Justice League Xander:
No Answers, Just Questions
Disclaimer: I don’t own these characters, nor do I claim to. No copyright infringement is intended, so please don’t sue. I don’t have any money anyway.
Summary: After his stint looking for slayers in Africa, Xander is assigned to Hub City as a field watcher. He saves a man’s life one night and ends up getting pulled into a conspiracy involving demons, aglets (the caps on the ends of shoe laces), and artificial skin. Can Xander find the answers to uncover this conspiracy, or will the answers just lead to more questions.
Author’s note: This story is part of Justice League Xander, a non-sequential series inspired by Justice League Unlimited on the Cartoon Network. I’ve been inspired by many of the minor characters on the show that, not being a big DC Comics fan, I’ve been unfamiliar with until now. So special thanks to the writers, producers, and actors behind JLU for getting me interested in DC again in a way I haven’t been since Batman: TAS. And thanks to Wikipedia for their detailed entries on all the DC characters, without which these stories wouldn’t have been possible.
Addendum: Part of the plot of this story is based on The Question’s origin story from the comics, no plagiarism is intended.
Xander rushed down the stairs of his building, taking them two at a time until he hit the street. He stopped at the corner to wait for the light and checked his watch. He wasn’t going to make it on time, he knew it. His slayer would only wait for him so long before taking out that nest of Gravlok demons by herself. It wasn’t that he was worried she couldn’t handle it, Rosa was just impulsive, a habit that Xander was still trying to break her of. A year and a half in Hub City as her Watcher, and he still wasn’t having much luck at that. But she was a great girl, one of his best slayers, and Xander wouldn’t trade her for the world.
On the other side of the street stood a homeless man, ranting and raving at anyone who would stop and listen. And when no one was listening, he yelled at the lamp post. He was old, with a ratty gray beard and an old tattered raincoat. And he had a cardboard sign around his neck that read ‘Homeless Because I Know Too Much’.
“Aglets are sinister! Aglets are sinister!” he screamed. “Justin Timberlake is behind global warming! The Girl Scouts are responsible for crop circles! There’s a chemical in their cookies that makes you complacent and suggestible so you’ll believe whatever the government tells you!” The light turned green and Xander jogged across, trying to avoid eye contact with the man. But the man saw Xander and held out his cup of change. “You Sir, you look like a man who’s been screwed by the system.”
Xander stopped. “I do?”
“Spare some change for the truth? Somebody has to tell it.”
“Sorry old timer, I’m in a hurry. Maybe next time.”
“Way too many next times in life, son. Too many questions and not enough answers. Too much mustard and not enough ketchup.”
Xander dug into his pocket and pulled out a coin, tossing it in the man’s cup. “Here, that’s all I have on me right now, I’m sorry I have to go,” he said, hurrying down the street.
“Bless you son, you’ve given to a worthy cause. The truth will...Hey, that was a bus token! Cheap bastard!”
Xander heard the man yelling behind him but he was too far and too distracted to hear what he said. He needed to find a cab to take him downtown. According to Rosa’s phone call, the Gravlok nest was in the basement of an office building thirty blocks away, the Pepperdine Building. So getting there on foot wasn’t really an option, especially since he only had a rough idea where it was.
That’s when he heard the screaming, coming from an alley about a half a block up. Xander rolled his eyes. “Always when I’m in a hurry,” he mumbled to himself. He headed for the alley and looked down. It was a man, early fifties, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, running from two demons with horns and lots of sharp teeth. Xander pulled a short sword from the back of his jacket and started toward the fray.
“Please,” the man pleaded. “There are others who know! Killing me won’t solve anything!” But the demons would not be reasoned with. The creatures were so intent on their prey in fact, that they didn’t even notice Xander’s approach until his sword was buried in one of their backs. He used the leverage to swing his legs up and kick the other demon in the face. He landed, then used his sword to swing the impaled demon into the other before planting his foot in its back and pulling his sword free. He swung and decapitated the first demon quickly. The second got up and came at Xander, snarling and waving his claws. Xander kept it at bay with his sword and a few well placed kicks before getting a good swing and decapitating it as well.
Xander stopped to catch his breath. He pulled a rag out of his back pocket and wiped the demon blood from his sword. He looked down at the second demon’s severed head just as the headlights from a passing car shone down the alley, getting his first good look at it. “Gravlok demon,” he said to himself.
“That’s right,” the man Xander had saved said. “Thank you for saving my life. I don’t know what I would have done...” he trailed off as Xander turned and he saw his face. “Eye patch,” he mumbled. “You’re Xander Harris, aren’t you?”
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ve been looking for you. I was coming to your apartment when these things chased me down here. I need your help, they’re after me.”
“The ones who sent the demons, Twain Research Labs, my former employers. I threatened to expose them and now they’re trying to kill me.”
“Twain Research Labs,” Xander repeated. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“Probably because they’re affiliated with the Watchers Council. They’re located downtown, in the Pepperdine Building.”
Xander remembered now, they were affiliated with the Watchers. That’s where he’d seen that name before, on his list of local contacts the Watchers had sent him. They were a medical research company. Supposedly they were working on all sorts of projects for the Watchers Council. They wanted to run some tests on some of his slayers once and Xander had said no, he and Giles had gotten into a huge argument about it. “Wait a minute, did you say the Pepperdine Building?”
“Yes, that’s where all my research notes are. I need you to help me get them so we can expose Twain, or else a lot of people are going to die. They’re going to...”
“Wait a minute, slow down, I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Aristotle Rodor, pleasure to meet you,” he said, putting out his hand. Xander shook it.
“Alright Doc, why don’t we take this someplace more private so you can give me the whole story. Let me just make a phone call first.”
Xander took out his cell phone and called Rosa. She picked up after one ring.
“Xander, where are you? We can’t wait forever.”
“Who do you have with you?” Xander asked her.
Trish was young, still in school, she had only started training six months ago. “How many demons are there?”
“Just five,” Rosa answered.
“Okay Rosa, listen to me carefully. I’m going to ask you something, and I really want you to think about it before you answer. Use your brain and not your gut, okay?”
“Can you two handle this on your own?” Deep down Xander believed that they could. Gravloks were strong, but they were stupid, and if he could take down two on his own without too much trouble, two slayers shouldn’t have any problem with five. But he wanted Rosa to really think before she acted, and he wanted to show her that he trusted her to do that.
She paused before she answered. “We can take them Xander, I promise.”
“Okay, I trust you. Do it. But be careful, okay? You remember rule number one.”
“Exactly, if you break that rule I’m going to be very upset with you.”
“We’ll be careful Xander, I promise.”
“Okay, when you’re done head back to the dorm. Something tells me I’ll be seeing you later tonight.”
“You got it Xander, later.”
This guy seemed a little shaky to Xander. But years of experience had taught him not to believe in coincidences, so he thought he should at least hear him out. He frisked him for weapons, and then he led him back to his apartment.
“All right,” Xander said. “Tell me what this is all about.”
“First things first, we have to make sure they can’t track us here,” Rodor said. “Give me your shoes.”
“Quickly, please, it’s important!”
Xander kicked his shoes off and handed them to Rodor. He took a small pair of scissors from his pocket and cut the plastic tips off of the ends of Xander’s shoe laces. “Aglets,” he said.
“The tips on the ends of shoe laces, they’re called aglets, it’s how the demons can track you. It’s a special chemical compound, mixed into the plastic when they’re cast, unique to every pair of laces. If you’ve ever bought a pair of shoes or shoe laces with a credit card, the government knows where you are at all times.”
Xander’s brow furrowed as he suddenly found himself questioning his ability to read people based on first impressions. “Really?” he asked, feigning interest as he tried to figure out the fastest way to get this guy out of his apartment. “Why aglets?”
“Why not? If you know you’re being tracked, you might change your clothes, but what are the odds that you’ll change your shoes?”
“What about loafers, or high heels.”
“Oh, the government has other ways. Like toothpaste.”
“It contains a radioactive dye, mostly harmless, but it can be detected by spy satellites.”
“Right, of course,” Xander said. Rodor took the aglets from Xander’s sneakers and walked to the bathroom. He dropped them in the toilet and flushed them down. Xander scratched his head. “You’re a couple tacos short of a combo plate, aren’t you?”
“You can think whatever you want to, but I’ve got proof. Unfortunately it’s in the safe in my office at the Pepperdine Building and I have no way of getting to it.”
“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” Xander prompted.
“It all started a year ago when I started working for Twain Labs. I was developing an artificial skin called Pseudoderm. It was going to change everything, revolutionize battlefield medicine. It could bond with the patient’s own skin almost instantly, close any wound. At least that was the idea. We ran into a problem when we started animal testing. There was a reaction between the bonding gas and the platelets in the clotting blood of an open wound. It was toxic. We tried for months, but we just couldn’t get around the problem. The project was going to be scrapped. At least that’s what they told us.
“And then one morning I came in and my lab was cleaned out. All my research materials were gone, and all the Pseudoderm we had in storage was gone. They told me they were giving the project to someone else. But when I pressed them for details, they were vague. It just didn’t add up. There was no way to make it work without creating a whole new formula for the bonding gas, and my superiors had already told me they weren’t going to spend the money to do that. I started snooping around and I discovered that they were planning on selling the Pseudoderm anyway, knowing full well that it was toxic. They were going to sell it in the Third World, specifically to certain war torn areas of Africa where any kind of medicine would be accepted without too much scrutiny. And secondly, to the Watcher’s Council, who had expressed interest in Pseudoderm early on for field med-kits. The Pseudoderm’s affects on open wounds are just as deadly to slayers as they are to you and I.
Xander clenched his fists with anger. “Why would they want to kill slayers?”
“The same reason they do anything else, for the money. They’re a soulless corporation, interested only in the bottom line. Ever since that activation spell, a lot of demons around the world have suddenly found themselves with slayer problems. That’s a big market for anything that can take a slayer out that quickly.”
“How do you know about all this? Watchers, slayers, demons, the activation spell?”
“Information is sort of a hobby of mine. Most of it isn’t that hard to come by, if you ask the right questions. Most people make too many assumptions about the world around them, assumptions about what’s possible and what’s not possible. I don’t assume anything, I’m a scientist.
“I made the mistake of thinking that Arby Twain, Twain Labs’ CEO, didn’t know what was happening. I went to him and told him what I knew. He called me a quack, a kook. I told him that I would expose him. He fired me, and told me in no uncertain terms that if I even thought about going to the authorities he’d have me taken care of. And if it wasn’t for you tonight, that’s exactly what would have happened.”
Xander didn’t know whether or not to believe Rodor. On one hand, he seemed crazy and paranoid, but on the other he knew things about watchers and slayers that were true. Those Gravlok demons had definitely been trying to kill him, and the nest in the Pepperdine Building couldn’t be a coincidence. The real question was, could Xander afford not to believe him. If he was telling the truth, thousands of lives could be at stake, many of them slayers. He had to look into it, it would be irresponsible not to.
“I have to make a phone call,” Xander said. He had to call Giles, tell him about this.
“No, wait, you can’t!” Rodor insisted.
“You can’t call anyone in the Watchers Council, you can’t let them know that you know.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well for one thing they’re sure to have your phone tapped. And for another, this conspiracy extends into the Council. You can’t trust anyone.”
“I can trust this person,” Xander defended.
“Maybe, but can you trust the people that he trusts, or all of the people that they trust? We don’t know how far up this goes.”
“What makes you think anyone in the Council has anything to do with this?”
“It’s the only way it makes sense. For Twain to make money off of killing slayers, he has to control when and who he kills. And the only way he can do that is if he has someone in the Council to control what slayers get the Pseudoderm.”
“If you don’t want me to go to the Watchers, why come to me?”
“I made copies of all my research notes before they took them, as well as copies of the inner office memos and emails I found that detail what Twain is up to. The problem is, I left them in my safe in my office at Twain Labs. And I can’t get within five blocks of that place without their telepaths detecting me and sending those Gravloks after me again. I need you to break into the Pepperdine Building and get those files. It’s the only evidence we have against Twain. Without it, there’s nothing we can do to stop him.”
“You want me to break into an office building guarded by telepaths and demons?” Xander asked.
“That was the plan, until the Gravloks saw you. That could be a problem.”
“But the ones who saw me are dead.”
“Doesn’t matter. Gravloks share a collective subconscious with the members of their pack. Once one has seen you, they’ll all recognize you. And they may be stupid, but they have excellent eyesight. It’s what makes them such good trackers.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I told you, collecting information is my hobby.”
Xander paused, thinking. “All right, I’m going to need to confirm some of this. I can call the Watchers research department. I won’t mention anything about Twain Labs.”
“It’s too risky.”
“If what you say is true, then they already know I had a run in with these things, and one of my slayers just killed five of them under the Pepperdine Building. They’re not going to think it unusual for me to do a little research on them. Just calm down, have a seat. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Rodor nodded and sat down, still clutching his briefcase on his lap. Xander went into his bedroom and picked up the phone. He didn’t want to think it was possible, that the new Watchers Council could have been infiltrated and corrupted so fast, but he couldn’t take the risk. Twain Labs was a sanctioned Watcher-affiliated company, security checks involved with that were immense. If they were getting away with anything shady, they had to have someone on the inside. Xander hit the speed dial for the research line and waited until he heard a beep, then he entered his ID code. Another beep. “Xander Harris,” he spoke into the phone. A second later, the voice recognition software matched his voice print, and he was connected.
“What can I do for you tonight, Watcher Harris?” a clipped British voice greeted him.
“Gravlok demons,” Xander said.
“All right, I’m pulling that file up right now. Anything specific you would like to know?”
“Are they telepathic in some way?” Xander asked.
“They share a collective unconscious with members of their own pack, but their brains are too primitive for what would be considered telepathy.”
“So if one sees you, even if you kill it, the rest of the pack will recognize you?”
“That’s correct. They are usually summoned to track and destroy a specific target, anything that gets in their way becomes a secondary target. They’re not very smart, but they’re excellent trackers. You see, the visual cortex in their brain works differently than ours.”
“Meaning, that they don’t just recognize people using a few features the way we do, they see everything. They can differentiate between identical twins with no trouble at all, they see all the minor details that we can’t. Not to mention excellent night vision, and a range far beyond human. It makes disguising a target from them very difficult.”
“How many in a pack?”
“Is it possible to summon more than one pack?”
“Unlikely. They’re highly territorial, and would attack members of another pack on sight.”
“What does it take to summon them?”
“The summoner would have to be at least a class five mage, with considerable skill in dark magiks.”
“Is there any other way they can be keyed on a target, besides visually?”
“Yes, they can be magically keyed on an object in the target’s possession.”
“All right, thank you.”
Xander hung up the phone and started to think. A class five mage is serious firepower for a research lab to have on their payroll. Giles was only a class four, and Willow a class nine. And if Gravloks can be keyed on an object, Rodor could be right about the aglets. Things were starting to add up. Xander had killed two demons, and Rosa said there were five at the Pepperdine Building, that left three. Three demons that can recognize him and Rodor, not to mention Rosa and Trish. Xander reached over and flipped the lid of his weapons chest open. He pulled out a small double-headed ax. They needed to get someplace safer to plan their next move, and he wanted to make sure his slayers were all right.
Xander walked back out into his living room. “All right Doc, it looks like there’s at least three more demons after you. We need to get you someplace safe. Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” Rodor asked.
The dorm was actually a three story brownstone, about a half mile from Xander’s apartment. It’s where nine of his twelve slayers lived full time. The other three still lived with their parents. It’s also where they trained and researched. Xander called it the dorm because as far as anyone in the neighborhood knew, it was just a bunch of college girls living off campus together.
Thankfully, the walk to the dorm was short and uneventful. “Are you sure this is wise?” Rodor asked when they got there. “I don’t want to put any of your slayers in danger.”
“Trust me, this is the safest building in the city. It’s protected by a half a dozen wards and protections spells, not to mention a pretty high tech security system.” Xander climbed the steps and rang the bell.
“Don’t you have a key?” Rodor asked.
“Yes, but only for emergencies. All the slayers that live here are over eighteen. I wanted to make sure they know that they still have their privacy. They’re adults, and that’s how I treat them.” Xander rang the bell again and knocked. After a few seconds with still no answer, he started pounding on the door. “Somebody open this damn door or you’re all grounded!” he yelled.
A second later the door opened a crack, the security chain still on. A young African-American woman peered out. “What’s the password?” she asked.
“Mika, open this door or I’ll kill you and dump your body in a drainage ditch.”
“No, that was last week’s password.”
“All right, all right, don’t get your panties in a bunch, I was just messing around,” she said, closing the door. A second later it came open again. “What’s the sitch?”
“We have some demons after us, that’s all,” Xander said as he and Rodor stepped inside. He closed the door and locked it again.
“Why didn’t you just use your key then?”
“You may not have been decent, I didn’t want to be rude.”
“This from the man whose death threats include body disposal. You’re one weird dude, you know that Xander?”
“Yes, that’s exactly why I’ve come. I found somebody weirder than me and I thought you’d all like to meet him. Where are Rosa and Trish?”
“Trish went home after patrol, Rosa is in the TV room.”
“Yeah, a couple scratches, no big. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. This is Dr. Aristotle Rodor. Doc, this is Tamika Walters. Senior slayer here in Hub City, and resident house mother to this 24/7 slumber party.”
Tamika laughed. “Yeah, we were just about to do each others’ hair and talk about boys. Nice to meet you, Doc.” she said, extending her hand.
“Likewise, Miss Walters,” Rodor said, shaking her hand.
“Everybody in?” Xander asked.
“Yeah, Rosa and Trish were the last,” Tamika answered. “Is everything okay? Do you need one of us to go after these demons you said were after you?”
“Not just yet,” Xander answered. “We may have bigger problems. Grab Rosa and meet me and the doctor upstairs in the library. And don’t say anything to anyone else just yet, okay?”
Aristotle was impressed with the library the slayers had. It wasn’t huge, only a couple hundred books. But they were very well organized, and as he perused the titles he began to get excited. As someone who collected information, this room could be a godsend if he were allowed to spend a few days in it. But unfortunately it wasn’t long before he and Xander were joined by Tamika and Rosa.
Rosa gave her report about what happened under the Pepperdine Building. She had trailed the demon in through a sewer entrance and found the nest, that’s when she called Xander. Then after Xander called her back, her and Trish took out the demons pretty quick. Two against five were pretty good odds as far as Rosa was concerned, she hadn’t even broken a sweat.
Xander laid it all out for the two slayers, everything Rodor had told him. From Twain’s plan to still sell the Pseudoderm even after he found out it was toxic, to the possibility of a spy in the Watchers Council. The two didn’t take it very well.
“That son of a bitch,” Tamika cursed.
“When do we leave and how hard can we kill him?” Rosa asked.
“Easy Tiger,” Xander said. “A frontal assault does us no good if they have someone in the Watchers. We’re just talking about a little recon to get the evidence we need to cook this guy. Any slayers would be way overkill for that. So I’m going to do it by myself.”
“Do you really think the law is going to give this guy what he deserves?” Rosa asked.
“Maybe not,” Xander conceded. “But he’s human, and that means he’s out of our jurisdiction.”
“Xander, I don’t think this a good idea, you going by yourself,” Tamika said. “You should at least take some back up with you.”
“No offense to you guys, but this is going to require some stealth, some blending in. And slayers aren’t exactly built to not get noticed.”
“And you are?” Rosa asked.
“Are you kidding, back in high school I perfected it. The only problem is we’ve got three demons left out there that will recognize me on sight.”
“Not to mention the telepaths,” Rodor said. “Twain has a group of them watching the perimeter of the building at all times. If you get within a hundred yards with the intention of breaking in, they’ll spot you.”
“So how am I going to get past them?” Xander asked.
“You can use an earwig.”
“You want me to stick a bug in my ear?”
“No, an earwig is also the name for a song that gets stuck in your head. You see, these telepaths have a lot of ground to cover, so their not probing too deeply every single person that walks by the building. They just skim the surface of your thoughts, and if they find something suspicious, they’ll dig a little deeper. If you keep a song in your head, it will keep your intentions from drifting across the surface of your mind.”
“I don’t really know that many songs,” Xander said. “A few country songs, maybe some Brittney Spears I’ve picked up from hanging out with slayers too much.”
“Also, the more annoying the song, the better,” Rodor continued. “It ensures that any telepath will spend the least amount of time as possible in your mind.”
Xander nodded. “Brittney Spears it is then.”
“The executives at Twain Labs are pretty paranoid about having their minds read, so they have wards protecting the upper floors from any kind of telepathy. So once you get past the twenty-fifth floor, you’ll be fine. My office is on twenty-seven.”
“Okay, that takes care of the telepaths. But I’ll still need some kind of disguise, those demons will recognize me.”
“Not only that, but if you run into anyone in the building, they might recognize you as well. You are the resident Watcher in this city, your reputation makes you a threat to them, so you can be sure that they know what you look like.”
“What do you know about my reputation?” Xander asked.
“Well like I said, collecting information...”
“Is your hobby, right, forget I asked.”
“If I may make a suggestion. A good disguise is all about context. You could change your face completely, but if you walk in there dressed like that, someone is sure to spot you.”
Xander looked down at his clothes. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans with a open flannel shirt over a black tee shirt with ‘Do you know what your problem is? Your stupid.’ printed on it. “Everybody’s a fashion critic,” Xander mumbled.
“I know just the thing,” Rosa said with a smile before rushing out of the room.
“Speaking of my face,” Xander said. “What am I going to do about it? Somehow I don’t think a fake mustache is going to cut it.”
“No, Gravlok demons can recognize your whole face, every aspect of it. We’ll have to cover it completely,” Rodor said.
“A ski mask maybe,” Xander suggested.
“Oh, that’s not conspicuous at all,” Tamika said.
“She’s right,” Rodor agreed. “That wouldn’t work.” He seemed to think for a moment. “I have an idea. It may seem a little strange, but hear me out.” He set his briefcase down on the table in the center of the room. “Along with the copies of my research notes, I managed to get a few pieces of Pseudoderm out of storage, along with a few canisters of the bonding gas and some of the de-bonding solution.”
Xander looked taken aback. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Not at all. It only becomes toxic when applied to an open wound. This case hasn’t left my side since I left the Pepperdine Building. Without it, we won’t have proof that it’s toxic, even with my notes and the memos I found.”
Xander wasn’t sure he liked where this was going. “So what’s this strange idea of yours?”
“You can wear the Pseudoderm as a mask, cover your entire face with it. Once it’s bonded it can’t be removed without the de-bonding solution. It’s the perfect disguise.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. How am I supposed to breathe, or see?”
“Once it’s bonded it will be porous enough on the inside to breathe and see through, and on the outside it will appear just like any other part of your skin. It’ll give you the appearance of having no face at all.”
“Don’t you think someone would notice that?” Xander asked.
“Not really,” Tamika said. “I’ve lived in this city my whole life Xander, trust me. Nobody looks at anyone’s face on the street anymore.”
Xander briefly thought about the homeless man he had passed outside his building that night, and nodded. “Okay, I’ll try it.”
That’s when Rosa walked back into the library with some clothes draped over her arm. She held it up for the others to see. It was a blue suit with a white shirt and a red tie. “How about this?” she said.
“Oh no,” Xander sighed.
Tamika smiled. “We bought Xander that suit for his birthday last year,” She explained to Dr. Rodor. “He never even took it home.”
“That’s because I hate suits,” Xander explained.
“I also grabbed your trench coat with the hidden pockets inside for weapons, and this,” Rosa said, producing a fedora from behind her back and putting it on Xander’s head. “What do you think, stylish, huh?”
Xander just rolled his eyes and took his flannel shirt off. “Let’s get this over with.”
Xander pulled on the collar of his shirt while Tamika tied his necktie for him. “I feel like I’m wearing a straight jacket,” he complained.
“Shut-up,” Tamika said. “You look very debonair. There, finished,” she said, straiting the tie.
“You ready, Doc,” Xander asked.
Aristotle opened his case and took out a piece of the Pseudoderm. “I’m ready. Take your eye-patch off.”
Xander looked nervous about it, but he complied. He kept his hand over his left eye socket until Rodor was ready to apply the mask. Rodor put the Pseudoderm over his face and pressed it on along the edges. He reached into the briefcase and pulled out a small glass capsule. “Don’t be alarmed now, the gas is harmless and it dissipates quickly.” He shook the capsule, then threw it to the floor by Xander’s feet. A thick green smoke started bellowing up from the broken capsule. In a few seconds it had engulfed Xander completely. Another few seconds, and it was gone.
“How do you feel, Xander?” Rodor asked.
“Fine,” he said, reaching up and feeling his face. “It’s a little weird, I can’t tell where the mask ends and my skin begins. But I feel fine.”
“What happened to the suit?” Rosa asked.
Xander looked down at his clothes. The suit that was once blue was now black, the shirt that was white was now yellow, the tie changed from red to black, and the trench coat and fedora were now a matching shade of royal blue. “What the...”
“Oh, I forgot to mention that,” Rodor said. “A side effect of the gas, it affects certain dyes used in clothing, changing the color. The R&D guys at Twain Labs even considered using it with invisible ink for secret messages. Crystallize the liquid form of the gas, embed it in the paper and when someone touches it, their body heat causes the crystal to boil away into the gas, thereby changing the color of the ink and revealing the message.”
“Fascinating, I’m sure,” Xander said. He walked over to the mirror hanging on the wall by the door and looked at his reflection. “Creepy,” he said to himself, touching his face. “Let’s get this over with, I’d like my face back as soon as possible.”
Xander walked down the street, his hat pulled low and the collar on his coat turned up. There was no way he could catch a cab like this, nobody was that oblivious. But so far no one on the street had noticed anything. He was on the same street as his apartment now, and the homeless guy on the corner was still there, ranting a raving at everyone who passed.
“Aglets are sinister!”
He had yelled that before, Xander remembered. Maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all, he thought. Maybe he was just another man who collected information, like Rodor.
“Spare change, pal?” he asked as Xander passed. Xander turned, inadvertently letting the nearby streetlight shine on his face. “Damn, never mind pal, you need it more than I do, you don’t even have a face!” The strangest part was that his reaction was a lot milder than Xander would have thought. Slight surprise, nothing more. “What are you supposed to be?”
“Good question,” Xander said.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you Mr. Question. Did the government take your face? Oh, I know, it was the aliens, right? Did Martha Stewart cut it off? That’s what those sheets of hers at K-Mart are made out of you know, human faces.”
Or maybe he really was crazy. It was getting so hard to tell. When you’re a man with no face hiding from demons getting ready to break into an office building humming a Brittney Spears song, what was crazy? Xander turned and continued on his way. “Take it easy, old timer. Stay warm.”
“Take it easy, Question. Hope you find your face!” the man shouted back.
‘Yeah, me too,’ Xander thought.
Xander switched from humming to singing out loud the closer he got to the Pepperdine Building.
“I think I did it again, I made you believe, we’re more than just friends. Oh baby, it might seem like a crush, but it doesn’t mean that I’m serious.”
The street was empty. The front of the building was all glass, like every other office building. The inside looked dark. No security desk, no one inside that he could see. There was potted plant sitting next to the door. Xander pushed the leaves aside and noticed a small keypad on the wall with a security card reader attached to it. He examined it closely.
“’Cause to lose all my senses, that is just so typically me. Oh, baby, baby...”
*SMASH* Xander hurled the potted plant through the glass door, shattering it.
“Oops I did it again, I played with your heart, got lost in the game...” Xander walked into the building and headed for the elevators.
Xander rode the elevator up to the twenty-seventh floor. He made his way to Rodor’s office, jimmied the lock and let himself in. He made his way to the safe under the desk and punched in the combination that Rodor gave him. The safe opened without any trouble, and Xander pulled out a thick manila folder and dropped it on the desk. He took a small flashlight from his pocket and turned it on. He tried to hold it with his mouth before he remembered that he didn’t have one at the moment. He set it down on the desk as he opened the folder and looked through the papers inside.
The first thing he read was a report written by Rodor about the toxic effects of the bonding process on an open wound. Then the memo to Rodor stating that the project was being scrapped. Xander even found memos about himself, where Twain referred to him as ‘a problem’ and ‘a lose cannon who doesn’t play well with others’. Xander checked the dates and noticed that they were from shortly after he had refused to let Twain Labs run tests on his slayers. These must be why Rodor decided to approach Xander in the first place, he thought.
Next there was printout after printout of emails from various executives about where they could sell the Pseudoderm and get away with it. They were filled with legal jargon about accountability and plausible deniability. They were being careful to cover their asses. Even with this evidence, it was going to be hard to make a case against them. They may be able to stop the Pseudoderm from killing anyone, but the odds that anyone would do jail time over it were starting to look slim. Xander kept thinking about Enron, and Haliburton, and a dozen other corporations whose wrong doings and dirty deeds had been uncovered, and yet no one ever got convicted of anything. Not to mention that there was no real evidence here of what they were planning to do to the Watchers, just vague references in emails that no one would understand. If there was someone in the Council involved in this, there was no way to shake them out. The more Xander read, the angrier he got.
Maybe Rosa was right, Xander thought. Maybe the law wasn’t equipped to deal with people like Arby Twain the way they should be dealt with. Xander had never thought of himself as above the law, he operated within it as much as a clandestine organization hunting vampires could. But he could not let this go unpunished. He couldn’t leave his friends and his slayers at risk if someone or something really had infiltrated the Council. So what could he do? He’d have to convince Twain that it was in his best interests to tell him what he wanted to know. He’d have to make prison sound like a pleasant alternative to what was in store if he didn’t talk.
Dr. Arby Twain had started his medical career like most other young doctors, with dreams and ambitions of helping people and saving lives. But somewhere along the way, all of that changed. Maybe it was the day he paid for the answers to his medical school finals. Maybe it was his first kickback from a drug company, or the first time he lost a patient due to his own incompetence and realized that he didn’t much care. If he couldn’t be a good doctor, then at least he would be a rich one. Twenty years of schemes and dirty deals later, he was in the Forbes 400, and Twain Research Labs was one of the most profitable companies in the country. It was the same moral ambiguity which made him a lousy doctor that made him an excellent businessman. He didn’t much care what happened to the people unfortunate enough to cross his path, as long as he got paid.
It was the end of another long day, and Arby lit up a cigar as he sat back in his chair. This was his favorite part of the day. Smoking an expensive cigar, sitting in his penthouse office with the lights out, looking out at Hub City’s skyline. Up above it all. But what he didn’t realize was that the higher you are, the longer you have to fall, and the harder you hit the bottom.
Arby spun around in his chair, nearly dropping his cigar as a voice speaking his name pierced the darkness of his office. “Who’s there? What do you want? Show yourself!” A figure stepped out of the shadows. Twain could see that it was a man wearing a suit and a blue trench coat, his hands resting casually in the pockets of his coat, but the shadows still covered his face. “Who the hell are you? How did you get in my office?”
“I’m the one asking the questions tonight, Twain,” the man said.
Arby reached over and turned on his desk lamp. He gasped as he looked up at the man’s face, or at least where his face should have been. There was nothing there. No eyes, or nose, or mouth, just blank skin. Twain instinctively pushed his chair back away from the man. There was something inherently disturbing about his lack of features. You can’t read a man that has no eyes to look into, no expressions to gage.
“Let’s start with the pack of Gravlok demons you had sent to kill Aristotle Rodor. Who summoned them?”
Twain reached for the phone on his desk. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m calling secur...AAHH!” Twain cried out in pain as the faceless man grabbed his arm and slammed it against his desk before he could reach the phone, holding it there in an iron grasp.
“You’re not calling anyone, Twain,” the man said. He let go of his arm and grabbed the phone from Twain’s desk. He pulled the cord out of the wall and tossed it across the room. Twain opened the top drawer of his desk and reached inside for the gun he kept there.
“AAHHHH!” he cried out again as the man slammed the drawer shut on his hand.
“I don’t think you’re listening, Twain. No security, no demons, no telepaths can read this high up in the building, and whatever magical wards you might have on your office don’t affect me, because I’m one hundred percent human. It’s just you, me, your balls, and this drawer. So what’s it going to be?”
“You think you can intimidate me with violence?”
“I think that whatever I do to you is going to pale in comparison to what the Watchers Council will do when they find out that you have someone on the inside. That you’re planning on selling them a toxic substance that will kill slayers.”
“Whatever Rodor told you is a lie! You don’t have any proof...” Twain was cut off as the man pulled his hand out of the desk drawer and pushed him away with his foot. Twain’s chair rolled to the window before stopping. The faceless man pulled the gun out of the drawer and pocketed it.
“I have all the proof I need. So tell me Twain, what do you think the Watchers will do?”
“If the old Council was still in charge I might have reason to fear for my life, but this group of pansies doesn’t have the stones to do anything to me!”
“Is that so? Well, maybe you’re right, maybe they won’t kill you. Maybe they’ll just freeze your assets, or frame you for insider trading. Or maybe they’ll just wipe your memory, and leave you penniless on the street. Or maybe they won’t get the chance to do any of that, if the slayers in Hub City find out first. What’s that local Watcher’s name again? Harris? Hellmouth veteran, one eye, bad attitude, doesn’t play well with others, isn’t that what you said about him? What do you think his reaction to finding out about this would be?”
“What do you want from me? Money? You looking for a payday?”
He stalked across the room and grabbed Twain by the lapels, hoisting him up against the window and kicking the desk chair away. Twain looked over his shoulder at the window he was pressed against, and down fifty stories to the street below. That’s when he finally saw it, the fear in Twain’s eyes. That’s when he knew he had him.
“I wouldn’t take one red cent of your filthy money you piece of shit,” he snarled. “Maybe I don’t need to tell the Watchers, or Harris. Maybe I’ll just end you right now,” he said, pushing the CEO harder against the glass.
“No, please!” Twain pleaded. “What do you want from me?!”
He let go and Twain dropped to the floor. “The truth Twain, the whole truth and nothing but. The more you talk, the longer you live. So let’s start with those demons, the ones that are left. Where are they, and who summoned them?”
The 23rd Precinct was quiet that night. The desk sergeant was doing a crossword puzzle when the door opened and a man in an expensive looking suit ran in. His tie was loosened and his jacket looked wrinkled. He had a panicked look on his face and he kept looking over his shoulder. He looked shaken the sergeant thought, like he’d been mugged or something.
“Can I help you, Sir?”
“I need to speak to a detective,” the man said.
“If you need to report a crime, I can help you...”
“No, you don’t understand! I’m not reporting a crime, I’m confessing to one! I need protection! I don’t know what he’s going to do to me!”
“The man without a face! If I don’t tell you what I did, if I don’t go to jail, he’ll destroy my life!”
The sergeant stood up. “Wait here Sir, I’ll get a detective,” he said, walking into the back. “This city just keeps getting weirder and weirder,” he muttered to himself.
Arby Twain looked out the front door of the precinct, across the street at a man standing in the shadows of an alleyway. “You have no idea, pal.”
Xander watched from across the street as Twain ran into the precinct and pleaded with the desk sergeant. He told him he would be watching.
There was power in not having a face, Xander realized. Everything was hidden, there was no expression to give away your emotions. You could project anything you wanted, and your enemy could project onto you whatever they most feared. Intimidation was a powerful weapon. He had spent so much of his life fighting against things that didn’t respond to much short of decapitation, he’d forgotten how fragile the human psyche could be. You just had to know how to threaten someone. You had to know what they valued, what they feared, and how to exploit that. After that, it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.
There would always be people like Twain, Xander thought. People the law couldn’t handle and the Watchers wouldn’t touch. Human evil would never be in short supply. So maybe there was room in this city for someone who could do what needed to be done when no one else could. Someone who knew how to ask the right questions.
One month later...
Xander was sitting in his apartment eating breakfast and watching the news when a familiar face popped on the screen.
“Arby Twain, former CEO of Twain Labs, plead guilty yesterday to fraud charges in Hub City municipal court. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, as well as ordered to forfeit all funds and assets determined to be proceeds from his crimes. Included among these assets were over 10,000 shares of Twain Labs stock. The District Attorney’s office called the decision a victory for corporate justice, and admitted that even though they had been investigating Twain’s business practices for years, they had almost no evidence against the businessman until one month ago when he walked into a downtown police station and confessed to his crimes. Twain’s attorney, Robert Shapiro, called the verdict a miscarriage of justice, citing the judge’s decision to allow Twain to enter a guilty plea against his lawyer’s advice. Shapiro claimed that his client was unfit to stand trail, citing his irrational fear of Hub City vigilante, The Question.
“In related news, The Question was spotted downtown again last night. Witnesses say the faceless vigilante was foiling a robbery in the city’s warehouse district. When police arrived they found the robbers bound and gagged with The Question’s calling card...”
Xander clicked the TV off and got up. He walked to the kitchen and started rinsing out his cereal bowl when his phone rang.
“Giles, how’s it going? I take it you heard the good news.”
“Twain’s conviction, yes, I heard,” Giles said.
“Was the Council able to get the shares they needed?”
“We were. The Council now owns a controlling interest in Twain Labs. A team is being sent next week to take over and clean house as it were.”
“Well, you be sure to let them know that I’m here if they need any help with anything. I know where all the best pizza places are in this city.”
“I will, Xander. Actually, there’s another reason I called. I have some good news of my own. The High Council has finally reached a decision regarding Malcolm Soffera.”
“The spy that Twain had in the Council? What did they decide?”
“He’s been given the status of persona non grata within the Council, and deported.”
“Deported? You mean he’s not British?”
“His mother was, his father was South African, that’s where he was born and raised. Last I heard he was on his way back there. I’m just sorry there wasn’t anything more we could do to him. If the Watchers were recognized as an official government organization, we could have had him charged with treason.”
“I’m sure you did everything you could, Giles. I’m just glad he was exposed. He could have done a lot of damage in the Council, even without Twain’s help. I’m glad the Council finally decided to consider The Question’s letter and conduct an investigation.”
“Yes, that’s another thing. The Council is very curious about this Question character. What can you tell me about him?”
“Not much, really. He just showed up at my apartment one night, about a month ago, before he even hit the news, and gave me that letter that I forwarded to you. He said I might find it interesting. After I read the letter, I called you. From everything I’ve heard and read about him, he seems on the level. I think he just wants to help.”
“All the same, it makes the Council nervous to have a vigilante running around in a city where we have a major presence.”
“Especially when they expose a Council affiliated company as crooked, I’m sure,” Xander added. “That has to be embarrassing.”
“Embarrassment aside, he did expose a plot against the slayers, so I’d have to say that that puts him in our plus column.” Giles paused, Xander could almost hear him polishing his glasses over the phone. “Speaking of Twain Labs, I do believe that I owe you an apology, Xander,” he said.
“An apology? For what?”
“You were right not to trust them with your slayers. If you had, they may have found a much more devious way to hatch this little plot of theirs, and they may have never been exposed. I was wrong not to trust your judgment on the matter, and I’m sorry for that.”
“You don’t owe me an apology Giles, you didn’t know.”
“All the same, I believe I do owe you one. You see, I’ve known you for quite a while now Xander. I’ve watched you mature from that teenager I once knew into an amazing young man. Sometimes, living on the other side of the world from you, I forget that. But you’re a field Watcher now, a position that you’ve more than earned, and you deserve the respect that goes along with that. I promise you that I’ll do my best to remember that from now on. I’m very proud of you Xander, of the man you’ve become.”
“Giles, I...I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
“It’s just something I should have said a long time ago. So, catch me up on what’s going on in Hub City? How’s that new slayer of yours coming along in her training? Trish was her name, right?”
“Yeah, Trish. She’s doing good. She...”
Xander and Giles talked for a little while longer, and during the entire conversation Xander had a hard time keeping the smile from his face.
“Boy bands are part of an alien conspiracy! They created the hole in the ozone with their spaceships, and now they’re trying to destroy our brains with mindless pop music! It contains secret subliminal messages that make us eat fast food and believe whatever George Bush and Oprah Winfrey say!”
Xander watched from across the street as the homeless man with the sign that said ‘Homeless Because I Know Too Much’ ranted and held out his hat. Most people just ignored him as they walked past, not even looking at his face. Some people laughed and threw change into his hat. “Must be some of that ‘local color’ they talk about in the travel brochure,” Xander heard one tourist say to his wife as they walked past.
Xander crossed the street and walked up to the man with a smile. “You sir, got any spare change for the tr...oh, it’s you,” he said disappointedly when he looked up at Xander’s face. “I ain’t got no use for bus tokens pal, thanks but no thanks.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I was in a hurry that day,” Xander said.
A couple of people rushing down the sidewalk walked between the man and Xander. “Seems to be a lot of that going around these days,” he said. “Damn shame, this whole world is getting nowhere fast.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. So, what’s today’s message? The sinister nature of aglets?”
“Nah, no one cares about aglets. Not sexy enough. The truth has to have sex appeal these days for anyone to listen. Besides, the government has much more efficient ways to track people these days.”
“That’s right,” Xander said. “I heard that they put a radioactive dye in toothpaste that can be detected by spy satellites, that way not only do they know where you are, but how often you brush.”
The old man’s face scrunched up in confusion and he looked at Xander oddly for a second. “What are you, crazy or something?”
Xander just looked at him for a moment before a smile cracked across his face. Then he started laughing. Just a titter at first, but soon it was a full on guffaw. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “You know, I don’t even know anymore,” he said with a smile. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out, then dropped it in the man’s hat. “Thanks for the laugh old timer, I’ll see you around.”
The old man watched Xander walk away with the same puzzled look on his face. Then he looked down into his hat and saw a folded fifty dollar bill. His eyes lit up as he reached in and pulled it out to see if it was real. There was a small white card attached to the bill with a paper clip. He turned it over, but the card was blank. He pulled it free of the paper clip, and as soon as he touched it, a puff of green smoke came off of it. When it cleared, there was a large black question mark printed on the card that hadn’t been there a moment before. The old man’s eyes got even wider.
“The Question. The Question! Hey, everybody, that guy was The Question! That’s him, over there! Look, it’s The Question, just look! The guy with the eye-patch!” But no one was paying attention. No one even looked at him. “Damn you people! You think you know what reality is! You think you know what’s crazy and what’s sane! You think you’ve got all the answers! But you don’t even know the question!”