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A Whateley Universe Story

The Final Trump

By Bek D Corbin

 

Part 1

 

JJ looked around the huddled crowd for his two younger brothers. This wasn’t easy: Vic and Bart were much shorter than the rest of the crowd, being ages 11 and 9 respectively, and they had that very dangerous combination of curiosity, fearlessness, adventurousness and functional psychopathy of boys that age. On a very real level, they didn’t believe that they could be hurt. Worse, they egged each other on. Vic came up with strange, crazy, borderline suicidal ideas that were ‘cool’, and Bart was physical and dynamic enough to pull them off. Well, mostly it was a game of ‘dare, double-dare, and double-dog dare’, with both of them trying to one-up each other; the problem was this was precisely the sort of thing that would set them off.

Ground Zero™ was a video game and consumer electronics outlet with its own attached gourmet coffee shop. Some felt that the name was disrespectful to the WTC, but given the buzz that was going around the crowd, that it was a façade for a supervillain’s base, that sort of made sense. JJ had been in Ground Zero, and wasn’t impressed, either with the electronics or the coffee. But then, if it was just a cover for some super-villain’s lair, then it must have been a success even if it only covered its own payroll and expenses. Which would explain the sucky service they had.

Then something came through the second-story roof of the building without opening a door or blasting through. Whoever it was, was dressed as some variant on the ‘gentleman highwayman’ trope: he wore a long glowing ghastly green overcoat, the kind with the sort of ‘capelet’, a very high collar, big lapels and cuffs, that came down to his calves. On his head, he wore a completely blank white stocking mask, the type that Spiderman wears, only without the eyes or the webbing, and a black tricorn hat on top of that. In his hands he carried a pair of pistols styled as flintlocks, which he pointed downward toward the roof and waited.

Then the roof of the building exploded upwards. Up through the wreckage, carried aloft by a bizarre green haze, were four figures in green. The apparent leader, the man in the baggy green outfit with the darker green cape (with the requisite sinister high collar) and a blank glassy helmet that projected a hologram of a green skull, gestured towards the ‘highwayman’ and orated in a high nasal voice, “Seize him! Take him, my Mist-men! Teach this fool that NO ONE crosses the Green Mist and LIVES!” The three guys, a very capable looking guy with a pair of energy carbines, a massive guy with power gauntlets that glowed with green energy, and a slight but agile guy with a pair of swords that also glowed with green energy, advanced in proper ‘you’re going to get your ass kicked’ fashion.

Okay, it looked like things were going to get nasty. JJ had to find Vic and Bart. Fortunately, having the kind of family that looks ahead, their parents had Vic and Bart bugged, so they could find the two psychopaths when they had to. JJ pulled out his Smartphone and hit the ‘find idiots’ ultra. Typically, Vic had found and deactivated his bug. But it didn’t matter: Vic hadn’t thought to do the same for Bart, and where Frick was, Frack couldn’t be that far away.

They were only a few yards away, in the area of the alley behind Ground Zero. JJ hustled to catch up with them, but he got there just in time to see one of Bart’s cross-trainers disappear into a venting grate. Snarling that those two were forcing him to squeeze himself through a duct that they could barely fit into, JJ soldiered on. JJ was trying to figure out how he’d get through the grate into the building, which was too small for him (but not the munchkins), when the problem was solved for him. There was a resounding BOOM, the entire ventilation system rattled, and it buckled under his weight, unceremoniously dumping him out into the sub-basement lair under Ground Zero.

The place was a wreck, with the roof of the sub-basement collapsed in, exposing the basement and even the main showroom. Struts, drywall, wiring, pipes and other building materials draped down from the floors above into the high-tech esoteric research laboratory. Fortunately, most of the civilians had managed to get out, but there were one or two struggling to get out of the wreckage and calling for help.

Looking around with his Smartphone out, JJ found Vic and Bart rummaging through what looked like a high-energy crystal breeder, as though it was an ice cream cooler at the store. When he caught up with them, they were shoving slender rods of dull red crystal that were roughly 10 inches long and a quarter-inch in diameter into the ‘pouches’ of their jackets. He sneaked up behind them and pulled them off their feet by the collars of their jackets. “Hey! Wait! It doesn’t- HEY!” Vic stopped in mid-alibi when he recognized JJ, “Back off! This is OUR score!”

“Oh please!” JJ snapped, “Like I care! Let’s just get out of here before the place falls down on us!” But then a woman in a blue-and-white supersuit with overbuilt power gauntlets and a tricked out helmet dropped down and peered around carefully. “Down!” JJ hissed, shoving Vic and Bart to the ground. “M-Five,” he explained tersely. Surprisingly, both of the boys understood and hunkered down. JJ reached into a pocket and pulled out a small packet. “You’re hurt,” he whispered as he squeezed some stage blood into the corner of Vic’s mouth. “Protect your tummy.” He patted Vic’s belly, which stuck out from all the junk he had stashed there. Vic nodded, and Bart pushed forward his mouth for his own bit of drama.

Once Bart was done, JJ picked him up and carried him like a baby close to his chest, pulling Vic along by the hand. “Blue Moon!” JJ called out. “My brothers! They fell when the floor collapsed! Please!” he said piteously, “We gotta get them to a hospital!”

Blue Moon, one of the Magnificent Five, the local superhero team, gasped, “Oh my god! Come hand him over!” she reached out her hands.

But JJ just held onto both of them. “Just… just get us to an ambulance! They need me!” Always quick on the uptake, Bart whimpered piteously. Blue Moon nodded with understanding and lifted them all up out of the pit with her gravity manipulation powers. Looking around quickly, JJ spotted a paramedic loading a massively pregnant woman into an ambulance. “There!” Blue Moon wafted them over to the ambulance, and helped get Bart onto one of the gurneys. “You have to go back!” JJ insisted, “I heard someone else down there. I don’t know who, but they sounded REAL bad!”

Blue Moon nodded, and did that weird vaulting ‘sort of hop’ back down into the hole. The two paramedics bundled the boys into the back of the ambulance along with the injured pregnant woman, and then drove off at top speed with the lights and sirens going full tilt. But despite the fact that they started off in the general direction of Our Lady of Mercy hospital, the ambulance passed Our Lady without slowing down, and turned off onto an access road out of town, after shutting down the lights and sirens. The ambulance jinked around for a bit, and then seemed to pass through the solid rock wall of a cliff. The ambulance was shrouded in darkness, there was the whine of machinery, and JJ felt the van rise up. Then the lift stopped, the ambulance drove, and then the doors opened up suddenly.

“And WHO thinks that they can penetrate the secret lair of DOCTOR LUCIFER” demanded a booming, grating voice. JJ turned to face a bizarre figure with a draping red lab coat and a leering devil-mask with beard and horns… floating on nothing. He was flanked by four humanoid robots, each wielding dangerous looking energy carbines, and there was a crouching snarling canine-configured ‘warbeast’ construct.

“Hey Uncle Luke!” Vic and Bart chorused and then they clambered out of the ambulance to wrap him up in big hugs.

“Boys!” Dr. Lucifer- or ‘Uncle Luke’ as he was known in the family- gasped in a much less grating voice. “What are you doing here?”

“They went into the wreckage of the target site, to see what they could rip off,” JJ explained as he helped Lark, the *ahem!* ‘pregnant’ woman, out of the back of the ambulance. “I managed to finesse Blue Moon into getting us to Ace’s ambulance.”

Luke nodded, and started to say something, but something occurred to him. “Just a second, let me put on my face. Stand down, ABBY, Code Green.”

[Yes, Doctor,] ABBY, the lair’s concierge AI said in light feminine tones. The four drones stepped down and moved off to resume their prior functions, and the warbeast stepped down and retracted the blades along its flanks, though it stayed at his side.

When Luke returned, he’d removed the lurid devil mask and replaced it with a more natural seeming, ‘flesh-tone’ mask that displayed his features more naturally, and flexed more freely, displaying his emotions more clearly. “Why’d you do that?” Bart asked, “You look COOL with the horns!”

“Thanks,” Luke said back, “but this is more comfortable, and you can actually see my face this way.” Many years before, Dr. Lucian Harrow D.Sc. had been subjected to a process that turned him permanently invisible. There was some debate among the family as to whether this was his intention at the time or not. In the meantime, he’d developed both the mask so that people could read his expressions, and a process to turn more normal clothing invisible as well. As he put it, ‘Walking around naked is fun, but Cold!’ But the family was used to him. He leaned forward, looking at the boys with curious interest. “SO, what did you score?” Vic and Bart pulled out the crystal rods for Luke’s inspection.

Luke gave a glad ‘hmmm…’ of appreciation. But JJ groaned, “Uncle Luke, they not only broke into a heavily guarded secret lab, but one that just got trashed by a supervillain fight!”

“And? That’s the best time to break into a heavily guarded secret lab!” Luke insisted. “That’s why your father arranged the whole thing!”

“Uncle Luke, it was dangerous!” JJ insisted. “The place was falling apart! Anything could have happened! They could have gotten beaned by falling masonry, shot by a rogue sentry cannon, they could have touched a live wire, that crystal breeder could have used toxic chemicals-”

“When did you get so persnickety?” Luke cut him off. “You didn’t used to mind the boys getting into mischief.”

“I wasn’t responsible for them then!” JJ blurted. “Back then, JD was in charge of them!” It was the rule in the Harrow family that the boys were named after famous outlaws, and the girls were named after notorious witches and sorceresses. The eldest, JD was named after John Dillinger, the Depression era bank robber. The eldest girl was named Vivian Morgaine. JJ was named after Jesse James, the legendary western outlaw. Vic was named after Victor Lustig, the famous master con artist, who sold the Eiffel Tower in Paris- twice. Bart was named after the Dread Pirate Bartholomew Roberts. And the baby of the family, 6-year-old ‘Asha’, was fully named Ayesha Medea. “And they listened to JD! But they don’t respect me!”

Vic let out a disgusted noise, as to say ‘Well, DUH!’, and Bart agreed with a giggle.

Luke gave up on that with a disgusted noise of his own and pointedly changed the topic. He looked at the driver and asked Ace, “Why didn’t you call ahead and tell me they were coming along?”

Ace shrugged unrepentantly. “Procedure. Only break radio silence if a material threat is showing. And three kids in the back ain’t a material threat. Well, at least not to us.”

“Besides,” Lynx, the lithe female ‘paramedic’ who had been acting the role of Ace’s partner, smirked, “this way we got to see the look on your face!” She barely bothered to stifle a snicker.

Luke just gave them the ‘very not-funny’ laugh back, and turned to Lark. “So? How did your part of the mission go?”

Lark stretched her arms and opened the draping coat that suggested that she was massively pregnant, revealing a plastic false belly that was riddled with access pockets. “Mitigated Success,” she said. “The Phantom Highwayman broke in and snagged Priority A just before the boss set off the distraction.” Luke snarled with annoyance. “But the boss managed to scare him off before he could take anything else.” Lark unstrapped the phony pregnancy pouch and laid it on a table. “Priorities B through F are fine, and I picked up a few other interesting bits.” As she spoke, she opened up pockets within the pouch and pulled out various pieces of technology, including a ring of what JJ recognized as Terabyte-plus storage thumb drives. Luke looked over the other bits with interest, but his eye was clearly on the ring of thumb drives. Nothing interests a cutting-edge criminal scientist like seeing what another cutting-edge criminal scientist was working on. And while the Antares Group may not have been in ‘Dr. Lucifer’s’ league (at least not that he’d admit), they were a very advanced and competent group, with a reputation for producing effective and reliable high-energy equipment on commission. They might have approaches and techniques that he could find useful. “Excellent work, Lark,” he said approvingly. “As always.”

Lynx made a dismissive noise and said, “Please! She did all the work with her back. But then, she usually does…” Lynx finished with a snark at Lark.

Lark, who had been stretching her back from the strain of hauling all that weight, just shot a ‘ha-ha, very not-funny’ sneer back at Lynx. Luke ignored their byplay and turned back to Vic and Bart and asked, “So what are you going to do with these?” Luke examined the rods carefully, and haggled spiritedly with the boys for a trade: the rods for an open-ended personal force field projector project.

As the boys examined the gadget on the floor, gushing at the possibilities, JJ glowered at Luke and said, “You know that they’re just gonna get into trouble with that thing.”

“Nowhere as much as trouble as they would have with those cohesion rods,” Luke muttered back. “Besides, I’m sure that there’s someone responsible who’ll make sure that nothing bad happens to them.” Luke finished with a smirk at JJ that said that he was dumping that job into JJ’s lap.

Sensing that it was time to go, before Luke pushed his nephew’s buttons too hard, Ace cleared his throat and said, “Okay guys, get that thing together. It’s time to get you back home.” Luke had ABBY, the concierge AI, remove the running lights and sirens and ambulance company insignia panels from the van. When that was done, Ace replaced the license plates with new ones, the two boys climbed in the back with Lynx, and JJ got in the shotgun seat for the ride back to their house.

In keeping with the Harrow family’s standards of security, Luke’s vehicle bay not only had multiple discrete secret exits, but each of the exits had multiple secure options for re-entry to the stream of traffic. Ace took a circuitous route, one that by design suggested several different destinations. Then he pulled off and entered one of the richest- but not THE richest- neighborhoods in the area. Via a service alley that ran behind a stretch of near-estate level houses, the van entered a garage.

But the garage floor tilted down into a ramp as the van entered, and the van drove down into an underground complex. Ace pulled the van into the staging area of the complex. Just as Ace, Lynx and the boys were getting out, a set of hoists started hauling chains up through a shaft set into the staging area floor. After a few minutes, a ghastly green air shuttle was lifted out of the shaft, dripping with water. The grating over the shaft closed, and the shuttle lowered to disembark its passengers. The Green Mist and his three ‘Mist-men’ trudged out of the shuttle, which then lifted again and was shifted to take its place among the other specialty ‘Signature’ craft stored there. The ‘Green Mist’ took off his helmet, revealing the lean handsome face of Nick Harrow, JJ, Vic and Bart’s father. “So, Ace, how did the sting go?”

Ace gave his boss the basics of the situation. “Damn,” Nick growled, “How the hell does that Highwayman pull that shi- err, stuff off?” Then his eyes shifted to take in JJ, Vic and Bart. “And what are they doing here?”

“We were in the neighborhood when you hit Ground Zero,” JJ explained, “and ‘Pinky and the Brain’ here,” he poked a finger at his brothers, “took the opportunity to break into the basement and rip off as much as they could carry.” Bart let out a coy ‘Narf!’ “I went in and got them out, but I had to sucker Blue Moon into getting us into the ambulance along with Lark.”

“Oh? What did you score?”

“DAD! They could’a gotten crippled or KILLED in there!”

“So could I, every time I go out on a strike,” Nick said reasonably. “What’s life without a little risk?”

“DAD!”

“You have completely lost your sense of humor since JD disappeared!” Nick said as he strolled over to the costume locker and stowed the Green Mist helmet in the appropriate locker. Latigo, Marcel and Kage, the three ‘Ghost men’, or more accurately, three members of Nick Harrow’s core cadre, also walked over to the locker area and started changing out of their ‘Ghost men’ rigs. As they changed, Nick asked, “Latigo, I told you to hold back and study the Highwayman’s style, while the rest of us tried to take him down. What are your impressions?”

“Still can’t read him, boss?”

“No,” Nick admitted. He knew these men far too well, and they knew him far too well for him to make pretenses. “There’s… something about him that makes it hard for me to read him. It’s not that I can’t touch him, but it’s… fuzzy, like there’s something coming between us. It’s like some Avatars I knew, when I was going to Whateley. But it’s not an avatar power, not like any I’ve ever seen.” He let out an annoyed snort. “But that’s why I wanted you to observe him. Any input?”

Latigo rubbed his lantern jaw and ruefully shook his head. “He’s weird. On one hand, he doesn’t have the right reflexes, he doesn’t move like an experienced fighter. But on the other hand, he’s making all the right tactical moves. He’s practiced, he’s studied, but he’s… not experienced. He knows what he’s doing, but he has to think about it, he has to remember what the right thing to do is. It’s not natural, it’s not reflexive. He knows what to do, but I don’t think he really gets why it’s the right thing to do. But still, he’s got some killer moves, like that greatcoat. That’s a nice bit of business. It protects him and doesn’t slow him down, but the killer bit is how it hides his moves, his stance. I couldn’t read his stand or his posture, no-how. I don’t even have a decent idea of his real build. And those ‘flintlocks’: they let him attack while he was desolid or intangible or whatever he was. Normally, you can’t attack in that state, but he’s found a way around that. Damn nice gimmick. But while he may be green- no offence- he ain’t stupid. But even that’s weird- like I said, he’s not stupid. But despite the fact that he was smart enough to realize that he couldn’t take out the four of us and he did everything that he could to make sure that he had a way out and he had what he came for, he hung around long enough to get close to you and ratsass you.” Latigo stopped and gave Nick a sharp look. “By the way… what DID he say to you?”

Nick just waved that off. “Nothing. He… was just rattling my cage. And it worked, but I’m not about to let that little shit get under my skin.” By this time, they had completely changed out of their working outfits into their everyday clothing. Kage was intentionally inconspicuous in a polo shirt and chinos. Marcel, with his massive size, knew that he couldn’t be inconspicuous on his best day, so he wore a black turtleneck sweater and jeans combination that was both comfortable and made the most of his bulk. Latigo also wore jeans, with a white cotton shirt and vest combination that gave him a Western air, even though he was only wearing crosstrainers. As for Nick, he indulged his taste for Victorian/ Edwardian style luxury with a pair of neat dark linen trousers and a simple white shirt within a knee-length dark purple velvet smoking jacket, with a quilted collar and lapels. The fact that few men wore smoking jackets anymore meant nothing to Nick Harrow; he’d lived his life doing what most people didn’t- or didn’t dare.

“So, Dad,” Vic asked, once he was reasonably sure that grown-up business was taken care of, “what was that all about? What was ‘Priority A’?”

“Oh, the Antares Group, a second-rate ‘Black Lab’, set up shop in town without paying the proper respects,” Nick answered. “Normally, the local mobs would just send a team of thugs to beat up one or two of their third-echelon workers, give the people in charge the message, and all like that. But your Uncle Luke got information that the Antares people were using a Dyna-Gem to nurture their crystalline breeders-”

“Dyna-Gem?” Vic echoed. “Y’mean a Power Gem? Or something that holds a Dynamorph?”

“It’s a particular kind of power gem,” Nick nodded. “Rather unusual: it doesn’t generate energy, or control it, but it amplifies it somehow, makes a charge stronger. They have no idea how those things do that, but your Uncle Luke had his mouth all set for a barrage of tests…” Nick waved that aside. He knew that by now, his boys had a good rule-of-thumb understanding of how Organized Crime was run. He pointedly changed the topic. “So. Boys. Did you catch us going up against the Phantom Highwayman?” JJ, Vic and Bart nodded. “So, tell me: what did you think of it?”

JJ paused, scrunched up his face in discomfort and said, “It… wasn’t one of your better efforts, Dad.”

“Yeah, it was pretty… Skeletor…” Vic agreed.

“Yeah!” Bart concurred. “I mean, ‘Seize him! Take him, my Mist-men! Teach this fool that NO ONE crosses the Green Mist and LIVES!’” Bart ruthlessly mimicked Nick’s high nasal performance. “That was WAY lame, Dad. Especially since he lived, and all.” There were uncomfortable looks all around, but no one corrected Bart. Nick gave an annoyed look. Well, he’d asked. And, really, the one thing that you can trust a 9-year-old boy to do is be brutally honest.

But Nick wasn’t insulted. After all, he’d asked the kid, just because he knew that his sons would be honest with him. He nodded sadly and said, “I was afraid of that,” he said with a sigh. “The problem is, I just don’t GET the Green Mist. He’s just a costume, a power headset, and a color scheme. I don’t know what he is, I don’t know why he’s doing this stuff, I don’t know why his men follow him…” he left off and looked around at the other lockers. “I GET PanzerMech,” he said, gesturing at the large exoskeleton power frame. “I GET Captain Ravage,” he gestured at another locker. “He’s an asshole, but I GET him… I GET Skurje,” he gestured at another locker, where the power-gem driven ‘power whip’ was kept, along with the costume. “To be honest, he scares me a little, but I get him. And, hell, I AM the Shadowmaster!” He gestured at the locker that held the battlesuit that his brother Luke had developed for him. While not as flat-out powerful as either the PanzerMech or Skurje power sets, the Shadowmaster battle suit offered Nick a wide, subtle and effective array of options, and was, hands-down his favorite ‘role’ to play. “But the Green Mist?” He made a disgusted noise. “With the Green Mist, I’m out there, winging it for all I’m worth, and all that’s coming is old recycled Saturday Morning Cartoon crap…”

He let out a long, frustrated sigh, “Oh, well… come on boys… let’s see if your mother is having any better luck than I am.” Waving Latigo and the others off to their own affairs, Nick shepherded his sons into the elevator and on up into the house proper. The Harrow house was an Edwardian Revival McMansion, but that crassness might be excused when you realized that besides housing Nick, his wife, and his three sons, it also housed two daughters and his mother, plus the room of the missing son JD. And the house was rigged with an advanced array of security measures, both technological and magical; all that takes room.

But even with all that, when Nick checked the house’s monitoring system, he discovered that he’d had an unattended guest for a little over an hour. Worried that he might have let his cover slip, Nick hurried to the parlor. There, sitting in one of the club chairs with Raffles, the Harrows’ cat (or at least the mundane one), in his lap, reading a book from one of the bookcases was a trim athletic boy, no, more of a young man, dressed well but casually. “Zach!” Nick greeted him warmly.

“Hey, Mr. Harrow,” Zach greeted with just as much warmth. He put the book down and set Raffles aside over the cat’s protests. He stood and shook Nick’s hand. “So, is there any news about JD? Not that I’d need that excuse to come over,” he amended quickly. “I mean, I’m a lot more comfortable here than I am in that mausoleum that I have to bunk in. If it wasn’t for you folks, I’d be just another Trust Fund Affluenza victim.”

“You’re right, Zach; there’s no need for an excuse for you to come over,” Nick said with a smile. Zach Kneller was his son JD’s best friend since grade school. The boy had been over at the Harrow’s house so often that he knew most of the Harrow’s secrets, except maybe for some technical details. Nick Harrow divided the world into six parts: Family, Friends, Servants, Associates, ‘Others’ and Targets. He could be very devious, callous and ruthless with ‘Others’, and downright vicious towards Targets; but he was the model of ethics and consideration with Friends. And Zach was definitely a friend, edging firmly into Family. And to Nick, Family was everything. “No, I’m sorry Zach, but I haven’t heard anything new. And I’ve been looking- and listening. But! I just finished pulling a mission in town; nothing really that interesting. But the reason that I chose the timing is that Mara is doing some workings with her coven in their tower, and you know how much they hate anyone watching over their shoulders while they bibbity and bobbity their boo. While they have a full sheet, I’m sure that scrying for JD is at the top of their list. Want to come and hear whether she’s learned anything?”

“Sure!” Zach joined Nick at his side as they left the parlor and entered into the house proper.

“ZACH!” Vic and Bart chorused as they charged at him. Zach barely intercepted Vic and got him into a headlock for noogie-ing, while Bart clambered up Zach’s back. There was some good-natured manly rough-housing, which both Nick and JJ watched with amusement. And a touch of envy on JJ’s part; Zach was tall and athletic, the very picture of the ‘golden boy’ who had everything handed to him on a plate: good looks, money, health, intelligence, position, charm, all that, and yet, he managed to be a good sport and put up with the antics of two young boys. But then it helped that JD had been poured from almost exactly the same mold, which kept Zach honest, and three or so years ago, JD had developed the ‘Package Deal Psychic’ mutant traits from both of his parents. What annoyed JJ wasn’t that JD had been blessed; it was, rather that he rather pointedly hadn’t. JJ was short-ish, about 5’ 4”, slight, and while he was very agile and wiry, he simply didn’t have any of the athlete’s build that his older brother had. And, worst of all, it was creeping up on his 15th birthday, and time was beginning to run out on the chances that JJ had inherited the ‘PDP Package’. Nick always said that JJ favored his mother’s side of the family, with the straight pale blonde hair and the willowy build, but both of his mother’s siblings (that they knew about) were also Package Deal Psychics. Things were getting a little tense on that front.

Bart had Zach in a ‘killer’ headlock when there was another “ZACH!” Peering around the corner of one of the doors, her Smartphone in hand, looking goggle-eyed at Zach was Vivian, JJ’s older-by-one-year sister, and all the more insufferable for having manifested her PDP trait when she was only 14. She started to say something, but the party on the other end of her smart-phone conversation said something, so Viv blurted, “Something major’s come up. Gotta go!” Putting her Smartphone away, Viv touched up her high maintenance hairstyle and skittered into the hallway. Viv had inherited her father’s wavy reddish hair; it was originally a roan, but lately she’d taken to dying it ‘Blazing Red #342’. “Zach! Why didn’t you let me know you were here?” she asked as she pranced up.

“I did,” Zach answered, “But you were all, ‘This is a CRISIS!’” He punctuated this by miming putting a phone to his ear and stretching out the ‘talk to the hand’ palm.

Bart growled at Vivian for horning in on his roughhousing time, so Nick cut in, “We were just about to go and see whether your mother has found out anything about JD. It’s right about time for the end of her usual work session.” That gave Viv pause: on one hand, she very much wanted to see if she could wear away at Zach’s resistance to her 16-year-old charms; on the other hand, she didn’t want to put herself in a position where her mother could noodge at her about ‘Learning the Craft and following in her footsteps’. Like Viv had any intention of wasting her time learning all that finger-twiddling nonsense, when she could just use her PK or Telepathy!

“Why Hello, Zach!” said another feminine voice, this one older and more polished, with a classic British ‘Received Pronunciation’ accent that was barely compromised from decades of living in ‘the Colonies’. Juliet Harrow, Nick’s mother, and Vivian and the boys’ grandmother walked up. She was wearing an off-white cotton blouse and a long denim skirt, but she still managed to come across as though she was wearing proper British tweeds. “What’s all this then?”

“Gramma, maybe you will take this seriously,” JJ snarled, and he told her what Vic and Bart had done at ‘Ground Zero’.

Incensed at this wanton violation of the Kid Code, Vic pointed at JJ and blurted out, “HE MADE US DO IT!”

“Victor Lustig Harrow!” Juliet snapped, bringing the cold steel to her delivery that made even Nick flinch. “What are LIES?”

“Things we do to other people,” Vic and Bart droned out together as they slumped.

“That’s right,” Juliet said in a gentler but still firm voice. “We tell the TRUTH to each other and to family. And about each other.” Then taking in Vivian with a scathing look, she added, “And we don’t read each other’s minds without permission, or try to mentally influence each other. You have to be able to trust your family, because if you don’t, then who CAN you trust?”

Vivian blushed and made a discreet but speedy exit.

Then Juliet turned her full attention on Vic and Bart. “AND while we’re on the subject; that was a truly pathetic lie! If you’d tried that on anyone outside the family, you would only have made things worse!” From there, she critiqued the lie, examined how they might have told a better, more believable story, and then she examined them on how they entered the secret lab. She pointed out the dangers that the boys had risked, but she did so in the terms of challenges that they could learn from, from the ventilation shaft, to the collapsed basement, to the possible internal security units, to the crystal breeder itself, pointing out how they could learn from the experience, and what more they needed to learn before they tried something of the sort again. “Boys, as it was, the only reason that you got out of there was because JJ went in and made sure that you did. He deserves your thanks, not being blamed for it.” She let out a cleansing breath. “Well! Now that that’s settled…” she leaned forward curiously. “What did you score?”

JJ let out a low martyred moan as Vic and Bart showed their grandmother their cool new toy. As the group turned to head for the back yard, Zach held back and said, “So… JJ… how you holding up?”

JJ slumped and groaned, “I don’t know how JD kept them in line, on top of everything else…”

“Simple!” Zach said kicking back a little. “He started when he was a lot bigger and smarter than they were, he made thousands of little mistakes and learned from them without making a big deal about it. Oh, and he had your parents telling him what a good big brother he was. You? You get thrown in the deep end of the pool, and you know that if you don’t keep Pinky and the Brain out of trouble that you’re in deep shit. But when you do, all the old folks say is ‘you’re losing your sense of humor’.”

“I’m glad that somebody’s picking up on that,” JJ said with a sigh. Then something occurred to him. “WHY are you being so understanding?” JJ asked giving Zach a suspicious glare.

“What?” Zach objected. “Okay, so I busted your chops a little! What do you want; you’re like the annoying little brother I never had! And, hey, you gave me some merry hell, right along with JD, right? It’s all part of the game, right? That’s the Harrow Way, right?”

JJ nodded reluctantly. It WAS the Harrow Way. The Harrows believed in rivalries, and encouraged them. His father was fond of telling how he’d had a furious rivalry with his brother Luke all through their childhoods, and how they’d prodded each other into excelling. According to Nick, he and Luke pretty much one-upped each other onto the Honor Roll and the school athletics teams, while their allegedly ‘better socialized’ classmates were kicking back trying to beat each other at Pac-Man. Whatever Pac-Man was. Of course, Juliet, who encouraged this, had kept a careful eye on this to keep it from getting out of hand. According to Nick, their rivalry had eventually given way to a truce, which developed into mutual respect. Now, they were both not only incredibly accomplished, above and beyond what their mutations gave them, but they were the best of buds!

Zach leaned in confidentially. “And, to tell the truth, JD wasn’t shy about using his powers to make it easier for him.”

“What?” JJ blurted, “But JD wouldn’t use his telepathy on Vic or Bart! That would be cheating! Besides, the only thing that would keep Mom and Dad from picking up on it and grounding his ass, would be that Gramma beat them to it!”

“What telepathy?” Zach asked. “He used his ESP to keep track of the little vermin. A psychic to keep track of psychos.” JJ grumped at the thought of having been one-upped by this brother-AGAIN. “By the way…” Zach said in an even lower voice, “Is there any sign of, y’know…” he put his fingers to his temples, to indicate psychic powers.

JJ glared straight into Zachs eyes, pointed at his own and snarled, “Did my EYES just change color?”

Zach spared a glance and said, “Nope. And I don’t blame you Jesse- I know what it’s like: your folks… they’re great… but… they got a ‘tood. I mean, they’re not snotty about it or anything… but it’s like… if you don’t have powers, then you’re just chugging along at half a load.”

JJ flinched, the accusation hitting far too close to home. “No! They don’t treat Latigo or Lynx or Marcel or Kage like that! Hell, they wouldn’t dare!”

“Maybe not… but Latigo and the others are the Help,” Zach pointed out. “They treat them very well… for the Help. And it’s not like they’re being nasty! It’s just that… well, hey, if I had powers too, I’d probably be the same way. I mean, they treat their people a lot better’n my dad does.” JJ’s face sort of fell in on itself and he totally wilted under the thought. “Hey, don’t be like that! At least you GOT a chance! I mean… you’re not even 15 yet! Just because you haven’t manifested anything YET doesn’t mean that you won’t! I mean, your father’s a second generation PDP, and it bred true in both JD and Viv. You still got a chance! Just… think of this right now as a chance to get a good idea of what it’s like for us poor baseline suckers, ‘kay?”

Then something occurred to him, and he started rummaging around in his jacket. “That reminds me- my old man flaked out on me, and out of left field, we gotta go to some big Goodkind Enterprises family hoo-hah (like my dad gives a shit about family…), and we’re gonna be gone for about a week or so. So, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to make your birthday party, dude.”

“You won’t be missing much,” JJ grumped. “Dad’s using my birthday as an excuse to bring in a bunch of supervillains with families as guests. He says that it’s so I’ll have kids my own age around for the party, but he’s just getting their ‘rents here so he can pitch some Syndicate politics deal at them.”

Zach winced at that idea, visibly racked his brain for something reassuring to say, came up empty, and wisely let it lie. “Anyway, I thought I’d give you your birthday gift, just so you don’t feel totally shafted.” He reached into his fanny pack and pulled out a small wrapped package, which he handed to JJ. JJ took the package and looked at it with a touch of hesitance. “Go ahead, open it! What’s the point of giving a present, if you can’t see the reaction?”

JJ unwrapped the present, and inside, according to the packaging, was GKI’s answer to the iPhone™, the GoodCall. “Wow! A smartphone?”

“Like I would give you just some mass market techno-trinket?” Zach asked with a grin. “I had ABBY assemble this inside a gPhone casing. It can do everything a gPhone can do- except maybe fink you out to the MCO- and a whole lot more. It has ten times the RAM, its battery holds 15 times the charge, and- hey, just check out the ‘handbook’ for all the apps, otherwise we’ll be here all day. I basically told ABBY to go for ‘awesome’, and I’d say that she did a good job of it.”

“DUDE! Thanks!” JJ said with a wide smile. “This will make it a lot easier to be appropriately grateful when I get socks and underwear from the fam.”

“Hey, you don’t know that!”

“Yes I do,” JJ said fatalistically. “Asha found out, and she couldn’t wait to tell me.” ‘Asha’ (the pronunciation of ‘Ayesha’) was JJ’s younger sister, and the baby of the family. She was 6 years old, and looked like a little blonde angel with big guileless blue eyes; and she had already learned how to use that fact like a club. She had also learned that being small had its uses, and she was turning into a little ninja. She was sharp enough to realize that she could get away with things that her larger sibs couldn’t. It hadn’t quite penetrated that this wouldn’t be the way it always was, so she used it to spy on everyone in the house and use the information for her own amusement; like telling JJ that he was only getting socks and boxers for his birthday.

Zach again searched desperately for a reassuring word and came up dry. “Well! Let’s see if your Mom has any word on JD, huh?” JJ clearly saw the evasion for what it was, but just nodded and walked along with Zach out the back to the yard. Nick, Juliet and the boys were standing about maybe five yards away from the white lattice gazebo that dominated the back area. But the gazebo wasn’t just an airy place to loiter on hot summer days; it wasn’t even a gazebo at all. The gazebo was just a placeholder that created a context for why people weren’t walking over that area. It marked the spot where Mara Harrow’s invisible tower stood. If you looked carefully, you might just be able to make out the subtle line where the electronic concealment of the 12-story tower stopped, and unaltered view of the sky began. But that would be very hard, given the enchantments that made people’s attention sort of slide off the tower. When you have a 200-foot tall tower in your back yard, you take as many precautions as you can. “Mom not out yet?” JJ asked as he and Zach walked up.

“I think she’s still dismissing her coven,” Nick explained. Mara used Gate spells to gather and disperse her coven from their meetings. She took great pains that her subordinates in the coven knew nothing about her private life; they knew her only by her supervillain name, ‘The Black Swan’. The sort of focused, driven and aggressive women who made good magical assistants, scouts and enforcers are not the kind you want knowing that you have children, or where you live. Minor aspiring mystics tend to want to become major accomplished mystics, and aren’t very picky about how they do it. Nick gave Zach a rather worried look. “Zach, do you remember anything, anything at all, about the sting that JD was planning?”

Zach shrugged without taking his hands out of his pockets. “Hey, what can I say, Mister H? I’ve told you everything I know! JD was very amped about ‘graduating’ and becoming his own supervillain! It was real important to him that he do it all on his own, and not have anyone in the family helping him, or looking over his shoulder or anything. He said, ‘Either you got the chops, or you don’t. And this is the only way to find out.’”

Nick nodded, approving of the sentiment, but he still looked worried. “Any idea where he did his prep work?”

“Yeah, he was working out of one of the extracurricular activities buildings at high school. I already checked that out: Nothing. Clean as a whistle. Laptop, records, maps: scrapped. All the records of the materials that he’d gathered are just plain gone. You might be able to find something with ESP, but-”

“But anyone good enough to clear out all the traces from a room in a high school would see it coming,” Nick nodded sadly.

Nick was about to say something else, when a pair of double doors appeared at the entrance to the gazebo. The doors opened, and a tall, majestic woman in a long black dress with wide sleeves and a hem that parted from the front in a way that suggested a pair of wings, and a winged headdress that included a visor in the form of a swan’s bill that covered the lower half of her face. A foam of curling black hair spilled out of the back of the headdress, but when she took the headdress off, the black hair went with it. Underneath, her straight pale blonde hair was done up in a twist. Mara Harrow knew her ‘Sisters in the Craft’ all too well to not know better than to give them an opportunity to take samples of either her hair or nails. Nick walked up to her and wordlessly took her into his arms and gave her a passionate kiss. This lasted until Bart gave an impatient juvenile ‘*ahem!*’

“Oh!” Mara said noticing the others, at last, from Nick’s arms. “What’s all this?”

“We were just wondering if your scrying has turned up something new on JD, Mara,” Juliet explained. Things were a tad tense between Juliet and Mara, beyond the ‘mother in law- daughter-in-law’ issue: on one hand, despite her youthful appearance, Mara was 15 years older than Juliet. Thanks to her magical arts, Mara Harrow nee de Maugris looked to be in her late 20s-to-early 30s, while being nearly 90; a state of affairs that Mara fully intended to continue for at least two more centuries. On the other hand, Mara had already given Juliet six remarkable grandchildren. So the relations between the two strong-willed and accomplished women were slightly strained but cordial.

Mara disentangled herself from Nick’s arms and sighed. “He’s… he’s here… somewhere… I have a definite sense of him, but he’s hidden from me in a way that I can’t quite identify. BUT, I’ve found something… nothing in and of itself, but rather a wake. A passage that I can not only follow but identify… it’s the Sea Hag…” Nick paused as though trying to remember if he knew of any supervillain called ‘the Sea Hag’. “The Sea Hag, as in Akelarre’s ship,” Mara explained. Then she explained for the boys’ benefit, “The Sea Hag is a magical boat that belongs to a rival of mine named Akelarre. She has it spelled so that it has many properties, foremost of which is that it’s very difficult to find, both technologically and scientifically. But not even the Sea Hag can completely hide its own wake, which I have found. She’s been in the area for a while, possibly several weeks, which may explain a few things.”

Mara was about to add something else, but you could see a connection made. “I’m sorry Zach. I was about to invite you to dinner, but tonight we’re going to my father’s and it’s a family dinner, and you know how finicky he is about a literal definition of ‘family’.”

“Not to worry Missuz H,” Zach said amiably. “As I was just telling JJ, my father’s dragging me out of town on a company thing, so I won’t’ be able to attend the squirt’s birthday bash. I just wanted to come over and see what was happening.” Mara nodded and escorted him to the door. She saw him out the door with a hug. This was made a tad awkward because Accolon, her familiar, was draped around her shoulders in the form of a large black snake.

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After getting dressed, the family got into the town car to be driven to Gran’Pere’s house. And yes, they had to get dressed; Mara’s father insisted that they ‘dress’ for dinner when they came to his house, as they did back in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nick didn’t mind at all, and JJ and Vivian were used to it, but Vic and Bart put up with it under sulking protest. Asha, who loved playing dress-up and was allowed to bring her favorite doll Musette, thought that it was a great idea.

The town car drove the Harrows from their affluent, if still rather bourgeois, neighborhood to an outlying area just outside the city limits that had estates instead of yards. The car pulled up to an impressive gate made of fieldstone with ironworks, guarded by statues of two haughty gryphons. The large wrought iron padlock opened on its own, the chains undid themselves as though pulled by invisible hands, and the elaborate gates swung open. The town car drove past a shielding wall of willows and pulled up in front of a sprawling 3-story (plus attics and basements) building done in the Belle Epoch style, a lighter and airier style than its more ponderous British Victorian-style contemporaries. The impression of opulence was continued as they entered, the elaborate beveled-glass front door opened by a liveried servant, complete with white gloves.

The family stepped into the main foyer, where two grand staircases curved down from separate ends of the mezzanine. Standing on a stair five steps from the base stood a figure who, save for the lack of an eye patch, could have been a ballet dancer in the role of Drosselmeyer, from the Nutcracker. He was tall and lean, with a long lean angular face, with a shock of white hair, an aquiline nose, eagle-like eyes, and a white goatee around a firm mouth. He was dressed in the style of the Belle Epoch, in keeping with the house and furnishings. Seated beside him on the step was a large black-and-white dappled Great Dane with a thick spiked leather collar. In a deep, sonorous voice, tinged with a cultured French accent, he asked, “You told no one that you were coming here?”

“Why would we?” Nick responded with an insolent air. “What were we supposed to tell them? Tell them that we were coming to humor a senile old man as he doddered through his dementia, spoon-feeding him the food that he no longer has the wits to eat on his own?”

“You’re being quite disrespectful to the man who brews the elixir vitae, the potion that extends your life and prime?” le Compte Marc-Thierry de Maugris- St. Denis, the master of the house, bristled through his beard.

“And you’re being pretty lippy to the man who provides all the exotic ingredients that you need to throw in the blender, in order to keep yourself from withering up like you should have decades ago,” Nick shot back insolently. de Maugris brought himself up even stiffer, and the Great Dane growled at Nick. Nick merely gave the beast a ‘and who do you think you’re fooling?’ smirk.

But Asha broke the moment by rushing forward, “GRAN’PERE!” she cheered, running up to him as he stepped down the last few stairs and picked her up for huge mutual hug. When they broke the hug, Asha told him all about her latest adventures in what French as she knew. Marc-Thierry de Maugris- St. Denis, or ‘Gran’pere’ as he was known to the Harrow children, listened closely to her tale, glowing with grandparental adoration, and wincing with pain for how she was mangling French.

After some pre-dinner conversation, which was dominated by Asha, they went into dinner. They were seated by the proper protocols, except for Asha, who was allowed to have Musette seated next to her on her own chair. Dinner conversation was directed by Gran’pere. He started by bickering with Juliet about some triviality. You’d think that Gran’pere severely disliked Juliet, and regarded the dinner as some sort of onerous chore done out of pure duty. In fact, Gran’pere simply loved to bicker, and he respected Juliet’s ability to bicker right back at him with finesse and wit. He fenced verbally for a while with Nick, mostly for the *ahem!* ‘crime’ of not being French!

Then Gran’pere turned his guns, albeit more gently, in the direction of his daughter. “And where is young John?” he asked rhetorically. “Did he have some pressing business that kept him from his grandfather’s table?”

Mara’s eyes flashed, ‘not funny, Father!’ at him, but she didn’t snap at him. He was her father, after all. And worse, while he was never a supervillain himself, he was what might be called a predecessor to the supervillain, a rogue sorcerer who mixed magic with being a master criminal and intriguer, starting during the revolution that founded the Second Republic, and regretfully laying down his arms when he fled France during WWII. He claimed to have known Napoleon Bonaparte- not personally, mind you. He merely claimed to have seen L’Empereur on parade as a young boy. Even so, he was still a powerful magician who traded with the Dark; not the Pit, but the Dark. The de Maugrises and the Harrows were both staunch Catholics, and they knew that the Church could forgive many things, but to be absolved of trafficking with the Inferno, they’d have to forswear the practice of Magic altogether, and neither of them was ready for that! And one simply does not challenge a dark sorcerer at his own dinner table. Still, Mara sniffed and said, “If that’s your subtle way of asking how my scrying for him went, I’ll tell you, Father. John is still alive, and somewhere in the general vicinity. But he is hidden from me somehow. If you think that your superior arts will find him when my mother’s bond with my firstborn son fails, by all means, do so, Father.”

Gran’pere paused, slightly cautious at her response. Mara was a dutiful and loving daughter, but she was both a de Maugris and a Mother missing one of her children. The first was always dangerous and the second was deadly; the combination gave even him reason to be wary. “I mean no slight, Mon Cher. I too know the pain of the loss of a child. I’ve lost too many children in my lifetime to be blasé at the loss of a grandchild.” Still, realizing that he was treading on thin ice at his own table, Gran’pere deflected the tension by turning the attention to a subject where Mara and he were in complete agreement. “And did you help to search for your lost brother, Vivian?” he asked sternly. “Or were you too busy with the vital business of finding out what some cheerleader said about some quarterback?”

Vivian just made a dismissive noise and muttered something about not being any good with the ‘finger-waving crap’. “What? Vivian, have you no consideration for your heritage? We de Maugrises have been wizards and sorcerers since the reign of Charlemagne himself!”

Viv was about to say something unfortunate about being a Harrow, not a de Maugris, which would have really set the old man off. So JJ stepped in, saying, “Well, I’ve been asking Mom if I could start training in The Craft. And, well, it’s not like there’s a tradition that it only passes down the female line, now is there?”

“When you show that you have what it takes, I’ll begin instructing you,” Mara said primly.

“What?” JJ yelped, “Show that I have what it takes? What do you call riding herd on those two?” Then JJ told Gran’pere in detail what Vic and Bart had done earlier that day.

Gran’pere listened intently to JJ’s tale, and then turned his attention to Vic and Bart. Fixing them with his eagle-like gaze, he regarded them with steely intent for a moment. Then he asked them, “And what did you score?”

JJ simmered for a bit, and Nick cut in, “However, back to the original topic, while Mara wasn’t able to actually find JD, between us and our various contacts, we’ve been able to confirm the presence of three solid suspects: the Phantom Highwayman, Dr. Thirty-”

“Doctor Thirty?” Gran’pere asked with confusion.

“He’s a criminal scientist, a… well you couldn’t call him ‘colleague’, more like competitor of Luke’s,” Nick explained. “He signs himself ‘Dr. XXX’, sort of ‘Dr X to the Third Power’ or something like that. We refuse to play along with it, and call him ‘Dr. Thirty’.”

“Yeah!” Vic piped up. “Uncle Luke showed us a picture of him and he was all like-” Vic scrunched up his face and made ‘scowling hulk’ postures, “-bulging and deformed and gross and stuff.”

“We think that he used a physical optimization process on himself,” Nick explained. “He probably thought that he understood it a lot better than he really did.”

Gran’pere gave a silent sour glower at so-called ‘scientists’ who couldn’t even adhere to the standards of Empiricism that they so loudly boasted of. “And who is this ‘Phantom Highwayman’ you spoke of?”

“We’re not sure,” Nick admitted. “He’s new, very new. He’s not a member of the Syndicate. He’s clearly a rookie, but he’s got some very slick moves. He hasn’t challenged the Magnificent Five, but instead he seems to be making moves against… well, ME.”

de Maugris arched one snowy eyebrow and asked, “In which of your many aliases?”

“So far, three of them.”

That stopped de Maugris, and he silently reflected on the implications of that. Mara took advantage of that to step in, “But we’ve left the best for last. The third candidate is Akelarre.”

de Maugris’ face went blank with confusion for a second. “Who?”

“Akelarre?” Mara repeated. “Jeanne-Claris Montespan- St. Martin? Really named Lucinda-Maria Mafalda Alonzo y Bermudez?” she prompted. With a tenser voice she added, “Your Mistress?”

“Which one? When?”

“The one who tried to steal your power, kill you and take your place.”

“You’re not narrowing the field that much, Cherie.”

“The Andalusian woman? In 1933? She tried to sacrifice me to some horrible garbled name demon the year I visited you in Gascony just after I left the sisters at the convent?”

“Was she a blonde, a brunette or a redhead?”

“She was a brunette,” Mara answered coldly. “She had that foolish black goat for a pet, the one she used in that ‘naughty goat-herdress’ dance number they did in the cabarets?”

That kicked in de Maugris’ recollection. “Oh her,” he said, dismissing her. “Well, there were SO MANY! Especially back in the 1920s, when Britishers and Americans were coming to Paris to live it up and stick out their tongues at Bourgeois morality. Which is all very well, but when even the Bourgeois are mocking Bourgeois morality, really, what’s the point?”

With a glance at Asha, who was trying to follow this without much success, Mara continued, “And since that time in Gascony, she’s attacked and interfered with my plans repeatedly.”

“Cherie, what is that but living in the world?”

Mara let out a long martyred sigh, and continued, “She holds me a grudge, simply because I wouldn’t lay back and let her carve out my heart. Every so often through the years, she’d pop up out of nowhere and try to attack me and take something, anything that I had. But I always walked away richer for the encounter, which only set her obsession in stone. Over the past few weeks, since just after John… dropped out of sight… there have been a string of three odd robberies that we haven’t been able to ascertain who was responsible. And just this afternoon, my scryings detected the wake of theSea Hag, Akelarre’s ship. It’s possible that Akelarre is keeping John captive and hidden from us, and that those robberies are part of some Great Quest that she’s working.”

“And what of this Phantom Highwayman?” du Maugris asked. “Is he involved with this ‘great quest’? And if so, is he Akelarre’s ally? Or competition?”

“Oh, he’s involved,” Nick said uncertainly. “Exactly how… Oh, that’s the rub, all right.”

That led to an awkward silence, which Mara hastened to fill. “That poor woman,” Mara sighed. “I have everything she wants: a dashing handsome husband, a loving family, a beautiful home, a fulfilling career, a mastery of the Craft, a healthy body, extended youth and a sex life that would make Mae West green with envy. What does she have? One leaky boat, a tricked-up Gypsy cart, a few gimmicks, a few hexes, a past riddled with failure, humiliation and disgrace, and a body that’s been broken and re-broken, wracked with age, pain and disfigurement. I only wish that I could do it to her all over again.”

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One of the benefits of being a member of a family of supervillains is that they don’t feel that they have a right to ask how you spend your time after school. If you didn’t want to talk about it, the Harrows wouldn’t push, unless they thought that you were in real trouble. And their definition of ‘Trouble’ was very different than most people’s.

Pleading ‘piano lessons’, JJ separated himself from his group of buddies and made his way to his destination, with a major detour involving cutting through stores to the back alley, getting on busses and riding for a couple of blocks, wandering through a downtown shopping mall, and hopping over a couple of fences to lose any possible follow. He didn’t think that anyone was following him, but with Pinky and the Brain, and She-Who-Must-Be-Adored in his family, it certainly didn’t hurt to be sure.

When he was sure that no one was following him, JJ finished his loop back toward one of the laundries he used, where he picked up the blue packet. He was in the mood for blue, if not feeling blue. When he was done, he’d repack the clothes and drop them off at another laundry to be clean, and so had places where his clothing would not only be stored securely but be cleaned as well. And it only cost him $2 an item. With the parcel under his arm, JJ went to the local YMCA, where he took a gym bag out from the locker he had there. Then he casually made his way to the older part of the Y, the part that had originally been an Army induction center built during WWII, and slipped into a room that had been used as a general storage unit for years and forgotten.

Once he was sure that no one saw him go in, JJ pulled a rolled-up carpet out of the corner and unrolled it onto the floor. It was an invocation carpet that his mother had thrown out as old and shabby, with an invocation circle and sigils worked into the pattern of the rug. Then JJ stripped out of his clothes and put on stockings, underwear, shoes and a blonde wig from the gym bag and put on the skirt, blouse, and vest that he’d had laundered. Then he took a brass ‘Aladdin’-style oil lamp, filled it with a special oil and lit it. Then he took the most important thing of all from his discarded pants pocket: a Ring. The ring was mystically connected to his mother’s ‘Ark’ or power reservoir. With the ring, he could tap into that reservoir to cast magic and remain unnoticed, as long as he didn’t use too much power. And this spell didn’t use that much power. He went through the steps of the spell, and as he’d done it enough before, it worked on the first go this time. His appearance wavered, and now instead of a rather weedy-looking boy in a dress and a blonde wig, he looked like a lovely young girl with a apple-shaped face, killer cheekbones, a turned-up nose, large doe-like blue eyes, full lips, long golden blonde hair, and a gazelle-like figure. Anyone who knew the Harrows might guess a close relation, a cousin on Mara’s side perhaps.

JJ took a breath and paused to just enjoy it. Then she tucked everything away in the gym bag and rolled the carpet back up. The best thing about the arrangement was that she didn’t have to come back to this room to undo it; she just had to drop the spell. That done, JJ strolled out of the Y’s side entrance, and headed for the upscale retail sector of the city. She wasn’t really looking for anything to buy; she was just looking forward to being a cute young girl, and revel in being young, healthy, confident, and clearly just stepping into the first bloom of an absolutely exquisite prime.

But she never made it to the prime shopping strip. She was only a block or so away from the Y when a blurry figure burst out from one alley, snatched her gym bag from her hand, and made tracks for the alley on the other side of the street. Well, JJ may have been in a skirt, but he hadn’t lost his balls- she charged after the purse snatcher, who was making a classic blunder. She’d be able to catch him by simply not making the same mistakes and using the terrain to her best advantage to catch him and kick his ass.

And she caught up to him after a chase of maybe 500 yards, and sent him sprawling. Taught to never give up an advantage, fair or unfair, she sent a kick into his face as soon as he started to get up. The purse snatcher caught her foot and twisted, but JJ spun with the twist and twisted her foot out of his hands without losing her footing. And yet for all that, she was still caught flat-footed when he chuckled and said, “Not bad, Jay-Jay! You’re almost as good as you think you are!”

JJ stopped dead in her tracks, her jaw dropped to the (icky) floor of the alley and she gawped, “JAY-DEE?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Squirt,” the purse-snatcher lost that strange blur and resolved into the figure of — the Phantom Highwayman. “What? Didn’t you recognize me? Or did your eyeliner get in your eyes?”

“Jay-Dee? You’re the Phantom Highwayman? What do you think you’re doing?

“What am I doing? I’m making my big debut as a supervillain,” he said smugly. “The question is: what do you think you’re doing, running around like that?”

“I’m… pulling a scam,” JJ said after a pause.

“yeah. Right.”

“Yes, I’m setting up… Jason Coltrane, this obnoxious punk at my school.”

“And what are you trying to do? Get him to invite you to the Junior High Prom?”

“NO… I’m setting him up for a Spanish Prisoner scam.”

“Not a Padded Bra scam?” JD said with a snide lilt to his voice.

“No, I’m gonna get close to Jason like this, and when he thinks that I’m his property, he’ll see me be ‘kidnapped’, and follow me to one of Uncle Luke’s old bases that he’s moved out of.”

“How does he follow you?”

“He’s got a motor scooter and he thinks he’s slick. Anyway, Jason follows me to the base. He ‘rescues’ me, and we go back to his dad, Mr. Coltrane the Real Estate sleaze. Jason tells his dad about all the cool, bleeding edge, beyond the State of the Art gear in the lab.”

“And then Mr. Coltrane, being the hungry sleaze that he is, calls the cops, and has them shut the place down- but not before he takes out an option on the property, so he can claim all the scientific gear as abandoned,” JD finished.

“There’s more to it, but that’s the gist of it,” JJ said.

“Why?”

“Well, the idea is right after we leave, Dad and Uncle Luke clear out all the gear, while leaving just enough decoys so Coltrane-”

“NO, WHY are you doing this?” JD kept at her. “I mean, we’re not a family of con artists, we’re Supervillains! So why are you setting up this kid and his family for a couple of measly hundred grand?”

JJ shot him at a ‘you should know better’ scowl. “So they’ll take me seriously! Ever since you flaked off without telling anyone where you were going, I’ve had to deal with Vic and Bart! They don’t listen to me, and when I whap them upside the head, they go sniveling to Mom about me bullying them, but if I go to any of the old folks to get THEM to keep those two on a leash, they’re all ‘you’re losing your sense of humor’. But God HELP me if either of those two so much as gets a boo-boo! But they’re acting like I’ve gone soft and shining me on, and not LISTENING to me! So, I’ve got to do something to get them to take me seriously!”

“And dressing up like that will get them to take you seriously?” JD smirked.

“Nailing a shifty, wary sleazebag like Mr. Coltrane will prove that I’ve got the chops!” JJ snapped. “How I spin the tale to the mark… is my own business.” JD started to say something else, but JJ cut him off. “AND all of that isn’t the point! The POINT is: where the HELL have you been for the last three weeks? The family’s been going NUTS trying to find you!”

Even through the featureless mask, you could see the easy relaxed confidence in JD’s stance melt away. “My big debut was raiding a black lab run by a criminal scientist who was experimenting with creating proto-spirits. I nabbed his big development, his operating notes and a few ding-bobs, the uptake being that’s how I got the fancy powers I’ve been using.”

“AND?” JJ prodded him,

“And… something happened that I didn’t anticipate. JJ, do the names ‘Dr. Triple X’ and ‘Akelarre’ mean anything to you?”

“Mom’s brought them up. Uncle Luke knows Dr. Thirty kinda, and Akelarre’s an old sparring partner of Mom’s. VERY old sparring partner. The folks thought that one of them might have something to do with your disappearance.”

“They do. The scene in the lab was… hella complicated. The short form is that they’re working together against the family, the entire family, not just Uncle Luke or Mom.”

“Okay, that’s bad…”

“It gets worse.”

“Worse? How?”

“They’ve got someone on the inside. Someone who’s working for Dad, one of his cadre, maybe one of the house servants. Whoever it is has complete run of the house, and is feeding them details, very sensitive details about everyone’s operations, Mom’s, Dad’s, Uncle Luke’s, Gran’Pere’s, Gramma’s- hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t feeding them information on what Viv’s pulling in school!”

“Okay then, why are you telling ME this? Why not go home and tell Mom and Dad and they do a simple no-fancy stuff grilling of the staff and find the mole and tear what he knows about Dr. Thirty and the Goat-lady out of him?”

“Because that’s what they want to have happen,” JD said with an unsettling certainty.

“HUH?”

“Look, I don’t know the details, but from what I’ve picked up, reading between the lines, they’ve managed to plant some sort of ‘poison pill’ in their mole. If he gets psychically interrogated, it’ll unleash… something, I don’t know what. And it will be just as bad as if Dr. Lumpy and the Goat-Witch were let into the house. HOW? I have no idea. It could be technological; it could be sorcerous; it could be some weird blend of the two. I don’t know; that’s what I’m trying to find out.”

“How?”

“Look they don’t know that I’m JD Harrow. I managed to sell them this big song-and-dance about being a Tragic Avenger, ‘cause Dad shafted my family, yada, yada, yada, angst, angst, angst… and that I’ve got the oldest Harrow son bound and gagged somewhere, but I want a pound of flesh from Nicholas Harrow himself, and whatever goodies from the Harrow household that I can carry off.”

“Why’d you tell them that you’d kidnapped yourself?”

“I couldn’t return home and ferret out their mole without giving the whole game away,” JD explained. “The best way to find out who the mole is and what gambit they’ve got laid in, is to get as close to those two creeps, and play them off against each other. And the only way to do that is to have something that they both want: namely, another major hold over Mom and Dad. I keep trying to use that as a bone to put between them, but they’re playing a long hand. Right at the moment, Akelarre’s got some kind of Great Quest that she’s working, and I’m playing the ‘muscle in on her game’ card. But then, so is Dr. Triple-X. And here’s where I need YOU: things are getting very complicated with both of the old creeps. I need someone inside the house, our house, keeping an eye on things, and trying to figure out who the hell is selling us out.”

“Why not use Viv? I mean, she’s telepathic and clairvoyant; it would be a snap for her.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem, Squirt! Viv relies on her psychic powers too much! Even if she tried to keep herself from doing it, she’d probably set off Akelarre’s poison pill by accident. I need someone who’s sharp, completely loyal, and best of all, won’t set off the poison pill because he can’t.”

“Hey, I could still manifest my mutant trait, y’know,” JJ pouted.

“And if you do, then we’ll deal with it when that bridge burns,” JD said. “Things are way too complicated as it is; I need to deal with whatever certainties I got.”

“Why not use Zach? He’s over at our place all the time as it is.”

“Yeah, and he’s heading out of town for a while, remember? I’ve been sending him in to keep track of things for me. But now he can’t do that without raising suspicion.”

“Zach knows about this?”

“No. He thinks that I’ve disappeared, just like everyone else, and he’s real curious as to what happened to me. And every so often, he just gets an urge to go to our place and find out if anyone’s found out anything.”

“And he doesn’t know that he’s bringing back information?” JJ asked askance. “JD, that’s-”

“That’s against the Harrow Code: ‘you don’t psyche friends and family’,” JD cut in. “I know, but it’s an emergency. When this whole mess resolves itself, I’ll get down on my knees and beg his forgiveness.”

“How do you get to him to debrief him?”

“What ‘get to him’? Where do you think I’m staying? Bro, there are rooms in the Kneller house that could house good-sized Third World families, that haven’t been stayed in for years! And this proto-spirit thing makes getting in and out unnoticed a cinch!” He stuck a hand into the poured concrete wall of the alley and waved it around. “And I know Zach so well that I don’t even have to be in the same room to read him like a book.”

“And what do you need me for?” JJ asked.

“Like I said: keep an eye on what’s going on inside the house, and try to figure who’s selling us out!” JJ looked uncertain about it, so JD added, “Hey, all goofing around aside, JJ, I know that you got the chops to handle this. Which is a lot more than I can say about Viv.”

“Okay, but what should I be looking for? I mean, maybe the reason why Zach can’t find the mole, is that he doesn’t know what to look for?” JJ crossed her arms, raised her eyebrows and gave JD a questioning look.

“Okay, Squirt, but just remember- you asked for it! So, you haven’t manifested your PDP trait yet, and you’re starting to sweat acid. You think that the family doesn’t take you seriously, ‘cause you’re starting to look like a squib-”

“Well, they ARE,” JJ said mulishly.

“Don’t interrupt, I’m expounding,” JD said severely. “SO, in order to look like you actually have something on the ball, instead of hatching some harebrained con game, you’ve decided that it’s Hardy Boys time! Or should I say, ‘Nancy Drew time’?” JD added with a smirk. “I will feed you information as to the next stage in Akelarre’s Great Quest, which you will pass along to the Dadster, all dressed up in bogus observations, deductions, logic and all that Sherlock Holmes crap. This will cause a squeeze play on Dr. Tri-er, Thirty and Akelarre. Either Dad beats them to the Maguffin they’re trying for, or their mole does something to try and shut you down. Even if the mole doesn’t try something against you directly, he’ll probably blow his cover by trying to avoid you as much as he can. Just remember: once you start scoring points as the Great Detective, keep an eye peeled for someone who changes how he acts around you, either by asking too many questions and trying to be too fucking helpful, or by avoiding you as much as he can.”

“And if he tries the old Agatha Christie deathtrap bit to silence me?”

“I hope he does: his first try will probably be pretty damn clumsy, and Mom won’t give him the chance to try a second time.”

“I kinda doubt that Latigo or Lynx even know how to do anything clumsily,” JJ objected.

“Good point. So stay away from them as much as you can. The very fact that they’re going out of their way to keep tabs on you should be a giveaway.”

“Okay, so I’m in,” JJ gave JD his full attention. “So, what did Akelarre steal first, and what will she steal next, and what’s this big ‘Great Quest’ thing anyway?”

“Ask Mom. It’ll make a sweet intro to your ‘great deduction’, and Mom understands it a lot better than I do. Anyway, here’s what she’s done so far-”

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At dinner, JJ (dressed as JJ, thank you very much) waited for the proper opening, and got one as Mom gently chided Viv about at least learning a few basic protective measures. “By the way, Mom,” he jumped into a pause that was starting to stretch into one of those awkward power-move silences, “at Gran’pere’s, you said something about Akelarre was on some kind of ‘Great Quest’, and that it might be related to those robberies that Dad was talking about, and maybe JD was involved somehow. So, what’s a ‘Great Quest’, and what does it have to do with JD?”

Mara smiled at her eldest (present) son, gratified that someone in the family took her Art seriously, and explained, “The Great Quest is a technique that some mages use to achieve a major working. You see, one of the major problems in Sorcery is what we call ‘the Law of Balance’, and the ‘Rule of Nemesis’ which is a codicil- which means, an application of the first Law. The Law of Balance states that for every benefit, there is a price.”

“That sounds kinda like Newton’s Second Law: ‘For Every Action, There Is A Reaction’,” Vic, who would rather stop breathing than allow his older brother to control a conversation, cut in.

“Exactly,” Mara confirmed with a proud nod. “The Law of Balance is a truth so transcendent that even the materialists of Empiricism acknowledge it. But then, Sir Isaac Newton was an Alchemist and regarded his work on Mathematics and Physics as secondary to his work on the Great Art.

“The Rule of Nemesis is an application of the Law of Balance; that means that it’s a special particular way that the Law of Balance applies to a particular situation. The Rule of Nemesis states that every time you set out to do anything magically, the world, which is set and more or less at rest, resists your efforts to do that thing. Like pushing a stalled car; once you get it rolling, it’s rather easy, but first you have to get it rolling, and that’s very hard. BUT, unlike the stalled car, in magic, there are two more things in play: First, if there is a stated intent for your magical working, then the magic will draw the force- er, that is it will find a way to involve a person or animal or spirit or whatever is most likely to stop you, and set it against you.”

“Then… how do you get anything DONE?” Bart asked. Like he’d let Vic hog butting in on JJ’s question.

“Ah, you see, I didn’t say WILL stop you,” Mara pointed out. “I said ‘most likely’, or maybe ‘most likely to in the general area’ is more to the point. The opposing force might stop you. But you can overcome it. Or get around it. Or trick it. Or buy it off. Or even convince it to come over to your side!

“And that’s the second thing about the Rule of Nemesis: in mundane matters, when you overcome something, you simply no longer have that blocking your way. But with mystical matters, when you overcome something, especially something that’s been set in your path by the Law of Balance, you gain power from it.”

Buuuttt… if you get more powerful, doesn’t that just mean that the Law of Balance is gonna put something even more powerful in your way?” JJ asked.

“Yes, but here’s the thing,” Mara answered. “The Balance doesn’t draw something vastly superior to you into your path: it draws something that is your equal.”

“So the Balance keeps dragging stuff to block you,” Vic said, “but it only draws stuff that’s as strong as you are. An equal and opposite reaction.”

“Like a computer game,” Bart said, “The game only gives you opponents who are as strong as you are, but it keeps upping the power level as you get more powerful, until you’re facing the Level Boss.”

“As I understand such things, yes,” Mara, who deep down still had computers pegged as ‘big boxes with flashing lights that you feed punch cards into’. “Indeed, that’s rather the entire point of the Great Quest: it’s a way of tricking the universe into granting you power for a working, bit by bit, step by step, until you have enough power for what you want to do.”

“Why is it called a ‘Great Quest’?” JJ asked.

“Because in classic terms, it’s largely framed within the context of a medieval ‘Quest’ chaisson de gest. er, that means that the way a ‘Great Quest’ works is sort of like a fairy tale, with a gallant knight going off on a quest to save his fair lady,” Mara amended her explanation for Asha’s sake (and Vic and Bart’s, though they’d rather choke than admit it)

“The way it generally goes is something like this: the Fair Lady Ladyfair falls sick of something-”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s a theoretical example, just something to show how it all works. Anyway, her swain, Sir Pureheart-”

“What’s a swain?”

“Basically, a boyfriend, Asha. Anyway, her swain, Sir Pureheart vows to find a cure, and goes off in search of the wise sage Sagewise. Sagewise reads his books, casts a scrying spell, and tells Sir Pureheart that there is a rose in a far-off land that is just close enough to reasonably get to, which has the magical property of curing what ails the fair lady Ladyfair. So Sir Pureheart endures a vigil in a sacred shrine and sees a vision. He tells Sagewise of the vision, and is told to seek out a dwarf in a thick, vile, evil-haunted forest. The dwarf knows where the Panacea Rose grows. So Sir Pureheart saddles up his mighty steed-”

“He has a pony?” Asha gleeped.

“I’ll tell you all the details later, Cherie,” Mara said indulgently. “For now, I’m just telling the bare-bones versions, for the boys. The short form is that Sir Pureheart runs into all sorts of challenges, to his courage, to his fighting skill, to his wits, to his charity, to his virtue, and even to the purity of his soul. Finally, at the end of all this, he climbs a high scary mountain, fights a dragon with a special sword that he found just for that purpose, and plucks the Panacea Rose. Then he gallops back to the castle of the fair lady Ladyfair, and gives her the rose just in time to save her life.”

“That’s stupid,” Viv said flatly. “If this Sagewise guy knows where this special rose is, WHY doesn’t he just TELL the big lummox, so he can go directly there and get it? Why all the running around and fighting and questing and crap?”

“Because the rose doesn’t have any special virtues of its own!” Mara explained. “The rose is just a flower that happens to be growing in the right area. The Quest is what will give the rose the power. When Sir Pureheart is enduring his vigil, Sagewise is casting a spell that sends a small spark of magical energy to each of the players designated in the drama. By facing each of the challenges in turn, Sir Pureheart overcomes the challenges and gains power. With each victory, he gains a little magical power and each of the unmet challenges gain a little more power through the Dynamic of Balance. This is why it’s so important that he face every challenge in its proper turn. The exact challenge and its precise turn in the list of events shapes the magic to its dedicated form, in this case healing the fair lady Ladyfair. When Sir Pureheart leaves the chapel to begin his quest, the dragon isn’t there, guarding the rose; it’s drawn there by the power of the Quest. Indeed, it may not be a dragon when he sets out, but is changed into a foul monster totally committed to guarding a flower it has no real reason to by the power of the Quest. When Sir Pureheart slays the dragon, he’s completing the quest. Sagewise stated at the very beginning that the rose would have the power to cure the fair lady Ladyfair, and by slaying that dragon, Sir Pureheart gives that flower the magical power to do so.”

“And then Sir Pureheart rides like hell back,” JJ guessed. “I’m guessing that Sagewise included Ladyfair in the spell, so that the power of the Quest would keep her alive for as long as the Quest took. But the second that the rose had the power to cure her, the Quest was ended, so the magic wasn’t keeping her alive anymore.” JJ paused and considered for a moment. “Or would the magic keep her alive, since the terms of the spell are that the rose would cure Ladyfair, so the magic would keep her alive long enough for the rose to get there?”

“Either could apply,” Mara answered. “It would depend on the particulars of the spell. But nicely puzzled out.”

JJ worried that over and asked, “What happens if someone steals the rose from Sir Pureheart?”

“That depends largely on how much momentum the Quest has gained,” Mara answered. “If it’s early enough on, preventing the Champion of the Quest from overcoming an obstacle or derailing it in some way can cause the magic to peter out. It doesn’t go away, mind you, and there can be some interesting side effects, but the Quest as set is thwarted. On the other hand, if Sir Pureheart has gone through enough challenges, the magic can build up enough of a charge that it will try to steer things so that the Quest is completed- or, rather something settles out that’s close enough to the defined end result, whether it’s what Sir Pureheart or Sagewise wanted being almost but not quite relevant. It can get quite convoluted if Sir Pureheart and Sagewise have different driving intentions.”

“Okaaayyy… so, sending all those little bits and bringing them back together again…” JJ said in the tones of someone putting things together.

“In the face of opposition,” Mara added. “That’s very important. The countering magic must have something to focus on as to provide the challenge. That’s why Sagewise tries to be as specific as he can about the challenges that Sir Pureheart must overcome; if he doesn’t, the magic will improvise a challenge, and things could get very nasty.”

Then the penny seemed to drop for JJ. “It sounds like all those ‘quest’ cartoons, where all the pieces of the big powerful whateveritis are scattered all over the world, and the heroes have to go out and find them all, before the bad guys beat them to it.”

“A variation on the same basic mechanism,” Mara nodded. “While I’m not familiar with those cartoons, I think you’ll notice that the challenges start out rather minor, but as the quest proceeds, the challenges get greater and greater.”

“That’s what was bugging me so much!” JJ snapped his fingers. “You said to Gran’Pere that Akelarre was pulling some kind of Great Quest, but you also that there was a string of robberies that were a part of that quest. I checked them out, and there was some talk that it was a Theme Crime Spree: so Akelarre has figured out how to work a Great Quest into a cornball Theme Crime Spree!”

“That’s the idea that we’re working from,” Nick said, now that the topic had wandered onto his area of expertise.

“And Akelarre is hardly the first mystic to use Theme Crimes as a cover for a Great Quest,” Mara continued. “Several so-called supervillains have turned out to be mystics who achieve great results by hiding their quests under the cloak of a crime spree. Especially since spell-shards have a nasty tendency to lodge themselves within objects that are simply not for sale.”

“Okay, now that makes sense,” Vivian grumbled. “It’s the only reason why anyone would pull something as feeb as theme crimes.”

“Actually dear, there are any of several reasons to pull a string of theme crimes,” Nick objected. “Besides the smokescreen angle, if you’re maneuvering for position within a region’s underworld, there are worse ways to prove that you can outsmart the local superhero or ‘Master Detective’. It makes the point, and you can count coup on him without having to actually kill him. Superheroes hate it when one of their own gets killed.”

“Why did you ask, JJ?” Juliet asked her (hopefully still) second oldest grandson. “Have you figured something out?”

“As a matter of fact, YES.” JJ relished the sight of both his mother and father stopping in mid-meal. “I think that I know where, but not precisely what Akelarre and the Highwayman’s next target will be.”

“Like it’s that hard!” Vic snorted. “The first hit was one of those auction places, where they stole an ancient Egyptian gold statue of a ram. The second hit was at the local Rosicrucian temple- I didn’t know that Rosicrucians had temples- anyway, they took an ancient Minoan Bull mask or head or bust or something. And the third one was at one of those traveling Antiquities exhibits, where they stole a pair of silver statues of Polly and Castro-”

“Pollux and Castor, dear,” Juliet corrected him.

“Right, they were twins or something. And that’s the entire point: Ram, Bull, Twins- she’s doing the Zodiac!” Vic sneered. “I mean, how LAME can you get? I mean, the Zodiac?”

JJ chuckled and shot a superior grin at his brother. “And that’s what she WANTS you to think!”

“Oh?” Nick asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Akelarre is using the Zodiac as a front for what she’s really after. At the auction house, it was…” JJ reached into his jacket and pulled out his cell phone. He stopped dead and shot a look at his mother. The Harrows had rules against personal electronics at the dinner table.

Mara thought about it for a moment and said, “Permission granted. As long as it’s understood that it’s an exception, for this one time, and not a change of the rules.”

JJ nodded with a gratified smile. He called up a file and read off, “Lot #45, ‘The Chetwin Device’.”

“The Chetwin Device?” Mara, Nick and Juliet echoed as one.

JJ called up the more detailed file and handed his phone to his father. “’The Chetwin Device, a clockwork device of uncertain origins, but believed to have been fashioned in the 1870s, found in a secret cache during the razing of Chetwin Halt, Hartfordshire in 1952’,” Nick read off. He looked at the picture, which was of a carousel-like device with whirling mirrors and balls and bells and whistles. Nick shrugged. “I never heard of it.” He handed the phone to his mother, who also drew a blank and handed it to Mara.

Mara looked at the JPEG and said, “I don’t recognize the exact design, but it IS the sort of thing that Victorian occultists were tinkering around with in the late 19th Century. There was a fad, well more than a fad but not quite a movement, to see if Alchemical and Thaumaturgical principles could be applied to then-modern technology, mostly clockwork and such things. Father was interested in them for a while, but he never really mastered the dynamics of them, and interest in clockwork faded when electricity became all the rage.”

“Yes,” Juliet drawled, “I ran into a few of those things, just after the War. Most of them were just over-elaborate toys, clockwork playthings that spun around, made silly noises and didn’t really DO anything.” She pause and said in a more serious tone, “But I encountered a couple that were VERY nasty.”

“JJ, what makes you think that this ‘Chetwin Device’ was Akelarre’s real target?” Mara asked.

“According to the report on the raid, just before the Phantom Highwayman showed up and ran off with the Khendjir Ram, Lot #45 started up for some reason and started making a lot of noise,” JJ explained. “But when they did an inventory afterwards, what they found in the stall for Lot #45 wasn’t the Chetwin Device, but another antiquey clockwork gizmo. According to the accounts, the bidding for the Khendjir Ram was very heated; there was an envoy of the Egyptian government there, and two other Arab concerns, and a few other parties, and the bidding was VERY hot. I think that the magic shard that Akelarre sent out landed in the Chetwin Device, and it reacted to the emotional force of the bidding.”

Nick thought it over for a moment, nodded and said, “Okay, I can see that. Vic said that the second target was a Minoan Bull-Mask at the local Rosicrucian temple; what do you say the real target was?”

JJ got his cell phone back from his mother and swatted around a few files. “This is a picture of the Bull-Mask. This is a shot of the Mask’s case taken after the theft. Notice anything different?”

Nick took the cell phone switched back and forth between the two JPEGs. It took him a bit, but then he got it. “The Mirror! In the original, it has the back facing the viewer, but in the after-theft shot, the reflective side is showing!”

“Why would they have the reflecting side of a mirror turned to the wall?” Bart asked.

“The point of the display is the ornamental back,” Juliet explained. “After all, the front of every mirror is the same, no?”

“So they took the Bull Mask as the distraction for taking the mirror,” Nick pieced the logic together, “and left the reflecting side of the duplicate mirror showing, because no one would notice if the pattern on the back was wrong, as it’s a mirror, and as Mom said, the front of every mirror is the same...”

“Well done JJ!” Juliet cheered him decorously. “And the third theft? What was it? Ah yes, a pair of silver statuettes of Pollux and Castor, the Gemini Twins. And what do you think was the real objective of that exercise?”

“Well, Akelarre- or the Phantom Highwayman or Dr. Thirty or whoever- left messages in rhyme at the scenes of both robberies,” JJ said.

“Riddle-clues…” Nick said in a martyred groan.

“YEAH. The poetry was even worse, Dad. Anyway, the poem made references to ‘Twin Warriors’ which could mean Pollux and Castor, but it also made a heavy references to ‘Reach’ and ‘Spar’… and on display at the same exhibit was a pair of gold-clad, jewel-encrusted Gauntlets made in the late Byzantine era, which were mysteriously missing after all the chaos of the theft.” JJ finished with an eager ‘Hah? How’s THAT?” expression on his face.

“Yesss…” Mara mused, “That works… And a pair of gauntlets would form a discrete unity, which the magic shard would need to lodge in, far better than a pair of statuettes would. Well done, dear!”

“Okay JJ, you’re on a roll; what do you think the next target is?” Nick asked.

“Well, the next sign is Cancer the Crab,” JJ started off. “BUT, this is just the time for the oh-so crafty Master Criminal to start switching things up a little, to throw the valiant defenders of Truth and Justice off the mark. The thief left another message, which had a few crabby remarks, but there was also something about ‘golden light’, the ‘roar of flames’ and ‘out of the darkness’. So, I searched around the area and over in Richmond there’s a branch of the Gnostisophists who have a museum that’s become notorious for showing the Golden Lion of Dahomey, which was donated to the Gnostisophists.”

“Why is it so notorious?” Bart asked. “Do Da Homies want their bling back?” He made a gang sign.

“Bart dear,” Juliet explained, “the ‘Dahomey’ JJ was talking about is an area in western Africa, part of what’s now Nigeria.”

“The Golden Lion of Dahomey is a gold statue of a lion that was taken as tribute by the French after the Second Franco-Demean War,” JJ said. “It’s not solid gold, but the Nigerians are torked that the descendant of the French general who took the lion donated it to a bunch of whackos like the Gnostisophists, instead of returning it to them.”

Nick nodded approvingly. “Okay, that fits. A gold lion makes for a nice gaudy obvious decoy. And what do you think is the real target?”

“Dunno,” JJ admitted. “I haven’t been to the Gnostisophist’s storefront or anything. I didn’t want to tip my hand.”

“Not a problem!” Nick said grandly. “I’ll dust off Captain Ransack and break in, bust up the place with a few of the boys, and carry off the Golden Lion! And, in all the confusion, a certain mysterious woman of bewitching beauty,” he leered suggestively at Mara, “who also happens to have certain arts, will carry off Akelarre’s real target. If you’re right, we’ll stop both Akelare and the Highwayman and possibly Dr. Thirty. And even if you’re wrong, well… it’s GOLD!

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“NO!” Asha said mulishly. “I’m not a BABY anymore!” She finished that by aiming a fulminating pout at her mother.

“But Asha sweetie, we have to get this trick box into the museum, and, well, hiding it with a bunch of other things in your stroller would be simply perfect!” Mara insisted with patient persistence.

“NO!” Asha was as stubborn as only an indulged Six-year-old could be.

“uhm, Mom?” JJ cut in diplomatically, “How about this? Asha puts one of her dolls in the stroller, and she pushes that? Or don’t you think that you’re old enough to pull that off, Asha?”

Asha looked suspiciously at JJ. “I get to push the stroller?”

“Sure!” JJ said. “Just remember that the stroller will probably be a lot heavier coming out than going in. We don’t know what the bad guys’ target is gonna be, and it could be heavy. And it would look suspicious if the adorable little girl who was pushing her doll around suddenly had to work at pushing it, right?”

“If anything, this will work better,” Mara said. “We were going to have Asha sitting in the stroller, get out and sit on the box after Vic and Bart put the target in it. But then there’d be all the dancing around with her getting out of and back into the stroller. Now, what would be more natural than for an adorable youngster to clutch her favorite doll to herself for protection, when the horrible Captain Ransack comes storming in?” Asha clutched Musette to her with both hands, made her eyes wide and teary, and let out a terrified squeak that would have inspired a protective paternal reaction in Simon Legree. Mara smiled broadly and let out an adoring coo. “I’ll walk Asha out afterwards, and you’ll push her stroller out for her, JJ.”

“What?” JJ honked.

“Well, as you pointed out, the stroller will be heavier, and we can’t be sure that Asha won’t be strong enough to push it without being suspicious. You’re the obvious candidate to do it, dear.” Then Mara had JJ practice passing several heavy and awkward objects to Vic and Bart, and having them load it into the trick box. Then she had Bart practicing taking heavy awkward objects from hard to reach places and passing them to Vic. They got to the point where they could do the trick without being seen in 6 seconds.

As they glowed with pride for their triumph, Vic snarked at JJ, “Just don’t blow your end of it.”

In retaliation, JJ clipped Vic one upside the head. “MOM! JJ hit me!”

“Don’t bully your brother, JJ. I’m surprised at you.”

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‘There is something seriously wrong with a ‘religion’ that shares a building with a real estate broker and an insurance company,’ JJ thought to himself. Okay, it was the second story of the building, but still… The ‘museum’ was basically a 20’ x 60’ come-on for the Gnostisophists, something to catch the eye and engage the imagination of the gullible. God knows, their stated ‘cosmology’ didn’t. It was a bizarre and confused jumble of Indian mysticism, Judeo-Christian imagery, and New Age babble. Well, at least there was a crowd, so they could blend in reasonably. Dad had chosen a time when the Gnostisophists were giving a public talk about why the Lion of Dahomey was a valid part of their paradigmic matrix (or whatever…) There was a small group gathered, a few bored reporters, no TV crews, a small clutch of intense looking African-Americans who JJ had pegged as Afro-Centrists looking to kick up a fuss, another small group that were probably semi-professional cult debunkers, and another small group who were there simply because it was a slow day.

They walked in clearly as a family with Mara in the lead and JJ bringing up the rear, filming everything with a handheld video cam. The video cam was sending sounds and images to Nick, Latigo, Lynx and Marcel, who were waiting in a van several yards away. Ace, Kage and Lark were also listening in, in another van. Their job was to rescue Nick, Latigo, Lynx and Marcel if it went pear-shaped by force, stealth or guile, as best fit the situation. Unlike some ‘Master Criminals’, Nick never assumed that his plans were foolproof. The video cam also emitted a strong UV light that created a ‘blur’ area in most commercial security cameras. Occasionally JJ stopped ‘filming’ to give his two brothers the ‘I’m keeping an eye on you’ glower.

Mara clipped up to one of the Gnostisophist with her children in tow and cleared her throat. “Excuse me, but are you the curator?”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but-”

“Oh, this isn’t about the lion statue,” she assured him suavely. “Rather, we recently found something that I think might be of great interest to the Gnostisophists, and may even be useful in their claim regarding the Lion of Dahomey.”

“Oh?”

“My grandfather was in the city of Bordeaux two years ago on… some business or another, and for some reason that he never saw fit to explain to me, he bid on a job lot of trunks that had been in storage for decades. Every so often, we open up one or two of them, just to see if there’s anything more interesting than moldering rags in them. We’ve found some rather interesting antique jewelry, and a large cache of paper money- in Vichy Francs- but nothing really interesting. At least until we cracked open an old leather steamer trunk with destination stickers from the late 19th Century for ports in the Middle East. That trunk was packed with books, papers, maps, and a few locked boxes. I think that this should give you a reason to be interested.” Mara handed the assistant curator a trade-sized notebook with leather bindings that were raggedy about the edges.

The assistant curator took the book, carefully opened it to one of the passages that had bookmarks in it and cautiously started reading. And reading. And reading.

Mara waved a hand in front of the man’s face and got no reaction. With that done, she pulled out a monocle and began carefully scrutinizing the exhibits on display. A pendulum would have been easier and quicker, but it would also have been far more noticeable and suspicious.

“Mom, what’s in that book that he’s so interested in?” JJ asked.

“A hand-written copy of Jules Verne’s 'Journey to the Center of the Earth’. Your grandfather transcribed it himself, and he said that if he was going to give himself writer’s cramp, then he should at least enjoy the contents. Besides the obvious text, there’s a repeating charm written in invisible ink that compels the reader to be enraptured by the passage, so they keep reading the same page over and over again, ignoring everything.”

“When did Gran’Pere do that?”

Mara paused. “1880… something, I think. Your gran’pere has been using that book to good effect for years, and considering the people we’re dealing with, he thought the subject matter appropriate.”

Then Mara paused and looked intently at one exhibit. “I don’t believe it…” she said in a low voice.

“What? The Mirror?” JJ asked. “But the spell already did a mirror! I thought that those magic sparks try to vary things up.”

“They DO,” Mara said with a smirk. “It’s the lamp, the one on the right.” Framing the ‘Mirror of Acharya’ were two ‘Aladdin’ style oil lamps, both of which looked far too much like magic lamps to be credible.

“You mean there’s a genie in there?” Asha asked with wide eyes. Bart also looked at the lamp with wide eyes, but Vic gave the lamp the look of cynical scorn that only a precocious 11-year-old can muster.

“You’re kidding…” JJ said with disgust. “Don’t those magic sparks usually choose something that’s already magical?”

“It’s more a matter of ‘the path of least resistance’ than choice,” Mara corrected her son. “But essentially yes. I sincerely doubt that there’s a genie in that lamp, Asha. My guess is that it’s either some mage’s reliquary- that’s sort of like a ‘piggy bank’ for magical energy- or a ‘lantern’, sort of like a lens for focusing magical energy for better effect. If it is, it’s most likely it’s attuned to the Element of Fire. I doubt that that thing’s last five owners had the slightest clue what they were buying and selling.” Mara gave a lopsided smirk. “How nice of Akelarre. It’s always good to have another battery lying around.” Mara looked to the other kids. “Very well, time to get to your places, the curtain’s going up.”

The video camera in JJ’s hands gave off five flashes, then four, then three, then two, then-

 

BOOM!

 

The building shuddered as one of the solid walls of the building came crashing in. Standing framed in the wreckage of the wall were four figures. Given his taste for Victorian and Edwardian style, it was inevitable that Nick would become aware of the Steampunk fad (going on movement), and only slightly less inevitable that he’d adapt one of his villainous personae to the esthetic. He’d adapted Captain Ransack, who’d been a rather vanilla ‘cold-blooded but very professional badass mercenary’ type to a ‘freewheeling Steampunk Victorian Adventurer as roaring barstid’ archetype. He wore a long khaki duster over a blue leather waistcoat with a red Union Jack on it, a white Wolseley pattern pith helmet with a spike and elaborate badge over a near-mask set of goggles, a furiously red curling beard set of whiskers glued under that, jodhpurs with black riding boots, and on his back, he wore a complex gleaming brass and black iron contraption that consisted of a backpack unit that had a set of six brass-and-iron ‘Dr. Octopus’ tentacles sprouting from it. In his hands he carried a pair of Webley Mk VI revolvers He had obviously just used the waldos to batter down the wall. Just behind him and to his left was Latigo, togged out as what might be called a ‘Kitted out Great White Hunter’ in a tropical white linen shooting outfit with a gold brocade waistcoat, black boots, a wide-brimmed low-crowned not-quite Stetson, and an over-elaborate optical device over one eye. His face was obscured by the optical device and the large walrus mustache he had glued on. He aimed a very complex looking long rifle (with a telescope that matched the optic) at the appalled witnesses. Lynx was also there, also wearing a Wolseley pattern pith helmet (sans spike), a flowing white shirt, the seemingly requisite corset, jodhpurs, and riding boots. She wore a bright red wig done up in an elaborate bun, and her features were concealed by the goggles she wore. In her black gloved hands she carried a Mauser in her left hand, and an ominously sparking whip in the right. The figure in the back looked for all the world like a primitive clockwork anthroform ‘robot’ in the shape of a muscular man, dressed in a red fez and a leopard skin. JJ knew that the ‘robot’ was Marcel in a suit of power armor.

Pausing a moment to let the image have its effect, Nick let out a boisterous “HAW-HAW! Let’s see those wankers at Marvel Comics say that I’m infringing on their distinctive likeness NOW! HAH!” in a very ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ accent. While the ‘tentacles’ were indeed separate and distinct from Nick, the backpack unit was not really a part of it; it was guided by Nick’s PK. The backpack was booby-trapped for the inevitable wiseass who always thinks that they can gum up the theoretically complex clockwork mechanism that drove the arms. As Nick liked to tell his children, ‘Always give your opponents every opportunity to do something stupid.’

Latigo and Lynx spread out to cover the crowd as ‘Captain Ransack’ with the ‘Automaton’ at his back advanced on the Lion, which was protected within a Plexiglas case. One of the Afro-Centricists, a tall, thin, well-dressed man who looked like he was hoping that there were TV cameras capturing this, headed him off and said in a dramatic, slightly accented voice, “STOP! The Lion of Dahomey is an irreplaceable cultural treasure of the peoples of West Africa! It must be returned, to symbolize the collapse of the White Imperialist hegemony over the Free Peoples!”

Captain Ransack stood there for a second, seemingly swayed by the man’s eloquence, passion and earnestness. “You know, you’re absolutely right,” the Captain said in a lower, more reasonable voice. Then he pistol whipped the man and guffawed, “And that’s why you’ll PAY to get it back, now won’t you, Sunny Jim? Haw-Haw!” Ransack plowed through the man’s outraged followers, and got to the case. He simply tore the Plexiglas case off, and scooped up the golden lion. “Just like the Good Old Days!” he exulted.

But then, a swirling mist-like darkness filled the audience, and a slender figure whose only discernible feature was a glossy featureless helmet stepped forward. “Oh Bloody Hell,” Cap’n Ransack groaned, “ANOTHER rutting wanker who’s seen one Batman movie too many…” Then, propping himself with two of the metal legs, he used the remaining four to launch the Lion at the man (?) known as The Mist. The Lion sailed through, though it wasn’t clear whether that was because The Mist had dodged it, or if it had simply gone right through him.

Mara gave Bart a discreet poke that this was a perfect time, to stop gawking at the fight and DO THE JOB.

The ‘Mirror of Acharya’- and more to the point, the two brass lamps flanking it- was securely protected by sheets of clear plastic, just enough to keep grabby hands from getting the mirror grubby. JJ positioned himself so that if the curator was snapped out of his trance by the small riot next door, he wouldn’t spot Vic or Bart. Vic whipped out a compacted dingus and telescoped it out with a fluid snap of his wrist. He expertly jammed it between the Lucite and its foundation and separated the two with a lusty crunch.

But just as Bart was getting into position, there was a crash, and several metal-clad figures broke through the windows of the museum. The lead man was a huge misshapen brute of a man with his face distorted by huge asymmetrical swells that were clearly mirrored by various bulges along his body that really shouldn’t have been there. His body was armored by a fine-mesh high-tech chainmail, with his chest and head armored by a more conventional chestplate and helmet. Despite his prodigious bulk, he used a clearly extremely powerful exoskeleton over that, which had a rack of mini-missiles mounted over one shoulder, some sort of energy projector over the other shoulder, a large energy weapon mounted on one hip, some sort of chemical sprayer on the other, and what to JJ’s dilettante eye looked like a very high grade personal force field generator. His eight backups were all heavily borged, with a design philosophy that owed a lot to the ‘sexy robots’ of Hajime Sorayama, and JJ had the distinct impression that many of them regretted not staying in the extended care wards that XXX found them in.

As they advanced, Asha let out a steamwhistle scream and clutched Musette to her in completely unfeigned terror. Recognizing Asha’s scream out of pure parental instinct, Nick turned from the fight to recognize the telltale signs of Dr. XXX’s cyborg enforcers. “NO!” he bellowed in paternal outrage. But then he covered for himself and added in character, “That’s MINE! I don’t even know what it IS, but it’s still MINE!”

Anyone sane would have found a nice safe corner to hide in, but nobody has ever accused 9- or -11- year old boys, especially Vic or Bart, of being particularly sane. Somehow Bart managed to zip between one of the cyborg’s legs and get in the middle of them. He then used his jacket to hoodwink one of the cyborgs. And, well, Vic would rather pull out his own last tooth with a pair of pliers and no Novocain than let Bart be one-up on him, so he did likewise, and used that separator on the backpack unit of one of the other cyborgs. Let’s just say that it was ugly and leave it at that?

Mara was too busy whipping up something exceedingly nasty- from the part of the museum that was hidden from the auditorium- to keep track of Asha. But Vic’s move had snapped Asha out of her terror, and she was looking to prove that she wasn’t a baby anymore by showing that she could mix it up, just like Vic and Bart.

As Dr. XXX and his troops advanced, Asha dashed in among them, screaming shrilly and somehow managing to stay out of their grasps. Also, she was still young enough that she remembered intuitively exactly what pitch to scream at to cause the optimum discomfort for adults.

‘Oh Crap, their idiocy is contagious!’ JJ thought as he dove in to save his little sister. He managed to tip over the she-bot who was going for Asha, which only gave Bart an opening to grab one of the grenades from her belt. While the design was unique to Dr. XXX, Bart was still able to recognize its basic function. He prepped it and threw it at Dr. XXX, who was aiming that rack of micro-missiles at ‘Cap’n Ransack’. The grenade went off, covering half of Dr. XXX in a sticky goop that immediately started to harden on contact with ambient oxygen.

Vic clambered up the side of Dr. XXX that wasn’t covered by super-epoxy, yanked out as many connecting cables as he could, and took control of the shoulder mounted energy projector. Doing a quick jury rig on the trigger of the projector, Vic aimed it at the cyborg whose design and weaponry suggested that she was Dr. XXX’s main asskicker, who had JJ by the scruff of the neck and was hauling both brother and little sister off for a possible hostage move. Synchronized waves of coruscating light and jarring sound washed over the three, and they were all visibly confused, though there was no visible damage. The weapon was a vertigo projector! With a wicked grin, Vic hit the mass of Dr. XXX’s troops with it.

Once the borgettes were coping with that, Vic pivoted the weapon and started washing the minor riot in the main room with the Vertigo waves. Vic would have done more with the projector, but Dr. XXX, not being a complete idiot, had a solvent for his own capture gel where he could get at it. The goop loosened up, and Vic had to jump to stay out of the misshapen tinkerer’s clutches.

But Dr. XXX hadn’t thought to provide anti-vertigo measures for his minions, so JJ was able to snap out of the confusion before the goon he was grappling with did- and far more importantly, before Asha could. He grabbed his little sister, hauled her out of the melee, dragged her over to the stroller and strapped her in. Then he slapped a padlock onto the straps, so she couldn’t get out. And yes, he usually carried a padlock or two on him when he went on those ‘family outings’, along with a roll of duct tape, a tube of superglue, fake blood, a smoke bomb, a small can of spray lubricant, a silver mirror, a set of lockpicks and handcuff keys, a pocket acetylene torch and a Swiss Army knife that would have handled the entire Swiss Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force combined. But then, most of the Harrows had a serious case of ‘utility belt syndrome’.

Asha fumed at JJ, but that didn’t stop him from jumping right back into the fight, dropping that smoke bomb that I mentioned, and dragging his brothers out. Just as JJ had gotten Bart under control, one of the cyborgs got her hands on the elder Harrow brother. Then there was a loud shot from the other room, and a bullet hit the cyborg on a hard point on her helmet. It didn’t kill the minion, but it rattled her enough that JJ was able to get himself and his two brothers out of the fight.

This was exactly what Mara had been waiting for. She made the last gesture and command word, and a large dark spider leapt from her cupped hands. It landed among the cyborgs and exploded into a thousand smaller spiders, which crawled among the cyborgs, including Dr. XXX and bit them.

As the cyborg squad twitched and writhed under the spiders’ influence, JJ saw his chance and went for the lamp. But just as he had the Lucite case pried away from the wall, a gloved hand, with a greenish sleeve attached, case through the wall and grabbed the lamp. The hand drew itself and the lamp back through the wall without a sign.

With a snarl of frustration, JJ turned just in time to see a not-quite perfectly invisible bubble of some unknown energy form around Dr. XXX and his backup singers, which shrank into nothingness with a pop. Mara grabbed the opportunity- and Bart’s ear- and got her offspring out of the museum, even as the fight in the main room threatened to turn into a small riot.

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“You’re sure that it was the Phantom Highwayman, JJ?”

“White kid glove hand with a green cuffed sleeve with brass buttons attached reaching through a wall and snagging the lamp just before I could get it?” JJ sneered, “Yeah, it was the Highwayman. Fortunately, he dropped this just before he grabbed the lamp.” JJ took a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it to his father.

“Poetry,” Nick groaned, suggesting that it barely warranted the name.

“Why is the paper striped like that?” Vic asked.

“It’s a track computer printout,” Uncle Luke said, peering over his brother’s shoulder at the text. “In the old days before computer monitors and printers came into their own, back when computers were these huge things that took up small buildings by themselves, if you wanted the results of a computer run, you had to print the whole thing out on long runs of paper like this. Humph!” Luke snorted, “It’s even printed with a dot matrix printer.”

“Why would the Highwayman use an antique printer?” JJ wondered aloud.

“Maybe he’s pointing the finger at Dr. Thirty,” Uncle Luke said. “Thirty has a large collection of obsolete hardware; I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t have a complete selection of old printers.”

“WHY?” Vic asked, utterly boggled by the notion.

“Hang onto almost anything long enough, and it becomes valuable,” Nick said with a grunt. He looked at JJ. “So, any idea as to what it means?”

JJ took out a small notebook that he’d copied the riddle into and said, “I’m not sure yet, Dad. I mean, it doesn’t just pop out at me. I mean, they’ve already jumped off the Zodiac’s cycle, but they’ll probably still try to hide behind having an Astrology theme for as long as they can. Gimme a while to think about it, and I’ll see what I can figure out.”

“Why don’t you head down to the Kripsy Kreme™?” Vic said snottily. “Cops always think better when they’ve got coffee and a donut.” JJ gave his brother a swat upside the head. “POLICE BRUTALITY!”

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As per their arranged protocols, JJ got his girl outfit from the dry cleaners and disguised himself. JD had a watch on the cleaners, and by the time that JJ was through with the disguise spell, she was reasonably sure that the ‘Phantom Highwayman’ knew that she wanted a meet. And in the meantime? JJ spent a few pleasant hours bopping around downtown, enjoying doing stereotypical girl stuff.

Then as she was walking out of the mall, a small remote-controlled toy car ran up and butted her foot. It rammed her a couple of times, turned around and zipped over into an alley. JJ looked around in case she was being watched and then casually strolled into the alleyway.

At first it looked like the alley was empty, save for the little RC toy. Then the Phantom Highwayman walked through a wall into the lane. “Please don’t tell me that you arranged this just to ask if that skirt made your ass look fat.”

“Hah-hah,” JJ not-laughed. “If I had any doubts before, now I know that you’re Jay-Dee: only YOU would break security, just to bust my chops over a perfectly reasonable evasion tactic.”

“Yeah, that’s what you say, but when this is all over, I think that Mom and Dad are gonna have a few questions to ask you, little missy!” JD paused and asked. “WELL?”

Okay, okay!” JJ relented. “Well, first of all, I want to be sure that I’m reading this ‘clue’ that you left behind- by the way, whose idea was it to use the old track-style computer printout paper?”

“Oh, that was Dr. Thirty’s brainfart,” JD sneered. “He figures that Uncle Luke will be able to track the paper and the printer down to one particular source, where even now he’s busily setting up an inescapable ambush.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” JJ said with barely restrained disgust. “That’s… comic book shit! Worse, that’s old ‘Silver Age’ TV superhero crap! That’s up there with ‘let’s kidnap the girl reporter and tie her to the buzzsaw!”

“Yeah,” JD agreed with a grunt, “but don’t let that fool you- Thirty’s plenty sharp and he was set to learn a lot about Dad’s cadre’s fighting styles when you and the rugrats tripped him up.”

“Speaking of which, how much are you learning about Thirty and Akelarre’s big project?”

“Hey, I am in deep undercover here! I can’t go poking around asking questions that I have no reason to want to know! And it’s not like Dr. Thirty took me on a guided tour of his base, spelled out his entire plan in detail, trotted out his apocalypse ray, and pointed out the glaring red button that would set off the autodestruct, which would cause the island to blow up!”

“Okay, then why is Thirty going along with this?” JJ asked. “Mom spelled out what a ‘Great Quest’ is. It’s a big magical hoo-hah, so why is Dr. Thirty going along with it? What’s in it for him?”

JD gave a sardonic chuckle. “What? Didn’t Uncle Luke tell you this story? Dr. Thirty is the reason that Ol’ Luke has to wear a mask to talk to people, and Uncle Luke repaid the favor by contaminating the super-soldier serum that Thirty had gone through six kinds of hell to acquire. I’m not sure who started it, or if that was the start or just the magnum opuses, but apparently they’ve been titting and tatting at each other for years.”

JJ shrugged widely, and then furrowed her eyebrows. “Okay, I was gonna ask you something… oh! Right! I want to see if I’m reading this poem you wrote right-”

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“Okay, given the general, ah, rather ‘watery’ tone of the poem, it’s most likely Aquarius, then Pisces, and then maybe Cancer,” JJ said at the dinner table. “There aren’t any mentions of scales or gills or shells or claws, so the long money’s on Aquarius. There are some vague allusions to ‘Spring’, ‘Renewal’, ‘vessel’ and ‘Pearl of Incomparable Value’ and ‘Draught of Wisdom’ But there’s this bit right here, with ‘the Meadows of March’, which sort of stands out from all the watery stuff. So, it’s got to be in Springfield.”

“Okay, and what’s in Springfield that fits the ‘Aquarius’ theme?” Nick asked his son.

“Oh, you’re gonna love this one, Dad,” JJ smirked as he handed his father his cell phone.

Nick looked at the display and his eye popped open, his expression one of glad surprise. “The Great Pearl of the White Rajah!”

“The White Rajah?” Vic asked. “Never heard of him. What, he’s like some Green Lantern rip-off, with a power gem that looks like a pearl?”

“Oh, the White Rajah wasn’t a supervillain, son,” Nick corrected him. “Quite the opposite; he was the beau ideal of the Victorian romantic hero, practically a superhero, back before there were known super powers. In 1838, an Englishman named James Brookes traveled out to the Far East, to what’s now Malaysia, and pretty much set himself up as a pirate hunter. Piracy was a big problem back then, and the Sultan of Brunei gave Brookes a big chunk of land on the island of Borneo to rule. There were a few other Europeans in the area who styled themselves ‘White Rajahs’, but for the most part, the phrase ‘White Rajah’ refers to Brookes and his successors.”

“Woof!” Vic and Bart said as one.

“Of course, you must remember that by ceding that territory to Brookes, the Sultan of Brunei was gaining a formidable ally against the Malay corsairs,” Juliet pointed out to her grandsons. “He was giving territory that he was having problems controlling in the first place, so he was gaining an ally against the pirates, he didn’t have to exert himself keeping the peace there, getting a border he didn’t have to protect and establishing a trading post with the British, all in one move.”

“Anyway, Brookes was a figure of great romance back in Britain, a rare combination of fighting man, capable administrator, and man of principle,” Nick resumed. “And I understand while his successors’ welcome was wearing out by 1961, the memory of Brookes himself is still honored by the people there. The Great Pearl was part of Brooke’s crown jewels, something that they took off one of the pirates they brought to heel. It was a large irregular, sort of lumpish pearl the size of an orange. It was huge but didn’t look very good, so they gave it to a carver, and well, he really went to town on it!” Nick showed them a picture of an elaborately carved sphere with intricate chambering that made it seem almost sponge-like. “The artist had to cut it down considerably, down to roughly the size of a tennis ball, but it’s generally considered to be a masterpiece of craftsmanship. It says here that it’s one of several pieces of Malay craftsmanship that’s making the rounds internationally.” He looked up from the cell phone with the glint of acquisition in his eyes that is the sign of an avid collector.

“Well done, JJ, well done,” Mara said. “Even if it’s not what the spell shard has lodged in, your father would have kicked himself for letting something like the Great Pearl of the White Rajah slip through his fingers, even if it’s off in Springfield. Is that the real target, or just the cover?”

“The cover,” JJ answered. “I went to the Yerunkle Pavilion in Springfield and dowsed around a little with a pendulum-”

“Where did you acquire a scrying pendulum?”

“From Viv.”

“I have a scrying pendulum?” Viv peeped.

“Sure! Mom gave it to you to practice with, remember?”

“You STOLE something from MY ROOM?” Viv demanded, bolting up from her chair.

“I didn’t steal it,” JJ said defensively. “I asked you if you had it. You were talking on the phone at the time, and you told me that it was in your drawer and I could take it and keep it for all you cared.”

Viv was still riled up. She clearly didn’t give a rat’s ass about the pendulum, but she didn’t like the idea of JJ going into her room, even if he did have her technical permission. Then she felt her mother’s cold glare on her. Mara gave her daughter a long cold hard look for so casually dismissing a valuable piece of magical equipment, which she should have been practicing with! Then Mara coolly dismissed her daughter and turned to JJ. “And what did you find?”

JJ took his cell phone back and showed his mother an elaborate stemmed drinking goblet. “The Chalice of Shahryar. A masterpiece of Afghan metal-smithing, gold filigree over silver inlaid with mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli, believed to have been made sometime in the 14th century, and traded from one owner to another, popping up in this collection or that for the past 200 years. It’s part of the same collection of Muslim artworks from around the world that the Great Pearl is in. From the way that the pendulum reacted, even if it doesn’t have a spell-shard stuck in it, then it’s so magical that ripping it off would be worth doing on general principles.”

“Very good, JJ!” Mara said approvingly. “You may keep the pendulum.” Viv gave a squeak of outrage, but Mara put her back down in her chair with a glare that said, ‘at least someone will be using it!’

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As the shuttles pulled up to the Yerunkle Pavilion, JJ wondered idly what strings his parents had pulled to arrange this ‘field trip’. He sincerely hoped that they hadn’t resorted to mind control. The teachers were always testy for days after they’d been mind controlled.

However they’d pulled it off, they’d done it very smoothly. The only comments on the lengthy trip there had been the inevitable torrent of ‘Simpsons’ jokes. As his class was led around the pavilion by one of the docents, JJ left a trail of ‘gum wads’ that held explosives, incendiaries, flash-bang rounds, and smoke and stench bombs that were cued to a remote-control detonation system, and a more subtle trail of position acquisition transponder stickers, remarkably sophisticated ‘camera’ stickers, and a couple of target designation stickers for the Great Pearl and the Chalice of Shahryar. Despite being told to put their bags in the cloak room, JJ had managed to hold onto his backpack, which had an ‘orange’ that contained a 3D printed replica of the Great Pearl, and a thermos that contained a copy of the Chalice that would fool only the most passing of scrutiny. Of course, that was just in case Plans A, B and C went wonky. JJ’s real contribution to Plans A and B was the ‘smartphone’ (not the one that Jake had given him) that was actually an extremely powerful EMP grenade. JJ carefully planted it near the Chalice and moved along with the rest of the flock.

When the field trippers were well away from the display with the Great Pearl, JJ went for his real cell phone and hit an ultra. When he got a triple bleat back from the smartphone, he put it away and gave the docent his full attention in her description of how Islam’s aniconic philosophy affected various artistic traditions. The differences between the Arabic and Indonesian applications was actually pretty interesting, and JJ was starting to make a few notes for a possible paper for school when there was a crash, and it was time to play the wide-eyed gaping spectator. It was understood that if it got too messy, Lynx would take him ‘hostage’. JJ wondered how that would affect his standing at school, and if he really cared.

Since they weren’t expecting only a group of borderline crackpots like the Gnostisophists and some mouthy activists, this time ‘Captain Ransack’ forsook the big splashy entrance and just sent a wave of ‘hire-by-the-caper’ minions in uniforms loosely based on 19th century Sepoy uniforms with sack masks. Nick would secure the museum, and then make a big production of getting the Great Pearl. His big gloat-fest would give whoever was going to interfere their chance to stop him. While they were mixing it up, Lark, who had inserted herself as one of the docents, would secure the chalice, and depending on the circumstances, either trade JJ it for the copy or get it out of the museum on her own. When whoever stepped in, those ‘gum wads’ would be set off strategically by remote control, depending on the circumstances and precise effect needed.

And that was pretty much how it went down. At first. There was the crash as the first wave forced open the front doors, and the second wave neutralized the museum security. For a bunch of ‘hire-by-the-caper’ mooks, the ‘Sepoys’ were doing a very professional job. Though the fact that they were gently, nigh-invisibly being guided by Nick probably helped. The red-coated third and fourth waves spread out through the museum and took their positions. Then ‘Captain Ransack’ and his three lieutenants strutted into the pavilion.

“Now THIS is more like it,” ‘Captain Ransack’ said loudly as he strode over to where the Great Pearl was kept. “There WAS once a time, when a man with pluck and grit could just walk into a palace like this and carry out a Family Fortune in one hand.” He sighed loudly. Then he shattered the Plexiglas case and picked up the Great Pearl. “Ah, the GOOD old days…”

“I hope that you’ll remember them so fondly… IN JAIL!” And then the Magnificent Five swept in. Blue Moon made everyone 20 pounds lighter, which made it easier for Silver Streak to scatter the Sepoys like bowling pins. Iron Ox charged in, and grappled Marcel/Mechanoid, setting him up to be frozen by Red Frost, who skated in, making the floor slick under her feet, making it even worse for the Sepoys. Latigo tracked Red Frost with his long rifle, setting her for a shot that might put her down permanently. But the Golden Eagle swooped down to snatch the rifle out of his hands. But even as they were grappling for it, Lynx lashed out with her electrified whip, catching him long enough for Captain Ransacks arms to snag him. Ransack chucked Golden Eagle into the frozen Marcel/Mechanoid, freeing his trusted henchman from the ice.

Latigo recovered his rifle, but Silver Streak, who was quite used to operating on Red Frost’s slicks came in and knocked him down before he could do any damage with it. Still, Marcel used his unexpected freedom to throw Golden Eagle into Red Frost. Nick had to gently chide Marcel with telepathy to not make the ‘heroes’ look bad.

The Magnificent Five are a high teamwork team with elaborate combinations that Nick knew and could turn around on them, if he chose. He liked to say, “The only real problem is not tripping up each and every one of those circus acts of theirs and making them look like the clowns they are. In the immortal words of WC Fields, ‘Never Wise Up a Chump’.”

So the fight went on, with ‘Ransack’s Renegades’ putting up just good enough of a fight to maintain some street cred, while keeping up the seeming that the Magnificent Five earned their name.

Nick was beginning to think that he’d gotten the day wrong, when there was an explosion that knocked almost everyone except for Iron Ox and Marcel off their feet. There, where the epicenter of the explosion had been, were Dr. XXX, his Robo-Femme minions, and two bipedal gun drones that were in dire peril of infringing on several Robocop™ franchise distinctive likenesses. The two ‘ED-209s’ distanced themselves from the main mass and made a production of ratcheting their guns into readiness.

Everyone else paused at this new development, but ‘Captain Ransack’ bristled like a terrier spotting a rat, and bellowed, “YOU AGAIN?” Sparking with rage, he broke away from the Golden Eagle’s grip and marched over and right up into Dr. XXX’s face. “This is MY RAID! That fiasco with the Golden Lion at the Gnostisophists in one thing, Action is Action and all that rot, but this is going too far! You take those tin-plated trollops and wind-up toys of yours, and see if there’s a Sci-Fi convention that you can roll! I was here First!”

Dr. XXX started to sneer something, but Golden Eagle and the rest of the Magnificent Five had pulled into their trademark formation. “STOP!” Golden Eagle announced over his PA. “Both of you-”

“Oh, put a sock in it, BOY SCOUT!” Ransack barked, “If I want your opinion, I’ll cable Baden-Powell!”

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On the service dock of the Yerunkle Pavilion, a semi-truck backed up to the trailer parked at the dock. The two security guards on duty walked over, each with one hand on his gun. A short Asian man in a suit with ‘Montauk Security’ on the pocket jumped out of the cab. “Joe Hideyama, Montauk Security. There’s a superhero fight going on. Montauk SOP is for all vulnerable vehicles to be removed from the loading docks, to prevent them from being damaged, or being used either as weapons or escape vehicles.”

Hal, the senior security guard, had never heard of that bit of SOP. But Montauk was the insurance company covering the exhibit, and Montauk was notorious in the Security field for its stringent procedures. Besides, especially compared to some of Montauk’s nitpicking procedures, that one actually made some sense. It helped that Mara Harrow had be-spelled Kage’s ID so that everyone looking at it would feel two effects: First, they’d be very suggestible, and second, that whatever happened for ten minutes after seeing the ID wouldn’t pass from short-term to long-term memory.

The two security guards helped Kage and Ace hook the trailer up to the rig, and after the truck pulled out, they went to move the other cars parked around the dock. As the truck drove out of the driveway and got onto one of the side streets, Kage looked around sharply. “Any signs of the Phantom Highwayman?” he asked as he reached up and pulled his ninjto and a handful of ‘special’ shuriken from the roof of the cab.

“Not to worry, Slugger,” Ace said with a grin. “Even if Greenboy doesn’t show up this time, he’s bound to show up again. You will get another shot at him.” Kage allowed a predatory gleam to show in his eyes. Ace understood that Kage was of the Warrior Credo; he didn’t work for Nick Harrow for the money. He worked with the master criminal for the opportunity to practice his skills in real-world situations. He didn’t fight to live; he lived to fight.

Yet even Kage’s remarkable guard was too slow. “STOP!” But it was too late. “Don’t bother. Keep going.”

“What?” Ace demanded, “Did I hit a kid?” he snarled, cursing his luck.

“Sort of,” Kage said wryly. “It was a kid goat. Keep going.”

“A Goat? What’s a GOAT doing out here, let alone jumping in front of my truck?” Kage just shrugged, and they never even broke speed.

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A half-hour later, Ace called in. “Boss? Set up an alternate meet-up point. Something weird is going on.”

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At the alternate meet, a rural spot 20 miles outside city limits, Nick Harrow and the rest of his crew, in mufti, joined Ace and Kage. “So?” Nick asked. “You said something weird was going on?”

“We ran into a goat,” Kage said simply.

“A goat?”

“Just as we were rounding out of the Pavilion driveway, we ran into a kid goat,” Ace spelled it out. “It just bounced out of nowhere, right into our path. I didn’t even have a chance to tap the brakes.”

Nick gave an acknowledging shrug. “Okay, that’s a little weird, especially for that neighborhood, but-”

“We ran into six more.”

“_what?_”

“We ran into seven goats at the rate of one goat per block.”

Nick’s eyes popped open as he wrapped his head around that. He nodded slowly and said, “Okay… that’s weird…”

“We figured that something strange was going on, so we didn’t think that taking this truck to the real switchover point was a good idea.” Kage nodded brusquely, backing Ace up.

“Good call,” Nick said, drawing a 9mm from its holster at the small of his back. “Ace, open it up. Everyone… you know what to do.”

The crew drew weapons and spread out in case of the unexpected. Kage wrapped a bandana around his face, drew his ninja-to, and leapt up to the roof of the trailer. When everyone was set, Ace opened the double-doors of the trailer. There, in front of stacked boxes, a figure dangled on a short noose from the roof of the trailer. The figure was a woman, dressed in a black dress cut to resemble wings. Her face was hidden by a headdress with a visor like the bill of a duck- or swan.

“Mara?” Nick gasped.

 

To Be Continued

Comments   

+2 # Horrid 2017-03-24 21:39
ANY story by Bek is a thing to be grateful for and this story is no exception. But please, sir, remember that you have your fans dying to get further installments or even conclusions to "Silver Ghost/Golden Angel" and "Diamonds Are a Vamp's Best Friend."

Everyone has their own opinion but your stories have always been my personal favorites of all the Whateley tales, and that is really saying something in light of the wonderful work by the rest of the Original Original Canon Cabal, senior scribes such as Kristen, Heather, E.E. and Joe, and the great 2nd Gen crew plus other stars new and old.

Keep up the fantastic work.

:-)
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+1 # Kala 2017-03-25 08:17
I agree with Horrid, though I mostly await for continuation of Anathema.
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0 # Horrid 2017-05-06 19:49
oooh! Anathema! Of course! Let's bug Bek about yet another great story we can't wait for him to finish! Poor Bek! Love you, man. Boy, it must be tough being a genius.
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