1 A Crow with a Gun (1/2)

At twelve years old, Claudia Crow was unimpeded by the cynicism that shackles the adult mind. She had always believed in elves, fairies, goblins, and dwarves. She believed aliens existed out there somewhere, and that her secretary was an artificial intelligence that resided in a technologically altered suit of armour. However, unlike most children, Claudia was not impressed by fairy tales.

She was a Crow. As anyone could tell you, the Crows were thieves.

Unhampered by bothersome morals, not yet crippled by adult logic, and blessed with a double-share of cunning, Claudia was in the singularly unique position to exploit her knowledge for all it was worth. There's no proper place to start listing Claudia's crimes, but a good image of her character can be drawn from one of her earlier schemes: the black magic incident in LA, concerning one troll-mutant and Officer Rayne Foster of the LAPD's Division 32.

Solace Research Facilities,

Los Angeles, CA

The heat did not suit Claudia. She was wilted beneath the glare of an early Summer, as if mother nature herself knew and disapproved of the child's unsavory dealings. Claudia, however, cared nothing for the opinions of others. She had more important things to deal with--for example, the shot she'd just discharged into the head of a man three stories below her position on the roof of an abandoned laboratory.

The gun glittered in her hands, warm steel slick with sweat. Her course was set.

Three bullets left.

Petty Officer Rayne Foster stared at her in shock. Of all the nightmarish possibilities he'd considered enlisting Claudia Crow, he had never anticipated this.

"He's dead." The officer said stupidly, staring down at the broken body of Theodore Moon.

"Incapacitated." Claudia corrected. "For now."

"You shot him in the head." Foster's voice was strangely calm. He couldn't quite process what had just happened.

"We were lucky. We won't be next time."

The girl held out a hand to the man. Silk gloves covered her fingers, disappearing into the folds of her impeccably tailored peacoat. The edges of her stark white sundress fluttered around her ankles like trapped butterflies. The Chinese color of death.

I have made a terrible mistake, Officer Foster thought.

He had.

Three stories below, Theodore Moon's body began to shake. Black sparks danced along his skin. Violent shudders wracked his form as the magic began to take effect, forcing his natural healing capacity into overdrive. Blood loss and brain damage would have made recovery impossible for an ordinary man.

But Moon had ceased being ordinary long ago. The harsh enchantment wove Moon's own life-force into the spell, compelling his cells to multiply at inhuman rates, while Moon suffered the agony of injury and recovery simultaneously. Cruel, crude, and effective. Claudia, watching from above, grunted in approval.

Beside her, Foster squeaked with alarm.

"His DNA has been interwoven with strands of a troll." Claudia observed. "Predatory instincts and accelerated healing. Fascinating."

"Yeah, until he decides to put a tusk through your chest." Foster snapped.

"Getting a little antsy, are we?" The girl observed coolly.

Foster grunted, reluctant to rise to her teasing. The girl wore a superior smirk on her face, almost vampiric in nature. Officer Foster had to suppress a slight shudder as he remembered precisely who he was working with. This was Claudia Crow, a girl for whom smuggling, kidnapping, and larceny were child's play; a girl who had grown up on the knee of some of the most powerful and dangerous people on the planet. A girl whose intellect would have made her at least a Nobel Prize winner ten times over, if she had not dedicated it to running a criminal empire that put her predecessors to shame.

"Please tell me you have a plan." Foster said.

"Relax, Rayne." Claudia replied. "Everything is going accordingly."

"He's getting back up."

"Which is why we go down."

"Down?" The young man swallowed. "Did you not see what he--that is a troll-man, Crow! An apex predator, with all the cognitive capabilities of a human!"

He didn't mention what Claudia already knew: the building they had chosen to lure the troll-man to was an abandoned research lab, scheduled for destruction. Illegal experiments involving plasma-powered weaponry and off-the-charts radiation had turned the whole block into forbidden territory. Just standing within sixty miles of that basement was like sending a formal invitation to cancer.

"He's getting up." Foster reported.

"I am aware." The girl said, inspecting her gun casually.

"You've only got three bullets, Crow."

"There is little time, Officer, for your theatrics." Crow snapped. "The elevator will be too unstable for use, as this building is scheduled for demolition. Take the stairwell, please, and to the basement."

Foster could handle being forced to cooperate with a known criminal, spending weeks overworked in his shoddy police cubicle, and being regularly disrespected by his fellow officers as a paranoid wacko. But this? Following this juvenile crime boss into a dark basement on a suicide mission?

No way in hell.

"Damn you, Crow." Foster cursed, eyeing the leaky basement apprehensively.

"Language, Officer." The girl chided, raising an eyebrow. "I am a juvenile, you know. You could be having a negative affect on my development."

Foster almost choked on his laughter.

In truth, Foster was nervous. Three months he'd spent chasing a rash of mysterious "monster-men" attacks through the streets of LA. News coverage had speculated a new strain of bear or gorilla, borne from radiation and pollutants that were growing common in big cities. Foster had suspected something more sinister.

His suspicions were confirmed when Claudia Crow had turned up outside his office just last week, claiming she knew the source of the epidemic.

Magic, The twelve-year-old swore, straightening her cravat impatiently. There is black magic afoot, Officer Foster, and they are elbowing in on my business.

If it was not Claudia Crow, Foster would have thought her crazy. In fact, until then, she had been suspect number one in his book. Foster had never met the girl, but he'd heard the rumors from the underbelly of the city: the disappearances of several valuable artifacts, missing art, billions siphoned from political campaigns and corporate slush funds, protection money paid to shadowy figures bearing the mark of a black bird.

But thanks to some mad scientist-turned-warlock, Claudia claimed, the people who paid for her protection were no longer safe: threatened by random attacks by an experiment-gone- wrong. Her authority and good name were on the line.

On her word and a folder of possibly-fabricated information, Foster had followed the juvenile genius into the sweltering basement of an abandoned plasmic test-site. The concrete walls were spotted with mold and laced with cracks. Leaky steel pipes jutted out from the ceilings and walls, while bits of glass, paper, and stone littered the uneven floor. Claudia stepped carefully around the rubble, choosing a position facing the door.

Not five feet away, an abandoned boiler of some sort gleamed in the darkness, metal pistons curled up like the legs of some enormous mechanical spider.

This girl was either a genius of insane.

Maybe I'm the crazy one, Foster thought glumly.

"So, what exactly is the plan?" He asked.

Then the door exploded.

A shower of dust and rubble clouded Claudia's vision, but only for a second. She held the gun steady, as Ottz had taught her.

One shot. A chest wound, but not fatal. Second shot. Complete miss.

The Trollman was too fast. Even being hit in the chest hadn't phased him. Claudia was both fascinated and alarmed.

Up close, she could see the discoloration of his skin to an ashy gray. The Trollman was bulky, like a cartoon henchman, but with some serious overbite and a pair of crescent-shaped tusks. Four eyes, all glittering black, peered out his from under a shaggy mane while the Trollman sniffed the air.

He's savoring the hunt, She thought. That makes two of us.

Nearby, Foster was panicking, but that could be expected. Claudia had needed the cover he would provide, and access to the police files detailing the troll-man's attack patterns, in order to locate it.

The Trollman made its move--a lunge that looked so clumsy you wouldn't believe how fast it actually was. Only her experience witnessing a Troll's predatory speed kept Claudia alive. Abandoning her gun, Claudia drew her favorite weapon: the latest model of Sansung cell phone, with the screen brightness turned up fully.

Claudia had done her research. She knew that nothing was more harmful or irritating to a raging Troll than light--thousands of folk tales and fairy stories could attest to that. Rationally, she had theorized, it would be the same for a Trollman. She was correct.

The Trollman rocked backward, snarling at the electronic glow of Claudia Crow's modified cell phone. Naturally, Claudia had taken the liberty of adjusting her phone's screen so that the maximum light setting was several lumens brighter than average. The effect was quite fascinating; already the Trollman was nursing several pink blisters on his arms, and his eyes were glazed over in momentary blindness.

This was the most delicate phase of the plan.

"Theodore Moon." Claudia spoke coldly. "My demands are simple: Unconditional surrender, and the names of your associates."

Mr. Moon told Claudia to go to hell.

It was the second time that day someone had cursed at her to her face, and Claudia found that she didn't like it.

You've only got one bullet. Foster's words echoed in her mind.

"I am aware." The girl replied, and fired.

Or, she tried to. That was when things started to go wrong.

She tightened her finger on the trigger, but her only reward was a dull click and the realization that perhaps field work should be left to Knight. The gun had just shot a blank. Claudia had made a mistake.

I am going to die, The twelve-year old realized. Very painfully.