo piscari
The man who called himself John Doe frowned. Eyes narrowing in concentration, he stared at the crossword puzzle book resting on his lap in growing frustration. A brilliant, ruthless tactician and plotter, he approached every challenge, big or small, with a ferocious intensity. "No prisoners" was his creed. More than that, it was his nature.
Crossword puzzles he treated with the same dedication as his most dangerous mission. Devious to the extreme, he rarely had a problem rooting out the meaning of even the most obscure clues. Goal oriented, he took a certain perverse pleasure in writing his answers in ink. He often bragged to his small circle of friends that he never crossed out a word. But, deep within his mind, unknown to anyone else, a still small voice reminded John Doe that he wasn't perfect.
He had failed once, failed badly. And all of his triumphs since that fateful day still couldn't erase the memory of that disaster. It was a blemish that he would never forget. That too, was part of his nature.
Angrily, he gnawed on the tip of his ball-point pen. He needed a solitary phrase to solve the puzzle. However, the multi-word answer remained a mystery. The clue made no sense. "Santa's pint-sized helpers. Word joke." He had spent nearly an hour trying to wrench the truth from the hint. It was no use. He hated to admit it, but he was stumped.
Raising his gaze from the printed page, he decided to take a short break from the puzzle. He focused his attention, instead, on his immediate surroundings. A square auditorium, approximately fifty feet on a side, the chamber held seventy-five chairs and nearly that many inhabitants. John Doe wasn't guessing. He never guessed. Sitting with his shoulders pressed to the rear wall, he had surreptitiously kept track of all the arrivals to this secret meeting. It was part of his job. More than that, it was inherent in his character. He couldn't change if he wanted to. Which, of course, he did not. John Doe was eminently satisfied with himself just the way he was. Cold, calculating, ruthless and inhuman. Definitely inhuman. Mythological in fact.
Like all of the beings in the room, he had never been born. He was a creation of mankind's vast, collective subconscious mind. This immense storehouse of psychic energy was responsible for all of the mythological and fantastic creatures of history. The premise was simple enough. If enough people believed in some entity, no matter how bizarre, how incredible, that being came into existence. Moreover, it was created with all of the traits described in the legends associated with it.
Thus, vampires did exist; and they genuinely possessed the ability change into bats, only went out at night, and feasted on the blood of humans. Unfortunately, at least in the opinion of the nosferatu, it also meant that they were vulnerable to sunlight, garlic, and a wooden stake through the heart.
Once brought into existence, unless created with a very specific lifeline, mythological beings did not age. Creatures of psychic energy, they were immortal though decidedly not invulnerable. Feared and loved, hated and worshiped, they lived and died by the whims of fate. Most of them were destroyed as humanity rose from barbarism to civilization.
A few, the smart ones, adapted to the times. They could not change their basic nature, the manner in which they were defined. However, they were able to learn the art of camouflage, so that they blended in with their surroundings. Over the centuries, they became masters of disguise and deception. Which made it possible for the fabled beings of myth and legend to walk unnoticed among modern mankind.
Trolls masqueraded as skinhead thugs. Dwarves, masters of metal, evolved into auto mechanics. Witches became pharmacists, then witches again as wicca came into vogue. Sirens entertained at nightclubs, while nymphs worked as high-class call-girls. Mythological beasts toured with circuses and carnivals. And no one suspected the truth. At least, not until recently.
That was reason for today's meeting. This emergency gathering had been arranged by John Doe's sometimes employer, a figure of relatively recent origin, but no less a being of mythology than chimeras and mermaids. The belief of tens of thousands of people that he actually existed had given him form, imagined him into reality. Just as had been the case for John Doe.
His gaze traveling around the room, John Doe nodded in recognition and professional courtesy to the black caped individual sitting a half-dozen seats over. Pale-skinned, with dark goatee and eyes that burned with frightening intensity, the man amused himself by trimming his cuticles with a gleaming stiletto. Like Doe, Jack the Ripper found plenty of business in today's succeed-at-all-costs world. Possessor of a grim streak of humor, his company motto was "You hate 'em, we crate 'em." Though John Doe had never seen the Ripper at work, he understood that the killer was extremely good at his work. Almost as good as John Doe himself.
Which was not surprising, considering their origin. Jack bore no actual relationship to the real Ripper, whoever he might have been. That human had been born, murdered, and presumably was killed, or died a natural death. This caped fiend was the creation of hundreds of thousands of people's belief that the Ripper still walked the Earth.
Early in the 1940's, some author - Blake or Block, John Doe could never remember his correct name - had given the Whitechapel killer a second chance. The writer's story credited the Ripper with supernatural powers and immortality. Incredibly popular, it had been read by thousands, dramatized on the radio and later produced for television. Seeing it, hearing it, reading it, many believed the tale true. They generated more than enough to bring a new Springblade Jack to life. This monster, though, was not a recreation of the original slayer, but the immortal fiend who preyed on the helpless as part of a pagan ritual to maintain eternal life. As with all of the mythological beings in the auditorium, the Ripper had evolved with the times. Now, he worked as a hitman for the Mafia, combining his basic needs with a useful enterprise.
The few instances they had spoken, John Doe found him irritating company. True to the story that gave him birth, the Ripper had a macabre sense of humor, gruesome puns, and an unnatural fondness for snappy remarks. Obviously, his personality reflected similar traits of his creator. John Doe tended to think of Jack as more than a little bit psycho.
Big and tall, fat and thin, the crowd in the auditorium was anything but ordinary. Fortunately, modern fashion and the recent wave of punk style allowed the citizens of the night greater latitude than ever before to shrug off their disguises without creating a fuss. In the politically correct nineties, no one questioned appearances for fear of seeming callous or cruel. Malformed hunchbacks who shambled around peering at women with uncontrollable lust were labeled as "socially challenged." And shambling hulks with dead eyes and rotting clothes were no longer zombies but "nutritionally deprived individuals."
John Doe smiled condescendingly, as he scanned the incredible melange of individuals in the chamber. Unlike the others, he looked perfectly normal. Of medium height and weight, he was absolutely, terribly ordinary in appearance. Too ordinary, in fact. His features were so plain, so bland that seconds after seeing him, people forgot what he looked like. People stepped out of his way and then afterward wondered why they moved. At sporting events or the theater, no one ever collected his ticket. He was forever unnoticed. Or, as he preferred to think of himself, "The Man Without a Face." It was all part of his nature.
The slam of a door at the front of the auditorium startled the crowd to instant silence. Hurriedly, they scrambled for seats as a huge figure lumbered forward to the raised dais. A massive being, with metallic bronze skin and shoulders as wide as he was tall, the newcomer wore a stylish pin-striped gray business suit and matching fedora. But nothing could disguise the stiffness of his motion or the squeaking sound he made with each step. He was Talos, the fabled bronze automaton, bodyguard for the most feared mythological creation in modern America - the Man.
"Ladies and gentlemen and other beings," said Talos in a voice that always reminded John Doe of the clanking of pots on a steel stove, "please welcome my friend and yours, Simon Lee, The Man."
A smattering of polite applause greeted the entrance of the notorious embodiment of total morally-corrupt authority. Creaking, Talos stepped aside to let his master ascend to the podium. Folding his bronze arms across his chest, the metal giant closed its eyes and seemingly drifted off to sleep. John Doe knew different. The automaton enjoyed pretending it was old and worn-out. Like all mythological creations, it never aged. When required, Talos could be extremely deadly. Otherwise, The Man wouldn't have hired it for his bodyguard.
Simon Lee, The Man, was also a massive figure, but not of metal but of flab. Dressed entirely in white, he was the size of three normal men, with most of the weight lumped around his stomach. Lee tipped the scales at well over five hundred pounds. His bloated face, crafty and cunning, with bright red eyes that surveyed the crowd with ill-concealed contempt, was a tribute to debauchery and excess. If the Man possessed any good traits, he kept them a closely guarded secret.
Two steps behind him and off to the right stood Mr. B, The Man's mysterious advisor. A solidly built individual with drab, emotionless features and cold, black eyes, he followed The Man like a shadow. Mr. B rarely spoke, and when he did, it was only to whisper a few words directly to his boss. Though he was unequivocally mythological, his origin and history were completely unknown to the assembled crowd. Only The Man knew the truth about Mr. B. Though John Doe had his suspicions.
"My friends," said Lee, spreading wide his immense arms as if to enfold them all in a warm embrace, "thank you for coming to today's meeting. I know the notice was short, but the subject needs our immediate attention. Our very existence is threatened. If we do not act quickly, we shall be destroyed!"
John Doe shook his head in amazement. Lee's voice oozed sincerity. That was perhaps his most amazing traits. Despite his gross appearance and size, The Man sounded trustworthy. He possessed the unique talent to weave fiction into fact. Both mortals and mythologicals were mesmerized by Lee's incredible vocal skill.
Lee's gaze swept the crowd and a slight smile crossed his lips. He had supreme confidence in his abilities. That was one of his defining characteristics. John Doe found The Man's smugness a minor irritation. He disliked anyone being so totally positive of himself and his position in the world. Bursting bubbles of self-assurance helped shape John Doe's personality.
More than once he had been tempted to take The Man down a notch or two. As well as that sneering pig who called himself Mr. B. However, only a fool eliminated a source of funds until it was bled dry. The Man controlled millions, perhaps billions. For all of his annoying habits, he paid very well for services rendered. And, more than anything else, John Doe was mercenary in his pursuits.
"Several months ago," continued Lee, "a mortal sorcerer on the West Coast succeeded in raising one of the ancient Demon Gods, banished from our world with the rise of Christianity. Returned from the outer dark with incredible powers, this Lord of the Lions schemed to regain its full powers and rule the Earth. For a while, it seemed that it might succeed in its plans. It recruited several of the most powerful figures of evil still alive in the modern world including Dietrich Von Bern, the Wild Huntsman, and Hasan al-Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain. Yet, neither the God nor his mighty allies were able to defeat one solitary figure. A human named Jack Collins."
Lee paused for dramatic effect. He drew in a deep breath before continuing. "What made Collins so special I still do not know. He was chosen by Merlin the Magician to act as humanity's champion against the Lord of the Lions and his henchmen. We know little else about the mortal other than the fact that he once taught mathematics in college and calls himself The Logical Magician."
The Man paused again. His audience waited impatiently for him to continue. Even John Doe, who had heard some of the story earlier, wanted to know more. Lee's narrative stops were designed as hooks to trap his listeners. They served him well.
"In theory, an ancient God returning to our world, would be invincible. The only method of defeating such a being is to disbelieve it out of existence. Enough people have to strongly believe that the God does not exist and thus, make it so. However, since no one still believes in the God, there is no reason for humans to disbelieve it. It would therefore be absolutely invulnerable. Such has always been the reasoning among our kind until now."
The Man paused again, his eyes burning bright red. "Until now, when somehow, in a manner unknown to any of us, Jack Collins defeated the Lord of the Lions and sent the God back to the outermost dark!"
"Impossible," cried a voice from the audience. One of The Man's shills, John Doe suspected. Simon Lee peppered the crowd with agents scripted to say the right things at the right times.
"Never," cried another unseen participant. And then another.
"Unfortunately, it is all quite true," said The Man. "This Logical Magician possesses powers that threatens our very survival. He has learned not only of our reality, but he has also discovered a method of terminating our existence. Collins has become a menace to every one of us - the forces of evil."
"Kill him!" thundered an eight-foot tall ogre.
"Destroy the human before he destroys us," cried a short, squat figure that John Doe suspected was some sort of goblin.
"Death," declared a dignified looking individual with a mask covering half his face. He spoke with a French accent and was named Eric something. "Play for him the music of the night."
Pressing together his fat lips, The Man nodded in assent. "I suspected you would feel the same about this matter as me. But, killing Collins won't be any easy task. Others have tried and none have succeeded. That is why I have posted a bounty, a huge bounty, on this mortal's life."
John Doe nodded. The Man had his audience hooked. The one trait shared by all villainous mythological entities was greed. Excessive, overwhelming greed.
"How much?" hissed Jack the Ripper, the sound of his inhuman voice as sharp as one of his knives. "How much?"
"Ten million dollars," declared The Man. "I will pay ten million dollars for proof of Jack Collins' death."
Mr. B slide forward and whispered something in The Man's ear. Simon Lee nodded in agreement. "His head on a platter," added The Man, "would serve quite nicely as evidence. Quite nicely, indeed."
Imperiously, The Man waved a fat arm in the air. "Now, depart. Go forth, my brothers in treachery and deceit, creatures of the night. Begone, and find me this troublesome human. Locate and destroy him. Cry chaos and let loose the hounds of hell."
With a rush born of avarice, the hall emptied in minutes. Only three figures remained. The Man, Mr. B, and the man who called himself John Doe. Casually, he threaded his path through the empty chairs to the front of the chamber.
"It's not the Hounds of Hell," he declared, with a dry chuckle, "but The Dogs of War."
"No matter," said The Man, rubbing his huge hands together in satisfaction. "You're probably the only one who came close to recognizing the quote." He laughed, a harsh, barking sound. "They are a stupid lot of fools. Worthless cannon-fodder."
"They'll serve as an effective distraction," said John Doe. His eyes narrowed. "The plan is still the same?"
"Unchanged," said The Man. "Give those inept horrors a few weeks to make Collins' life miserable. Wait until he starts fighting back. Our bounty hunters won't prove much of a challenge. When Collins grows over-confident, that's when you strike. Eliminate him and his entire crew of pesky friends."
"I won't fail," replied John Doe.
"I know," said The Man. "That's why I use you. I only employ the very best."
Lee departed by the same door he entered, Mr. B following him two steps behind. John Doe stood alone in the room. Though he hated to admit it, for some unexplained reason, he had a bad feeling about this latest mission. Collins might only be mortal, but he had defeated some pretty deadly inhuman foes. Underestimating the Logical Magician could prove fatal. Mentally, John Doe promised himself to be extra careful on this assignment. Eliminating Collins and company was going to be a lot more difficult than solving a crossword puzzle.
With a curse, John Doe pulled the game magazine from his rear pocket. He had meant to ask Simon Lee for help with the unsolved rebus. The Man had all the answers.
One last time, John Doe read the clue. "Santa's pint-sized helpers. Word joke." The phrase meant nothing to time. Sighing in anger, he turned to the rear of the publication. He hated admitting defeat, but he needed to concentrate on more important things. If he didn't look up the correct answer, the unknown solution would torment him for weeks.
"Son-of-a-bitch," he swore, reading the proper response. "Subordinate clauses."
For an instant, a brief instant, he shivered in sudden unexplainable terror. Someone just walked across my grave, he thought, recalling an old folk superstition.
Then, the feeling disappeared and his fear dissipated like mist. Carelessly, he tossed the crossword puzzle magazine to the floor. It wasn't important to him anymore.
Which only proved that the man who called himself John Doe was an exceptional assassin but a miserable prophet.
Married life, decided Jack Collins dreamily, wasn't so bad. In fact, it was pretty damn near perfect. Waking up to the intoxicating smell of his wife's perfume on his pillow started the day off right. That the essence was a brew concocted by Circe thousands of years ago to entrap unwary sailors bothered Jack not in the least. He was already Megan Ambrose's prisoner. He smiled happily. A prisoner of love.
"Hey, Johnny, you gonna stay in that bed all day?" squawked a voice only inches from his right ear. "Time to get moving, huh. We birds need more food than you humans. Me and Hugo are starving."
Jack sighed. It didn't seem fair. He and Megan had been married less than a week and already they had a family. Saving the world from an ancient Babylonian death god had been difficult enough. Not to mention defeating a genie, the sphinx, and the Old Man of the Mountain. After all that effort, he felt he had earned some time completely alone with Megan. Unfortunately, his mother hadn't seen things in exactly the same light.
One of the fabled Valkyries, Jack's mom, Frieda Collins, had lived with Odin's two talking ravens for over a thousand years. Chatterboxes with voracious appetites, the birds would have driven Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side. They also possessed powers one step short of miraculous. Their incredible abilities had helped save the day during Jack's final confrontation with Hasan al-Sabbah's army of ghouls.
Unfortunately, once Frieda learned the part the ravens played in Jack's recent adventures, she insisted that he and Megan accept the birds as a wedding present. Jack knew his mother meant well. But he also suspected she had been waiting for an eon for someone on whom she could dump the blackbirds. Even immortals could stand so much. And the ravens were yards beyond that limit.
"Let's have Fruit Loops today," declared Hugo, as Jack groggily reached over to caress his wife. Touching Megan always put him in a better mood. To his intense disappointment, his fingers only encountered pillow.
"She's gone," declared Hugo. "Meg told us to tell you she went out to buy some groceries. She left an hour ago."
"We had Sugar Smacks yesterday," said Mongo. "Let's have Chocolate Flavored Captain Crunch today."
"Froot Loops is better," replied Hugo. "The rabbit says so. Captain Crunch is for kids."
"Captain Crunch is more chocolaty," answered Mongo. "It has more chocolate in every bite."
"Froot Loops," said Hugo passionately.
"Captain Crunch," said Mongo, equally determined.
Groaning, Jack sat up in bed. Now he understood why his mother had never let the ravens eat breakfast cereal. The birds had become insufferable sugar junkies. They burned through boxes of cereal like forest fires. Jack had no doubts that Megan was right now at the local supermarket buying a dozen boxes of the most heavily advertised brands on TV. Needless to say, her buying habits had not gone unnoticed. Several clerks at the store had been eying Jack strangely every time he stopped in to pick up some necessities.
The blackbirds continued to argue the entire time Jack showered, shaved and dressed. They didn't quiet down until he finally made his way to the kitchen and poured each of them a heaping bowl of the particular cereal they preferred. Then, while nibbling on a danish and sipping on a can of Coke, his own breakfast peculiarity, he listened to the ravens noisily attack their food. The day was not starting out well. He had no idea how much worse it was going to become.
"When did Megan leave?" Jack asked, finishing the last drops of the cola. Carefully, he crushed the can and threw it into the recycling bin. He dared not toss it in the garbage. The ravens strongly believed in protecting the environment.
"About eight A.M.," said Hugo, glancing up from his cereal bowl for an instant to glance at the clock. "She said you guys are scheduled to look at houses this afternoon, so she wanted to get the grocery shopping done this morning." The bird shook its head. "The two of you go through a heck of a lot of food in a week. Seems like you're constantly shopping. Maybe you should consider cutting down a bit."
"The only thing that needs cutting," said Jack, "is your appetites. A pair of blackbirds are eating us into poverty. What we really need is for you two moochers to earn your keep."
"Us?" squawked Mongo indignantly. "We're your pets. Pets don't work. They have laws against that. Don't they?"
"Pet labor laws?" said Jack, with a nasty chuckle. "I don't think so."
He scratched his head, his thoughts whirling. "Mom did mention something about you two performing as a trained bird act years ago."
"Gaak," sputtered Hugo, making sounds impossible to be formed by a bird's beak. As supernatural entities, the ravens managed speech in a manner that had nothing to do with their bird-like appearance. "Not in a million years, Johnny."
"Make that a billion years," echoed Mongo. "Those were the most embarrassing moments of my life. Dressed up in those silly little costumes and ringing bells to make music. It felt like a scene out of Sartre's No Exit. I died a million deaths working in that show."
"Yeah," said Hugo. "Then there were those pigeons...." The raven shuddered, his whole body shaking horribly.
"The pigeons," repeated Mongo, his voice sinking to a whisper. Jack had never heard the two blackbirds so frightened. "I had forgotten the pigeons."
Before Jack could inquire further about the mysterious pigeons, the FAX machine in his wife's office beeped, signaling a message coming through. Megan's father, Merlin the Magician, worked as a Futures Trader in Chicago's Loop. Merlin did the predicting, but his daughter was the real brains behind Ambrose Ltd., Investments. Along with being the sexiest, smartest woman Jack had ever met, Megan was also the shrewdest. All FAXes to the investment firm were routinely duplicated and sent to this condo as well. Even away from the office, Megan liked to keep an eye on things.
"I'll return in a minute," said Jack, heading for the spare bedroom Megan used as a workplace. "I definitely want to hear more about these pigeons."
Jack frowned, spotting the FAX. It was handwritten and only five sentences long. Looking at it, his frown deepened into serious worry lines. The entire message consisted of a short stanza of verse and a signature. Jack read the note twice, then started cursing. Loudly.
"What's the matter?" croaked both ravens immediately. The birds were at Jack's side in the blink of an eye. No one knew how fast they flew, but they moved faster than anything mortal. "What's goin' on."
Wordlessly, Jack held up the FAX so that the two birds could digest its contents. Among their numerous mystic powers, the ravens could read any language.
"I've got your wife, she's quite all right," began Mongo.
"If you want her back, come see me tonight," alternated Hugo.
"The pier at twelve, and walk completely alone," said Mongo.
"Or I'll cut her and slash her through to the bone," finished Hugo.
To Jack, his voice trembling with a combination of shock and rage, the signature came as no surprise. "Yours truly, Jack the Ripper."
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