The six people who sat around the table at Common Grounds™ could have been any number of 20-somethings gathering to consume more-than-strictly-necessary high-end java and partake of coffeehouse culture. But in truth, they were the closest thing that the notoriously diffuse and fractious coalition known as ‘Evolution Rocks!’ had to a steering committee in Cincinnati. “Okay, what are the chances that this ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ is a mutant?” Courtney asked. Unlike their perceived counterpart, Humanity First!, Evolution Rocks was an ‘umbrella’ that several groups that had different base agendas, but a shared interest in Mutant Rights, used to combine and coordinate their efforts. Well, at least as much as they did. Courtney worked for ‘No Boxcars’ a group that worked with runaways, and tried to grease the sticky wheels of the Children’s Services in the Midwest.
“Hard to say,” Matthew (not Matt) said, “the Catholic church that he or she is hiding out in is doing a very nice job of keeping the kid as under wraps as possible.” Matthew worked for the American Privacy Front, and he respected people who could keep nosey parkers at a distance. “And the descriptions of what happened in that subway station are so garbled that we’re still not clear what did and what didn’t happen, and what the kid did or didn’t do. And from the way that the kid seemed to drop out of nowhere, with nobody claiming him or her, he could be anything from a mutant, to a kid who somehow bound a dynamorph, to a visitor from the planet Koozbain.”
“Yeah, but how can a mutant pull off the healings that they’re talking about?” Matt (not Matthew- well, only to his mother, anyway) asked. “They’re talking about miracles!”
“What’s the Vatican supposed to do?” Lisa shot back, “Tell the Faithful that they’re exploiting some obscure mutant trait? The crowd outside St. Gregory’s wants miracles, and the church is gonna give ‘em miracles!” Like David, Lisa was with the Ohio Civil Rights Union, a rather aggressive Civil Rights advocacy group, and she tended to have a rather jaundiced view of most Establishment organizations.
“Which doesn’t explain how this ‘Angel’ can pull off miracles, now does it, Leese?” Matt shot back.
“Please!” Jennifer cut in, “As hot a topic as the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen is, can we get to the real issue that we have to deal with? Namely, how is this ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ mess gonna affect the Silver Ghost? I mean, the Angel is in New York, and the New York branch is coping with him or her. But we finally, finally have a mutant superhero here in Cincy. AND, best of all, she’s a KID! She is EVERYTHING that we want. She is young, she’s cute, she’s wholesome, and she sends the message that mutants are safe to have around. But you just know that H1! is gonna jump on this ‘Angel’ thing and try and tar the Ghost with whatever crap they can blame this Angel for. We can’t let that happen! We’ve got to DO something!”
“There are three problems with that, Jen,” David pointed out. “Namely Dagney, Imbas and Mills.” Like most Moderate groups with a Leftish bent, ‘Evolution Rocks!’ had problems with infighting and conflicting agendas; and the most persistently conflicting agenda was that of Gifford Mills, the putative head of ‘Catalyst for Social Change’, an unapologetic Anarchist group which had managed to insert itself into ER!™. Catalyst for Social Change (or CSC for short) shared the opinion of many groups of the Far Left that trying fix the problems of a Capitalist society was a waste of time and effort, and the only real solution for those ills was revolution. Preferably with them in charge of whatever was left. And since content people don’t over-throw a comfortable system, these groups tried to get things so miserable that the masses would finally rise up. Part of that strategy was undermining and sabotaging moderate movements that sought to ameliorate various problems. Gifford Mills was a dab hand had steering Dagney Palmer and Imbas (just ‘Imbas’, one sole, pretentious name), whom David regarded as the sort of well-intentioned airheaded ‘feel-good’ type Liberals that gave Rush Limbaugh his best ammunition, into Politically Correct but self-sabotaging positions. David had screamed like a wounded eagle when CSC had been brought under Evolution Rocks!’s tent, and over the past few months, Courtney, Lisa, Jennifer and the Matts had come to agree with him. “If we try to throw ER!’s weight behind the Ghost, Mills will try to use Dagney and Imbas to turn the thing into the sort of big mutton-head thing like happened three years ago in Chicago. We were trying to get the MCO to come clean about their tactics and instead, thanks to that cluster fuck, the Knights of Purity managed to get a contract in Chicago!”
“But if we don’t do anything, then Mills has managed to buffalo us into inaction,” Lisa objected. “And that plays into his hands even better! Then he can say that we Moderates admit that we’re unable to do anything meaningful, let alone helpful, for mutants within the system, so the only recourse for mutants is to rise up against the repressive Capitalist system- blah-blah, yackitty-shmackity,” Lisa trailed off dismissively. “Short form: Mills sticks it to us again.” Working for the Ohio Civil Rights Union, Lisa was very sensitive to the accusations and maneuvers of the Far Left.
“The problem is that the Silver Ghost hasn’t done that much as a superhero,” Courtney pointed out.
“What do you call that thing with Dr. Diabolik?”
“Yeah, it was a great introduction, but all she really DID was hold Cap’n Patriot’s bags for him!”
“Yeah, but that might be the smartest thing for her to do, just sort of hang around in the background,” Matt pointed out. “My guys tell me that she’s hella on thin ice with the DA. A big part of her deal for gettin’ out from under those Larceny charges was ‘No Superheroing’.”
“Then why are they letting her go after that Madcap ding-dong?”
“Special deal. Madcap’s a kid. Nobody wants to go on TV beating up a kid, especially a girl. Besides, that’s more street comedy than real superheroing.”
“Yeah, but you gotta admit, what the Ghost pulled at that Supervillain Gimmick convention was pretty slick,” Jennifer smirked. “I mean, she held up the entire convention center after Madcap broke that pillar with Foolsgold Star!”
“Maybe,” Matthew grumped, “But even then, the asshole tried to arrest her and blame her for everything.”
“Why is that GOON out of jail, anyway?” Jennifer complained. “I mean people died when he took that fight out onto the freeway! And how many people got sent to the hospital?”
“He’s out on parole,” Matt said with authority. “And the Cops ain’t happy about it.”
‘PAROLE?’ was the general reaction. “Who would give that retard parole?” Lisa demanded.
“Here’s a hint: My friends on the Force tell me that Herb Goodkind, the man hisself, has been quietly going in and out of City Hall, stumping for the KoP to get a license in Cincy.”
“WHAT?” Courtney yelped, “After those trigger-happy goons SHOT the Ghost in the back?”
David’s eyes popped open. “Hold it! I think that we’ve been going about this all wrong. Guys, remember that ‘Is the Silver Ghost a mutant: Yes or No?’ bit that H1! pulled right after Dr. Diabolik hit, and the Ghost was getting all that great press? They managed to sleaze Cap’n Patriot into a position where it looked like he was ashamed of the Ghost for being a mutant.”
“Yeah, but SPECTRUM managed to weasel their way around that.”
“True, but consider this: with that move, H1! put Cap’n Patriot on the spot, right after one of the shining moments of his career. They didn’t go after HIM, they went after something that he didn’t want to talk about, and made that question a big deal.”
“So, if we make a big deal about supporting the Silver Ghost, we make her a valid target for H1!, Rick Standish and everyone else with a mouth that’s smarter than they are.” Jennifer started to object, but Dave waved her down. “What’s the big thing that we all remember from that mess where the KoP jumped the Ghost while she was trying to bag Madcap? That they shot her in the back.”
“So, we sue them for Assault?” Courtney asked.
“No, that’s way too Legal, and besides we have no standing to sue. But Goodkind’s lobbying for the Knights to get a license to operate in Cincy, right? So we FIGHT that, very loudly. We make the Knights of so-called ‘Purity’ the issue, and we keep punching the fact that they shot the Ghost in the back!”
“That, and the groping thing.”
“Oh!” Lisa peeped, “And the fact that she was legally totally a duly deputized officer of the LAW when they shot her, but they got off with a slap on the wrist!”
“Yeah, we shift the focus from the Ghost to the KoP,” Matt said with a big smile, clearly digging it. “H1! put the Cap on the defensive, and made him do all the hard work, and the very fact that he hadda work worked against him. So, we put the KoP on the defensive and make them do the hard work. Cap is a genuine hero, so he was able to tough it out; the KoP are a bunch of mercenaries with big guns. They can’t handle that kind of scrutiny, and they know it.”
“Mercenaries with big guns- and power armor,” Jennifer added, with a grin of her own. “Very expensive power armor. Provided by one of the richest, most powerful, most notorious mutant-haters on the planet,” she finished with relish. “Hey, he’s gonna be fighting us every inch of the way on this, so the best thing we can do is make that hard for him. If we play it right, we could take their trump card-”
“Their DONALD Trump card,” Matthew cracked.
“And trump it,” Jen finished.
“The NERVE of someone that rich,” Courtney breezed sardonically, “to expect the tax payers of Cincinnati to pay for his private army of stormtroopers, to back his private political agenda.”
“But we don’t just shove the Silver Ghost off to the sidelines,” Matthew jumped in. “Once we have the KoP firmly established as the ones on the hot seat, we bring up the Ghost as a contrast. They’re a bunch of trigger-happy goons with guns-”
“And grabby hands,” Lisa cut in pertly.
“Right. And on the other hand she’s THE cute, wholesome All-American girl-”
“Who was kicked out of her home by her parents for something that she had NO CONTROL over!” Jennifer added. Jen worked for Take Back Tomorrow®, a Children’s Rights group. She heard about worse things happening to kids in a good week.
“FORCED onto the mean streets of Cincinnati,” David said melodramatically. “Falling, just to survive, into a life of CRIME!” The others frantically waved their hands to gloss over that aspect of the Silver Ghost’s career, but David recovered, “and, at her first opportunity, turned her back on Crime.”
Courtney’s eyes popped open. “The Cloisters!”
“You want the Ghost to take Holy Orders?”
“Doesn’t the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen kind of have dibs on that?”
“No, I think she’s talking about the Cloisters, up in Chicago,” Matt corrected them. Seeing the ‘hah?’ look on their faces, he elaborated, “Look, when a kid gets kicked out by their parents, they usually head for the biggest city near them, ‘cause, y’know, that’s where you GO, right? Anyway, in the upper Midwest, kids head up to Chicago, those that don’t head either to New York or LA. But a mutant, especially an obvious mutant, has real problems getting into any of the regular Runaway or Homeless services outlets. So, in Chicago, there’s this rundown… church? Convent?”
“It’s some sort of a Roman Catholic Church services complex that’s been on the skids for years,” Courtney explained. “A hospital that got closed, a seminary school that was ‘downsized’, a convent, a school… it used to take up, like three blocks, but now the only thing there that’s still in operation is this one church. Anyway, the homeless have been squatting in the buildings for years, and mutant kids have started squatting there too, and there’s a real nasty Red Light District right next to it. So, runaway mutant kids come to the Cloisters and…”
“It’s a pit,” Matt summed up sourly. “I hear that there’s a kind of micro-economy in exploiting the mutant kids out on the street… and the Cloisters? I hear that it’s Lord of the Flies in there. Shit goes down that if it happened to a DOG the ASPCA would be there with power armor. But since it’s just mutant kids? Who gives a shit?”
“Oh-kaaayyy… so far, so depressing…” Matthew tried to get the discussion back on track. “And what’s your point?”
“Point?” Courtney focused. “Oh! Right! I’ve heard reports that since the KoP got that contract in Chicago, they’ve been dissing Champion and the Crusaders and the other super teams something fierce-”
“Dissing Champion?” Lisa grunted, “In Chicago? Is that Legal?”
“Barely,” Matt allowed. “The KoP’s business is going in when supervillains attack. But if Champion can do the same thing and doesn’t expect to get paid for it, well, then their business prospects aren’t very good. So, they gotta make Champ and the other superheroes look like stumblebums in spandex.”
“Right,” Courtney ruthlessly took control back, “Anyway, the Knights have been provoking incidents near the Cloisters, so they can send in power suit squads and shoot up the place. The Knights say that nobody’s been killed but the Chicago PD- well, the Blues, anyway- aren’t so sure.”
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Matt said seriously. “The kids are homeless, so they have to resort to crime to get by. They’re criminals, so they can’t get any kind of education, even if they were inclined to. They don’t have an education, so when they get older, the only thing they know is crime. They literally have to become supervillains. And now the Knights go tromping through the only place that’s even vaguely safe for them, shooting up the place, so the kids are even more afraid of the Baselines, and regard the System as their enemy.”
“What?” Matthew quipped, “Is the Knights’ business so slow that Goodkind is TRYING to make more supervillains?”
“Oh, we are SO using that!” Lisa gushed as she scribbled it down on a paper napkin.
“So, the Chicago branch has been trying to do some outreach with the kids in the Cloisters,” Courtney resumed. “It’s tough going; the kids really don’t trust anyone, especially not outsiders. But they’ve got clips of the Knights going in and shooting up the place, and in particular, there’s one of them shooting one kid with GSD, and the Knights say it never happened. They’re having problems getting the News services up in Chicago to air it, and for some strange reason, the YouTube clip keeps getting corrupted. BUT-”
“BUT, if we show those clips of the Knights down here, then suddenly it becomes Newsworthy,” Jen finished for her.
“NO,” Matthew said solidly. “First, we accuse the Knights, and give them a chance to respond. Then they lie through their ceramic compound armor. THEN we air the clips,” he finished with an acidic grin.
“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Lisa cut in. “And what do we do THEN, hah? I mean, the Goodkinds didn’t get where they are by playing nice-nice. Herb Goodkind has put a LOT of money into getting his little tin soldiers into Cincinnati, and he’s not gonna just go ‘Curses, foiled again! I would have gotten away with it, if not for you meddling kids and your dog!’ He’s gonna DO something to recover the Knights’ reputation, and if we’re really lucky, he’ll aim it at the Silver Ghost and not US!”
The others stared blankly at Lisa. “Y’know, she’s right,” Matt said flatly. “Goodkind’s got way too much riding on this, and we got no way of knowing what he’ll pull, aside from it’ll probably be nasty as all hell.”
“Sssooo…” Jennifer flailed about with her hands, frantically trying to dredge something out of thin air, “We make that decision for him! We hand him a pretext that’ll save the Knights’ reputation… and… he’ll think that it’ll work, but it can’t really… and… we frame it… so that if DOESN’T go for it, he and his Autobot-wannabes will look like the weenies they really are…” at the end of this she trailed off, desperately hoping that someone would pick up what she’d just spun out and make a silk purse out of it.
Matthew snapped his fingers. “Madcap!”
“Madcap!” Jennifer echoed with relieved joy. Then she locked. “What about Madcap?”
“We make a big stink about how the Knights interfered with the Ghost bringing in Madcap, and how they tried to bring her in AND FAILED.”
“And then they HAVE to go after her again!” Courtney gasped with comprehension. “I mean, think about it! Besides the PR side, they’re a bunch of power armor-wearing macho gun nuts! The fact that one screwball teenage GIRL beat them must stick in their craw like a cinderblock!”
Matt grinned, “And the beauty of this is, that it doesn’t matter whether they take the bait or not: if they don’t, then they’re too busy fighting the implication that they’re admitting that they can’t bag Madcap; if they DO then they’re operating in Cincinnati, with heavy guns and power armor, without a license. If Goodkind tells his boys to go for it, he’s ordering a de facto illegal military action on American soil; if he doesn’t, and the Knights still go after Madcap? Then he can’t control his troops.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Jennifer objected, “We’re talking about sending a bunch of armed gorillas after Madcap! She’s just a KID! Okay, a nutcase kid, but still a kid! They could KILL her!”
David shook his head reassuringly. “Not a worry, Jen. Y’see, the Knights are actually very good about using Non Lethal Force- when the target’s a baseline. This is where their whole act gets really insidious: they have very sound non-lethal weapons and tactics, which can bring down super-powered targets with minimal damage, and they use them. But, for some strange reason, they just never use those tools or tactics against the mutants they go up against. For some ‘unexplainable reason’, the fights with the mutants always go lethal.”
“Not always lethal,” Matt objected. “Just, oh, four or five times more often.”
“The Knights say it’s because the mutant goes berserk on them.”
“OR, maybe it’s because mutants know that even if they just give up, the Knights will hand them over to the MCO as a matter of routine, and from there… *piff!*” Lisa added, finishing with a flurry of hands, as if to indicate an exit into the Night and Fog.
“And I wouldn’t worry too much about Madcap,” Matt said with confidence. “Even if the Knights try lethal force- which I really doubt- Madcap is way too chaotic for their tactics. From what I’ve heard, the Knights tactics are biased to work either against an adolescent mutant who has ONE power that they have a database on and the kid doesn’t really know how to use, or a berserker, again with a single power that they have a database on, or against an adult who can be expected to act in a more or less predictable way. Madcap ain’t none of those. She’s a total loose cannon with a grab-bag of powers; she’ll tear the Knights’ teamwork to shreds.”
“Besides, she’s got that bouncy-ball thing of hers,” David added. “Between that and those rocket-boots she’s got, she should be fine.”
“AND,” Matthew added primly, “She’s got the Silver Ghost to protect her. Who, as we’ve noted, is a legally deputized officer of the Law with orders to bring in Madcap; if the Knights blow her off this time, they’ll be Obstructing an Officer in the Course of her Duty.”
“And they’ll automatically be sent to Wardell’s court,” Matt finished with an acid grin.
“Yeah, but people could get hurt in the process!” Jennifer pointed out. “I mean, like you said, people in Cincinnati seem to regard Madcap as Street Comedy, and she’s not exactly what you’d call diligent about protecting bystanders!”
“oooh…!” Lisa pixied up her face and her eyes sparkled, “So, as a part of our publicity campaign, we play up the issue that the Knights are dangerous, and if they go after Madcap, they could present a serious threat to the average bystander. That way, even if the Knights don’t go after Madcap, they’re tacitly admitting that they ARE dangerous!”
“And Humanity First!, who’re supposed to be all about SAFETY, are bringing dangerous armed goons into our city, to deal with a single, mostly-harmless underage screwball,” Courtney cut in.
“We get in touch with the Chicago branch,” Matthew suggested, “and have them do interviews with every Chicago PD Blue and Emergency Responder who has a bone to pick with the Knights- and let’s face it, there are gonna be a bunch of ‘em. We air the choicest ones as part of our campaign- that’s the gist of the campaign: Chicago gave the Knights a contract, and now they’re STUCK with ‘em for the next 3 years. Do we want to spend that kind of money, so that Herb Goodkind can have a private army in Cincinnati?”
“The Knights will be tripping over their own feet being careful that they’ll look like the Cyber-Keystone Kops!”
Cups were raised and clinked in a toast to their new strategy.
“But what about Mills?” Matt asked. “Let’s face it: armored mercenaries shooting up civilian streets is the kind of thing that Mills dreams of!”
“Yeah, it fits in with his comic-book view of the world so well.”
“Not to worry, Pookie,” Jen said primly. “I’ve been reading Evolution Rocks!’s charter, and I think I know how to not only keep Mister Gifford Mills and his merry band of pinko pranksters from screwing this up, but if he reacts the way that I think he’ll react, we may finally get rid of the Catalyst for Socialist Crisis altogether.” Eyebrows were raised at her, but she shook her head. “Plausible Deniability.”
“And it’s big, showy, dramatic and confrontational, so Dagney and Imbas will go along with it,” David summed up. There was a general agreement that it had a decent chance of working.
“And, at the very least, the word about those poor kids in the Cloisters will get out,” Courtney sighed. “I mean… they don’t have a chance! I just wish that we could somehow… y’know… open a school or something for them, give them a fighting chance!”
“Please!” Lisa snorted. “A school for mutants? Marvel Comics would SUE!”
The intruder waited patiently for precisely the right moment to act. He inserted himself in patient, careful stages, taking great pains at each stage that not only wasn’t he spotted, but to prepare three separate and distinct exits, as many as he could arrange under the circumstances without taking unnecessary risks. Then, judging the moment as much by his sense of the situation as by his watch, he struck!
He sprung to the case and disabled the lock in less time than it takes to type it. But he didn’t open the Plexiglas cube immediately. Instead, he waited until he sensed something right behind him, ducked behind the pillar, and swung the case open. The cartridge hidden inside the case discharged the tear gas right into Stacy’s face. On pure reflex, she shifted from invisibility to her silvered state, sothe tear gas didn’t take her out, but she still breathed in some and broke down coughing. The intruder seized the advantage, grabbed the figurine and sprinted out of the room.
Stacy cleared her lungs and forced herself to race after him. Using her PK to ‘skate’ without friction along the carpet while pushing with three tons of force with her pushing foot, she managed to catch up to him. But she caught up to him just as he reached a very expensive-looking vase that was perched on a post on the banister for some reason. He hooked the vase with his cane, pulling it down. On pure reflex action, Stacy dived to intercept it- just as a smoke bomb inside the vase went off, filling her vision with smoke.
Carefully putting the vase back, Stacy went invisible and leapt over the railing of the banister to float unseen in midair. The intruder had taken advantage of the smoke to slip into a hiding place, but all she had to do was wait for him to make a move.
Unfortunately, his move was a flash-bang grenade.
Stacy was so busy reacting to it that she wasn’t able to intercept him as he darted out of cover and went down the stairs. So, instead, staying invisible, she simply dropped to the next story and waited for him. But just as she heard the thief’s footsteps coming down the stair, a tall Grecian statue suddenly toppled and started to fall. With a faint ‘yeep!’ Stacy dashed to save the (probably) priceless statue, and managed to catch it-
-just as the thief ran past her.
It took Stacy a moment, compounded by the distraction of realizing that the thief had used the statue to draw her out, for it to sink in that the statue wasn’t very heavy. As a matter of fact, it was very light! She gave it an experimental squeeze, and then realized that under a faux-marble sheath, it was made of Styrofoam!
Well, that would explain why Stacy didn’t remember seeing such a large statue in the house before…
Then, realizing that the thief was getting away, Stacy burned rubber to catch up with him. She was almost on him, when she stepped on a stair that bucked up with such force that she was thrown up into the air and hit her head on the ceiling. With a growl of frustration, and forced herself after the thief. He was on the stairs, heading down at a quick clip, when Lauren blocked him halfway up. Without so much as a pause, he picked Lauren up and dropped her over the banister. With a ‘yeep!’, Stacy put everything that she had into catching Lauren. As she held her safely in her arms, Lauren glowered at her and said, “It was only five feet, and there was a sofa right below us.” So Stacy dropped her the remaining three feet and was right in front of the thief as he came off the stairs.
So he handed her a bag, which exploded in her face, sending a big cloud of flour everywhere. Using that weird sense of hers, Stacy struggled through the cloud and ran as fast as she could straight for the doors, where she knew that he’d be headed. She just barely managed to head him off. But before she could take the figurine from him, he threw it to the ground, breaking it into little pieces. As Stacy gawped, horrified at this, he made it through the doors, stopped, and pulled from his bag a cheap tacky ceramic figurine of a cartoon pig wearing blue coveralls.
Just like the one that he’d broken on the floor.
“What?” Stacy blurted out, “No Fair! How do I know that that’s the real maguffin, and you didn’t break the real one?”
“Does it really matter?” Swashbuckler asked as he pulled the ski mask off his face. “I could easily have switched them at any time. And I got it out the front door, so I win.”
“No fair!” Stacy blustered. “You… you kept confusing me, and switching things around and kept… me… off… balance…” Stacy grimaced and buried her face in one hand as it sank in that that was the entire point of the exercise.
Swashbuckler patted her on the shoulder. “I hated to be quite that rough on you, but I find that people understand these things much better if they figure them out for themselves, rather than having them explained. You do a fair job of trying to set the terms in things, like when you went invisible and flew over the stairwell. Nice bit that. But you tend to get flustered when other people don’t play by your rules. You can think about it, while you clean up this mess.” He waved a hand at the layer of flour all over the entry hall.
“But YOU made this mess!”
“Yes, but *I* got away with the pig!”
“Well, at least they waited until Thanksgiving was over,” Lauren sneered.
The Willow Crest mall was in full Christmas mode, with a huge tree over 20 feet high already strewn with ornaments, and the banisters and such of the mall were decked with holly garlands and wreaths. The overhead music was playing Christmas carols, but they were instrumentals, and they weren’t overbearing. One of the pricier jewelry stores had a display of golden jewel-studded ‘soldier’ nutcrackers, like in the ballet ‘The Nutcracker Suite’. Some of the samples girls were wearing Santa caps, and there these little ‘Santa Elf’ pixie things that were dangling in front of one perfumery, because of that perfume ad with the totally hawt redhead wearing a Santa suit and pointed ears, and those three absolutely adorable little CGI pixies, also wearing Santa suits. Lauren, Mindy and Terri were making witty comments about the tackiness and commerciality of the decorations, but Stacy thought the place looked great. Hey, if you wanted tacky, they should have seen the way that they did up the Kiwanis Lodge back in Oakwood last year. Now THAT was tacky! This? This was understated. It didn’t jump out at you, it was just there. Okay, the golden nutcrackers were a little over the top. Lauren and the rest were just trying too hard to be sophisticated and blasé.
But beyond that, it was the beginning of the Christmas shopping season! They all had carte blanche to go into retail overdrive! Well, as long as they were buying stuff for other people anyway. And while they all had the problem, ‘what do you get for people who have a lot more money that you do?’, Stacy had the addition problem of how do you buy something for a bunch of people who you not only owe so much to, but you don’t really know that much about their tastes or private lives?
Stacy put the problem to them in the form of showing Miz Wickham how much she appreciated all that she’d done for Stacy. Mindy and Terri were wrapping their heads around the notion ‘actually be grateful for being rich’ when she heard, “Hey! Hey STACY!” over the muted sound of ‘The Carol of the Bells’.
Looking around, Stacy spotted Spence and Dylan heading towards them, along with a third guy that towered over both of them by at least half a head, who she didn’t recognize. As they walked up, Spence said cheerfully, “So, Ladies: getting an early start on the Yuletide hunting season?”
“Humph!” Terri sniffed with a toss of her head. “You Sir, are under the mistaken notion that there IS such a thing as an ‘early start’ to the hunting season. We’re merely beating the thundering herd to the good stuff!”
“Hey, Spence! Your hair!” Stacy gladly noted, “You got the gunk out of your hair without having to shave it all off!”
Yeah,” Spence agreed rather shame-facedly. “It turned out that the goop was chemically unstable somehow; it just turned to this gunk that totally ruined my pillows, but just washed out of my hair. I guess that that’s how that Chemo-gun worked…” he tried to formulate how the gun produced and combined gallons of chemicals, seemingly from nothing, came up empty-handed and waved it aside. “Anyway, Stacy, this is Nate. Do you remember the ‘Zorro’ who got his butt whupped, back on Halloween?”
“I was not Zorro,” Nate humfed. “I was the Dread Pirate Roberts. And I didn’t get my ass whupped.” He paused for a moment and admitted, “I broke my leg and a kneecap.”
“INCONCEIVABLE!” Spence objected. “You had to have been Zorro! There were survivors!”
“And, as we all know,” Dylan added solemnly, “the Dread Pirate Roberts never leaves survivors!”
“You keep using that word,” Nate said severely. “I don’t think that it means what you think it means.”
“Truly,” Stacy jumped in, recognizing the game, “he has a dizzying intellect. But I don’t remember any Zorros or Dread Pirates for that matter. But then, it WAS a costume party, and I was concentrating on keeping the munchkins from getting hurt.”
“And where have you been for the last month?” Lauren demanded. “Everybody else showed up with casts and bandages, but YOU just took a long vacation!”
“Like I SAID, I didn’t just break my leg, I broke my kneecap,” Nate said testily, gesturing at his knee. “That asshole Dark Claw freaking BROKE it! They hadda replace it or reinforce it or something, and I’ve been spending the last month doing physical therapy for it!”
Spence snapped his head in Nate direction and asked intently, “So, now you have a… Bionic Knee? Did they make you better…? Faster…? Stronger…? Can you run in slow-motion now?” he mimed slowly pumping his arms back and forth and he sort of slow-mo ran in place.
“Oh, he could always run in slow-motion,” Mindy sniped.
“Oh, I’m still in pretty good trim,” Nate said off-handedly, and then used one of the bistro chairs as a gym horse and did a few moves with it, finishing up with seating himself in the chair. Then he leaned forward on his folded arms, gave Stacy a smartass grin, and said with a chuckle, “And what’s this I hear? My little buddy Spence suddenly grew a pair, and went badass on a supervillain?”
“Three of them,” Stacy said. “One of them repeatedly.”
“Oh, you’re counting Madcap as a supervillain?” Spence said dismissively. “I’d say that she was more like an idiot advertising for a village.”
“And that reminds me,” Dylan said severely, looking at Mindy, “exactly WHY is it that you’re never around when Madcap shows up, hhmmm?” He arched an imperious brow over an inquisitorial eye. Mindy merely responded with a ladylike razzberry.
“THREE?” Nate said incredulously, not taking his (appreciative) eyes off Stacy. “And you saw this?” he added skeptically.
“Stacy was the girl dressed as Xena,” Spence explained. “She and a few other girls were taken by Dark Claw and his crew, in order to keep an eye on the little kids.”
“And… what were YOU doing there?”
“I… ah… got dragged along to watch over the kids, too,” Spence admitted, his good cheer evaporating. “Remember? I lost that bet with Jennilee, and… I hadda wear that Cinderella costume.” Spence went completely red with embarrassment.
“Hey!” Stacy objected, “You were the most totally awesome, absolutely badass Cinderella EVER!”
“Are there any pictures of this?” Nate smirked.
“As a matter of fact, YES,” Lauren answered smugly. “Of course, he managed to look totally badass wearing it.”
“Yep!” Mindy agreed, “Remember what Hayley said? ‘Anyone can look tough in leather and studs, but to pull it off in a Cinderella gown with glass slippers? Now that’s macho!’”
“The Bramlin Girls said that?” Nate said, incredulous.
“No, Hayley did,” Spence corrected him. “She got dragged along with us, but Abby and Marika didn’t. Hayley got all kinds of props for being one of the ‘heroines’, and Abby and Marika was all miffed about that for a bit. Abby’s okay with it now, but Marika’s still sort of mad about not being in the spotlight.” Spence finished with a ‘like I care’ humph.
“HOW do you look badass in a Cinderella dress?”
“Well, holding a machine gun helps,” Terri pointed out.
“A machine gun?” Nate gave Spence an incredulous look.
”It wasn’t a machine gun,” Spence sniffed. “It was just a custom-designed, heavy-caliber full-autofire capable infantry carbine with an underslung combination pepper sprayer and shock prod.”
“How did you get a machine gun away from a supervillain?”
“It wasn’t a supervillain,” Spence objected. “It was one of Dork Claw’s stupid henchmen, the guys in the black armor? And I didn’t take the gun away from him. The Silver Ghost did that.”
“The Silver Ghost? Is she still around?” Nate asked. “I mean, I heard that Humanity First! had their gums all in an uproar after that thing with Dr. Diabolik. Y’know, when the Ghost showed up and lit a fire under Cap’n Patriot’s ass? My folks said that they got all kinds of phone calls from the H1! flacks trying to make a big stink about that ‘Is the Silver Ghost a mutant, Yes or No’ thing. What happened with that?”
Urk. Stacy had really hoped that people had gotten tired of that whole thing and forgotten about it.
“Oh, SPECTRUM just shined the whole thing on,” Lauren said. “And now they’re sort of admitting it, and making like it was never a big deal. Didn’t you hear Rick Standish, the shock jock, ripping on her?”
“Nah, Standish wasn’t saying anything about the Ghost,” Nate explained. “He was all up in the grill of that ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ noise over in New York. Any idea what’s up with all that?”
“I think that Standish just ran out of material on the Silver Ghost,” Stacy offered. “I mean, you can only trash somebody for so long, before it gets boring.” And while Stacy certainly didn’t wish any ill on the ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’, whether she was a mutant or not, she was very glad for Standish turning his guns on the ‘Angel’, and not on her. And she hoped that when the thing with the Angel resolved itself- however it did- that Standish would just move on to greener pastures still, and not decide to see if harshing on the Silver Ghost had grown any fresher.
“Anyway, the Ghost was, like, THE star of the night, even more than Spence here,” Lauren gushed with the relish of telling a good story. She launched into a lurid retelling of the night, starting with how Dark Claw had had the hostage kids call their own parents with his ransom demands, and finishing with the Silver Ghost sending Sobek packing. “And THEN, on top of everything, after we get the rugrats back to their ‘rents, Spence whips together a killeraprès crisis shindig at his place!” she wrapped up.
“This is for real?” Nate asked incredulously.
“YEP,” Spence said smugly.
“There’s a picture of you in that Cinderella dress?”
Spence’s smug smirk dropped, and Dylan added puckishly, “Yeah, there’s a great picture of him, with the dress AND the gun at SPECTRUM’s Public Access Showroom.”
“Then what are we doin’, wasting our time HERE then?” Nate did a flip over the back of the chair, cartwheeled over to the stairs, leapt up to the banister and slid down it, with Dylan following close (if far more safely) behind. Stricken looking, Spence started after them, stopped, looked back at Stacy and the girls. Clearly torn, he paused and furiously considered, and then tore after Nate and Dylan.
“Well, Moe is back,” Terri said drolly.
“Larry and Curly did sort of look like they didn’t quite know what to do with themselves without him,” Lauren agreed.
“What was THAT all about?” Stacy asked, looking after the boys as they scurried through the outer doors of the mall.
“Oh, Nate’s a bad influence on Spence and Dylan,” Mindy explained. “When it’s just Spence, or even Spence and Dylan, they’re pretty reasonable guys. Dorks, but reasonable dorks. But when Nate enters the picture, they go a little nuts.”
“Back at Montessori, the teachers had to separate them all the time,” Mindy said primly. “Not that it helped.”
“You’re kidding,” Stacy said unbelievingly.
“Nope!” Lauren said with a sigh, “If anything, they were being rather low-key, ‘cause Nate just got back. Just wait until they get their steam up. If we’re lucky, they’ll just be doing ‘Princess Bride’ cosplay in the halls.”
“Just wait until Nate hears about what Cody tried to pull at the Convention center,” Terri smirked.
“No, not that they get a little silly,” Stacy corrected them. “What I meant is that I couldn’t believe that an A-Lister like Nate hangs around with guys like Spence and Dylan. I mean, cool guys like Nate only have wacky nerds for best buds on TV!”
“Oh,” Lauren cooed with understanding, “I see what you mean! Well, you gotta understand, up to about a year ago, Nate, Spence and Dylan were like three peas in a pod.”
“Three shrimpy little peas in a dorky pod,” Mindy sneered.
“But then Nate had, like, the growth spurt from hell, and shot up, like five inches in four months,” Terri went on. “At first he was, like, some popsicle stick man that somebody put in a school uniform, but then he filled out and *bam!* He was gorgeous!”
“And NO, he’s NOT a mutant,” Lauren said with a persecuted sneer. “Why do people always say that when a kid suddenly comes out of his shell? No, Nate’s got an older brother and sister, and they both did the same thing, from what I hear.”
“Yeah, and his big brother was a real golden boy, from what I hear,” Terri said. “Smart, did well in school, lettered in three sports, and drop dead gorgeous.”
“Yeah, I remember, back at Montessori, Nate used to idol-worship his big brother,” Lauren said. “A bunch of what Nate, Dylan and Spence used to get up to was just to impress Kirk.”
“Yep, Nate was the one with the crazy moves, always climbing all over things and bouncing around like Spiderman,” Mindy said. “Spence was the one who came up with all the mindfuck moves like he pulled with Madcap, and Dylan’s sort of both their wingman, making sure that nobody trips them up.”
“Nah, Dylan’s more their technical backup,” Terri corrected her. “Remember, he was the one who was always coming up with the stink bombs and booby traps and stuff?”
“You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Dylan aces Chemistry and Shop,” Lauren said to Stacy.
“You said that Nate used to hero worship his brother Nate,” Stacy said. “What happened?”
“Dunno,” Lauren admitted with a shrug. “I just know that there was some sort of noise about the Pierce family the summer between Elementary school and Middle school. And when Nate came to Middle school, he was the same old Nate, but he wouldn’t talk about his brother anymore.”
“I heard that Kirk did something really stupid, and Nate tried to cover for him,” Terri said with the relish of passing along some choice dirt. “But Kirk twisted it around so that it looked like Nate really did it, and he left his kid brother to twist in the wind. Nate got off the hook somehow- I’ll bet you that Spence and Dylan had something to do with that- but Nate never forgave Kirk for shafting him like that.”
“Why would anyone hurt their own little brother like that?”
“Hey, I don’t know that that’s what happened!” Terri backpedalled. “That’s just the story!”
Clearly wanting to change the topic onto something safer, Lauren asked, “So, have you gotten your dresses for the seasonal parties?”
“Why yes, you’ve received a few invitations for Christmas parties,” Karen said, looking up the latest communiqués from the Cincinnati police department. “Why”
“Invitations?” Stacy peeped, “But I don’t know anyone!”
Karen laughed. “Stacy, in High Society- or at least Ohio society, if that qualifies- knowing someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get an invitation or not. It’s a matter of whether they want to know you or not.”
“Aaannnd… who’d want to know me?”
“Apparently, quite a few people. I got an informal call from Erica Chase, Spencer’s mother, and Angela Wickham, she’s Matthew’s mother, you met at that first Wickham family dinner, and Lydia Griswold-”
“Griswold? Is she related to Corey Griswold?”
“She’s his mother, actually.”
“I think I’m shampooing my headache with a sick friend that night.”
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” Karen assured her. “You’re not committed to anything. Though I did pull a few strings to get you invited to a couple of the Mansfield seasonal do’s, and I think that it would be a good thing for you to go- if nothing else, it would give you an excuse to avoid Angela’s party, and keep you from having Brian lobbying you about handling your trust fund- and of course, there’s the Christmas party at the house.”
“Wickham house, of course!”
“You’re having a Christmas party there?” Stacy asked, aghast, “A Halloween party, that I can see! But a Christmas party?”
“Oh, a good coating of snow, some strategic garlands and wreaths of holly, the right lights, a big fire in the main fireplace, a few ornaments, and the old wreck goes from Charles Addams to Currier & Ives!” Karen laughed. “And it helps convince the neighbors that the place isn’t haunted. Well, not that much.” Karen paused to muse, “Come to think of it, Granny Maribel had a very nice collection of original Currier & Ives prints; I wonder if it’s too late to arrange a public showing somewhere for the season…”
Then an annoyed expression crossed her face. “Nuts,” she said in a flat ticked voice. “We did it again. Stacy, round up everyone who’s in HQ and get them to the conference room. I’ll see who answers their beepers, and arrange the conference call.”
Stacy got Cal, Red Thunder, Azure, Swashbuckler and (meh) Goldstar to the conference room, and Blue Streak joined them. Captain Patriot, Tawny and Violet, who had things going on, but could talk more or less freely, were on speakerphone. “Okay, guys, we almost did it again,” Karen addressed the troops. “It’s December 9th and we haven’t thrashed out the public appearances.”
“Ah, the dreaded annual ‘Meet the local superhero’ dog-and-pony show,” Swash said with a wry smirk.
“Well, okay, it’s gotta be done,” Goldstar sneered, “but why are those two here?” He jerked a thumb at Swashbuckler and Stacy.
“Swash is here, because he’s seen dozens of these things, and he can give us valuable input,” Karen said with a tone of a Second Grade teacher keeping a problem student in line.
“Also, there’s the material fact that I won’t be trying to weasel out of anything, so my input will be unbiased,” Swash returned with a smirk, and held just shy sticking out his tongue.
“And Silver is here, because she’s been personally- well, if by ‘the Silver Ghost’ counts as personal- invited to make an appearance at several places, including the local Montessori school. Which was the school that several of the children she helped rescue on Halloween go to. I think that it would be good all around if Silver made an appearance, maybe helped Santa hand out a few presents, help trim the tree and like that?”
“Is that a good idea?” Goldstar asked with a sneer. “I mean, is it a good idea to endanger a bunch of little kids like that?”
There was a general sense of the people in the room were gearing up to give Goldstar what-for, when Stacy cut them off. “As much as I hate to admit it, he has a point. We haven’t heard from Madcap recently, and if there’s anything that would draw her out, it’s any publicity about me making a big Christmas appearance. And while I don’t think that she’d intentionally harm or even threaten any of the kids, if there’s anyone who it just wouldn’t connect that there were little kids around, and they were even less likely to respond rationally to danger than SHE is, it’s Madcap.”
Goldstar smirked, as though he’d scored a point, but his good mood soured when it clicked that Silver hadn’t admitted that she was dangerous, and she’d scored points off him by being the reasonable and responsible one.
“What if you showed up as a surprise?” Swash suggested. “Not for the Faculty, but for the kids? Don’t announce it, show up and surprise them.”
“That IS the standard procedure, for when we have an appearance, and we know that a supercrook with a vendetta against one of us is in town,” Red Thunder pointed out.
“Well, sure then!” Stacy said brightly. “As long as there’s no open publicity, there shouldn’t be any problem. I mean, I really doubt that Madcap even knows what Montessori IS, let alone is patched into their grapevine.”
“Don’t you think that the parents of those kids have a RIGHT to know that we’re sending a mutant to be close to their kids?” Goldstar made ‘mutant’ sound a lot like ‘leper’.
“Montessori and Franklin both specifically asked that the Silver Ghost make an appearance, so they already know,” Karen said with a touch of distaste at Goldstar’s use of one of Humanity First!’s buzz issues. “I think that schools of their prestige would know whether their students’ parents would object or not.”
“Yeah,” Goldstar muttered, “You’d THINK that…” he made a face like he was going to rise above it. “So, what invites do I have to choose from?”
Karen looked at the sheet and said, “Well, the VFW says that they wouldn’t mind having you, if Captain Patriot can’t make their ‘Toys for Tots’ drive.”
“What?” Cap piped up, “Miss Toys for Tots? Never!”
Goldstar shot the speaker a nasty glare, and they went down the list.
The storefront window for Evolution Rocks! was shatterproof, acid proof and paint resistant. That was the price that they paid for having their storefront on a strategic location that was prominent enough that people knew where it was, yet discreet enough that people could visit without fear of being yelled at. The window display showed the first stages of ER!’s strategy regarding the Knights of Purity, which was still in its opening stages. And there was another, suggestive addition to the display.
But the very expensive three inches of ‘shatterproof’ glass wasn’t strong enough. It broke, and the alarm woke up the entire neighborhood. But for all that, nobody saw who did it. And while Evolution Rocks! had known more than its fair share of vandalism in its stay at that address, this was its first burglary, and what was puzzling was what the burglar when to such lengths to get.
Karen drove by ER!’s storefront, with the window boarded over, the yellow ‘police scene’ tape, and two squad cars still outside. The she drove a block further, cut around the corner, stopped and said, “Okay, Kiddo. You know what to do. Oh… and when you get back home, would you tell me what’s going on? I mean, a Six in the morning wakeup call for the Silver Ghost?”
Stacy gave her a thumbs-up, went invisible and exited the car without being noticed. Well, too much. There wasn’t that much foot traffic, so she simply walked the distance back, though she still flew over the street crossing. After all, there’s confidence and then there’s stupidity.
She ducked inside the door of the storefront and switched from invisibility to her silver, “I’m here, don’t freak out.” The two cops in blue and the two guys in civvies who had distinctly ‘plainclothes cop’ vibes both just looked at her with blasé unconcern, but the two women both jumped with a squeak.
“Silver Ghost?” one of the plainclothesmen said, drawing a badge, “I’m Detective Sergeant Hawley, and this is my partner Millard.”
“Sergeant Jimenez isn’t here?”
“Not at Seven in the morning, he isn’t.”
“Oh.” Well, she couldn’t really expect a friendly face with every meeting with the Police. Still, she hadn’t done anything wrong- yet she knew from watching how African-Americans and the Police got along that that didn’t always mean that she might not be in trouble. “So, what do you need me for?”
“Well, you’re the one deputized to take care of the Madcap thing. The captain thought we should bring you in and take a look at this.”
“What makes you think that Madcap’s involved?” Stacy asked.
“Well, whoever it was broke through three inches of bulletproof glass, and all they took was your cloak,” Millard said stolidly.
“We got one of your used capes as an exhibit,” one of the two civilian women, the one with the dirty blonde hair in the trendy cut, said. “We arranged it through SPECTRUM. Didn’t you know about it?”
“Maybe,” Stacy shrugged, “but it was so piddly that I forgot. I mean, it’s just a piece of cloth. It doesn’t have any power of its own, and to be honest, I only wear this because it makes my invisibility a little better.” She explained about the ‘Predator’ factor that Danny had figured out. “Other’n that, it’s just a bunch of cloth.” She paused and thought. “Did you get any security footage of her?”
“No,” Hawley said. “Not directly. Just before the security camera covering the window was destroyed, we got about 15 seconds of the window being weakened by a big cross being cut in the glass with a laser, but whoever was doing it was savvy enough to stay out of the sight of the camera. Then they shattered the window, and destroyed the camera, probably with the same laser. Then the perp came in and removed the cape from the dummy. And then,” he gestured with a finger and led Stacy into the window-front ledge. “He painted that,” he pointed at a large green ‘M’ painted on the inside of the unbroken pane that took up half of the window.
“’M’. Okay, that could stand for ‘Madcap’,” Stacy allowed, “but it could also stand for ‘Mutant’ or ‘Magneto’ or a whole bunch of other things.”
“Yeah, but it’s green, and on the other side, the side that shows on the street, it’s covered with purple glitter.”
“Okay, that’s tacky enough, but I-” Stacy stopped dead, and held up a finger. “Gimme a minute, I gotta think this through carefully. This is the first time I’ve been called in as an expert in anything, and I don’t want to screw it up.”
She focused and thought furiously for a few minutes. Then she said, “No. It’s not Madcap. The reason that Madcap does what she does is for attention. She’s gotten a taste of being in the spotlight, and she likes it. If Madcap had done this, she’d have just battered down the window, and not only would she not have taken out the cameras, she’d probably do a little dance for them. She would have done it during business hours, and probably have phoned Rick Standish with some bozo riddle or whatever she’d move up to as a clue, so there’d be a big audience. And get this: whoever did this first weakened the glass with a laser, and then took out the camera. That means that whoever did this researched the storefront, and was smart enough to spot both the bulletproof glass and the cameras, and was disciplined enough to weaken the glass, then smash the glass, get the cape, paint the ‘M’ and get out before anyone showed up. So that person is smart, thoughtful and disciplined; three words that will never be used to describe Madcap.”
“What about the ‘M’?”
“Oh, that proves that it’s not Madcap! The glitter on the letter is facing out into the street!”
“That means that whoever painted it started with a layer of glitter and then painted the green paint over it. If Madcap wanted to sparkle up that letter, she’d have started with the green paint and then sparkled up the green paint, and it wouldn’t have registered that she got it wrong until she saw it from the street. Whoever did that planned this. And planning things is just SO not Madcap’s style!”
Hawley gave a sour look and conferred with Millard for a few minutes. Then he asked Stacy, “How do you think Madcap would react if someone was to pull a big job, posing as her?”
Stacy didn’t need to think that one over. “She’d wig,” she said right off the cuff. “Like I said, she’s in this for the attention, for the big glory fest. If someone was getting over, in any way, with her image and she wasn’t there to hog the limelight, she would go totally mental. Short trip. She’s not smart enough to actually find anyone who wasn’t advertising themselves on a billboard, so she’d try to one-up them somehow.”
Hawley looked to heaven for strength and drawled, “aaawww… NUTS. Like you said, whoever broke in here knew what they were doing. They went to a lot of effort, just to steal something that was pretty much useless. Cheesing off Madcap is the only thing that makes any sense. WHY they want to piss off that little screwball? Dunno. A lot of possibilities there, and the kind of ‘criminal masterminds’ that would pull off something like this pride themselves on being inscrutable.”
“Look,” Millard said, “don’t tell anyone about this. We can’t really react intelligently until we get an idea as to who’s pulling this. Sadly, the best way to do that is to finesse them into pulling a repeat, hopefully a more public one. If Madcap doesn’t hear about this, then she won’t react, and our perp will have to put himself at risk again. This could just be someone trying to yank Madcap’s chain, but it doesn’t feel like it. Cranks don’t take these many precautions, and they don’t know to use lasers to weaken shatterproof glass. Stay in touch, Miss. Hopefully, we can bag this wiseass before Madcap hears about this, but it helps to plan for the worst. SPECTRUM knows how to get in touch with you at all times?”
“Close enough,” Stacy said cagily. “But don’t worry. Madcap’s not the type to pull anything by surprise. I’ll have lots of warning, and I’ll be there, waiting for her, when she makes her big entrance.” With that, Hawley and Millard let Stacy take her leave.
The Silver Ghost bent her head, then went transparent, and then invisible. There was a weird blurring at the doorway and she was gone.
The two women let Detectives Hawley and Millard finish up, and went to get a cup of coffee. Once they were in the lounge, where they couldn’t be over heard, Courtney said, “So, that’s the Silver Ghost. hhhmmm…”
“What’s with the ‘hhmmm…’?” Jennifer asked archly.
“This is the first time that I’ve actually, y’know, seen, a mutant, up close. That I’m aware of.”
“And, well… it’s one thing to know that there are people with super powers out there, and to see stuff like that on TV; you’re sort of detached from it, just more weirdness on TV. But this? When she comes in, it’s like she’s this… weird woman of liquid metal!”
“But she’s just a kid!” Jen objected.
“I know!” Courtney defended herself. “And that’s just as weird! First she’s this bizarre metal woman, then she’s just a kid. And then, just when you’re accepting that she’s a kid who has this weird… silver… thing going on, she turns invisible!”
“So?” Jen retorted, “Invisible? So What?”
“It’s creepy, that’s what!” Courtney said in a tone that suggested that she wasn’t happy with her own reaction. “I mean, I know that that doesn’t make her evil, but still! It’s just… creepy!” she shuddered.
“Does… this mean that we’re losing you?” Jen asked with a mixture of disappointment and regret.
“No!” Courtney assured her. “I mean, it’s a kneejerk reaction, it’s not rational one. I can get past that initial reaction and get used to it, same as I could the metal thing. But what about those people who won’t even bother trying to get past the metal thing, let alone the invisible thing? And what about guys who’d get weirded out by the thought that she can lift, what? Three TONS?” she shook her head. “This is gonna be a tougher sell than we thought.”
“Yeah, I can see what you’re saying, Courts,” Jen nodded. “But let’s face it- she makes a great second impression. You get her talking, and the weirdness just sort of melts away. And then she blows it by going invisible when she leaves.”
“Well, she doesn’t want people to know that she’s been here,” Courtney said defensively. “Still, maybe we could arrange for her to do, y’know, maybe, a local talk show? Get people to see that she IS just a kid? That’s she’s trying to figure out all the stuff that other kids are, and a whole bunch on top of that?”
“A good idea,” Jen agreed. “But let’s talk it through with Leese and the guys about it first, okay? We’ve already got one good plan cooking, even if it’s being kind of a brat at the moment.” Courtney nodded and went to talk to the two detectives. As soon as Courtney was safely out of sight, Jennifer muttered to herself, “And sometimes, all that a brat really needs is a good swift kick in the right direction.” With that, she pulled out her cell phone and punched in the code to Rick Standish’s producer.
Looking around the room, Stacy thought to herself, ‘This woman has enough money to have a room in her house the size of the VFW hall back in Oakwood, that she uses just for throwing fancy parties.’ Stacy thought that this was part of that ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ thing that some people were always yapping about, but she wasn’t sure. After all, it was in Mrs. Harding’s house, so how conspicuous was it?
Lauren hadn’t been sure about the red velvet Christmas dress with the white lace trim, but Stacy had been getting a lot of good reactions about it. Admittedly, those reactions had been mostly from adults and boys. Girls had been… less kind. Still, she’d overheard one remark that put their snide remarks in a different light: ‘How does she pull that off? If I tried a dress like that, I’d look like I was NINE!’
Mrs. Harding had done up the vast room with a Dickensian theme, which meant that everything was old-timey, there wasn’t any plastic, and the servants were all dressed up like something out of an old movie. Stacy got a cup of punch, and from there it was sort of a blur. It sort of became a montage of bits from a thousand different society movies that she’d seen.
“So… tell me… is it true what they say about privately tutored girls?”
“My, that’s a very… festive… outfit, Spence! I never would have thought to make a vest out of wrapping paper.”
“What, me just slack off, ‘cause I think I’m gonna inherit my Dad’s money? Have you seen the sleazebags he uses for financial advice? I’m getting the best education I can while there’s still money, so I can make all that money back!”
“So, ah, I’m kinda confused… ‘Cause I heard Justin Wickham saying a while back that you was just this charity case that his Aunt Karen took in. But now I hear that you’re like actually a real person with her own money?”
“NO, Corey, if you want to tell me something, you can say it right here, where everyone can keep an eye on us.”
“Is it incest to have the hots for your father’s trophy wife?”
“So, have you had a boob job? ‘Cause Jennilee totally says that you had your rack fixed. And, well, Evelyn definitely had her nose done, and she’s lobbying her folks to get her front worked on, and if you’ve already-”
“Hey, I’m no wimp! Hell, I drive through Price Hill, just for kicks!”
“So, ah, my uncle was wondering… who’s handling that trust fund for you?”
“What? You don’t have a dance card? Well, Abby and Marika were going around saying that we had to kind of sign up for dances, and well, I’m sorta committed, but I think-”
“NO, Corey, I’m staying where everyone can see me, thank you very much.”
“Wow, you are light on your feet, Stacy! If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you were literally dancing on air!”
“No, It’s not Insider Trading… It’s just… y’know sharing information… But you wouldn’t know anything about Ms. Wickham’s moves on TriState Mutual Holdings, would you?”
Cincinnati PD Evidence Locker Station
There are many ways into a heavily guarded vault. One of the least reported is simple stealth. The man who casually walked through the Cincinnati PD station looked like any of a few hundred Cincy PB blues, and his ID was good. But he wasn’t a cop; it was as simple as that. He knew that there were supervillains who relished the rush when they busted through a wall, shouted their name, and dared anyone to try and stop them; he thought they were idiots. He vastly preferred the subtler, quieter satisfaction that came with a clean getaway, especially when nobody even knew that he’d been there. All the profits of larceny, with none of the contusions.
Nobody really registered the black cat that preceded him, or noticed the white ‘star’ of fur on her chest. But then, it was getting into Silly Season, and a black cat in a police station was the least of the weirdness that they had to deal with. He presented Officer on Watch at the Evidence Locker check-in with a good ID and the right paperwork. He also presented him with two magic playing cards; that combination of playing cards, one of his more effective gambits, would have convinced the Officer on Watch that a comic book was the proper paperwork. But that would have been tempting fate, and as his father once told him: “Son, never tempt fate; Fate has a low resistance to temptation and a nasty sense of humor.”
As he casually made his way to the evidence locker proper, he matter-of-factly pulled out a deck of cards, returned the two cards to it, and then selected three cards which he palmed into his hand. This combination would open almost any mechanical lock. The Cincinnati Police, with their experience with unscrupulous persons with strange abilities, generally found elaborate mechanical locks a lot more reliable than electronic ones. This was a policy that the intruder whole-heartedly approved of, as his tried-and-tested card effect did exactly squat to electronics. Unfortunately, it did exactly squat to the mechanical lock. Briefly flustered, he tried the cards again, and got the same non-response. He tucked the cards back into the deck and then chose three, which he carefully laid on the heavy metal door. The blank institutional-green door blossomed into carefully traced silver circles, squares, lines and inscriptions. An elaborate pattern of two diamonds linked by a large circle dominated the door, but the patterns, which most practitioners were content to simply place on the door, also fit the doorframe into a sunburst of protection, and there were similar wards at the corners and other weak spots, and they clearly circumscribed the entire room.
The intruder carefully examined the central diagram. He carefully sifted through his deck and selected a combination of three cards. He arranged the cards so they formed a triangular hole. Awkwardly holding the cards against the door, he pulled a large silver-bladed Bowie knife from his belt, and worked furiously at the convention of seven lines outlined by his cards. The blade rose sparks from the door, which grew larger and hotter, until the cards erupted in silver flames under his fingers.
The intruder dropped the cards with a gasp and quickly stuck his fingers in his mouth. Together he and his cat watched the three cards burn at his feet. When he took his fingers from his mouth, all the intruder had to say was, “Fuck. So much for the easy way.”
Stacy stuck her head in the door of the kitchen back at Wickham House and called out. With no answer she came in and took off her coat. She sat down at the table, and tried to let what had happened at the party work its way through her mind.
Then the door to the inner house opened, and Miz Wickham stuck her head in. She was wearing a dressing gown, and she had her hair up for the night. “Oh! Stacy! You’re back!”
“Yeah, I was trying to figure whether to warm up some milk or just head up to bed.”
“Never go to bed on a stomach full of party food,” Karen said as she shuffled in the direction of the refrigerator. Stacy stifled a snicker. “And what’s so funny?”
“It’s just the idea of the glamorous Green Witch with her hair up in curlers,” Stacy tried not to smirk. “Can’t you, y’know…” she twiddled her fingers at Karen, “y’know… magic your hair up nice?”
“Well, sure, but sacrificing the chipmunks is a pain.” Karen got a carton of milk from the fridge and began heating it up. “So? How was the party?”
Stacy formed the properly grateful descriptions of a great time, but what tumbled out was, “Rich kids are weird!” Karen barely managed to stifle a snort of amusement. “I mean, either all they wanted to talk about was money, or it was like they just assumed that there’d always be money around for anything they wanted, and they complained that they weren’t getting the very best for free!” Stacy paused. “Some of ‘em did both.”
Karen snickered. “And you haven’t met any of the whiny thumb-suckers yet.”
“Stacy, there is a subspecies of annoying Rich Kid that even other rich people- hell, especially rich people- find insufferable. There are wealthy children, classically high school or early college age, but I’ve heard of them being as young as 9 or 10, who go around pouting and sulking because their lives are made unbearable, because they are very rich.”
“_what?_” Stacy honked. “They feel sorry for themselves because they’re rich?”
“Yes, that’s the general reaction,” Karen nodded. “You sometimes see them at country clubs or society functions, being dragged along by their parents as they pout like 3-year-olds, getting drunk or stoned, and generally being as repulsive as they possibly can, while whining that people only like them for their money.”
“Aaannndd… people put UP with this?”
“Well, for the most part, they’re paid to put up with that. Not very well, but still, they’re paid. And the rest of the Moneyed Class is in rather sticky position that for the most part, these kids are reacting to the humiliating but unavoidable fact that there is such a huge disparity in wealth in this country- and let’s not fudge it, the world- that they enjoy incredible comfort and privilege and security while most people just scramble to get by, and by and large their parents have done precious little to actually earn any of that wealth, while they themselves have done absolutely nothing for it.” Karen gave Stacy a look that said ‘yes, this is very sticky, and I’ve been dealing with it for a long time’. “Class guilt makes people do some very strange things. But rarely anything that actually does something constructive.”
Stacy was about to make a remark about Karen’s superheroing and how that Class Guilt was involved in that, when something occurred to her, and her face fell like a concrete slab. “Omigawd…” she gasped. “I’M a Rich Kid! I live in a big fancy house, I’m being privately tutored, and I’ve got a 30 million dollar trust fund, and I didn’t do ANYTHING to earn ANY of it!”
“I was wondering when that was going to connect for you.”
“What… how… what do I…?” Stacy blithered, totally confused.
“Stacy, calm down,” Karen said in a firm but gentle voice. “Little baby steps. You learn how to deal with it. In little baby steps, one at a time. You have a huge advantage in that you know what it’s like to not be rich, and you haven’t absorbed any of the usually rather self-sabotaging coping mechanism that other rich kids’ parents fob off on them.”
Stacy gave Karen big sad puppy-dog eyes, pleading for guidance. Karen let out a deep sigh. “Stacy, just remember that being a rich kid is sort of like being a mutant- it just happened to you. You may not have done anything good or constructive for it, but on the flip side, you haven’t done anything wrong or destructive for it either. And, like being a mutant, there will be all sorts of people who will either blame you for their troubles, or they’ll be nattering at you that you owe it to them somehow to do whatever it is they want, no matter how stupid it is. Honey, you will never be able to do enough for either of those types, no matter what. And that’s the same for both having money and weird powers. Just… do what you think is right. But don’t think that you’re going to solve all the problems of the world. ‘Cause the world just doesn’t work that way.”
“But… you’re a superhero!”
“Yeah. And you’ll notice that I don’t use my magic to make the drug problem go away, or homelessness or hatred or corruption,” Karen pointed out without a trace of shame in her voice. “Not that I wouldn’t love to. But it wouldn’t solve anything, and more than likely, I’d only make things worse. One of the reasons why things don’t get done is that the obvious answer is often a wrong answer. Look to History: Prohibition, back in the 1920s was called a ‘Noble Experiment’. A noble experiment which wound up killing thousands of people, crippling the 7th largest industry in the country, and handing over millions of dollars and incredible amounts of political power to Organized Crime. You’ll notice that most superheroes deal with essentially very simple issues: violent crime, monsters, disasters, fires, and like that. It’s not that we’re not doing anything about the more abstract things, it’s just that… well, you can’t PUNCH poverty into submission.”
“So… what DO I do?”
“Stacy, the wonderful thing about your situation is that you’re 15, and you didn’t grow up with these people. You have six years to learn, before your trust fund is opened. You can watch the people around you and learn from them. See who actually does things, who’s spinning his wheels and who just talks a good game. You have time, and you have a chance to study some excellent examples close up. And, better, you have a chance to study some horrible examples, also close up.”
“Why would I want to study a horrible example?” Stacy asked.
“Because, in my experience, people actually learn more from horrible examples than they do from excellent ones. The excellent examples are usually just good for setting the context; it’s the horrible examples where the lesson sort of jumps out at you.”
Art, the Chapter Head of Humanity First!™ in Cincinnati called Herb and Travis into his office. “Okay Travis, what’s this about a ‘Montessori Incident’?”
“Marymont Montessori, one of the local Montessori schools- y’know those la-de-dah ‘Advanced’ schools, where you have to enroll your kid five minutes after the test is positive?- was having a Christmas party this morning and the Silver Ghost showed up.”
“WHAT?” Art got up out of his chair.
“Relax, Big Guy,” Herb said. “She was invited as a special guest.”
“They invited her?” Art gasped. “And you let this happen?”
“’Let’?” Herb echoed that back. “What let? I was in the Principal’s office 10 minutes after I found out about it, doing everything but holding an exorcism! And all I got for it was the snottiest, most pretentious earload of double-talk I’ve ever heard that didn’t have an Oxford accent!”
Art sat down, leaned over, rubbed his temples and let out a low groan. “And what happened?”
“She sang some Christmas carols with them, helped them trim a tree-”
“By lifting one kid each with her telekinesis or however the hell she does that,” Travis sighed.
“-answered a bunch of questions,” Herb continued, “made a few jokes at that Madcap kid’s expense, and helped the kids in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Grades make a big Christmas card to SPECTRUM. She promised the kids that she’d deliver it personally.”
Art let out a deep sigh of relief and sagged. “Man, oh MAN, one thing I hate about this job is the way that it makes you happy when the opposition doesn’t make a mistake. If the Ghost had done anything to those kids, it would have been great for our position, but horrible for my conscience.”
“Yeah,” Travis growled. “I hope that Captain Patriot came up with that Christmas card bit. ‘Cause if the Ghost thought of that on her own, then that little freak is dangerous.”
“So what?” Art asked, “It’s a lame attempt to get the Ghost out where she’s visible in a positive light, in a setting where there’s little chance that she’ll wig out and do anything to embarrass SPECTRUM. It’s a little annoying, but a few phone calls to the Enquirer and the TV stations, and it’ll just be… down prioritized… I mean, it’s not really newsworthy, now is it?”
Travis grimaced uncomfortably. “There’s a problem there, Big Guy. One of the teaching assistants took videos of it, and posted clips on YouTube. And it looks like one of ‘em might go viral.”
“Viral?” Art asked, clearly not getting the reference. “And what’s a U-tube?”
Between them, Herb and Travis explained about ‘YouTube’ and the phenomenon of the ‘viral video’. Art dismissed it as ‘just another Internet fad that will be forgotten by Spring’. “In the mean time, we have a real problem.” Art showed them a series of advertisement knock-up graphics that focused on the Knights of Purity, portraying them as violent reckless gun-thugs. “My sources tell me that Evolution Rocks! has an entire campaign planned that hinges on painting the Knights as a bunch of dangerous incompetents, spotlighting the fact that they let that little dingbat Madcap get away.”
“And?” Herb asked, slouching with unconcern, his hand in his pockets. “Isn’t that the Goodkinds’ PR people’s problem?” Like many in the Cincinnati office, Herb didn’t much like the way that the bailout had practically turned the local H1! into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Knights of Purity.
“Yeah, I know,” Art grunted. “We can’t seen as carrying the Knights’ bags for them-”
“Finally,” Travis grunted.
“But the simple fact of that matter is that this isn’t gonna go away until the Knights get that contract,” Art finished. “The only way that we can turn these pinko Evo nerds’ crap against them is for the Knights to capture Madcap alive and unharmed.”
“HOW?” Herb asked. “The Knights don’t have a license to operate in Cincy, and if they do anything more hardcore than go to a Bengals game, then they’ll be conducting an illegal military operation in an American city. Even Herb Goodkind doesn’t have pockets deep enough to buy out of that!”
“Not to worry,” Art assured him. “We’ve got a few contexts for a Lance of the Knights to be at various places with their gear. BUT, if they do anything, they’ve gotta be reacting to a Clear and Present Danger. In other words, Madcap has to be right there, causing trouble, and it would be best if the Silver Ghost wasn’t there, or she was out cold, or at the very least they had witnesses who’d back up that she was completely useless in the situation.”
“That’s… gonna be a bear to arrange,” Travis said as he scratched the back of his head with discomfort.
Art waved that aside. “We’ve got someone for that. What we really need… is for some way of rattling Madcap’s cage so that she’ll show up at the right place at the right time. Both of you, talk to people and get back to me.”
Stacy carefully set the base of the 12-foot tall Douglas fir into the stand and set it upright. As soon as Farley and Calvin, the Wickham House handymen, had the stand’s securing screws set into the trunk Stacy flew up, breaking the straps that kept the tree’s boughs letting them spread out naturally. “Okay kids!” Karen said clapping her hands, “We can’t let Stacy have all the fun!” The six children of the Wickham House employees, from little 3-year-old Bernard up to Lauren stepped forward with popcorn garlands and a very assorted bunch of ornaments, many of them the lone survivors of matched sets of ornaments bought long ago.
Well, Bernard and the other kids went to the tree eagerly. Lauren held back in a classic ‘I’m too mature for this’ pose. Karen dangled one particularly pretty ornament, a silver snowflake, just over Lauren’s head. Lauren looked at it, tried to fight it, but ultimately snatched the snowflake from Karen’s hand. She scampered over to the tree and hung it. Then she remembered her dignity and walked back to watch the little ones swarmed as high up the tree as they could. When the lower branches were filled, Karen and Stacy levitated the kids up so they could reach higher up. After all, everyone knows that ladders are dangerous. Karen finished by levitating Bernard up to the very top to place the star on top of the tree, as was his right as the youngest.
And with that part of the yearly ritual done, the old folks started getting to work on getting the place ready for the party. Stacy was a big help in getting up all the fussy stuff without using a ladder. Lauren helped by keeping Bernard from ‘helping’, which sped things up considerably.
When they were done, Stacy had to admit that Karen was right: with the snow and the garlands and the lights, the old pile did look pretty good.
“Hi, Spence!” Stacy cheerily greeted him, his parents and two younger brother (ages 11 and 8 respectively) at the door for the Wickham Christmas party. “Merry Christmas! Hello, Mrs. Chase! You look great!” Mrs. Chase preened slightly, and Stacy continued the schmoozing. “Hello, Mr. Chase, nice to meet you! I’m Stacy, Ms. Wickham’s ward? Welcome and Merry Christmas! And who are these two?” She flirted harmlessly with Bryant and Lowell, and then brought the Chases into the main hall, where the big do was being held. Bryant and Lowell hurried to get a whack at the sideboard, which was groaning with seasonally correct goodies, and Spence gave the table a sharp look as well. Mr. Chase sought out Ms. Wickham with suitable schmoozing of his own clearly on his mind. But Mrs. Chase held back. She chatted gaily with Stacy for a bit, and complimented her on how the house looked for the holidays. But Stacy got that ‘boxing way outside her weight class’ feeling again. She could tell that Mrs. Chase wanted her to commit to something, but Stacy couldn’t tell for the life of her what it was. Mrs. Chase was very good at the ‘sounding you out without actually asking anything’, avoiding actually framing a question.
Stacy’s problem was that she was dancing on suds; she couldn’t really commit to anything, because she didn’t really have anything to commit with. Well, except for all that money, and it was going to be a good seven years before she could do anything stupid with that, Thank God.
Then Mrs. Chase asked about her mother and her stepfather George in the vaguest, yet subtly leading way. It took a bit for Stacy to remember that she’s mentioned George when she’d debuted her pink Vespa™ scooter with the Mansfield kids. Somehow that teeny little fact, that she had a stepfather and his name was George had circulated back to Mrs. Chase- and God alone knows how many others. Then it clicked for Stacy: Mrs. Chase was fishing around for information about who she was. Of course, that raised the puzzling question as to WHY anyone would bother finding out about a complete nobody like Stacy.
Having an idea as to what Mrs. Chase wanted didn’t really help that much, and Stacy was desperately looking for someone to get between her and Mrs. Chase, before she said something stupid. Then a bluff, unfamiliar voice said, “Well, don’t you look like something out of a catalog?”
Stacy turned around to see a round, grandfatherly looking old man with a mustache and beard that Santa Claus would have envied, wearing a seasonally correct Santa cap, and a matching cardigan sweater was beaming at her. Stacy completely blanked for a second, but then she recognized the look in his eye. It was Swashbuckler! But what was he…
Then Swashbuckler chuckled and said, “What, no hug for your old grandfather?”
Suggesting that Stacy may not have been the complete clothead that George had always said Stanley was, she immediately realized that Swashbuckler was there to cover for her. With a completely unfeigned squeal of joy, she rushed over and gave Swash a big hug of completely sincere gratitude, just barely managing to not squeeze the stuffing out of his ‘fat suit’. They broke, and Swash introduced himself to Mrs. Chase as ‘Buck Conrad, Stacy’s grandfather’, in a reedy voice that was an octave or two above his usual golden baritone.
Mrs. Chase’s eyes sparkled, whether at the wholesome Christmassy scene before her, or the prospect of better information, Stacy wasn’t sure. Mrs. Chase introduced herself, and asked if ‘Buck’ knew somebody, possibly a mutual acquaintance. Swash danced around the point without seeming to do so, mentioned a few other names, and Stacy got the distinct impression that she was like a beginning fencing student, watching two masters of the foil go at it. When Mrs. Chase put out a feeler about Stacy’s family, ‘Buck’ harrumphed about grownups acting like children, damned his son for a fool, double-damned his daughter-in-law, and triple damned all lawyers who were more interested in padding their bills with hours spent at bars telling dirty jokes than they were in family. When she touched on the subject of Stacy’s trust fund and someone named ‘George’, ‘Buck’s’ face went cloudy and he muttered something about it may be a good thing about Gun Control, after all. The Swashbuckler turned the tables on Mrs. Chase and asked her a few subtle questions of his own, commiserated with her about how hard it was to be a parent in these ever-changing times, when you could never be sure if the verities you were trying to drum into your kids’ heads were still regarded as true, or some outdated notion that you should be ashamed of, and other evergreen complaints of parents and their ilk.
Then Mrs. Chase smiled, made polite noises about mingling and melded with the crowd of the party. When she was sure that Mrs. Chase was well out of earshot, she whispered into Swashbuckler’s ear, “I keep getting the feeling that she’s trying to get something out of me. Any idea what it is?”
Swash snerked into his eggnog, and muttered in his usual voice, “She’s sounding you out as a girlfriend for her eldest son.”
“What?” Stacy peeped.
“Oh, don’t worry, she’s not picking out wedding china or anything,” Swash assured her with a sideways hug. “She just wants to know whether you’d make a good high school sweetheart for her boy.”
“Oh, you don’t care for the young man?”
“aaahhh… it’s more that I don’t think that it’s a good idea for me to get involved with anyone, the way things are right now.”
“Sweetheart, take it from me, it’s ALWAYS a good time to get involved, no matter how sticky it gets. I’ve been in some of the most god-awful romantic wrangles you could imagine in my time, and the only ones I regret now, are the ones where I didn’t go for the gusto.”
By midnight, the Willow Crest Shopping Mall had been closed, locked, mopped, scrubbed and been put to put to bed with everything but a teddy bear under its arm. The security guard on duty for the second level had made his second patrol, and had settled in for the hardest part of a guard’s job: staying awake and sharp while not going nuts from boredom.
Then the clattering sound of the alarm went off, and the guard devoutly wished for a little more boredom. While he did draw his gun (he didn’t have a gun to draw, his job was basically to be there as a human witness as to what happened when the alarm went off), he called in the alarm and went to check the alarm. He followed the sound of the jarring bell to Jarkoff’s Jewelry® store. There were three perfectly shaped circular holes in the windowpane and the golden jeweled 9” tall ‘nutcracker soldiers’ that had been standing in neat rows were scattered all around the display. But that didn’t make any sense! He knew that the ‘nutcrackers’ sold for a whopping $25 grand each and there were 100 of them, so why go through all that effort to leave two-and-a-half million dollars worth of gewgaws laying around? Then something struck him as off, and as he called in the break-in, he mulled it over. It took a while, but by the time the first responder got there, he had it pegged.
It was getting close to midnight, and Stacy was starting to drag. The problem wasn’t the party; it was the people who were making the rounds between parties that were going on at the same time. Stacy had to meet all of them and make nice-nice, even the very latecomers. Nate’s family, the Pierces, showed up at about 10 PM, and Stacy got a very good idea as to what Lauren and Terri and Mindy had meant when they said that Spence and Dylan got a little goofy when they were together. They’d tried to talk Stacy, Lauren and Mindy into forming a living Christmas tree with them, with Lauren and Mindy standing on Nate, Spence and Dylan’s shoulders, and Stacy standing on Lauren and Mindy’s shoulders and holding up a star. They had been remarkably persuasive.
Fortunately, wiser heads- and hands with fingers firmly clamped to earlobes- had prevailed.
Spence’s brother Bryant was yawning like a hippopotamus, and his youngest brother, Lowell (or ‘Lew’ for short) was flat-out sacked out on one of the couches. So, Mr. and Mrs. Chase picked the two boys up and called it a night. And, well, there was no way that Spence could stay without them. It simply wasn’t DONE.
About 20 minutes after the Chases left, there was another ring at the door, and Stacy went to cheerily greet-
He wasn’t in his not-quite power armor, but it was Goldstar all right. His initial look of smug impatience melted off and he goggled right back at her. “What are YOU doing here?” Stacy asked.
“I was invited to a party here,” he replied in a snotty tone, folding his arms across his chest challengingly. “And what are YOU doing here?”
“I LIVE here,” she said simply.
“SPECTRUM are my legal guardians,” Stacy explained, “but Family Services insisted on someone who they could actually talk to, and have sign paperwork without any secret identity issues, so Ms. Wickham- the lady who lives here?- well, she’s a big supporter of SPECTRUM, and she agreed to let me stay here.”
“Yeah? And how did you wrangle that, hah?” he sneered.
“Hey, it was HER idea!”
“Yeah, and I’m sure that that’s how she remembers it- now.”
The showdown was cut off when Nate’s father, Mr. Pierce came to the door. “KIRK! You finally got here! C’mon in! Oh, I see that you’ve met Stacy, Nate’s new friend!”
“STACY?” ‘Kirk’ looked coldly at her. “This is Stacy?”
Mr. Pierce introduced ‘Kirk’ to Ms. Wickham as his hostess, and Karen made out like she’d never laid eyes on him before. Goldstar made the usual polite noises, and tried to open up some way of telling Karen that Stacy was mind controlling her somehow, without coming out and telling her that he was Goldstar. Karen just gave him a rather odd look, and then her cell phone went off. Karen separated herself from Kirk and Stacy to take the call.
Stacy gave Kirk a measuring look. “Let’s see…” she drawled, “From what I heard, Nate just about hero worshipped you until that summer between Grade School and Middle School.”
“And where did you hear that?” Kirk snipped.
“Oh, girl talk, you know? So, about 3-and-a-half to 4 years ago… And when did you start superheroing?”
“Three years ago,” Kirk muttered through clenched teeth.
“WHAT. A. Coincidence,” Stacy drawled drolly. “Let’s see…. There’s no way that you’re a mutant…. Like we’d let you into the union… You’re not smart enough to be a Science hero… I don’t recall hearing about anything that would be an origin, and why would Nate hold a freak accident against you? So, it’s either a power gem or a dynamorph… They’d take a power gem away from you on general principles, so… a dynamorph.” Then something clicked for Stacy.
“A dynamorph. Nate found a dynamorph… NO, Nate and maybe Spence, and probably Dylan… they got one of those bogus ‘capture a dynamorph’ things you see in the backs of comic books and they tweaked it and it actually DID capture a dynamorph somehow. And of course, Nate brought it to you, his wonderful big brother… and you STOLE it from him. Wow, I knew that you were a ratass, Tinstar but that’s LOW, even for you.”
“It was DANGEROUS, I did it for his own good,” Kirk ground out through his teeth.
“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, Brassballs,” Stacy sneered back at him. “If you were doing it for his good, you’d have turned it over to the government to study before it bonded with anyone, and given the boys the credit for capturing it. Instead, you bound it into yourself and decided to play hero. So. Do Spence or Dylan know?”
“You stay away from them,” Kirk warned her. “And don’t you think that you can blackmail me by threatening to reveal my secret identity!”
Stacy snorted. “Please! Goldbug, if I wanted to get rid of you, all I have to do is lodge a complaint with your Parole Officer!”
“Yeah, well what about this? I think that Nate has a right to know who- or should I say WHAT?- he’s hanging out with.”
Stacy just chuckled and shot Kirk a mocking smirk. It was obvious Nate would be simply delighted at the chance to hang out with a real live superheroine. Kirk leaned in with a wolfish smile and said, “And what about the REST of Cincinnati, hah? I’ll bet Humanity First! would love to know where –and how- you live.”
“I’m a minor, serving as a special investigator to capture a super-powered criminal. You’d be violating a ton of ordinances and compromising my civil rights, oh, and obstructing Justice by making it impossible for me to operate as to find Madcap. I wonder what your Parole Officer would have to say about that?” Stacy arched in imperious eyebrow in Kirk’s direction.
Nate was about to respond, when Karen came back. “I’m sorry Kirk, but I’m afraid that it’s time that we called it a night. One of the problems with the Information Age is that there’s always some inconsiderate idiot who thinks that his profit margin is more important than your social life, regardless of the time of year-or night. And it’s well past midnight, and I think that I’d best get Stacy to bed before she turns into a pumpkin.” With that, Karen took Stacy’s arm and they sailed off under full steam.
When they got to the top of the stairs and well out of anyone’s hearing, “What’s going on? There’s no way that anyone would dare call you at this time of night!”
“You’d be amazed,” Karen said. “But this time, the call is for YOU. Cincinnati PD just called: they think that Madcap just struck.”
“What? But it’s WAY past her bedtime!”
“What can I say? Supervillains are no respecters of good parenting.”
As Karen led Stacy down a back stair, Stacy asked, “How’re we gonna explain leaving the house?”
“Not to worry, Kiddo.” Karen took Stacy into her office, and pulled the head of the bust of Shakespeare back, revealing the switch. Then they slid down the poles to Karen’s subterranean lair. “I have a way of getting around the Tri-State area that doesn’t involve cars. I don’t use it very often; I used to, but Lady Jettatura almost triangulated the location of this house by studying the effects. Long story, don’t ask.” Karen walked up to a tall thin standing object covered by a black velvet cloth. She pulled the cloth off, revealing a tall standing mirror with two curving arms sticking out the side. Karen lit a candle in a bowl set into one arm, and then poured a liquid into a bowl set into the opposite arm. The reflection in the mirror went misty, and then swirled into a strange vortex. Karen said something in a language that Stacy didn’t recognize, yet still somehow she knew that Karen was talking about police officers. An image appeared in the vortex that appeared to be some men in a car. Karen shifted the image around, muttering something about not having updated the thing in a while, until she found an image of a flat lit roof. “Well, that will do,” Karen said. “I just hope that they still remember…”
Karen waved her hands and a green mist covered her, and suddenly she was the much younger (appearing) Green Witch in her signature costume. She gestured and her staff flew through the air into her hand, bringing a pouch with it. Seeing that, Stacy used her psychokinesis to bring one of her hooded cloaks that was on a hatrack over to her. With a swirl, she wrapped the cloak around her, and silvered up.
With that, Karen took Stacy’s hand and together they walked into the mirror. It was like falling forward down a long misty corridor, and when they reached the end of the corridor, they came out on the roof of a building somewhere. Behind them was another swirling vortex, like the one in the mirror. In front of them was a rather spooked looking cop in blues, with his gun in his hands and wide eyes on his face. “It’s all right!” the Green Witch said, her hands up. “We’re expected. Detectives Catmull and Knowland called for us.”
The cop called it in from his personal radio, but never let his aim drop. That is, until he got a reply, and he told them they could enter. After they entered the building, Karen muttered, “That’s another reason why I don’t use that entrance that much.”
Karen said that they were wanted in the department’s Locks and Safes division, which was another term for the Burglary division. When they got there, Catmull and Knowland turned out to be an otherwise vastly mismatched pair of African-American men. Catmull was a ‘bantam’ physique man who clearly took a good deal of pride in his clothing, whereas Knowland was a massive man who looked like an unmade bed. “So, you’re the expert on this Madcap chick?” Knowland asked with a deep resonant voice.
“Expert? Meh,” Stacy hedged. “But I pretty much do know how she thinks. I admit that I don’t know exactly what she’ll do at any given minute, but I do have a general idea of where she’ll head.”
“Okay, exactly 40 minutes ago, someone broke into the Willow Crest shopping mall without setting off any of the alarms until they broke the window of Jarkoff’s jewelers, and stole a bunch of golden ‘nutcracker soldier’ statues from the display,” Catmull said.
“Why do you think that it was Madcap?” Stacy asked.
“Well, CSI is already at the scene, and their honcho tells me that the window wasn’t broken: the window had three perfect circles precisely cut into them, with the circles of glass set at the base of the display, with a small jester’s cap of green and purple felt set on the head of one of the nutcrackers.”
“Oh, this guy again,” Stacy tisked. “It’s not Madcap.” She explained the break-in at the Evolution Rocks! storefront, and referred them to Sergeants Hawley and Millard on the day shift. “Our guess is that this guy is trying to set off Madcap for some strange reason. Why? I have NO IDEA.”
“You say that they took a bunch of jewelry?” the Green Witch asked.
“Yeah,” Knowland said with a sigh of mild dismay. “A bunch of gold-plated, jewel encrusted ‘nutcracker soldiers’, like in the ballet?”
“Okay, I’m waiting for the punchline,” Karen said.
“Well, according to the security guard, who was very familiar with the display, there were a hundred of these things. But when they counted them, there were only 88 of them.”
“Why would someone go to all that trouble, just to steal twelve golden nutcrackers?”
“It gets worse,” Catmull said with a look of distaste on his face. “According to that security guard, he thinks that all of the nutcrackers that were stolen… were drummers.”
“Twelve… drummers… drumming?”
Catmul nodded sourly. “Worse. The alarm went off at exact Twelve Midnight.”
The Green Witch wiped the metaphorical egg off her face and groaned, “I HATE theme crime sprees!”
“You and me both,” Knowland grumbled. “The Media is going to have a BALL with this one. And if this guy is gaming Madcap, like the kid thinks-”
“Then Rick Standish will spell it out for Madcap with hand puppets if he has to. And even if he doesn’t figure that out, he’ll have a producer or assistant that will get out the hand puppets for him,” Stacy finished it for the detective.
Knowland nodded and was about to add something else, when an alarm went off. They all rushed to the door, where guys in blue were all reacting with haste. “What happened?”
“Someone’s raiding the Evidence Vault!”
“The Evidence Vault?” Stacy and Karen said at each other in perfect chorus. A Police Station evidence vault is a prime target, being loaded with the targets of theft, including money, and weapons seized during an arrest, and various bits and pieces that many scofflaws would dearly love to no longer be in Police custody; but just at the moment, the main vault was packed with all those power items that Madcap had somehow managed to re-empower. The contents of that vault were worth a Goodkind’s ransom.
By silent agreement, the two lifted up into the air, flew over the heads of the police officers, and dropped down into the heavily reinforced basement where the Evidence Locker was. Stacy powered past the cops who were crammed into the hallway, psychokinetically shoving them aside, blazing a path for the Green Witch in a way that did the job while simultaneously proving their bona fides, while not actually hurting anyone in the process. Karen took the lead from Stacy when they got to the knot of SWAT officers who were gathered around the armored door to the evidence locker. “What’s going on?” Karen asked the SWAT honcho.
“We’re not sure,” the honcho admitted. “The guy on cage duty hit the panic button. But when we got here, we couldn’t open the door.”
“Is it set to lockdown if the alarm’s hit?”
“Almost the exact opposite. The doors for the Maximum Security lockers are locked and have to be opened manually, but this door is locked OPEN, so we can get in there. The gatekeeper’s cage has an armored hutch he can crawl into, but he’s not talking. The guys on the Security monitors say that the cameras in the locker went blank BANG, just like that.”
“Then why can’t you get in?” Stacy asked, looking at the door. Well, there was something… off… about it.
“I don’t know,” the honcho said with a woebegone look on his face. “I just… can’t… none of us can…”
The Green Witch carefully examined the door. “It’s a psychological barrier spell. It implants the notion in the mind of whomever looks at it that they can’t cross the barrier. It’s a very slippery spell; it might take me a while to get around it.”
“OR we could do this,” Stacy said as she picked Karen up, turned her around and physically moved her through the door. “There’s nothing that says I can’t move you through the door.”
“And there’s nothing that says I can’t do THIS,” Karen said immediately reversed the grip that Stacy had on her and dragged Stacy across the threshold.
Stacy blanked out for a moment. When she could think straight again, she said, “MAN, that was weird.”
“Now, Silver, this is very important: normally, I wouldn’t bring you into a thing like this, but right at the moment, your legal position is… n-n-n-nebulous, I think is the word. You’re a legally empowered special investigator, and this is a police emergency; if you don’t act with me right now, people could use that to discredit you and have that special license revoked, and it gets even nastier after that. BUT. Whoever is in there has magical powers, and like Lady Jettatura knew, when Magic goes head-to-head with PK, magic usually wins. Still, it’s your call: if you want to, you can go back and stay with the Police.”
Stacy did NOT want to go in there, she wasn’t a superhero or anything… but… if she didn’t… then Karen might think that she needed to go to that Whateley place. Hearing George smirk in her mind about what a wuss she was, Stacy pulled herself together and said, “Let’s do this,” in her best Action Movie Heroine voice.
Karen nodded and said, “Still, I want you to stay invisible for most of this. While I draw whoever it is out and get them into a fight, you find any hostages and get them out. If you see anything that might be useful, let me know. Clear?”
“Clear!” Stacy went invisible. “Perfectly Clear.”
“Lord, I hope that doesn’t become a catch-phrase,” Karen groaned.
Figuring that the roof was both less cluttered and a lot less likely to be watched, Stacy lifted up to the ceiling and moved down the short security corridor from the hallway to the evidence locker proper. Looking down, she saw several cops standing around stock still. Well, at least several of them were standing stock still; the ones that weren’t frozen in place were webbed to the walls or bars by thick wads of, well, webbing. But what caught her attention was the heavy armored door that Stacy assumed was the maximum security vault: the door was painted several layers thick with institutional green paint, but the paint was cracking and peeling and the exposed areas showed that the metal was livid red-brown with rust. In stark contrast to the strangely seasonal green and red was a polished steel device about the size and shape of a shoebox, with two grips or handles on it. Too cagy to just drop down in front of the vault, Stacy lowered herself down to the floor about seven feet away, looked around cautiously, and carefully stepped closer to the vault to see what the dingus was. Then there was a fiendish yowling, and a cat jumped up on Stacy and started clawing at her. There were two sounds like water hitting a hot griddle, and Stacy went down like she’d been sapped.
A moment later, she was just awake enough to be aware that someone was pulling the hood of her cape away from her head. “A kid?” asked an unfamiliar deep(ish) male voice.
Then the Green Witch showed herself and in a tone all-too reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s iconic ‘Get away from her, you BITCH!’ scene in the movie ‘Aliens’, snarled, “CARDSHARP! What did you DO to her?”
“HEY!” the man, ‘Cardsharp’ apparently, snapped, “I didn’t know that she was a kid! I’ve never shot a kid in the back before in my LIFE! Okay, I slugged a few guys from behind, but as my Dear Old Dad used to tell me, ‘Son, taking a man from the back is low, unsporting, and damn good tactics’. But a girl? NEVER!”
Karen didn’t respond, but just let fly with a witchbolt. Cardsharp responded by raising two guns that vaguely resembled old-fashioned Peacemaker six-shooter pistols. They made that ‘water hitting a griddle’ noise again, and lances of silvery flame shot out. One of them hit Karen’s witchbolt in mid-flight, disrupting it and the other one was parried by a mystic buckler created by the Green Witch. The two combatants exchanged an ever-changing series of magical attacks. The black cat that had tripped up Stacy silently jumped up to the top of a desk and settled in to watch the altercation with feline detached amusement.
Stacy managed to pull her wits together enough that she as able to take in the fight from where she was. There was no way that she could get close enough to Cardsharp to return the favor he’d done her. If she went over invisibly, there was a chance that one of Karen’s stray bolts might hit her, and it was very likely that that spooky cat could see her when she was invisible.
Either that or she’d had the simon-pure back luck to step on its tail.
On the other hand, that dingus on the vault door was doing… something… that would let Cardsharp get his hands on all those nasty artifact things that had been confiscated at the Supervillain convention. Cardsharp might be magical, but he wasn’t too proud to use high technology. But if it was high tech, then Stacy could simply rip it off the door before it did… whatever.
Taking a deep centering breath, Stacy silvered up and gripped the handles of the dingus and tried to pull it away. It was stuck fast. She applied all her strength and even 3 tons (give or take) of psychokinetic force couldn’t pry it away from the door.
Then Stacy kicked herself for being an idiot: there was a ‘disengage’ switch on the damn-fool thing. Gripping one handle, she flipped the disengage switch-
-and was jolted with enough electricity that it stunned her, even through her silver ‘sheath’. As she dropped to the floor again, the two adults stopped their battle as one. “SILVER!” the Green Witch shrieked. Karen rushed over to her and checked to see that that young girl was breathing.
Cardsharp ambled over at a more leisurely pace. “She okay?” The Green Witch muttered something inconclusive. Cardsharp shrugged and rapped his knuckle on the vault. “Fuck,” he said in a tone of annoyance. “It’s rusted solid! She set off the tamper-trap just when the fool thing was halfway through the job! Now we’ll never be able to get that damn thing open!”
The Green Witch opened her mouth to snap at him about being more concerned about that stupid vault than about the girl. Then, at exactly the same time, it occurred to both of them that they’d just been in the middle of a ruthless battle. Cardsharp drew both of his hex-shooters and fired for effect as he ran for a space on the wall. The second that he reached that space, the chalk design sketched on the wall flared, and a portal of sorts opened up. Cardsharp hit the portal running, and it stayed open just long enough for the cat to join him in retreat.
As the portal faded, and the chalk fell away from the wall, Karen said to no one, “Well, we won. Sort of.”
“Oh, it was Cardsharp all right,” Karen assured them the next day at the debriefing at SPECTRUM headquarters. “Fancy Dan Gambler outfit with a brocade vest, black Stetson hat and frock coat, old Western gunbelt with those freaky ‘hex-shooter’ pistols, ‘Lone Ranger’ mask, that patently phony ‘handlebar mustache’, and the even phonier folksy sayings.”
“What exactly does this ‘Cardsharp’ DO?” Cal asked.
“He’s a relic hunter,” Tawny answered. “He’s sort of like a criminal Indiana Jones, always on the prowl for some magical doodad or another. I’ve heard of him pulling regular jobs, but that’s either to steal something to trade for something magical, or he’s just paying his bills.” She finished with a shrug.
“To be honest, in retrospect, it IS rather obvious that Cardsharp, or at least someone of his ilk, would have made a run for that cache,” Swashbuckler pointed out. “We should have seen it coming.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that you were responding to a call from PD?” Goldstar asked peevishly.
“We weren’t there for Cardsharp,” Stacy answered. “The Witch got a call from Burglary Division that they thought might have been Madcap. Cardsharp just happened to hit while we were there.”
“And you got your asses kicked,” Goldstar snickered.
“Silver acted decisively and effectively,” Karen snipped back. “She got me past Cardsharp’s Aversion Ward very neatly, and it may have been accidental, but she still kept Cardsharp from getting into that vault.”
“Or anyone else,” Tawny grumbled.
“Considering some of the things that are in there, is that really such a BAD thing?” Red Thunder asked.
“It’s rusted solid?” Violet asked.
“Basically a big hollow block of fused iron,” the Witch confirmed.
“How did he DO that?”
“It’s a GizRust 122,” Cal answered, putting the dingus in question on the table. He started a tech-spiel, but cut himself off, summing it up as, “Basically, it causes metals to rust at ridiculously high speeds. It was designed by that maniac Wilkins, or ‘Gizmatic’ as he used to call himself, who runs that lunatic island down in the Caribbean. He claims that it can cause a ferrous object weighing under 3 tons to rust into dust in less than 4 minutes. That vault must be a very high Scandium alloy, because it was only halfway to being totally rusted by the time that Silver disrupted the process.”
“And got herself zapped halfway across the room,” Goldstar sneered. “Which let Cardsharp get away.”
“He had a teleportation gate already up and running for a quick getaway,” Karen pointed out.
“Hey, Shrimp, aren’t you supposed to refrain from superheroing, when it doesn’t involve Madcap?” Tawny asked sharply.
“Silver is a duly deputized Special Investigator for the DA,” Karen pointed out. “She was in a Police Station when an emergency broke out. I admit that I’m not 100% sure about the legal responsibility that she was under at the moment, but at the time I figured that it was better to err on the side of safety.”
Picking up that she was letting Goldplate set the terms of the meeting, Stacy steered the conversation in another direction. “And speaking of touchy legal stuff, something kinda… awkward happened.” Stacy filled the SPECTRUM heroes in on what had happened at Jarkoff’s, and said, “Anyway, if the guy who pulled those jobs is trying to get Madcap to do something, then he’s some kind of Criminal Mastermind type, maybe even a supervillain. And like Tawny said, I’m not supposed to do any superheroing. And even if it was cool with Mr. Kaltenborn, I am NOT up to taking on a real supervillain by myself.”
“So, basically, despite all mutants’ yammering about being so fucking superior, you want one of us to come save your bacon if the going gets rough,” Goldstar drawled.
“No, I want one of THEM, or at least someone competent to come save my bacon,” Stacy shot back. “Hey, I have a deal with DA Kaltenborn, and I’m doing my best to keep to the terms of that deal. And… how’s your PO, Goldie?”
Captain Patriot cleared his throat in a ‘father putting the bickering kids in their place’ way. When they minded their manners, he said, “So, you’re saying that you want backup if anyone other than Madcap shows up.”
“Pretty much. I know when I’m outclassed,” Silver admitted. “And if this guy is as slick as he looks, then he probably sees me coming, and he’s got something up his sleeve just for me. I’m not sure if he’s fishing for me or Madcap, but either way, he’s expecting me. And even if he doesn’t have a surefire Silver Ghost trump card, I don’t have the authority to take on someone like that. So… yeah, I need backup!”
“Well, Kiddo, the problem is that we all have our own things going on,” Azure said. “We can’t always be there, just in case this guy pulls something.”
“Oh that’s not a problem!” Stacy said pertly. “We pretty much know when and where he’s gonna strike next. The cops are gonna have a couple of squad cars in the area in case it’s just some smartass with a few goons, but we need some heavy artillery in case its anyone major.”
“The Cincy Museum Center, at 11 PM.”
“Eleven…” Blue Streak said, the penny dropping. “As in ‘Eleven Pipers Piping’?”
“Bingo! The Museum Center, in the spirit of the holidays, has an exhibit of beautiful instruments, including a very valuable selection of Renaissance era flutes, pipes, and like that. Since the thief made off with 300 grand worth of nutcrackers- well, allowing for Jarkoff’s really marking those things up; I mean jeez, they really were pretty cheesy for that much- Detective Catmull figures that the perp is making a little hay while the sun shines, ripping off things he can resell, as he’s setting his net for Madcap or me.”
The members of SPECTRUM mulled it over among themselves, and Violet said, “Well, with that specific a target, I don’t see any reason that I couldn’t make an effort to answer if you send up a SOS.”
“I’ll handle it,” Goldstar said magnanimously.
“Gee that’s nice,” Stacy returned with an acidulous smile, “but if I let out a holler for help, I’ll need someone who’s actually competent.”
For someone who styled herself as a ‘ghost’, Stacy really did prefer regular hours. According to Lauren, she missed some seriously good Mansfield dish after school by getting in some pre-emptive sack time between 2 and 6 PM, but first things first. At 7:30 Stacy and Karen attended a concert of authentic Renaissance Christmas music in the rotunda of the Union Terminal part of the museum complex. At roughly 9 o’clock Karen left the Museum Center, and Stacy introduced herself to the Museum Center’s Security Chief, and was gratified to see a familiar face. “Sergeant Jimenez!”
“You’re slipping,” Jimenez said. “I had ten bucks riding on you coming in with your ‘don’t freak out’ line.”
“Well, I don’t want to get predictable,” Stacy said pettishly.
Jimenez introduced Stacy to Woolard, the Security Chief for the Museum Center. “This… won’t be a rerun of what happened at that supervillain gadget convention, will it?” Woolard asked nervously.
“If Madcap is involved, it might get pretty hairy,” Stacy told him, “but there’s a very good chance that she won’t even figure the clue out. It’s pretty subtle, and the Police have kept the details of that robbery out of the Press.”
“What are you talking about?” Woolard asked. “It’s all over the News! Someone informed that DJ Rick Standish, and he’s been trashing about it all afternoon!”
“What?” Stacy honked, aghast.
“I, ah, thought you knew about it,” Jimenez hedged.
‘Well…’ Stacy thought to herself, ‘that would explain why some of the concert goers were so weird.’ But how would Rick Standish hear about the Jarkoff’s job? But the second that she posed the question to herself, the answer became crystal clear. “Goldstar.” Stacy took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and forced herself to focus. “Okay, it’s not as bad as it might be. Whoever the thief is, he’s obviously experienced and disciplined and skilled. So he knows that collateral damage is NOT good for his business. And, whatever he wants Madcap for, it can’t be done in here, so he’ll either spring whatever trap he’s got set, or lure her out of the museum where he can spring it. Either way, there’s no way that he’s just gonna bust through a wall. I mean, he’s a burglar. Burglars pride themselves on being sneaky and clever.”
Woolard nodded, “Okay, and what do you want my men to do?”
“Hey, you’re the professional; I’m not gonna tell you how to do your job. Just do whatever it is you’d do if there was some sort of threat on the museum, and I wasn’t here. I’ll just hang back invisible, and step in when Madcap shows up. Oh, by the way… which of the doors would give you the best access to the whole place?”
“Well, this might be a lot more complicated than Madcap. If it gets really hairy, someone from SPECTRUM will need to get in here in a big hurry. Just tell me which door, and if it looks like I’m gonna have to call for backup, have some of your guys get those doors open, PRONTO.”
Woolard’s guards did a very good job of checking the place out in case the perp had pre-planted some traps or gadgets or whatever, or was hiding among the exhibits, even checking them out with Thermographic scans. But in the end, the place was clean, and Woolard figured that if Stacy wasn’t there, he’d have a line of guys in front of the Renaissance Wind Instruments exhibit, just in case. Well, at least for about 10 minutes before and after 11 o’clock, anyway.
Despite herself, Stacy kept an eye on her watch- exactly how she could see her watch, as they were both invisible, she had no idea- counting off the minutes and seconds until 11 o’clock. Which was stupid; the thief would probably wait unt-
At the stroke of 11, the walls of the museum shook, and one of the walls that opened up to the outside on the other side crumbled in. Totally aghast, Stacy (and the security guards) gawped as a tall strapping woman, who was totally NOT Madcap, strode through the wall wearing a Madcap outfit. If anything, her attitude suggested that she was kind of ticked off at having to wear the doofy outfit. Woolard pulled himself together and drew his gun. As he rattled off an order for the intruder to stand down, Stacy hastily hit the ‘HELP!’ button on her cell phone, and snapped pictures of the hole in the wall and the woman who had Woolard by the throat. The second that she sent the pictures, Stacy pulled herself together and went to try and help Woolard, who was a very nice man and really didn’t deserve to get his neck snapped for trying to do his job.
Stacy came up behind the so-not-Madcap, floated up to where she could get a good shot at the back of the woman’s head and gave her a bell-rattling pop. The woman staggered and dropped Woolard, but past that she didn’t seem that impressed. Instead, she reached for something on her belt (which was a lot more crowded than the thing that the real Madcap wore) about the size and shape of a deck of cards, pulled it off, crushed it with a crispy noise, and then threw it in Stacy’s general direction. It exploded in a shower of silver glitter.
Stacy ducked and tried to cover herself with her cape, but she wasn’t fast enough. The cape caught a lot of it, but she was still well sprinkled with the glitter. Looking at her cape, Stacy saw that not only didn’t the ‘glitter’ meld disappear along with the rest of her, but it was sparkling!
Stacy whipped her cape off and shook it vigorously, but it wasn’t any good. Only a little of the glitter fell off the cape, and her spotty silhouette was clearly visible. Not that Not-Madcap gave her any room to just stand there and figure it out. She went for Stacy with wide sweeping blows. While it was all that Stacy could do to scramble around and stay clear of the blows that would probably break her head or something, eventually it struck her that Not-Madcap was having a hard time getting a clear shot at her. It was like Stacy knew when and how Not-Madcap was going to swing at her.
Well, this put a whole new spin on things!
She could just keep this bogus Madcap off-balance and swinging at air until Captain Patriot or the Green Witch or Red Thunder or someone with real chops could take her down. And if Madcap showed up, she could use both of these clowns to keep each other busy until the cavalry came.
Unfortunately, the cavalry came quickly and its response was: “Oh, this is fricking PATHETIC…”
Turning around, Stacy saw Goldstar standing there, arms folded, like he was judging the fight and he wasn’t very impressed with what he saw. Goldstar started to say something, but the mock Madcap pulled another packet from her belt and threw it right at Goldstar. Goldstar casually zapped it, but the packet exploded with a blinding light. Then there was another crashing sound. When Stacy’s vision came back online, she could just make out that Not-Madcap was standing almost exactly where Goldstar had been, and there was another hole in the museum wall. The woman had blinded Goldstar and used that respite to knock him through the wall.
For the briefest minute, Stacy mused that either that ‘reading their moves’ gimmick was very good, or Not-Madcap had been going easy on her. Then she remembered that they were still inside the museum with tons of very expensive stuff that could get wrecked. So Stacy charged into the woman, putting her shoulder into the small of the Mock Madcap’s back at full flight.
Not Madcap went flying into the parking lot, but did a very nice tuck-and-roll back onto her feet. Goldstar was just getting to his feet, but Not-Madcap beat him to the punch- or more accurately a nasty kick to the teeth while he was still on his hands and knees. The kick completely ruined the finish on Goldstar’s helmet, and he went tumbling backwards.
Woolard and Jimenez had joined Stacy at the hole in the wall. “You gonna go get her?” Woolard asked.
“I can’t,” Stacy said. “She’s not Madcap, and my assignment is very specific: bag Madcap. Period. And I got a ‘No Superheroing’ agreement with the DA.”
“What if I deputize you?” Jimenez asked.
“You’d know better’n I would. But it would have to be 100%.” Stacy jerked a thumb out at the parking lot, which was crowded with TV news vans and various people eagerly clicking away at the superhero fight, and there were on-the-spot reporters talking away into cameras. Some even had lighting panels that lit up the area. Stacy got the distinct impression that this was THE thing to perk up the 11 o’clock news.
Jimenez thought that over carefully (deputizing a teenager, even a teenager with super powers and a reasonable track record, is NOT something that you do casually). He was cut off when a ball of glittering light came down between Goonstar and so-much-worse-than-Madcap, and exploded in an eruption of light. Then from above, where the gall of light had come from, came a voice that was familiar though the cadence was stilted and artificial, like Mandy Cobb, back in Oakwood, badly reciting the words of her part in the Christmas pageant. “HALT foul fiend! Your bad comedy ends NOW! Surrender to the Police, or in the name of all that’s pure and good, the GOLDEN ANGEL will punish you!”
Looking up, Stacy’s face went blank and her eyes almost bugged out as she saw a familiar scrawny figure surrounded by a lit bubble. But instead of the near-copyright infringement jester’s outfit, she was wearing a long-sleeved gold lame mini-dress, and white tights with matching gloves, domino mask, and backlit gossamer ‘angel’ wings. Behind her hair, which was done up in a ponytail, she had a gold-tint Lucite (also backlit) halo. She still had the Crimson Claw’s ‘power talon’ on her left hand and she carried the Star Witch’s power scepter. Stacy could only assume that the boots were Accelerator’s jet-boots under all the gold glitter she had on them. She wafted down to the ground, her bubble popping as she touched down, and she did a brief pirouette for the news crews. Then she turned to Madcap 2.0 (new and vastly improved), pointed the staff and announced, “AVAUNT! Repent, Sinner, or face the wrath of Heaven’s own angel!”
“I don’t believe it,” Stacy groaned, “she’s found a way to rip off the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen AND Sailor Moon at the same time.”
But instead of being even slightly intimidated, Madcap (the next iteration) went for another packet from her belt. The second that Not-Madcap’s hand went for her belt, Stacy realized that this was the entire point of the whole thing: to get Madcap, in whatever idiot getup she’d throw together, within arms reach and put her in the bag. Stacy had no idea what the thingie on Not-Madcap’s belt was or what it would do, but she had no doubts that once it was around Madcap’s neck (or head or waist or whatever), there was no way that they’d be able to stop Not-Madcap from getting away with the real (if that word really applies) Madcap. Stacy, the Police, Goldstar- the mastermind behind this had seen all of it coming and had made plans for it all. Stacy launched herself at the packet, and reached out with her psychokinesis. The PK stopped the packet, which reacted by erupting in a tangle of lines and modules.
“Naughty, naughty, Madcap!” the ‘Golden Angel’ chirped, gleefully oblivious to the fact that she’d come within a gnat’s whisker of being trapped. The Golden Angel pointed her left hand at Madcap 2.0 and tapped out a sequence on the gauntlet on her left forearm. And-
-the scene filled with thousands of not-soap bubbles. Despite herself, Stacy paused briefly to wonder WHY anyone would build a soap bubble dispenser into a weapons gauntlet. She supposed that it might be useful for distracting someone who was relying on sonar or radar or something- did the Crimson Claw expect to fight Daredevil or something?
Sweeping that inane thought out of her brain- she’d have enough of that from Madcap without bringing along any of her own- Stacy chugged up with intent to at least get this part over, so Goldstar could look like even more of an idiot getting his chops handed to him by that woman, while she and Madcap got to the safety of the Police officers on duty. Hopefully, Goonster had enough chops to keep her busy while Captain Patriot or the Golden Knight or someone competent got there and handled Madcap II. “Madcap, you’re under arrest!” Stacy said with her best ‘stern sentinel of justice’ voice.
“That’s tellin’ her, Silvie!” Madcap cheered.
“HAH?” Stacy grunted ineloquently.
Madcap broke and copped a pose for the Press. “It is I, your BEST FRIEND, the Golden Angel!”
“Oh, you gotta be kiddin’ me…” Stacy groaned.
For reasons known only to rabid newshounds, a cameraman broke through the Police cordon for a close-up shot of this and was quickly followed by several others who shoved microphones at them and started nattering at them, asking them a thousand different braindead questions. Stacy reeled at the onslaught, but Madcap/ Golden Angel wrapped an arm around Stacy’s shoulder and gleefully rattled off something about being the Silver Ghost’s best friend. Finally Stacy snarled at Madcap Original, ‘I don’t know what you’re trying to pull MADCAP, but I’ve been given a warrant for your arrest, and I’m gonna make it stick!”
“But I’m not Madcap, SHE is!”
“Oh, gimme a break!” Then, sensing something coming at them, Stacy shoved Madcap aside, just in time for something to wrap around her neck and jerk her back a good ten feet. Stacy managed to untangle it from around her neck, just in time for it to reel back to Madcap 2.0.
“Don’t worry Silvie! The Golden Angel is here to save you!”
‘Oh God, just kill me now,’ Stacy thought to herself. But she jumped up as high as she could and went invisible.
Oh. Right. That stupid glitter.
From her vantage point, she saw Goldstar try to jump Madcap, only to kick in her protective bubble and go scooting off. Madcap 2.0 squared off against Goldstar for control of the ‘ball’. ‘Well, at least they’re being kept busy while SPECTRUM gets here’, Stacy thought to herself. Then she saw something that made her blood run cold: two lances of Knights of Purity pushing their way past the spectators. She flew over and dropped right in front of them, going silver as she did. “STOP! You guys know that you don’t have a license to operate in this town!”
*This farce has gone on long enough! We’re shutting this down before anyone gets hurt!* the KoP top dog snarled.
“Not your call to make, Jack!” Stacy snapped back. “I am the one that the DA has given the job of taking Madcap in, NOT YOU!” The Knights raised their guns as one. “Oh PLEASE!” Stacy snapped. “I’m a Special Investigator for the DA’s office! You’re interfering with a Police Official in the course of her duty as it is! Any of you clowns fire a single shot, and it’ll be Assaulting an Officer with a Deadly Weapon- or, whatever. Do you assholes really want to see what kind of book Judge Wardell has ready to throw at you?”
The Knights paused, seemingly unsure exactly what they were going to do. Then Sgt. Jimenez blew a police whistle and shouted, “She’s Right! She has the warrant, and the DA has called her in as an authority on the perp on more’n one occasion. Also, isn’t there the major issue of you clowns NOT HAVING A LICENCE TO OPERATE IN THIS TOWN? We’re cutting you bozos some slack about showing up with that hardware, but if you cowboys don’t back off… well, Central just told me that Violet and Red Thunder have called in that they’re answering the Ghost’s call for backup…”
The Knights backed down, but Stacy could tell that they weren’t nohow happy about it. They filed back, and Stacy was finally able to get back to the job at hand. Fine! Sheesh! Goldstar and Mockcap were furiously trying to gain control of Madcap’s force ball as it careened all over the parking lot, randomly bouncing off cars and lampposts. Stacy watched clinically for a moment, took note of the layout, and then calmly walked to one position and waited. A few minutes later, Madcap’s ball came right at her. Stacy simply put up a hand and stopped Madcap. As Madcap got what passed for her wits back after the pinball barrage, Stacy gently but firmly passed her hand through the force field, and took ‘the Golden Angel’ by the collar.
Mockcap took this in and lashed out at Stacy with an expanding whip. Stacy simply used Madcap’s force field to deflect the whip. Mockcap was fiddling with her utility belt, when there was a commotion among the Newshounds. “There! Up in the Sky! It’s a bird! It-”
“Oh get real,” one of the other Media types groused, “It looks like Violet and Red Thunder finally showed up.”
Taking this news in stride, Mockcap reached for her belt again and pulled a classic ‘disappear under a smoke screen’ exit. Goldstar looked around frantically and said to Stacy, “Look, if we both-”
“Not on your life, Rustbucket,” Stacy said with a smirk, “I GOT what I came for.”
“What?” Madcap yelped, “Hey, we gotta get after her! She’s gettin’ AWAY!”
“Not my job,” Stacy said sternly. “She may get away, but you’re Not!”
“WHAT?” Madcap squawked as she started to wriggle.
“Yeah, that’s good,” Goldstar drawled, “At least until she figures out to KICK IN THOSE ROCKET BOOTS.” Madcap didn’t even consciously do that; the mere suggestion was enough. By pure reflex, she kicked in Accelerator’s speed boots and tore out of Stacy’s grasp, leaving her collar- and her wings- behind in Stacy’s hand.
Stacy watched in helpless horror as ‘the Golden Angel’ zoomed off at over 100 MPH, caroming off cars and other obstructions until she was gone from sight.
“Whoops,” Goldstar said, utterly unrepentant, “My Bad.”