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by Ryan McSwain, © 2016
Glennon Holliday hunched over his cluttered workbench. The lamp cast jagged shadows across the garage. In the other houses on his quiet suburban cul-de-sac, mundane minds slept the night away.
“Fire me, will they?” he asked. “I give Delightful Dentures ten of the best years of my life. And they kick me to the curb? I’m the man who invented automatic chewing. Unbreakable bicuspids! Laser-guided mandibles! Without my genius, they were nothing! ”
He picked up his latest invention, an energy weapon shaped like a giant tooth. The craftsmanship was as exceptional as the technology inside. The grip and trigger gracefully protruded from one side, and the roots acted as four barrels.
“You’re my first creation in a decade that doesn’t belong to those soul-sucking corporate bastards. They kept all my patents and raked in millions. But I’m not even worth a severance package!” With a sweeping blow, he knocked everything off the workbench. Nuts and bolts bounced and scattered.
Touching an invisible switch on the cusp of the tooth gun, Glennon activated the power cell. A quiet hum filled the garage. He cradled his invention like a boy with his first slingshot.
“I’ll show those leeches. One of those anom heroes might try to stop me. Maybe Danny Drastic, or Buscadera with her six-shooters. But they’ll be no match for you, Ivory, my beautiful blaster. Or my dental adhesive grenades. Or my—”
The garage wall exploded.
Glennon hit the concrete floor and lost Ivory. The explosion left a massive hole in the wall, filled with a blinding light. He shielded his eyes with his arm as he tried to find his gun.
A metallic voice boomed. “Glennon Holliday!”
Coughing from the dust, Glennon forced out a word. “Yes?”
“I am not here to harm you. You are in no immediate danger—I ask only that you listen to my proposal. You may retrieve your weapon, but please power it down. Are these suitable conditions?”
Glennon looked at the size of the hole. There were no blast marks, and the surrounding area remained undamaged. He ran some quick mental calculations to determine the force and precision involved.
“Sure, why not?” Glennon picked up Ivory and powered it down. “But I’m leaving this thing in standby.”
A silhouette appeared in the opening. “Wouldn’t have it any other way,” said the man. Without the speakers, he had the friendly voice of a high school math teacher. As he stepped out of the light, Glennon gasped in surprise. His invader was a smiling, middle-aged man wearing a white shirt, a black bowtie, and a soda jerk hat. A bandolier stretched across his chest, filled with popsicles on wooden sticks.
“You’re Mr. Swirl!” Glennon said the words with awe in his voice. “I had a poster of you when I was a kid.”
“That’s right, Glennon. Can I call you Glennon? Great. My real name is Joe Abbot.”
“You’re giving me your real name?”
“Of course! I want us to start off on the right foot. Buddies. Compadres!” He reached out his hand. “Sorry about the hole, but I thought you’d appreciate the theatrics. We’ll send some guys to patch it up good as new. Maybe put in a sink. Or a urinal. Would you want a urinal?”
Glennon accepted the handshake. “I don’t get it. What are you doing here?”
“I’ll explain everything. Want to go for a ride?” Mr. Swirl—Joe, Glennon reminded himself—stepped through the hole and into the night. Glennon followed.
In Glennon’s yard, over the rose bushes, floated a massive ice cream cone, but only the cone itself. Where the ice cream would be was a podium-like control panel and a platform to stand on. Glennon touched it, not sure it could be real. “The Death Cone! You took on half the Freedom Cadre with this thing.”
“Sure, when they were stationed out of Cleveland. Not exactly bragging rights. But it’s just the Cone now, I’m afraid.”
Glennon ran around the Cone. “Sawyer drive propulsion. Stealth technology. Force shield. Soft-serve offensive weapons. Does it still play eight-track tapes?”
“I knew I was going to like you.” As Joe approached the vehicle, a ramp appeared. “Climb aboard.”
“Wait. Where are we going?”
Joe winked. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
Glennon hesitated for another moment, but he followed. The ramp disappeared behind them and, with a soft hush, the Cone rose high into the air. Glennon’s stomach dropped, but the ride felt smooth.
Joe pressed a combination of candy-colored buttons on the console. The Cone built up speed, and soon they left the suburbs behind and were passing over the city’s dense skyline. Glennon saw someone down below, swinging from building to building. A redheaded woman with a short cape shot through the air, coming within a few hundred feet of them.
“Don’t worry,” Joe said. “The upgraded stealth tech will keep any of those little gnats from spotting us.”
Glennon realized he’d been holding his breath. He emptied his lungs and breathed normally. “These force shields are incredible. It feels like we’re standing still.”
“Thanks, buddy. You wouldn’t believe how much fine-tuning it takes to keep them from squishing passengers flat.” Joe patted the console. “But I think I got it dialed in.”
On the far side of town, they came to a hovering stop over a boarded-up building. Letters on a rotted sign labeled it ‘Skateland North.’
Joe sighed. “I used to make so much money here. You know, before I broke bad. Dreamsicles. Fudge pops. Screwballs with those gumballs at the bottoms, frozen so hard you couldn’t chew ‘em. Good times.”
A hatch folded open in the roof, and the Cone descended. Inside, derelict arcade cabinets surrounded the skating rink, which slid away to reveal a massive underground area. The Cone continued to drift downward, entering what looked like the lobby of a luxury building, but it was much larger.
Joe lifted his arms like a circus ringmaster. “Welcome to Skateland North, home of The Trust!”
As the Cone descended, Glennon looked around in shock. Men and women chatted in groups or hustled in every direction. Some wore suits, others t-shirts and sandals. A few were garbed in costumes like anomalous heroes and villains. An attractive woman in rocket boots shot through the air beside Glennon, smiling and waving.
“Impressed?” Joe asked. “I’m trying to get you buttered up for the big sales pitch. Is it working?”
“I am so confused,” Glennon said. “Is this some kind of think tank?”
Joe laughed in delight. “Bingo! I knew I was right about you. Jamie was like, ‘He makes dentures,’ and I was like, ‘He makes super dentures!’ ”
“So what, did I win a Golden Ticket? If I survive the tour, do I get a lifetime supply of chocolate?”
“No, but that’s a good idea. A little off-theme, since I’m kind of committed to the ice cream thing at this point. But no, I want to offer you a job.”
“More like a partnership. Glennon, you were about to make a huge mistake. Trust me, I’ve been there. Let me read your tea leaves, okay? You’re a genius, but you’re not appreciated. You get fired or ripped off or betrayed. So you build a new toy, and you go out for revenge. Maybe you want to hurt somebody, maybe you don’t. And maybe you even get away with it the first time. But then some pesky anom hero shows up, and you get your soft-serve butt handed to you. So you up your game, and now people get hurt for sure. Even if you stay out of prison, you’re stuck. Can’t go back to being a working stiff. You’ve got a taste for it now. The thrill of it. So you keep going until things get dark, and it’s no longer about getting back at your boss or getting cash. Now it’s about hostages and body counts and extradition treaties. It’s about world domination. So let me give you a chance to skip all that. You haven’t killed anybody yet, right?”
“No! God, no. I could never—”
“You’d be surprised what people like us are capable of, buckaroo. But good. That makes it easier. We’ve got a good thing going here, and I want to let you in on it. We keep an eye out for folks like you. For EAPs.”
“Eeps?” Glennon asked.
“Emergent Anomalous People. Scientists, makers, creative folk who get a bum deal. We track the underdogs who secretly lead their fields while the fat cats make money off of them. If something happens, we try to get to them before they do what you were about to do. Makes a ton of sense, actually. Not sure why no one thought to do it before.”
Glennon’s body tensed up. “So what, this is an intervention?”
Joe clapped him on the shoulder and led him through an automatic door and down a hallway. “Nope. I told you, it’s an offer. Instead of letting you go off the rails, we want to give you the resources to do what you do best. In this case, I guess it’s making teeth. Or whatever you want. Here’s our food court by the way. Gourmet food and mom’s meatloaf served twenty-four-seven. Plus a Corn Dog 7.”
They stood in a new room, somewhat smaller than the lobby. People laughed at nearby tables, eating the most delicious-smelling food Glennon had ever seen.
Glennon watched as a waiter delivered a luau pig with an apple in its mouth to a nearby table. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch. I mean, there are conditions, but everything’s above board. Trust me, we don’t want to piss off a group that’s mostly mad scientists, especially when we’re all making bank. Any money you generate using our resources, The Trust keeps a fifth. Twenty percent. Either of us can break off the deal, but we’ll go over those conditions with you and your lawyer.”
The woman with the rocket boots swooped down beside them, landing with a roar of heat and pressure. She handed Joe an envelope and whispered something in his ear.
As Joe went over the contents of the envelope, Glennon said to her, “Nice boots.”
She clicked her heels together. “Thanks! Designed them myself.”
“The way they handle looks really natural. How do you steer?”
“Combination of gyroscopes and pressure sensors. They get the job done, but I’m still working on an intuitive breaking system. If you ever want to get together and swap ideas . . .”
“Sure, yeah” Glennon said. “I’ll be thinking on it.”
With a smile and a vapor trail, she was gone.
“That was Camden,” Joe said, closing the envelope. “She delivered some good news. We’re prepared to sweeten the pot. Our buyout was successful, and we now own your old company, Delightful Dentures. We’re giving it to you, a show of good faith. Free and clear, and all of it on the up-and-up. You can run it, sell it, burn it to the ground. All the same to us.” Joe handed the envelope to Glennon. “Once you sign these papers, it’s all yours.”
Glennon’s head swam as they left the food court. “Why would you do this?”
“I’ll be straight with you. Some of the old guard, they fought a lot of these street-level heroes. Black Snake. Mr. Stiff. Knuckle Duster. You know, vigilante types. Those guys used a lot of brass knuckles and weighted gloves, so our older guys have some messed-up teeth. I’m just saying, it’s gross. We were hoping you could help us out on that front. Plus, we’ve never had a tooth guy. We’ve got almost everything else. Helicopters, wigs, unicycles. Heck, we’ve got dozens of toy-themed folks. What was your professional name going to be?”
“I wasn’t sure yet. The Exodontist? Maybe starting with a capital X or something. I don’t know. Sounds stupid, now.”
The two of them entered an elevator. Joe pushed one of the unnumbered buttons.
“No, that’s bad ass. Totally. How about the outfit?”
“Enamel armor,” Glennon said as they stepped out of the elevator.
“Oh, my goodness. That’s—that’s great. Enamel. I love when someone is committed to their shtick. Back in the ’80s, there was this thing where everyone had generic names and drab battle armor. ‘The Destructor.’ I mean, seriously, what kind of props even work with that? Give me a dude with a thing for old movie projectors or a lady in a chicken costume any day.”
“Joe, talking shop like this is pretty amazing. But what’s the point of all this?”
“Back in the old days, most of us just wanted revenge. Oh, and money. Lots and lots of money. So we put on some tights. But there are other ways to get revenge and easier ways to get those greenbacks. So we got together and went legit, or are version of legit. We build our crazy inventions, and we do business, and we lobby heavily in Washington. We pull the strings behind the scenes. We’re like the Bilderberg Group, but with ray guns.”
As they entered another room, Glennon let out a whistle. It was the most sophisticated lab setup he had ever seen. Tools he had only dreamed of owning lined the walls.
“Not bad, right?” Joe asked. “This would be your lab. You’d need to share it with some of the others, but trust me, you’ll love working alongside them. Brainstorming. Iron sharpening iron. Mark my words, you’ll make some lifetime friendships in this room. And if anything’s missing, you’ll get it. With these machines, you’ll be able to build prototypes in a fraction of the time.”
Glennon set Ivory on top of a three-dimensional metal fabricator and fiddled with the buttons. A baseball-sized aluminum tooth—a second molar—formed under the plastic shield. “What happens if I say no? Are you going to kill me?”
Joe laughed. “No, we’re not evil. One of the new kids says The Trust is more of a chaotic neutral. You’re free to turn us down. We’ll have to take precautions if you leave, I’m afraid. Standard mind wipe. You won’t remember the Tesseract, this conversation, anything. We also reserve the right to contact you again in the future.”
Glennon opened the machine and retrieved the large tooth. He turned it in his hand, admiring it. “If I sign on with your group, will I ever get to fight the heroes? Like the way you used to do?”
Joe grew very still. His eyes took on a strange gleam. “The Trust values its secrecy above everything else. We can’t afford to draw attention to ourselves over petty squabbles. The Freedom Cadre or the Outliers wouldn’t understand. And villain groups like the Haberdashers would try to tear apart everything we’ve built. No, if you join the club, you play it straight. The Trust is only effective because we’re invisible.”
Glennon handed him the metal tooth and the envelope. “Sorry, Joe. I’m going to have to decline. If it’s not too much trouble, please reverse the sale of Delightful Dentures. I’d hate to be working against you folks after all you’ve done.”
Joe’s eye sparkled. “Sure I can’t change your mind? I could get you Camden’s number. She seemed sweet on you.”
“Trust me, she can do better.” Glennon marveled once more at the beautiful equipment. “It’s a shame I won’t remember this, because meeting you, seeing this place—it’s like a dream come true. But I’m afraid my mind’s made up.”
“The board will be disappointed.” Joe extended his hand once more. As Glennon took it, Joe pulled him closer and whispered in his ear. “But between you and me, give ‘em hell, kid.”
The following night, in an oak-lined office filled with vintage ice cream advertising paraphernalia, the man once known to the world as Mr. Swirl sat behind his desk. Joe still wore his old uniform. He sipped fifty-year-old scotch from a crystal glass. In his other hand, he toyed with the metal tooth Glennon had made. A scrapbook sat open on the desk, revealing an old front page from the Cleveland Press. ‘MR. SWIRL HOLDS HIS OWN AGAINST CADRE.’ In the photograph, a younger Joe Abbot stood atop the Death Cone, spraying a chemically-modified frozen custard at the beautiful Nylon and her stretchy teammate, Jack Spratt. Joe would have escaped with the cash, but Black Snake showed up moments later with his afro and gold chains.
From a refrigerated drawer in the mahogany desk, Joe retrieved a pint container. Using his old weaponized ice cream scoop, he added a scoop of vanilla ice cream to his scotch as he watched a large screen mounted on the wall.
“A newcomer defied the odds tonight,” the anchorwoman said. “An armored man wielding a tooth-shaped gun took on the popular ice hero Cryotic at the Delightful Dentures research facility. This never-before-seen villain made off with millions of dollars-worth of equipment, humiliating Cryotic in the process.” Security footage showed Glennon fighting Cryotic in a laboratory. Glennon looked like a seasoned professional in his enamel armor and a helmet that looked like a molar. He blasted through lab equipment with Ivory and tossed one of his dental adhesive grenades. Cryotic tried to jump out of the way, but the sticky paste held him tight to the floor.
With Cryotic at his mercy, Glennon paused. But instead of finishing off the hero, the villain grabbed his loot, waved to the camera, and escaped.
The camera cut back to the newscaster as an arm extended to hand her a piece of paper. “I’ve just gotten an update on our dastardly dentist,” she said. “Apparently this new player calls himself ‘Mr. Smile.’”
Joe Abbot’s lips stretched into a grin beneath his ice cream mustache.