Of Masks and Marvels (Part 6)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
It says something about human nature that people can get used to practically anything, even the strangeness that has become an everyday part of my life. Checking out how things were coming along, in regards my beard and, ah, other developments became a part of my regular morning ritual. My hips kept slowly getting wider, and my waist thinner. In a couple of weeks, the mounds on my chest were such that I didn't have to look for them; they were just there. I stopped wearing t-shirts and jeans around the house, and started wearing that damn fat-suit under the cover-alls that I wore every where. Mom started making sad, disappointed parent noises about how I was gaining weight again, and after I'd done such a good job of slimming down.
On the Superhero front, I managed to nag the costs of up-grading my cape out of Reyes. For some reason, Reyes felt it was important that Lady Lightning have a scent (Hanh?), so we wasted a couple of hours trying to figure out which Men's cologne (which I normally don't bother with) is changed by exposure to my electrical powers into something nice and flowery. Lovely, now I have to shower after every combat to lose the smell of lilacs! We also added a gold metallic belt to the outfit, which allowed me to carry a couple of handcuffs on it. A lot of things you see in the comics don't really work, but Batman's utility belt does. Now, if only I could figure out how he manages to stash that hardware store in it....
One morning, I was doing a little maintenance on a soundboard at the station. As I finished up and replaced the panel, I noticed the suits steadfastly ignoring a homeless type who was trying to get someone to listen to her. Working for the Power Company, I've had to deal with the Homeless on more than one occasion- and not always in a friendly manner. I've gotten so that I can tell the winos, druggies, and schizos from the just plain luckless. Her face wasn't bloated or sunken in, so she wasn't a wino, and she didn't have the jerky movements of a druggie. I walked up to her. She had the weather-beaten, slightly resigned features of a homeless lifer. Other than the slightly undernourished look that many homeless had, she looked healthy. She was worried and frustrated, but focused. She didn't have the perpetually lost look in her eyes that I tend to associate with schizos, but that can fool you. I walked up to her. She turned to me and said, "You work here?"
"Ah, yeah. You want something?"
"Yeah, I gotta talk to somebody. A reporter. But nobody..."
I steered her away from the nervous white-collar types. I whispered to her, jerking my head toward the office-dogs, "Move quietly- if we spook them, they might stampede."
I walked her into the kitchenette, pulled one of Roy McGwuire's V-8 veggie drinks out of the fridge and handed it to her.
She looked at it. "No Coffee?"
I shrugged. "Everybody hands out coffee. This is better for you."
She took a sip and was agreeably surprised. The body always knows what it wants.
"So, what brings you here?"
She settled in resignedly and spun her tale. Her name was Dinah. She was part of a group of homeless people that hand around together. Solitaries tend to get targeted by predators. Her 'tribe' had more or less staked out one part of the industrial district as their squatting ground. Herb, one of her friends, had built himself a nest up off the ground in a corner formed by the joining of two buildings. Three nights ago, Herb fell out of his nest. He was already dead by the time that the EMTs could get to him. There were weird cuts along his neck and shoulders. The cops gave their group the usual song-and-dance, and filed it in the circular drawer. The next night, Bebe, another of their group, decided that she wanted to take over Herb's nest. About One in the morning, Bebe came clambering out of the nest, screaming about a shadow. When George went up to look, something threw him out of the nest. But by sunrise, the shadow-thing was gone. Last night, she watched the nest all night. At again about One in the morning, this dark, shapeless thing flowed up the wall and into Herb's nest. It waited there for about a half an hour, and then left again, real quick like.
As she told the story, I was watching her face. The only times that she seemed confused at all, were the times when her story didn't make sense and she knew it. Your average schizophrenic either wanders off on a tangent, or sticks doggedly to their fantasy- to them, the illogical parts make perfect sense. While I don't doubt that Dinah had problems, I didn't think that a departure from reality was one of them. It may or may not be a job for Lady Lightning, but it was at least something that Reyes could get some footage on.
Give her this, once Reyes accepted that Dinah wasn't seeing pink elephants, she got right into it. "So, Dinah, this shadow-thing, did it float in the air, or run along surfaces, or what?"
"Well, not like that- it was more like there was this glob of darkness, but it didn't float or hug the wall. It kind of jumped around, reaching out with tentacles kinda. It was real quick, too- didn't get a real good look at it."
Reyes agreed to meet Dinah at her stomping grounds later that night, and Eli took her to the local sandwich shop to see that she got a decent meal. Wotthehell, I understand that the Industrial district is lovely at One in the morning.
Mom didn't much like it- between her job at the DMV and our current bizarre hours, she doesn't see much of Eli and me anymore. Now I know why Spiderman is always moaning about his private life.
Ah, the scenic Industrial district- bad lighting, sheet metal, chain-link fencing, and the wonderful aroma of diesel fuel. Why, oh, why don't we have guided tours of this place? Especially in those enchanted hours just after midnight, when those magical feelings of complete abandonment and utter desolation sets in. We met Dinah in the NewsLemon at about 11, and drove to her patch, which was where the equipment yards just started to give way to multi-level warehouses. We parked the NewsLemon next to one of the warehouses and cunningly disguised her as a NewsVan covered up with a tarp.
Eli and I climbed up to Herb's nest, and checked it out. Just another bowl of cloth and junk. We hooked up some remote cameras, the kind that they use to watch wolves, and hyenas, and politicians, and other vicious wildlife. And then we locked them down. Hey, we weren't hatched yesterday, y'know.
We spent the next two hours trying to keep hungry homeless types from making off with anything and everything, without actually coming out and saying so.
At about 12:30, I wrapped up, and told Reyes and Eli that I was through for the night (wink, wink! nudge, nudge!), and that I would be bagging some Zees in the van. I changed (3 minutes, 23 seconds- not my best time), and on a pre-arranged cue got out the side that was next to the wall. As Eli was passing out sandwiches, I lifted off without fanfare. With a little circumnavigation, I dropped onto the roof immediately over Herb's nest, and began the most thrilling part of being a superhero- waiting.
Despite the chill of the evening, I was beginning to drop off when I heard Eli in my ear. [Lady Lightning! Heads up! The bogeyman has landed!] I peeked over the eave of the building, and sure enough, there was this really weird looking blob of darkness scuttling long the wall on long spidery legs, headed for Herb's nest. It clambered in among the rags and newspapers and porno magazines, and settled in. Well, so far Dinah was batting a thousand. If she kept up her batting average, El Blobbo down there would stay put for about a half-hour and then split like its tail was on fire. It couldn't have laid an egg- Eli and I had checked the nest, and the most unusual thing there was an issue of High Society magazine where they didn't show one model's implant scars.
Pulling out the Starlight Binoculars that Reyes had screamed bloody murder about getting, I checked the nest out. Nothing, just that weird blob of darkness, sitting there, doing nothing. Okay, what's it doing? Same thing I am- waiting. Waiting for what? If it was waiting for the Spice Girls to reunite, there was gonna be Hell to pay!
We waited for about a half-hour, El Blobbo and me. Then Blobbo perked up. I quickly checked in the direction of Blobbo's attention with my Starlight binox; there was a heavy truck headed our way. I contacted Eli. [Control! We have movement. There is a truck headed our way. Try to get the license plate as it goes by. Start getting the kids tucked away in case we have to move suddenly.]
The truck drove up, and I memorized as much of the license plate as I could through the binox. As it passed, Blobbo inched out of the nest and started scuttling along the wall. I quietly lifted off and silently followed it silently following the truck. When it ran out of wall, it reached out two long spidery limbs before it, grabbed some wall on the building across the street, and pulled the blob across with another pair of spidery legs trailing behind it.
Then it got weird.
There's this truck driving down the street in the Industrial district, right? The time of night is a little strange, but the driver behind the wheel is a good, dues-paying member of the Teamsters, and is probably getting Time and a Half for this, right? Except for the inkblot with legs following it, pretty normal, right?
Suddenly, there are two of the damn things, and they're turning in opposite directions!
Not that this slows El Blobbo down for a second. It goes off after the one that turned left, scuttling like the roach version of Mario Andretti. The truck does its mitosis thing again, and one version is going straight, while the other is pulling right. Blobbo follows the straight ahead one, which goes to the next intersection, and starts to fade away. Blobbo does a 180 and really starts to haul ass. If I hadn't have been about 20 feet above it, it would have probably run right into me.
It starts hopping around, checking in every nook and cranny, like it had lost a contact lens or something.
Okay, I don't know what the hell is going on, but this yo-yo has at least an Accidental Homicide to answer for. Time to go in and bag his ass while I can still keep track of him. At the speed that he was moving at, my best bet would be a surprise attack, followed by a blinding flare, and then a stun barrage on the basis that if he's groggy, he can at least answer questions.
I magnetized one of my handcuffs, got set and tried to aim.
I almost lost him for a second, and then, there was a clear shot with an actual human hand to aim at!
I let fly, snagged his wrist, and closed the other cuff around a nice thick length of pipe that looked nice and well set into the building. Damn! I hope Eli was filming that!
I let loose with a blinding arc. There was a sharp "HEY!" I flew in for a better look, shock-pulses warm in my hands. Then I finally got a good look.
It was Tigress. Oh, Shit! Please, please, God, don't let Eli be filming this!
Tigress is an established local Superheroine. Very fast, jumps a lot, strong, runs up walls, rips things apart. She's called Tigress; you figure it out.
I touched down on the roof she was on, and pointedly avoided getting any closer until she shook the blue spots out of her eyes. Hey, I've seen footage of her tearing a cinder block apart with a single stroke!
She was dressed in a black unitard, with a dark orange and black striped sleeveless Gi over it, and dull white gloves and boots. Her leonine african-american features were only partly covered by a black half-mask, with the kind of drop shaped mirrored eyepieces that Spiderman has on his mask. It's a very popular look. Her jaw-length hair had orange stripes running through it. Her face- what you can see of it- is nice enough, and she has a nice trim figure. But it's the way that she moves that grabs your attention. Calling her lithe is like calling Handel's Messiah a ditty. She doesn't walk- she flows. And there's that off-hand, matter-of-fact simplicity to it that is the master's other side through sophistication.
Tigress raised a hand in a claw grip, probably to rip the handcuffs off. I said, "Wait! I have a key. Those things are expensive!"
She spun about in my direction, all feline grace and danger. Then her eyesight must have cleared. She appeared to recognize me (Yes!), and relaxed a little. But she was still obviously pissed. She shook the 'cuffs in my direction, and spat out in a voice that was curiously similar to Eartha Kitt's. "What did you do that for?"
I held up the key, and she stood still while I unlocked the cuffs. "I didn't know that you were in the neighborhood, and one quickly moving blur looks amazing like another in this light."
She obviously caught the reference, because she hissed, "Three weeks of tracking him down, and I lose him because some stupid rookie can't aim!"
Stupid Rookie? Well, Excuuuuuuze ME, Miss 'I've-been-in the-business-forever!' "Well, if you're such an expert on the subject, then you know exactly where he's going to be, this time tomorrow."
She got one foot off of her high horse's stirrup. "I know that he's going to be in the area."
"I mean exactly. To the Inch." I smiled triumphantly. Rookie, my expanding ass.
She gave me a probing look. I pretended to examine my nails through my long gloves. Nyah, nyah, I know something I won't tell...
She slumped her shoulders, and gave me a disgusted look. She clicked her tongue, as though getting a bad taste out of her mouth. "Okaaayyyy... You didn't screw up that badly. Where is he going to be?"
I smiled, all gracious victory, while doing some quick calculations in my head. "I'll tell you tomorrow, at 3 PM, on the roof of the D____ B____ building, Downtown. Bring Doughnuts."
With that, I lifted off.
Once in the air, I raised the NewsLemon. [Control, the hunt is off for tonight.]
[Did you lose it, Lady Lightning?] They didn't catch me catching Tigress! Thankyoujesus! Thankyou!
[Control, there's a new player in the game. Will explain at base. Have Tech Support retrieve the Data Units...]
[The Cameras, Eli, the cameras.]
[Lady Lightning, how many times do we have to talk to you about On Air Security?]
After a good night's sleep and a lecture from Mom on odd hours and bad company, Eli and I were able to get down to the serious business of analyzing our data. We managed to luck out, and find a guy who looked a lot like our Blob on a Supervillain Web-shrine. Yes, Supervillains have Web-shrines! Heck, Major Terror has Three, and he's been out of circulation for thirty years!
El Blobbo's proper Nom De Goon was probably Kraken. Kraken- okay, I can see that. I mean, can you see a proper Supervillain saying 'Cringe, puny mortals! For you face the uncanny might of El Blobbo!'? He's supposed to be able to create fields of darkness (probably the source of the squid name), stretch good distances, form claws and like that, walk on walls, secrete toxins, and be very quick. Sounds like our boy.
I had Eli burn our video footage onto a CD, and told Reyes to cover for me at the station.
"Exactly what do you have up your sleeve, Maxham?" Reyes wanted to know.
"Up my sleeve? I don't have sleeves! Thanks to your design, all I have are those fruity gloves!" With that, I was gone, with my Lady Lightning togs in a VCR box.
Taking a page from the Amazing Spiderman, I changed on a downtown rooftop, and left my civvies in the VCR box, duct taped to the bottom of a highway off-ramp. Duct tape, a handyman's best friend!
Once properly attired, I flew to the Hall of Justice (the main cop-shop, not the JLA HQ. Get real!), and landed on the heli-pad. My recognition factor must be getting better, because the Astro division cops met me, and they weren't carrying shotguns. "Lady Lightning, isn't it? What can we do for you?"
"Would you please get on the phone and ask Lieutenant Hesczeck if he could spare me a few minutes of his valuable time?" According to Reyes, Hesczeck is the cop in charge of keeping tabs on the bad boys in masks.
Astro-Cop called down, and managed to book a seat for me. I went down the elevator to the floor I was told, and was met at the elevator door.
While I'm not a particular devotee of police stations, my background in electrical wiring makes me conversant enough in the principles of architecture to know that there is no logical reason why I had to go past the same holding cells three times. Each time I went past there was the usual symphony of catcalls and obscene noises. The third time, I reached out, grabbed the bars, and sent a powerful current through the bars. I know, it doesn't fit with the conventional template of electrical flow, but it can be done. I just don't feel like explaining it right now. The charge sent the jeering slimewads flying, and the rest of my trip went by both quickly and quietly.
The joke about leading the supergoon on a wild goose chase must have gotten stale, because I finally got to Hesczeck's office-, which was right next to the elevator. Hesczeck was a thin man in his early forties, and his partner was a hefty Latino woman in her mid-thirties. They both had that expression that some cops have, that says that they've seen everything stupid twice, and expect to see it for a third time, real soon. He looked at me with tired, disinterested eyes. "So, what do you want to know?"
I leaned on the jam of his door. "Actually, I've come bearing news on a wanted super-powered felon."
"Hmmm? Why don't you just beat him up, and dump him on our doorstep, like you pajama-jockeys usually do?"
"Well, first of all that wouldn't be very respectful, now would it? Secondly, there's a material complication in the matter. I like to be sure of what I'm doing before I start busting heads."
Hesczeck was a little more respectful. Caution and careful consideration don't seem to be hallmarks of the superhero community. I pulled out the CD that Eli burned and a printout of one of the better shots, and handed it to him. He took a long look at it. "Hmmm... Kraken. I picked up a few rumors that he was operating in the region. But he's being very quiet. He usually is. How did you pick up on him?"
"Yesterday, a news crew was investigating a report of an unusual death in the Industrial district. Wanting the most sensational coverage possible, they managed to highjack me to help check it out. They managed to phrase it in such a way that I couldn't, in all good faith, refuse. I think you know what kind of double-talk I'm talking about."
Hesczeck nodded absently. I'm sure that he was more than familiar with the wiles of the more weaselly members of the media.
"I spotted Kraken following a truck." I pulled a slip of paper out of my utility belt. "THAT is the license plate number of the truck." I described the weird doubling effect of the truck. "I think that somebody is running a secret base of some kind in that part of the Industrial district, and Kraken is trying to find it by following that truck. The illusory trucks are part of a hologramic decoy system to conceal the truck's entry to the base. Kraken is eliminating false leads, one by one. Eventually, he's going to find what he wants. And I really doubt that we are going to be happy that he did."
"And you want me to run the license plate, to see who the truck belongs to."
"Sure! I mean, this is your town, and you probably want to know who's set up shop here. If it's the Feds, they're gonna want to know about this; if it isn't the Feds, they're really gonna want to know about it."
"Okay, I'll make the phone calls. How can I get in touch with you?"
"Why just turn on the Lightning Signal!" I shrugged. Okay, bad joke. "I'll be back at 3:30, and I should have somebody with me."
I snagged my civvies and kicked back for a couple of hours. What Reyes doesn't know can't hurt me.
At 3 o'clock, Tigress was waiting for me on the roof of the D____ B____ building, playing a harmonica to pass the time. Hmm, who'da thunk?
I looked around. "I told you to pick up doughnuts."
"Why? Are we going to visit a police station?" She purred ironically.
I just smiled.
People stared somewhat as I nonchalantly walked into the doughnut shop. Tigress tagged along reluctantly, and I calmly ordered an assorted double dozen. I made sure that there were enough Bear Claws- why is it that they never put enough Bear Claws in an assortment?
The customers had pretty much convinced themselves that Tigress and I were models or some kind of sales gimmick, when we walked out and took to the roofs.
They were expecting us at the heliport, and we were let in almost immediately. Tigress was a little surprised that I was so tight with the cops. But then Tigress has always been the charge-in-and-start-punching kind of superhero who gives the cops ulcers.
When we got down to Hesczeck's floor, the fact that I had Tigress along meant that we had to do the Grand Tour. But, this time the animals recognized me, and the zoo was quiet, so there was only one trip around the floor.
Instead of Hesczeck's office, we were taken into a conference room. There were three men and a woman there, the three men in the off-the-rack suit that says Fed to me, and the woman in a tailored suit that suggests a lawyer with pull. We were introduced to Agents Ashe, Bishop and Elgyn, and Ms. Mackenzie Brackman from the City Attorney's office.
Agent Ashe turned to me and said, "Miz, ah, Lightning, I understand that you have information regarding an alleged 'secret base' situated somewhere in the city?" And that pretty much sums up the attitude of the first part of our meeting.
With that many bureaucrats there, you just know that everyone just had to get more people on their side. Hesczeck wanted SWAT in on it, and got them. I wanted Reyes in on it, arguing that since she was covering the story and was in the area anyway, that this way we could keep her on a leash. This was agreed to, on sufferance. That, at least, I could agree to- every time I see Reyes, I suffer, so why not them too? Tigress wanted AEGIS in on it, but two masks were too many masks already, as far as the suits were concerned. Brackman wanted the Mayor's office in on it, and there was no way we could stop them. By 5 o'clock, that conference room was packed!
Ashe, Bishop and Elgyn were arguing that they had jurisdiction, despite the fact that they refused to confirm or deny that there was any Federal Government installation there. Reyes wanted to know what was being kept in the base, and for a wonder, the SWAT guys were backing her up. The Brackman and the stiff from the Mayor's office were making pompous noises that nobody was supposed to be able to understand. The babble was so bad that I set off a thunderclap to shut them all up.
"Okay, people! Let's keep our priorities straight! There is a very dangerous man out there, trying to get into a" -glance at A, B & E- "hypothetical Federal base. Now, if I remember the Law correctly, the government is required to inform local authorities if they store Bio-Warfare agents, Chemical warfare agents, experimental Nanites, or nuclear isotopes of any sort within city limits. Agent Ashe, to the best of your knowledge is there a federal base storing Bio-Warfare agents in the Industrial district? Remember, there are several municipal officials listening."
"No, there is no such base."
"Agent Bishop, with the same provisos, is there a base storing Chemical Warfare agents?"
"Agent Elgyn, is there a base storing experimental Nanites or nuclear isotopes of any sort?"
"Okay, since there is no Federal base, the Federal government has no jurisdiction-" I gave Reyes a hard look. "-And no reason to mention any non-existent government base." Give the spooks a bone, maybe they'll turn up sweet somewhere. "SWAT has jurisdiction here. Lieutenant Hesczeck, I believe that Tigress and myself can be of material assistance in capturing Kraken. Will you accept our assistance?"
Hesczeck tilted back and forth in his chair, vastly amused. "Well, My Lady, since you ask so politely, how can I refuse?" He made a grandiloquent bow from a sitting position. I answered with a nod.
"Okay then. Let's get to work."
Once the bureaucrats were out of the picture, the Agents, the SWAT honcho- Lt. Scarapelli, Tigress and I went over all the available footage of Kraken. Reyes showed rare judgement by sitting in a corner, keeping very quiet. I finally felt that it was safe to break out the doughnuts.
Viewing the footage of Kraken's last two run-ins with Tigress, one thing struck me. "This man is very dangerous."
"No kidding! Look at the way he undercuts that platform, so that I have to save those kids, instead of bagging him!" Tigress grumped.
"No, I mean that he doesn't spend a lot of time wasting effort trying to actually beat you. If he can't get around you, he just gives up and splits, probably figuring that he can try again someplace else!"
Scarapelli mumbled around a cruller, "So, he's a super-powered wimp! How does that make him dangerous?"
"He's dangerous, because he doesn't do anything stupid. Most of the Supervillains I've defeated, I beat because they were stupid. Berserker is your basic big, tough and stupid thug; I beat him by out-thinking him. Gunhawk thinks with his gonads, and I was able to lead him around by them. Ransack is a bored punk; he could have gotten away at any time, but he stuck around to wreck the place and fight Justiciar and me. If he'd just left, he would have gotten away clean. But then, he's an idiot. If he weren't, then he'd be making a fortune as a contraband courier, instead of chump change as a smash-and-grab artist."
But Kraken strikes me as a patient, methodical, thorough, and quiet operator. He only comes out in the open when he's reasonably sure that he can do whatever it is he's there to do and get away with it. Look at what he's done so far- he wants to break into a secret installation, so he follows a supply truck there to find it. There's a decoy system, so he finds the closest spot where he's sure the truck passes, and precedes to eliminate all possible variations one by one."
And he does it quietly! He doesn't try to hitch a ride on the truck, which they would spot; he doesn't try to put a tracer on it, which would tip them off; he just carefully follows the truck, at his own pace, on his own terms. If he hadn't killed that homeless guy for his nest, we'd have never learned of it."
Tigress snarled, "What? Are you in his Fan Club or something? He's a ruthless thug, who kills anyone who gets in his way, and runs away if anyone he can't just slash into pieces gets in the way."
"Which is exactly my point- he won't stay put and fight us if we stop him. He'll just go somewhere else and try to get whatever it is he wants in some other way. That other way may involve taking a hostage or something in that line. Which makes him very dangerous. Hey! Who's been eating the Bear Claws?"
Woe to anyone who gets between me and my Bear Claws!
Scarapelli saw my point. "So, we're gonna need a way of getting Kraken to stay put long enough for you two to beat him senseless, or my guys to get a net over him."
Tigress sighed, "Yeah, and that ain't gonna be easy. He hops around like a frog on a hot griddle, and I'm one of the few people around fast enough to keep up with him. Check this out-". Tigress advanced to a segment where ol' Squiddly was fighting a French Superheroine called Serafine. The Angel-themed heroine was firing a bolt of light into the formless body of darkness that Kraken used while he was fighting. The bolt passed through the cloud, and hit Serafine's teammate, Gargantua. "He apparently can see perfectly in that 'ink-cloud' of his- he may even be able to see better in it."
Agent Elgyn slowed the footage to show Kraken doing his stretch from wall to another shtick. "Is he like Plastic Man? I mean, able to force himself through small cracks, and like that?"
Tigress shook her head. "Nope. I think he's another one of those dermal symbiot villains. I think that he can extend his symbiot far from his body, but his own body probably keeps its normal dimensions."
Another dermal symbiot? What, were they having a convention, or something?
Scarapelli perked up at hearing that. "Do these dermal symbiot things obey the normal laws of physics?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the law of - what was it? Oh, yeah, the Law of Conservation of Matter? I mean, do these things actually grow, or do they just shift themselves around to match what the wearer wants to do?"
"I dunno." We went back and watched Kraken do his thing some more, trying to figure out if the mass around his body proper diminished when he stretched. As I watched Kraken jumping around, dodging blasts, weaving around punches, and suckering heroes into taking each other out, I knew that we were dealing with a very smart man. So, if I can't use his stupidity against him, why not use his cleverness against him?
I whistled for the others' attention. With a feral grin I said, "Guys, I just got an idea...", and took a celebratory bite out of the last Bear Claw.
At One o'clock, Kraken descended into his watch-spot, and waited. Yet again, he silently reviewed the target area where the installation might be, and the routes that he had confirmed were decoys. The search area left was growing smaller, night by night. Still, if he managed to find it tonight, he'd be all too happy to get in, get out, and get it over with. He was no fool. A half-hour later, the truck rolled past, and he began following it again. The truck did its mirror-split trick, but Kraken noted that there was a split-second delay in the hologram this time. He quickly scuttled after the real truck as it pulled straight ahead. There was another split-second delay in the next hologram; there must be a minor malfunction in the hologram graphics program. He finally had a chance to find his target!
The truck pulled up to a warehouse and slowly drove through a cinder-block wall. Another hologram, camouflaging the base's supply entrance. How Man from UNCLE. Quickly, as the rear end of the truck pulled through the 3-D disguise, Kraken slipped through the door, and used the truck as cover to pass through the short tunnel. He clambered up the space between the wall and the truck to the roof of the tunnel, where he would ironically be too close to any sensors to be detected, and ran along the roof like a roach.
The truck pulled into a loading dock. Kraken dropped down to a corner and patiently hid while the truck was being unloaded. The supply crates only took a few minutes- these guys were good, any more time, and anyone trying to follow the truck would have too good a chance of spotting the truck as it pulled out. The truck left, and the loading crew went back into the corridor of the base. Kraken flowed along the edge of the wall, and checked the corridor for a security pad. None. They were slipping up- a classic mistake, lots of security outside, almost none inside.
As he approached the corridor, Kraken stalked past a pile of the crates that had been delivered. A white-gloved fist came tearing out of one of the cardboard crates, and tagged him squarely on the chin.
Another crate exploded, and a dark clad, caped figure rose into the air. The first crate ripped open, and a lithe feminine figure in black and dark orange leaped out. Both figures had what appeared to be guns, which they immediately fired at Kraken. Kraken instinctively hardened his symbiot, but was surprised when he didn't feel bullets carom off his dermis. He looked down at himself, and saw splotches of bright orange.
Tigress grinned savagely. "That's radioactive tracking paint, Squiddly. Let's see you try to run away this time!"
Kraken rasped in his practiced sinister villain voice, that could never be confused- or identified- with his suave civilian voice, "Run away? From a second-rater like you?" He lashed out with a handful of scythe-like claws, and kicked himself up to the roof. Then he heard the sound of security doors clanging shut.
Tigress deftly dodged the claws, and caromed up to the roof, only to be met with a face full of foot.
A jolt of electricity knocked Kraken off the roof. Oh, yes. The other one. Lady Thunder, or something. A rookie. Good. It was always helpful to have a rookie around to trip up the veteran.
"Give it up, Kraken!", the rookie said, "You're boxed in, you can't run, and even if you get past those security doors, there's a squad of Marines just waiting for you!"
As he landed, Kraken extended his dark-cloud. From the safety of the cloud, he jeered, "Go away, little girl! I can't be bothered to give basic lessons to rookies!"
"ROOKIE!" Lady Lightning sent a barrage of lightning shocks at Kraken, "Did you just call me Rookie?!"
Kraken easily skittered out of the way of the volley, but ran right into Tigress. Tigress and the rookie kept him hopping, the She-Cat slashing away at him at close-quarters, and the Lightning Bug denying him his choice of retreat. He knew that he couldn't rattle Tigress- he'd tried before and only gotten a load of sass for his trouble. But rookies always take these things too seriously. They're too sensitive to being dismissed.
"Oh, really, Tigress, " he said loudly, "when did you begin baby sitting? I mean, it's one thing for you to be chasing after me a like a love-struck school-girl, but bringing along the home ec class?"
"HOME EC!" Lady Lightning sent a massive jolt of electricity straight at Kraken. Secure in his dark-cloud, he evaded it easily. But on the other side of the cloud, Tigress was caught completely by surprise. The jolt sent her flying, and smashed her head into the cinderblock wall. "Oh, shit.", Lady Lightning said in a small voice.
"I know you are, but what am I?" Kraken sneered, as he came at her like a bolt of black lightning, and sent her flying into the other wall.
Both Tigress and the lightning bug were stunned, but not out of it. They would both be up and at him very soon. Trying to get out would be a waste of time. By the time he got through those stupid security gates, they'd be all over his back. So, forward, ever forward.
He was over to the security gate in a flash. Sending tendrils of his symbiot into the cracks around its base, he ripped out the code pad. Then he just crossed the two wires to open the security gate. But first, to be sure...
The squad of armed men inside the gate leveled their weapons at the raising gate. On the other side, there was a standing cloud of impenetrable darkness. The squad leader firmly but quietly said, "Hold your fire, men. Wait until you have something to shoot at."
On the other side of the door, Tigress and Lady Lightning carefully approached the same field of darkness. Tigress felt around in the inky field. Then two electrified nets came whirling out of the gloom, and wrapped Tigress in their shocking folds! Lady Lightning, unable to see anything, took no chances, and peppered the entire area with a powerful wide-angle shock.
The gloom dropped. Inside, the entire squad of men were lying on the ground, apparently shocked.
From on top of the gateway, Kraken snickered and said, "Why thank you, my dear! How considerate of you to take out all my opposition for me!" He dropped, and dodging Lady Lightning's furious bolts, made his way into the secure area. There he saw exactly what he needed. "Well, m'dear, it's been fun, but now the grown-ups have work to do!" He leapt up onto a horizontal pipe with condensation on it, and sliced it with a scythe-like hand. Water gushed out of the pipe, and Kraken directed the flow directly into Lady Lightning's startled face. She screamed, erupted in a blinding cascade of electricity, and dropped. Her still form in the puddle occasionally gave off a few sparks. Kraken thought about cutting both her and Tigress' throats, but decided that he didn't have the time.
Not bothering to be subtle, Kraken slithered down the security corridor, with the Red Alert lights flashing and alarms screaming. There were colored lines on the floor, the kind that are color coded to show people how to get around. He followed the lines to the end of the hall. There was a heavy security door there, but no colored lines went to the door. This had to be it. If you didn't already know where it was, you had no business being able to find it. Kraken understood that kind of security logic. He pulled the keypad out of its socket, and played the same trick that he had with the security gate. There was a small vault inside the room, which fell to the same trick. Inside the vault was a safe, with a combination lock, without a dial. He eased the tendrils of his symbiot into the works of the lock, and lifted the restraining bolts holding the bar. He pulled the bar back, and the safe opened. There was nothing inside the safe, except for a sign on the back, illuminated by a light:
"YOU ARE UNDER ARREST.
YOU HAVE THE FOLLOWING RIGHTS.
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT.
IF YOU GIVE UP THIS RIGHT...."
Well, if you've ever seen a cop show, you know the rest.
Kraken spun around to escape, just as the vault door shut.
Tigress pushed the heavy metal door shut, and I magnetically pulled the interior bolts shut. Feeling far too pleased with myself, I said to the vault, "SUCK- ER!". The SWAT cops in Marine's clothing, not stunned at all in their insulated boots, smiled at us and gave us a unanimous thumbs-up. Tigress and I high-fived each other.
"And now we take you live to Ilena Reyes, in the field, covering the close of a successful Sting operation."
"Thank you Briana. I'm standing here with Lieutenant Hesczeck, who coordinated an operation which resulted in the arrest of a deadly and elusive Supervillain called Kraken..."
"So, Lady Lightning, what would you say were the biggest factors in capturing Kraken."
"Well, in order, I'd say that it was the cooperation of the police, the media and concerned citizens, such as Tigress and myself. It shows that the system can work, when we help it along. After that, I'd say that our biggest asset was Kraken's absolute certainty that he was cleverer than everyone else. He was so clever that he walked himself into a cell."
And, oh, I'd also like to say that a Major contribution to this effort was made by Ms. Mackenzie Brachman of the Mayor's office, who managed to arrange for the Portable Restraining Cell, and everything we needed to put together this phony base, in under three hours. Now, that's impressive!"
Actually, Agents Ashe, Bishop and Elgyn provided most of the stuff we needed, but officially they weren't even involved!
Besides, if I've learned anything from Union politics, it's that it never hurts to spread the credit around while it's handy.
Reyes and Eli wrapped up their gear and got out of the cop-shop without talking to me. It's not a good idea to get people thinking Lois Lane/ Jimmy Olsen things; Lois and Jimmy are ambush magnets.
As I was on my way out, one plain clothesman asked me to autograph a poster. Poster?
I looked at the picture. It was a picture of a pneumatic young woman in an outfit that looked perilously like mine, except there was no gray bodysuit, and her bodice was made of lace. She was posed pouting in a stock cheesecake situation- on a bed with red satin sheet. Below the picture were the title 'Lady Lightning', and a scrawled 'signature'.
I managed to not tear the poster apart or set it on fire- barely. I rolled it up, and handed it to the plainclothesman. "Where did you get this?", I said in my most level, ultra-controlled voice. He gave me the name of a bookstore. "Keep the poster. It's about to become a collector's item."
While I had my suspicions at first, I realized that Reyes had absolutely nothing to do with the poster when she hit the roof the second she saw it. She was even more pissed off than I was about it; they were only slighting my dignity, but they were cutting into her profit margins!
Now, I admit my first impulse was to fly over to this slimewad's office and give him a little impromptu Electro-shock therapy. But Reyes convinced me that Assault with Deadly Force was not only illegal, but also actionable. And this toadsucker may not have a conscience, he may not have ethics, and he certainly doesn't have any taste, but he doubtless has a lawyer. If I laid a single Amp on him, he'd probably wind up owning the rights to my distinctive likeness. Which is probably what he wants- otherwise there would be no reason for him to take such a stupid risk. Then he could sell tacky posters and action figures of me all over the place.
I met Reyes in front of slimedog's office building. Reyes was wearing a variation on her Ivana Humpalot outfit. She claims that it makes her look like a lawyer; with the mini-skirt, I like to think of it as her Ally McBeagle outfit.
I noticed that the building security guard didn't even blink an eye at a masked 'Superheroine' casually walking into the lobby. Indeed, he said blasely, "Conrad Printing, suite 411." Hmmm...
Again, I hardly raised an eyebrow on the elevator. Hmmm.... again!
When we opened the door to Conrad Printing, there were at least four girls in Lady Lightning outfits, sitting in the waiting room. One of them rose and struck an attitude. "Another one? What does that creep Paulsen think he's up to? Listen up, bitch-"
Bitch? Did she just call me bitch?
"-If you think that I'm just stepping aside from a paying gig-"
I reached out with an electric stream and pulled her off her feet by her metal belt and into my hand. Then I reached out, snagged another model by her belt and held them close to my face. With a snarl- adding a good dose of Clint Eastwood to my usual Kate Mulgrew- I said, "Call your Agents- this gig just dried up."
I dropped them, and taking the remaining two into my gaze, wordlessly jerked a thumb over my shoulder.
As they started to stampede for the door like a herd of black-with-gold-trim gazelles, Reyes stopped them. "Which one of you posed for that poster?", pointing to the offending piece of cheesecake hanging on the wall.
The mouthy one silently raised her hand.
"Did Paulsen have you 'autograph' it?"
"Yeah. He said that since 'Lady Lightning' was an alias, that she didn't have exclusive rights to it, or something."
"Did he have you sign anything else as 'Lady Lightning'?"
"Yeah, he said that I had as much right to the alias as anybody else."
"This guy obviously got his legal education watching re-runs of Matlock. Come with us."
We marched past the receptionist's desk. She gave a perfunctory "Hey, you can't go in there!", but nobody expected us to listen, not even her.
I pushed open a door with 'Conrad Paulsen, Publisher' on it. There was a man sitting behind what was probably an office furniture rental desk talking on a cell phone. He was a big man, with an athletic build that was starting to go to pot. He was blonde, with regular features. I sourly thought to myself that he was probably the BMOC back in High School, and never recovered from the experience. Oh, squishing him was going to provide So Much closure!
He was speaking on his cell phone, and pointedly ignored us as we came into his office. I got the impression that this was a regular ploy for him, keeping people waiting, so that they could see what a busy and important man he is. I magnetically snagged the cell phone out of his hand. "Hey!", he said, showing his remarkable grasp of the language.
My first impulse was to slag the cell-phone in my hand, but it wouldn't do to give him any excuses like property damage. I held the cell phone to my ear. "He'll call you back. " I gave Paulsen a hard look. "Maybe." I snapped the phone shut and put it on the desk. "I am Lady Lightning."
"Ah, good to see you again!" He stuck out a paw.
I looked at him frostily. "I have never seen you before in my life, and I've never been so glad to say that."
"But we met when you signed those papers giving me permission to print those posters!"
"I repeat, I have never seen you before in my life. I didn't sign any papers, and I most decidedly _did not_ give you any such permission."
"I have your name on the release papers."
"But not my signature, which is the important thing. Handwriting analysis will bear me out."
He smiled in what I suppose he thought was a winning way. "Hey, I signed an agreement with a masked woman claiming to be 'Lady Lightning'. What am I supposed to do, ask her for a driver's license?"
Reyes turned to the model. "Dear, what's your name?'
"Sherry. Sherry Neugel."
"Sherry, were you wearing a mask when you signed those papers?"
"No. I wasn't wearing this stupid wig, either!"
I gave the model a sharp look at this unsolicited critique of my unique look. She gave a soft eep!, and shrank back.
"Sherry, did you come to Mr. Paulsen and offer him permission to use the 'Lady Lightning' Distinctive Image?"
"Heck, no! I answered a modeling casting call, like the others. I was just the only one dumb enough to think that this yutz knew what he was talking about!"
Paulsen snarled at her; it warmed my heart that he didn't intimidate Sherry. Paulsen backpedaled. "Are you going to believe an obvious fraud over the word of a respected businessman?"
Reyes snorted. "You a businessman? You're an insult to MBAs the world over! You've had five different businesses in the last seven years, under three different names. All of which went into Chapter 11. You barely managed to dodge a child pornography rap two years ago, when you had a model who claimed to be of age, but was only 15. Not like you asked too hard."
Paulsen sat down and leaned back in his chair, a hard lupine look on his face. "So what? I have a paper with 'Lady Lightning's' name on it that says that I can print any picture that I want of her. And, until you can prove that that is _not_ the real Lady Lightning's John Hancock on that paper, I will do so. And there isn't a thing you can do about it."
"Wrong." Reyes dropped an official looking document. "This is a Restraining Order, signed by Judge Farley. It orders you to cease and desist all production of these posters and any others you may have made or may make from this time on. It orders the cease of all sales of those posters at all outlets that you have sold them too. When it is proven that you used fraud to sell your posters, it will probably be ordered that you buy back all those posters."
Paulsen's grin dropped like a brick. He looked at the restraining order. "I can't afford this! I have commitments! If I default on those, the penalties will break me! And I can't go through Chapter 11 again!"
It was Reyes' turn to play hardball. "In that case, since you have proven that there is a demand for your product, we are prepared to offer you a genuine contract to allow you to print posters- and no other likenesses of Lady Lightning." She reached into her briefcase and produced a thick sheaf of pages, which she dropped with a *thud!* on the desk.
"That must be at least fifty pages!", Paulsen said with a look of horror on his face.
"Fifty-four, to be exact, requiring six signatures, and fourteen initializations. You have five minutes to get them all signed and initialed, or we take our business to a reputable publisher, starting... Now!", Reyes said looking at her watch.
"But I have to read this!"
"Four minutes, forty-five seconds."
"Why don't we just use one of my Standard Contracts?"
Reyes, Sherry and I all favored him with sere 'how-stupid-do-you-think- I-Am?' looks. "Four minutes, thirty seconds!"
Paulsen managed to get them all signed, with twenty-five seconds to spare. As Reyes checked to see that he hadn't missed any- or signed Bill Clinton's name in any of the places- he looked up and said, "You realize, that this means nothing- a contract signed under duress is meaningless."
"The threat of legal action isn't duress, Paulsen- it's the American Way of Business."
"It's duress if the threat of force is used." Oh, dear, the Matlock school of jurisprudence again.
"And when did we threaten you, Mr. Paulsen?"
"If I don't like any of the clauses I signed on, I could always say that Lady Lightning threatened me with her electric powers."
"Which would be perjury and slander."
Reyes pulled a mini-tape recorder out of her purse, rewound it, and replayed the part about not liking any of the clauses he signed on.
Paulsen was livid. "Tape recordings are _not_ admissible in a court of law- everybody knows that!"
"Actually, Paulsen, tape recorded conversations are admissible, and frequently are admitted, IF one of the parties in the conversation is aware of it. And they are not required to inform any of the other parties beforehand."
Give her this- Reyes is an absolute Ace at doing her homework!
Paulsen gave in and started to pout. " 'Kay, I'll set up a photo shoot for the new posters." You could just tell that he'd had all this planned with the idea that a superhero would come in, making dire threats, breaking things and laying violent hands on him. After which, he'd have all kinds of grounds to sue. It never occurred to him that I'd come in with a level head and a lawyer- a truly lethal combination.
"No, Mr. Paulsen, you will print the posters from these negatives-" Reyes handed him a set from the shots we'd already done, "-which should prove marketable without being exploitative."
Paulsen looked at the negatives. "Are any of these of that fight with She-Devil?", he said hopefully.
"You'll have to enter into your own negotiations with She-Devil for those." Paulsen didn't pursue the matter.
Reyes handed Paulsen a sheet of paper. "According to the contract that you just signed- of your own free will, and without coercion- you are expected to provide compensation for the unpaid royalties on the posters that you have already sold, within Seventy-Two hours, to these accounts."
"You have a bank account?"
"Actually, they are the various charities that I'm donating the funds to- Victims of Violent Crimes, the Disaster Relief Fund, the Burn Ward at the local General Hospital, and so on. Once the funds have been released, I understand that you can ask them if you can use their logos on the new posters, along with a statement that the proceeds are going to those charities."
"What's this one- the Valhalla Legal Fund?"
"My legal defense fund- hey, lawyers aren't cheap, and I can't always rely on the ACLU!" Reyes smiled predatorily- her reimbursements for her Expense Account were going to come out of the 'Valhalla Legal Fund'.
With that, I turned to Sherry and asked, "So, is there a Notary in the building?"
Pretty much as we planned, we received several offers from other printers through the 'Valhalla Legal Fund'. Fortunately for us, Paulsen's contract had a six-month option that we didn't have to pick up on. So far, we've managed to get three different printers to pay for the right to put out Lady Lightning posters.
Who says crime fighting doesn't pay?
To Be Continued in Part 7 of Masks and Marvels