Of Masks and Marvels (Part 17)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
"Mmmaaa! This is ridiculous! I didn't do anything wrong!"
"Don't you 'Mmaaa!' ME, young lady! Keep washing those dishes! I distinctly told you not to embarrass me!"
"How did I embarrass you?"
"You go out, and on your first night out in public as a woman, you go and start a fight! Don't try to deny it, I got a blow by blow account from Lisa Magillicutty!"
"Ma, I didn't start the fight! That bastard Kurt Baumgartner tried to shake down Eli, and then he actually tried to put the moves on me! Fight him? He's lucky that I didn't throw up on him! Besides, you know that Missuz Magillicutty does whatever Missuz Baumgartner tells her to! It's just like when Kurt and I were in grade school - he does whatever comes into his pointy little head and nobody says 'boo!' But if anybody fights back against him, that cow storms over here screaming about calling the cops! It stunk then, and it stinks now!"
"Kurt didn't deserve to get beaten up, just for being a little obnoxious-"
"Ma, he was shaking Doyle Brendan down for free drinks, and he was going to beat some money out of Eli! He's a thug. Period. His dad was a thug, his big brother is a thug, and his little brother is a thug."
"Oh? Then kindly explain to me, how it is if HE'S the thug, YOU'RE the one who lifted HIS wallet?"
"I took money to pay for the drinks that he's been sponging off of Brendan, and I put the rest back. I have witnesses! Hell, call Doyle Brendan, and ask him! I have an open invitation to come back to Brendan's anytime."
"That's not what I'm worried about. You can kick that little scumwad Kurt around the block, for all I care! But if I have to put up with that Mother of his one more time..."
Okay, now that I could get behind. Baumgartner's mother was worse than all three of her sons put together. They jumped you in alleys and back yards. She jumped you in court. Calling Lydia Baumgartner 'litigious' would be like calling Hugh Hefner 'libidinous'. So, we can reasonably expect an outraged visit from Missuz Baumgartner sometime in the foreseeable future. Of course, things have changed since the last time that cow tried to do a number on us...
I smiled and put down the washcloth. "Oh, really? I think that it could be a lot of fun!"
"Are you feeling all right, dear? You just said that having Lydia Baumgartner pick at our bones again would be fun."
"It will be, if we play her game by OUR rules."
"What do you mean, Maxine?"
"Just this - Missuz Baumgartner's just as big a crook as her husband and her kids, right?"
"Now, Maxine, I don't think that it's fair to condemn her just because the rest of her family is a little shady-"
"Will you stop being a mother for a second, and say what you really feel?"
Ma relunctantly sighed and said, "Okay, okay - the bitch is a fourteen karat pain. But she has all the moves and the legal tricks, and that weasel law firm that she deals with gives her a discount for bulk rate! Give her an excuse, and she'll whistle up an excuse to sue us! Inside a year, she'll own this house if we give her an opening!"
I patted her on the cheek. "Mama-san, you are forgetting something! Things have changed! While Missuz Baumgartner could have trumped up something against us if Dan Maxham had beaten Kurt up, she can't do a thing to Maxine Fitzgerald! Among other things, Maxine Fitzgerald doesn't have any bank accounts for her to freeze and seize. And against you? There isn't a lawyer working who'd try to take a case into court trying to make a landlady liable for what a renter does off of her property!"
Ma paused and started thinking it through.
"AND," I continued, "we now have two assets that we didn't have before - I know a TV reporter and an honest-to-god pyschic. I think that if we pitch it to her right, that Reyes might be interested in doing an extended piece on malicious lawsuit mongering. Heck, there was a lady in San Francisco that did it so much that the courts suspended her franchise to sue!"
Ma's face lit up at the thought of Lydia Baumgartner deprived of her main weapon, principal entertainment, and primary source of income. Ah yes, being able to make your mother smile like that is one of life's great joys. "And a psychic? Oh yes, one of the superheroes that you work with at AEGIS is a telepath, isn't she?"
"Yeah. But convincing Ms. Hex to go along with this is gonna be a lot harder than getting Reyes on our side. Hex is very chary of when and why she goes poking into other people's minds."
"Think about it, Ma - Missuz Baumgartner has GOT to be hiding some very embarrassing secrets in that over-bleached blonde head of hers. And if nothing else, a quick peek inside her medula oblongata should give us an idea of what she's gonna be throwing at us is bogus and what's genuine!"
Ma chewed that over for a bit. "Isn't that illegal?"
"There aren't enough telepaths around to make passing any laws that would be effective worth the effort. I understand that there have been a bunch of laws passed in various states, but they're all just a bunch of legislative posturing done during election years. They can't prove telepathic intrusion in a court of law, so what's on the books is pointless."
"When did you become such a legal eagle?"
"What do you think Eli and I have been doing on the Internet? Playing Doom?"
"Oh, yeah, well that too."
"But why would this Ms Hex help us with this? I mean, Lydia Baumgartner is a textbook example of a raving bitch, but there's nothing criminal about it."
"Well, actually, Mom, there is - it's called Fraud. She's using the courts to do it, but it's still fraud. But Hex still doesn't like going into someone else's mind unless she has a good reason."
Ma smiled. It was one of those 'please, God, don't let her be thinking about me' kind of smiles. "Well, then we'll just have to give her a good reason, now won't we? In the mean time, finish up with those dishes. You only have a few hours to get ready for your date tonight."
"It's not a DATE!"
"If you say so, Sweetie. Just remember to dry those dishes - if you let them sit they'll just streak and spot."
After going through my outfits, I suddenly understood why women take so long to get dressed. Every time I put an outfit together, I had to decide whether I was sending the right message with it or not. Can't dress too conservatively, or I'll be shutting Ted out completely. I can't dress to flashy, or I'll be saying that it is a date, and that we should treat it that way. I finally decided on the black leather blazer, a white silk blouse, a black skirt, dark hose, and black pumps. Just jazzy enough to be going out, just dressy enough to make an impression, but casual enough to be just meeting a friend. When I was satisfied that I wasn't making any really noticable faux pas, I checked the time. Why in God's name do they make womens' watches so damn small?
I went downstairs and submitted myself for inspection. Mom made me do the spin around thing. "Not bad for your first date."
"It's not a DATE! I'm just meeting an associate!"
Ma ignored me. "No jewelry?"
"Well, considering how much the clothes alone cost, I never bothered to buy any. Besides, I have to maintain my 'Dan Maxham' ID for a while-"
"Not THAT much longer, dear. I'd get used to the idea, if I were you."
"But in the meantime, I can't afford to get used to wearing feminine jewelry. I might forget an earring when I get into guy-mode."
"Maybe. But for your first date-" I started to object, but gave up in exasperation. Never try to tell your mother anything that she won't hear. "- I just happen to have something that will work with that outfit." She ran up to her room and came down with something. It was a small silver cross set with seven itty-bitty diamonds. She put it around my neck and stood back, a weird look on her face.
I took a look in the mirror. Not bad.
Then I turned to head out the door. Ma grabbed me in a sudden clinch and, with tears in her eyes, gave me a kiss on the cheek. I think that we were having one of those 'Mother-Daughter moments' that Reyes had been talking about. Never having had one of these before, I just kind of rode through it on autopilot, and let Ma get her mothering in as best she could. <Memo to Self: Find out exactly how long these 'Mother-Daughter moments' are supposed to take - this is getting embarrassing!>
The Mom finally let go, and I was able to get to my date - er, I mean, appointment!
I think that Ted has been a superhero too long. I mean, he asked to meet me on the roof of a building that doesn't have roof access from within the building. I mean, it's not that big a problem - we can both fly - but flying in civvies is a pain. And wouldn't you know it, there wasn't an unoccupied alley that I could use to fly up to the roofs, for at least three blocks. As a result I was almost ten minutes late, and I'm still guy enough to think that you have an obligation to be on time.
As I touched down on the roof of the B_____ Building, there was a tall man in a tweed suit with reddish hair, but clean-shaven, standing there, looking at his watch. "Ted? Is that you?"
"Oh, there you are, Maxine. I was starting to wonder. What kept you?"
"I didn't feel like giving the entire city a free look up my skirt. Besides, a person flying is obvious enough as it is - a person in normal clothes sticks out like a sore thumb." I gave him a wiseacre smile. "Oh, did you shave just for little ol' Me?"
He touched his naked upper lip. "Oh, this? Well, I just never really trusted the old 'Clark Kent in glasses' schtick. So, when I started out as Justiciar, I decided that a beard was something that would separate my civilian identity from my secret identity. A beard was closer to the image of a knight errant than consumer rights activist, and most people never get close enough to me as Justiciar to check it out."
"All right, I can see that, but it's still pretty 'Clark Kent'. I mean, don't people ask questions about why a guy with your build works in an office and takes lots of sudden, unexplained absences?"
"Ah well, y'see, when I started out, I had a slightly more...pearlike shape, so as I beefed up, I started padding-"
I interrupted him by laughing out loud. <snrrk!> "Sorry. You mean that you wear a fat suit?"
"So, what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing! Nothing at all! It's just that _I_ wear a 'fat suit' in MY civilian ID, too!"
"Why? You look great!"
"Hey, you're not the only one who's lost weight! Besides, it helps with the ol' secret ID." That was the end of the obvious small talk. That awkward silence fell, and we just sort of stood there for a bit. "So, Ted, what did you want to talk about?"
"Ahhh... Well, I just wanted to get to know you, without the mask and the cape and there being an asteroid about to wipe out all life on Earth. I mean, nothing serious, maybe a cup of coffee, some convervsation. After all, you're not really 'Lady Lightning' and I'm not really 'Justiciar'. You're Maxine and I'm Ted, and what say we take it from there?"
Oh Shit, he really did want a date. Nobody is ever going to let me forget this.
Oh well, I'm going to have to do something about this dating thing eventually, and it might as well be with a guy who I can be reasonably sure isn't going to get grabby. Besides, Ted is a mensch, but he hasn't had that much luck with women, from what I've heard. Better to let the 'date' play out and chalk it up to a good try, than to give him a straight out 'No' and crush his feelings.
"No. No coffee."
"No?" Ted looked at me with hurt eyes.
"That's right. If we're gonna do this, then there isn't gonna be any of this 'just a cup of coffee' crud. I haven't eaten yet, so you're gonna buy me dinner at a nice restaraunt."
The relief in Ted's eyes was almost comical. He stretched out his hand, I took it, and we floated over the edge of the roof together.
Oh God, I'm on a date.
Now, I was never Joe Swinging-Guy back when I could pass for male, but I did go on a few dates. I even had a girlfriend for a few months back in college. The point is, I know how hard it is to be the one making all the effort, while the girl is just sitting there giving you absolutely no idea of what she is thinking. So I recognized the stress that Ted was feeling as we walked to one of those toney restaraunts that's connected to a pricey office complex.
Then it hit me, as Ted as looking at me over the table - I have absolutely NO idea of what I'm doing! I don't know how to handle a man on a date! I don't know how to handle the way a date is going, I don't know the little signs and signals to let a guy know whether to go ahead or slow down, I don't know how to gentle a guy when he's getting rough... Hell, I don't even know what _I_ want out of this date! Other than a nice juicy prime rib, that is...
I mean, I've pretty much gotten used to the idea that I'm going to spend the rest of my life as a female - or something closely resembling a female. But I'm not really sure of which way I swing. My sex drive has been pretty much on the fritz for the past few months - not that I was ever a sex machine in the first place. And I can appreciate the esthetics of both sexes - just not in the 'Whoa, Momma, Lookit That Bod' way. Would I even know it when I was sexually excited?
God, I sound so pathetic.
We looked at each other, scared to death of each other, but neither wanting to look like a wuss by bolting and running. We sent up a couple of conversational flares that died long gruesome deaths. We slogged through shop talk and AEGIS gossip and a few generalized inquiries about each other's private lives.
Finally, we got to the make or break point. And I had a question that would either cut through the ice, or give this date the merciful death it was begging for. "Ted, I've been meaning to ask you for a while - remember back when you and Brenda helped dig me out of Dr. Deadalus' lab? While Brenda was tied up with 'Big Red', you were trying to wrap yourself around She-Devil. So, what's there between you two? Besides a thin layer of sweat, that is."
Ted blushed. "Well, I wouldn't say that there was anything between us-"
"From the way that it looked, only your clothes."
"No, I mean that I don't have anything with her - it's just that she seems to have this strange, unnamable ability to wrap me around her finger just by looking at me and pouting."
"Ted - they're called 'Boobs'."
"Oh. give me a break! She's not the first woman with a killer body that I've run into. I know how to handle a pretty face-"
"Oh? You know what she looks like under that mask?"
"You know what I mean! Even given that she looks like something out of one of my high school wet dreams, THAT I should be able to deal with! But when she domes up and plants a big wet kiss on my mouth, my brain just kind of goes off line! I just stand there and do nothing, no matter what's going on. An I don't know why! I mean, I don't really _like_ her. She's obviously yanking my chain-"
"Or at least you WISH that she were!"
"And it's just as obvious that what she really enjoys is the fact that she can. After each time that I run into her, I feel like I'm fourteen years old and Wanda Pilsudski has marooned me on the top of the gymnasium without my pants."
I couldn't help but laugh and cringe at the same time at the image. "I knew there was something that I really didn't like about that bitch!"
"She-Devil or Wanda Pilsudski?"
"Both, either - same difference. For all we know, Wanda Pilsudski is She-Devil's secret identity. Ted, we all have a few scars from school-" I went on to regale him with a few stories from High School, carefully gender bent to suit the occasion. This of course led to a sort of 'I was more pathetic in school than you were' competition. The ice was broken, and the conversation was a lot more fun.
From there we went onto a couple of embarrassing stories of things that happened in our superheroing adventures.
"Anyway, there I was, I'd just crashed through a wall, and there's this middle aged woman staring at me, and I realize that I just came through her bathroom wall and she's in the middle of taking a shower-"
Just then, as if on cue, the wall of the restaurant blew in. Two guys in cowboy get-ups crawled through the wall, lugging a reinforced metal box between them. The one with the black shirt and 'lone ranger' mask turned to the one with the red shirt and bandana over his face and yelled in a rough voice, "Dammit, Lem, I TOLDJA that the outside wall was on the outside!"
'Lem' snarled, "Shaddap," and with his free hand pulled out a segmented metal 'lariat'. With an expert snap of his hand, he whipped out the 'lariat', snagging me with it and pulling me out from my chair before I really knew what was going on.
'Lem' pulled me against his chest as 'Blackshirt' pointed an odd looking gun at my head. Then 'Lem' said in a loud Texas twangy voice, "Okay, folks, lissen up! I'm Maverick and this is Desperado! Iffen you nevver herd'a us, we're famous! We're dangerous men, so don't fuck with us! You do anything, and Desperado here blows this pretty lady's head clean off, y'savvy?"
'Desperado' pointed the other of his weird looking guns at Ted. "You, the big guy. Don't even think about it. I can geld a gnat at a hunnerd yards with these things, so's I could drop a big ox like you, no problem. We don't wanna take any more hostages than we gotta, so don't try to slow us down!"
Maverick wound his metallic lariat around my neck and hauled me along with them as they ran through the front door. Man, I thought crap like this only happened in comic books!
Once they had us out of the restaurant, 'Maverick' used his lariat to get us up to the rooftops. When I had a chance to focus and remember, I recalled these guys - they were a couple of third-echelon goons with gimmicks that had been around for years. The last that I'd heard of these two, they were doing hard time - why is it, with all the tax money that we spend on prisons, that super-goons like these two keep getting out whenever they feel like it? Is someone running an escape service for these guys, where they buy capture insurance?
They hustled me along the rooftops, looking over their shoulders as they went. From their nervousness, I didn't think they were all that worried about the cops. As I said, they were just hot-dogging cowboys with fancy gimmicks. I could have taken them down without raising a sweat - IF I were in my fighting togs. Y'know, sometimes having a secret identity can really suck.
I was torn between my options. I could slow them down so that Ted could get to a phone, teleport to AEGIS HQ, change into his Justiciar suit and come deal with these yoyos. Or, I could play along with these idiots until they got to wherever they were headed. Guys like these don't just break into places just to see what they can pick up. They hit places with specific targets in mind, to steal things for people who are paying them to do it. Getting their employer was just as important as bagging these two.
I decided on a little of both. I made sure that 'Maverick' would keep me around by trying to wriggle away at every chance.
They hopped over a few rooftops to a building a few places over. The set the box down, and Maverick secured his lariat (with me tied up in it) to a standing pipe. Then they started taking apart the covers of the air conditioning units.
"Hey, guys, if you're just 'theme' repairmen, fine, great joke - Now LET ME GO!"
'Desperado' just said, "Shaddap," and kept working. Then they pulled the covers off, and revealed what they were up to. Under the carapaces, they had hidden a pair of motorcycle looking do-jobs all tricked out with leather saddlebags, horseshoe ornaments and longhorns on the handlebars.
"What," I sneered, "no fuzzy dice?"
Maverick undid his lariat. "Button yer lip, Missy, and get on. Iffen you stop givin' us crap, we'll letcha go. Get in our way ONCE, and I'll toss ya off a hunnert feet up!"
"Hundred feet up?"
Maverick just hauled me across the saddle, hit the ignition and the 'bike' rose up in the air.
"All Right!" Desperado enthused as his own ride lifted off. "There's no WAY that he kin ketch up with us now!"
He? If there was someone already on their tail, then I was sort of obligated to help him catch them, whoever he was. The skybikes operated on a magnetic suspension principle, so I could screw with them without them ever catching on. Oh well, they screwed up my date, so they owe me some amusement.
They headed north, toward the Industrial district. When they crossed over one of the Municipal Light Rail lines, I synched their forward suspension units' fields with that of the electric third rail. Their bikes snapped into place, flush against the tracks, travelling down the line and started picking up speed.
"Mav, what he fuck happened?" Desperado wailed.
"I dunno! That geek sed that he had all the bugs worked outta these damn things!"
"I TOLDJA we shoulda got the money up front! But NO, you hadda get all the dang upgrades!"
"Will you shut the fuck up and _do_ something, before we run inta wunna these trains?"
I thought that was as good an opening as I could reasonably ask for. "Yo, Hopalong! Your bikes are locked into the railway's powergrid! The only way that your gonna get free of this is to shut down all your power and lug these things off the track by hand."
"How would YOU know that, Bitch?"
"Bitch? Did you just call me bitch? Now, I ain't tellin' you nothing!" I crossed my arms and pouted.
"Hey, iffen we keep goin' like this, we're ALL gonna go Splat!"
"I'm not saying anything until you apologize."
"Apologize! Are you loco, Woman?"
Desperado shouted, "Lem, will you unbend, get yer head outta yer ass and apologize to the lady? She sounds like she might actually know something about what's goin' wrong here, boy!"
Maverick grimaced and grated out, "I am very sorry for callin' you a bitch. You are a fine, upstandin' young lady of impeccable quality, even if you is a woman. NOW WILL YOU TELL ME WHAT THE HECK IS GOIN' ON?"
<Sniff!> "I guess that's as good as I'm likely to get. I'm an Electrical Engineer. Your bikes work on an electromagnetic suspension cushion. When you crossed over the tracks, your suspension cushions merged with the railway's power grid, and now they're feeding off the grid. What you want to do is taper off the power that your bikes are feeding into the loop. Open up that panel under the steering column-"
"How do you know there's a panel there?"
"That's where _I'd_ put it. Now, Chop chop! We don't have a lot of time!" I talked them through rheostating the power down and the bikes came to a halt. Actually, there were a couple of hundred other ways of getting out of that power-lock without shutting down power, but there's no way that these two bumpkins would know that.
They hauled their bikes off of the tracks, and I told them that they'd have to drag the things at least a couple of hundred yards before they'd be free of the field. Actually, that wasn't necessary, but do you really expect me to tell them that? Maverick took hold of his bike and grunted, "Well, what are you waiting for? Gimme a hand!"
I obligingly gave them some polite applause.
"I MEAN, give us a hand with these things!"
"Hey, _I'm_ a Hostage! I'm not expected to help my captors get away."
Desperado looked at Maverick and said, "Y'know, I always wundered who came up wi' all them stupid rules that we rulebreakers gotta follah."
Maverick snarled and thrust the metallic box in my hands. "Here! Iffen yer not gonna help us, yer gonna at least do sumthin'!" I think he was still sore about having to apologize.
The box weighed about thirty pounds, and I had to make like it was heavier - or that I was weaker. All right, I was legitimately curious. "By the way - what's IN this thing, anyway?"
"Keep yer nose outta your own bizness and to our grindstone."
Suddenly, a commuter train passed, and the lights around us went dim. "Shit!" Desperado shrieked, "He's found us!" He pulled his guns and started spraying tracer rounds into the darkness. The tracer rounds disappeared into the darkness, and a long taloned limb shot out. What Desperado might lack in brains, he apparently makes up for in reflexes, because he was able move quickly enough that he only took a nasty gash to the ribs, instead of having his heart ripped out.
I recognized that cloud of darkness, and that claw. I'd only seen him a couple of times, and only for a few minutes each time, but some people you never forget. What is HE doing out? Doesn't anybody stay locked up anymore?
Maverick was frantically trying to push his skybike further away from the electric rail. I dropped the box, slapped the starter and grabbed the handlebars. Lariat-boy yelped and jumped on. "I thot yew said that we hadda get 'em a hunnert yards or more!"
"Hey, it was worth a shot! What the hell did you guys steal anyway?"
He ignored me and lassoed the metal box as we passed over it. As the skybike paused to counter the boxes' inertia, Kraken lashed out with both hands and grabbed the box. I hit the skybike's afterburners (conveniently labeled 'Haul Ass'), and pulled him off of his feet. Desperado took advantage of Kraken's distraction to see if his bike was working again, and took off.
I angled us up to get as much altitude as I could, making it as hard as I could for Kraken to climb up onto the bike. Desperado had more guts than brains, 'cause he was putting rounds into Kraken as he dangled behind our bike. Not that it was doing any real good, beyond forcing Squiddly to harden his symbiont to resist the bullets, which kept him from doing anything really interesting.
Seeing that shooting Kraken full of bullets wasn't doing any good, Desperado decided to keep on doing it. While being hostage to the Buckaroo Bozo Brothers wasn't my first choice, being anywhere near Kraken while I couldn't fight back with my electrical power wasn't on my list of acceptable options at all. I invisibly felt around for the nearest high voltage power line, and flew for it.
Maverick was lashing away at Kraken, so he didn't see the power line coming when our unwanted hitchhiker hit it. Squiddly hit the power line with a flash of sparks, and dropped like a rock. Unfortunately for my co-pilot, he was hitting Squiddly with that metal lariat of his at the time, and he took a nasty shock as well. He slumped over me, which forced me to guide the skybike down for a landing on top of a Mc Ronald'sÆ.
As Desperado tried to coax his partner back into consciousness, I took advantage of the opportunity to open the latches on the box that was causing so much of a fuss.
"Hey! Whuddya think yer doing?"
"I'm checking for the tracking device that he must have planted on this thing."
"Tracking device? Why would he have a tracker on it?"
"Do you have a more logical answer to how he managed to find us after all that zigging and zagging we did? He would have had his hands full just keeping up, at the speed we were going. But, following us in the dark, after losing sight of us? Not a chance!"
"Why do YOU care? It ain't like yer on our payroll, y'know."
"Hey, that was KRAKEN back there, I recognized him from the news. He's a stone-cold killer! You two will probably let me go once you get away from him, 'cause it's cheaper to let me go than to shoot me - but him? He'll probably cut out my heart, just to make sure that nobody else knows that he was the one that ripped you two apart!"
"Don't sound so impressed - Maverick and me are pretty mean hombres a'selves."
"Oh right, be that way - so you can look for it yourself!"
"Errr.. No, if you got yer heart set on it, li'l lady, you go right ahead."
I opened the box. Inside, nestled in bedding of gray rubberfoam padding was a large, rather cylindrical thing about two and a half feet long and maybe ten inches wide. I checked it out. Maverick, who had come to by now, was looking over my shoulder, along with his partner. "So, what IS it? Mebbee it's some kinda weapon that we kin use to wipe out that Kraken guy iffen he shows agin."
"You're asking me? YOU stole it, you tell ME what it is!"
"Hey, we's perfessionals! We make a point'a knowin' as little as possible!"
"You make that sound like such an achievement. Hmmm... This part at the far end from the power leads looks kinda like a really compact Tesla Coil, combined with a directional dish - maybe it's some kind of broadcasting device."
"Mebbee it's a Phaser or a Blaster or sumthin'?"
"Thank you, Luke Skywalker. Well, no matter what it is, it's no good without the power generator. Here, hold this thing, the tracers are probably hidden under the padding," I reached for my purse.
"Whaddya think yer doin' NOW?"
I reached in, produced my Leatherman© folding tool, and waved it at them. They were so busy checking out all the folding blades and screwdriver heads that they didn't notice me palming my AEGIS beeper, or sliding the SOS switch. I used the Leatherman to pry the foam padding out of the box. There were six homing transponders hidden in the box; somebody really wanted to keep track of this thing! I only found two of them because of my electromagnetic powers. As I replaced the padding, I slipped the beeper under the pad. From this point on, it didn't really matter that much to me whether the Rodeo Rejects or Kraken got the box - whoever wound up with it was going to have an unexpected visit from as many AEGIS members as I could round up.
As we gingerly placed the device back in the case, Maverick was holding forth that it was some kind of death ray, while Desperado thought that it might be a mind control gizmo. Once we had the box carefully stashed on Desperado's bike, I brushed my hands and said in a friendly voice, "Well, there's no reason for you guys to be lugging me around anymore, and you really don't want me seeing where you're taking that thing, so what say that you take the high road and I take the low road, and we never see each other again?"
Desperado pushed his hat back on his head. "Well, we shore appreciate ev'rythin' you done t'night, Missy. Y'know your a real smart lady. But you forgot ONE thing - witnesses is expensive and bullets is cheap." He pulled out his gun and adjusted the feed. "But just to be nice, I'll make it quick an' painless."
He pointed his gun straight at my chest. I made ready to roll with the shot and fall over the edge of the roof. Then a figure dropped out of the sky right on top of him. My first reaction was 'Justiciar! Just in the nick of time!' But on a quick second look, there was no white cape or blue tabard - just a vague outline of a lean figure that I could barely make out in the darkness. Kraken? My life was just saved by Kraken?
Maverick screamed "How the fuck did he find us? You found the trackers!"
"We DID! I handed them to you! Didn't you turn them off?"
"I thot yew did!"
"I was busy finding all of them! Why didn't you just smash them?"
"Hey, them things is expensive! I wuz hopin' to hock 'em!" Maverick's next idiocy was cut off when Kraken formed a scythe with one hand and tried to slice rope-boy in half. At this point, I didn't really care which of them slaughtered the other. If I could get to a phone with a landline, I could call AEGIS and have Bernice teleport me in.
I slipped over the edge of the roof, but that stupid skirt that I was wearing slowed me down. As I levered one leg over, I felt a cold, hard hand clamp onto the ankle of the other one. "And exactly where do you think you're going?"
This is not how I'd pictured always myself dying.
Kraken started to drag me back up onto the roof. I tried to figure out a way to explain away shocking him, but the only opportunity that presented itself was a minor power cable. I grabbed it and hoped that in the heat of the moment no one would notice that it barely carried enough juice to annoy a cockroach. Maverick and Desperado were keeled over, trying to get up; their body armor had apparently been good enough to keep them alive, if not sassy. Kraken ignored the cable, and raised one scythe hand to finish me off.
Then yet another body came hurtling out of the blue, and plowed into Kraken, knocking him off of his feet. Justiciar rolled out of the tackle ready for Kraken, energy sword glowing in his hand. Ted spared me a quick glance as I awkwardly hung there, half draped over the edge of the roof. I mimed a telephone with thumb and pinky against the side of my head. He gave me the barest of nods before Kraken came at him.
I dropped off the side of the building, and waded through the rubberneckers to the nearest pay phone. I must be adapting to being a female better than I thought - I managed to hold onto my purse in all the ruckus. I quickly dialed AEGIS, and got Sapphire, who was on phone duty. "Hello, Jenny? This is Maxine. I have a sitch here - Ted is on the top of a McRonaldsÆ at R_____ and C____, going toe to toe with Kraken-"
"Kraken? Ted said that you got snatched by Maverick and Desperado-"
"I did - it got real complicated real fast. Squiddly was following the Buckeroo Boys, trying to get whatever they stole. I got a look at it - real cutting edge sumthin'eruther, couldn't say exactly what. Probably part of something bigger. I turned the SOS beacon on my beeper on, and planted it in the carrying case."
"Nice going, Max! So, who do we let have the Maguffin, so's we can track it back to their principal?"
"I'd say Butch and Sundance. Kraken is dangerous. We have to get him back under wraps ASAP. Lem and Clem we should be able to string along to find out what their backer is up to. Call Tigs and get her out there, toot sweet. Oh, and I think you should come too, Saff- those 'power gems' of yours should be just what the doctor ordered to handle ol' Squiddly."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to get to a landline that doesn't have a thousand witnesses, and have Bernice T-port me into HQ. Tell her to expect my call. Tell her to have my spare cost- YOOOOM!" My planning was cut short when I felt something metallic wrap itself around my waist and haul me up off the ground.
I looked up and saw that Desperado and Maverick had taken advantage of Kraken's distraction to get the box loaded onto one of their skybikes and haul ass. Maverick gave his lariat a flip, bringing me up behind him on his skybike. "What are you DOING, you asshole?"
"We need a hostage agin, an' you was as good as anybody an' better'n most. At least you don't waste time gettin' all vapors." Oh wow. Color me honored. That does it, I don't care who these clowns are working for, I'm putting them in the hospital.
They were skimming along just over the tops of the roofs, to avoid being conspicuous. I magnetically messed with the skybikes' suspension fields just enough so that they didn't quite clear one of the rooftops, sending us spilling down into the street, three stories below.
I managed to land on top of Maverick, whose body armor and skybike took most of the impact. He wheezed and gasped out, "Lem, you okay?"
"No. Man, I need a vacation."
Maverick tried to start up his skybike again, but it sounded like the electrical system had been knocked out of whack. I took the opportunity to wriggle out of the lariat and get off the bike. I figured that Butch and Sundance were too tired and too banged up to worry about me; not while they were ripe for the next cop to come along and make his career. I straightened myself out and started to calmly walk away from the scene of the accident. Then I saw it driving up. One of the Channel ___ Newslemons.
I couldn't be sure if it was Reyes or not, but I couldn't take the chance. I hopped back on the bike and jumpstarted it. Maverick thought that it had been him cursing and kicking it just the right way. As we rose up again, I heard Desperado say, "Shit!"
"Wassa matta, Randy?"
"The guidance system is shot! I don't know where we's headin' anymore!"
"Hey, lady! Yew know where 1234 East Y____ is?"
"I have a rough idea - why?"
"Tell us how to get there!"
"Riiiggght - and then you pull that 'witnesses are expensive and bullets are cheap' number on me again!"
"Man, you are a pain in the ass! Okay, I promise that we'll letcha go when we gets there!"
"Give me your solemn oath."
"Okay, okay, I swear on my honor as an outlaw and career criminal that we will let you go unharmed when you get us to where we're headin'."
"Okay, I think that's as good as I'm gonna get from you two. Slow down near the next crossroads so I can get my bearings."
A few minutes later, we landed in an alley with a loading dock. I helped the Badlands Badboys get the box off of Desperado's bike. Then when ol' Quickdraw had the box well in hand, Maverick wrapped that stupid lasso of his around me again. "HEY! You gave me your word that you'd let me go!"
"And you believed me? Nope. Can't take the chance. We'll ask the boss what he want t'do with ya, get paid and then take care of loose ends." With that, he secured the lariat to his skybike and helped Desperado carry the box through the door.
As they struggled through the door, Desperado yelled out, "Hey, Doc! We stole the dingus that you wanted! And we got a hostage tied up out back! Whaddya want us t'do wi' her?"
Sherriff's Deputy Sergeant Arnold Winchell of the County Lockup calmly said, "Well, Boys, for beginners, you can put that box down and put your hands on your heads."
Maverick may not have had his trademark weapon, but Desperado did. He dropped his side of the box and went for his guns. Which weren't working. Maverick and Desperado looked on helplessly as eight Detention Center guards drew their own weapons and began to close in.
The second that they were through the doors, I slipped out of the lariat. I reached into my purse, pulled out the batteries for Desperado's linear accelerator guns, and tucked them into his saddlebags. Once again, I straightened myself up and started to walk away. If Kraken suddenly showed up, he was calamari.
Instead, Justiciar dropped down out of the sky and landed a few feet in front of me. "Maxine! Are you okay?"
"Oh, a few bruises and scrapes, but I've had worse. What happened with Kraken?"
"Well, when you three lit out, he tried to get away from me, but Tigress and Sapphire showed up and took over. So, I came to look for you and followed your distress beacon. Where are Maverick and Desperado?"
"Inside, getting processed by the County Cops. Ted, will you do me a favor and ask them for my beeper back for me? I don't wanna havta explain how Lady Lightning's beeper got stuck in there, where 'she' wasn't anywhere to be seen."
"Sure, no problem." With that, he pulled something out of his belt and pushed a button. He went all blurry for a minute, and reappeared in the suit that he'd been wearing earlier.
"How - how did you do that?"
He smiled and held up the small dingus. "It's hooked up to AEGIS' teleportation system. I warps a complete set of clothing off of a mannikin that Bernice keeps in the Artifact room and onto you, while removing the clothing that you're wearing."
I grabbed him by the lapels and glared up into his face. "DO YOU MEAN TO TELL ME, that I've been putting up with all the hassle of climbing in and out of my 'Lady Lightning' costume, while you've been holding that out on me?"
<heh> "Well, it's limited to Full Members only - you insisted on being an 'affiliate'. This is a perk of being a Full Member. Maybe you'd like to reconsider?"
I snarled into his face.
"I'll talk to Bernice about setting up a mannikin for you."
I let go of his lapels, but showed that I was still move than a little peeved. "Well, shall we get back to our date?" he asked hopefully.
<sniff!> 'Well, okay - but believe me, you're going to pay BIG for that!"
It was well after One when I got back home. I sat down on the couch to try to collect my thoughts. Then I heard Ma come down the stairs.
"Oh, it's you, Maxine. So, how was your date?"
I didn't bother to correct her. "Oh, it was okay. Sorry I got in so late - there was a little superhero business that came up-"
"But you didn't have your costume!"
"Well, we still handled it."
Ma sat down beside me. "So, besides the 'Wham, Kapow!' part, how did it go?"
"Oh, it was nice - dinner, dessert, small talk, you know..."
"And how do you feel, dear?"
I paused. ""Y'know, I feel something, but I'll be damned if I know what it is that I feel."