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The Final Trump

A Whateley Universe Story

By Bek D Corbin

 

Part 4

 

When Nick and Mara picked up the kids at their schools, they brought along everything for a day at the beach. Sort of. They had Ace drive the limo to Splash-a-rama®, a water park in the region. While Water Parks are loudly touted as being ‘Family Oriented’, they also have a quiet, rather seedy reputation for being unsafe and less than hygienic, being magnets for many kinds of lowlifes, and for gouging both customers and employees. But in stark contrast to that, Splash-a-rama© had only a quarter of the advertising budget of most competing water parks, but enjoyed an absolutely stellar word of mouth reputation. The price at the front gate was not only low, but it covered everything; there weren’t any ‘special areas’ or ‘premium rides’ that you had to pay extra for. Not only were the prices at the concession stands low, but the food quality was very good, and there was a great selection. The word from employees was that while there wasn’t any pressure to meet quotas or sales projections, there were bonuses for both good sales performance and customer recommendations, on top of reasonable work loads and generous salaries. There was a good-sized and well-paid maintenance and repair force, so the structures were safe and sound, and you never left the place with the nagging impression that you’d driven for hours and paid top dollar to swim in someone’s toilet. College-age summer hires were routinely delighted with the management of the place, and often recommended the place to friends and family, both for recreation and part-time jobs. There was even a good-sized service station connected to the 5-story parking garage.

How did Splash-a-rama manage to keep their production levels and employee salaries high, while keeping their price low?

Simple: they were a front for supervillains.

Splash-a-rama was a cover for the Onsen, a resort, spa, health clinic and medical clinic that specialized in servicing the needs of supervillains. Under the cover of an executive spa, the Onsen provided world-class relaxation and recuperation facilities, centered mainly around a system of mineral springs that were quietly famous in the Supervillain community. The prices at the Onsen started at $1,000 a day for a room, meals and bathing privileges, and went up steeply from there, with multi-million dollar price tags for top-of-the-line medical procedures with recuperative stays.

Splash-a-rama provided a screen for the Onsen’s extensive utility needs, and for the comings and goings of the spa’s clientele, and for the organization’s cash flow. So, like Ground Zero, Splash-a-rama would justify itself to its parent organization if it simply broke even. But freed of the need to continually generate ever larger profits, Splash-a-rama flourished. The management of Splash-a-rama left the situation as it was, because the people who ran the Onsen found the crowds more useful than their money.

And as for the lowlifes that tend to gravitate to such places, they found themselves faced with people lower on the social ladder, but higher on the food chain. They were quietly told that they were bad for business. And with the simple sense of self-preservation of that breed, they moved on to greener- and safer-pastures.

Nick, Mara and Juliet put JJ in charge of Vic, Bart and Asha while Viv was free to amuse herself as she saw fit. Then they entered the Onsen through the ‘grownups only’ area that Splash-a-rama had considerately built to give parents a respite from their offspring. Nick notified the Onsen of their arrival with his Blackberry, and they were inconspicuously passed through the Onsen’s security measures. The scene outside was bright, gleaming, cheery, and filled with activity. But inside the Onsen, the ambience was muted, burnished, lush and serene. In contrast to the bright whites and primary colors outside, the inside was dominated by rich earth tones. Nick, Mara and Juliet took a moment to take deep breaths, exhale and relax; you can love your kids dearly, and still need a break from them.

The Harrows checked in with the concierge, were given day rooms, scheduled for various treatments, and were issued masks. They were also required to read the resort’s policies. Most of the policies were very common sense, but when you’re dealing with supervillains, it’s always best to have these things clearly spelled out.

Nick, Mara and Juliet each checked into their day rooms, which were basically places they could go to be alone and rest for a bit. They changed out of their clothes, which they placed in the lockers in the day rooms, and slipped into the fluffy white terrycloth robes. Nick got a look at Mara in her bathrobe, and visibly made himself march over to the Men’s section of the baths. Mara herself let out a groan of frustrated need and made for the Women’s section. After showering down, she and Juliet slipped into the soothing warm waters of the Onsen. Both gave gratified sighs. After a while, Juliet said, “You know, Mara, I keep telling myself that one of the upsides of getting on in years is that I don’t really miss sex that much anymore. I keep telling myself that. But every so often, my body yells at me ‘where’s the SEX?” she ended with a stifled wail.

A chuckle was shared with the other two women in the bath, a strapping African American woman with her left forearm in a splint, and an exquisite Asian woman of uncertain origins, who showed that she had a familiarity with hot baths by having a cool wet cloth on her forehead. “Well, why don’t you?” Mara asked as she worked on the aches in her shoulders. “The rules for Seniors has changed, right along with almost everything else.”

“I would, if I had the equipment,” Juliet admitted. “I used to, but when I hit 55, it was just too much work to keep up, and once it started going, it just… went! So now I work the ‘Stately Homes of England’ angle.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “Mind you, if I could work the ‘glamorous granny’ angle, I would, but I can’t and there you are.”

Juliet let out another sigh and worked at getting the tension in her lower back to unknot itself. “So, is the water working, Mara?”

“Oh yes,” Mara purred as she stretched out cat-like. “I don’t know what’s in this water, but if they could bottle, it they’d make a fortune.”

“So, what happened?” asked the lanky African woman as she took a sip of sake from the floating tray. It was, after all, a stock opening question at that spa.

“I made like Xena, Warrior Princess, and beat the crap out of a big monster and a raft of goons,” Mara answered.

‘AND?’ both the African and the Asian women asked with their eyes.

“And she’s not USED to that,” Juliet explained. “She pushed her body WELL beyond its usual limits.”

The African winced in sympathy. “That bad?” Mara just whimpered in answer.

“And what happened to you?” Juliet sensing that the woman had a story that she wanted to share.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure. Weirdest thing, tho. Oh, by the way, my handle’s Big Bertha-”

“Fascinaire,” Mara replied, using a working name that she hadn’t used since 1974, in Monaco.

“Black Sapphire,” the Asian woman said with a sip of her own sake.

“Jezebel,” Juliet replied. “Yes, one of MANY who’ve used it.”

“Right,” Big Bertha said, taking back the reins of the conversation. “Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I took a contract that went south real bad. I mixed it up with Lioness and Tiger Girl in Manhattan, and did some serious damage. They got me down, but not out. Then, as I was waiting in the fish tank at Foley Square to be processed to be sent to Ryker’s they threw a new fish in the tank. Lessee, there was the Man-eater, the Killer Doll, the Mamba and Bloody Mary in there too, all of us looking at a few months of serious time before the Syndicate got us out.”

“ALWAYS keep your Escape Insurance paid up,” Black Sapphire droned, eyes closed with relaxation.

“DAMN skippy,” Bertha agreed. “Anyway, the screws dragged in this black chick- and by ‘black’, I don’t mean THIS-” she held up a hand, “I mean BLACK! Like Tar! And she had white hair, but she looked like a white chick, maybe 16 or 17, if that. Real cute, great bod, and dressed up real nice. But she was completely out of it! The lights were on, but no one was home! Total blank-out! Like a mule kicked her in the head or something!

“Anyway, Bloody Mary was bored and looking for someone to shit on- I don’t know if you’ve ever met Bloody Mary, but she is a stone-cold bitch, and crazy to boot, and thank GOD they took her razors away from her! Anyway, she goes up to this white-haired chick and starts talking shit at her. Chick doesn’t do shit, so Mary ups her game. Still nothing. After a while of this, Mary takes a poke at her. And the chick goes into total bailing machine mode! I mean, she was a BLUR! Kicked the SHIT right out of Bloody Mary! And razors or no razors, Bloody Mary is one tough little nutcase!

“And all through this, the chick never loses that ‘what the fuck just happened?’ look that she had on her face.” Bertha mimicked a look of blank shock. “Anyway, Mary was down for the count and not looking good, so I tried to step in. BAD MOVE. I step in and suddenly I’m face down on the floor. She’s twisting and SNAP! I have a second elbow! Then she smashed my head down into the concrete floor. And it wasn’t one-two-three, it was all like BAM! I’m out for the count!”

“Then how did you get here?” Mara asked.

“Well, my lawyer got me out from behind the thing with Lioness ‘cause they’d recklessly endangered me, bla-bla-legal stuff. But then I get a special delivery letter from- get this- Doctor Diabolik, saying that he’ll cover my expenses here!”

“What?” Black Sapphire bleated. “Why’d he do that?”

“Well, he said that I’d owe him a Solid,” Bertha allowed, “but I think there’s more goin’ on with it. I dunno, I’m just thankin’ GOD, ‘cause I’m actually getting some feeling back in this arm!” She laboriously flexed fingers on the broken arm in jerky starts.

“You’re going to make good on the Solid?” Mara asked.

“Oh HELL yeah!” Bertha gushed. “I would anyway- I mean, this place is the BOMB- but it’s Doctor fucking Diabolik! I’ve heard what he does to people who screw him over! I’m not crossing that!”

Juliet nodded that this was just good sense. “And what about you?” she asked Black Sapphire.

“Exhaustion,” Sapphire groaned. “I have a power gem, and people think that it’s free power, but it’s not! You would not believe the stress involved with those things! Worse, I recently picked up a secondary gem. They work together great, but there is something wrong with those two!’ Sapphire grumbled a bit. “And worse, I got whupped back in my last strike.”

“Want to talk about it, dear?” Mara asked; she didn’t need telepathy to sense that Sapphire did want to talk about it, rather badly.

Sapphire grumbled a bit, but gave in. “Okay, you see, I have a list- a short list, but still, a list- of superheroes that I can do the Catwoman/ Batman ‘dangerous sexual tension’ thing with. It messes with their head something fierce, and it throws off their game, and hell, it’s fun!” There was a round of sisterly chuckling in agreement at that. “So, one of my primo chumps is this guy in Seattle, ‘Captain Storm’.”

“Captain… Storm…?” Mara fought back a guffaw.

“What do you want, it’s Seattle- it would be a miracle if they didn’t have a weather-based superhero. He controls winds, makes rain, throws around lightning, and all that wet stuff. And best of all, in keeping with his theme, he’s something of an airhead.” There was another round of chuckles from around the pool. “Not so much stupid as… gullible and easily distracted.” Then the minxish look on Black Sapphire’s face faded. “At least, that’s how he used to be. A couple of weeks ago, I accepted a mission- you don’t need to know the details- in Seattle. I took the usual steps to make sure that Stormy would get involved. But something new has entered the picture- get this, he’s got a sidekick!”

“A sidekick?” Juliet and Mara said in unison.

“A kid sidekick?” Juliet asked.

“Aren’t those illegal?” Mara added.

“You’re asking ME?” Sapphire retorted. “So, the kid’s maybe 16 or 17, and a flying brick. But let me tell you, that kid was NOT a big dumb jock! NO! He was sharp and focused, and he gave me a run for my money that I couldn’t afford!”

“Did you play the old ‘Batman and Robin are Gay’ card?” Juliet asked.

“First thing I tried,” Sapphire assured them. “Nothing. Just bounced right off both of them. And worse, Blowhard wasn’t responding the way that he used to! I used to be able to wrap him around my little finger! The hardest things about my missions in Seattle used to be letting the big boob look like a hero, and not breaking out laughing! This time, they had a counter to practically every move I made, and I had to power my way out of a trap they set! I managed to get out and fulfill my primary contract… but I may to have to spend the entire commission on this place! MAN, I am wiped!”

Sapphire was worried that she’d lost her touch. Juliet said a few reassuring words, but Mara just leaned back and relaxed. It was not her problem; she had more than enough of those on her plate. She let her mind wander, didn’t think of anything. But then for some reason, her gaze was all but dragged to a central decoration high on the north wall. She stared at it numbly for a moment, wondering why she was focusing on it at all. Then something clicked for her, and then another and another. “Merde…”

Thinking quickly, she asked her mother-in-law, “Juliet, have you received the RSVPs for JJ’s birthday party?”

Juliet was taken a tad aback by this, but played along. “Well of course! It’s going to be tomorrow! Who are you asking about?”

“I was wondering if my sister was going to make it,” Mara said, lacking anything better.

“Which one? Melissa, Melusine, or Alcina? Both Melissa and Virgil have said they’ll come, but I haven’t heard anything from Atlantes or Alcina, and you know that Melusine would just as soon spit venom in your eye as look you in it.” Juliet favored Big Bertha and Black Sapphire with a pained smile. “Mara’s family affairs are… very… French… not quite Renaissance Italian, but… Mara do you think we could sit down sometime and thrash out your family politics? I think we could sell it to HBO…”

With a sigh, Mara reached into her bathrobe and fished out a cell phone. “Hello, Nick? I think that something’s come up about JJ’s party… Yes, JJ’s party. Yes, I know, but if we don’t get this straightened out, I won’t be able to relax. Honestly dear, let’s just get together and get it taken care of. In a few minutes by the juice bar.” Mara regretfully got out of the water and wrapped herself up in a towel and the bath robe. “It’s always something when you’re a mother…” she sighed as she walked off.

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Mara had a guava/papaya/kiwi smoothie ready for Nick by the time that he got there. Nick took a sip, shrugged at the taste, and said, “I’m sorry sweetheart, but I’m going to drop two new guests into your list at the last second.”

“Nick this isn’t about- what do you mean, you’re dropping two more guests in at the last minute?”

“Well, one of the guys over on the Men’s side is called ‘Boulder’, and his son Teddy is about JJ’s age, and-”

“You invited someone you just met in the baths into our house?” Mara demanded sharply.

“I didn’t invite him, honey! Boulder overheard me talking to you about the party, asked about it, and he pretty much invited himself and his boy! I tried to tell him that the list was closed, but he’s not listening! Seriously, the only way to keep him and his kid from coming would be to call out the National Guard!”

“But…” Mara bleated, “that would make thirteen families at the party! That would be the worst possible luck!” She worried her lower lip. “Well, we still haven’t gotten a confirmation from the Hexmaster, and it’s not like I ever really liked Tilda anyway…” Then she realized that she’d let herself get sidetracked, and waved that triviality aside. “Nick, look over my shoulder. No, not there, there,” she guided his gaze telepathically; even psychics have problems with lack of context.

Suddenly the pattern that evaded Nick sort of reached out and grabbed his focus. “It’s… a Tao symbol.”

“NO, it’s a Tao Talisman,” Mara corrected him.

“Why would they have a Tao talisman hidden in the décor that way?”

“Most likely it’s because that thing is incredibly important to the basic functioning of this place,” she speculated. “Indeed, its precise placement may be key to the way this spa functions; they can’t just tuck it away somewhere safe, so they hide it out in plain sight. But Nick- a Taoist Yin/Yang symbol: doesn’t that suggest something else?”

Nick focused, but nothing came immediately, so he free-associated. “Let’s see… Taoism… mysticism… harmony… serenity… pretentious blither… transcendence… balance…” then that same force reached out and grabbed his attention again. “Balance! Libra! One of the four zodiac signs that Akelarre hasn’t used!”

“Yes! And Nick, think about it- in retrospect, doesn’t our decision to come here today strike you as a TAD irresponsible?”

“Well, we couldn’t get a copy of Akelarre’s riddle-clue so…” then a thought struck Nick. He took a deep drink of his smoothie and continued, “But I’ve got Golden Eagle taped seven ways to Sunday! Finding out what that stupid clue is would be child’s play! But I never bothered!”

“It’s the Great Quest, Nick. It’s chosen us to be the counteragent to Akelarre, and it practically dragged us here.”

“Wait a minute,” Nick objected. “If the Great Quest is behind this, then why is it showing us the Libra decoy?”

“IF it’s the decoy,” Mara smirked. “After all, for the power of the Quest to be this strong, then we must be coming into the endgame. Which is precisely the time for Akelarre to pull a switch, making her prime target appear to be a decoy, tricking us into scrambling around for a bogus ‘real target’.”

Nick nodded and gave a lopsided smile. “And the beauty of it is that we don’t have to steal it- we just have to keep Akelarre from getting it. If we can keep her first strike from succeeding, then she has… would she have any more chances? Can she just keep banging away until she gets it?”

“The Rule of Three says No,” Mara said. “She’ll have two more chances, after which the Law of Balance will use her own efforts to keep it away from her.”

“Excellent!” Nick walked closer to the juice bar, slapped a hand on the counter and said, “I need to talk to your Security Chief, pronto!”

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Nick and Mara got shunted from the Security Shift Officer to the Security Chief to the resort’s General Manager. The manager was trim, meticulous cosmopolitan European type named Streber, whose mustache was as fastidiously maintained as his suit and his office. Which was probably a good thing for a man in his job. But he was annoyed, not concerned by Nick and Mara’s story. Nick picked up that Streber liked his routine nice and serene, and he really didn’t like having to deal with smartass supervillains who thought that they were smarter than everyone. Especially him.

“So… ‘Slingshot’,” Streber gazed impassively at the couple, who had both changed back into street clothes for the interview. “You are quite right, that talisman is very important to the running of this resort. Exactly how do you suggest that we go about protecting it?”

Nick didn’t need telepathy to sense that Streber thought that he was setting a cunning trap for a pair of manipulative smartypants. “Oh, I make a point of never telling a professional how to do his job,” Nick said as suavely as he could without being obvious about trying to be suave. “We simply spotted the possibility and thought that you should know about it.” Nick wished that they could have ended it with the Security Chief, who at least seemed reasonable. But Streber’s SOP required that he be informed of these things.

Streber smiled primly at them, and preened himself that yet again, he’d outmaneuvered a pair of obvious grifters, no doubt there for the express reason of stealing the talisman they were trying to finesse him into removing from its case. “Very well, we will take your warning with all the urgency it merits. Why don’t you return to your leisure and allow our expert security staff to handle it?”

With commendable willpower, Nick refrained from creasing the supercilious nonentity’s skull. “Excellent!” Nick got up and offered Mara his hand. “If you have everything under control, I’ll leave you to it!”

When they were safely out of the Administration suite, Nick asked Mara, “And what are you so wrapped up in?”

“That odious little worm Streber seems to be very proud of his mustache. I was wondering whether it would be more satisfying to hex just his mustache off, or to denude him of every follicle of hair.”

“Ah. Happy thoughts.”

“Nick, we have to do something! This place’s security is almost entirely devoted to maintaining its cover. From the impression that I got from Clark, the Security Chief, the physical defenses of this place are pathetic! Bart could blitz through here and take the talisman!”

“Don’t give him ideas.” Nick paced down the hallway to the common area.

“The problem is that we didn’t come prepared for anything more serious than a nasty sunburn,” Mara said. “No weapons, no tools, no gimmicks, no armor, no fighting togs, and the only backup we have is Ace and your mother.”

“I pity the cyborg who tries to get pushy with Mom.”

They paused as they re-entered the main area of the spa, a large atrium dominated by a ‘bonsai’ ‘mountain’ from which decorous ‘rivers’ flowed into the ‘valleys’ that were the pools, separated from each other by ridges and strategic lines of trees. Besides the pools proper, there were courts for tennis, badminton, croquet, bocce, volleyball, horseshoes, and of course that old perennial, shuffleboard. Nick was trying to figure out how he could use these, which seemed to be his only resource, when a high-pitched slightly nasal voice with a distinct New York accent called out, “Nickie!”

Turning to the source of the voice, Nick and Mara spotted a very attractive woman in her late twenties/early thirties walking up to them. She had long dark, almost black, waving hair pulled back from a long regular face with big blue eyes and a wide smiling mouth. She was wearing a dark blue sun dress with a tote bag slung over one shoulder. “What’re you doin’ here, Gorgeous Boy?”

Feeling a decided drop in temperature just beside him, Nick said, “Oh, just here on a day trip with my wife.” He gestured at Mara. “Dear, this is Hope Winston, or the Blue Diamond. She worked with me on the Rollingstone Job seven months ago?”

“You? Are Mara?” Hope looked Mara up and down with a stricken expression. “YOU? Had Six Kids? What, did you two marry when you were EIGHT?” The Blue Diamond’s shoulders slumped, “So much for my sad pathetic hope that you were some bimbo that he was stepping out on his shrewish out-of-shape shlump wife with!”

Mara preened a bit and purred, “Well, now I can see why they call you the ‘World’s Most Loveable Supervillain’™.”

“Hey, it’s a hard job, but someone’s gotta do it!” Mara visibly relaxed and smiled genuinely, so Hope went on, “So, Nickie, since you’ve broken my heart- yet again!- can you point me in the direction of where the action is?”

“Action? There’s a poker game here?”

“Probably, but what I mean is, does this place live up to its reputation as a landlocked Love Boat?”

An idea almost visibly clicked into place in Nick’s head. “Well, that does put a few things I’ve noticed into a new perspective. Tell you what- get to your day room, put on a bathing suit, and I’ll see what I can do to round up a game of volleyball.”

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When the Blue Diamond was decked out in a bathing suit that wasn’t quite scandalous (quite), Nick and Mara, also dressed in bathing suits that were just this side of respectable, led her to the atrium. “So, Hope- what brings you to the Onsen? Did you get in the middle of two lusty bravos who were fighting for your favor?”

“Meh! I wish! You know me, Nick; normally I don’t talk ill of anyone. But I got into a thing with this bee-yotch from Hell called ‘Sabbath’. She had some weird kind of darkness powers, don’t ask me, I don’t mess with the Ooogie-Boogie crap. You’re either into that stuff all the way, or you should leave it alone!”

“Quite sensible,” Mara murmured.

“But Sabbath was trying to keep five different very nasty players going at each other, and I got in the middle of that. Lemme sum it up for you in one word: EW. She bit off more than she could chew- big shock- and in order to level-up her power reserves, she tapped into MINE, when I really needed ‘em. Short form, I’m here for R-R & R: Rest, Relaxation and Recharge. And nothing recharges my batteries like hankying my panky.”

“And I know just how to oblige you.”

Five minutes later, Nick had assembled some of the guests from the Men’s side at the volleyball court, while Mara had talked Big Bertha and the Black Sapphire into joining in. Nick’s contribution to the effort took the form of the aforementioned Boulder, who could be summed up with the word: ‘LARGE’; ‘Blackjack’, a lean but athletic African-American man who had stretching powers; and Tigerbrand, a martial artist who was augmented in some way that Nick wasn’t entirely sure of. Nick was glad that he hadn’t tried to play matchmaker on this: Big Bertha was giving Boulder some appreciative looks, while Blackjack was checking out Black Sapphire. “Okay, let’s make this simple,” Nick said, bouncing the volleyball in one hand. “For the first game, guys on one side, girls on the other, and we see where it goes from there. For rules, no flying, no energy blasts, no stretching, or any of that crap.”

“Fine by me,” Blackjack said. “I’m here ‘cause I overstressed my internals with my stretching- and a couple of really nasty punches to the labonza. My doctor told me to hold off on stretching anything other’n my arms for while.”

“I’ll take it easy on you guys,” Tigerbrand said with a smirk. “I tore one of the tendons on my ankle in my last fight, and I’m staying off it.” He pointedly stood on one foot as he tucked the other leg- with a heavily bandaged ankle- behind his standing leg.

“Fine!” Nick said, holding the ball to begin the game. “Boulder- just remember, we only have so many of these balls.”

“Hey, I got enough balls for this entire STATE!” Boulder bragged.

“Service!”

The game was lively, but kept from getting really competitive by the fact that most of the players were more interested in scoring with players on the other side than they were with scoring against them. After the first game, there was some rotation, and the patterns of flirtation shifted, as they did with second and third games. The fourth game was evenly distributed, and the bonhomie was starting to give way to dominance games. “Okay, kiddies, let’s see if you can handle THIS-” Tigerbrand swaggered as he tossed the volleyball high up in the air to service it.

 

BOOM!

 

Despite the wide variety of their body types, all the supervillains on the volleyball court shared one of a handful of traits. The specific trait they had in common was what might be called ‘Shadow Reflexes’; to wit, the covert ops version of the Combat Reflexes that experienced troops in the field have. Tigerbrand overreacted to the explosion by completely missing the volleyball and falling off his one-foot stance, but that was IT. Blackjack started to stretch in the direction of one of the pools, but remembered his doctor’s advice with the first twinge in his kidneys, and confined his efforts to dragging himself there with his arms. Black Sapphire called her namesake power gem to herself and did an ‘instant change’ to her battle outfit. Blue Diamond gave Black Sapphire an annoyed look of envy, but they still lifted off within seconds of each other. Big Bertha and Boulder both dashed to positions of cover. Tigerbrand was almost immediately back on his feet, though he clearly favored his sprained ankle, and he practically disappeared to his own place of concealment. Mara started for her own cover, but Nick stopped her. While the Harrows preferred conventional conversation for a variety of reasons, they were also comfortable with telepathic rapport.

*Tao Talisman* Nick pointed out *Cover it*

*But I can-*

*Given their track record, this is a feint to get all the players tied up fighting 30’s expendables. Akelarre will send something to snag the Tao talisman, and leave the Phantom Highwayman in reserve for a last-minute snatch. Mara, beat her to the punch. If I follow the logic right, the magic of the Quest will help you. Get the talisman, give it to Blue Diamond, and tell her to get it to Clark, the Security Honcho*

*I see- it’s almost as important to disprove that ass Streber’s notion that we’re gaming this, as it is to keep Akelarre from getting the talisman*

Then Mara remembered something. She made a triangle in the air with one finger, reached into the ‘hole’ with her other hand, and pulled out a slender staff with a jeweled tip, a satchel with pouches on the strap, and a long flowing black hooded cloak. Looking at the staff, she said, “I’ve been wondering where that got to!” Nick gave her an odd look. Mara explained, “Murphy’s Law affects mystics as well as engineers. And everyone else. So, inevitably the time when you need certain tools and materials the most will be the time that you’re not expecting anything. So, a long time ago, I got in the habit of keeping a ‘go-bag’ in a pocket realm, in case of emergencies. I just remembered it!”

“How long has that stuff been hanging in limbo?”

“Well, the last time I remember seeing this staff was right about the time that Vivian was learning to walk…”

“Are the components still viable?”

“Time’s not an issue dear.”

“I beg to differ.” Nick pointed upwards.

Mara nodded, but then she remembered something. She reached into the hole in the air again, and pulled out an armored longcoat with capsules studding the outside, and another satchel with more capsules along the sides and strap, and two wide straps. “My Slingshot gear!” Nick said with glad recognition. He started to ask something, but Mara just kissed him on the cheek and flew upwards in a whirlwind. “GOD, I have great taste in women,” Nick congratulated himself as he shrugged into his longcoat.

‘Slingshot’ was yet another on Nick’s list of costumed identities, one that had put a premium on action. He’d phased ‘Slingshot’ out as he became more aware of the advantages of superior Strategy & Tactics in an operation over simple mayhem. One of the long cloths in his hand was a sash mask (with a few tricks built in), but the other one was a classical sling. It had been years since he’d practiced with the thing, but he’d learned a few tricks on the subject from a sideshow ‘sharpshooter’ that gave him an advantage, and with those and his ESP knacks, he had little worry about his effectiveness.

If anything, he was more worried about remembering which capsule did what.

Checking out the situation, Nick got the immediate impression that Dr. 30 had something up his tricked-out sleeve. Entering the atrium through the front entrance, something that couldn’t have screamed out ‘Someone call the Cops NOW!’ more loudly if they’d turned on the frickin’ Bat-signal, was a cluster of lightly armored men charging in groups of five, for a rough guess of maybe between 50 and 60 soldiers all told, carrying carbines and an assortment of grenades. Supporting them were 8 ‘cricket-leg’ Infantry Support quadruped mechs with what looked like .50 cal HMGs, and 6 ‘Skybike’ close support fliers with what were probably .30 cals mounted on the hardpoint. That struck Nick as either too much or too little for the target.

On the principle that air support is still crucial, Black Sapphire and Blue Diamond opened fire on the Skybikes. While this did knock the Skybikes off their tracks, the force field bubbles that popped up prevented the blasts from doing any real damage.

Nick was faced with the embarrassing problem that not only had it been years since he practiced with the sling, but it had been years since he bothered to remember his color-code for his capsules. He remembered that the central bands were coded by potential lethality, the stationary ‘bottoms’ where coded by general effect, and the adjustable ‘tops’ were graded by specific effect, but he was a little fuzzy on the exact details. Well, he remembered that it had made sense at the time. He selected a ‘bullet’ that he figured was an Electromagnetic Cohesion Disruptor (or ‘force field bubble popper’), set it to a proximity burst, fit it into his slung, wound up and threw. He had a momentary ‘it’s like riding a bicycle’ moment as the grenade flew right into the butter zone between three of the Skybikes. But instead of giving off a coruscating show of electricity that should have synched with the force fields, overloading them, instead it created a weird ‘helix’ in the air. Suddenly, the foot goons flew up, and the skybikes spiraled upwards, almost shedding their riders.

Oh. It wasn’t an Electromagnetic Cohesion Disruptor. It took Nick a bit to recognize it as an Ionic Atmospheric Vortex Inducer, or ‘whirlwind grenade’, something that he’d used to great effect against the Philadelphia Phenomenon. He also recalled that those things were very expensive, and he only had one of them left. Or, rather, that he HAD had only one of them left. On the upside, he could still play the ‘yeah, I meant to do that’ card.

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MARA

As Mara wafted up to the elaborate border work that concealed the Tao talisman, she mused that Streber would probably shriek that this was proof that they were behind the whole debacle. She hoped that Nick wouldn’t waste any time giving that little nebbish the satisfaction of trying to convince him otherwise. Streber’s mind was made up, and she read him as the sort who regarded their own set opinion as unto gospel. Streber feared and resented the supervillains who frequented the spa. Not unreasonable, actually; most supervillains really were unconscionable boors. But if he disliked them that much, why was he working for a resort that catered to them?

By that time, Mara had reached the talisman, cunningly worked into the pattern of the border. She reached into her satchel for some tools, but as she pried at the 8” diameter disk, it just popped out of its setting. There was a slender cable connected to the back, Mara had absolutely no problem disconnecting the disk from the cable, which seemed to be attached to a spool set into a niche behind the wall.

Well… that was easy!

‘Too easy,’ Mara thought warily. Something like this should be far better protected, or at least harder to steal.

Then Mara noticed that, for some reason, the large lighting and heating panels that stood in for a summery sun had lowered by at least 10 feet.

Security was doing something, Mara just knew it. She only wished she knew what it was…

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BLUE DIAMOND

By and large, the ‘World’s Most Loveable Supervillain™’ shtick was a good deal. Civilians didn’t freak out, Cops thought twice before shooting, reporters loved it, and it confused the hell out of White Hats. But there was one real pain in the tukkis about the act: there was always, ALWAYS, some Stone Cold Steve Austin wannabe who thought that ‘loveable’ meant ‘wuss’. And while Tigerbrand hadn’t given her any grief- yet- he had been dishing out some serious attitude on the volleyball court. Maybe it had something to do with the whole ‘Tiger’ shtick. But he struck her as the sort who just needed a little hint to get an idea of what he was dealing with. There was a reason why Marvel Comics wasn’t giving her grief about the name! Though having a good lawyer always helped.

If she was gonna get any hot monkey lovin’ out of Tigerbrand that didn’t have all kinds of pointless Jerry Springer dramatics attached to it, she had to get the message across in a way that didn’t threaten his male pride. Well, nothing like kicking some serious mook butt to get the message across! Normally, she preferred to fight at a range, but she didn’t have the pep for that. And her blasts sucked against electromagnetic force fields. Besides, blasts just don’t send the message ‘thou shalt not fucketh with me, neither thee nor thy entire family, yeah unto the seventh generation’ like tearing something apart with your bare hands. The Gun Mules were the deciding factor in this equation. Super-types only laughed at .50 cals in the comics. So she did a dive that first arced high, almost hitting those stupid light panels, and then swooped down onto one of the Gun Mules. She managed to power through the FF bubble when she hit. Most FFs are more about deflecting incoming force than absorbing it. When she was through, she decided to hit the .50 cal at most HMGs weak point: their ammo feed. But when she tried to pull open the ammo hopper lid, it just tore off in her hand. When she tried to flex the lid with both hands, it deformed like potmetal.

Who? The Hell? Makes M2 HMGs? Out of potmetal?

Hope proceeded to tear the Gun Mule apart, starting with the POS HMG and disassembling the rest of the quadruped in a way that reminded Boulder of an angry little girl tearing a rag doll apart. “What IS This?” she demanded of the universe. “I’ve seen Tonka trucks that were better built than this!”

Seeing this, ‘Slingshot’ used is extremely elastic sling to snag a croquet set from its rack. “Hey Boulder!” He tossed one of the wooden balls to Boulder. “See how your fast ball works on that!” He pointed at one of the seven Gun Mules.

Boulder shrugged, wound up in a crouch and popped up for his pitch. Good for him, he was throwing at a large, slow-moving target, and not into a batter’s zone. The wooden ball passed through the electromagnetic FF without a pause and buried itself into the ‘fore-thigh’ of the heavy drone, causing that leg to collapse.

“WHAT?” Hope yelped, not sure whether to be elated or outraged.

“YO, Slingshot!” Boulder gloated, “Set me up with a few more balls! I think I’m due for a No-Hitter this season!”

Tigerbrand let out a shrill whistle and pointed at the Skybikes, which were still mixing it up with Black Sapphire. Nick tossed the rest of that set’s balls to Boulder, but snagged another set from the game rack with his sling. Boulder had the pepper, but Tigerbrand had the accuracy to hit the Skybikes where they were weakest- namely, the suspensor coil, which usually doubled the lift function with a very effective deflection action. The 20-foot (average) drop did the rest of taking the Skybikes he hit out of the fight.

Blue Diamond vented her frustrations by plowing through a mook-pile. After she’d pummeled enough foot goons, Mara dropped down next to her. Mara shoved a thick black and white disk into Hope’s hands. “This is what they’re after!” Mara told her in a way that suggested that she knew what she was talking about. “Get this to Clark, the Security Chief, ASAP!”

“Why?”

Mara locked for a second and then said, “Free Days at the Spa!”

“On It!” Hope zipped off, only to return a moment later. Mara, knowing exactly what Hope needed, described Clark and gave directions to his office.

Hope was into the office part of the complex when it occurred to her to wonder why Mara hadn’t just taken the dingus to Clark herself. She got her answer as several large, hairy, brawny figures jumped on her and started grappling her.

And as much as Hope normally enjoyed things like that, she just wasn’t in the MOOD!

On the principle that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, Hope focused on one…. Goat? She was wrestling with GOATS? Dear God, that could totally trash her reputation! Especially since she felt something rubbing against her that you would never see in a Heidi movie! She latched onto that… goat’s… arm… fetlock… whatever, got some leverage against what would be the forearm process in a human and smacked the place where the two bones joined. Whatever-it-was was similar enough to a human that the move worked, and it let out a goatlike bleat of pain. Hope slammed a knee into one of those very rude protrusions, and took another billygoon out of the fight.

Then both Hope and the billygoons were splashed with something liquid that started out very light, but got thicker and started to foam. Hope’s forcefield kept it from getting on her skin- or more importantly, in her hair! – but it got into the goatmen’s fur something fierce. The foam bubbled out, collapsed in on itself and became a thick binding epoxy snare. Blue Diamond slipped out from them and turned to the doorway; Mara and Nick were standing there, and Nick was looking at a capsule in his hand like it had betrayed him somehow. Out of the Blue Diamond’s range of hearing, Nick muttered, “I could have sworn that that was the incendiary grenade…”

Then Nick noticed something, quickly loaded a grenade in his sling and slung it at Blue Diamond. Or, rather, well past BD, as the grenade whizzed past her ear. Nick gestured for her to not turn, and a second later, there was a loud BANG! Nick pulled out another grenade and looked at it accusingly. “That was supposed to be a flash-bang…”

Turning around again, Hope spotted a squad of heavily armed women, who despite being ‘borged up to their eyeballs still managed to look more like a line of Las Vegas showgirls than actual troops. The big guy with the big power frame, on the other hand? Now he looked like a NYT Sunday edition delivery of bad news. The big guy was recovering from the grenade blast, but the girls hadn’t taken any of that. On the upside, they weren’t going to start shooting without a direct order. Okay, time to take the fight to them, before they took the fight to her. Blue Diamond ran over to Mr. Overbuilt, grabbed him by the frame and hefted him up over her head. When she had the feel for his center of balance, she started spinning him over her head. The beauty of this trick was that high-tech types, no matter many hours they’ve put in at the gym, don’t think about things like this, so it catches them off-guard. It confuses the hell out of them, and if she kept it up, she could take him out of the fight without spilling a drop of blood. And best of all, if he was too busy keeping his Big Macs down, he wouldn’t say anything that she’d regret- like ‘SHOOT her you idiots!’

Hope had just gotten the big buy to the point where she hoped that he wasn’t the type to eat a big meal before a raid, and Mara was working on something that might mumbo their jumbo. Nick had picked through his selection of grenades, and had that ‘aha! Just what I was looking for!’ look. He twisted the top of the grenade, spun it in the sling, slung it, and landed the grenade right in the middle of them. There was a tingling surge, and Hope was dragged along with Iron Yutz into a big tangled mass with the cyber-bimbos. “This is NOT the kind of hanky-panky I was looking for when I came here!”

Nick looked at his satchel and said, “Okay, I KNOW that that was an Area Effect Electronics Disrupt Grenade!”

Mr. ‘Big into High Tech’ popped open his power frame and crawled out of it. Seeing that Mara was hurriedly putting the last touches on whatever nastiness she was working on, the big guy charged right at her in a way that was painfully reminiscent of a rhino. Mara froze with a gleep and stood there like a deer in the headlights. But Nick picked up about a billion ‘good husband’ points by stepping between them and taking the charge. But all those ‘good husband’ points went scattering all over the place along with his satchel of grenades as Mr. Rhino hit him like a runaway train.

Mr. Jumbo recovered from the collision, but Mara had put aside whatever working that had kept her busy. Her hands were weaving energy into something, but it was a much faster and probably still very nasty build. Then a glowing green figure that looked like something off the cover of a Regency romance novel- well, except for the full-face mask rose up behind Mara. He pointed what looked like a flintlock pistol at the back of Mara’s head. But he paused and started to retreat, when Mara had finished whatever she’d begun and was about to use it on the big guy. With a ‘I don’t wanna do this’ feel to it, he reversed one of the flintlocks in his hand and coshed Mara upside the head with it. That jarred Mara bad, and Mr. Big-and-Bad cocked his massive- hell, overdeveloped!- arm to take a big poke at her. But Nick was still piling on those Good Husband points- and WHY was it that all the GOOD men that Hope met were either married or superheroes?- and he grabbed that ham-hock of a forearm and twisted the force of that punch into a throw that landed the Rhino-that-walked-like-a-man face-first on the floor. But the Funky Phantom didn’t have any problems zotzing Nick. Zap, Zap, and Nick went down hard.

The Revolting Revere helped Cyber Elephant Man to his feet- or hooves or whatever- and walked him over to the struggling mass of augmented femininity. The big guy pulled himself together, and then disengaged some kind of energy rifle from his frame. He shot bursts of plasma at the wad of women, adjusting it each time, until it did something that popped the bubble that was holding them together. They fell apart, and just as Hope threw a bunch of the bionic bitches off her Iron Babar and Yankee Doodle Dimwit just blasted her without blinking an eye.

As Hope tried to pull herself together, Mr. Greensleeves took the big black-and-white disk that she only vaguely realized she’d been holding onto. The Cyber-Rockettes got up and grabbed her by the arms, and the Big Guy set and aimed his BFG right at Hope’s head. Then another couple of grenades rolled right under him, went BANG and literally blew him off his feet.

Hope rolled out of the Robo-Bimbos’ arm and looked up to see what Nick and Mara were up to. They were being led off by a bunch of kids? Hope bolted up to realize that she was alone in the trashed office complex. “What the fuck?” Then she distantly heard the sound of police sirens. “Aw, Screw It! I’m taking my R&R in Acapulco!

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NICK

Nick fought against the hands holding him until he realized that they were getting him to his feet. He staggered to a stance and took in the situation. “JAY-JAY? Vic? What’re you kids doing here?”

“Getting you out of here!” JJ said decisively. “C’mon! We gotta get OUT of here!”

Nick looked over to see Mara being helped along by Bart and Asha. “What is going ON here?” he demanded.

“Later!” JJ said as they started to run.

“Don’t make me read your mind!” Nick said with his full parental authority.

“LATER, DAD,” JJ said rebelliously. “In case you haven’t noticed, the Cops Are Coming?” And sure enough, there was the sounds of sirens coming closer. If anything, given the length of the battle, it was amazing that SWAT hadn’t already surrounded the complex. “Vic, GO, get the car ready for us! Dad, contact Gramma and Viv and tell them to meet us at the car, like NOW if not sooner!” Vic zoomed ahead of the others as only a slightly hyper 11-year-old can.

Nick was sort of miffed at taking orders from his 14-year-old son, but he was gratified to see the kid showing some spine. Besides, it was the right thing to do. He contacted his daughter and mother and passed along the message. Mom, showing her usual foresight, had already grabbed their clothes from the day rooms, and was at the parking lot. She sent back an unsettling message.

“Something’s wrong,” Nick said gravely, “Mom just told me that Ace isn’t with the Limo.”

“I know,” JJ said. “Ace is busy somewhere else.”

“WHERE?”

“LATER.”

“But he’s got the Keys to the CAR!”

“I know! That’s why I sent Vic ahead, to hotwire the care for us!”

JJ led them through the Onsen’s ‘backstage’ area where most of the technical work was done, and to a door that opened out to the parking lot. Juliet and Viv were waiting for them at the Limo, which Vic was in the process of coaxing to life. When the engine started, Juliet jumped into the driver’s seat, and the rest piled into the back.

As the town car pulled out of the parking lot, Juliet hit one of the special features, which altered the color of the car’s paint job and changed the numbers on the license plate to a gloating vanity plate. Mara fussed at them for a while and loudly demanded WHAT they thought they were doing in that dangerous place, and other rote mother clichés. “And while we’re at it,” Nick said loudly and far more forcefully than he was normally wont to with his children, “What the HELL was going on back there?”

“In a second, oh August Patriarch!” JJ said puckishly. He pulled out that smartphone he got from somewhere, keyed something in, and said, “Hello, Uncle Luke? JJ here. We just pulled off a major score and we need a place to store it. I need the location and access to one of your discarded secret lairs in the area, something where all your gear has been removed but the lair defenses are still mostly up. Something nice and empty would be primo, but still some place you wouldn’t care if it got trashed. Ace is driving your way, more or less, in a box truck marked ‘Wasamon Frozen Foods’. He has a 4-ton, 12-foot by 6-foot cargo that needs to be stashed, like, NOW. Lair 2D? Well, it’s a little closer to the general population than I’m really comfortable with, but other’n that, it’s fine. Okay, I’m switching you over to Ace’s cell phone. You give him the directions and clearances and like that. Oh, and would you have ABBY restore power to the on-site defenses and take them back online? Cool! I’ll let you thrash out the Quid Pro Quo with Dad. I know you always like that.”

With a stern, ‘I’m through fooling around’ expression on his face, Nick reached out and took the smartphone from his son’s hand. “No more ‘later’,” he hissed, “NOW. What? Is? Going? On?”

JJ screwed up his face a bit and thought. “Okay, here goes. Instead of sliding down Huck Finn Mountain, or diving off the Strato-Blast, or even getting into an epic water fight in Splash War!™, like normal kids, Butch and Sundance here-” JJ rapped a knuckle on Vic’s head. The blow didn’t even faze Vic’s sunny smug look of happy pride. “-decided to go and find out what all the buzz with the Onsen was about.”

“Vic, it isn’t that we don’t want you there,” Mara lied, “it’s just that the Onsen is all about relaxing. This whole affair with the Phantom Highwayman and Dr. 30 and Akelarre has been very stressing, and your father and I needed to calm down and relax! You would have been bored out of your minds after the first 10 minutes.” After all, it’s not lying if a Mother does it.

“Ah, yeah, right Mom,” JJ took the conversation back. “Anyway, I turn my back for five seconds, to keep Asha from drowning by trying to get to Mermaid Island™ by herself- Yes, you DID Asha, don’t give me that! Anyway, as soon as I was sure that Asha was safe, I turn and look for Frick and Frack, and they’re GONE. Using the strange, mysterious powers vested in older brothers,” in other words, the brand-new tracking devices that Mara had planted in the boys’ swim trunks just for the occasion, “I managed to find where they’d gotten into the Onsen proper.”

“HOW?” Mara asked, “That place is supposed to have Security that’s airtight!”

Vic, Bart and Asha just gave her synchronized ‘are you kidding us?’ looks.

“Anyway, when I caught up with the Dastardly Duo here-”

“I helped!”

“Yes, you were a big help, Asha. Anyway, when I had them firmly under Big Brother Arrest, the pendulum in my pocket goes crazy-”

“You brought that stupid pendulum along to a water park?” Viv asked in tones of ‘can even you be THAT big a dork?’

“NO,” JJ retorted in tones of ‘can even you be THAT big a pill?’ “I had it in my pocket for the simple reason that that was where I knew I’d be able to find it!” JJ let out a deep cleansing breath and resumed, “Anyway, the pendulum goes nuts, and it occurred to me that, shard or no shard, I needed to know what it was.”

Mara started to object with perfect Mom-Logic, but Nick cut her off with a look that said, ‘He’s 15- he needed to know’.

“We followed the pendulum-”

“I got us past Security!” Vic bragged.

“No, I did!” Bart automatically challenged him.

“No, *I* did!” Asha piped up.

“You were ALL very useful,” JJ said diplomatically. “Getting back to our riveting story, following the pendulum, the Unholy Trio here managed to get me to the inside of that bonsai mountain they had in the middle of that main play area. Get this: it was hollow, and inside it there was this big… stove, oven, heater, crucible, whatever. They were pumping water through it to heat the water, which they then pumped into those bogus oh-so Zen ‘hot springs’ that you guys paid so much to soak in.”

“Well… it was soothing, and that’s the important thing,” Mara said defensively.

“Yeah and there’s a reason for that-” JJ said intently “when we got into the hollow of that hill, my pendulum almost ripped itself out of my HAND! That thing has a magical signature like JOHN HANCOCK!”

“Then… why didn’t I sense it?” Mara wondered. That Tao talisman had all but walked up and shook her by the hand.

“Maybe this pendulum is attuned to the energy of Akelarre’s Great Quest?” JJ guessed. “Anyway, there was a maintenance clipboard that said that certain readings had started to go a little screwy a couple of weeks ago. But get this- every so often in the past week or so, there were these weird power spikes that upped the ‘temperature’ of the heater. They got around it by increasing the amount of water they were pumping through. And get this: the last power spike was YESTERDAY.”

“Akelarre’s Great Quest!” Mara gasped. “That… heater… captured the shard of the Quest’s energy, and each time that Akelarre or Dr. 30 or the Highwayman increased their allotment of energy, the heater’s energy increased in reaction!”

“But…” Nick asked, confused, “if that water heater was as large as you just told Luke- HOW did you get it out of there and onto that truck without anyone seeing you?”

JJ turned to his sibs and asked them in the tones of a teacher posing a question for his class, “And HOW do you do something impossible?”

“YOU GET SOMEONE ELSE TO DO IT!” Vic, Bart and Asha chorused back at him in the tones of a class answering the question.

“Y’see, the Onsen didn’t really have very good Security-”

“Will you get to the POINT?” Vic urged his older brother with a tone of… respect? “We figured out-”

“*I* figured out,” JJ corrected him- and Vic sat still for it? “While they were poking around the wainscoting, trying to find a way to that hollow hill. Bart and Asha found a system of overhead rails built into the roof of that area, which are hidden by those big-ass sun panels. They start all branched out, but they all wind up at the loading dock. From what Vic could figure out about the Security layout, the Onsen was wired first to pass completely for normal, and second, to get the people who run it and a very short list of valuables OUT of there very fast.”

Remembering how the Tao talisman had been wired, Mara asked, “You mean, such as literally yanking emplaced objects of power from their settings, and moving them along that railway system you mentioned, to places at the loading docks?”

JJ nodded, impressed at his mother’s quick uptake. “Yeah. And one of the biggies was that cooker. The ‘hill’ was designed to split open, and chains lifted the heater out of the hill, and towed it over to the loading dock, where trucks were waiting for it. So, I turned all that around on them. I had Vic hayduke the last stretch of the railway, and Bart and Asha switched the placement tags on the rails.”

Nick’s eyes popped open, and he grasped the entire gist of it. “So, they’re panicked, they’re in a hurry, they do it by hand, and they deliver the heater to… The Truck that ACE is driving!”

All four of the junior Harrow kids beamed at their parents.

“That doesn’t make any SENSE!” Viv complained, peeved that the rugrats were getting the big victory, while her play with the Eye of Lemuria got scuppered. “Okay, I wasn’t there, but from what you said, that water heater is HUGE, and the hill it was hidden in was in the middle of this big open area- okay, then howcome nobody saw it being lifted out on this fancy rail thing, hah?”

“Because the bathing area of the Onsen was lit by a several ‘sun’ panels,” Juliet said, the arrangement suddenly becoming very clear to her. “They lowered the panels for some reason that made no sense at the time- it was so they’d be lower than the top of the ‘hill’ and the other places where the various… ah, ‘bathing aids’ were hidden. The ‘bathing aids’ were then pulled from their caches, hidden by the panels.”

“BRILLIANT!” Nick exulted. “But… what IS it?”

JJ just gave a wide ‘who knows’ shrug. “Dunno. There were some enamel plaques on it written in German, and there was some kind of Xeroxed manual, but the enamel’s too faded for me to read, and that ‘manual’ looks like it’s been photocopied about a hundred times; my German’s just not good enough for it. I got the manual and the maintenance clipboard with me. Maybe Uncle Luke will be able to figure out what it says.”

“Your Uncle Luke is already very excited about it, JJ dear,” Juliet said as she pulled the town car into the first checkpoint for Luke’s Lair 2D. “Maybe he’ll be able to tell us what all the fuss is about.”

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“It’s a VRIL SYNTHESIZER!” Luke exulted, a near maniacal glee showing through his mask.

The object in question was a 12-foot tall construct that vaguely resembled a huge bulb of garlic with three cloves, made of terraced gray metal rings, with pipes and control junctures built along the crevices where the ‘cloves’ met. Luke already had various construction drones putting up scaffolding around the Synthesizer, and they were also building a walkway around the 3-foot on a side triangular opening at the top. Hover drones were going up and down around the Synthesizer, taking some sort of readings.

“Okay, it seems to be the only reason that I was brought along on this whole thing,” Viv sneered, “So, WHAT is ‘Vril’, and WHY do you want to synthesize it?”

Luke started to, but Mara answered instead, “Children, there is a basic concept that Mysticism has held for a very long time, that Empirical Science struggles with. There is an energy that is pretty much the same thing as Vital energy, the force that keeps us going, which is fed by food and stoked by breath. Almost every culture has some version of it: Ki, Prana, Orenda, Barakha, ichor, Mana, and the list goes on and on. Empirical Science sees this, and tries to isolate and measure it, but can’t. So it says that this force doesn’t really exist. Some Scientists who have tried make a material study of it, leading to theories of ‘Odic Force’, ‘Orgone’, ‘Elan Vitale’, ‘Tellurgic Force’ and on and on, but the way they carried out those studies was sloppy, so mainstream science rejected it. One version of this energy was named ‘Vril’ by a writer named Edward Bulwar-Lytton over a hundred years ago.”

“IT WAS A SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL!” Luke scoffed, “But one of the great things about Science Fiction is the way that it inspires both scientists and inventors. In the early days of World War II, a Nazi scientist who was code named ‘Doktor Verrukt’- he either has a wacky sense of humor, or no humor at ALL- came up with a device that he said either created or collected or concentrated or converted an energy very much like Vril, to a point where it could be used to some purpose or another.”

Mara made a sour moue. “Dr. Verrukt. I met him once. He was a classic Mad Scientist, obsessed with his pet theories. The odious little worm claimed that my psychic abilities were due to some tangle of Vril in my brain, and he wanted to open up my skull to see how it worked.”

Luke waved that aside, “This is a CLASSIC piece of Eccentric Technology!”

“It’s a Schimmlehorn Device!” Mara insisted. “It only works because that fool made it work through sheer crazy!”

“Well, it worked well enough to create Baron Blitzen, didn’t it?”

“It made ONE Ubermenschen, and then *pfft!* Nothing!”

“Oh? What about the Zombie Legions he sent to the Eastern Front?”

“If that abomination had been real science, then the Nazis would have sent wave after wave of undead soldiers at the Russians!” Mara pointed out. “What happened? The first wave froze solid in the January cold, and that was the last of them!”

“He had other successes!”

“Then why didn’t he create any more Blitzens, eh? Not that I ever heard that the Werwulf units that he fielded against the Maquisards and the British Commandos were that reliable. Or the Carnivorous Blobs he sent after the Yugoslav Partisans. Or the Fish-men he fielded in the Adriatic. Or the Shattenhexen-” Mara stopped with a snicker, which she tried to stifle, but finally burst out in a guffaw.

“Hey, the Nazis kept him around for some reason, even after the War fell apart on them!” Luke pointed out.

“Of course!” Mara said, “He was like a Father to Baron Blitzen! And he kept the big oaf going no matter what the Allies- or worse, the OKW- did to him. There was no way that the High Command was going to send Verrukt to a concentration camp with Blitzen on his side!”

“Ah, Mom? Uncle Luke?” JJ cut in. “Can we keep this to things happening in THIS Century? So, this ‘Vril Synthesizer’ creates this magical energy that gives people super powers? And they let you USE that?”

“Not quite dear,” Mara said. “As you said, they pumped water into the Synthesizer, where it was no doubt charged with the Vril- or whatever it really is that that thing generates- which was then piped into the baths for their salubrious effect. Come to think of it, I would be surprised if they didn’t mix the after-bath into the waters of the rides. It would explain the rush that most people felt on those rides- and it wouldn’t hurt their concession stand sales, either. The Vril would make you very active, which would build up an appetite. Wait a minute.” Mara reached into her satchel and pulled out a ‘quizzing glass’, something between a magnifying glass and a monocle, and examined the Vril Synthesizer. Her face went slack with shock and the quizzing glass dropped from numb fingers. “Mon Dieu…” she gasped. “The charge on that! It’s HUGE! Juliet! Vivian! Go to the car and hurry to the nearest grocery store! I need salt- sea salt would be best, but we don’t have TIME!- some ground garlic, some rum, some saffron, oh, and some colored chalks and some paint! I need to put up Wards of Concealment and Ban, and charms of Alarm and-”

“Mom, you think that you could defuse the Quest if you drained off some of the magical energy from the stove?” JJ asked. “Maybe use the magic in the synthesizer to help create a more powerful ward? Say set it up so that if she batters down the ward to get at the cooker, she wastes the very energy that she’s doing all of this to get?”

“A nice idea, dear, but for the charge to be this great, the Quest must be almost complete. Indeed, that Crucible would be the perfect vessel for the final shard. By now it’s been attuned and patterned to its designated purpose. If we knew what Akelarre’s purpose in all this was, we could defuse it by simply doing a bad job of finishing the Quest. But we don’t know what the Quest really IS, so doing anything with that magic may be more dangerous than letting the bitch finish it.”

Nick, who had been listening to this and studying the Synthesizer intently, suddenly snapped to. “You’re right dear, but you’re forgetting something almost as important!”

“What?”

“Why, JJ’s Birthday of course! It’s tomorrow, remember?”

“But we-”

“Oh, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t throw up as many magical defenses for this place as you can,” Nick assured her. “I’m just saying do it right! Luke, patch ABBY into this place and bring the automated defenses up to par. For recomp, you can study this thing for as long as it’s here.”

Nick strode around, taking in the large, open, empty area. “If anything, it’s better this way! I mean, I wasn’t that keen on that many supervillains knowing where we live, Code of the Honorable Outlaw or not! And the room! Honey, we invited Twelve Families! In our house? Even with having most of the party in the back yard, we’re talking about a real squeeze! Especially for the bathrooms.”

“True,” Mara admitted. “We did rather get carried away with the guest list. Well, I didn’t think that that many would agree! And I got a letter from the White Lady in Chicago; she’s sending a representative. WHY would the White Lady be sending a representative to a teenage boy’s birthday party?”

“I sent her the invite,” Nick said. “It’s all good.”

“Yes, but still! Both the Kaitos and the Lemalins have RSVP’ed; there are seven Kaitos and NINE Lemalins! And Celestina Valocco has confirmed that she’s coming, and she’s bringing Fino, and there’s something going on there. Nick, I need a reason to keep the du Chantraines from coming! I can handle Celestina, and I can abide Tilda for short periods of time, but BOTH of them? Mother of Mercy, give me strength! NO! And can you imagine how Marcel would react to seeing that thing? And that SON of theirs?” Mara finished in a classic state of last minute hostess frazzle.

Nick thought it over for a moment. Then he snapped his fingers. “You said ‘Nine Lemalins’? Isabelle is coming?” Mara nodded. “Well, there you are! Isabelle hates Marcel’s guts, and Tilda’s actively afraid of her! Oh, and I heard that Dominic caught their boy, Jean-Armand, making unwonted passes at Anastasia last summer in Monaco. Not that that really matters, but just mention that you think that Isabelle is angry at Jean-Armand for trifling with her granddaughter, and Tilda should back off.”

Mara’s eyes popped with glad realization. She nodded and said, “And all that I have to do to put off Marcel is mention that Papa will be there…”

“You’re sure that your father’s going to be coming?” Nick asked.

“He’ll come, if I have to drag him by the seat of his pants, kicking and screaming!” Mara said with steel in her voice. “He spends all of his time locked away in that house of his, brooding in his library, stubbornly ignoring the Twentieth Century! Not even the Twenty-First Century, but the Twentieth! He was starting to get peculiar! Asha!” Mara spoke firmly to her daughter. “Tomorrow at the party, I want you to make sure that your Gran’Pere MIXES with the guests and makes conversation! I don’t want him sitting alone by himself in a corner, playing the hermit! It is your job to see that he actually talks to people!”

Asha gave a squeak of confirmation and nodded brusquely.

“You see?” Nick said brightly, “This is shaping up wonderfully! We’ll present the Synthesizer as a trophy of JJ’s brilliant debut coup. We’ll drape a tarp over the scaffolding, so that it doesn’t completely dominate the party, but we can still show it off for some strategic gloating.”

“I know where I can lay my hands on a few hot tubs!” Luke said. “We can pipe some water through it into the hot tubs and let that be part of the entertainment!”

“Excellent Idea, Brother Mine!” Nick said with a grin. “That’s one way to be one up on the Kaitos!”

As the elders planned the layout of the party for optimum effect, JJ sourly wondered to himself WHY being the kid of a supervillain seemed to mean that nothing, absolutely nothing, was ever easy.

linebreak shadow

It had been a busy day, and the children were sent to bed in their usual order, with Asha being tucked in at 8, Bart being put to bed at 8:30, Vic going willingly (for once) five whole minutes later, and JJ shuffling off at 9. Despite being a long, tiring day, JJ was still very tense. He’d just gotten to sleep at about One in the morning, when his smartphone buzzed at him. He ignored it. It buzzed at him again. He ignored it again. It buzzed three very loud, very angry times, and then went into a long sustained buzz. JJ reached over, picked up the phone, and resisting the urge to throw it against a wall, looked at it. There was a large cartoon gate on the screen.

JJ thought muzzily for a while, and then it filtered through to his awareness that the ‘gate’ meant the gap in the property gate behind the gardening shed. It was the only spot in the entire household where a kid could get in and out without being spotted. Even little Asha feared the horrible consequences that would befall anyone who let the old folks know about the ‘Old Wooden Gate’. Grumbling, JJ pulled on a bathrobe and slippers, and let himself down the side of the house, something he’d mastered before he was Five. Trudging through the back yard, he carefully wended his way through the gaps and blind spots in the Security layout, which he’d mastered by the time he was Six. He waited by the corner of the gardening shed and yawned as he waited for the security patrol units to cycle through, listened for the right sounds, and then pushed his way through the gate.

In the service alleyway, waiting for him was a drab dark econobox sedan. JJ walked up to it and grumbled, “Swordfish.”

The window rolled down, revealing the Phantom Highwayman. “Things are coming to a head.”

“No shit,” JJ said around a cavernous yawn.

“Akelarre and Dr. 30 know about your birthday party.”

“Gee, and they were being so sneaky about it.” JJ shot back.

“They figure that Dad is planning to put them on the spot: he’s going to auction off the Synthesizer- in only the most genteel way, of course- to the highest bidder among the guests. They get the Synthesizer, the huge charge of magic inside it, and if they decide to, whatever they can get from the Onsen for returning the Synthesizer. The point being, that they remove the Synthesizer, derailing Akelarre’s Quest. So, Akelarre and 30 are in the position where they gotta pull off a quickie raid while Dad’s waiting for them, or go chasing off after the Synthesizer to try and get it back on the buyer’s turf and terms, OR, worst of all, pull off the raid facing against twelve groups of supervillains, most of whom will be defending their kids, plus Mom’s wards, plus Uncle Luke’s defense measures, PLUS whatever tricks Dad’s got up his sleeve.”

“Go Dad!” JJ murmured drolly.

“But they’ve got a few Aces up their sleeve: their Mole, a secret weapon- and Zach.”

“How does Zach fit into all of this?”

“My plan in all of this was to figure out who the Mole inside the house was. So, I sold Akelarre and Dr. 30 on the idea of sneaking in a gizmo that creates a field that paralyzes everyone inside.”

“It paralyzes everyone inside the field. How Dr. Diabolik,” JJ sneered.

“Hey, there’s a reason why Uncle Luke’s been running rings around him. XXX has the imagination of a parrot. The idea was that the gizmo would go off during the party, Akelarre and 30 would come in with their entourages, gloat for a while, set up… whatever it is they’ve got planned, I’m still not sure, and then- BAM! I switch off the dingus. Everybody snaps to, and hands the Dastardly Duo and Co. their collective asses. I unmask, you keep Dad from killing me, and we help the old folks nail down all the loose threads.”

“Okay, cool, a little convoluted, but with someone like Akelarre, it would have to be,” JJ said. “Where does Zach fit into it?”

“I’m not sure,” JD admitted. “I think that 30 suspects who I really am, and he bagged Zach as a last-ditch hole-card. But the real bitch is still their Mole inside the house. The Paralysis Inducer is 30’s gimmick. I insisted on having a way of turning it off, so that it couldn’t be used against me or Akelarre; so if I was Dr. Triple-X, and I wanted to pull off a Triple-Cross, I’d build my sneak weapon with a special restart feature. I’ve seen the insides of that paralyzer gimmick, and I spotted a slot in the exterior that led to some brackets that didn’t seem to do anything.”

“A circuit board,” JJ said, seeing where JD was going. “A circuit board, disguised as something, that could be pushed into the slot, connect with those brackets, and -boom!- the paralyzer is up and running again!”

“There’s no better way to keep someone from stabbing you in the back than to hand them a rubber dagger,” JD smirked. “If they’re not planning to stab you in the back, so what? If they are, you’ve got them cold.”

“So, I’m supposed to hang back, watch the paralyzer, and catch the mole when he slips the card in?”

The Highwayman shook his head. “No. That WAS the original idea, but Zach being slipped into the mix changes that. No, I hear way too many knives being sharpened in secret. And I think I know what one of them is: ABBY.”

“ABBY? Uncle Luke’s concierge AI?”

“Squirt, think about it: paralysis field or no paralysis field, if ABBY’s running the defenses, she will chop 30 and his combat dollies, and Akelarre and her goats to SHREDS! Think about the shit that Uncle Luke runs as a matter of routine! And Uncle Luke is responsible for the safety of the guests’ children- he’s gonna break out the brass knuckles for this one. Taking out ABBY would be their Number One prime consideration- but they’re talking like it’s a done deal.”

“Taking ABBY out?” JJ questioned, “Or doubling her? What if Dr. 30- or his mole- found a way to hack into ABBY’s Core Priorities functions, then they’ve got the Ace of Trumps up their sleeves!”

JD thought it over for a moment. “Nope. It just doesn’t scan right. First, if they had ABBY in their corner, then why tip their hand by nabbing Zach? Like you said, she’s the Ace of Trumps, so why risk revealing that card before you play it? Second, if Dr. 30 had ABBY, the first thing he’d do is get Uncle Luke in a bag, and run the family ragged trying to get him back, and probably use ABBY as a tool to put the snatch on each member of the family, starting with Mom and working their way down to Asha. And third, if they had ABBY, there’s no way they’d use that paralysis inducer gimmick. So. They haven’t hacked her, but she’s not a factor in the attack. So, Dr. XXX has figured out a way of blocking her, of cutting off the signals between Lair 2D and ABBY’s central location…”

JD shook his head. “Fuck. It’s too fucking complicated and there are too many damn cards up too many sleeves, and too many smart people are being WAY too clever….” He let out a low growling groan. “Fuck it. It’s pointless to try to plan too far ahead. It’ll all go completely batshit the second they start pulling out the long knives anyway. Squirt… just… when the time comes, follow my lead, no matter what? I know that it’ll probably sound nuts at the time, whatever it is, but I’m just gonna have to wing it, and try to make it all work out right. JJ, do you have the smartphone that Zach made for you?”

“Sure.” JJ showed him the phone. JD held a phone that was remarkably like Zach’s. There was a bleep, and when JJ looked at the screen, there were five new icons: a Club, a Diamond, a Heart, a Joker and a Spade.

“When the time comes, just push the icon that I yell at you… and wing it from there. I won’t be able to spell it out for you when the shooting starts, and… I can’t tell you what’s gonna happen now, ‘cause I don’t know for sure myself. Just… trust me, Squirt?”

“Would this be a good time to remind you of the time that you and Zach-”

“NOT the time, JJ.” JD punched in a few instructions into the phone he was carrying. Then he handed that phone to JJ as well. “Keep this, as well as the other phone. It’ll tell you what to do when the time comes. And-” JD handed JJ a wristwatch.

JJ looked blurry-eyed at the watch. “Okay, I’ll bite: what?”

“Be sure to wear that at all times during the party. It creates a force field that doesn’t do much, but it cancels out the paralysis effect.”

With that, the window rolled up and the car drove off into the night. JJ looked at the new phone and said, “Man, I hope I have enough pockets for all these phones.”

 

To Be Continued

Comments   

+1 # Mazaki 2017-05-07 17:26
I have been enjoying the story even if this family leaves me completely confused whenever they enter a fight as it seems they have harnessed the power of chaos.
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0 # ChattaStarhawk 2017-05-16 01:05
Well now we know about when this is happening, cause that bit in the cell had to be drow Jobe having the freakout from being "thrown out" into the street by daddy.
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