YOUTHFRONT will need to take an unexpected hiatus. We should be back during the summer.
It was a quiet day in New Pandemonium, which is how you could tell God was cooking up some nasty surprise. Normally I’d spend a Wednesday afternoon doing odd jobs or getting into arguments with one of the warlocks upstairs. This day, the warlocks kept to themselves and nobody came in to ruin my peaceful time at the bar. Nobody, that is, until Cherif.
Cherif’s a yumboe, about the only one of his kind that’d bother to slum it on my side of New Pandemonium. Mainlanders are always surprised to find out we even have a bad part of town. Really, they’re surprised by the implication that we have a nice part of town but they don’t have the balls to say so.
Of course, we haven’t got some of the amenities you can expect across Proteus Bay. There’s no high-rise hotels in New Pandemonium. No stock exchange or five-star restaurants. We have our own specialties. There’s services you can only find around these parts… Assuming you’re the right kinda people.
Cherif was the most wrong kinda guy the right kinda people ever made. He was one of the yumboe. Most of them lived uptown with the elves, the bunians and the reptoids. Cherif was different. He did all his work on our side of town, right by the shore. He was one of the biggest mainland traders we had and unlike most of the others his business had survived even as Bigley ramped up border controls.
I knew him from my time in the Husvaettir Guild but I didn’t know him well. We’d brewed a few specialty moonshines for his clients and even put up a mainlander or two, though never for more than a couple nights. He didn’t usually negotiate contracts in person so I was surprised to find him waiting for me when I came into the bar.
Like most yumboe, Cherif stood at three-foot-nothing with skin that shined blue-pink-white like a pearl. Unlike most yumboe he walked on his own two feet instead of using that telekinesis to float just a few centimeters above eye-level. With him was some lady gargoyle, hand-rolled cigarette in her lips, dressed in nothing but black goggles and the stony dewlaps God gave her.
“Hugo!” Cherif cried. “Just the man I’m looking for.”
“What’ll it be?” I stepped behind the bar and started to pull out a few mismatched ceramic mugs. I jerked my thumb to the assortment of bottles behind me and raised an eyebrow.
“Three fingers of Dracula’s, s’il vous plait.” The gargoyle planted herself on one of the stools before me.
“Something thick and brown,” Cherif said brightly. “And thank you. But I am actually here concerning your other talent.”
I snorted. “Gee, how’d you know I’d been learning piano?” I chose the tallest of the mugs and filled it with a brown bottle labeled ‘The Luck of Osiris,’ our heartiest stout. You could build a pyramid after drinking that shit. You could practically build a pyramid out of it.
He smiled and raised his glass. “You’re funny, Hugo. But no, this isn’t a hospitality job. This is about… infrastructure.”
“Oh yeah? We finally getting a proper sewer?” Into the gargoyle’s mug went a dangerous amount of Dracula’s Enervating Elixir, served neat.
“In time,” he said. “But not today. This is something different. Something big. An opportunity I’ve been after for some time.” He took a sip from his beer. Foam and sediment collected in his silver mustache. “How would you feel if you could make your way to the mainland any time you wanted?”
I shrugged. “Seems like it’d be nice to visit. Wouldn’t wanna live there.” I paused for a moment, considering. “S’pose I could stick it out for a few years, though. Even a bad job on the mainland pays better’n you can get here.”
He nodded rapidly. “Exactly, exactly. This is my whole business, you understand. When their wealth meets our wealth, we’re the ones who benefit. Libraries, hospitals, public schools… why should only they have these things? Because these things only happen where there is money. Where there is will.”
Something mean rose up in my gut just then so I poured a mug of The Luck for myself to drown it down. Cherif was telling the truth but what the hell was his point? “Sure is a shame most folk get tossed in the Error Zone for tryin’ to make that money,” I said. My tone came out a little abrasive, but what do you expect? Nine times outta ten somebody getting your hopes up is taking advantage of you.
“The Error Zone is a grave concern…” he admitted. He glanced at the gargoyle with a sideways smile. “I suppose it would be different if we didn’t have to worry about that.”
“I s’pose it would…”
He leaned in close, whispering. “So what if I told you Deluge was missing?”
Aw, geeze. Was that all? Deluge would sometimes wander outside her usual patrol route, usually when she had some secret work to do for HOMEFRONT. Rumors tended to spread if she went too long without making an appearance. “Deluge wanders off all the time, Cherif. A few smugglers get lucky in the same week, that doesn’t mean she’s gone. Do you wanna be the jackass rowing across the bay the same night she comes back?”
“No… But I know where she actually is. And she’s not getting out anytime soon.”
I set my drink down, giving Cherif a hard stare. “How the hell would you know a thing like that?”
“That’s something you’d probably rather not know.” His voice was very gentle but his eyes were hard. “I am confident in my sources. We have a good shot- the best we’ll ever get.”
Cherif was making big promises. I peered into the brown-grey potion in my mug. What did I have here, exactly? Some shitty bar on the more neglected end of a blighted land? It was hard in that moment to believe I had very much to lose.
“Okay. I’ll bite. What’s the job?”
Cherif laid the plan out for me. He and a few jinn got their hands on something called a Bridge of the Requiter. It was unlike any bridge ever made by humans. It was shaped like a spool of thread and designed to get the right people to the right places as quickly as possible.
To cross the Bridge you’d need to meet some requirement set by its craftsman. If you were on the whitelist, the Bridge itself would teleport you from one end to the next in a blink of an eye. If you weren’t, the thing would appear to you as nothing but a single piece of unbreakable thread. The one Cherif commissioned was set so that it would only accept folks from New Pandemonium, meaning we could get to the mainland and back without having to worry about mainlanders swarming the island.
Plan was, Cherif and I would ride a boat out across the Bay to unspool the Bridge. Once it was out of a person’s hands it’d take on the full weight of a steel suspension bridge so we’d need the boat to sustain the weight of the unspooling sections. My job was to cast an illusion over the whole boat in case we ran into any border patrols.
I guess I should have mentioned that in case you’re not from around here. My people, the curupiras, we can toss illusions around wherever we go. It takes concentration and a bit of skill. I’m probably one of the best in town, on account it’s one of the better ways to liven things up in a ratty old bar like ours. There were a few on the island who were better but I had to reckon they were too smart to get involved in this kind of thing.
Just my luck.
Cherif would join us on the job, along with his gargoyle body guard whose name I learned was Claudette. She’d be our look-out and was a crack shot if things came down to the wire. Our big gun was this uptown lounge singer, name of Sinead Grey. She was a pureblood banshee who was rumored to be in good with the New Pandemonium Liberation Order, something she and the others likely had in common.
It confused me at first why Cherif would show up on a trip like this himself. No doubt it was handy having a telekinetic around, and he said as much, but we’d have been fine on our own. When we finally met near the beach that night I started to see why. Cherif had come decked out in a slick black suit and sapphire-studded necklace. This wasn’t just a business opportunity for him; it was an adventure.
Our first obstacle came from The Drowning Coalition. See, New Pandemonium is basically a dumping ground for the humans’ old fairy tales. And it so happens that humans are obsessed with critters that spend their time tricking people into drowning. Kelpies, sirens, rusalka, certain alojas, etc. There’s enough of ‘em that the gangs parceled out the whole shore ages ago. Anyone wanting passage to the bay had to negotiate a way past.
On the few occasions I had need to go to the water I’d just ask this bannik I know to handle ‘em. Lots of folks in town have weird compulsions like the drowning coalition but you can usually find some immune party to work as your intermediary. In this case that was Sinead. She pointed out a patch of Siren territory, then began singing this ugly deep note as they came into earshot. It was completely out of tune with the siren song, allowing us to walk through with nothing worse than a headache.
“You’re irreplaceable dear,” Cherif laughed as he helped Sinead onto his yacht. It had a pair of stairs leading down from the main deck into what looked like a living room. Up on the main level there was an enclosed cabin for the captain. Claudette leapt on top of the cabin with two flaps of her enormous wings.
Cherif had already tethered one end of the Bridge of the Requiter to the New Pandemonium shore. A luxurious gold suspension bridge flowed out behind us as if it were a part of the land itself, Its road paved with pulsating white light. After a few hundred feet it narrowed rapidly into the golden thread wrapped around the spool in Cherif’s hands. The thread was run in turn through a sturdy clamp. The whole yacht tipped down slightly where the clamp stuck out, right at the point where the unspooling thread became the Bridge.
Once we were all aboard Sinead asked if she could hold the spool and Cherif was happy to comply. Claudette pulled a deck of cards out from under her dewlaps along with another cigarette.
Just about everyone in town knows how to play Ombre. The names and faces change depending on which neighborhood you’re in and the rules get switched this way and that but the game scratches the same itch however you play. General courtesy says the deck’s owner sets the rules but Claudette just looked at Cherif who replied, ‘ottocento.’ We partnered up.
Claudette and I lost the first hand. Claudette and I lost the second hand. Cherif put a hand on Sinead’s knee and she giggled. Claudette tossed her cigarette into the water and leapt on top of the captain’s cabin. “Grid incoming,” she warned. “Better get ready.”
I looked out. There across the water was the edge of the Grid. Crisscrossing laser beams made what Cherif called a ‘geodesic dome,’ which I guess is like a ball but broken up funny. The whole contraption was MatronTek, energy-hungry and hugely expensive. Once we’d passed through it would signal border patrol with the results from its scan: four life forms, one vessel and zero visas.
“Do we have a way past it?” I asked. I tried to sound brave, but Claudette snickered at the crack in my voice.
“Don’t need one. HOMEFRONT’s all the way in D.C. and Deluge is out of the picture. Blueshift himself couldn’t get here in less than sixteen minutes, assuming he’d even answer the call. There’ll be a few patrol boats, maybe some normal cops once we get to shore. Nothing we can’t handle.”
I nodded but felt no relief as the laser beams washed over our boat, our bodies, our unspooling cargo. Sinead giggled as red light shimmered up her skin. “Like being scanned at the supermarket.” Cherif gathered the cards back together. I let the rustling of the shuffling deck draw me in while I sucked in the cold air of Proteus Bay. My illusions were already in place. To any outsider, we’d appear as another blank patch of water. There was nothing more I could do but enjoy the night and avoid thinking about the inevitable.
My first draw of the new hand came. Seven pentacles, five wands, the Tower. Nothing but bad omens. So much for cards. I dropped mine to the table. “Nope, nope. You guys might need to try Black Jack or something.” I turned instead to look out over the waters. Black in every direction, save the humming Grid and its reflection.
It was nice to get a few seconds of peace before things went all pear-shaped. Shame it couldn’t last. Claudette whistled twice to give us the signal, then circled low over the boat before we could cram our earplugs in. “We are in the mess, nanas!” She waved her rifle as if for emphasis. “Daddy’s coming with Little Brat and some of their buddies!”
“What? Daddy? Who’s daddy?” Cherif asked angrily.
“Eh… just… Daddy!” Claudette cried helplessly. She looked over her shoulder. Our pursuers were just barely visible now, four gleaming dots growing brighter.
“Okay, okay. We don’t lose our heads.” Cherif insisted. “Let them get close. We get one sneak attack and then our cover is blown. Hugo, for the love of god keep that illusion running. You two, wait for my signal.”
Claudette and Sinead nodded their assent while I jumped down to the bottom of the deck. No way I was getting sucked into the middle of a bonafide superhero fight. I looked out through the porthole and focused all of my willpower on maintaining the illusion around the boat. Our attackers, some kind of superteam I’d never seen before, came into view.
Their leader was the only one I recognized. Little Boy came in at the front, alongside a young lady in a suit, an American flag in the shape of a man and some girl dressed up as Torchbearer. Little Boy flew on his jetpack while the others rode gleaming crafts with silver wings and bird-skull faces.
They paused in mid-air and my breath caught in my throat. Cherif wasted no time. Red Snow hadn’t even lit up his laser cannon before he was caught in the Yumboe’s telekinetic grip. Sinead, meanwhile, unleashed her scream. Even with the earplugs it was the worst sound I’ve ever heard, like you dropped an orgy of cats into steel drum. It broke my concentration. Nausea wracked my body and the illusion fell away.
It’ll be fine, I told myself as I curled up in pain. Sinead had taken out two in one blow and Claudette opened fire on the remainder. Soon this junior border patrol would be sleeping with the fishes.
It was a beautiful day for everything in Cincinnati that didn’t belong to Malcolm Crowe. After our morning negotiations I walked as far as my stolen legs would take me, hoping to put a little space between myself and the gloom of the Twin Saints offices. Even once I was past the edge of the ever-present clouds and bathed in the morning light I could feel the shadows behind me.
After a mile and a half I realized I’d spend my entire break wandering aimless unless I forced myself to stop so I grabbed breakfast while I waited for our meeting. I sat at the window, restless, nothing but cheap eggs and grungy magazines to keep me company. Groundcars roared in the street outside and a little girl ran ahead of her parents. A chill rippled through me. It would take so little force to ruin that family. So little time.
A few short hours later it was time to return to Crowe’s office to touch base with the others. Curt was waiting with Malcolm when I arrived, a green tea and a cold mineral water both waiting on the table. I swiped the water. “How’d you know?” I asked. My cells sang for joy as pure, clean water filtered through them. Maybe it was time to go easy on the drinking.
“Didn’t need to,” Curt replied. “You got the jalapeno poppers?” I patted my bag and nodded. The morsels inside were as psychoactive as they were repugnant, regurgitated by the lanky data-monster born from RADFRONT’s old archives. Curt nodded with approval. “Malcolm here doesn’t believe they taste as bad as I say.”
Crowe held a glass of dark liquid in front of his face. “There’s nothing a well spiced rum won’t cover up.”
“Won’t help,” Curt replied breezily. “Though it might be good for the headache.”
Malcolm sighed. “I miss reading. Speaking of.” He reached backwards to produce the notebooks I’d delivered to him that morning. “I got copies of these back from Lily about an hour ago. Interesting stuff. Almost makes up for the fact that you botched the actual mission objective.”
Curt and I exchanged a look. “History will vindicate us,” he said.
“Damn straight. We’ll be greeted as liberators.” I raised about a dozen phantom fists into the air before realizing that nobody could see them.
Soon after we were joined by Yaritza. She arrived in her butterfly form, thousands of butterflies swarming from the vent in Crowe’s office to make a human-shaped swarm in the middle of the room. Even before all of them had assembled they started melting together into feet, legs, torso, arms, face. “Sorry for the wait,” Yaritza said. “Malcolm, you were right about the ghost meadow. Mind if I pass a pollen sample down to Barleycorn?”
“Go ahead,” he replied.
She looked down at the tea steaming on the table. “For me?” She plucked it from the saucer and took a sip. “Wow, perfectly steeped. Good work, Agent.”
“Enough small-talk, folks.” I pulled the info-popper and info-pastry from my bag. I placed the pastry on Yaritza’s saucer, “For the birthday girl.” I placed the popper in Malcolm’s hand, “for the… you.”
“Thanks,” they replied in completely different tones.
“Make sure you’re seated somewhere comfortable before you dig into those,” Curt warned. “You’re going to drop out of your surroundings just as the flavor becomes unbearable. Try laying down on your side in case you throw up.”
Crowe sat at his desk while Yaritza curled up sideways on the couch next to Curt. “Bon apetit,” he told her.
“Bon voyage,” she replied. She scarfed her morsel down, wincing only slightly.
Malcolm was less stoic. “Great gristle of Golgotha,” he hissed through cheddar-drenched teeth. He filled his mouth with rum, swished the mix between his cheeks, buckled over with eyes bugged out and pounded on the table as he made one final heroic swallow. “Glack!” he cried. He fell face forward. His head thunked the table and he was out.
Curt and I shot the shit for an hour or so while Crowe and Yaritza were trapped in their data-dreams. We managed to stick to safe topics- weather, sports, which secret prisons the Executive kept various ex-wives in. Typical chit-chat. Between two spies that was no easy feat. It takes concentration to say nothing.
Before long we were greeted by dry heaving from Yaritza and much wetter heaving from Malcolm. “Zut alors!” Curt cried with a start. He pat Yaritza gently on the back while black rum and depleted queso splattered on Crowe’s desk. “You okay, Flutterby?”
“Don’t get so friendly, Agent,” she managed to choke out. “Bring me a fucking pencil.”
“No, no, don’t mind me,” Malcolm muttered once his guts stopped spasming. He rang the buzzer on his desk. “Lily, get me clean-up and a pitcher of lemon water.” He looked down and made a disgusted sound. “And another tie. One with a happier skull on it.”
Yaritza scrawled into her journal with the same mad drive that had gripped Curt and me earlier. Malcolm was in no such hurry. “What’s the hold-up?” I asked.
“It’s Malphas. He… stole the vision, for lack of a better word. Let me keep the nausea, of course.” He spat a bit of vomit into a nearby trash can. “He must be mad that I signed a contract without consulting him.”
“Why would you need to do that?” Cash asked. Yaritza mouthed words to herself as she stared wide-eyed at her paper.
“We’re legally entangled at a metaphysical level. Any law that binds me binds him and vice versa. If I go to prison in the material world, he gets sentenced in Bird Hell.”
“I thought he ruled Bird Hell,” Cash protested.
“Nobody’s above the law in Bird Hell. Otherwise, what’s the point?” He shrugged. “I’m communing with him tonight anyway. I’ll have to get the details then.” A sly smile took his face. “It would do to have some company. Litework, you could probably use some more first-hand experience with magic.” Smooth. Now I’d have cover when I came back in the evening to finalize the contract to save my sister’s soul. No sense letting the others catch on to our arrangement.
“I’ll be there,” I replied.
Not long after a pair of janitors came in to clean the vomit from Crowe’s desk. With them was Lily, Malcolm’s secretary, a stern-eyed succubus with a pitcher of lemon water. Crowe thanked her with unusual politeness while she directed the janitors in their chores.
Shortly after they left Yaritza reared up from her notebook, blew out a huge breath of air and finished her entire cup of tea in one go.
“YOUTHFRONT!” she cried, tea dribbling from the corners of her mouth. “It’s what they’re calling that project in Westchester. Some kind of… super-teen internship. Doc Zeno’s running it.” She held her notebook out and I plucked it up with a phantom hand. “Seems she was accessing files on three of the kids before visiting Gammon. Codenames Slumberjack, Wunderkind…” She cupped her face in her hands. “…Torchbearer.”
Malcolm laughed. Cash just looked confused. I scanned our earlier notes for context. The Torch had been dormant ever since the New Years Eve attack. Most folks assumed it would never find a new host. There was an entry about it in the schematic I’d written after my popper-vision. “Looks like the Torch lit itself up in RADFRONT headquarters the same day P!ss Frog defeated the Decoherence Strategy.”
“Right. And just one month before that, Mac Stevens’ heart disappeared from storage,” Malcolm added.
“Damn, nobody’s mentioned a thing about that at VICEFRONT,” Curt said. “They must have covered it up.”
“Of course they did. If these are connected then Gammon’s inside woman was behind it,” I replied. “Which means we need to figure out who she got that heart to.”
“Have we got anything else on the super-interns?” Crowe asked.
Yaritza snatched back her notes and flipped through them. “Slumberjack and Wunderkind are both unusual cases. I’m not even sure if they technically count as supers. Wunderkind’s profile lists no powers or artifacts. Slumberjack’s mentions something called an ‘Othernatural Dermal Substrate,’ whatever that is.”
“Ahhh, a skinjob!” Crowe said with delight. “That was one of ours. Beautiful concept I developed with Dr. Dale.” He poured himself another glass of lemon-water. “We’ve got ways of turning a man into a suit, body and soul. Very handy if you’ve got a super-criminal you can’t rehabilitate, or if you just want the benefits of a power without committing to an infection.” He smacked his lips after a long sip. “I’m amazed to see one finally get deployed.”
“I don’t want to ask this,” Curt began, “but what do you mean, turn a man into a suit?”
Crowe shrugged. “You know,” he mimed the act of skinning a man with a knife, injecting just a bit too much detail into the performance. “Hollow ‘im out, keep him alive and semi-sentient with a bit of magic, then slip him onto a loyal soldier or valued customer. It’s very promising work. Theoretically, you could steal anyone’s powers… so long as they’ve got skin, at least.”
Yaritza gave Crowe a hard stare. “…That vision. I saw a place. People cut up and covered in zippers. You did that?”
He shrugged. “Like I said, joint effort. What about the other kid? Wunderkind?”
Yaritza seemed reluctant to speak. Then Malcolm did that thing where the corners of his eyebrows curl up like the Grinch and the temperature drops in the room. Ice twinkled in his lemon water. Yaritza pressed on. The temperature returned to normal. “Wunderkind farms ghosts, basically. Uses old videogame servers like beehives for dead Vikings. A kind of virtual Valhalla.”
“Derivative,” he snorted. “Not to mention lowbrow. Regardless, it sounds like we have our \ next steps. We’ve got to figure out where Mac Stevens’ heart went and get Malphas to choke up my vision.”
“There’s names in my notebook we should track down as well. Any one of them could blow this wide open,” I noted.
“All in due time,” Yaritza said. “We’ll nail assignments down after Malcolm has his midnight meeting with the bloody crow.”
“Agreed.” Malcolm said. Then, looking at me, “see you tonight.”
* * * * * * *
Malcolm had instructed me to meet him in the sub-basement where the New Pandemonium villa lay. He had arranged the entire floor into an artificial town, complete with plasma screens on the wall and ceiling to simulate an open sky. The whole town was arranged in four blocks with a black dome sitting at the center of the crossroads. Since the Twin Sants offices were themselves situated at the middle of a crossroads that made this dome a crossroads within a crossroads, perfect for communing with devils.
A few Twin Saints employees allowed me inside, a sasquatch with a hand-held metal detector and a human being in a hazmat suit with a strip of paper attached to the forehead. Therein I saw a massive black crow laid out on its side, about eight feet across at its breast. Around it was scrawled the Pentacle of Malphas in what appeared to be a mixture of ash and some kind of fat. Malcolm stood nude by the bird’s massive throat, two live crows tied to chains around his shoulder and a silver blade in each of his hands. Overhead hung another artificial sky, this one showing different constellations from the one right outside the dome.
“Welcome to the astrologenius,” he called. “The stars are right and the sacrifices are ready.”
For a moment I simply scanned the room, taking in the scope of Malcolm’s conjuration scheme. This was what happened when you dove into the occult with full industrial infrastructure and corporate backing. It seemed so involved. And somehow even more sacrilegious. “Is this the only way to summon him? Earlier you said you can do that on command.”
“I can, if we want him and not an avatar of him. We don’t want that. We really, really don’t want that.”
“Gotcha.” I nodded. “Then let’s go.”
I took a seat inside the circle while Malcolm recited a dark prayer in some patois of ancient tongues. The crows chained to his shoulders cawed wretchedly and flapped as hard as they could. Their chains pulled taut as they screamed. Malcolm wound his arms in semi-circles to reel in the struggling birds.
When they were close enough, he slit one crow’s throat with each knife before scraping the blades against each other. Their blood mingled together and he plunged the blades into the top of the giant crow’s breast. He yanked them down with all of his weight, producing a great gash that rained blood over his head.
Once he was painted head-to-toe in blood he took a step back. Something inside was moving. From out of the giant crow’s wound stepped two figures. The first was scrawny, hunched and bald all over. It staggered on long yellow talons and held warped arms to its chest. They were bent and crooked like birds’ wings stripped of feathers. It was only when she looked up and gasped, green eyes framing her ragged mouth, that I recognized Roselia.
We embraced. The crow’s blood was hot and sticky against her skin but I didn’t care. I kissed her cheeks and forehead. She first tried to hold me in her twisted bird-arms before pressing them against her chest and leaning into my shoulder. Phantom arms gripped her tight, as many as I could summon without crushing her. I wanted so badly to have arms with flesh and bone of their own. She shook. Short screeches burst from her throat, but her eyes made no tears.
“Oh sis,” I whispered. “You’re free.”
Her eyes were so much older than I remembered. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” she rasped. Her voice was a dry, tortured sound. An animal choking.
Then, more stirring from inside the fallen beast. Ribs and meat parted as the devil prince Malphas stepped through. He was massively obese, nearly twice the size of me, five hundred pounds of flesh in a coat of bloody back feathers. His beak curled sharply downwards, seemingly too crooked to even open, yet open it did to let loose his terrible voice.
“Beware, girl-ape.” It was the same sound I’d heard before in Malcolm’s office, someone sawing meat at the bottom of the world. “You bargain with sin.”
Roselia tensed even more in my arms. “It’s not worth it, Lucilla.” Malcolm smirked to hear my name. “Nothing is.”
I filched a pack of cigarettes from Malcolm’s coat, folded at the edge of the summoning circle, and brought it to my lips. “ That’s right, corkscrew. Your boy here already signed on the dotted line.” I stared Malphas in the eye. “So you’d better not fucking disappoint me.”
Then, in defiance of all geometry and aesthetics, the blood-drenched crow bent its beak into a smile.
Hey, gang! For some reason I got a huge rash of bot followers yesterday. I force-unfollowed the lot of them out of generalized cyber-paranoia. If you happened to subscribe yesterday and coincidentally have an outlook e-mail address that looks like a string of random characters, please accept my sincere apologies and feel free to try again after the bot-wave has passed.