Of Masks and Marvels (Part 15)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
I walked into Eli's hospital room wearing a dark red leather wraparound coat over a pale gray silk bouse and a black skirt that ended just below the knee. I wore dark stockings and dark red low-heeled pumps. On my head, I wore a shoulder length wig of chestnut brown and just enough makeup to be presentable.
Eli did a double-take. <wheeew!> "Well, You look niiiice! What's the big occasion?"
<sigh> "No real occasion. Yesterday, Mom laid down the law - she says that she's tired of me going around the house looking like a this-or-that. So, if I want to keep staying at the house, I gotta be 'lady-like and presentable'. Then she and Reyes jumped me and dragged me out to this Mall, where they made buy this getup and a whole bunch of other stuff. I swear, I coulda bought a whole new transmission for the car with what I paid for that stuff. And, in order to keep up with fashion, I'm gonna hafta replace this with a whole new wardrobe in another six or seven months!"
Eli had the bad taste to snicker.
"Oh, you think that's funny, hunh? Well try this on for size, funnyboy! Since I am, in theory, a roomer now - renting the room that I grew up in, for God's Sake! - I have to pay Rent. And if Mom's making me pay rent, how long is it gonna be before she starts tapping you for a monthly contribution to her Carribean cruise fund?"
Eli sobered up but quick. "_rent?_"
"Aaawww Maaannn! And I was saving up for a new lens for the MobileCam! You are seriously screwing up my schedule, Dan!"
"Item number three on Ma's list of changes - since I'm going to be dressing as a girl around the house from now on, I havta answer to a girl's name, and since I already respond to 'Maxine'... 'Lige, do me a favor, and call me Max as much as y'can?"
"Sure, Bro- ah, Sis- ah, whatever. As long as you do one thing."
"Get a chair and wheel me out to the lounge? I want the other guys in the ward to see me with a babelicious visitor!"
<sigh> "Okay, but just remember, I work at the same place that you do - if you start bragging around the coffeemaker about this babe that you're living with, I WILL know about it!" <cracks knuckles>
"Okay, fine, fine - (sheesh - try an' build a reputation fer yerself, an' they climb all over ya, even the new-minted ones!) So, Max, what're the chances of you dropping by after work, and losing a little rent money at Gin Rummy?"
"Can't. One - I have too many new expenses to waste throwing away my money. Two - You cheat, you know you cheat, and you always whine when I catch you at it! And three - I have a prior commitment. I gotta go to a pajama party at AEGIS."
"Pajama party? AEGIS? Somehow, I have a problem visualing Titan in a pink babydoll nightie - mostly the problem is that I get sick to my stomach when I do."
"Not to worry, oh ye of delicate digestion. It's strictly a Girls Only affair."
He gave me a mock leer. "Girls Only? They may have to change that if they get too good a look at you through yer scanties!"
"Got that covered, oh quibblesome consanguinaunt. When we went shopping, Ma picked out a very elegant set of draping dark maroon silk PeeJays. With those, I should be both fashionable and discrete."
"Cool! Does it have any big pockets in it?"
"Yeah - Why?"
"Well, in my room - in the bin marked 'transframmal deglooberators'-"
"-I got one of those little Spy cameras. You should be able to get some _really great_ shots, and-"
"NO." I have got to find him a girlfriend!
"Aaawww.... Some sister YOU turned out to be!" <pout!>
I picked up the little deviant, transfered him to a wheelchair, and wheeled him out to the lounge. To make up for not getting his pervo pictures, I made a production on kissing him on the cheek when I left.
It was only when I was out of the hospital and heading into the parking lot that I remembered that Mom had dropped me here and taken the car with her to the DMV. I was gonna have to get to work by myself. In a dress. On the bus. Once again, that unlovely paranoid conviction that absolutely everybody is looking at you hit me. Somehow, they all knew that I was really a guy in a dress and were, at best, laughing at me. I waited at the bus stop, and I knew that the guy next to me was taking little glances at me. Then the bus came and I had to stand for a couple of blocks. Then this guy got up and made a minor production of letting me have his seat. More than a little surprised, I took the offered seat, and just barely remembered to smooth my skirt under me as I sat down. Ma had been at me to do that, something about not letting a good skirt get wrinkled. I thanked the guy with a smile, and he beamed. The woman sitting next to me gave me a rather sour look. I puzzled that one over, until it hit me - the guy had been giving a seat to a pretty woman, and the middle-aged hausfrau next to me was jealous! I spent the rest of the bus ride trying to decide whether I felt good or bad about that.
Getting to work was a bit harder than Reyes had made it out to be. For beginners, we hadn't parked the NewsLemon where I could get at it easily. That was for the simple reason that when I parked it, I hadn't known that my own mother was gonna gang up with Reyes on me! So, I hadda go through a rather farcial bit of business changing in a portapotty. Kids, do NOT try this at home!
While Eli was laid up, I was pulling double duty as cameraman and technical support for the NewLemon. This made it impossible for us to film 'Lady Lightning' in action, for the simple reason that she couldn't be on both ends of the camera at the same time, and neither could I.
While we were setting up for the shoot, I asked Reyes, "Reyes, can I ask you something?"
"As long as it isn't for a loan, shoot!"
"Am I--- pretty?"
"There, there, you look all right, trust me!"
"That's not what I'm talking about!" I told her about my experience on the bus. "The thing is, I don't know how to handle pretty. Maybe it wouldn't be such a shock if I were, y'know, okay looking, but pretty? I mean, I've been pretty much a mutt all my life, even for a guy; I can handle being dismissed or fading into the background. But being watched all the time, having all different kinds of guys making plays for you? That is a WHOLE new set of problems for me."
Reyes snickered. "Y'know, there are hundreds of thousands of women - and men, who would pay good money to have your problem!"
"Yeah, and I'd take the money and give it to 'em, if I could! Reyes, I'm not saying 'Oh Woe Is Me, Alack!' What I'm saying is that this whole new rulebook that I'm gonna havta play by, and a whole new set of obstacles and shit that I gotta learn to spot and avoid. And it isn't even a matter of me wanting to avoid unpleasantness - let's face it, pretty people can screw over other people, without even knowing that their doin' it! When I think of some of the problems that Melina Zelinski caused back in High School - and I don't think she ever caught on that she was doin' it - I shudder to think of what I could do!"
Reyes gave me this weird look. Not knowing how she was gonna jump, but not wanting to give her time to think of anything, I plowed on. "Anyway, Reyes, you're an attractive, stylin' woman; you know what the Rules are and you get over. So, what are they?"
Reyes gave me an odd look. "You think that I'm attractive?"
Hunh? "You mean you can look in a mirror and not know that?"
"You really think that I'm attractive?"
"Dammit, Reyes, will you stop fishing for compliments? Yes, you are a stone-cold babe! Okay, you're not in Power Woman's league, but then, neither am _I_, or for that matter, 90% of the human race! And you're a lot more human and approachable than Pee-Dubya. You got the look, you got the act, you got the style! All I'm asking, as someone who's being dragged, kicking and screaming, onto your playing field, is What Are The Rules?"
Reyes looked at me flummoxed. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Why would I _lie_?"
For the first time since I've met her, Reyes was completely stopped. "Y'know, I never really stopped and thought about it. I mean, we're constantly having Pop Stars and Sex Goddesses and Supermodels shoved in our faces, so it never really occurs to you that you might already be attractive enough! And as for the 'Rules', I never really thought it through. I suppose you're right - there are 'Do's and Don'ts', but I don't ever think anyone just came out and spelled them all out."
"You're Kiddin'! Reyes, being attractive is a form of power. Otherwise, why would so many women spend so much time and money trying to look as good as they can? Power always had some kind of checks and balances going; I mean, there are attractive people who just never bother thinking about anybody but themselves, but other people have their ways of grinding their pretty little noses in their dirt. I mean, we guys heckle prettyboys like Roy McGwuire pretty bad when they get outta line - what do women do?"
Reyes chewed this over for a bit. "Y'know, there's more than one thing we're talking about here - there's the way that women handle power among each other, and there's the ethics of beauty. While they may look the same to you, and they have a lot of things in common, they are very much different beasts. I'll have to get back to you on that, Maxine."
<hssst!> "Maxham! While we're at work, it's Maxham, remember? Can you at least give me a tip or two on how to get along with women as a woman? I'm going to a Pajama Party at AEGIS t'night, and I don't wanna screw it up!"
Reyes suddenly got very interested when I mentioned the PJ party. I described what I was gonna wear, and told her that NO, I was not going to take notes! <sheesh!>
I thought we got that behind us, and I was shouldering the camera, when she looked straight into the lens and said, "You really think that I'm attractive?"
I think I said earlier that for every person that gets super-powers and does the superhero thing, there are four or five people that do the supervillian schtick. Now the thing is, most of these guys don't put on capes and tights, and go out and hold up banks and all that comic book shit. No, while there are a bunch who do the 'Dillinger' gig, most find a niche in organized crime, as enforcers or couriers or whatever. Now, these guys do tend to put together distinctive looks and pick up kickin' noms de guerre, but no more so than any other well-connected slimebucket.
There are many myths about Organized Crime; one of the biggies is that nobody talks to the Cops or the Press. Bullshit. Just remember, if somebody else goes to jail, that means their action is up for grabs. Like so many things, ratting somebody out is just a matter of not getting caught. Somebody in the rackets must have been rattling the wrong cages, 'cause somebody else decided that it was time to drop a dime the size of Nebraska on them. This particular somebody else decided to drop that dime (or four bits, if you gotta be picky about it) to Reyes. The substance of this particular phone call was that 'somebody heavy was gonna be doin' a number on Tristate Equity Holdings' downtown office come Friday afternoon'. The buzz was that Tristate was a front for one of the local outfits. Like most organized crime fronts, it was eighty to ninety percent legit, with that ten to twenty percent that was dirty profitable enough for the outfit to keep it going. When Reyes laid this on me, my first reaction was, "I'll contact Heszcheck. How are we gonna handle the camera, if Eli's gonna be laid up for a few more days?"
Reyes shook her head. "Nope. It's time that we let Roy McGwuire have his 'Lady Lightning' story. You go ahead and get in touch with Heszcheck. I gotta figure out how to let ol' Royboy 'steal my notes' without it being too obvious. Hmmm..." A speculative smirk suggested that McGwuire wasn't gonna get this story cheap, let alone for free.
You know you're on the inside track with the Cops when you know a detective's direct extention. At least that's what I tell myself. I phoned Heszcheck, but got his partner Lydia Sanchez instead. "Hey, Sanchez! This is Lady Lightning..."
"Yeah, Right - how did you get this number?"
I bit off a snide remark, and described in detail what she was wearing during the 'Prince Fear' incident. When she was taking me seriously, I told her my reason for calling. "I want a meeting with Heszcheck and somebody from the Organized Crime Task Force. I got an inside tip, and I want to make sure that I'm not tripping anybody up."
"How sure are you of your information? Getting anything going with the Organized Crime boys is a major pain in the ass. I don't want to call in any favors, just so that you can pass along old news."
"This is very time specific - this Friday afternoon. If you have to, point out to them that since 9/11, it's better to check out a possible threat that turns out to be bogus, than it is to ignore it and have to explain it to an investigation committee it fit turns out valid."
"Can you at least name some names?"
"Nope. It's second hand news; I think someone's trying to play one or both ends against a middle. Who and what end, I couldn't say."
Sanchez was able to arrange a meeting with a couple from OCTF. I've never worked with Organized Crime specialists before and wanted to seem professional, so I didn't bring any doughnuts this time. I needn't have bothered. The OCTF spooks were too busy recycling old Cold War spy comedy routines to be any real help. They said that their sources were certain the Tristate Equity was largely owned by some local outfit. But they said that the aforementioned slimeballs weren't using it as a laundry or a front for anything, so there was no reason for sending anyone to do anything. So there was no reason to spend precious OCTF funds on a wild goose chase, and why didn't I go rescue a kitten up a tree?
When the OCTF spooks slithered out the door, I gave Heszcheck a hard look. "Okay, why did you have Agents 86 and 99 commit to their position on paper?"
Heszcheck smiled at me smugly. "Because I must have the same sources that you do. Somebody out there is building a new Machine, and they're stepping on more than a few toes doing it. Hitting Tristate Equity would be a classic way of intimidating their controllers, especially if they use a particularly nasty Super-powered enforcer. It gets their attention, without causing them so much damage that the opposition has to retaliate."
"So, why didn't Frick and Frack listen?"
"What, and admit that a civilian in tights could provide them with information that they couldn't get from their own sources? Besides, if a paranormal is involved, then my office is involved. And the City Council just cut the Department's budget again-"
"So it comes down to whose budget gets slashed, right? So, they want you to spend the money conducting a stakeout, so it looks like you're wasting money if it doesn't pan out. And if it does?"
"Then they claim that they were conducting an undercover investigation inside Tristate, and we blew their case."
"So, what are you gonna do?"
"Hold the stakeout and have a whole passel of blank search warrants that will kick in _if_ something happens. They will let us go through Tristate's documents, looking for whatever our bunny was trying to get. The beauty of this set-up is that it's such a tight time frame."
"I wish you hadn't said that."
"Set up. Frame. Somebody's setting somebody else up. I just wish I could be sure that it isn't us."
"Welcome to police work, Babe."
Now, the classic police stakeout is carried out either with two extremely bored cops in an underheated car passing the time, or by an edgy group of guys in a van listening intently to a bunch of bugs. Heszcheck just borrowed an office for a few hours from a company that happened to be across the street from Tristate and set up shop. I entered the building in my civvies wearing a blonde wig, rode up a few floors in an elevator and changed in the women's room. Man, did I get some weird looks when I came out of the stall! "Singing Telegram", I lied.
I walked down the staircase to join Heszcheck, Sanchez, and a few other plainclothes in the office. It had been decided that the watch would last three hours, starting at Three and ending at Six. Besides this site watching that side of the building, there were men watching the roof and the three ground exits. So far, so professional.
Almost two hours later, the crew watching the front entrance of the building started letting us know when Tristate executives and employees started leaving. They had pictures, courtesy of the Tri-State website. As some of them started to leave for an early weekend, we checked them off a list.
Then Calloway called in. "I got Mister Eugene Ordmond, Manager of the Records Division coming out."
"Hold on - that's impossible! We got Ordmond on camera right now, going through the Hard Files."
That didn't ring right with Sanchez. "What's a Division Manager doing, doing filing by himself? Filing is why God invented secretaries!"
"Detain Ordmond! It's impossible to tell which one is the Real McCoy from here, but the real Ordmond probably won't try to resist-"
I was already at the window. "Nope, an impostor would wait until Ordmond had just left the office and sneak in just after him." I raised the window.
"Hey! Wait until he's out the front door - it'll be safer for the civilians, and we'll be able to cover you!"
"Normally, I'd agree with you. But this guy must be a quick-change artist as well as an impostor; there's no way that he'd risk someone seeing two Ordmonds, so he'd have another disguise for while he was waiting for Ordmond to leave. Then he'd duck in and say 'Forgot something' to cover himself. By the time he gets to the front door, there's no guessing what he'll look like!" I stepped out the window, keeping the faux Ordmond in sight at all times. "Has Calloway stopped Ordmond?"
Pause. "Yup - Ordmond's confused, but cooperating."
"Okay, I'd say that we have Probable Cause now, wouldn't you?" With that, I pushed off and thundercharged across the street and through the plate glass window. It was a good thing it was safety glass, even if all of it went inwards with me. By the way, I checked on that beforehand. Forewarned is forearmed. I assumed my most intimidating posture, electricity crackling around me, and yelled, "Freeze!" On my radio, I could hear Sanchez calling Calloway and the others to come in and give me backup. "You entered this office under false pretenses and are stealing private documents. Police Officers are coming to take you into custody. If you attempt to leave, I will stop you by whatever means appropriate!" Hey, they were taping all of this! Hadda cover all the bases for when it was used in court.
"What are you talking about? I'm Eugene Ordmond, I have a perfect right to be here!"
"Imposture to gain access to confidential information is a crime." I grinned evilly. "They stopped Ordmond at the front door. He's coming up with them, to see what all the fuss is about."
The phony 'Ordmond' just gave me this smug look. "Oh, it doesn't look good for me, now does it?" he said in this weird hollow voice. The black briefcase that he'd put the files into melded into his black suit. His face also melded into the black suit, which 'morphed into a sinister looking, ragged-edged hooded cloak. "Ah, Lady Lightning, isn't it? I am Nasghul - I'll be the one killing you today." He held up a hand, and a spike of darkness flowed up into it to form a long matte-black sword.
<Heh> "Nasghul? Tell you what, Slim, you put down the pigsticker and surrender without a fight, and we'll let you change your nom de guerre before you're booked - I mean, I wouldn't wish the Lawyers from the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate as my worst enemy!"
'Nasghul' didn't say anything; he just took a swing at me, cutting a big gouge out of the filing cabinets. Sheesh! Try and cut a guy a break! (Memo to Self: Make sure that the lawyers for the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate hear about this.) I sent a charge with lots of voltage but not much amperage at him. I wanted to stun him, not kill him. He went flying back into some filing cabinets, but he didn't drop. He braced himself and came at me with a slow, steady tread. I put another bolt into him, and he managed to stand firm. I set up a steady barrage, hoping to put him down. He waded into my blasts as if he were walking through a stiff current - well, he was, in a way. I shifted to putting out some serious amperage. I didn't matter - I mean, I could have slagged a Buick with what I was putting out, but he was just lapping it up. He staggered up to me and the sword retracted back into his hand.
"Oh Man, another Dermal Symbiont? I thought they ran out of those things at the Evil Depot!"
He snatched my wrists and I felt Cold, Real Cold. 'Mommy, I don't wanna go out t'day' cold. The kind of cold that just sucks the warmth right out of your body and reaches down into your bones. I tried to break free, but he wasn't lettin' go. So, I did the next best thing - I used his own grip on my wrists to pick him up and slam him into the filing cabinets.
The slam didn't really phase him, but at least the dermal dastard hadda deal with the laws of leverage. As he scrambled to his feet, I was giving him all the room I could. Cold and Darkness - you didn't need an Engineering degree to figure out that he was an Absorber, a guy who could suck energy out of things and lap it up like a health drink.
No wonder he wasn't intimidated - seeing me must have been like having a bloody rare steak drop in front of a shark. Okay 'Maxine', you've always prided yourself on thinking on your feet - how do you deal with a guy who takes your worst and says, "Gimme some more!"?
I magno-lifted a filing cabinet and slammed it into his back. Well, at least he can't absorb kinetic impact, which's something. I clustered the filing cabinets around him, trying to pen him in until my backup could get there and shoot him. I doubt that bullets would really damage him, but at least they wouldn't be making him stronger.
He retaliated by grabbing the filing cabinets one at a time and de-magnetizing them. Okay, time to get nasty. When Nasghul had cleared the filing cabinets and was coming for me again, I floated out the window.
He came to the edge of the window, a long matte-black spear forming in his hand. "Running Away, Lady Lightning? Pity, I was really-" I cut off whatever bit of snide commentary he was going to provide with a magno-lifted filing cabinet right in the small of his back. The filing cabinet knocked him clean out of the window. He dropped a couple of stories, then broke his fall with that raggedy-misty cloak thing of his. So, I smacked him on the head with that filing cabinet again, and sent him down to the street. There are some people with whom you just don't fight fair.
My first instinct was to power down and make sure he was all right - hey, Dermal Symbiont or no Dermal Symbiont, Five Stories is a long way to drop. I speak as one who has kissed more than my fair share of concrete. But I also know how tough those things are - I doubt he was really hurt, but he'd be stunned long enough for me to get a more appropriate weapon.
When I did get down to where he'd landed, Nasghul was peeling himself off the concrete, and looking a little shaky. I was almost on the ground, when Nasghul reached out for this woman who had very common-sensibly been crouching down by a car, probably focusing on keeping a low profile until the smoke cleared. He grabbed her by the wrists, and she screamed.
"Hey! Nasty Canasta! I'm not through with you yet!" I sprayed cold CO2 all over him with the fire extinguisher I'd snagged from the office. Nasty instinctively recoiled, letting go of the woman. She showed her continued Good Sense by scrambling away from him as quickly as she could. When she was clear, I gave him another blast of CO2, and hit him upside the head with the extinguisher. His head dented the extinguisher, so I guess I was right about not worrying too much about him. Still, he wasn't exactly jumping around like a frog on a hot griddle, so I must be doing something.
I experimentally shook the fire extinguisher. I figured that it probably had one good shot left in it, maybe two if I kept them short. I figured that if ol' Nasty was an absorber, then the one thing that he couldn't absorb would be cold, which as any High School Science teacher will tell you, is an absence of normal levels of heat. Between the drop and the cold sucking the heat right out of him, Nasghul wasn't doing too well.
But, give the creep credit, he was still giving it his best shot. He formed another sword out of his Symbiont, centered himself and made ready to part my hair down to my chin. I held the extinguisher in both hands and got ready to block it. If I did it right, he'd slice open the canister, wasting what energy he had left and losing yet more heat to the CO2. He was rattled and groggy, maybe I could pull it off.
Just as Nasty was tensing up to strike, there was a blue-and-white streak from off to one side, knocking him off to the side. Gloom-boy went caroming into side of the building, leaving a crack in the marble facing. "Lady Lightning! Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, but Justiciar-" Then Nasghul came springing at my would-be rescuer. "JUSTICIAR! No! _Don't _Use _Your_-" Justiciar intercepted Nasty's pounce with an arcing swing of his energy blade. "- _Sword_..."
Nasty Canasta was back, large and in charge. He rose up, his cloak - or whatever you call it - billowing and taking up a lot more room, and a long sinister sword growing out of his hand. Stock Supervillain Laugh #6 (look it up!) echoed out hollowly from the folds of his cloak - or whatever you call it.
"He's an Energy Absorber," I explained rather lamely.
Nasghul lunged at Justiciar with his sword. Justiciar reflexively parried with his energy buckler. _Not_ one of his better ideas. The sword bit into the buckler and began leeching off the energy.
Lacking anything better to do, I used up the last of the extinguisher charge on Nasghul and chucked the canister at his head. Nasty broke off from Justiciar and came at me. That shot of pure whatever-kind-of-energy-it-is-that-Justiciar-uses seemed to be agreeing with him.
Justiciar and I spent the next few minutes trying to beat Nasty without feeding him any more energy. That wasn't working too well. Indeed, if anything, he seemed to be getting stronger and stronger every time he got his hooks into us. Justiciar got between Nasty and me, letting me get in a call to AEGIS HQ. "Lady Lightning to AEGIS- Lady Lightning to AEGIS- come in, anybody!"
"Yo, L.L.! Bernice here! I got good news! Sapphire and Battalion are on their way! They should be at your 'twenty' in -"
"NO! Do _not_ let Sapphire get here! Call her back! This guy is an energy absorber, and a pretty nasty one at that! Sending Sapph in here would be like driving a full gasoline tanker into a forest fire! As for Battalion - does he have any cold-based weapons fitted out for that rig of his?"
"Half a tick... Nope, sorry."
"Call him back, too. See if you can get either Titan or Iron John on the horn. Bernice, how physical is Power Woman's strength? I mean, she isn't one of those types who are energy projectors who just seem to be superstrong, is she?"
"'Fraid, so, L.L."
"Crap. Justiciar and I will try to keep him here until the big boys show up."
"What about Ms. Hex? Even if he's an energy absorber, he shouldn't be able to soak up psychic energy, now should he? A couple of Hex's patented mindscramblers, and he should be down for the count!"
"Maybe, maybe not, Bern - I don't wanna take the chance either way. Keep her away. Justiciar and I will just have to tough it out."
Which was easier said than done. We were doing some major damage to the sidewalk, all to keep Nasty from walking off with some documents that we didn't even know what they were. It was so frustrating! We were throwing everything we could at him, and he was just soaking it up like a sponge! Dammit, isn't there some kind of rule, that every superpower is supposed to have a flaw, or weakness or some way of turning it against its user? How do you use Cold, which is the very absence..?
Cold. Absence. Absence of heat. I dropped to the ground next to a fire hydrant. "Justiciar! Hit him over to right there!" I pointed at a section of the building wall. Ted obligingly withstood grappling with Nasghul long enough to throw him right there. The second that Nasty hit the wall, I magnetically manipulated the valve of the fire hydrant open, hitting him a full blast stream of water. Cold water.
As I suspected he would, Nasty reflexively tried to absorb the force of the water. What he absorbed was what little heat was in the water. It froze up on contact, sealing him inside a jagged block of ice.
Justiciar smiled and gave me a 'thumbs up' of victory. I waved it aside. "Wait for it." The block of ice began to crack, then splinter, and then Nasghul broke his way out of it. The second that he was free, I hit him with another spray of water, sealing him up again. Not only was the ice leeching his precious energy out of his body, not only was he wasting yet more of that energy breaking out of the ice, but even with his Symbiont, Nasghul wasn't getting any air while he was sealed up. The first three times, Nasty broke out pretty quickly. The next five times, he took longer and longer. On the ninth try, the ice began to crack, but stopped. "Justiciar! Break him out of there, or he'll suffocate! Don't use your sword, it's too dangerous! Heszcheck, is that containment unit here yet?"
Heszcheck looked up from his cell phone. "Not yet - another three or four minutes, maybe."
"Crap! If I put him on ice again, he might not survive - but if we let him absorb even the heat in the air, it's only a matter of time before he's up to full strength!" Man, being the Good Guys can really suck some times!
Ted resolved the problem by breaking the ice around Nasty's head and chest, giving him a chance to breathe, but leaving the rest of him trapped in the ice. Ironically, Nasty's unconscious instinctive attempts to leech off the heat from around him only made the ice harder and colder.
Then there was a flash of light at street-level. "Okay, he's down, let's get in for a close-up shot!" Roy McGwuire, with Arnie Hotchkiss toting his fieldcam for him, broke through the police cordon and got it close. "Okay, here we have a close-up of our mystery villain. Arnie, make sure that we get as much before the cops-"
"McGwuire, you moron! Get that camera away from him before..."
Too late - Arnie's camera had been equipped with a powerful clip-on spotlight. A very hot clip-on spotlight, that beamed all that light and heat right into the area where ol' Nasty needed it most. Nasty broke one hand out of its ice-shackle (which had been weakened by the light), and drove it straight into the spotlight. That broke the spotlight, but Nasghul didn't mind, the electricity that was maintained by the powercord going back to McGwuire's Newsvan provided just as much nourishment - if not more - than the spotlight had. And since you can never have enough energy, Nasty grabbed at Arnie as well.
"McGwuire, you moron!" I repeated, as I thundercharged to save the aforementioned half-wit. I got McGwuire well behind the cordon and turned, Justiciar was prying Arnie away from Nasty, but Nasty was playing both ends against the middle. While Ted was easily at hand, trying to pry Arnie loose, Nasghul could feed on him, which only made getting Arnie loose harder and take longer. And Nasty was feeding off of the newscam at the same time. Still, I wondered by he wasn't taking the opportunity to just split while Justiciar and I were tired, and the getting was pretty good. After all, he had the documents tucked up in his Symbiont - what more did he want?
I found out. Nasghul shifted his stance and used Arnie to get Justiciar within arm's reach and got a Half Nelson on him. "Well, Lady Lightning?" He shouted in that eerie echoing hollow voice of his, with his 'cape' billowing up behind him dramatically. What, do they have a class in 'Getting Capes To Billow Dramatically' at Villain School? "Are you going to let your lover suffer? I would really rather have you, you know."
What? Little Old Me? "Aaahhh, Nasty? Have you been reading the Tabes while waiting in the checkout line again? What's this 'Lover' Jazz?"
He belted out with Stock Supervillain Laugh #3. "Don't try to deny it. Just step forward, and he lives. Don't think about it, just do it. After all, HOW will you live with yourself if you let him die?" He finished off with another round of SSL #3.
Okay, he had a point there - we Superheroes are supposed to stand for something higher and nobler, even if it is the Stupid Thing To Do. As I walked past the cordon, Heszcheck tried to stop me. "Don't worry, I gotta plan," I lied. God, I wished I did have a plan. Then I spotted the power cord leading up to the newscam. He was drinking in electricity - he was on MY turf, even if he didn't know it.
I walked up to Nasty, and just as he was about to grab me, I popped one of my heel-sheathes and drove one of my spike heels into his foot. As he yelled with surprise and pain, Justiciar got loose, and I grabbed the newscam. I reversed the polarity on the power feed, and began to suck the electricity OUT of him. Nasghul held onto the camera like a baby trying to hold onto its bottle. I dragged him off balance by going into the air, allowing him just enough of a grip on the stupid camera to keep pulling the power out of him. Between his foot, being off balance and trying to hold onto the camera, he was too busy to figure out that the last wasn't a very good idea.
But I hadn't gotten enough juice back to stay aloft for very long, and I was starting to droop. Nasghul somehow made himself bigger and reached up for me-
-and a big foot came down and squashed him like a bug.
Our huge compadre grinned down at us. "Sorry I was late, but traffic was a bear."
I couldn't help it. With a grin, I said, 'Don't pick up your foot just yet, Titan, but I think that you just stepped in something Nasty."
With Nasghul safely under Titan's well-insulated foot, we were able to spritz him with CO2 until he passed out. As well-insulated SWAT officers packed Nasty into a containment unit, I found a microphone shoved into my face. "Lady Lightning, how do you respond to Nasghul's claim of a romantic connection between you and Justiciar?"
"Where did you get another camera from, McGwuire?"
"You're avoiding the question. Are you trying to cut Power Woman out of the picture, and take her place in the leadership of AEGIS?"
"Y'know, you're reading a lot into a passing comment from somebody whose information - not to mention sanity - are at best questionable."
"I notice that you're not denying the allegation."
"What allegation? Some jumped up hoodlum talks some trash during a fight - that's not an 'allegation' - that's street noise."
Apparently, if he couldn't get any killer footage, McGwuire was all too ready to settle for a little common dirt. With a voluble sigh of disgust, I pointedly dropped the subject.
Then the real pisser came - when Nasghul's Symbiont went gooey, we managed to get the files that he'd put in his 'briefcase'. They were all welded together and intermixed with the liquid Symbiont runoff. There was no way to tell what was in the files or what he was after. Heszcheck commented sourly, "Oh well, at least we'll have an excuse to get a Warrant to look through those files to try and figure out what he stole. OCTF will be pleased - they can glom onto anything we find as their jurisdiction, and it all came out of our budget."
After we were finished making our statements for the police records - yes, I managed to talk Ted and Diego into actually cooperating with the police! - Justiciar pulled me off to the side. "Maxine, we've got to talk."
I looked around for any eavesdroppers. "Sure, Ted - what about?"
"Not here - not now. What are you doing Tuesday night?"
Well, I was working with Reyes, but I could get out of it by pleading 'Hero Business'. "Nothing that I can't get out of."
"Okay, then. Tuesday - Eight o'clock?" I nodded, more than a trifle bewildered. "Eight, then. The top of the B____ Building. And Max?" I raised an eyebrow. "Would you please come in civilian clothes?"
Civvies? Now THAT had my curiosity piqued!
Reyes showed what a poor sport she can be, when she peevishly refused to give me any advice about what to pack for the 'pajama party'. Mom made sure that I had all the right things packed. As she looked through my overnight bag, she looked like she wasn't sure whether to be amused or dismayed, and settled for bewildered. "What are grown women doing, having a slumber party?"
"Ma, I think it's more of a 'Girls' Night Out' kind of thing, without bar-hopping. Y'know, do a little 'female bonding', get a little silly, only without the drinking or getting hit on."
"Hmmph! Well, if you ask me, this is just further proof that this whole 'superhero' thing is only a matter of arrested adolescent development."
"You're absolutely right, Ma - I'll call them and tell 'em that we're gonna do something more mature; like go and hang out at the Mall."
"Don't give me that - now go, go hang out with the other girls."
"You would put it that way."
At AEGIS, I switched into those elegant draping maroon PeeJays and took a deep breath. Just remember, you've hung around with these women before, they already think of you as a woman, anything that you do that's unfeminine they'll just chalk up to eccentricity. And as for Hex - well, she makes a point of not probing, so if you don't actually think about it, she won't pick up on anything. Right - now tell me the one about the Polar Bears.
I stepped into the matching mules, and joined the other ladies. Other. Ladies. _Oh_ God_.
The whole 'Pajama Party' idea was Tigress'. Sometimes, I worry about that woman. She had the Ready Room decked out like a teenage girl's bedroom - by way of the musical Grease. There were, indeed, more stuffed animals on the bed than you could shake a stick at. Why you would shake a stick at stuffed animals, I don't know...
I looked around at the superheroines lounging around in their bedclothes. Tigress was wearing an Oakland Raiders' jersey, Twist was in a midriff baring T-shirt and panties, Sapphire was wearing a long dark blue (what else?) negligee, and Hex was wearing a sensible flannel nightgown. I looked around - "Where's Power Woman?"
"Brenda?" Twist stopped bouncing on the bed long enough to answer. "Oh, she didn't come - her idea of a hot evening is sitting in front of her mirror, gazing longingly at the one person she truly adores!"
"Oh, C'mon! She can't be that bad!"
Tigress shrugged as she was brushing Sapphire's hair. "Yes'n No... She always did have a bit of a bug up her ass. But lately, she has gotten more and more remote. Y'can't help but wonder what's gotten into her."
Twist rolled up into a ball and aimed that smart alecky smirk that she does so well at me. "I think _I_ know what's got her panties in a bunch!" Then she waggled her eyebrows at me suggestively.
"And, pray tell, what is _that_ supposed to mean?"
"Oh, You'n Ted..."
"Well, before you joined up, everybody sort of assumed that Ted an' Brenda would get together sometime. Y'know, sorta how DCÆ tries to start up something between Superman and Wonder Woman, but it never seems to come off? Kinda like that. I guess Brenda always assumed that Ted would always be there, if she ever decided that she wanted to do anything about it. And then you came along, and there's this kinda chemistry between you two..."
"Chemistry? Me? Ted? I must have missed school the day they covered that in Chemistry class. I mean... he's a _nice _ guy_, and all-" There was a general murmuring of 'how true'. "But I never saw myself as being in the same class as Ted. I mean, he must have a girlfriend or something!"
"Not that _I_ know of."
"No news here."
"If he does, he keeps her under his hat!"
Hex just shrugged.
"Oh, Come ON! He's tall, he's broad shouldered, he's good looking, he's got masculine charm coming out of his ears! He must have to beat them off with a stick!"
The girls looked around. Hex said wryly, "Y'know what it is? Ted's got that 'He'd make a terrific boyfriend - for my best friend' thing going for him. He's everything we think we want in a man, but he's so damn comfortable to be around, that you forget that he's a guy! You feel safe around him, but so safe that there's none of that ñuhm- Rush, that sense of danger. You just know that Ted's always gonna do the Right Thing. Even if he was gonna kiss a woman, you just know that he'd ask permission first."
"Oh? I dunno - he didn't ask permission-" I realized that I'd said exactly the wrong thing when every eye was riveted on me. "Hey! It was just a kiss on the hand, straight out of Prince Valiant!"
"So What? That's more than I've heard about Ted than I ever heard from Brenda!"
"When was it?"
"When we first met, right after that fight with Ransack." They let out a collective hoot of salacious amusement. "Oh, Come On! It was just a kiss on the hand!"
"Oh, get off of it, Max! You two dig each other! You're just too chickenshit to do anything about it!"
"I ignore you." That only set off another whoop of derisive amusement. Did Ted really have a thing for me? I mean, when I look in the mirror and try to turn off my guy-filters, I do see a very attractive woman looking back at me. But Justiciar? "Weeelll..."
"Well, this afternoon, after we wrapped up with that new Dermal Symbiont weirdo, Ted asked if we could get together - in our civvies - and talk about something."
There was no derisive hooting this time. Instead, the girls looked at each other in mild shock. "Well, whaddya know?"
"Who'da thunk he had it in him?"
"I don't know which surprises me more - that it took him so long, or that he could work up the nerve at ALL!"
I gave them an oppressive glare. "What ARE you talking about?"
"Well, isn't it obvious?" Twist grinned at me. "The big goof intends to take things to the next level! Oh, don't look so stricken! Knowing Ted, he'll probably just ask you to do the 'long moonlight walks and holding hands' thing. That is, if he doesn't ask you to give him a 'favor' to take into battle with him, or something King Arthur like that!"
Tigress took the bait for me. "Oh, but I think that's Sweet!"
"What do you mean by that?" Twist just answered her with a pillow in the face, and the chase was on again.
Sapphire just looked after them as Tigress sped down the hall. "Whoops! Outta Cocoa!" She left for the kitchenette, leaving me there with Ms. Hex.
Amy watched the door shut, and obviously made a point of waiting a few minutes. Then she looked up from her cocoa and asked me, "So. What will you do, if Ted does try to get romantic? Will you tell him that you're a man?"
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
More "Of Masks and Marvels" Coming Soon!