When the people of New Eden celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks I feel their excitement grow with each explosion of color and light; when a son or daughter dies on a battlefield half a world away I feel the weight of the city’s heart; and when the New Eden Gladiators are in line to represent the NFC at the Superbowl and the fans swell with pride, I feel that, too.
Right now, long after midnight and blocks and blocks away from my regular stomping grounds, all I feel is fear.
I’m here investigating rumors that Castletown, once a thriving neighborhood of restaurants and family-owned shops but long ago shunned by police, has gained a protector… And I’m always on the hunt for new talent. You might think of me as New Eden’s caped, blindfolded, and shepherd’s crook-carrying welcoming committee.
“Nevermore!” squawks the raven perched on my shoulder. He unfolds great black wings and gives them a tentative flap to rid himself of invisible dust but settles again, his loyalty to me overcoming the psychic discomfort.
The raven’s smaller brother darts ahead to the alley’s entrance, and lights atop a street sign. I see what he sees, and what he sees is a blasted urban wasteland: garbage piled high enough to hide behind, stripped and fire-blackened cars, and not much else. Even the worst of New Eden’s streets team with some sort of life and activity after dark, even if it’s only a bunch of teenagers hanging out on a stoop, passing around a 40oz. or a joint, laughing and playing their music too loud.
I reach out with my mind and sense… there is still life in this neighborhood, hidden behind bolted doors and caged windows: cryptozoic, safe.
Emerging from the alley, I unglove a hand, touch the side of the building nearest me. It has a tale to tell. Long after police wrote Castletown off as ‘unfixable,’ limiting patrols to a minimum and only in daylight, the worst of the worst drug gangs New Eden has to offer moved in, seized the area as a base of operations. Their supremacy lasted long enough for them to graffiti the walls with their tags:
And then they vanished. Someone — or someones — sent them fleeing; he (or they) had left behind his tag, too, letting future would-be invaders know that Castletown would never belong to them.
I don’t recognize the tag. “Who uses a pair of bloody shears as a logo?” I ask no one in particular. I touch the logo; it comes away from the wall on my fingers.
“Nevermore!” Squawks Heckle, the great black-winged raven on my shoulder. It’s all he ever says. Jeckle, his smaller brother, only squawks, looks back over his shoulder at me, and squawks again. Warning me that someone — or something — is coming.
A high-pitched scream tears up the walls. And with the scream a voice filled with laughter:
“Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go! Out cries the suck-a-thumb: No! No! No!”
Followed by a crack! loud as a gunshot.
“Snip! Snap! Snip! It goes so fast! Now the first thumb’s off at last!”
I move in the direction of the voice and the screams; in a nearby vacant lot I find the source of both.
A boy, couldn’t be more than thirteen years, kneels bleeding onto ancient newspapers, hugging a bleeding hand tight to his chest, a can of spray-paint in the dirt before him. Towering above him: a slender, maniacally grinning figure in top hat, tails, and aristocratic knee-breeches the exact color of the boy’s blood.
“Mind, young squire, what We say: Castletown is no place for you to play!”
The boy responds with ragged sobs.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! We mean only to disarm, to take from you your ability to do greater harm! Be now on your way for we spy another — is she friend or is she foe? As of yet We cannot say!”
The boy stumbles to his feet and runs, fist jammed into his armpit. I reach for him, to touch his shoulder, but he shrugs off my hand as he passes. Only after he’s staggered completely out of sight does the tall, impossibly slender man focus all of his considerable attention on me.
We stand our ground staring at one another, a pair of samurai warriors out of a Kurosawa film, contemplating the literally thousands of ways the next few seconds could play out before either of us commits to the first move.
The slender man at last makes the first move: snapping bloodied shears as big as machetes, sheathing them into oiled holsters on either hip, his actions quick, smooth, well-practiced. Never once does the grin leave his face. Is it a mask? Is it painted on? From where I stand I can’t tell. It could be his real face or, at least, his true one: a nightmare visage to strike terror in the cowardly hearts of wrongdoers.
“You are Raven Nevermore, if We may be so bold! A fellow punisher of naughty suck-a-thumbs – or so We are told!”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” I say. At my sides I ball up my hands into fists until they hurt. “What are you called? Answer quickly now, while still you can manage!”
Damn. He’s got me doing it.
“It’s to be a fight? A contest of champions, a test of skill and might?”
“It is a time-honored tradition,” I admit. I unball my fists, try to relax. Whatever happens, I won’t be winning a fight with this creature on strength alone. “But no, I don’t want to fight you. I want to know your name.”
He claps his hands together with glee, unfolds himself to his full height until he occults the light of a guttering streetlamp. I stand in his shadow, my ravens straining their necks to stare him in the eye.
“Sorceress Supreme Raven Nevermore wishes to know our name? Life henceforth will ne’er be the same!” In one sweeping motion he snatches off his top hat and bows deeply. “We are the terrible tall tailor the suck-a-thumbs fear to a man: We are the great, long, red-legged Scissor-man!”
And this child’s drawing of a Regency-era gentleman come to terrifying life takes my hand by the fingertips and busses the back of it gently with cold lips, and I sense not a single mind behind those bright, glassy eyes, but many.
He leaps onto the roof of a flamed-out Buick and performs a perfect pirouette.
“Our fame has travelled near and wide and at last I can speak without false pride! Once these homes were cowed by foul dread, but now the children sleep sound in their beds! For once upon a time men came here with guns… but ran away shrieking and missing their thumbs!”
“And the child you just maimed?” I demand. “What was his crime?”
“To teach him a lesson I cut off just the one thumb,” and he scratches his chin, “but I left the other which surely is better than none…”
“You’re not answering my question. I’ll tell you what he was doing: to the world he was announcing that the Great, Long, Red-Legged Scissor-Man is as bad as the criminals he punishes! Worse! He was marking your turf with your logo!”
The Scissor-man dropped to the dirt before me, bent himself in half so he was staring into my face where my eyes were hidden behind my blindfold. Heckle and Jeckle, both settled on either of my shoulders, squawk their protest to this invasion of my personal space.
“And now I know why you cover your eyes.” The corner of his mouth curls up in a snarl. He’s beginning to understand now, and it’s making him angry. “You hide them from the truth so you can tell yourself lies.”
“What drives you, Scissor-man? Do you thirst for justice? Or the quiet of the grave? Who are you protecting? People too poor to escape your reign of terror — or merely yourself?”
The air turns electric, with a negative charge: I know the instant my words pass my lips that they are killing words. Heckle and Jeckle leap from my shoulders and into the air, leaving a swirl of coal-black feathers in their wake. The Scissor-man has unsheathes his weapons and strikes the ground at my feet as I leap —
“All talking is done!” he howls. “You clearly pity the suck-a-thumbs! To thee I say ‘Nay!’ Now get out! Go home! Go away!”
He thrusts again, catching my shepherd’s crook in his bloody shears, squeezes until the wooden shaft shatters under the pressure. I let it go and retreat. He is displeased and his frustration manifests itself physically: in the seconds since his first attack he has doubled in size.
“Why do you question our technique,” the Scissor-man roars, “when We’ve proven its efficacy beyond critique?” He stomps down one foot onto the chassis of a hollowed-out Gremlin hatchback, crushing it flat.
I slam myself against the door of the nearest tenement building with force enough to burst the ancient lock; it gives way and I tumble inside. Heckle and Jeckle dive and swoop in through the door before I kick it shut.
A massive fist punches through the door, reaching for me as I crab-walk up the first flight of steps before flipping myself over and dog-paddle my way towards the roof. The tenants have suddenly come awake, realizing a sudden need to be outside and away from the monster smashing fists the size of Volvos through the front of their homes. I press myself against the walls to avoid being carried away by them.
Up a rusted ladder bolted to the wall and through a trap door and I’m standing on the roof. The Scissor-man’s head heaves up and up, blocking out the moon.
“Heckle, Jeckle: eyes!”
Without regard for their own safety my ravens throw themselves at eyes as big as searchlights. The Scissor-man’s next rhyming couplet curdles into a scream.
I climb the retaining wall that surrounds the roof and leap into space, aiming myself for the gaping black maw in the center of the Scissor-man’s face. I won’t be discovering the terrible tall tailor’s secret by dodging his shears; to know what I need to know I need to get inside him, and find out what really makes him tick.
I’m falling, plummeting through ink-thick blackness. I whisper to myself: “I wish I had thought this through a little more,” and — BAM! — I am floating gently as a leaf on a breeze. As I touch down on what constitutes a floor in this place I am overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity (I know this place) the way a bus rider knows she is close to home the moment she recognizes that first landmark.
Every living, self-aware mind — human, dog, cat, cockroach, it’s not exclusive — generates an electrical field. Link those fields together and you have a network than circles the globe and reaches toward the stars, a force as real and powerful as gravity itself. Karl Jung sensed it, struggled to give a name. He called it the collective unconscious and waved his hands around trying to think of something better. I call it dream-space. It’s the source of my powers and though I am not arrogant enough to believe it exists for my sole benefit and use, I have never encountered another active mind within its ever-changing, lavalite borders.
I sense that this is a finite space: even though its borders to stretch away for miles and miles. It is of the dream-space but not part of it: a pocket universe protruding through an imaginary crack in the wall of the greater collective unconscious. The way a loop of colon squeezes through a rupture in the abdominal wall.
I hook a thumb in my blindfold, yank it up to my forehead: without my ravens I need my own eyes for seeing.
At my back, the sound of tiny feet slapping water, an angry growl—
I turn. Too late: something hits me in the gut hard enough to drive the wind from me.
Sprawled before me now is a boy, brown skinned, black haired, not six years old. He’s on his butt in inch-deep water, breathing hard from exertion, his features snarled in anger.
“Got you,” he rasps. “I got you.”
I don’t know what he means, not at first. Then I look down, and I do.
Sticking out of my belly: a pair of sewing shears with blades the size of machetes and smeared with someone else’s blood. This can’t be healthy.
I drop to my knees, put one hand out to stop me from falling face-first into the wet and driving the shears even further into my guts. With my other hand I grip the handle, yank hard, hoping that if I get them out of me quickly the damage will be minimal. But they’re in too deep — I can feel the points of both blades scraping against my spine — and I don’t have the strength to yank them free.
“You killed her!” someone shouts; higher pitched; a girl. “You killed Raven Nevermore! She’s a super-hero! She saves people! And you killed her!”
A little girl rains fists down on my attacker; he throws up an arm to protect himself but doesn’t strike out at her. I am peripherally aware of this; I’m more concerned by the blood, which has begun to flow around the puncture wounds in my stomach. Also, I think my bladder has finally decided to shut down.
Four brown faces, two more boys, two more girls, hover into view, staring down at me.
“Are you dead?” one of the little girls asks.
No… but I’m getting there, I think. Or say out loud. I’m not sure.
The first little girl stops punching my attacker.
“Get those scissors out of her!” she cries.
“Reba, don’t!” my attacker shouts. The tone of his voice says that he’s used to dispatching orders, used to having them followed. “She’ll get you if you don’t get her first!”
Reba jerks to a halt, shuts her eyes. Squeezes them shut tight enough to force out a single tear. When she opens her eyes again her mind is made up.
“Poo to you, Brandon Blatcher! She’s here to save us!” And she turns her back to him. “Maybe she’s here to save us from you,” she says.
“Donté, Allegra, Luis, Feather, everybody! Pull!”
Five sets of tiny hands wrap themselves around the handles of the shears and pull. Hard. Harder. A gunshot krak! as two of my ribs shatter.
“This isn’t gunna work, Reba,” one of the girls, Feather, I think, says. “It’s in too deep!”
I’m forced to agree.
“It’ll work if we all pull together,” Reba insists.
“But we are!”
“No, we’re not. Brandon!”
“What? Oh, no way! I am not helping!”
Reba stomps over to Brandon. Brandon thrusts out his chin — Bring it! — but ducks his head when the little girl raises up her fists to deliver a second beating. Brandon scurries over to me, grabs on to the handles alongside the others.
Reba joins him. “Now, everybody: PULL!”
The blades slide out agonizingly slowly at first — then all at once. Invoking Newton’s Third Law the children go tumbling ass-over-teakettle backwards into a great pile.
I flop onto my butt, rub a hand over my belly. No gaping wounds, no shattered bones. I’m healed and whole again.
Reba approaches, more timidly than before, reaches out a hand to mine. I take it, let her help me to my feet.
“It’s just a dream,” she says.
I nod in agreement, but I know it’s more than that. This dream belongs to these six extraordinary children alone.
“I can teach you how to use your powers,” I tell her. “Let me help you.”
“We’re not ready,” Reba says, and she looks back over her shoulder at Brandon. “First, we need to figure out who’s in charge around here!” Brandon looks away, cheeks burning, too embarrassed to reply.
A burst of light nearly blinds me. I hold up a hand to shield my eyes.
“That’s the way out,” Reba tells me. She lets go of my hand.
I walk into the light and keep walking until I stand again in the vacant trash-filled lot where, only moments ago, the Scissor-man stood towering above me. Instead of a monster I find a book, splayed open on a flat table of broken concrete. I start to read:
“The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged Scissor-man!”
I close the book and tuck it under my arm