Title:Persona Non Grata
Persona Non Grata
All things considered, I’ve got a good life at Xavier’s mutant school.
Sure, it’s noisy, it’s crazy, and there’s no hazard pay for all that "extracurricular" work—but when it comes down to it, I like what I’ve gotten in return. I don’t just mean the room and board, either; it’s nice to feel like what I’m doing is the right thing.
Well, most of the time, at least.
Sometimes doing the right thing ain’t easy, though. That’s why, of all the chores I get saddled with, playing truant officer is at the very bottom of the list.
Tommy "Crash" Krieger crashed into our lives as a moody sixteen-year-old with a taste for hard liquor and a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana. Of course, any schoolyard runt who suddenly pops out with telekinetic powers is bound to have an attitude, but you gotta draw the line somewhere. Like, say, when he tries to choke the neighborhood bully from half a block away.
It was after that little incident that Professor Xavier, playing Big Brother again, tagged the kid as a high-risk case and sent Storm and Cyclops to meet him. Tommy liked the idea of a school where he could learn more about his nifty new powers, and he was as happy to play along as his single mother was to get him off her hands. (Thanks, Ma. Real supportive.)
So Tommy came to live at the school, and things were just peachy—until he started getting the drift of the house rules. No booze. No cigarettes. No making out with the co-eds. Things went downhill pretty fast from there… and a week later, the kid lammed it during the night.
Don’t get me wrong; nobody would ever be forced to stay at Xavier’s. We had to do something about him, though, just for the sake of public safety. There’s a lot less dangerous mutations than the ability to throw things around just by thinking about it.
The Professor wired into Cerebro and tracked Tommy to a spot on the coast of Maine. We figured he got lost or ran out of money on the way to the Canadian border—and I started to regret the stories I’d told him about my old stomping grounds.
Oh yeah, that’s a part I haven’t mentioned: Tommy liked me. And why not? We shared a lot of bad habits. I wasn’t exactly proud of that, but I tried to take advantage of it. When he hung around me, I’d let him have a cigar on the sly while I talked about playing by the rules. It was a mixed message, but I hoped the things I said would stick if I let him have a little fun.
They didn’t, and the only result was that I got pegged as Tommy’s best friend.
Naturally, that made me the number-one choice to go find the little twerp and bring him back. Xavier told me I wouldn’t be "threatening" to Tommy. He might not have thought so if he’d been tuned into my thoughts just then.
I was still thinking black thoughts that evening, when I followed the Professor’s directions to a moldering little seaside town called Collinsport.
It wasn’t the first time I’d hit town and made a beeline for the local bar, but it was the first time I wasn’t after a drink… not immediately, at least. Underage or not, Tommy could already swill with the best of them, and I had a hunch he was feeling pretty dry after a week at the school.
Collinsport was a strange, gloomy place where everything looked old, even the newer buildings crowded in between Colonial relics. The main business was a fish cannery that ran a fleet of boats from the rocky coast. Employer number two, I figured, was the sanitarium on the cliffs overlooking the sea. After half an hour in that town, I had a feeling I’d go crazy too if I had to live there.
The one redeeming spot was the Blue Whale, a nice rickety dive on the waterfront that smelled like beer and fish and dry-rotting wood. That place I understood. I walked in and headed for the nearest end of the bar, ignoring the working joes who looked up at me suspiciously. I’d already noticed that strangers got a lot of stares in Collinsport.
Then again, maybe it was just me.
The bartender was an unhappy-looking old man with gray hair and a red face. He turned to me, nervous and impatient, as I reached the bar.
"I’m looking for a missing boy," I began. "Sixteen, kinda messy brown hair, gold stud in his left ear…"
My spiel trailed off as the wide-eyed bartender turned and pointed down the bar. I looked—and there at the other end sat Tommy Krieger, his chin hanging down over a glass of something that definitely wasn’t soda. When he saw me staring at him, he smiled drowsily and raised the glass in a tipsy salute.
I turned on the bartender. "What’d you give him booze for?"
"Hey, you just try saying no to that kid!" the man shot back in a scared half-whisper.
Tommy had obviously been throwing around his weight, and probably a few more things for good measure. I growled in my throat and stalked toward him.
"Don’t worry, bub… that’s exactly what I plan to do."
As I reached him, Tommy tried to sit up straighter on his barstool—and nearly fell right off. "Hello, P’fesser Logan." He righted himself slowly and carefully. "You come t’ have a drink with me?"
I sat down on the barstool next to him. "No. And no, you can’t have a cigar," I snapped, as he reached over and groped for the pocket of my jacket. I pushed him back onto his own stool and pried the glass out of his hand. "I’m here to take you back to the school."
His pale face got a little darker. "Not goin’ back. S’no fun there."
"Life ain’t all fun, kid." I leaned closer, lowering my voice. "Especially for us."
He looked at me as if I’d just told him the sky was orange. "Why shouldn’t it be fun? I can have anythin’ I want. All I hafta do is just reach out an’…"
With that Tommy stretched out a hand, and someone else’s whiskey glass slid down the bar into his grasp. The owner of the drink jumped up with an angry yelp.
Groaning inwardly, I stood up and raised my hands. "Sorry, bub, just a misunderstanding…" I snatched the glass, slid it down the bar to its rightful owner, then took the kid by the arm and hauled him out of his seat. "C’mon, we’ll talk about this outside."
"No!" Tommy wrenched his arm away from me, his glazed eyes taking on an unhealthy sort of brightness. "I wanna stay right here an’ finish my drink."
I sighed and put my hands together, cracking my knuckles with a metallic pop. "Look, I really don’t wanna carry you out of here, kid."
Tommy’s eyes narrowed, and on the shelf behind the bar, liquor bottles began to rattle.
The bartender must have gotten a taste of Tommy’s powers before I arrived, because he was smart enough to duck before the bottles went flying. The booze-numbed patrons were slower to hit the deck, but they all managed to avoid a direct impact, crawling under tables as glass smashed against the walls and floor.
Now I understood why the kid was nicknamed Crash.
I was less lucky than the barflies; I took a stray bottle of scotch upside the head. It couldn’t do me any real damage, but it hurt… and it was annoying.
With a snarl, I popped the claws.
Tommy had never seen me do that before, and it was enough to get through to his pickled brain. With a high-pitched squawk of terror, he bolted, a covering fire of bottles and glasses raining down on the floor in his wake.
In the dead silence that followed the last crash, I pulled back the claws and looked around. The shelves behind the bar were wiped out, and the floor was coated with spilled liquor and broken glass. Loose shards clinked and crunched as the shell-shocked bystanders started to move, crawling out of their hiding places. I wasn’t sure how much any of them had seen.
Terrific—ousted for life from yet another bar.
Chewing over the numbers for the anonymous "gift" Professor Xavier would be paying out in restitution, I casually breezed out the door. I heard the bartender yell something behind me, but I didn’t exactly feel like stopping to exchange pleasantries.
Outside in the darkness and bracing sea air, my luck started to change. I caught a whiff of Tommy’s scent, laced with a shot of Johnnie Walker that must have doused him during his tantrum. Now, that was a trail I would have no trouble following.
With one last glance over my shoulder to check for angry villagers carrying pitchforks and torches, I set off in search of the walking bar brawl named Crash.
Tommy’s sense of direction was about as clear as the rest of his thinking just then, and for the next hour, I followed the scent trail of his drunken meanderings. It wound through alleys, over fences, and into yards, finally leading to a crop of woods on private property. That was good with me; in the forest at night, the kid wouldn’t have a chance of losing me. I expected to find him before long, bundled up in his denim jacket and shivering in the October chill.
What I was going to do when I did find him was another story.
In the time I’d spent with Tommy at the school, I was too busy playing nice to try to explain my hardware. Now that he’d gotten a good look at the claws, I might have to convince him he wasn’t a prime candidate for a disemboweling—even if the idea did have a certain appeal just then.
I got distracted from that little problem when I realized there was a new smell in the air, aside from Tommy’s alcoholic trail and the natural scents of the forest. It was subtle, but it was there; human, but… not right. I couldn’t pin down its direction, and I wasn’t even sure how recent it was.
"You are intruding on my property."
Not many things can take me by surprise, but that did. I spun sideways and almost popped the claws, but held back before I could put a hole in the phantom that had just stepped out of the shadows. Sneaking up on me without my smelling or hearing him was a cute trick, however he did it.
He was tall, middle-aged, a little cadaverous-looking in a graceful way—pale and dark at the same time, with cold eyes under heavy brows. His clothes were mostly hidden under the coat or cape or whatever it was he was wearing, but I caught a glimpse of a suit-jacket cuff above the hand that rested on a cane. Pretty formal for a guy wandering around in the woods at night, but not as interesting as the fact that he didn’t have a flashlight. Or apparently need one, for that matter.
I also realized he was the source of that off scent I’d picked up. Now that he was standing there, I could tell, but I wasn’t any closer to figuring out what was so strange about it.
While I was sizing him up, he took a step closer… and then he posed, unconsciously, like a stalking cat. His hand slid further down the cane, exposing its gold wolf’s-head in a way that was almost ironic. The whole shift of his body was one single, elegant movement—the defensive posture of a perfect animal instinct that resonated with my own.
My pulse rate picked up, and I tensed, everything in me reacting to the presence of a fellow predator.
Something in his eyes told me he appreciated the unspoken signals, but he didn’t back down. Instead he went even further.
"Your kind is unwelcome here. You must leave Collinsport."
Surprised and annoyed, I deliberately relaxed, sending the message that I wasn’t going anywhere until I was good and ready. "My kind?"
"You know very well what I mean." He had quite a voice, deep and strong; it stayed hard, but the tension in his own muscles loosened up a little, following my lead. It looked like we were going to talk instead of fight, after all—and I had a sudden feeling that was a very good thing.
I decided to tip my hand, acknowledging what he knew about me, and what I sensed about him. "Mutants? And just what does that make you, bub?"
I didn’t think he was a mutant… not exactly, anyway… and somehow his reaction convinced me I was right. All at the same time, there was something angry and sad and even a little frightened in his eyes. He looked away from me, but it was too late to hide it.
"I am the protector of this town." His voice was quieter now, with a kind of broken dignity, and the predator in him was gone when he looked at me again. "Many years ago, I took it upon myself to protect Collinsport and its people from any threat that may come… and that includes mutants."
All the ingrained tolerance-philosophy lectures I’d ever wallowed in at the school came to the surface, and I gave the man a hard look. "We don’t want to hurt anyone. We just want to live normal lives…" I went out a little further on the limb of morbid curiosity, and added, "like you."
He smiled at that, a sad, bitter smile.
"Believe me, I understand that wish better than anyone. I have every sympathy for your kind." He sighed and shook his head. "Still, you bring about violence—even if it comes only from those who hate and fear you. It isn’t your fault, but it cannot be escaped… and I will not allow it here."
Part of me wanted to be angry at that kind of attitude, but something about him blunted the feeling. Maybe it was the genuine regret in his voice; maybe it was the sense that he was also an outsider. Or maybe it was because, even if I didn’t like to admit it… I understood what it felt like to want to protect others.
To protect them from things like me.
"Look, it’s not like I’m planning to move into the neighborhood," I said gruffly. "I’m just looking for a kid who ran away. Once I find him, we’ll both be out of here."
"Another like you?" he asked, sounding surprised, but not alarmed.
The way he phrased it put me off, and I frowned. God help the whole world if any more like me ever showed up again—but I kept that thought to myself, and answered with a shrug. "He’s a mutant, if that’s what you mean."
I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I expected, but it wasn’t what I got. The man’s expression went stiff, and he folded his long pale hands over the top of his cane.
"In that case, I will find him for you."
It wasn’t an offer, and it wasn’t a threat. It was a statement; a straight fact, without a doubt in the world. I gave him a skeptical look. "Simple as that, huh?"
"I found you, didn’t I?"
I couldn’t argue that point—but unlike me, a drunk, telekinetic teenager probably wasn’t going to give him much chance for polite conversation. "Look, you don’t know what the kid can do."
He ignored the warning as if I hadn’t said a word. "Come up to my house in the morning, and I promise you, your young friend will be safely returned to you there. For now, I would suggest you stay the night at the Collinsport Inn. Give the clerk my name, and you will be well provided for."
He turned to walk away.
"Wait," I said, taking a step after him. "What is your name?"
He looked back at me, and I saw something of the predator in his face again as he smiled.
"I am Barnabas Collins."
Whatever he was or wasn’t, Barnabas Collins had just as good a disappearing act as Nightcrawler. I tried to track him after he stalked off into the woods, but I couldn’t even pin down a scent trail.
I wasn’t about to take his advice and call it a night. For one thing, after that little party at the Blue Whale, I was none too eager to show my face back in town. For another, no matter what Collins said, I had a feeling Tommy would be a lot better off if I found him first. So I just kept searching.
There were times that night when I was sure Collins was somewhere nearby, watching me.
By sunrise, I was pretty well resigned to the fact that Tommy had shaken me off in my own best element. I figured he’d be hungry by then, and decided my best bet to find him would be somewhere back in town, looking for a meal.
Even so, I decided to check at Collins’ house first.
In the distance there was a huge, rambling old house that rivaled the Xavier mansion for size and grandeur, but I had a feeling the relic I came to first was more Collins’ style. It was the most ancient place I’d seen anywhere in that moth-eaten town. Even in the morning light, it looked cold and dark, the whole face of it lost in the shadows of its giant crumbling columns.
At the front door I reached for a pompous-looking doorknocker, but I felt too silly about it and thumped on the old wood with my knuckles instead. Nothing happened for a long moment, but as I was reaching up to knock again, the door opened.
The man who stood there was tall and dark-haired—but other than that, he was about as different from Barnabas Collins as he could be. He was young and looked like a movie star, with blue eyes that would grab anybody’s attention. I knew he wasn’t a servant; his clothes were sharp, and he was wearing too much of some expensive cologne that threatened to make me sneeze.
He didn’t smile, but his expression was a lot warmer than the other man’s had ever been.
"Barnabas Collins asked me to pay him a visit," I began.
He nodded once. "I’m afraid my cousin Barnabas couldn’t be here, so he asked me to meet you instead. I’m Quentin Collins. Please, come in."
The house he led me into was something out of a museum, all antiques and history and portraits of dead ancestors. Over the reek of his cologne, I caught the scent of burning lamp oil, and realized there wasn’t a single electrical light to be seen. It was like stepping into the past—and for just a moment, it made me wonder again about how old I really was. Maybe the time Barnabas Collins chose to live in was a part of my own forgotten past.
And then I saw Tommy.
In the living room or sitting room or whatever it was, he was curled up in a chair by the fireplace. There was another chair facing him where I guessed Quentin had been sitting, because all the fixings for a card game were set up on a table between them—along with, of all things, a tray of milk and cookies. I couldn’t believe it, but my nose didn’t lie.
When he saw me, Tommy bounced out of his seat, smiling like a kid who’d spent the day being baby-sat by a favorite uncle. "Hi, Logan!"
After everything he’d seen and done the night before, he was greeting me like an old pal, and without even that ‘Professor’ moniker he loved to bug me with. Either they found a shapeshifter to stand in for him, or somehow they’d seriously messed with his head—and since the scent was definitely Tommy, I knew it had to be the latter.
I lowered my eyebrows and gave Quentin Collins my best glare. "Okay. What’d you do to him?"
"What do you mean? I didn’t do anything." He smiled at Tommy, then at me. "When Barnabas asked me to stay with him until you came, I just sat here and taught him to play whist."
Okay… whist. It would be fun explaining that one to Xavier. I frowned and looked at Tommy. "So what did the other one do to you, kid?"
I knew I’d nailed it when he looked at me blankly and asked, "What other one?"
Before I could quiz him any more, Quentin cut in. "Look, Barnabas found Tommy for you, safe and sound, just as he promised. Now I’m afraid I have to repeat his request, and ask you to leave Collinsport." Then his tone softened and he shook his head, with a small, apologetic smile. "I may not particularly agree with my cousin’s views, but I do respect them. I’m sorry."
It was clear we’d worn out our welcome… again. I wasn’t satisfied, but Tommy seemed healthy, and I could hardly complain about the agreeable mood he was in. I picked up his jacket from an end table and tossed it to him. "Come on, kid. We’re going back to the school."
He grabbed one last cookie and toddled after me like a puppy. Quentin Collins saw us out, wished us a safe trip home, and shut the door behind us—leaving me standing there on the steps and wondering what had really happened in the last twelve hours.
I looked over at Tommy, who was shrugging into his jacket with his cookie between his teeth, and a part of me couldn’t help but feel a devious little hope that his attitude adjustment was permanent. I had a feeling it wasn’t, though. It occurred to me that they might have drugged him, and I leaned down slightly to sniff for any traces of chemicals.
Instead, under the chocolate chips and last night’s booze, I caught a faint whiff of blood.
Tommy let out a little yelp as I clamped a hand on his shoulder and turned him to face me. I looked him over from the scalp down, tilting up his chin, pulling back the edges of his jacket…
And I found two small red marks on his throat.
Confused and oblivious, the kid blinked up at me. "What’s wrong?"
I wasn’t going to say what I was thinking. In fact, I wasn’t even going to think what I was thinking about Barnabas Collins.
I shook my head, took Tommy by the wrist, and started to walk without looking back.
"Let’s get out of here."
© 2004 Jordanna Morgan -send feedback