Of Masks and Marvels (Part 14)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
God, I hate getting up in the morning right after a big fight. I always ache, and if I've taken a lot of damage, I piss pink for a week, get the most god-awful runs, and absolutely crave anything with iron in it. After my last fight with She-Devil, I swear I almost gnawed on a monkey wrench.
I hauled myself out of bed and winced. Grateful that at least I didn't have to schlump around in that stupid 'fat-suit' around the house anymore, I pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Then I headed down to the kitchen for the morning's infusion of caffeine.
Glory Hallelujah, there was coffee already brewed in the kitchen. I poured myself a cup and quickly wrapped myself around it. Feeling at least partially human, I fully opened my eyes and saw Ma sitting there, looking at me intently. I mumbled something that might have passed for 'good morning' - if you listened really hard.
"Good Morning, Bright Eyes. And how are we this bright cheery morning?"
"Ask me again, after I get another cup of coffee and some toast into me."
"Y'know, Danny, I've been thinking-"
Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!
"-that you really should start wearing a bra around the house."
I blinked stupidly. "A Bra?"
"Yes. I know, with your super-strength and all that, you don't need the support as much as other women-"
"-but if you keep developing the way you are, you will need something. Also, I don't think that it's doing your brother any good, seeing you jiggle around the house."
"Now, Danny, you yourself admitted that at the rate that you're...adapting...that you may not be able to pass for male much longer. Dear, it's only going to be worse if you keep sticking your head in the sand and not dealing with it. For instance, I think sometime this week, we have to go shopping and get you some nice clothes."
"Don't you 'Mmmaaahhh!' Me, young lady!" Young Lady? "For instance, those jeans don't really fit you. At the very least we're going to have to get you some that are actually cut to fit that caboose of yours!"
"I have a caboose?" I twisted around uselessly, expecting to see that I had somehow grown a pumpkin on my ass.
<hhhmmmm> "No, I wouldn't really call it a caboose just yet, dear. But, it does kind of overfill those jeans. And while we're shopping, I really do think that you should at least try on a skirt."
"Well, Why Not? You are developing a very nice set of legs - it would be a shame not to show them off. Speaking of which - Danny, when the time finally does come, and you start living as a woman, do I tell the girls at work that I've made the acquaintance of a very nice young lesbian, or can I expect 'gentlemen callers' for you?"
I looked at her with a mixture of shock, betrayal and horror.
She remained as serene as only a mother doing what she knows is right can. "Danny, we are going to have to face these things. Believe me, it's best if we take the bull by the horns and deal with them before they have a chance to get awkward. Dear, you are turning into very attractive young lady - indeed; you look like you may actually be getting a tad younger! Must be part of that superheroing thing, they always look young and fresh for some reason. Sooner or later, someone is going to put some moves on you, and you'd better be ready for it."
I had no idea of what to say to that, so I said nothing and went up to the bathroom. I looked at myself for a bit. I bobbed up and down, to see if I really needed a bra. I gotta admit, I was definitely getting some air on those honkers. I turned around and stood on my toes to check out what Ma was saying about my caboose. Then I heard Eli banging on the door, yelling to be let in. I opened the door. Eli was still a little fuzzy around the edges with that first-thing-in-the-morning-where-the-hell-is-the-goddam-coffee thing. As he tried to push past me, I asked, "Eli, am I pretty?"
He blinked, looked at for a long while and mumbled, "Even first thing in the morning, I'm too smart to answer that question." Then he went in and locked the door.
I tried to pursue the matter later during work, but I couldn't get Eli alone until we and Reyes were out in the NewsLemon.
I tried to keep it in the family, but Reyes seems to have a genetic predisposition toward eavesdropping. "What are you two going on about?"
"Oh, Dan here just wants to know if he's pretty."
She gave me the snake eye. "Pretty? What? Was that bitch Power Woman giving you a hard time last night? Y'know, I was listening in over our link, and I think she has it in for you."
<sigh> "Reyes, Power Woman is an established superheroine in this town, and she cannot look like that and not know that she is fifty different kinds of gorgeous. Why would a woman like that feel in even the slightest way threatened by me?"
Reyes gave me a rueful 'you are such a guy' look. "Who says that she has to feel threatened? She may just resent you cutting in on her turf. Besides, some of the most mind-numbingly beautiful women that I've ever met were absolutely convinced that they were either never good-looking to begin with, or that they were on the verge of having everything drop and start to look like a basset hound. She may look like she has her act together, but on the inside, she could be hanging on with her fingertips."
"Maxham, female friendships are a wonderful and beautiful thing - that's 'cause they're so fucking rare. Men may talk about competition, but women live it, 24-7. There was a comedienne named Pam Stone who had this great routine, where she said that when men went out on the town, they were Pals, and they wanted everyone to get laid. But women will try to sabotage each other, so that they'll look better and have a better chance of scoring."
"Maybe, but we're talking superheroes here - it's a totally different trip, totally!"
"Hmmm... Maybe, but I doubt it. I mean, think about it - Ms. Hex can fly, but her look doesn't really stand up next to Power Woman's. Give the Uber-Blonde this, her outfit rocks! Tigress' outfit has a pretty high kickage factor, too, but she can't fly. Now, You, on the other hand, have a very stylin' outfit, which is in direct competition with hers, and not only do you fly, but you have this really photogenic lightning aura when you fly - you kind of shove her off to the side visually."
"Oh, Please! I have a hard time believing that Power Woman is that insecure."
Reyes just gave me a 'you'll know better when you grow up' smile, and changed the subject. "Well, you'll see - by the by, what prompted all of this?"
Eli gave a sour grimace. "Dan asked me, first thing in the morning-" he pitched his voice high and squeaky, "-'Eli, am I Pretty?'" As he squeaked, he fluttered his eyelashes.
"Eli, little brother, just remember that I still know where you keep your stash of stroking material, even if Mom doesn't."
But Reyes wasn't being intimidated. "C'mon, Maxham, what's up? Normally, you only deal with your feminine side if it's rammed down your throat!"
"Oh, Ma was making noises about me wearing a bra around the house-"
Reyes nodded. "And?"
"And she was talking about taking me shopping for girlie clothes, and wearing skirts, and she even asked me if I was gonna come out of a closet I was never in to say that I was lesbian, or if I was gonna start bringing guys home!"
"Good questions! I'm just glad that I'm not gonna be the one to have to deal with you clattering around that house trying to get the hang of high heels! I mean, for a guy who goes around facing down monsters and supervillains for a living, you are the biggest chicken when it comes to dealing with anything feminine! Hey-Soos Marimba, Maxham, it's going to happen! Just go out in a miniskirt and high heels and get it over with already!"
I looked over at Eli for any kind of fraternal support. He just kept his eyes on the road, and pointedly avoided getting any further involved in the conversation.
But Reyes wasn't having any problems; hell, she was just getting warmed up. "After all, this is only the beginning! You tell me that you never had any sisters - so, your mother is only getting warmed up for dealing with a girl-"
"-and she has all those 'Mother-Daughter Moment' fantasies to catch up on: shopping trips, first dates, the Senior Prom - no, it's way too late for that - and of course, the Ultimate: the Big Wedding, complete with all the frills!"
"And, as much as I hate to admit it, your mother has a point. You can't just keep going on ignoring what's happening to you. Either you find some way of getting your masculinity back - and exactly how you'd do that, I have no idea - _OR_ you get used to the fact that you're gonna be using the other restrooms in a while. If I were you, I'd start getting used to the idea.
"Come to think of it, which way do you swing, Maxham? After all, you haven't exactly been Joe Swinging-Guy since I met you. Do you even have a girlfriend? How long has it been for you, anyway?"
I looked her straight in the eye. "I'll tell you, if you tell me how long it's been since you got your ashes hauled. Which way do you swing, Reyes? Are you so hot to get me in frilly knickers, 'cause you're trying to create some kind of perfect girlfriend for yourself?"
I thought that I had her with that one. Instead, she broke out laughing, and giggled all the way to the fire.
Between Eli's guarded silence and Reyes' giggle-fits, the day kind of crawled along.
When late afternoon rolled around, we parked the NewsLemon by the Interstate. There had been a string of well-orchestrated armored car hold-ups as the cars were bringing in shipments of cash from various businesses. The hits had been quick, well planned, and the perps had been in and out so quickly that there was no positive ID. There were three of them; one either was an energy projector or had a ray gun, and another was a 'brick' of some sort. They got the car off the road, blew open the back, split with eight sacks of loose bills, and made sure to take the bill registration forms. Simple, well executed strikes. Good planning and super-powered crooks are not one of my favorite combinations.
As we settled in for the armored car to come by, Eli turned to me and asked, "So, what are the other AEGIS guys doing about this?"
"Well, the problem is, our perps haven't been hitting the same armored car company. Heck, the last car they hit belonged to the State! So, while we're reasonably sure that if they're gonna hit again, they'll hit at this time - when the various companies are making their cash pick-up rounds - we can't be sure which of the companies they'll hit. And the armored car companies make a point of not using the same routes, so there's no common point. So, the more mobile AEGIS members have picked a route and a spot to begin following their car. If our fish bite, we make a call to the others, and hopefully they'll get here in time to be of some kind of help."
Reyes grumped, "Seems like a lot of fuss, over a measly eight bags of cash a shot."
I turned to her, adjusting my wig. "It ain't the cash, Reyes - if these guys were in it just for the money, they'd have quit after the third job. If they keep doing this, it means that they need the money, and they can't just go out and get a loan. Now, I ask you - what are the odds that these guys are financing their Aunt Gertrude's liver transplant?"
"So you're worried that they're financing something big?"
"Either a really big job, or a secret base - Man, I wish I knew how to invest in covert construction! - or some Fiendish Thingie, or the list just goes on and on. And 97.35% of it are things that we, as responsible citizens, don't want let loose on the streets. Dear God! Those fiends could be plotting a Spice Girls Reunion!"
Then the armored car drove by, and we were after it, speeding along to protect the world from Grrrl Power.
We drove along after the armored car until it was just getting into the Industrial District, about a mile and a half away from the armor car company's security compound. As the armored car rounded a curve, a bolt of energy lashed out and slagged the car's wheel on the side that it was turning into. The car started to skid, and a pair of long chains with grappling hooks on the ends whipped out and snagged the car, pulling it straight into the concrete pylon of an overpass.
"Showtime!" Eli exulted. "I'll head over to that overhang, and you can do your 'Flying Dismount', bro- Shit!" Eli was interrupted in mid-plan when another energy bolt took out one of the NewsLemon's front wheels.
The NewsLemon fishtailed, and started to roll over sideways. Eli was (moderately) safely strapped in, but Reyes and I were loose in the back. I wrapped myself around a freaking Reyes and magnetically repelled us into the center of the rear compartment. We tumbled a few times, and finally came to a stop.
I let go of Reyes and clambered over to where Eli was. Eli was out, but his breathing was steady - for whatever that's worth. I checked his neck, the most dangerous thing in these situations. His neck was limp, but not broken. Though whiplash might still be a problem. "Reyes! Call this in, get the cops and an ambulance here, STAT! After you call it in, hold his neck, and make sure that he's all right. Please!"
Reyes only took a minute, and I was finally free to take care of business. As I started to crawl out of the van's sunroof, Reyes said to me, "Maxham? Tear off their asses, and bring me a piece of each." And she wasn't kidding.
I bolted over to the highway overpass, flew up its side, and used that to cover my entrance. There were three guys approaching the armored car in stages, Special Forces-style. Everything about these guys screamed 'Pro' - their outfits were variations on a theme with color coding for easy recognition among themselves. The outfits weren't spandex, they were urban cammie gray padded jumpsuits with individualized body armor. The chest armor obviously doubled as a utility vest/equipment harness. Their helmets included eyeshields, gas masks and an external 'rabbit ear' that usually suggests a communications rig. Despite the fact that they probably each had some kind of superpower, they each carried an automatic pistol, a knife, and a couple of grenades. Unlike most ego-maniacs with superpowers, the only logo or identifying mark on them were single red initials on the left breast and right arm: 'S', 'G' and 'R'.
As they got into striking range of the armored car, the one with a 'G' on his arm pointed an overdeveloped glove at the doors of the car and let loose with a bluish bolt of energy. As 'G' broke off and started adding some kind of appliance to his glove, the one with the 'R' stretched both of his arms forward and two long chains came flying out to grab the handles on the car. 'S' grabbed the chains and gave them a big yank, pulling the doors of the car. As 'R' retracted his chains, 'G' finished adding the appliance and fired a bluish ball into the interior of the car. When it hit, the interior flashed for a moment. They were probably making sure that the guards in the back weren't still up and dangerous. Then they went in on foot. Mind you, this all took less time for them to do it than it probably did to tell.
Okay, I admit it; I screwed up - I went in mad. My only excuse is that I only have one brother left, and I just had to leave him lying there in order to deal with these assholes. They hurt my brother. They are going to bleed.
I figured that the guy with the zapper-glove was probably the most dangerous of the three - besides, he was the one who blasted the NewsLemon. So, I thundercharged into him, and sent him sprawling. I rolled out of the tackle and went into my 'read them their rights' bit: "Okay, who wants some?"
'S' said absolutely nothing, but threw a large heavy canvass moneybag straight into my stomach, knocking me back. 'R' did this thing with his chains where he picked up one of the armored car doors and swung them into me as I was staggering with the moneybag. As I was reeling from that, I felt my cape get very hot, which probably means that 'G' just shot me in the back with a laser or something. God, I hope Reyes isn't getting this on tape!
Then 'S' came barreling into me. As we grappled, I noticed that his right arm was significantly larger than the other was, and felt much different. Maybe he's some kind of cyborg. I put up my electro-shock barrier. He flinched a little, but nowhere near as much as a man with that much metal in him should have. Then I felt a blast clip me alongside the head, and 'R's chains wrap around my throat.
As I struggled with the chains around my throat, which weren't responding to my electromagnetics the way they should have, I spotted 'S' charging at me again, his oversized right fist cocked to knock my block off. Just as he was about a foot or so away from me, there was a flurry of white, and he was knocked off to the side.
A glorious figure in gold and white floated about a foot off the ground. She snarled, "Okay, you mutts may be able to kick around the rookie. Now, do you want to try it with a real superhero?"
First Ma, then Reyes, then Eli, then the Three Cyber-Stooges, and now Power Woman.
This day just keeps getting worse and worse.
Especially since 'S', 'R' and 'G' weren't any more impressed by her than they were by me; 'R' swung me around and used me as a sledgehammer, slamming me into her side. At least he didn't snap my neck when he did it, which is what I think he was trying for. God, I hate fighting Pros.
'G' slapped another of his appliances on his glove and began pelting us with a rain of small plasma blobs. 'S' and 'R' were loading up with moneybags. Then I heard a crackle in my ear. [Lady Lighting! Lady Lightning, squawk back!]
[I'm here, Control], I whispered. We had the scrambler on, but if Justiciar or somebody else at AEGIS could crack it, it must not be very good, so I watched my On-Air Security.
[We have an ID on these guys: They're called the 'Robo-Raiders', though behind their back they're called the 'Retreads'. The guy with the blaster is called 'Gauntlet', the big guy is called 'Strongarm', and the guy with the chains is called 'Reach'. There were two others, called 'Evil Eye' and 'Siren', who haven't shown up with the others in a while. They were a squad of high-tech pirates who stole prototype technology for their employer, Yoyodyne Technologies, until their boss got busted a few years ago.]
[That's very interesting, Control, but you're not telling me anything that's worth distracting me right now. Besides, what about E-, ah, Tech Support?]
[Tech Support is all right. He'll have a sore neck for a while, but he's on the job. Anyway, as for interesting, how about this? These guys have a major league weakness - their batteries. If you can get their battery packs offa them, they run out of power real quick. How's that for worth distraction?]
[Not bad, Control, but there's one problem - these guys ain't wearing any battery packs that I can tell.]
[What? Are you sure? Check their belts!]
[First thing I did, Control. But, are you sure that these guys are all cyborgs?]
[Yeah, if these are the same guys, and not somebody else using their outfits.]
[Unlikely. Still, that is some good information, Control. Lady Lightning - Out.]
As I had been chatting with Reyes, Power Woman had been trudging forward into Gauntlet's hail of fire like she was walking into a stiff rain. Then, Reach swung his buddy Strongarm past her, and he clipped her with his 'good' bionic arm as he passed. They had managed to load up with two bags each (and an additional two for Strongarm). Reach handed a chain over to Gauntlet, who Strongarm threw up onto one of the overpasses. Gauntlet secured the chain on the overpass railing, and Reach hauled himself and Strongarm up.
Power Woman and I raced each other up to the overpass. Gauntlet was waiting for us with another of his slap-on nasty appliances. This one threw a plasma-bolt the size of a beach ball at us.
I deflected the bolt and used the path of ionization created by his line of fire to send a jolt into his gauntlet. The appliance exploded, but Gauntlet was able to eject it before it damaged his namesake.
While Gauntlet was changing appliances, I took advantage of the cease-fire to grab a little altitude. Reach took advantage of my altitude to grab me by the ankle with his chains and slam me into Power Woman again. Then Strongarm took advantage of us being tangled up to chuck a mid-sized late model economy sedan - complete with three screaming passengers - at us.
Power Woman caught it. I just barely caught sight of Gauntlet taking aim - at the underside of the car. It flashed through my mind that a 16-gallon tank of gasoline has roughly the explosive power of 5 sticks of TNT. I barely managed to deflect his blast as Power Woman eased the car to the ground. Then Strongarm charged into the far side of the car, slamming it into both of us, and pinning us against a concrete overpass pylon.
As we struggled to push the car off of us, I turned to Power Woman. "Yo, Blondie - these guys are making us look like Laverne and Shirley! We have got to get our act together, or these guys are gonna combination play us into the ground!"
Power Woman grunted, "_I'm _ always_ open_ to_ constructive_ suggestions_!" as she tried to overcome the force of Strongarm on the other end of the car.
"Okay, this Strongarm guy is probably very strong-" Power Woman gave me a withering 'Well, Duh!' look, "-ON THE GROUND. I can't see any way that he can apply any leverage OFF of it."
I could see a flash of comprehension through the eyeholes in her helmet. She shifted her footing, and instead of trying to shove the car back at Strongarm, she lifted the entire car andStrongarm off the ground. Strongarm retaliated by kicking the gas tank free of the car, sending highly explosive fuel all over both of us.
Power Woman and I looked at each other for a split second, and we lifted in a hurry. Power Woman took off with the car still in hand, and I split in the other direction as Gauntlet lit the fuel. I covered Power Woman setting the crippled car and it's highly stressed occupants down safely by letting go with an unrestrained barrage of electrical bolts that scattered all over the place. The 'Robo-Raiders' were forced to take cover. I don't do this kind of thing very often, 'cause it's a real power-hog, and my own batteries must be kind of low-
-Hold the phone! I checked my 'batteries', and not only were they not depleted, they felt like they were completely charged! An idea clicked into place.
Gauntlet took advantage my distraction to set up a counter-barrage. I gestured to Power Woman, and we took cover behind a wrecked truck. Once we could talk, I took charge. "Okay, here's the plan: these guys are supposed to be operating on batteries - do these guys look like they're running low on juice?"
Power Woman took a look at Strongarm gearing up to 'Fastball Express' Reach up onto a nearby building, and shook her head.
"So, I figure that they have some kind of broadcast power projector somewhere around here, recharging them constantly. I can use my electromagnetics to track it down and take it out."
Power Woman shook her head. "Nope. No good. If you leave to go find it, then it'll just be me keeping these guys busy until someone from AEGIS shows up. They're running rings around the both of us - if it's just me, they'll just throw another car or something and get away while you're taking out their power supply and I'm saving whoever's in the car."
"Hmmm... Good Point. So...the key to this situation is mobility. Reach is their mobility man; he's the one getting them to wherever they have their getaway car stashed. How about this - we charge them and double-team Reach. We take out his chain-casters, or whatever those things are called. Rip the damn chains out of the socket, if we have to. That will cut down their mobility to almost zero. Then I find their power supply. In the meantime, remember that these guys are cyborgs - their power comes from their hardware. Heck, they're probably pulling these jobs to pay for replacement parts and somebody to do the repairs! So, strike at the obvious hardware as much as possible - that way you can whittle away at their effectiveness without actually killing these assholes. Also, with Strongarm, target his shoulder; even if his entire body is reinforced to cope with the torque generated by that arm of his, the shoulder has to be the point of greatest stress."
A smile of nasty anticipation crossed Power Woman's face, and she nodded.
Looking over the hood of the wrecked truck, we waited until Strongarm had Reach cocked and loaded for his next big jump. Strongarm catapulted Reach, who was leaving one of his chains unspooling behind him. As soon as Reach was airborne, we launched after him. We caught up with him just as he crested his arc. Power Woman grabbed him, and blocked the trailing chain to keep him from retracting it. Reach wasn't completely relying on his chain-caster, however - he kept kicking at Pee-Dubya with those piston driven cybernetic legs of his. She didn't like it much, especially on top of taking the bulk of Gauntlet's fire from the ground, but she was coping. I groped around him for a bit, and found what I was looking for - a pair of drums located along his back, which were probably the housings for the chains while they were retracted. I popped the sheath on one of my heels, and I used it to pry open the drums one at a time and discombobulate the retraction motors. I noticed that ol' Reach got significantly more power behind his chains when they were coming out of their housings than he did when they were fully extended. I hadn't crippled him, but I think he was operating at a significant handicap now.
I gave Power Woman a thumbs-up, and left her to keep the other two from making too much mileage. I felt around with my electromagnetic fields, and finally found a very strong directional pulse. Directional pulse. Good, then all I have to do is follow it back, using the Doppler Effect to guide me.
As I flew up toward the broadcast power projector, a corona of electricity flared around me. By the time I landed on the top of a twenty-story building a quarter mile away, I was damned impressive, let me tell you! Damn shame that Reyes probably wasn't getting it on film - after all that footage of the 'Robo-Raiders' kicking us around, I'm gonna need all the kickass footage that I can get!
At least I was impressive enough that the guy who was operating some kind of broadcast equipment let go to go scrambling for a shotgun that he had conveniently at hand. A shotgun. After the day that I've had, that was almost an insult. I magno-snagged it out of his hands, and cuffed him on the fly with my patented 'flying handcuff' maneuver.
Finally, I managed to get a look at the setup that he had. He had a pair of high-powered binoculars set up on a tripod, and what looked like a scrambled PCS system. Next to that was a laptop computer, which had a couple of MO and Tactics files on Power Woman and me open on it. Next to that was a notebook that looked suspiciously like a football playbook. No wonder those guys were so well coordinated! This SOB had been running Tactical Ops for them!
I took the headset off of 'the Coach', and listened in. Strongarm and Reach were yammering for ol' 'Coach' to tell them what to do. On a sadistic whim, I twisted a few knobs and set up an ear-splitting feedback which must have really rattled their heads inside those helmets, and then I cut the power that was being broadcast to them. Betcha they ain't such fancy dancers now!
On a rather masochistic impulse, I looked at my MO and Tactics file. Oh, Shit! I do that? I quickly duped the entire file and tucked it into a shielded compartment on my belt. Then I made a call to my own Tactical Ops adviser. [Control? Control?]
I got a bunch of On-Air Commentary in reply, but finally she was able to switch over. [Lady Lightning?]
[Call the Cops, and send them to the roof-] I checked the address on the inside of the roof door, [-of the Compton Building, and pick up a suspect on charges of Conspiracy and Aiding & Abetting in Grand Larceny and like that.] I gave her a bare-bones run-down of the set up.
[Cool! Now Get Back Here! Power Woman looks like she's wiping up the place with these guys after you bugged out!]
Though I thunder-charged back as quickly as I could, the fight was more or less wrapped up by the time I got there. Power Woman was in the process of dramatically ripping Strongarm's namesake out of its socket. Reach was well wrapped up in his own chains, and Gauntlet's right hand was a smoking shattered ruin.
But that wasn't important - what was, was that Reyes was handling the mobile-cam by herself. She must have told me that Eli was all right in order to calm me down. I looked around - "Where are the Paramedics? We have wounded here!"
Power Woman looked around calmly. "Looks like the usual traffic tie-up after one of these things. They'll probably have to send in Medivac."
But Eli needs medical help right now! I powered up, and managed to spot an ambulance tied up in traffic. I floated down besides them, and thumped on the door. "Hey! We have three men down!"
The EMT looked at me. "Hey, Lady, unless you can airlift this entire ambulance-"
"We don't need the entire ambulance - just three gurneys and a Paramedic to get them stable while the Medivac chopper gets here. Stack up three gurneys, and I'll fly them and a Paramedic to the scene."
"We only got two gurneys - either'a you guys wanna fly Air Superhero?"
One of the Paramedics, a chunky African-American woman, reluctantly raised her hand. We stacked the gurneys, Delores (the EMT's name) climbed aboard them, and I lifted them both. It was awkward, but I got her there a full twenty minutes ahead of Medivac. The two guards had nasty plasma burns, so Delores dealt with them first. My little brother was lying there with a concussion and maybe a broken neck, and I had to just stand there while she took him last. Having a secret identity really sucks.
Power Woman was busy working the Press. Anything that I said would look too much like 'Hey, I was there too!', so I lifted off and let her get all the glory. On top of everything, my TV Quotient was taking a beating, too.
Reyes had managed to get my civvies off to a place where I could get them without being spotted, and I managed to insinuate myself among the other media tech-types. The insurance company's on the spot man handed me a sheaf of claim forms an inch thick, and I had my work for the rest of the afternoon cut out for me.
By the time I slogged through all the paperwork and managed to get a ride over to the hospital, Visiting Hours were over. Par for the course. Then I had to go home, and tell Ma that Eli was in the hospital. Oh, Happy, Happy! Joy, Joy!
Ma was upset, and she was even more unhappy when I told her that we'd have to wait until the next morning to see Eli. She trudged up the stairs, suddenly looking twenty years older. I went over to the liquor cabinet, and looked up my old friend Johnny Walker. But as I started to unscrew the cap, I realized that we didn't have enough booze in the house to so much as put a dent in my funk. Hell, the Johnny Walker plant doesn't put out enough in a week to drown my sorrows. I just recapped the bottle, put it back and went upstairs myself.
As I got ready, I took a long look at myself in the mirror. Suddenly, slowly becoming a woman didn't seem like such a tragedy. I crawled under the covers, very glad to finally have that day behind me.
Ma and I were out the door and over to the hospital first thing the next morning. We both got the day off from work, which was a lot easier for me, 'cause none of the other camera jockeys wanted to shoot with Reyes after what happened to Eli. When we got to Eli's room, he did the most reassuring thing he possibly could have done - he started complaining.
"Ah, Man Dan, I heard that you let Power Woman hog all the credit!"
"Yep, Li'l Bro - we did most of the hard work, and the glitzy blonde blows in and takes all the glory."
"Why did you let her do it? Ol' Reyes must be having kittens-"
A voice came from the doorway. "Nope, not even a dust bunny!" Reyes was at the door with a near-obligatory basket of fruit.
I raised an eyebrow. "Why not? You aren't getting any residuals from Power Woman merchandise, are you?"
"No, but the way that I see it, we were getting a little too 'Superman/Lois Lane'. If we let her have the spotlight on this one - and let's face it, this one story just ain't worth the trouble - then it doesn't look so much like we're in a partnership. As a matter of fact, I've been thinking that we should let Roy McGwuire have have a shot at doing a 'Lady Lightning' story."
"McGwuire? That ratsass? Why him? There are other reporters in this town."
"Yeah, but we really do have a commitment to keeping these stories within the Station. Besides, Roy's been nosing around, trying to figure out how I've been able to get all these Super-stories. If he just lucks into one, then he'll stop wondering and chalk it up to being in the right place at the right time."
Reyes turned her attention to the patient. She put the basket on a table. "Here, just in case you get an uncontrollable urge for fiber. So, how's the neck?"
Eli sank back into his pillow and screwed an expression of barely restrained agony on his face. "I-I'm...holding on...barely."
"Yeah, well your Worker's Comp will only pay for four more days of this. And since you were injured on the job, the Station will let you have a week of downtime before it starts cutting into your Sick Days."
"A Week! That's Outrageous! I'm gonna talk to my Union about this!"
Reyes smiled merrily. "You go right ahead! Like I should care! I'm not Management!" Then she looked at Ma. "Oh, I've been meaning to talk to you..."
Friend of horror. Horror and Mortal
Terror are your friends. If they are not
Your friends, then they are enemies to
be feared. They are truly enemies.
Everyone gets what they want. I wanted a mission for my sins, and they gave me one from Room Service.
For my sins, they gave me a shopping trip.
One of my all-time nightmares had come true - Reyes and Ma had joined forces. They had decided, in that oh, so superior way that females have, that they were going to take me shopping for women's clothes, whether I liked it or not. Now, all I need is for She-Devil to climb on the bandwagon.
As we left Eli's room, Ma and Reyes herded me into a Women's Restroom. Reyes handed me a dark wig. "Okay, get out of that stupid 'fat suit' and take off that idiotic phony beard. That jumpsuit doesn't do a damn thing for you, but it will have to do until we can get to a store."
"Store? What have you been smoking, Reyes?"
Ma fixed me with a hard glare. "She's just talking common sense, Maxine-"
"It's obvious that you will just keep sticking your head in the sand until it's too late. We can't allow that to happen. We are taking you shopping for some nice female clothing, _right _now_. You are going to buy some skirts, shoes, underwear _and a bra_. I am not going to let you keep traipsing around the house with your boobies waving around like you've been doing. From now on, you either dress as a respectible young lady around the house, or you find other living arrangements."
And that was no empty threat - a woman raising three sons by herself doesn't survive by being a soft touch. And I still can't afford the prices they're asking for apartments in this area. "What will the neighbors say?"
Ma smiled. "I'm going to tell them that 'Dan' has finally moved out on his own, like a real grown up, and that I've already managed to rent out his room to a nice young lady named Maxine. Your rent will be $300 a month."
Oh, lovely. Not only have I been dragooned into drag, like one of those pervo stories on the net, but I'm paying rent now.
I crossed my arms. "And how am I supposed to get to work? I can't just come in wearing a skirt and high heels, and change in the Women's Room, y'know!"
Reyes smiled superiorly. "Simple. We'll just park the NewsLemon where you can get to it without being seen every morning, and you'll change in there."
I copped a stance, and cocked an eyebrow at Reyes. "Half a mo' - what are you getting out of this?"
Reyes reached over and pulled my false beard off. "Believe it or not, Maxine, I am genuinely fond of you. Besides, it won't do me any good if 'Lady Lightning' is exposed because you're still clinging onto something that died over a month ago." With that, she handed me one of those one-size-fits-all-unless-you're-auditioning-for-Russ-Meyer Sports Bras, and pointed me into one of the stalls.
Hoping against hope, I said, "You do realize that I don't shave my legs."
"Good to know. First thing - leg waxing!"
Ma drove us to one of the malls near where we live. Nervously, I stepped out of the car and looked at the mall, full of women buying things. I was going into the worst place in the world, and I didn't know it.
They bought me a sweater and a pair of 'designer' jeans. Well, Hwang Kwo of Hong Kong is a designer, isn't he? With that, they got me into a beauty parlor. Believe me, what they did to me in there, you don't want to know. After a couple of hours there, with the insides of the soft jeans feeling strange rubbing directly against my legs, we left for the true heart of darkness - Kurtz' department store.
We stepped into the department store, and immediately, a girl spritzed us with a perfume. Reyes took a deep breath, and said, "I love the smell of 'Shalimar' in the morning - it smells like Victory!"
I hoped that I was just there to carry packages and get used to the place. Instead, they made me go in the Ladies' Dressing Room, and try on skirts and dresses and designer jeans. They made me walk around in more variations of the same kind of shoe than anyone could possibly need. And if you've heard that they made me try on makeup, I am not aware of any such activity, and I wouldn't be disposed to discuss any such activity if there was.
I learned that Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of Horror. Either Horror and Mortal Terror are your friends in the Misses' Department, or they are your enemies. And they are fatal enemies when you're trying to get just the perfect blouse to match a skirt.
They made me buy two week's pay worth of women's clothing that I didn't really want. And then they steered me into Victoria's SecretÆ.
The Horror! The Horror!
More "Of Masks and Marvels" Coming Soon!