Of Masks and Marvels (Part 11)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
Feeling a little bit like Maxwell Smart, I stepped up to the payphone, ran my AEGIS ID card through the credit card slot, and waited for the dial tone. When I got the tone, I punched in my super-secret code number: 555-4864 (that's M-L-L-I-T-N-G, in case you were wondering), and disappeared.
I got a brief glimpse of the face on the guy in the next booth over, who was already goggling at the woman in the black cape and stiletto heels, as I popped out of the phone booth and into the Transporter chamber in AEGIS HQ. I've been in and out of the place a couple of times now, and I'm still disappointed when 'Scotty' doesn't pipe me aboard. It's a Tech-Geek thing. Actually, I was more worried that Bernice wasn't running the damn thing - the idea of leaving a device that can fold the fabric of time and space, running on automatic, just offends my sense of the sane. Still, I can see where a twenty-three-year old woman with three Ph.Ds might be less than enthusiastic about being a glorified doorman. I stepped out of the Transporter room, through a door that didn't go whoosh!, and promptly got tackled.
The orange and black form disentangled herself from me, but not in time. Twist spun into existence over our tangled form, picked up the stuffed animal, blew Tigress a raspberry, and disappeared into a wrinkle in the air. Tigress spat in frustration, and went bounding down the hall after her. When they're not on patrol or practicing, one of Tigress and Twist's favorite pastimes is a super-powered variation on Tag. It can get really involved, when one player can move like housecat on fire and the other can teleport. They enjoy bickering, too, which often leads up to one of these games, with the bone of contention changing hands many times in the course of an hour. The other members of AEGIS seem to have learned to sense when they're heading their way, but I keep getting clobbered.
I stepped into the meeting room, with the assembled heroes seated around a table. They looked at me accusingly. I held up the bag - "I ran into Tigress and Twist. Who ordered the Pastrami on Rye?"
It was Poker Night at AEGIS. Or, more accurately, it was a Poker Night - Iron John had picked up information that something was going to come down tonight, and playing Poker was a good way to wait for trouble to happen without getting over-anxious. Besides Iron John and myself, the Strike Team was going to consist of Titan, Battalion, Justiciar and Sapphire. If anything went down, we could teleport as close as possible and get ourselves to the scene from there. There were a few kinks in the system, but mostly it worked. Besides, Mom was still getting used to my new 'look', and we really needed a little time apart.
Wendell - that's Battalion, to you - performed emergency surgery on the sandwiches, and Ted - or Justiciar, if you must - shuffled. Iron John showed me some pictures of him with a five-year-old granddaughter on his knee. You could tell that he'd really prefer to be telling her tall tales, or listening to her latest adventure in kindergarten.
Sapphire cut the cards, and the deal started. Ted declared that the game was straight-up Draw Poker, nuthin' wild, jacks or better to open. I looked at my hand and immediately declared it a Salad. I disgustedly tossed my hand in, making myself completely vulnerable to what happened next.
Peering over the top of her cards, Sapphire looked at me and murmured, "So? What's the story with you and Loo-tennent Hesczeck down at Metro? I heard you two had a bit of a do, last week."
I smiled snidely back at her.
Iron John nodded over his own cards as he adjusted his hand. "C'mon, Maxine! If you don't tell the tale, then Wendell's just gonna trot out his diagrams of Guderian's Advance into France through the Ardennes. Please don't make us sit through that again!"
Sapphire and Titan agreed, and when Ted asked too, I just couldn't refuse him.
LADY LIGHTNING'S STORY:
You know that you're doing something right as a superhero when the Cops actually invite you in on an investigation. Mind you, I always thought that the bit where Commissioner Gordon turns on the Batsignal and waits for the Batman to show up was a crock. The cop who admits that a civilian - any civilian - can do a better job than he can, quickly finds himself on some other duty. So, I was a little surprised when my AEGIS pager flashed me a message that Hesczeck wanted to talk to me. When I used the direct number that he provided, he was kind of sketchy. Not good - Hesczeck's a pretty straightforward guy, not the type to make mysteries for the fun of it.
That perked Reyes' ears, too. (Mind you, I didn't tell the AEGIS poker players about anything having to do with Reyes!) She is absolutely convinced that Hesczeck is patched into this whole big classified information network; of course he is - it's called the Police Department.
I showed up at the Hall of Justice with my usual gift of an assorted dozen doughnuts (with extra Bear Claws for me!), paid my respects to the animals in the zoo, and found Hesczeck's office. He had visitors, and lots of them. There were two male-female couples, one of whom looked like they probably got a lot of 'Scully-Mulder' jokes from their fellow FBI agents, and the other I couldn't peg. There were also three others who looked like they were more or less there on their own. I recognized Mackenzie Brackman from the Mayor's Office and Scarapelli from SWAT, from the time I worked with them taking out Kraken. Hmmm...FBI, SWAT, Mayor's Office - the only way this group could have been nastier would have been if the last guy was IRS. Turns out that he was State Department.
I was introduced around. 'Scully and Mulder' were indeed FBI - Special Agents Kaustmayer and Daws. The other couple were Inspector Yves-Armaund St. Leovrice, of the French Central Criminal Investigation Directorate, and his assistant, Jacolyne; apparently he had so much name that she couldn't be spared that much. Kaustmeyer and Daws shook my hand; the Inspector kissed it. Jacolyne didn't do much.
I had the impression that I'd walked in on the middle of their discussion, so I asked to be brought up to speed.
"Madame Lightning, a terrible monster has come to your country, after leaving a wake of death and destruction in la belle Europa."
"What? You sent Jerry Lewis back?"
Hesczeck grumbled at me, "We already did that joke."
Inspector St. Leovrice cleared his throat for attention. "A little over two years ago, a man with unprecedented supernormal abilities appeared in Paris, and began breaking into private collections of antiquities. While a few minor items were taken, it was apparent that their theft was an afterthought - 'Getting while the Getting is Good', as you Americans would say. There were a few confused descriptions from those unfortunate enough to run into him in the course of the break-ins. After a few weeks, the thefts ceased, and it was assumed that the burglar had found whatever he was looking for. I was called in to investigate another matter - a nephew of an important woman in French finance was concerned that she was under some sort of mind control. Mind you, these days, what with supervillains and such, we can't ignore such complaints. Nine times out of ten, they turn out to be nothing, but for the sake of public safety, we must investigate.
"It turned out that Margaret Dainbault had been spending a great deal of money tracking down the whereabouts of certain objets d'art that dated from the time of the Third Crusade, and offering ridiculous amounts for their purchase. When I interviewed her in regards the matter, she was evasive and distracted. Her nephew, with the blessings of the rest of the family, obtained a court order blocking the sale of the objects, as Mdm. Dainbault was using family funds to purchase them.
"I was with him, discussing the possibility that his aunt might be under some kind of control or duress. Then HE appeared, out of a mist. He fixed me in place with but a single gaze into his eyes. Then he used his teeth to rip open Honoree Dainbault's throat, and drink from his neck as the man bled to death. I was shocked out of my paralysis, and called for help. The only reason that I am not now under arrest for Honoree Dainbault's death is that two secretaries saw the man jump through the window of Dainbault's hotel suite, which was twelve stories up.
"The fiend's attack had the opposite effect intended - the investigation went into high gear. We placed Mdm. Dainbault under close observation, and managed to discover the man's location. We raided his lair, but he managed to escape, and injured five gendarmes in the process. Mdm. Dainbault and her retainers fought the police tooth and nail. Despite the fact that Mdm. Dainbault is over fifty and not in the best shape, she managed to injure a gendarme - it took three men to hold her down.
"It took her a week to come to herself, and even when she did, she wasn't able to give us much useful information. From what we were able to glean from the bits and pieces, this man, who calls himself Prince Fear-"
This raised some eyebrows around the table!
"PRINCE FEAR?" Battalion snickered.
"So What?" Sapphire objected. "Have you heard the loser names that some of these yutzes come up with? Remember those two guys who called themselves 'Maverick' and 'Desperado'?"
"The cowboy wannabees with the trick pistols and lariat? Yeah, whatever happened to ol' Butch n' Sundance?"
"They got corralled."
They all caught the glare on my face, and silence once again reigned so that I could continue.
BACK TO LADY LIGHTNING'S STORY:
"Prince Fear? In English?"
"Yes. He obviously watches too many American movies. Anyway, Prince Fear is desperately searching for something, and does not care in the slightest what he has to do to get it. Fortunately for us, his objective in Paris was all too apparent."
"In Paris? Y'mean this guy had pulled this crap before, and you were only hearing about him then?"
"Non. He began his little treasure hunt in Paris, and tried to use the Dainbault fortune to blaze a shortcut for himself. Unluckily for him, most of his objectives were in publicly held museums, rather than in private collections, so not even the Dainbault fortune could get them for him. So, he began visiting these museums in person, to acquire them gratis.
"As I said, his objective in Paris was all too apparent - The Scepter of Splendor, from the loot that Duke Leopold of Austria brought back from the Holy Land. It is that loot that I think 'Prince Fear' is after. You see, my research indicates that when Richard CuerDeLeon - or, the Lionhearted, as you would say - sacked Acre in the Holy Land, he looted a mosque that was written to have contained certain sacred relics of King Solomon - yes, THAT King Solomon. Solomon the Wise, revered by Jew, Christian and Muslim alike. Solomon who, aside from his fabled wisdom, was supposed to have been a remarkable sorcerer and wizard, who is credited with writing some of the most important works on sorcery and conjury of the Western Occult Tradition. But, most importantly, Solomon is credited by the lore of the region with putting down the Djinn-"
"Djinn? Y'mean we gotta deal with a fucking Genie?" scoffed Hesczeck, and I hadda agree with him.
"Non, non, non! Not a Genie, a Djinn! Mind you, I doubt that these 'Djinn' were the malefic spirits that legend has them being - but what if these 'Djinn' were the Twelth Century's manifestations of the same phenomenon that produced Madame Lightning here? Not supernatural beings, but super-human beings that were basically medieval supervillains, using their incredible abilities to plunder and loot, even as their modern descendents do? King Solomon was fabled to be a great wizard - might he also not have super powers, which were perceived as either great magic or the Grace of Almighty God? According to my research, King Solomon defeated one truly horrible Djinn, and broke him up into Monads, or units, and stored them in various golden treasures. More likely, the 'golden treasures' were the 'foci' of this 'super-villain'."
I explained in an aside to Kaustmeyer and Dawes, "A 'Focus' is an object that somebody with super-human powers kind of 'attunes' with their power, making that power more effective in some way - sorta like Green Lantern's power ring, or the Mighty Thor's hammer. I've heard that some 'foci' somehow actually give that power to another superpowered person - don't ask me how."
"BON! Ah - Good! Good, good, good! You understand! I believe that this 'Prince Fear' has learned of these 'monads' somehow, possibly by coming into contact with one of them, and has decided that he wants all the power they hold for himself."
"You were saying something about a 'Scepter of Splendor'?"
"Ah, yes, you see, when Richard the Lionhearted sacked Acre, he looted the mosque which held these treasures, and he took them with him when he returned to England to stave off the usurpation by his brother John. On the way, he was captured by Duke Leopold and held for ransom. Besides asking for a ransom that almost ruined Britain, Leopold kept all of Richard's loot, including the treasures sacked from the mosque. The treasures were sold off over the centuries, or used as collateral for this, that, or the other, and eventually found themselves in these various museums. I only made the connection myself, after the third robbery, which happened in Landesburg, Germany-"
"Aren't you forgetting what happened in Paris? The Scepter?"
"M'yes. The Scepter was a secondary exhibit at the Musee d'Paree. We set a trap by imposing a time limit on the access to it-"
"The ol' 'plant a minor notice in the local papers that the exhibit the Scepter was part of was gonna be moved for cleaning' gag, hunh?"
"More or less. Realizing that a metahuman was involved, we recruited the help of a Parisian superheroine called Seraphine."
I shrugged. "I've seen her work. She's tough."
"The Prince was tougher. I have footage taken from the museum security cameras." He put a CD in a computer.
There was the usual murky darkness at first. Then a cloud of haze filled the room. The lights went up, and a bolt of light pierced the cloud. Seraphine made her entrance, saying something in French. No subtitles - pity. A human form materialized out of the cloud. He said something in French - don't you just hate it when you can't follow one of those talky Art Films? He was fast, very fast, and kept dodging around the exhibits, using them as protection. The Paris equivalent of SWAT was there, doing their best to get shackles on him. Every time Seraphine would tag him with one of her light blasts, he'd grab a SWAT gendarme and drain him. For some reason, even beyond the obvious, the SWAT gendarmes were scared to death of Prince Fear, and were fighting their own fear more than they were the Prince.
The Prince managed to grab the Scepter, and he seemed to grow more powerful. Even Seraphine, who'd been ignoring his attempts to intimidate her, was daunted. Waving the Scepter at her, he backed her into a corner. She managed to collect herself, and pulled out her last card - she grew into a glowing blur, a featureless angelic presence that lashed out at him. The camera overloaded and went blank. When it snapped back, Seraphine was out on the floor, there was an enormous hole in the wall, and both Prince Fear and the Scepter were gone.
St. Leovrice picked up the ball again. "After the Scepter in Paris, Prince Fear managed to break into the Mairie d'Orleans, and steal an item called the Breastplate of Firmness."
"The Breastplate of Firmness?"
"Yes, you see, I have since discovered that each of the items was given a name connected with each of the Sephira, or primary units, of the Q'abbalic diagram called the Sephiroth. Firmness is the name of one of the Sephira. After the Mairie d'Orleans, he robbed the Landesburg Historiche Institut, taking an item called Wayland's Girdle."
"Yes, a misnomer grafted onto the item in the Seventeenth Century. Wayland was a demi-deific smith-hero of various Germanic legends, and so a lot of wondrous things are attributed to him, as such things are to King Arthur. As for being a girdle, it was actually a leather belt, sewn with several large, elaborately worked, jewel encrusted golden plates. It was at this time that I was able to ascertain the common origin of all three pieces as being from Duke Leopold's loot. When I learned of the treasure's origin and deduced its significance, I became overwhelmingly aware of the danger that Prince Fear poses, far beyond that of being a ruthless murdering thief. I believe that the relatively minor increases in his power that occur with each theft are nothing compared to the surge of power that he will experience when he has all ten of the Djinn's Regalia. The Djinn of ancient legend was so powerful that he almost killed King Solomon, the most powerful sorcerer of an Age of Miracles. I shudder to think of what that kind of power would do in the hands of a fiend like Prince Fear."
"So far he has eluded me in The Hague, London, York, Rome, Athens and once here in America. Each time I have tried to stop him, and each time he has managed not only to escape, but acquire his prize. The Prince is so close to achieving his objective, that he will stop at nothing to complete the Djinn's Regalia."
"Wait a minute," Titan interupted. "If this Prince Fear guy is waltzing all over Europe, why is a French police detective tracking him? Why don't they have INTERPOL agents after him?"
Iron John sighed as he experimentally adjusted his hand. "Because, Diego, there is no such thing as an INTERPOL agent! INTERPOL agents are creations of cheap spy fiction. INTERPOL exists, but it's only a clearing house for criminal information between international Law Enforcement agencies. They have no field agents, and their personnel have no law enforcement powers. Though, I can't imagine this St. Leovrice guy being too popular, busting into other people's jurisdictions and trying to hog all the glory for nabbing the Prince."
There was a little more side-chat, but Sapphire ahemed, and said, "Let Maxine finish!"
and, back to LADY LIGHTNING'S STORY:
We sat around digesting St. Leovrice's tale, and the doughnuts.
Lydia Sanchez, Hesczeck's partner, got the ball rolling. "So, does this Prince Fear have any patterns, other than following this particular load of gew-gaws around?"
"Most definitely Yes! In each city he visits, he infiltrates the house of a wealthy, locally powerful family. He takes over, using some kind of mind control or power of domination, sometimes only the head of the household, less often, the entire family. He uses their money, holdings, connections and influence to plan out his crime. He never willingly includes another super-human in his plans. He crossed paths with a very nasty supervillainess called Belladonna in Rome, and that got very messy. I very much doubt that the Prince will try that again."
"Belladonna?" I asked, curious, "What are her powers?"
"I believe that she is a specialist in poisons and mind altering drugs."
Hesczeck was more interested in the Prince's MO. "When this guy 'takes over' a family, they can't just keep on keepin' on. Their normal patterns have gotta change. Now, the Prince has probably learned some pretty slick moves, but even with mind control powers, controlling a bunch of blue-blooded movers and shakers has gotta be like herding cats. St. Leovrice, when you were running all over the Continent, you must have seen some recurring patterns."
"M'yes, he does try to isolate the more important members of the family, whether this is to reinforce his control, or control the flow of information, I don't know."
"Does he only let them out one at a time, or does he go the whole hog, only letting them communicate by phone and that junk?"
"He isolates them as completely as he can."
"Lyds, call the museum, ask if any of their big contributors or Board members have been asking weird questions about - what's the last doo-hickey on your list?"
"Solomon's Crown. A silver helmet encrusted with emeralds and sapphires, and a pearl the size of a peach pit."
I smiled. "Oh, a tasteful little thing that Solomon used to wear to those informal little get togethers."
"Right. Lydia, find out if any of the Board members have been asking about Solomon's Crown. Get their names, round up a few blues and hit the phones. Ask leading questions; see if you can arrange a face-to-face interview. The more they resist, the more you push - if they get weird, we got our boy."
I threw in my two cents. "Remember, Sanchez, if Ol' Princy collects 'em all, he doesn't just become a Pokemon Master - if St. Leovrice is right, he steps up into a whole new level of nasty. And you just know that he's gonna want to try out his new toy as soon as he can."
It was my turn to shuffle. "I'll spare you all the 'Dragnet' details. Let's just say that we hadda step on a few very well heeled toes. But Sanchez is a very determined lady. Once she got started, she just kept doggin' them. But in all due modesty, I can say that I contributed something."
Sapphire smirked, "Oh, you used your 'Lightning Danger Sense'?"
"You read too many comic books. Nah, I just killed two birds with one stone - I got in touch with Ilena Reyes, that TV reporter over at Channel __."
"Isn't she the one who was on the site when Power Woman and I showed up at Dr. Daedalus' lab?" asked Justiciar.
"Right. Tigress and I also worked with her nabbing Kraken. I figured she could ask a few obnoxious questions for us without looking too conspicuous, in exchange for the inside track on the story."
"Hmmm. And what's the other bird?"
I grinned. "You know a better way to keep the Media off your back than to give an exclusive to a reporter? One who's gonna bend over backwards to keep the others off the story? Ennyway, between Sanchez and Reyes, we got a definite possible at the Guildford place. The Guildfords are-
"Yeah, yeah, we know, the Guildford Foundation, local art patrons, the whole gonser macher package."
"Anyway, the Guildford place is big-
"Seen it - looks like Bruce Wayne's backup if Stately Wayne Manor ever gets torched."
"Will you let her tell it?"
"So, the Guildford place is big, and the Guildfords themselves are pretty touchy about intruders, so we couldn't just go in on a Reasonable Cause. Besides, there isn't a judge that would sign a Search Warrant on what we had. So Hesczeck and I decided to pull the old 'Unwarranted Intruder' gag."
"Y'mean, you went in looking for anything, and if they found you, Hesczeck would come in, 'drag' you off and 'decided' not to press charges?"
"Hey, it's good to have friends on the force! So, anyway, let me get back to-"
LADY LIGHTNING'S STORY:
So, there I was, dropping in on some of the richest, most powerful people in the State. I flew high and came down on a second-story balcony. I checked, and - Yes! - the french doors were unlocked. Knocks it down from Breaking & Entering, to just Entering, if things get nasty. I walked into a semi-private suite, littered with diagrams, floorplans, and documentation. Even in the dark, I could tell that the cleaning staff hadn't been in this part of the house for at least a week. I found a light switch and turned it on. The floorplans were for the museum, and the diagrams were for the security system. So far so good.
As I checked the paperwork for any other interesting bits, I felt something against the back of my neck. I spun around.
There in the doorway, with a couple of cowed looking people huddled behind him, stood a man in a billowing cloak.
With a pained expression, Sapphire asked the air, "Why do they always have billowing cloaks?"
LADY LIGHTNING'S STORY:
He was tall, buff, and classically handsome. He had long angular features, a Roman nose, and long curling hair that reached past his shoulders. He had one of those big body-builder chests. He looked like a Cote d'Azur beach bum, except for his pale skin and the long pointy teeth showing in his mouth. He wore a long black cape with a red satin lining, a black sleeveless body suit, and a white silk shirt with billowing sleeves and a lace jabot under the body suit. The final touches were a red gem that held the jabot in place, and a red satin sash.
In a deep, rich cosmopolitan European voice, he said, "You are Lady Lightning. This is my house. By entering my house without my permission, you have placed yourself completely at my mercy. And I have No Mercy. I am Prince Fear."
Who IS Prince Fear?
What Does He REALLY Want?
Is Titan Really Going To Bogart ALL The Pretzels?
Find Out In The Next, Pulse Pounding, Card-Shuffling Episode of "Of Masks & Marvels!"
TO BE CONTINUED