A Day for a Modern Heroine

The alarm clock went off, screaming its harsh ululation over and over until a slender, pale hand darted from beneath black sheets and mashed the snooze button. Several minutes passed until the alarm once more began its plaintive whine, begging Lydia to rise from her bed and begin her day. Her hand reached out again and finally switched it off. She dragged a fluffy pillow off her head and squinted at the daylight streaming through her curtains.

With a sigh, she rolled onto her back (she always slept on her stomach, else her demonic looking wings would be cramped and stiff the next day) and sat up. She rubbed her eyes and covered her mouth as she yawned, even though there was no one to see her. Her room was spartan; perfectly white walls with a black bed in the center. The nightstand held the alarm clock and nothing more, while her dresser was a boxy thing that would have looked more at home in a laboratory than a bedroom.

The sheets slid off her, piling in a messy heap on the bed, as she rose. Her spade-tipped tail swished back and forth across the soft cotton; the thing had a mind of its own, she was certain, and it only listened to her sometimes. She wondered if dogs felt the same way about their tails, or cats, or any other animal with a tail. Her tail was prehensile too, maybe that accounted for it. If she ever had the chance to study an opossum, she would have to take it.

She made a languid saunter out of the room, not bothering to make sure there was no one looking despite her state of undress. Her room was at the end of a long, barren hallway lined with doors which led to near-identical rooms, though most were currently unoccupied. She could have selected a room closer to the washroom, but didn’t wish the hassle of moving all her things (even though her father assured her someone else could take care of it).

As she walked, she stretched her arms above her head and took a few steps on her tip-toes, enjoying the brief burning sensation in her still-dozing muscles. Once she reached the end of the hall, she emerged into a large room divided up into numerous cubicles with glass walls. A few of the occupants of these cubicles turned to gawk, for she was by any objective measure very attractive (though genetically tailored to a certain type), but most were too engrossed in their own experiments to bother more than a second glance.

Lydia’s nudity was less a spectacle and more a mundane fact of life, like hot days in July or the incompetence of government. That didn’t stop Dr. Mori from scrambling out of his cubicle, face red and flustered, holding up a white bathrobe.

“Good morning, father,” she said in flawless Japanese to the elderly scientist as he approached her.

He threw the robe at her, glaring at her through his thick spectacles. “I have asked you time and time again to wear clothes,” he admonished her. “Why you disrespect me and embarrass me by gallivanting about is beyond me.”

She shrugged the robe on, her tail circling around her waist to cinch it shut like a belt. Though she had very long legs, it reached her ankles. She kissed Dr. Mori on the cheek. “I am sorry, father,” she said with cold sincerity. “I simply don’t remember. It doesn’t bother me and I don’t think most others mind.”

The slight, stooped doctor spun around, daring any of the earlier gawkers to continue their hungry gazes. The few who had lingered after Lydia covered up quickly lowered their eyes back to their work. He huffed and turned back to the woman he called his daughter.

If any of Dr. Mori’s genes actually were a part of Lydia, it was in her hair and nothing else. Like the doctor, Lydia had very straight and very black hair. Even with his advanced age, the doctor’s hair remained a deep black. Lydia’s differed only in the youthful shine it displayed when brushed straight (which it currently lacked; her hair stuck at odd angles in an impressive display of bed head). The rest of her was so dissimilar to the scientist who had created her that no one would ever confuse them for actual father and child.

That didn’t stop the scientist from calling her his daughter and treating her as such at every available moment. He had been the one to carefully select her genes and splice them together (in order to create a very specific result, but one so complicated that it was considered a minor breakthrough to accomplish); the one who watched her grow in a tube of goop from a cluster of undifferentiated embryonic cells into a baby, then a child, then a young woman. True, this had occurred over the course of about six months. Not nearly the same bonding experience as a normal father and daughter, at least from the father’s eyes.

Lydia saw it somewhat differently, but only somewhat. After all, a woman with a body in its mid-20s and a newborn mind did no one any good (well, at least, for no one who would actually wish to do good). Part of Dr. Mori’s task had been to ready Lydia for her life. He had done this through the creation of a virtual reality learning program which played out in Lydia’s mind at an exaggerated rate, with an avatar of himself as her teacher, guardian, and confidant.

Therein, ultimately, was the problem, as his instructions were only to ensure that Lydia would be capable of performing a very specific role. All the rest was left up to him and he was no sociologist or expert on child development. Things like “you need to always wear clothes” were unfortunately left out of the program, as well as many other important concepts.

By the time she had finished her physical development, it was as if 18 years had passed for her, roughly three years to a month. On her 18th virtual birthday, the avatar of Dr. Mori had promised a surprise for her. She had rather abruptly been brought into the real world to meet the actual Dr. Mori.

Lydia had naturally been rather confused about the whole matter, especially the existence of people other than herself and Dr. Mori. Another thing he had forgotten to include.

But she had adapted over the subsequent year fairly well, in certain areas, and seemed obstinate against adaption in others. The wearing of clothes inside the lab complex which served as her home, for example.

“Get to the shower,” Dr. Mori urged her, pressing his wrinkled hand into the small of her back. “You have a busy day. You know Mr. Sanders will be upset if you are late to work.”

“I can simply make him not upset,” she said without smile or hint of jest.

Clucks of disapproval escaped from Dr. Mori’s mouth. “Now, now, Lydia, you know that’s not an appropriate way to deal with such a problem.”

She shrugged her shoulders and sped her walking so she drew away from him. Her bare feet slapped loudly on the tiled floor. “I don’t see why not. I do the same thing every day at work.”

The doctor started to protest further, but she had reached the washroom and entered before he could speak.

She leaned heavily against the door and sighed. No one else was in the washroom, which was actually little more than a modified emergency shower with some walls hastily constructed around it. She shrugged the bathrobe off, stepped under the shower head, and pulled the chain. She barely flinched as lukewarm water was dumped onto her head, drenching her hair and matting it down.

Once the water stopped, she took the washrag and bar of soap and scrubbed down every inch of herself, from the tips of her horns to the tip of her tail. Her wings were the most difficult thing to wash; her tail assisted her in reaching the tough parts. Once she had lathered up, she pulled the chain again and let the water rinse her off. She repeated by shampooing and conditioning her hair and drenching herself a final time.

With the washing done, which took barely ten minutes, she set about the much more difficult and time consuming portion of her morning preparations. She dried off and then wrapped herself in the bathrobe before trekking down the hallway to another room, trailing water that dripped off her long hair.

Up the elevator, to the AoD Corp: Justice Division section of the building, through hallways made to be much more inviting and cozy than the sterile laboratory which nonetheless gave her a sense of claustrophobic unease, to the women’s dressing room. On a busy day, or later in the afternoon, the room would be filled with contracted superheroines applying their makeup and fixing their hair. This morning Lydia was alone, as it normally was. Most everyone else made due with their own residences out in the city and only came in once it was time to begin their jobs.

Knowing she was unlikely to be disturbed, she shrugged off the robe and laid it on the bench sitting in front of the mirror. She sat down on it, her tail curling around her waist and plopping its tip primly over her lap. She brushed her hair straight, down almost all the way around to the middle of her back. Only her bangs, chopped straight just above her brows, were short. With comb and scissors, she carefully evened those bangs out until they were perfectly straight.

She didn’t need to pluck her eyebrows like some of the other women did. She’d been genetically gifted with smoothly arched eyebrows, naturally long eyelashes, and piercing emerald green eyes. She didn’t need makeup either, but applied it anyway. Dark eyeliner with a slightly Egyptian flare, purple eyeshadow and lipstick that matched the color of her wing membranes.

It was a look she was expected to wear, conceived by some marketing executive, long before she was born, to fit on a cartoon character. It looked slightly cartoonish still, but Dr. Mori had done an exceptional job in crafting her facial structure so it didn’t look ridiculous.

Black fingernail polish was a must. She applied it anew every day, removing it before she went to bed at night. She would have been content with simple touch ups, but corporate had handed down its orders and she followed them like the good little girl she’d been designed to be.

A nail file was used to sharpen her horns to points, one of the few things she did which wasn’t required of her. They were too small to provide any practical purpose, no more than 2” long, and were colored dark pink much like the tip of her tail and the arm and fingers of her wings. She just liked to think that she could stab someone with them if she really wanted to.

With her regular maintenance finished, she began the excruciating task of putting on her costume. A shocking pink leather bustier which was buckled in the front and exposed more of her most common superpower than her father was comfortable with, a similarly-colored knee-high lace cupcake skirt with a dark purple fringe, purple knee-high boots with large buckles, and similar gloves (which led her to wonder why so much concern was made of her nail polish, but she had never argued it). The final touches were three fanged skulls, made of shocking pink resin with purple sockets and nostrils. Two covered her shoulders and a third hung from a collar around her neck.

The costume had, on numerous occasions by people who thought she was not listening, been compared to the attire of prostitutes of colorful specialties (her favorite being “bubblegum goth”, whatever that meant). She didn’t pick the costume, of course. If it were up to her, she would have gone out wearing something much less gaudy.

But her look had been focus tested years ago, before anyone ever even thought about literally bringing a cartoon character to life. How a children’s cartoon had been allowed to have a character so brazenly sexualized was a mystery to Lydia, but – according to Mr. Sanders – the show drew well with single adult males aged 18 to 34, the kind who would spend gobs of excess income (and some who would spend income that would best go toward other things, like rent and a gym membership) on posters and resin statues and other expensive knick-knacks.

And after her first few appearances, where men lined up to take photographs with her for $25 a pop, she agreed the business model seemed sound. A few had presented her with pictures they’d drawn of the cartoon character and asked for her autograph. Security intercepted most of those who tried to present her with the pornographic ones, though a few slipped through. She signed them anyway, as she found herself disconnected from her own sexual identity (another gift of Dr. Mori, though this one not due to oversight, but simple accident. AoD Corp wanted a woman who would not object to being objectified, Dr. Mori wanted a daughter who would remain “pure and innocent” forever). Even the weirdest ones received a bright smile, a swift signature, and an ushering off before the content even really registered with her.

One final adjustment to her top ensured no accidents would occur and she exited the room. By this time, it was nearing noon. She walked briskly back to the elevator and rode it to the ground floor. Her personal secretary was already waiting for her.

Arthur Pence was a brusk, proper gentleman who looked more like a secret service agent than anything else. All straight lined suits and dark sunglasses, though constantly on a smart phone instead of an ear piece. “Ms. Mori,” he said in a flat voice that managed to carry an urgency. “Your first appearance is at noon, in less than twenty minutes. It is a thirty minute drive to reach it. Tardiness is not appreciated.”

She curled her lips up in a faint smile, the first of many false ones she would wear today. “Don’t be so tense, Artie,” she told him, her English just as flawless and unaccented as her Japanese, watching for the hint of bristling at the nickname. He didn’t show any today, which meant he must be in a better mood than his hastiness indicated. “I can always fly over there.” She flapped her wings lightly a few times and rose several inches off the ground.

Arthur placed a hand on her shoulder and lightly forced her back to the ground. “You know we cannot allow that. It would mess up your hair.”

Lydia shrugged. Her father also didn’t appreciate her flying around in her costume (“People can see up your skirt!” he would despair. Paparazzi had already taken those pictures and plastered them on the internet, she reminded him to no avail). “Well then, we had better hurry. Perhaps I should drive today?”

He walked swiftly out the door, his steps broad, without answering her. She could not drive anyway. That was not technically true. She certainly possessed the capability to drive, she simply lacked the legal authority to do so. As far as the government was concerned, she was all of one year old, damn the facts of her physical and mental maturity. One-year olds were not issued driver’s licenses.

They took a company car, an expensive cherry-red sports car of some Japanese design which Lydia had never bothered to remember. It was fast, though, and Arthur handled the vehicle well, weaving in and out of traffic by the narrowest of margins but never seeming to come particularly close to anyone. As they drove, he ran down Lydia’s daily schedule.

The day was to start with a fairly simple birthday party for some young, rich boy who loved her cartoon far too much (AoD Heroes, it was called, with a running gag that no one knew what the AoD stood for. No one did in real life either, of course, except for perhaps Mr. Sanders) and had a father with money to waste. An appearance fee for a private event started at $10,000 for fifteen minutes and went up from there. “He’s thirteen,” Arthur told her. A teenager about to go into puberty? That started at $30,000.

Not that Lydia saw a dime of it. The company had to justify the expense of creating her, after all. To the government, the public, and the corporate bottom line. Her personal appearances were only a small part of the effort to recoup the company’s costs. It would take thousands of birthday parties to begin to even scratch the multi-billion dollar investment into the genetic and cloning technology it took to build a full-grown woman from scratch.

The public and government, of course, were both furious that the company had expended so much money simply to build a pretty woman. The accusations were at times amusing. The first time Lydia had heard she was Mr. Sanders’s personal sex doll, she had nearly collapsed from laughter. Even though he was proud of his company’s accomplishments, Lydia was fairly certain he couldn’t stand to be near her.

The company promised she was merely a proof-of-concept. What concept remained somewhat ambiguous, but the company was always working on something. Everyone complained about the lack of transparency, but the company’s stocks were higher than ever.

They pulled up to a fancy apartment in the middle of downtown Manhattan. The building stretched up into the sky. “Should I fly up?” Lydia asked, craning her neck to look for a roof she couldn’t see.

Arthur raised an eyebrow and offered her a glance. “How do you know where it is?”

She shrugged. “Someone hires me for a birthday, they’re in the penthouse.”

He stepped out of the car. “That might make it more interesting. I’ll call down when they’re ready.” She just nodded at him and leaned back in the seat. She would have stepped outside, but it was a bright and sunny day and she had very fair skin. Getting a tan was against the rules.

Twenty minutes later and the inside of the car was beginning to get uncomfortable. She wondered what was taking Arthur so long. She considered turning the engine on and starting the AC when the buzz in her earpiece finally came. It was her signal to head up and begin the act.

She stepped out of the car, stretched her wings (which had begun to ache from the cramped car. Seats were not made for a woman with wings), and rolled her neck. She gave one last glance in the side view mirror, checking her makeup. It was still perfect.

Her wings unfurled to their full length, almost twice as long as she was tall. With a heave, they thrust her into the air. Pedestrians passing by on the streets gasped. She heard a few cameras going off and knew at least one would be aimed to try and catch a glimpse up her skirt (not that those pictures were uncommon on the internet, or even hard to find. She suspected AoD Corp leaked a few of the better ones). It took her almost five minutes to ascend the length of the building. Sure enough, there at the top, was a gathering of people.

She swooped down from above and let out a loud cackle, drawing the attention of those party-goers who had yet to see her. “Why, what does Madame Temptation see before her eyes but some rich fruits ripe for the picking?” she loudly asked.

Those sort of lines never ceased to feel awkward coming out of her mouth. Though she had the same voice as the actress hired to recite the cartoon lines, and Lydia was a trained actress herself, she knew the role of villain wasn’t meant for her. She wished her character had been one of the heroes, or that Dr. Mori had designed her to relish the role of evil (though she suspected the corp wanted to keep her from actually becoming a criminal).

“What the hell is going on here?” a man yelled at her.

She tittered playfully and circled around the crowd again. “Why, my poor fellow, this is a heist!” she said with a smile on her lips. She glanced down and noticed the speaker held an AK-47 in his hands. Her eyes went wide for a moment, but she caught herself. Part of the act, of course. Any rich boy would have guards, especially with a supervillain known to be in the area.

The man leveled the gun at her. She noticed four others had similar weapons. All were pointed at her. “Get down here, now!” the first man shouted.

She crossed her arms over her chest and submitted to their demands. They kept the weapons trained on her as her heels touched the ground and her wings folded up behind her. She stuck out one foot and tapped it impatiently. “So, where is Isaac Goldstein?” she asked. “I hear it’s his thirteenth birthday party and I’m here to take all his gifts!”

“Lady,” the man said, taking a step toward her, “I don’t know what your game is...” He was a rugged man, with a shaved-bald head and stubbly five o’clock shadow. He was wearing all black, tight clothes and combat boots, made for running.

She looked around at the guests. There were about thirty of them; about half children, all huddled together, scared out of their wits. She gave her best wicked smile to them, but they just stared out her, wide-eyed, instead of flinching back in terror. She wondered which one was the birthday boy, but couldn’t seem to pick him out of the group.

“Isaac Goldstein?” she loudly asked, hands on her hips. She leaned forward menacingly, though she was sure any teenage boy would be focused more on her cleavage than her face. The children remained frozen.

The adults were similarly grouped together, looking worried as well. She had to suppress a frown at that; surely they knew everything was staged?

No matter, she thought. The rugged man was approaching her. “Oh, are you going to stop me all by yourself?” she asked in the most sultry voice she could muster. It was known to have stopped actors in their tracks before.

Instead, he grabbed her arm and violently pulled her back toward the rest of the group. She grunted in annoyance. “Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?” she asked in a whisper.

“What?” the man growled, glaring at her. He was taller than she was, 6’2” at least.

She reached a hand up and cupped the side of his face. “Oh, dear, you really don’t know how to treat a lady, do you?” she loudly asked with a laugh. Rage flickered on his face and he grabbed her wrist and yanked it away.

“Don’t touch me again, tramp,” he said coldly.

This was definitely not part of the regular act. He turned and yanked hard on her shoulder, nearly pulling it from the socket. She gasped in pain and felt tears come to the corners of her eyes. Whoever decided this idiot was a good hire to play the bodyguards was going to get a stern talking to later, she decided. “What are you doing?” she asked loudly, keeping her voice calm as if everything was going according to script. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m – ”

Then he flung her toward the other adults. She stumbled forward, a mixture of confusion and anger swirling through her. She’d never been treated so roughly during one of these performances. Forget a stern talking to, she was ready to take the bodyguard and throw him off the roof. She was just about to turn and break character to rail at him.

It was then that she saw Arthur, standing in the middle of the huddled adults, a bleeding cut over his right eye being stymied only by his handkerchief. She glanced back at the men over her should and took a really good look at their guns. They were very real looking, she suddenly decided. They had wear from use instead of the perfect paint jobs of props.

She scurried over to Arthur, gently pushing her way through the crowd of adults who were still watching the armed men warily. “What’s going on here?” she asked in the softest voice she could muster.

“It’s a real robbery,” Arthur answered. “I got up here right as they were rounding people up.” He noticed her staring at his injury and he let go a rare smile. “They caught me calling you. They thought I was calling the police at first, then they looked and saw it was just to a regular number, so they didn’t kill me.”

“They aren’t taking anything,” she said. “If this is a robbery...”

“These are just the guards,” he told her. “The rest are in the penthouse with Mr. Goldstein. I don’t know what they’re after. Just stay calm. Once they get what they want, they’ll leave.”

Lydia took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her heart was still racing, but this was the chance she’d been waiting for. “I can stop them,” she said boldly.

Arthur didn’t react at first. He didn’t seem to have even heard her, but he finally said, “Don’t.”

“I have to!” she harshly whispered. “This is what I was made for, I’m sure of it! Why would they give me all these powers if not to use them!”

“You do use them,” he murmured. “Whenever some horny nerd wants to feel the Touch of Temptation and you make him weak in the knees just by brushing his skin, that’s when you use them!”

She shook her head fiercely as her tail violently whipped back and forth. “No! No, those are... Those are just parlor tricks! Any Vegas hypnotist can pull those off without super powers. I was given these for a reason and I’m going to use them!”

She started to step away when he laid a hand on her arm. “Think about what you’re doing. There are four men, all with assault rifles, and more of them in the apartment. You’ll be hurt or killed. And if they start shooting, someone else might get hurt. One of the kids, even.”

The words sobered her up. Her heart, which had been beating at a mile a minute, slowed down. But instead of killing her resolve, it just cooled her head. She suddenly had an understanding of the situation that Arthur didn’t. “They’re not wearing masks,” she said, surprising herself. “They don’t care that we see them. We can accurately describe them all to police. They’re going to kill us anyway.”

Arthur didn’t say anything to her. She turned and looked back at him. His face was pale, though from fear or blood loss, she couldn’t say. His eyes had a steely glaze. She started slipping her gloves off. “I’m going to save us,” she assured him and walked away before he could object.

She pushed her way out of the group of adults, toward the armed men. The one who had grabbed her before immediately turned and leveled his gun at her. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Don’t take another step forward!”

She kept walking, but more slowly, raising her hands in the air. She wore her most seductive smile, the one where she lightly bit her bottom lip and curled the corners of her mouth up. “You know, I just love a man with a big gun,” she said low and slow.

“I told you not to get any closer,” he said. He shook the gun as if to remind her he was armed. She kept coming near, though, hoping that he wouldn’t risk shooting now and causing a panic. People would start running and at least one of them would get away to raise an alarm.

She took in a deep breath and held it in her chest, pushing out her bust. The man’s eyes went to it, as she had hoped they would. She hoped the other gunmen were watching too. She exaggeratedly switched her hips back and forth with each step. “Oh, put down that gun,” she said.

His arms wavered slightly, like he wanted to listen to her but something was fighting against it. The closer she got, and the more he wanted to listen to her, the better her chances would be. And if she could touch him...

Her tail twirled around to her front and hooked the hem of her skirt. It slowly started to lift it up, slowly revealing skin. His eyes dropped to her legs. “Come on,” she said, “don’t be so cruel. I just want to have a little bit of fun.” She lowered her eyelids and looked him up and down.

“She’s gettin’ a little close,” one of the other men called out. Her target took an uneasy step backward, like a drunk man.

Lydia turned to the man who’d called out the warning. The other three gunmen still had their weapons trained on her. She grinned at them and shrugged. “I don’t see why you three can’t join in too.” Her tail made a lewd gesture.

The other men slowly lowered their guns. She grinned wide and turned back to her target. His gun had slipped all the way to his side and he was just staring, glassy-eyed at her. He was almost within her grasp.

“What’s going on out here?” a man shouted. The gunman in front of her suddenly snapped back to attention. Lydia lunged at him, her hand out. She grabbed his wrist and he started to jerk and fire the gun, but it was too late.

“You’re mine,” Lydia whispered softly. The man stiffened for just a moment, then relaxed. She let go and took a step back. His eyes were blank and unfocused, but he kept the gun trained on her.

“Back off,” he said to her in a flat voice. She took a step away and turned to see another group of four gunmen, a middle-aged bald man in spectacles she assumed was Mr. Goldstein, and a brazen, fresh-faced young man in a business suit. The young man was twenty-one at most, probably even younger. He was definitely the man in charge, she realized.

She raised her hands gently in the air, so they were at the sides of her face. The young man walked briskly toward her, hands behind his back. “Well, if it isn’t Madame Temptation,” he said with a leer. “I used to watch your cartoons when I was just a kid.”

All the tension fell away from her. She would be able to take him. She could save everyone and no one would get hurt. All she needed to do was touch him, make him hers. “Is that so?” she asked sultrily. “I love to meet fans. Especially ones as handsome as you.” She bit her lowered lip again.

He laughed and turned his back on her. “So what brings you to our little party?” he asked. “Did the man of the hour hire you for entertainment?”

She took a few quick steps toward him. “Something like that,” she admitted. “But you know, I’d much rather spend the day with a man like you. You know how to get what you want, it looks like. You just take it. Madame Temptation prefers that kind of man.” Improvised, the words felt even more awkward than scripted. She hoped her acting was good enough to cover it.

He laughed again. “Of course, I know you’re not actually Madame Temptation. I’ve read the papers, seen the news.” He turned back to her and, seeing her coming close, took a step back. “Don’t come any nearer or I’ll have my men shoot you. Understand.” He glanced back at his gunmen, the ones furthest away. “Men, if she takes another step toward me, shoot her without hesitation.”

She froze as all of the gunmen took aim at her. The one she’d charmed jerkily raised his gun a second after the rest. “Ok,” she said to him. “You’ve got me. I’m not really Madame Temptation. But if you read the papers, you know I was made to be her. They keep me cooped up in a lab all day, tell me what I eat, what I wear, what I do, where I go! I can’t go out alone, you know. I can’t be with anyone who they don’t screen first and then they have people watching.” She subtly squeezed her breasts together. “Do you know how impossible that makes things? I never get to have any fun.”

He gave her a look up and down again. “Well, maybe I might believe you. Maybe I’d believe you more if you did something to prove it.”

She turned to the crowd of adults. “Arthur, come here,” she said. Arthur looked at her warily, but slowly stepped out of the group and walked toward her. “Arthur is my handler,” she explained to the young man. “They call him my secretary, but he’s really my jailer. He’s the one that keeps me on a leash.” When Arthur was well clear of the others, Lydia looked over her shoulder at her entranced gunman. “Shoot him,” she ordered.

“What?” Arthur gasped. A few of the other adults cried out their protests and a few children wailed and started to cry.

The gunman looked at his boss, who smiled and nodded. He turned and fired a burst at Arthur. Arthur stood there for a moment, in shock, and then fell forward onto the ground. Lydia let out a slow sigh and closed her eyes, fighting back a few tears, then turned to the young man and grinned. He was wearing an appreciative smile.

“Impressive,” he said. “They call me Bigshot. It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss...”

She smiled back at him. “Lydia is my name. But I think I like Madame Temptation better.”

He laughed again and turned away from her, back toward the hostages. “Well, Madame Temptation, let’s hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. At the very least, a woman who can fly will be useful for my gang.” He gestured at the hostages. “Get them inside,” he ordered his men.

The gunmen herded the hostages inside, leaving Arthur laying unmoving on the ground. Even the children were roughly forced into the penthouse. Most of the children, and a few of the adults, were crying. Those adults who had retained their composure did their best to calm the children down, but it wasn’t working too well.

The gunmen followed them all inside. Bigshot turned to Lydia and raised an eyebrow. “Would you like to watch or are you squeamish?”

“I’m not squeamish,” she said, glancing over at Arthur.

Bigshot grinned with sadism. “Good, good. I like that, Madame, I definitely like that. We’ll get along very well. Let’s go.” He held the door to the penthouse open for her. She brushed his hand with hers as she passed.

The gunman had the hostages all grouped together in a corner. Bigshot walked to the side of the gunmen, leaving them with clear shots. “Well, Mr. Goldstein, it’s time to end this.” Bigshot reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box and held it up. It was about the size of his palm and inlaid with gold and small gemstones. “I have what I came for and, honestly, I don’t need any of you any more. I do apologize to you, ladies and gentlemen, but I can’t have any of you describing us to the police. Even the children.” He looked at his gunmen. “Kill them.”

There was a wail of protest from the hostages as the children started to cry again. “Stop!” Lydia shouted. The first gunman she’d touched lowered his weapon immediately. The three others who had been out there during her display wavered and lowered their weapons too, while the other four kept their weapons trained, but turned to glance back at Bigshot.

Lydia expected Bigshot to order them to stop too. But he didn’t. He was glowering at Lydia. “Is there some reason you’re telling me to stop? I thought you said you weren’t squeamish.”

Her eyes went wide. She’d touched him, skin to skin. That should have brought him under her power completely, no matter what.

With no time to lose wondering about it, she turned and leapt at the gunmen. She slapped her hand across the back of their necks, only managing to hit four of them. These four, plus the one she had originally touched, all spun as one and bashed the unclaimed gunmen with the butts of their rifles. Each of the three dropped to the floor, their weapons falling to the ground.

“Get out of here!” Lydia screamed at the hostages. There was a brief pause, then screams of terror from the group as they began to stampede out of the room, trampling the downed gunmen and shoving the others aside. A few of the adults stopped to make sure the children were getting away, but most of them were simply running in fear.

Bigshot’s eyes had gone wide and burned with anger. “You...” he said slowly, pointing at Lydia. “You bitch! You tricked me!” He shook his head and laughed. “I guess Madame Temptation is more like her cartoon counterpart than I expected!” He looked at the five men Lydia had charmed, each with their assault rifles pointed at him.

“Give up,” she said. “You’re outnumbered and outgunned. I win, you lose.”

Just for safety, she turned and knelt to the three gunmen she hadn’t claimed. Though they were all laying supine on the floor, heads bashed by the others, she touched them and took control of their wills. Then she looked at Bigshot again. He did not look very worried.

“I said give up,” she repeated. “Hands above your head.”

“I think not,” he said, and charged right at her. The five gunmen all opened fire, but he kept coming, the gunfire shredding his suit but leaving his skin unblemished. The flattened bullets clattered to the ground like rain.

He slammed into one of the gunmen, sending him flying through the air. He spun and swung a fist at another, connecting with the man’s jaw with a sickening crunch. He went flying through the air as surely as if he’d been thrown and landed in a crumpled heap. Lydia took a step back in sheer shock as Bigshot easily knocked a man nearly twice his size out with a single punch.

Within a minute, all of the gunmen were unconscious. Bigshot grabbed the tattered remnants of his suit jacket and ripped it off, tossing it to the side. His upper body was incredibly muscular, though compact. He grinned wide at her. “Surprised?” he asked. “Not everyone with super powers is a hero,” he explained. “Some of us use them for more practical purposes.”

He took a step toward her and she retreated. She couldn’t charm him, for whatever reason. She’d never had someone not just fall into line when she touched him. “Afraid?” he asked. “You should be. I’m going to break your pretty neck. But don’t worry. I’m sure they can just grow another one of you.” He took another step forward. She tried to step back again, but she found herself up against the wall.

There was a loud bang and Bigshot stumbled to the side. Lydia’s head spun around to see Arthur standing in the doorway, his large Smith & Wesson Model 500 pointed at Bigshot. Bigshot whirled on him and Arthur fired again, a bright fireball briefly flashing from the barrel. Bigshot stumbled back under the impact of the bullet. He reached up and touched his shoulder, which was trickling blood. His eyes went wide.

“Armor piercing bullets,” Arthur explained, leveling the gun at him again. “Enough to get through even your tough hide, Bigshot.”

Bigshot’s face twisted in rage. “All you did was scratch me!” he spat, charging at Arthur. Arthur fired again, catching Bigshot in the forehead. Bigshot stumbled and fell to his knees, but was still moving.

Arthur turned to Lydia. “I can’t kill him! You have to stop him!” he shouted.

“I can’t!” Lydia yelped. “I tried to control him earlier, but it didn’t work!”

Bigshot was pushing himself to his feet. Arthur shot again and Bigshot went down to the floor, but was soon pushing himself back up. “Don’t try to control him,” Arthur said calmly. “Take his strength away. You can do it.”

A lump caught in Lydia’s throat. She’d only done that in the lab before and only to test rats. Just like the mythological succubus she was based on, she could drain the very life out of something. Just by touching the rats, she could kill them. She’d never done it to a person before. She didn’t want to try it.

“I can’t,” she said softly.

“You have to!” Arthur demanded, shooting his fifth bullet at Bigshot. “Else he’ll kill us both! That was my last bullet, Lydia.”

Bigshot was standing up, groggily. He had several small holes on his body which were trickling blood, but she could tell they weren’t deep. Only his face, which looked like it had been pummeled by a prize fighter, looked bad. But he was still moving and if Arthur really was out of ammo...

She dashed forward and placed her hands on Bigshot’s shoulders. Almost immediately, she could feel the strength flowing out of him. He wildly swung an arm at her and caught her on the face, sending her staggering back. But it was nothing like when he’d hit the gunmen. He fell to one knee, shaking his head violently, trying to clear it.

She grabbed him again and held on tight this time. He thrashed, trying to escape, but he quickly grew weaker and weaker. Then he collapsed to the ground and stopped moving. Lydia let go of him and jumped back, tripped over one of the gunmen, and landed on the ground. She scurried backward, staring at Bigshot.

He was breathing, roughly, but he was unconscious. Lydia let out a slow, relieved breath. Arthur walked reached out his hand and helped her to her feet.

When a SWAT team stormed the penthouse apartment a few moments later, they found all of the gunmen and Bigshot neatly tied up as Lydia and Arthur shared a drink.

The rest of Lydia’s appearances for the day were canceled, of course. The police took Bigshot and his men into custody and returned the box to Mr. Goldstein.

Curiosity got the better of her and she approached the man, asking, “So what’s in the box?” He held it jealously against his chest, looking at her in mistrust. His eyes flicked to Arthur, standing alive and well behind her. She glanced back and smiled. “You’re wondering how he’s not dead?”

“I am,” Goldstein admitted.

“I had my gunman miss,” Lydia explained. “Once I take control of their minds, they obey my commands without me having to say them. I can say ‘Kill him’ but think ‘Shoot at him but miss’ and they’ll do it. Mr. Pence realized what was happening when the gun missed and fell over like he’d been killed.”

Goldstein nodded his head and let out a sigh. “I suppose I owe you my life. And, more importantly, the life of my son. Without you we’d both be dead and that crazy bastard would have this.” He held the box up and opened it.

A second later, he snapped it shut, but Lydia was weeping freely. To her, it had felt like an eternity. Goldstein reached out and patted her on the shoulder. “Now you know why he wanted it,” he said softly. “Not many people get to see inside it. Consider yourself lucky.”

Goldstein turned and walked off as Lydia wiped away her tears. Arthur handed her a handkerchief and she wiped away the smudged makeup and blew her nose. She handed the cloth back and Arthur stuffed it into his pocket. “You look atrocious,” he told her. She grinned slightly and laughed. “It’s not a joke. The company can’t have you walking around in public like that.” He sighed. “We’ll have to get you back to headquarters and get you fixed up.”

She smiled at him. “I thought you told me everything was canceled for the day.”

Arthur tugged on the front of his jacket and coughed. “Well, yes. They are.” He looked away from her. “I just thought, perhaps, you’d like to go out tonight on your own. In celebration of a job well done. You know, take the leash off.”

She laughed and laid an hand on his shoulder. “You know that was just an act,” she said lightly. “I don’t really think like that.”

He turned back and looked her in the eyes. “Nevertheless, Ms. Mori, you earned it.”

She let her hand slip down his arm until it reached the crook of his elbow. “I wouldn’t even know where to go,” she said softly, looking away. “Or what to do.” She turned back to look him in the eyes. “Maybe you could take me to dinner. You know, as a celebration.”

He stared at her for what seemed like a long time and she started to feel, for the first time ever, a little self-conscious. Then his stony face broke and he smiled. “Alright, I think I can do that. I’ll have someone from the company send you a dress. You’ll need to look appropriate.”

“Madame Temptation!” a child’s voice said. Lydia turned to see Isaac Goldstein, who was standing there staring at her wide-eyed. He was short and pudgy, wearing a little suit with shorts. He had already started to get pimples on his cheeks.

She quickly slipped back into character and put on her villainous sneer. “Why, if it isn’t the birthday boy. What do you want with Madame Temptation?”

“My dad said you saved us,” he said in awe. “But I thought you were supposed to be a villain!”

She wanted to laugh. This kid was supposed to be thirteen? She did laugh. “I am, kid. But I don’t like it when someone else comes to take things that are mine. Your presents were supposed to be mine, but that idiot Bigshot was going to take them for himself. I couldn’t let that happen.”

The kid continued to stare at her in a mixture of awe and fear. There was far more awe, she noticed. “Are you still going to take my presents?” he asked.

Lydia let out a short, clipped, tired laugh. “No, I’m not,” she said. “Fighting Bigshot wore me out. You’d be able to stop me, and you know what happens if you beat me, right?”

Isaac nodded and then a familiar gleam entered his eye. “You have to do whatever I say, right? Anything at all.”

“That’s right,” she said. “Which is why I’m not going to bother with it any more.” She ran a hand through her hair. She nicked herself on her own horns. A small, red line formed on the side of her hand. She sucked in a pained breath and stared at it, wishing she’d been wearing her gloves.

Arthur stepped up to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Madame Temptation needs to get going, Mr. Goldstein,” he said to Isaac as he steered her away. Isaac just kept staring and Lydia noticed most of the awe had been replaced with something else that she simply didn’t feel like dealing with at the moment.

Once they were out of earshot, Lydia murmured, “Why couldn’t I charm Bigshot? I touched him but he acted like it was nothing.”

“Who knows? We can figure it out later. Why don’t you fly home?” Arthur softly told her. “Take a nap, relax, get fixed up for dinner tonight. Meet me in the lobby around seven?”

She smiled wearily. “Fly home, huh?” she asked. “Alright, yeah. It’s a date, see you then.” Before he could say anything else, her wings pumped and sent her shooting into the air.

Arthur watched her fly off until she was little more than a spot in the sky. He took out his cellphone and called his boss. “Mr. Sanders? Yeah, it went well. Off script a little, but things worked out in the end. With a little pressing, Goldstein should sell. Lydia will be fine, maybe better than fine, even. We might even be able to add her to the Justice Division for real. Yeah. I’m on top of it. Don’t worry. I’m taking her out to dinner tonight, as a reward. It was her idea, sir. Well, I’ll have to cancel my plans with her tonight, but my wife will understand. She knows how work can be. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir, that’s very generous. I’ll try not to run up too big of a tab. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I’ll keep you updated.” The line on the other end went dead and Arthur put the phone back in his pocket.

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