Her greatest power is her identity.
The world knows Mary O'Sullivan as a Page Six regular; she's an heiress, a playgirl, a philanthropist—and an orphan, after she survived the plane crash that killed her celebrity parents.
The world knows her vigilante alter ego, too—they just don't know it's Mary behind the mask.
There's a lot the world doesn't know.
Like the fact that their vigilantes work together in a top-secret superhero league.
When Mary blows off that league's protocol to rescue a fire-powered newcomer, she attracts unwanted attention from the girl's father—who's got serious gripes with the league and mysterious backers lurking in the shadows.
If Mary can't discover who's funding her enemy's mad-scientist experiments, she risks outing her secret identity—and allowing a dangerous new world order to rise in its place.
Alter Ego is the twisty first installment in the League of Independent Operatives sci-fi superhero series, perfect for fans of Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Release date: March 3, 2020
Publisher: Spells & Spaceships Press
Print pages: 348
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Kate Sheeran Swed
No one had tried to kill Mary in over a month, and she was starting to resent it.
Of all the sweaty prosthetic noses and tight sunglasses she’d worn during this punishment of a stakeout, nothing came close to matching the itchy horror of tonight’s black wig. Secured to her head beneath a baseball cap, the ponytail rasped at her neck as if it stood for her whole mission: boring, uncomfortable, and definitely not the right fit. She wanted to rip it off and throw it across the bar. Along with the rest of this damn assignment.
But the only way to prove herself and get back to the good missions was to kick this one’s ass, so she focused on keeping a line of sight on her mark.
“You need backup out there?” Her sort-of boss’s voice buzzed out of her left earring, a hidden com link of Mary’s design. Rhinestones were less conspicuous than earpieces.
“I can handle babysitting,” she muttered, hiding her response behind a fake sip of beer. If she needed help, she’d ask for it. She might not have enhanced abilities like everyone else, but that didn’t mean she screwed up every mission.
Just the last one, and it hadn’t even been that bad.
The bar was crowded tonight, with jersey-clad men packed so close they barely had room to punch each other’s shoulders when one of the tiny baseball players on the TV screens made a hit. The place was only a block from Fenway Park. Fan central. From her spot at the short end of the L-shaped bar, Mary had a full view of every sports fan in the room, a quick path to the back exit, and best of all, a perpetually busted light bulb in the fixture above her stool to keep her face in shadow.
Well, she might have had something to do with the busted light.
“It’s OK to say yes to backup, Mary. Jenna’s a wild card,” Eloise said. Mary’d been following Jenna Carpenter for a month now—her purgatory after botching that last assignment—and Jenna had pulled so many stunts that it was hard to believe the girl thought she was in hiding.
Take right now, for example. Like any bartender, Jenna’s job was to take drink orders, serve those drinks, and repeat. Staying under the radar while pulling taps and mixing martinis should not be an issue. But Jenna was in the process of climbing on top of the bar herself, with a tray of multicolored shots balanced on her palm. How she considered this hiding, and how she maintained her balance up there in those heels, were only two of Mary’s questions.
Never wear heels when you might need to run, that was Mary’s rule. Though they did leave a good mark when you kicked someone in the throat. As Jenna turned, Mary caught a glimpse of another shot tucked between her breasts. Jenna looked so young, so thin and vulnerable, with too much blush standing out on her cheekbones as if to make up for her pale skin. She’d ripped a deep V in the neckline of her Red Sox tank top.
In hiding. Uh huh. Jenna lived like she wanted to get caught, and not by the good guys. Luckily, Mary was part of the League of Independent Operatives—officially the good guys. They’d been following Jenna for months trying to decide whether to recruit her.
The sooner the better, as far as Mary was concerned, and not only because this mission-slash-punishment was starting to wear long. Every time Jenna got upset, her skin ignited. Literally.
Jenna flipped her brunette hair over her shoulder and shouted, “You do a shot, I do a shot!” The other bartender, an older guy with white hair, was shaking his head like he always did when Jenna started getting crazy, but he didn’t stop her. Mary had noted the fraying collars on more than one of his shirts, and the mismatched buttons that must have been salvaged from other pieces of clothing. He clearly needed cash, and Mary could see the tips doubling when Jenna got a little wild.
Mary wanted to pick her up now and start her training. How else would she learn to control her powers? Mary might be the only Operative who couldn’t fly or lift a bus with one hand, but somehow she was also the only one who understood that Jenna shouldn’t be expected to figure this out on her own.
And Mary had more important things to deal with than twiddling her thumbs over whether or not to invite a newbie into the fold. Like chasing down actual criminals, for example.
“Plain baseball cap, huh?” The guy sitting next to her had been quiet so far, but now he leaned toward her. Just slightly, but still closer than she liked. Mary risked a glance, a quick scan for potential threats. He had white skin and black hair, cut short. Longer than a typical military cut, but possibly the mark of an active profession, one with a dress code that allowed for a shadow of stubble across the jaw. Age, mid-to-late twenties. Relatively new smart phone on the table next to a dark draft beer. No sag in his jacket or strange outlines in his clothing to indicate a concealed weapon, not that you could ever be completely sure. She didn’t recognize him.
Mary kept her head tilted toward the game, eyes back on Jenna. No problem at this point, since Jenna was standing about halfway down the long end of the bar and sucking down a neon green shot.
“Plain baseball caps make me nervous,” the man continued. He had a deep voice, and some kind of accent. Sounded English, with a touch of a Northern lilt. Liverpool, maybe. “I’m afraid you might be a Yankees fan in disguise.”
Was that supposed to be code for “I recognize you”? And if so, which version of her did he recognize? He could be the unasked-for backup, a new LIO team member she hadn’t met yet, but she hadn’t survived to this point in life by assuming the best.
“Are you from Australia?” she asked. Most people here wouldn’t be able to pinpoint his accent, and she didn’t want to stand out any more than she already did. She’d keep him talking for a moment, hoping Eloise would get the hint and shoot her some info. If he was LIO, Mary planned to have a fit later at HQ. A big one.
He drank from his beer, keeping one hand on the bar beside his phone. Waiting for a call? “No. I’m from Boston.”
“But not originally.” From this angle, there were a few ways to take this guy out if necessary. Surprise would be best, tipping over his bar stool or unseating him with a roundhouse kick—though that would attract unwanted attention. Of course, she never traveled without her drugs. She could always slip a sedative into his drink as a last resort.
“You know, I always wonder how people can tell that,” he said.
“You’re messing with me.”
He gave her a little side smile, revealing a hint of dimple. “Yeah. I’m from the U.K., actually. Lancaster. By way of London.”
Lancaster. She never would have gotten that. “If you’re British, then why do you care about baseball?”
“As it happens, I moved here for the baseball. Ten years ago. But, as a good Englishman, I also love football. Soccer.”
“Mary, he’s not a threat. Drop him.” Eloise’s voice. Finally.
“Right,” Mary said. “Well, good to know.”
The man scooted his stool closer, bringing with him a breath of fresh pine that dispelled the stale-alcohol odor of the bar. She shouldn’t have engaged him. “You’re not a Yankees fan, are you?”
“I’m visiting,” Mary said.
“Good. I wouldn’t want to have to break up a fight when I’m off duty. Officer Pearce. Nathan.” He extended his hand to her.
A cop. She didn’t know this one, hadn’t worked with him before. She’d remember him if she had. She always remembered, and besides, he was handsome. No shame in noticing, but shaking hands was the start of a longer conversation and names were a deal-breaker. “I’m not really here to talk,” she said.
“Right,” he said, withdrawing his hand. “Sorry.”
She almost felt bad, but it was for the best. She couldn’t exactly give up her mission to spare a random cop’s feelings, even a good-looking one. She resettled her focus. Jenna was still on the bar.
On the television behind Jenna, a commercial for the Good Morning Show popped up, with clips peddling Mary’s upcoming appearance via pre-recorded interview. In her celebrity identity, of course. It was supposed to be an opportunity to talk about the reboot of her parents’ cause, the Sea and Stars Foundation, which was her new plan to honor their memory and do something meaningful with her famous-heiress status. In reality, she’d barely edged in a sentence about the foundation. Somehow the bubbly hostess had gotten off on the topic of how Mary curled her hair. As if she did that herself when she went on television.
“I’m sorry,” the cop said, sliding closer again. Officer Pearce. Nathan. She filed his name away; she’d need to check up on him later, regardless of what Eloise said she’d found. “It’s just that you look so familiar.”
“Really?” The commercial was still playing. She had to distract him from the TV before he looked too closely. “That’s your line?”
“Yeah, I know, it sounds like a pickup. But I’m sure we’ve met. Don’t I know you?”
Jenna was dancing on the bar, having apparently given up on serving drinks. The commercial finally finished, thank god.
“Get rid of him,” Eloise buzzed.
I’m trying, Mary thought. “No. We haven’t met.”
Whatever Officer Nathan Pearce was sure of was drowned out by a deafening cheer in the bar. Home run.
Jenna screeched, grabbed the bottom of her tank top, and started to pull the hem toward her head.
No, no, no, Jenna, don’t do it.
Jenna ripped off the shirt, revealing another one below it. Mary let out a breath. The other bartender, the older man, looked equally relieved. He returned to celebrating the home run along with everyone else, including Officer Pearce.
Mary’s relief was shorter lived—but then, she was the only one whose eyes weren’t locked to the screen, which meant she was watching when an oak-sized tree of a dude stumbled out of the crowd and reached for Jenna’s ankle. Jenna sidestepped, somehow managing to stay on her feet, then tossed off a remark Mary couldn’t hear.
When the Tree guy said something to her in response, though, Jenna’s face turned white. Instead of telling him where to go, something Mary had seen her do plenty of times, Jenna lowered herself to sit on the edge of the bar and began talking rapidly, pointing her finger at the guy’s chest. As she spoke, a handful of men melted out of the crowd in a fluid movement and formed a half-circle around her. And the Tree. What was this, his security detail?
Everyone else in the bar was still freaking out over the home run. They weren’t paying attention to Jenna’s argument with the Tree, or his henchmen, who moved as though performing a familiar, choreographed maneuver—wolves cutting off their prey’s access to help or escape.
Mary and her friends obviously weren’t the only ones who knew about Jenna’s powers. Mary slid off of her bar stool.
“Hold,” Eloise said.
Mary kept her voice low. “It’s time.”
The Tree gripped Jenna’s wrists and pulled her off the bar, steadying her as she hit the floor. He leaned close, talking. When Jenna tried to twist away from him, he grabbed her upper arms and shoved her against the bar.
The movement caught Nathan Pearce’s attention and he stood, starting immediately toward the altercation. Mary seized his wrist to stop him, gripping tightly enough that she could feel his pulse beating beneath her fingers. She couldn’t let him barge in and get fried.
“I’ll handle this,” she told him.
He narrowed his eyes. “I’m sorry, who are you?”
In Mary’s ear, Eloise said, “Don’t do anything stupid. You know the protocol.”
“She’s going to snap.”
Officer Pearce looked at her inquisitively. “Who are you talking to?”
The Tree put a hand on Jenna’s shoulder and started to guide her out of the bar. But Mary had been following Jenna long enough to know what was coming next.
She couldn’t get to Jenna in time to prevent it. There were too many people in the way, their attention still razor-focused on the baseball game. Mary’s brain rattled from evacuation plans that wouldn’t blow her cover to desperate thoughts on how to stage a distraction—also without blowing her cover.
At this point, Mary doubted it could be stopped from any distance.
One moment Jenna’s hands were on the Tree’s chest, pushing him away, and then her fingers flashed red. No warning, no slow burn. An instant of blazing heat. The guy collapsed, an angry burn glaring on his chest through his ruined sweater. He hit the floor, moaning. Alive, for now.
Jenna stared at him, dazed. The customers standing closest to her began backing away.
Mary caught another glimpse of Jenna’s glowing flesh before the fire winked out, red-hot coals in the shape of a hand. For a heartbeat—several of Nathan Pearce’s, whose wrist was still locked between her fingers—the sight left Mary breathless with loss. Her mentor had had fire powers like this. She’d seen Jenna use her powers a few times now, and it still felt like being haunted. Eloise was silent on the com link. She had to be thinking of Will, too.
Nathan Pearce tugged his wrist gently, and she released her hold. “I need to go help,” he said.
Yes. The Tree’s followers were closing in, blocking off Jenna’s escape route. The crowd was moving for the door, most of them, but not fast enough. Time to act.
Mary shook off her shock and slid a finger under the rim of her cap to unhook the mask she kept hidden there, then secured it over the top half of her face. Nathan was about to see her in action, anyway. No sense in standing on ceremony.
“I’ll deal with it,” she said.
“You’re off duty.”
Using her stool as a ladder, Mary stepped onto the bar. It was the closest route to Jenna, with the now-screaming burned guy motivating the rest of the patrons to find another place to catch the rest of the game. They were bottlenecking at the door, throwing frightened glances at Jenna, who was still surrounded. The other bartender was wringing his hands and shouting for everyone to calm down.
“Get out of there,” Eloise said.
Mary ripped off the earring and shoved it in her pocket. She wasn’t about to leave the girl here alone. Will wouldn’t have.
“She’s got no respect,” one of the Tree’s followers was saying as Mary reached the circle. This one had a wide face and a huge, flat nose. Apparently he hadn’t learned much from what just happened to his buddy.
Mary jumped off the bar and landed between the group and Jenna.
“Leave her alone,” she said.
“And you’re gonna make me?”
Mary looked them over. Four henchmen, with Jenna’s down for the count. Flat-Face, Ginger Freckles, Thick-Neck Giant, and, compared to his present company, Shrimpy. Even Shrimpy was an inch or so taller than Mary’s 5’9”. They all clearly knew their way around a weight room.
Good for them. Mary knew her way around a battlefield.
“Yeah,” Mary said. “I’m gonna make you.”
Flat-Face lunged, giving her knee a clear shot to his groin. She added an elbow to the temple for good measure as he folded in pain. A quick spin to the left took out Thick’s neck with a throat punch—heels not necessary—then back to the right, kick primed for Ginger’s hip.
Only Ginger wasn’t there. Instead, Mary found herself looking, again, at Nathan Pearce. He shrugged and gave her that same half smile. Ginger was crumpled in an enormous heap at his feet.
Reckless for a cop, but OK. Apparently Boston knew how to train them.
“Behind you,” Nathan said, and Mary whirled around. Thick Neck was still in the game, picking up a bar stool to use as a weapon. Not the brightest idea. There wasn’t much room for swinging furniture in here, even with the crowd rapidly draining from the bar. While he tried to maneuver the stool into the air, no doubt with grand plans of using it to slam her to the floor, she grabbed a full bottle of wine from the bar and lobbed it at his head.
Thick Neck’s eyes widened as he tried to duck, but the bar stool threw off his balance. The bottle struck the top of his skull with a dull smack, and he collapsed on top of his ill-chosen weapon. Down for the count.
But hadn’t there been one more thug? Mary evaluated the ring of casualties, sprawled on the floor around her.
“Where’s Shrimpy?” she said.
He’d inched his way toward the wall, hands above his head in surrender. The smart one.
Mary dropped her hands, and Shrimpy slumped in obvious relief.
“Who the hell are you?” Jenna’s voice was shaking. She was still cowering against the bar, poor girl.
Mary turned. “I need to get you to safety.”
“I’m pretty sure safe isn’t an option for me.”
“You need to trust me.”
Not comforting, apparently. Jenna’s eyes filled with tears.
“He’s here,” she whispered, her gaze shifting to focus on something over Mary’s shoulder. Mary whipped around, ready to take Shrimpy down, too, but his neck was already in trouble. A tall man in a wide-brimmed hat had him headlocked in the crook of one elbow.
“Thanks for rescuing my daughter,” the man said, his voice a gurgle in the back of his throat. Despite the August heat, he wore lace-up boots, a trench coat, and leather gloves. He lifted his head enough to reveal a face covered in gauze, his eyes cranberry-red where they should have been white. A gap in the gauze at his chin displayed a patch of peeling tanned skin. “I guess I owe you for that, so I’ll leave you alive.”
Mary fought a wave of revulsion. Daughter? “You’re not looking so good,” she said. Trapped in the stranger’s seemingly effortless grip, Shrimpy trembled. “Why don’t you let that misguided piece of trash go so you can rest?”
“Your concern is uncommon for a vigilante, and I appreciate it. But I’m almost done here,” the red-eyed man said. Then he twisted.
Shrimpy’s limp form slid to the floor as the man let go. Nothing to do about it now. Mary grabbed Jenna’s wrist and dragged her toward the door. She didn’t have to look back to know Nathan Pearce was staring at her. But what the hell? So was everyone else.
Mary didn’t like leaving him with the mummy guy, but she had a feeling the stranger wouldn’t stay long once she evacuated Jenna.
“He found me,” Jenna said, so softly Mary could barely hear her. “All this time I’ve been running. All for nothing.”
“Jenna,” Mary said. “I need you to run again, OK? Now.”
“He’s going to follow us,” Jenna said as Mary shoved the door open.
“Then we’re going to move fast.”
Mary swung the door open and pushed Jenna into the night.
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