Sharp Chapter One

Here’s Sharp Chapter One to give you a nutty little taste. Pumpkin patches make for a fun Halloween, unless your secret life as a part-time superhero is your only alibi for murder.

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Sharp Chapter One

When Andy screamed, Zita Garcia naturally assumed he had also seen the promised land.

Andy, one of her two best friends, leaned forward and jerked his chin at the front window of the little hybrid car. His arms still held up the long ebony plait of his hair that he’d been re-braiding after their hike in the Appalachians. “Did you guys see that?”

Zita certainly had. “An all-you-can-eat buffet! Time for dinner!”

Her other best friend, Wyn, groaned. She lifted her chin, but kept her attention on driving at a far-too-sedate pace down the empty rural road. Fetching chestnut wisps of hair curled around her pale, pretty face, escaping the bun she’d somehow confined her long curls in. “I already missed the entrance, Zita. What were we looking at, Andy?”

Twisting to see the sign behind them, Zita said, “Dinner! It’s cheap and your turn to buy, Wyn.” She turned back toward her friends and ran her hands through the short, choppy lengths of her own black hair, finger-combing it to ensure she didn’t have leaves or anything in it that would drop in the food.

In the reflected light of the dashboard, shadows accented the intensity and sharp angles of Andy’s solemn face. He made a low noise in his throat and snapped the band on the end of his braid. “Not the buffet. Must’ve imagined it.”

“Very well. We are later returning than I’d planned due to all of the construction traffic. I suppose we could turn around and feed Zita before she expires. Nourishment would be welcome, and this hamlet, though picturesque, seems to lack any other dining.” Wyn frowned.

Zita sniffed and rubbed her flat, growling stomach. “My metabolism is fast because I’m a serious athlete. Regular meals are import—”

Wyn gasped.

Brakes squealed, the car spun, and Zita’s seat belt tried to cut her in half as her petite form was thrown against it hard.

A curse escaped her. Maybe several in multiple languages.

The vehicle came to a tilting stop in a ditch beside the road.

“Please tell me you guys see that,” Andy breathed, staring out the windshield.

Hands clenched on the steering wheel, Wyn replied, “Hard to miss.”

For a moment, a mass of wriggling brown obscured the view as squirrels poured over the car rather than going around it, and then the mob streamed across the pavement toward a squat building.

“I knew I saw something before,” Andy muttered.

Zita studied the building the animals were targeting.

A thick yellowed concrete strip ran the length of the faded but tidy brick structure, with the company name barely visible in gold paint. Glass was missing from a couple of the windows that dotted the second floor, allowing bright industrial lights to shine through. A gently sloping roof capped it all off, studded with multiple vents, pipes, and other no doubt necessary bits of engineering. The parking lot spread from the factory to the road, surrounded by a tidy fence of trees in full fall foliage. Between the artificial lighting and the waning gibbous moon, the horde of animals was easy to spot.

“Either those squirrels think they’re lemmings, or the Squirrel King is attacking this…” Zita squinted to read the sign at the entrance to the lot. “¿Neta? He’s attacking a nut factory?”

As if it explained everything, Andy sighed and shook his head. “Theme villains.”

Wheels spun and threw mud as Wyn tried to back out of the ditch. “I suppose our plans have just changed. Andy, would you be so kind as to move my vehicle away from here so our identities are not exposed by its presence?” she said grimly.

Her phone rang. Zita glanced down. Miguel. Definitely not the time to talk to my big brother. She sent it to voice mail and glanced toward the parking lot.

Andy held up his hand. “Wait! Before we act, can we let him steal some nuts and leave? In a small town like this, the factory’s probably the biggest employer and fighting might damage the place. Not to mention, we agreed to keep a low profile after the Department of Metahuman Services thing in August. I’ll haul the car out of the ditch either way.”

Trickles of squirrels still entered the factory doors. More worrisome, a handful of cars dotted the lot.

Zita grimaced and let the buffet dreams dissipate like cotton candy in the rain. “Mano, as much as I get what you’re saying, the factory’s not empty. If it’s anything like the first time I met him, he has hostages. We got to at least check it out. You think this town has expert hostage negotiators who can talk him out of hurting people?”

“While saving the people is paramount, that insignia on the plaque also implies that this may be a local landmark that he might ruin if left unchecked as well. Assuming it is the self-proclaimed monarch,” Wyn said.

“You really want there to be two nutjobs running around committing crimes with squirrel-control powers?” Zita said.

Andy paused, winced, and unfastened his seat belt. “Dad-level pun, Z. Tiny Pennsylvania rural town like this? They can’t have a ton of hostage negotiators or historical landmarks. I guess we should see if he’s taking what he wants and leaving, or if we have to intervene.”

Wyn shut off the car and pulled out masks from the purse squished between her seat and Andy’s. She grumbled. “Just when I thought we were actually getting a nice, peaceful day off—or as nice of one as possible after that excruciatingly long hike. We didn’t even find a suitable rock arch.”

“It was five miles on paved trails through some pretty Pennsylvania woods. That’s an easy warm-up, not a hike,” Zita said.

The witch ignored her comment. “Mind your elbows, Andy, and would you set my car upright in a hidden spot before you rush in?”

He grunted, occupied with trying to wiggle out of his clothing. His shirt came off, showing the top half of his costume underneath and his leanly muscled form. “I feel like I’m doing this in a clown car.”

Zita took the quicker route to undressing, especially given that she was in the cramped backseat. She shifted to a hamster and let her outer clothing fall around her. After extricating herself, she shifted to her Arca form, one identical to her natural shape, save for the long hair, ears, face, and fingerprints. Given how often trouble found her (not to mention the convenience of being dressed to work out at a moment’s notice), she wore the special stretchy sportswear that served as her costume under everything these days. Whatever the special fabric was, it shifted with her, disappearing until she took a humanoid form again. Naked vigilantism only led to questions, lewd assumptions, and the occasional uncomfortable road rash.

She grabbed a mask from Wyn and tied it on. Leaving her hiking boots behind, she dug out the cheap canvas sneakers she’d stashed under one of the seats and stuffed them into her pockets. In the front seat, Andy was attaching a cape to the back of his tank top.

“When you going to give up on those?” Zita asked.

“Never,” he breathed, fitting his own mask over his head. “It’s this or underwear outside my clothes. Someone’s got to respect the classics. We all know it won’t be you.”

“Capes it is, then.” Zita studied the building and planned out loud. She used the names her friends had adopted for their vigilante alter egos. “I’ll scout it so we can find where everyone is first. If we have to act, I’ll distract him. Wingspan can get Muse to the prisoners. She can bubble them to keep the squirrels off. When they’re safe, you can come back and take him out if I haven’t, or Muse can use that sleep spell to knock him out longer than I can without giving him brain damage. More than he already has, anyway.”

“What about the risk of the squirrels swarming you? I don’t doubt your ability to dodge one man, but they’ve got numbers on their side. That would be… a horrific death,” Andy said.

Wyn shuddered.

“Pues, I guess it’s time to find out if I’ve really got that power I was wondering about.” Zita sent up a quick prayer that she was right.

“What power now?” Andy said.

Zita took a deep breath. “I’ve suspected… I think I might have another trick. My luck with animals has been crazy good. When I was at the DMS show prison, the dogs didn’t attack me when ordered to do so, and I didn’t get a single mosquito bite in the Amazon. Sharks and dinosaurs have tried to eat me though, so maybe it’s not all animals?”

“I knew you were cheating! It all makes perfect sense now. I slather myself in mosquito repellent and still end up a mass of itchy welts until I heal myself, but you’re untouched. Between your new gift and Andy’s impenetrable skin, it’s quite unfair,” Wyn said.

Zita lifted her hands in the air. “I could be wrong. It might’ve been good luck.”

Andy suggested, “Do you think you could command the squirrels to all go home? Then we’d only have to deal with Squirrel King, and that’s easier.”

She shook her head. “I can’t command them. They just don’t attack me. It’s…”

“Not the coolest power in the universe, but handy.” He sighed.

“If we assume you have this ability that you’ve declined to divulge to your best friends until now, what if his commands overpower their reticence to harm you?” Wyn tilted her head.

Zita shrugged. “If that’s the case, all I can do is get out of their reach. Teleport if I’m swarmed. If I can, I’ll convince him to go after me, man to vigilante, without his minions. The drama should appeal to him.”

Wyn murmured agreement. “While I dislike relying on a possibility to protect you, it’s as much of a plan as we can do with no other information. I’ll have to put him to sleep to avoid him summoning rodent aid and harming the local authorities. Do you think they can confine him with the leadership of the Department of Metahuman Services under arrest?”

“We’ll hope so and warn them about his powers before we take off. Law enforcement was managing before DMS, and they’ll come up with something, even if it’s keeping him sedated,” Andy said. He squirmed, trying to get his jeans off, but the tight confines of the car prevented him from doing much.

As Zita opened the door to rush out, a distinctive ringtone rang out from her discarded clothing. A lifetime of obedience had her snatching it up. With a deep breath, she answered the phone in a burst of Spanish. “Mamá? Is everything okay?”

Warmth flooded her mind as Wyn opened the telepathic link they referred to as party line, allowing the three friends to speak without words. The witch’s mental voice was amused. Why did you pick up the phone? You didn’t bother with the other calls.

The others were Miguel. This one’s Mamá. I always pick up the phone for her. I have to. It’s in the rules, Zita sent back.

Perhaps because he would’ve done the same thing if his parents had called, Andy said nothing.

“Who is this? Why are you answering my daughter’s phone?” Mamá said in the same language.

Hastily, Zita shifted back to herself and sat back down in her seat again. “Here, I had something in my throat. Is this an emergency?”

“I haven’t spoken to my only daughter for two weeks. So, yes, I think it is. Why have you not called me? Do I need to call 911 to make you talk to your mother?”

“I’m sorry, Mamá, I’m in the middle of something with my friends. Can I call you back tomorrow?”

“You said that last Thursday, and I never received a call. Now you are using strange voices when you answer the phone. Are you avoiding me? Ay, I will pray for you. You will miss me when I’m gone, you know, and I’m old. It may be my time any moment, and what will your last words to me be? I’ll call later.”

Zita sputtered. “I’m sorry, Mamá. I mean it, though. Tomorrow. I can call during my lunch or after work.”

After he opened the door, Andy stumbled out. “I can’t get my pants off,” he complained. His voice was loud in the quiet car.

“Was that Andy? What did he say about his pants?” Mamá asked.

Zita gulped and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Ants! He thought he saw ants in Wyn’s car.”

Her mother was silent for all of a moment, then continued scolding her as if Andy’s interjection had never occurred.

Guilt filled her, and Zita bit back the urge to apologize and tell her the truth.

Wyn sniffed and got out of the car, shutting the door louder than it needed. She walked a short distance away and tapped the necklace at her throat. Her usual disguise, that of an icy blond supermodel in a ridiculously impractical and sparkly dress, appeared in her place. The amethyst crown she wore reflected the light. Really? Must you make me sound so slovenly?

Pues, you hate… Zita cut off the thought before it could escape.

I what?

Zita caught the warning notes in her friend’s mental voice and tried to placate her. You do great. Really. I hardly clean at all when I go to your house.

Andy stumbled around, finally ripping off his pants. He tossed the ruined garment and his shoes into the car, and then shut the doors.

We’ll discuss my housekeeping later. The majority of the squirrels must be inside now, as the crowd has thinned to a few stragglers. I’ll alert the police to the Squirrel King’s depredations while I wait for you two to return from your familial obligations and hiding my car. Wyn pulled a cell phone from her purse.

The car tilted, rose in the air, and moved, despite the engine being off.

“I really have to go,” Zita said, grabbing onto a seat rest to keep from sliding even in the tiny back seat.

Her mother kept talking. It sounded like the usual refrain, so Zita tuned most of it out and waited for a pause that would allow her to speak again.

Plan amendment. Wyn, use your telepathy to locate any hostages in the building. If we can sneak them out without interacting with the Squirrel King, we’ll do that. It’s our best chance to avoid damaging the building or allowing the hostages to be injured. Your car is now at the edge of the superstore parking lot we passed a few miles back. Z, catch up as soon as you can. After setting the vehicle down, Andy tapped on her window. He jerked his chin to the south.

Zita gave him a thumbs-up. Got it. Be there in a sec.

He saluted her with two fingers and flew off.

Police are incoming, but they declined to give an estimated arrival time. Wyn must’ve agreed with Andy’s plan, since their telepathic connection evaporated after her comment.

As the diatribe showed no signs of abating or offering her a chance to speak, Zita winced, but interrupted anyway. “I really have to go. I promise I’ll call you soon, but we need to see if those are ants! The bitey kind!”

Mamá drew in a deep breath. “Do not hang up on your mother! I don’t know what bad habits you’ve picked up living on your own, but you do not do that to me.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Sorry. I’m sorry I forgot to call before, but I promise it’ll be tonight.”

Her mother made her wait a few precious seconds, and finally said, “Very well. Tonight. Not too late. I don’t want to miss my shows.”

“Yes, perfect! Love you, bye!” Zita said, hitting her phone off and tucking it under her clothes. Automatically, she calculated the time difference to figure out how long she had to call back. After a quick check to ensure no one in the store parking lot would see, she locked the doors of the car and then teleported herself up into the sky.

Nuts and smoke perfumed the crisp air, almost hiding the thick scent of leaf mold as she shifted to an owl and followed the road back toward where her friends were. To speed up the journey, she teleported small distances until she’d reached them.

The large, well-lit building was easy to find again, especially with the racket of machinery operating in the otherwise quiet night. In their respective disguises, Andy and Wyn hid behind an SUV close to the building. The witch stared toward the factory, the amethyst eyes of her illusion blank. Andy was carrying her in his arms. None of the squirrels remained outside anymore.

Party line returned.

Wyn reported in. I sense multiple minds in rough proximity. They are in the lit section of the factory. Commandeering their eyes to check would be a horrible invasion of privacy, and I don’t intend to contact strangers mentally, explaining my secret power, and requesting permission.

My turn to scout. Trusting in her owl shape to hide her, Zita flew to the factory and circled it.

Random objects propped open two side doors, presumably to allow the rodents easier access than through the broken windows. A smaller, obvious addition housed the loading dock. The door was open, and a rental moving truck sat in the space meant for a sixteen-wheeler, festooned with a frightening amount of rodent droppings and garish ads proclaiming low rates. Two large plastic bags of nuts sat forlornly in the open back of the vehicle.

A squirrel ambled from the back of the truck into the facility.

Zita smothered the avian impulse to chase it. Instead, she landed on the ledge outside one of the broken upper windows of the main building, and peered in through an empty window pane.

The man known as the Squirrel King strolled down the wide center aisle of an enormous room. A large tuft of hair waved above each ear, standing out from his mass of unruly brown hair. He wore a tuxedo, top hat, and monocle. Had he not been shouting, his ranting would’ve been drowned out by the clamor of the machinery. As it was, she tuned him out once she realized he was going off on his favorite topic, the supremacy of squirrels, while he waved a gold-topped cane in the air.

She tried to spot any factory staff stuck listening to him.

A giant maze of hulking machinery and moving conveyor belts lined the walls, humming and rattling and doing mysterious things. At least half of it ran automatically, well above the heads of the people standing on the floor. Giant bags of nuts rode on thick hooks by the ceiling. People were probably supposed to pull them off by the door to the landing dock, given the cleared space and pallets of already-processed bags there, but no one tended it now and the bags continued slow revolutions of the room. Ladders rose to the upper levels periodically, next to small computers at standing desks.

A person stood by each of the machines, some holding equipment as if it would bite them, and none of them dressed for the job. Two wore janitorial uniforms and plastic gloves, three wore similar uniforms but sported large flashlights and walkie-talkies, and a woman in a suit manned the last one. Chains wound around the lower legs of each prisoner as they clumsily attempted to perform different tasks.

Spotted janitors, security, and an office type. How many minds did you sense in the building other than me? Human ones, Zita sent.

Squirrels dripped off the machines that were not on, bounded along them, or burrowed through boxes and bags, cheeks bulging. An enormous plastic bag spilled shelled peanuts across the floor, the label barely discernable with the number of rodents infesting it.

As she thought of how much cleaning the place would need before it could open again, Zita winced.

If you count the Squirrel King and not yourself, seven. Though you and he are on different wavelengths than the others, I assume because you’re shifted, and he’s… unique, Wyn replied.

Zita frowned. All the hostages are alive and in the same room, but they’re chained to machines and separated.

So, either I free them and take them to wherever Muse has her barrier set up, or we go from person to person. Andy was clearly working out tactics.

Wyn joined his musing. We’re probably more efficient if you free them and fly them to me. If I stay in one place, I can focus on maintaining the shield spell and avoid putting those we’ve freed at risk should he notice us. Dare I hope that the erstwhile monarch is wandering elsewhere and we need not fear attracting his attention when we free the hostages?

No such luck. He’s in the same room, along with a zillion of his furry little buddies, Zita sent. He’s going on and on. You know, normal bad-guy-talking-to-hear-their-own-opinions stuff.

Andy sounded more cheerful. Monologues work in our favor, as they rarely do anything else while they’re talking. You’ll have to lure him out so we can free people. It shouldn’t be hard. Annoy him and make him chase you.

Zita sighed and launched herself off the window. She spiraled down to the ground, guessing she’d have more luck if he thought he could actually catch her. I’ll try and talk him into leaving peacefully.

Amusement and doubt reverberated over party line.

Andy’s mental voice held a snicker. Glad we’re all on the same page. We’re waiting outside the small door to the parking lot whenever you give the signal, Z.

She harrumphed mentally. Pues, I’m shooting for the back door by the loading dock, then. Keep hidden and your shield up in case he sends some out that way.

Have no fear. We’ll fly high enough that they won’t touch us, Andy sent.

Remembering her previous encounters with the villain and the book on animals she’d been reading on her treadmill, Zita warned her friends, Make that higher than usual. I don’t know if it’s because squirrels are good at it or all his hot air, but Squirrel King can jump really well.

I’ll keep my physical shield up, then, Wyn sent.

After she landed in front of the loading dock, Zita shifted to her Arca form. She flexed her shoulders and slipped on her shoes. Fortunately, this side door was one they’d chosen to prop open, with a coffee maker blocking the opening.

She stepped inside. It was a short, plain entry hallway, with a row of lockers that led up to a small table with a time clock and a daily calendar on it. While she couldn’t see the villain himself through one of the large pieces of machinery, several of his rodents were stationed near the door.

Squirrels cried out, flashing their tails in alarm, and several rushed at her. Five feet away, they stopped and made chirping sounds. After milling around for a few seconds, they returned to their original positions.

¡Gracias a Dios! My guess was right. Animals don’t like to attack me. Maybe it’s a limited range, given that the squirrels charged me and then backed off? Zita released the breath she’d been holding and moved to the table so she could see into the room. Even with all the metal nearby, the overriding scent was of roasting nuts, peanuts, and—she stopped herself from cataloging the foods and focused on picking out the people. Her stomach grumbled in protest.

“All is well, then, my people?” The Squirrel King used a gentle tone with the animals, but his voice grew harsh and shrill as he addressed his hostages. “Why is this taking so long? And why do I smell burning nuts?”

She bit her tongue to keep from answering his question with a snarky comment. Diplomacy. I need to be smooth here.

One of the prisoners replied, “Probably because none of us knows how to work the machines! These aren’t our jobs! Please, just take one or two of the finished bags from the day shift and let us go!”

“You’ll go when I’m satisfied and not before,” the Squirrel King snarled. His voice seemed fainter.

Stepping out from her cover, Zita couldn’t let that one pass. Her reply came out, thick with the fake Mexican accent that was both a comfort and disguise. “That’s a little pushy for a first date, dude. At least buy them dinner first.”

The Squirrel King stood in the center aisle still, almost at the opposite end from her, facing one of the security guards. To her surprise, he turned toward her, threw up his hands in the air and cackled. “At last! You have finally found your courage!”

“You’re… happy to see me?” Zita felt her eyebrows rise and she couldn’t resist a quick scan of the room to see if she’d missed a death trap or sniper or something else terrifying like the guys from that makeover show Wyn liked. She double-checked the floor. It didn’t appear to open up into a revolving death arena or anything, and it was too far inland for sharks to be a concern. A big concern, anyway. She wouldn’t put it past some of the oddballs they’d fought, especially this one, to import animals.

Concern vibrated over party line.

He puffed out his chest. “Yes, of course! As unworthy as you are to be my nemesis, only you have ever gotten the better of the Squirrel King in a battle, though your tactics were cowardly. With these squirrels as my witness, I challenge you to single combat, so that I may scrub the stain of that sole defeat from my honor with your blood!”

The squirrels in the room all squeaked and waved their tiny arms in the air.

“I don’t think the cheering counts if you’re making them do it,” Zita said, wiggling her fingers toward the animals.

The Squirrel King ignored her comment. “Our might is understandably terrifying to a monkey like yourself, which explains why it has been months since we last joined in combat—”

She wrinkled her nose. “Dude, I’m not joining with anything of yours. Just saying.”

“Do not deny the truth or the might of Squirrelkind!” He held out his arms wide and spun in a circle.

Several of the squirrels followed suit, still squeaking, though she noticed many ate while they did so.

“Did we change topics? I haven’t heard of you since you accidentally got broken out of jail by those thugs,” she said. “And seriously, a nut factory? ¿Neta?”

The Squirrel King’s expression was quizzical. “What? The sign itself says it has the finest ones in the world! We deserve the best!”

The rodents waved their arms and squeaked again.

“And they’re even cracked, just like you, but isn’t it a bit predictable? Squirrels, nuts…” She gestured around them at the animals stuffing their faces. There were more in one place than she’d ever seen before or wanted to see all at once ever again. “Not that I want to encourage you to do more criminal shit, but is this a good use of your time? You could probably be on TV and speak for squirrel rights and stuff, or start a squirrel shelter or something.”

He actually paused to consider her words, absently accepting a nut from a squirrel and nibbling on it. “My natural charisma and majesty would make me a natural at such things, but I am a hands-on monarch. Besides, this mission is no ordinary claiming of the tithes due me. Tonight, tonight I shall have my vengeance on you and appease my lady queen!”

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