Of Masks and Marvels (Part 3)
Of Masks and MarvelsBy Bek D Corbin
I checked my face. The usual stubble wasn't there. Next, I checked my throat. The Adam's apple was still there, but significantly reduced. I was starting to work up to a grade-one thumb-suck when the ache in my leg flared up. I hobbled back to the couch and let my leg rest for a bit. Once the pain faded, I had a flash of paranoia and checked my chest. Oh, thank Ghu, nothing. That let me relax enough to let my leg rest for a bit.
Eventually I went back to the bathroom and washed the makeup off. For some reason, the wig wouldn't come off. Whatever it was affixed with simply wouldn't give. I gave up, and started looking for my clothes.
Taking care not to overtax my wounded leg, I checked the place out. No sign of my clothes, but I managed to figure out from family pictures and a couple of journalism school award plaques that the apartment was Reyes'. Y'know, I thought that TV reporters made more money than this.
It was almost evening, and the 5 o'clock News at our station had signed off. Reyes had a measly three minute bit about a dog who'd saved a kid from drowning. Not a bad story; it was exactly the kind of thing that Reyes said that she was trying to get away from. I was downing my third can of beef soup, when Reyes and Eli came in.
"So, Maxham, you're up at last! I was beginning to wonder."
"How long was I out?"
"Two days. Eli and I managed to cover for you. You're gonna get paid for two days that you spent flat on your back."
"Yeah, thanks. What happened? I remember getting back into the van, you started to complain about my little speech - hit me from ambush, why don't you? - and then *floomp!* nothing."
"Short form? Gunhawk must have winged you sometime during the fight, and you never noticed."
"Ick! Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. You patched it up?"
"Kinda. He hit you twice. One was a graze, but the other went in and I think nestled in right next to the bone."
Aaahooggaah! Bad News Alert! Bad News Alert! Dive! Dive! "You did manage to get it out, didn't you?"
"You mean that you left a FIFTY CALIBER BULLET in my leg?"
Eli came to her rescue. "We had to, Bro. It's in too deep, man, and it's too large. If we tried to pull it out, we'd probably do more damage getting it out than the bullet did going in."
Shit. "Okay, we gotta get it out somehow. I can't go around with this thing in my leg forever. We gotta get a doctor to do it."
Leave it to Reyes to mention the obstacles. "It's The law that any doctor, hospital or clinic has to report any gunshot or knife wound. They'll insist on getting every possible piece of information."
"So, I don't go to a big hospital- maybe one of those free clinics in a bad part of town. They are probably used to dealing with patients with, ah, indiscrete injuries."
While Eli did a little research on local small clinics on the Web, Reyes tried to lighten things up a little. "Care to see the reviews of your last gig?" She popped a cassette into the VCR. She had compiled a collection of the various news bits about my fight with Gunhawk.
Only Reyes' bit had my long-winded response to her snarky question. I'm not sure how, but she and Eli managed to manipulate the tape to focus on the few seconds of footage that showed blood trickling down my leg. In the voiceover, Reyes played up the fact that I'd been wounded. At first, I thought that Reyes was over-playing distancing herself from Lady Lightning. Then it occurred to me that she was doing it in a way that called attention to taking the fight out of bystander range and arranging for compensation to the owner of the SUV. Reyes is better at this than she seems. Makes you wonder about the other stuff they pull on the news.
The other stations made do with second-hand bits from Reyes' clip, and they focused on the fact that I'd been grievously hurt, and then just flew off. From what I could gather, the cops managed to get Gunhawk out from his armor using a concrete cutter buzzsaw, and he was in 'guarded' condition at the local General Hospital. The bank courier was stable, but his armed escort was dead. And the lady whose SUV got totaled said that the new SUV she was gonna get with the reward money would be black and gold. How nice <blech!>.
When Reyes turned off the VCR, I tackled her on the subject that she'd been avoiding. "Okay, Reyes, what's the idea with the makeup and wig? Didn't your mother get you a Barbie doll when you were little? And why won't this stupid wig come off?"
Reyes turned her nose up. "Hmmmph! Do a person a favor, and they get all bitchy on you! The wig is kept on with a magnetically active adhesive that your brother came up with. All you have to do to get it off is drain off the static electric charge." Then she got serious on me. "Maxham, if this thing is going to work, you've got to start acting a little more femme. People expect different things from superheroines than they do from superheroes. That stern John Wayne-style stuff you pulled might have worked if you were still going to call yourself 'Thunderbolt', but 'Lady Lightning' has got to have a lighter touch. She's got to be somebody that people can feel comfortable about with her having powers and flying around doing things. After your little 'civilization isn't a minimum effort achievement' speech, your 'Bitch Factor' went up a couple of notches. Instead of justifying your actions, you made it sound like everybody else wasn't doing enough."
"Hmmm...I thought that it didn't go very well. But what does that have to do with waking up with a makeover?"
"Y'gotta get into the whole super-heroine schtick! Don't think Clint Eastwood, think Diana Rigg! Pam Grier, not Rosy Grier! Bacall, not Bogart!"
"Looking the role is a big part of it. You were resisting the makeup part. So, I did a makeover on you in a way that I could be sure would get your attention. And the wig - well, it's all part of the image. Besides, I tried a blonde wig, and it just didn't work!"
"Isn't this a little much for stage dressing?"
"Hey, if we're gonna pay for all this crap, we gotta sell some 'Lady Lightning' merchandise. And nobody's gonna buy anything associated with a stone-cold bitch." Reyes took a deep breath, and took a new tack. "Maxham, why did you decide to do this whole superhero thing in the first place?"
I chewed on that for a bit, trying to put it into words. "Weeellll, I'd say that I'm doing it because I want to be something more, something better than I was before."
"So, it's all about You."
"No! Not just me, everything! I want things in general to be better! I want people to realize that there's somebody out there trying to make things better."
"There are a lot of people out there trying to make things better."
"Yeah, but I want to make a statement, I want people to feel that there's somebody going the extra mile, doing the impossible thing, not because it's their job, but because it should be done. Because it has to be done. I've spent too much of my life just inching along, getting by. Now that I can, I want to be in there doing the right thing."
"So, basically, you want to help."
I shrugged, "Yeah."
"So let them know that. Tell them that you want to help them. Make it about them, not you. And that's a very feminine thing. If you keep trying to act like Mr. Macho with Tits, you're just gonna keep driving them away. They're calling you a lady - act like it. A lady does the right thing, not because of her honor, but because it is the right thing to do, and it has to be done. And as for making a statement - well, nothing makes people sit up and take notice like somebody doing the right thing and not making a big thing of it. Give it a try, acting like a real lady. Otherwise, you might as well start calling yourself Electro-Bitch."
Okay, the Electro-Bitch crack really hurt.
Eli found an outreach clinic in one of the harder parts of town. I called them just before their scheduled closing time, and told them to expect somebody with a minor emergency. Eli let me out of the NewsLemon a couple of blocks away, and I flew the rest of the distance. It was my first time out without the helmet; I was just wearing the hard plastic half-mask. Reyes had shown me the trick with the lipstick, and I was looking good. Y'know, I wasn't this nervous when I was going to face Berserker? After all, all he could do to me was kill me...
The 'clinic' was a few semi-permanent trailers hitched together into a 'U'. Not wanting to bring them unwanted attention, I landed inside the 'U', away from casual observers. Which is probably why they laid it out that way. I knocked on one of the doors. A harried looking woman in a nurse's uniform opened the door, and almost dropped her jaw to the floor.
I tried my Kate Mulgrew voice again. It was the first time that I'd used it on anyone without the helmet. "I called ahead." The nurse gestured me into the empty waiting room. "I understand that you are required to report treating any knife or gunshot wounds."
"We don't hand out that information to vigilantes."
"Good to hear it. What forms do I have to fill out?"
"Occupational hazard." I filled out the form, using 'Lady Lightning' for the name, and omitting any further personal information. I made a point of making up for the lack of personal data by being as specific about the incident information as I could.
The nurse looked rather askance at the form, but didn't raise any objections. "The doctor will see you now."
I relaxed a little when I saw that the doctor was male. I'd managed to keep some distance between the nurse and myself. Trying to keep the illusion up with a trained medical observer who knew what to look for was a bit more than I thought I could handle.
I'll give the doctor this, he took handling a patient wearing a mask and a cape in stride. He offered a general anesthetic, but I insisted on a local. Pulling a .50 caliber slug out of somebody's thigh is a tricky proposition, and it took the better part of an hour before he put the bloody slug into a tray. He stitched up the hole and gave me some very powerful pain killers.
I pulled the top of my boot over the bandage and started to leave. I looked at the slug lying in a puddle of blood in the tray. I picked up the slug and stashed it away.
The doctor raised an eyebrow. "Souvenir?"
"A reminder. That I was stupid and careless. Maybe if I keep this around, I won't be as quick to be, either, the next time someone pulls a gun."
He seemed to accept that at face value. I was turning to leave, when he stopped me cold with his next question. "Why do you do it?"
I could hear the blood pounding in my ears. I looked at him carefully. There was something in his face, but I couldn't read it. "Do what, exactly?"
"The mask, the cape, flying around getting shot at. Why?"
I tried to not let my relaxation show too much. I started to say that somebody had to do something - and then I remembered what Reyes said. It's not really about me. It's about everybody. I took a deep breath and tried to act like a lady. "Because people need to dream."
The look in his face changed. As I went out the door of the trailer, I looked back, and recognized the new look on his face. It was respect.
As I flew off, I finally had a sense that maybe, just maybe, that Lady Lightning might have a chance.
The really great thing about my powers is that I heal so quickly. Five days after having a .50 caliber slug cut out of my leg, I was up and hobbling. Eli scrounged up a walking cast to explain my limping. So, I had a few days to think about what Reyes told me. I can't say that I completely understood this whole 'act like a lady' business. But, the next mission for Lady Lightning helped to put it into perspective.
We were driving from one forgettable story to the station when we heard an all-points alert on the Emergency Band: a three-alarm electrical fire at a major transformer station.
Eli gave a loud whoop, "Oh, yeah! Electrical fire! Now, doesn't that just have 'Lady Lightning' written all over it?"
I hissed him down. "Eli, do you cheer when a panel goes down at the station? No! And this is worse! That transformer station pushes power for a big chunk of the East Side. If cables get loose, the fire fighters are gonna spend half their time dodging heavy electrocution. And those fireproof suits aren't going to be that much insulation against that kind of voltage. They don't deserve that kind of grief."
As I stuffed the gel-packs under the bodice and connected the leads, Reyes finished putting on the lipstick. Then the cape, the wig, the helmet, and I was ready to go. Reyes looked at her watch. "Three minutes, 27 seconds. Not bad."
They let me out, and I flew post-haste for the black oily clouds billowing up from the fire.
From about 180 feet up, I checked out the fire. The fire had been caused by a break in a high-lying high-power line, which had pulled down a couple of lower-placed lines when it fell. The severed lines were jerking around violently, sparking wildly when they hit each other. SOP would have been to cut power to that section of the lattice, but in a textbook example of Murphy's Law, both the fire and the rogue lines were between the gate and the switchbox. The only way to shut down the power would have been to black out the entire East Side. There were four engines, a rescue van, an ambulance and a command car. Firefighters were cautiously approaching the perimeter of the fire with backpack foam sprayers, but the presence of loose cables kept them from getting any closer. I floated down in the direction of the command car.
The company captain spotted me coming, and was already working on a major snit when I landed. "Look, we have a nasty situation here, and we don't need some hot shot amateur with a gimmick messing things up! Now, unless you are an accredited Fire or Rescue worker, I'm gonna have to ask you to GET OUT!"
I held up a finger in a 'gimme a minute' gesture, and used the break to take off my helmet. The hair of my wig fell from the restraining helmet in a lovely, graceful cascade. It had better, 'cause Reyes and I spent the better part of two hours figuring out how to put the hair up in the helmet for just that effect!
The psychological effect of the semi-unmasking took a little of the wind out of his sails. I unlimbered my Kate Mulgrew voice, "Don't worry, Captain, I'm not going to go blindly charging in there. This is your site, You are in charge. But, you have a 120 kilowatt line and two 100 kilowatt lines keeping your men from doing their job. If you have someone who can clear those out of their way without unnecessarily risking your men's safety, why not use her?"
The Captain must have dealt with unreasonable super-types before, because this was not what he was expecting. Cautiously, he asked, "You do understand that you can't be officially deputized by the Fire Department; that you won't be in line for any kind of official commendation?"
"That's not why I'm here, Captain. You call the shots; my dad always told me to never get in the way of a man who knows what he's doing."
The Captain pulled his crew back, and we held an impromptu strategy session. A couple of the news crews tried to bull their way into the session, but the cops kept them in line. Reyes was there, and didn't look very happy that I didn't at least try to get her and Eli in. The firemen were a little taken aback at having a 'broad' in a cape made part of their plans, but they handled it like pros. (Memo to self: make sure that Reyes plays up the everyday heroism of these guys. I'm taking notes.)
We broke from the huddle like a football team. I went up to 35 feet, and the guys formed a double line, with chemical foam sprayers at the front and back. I took a deep breath, and pulled the arcs of electricity up off the ground and into me. This was not pleasant. Not, ohmigawd I'm burning unpleasant, more more like you're being over inflated like a balloon and you're afraid of popping unpleasant. This made the cables a little less frisky. I created some powerful magnetic fields and lifted the cables out of the guys' way.
With that done, the guys were finally able to do their job. They charged in, and got down to business. Past that, no real drama; I didn't pull a firefighter out of an explosive blaze or anything like that. I just hung up there in the air and made sure that they could do what they were trained for. And y'know something? It felt good.
When the last flame was out, I dropped to the ground and got ready to pay the piper. I hear that there are people who actually like fielding questions from the press. The press split into two groups - one that headed for the Captain, and the other which came for me.
"Lady Lightning, are you going to be handling more fires from now on?"
"Are you kidding? Murderous psychos I can handle, heavily armed crooks are right up my alley; towering infernos? Nope, I leave that to the professionals. The only reason that I was useful here, was the electric work was keeping the Pros from doing their job."
"How would you sum up what happened here?"
I trotted out the wide smile that Reyes had me practice. "It wasn't quite the fantasy that I've always had of a rescue involving a hunky firefighter."
"Why have you changed your policy of avoiding the press?"
"Honest, guys, I wasn't avoiding you! But, my hair was a mess, and talking through that helmet always makes me sound like a right-wing idiot."
After a few more pleasantries, most of which would never see air, I got my helmet back and flew off.
Watching the 'reviews', I received the nicest compliment I ever got: the Fire Captain was being asked about my involvement in handling the fire. He said, "Lady Lightning was very helpful. It's a pleasure to finally deal with an extraordinary individual who doesn't insist on playing the Big Hero. I can't speak for the Fire Department, but I'd go on record saying that I'd have no problems with this kind of intelligent, constructive help from superheroes in the future."
Now, is that a compliment, or what?
To Be Continued in Part 4 of Masks and Marvels