The Knights of Purity, both the power rig jockeys and their technical backup monkeys, sat gloomily in the seats of the small auditorium. They knew that they were going to get reamed about their performance yesterday. Never mind that they’d been following procedure, and they’d been ambushed when they were without guards, or that they’d escaped and recovered their units under fire. No, the thing that the boss would concentrate on was that Knights of Purity armor had been used to attack civilians. The Good Guys had been definitive Bad Guys. Half of them were dreading getting their asses reamed; the other half were worried that they’d get fired. The Cincinnati posting was turning into a Russian Front, and it was costing the Boss huge. And shit always rolled downhill.
But when Herb Goodkind showed up, he wasn’t the seething cauldron of executive rage they expected. If anything, he seemed rather pleased. He got to the head of the auditorium, let his employees get set and began. “Okay, let’s get it out of the way. That mess at City Hall yesterday? GREAT JOB!”
There was a collective ‘What?’ from the rank-and-file.
“After that mess at the Jarman, what you pulled off was JUST what we needed! With that, you showed what the Knights of Purity are really made of, and SCREW that pinko crap Evolution Sucks has been tarring us with!”
“But…” one of the Shortstop pilots bleated, “The Crimson Claws’ guys used KoP armor to attack civilians! On TV!”
“And they did a BANG UP job of it!” Herb grinned
There was another collective ‘what?’ from the rank-and-file.
Herb saw their confusion and backpedaled a little. “YES, the footage of KoP armor pushing around civilians would be damaging- IF you guys hadn’t come charging in like Gangbusters and taken the suits back ON CAMERA. That absolves us of everything. With that, the world got to see the KoP hardware showing what it could do in the hands of guys who weren’t trained on the units. And they kicked ASS. And then you guys came in without power armor, and showed what the men inside the hardware could do, without the hardware. And you kicked ASS.”
“Yeah, but the Golden Knight got all the spotlight, for fighting that junkheap monster.”
“True,” Herb allowed. “BUT, keep this in mind. The big shining hero of the hour was a BASELINE human inside a suit of POWER ARMOR. He showed hellacious grit and guts- just imagine what he could have done with real discipline and training and tactics. And let’s face it, while just wading in there and slugging it out like that may be dramatic, it’s sloppy and unprofessional. Individual heroics are spectacular, but it’s teamwork and superior tactics that really get the job done!
“And that’s not just my take on it. Earlier, when I was working City Hall, there was a noticeable shift in people’s attitudes towards me. And not just the Mayor and Selectmen and department heads- the secretaries and receptionists. Guys, trying to read a politician is almost impossible- but the secretaries, bureaucrats and office workers? If you really want to know how an organization really feels about you, watch what the people who’re around the Big Boys react. And while they may not be throwing us any tickertape parades- YET- the frost has thawed. Before, we were a bunch of pushy out-of-towners trying to cut ourselves a piece of their pie. Now, thanks to YOU guys, we’re the guys who’ve made their bones.
“Like Churchill said, ‘This isn’t the Beginning of the End, but it IS the End of the Beginning’. We’ve got our toehold. We’re HERE. We don’t have a contract here-YET. Now, it’s time for me and the spin-doctors to go to work.
“But there’s still work for you guys. But it’s time to take it down a notch. Study both the Crimson Claw and Cardinal Sin’s profiles and SOPs. When they act, we will go in to back up the Cincinnati Power Suit Squad, which, thanks to the Claw and his pet monster, has been badly damaged. Three suits trashed, four more badly damaged, and a bunch of pilots in severe need of R&R. So, this IS the right time and place for us, guys.
“Now, here’s the part I hate- almost as much as you will,” Herb grumped. “The Silver Ghost and the Golden Angel. Leave them be. We let EvoRox sucker us into going after Madcap, or Golden Angel, or whatever. And while I wouldn’t mind kicking Madcap in her bony ass, it’s just not worth the risk. If those two dingbats want to play their slapstick games, LET them. The Ghost will look the worse for it, anyway. But going after them, either of them, only plays into EvoRox’s smear campaign.
“Our problem here has been that we’ve made the mistake of not going with our strong suit: RESEARCH. And that is MY mistake. From now on, our policy regarding both the Silver Ghost and Madcap is going to be study, study, study! By the time we’re done, we will know not only HOW to take down the Silver Ghost, not only When and Where to do it, but we’ll know how to do it in a way that will strip away that ‘everybody’s kid sister’ act of hers, and expose her for the inhuman menace she really IS!”
“Cal, you should SEE the SPECTRUM storefront!” Stacy gushed as she tweaked the bedclothes of the bed that Cal was recuperating in. “We’ve got your sword and shield on display there, and it’s getting major crowds. There are flowers, and Thank-You cards, and testimonials from a bunch of the groups that were protes- er, demonstrating. Okay, not Humanity First!, but let’s face it, it would be weird if they DID say thanks…”
“And Father Grover, the priest who blessed your weapons, is making out on it pretty well, too,” Swashbuckler said. “He’s expecting box office business at his parish this Sunday. And why not? He’s shown that he has the chops!”
“What were they doing there, anyway?” Cal asked with a husky rasp.
“As near as I can tell, they were trying to show some solidarity with that ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’ noise in New York,” Swash answered. “Father Grover’s position was that everyone is welcome within the Catholic Church, which is probably the best stand that a Catholic priest can take in Ohio.”
“And check it out!” beaming, Stacy held up the front page of the Cincinnati Observer, the surviving hard-text newspaper. There was no banner or headline on it, merely a very moving shot of Captain Patriot holding the Golden Knight drone in his arms, with the Silver Ghost, Green Witch and Azure nearby, grave concern clear on their faces. “They had to do two reprints! The only reason we got this was that Karen has three subscriptions for the house!”
“One for her, one for the Staff, and one for the dog to tear apart,” Swash snipped.
“And from what DA Kaltenborn told us, the guys that the Crimson Claw left behind are telling them that the Claw is hurting for money,” Stacy added. “And that he was screaming bloody murder about the costs of the operation. So, maybe he’ll decide to quit while he’s ahead- or at least not as far behind as he could get- and leave!”
‘I doubt it,” Cal grumbled. “The closest thing that the Claw has to a virtue is Tenacity. The last time he came through Cincinnati, the only reason that he left was that we countered every attempt that he made to make money, and trashed his claw. Now that Madcap has his claw up and running again, he’ll pauper himself and destroy millions in property, and God alone knows how many people he’s willing to hurt, to get it back.”
“If that’s how he operates, this could get very sticky,” Swash said, twitching his mustache. “If he’s running out of money but won’t just give up, then the Claw is getting desperate. And from what Stacy’s told us about his interactions with Cardinal Sin, then we can throw a refusal to give in to a rival as well.”
“So, either we nail the Claw or take Madcap out of the equation,” Stacy said.
“We capture the Claw,” Cal said with real steel in his voice. “Madcap is only guilty of some petty theft and vandalism. The Claw has 7 First Degree Murder warrants out for him, and more Grand Larceny and Extortion warrants than I want to think about. He’s a real danger. He’s desperate and getting more desperate by the day. Then Cardinal Sin. He’s not as desperate as the Claw, but he’s still the kind of reckless outlaw that I created the Golden Knight drone to deal with.”
Then Cal softened and said, “But the Claw is the old folks’ worry. It’s a week before Christmas! Let’s enjoy the Season! What do you have planned, Stacy?”
“Karen’s roped me into a chorale at the Commonwealth Club- singing carols and seasonal songs and like that, y’know, young people, wholesome setting, empowering activities, keep ‘em away from the drugs, and like all that.”
“Well… it’s a theory…” Swash allowed.
“But if you don’t want to go…” Cal hedged.
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it!” Stacy said with a wide, if rather stiff, grin. “It’s the same night as Corey Griswold’s Christmas party.”
‘The problem with being a teenager is that there’s a ton of fun stuff that you can’t enjoy, ‘cause it’s Kid Stuff,’ Stacy thought to herself. Looking around, she spotted a handful of kids her age she’d met at Mrs. Harding’s Christmas party, a few more she’d met at Karen’s party, and a few she’d met at Mansfield. But for the most part, these were kids she’d never met. Who knew there were so many rich kids in the TriState area? Still, most of the ‘cool kids’ must be going to Corey Griswold’s party. Well, if the Bramlin Girls count as ‘cool’. And where Jennileech fit into that was anyone’s guess.
On the downside, that may just mean that there might be social landmines that Lauren couldn’t warn her about.
Then again, there are some social landmines that Lauren still wouldn’t be able to warn Stacy about, even if she was there. During the Caroling section of the program Stacy had contrived to get grouped with two reasonably attractive girls. She’d hoped to leverage that meager acquaintance into a combination of introductions to the crowds she didn’t know, as well as a social barrier to a whole new selection of wolves. The downside of that was that Stacy was picking up that these girls didn’t appreciate her cribbing their game.
As the director shuffled things around for the Old Spirituals section of the program, the two girls shed Stacy before she could even learn their names. And by some strange quirk of Social Logistics those two were replaced by two boys who were large enough, physical enough, and good-looking enough that they had some basis for their budding ‘God’s gift to women’ self-images. And it wasn’t that Warren and Eric weren’t charming or attentive. It was that that weird ‘they-tell-me-it’s-telepathy’ sense that Stacy had suggested that they were more interested in being one up on the other guy in their ongoing ‘I’m such a slick ladies man’ rivalry, and scoring on the mysterious hawt new chick than they were in actually getting to know her. “I’m surprised that there aren’t more kids here,” Warren said, looking around. “The Silver Ghost is supposed to make a special appearance.”
“She is?” Stacy gleeped, a brick of lead forming in her stomach. She looked frantically at the agenda. ‘Visit by local superhero’ wasn’t anywhere on it.
“Sure!” Eric breezed, pressing closer to Stacy. “Rick Standish was dishing on it, on his show. He must be running out of material.”
A shot of annoyance ran through Stacy. Why would Karen set the Silver Ghost up with these kids? She was amazed that there wasn’t a H1! mob out front, protesting. She slogged through renditions of ‘Good King Wenceslaus’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’. Then she used the break to make a phone call. Using a special ultra to get past SPECTRUM’s anti-crank measures. [Hey Silver!] Red Thunder greeted her heartily [How’s the songspiel going?]
“Why’d you announce that I was going to be here, as the Silver Ghost?” Stacy demanded. “I’m supposed to be here on the down-low! I have a cape with me, ‘cause you never know. But I don’t have anything prepared. And I have two boys watching me close; how’m I s’pozed to get away for my Silver Ghost number, without it getting all ‘Superman and Lois Lane’?”
[aahhh… we didn’t tell anyone, Stacy]
“What? Then how did Rick Standish know about this?” Typical- she finally cut herself a break on not listening to that rat’s ass, and that one day he said something she needed to hear!
[Standish knows about this? How would he know?]
Then Stacy heard something that made a cold chill that had nothing to do with the weather run down her spine. “Fear Not,” said a high slightly nasal voice from up on high. “For I bring tidings of great joy- I’M HERE!” Looking up, Stacy saw floating in the air a familiar scrawny figure in gold lamé (and just plain lame), lacy wings, Lucite halo, and a long white silk shawl draped around her shoulders.
A Shawl? Stacy blanked on that for a moment, until it clicked that Cappy was riffing on the on the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. She went around with a white shawl covering her face, and now it was a thing that angels wore white shawls and had golden eyes. Stacy fumbled with her phone, took a picture and sent it to Red.
Then, the ‘Golden Angel’ wafted up to the star on the tree and lit it. But the way Madcap pulled it off was more like Tinkerbell.
A scrawny, demented Tinkerbell.
[I’m putting out a General Alert for all members to respond and informing Cincinnati SWAT] Red said intently.
“Why? I can get her away from these kids, no problem.”
[Silver, Madcap’s there because Rick Standish told everyone that you’d be there. You actually being there is a pure fluke. No one on our side told anyone anything about it. So HOW did Standish hear about it?]
“It’s a trap,” Stacy said, the penny dropping.
[Silver, stay back,] Red said sternly [Whether it’s the Claw or Cardinal Sin, either way, they’re expecting you. You getting involved would only confuse things. They’ve probably got a hostage trap, designed just for you]
“Stay back, stay invisible, don’t get captured,” Stacy recited. “I know the drill.” Almost reflexively, Stacy backed into a corner and blended into the shadows.
Not that anyone noticed her doing that. Everyone was pressing forward, their phones out, snapping pictures of Madcap. There were mutters of YouTube, MySpace and other media sharing platforms. And Madcap was drinking it up.
Stacy relaxed a little. Nothing violent was going on. The kids were peppering ‘the Golden Angel’ with questions, and Madcap was answering with chipper verbal gaffes that would give Standish material for weeks. Maybe Red was reading too much into this. Maybe Standish pulled this one out of his ass.
Then a festively dressed woman stepped forward and presented Madcap with a gaily wrapped package from a pile gathered around one of the many (indeed, oddly numerous) prop Christmas trees placed around the auditorium. Madcap accepted the package with a greedy grin and pulled off the bow. The package exploded as metallic tendrils ripped through the paper and wrapped themselves around Madcap. Madcap shrieked in surprise and reflexively threw up her protective globe. But she didn’t bounce out of harm’s way this time. The tendrils latched onto Madcap’s force field and held it- and her- securely in place.
‘Big deal criminal mastermind,’ Stacy sneered silently. ‘Ripping off the KoP’s Catcher unit. Seems that Cappy isn’t the only one who can’t be bothered to come up with anything original.’
Madcap blasted at the bubble, but the blast only ricocheted off the force wall, bounced around inside and terrified the bubblehead.
Stacy silently sent pictures to SPECTRUM, so the heroes would have an idea as to what they were dealing with when they got there.
The ‘Matron’ connected more ‘packages’ to the cage, as ‘Snowmen’, ‘Christmas Trees’ and a ‘Santa’ set around the over-decorated auditorium tore apart, revealing men in the Crimson Claw livery, waving weapons. Despite herself, Stacy hoped those guys got paid extra for doing that. It couldn’t have been comfortable, waiting all that time.
More men dressed as Crimson Claw henchmen rushed inside the room. Red Thunder had been right about one thing: the Claw was ready for her. Besides the guy with the spoilsport laser that made her visible, there were three guys keenly pointing large hi-techy looking gear around the room, even up into the rafters. Stacy had no idea what they were, but one of them had a ‘Ghostbuster’ logo on it.
Stacy had never really given that cartoon much thought, but suddenly she hated that franchise. Why didn’t they make a cartoon about a heroic ghostly character? That would totally ROCK!
Putting that aside, Stacy crept up on the Clawmen. Luckily for her, it wasn’t off-the-shelf mass market weaponry with nice secure cases. Rather, it was plug and play thrown together stuff made from a bunch of different high tech gear. There were a lot of cables and sockets exposed so that it could be quickly assembled in the field on the fly. Then it struck her that if you were going to trap an invisible enemy, you might somehow boobytrap one of the weapons she’d be tempted to go for. And the best way to tempt a Silver Ghost would be with a nasty weapon- with a Ghostbuster logo on it. So Stacy kept her distance and used her PK to mess with the weapons. It was harder and a lot more tiring, but at least she didn’t set off a… goo that reacted with PK energy, or something. Stacy delicately switched around plugs and sockets. They didn’t explode or anything, but at least they didn’t mess with her.
Once she defanged the nastiest dogs, Stacy put some serious thought into how she was gonna get as many of these kids out before the grit hit the fan. The problem was that, unlike the First and Second Graders on Halloween, these kids weren’t taking the situation seriously at all. The Montessori kids got that they were in deep trouble. Hell, Dark Claw had bent over backwards making that clear. These kids were calling their friends, texting and taking videos to post on YouTube. ‘Taken Hostage by Supervillain! LOL!’
Suddenly Spence, Dylan and Nate’s antics at the Jardan made a lot more sense. Apparently Rich Kids didn’t really GET that they could be hurt. They knew it on an ‘I saw it on TV’ level, but it wasn’t really a part of their lives.
Maybe those ‘Frat House Hijinks’ you saw in movies were the upperclassmen’s way to pound into the pledges heads that actions had consequences. ‘Jump off that roof and you break a leg’, that sort of thing.
Of course, there were kids who looked like they understood that the guys with the guns weren’t extras, and that there wasn’t a convenient 4th Wall to protect them. But then they looked like the neurotic kids that people learned to ignore. Okay, common sense said that the best thing to use was the Emergency Exits. That’s what they were there for. BUT Criminal masterminds, being just that way, the Claw had placed bright red spoilsport mines, with ‘Don’t Touch! DANGEROUS! EXPLOSIVE!’ painted on them, placed on all the exits. It says something when even criminal terrorists were expected to have safety labels.
Stacy thought about disarming the mines. Then she decided against it. Stupid Criminal masterminds!
Stacy was seriously considering switching off the overhead lights and just throwing something at Madcap’s cage. But the entire building shook with a sudden tremor. The Claw started yapping out cryptic orders, but was cut off by another massive thump. A crack in the reinforced concrete exploded into the room, and a golden figure flew in. for a frozen moment, Stacy thought that Cal had crawled out of his recovery bed to save her. But where Cal would have just dived in and taken on the adversary, this guy paused and set for a glamour shot.
Crap. It was Goldbug.
“Well, it looks like the Silver Ghost was too chicken to come,” he said as though he had cameras on him. “So it’s time to upgrade to GOLDSTAR!”
Yep, it was Goldbug, alright.
The Claw barked out a list of brief cryptic orders, like a football quarterback calling a play, and the Crimson Crew sprang into action. At least this time, they didn’t all have tricked-out power armor. The Claw probably couldn’t afford it. The Claw-guy with the snitch-laser stopped looking around in corners (like Stacy hid in corners) and let off a wide spray of light centered on Goldtooth. It dazzled for a second, and then there was a pop. A curl of smoke, the kind that Stacy’s work with Cal had taught her meant ‘you screwed up; now this won’t work’, wafted up from the gun.
Well, if there was anything that Stacy knew how to do, it was screw up!
The laser going *piff!* seemed to mess with the Claw’s called plays. As the Claw Crew tried to figure the play to make next, Goldstar seized the initiative and dove at the Clawman working the thing with the weird ‘barrel’ that Stacy didn’t get. And guns started going off.
Goldstar piled into the goons with a gusto that suggested that he was reliving some glory days as a high school football star (maybe Rugby; Stacy had picked up that they played some weird sports in private schools). What Goldstar didn’t show was any sign of taking into account that the guys he was batting around had guns, which were going off randomly. It was amazing that none of the kids eagerly taking videos got shot.
As Goldstar knocked Claw-men around, the gunman he’d first jumped got up, prepped his weird weapon and aimed. There was a ‘chirp’ from Hell. Everyone reacted, but for Stacy, it was like two icepicks driven into her ears with sledgehammers. ‘Crap! It’s a sonic weapon!’ ran frantically through Stacy’s mind. Dammit, she was never leaving home without those noise-cancelling earplugs again! But Stacy’s sabotage hadn’t been a complete waste of time. That ‘chirp’ was all it gave out, and the gunner started fiddling with it furiously.
On pure self-defense reflex, Stacy went visible, bolted out from the crowd of civilians, and grabbed the sonic gunman from behind. He was heavily armored, which was the only reason why he was still standing after Goldstar was done with him. But once she had him up off his legs, Stacy had the problem as to what she was going to do with him?
Then she had a ‘two birds’ brainstorm. Shouting ‘Gangway!” she hurried the goon past the civilians and slammed him, backpack first, onto the mine on the emergency exit doors. The second slam set off the anti-tamper trigger. The gunner’s armor contained the blast, though it trashed the backpack and knocked out the goon inside the armor.
The more survival-minded kids were right out of there, and the chaperones started herding the others out. Stacy was giving serious thought to going herself, when she heard, “Sillll-VEEE!”
The Call of Duty. It was a high-pitched panicked nasal whine, but still the Call of Duty.
With a disgruntled grumble, Stacy crouched, went invisible and did some broken field running. And she hated it as much as she’d hated playing Pop Warner Football back in Oakwood.
A few yards away from Madcap’s cage, Stacy became aware that not only was she visible, but she was glowing. Looking around frantically, she saw lines of light shining on her from 3 shoebox-like drones on the ground and over 8 softball-sized ‘flying eye’ drones in the air. Worse, they had patiently waited until she was perfectly exposed on all sides to rat her out.
Expect Incoming Owie.
The gunner with the ‘Ghostbuster’ weapon grinned, aimed and fired. Either Stacy hadn’t done as good a job of bollixing the Ghostbuster as she’d thought or he’d fixed it. The gun went off and a cigar-sized micro-missile launched at her. The missile was too close to dodge, but close enough that Stacy had a masochistic slo-mo view of the missile as it came at her-
-and slender hand came out of left field and snatched it out of mid-flight. A dark streak followed after that and Stacy barely followed that to where it stopped. Stacy just managed to register a thin girl of about her age with classic ‘pixie’ pageboy cut dark hair, wearing a green Christmas Elf costume. The girl had stopped because of the momentum of the mini-rocket, and when the thrust stopped, she dropped it. The girl looked around and saw all the men with the guns looking at her. She gave out a squawk and exited the auditorium in a green streak.
Knocked out of her freeze, Stacy went silver and lunged at one of the ground drones. She picked it up and threw it at one of the flying eyes, taking them both out. She ducked and rolled over to one of the other ground drones and picked it up. As she hefted it, Stacy noted the cinematography-caliber lenses and the stubby ‘mushroom’ broadcast antenna. The Fink-out laser was strictly a tack-on. She threw the drone at one of the Claw-men.
Goldstar was in a defensive crouch but not doing anything as the Claw-men focused on Stacy. “Hey, Goldbrick!” Stacy snapped, “If you’re such a big damn hero, why aren’t you doing anything?”
“Why?” he sneered, “I'll let them wear themselves out pounding you into the ground, and then take them out.” Stacy sputtered that that was low, even for Goldstar, but the snitch light still went out and Stacy was able to wriggle out from the middle of the Claw-men who’d surrounded her. Her first reflex was to free Madcap. But that was what Brassballs wanted her to do: free the person she was supposed to arrest- On Camera. Besides, the Claw was probably expecting her to do just that.
So she’d jump The Claw, and make Foolsgold Star look like the poser he was. Stacy did a high vaulting leap and came down behind The Claw. But while she was doing that, Goldstar snapped to attention, cocked his head like a dog trying to find a sound and ripped into the Crimson Crew again.
The Claw reacted to this by yelling out more arcane ‘plays’, and jabbing at a bracer on his left forearm. Aaawww… he misses his claw… Stacy pushed The Claw to the ground and pulled the bracer off his arm.
Stacy hated to copy Madcap’s tactic, but it wasn’t like there was a manual for that thing, so she randomly jabbed at buttons. First the room seemed to explode in a crowd of Crimson Claws doing various weird things. Then a globe of darkness formed around The Claw. And then Madcap’s globe broke free of its moorings.
“Get her!” Goldstar roared, “Stop her before she-” Madcap’s ball rocketed forward and did a bumper-barrage across the room. As seemed to be the norm for Madcap, she managed to crash into a fair number of Claw-men, and Goldstar as well.
“Before she kicks in those stupid rocket boots of hers?” Stacy finished with an unspoken but clearly understood ‘You Idiot!’
One of the four remaining teenagers, who had a hand-held video camera for some reason, gave a glad coo as Madcap rocketed forward. She ricocheted off a wall and did a pinball ‘bumper barrage’ around the auditorium. This played absolute hob with the Claw’s formations.
Hating herself, but seeing no sane options, Stacy pressed buttons on the bracer console two at a time. A volley of pea-sized pellets erupted from casters mounted in the few remaining ‘Christmas Trees’. These pellets expanded into ping-pong ball size when stepped on. Stacy vaguely remembered someone using that tactic before.
Then on another console cue, another of the ‘Christmas Trees’ opened up into a brush of optic fiber, which started spinning and flashing. And Stacy had no idea how to turn the stupid thing off.
Shielding her eyes, Stacy remembered that while she’d left her ear-shields at home, she did have the ‘super-sunglasses’ with all the cool extras that Cal had made for her in her purse in the coatroom. She tossed the console as useless- and then drew it back to her, and crushed it. Then she went invisible and made her way as best she could to the coatroom. She got dinged by Madcap’s runaway ball a couple of times on the way.
Once she found her purse, Stacy pulled out the ‘sunglasses’ and put them on. She was immediately greeted with [GK: STACY TALK TO ME] in a kind of ‘scrolling marquee’ on the upper left-hand side of her vision.
[GK: ON AIR SEC’TY PLS]
[GK: B-STRK & VIO N-RUTE. SWAT D-PLY-G. KEEP MDCP THER 4 THM. THEY WL HNDL CC – U TK OUT MDCP]
“C, er- Golden Knight, Goldcreep is already here.”
[GK: ANNOYNG BUT VALID. IF HE CN TK OUT CC- LET HIM]
“Nuts,” Stacy groused. She was really hoping that he was pulling another fast one she could call him on. “Okay, keep Madcap here, let Goldie take his lumps until Violet and the Streak get here.”
[GK: NOT QUITE BUT WILL DO]
Well, Stacy had her marching orders. Then something occurred to her. She dug out her smartphone and hit an ultra. Cal’s raspy voice immediately answered and said, [YES, that was really me]
Stacy stepped out of the coatroom just in time to see Madcap’s ball careening at her, with Madcap screaming inside. Stacy tried to catch the ball with her hand, using her PK, but instead it ricocheted off. It caromed off a pillar and knocked out the Crimson Claw.
The Claw-men stopped as though they’d been shot. They quickly formed a protective circle around their leader. Despite herself, Stacy had to wonder: how did the Claw inspire the level of loyalty and discipline she was seeing in his men? She didn’t remember reading anything about any implants or brainwashing in the guys who were captured. His hideout had been…. Serviceable… and from what she’d seen, The Claw was the ‘obey my orders perfectly, no matter how harebrained!’ type of screaming tyrant. So why weren’t his guys just saying ‘screw it, jail ain’t that bad’?
But even as Stacy got her head back in the game, one of the Clawmen called out, “So long, Super Friends! I’ll see you four bells at the Hall of Justice!” He sounded like he was reading it off a card. Then four of the Clawmen dropped crowd-control gas grenades- which apparently doubled as smoke bombs. Blinding choking gas filled the auditorium.
Which didn’t affect Stacy through her PK sheath. Madcap’s force ball also served as a chemical screen, and Goldbrick’s helmet probably had a breather in it. His true super-power: Rich Parents.
But the three boys and one girl who’d stayed behind didn’t have any of that. The girl and the guy with the two phones- who Stacy had mentally dubbed ‘The Perv’- picked up that it wasn’t safe anymore and hauled ass through the emergency exit. Stacy had to drag the ‘Film Director’ and the ‘Prankster’ out.
Stacy had a ‘superhero appreciation’ moment as the girl threw her arm around Stacy’s shoulder-
-and took a Selfie.
The Selfie-ist left Stacy with a taste of ashes in her mouth. She trudged back into the fray, only to find the smoke cleared… indeed, the entire auditorium was cleared. All the holiday decorations where either Crimson Claw gear or had gotten trashed. There was no sign of the Crimson Crew. Madcap was out of her bubble, and she and Goldstar were bickering at each other like a pair of Five-year-olds.
‘Wonderful,’ Stacy snarked to herself, ‘the Golddust Twins have found their intellectual equals.’ Stacy wasn’t sure what point Goldturd was trying to make, but he was hampered by Facts, Logic and Sequence; three things that never even slowed Madcap down. As the two yapped at each other, Stacy got a really sneaky idea. All she really needed to do was keep Madcap there until Violet arrived. And she knew just how to do it.
“Great Job, Golden Angel!” Stacy said cheerily as she walked up and went silver. “How did you manage to take out all of the Claw’s men?”
“Really?” Madcap squeaked, her face glowing with delight. Then she launched into a long rambling, nonlinear tale. As Madcap nattered on (and Goldstar sputtered), Stacy reached out with her invisible PK. Her first reflex was to start unbuckling those rocket boots, especially since Tinstar was there, quick to push that button. But Madcap’s real ace-in-the-hole was the Mind Mistress’ Mind Crown (and who comes UP with these names?). Stacy had been well-and-truly out of it at the H1! community gallery, but Madcap’s first use of any of the power items was when she used the Mind Crown to take out the entire gallery, paralyzing everyone for hours. Stacy didn’t know how the Mind Crown would affect Blue Streak or Violet (or HER), but she didn’t want to find out. The Mind Crown would go first, then the rocket boots and then the Claw’s power talon. The chance of yet another Madcap ass-pull was too high.
Keeping Cappy busy wouldn’t be hard; just let her talk. The hard part would be keeping Goldbug from getting buggy.
As Madcap nattered on, Stacy let her hand drift toward Cappy’s shoulder in a fake show of camaraderie, slow enough to not set off Madcap’s bubble, but not slow enough to be creepy.
Just as Stacy was disengaging the Mind Crown from that idiotic Lucite halo and her hand was 2 inches from Madcap’s shoulder, Goldstar snapped to. It was like he had been called to attention by his drill sergeant. He looked at Madcap and Stacy as if something occurred to him, and he threw a punch at Madcap’s head. Cappy gave out a shocked squawk and her hamster ball popped up, throwing Stacy’s hand back before she could get a good grip on her.
“GOLDSTAR!” Stacy snapped, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Goldstar ignored her and gave Madcap another punch. It knocked her against a wall and when she bounced back (screaming in surprise) Goldstar had disengaged a piece of gear from his back unit. He slammed the gadget into the force bubble. It merged seamlessly with the ball, holding it as securely as the Claw’s trap had. “Not AGAIN,” Madcap groaned.
Stacy was about to ask how long he thought he could hold that, when two 4-man teams of Cincinnati SWAT burst into the room, guns ready. The Squad Leader gave out the obligatory ‘Nobody MOVE!’
But Goldstar, completely unafraid, presented the capture ball to the squad leader. “Here! With the compliments of a sane, competent, responsible, hero…”
Stacy was simmering at being burned for Madcap’s capture that way. She could- her ruminations were cut off when [GK: THAT’S NOT SWAT] ran across her field of vision.
Stacy’s blood ran cold. Too many things suddenly made sense. And the only player on the board at the moment with those moves was Cardinal Sin. There was no way that she and Gilt Tater could hold off the Congregation of Crime by themselves. IF she could get Goldbug to believe her. The only way… was to unleash chaos…
As Madcap sniveled that this wasn’t right, she wasn’t Madcap (no one had even mentioned that name), the Silver Ghost stepped up to Goldstar and sliced at the component restraining Madcap’s ball. Madcap blinked with surprise, then her face blossomed with relief and joy. “THAT’S MY SIDEKICK!” she bugled.
Again with the sidekick thing.
Madcap jabbed at the Claw’s power talon and a whirlwind whipped up and tossed the SWAT squad off their feet. After a few seconds of shocked disbelief, Goldstar sprang on Stacy. “GOTCHA! Oh, I got you this time, FREAK! I got you cold! You’re going away forever!”
But Goldstar forgot that while he was stronger than the Silver Ghost, his strength, being physical, relied on leverage, while hers, being psychokinetic, didn’t. And even with the armor, he only weight 250 or so pounds. She threw him off easily, and he landed lightly, ready to take the fight to her. He turned to the SWAT team, eager to order them to arrest her.
But there wasn’t any heavily-armed, lethal force-read SWAT team there… it was… that creepy faux-Catholic gang in red- in more red. The kinky nun in latex was helping the guy in the fruity Cardinal outfit up. Once he was back on his feet, the no-way-a-nun turned to face him, and a nasty grin spread across her face. She made a jerking motion with one arm, and a long metallic whip extended from her hand. And it didn’t look like she was into safe words…
And then a gout of flame engulfed Goldstar. “Careful, Brother Ira,” the Cardinal warned. “Only a fool fights in a burning building. Brother Acedia! Teach this fallen angel the Wages of Sin!”
One of the ‘Brothers’ held a very off-looking crucifix and muttered something as one hand gestured something that was not the Stations of the Cross. Madcap was crouched, ready but undecided as to what to do. A bunch of supervillains were after her-again- and the only guy she could see had just tried to hand her to them.
Then she felt something like an invisible giant soft hand settle across her and push her down. Somehow, everything she was carrying weighed a TON. Her pipe cleaner legs wobbled, and it took everything that that Madc-er, the Golden Angel had just to keep standing.
Mother Superbia was using her whip to lash some humility into Goldstar. Or at least rip his dapper, gold-plated armor to shreds. Then the stripper-nun, who’d been peering around the room like she was looking for something, went on point and snapped out something in Latin. Who needs cryptic signals, when you’ve got a dead language? But ‘Brother Acedia’ suddenly pitched forward. Mother Superbia immediately gave up chastising Goldstar to send her whip where Brother Acedia had stood. Her whip coiled around thin air, and the ungood Mother yanked the Silver Ghost off her feet.
Stacy gave a panicked squeak as the whip coiled around her neck and threw her across the room. But when the big woman struck again, Stacy caught the whip in her hand (owie! owie! owie!) and proved why that ‘don’t need leverage’ aspect of her super-strength was such an advantage. She swung Mother Superbia around, knocking the criminal clergy off their feet until the unholy mother pulled herself together enough to detach the whip.
Then Cardinal Sin did something with his unholy crucifix, and suddenly the entire auditorium was filled with rogue rectors in red, They milled about, completely confusing the tactical situation and hemmed Stacy, Goldstar and Madcap in together.
Out of left field, Madcap asked, “What does, ‘Super Friends, we’ll see you four belles at the Hall of Justice’ mean? They’re turning themselves in to the Law?”
“You’re asking that Now?” Stacy asked incredulously.
“Please!” Goldstar sneered, “You must be from out of town! They’re talking about the Cincinnati Museum Center Union Terminal. The Hanna-Barbera people used the old Union Terminal train station as the model for the Super Friends headquarters. Everyone knows that!”
“You watch cartoons?”
“We’re being crushed, and you’re talking cartoon trivia?” Then it occurred to Stacy that even at 16 times her weight, Madcap only weighed 90 pounds, if that. “Well, only one thing to do…” she grabbed Madcap and heaved her up into the air. The ‘Golden Angel’ didn’t fly up to heaven, but when she came down, her bubble popped up and she rebounded with the force of 1,530 lbs. Stacy kicked the ball on the rebound into the Mass. The congregation thinned as the Cardinal coped with this.
Stacy immediately went invisible and made herself scarce. This left Goldstar as the sole easy target. Looking around, Goldstar took this in and lifted off, barely avoiding being roasted by Brother Ira’s flames. But he had the brainfart of hovering in mid-air, as to get an idea of the tactical situation. Brother Aravita reached up and dragged Goldstar down to where Mother Superbia was eager to renew his penance.
Brothers Gula, Ira and Acedia managed to stop Madcap’s bubble and they surrounded her. Madcap played her default card: she jabbed wildly at the power talon. Very straightforward electricity lashed out. Brother Gula stepped into the electro-jolt, and it didn’t seem to hurt him. She frantically jabbed at one button, sending jolt after jolt into the false cleric. But he just stood there, and if anything, he grew.
Brother Gula reached out, took Madcap’s ball in his hands and it started to shrink. Cardinal Sin erected walls of flaming brick to divide the auditorium into ever smaller segments for the Silver Ghost to hide in. Even if she busted through one of the walls, she’d give away her position. Sister Liscivia warned the Cardinal, “She’s still here…” But she had problems with targets she couldn’t see. Cardinal Sin considered launching explosive attacks to flush the Ghost out. But before he could do that, the bubble containing the Golden Angel lurched forward, knocking Brother Gula off his feet. Blue Streak raced around, using Madcap’s ball like a soccer ball, knocking the Malevolent Mendicants around.
Cardinal Sin barked out, “Quae corrumpebant!”
Brother Aravita and Mother Superbia stood just to the back of Brother Ira. Mother Superbia sent out her whip to snag on a standpipe on the opposite side of the auditorium. Blue Streak stopped short, blocked by the line. Brother Aravita reached out and grabbed a doorknob, hemming Blue Streak in. the only escape was into the angle of the wedge. Brother Ira braced and shouted, “Igne Nos Expiat!” A sphere of purplish energy formed around the three. Brother Ira’s fire filled the globe. Brother Ira didn’t like it. Mother Superbia and Brother Aravita hated it.
Brother Gula started throwing folding chairs at Violet, who was floating out of reach, goading her into attacking him or trying to ensnare him with her energy. But the Silver Ghost popped out of nowhere with a fire extinguisher and sprayed it in his face. As he reacted, she klunked him on the head with the canister.
Then Sister Liscivia yelled out, “The rest of SPECTRUM is on its way! They’re just holding us here while the big guns show up, and the PD Power Suit Squad takes up positions outside!”
“Take the Angel hostage!” the Cardinal shouted, oddly forsaking Latin for an important order. “As long as she doesn’t engage those boots-”
In a strangely Pavolvian moment, Madcap kicked in her boots on reflex and shot out the doors- and knocked a hole in the Police holding barrier. Stacy gave Goldstar a sour glare and said in a disgusted tone, “I blame YOU for this.”
A crowd of the Cardinal’s Sinners suddenly filled the auditorium. Stacy lifted off, seeing that she’d only get in the way. Goldstar milled around among the decoys, hoping to grab one of the red ones, but only tripping up Blue Streak. Violet tried to cordon off the auditorium with power barriers, but when the illusory crowd lifted, the room was empty of villains.
Violet, Blue Streak and Goldstar lit out on the chance of catching up with Cardinal Sin. Stacy started to head out as well, but she was halted by, [GK: NO SILVER PICK UP THAT] Cal guided her with arrows.
“And what was it?” Lauren asked the next day at the Willow Crest mall.
“A video tape recorder,” Stacy said with a sip of her hot apple cider.
“All the drones, besides sending Goldbutt tactical advice, were sending images to that remote, which recorded them. The KoP could splice and edit that footage whatever way they wanted. They could air the clips with Goldschmuck being the big hero- or maybe make me look like a psycho, out-of-control mutant freak menace.”
“And?” Lauren blurted, “The KoP still has recordings from the guys who where piloting the drones.”
“Yeah,” Stacy chuckled. “But it’s crappy footage, broadcast through a Pre-War building with a lot of steel in its skeleton, and a ton of weird energy interference. Which was why they sent in that remote in the first place.”
“But they can still cut and paste together anything they want.”
“I hope they do,” Stacy said with a smirk. “We have the raw footage, on the kind of broad, high-quality tape that TV News crews use. GOD, I’d love to be able to prove in court that the KoP slandered me with Malice Aforethought.”
“What? Thirty Million dollars isn’t enough for you?”
“Hey, I’m just a poor girl from a piss-ant little town in rural Ohio! And I’m picking up expensive tastes, living in that big fancy house.”
“Think there’s any way to get the KoP to slander me?” Lauren asked. “Hey, I live in the same house, and my mother’s only a housekeeper!”
“If we need a tragic victim of a vicious smear campaign, you’ll be the first one we think of,” Stacy assured her.
“Did you ever find out what was going on with that girl you say caught the mini-rocket that Claw-guy fired at you?”
Stacy gave a wide ‘who knows?’ shrug. “No clue. Totes out of left field. But whatever that was about, I owe her major. Cal says that that missile would have caused my PK field to crush me for maybe 6-7 seconds. Not long, but enough to knock me out.”
“Kind of what like Lady Jettatura tried to pull on Halloween.”
“Yeah.” Stacy paused as an unpleasant realization occurred to her. “My enemies are trading tactics.” She then had the really unnerving insight that she had enemies. Up to six months ago, the only enemies she had were George and Russ Thurmond, a bully who enjoyed making life hard for Stanley back in Oakwood.
“Maximus Suckage,” Lauren empathized.” But still, it blows that you went through all of that, and Madcap still got away.”
“Yeah, but she didn’t get away clean this time.”
Lauren perked up. “She left a clue behind?”
“Sort of,” Stacy said. “While I was trying to get her to stay and *ahem!* ‘talk’ with SPECTRUM, I managed to weasel that Mind Crown off of Madcap. In all the getting bounced around, it got completely knocked her head. The CSI guys found it when they were examining the fight scene.”
“So? Madcap only used it once, on Spence at the H1! Showcase.”
“Yeah, but it’s Cappy’s ace-in-the-hole, even more than the rocket boots. Now, when she’s in a corner, she can’t just mind-blast everyone and get away.” Stacy waved that aside. “Okay, but now I still got-”
“Have,” Lauren corrected her.
“I have something I need to figure out now: What am I gonna get SPECTRUM for Christmas?”
“Well, except for Miz Wickham, you don’t really know that much about them,” Lauren pointed out. “So, a good joke gift is your best bet.”
“I notice that you didn’t even mention Goldstar,” Lauren smirked.
“Oh, I know exactly what I’m giving him,” Stacy said with a wide evil grin. “A cake- with a File baked into it.”
Back in Oakwood, the Pierce house would have been the biggest, gaudiest house in town, probably owned by the richest, most powerful man in town. But after living at Wickham House, it didn’t scare Stacy.
But then, Wickham House would scare Elvira.
Lauren and Stacy stood at the door with gifts in hands. A very attractive dark-haired girl a few years older than them opened the door. “Lauren, right?” she greeted them. “And who’s this?” With the introduction, her smile brightened and her eyes sparkled in interest. “Oh, YOU’RE Stacy? Come on in! I’m Sylvia, Nate’s sister!”
Sylvia guided them into the large living room. “Just to warn you, Dad has fallen prey to the idea of a family portrait for Christmas cards.” She tugged at the dark green (Stacy wasn’t sure of the exact shade) vee-neck sweater that coordinated with her skirt suspiciously well. Stacy noticed a ‘badge’ on the sweater’s breast that looked like a coat of arms with a white field and a black chevron. “And we’ve all got to wear one.”
When Sylvia introduced Stacy and Lauren to her parents, they were indeed wearing matching sweaters. Mr. Pierce had the air of a man making a fashion statement. Mrs. Pierce had the mildly amused air of a woman humoring one of her husband’s whims. “So, Stacy!” Mrs. Pierce said in the measuring way that Stacy was seeing all-too often “I understand that your grandfather has moved into Wickham House?”
Stacy got the chill feeling that Mrs. Pierce was in Mrs. Chase’s league for verbal fencing, and way out of hers. “Well, Grampa says that Christmas is all about Family, “Stacy improvised. “And that no one should spend the holidays with strangers.”
“So, will we be seeing more of your family soon?”
“Why? Have you heard something?”
“Well, at least will we be seeing him at any other parties?”
“I’d be amazed if you don’t,” Stacy said. “Grampa says that it’s bad luck to turn down free food.”
“Then why didn’t he turn up at Thanksgiving?”
“Because there were all those Wickhams surrounding the food!”
“Oh. Good Point. Free food that costs you a hand is no bargain.”
Mrs. Pierce let Lauren and Stacy pass on into the party. They placed their gifts under the tree for Christmas proper, and joined Nate, Spence and Dylan.
And for some unfathomable reason, Jennilee.
“What’s this?” Nate demanded. “You have front-row seats at a huge superhero fight- and you don’t call us?”
“You’re talking about that mess at the Commonwealth Club?” Stacy shot back. “Well, some asshole didn’t have his phone, so he took mine and, y’know that ratsass never gave it back!”
“And to think,” Lauren said as she handed Stacy a soft drink, “I went to Corey Griswold’s party because I thought that all the drama would be there.”
Stacy gave a truncated version of what happened. “And then the Ghost grabbed this one Claw-guy in heavy armor and rammed him into this bomb-box. *BLAM!* The bomb-box goes boom and blows the door off its hinges.
“And then, everyone with a lick of sense LEFT!” Stacy said, implying that she’d left with the rest.
“So, you weren’t there when the Ghost helped Madcap escape?” Kirk asked.
“Oh? When did this happen?”
“Apparently, after you left.”
“Really? ‘Cause what I heard was that the Ghost kept that idiot Goldstar from just handing Madcap over to the second crew of supervillains. And then kept getting his overrated ASS handed to him!” Stacy smugged back.
“Really?” Nate gave his brother a wry smirk. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.” Nate checked out the bruising on his brother’s face, which Kirk was trying to hide with makeup. So, Nate did know about his brother ripping off the dynamorph. Not so much that he was holding a vicious grudge, but there was a definitely a ‘take that!’ to it.
“So, Kirk,” Stacy said, steering the conversation away from that, “Did you invite any friends from college?”
“Ah, no,” Kirk hedged. “I’ve been… away… y’know, getting to see real life, not the safe, insulated existence that rich Americans enjoy. Before I go to college, and all.”
“Oh, that’s what happened?” Brenda, one of Sylvia’s friends asked. “’Cause I heard a rumor that you got in trouble and just got out of JAIL.”
“Oh?”” Stacy asked curiously, “What did you DO?”
“I heard that he was drunk and caused a big pileup on Interstate 147,” Zoe, another of Sylvia’s friends said.
“Ah, NO,” Sylvia chuckled through an embarrassed grin, “my brother has NO DUIs on his record. He’s been traveling abroad.”
“Oh? Where?” Stacy asked innocently.
“Central America. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala… like that…”
Stacy wondered if he was just reeling off names, or if he was riffing on the nationalities of guys he’d met in prison. Then Mrs. Pierce came over and whispered something in Kirk’s ear.
Kirk put down his drink and left. As he left, Jennilee leaned over and asked mischievously, “Didn’t you promise Corey that you’d meet him out back?”
“Is that where he is?” Stacy shot back. “Thanks for telling me; now I know where to avoid.”
‘I’m everyone’s fucking errand boy,’ Kirk grumped to himself. First there was Trumbull with his ‘trustee’ bullshit, then Herb Goodkind’s lawyer, and now his own mom. Next would probably be that Green Witch bitch, telling him to carry that freak Stacy’s fucking purse. He didn’t really have anything against the Ghost- at least not at first- but he was starting to hate the prissy little tart. And why weren’t there girls like that at Mansfield when he went there?
No what he really hated was the fact that he had to get her, or else. The sad fact was that the things he was doing for Goodkind would ensure that he’d go back to prison if Goodkind ever pulled his support. That was the really insidious thing about Herb Goodkind: that ‘regular joe’ act of his made you think you could run rings around him. Right until you found yourself cornered. Maybe he should just say ‘screw it’, and go back to prison for a couple more years. Nah, Goodkind would just throw a ton of shit at him, and he’d get even more time added on. Then again, Kirk got the impression that Goodkind didn’t like anyone with super powers, so even if he nailed the Silver Ghost somehow, odds were that he’d get sent back to the Pen.
But the thing right now was that Nate was still giving him shit about the dynamorph. Nate had only been TWELVE, what did he think Kirk was gonna do with it? The last thing he needed was Nate getting involved with that Stacy freak. If Goodkind ever heard about it, he’d have a total meltdown.
What Kirk needed was something big, something so glowingly heroic that the Governor would give him a Pardon, so Goodkind could go fuck himself.
Whatever that was gonna be.
In the meantime, he hadda be the heavy and break up the inevitable back porch pot or pill party. At least it wasn’t the laundry room this time. Hell, it was probably the ‘makeout room’ for this party if his memories of high school, which were still pretty fresh, were any indication. He went out the back and was gratified that they weren’t stupid enough to do it in the back deck. No, they were out back of the gardening shed, which was only mildly dumb. He simply strolled over with no pretense of stealth and caught the four doping, shining a flashlight in their faces.
“Excuse me, but were you invited?” he calmly asked the kid who was the obvious dealer. Not bothering to listen to the punk’s stammered excuses, Kirk took the clear plastic bag of pills from him and grabbed him by the collar. Without ceremony or apology, he frog-marched the kid out the side of the house and through the fence gate. The kid complained, but Kirk just gave him the ‘come back and we call the Cops’ glare.
Feeling a tad hypocritical- they weren’t doing anything that he hadn’t done back in high school- Kirk looked at the pills. huh. Ecstasy.
Or, maybe… Ex-Stacy?
Everyone knew that mutants weren’t stable. Their powers did strange things to their brain chemistry, and drugs affected them strangely. So, maybe a hit of Ecstasy would show Nate what a freak that oh-so proper little Stacy really was. Ecstasy didn’t make you violent. If anything, it was called ‘the Love Drug’. So, maybe drop a little of this on little Miss Goodgirl, get her in the laundry room with some horndog, and let Nate catch them going at it? That should do it. A minor scandal that would quickly be forgotten at the Pierce household, but something that Nate would never forgive.
Well, it wasn’t getting the perky little abomination thrown in jail, but it was something.
Now, how to pull it off without it backfiring? Kirk walked through the party and actually took notice of the Frosh-age kids for once. The usual popular kids, the tagalongs, the nobodies, the desperate, and… yes! He didn’t know her name, but Kirk could spot a shit-stirring mean girl a mile away. She’d been hanging around when he was trading quips with the Ghost. And best of all, she was giving Stacy looks like she was trying to find a way of doing her some dirt. She was clearly New Money, and resented the hell out of anyone who was more secure than she was. And from what he’d heard from Nate- at length- Little Orphan Annie over there had somehow managed to score, like, a hundred million dollars. How she managed to pull that off, Kirk- and probably Herb Goodkind- would love to know.
Kirk reached into the plastic bag, took out a tab of Ecstasy and broke it in two. The last thing he wanted was for her to overdose- in his house. Just enough to embarrass the little bitch, and wise up little brother.
Kirk walked up to Jennilee, made a few comments about how well Stacy was getting along with Nate and Spence, and palmed her the tab-half. She looked at it in her palm. It took Jennilee a moment to recognize it, but from there, she quickly picked up what he had in mind. She gave him a minxish smile that probably got her out of a lot of trouble at Mansfield and went to it.
With a warm feeling of having done a good deed, Kirk strolled in the general direction of a cluster of Sylvia’s girl friends. There was still three years difference in their ages, but they were getting to a stage in their lives where that didn’t mean as much as it used to.
But just as he was approaching, he felt a distinct buzzing with an even more distinctive rhythm in his hip pocket. Taking out his cell phone, he was disgusted to find out that he was being paged for an emergency by SPECTRUM. Damn, he thought that kind of crap only happened in comic books! And he couldn’t just ignore it; his active participation in high-risk affairs was a part of his parole. Herb Goodkind had insisted on it.
Kirk cut off, made a brief cryptic excuse to his father and went down into the basement. There he opened a secure-locked door and stepped into a pod. As the pod raced along a track on the storm drain, an automated system assembled Kirk’s Goldstar outfit, layer by layer, around him. This saved him time in response, got him to the scene faster and put some untraceable distance between home and where he finally hit the air.
Stacy relaxed as Kirk left the party. Meeting new people was hard enough, without someone actively trying to sabotage you. And she still had Jennileech to deal with. Stacy didn’t think that Madcap would pull a ‘Golden Angel’ appearance tonight. Or if she did, it would be out of left field, as Stacy had checked Rick Standish’s latest broadcast, and there was no mention of the Cincinnati Museum Center Union Terminal. Violet said that the ‘clue’ meant a performance of the ‘Carol of the Bells’ with an array of special bells in the afternoon. And Tawny said that ‘Four Bells’ was old Navy talk for 2 o’clock in the afternoon- right about when the performance was slated to start. But that was tomorrow. Tonight, she had to get through this, and hopefully have some fun.
“Look, I know that you don’t go to Mansfield, but you can’t believe a word that Corey Griswold says about me…”
“Isn’t Kirk kinda pale for someone who spent two years in Central America?”
“Everyone knows that the ‘Golden Angel’ is Madcap. So why don’t they just lock up that nutbar?”
“It looks like the Bramlin Girls are back together. Watch your ass!”
“Sure, Rick Standish is a shock jock- but he wouldn’t say it, if people weren’t thinking it.”
“Sure, Melody’s a nutcase for sticking around at the Commonwealth Club. But her YouTube downloads got 9,000 likes! I mean, she got a selfie with a superheroine, while a super battle was going on in the background!”
“So, tell me- is it true what they say about girls who’re privately tutored?”
“SPECTRUM has a new page on their website, comparing the KoP’s released footage with the raw footage.”
“Yeah, Nate’s been asking around about you. Not that I’m surprised. What surprises me is that Kirk’s being asking questions about you, too.”
“H1!’s lawyers are trying to sue the Silver Ghost for what happened at the Commonwealth Club, but even they’re having a hard time finding anything to hold against her.”
“A hungry lawyer can’t find a tort? MAN, they are screwed!”
“My aunt’s lost it. She’s going to a clinic where they give her infusions of mutant blood.”
“My little brother has to be a mutant. Nobody normal can be THAT annoying!”
“Why thank you, that’s very sweet!”
“What’s very sweet?”
“What you just said about my eyes!”
“I…. didn’t say anything about your eyes,” Nate said.
Stacy started to object, but she suddenly understood that he hadn’t, and he didn’t get why she’d said that. “I must have overheard someone else,” she said lamely.” She suddenly became very guarded, as she was keenly aware that something was very wrong. People were saying things twice, or sometimes saying one thing, and then almost exactly the other. Some things they said were normal sentences, with beginnings, middles and ends, if maybe not the best grammar. But some of them were blips and blurts of meaning.
Then, out of the babble of conversation, she heard Jennilee’s delighted voice say, ‘She’s tripping out!” And she knew that the little bitch had slipped her something.
And as if in response to that realization, the ‘babble’ got louder and harder to make out. It occurred to Stacy was hearing their thoughts- not vague impressions and intentions but actual semi-verbalized thoughts. It also occurred to her that she couldn’t turn it OFF. It had never really been an issue before; it either happened or it didn’t, and she didn’t rely on it that much. But now it was ON, and everyone’s thoughts were- okay, not battering at her. That was strictly bad 1960s sci-fi TV stuff. But it was definitely rattling.
“Are you okay?” Spence asked, though Stacy knew he was wondering what was wrong. And Stacy felt more attention focus on her.
“I think I ate something that didn’t agree with me,” Stacy said, trying to get away from the cluster of partygoers. She heard questions, but she couldn’t tell which were spoken and which were just thought. And the semi-panicked realization came to her that if she didn’t get away, people would figure out that she could read their minds. And it would get out. People would put things together. Not only would people figure out that she was the Silver Ghost, but they’d put together that the Silver Ghost had mental powers. And it would all fall apart from there. People who could lift city busses scared normal people- people who could read minds scared the people who actually run things. You can’t lie to or bullshit a mind reader. And lying and bullshit were how the Big Boys got things done. If it got out that she could read minds, it would give H1! the perfect bat to beat her over the head with. They’d insist that since she lost control of her mind reading, she was a danger to the general public, and insist that she be handed over to the MCO ‘for the greater good’.
She had to get away. She made out like she was about to get sick and bolted from the room. But Spence and Jennilee followed her. She managed to lose them for a moment, and tried to go invisible.
Shit! She couldn’t go invisible! She didn’t know how or why; heck she didn’t really understand how she could go invisible and see at the same time, if light was bending around her, how did it hit her eyes and- NO, she had to get away! Jennilee was blocking her from going upstairs- not that Stacy had any idea as to what she’d do upstairs, she probably couldn’t fly, and she’d be spotted and…
She went down to the basement. There was an open door with a light on. She didn’t need to get out of the house, she just needed to get a grip on herself. She went in and closed the door.
“Well, well,” came a voice that caused a brick of ice in Stacy’s stomach. “I knew that your hard-to-get bit was all just an ACT,” Corey Griswold said.
Kirk’s heads-up report from the KoP said that there was a break in the Chex-R-Us check-cashing/ payday advance loan office on Reading Road. While check cashing firms were being debated as usurious in various media, places like Chex-R-Us were a way that people who didn’t have bank accounts could turn a check into money they could use. Unfortunately, that also meant that Chex-R-Us outlets had large on-site cash reserves in small bills. And since they weren’t banks, knocking one over wasn’t a Federal crime. Still, the KoP figured that it would be good for Goldstar’s profile if he stopped this one from being robbed.
The rails that the pod used had been installed in the tunnels by the Public Utilities service for moving large equipment around. Kirk wasn’t sure whether the KoP had gotten permission for this. But that was Herb Goodkind’s lookout. Right now, Kirk had to focus like looking like a hero, and hope there were cameras.
The pod stopped several blocks away from the Chex-R-Us, the best the utility track could provide. The pod got Goldstar to its stop before the auto-assemble finished the last bits of his armor, and he had to finish that by hand. He rocketed through the manhole, making the 200 lb. cover spin like a tiddlywink, even as he made sure of the fit of his shin-guard.
As he came down, he saw that a pair of Cincinnati PD cruisers were already there. Great, it always looked good to help the boys in blue. Goldstar touched down in a crouch and did a quick once-over of the immediate situation. Secure Door in the back of the Chex-R-Us propped open. No sign that door had been forced. No sign of getaway car or lookouts. Cincy PD cruisers on site, but no Blues in sight.
Well, so much for Due Diligence. If his time as a superhero had taught him anything, it was all about speed. Whoever set the terms of conflict won the fight. Go in fast, spot the enemy, get in close and give the Blues every chance to get out. The Cash Room was probably a small vault. Keep the fight in the vault and take out the perp. His personal style of combat would be to lure the perp out of the vault if he was a brick, but after the backlash of his fight with that chocolate-covered Hulk, Sunder, he couldn’t afford that. Besides, if it was a brick, he would have torn the door off its hinges. The clean entry probably meant some kind of tech geek. That meant that whoever it was would probably try to use his systems against him, like that snotwad geezer, the Power Pirate, had. So he disengaged his Tac/Ops systems and raised his HUD visor, so he could see.
That all took less than five seconds. Say what you will about Goldstar, he was fast. He burst into the short corridor where two bodies, a beat cop and a rent-a-cop sprawled on the cheap linoleum floor. Another, more obviously armored and reinforced door was propped open by the security guard’s body. There was no blood, and neither of them had any obvious breaks, so it probably wasn’t a brick.
He sprinted into the vault- more like a really paranoid money-counting room with two medium-sized safes and some heavy duty locked drawers- and ran into something. “Hey!” said a high musical voice in annoyance. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Kirk looked down and saw something out of one of his sexier daydreams. She was maybe 25 or so, blonde, perky, slim with just the right curves, had big blue eyes- and she was a cop. Not just a cop, by the chevrons, a sergeant. The body armor did nothing to diminish her figure. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail with bangs that gave her face a girlish cast, which probably caused her a few problem. But she was no girly-girl, like the Ghost, she was grade-A tomboy material; no girly-girl could have made Sergeant so fast.
He extended his hand, and a look of guarded vulnerability flickered across her face. Oh yeah, she wanted him. She took his hand and allowed him to pull her up. “You’re Goldstar,” she said with a lot more respect that he’d been getting lately. Then her shell of authority slid back on, bang. No doubt she had to be tough to assert her authority. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted, drawing her gun and looking around. “He’s invisible and he took out my men before I could even draw my gun!”
Invisible? Kirk silently kicked himself for giving the Ghost a perfect alibi; even as he stood there, she was having a meltdown in front of witnesses, including his own parents. No, skip that, Hero Time, cute blonde to impress, and if at all possible, save from a horrific mutant freak. “He can’t be gone,” he said in his best ‘I’m the hero’ voice, “there’s no way he’d leave those behind.” He pointed at two heavy canvas bags, the kind Brinks™ and other armored car services use to move cash shipments. “He’s here.”
Goldstar moved to cover the two bags, overtly to safeguard the cash. In truth, he was checking out the ‘Sarge’s’ face as she scoured the room, looking for an opening. Hey, it had been two years! A man has needs! And none of his old girlfriends where talking to him after his dropping out of sight that way. He absently compared her to Natalie, Jillian and Chloe, three exquisite young blondes of his experiences and-
-and the Sarge turned into Natalie Carstaires, And then Bethany Hume. And then Chloe Greenstreet. While no brainiac, Kirk wasn’t stupid. ‘Shit,’ he thought, ‘there goes my weekend’.
He grabbed ‘the Sarge’ by her armored vest, lifted her off her feet and pressed her into one of the cabinets. “Okay, who ARE you, and what’s your game?” he demanded in his best Clint Eastwood voice.
“I’m a Police Officer, you jerk!” she snarled back at him and thrust her badge up into his face. The badge held all the lordly might of the Police Force, something that Kirk had respected ever since-
-No He Didn’t! What was he thinking? Cops were fat, sloppy losers! It then clicked in his head that he was dealing with a mindfuck artist, not a tech-geek, and this was just another piece of mindfuck. He gathered his energies, cocked a fist to, and squared off to throw a punch that could crack a cinderblock like an egg. The ‘Sarge’ quick-drew a pair of six-shooters from holsters that hadn’t been there before. The pistols fired gouts of silvery fire that hissed like water on a hot griddle. The witchbolts knocked Goldstar for a loop and sent him flying. But they didn’t put him down.
As Goldstar struggled to his feet, the ‘Sarge’ shed her toothsome appearance like a snake shedding its skin. “All for the best,” Cardsharp drawled, “you looked like you were working up to getting gropey, and I didn’t sign on for that.”
Goldstar growled as only a man who’s been made a fool of can. He was about to charge when Cardsharp smirked and drew a card from his sleeve. “Tough guy, eh? Let’s see how tough you really are…”
The card was the Ace of Spades, the Death Card. Cardsharp held before him, like a priest presenting a crucifix to a vampire. FEAR, mortal terror, primordial panic radiated out from the card, filling Kirk’s mind with dread. But Goldstar wasn’t having any of it. “Bullshit,” he snarled, not even bothering to channel Eastwood, “All you ARE is bullshit, Asshole…”
“Oh-kaaayyy… Maybe tougher than I expected,” Cardsharp admitted.
Goldstar threw that brick-crusher punch, but Cardsharp ducked under it and slipped around him. With a flick of his wrists, he reset the cylinders of his hex-shooters and fired. One sprayed a gush of water on the floor, the other froze that water with an icy wind, covering the floor- and the unconscious cops and guard- with slippery ice. Goldstar started to slip and slide. He just slammed his fists into the ice, shattering it- and saving the cop and guard from hypothermia purely as a byproduct. Cardsharp spun the cylinder of the left pistol, fired, and wrapped Goldstar up in a cocoon of thorny vines. Goldstar simply broke out of the vines in a move that he probably learned watching reruns of ‘He-Man’ as a kid. As Goldstar stripped the vines from his arms, Cardsharp frantically thumbed through a deck of cards. “Ah!”
Just as Goldstar was about to lay serious violent hands on him, the Hex-Slinging Huckster whipped out the Nine of Spades. He shoved it into Goldstar’s face, and the Gleaming Guardian of (something beginning with G) lurched as his head spun. He staggered, trying to keep his footing. He couldn’t, so he lifted off, which only made things worse. He pitched into one of the cabinets in the narrow room and fell to the floor in a heap. With a smirk, Cardsharp gloated, “Why YES, Regis, it looks like that IS my final answer!” a wide smile barely hidden by his mustache, Cardsharp picked up one of the canvas bags of money and left with a spring in his step.
Goldstar suffered through a degrading statement to the Police when backup arrived. He couldn’t just leave; that would be Leaving the Scene of a Crime, and he was on far too thin ice for that. And on top of that, even after that humiliating interrogation, he was still too dizzy to fly. He had to walk back to the spot where the pod was waiting for him.
He was so tired, disoriented, sore and disgusted that he didn’t notice the small black cat slip into the utility tunnel as he lifted the manhole cover.
Corey swaggered over to Stacy. She never wished that she could turn invisible more, but that stupid mind-reading thing was hogging the bandwidth. And she didn’t like what she was hearing. Corey didn’t even really want her- he didn’t even particularly like her. He really just wanted another notch on his belt, another trophy for his big self-declared rep as a ladies’ man.
With a jolt, Stacy realized that she wasn’t in any real danger- if anything, Corey was in more danger than she was. In the state of mind she was in, she might not know her own strength and hurt him. There were options- they were in a laundry room, with soap and detergent and bleach and… stuff… but she couldn’t focus well enough to think of anything.
Corey reached out, but there was a pounding on the door. “Hey, Moron! Didn’t you read the Sign?”
As Corey reacted, a bottle with a wide mouth popped open and a thick smoke came out, filling the cramped room. “Oh, gimme a break!” Corey yelled, “What kind of punk-ass trick-”
Corey had his hands on Stacy’s shoulders, but he was facing the door as he yelled, so he couldn’t see Stacy’s condition. Ecstasy is famous for enhancing sensory input and making stimulations more vivid and memorable. And the stench coming from the bottle was already vile. Stacy reeled at the reek, and already wobbly from the paranoiac action of the Ecstasy, she lurched at Corey and voided her gullet on him.
In less refined language, she yarked all over him.
As Corey staggered in disgust, Stacy went for the laundry room door. When she opened it, Nate was filling the doorway. Nate have her a surprised look and did nothing as she pushed past him. Spence, Dylan and Lauren were behind him. Stacy went to Lauren and said with a choke in her voice, “Somebody slipped me something, and it’s really screwing me up. Please, get me HOME!”
Nate took that in, focused on Corey, and was gathering his energies for something, when there was the sound of metallic surfaces striking each other from behind the door in the metal wall that really didn’t go with the rest of the basement. Nate stopped short at that sound. Nate, Dylan and Spence shared a look. “Look, that’s Nate’s brother, Kirk,” Spence said. “We don’t want to have to explain this, and you don’t want to have him drag you through the party and kick you out, not with puke all over you. C’mon, out the side door, before anyone sees. It’s this one, right, Nate?”
“Aw, c’mon, how was I supposed to know that was the coal chute? I mean, who has coal chutes anymore. Well, you can’t go through the house looking like that!”
“C’mon, get those off, or you’ll get coal dust over everything. Put this on.”
“It’s a Nightgown!”
“It’s the only thing here that’s clean.”
“Man, that special room of Kirk’s really screwed up the basement, Here, this door should get you out the side without anyone seeing you.” *Crash!*
“Honest, they must have moved the cleaning crew’s closet when they put Kirk’s room in.”
“What IS this? I'm covered in it!”
“Don’t have a cow- it’s just rug shampoo. Very concentrated rug shampoo. This dumbwaiter will get you up to the kitchen, and we can wash it off.”
“MAN, what is the matter with you tonight?”
“I thought that dumbwaiter was supposed to take me to the kitchen!”
“The butler’s pantry is a part of the kitchen!”
“You have a butler?”
“No, but ‘maid’s pantry’ doesn’t have the same zing. How did you spill that whole bag of flour on yourself?”
“You’re asking ME?”
“Look, there’s no way we can clean you off in the kitchen. Oh crap! It’s Mrs. Pierce! Out the window, or we’ll never hear the end of it!”
“Man, you are lucky it’s winter. Mrs. Pierce would have a fit if she saw what you did to the rose bushes.”
“Whoops, is there carwax in this sprayer?”
“Shit! Here comes Mr. Pierce! Out this door!”
“I thought we turned off the burglar alarm for the party.”
“You!” Corey yelled through the bright lights trained on him, highlighting the bizarre mixture of mud, flour, twigs, suds and grass that covered his skin- and nightgown, barely seeing Stacy among the other guests- and neighbors- gawping at him. “You set this up, you BITCH!”
“I’ll thank you to mind your language, kid,” said a reedy yet firm male voice from off to the side. Corey stopped cold as a hefty elderly man in a thick coat stepped into the light. “Party games,” he said, looking Corey up and down.
Corey started to ask him ‘who the fuck he was’, but Stacy cut him off when she blurted out ‘Grampa!’ and ran over to him. Mrs. Pierce came over and apologized for the scene, giving Corey a scathing look. There was some verbal tip-tap of the blades, but ‘Grampa’ walked away unscathed.
Lauren brought Stacy’s coat, and the three of them made as discreet a getaway as they could under the circumstances. As they pulled away, Swashbuckler asked, “So, exactly what happened?” Stacy and Lauren switched off describing the events as they knew them. “So, exactly what are you tripping on?”
“How would I know?” Stacy demanded. “I don’t know anything about drugs or party crap! And I sure as hell didn’t take anything!”
“She’s telling the truth, Mr. Swashbuckler,” Lauren backed her bud up. “I was with her the whole time, before she started to flip out, and she didn’t have anything harder than a Coke that wasn’t decaffeinated.”
Swashbuckler gave a non-committal ‘hmmm…’, and Stacy wrapped herself up in her coat. Clearly getting off that topic, Swash asked, “So, who was the young man in the green sweater, the one who was leading that sudsy punk around by the nose?”
“Oh, that’s Nate,” Lauren answered for Stacy, who was visibly withdrawing into herself. “It was his house, and he kinda took offense at Corey pulling that crap on his turf. Nate was the one doing the manhandling, Spence was keeping Corey off balance, and Dylan was the one setting all the booby-traps.”
“Really? Sounds like a Three Stooges act- in reverse.”
“What? You’re back already?” Quinn Seabury asked as Lauren walked Stacy up the stairs.
“She ran into a social landmine,” Swashbuckler said, removing his ‘Buck’ beard. “Someone slipped her a Mickey Finn. From what she told me, it sounds like Ecstasy, and she had a bad reaction to it. And the problem is, we have no idea who slipped it to her.”
Oh, Stacy knew exactly who it was: it was that little bitch Jennilee. She had been poking away at Stacy all evening, trying to get her to say something that she could use against her. And she’d known exactly what was happening to Stacy when the drug started to hit her. And she’d steered Stacy into the laundry room, probably after telling Corey some bullshit story about Stacy wanting to hook up with him. Oh, Jennileech had some major payback coming her way, something that would humiliate her so much that nobody’d listen to her when she tried to trash Stacy. The problem was that Jennileech was very savvy about that kind of thing. There wasn’t much chance that Stacy would catch her with her pants around her ankles…
Stacy stopped in mid-pout, and a wide wicked smile crossed her face.
“So, the Squirt have a good time at that party last night?” Azure asked Karen in the break room before the Briefing session at noon.
“Quite the opposite,” Karen said with a sip of her tea. “Someone slipped her some Ecstasy at the party, and she had an adverse reaction to the drug.” Azure winced as Karen described the events, as related to her by Lauren. “Worse, when she got to bed and relaxed, she started broadcasting. Trust me, the only thing more annoying than a broadcasting paranoid telepath is a massively depressed broadcasting telepath. I had to ward her room, so the rest of the house could get some sleep!”
“Then why is she so chipper this afternoon?”
Karen shook her head and gave out a chuckle. “From what Lauren tells me, someone snuck into Mansfield Academy this morning during classes, and somehow managed to snag a pair of black lacy panties to this Jennilee’s ankle. She walked around all morning with them flapping from her foot before she noticed.”
“No one told her?”
Azure let out a hearty chuckle and slapped the counter. “THAT’S my GIRL! Didn’t I tell you that keeping Goldstar around was good for her?”
Karen nodded. “And there’s the fact that if Herbert Goodkind is pushing Goldstar to eclipse the Silver Ghost, then he’s not trying something more devious.”
“I wish that were so,” Violet said. “But my contacts in City Hall tell me that Goodkind managed to spin that cluster fuck with the Claw grabbing the KoP’s armor into some serious good relations. There are people- not a lot of people- in City Hall who are talking with Goodkind, when they weren’t before.”
“Ah well, the Goodkinds didn’t get where they are by being pushovers or quitters,” Karen grumbled. “I have a couple more cards up my sleeve, but there’s one I’d really prefer to leave un-played.”
Then Stacy poked her head in and told them that the SWAT liaison had arrived. The three heroines finished their drinks and accompanied Stacy into the Conference Room for debriefing of Goldstar on his run-in with Cardsharp. It was the classic ‘round table arrangement with monitors on the wall. Cal, feeling a lot better after a couple of days with the Pool of Vigor but still on bed rest and pretty colorful from bruising, was tele-conferencing on one of the monitors. “What’s she doing here?” Goldstar asked, indicating Stacy, who was taking a chair.
“We also have to discuss what we’re gonna do at the Union Terminal Museum at 2 o’clock,” Stacy said.
“What’s this ‘we’?” Goldstar shot back. “Why do you gotta be there?”
“Because Madcap will probably be there, one way or another,” Stacy said pertly. “And I’m still the one with the warrant to arrest her. Besides, I’ve gone up against Cardsharp, so I might be able to contribute.”
“You mean you got your ass kicked,” Goldstar sneered.
“And what did YOU get kicked, Goldie?” Stacy shot back.
“Can we get on to the briefing?” Tawny said like a Second Grade teacher.
Goldstar spelled out what had happened the previous night, leaving certain awkward moments as blanks. Stacy practically saw the other SPECTRUM members filling in the blanks and putting them all together on their faces. When he finished, Stacy asked, “How much were in the cash bags?”
“According to the Chex-R-Us records, 50 thousand each,” Goldstar said. “Besides cashing checks and making payday advance loans, that office was also the holding depot for five other branches in the city and outlying townships.”
“Then why did he take that bag of money?” Stacy asked.
“Because it’s FIFTY GRAND?” Goldstar snapped back, barely refraining from adding ‘you moron!’
“If it was just for the money, then WHY didn’t he take BOTH bags?” Stacy riposted. That one stopped Goldstar cold.
“Silver has a valid point,” Swashbuckler stated, putting on his ‘Elder Statesman’ cap. “Cardsharp’s usual MO is to track down various items of mystical power, for whatever reasons as he may have. He may have stolen the cash to make a purchase of some such item, or make a payoff, or to buy something else that he needs for whatever his real target is. But again, if that’s so, WHY only take one bag of cash?”
“And Cardsharp’s been a very busy bee lately,” Tawny said. “A couple of days ago, he ripped off a couple of binders of high-end but not headline-worthy collectable stamps from a dealer. General market price of said stamps: 75 thou.”
“And he broke into a precious metals dealer and made off with a case of British Gold Sovereigns worth $115 thousand,” Blue Streak added.
“And a case of loose gemstones from one of those ‘we buy jewelry’ places,” Azure threw into the pot. “Estimated value: 80 thousand.”
“The puzzling thing is,” Swashbuckler mused, “each time, he could have made off with more. “What were your experiences with the Durango Kid like?” he asked Tawny, Blue Streak and Azure.
“Interesting…” the Green Witch drawled after they explained. “With them, he was very brief, very to the point: he got away with the goodies… But YOU? Goldstar, he played around with him. Do you have any history with him?”
“Never met him before,” Goldstar said. “Heck, I don’t think he was connected with any of the guys I sent to jail.”
“What about the ones you did time with?” Stacy asked brattishly.
Goldstar bristled, but Karen waved him down. “Goldstar, if I was you, I’d lay low for a few days. Watch your back.”
“Because I think that Cardsharp was sounding you out. His earlier jobs were to draw you out; when Tawny, Azure and the Streak showed up instead of you, he beat a hasty retreat with just enough to explain his raid, but not enough to slow him down. But when you show up, he tries one gambit after another until he put you down. For instance, those witchbolts of his hurt you, but he went on to other methods. So, why didn’t he just keep blasting away? It would have been safer and surer than trying new tricks, some of which didn’t work.”
Red Thunder gave Goldstar a long look. “SO… Goldie… any idea why this Cardsharp is interested in you?”
“No Clue,” Goldstar said with his arms in a wide ‘who knows?’ shrug.
“So true, so true,” Stacy snarked. “So painfully true.”
“Hey, I don’t muck around with the oogy-boogy stuff if I can help it,” Goldstar defended himself. “My dynamorph doesn’t interact very well with magic, as last night proved- painfully.”
“Ah c’MON, get real,” Stacy said through a jeering grin, “you’re telling me that in all your fights, you didn’t take home a, ah, ‘trophy’?”
“NO, he didn’t,” Tawny said severely, giving Stacy a cold glare. “Before he went up against Sunder, Goldstar had a grand total of three run-ins with supernatural threats. One he lost, one was a standstill, and the one he won, I was there. And he walked away with NADA.”
Stacy accepted that with a prim ‘I was only asking’ moue.
Karen gave out an aggrieved maternal sigh. “Well, Cardsharp hasn’t stayed at large as long as he has by being obvious. We’ll need more for us to work with, so let’s move along. Still, Goldstar- watch your back. Cardsharp has your number, and he can be very MEAN when he wants to be.
“Okay, on to the Union Terminal Museum ambush. Silver, what are the chances that Madcap will show up?”
“Iffy,” Silver admitted. “Goldplate over there was nice enough to explain the Claw’s clue to her, but she still may not figure it out. Rick Standish didn’t say anything about it on his show, so she may not figure it out. BUT if she doesn’t somehow figure it out- or someone’s dumb enough to figure it out for her- she’ll show up with bells on. Given Madcap’s wonky luck, we can’t afford to risk that she won’t make a visitation.”
“And even if she doesn’t, we’ll have to be there,” Red Thunder said. “The Claw WILL be there, and he will make a big splashy entrance. If the ‘Golden Angel’ doesn’t show, then he’ll do something like take hostages to get the Media report it, so she will show up.”
“Okay, that works,” Violet said. “But what will the Claw try to steal?”
“Why would he steal anything?” Goldstar asked. “His real target is Madcap; why complicate a dangerous operation by getting grabby?”
“He’s hurting for money,” Cal said over the monitor. “He’s already running at a loss, so picking up operating capital is an important priority for him; secondary to bagging Madcap, but still important.” Then something visibly occurred to him. “Come to think of it, I got a break from an informant a couple of days ago: A black lab that I’ve been researching was broken into, and several cases of gear, along with tech documentation, were stolen.”
“And how is this important?” Goldstar asked.
“The Claw is very Tech-oriented,” Cal explained. “And he has a classic case of wanting an Ace up his sleeve at all times, something he did NOT have at the Commonwealth Club. The weapons he deployed are old and tested gear; he loves new toys. If he blew his budget with that… THING they shoved into that stolen suit of KoP armor, then stealing a bleeding edge prototype… whatever… is just the sort of thing he’d do.”
“And what did he steal?”
“I’m not sure,” Cal admitted. “I was lucky to get wind of the break-in at all. It’s not like they filed a Burglary report.”
“What does that lab specialize in?” Blue Streak asked.
“They’re a bunch of frustrated Tesla fanboys- the Serbian-American inventor, not the car company. They sell energy weapons, force field generators, linear accelerators and things like that to finance their efforts to figure out Tesla’s base principle of electromagnetic field interactions.”
“That means they’re really big on lasers and the kind of things with the arcing lightning, like you see in old Mad Scientist movies,” Azure explained to Stacy.
“Unfortunately, electromagnetic effects covers a LOT of ground,” Red Thunder pointed out.
“True, but the Claw will build his plan around it,” Lt. Winslow, SPECTRUM’s SWAT liaison said. “It’s a habit of his; not one he realizes he has, but whenever he gets a hot new toy, he simply HAS to play with it. Whatever strike he’s pulling will be designed around making sure that he gets to show it off.”
“What about hostages?” Stacy asked. “I mean, the ‘Carol of the Bells’ may not be a big hot ticket like Riverdance was, but there will be a lot of people there.”
“Probably the reason he chose it,” Violet nodded.
“Not to worry,” Cal said with a sneaky grin that was made horrific by his bruises and splints. “The Claw’s not the only one with a new toy…”
“There is something seriously whack going on here,” Stacy said to Karen, and by way of their earpieces they were wearing, to Cal, who was running Tac/Ops from his bed.
“Oh?” Karen peeped, viewing with amusement the fiberglass statues of the ‘Superfriends’ on exhibit, with painted cells from the show in the background, highlighting the fact that the Union Terminal had been used as a model for the ‘Hall of Justice’. “You’ve spotted someone?”
“Not really,” Stacy admitted. “It’s just that there are too many people here. I mean, this is a museum, during the Christmas rush. And, okay, it’s the Carol of the Bells’ played on a really interesting selection of old bells, but still, it’s just the ‘Carol of the Bells’; it’s popular, but THIS many people?”
[Did Rick Standish say anything on his broadcast?] Cal asked.
“Not that I’m aware,” Karen said. “But Stacy’s right- whether this is because of some gaff by the Claw or a simple fluke of the general whim, there are too many people here. This is just asking for a hostage situation.”
[And the Claw isn’t above taking hostages, even children] Cal said. [Stacy, I hate to do this to you, but if Madcap shows up-]
“My first priority is getting as many hostages to safety as possible,” Stacy said, getting what he was about to say.
[Good Girl. I’ll inform Violet and the Streak to change their focus, and tell Cap to shift from Capture to Defense]
Then Stacy spotted a familiar puffy parka and big sunglasses combination. “Ah, Ca-er Control? About my first priority? What if we bag Madcap before the Claw shows up?”
“You see her?”
“Over there. Red parka, big sunglasses, green knit cap, trying to cover the fact that she’s checking out the situation by pretending to be all interested in the steam engine.”
“You’re sure?” Karen asked, pointedly not looking too closely at the girl.
“She’s wearing the same outfit she wore at the University. And now she’s wearing leg warmers over those klunky boots. I think that it may be her ‘sneak out of the house’ outfit.”
[No Silver. Don’t. Keep an eye on her. Follow her around invisibly. But if the ‘Golden Angel’ doesn’t show when the Claw makes his big entrance, he’ll start doing things to make her show up. Let the Claw make his big play, and get the hostages out as best you can. I know, it’s annoying; you want to get Madcap in the bag and get all of this over with. But once he can get his hands on the ‘Golden Angel’, the other hostages won’t matter as much, and we can get them out more easily]
“Let the Claw make his big entrance, and let Madcap react to him,” Karen said calmly, as though she was making some technical comment on the construction of the statues. “Let the Claw focus on her. Then we concentrate on taking out his goons, while you get the civilians to safety. The Claw doesn’t want to hurt Madcap, but he’s only too willing to hurt bystanders to get his way.”
But just as Stacy readied herself to separate from Karen as to find the Ladies Room (to go invisible), she heard, [We have contact]
Which was maddenly vague. Then someone near the entrance of the museum said loudly, “Hey, check it out!” Everyone rushed to the windows.
A huge ‘Christmas Present’, a box maybe 15 feet by 10 feet by 10 feet, pained red with a white ‘ribbon’ complete with large lacy bow, floated by a parachute onto the fountains in front of the museum, which were empty for the winter. Stacy overheard Tac-Ops chatter by the members of SPECTRUM: Goldstar wanted to blast the thing on general principles. Red Thunder barked that they didn’t know what it was, and acting would give away their presence before the Claw showed himself.
On the most ephemeral of premonitions, Stacy pulled herself away from the crowd and slipped into a cranny created by one of the display cases. She reflexively went invisible just as a voice shouted, “Nobody Move!”
Unseen but still in synch with the crowd, Stacy turned to the interior of the museum main chamber. Two lines of men in Crimson Crew reds were in formation, the front line kneeling, the rear line standing; both lines were pointing guns at the crowd. It immediately registered with Stacy that these weren’t ‘zap guns’, which would penetrate armor easily and hurt, but not do a lot in the way of fatal damage. No, they were very conventional submachine guns, with muzzle brakes and targeting lasers. Okay, they had weird looking techy gizmos attached to the underside of their barrels, but the point was that these things could kill. If they opened fire on the crowd, it would be a bloodbath. To make things worse, a dozen of the Christmas trees lined up around the circumference of the impressive rotunda split open, revealing remote-controlled weapons platforms- complete with lasers.
Stacy looked around for the girl with the parka and knit cap. The last thing they needed was for the ‘Golden Angel’ to pull off a big reveal while she was in the middle of the crowd. Even if the Crimson Creeps all hit Madcap, the bullets might ricochet off her bubble and hit someone. And a big chunk of the spectators were kids.
But, thank God, Cappy had the minimal common sense to try and be sneaky. Unfortunately, that was as far as it went; Madcap was trying to spot a place she could sneak off to, as to pull a ‘Clark Kent in a phone booth’ number. And exactly what is a phone booth?
With a martyred sigh that Madcap managed to not hear, Stacy whipped out her cape and spread it out in front of Madcap, making her effectively invisible- from one direction. Stacy moved with Madcap as she moved, keeping the cape between Madcap and the Crimson Crew. And feeling like a supporting character in an old Warner Brothers cartoon in the process.
But since she couldn’t let Madcap know she was there (Cappy would only try to drag Stacy into whatever idiocy she had planned- no, she never planned… okay, whatever harebrained scheme occurred to her at the moment), Stacy couldn’t direct her to the Ladies Room. Or even the Men’s Room. No, Madcap just had to slip into a standing wardrobe. According to the plaque, it had been on a top-rated Pullman car- whatever a Pullman car was- on the B&O Railroad for 40 years. Stacy could tell that Madcap was changing into her Golden Angel costume. Anyone even looking at the wardrobe could tell that there was something going on inside it, even if they couldn’t detect how brain-dead it was.
So, of course, probably just as Madcap was putting those stupid wings on, one of the Claw’s henchmen comes along, looking for anyone who might be trying to hide, or waiting to pull something heroic and/or stupid. With Madcap, Stacy’s money was on the latter. Picking her time carefully, Stacy wrapped her cape around him with one arm, while getting him in a choke hold with the other. She choked off his screams and knocked him out as she pulled him off into corner to get him out of the way. She gave him a perfunctory search, handcuffing him with a set from his own utility belt and sealing his mouth with some duct tape, also from his utility belt. She made sure of his handcuff keys (and found a second pair inside his belt where he could get at it), and got his radio. There were a couple of gas grenades and a snare grenade- the snare she could probably use- and a weird squarish thing that Stacy couldn’t place, attached to his belt. Figuring that they might be useful later, Stacy took the duct tape, keys, snare grenade and square doohickey.
The jerking around in the wardrobe stopped and one door opened a crack. The Golden Angel was no doubt waiting for the perfect moment to act- or steal the spotlight, which was way more up Madcap’s street.
The assembled civilians wrapped their heads around how things had gone so quickly from ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ to ‘Stand and Deliver’. Just as it was registering with more aghast revelers, a new group of men in red walked up. The man in the lead was the CRIMSON CLAW got up as Santa Claus. So, Cap’n Patriot was wrong: the Claw DID have a sense of humor. It was just lamer than Tiny Tim.
“Ho, ho, ho!” he gave a jolly chuckle. “What? You don’t recognize Santa Claw?” he held one hand, showing off whatever gadget he had today.
Cue the crickets.
The Claw stood there like a rookie standup comedian whose opening joke just died. So he chucked levity for ham-fisted melodrama. “But FIRST, there’s a gatecrasher at every party! FIRE!”
The Claw’s men unslung weapons that looked suspiciously like the LAWS rockets you see in all those old Action movies, and six of them suddenly spun, firing on the fiberglass figures of the Super Friends. Metallic tentacles coiled around them and-
-did absolutely nothing. The statues just stood there.
Caught flat-footed, the Claw walked over to the statues and rapped ‘Wonder Woman’ on the head. It was just empty plastic (though critics of animation had been saying that about the ‘Super Friends’ series for decades). He murmured something about being sure it was a trap, as the display had only been placed there that morning. Then, realizing that he’d lost some serious face before the hostages, he spun around and addressed them oratically.
“As this is a season of miracles, you shall witness first-hand a true Holiday Miracle!” One of his lackeys brought him a case, from which he drew an irregularly-shaped pale purple crystal the size of a football. Another, locker-sized case was brought out, opened, and a high-tech looking gizmo unfolded and locked into position. “The cretins who run this third-rate museum think that this is just a large amethyst, a chunk of purple quartz! But it is, in fact The Mabuse Stone! Once I place this crystal into the cradle of that device, a New Age will begin! SOON, I will be Invincible!”
‘Oh, that explains it,’ Stacy snarked to herself as she lowered her eyeshields and made sure of her noise cancelling earbuds, ‘he isn’t hamming it up- much- he’s playing to an audience of one nitwit.’
On cue, the door of the wardrobe burst open and the Golden Angel burst onto the scene! “HALT foul fiend! Your bad comedy ends NOW!” Madcap said in a familiar stilted bad High School play cadence, “Surrender to the Police, or in the name of all that’s pure and good, the GOLDEN ANGEL will punish you! You will NOT defame the good name of Saint Nicholas! AVAUNT! Repent, Sinner, or face the wrath of Heaven’s own angel!”
While she had the Star Witch’s scepter, right there in her hand, and common sense tactics said to use that to snag the ‘Mabuse Stone’ (whatever a ‘Maboose’ is) out of the techno-cradle before the Claw could throw the switch, Madcap tapped out a combination on her power talon. Something whitish zapped out of the talon at the Claw, who ducked. It hit his contraption and ‘exploded’ in a shower of… snowflakes?
Captain Patriot used that opening to charge one of the front doors to the museum, though it was clearly mined with one of the Claw’s ‘you aint goin nowhere’ doortraps. Many of the civilians freaked as they saw what appeared to be an 8-year-old boy blown to bits. But out of the smoke from the smoke of the explosion strode the powerful figure of CAPTAIN PATRIOT! What seemed to be a 10-year-old girl did likewise, revealing that she was Azure. Stacy flew over to the hostages, body-checked the Claw guard still holding a gun on them, and went silver. She frantically gestured for the civilians to run and they did. Stacy, Azure and Captain Patriot put themselves between the hostages, though the Claw-men knew better than to waste ammunition firing into that ‘snowstorm’.
Unfortunately, the Claw had taken the precaution of dividing up the hostages into three groups, and the heroes were only able to get one of the groups out before the Claw-men headed off the other two groups with their SMGs.
Madcap flew over to one of the groups and used her ball to bowl over the Claw-men. As the Claw-men struggled to their feet, Madcap draped an arm around one of the civilians, a rather baffled looking teenage girl who took a selfie of them together, pretty much on reflex.
From there, it became a confused brawl, with the interior SPECTRUM heroes taking on the Claw and his men, while the Golden Knight, Goldstar, Red Thunder and Violet waited outside as a reserve, and to prevent any unpleasant surprises, which was one of the Claw’s specialties. Blue Streak zoomed in and scattered one line of Claw-men. Madcap took advantage of that to break from that group of hostages, and fly up into the air. “OKAY CLAW!” she called out dramatically, “Let’s handle this, just you and ME!” She pointedly extended her arm and punched in a combination, sending at the Claw-
-a spray of bubbles that bounced around the rotunda.
The Claw, showing off his ‘Criminal Mastermind’ chops, had planned for SPECTRUM showing up. The underslung things on the SMGs turned out to be very focused sonic or vibration weapons, and the ‘Christmas trees’ had larger versions of the same. While it didn’t make Cap’n Patriot or Azure wig out like the sonics at the H1! gallery had done to Stacy, they still didn’t like it. While Azure was coping with that, one of the Claw-men threw a metal dingus that ‘exploded’ into a mesh that completely wrapped around her, binding her completely.
Another Claw-man aimed his SMG at Azure’s head, but Blue Streak rushed in and body-checked him away from her. Then he disarmed the three Claw-men using their ear-busters on Captain Patriot. Cap used that opening to lumber over to Azure and prepped to tear the shroud off her, but he got blasted by the Crimson Claw himself, whose new gizmo wasn’t just for show.
Yet another Claw-man threw a grenade in Blue Streak’s path that went off too soon- or right on time, as it created a thick cloud of smoke. As with most people, the Streak’s reflex when he couldn’t see was to stop, he was covered with a fine dust. He stopped, tried to wipe it off his visor and started again, probably to shed the shmutz. But he slipped and fell to the ground. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t. Tawny leapt to his aid, but she slipped as well, and another Claw-man threw a grenade, which also exploded in a smoke, but while the Streak reeled, Tawny was on her knees, gagging.
Stacy, who’d gone invisible the second the civilians were out the door, knew that the Claw had something special, just for her, ready and waiting to use. He probably had something for the Green Witch as well, and he’d play those cards the second either of them showed their faces. And, yep, there he was, the guy with the Tattletale laser. And the guy with the ‘Ghostbuster’ rocket thingie.
And then it got serious. One of the Claw-men stepped up and aimed his SMG at Blue Streak’s head. But the Claw wasn’t the only one who’d come with a few tricks up his sleeve. Quickly, before Karen could reveal herself, Stacy used her PK to send a ‘space blanket’, like she’d used at the Jarman theater, at the gunman. She wrapped it around him, lifted him up 10 feet into the air, and let him drop. And sure enough, the Tattletale lit up the decoy, and the guy with the missile rack let fly. The missile scrunched the decoy into an irregular sphere, which refracted and reflected the laser. The laser was visible light, and most of the Claw-men were watching one of their own get taken out, so the reflected laser split into a dazzling rainbow- a spectrum if you will- of light that dazzled them. Karen took advantage of this, dropped her mask of civilian seeming and let fly with a spell that created a whirlwind that whipped around Tawny and Blue Streak, sending the crap into the faces of the surrounding Claw-men.
Again, the tactically sensible thing for Madcap to do would be to use the Star Witch’s wand or at least the power talon, and whittle down the Claw-men, so the civilians could escape. But Madcap being… well… Madcap, had to be the center of attention, and with this many superheroes around, she had to up her game. She flew over to the Crimson Claw and demanded in a loud, attention-getting voice, “CONFESS, Sinner! What strange power does that crystal have?”
The Claw smirked, “Why the uncanny ability to-” he touched the console on his forearm, “-lure gullible teenage girls right where I want them.”
One of the other cases that the Claw’s men had brought and opened, though not deployed, exploded and in the blink of an eye, another framework of technology had wrapped itself around Madcap’s protective ball. “Man! Not AGAIN!” she groaned.
“AND, now that that’s done,” the Claw gloated, “it’s time to play my real ace-in-the-hole.” He tapped out another combination on his forearm console. There was a crashing sound of metal being slammed against metal just outside the museum. The ‘Christmas Present’ tore itself apart and reassembled into a sequence of five ‘goalposts’ in line pointed at the Union Terminal museum. And everyone, except for the Claw and his men, both inside and outside the museum, dropped to the ground. The only exception being Stacy, and thankfully, she was still invisible.
Stacy rushed over to Karen, who looked like she was having trouble breathing. Captain Patriot, Azure (who Cap had freed from her shackles) and Tawny managed to get up, though Tawny was standing oddly and looked like she was working hard, just getting up on her feet. “That’s a Gravitic Lens out there, Heroes!” the Claw jeered. “You have a choice: you can take out my men and possibly keep me from escaping with the Angel- OR, you can save all those innocent civilians, who’re being CRUSHED by their own weight!” He ended with Stock Supervillain Laugh #4 (the sardonic chuckle of triumph realized).
Stacy turned Karen over, and noticed that she was breathing easier- okay, as easy as you can breathe when your chest is trying to press 16 times more weight that it usually is, but at least she was getting air into her lungs. Stacy flashed on her Boy Scout First Aid merit badge training (one of the mere five Stanley had managed to earn), where you’re supposed to lay a baby on its back to sleep, ‘cause if you lay them on their fronts, their own weight might make them stop breathing, and it got even worse from there. Stacy scrambled around, splitting her attention between turning people on their backs with her hands and with her PK. She shouted out to Cap and Azure to turn as many people on their backs as they could.
As the Claw chuckled, Claw-men quickly added more components to the Madcap cage. “Yes, you do that,” he drawled sardonically. Don’t mind us, we’ll find our own way out…”
Then, even to the Claw’s own surprise, Karen and Tawny lifted up and were drawn, almost magnetically, to the ‘Mabuse Stone’ in the setting. “What?” the Claw bleated, confusion clear on his face, even through the mask.
He was so surprised that he was caught completely off guard as a bolt of pale purple energy lanced out of the allegedly bogus crystal in his Madcap-trap gadget. It caught him squarely in the midsection, and another bolt knocked Captain Patriot for a loop. Azure managed to jump out of the way of a third bolt, but it was a close thing.
The Claw struggled to get up. “What the HELL?” he demanded of the universe.
There was a chuckle from beyond the rotunda. “How too, too appropriate,” came a warm, polished, sardonic voice, and Cardinal Sin strolled into the rotunda. Mother Superbia and the other ‘Seven Deadly Sinners’ followed at his back, and a squad of 10 gunmen in red-and-black body armor entered the chamber. The ‘Christmas Trees’ covered the gunmen as they spread out around the rotunda, while the Claw-men looked to their boss for their cues. Taking this in, the Cardinal jeered, “I’ll give you this, Claw- you do a first-rate job on training your men. You take the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel and put some real discipline on them. Maybe you should become a trainer, and leave the operations to people who have the chops for it.”
The Claw bristled like a mastiff on a chain and snarled, “What? Why aren’t you affected by the G-Lens?”
Cardinal Sin grinned and pointed to a familiar small squarish box on his belt. “Why do you think you suddenly got that great deal on that Gravitic Lens? Or those combat drones? Or that parasite stone?”
“Parasite stone?” the Claw echoed.
“THAT,” the Cardinal pointed at the large crystal set into the booby-trapped cradle, with Karen and Tawny stuck to it. “Oh, and for you hero-types: YES, that stone will drain both the Green Witch and your third-tier Catwoman knockoff of their power, and that could kill them. And YES, I’m willing to do just that, if I have to.”
Then it registered to Stacy why those boxes the Cardinal pointed out were so familiar- she’d taken one just like it off that Claw-man. These things somehow cancelled out that gravity thingie out there. Stacy had just found a way to turn this mess around. “Cal,” she whispered, “tell Cap, Azure and the Streak to be ready to move.”
[Stacy, if the Claw was dumb enough to not have booby-traps on both the G-Lens and that parasite stone setting, we’d have caught him years ago!]
“Yeah, but he’d probably gear it to catch me,” Stacy pointed out. “Cap would tear right through any trap set for me. Set off the decoy.”
A second later, the Silver Ghost appeared, heading toward the ‘parasite stone. “Take her out,” said the Cardinal brusquely. One of his men stepped forward, shouldering something that looked like a rocket launcher. He aimed it at the Ghost and fired. But before the missile could hit, she suddenly disappeared and reappeared a few feet over. “What? Superbia! Take her out!”
Mother Superbia unlimbered her whip and tried to set the Ghost up for one of the other Sinners. As the Cardinal’s ‘laymen’ shifted around to give the Sinners room to work while keeping the Claw-men under control, Stacy- not the hologram decoy of her that Cal was steering- was gingerly taking the gravity-compensators from the Claw-men’s belts. She tossed the first compensator to Blue Streak, the second to Captain Patriot, and the third to Azure.
“That’s a decoy!” Sister Lascivia snapped, “The real Ghost is pulling something!
On that cue, the Heroes exploded into action. The Streak zipped from civilian to civilian, turning them on their backs, some of them just as they were having real problems breathing. Captain Patriot charged at the Parasite Stone contraption to free Karen and Tawny. Azure whipped out her steel lariat and lassoed Cardinal Sin, pulling him off his feet and throwing him into a wall. And Stacy pulled the compensator from the Claw-man with the ‘ghostbuster’ missile launcher. As he went down, she grabbed the missile launcher and (thank God, it was pretty much idiot-proof) fired a round into Mother Superbia. The missile caught the bogus nun flat-footed, and she went down.
Unfortunately, Captain Patriot wasn’t as lucky. He charged right into a blast from the parasite stone, and it knocked him for a loop. Both the Claw and the Cardinal were barking out cryptic orders, frantically trying to regain control of the situation. And of course, it was all about Madcap- at least in Madcap’s eyes. “SIL-Veeee! Get me outta this!”
Stacy went invisible, but for the life of her, she didn’t have the slightest idea as to what to do: if she let Madcap out, then Cardinal Sin probably had yet another trap for her set, AND Stacy would catch hell for letting Madcap out. Freeing Karen and Tawny was the best idea, but anything that could knock Cap out would put her in the hospital. Taking out the Gravity thing outside would change everything, but Red Thunder, Violet, Swashbuckler (piloting Cal’s Golden Knight drone) and Goldstar were already out there, and if they couldn’t take it out, how could she? And the Cardinal wasn’t fool enough to have his men’s compensators out where Stacy could get at them, so that was out.
Stacy was thrashing around frantically, looking for something, anything she could do that wouldn’t make things worse.
Then ‘Brother Gula’, the big ten-foot high guy, fell on his face, squashing ‘Brother Acedia’ in the process. A figure in green jumped off Brother Gula as he fell, hopped on Sister Lascivia’s shoulders, knocking her down and using that to jump over on top of one of the still standing Claw-men. She grappled with him and took his compensator from him. As he went down, she threw one of the goop-grenades at the Claw-men nearest them, and grabbed his SMG. She jumped far more nimbly over to the parasite stone. The stone reacted to her approach by blasting her, but she didn’t go down. She landed on top of the apparatus and put the SMG right against it. But instead of firing bullets into it, she triggered the sonic weapon.
‘Oh, right; sonic weapon,’ Stacy thought to herself, ‘crystals are weak against vibrations; why didn’t I think of that?’
The crystal did indeed shatter, but there was some sort of backlash that stunned the Green Witch and Tawny. But the new kid just rolled with it. She fell to the floor but rolled with it, and Stacy finally got a decent look at her. She was the girl from the Commonwealth Club! The same shades of green ‘Christmas Elf’ costume and the same ‘pixie’ pageboy hairstyle; only this time she was wearing a bright red domino mask and a utility belt. She snapped out at the Claw-men near her in a high voice, “Don’t touch me! I’ve been poisoned by that trap! The slightest touch could kill a bull!”
As the Claw-men reacted to that, the Green Elf launched herself at the Claw-man working the portable crane that held Madcap’s cage. “GREAT! Now get me out of here!” Madcap demanded. The Green Elf used the vibratory weapon on the cage, but stopped when it shook the cage free of the crane. “What?” Madcap yelped as the Green Elf did a backflip that turned into a ‘roundhouse’ kick which sent the cage (and Madcap) caroming off Brother Gula’s head into Brother Ira, and knocking Brother Gula onto more laymen.
Brother Avarita, the stretcher, made a move to intercept Madcap’s rebounding ball, but Stacy intercepted him. Brother Avarita was significantly stronger than a normal man, but Stacy was both stronger than he was, and again she didn’t have to worry about leverage the way a lot of bricks did. Stacy used him as a whip to scatter some of the ‘laymen’, and then threw him to Captain Patriot, who tied him up into a ball.
With a merry grin, the Green Elf lightly hopped into the path of Madcap’s careening ball and created a bumper barrage between the laser Claw-man and Sister Invidia, who seemed to be super-strong for some reason. She didn’t act very brickish for the most part. As the energy dwindled, the Green Elf latched onto the sphere. “Why did you do THAT?” ‘the Golden Angel’ sputtered.
“Well, I thought that if we were going to put up with you, we might as well get some use out of you,” the Green Elf snarked with a merry British accent that still somehow rang a bell for Stacy. “And let’s face it, semi-guided missile is the closest that you’ll ever come to being useful.”
“What?” Madcap yapped back, completely losing track of the fact that they were in the middle of a 3-way battle with civilians at risk. “You sayin’ I’m useless? Well, check THIS out!” Madcap aimed the power talon at Cardinal Sin, who was still pulling himself together. She clicked in a combination on the console, and a gleaming lariat shot out and wrapped itself around him, somehow encircling his middle and binding his arms against himself with multiple loops. “Top THAT!”
The Green Elf merely looked over at Cardinal Sin, who concentrated, flames flickered over the lasso and the ‘lariat’ unlooped itself from around him. The flames flowed back to the power talon, and Madcap found herself literally yanked out of the cage- leaving her ‘bubble’ behind somehow.
The Green Elf looked at the empty cage and muttered, “It would be bally interesting to find out how that happened… But for the nonce…” She did another backflip kick that sent the cage into Cardinal Sin. The Cardinal flowed into the bubble, and was captured, leaving Madcap outside. “GOAL!”
Madcap gawped at the Cardinal inside her bubble, and from her body language, she was suddenly keenly aware that for the first time she’d started all this, she was exposed and vulnerable.
But then she looked over at the Green Elf, who was giving her a snarky ‘top THAT!’ smirk. Visibly incensed by this, Madcap first started to tap something out on the power talon, and then was reminded that she had the Star Witch’s wand, because she bumped her funny bone with it. Giving the Green Elf a challenging grin, Madcap said, “Yeah? Well top THIS!”
Madcap pointed her wand at the Claw-man manning the laser gun and sent out a stream of sparkles that lifted the henchman up. She spun the Claw-man around, brought him up a good six feet and dropped him.
Unfortunately, as the Claw-man spun, he reflexively squeezed the trigger on his laser, which sent a razor-thin beam of light around the chamber. The beam hit Captain Patriot in the eyes, briefly blinding him. It also forced Azure to break off from some of the Cardinal’s minions and scramble back to keep from getting fried.
“How? Have you? Managed? To Stay? Alive?” the Green Elf asked with exasperation. “Give me that thing!” she snatched the wand away from Madcap, who wasn’t used to people being able to just reach in and take things. It really is very easy to get used to things like protective spheres and take them for granted.
With a flourish, the Green Elf pointed the Star Wand at a string of the Cardinal’s laymen, and then Sisters Lascivia and Invidia, sending them all flying up into the air to land painfully. “Yeah?” Madcap bleated derisively, “So What?” As if to say ‘THIS what’, the Green Elf pointed the staff at the towering Brother Gula and sprayed his head with sparkles. “AND?” Madcap sneered. Almost in answer, Brother Gula reared and staggered around, squashing laymen and the unfortunate Brother Ira.
“No one ever thinks about how important balance is to a giant,” the Green Elf said pertly. Madcap scowled back at her and went for her power talon, but the Elf beat her to the punch by using the wand again. She waved it at the Claw-man with the Tattletale laser, and pulled the entire laser off him, backpack and all. The Elf drew it over to herself and casually aimed it at the Crimson Claw, who was frantically yammering something into a communicator. She gave him an area zap with the laser that caused his eye shields to go completely black, effectively blindfolding him. Then she tightened the beam and used that to fry the Claw’s communicator. And then his forearm console. The Elf spun the wand like a baton with a lopsided smirk. “Maybe I’ll keep this thing… And it isn’t like YOU have a receipt for it- or use it very well…”
Madcap growled like a pitbull and grabbed her scepter back, but the Green Elf was too strong and wasn’t letting go. So Madcap kicked in her rocket boots and tore the wand out of the Elf’s grip-
-and shot right into the arms of Brother Acedia. The red-clad renegade rector gave her a smug ‘I knew you were going to do that’ smirk. Then Madcap felt her weight increase 15 times- which she’d managed to ignore up to then- and her pipe cleaner legs wobbled. “Oh crap- this again,” she whimpered.
MADCAP, you idiot!” Stacy screamed, “You don’t have your force field, remember?”
“Thanks fer reminding me.” Madcap retorted pettishly.
As Stacy rushed to Madcap’s rescue- again- the Green Elf nimbly leapt over Brother Acedia, got behind him, reached over him, grabbed the Star Scepter again, and used it and Madcap to throw the malevolent monk into Cardinal Sin. “What?” Madcap yelped, “How did you DO that? And howcome you’re jumping all over the place like a grasshopper on crack? I’m busting a gut just standing UP?”
But Sister Invidia, who had just been mixing it up suspiciously well with Azure, yelled to Brother Avarita, “Afferte mihi per fratrem!”
Brother Avarita reached across the room and pulled Sister Invidia away from Azure. Then he swung her over, placing Stacy, Madcap and the Green Elf between her and Azure. Then Sister Invidia reached over, which she hadn’t been able to do before, and got grips on Stacy and Madcap. Then she went silvery, and her arms retracted, pulling Stacy’s cape- and Madcap to her.
Baffled, Stacy wondered why the nasty nun had grabbed her cape. Then the Green Elf leapt over to the Crime Congregator and her hostage, and they both learned why: the Sister wrapped the cloak around Madcap, and they both disappeared.
Well, they turned invisible; whatever let Stacy see when she was invisible- the light should have passed right through her eyes- also allowed her to see them. Then it clicked for Stacy: Sister Invidia- ‘Invidia’ was Latin for ‘Envy’, which was one of the Seven Deadly Sins, which was Cardinal Sin’s whole lamebrain theme; she was a power copier! And from the way that she was handling Madcap, she was a power copier who had a lot of experience in being super strong- while Stacy did not have a lot of experience in fighting people with super-strength.
Stacy realized that she was putting a lot of faith into stupid comic book clichés, and this could really come back and bite them all in the ass. But if Sister Invidia got away with Madcap- while they were invisible- which she’d copied off STACY- then Goldbum would beat her over the head with it until they were both senior citizens.
Staying invisible- she didn’t want either the Claw Crew or the Crime Congregation to know about this (or Goldgoon, either)- Stacy used her PK to pull one of the Crimson Crew’s SMGs over to her. She aimed at Sister Invidia and pulled the trigger on the sonic weapon. Madcap and the Sister immediately popped back into visibility, and the Sister reflexively went silver. Like that was going to save her. She clapped her hands over her ears; ah yes, they’d been talking to each other with shouts in Latin- they didn’t have close radio communications, with sonic protection built in.
Of course, they might just have done that ‘cause the Cardinal loved the sound of his own voice.
Madcap had the minimal good sense to break away from the Sister while she could. She continued to have minimal good sense by stopping to turn, point her power talon at Invidia and jab in a combination on the console. Just as she finished punching in a random code, Invidia gave in to the sonic barrage and unleashed a PK cyclone that knocked everyone except Stacy, Captain Patriot and Azure off their feet for about a solid minute. Madcap’s protective sphere kicked in again for some unknowable reason, and she went ricocheting all over the place again. She knocked into Captain Patriot, and a few of the laymen. But when she finally stopped, Madcap demanded, “HEY! Why didn’t those guys,” she pointed at some of the Claw-men, “Why didn’t they go flying around, hah? And come to think of it,” she got up in the Green Elf’s face and demanded, “Howcome YOU get to jump around all footloose and fancy free, while I’m burning Wheaties just standing UP?”
“Weren’t you paying attention?” the Elf jeered. “That’s a Gravitic Lens out there! It makes things super-heavy, right? So? Who in their right mind uses something like that, unless they have a way of keeping it from affecting THEM? And their goons?” the Elf flicked a finger on a familiar squarish box on her utility belt.
“Is THAT what does it?” Madcap plucked the box from the Elf’s belt on some magpie instinct. The Elf immediately fell to the ground, and Madcap got her scepter back with a “HAH!” of triumph.
Then a bunch of Laymen tried to jump Madcap, but her bubble was up and running again, and if anything, this time her bouncing around was even worse!
The Green Elf was struggling to get up. One of the Claw-men charged over and aimed his SMG at the back of her head, clearly looking to get one loose cannon off the battlefield. Stacy charged invisibly into him and knocked him away. Well, actually, she was going for his compensator and got it, but she misjudged the distance, and clobbered the poor goon. Okay, so she ripped his entire belt off his body, so what…
She leaned over the Elf and clipped the replacement compensator to her belt. The Elf’s breathing got easier, and Stacy gingerly helped her to her feet. Madcap’s birdbrain senses must have been tingling. Even in mid-flight (or mid-rebound, whatever), she saw this and yelped, “WHAT? You’re helping HER? What kind of sidekick ARE you, Silvie?”
Stacy beetled her brow, and was about to give Madcap a full blistering report on exactly how she felt about Madcap, her ‘sidekick’ shtick especially, when a new player came on the field. In stark contrast to his ‘Fancy Dan Gambler’ outfit, Cardsharp was carrying a large, high-tech BFG- type blaster with a rotating cylinder of some sort. Without any fanfare, he brought up the blaster to his shoulder and let fly at Stacy. He sent her flying, remarking in general, “Always take the stealth target out first.” Then he turned on the Green Elf. “Sorry, Kid, but you’re too hard to keep track of.” He let off a smaller burst that took out her compensator, putting her down again. He knocked Captain Patriot and Azure for loops with a shot each. Then he almost casually tossed a playing card on the floor-
-just in time for Blue Streak to run over it. The Streak was instantly entangled in a gray silky fabric that completely cocooned him.
With equal casualness, Cardsharp tossed another playing card in midair-
-just in time for Madcap’s ball to run into it and come to a complete standstill. “Cardsharp, what are you DOING here?” Cardinal Sin demanded, “This is MY score!”
“I’d love to chat, Cardinal,” Cardsharp replied with informal dismissal, “but I’m here on business.” He walked up to Madcap’s ball, pressed the barrel of the BFG against the wall of the bubble. Cardsharp said in a voice that was hard enough to get the point that he meant business across, while not spooking the clearly intimidated teen girl, “Here’s how it’s gonna go, Kid: either you take the Power Talon off and hand it to me, or I blast you and take it off you. This gun is specifically designed to get through almost any force field, no matter what kind it is.”
Madcap started to say something, but Cardsharp cut her off, “Don’t kid yourself, Sweetheart- you ain’t that brave. Without all the gimmicks, you wouldn’t be running around doing all this. If there was any real chance of you getting hurt, you wouldn’t even get out of BED. Besides, like my dear old dad used to tell me: ‘Son, it is your bounden Christian duty to let OTHER people be heroes; don’t go hogging all the glory for yourself.’ Now, I don’t particularly want to hurt you, dear- but I will, if I have to. Just give me the power talon, and let’s both get on with our lives, hah?”
Madcap gawped, horrorstruck at the glowing energy weapon only five inches from her face, with no nice safe movie or TV screen between her and 500 Giga-watts of flesh-searing burns. She frantically tried to get her brain to come up with something that wouldn’t equal complete defeat and humiliation, but she wasn’t coming up with anything. Then a silvery hand reached over Cardsharp’s shoulder and removed the playing card from Madcap’s ball.
The ball reacted by forcing Cardsharp away and shooting Madcap well out of his reach. Cardsharp turned and tried to aim, but Stacy got her hands on the barrel of his BFG and swung it, disarming him and throwing him into a far wall with one move. “There!” Stacy said with a relieved tone, examining the BFG. For a big deal high tech weapon, it was remarkably simple. Just point and pull the trigger. There were some knobs for changing setting, but it was still pretty point and fire; any kid who grew up watching Westerns could probably use it. “Hey,” she said to the Green Elf, who she’d provided with a replacement compensator (and had wisely eliminated still more Claw-men by snagging backups), “he said that this can go through almost any force field- maybe we can use it on the Gravity doohickey and get the rest of the civilians out of danger!”
“GREAT IDEA, Silvie!” Madcap gushed (how she’d managed to stop and sneak up on them, who knows?). “And why’d you give HER another riggleator, hah?” With a pettish ‘MINE!’ glare at the Green Elf, Madcap kicked in her rocket boots and snatched the BFG out of the Ghost’s hands.
“Stop her before she aarrggh!-” Azure, the only adult member of the SPECTRUM inside team still viable, stopped in mid-order as Cardsharp opened fire. With his twin hex-guns, Cardsharp put witchbolts into Azure, the Elf and Stacy. Stacy was knocked out and Azure was stunned, but the Green Elf wasn’t even slowed down.
Azure managed to get her head back in the fight. Captain Patriot was getting back up, Tawny was struggling to her feet, and the Green Witch was staggering to her feet. She twiddled her fingers, and the silky cocoon that wrapped up the Blue Streak melted away. The gleaming cloak of the Silver Ghost appeared over their heads. “Okay, now this is more like a fair fight,” Azure snarked as she looked around the rotunda. The Crimson Claw had gathered up as many of his men as still had their gravity compensators (and teeth), the Congregation of Crime had rallied around the Cardinal, the Christmas Trees had all gotten trashed by Captain Patriot and Azure early in the fight, and Cardsharp was standing there with hexguns in hands, but he wasn’t firing.
“Ah, Lady?” Cardsharp hazarded, “We got you outnumbered 5:1.”
“We’ll go easy on you…” Azure purred, twirling her lariat.
“Don’t Move!” the Crimson Claw brandished a ‘dead-man’s switch’ type detonator trigger in one hand. “I took the precaution of planting disguised demolitions packets all over the building!” He hit a button and a green light on the handset switched on.
“Twenty-three half-pound Semtex™ packets disguised as vermin traps, Stully™ brand, to be specific,” Captain Patriot said. “The Silver Ghost checked the entire place invisibly hours before the performance started.”
“You let a teenager disarm explosives?” Cardinal Sin asked with a note of disapproval.
“A bomb-proof psychokinetic teenager, with a Cincinnati PD bomb disposal expert giving her radio instructions every step of the way,” Blue Streak said. “After all, how are kids supposed to learn, if you don’t give them a chance?”
“She spotted them, because you cheaped it out, Claw,” Tawny drawled sardonically. “I mean, Stully? At the Union Terminal? Please!”
“Oh will you look at the time?” Cardsharp said, “Gunsmoke is due to come on any minute!” With that, he turned and bolted. He dashed for a chalk design he’d drawn for just such a getaway, around the corner and down the hall from the main rotunda. But when he hit the portal diagram, he ran smack into the plaster-covered reinforced concrete wall. Feeling like Wyle E Coyote, Cardsharp looked at his design. There was a crude pentacle drawn into the chalk design, which not only disrupted the pattern, but formed a trivial- but material- barrier to the portal effect. It seemed that the Silver Ghost hadn’t just gone looking for explosives. “Oh, this is gonna be ugly…” Cardsharp groaned to himself.
The Green Elf charged after Madcap. With a look around, she saw why SPECTRUM was at only half-force. The Gravity Lens, besides what you could reasonably presume to be a potent protective force field, also had radio controlled blasters and remote controlled drones. Some of the civilians who had fled the museum before the Gravity Lens had shown the poor judgment to stick around and were being held by the force of the focused gravity. Violet, Blue Thunder, Goldstar and for some reason, the Golden Knight- wasn’t he badly beaten in that debacle at the Hall of Justice?- were playing a deadly game of keepaway with the Gravity Lens defense measures. Violet was shielding the civilians, but that meant she couldn’t move them, and if she dropped the dome of force to allow the others to move the immobile civilians, she risked them being blasted.
Red Thunder seemed to be getting through the gravity shield- some- but both Goldstar and the Golden Knight were useless, their fists sliding off the force wall not even leaving a dent. “Move Aside, Old Folks!” Madcap declared as she stopped a few feet away from the ‘Christmas Present’, “Big Boom, comin’ through!” She shouldered the BFG as Goldstar and the ‘Golden Knight’ wrapped their heads around the fact that there was a third gold figure in the mix. “Banzai!” She let off a blast at the lens, which rebounded and pegged Goldstar as he was about to try to get his hands on her. “CRAP!” she sputtered, looking at the undamaged field.
“OR, you could try THIS,” the Green Elf said, taking the BFG, hitting a slide on the weapon. Lights started to turn on one at a time, going down the ‘magazine’.
“Yeah? And what does that do?”
The Elf waited until the lights had run all the way down the magazine, and shouldered the gun. “THIS.” She fired, unleashing a much more impressive burst, which didn’t bring the field down, but did cause the field to begin to arc and fluxuate.
“Okay, yer so smart…” Madcap drawled as she used her field to take the BMG away from the Elf, “How’s about THIS?” she let the buildup happen, but she fiddled with the ‘muzzle’ of the weapon so it had a very narrow aperture.
“Excuse me, Ladies,” Swashbuckler, speaking through the Golden Knight drone, said gently, “but you DO realize that you’re fiddling around with a very HIGH energy projector, and you don’t really know what you’re doing?”
“Of COURSE I know what I’m doing, Sir Clanks-a-lot!” Madcap said, bringing the weapon up to her shoulder. “BOO-YA!” This beam was tighter, and it did penetrate the force field, but it didn’t do that much damage to the Lens.
“Give me that!” Goldstar snapped, “That thing is DANGEROUS!”
“True,” the Green Elf allowed, “but we DO still have to bring that thing down, before one of those poor people,” she nodded her head in the direction of where the museum-goers were still sprawled on the ground, “get collapsed lungs or something else crippling- or actionable. This seems to be the tool for the job. And, well, YOU can’t use it- neither of your hands will fit the grip. Someone has to do it, and *I* don’t have multiple warrants out for my arrest…” She pointedly took the gun away from Goldstar, who hated it but was having a hard time contesting her points.
At first, Madcap settled for just fiddling with the various adjustment controls on the BFG, even as the Green Elf was aiming it at the Gravity Lens. But when the Green Elf made adjustments to her adjustments, it developed into a tit-for-tat fight, and from there into a fight for control of the gun. The Green Elf was stronger than Madcap, and ‘the Golden Angel’ climbed up on the Green Elf and was trying to pry the gun out of her hands with both hands and legs, when the gun went off. The gun gave off a massive burst of energy that only hit the Gravity Lens out of pure luck. Still, the energy burst pierced the gravity wall like a needle through a balloon, but didn’t bring the field down. Which was a very good thing, because the beam of energy went through the T-joints of all five ‘goal posts’, which resulted in a bizarre ‘explosive/implosive’ action that completely destroyed the Lens, and would probably have showered the entire area with deadly shrapnel, if the Lens’ own force field hadn’t contained it.
That massive discharge also reduced the BFG to a smoldering ruin. “LOOK AT WHAT YOU JUST DID!” Madcap and the Green Elf said at each other in perfect unison.
But just as the adults were gearing up to separate the two girls, the Silver Ghost turned visible and did it for them. “LOOK, Madcap-”
“WHAT?” Madcap yelped right in the Ghost’s face, not even bothering to maintain the ‘Golden Angel’ charade, “Yer taking HER side? What kind of sidekick ARE you?”
“Clearly one who knows intelligence and competence when she sees it,” the Elf purred.
“Hey, I had everything under control, until YOU showed up and messed everything up!” Madcap sputtered.
“The only thing you had under control was your bladder,” the Elf sneered. Then she cocked a suspicious glare at Madcap’s crotch. “IF that…”
Madcap started blithering furiously at the Elf, which the Elf returned with snide trolling. “Okay, that’s enough!” the Ghost pushed them apart. “Look… Green Elf… or whatever you call yourself…”
“WHAT?” Madcap shrilled so loud even Swashbuckler back at the control module winced. “You’re taking HER SIDE? Oh, that is IT! I am THROUGH picking up your messes! You ain’t my sidekick NO MORE! We are DONE!” And with that, Madcap stormed off as quickly as her rocket boots could take her.
“Blue Streak!” the Ghost started to tell him to catch her, but then the doors to the main entrance of the Union Terminal Museum opened and a tide of red, both Crimson Crew and Congregation, poured out onto the emptied fountain basins, overwhelming the Heroes.
“Okay, I can see how Cardinal Sin and the Claw got away,” Stacy said at the debriefing. “They’re criminal masterminds; they always have a spare Ace or two up their sleeves, and that gag with the illusions that let them mix with the escaping civilians is just the sort of thing they’d pull. I can even see how Madcap got away: for someone who says that she’s trying to be a superhero, Madcap has the ‘quick getaway’ down to an art, AND she’s got those rocket boots.
“But HOW did the Green Elf get away? She doesn’t have rocket boots or a flying wand or a bouncing bubble?”
Violet and Red Thunder looked accusingly at Goldstar. “YOU were the one who was making all the ‘I’m taking you in’ noises,” Violet said flatly.
Goldstar looked uncomfortable and uncharacteristically uncertain. “To be honest…I’m not a hundred percent sure HOW she managed to pull that off,” he admitted. “I mean, she was right there, I had her well in hand, and then she started talking, and there was the confusion, and…” he trailed off his face an awkward blend of humiliation and bewilderment.
“Swash, you were right there,” Karen prompted him.
Swash also looked uncomfortable, though not as keenly as Goldstar. “As much as I hate to admit it, I’m with Goldstar on this one. One second, I have control of the situation, but then she starts talking. I know that she’s pulling something, but then that crowd of decoys hit, and the next thing I know, she’s nowhere to be seen. Whatever else she may have, the young lady has a keen eye for an opening, and the nerve to seize it when she sees one.”
“Okay, but first we clear up old business,” Captain Patriot said. “He blew even more money on that ambush; What are the chances that the Claw will just give up and see if he has better luck somewhere else?”
[Low to nil,] Cal said from the monitor. [The Cardinal played him, bad. The Claw’s ego will demand that he get the Golden Angel, just to spite Cardinal Sin. If anything, we should be worried that they’ll put bagging Madcap on the back burner, and devote themselves to a nasty turf war]
“And it’s gonna be worse, now that Cardsharp is in on that action, too,” Tawny said. “He’s a wiseass, which is always bad, but the Cardinal’s a wiseass too. Two wiseasses with super powers? NOT a happy combination.”
“And as we’ve said, the Claw has NO sense of humor,” Cap pointed out. “The problem is, all three of them fancy themselves as subtle master criminals, which means that they’re going to take every precaution to keep the other two- and US- in the dark as to what they’re going to pull.”
“Okay, they’ll probably both try to lure Madcap out into the open again,” Stacy said. “The problem is, I don’t know how she’ll react this time: she could just pout and not show up, OR she could go all Chuck Norris and try to be the big heroine, just to show me up.”
“And what about your bestest new buddy, the Green Elf?” Goldstar said snidely. “No matter what you say, we’re gonna have to do something about her. The last thing we need is for yet another screwball teenage loose cannon rolling around, making things even more chaotic.”
Karen and Azure started to react, but Stacy headed them off. “As much as I hate it, I gotta side with Goldbug on this one.” That stopped the conversation cold. Looking around the table, Stacy explained, “LOOK, I have never made any secret of the fact that I’m not a qualified crime fighter. I know that, I admit that. Even Rick Standish doesn’t give me crap about that. And Madcap? Madcap’s a nutbar, and everyone knows it.
“But the Green Elf? Or Alfar, or whatever the Press is gonna call her… She’s a kid who got superpowers, so she’s gonna go out and play superhero. Now, you guys- well, at least some of you…” she broke off, giving Goldstar a withering glare, “you guys all have legitimate reasons for heroing and some decent training, you know what you’re doing, and you GET that this isn’t a comic book, where nothing that bad’s gonna happen to you, ‘cause you gotta appear in next month’s issue and any Specials. But the Green Elf? She doesn’t have any of that. She’s smart, she’s sharp, and she has guts- which, along with her powers, is probably just enough to get her KILLED. Worse than that, she could get someone else hurt or killed, which could mess her over in ways I don’t even wanna think about. And even worse than that, she could get other kids, who don’t even have powers, to put on capes and masks and do stupid sh-er, stuff. And you just know that Humanity First! is already just warming up the fit they’re gonna pitch over that!”
That stopped Goldstar cold, and his face screwed up in confusion. The Ghost had just stolen each and every one of his arguments and made it her own. Okay, they were on the same side in this, but what good did that do HIM?
“Silver, is this ‘Green Elf’ the same girl you said saved you at the Commonwealth Club?” Azure asked.
“Yeah,” Stacy confirmed. “She was wearing a mask, and she had a pair of fake ears that weren’t as good, but it was her. Oh, and I get the impression that when she was at the Commonwealth Club, she didn’t see anything coming. But at the Union Terminal museum, she was prepared. She had a utility belt, and she used it to duct-tape one of the Cardinal’s henchmen.”
“So she overheard Goldstar explaining what the Claw’s riddle meant, and decided to come along for the fun,” Swashbuckler murmured. “Anything else, Silver?”
Stacy paused and thought something over for a moment. “Yeah, a couple of things, though they’re kind’a weird.”
“Well, first, I kind of got the impression that the Green Elf knew Madcap.”
“Oh?” there was more interest.
“How well, I dunno. But as soon as they met, the Green Elf dissed Madcap, and got under her skin real good. I mean, most people when they meet Madcap are, like, ‘are you for REAL?’ But the Elf knew just who and what she was dealing with, and started pushing Madcap’s buttons like a pro.”
“Interesting…” Swashbuckler mused. “And next?”
“Weeellll… I kind’a got the impression that I’d met the Green Elf somewhere… there was something about her voice… but I’m not pegging her… something off… and her moves… she had some crazy moves, but again… there was familiar… and something off.”
“Odds are it’s just the out-of-context that’s bugging you, Hon,” Azure said. “You’ll probably peg her just as soon as you have the right context for it.”
“Okay, that’s all very nice,” Goldstar cut in. “But even SHE admits that just having this Green Elf running around, stirring up trouble is a Bad Idea. So, what are we gonna do about this ‘Green Elf’?”
Swashbuckler snorted. “Please! You make it sound like such a chore! We simply wait for the Elf to pop up again, and we make her an offer.”
“WHAT?” Goldstar yipped like he’d been scaled. “You want to bring another teenager into this team?”
“More of an adjunct, like Silver,” Captain Patriot said, seeing where Swash was headed. “We don’t frame it like we’re arresting her, we simply want to bring her here and talk to her, offer her some decent training and so forth. Most kids fantasize about being brought into a superhero team, so that shouldn’t be too hard.”
“And then we place a tracking device on her,” Swash said with a smirk. “Following Silver’s inspired-if sabotaged- ploy with Madcap, we follow her home and speak with her parents.”
“And from there, we figure out what the best course of action is,” Tawny said. “We don’t know what exactly is going on with her, so why turn it into a big hassle, if we don’t have to?” Goldstar shot her an ‘et tu, brute?’ look.
“Silver, what financial circumstances would you say the Green Elf’s family is in?”
“Oh, that’s easy- she’s at least comfortable, maybe even rich,” Stacy said. “Her costume was probably something to do with the Chorale, but it fit her right, it was good material, and I really doubt that it was a mass-market model. And she was at the Commonwealth Club, again for the Chorale, and I don’t remember anything about them bringing in charity cases.”
“There,” Violet said to Goldstar. “See? A comfortable Middle-Class, maybe Rich kid. And you wanted to turn her into a wanted fugitive.”
Cardinal Sin walked into the warehouse with his ‘Seven Deadly Sinners’ at his back. In his hand, he held a small white flag. From another door, the Crimson Claw, with several of his henchmen in body armor, walked into the room. The Claw was also carrying a small white flag. They saw each other at the same moment, and they had the exact same reaction: “WHAT? I didn’t agree to THIS!”
“Guys, guys, GUYS!” Cardsharp got between them, frantically waving his own white flag. “This is why I called this meet, to get this out of the way.” Then he gave the Congregation a wide welcoming smile. “Hey, Superbia! Looking good as always! Lascivia, yer still hotter’n a griddle burning bacon! Guys… hey, where’s Invidia?”
“She over-stressed at the museum yesterday,” Mother Superbia answered. “She’s going to be out for a week or so. Pity, she’s a great backup pitcher.”
“By the way, didn’t I hear something about her on the grapevine?”
“No, that was ‘Envy’; apparently someone’s pulling strings to get a claim on that handle for some project or another. Not sure who or why.”
Cardsharp chatted amiably with a few of the Claw-men, but Cardinal Sin’s patience was wearing thin. “HE poached on MY operation!” the Cardinal barked, “I was playing that little nitwit Madcap like a fiddle! If you hadn’t muscled in with those moronic ‘Ten Lords a-leaping’ hostage frames, I would have had both her and the Silver Ghost, no problem!”
“That little idiot has MY Power Talon!” the Claw snarled back. “I NEED my Power Talon! All my credibility is SHOT if I don’t have my Power Talon! And I have been bleeding money on this operation since Day One! I need to recoup my losses!”
“And I don’t?” the Cardinal shot back. “I haven’t seen a DIME on this- and you still owe me for the Gravity Lens and the parasite stone I fronted you!”
“Which you used to stab me in the back!”
“How can you stab someone you’re at WAR with in the back?”
“GUYS!” Cardsharp stepped between them. “Just step back and think about the other guy’s position, will you? Gerald, the simple fact of the matter is that the Cardinal got there first. Period. End of discussion.
“On the other hand, Damian, the Claw here is… well, the Crimson Claw! He’s built up his entire brand name recognition on that dingus. And he can’t just go and buy or build another one. And beyond not having his signature claw, he’s got a harebrained teenage media bimbo bouncing around this town with HIS trademark! He’s got to get that thing back, just to stay in business!”
“THANK YOU, Cardsharp!” the Claw said with a gush. “It’s about TIME somebody sees my position! It’s so embarrassing to have MY trademark toted around by… the Golden Angel…!”
That seemed to register with the Cardinal. “But I can’t just step back and let you take everything,” he said more reasonably. “I’ve been losing money on this, and a lot of my credibility as a mastermind as well.”
“And I haven’t?”
“Guys, it’s worse than that,” Cardsharp said sadly. “Your little Diva Spat hasn’t turned you two into laughingstocks- YET. But the local Shock Jocks are having a field day making fun of your feud, and if you don’t do something FAST, you’re going to find it hard to get people to take you seriously. You may have to start funding your crime sprees out of your pocket.” Both the Claw and the Cardinal reeled at that. As with so many things, Financing was the real name of the game in Supervillainy. Every crime spree was a gamble, and while paying off backers meant you didn’t walk away with as much money, doing it out of your own pocket was a good way to go broke.
“Okay, I’m listening,” the Claw said. “But you wouldn’t have gone through the Syndicate, just to tell us to play nice.”
Cardsharp gave an acknowledging nod and smile. “First, a little context: I work primarily for a particular sponsor. You don’t need to know, you don’t want to know. I go around collecting bits and pieces of magical junk for this sponsor. You remember that circus a couple of weeks ago, the Supervillain Power Item Collectors’ convention?”
“The one where Pandora recharged all those dormant power items?” the Cardinal asked.
“Bingo,” Cardsharp nodded. “And promptly got kacked by her own daughter. Thing is, my sponsor has picked certain items on the list as ‘must haves’.” Cardsharp spelled out his foiled ploys with the Police evidence locker.
“Fused shut?” Cardinal Sin asked with a wince of empathy.
“It’s not even a vault anymore,” Cardsharp. “Just a big iron box full of stuff I need to get at.”
“Can’t you just use another GizRust to do the job?”
“First thing I asked,” Cardsharp said. “I’ll spare you the technobabble; basically, the way its set, the GizRust won’t affect it anymore.”
“Okay, that sucks,” the Claw said coldly. “What does it have to do with US?”
Cardsharp pointed a finger to acknowledge that. “There IS a way we can turn this to our advantage. Everyone thinks that when you two show up, you’ll start fighting. BUT, what if you show up… and operate together?” he finished with a puckish grin. The Cardinal and the Claw looked each other and you could see the possibilities present themselves. “Suddenly, you two go from a pair of clowns in silly circus costumes, to a pair of very shrewd customers, who can not only plan such an audacious scheme, but manage to cooperate to pull off convincing battles- with superheroes watching. Now, just think how that will perk up your financial prospects!”
“And you have an idea how we could use that as regards your Iron Box?”
“Yeah. I got in touch with Gizmatronix, down in Karedonia, and actually got in touch with Gizmatic his Imperial self,” Cardsharp said. The Claw and most of the Congregation winced at that. “No, this time, he was actually helpful. Well, he’s real proud of the GizRust, and he didn’t want anything tainting its reputation. He came up with something that should not only get past the collapsed iron fused with the scandium, but will use that to rip the vault apart.”
“And why should we be interested?” the Claw asked.
“Cincinnati PD moved that vault out of their Evans street station locker to the Ohio State evidence locker. Here’s a listing of Items of Interest that are being held there,” Cardsharp handed the Claw and the Cardinal sheaves of paper. “And more conventional fenceables and cash,” another page, “and items that we can get Brownie points from the Syndicate for recovering.”
“And what do you get out of this deal?” the Cardinal asked.
“I get the stuff in the fused vault. Or at least my sponsor does. He’s not the sort who accepts excuses or ‘good tries’. Anyway, I got first dibs on these,” he handed them another sheet. “As for you two, just agree on what you’re going to get beforehand, so we don’t waste any precious time if you both want the same doodad.”
The Claw and the Cardinal went over the lists together. It was a little rough over a few points, and Mother Superbia had to none-too-gently elbow the Cardinal in the ribs once, but they managed to come to an accord. “Okay, we’ve got our wish lists,” the Claw said. “But how are we going to get into the Ohio State Evidence Locker? Even in Ohio, the State evidence locker is a small fortress, and they have a direct line to the nearest superhero team- i.e. SPECTRUM- and standing jurisdictional okay for the Cincinnati SWAT to handle the matter.”
“EXACTLY,” Cardsharp said with a smile. “We’re going to USE that. Now, I picked up a nifty little energy projector that should finish the job that the GizRust started. But there are some complications regarding the power source. This is my solution. You’re a lot more tech-savvy than I am, Gerald. You tell me if this will work.” Carefully, as to not set off the minions on either side, Cardsharp took a set of blueprints from his pocket and lay them on a table in front of the Claw.
The Claw carefully studied the blueprints. “Yes, I can see your problem; the projector needs a LOT of power, and I doubt that the State of Ohio was so obliging as to provide Industrial Grade power connections at the evidence locker.” With a smirk, Cardsharp set a second set of blueprints before the Claw. The Claw started a mite with surprise. “You can GET these?”
“That’s where the Cardinal and his prayer group come in.”
“Yes!” the Claw said with an evil grin, “It will work!”
“Hold up your end of the bargain, and you can keep them,” Cardsharp said. “We all abide by the Code of the Honorable Outlaw; our word is our bond.”
“That should be a real shot in the arm to your TOE,” the Cardinal said. “Not to mention, bragging rights forever!”
“Do we have an agreement?” Cardsharp asked. “Honorable Outlaws?”
“I’m in!” Cardinal Sin said heartily, offering his hand. The Claw took the hand and gave it an equally hearty pump.
Then a problem occurred to the Claw. “We’re not gonna do this on Christmas Eve or anything?”
“Of course not; that would be tacky!”
“Says the man wearing the red velvet dress…”
You’re sure that Corey and Jennilee aren’t coming tonight?” Stacy asked Lauren as they walked up to the Chase’s house. In the slightly skewed logic of the Moneyed classes, while the Chases were Old Money when the Pierces were just getting there, the Chase house was more subdued than the Pierce’s rather flamboyant place. The idea being that the Chases had less to prove, as they were already such a part of the Establishment. Nobody made snarky noises about the overstated Wickham House because… well, no one in their right mind made snarky noises about the Wickhams at all. At least, not in public.
“You’re not afraid to go up against a supervillain like Cardinal Sin, but you’re too chicken to face down a couple of Prep School bullies like Jennileech and Corey Greasewad?” Lauren snarked.
“Hey, I can punch Cardinal Sin, and get a commendation from the Mayor for it,” Stacy pointed out. “If I give either Jennilee or Corey a boo-boo, they’ll scream bloody murder, and H1! will back them a thousand percent. Heck, after I had to leave Nate’s party like that, I’m amazed that Mrs. Chase didn’t want her invitation back.”
“Meh,” Lauren sneered. “With the show that Corey put on, the only ones who even remembered that you left are me, the guys and Jennilee. And after what you did yesterday, nobody’s taking Droopy-Drawers seriously.”
“’Droopy Drawers’?” Stacy echoed. “How did that start making the rounds?”
Lauren just gave a sphinx’s smile.
“You are such a good friend.”
“Such sweet, innocent girls,” Swashbuckler, in his ‘Buck Conrad’ outfit sighed.
Indeed there was no trace of any awkwardness that might have resulted from Stacy’s unseemly exit from the Pierce party. Mrs. Chase greeted them at the door with wide smiles. Wide smiles that went slightly predatory when she spotted ‘Buck’, and she eagerly showed them in.
Again, it was a primarily a teenage party, with a leavening of adults who were not chaperones (quite). The adults kept to themselves, and let the kids have a good time. Or at least they did, until Nate started chasing Spence’s brothers, Bryant and Lowell, around in a snowman costume.
“So, Mr. Conrad, exactly why are you having Stacy privately tutored?”
“Damn lawyers,” ‘Buck’ grumped. “Between that damn new husband of my EX-daughter-in-law’s trying to get his hands on every dime he can, and my boy acting like a- well, let’s not get into that. The only good thing about it is that it’s taking them so long, that we may put Stacy into a good school, just so she’s on record. A girl her age needs to mix with other kids, not be cooped up in a big old house.”
“So, you’ll be enrolling her at Mansfield?”
“Let’s just say I’m stirring things up in that direction. I keep hoping that they’ll see reason, but I’m not going to put Stacy’s happiness on the line for that long shot.”
“So, did you hear Rick Standish ripping into our newest superheroine this afternoon?”
“Yeah, but ‘the Green Elf’? Can’t they be a little more original than that?”
“It’s a Cincinnati thing.”
“Yeah, but after the tearing into he gave the Silver Ghost, you’d think that Standish would ease up on the Elf.”
“I kind’a doubt it; I was downtown, near KLRD’s building, and someone poured birdseed all over Rick Standish’s flashy Porsche. And you know how hungry pigeons get in winter. They pecked that car clean of birdseed. Though, that was the only thing clean…”
“MAN, my parents are getting SO PARANOID about mutants! Every time any of the kids in my ‘hood do anything weird, they’re convinced that he’s a mutant or something.”
“Well, can’t really blame ‘em. I mean Corey Griswold clearly has superhuman levels of sleaze.”
“No, I’m not worried about whether this ‘Green Elf’ is a mutant or whatever. What worries me is that she’s a KID! You know how kids are! You hear about kids from good, stable, affluent homes going around acting like they’re gang-bangers. That’s annoying enough as it is; what will happen if they get it into their heads that its cool to be a superhero? Or worse: a super-villain?”
“Still, the Green Elf? There’s got to be a better superhero name for her! Like… the Jinglenator!”
“Jeremy’s got to be a mutant- there’s no way that way a normal person could have that much acne and survive.”
“Oh, I don’t know… for instance, Stacy? How is it that I’ve never seen you with acne?”
“Simple,” Lauren drawled with a martyred tone, “Hours. And hours. In front of the mirror, looking for the first blackhead. If one shows up, total crisis!”
“Now, Caroline… a good looking woman like you shouldn’t be spending the Holidays alone! Why don’t I come over, and we’ll… roast some chestnuts on your fireplace…”
“Hey, who’s the big guy talking to Stacy?”
“What? That’s Dusty Caldwell.”
“THAT’S Dusty Caldwell? The little shmoo?”
“What” You’re the only one allowed to have a growth spurt?”
“How about ‘Alfarr, the Christmas Tree that walks like a man’?”
“Yeah, I’m a mutant… So, tell me: how does being smart and good with tools equate to being a mutant, hah?”
“Tell me, have any of you heard anything about a girl at Mansfield walking around with her panties around one ankle?”
“I got it: ‘Yuletide, the really frustrated superheroine who only comes once a year’!”
“Is anyone here a mutant? Well, I wouldn’t feel right without making at least ONE guess….”
“Now, now Rose… that oaf Branson is just fooling himself if he thinks that giddy little new trophy wife of his really loves him. The worst thing that you can do is hide yourself away and pout. It’s Christmas, it’s a time of celebration. Why don’t I come over and help you pick out the right outfit for a night out on the town?”
“Of course! Jingle Belle! With an ‘E’ at the end?”
“That’s Dusty? how does anyone go overnight to being THAT gorgeous?”
“It’s a curse, but I live with it…”
“What IS that Pierce boy up to this time?”
“Well, No, Dustin, I’m not seeing anyone. But I’m only 15, and I’m really not ready to start dating.”
“Nah, sounds like she shoot rockets from her feet.”
“And who says she can’t?”
“Hey, this is supposed to be a Christmas party. Can we shelf the whole ‘who’s a mutant’ bit?”
“What’s the matter, Spence? Nervous?”
“YES. My brother Bryant tried to put green dye in my shampoo, so he could blackmail me over having green hair!”
“So, Buck, are you by any chance descended from Charles Magill Conrad?”
“Please, I have my own distinctions to fall back on, I don’t need to crow about an illustrious ancestor.”
“Solstice, living legend of the North Pole!”
“Of course I’m a mutant! Could any normal person have such elevated levels of pure Awesome?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Melinda! Fifty isn’t old anymore! Just don’t try to be a teenybopper, and accept that you’re a woman of real accomplishments, and your only problem will be holding off the men who come sniffing around. I will, of course, offer my services in keeping them at bay- for considerations…”
“Spence, only you could put a smutty spin on ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town’. You make me proud.”
“Krissy Kringle, the Kristmas Krusader!”
“The first hard sell comes sometime in June
When last season's Christmas cards take too much room,
So they put them out in an off-season bin,
For in June they are getting their new shipments in.
“Hard sell, hard sell
Hard sell, hard sell
This is the Christmas we all know so well.
“About midway in July the lay-away plans
Make their laying-away-in-a-manger demands,
And installment plans begin their attempt to entice
You end up paying twice the original price.
“Then early in the fall there's a pre-season bluff
To sell gift wrappings, ribbons and other such stuff
>Buy it now! the ads demand, if you don't buy it, you
>Will discover we're out of it when you want to.
“By the time October comes, every store's lined with snares
With Halloween, Christmas and Thanksgiving wares;
What once were festivals that were simple and plain
All have become mere excuses for capital gain
“She-Devil? Isn’t that, like, copyrighted?”
“No, ‘Sidhe’, S-I-D-HE! It’s another name for elves?”
“That’s not even reaching, that’s just sad!”
“Ah, how about ‘Christmas Carol’?
“mmmaybe… ‘the Lethal Leprechaun’?”
“Okay, we have officially run this one into the ground.”
Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Don’t we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!
Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker ‘n’ too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, ‘lope with you!
Hunky Dory’s pop is lolly,
Gaggin’ on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie’s collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!
Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an’ polly voo!
Chilly Filly’s name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly’s jolly chilly view halloo!
Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!
Coming down the stairs from the washroom, Stacy took in the lovely, understated décor. Against her better judgment, she missed Danny Ferris, her first boyfriend. Okay, he was a sleazy, totally self-involved, drug-addicted, thieving, treacherous scumbag; but he made her feel like a real girl, and he never tried to go too far and get any real sex out of her. And when they kissed… “Hisst! Stacy!” Spencer called, “It’s time for the presents!”
Stacy’s gifts for Bryant and Lowell were pretty generic: matching knit cap, scarf and gloves for Bryant, and Lego™ blocks for Lowell. Her gift for Spence was a little more individual: she got him a utility belt. “For when you begin your career as a grim avenger of justice.”
Spence’s gift for her also showed some thought: it was a jacket, in the Mansfield colors, with the crest. “So you’ll have it, when Ms. Wickham decides to enroll you.”
Dylan took this opportunity to give Terri a necklace with a lovely gold filigree butterfly. Terri was sort of flustered by this. She stammered a thanks and walked away, trying to figure out how she felt about a boy she’d known for years, who was finally beginning to outgrow being a boy.
“Ooohh, that’s gonna get sticky,” Lauren said softly. “I mean, Dylan’s a right guy and all, but they’ve known each other for a long time. And I don’t think that Terri’s ready to start the whole dating thing.”
‘Even Christmas isn’t free of drama,’ Stacy mused to herself. Still, she envied Terri that there was a boy who wanted her, and without all the icky sleaze that bozos like Danny and Corey Griswold dragged into everything.
As she walked away, watching Dylan and Terri looking at each other from across the living room, she almost bumped into someone. Looking up, she saw that she’d run into Nate- who was wearing the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ mask she’d given him at his party. “The party’s starting to wind down,” he said, looking into her face intently. “You had to leave my party early, and I didn’t get to unwrap my present. Nice!”
“Yes, well, they’re very comfortable,” Stacy quipped, quoting one of the lines from ‘the Princess Bride’. “I think in the future, everyone will be wearing them.”
Nate smiled at that, and he looked up. They were standing under a sprig of mistletoe hung from the doorframe. He looked down at her, and their eyes locked. He bent over and kissed her.
Who was this punk Danny again?
This went on for a measureless time, until there was an amused ‘ahem!’ Stacy and Nate broke the kiss and turned to see ‘Buck’ standing there with Lauren, both of them with amused looks on their faces. Nate explained that he was just thanking Stacy for the cool gift, and there was the mistletoe…
Stacy just blushed and skittered over to ‘Grampa’s’ side. “I’m keeping an eye on you, kid,” Swashbuckler growled at Nate with beetled brows, and shooed Stacy over to the front closet. Lauren started to help Stacy on with her coat, but Stacy insisted on wearing her Mansfield jacket.
But once they were in the car, Swashbuckler dropped the act and kidded Stacy, “So… he was thankful… I gotta remember that one. All some people really want is to be…” he snickered, “thanked.”
Stacy bristled at being joshed, but then a penny visibly dropped. Her face blossomed into a grin of epiphany. “Of COURSE! It’s PERFECT!”
Stacy was bubbling over when they got to Wickham House, and she was raring to fire up her computer and get started, but Quinn Seabury met them at the door. “There’s been an incident,” was all she said as she hurried them to Ms. Wickham’s office. Karen, Cal and a couple of the household staff were watching a CNN broadcast on a widescreen TV. The images were very confusing, a cityscape that Stacy couldn’t peg right off the bat. The CNN subscript said that it was New York City’s Rockefeller Center, and something about ‘snowmen’.
“What’s this?” Stacy asked as she, Swash and Lauren walked in.
“CNN coverage of an incident in New York,” Karen said as she closely watched the rapidly changing shots of strange images.
“Why?” Swash asked as he pulled off his fake beard. “There’s usually something weird going on in New York. If only because Andy Warhol’s there.”
“Andy Warhol’s Dead.”
“How can they tell?”
“According to the mystic arts grapevine, there have been several attempts by a very nasty group called the Grand Hall of Sinister Wisdom to capture the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen,” Karen said. “Given that the ‘Angel’ has been tentatively identified as some sort of mutant, what happens to her in New York could affect Stacy’s standing here in Cincinnati.”
“How?” Stacy asked.
“That depends entirely on what happens,” Quinn said. “The Goodkinds’ people are probably watching this closely, looking for whatever spin they can put on it. They’ve been very hands-off on this, due to the Angel’s connection to the Roman Catholic Church. But they are watching.”
Then, the cycle of images apparently having run its course, as per CNN SOP, there was as complete a rundown on the situation as they could, before they started going back to cameras on the ground for new images. From what the gravely serious news-head was saying, New York had been hit by two bizarre occurrences which seemed to now be connected. There was something about… snowmen? Running amok in four of the five boroughs, but they’d been traveling in packs over the bridges from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens into Manhattan. And, at the same time, some skanky looking supervillainess in a kinky latex outfit called ‘Bete Noir’ was holding a bunch of kids hostage, using a squad of henchmen decked out as Santa Claus- Santa Claus? How tacky! Those poor kids! The snowmen were mashing themselves together to form a really BIG snowman. There were some New York superheroes on site, the Empire City Guard- and they had a kid on the team! Some blonde supergirl knockoff called MegaGirl. They were mixing it up with the Evil Santas and the snowmen, but they weren’t getting anywhere.
And then things got really weird. The Angel of Hell’s Kitchen, who hadn’t so much as poked her nose out of that church in over a month, flew in with a glorious pair of glowing wings. When did she get wings? And then some of the heroes flew off. The Evil Santas dogpiled on the Angel, and she knocked them off with a burst of power. Then that ‘Bete Noir’ chick turned out to be able to create dozens of clones of herself, and she dog-piled the Angel, and they were doing a better job. Then a frickin’ Devil dressed like a homeless guy ran into the mess, and started pulling the clones off the Angel. The newshead called the devil-guy ‘El Penetente’.
“MAN, I knew New York was weird, but I didn’t think it was this weird…” Lauren drawled.
“’El Penitente’?” Stacy peeped.
“It’s ‘the Penitent’, in Spanish,” Ms. Seabury explained.”What he’s doing penance for, I have no idea.”
Then the big snowman cracked like an egg, and this big frozen old man stepped out, and things got real serious. The Swedish looking newshead gulped and said, “Ymir…” like the end of the world was coming.
Karen, Swashbuckler and Ms. Seabury started talking about how anything as major league as Ymir (who Stacy knew from her studies was some big Frost Giant from Norse mythology) had got into the world in the first place. Ymir started laying down a major smackdown on all the superheros. Mega-Girl, the supergirl wannabe, had a real exciting moment- right up until Ymir swatted her like a fly. It was looking very bad for NYC, and Karen and Ms. Seabury were talking about the consequences for the rest of New York State- and New Jersey- and Connecticut.
Ymir had even smacked down the Amazing Three, who are, like major in New York, which has very high standards for major. The Angel was down, but not out. She got up and set up one of those ‘angels’ of hers to shield the bystanders. The shield grew, and you could make out the six red eyes and the six white wings, and there were wheels within wheels. And, somehow, even through the TV set (not a medium known for handling abstraction or subtlety well) you got a sense that the civilians, and the cops, and even the security guards were all joining in. There was an odd, droning, almost chanting noise, which Stacy was sure the audio was only giving a hint of, but still stirred something primal deep within her. As the shield grew, the chanting grew louder and more urgent. The whirling ‘angel’ grew to the point where it dominated the Rockefeller Center plaza. Ymir, as huge and dominant as it was, recoiled from the brilliance.
And then the shield collapsed, and a thin ray of light shot out from the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’s hand. It struck Ymir dead center, and for a second, he was lit from within. And then he exploded.
Well, he didn’t go ‘boom!’ One second he was there, the next, there was snow all over the place. There was a weird outgo and income of energy that wash out from the Angel of Hell’s kitchen and covered everything, breaking away the ice that covered the fallen heroes and somehow touched everything with a special magic.
“I can’t DO that,” Stacy croaked, her face flat and her eyes wide.
“For which mercies, Lord,” Cal intoned, “we are duly grateful.”
The Angel of Hell’s kitchen flew up to the Rockefeller Center’s famous huge Christmas tree and lightly touched the star at the very top, making it shine with a magical light. And then she flew off on wings of glory.
“Rick Standish is gonna have a field day with this,” Stacy droned.
“On the upside, Standish will have weeks of material from this,” Ms. Seabury pointed out. “Maybe you’ll get a break from him for a while.”
“The sad fact is that this is too big,” Swash said plopping into a chair. “We’re in the position that we’re going to have to respond to however this settles out. And I HATE not being able to set the terms of things.”
“Agreed,” Karen said. “Still, that’s not for you girls to worry about at the moment. Just go upstairs and… get on with whatever you were going to do.”
‘What was I going to do?’ Stacy wondered as she and Lauren mounted the stairs. “Oh! Of course!’ And she hurried up to her room.
Knights of Purity Operations Staging Area (temporary)
The maintenance crew was just getting the Pitcher unit’s stabilizer tweaked just right –as the only airborne unit in the KoP basic unit, the Pitcher required the most delicate maintenance- when the Chapter Commander walked into the staging area with two guys the crew had never seen before. “Load up Lance C in the Mobile Rig, and have them rigged for Grizzly,” the Honcho said. “When you’re done, come to the briefing room. We’ve got a special mission slated.”
“What about the Big Boss?” Lombardo asked. “He usually wants to be here for special missions, for the big morale speech.”
“This is strictly on the down-low,” one of the newcomers said with a Mid-Atlantic accent. “A special mission for the MCO. Mr. Goodkind needs Plausible Deniability, and given the people he has to deal with, his being able to say truthfully that he didn’t give any orders and knew nothing about any specific actions is crucial. As a matter of fact, this briefing will be so that you’ll know exactly what you’re supposed to not know.”
The crew looked at each other, and shared ‘oh, one of those missions’ looks.
The Pierce Household
Kirk broke off his conversation with his mother when his cellphone gave the special buzz. He wasn’t that heartbroken over it; it was yet another discussion as to why going to college would severely cramp his moves as to maintain- or hopefully wriggle out from under- the terms of his parole. “Okay, he said, I’m there. Where is it? Right. Get in, put on a good show, and then send for you. Right, and why don’t I just call for the rest of SPECTRUM? Right, right, I’ll FIND a reason. Count on me, Mr. Goodkind.”
“Kirk” Mrs. Pierce asked with concern as he got up. “What is it?”
“It’s an emergency, Mom,” Kirk answered seriously as he strode to the door down to the basement, punching a code into his phone as he walked. “One that needs… GOLDSTAR!”
Mrs. Pierce gave a martyred mother’s sigh, and once again regretted letting her husband talk her into condoning this nonsense. She heard the sound of the pod entering its dock through the lock. Then there was an odd sound she hadn’t heard before, one like water hitting a hot griddle. That concerned her a bit, but then there was the sound of the pod going back out the lock again. She let out another sigh. She was still worried about Kirk. But she was even more worried that he wouldn’t be able to get out of the hole he was digging for himself in time to get into a good college. After all, how do you put ‘operated as a superhero’ on a college application?
Ohio State Highway Patrol ISU Evidence Locker at Milford
Gibson watched as two Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department trucks drove up. He did a quick check of the plates, and they came up clean. But when the lead truck pulled up to the challenge point, he told them, “We’re not scheduled for anything from Dayton today.”
[Rush order,] said the deputy as he flashed his ID into the camera. [They wanted this out of Dayton FAST, so the paperwork must not have caught up with us]
“What IS it?”
[What, they TELL you stuff? Man, I went to the academy to be a COP; instead, I’m a glorified moving man. Let us in, at least so we can shut down the engines while the paper pushers yell at each other]
Worse brangles in inter-jurisdictional matters happened on a good day. Gibson opened the gate and alerted the Officer on Watch. As they waited, the Deputies in dark gray opened up the back, revealing another deputy in body armor with a heavy-duty shotgun guarding a stout locker. The other truck had pretty much the same. Lt. McCord strolled out with a clipboard. “Okay, exactly what IS this?”
“I’m not sure,” the Sergeant in charge of the detail admitted, as he handed McCord a sheaf of paperwork. “There was a big dustup about sunrise- I’m not sure about the specifics- and we gotta get these things under heavy lockup FAST.”
“Oh, not ‘go, go, go, I’m bleeding’ fast, but I don’t think we want to be caught with these things out in the open anytime soon.”
Then McCord got a squawk on his radio. As he put the handset to his face, his expression changed. The shorter of the two female deputies lurched forward and jabbed a hand shocker into his thigh. As McCord went down, she snapped, “CONTACT!”
The ‘deputies’ with shotguns fired them at two of the Highway Patrolmen who were standing by. Luckily for them, the shotguns were loaded with ‘sandbag’ rounds, so they lived to tell about it. The mock deputies burst into action. The taller of the two female charged the door, and shouldered it open with enough force to injure the Patrolman who was closing it. The ‘deputies’ rushed into the door, taking the two trunks with them.
The Evidence Locker compound was surrounded by both Highway Patrol units and Cincinnati SWAT units. The sergeant in charge of the Cincinnati PD units told the Highway Patrol captain, “We’re getting some flack from City Hall about mobilizing the Power Suit Squad. We’ve got a member of SPECTRUM en route.”
The sergeant winced and nodded. “He was available and in the vicinity. SPECTRUM says they’ll try to get Blue Streak here ASAP to ride herd on him, and they’re trying to contact both Captain Patriot and Violet.”
As though on cue, a gold-and-black armored figure flew down and asked what the situation was. When they brought him up to speed, he said, “This is very dangerous. They’re probably trying to get into the sealed vault with all the power items that Madcap re-empowered. I have to go in and keep them from using whatever it is they brought in. But I need backup. I’m radioing for the perfect party to deal with this. When they arrive, let them set up and then send them in.”
“Central says that SPECTRUM’s sending Blue Streak and Cap’n Patriot- why would they need setting up?”
“Cap and the Streak are busy handling emergencies in Millvale and Price Hill,” Goldstar said. “Probably just to keep them from this. I’m bringing in experts.” With that, Goldstar charged in, battering his way past the blockade at the door.
“Okay, that was weird,” Captain Malden said. “He actually stopped and talked to us.”
“Weirder, he sounded competent,” Sergeant Esterhazy. “And what do you think he meant by ‘bringing in experts’?”
“I have a very bad feeling about this.”
A semi-rig hauling an oversized trailer rolled up to the gates of the Locker compound running a siren and flashing lights. The Patrol Officer at the gate started to tell the driver to come back later, but the signage on the side of the trailer shifted from a rather generic Moving and Storage company to the Knights of Purity™ logo. “Cap’n Malden, I think those ‘experts’ we been waiting for have shown up.”
Malden let out a grunt of annoyance. “I should have known. Let them in; the Brass is cheaping it out on the Power Suit Squad, saying that they’re under-powered, since so many suits got ripped by that monster. Okay, let them show what they can do. At least this time, there aren’t any civilians in the line of fire.”
The semi rig hauled the trailer in the gate and pulled it so one side, the opposite side to the logo, faced the Locker warehouse. That side swung down in sections, depositing the six empty suits of armor in quick deployment position. Men in KoP support uniforms bustled out and connected heavy cables on reels to the power suits. Then they connected a much larger cable on a similar reel to the ‘bus’ on the trailer. A man wearing KoP pilot’s armor strode up to Malden, and took in the sounds of a pitched battle going on inside. “Hello, I’m Knight Commander Artigillo of Lance C,” he offered his hand for Malden to shake. “We’ll be ready to go as soon as my men connect the main cable to a utility line.”
“Unless they’ve got some freak ‘exotic power source’, all power armor runs off batteries,” the knight commander explained. “Unless we want to run the risk of using batteries with toxic components, we’ve got to recharge almost constantly. The ‘Umpire’ suit,” he jerked a thumb at a large boxy unit of armor with several outsized ‘boxes’ arranged, “uses a broadcast power hookup to recharge the combat units in a fight. But even then, it’s best if they go in with batteries fully charged for as long as possible. The Ump will stay out of combat and keep connected to a ‘power cord’ for as long as possible, but again, the Ump can only recharge one unit at a time. So-”
“So, you need to be hooked up to the power supply, right,” Malden said. He gave one of the Locker personnel the nod, and that civilian employee and two of the KoP support men hauled the reel over to the junction box.
“Okay, we don’t want a repeat of that cluster fuck at the Aronhoff,” Artigillo said. “Do you have any idea of who we’re going up against?”
“Well, from the reports, they have a tall female brick, a female telepath, a male stretcher, a male flame projector, and the guy making leader sounds has been reported as throwing around very confusing illusions,” Malden said. “They haven’t shown their true colors yet, but the smart money is betting on Cardinal Sin and his traveling medicine show.”
“Right,” Artigillo replied crisply, followed by ordering into his headset, “Download Option #4.”
By the time the pilots were in their rigs and had done their pre-fight checklists, the cables were connected to the power station, and all six lights were green. [With your permission, Captain Malden?]
Malden gave a thumbs up, and the Knights of Purity advanced, the ‘Batter’ in the lead, holding up a huge tower shield with a small ‘periscope’ camera clipped to the top. As the ‘Umpire’, the last unit in the formation went through the wide double doors, Malden let out a groan. “I wonder whose budget the money to clean up this mess is gonna come out of?”
The Knights of Purity frames charged down the short corridor, burst through the already wrecked security doors, and advanced into the main area of the warehouse in position. As they came storming in, the Congregation of Crime, back in their signature reds and blacks, were moving cases and crates around, and Cardinal Sin in his scarlet cassock was going over a clipboard. Looking up, the Cardinal said, “Well, it’s about TIME you got here!”
Cardsharp looked up from where he was drawing elaborate designs on the wall in multiple colors of chalk. If the Silver Ghost or the Green Witch had been there, they would have found the designs very familiar. “Oh, HEY Gerald! You have any problems with the KoP gear?”
The Crimson Claw (‘Artigillo’ being Italian for ‘Talon’) raised up his helmet and said, “Some, but give the Goodkind’s designers their due, they really did try to idiot-proof their equipment.”
“Which says something about Herb Goodkind’s hiring standards,” the Cardinal smirked as he switched the playlist on the sound system he’d smuggled into the locker in one of the trunks. Now the elaborate sound system, which had been playing sound effects of one kind of battle, started playing a more complicated mix, which included the sounds of guns going full autofire. “Mind you, if I was Goodkind, I’d put a little more money into their site security as well. But I hear that most Old Money families have strong streaks of CHEAP as well.”
“Okay just so everyone’s on the same page, here goes,” Cardsharp said, walking over to the large fused-iron box that had been an evidence vault. “Gerald, your exit portal is over THERE,” he pointed to a section of open wall. “All the stuff on your wish list is stashed in nice neat stacks next to it, including cash transit bags with $320,000- odd in various denominations of CASH. Damien, your exit portal is over THERE,” Cardsharp pointed at a section of wall almost diametrically opposite across the main area. “Same deal with the swag, including bags with $320 thou and change. MY exit portal is over THERE,” He pointed at a section of wall on a side that abutted both of theirs, where a couple of cash transport bags were stashed. “And MY loot… is in THERE.” He pointed at the vault. “I’ll power up the exit portals when that thing is open, and I’ve got my shopping list filled.”
The Pierce Household
Jackie Pierce pointedly didn’t drink. Especially before noon. She wasn’t an alcoholic, but she definitely understood the drive to escape your troubles in drink. She wasn’t an alcoholic, and she didn’t want to be an alcoholic, but she did want a nice glass of wine every now and again. Just not as a refuge from the everyday strains and pains of life. She’d seen too many friends go that route, and she knew where it led.
But she hated when Kirk went off like that. Yes, he was super-strong. Yes, he was very tough. Yes, he could fly. But her boy didn’t understand that what he was doing was dangerous, and not just for him. on some level, he thought that it was a football game, or basketball, and he was going to win, and people would cheer, and there’d be cute girls draped all over him. He didn’t get that people could die in all that.
So she focused all her tension and anxiety into cleaning up the house, despite the fact they had a cleaning lady who was paid to do it. And to be honest, was a lot better at it than she was. But it was better than letting the anxiety eat at her. Or ‘just taking a nip to take the edge off’.
After a while, lacking anything better to do, she went down into the garage, to see if there was any laundry in the hamper that needed doing. Yes, Laundry. Kirk was driving her to laundry.
Jackie went into the laundry room, checked the detergent and bleach, and found nothing in the hamper. But then she started sneezing. What was making her sneeze? She checked the detergent and bleach again, and the containers were whole and secure; no cleaning chemicals were getting out into the air. Through watering eyes, she searched the laundry room more. Then she noticed that the dryer was out of position. It had been moved so the space between one side and the wall was wider. Curious, she looked into the dark space, and she was started when a black cat hissed, jumped out of the space and sped out of the room.
Well that explained that: Jackie was allergic to cat dander. Her first reflex was to go up to her medicine cabinet and get her antihistamine. But then she saw something, and every thought of her allergies disappeared as her maternal anxieties erupted into full realization.
Ohio State Highway Patrol ISU Evidence Locker at Milford
“Gerald, are you sure that’s necessary?” Cardsharp asked dubiously as the Crimson Claw and two of his men patched four of the heavy-duty high-power lines into the power array of the Umpire unit. Kludged into the hard-point where the long-range broadcast power projector normally was, an energy projector with a more weapon-like focusing ‘lens’ was trained on the fused scandium-iron vault. “I mean, you don’t have to erode the entire vault. You don’t even have to erode the frickin’ door. You just have to erode the seam of the weld joint where the door merged with the rest of the vault. I even got it chalked out for you, and ever’thing.” He jerked a thumb at the chalk outline on the vault. Cardinal Sin was also watching the process with curiosity. “Any more and it could be dangerous”
The Claw rattled off a line of technobabble as he and one of his henchmen made sure that the balance of power was correct. He saw looks of incomprehension on their faces, even through the masks and sighed. “LOOK, the unit’s usual power cable is more than enough to power the Disassembler. It will take 20 minutes to electrolytically ‘erode’ the scandium from the alloy, but once it’s done, Superbia should be able to just rip the door off its hinges. Not that anyone would notice if we just blew the door off the box,” he grumbled, casting a glance at the sound system, which was blaring the sound effects of a pitched battle. “What I’m doing with these extra power cables is creating a-” the Claw cut off another techno-spiel, and continued, “These KoP power frames are my real profit margin for this whole cluster fuck. Slap a coat of red primer on them and upgrade the wussy nonlethal armaments to something with some real kickass, and I’ll be able to mount a couple of campaigns so profitable that I’ll be able to hire some real A-Listers to come to Cincinnati and get my power talon back for me.
“But these suits aren’t a lot of good without this ‘Umpire’ unit. Two of the problems with a long-run ‘burn’ like you’re talking about Cardsharp, are the chances of something burning out on the projector, and the chance of some kind of feedback from- well, any of a dozen side effects of pumping that kind of power into that much iron. The extra power cables will create an effect that will handle both a burnout and a feedback spike.”
Mollified, both Cardsharp and the Cardinal let the Claw go at it. A few minutes later, the Claw told his men, “Okay guys, one last test, and we’ll crack this puppy like a walnut. Damian, come here, you’re gonna want to see this up close. Delta, give me a sound check.” He slipped a headset with ‘wolf ears’ on his head, and gave ‘Delta’ a thumbs-up.
The ‘Catcher’ unit engaged its Siren, and a rattling, ear-shattering wail filled the warehouse, the acoustics of which did horrible things to Cardsharp’s and the Congregation’s ears. As Cardsharp clutched his ears, he fell to his knees, and the Claw jabbed a hand shocker into him, putting him down. Then he fired a taser dart from the shocker into Cardinal Sin’s leg.
“Damian!” Mother Superbia shouted, even over covering her ears. But her concern only set her up for the Batter, who used his massive club to, well, bat her into the clutches of the Catcher. As the powerful arms wrapped around her as they were designed to do, Brother Gula staggered over to help her. The Pitcher stepped between them with his forearm mounted blaster ready. Brother Gula steadied himself to absorb the blast, but the Runner executed a stock KoP maneuver where it ran around him at very high speeds, wrapping him in a cocoon of a material designed specifically to hold bricks. The Runner almost didn’t complete the maneuver, when Brother Acedia focused his gravity on the armor unit. But the Pitcher, who had his blaster ready, gave Brother Acedia a zap that stopped him and got him to drop his protective gravitic field long enough for the Crimson Claw to load another pair of taser darts into his shocker. The Claw zapped Acedia while the zapping was good, and nailed Brother Avaritia while he was trying to grapple the Pitcher while that unit was in the air. And then the Claw shocked Sister Lascivia, even though she was on the ground holding her ears in pain, on general principles. As the Clawmen took care of the Cardinal’s laymen, the Claw waved the Shortstop to shut down the siren.
When the last of the laymen was taken care of, one of the Claw’s lieutenants asked him, “Why didn’t you just take Cardsharp’s deal as it was, Boss?”
The Claw looked at him and said, “I didn’t become a criminal mastermind to wait in line and take what I was given, like a good little boy. ‘Honorable Outlaws’, my ASS.”
Among the Clawmen, there was a general consensus of ‘oh yeah, we work for a badass’.
The Pierce Household
Jackie Pierce came up from the basement when she heard a knocking at the back door. But who’d be knocking at the back door? She went into the kitchen and opened the door to find-
-the Green Witch and the Silver Ghost?
Okay, almost any really fit 30-something model could wear a ‘Green Witch’ costume; but there was no way that anyone could do that weird ‘liquid silver’ effect that the Silver Ghost had. As Jackie reacted to that, the Green Witch said, “Mrs. Pierce, Kirk’s parole officer called us and told us that there was a serious matter here?”
The logic of that course of action cut right through Jackie’s sublimated panic, and she nodded. She showed them down to the laundry room. There, shoved into the space between the dryer and the wall, out like a light, was Kirk, still in his civilian clothing. “He got a call about an hour or so ago. I think it was from the Knights of Purity. He said something about an emergency, and that he was to arrange to call for the Knights, and leave SPECTRUM out of it some way. Then he came down here, and I heard the pod leave.”
“When Herb Goodkind got Kirk paroled, he also arranged for that hatch to be built from this basement to the nearest utility tunnel. There’s a kind of rail system that the local Utility uses to move gear around. Behind that door out there, there's a kind of one-man subway car that gets him around town quickly without him giving away where we live by flying in and out of here. It also suits him up in his armor. He calls it the ‘pod’. It has four levels: interior gel padding, the exterior mesh, the gold-plated hard plates, and the force-field anchors on top of that. That way he doesn’t have to waste time getting in and out, and he can get briefed on whatever while he’s in transit.”
“Well, someone put some thought into it,” the Green Witch said.
“Herb Goodkind probably put a team on it,” the Silver Ghost muttered.
“Wait a minute,” the Green Witch said as though something had just occurred to her. “You say the pod left?”
“I was wondering about that too,” Jackie said. “One of his sets of armor is gone from the auto-fit rack, so if Kirk’s in there… who’s in the pod?”
“Hold on,” the Silver Ghost said. “There’s something…” She reached into the breast pocket of Kirk’s shirt and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “’Matthew 9:24’,” she read off.
“The Gospel According to Matthew,” Jackie said, “’And he said, ‘Go away. This girl is not dead, but merely asleep’.”
“Cardsharp,” the Green Witch snarled, “So THAT’S what he was up to. At least at the Check Cashing place. He was finding out what would and wouldn’t work on Goldstar.”
“It also says,” the Silver Ghost continued, “’As my dear old dad used to tell me, ‘Never bring Family into anything except Thanksgiving and Christmas. And even then, only after a good stiff drink’.”
“That’s Cardsharp’s folksy way of saying that you don’t have to worry, that he won’t bother you,” the Green Witch said. “Then again, given that it’s Cardsharp, I wouldn’t put a genial doglegged kind of blackmail behind it, ‘don’t try to capture me, or I’ll tell people about your family’, that sort of thing.”
Then something came to the Green Witch. “You said that the Knights of Purity called Goldstar on something? And now his transportation pod and one of his suits of armor are gone?” Jackie nodded. The Green Witch pulled out a communicator and said, “Gee Kay? We have an emergency, exact grade unknown. I need a computer search for any calls in the past two hours that mention Goldstar or the Knights of Purity. I also need a locator search out for Goldstar’s location; ignore any signals from this location. Alert all members, and direct them to wherever Goldstar’s signal is. Have Violet pick Silver and me up near this location.” Then she headed for the stairs.
“WAIT!” Jackie pleaded, “What about Kirk?”
“Well, the note said that he wasn’t hurt, just sleeping,” the Witch said. She rummaged around in his clothing, and found a pair of playing cards clipped together. It took a little doing, and she clearly had to expend some magic to do it, but the Witch got the cards away from him.
“He’s still asleep,” Jackie said with the worry in her voice and eyes that said that somewhere in her, she still saw Kirk as her 5-year-old little boy.
“What? You’ve never read ‘Sleeping Beauty’?” the Witch said with a smile.
“Don’t look at me,” the Ghost said. “I don’t even like him!”
Jackie almost snapped at the bizarre girl, but she remembered the times that Kirk had mentioned the Ghost. No matter how biased he was, given his attitude toward her, it would be amazing- worrying even- if the girl was even fond of him. “Oh well, they say the only truer love is God’s…” The Ghost pulled Kirk out from the niche between the dryer and the wall, and Jackie leaned over and gave her boy a kiss. “He’s not waking up…”
“The spell is broken,” the Witch assured her. “It’s just going to take a while. And in the meantime… Silver! We have to get going!”
Ohio State Highway Patrol ISU Evidence Locker at Milford
“Okay Claw,” Gamma, his main technician said, “The Disassembler has been reset from ‘Electrolytic Erosion’ to ‘Super-charge the scandium’. The capacitors are at full charge, the cohesion chamber is ready, and the ion in the door’s been pre-charged. The second we pull the trigger, the iron in there will react with a powerful like charge to the scandium, and it’ll rip itself apart at the molecular level.”
“Short form, boys,” the Claw said with a big grin as he settled the goggles over his eyes and gripped the trigger, “We’re taking it up to ELEVEN!”
The Claw pulled the trigger and a bright burst of power shot out from the disassembler to hit the door. The door, as advertised, the door exploded and blew out of its frame. But that explosion was almost immediately followed by a larger explosion from within the vault that almost lifted the box off its pallet. Gouts of flame came from inside the vault.
Cardsharp snapped to. “WHAT? Dammit, Dacanay, you IDIOT, didn’t I TELL you that that could be dangerous?”
The Claw gestured at his minion piloting the Shortstop frame. But Cardsharp quick drew his hex shooters and put bolts of lightning into the ‘speakers’, bypassing the shields, completely destroying the crystals and silencing the siren. He then blasted the power lines connected to the Umpire frame. Then he freed Mother Superbia from the Catcher frame by blasting the release latches and Brother Gula by burning off the cocoon. Then he threw cards onto Cardinal Sin and Brothers Acedia and Avaritia, rousing them from being unconscious.
As the Congregation of Crime advanced on the Clawmen, Cardsharp grabbed a Gladstone type traveling bag and pulled out a cloth bag. He threw the bag into the fire inside the vault. Then, incredibly, he ran into the vault. The Clawmen and Congregation mixed it up viciously for several minutes, but the fight froze in mid-assault when a loud screech emerged from the vault. With a look like an outraged father on his face, Cardsharp staggered out of the vault with a charred box, just large enough to hold in one hand. “DECANAY!” he thundered, “Claw, you fucking IDIOT! I TOLD you it was dangerous! Look at it! This is… this WAS the Reliquary of Valcar the Damned! It had POWER! It was specifically on my sponsor’s list! Look at it! RUINED! I got to explain to my sponsor- MY SPONSOR- that the Reliquary of the Valcar the Damned is slag, because I trusted a ratsass with a techno-fetish!” Cardsharp threw the ruined item at the Crimson Claw. Furious, he stalked over to his pile of swag, picked it up and stashed it in his Gladstone bag (despite the fact that the pile of loot was at least 10 times larger). Then he threw a playing card at one of the exit portals. Then he tromped over to the Claw’s pile of loot and took one of the cash transport bags. Then he marched over to another of the exit portals. He stopped, turned and snarled, “Decanay, you fucking MORON, know that I AM going to file a grievance with the Syndicate over this!”
With that, he turned and stalked through the exit portal, leaving only a tangle of various colored chalk on the wall.
The supervillains and minions watched Cardsharp’s exit open mouthed. The Cardinal looked at the Claw and started to say something, but something visibly occurred to him. “Carpe praegressus Cirtam euocari ad receptum nostrum, et celaverimus!” he snapped. Mother Superbia finished off her tussle with the Batter and sprinted over to the stash of loot and scooped it up in an awkward but effective carry. Between the Cardinal whipping up a ‘flaming inferno’ that confused any ranged attacks, Brother Gula doing an 4xG area suppression and Brother Gula placing himself between the Clawmen and the Congregation, they managed to effect their own withdrawal through the exit portal. Brother Avaritia even managed to reach over and snag two bags of cash from the Claw’s stash just before he went through the portal, in a sort of ‘Up Yours’ last gesture.
Or maybe he was just living up to his name.
The Crimson Claw snarled with frustration, but didn’t have any legitimate outlet for his frustration. He was clearly the cause of the entire reversal of fortune, and he couldn’t shift the blame: just at the moment, he needed his men’s support far more than he needed a scapegoat. “CRAP!” he snapped. “Grab what you can carry, and let’s get out of here before anyone at KoP headquarters finds the guys we tied up!”
Relieved that the boss wasn’t going to scapegoat anyone, the Clawmen quickly picked up the swag and cash bags (those that remained) and lined up for the exit portal.
Which didn’t work.
Lifting his helmet, the Claw peered at the design. In the spot where the five different color patterns merged, a card was pasted against the wall. The Two of Spades, though that meant nothing to the Claw. “Damn,” Gerald Decanay, the Crimson Claw, growled at the absent Cardsharp. “Looks like he’s getting his pound of flesh after all.”
He took a deep breath and thought intently for several minutes. Okay, this is criminal mastermind time. Time to pull a masterful escape out of your ass, Claw.
“Bad News, Men,” he said. “This is what happens when you play the other guy’s game on his court. I don’t have any way of getting us out of here. I was counting on being able to put a gun to Cardsharp’s head and having him teleport us out. I didn’t have money for a Boom Tube. The backup crew has already removed the KoP transport. Our batteries are low, and Cardsharp shot the KoP power cables to shreds. And using any of the power items we’ve got without prior training would be an invitation to disaster. So, we balls it out. We head out in a full charge, grab whoever we can take as hostage, we grab whatever vehicles we can use, and we improvise like Robin Williams. It’s a sucky plan, but it’s the only thing we’ve GOT. Lock and load boys, it’s Butch and Sundance time.”
They readied themselves, loaded up the KoP units’ backup guns, got in position, and with the Batter unit in the lead, they went through the armored double doors at a full charge.
And ran into a wall of transparent purple force.
Looking past the force field, the Crimson Claw saw the entire, er, spectrum of SPECTRUM (except for Goldstar) arrayed again them. Even the Silver Ghost was there. She was looking at them with a wide grin, clearly thrilled at the prospect of tearing apart some Knights of Purity armor.
“Is this my Christmas present?” she chirped.
Unspecified Rally Point
“Is everyone alright?” Damian Heller aka Cardinal Sin, asked both his ‘Congregation’ and the ‘laymen’.
“The usual bruises and scrapes,” his wife aka ‘Mother Superbia’ answered. “What about Ginger?”
“Lascivia’s still out of it,” Brother Ira (whose real name was, ironically enough, Ira) said. “The Claw tasered her good. She’s gonna be out for a couple of hours. And she’s gonna want a couple of down days after this.”
“And she’s going to get it,” the Cardinal said. While he wasn’t in Doctor Diabolik’s league, he was still a firm believer in ‘get good people, earn their trust, and treat them right’. “Now, the problem is, how are going to get back to our staging area? We can’t trust Cardsharp to get us back, not after what went down.”
“Now Damian!” came Cardsharp’s amused voice, “I’m HURT!” Cardsharp strolled into the large bare room with the Gladstone bag in hand and a large smirk on his face that showed through the walrus mustache.
Damian took this in and remarked, “Well, you’re looking very happy for a man whose big play got tanked, and has to tell his sponsor that he was HAD by a creep with the corny name, ‘the Crimson Claw’.” Cardsharps smirk curled into a pussycat smile under the mustache. “What? You DIDN’T get taken? How?” Then, well, Cardinal Sin didn’t rise to the scarlet by being slow on the uptake, “WHAT? You orchestrated that? You set us ALL up?”
“No, no, Damian” Cardsharp tutted him. “I didn’t set anybody up. I gave both of you a golden opportunity to show what you were really made of. I just took precautions, in case one of you was made of chickenshit.”
“But your objective!” Damian quibbled, “It got… it didn’t!” he said, struck by an insight. “Before they got there, you were scrawling things on the vault- you were shielding the contents! You knew that the Claw would use the disassemble on its ‘explosive’ rather than ‘dissolve’ setting.”
“Well, Gerald has a nasty case of ‘I got a new toy! Must play with it!’” Cardsharp pointed out.
“But an explosion of that magnitude…” the penny dropped. “Didn’t happen. The vault was supposed to contain the explosion, but even with a protective spell, there’s no way that you’d risk an explosive/implosive force damaging the artifacts. The explosion was an illusion!”
“You’re supposed to say it like Doug Henning,” Cardsharp teased, “’An illllooooozhuuunn!’”
“How’d you get the stuff you wanted out of the vault?” the Cardinal asked in the tones of a professional fishing for a tip.
“What? I may want to use that trick again.”
“You had a plan in case the Claw tried to stab us in the back?” Mother Superbia asked.
“Hey, I may not be a big shot Criminal Mastermind,” Cardsharp grinned, “but I still had things set up so’s I’d get mine whether you all came across, or one of you got ansty or you both decided to crack foxy. For instance, right now, Gerald’s doing some very fast explaining to the Cops- and SPECTRUM, the local long-john guild.”
“How’d you arrange that?”
“Why do you think I changed out of Goldstar’s high tech union suit?” Cardsharp asked rhetorically. “He’s on parole; the Cops have that thing LoJacked. I set it up so that he’d be found unconscious, without making it too obvious. Whoever found him would either call the Cops or his PO, and they’d contact the Justice League. It might be a little hard on the local Cops, keeping the Claw and his men around for SPECTRUM to show up; but hey, is that any of our problem? Besides, I saw you slip the Claw a Sorcerer’s Contract when you shook hands, sealing the deal. Good ol’ Gerald is in for a world of hurt.”
“Very clever,” Mother Superbia said over arms fold across her impressive chest. “But speaking of ‘getting yours’; we played along and took out Goodkind’s goons at their own base. So we get ours.”
“Now how could I refuse such a lovely lady?” Cardsharp retorted with a leer. He started to open his Gladstone bag.
The laymen and a couple of the Congregation reacted, but the Cardinal waved them down. “This is our real payoff. Back at the Union Terminal museum, Cardsharp foisted off that big gun on the ‘Golden Angel’, remember?”
Cardsharp pulled three rectangular cases out of his Gladstone. “There’s a criminal scientist called ‘Vitrious’, who’s huge into researching power gems. These cases are some of his ‘accretion chambers’ that had some success before they went fritz. So, if the ‘Golden Angel’ can make burned out power items work again, maybe she can get these things to work ONCE, long enough to produce some reasonably kickass power gems. Okay Damian, our deal was that I get one gem per case, and you get the rest; if there’s only one gem in a case, it’s yours. These things have only just cooled, down, so let’s crack ‘em open, and see if the cat’s alive or not?”
Cardsharp indicated the near-weld caused in the lid of the case by the massive overload that Madcap had caused in the BFG. With the air of a woman opening a pickle jar for a ‘big strong man’, Mother Superbia took the case, applied her superior strength and broke it open. There were five niches in the case, and there were a glittering stone the size of peach pits in each of them. “Huh. Didn’t expect them all to actualize,” Cardsharp grunted as he took one of the stones, leaving the others for the Cardinal.
As the Cardinal gloated over four power stones, Cardsharp loaded his share into the broken breach of one of his hex shooters. “Okay, Damian, but don’t get your hopes up too much. Vitrious is still whistling in the dark when it comes to producing power stones, and he’s gone past this. The next one could be all duds. At least you’re seeing a profit from all this.” But when Mother Superbia cracked open the second case, there were another five power gems.
“What do they do?” asked Brother Avaritia.
“No idea,” Cardsharp said as he took his single power gem from the tray and loaded it into his other hex-shooter.
Cardinal Sin watched with eager greed as Mother Superbia opened the third and last. And yet again, there were five apparently viable power gems in the tray. “YES!” Damian exulted. As Cardsharp took one of the stones with the air of a bookie paying off on a very long-shot dark horse winner, the Cardinal gloated, “I am SO glad that I decided to play along with you, Cardsharp!”
“Well, it turns out that there ARE rewards for virtue,” Cardsharp said philosophically. “Who knew?” He looked at the power gem, shrugged and having no other weapon to upgrade with it, tucked it away. “Well, I wasn’t expecting a 100% success rate, but I wouldn’t deserve this outfit if I didn’t appreciate it when a long shot gamble pays off. So we’re both making out on this one, Damian. Let’s hope that the next time we do business together it turns out as well. But in the meantime, as my Dear Old Dad used to tell me, ‘Son, the best time to go is when people want you to come back. So, Happy Trails!” He tipped his hat to the ladies and sauntered out the door.
Quickly divesting himself of the more obvious elements of his ‘working clothes’, such as the black Stetson hat and the false mustache, let alone the ‘Lone Ranger’ mask, and reversing his coat so that it showed another cut and color, Cardsharp traveled to a Greyhound™ bus station, and checked his traveling bag into a locker. It would stay there safely for at least a month until he came for it. He then carefully went into the men’s room and availed himself of the facilities. Gingerly waiting for a moment alone, he sketched a design onto one of the full-length mirrors, and walked through the looking glass.
But neither Alice’s Chessboard countryside nor Wonderland was on the other side. Rather, it was a roomy vestibule that opened up into a wide hall with black-and-white checked tiles on the floor. Cardsharp didn’t know who had contrived to construct the equivalent of an English country house inside a Gladstone traveling bag, but one thing was for sure: the man had decidedly Victorian tastes. Getting this place rigged for electricity, DSL and Dish had been a real grizzly. Cardsharp slipped out of his frock coat and armored ‘waistcoat’, and pulled off his cowboy boots. He tucked his feet into comfortable slippers and relaxed with a glad sigh. He walked through a door into a storage room. There, in the place of the forged goods that he’d stocked the room with, were the actual various power items that had so mysteriously disappeared from the Evidence Locker. And best of all, Mab the Cat hadn’t been there, so there was no way that Mabd would know about the power gems. “MAN, I am good,” Cardsharp smirked.
With another glad sigh of relaxation, Cardsharp strolled out of the room, and made his way to the lounge. There, among the Victorian-era luxury, near the large white marble fireplace, was one of the few non-electronic furnishings that he’d felt necessary to bring in: a Lay-Z-Boy recliner. Grabbing a remote control, he turned on some Charlie Parker jazz and made himself a drink at the wet bar. Drink in hand, he sat down in the recliner, pushed back to the reclining position, shut his eyes and let out another sigh of satisfaction.
Life was GOOD.
But Mab the Cat had other opinions on the matter. Leaping up on the arm of the chair, she gave Cardsharp a very feline glower. She poked her nose into his face, which he ignored. She let out a feline growl of annoyance, which he pointedly ignored. Then she swatted his nose, with the insinuation that the next one would have claws in it.
Cardsharp opened his eyes and glared at Mab with annoyance. Mab stared right back him with just as much annoyance. Cardsharp let out a gusty sigh of frustration. “And to think that I went into Supervillainy because I didn’t want a job where my boss would be breathing down my neck every second of the day…” he grumbled.
He got up out of the chair and stalked back to the storage room, where he picked up an armload of the power items that he’d pillaged from the Evidence Locker. He trudged along with them, and then remembered something. He made a detour in the kitchen, and resumed his trip with a few more items in his load. He went into an octagonal room which was dominated by a tall black mirror in the very center. Cardsharp settled his burden in front of the mirror, and then kneeled on the pillow set there. He lit two candles and a stick of incense with a flame from one finger. Centering himself with a breath that was more than half martyred sigh, Cardsharp began an invocation. “Hail to thee, Weaver of the Midnight Veil, glorious Queen of the Moonlit Highway, Empress of the Starry River, the Scapegrace Knight of the Forgotten Moonsilver Quest seeks thy counsel…” and the litany went on for a bit. Cardsharp repeated it entirely three times. Then, a sharp note to his voice, he barked, “HEY, MABD! PICK UP THE PHONE ALREADY!”
A visage of cold, harsh eldritch beauty, with yawning black expanses where her eyes should be and framed by a dark mass that might be hair, resolved into being on the mirror’s pane. ‘Hail to thee, brave Scapegrace Knight,’ the visage intoned dispassionately, ‘the Eighth Queen of the Court of the West hears- is that chocolate?’
Barely hiding a smirk, Cardsharp poured the box of Raisinettes™ into a bowl. “I got the dark chocolate kind that you like so much,” he said by way of confirmation. Then he twisted open the bottle of beer and poured it into a glass. “AND I found another craft brew that I thought you might like to try…” Actually, it was one of those cutesy brews that yuppies like, with strawberry and a few other flavorings that Cardsharp thought had no call for being in a beer, but Mabd seemed to like that swill. The glass of beer emptied without trace, the bowl of chocolate-covered raisins did likewise, and Mabd’s bitter expression sweetened a mite. And God knows, Cardsharp mused, that mug needs all the sweetening it can get.
‘Very good, Taggart,’ Mabd resumed with a touch better humor. ‘You have news for me.’ She did not ask.
“Yeah, there was a recent left-field, ah, that means ‘completely unexpected’, development that resulted in the, un, renewal? Re-empowering? Whatever. A whole bunch of supervillain power items that had burned out and was useless were suddenly made valid again. It’s a long story, your furry little fink here can fill you in on the details,” he kited an icy glance at Mab, who returned it with feline serenity. “Short form: I barely managed to beat two other operators to them. I went after them on my own initiative, because I knew that the chances of there being anything that you were interested in were low, and you wouldn’t want to be bothered, unless I actually found anything.” Actually, Cardsharp had Mabd pegged as a relentless micro-manager, and if he didn’t give her a compelling rationale for not doing so, she’d ride him like the Queen of the Hags.
Which she just might be.
“Now, I wasn’t gonna bother you with any of this, until I’d confirmed each and every piece myself,” Cardsharp continued, “but Fuzzbutt here figured that you’d want to see it ALL right away. Still, there is a LOT of stuff back there, so I only brought the stuff that had any real chance of being anything you wanted.”
‘Excellent, Brave Knight. Show me the prizes of your efforts.’
Mabd dismissed the Horrid Horn of the Darkling Horde as ‘a child’s toy’ and the Black Cauldron of Morgawse as a ‘fraud; a possibly useful fraud, but still a fraud’. But she snapped to rapt attention when Cardsharp showed her the eerie Crown of the Erlking; ‘Not HIS, but another’s, and it should be worth a bit of advantage or two at the right time. Keep it safe, Sir Knight!’
But Mabd’s attitude completely changed when he showed her the Uncanny Reliquary of Valcar the Damned. Her face went keen with an almost child-like sense of wonder. ‘Can it BE?’ The reliquary floated up out of Cardsharp’s hands and then the silver and cinnabar casing shattered, revealing a lump that couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether it was a human heart, or a knotted bole of a tree. Mabd examined it closely, and then the wood around the ‘heart’ shattered, revealing a large pale yellow crystal. After a moment, the crystal itself shattered, revealing a smaller pale blue gemstone. ‘IT IS!’ with a glad face, Mabd called the crystal into the mirror with her, and it floated into place in her left eye socket. With a face of transcendent joy, Mabd fluttered her eye, and the stone became an eye in truth. ‘MY EYE! I am more myself! Not whole, but still, more myself!’
“Wait a minute… are you telling me that all this time, you’ve been BLIND?”
‘Not as you would be blind without both your eyes,’ Mabd allowed, ‘but compared to my awareness and vision with both my eyes, yes, I was blind. WELL DONE, My Champion! Show me your cards!’ As the only time that Cardsharp didn’t have his deck of magic cards near him was when he was in the bathtub, he presented that deck to the mirror. A skeletal hand reached out from the mirror and took the top card from the deck. Wailing specters issued forth from the bony hand and wrapped around the card. When the wraiths faded, the hand gave the card back to Cardsharp. ‘As you have so ably proved your puissance, I bestow upon you a boon. Before, in order to recover cards lost due to use, you had to introduce new cards to your deck, and wait for them to assimilate themselves into the deck before they could be put to their purpose. Now, all you need do is add this one card to any deck of cards, and they will become as this deck is. Even so, this can only be done once per day, and only if that deck is used up or lost. Use this boon well, my Champion! As the quest nears fulfillment, the road will become harder and the enemies fiercer!’
’That actually IS a useful boon,’ Cardsharp mused to himself. ‘Now all I really have to keep track of is ONE card.’ He looked at the card, which was the ‘Queen’ of the ‘suit’ of Skulls, and the woman depicted was clearly Mabd herself (with one blue eye).
‘Now,’ Mabd said settling back into her usually icy demeanor (though that one eye kept fluttering for some reason), ‘what of these other trifles?’ The Rune-Stones of Skjaeren, the Blood Viking, she dismissed as ‘Crude’, and she told Cardsharp that he could do whatever he wished with them. The Iron Key of Xenomar the Necromant, on the other hand, was simply snatched up by that bony appendage without a comment. And for hardly the first time, Cardsharp wondered about the true nature of the being that he was trafficking with.
Almost as if she was making up for the Key, Mabd sniffed at Madam Shamballah’s Deck of white jade Fate Cards as ‘trivial and incomplete’.
‘You can keep those, if you want them. You’d only pout if you couldn’t have them.’
The Philosopher’s Stone of Dr. Athanaor, she openly admitted had worth. ‘Not ours, but still… an interesting instrument of the Djinn… it may come in useful when we reopen negotiations with the Court of the South… well done, Sir Knight!’ In gratitude, that skeletal hand reached forth from the mirror and inscribed another glyph on the talisman that served as the buckle for his gunbelt.
“Why THANKS, Mabd, I feel safer already,” Cardsharp breezed, “I… ah, I never thought I’d say this, but… are you all right, Mabd?”
‘It’s… it’s just this EYE… Well, it’s been longer than human history as you know it… it’s going to take a while to get used to it. Especially after fumbling around all this time in the da-AH! ACK! OH BY THE ONE TREE, THIS CANNOT BE!’
“Mabd, what IS it?” Cardsharp asked, reflexively drawing his two ‘hex-shooters’.
“What’s an Aunga-whateveryousaid?”
‘Aunghadhail is the Daughter of the Burning Oak, the Ninth Queen of the Court of the West, the Mistress of the Keep Parlous, Chatelaine of-’
“So, she’s an elf queen like you,” Cardsharp summed it up neatly. “What? This is a GOOD thing, right? You’re not alone anymore, right? You two can help each other pull yourselves back together and-”
‘Aunghadhail has already found her heart of power, and attained a suitable host body! And I’ve…’ Mabd choked, ‘I’ve barely just found one EYE!’ With that, she let out a blubbering wail that sounded like a room full of cats that had had their tails tromped on. Mab the Cat joined in the caterwaul.
“Well, if Aunghadhail is only the ninth queen of the court, then you outrank her, right?”
‘NO! No, I can’t let Aunghadhail see me like this!’ It struck Cardsharp that this ‘Ah-oogah’ or whatever must have been like the ‘Most Popular Girl at School’ at the ancient Elven equivalent of high school, and Mabd was one of the Popular Girls, but not THE most popular girl. If the Ninth of the Nine was the foremost, which Mabd’s reaction seemed to indicate, then Mabd, as the eighth, would be the Second most popular girl at Rivendell High.
“Mabd!” Cardsharp snapped, “Pull yourself together! Is this Aunga-whatever dangerous? What do you want me to do about her?”
‘Aunghadhail? Dangerous?’ Mabd paused and considered. ‘If Aunghadhail is fully restored and active… then the Time is coming! A Thousand Sidhe have returned! AND I’M NOT ONE OF THEM! Taggart! Seek out Aunghadhail, and discover her plans! I MUST renew myself and soon! Great things are a-borning, and I must be a part of them!’
“Well, even if you can’t go to this Aungadell and ask her for help, you’ve got one of your eyes, so things will be kicking into high gear, right?”
‘Indeed, Scapegrace Knight, the Forgotten Moonlight Quest gains new urgency. But you are wrong about Aunghadail; we CAN turn to her for assistance- provided that it’s under the proper terms. Seek out the Daughter of the Burning Oak’ a skeletal hand reached out and touched one of the cards of Cardsharp’s deck and etched a rune onto it. ‘And contrive a way to endebt her to you, and by extension, to ME. Speak to her as my envoy, and discover the details of her situation. Once I have intelligence of that, we will tailor our plans accordingly…’
The Union Terminal Museum Center
Violet ‘air-lifted’ Azure and Tawny to where the rest of SPECTRUM, including Cal via his Golden Knight drone and Goldstar, were already waiting for them. “Okay, now that we’re all here,” Goldstar said pettishly, “WHY are we here?”
The Green Witch looked at her cell phone and said, “Well, Silver sent us a message to all be here. She said it was about her Christmas present…”
Tawny was clearly winding up for a wry comment when she was cut off by the tinny playing of a familiar carol and a high clear soprano voice singing:
‘Here we come a-caroling,
Among the leaves so green!’
Stacy in her Silver Ghost cloak spun into sight a couple of feet above the ground, and kept singing,
‘Here we come a-wandering,
So fair to be seen!’
A few others joined her in signing the carol,
Love and joy come to you,
And to you glad Christmas too,
And God bless you and send you,
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year!
More joined in, maybe a dozen or so
We are not daily beggars,
That go from door to door!
But we are friendly neighbours,
Whom you have seen before!
Still more joined in maybe 30 or 40, singing the lyrics from cellphones and PDAs, which also provided the music, keeping them all on cue. With a start, Karen recognized Goldstar’s parents, Mr. & Mrs. Pierce, and the two younger Pierce children singing along.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you glad Christmas too,
And God bless you and send you,
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year!
And the crowd grew to a hundred or more. Tawny recognized a small family whose young son she’d rescued from a thief who was using him as a hostage. Even through the drone’s link, Cal recognized Father Grover and some of his parish among the singers
‘We wish you a Merry Christmas,
The crowd stabilized at between 150 and 200 carolers. Red Thunder recognized the kids from the Glenway Ave Police Athletic League. Violet recognized a family she had helped get out from under the thumb of a… well, that thought didn’t fit very well with the Christmas theme…
‘We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a Happy New Year!
Goldstar saw a group of truckers he’d helped save, and sometimes seemed to be the only ones who still thought well of him.
‘Good tidings to you,
Whoever you are,
Good tidings for Christmas,
And a Happy New Year!
Bluestreak saw Jerry and Marge, with little Joy in their arms. Joy was holding the phone in her hands and singing along with the rest of them. That alone made the Streak’s whole season better.
‘We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a Happy New Year!
Captain Patriot saw almost everyone from the Faith Fellowship Church, even Mr. & Mrs. Denver. They forgave him…
Love and joy come to you,
And to you glad Christmas too,
And God bless you and send you,
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year!
As the music ended, the Silver Ghost bowed in midair and vanished. The carolers followed her cue and dispersed. The Heroes of SPECTRUM looked at each other and also flew off, leaving only a faint memory in the snowy air.
And a Merry Christmas to you all, with a special word of thanks to the other canon writers for their suggestions and support.