November 9th, 2006
Stacy wandered groggily into the breakfast nook, where Karen was reading the morning newspaper. She stood there for a moment, trying to figure out what to say. She sat down and asked, "Well? Anything new on that Trethamine mess?"
Karen leafed through the pages a bit. "Yes. The House Over-the-counter Drug Committee has voted to condemn Barrows, Murchison and Arkavis. The FBI is pursuing a fraud investigation against Daniels-McGregor in cooperation with the FDA. The Democrats are pushing for a recall of Barrows in his home district in Indiana. And there's still no sign of Dr. Moore, or any explanation as to how he disappeared from the hospital."
"So, in other words, a bunch of elected officials committed a whole bunch'a felonies, and they're gonna get off with slaps on the wrist. And I didn't do nothing wrong, but I'm in all kinds of trouble." Stacy did a face-plant on the table.
"They're not off the hook, Stacy," Karen said. "As the saying goes, 'the wheels of Justice grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.' Even if they weren't led off in shackles, those yahoos lost a ton of credibility, and there are a lot of people in Washington and in their home districts who aren't talking to them anymore. Which, for a politician, is pretty devastating. And Daniels-McGregor is taking a beating in the stock market over disclosure of their Trethamine scam, and other things that came out. And there's a small earthquake in the Financial sector. It seems that someone's moving around a lot of money around electronically, and kicking over a lot of apple carts. I wonder who... Besides, you're not in that much trouble."
"That's not what Rick Standish, over at WKRD says," Stacy said, not taking her face off the table.
"Rick Standish is a radio shock jock," Karen insisted. "Shock jocks aren't about accurate reporting or unbiased coverage. They're all about filling air time. Period. And getting people to call in. He'd say that he was raping his own mother live and on the air, if he thought that it would bring in listeners. I don't know why you listen to him. It only upsets you."
"I gotta know if Kaltenborn's getting enough flak about his deal with me that he might go back on it."
"I doubt it," Karen said carefully. "Kaltenborn's smart enough to know that giving into certain kinds of pressure is the political equivalent of gelding yourself, especially when it makes you renege on a deal that you signed off on. Besides, all the drug companies are bending over backwards, distancing themselves from Daniels-McGregor. Trying to lean on you would look too much like they were punishing you for airing dirty linen that they're trying to say wasn't theirs."
"That samples girl that I dragged into standing in for me wasn't too strung out by it, was she?"
"Lilly Mason? Why should she? She got her name and picture in the papers; she's got an item for her resume that's a killer, and now she's got an agent. Not bad for just standing in front of a camera and not doing anything for ten minutes." Karen lowered her paper and gave Stacy a wry look. "Stacy, you did good. Okay, he saw your decoy maneuver coming, but then, he's been at this for thirty years; if you had put one over on him, that would have been front page news. What you need to do is hang out with some regular kids for a while, and get your mind off of it. Lauren's having a half-day today, in anticipation of Vet's Day; why don't you go, pick her up, and maybe that boy Spencer, and a few of the others, and go shopping at the mall." Karen paused, thought it over for a second, and asked, "Kids DO still go shopping at the mall, don't they? It hasn't gone completely on-line, has it?"
"Yeah, well, sure, but my allowance..." Karen cut her off by silently holding out a credit card, without taking her eyes from the paper. "But... I can't take your credit card..."
"Look at the name on the card."
Stacy looked, and gave a *gleep!* when she saw her own name of the Visa Platinum©. She looked up to see Karen's amused smile. "For me? After what I did?"
"Like I said, kid, you did good!" Karen purred. "Besides, we're passing you off as a millionaire heiress, remember? How're you supposed to keep up your secret identity as a millionaire heiress, if you don't have a credit card? *Humph!* A millionaire heiress without a credit card... Why, you'd be laughed out of the Justice League!" Stacy rushed around the table and crushed Karen's paper in the process of giving her a big hug. Karen accepted the hug, and gave Stacy a small kiss on the cheek back. Stacy broke the hug, and holding the card gingerly, walked out of the breakfast nook. She wasn't scampering off to spend her newly-gotten loot. Rather she wafted off slowly, trying not to grin like a loon. She knew that the only way to show the proper appreciation for such things was to use them. Still, the shining in her eyes showed that she realized that Karen approved of her.
Karen felt that warm glow that you get when you've finally gotten through to someone. It was a little crude, resorting to simple money, but it was one way of letting Stacy know that she'd done good. Hopefully, it would sink in, and she wouldn't have to keep giving Stacy gifts like that. No, that wouldn't do at all. No, she needed a better way of communicating to Stacy that she didn't have to worry so much. Yes, she'd definitely have to find a better way.
But this would do for the moment.
Stacy met Lauren at the front door of the Mansfield School, bouncing on her toes with excitement. Through gasps punctuated by squeals, Stacy told Lauren about the great trust that Ms. Wickham had bestowed upon her. Through a screen of squees and giggles, Lauren, Mindy and Terri agreed that the only way to show proper respect to the great trust was to utilize it to its greatest effect at the Willow Crest mall. Spence, who they invited along, saw the logic of it, while his friend Dylan didn't, which furthered Stacy's suspicions about Spence. Both Spence and Dylan were dragooned into coming along. They both complained, but Stacy could tell that Dylan was sincere about his gripes.
Several hours of no-holds-barred shopping later, the girls (oh, and Spencer and Dylan, too), Stacy and crew brought their swag to a bistro table and took a good, filling, non-nutritious break from their labors. As Spence and Dylan massaged their carrying arms, the girls talked over their soft drinks. It rattled on predictably for a while, until Mindy asked, "So, what do YOU think it really means?"
"What does what really mean?" Stacy asked.
"What? I thought that you listened to Rick Standish?"
"He was getting on my nerves," Stacy shot back. "What's he up to now?"
"He claims- get this- that someone sent him some kind of challenge to the Silver Ghost, that they're going to commit some kind of crime, unless she solves some kind of riddle."
"You're kidding!" Stacy gawped. "Nobody DOES that, for real! They don't even do that bit in comic books or on TV anymore! I mean, it's TOO STUPID!"
"Maybe, but Rick Standish says that the cops are taking it seriously. Or not. I haven't heard anything about the University of Ohio doing anything special."
"The University of Ohio?" Stacy echoed, not getting it.
"Oh, whoever it was sent in this bogus, faux-haiku thing. Let's see, it went: 'Silver Ghost/ Endeavor to stop me/ Prevent my acquisition/ The stellar queen imp/ Ensorcelled Item/ Red Shield'."
"HANH?" Stacy bleated in non-comprehension.
"It's an old riddle trick from way back when," Dylan said superiorly. "The answer is hidden in the first and last letters on each line. 'S-E-P-T-E-R' and 'T-E-N-P-M'; 'scepter' and 'Ten PM'."
"Doesn't 'scepter' have a 'C' in it?"
"So this bozo flunked spelling!"
"What's the 'red shield' bit about?"
"The coat of arms for the University of Ohio at Cincinnati is a solid red shield." Dylan smirked. "And, among other trinkets, the U of Oh at Cincy just happens to have on exhibit the power item of a supervillainess from the 1960s, called the 'Star Witch'."
"The _Star Witch_?" Stacy asked in a pained voice.
"It was the Sixties," Mindy shrugged. "So, the smart money is that whoever sent that message to Rick Standish is gonna try to steal the Star Witch's power scepter from the University of Ohio, at Ten PM tonight."
"Oh, you just know that, 'cause Rick Standish has been dragging out every possible answer for the past few hours," Linda scoffed. "MAN, he really will do anything to fill air time, won't he?"
"This is STUPID!" Stacy blurted out, "WHO in their right mind would flat out tell the cops when and where're gonna pull a crime? Even the frickin' RIDDLER is in the nuthouse, and he's fictional!"
"Yeah, but who says that he's in his right mind? There are plenty of loons out there," Spence pointed out.
"Why does the University of Ohio have a supervillain's power item out on display?" Laura asked, voicing something that had been nagging at Stacy.
"It's harmless," Dylan said. "The Star Witch dropped out of sight, like, thirty years ago, and it's always been a little iffy exactly HOW she got her powers. She had at least three power items through the years: that wand, a 'power crown' and a pair of 'power bracers'. It's still not clear whether her powers came from those things, or she channeled her powers through them, or they focused and refined them somehow, or if they were just a shuck to make people think that they could disarm her by getting them away from her, or what."
"How do you know all that?" Stacy asked, puzzled.
"What? I googled it!" Dylan pulled out a laptop, fired it up and showed them a screen. "Okay, she doesn't have her own website or anything, but apparently she was big time enough that she rates on the 'Noteworthy Villains of the Past' sites." He clicked a link, and a picture of a reasonably attractive, athletic woman in her early 30s appeared, wearing a dark blue long-sleeved dress with a knee-length skirt, with a wide light blue stripe down the front, and a simple white five-pointed star on the chest. She wore white gauntlet gloves, go-go boots, belt with a star buckle, a blue pointed 'witch' hat with a white hatband and a white catseye domino mask. She carried a long silvery staff with a large star at the tip.
"How... Sixties..." Laura said with a note of disdain.
"Yeah, well, I guess it was all hip and happening and like that with Flower Power and Beatles music," Spence said. "What did she do with the wand? I mean, how did it work?"
"Lessee..." Dylan poked at his laptop and said, "She created some kinda sparkly stuff that she used sort of like Green Lantern's light. Y'know, hands, blasts, shields, like that? And she used it to fly."
"Could anyone use it?"
"Why?" Stacy peeped, "Would? Anyone? Want a dingus, from some old-time supervillain that nobody's heard of in years, that they couldn't USE? And TELL everyone that they were gonna do it?"
"Well, DUH!" Laura said, "Someone's trying to set up the Silver Ghost! Either she shows up, or everyone's gonna say that she was chicken."
"Oh, give me a break! Why would the Silver Ghost show up?"
"Because Rick Standish has been rats-assing her about it for three hours."
"Is that legal?" Stacy wondered "I mean, isn't that aiding and abetting or something like that? I mean, if this IS a trap for the Silver Ghost, then isn't he helping whoever's setting the trap?"
Spence let out a martyred sigh. "It's the price of Freedom of Speech. Rick Standish has a right to be a complete dickwad on the air, and as long as people want to tune in and listen to him, the radio station has a right to pay him to do it."
"You think that the Silver Ghost will bite, Stacy?" Laura asked her. "Miss Wyckham is a major contributor to SPECTRUM, so she might have some clues as to what the Ghost might do."
Stacy shook her head. "Not a chance. The Ghost is, like, WAY on thin ice with the DA's office after that thing with Brigand and those congressmen guys. They have an understanding that she's not supposed to do any super-heroing, so there is NO WAY that she's going to show up tonight at the University. No WAY."
'I cannot believe that I showed up,' Stacy thought sourly to herself as she stood invisibly on the sidelines of the University of Ohio's 'Weird Science' exhibit. 'I am such a tool.'
The docent-lady gave the crowd a wary smile; she obviously wasn't used to crowds this big. She really wasn't used to having a a couple of news crews or a radio crew from WKRD. "Well," she started nervously, "I'm... very happy to see so much interest in our exhibit of esoteric and irreproducible technology of the past-"
"WHY is the University of Ohio, a public institution of higher learning, recklessly endangering the public by displaying these weapons of mass destruction like this?" Rick Standish demanded.
"Sir, NONE of these objects has worked, in the laboratory or in the field, in over twenty YEARS," the docent corrected him in the voice of calm reason. "The purpose of this exhibit-"
"Is to bring in a few bucks, no matter what sort of FREAK might decide to drop in and pick up a power boost," Standish broke her off in mid-sentence. Again.
"The purpose of this exhibit is to underscore the difference between real Science, and the odd, not completely understood phenomenon popularly called 'Super-Science', which tends to confuse the general public as to what is and isn't possible. We-"
"WHY isn't the Silver Ghost here?" Standish demanded. "Is she AFRAID to show up?"
"The Silver Ghost isn't affiliated with the University of Ohio in-"
This time, one of the other reporters, apparently not happy that Rick Standish was hogging all the spotlight, interrupted, asking, "In the light of the robbery threat, what security measures have been taken?"
As the docent tried to tell the news jackals in even, reasonable tones that the exhibits weren't dangerous, or at risk, or even all that valuable, Stacy noticed a short woman wearing a puffy parka, a knit cap and a pair of big sunglasses, standing in the back of the pack. She had a shoulder bag that identified her with Channel 9, but she didn't seem to be part of the news pack. She was looking around the exhibit, as though she was searching for something. Then, looking back at the other newspeople, she edged her way over among the exhibits. As Stacy watched, the girl poked around among the exhibits, and when she thought that everyone was paying attention to Standish rats-assing the docent, the girl slipped into the booth of Dr. Cyclonic's Radiation Bombardment Augmentation Chamber (circa 1953).
The girl shut the door, and after a few minutes the Radiation Bombardment Augmentation Chamber started shaking and jerking. Stacy walked over, still invisible (I mean, talk about embarrassing questions, if this was nothing) and checked it out. There were muted grunts and squeaks coming from inside the chamber, and Stacy could make out soft cussing. One of the guards heard the noise and came over to investigate. He knocked at the door and asked, "What's going on in there?"
The thrashing around got louder and the booth jerked around furiously. The guard slid the rolling gate open, to reveal the girl half-naked, pulling herself into a dark-purple-and-green leotard. "Do you MIND?" the girl snapped and slammed the door shut.
The booth then shook so furiously that the reporters all stopped paying any attention to Standish and the docent, and turned to see what was going on. The door snapped open. "Ta-DAAH!" trumpeted the girl. She was a skinny girl, maybe Stacy's age, and scrawny. Even allowing that the 16-something hormone rush hadn't happened yet, only the merest suggestions of breasts and the clear lack of bulge at her groin suggested that she was a girl. She was wearing a bodystocking that quartered her form into purple and green, with a green comedy mask on her purple-covered right shoulder and opposite matching hip, and her head was covered with a close-fitting purple hood with three 'jester's cap' horns and a domino mask. "I! Am! MADCAP! " she announced, her face wreathed in glee.
"Oh, gimme a break," someone muttered, summing up the general reaction.
'Madcap' gave the merest 'humph!' pause and proceeded over the lack of enthusiasm shown by the Philistines, "I am MADCAP! I am CHAMPION of the ancient Greek God of Comedy, Hilarius, chosen to-"
"Ah, the Greek goddess, or more appropriately, 'Muse' of Comedy was Thalia," the docent corrected her.
"HEY! Who had the Divine Visitation, Me 'r You?" Madcap soldiered on, "I have been charged with dragging the STICK that's been crammed up the butt of this crummy wet-blanket burg out, and-"
One of the reporters turned to Rick Standish and snarled, "You dragged us out here for THIS?"
"HEY! Hey, I'm TALKIN' here!" Madcap yelled. "Anyway, I have been chosen by Thalia-"
"I thought you said your god was named 'Hilarious'."
"BY THALIA," Madcap snarled at the heckler, "to wake you clowns up by stealing the treasures that you don't even know you've GOT!"
"We're clowns?" Standish shot in out of some instinct that made it hard for him to let anyone else have the spotlight, "You're the one wearing the circus outfit."
"This is my SUPERVILLAIN uniform!"
"Supervillain uniform?" Standish scoffed, "You're wearing Harley Quinn's outfit, in the Joker's colors! The only crime you're committing is Copyright Infringement!"
"Not a supervillain, huh?" Madcap fell backwards into a sitting position. But instead of falling on her butt, a transparent bubble formed around Madcap, and she shot up to the ceiling. She rebounded off the roof and ricocheted around the room, scattering people and knocking over exhibits.
While Stacy was strongest when she was silvered up, she was still very strong when she was invisible, so she was able to run around and catch some of the more delicate looking exhibits and keep them from crashing.
Madcap careened around the room, whooping in panic as she obviously tried to control her zig-zagging path, finally coming to a stop in a sprawl. "Whoo!" Madcap gushed, "I'd like to see the Silver Ghost top THAT!"
"Well, one thing's for sure you're going to top her in number of arrests, young lady!" the Security Chief stepped forward. "Just because you have some strange sort of super power doesn't mean that you can just go around wrecking things! We're holding you for the Police, and charges of Vandalism WILL be pressed!" He seemed to be saying that more for the Press than for Madcap. But as he reached over to take a hold of her, that sphere appeared around Madcap again, and she went zipping off on another round of bouncing around, knocking people and exhibits over.
After causing chaos that Stacy had to haul ass to keep from totally destroying the exhibition, Madcap came to a halt again. Woozily she got up and said, "Yeah, the Silver Ghost probably was TOO DUMB to figure out my clue!" She staggered over to the glassed-in exhibit holding the Star Witch's costume and 'star scepter'. "She'll just have to figure out where I'm gonna strike next!" She paused and turned, "Y'hear me? I CHALLENGE her to stop me!"
"Why are you singling out the Silver Ghost?" one of the reporters asked, as he struggled out of the heap that he'd been thrown in.
"Because, I am her ARCH-ENEMY!" Took a tool from her belt and took a whack at the glass. The glass didn't shatter. "Because she..." Madcap took another whack at the glass with her glassbreaker, which didn't do the job it was designed for. "Because, she... well, she knows why!" Madcap started to lose her temper and thumped at the glass, which wasn't even scratched. With a growl, Madcap stepped back a few yards, did her drop-bounce number and shot herself at the glass front.
Only to bounce off, doing absolutely no damage, and being sent off on another barrage of recoiling chaos. Stacy was barely able to keep some of the cases from falling on people, and she was so busy that she was still in the process of setting one of the exhibits upright, when Madcap took an unexpected carom and plowed right into her. Stacy was taken completely by surprise, but Madcap slamming into her didn't faze her, and Stacy was able to silver herself up as she and Madcap were thrown against one of the walls.
Madcap sprawled at Stacy's feet as she got her footing back, and then looked up. "Ah HAH!" Madcap exulted, "I knew that you couldn't resist a dare from your GREATEST ENEMY!"
"Excuse me," Stacy said politely, "but have we MET?"
"I am MADCAP!"
"Is that supposed to mean something to me?"
"Of COURSE it means something! You showed up, didn't you?"
"Are you on drugs or something?"
"If I wasn't your arch-enemy, then WHY did you show up to stop me, huh?"
"First of all," Stacy grated out, knowing that this little bedbug was getting to her and not being able to do anything about it, "Arch-Enemies are supposed to be people who've actually MET, or at the very least, know who each other ARE. I don't know you from the telephone pole you look like!" Madcap let out an outraged squeal, and suddenly Stacy saw a ploy that not only wouldn't get her in trouble, but would actually let her WIN against a motormouth like Madcap. "And Second, I'm NOT here to stop you. I just came to see what all the fuss was about. I'm not a crime fighter, I'm just a kid who happened to get powers. I'm not going to fight you, I'm just going to help the nice people at the University get this mess cleaned up, while the Police take you in and call your parents, so they can yell at you for being an idiot."
"WHAT?" Madcap yelped, sagging in deflated rejection. "But? But how are we gonna..."
It was just sinking in for Madcap exactly how stupid she looked, when suddenly Col. Destiny's Aetheric Cannon, which had been teetering from when Madcap rebounded off of it and Stacy had only just managed to get it back upright, fell over, touched an exposed power line and let off an aetheric blast (something that researchers had given up on getting it to do 25 years ago), which struck Dr. Jove's Cosmo-Dynamic Control Override Generator, which in turn emitted a potent wave of energy that radiated out from the generator, overloading almost every electrical and electronic device in the museum. Fortunately, there wasn't anyone with a pacemaker in the crowd. Many of the strange devices reacted by spurting into some semblance of activity, but the Star Witch's scepter flared with energy, which shattered the glass case from within.
"ah HAH!" Madcap exulted, "JUST as I Planned!" she rushed over and grabbed the scepter, which was floating, sparkling in midair.
"You're seriously... trying to tell me... that you planned that..." Stacy droned.
"Of COURSE!" Madcap flourished the scepter. "And now that I've suckered you into doing my dirty work, I can do THIS!" she pointed the scepter at Stacy, and-
-it did nothing.
"oohhhh..." Stacy sneered, "It sparkles! Stephanie Meyer will be all jealous!"
Madcap stood there for a second, trying valiantly to ignore the egg on her face. "aahhh..." she gawped, "So... I don't know how to use it! YET! But I will figure it out! So, don't try to stop me!" She started edging her way towards one of the exits.
"Why would I try to stop you?" Stacy asked, folding her arms across her chest. "I'm not a crime fighter. I just came here to see what all the fuss was about."
"But... I'm trying to escape..."
"So? You're a job for the Police. LOOK at this mess you caused! If I tried to fight you, we'd only make things worse. Though I will warn you, if you leave, you're adding grand larceny to the Reckless Endangerment and Vandalism charges."
"Aw MAN, I do not believe this!" Rick Standish groaned loudly. "How lame can you BE?"
"Hey, if you think that I'm going to go to jail, just so that you can get a few cheap thrills, Standish," Stacy shot back, "then you are even crazier than SHE is!" Then something occurred to Stacy. "Hey, did YOU put her up to this? What, she's your niece or something?"
"Hey, I am NOT related to any crazy little mutant whackjob!" Standish snarled.
"What?" Madcap yelped, "I aint NO stinkin' mutant, JACK!"
"What?" Stacy growled at Madcap, "there's something WRONG with being a mutant? It's not enough that you're a loony-toon, a vandal, and a THIEF, but you're a BIGOT, on top of everything else?"
"I am NOT a bigot!" Madcap sputtered, "I just-" then she broke off and chortled, "Oh, very sneaky, veee-reee sneaky... Yer tryin' to get me to just stand here, arguin' with you, while the rest of SPECTRUM shows up, 'cause you're too CHICKEN to try and stop me, all by yourself!"
"Why would SPECTRUM show up?" Stacy asked, utterly unconcerned. "I doubt that the cops will even come. They'll just figure out who you are, and drop by your parents' and have them deliver you to court, when the judge gives you a couple of hundred hours of Community Service for this mess."
"HAH!" Madcap scoffed, "Nice Try, Silvie! But I'm not fallin' for it! I'm three steps ahead of you, all the way!" She ran for the double doors to the outside exhibit.
"How can you be ahead of me?" Stacy asked the air, "I'm not going after you."
The crowd followed and watched her through the doors. Madcap used her bubble to bounce up to the top of something that looked vaguely like a 1950s idea of what a rocket ship would look like. The plaque identified it as the 'Iron Vulture's' ''Sky Claw'. "Miss?" The docent called out, "That ship hasn't flown in over fifty years!"
"HAH!" Madcap exulted, "The joke's on YOU! I gassed it up and added a battery last night!" With that, she swung under the cockpit's canopy into the pilot's seat and hastily strapped herself in.
"Gassed... it... up?" the docent echoed, her eyes large and her face pale. "That thing has a 200 gallon fuel tank! And the systems in its engines haven't even been LOOKED at in thirty years!"
"Two hundred gallons?" Stacy gasped, more reading the docent's meaning than rationally following the logic of what she was saying. Stacy swept everyone from the doorway and shut the glass doors. "GET! DOWN!" she snapped as she laid her hands against the glass, silvering it, reinforcing them with her power.
Inside the Sky Claw, Madcap hit the ignition.
And was rewarded with a rather rude noise from within the ship. She hit the ignition a few more times and just got a choking noise from the engine. "Gee, overreact much, Hero?" Standish sneered as he got up. Madcap got out of the cockpit, stood on the nose of the rocket and hit it with the Star Witch's scepter out of sheer frustration.
The ship exploded in a ball of fire.
The force of the blast blew out the glass windows, but Stacy's power kept the force of the blast from shattering the glass doors and slicing the people behind them to shreds. As they all recovered, and looked, horror-struck at the burning and twisted remains of the skyship, Stacy turned to Standish and snarled, "Waddya say NOW, Mister Know-It-All?"
November 13th, 2006
"So, did they ever find the body of that 'Madcap' whackadoo?" Lauren asked after Stacy met her after school, four days later.
"No," Stacy said with a shake of her head. "But Miss Wyckham tells me that there was a series of weird police reports about ten minutes later, about things dropping out of the sky and mashing something from above, doing a fair bit of damage, but not sticking around. When they looked at a map, there were seven of these reports, all in a line that lead straight from the University. They think that that stupid force-bubble of hers threw her out of the blast, and the force threw her at least a mile, and she bounced for another ten miles before stopping."
"You're saying that she got away?"
"Yeah, apparently besides that force field bubble of hers, Madcap has the power of Amazing Dumb Luck."
"I'll bet that you got all kinds of props from SPECTRUM," Lauren grinned.
"Weeeell..." Stacy hedged, "they didn't Yell at me or nothing..."
"Huh? But you handled that beautifully! You showed that you weren't afraid of that Madcap dingbat and kept people from getting hurt, but you didn't let yourself get dragged into Madcap's bozo game. Guts AND maturity! How can they not be blown away?"
"That's what I thought," Stacy grumped. "But they didn't quite see it that way. They were more upset that I went there in the first place. Even if I didn't fight Madcap, it still counts as superheroing."
"What?" Lauren yelped, outraged. But before she could on the existential adult idiocy of it, Spencer, Dylan and a third boy walked up.
"Hey, Stacy! Lauren," he added with a nod. "What'cha talkin' about?"
"Please, don't let it be shopping," Dylan quipped. The third boy, a pudgy, slightly goggle-eyed kid, just stood there, and listened.
"Oh, we were just talking about that Madcap thing," Lauren said. "That yutz Rick Standish has been yakking it up on his show."
"Tell me about it," Spence grumped. "I was talking about it in Home Room, and Miz Monoghan got all on me about that, and now I gotta write a 500-word paper on both sides of the Mutant Question, both Pro and Con."
"So, you were talking about superheroes, and now you gotta research them and plan out a paper about them?" Stacy started to say that he got it easy, but then she realized that there's no better way to get sick and tired of a subject than to have to do heavy homework on it. "Woof, and I thought your teachers were playing hardball on Halloween!"
"That's why they get the big bucks," Dylan said sourly. "There's not a lot of money in the teaching racket, but the Mansfield teachers do okay."
"Okay, obviously the place to go for the Con side is Humanity First!'s storefront downtown," Spence said. "But where do I find the Pro side?"
"Hey, why not SPECTRUM?" Lauren suggested.
"Ah, Yeah," Spence scoffed, "they're really gonna let me interview the Silver Ghost for her perspective." He paused. "Not that I wouldn't get a better grade for it..."
"I think she means SPECTRUM's Public Access Showroom." Stacy said. "After they brought the Silver Ghost in, SPECTRUM added a big educational display on the facts, as opposed to the myths about mutant phenomena. Besides the display, I think they got other stuff, including references to other sources, and like all that."
"So, they're admitting that the Silver Ghost IS a mutant?" Dylan asked.
"I think that they're trying to cop to it, without actually admitting that they were dancing around the point," Lauren guessed. "Y'know, trying to make like, 'Yeah, she's a mutant, what's the big hoopla?'"
"Cool!" Spence said with a relieved smile. "Monoghan hates 'cut-and-paste' reports from the Internet, so this might actually get her off my case!" He gave Stacy and Lauren a hopeful smile, "So, wanna come with?"
Stacy and Lauren looked at each other, did one of those silent conferences and nodded. As they worked out the logistics as to how they'd get there (and who'd pay for snacks afterwards), the schlub who'd been tagging along with them, who seemed to be kind of bored by this, or at the very least rather distant to it, pulled out a radio, and ran through the bands until he got WKRD. Rick Standish was going on, ranting about this and that, and for a while Stacy hoped that Standish had gotten tired of harshing on her.
No such luck. After he finished with President Bush, Standish started calling 'the Silver Ghost' a wuss for not fighting Madcap. He ragged on her for a while, and then, ["Gee, Gang, we have another caller! Boy, I wonder who is IS?"]
Then Stacy's blood ran cold, as she recognized the high, slightly nasal, squeak voice that came over the air, [Hey! Who d'you think you ARE? I keep tellin' you, I am NOT a f<beep!> mutant! I was empowered by Thalia, the Goddess of-"
NO, the Goddess, I mean, Muse of Comedy, you illiterate PUTZ! What, did you flunk out of school, and you slipped under the maximum level of education for that gutter radio station? I mean, who listens to RADIO anymore?] Stacy had to cringe slightly as Standish baited Madcap over the phone, prodding her into ever-greater flights of inanity and self-humiliation. Stacy sincerely hoped and prayed that Madcap wasn't a mutant. It was embarrassing enough, being linked with her as an enemy; having her as a sort-of-relative would make Stacy keel over dead of shame!
[Anyway! What I called you to do in the FIRST place, before you started talkin' trash, was I got another challenge for the Silver Ghost! She managed to figure out my last riddle, so maybe she isn't as dumb as looks! Or maybe somebody spelled it out for her!] Stacy silently promised herself that if she ever got her hands on Madcap, she'd ram that nutbar's own jester's cap down her throat. [Daring I Laugh/ Keeping My Credo/ Material Singin/ Ample Evidence/ Deep Six/ Angry Clasp/ Magic Medium
"Oh? You're not even going to TRY to make a rhyme this time?"] Standish jeered.
Spence had jotted it down on a pad as Madcap recited her 'riddle'. "I got ten bucks riding that she and Standish are related, and he's pulling this just to get more listeners." He studied what he'd put down: "D/H, K/O, M/N, A/E, D/X, A/P, M/M, or, D-K-M-A-D-A-M and H-O-G-E-X-P-M. No, 'H-O-N-E-X-P-M', Okay, the second part is easy: 'H1, Ten PM', But 'DK Madam'?"
"Maybe there's a 'Madam something-er-other' display at the H1! Storefront," Dylan suggested. "From what I read, Madcap said that she was 'stealing treasures that we didn't even know we had', and she swiped the Star Witch's scepter from the University. So, maybe H1! Has something that belonged to some supervillain we never heard about, because it happened a long time ago. H1! has a bunch of crap from that time back in the Sixties, when the Mutant Supremists caused such a ruckus."
"Sorry, guys," Lauren said, "We'd love to go, but there's no way the old folks are gonna let us go out after Nine, just to see a superfight; even if it does sound more like a live performance of the Three Stooges in the making."
"Okay, it's not like my rents will let me out that late without a leash," Spence agreed. "But I still gotta go there anyway. At least we'll get 'we saw it before it was a disaster' cred. SPECTRUM's place is closer; we'll go there, then snacks somewhere, and we thrash out that part of my homework, and then we go through H1's display and I should be able to get enough to pad out 500 words from that."
And that was the agreed plan. Stacy got on the back of Spence's Vespa, and Lauren got on the back of Dylan's scooter, and they were off. "Hey, why aren't you waiting for your friend?" Stacy yelled in Spence's ear.
"Dylan? He's got his own scooter!"
"No, not Dyl, the OTHER guy! The one who pulled out the radio while we were in the middle of talking?" Stacy paused. "Jeez, rude much?"
"Oh, that's Benny the barnacle!" Spence yelled back. "He wasn't with us. Well, he was, but he's not our friend. Okay, he goes to the same school as us, but he, ah..." Spence paused, looking for the right words. "Well, he's not exactly famous for his social skills. He's smart as a tack with Math, Chemistry and Physics, but people skills? Thick as a brick. But he's got a skin like a rhinoceros. So he just sort of latches onto people and tags along, like he was a part of whatever crowd comes along."
Stacy remembered that 'Benny the barnacle' was one of the 'social landmines' that Lauren had warned her about at Mansfield. And Stacy was rather impressed that she had remembered that. But then, her memory had gotten a lot better lately. "So... he just tags along, and he doesn't care whether he's welcome or not?"
"Care? Like I said, he has a thick skin like a rhino; I don't think that it really registers with him. He's the kind of guy-"
"-who'd turn on a talk radio show in the middle of someone else's conversation?"
"He's... not gonna be hanging around with us a lot, is he?"
"Not if we're quick."
Stacy and Spence hooked back up with Lauren and Dylan at SPECTRUM's Public Access Showroom. The showroom was a place where the average Cincinnati citizen could come and get a better idea as to what was going on with Cincy's resident caped crusaders. There were exhibits about each of the members, with carefully written explanations that gave the general population enough information that they felt they had a decent handle on what the heroes were about, while not giving away information that could be used against them by supervillains. There were also exhibits about past members, certain recurring supervillains, and general items of popular interest. Stacy noted with interest that while she didn't have an exhibit as the Silver Ghost of her own, they did have a suggestive niche with no explaining plaques that had one of her 'Silver Ghost' hooded capes on a dummy, like they were testing the waters or something.
There was a separate exhibit on the Halloween Hostage-taking, as they were touting it. The main element of the display was Dr. Strega's mobile workstation, which was being held there until it would be taken by the FBI as evidence when they finally caught Dr. Strega. There were dummies with the armor of Dark Claw and two of his flunkies, with a mockup of that stupid magic claw of his. There were pictures of the kidnapped kids standing with Captain Patriot, Azure and the Golden Knight, smiling happily. But they also had a monitor showing Dark Claw's videotaped ransom demands, and several of the kid's messages to their parents. They also had a picture of Spencer looking paradoxically ladylike and badass in his Cinderella costume, holding one of the assault rifles. They didn't identify him, calling him merely 'one of the teenage caretakers'. Still, Spence blushed as Dylan elbowed him and said, "Nice dress" with a snicker.
But what Stacy really liked was they had the crocodile mask they'd gotten off the poor dead guy who'd been Sobek's host, and the golden ankh that Stacy had used to command the crocodile god. The ankh was her favorite, though. It was big and golden, and according to the plaque, the backbone- style handle meant that they were incorporating another classic bit of Egyptian imagery into it, even though they thought it was from the Roman, rather than Dynastic period. The eye thing in the center of the loop was called an Eye of Ra. All she really knew was that looking at the ankh made her proud. She'd done good on Halloween. She hadn't been scared or stupid or clumsy. She'd given SPECTRUM both the information and the distraction that they'd needed, at just the right time. And she'd handled Sobek. Everything else, someone else at SPECTRUM might've handled, but Sobek had all of them on the ropes, but she'd handled him. And he was a god. Okay, the plaque called him an 'unexplained paranormal entity', but he was an old-timey god. And he'd shown her respect. Not like that shitwad Rick Standish, who Stacy thought had probably been one of those snotty playground bullies who like to push littler kids around, and then found a way to get paid for it. When she looked at that ankh, she thought, maybe, just maybe, she might be worth something after all.
"Stacy?" Lauren goggled her elbow, "You ready to go?"
"But I thought that Spence had to do his research with the Mutant exhibit," Stacy said.
"He already did; we've been here for an hour, and you haven't moved from that spot since we got here."
"oh." Stacy blushed beet red. "Sorry. Lost in thought." She let her friend walk her to the exit as she grinned pathetically through her blushes.
From the Public Access Showroom, they went to a coffee shop a few blocks away from Humanity First!'s storefront to go over what they'd gotten from SPECTRUM. As he spread the materials across the table, Spence said, "Well, whoever SPECTRUM has doing their PR is pretty damn sneaky."
"Oh?" Stacy peeped as she looked over the glossy pages and charts and fliers. "It looks pretty straightforward to me."
"That's the sneaky part. It's so conspicuously balanced and unbiased, admitting that there are mutant supervillains, but pointing out all the other normal people who have non-super powered mutations, that you'd be tempted to not bother going over to Humanity First! Or, at least, you'd look at H1!'s stuff and see it as blatantly biased." Stacy had a hard time seeing why that was a problem; H1!'s stuff was blatantly biased.
Then Lauren, Spence and Dylan started analyzing the information they had in a way that sounded a lot more like what Stacy thought spy agencies did when they were going through raw intelligence data. "Wow," she said wide-eyed, "your school teaches you how to do that?"
"Sure," Spence said matter-of-factly. "Learning the basics of research and study is part of the curriculum at most of the better schools. Don't those tutors Miss Wyckham hired teach you this stuff?"
"They're 'bringing me up to speed'," Stacy bluffed, though some of the things that Mrs. Clifford had said about 'building a foundation' were making more sense. "I'm, ah, not exactly what you'd call 'good at school'," she admitted with a lame 'please don't despise me' smile.
"Don't worry," Dylan said generously, "you just need to wrap your head around the idea that, yes, you CAN figure all of this out, if you just break it down into bits that you can understand." Still, Stacy thought that he was giving the cute girl the benefit of a doubt.
"Yeah," Spence added, "you know what they say; there are two kinds of rich kids: the ones who kick back and live off their trust funds and family fortunes, and the ones who bust their asses, so there'll BE money in the trust funds and family fortunes."
Lauren chuckled along with this big of rich kid wit, which made Stacy curious. When she and Lauren went to the powder room, Stacy asked her, "So, do the kids at Mansfield know that you aren't rich, that you're going there as part of your 'rents benefits with Miss Wickham?"
"Yes- no- kinda- sorta," Lauren admitted. "I got the 'poor kid' shit when I went to Montessori with a bunch of these kids, but they've sort of forgotten that, and I've managed to blend in with the crowd. I don't hide it, but I don't make a point of reminding people, either. I kinda get the impression that it's sort of like what black kids have to put up with at these white-bread schools. Now that I think about it, you're going through the same deal: on one hand, you can't really ignore the fact that you are different from them, that no matter what, you're a mutant with strange powers; on the other hand, you don't want that to get in the way of having friends, hanging out, and, y'know, being a person." Lauren paused and mulled it over for a bit. "The way I got it figured, you're only a phony if you make a big deal about not being what you really are."
They finished up and went back to Spence and Dylan, who were still blocking out Spence's report. They finished up, and Spence said, "And now we go and see what angle Humanity First! is pushing."
"Maybe there's a paper in comparing H1! and SPECTRUM's PR techniques," Stacy suggested, hoping maybe to cover her gaff of earlier.
"You may have a good idea here, Stacy," Spence admitted as they walked through H1!'s displays. "The differences between the pitches being made by SPECTRUM and Humanity First! might make for a better paper than the 'Pro or Con Mutant' thing. Though, H1! is definitely going for the gross-out factor'." He stopped in front of a polystyrene statue that was touted as being an 'accurate and true to life replication' of the condition of one Wilfrid Bixby, showing a huge, misshapen, miscolored, overdeveloped towering brute who was snarling at the viewer.
"Yeah, but they're playing the 'they're as much a threat to themselves as they are to others' card," Dylan pointed out, indicating the exhibit on Edwardo 'Eddie' VelÃ¡zquez, a Hispanic kid in El Paso who had a disastrous initial manifestation of his mutant power during a loud argument with his mother, and wigged out, killing most of his family and blowing out the side of his house.
"The two main tools of deception are, classically, the suppresso veri and the suggesto falsi," Lauren said. While Stacy didn't know any Latin, she didn't need any kinda-telepathy to pick up that Lauren meant 'suppressing truth' and 'suggesting falsely'. "But I think that they're going for a third tactic: namely, they're spotlighting what supports their position, and not so much suppressing opposing facts and arguments, as simply not mentioning them."
"I thought that _I_ was supposed to be the one who was writing the report," Spence said giving Lauren the cold eye.
"Yeah," Stacy agreed, "but isn't that, like, business as usual? I mean, McRonalds™ doesn't harsh on Burger Clown© or Finger-Lickin' Chicken®, they just go on about how great those stupid greasy Whalloper™ burgers are, bribe kids with cheesy toys, and make out like visiting one of their places is like a trip to Disneyland."
Spence nodded. "Okay, but really- when is it Propaganda, and when is it just someone telling their side of the story as best they can?"
Lauren made a rude noise. "Please! That's simple! If we like it, it's 'telling it like it is'; if we don't, then it's 'propaganda'." She finished with a pert smile, like she was wise-assing them and was daring them to get mad.
"Maybe," Spence allowed, "but at the very least they could pretend to a degree of objectivity."
"Why?" Dylan asked, looking around, "All this makes for better drama, and drama always beats out facts and logic in the PR arena." And he had a point; the big diorama of the 'Fool's Fight' in New York, the 3-D panorama of devastation wrought in Fort Worth by the Savage Six, the dummy of Tyrant upon his mental power-enhancing power throne, surrounded by slack-faced figurines of mentally dominated civilians and backed by a large picture of the crowd in Philadelphia that had legitimately been enthralled by Tyrant's psychic coercion, the figurine of Abbadon with his hand stuck in the chest of another figurine dressed as the 1960s Golden Knight; it was all designed to bring home the impression that super-powered people were cruel, capricious and rapacious, that they posed a clear and present danger to the lives and welfare of normal people, and that drastic steps had to be taken. It didn't just bring that point home, it hammered it in. But what the approached lacked in subtlety, it more than made up for with sheer brute effectiveness.
"Okay, really," Lauren posed, "is all of this to convince people who haven't decided which way they're gonna go? Or is it to keep the people who're already on H1!'s side scared?"
Hoping that she didn't look half as stupid as she felt, Stacy looked around and wondered, "So, do you really think that 'Madcap' yoyo is going to steal something from this place? I mean, what is there here, that anyone would want?"
"Well, if she's stealing old supervillains' power focuses, she does have a few options," Dylan said, looking around. "I remember a few months ago, H1! was making noises about how they'd acquired one of Lamia's power harnesses, somehow," he indicated the Savage Six panorama, where one of the dummies was wearing a ceramet backpack with metallic cables that snaked down the supervillainess' arms and extended. In the display, one of them was wrapped around a figure dressed as Captain Liberty, who had died fending off the Six; but he was only one of 23 who'd died that day. The Six weren't called 'Savage' out of mere hyperbole.
"Madcap's, ah, 'riddle' did mention 'Deep Six'," Lauren agreed, "but what about 'Material Singin' or 'Magic Medium'? And who's this 'Dark Madam' supposed to be?"
"There's a supervillain called 'Madam Dark'," Spence said, "and she's supposed to be a mutant, but I don't see anything about her anywhere. Any other real pieces that they've collected, Dyl?"
"Well, I vaguely remember something about the collection being based on stuff they got after that big 'Mutant Supremacist' thing back in the 1960s," Dyl tipped his head in the direction of the display where figures of Iblis, the Dark Madonna, Ironclaw and the Blood Messiah watched on with glazed eyes as Abbadon gouged the heart out of the Golden Knight. I think that Warmonger's armor is real," he cast a glance at the towering suit of now-obsolete, but then cutting-edge power armor, "but but so what? It's been 'made safe'."
"And so not Madcap's style," Stacy sniffed.
"What's her style?" Lauren asked, carefully glossing over the fact that Stacy couldn't cop to actually having MET Madcap, so who could she have any idea as to the nutjob's style?
"Well, when she raided the University, she stole something that was small enough to carry, right? She was in and out of there as quick as she could bounce, right?"
"Or blast," Dylan snickered.
"Good point," Spence allowed. "So, it's gonna have to be something that has power all of its own, but is still small enough that she could carry it quickly."
"Maybe someone should check for a getaway balloon," Lauren said with a wry smile. "Or maybe a swan-shaped pedallo on the river."
"OR, maybe she'll grab Tyrant's power throne," Dylan suggested, cocking a thumb in that display's direction, "and ride it out of here."
"Nah, that thing's been grounded," Spence said dismissively. "H1! may be a pain, but they're not stupid. What about the Indigo Sorceress' power staff?" he pointed at a figure in various shades of blue, with gauzy scarves draped around in, holding a glassy blue staff with what looked like a large star sapphire at the tip.
"Madcap's already GOT a staff," Stacy pointed out.
"Okay, what about Mindwave's brain-augmenting helmet?" Lauren pointed at a figure with a rather ridiculous looking helmet with clear Lucite rings jutting out from it.
"You need a brain to augment, first."
"Hey!" Spence said, snapping his fingers and pointing. "Check it out- Grav Master's gravity harness and gauntlets. It's the McCoy, it was powerful when GravMaster used it back in the Eighties, and best of all, nobody's really sure how the hell the damn thing works. So, Madcap might figure that she has a shot of adding it to her power selection."
"You think that Madcap's building up a power item arsenal?" Stacy asked.
"It's too obvious a gag to ignore," Dylan said. "Besides, that's the way these 'Theme Crime' sprees work: you get people thinking that you're working this one bit, like holidays or Greek Gods or the Seven Deadly Sins, or something like that, all leading up to this one obvious last capping target. Then, just when everyone thinks that you're gonna hit the last one, the biggest of 'em all, so you can gloat about how nobody was able to figure it all out. BUT, instead of hitting the Christmas Fair, or the Jupiter Museum-"
"There's a Jupiter museum in Cincinnati?" Stacy asked.
"Just making an example," Dylan said, "or whatever target stands for whatever Deadly Sin you've left for last-"
"Greed," Stacy, Spence and Lauren chorused as one.
"Whatever. Instead of hitting the Christmas Fair, where all the cops and superheroes and press are just waiting for you, you hit something with a Hanukah or Ramadan or Kwanza theme."
"Something that would be heavily guarded," Spence added, "IF all the cops, superheroes and like that weren't busy guarding the Christmas Fair, because it's such an obvious target." Spence looked around warily. "And speaking of obvious... I've never been here before. Are those 'Knights of Purity' armor they got on display regular here? Or has H1! hired the Knights, and they're pulling the old 'Living Statues' gag?"
"Well, H1! has been lobbying the city to give the Knights a contract ever since they set up shop," Lauren mused. "It could go either way, really."
Stacy wandered over to one of the suits of armor and examined it closely. She peered into the visor. She didn't get any impression that anyone was home. She wasn't really sure how her telepathy worked- or even, really if she had any- but she didn't have any sense of anyone there, reacting to her. She wandered back to her group and said softly. "Nobody home. I think it's just a statue."
"How can you tell?"
Thinking quickly, Stacy said, "There's shmutz in the joints. The Knights would never allow that, if those were real suits."
Spence looked at his notepad and said, "Okay, here comes the docent to begin the tour, and I've got enough ammunition to make the Q & A interesting for both reports. Lock and Load, guys, we're going in!"
The docent, a stocky, baby-faced balding man in his late forties, addressed the gathered crowd, which was heavy with school-aged kids. He smiled condescendingly and began. "Well, it certainly is gratifying to see so many young faces here, to learn about the sad truth of our world today. Of course," he sniffed pettishly, "it would be far more gratifying, if you weren't here solely because some mutant terrorist threatened to attack-"
"HEY!" exploded a high nasal voice, "I keep TELLIN' you guys, I'm not a fuckin' MUTANT!" Madcap stalked out from behind one of the displays, chin thrust forward belligerently, star staff in hand. "Like I TOLD you, I was invested with my powers by the Secret Masters in Aghartha-"
"What?" someone piped in, "But you said that you were invested with your powers by the muse Thalia!"
"I thought it was the Greek god, Hilarious," someone else said.
"PICKY, PICKY, PICKY!" Madcap exploded, "Pick an origin apart, why don'cha?" then she stopped short and looked around. "Hey! Where's the Silver Ghost? Where are the Cops? Heck, where's the PRESS?"
"Why are you HERE?" the docent demanded, "That riddle you sent said that you'd do this at TEN!"
"What are you talking about?" Madcap demanded, "I said 'SIX'! 'Deep Six!"
"Then WHY did you use a Roman numeral Ten?"
"Numeral Ten?" Madcap asked herself, confused. Then she remembered that the spotlight was totally on her and she laughed, threw her shoulder back, planted the star staff, struck a pose that made the most of her chest (what there was of it), and barked a laugh, "HAH! Again, I made a FOOL of the Silver Ghost!"
"Or, at least of somebody..." an anonymous voice drawled.
Madcap preened as kids brought out cell phones and hurriedly snapped pictures of her. "Aaaahhh... my fans..." she sighed happily. "Okay, okay, enough!" she snapped after a bit, "It's been great, but since the Silver Ghost wussed out, there's no show... so, move aside, move aside, supervillain comin' through..." Then a thick, heavy rope net dropped down from the ceiling. Though it was over 200 pounds heavy, Madcap barely moved. Instead, her sphere of protection flared for a moment, and the net was thrown off her and onto three bystanders- one of whom was a security guard. Madcap gave the docent a sour look. "What? There was a sale at Acme™ traps? You mentioned Wyle Coyote, and got five percent off?"
The docent paled, and Madcap dismissed him with a rude noise and a muttered, 'Wuss'. But as she crossed the aisle, a thick plate slid down from a recess right in front of Madcap, cutting her off. Even as she paused to register what had happened, another slid down, then another and then another, and she was boxed in. The docent looked smugly pleased and was about to say something, when "BETTER!" came from inside the box. The plates groaned and then flew apart, forced out by the power of Madcap's bubble. "Not good enuf," Madcap added, "but better."
Madcap took a few more steps, when the tiles of the floor opened up under her and she dropped. Of course, she immediately bounced right back. She raised an eyebrow at the docent and said flatly, "Tell ya what- if you don't mention that, I won't."
Then Madcap's protective sphere flared again as an energy round bounced off of it. One of the Knights of Purity 'statues', specifically the 'Pitcher' unit stepped off its pedestal with a power cable trailing it, its energy weapon pointed squarely at Madcap. The 'Batter' and Shortstop' units also stepped off their pedestals and advanced. The 'Catcher' unit opened its clutching 'mitt' and placed itself to where it would wait for the others to throw the enemy into the 'mitt' to be held captive.
From where she was crouched down, Stacy could almost hear the docent gloating over the prospect of a 'dangerous mutant' being captured on his watch. This put her in the sort of weird position that she thought only politicians got into: she'd be only too happy if Madcap was captured. The scrawny little airhead had only been a pain in her ass from the second that she'd even learned about her. But she wanted her captured by the POLICE. Madcap being captured by Humanity First! was a horse of a whole different color. H1! would brag about it, real big, and make a whole huge thing out of it. And Stacy just knew that somehow, H1! Would use Madcap to make her look bad. She didn't know how, but H1! was just like that. She hadn't seen those Easterbury headcases coming, either. As Stacy saw it, Madcap was annoying as hell, but that's ALL she really was: annoying. H1!, on the other hand, had it IN for her.
Somehow, against her better judgment, she had to get Madcap out of this. And not let anyone know that she'd done it. ESPECIALLY not Madcap; she'd just broadcast it to the world. 'Okay,' she thought to herself, 'I'm still sure that I didn't get any vibe of anyone inside the armor. Besides, it's stupid to think that they'd have guys standing stock still inside those suits, and expect them to be able to fight decently. And, there really was schmutz and dust on the suits. So, they're probably just robots patterned after the KoP armor. I mean, how hard could that BE? Cal says that the real bugaboo with power armor is always power supply, so those cables are probably what's running them. I could maybe shut them ALL down by taking out the building's supply- no, keep it simple, Stacy. Just unplug them.'
Reaching out with her mind, Stacy used her PK to invisibly pull the plug on the 'Pitcher' (figuring that it probably needed the most power), and 'snagged' the cable of the 'Shortstop' on a counter edge, which caused the Shortstop unit to pull its own plug when it moved. This worked better than Stacy had imagined it would, as the 'Runner' unit paused to try and gather up one of the power cables, which made it a sitting duck when the Batter swatted Madcap, sending her on a ricocheting rebound around the room, hitting the Runner and knocking it into the Catcher. Quickly, Stacy fiddled with the complex joints of the restraining 'mitt', and more by the fact that the joints were so complex than any real plan or skill on her part, she managed to jam them, so the Runner was held tight. Madcap mixed it up with the Batter for a few minutes, and between them, they managed to do a wonderful job of trashing the place. Stacy was kept so busy invisibly pushing people out of the way of rebounding idiots and thrashing mechanoids that she thought she was going to sprain her lifting whatever-she-used. While all this was going on, the docent was screaming into a cell phone for someone to 'shut the damnfool thing DOWN, and go to the next level of defense'.
The Batter shut down in mid-swing and fell flat on its faceplate. "Hah!" Madcap chuffed, "Knights of Purity... Biiiiigg stinkin' DEAL..."
She strutted over to the Eugenix display, "Y'know, you could just wait and see what I stopped by to pick up!" she pushed the figures of Abbadon and the Golden Knight aside, and reached to take the thick crystal amulet that hung around the neck of the 'Dark Madonna'.
"Stop!" the docent yelped, "That's the real amulet of the real Dark Madonna!"
"Oh?" Madcap sneered, "Reeeeaaalllly?"
"But that doesn't really DO anything?"
"Oh?" Madcap gave a wonky grin. "Then WHY are you sweating so bad?"
"You have NO IDEA as to what she was capable of!"
"Wrong-a-roo, Mr. Weatherbee!" Madcap chuckled as she removed the collar-like jewel. "I know that she scares the besnoogers out of you guys, and that's good enough for me! Yeah, the rest of Eugenix; Abbadon, Iblis, Ironclaw, Skyscraper, Back-Breaker, Duplicitus, Mr. Perfect, Beautiful Screamer, Firebringer, the Hellbride, they was all scary, real wet-yer-bed stuff. But the Dark Madonna? Yeah, she was the one that really had 'em shitting bricks. She was scarier than the rest of Eugenix put together, and they LOVED her for it!" Madcap heft up the amulet with a huge grin. "HELL, they hadda drop an entire fuckin' Building on her to stop her! And this wasn't even scratched!"
Then acoustic columns dropped down from the ceiling (there was a LOT more than track lighting and acoustic tiling up there), adjusted their positioning for all of three seconds, and opened up with a shrill, screeching, yodeling wail. While the teeth-rattling, vertigo-inducing katzenjammer cacophony was primarily focused on Madcap, everyone in the exhibition room was affected. Aiming a sonic weapon is very difficult. And Stacy was affected even more than all the others. While everyone else was staggering around, hands over ears (when those hands weren't busy keeping late afternoon snacks down), Stacy was in a huddled heap of misery on the floor. The noise just ran right through her, rattling her concentration and sending her thought processes running amok in all different directions. Then something in Stacy's head snapped, and suddenly, things started flying around in a vague circular pattern, thrown every which way in a classic 'poltergeist' phenomenon. Madcap added to the chaos; when she was thrown, her 'ball' effect kicked in and she bounced around, knocking into things. Between the whirlwind effect, thrown objects, and Madcap slamming into one of the seven acoustic pillars, the sounded died down. Stacy slumped to the floor, unconscious. Madcap landed, staggered dizzily and tried to cover herself a bit. "Woah, yeah... it's always... always good... t'have a backup plan... just 'n case..."
Spencer scrambled over to Stacy and shook her. "Stacy? Stacy, are you okay? STACY!"
"What's her problem?" Madcap asked, miffed that someone was hogging her spotlight.
Spence looked up from Stacy at Madcap, and gave her a look that, in a cartoon, would have been Popeye's cue to say, 'That's all's I can stands, I can't stands no more!' He got up from where he'd been kneeling by Stacy, marched over to a befuddled Madcap, and grabbed the collar-like necklace from the girl's hand.
"HEY! Give that back!" Madcap yelled, "Or I'll-"
"Or what?" Spence snarled back, "You'll say something stupid? It's thirteen years too late for that!"
"SIXTEEN!" Madcap yelped indignantly. She tried to snatch the necklace back, but Spence held on with a fierce grip, and they wrestled with the trinket. A couple of security guards, seeing that Spence wasn't setting off Madcap's protective sphere, moved in to try and break up the fight and get the nutcase in the bag while the getting was good. But whatever Spence was doing wasn't what they were doing, because that force field pinged right up and knocked Madcap and Spence head over heels. Not that that broke either of their grips on the necklace. They went at it furiously; apparently while Madcap wasn't that much stronger than her frame suggested, she was viciously determined to hold onto the necklace. But, on his side, Spence had two little brothers, and he was a veteran of such battles, with many victories and more scars. They waltzed around for a while, and then sprays of an acid green mist came down from the ceiling (as I said, it was a very densely packed ceiling) and both Spence and Madcap started to choke.
Unfortunately, while it was the kind of thick billowy smoke that you see on old TV shows, it lacked that mysterious property that TV gasses had which instantly put people to sleep. No, both of them hacked and choked on the gas, neither of them letting go, until there was a loud crack of energy, and Spence and Madcap were thrown apart. But Madcap had the necklace with her, and she scrambled for the star staff and started waving it around. It sparkled again, but this time, the sparkles flew around the air and somehow pushed the gas over to where the docent was yelling into his cell phone again. "Well, ALL RIGHT!" Madcap exulted. "I knew that this dingus was just what the doctor ordered!" She pointed the staff at a bit of wreckage and it lifted off the ground, and floating in mid-air in a halo of sparkles. "I like, I LIKE!"
Spence cleared his lungs of the noxious gas with a few hacks, got back up on his pins and tried to tackle Madcap, but this time, her force sphere pinged on and sent him flying back. "Hah!" Madcap exulted. "Not so tough NOW, are you, punk?" she waved the wand at him with a victorious smirk and lifted him off the ground. Then she dropped him as something cylindrical rose up through the debris on the floor (hey, the ceiling was packed), and a line of red light lanced out, striking her on the shoulder. "YOW!" she yelped. She pointedly raised her sphere again, but the cylinder let off another beam that grazed her thigh. "YOWCH!"
Madcap dived for the cover of an overturned table, only to find that Spence had beaten her to it. "What ARE those things?"
"Well, from the looks of those welts, I'd say that they're ultraviolet lasers with cosmetic visible-light lasers thrown in for the 'just so you know what you're dealing with' factor," Spence said dryly. "Consider yourself lucky that they're only using the 'naughty-naughty' setting; the 'we're serious' setting could have left a burn like a welding torch."
"Why didn't my force bubble stop it?"
"Well, your force field is almost perfectly transparent, right?"
"Yeah, so what?"
"So, LIGHT passes through it," Spence spelled it out in a way that he probably mastered dealing with his little brothers. "Not only one way, but both ways. So, the lasers can pass through without any real loss of power, the same way that the gas and the sonics could get through to affect you: light, sound and air that you need to get around get through, so then so do the lasers and other junk."
"Lemme guess," Madcap grumped, "you're the smartest kid in your class."
"No," Spence said smugly, "but I DO go to a school with very high standards."
"What'll I DO?" Madcap gibbered.
"I suggest surrendering immediately and pleading insanity. Everyone will buy that."
"So? You're so smart, YOU do something!"
"WHY would I do anything for you?" Spence finished with a sneer.
"Don't just sit there, DO something! Don't you have ANY chivalry in you?"
"Not for you," Spence sneered.
"But I'm a GIRL?"
"Are you sure about that, buddy?"
Madcap snarled and gripped her staff, as though she was going to hit Spence with it. Then she looked, flummoxed at the staff, and slapped herself on the head. "ARG! What am I DOING?"
"That rather IS the question on everyone's mind," Spence drawled.
Madcap shot to her feet and aimed her staff at the laser column. Sparkles flew out and the column exploded. Two more columns rose up, and Madcap dealt with them in order. "HAH!" Madcap said triumphantly, "Waddya say about THAT, smart guy?"
"I say... YOINK!" Spence, who had crept up quietly behind Madcap, snatched the Dark Madonna's amulet from her hand and jumped back. Madcap spun and pointed the star staff at Spence, who just help up the Dark Madonna's amulet and grinned. "What are you gonna DO, Cappy? This amulet is your battery. Without this, that's just a really tacky cheerleading baton."
Madcap grinned evilly. "Maaaay-be... and maybe this bad boy's all charged up and ready to blow you a new asshole!"
Spence maneuvered the amulet between them. "You're not a very good bluffer, Madcap. If you had the nards to just blow me away, you'd DO it, not talk about it. And I'm willing to be that there's some principle that says that this thing's energies can't be used against itself, or something like that." Spence gave Madcap an evil grin of his own. "But of course, I don't know that. And neither do YOU. That is... unless... you'd like to see what happens when you do it. And, since you're the one holding the blaster, whatever happens will happen primarily to YOU. So... go ahead, make my day."
Madcap stood there, pointing the star staff at Spence, who held the amulet up high, like it would somehow block the sparkle-blast. And for all Madcap knew, it would. That would be just her luck. She had no idea whether he was bluffing, or if he knew something, or if he was just riffing on something he saw on TV! She felt the eyes of everyone in the place on her, and she knew that no matter what, the little four-eyed creep had arranged it so that it would look like it was all HER fault. The fact that, as the instigator of everything that had happened there that afternoon, it already WAS her fault didn't really register with her.
Trying to urge her brain to come up with something, anything, Madcap scratched her head with her left hand, even as she held the star scepter in her right. Unintentionally, she dislodged the tiara that she was wearing over her fool's cap, and had to re-secure it. Not like anyone noticed. I mean, there she was, with a freakin' power TIARA on her head, and nobody noticed! Like, how could someone NOT notice that you were wearing a diamond-studded Tiara on your head? Everybody got all gooshie about that stupid silver skin of the Silver Ghost's, but nobody noticed that good ol' Madcap was wearing a power TIARA!
Madcap grinned again... "Y'know, Four-Eyes, you're right; I don't know what would happen. But then, I know something that you don't know. Namely, Smartass, that this scepter isn't my only weapon. Y'see, the University of Ohio wasn't my first heist. No, my first heist was the Gnostisophy Center on Waldorff!"
"Well, that explains why no one heard of it," Spence admitted. "We live in a world with anti-gravity engines, people who can read minds, super-sorcerers, vampires and power rings, but everybody STILL knows that the Gnostisophists are looney-toons!"
"HEY, my DADDY is a Gnostisophist!"
"Which explains so much."
"Whatever! Anyway, the Mind Mistress was a big time supervillainess, back in the Seventies, and she used THIS tiara to rule the minds of men!"
"Did... you get all that out of an old paperback or something?"
"NO! When the Mind Mistress died, she willed her power tiara to the Gnostisophists, telling them to give it to the Exalted Masters in Bhutan- aw, fergetaboutit, I got mental powers! So, hand over the amulet, and nobody gets hurt! And by 'nobody', Poindexter, I mean YOU!' Madcap melodramatically laid a hand on her forehead, and the gems of the gaudy diadem glittered sinisterly.
Spence just gave her a blasé, 'are you kiddin' me?' glower. "Madcap, even for YOU, that was just... pathetic. I suppose that you forgot that you had mental powers, and you just remembered them?"
Well, actually that was what had happened. But this kid wasn't buying it! To be honest, Madcap had no idea if the tiara worked or not, especially without the amulet. But... she had super powers! You were supposed to DO what people told you, when they had super powers! When you have a weapon, you're in control! Everybody knows that! What kind of world would it be, if nobody did what the people who had the weapons told them to? They'd be nuking people left and right, and still nothing would get done! And what kind of world was it, where some little bimbo in silver body paint got all of her press? Seeing no way out of it, Madcap closed her eyes, focused her will, and-
-And something happened. Madcap wasn't sure exactly what happened, but there was some kind of release, and she felt her entire presence fill the room. She opened her eyes, and everyone was standing stock still. Madcap stood there, baffled for a moment, and then the penny dropped. "Waddya know?" she peeped. "It Worked!" then she remembered herself. "uh, OF COURSE it worked! It worked just as planned! HAH!" she exulted in Spence's direction, "Not so smart Now, are you, Wiseass? That's what happens when a feeb like you crosses MADCAP! Madcap the-"
She stopped in mid-rant, as she realized that Spence was frozen in place with the sour look of disdain on his face. She waved her hand in front of his face. No reaction. She looked around and everyone was the same. "fuck," she grunted, shoulder slumped forward, "Story of my LIFE. I pull off a sweet, totally classic move... and not only aren't there any news cameras to capture it for posterior, but everyone's frozen in place." She looked around the place. "Sheesh. It's like a fuckin' tomb in here. No sense hangin' around here." With that, she trudged out the front door, muttering to herself about how she couldn't get no respect, no respect at ALL.
Five minutes later, she returned, and pried the Dark Madonna's amulet out of Spence's hand.
Two hours later, Herb Tellock, Humanity First's Liaison with the Business Community, walked briskly into Christ Hospital, the top-rated hospital in the Cincinnati metro area. "Okay, Travis, I get there was an incident at our Community Access facility," he said into his cell phone. "What I don't get is why you need ME here? Why me? Isn't handling the Press at these things Your job?"
[Look, Herb,] Travis, H1!'s PR rep replied, [a teenage girl was injured during the attack]
"So? Is she cute?"
[What's that got to do with anything?]
"You want me to scope her out, see if she has the TVQ chops to do an 'I was a victim of a brutal mutant attack' ad?"
[No, Herb, that's the Problem. She wasn't hurt by the mutant... or supervillain, in any case, that's a little unclear. No, Herb she had a bad reaction to the sonic weapon that was activated during the attack]
"Sonic weapon?" Herb bleated, "They used a sonic weapon? We have a sonic weapon installed at a public relations facility? Whose bright idea was THAT?"
[It was scheduled to be removed years ago, but somehow, it kept getting pushed back on the priority list, as they kept tacking on more protective weapons.]
"But aren't sonic weapons Illegal? I mean, it turns out that some huge percentage of people have seizures, and... omigawd..."
[EXACTLY,] Travis said heavily. [I'm up to my ears in alligators trying to put a decent spin on this, and Jennifer has her hands full, and we need someone to ride herd on the girl's parents. Look, Herb, this is one-on-one stuff, not press announcements and like that; you're good with that kind of stuff. Go, see if you can talk this girl's parents around. If you can, try and get her to make a statement that she holds this, ah... 'Madcap' responsible. But whatever you do, make sure that you get the parents to clear us of all liability. And keep them away from any lawyers, if they don't already have one.]
"Okay, I see what I gotta do. But I'm gonna need something to work with. I mean, 'ooops, we meant to fix that' is not gonna fly."
[Yeah, I know, but I don't really have a lot. I mean, I've only been on this for an hour, and I'm only starting to get a picture as to what really happened. And it doesn't help, when that asstard shock jock Rick Standish keeps calling me every five minutes, and trying to rattle my cage!]
"I thought that he was on our side."
[He's on the side of whatever will give him the most ammunition, and right now he's lobbing broadsides at US, 'cause we're a target. Herb, if you see him at the hospital, trying to see that girl, tell them that he's a known sex offender!]
"Okay, okay, what can you tell me about this girl? Like, what's her NAME?" [Just a sec... okay, Stacy Conrad, she's in room 6123, she's 15, aaannnddd... that's all I got. No, wait a minute... oh crap...]
[She's being treated for gas inhalation.]
"WHAT? They used tear gas?"
[No, it was just a sedative, but it was deployed after she'd already had that bad reaction to the sonics, so she breathed in too much of it. Apparently, she was really knocked for a loop]
"Crap." Herb tried to rub the tension out of his eyes. "Look, the only way that we can walk out of this without getting our asses sued into receivership is if we blame someone ELSE. Is there someone, ANYONE, that we can point the finger at besides this 'Madcap' yutz?"
[Gimme a second. Things are still pretty scattered; I'm getting a lot of conflicting information.] There was a pause and the sound of keys rattling. Travis sighed, [Okay, there're a reports that there was this one kid who stood up to this Madcap clown and actually managed to do something. And, things apparently got weird when he got involved]
Herb gave a muted snarl. "It's not much, but it'll have to do. I can run with it. What can you tell me about this Stacy Conrad girl?"
[Nuthin' yet, she doesn't pop up on any searches for the Cincy metro]
"Right. I'm on it." Herb sighed and made his way up to the sixth floor. If the Conrad girl wasn't on the H1! membership lists, then she was probably there as a 'looky-loo', someone who sort of got what H1! was about, but wasn't ready to commit; she was probably there indulging her curiosity. If Herb could get in and talk to her, make the drama all about her, then he might not only be able to get this Stacy to keep her parents from suing Humanity First!, but the Conrads might just be H1!'s newest members!
Herb slipped into the room without the floor nurse seeing him, put on his warmest, most beguiling smile- which froze on his face as he looked into the sour face of the woman who was sitting by the girl's bedside. "Miss Wyckham! What are you doing here, trying to cover up the fact that your oh-so-precious SPECTRUM was laying down on the job while some costumed whacko was-"
"MISTER Tellock," Miss Wyckham stood imperiously, glaring ice daggers at him, "you will get OUT of this room immediately! Stacy needs quiet to recover! She's had a horrible experience, and the last thing that she needs is some paid hack nagging at her."
"As opposed to some mutant-loving volunteer hack trying to convince her that all this wasn't the fault of some harebrained freak, who should be LOCKED UP?" Herb riposted. "Why don't we let the Conrads decide that?" he finished with a smug smirk.
A smirk which faded as Miss Wyckham said with relish, "The Conrads aren't in town; I'm Stacy's guardian."
"Guardian?" Herb gleeped haplessly. "You're her guardian?"
November 14th 2006
"You're still a little wobbly there, Stace," Lauren said as she helped Stacy into the back of Ms. Wyckham's sedan.
"Yeah," Stacy said as she settled into the seat with shaky hands. "Whatever that sound weapon did to me, really took it out of me. I don't even have my super-strength for some reason."
"Which is a good thing," Ms. Wyckham said from the front seat. "The last thing we needed was for your skin to break the needle when they tried to take a blood sample."
"But I feel so weak," Stacy said as the car pulled out of the parking lot of the hospital.
"That's called 'being normal'," Lauren said snidely.
"Oh. Yeah." Stacy sat there for a bit. "Wow. This sucks."
"Do you think that you'll react like that every time that someone uses a sonic weapon?" Lauren asked.
"Oh Gawd," Stacy groaned, slumping back into the seat. "Nobody knows about it now, but the first time that anyone uses one of those things, it'll be ALL OVER THE PLACE! Every time I show my face, someone will try to burst my eardrums! And if I'm in my secret identity-" Stacy started to hyperventilate.
"OR," Ms. Wyckham said calmly from the front seat, 'you can simply wear these," she handed a small case back to them. "Ca- er, the Golden Knight had the same thoughts, without the hyperventilating mind you, and whacked these up last night." Stacy opened the case, and inside were what looked like two Bluetooth™ type earphones. "He said that they wouldn't block out the sound, but rather the big one will analyze the vibration, figure whether it has sonic attack potential, calculate a counter-frequency, and send that frequency to the other earpiece. So, you don't have to worry about going around going 'what?' all the time."
"SHE SAID 'YOU DON'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT GOING 'WHAT?' ALL THE TIME," Lauren said puckishly into Stacy's ear. Stacy just gave her a swat. Lauren snickered and changed the topic. "So, did that Tellock guy try to say that Spence was a mutant, and try to blame him for everything yesterday?"
"Well, he gave it a try," Karen admitted with a chuckle. "I hope that he tries it again, in a public forum."
"Why?" Stacy asked as she put the earpieces in and tried to get them set in comfortably. "Spence is a great guy! He doesn't deserve that kind of trouble!"
"Stacy, Spence is one of the Chases!" Lauren said, "THE Chases! Like in the Chase National Bank, the largest bank in the COUNTRY, maybe the WORLD?"
"I'm sorry, Lauren," Karen corrected her, "but the Chase family did not found that bank, let alone own it. It was named after Salmon P. Chase, an ancestor of Spencer's, and a very prominent, formidable man by any standard. He was a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and by some rumors, he was nominated by Abe Lincoln as a political move, to keep Mr. Chase from running against him for President. And, NO, Justice Chase had nothing to do with the Chase Bank; it was just named after him. Still, Lauren's right about one thing: the Chases are a very prominent family in Ohio. Lots of clout there. And another thing: as I recall, Spencer's mother is one of the Grosvenors."
"Grosvenor?" Stacy echoed. That sounded... powerful... Old Money... "How... rich ARE the Grosvenors?"
"You may have heard of Grosvenor Square in London? It was named for the British side of the family."
"Spencer's related to Royalty?"
"Nobility, Stacy," Karen corrected her. "Distantly related, but still, there is that connection. You'd be amazed how much clout that silly sort of thing carries. And Spencer's immediate family isn't one of the major branches, but then again, they're not poor relations, either. Spencer's definitely a member of the tribe. Humanity First! trying to scapegoat Spencer wouldn't do him any harm, and it might just be what we need to bring the Chases and the Grosvenors- hhhmmm... I wonder if Spencer is related to the Spencer family..."
Karen was mulling this line of strategy over when she got a cell phone call, a strange blaring one. Karen hurriedly pulled her cell phone, looked at it and gave a muttered curse. "Green Witch here," she said in her superheroine voice. "What's the situation?" Her face went blank. "WHAT?" Karen sharply changed course with the car and sped up.
"What's the matter, Miss Wyckham?" Lauren asked, making double sure of her seatbelt.
"That pain-in-the-ass Madcap just attacked SPECTRUM's Community Access showroom!"
"What?" Stacy and Lauren chorused. "Oh, come ON!" Stacy objected, "Even MADCAP must know better than to hit a Superhero gallery!"
"Oh, I dunno," Lauren said, "Now that I think about it, it's just the kind of thing that she would do. I saw her in action yesterday, and that chick is a stone-cold attention whore! And I think that she's doing this just to get under your skin!" Lauren pulled out her cell phone and switched it over to radio. "I don't believe this! Rick Standish is airing Madcap calling him from the gallery as she robs it! Wait a minute... I think she's mixing it up with Tawney... and it sounds like they're tearing up the place."
"Oh, wonderful," Stacy groused, "I'm sure that Tawny will find some way of blaming ME for this."
"Who's the Crimson Claw?" Lauren asked.
"He's some supervillain or criminal mastermind type who blew through Cincy last year or something," Stacy answered. "I bunked out in one of his old hideouts. Why?"
"Well, according to Rick Standish, Madcap's stealing his 'power claw'... oh, yeah, I remember, I saw it when we visited the showroom yesterday. Big clunky red enameled gauntlet things with a bunch of buttons on the side."
"What?" Karen bleated from the driver's seat. "But that thing burned out when we took down the Claw! Why would anyone sane steal a supervillain dingus that she couldn't use?"
"Ah, Miz Wyckham? I think the problem is your use of the phrase 'anyone sane'. This is Madcap we're talking about."
Karen pulled the car over a couple of blocks away from SPECTRUM's Public Access storefront, summoned her power staff to her, changed outfits, and flew the rest of the distance. But by the time that Stacy and Lauren got there on foot, the fight was over. The Green Witch was helping the Fire Department with a minor fire that had started, and Tawney was being bandaged up. Somehow, Stacy managed to avoid the police cordon protecting the storefront and got inside.
The place was a shambles. The displays were wrecked. There were smoldering pits where blasts had scored. It looked like Madcap had somehow gotten the Crimson Claw's power talon to work.
But Stacy didn't care about that. Her gaze was magnetically drawn to the Halloween display. The thick 'shatterproof' glass case had been blasted open, and one exhibit was gone. Somehow, for some reason, Madcap had uncannily picked the one thing that Stacy actually valued.
The Pharoah's Ankh was missing.
"Okay, Madcap," Stacy snarled, "You wanted an Arch-Enemy? YOU GOT AN ARCH-ENEMY!"
November 16th, 2006
"I'm telling you, that little nutcase had some sort of Probability Affecting powers!" Tawny insisted. Very loudly. "Just LOOK at that footage!" She insisted, gesturing at the monitor showing the footage of the fight at the Community Access showroom. "I mean, HOW could she DO that?"
Then the footage showed Tawny finally managed to get a handle on the chaos, and had Madcap where she couldn't simply let off another blast, Madcap touched her forehead, and everyone else suddenly froze. Then Madcap sauntered over to the case containing the Pharaoh's Ankh, shattered the glass with the power talon, and made off with the golden relic.
"Actually, Lorna," Red Thunder said carefully, "All I'm seeing is a classic illustration of the maxim that the greatest swordsman in France doesn't fear the second greatest swordsman, but he's terrified of the clueless idiot who's never handled a sword before, waving it around in a blind panic."
"Yeah," Captain Patriot said, watching the footage. "It reminds me of something that my Army drill instructor once said: 'If you do something stupid and it works, it's still stupid.'"
"Yeah, I mean look at the footage, Lorna," Violet said. "Madcap had you hopping, trying to keep the damage to a minimum; every time that she let off a blast, you did the right thing and went to keep one of the civilians from getting hurt. And before you can make sure of that, she's let off another blast, giving you another crisis to handle. When you DID manage to get her in a corner, she used her 'get out of jail free' card by using Mind Mistress' power crown."
"Exactly what does the Crimson Claw's 'power talon' DO?" Stacy asked, watching the video, not being able to completely follow the frantic action.
"It's your basic supervillain 'press-the-button- and-blast' fiendish weapon," Cal explained. "The controls were pretty much a re-tooled Mattel™ power glove from back in the 90s, but the active component was burned out in the fight where we took it from him, and to be honest, I never did figure out exactly HOW it worked. I mean, I'd love to have that kind of power supply for my armor, but whatever it is, I have NO IDEA as to how it works!"
"Oh!" Stacy peeped, "That explains it! Madcap just had no idea what she was doing! She didn't know what which button did, so she just mashed buttons at random, trying to find something that would do anything she liked!"
"You really think so?" Tawny asked with reluctant hope of saving some face.
"HECK yeah!" Stacy beamed, hoping that she might finally get Tawny on her side some, "That's Madcap all over! At the University's Mad Science exhibit, I was invisible and running around, trying to keep Madcap's bouncing from wrecking the place! The only reason that she even knew I was there, was she literally bounced right into me! She doesn't know what she's doing! She doesn't have any plan! Or, if she does, it's something harebrained like gassing up a rocket ship, which would have killed her if she didn't have that force field! She's just flapping around like a chicken with its head cut off, reacting to everything, and stirring up a mess until she lucks out somehow." Stacy paused. "It's not much of a MO, but that's Madcap's." she finished with a rueful smile that said, 'hey, I gotta put up with this as much as you do.'
"Okay, Squirt!" Azure said, "you're the expert- what do you think we should do now?"
Stacy froze for a second. She was surprised that she'd been invited into the meeting; she hadn't expected to be handed that kind of authority. "Weeelll... I dunno. I do know that we gotta stop her. The problem is, like La-er, a girl at the H1! showcase said, Madcap's a stone cold attention whore. If all of SPECTRUM went after her, we'd just be feeding her ego. At the Mad Science exhibit, she tried to get me to chase her, but I refused to play along with that. That worked then- more or less- 'cause all she had was a stupid star staff that didn't really DO anything 'cept sparkle and look silly. But now the star scepter works, and she's got that power talon; if we ignore her, she'll just start blowing things up until she gets a reaction!"
"Hey, Squirt," Tawny said, "WHY does this Madcap nutjob have such a hate on for you? She got real mad when you didn't show up, and she went on and on about how you stole that ankh from her, and how some special spirit guides from Ekalaptha had given it to her for some sacred reasons. You got any ideas what THAT is all about, Squirt?"
Stacy just went wide-eyed and slack-faced and bleated, "HUH?"
The Green Witch politely cleared her throat. "In the report that the Chase boy made about his to-do with Madcap, he mentioned that she said blurted out that her father was a Gnostisophist in a way that made him suspect that that- if nothing else- was not just a product of her fevered imagination. I did a quick check regarding Gnostisophism on Wikipedia, and according to that *ahem!* 'unimpeachable' source, 'Ekalaptha' is either a country or city located under or near Bhutan that is the usual 'secluded utopia' that's the norm for that sort of claptrap, which sends out 'etheric manifestations' to enlighten the poor benighted world, and the usual bilge. I think that her claim is nothing more than just another attempt to get under Stacy's skin."
"What about that amulet that Madcap stole from H1!?" Blue Streak asked. "From what I heard, all the stuff that Madcap stole was just junk until she got her hands on that. Get that away from her, and maybe it'll go back to being just junk again."
Karen shook her head. "I'm sorry, Streak; nice thought, but no go. Spencer Chase, the boy who gave Madcap such a run for her money at H1!, tried that and she pulled her mind paralysis trick on him. I'm even really sure if that amulet really did anything."
"What was the big deal about the 'Dark Madonna'?" Stacy asked. "I mean, everybody who knows anything about her talks like she was a real big deal, but what did she DO?"
The Green Witch gave a rueful expression, shrugged and admitted, "We're not really sure. She was powerful as hell, but she didn't throw energy bolts around or anything. She was the not so much the leader as the 'queen bee' of Eugenix, one of the nastier Mutant Supremacist groups of the 1960s, and unlike most of the Mutant Terrorists- come to think of it, most of the supervillains- of that age, she didn't see any particular need to spell out how her powers worked."
"Supervillains really DO that?" Stacy asked. "Explain how their powers work?"
"Not as much as they used to," Azure grumped. "Now, everyone's seen 'The Incredibles', so now they don't monologue as much as they did. And another effective gambit bites the dust, thank you ever so much HOLLYWOOD!"
"Mind you, the Dark Madonna monologued a lot," Karen resumed, "but it was all a hodge-podge of socialist rhetoric, New Age mysticism, pop psychology, and a twisted crypto-fascist philosophy. She'd preach up a storm, and then... and then, when she actually DID anything..." Karen blanched, "It was just... weird... things happened... It was like suddenly the Laws of Physics just couldn't be bothered at the moment. It was like being inside a Salvador Dali painting. I have fought 10-story tall demons who could've pushed Godzilla around like a 90-pound weakling that didn't scare me the way that the Dark Madonna did."
"So you dropped a building on her?"
"No, that was Major Victory, up in Chicago." Karen sighed. "He caught a ton of sh- er, flack for it, but in the end, it would up making his career. There was a ton of controversy over it, but in the end, you just couldn't get around the fact that it really DID take dropping a building on her to stop the Dark Madonna once she got revved up." Karen let out a gusty breath. "Thank GOD, that happened back before they had the facilities to take genetic samples. There was a scare back in the late Eighties that someone had made a clone of her, but thank GOD, that was just one of Dominus' mind-games..."
Karen gathered her calm. "Anyway, we never did figure out how the Dark Madonna did what she did. There was a theory for a while that she simply created massive mental illusions that just made people think that the world was going insane. There were things that simply went back to the way they'd been before. But there were physical effects that didn't fade away, real, concrete things that had been changed. Mostly inanimate objects..." Karen mused on that for a bit and then let it go. "The Dark Madonna did seem to think that that amulet was special for some reason, but no, I don't recall anyone ever figuring out why it was supposed to be special. But, as I said, losing it didn't seem to slow Madcap down any. Pity."
Something occurred to Azure and she turned to Stacy. "Hey, Squirt, could you run to the kitchen and brew up some coffee?" Stacy got the distinct impression that she was being gotten rid of for a bit, but couldn't think of a reason to say 'No', so she left. As soon as Stacy was in the kitchen (they checked that by remote TV), Azure said, "I think that we should give Stacy the job of bringing in Madcap."
"WHAT?" was the general reaction.
"Kaltenborn was very specific," Cal pointed out, "NO SUPERHEROING."
"We ALREADY look like chimps with this Madcap yoyo!" Tawny yelped, "Sending the kid out after her will make us look like Criminally Irresponsible chimps!"
"You want to send Stacy out after that PSYCHO?" Karen demanded.
Azure waved them down. "Madcap isn't a homicidal maniac. Just a little screwy. Like Stacy said, Madcap's an attention whore. If any of us went after her, it would only feed that. Hey, the first rule of Behaviorism: a behavior that is rewarded is repeated. But Stacy has shown that she knows how to handle Madcap without stoking her ego."
"Good point," Captain Patriot said with an approving nod. "Also, there's the fact that Madcap is a kid. Not just a kid, but a girl. If any of us go after her, we'll be adults beating up on a kid; it'll be worse if any of us guys did it." He tactfully avoided mentioning that if HE did it, then it would be a BLACK adult male beating up a WHITE young girl.
"Good point," Red Thunder said. "Lorna," he turned his attention towards Tawny, "from the footage, I got the impression that a major problem you were having in dealing with Madcap- beyond keeping her from blasting the civilians- was that you were going easy on her, trying to keep from hurting her."
"Well... YEAH," Tawny said defensively. "I mean, she's a kid! A really annoying, possibly psychopathic kid, but still... a KID."
"I'm not criticizing you, Lorna," Red assured her. "If anything, we're all in the same boat: none of us want to hurt a kid. But Stacy doesn't have that problem. To her, Madcap's just another mouthy kid who needs to be taken down a peg. I'm not saying that she'll hurt Madcap, but she won't have any problems doing whatever it takes to bring the little nutcase in."
"But now Madcap has the Claw's 'power talon'," Karen pointed out with dread in her voice. "That thing is dangerous! It's even MORE dangerous in the hands of a panicky airhead who's just mashing at the buttons! And that thing has a sonic blast, which could do Stacy some real harm, not to mention announcing to the world that she has that vulnerability!"
"CHILL, Mother Hen," Violet chided her. "Stacy has a real edge there. You see, as a blaster, there's something that I know that you wouldn't- namely, that if you can't SEE the target, your reflex is to not fire."
"Really?" Karen sniped back, "Madcap didn't seem to have that problem against Tawny."
"But Madcap could SEE Tawny," Vi returned. "She just kept missing. If she can't see a target, she won't fire. If she was the type to just shoot blindly, Madcap would have blasted that kid at the H1! showcase."
"But Stacy doesn't WANT to go superheroing!" Cal objected. "Her first reaction in these sorts of situations is to hang back and see what happens!"
"And that's a problem WHY?" Captain Patriot asked. "If anything, I'd say that it was the perfect mindset for handling Madcap."
"Yeah, and there's another thing," Blue Streak added. "For someone with super-strength, Stacy is a sneaky little minx. I think that it was more than mere coincidence that she got invisibility as a power, thrown in with all the rest. When it's Sneaky versus Ditzy, Sneaky wins every time. I don't know why she chose Stacy, but Madcap wound up picking the absolute worst arch-enemy that she could. Madcap has some seriously whack luck, but my gold is on the Silver Ghost."
Karen and Cal started to object, but Captain Patriot cut them off. "And, let's face it: Stacy needs a win. Rick Standish has been busting her chops, and, yes, it is the mature, responsible thing to stand above that kind of crap. But the sad fact of the matter is that if we don't do something that ratsass will just keep ragging on her until he gets bored with it, by which time Stacy will be a laughingstock or worse. The only counter to that kind of crap is to simply show, without acknowledging Standish's lies, that what he's saying isn't true. Once it's clearly not so, he'll move on to another chump."
"And there's another thing," Azure stepped in, "realpolitik aside, Stacy needs a win for herself. Karen, you more than anyone know that somebody took a chainsaw to that girl's sense of worth, and Standish's zingers have been ripping into her something fierce. And you can't just tell someone like that that they're all right, 'cause the pain she's feeling agrees with the lies. She's gotta find out that she's not all those things that Standish is saying, for herself. And Madcap screwed up big time, when she nabbed the Pharaoh's Ankh. Have you seen how Stacy looks at that thing? That ankh reminds her that she did GOOD back on Halloween. If we send her out to get Madcap, then we're telling her that we have faith in her. If she can get that thing back from Madcap, without any backup from us, it might just sink in that Halloween wasn't just a fluke."
Then Stacy came in carrying a tray loaded down with three carafes of different coffees, coffee cups and various makings, all of which must have weighed at least fifty pounds. She paused and wondered why they were all staring at her that way. Had she screwed up the order somehow? No, she'd triple checked, in case she'd slipped up because she was planning out her pitch to the heroes while she was making the coffee. That sure, she launched into her spiel. "Y'know, like Lau-er, that girl at the Humanity First! showcase said, Madcap is just a big glory hog. If you guys go after her-" and from there, Stacy went on to pretty much recapitulate the various arguments that Captain Patriot, Azure and the other had made. "So, why don't I go after her?" She finished with a bright, hopeful smile.
The SPECTRUM members looked at each other and Azure said, "Tell you what, Squirt. Why don't you let us talk it over?" Stacy let out a glad gleep and almost tossed the tray. She caught it with her PK and set in on the sideboard and skittered out.
Karen and Cal looked at each other and had a very intense silent discussion. Then Cal slumped and said, "I HATE this. Stacy is everything that I became a hero to protect. But I can't protect her from her own fears. They're right, Karen; Stacy's the best person to bring in that little airhead Madcap, and it would probably be good for her." He let out a big sigh. "If nothing else, it will keep her from sneaking out and trying to catch Madcap behind our backs, and fouling up one of us when we were trying to do it."
The Green Witch did a 'miffed mom' pout, but caved in. "Okay, okay... but you can't stop me from worrying."
"Kaltenborn's gonna have kittens when he hears about this," Tawny grumped.
"Leave him to me," Captain Patriot said smugly.
Azure set her elbow on the table and challenged him, "I'll arm-wrestle you for the right to be the one to tell her."
Stacy almost had a meltdown when they gave her the go-ahead, and she threw herself into researching Madcap with a passion. Unfortunately, there are over two-and-a-half million people in the greater Cincinnati metropolitan area, and there were at least 12 thousand identified Gnostisophists in the Tri-State area, and even then, not all Gnostisophists identified themselves, so it was harder than Stacy had anticipated. Still, Madcap was tripping on herself so hard that she had to be running some corny clue-game, so Stacy started making lists of the things that Madcap had stolen, where she'd stolen them from, and other stupid old comic book clichés.
November 20th, 2006
Stacy was going over a list that DA Kaltenborn had provided of known supervillain power items that were in private hands in the Cincy metroplex. There was a truly disturbing number of them. 'WHY in the name of GOD would anyone want the toxin sprayer of a dead supervillain called 'Green Poison'?' Stacy wondered. According to Miz Wickham, there was a lively community of collectors that was right up there with people who collected memorabilia from movie stars and singers and like that. Captain Patriot said that there was an upcoming showing of them at a superhero and comics convention of them that members of SPECTRUM were routinely invited to.
Tawny's reaction to the mention of the convention was, "Better you than me, Squirt."
Stacy was in the middle of going through the list of power items that were slated to be on display at the convention, and bouncing a few ideas off the head of Quinn Seabury, who was also using the library when Lauren stuck her head in the library door. "Hey Stace! Are you in the middle of anything?"
"COOL! C'mon in, Spence!" Lauren led Spencer in.
"Oh! Hi, Spence!" Stacy greeted him. "Sorry that I wussed out on you at the H1! thing, but those screamers really screwed me over. Still, I hear that you opened up a real can of whoop-ass on Madcap after I passed out!"
"Damn skippy!" Lauren agreed pertly.
"It wasn't that much," Spence blushed. "I could tell that Madcap was a ding-a-ling, so I just yanked her chain until her head was ringing." His expression clouded. "Not that it mattered; she still got away with the Dark Madonna's amulet."
"And?" Stacy riposted, "From what I heard, she pulled that 'Mind Mistress power crown' out of her ass and used it on you! She did the same thing to Tawny at SPECTRUM's place, so you're batting in the same league as superheroes! Again!" Stacy paused, "So... I heard that you got some shit from H1!, with them saying you was a mutant?"
Spence made a dismissive noise. "Meh. They tried. Five seconds after that weenie Tellock even hinted at it, my family's law firm served him with Cease and Desist papers, and five minutes later, my Cousin Wayne was on the phone with some of H1!'s major supporters, talking about their reckless, libelous tactics, and how that might affect Interest Rates. Guys with enough money to be major contributors tend to get very nervous about interest rates." Spence paused and gave Stacy a once-over. "So? How are you feeling? You really took that sonic thing hard. You okay?"
"I'm okay enough that they gave me homework."
"Homework? You're being home-schooled, and they're still giving you homework?"
"What can I say? It's a hard, cruel, unfair world!"
"Well then, fair lady," Spence said with a gallant flourish and courtly bow, "allow me to rescue from this dolorous tower!"
"Why thank you, Sir Knight!" Stacy got up and did her best curtsey. Then she turned to Miss Seabury. "Are you okay?"
"Don't mind the old lady," she replied, a wry smile showing slightly through the veil that she was wearing. "I'll just sit here and r-ah, keep up my research."
Stacy shot Miss Seabury a glad smile and led Lauren and Spence out of the library. "So, ah, who's she? And what's with the veil?" Spence asked quietly.
"You remember back on Halloween?" Stacy reminded him. "There was that weird cursed lady, that Lady Jettatura called 'Rot'?" Spence winced and nodded. "That's her. Her real name's Quinn Seabury. She used to be an occult investigator or somethin' like that, and she pissed off Lady Jettatura one time too many, so-"
"So, Lady Badass cursed her, yeah I remember that," Spence cut in. "But what's she doing here?"
"Well, she's cured of that rotting crap," Stacy said. "Apparently Sobek's cleansing got everything. And believe me, they checked. But she's still pretty racked up, and she needs a place to stay for a while and get her strength back while she figures out what she's gonna do next. It seems that she had two partners who are still MIA, so she's gotta figure that out as well. And as for the veil... well, that rot really did a number on her looks, so she wears that as much for other people as for herself. Still, she's a very nice lady, and she knows a LOT of stuff. She's been helping me with my home study." What Stacy didn't mention, was that Miss Wickham had extended the hospitality of her house to the Pool of Vigor way down below, to help Seabury recover more completely. It was more than Professional Courtesy; Seabury knew things about Lady Jettatura that Karen wanted to know.
"So, whither shall we ride off, Sir Gallant?" Stacy said with theatrical flourish, "Sunset isn't for hours!"
"Why not just hang out downtown? Cincinnati may not be Chicago or Manhattan, but there's still plenty to do."
"Cool! Just wait here, while I go up and change." Stacy noticed that Spence immediately saw the logic in her changing clothes to go out, and why she'd need Lauren to help her. Which, of course, no real boy would; which supported Stacy's idea that Spence was a 'sister under the skin'. She wished that she had better control over her mind-reading or telepathy or whatever it was; she'd love to have someone to talk about all this about. Lauren was great, and she knew all about clothes and stuff, but could Stacy really trust her with a juicy secret like the fact that Stacy was really a boy? On the other hand, she'd be taking a big chance if she told Spencer; after all, her hunch might all be wishful thinking, and she could be reading a whole bunch of stuff into how Spence was acting. Talk about embarrassing! She might blow both her secrets to a guy who might be real insulted that she thought that he was a sissy. As Stacy remembered from her time as Stanley, guys got real bent out of shape about that.
Stacy and Lauren ran into Ms. Wickham coming down the stairs as they were going up. "I'm heading out for the afternoon," Stacy explained.
"Oh? And what about your 'homework'?" Karen asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Oh, I'm taking my laptop along with me," Stacy assured her. "Besides," she added confidentially, "I'm gonna pick Spence's brain, in case he has any ideas as to what's on Madcap's so-called mind. Besides, the odds are if Madcap does anything tonight, it'll be downtown, and either before dinner time or well after 'lights out'. So, I'll be close by if she does anything early. I'll take my cape along with me, and I'll text you if anything happens."
Karen nodded appreciatively at Stacy's planning and diligence. "ooohhh..." Lauren quipped, "Danger, intrigue, secret plans! This is more what living with a superhero should be LIKE!"
Stacy and Lauren started up the stairs again, but Karen held Lauren back for a moment. "You're being very helpful with Stacy," Karen said, nailing Lauren with a 'what are you up to?' look.
"Hey, Stacy's a friend!" Lauren insisted with a bright smile of guileless innocence. Karen raised one eyebrow with that move that every cynical teacher has mastered. "WHAT?" Karen gave her the 'don't give me any guff, I'm older and meaner than you are' look.
Lauren gave out a long resigned sigh. "Look, for some reason, Stacy hasn't quite wrapped her head around the fact that she's a babe. Which is cool and all, but there are already a bunch of guys at school asking about her. And they'll be only too happy to let her in on that little fact. Or not. I'm not sure which would be worse..." Lauren slipped in to a calculation trance for a moment and then waved that aside. "Anyway, Spence would make a great boyfriend... for someone else. So, why not head off all the Prime Time Soap nasty drama, and see to it that Stacy hooks up with a great guy... who I'm not interested in?" Lauren finished with a big 'gee doesn't that solve everything?' smile.
Karen answered with a lopsided wry smirk, and let Lauren continue up the stairs.
Fifteen minutes later (they rushed), Stacy and Lauren came down, and, "Spence?" They looked around the lounge and while Spence's coat was there, the boy himself was nowhere to be seen?
She looked in the library, in case Spence had felt the need to make polite chit-chat. "Oh, your boyfriend?" Seabury responded. "Oh, he came in, but then he seemed to remember something and left without excusing himself."
Stacy looked around a bit, and then, guided either by that really unreliable intuition, or by a natural inclination to look for disaster, Stacy noticed that the door to Miz Wickham's office was ajar.
Karen always kept that door closed. A chill going down her spine, Stacy stuck her head in the office. "Spence?" But he wasn't there either. But Stacy's eyes immediately locked on the fact that the head on the bust of Shakespeare was knocked back on its hinge. Stacy stepped in, and sure enough the secret panel was open, showing the 'bat-pole' that went down to the cave way below. "Oh. CRAP." Stacy turned and yelled, "Lauren! GO! Find Miz Wickham and tell her that we got us a situation here!" With that, Stacy bolted into the office, and tradition be damned, dropped down the shaft, not bothering with the pole.
Stacy landed on the pillow at the bottom in a crouch and made no effort to try and conceal her power. She sort of figured that the important thing was getting the situation under control, and then letting Miz Wickham handle it. "Spence?" she called a touch tentatively, scanning the cave for any sign of him, "You in here?"
Stacy searched the poorly lit cave (where was the light switch in this place, anyway?) and couldn't see a damn thing. The only light in the place came from the underwater light in that magic pool of Miz Wickham's. It made the whole place look spooky. Not that it needed any help in that department. She tried to feel around with that sense that sometimes told her what people were thinking (she thought), but she wasn't picking up anything. By then, she was straining with everything she had, and her hearing, which was straining along with everything else, heard the sound of metallic clicks. She carefully picked her way towards the sound, she bumped into something and had the fright of her life as she turned and saw the sneering face of Lady Jettatura come looming out of the darkness!
And then she felt like an idiot as she recognized that it was just that stupid portrait. 'God,' she silently asked the Almighty, 'why didn't you give these super powers to someone with some GUTS?' Then the portrait gave her a context for where she was in the cave, and where the clicking sounds were coming from. It was coming from where the painting was facing: that vault where Miz Wickham kept all those horrible magic things, like the icky clay demon statue from Halloween. The clicking sounds were the buttons on the keypad for the vault being pressed. Someone was trying to get into the vault!
But... the only person down here was Spence.
Why would SPENCE want to get into Miz Wickham vault of horrors? How could Spence even know that the vault existed, let alone know that it was down under Miz Wickham's big old house? Though, admittedly, if there ever was a place that would have a vault of horrors under it, the Wickham house was one. And why would he be trying to open the vault in the DARK?
Still, it occurred to Stacy that she could use the darkness to her own advantage. She could sneak up on Spence and knock him out without having to answer any awkward questions, like how he got knocked out by someone invisible. It was gonna be hella awkward anyway, but that she didn't need, not on top of everything else. Using the sounds of the clicking to guide her, Stacy stepped carefully, using her lifting power so that she was skimming over the floor, not quite flying, but still as silent as a silver ghost.
Stacy caught sight of Spence in the dim gloom, and she was trying to figure out where to hit him, where she'd be sure to knock him unconscious without doing him any real harm (being super-strong is a lot more complicated than people think) when the clicking stopped and the motors for the vault started. Stacy froze in her tracks, her hand raised, and she stood there, torn between not wanting to fail Miz Wickham and not wanting to hurt one of her few friends, and being really confused as to what the hell was going on.
Then the lights clicked on, and Miz Wickham broke the silence demanding, "And what's going on here?"
Spence started sluggishly, and shook his head. Stacy found herself frozen again, this time by the ridiculous position she was in, caught simultaneously in the acts of trying to sneak up and bash Spence, and NOT bashing Spence. She was trying to figure out how to get out of that jam, when she felt something on her leg. She looked down and saw a large dark rat with a glittering red jewel on its forehead climbing up her leg. "ACK!" Stacy let out yawp that rattled through the cavern and even made people jump up in the house above, and hopped and thrashed and kicked around. Spence reacted to the ruckus and looked around in confusion, but got caught up in Stacy's thrashing around and Stacy unwittingly threw him against the railing of the Pool of Vigor. Spence hit the railing with a whoosh, and tumbled over the rail into the pool.
Stacy whirled around and finally managed to throw the rat off of her. It flew in an arc and landed in the pool of vigor with a splash. As Stacy settled down and caught her breath, Laura, Miz Seabury and Miz Wickham hurried over. "Stacy! What happened?"
"A RAT! There was a RAT on my leg!" Stacy grimaced and shuddered at the disgusting memory of it on her skin.
"A mouse?" Lauren asked bathetically. "You got that upset because of a MOUSE?"
"It wasn't a mouse!" Stacy objected, "Mice are small and kinda cute! This was a big disgusting ol' RAT!"
"Stacy!" Lauren giggled, "You can punch through a brick wall, but you're afraid of a little mouse?"
"Well..." Stacy whined and she wrung her hands with embarrassment, "it startled me... and it was a rat."
"Stacy," Miz Wickham asked sternly, "What are you doing down here? Lauren said there was some sort of emergency! Why did you bring that boy down here?"
"I DIDN'T!" Stacy insisted. "Somehow, Spence found his way down here, and when I got down here, he was opening up that vault!"
"In the DARK?"
"I was wonderin' about that myself."
"Stacy," Miz Wickham asked, real concerned, "you didn't go IN there, did you?"
"HELL NO!" Stacy said, shocked, "I KNOW what's in there, and I didn't wanna go anywhere NEAR it!"
"And how the heck did Spence," Lauren started, but then she paused and blurted out, "SPENCE!"
"SPENCE!" Stacy echoed, picking up on Lauren's meaning immediately. She'd knocked Spence into the pool, when she was trying to get that yicky RAT off of her!
They rushed over to the pool and fished Spence, who was floundering around in confusion, out of the water. As Stacy hauled him out, that stupid rat also crawled out of the pool. "Hey," Lauren asked, "why does that rat have that big honking RUBY on its forehead?"
"RUBY?" Miz Wickham stuck her head out from the vault, and looked. "What are y- OH MY GAWD! Girls! Get AWAY from that thing! NOW! Don't let it touch you!" With a frantic gesture, she let off a bolt of emerald energy. Stacy lifted Lauren up out of the way, and the rat dodged out of the way, but Spence took the bolt square in the chest and fell back into the pool.
"What are you DOING?" Lauren demanded as Miz Wickham kept the rat dancing with blasts of green energy.
"No time to explain!"
"Oh-kaaayyy..." Lauren drawled, "Important note for the future: vermin with bling are BAD..."
"Is that thing what I think it is?" Miz Seabury asked, slightly slurring her T's as she did so. Even so she grabbed a long pole-like doohickey with a doo-bob dangling from the end, assumed a hostile stance and started whirling the doo-bob.
"Ba Stone," Miz Wickham said briskly.
"Crap. Anyone I've heard of?"
"Did you ever run into the Nighthag?"
"Double Crap. Girls! Make sure that that rat doesn't get its claws into you!"
"Oh Gee..." Lauren quipped, "and here I was looking forward to making a pet of it and taking it for walks..."
The Ruby-Rat crouched and considered its options for a moment. It waited until Miz Seabury lashed out with Monsoon Raven's totem-flail (or so Stacy made out from the placard next to the stand it had been on), dodged and scampered into the clutter of cabinets, bookcases and free-standing memoriabilia. The rat tried to hide in Daddy Longleg's cyber-stilts, but Miz Wickham flushed it out with a blast that scattered the skeletal frame.
"Hey!" Lauren objected as Stacy hauled Spence out of the water again. "What's the big deal? I mean, is just a big ol' RAT!" Lauren's jibe was scarcely out of her mouth, when the rat showed why Miz Wickham was so worried. It scampered up to the Living Vacuum's suction gun and turned it on. A funnel-shaped vortex of wind formed in the air, and Stacy had to grab onto the railing to keep from being sucked into it. She had to drop Spencer back into the pool again to get that handhold, but she managed to hang on. Lauren, on the other hand, had a plan. Staying low, she scuttled along the floor until she got to one of the cases and opened it. "Okay, so you've stolen the power of the Living Vacuum- but can you withstand the pulse-pounding puree-ing power of THE HUMAN BLENDER?" With that she aimed the Human Blender's crime processor appliance at the suction gun and let fly with a mincing missile- set to frappe!
The blender-rocket ground the Vacuum-gun to bit, but the rat had already scampered away to another display. Before Lauren could reset the appliance to 'whip', the hell-rat had crawled into an unlikely assemblage of toys. Then the entire collection of adorable playthings exploded into action, as the Toymaster had designed them to do. A crowd of puppets on titanium-alloy strings charged and tackled Lauren. A battle squadron of colorful plastic planes, tanks, jeeps and battleships advanced on Miz Wickham, and a crowd of jumping jack-in-the-boxes, teddy bears, dolls bowled over Miz Seabury, and got the totem-flail away from her.
Seeing that the tide had turned against her side, Stacy draped Spence over the railing of the pit of vigor and went to help Miz Seabury, who was swamped in plush. She tore the toys off Miz Seabury, but they turned their attentions to Stacy. Miz Wickham was busy dealing with the plastic armada, and Lauren was tangled up with extreme prejudice in titanium wire, so Miz Seaburn didn't try to get the totem-flail back. Instead, she got Cutting Edge's twin chain-katanas from their stand, and fired them up. With a roar, the two blades ripped the toys into shreds of plush, velour, and plastic (and titanium alloy, scandium, silicon chips and other bits of cyber-junk). Once she had Stacy free, Seabury rushed over to where Lauren was trying furiously to get free of the puppets' strings. With a grinding sound that was all-too reminiscent of a piano being mangled, Seabury cut the cables that had Lauren bound. Lauren pulled herself free and gave out an outraged squeal. "Okay! So that's how you wanna play it? FINE!"
She ran over to a stand which had an arrangement set up on it that looked like a paintball gun hooked up to a pesticide can. She grabbed the gun and hit the switch on the can, and looked around with a predatory gleam! "HAH! No luck, Mickey! I see you, trying to sneak into the power armor of the Terrible Terror-Pin!" She let off a squirt, blocking the open hatch of the rotund, tortoise-themed power frame with a glob of pastel blue goo. "See? You're no match of the amazing adhesive ammunition of Glue Gun Joe!"
Lauren kept the rat hopping from exhibit to exhibit with globs of glue, but Miz Wickham kept saying, "That's nice hear, I know that you want to help... Lauren... Lauren... You're getting GLUE all over the place! Lauren, you're not helping... By the way, Lauren, exactly HOW do you know what everything down here is?"
But Lauren was too intent on the hunt. When the rat climbed up on the Amazing Iguana-man's scaly armor, she let off a particularly big, gooey glop. "HAH! Gotach, ya little booger!" she exulted as the glob almost drenched the armor. Then she let out a hushed '"oh no," as the suit of leathery armor flew through the air right at Miz Wickham. Miz Wickham tried to erect a defense, but the rat did something that let the armor go right through the shield. Miz Wickham found herself gummed up in the pale blue epoxy, barely able to move, let alone make the mystic gestures, without which channeling her magical energies would be less than worthless, it would be actively dangerous. Seabury tried to help Miz Wickham out of the goop, but only got caught in it herself.
But the rat didn't attack either of them. Rather, it turned on Lauren with an evil hiss. Lauren tried to goop it, but the rat was too small and quick. It kept ducking out of the way of her globs. She was keeping it at bay some, but it was still getting closer and closer. Lauren paused in her shooting. As she kept a wary eye on the rat, which was cautiously edging its way toward her, she built up a large charge of resin in the reservoirs, and pumped up the pressure towards its maximum, hoping for a very big splatter that would nail the rat. But when she brought the two resins together in the combining chamber, the pressure was too great to allow for the chemical expansion, and it burst the chamber covering Lauren's hands in instantly hardening gunk. "_oh_ crap_," Lauren whispered. The rat hissed again and charged at Lauren. "STACY!" Lauren screamed, "Where ARE you?"
The rat came at her and was just about to do... something... when a small carved statue from one of the displays came flying out of nowhere and caught the rat by surprise. It knocked the rat well away from Lauren, and smashed it into one of the pedestals of one of the other exhibits, reducing the vermin to a red smear on the marble.
"Is it dead?" Stacy asked, sliding out of invisibility.
"If it isn't, we're in BIG trouble," Lauren said, making a grimace at the gory mess that was all that was left of the nasty little monster. "Anything that could survive that would be harder to kill than a lame catch-phrase on Saturday Night Live!"
"Girls!" Miz Wickham snapped, "Don't go near that thing!"
"I wasn't thinking about it," Stacy said, inching away slightly, despite the fact that she was a good ten feet away from it.
Seabury and Miz Wickham both struggled up as best they could being all gummed up by Glue Gun Joe's epoxy. Miz Wickham instructed Lauren in how to use the debonding function that GGJ had built into his gluegun. After all, there's nothing worse than getting stuck in your own glue while you're committing a felony. Then Miz Wickham looked both Stacy and Lauren in the eye and asked them a few questions in a language that neither of the girls spoke. "What?" Lauren whined, pushing away. "What are you up to? It never touched me?"
"It's better to be safe than sorry," Miz Seabury said, taking Lauren firmly by the hand. "And I should know, more than anyone."
"CHILL, Quinn," Miz Wickham said, "you're scaring the kid. We can be sure, without getting out the red hot pokers."
"Not funny," Lauren said sulking.
"Who's joking?" Miz Wickham went over to one of her labs, zotzed some of the goo off her desk and fished out a test tube, some tongs and a scalpel. She walked over to the bloody smear that was left of the rat, and carefully cut the rat's head from the remnants of its squished body. She scraped the head with the ruby still attached into the test tube. Holding onto the test tube with the tongs, she took the tube back to her lab and filled it with a bluish liquid, to which she added something that looked like salt. Then she sketched out a few characters in green flame in the air, including one that looked like a weird lower case letter 'h', around the tube and watched it carefully. "I don't see any connections, and the persona is still housed within the crystalline essence of the stone. It could be possible to pull off a really subtle influence, but not on the fly in an improvised situation like this."
"HAH?" Lauren and Stacy honked as one.
Miz Wickham let out a bemused sigh. "Girls, this- no, not the rat's head, what looks like a ruby- is what's called a 'Ba Stone'. The Egyptians taught that the mortal soul or spirit had several components with different properties. The part of our spirit that has rational thoughts, memories and personality, what we tend to think of as our sense of Self, they called the 'Ba'. Its usual representation was a flying bird with the head of a person. The point here being, that there's a spectacularly stupid technique that you have to be very intelligent and educated to perform, wherein your Ba, or sense of self, is attuned to an object, classically a gemstone like this one, which allows your Ba, or what you think of as 'you' to live on after your body- and, to be honest, the rest of your soul- dies.
"Of course, the necromantic assholes who even consider this sort of thing aren't happy just being a piece of rock that's out of Hell. No, they also enchant these stones with processes that give it the ability to possess, after a fashion, anyone- or in this case, any beast- who comes in contact with it, slowly grafting the Ba within the stone onto the spirit of the person or being its possessing.
"The person- for the want of a better word- that created this, was a woman known only to me as 'the Night Hag'. She was born over two hundred years ago (I'm guessing here, based on a few off-hand comments that she made, and her reaction to a few antiques from the 1800s), who managed to craft this stone, and used it to hop from body to body at least 30 times."
"Thirty times?" Stacy said skeptically. "Even over two hundred years, that's a lot of movin' around."
"Yes, it is," Seabury said. "But, as I recall the uncanny bitch, she was always on the lookout for a new body, because the technique that she used in creating her Ba stone is a particularly hard one on the host body. She made a point of possessing beautiful, athletic hardy young women in their primes, but usually after about ten years or so, the body burned out and turned into a desiccated old hag."
"Hence, the name," Lauren said puckishly.
"Exactly," Miz Wickham replied sourly. "Anyway, some time in the 1940s, she decided to get into Professional Crime for some reason. Probably as a way of jacking over various mystic heroes for their power and talismans, though she also messed with mundane heroes as well. She started off rather modestly, but by the 1980s, she was a power in her own right in the Black Magic, Covert Operations, and Organized Crime communities, three groups that don't mix that much, normally. She had the very considerable advantage in that she could literally keep coming back, time and again, somehow escaping from prison at will, and even coming back from the grave, a little tougher, a little wiser, and far better capable of handling whoever had beaten her before. She'd pass along the gemstone to someone somehow, and leave her old body in jail- or the morgue- and come back to plague the world in that poor sucker's body. She had a lot of people very spooked, for very good reasons. Then, in 1985, she got wind that I was keeping a bunch of dark magic power items down here, and she started targeting people and organizations-"
"uhm, Miz Wickham, that's real interesting, and all," Stacy cut in, "but we still got a Problem?" she pointed at Spencer, draped over the railing of the pool, groggily looking around.
Miz Wickham went over and looked into Spence's eyes. "He's out of it. I doubt that he knows what's going on. How did he get down here, in the first place, let alone open the vault?"
"I dunno!" Stacy insisted. "When Lauren and I came down from changing, we couldn't find him, and I spotted the door open." Then something occurred to Stacy. "Hey, when I came down here, the lights were off, but somehow, Spence not only found the vault in the dark, but he was punching in the code to open the vault- in the dark. How could he do that?"
A look like the penny dropping crossed Miz Wickham's face. "Ah, that explains a lot. Like how that rat got in the vault in the first place." She looked around the cave with a grin of malicious glee. "Naughty, naughty, Peddlar! Jumping a guest? That's a violation of Hospitality! That's going to cost you!" Smirking, she held up her hand and pulled a brown leather-bound book with black iron bindings out of nowhere. "By the power and splendor of the Wickham Pact, I charge that the Forlorn Peddlar of Ensnaring Vanities has broken the terms of the pact by violating the ancient Laws of Hospitality as a means to cheat the Wickham Lineage. By the power of the Compact, and the Laws of Solomon, and the Terms so agreed in Tribunal, I do so charge the Peddlar and demand due compensation! So cough up, or lose all claim to the souls of all the Wickham women, from Anne on to me!" The book sprang open without Miz Wickham touching it, and she peered at the last entry with a pleased, 'hm!' She snapped the book closed, and sighed, "Okay, it would have been nice if they defaulted, but every little bit helps." The book disappeared back to where it had come from.
"What was that?" Miz Seabury asked, saving Stacy the question.
"Well, I think that the reason that young mister Chase came down here and was able to open the vault is that the Peddlar influenced him to do so. Rather forcefully. I don't think that Spence was willing. I think that the young man fought quite valiantly for someone his age, which is why it took him so many tries to get the combination right. But guests are protected from such things by the Laws of Hospitality."
"You're... telling me... that The Pit... gives a rat's ass? About Hospitality?" Seabury said skeptically.
"Not a lick," Miz Wickham admitted. "But it DOES care, very deeply, about whether the claim that it has on a soul will hold up or not. A few years ago, I managed to catch the Peddlar in violation of one of the terms of the Wickham Compact. I summoned up a Tribunal and tried to use that violation to get out of the Compact. It didn't quite work out that way. The advocate for The Pit offered me a choice of a penalty system where a certain amount of Grace was deducted from the Soul Debt, or I could be set free entirely, but the rest of the Wickham witches would immediately go to Hell, and there were a few other obscure clauses that suggest that I'd be giving my permission for The Pit to send their agents after various third parties."
"Ah," Seabury sighed deeply, "a classic Infernal ploy: if you sold out your ancestors, you'd be committing both a definitive act of betrayal AND an act of unmitigated cowardice, and you'd be endangering all those innocents for your own safety. You'd out from under the compact, but you'd have fatally compromised your soul to do it. And they'd probably have rigged some way of killing you before you figured out that you'd been rooked. So, they'd get you, and your ancestors, AND all those innocents in the bargain."
"I didn't get that at the time," Miz Wickham admitted. "I just knew that I'd rather be boiled alive than endanger the people who work for me, just to save my own skin, which was what they wanted."
"And if you refused the bargain, well then they hadn't really lost anything; the deal went on as before, and they still had all the chances of nailing you that they had before."
"Yeah, but I still managed to muscle them into enforcing the terms of the contract as they applied to the Peddlar."
"Excuse me?" Lauren cut in. "While this is all fascinating, there's still the matter of the poor guy who not only nearly got drowned," she gestured at Spence, who was still coughing and trying to pull his head together, "but now knows that there's a secret cave under the house?"
Miz Wickham checked Spence out. "Not to worry. He isn't that bad off. I don't think that he's inhaled any real amount of water, and while it sounds nasty, he's coping with what he did take in beautifully. Still, we'll have to come up with a rationale for him to be coughing for the next few hours, until his lungs clear up completely. And as for him knowing about this place, first of all, demonic influence, especially when it's being fought tooth and nail as Spence seems to have done, isn't particularly gentle; my guess is that Spence won't really remember that much detail about what was going on. Second, I have spells that I've used to remove recent memories without any long-term ill effects. Between those two, and a decent story to explain things away, and I doubt that we'll have any real problems with him."
"Spence!" Stacy said urgently as she shook him, "Spence, can you hear me?"
"Hah?" Spence bleated as he struggled back into waking. "Wa'hoppened?"
"I don't know!" Stacy said as she started dragging him out of the office. "When we came down, we couldn't find you, and we found you in Miz Wickham's office. How did you get in there?"
Spence shook his head, looked around and started to get his bearings. Then Miz Wickham came down the stairs as Miz Seabury dragged a logy Lauren out into the hall. "What IS this?"
"Somehow, Mister Chase here found a secret room in your office," Seabury explained with a few slurs and lisps. "The room was full of a truly foul reek. I think that there's a broken gas line in there."
"What?" Miz Wickham hooted, "But there isn't a gas line in there!" She pushed her way past Seabury into the office. There was an immediate sound of hoarse breathing, and a long moment later, Miz Wickham staggered out of her office and pointedly shut the door. Rubbing her sinuses and snorting to clear out her nose, she finally said, "Well, at least now I finally know where that was."
"Excuse me?" Spence asked, getting his wits back a bit.
"I spotted a couple of stills in that hidden room that you found," she explained. "They looked very rusty, and they had fallen apart a long time ago. I recall that back my grandmother told me that her father had very strong opinions about Prohibition; he felt that it was a good idea for other people. I'm talking about the Prohibition of liquor, back in the 1920s, kids. Anyway, back then the law was specifically against manufacturing, selling or importing liquor. So, a lot of people made their own beer, and wine and so on for their own use. According to my grandmother, great-grandfather made a decent homebrewed gin, and a notoriously sour beer."
"Ah," Seabury said with the tone of enlightenment, "and brewing beer smells funky at the best of times..."
"My guess is that when they repealed Prohibition, great-grandpaw just shut up his stillroom and said that he'd get around to breaking it down. Someday."
"And he got drunk on real booze and forgot about it?" Stacy asked. Miz Wickham shrugged. "And it's been fermenting for what? Sixty years?"
"I'd say closer to seventy," Miz Wickham said ruefully. Stacy made a 'yuck!' face.
"And you've never smelled any of that before?" Spence asked incredulously. "It's right next to your office!"
Miz Wickham paused and considered that. Then she knocked on the wood of the carved banister she was standing next to. "I think that this explains that. Whatever you want to say about this pile of bricks- don't get me started on the plumbing- but the woodworking is simply first rate. The reason that that mess was able to get that bad was that the seal of that room kept it all in. This, of course, just means that when you did open that room, you got the worst of seventy years of concentrated funk, both barrels, right in the face. By the way," she leaned toward him curiously, "exactly how DID you find that room?"
"I-eyyyeee... I don't know," Spence admitted, getting up off the floor.
"Do you at least remember what the unlocking mechanism is? I'm going to have to fumigate my office, and the first thing that I'm going to have to do is get those stills out of there."
"Sorry!" Spence said with an apologetic shrug and grin.
Miz Wickham gave a low sigh. "Well, at least, how are you feeling? Fermentation may smell to high heaven, but there's nothing toxic about it. Or, at least I don't think it is."
"No," Spence answered, a look of pleased surprise on his face, "As a matter of fact, I feel GREAT!"
"Well!" Miz Wickham said with a pleased gush, "in that case, I've got a few things to say to Stacy and Lauren." Karen took Stacy and Lauren upstairs and told them, "I've got good news!"
"Humanity First! has declared bankruptcy?" Stacy asked.
"No," Karen admitted, "though not for the want of trying. And, by a happy coincidence, that's almost what happened! My lawyers were putting the screws to the H1! leadership, trying to get a few concessions out of them, tie them up legally so they'd lay off of the Silver Ghost, maybe cut into their operating capital, and like that, and doing a pretty good job of it. It helped that they had the real ammunition in the fight. They were kicking the stakes up higher and higher, to put the pressure on. Then, suddenly, boom, H1!'s lawyers drop an offer on them, that, considering that they were doing it in your best interests, they couldn't really ignore."
"hah?" Stacy bleated in incomprehension.
"They made a tentative settlement... for thirty million dollars and change."
"WOO-HOO!" Lauren cheered.
"Thirty... MILLION... dollars?" Stacy gawped.
"If they try to pay off in Pesos, I'll hand them their lungs," Karen assured her.
"That much money, just because some dumb kid from out in the sticks passed out in their showroom?"
"Think it'll work a second time?" Lauren asked with an eager grin.
"Stacy dear," Karen assured her, "it's not so much that you had a bad reaction to their sonic weapon, as it is that sonic weapons are illegal in Ohio because a good segment of the population gets seizures from them that make what happen to you look mild! They should have gotten rid of those things from that showroom years ago, but they put it off in favor of stacking on more weapons! Stacy, Humanity First!'s big pitch is that they're about Safety; they really don't want to go into court on charges of Reckless Endangerment and Endangering a Minor. Cage/Fish, Porter & McBeal were really looking forward to putting H1! through the wringer, but they felt that doing right by their principal- that would be you- was more important than putting that ass Tellock on the stand, and making him defend his comments about Spencer. No matter how much fun that would be. But it's your decision, Stacy; I could make the decision for you, but I want to know how you feel about it. And, keep in mind that due to the way they're organized, we'd have to take the Ohio Chapterof Humanity First to court, not the entire organization; no matter how deep their pockets are. But the Ohio chapter could still call on the legal resources of the national organization. And the national organization has some very heavy hitters, legally speaking, working for them."
"Yeah, and remember, Stace," Lauren pointed out, "you wouldn't be taking them to court for their positions on mutants, you'd just be suing them for a safety screw-up. So, you wouldn't be selling the rest of mutantkind down the river for 30 Mil."
Stacy nodded, seeing Lauren's point. Then something occurred to her. "Where's the money coming from?"
"Well, H1 is always making noises like they're hurting for cash, and how they need more money to 'carry on the good work'. So, where's the money coming from?"
Miz Wickham paused, blinked, and said, "That's a very good question, Stacy. I don't know. I'll have to find out."
"Look," Stacy said firmly, "Thirty Million is a LOT of money. But I don't wanna wake up one day and have some guy in a silk suit tell me that I gotta do everything he says, like he owns me or sum'thin' like that."
"Very good," Karen said, "but not a worry. Cage/Fish, Porter & McBeal will tear them a new one if they try to play any funny games with the terms of the agreement."
"And what if I want to press the lawsuit?"
"Then it would take years to crawl through the courts, by the end of which H1!'s lawyers could say that you hadn't been that inconvenienced, and any settlement you'd get would probably be eaten up by legal costs."
"And this would be simpler all around?" Stacy asked, picking up Miz Wickham's meaning.
"Besides," Lauren cut in, "I've never heard of a situation where having thirty MIL hurt things!"
"Then you haven't been paying attention," Miz Wickham said sternly. "Just ask around at that high-falutin' school that I'm sending you to; most of them will have stories about friends or relations who got shafted one way or another because they had too much money and not enough sense. Stacy, the money will be placed into a trust fund until you're 21. In the meantime, you've got seven years to learn how to use it wisely. Of course, you've got an advantage there. Still, I wonder if Whateley has a 'how to manage large amounts of money' course?"
"Whateley?" Lauren asked curiously.
"I'll, uhm, think about it," Stacy said, withdrawing noticeably at the mention of Whateley.
"That's all I ask," Karen said. "So, go, hang out with Spencer, before he figures out that that little scenario we spelled out for him couldn't have lasted as long as the real one did." Stacy nodded and started down the stairs. Lauren also turned but Miz Wickham stopped her. "Not so fast."
"How is it?" Miz Wickham asked in a way that suggest that she already knew (and didn't much like) the answer, "that you not only knew what the exhibits were, but somehow, Gluegun Joe's goop gun was still loaded? Despite the fact that I know for a fact that I put that thing in there empty?"
Lauren grinned helplessly for a second. "aaahhh..."
"Lauren, how long have you been going down into my cave, despite the fact that you KNOW it's strictly forbidden?"
"aahhh? Since I was Seven?"
"Lauren..." Karen droned in the 'I'm very disappointed in you' voice.
"AW c'MON! It's a superhero cave! Who wouldn't go down there?" Lauren paused. "And MAN those stairs are a bi-bear to walk back up!"
"Maybe," Miz Wickham sniffed. "I'll go down and tell Spence that you won't be joining him and Stacy."
"Well, SOMEONE has to clean up the cave before all that epoxy hardens! And as you know it so well, then you must know where the cleaning supplies are. And I am going to be busy getting all of this-" she opened up her draping coat, showing where her clothes were still sticky with pastel glue "-out."
November 21st 2006
"Hey, Spence!" Stacy drove up to the front entrance of the Mansfield Academy on a brand new pink Vespa. She beamed at Spence, Lauren and their crews from under a white billed helmet and said, "Check it out! I got wheeeellsss!" which she punctuated with a perky beep of the horn.
"What a wimpy bike!" sneered a boy that Stacy recognized as Corey Griswold, the 'Neo' who'd been absolutely no use whatsoever three weeks ago on Halloween. She also remembered that he was the kind of shit-talking 'ladies man' who'd go around bragging about what a stud he was (when he wasn't) no matter what it did to a girl's reputation. "But check THIS out!" he revved a bike that looked a lot more a small motorcycle.
"So what?" Stacy said with a toss of her head (she'd always wanted to toss her head at an obnoxious guy, dismissing them, but as Stanley, he'd gotten his ass kicked every time he even tried) "The engine on that isn't any bigger than mine, and mine's cute!"
"Why'd you get the bike?" Mindy asked, checking it out.
"Well, one of the reasons that I'm staying with Miz Wickham is that there's this hitch regarding my trust fund." There was a general expression of understanding; not all of the kids present had trust funds, but enough of them did that it was generally understood not only what trust funds were, but how much trouble it could cause when there were complications; or, worse control fights. Things got very nasty when relations had very different ideas as to what was good for the kids; it got even nastier when a divorce was involved. "Anyway, they got the money part ironed out and nailed down, and that's the worst of it."
"At least until the lawyers decide that they want another run at the cookie jar," Terri said cynically.
"What was the whole thing about, Stacy?" Spence asked.
"I dunno," Stacy admitted with a shrug. "Every time that I asked about it, they started talking like they were in a TV lawyer show."
"It could be worse," one of the boys in the group said, "every time that I ask my dad for anything, he starts talking in Tax Code."
Stacy joined in the general shudder at that, and said, "Anyway, Karen says that the rest of the whole thing will go a lot more smoothly now that the money angle has been settled, so she said I could buy something to celebrate!" She beeped the horn again. "And I figured that if I got something that would let me hang out with you guys more, she might let me stay."
"Let you stay?" Spence echoed, surprised and a touch dismayed.
"Yeah, she's been talking about sending me to some boarding school in New England. She thinks that I'll do better there."
"Why?" a girl with long lank honey blonde hair asked snidely. "Is it one of those 'Special' schools? Where you'll get special treatment for your special condition?"
Stacy didn't see what was so bad about being 'special', and from what she heard, Whateley was for very special students. But she didn't need that stupid, never-really-works-when-you-really-need-it mind thing to know that she was being scored on. She peered at the girl and drawled, "Oh. Jenni-leech. I didn't recognize you without the lame 'Silver Ghost' outfit. Hey, Spence, didn't you say that she had to wear a muzzle at all times?"
"Yeah," Spence drawled back, "but they can only make her wear it in class." He let out a long sigh. "Pity."
Jennilee sneered at Spence in a way that suggested that she was already plotting how she was going to make his life miserable and said, "I'm sorry, honey, but no amount of whining to your guardian is gonna get you into this school; Mansfield has Standards."
"They can't be that high," Stacy shot back immediately. "After all, they let YOU in, didn't they?" She finished with a dismissive smile.
"Her father replacing all the old books in the library may have had something to do with it," Spence added with relish, from where he was seated on his scooter.
"Oh, this make sense," Jennilee sneered at Spence, "the only girlfriend that a wimp like YOU could get would have to be a refugee from the short bus!"
"Wimp?" Stacy snickered, "There are three supervillains that would argue with that."
"Oh, you mean that thing on Halloween where he supposedly was all big and badass and kicked the ass of two supervillains who I never heard of before?" Jennilee scoffed. "I wasn't there, I didn't see it, and I don't believe it, so it never happened."
"Yeah, well, I WAS there," a trim, fashionable-looking cute blonde girl, one of three who'd just walked up in a group, cut in, "I DID see it, and, okay, I have a hard time believing it, but it DID happen."
"Damn skippy!" said the trim, fashionable-looking cute African-American girl who'd walked in with her. Stacy remembered that Lauren had said that the Bramlin girls were two blondes and an African-American. And as the third girl was also a blonde, and looked a tad miffed (she hadn't been dragged along, and missed out on all the drama- and bragging rights), then these two must be what Abby and Hayley look like when they weren't in costume. "Hey, anyone can look tough in leather and studs, but to pull it off in a Cinderella gown with glass slippers? Now that's macho!"
Stacy wondered how much of that was genuine (if due) admiration for Spence, and how much was them reminding everyone of their role in the moment of glory. Still, Jennilee backed off, as bullies often do when faced with someone tougher than they are. Then Hayley noticed Stacy. "Oh? And who are you?"
"Oh, this is Stacy," Spence introduced her. "She was the 'Xena' at the Halloween party? The one who bopped Jack Devil on the head with her chakram, remember?"
"I did what I could," Stacy said modestly, trying to distance herself from taking credit for Lauren's bravery.
"Oh right!" Abby said, the penny dropping. "I didn't recognize you in the helmet! You're Karen Wickham's ward, right?"
"WARD?" Jennilee rolled the word around in her mouth, savoring the taste. "You mean, that old bat went and took in some penniless orphan off the street?"
"Penniless?" Terri snorted. "Not hardly. Stacy bought the bike to celebrate her Trust Fund being secured."
"Oh?" Jennilee bleated dubiously. "How much?"
Frantically scrambling inside her head for what some really rich Old Money kid would answer, Stacy kept cool and breezed noncommittally, "Oh, I'll be comfortable..." But from where she was, Lauren silently mouthed, 'Thirty MILLION'.
"Then why are you staying with that old witch Wickham?" Jennilee asked skeptically.
"I don't discuss my family's business with strangers," Stacy snipped back coldly. She didn't like Jennilee calling Miz Wickham an 'old witch'. Even if she technically was one. But Lauren shot Stacy a look that said that she'd done the high hat a little too hard. So Stacy quickly improvised. "Miss Wickham has been very nice about all this, especially with the way my family's been acting. I haven't heard from Daddy in years, Mom's a complete doormat, and don't get me started on George, mom's new husband! If George had gotten his hands on my trust fund, he'd have weaseled every penny of it out from under me, one way or another!"
Stacy got the impression that the reaction to this was mixed, ranging from 'Rich kid complaining about rich kid stuff' to 'I know where you're coming from; aren't parents supposed to protect you?'
But Jennilee let out a rude noise and sneered, "Man, you are as pathetic as that lame-ass 'Madcap' ditz who kicked your boyfriend's ass. I mean, all she is, is some scrawny little nutcase running around in a circus costume, but she STILL ran off with that whatever it was! I mean, just goes to show what a jerkwater town this is. Rick Standish even-"
"Hey, did you hear?" Someone overran Jennilee's nasty little rant (clearly just for the sake of not hearing her rant) "Rick Standish got another call from Madcap, and she left another *ahem!* 'riddle'!"
"You're kidding!" Spence gawped.
"Hey, I'm surprised that she isn't giving Press Conferences," Lauren sniped.
"What do you think THIS is?" Stacy shot back.
"What's the riddle this time?" Mindy asked, raising her eyebrows curiously.
The guy looked at his cell phone, made a grimace and said, "I'll spare you the riddle. It's, ah, not one of Madcap's better efforts."
"ew!" Stacy winced. Madcap would never be named Poet Laureate of the Supervillain community (not a group known for their lofty standards in verse), so it had to be absolutely horrible.
"The upshot is that they think that they think that she's going after the battery that X-Caliber used for his Omni-Weapon, which is being shown at some battery and energy source symposium at the Hesseman Convention Center at Four o'clock."
"Why would they get a supervillain weapon for a battery convention?" Hayley asked, drawn into the conversation against her will.
"They didn't," said a dull voice that Stacy didn't recognize. But when she placed his face, Stacy blanched. It was Benny the Barnacle, and he was winding up to what Stacy could tell would be a classic nerd-lecture. "The Omni-Weapon is a versatile but otherwise commonplace energy weapon, and not really of very much interest," he stated in a Ben Stein drone. "However, the power supply is of considerable interest, as-"
"GREAT!" Lauren cut him off. "That's just the sort of thing that Madcap would go after! C'mon, Stacy!" she hopped onto the back of Stacy's scooter, "Let's MOTOR!"
Stacy hit the gas and zipped into the street away from the school. "Do you really think that Madcap will try for that battery?" she called back to Lauren.
"I don't know and I don't care," Lauren yelled into Stacy's helmet. "All I know, is that now I don't have to listen to Benny's lecture!"
"Do you think that he'll be hurt by the way we left?"
"I don't think that he realizes that we're gone!"
As they tooled along, Stacy yelled back to Lauren, "If Madcap does show up, I'm gonna have to take her on. But Spence and some others will probably be following us. Can you take my coat and helmet and-"
"And confuse things, so no one's asking why they never see Stacy and the Silver Ghost at the same time?" Lauren shouted back. "Not to worry, Wonder Woman! I got yer back!"
Stacy remembered the Hesseman convention center from the time that SPECTRUM had taken on Brigand. There weren't as many cop cars out front, but there were some crowds and a few TV News vans. Stacy pulled up and secured her scooter (the odds that someone would try to steal it were low, but Stacy just got it, and she was still a little possessive about it), and headed off to find a place where they wouldn't be under too much direct scrutiny. Which was a lot harder than it sounds. Finally, they settled for Lauren putting on Stacy's coat and helmet, and Stacy going invisible when no one was looking. Stacy pulled on the long gray hooded cloak that she'd gotten especially for this, and used that as cover to pull on the gray coverall jumpsuit with all the pockets. Then she made sure that she had all the stuff that she'd picked for the situation as Lauren read off the list. Lauren finished the list and then continued on, "Ghostarang?"
"I don't have a ghostarang." Stacy said flatly.
"What? No ghostarang?" Lauren asked puckishly "Well, what about your personal theme music player?"
"You can't see it, but I'm sticking my tongue out at you."
"And... sense of humor? CHECK!"
With that, Stacy lifted off and levitated over the crowd, checking out the situation. Looking around, she spotted the Center Security Office (a pretty magnificent label for cramped shoebox smaller than the Starbucks™ concession stand. Besides the security guards in studiously not-PD-lookalike grays, there were a few genuine cops in blue. Stacy slipped into the office by sliding invisibly across the very top of the doorway. There was the security Shift Head talking with a CPD sergeant. Stacy dropped to the floor right beside them and let herself turn visible. "Hi!" They, understandably reacted by going for their guns, she snorted, "Chill out! I'm here to help!"
The sergeant, who looked to be in his early fifties, put his hand on his heart and rasped, "Jeez, Kid, Did you have to do it like that?"
"I didn't want to have to jump through a lot of hoops to convince you that I wasn't punking you. And being seen coming in here would have only gotten the reporters all excited."
"Look, kid, I know that you just want to help-" Stacy stopped the Security Head's patronizing brush-off by presenting him with the Special Deputization and Render All Assistance notices that Ms. Ellsworth, Mr. Kaltenborn's assistant had given her. "Oh, you gotta be kiddin' me..." He handed the letter to the sergeant, one Jimenez by name.
"So, call it in and check."
"Damn right I will," Jimenez said, pulling his personal radio from his harness. He did just that, and his bushy eyebrows almost rose up off his forehead. "Yer kiddin' me, right? No? Crap." He signed off, sighed and looked at Stacy. "Okay, Kid, it's your show. How're you gonna fight this Madcap girl?"
"I'm not," Stacy said simply.
"Hah?" was the general reply.
"Look, Madcap doesn't really want that battery or whatever it is she's talking about," Stacy explained. "It's just a way for her to get people all upset and start a fight and show off for the TV cameras. This is just her way of saying 'Lookee ME! I got super powers and I'm a supervillain and EVERYTHING! Aren't I KEWL?" Stacy pixied up her face and squee'd the last bit. "I don't think that it really sinks in for her that she's committing real crimes, or that people might get hurt. If I fight her, that will only encourage her to keep up this stupid crap. So, when she comes to take the battery, we let her take it-" Jimenez and the Shift Head started to complain, but Stacy cut them off, "-AND, I follow her home invisibly." She smiled as her point sank home. She was really proud of this angle, mostly because she'd thought of it all on her own. "I follow her home, find out who she is, and call the DA. They send a squad car to break the news to her parents, and her folks will bring her in."
Jimenez made a pained expression. "ooohhh... you're ratting her out to her parents? You play hardball!"
"Why risk busting up a bunch of stuff and maybe getting people hurt to drag Madcap downtown, when her parents will do it for us?" Stacy asked rhetorically. "She's not afraid of getting killed or caught, but I'll bet that she's absolutely terrified of her daddy." Stacy shrugged philosophically, "I doubt that they'll do anything that bad to her; she stole some pretty useless stuff and busted up a few things, but nobody's gotten hurt so far. They'll probably just take whatever makes those stupid bubbles away from her, and make her do, like, a MILLION hours of Community Service, and have her make a Public Apology." Stacy paused and grinned viciously. "In front of her entire school."
"owch..." the Shift Chief winced, "Hard work AND teenage ridicule... You DO play hardball!"
"Hey, if she wanted to tangle with someone who'd play nice-nice, then she should have picked Mister Rogers as her arch-enemy."
"Okay," Jimenez put aside the kidding, "I've heard worse ideas from Downtown." He looked at the Shift Chief and said, "Just tell your guys to focus on keeping the bystanders safe. We can't just let her walk in and take it, but there's no sense in letting your guys get beat up, just to make it look good." He turned to Stacy. "So, you got any ideas when this 'Madcap' will make her play?"
"She said that it was going to be at Four O'clock," Stacy answered, "and I bet that you could set your watch by her. She wants the Press and as many spectators here as she can get for her little song-and-dance numbers; she'd rather open a vein than not be here when everybody's here waiting just for her."
The Shift Chief looked at his watch. "So, we got about ten minutes." He gave an annoyed growl and checked out the monitors. "Which explains the sudden upswing in attendance. I haven't seen this many high school age kids since Gwen Stefani was here in August." He let out another irked growl and said, "We don't have enough time to warn my guys; I'll just have to try and keep them on a leash via radio when it hits. Still, with some of the guys I've got, that's probably for the best." Then he paused and glared at one of the monitors. He pulled out his walkie-talkie and asked, "Farr, what IS that? Late arrival for the Power Storage symposium? Well, I don't have anything scheduled." Curious, Stacy peered over the Shift Chief's shoulder at the monitor. It showed several large crates carried on forklifts, stalled in one of the convention center corridors by the dense crowd. The chief looked over his shoulder at Stacy. "Does this Madcap chick have the resources to set something like that up?"
Stacy thought for a moment. "Nah. The only way that she could scare up the gas for that 'amazing escape' brainfart that she pulled at the University was that she probably stole it somehow. This is way beyond her. Besides, there are... three, four, five, six, seven of those crates. There are way too many of them for her to take that kind of effort. More likely, she just snuck in with the rest of the kids, and is changing into her clown suit somewhere. I could be wrong- hey, I'm not a cop, I'm just a kid who can do some really weird stuff- but I just don't see Madcap pulling that."
The Chief let out another annoyed growl and said, "Crap. That means that I gotta go and get this sorted out." With that, he trudged out with the air of a man who has to go mop up someone else's mess.
Jimenez looked at his watch and asked Stacy, "So, how long can you stay invisible?"
"Oh, hours," Stacy assured him. "I should be able to follow Madcap without that much problem. Well, okay, following her on the bus may be a pain in the butt, but I can do it."
Jimenez nodded, but then he leaned forward and asked in a low voice, "So... you know Captain Patriot?"
A few minutes later, Stacy had promised Jimenez that she'd talk to Captain Patriot about getting an autograph from Jimenez' son, Martin, and was levitating high above the hallway near the Power Storage symposium. Stacy had ducked in to check it out (along with a few hundred young people, which confused the hell out of the generally middle-aged people who the symposium was targeted for), and she was heartily underwhelmed by it. There was a distinct absence of techno-sexy on display. This symposium was strictly for engineers, and all the displays really assumed that you already knew what they were and what they were talking about; and if you didn't, then you didn't have any business being there.
And if the teenagers (including Stacy) peering into the symposium didn't know what to make of it, the same could be said (in Spades) about the engineers attending the symposium, regarding the teeners' interest. There was a long, really awkward silence between them, especially when Four O'clock proper rolled around, and the guest of dishonor hadn't shown up yet. This got very sticky, and silently, invisibly, Stacy was beginning to think that she maybe she shouldn't gave taken Rick Standish's word on this.
The tension was cut by a shrill whistle and a high nasal voice yelling, "HEY! Over HERE!" As one, the crowd looked maybe a hundred feet down the corridor, to where the Advanced Personal Mobility symposium was being held. Madcap, in her purple-and-green harlequin outfit, was leaning against one wall, a look of exasperated impatience showing through her domino mask. "WHAT are you doin' over THERE? I SAID, 'I'm giving it all it GOT', remember? And that whole thing that spelled out 'Accelerator'? Like in, Accelerator, the guy with the super-speed BOOTS?" She stuck out one of her feet, which were encased in a pair of gaudy red overbuilt boots with lots of techno-crack here and there.
"Accelerator?" one of the crowd that was there to see Madcap's latest antic asked out loud, "How the hell do you get 'accelerator' from 'XCLR'? We thought that you meant 'X-Calibur's omni-weapon'."
"Hah?" Madcap bleated. "Why woul- er," then she caught herself and changed her tactic. "ah-HAH! So, my cunning ruse WORKED! Of course, those boobs at SPECTRUM couldn't even figure THAT out, especially that bubbleheaded bimbo the Silver Ghost! HAH!"
'That's right, Madcap, yuk it up.' Stacy though to herself, 'But just wait until you run home with those stupid boo...' Stacy stopped short and paled under her invisibility as the penny dropped for her. Superspeed boots. There was NO WAY that she could keep up with a real speedster, even if she got her powers from some bogus power item! Let alone do it invisibly!
For a moment, Stacy wondered if Madcap wasn't smarter than she looked, and had foreseen this strategy and planned all of this just to rub Stacy's nose in it.
Nah. Madcap was an airhead, but she had an airhead's luck to go with it.
Oh well, there was nothing for it. She'd just have to go down and do this the hard way. So much for her wonderful, elegant, non-violent, non-endangering masterstroke of strategy. Still, it was Madcap... she could probably follow Madcap home just by following the wake of car accidents that she'd cause... Nah, gotta think like a superhero, and step up and do the right thing. Still, if Madcap would stand still long enough, bragging- and it looked like she was gonna do just that, waiting for someone to come along make with the big splashy fight that Cappy was really aiming for- Stacy could sneak up on her invisibly, and maybe get one or two of the power items away from her. Dang, she didn't have the Pharaoh's Ankh on her. Well, they'd get that back when they tossed Madcap's room. She probably had it hidden under her bed or something.
Staying invisible, Stacy floated over to behind Madcap and dropped behind her. Cappy was rambling on about something, what sounded like her latest 'Origin Story', something about getting her powers by answering some sort of existential riddle. There was some argle-bargle that sounded like Madcap was trying to pull the old 'riddle without an answer' gag; which was just Madcap all over.
As Madcap ranted, Stacy inched toward her target, and was just about to make her move, when there was a blinding flash of light from down the corridor. Stacy wasn't looking directly into that line of sight, so she wasn't blinded, but she was startled to the point that she dropped her invisibility. Looking down the corridor to where the blinding, glaring light was coming from, she saw the mysterious crates that the Shift Chief had been dealing with, open up with clangs, and large mechanical figures come out, made (if possible) even more sinister in the gloom of the glare. "Oh... Crap..."
Madcap reacted to the sound of Stacy's voice and said, "What? You? What are you... hey, how did you... hey, what are you gawping at?" Stacy silently took Madcap's head and turned her to see what was coming at them both. "Oh... Crap..." Madcap said, blanching.
"You can't come up with Anything on your own, can you?"
Stacy watched as the armored Knights of Purity arranged themselves in position. Then, clear as day, she heard George's voice in her head sneering, 'Jeez, look at you! They ain't even DONE nuthin', and there you are, snivelin' away like the little SISSY that you are! GAWD, I am so glad that you ain't any kin of mine!' With a jerk, Stacy snapped out of it. She pushed Madcap to the side and marched up to the lead Knight. "HEY! What do you bozos thing you're DOING? This is MY BUST!" She glowered up at the towering armored figure and waited for his response. He didn't even look down at her. She took the Special Deputization and Render All Assistance papers she'd been given and waved them in his face. "See? I've been deputized by the District Attorney to bring Madcap in. So, you're-" The Knight (the 'Short-Stop', to be precise, the Utility Man on the five-man squad) took the papers and tore them in two with a dismissive nonchalance.
As Stacy squealed in insulted outrage, the Knights exploded into action.
The 'Pitcher', the flight-and-long-range-attack-biased unit shed his power cable and 'airlifted' the 'Shortstop' (the guy who had just egregiously dissed Stacy) over to the far side of Madcap. The 'Runner', the rapid-ground-movement-biased unit did likewise with the 'Catcher', the spiderish-looking capture-bias unit. As soon as the Shortstop and the Catcher were in place, the Batter unlimbered his huge tetsubo-like 'bat', and charged at Stacy. Stacy, who was already silvered up, reflexively guarded herself and was batted back like a ball that was headed for the bleachers. The blow knocked Stacy past a bewildered Madcap, over to the Catcher, who used two of his robotic 'arms' to catch and redirect her into the room that the Shortstop was holding the double doors for. "HEY!" a still bewildered Madcap yelled, "She's MY arch-enemy! Get one of your own!" Then she screeched with panic when the Pitcher launched a few plasma bursts from above. They didn't hit her, but they were near enough to get her off balance, which was what the Knights wanted. The Runner ran into her with his shoulder, kicking in her protective sphere and knocking Madcap straight at the Batter, who was cocked and ready for her. The Batter hit her squarely, knocking her right at the Catcher, who pulled a replay of the move he'd pulled on Stacy, sending her right into the room. When Madcap was inside, the Shortstop close and barred one of the double doors, and then sent one of the KoP's anti-mutant gas grenades into the room. The Catcher hustled into the room as quickly as the cramped doorway would let him, and the Pitcher and the Runner assisted the Batter and 'Umpire' to the door as quickly as they could. When all the Knights were inside, the Shortstop closed the door behind him as best as the power cables would allow, keeping civilians out of the melee.
Stacy got a brief impression of a large room set up for a dinner or buffet, with long tables set with white tablecloths and semi-formal arrangements, and serving tables laden with trays of various foods. Stacy briefly wondered what sort of organization would have a lunch this late, or a dinner this early, but then Madcap came bouncing in (literally), followed closely by a gas grenade. Not recognizing it as a gas grenade, but still lot liking it when it started smoking, Stacy picked it up with her PK, and would have chucked it back out the door, but Madcap was ricocheting all over the place, and knocked the grenade out of her grasp.
So, despite Stacy's best efforts, the gas grenade filled the room with acrid gray smoke. To Stacy's surprise, she didn't seem to be affected by it. But Madcap wasn't so lucky (for once). She choked and wheezed, and waved the Star Scepter around vigorously, giving herself a little respite. The Knights started entering the room in staggered reinforcing bounds, with small soft-ball sized Tac-Ops drones preceding them. "JEEZ! Madcap wheezed, "What, you couldn't take me yourself, so you hadda call in the Nerds of Putridity?"
"Do NOT blame me for this, Madcap!" Stacy said as she scrambled for cover. "Besides being WAY beyond my allowance, calling in these guys is the last thing that I'd do! I think you pissed off H1! big-time, Cappy."
Madcap scootched up against one of the walls and started jabbing furiously, muttering, "C'mon, c'mon, c'MON!" In response, the gauntlet spat out first an angry line of electrical force that lashed out like a whip, then a beam of energy that touched a chair and pulled it away from its place at that table, and then lambent ball of energy that blossomed into web of force that entangled a table, and then a pulse of quivering air that struck another table and caused it to vibrate violently, making the plates and glasses and flatware and other setting dance jerkily. But for all that, the Knights finished entering in an orderly manner, tightened their formation and the Pitcher took to the air as best the ceiling would allow.
Then Madcap punched in another combination, and a howling funnel of whirling air emerged from the power talon, scattering the gas, and sending the tableware flying into the air. Stacy felt herself start to rise up off the ground, and had to latch onto the floor, and barely remembered to make sure of her cape before it was almost ripped off her back. The wind and flying silverware and crockery didn't really bother the Knights that much. It stymied them a bit, but the stuff just glanced off their armor. At least, that was the case with most of them. The wind forced the Runner to stand stock still, negating his big advantage, and the airborne Pitcher was thrown around mercilessly.
Stacy grinned to see someone else getting shafted by Madcap for a change. If anything, she might even be able to use this to her advantage. Concentrating, she reached out with her PK and 'steered' a large bowl full of potato salad (Stacy hated potato salad, she had no idea why people kept making the crap, or more to the point, why they expected her to eat it) right into the Pitcher's faceplate. As the Pitcher reacted to that, Stacy went invisible and snatched one of the Knights' Tac-Ops drone, crushed it ever-so-slightly (and then thought about it a little more and completely crushed the damned thing), and threw it as hard as she could at the Pitcher. She only hit him in the hip, but she hit him with enough force that the lost his balance, and landed on the floor with a nasty thud.
Okay, Stacy knew that air support was one of those tactical advantages that everybody always had their knickers in a twist about, so she jumped on this. Still invisible, she crawled over to the Pitcher and twisted off this sort of pivoting, knobby thing. She had no idea as to what it did, but she sort of assumed that it was stuck out that way for a reason, or they'd have it better protected. That done, she hurried over to one of the tables and picked up one of the dishes that hadn't gone flying, and threw it with gusto at the big, boxy Knight who didn't seem to be doing that much, just standing by the door. She regretted it the second that the dish hit: it was chocolate pudding. She liked chocolate pudding. What kind of dinner WAS this, anyway?
The Shortstop unlimbered the big-ass machine gun like they were all carrying, and fired up at the overhead lights, knocking out one, then another, and then all of the lights, sending the room into total darkness. Stacy wondered why the Knights would blind themselves, but then it came to her that they hadn't. Almost every suit of power armor working had some sort of sensor suite built into it. They'd arranged it so that Madcap would be firing blind, while they had full visibility.
Of course, blindly firing wildly about with no idea as to what or who she was shooting really WAS Madcap's default combat tactic, but apparently, the Knights didn't know that.
The vortex died, and Stacy heard Madcap say, "Gee, you guys must not be very bright! But this won't put a crimp on someone with my inimitable Flare-" And suddenly, the darkness was lit by a bright light- of a wide gout of flame that shot out from Madcap's power talon. From the blank look of shock on her face, Madcap wasn't expecting that. From the tone of her bad-old-movie quip, Cappy had probably thought that she was activating a flare of some sort. She gave out a loud 'YEEP!' and shook her wrist frantically, sending fire all over the place, and setting a couple of the tablecloths- and tables- on fire. Several tables and chairs caught fire, and then the Convention Center's fire alarm went off, and the overhead sprinklers kicked in. As the water splattered all around, it hit the 'Umpire' unit, sizzled, and sent up angry gusts of steam.
Like many people who try to put together a 'Batman' style utility belt, Stacy had run into question of 'am I overdoing it?' Apparently not, as she'd had serious second thoughts about the cold lightsticks that she'd brought along. She broke three of them, activating the luminescence and tossed one each to three different positions in the room, giving the area not enough light that the Knights would notice it, but just enough for her to have an idea as to what was going on.
The Knights were covering the Pitcher, who was trying to get aloft again, and not doing a very good job of it. Score one for Stacy. But as Madcap was frantically trying to get a particular sequence on the 'game glove' control for her Power Talon, Stacy got the distinct impression that the Knights had Cappy's number, and they were going down their list of tried and tested techniques for taking opponents like MC down. Crap! It was practically a rerun of that cluster fuck back at the H1! showroom! If Stacy didn't help Madcap get away from the Knights, then the KoP and H1! would try to use it to make Stacy look bad. And the fact that the Knights had tossed her in this room with Madcap didn't strike Stacy like they were planning anything nice for either of the girls.
Looking at the layout of the place, Stacy spotted something that might not only get both Madcap and her out from under, but the Knights couldn't hold against her. While the Pitcher and the Runner had both shed those long cables, the rest of the Knights still had their cables attached. From what Stacy had learned from Cal, power armor's Achilles Heel was always power supply. The Knights must use batteries, and try to stretch them out by hooking them up to some power supply with those cables. But the Batter's cable was strung out in a way that it wouldn't quite trip up the Runner when he moved next, but not by much. With her PK, Stacy quietly moved that cable so that that 'not by much' wasn't a factor anymore.
By this time, Madcap had finally gotten her power talon to stop flaming and aimed it at the Umpire unit, sending an energy net that entangled him completely. The Knights instantly reacted, but not as Stacy expected.
Instead of closing on Madcap, as one (with the exception of the Batter, who shielded the others), all the Knights turned to the Umpire unit and tried to chip him free of the ice. As planned, the Runner tripped over a cable, and Stacy took advantage of that to trip up the Shortstop as well. She used her PK to mess with the Shortstop's gear rack and sent his gas grenades rolling around the floor, which only made things harder for the rest of the Knights.
Then, suddenly, the Knights broke away from the Umpire. The Batter gave the Catcher big boost that threw him in the air to the other side of Madcap, with the Catcher using his 'mitt' arms to break his fall. The Pitcher and the Shortstop broke out their conventional firearms and aimed them at Madcap. The Runner zipped down the room as far as he could for a long start, and then came zooming back, roostertailing through the water on the floor, knocking into Madcap at absolute top speed.
Madcap went bouncing back, right into the mitt of the Catcher. The spider-like arms of the 'mitt' closed around Madcap, holding closely onto the 'walls' of her sphere, holding her tight, turning her protection into an effective prison. 'Oh crap,' Stacy thought to herself, 'Only Madcap could go and get herself caught in a way that screws ME over as much as it does her.'
But there was a large and glaring flaw in the Knights' trap: namely, while Madcap was suspended in the middle of her hamster-ball by her own power, her hands were free. And she was jabbing furiously at her power talon, audibly cursing the damn stupid thing out for not having easily understood directions. Personally, Stacy wondered why Madcap didn't simply switch over to using the Star Scepter, which while not as directly powerful, was still pretty dang nasty in its own right, and Madcap actually knew how to USE it. Not that Stacy had any intention of pointing that out to Madcap. After all, what sort of bozo tells their self-appointed arch-enemy how to be a better opponent?
Then Madcap got a sequence right, a sort of rippling effect lanced out of the talon and hit the Catcher square in its heavily armored torso. The Catcher rattled and buzzed and blurred for a bit. The Mitt loosened a bit and Madcap's ball disappeared, dropping her right in front of the dazed Catcher. "I, ah, MEANT to do that!"
Madcap then spun around, power talon stretched forward, looking for a target. Any target. For some train of logic known only to Madcap (if that term applies to her), she spotted Stacy and decided that the Silver Ghost was her next target. She let fly with a beam of white light. Stacy tried to block it with her hand, and, sunnuvagun, she actually managed to do it! The beam hit her mirror-effect, which did something to the light, and it exploded off of her hand in all different directions. The Knights, who'd been in the middle of one of their 'Teamwork, teamwork, that's what counts' maneuvers, blew it badly, and the Batter and the Catcher threw the Pitcher and Runner in very bad arcs, and the two suits didn't land well at all.
As the Knights tried to regroup, Madcap and Stacy shook the dots out of their eyes. Madcap got her wits together before Stacy did, and punched in something almost at random (which, admitted did tend to work a lot better for Madcap). A stream of pale gas shot out from the talon and sprayed over Stacy, freezing the water that was streaming over her PK shell and hardening it into a Silver Ghost-shaped ice sculpture. Madcap let out a glad gleep of realization, and sprayed the freezing stream over the Knights, freezing them and large stretches of the floor. "Wow!" Madcap jeered, "How Cool was THAT? Hah!" Then she looked around, and she realized that she, the Silver Ghost and the Knights were, for all practical purposes alone in that room. "Nuts! What'm I wasting my time here for then?"
Then the Silver Ghost broke out of her icy shell. And the ice that encased the Umpire unit melted away in a hissing shroud of steam. It finally entered Madcap's mind that this might be a good time to get, while the getting was good. "Okay! Engaging boots. Ready, set, g-OMIGAAAWWWDDD!!" Madcap rocketed along, barely in control of the movement. And that bare measure of control went out the window the second that she hit a patch of ice on the floor. She spun completely out of control, and only her protective sphere saved her from being splatted on the wall. She rebounded even more out of control than usual, ricocheting all over the room, knocking into both the Silver Ghost and the Knights of Purity, freeing the Knights from their ice, but knocking them around like bowling pins in a cement mixer.
When the chaos finally settled, Stacy dragged herself out of the wreckage and said in the voice of Patience Tried Beyond Bearing, "MADCAP... when the judge sentences you, I hope that he gives you a million hours of cleaning out toilets in public restrooms!"
"Hey, what's YOUR problem?" Madcap demanded, getting up in Stacy's face. Stacy just silently pointed over to side, where one of the Knights, the Runner, to be exact, and gotten on his mark, and jetted right at Madcap with mayhem clearly on his mind. Cappy let out a squeak, and pushed two buttons at once, creating one of those energy nets, which wrapped the runner up into a ball that sped past the two of them and crashed into a pile of tables and chairs. "HAH!" Madcap exulted, having finally figured out a combination. "Eat THIS!" she whipped around and fired a net at Stacy.
With stoic calm, Stacy deflected the net with a flick of her PK, sending the net into one of the Knight's Tac-Ops drones, bringing it down. Madcap paused, nonplussed at that. "Maybe... but can you stop THIS?" she whirled about and fired at net at the Catcher, who had gotten his bearings and was trudging their way with his mitt wide open to grab at least one of them. Or, she would have fired a net at the Catcher, if she'd hit those buttons right. Instead, a purplish beam lanced out and hit the Catcher square in the chest. It did nothing to the Catcher. But it pulled Madcap right off her feet, and yanked him right into the Catcher's mitt. The mitt's arms closed around Madcap again, and trapped her in her own bubble- again.
Stacy, hating the necessity and cursing her luck, decided that helping Madcap against the Knights was the lesser of two idiocies. Invisibly, using the sprinkling as cover, Stacy snucks up on the Catcher and she tried to remember how that bit with that energy gizmo that Danny had got her worked. With a little patience and concentration, she sent a massive jolt of electricity through the Catcher's massive backpack unit, which caused the arms of the mitt to spring open. Madcap, who had been fiddling with her power talon like mad, took a chance on one combination. A wide red beam lanced out and sliced off two of the Catcher's mitt-arms.
Even so, Madcap definitely decided that it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. This wasn't anything even vaguely resembling fun anymore. She'd kick in the Accelerator boots, scatter the Knights, and maybe even get out of there. She kicked in the Accelerator boots, but the rest of what passed for Madcap's plan didn't come off as expected. This time, the Knights seemed to be expecting it. Instead of being bowled over, they set themselves and knocked Madcap back, volleying her off the walls and ceilings, rebounding her to each other. At first it was a little catch-as-catch-can, but the Knights were getting better all the time, and they were getting better control of how she was bouncing. Finally, she was completely out of control of her bouncing, and the Knights seemed to have her totally under her control.
In an uncharacteristic flash of insight, it came to Madcap that they were deliberately smacking her sphere in ways that rattled her. When they got complete control of her sphere, they'd bumper-barrage her until she was dizzy, and then they'd have her! On pure reflex, Madcap played her trump card, and activated her mind crown while she still had the focus of mind to do it. A pulse of mental energy radiated out from her, and the Knights stopped dead in their tracks.
Madcap collected herself, and wobbling slightly, checked on the Knights. No reaction. Nothing. Woof! Madcap let out a sigh of relief and strutted over to the door. Then it occurred to her that the Silver Ghost wasn't anywhere to be seen. She must be frozen invisibly. Nuts! Madcap had hoped to snap a picture of the Silver Ghost just standing there, maybe with something embarrassing on her head or something. Oh well, at least she'd get a photo op on the other side of the door!
She squeezed past the Umpire, who was guarding the one door that hadn't been blown off its hinges by that hurricane that she'd sicced on them, into the corridor beyond. And, sure enough, well down the hallway, kept back by the rent-a-pigs, there were her fans and the cops and the News crews and EVERYTHING! Okay, one killer sound-byte coming up! Madcap turned around and had her mouth open, all ready to deliver this absolutely classic nasty parting line, when she was cut off by "YOINK!" and someone snatched something from her forehead.
"Wha?" Madcap looked up into the smirking liquid-silver face of the Silver Ghost, who had her tiara in her hand, and was squatting on the head of the Umpire Knight guy. TIARA? Madcap frantically felt at her forehead... no tiara! "HEY! That's MINE! Give it BACK!"
"I think that the Gnostisophists might argue with you about that one. God knows, they argue about everything else... And while we're on the subject, the University of Ohio wants this back, too." The Silver Ghost reached down, grabbed the Star Scepter with a grip like a bulldozer (if bulldozers had grips) and pulled it out of Madcap's hand. Putting the mind crown on her own head, the Silver Ghost yelled, "Hey! Jimenez! Catch!" with that, she threw the star scepter to the big chunky cop in front with uncanny accuracy. He caught it with one hand and nodded back approvingly.
"HEY!" Madcap yelped, "That's m- hey, how'd you DO that?"
"Like THIS-" the Silver Ghost reached down, grabbed Madcap by her blouse and hauled her up off the ground. Over Madcap's loud and shrill objections, the Silver Ghost turned her upside down, and grabbed her by the ankle.
"HEY!" Madcap shrieked, "What're you DOING?"
"The Foot Locker™ called, and you're three weeks behind on your payments, so-" the Silver Ghost started undoing the buckles on the securing straps on that boot. Stacy ignored Madcap's frantic insults (and kicks) and got the boot off, tossing it to the ground. "Okay, Cappy, we can do this-"
The Silver Ghost's crack was cut off by the thundering roar of a gunshot. The Silver Ghost pitched forward, knocked dazed but not unconscious as the large round was mostly- but only mostly-deflected by her silver PK sheath. Stacy was on the ground, her silver down, trying to get her head back together, as three of the Knights of Purity forced their way past the Umpire and dog-piled on top of her.
Madcap didn't understand wtf was going on with this, but even she wasn't airheaded enough to not see a primo opportunity to escape when it walked up and smacked her in the chops with a wet mackerel. While the Knights concentrated on keeping the Silver Ghost down, Madcap used that tractor beam setting to haul the Accelerator boot that the Silver Ghost had ripped off back over to her and pulled it on. She clicked on the buckles, powered the boots up and she all ready for a nitro-boosted shot of outtahere!
Then a scrawny lookin' blonde boy in some kind of nerd suit managed to break past the security guard detail holding the crowd back, and yelled, "Madcap! Hold it!"
His voice rang a bell for Madcap. Forgetting that she had urgent escape business to take care of, Madcap searched her memory and came up with the kid who'd given her so much grief at the Humanity First!© showroom. "What? YOU? Wadda you want, Poindexter?"
"Madcap, don't turn on those boots, or you'll really fuck yourself up!"
"Hah!" Madcap scoffed, "Sorry to bust yer bubble bubby, but my bubble don't bust!"
"No, THINK about it, Madcap," Spencer urged her, "In order to achieve those kinds of velocity, those boots have to exert thousands of pounds of force. BUT they apply them directly to your FEET. Which are only kept on your body by those pipe cleaner legs of yours. HOW can your legs keep those boots from literally ripping your legs off at the hip?"
"Huh? Look, I already used these and-"
"AND, how do you steer with those things? With that much force being applied, each boot should go off in its own direction, tearing you in two, like a wishbone!"
"And how do you RUN?" Spence kept at her. "I mean, if the boots are supplying constant forward momentum, how do your legs move back and forth?"
"Yeah, how DO I?" Madcap started.
"And every time you do move your legs, or even nudge your foot a little, you'd alter the direction of all that thrust, even if it didn't pull your legs off like a fly, do be constantly going off in all different directions. And you already do that more than enough, all on your own," he finished with a smirk.
"HEY, what d'you think-"
"BUT, since those boots seem to be controlled by some mental impulse, all that you really have to do is NOT THINK ABOUT STARTING THE SHOES," he said with a vicious grin.
"Don't think about starting the shoes," Madcap muttered to herself, concentrating furiously. "Don't think about starting the shoes, Don't think about starting the shoes... just take one step at a time and wa-AAAWWWKK!!!" One of the boots activated on its own and dragged Madcap off her pins setting her bouncing around the corridor. Madcap shrieked in panic and tried frantically to get control of the boots, but only succeeded in binging around the hallway uncontrollably. As she bounced around, she plowed into the pile of Knights of Purity who were keeping the Silver Ghost down.
Once she had the leverage (or at least thought she did), Stacy managed to shed the last of the Knights and got to her feet. Then she heard a shrill yawp coming in her direction, and turned around just in time to see Madcap coming straight at her at 100 mph. On pure reflex, Stacy brought up a hand and stopped Madcap. She used her PK to interface with Madcap's protective sphere, and used her own power to stop the runaway airhead, but to all appearances, it looked like Stacy simply stopped Madcap with her hand. Holding Madcap by her sphere, Stacy asked, "What are you up to NOW, Madcap?"
"HAAAALLLPPP!!" Madcap screeched, "The Boots! I can't control them! I'm totally out of control and bouncing off the waaalllllss!!"
"And this is different from usual exactly HOW?" Stacy asked dryly.
"You gotta HELP ME!"
"Madcap," Stacy groaned, "Did it ever occur to you to just... take the stupid boots off?"
"Oh!" Madcap peeped, suddenly calm. "Yeah, I guess I could do that, but then I'd-"
"Oh, for the luvva pete..." Stacy grumbled. "Lemme at those clodhoppers." She pressed her other hand on the curve of the ball and pushed inwards.
"Hey, howcome you can't just reach in, like you did with the crown and the scepter?" Madcap asked. "And how could you DO that, in the first place?"
"Do you really expect me to tell you that, so you can figure a way around it?" Stacy responded, not taking her focus away from the sphere.
"Yeah! You HAVE to!"
"I dunno! 'Cause it's a RULE, that's why!"
"Since ALWAYS! In the comics, the hero always tells the villain how he got out of his deathtrap and undid his deathray and stuff like that!" Madcap insisted.
"That's just so the readers will know how he did it," Stacy shot back as the sphere started to give way. "But there's invisible audience here who needs to have it explained, so you'll just have to figure it out for yourself. That should keep you busy for the next ten-to-twenty years... Now shut up, and get ready for your big De-Boot!"
"'Big De-Boot'," Madcap grumped, "Very funny, veh-ree funneee... yeep!" Madcap first 'eeped' as the Shortstop of the Knights jumped the Silver Ghost from behind, toppling them. Then she let out an 'Ack!' as she went bouncing again, and finally she started screeching again as one of the boots kicked in again, dragging her down the hall. She banked off walls three times and went bowling through a wall of spectators that couldn't quite manage to part quickly enough.
Stacy watched open-mouthed in dismay as Madcap disappeared through the crowd. She let out a low-pitched whine of pure annoyance and slumped, even as the Shortstop grappled her. Then she felt something on her chest. The Shortstop had the arms of his suit wrapped around her arms, but there were these kind of hatches under the arm pits. His real arms were sticking out of them, and they were wrapped around her chest- and groping her boobs.
Stacy felt a flush of pure anger and shrieked, "You PERVERT!" Reacting on pure reflex and rage, she reached up, grabbed the armor by its head and threw it to the ground at her feet. It landed with a crunch. But the Shortstop hurried to get to his feet. Stacy beat him to the punch and lifted him up like a small dog, and threw him against the nearest wall, cracking both paint and the sheetrock under the paint. She repeated this a couple of times, and then slammed him down into the floor. On some inner tuition, she reached under the bottom of the shell that covered the unit's back and lifted it up as a hatch.
Despite both the hard shell of the exoskeleton and his padded inner suit, the Shortstop pilot was still pretty groggy. But when he saw Stacy reach in to pull him out of the frame, he managed a, "oh crap."
She pulled him free of the frame with a snarl, and tore off his helmet. She cocked her fist to smash him in the face, when she heard the sound of guns being chambered, and a harsh amplified voice barked, "Put him down, FREAK! You're going DOWN!" Strangely, it occurred to Stacy that if they were going to shoot her anyway, then putting this asshole down so they could shoot her would be the last thing that she should do.
Stacy had lost a lot of her reflex fear of guns; being mostly bulletproof will do that to you. But those guns looked very large caliber, and anything that these guys carried as backups for those power frames had to be nasty. She could tell that they were downright eager to start blasting her. And besides the damage to herself, gunfire that large could do some serious damage to bystanders, even at this range. But surrendering wasn't really an option; everyone knew that the KoP and the MCO were tight buds. Being handed to the MCO was just below having a root canal done and right above disemboweling herself on her list of 'Things to NOT do today'.
Stacy was standing there, wondering what to do, since dropping the guy would give the Knights their opening to fire, while holding onto him would look like she was using him as a hostage. Then Sgt. Jimenez stormed up between Stacy and the Knights. "What the HELL do you bozos think you're doing? You let the perp get away!"
"Get out of our line of fire!" the Umpire blared through his loudspeaker. "You're interfering with a Knights of Purity operation!"
Jimenez favored the Umpire with look askance. "'Knights of Purity operation'?" he echoed. "Look, Hoss, I don't know who you think you ARE, but you have NO AUTHORITY to arrest anyone, especially that young lady over there."
"I SAID, this is a Knights of Purity operation! Remove yourself NOW!" The Umpire barked again.
Jimenez squared his position and looked the Ump in what he took to be the man's eye. "Look JACK, let's get a few things straight, okay? First, I am a Cincinnati POLICE OFFICER." He tapped his badge significantly. "YOU, on the other hand, are a hired gun in a power suit. This badge beats that armor. Period."
"We HAVE a valid contract for this!" the Ump insisted.
"No, y'don't," Jimenez stated definitively. "If you had a contract with the Convention Center, you'd have checked in with Dean over there," he jerked a thumb in the Security Shift Chief's direction.
"Our contract is with the Cincinnati chapter of Humanity First!©" the Umpire stated.
"That's NICE," Jimenez said dismissively, "but H1! doesn't have the Authority to hire you clowns." The Knights turned their guns on Jimenez menacingly. Jimenez scowled at them, unbowed. "Are you idiot seriously threatening a Cincinnati Police Officer in the commission of his duty? 'Cause those things fire at least a 7.62x51mm NATO round, which makes them MilSpec, which means that you cowboys have just kicked this up to a Class C felony at the very least." The Umpire had the others lower their weapons, but he raised one arm, as though to push Jimenez aside. "Before you DO that, there are a few things you ought to know. FIRST, that young lady is operating with the direct authorization of the District Attorney's office. You got squat. You interfered with a duly deputized officer of the Law in the commission of her duty, and allowed a super-powered felon to escape."
"Her? Deputized? Yeah, RIGHT!" the Umpire snorted.
"I called it IN, Hotshot," Jimenez fired back. "Second, I called this in the second that you clowns showed up. SWAT and the Power Suit Squad are on their way, and loaded for Godzilla. SPECTRUM has been alerted, and I've been informed that Captain Patriot, Red Thunder, Azure and the Green Witch have all responded that they're en route. You guys may be tough, but Captain Patriot can break you out of those rigs like cracking open a walnut. And don't get me started on what the Green Witch could do to you." The Umpire started and started to reach for Jimenez. "And THIRD, that's a military grade rig you're flying; you even touch me with that thing, and you're assaulting a police officer in the course of his duty with a deadly weapon." He smiled nastily. "Go ahead. Touch Me. My oldest wants to go to Harvard." He leaned in and snarled, "And if you're dumb enough to actually shoot me, then you'd better pray that SPECTRUM gets here before SWAT does, 'cause if SWAT gets here first, you'll be lucky if live long enough to get Hard Time for Life!"
The Umpire stepped back, and as one, the Knights of Purity stepped down.
While Stacy was embarrassed to admit it, even to herself, she discovered that she'd rather thought that Night Court would have been like it was on the old TV show. It wasn't. It very pointedly wasn't. Seeing TV's idea of 'gritty realism' on the tube was one thing, sitting on hard seats that were sticky for hours was another. Keeping her, well, maybe not Secret Identity, but maybe her low profile, required that Stacy keep her silver skin up, and after a few hours, it was getting tiring! And there was this one really creepy guy who seemed to be really amused by the fact that a 'big time superheroine' was intimidated by him. Actually, Stacy was just grossed out by him, but she could hardly tell him that, not in open court.
At 9:24, the case with the Knights and Stacy was called. The KoP's lawyer immediately ripped into Stacy, trying to shift all the blame for everything onto her. Burt Larribee, SPECTRUM's lawyer fought him tooth and nail over all that for the better part of an hour. Judge Wardell, the man at the bench, sat through this without showing much of anything, and let the two lawyers yap at each other. Then he banged his gavel, and asked to see Stacy privately in his chambers.
The judges 'chambers' were more like a small cramped office with way too many books. The judge took off his robe, and he looked like just another guy, more like an overworked school principal than anything. He sat behind his desk and looked at Stacy with studied curiosity. Stacy got the impression that he was trying to make up his mind about her. Then he said dryly, "I thought that your deal with the District Attorney's office specified NO SUPERHEROING."
"Yeah. It did," Stacy said simply. Then picking up on what he was implying, she added, "But this is a special circumstance, and I got permission from the DA's office and everything."
"Oh?" Wardell arched one eyebrow in a way that reminded Stacy far too much of her old elementary school principal. "WHY was it so special?"
Stacy flustered, and said, "Well... well, Madcap sort of made it my business when she started that whole 'arch-enemy' cr- er, business. Well, between her and that Rick Standish guy, they got it set up so I'm at fault if I don't stop Madcap. And, yeah, Madcap's just stealing junk kicking up a lot of dust NOW, but she's getting more and more powerful. Don't ask me how. She's gonna want bigger and bigger fights. If SPECTRUM or some real superheroes fight her, she'll get even worse! Eventually, she's gonna do some real damage, or hurt somebody or maybe even KILL someone! I don't think that she realizes what she's playing with. If I don't take on Madcap, she'll just keep upping the ante, trying to get me to play her game, until something horrible happens. I can't let that happen."
Wardell looked at her measuringly. "You didn't play into her game at the University of Ohio. What's different now?"
"That was before she stole the-" the Pharaoh's Ankh. "-Crimson Claw's power talon. Before, she was just annoying. Now, she's fu- freaking dangerous. SWAT and SPECTRUM are adults; they'll treat her with kid gloves, 'cause she's a kid. Me? I know how to handle her, and I know that it's in my best interests to keep it safe and on the down-low."
"And what about that incident with Dr. Diabolik a few months ago?"
"Well, that wasn't really superheroing..." Stacy fudged. "I mean, Captain Patriot did all the real fighting. All I really did was, was, y'know, like cheerleading?" she mimed waving some pom-poms. "I mean, like, everyone was just standing around like statues! Even C- er, the Golden Knight! If there had been anyone else, I'da let them handle it!"
Wardell quirked a half-smile and nodded. "And what were your plans for dealing with Madcap, before the Knights of Purity stuck their noses in?"
Stacy spelled out both the plan that she went in with, and the one that she was working on the fly. "And I ran it past Red Thunder and Azure, 'cause they're real good with the tactics and strategy stuff, just to be sure. Well, at least the first part."
The Judge's face went blank again. "And what next? Once you've captured Madcap, or at least notified her parents that they have a supervillain in their family, what then?"
Stacy blanked. "Hah?"
"Will you go into Crime Fighting, when you get older?" the judge clarified his question for her.
"Hey, I dunno! Maybe, maybe not. I mean, just 'cause I have these powers, doesn't automatically mean that I'd make a good crimefighter! I don't know a lot about it, but I DO know that there's a lot more to being a crimefighter than having a costume and an attitude! This is some very complicated sh- er, Stuff we're talking about!"
"It's about time that someone with those powers got that," the judge chuckled.
Then Stacy had the sick fear that the Judge knew about that Whateley place, and he might order her to go there, and take their superheroing course, or go to jail! "Besides, I'm only 15!" Actually, she was still only 14, but it never hurt to confuse that sort of thing. Besides, she might get her driver's permit a year early this way! "I don't know what I'm gonna do with my life yet! He-heck, I don't even have plans for Christmas!"
Judge Wardell nodded. "Well, that's enough. I've made my decision."
When the court was reconvened, Judge Wardell called the lawyers involved before his bench. "Despite the truly impressive handwaving and legal sleight of hand that both counsels have presented, I find that there is one single material issue involved in this case. Namely, that the Knights of Purity had NO STANDING, whatsoever in his matter. As Sergeant-" the judge checked the report- "Jimenez so aptly put it, 'H1! doesn't have the authority to hire you clowns'. Humanity First does not have the authority to hire mercenaries- and don't tell me that they're Security Guards, that's an insult to my intelligence- and the Knights of Purity do NOT have a license to operate in Cincinnati. And even IF the Knights could be considered as Security Personnel, Humanity First didn't have the right to send them into the Aldwin Technologies Energy Storage symposium, as Humanity First had no corporate interest in that symposium. And even if they HAD, the Knights would have been subordinate to the Convention Center's security force, and even then only have had jurisdiction within the room where the symposium was being held, until directly asked by the Convention Center's security chief. And I only mention those aspects to clear them from discussion, since as I said at the beginning, the Knights of Purity had NO STANDING.
"Aggravating this is the Knight's rather cavalier treatment of both the Silver Ghost and her writ. Unlike the Knights, the Silver Ghost DID have standing in the matter; as a matter of fact, she still has standing, as Madcap is still at large, due primarily to interference from the *ahem!* Knights of Purity. Gentlemen, the Silver Ghost had been specially deputized for the express purpose of capturing the person known as 'Madcap'; for all legal purposes, she was- IS- a duly authorized DA's Special Investigator with Police Powers. And the Knights of Purity not only dismissed her writ, but physically attacked her. They are, de jure, guilty of Attacking a Police Officer in the Course of her Duty, which is a Class E FELONY, which is compounded by the use of Military grade weaponry, including Power Armor, which automatically increases the offense to Class B.
"However, there are mitigating circumstances," the judge allowed grudgingly. "The council for the defense is quite right in that it would be a bit much to expect special troops in the field to accept a note from a minor in the field as proof of legal authority. BUT, the Defense's arguments that the Knights believed that the Silver Ghost was there in cahoots with Madcap do not convince. No, the Knights of Purity's relationship with the local chapter of Humanity First!© suggests that a political agenda was being pursued when the Knights dragged the Silver Ghost into that room with Madcap. Since nothing came of that maneuver, what that agenda might BE remains moot. Furthermore, the Defense's argument that the Silver Ghost was not the best party to be so deputized may be a valid point for debate, but NOT in the field, by armed private contractors!"
"But, Your Honor," the Knights' lawyer argued, "doesn't the fact that the Knights could do so prove that they are better qualified to capture Madcap?"
"Counselor," the Judge rumbled dangerously, "by that logic, a mugger proves that he's better suited to be the custodian of the money when he beats up an old lady for her purse. Also, the Knights HAD their chance to capture Madcap, and not only blew it, but their interference prevented the Silver Ghost from capturing her. The Knights had their opportunity to alert the convention center security chief and they did NOT. So, your argument has no standing."
"But your honor, the Silver Ghost was clearly out of control! Look at what you did to Mr. Jenkowicz!" he indicated the Shortstop, who suffered massive bruises on his face, and his arm was in a sling.
Judge Wardell gave the Shortstop a sour look that said, 'That's what you get for groping young girls, asshole', but said, "You're right, Counselor. While the Silver Ghost was massively provoked, she did use excessive force in repulsing him. Silver Ghost? Please Stand."
"Yes, Your Honor?" Stacy stood.
"You used excessive force in dealing with Mr. Jenkowicz. I'm afraid that I'm going to have to formally reprimand you. You're Formally Reprimanded. You can sit down now."
Not being completely clear on court procedure, but picking up that she was being cut a massive break, Stacy said, "I understand Your Honor. I apologize, and it won't happen again." Then she sat down.
The assembled Knights grumbled peevishly among themselves, but their lawyer stepped forward and said, "Your Honor, I'm afraid that you're going to have to excuse yourself from this case, step down and bring in another, uninfluenced, judge to oversee this case."
"Excuse me?" Wardell said frostily, arching one eyebrow imperiously.
"Your Honor, I believe that the preferential treatment that you just showed to the Silver Ghost clearly demonstrates that she exerted some form of subtle but overwhelming influence on you while you two were alone in your chambers. This interpretation is supported by the unwarranted preference shown to her by SPECTRUM and the Cincinnati District Attorney's office. Clearly, the Silver Ghost is exerting some form of subtle mind control. She has to be turned over to the Mutant Commission Office to be studied, so that you, the District Attorney and SPECTRUM can be freed from her mental domination. Your Honor, if your clerk would-"
Judge Wardell tried to say something, but the Knights' lawyer just kept talking over him. Finally, Wardell banged his gavel furiously and shouted, "BAILIFF! GAG!" The Bailiff came in with the gag. The Knights started to object, which caused the Bailiff to call in several more bailiffs to enforce order in the courtroom. It took three of them to do it, but instead of just showing the gag, which was usual, the judge ordered it physically inserted into the Knights' lawyer's mouth. "Now that I can get a word in edgewise, let's get a few things understood: what you're proposing is called a 'Mephisto Intervention'. There are criteria that have to be met when you play the Mephisto Invention card. There are three material criteria and at least three out of eight persuasive criteria that have to be met. The key criteria are that the suspect must be proven to possess some agency of unnaturally influencing others, that there is some opportunity to apply that agency, and that the person suspected of being so influenced acts against either the Law, in clear and unreasonable bias towards the suspected influencer, or against their own best interests. There is NO evidence, whatsoever, that the Silver Ghost has any such power. There was, admittedly, opportunity. So the kicker is whether my findings in this case are either out of character or against the Law. Carver, go get Judge Fry, over in Courtroom 113, and beg her indulgence for a few moments."
A few, very tense, minutes later, a hefty African American woman in judge's robes came in and conferred with Wardell. Then she leaned over into the microphone and said, "For the record, I find nothing in Judge Wardell's decision so far that is either against the Law, in clear or unreasonable bias towards the Silver Ghost, or is very much out of character for Judge Wardell. I find no reason, whatsoever, to institute a Mephisto Intervention." She shot the Knights' lawyer a nasty look and left with a 'you wasted my time with THIS?' air. Stacy didn't know what a 'Mephisto Intervention' was, and she didn't know anything about the politics of the Cincinnati Municipal courts, but she had a distinct impression that the Knights' lawyer had pulled a major power move, which hadn't gone off as planned for some reason. But she did know that pulling a move like that on a judge, any judge, just because he made a decision that you didn't like, was hideously dangerous, even at the Night Court stage. Even through the gag, Stacy could tell that the Knights' lawyer was going 'oh_shit' to himself.
Wardell rapped his gavel and gave the Knights' lawyer a nasty smirk. "Bailiff, remove the gag. Counselor, we WILL have words, you and I, after court, and you can try to persuade me to not send you to jail for a month on Contempt charges. Even so, a letter about this WILL be sent to the ABA, count on it!
Wardell let out a brisk breath. "Still, regarding your clients. There ARE the mitigating circumstances of the Silver Ghost's low credibility at the time, and the fact that they were acting as agents of the Knights of Purity, Inc.©, who were in turn acting as contractors for the Cincinnati chapter of Humanity First! I am dismissing the charges against the defendants, but levying a $100,000 fine against the Knights of Purity, Inc.©, and instructing the District Attorney to begin proceedings against the local chapter of Humanity First! on this matter. But gentlemen," he fixed the Knights with a steely gaze, "know that I'm issuing an order that if there's a repeat of this, that the case will be automatically shunted over to my courtroom, where I am already preparing a very LARGE book to throw at you! Your firm makes a lot of noises about how professional you all are; yet, the Silver Ghost, who is only FIFTEEN, was the one who came up with the safe, non-confrontational tactic for dealing with Madcap." He left, 'why didn't YOU?' left unsaid but clearly understood.
"Well, people, this has been a stimulating change from the usual DUIs, domestic violence, prostitution and drug offenses that we usually see here. Let's not make it a habit."
At breakfast the next morning, Lauren told Stacy that she'd covered for her by telling Spence that Miz Wickham had called before the two of them had gotten to the convention center, and ordered her home, not wanting a repeat of what happened at H1!'s showroom. Karen agreed that unreasonable parents or guardians were always good excuses for abrupt exits, at least at the high school level. "In retrospect," Karen admitted, "if you were a normal young girl under my care, that's probably exactly what I would have done. Well, finish up, Stacy, we have a lot to do this morning!"
"Like what?" Stacy asked, confused.
"Like the debriefing you're going to give SPECTRUM! If the rest of us ever run into Madcap, we've got to know what you did that did and didn't work!"
"Yeah, yeah," Tawny interrupted Stacy's rather jumbled presentation, "That's nice, but what I want to know is HOW DID YOU PULL THAT OFF?"
"What?" Stacy honked, "I thought that it was obvious! I knew that Spencer Chase had somehow taken the Dark Madonna's amulet away from Madcap at the H1! Showcase, so he was able to get at Madcap without triggering her force field somehow. So either has some special power that let him get past it, or something that he did- or didn't do- didn't trigger the force field. Since I haven't seen anything like a super power from Spence, I figured that he just accidentally did something right, that no one else did. So I studied the security footage from the H1! Showroom, and I noticed that when he took the amulet from her," she reached her hand forward, "he didn't grab it quickly, he just took it from her. Slowly. So, I figured that since the shield kicked in even when Madcap didn't see an attack coming, that she didn't really control it, it just kicked in on its own. Since Spence got past her by doing it slowly, I figured that the shield reacted to SPEED."
"Like the Holtzmann personal defense shields in Dune," Cal said, musingly.
"Ahhh... Yeah," Stacy had NO IDEA what a 'Holtzmann personal defense shield' was, but decided to let it pass. "Anyway, I figgered that I could sneak my way past it. And it worked. I got the Mind Crown and the Star Scepter way from her. I'm gonna ask the DA if I can use the Star Scepter as bait for the next time I go up against Madcap."
"Ah, that's NICE, Sweetie," Tawny said snidely, "but that's not what I want to know. What I want to know is: HOW DID YOU GET PAST WARDELL?"
"Everybody knows that Wardell hates superheroes!" Tawny snapped. "I've lost count of the times that that man has busted my chops in court!"
"What?" Stacy bleated, "But he was very reasonable with me!" she paused, "And what's a 'Mephisto Intervention', anyway, and why did they think that I'd done something to Judge Wardell?"
"Stacy, we live in a world where there are dozens of paranormal ways of influencing people," Violet explained. "Coercive telepathy, hypnosis, magical glamours, subsonic messaging, subliminal images, pheromones, bioelectric stimulations, the list goes on and on. The name 'Mephisto Intervention' comes from an old-time supervillain who had a reputation for using hypnotism as a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. It's a measure for when people think that judges, policemen, politicians and other officials are under some sort of exotic external control. If someone pulls a Mephisto Intervention on an official, they're temporarily suspended from office until they can be gotten out from whatever control they're under."
"So... the Knights of Purity's lawyer thought that I'd hypnotized Judge Wardell in his office?"
"At least that's what he claimed," Blue Streak posed. "Still, as you saw, there are some very strict controls on when someone can call a Mephisto Intervention; you've got to have very credible reasons for one. Otherwise, wiseasses would just call them every time an elected official did anything they didn't like."
"Believe me," Captain Patriot said, "Judges- heck, all officials, HATE Mephisto Interventions. They undermine your credibility something fierce! The damned things are great ways of derailing careers, and better ways of making enemies."
"So, fess up, Squirt!" Tawny demanded, "How'd you get Wardell wrapped around your little finger?"
"I didn't do ANYTHING!" Stacy insisted, "I just talked to him in his office, and he was very reasonable!"
Captain Patriot let out a hearty guffaw. "Lorna, Wardell doesn't hate superheroes! He just can't stand people who abuse their power! Super power, political power, legal power, media influence, money, whatever, he can't STAND that! He started off as a beat cop who went to Law School went he got tired of all the clout-trading. Which is probably why he's been stuck in Night Court for nine years."
"WHAT?" Tawny demanded, "But what about what Wardell did to Goldstar?"
"Lorna, Goldstar was a goon," Blue Streak said with a sneer. "Wardell did us a favor when he sent him to jail for three years." He turned to Stacy, "There are people who really shouldn't be superheroes, and Goldstar was a textbook example."
"But Wardell is always giving me a hard time in court!" Tawny insisted.
"That's because you're always arguing the law with him!"
"You argue with a JUDGE?" Stacy asked incredulously, "About the LAW? In his own COURT?" Tawny just scowled at Stacy.
"Lorna," Captain Patriot resumed, "Stacy didn't do anything! She just did the right things, and Wardell gave her a clean bill for it! But that KoP mouthpiece was expecting us to pull something, because Wardell does have a reputation for being hard on superheroes. When Wardell gave Stacy a clean bill of health, he figured that he had a pretext to hand Stacy over to the MCO, undermine both the DA and us as 'mutant stooges', and set the KoP up as Cincy's new super-squad." Cap smiled nastily. "It didn't work out the way he planned."
Red Thunder gave Cap a sneak look of respect. "Did, ah, you arrange for that, Cap?"
"Naawwttt quite..." Captain Patriot waggled his hand. "I knew that eventually someone would try to get Stacy in court on something, and they'd probably try to get her into Wardell's court, just because he does have a rep for being hard on capes. First impressions being important, I figured that it would be best if Wardell met Stacy in a case where she was completely in the right, and she'd done everything right, and I pulled a few strings to get her case heard in his court. So, now Wardell's met her, and I think he's gotten a good first impression. And, more to the point, Stacy now not only has a reputation for being clean with the toughest judge in Ohio, but the possibility that she has some kind of mind-altering powers has been raised- AND SHOT DOWN. Better, the Knights of Purity have also made their debut in Cincinnati, made a very BAD first impression, and they now have a reputation for making rash accusations and trying to bully judges." Cap smiled broadly. "DAMN, I wish that I'd planned that."
"Okay, WHY didn't you get in touch with the Convention Center security?" the man asked sternly, leaning casually against the desk in the office. "I mean, come ON, that's SOP, especially in a new town!"
"It was a communications screwup," the Knight-Commander of the lance that had taken the Madcap strike stated firmly. "The Shift Chief wasn't taking calls when our people tried to alert him. We were in transit and inserting ourselves, so we didn't get the call-back that Security hadn't been contacted. We went in assuming that Security would back us up."
The man nodded. While there was a certain family resemblance with his more famous brother, Herb Goodkind didn't have the aristocratic lines that Bruce did. He was more fleshy-faced, less sharp. But still, it made him look more human, more approachable. And he lacked that stern hauteur that gave impressionists their ammunition when they mocked the Goodkinds. Herb Goodkind cultivated a more 'everyman' image. He was far more likely to have informal meets like this than many of his family. "Okay, what about that 'Mind Crown' thing that froze you in your tracks?"
"We had shields," the Knight-Commander said firmly. "But they didn't work on however that thing operates. BUT, that's not a factor anymore. The target doesn't have that asset anymore."
"Yeah, unfortunately, the Silver Ghost did that. Y'know, the little girl that you groped?" he shot a glare at Jenkowicz.
"I was trying to provoke a violent reaction," Jenkowicz replied through his bruises. "I GOT one."
"Yeah, but you got caught, so she got to beat the crap out of you on TV and get away with it," Goodkind pointed out. He rubbed his eyes and sighed deeply. "Okay, I hate to do it, you did the best job that could be expected under the circumstance, but I'm going to transfer Lance D to another office. You guys can't afford to go to court in Cincinnati for a while.
"Now the rest of you guys, I know that we've made a bad beginning in Cincinnati, but the first battle doesn't decide the war. We've got to be on our top game here, guys. I know that you're pissed, but you've got to be frosty the next time that you go after either Madcap OR the Silver Ghost. Professionalism, That's what we're selling here, guys. PROFESSIONALISM."
He looked at them, got annoyed and barked, "Hey, don't give me that 'humoring the boss' crap! I'm not just saying this to hear my gums flap! I know that you've heard it before, but if I've learned anything, it's that there's nothing like remembering the basics when the going gets tough. Remember WHY we're doing all of this in the first place.
"Guys, this is NOT just another job. Humanity First! isn't just another contract. Cincinnati is important. The reason that we haven't focused on getting a charter in Cincinnati before, is that up to now SPECTRUM has had a very commonsensical Pro-Baseline orientation. Now, this Silver Ghost comes along, and suddenly SPECTRUM's putting up 'Mutant Education' displays in their community access storefront. You don't need glasses to read the writing on the wall. Maybe the Silver Ghost has some kind of mind control powers. Maybe it's just because she's CUTE, and she has that 'everybody's kid sister' thing going on. Doesn't matter. The point is that the Silver Ghost is DANGEROUS, and she's got to be stopped.
"People, I'm sure that you've heard the joke that during an Election Year, the Midwest is 'the Heartland', but for the other three years, it's just 'Flyover Country'. That's a mistake. That's an arrogance that we are NOT going to buy into. There's a reason that they call this 'the Heartland'. That's because, not matter what the Intellectual Elites in New York and Los Angeles like to think, THIS is where America makes up its mind. And while New York and Los Angeles might sneer that Cincinnati is a bugfuck burg, the fact of the matter is that it is the Cultural and Political hub of this area. What happens in Cincinnati MATTERS. Cincinnati is one of twelve key cities that we can NOT LOSE to Anti-Baseline sentiment! If Ohio goes down, it'll affect how people in Iowa and Kentucky look at mutants. Our job, and the jobs of people in the MCO and Humanity First!, people who are doing DAMN good jobs, will get exponentially harder. We've got to stop that before it happens. I hate to do it, but we've got to replace SPECTRUM, and get Cincinnati back on track! The Silver Ghost is the key to that.
"Yeah, I know, it's hard. She looks harmless. She inspires people to help and protect her. Just remember that that's a LIE. Jenkowicz? Get over here. Guys, LOOK at Jenkowicz. Look at his face. She did that to him through power armor. But the real threat is that cuteness, that false appearance of vulnerability. That's the thing that makes average, everyday people think that maybe mutants aren't the monsters that everybody here knows they are.
"And that's why I need you to be frosty. I need for you to be on your A-Game. To be ready to fix that bad impression that we made yesterday, and prove that the Knights of Purity are a responsible, professional Crisis Intervention service. So that we can be here to deal with it, when thatÂ cute cuddly little Silver Ghost goes PSYCHO and starts ripping people apart!"
First thing out of bed, Stacy began her new series of exercises. She exercised furiously for a good 15 minutes, and she was rewarded when her left testicle rose back up into her body. She worked hard for another ten minutes, and she was sure that her right ball was about to follow suit, but she couldn't quite get it to do it. She pulled her nightgown up and checked with a hand mirror, but really, how could she be sure? Yes, the left one had definitely tucked itself back in her abdomen, but was the right one really closer, or was it all in her mind? But then again, she wasn't really sure if she was doing it with her muscles or her mind or what. Yes, she could tuck them back in with her hand, but she figured that doing it just with her muscles or power or whatever might speed up what was happening with her. Her nuts were the size of peanuts, and her dick was even smaller than it had been before she started changing. But they were still there. Stacy knew that she had a real good thing going on. Way better'n she really deserved. But she also knew that it would dry up and blow away if anyone found out that she was really Stanley. She had nightmares where she was naked in front of everyone, and them seeing her junk and getting all disgusted by it and screaming 'YOU LIED TO ME!' and it got really nasty after that.
Damn, she was trying too hard. She relaxed, cleared her mind, and decided to give it one last token effort before calling it quits for the morning. She was rewarded by the unmistakable sensation of the remaining testicle slipping up out of sight. 'YES!' she exulted silently, and checked her nether regions again. Well, her penis, such as it was, was still dangling in plain sight, but Mr. Happy's Luggage was nowhere to be seen. She tucked her wiener back, slipped on her panties, and enjoyed a far better, more comfortable fit. Stacy cooed and finished getting dressed. Waking up in that hospital bed after that sonic thingie had scrambled her head at the H1! gallery had been a close call for her. If anyone had undressed her, the cat would have been so far out of the bag that even Blue Streak wouldn't have been able to catch it.
Stacy dressed in a seasonally correct white turtleneck sweater, brown-grey-green tweed skirt, heavy stockings that matched her sweater, and some penny loafers. It was getting late in the year, and while it wasn't snowing yet, it was getting pretty brisk out there. Stacy didn't feel the cold the way that she used to, but there was no sense in showing that off. It was chilly, so she dressed warmly, like everyone else; after all, she didn't feel the heat that badly, either. That done, she made her way down the back stairs, keeping a careful eye out for the Wickhams.
Apparently, the Wickhams had certain traditions, which were rigidly enforced, no matter how little any of the participants enjoyed them. One of those traditions was periodic family dinners, where the head of the family (Karen) was able to keep tabs on what various parties were up to, and occasionally lay down the law. There were smaller dinners throughout the year, mostly with the Wickhams living in the Tri-State area attending, one or two of those who lived in other parts of the country dropping in as business required. Thanksgiving dinner was the big one, the yearly meeting of the Clan. And this year, the Wickhams had shown up in force, and they were filling up the place. The competition for rooms in the family manor was fierce, as most of them were too cheap to shell out the money for decent hotel rooms, and Stacy was going to have to share her room with one of the teenage Wickhams who was flying in. Stacy had the distinct impression that while she had a lot to be thankful for this year, she'd really be grateful when they all went HOME.
Stacy made her way down to the kitchen, avoiding the usual dining room, which was full of Wickhams in full 'pack of wolves' mode. Stacy had a fleeting imagination of Lauren's mother throwing in a bleeding deer, and them ripping it apart. While the big dinner wasn't until tomorrow, the kitchen was in the first stages of preparing the feast. Besides three freshly killed carcasses of the tradition-mandated birds (not even frozen ones, but freshly butchered!), there were also a freshly killed goose, a freshly dressed deer (!), a large ham hock, a side of beef, several racks of lamb, tubs of live salmon, trout and bass, buckets of clams and oysters, buckets of shrimp in ice and tubs of live lobsters in the kitchen walk-in freezer. Crates of various fruits and vegetables were stacked besides the meat, and the more involved preparations were already on the stoves. And a note from a bakery, stuck on the corkboard, informed them that the breads, rolls, and pastries would be finished three hours before the scheduled beginning of the feast, and besides the near legally-mandated pumpkin pies, there would be apple, peach, cherry, banana, mincemeat and lemon meringue, all also freshly made, as well. Mrs. Copely, Lauren's mother, said smugly, "Waiting for the last minute and raiding the supermarkets is an amateur's mistake. We have holiday arrangements with butchers, greengrocers, and bakeries that go back over a hundred years!"
Stacy said hello to Ms. Seabury, who was eating a bland bowl of oatmeal (all that her stomach could handle at the moment), set aside a few of the trays that were littering the table and helped herself to a large, if comparatively restrained, breakfast. "So, where will we be eating, while the big feed is going on?"
"What do you mean 'we', Paleface?" Lauren replied snidely. "According to the seating chart, you're eatin' with the RICH FOLKS! But I'm not jealous," she continued in a bad working-class English accent, "we knows our place, don't we, Mum? And we're ever so grateful for our pittances, truly we are..." she finished off with a Dickensian whine and woebegone expression. Lauren's mother swatted her with a towel.
"You're... joshing me, right?" Stacy whispered, near panicked. "I'm not going to have to eat with... THEM...?"
"You're going to be seated right next to Herself," Mrs. Copley said as she readied another tray to be taken out to the sideboard.
"Wow," Seabury said wryly, "suddenly yet another meal of oatmeal doesn't seem that bad..."
Stacy let out a little whimper. Then she mused, "I wonder what Azure is doing for Thanksgiving?"
"I don't know," Karen said as she walked into the kitchen. "We in SPECTRUM make a point of not knowing too much about each other's private lives; what we don't know, we can't accidentally let slip, that sort of thing. Why?"
"Do I Have to eat Thanksgiving with... them?" Stacy wilted a bit and her eyes went wide and pathetic. "They scare me."
"Well, for the love of God, don't let them know that," Karen said. "Even after all these years, their first reflex is to go for the throat!" Karen paused and said in a flat voice, "That was a joke, Stacy." Then she sighed, "No, Stacy, you don't have to, but it would cause some problems if you didn't, and I'd really appreciate it if I had at least ONE person at the table who I actually liked."
Stacy hunched over, scrunched up her face and gave out a low cat-like moan, but she gave in. It was the least that she could do, what with all that Miz Wickham had done for her. Lauren let out an amused snort. "So much for the fiendish mind-enslaving powers of the dreaded Silver Ghost!" she paused and lowered her voice intensely. "Unless... that's what she really WANTED all along! And we've played right into the hands of the malevolent mutant mistress of mental manipulation!" Her mother bounced a crouton off her head.
Miz Wickham gave out another long sigh and said, "Stacy, I hate to do this to you, especially right after you've been so reasonable." She let out yet another sigh and ground out, "We've settled on your roommate for the next two nights."
"Who?" Stacy asked suspiciously.
"Her name is Giselle Dearborn. She's one of the Grosse Pointe Dearborns, who've been connected with the Wickham family since the 1890s. Her mother is a niece or cousin, depending on how you read the genealogy, and a direct Wickham, God help the little bitch."
"What's the matter with her?" Stacy asked.
"Oh, there's nothing wrong with her," Karen assured her. "As a matter of fact, she's just what the doctor ordered." Under her breath, she added, "A real pill." Karen resumed in her normal tone, "The problem is that there was some... competition... to get their daughter in that room with you."
Stacy chewed on that for a second. "WHY... would they want their kid to be in MY room so much?"
"That WAS a question that gave me much pause," Karen admitted as she helped herself to a cup of coffee.
Stacy mulled that over for a moment. Then she decided that she didn't have any idea what was going on, the Wickhams were simply too slick for her, and she'd probably find out when it was too late. But, one way or another, she'd have to deal with it. Deciding that thinking about stuff like that would spoil her breakfast, Stacy picked up the morning Cincinnati Enquirer, one of the local newspapers, and flipped through it for items about her. Normally for Stacy reading about herself as an exercise in masochism, as she tended to look very hard to find negative interpretations of what they wrote. But for the past few days, she'd really enjoyed reading the paper and listening to the radio; the incident with the Knights of Purity goon groping her had turned into a local meme. The editorial cartoonists for both the Enquirer and the Post had jumped on it, and she heard that the local stand-up comedians (both professional and amateur) were having a field day with it. Even Rick Standish was cutting her some slack, if only so he could focus his vitriol on the 'Knights of Prurience'. Stacy knew that it would blow over in a week or so, but in the mean time, it was good to see someone she really didn't like on the dirty end of the stick. There was a nice editorial cartoon poking fun at the Knights, which gave Stacy a good laugh. Then her face went pale and stricken, her eyes went wide and she gave a flinch that unwittingly ripped the paper in two.
"Stacy!" Karen gasped at this uncharacteristic behavior, "What's wrong?"
"I don't believe it," Stacy gasped. "Somehow, this guy found out about my plan... And he wrote it all in the paper!" She held up the part of the paper that she'd been reading.
Lauren took the scrap and read it. "Weeelll... Maybe Madcap won't hear about this. I mean, I don't really get a very 'editorial reading' vibe from Madcap. I think the funnies are more her speed, and maybe the astrology column if she really wants to know what's going on."
"It doesn't matter," Stacy droned. "Rick Standish will hear about it, and he's sure to rip it apart on his show. And we know that Madcap listens to Rick Standish." She planted her face on the table and let out a low moan of misery.
"Well..." Lauren hedged, "at least Bernard K. Nixon, the editorial writer, thought it was a good idea..."
Karen sighed heavily. "Well, I wish that I could tell you that at least this is the last time that you'll feel this frustrated, but I sincerely doubt that. Okay, an admittedly very nice tactic has been flushed down the tubes. That just means that you've got the opportunity to find an even BETTER gambit that will really catch Madcap by surprise!" Karen paused and wilted slightly. "And WHY do I sound so much like my own mother when I say that?"
Giselle's name may have been Dearborn, but she was a Wickham, through and through. From the get-go, she made it perfectly clear that as far as she was concerned, that this was HER room, and she was putting up with Stacy bunking there for a few nights. And Stacy was very glad that they weren't the same sizes, 'cause she got the distinct impression that if they were, she'd have major gaps in her wardrobe when it was over. But what was worst was the nagging impression that Giselle was pushing her buttons, so she'd figure out how Stacy would react to things.
She was being studied.
By a Wickham.
That could NOT be good.
Stacy decided that in this case discretion was the better part of valor. Which was easier said than done, because Giselle seemed to be real interested in getting close to Stacy. She kept following Stacy around, trying... something, Stacy wasn't sure. Finally, Stacy had to resort to going invisible when she had the opening, and flew up from the garden, and around to the window to her room. Stacy got an hour or so of relaxing, reading one of the Princess Diaries books. Then it occurred to her that she was wasting precious time when she could be doing her groin exercises. Having Giselle there put a real crimp on doing weird things with your hips. She was halfway through her exercises, and she'd gotten one ball to rise up, when there was a knock at the door. Stacy froze and went invisible, almost reflexively. She waited for someone to call from behind the door. The door opened a crack and Giselle stuck her head in. She looked around the room and came in, with her attention squarely fixed on Stacy's dresser. Stacy stood still in mid-squat and watched as Giselle passed her. Giselle went through Stacy's dresser with brutal efficiency, tearing all of her nice, orderly neatly folded underthings around and making a complete mess of one drawer after another.
Then Giselle gave up on that and searched the entire room, all but tearing the place apart. She looked through the bed, under the rug, in back of the dresser, under the seats on the chaise lounge, and tore the closet apart. After the better part of a half-hour, Giselle gave up and plopped down on the lounge in a huff. She sort of growled to herself without saying anything. She sulked there for a moment. Then you could almost see the cartoon light bulb appear over her head.
Giselle strolled over to her bags and found her school bag. She rummaged around in it and pulled out a Chemistry book. She opened the book up, but the last one-quarter of the book was pasted together to form a secret cache. She pulled the three pages that were glued together to form the 'lid' of the cache from the rest, reached in and pulled out a foil packet. Giselle went into Stacy's bathroom and got a bottle of talcum powder out of the medicine cabinet. She unwrapped the foil packet, revealing a fine white powder. She put about a third of the powder onto the porcelain top of the water tank, and liberally twice that amount of talcum powder into it. She put that into one of the layers of foil, and wrapped it into a nice tight packet, like she'd had to begin with. Then she took a dab of the powder still in the remaining pack and rubbed it into her gums.
Giselle wrapped up the remaining packet and tucked it away. Then she walked back into the bedroom, looking around. "Okay," she asked herself aloud, "where would a simpering little putz like Stacy put something?" She nosed around for a bit and settled on a frosted glass tissue paper dispenser. She flattened out the bogus foil packet, opened up the box, and took out the toilet paper. She put the packet in, covered it with paper and put the lid back in. "There!" Giselle put the box back where it was, and stepped back to admire her handiwork. "I wonder whether Aunt Karen will have little miss wonder-tits thrown in jail, put her in detox, or just throw the stupid little bimbo back out on the street, where she belongs?" With that, she let out a glad sigh of a job well done, rubbed at her gums again and strolled out the door.
When Stacy was sure that Giselle was well away from the room, she dropped her invisibility and looked around the room. "That SLOB didn't even bother to pick up after herself!" she said aloud, and aghast. Stacy picked up the tissue paper box and looked in it. Well, she might be a hick from Oakwood, Ohio, but even she had seen enough TV to know what this was.
Then again, this was one of the Wickhams that she was talking about; it might be some weird, mind-fuck game that Giselle was playing on her. Like maybe she was trying to get Stacy to try and turn it around on her, and claim that she'd planted drugs on her, when it was only peppermint powder or something. Hey, the Wickhams were bigtime badass mind-game players; anything was possible. She had to be sure. She opened up the foil and was about to stick her tongue in the powder, to be sure, like they did on TV. But it hit her that that was TV; they got it wrong all the time! Sometimes, they even did it wrong on purpose, so people trying it in real life would screw up, like when they showed how burglars did things. Besides, now that she thought about it, she had no idea what cocaine or heroin tasted like.
So, she did what every modern kid did in such a situation: she went online. She pulled out her cellphone, accessed the net, and googled in: 'what does cocaine taste like?' According to Ask.com, cocaine didn't really have a taste. It did have a bitter aftertaste, but what they were really doing in those scenes, was that cocaine is a very effective local anesthetic, which why dentists used it; what the testers were doing was looking for the tingle of the tips of their tongues going numb. There were a lot of conflicting opintions about the taste of heroin, but Stacy doubted that Giselle was THAT hard-core. Stacy tested a dab, and was rewarded (if that's the word) by a slight tingling on her tongue and a mild bitter aftertaste. Stacy wondered if cocaine would affect her now, what with her mutant metabolism and all. Then she wondered if painkillers affected her at all. Then she worried that the next time she went to the dentist, she might have to sit through all that drilling with NO NOVOCAIN! Then she wondered if her mutant powers now meant that she'd never get cavities again, which was a GOOD thought! Then she realized that she was standing there, woolgathering, with a bunch of Illegal Drugs in her hands!
So, it wasn't some big complex subtle ploy. Giselle really did try to pull a stupid, 'gee, it worked on TV' game like this. OR, maybe Giselle simply didn't give a rat's ass whether it worked or not. Her parents probably put her up to this, and she couldn't be bothered to come up with anything clever, because she wasn't really getting anything out of it. Which struck Stacy as being FAR more like the Wickhams that she'd come to know.
Stacy flushed the packet of cut cocaine down the toilet. Then she remembered the packet that Giselle had put back in her book, and she flushed that. Then, she got an idea...
Stacy walked back into the house and told Mrs. Duff, the housekeeper, that she was back, and asked when dinner would be served. Mrs. Duff told her that it would be a little over an hour, but if she had any sense at all, she'd spend that hour or so up in her room. The Wickhams were riled up about something, and it wasn't just that they were peckish. Stacy saw the sense in this and made her way straight forth to her room.
Once safely in her room, Stacy looked around at the mess her room was in. Really! Born girls simply didn't appreciate what they had! Giselle was pretty, healthy, rich and she was getting the best schooling that money could buy. And what did she do? She just slobbed around and left a mess everywhere!
Stacy was in the middle of getting the mess up from the floor when the door burst open and Giselle shouted melodramatically, "STOP!"
"Excuse me?" Stacy bleated, pausing in her tidying.
Giselle stormed into the room, with her parents and Karen Wickham in tow. "I managed to stop her before she managed to get rid of it!"
"You don't get rid of a mess," Stacy corrected her, "you simply clean it up. And it's YOUR mess, so I don't see why you're making such a big fuss about it."
"That's not what I'm talking about, you freak, and you know it!" Giselle pushed her way past Stacy. She sashayed over to the nightstand and grabbed the tissue paper dispenser. "I just went for something to clean up my makeup and I found THIS!" she pulled the top off the dispenser, there was a *bang!* and a puff of smoke erupted from the box, followed by multicolored streamers, and a rain of confetti and foil stars.
Stacy broke out in giggles, but managed to get control of herself and said in a deadpan voice, "I'm not cleaning that up."
"What? How?" Giselle gawped.
"Oh Please!" Stacy sneered. "You made a huge mess, looking around the place! Did you honestly think that I wouldn't figure out that you'd tossed the room, looking for something? And you left that mess on the toilet tank, when you cut the drugs, and you didn't even bother to clean THAT up! How stupid do you think I am? I'd have to be braindead to not see this old groaner chugging down the tracks!"
"But... but what happened to the drugs?" Giselle bleated, looking at the empty dispenser.
"Oh, I flushed those. Along with the rest of your stash that I found."
"WHAT?" Giselle screeched, "Do you know how much that stuff COSTS?" she skittered over to her bags, tore the Chemistry book out of the pile and opened it up- to find the foil packet, still there. "hah?"
"Giselle?" her father roared, "What IS this? You told me that you were clean!"
As Giselle and her parents thrashed out her possession of a couple of hundred dollars worth of cocaine, Stacy leaned over to Karen and muttered, "I wonder whether they're more pissed at her for doing drugs, or where she got the money to pay for the drugs, or that she pulled a lame gag like this."
Karen nodded. "God knows, they don't seem to care that she mutilated one of her school books to make that stashbox." She let out a sigh. "Okay, I'll move her into another room and get one of the others in here."
"Why?" Stacy asked. "So that the next one can take a pot shot at me? At least Giselle will be too embarrassed to try another stunt."
"There IS that," Karen allowed. "You're learning, God have mercy on us all." She paused and gave Stacy a look. "How did you set this up?"
"Oh, I caught her stashing the junk. I was invisible at the time, and I didn't want to play her game by her rules. So, I snuck out, found a joke shop, bought that trap, snuck back in and set it."
"You found a joke shop? How did you find a joke shop that was open on Thanksgiving?"
"Simple! I googled it!" Stacy held up her smart phone and typed in 'Cincinnati, joke shop, open Thanksgiving'. She quickly got the reply, 'Fagan's Follies. Jokes, Pranks, Costumes, Magic Tricks, Open on Thanksgiving'."
"There's a joke shop that's open on Thanksgiving?"
"That's what I asked. Mr. Fagan said that he actually does a very good business on Thanksgiving. He does a surprisingly better business in practical jokes on Thanksgiving than he does on Halloween. Though, when you think about how some people act on Thanksgiving, maybe it's not so surprising."
Karen snuck Stacy an amused look. "So? What else did you get?"
"Lessee... some really convincing plastic corn on the cob, a couple of dribble glasses, some plastic pats of butter, a fly in a plastic ice cube, and some rubber biscuits that look just like the ones that Mrs. Copely has warming in the kitchen."
"Dibs on one of the dribble glasses and the fly-in-the-cube. And see if you can sneak one of those rubber biscuits into the basket at the very last; Gary and Leah always insist on fighting over the very last biscuit."
Give them their due, the Dearbornes actually were upset that Giselle was doing drugs. Especially after all they money they spent on sending her to rehab!
Part of the Wickham tradition for Thanksgiving was that they dressed for dinner. That is, they dressed up nice for dinner. Stacy thought that it sounded like they ate in the nude the rest of the time. When the time came she dressed in a nice dark blue dress with a lace collar, and she thought that she looked very sweet. But when she walked into the drawing room to join the Wickhams just before heading in for the big feed, they all looked at her like she was decked out like a punker, with a green Mohawk and tatty fishnet stockings. Stacy's telepathy didn't tell her what they where so honked off about, just that they were pissed at her. Like she needed telepathy to know that!
Karen came in, followed by a maid with a tray of drinks. "Well, the cook tells me that everything's almost ready, so we'll have a few rounds before going in." She settled herself on one of the chairs and asked, "So, Ransom, how are the Bengals doing this year? Any opinions as to this year's Thanksgiving Classic games?"
She smiled into the silence, but her smile faded as the glazed over tension and resentment made themselves known. "Oh, for the love of God! What's got your collective knickers in a twist THIS TIME?"
"Aunt Karen," one of them, a rather severe looking woman in a tweedy suit with her roan-red hair up in a bun and a drastic case of what Stacy was starting to recognize as the 'Wickham Nose', rose (not bothering to put down her cocktail) "HOW can you expect us to just sit there and calmy eat while you've practically bankrupted the family? It's bad enough that you're snatching away the very food that we eat from our mouths-"
"But it's right in the kitchen-"
"And giving it to some doll-faced little fortune hunter?"
"What ARE you talking about, Muriel?"
"IF you felt the need to play Lady Bountiful why didn't you just donate a fraction of that to the Ohio Heritage Committee?"
"Oh, put a sock in it, Muriel!" snapped a hefty man with some serious jowls, "that bunch of namby-pamby hens doesn't matter! I'm getting frozen out on the Ashcroft Groves development project, because they think our funds are all tied up in a trust fund that you gave HER!" he jabbed an angry finger at Stacy.
"Ethan, it's your turn- what ARE you talking about?" Karen drawled wearily.
"It's all over town that you've settled FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS on that weedy little gold-digger! I called Milford at the Bank, and he didn't want to talk about it, but I managed to weasel out of him that a 30 Million dollar trust fund had been established at his bank for Miss Stacy K Conrad, and that YOU were involved in it up to your eyebrows! And she recently tapped into that money to pay for some sort of expensive play-toy!"
"Why not?" Karen asked blandly. "It's HER money. And it was only a few hundred dollars, to pay for a motor scooter-"
"That is WICKHAM MONEY that you're throwing around, woman!" Ethan thundered. "The terms of the Wickham Legacy are very specific! That money is ONLY supposed to go to someone of Wickham blood! Or are you saying that she's Halford's long-lost grand-daughter?"
Another Wickham piped up," I researched every Stacy Conrad in the Tri-State area, and none of them, not ONE of them, looks anything LIKE her!"
"I know that you loathe the Wickhams," another woman kicked in, "but at LEAST you could have donated that money to the Cheviot Friends of Friends Foundation!"
"WHAT? That's for PETS! The Dry Cleaning plant needs a serious upgrade to deal with the recent 'Green Laws'! Our Budget-"
"SCREW your budget!" another woman shrilled, "My Son Channing is going to HARVARD, and if I have to get an injunction to get that money BACK, so be it! Hell, I'll get a shrink in here, and put you in the looney bin that you've been ducking for years, if that's what it takes!"
The drawing room exploded in a storm of threats, recriminations, warnings, insults, pleading, whining and two women who tried to dominate the proceedings through sheer volume. Even the Wickham children and teenagers, who must have seen the adults at 'play' before were taken aback by the sheer naked intensity of the malice. Karen tried to interject some calm and sanity into the situation, but the volume kept rising and rising, and the fervor of the fighting almost grew to the point of hysteria.
Finally, Karen lost her temper and silenced them all with a shout of "QUIET!" that sort of reminded Stacy of a lion tamer keeping the big cats in line. The Wickhams all fell stony silent. A few of them tried to speak up, but Karen shot them down with icy glares. Once she had the room firmly back under control, Karen said, "I had HOPED that we'd get through this meal with a minimum of unpleasantness. So much for that. Very well, since any hope for decorum is pretty much shot to Hell, let's get down to brass tacks, so we might just be able to put this behind us quickly enough that it won't completely ruin the dinner.
"You people have some strange ideas as regards the Wickham Legacy. That's because the Legacy is none of your business. So, every so often, I have to remind you lot of a few things:
"FIRST, the Wickham Legacy is NOT Wickham money. The Wickham Legacy and the Wickham Family Trust are two completely separate financial entities. The Wickham Family Trust is worth roughly 47 million, in funds, bonds, stock, property and other investments; the Wickham Legacy, on the other hand, is worth over 323 million dollars. I will allow that this is confusing, as I've used Legacy money to help the Family Trust prosper. However, I only do that because Grandmother Belinda, on her deathbead, asked me to help you lot. And that is the ONLY reason why I do so. Well, that and the fact that I have nightmares about what you creeps would do, if you were really hard up for money.
"Second, the Wickham Legacy is MINE. Period. As in 'Not Yours'. It was bequeathed to me by Grandmother Belinda in toto. You have NO SAY, whatsoever, in the way that I handle the Wickham Legacy. How I spend that money or handle the investments is strictly MY BUSINESS.
'Third, none of you are going to inherit any part of the Wickham Legacy. Ever. No matter how pathetically you beg and whine, or what kind of lawyers you throw at it. You see, the Wickham Legacy is an entailment scheme going back six generations. But it's an entailment with a very specific end point, which is the seventh generation. Which is ME. When I die- or if I'm rendered non compos mentis for any reason-" she shot a sharp eye at the woman who'd threatened her with being committed, "-then the term of the entailment lapses, and the Legacy reverts to a party that is eagerly awaiting it. And by 'The Legacy', I mean EVERYTHING. The money, the accounts, the investments, the businesses, the properties, the collectables, the works of art, this house- All Of It- just goes away. *pffitt!* Gone! And since the funding of the Legacy is so intertangled with that of the Wickham Family Trust, it's most likely that the withdrawal of the funds will ruin the Trust. And NO, the recieving party won't care. I could arrange for more money to be transferred from the Legacy to the Trust, but I won't."
"Because I've read too many Agatha Christie books to trust that no one in THIS family won't get strange ideas about oblique ways of delivering poison, or changing the appearance of the time of death or something cloak-and-dagger like that! No, I want you needing me ALIVE, thank you very much!
"Fourth, the money that you all seem to regard as yours is Stacy's. And when I say 'Stacy's', I don't mean that it's no longer your money. No, I mean that it is Stacy's money, and it was never Wickham money. Not Wickham Family Trust money, not Wickham Legacy money; not Wickham money at all. I never moved any money into that account. We have absolutely NO claim to any of it."
The Wickhams cast bewildered looks at Stacy and you could see a few of them starting to phrase questions, which Karen didn't wait to hear. "And Fifth, there's a reason why you couldn't find out who Stacy is. There are official reasons why, that don't really involve Family Services. My Guardianship of Stacy is part of a very... complex... deal. And her trust fund is a part of that as well. I don't suggest that you try to find out much more; it would be... awkward..." Feeling all eyes on her, Stacy sat primly and tried to look enigmatic. "And, please keep in mind that this is not for general discussion. There might be nasty repercussions if it did." Karen narrowed her eyes at them all. "For EVERYONE."
There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then one of the men, Karen's 'nephew' (more likely cousin) Ken, asked, "So... who's handling that trust fund?"
Stacy and Karen were saved when Ken broke his spiel by taking a drink, which for some strange reason dribbled all over his front. Before anyone could move in to replace him, the dinner bell rang.
"Where did you PUT it all?" Lauren groaned the next morning at breakfast.
"I dunno," Stacy admitted as she ladled some eggs onto her plate. "I have noticed that I burn a lot more food'n I used to. Then again, kids are always hungry-"
"You put away adult-sized servings of turkey, ham, beef, goose AND venison!"
"Well, I never had deer meat before!"
"AND trout and shrimp and crab, and you killed two lobsters, all by yourself! And now you're helping yourself to a full breakfast!"
"Well, I've been burning energy, running around invisibly, trying to avoid Wickhams who want to get their fingers into that trust fund." Stacy shuddered, "I thought the Wickhams were scary when they just saw me as an intruder... but that's nothing compared to Wickhams trying to be pleasant!" she made a 'creeped out' face and loudly shuddered.
Mrs. Copely smirked and said, "Well, there's one good thing about having a human vacuum cleaner at the table: this year we might actually get some of the good stuff to the soup kitchens."
"Hunh? How does that figure?"
"Usually, the Wickhams are so cheap that they insist on taking the good stuff home with them," Mrs. Copely explained. "But last night, the Wickhams were so busy trying to keep up with you last night that they overate so much, and so they're not thinking about the leftovers this morning. So, maybe now the less fortunate in Cincinnati will get something better than leftover turkey for a change."
"Very good," Miz Seabury said from where she was eating.
"And how did that slice of pumpkin pie you tried last night go down?" Mrs. Copely asked solicitously.
"Smooth as silk," Seabury said with relish. "And, more importantly, it stayed down. Which is why I'm risking THIS," she hefted up a fork full of scrambled eggs.
"You're that happy to be eating eggs?" Lauren asked aghast. "MAN, Lady Jettatura screwed you over big time!"
"As the lion said to the chicken, 'I knew the job was dangerous when I took it'. I just didn't know that the job would track me down twelve years after the fact and make my life hell..."
"Have any of the cures that other mages have been sending in doing you any good?" Stacy asked.
"It's been... interesting..." Seabury admitted. "The real problem being that magical cures are even worse than mundane ones for weird side effects. And you gotta wait until the last attempt completely cycles out of your system before trying a new one. Kids, no matter what computer RPG games tell you, you can NOT just chug down one potion after another and not expect some serious repercussions." She cut that line of thought off with a mouthful of eggs, swallowed that and pointedly changed the subject. "So, any luck in tracking down Madcap?"
Stacy let out a high wattage grin that would have had most healthy 15-year-old boys sitting up and begging like beagles. "Luck? I have Madcap PEGGED!"
"And that's my plan," Stacy wrapped up her presentation to the members of SPECTRUM in their briefing room. "I based my plan on the idea that Madcap will somehow get the civilians mixed up in it, and protecting the people that do get mixed up. Or caught up, or whatever. Of course, I WILL try to keep that from happening, and keep it real simple, going with 'Plan A'. But, just in case it goes screwy- and with Madcap involved, that's WAY too possible- I've got Plans B, C and D ready, with Cincinatti SWAT and Power Suit Squad coming in as Plan D."
"How does SWAT feel about this?" Red Thunder asked.
"They're not exactly thrilled by the idea, but the SWAT honcho agrees that while Madcap was only annoying at the beginning, she's getting actively dangerous. They don't want to look like they aren't doing anything, but they don't wanna go on TV beating on a teenage girl either, so they agree that this is the best way of handling it."
"Very good," Captain Patriot said approvingly. "Politicians and Officials who look good on the news have a much better chance of keeping their jobs, so always offer the Cops and Politicos a chance to shine. It doesn't mean that they won't turn on you in a second," he said in a weary voice, "but at least they won't go out of their way to trip you up."
"Oh, I don't know about that," said a clear baritone from the doorway. "I got great press, and they still threw the book at me!" Stacy turned, and spotted a new superhero standing in the doorway of the briefing room. He could have been a feature in 'Super Scene' magazine for 'the well-equipped superhero'; his suit was almost half power armor, with gold reflective hard-plate over an energy absorbing black mesh bodysuit. His fully enclosing gold helmet had a black visor, and was obviously bristling with sensors and Tac-Ops AR, his overbuilt gauntlets were also packed with some sort of gear, and his chestplate was overbuilt in the back, suggesting some sort of flight gear.
As he strutted over to the table, Tawny greeted him with, "GOLDSTAR!"
Goldstar took off his helmet, revealing a long, lean handsome face with an aristocratic nose and slightly longish dark hair. He smiled at Tawny and said, "Hey, Tawnster! You still single?"
"I thought that you still had two more years to do," Cal grumbled, making no effort to conceal his hostility. Stacy didn't think that Cal would be so petty as to hold the 'gold' thing against this 'Goldstar' guy, but-
then it clicked for her: 'Goldstar'; Blue Streak had mentioned this 'Goldstar' guy as a textbook example of someone who shouldn't be a superhero, and called him a goon. Stacy couldn't see why a goon would want to be a superhero, which was all about helping people, but then she didn't get the whole 'goon' mentality in the first place.
"I got released," Goldstar said, taking a seat without being offered one. "There was a big escape attempt, and, well, if not for me, there would have been a lot more supergoons suddenly on the street."
"I don't remember anything about a riot at the State Super-Pen," Violet said.
"It didn't get very far," Goldstar smirked. "Thanks to ME." Then he kited a brief glance at Stacy, standing beside the monitor. "We're having 'Show and Tell?'"
Cal cleared his throat in annoyance. "Silver, this is Goldstar. He used to be a member of SPECTRUM."
"'Used to be'? I don't recall ever being asked to leave."
"That was sort of a given," Red Thunder rumbled, "Given your conviction for Felony Mayhem and Mass Reckless Endangerment."
"I don't recall anything in the charter about any expulsion protocols," Tawny pointed out.
"Goldstar," Cal resumed with a sigh, "This is the Silver Ghost. She's-"
"Yeah, yeah, I heard," Goldstar interrupted Cal. "SPECTRUM's bright new crayon in the coloring box." His smirk faded and his eyes went hard looking at Stacy. "I thought that we didn't accept mutants."
"I don't recall anything in the charter about any bans against mutants," Captain Patriot echoed Tawny's words mockingly.
"I never met a mutant who wasn't all, 'waa, waa, I'm SUCH a poor oppressed minority, waa... waa... People kept oppressing me, just because I went berserk and ripped up half the block, waa... waaa..." Goldstar grated out, never taking his eyes from Stacy.
"Feel free to cite that as your reason on your letter of resignation," Cal said smoothly.
"Resign? Why would I resign?" Goldstar said with a winning smile. Which didn't drop but went steely as he returned his eyes to Stacy. "I'm needed here."
Lacking any snarky comeback, Stacy used her PK to tip over a glass of water, spilling it in Goldstar's lap. Goldstar jumped up, and started to snap at Stacy, but instead turned and gave the other members a 'See?' look.
After the meeting wound down, the Green Witch went into the kitchenette for another cup of coffee. As she poured, she sighed, "Dear Gawd, Goldstar, just what we need..."
"Actually, I was just thinking the same thing, though in the opposite sense," Azure said as she checked to see if they had any of those single-cup packets with the really good blend.
"What? But did you see how much he upset Stacy?"
"What I saw was that he pissed her off," Azure said significantly.
"How is that good?"
"Karen, Goldbrick ticked Stacy off; he didn't scare her or depress her or discourage her, he just got her good and mad. Well, he always was good at that. He must just be a natural born troll."
"You've lost me," the Witch said in a flat tone.
"Karen, I know that you want to help Stacy, but your first instinct is to try and console her. That's natural; it speaks well of you. Hell, it's my first instinct, too. But holding someone's hand like that can be the worst thing you can do for them. Let's face it: what Stacy really needs to do is stop sucking her thumb and get up on her hind legs. And Tinstar, despite himself, is doing just that."
"So, we let Goonstar hang around and pester Stacy into standing up for herself?" Karen pondered it for a moment.
"Oh, the rest of us can still make a point of backing her up," Azure assured her. "If anything, I think that hearing all her worst fears being voiced by a total goon might drive home to Stacy how bogus they are." Az paused for a moment. "Does that helmet of Goonstar's have telepathic baffles in it?"
"Oh, it probably does," Karen said smugly. Then her smirk went slightly acid. "Pity they won't work around Stacy. I'll make sure of that." Azure stretched forth a fist and Karen bumped it. "Well, it's a little 'tough love', but tough love can work, as long as the kid knows that there is love involved. I'll go along with it. I'll clue in Cal, and you handle Cap; if anything, I think that Cap will have a few wrinkles of his own. Oh, and would you remind Tawny about our little informal rule about only using hero names while Goldstar's around? And make sure that Lorna understands that Stacy's covered by that as well."
Azure nodded. "Of course, there's one more thing: who sprung Goldbrat? Yeah, the whole 'I got let out 'cause I stopped a prison break' is too '1970s superhero cartoon' to be believed, and it shows what Goldbrick's got between the ears that he thinks we'll believe it. But still, WHY? Okay, the timing says that he's aimed at Stacy for some reason... but why would anyone who has the money and pull to get Brassballs sprung go through all that, just to get at one teenage mutant girl?"
Stacy looked around the convention and again wondered at the mentality of the collector. While some of them were the pudgy, asocial basement dwellers of the comic collector stereotype, the majority was all over the place, with most of them fairly nondescript everday civilians, and a smattering of people with some actual polish and clothing savvy. What they did all share was a certain dogged confrontational stance that reminded Stacy slightly of some Pro Wrestling fans. And she really did have to wonder about some of the 'exhibits'; after all how many 'power rings' could there really BE out there, even 'burned out' ones? And the 'alien artifacts'? Were they kidding? And the guy with the ring that he said was Tolkien's inspiration for 'the One Ring' just HAD to be trolling the collectors.
The convention program coordinators had very deliberately mixed up the super-science exhibits among black magic exhibits along with 'alien artifact' exhibits and 'relic of lost civilizations' exhibits. This wasn't to encourage any PC notion of diversity; it was to keep the various collectors from getting into 'my power ring's better'n yours is' arguments with their neighbors. Still, she did notice that the 'antique' (or just obsolete) power armor collectors seemed to be a different (and to Stacy's mind, better) breed. They were more like the antique car collectors that she'd seen at a classic car show that Stanley had attended with his class, back in Oakwood. They were a lot friendlier, poking around each other's suits, checking out the conditions and makes, making comments about this preservation technique or that, even making the odd suggestion about replacement part sources, and generally being quite civil to each other. Still, that did raise a question that sort of nagged at Stacy: exactly HOW do you go about obtaining a permit to keep the equivalent of a TANK, no matter how 'deweaponized' it may be?
Stacy stopped in front of one Power Armor exhibit. It was opened up, with the entire front of the 'chest' swinging up so that the pilot could get into the cramped 'cockpit', making it look like the love child of a Volkswagen and a gorilla. Stacy wondered if the creator had been European; the armor rather reminded her of the style of some of the more indiosyncratic models of European cars. Well, at least the cars that she'd seen in movies, anyway. As she was checking it out, working out how the thing's systems might have worked, a voice just at her elbow said, "So, you're into Heavy Metal?"
Stacy turned to spot Corey Griswold, the self-appointed 'heart throb' of Mansfield, standing at her side 'grinding' away at an air guitar. After Corey ground away to a silent Clapton-esque crescendo. When he finished up and paused for the equally silent applause, Stacy asked, "What are YOU doing here?"
"Hey, same thing YOU are!" he grinned back at her. "I'm here to get a front-seat for the superhero action, when Madcap shows up!"
"You DO know that Madcap isn't just the loony-tune that she was when she started out, don't you?" Stacy asked him sternly. "She's been picking up WEAPONS, and she's actually getting dangerous."
"Yeah?" Corey leered, getting way up too close into her face. "Then why are YOU here?"
"I am here to check out a theory that I came up with about Madcap's agenda. If I'm wrong, I just check out the convention, and maybe write a paper about it. If I'm right, and Madcap shows up, then I'm right out the door. One trip to the hospital is more than enough for me; I don't need another."
"Heeeyyy... don't worry, Stacy!" Corey breezed, "I'll be there to protect you from the big bad Madcap!" He wrapped a manly arm around her shoulders.
"Yeah, and who'll protect me from you?" Stacy shrugged his arm off her shoulder.
"Hey, what's with the big act? I know that you're into me."
"Y'know, Griswold, those voices in your head are NOT your friends."
"You're just jealous, 'cause they won't talk to you," he jeered back.
"No, I'm jealous of them, because they don't have to smell the beer on your breath," she shot back. But Corey just grinned at her, and it occurred to Stacy with a sick click of insight that he thought that she was flirting with him! As Stanley, Stacy had heard the boys' locker room lore that 'women want to be conquered'. And while Stacy thought it was bullshit, apparently, Corey had bought into it pretty heavily. He was trying to be as 'Alpha' as he possibly could in public.
Which made for a very good argument for not being with Corey in private.
It wasn't that Stacy was afraid of Corey; the only problem that she'd have in a fight with him would be not hurting him. But she didn't have any magic spells to make him forget it if she handled him like a naughty puppy. Any tussle they got into could be very embarrassing for Stacy, in a number of ways.
"Excuse me, but am I interrupting something?" Stacy turned and with glad relief saw Spence standing there with a stormy expression on his face.
Making a production of tightening his grip around Stacy's shoulders, Corey leered, "Yeah, me'n my girl are taking in the convention, and you ARE interrupting, Poindexter.
"Spence," Stacy, seeing his hackles rise, cut in with the tired voice of stating the flippin' obvious, "he talks shit. You KNOW he talks shit."
Unfortuantely that just set the scene for a classic adolescent male staredown, with Spence trying to play the gallant hero, and Corey trolling Spence for all he was worth. This went on for several very tense minutes, the rancor almost visibly flowing between the two boys. Spence surprised Stacy: how could someone so feminine act like such a blockheaded BOY?
But rescue arrived in the form of the man who was exhibiting the power frame. "Can I help you kids?"
Leaping gladly on diversion, Stacy shrugged Corey's arm off her shoulder and gaving the man a 'teenage boys- too much testosterone- help!' look and asked brightly, "Yes, we were wondering what special features this power frame has, that makes it so special? We couldn't get any real idea from the name plate. And why does it have three names: Cyber-Thunder, Green Death, and Warpig?"
The exhibitor, a stocky, balding fiftyish African-American man with a square face, a mustache and glasses, picked up on Stacy's cue and said, "Well, the two questions sort of fit together into the same basic lesson. Y'see, one of the many problems that power armor has, power supply being one of the big ones, is the problem of keeping the armor balanced. The bipedal form really isn't very stable, like at ALL. There are reasons why you only see giant robots in cartoons! And you can't just use a gyroscope in power armor like this, because we're constantly shifting our balance as we walk, even as we stand! So, you can't just step into a suit of power armor and go out and kick ass! You have to pilot it; you've got to know how the suit balances, like riding a bicycle, and every model of power armor handles differently."
Stacy got the impression that the man was grinding a personal ax, but it was diffusing the situation between Spence and Corey, so she encouraged the man. "The guy who designed this frame went into a lot of hock to build it, but he didn't have enough money for the rigorous testing procedures, which, let's face it, cost an arm and a leg."
"So, he kitted it up with a bunch of fancy weapons and went out and robbed a bank?" Corey asked in a flat 'why are you wasting my irreplaceable youth with this crap?' tone.
"No, he was smarter than that; he leased it out to some clown who kitted it out with some gadget that shot out these nasty bursts of vibrated air that held the vibrations somehow and released all that onto whatever it hit. He called his act 'Cyber-Thunder'; hey, it was the Ninties, and everything was cyber-this or cyber-that. Unfortunately, either the rig's balancing mechanism was glitchy or he didn't have the feel for the rig, 'cause people started calling him 'Cyber-klutz'. Mind you, it came in handy a couple of times, and he managed to escape just because he was so unpredictable. But eventually he did get caught, and I think he's still doing time, because nobody wants to give a supervillain- even a lame supervillain like 'Cyber-Klutz'- parole. From what he said, he spent all the money he got paying off the guy he leased the frame from, and paying for repairs and maintenance for the frame.
"The guy who designed the frame managed to steal it back from the police impound lot. He fixed it up again, gave it a new paint job, and leased it out to some guy who tricked it out with chemical sprayers. He called himself 'Green Death', and he was slicker than 'Cyber-Thunder', 'cause he went out and did industrial sabotage and like that. Still, that balancing mechanism gave him problems. Nowhere near as much as Cyber-Thunder had had, but still, it wonked out on him a couple of times, and it wound up getting him caught. And the designer broke in and stole it back from the impound lot again.
"The next guy to lease the frame was a real Special Forces wannabe and gun nut who called himself 'Warpig'. Don't ask. Warpig loaded down the rig with conventional weapons, and pretty much did small paramilitary raids on order. By this time, the designer had gotten the bugs out of the balancing system, and the rig was working nicely, even with the nasty recoil that Warpig's heavy weapons packed. Warpig got caught, but that was because he tried crashing through a reinforced concrete wall, not because the frame glitched on him."
"And the designer stole the frame back again?" Spence asked with a wry half-grin.
"Not QUITE," the man admitted. "By this time, the Authorities were onto his racket, so they didn't just stash the frame in the impound lot, they actually stored it in the Police Evidence Locker, figuring that it would be a lot harder to get something this size out of a building, than it would be to simply run through a chain link fence with it. And they were right! The designer snuck in and didn't take the frame. He just took THIS:" The exhibitor leaned into the cockpit of the frame and lifted up the pilot's seat in a manner all-too reminiscent of a toilet seat. Under the seat was a cavity of roughly the same size and shape of a car battery. "From the way the rest of the system is set up, we think that that was the balancing mechanism. He sneaked into the evidence locker and made off with that, because everyone was expecting him to take the entire frame.
"A few months later, a Swiss engineering firm announced the development of a new balancing system for exoskeleton power frames, which just happened to be the size and shape of a car battery. And most of the power armor stabilizing systems in use depend from one or more aspects of that design. That patent was worth millions."
The exhibitor paused and gave the kids a superior smile. "The point of all this is this: none of the three supervillains who used this frame made a DIME. The only one connected to this frame who made anything was the designer, who suckered those three guys into paying HIM to be unpaid test pilots, to get the bugs ironed out of his balancing system. HE made millions, and even then he made most of that by selling the patent rights. Crime Pays, but it pays chump change."
The exhibitor waved a hand around the convention. "Look, the supervillain gadgets and gimmicks are great, but the guys themselves? Losers! Most supervillains are just plain ordinary crooks with a gimmick or two. Y'know that bit where a supervillain stands around during a crime, bragging about how great he is? They DO that! Why? Because they're losers, and they know it, and that's the closest that they'll ever get to being important."
Then another power armor enthusiast walked up and they started discussing which enamel that he'd used for the exterior. As the two hobbyists nattered, Spence leaned over to Corey and whispered, "How much d'you wanna bet that this is his way of bragging about how he outsmarted three supervillain wannabes, made a fortune, and got away with it?"
"Yeah, well, you'd be the expert on bragging about outsmarting supervillains," Corey sneered back.
"I'm here because I figured out that this is where Madcap would show up," Spence said stolidly. "Why are YOU here?"
"What?" Corey jeered, "Didn't you hear? GOLDSTAR is back! And he's gonna make a personal appearance here!"
"What?" Stacy and Spence yawped in chorus. "Goldstar?" Spence went on, "What is THAT asshole doing, running around loose? I thought that he was in JAIL, where he belongs!"
"Hey, it was a disgrace that they even arrested him! That shouldn't have even gone to TRIAL!"
"What are you TALKING about? He totally destroyed the Route 50 overpass, injured 16 people, totaled a Greyhound BUS, and got 4 people killed!"
"That was Sunder's fault! If that big-ass FREAK hadn't-"
"Are you KIDDING? Goldstar created that entire situation! He-"
"Hey, Goldstar is the MAN! If he'd let Red Thunder-"
"You would be a fan of Goonstar's!"
"Hey, at least-"
Oh well, at least they weren't about to start throwing punches. As Corey and Spence indulged in a Middle School squabble about whose hero was better, Stacy quietly slipped away. When she was alone, she pulled out her phone and tried to contact someone at SPECTRUM to ask what was going on with Goonstar, but she couldn't find anyone. Shutting her phone down with annoyance, she tried to settle her nerves by walking around the exhibits, checking each of them.
When she had a reasonable idea as to how the convention area was set up, Stacy did the 'walk behind a pillar and disappear' number. She pulled her cloak out of her purse, wrapped it around her, pulled her jumpsuit on over her clothes and lifted up over the crowd (there's nothing more suspicious than an invisible person moving through a crowd) and made her way to the Center's Security Office. She dropped when she was past the door and made herself visible. "Hey! Don't freak out, I'm here on official business!"
One of the four men in the office turned to another and said, "You owe me twenty bucks."
"Oh! Sergeant Jimenez!" Stacy's face beamed with recognition of a friendly face. "You've been briefed?"
"Yeah," he said, "Downtown figures that you could use someone that you know, to help smooth things over."
"Cool!" Stacy peeped. "By the way, how'd your son like that autographed picture of Captain Patriot, made out to you?"
"He's the king of the playground," Jimenez smirked.
"I would have come by his school to give it to him personally, but Cap says that things like that only make things worse. And I can't give him an autographed picture of me; I mean, who wants a picture of ME?"
"Give it a few years, sweetheart."
The Security Chief checked out the apparently rather reasonable byplay and cut in, "So, you got any idea what this 'Madcap' is after? I mean, normally, this Con gets maybe a hundred or two people, mostly from the Tri-State area, but this year, we got over a thousand, from all over the country, and Canada, and two guys from England."
Stacy gave a wide shrug. "Specifically? No. But we do have a few ideas from the registrations that you sent us." She reached into her purse and pulled out a few color printouts. "Going alphabetically, the first candidate for Madcap's target is the Phantom Queen's power throne." She tossed one of the printouts on the table. It was a full-frontal shot of a very hi-tech looking chair with a 'peacock' back, and lots of crystals and a few skulls worked into the design. "The Green Witch says that the Phantom Queen was connected with some real big leaguer called 'Syndarian', but she's been locked up in that prison that they got for big time mages for the past 15 years. The power throne is supposed to be some big 'technomantic' thing that channels magical power for the Phantom Queen, making it easier for her to do magic. It also flies, or at least it hovers over the ground at a respectable clip, and it has protective force screens, and it had SOTA- 15 years ago- threat analysis sensors and software, and it had aids for helping the Phantom Queen cast spells and like that. Then she ran into some guy called 'Brother Daniel' in Denver, and he literally called the Wrath of God down on her. A big ol' bolt of lightning fried both the Phantom Queen and her throne. The throne hasn't worked right since then, and for some reason they decided to sell the thing at auction. Still, it seems that there's some dispute over whether this guy can legally own that thing: it seems that some of those skulls are real."
"Ew," grimaced the Security Chief. "And the Green Witch thinks that this 'Madcap' chick is gonna try to step up into the big leagues by stealing that?"
Stacy gave him a wide 'who knows?' shrug. "Actually, the Green Witch wants to keep an eye on that thing, more because of the Phantom Queen than the throne itself. It seems that while the Queen tried to escape more times than I care to think about, and pulled it off a few times before being dragged back by her heels, a few months ago, she just upped and stopped trying. She's been gardening, catching up on her reading, and generally treating the place like a resort. And from what the Green Witch says, that is just SO not the Phantom Queen's style. She wants to keep any eye on anything that the Phantom Queen might want to reclaim."
Stacy threw that picture on the table. "Next is something called a 'Power Array' that belonged to a guy who called himself 'Plasma Arc'." She showed them an overbuilt arrangement of high tech something or other. "It's pretty low priority, but if there's anyone who would think that they could handle a giga-watt plasma cannon without heavy radiation and heat armor, it's Madcap." She tossed the print on the table.
"Next, we actually have a real contender, a guy called 'Plunderlord', who also calls himself-"
"The Power Pirate?" Delling, the Security Chief said taking a look at the picture that Stacy provided. The picture was of a rather swashbuckling figure with some sort of high-tech harness over a loose red shirt. The rest of his outfit, the black trousers, the high boots, the embroidered gauntlets, the black scarf-mask, the waist-sash, and that goofy goatee, seemed to be calculatedly geared to suggest a romantic buccaneer, which was very much at odds with the sword-like probe held rapier-style in his hand. The man's faux- Erroll Flynn smirk didn't help the impression any.
"You know him?" Stacy asked.
"Not personally," Delling admitted. "But I saw him in action in person in Chicago a couple of times, and I saw him on TV a few times."
"Did he really drain superheroes' powers with that thing?" Stacy asked, looking at the rig.
"Kinda-sorta," Delling said. "He'd touch them with that prod-thing, *touché!*, and their powers would get weaker, as far as I could tell. But he didn't get, y'know blaster powers or telepathy or anything, as far as I knew. He got stronger and faster, and he was able to pull more of those crazy stunts of his- oh, he was huge on big, flashy acrobatic stunts. Okay, he was a douchebag and a thief, but MAN was he fun to watch!"
Stacy mused on the picture. "I was thinking that after grabbing all those power items, Madcap might see that grabbing a power item that gave her other people's powers as a natural. But if it doesn't really give her powers-"
"So?" Jimenez cut in. "Maybe she'll go for it, thinking that it does just that. Hey, from what I saw of her, this Madcap chick isn't very big on careful thinking and like that."
Stacy nodded. "Okay, so it's still a possible. Anyway, it burned out in 1986, and nobody really knows how it worked in the first place." She tossed the picture on the table. "Next is Prisma's power ring." She showed a picture of a ring with a large cabochon-cut fire opal setting. "Your basic 'Green Lantern rip-off' power ring. It passed from one supervillainess who called herself 'Prisma' to another for over thirty years, until it burned out. Without the Star Witch's power scepter, Madcap's at something of a disadvantage, so she might try to replace it." Stacy paused for a moment. "Or not. Anyway, it's a possibility." She tossed the picture on the stack on the table.
"Next is the Psi-Master's Mento-Helmet." Stacy produced a printout of a globular helmet with two ribbed and knobbed cones protruding from it. "I dunno know about this one: on one hand, the Mind Mistress' tiara really was her 'get out of jail free card', and Madcap should really want to replace that somehow. On the other hand, this thing is too dang dorky looking, even for Madcap!"
"aaahhh..." Jimenez drawled uncertainly, "I notice that all your options have names that start with 'P'... Does that mean that you think that-"
"YUP," Stacy replied with a flat graceless grunt. "What do you want? It's Madcap."
Jimenez let out a low martyred whine, and Stacy gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder. "You don't understand," he groaned, "if it gets out that all this is pretty much that little screwball graffiti-ing name across the city, I'll never hear the end of it!"
"Why? It's Madcap's dumb idea, not yours!"
"You don't know cops," Jimenez moaned. "It's like Middle School!" Stacy winced at the idea. "Worse! Once they get their teeth into a good line of ragging, they never let go! In Middle School, eventually they get tired of it and move onto something else. But Cops? I'm gonna be getting hit with 'Dick Tracy' and 'Riddler' gags for the next ten YEARS!"
"Weeelllll... there's nothing that says that we have to put it in the report," Stacy assured him. "I mean, this is just guesswork, not any real evidence, right? So, if Madcap doesn't make a big thing of it, why should we?"
Jimenez nodded and bucked up a bit, so Tracy went on. "Okay, Mr. Delling, with the last one," she held up a printout of a classic wooden 'chest' with an arching lid, brass fittings, and a large brass demon's head clasp, "I want you to put two guards on the exhibit, and make sure that they understand that if Madcap shows up, I want as many of your men to cover that exhibit as possible."
"Why? You think that this thing is Madcap's target? What is it?"
"Okay, this is gonna take a bit," Stacy warned them. "Y'know that old Greek myth about Pandora's box? Well, that's more or less what that thing is. Back in the 60s and 70s, there was this supervillainess called 'Pandora' or 'the Purple Witch', depending on who was writing the headlines at the time, who mixed it up with the Green Witch on a pretty regular basis."
"The Purple Witch..."
"Yeah, apparently super-witches are really into colors," Stacy noted. "Not that I've asked the Green Witch about that or anything..." Stacy cleared her throat, "Anyway, while she could do most of the usual witchy stuff, the Purple Witch's- or rather, Pandora's big thing was that box. She could open up that chest and call forth various kinds of demon-things to do her bidding."
"You're telling me... that that witch could summon... DEMONS... just like that?" Delling asked, squicked. "And that thing is HERE... in MY convention center?"
"It's not that bad," Stacy tried to placate the man. "Okay, bear with me here. What that thing does- or at least DID- is, there are these things that aren't really demons or elementals or spirits, but are sort of LIKE spirits. From the way that the Green Witch described them to me, they're sort of like magical computer sprites, called 'Conjurations'. They're like a computer program; they have a purpose that they were designed for, and they fulfill the purpose they were designed for as best they can, and then they shut down. Well, that is, unless the guy who programmed them screwed up somehow, and then it gets real nasty. Anyway, that's what the Purple Witch's box does: it creates these 'conjuration' things which look like demons, and programs them to do whatever the Purple Witch wants."
"And you think that this box is what Madcap's after?"
Stacy waggled her hand uncertainly. "Maybe, we're not certain. The thing is, the Purple Witch dropped out of sight back in the Eighties, and she's not the sort to just retire and plant an herb garden. The Green Witch thinks that Pandora's box burned out somehow, and the Purple Witch didn't want to carry on without it."
"Wait a minute," Jimenez interrupted, "you don't know?"
"Nope. According to the Green Witch, Pandora went up against Dr. Merlin up in Chicago way back when, and after the doctor kicked her ass, she did a rather routine 'Curses Foiled Again!' exit. Then, nuthin'. The people who were looking for her decided that she either ran into something a lot nastier than she was- which seems to be a real hazard of the trade in being an evil magician- or her power item, the Cask of Woes, gave up the ghost, and she decided to quit while she was ahead."
"Oh? And when did the Cask of Woes go onto the collector's circuit?" Delling asked.
"A week ago."
"A week ago?" Jimenez asked suspiciously.
"Yeah," Stacy grunted with confirmation. "Well after Madcap gets her reputation for bringing dead power items back from the grave. A request for a permission to keep a formerly dangerous item as a collectible- oh, I can't remember the rest, basically someone filed one of those things where it's like having a gun or a cannon or something like that because of it's Historic value, instead of being a weapon, and they want it to be cool with the cops if they keep it."
"JUST in time for this convention," Delling said sourly.
"RIGHT. And this ain't like a comic book, where a supervillain can go around killing people, and then decide that he wants to go straight, and everyone's cool with that. Believe me, I know. No, the Pandora, or the Purple Witch, or whatever her real name is, has like a laundry list of felonies that she's still wanted for. And even if it's not the Purple Witch, there is NO WAY that we want the Cask of Woes to be re-powered. That is, if that's really what's going on with Madcap. I mean, who knows?"
"Gotcha. Keep Madcap away from that chest," Delling said seriously, as though a chivalric knight taking on a quest from an enchanted princess.
He was so keen on his role that Stacy hated to tell him, "Just tell your guys to not get hurt trying to keep Madcap away from the Chest. First of all, while Madcap isn't particularly vicious, she's so screwy that she might hurt them and not even realize that she's done it. Secondly, I have something planned for that cask."
"Yer gonna pull your follow her home trick on her?"
"Sort of," Stacy admitted. "But Madcap's probably going to be expecting that, so I'm going to have to slip a tracking device on her, and let the guys from the DA's office track her."
"That's gonna be a bear, through that bubble of hers," Jimenez pointed out.
"I got that covered. Do you have the case that the DA okayed for me?"
"Sure," Jimenez brough out a long slender case and laid it on Dellings' desk. "But what IS it?"
Stacy broke the lead seal and opened the case. Inside, broken into three parts like a pool cue, was a long silvery staff with a distinctive blue crystalline 'star' cap. "THIS," she took the cap off and indicated the silvery band where the cap screwed onto the staff, "is our bug. No matter what she's got targeted, she's gonna want this back. And even if she doesn't want it back, I'll make sure that she wants it back." But then Stacy's grim smirk faded into a sour pout. "Unfortunately, it means that for this to work, I gotta let her take this from me, and for THAT to work, it means that I pretty much gotta let Madcap beat me up and take it from my hand."
Jimenez patted her on the shoulder. "Just remember- yer takin' one for the team."
"And what if Madcap doesn't go along with that plan?" Delling asked. "I mean, she's got kinda a rep for that."
"Well, I can't do it for everything, but I tagged all of the stuff we just discussed with small tracking devices."
"Just before I came in. Being able to be invisible makes that sort of thing real easy. Besides the bugs, I planted a pad on the Phantom Queen's throne that will react to the body heat of anyone sitting on it, and it'll release a sedative gas. Nothing too nasty, it'll just make her a little dizzier than she already is. And I planted a dingus inside the helmet of Psi-Masters's Mento-thingie that will totally rattle what brains she's got if she puts it on. There wasn't that much that I could do to Prisma's power gem, or to Plasma Arc's or Plunderlord's rigs... not if I want this convention center to remain standing, anyway..."
"And what about Pandora's Box?"
"Oh, we shot the works on that'n! Not only did I tag it with a bug, but I slipped a canister of sedative gas inside the chest with a radio control release valve, and in case Madcap actually tries call up a demon or something, I stuck in a jar of this goop that reacts to the presence of magical energy. If Cappy crams enough magical energy into the cask to create a conjuration, the goop will absorb the energy, expand a hundred times or something, and make like the Blob. It'll keep Madcap from using the cask, and it's sticky, so she won't be able to just make off with the cask. And with any luck, Cappy will get gooped up along with the cask."
"Excuse me," Delling interrupted, "but you can't DO that! You need a warrant to-"
"Place any kind of surveillance on a civilian, otherwise it's Invasion of Privacy," Stacy cut him off with a raised finger. She reached into her purse under her cloak and pulled out six pieces of paper. "There you go, six warrants, all signed and sealed!" she said chipperly. Her chipper smile faded a bit as she added, "Though it helps that these warrants are only good for today, ending at midnight. I dunno what I'd done, if this convention lasted for a couple of days."
"You're going to try and keep the damage to a minimum?"
"That's the whole idea here," Stacy assured him. "I'll give Madcap her cheap little victory, keep the fight to its absolute minimum, let her win, and then let her go. Then, we'll let her parents take care of bringing her in. It'll be embarrassing, but that seems to be Madcap's entire reason for being on this planet, humiliating me." That sad comment reminded Stacy of something. "Where is Goldstar holding his meet-and-greet with his fans?"
"What?" Delling asked, surprised.
"I heard from one of his fans that the superhero Goldstar is holding some sort of personal appearance for his fans here."
"What?" Jimenez yelped, "That lox is out of jail?"
"He said that he got time off, 'cause he stopped some big breakout at the State super-pen."
"Goldstar?" Jimenez sneered, "Stop a riot? Nah. Besides, I'd've heard something about a big riot at the Cage. It ain't the Rat-trap or the Jug, the two big Federal super-pens in Colorado and West Virginia, but we got somewhere between ten and twenty super-yahoos under close guard, none of whom need a power ring or anything like that. If anything had happened at Sandusky, I'd'a heard of it."
"I never heard of this 'Goldstar' guy before," Stacy admitted. "How do the Cops feel about him?"
Jimenez gave a sour grimace and said, "Lemme put it to you this way, Honey: you could learn a LOT from Goldstar. You watch what Goldstar does, and then you do the exact opposite. Throw in a little common sense, and y'can't go wrong with that."
They ironed out a few other details, and then Stacy went invisibile gain and went back out into the convention. She shed her cloak and went visible and went to find Spence. He and Corey Griswold were still going at it. Stacy wondered archly if it had even registered with them that she'd even left. Maybe she was wrong about Spence, really being a girl; he was definitely tripping on too much testosterone.
By this time, they'd gone past arguing about Goldstar, and were now trashing out supervillains in way that was far better suited to discussing Professional Wrestlers, than actual dangerous public threats.
Despite the fact that she was still technically physically a member of the gender, Stacy found herself going, 'Feh. BOYS! You can't live with 'em, and you can't trade them in for something more appropriate'.
Other convention-goers had joined in on the discussion, as it seemed to be a major subject of interest (and possibly vicarious identification) for the conventioneers. "Look, Dr. Diabolik should be made A-list! I mean, he drops out of the fucking SKY and raids entire cities! The man is a menace!"
"Y'know who else attacks entire cities at a time?" Another guy, who was displaying a 'Tornado Vortex engine' asked rhetorically, "Professor REAPER!"
"Yeah!" agreed one guy, who had a (non-functional) freeze gun on display. "And the Reaper's beyond A-list! They got a special AAA rating for him! So why isn't Dr. Diabolik on the A-list?"
"Look," said another guy, who was exhibiting an alleged 'super-strength belt', "yeah, when Dr. Diabolik shows up, people die. But when Professor Reaper shows up, CITIES die! Fourteen cities! Maybe seventeen, or even nineteen, if the Russians and Chinese have been covering up losing some cities, like some people think! And when Dr. Diabolik raids a place, he does it to rip off banks and stores of materials and stuff- but when the Reaper comes, he's only concerned with killing people. I agree with you, Dr. Diabolik is dangerous, and needs to be captured. But compared with the people on the A-list, he's pretty low-priority. Those people are fucking LETHAL!"
"Eennh!" Corey sneered, "Besides, Diabolik ain't that tough. Hey, I was one of the guys who woke up and chased him and his big bad henchmen out of town! Okay, there were fifty thousand of us, but still, I was there!"
"Are you SURE about that?" Spence drawled skeptically. "'Cause as I recall, that was a school day, and it went down right about Fifth Period. I mean, there we were in International Affairs class, when BANG, everybody stops dead in their tracks, and we didn't snap out of it for the better part of an hour! Weren't you in Int-Aff with the rest of us, Corey?"
"ah, Nah, I was, ah, I was out that day... I had an appointment at the dentists."
"That's odd..." Spence drawled drolly. "I clearly remember you and your buddy Jay having to be taken to the Infirmary, 'cause you wouldn't snap out of it when the Mind-Web dropped." Spence grinned acidly at Cody, who growled back at him, like he was thinking about getting physical.
Maybe Stacy was right about Spence after all; that was clearly a violation of The Guy Code. At least, Stacy thought that it was; even when she was a boy, she'd never really gotten the gist of the whole 'Guy Code' thing.
Still, it looked like Spence had managed to push Corey's button, 'cause Corey looked like he was about to go off on Spence. The guy who'd made the 'Fucking LETHAL' comment about the A-List supervillains got between them and started making peacemaker noises. But his reasonable expression dropped like a rock, and he snapped off in the direction of his booth, "HEY! Hey, YOU! Waddya you think yer DOIN'?"
Stacy followed the man's attention to his booth, where a short woman in a parka and knit cap who was fiddling with- no, actively yanking at the clasp that kept the 'Super Strength Belt' of the 'Blue Bison' on the display manikin. Recognizing the parka and cap from the University, Stacy took advantage of the fact that everyone was looking at the exhibitor as he stalked over to his booth, to step back and go invisible. Okay, there was also the fact that it hadn't really registered with anyone that she'd come back <sulk!>
As Stacy pulled her cape back out of her purse, the guy who was exhibiting the Blue Bison's belt chugged up and demanded, "Who do you think you ARE?"
Given a perfect opening line, the girl pulled her knit cap off, revealing a purple-and-green foolscap, and slipping on a domino mask. "Who do I think I AM?" she trilled loudly. "I'll TELL you who I am!
"M is for the Mind Mistress' crown!" Ignoring the fact that she didn't have the Mind Mistress' crown anymore, she shucked off the parka revealing her purple-and-green spandex suit
"A is for the Astro-Witch's power scepter!" she brandished the Pharaoh's Ankh.
"D is for the Dark Madonna's power amulet!" By this time, the crowd's attention was squarely on her. People started rushing about frantically.
"C is for the Crimson Claw's power talon!" She discharged some energy significantly from the gauntlet and gave the man whose belt she'd just swiped a jolt of energy that knocked him off his feet.
"A is for Accelerator's speed boots!" The crowd was settling around her, and there was some strange element of expectation
"And P is for Powerhouse's strength girdle!" she clamped the power belt around her waist (fumbling with it frantically to cinch it in, when it was a good ten sizes too big for her).
Seeing where Madcap was going, Stacy lifted off invisibly, to hover unseen in midair as she changed into her jumpsuit and cape.
"Put them all together," Madcap sang, "and they spell-"
"Dunnnccceee- Cap!" Stacy beat her to the point, dropping her invisibility. "What'sa matta, Mad-CAB?" she jeered, "you flunk spelling? That guy's the Blue Bison, not 'Powerhouse'!"
"Oh, so you solved my riddle," Madcap scoffed, "Big Whoop. What? Did that little weasel over there figger it out for you?"
"Figure it out?" Stacy shot back. "I didn't need to! I just asked myself what I would do if I was an inane, half-witted airhead, and well, here you are!"
Madcap snarled a bit and said, "Very funny... But yer too late! I have the Blu-er, Powerhouse's strength belt! With this thing, I can lift TEN TONS. I dunno if that's regular tons or metric tons or what... But with this, I'm stronger'n you are!"
"So you've got a new toy?" Stacy sneered back. Stacy held up one hand, and Jimeneze spear-threw the Star Witch's power staff straight into her hand (invisibly guided by Stacy's PK, for the awesomeness factor). Stacy brandished the scepter, leaving trails of sparks, and grinned, "So do I."
"What?" Madcap barked, "But that's MINE! Give it back!"
"I think that the Univ-er, I think we've already done that Joke, Cappy. Okay, People!" she addressed the civilians, "There's no way that I can expect Madcap here to be reasonable enough to take this out into the parking lot, and Cappy has a reputation for not caring where she's aiming, so for your own sake, I'm asking you to leave through the emergency exits in a calm and orderly fas- huh?"
Instead of making like a fire drill, or even leaving in a big crush, a significant portion of the bystanders rushed up to Madcap. They mobbed her, shoving various bits and pieces of junk, begging her to make them work. "WHAT?" Stacy screeched, "NO! Don't you realize that those are... power... items..." Stacy grimaced with realization, and wiped the egg off her face.
But Stacy's disgust evaporated like a snowflake in a blast furnace when she saw one rangy late middle-age woman in a caftan with sharp angular features and long straight graying hair plow through the throng. A younger woman with similar features, ones that suggested a close blood relation, if not a mother/daughter bond, followed her carrying a box with a brass demon's head fastener. "NO!" Stacy yelled, "Don't let her get anywhere NEAR that! That's the Cask of Woes!"
That was, of course, the absolute worst possible thing to say. Stacy knew that the second the words were out of her mouth. Madcap, who'd been reeling under the wave of pleading and offerings, pulsed out her force sphere, scattering the avid collectors. With a savage grin, Madcap lunged over the bodys of her postulants and headed for the woman in the lead, who imperiously grabbed the cask from her follower's hands and held it forth. But Spence charged over the reeling exhibitors and snatched it from the older woman's hands just before Madcap could lay her hands on it. Then he used the crowd, who were in the process of getting to their feet, as a barrier between Madcap and himself. Madcap struggled with the crowd for a moment. Then with a snarl, she crouched down on her mark, and obviously being very careful, she applied some energy to her speed boots. Madcap shot forward, scattering the crowd, and tackled Spence, enveloping him in her force bubble. But Madcap still managed to over-juice the boots, and together they caromed off the walls of the exhibit hall for a good two minutes, knocking over exhibits and bowling over civilians. Stacy tried to intercept the ball, but it was too erratic, and she was reduced to waiting until the ball slowed down long enough for her to latch onto it.
The ball faded as soon as Stacy put it down on the ground. They were both very logy from the dizzying ride. Madcap had the Cask in her arms, but she was still too nauseous, and she staggered off to one side. As Madcap kneeled on the ground and horked up her guts, Stacy asked Spence, "Are you okay? She hit you square on!"
"Yah, yah, 'M okay," Spence mumbled as he reeled from the wild ride. Still, he was barely able to stay on his feet.
"What a mess," came a smug baritone voice. "Time for someone competent to take over." Stacy looked over and saw a tall figure in a gold-and-black hardsuit standing over Madcap, gingerly avoiding where the girl was hurling.
"Goldstar? What are you doing here?"
"Making sure that you don't blow this, and get someone hurt."
"Very funny, very funny," Stacy sneered back at him. "But the DA gave me the job of bringing in this headcase."
"Like I said," Goldstar sneered back, "It's time for someone competent to take over." He leaned over and took the Cask of Woes from Madcap's hand.
"Goldstar!" Stacy snapped, "Put that down, NOW! It could be dangerous! That's the Purple Witch's Pandora's Box of Woes! For the love of God, Goldstar, whatever you do, DON'T OPEN THAT BOX!"
Even through his fully enclosing helmet, you could tell Goldstar sneer back as he opened the Cask of Woes. As soon as the box opened more than a crack, dark green viscous foam billowed out from under the lid and completely wrapped itself around Goldstar.
"You... Idiot..." Stacy growled.
But before anyone could do anything to take advantage of the situation one way or another, something else boiled out of the cask. It was a roiling mass of inchoate energy that swirled in vortices for a bit. Then the iron-haired woman, her face a grinning mask of fierce vindication, held up an odd triangular brass filigree amulet and hissed out something that Stacy thought meant 'thing almost made yet unborn, come into being around this core: you live to serve ME. From there, the essence of your being is to take from others, to give to ME!'
The seething mass swirled into a more cohesive form, though it was still something out of a nightmare. It had a large globular body that's main feature was a lamprey-like mouth ringed by concentric rings of sharp teeth. The maw was lined by three rings of small, dark eyes, and eight tentacles sprang from the body, with lines of more lamprey-mouths running down the bottoms of the tentacles, and rows of eyes on other side of the bottom. The thing grew a rough, starfish-like hide on its back, and, having come fully (if improbably) into being, it gave a roar and thrashed about in some existential fury at the sheer indignity of existing at all. Then it lashed its tentacles around Goldstar and he thrashed futilely for a moment, and then when it had him secure, it grabbed the screaming Madcap. Madcap's force bubble stopped the thing from latching onto her, but she kept screaming.
Then Madcap suddenly stopped and said, "Wait a minute! What'm I doing?" She allowed the bubbled to collapse, but before the tentacle monster could wrap itself around her, she grabbed it and threw it and Goldstar handily across the exhibit hall. Both of them landed against the wall with a hardy smack. "HAH!" Madcap exulted. "Yeah, the Blue- er, Powerhouse's belt WORKS! YEAH! So, what're you gonna do now, Witch-lady?"
"This," the Purple Witch said matter-of-factly, gesturing idly with the fingers of one hand, producing a violet-tinted blast of magical energy. The blast knocked Madcap off her feet, and sent her rebounding around the room again.
"I don't think that your blast got through her shield, Mother" the younger woman said with worry.
"It doesn't have to, Deirdre," the woman said calmly as she watched Goldstar try to pull himself from her creation's grasp. "All it has to do is keep her away from me. And since her shield's reflex to being attacked is to knock her away from danger, I can keep her away with the slightest jab. Don't bother with HIM, Idiot!" she yelled at the tentacle monster, "You know what to do!" The weird creature let Goldstar escape, and threw itself at the exhibits, grabbing things, seemingly at random, and either chucking them aside, or tossing them into its primary mouth. After a moment or so, the objects that were placed into the spell-born thing's maw reappeared on its back, having gained a strange luster.
"SEE, Deirdre?" the Purple Witch demanded of her daughter through a rictus of triumph. "It worked! I knew that it would work! I knew that my calculations were perfect! I knew that my research on restoring damaged power matrixes was on the right track! All that I needed was a way of restoring my Cask of Woes! YOU thought that I was crazy! You thought that I'd lost my touch! You thought that I was pouring good money after bad into a bottomless hole! YOU wanted to invest my money in a Laundromat! You didn't want to take out a second mortgage on the house to pay for this! But SEE? See what I've gained?
All of them, reduced to mere curios when their matrixes degenerated, but now? Now, thanks to my hard work, they have POWER again!"
Then she backpedalled, "NO! Not the Scarab of Unlife of the Scarlet Pharoah! There are things that even _I_ don't want brought back!"
"That's nice mother," Deirdre whined, "but how will restoring other people's property back to power help US pay off a $150 thousand house loan at 30% interest compounded quarterly?"
"Other people's property?" the Purple Witch gloated, "What makes you think that it's other people's property- now? Deirdre, you never did have the backbone to make things happen, to just go out and TAKE the things that life owes you..."
"HEY!" one of the other exhibitors yelled as he picked up his treasure, which the hex-squid had cast aside, "Why didn't you take this? It's the Crystal Skull of the Gravewarden! This is hella powerful! Why didn't you take IT?"
"Because it's a FAKE!" the Purple Witch shot back at him. "I know the Gravewarden, and he's still got his talisman skull!"
"You take that back!" the collector demanded, his face pale with outrage. "I paid seven THOUSAND dollars for this!"
"It's MY fault that you got ripped off?" 'Pandora' mocked. Then she turned to Deirdre and sneered, "And you thought that this was a waste of time and money."
"Maybe," Deidre grumped, "but why did you have to kill Mopsy?"
"Dear, I loved that dog as much as you did, but the working to create that conjuration required the sacrifice of something loved. And this may be our last chance to get out of the basement!"
"Maybe, Mother Dear," Deirdre scowled daggers at her, "but there's something you're overlooking."
"Where's the Silver Ghost?"
'Pandora's' grin of near-manic triumph dropped like a soufflé on a roller coaster. Frantically, she looked around the hall. There was no sign of the Silver Ghost anywhere. "Crap! She could be anywhere, doing anything!"
"Wait!" Corey Griswold yelled, stepping near Pandora, "There she is!" he pointed off up towards one corner. Reflexively, Pandora sketched out a pattern of magic energy with one hand and let fly in that direction. As the magic bolt discharged harmlessly on the ceiling acoustic tiles, Corey gave Pandora a rocking punch in the jaw, and then snatched the triangular amulet from her neck, breaking the delicate chain in the process. "HAH! You got bigger things to worry about than the Silver Ghost, Witch," Corey gloated. Holding up the amulet, he looked at the spell-squid and yell, "Sic Her!" pointing at Pandora.
The not-quite-demon just continued grabbing at various odds and ends, and shoving them in its mouth.
Corey looked at the amulet, and shook it like it was broken or something.
Spence sidled up to Corey and asked, "Do you really have any idea of how that thing works?" Corey glared at Spence angrily and was about to say something sharp when Pandora slapped them both down with a mystic bolt.
Goldstar, really not wanting to mix it up with that bizarre squid-thing again, decided that walking away with a minor victory was better than getting mixed up with a major cock-up. He zipped around, frantically trying to catch Madcap, who was careening wildly around the hall with more force than Pandora's mystic bolt should have given her force ball. Madcap didn't seem to be bouncing around with any real plan, so eventually Goldstar was able to position himself right in front of her. The ball smacked both of them into the wall with at least 6 tons of force. Even with his protective armor and incredible personal durability, Goldstar let out a grunt of pain and slumped to the ground in a daze. Madcap also slumped to the ground, though with her it was more that she was still dizzy from her bopping around. Indeed, the only thing that kept Madcap from yarking all over his nifty high-tech suit was the fact that she'd already tossed all her cookies.
Showing that he did have something on the ball, Goldstar pulled himself together before Madcap did. He grabbed her by the collar and pulled her off her feet. "Playtime's over, Madcap," he said dramatically, assuming the proper pose for any cell phone shots that might happen. "The REAL hero is here, and if you don't stop fooling around, I'll take you over my knee and spank you!"
"Yeah?" Madcap muttered grumpily, "And who're YOU?"
"I am... GOLDSTAR!"
"That's nice, but you ain't my arch-enemy, so piss off."
"WHAT?" Goldstar raised one hand, as though to slap Madcap, but she made a brisk 'brush-off' gesture, which sent him tumbling head over heels.
Goldstar landed in a heap right in the path of the advancing spell-squid. One of the more nattily dressed conventioneers, a sixty-ish (or more) looking man with a full head of white hair and a stylish white mustache, carrying an elegant (if pragmatically stout) walking stick, wearing an ascot that probably hid a turkey wattle on his neck stepped forward from the crowd, stepped forward, carrying an odd globular object. "Really!" he reproved in a polished, resonant stage-actor's voice, "What passes for 'superheroes' these days! Superheroes in the old days may not have been the sterling paragons of virtue that they made themselves out as, but at least they felt obligated to maintain certain standards! Not to worry, young man, the old fogies are here to make sure that you don't fall down and get a boo-boo..." Pausing to aim, he pitched the odd sphere, a clockwork arrangement of brass bands, rings, gears, spinning balls, and what-all, set within a crystalline shell, into the mouth of the spell squid.
The spell-squid balked and lurched to a stop. It seemed to be choking on the globe, and it was working hard on horking it back up. "As I thought," the elegant old rogue murmured to himself. "However these things work is just similar enough to those hoodoo do-bobs that that thing engages them, but too different for it to process as it has the others."
"Indeed," drawled another elderly man, not a relative of the first, but definitely cut from the same pattern. He was of the same age, and had a salt-and-pepper mustache and goatee, and his hair had retreated to the point of fringe baldness. He was carrying a paper-wrapped bundle of some sort. "But it appears that it's just about got it ready to hock out. What say we make things complicated for it?" He chucked the bundle into the squid's maw, which seemed to cram the globe right back to where the squid had almost dislodged it from.
"Seems to be working," the first roué allowed. "Let's see what else is at hand that might work... Ah! That idol looks-"
"No, no, no..." tutted the second, "it's either a phony, or it's mystical. The first chance won't work, and the second one would be digested like bread pudding. Try Dr. Catalyst's Chemo-gun. I'm sure that it's the McCoy, and if anything goes wrong, there's a chance it might blow up, destroying that thing; and if it doesn't, the damned thing will still choke on it, No?"
"Is that you, Corsair?" the first asked cautiously.
"I haven't seen you around for while, either, Swashbuckler." 'Corsair' said cryptically.
"We must get together and bore each other with gossip and lies about the good old days," 'Swashbuckler' chuckled as he picked up the Chemo-Gun from its display rack, and expertly bowled it into the squid's maw.
"Lord knows, I'm not doing anything important," the 'Corsair' said as he picked up PowerBlast's Omni-Bracer, rack and all, and added it to the Chemo-Gun.
"WHAT?" Pandora sputtered. "What do you two idiots think you're DOING?"
"Why PANDORA!" Swashbuckler cried with the glad air of a man meeting an old flame after many years. "It's been AGES! And you've never looked lovelier..." But that didn't stop him from snagging the Entrancer's Hypno-Wheel and adding it to the clog that was choking the squid's throat.
"Sadly, All too true," the Corsair snarked. "But then, she always did put the lie to the myth of the seductive enchantress. Do you remember those appalling purple peploses she used to wear?" He shuddered as Pandora glared daggers at him. Oh, and he grabbed the entire cage that contained the Jade Dragon's power stone and it's setting, and added that to the mess.
"Still, it could have been worse," Swashbuckler pointed out. "She COULD have insisted on wearing on of those skimpy, skin-tight outfits that supervillainesses started wearing in the 60s. Can you imagine what that scrawny, bony figure of hers would have-"
"ENOUGH!" Pandora roared. "YOU!" she yelled at the spell-beast, "Stop collecting! Use what you have to BURN those two!" The squid-thing stopped, pulled its tentacles in, and when it projected them again, it had glittering stones. Beams of various colored light lanced from the tentacle tips at the two. But Swashbuckler and the Corsair nimbly evaded the beams, using their walking sticks as vaulting poles and leverage points.
The same could not be said for Goldstar or Madcap. While the Conjure-beast had been given explicit orders to attack 'those two', Swashbuckler deftly ducked behind Goldstar, letting him take the blast. "Do you mind? You're much better armored than I am." As Goldstar reeled from the concerted blasts, the Corsair leveraged himself behind Madcap and used his walking stick like a driver (or maybe a Nine Iron) to smack Madcap like a golf ball. Normally, this wouldn't have budged Madcap, but her sphere reacted with ten tons of force, sending her crashing into the hex-thing. The conjuration stopped blasting for a moment and wrapped its tentacles around the sphere as Madcap screamed shrilly.
Then the bubble popped, and Madcap dropped out of the hex-beast's grasp. Madcap scrambled to get away from the thing, but the tentacles sought her out. In pure panic reflex, Madcap grabbed the nearest tentacle and pulled at it. She whipped the hex-squid off of its 'feet' (for want of a better word) and chucked it a good five feet. "HEY!" one of the spectators yelled, "You almost HIT us!"
"Excuse me," Swashbuckler addressed that man, "this may be a Cincinatti thing, but in case it hasn't occurred to you: THIS IS DANGEROUS? You could easily get HIT, and we're a tad too busy to deflect every stray energy bolt?"
"Yeah, but..." the man paused, and he looked around at the wreackage already wrought, and the patently obvious registered with him. "oh crap," he said in a small voice and broke for the door, closely followed by most the rest of the crowd.
The conjure-beast picked itself up and advanced menacingly. "It could be a lot worse," the Corsair said nonchalantly as the power gems flared again. "Pandora could have given that thing the wits to actually use the Eye of Argon or Infinto's Thanotic Gauntlet."
Madcap barely evaded one of the tentacles that tried to grab her, and she scrambled to hide behind Swashbuckler. "Why didn't my bubble go up?" she asked, more to herself than anyone else.
"My guess is that that conjuration drained you of the energy that you use to create those bubbles," Swashbuckler replied without any real worry in his voice. "The other things you're carrying with you should still work, but for the meantime, my dear, you're quite vulnerable."
"OMIGAWD! Whut'mIgonnado?" Madcap looked around frantically.
"I suggest that you take refuge under that table right under THERE." Swashbuckler pointed at a table near the edge of the wreckage that was still upright.
Madcap scrambled under the table, but looked around and didn't find any real protection. "HEY! What good is THIS?"
"Wait for it..."
Then the Pharaoh's Ankh, which Madcap had set down beside her, seemed to float out of her reach, and the Silver Ghost allowed her invisibility to drop, with the Ankh in her hand. Dropping the Astro-Witch's scepter and firmly taking the Ankh in her good hand, Stacy held it forward and flew at the hex-squid. "HEY!" Madcap yelped, "That's MINE!"
"I'm not even gonna bother dignifying that with a response," Stacy growled. "STOP!" she yelled at the hex-thing. "By the authority of the Pharaoh, I order you... whatever your name is... oh crap, I need to know your name... and you don't have a name... crud... OH! You have no name! You don't really exist! You're just one of those Conjuration thingies that Pandora's Box creates! You have no right to exist, so by the authority of the Pharaoh, I order you to GO AWAY!" The Conjure beast stopped stock still, and then shuddered for a moment. Then, like a pricked soap bubble, it just sort of 'popped' and dissolved back into an inchoate mass of swirling energies, leaving several items strewn about the floor where it had been.
"That was freaking pathetic," Goldstar sneered as he staggered up.
"She got rid of the damned thing, which is far better than you did," Swashbuckler reproved as he picked up the odd sphere that he'd started with, which now a weird luster.
"It's not over yet," the Corsair pointed out as he picked up the odd packet that he'd thrown in. As he extracted PowerBlast's Omni-Bracer from its rack and slipped it on his arm, he pointed over to Pandora, who was busily recalling all the swirling energy back to her cask.
"Expect a wave of nasty," Swashbuckler said as he removed the Jade Dragon's power stone from its 'theftproof' cage. "As I recall, Pandora tends to pattern what the young lady terms 'conjurations' after 'Sins' or 'Woes'. I'm not sure if that's part and parcel of that cask's mechanism, or if she's tapping into some Jungian principle, or if it's just her sense of humor."
"Sense of humor?" the Corsair echoed, "Pandora has a sense of humor? And no one told me?"
Swashbuckler continued, "Nasty forms based on some driving principle of evil or personal flaw. Given the amount of concentration that Pandora's giving this, I'd say to expect it in 14... 13..."
"uhm Mister Swashbuckler?" Stacy piped up, "I know that it's not exactly heroic or anything, but why don't you just zap her from here, y'know, before she finishes and sets whatever she's working on loose?"
"Not heroic," Swashbuckler allowed, "but quite pragmatic. However, while whatever Pandora's cooking up in her box will be quite nasty, it won't be anywhere near as nasty as whatever would crawl out of that thing if she didn't finish it. If it's finished, it has definition, limits, a purpose, and it will be under control. If we 'zap' her and render her unconscious, whatever it is will be unfinished, without clear definition, and it will most likely mutate to adapt to whatever we throw at it, and it will lack a purpose. And things like that without a purpose or control tend to default to simple wanton destruction and killing."
Swashbuckler, Goldstar and the Corsair braced what Stacy took to be weapons, aiming them in the general direction of Pandora's Box. But when Pandora finished fiddling around with the box, even seeing this, she opened the box with a fiendish smirk. Instead of a large slavering monster, a swarm of small, chicken-sized winged things with scales instead of feathers, four taloned legs, and long serrated-edge beaks flew out. "What ARE those things?" Goldstar gasped as he blasted away, potting a few, but not really diminishing the swarm that much.
"I'm not sure," Swashbuckler admitted as he swept a long tongue of green flame over the swarm. "Possibly the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. More likely manifestations of free-floating anxiety or neuroses."
"Nasty," the Corsair growled as he shifted from one setting of the Omni-Blaster to another, taking out one bird-thing after another. "Hopefully, they're not Doubts; those things can cripple even the strongest man." He found a setting that created wide nets, bagging four or five of the foul fowl at a time, and stuck with that.
But while the three men could stop individuals or small groups, they couldn't stop the swarm, which seemed to issue from Pandora's Box in a never-ending stream. But the Woe-swarm didn't attack the three heroes. Instead, it washed past them and scurried to pick up all the relics and power items and power gems and so on. Some of them flew with their prizes directly back to Pandora. Others concentrated on gathering as much swag as they could and stashing it into Morgawse's Black Cauldron. But instead of trying to fly the cauldron of loot back to Pandora, the jinx-birds quickly arranged themselves in two straight lines all the way back to her. Then they scooted the pot along the ground to her, passing it from one set of hands to another in a single quick fluid motion. "Oh Crap!" Goldstar snapped.
"That's NOT what we should be worrying about!" Stacy yelled, pointing in another direction. "Stop THAT!" Following Stacy's finger, the three heroes turned to see a smaller version of the original octopus-like hex-beast push aside one of the security guards and wrap its tentacles around a high-tech looking peacock-backed chair.
"What?" Goldstar snarked, "She's the Spanish Inquisition? She's gonna sic the Comfy Chair on us?"
"That's the Power Throne of the Phantom Queen, idiot!" the Corsair snapped. "If that little squid-thing is the same as the big one was, then it's renovated the power throne! It has great power that's just been restored, and among the OTHER things it can do, it can FLY and has FORCE FIELDS, which means that if Pandora gets her body backside in it, she can escape!"
"How do you know that?"
"Simple," Swashbuckler said that left 'simpleton' unsaid but clearly understood, "Like the young lady, we DID OUR HOMEWORK! We actually read up on what was being exhibited here! We didn't just show up and say 'I'm the hero, so who wants my autograph?'"
"Hey, where'd the Silver Ghost get to?" Goldstar asked, looking around.
"aaahhh... very nice move," Swashbuckler sighed appreciatively, taking in the scene.
"It would have been," the Corsair grumped, "IF someone hadn't clued in Pandora." Indeed, both the Purple Witch and her jinx-swarm were frantically searching around for the girl who had become a wild card in the game.
Unfortunately for them, they were looking for the wrong wild card. Spence, who had been biding his time on the floor, popped up and shoved a card into Pandora's face with his left hand. "Look at this!"
"Your... library card?" Pandora asked reflexively.
"Wrong hand." With his right hand, Spence squirted pepper spray into Pandora's eyes. As the Purple Witch screamed with surprise and pain, Spence took advantage of her confusion and that confusion's effect on the Jinx-swarm, to grab Morgawse's Cauldron (and all the nasties that were in it), and charged through the swarm to the protection of the three heroes.
Or at least he gave it a damn good try. The Jinx-swarm, well, swarmed around him, biting and clawing and doing a very good job of ripping his clothes and generally doing a good job of making him miserable. The Phantom Queen's Power Throne moved through the swarm, and it looked like the Purple Witch was going to use it to shove Spence back to the Witch, who was having the pepper spray wiped from her eyes by her daughter.
But just as the Power Throne was right up to Spence, the Silver Ghost, who'd been riding along invisibly in the seat, let herself reappear and grabbed him. "Spence! Are you all right?" Not bothering to let him answer, Stacy pulled him to her protectively, and pulled the Black Cauldron from his hands. She swung the Cauldron around as a bludgeon, scattering the Jinx-swarm. Clearing a path through the swarm, Stacy fought her way to the protection of the three older heroes. Once they were comparatively safe, she asked again, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah," Spence winced through his pain. "But my mother's never gonna forgive me for what I did to Uncle Phil's jacket..."
"So, you hid on the seat of the Power Throne, knowing that Pandora would let it pass through her swarm unmolested," Swashbuckler said to Stacy with approval in his tone. "Very good. See, Corsair? There IS hope for the coming generation, after all!"
"Yes, this DOES simplify matters, greatly," the Corsair agreed. "Young lady! This is very important. I need your undivided attention."
"Yes sir, Mister Corsair? What is it?"
"THIS." the 'Corsair' turned the power of the Entrancer's Hypno Wheel on Stacy full-blast, catching her by surprise. Then quickly, he turned the Hypno-Wheel on Swashbuckler, and then Goldstar.
He tried to catch Spence as well, but Spence quickly turned and shielded his eyes. "What are you DOING?" Spence demanded.
"Well, _I_ never said that I was the Crimson Corsair," the man purred. "Old Swash over here just assumed that. Still, I'll just bet that you get a lot of mileage out of being underestimated. So-" the villain adjusted Dr. Catalyst's Chemo-gun and glopped Spence in a sticky epoxy derivative. "THERE! That should keep you out of my hair- what there is of it left- while leaving room for mistakes." He removed his jacket with a flourish, combining that with unwrapping that odd packet that he'd thrown into the Hex-beast's maw, strapping the metal harness within the wrapping paper onto himself, and tying a black scarf-mask over the top of his head, all in one fluid motion. "I AM _PLUNDERLORD_!" he announced with a stentorian bellow.
"Plunderlord?" Pandora asked, aghast. "What the hell do you think you're doing, cribbing my game?"
"What do you THINK I'm doing, you old witch?" he shot back. "I'm taking everything that isn't nailed down! Same as you."
"WHAT?" Pandora shrieked, "Do you have any idea of the HOCK that I had to go into, to finance this?"
"I don't know, and to be honest, I don't really care," Plunder Lord snarled as he covered Swashbuckler and the Silver Ghost in epoxy-goop. "After my power harness blew a gasket, I had to resort to honest labor! For the past twenty years, I've been teaching Ballet, Tap, Jazz and Interpretative Dance in Fort Wayne, Indiana! Fort Wayne, Pandora! Do you have any idea of how TESTY I am, after 20 years of Fort Wayne?" He proved his point by firing with the Chemo-gun when Pandora made a move for her Cask of Woes. He adjusted the Chemo-Gun again, and froze both Pandora and her cask in a coating of thick ice.
"There. Now, all that I need, before I make my breathtaking getaway with the better part of a hundred mil in saleable goodies..." he turned to Madcap, who was still cowering under that table. "Is YOU."
"Me?" Madcap squeaked, terror showing past her domino mask.
"Not YOU, just your power gimmicks," Plunderlord assured her. "The Crimson Claw will pay at least 100 grand to get his power talon back, and I'm sure that someone will pay dearly for a strength belt, a pair of speed boots, or a telekinesis wand."
"But!" Madcap blubbered, "But you can't rip ME off! I'm a Supervillain, like YOU!"
"What? You think that this is a Saturday morning cartoon?" he paused. "They DO still show cartoons on Saturday morning, don't they?" Madcap must whimpered back at him. Plunderlord winced and said, "Say something stupid or obnoxious."
"I feel like I'm stepping on a kitten."
"HEY!" Madcap snapped out of her terror, "FUCK YOU, y'old Creep!"
"Thank you, that'll do nicely for both." Plunderlord reached down and took ahold of the Astro-Witch's wand. But Madcap fought him for it, and with her ridiculously bolstered strength, she threw him a good twenty feet into the air. Still, Plunderlord dealth with the momentum, spun, and landed nimbly on his feet.
"Huh?" Madcap grunted, "How'd I do THAT?"
"You're wearing the Blue Bison's strength rig, remember?" Plunderlord reminded her. "There are two things that you should be aware of: First, the Bison was called that due to his habit of causing lots of collateral damage. And that was due to the fact that the mechanism that controlled how much force he was applying had a nasty tendency to STICK at 'Full Power'. So, every time that you so much as wiggle your pinky, you're exterting ten TONS of force. At everything."
"Yer tryin' to mind game me, like that kid did with the speed boots," Madcap said cagily.
"Lay a finger on that table over there. Just TOUCH the table."
Madcap did so, and the table collapsed. She let out a muffled squeak, and then collected herself, and asked, "Okaaayy... and what's the second thing?"
Plunderlord snapped up the arm with PowerBlast's Omni-Bracer and placed a laser targeting dot on Madcap's forehead. "Second, without that force bubble of yours, you have neither any protection whatsoever, nor any means of escape. Drop the scepter and take off the power talon and the speed boots, and I'll let you live long enough to make your excuses to the Police."
"But... but we're both Supervillains! We're on the Same Side!"
"Please! I'm a professional criminal, and you're an annoying snot-nosed little brat who's standing between me and a retirement at a standard of living that Diamond Jim Brady would envy. The only reason that I don't just shoot you is that taking things off a bloody corpse is messy. Now turn around."
"Turn around? Why?"
"Because I'm going to take that strength belt off of you. I don't trust you to do it yourself." With a whimper Madcap turned around, and the second that she was turned around, Plunderlord shot her in the back with a stun beam.
Stacy had snapped out of her trance at right about 'but we're both supervillains', and by the time Plunderlord got to 'a bloody corpse is messy', she had a good idea as to what was going on. Using her PK, she stripped the epoxy-goop off of her (her 'silver' sheath had kept it from bonding to her skin, hair or clothes), and clouted Goldstar upside his helmet. She would have preferred to have Swashbuckler by her side, but she wasn't sure that he'd survive a smack powerful enough to snap him out of his trance. As Plunderlord reacted to the sound of Stacy's fist against Goldstar's helmet, she reached out and grabbed Plunderlord by the bracer.
To Stacy's surprise, while she was able to pull Plunderlord off his target (and his feet), he turned that momentum against her. He leveraged them both to get back onto his feet and threw Stacy into the ground with her own strength. As Stacy hit the ground, Goldstar managed to wrap his head around what was going on and went for Plunderlord. The supervillain intercepted his grapple, reversed it and threw Goldstar down on top of Stacy.
As Goldstar reeled, Plunderlord extended the prod on his 'rapier', and touched it to a panel on the *ahem!* 'hero's' helmet. "The problem with you 'techno-savvy' types is that you rely too much on your toys," he sneered. "There's no App for brains. For instance, the problem with having a fully-enclosed, sensor-heavy helmet like that is," he sent a jolt through his probe into the panel on the helmet, "if your main internal router gets fried, you're not only without all that fancy Tac/Ops input, you're BLIND."
Stacy gathered her wits and bucked Goldstar off her back. Goldstar flailed about and made 'what happened to the lights?' noises. "And of course," Plunderlord touched a place between Goldstar's shoulder blades with the prod, "if someone were to disrupt the flow of your energies that power that flex-armor, why suddenly you're actually carrying all that heavy armor, instead of vice-versa. Not quite a form-fitting coffin, but it should throw you off what form that you might have." There was a spark, and Goldstar jerked, and his posture changed, and he shifted about uncertainly. "Quod erat demonstrandum," Plunderlord smirked.
"Quod erat demonstrandum?" Stacy repeated, "What does that mean?"
"It means that he's pretentious," Swashbuckler sneered as he burned the goop off himself with the Jade Dragon's powerstone. "Pluderlord," he snarled, "I should have known. Even at his age, the Crimson Corsair had more panache than to rip newcomers the way you do."
"Does this mean that I'm not invited over for tea and crumpets?" Plunderlord countered snidely. Then Stacy went invisible. "Oh, THAT was a clever and unforeseen move," Plunderlord sneered.
"Don't let him rattle you," Swashbuckler warned Stacy as he hefted his walking stick and prowled around his adversary's backside, forcing Plunderlord to choose which one he'd try to keep track of. "The nasty little snipes are part of his techniques. He never could walk away from a fight without at least one unwarranted crack. I think he's compensating for something."
"Unwarranted?" Plunderlord questioned. "No. Embarrassing. Yes. On the money?" he suddenly grappled Stacy, who was lunging at him invisibly, and threw her into Goldstar. "Always."
Swashbuckler used his walking stick to bind Plunderlord's probe and they grappled. By then Spence had used Dr. Catalyst's Chemo-Gun, which Plunderlord had dropped, to dissolve the epoxy-goop on him. Watching carefully for an opening, Spence ducked in and frantically fiddled with Plunderlord's harness. Plunderlord got rid of Spence with a side kick. "Who IS that kid, anyway? What, Swashbungler, you're bringing your grandkids along with you on these things now?"
Stacy briefly wondered what Spence had been up to, but then it registered with her. Of course! He was trying to get Plunderlord's harness off of him! The nasty old fart probably didn't have any real powers, and while that Omni-Bracer thing was pretty deadly, but Stacy doubted that the old bastard would be quite as frisky without the harness. From what she'd seen before he put it on, he was still damn spry, but nothing that Swashbuckler couldn't handle.
Stacy made herself visible again, and got on the opposite side of Plunderlord from Swashbuckler, flanking the supervillain. Together, they started slowly rounding the man, keeping him off balance. As Plunderlord traded off keeping track of the two, Stacy used her PK to unsnap one of buckles on the harness. But Goldstar, who'd pulled his helmet off in order to see, had been watching the whole thing, looking for his opening to take Plunderlord out, and steal the credit for the bust. He spotted the buckle popping open, and realized what the Silver Ghost was up to. Aghast at the thought that that stupid little mutant would beat him to the glory, Goldstar let fly with an energy blast, as to knock Plunderlord out of their trap, and claim the victory for himself.
"NO!" Swashbuckler bellowed as Plunderlord was enveloped in a corona of energy. "That thing Absorbs Energy! Why do you think I didn't blast him with the Jade Dragon's dingus?"
"HAH! Thanks for reminding me!" Plunderlord's probe shot forward and latched onto the Jade Dragon's powerstone bracer. Emerald energy ran down the 'rapier' and wreathed Plunderlord. "YES! GOD, I love this!" With that, he reached out and grabbed Swashbuckler by his tweed jacket's lapel and threw him into Stacy. Goldstar tried to take control of the fight but Plunderlord intercepted him in mid-tackle, and seemed to just suck the energy right out of Goldstar's batteries.
"Let me guess," Stacy hazarded as she disentangled herself from Swashbuckler, "the more energy he has, the more energy he can absorb."
"So I understand," Swashbuckler conceded. "But I'm not sure. He's not my arch-enemy or anything; he's just someone I used to beat up every now and again, years ago."
Well, the villain wasn't ducking anymore, so Stacy did a flying tackle at him, and he handled her like she was a naughty kitten. She fumbled at his catches, which was a lot harder, now that he was charged up. Plunderlord peeled Stacy off of him like a bandaid and threw her down onto the ground, and didn't even bother to make it graceful. As Stacy dealt with the impact, Plunderlord raised his hands over his head like he was getting ready to bring both of his fists down on her HARD. His face was set in a vicious snarl, which then dropped flat. A surprised look replaced his snarl, and he went ashen in the face. He stumbled and clutched his face. He looked around, bewildered, tried to say something but couldn't, and fell to the floor.
Stacy hadn't gotten a First Aid merit badge in the Boy Scouts, but she recognized the signs from a disturbingly graphic video she'd seen on the subject. And she HAD gotten her CPR certification. "Jimenez!" she yelled, "Heart attack! Get a Paramedic in here, STAT!" She quickly unstrapped Plunderlord out of his harness, laid on hand on his chest and began pushing down regularly as she breathed into his mouth (and tried to not gag on the whiskey smell lingering on his breath).
"What did you DO to him?" Goldstar demanded, aghast.
"I didn't DO anything to him!" Stacy shot back. "He had a heart attack!"
"Oh, he just conveniently had a heart attack, just when he was about to smack you down hard? I'm supposed to believe that?"
"He was a 70+ year-old hard-living fool who had the dubious judgment to super-charge his metabolism," Swashbuckler pointed out as he smoothed his hair and adjusted the fit of his clothes. "It's been some 25-odd years since he did that. I guess that he just sort of assumed that he'd be able to handle it. That is, if he didn't think that it would somehow magically make him younger again. Or if this isn't a weird way of committing 'Death by Superhero'."
"Aren't you supposed to use two hands?" Spence asked as the Silver Ghost seemingly gently depressed the man's chest.
"With my strength? I'm not sure how much he can take; if I used both hands, I might crush his chest."
'Death by Superhero'? 'Crush his chest'? Madcap, who'd just come to and way playing possum on the floor, wasn't sure what was going on. But she knew that it had gotten WAY more serious than she was happy with.
Then Pandora's Jinx-swarm thronged around Morgawse's Cauldron (and the other vicious goodies still stashed inside it) and pulled their 'fire bucket brigade' number on it again. They scooted it back to Pandora, who was looking a little worse for wear and a touch frost-bitten. She was sitting on the Phantom Queen's power throne, took the cauldron onto her lap, and turned on the force screens. "Well, it's been fun, but I DO need to be going. Deirdre, dear: the knife."
"Of course, Mother Dear." And Deirdre gave Pandora the Tainted Silver Dagger of Sargoth the Sacrificer.
Right in the heart.
Deirdre looked into Pandora's shocked face as the mother's blood- and power- was leeched out of her by the unholy blade. "Did you honestly think that I wasn't studying mother?" Deirdre said in a disturbingly calm and rational voice. "Did you honestly think that I wouldn't realize that you'd need to consecrate the throne with another sacrifice of something loved? And what do you have left, after all that you've sacrificed, that means anything to you? Except ME? And did you honestly think that I wouldn't notice that your escape plan only had provisions for ONE?" Deirdre twisted the knife with a juicy crunch and pulled the blade out. She let her mother's heart's blood gush into the Unholy Grail of the Blood Madonna. She gave the shocked faces of her audience a sour look and croaked, "Don't judge ME... You only had to put up with that witch for a couple of hours at a time! I had to LIVE with that! I've been expecting her to do something like this to ME for 30 YEARS! I've been patiently waiting for her to DIE, and then she manages to steal relics that would extend HER life- not mine- indefinitely! Well, it's MY TURN NOW!" With that, she pushed her mother's body out of the seat of the chair. Once settled, she drank deep of her mother's blood, and a cold harsh smile passed over her lips. Then she raised the Unholy Grail in a toast, and hefted the Dark Crystal of Urskeks with her other hand. She, the Cask of Woes, the Black Cauldron, all of its contents and the power throne all disappeared in a blink, and the Jinx-swarm sort of dissolved into thin air. Only the dead body of Pandora, the Purple Witch was left.
And it occurred to Madcap, lying on the floor, that maybe, just maybe, being a supervillain wasn't such a hot career choice after all.
"SHIT!" Goldstar blurted, "We've got to catch her! With all that black magic junk she's got, she's a menace to everyone in the Tri-State Area!"
"Exactly HOW are we supposed to follow her?" Swashbuckler asked with asperity.
As Goldstar struggled with that, Stacy tisked and pulled her mobile phone out from its armored holster and flipped it open. "CHILL, Goldbug," she said as she pressed an ultra button on her phone. Then she tapped in a code one-handed and looked at the phone's screen. "She's in the parking lot. She's probably trying to pack that stupid throne into a van or something. Jimenez, get some guys out there; she should be safe for your guys to handle by the time they get there."
"Ah, you planted a tracer on the power throne and, I'd say a gas bomb as well?" Swashbuckler said with wry approval.
"It was that obvious?" Stacy wailed.
"LOGICAL," Swashbuckler corrected her gently. "It was a logical, prudent, foresightful thing to do. The logical is often only obvious in hindsight. If then."
Madcap still wasn't sure what was going on, but she'd heard an old show biz bit of advice: leave 'em while you're looking good. And Madcap knew that she wouldn't look good in Juvie scrubs, so this was the time to leave.
Of couse, just walking out was pretty much out of the question. And super-strength or no super strength, she was getting her ass handed to her in the hand-to-hand department, so fighting her way out wasn't in the cards either. So she'd have to sneak her way out. She'd just levitate herself up to the ceiling with the star scepter while they weren't looking, and slip out one of the upper windows.
Of course, being sneaky with those pretty sparkly lights the scepter created would be a bear, but it wasn't like she was up to her ass in options.
Okay, everyone was watching the bimbo in silver (like always) saving the crabby old fart's life, like anyone really cared if he croaked or not. If there was a better chance to get, it wasn't gonna come her way before they remembered that she was there. Slowly, carefully, she stretched her hand out for the star scepter, and just when her fingers were just touching the haft: "HEY! SHE'S AWAKE! MADCAP'S TRYING TO GET AWAY!" Madcap decided that she really did NOT like that kid with the glasses.
Madcap snatched up the star scepter and jumped up with everything she had. She barely remembered that she didn't have her bouncy-ball anymore just before she hit the ceiling at Mach 100 or something, and just managed to use the scepter to brake herself before she splattered herself on the roof.
But then something exploded off the ceiling, and Madcap lost her control of the star scepter and dropped, which was one reason why she didn't try flying with it that much, it took too much concentration, and she like knowing where she was going, or at least had a reasonable idea, which she'd sort of developed a sense for when she had her bouncy-ball and-
oh! Right! She was dropping!
Madcap put everything she had into braking again, this time just before she went splat on the floor. But just as she was wrapping her head around the fact that she wasn't splat, someone yelled, "Hold it RIGHT THERE, you little NUTCASE!"
Madcap looked around, and that big guy in the gold-and-black armor was flying right at her! On pure reflex, she swung the scepter at him. She missed and he grabbed onto the scepter and tried to take it away from her. Major brainfart for Major Bling-guy. Somehow the star scepter's power synched with the power belt, 'cause she threw the Gold-guy off, and he went flying back like a home run ball. He smashed one of the support columns and went right through one of the walls of the exhibit hall, and just kept going. He didn't have his helmet on, so it was a good thing that he didn't hit either with his head. Still, Madcap struck a batter's pose and said with a big grin, "And you ran right into that, didn't ya, CHUMP?"
"Oh?" the other old wiseass guy, the one who hadn't had a heart attack asked in that really dry, gee-I'm-so-witty way, "You intended to take out a main support column, and a load-bearing wall?"
"Load-bearing wall? What's a load-bearing wall?"
"A load-bearing wall is a wall that supports a major portion of the stress of holding up the roof or upper floors of a building," the old guy said like he was her Math teacher or something. "And from the sounds that I'm hearing, I'd say that you just smashed the support for this portion of the Exhibition Hall. And there are three stories above us."
"WHAT?" Madcap yelped. She looked at the column, and it was cracked all to hell. There was a big chuck smashed out of it, and it looked like the pillar was broken all the way through. There was a groan, and some rubble came sifting out from the column, and a big chunk started slipping out of place. CRAP! Crap, crap, crap, crappity crap! Why did shit like this always happen to HER? Madcap ran over to the column and tried to shift the chunk back into place.
She ripped it right out of the column, and the entire roof shook. "Oh... Crud..."
She tried to shove it back in, but she only succeeded in pulverizing the chunk in her hands. As Madcap whined and her brain went totally white with panic, she felt something at her waist, and the power belt slipped from around her waist. Suddenly, the chunk of concrete was, like, a shit-ton heavier, and it almost crushed Madcap. But a silvery hand stopped the block. Madcap opened the eyes that she'd shut in terror, and the Silver Ghost was standing there, straining like a mother in birth to keep the block in place. But somehow the Blu-er, Powerhouse's strength belt was wrapping itself around her middle. As soon as the catches were secure, the Ghost straightened up and shoved the chunk back into place. It took some effort but she managed to get it back and keep it there.
Enraged that the Silver Ghost was upstaging her- AGAIN- Madcap demanded, "HEY! Waddya think yer doin?"
"Madcap," the Ghost grated out through clenched teeth, "in case it's escaped your notice, there is more to being super strong than throwing cars around and yelling 'Hulk SMASH!"
"Yeah, well, I never got to DO that, and-"
"PART of that is knowing how to apply force!" the Ghost bulldozed over her. "YOU were applying all 10 TONS of force over a surface the size of those hands of yours. _I_ on the other hand, am applying that 10 tons, and my own three tons' worth, all over the column with my PK, so the concrete isn't stressed. Also, I know where to apply the force, so the column isn't thrown off balance, which would make everything even WORSE."
Suddenly, it connected with Madcap that she had her exit cue. "Ooohhh-KAY, it looks like you got it all covered, so there's no reason for me to hang around and... bye-bye, Silvie!"
But before Madcap could run, the Ghost whipped out an arm that was like it was made of steel or somethin', wrapped the crook of that arm around Madcap's neck and dragged her back into a near-choke-hold. "NO Y'DON'T MADCAP! You are NOT running out on me and leaving holding the bag again! Not THIS time! No, this is completely, 100% YOUR FAULT, and for once, you aren't flaking out on it! I may not be able to hold up this column long enough for them to evacuate everyone and get some supports in here! And if that ceiling collapses on me, then I am taking YOU with me!"
Madcap completely lost it, and broke down whining.
"Oh, for the love of God, DO at least try to have a little personal dignity?" Swashbuckler sniped as he walked up.
"I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die, I don't wanna DIE!"
"So I take it that you're less than happy with your prospects of impending demise?"
"You know, it's going to take at least an hour for Emergency Services to shore up this up to the point where we can stop supporting it," Swashbuckler told Stacy as he laid his hands on the column. "This is going to be quite stressful, just as it is; it's going to be even worse with her yammering away. You might as well let her go. Besides, it's not very heroic to drag an enemy to their death."
"NO WAY!" the Ghost snapped, "After all the pain the ass that she's been, she's finally going to PAY for it, one way or another!" Then she noticed something. "It's getting easier to hold up... are you doing something?"
Swashbuckler gave her a wiseguy look. "I'll tell you... but I can't reveal a professional secret like that with someone like HER listening. Lord alone knows what she'd do with it."
The Ghost grumped but said, "OKAY! Okay, but... she paused and racked her brain for something. "Madcap! I'll let you go, but first you have to swear!"
"Not CUSS, you idiot! I'll let you go, but you've got to swear, NO MORE SUPERVILLAINING! No more running around stealing things as Madcap! No more Madcap at ALL!"
"Okay, okay, I swear! No more supervillaining! No more Madcap!"
"Like I'd trust you with a bag of lint!" the Ghost snarled. "Put your hand on the cross tucked into my belt."
"The Pharaoh's Ankh! The priceless relic that you stole, remember? Put your hand on that."
Madcap did so, and the Ghost ran her through a very thorough oath, mentioning some names that Madcap sort of recognized from comics and old Mummy movies, and finishing with, "By my Immortal Soul, do I so swear!"
The Ghost gave Madcap this real 'gotcha!' evil grin. "You think you're getting away, Madcap. You're not. This is the Pharaoh's Ankh. It has magical powers."
"Magical powers?" Madcap gleeped, "But I couldn't get it to do shit!"
"It's not a power ring, Dum-dum! I used this to get rid of a GOD! Okay, he was an old-time Egyptian god, but still, he was a god! And I got rid of that squid-thing that Pandora sicced on us with it, remember? This this has MAJOR power! And YOU just swore an oath on it, binding it with your IMMORTAL SOUL."
Madcap wilted and whimpered.
"And Miss?" Swashbuckler added, "Speaking as someone who's been around, seen a lot, and been involved in more weirdness than Indiana Jones: Egyptian Magic is real. And it isn't weaker for being old; if anything, it's even nastier. If you even think about breaking your vow, the curse will kick in, in the most effective way possible. The most likely being that it will simply lead the authorities to you, and you'll go to JAIL. And that's if you're lucky."
Madcap made a noise like a stepped-on puppy. The Silver Ghost dropped Madcap from her choke hold.
"There. Now GET! You piss me off, just by breathing..."
"Right, right, right! Pissing off! I'm outta here!" With that, Madcap retrieved the star scepter and used it to fly out the hole in the wall.
When Madcap was well away, and the Emergency Services guys were piling in, Swashbuckler kited a sneaky look over at Stacy and asked, "You slipped a tracking device on her?"
"Built onto the star scepter."
"I figured that it would be something like that. But why that business with the choke-hold and the sacred oath?"
"Well, on the off chance that she does think of a tracer, she'll be checking her costume, not the star scepter. Besides, after all the crap that Madcap's put me through, I owed her a big heaping helping of payback. And as for the oath: well, I wanted to rattle Madcap's cage some more, so I gave her a reason to think that there was some vast cosmic justice at work when the Cops come knocking at her door. Besides, this Ankh thing really IS magic! The oath just might stick!"
"As your Elder, I must disapprove of such petty vindictiveness," Swashbuckler said sternly. Then he cracked a wiseass grin and added, "But as a fellow scapegrace, I can only say, 'Well Played'."
"Thanks for the graceful out," Stacy nodded in return. "By the way: exactly how ARE you helping to keep this thing up?"
Swashbuckler gave a rueful chuckle. "I really do wish that it was some esoteric discipline that I could teach you, or some trick of Physics. No, rather, it's a long rambling story of adventure, romance and intrigue, full of twists and turns and surprises. And it's not every day that I get to regale a pretty young girl with tales of my adventures. Well, and not have her ignore me for her cell phone..." and for the better part of the hour that it took for the Emergency Services to first get in Scissor-Lifts to support the ceiling, and then to construct emergency braces, Swashbuckler entertained Stacy with a long rambling story of adventure, romance and intrigue, full of twists and turns and surprises. "And there you have it! That crystalline orb that I threw into the Conjure-squid was constructed back in the 19th Century by some nutcase pseudo-scientist, who somehow made it affect gravity. I channel that through these bracers that I wear, and they allowed me to pull off the most amazing stunts, leap to the top of not-that-tall buildings, and lift and throw large objects, and like all that. Of course that was back when I could take a fall without breaking my hip..."
"You were pretty da-ah, dang spry back there."
"Yes, but you'll notice that I availed myself of ranged weapons as soon as I could," Swashbuckler pointed out as he finally was able to pull away.
The emergency tech told Stacy that she could finally step down, and they clamped the reinforcing brace in place. Stacy massaged feeling back into her shoulder, and then gingerly used her PK to remove the Blue Bison's power belt. After the Sheriff's deputy took custody of the belt as evidence, Stacy was about to ask where she could find some food. Exerting that much power for that long was tiresome business, and she needed to stoke the furnace. Heck, she'd probably sleep until NOON tomorrow!
But before she could say anything, Goldstar, his left shoulder stuck out straight from his body in a traction brace, his face (which was blue with bruises) dark and stormy with visibly restrained ire. Awkwardly pointing his finger at Stacy he raged, "YOU LET MADCAP ESCAPE!"
"NO," Stacy replied calmy, pulling her cell phone out of its holster and flipping it open, "I just shut down the fight, before anyone got hurt."
"What do you call THIS?" Goldstar pointed at his immobilized left arm.
"Okay, before anyone important got hurt," Stacy amended with a snip.
"You let a dangerous criminal GET AWAY!" Goldstar stormed.
"No, I know exactly where she is," Stacy said calmly looking at her mobile. "When she goes home, we'll just tell the police where she is, they'll go and talk to her parents, and... weird... according to this, Madcap should be..." she walked a few steps over, "...right about..." she looked into a pile of rubble, picked at it and picked up a scrap of metal, "...here..." Giving Goldstar the stink eye, Stacy snarled, "You tore off the bug that I planted on the star scepter, when you grappled with Madcap for it! Now we don't know where she IS!"
"Oh No, you mutant FREAK!" Goldstar bellowed, "You're not blaming this on ME! You're not using your mutant powers to foist the blame off on me! You're UNDER ARREST!"
"Okay, Goldstar, explain to me exactly where the Silver Ghost committed a crime," Assistant DA Tamika Harlow said calmly, at the Hall of Justice.
"She interfered with me in the course of my duty, and allowed a dangerous felon to escape!"
"Goldstar, you're not a Police Officer," Harlow pointed out calmly. "There's no 'course of duty' involved."
"Hey, I am her Guardian, she had a duty to step down and let me handle it! If she had, Madcap would be in custody right now! Of course, that's probably the reason why she got in my way, so her little freak buddy could get away!"
"Considering the fact that Madcap's spent a good part of the last month trying to make the Silver Ghost look foolish, I sincerely doubt that that last part is a realistic interpretation," Harlow said. "And where do you get this 'Guardian' bit?"
"From what I heard, when she cut that deal with Kaltenborn, SPECTRUM, as an entire organization, was made her collective guardian. And I'm a member of SPECTRUM, so legally I'm her guardian. So she disobeyed me when she didn't back down and continued to interfere. Which means that she's violated her Probation," Goldstar finished smugly, like he'd won a debate.
"First of all," Harlow counted it off on her fingers, "the Silver Ghost is NOT on Probation."
"WHAT? But she committed Grand Larceny and Criminal Assault!"
"The charges were dropped," Stacy said from where she was sitting.
"She cut a deal with Kaltenborn," Harlow took over again. "Deal with it. Second, you're NOT her guardian."
"What? But I'm a member of SPECTRUM!"
"Sort of," Harlow allowed. "Look, when Kaltenborn and SPECTRUM cut this group Guardianship deal, they still had to get it past the Family Courts. The only reason that Family Services signed off on it in the first place, is that the Foster Care and Orphanage system is already dangerously overloaded, and placing a known super-powered mutant in either of them would be like throwing a lit stick of dynamite into an oil refinery. Still, just signing off onto anything as vague as 'SPECTRUM' was unthinkable, so they insisted that each member assuming responsibility signed for it. And Goldstar? You aren't on the list. So, you're not her Guardian. Period."
"Well, doesn't the fact that they DID that prove that she's got some sort of weird mind control powers?" Goldstar argued. "I mean, WHY would they do that, if they weren't being mind controlled? The only reason why I'm not just nodding my head and saying what a great kid she is, is because I've got telepathy baffles in my helmet!"
"You're right," Harlow droned sarcastically, "'Responsible' and 'Superhero' just don't go together. At least, for you. Look, the whole 'Mind Control' thing has already been brought up in court and dismissed. There is NO SIGN that the Silver Ghost has any such powers."
"She STILL interfered, when I tried to take down Madcap! She deliberately LET Madcap escape!"
Harlow let out a gusty breath of annoyance. "The problem with that, Goldstar, is that the Silver Ghost ran that 'tracer on the scepter' trick past several members of SPECTRUM, our SWAT chief and DA Kaltenborn. They all signed off on it as a legitimate tactic that minimized the danger to civilians. AND, there's the significant fact that the Silver Ghost was deputized by the DA for the express purpose of brining in Madcap; so if anyone's guilty of Obstruction, it's YOU. And the fact that you're on Parole doesn't help you."
"PAROLE?" Stacy echoed. "You're on PAROLE? You've been giving me all this guff and you're on PAROLE?"
"And on that note, you can go, Silver Ghost," Harlow said.
"He keeps SAYING that..." Stacy noted wryly.
"NO, Goldstar," Harlow said as he rose to his feet in outrage, "YOU sit down. We still have to iron out exactly how you're going to pay for the damages to the convention center, which you share responsibility for with Madcap."
Stacy carefully exited the Ladies' room at the Hall of Justice, after changing out of her jumpsuit and cape in one of the stalls. She took a deep breath and headed for the front entrance, where she'd catch a taxi to near one of SPECTRUM's special concealed entryways. But then she heard, "Hey! STACY!" Turning around, she saw Spence trot toward her, wearing a Cincinnati PD PAL sweatshirt and baggy exercise pants. "Hey," he said when he caught up with her, "what're you doing here, Stacy?"
"Same thing you are," Stacy replied, thinking a mile a minute, "I just got through making my statement to the Police about what I saw." Which was true, though her report was a lot more involved than she'd let on.
"Oh? I didn't see you anywhere in the room once Madcap showed up. I know, 'cause I looked! Hard!"
Thinking even faster, Stacy said, "Well, do you remember that Cyber- Green-Warpig armor that was on display, that we were looking at? Well, when Madcap showed up, I tried to get out but couldn't, 'cause the Lookie-Loos were blocking the exit. So, I climbed into the armor and shut the hatch. Hey, it was a lot safer than being out where you were!" Seeing a dire need to change the subject, Stacy checked out Spence's clothing and hair. "So, that glue gun really did a number on you, didn't it?"
"You saw that?"
"Not everything, but that I caught."
"You wouldn't happen to know of a good way to get epoxy out of your hair, wouldja?" Spence said plaintively, running a hand through his still-sticky hair.
"Weeellll... I hear good things about peanut butter," Stacy guessed. "And if I'm wrong... well, you might just have to shave it off anyway... and... well... you might look GOOD with a shaved head!" Spence gave her a 'very not funny' scowl. "Well, at least you completely showed up that dork Corey Griswold!" Stacy pointed out. "And what's Corey's story about what happened?"
"Dunno. He hasn't woken up yet."
"He hasn't woken up. He's not really hurt, but while I snapped out of it pretty quick, he's taking his own sweet time, coming to."
"Oh Yah." Then Spence's mother came up looking for him. She started off by fussing at him for the state he was in, and going and foolishly putting himself in danger like that. Then she noticed Stacy standing there, and suddenly she was all bright and cheerful and polite. Mrs. Chase was one of those trim, sleek, very polished looking blonde women who could be anywhere from 30 to 60, and you'd never know it. She politely asked about Miz Wickham and that trust fund and if Stacy was related to the Pennsylvania Conrads, and a few other things.
Suddenly Stacy got the impression that she was sparring WAY out of her weight class. Mrs. Chase struck her as one of those women who gossip pretty much for a living, and she was working Stacy for something, and Stacy didn't have a clue as to what she was fishing for. As a matter of fact, Stacy wasn't completely sure that she hadn't let something slip already. She made an excuse, and got the hell out of there, before Mrs. Chase managed to work her for something that she couldn't afford to let slip.
As she got into a cab, Stacy felt that she'd been safer when she'd been trading punches with Plunderlord. Maybe if she talked with Miz Wickham, and told her everything that she'd said, maybe Miz Wickham would know if she'd put her foot in her mouth, and how bad.
At SPECTRUM Headquarters, the Green Witch paced like an expectant father. "Chill out, GW," Azure said, "Harlow at the DA's office said that statements that the witnesses gave pretty much clear Stacy of any wrongdoing, and she was released about an hour ago. Apparently, it was just Goldbrat being a brat, and trying to sluff the blame of his brainfart off on Stacy."
"But what was that about ambulances at the convention center?" Karen asked with grave concern. "And a Death?"
"THAT," said a polished voice from the side, "was a particularly quick and nasty human sacrifice, aided and abetted by the use of two spectacularly vile mystic artifacts that had just been given a recharge." The heroes turned to see a silver haired man of some sixty-odd years, snappily dressed with an ascot and a stout walking stick standing there elegantly.
"How did you get past our security system?" Cal demanded.
"Security system?" the man responded ingenuously, "There was a security system?"
"Who ARE you?" the Green Witch demanded, her hands glowing ominously with emerald energy, as Azure took a supporting position on the man's flank, and Cal ducked for cover.
"Well, this IS a bit of a turnabout," the man chuckled. With a flourish, he donned a powder blue scarf-mask and cape in a single fluid movement. "I have to put on a mask, to be recognized."
"SWASHBUCKLER!" Karen said with glad recognition.
"Swashbuckler?" Cal asked as he stepped out from cover. "From the California Crusaders?"
"No, no," Karen corrected him. "'Swashbuckler' is a legacy name. This is the Original Swashbuckler!"
"Not quite," Swashbuckler admitted. "The original superhero Swashbuckler operated out of Savanna, Georgia in the 1930s and through World War II. I took up the mask back in... oh, who really cares? And there was a chap in San Francisco who ran around with the name after I retired, and didn't exactly cover it with ignominy." He waved that aside and said to Karen heavily, "I heard about Greywolf. Damn Shame... he was... he was in the finest tradition. Tyrone, Errol and the Fairbanks would have been proud to hoist a few with him."
Karen waved that aside herself. "So, what brings you out of retirement?"
"Besides the fact that retirement is boring?" Swashbuckler gave a rueful half-smile. "No, I'm not coming out of retirement. I was just touring about, looking up old acquaintances, when I heard about this 'Madcap' girl who seems to be able to return burned-out power items, and lo and behold, some idiot's holding a convention for collectors of supervillain power items? I figured. I figured that a few old friends, people who've fallen off the Wanted lists because someone had trumped their aces-up-their-sleeves, might show up, looking for a second chance at the big time."
"He's right," Cal grumped, "we should have seen that coming."
"And, well, I admit that I took advantage of the opportunity to recharge my old unfair advantage as well." From there, he regaled them with the incident at the convention. "Which brings me to why I'm here." He handed Karen the Jade Dragon's power cuff. "Would you be good enough to return this to the Police? Old habits dying hard, I did a Batman fade when Emergency Services didn't need me anymore, and I left so quickly that I forgot to return this. Would you hand it over to the Police, with my apologies?"
"Well, it's not like the Police are going to return it to the collector, not now," Azure pointed out.
"I'm not fool enough to think that I can get back in the game at this late date, Karen," Swashbuckler said grudgingly. "That was Plunderlord's mistake. But then, the Power Pirate never did know when to back off; if Blunderlord had been satisfied with the millions that he'd have gotten for the talismans that Pandora had renewed, and not tried to bully that Madcap girl for the few hundred thousand that her items might fetch, he'd probably be in Aruba by now. Instead, he's in Intensive Care. Old Plundy didn't know when to quit; when he gets out of the ICU, he's heading straight to prison. I'm wise enough to learn from his mistake."
"So, you're just wandering around, trying to scare up material for your memoirs?"
"No, that's more Jack and Diane's thing. You remember, Captain Indestructible and the Golden Sorceress? I ran into them a few months ago. They're tooling around the country in a '62 Corvette, tracking down various people to fill in the blanks for Jack's memoirs, while Diane looks for mystics who can teach her a little lore to go along with that super-sorcerer power of hers."
"So, exactly what ARE you up to, these days?"
"Would you believe... I'm looking for a protégé?"
"A protégé?" Karen asked, one eyebrow arched skeptically. "You?"
"I know, I know," Swashbuckler said ruefully, acknowledging his about-face. "I never put any stock in those bogus 'Mystic Gurus' or 'Martial Arts Masters' who were going around in the 1970s. And in my own defense, most of the ones I ran into were flat-out con artists, when they weren't even worse. But when you get to my age, well, what's the point of keeping these wonderful skills honed? Thirty years ago, after a fight like this afternoon's, I'd have gone bar-hopping to blow off steam. Now? I'm going to spend hours in a hot tub, and hope that I don't have to let my doctor yell at me.
"So, the only sensible thing is to find some talented young diamond in the rough and impart a little of my polish, which I can still polish."
"And you're thinking that Stacy- that is, the Silver Ghost- might polish well?" Cal asked warily.
Swashbuckler paused and a warm smile passed over his face. "That IS tempting. She does have the loveliest way of actually listening to you when you talk, doesn't she? Gives you a delicious sense that you're not just talking to hear your gums flap. But no," he sighed heavily. "She just doesn't need what I have to teach. Well, at least not the really crucial stuff; I suppose that I could teach her a few things about Tactics and Strategy, and Situational Control... well, almost everyone could use a shot in the arm about that... Sadly, the ones that would do the best under my tutelage are the cocky, smart-ass, know-it-all, jump-in-without-thinking daredevils who'd be the biggest pain in the ass to teach.
"Besides, she's a mutant!" he continued. "There are things going on with that girl that I have no idea as to how to deal with! Why haven't you sent her to Whateley? The Ghost is exactly the sort of student that Whateley was built to help! At least if she's there, then Humanity First! won't be badgering you to get rid of her."
"That's one of the two problems with sending Stacy to Whateley," Azure told him. "Humanity First! is one of those kinds of organizations where every concession to their demands that you make is leverage for another demand. If we sent the Silver Ghost away, they'd try to spin it to where we'd knuckled under, and they now had complete say in how we did things."
Swashbuckler gave a pained grimace and nodded. "Ah yes. THAT sort," he said sourly. "What's the other problem?"
"Stacy," Karen said bleakly. "While she won't talk about it... heck, she won't even tell us who her parents ARE... Stacy shows all the signs of being the kind of kid they used to make those 'ABC Afterschool Specials' about. She's a sweet kid, tries hard, bends over backwards to be an asset to the team..."
"Which is one of the classic signs of child from a dysfunctional home, brought into a supportive environment," Cal cut in. "Normally, Stacy's a wonderful, happy 15-year-old girl, but every time that we bring Whateley up, she just shuts down. We're afraid that she's becoming emotionally dependent on us. We need to get her to see that she has to go to Whateley, for her own sake. But we can't just TELL her to go to that school; that might break her."
"But we have a new asset," Azure said gladly."
"THAT loss?" Azure spelled out Goonstar's effect on Stacy, and their plan to use that to get the girl to get up on her hind legs and fight for herself. "It has promise..." Swashbuckler allowed, "but it's dangerous. I sense that Gloryhound has an agenda beyond stealing this girl's thunder. And to be honest, given my own sins in that direction, I feel a tad hypocritical in saying this, but he doesn't strike me as being overly concerned with ethics or the finer points of fair play. This rather clumsy play is most likely the first move in a larger game of his."
"Which is why we need someone subtle, clever, observant, and not overly concerned with ethics or the finer points of fair play, to keep an eye on him," Karen said. "So. Swash. What are you doing for the next few weeks?"