Of Masks and Marvels (Part 27)
Of Masks and MarvelsBy Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
This chapter is dedicated to Ranma27
Chapter Twenty Seven
I came down to breakfast wearing a jumpsuit, utility vest and work boots. Ma stopped, looked at me and said, "Maxine Shanna Fitzgerald, what do you think you are wearing?"
"You. Are going to work. Dressed like THAT?"
"Well, sure, Ma! I'm starting work as Maxine. Remember, I'm doubling up shifts, making out like 'Dan' is mentoring 'Maxine' at the station, so there's no inconvenient 'Hey, Dan disappeared just about the time that Maxine showed up' connections."
"That's NOT what I'm talking about."
"Well, what is, then?"
"That. That ensemble you're wearing."
"What about it?"
"I am NOT going to have you seen going on the bus looking like that! Now you get back upstairs, young lady, and you put on something that's presentable!"
"But I WORK in these clothes!"
"And what does that have to do with anything? When you're stringing wire, you can dress like that; but when you're on the street, you are going to look respectable, Young Lady!"
Jeez, you think that you're getting the hang of the being a woman thing, and then stuff like this comes out of Left Field and slaps you in the head. Well, never argue with the lady who pays the rent...
Hey! _I_ pay the rent these days!
Still, I headed upstairs and changed. Force of habit. When I came down, Eli was eating breakfast. "Yo, Max! When you gonna get dressed for work?"
"I am." I jerked my head at Ma as she worked the eggs. "The Management has instituted a Dress Code."
Eli grumped. "May have to talk to the Union about this."
I kicked Eli under the table. "Shaddap," I whispered, "while you're still getting free rent."
Ma shoveled some eggs onto Eli's plate. "Maxine has a higher standard to maintain now. Nobody complains if Dan and Eli go shuffling around looking like ragamuffins, they're used to it. But Maxine is new in the neighborhood, and people will wonder why a good looking young lady like her doesn't put some more effort into being presentable, if she goes around in scruffs."
Eli wisely saw that this was my problem, not his, and shut up. We spent the morning chatting about what had happened at the convention. Or at any rate, Ma and I talked about it, while Eli drooled over the pictures from the Tech Show. I could tell that Ma was fishing for some dirt, so I told her about my midnight rendezvous with Ted on the green. And no, I didn't tell her about whacking Ted off. There are some things you just don't talk to your mother about!
Then something occurred to me. "um, Ma?"
"You're very interested in my private life."
"Well, of course I am! I'm your mother!"
"You're not using this as grist for the gossip mill, are you?"
"WHAT? Well! What do you take me for?"
"I take you for a woman with a ton of juicy dish, and apparently no one to tell it to."
Ma wilted a little. "Okay, so -- maybe the topic of your love life DOES come up once in while, down at work."
"Well, I don't tell them that you're a superhero, or anything! I just, well, you're a good looking young woman, and you're single-"
"Ma, you haven't been setting me up on a date, or anything, have you?"
"No! Well, Muriel Kutchner does have a son who's single--"
"I didn't commit you to anything! And, well, if you're otherwise engaged-"
"You didn't say that I was engaged, did you?"
Eli called a time out before Ma could bury herself any further, and we headed to work.
As we got to the station, I said, "Are you sure that Bernice got my fat suit and 'Dan' rig set up and running?"
"You could have asked that before you copped the very last seat on the bus!"
"Hey, I did NOT 'cop the very last seat'! The guy got up and offered it to me. I couldn't have refused!"
"It would have been rude!"
"You could have offered it to your little brother!"
"Are YOU the one walking around in two-inch heels?"
"So, I'm supposed to be punished for having the good sense to wear sane shoes, as opposed to the portable torture chambers that you're wearing?"
"And on to a more relevant topic - how is my voice?"
"Why? You got a frog in your throat or something?"
"No, I mean, does my 'Maxine' voice sound different from my 'Lady Lightning' voice?"
"God, you are SO paranoid!"
"Eli, just remember, if a superhero ever blows his secret ID, the first ones that the bad guys go after are his family."
"eerrr...Let's hear your 'Lady Lightning' voice again." I recited 'I sing the body electric' by Whitman - or as much of it as I could remember - in my 'superheroine' voice. Eli nodded. "An octave or so higher, a little sharper, maybe a little less oomph... It'll do, Eliza."
At that point we got to the reception desk, and Eli flashed his company ID. I asked for Moody, the IBEW shop steward, and got buzzed in. Moody thought that I was a new receptionist - I knew I should have come in dressed to work for real! - but Eli convinced him that I was the 'Max' that 'Dan' was bringing in.
Since 'Dan' was 'late', since he 'had to commute from his new digs', Eli 'showed me around' and 'introduced' me to the other wire-jocks. So far, so mundane. Then Reyes came in, and Eli managed to time it so that he 'introduced' me to her, just as she was drinking her first cup of coffee. Spit take time!
She pulled me aside and demanded, "Dammit, Maxham, what the HELL are you doing?"
I grinned evilly at her. "It's Fitzgerald, now. Or, Maxine, if you really wanna presume on such a short acquaintance."
"What ARE you up to?"
"Hey, you're the one that's been riding me to get with the program. I told you about this last week, remember?"
"Yeah, yeah, but gimme a break, I expected you to drag your heels on it for a month or two, like you usually do." Then her eyes narrowed. "And what's with the voice?"
"Hey, Lady Lightning has a rather distinctive voice, no? It wouldn't do for me to go around with that lovely velvet purr-"
"Jesus Marimba, I've created a monster - it's discovered vanity!" She got herself another cup of coffee. "Okay, now how are we gonna make people think there are two of you?"
I smirked at her. "The curtain is just going up on Act One." I pointed to the glass partition on one of the control booths. Reyes almost dropped her coffee when she saw Dan Maxham walk into the booth and start talking to Eli.
"Hey, Max!" 'Dan' said through the intercom. "Get in here!"
Reyes numbly followed me into the booth, and only found Eli. "Where is he? What is he, a robot or something?"
Eli just pointed at a small projector plugged into a phone socket. "Nope! Hologram projector, showing an image onto the glass pane. The image is CGI, run by the AEGIS computer."
I grinned. "It's a standard 'Secret Identity Protective Measure' that AEGIS offers its members. Helps to keep those, 'Hey, have you ever noticed that you never see Clark Kent and Superman together?' moments to a minimum. AND-" I stepped out of sight of the window, "-for the piece de resistance..." I triggered the 'suit-up' function, and suddenly *Viola!* I was in my 'Dan Maxham' outfit. It even managed to get the makeup off. "Instant Change!"
Reyes shook her head. "Maxham, you are cutting this WAY too close."
I shrugged. "Maybe, but it's only for a few weeks, and it's not like I have a lot of choice. Besides, by and large, people only see what they expect to see. And, we'll be spending a lot of time out in the NewsLemon, so we'll be whittling down on our window of vulnerability as much as we can."
"What's this 'We', Fat Boy?" Reyes took another slurp of coffee. "I still say you're just doing this to get into the women's restroom."
After doing a little slight of hand at the station to get the rest of the station wire-hogs to accept that Dan and Maxine were separate people, we finally got out on the road. Reyes leaned back and said, "Hey, MAX - two questions. One: why are you lounging around in your girlsuit?"
"Because, I'm turning into a girl - er, No, scratch that, a woman, - remember?"
"Good. That 'fatsuit' was getting embarrassing. Next question: what ARE you doing to the wiring?"
"Well, 'Tech Support' and Bernice-"
"AEGIS' resident technical genius, and the person who makes sure the teleportation system doesn't rip a hole in the fabric of Time and Space."
"BERNICE? What kind of name for a mad scientist is Bernice?"
"Hey!" Eli piped up, "She's not MAD! She's just a little...pissy..."
Reyes looked at him, the gleam of the reporter on the hunt in her beady little eyes. "What's this? Love among the circuit boards? Passion behind the control panel? Hearts and silicon chips? And how long has THIS been going on, hhhmmm??"
I let Reyes grill him on this for a while, so in retaliation Eli dropped the ball on the convention. The little fink! "WHAT? There was a superhero convention, and you didn't TELL ME?"
"Hey, it was a convention rule," I defended myself, "no press involved - well, except for the 'Clark Kent' set."
"Superheroes have a convention? I never even heard a peep about it! How long has this been going on?"
"Oh, everyone knows about it, Reyes. They just didn't tell you."
Of course, Reyes had to know every little detail, so I hadda do a little recap of what I told Ma. But, when I got to the midnight rendezvous, I went into a lot more graphic detail, including *ahem!* 'unzipping' Ted.
"Ah, Max, I don't remember this part, in what you told Ma."
"Of course not! You think I'm going to tell my MOTHER that I str-"
"LA-LA-LE-LA-LA-LA-LE-LA!" Eli sang and he covered his ears, "I'm not HEARING this!"
"And he was so BIG and HARD-"
"Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no Evil..."
"And then he grunted, and started to-"
"THAT DOES IT!" Eli stopped the NewsLemon and got out. "I -ah- gotta...use the little boy's room! Yeah, that's the ticket!"
I looked at Eli's retreating back. "Oh, so THAT's what's so amusing about needling guys!"
Reyes leaned forward avidly. "Was he really that big?"
I held my hands apart, showing Ted's rough dimensions.
"_wwwuuuuf!_" Reyes said in an awed voice.
Well, so much for the 'size doesn't really matter' bit.
I managed to drag Eli out of the 'little boys room', and we were able to get to work. That is, if you can call hanging outside an office building, waiting for some crooked businessman if he wants to own up to overcharging the local schools for faulty air conditioning vents, WORK.
Hey, at least they pay us to do it.
Well, the aforementioned ratbag had nothing to say, but Eli managed to shoot him in such a way that he looked even guiltier for not saying anything. This is called 'trying someone in the press'. I'm not proud of it, but Reyes is very careful about putting the nails in the coffin before she goes for the body.
Still, after a hard day's waiting around for ratbag to poke his nose out of his hole, Reyes was ready to go back to the station and start editing footage. Oh, Joy. Normally, I sort of enjoy doing a little honest work on the station's equipment, but I'm not looking forward to doing the stage magic shuffle for hours on end.
Then, my AEGIS communicator beeped. Saved by the bell! "Lady Lightning here!" Eli gestured feverishly, pointing at his throat and mouth. Oh! My voice! I quickly shifted to my 'Lady Lightning' voice. "Hello?"
"Yo, El-El!" Titan said, "You busy?"
"Yo, Deigo! Well, that sort of depends on what you mean by 'busy'. I'm at work, but I'm not really doing anything that I can't leave. Wuzzup, big guy? Normally, it's 'get over here NOW!', not 'are you busy?'."
"Well, we've got a situation, nothing major, and I'm the only person on duty, and it's kinda outta my league."
"Titan, I've seen you lift Main Battle Tanks and throw them like softballs! What's out of your league, that I could handle?"
"Ah, well, I'm not so good with negotiations."
"Remember that guy Clark? The one who said that he wanted to help us financially? Well, he's here with his sec- oh, sorry, assistant, and he says that he wants to talk about- what was it, again?"
"Well, why not phone Hex? She's the one who usually handles that stuff, and she's a full member, not an 'affiliate' like me."
"Tried her. And Iron John. And Justiciar. You're the first one that I can trust to handle this, that's been available."
"Hold the phone." I turned to Reyes. "I gotta go." I turned to Eli, "We set to go?"
"What are you two up to?"
"The next wave of superhero deployment," Eli said in his 'high- tech demonstrator' voice. "No more hooking up to a hard line. Now, we can teleport to AEGIS HQ directly from the NewsLemon, as long as we're within 500 yards of at least three cell phone routers. The problem before was always a matter of accuracy - there's nothing like a landline to let you know exactly where someone's calling from. But, with this hardware hooked up to both the NewsLemon and AEGIS' GPS, we can use the router signals to triangulate a precise position to the teleporter's incoming coordinate grid-"
"In other words, I don't have to go out and plug your stupid gizmo into a pay phone anymore?"
"Well, if you wanna be boring about it."
I didn't hear Reyes' response to that, because we got the signal, and I was out of there.
I popped into the transporter reception room, and I was met there by a complete stranger, who was looking peevishly at a watch. "You should have been here five minutes ago."
"And exactly who are you?" I asked, making a point of not letting an obvious mindfuck get to me.
"I am Magda Filberts, Mister Clarke's Executive Assistant. Mister Clarke is a very busy man, he's being very generous, giving you this much of his time." Magda was the 'executive secretary by way of spinster schoolmarm' type. She spoke with just enough of an accent that I wondered who she married, to get her green card. Poor Sap. She wasn't that bad looking - decent body, handsome face, decent haircut, very good clothes - but she was one of those people who just couldn't put it all together and make it work. But a major part of that was her permanent look of mild dissatisfaction. Whoever Mister Filberts was, he obviously wasn't keeping her happy. I got the distinct impression that she got more satisfaction out of being Clarke's secretary than anything that might be waiting for her at home.
"Well then," I smiled back, "why are you wasting my time?" I walked past her in the general direction of the conference room. She skittered after me, nattering away at what generous lengths her precious Mister Clarke was going to for AEGIS. It wasn't that long a trip down the hall, but by the end of it, I was ready to pop her one.
Clarke was in the conference room, with Jacobs, his lawyer and Titan. Clarke started to say something, but I beat him to the punch. "Okay, your Miss Filberts-"
"Whatever. Filberts tells me that you're a busy man, in a big hurry, and I'm taking time out from my own life for this. So, let's get down to it. What do you want?" I folded my arms across my chest. Hey, if he wants to play attitude games, bring it on.
Clarke straightened his tie. "Well, to be honest, I just wanted to sit down with you people, to discuss what you really need."
"What, you couldn't talk this over, on the phone?"
"Have you ever teleconferenced, Lady Lightning? It's just not the same as personal contact. It was all the rage a few years ago, but these days, business people only do it if they're a couple of thousand miles apart. For involved discussions, it's face-to-face, these days."
"Okay, I can see that. But could you at least schedule? I do have a life outside this outfit, y'know."
Clarke gave me an embarrassed grin. "Sorry! I'm so caught up with my own schedule, that it never occurred to me that a superhero would have one of their own. Are you busy, at, say 10 o'clock tonight?"
"Nothing that I can't put on hold. I'll get in touch with Iron John and Ms. Hex, and see if they can make it."
"You do that. Here's my card, with my address." With that, Clarke and his entourage left.
"What? All this hubbub for THAT?" I asked Titan.
He shrugged at me. "Hey. Rich people. Go figger."
When I got in touch with both Hex and John, they both begged off. It seems that they both had spent more time on the horn with Mister Clarke than either of them was really happy with, and they weren't exactly looking forward to more time, face to face. Can't say that I blame them. There was something about Clarke that demanded you recognize that he was the guy in charge, even when he was supposedly doing you a favor. But then I suppose that's his business style, and you can't really expect him to turn it off, just like that.
Well, Clarke was something of a pain in the ass, but AEGIS did need new equipment, so at the stroke of 10 PM, I was flying over the tops of the city, on my way to Clarke's penthouse. Yep, Clarke was apparently the 'penthouse' type, not the 'big rambling house out in the burbs' type. He was obviously expecting me, as he had all the lights on, out on the patio. Or veranda. Or whatever you call what passes for a back yard on a penthouse.
That 'left the lights on' notion went *pop!* when I spotted the evening gowns and tuxedoes. It seemed that Clarke was throwing some kind of party. Strictly black tie, from the looks of it, one of those dos where the Movers and Shakers trot out their glad rags to make a noise about some 'worthy cause' or another. I got a few odd looks as I walked off the veranda (or whatever) into the penthouse proper, but nobody raised any kind of ruckus. Oh well, at least it wasn't one of those 'String Quartet' affairs - Clarke had a Big Band outfit there, playing Swing tunes from the 1940s.
I was looking around for Clarke himself when a suspiciously fit looking type with a no non-sense look on his face came up to me. "Can I see your identification?"
"Your Impersonators Agency identification."
He gave a martyred sigh, "Okay, your 'Celebrity Tribute Performers' ID."
"I have NO idea of what you're talking about. I'm here to see Mr. Clarke. Where is he?
"You mean, you don't have the 'Mirror Image Talent Agency' identification?"
"No, why would I?"
He grabbed me by the upper arm and muttered into his lapel, "Contact. We have a ringer, trying to slip in, using the Lookalike gag. She's dressed as Lady Lightning, and carrying a satchel with unknown contents."
"Hey! Hands off! I was asked here!"
"And I suppose you have an invitation."
"I'm here to see Clarke, not this idiot party."
By this time, there were three other 'Men In Black' clones surrounding me. The guy with his hand on my arm said, "Miss, I'm going to have to ask you to hand over that accordion folder."
"Okay, you're obviously Security, so I'm not going to rip your arm off. I am Lady Lightning, from AEGIS, and I was invited here to discuss some donations that Clarke has offered to make to AEGIS. This folder contains details of needed equipment upgrades for AEGIS."
The first guy snorted. "Yeah, right."
I didn't even want to be there in the first place. I gave him a powerful shock, and sent him flying. His compadres went for their guns. "Don't even try it, assholes." I threw the folder at one of them. "Tell Clarke that I don't have time for this bullshit. If he wants to make a donation, tell him the Salvation Army does good work."
I turned, and was on my way through the crowd, when Clarke himself came up to me. "Lady Lightning! So good to see you!"
"I'm glad, 'cause this is all that you're gonna see of me!" I pushed past him.
"Where are you going?"
"Hey, I did NOT come here, just because you're too cheap to hire a lookalike!"
"Actually," he said smoothly, "I hired the lookalike, so that your presence here wouldn't be noticed."
"Well, if you haven't noticed, doing business with superheroes is a touchy business. On one hand, if you let everyone know that you're helping the local supers out, you become a big red flag to every nut job in a mask. On the other hand, if you make a secret of it, eventually someone will get wind of it, and then people start making conspiracy noises, and it's an even bigger mess. This way, we can honestly say that we met openly in public, but no one will think twice about it."
"And you call meeting during a party 'open and in public'?"
"Why not? People do business during these things all the time. Also, if it ever comes down to it, you can always say that you came here to help guard the main exhibit."
He walked me through the glittering crowd to a cleared space in the main room, where there were several glass cases. "This little soiree is to try and scare up donations for the Museum of Sciences. Our big draw is this collection of pretty pebbles." He gestured at the cases. Inside the cases was the gaudiest, most glittering collection of precious metals and stones since Liberace died. "This is a representative exhibition of masterworks of the Jeweler's craft, including items from Louis Comfort Tiffany, and two Faberge eggs."
I gave him the cold fish eye. "You brought this stuff out of the museum? What, you OWN the insurance company?"
"Oh, you may have noticed, we have some very tight security," he said, smugly.
"Yeah, not bad - if you were dealing with normal crooks."
"Well, that's part of the reason why I asked that a member of AEGIS be here tonight. This way, we can get a few details ironed out, and just in case one of the Halloween crew shows up, we have the city's premier superheroine on the scene to handle it. AEGIS gets its gear upgraded, and my ulcer gets the night off."
I shrugged. The way that Clarke had it set up, if anything happened after I split, he'd be able to deflect blame from himself by pointing out that I'd left them high and dry. Looks like I'm gonna have to rub elbows with the Rich and Powerful, and hope that I don't pick up any nasty habits.
Clarke and I were chatting about AEGIS' communications array - I cannot get away from relay panels today! - when one of the guests, a shapely young lady with long dark hair and a minxish face in a powder blue satin evening gown and matching heels, swayed up to the display, an obviously well-used champagne glass in her hand. She leaned over the glass and cooed appreciatively. "oooh! I'll take that one - and that one - and that one - oh, yeah! And THAT one!" She pointed at this one thing that looked more like a glass doorknob than an objet d'art.
One of the security guys came over and said, "Please, Miss, don't lean on the glass."
"But if I do that," she said in blurry voice, "how'm I gonna get at all the pretty-shinies?"
He took her by the arm. "Please, Miss."
"Oh, let me alone! I'm trying to remember the words to 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend'! 'A kiss on the hand maybe quite Continental-"
The Security guy was about to put her out of all our miseries by securing her arm with both hands, when she reversed the grab and threw him into the glass display. The display must have been bulletproof glass, since it didn't shatter when he hit. Not that that was much of a relief for the Security guy; being throw into a brick wall isn't that much of an improvement on being thrown through a glass wall.
The party immediately stopped dead, and everyone all looked at the woman with a single gaze. "Well, ALL RIGHT!" she exulted, "This party was WAY too damn boring! But don't you worry!" She held up a hand and spiral of glittering light wound itself down her body. When the glitter faded, her strapless evening gown was gone. She was wearing an outfit that consisted of a powder blue strapless mini-dress, a matching hooded cape that came down to about her ass. She had long white gloves that came up to about mid-biceps, and matching mid-thigh high-heeled boots. The hood shadowed half of her face in that way which pseudo-mystical types like so much. A pair of silver Eyes of Thoth set in rounded triangular amber-ish stones secured the cape. Similar catches fastened her belt, and were on the back of her hands. Metallic snakes of some sort wound around her gloves and boots. "It's your lucky day! KISMEThas arrived!
"I know, I know - you're asking yourselves: 'Gee, WHAT did a worthless schmuck like ME ever do to deserve a visit from Kismet?' Well, to be honest, NOTHING! So, I'll just help myself to all the lovely goodies, and you all just stand there like overdressed mannequins, and don't get in my way, 'Kay?"
The four security guys snapped into position, surrounding her with guns drawn. "Freeze! You're surrounded!"
"Oh, please," she muttered none too under her breath. With flickers of both hands, she produced two fans of playing cards. The cards flared with silver-blue flame, and she sent volleys of the cards at the guards on both sides of her. The cards hit the guards like runaway trains and sent them tumbling. "It never fails! An Artiste tries to bring something special to the wretched masses-" she gave the elegantly dressed crowd a pitying glance, "-and as, always, there's a critic, bound and determined to cast a pall on the show!"
I stepped forward, clapping. "Brava! Brava! Wonderful performance! What's your next trick? Gargling peanut butter?"
Kismet copped a 'tude, propping one fist on her hip. "Oh, get real! Listen, Honey, I know that Clarke hired a Lady Lightning impersonator for the party. I'll give you props for nerve and all that, but there's no way that you're gonna bluff me out of this, so why don't you just step back, before you talk yourself into a full-body cast?"
She wasn't expecting anything, so I used her overconfidence to lead off with a very complex combination, something that I normally wouldn't have the opening to pull off. I lead off with a crushing stomp on her instep, followed by a snap-punch to her solar plexus. As she reacted to the jab to the breadbasket by keeling over, I used that to judo throw her away from the display case, into the ice sculpture swan.
Why is it, that it's always a swan?
Kismet landed with a big crash, and I heard a muffled, "_oh, shit_"
I yelled, "Everybody OUT! Security, get these people OUT of here! I'll try and keep the damage to a minimum! Secure the exhibit, but only AFTER you get the guests out!"
"That's right!" Kismet exulted as she kippuped from the heap that she'd landed in. "Get the bystanders outta here, 'kawze I'ze gonna need me sum FAIGHTIN' REWM!" She produced another set of fans of cards and charged them up.
"Oh, Card Tricks," I sneered. "Well, I suppose that it's better than ventriloquism, or - God Help Us - Mime." I gave her a hefty jolt of electricity, but she deflected them with her fans of cards.
"Oh," she sneered back, "a Spider-Man wannabee. Well, try THIS for cutting wit!" She tossed a volley of cards at me. I immediately realized that they were metal, and charged with some sort of electromagnetic power, so I deflected them easily.
Heck, I even snatched one out of the air. "Sorry, but that wasn't my card. I picked the Pair of Handcuffs!" I immediately pulled the pair that I had in my utility belt.
"Gee, I'm sorry," Kismet jeered, "but I'm afraid they just don't go with my outfit. Maybe you should keep them - they go so well, with your dated, 'Gee, I'm so 80s' ensemble." She held her hands out in front of her, and a ball of that silvery blue energy formed. It erupted into a screaming bird of that silvery blue flame and came flying at me. I tried to deflect it as well, but I couldn't get the frequency, and I took it full in the face. As I was trying to cope with that, Kismet gave me the bird again. This time, she chucked that stupid swan ice sculpture at me. "Chill Out!"
"Excuse me, but did you just say 'Chill Out', as you threw an ice sculpture at me? Jeez, that crack was almost as lame as YOUR outfit!" I did my magnetic toss with the handcuffs, but she held up a broken table leg and the cuffs secured around it instead of her.
"Oh, this from the woman in the 'bad girl' stiletto heels?"
"Oh, you're a fine one to talk! What, did Doug Henning decide that he could do better, and give you your walking papers?" I swung a punch at her, but my punch went straight through her! I swung around wildly, trying to connect, but only whiffing through thin air. Then, I spotted a second blurry shadow on the ground, about a foot or so from where she appeared to be.
"Ah, shaddap, or I'll tell the Bride of Frankenstein that you stole her do!" She suddenly 're-appeared' and blind-sided me with a kick to the ribs.
"Excuse me? 'Bride of Frankenstein'? Are you new at this or something? Personally, I would have gone for a Susan Sontag crack. Y'now, maybe a little something about 'Art for it's own sake', or a nasty little reference to the commercialization and debasement of the private sector, or something like that."
"Does Dennis Miller know that you've been dipping into his material?"
"Much better! Now, I don't wanna go off on a rant but- OW!" The back of my head almost caved in when from out of left field, something hit me. When I looked up, Kiz was holding a long metallic staff of some sort.
"Looks like my hand was quicker than your eye." She grinned, and pointed it at me. She looked like she was about to blast me, but she suddenly looked over at the exhibit. "What ARE those guards doing?"
I couldn't help it - it was the oldest, most obvious dodge in the world, but I couldn't help it - I looked.
For some bizarre reason, four of the security guys had broken into the display case, and they were scooping the pedigree'd bling-bling up into a satchel. "HEY!" Kismet yelled, "That's MY big score!" She pointed her staff at them and let off a barrage of silvery-blue bolts that not only flew at the guards - who I suddenly realized I didn't recognize - but they flew around at least one obstruction and hit them square.
Guided energy blasts. How come this never came up at the technology seminar at the convention?
Kismet's energy bolts knocked one of the bogus guards off his pins, but of the other three, one just shrugged it off, the bolt sort of sizzled on the skin of another one, and the third one just sort of gulped it down. The third one came at Kismet as she charged at them. He had a big grin on his face, and his 'Man In Black' look melted into just plain black. Nasghul manifested his big whacking sword and swung an arc-
-which Kismet neatly pole vaulted over. As she landed behind him, she created a glowing sphere of energy and threw it at the satchel, which disappeared inside it.
Now, normally, in a fight between feuding supervillains, my first instinct would be to get the bystanders to safety, and then break out the popcorn. But, Kismet was outnumbered four to one, and if that guy was Nasghul, then the other three hadda be Symbiont Syndicate as well. So, as Nasty turned to try and back stab Kiz, I picked up a bistro table and chucked it at him, catching him on the back of the head. "Yo! Nasghul!"
Kismet took advantage of Nasghul's distraction to leverage the roundhouse punch that one of the other 'men in black' aimed at her right into, and right on top of him. The other one standing let off a familiar blast of energy. Okay, that one must be Baelrog. The blast sent Kismet flying, and Baelrog sprouted his claws and bat-wings, and made a flying leap at Kismet. I intercepted him in mid-leap with an energy bolt and screwed up his aim.
But the guy that Kiz had sent flying with her first energy blast came roaring back. He lashed out with a long stretchy leg and kicked her squarely into the guy who she'd thrown into Nasghul, who shifting into his Berserker mode. Luckily, Big Red didn't decide to pull her arms and legs off, like a fly. Instead, he rather casually tossed her in an arc, in the direction of the penthouse ledge. WAY over the penthouse ledge.
Okay, give the big red louse his due - the standard 'Devil's Choice' is a classic, and Kismet may be a pain in the ass, but I can't let her go *splat!* I might lose my Superheroes Union membership if I did.
I caught her about a story down. "Are you okay?"
She just looked at me with an icy glare. "Why couldn't you be Justiciar? If I HAVE to be rescued, I want it to be by a really cute guy!"
I briefly thought about dropping her. "Listen. Either you can help me wipe up the floor with those four ratsasses, and we figure out what to do from there, or I leave you out on a ledge and do it myself."
"Yeah, and how can I trust you to not cream me, in the middle of the fight?"
"Okay, you're obviously a professional thief, but you're not in those guys' league. Taking them out is a lot more important to me than brining you in."
"Gee, I can just feel the love."
"Or, I can drop you right now, and say that I was too late."
"Okay, okay! Just get me up there, and get my power staff to me, and I'll hold up my end of the bargain."
"That'll have to do!" I hefted her, flew up a bit, and threw her as hard as I could. When she landed on the ledge, I jinked around the corner and flew up on their blind side. When I got to the top, Kismet was dancing around, avoiding combined strikes from Baelrog and Berserker. I gave the scene a quick once-over, before anyone saw me.
There! Kismet's staff was laying a couple of feet behind Kraken, as he and Nasghul were busy disengaging the sparklies from their security moorings. I couldn't just pick it up and trust Nasty not to see me, so...
I zipped over to the staff, picked it up on a roll, and used my momentum to roll into a double-foot kick on Squiddly's backside, which knocked him into Nasghul.
Yes, Nasghul is very useful that way.
"Kismet!" I javeline'd her staff at her, and she caught it just in time to trip up Berserker into Baelrog. As Berserker sizzled, it came to me that Nasghul wasn't the only useful one that way.
There was a bit of rather routine wham-bam-slam, and several concussions later, I found myself back-to-back with Kismet. "So, any hot ideas?" I asked sotto voce, "I'm getting my ass handed to me over here."
"Oh, I have a few, but I haven't had any openings to use them."
"What's keeping you?"
"Well, Big Red over there for one."
"Can you do something to get him off balance?"
She nodded, and I spun her about so that she was facing Berserker, instead of Kraken and Nasghul. She spun out of my grasp, and produced one of those cards of hers. She ducked inside of Berserker's grasp, and slapped it square in the middle of the big blank space that passes for his face. The card flared, and Big B startled a little. Maybe her card blinded him, somehow.
I jumped behind him, and before any of the others could react, I yelled, "KICK!"
Kismet gave Berserker a big shove with a manifested hand of silvery-blue energy. As he teetered backwards, I tipped him on his back and lifted him up. "Gimme a hand here!"
Kismet ducked Kraken's punch and rushed over. Together we got Berserker off balance, despite all his thrashing about. "This way!"
Struggling under his weight, we managed to get Berserker to the edge, and I tipped the Big B over. Kismet looked over the edge, aghast. "You killed him!"
"Don't be ridiculous!" I scoffed, as I zapped Baelrog to keep him from rescuing Berserker. "It's only twenty stories down to where this building steps back from the walk. Twenty stories hurt Baelrog? It might knock the wind out of him, but he was a tough bastard, even before he got that symbiot."
"What about the stretchy one with the claws?"
"Kraken? Well, he's tough, but getting him over the edge would be a bear, especially since we've already played that card."
"Hey! _I_ do the card jokes around here!"
"Okay, but what do we do about Baelrog and Nasghul?"
Kismet paused and gave me an amused look. "Baelrog? Nasghul?"
"Don't," I warned her. "We've already done the Tolkien joke."
Then Kismet spotted Kraken stuffing more stuff into a satchel. He was forming one of those scythes with his hand, to dislodge that big doorknob gewgaw. "HEY! That's MY prize! Hands - or claws - or whatever - OFF!"
She charged at him, leaving me to guard her flank, which was a chore and a half, let me tell YOU! She tore into Kraken with her staff, which was ablaze with silver fire. In their tussle, the 'doorknob' got knocked out of its bracket and was knocked into the middle of the room.
It was like the puck had been dropped, in a hockey game. Everybody but me all dived for it at once. Hey, if it's THAT important-
I magno-snagged it out from just before their hands. Baelrog snarled, probably pissed that he spaced on that move first, and tried to snag it out of my hand with his own power. We did a tug of war with it for a bit, with the 'doorknob' dangling in mid-air between us. Then the 'doorknob' started to hum and glow, and it suddenly flared with energy. A huge backlash fed along both our power trails, and I was knocked back for a nasty loop. When I swept the stars out of my eyes, Baelrog was on the other side of the room twitching. As I got up, Kismet threw yet another of her cards on Baelrog. Then she pulled one of the metallic snakes from her gloves and threw it around him. It stretched and coiled around him. Then, she threw another one, reinforcing the binding.
The big flash had taken Kraken and Nasghul as much by surprise as it had me. Kraken was gingerly extending one of his long talons in its direction, when I snagged it out of his grasp. Well, Kiz giving him a big zap with her staff didn't hurt any, either.
Nasghul looked back and forth between us. "Well, well, finally we get to the place that I love - nobody to get between me and a choice of nice, juicy meals. So, ladies, which of you wants to go first? Go right ahead! Zap me all you want!"
"Okay, if you insist!" Kismet pointed her staff at him and instead of a bolt of energy, a white spray emerged. It covered him, and it started to crust over, and developed an icy dusting. He started, and tried to break out, but Kismet threw another of her snakes on him, trussing him up.
I pointed at Kraken, who was still on the floor, groggy. "You got another of those snakes for him?"
"If it comes to that, yeah."
I magno-snagged the 'doorknob'. I could feel the energy running through the thing, not amplified, but in some way becoming cleaner, clearer, somehow. "Okay, I'll bite - what IS this? It sure as hell didn't come from Cartiers."
"What it is." I suddenly felt something on my brow. It was one of those cards. Suddenly, my energy was running amok - I couldn't move a muscle, I couldn't use my powers, all that I could do is watch. Kismet walked up to me and took the 'doorknob' from my fingers. "What it is, is mine."
She calmly screwed the doorknob into a socket at the end of her staff and gave Kraken a zap with it, sending him flying. Then she heard a thudding sound against the side of the building. "Oh well, that must be your friend Berserker, climbing up. I guess I'll leave him to you." She saluted me with her staff, and parted with a cheery, "Nice doing business with you, Sparky!"
She straddled her staff, in a way that reminded me too closely of Ms. Hex and flew off.
It took everything that I had, but I was able to burn the card off my forehead. But by that time, Kismet was well out of sight, and even Berserker knew that the party was over. And I had to get Kraken, Baelrog and Nasghul into custody.
For as long as that lasted with this crew.
I looked out into the night and promised Kismet, "This isn't over."
Continuted in Part 28...